WARNING: The following excerpt contains spoilers for the first book in the Theonite series. Theonite: Orbit picks up directly after the events of Theonite: Planet Adyn, so be sure you've read Planet Adyn before continuing beyond this point. You have been warned!
Dakkabana Space Center, Dunian Space
Kente Ekwenzi had never been much good at sitting still. Na used to say his skin was the only thing keeping him from bouncing off in a dozen directions at once. It was not good, Na said, for a senkuli child to have such restless legs or such an active mouth. So when it came time for Kente to register for his two-week work program aboard the Dakkabana Space Center, Na—in her infinite wisdom and cruelty—had found him the most excruciatingly boring job on the roster: security monitor.
At first, Kente had been excited at the idea of a job in space center security—maybe he would get to help apprehend a criminal or stop an alien invasion—but after two weeks sitting in this uncomfortable chair, staring at the same eight screens, he was starting to feel like he never wanted to see a space center, or a screen, or stars ever again.
“It will be a good exercise in focus,” Na had told him, but with nothing fun to focus on, Kente’s mind felt more scattered than ever. Twice now he had blinked to find that he had gotten up and wandered far away from his station into some other sector of the space center without realizing it. He couldn’t count the number of times the security chief or the other koronu in the division had yelled at him for standing on his chair, or using the console as a drum set, or doodling Basadenyaa on the screens with a paintstick. He was in the middle of braiding some loose wires into a necklace when the security array before him uttered an alert ‘ping.’
Startled, Kente dropped the wires and sat up in his chair. At first, he thought he must have imagined the sound—something actually happening on his shift? It was too good to be true!—but when he looked at the array, the alert light was illuminating Screen 4 and the computer’s low automated voice said, “Attention! Unauthorized pod requesting permission to dock at Port 16.”
“Oh—oh! Um—” Kente looked around for someone to tell him what to do before remembering that all the koronu were at a meeting. He was alone. “Um—Computer?” he addressed the machine before him.
“Mba,” the computer responded.
“Display visual of unauthorized pod.”
“Accessing visual,” the computer said in its stilted Yammaninke and a moment later, the alert signal on Screen 4 was replaced by video feed of a pod, hovering in empty space against a backdrop of stars.
It was a fancy pod, gleaming red, with sleek designer patterns adorning the sides. Its thrusters were on low, keeping it hovering a perfectly-maintained two bounds from Port 16. Only the best of the numu families made pods that maneuverable and precise. Kente had ridden in economy-class spacecraft before, but this was the kind of super-slick luxury pod Kente could only ever dream of sitting in. This was a pod for a king.
Kente leaned in eagerly, all but climbing up onto the control array in an attempt to get a better look at the mysterious vessel. But even with his nose practically pressed up against the screen, he couldn’t get a good look at the passengers through the pod’s glass dome. There appeared to be two of them—one in each seat—but he couldn’t make out their faces. Kente’s imagination ran out of control. What if they were royalty traveling undercover to avoid assassins? What if they were secret agents on a super classified mission? What if they were aliens?
“Computer, scan vessel,” Kente commanded, feeling more important than ever.
“Scanning,” the computer responded. “Vessel type: private two-passenger pod. Make: Kuruma. Model: Karadi. Registration code: 1911-2913-1413.”
“Is it armed?” Kente asked, remembering the first question he was supposed to ask.
“Negative. No weapons detected.”
It took him a moment to remember the second question. “Is there—is anyone onboard? How many people are inside?”
“Life forms detected: three.”
“Three?” That was weird. From the small image on the security feed, it looked like there were just the two, and the scan had said it was a two-person pod. “Aiwa, um…” Kente was supposed to know how to handle this. They had told him during the training—it had just been so boring; he had to take a few moments to reach for the details. “Computer, hail unauthorized pod.” If he could get into contact with the passengers, maybe he could figure out what to do.
“Hailing… No response.”
“Are you sure?” Kente felt his heart pounding in a mixture of apprehension and excitement. It was suspicious for any vessel to not respond to a friendly hail. It could mean the vessel was hostile. “Try again.”
Kente waited, holding his breath.
“Oh, Falleke.” That wasn’t good. “Chief!” Kente jumped out of his seat and ran down the hall so fast he almost fell on the jonjo-glass floor. “Chief! Ahh!” he cried as he crashed into the muscled body of another tajaka. “Sorry!” he exclaimed, mortified.
“Kente!” A pair of strong hands gripped his shoulders and pushed him out to arm’s-length. “Watch where you’re going, senkuli!”
And Kente let out a breath of relief when he saw who it was. Bamako Kiita—Koko for short—was the only other student worker in the security center. Like Kente, she was a soon-to-be first year Daybreak student paying off her space center ticket in work. Unlike Kente, she was a koro, a member of the warrior class, which meant she got to carry a spear, and go on patrol, and do all the cool stuff he couldn’t. But she was just a junior guard; he wouldn’t get into trouble for bumping into her.
“Sorry,” Kente repeated breathlessly. “I’m in a hurry.”
“What are you even doing?” Koko asked, her brow creasing in confusion beneath her guard’s paint. “Why are you away from your post?”
“I need to talk to the chief,” Kente said urgently. “Where is she?”
“She’s in a meeting with the other heads of security in the main office,” Koko said, “but I—I wouldn’t—Kente!” She made a grab for Kente but he had already darted past her, down the hall to the chief’s office.
“Chief!” He threw the doors open. “Chief, I need to talk to you!”
Of course, it was only after Kente had blurted out the words that he realized that the whole meeting table was filled with important-looking koronu in their official-looking uniforms. The stuffy adults all looked up with expressions ranging from shock to irritation.
“Ekwenzi.” The chief turned to him with an exhausted look. “I told you, there are no alien probes on the generators. Those are maintenance robots. Now, if you don’t mind, we are in the middle of a meeting. If you’re bored, you can put on music or—”
“This is serious!” Kente exclaimed. “There’s something! There’s really something weird! The blinky light told me there was a pod at Port 16, and the scan said three people, but it looked like just two, and it was unauthorized, and then they requested permission to dock, but when I tried to hail them nobody answered, and it’s a really fancy pod and I don’t know what to do!”
“Wait.” The chief’s third-in-command, Zankare, sat forward, her serious face pulled into a deeper frown. “You said there was an unauthorized vessel?”
“Y-yes, Koroyaa,” Kente said, fidgeting under her intense gaze.
“And it didn’t respond to your hail?” Zankare rose from her seat, fully alert.
The chief stood up as well. “Kankan, Zankare.” She motioned to her two highest-ranking officers. “With me. Duno, finish answering questions for our guests.”
The three women swept out of the room in decisive fighter’s strides, with Kente bouncing excitedly along in their wake. Koko’s eyes widened in surprise when they passed her post. Evidently, she hadn’t been expecting the high-ranking koronu to actually respond to Kente’s concerns.
“Chief?” she said in confusion. “What’s—”
“Stay at your post, Kiita,” the chief said shortly and they left her standing alone in the hallway, looking confused and annoyed.
“So Chief, is this a big deal?” Kente asked, bouncing up to the chief’s elbow.
“We won’t know until we get more information,” Chief Koma said calmly.
“It could be an attack,” said Lieutenant Zankare, “possibly Abirian.”
“Really?” Kente felt his heart beating faster. “But it looked like such a nice pod.”
Zankare came back with a Falleya proverb. “Even a pretty pod can contain bad seeds.”
“But… the scan said it was unarmed,” Kente said.
“Of course it’s unarmed,” Officer Kankan said reassuringly. “Don’t let Koro Zankare scare you, senkuden. No one would be foolish enough to attack a major international space center like this. It’s probably a scheduled pod that wasn’t registered correctly.”
“And if it’s not?” Zankare said darkly.
“If it’s not then so what?” Kankan said. “Dakkabana’s exterior is pure Zilazen glass. It’s indestructible.”
That made Kente feel a little better. He was embarrassingly inept at glasswork for a senkuli, but even he could appreciate the mastery in the Zilazen-crafted glass that made up Dakkabana’s outer shell and other vital structures. It was difficult to imagine any attack putting so much as a scratch on the space center’s golden glass exterior.
“Zankare’s just an alarmist,” Kankan said in her kind, calming voice. “She likes to think the worst of people.”
The lines of Zankare’s frown deepened. “Better a live alarmist than a dead optimist.”
“Koroyaalu, that’s enough,” Chief Koma sighed in exasperation as the party reached Kente’s monitor station.
“See? There!” Kente pointed to Screen 4, which still displayed the red pod, hovering right where he had left it.
“You’re right, Ekwenzi.” The chief raised her eyebrows. “That is a fancy pod—a genuine Kuruma Karadi, from the look of it. Who’s inside?”
“I don’t know,” Kente said. “I couldn’t see.”
“Did you try accessing the pod’s internal cameras?” Chief Koma asked.
“No, I—I’m sorry. I didn’t know we could do that.”
“Computer,” the chief said.
“Access pod’s interior cameras.”
The screen went dark for a moment and then lit back up with a camera feed of the vessel’s interior. Strapped into the pod’s seats were two figures, both of them slumped over, unconscious. The first thing that struck Kente was how strangely they were dressed, in weird floppy-looking garments that didn’t look like they were from any country Kente knew—maybe Hades? But Kente had never seen Hadean clothes like that.
The passenger on the right was a light-brown-skinned boy with straight, swishy hair. He seemed to be bleeding from multiple places—his mouth, his forehead, his shoulder. And the girl—the girl was so deathly pale that Kente thought she must be dead until he saw the faintest rising and falling of her chest.
“Na-Nyaare!” Officer Kankan breathed in horror. “They need medical attention! Chief, we need to clear that pod for docking now!”
“Wait,” Zankare cut in. “We can’t just dock an unidentified pod.”
“But—they’re just kids,” Kente said, aware that he was speaking out of turn but unable to stop himself. Neither of the passengers looked like they could be much older than he was—and there was so much blood! “They’re hurt. Shouldn’t we—”
“Where’s the third one?” Lieutenant Zankare demanded. “You said the scan picked up three life forms, didn’t you, Ekwenzi?”
“I-I did, Koroyaa,” Kente stammered. “At least—I thought it did.”
“What do you mean, you thought it did?” Zankare snapped.
“Sometimes the preliminary life form scan is faulty,” Chief Koma said patiently. “It might have just picked up something else. Computer, re-scan for life forms.”
“Scanning,” the computer said. “Life forms detected: two.”
“See?” the chief said calmly. “Just a scanning error?”
“Is it?” Officer Zankare said, turning to the screen with a darkening look of suspicion. “If it’s just those two onboard, how could they have requested permission to dock? You have to be conscious to do that.”
“We can worry about that later,” Chief Koma said. “Kankan is right. We need to get those children to the hospital sector.”
“Chief, I strongly object. This is a security risk—”
“They are children, Zankare,” Chief Koma cut her off, “and they need our help. Our first priority is to make sure they are safe. We’ll worry about the circumstances of their arrival later.”
“Officer Kankan, alert the hospital. Tell them to send a team to Dock 16. Officer Zankare, you will stay here at the monitors with Ekwenzi to ensure that the pod docks without incident.” She drummed a code into the console. “Pod 1911-2913-1413, you are clear to dock.”
The excitement died down after the pod had docked and the two kids were taken to the hospital. Kente had wanted to go and check if they were okay, but Officer Zankare had given him a stern look and snapped at him to stay put. Just when Kente was worried that this was going to settle back down into another boring day of monitor duty, the doors burst open and a group of men strode in.
Kente tried not to stare, but it was difficult. The newcomers’ spear-point facepaint and short-sleeved bogolan uniforms marked them as police, but Kente had never seen any police like them aboard Dakkabana. These police were white, their skin ranging in color from starchy fufu, to pale couscous, to peach-like pink. There weren’t many Hadeans where Kente had grown up; he had never known there were so many different varieties of white skin.
The man at the head of the group stepped forward and said something to Kente, but his accent was so thick and confusingly choppy that Kente didn’t realize he was speaking Yammaninke until he got to the words, “of the utmost importance.”
“Sorry—wh-what?” Kente said, staring stupidly up at the man. The pale police officer made a scary picture, with a sharp nose, a deep frown, and gray eyes as steely as the flat of a blade. A cool scar twisted its way across the left side of his face.
“I need to speak with the security chief,” the scarred officer repeated, “immediately.” And despite the moment of confusion, Kente remembered his manners.
“Right away, Koroke,” he smiled, standing up. “I’ll go get her.”
“Not so fast, Ekwenzi.” Zankare held an arm out, barring his way. “Did you check if they had an appointment?”
“I didn’t—I thought—” Kente started, but the man with the scar cut in.
“I am the representative of my country’s police force aboard this space center. I should not have to make an appointment to bring my concerns before the chief of security.”
“Alright, Sir, there’s no need to shout,” Zankare said, even though the man hadn’t really been speaking loudly at all. “Maybe if you calmly tell me why you’re here we can figure something out.”
“I didn’t come here to talk to you,” Scar-guy said, matching her cold glare. “I came to speak with the chief.”
“I’m sorry, but the chief is a busy woman. Unless you have an appointment—”
“Please, Koroyaa,” piped up a man with the lightest hair Kente had ever seen—pale gold, like desert sand—“This is a matter of national security.”
“Wow, really?” Kente said excitedly before he could stop himself. “National Security?”
“What kind of national security? What country are you guys from?”
“We’re from Carytha,” the sandy-haired officer said patiently.
“Carytha!” Kente exclaimed while beside him, Officer Zankare gave a derisive snort. “That’s awesome! I’m going to go to Carytha soon for school!”
Ignoring him, Officer Zankare addressed the leader with the scar. “Whatever you need to say, you can say to me.”
“I am asking you for an audience with the chief.”
“Yes, well, I’m telling you that you can speak to me or no one at all. So…” Zankare crossed her arms and lifted her chin, somehow managing to look down at the white man, even though they were the same height. “Why are you here?”
A muscle twitched near one of those ghostly gray eyes, but the scarred man spoke in a calm voice. “If you must know, I was on my way here to ask why myself and the other Carythian representatives were not invited to the chief’s security meeting. But just now, I heard that not only was Carytha excluded from her meeting, but your chief also saw fit to dock an unauthorized, Carythian-registered pod, and bring its passengers onboard without consulting us.”
“They were young and injured,” Zankare said. “There was no time to consult every organization aboard the space center. I don’t know how things work in your country, but we put the lives of children before vague suspicion.”
“It was a Carythian pod,” another officer said angrily. He had curiously multi-hued hair—brown in places and yellow in others—like ripe wheat, and his face was twisted with the anger his superior wasn’t showing. “Your people had no right—”
“Sir, sir,” Zankare held up a hand as though to calm an angry child—even though it looked to Kente like the wheat-haired officer was probably just about her age. “There’s no need to get emotional.”
“I’m not getting emotional,” Wheat-hair spat, even as he faltered on the Yammaninke words and his weak fists clenched at his sides. “You are being—”
But the scarred officer silenced Wheat-hair with a sharp word in Lindish. “We are just trying to protect the citizens of Carytha from a security risk in a time of crisis,” he said to Zankare, “and frankly, Koroyaa, you are completely disrespecting our sovereignty by—”
“Excuse me,” Zankare interrupted, holding her hand up in his face. “You are the one being disrespectful by barging in here without permission and yelling in my face. Your concerns have been noted. Now, you need to take your unruly subordinates and leave.”
“We’re not going anywhere,” Wheat-hair said angrily. “Not until you tell us what you’ve done with that pod. It’s our right—”
“You misunderstand,” Zankare said coolly. “It was not a request. Either you will leave, or you will be removed.” Her hand shifted from her hip to rest on the Zilazen-glass shaft of her spear.
The white officers had the standard-issue tranquilizer guns that all Carythian police carried. Kente had learned how they worked from the documentaries he had watched about Carytha: one dart would release enough sedative to fell an adult adyn in an instant, but it didn’t act very fast on theonites. A seasoned koro like Zankare would lay out all four of the Carythians before the drug even started to affect her—and that was if one of them could land a shot.
Scar-guy must have realized as much because he put a hand on Wheat-hair’s shoulder, stopping him before he could reach for his gun. Kente was starting to feel bad for these foreign police officers. Just because they had no powers and talked a little funny didn’t mean Officer Zankare had to give them such a hard time. It was an international space center, after all. Every country’s law enforcement was supposed to have jurisdiction over their own people.
“Forgive my subordinate’s behavior, Koroyaa,” Scar-guy said as though the words choked him. “We only want to know where the children were sent. They are needed for questioning in a missing persons case.”
“Missing persons case?” Kente blurted out before he could stop himself. “Who’s missing?”
Scar-guy seemed to debate for a moment whether or not he wanted to share that information and then said stiffly, “Koro Robin Thundyil.”
“Robin Thundyil?” Kente’s eyes felt like they might pop out of his head. “As in the Robin Thundyil?” He had known that name even before he started studying up on Carytha.
“Thundyil…?” Zankare repeated, slower on the uptake. “Isn’t he that idiot who made a mockery of jaliya in Carytha?”
“But he did good things,” Kente said brightly. “He got lots of wrongly-convicted poor people out of jail.” At least that was what his documentary had said.
“You’re both right,” Scar-guy said impatiently. “He is a philanthropist, the co-founder of the Thundyil Law Firm, and one of the richest men in Carytha.”
“And he’s missing?” Kente said. “How? Why?”
“We don’t know yet,” Scar-guy admitted. “We are trying to find out and that pod is our only lead.”
“Why?” Kente asked.
“Because it’s registered to Robin Thundyil,” Scar-guy replied evenly, “and we have reason to believe one of the passengers was his son, Daniel. So you understand how important this is. We just need to know where the passengers were taken after their pod docked. That’s all. Then we’ll leave you in peace.”
“They were hurt,” Kente said.
“We sent them to the hospital,” he finished before Zankare could cut him off.
“Thank you, Senkuden,” Scar-guy said with a tight smile down at Kente. “Koroyaa.” He gave Zankare a stiff nod. “We won’t bother you again.”
“Bye!” Kente waved as the men left the room. “Good luck!”
“Ekwenzi,” Officer Zankare said.