By Wendy Mass
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Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of Every Soul a Star
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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Okay, first off, the quotes that start each chapter are from real people who know a lot of really cool things. You'll probably recognize some of their names. Second, you should know that this story takes place completely in The Realms (pronounced like relms, not reelms, which would just be weird). What are The Realms, you ask? Where are The Realms? Well, those are tricky questions. I have a theory, but it's a guess, at best, and I hope you won't hold me to it. Come closer and I'll tell you.
The Realms aren't so much somewhere as they are everywhere. And to explain that, I'll need to start by explaining the discovery of a mysterious substance called dark matter.
Hang in there now. This won't hurt a bit.
Basically, a lot of supersmart scientists who have spent a REALLY LONG TIME in school tell us that most of the "stuff" in our universe (96 percent) is invisible. Even though dark matter is all around us, we can't see it. Not even with the help of those enormous telescopes that see so far out into space that they are really seeing back in time.
And why can't we see dark matter? Well, those same smart scientists will tell you it's because dark matter doesn't give off, or reflect, or absorb any light that we can see or measure. But we know it's there because it attracts regular matter, the stuff we CAN see. Dark matter allows gravity to spin gas and dust into stars and planets and galaxies. It gives structure to the cosmos, like the scaffolding of a building.
Yes, that's what your science teacher would tell you. But that's hardly the whole story. The real reason we can't see dark matter is because that's where The Realms are located and they have EXCELLENT cloaking devices. Truly, the universe is a much stranger place than most people give it credit for, teeming with life and full of secrets.
Now you might be wondering what goes on in The Realms. And what this has to do with us, tucked away on our comfortable little planet, a safe twenty-seven thousand light-years away from the massive black hole asleep at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. Well, who better to answer those questions than someone who has lived in The Realms his whole life? Someone around your age, with the same kinds of dreams, desires, and hopes for the future. Someone who thinks that nothing very exciting happens in his life. He doesn't know it yet, but that's about to change. So sit back, relax, and enjoy. Because in about seven pages, the gravity that keeps your feet glued to the ground will be gone.
Don't say I didn't warn you.
If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.
—Carl Sagan, astronomer
If you think it's tough being the Supreme Overlord of the Universe, try being his son.
Or, more precisely, his seventh son. That whole thing about the seventh son being special in some way? Just a rumor spread by a few disgruntled seventh sons trying to make a name for themselves. In my experience, being the seventh son only means that by the time I got here, my brothers had taken all the cool gigs. They spend their days creating new species, choreographing sunrises and sunsets, composing the music of the spheres by keeping planets in their orbits, inspiring great artists, overseeing the Afterlives, and testing new, state-of-the-art video games on the planets whose inhabitants haven't yet discovered how to access most of their brain cells. Me? I deliver pies.
That's right. I. Deliver. Pies.
Cherry pies. Apple pies. Strawberry-rhubarb pies. True, my pies happen to be the glue that holds the very fabric of the universe together, but have no illusion—they are still pies. I guess you could say they're pretty big pies, but size—like time—is relative. To a creature living on one of the millions of inhabited planets that it is our job to oversee, the pies might be as big as a moon or as small as, well, a pie. Hard to say for sure, since I've never been out of The Realms. But that's a whole other gripe.
The point is, a long time ago, the Powers That Be (known simply as the PTB) decided it was getting messy trying to control the forces that keep the stars and planets and galaxies from crashing into each other. So they decided to combine the fundamental forces of nature and somehow shape them into a nice, sweet-smelling pie. Why a pie? Why not a pie! Who doesn't like pie?
It's my job to pick up the pies fresh from the oven, box them up, and deliver them to the correct department at the Powers That Be headquarters, which currently looks like a giant boot but can change regularly.
Anyway, when I pick up the empty pie tins at the end of my shift, only crumbs are left. Somehow the Powers That Be distribute the pies to the far reaches of the universe, wherever new star systems are forming. Since the universe is constantly expanding, this means my job is never done. I don't actually know the nitty-gritty of what happens to the pies once they reach their destinations, which is unfortunate because I have this big report due for school next week on what my job entails, and that's the kind of detail teachers eat right up.
Yes, even immortal sons of Supreme Overlords have to go to school, which doesn't really seem fair. I mean, I might have only begun my teen years, but years here last forever, so really, I've been in school since before the Sombrero Galaxy took its first siesta billions of years ago. It's enough already.
Anyway, right now I'm heading to my last pickup of the day and then I have to go home and write the annoying report. At least the pickup is at my best friend Kal's house. Kal's parents are OnWorlders, which means they live most of the time on different terrestrial planets, doing research and writing reports. As a rule, we never interfere with the planets' natural evolution. That said, I've heard rumors. After all, there's only so much one can take of watching dinosaurs stomp around aimlessly for a few hundred million years before you need to send an asteroid their way.
No matter how many times I walk this same path, I never get bored of it. The central Realms—home to most of the residents and buildings—are set up like a grid, with walking paths crisscrossing each other at even intervals. On either side of the paths trees loom high and streams weave their way between them. When I was younger, before I started delivering the pies, I could usually be found in one of the distant fields with Kal or Bren, watching the clouds change color. The sky here is without color, but the clouds more than make up for it. I learned in school that on the planets, clouds and trees and water are solid objects, providing some sort of purpose in nature. In The Realms, they are more like suggestions of such things, until someone wants to use them. A lake becomes a lake when someone wants to go fishing. A flower becomes a flower when someone wants to water it, or admire it, or put it in a vase. Even then it's not a "real" flower, like the type that grows in the soil of many of the terrestrial planets. But that doesn't make it any less beautiful.
Aunt Rae's front lawn is full of flowers growing from nowhere and rootless trees. She's very proud of her garden, and when she's not making pies, I usually find her gardening out here.
"Took you long enough," Kal says, swinging the door open. Kal—whose after-school job is to welcome new arrivals to the Afterlives—has a greater sense of time than most of us here in The Realms. Since he deals with life-forms whose lives actually have beginnings and endings, the whole thing sort of rubs off on him and he gets impatient easily.
I plop down on the couch and say, "I'm here the same time I always am."
He mutters something that I choose to ignore. I put up my feet and breathe in deep. Their house smells soooo good. Aunt Rae is one of the best pie makers in all The Realms, but she is also the slowest. Can't rush perfection is her motto. I never mind waiting. Any time I get to put my feet up and do nothing works fine for me.
"Is that you, Joss?" Aunt Rae calls out from the kitchen. She always knows when I'm here, even though she's nearly completely deaf. She sticks her head out from the kitchen, apple pie juice running down the front of her apron.
"Hi, Aunt Rae," I yell. "How are you today?"
Kal's aunt is one of the Old Ones. All the pie makers are from the first wave of immortals. It's not like their bodies are breaking down or anything, but they don't self-repair as well as the rest of us. Of course, Aunt Rae could get her hearing fixed instantly instead of wearing an adjustable ear volumizer, but she says the silence helps her focus on baking her pies. Personally, I think she likes not having to hear Kal's music blaring all the time. He has terrible taste in music, even with all the music in the universe to choose from. He's been working on his own "masterpiece," which is even worse.
"Can't complain," Aunt Rae replies cheerily, wiping her forehead and leaving a smear of flour behind.
"Wanna hear my latest and greatest?" Kal asks me, picking up his drumsticks without waiting for an answer.
Aunt Rae switches her volumizer to the off position and ducks back into the kitchen. I cover my ears with my hands. As usual, this is the point where I get even more jealous that my oldest brother, Thade, gets to hear the Music of the Spheres—that melodic tune made by the planetary bodies as they go around their orbits—while I get to hear Kal doing things to the drums that should never, ever be described as music. Kal claims he learned this latest piece from a drummer in a band he recently escorted to the Afterlives. The guy had come from Earth, which is a particularly well-liked planet around here due to its being one of the few where the inhabitants developed a sense of humor.
It's only when Kal pauses to flip his drumsticks dramatically in the air that we hear the sirens. He drops the drumsticks, and one hits the cymbal with a tszing! The sirens mean only one thing—someone on one of the inhabited planets is zeroing in on our location with whatever technology they've developed to peer into their night sky. Normally, The Realms can't be seen from anywhere in the universe. But every once in a while a rip occurs in the fabric of the space-time continuum. Quantum entanglement becomes untangled. If someone happened to be looking at exactly the right spot, they could catch a glimpse of us. And just the tiniest glimpse is catastrophic.
I was only a billion or two years old, a baby really, when the sirens last blared. Intelligent life in the first batch of planets had just started peering into the skies. The viewer at the other end of the primitive piece of equipment spotted a garden party at one of the fancier estates in The Realms. The old guy was so shocked at what he saw that he dropped dead of a heart attack on the spot. Dying in this way was actually a bit of luck for everyone else on his planet, since the penalty for laying eyes on any of the beings living in The Realms is the immediate disintegration of the entire planet. Under the circumstances, in an uncharacteristically charitable move, the Powers That Be allowed the planet to continue existing. A dead man tells no tales, as the saying goes. But I doubt they will be so forgiving again. No one knows exactly why the punishment is so harsh, but since this almost never happens, the whole issue doesn't get much attention.
"DUCK!" Kal screams, throwing himself to the floor. Between the intermittent wails of the siren, I can still hear Aunt Rae humming.
"Aunt Rae!" I yell. "You have to duck!"
But she doesn't hear me. Even the sirens don't get through when her volumizer is off.
I half-slither, half-crawl on my elbows and knees to the opening of the kitchen. Kal follows close on my heels. Aunt Rae is reaching into the oven, pulling out a perfect, steaming-hot apple pie. I reach up to grab the hem of her apron just as she turns around.
But I'm too late. The area around her vibrates and shudders, almost imperceptibly, then settles back into place. No doubt about it, she has been spotted. Someone has broken (or at least bent really far) the laws of physics and has laid eyes on Aunt Rae and her famous apple pie. It is the last thing he will ever see. He will not get the chance to tell anyone on his planet of his discovery. There will no longer be anyone to tell.
The wail of the siren now becomes one long keening cry. No one likes to think of any of the worlds ending. We've watched them grow from grains of dust, so it's quite heartbreaking. The siren fades out. I roll over onto my back and stare up at the ceiling.
"Joss?" Aunt Rae asks, leaning over me with obvious concern. She flips her volumizer back on. "What is it?"
But I can only shake my head, a tear sliding down my nose. I know new planets are being formed constantly, new civilizations rising and falling and rising again, but still, it's a huge loss.
"I hope it wasn't Earth," Kal says, his expression grim.
I nod in agreement. Besides the fact that the people of Earth understand that flatulence can be funny, they have the tastiest enchiladas. Actually, those two things are most likely connected. While there are millions of planets in the universe with some form of life, they are all in vastly different stages of development and intelligence. Many never develop technology at all, never learn how to harness the elements and forces around them. But if they do, and if they can't control it, they usually destroy themselves pretty soon after. This leaves only a narrow window when the inhabitants are using their knowledge to educate themselves, to look out at the universe and seek answers. Earth is in this zone right now.
A voice booms through the house. "Joss! Are you still there?"
I jump up from the floor so quickly my brain spins. Kal and I stare at each other. My father NEVER uses the communication network himself. As Supreme Overlord, he has a whole staff for that. The fact that he is calling me now can't be a good sign.
"Answer him," Kal hisses.
I clear my throat. "Yes, Dad, I'm here."
"Report immediately to PTB headquarters."
"Yes, sir," I reply, halfway out of the kitchen.
But he isn't finished. "And bring the pie!"
Dark matter holds the key to the universe.
—Paul Davies, physicist
I weave my way in and out of the busy streets, the steaming pie tin burning my hands. I hadn't even given Aunt Rae a chance to put it in a box. As always, when I first picked up the pie, I felt a sort of current go through me, like my body was getting heavier. It must be something in the pies that causes it. The feeling is not entirely unpleasant, and I like to linger before it fades. But I couldn't do that this time. As relative as time is in The Realms, my father does not like to be kept waiting. And when he does not like something, you do your best to avoid it.
The streets are usually not this crowded. With so much space in The Realms, there is rarely a reason for people to gather. But the blare of the sirens got everyone out and talking. I push through a group of kids I go to school with, which is made easier by the fact that they part slightly when they see me coming. This is one of the downsides to having a really important father—the other kids keep their distance from me. All except Kal, who I can always count on to remind me that I may have a famous family, but my hair grows in lopsided and no girl has ever gone on a date with me twice.
In the olden days, we used to be able to travel instantaneously, winking in and out of places like the smallest of elementary particles. Those were the days. Everything was so easy then. Took me a tenth of the time to complete my daily pie-delivering, leaving endless opportunities to clown around with Kal or bowl down at Thunder Lanes. But the Powers That Be fixed it so our bodies can no longer vibrate at a high-enough frequency to achieve this state. We also feel pain now, which is bothersome. They decided we needed to live more like our mortal kinsmen in order to better serve their needs. The PTB are strange that way. Their main job is to oversee the various species who populate the universe, but a lot of the time they seem not to care much. Suns explode in fiery supernovas, wiping out any life-forms unfortunate enough to be within fifty light-years, sending their atoms spewing forth into the void of space, and do the PTB do anything to stop it?
No. No, they do not.
Civilizations destroy themselves (and others) over and over again, and the PTB watch on the planet view screens and place bets on what the last survivor's final words will be. (They're usually something like, "Oh, crud.") This is not quite as cruel as it sounds, since the bylaws of the Powers That Be strictly forbid interfering or choosing sides in planetary squabbles. This is widely agreed to be the best course of action. Might they turn their backs occasionally and allow someone to steer a meteorite embedded with amino acids toward a recently cooled planet in a new solar system? Sure. Prevent nuclear destruction of an advanced civilization? No.
"I'm coming with you," Kal calls out, catching up to me on the street. Kal has transformed his legs into wheels, which was very smart of him. Even though all of us in The Realms can quickly rearrange the cells in our bodies to create new patterns, I usually don't think of it. It takes a lot of mental effort, and I prefer to save that effort for school so I don't fail out. Plus, with wheels, you wind up with all sorts of bruises, and you have to pick pieces of dirt and random tiny objects from your skin long after you've turned them back into legs.
"You should go home, Kal. My dad didn't sound happy. You don't want to be around when he's not happy. Remember that time he turned you into a cow pie because you wouldn't stop drumming with your fork and spoon when you came over for dinner?"
Kal shudders at the smelly memory but squares his shoulders and says, "It was my fault we didn't hear the sirens sooner. You shouldn't have to take the blame."
"I wasn't going to," I reply. I'm lying and we both know it. I've been taking the fall for Kal since we were in diapers. As a son of the Supreme Overlord, I do get special treatment. The PTB often look the other way if one of my brothers or I bend the rules every now and then. Bren (the brother closest to my age and the one I like the best) and I once broke into the Department of Gravity to see if we could find some gravitons to take us to a neighboring universe. We'd heard rumors of other universes that waves of gravity could travel between. It didn't matter to us that in billions of years no one had ever found these universes, supposedly full of their own stars and planets and galaxies. We got caught, of course, because there's no way to sneak around here without everyone knowing your business.
Since everyone's afraid of our father, all we got was a warning. (The next person who got caught breaking in there was turned into an ear mite. He was last seen living inside the ear of a particularly smelly Plumpadorus in the Cygnus Galaxy.) But what happened today will likely result in more than a slap on the wrist and a lecture.
Kal and I come to a stop in front of PTB headquarters. No longer a giant boot, the building has been transformed into a flagpole, with a black flag flying at half-mast in honor of the recently destroyed planet.
The shape of the building makes it so we have to enter single file. Kal converts his wheels back to legs, and we hurry up the elevator to the inner sanctum of the PTB. After recent events, I expect to find the place a madhouse, with committee members running to and fro, arms full of reports to file. If nothing else, the department that oversees the Afterlives must surely be gearing up for an extremely busy afternoon. Instead, the place has a quiet hush to it. The few people I do see are speaking in whispers. Kal and I exchange a worried look.
The door to my father's office swings open to reveal the top members of the Powers That Be gathered around the huge round table, grim expressions on their faces. I notice that half of them are wearing their ceremonial robes, and are all men. If I had to guess, the female leaders were not happy with the decision to destroy the planet and stormed out in protest. My mother—an honorary member due to marrying my father—reports this happens fairly regularly.
My father glances away from the holographic view screen hovering slightly above his head. An odd look crosses his face when he sees Kal beside me. Dad's not a huge fan. He doesn't think Kal has enough "drive." Kal actually has plenty of drive. It's just usually not in the right direction.
My father waves us in. "I'm glad Kal's here."
Kal's face pales and I shiver involuntarily. My father is never glad to see Kal.
I place the pie on the table, where it sits, ignored. "Don't blame Kal, Dad. It's my fault we didn't get to warn Aunt Rae in time."
"This isn't about placing blame," Dad says. "We have a much bigger issue to deal with."
"That's a relief," Kal says, color returning to his cheeks.
"Not really," one of the suited men around the table mutters. I can never tell the suited guys apart. Well, that's not really true. I've never actually tried. This one—short, with green hair—hands Kal a holographic screen that hovers in his palm. "We saved this for you," he says.
"For me?" Kal asks. "Why? What is it?"
"It is a log of your parents' last report," the green-haired guy replies. "They sent it only two days ago from a planet in the Milky Way Galaxy. From Earth. We assume they haven't left the planet."
Kal gives the report a quick glance. "They go to Earth pretty regularly. Am I missing something?"
"I'm sorry, Kal," my father says, when no one else replies. "We had no choice. Earth is gone."
[When I look up at the sky,] I think about all the things I don't see up there.
—Kip Thorne, physicist
A deafening silence fills the room as everyone watches Kal. As virtually immortal life-forms, we don't have to breathe unless we want to, and at this moment no one is.
My hand on his shoulder, I can feel Kal trembling. His knees are locked in place, which is probably the only thing keeping him standing. He refuses to turn away from the transparent wall of my father's office. We are high up in The Realms here, with the whole universe spread out around us. Usually the sight of billions of galaxies swirling like glittering diamonds is mesmerizing. Today, though, we cannot see its beauty. Today the distant clusters of stars only serve to remind us how, in a universe teeming with energy and drama, one small planet in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way barely counts for anything (no matter how much fun it is to watch their football games on our view screens). We have been raised to believe that in the grand scheme of things, one planet doesn't matter. Can't matter.
Unless your best friend's parents are on it when it's destroyed.
"But I don't understand," Kal says, his voice sadder than I've ever heard it. (And I've heard him sing the blues—badly, but he's sung them.) "My parents are immortal, like all of us. Wouldn't they have survived the destruction of Earth?"
"That was our assumption, too," my father says. "But we have not found any trace of them."
Kal still won't turn away from the window. It's like he's searching the vastness of space for some sign of his parents. Through gritted teeth, he asks, "Did you know they were there? Before?"
"Of course not," says my father's second-in-command, striding into the room. His name is Gluck the Yuck, a nickname my brothers and I gave him because he refuses to rearrange his facial features to be even the slightest bit pleasing. He's not a bad guy, just a little hard to look at.
"Well, we didn't exactly check," admits the green-haired suit. I really should learn their names.
"There wasn't time to check," insists another. "The destruction has to be instantaneous. And what would be the odds of your parents working on that particular planet at the exact time someone from there would view The Realms? The odds are astronomical, that's what they are."
A nice try to deflect blame, but we all know that the odds of anything existing in the universe at all is astronomical, so the man's argument falls short.
"I know!" Kal exclaims, whirling around to face the PTB. "The Afterlives will be flooded with all the new arrivals. I'm sure I'll be called into work. My parents will still show up there with all the Earth people, right? So they'll be back after all!"
The committee members exchange uneasy glances. They look to Gluck to reply. Gluck then looks pointedly at my father. For the first time in my (very long) memory, my father hesitates before answering. "No one will be coming to the Afterlives."
Kal scrunches his brows. "I don't understand. There were billions of people on that planet."
Dad looks uncomfortable, which is not a good look on the Supreme Overlord of the Universe. "We didn't exactly destroy the planet. Per se."
"So my parents are still alive!" Kal shouts. He grabs my father's arm, then immediately lets go when my father glares down at him. In a less shouty voice Kal asks, "Why did you say they're gone?"
My father sighs. "Perhaps I should have chosen my words more carefully. If someone never existed, you couldn't truly say they were gone, could you?"
- "Finally, confirmation of what I've long suspected, that pie is the secret of life. Wendy Mass has written a wonderfully wacky book that will leave you hungry for more."—Pseudonymous Bosch, author of The Name of This Book Is Secret
- * "Full of fascinating science and clever humor, Mass's story shines as bright as the stars of Joss's universe. A high-stakes extraterrestrial adventure that's as exciting as it is fun."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- "Could be a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for kids...Science and absurdity frolic together to gleeful effect."—Kirkus
- "The humorous banter and interesting physics factoids keep readers entertained...Mass's latest [is] a unique, mind-stretching title for science-fiction lovers, and the entertaining high jinks and evolving relationship between Joss and Annika give it an even wider appeal."—School Library Journal
- "Wendy Mass is a treasure. Read her books and you'll be the richer for it."—Trenton Lee Stewart, author of The Mysterious Benedict Society
- On Sale
- Apr 15, 2014
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers