The Rogue WorldMatthew J. Kirby
To my students, many of
whom feel different and alone.
You are my heroes.
About the Author
Books by Matthew J. Kirby
About the Publisher
ELEANOR HAD MADE THE CHOICE. THEY HAD JUST USED the chaos of the Cairo mob to escape from Watkins and the Global Energy Trust. Luke now taxied Consuelo toward the runway for takeoff, but they were leaving Eleanor’s mother behind. And that was Eleanor’s decision. Not even Uncle Jack’s presence, large and comforting beside her, could make her feel better about what she was doing.
“The Himalayas?” Luke asked from the cockpit. “Is that where you said we’re going?”
“Yes,” Eleanor replied. That was the location of the Master Concentrator, perhaps the key to understanding and stopping all the alien devices.
Everyone else in the plane’s small cabin sat in silence. Uncle Jack sat beside Eleanor, while Betty sat next to Dr. Von Albrecht. Finn was by himself, staring out the window. He had left his brother and father behind, too.
“The, uh, Himalayas are pretty big, you know.” Luke twisted around in his pilot’s chair, and through the cockpit door Eleanor could see his eyes and his beard. “Can you narrow it down?”
“Just get us in the air and fly east,” Dr. Von Albrecht said. “I’ll direct you when we’re safely away from this place.”
Eleanor agreed. The most important thing now was to get away. Her Egyptian friends had used the city’s protesters as a distraction to help Eleanor and her friends escape from the G.E.T., but that wouldn’t keep their enemies occupied forever. Watkins and his chief henchman, Hobbes, might even be coming for them right now. Eleanor gave Luke a firm nod in agreement with Dr. Von Albrecht.
Luke turned back around to face the runway. “Roger that.”
The plane lurched forward, a motion that had become familiar to Eleanor, like someone’s morning stretch and yawn. But then she felt something else, something uncomfortable, and not familiar at all.
It started as a hum at the back of her head, but the hum quickly surged and crashed against the backs of her eyes like a wave. It hurt. Bad. Worse than any headache she’d ever had, and her vision went blurry. Then a shriek filled her ears, a howling storm that came from inside her skull, and she leaned forward, clutching her head.
Her words tumbled out with a grunt and a wince. “Something’s wrong.”
“I feel it, too,” Uncle Jack said beside her.
She squinted at him and found him grimacing, his head pressed back hard against his seat, his eyes closed.
“Are you okay?” Finn asked.
“No.” The seams of Eleanor’s skull felt like they might be splitting apart.
“Stop the plane,” Betty called.
“What?” Luke said. “Why—”
But the shriek drowned him out, growing louder, swelling with pressure behind her ears. She thought she might be screaming, too, adding her voice to the hurricane, but she wasn’t sure. She knew only that something had reached into her mind. Something powerful. Something that couldn’t fit inside. Something she couldn’t banish or fight.
Then it simply went silent and withdrew. The storm abruptly ceased, leaving Eleanor feeling stretched, scattered, sagging, and dizzy.
She turned to Uncle Jack, who was breathing hard. He heaved his head forward from his seat, opened his eyes, and coughed.
“What was that?” Finn asked.
Eleanor turned toward him. He, Betty, and Dr. Von Albrecht were out of their seats, crowding over them, Luke at Finn’s side.
“I . . . don’t know,” Eleanor said. But the fact that she and Uncle Jack were the only ones to have experienced it meant it must have had something to do with the Concentrators, and the rogue world that had invaded the earth’s solar system. The ability to sense the alien presence was hereditary, and Eleanor and Uncle Jack were the only two people on the plane who had it. “It was something new,” Eleanor said.
“I don’t like the sound of that,” Luke said. “What kind of something?”
“Uh . . .” Uncle Jack pinched his eyes between his thick thumb and index finger. “What’s worse than a migraine but not quite a baseball bat to the head?”
That described it well enough for Eleanor.
“Hey,” Luke said. He looked at Eleanor in a way that carried the weight of everything they’d been through together. “What was it?”
He was worried. And so was she. “I don’t know.”
“That’s not good enough,” he said. “I won’t let you—”
“Shh,” Eleanor said.
She felt something else now. A very different sensation. A tingling across her skin, as if the wind were changing direction around her, only she sat in a stuffy airplane, and there was no wind. She turned to Uncle Jack.
“I feel it,” he said. “It’s like . . . some kind of static.”
“It’s energy,” Eleanor said. “Telluric energy.”
“The earth’s energy?” Uncle Jack asked.
Eleanor nodded, holding still, paying attention to the way the currents raised the hair on her arms and the back of her neck. She didn’t fully understand this power she had, and yet she was beginning to understand how to use it, to listen to the earth. “It’s changed direction. It’s all flowing the same way now.”
“What is?” Finn asked.
Eleanor held her arms and hands out flat, as if she could see what she felt. “All the telluric energy.”
“Which way?” Dr. Von Albrecht asked.
Eleanor used the subtle tingling as a guide and pointed across the cabin, halfway between the cockpit and the first row of seats. “That way.”
Luke glanced in that direction. “Just a little north of east.”
“The Himalayas,” Dr. Von Albrecht said.
“But are you okay?” Betty asked.
Eleanor still felt the tingling, but it had already faded slightly, and the pain in her head was gone. “I think so.”
In the seat next to her, Uncle Jack looked down at his own hands, rubbing his thumbs against his fingertips. “I’m already getting used to it.”
“Do you think it’s okay to fly?” Betty asked, but seemed to be directing the question to the others.
“I’m not sure we have a choice,” Dr. Von Albrecht said. “If we stay here much longer, the G.E.T. will eventually catch up to us, riot or not.”
“I’m not taking us up in the air until I know they’re okay.” Luke looked at Eleanor, and she could see the worry in his eyes.
“I’m fine.” She tried to put some strength into her voice. “Really. Let’s get out of here.”
Luke stood a moment longer, and then slowly turned back toward the cockpit. “Buckle in. And tell me the moment you feel anything else that’s new.”
Finn, Betty, and Dr. Von Albrecht returned to their seats. Next to Eleanor, Uncle Jack
reached over and took her hand in his, her little fist like a ball inside a warm baseball mitt. A few moments later, they were airborne, and as they rose higher, putting distance between her and the ground, the tingling faded until she almost couldn’t detect it anymore. Her ability to hold thoughts together returned as well, and she turned her mind to the question of what had just happened.
So, it seemed, did everyone else in the cabin. “What do you think that was?” Dr. Von Albrecht asked, his voice pitched with curiosity. He had been studying the Concentrators for longer than Eleanor had even known about them.
She tried to find the words to answer him. “First there was . . . something in my mind. It felt similar to the power I feel when I’m near a Concentrator—”
“Hold on,” Uncle Jack said. “Can we just— Can we back up for a minute?”
He hadn’t been with them from the beginning, in the Arctic and Peru. Watkins and the G.E.T. had brought him to Egypt only as leverage to get Eleanor to do as they wanted, and he was understandably a bit lost.
“Explain this to me again,” he said. “What are the Concentrators?”
“Alien devices,” Eleanor said. “They look like . . . big black trees. They were planted here tens of thousands of years ago.”
“By aliens,” he said.
“And the Concentrators do something with the earth’s telluric energy?” Uncle Jack asked.
“They gather it up,” Dr. Von Albrecht said. “They concentrate it and convert it to dark energy, which they send into space, to the rogue world.”
“Rogue world?” Uncle Jack said.
Eleanor looked up at the ceiling of the plane. “There’s a whole planet up there. An alien planet, which came into our solar system. Its gravity is pulling us out of orbit, away from the sun. That’s what caused the Freeze. And now it’s draining the earth’s energy. For what, we don’t quite know.”
“And until just a few minutes ago,” Uncle Jack said, “that energy flowed everywhere on earth, correct?”
“Right,” Dr. Von Albrecht said. “The ley lines crisscrossed the globe. Concentrators can be found at points of confluence where many currents come together. But now, Eleanor, you’re feeling the currents all flowing toward the same place. In the Himalayas?”
“Yes,” Eleanor said. Everything had changed right after that shrieking presence in her mind, almost like it had caused it, and she suddenly realized what that might mean. “I think it was a command,” she said.
“What was a command?” Finn asked, his voice sounding heavy.
“That pressure in my head,” Eleanor said. “I think it was some kind of command, ordering the Concentrators to reroute the energy.”
“A command from whom?” Betty asked.
“I’m guessing the aliens,” Finn said before Eleanor could respond. “Maybe they’re pissed off.”
“Now there’s a pleasant thought,” Betty said.
But Eleanor didn’t think that was the case. Each time she had connected with a Concentrator, she had felt the artificial intelligence wriggling within its machinery, primal and utterly foreign. Even though the Concentrators had each possessed their own individual intelligences, with their own “personalities,” they had shared one trait: loneliness. The Concentrators felt very, very isolated. She assumed that was because they were stuck on earth, separated from their creators for thousands and thousands of years. But the shrieking in her mind had felt the same, just much more powerful. It seemed just as angry and lonely, even though she assumed it had come from the rogue world. That would mean there weren’t any aliens on the rogue planet, either.
“So we’re trying to shut the Concentrators down,” Uncle Jack said.
Eleanor didn’t know the answer to that anymore. That had been their initial goal, and she had succeeded in stopping the Arctic Concentrator, the Peruvian Concentrator, and the Egyptian Concentrator. But then she had learned that Watkins shared her ability, and he had simply switched them back on. She wasn’t sure how he had done that, because she had destroyed the artificial intelligences within them. But, somehow, he had.
“Wait a minute,” Finn said. “Watkins said that when you do . . . whatever it is you do with the Concentrators, it has an effect on you. Like, it might actually kill you or something.”
Eleanor frowned. “That’s what he said.”
He had also revealed that there were many people around the world who shared the ability to connect with the alien technology. That mattered, because every time Eleanor had shut down a Concentrator, it had temporarily weakened her and everyone else like her, including Uncle Jack. And it was getting worse. After stopping the most recent Concentrator in the Valley of the Kings, she could barely move. Eleanor didn’t know what would happen to her and the others if she stopped the Concentrators altogether, but Watkins had claimed the result might be fatal.
The reason her mother had joined Watkins and turned against Eleanor’s plan wasn’t just because of the futility of it. It was because she didn’t want Eleanor connecting with the Concentrators anymore. She didn’t accept who Eleanor was. But Eleanor had known from the beginning her mission was a very dangerous one. She still wasn’t ready to give up, even if her mom was, and that was just one of the many differences between them.
“So if you turn off the Himalayan Concentrator,” Finn said, “what will happen to you guys?”
“Good question,” Uncle Jack said.
“We need to figure that out before we do anything else.” Eleanor didn’t want anything to happen to Uncle Jack or herself, but she was ready to do whatever was necessary to save the earth. She looked at Dr. Von Albrecht. “You’ve seen the Himalayan Concentrator. You know more about it than almost anyone else.”
“As far as your connection to them,” Dr. Von Albrecht said, “anything I might say would be pure speculation.” He pulled his glasses off and rubbed their lenses with a white handkerchief from his pocket. “If Watkins found the answer through his own connection to the alien power, he kept it to himself. We would need access to his files.”
“Yeah, that’s not gonna happen,” Finn said.
He was right, and the cabin fell silent for a moment.
“So, where does that leave us?” Betty asked.
Dr. Von Albrecht cleared his throat. “I know someone in Mumbai who might be able to help us.”
“Who?” Eleanor asked.
Dr. Von Albrecht carefully put his glasses back on and adjusted their position on the bridge of his nose, holding the frames between his index fingers and thumbs. “Well, that is an interesting question. I suppose I should clarify that I don’t actually know this person. Not personally, at any rate. But I have had contact with them, online. They reached out to me several times after Watkins fired me.”
“Who is it?” Eleanor asked again.
“Grendel,” Dr. Von Albrecht said. “They go by the name Grendel. That’s all anyone knows about them. Their name. And what they’ve done, of course.”
“Okay,” Finn said. “So what have they done?”
“It is widely believed that Grendel is responsible for some of the most sophisticated hacks ever perpetrated against the G.E.T. and the UN.”
“Wait, they’ve hacked the UN?” Eleanor said.
“That can’t be easy,” Finn added.
“No,” Dr. Von Albrecht said. “No, it most certainly isn’t.”
“And that makes you think Grendel could help us?” Uncle Jack said.
“Yes. Grendel hosts several servers on the darknet.”
“What’s the darknet?” Uncle Jack asked.
“An underground internet,” the professor said. “Grendel’s little patch of it is devoted to the conspiracy theories surrounding the G.E.T. and the Freeze. They have continued to post classified information there that no one is supposed to have, which means they still have access to some G.E.T. data.”
“Can we trust this Grendel person?” Uncle Jack asked.
“The enemy of my enemy i
s my friend,” Dr. Von Albrecht said.
Eleanor wasn’t sure that saying always held true. “But will they even help us?” she asked.
Dr. Von Albrecht shrugged. “I would like to think so. But I can’t promise anything.”
“Mumbai isn’t that much of a detour from the Himalayas,” Betty said. “And it seems to be our only option.”
Eleanor agreed with her. “I’ll go tell Luke we’re headed to India.”
She unbuckled from her seat and moved up through the cabin into the plane’s cockpit, and took a seat in the empty pilot’s chair on the right. Over the past few weeks, this place had become both familiar and comfortable. One of her favorite places, actually, with the smell of old vinyl, the wide panel of instruments, and the endless blue of the sky before her, with Luke at her side.
She pulled her feet up to sit cross-legged in the chair. “Dr. Von Albrecht thinks we should go to Mumbai.”
Luke frowned. “Does he?”
Eleanor nodded. “I do, too.”
“And what’s in Mumbai? Another Concentrator?”
“No. A Grendel.”
“What’s a Grendel?”
“Someone the professor thinks might be able to help us find out what Watkins knows.”
Luke gave Eleanor a long, sideways glance, without expression. “That sounds good.”
“What is it?”
“What is what?”
“What are you looking at me like that for?”
He returned his gaze to the sky ahead. “Like what?”
Eleanor almost took a swipe at his arm. “You know what I’m talking about. So just say it.”
He nodded. “Okay, then. I’m wondering if your mom was right.”
Eleanor leaned away from him and her voice came out sharp. “What?”
“At least partly,” Luke added. “She may not have been right to sign on with Watkins, but she was right to worry about you. I’m worried about you, too. I had to carry you out of that tomb, if you remember.”
Eleanor glowered. “I remember.”
“Look, I’m not trying to be like your mom, here.”
“You’re nothing like my mom, Luke. You accept me the way I am.”
“Of course I do. But I know your mom loves you. That’s why she worries. That’s why I worry.”