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A Conspiracy of Stars
Author:Olivia A. Cole

A Conspiracy of Stars

Olivia A. Cole



DEDICATION

For Omaun, who makes Earth worth it.





CHAPTER 1


My father and I live under different suns. In reality, it is the same: red and hungry, an intense crimson eye that sends the sweat fleeing from my skin. It’s as beautiful as it is harsh, but my father sees none of the beauty. The past has dulled his wonder, and so the light of this planet shines differently on each of us. For me, it is part of home. For him, it is a beacon over a prison. Like others in N’Terra, he had his heart set on another sun. This one is a poor replacement.

“Slow down, Octavia,” he says.

I tighten my hands, made thick with the white driving gloves I wear, on the steering column. My father has been allowing me to pilot the chariot since my birthday but still insists I drive too fast. I decelerate, only slightly—I love the feeling of the wind, tinged with the scent of the jungle, whipping across my face. This is one of the few times I feel relaxed.

My father says nothing else, so I squint at the intense green of the wilderness that blurs more slowly past us now, allowing the colors to blend. A smallish smudge of brown catches my eye—I’ve seen that mottled texture somewhere before in one of my research projects.

“Kunike,” I say out loud without really meaning to. Usually I would keep my observations to myself when driving with my father, but kunike are difficult to spot—I’ve never seen a live one—and I’m surprised to have happened across them. There are two: small and standing impossibly still at our approach. Their fur has blended into the grasses that surround them.

My father nods, unsmiling.

“Stop,” he says.

I bring the chariot to a gentle halt, tamping down the eagerness that swells in me like helium. My father lifts one hand from where it rests on the front bar and presses the signal key by the steering column. A short, sharp sound barks from our vehicle, and the two kunike become fully visible immediately. Their fur turns vividly red, and now I can see them clearly: small and fuzzy with large wide ears like sails. One rears up on its back legs, baring its surprisingly impressive fangs.

Years ago, my father would have prompted me for knowledge: “Purpose? Adaptational trajectory?” That was when I was still a kid, allowed out of the compound and into the open air of Faloiv for the first time. By now he doesn’t need to ask: he signaled the kunike merely as a demonstration—a hint of his rare generosity when it comes to his only child. But I find myself answering in my head anyway: The sentry kunike turn red to signal the rest of the pack. In the event of an attack, they would stop and fight while the others got away. The red coloring doubles as a diversion for the predator. Before, when my father and I would actually talk, he might have told me that the kunike turn a different color if what’s approaching can be considered prey. This alternate color would signal the hidden pack to attack rather than flee. But these conversations are long past. At sixteen, I’m expected to know these things already, and I do.

I’ve guided the chariot into motion again—the kunike fading back into camouflage behind us—and the wind picks up dust from the road, swirling it around us in rust-colored clouds. Our goggles protect our eyes, but he motions for me to fasten my face guard. Ahead, what looks like a scarlet bird hovers in the air, scanning the ground for food. I recognize it as a carnivore from its claws. But before I can even identify it, another creature—larger, a winged blue reptile—zooms in from out of nowhere and buries its talons in the red bird’s body. Both plummet to the ground, struggling.

“I’ll say one thing for this miserable planet,” my father says. I can barely hear him over the wind: I’m driving too fast again, but he hasn’t yet noticed. “It has an interesting predator-prey hierarchy. Carnivores preying only on other carnivores? Fascinating.”

I say nothing. When it comes to my father’s feelings about Faloiv, I tend to keep my opinions to myself. He hasn’t always hated it here, but many things have been different since my grandmother died five years ago, lost in the jungle on a scavenging trip. Perhaps the knowledge that this planet can swallow us up so easily had stirred some feelings of desperation. Faloiv has been his home for over forty years, after his birth planet became hostile to human life, and I doubt he remembers much of life before Faloiv. But home isn’t just memory, I’ve decided: it’s knowledge, knowing where you belong and where you fit. My grandmother’s loss ignited something restless in him, something angry and afraid. Faloiv is different for me. Greencoats—green, the color of a young branch, the sign of our inexperience but also of our commitment to growth—were born here. This is home.

“Sir,” I venture. “Will we see Dr. Adibuah today?”

“Yes,” my father answers, keeping his eyes trained on the dust path ahead.

“Does Dr. Adibuah ever come to the Paw to collaborate on your projects?” I ask, refusing to let his monosyllabicity irk me. “Or do you just come here because you’re on the Council?”

“I’ve told you not to refer to the Mammalian Compound as the Paw, Octavia. It’s adolescent and unspecific.”

Behind my goggles I roll my eyes. The greencoats have our own set of expressions: we call the Avian Compound the Beak, and the Amphibian Compound—where my best friend Alma lives—the Newt. Not exactly clever, but it is efficient—even if it is unspecific and adolescent. And we’re supposed to be clever, we students of N’Terra, children of whitecoats. It is our skills that will determine our survival. The founders of N’Terra had not meant for us to stay forever: Faloiv was the only habitable world their scouts had time to chart before evacuating the Origin Planet, and a meteor to the Vagantur’s hull during descent damaged the ship’s power cell irreparably. What had originally been envisioned as a brief stop on the hunt for a more survival-friendly sphere had become the final destination of the Vagantur. The original Council tried for twenty years to fix the ship before they gave up. Now here we are.

Outside the Beak, I pull up to a woman standing by the white, smooth-walled wigwam that serves as a gatehouse. I’m surprised by the buzzgun she carries—more and more guards have them these days, and it’s jarring to see it slung so casually over her shoulder. The woman had been smiling before we pulled up, but when she sees my father alongside me, she tucks the smile away. He has that effect on people.