Dear readers,

I’m super-excited to share this preview of Chapter One from UMBRA, the second prequel in my Dimension Drift Series. Thanks for taking a look and I hope you enjoy the sample!

Christina

“Wish to travel the omniverse? First try leaping off a hovercraft without a power chute. Should you live, then you might survive in alternate realities as well.” – Beauregard the Great, Instructions for Visiting Parallel Worlds

Nine minutes.

That’s how long before this planet implodes.

I’m talking about a version of Earth that supports thousands of cities. Millions of buildings. Billions of people. Not to mention what’s beyond counting. Like photographs. Sunflowers. Bowling trophies. Baby carriages. As of this moment, I’m the only barrier between all that and instant annihilation.

Welcome to my Tuesday.

I’m Thorne Oxblood, and I fight inter-dimensional disasters.

For my current mission, I’m at placelet 92.248.908, planet X3894-B, strand BT704.35, and branch point 1T.783-50E. The locals have a simpler name for this location, though. Clyde’s Gym. Over the last hour, I’ve memorized every inch of this space, searching for the schism—meaning the inter-dimensional breaking point—that could tear this world apart. Nothing has shown itself yet. Nervous energy corkscrews up my shoulders and neck. What am I missing? For the umpteenth time, I inspect the gym.

Large, square space made from concrete blocks? Check.

Rickety slats in a worn-out floor? Check. 

Faded girly calendars lining the walls? Odd decoration, but it’s not my gym. And check.

Points of access? Three. Main entrance up-front, an office side door, and a small emergency exit along the back wall. Since I arrived, no one’s entered or left.

Huge letter K glowing on the wall? Check. Thsi is something only I can see. It means that my family’s arch-enemies, the Komandir, stopped by this gym at some point. Doesn’t help me find the schism, though.

Humans? Nine. Two boxers pound away in the sparring ring. Another six guys slam into punching bags, lift weights or jump rope. One teenage girl scribbles on papers behind the door marked office. Then there’s me. To the humans, I’m just an eighteen-year-old in gray sweats. Nothing about my muscular build, short hair, and brown eyes screams, this guy’s an alien.

But I am from another world. Umbra.

And as an Umbran, my body stores tiny cybernetic organisms called sentient. These minute creatures enable me to guard the omniverse, which is the universe of universes. Tonight’s mission marks my seventy-first rescue. For the record, my own sentient are extra jacked up for this trip. They keep sending me mental images of this planet exploding in a silent shower of blinding light.

Not for the first time, I try to calm them. I got it, I whisper in my mind. There’s trouble at Clyde’s Gym.

Another explosion image follows. Not helping.

I rub my temples and try to focus. Think through the problem, Thorne. Since I saw the glowing K, I’ve assumed the Komandir are behind the trouble here. But maybe the symbol is a distraction. Perhaps something else is at work. Maybe these humans are about to develop drift science along with the ability to open alternate realities. Once you can visit other worlds, it’s easier to implode your own. Drift science would also explain why my sentient keep sending images of exploding planets instead of pics showing Doc Zykin, the Komandir assassin.

Closing my eyes, I reach out to my sentient. Is drift science the real problem here?

In reply, my sentient show me beauty queens jumping up and down after winning a pageant. It’s their way of saying, yes already. Amazing how, even though they can’t speak, my sentient still manage to be sarcastic. 

Fresh pictures flood my mind. This time, my sentient review my last mission.

I stand in a huge white space. A sign for New Cosmos University hangs above. Equipment of all kinds surrounds me. Tall monoliths hold computer arrays. A patchwork of workstations cover the floor. Round hoverbots zoom through the air while recording results. I stand at the drift science station, dressed in a white lab coat. All in all, it took me two weeks to register for New Cosmos University as a research student. After that, I spent days hacking into their systems so anyone with Umbran DNA would be immune to university security. Yet the real time-suck on this mission has been my target, Helen Robbins. She’s whip-smart with long black hair, cocoa skin, and a gaze that could melt titanium. 

She thinks I’m up to something.

She’s right. 

Trouble is, my secret agenda is to stop this version of Earth from imploding. For that to happen, Helen must ace her latest set of drift science calculations. How do I know? My sentient keep making her data pad glow red. For weeks, I’ve tried to help her, but she blocks any attempt at conversation. My only chance is that the school board wants fresh numbers today. 

“How’s it going?” I ask. “I know you’re on a deadline.”

Helen presses her tablet against her chest. “What’s it to you?”

“I want to help. That’s it. Honestly.”

Helen pauses. Little by little, she starts handing me her datapad.

At last. 

I could cheer. 

Behind me, the lab door thuds open. My brother Justice bursts into the room. He’s a bulky figure dressed in cowboy boots, a black T-shirt, jeans and a Stetson. In some kind of nod to science, he holds a pocket protector in his left hand. He stomps over to my side. 

“How’s it going?” Justice closes his eyes. I know what he’s doing—accessing his sentient. “Seems like you met the smartest filly in this here lab.” Justice increases intensity as he says ‘smartest filly.’ I get it. Justice means that his sentient pinpointed Helen as the target for this mission. Sadly, my brother already has a loud and gravelly voice. Upping the volume only makes the words ‘smartest filly’ boom through the chamber. Everyone stops working to stare. 

My jaw muscles lock in frustration. Justice came here to check on me, clear and simple. Did it take me a few days to determine Helen was my target? Sure. I don’t have Justice’s power over sentient, so I figured it out on my own. Now, I’m finally finishing my work here, and my brother shows up to ‘help.’

He could ruin everything.

I look to Helen. She’s clasped the datapad so tightly against her torso, the girl’s knuckles flare white. “That’s your brother?” she asks. 

I pinch the bridge of my nose. “Yup. Can you ignore him?”

“I don’t know.” Helen narrows her eyes. “He’s really really really big.”

Justice tips the brim of his Stetson. “Thank you, sugar.”

“Wasn’t a complement,” deadpans Helen. Justice keeps right on smiling. He’s convinced every woman loves him. Mostly because he’s the most eligible bachelor on Umbra and all the women do adore him. Or at least, they act that way.

I step closer to Helen. “Please. You only deal with him once. I’ve got him for the rest of my life.”

Helen pauses, then cracks a smile. “I’ve an older sister, too. Name’s Polly.” She hands over the datapad. “Poll’s a lot like your brother.”

“Is that right, now?” Justice flashes Helen a thousand-watt smile. “Is this Polly of yours all charm and sunshine, just like me?”

Helen chuckles. “Nope, she’s more of a busybody. Thinks I can’t do anything without her.”

“So.” Justice puffs out his lower lip. “Not like me.”

While Helen and Justice chat, I scan the data pad, make a few notes, and hand it back. “Your results from the dark matter tests are wrong,” I explain. The data comes another team, and I’m not surprised their work sucks. That group’s more interested in clubbing than science. “Rerun the tests yourself and your calcs will be fine.”

Helen scans the screen. “Thanks. If these calcs were off, it could have caused an explosion.”

“Through space and time,” adds Justice.

Helen gives me the side eye. “How could you know those tests looked wrong? This is all new. No one’s seen proper results yet.”

Justice taps his temple. “My little brother here’s a thinker. He’s got to be, considering how he’s low on sentient and all.” Justice closes his eyes for a moment. “Good news. Now those numbers are put to right, this here universe is now safe. Nice how things work out, huh?”

Helen frowns. “Did you say sentient?”

“Yes indeedy,” replies Justice. My brother then turns to me. “Speaking of sentient, did you catch how mine said our work here is done? We aced this mission together, little bro.”

“I caught that, yes.” I’d add that Justice did no actual work to ace said mission, but that will only lead to more humiliating speeches about my weakness with sentient.  

Justice slaps his hand on my shoulder. “Let’s get back to Umbra.”

Helen’s brows lift. “Umbra?”

I shake my head. “Oh, it’s definitely time to leave.” 

The memory replay ends. It’s obvious why my sentient showed me that scene. In Helen’s world, fixing drift science was the key to saving her planet. The same could be true here as well. Even so, Helen’s mission lasted for weeks and took place in a laboratory. This time, I’ve only got eight more minutes and a gymnasium.

Not gonna lie.

I’m at a loss here.

The main door swings open; five teenage guys step inside. All of them sport pomeade-slick hair, white T-shirts, and cuffed jeans. Classic greasers. Which makes sense. After all, this parallel Earth broke off from the prime reality sometime in the 1950’s. Branch worlds often get stuck on their exit point.

The tallest in the group pauses just inside the door. He’s got a square face, a flat nose, and a great swoosh of blond hair. His stocky body seems ready to burst from his leather bomber jacket. A smaller teen pulls at the tall guy’s elbow.

“Axel,” he begins.

“Quiet, Runt.”

“The name’s Ralph,” squeaks the little guy.

“You’re whatever I call you.” Axel elbows the smaller kid in gut. Ralph gasps in pain, but he doesn’t fight back. Interesting. So whatever this group is, Axel is both their leader and a total dick. Not good. Axel’s beady eyes narrow as he inspects the room.

He’s looking for someone.

Beep… beep…

My earpiece lets out a soft tone that only I can hear. Based on the rhythm, I already know who’s calling. Justice.

“Accept inbound comm,” I say.

My brother’s gravelly voice echoes across the line. “You’ve got less than seven minutes left, little brother. Vamoose.”

“Not an option,” I declare. “My mission isn’t over.”

“Then I’m coming after you. Now.”

Right. Justice would be here already if I hadn’t hidden my placelet data. After the disaster with Helen, I figured out that trick.

“Any news for me?” I ask.

“The S-Man got us some info.”

By S-Man, Justice means Slate, our youngest brother. Together, the three of us make up the royal family for Umbra. As Emperor of the Omiverse, our father Cole wields the all-powerful Crown Sentient, while Slate’s sentient focus on visions and knowledge.

“This Earth is developing drift science tech,” continues Justice.

“My sentient already showed me that.” In my head, images of cheering crowds appear from my sentient. They rarely beat out Slate in getting me news.

“Come on, now.” Justice sighs. “You know what that means—most worlds destroy themselves once they reach this stage. Why save this planet so they can just kill their own selves?”

“Universes are born and die all the time. Sentient pick which ones to save. You know that.” While I chat with Justice, I can’t help but notice how Axel keeps glaring at the office door. Something tells me I should take another look in there. “Unless you’ve got other news, I’m signing off.”

“Hold your horses, now. Be reasonable. Saving this world isn’t possible. You’re not like me and Slate.”

My voice lowers. “I’m aware.”

Both Justice and Slate are far stronger with sentient than I am. Hell, there are grandmas on my planet with more sentient power than I carry. And I get what Justice means. In this mission, he and Slate could escape an imploding planet much faster than I ever could. Which is why I must succeed here or else. I’m about to say precisely that when something happens.

The side office door opens. My sentient stop sending images of cheering crowds. Instead, fresh sensations course through me.

A buzz of excitement.

The pang of anticipation.

A rock-solid weight of willpower.

These aren’t my emotions, though. It’s all coming from my sentient. This is their way of saying, the schism is closeby. 

“Hold on,” I tell Justice.

A girl steps through the newly-opened side door. She’s the same teenager I counted before, only now I can catch a better look. She’s young, red-haired, and wearing a poodle skirt. The name Emma is embroidered on her sweater. A pile of books and papers lie cradled in her arms. To my eyes, the documents glow with crimson light. As with Helen, my sentient are telling me that I found it.

The schism.

At last, this is familiar territory. If this mission is like Helen’s, then those papers will carry drift science calculations. Once I fix a few numbers, then the schism will close. I check my watch once more.

Five minutes.

More than enough time.

Emma steps out the emergency back door. Axel stalks along after her, his thin tongue flickering hungrily over his thick lips. I pause. On second thought, there may be more work here than simply fixing calculations. Axel and his buddies might put up a fight.

I take it back. That’s a lot for five minutes.

Suddenly, long cracks form in the gym walls and ceiling. Red light peeps out through the fissures, casting odd patterns across the space. My pulse speeds. I’ve seen this effect before, and it means one thing. This world is pulling apart. On reflex, I scan the nearby faces. Everyone still goes about their business. Punching. Jumping. Lifting. The breaks are only visible to me, thanks to my sentient. Doesn’t make them any less real, though.

“I got it,” I tell Justice. “The schism centers on a girl named Emma; she just moved into an alley. Some guys trailed her. I’ll go after them.”

“No way.” Justice’s voice takes on a frantic note. “A bunch of guys sneak into a dark alley and you’re following? You’ve no idea what kind of tech they’re packing. I’m coming in to help you.”

I prowl across the gym floor. More fissures appear beneath my feet. “Justice, I got this.”

“No! Your hero complex is plum out of control. Give me your exact placelet location and—”

I click the earpiece off, ending our connection. As I march toward the back door, my brother’s words echo through my mind.

Your hero complex is plum out of control.

Justice is wrong.

I don’t have a hero complex.

It’s more of a death wish.

My brothers and I make up the royal family of Umbra. We’re expected to wield exceptional powers with sentient. Slate and Justice do; I don’t. That makes me the chipped jewel in an otherwise-perfect crown.

I’m the extra prince.

Weak brother.

Unworthy royal.

Someone to be pitied as he’s pushed aside.

Fuck that. 

With each mission, I get one step closer to either proving myself a true royal … or checking out of this game entirely. The question always hangs over me. Am I a real prince or a dead fool? Yanking on the back door, I step out into the darkened alley.

Maybe tonight’s when things get settled, one way or another.

–end of sample—

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