Skyward by #1 New York Times bestselling author Brandon Sanderson is the first book in an epic new series about a girl who dreams of becoming a pilot in a dangerous world at war for humanity’s future. Start reading chapters 1-15 now!
Only fools climbed to the surface. It was stupid to put yourself in danger like that, my mother always said. Not only were there near-constant debris showers from the rubble belt, but you never knew when the Krell would attack.
Of course, my father traveled to the surface basically every day—he had to, as a pilot. I supposed by my mother’s definition that made him extra foolish, but I always considered him extra brave.
I was still surprised when one day, after years of listening to me beg, he finally agreed to take me up with him.
I was seven years old, though in my mind I was completely grown-up and utterly capable. I hurried after my father, carrying a lantern to light the rubble-strewn cavern. A lot of the rocks in the tunnel were broken and cracked, most likely from Krell bombings—things I’d experienced down below as a rattling of dishes or trembling of light fixtures.
I imagined those broken rocks as the broken bodies of my enemies, their bones shattered, their trembling arms reaching upward in a useless gesture of total and complete defeat.
I was a very odd little girl.
I caught up to my father, and he looked back, then smiled. He had the best smile, so confident, like he never worried about what people said about him. Never worried that he was weird or didn’t fit in.
Then again, why should he have worried? Everyone liked him. Even people who hated ice cream and playing swords—even whiny little Rodge McCaffrey—liked my father.
Father took me by the arm and pointed upward. “Next part is a little tricky. Let me lift you.”
“I can do it,” I said, and shook off his hand. I was grown-up. I’d packed my own backpack and had left Bloodletter, my stuffed bear, at home. Stuffed bears were for babies, even if you’d fashioned your own mock power armor for yours out of string and broken ceramics.
Granted, I had put my toy starfighter in my backpack. I wasn’t crazy. What if we ended up getting caught in a Krell attack and they bombed our retreat, so we had to live out the rest of our lives as wasteland survivors, devoid of society or civilization?
A girl needed her toy starfighter with her just in case.
I handed my backpack to my father and looked up at the crack in the stones. There was . . . something about that hole up there. An unnatural light seeped through it, wholly unlike the soft glow of our lanterns.
The surface . . . the sky! I grinned and started climbing up a steep slope that was part rubble, part rock formation. My hands slipped and I scraped myself on a sharp edge, but I didn’t cry. The daughters of pilots did not cry.
The crack in the cavern roof looked a hundred meters away. I hated being so small. Any day now, I was going to grow tall like my father. Then for once I wouldn’t be the smallest kid around. I’d laugh at everyone from up so high, they’d be forced to admit how great I was.
I growled softly as I got to the top of a rock. The next handhold was out of reach. I eyed it. Then I jumped, determined. Like a good Defiant girl, I had the heart of a stardragon.
But I also had the body of a seven-year-old. So I missed by a good half meter.
A strong hand seized me before I could fall too far. My father chuckled, holding me by the back of my jumpsuit, which I’d painted with markers to look like his flight suit. I had even drawn a pin on the left over my heart, like the one he wore—the pin that marked him as a pilot. It was in the shape of a small starfighter with lines underneath.
Father pulled me onto the rock beside him, then reached out with his free hand and activated his light-line. The device looked like a metal bracelet, but once he engaged it by tapping two fingers against his palm, the band glowed with a bright molten light. He touched a stone above, and when he drew his hand back, it left a thick line of light like a shining rope fixed to the rock. He wrapped the other end around me so it fit snugly under my arms, then detached it from his bracelet. The glow there faded, but the luminescent rope remained in place, attaching me to the rocks.
I’d always thought light-lines should burn to the touch, but it was just warm. Like a hug.
“Okay, Spin,” he said, using my nickname. “Try it again.” “I don’t need this,” I said, plucking at the safety rope. “Humor a frightened father.”
“Frightened? You aren’t frightened of anything. You fight the Krell.”
He laughed. “I’d rather face a hundred Krell ships than your mother on the day I bring you home with a broken arm, little one.”
“I’m not little. And if I break my arm, you can leave me here until I heal. I’ll fight the beasts of the caverns and become feral and wear their skins and—”
“Climb,” he said, still grinning. “You can fight the beasts of the caverns another time, though I think the only ones you’d find have long tails and buckteeth.”
I had to admit, the light-line was helpful. I could pull against it to brace myself. We reached the crack, and my father pushed me up first. I grabbed the rim and scrambled out of the caverns, stepping onto the surface for the first time in my life.
It was so open.
I gaped, standing there, looking up at . . . at nothing. Just . . . just . . . upness. No ceiling. No walls. I’d always imagined the sur- face as a really, really big cavern. But it was so much more, and so much less, all at once.
My father heaved himself up after me and dusted the dirt from his flight suit. I glanced at him, then back up at the sky. I grinned widely.
“Not frightened?” he asked. I glared at him.
“Sorry,” he said with a chuckle. “Wrong word. It’s just that a lot of people find the sky intimidating, Spensa.”
“It’s beautiful,” I whispered, staring up at that vast nothingness, air that extended up into an infinite greyness, fading to black.
The surface was still brighter than I’d imagined. Our planet, Detritus, was protected by several enormous layers of ancient space debris. Junk that was way up high, outside the air, in space. Wrecked space stations, massive metal shields, old chunks of metal big as mountains—there were many layers of it, kind of like broken shells around the planet.
We hadn’t built any of that. We’d crashed on this planet when my grandmother was a girl, and this stuff had been ancient then. Still, some of it worked. For example, the bottom layer—the one closest to the planet—had enormous glowing rectangles in it. I’d heard of those. Skylights: enormous floating lights that gave illumination and warmth to the planet.
There was supposed to be a lot of littler bits of junk up there too, particularly in the lowest layer. I squinted, trying to see if I could pick any of that out, but space was too far away. Other than the two nearby skylights—neither of which was directly above us—the only things I could see were some vague patterns up there in the greyness. Lighter chunks and darker chunks.
“The Krell live up there?” I asked. “Beyond the debris field?” “Yes,” Father said. “They fly down through the gaps in the
layers to attack.”
“How do they find us?” I asked. “There’s so much room up here.” The world seemed a much larger place than I’d imagined in the caverns below.
“They can somehow sense when people gather together,” Father said. “Anytime the population of a cavern gets too big, the Krell attack and bomb it.”
Decades ago, our people had been part of a fleet of space vessels. We’d been chased by the Krell to this planet and had crashed here, where we’d been forced to split up to survive. Now we lived in clans, each of whom could trace their lineage back to the crews of one of those starships.
Gran-Gran had told me these stories many times. We’d lived for seventy years here on Detritus, traveling the caverns as nomadic clans, afraid to congregate. Until now. Now we’d started to build starfighters and had made a hidden base on the surface. We were starting to fight back.
“Where’s Alta Base?” I asked. “You said we’d come up near it. Is that it?” I pointed toward some suspicious rocks. “It’s right there, isn’t it? I want to go see the starfighters.”
My father leaned down and turned me about ninety degrees, then pointed. “There.”
“Where?” I searched the surface, which was basically all just
blue-grey dust and rocks, with craters from fallen debris from the rubble belt. “I can’t see it.”
“That’s the point, Spensa. We have to remain hidden.”
“But you fight, don’t you? Won’t they eventually learn where the fighters are coming from? Why don’t you move the base?”
“We have to keep it here, above Igneous. That’s the big cavern I showed you last week.”
“The one with all the machines?”
He nodded. “Inside Igneous, we found manufactories; that’s what lets us build starships. We have to live nearby to protect the machinery, but we fly missions anywhere the Krell come down, anywhere they decide to bomb.”
“You protect other clans?”
“To me, there is only one clan that matters: humankind. Before we crashed here, we were all part of the same fleet—and someday all the wandering clans will remember that. They will come when we call them. They’ll gather together, and we’ll form a city and build a civilization again.”
“Won’t the Krell bomb it?” I asked, but cut him off before he could reply. “No. Not if we’re strong enough. Not if we stand and fight back.”
“I’m going to have my own ship,” I said. “I’m going to fly it just like you. And then nobody in the clan will be able to make fun of me, because I’ll be stronger than they are.”
My father looked at me for a moment before he spoke. “Is that
why you want to be a pilot?”
“They can’t say you’re too small when you’re a pilot,” I said. “Nobody will think I’m weird, and I won’t get into trouble for fighting because my job will be fighting. They won’t call me names, and everyone will love me.”
Like they love you, I thought.
That made my father hug me for some stupid reason, even
though I was just telling the truth. But I hugged him back, because parents liked stuff like that. Besides, it did feel good to have someone to hold. Maybe I shouldn’t have left Bloodletter behind.
Father’s breath caught, and I thought he might be crying, but it wasn’t that. “Spin!” he said, pointing toward the sky. “Look!”
Again I was struck by the expanse. So BIG.
Father was pointing at something specific. I squinted, noting that a section of the grey-black sky was darker than the rest. A hole through the layers of debris?
In that moment, I looked out into infinity. I found myself trembling as if a billion meteors had hit nearby. I could see space itself, with little pinpricks of white in it, different from the skylights. These sparkled, and seemed so, so far away.
“What are those lights?” I whispered.
“Stars,” he said. “I fly up near the debris, but I’ve almost never seen through it. There are too many layers. I’ve always wondered if I could get out to the stars.”
There was awe in his voice, a tone I’d never heard from him before.
“Is that . . . is that why you fly?” I asked.
My father didn’t seem to care about the praise the other members of the clan gave him. Strangely, he seemed embarrassed by it.
“We used to live out there, among the stars,” he whispered. “That’s where we belong, not in those caverns. The kids who make fun of you, they’re trapped on this rock. Their heads are heads of rock, their hearts set upon rock. Set your sights on something higher. Something more grand.”
The debris shifted, and the hole slowly shrank until all I could see was a single star brighter than the others.
“Claim the stars, Spensa,” he said.
I was going to be a pilot someday. I would fly up there and fight. I just hoped Father would leave some Krell for me.
I squinted as something flashed in the sky. A distant piece of
debris, burning brightly as it entered the atmosphere. Then another fell, and another. Then dozens.
Father frowned and reached for his radio—a superadvanced piece of technology that was given only to pilots. He lifted the blocky device to his mouth. “This is Chaser,” he said. “I’m on the surface. I see a debris fall close to Alta.”
“We’ve spotted it already, Chaser,” a woman’s voice said over the radio. “Radar reports are coming in now, and . . . Scud. We’ve got Krell.”
“What cavern are they headed for?” Father asked.
“Their heading is . . . Chaser, they’re heading this way. They’re flying straight for Igneous. Stars help us. They’ve located the base!”
Father lowered his radio.
“Large Krell breach sighted,” the woman’s voice said through the radio. “Everyone, this is an emergency. An extremely large group of Krell has breached the debris field. All fighters report in. They’re coming for Alta!”
Father took my arm. “Let’s get you back.”
“They need you!” I said. “You’ve got to go fight!” “I have to get you to—”
“I can get back myself. It was a straight trip through those tunnels.”
Father glanced toward the debris again. “Chaser!” a new voice said over the radio. “Chaser, you there?”
“Mongrel?” Father said, flipping a switch and raising his radio. “I’m up on the surface.”
“You need to talk some sense into Banks and Swing. They’re saying we need to flee.”
Father cursed under his breath, flipping another switch on the radio. A voice came through. “—aren’t ready for a head-on fight yet. We’ll be ruined.”
“No,” another woman said. “We have to stand and fight.” A dozen voices started talking at once.
“Ironsides is right,” my father said into the line, and— remarkably—they all grew quiet.
“If we let them bomb Igneous, then we lose the apparatus,” my father said. “We lose the manufactories. We lose everything. If we ever want to have a civilization again, a world again, we have to stand here!”
I waited, silent, holding my breath, hoping he would be too distracted to send me away. I trembled at the idea of a battle, but I still wanted to watch it.
“We fight,” the woman said.
“We fight,” said Mongrel. I knew him by name, though I hadn’t met him. He was my father’s wingmate. “Hot rocks, this is a good one. I’m going to beat you into the sky, Chaser! Just you watch how many I bring down!”
The man sounded eager, maybe a little too excited, to be heading into battle. I liked him immediately.
My father debated only a moment before pulling off his light- line bracelet and stuffing it into my hands. “Promise you’ll go back straightaway.”
“I promise.” “Don’t dally.”
He raised his radio. “Yeah, Mongrel, we’ll see about that. I’m running for Alta now. Chaser out.”
He dashed across the dusty ground in the direction he’d pointed earlier. Then he stopped and turned back. He pulled off his pin and tossed it—like a glittering fragment of a star—to me before continuing his run toward the hidden base.
I, of course, immediately broke my promise. I climbed down into the crack but hid there, clutching Father’s pin, and watched until I saw the starfighters leave Alta and streak toward the sky. I squinted and picked out the dark Krell ships swarming down toward them.
Finally, showing a rare moment of good judgment, I decided I’d better do what my father had told me. I used the light-line to lower myself into the cavern, where I recovered my backpack and headed into the tunnels. I figured if I hurried, I could get back to my clan in time to listen to the broadcast of the fight on our single communal radio.
I was wrong though. The hike was longer than I remembered, and I did manage to get lost. So I was wandering down there, imagining the glory of the awesome battle happening above, when my father infamously broke ranks and fled from the enemy. His own flight shot him down in retribution. By the time I got home, the battle had been won, my father was gone.
And I’d been branded the daughter of a coward.
I stalked my enemy carefully through the cavern.
I’d taken off my boots so they wouldn’t squeak. I’d removed my socks so I wouldn’t slip. The rock under my feet was comfortably cool as I took another silent step forward.
This deep, the only light came from the faint glow of the worms on the ceiling, feeding off the moisture seeping through cracks. You had to sit for minutes in the darkness for your eyes to adjust to that faint light.
Another quiver in the shadows. There, near those dark lumps that must be enemy fortifications. I froze in a crouch, listening to my enemy scratch the rock as he moved. I imagined a Krell: a terrible alien with red eyes and dark armor.
With a steady hand—agonizingly slow—I raised my rifle to my shoulder, held my breath, and fired.
A squeal of pain was my reward.
I patted my wrist, activating my father’s light-line. It sprang to life with a reddish-orange glow, blinding me for a moment.
Then I rushed forward to claim my prize: one dead rat, speared straight through.
In the light, shadows I’d imagined as enemy fortifications revealed themselves as rocks. My enemy was a plump rat, and my rifle was a makeshift speargun. Nine and a half years had passed since that fateful day when I’d climbed to the surface with my father, but my imagination was as strong as ever. It helped relieve the monotony, to pretend I was doing something more exciting than hunting rats.
I held up the dead rodent by its tail. “Thus you know the fury of my anger, fell beast.”
It turned out that strange little girls grow up to be strange young women. But I figured it was good to practice my taunts for when I really fought the Krell. Gran-Gran taught that a great warrior knew how to make a great boast to drive fear and uncertainty into the hearts of her enemies.
I tucked my prize away into my sack. That was eight so far— not a bad haul. Did I have time to find another?
I glanced at my light-line—the bracelet that housed it had a little clock next to the power indicator. 0900. Probably time to turn back; I couldn’t miss too much of the school day.
I slung my sack over my shoulder, picked up my speargun—
which I’d fashioned from salvaged parts I’d found in the caverns— and started the hike homeward. I followed my own hand-drawn maps, which I was constantly updating in a small notebook.
A part of me was sad to have to return, and leave these silent caverns behind. They reminded me of my father. Besides, I liked how . . . empty it all was. Nobody to mock me, nobody to stare, nobody to whisper insults until I was forced to defend my family honor by burying a fist in their stupid face.
I stopped at a familiar intersection where the floor and ceiling gave way to strange metal patterns. Circular designs marked with scientific writing covered both surfaces; I’d always thought they must be ancient maps of the galaxy. On the far side of the room, an enormous, ancient tube emerged from the rock—one of many that moved water between the caverns, cleansing it and using it to cool machinery. A seam dripped water into a bucket I’d left, and it was half full, so I took a long drink. Cool and refreshing, with a tinge of something metallic.
We didn’t know much about the people who had built this machinery. Like the rubble belt, it had been here already when our small fleet crashed on the planet. They’d been humans, as the writings on places like this room’s ceiling and floor were in human languages. But how distantly related they were to us was a mystery even now. None of them were still around, and the melted patches and ancient wrecks on the surface indicated that they had suffered their own war.
I poured the rest of the water into my canteen, then gave the large tube a fond pat before replacing the bucket and moving on. The machinery seemed to respond to me with a distant, familiar thrumming. I followed that sound and eventually approached a glowing break in the stone on my left.
I stepped up to the hole and looked out on Igneous. My home cavern and the largest of the underground cities that made up the Defiant League. My perch was high, providing me with a stunning view of a large cave filled with boxy apartments built like cubes splitting off one another.
My father’s dream had come true. In defeating the Krell that day over nine years ago, those fledgling starfighter pilots had inspired a nation. Dozens of once-nomadic clans had congregated, colonizing Igneous and the caverns around it. Each clan had its own name still, traced back to the ship or section of the ship they’d worked on. My clan was the Motorskaps—from the old words for engine crew.
Together, we called ourselves Defiants. A name taken from our original flagship.
Of course, in gathering together, we had drawn the attention of the Krell. The aliens were still determined to destroy human- kind, so the war continued, and we needed a constant stream of starfighters and pilots to protect our burgeoning nation.
Towering over the buildings of Igneous was the apparatus: ancient forges, refineries, and manufactories that pumped molten rock from below, then created the parts to build starfighters. The apparatus was both amazing and unique; though machinery in other caverns provided heat, electricity, or filtered water, only the apparatus of Igneous was capable of complex manufacturing.
Heat poured through the crack, making my forehead bead with sweat. Igneous was a sweltering place, with all those refineries, factories, and algae vats. And though it was well lit, it somehow always felt gloomy inside, with that red-orange light from the refineries shining on everything.
I left the crack and walked to an old maintenance locker I’d discovered in the wall here. Its hatch looked—at first glance—like any other section of the stone tunnel, and so was relatively secure. I popped it open, revealing my few secret possessions. Some parts for my speargun, my spare canteen, and my father’s old pilot’s pin. I rubbed that for good luck, then placed my light-line, map book, and speargun in the locker.
I retrieved a crude stone-tipped spear, clicked the hatch closed, then slung my sack over my shoulder. Eight rats could be surprisingly awkward to carry, particularly when—even at seventeen—you had a body that refused to grow beyond a hundred and fifty-one centimeters.
I hiked down to the normal entrance into the cavern. Two soldiers from the ground troops—which barely ever did any real fighting—guarded the way in. Though I knew them both by their first names, they still made me stand to the side as they pretended to call for authorization for me to enter. Really, they just liked making me wait.
Every day. Every scudding day.
Eventually, Aluko stepped over and began looking through my sack with a suspicious eye.
“What kind of contraband do you expect I’m bringing into the city?” I asked him. “Pebbles? Moss? Maybe some rocks that insulted your mother?”
He eyed my spear as if wondering how I’d managed to catch eight rats with such a simple weapon. Well, let him wonder. Finally, he tossed the sack back to me. “On your way, coward.”
Strength. I lifted my chin. “Someday,” I said, “you will hear my name, and tears of gratitude will spring to your eyes as you think of how lucky you are to have once assisted the daughter of Chaser.”
“I’d rather forget I ever knew you. On your way.”
I held my head high and walked into Igneous, then made my way toward the Glorious Rises of Industry, the name of my neighborhood. I’d arrived at shift change, and passed workers in jump- suits of a variety of colors, each marking their place in the great machine that kept the Defiant League—and the war against the Krell—functioning. Sanitation workers, maintenance techs, algae vat specialists.
No pilots, of course. Off-duty pilots stayed in the deep caverns on reserve, while the on-duty ones lived in Alta, the very base my father had died protecting. It was no longer secret, but had grown into a large installation on the surface, housing dozens of ships along with the pilot command structure and training facilities. That was where I would live starting tomorrow, once I passed the test and became a cadet.
I walked under a large metal statue of the First Citizens: a group of people holding symbolic weapons and reaching toward the sky in defiant poses, ships rising behind them trailing streaks of metal. Though it depicted those who had fought at the Battle of Alta, my father wasn’t among them.
The next turn took me to our apartment, one of many metal
cubes sprouting from a larger central one. Ours was small, but big enough for three people, particularly since I spent days at a time out in the caverns, hunting and exploring.
My mother wasn’t home, but I found Gran-Gran on the roof, rolling algae wraps to sell at our cart. An official job was forbidden to my mother because of what my father had supposedly done, so we had to get by doing something unconventional.
Gran-Gran looked up, hearing me. Her name was Becca Nightshade—I shared her last name—but even those who barely knew her called her Gran-Gran. She had lost nearly all her sight a few years ago, her eyes having gone a milky white. She was hunched over and worked with sticklike arms. But she was still the strongest person I knew.
“Oooh,” she said. “That sounds like Spensa! How many did you get today?”
“Eight!” I dumped my spoils before her. “And several are particularly juicy.”
“Sit, sit,” Gran-Gran said, pushing aside the mat filled with wraps. “Let’s get these cleaned and cooking! If we hurry, we can have them ready for your mother to sell today, and I can get to tanning the skins.”
I probably should have gone off to class—Gran-Gran had forgotten again—but really, what was the point? These days, we were just getting lectures on the various jobs one could do in the cavern. I had already chosen what I’d be. Though the test to become a pilot was supposed to be hard, Rodge and I had been studying for ten years. We’d pass for sure. So why did I need to hear about how great it was to be an algae vat worker or whatever?
Besides, since I needed to spend time hunting, I missed a lot of classes, so I wasn’t suited to any other jobs. I made sure to attend the classes that had to do with flying—ship layouts and repair, mathematics, war history. Any other class I managed to make was a bonus.
I settled down and helped Gran-Gran skin and gut the rats.
She was clean and efficient as she worked by touch.
“Who,” she asked, head bowed, eyes mostly closed, “do you want to hear about today?”
“Ah, the King of the Geats, is it? Not Leif Eriksson? He was your father’s favorite.”
“Did he kill a dragon?”
“He discovered a new world.” “With dragons?”
Gran-Gran chuckled. “A feathered serpent, by some legends, but I have no story of them fighting. Now, Beowulf, he was a mighty man. He was your ancestor, you know. It wasn’t until he was old that he slew the dragon; first he made his name fighting monsters.”
I worked quietly with my knife, skinning and gutting the rats, then slicing the meat and tossing it into a pot to be stewed. Most people in the city lived on algae paste. Real meat—from cattle or pigs raised in caverns with special lighting and environmental equipment—was far too rare for everyday eating. So they’d trade
I loved the way Gran-Gran told stories. Her voice grew soft when the monsters hissed, and bold when the heroes boasted. She worked with nimble fingers as she spun the tale of the ancient Viking hero who came to aid the Danes in their time of need. A warrior everybody loved; one who fought bravely, even against a larger and mightier foe.
“And when the monster had slunk away to die,” Gran-Gran said, “the hero, he held aloft Grendel’s entire arm and shoulder as a grisly trophy. He’d avenged the blood of the fallen, proving himself with strength and valor.”
Clinking sounded from below in our apartment. My mother was back. I ignored that for now. “He ripped the arm free,” I said, “with his hands?”
“He was strong,” Gran-Gran said, “and a warrior true. But he was of the oldenfolk, who fought with hands and sword.” She leaned forward. “You will fight with nimbleness of both hand and wit. With a starship to pilot, you won’t need to rip any arms off. Now, have you been doing your exercises?”
I rolled my eyes.
“I saw that,” Gran-Gran said. “No you didn’t.”
“Close your eyes.”
I closed my eyes and tipped my head back, face toward the ceiling of the cavern, far above.
“Listen to the stars,” Gran-Gran said. “I only hear—”
“Listen to the stars. Imagine yourself flying.”
I sighed. I loved Gran-Gran and her stories, but this part always bored me. Still, I tried doing as she had taught me—sitting there with my head tipped back, I tried to imagine that I was soaring upward. I tried to let everything else fade around me, and to picture stars shining brightly above.
“I used to do this exercise,” Gran-Gran said softly, “with my mother, on the Defiant in the engine rooms. We worked the flagship itself, a battle cruiser larger than this entire cavern. I’d sit and listen to the hum of the engines, and to something beyond that. The stars.”
I tried to imagine her as a little girl, and somehow that helped. With my eyes closed, I felt as if I were almost floating. Reaching upward . . .
“We of the engine crew,” Gran-Gran said, “were odd, among the other ship crews. They thought we were strange, but we kept the ship moving. We made it travel the stars. Mother said it was because we could hear them.”
I thought . . . just for a moment . . . that I heard something out there. My imagination perhaps? A distant, pure sound . . .
“Even after we crashed here, we people of the engines stayed together,” Gran-Gran said. “Clan Motorskaps. If others say you’re strange, it’s because they remember this, and maybe fear us. This is your heritage. The heritage of warriors who traveled the sky, and will return to the sky. Listen.”
I let out a long, calming sigh as it—whatever I thought I’d
heard—faded. I opened my eyes and was shocked, for a second, to find I was back on that rooftop, surrounded by the ruddy light of Igneous.
“We maintained the engines,” I said, “and moved the ship? What does that have to do with being warriors? Wouldn’t it have been better to fire the weapons?”
“Only a fool thinks that weapons are more important than strategy and motion!” Gran-Gran said. “Tomorrow let me tell you again of Sun Tzu, the greatest general of all time. He taught that position and preparation won wars—not swords or spears. A great man, Sun Tzu. He was your ancestor, you know.”
“I prefer Genghis Khan,” I said.
“A tyrant and a monster,” Gran-Gran said, “though yes, there is much to learn from the Great Khan’s life. But have I ever told you of Queen Boudicca, defiant rebel against the Romans? She was your—”
“Ancestor?” Mother said, climbing the ladder outside the building. “She was a British Celt. Beowulf was Swedish, Genghis Khan Mongolian, and Sun Tzu Chinese. And they’re all supposedly my daughter’s ancestors?”
“All of Old Earth is our heritage!” Gran-Gran said. “You, Spensa, are one in a line of warriors stretching back millennia, a true line to Old Earth and its finest blood.”
Mother rolled her eyes. She was everything I wasn’t—tall, beautiful, calm. She noted the rats, but then looked at me with arms folded. “She might have the blood of warriors, but today she’s late for class.”
“She’s in class,” Gran-Gran said. “The important one.”
I stood up, wiping my hands on a rag. I knew how Beowulf would face monsters and dragons . . . but how would he face his mother on a day when he was supposed to be in school? I settled on a noncommittal shrug.
Mother eyed me. “He died, you know,” she said. “Beowulf died fighting that dragon.”
“He fought to his last ounce of strength!” Gran-Gran said. “He defeated the beast, though it cost him his life. And he brought untold peace and prosperity to his people! All the greatest warriors fight for peace, Spensa. Remember that.”
“At the very least,” Mother said, “they fight for irony.” She glanced again at the rats. “Thanks. But get going. Don’t you have the pilot test tomorrow?”
“I’m ready for the test,” I said. “Today is just learning things I don’t need to know.”
Mother gave me an unyielding stare. Every great warrior knew when they were bested, so I gave Gran-Gran a hug and whispered, “Thank you.”
“Soul of a warrior,” Gran-Gran whispered back. “Remember your exercises. Listen to the stars.”
I smiled, then went and quickly washed up before heading off to what would, I hoped, be my last day of class.
“Why don’t you tell us what you do each day in the Sanitation Corps, Citizen Alfir?” Mrs. Vmeer, our Work Studies instructor, nodded encouragingly at the man who stood at the front of the classroom.
This Citizen Alfir wasn’t what I’d imagined a sanitation worker to be. Though he wore a sanitation jumpsuit and carried a pair of rubber gloves, he was actually handsome: square jaw, burly arms, chest hair peeking out from above his tight jumpsuit collar.
I could almost imagine him as Beowulf. Until he spoke.
“Well, we mostly fix clogs in the system,” he said. “Clearing what we call black water—that’s mostly human waste—so it can flow back to processing, where the apparatus reclaims it and harvests both water and useful minerals.”
“Sounds perfect for you,” Dia whispered, leaning toward me. “Cleaning waste? A step up from coward’s daughter.”
I couldn’t punch her, unfortunately. Not only was she Mrs. Vmeer’s daughter, I was already on notice for fighting. Another write-up would keep me from taking the test, which was stupid. Didn’t they want their pilots to be great fighters?
We sat on the floor in a small room. No desks for us today; those had been requisitioned by another instructor. I felt like a four-year-old being read a story.
“It might not sound glorious,” Alfir said. “But without the Sanitation Corps, none of us would have water. Pilots can’t fly if they don’t have anything to drink. In some ways, we’ve got the most important job in the caverns.”
Though I’d missed some of these lectures, I’d heard enough of them. The Ventilation Corps workers earlier in the week had said their job was the most important. As had the construction workers from the day before. As had the forge workers, the cleaning staff, and the cooks.
They all had practically the same speech. Something about how we were all important pieces of the machine that fought the Krell. “Every job in the cavern is a vital part of the machine that keeps us alive,” Alfir said, mirroring my thoughts. “We can’t all
be pilots, but no job is more important than another.”
Next, he’d say something about learning your place and following commands.
“To join us, you have to be able to follow instructions,” the man said. “You have to be willing to do your part, no matter how insignificant it may seem. Remember, obedience is defiance.”
I got it, and to an extent agreed with him. Pilots wouldn’t get
far in the war without water, or food, or sanitation.
Taking jobs like these still felt like settling. Where was the spark, the energy? We were supposed to be Defiant. We were warriors.
The class clapped politely when Citizen Alfir finished. Outside
the window, more workers walked in lines beneath statues with straight, geometric shapes. Sometimes we seemed far less a machine of war than a clock for timing how long shifts lasted.
The students stood up for a break, and I strode away before Dia could make another wisecrack. The girl had been trying to goad me into trouble all week.
Instead, I approached a student at the back of the room—a lanky boy with red hair. He’d immediately opened a book to read once the lecture was done.
“Rodge,” I said. “Rigmarole!”
His nickname—the callsign we’d chosen for him to take once he became a pilot—made him look up. “Spensa! When did you get here?”
“Middle of the lecture. You didn’t see me come in?”
“I was going through flight schematics lists in my head. Scud.
Only one day left. Aren’t you nervous?”
“Of course I’m not nervous. Why would I be nervous? I’ve got this down.”
“Not sure I do.” Rodge glanced back at his textbook.
“Are you kidding? You know basically everything, Rig.”
“You should probably call me Rodge. I mean, we haven’t earned callsigns yet. Not unless we pass the test.”
“Which we will totally do.”
“But what if I haven’t studied the right material?” “Five basic turn maneuvers?”
“The reverse switchback,” he said immediately, “Ahlstrom loop, the twin shuffle, overwing twist, and the Imban turn.”
“DDF g-force warning thresholds for various maneuvers?” “Ten Gs in a climb or bank, fifteen Gs forward, four Gs in a dive.” “Booster type on a Poco interceptor?”
“Which design?” “Current.”
“A-19. Yes, I know that, Spensa—but what if those questions aren’t on the test? What if it’s something we didn’t study?”
At his words, I felt the faintest seed of doubt. While we’d done practice tests, the actual contents of the pilot’s test changed every year. There were always questions about boosters, fighter components, and maneuvers—but technically, any part of our schooling could be included.
I’d missed a lot of classes, but I knew I shouldn’t worry. Beowulf
wouldn’t worry. Confidence was the soul of heroism.
“I’m going to ace that test, Rig,” I said. “You and I, we’re going to be the best pilots in the Defiant Defense Force. We’ll fight so well, the Krell will raise lamentations to the sky like smoke above a pyre, crying in desperation at our advent!”
Rig cocked his head. “A bit much?” I asked.
“Where do you come up with these things?” “Sounds like something Beowulf might say.”
Rodge settled back down to study, and I probably should have joined him. Yet a part of me was fed up with studying, with trying to cram things into my brain. I wanted the challenge to just arrive. We had one more lecture today, unfortunately. I listened to the other dozen or so students chatter together, but I wasn’t in a mood to put up with their stupidity. Instead I found myself pacing like a caged animal, until I noticed Mrs. Vmeer walking toward me with
Alfir, the sanitation guy.
She wore a bright green skirt, but the silvery cadet’s pin on her blouse was the real mark of her achievement. It meant she’d passed the pilot’s test. She must have washed out in flight school— otherwise she’d have a golden pin—but washing out wasn’t uncommon. And down here in Igneous, even a cadet’s pin was a mark of great accomplishment. Mrs. Vmeer had special clothing and food requisition privileges.
She wasn’t a bad teacher—she didn’t treat me much differently from the other students, and she hardly ever scowled at me. I kind of liked her, even if her daughter was a creature of distilled darkness, worthy only of being slain so her corpse could be used to make potions.
“Spensa,” Mrs. Vmeer said. “Citizen Alfir wanted to speak with you.”
I braced myself for questions about my father. Everyone always wanted to ask about him. What was it like to live as the daughter of a coward? Did I wish I could hide from it? Did I ever consider changing my surname? People who thought they were being empathetic always asked questions like those.
“I hear,” Alfir said, “that you’re quite the explorer.”
I opened my mouth to spit back a retort, then bit it off. What?
“You go out in the caves,” he continued, “hunting?” “Um, yes,” I said. “Rats.”
“We have need of people like you,” Alfir said. “In sanitation?”
“A lot of the machinery we service runs through far-off caverns. We make expeditions to them, and need rugged types for those trips. If you want a job, I’m offering one.”
A job. In sanitation?
“I’m going to be a pilot,” I blurted out.
“The pilot’s test is hard,” Alfir said, glancing at our teacher. “Not many pass it. I’m offering you a guaranteed place with us. You sure you don’t want to consider it?”
“No, thank you.”
Alfir shrugged and walked off. Mrs. Vmeer studied me for a moment, then shook her head and went to welcome the next lecturer.
I backed up against the wall, folding my arms. Mrs. Vmeer knew I was going to be a pilot. Why would she think I’d accept such an offer? Alfir couldn’t have known about me without her saying something to him, so what was up?
“They’re not going to let you be a pilot,” a voice said beside me.
I glanced and saw—belatedly—that I’d happened to walk over by Dia. The dark-haired girl sat on the floor, leaning on the wall. Why wasn’t she chatting with the others?
“They don’t have a choice,” I said to her. “Anyone can take the pilot’s test.”
“Anyone can take it,” Dia said. “But they decide who passes,
and it’s not always fair. The children of First Citizens get in automatically.”
I glanced at the painting of the First Citizens on the wall. We had them in all the classrooms. And yes, I knew their children got automatic entry into flight school. They deserved it, as their parents had fought at the Battle of Alta.
Technically, so had my father—but I wasn’t counting on that to help me. Still, I’d always been told that a good showing on the test would get anyone, regardless of status, into flight school. The Defiant Defense Force—the DDF—didn’t care who you were, so long as you could fly.
“I know they won’t count me as a daughter of a First,” I said. “But if I pass, I get in. Just like anyone else.”
“That’s the thing, spaz. You won’t pass, no matter what. I heard my parents talking about it last night. Admiral Ironsides gave orders to deny you. You don’t really think they’d let the daughter of Chaser fly for the DDF, do you?”
“Liar.” I felt my face grow cold with anger. She was trying to taunt me again, to get me to throw a fit.
Dia shrugged. “You’ll see. It doesn’t matter to me—my father already got me a job in the Administration Corps.”
I hesitated. This wasn’t like her usual insults. It didn’t have the same vicious bite, the same sense of amused taunting. She . . . she really seemed not to care whether I believed her.
I stalked across the room to where Mrs. Vmeer was speaking with the new lecturer, a woman from the Algae Vat Corps.
“We need to talk,” I told her. “Just a moment, Spensa.”
I stood there, intruding on their conversation, arms folded, until finally Mrs. Vmeer sighed, then pulled me to the side. “What is it, child?” she asked. “Have you reconsidered Citizen Alfir’s kind offer?”
“Did the admiral herself order that I’m not to pass the pilot’s test?”
Mrs. Vmeer narrowed her eyes, then turned and glanced toward her daughter.
“Is it true?” I asked.
“Spensa,” Mrs. Vmeer said, looking back at me. “You have to understand, this is a very delicate issue. Your father’s reputation is—”
“Is it true?”
Mrs. Vmeer drew her lips to a line and didn’t answer.
“Is it all lies, then?” I asked. “The talk of equality and of only skill mattering? Of finding your right place and serving there?”
“It’s complicated,” Mrs. Vmeer said. She lowered her voice. “Look, why don’t you skip the test tomorrow to save everyone the embarrassment? Come to me, and we’ll talk about what might work for you. If not sanitation, perhaps ground troops?”
“So I can stand all day on guard duty?” I said, my voice growing louder. “I need to fly. I need to prove myself!”
Mrs. Vmeer sighed, then shook her head. “I’m sorry, Spensa.
But this was never going to be. I wish one of your teachers had been brave enough to disabuse you of the notion when you were younger.”
In that moment, everything came crashing down around me. A daydreamed future. A carefully imagined escape from my life of ridicule.
Lies. Lies that a part of me had suspected. Of course they weren’t going to let me pass the test. Of course I was too much of an embarrassment to let fly.
I wanted to rage. I wanted to hit someone, break something, scream until my lungs bled.
Instead I strode from the room, away from the laughing eyes of the other students.
I sought refuge in the silent caverns. I didn’t dare go back to my mother and grandmother. My mother would undoubtedly be happy—she’d lost a husband to the Krell, and dreaded seeing me suffer the same fate. Gran-Gran . . . she would tell me to fight.
But fight what? The military itself didn’t want me.
I felt like a fool. All this time, telling myself I’d become a pilot, and in truth I’d never had a chance. My teachers must have spent these years laughing at me behind their hands.
I walked through an unfamiliar cavern on the outer edge of
what I’d explored, hours from Igneous. And still the feelings of embarrassment and anger shadowed me.
What an idiot I had been.
I reached the edge of a subterranean cliff and knelt, activating my father’s light-line by tapping two fingers against my palm—an action the bracelet could sense. It glowed more brightly. Gran- Gran said we’d brought these with us to Detritus, that they were pieces of equipment used by the explorers and warriors of the old human space fleet. I wasn’t supposed to have one, but everyone thought it had been destroyed when my father crashed.
I placed my wrist against the stone of the cliff, and tapped my fingers on my palm once more. This command made an energy line stick to the rock, connecting my bracelet to the stone.
A three-finger tap let out more slack. Using that, I could climb over the ledge—rope in hand—and lower myself to the bottom. After I landed, a two-finger tap made the rope let go of the rock above, then snap back into the bracelet housing. I didn’t know how it worked, only that I needed to recharge it every month or two, something I did in secret by plugging it into power lines in the caverns.
I crept into a cavern filled with kurdi mushrooms. They tasted foul, but were edible—and rats loved them. This would be prime hunting ground. So I turned off my light and settled down to wait, listening intently.
I had never feared the darkness. It reminded me of the exercise Gran-Gran taught, where I floated up toward the singing stars. You couldn’t fear the dark if you were a fighter. And I was a fighter.
I was . . . I was going to . . . going to be a pilot . . .
I looked upward, trying to push away those feelings of loss. Instead, I was soaring. Toward the stars. And I again thought that I could hear something calling to me—a sound like a distant flute.
A nearby scraping pulled me back. Rat nails on stone. I raised my speargun, familiar motions guiding me, and engaged a smidgen of light from my light-line.
The rat turned in a panic toward me. My finger trembled on the trigger, but I didn’t fire as it scrambled away. What did it mat- ter? Was I really going to go on with my life like nothing had hap- pened?
Usually, exploring kept my mind off my problems. Today they kept intruding, like a rock in my shoe. Remember? Remember that your dreams have just been stolen?
I felt like I had in those first days following my father’s death.
When every moment, every object, every word reminded me of him, and of the sudden hole inside me.
I sighed, then attached one end of my light-line to my spear and commanded it to stick to the next thing it touched. I took aim at the top of another cliff and fired, sticking the weightless glowing rope in place. I climbed up, my speargun rattling in its straps on my back.
As a child, I’d imagined that my father had survived his crash. That he was being held captive in these endless, uncharted tunnels. I imagined saving him, like a figure from Gran-Gran’s stories. Gilgamesh, or Joan of Arc, or Tarzan of Greystoke. A hero.
The cavern trembled softly, as if in outrage, and dust fell from the ceiling. An impact up on the surface.
That was close, I thought. Had I climbed so far? I took out my book of hand-drawn maps. I’d been out here for quite a while by now. Hours at least. I’d taken a nap a few caverns back . . .
I checked the clock on my light-line. Night had come and gone, and it was already approaching noon on the day of the test—which would happen in the evening. I probably should have headed back. Mom and Gran-Gran would worry if I didn’t show up for the test.
To hell with the test, I thought, imagining the indignation I’d feel at being turned away at the door. Instead, I climbed up through a tight squeeze into another tunnel. Out here my size was—for once—an advantage.
Another impact rocked the caverns. With this much debris falling, climbing to the surface was definitely stupid. I didn’t care. I was in a reckless mood. I felt, almost heard, something driving me forward. I kept climbing until I finally reached a crack in the ceiling. Light shone through it, but it was an even, sterile white, not orange enough. Cool dry air blew in also, which was a good sign. I pushed my pack ahead of me, then squirmed through the crack and out into the light.
The surface. I looked up and saw the sky again. It never failed to take my breath away.
A distant skylight shone down on a section of the land, but I was mostly in shadow. Overhead, the sky sparkled with a shower of falling debris. Radiant lines like slashes. A formation of three scout-class starfighters flew through it, watching. Falling debris was often broken pieces of ships or other space junk, and the salvage from it could be valuable. It played havoc with our radar though, and could mask a Krell incursion.
I stood in the blue-grey dust and let the awe of the sky wash over me, feeling the peculiar sensation of wind against my cheeks. I’d come up close to Alta Base, which I could see in the distance, maybe only a thirty-minute walk or so away. Now that the Krell knew where we were, there was no reason to hide the base, so it had been expanded from a hidden bunker to several large buildings with a walled perimeter, antiaircraft guns, and an invisible shield to protect it from debris.
Outside that wall, groups of people worked a small strip of something I always found strange: trees and fields. What were they even doing over there? Trying to grow food in this dusty ground?
I didn’t dare get close. The guards would take me for a scavenger from a distant cavern. Still, there was something dramatic about the stark green of those fields and the stubborn walls of the base. Alta was a monument to our determination. For three generations, humankind had lived like rats and nomads on this planet, but we would hide no longer.
The flight of starships streaked toward Alta, and I took a step after them. Set your sights on something higher, my father had said. Something more grand . . .
And where had that gotten me?
I shouldered my pack and my speargun, then hiked in the other direction. I had been to a nearby passage before, and I figured that with more exploring, I could connect some of my maps. Unfortunately, when I arrived, I found the passage’s mouth completely collapsed.
Some space debris hit the surface in the near distance, toss- ing up a spray of dust. I looked up and saw a few smaller chunks streaking down overhead, fiery chunks of metal . . .
Heading straight toward me.
I dashed back the way I had come.
No. Nonononono! The air rumbled, and I could feel the heat of the approaching debris.
There! I spotted a small cavern opening in the surface—part crack, part cave mouth. I threw myself toward it, skidding and sliding inside.
An enormous CRASH sounded behind me, and it seemed to shake the entire planet. Frantic, I engaged my light-line and slapped my hand against stone as I fell in the churning chaos. I jerked up short, connected by the light-line to the wall, as rock chips and pebbles flew across me. The cavern trembled.
Then, all grew still. I blinked dust from my eyes and found myself dangling by my light-line in the center of a small cavern, maybe ten or fifteen meters high. I’d lost my pack somewhere, and I’d scraped my arm up pretty good.
Great. Just great, Spensa. This is what throwing a tantrum gets you. I groaned, my head throbbing, then tapped my fingers against my palm to let the light-line out, lowering myself to the floor.
I flopped down, catching my breath. Other impacts sounded in the distance, but they dwindled.
Finally, I wobbled to my feet and dusted myself off. I managed to locate the strap of my bag sticking out from some rubble nearby. I yanked it out, then checked the canteen and maps in- side. They seemed okay.
My speargun was another matter. I found the handle, but there
was no sign of the rest. It was probably buried in the mound of rubble.
I slumped down against a stone. I knew I shouldn’t go up to the surface during debris falls. I had practically begged for this.
A scrabbling sound came from nearby. A rat? I raised the handle of my gun immediately, then felt doubly stupid. Still, I forced myself to my feet, slung the pack over my shoulder, and increased the light of my bracelet. A shadow ducked away, and I followed, limping only a little. Maybe I could find another way out of here.
I raised my bracelet in the air, illuminating the cavern. My light reflected off something ahead of me. Metal? Maybe one of
the water pipes?
I walked toward it, and it took my brain a moment to realize what I was seeing. There, nestled into the corner of the cavern— surrounded by rubble—was a ship.
It was a starfighter.
An old one, of a design completely unfamiliar to me. It had a wider wingspan than DDF ships, and was shaped like a wicked W. Straight, razorlike wings at the sides framed an old dust-covered cockpit in the center. The acclivity ring—the thing that gave starfighters their lift—was buried in the rubble underneath the ship, but from what I could see it looked whole.
For a moment, I forgot about the test. A ship.
How long had it been here to collect that much rubble around it, and that much dust? One wing had been bent almost to the ground, probably by a cave-in, and the rear boosters were a huge mess.
I didn’t know the model. That was incredible. I knew every DDF design, every Krell ship, and the roving tradeship designs used by nomadic human clans. I had even studied old ships we’d flown during the first decades after crashing on Detritus.
I could rattle off each of these practically in my sleep, draw their silhouettes from memory. But I’d never seen this design. I dropped my pack and climbed—gingerly—up the wing that had been bent down. My bracelet provided light as my boots scraped off caked-on dust, revealing a scratched metallic surface. The right side of the ship was particularly banged up.
It crashlanded here, I thought. Long ago.
I climbed up near the circular cockpit, which had a glass— well, probably fusion-plastic—canopy that was remarkably intact. The ship was generations past having enough power to open its own cockpit, but I found the manual release panel right where I expected it. I brushed the dust off, and found letters—in English. They said emergency canopy release.
So the ship was human. It must be old, then. Likely as ancient as the apparatus and the rubble belt.
I yanked on the release lever to no avail. The thing was stuck. I put my hands on my hips and considered breaking in—but that seemed like a shame. This was an antique, the sort of thing that belonged on a pedestal in the Igneous ship museum, where we celebrated warriors of the past. There was no skeleton in the cockpit though, so either the pilot had escaped, or it had been here so long that even the bones had turned to dust.
All right, let’s be delicate about this. I could be delicate. I was
incredibly delicate. Like, all the time.
I attached one end of my light-line to the release lever, then walked across the top of the ship to the rubble at the rear, where I attached the other end of the light-line to a boulder. That separated the energy rope entirely from the bracelet, which stopped glowing. The rope could function for an hour or two once separated from its power source, but would remain stuck at the length it was when released.
I got down on my back, braced myself against the wall, and shoved the boulder with my feet. It started rolling down the rubble, and as soon as I heard a click from the cockpit, I disengaged the light-line with a tap. The glowing rope released its holds on either end, and was sucked back into the bracelet.
That done, I scrambled over to find the lever pulled and the ancient cockpit popped ajar. Reverent, I lifted the canopy all the way, sending dust cascading to either side. The interior looked extremely well preserved. Indeed, as I slid down into the cockpit, I found that the seat was stiff, but the leather wasn’t cracked or decomposing.
Similar controls, I thought, resting my left hand on the throttle, my right hand on the control sphere, fingers resting in the grooves. I’d sat in mock cockpits before at the museum, but never in a real ship.
I reached into my pocket, feeling my father’s pin, which I’d recovered from its hiding place before setting out into the tunnels. I held it up, letting it sparkle in the glow of my bracelet. Was this what my father had felt, this snug sense of rightness when sitting in a cockpit? What would he think if he knew his daughter spent her time hunting rats? That she was here in a dusty cavern, instead of sitting and taking the pilot test?
That she’d folded instead of fighting? “I didn’t fold!” I said. “I didn’t run!”
Or . . . well, I had. But what else could I have done? I couldn’t fight the entire system. If Admiral Ironsides herself—head of the DDF—didn’t want me in, there was nothing I could do.
Anger flooded me. Frustration, hatred. Hatred at the DDF for how they’d treated my father, anger at my mother and teachers— every adult who had let me keep dreaming when surely they’d all known the truth.
I closed my eyes, and could almost feel the force of the ship’s booster behind me. Could almost sense the pull of g-forces as I took a turn. The scent of crisp, clean air pulled in from the upper atmosphere and pushed into the cockpit.
I wanted to feel it more than anything. But when I opened my eyes, I was back in a dusty old broken-down antique. I would never fly. They’d sent me away.
A voice whispered from the back of my mind.
What if that is the test?
What if . . . what if they wanted to see what I’d do? Scud, what if Mrs. Vmeer had been lying? What if I’d run away for nothing— or worse, what if I’d just proven that I was a coward, like everyone claimed my father had been?
I cursed, checking the clock on my light-line bracelet. Four hours. I had four hours until the test. But I’d spent almost an entire day wandering. There was no way I could make it back to Igneous in time. Could I?
“Claim the stars, Spensa,” I whispered. I had to try.
I exploded into the testing room like a fighter with its booster on full overburn.
I interrupted a tall older woman in a white admiral’s uniform. She had chin-length silvery hair, and she frowned at me as I pulled to a halt in the doorway. Then her eyes immediately went to the clock hanging on the wall.
The second hand ticked one last notch. Eighteen hundred hours on the dot.
I made it. I was a sweaty mess, my jumpsuit ripped and stained with dust from my near encounter with a piece of space debris. But I’d made it.
Nobody said a word in the room, which was located in the government buildings at the center of Igneous—near the elevators to the surface. The room was stuffed with desks; there had to be a hundred kids here. I hadn’t realized there were so many seventeen-year-olds in the Defiant caverns, and these were only the ones who wanted to test for pilot.
At that moment, every single one of them was staring at me.
I kept my chin high and tried to pretend that nothing was out
of the ordinary. Unfortunately, the sole open desk I spotted was the one directly in front of the woman with the silver hair.
Did I recognize her? That face . . . Scud.
That wasn’t just some junior admiral, it was Judy Ivans, “Ironsides” herself. She was a First Citizen and head of the DDF, so I’d seen her face in hundreds of paintings and statues. She was basically the most important person in the world.
I limped a little as I made my way over and sat down in front of her, trying not to show my embarrassment—or my pain. Dashing all this way had involved multiple crazy descents with my light- line through caverns and tunnels. My muscles were protesting the effort, and my right leg seized up with a cramp the moment I sat down.
Wincing, I dropped my pack to the ground by my seat. An aide snatched it and carried it to the side of the room, as you weren’t allowed anything at your desk but a pencil.
I closed my eyes—but then cracked them as I heard a distinct voice whispering nearby, “Oh, thank the homeworld.” Rig? I glanced and spotted him a few rows over. He had probably arrived three hours early, then spent the entire time worrying that I would be late. For absolutely no reason. I’d arrived with at least half a second to spare. I winked at him, then went back to trying not to scream in pain.
“As I was saying,” the admiral continued, “we are proud of you. Your work and preparation prove you to be the best and most promising generation that the DDF has ever known. You are the generation who will inherit the surface. You will lead us in a bold new era in fighting the Krell.
“Remember that this test is not to prove worthiness. You are all worthy. To field a single flight of pilots, we need hundreds of technicians, mechanics, and other support staff. Even the humble vat worker is a participant in our great quest for survival. The fighter’s booster or wing should not scorn the bolt that holds it in place.
“Not all of you will pass this test, but by simply choosing to be here, you live up to my lofty expectations of you. And to those who pass: I look forward to supervising your training. I take a personal interest in the cadets.”
I frowned. She seemed so aloof, so indifferent. Surely she didn’t care about me, no matter how infamous my father was.
As aides rushed to distribute the tests, Ironsides stepped to the side of the room, near some captains in sparkling uniforms. A short man in glasses whispered to her, then pointed toward me. Ironsides turned and looked at me again, her lips turning down sharply.
I glanced toward the other wall of the room, where some teachers—including Mrs. Vmeer—watched. She saw me, then shook her head as if in disappointment. But . . . I . . . thought I’d figured it out. They were just trying to see if I was truly Defiant.
An aide deliberately took a test off the bottom of the stack and placed it on my desk. Hesitant, I searched my pockets for a pencil, but found only my father’s pin. At a hiss from the side, I glanced toward Rig—who tossed me a spare pencil.
Thank you, I mouthed, then opened the test and turned to the first question.
- Explain, with examples of what is made from them, the fourteen types of algae grown in the vats, and the nutritional value of each.
My stomach sank. A question about algae? Yes, the tests often included random questions from our schooling, but . . . algae?
I flipped to the next page.
2. Explain the exact conditions required for optimal growth of algae, not limited to—but including— temperature, water purity, and vat depth.
The next was about how sewage was treated, as was the one after that. I felt my face growing cold as I realized all fifty pages were questions about things like algae vats, sewage, or ventilation. Those were lessons I’d missed while hunting. I’d shown up in the afternoon classes for physics and history, but I simply hadn’t had the time to study everything.
I looked at Mrs. Vmeer again, and she wouldn’t meet my eyes, so I leaned over and stole a glance at Darla Mee-Bim’s test. Hers had a completely different question at the top.
- Name five aerial maneuvers you would perform to dodge a Krell ship that had you in close pursuit.
A tight loop, a rolling twinscissor, the Ahlstrom loop, a reverse backpedal, and a banking roll. Depending on how close they were, the nature of the battlefield, and what my wingmate was doing. I leaned to the side and checked the test of another neighbor, where I spotted some numbers with the words booster and throttle. A question about acceleration and g-forces.
An aide spoke up, loud enough for most people in the room to hear. “Be advised that no one sitting next to you will have the same test, so cheating is not only punishable by expulsion, it is useless.” I slumped back in my seat, anger boiling inside me. This was complete and utter trash. Had they prepared a special test for me,
covering topics they knew I’d been forced to miss?
As I stewed there, several students rose and walked to the front of the chamber. They couldn’t be done already, could they? One of them—a tall, well-built young man with brown skin, short curly black hair, and an insufferable face—handed the admiral his test. From where I was sitting I could see it was blank except for his name. He showed her a pin—a special pin, blue and gold. The pin of a pilot who had fought at the Battle of Alta.
Children of First Citizens, I thought. All they had to do was show up and fill in their names, and they’d be given automatic entry into flight school. There were six of them today, each one getting a free slot that could have gone to other, harder-working students.
One by one the six left, and the admiral dropped their unfinished tests on a desk by the front wall. Their scores wouldn’t matter. Just like my score didn’t matter.
Dia’s words returned to me. You don’t really think they’d let the daughter of Chaser fly for the DDF, do you?
I tried anyway. Furious—holding my pencil so tightly I broke the tip and had to get a replacement—I scrawled on my stupid test. Each question felt intended to break my will. Algae vats. Ventilation. Sewage. Places I supposedly belonged.
Daughter of a coward. She’s lucky we don’t just toss her into the vats.
I wrote for hours, emotions dogfighting within me. Anger fought naive anticipation. Frustration fought hope. Realization shot down optimism.
14. Explain the proper procedure if you think a vat of algae might have been contaminated by a coworker.
I tried not to leave any questions blank, but on well over two- thirds of them, my answer boiled down to, “I don’t know. I’d ask someone who does.” And it hurt to answer them, as if by doing so I was proving that I was incompetent.
But I would not give up. Finally the bell chimed, marking the end of the five-hour time limit. I slumped as an aide pulled the test from my fingers. I watched her walk off.
Admiral Ironsides had returned and was speaking—now that the test had ended—with a small group of people in suits and skirts, First Citizens or National Assembly members. Ironsides was known for being stern but fair.
I stood up and walked to her, fishing in my pocket, fist closing on my father’s pin. I waited, respectful, as the students filed out for the after-test party, where they’d be joined by those who had already settled on other careers, and who had been spending the day applying for and being assigned positions. Those who took this test and failed would be given second pickings later in the week.
Tonight though, everyone would celebrate together, future pilot and future janitor alike.
Finally, Ironsides looked at me.
I held up my father’s pin. “Sir,” I said. “As the daughter of a pilot who fought at the Battle of Alta, I would like to petition for acceptance into flight school.”
She looked me up and down, noting the ripped sleeve, the dirty face, the dried blood on my arm. She took the pin from my hand, and I held my breath.
“Do you really think,” she said, “that I would accept the pin of a traitor?”
My heart sank.
“You aren’t even supposed to have this, girl,” she said. “Wasn’t it destroyed when he crashed? Did you steal someone else’s pin?” “Sir,” I said, my voice taut. “It didn’t go down in the crash
with him. He gave it to me before he flew that last time.” Admiral Ironsides turned to leave.
“Sir?” I said. “Please. Please, just give me a chance.”
She hesitated, and I thought she was considering, but then she leaned in to me and whispered. “Girl, do you have any idea the kind of public relations nightmare you could cause for us? If I let you in, and you turn out to be a coward like he was . . . Well, there is no way on this planet I will let you into a cockpit. Be glad we even let you into this building.”
It felt like I’d been slapped. I winced. This woman—one of my heroes—turned to leave.
I grabbed her arm, and several aides nearby gasped softly. But I held on.
“You still have my pin,” I said. “Those belong to the pilots and their families. Tradition—”
“The pins of actual pilots belong to the families,” she said. “Not cowards.” She pulled herself out of my grip with a shockingly firm yank.
I could have attacked her. I almost did; the heat was rising inside me, and my face felt cold.
Arms grabbed me from behind before I could do it. “Spin?” Rig said. “Spensa! What are you doing?”
“She stole it. She took my father’s . . .” I trailed off as the
admiral walked out with her collected attendants. Then I sagged into Rig’s grasp.
“Spensa?” Rig said. “Let’s go to the party. We can talk about it there. How do you think you did? I think . . . I think did terribly. Spensa?”
I pulled away from him and trudged back to my desk, suddenly feeling too exhausted to stand.
“Spin?” he asked.
“Go to the party, Rig,” I whispered. “But—”
“Leave me alone. Please. Just . . . let me be by myself.”
He never did know how to deal with me when I got like this, so he hovered about, then finally trailed off.
And I sat alone in the room.
My anger before had been as hot as magma. Now I just felt cold. Numb.
Echoes of the party drifted in from another area of the building. I felt used, stupid, and most of all . . . empty. Shouldn’t I have been snapping my pencil, throwing tables about in rage? Ranting about seeking vengeance upon my foes, and their children and
grandchildren? Typical Spensa behavior?
Instead I sat there and stared. Until the sounds of the party grew quieter. Eventually, an aide peeked into the room. “Um, you’re supposed to leave.”
I didn’t move.
“Are you sure you don’t want to leave?”
They’d have to drag me out of here. I imagined it—very heroic and Defiant—but the aide didn’t seem so inclined. She switched off the lights and left me there, lit only by the red-orange glow of the emergency lights.
Finally, I stood up and walked to the desk by the wall, where Ironsides had—perhaps accidentally—left the tests the children of the First Citizens had given her. I looked through the stack; each of them had only the name filled out, the other questions blank.
I took the one off the top, the first one handed in. It held the name Jorgen Weight, followed by a question.
- Name the four major battles that secured the United Defiant Caverns’ independence as the first major state on Detritus.
That was a tricky question, as people were probably going to forget the Unicarn Skirmish—it didn’t get talked about as much. But it was where the fledgling DDF had first employed fighters of the second generation of designs, built in secret in Igneous. I trailed over to my desk and sat down, then answered the question.
I moved on to the next, then the next. They were good questions. More than simple lists of dates or parts. Some math questions about combat speeds. But most were questions about intent, opinion, and personal preference. I struggled on two of them, trying to decide if I should say what I thought the test wanted, or
what I thought was actually the correct answer.
I went with the second both times. Who cared anyway, right? By the time I was finishing up, I heard people talking outside.
Janitors, from the sounds of their discussion.
Suddenly I felt silly. Would I scream and force some poor janitor to pull me out by my hair? I’d been beaten. You couldn’t win every fight, and there was no shame in losing when you were outnumbered. I turned over the test and tapped my pencil against it, still sitting mostly in the dark, working by the glow of the emergency lights.
I started sketching a W-shaped ship on the back of the test as a crazy idea began to form in my head. The DDF hadn’t begun as an official military; it had started out as a bunch of dreamers with their own crazy idea. Get the apparatus working, create ships from some schematics that had survived our crash on the planet.
They’d built their own ships.
The door opened, letting in light from the hallway. I heard a bucket get set on the ground outside, and two people complaining about spills in the party room.
“I’ll be out in a minute,” I said, finishing my sketch. Thinking.
“Why are you still here, kid?” a janitor asked. “You didn’t want to go to the party?”
“I didn’t feel much like celebrating.”
He grunted. “Didn’t do well on the test?”
“Turns out it doesn’t matter,” I said. I glanced at him, but he was backlit, just a silhouette in the doorway. “Do you ever . . . ,” I said. “Do you ever feel they forced you to be what you are?”
“No. I might have forced myself into it though.”
I sighed. Mother was probably worried sick about me. I stood up and wandered over to the wall where the aide had put my pack.
“Why do you want it so much?” the janitor asked. Was there something familiar about his voice? “It’s dangerous, being a pilot. A lot of them get killed.”
“Just under fifty percent are shot down in their first five years,” I said. “But they don’t all die. Some eject. Others get shot down, but survive the crash.”
“Yes. I know.”
I froze, then frowned and looked back at the figure. I couldn’t make out his face, but something flashed on his breast. Medals? A pilot’s pin? I squinted, and made out the shape of a DDF jacket and dress slacks.
This was no janitor. I could still hear those two out in the hallway, joking with each other.
I stood up straighter. The man walked slowly to my desk, and
the emergency lights revealed he was older, maybe in his fifties, with a stark white mustache. He walked with a prominent limp.
He picked up the test I’d filled out, then flipped through it. “So why?” he finally asked. “Why care so much? They never ask the most important question on these tests. Why do you want to be a pilot?”
To prove myself, and to redeem my father’s name. It was my immediate response, though something else warred with it. Something my father had sometimes said, something buried inside me, often overshadowed by ideas of vengeance and redemption.
“Because you get to see the sky,” I whispered.
The man grunted. “We name ourselves Defiants,” he said. “It’s the central ideal of our people—the fact that we refuse to back down. And yet, Ironsides always acts so surprised when someone defies her.” He shook his head, then set the test down again. He put something on top of it.
He turned to limp away. “Wait,” I said. “Who are you?”
He stopped at the doorway, and the light outside showed his face more clearly, with that mustache, and eyes that seemed . . . old. “I knew your father.”
Wait. I did know that voice. “Mongrel?” I said. “That is you.
You were his wingmate!”
“In another life,” he said. “Oh-seven-hundred sharp on the day after tomorrow, building F, room C-14. Show the pin to get access.”
The pin? I walked back to the desk, and found—sitting on top of my test—a cadet’s pin.
I snatched it up. “But Ironsides said she’d never let me into a cockpit.”
“I’ll deal with Ironsides. It’s my class; I get final say over my students, and even she can’t overrule me. She’s too important for that.”
“Too important? To give orders?”
“Military protocol. When you get important enough to order an armada into battle, you’re too important to interfere with how a quartermaster runs his shop. You’ll see. There’s a lot you know, judging by that test—but still some things you don’t. You got number seventeen wrong.”
“Seventeen . . .” I flipped through the test quickly. “The over- whelming odds question?”
“The right answer was to fall back and await reinforcement.” “No it wasn’t.”
He stiffened, and I quickly bit my tongue. Should I be arguing with the person who’d just given me a cadet’s pin?
“I’ll let you into the sky,” he said, “but they’re not going to be
easy on you. I’m not going to be easy on you. Wouldn’t be fair.” “Is anything fair?”
He smiled. “Death is. He treats us all the same. Oh-seven- hundred. Don’t be late.”
The elevator doors opened, and I looked out upon a city that should not exist.
Alta was primarily a military base, so perhaps city was an ambitious term. Yet the elevator structure opened a good two hundred meters outside the base proper. Lining the roadway between the two were shops and homes. A real town, populated by the stubborn farmers who worked the strips of greenery beyond.
I lingered in the large elevator as it emptied of people. This represented a threshold to a new life, a life I’d always dreamed about. I found myself strangely hesitant as I stood there, pack full of clothing over my shoulder, the phantom feeling of my mother’s kiss farewell on my forehead.
“Oh, isn’t it the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?” a voice said from behind me.
I glanced over my shoulder. The speaker was a girl about my age. She was taller than I was, with tan-brown skin and long, curly black hair. I’d seen her earlier on the elevator and noted her cadet’s pin. She spoke with a faint accent I didn’t recognize.
“I keep thinking it can’t be real,” she said. “Do you think it might be some cruel prank they’re playing on us?”
“What tactical advantage would they gain by that?” I asked her. The girl took my arm in a much too familiar way. “We can do this. Just take a deep breath. Reach up. Pluck a star. That’s what the Saint says.”
I had no idea what to make of this behavior. People normally treated me like a pariah; they didn’t take me by the arm. I was so stunned that I didn’t resist as she towed me after her out of the elevator. We entered the wide walkway leading through the town, toward the base.
I’d rather have been walking with Rodge, but they’d called him in late last night to ask him something about his test, and so far I hadn’t gotten word of what that meant. Hopefully he wasn’t in trouble.
The girl and I soon passed a fountain. A real fountain, like from the stories. We both stopped to gape, and I extricated my arm from the girl’s grasp. Part of me wanted to be offended—but she seemed so genuine.
“That music the water makes,” she said. “Isn’t it the most wonderful sound ever?”
“The most wonderful sound ever is the lamentations of my enemies, screaming my name toward the heavens with ragged, dying voices.”
The girl looked at me, cocking her head. “Well bless your stars.” “Sorry,” I said. “It’s a line from a story.” I stuck out my hand to her. Best to be on good terms with the other cadets. “I’m callsign: Spin.”
“Kimmalyn,” she said, shaking my hand. “Um, we’re supposed to have callsigns already?”
“I’m an overachiever. What room you reporting to?”
“Umm . . .” She fished in her pocket and pulled out a paper. “C-14? Cadet Flight B.”
“Same as me.”
“Callsign . . . callsign . . . ,” Kimmalyn murmured. “What should I pick?”
“Killer?” I suggested. “Afterburn? No, that’s probably too confusing. Fleshripper?”
“Couldn’t it be something a little less gruesome?”
“You’re going to be a warrior. You need a warrior’s name.” “Not everything is about war!”
“Um, it kind of is—and flight school especially is.” I frowned,
noting the accent in her voice. “Where are you from? Not Igneous, I guess.”
“Born and raised in Bountiful Cavern!” She leaned in. “We call it that, but nothing really grows there.”
“Bountiful,” I said. It was a cavern somewhat close to Igneous, also part of the Defiant League. “That’s where the clans from the Antioch crew settled, right?” The Antioch had been one of the gunships in the old fleet, before we’d been driven into hiding here on Detritus.
“Yup. My great-grandmother was assistant quartermaster.” She eyed me. “You said your callsign was Spin? Shouldn’t you be something like Lamentation or Eats Enemy Eyeballs?”
I shrugged. “Spin is what my dad used to call me.”
She smiled brightly at that. Scud, they’d let this girl in, but had denied me? What was the DDF trying to do? Put together a knitting club?
We approached the base, a group of tall, stern buildings surrounded by a wall. Right outside it, the farms gave way to an actual orchard. I stopped on the walkway, and found myself gaping again. I’d seen these trees from a distance, but up close they seemed enormous. Almost three meters tall! Before this, the tallest plant I’d seen was a mushroom that reached up to my waist.
“They planted those just after the Battle of Alta,” Kimmalyn said. “It must take brave people to volunteer for service up here so exposed to the air and to Krell attacks.” She looked up at the sky in awe, and I wondered if this was the first time she was seeing it.
We stepped up to a checkpoint in the wall, and I thrust my pin toward the guard there, half expecting rough treatment—like I’d always gotten from Aluko when entering Igneous. However, the bored guard only marked our names off on a list and waved us in. Not much ceremony for my first official entrance into Alta. Well, soon I’d be so famous, the guard at the door would salute me on sight.
Inside, we counted off the buildings, joining a handful of other cadets. From what I understood, around twenty-five of us had passed the test, and had been organized into three training flights. Only the best of the best would actually pass flight school and be assigned to full-time pilot duty.
Kimmalyn and I soon arrived at a wide, single-story structure near the launchpads. Flight school. I barely held myself back from running over to the glistening starfighters lined up for duty—I’d done enough gawking for one day.
Inside the building we found wide hallways, most of which appeared to be lined with classrooms. Kimmalyn squealed, then rushed over to talk to another cadet, someone she apparently knew. So I stopped by a window on the outer wall and looked out at the sky, waiting for her.
I found myself feeling . . . anxious. Not about the training, but about this place. It’s too big, too open. The hallways were over a meter wider than those of most buildings in Igneous, and the base’s buildings sprawled outward instead of being built on top of one another. The sky was just up there, always present, looming. Even with a forcefield between me and it—of the same invisible type that starfighters employed—I felt exposed.
I was going to have to sleep up here. Live, eat, exist. All out in the open. While I liked the sky, that didn’t mean I wanted it peeking in during every intimate moment.
I’ll simply have to deal with it, I told myself. The warrior cannot choose her bed; she must bless the stars if she can choose her battlefield. A quote from Junmi’s The Conquest of Space. I loved Gran- Gran’s stories about Junmi almost as much as I did the old Viking stories, even if they didn’t have quite as many decapitations.
Kimmalyn returned, and we found our classroom. I took a deep breath. Time to become a pilot. We pushed open the doors.
Ten mock cockpits dominated the center of the room, arranged in a circle facing inward. Each bulky device had a seat, a control console, and part of a fuselage built around it—though no canopy. Other than that, they looked as if they’d been ripped right out of starships.
Instead of the nose cones of ships, however, each had a large box attached to the front, maybe a meter tall and half as wide. Kimmalyn and I were apparently the first of our flight to arrive, and I checked the wall clock. It was 0615. For once in my life, I was not only early—I was first.
Well, technically second, as Kimmalyn jumped past me to look
over the mock cockpits. “Oh! I guess we’re first. Well, the Saint always said, ‘If you can’t arrive early, at least arrive before you’re late.’ ”
I walked into the room, setting down my backpack and checking out the mockpits. I recognized the control panel layout—they were from Poco-class ships, a basic, if fast, DDF starfighter model. The door opened, and two more cadets entered. The shorter boy at the front had dark blue hair and appeared to be a Yeongian. The crew of the YeongGwang, from the old fleet, had largely been from China or Korea on Earth.
The blue-haired boy grinned as he looked over the room, putting his pack beside mine. “Wow. Our classroom!”
The girl behind him sauntered in like she owned the place. She was a lean, athletic-looking girl with blonde hair in a ponytail. She wore a DDF uniform jacket over her jumpsuit—loose, like she was out on the town.
Those two were soon followed by a girl with a tattoo across her lower jaw. She’d be Vician—from Vici Cavern. I didn’t know much about them, only that they were the descendants of the marines from the old space fleet. The Vicians had their own culture and kept to themselves—though they had reputations as great warriors.
I smiled at her, but she looked away immediately and didn’t respond when Kimmalyn perkily introduced herself. Fine then, I thought.
Kimmalyn got names and home caverns out of the other two. The guy with the blue hair was Bim, and was indeed a Yeongian. His clan had been part of the hydroponics team on the old ship, and had settled in a nearby cavern that maintained a large set of underground farms, lit and maintained by ancient machinery. I’d never eaten any of the food from there; it was reserved for those who had many achievement merits or industry merits.
The athletic girl was Hudiya, from Igneous. I didn’t know her, but the cavern was a big place, with a vast population. As the time for class drew near, a tall girl entered and introduced herself as Freyja. It was a good mythological name from Old Norse—of which I approved. She kind of had the look too. Though she was skinny, she was tall, maybe even a hundred and eighty-five centimeters, and she had blonde hair, which she wore cut very short. Her boots were brand-new, polished to a shine, and done up with gold clasps.
Well, that made six of us. We’d have a few more at least. About ten minutes before the start of class, three young men walked in together. They were obviously friends, as they were talking and joking softly. I didn’t recognize two of them, but the one at the front—with brown skin and short curly hair—was distinctive in a kind of baby-faced, pretty-boy way.
The guy from the test, I realized. The son of a First Citizen who had gotten free admission.
Great. We were saddled with a useless aristocrat, someone who lived in the lowest—and safest—of the Defiant caverns. He’d be in flight school not because of any skill or aptitude, but because he wanted to sport a cadet’s pin and feel important. Judging by the way the other two talked, I instantly pegged them as his cronies. I’d have bet anything that all of them had gotten in without taking the test, so our cadet group had three people who didn’t deserve to be there.
The tall, baby-faced guy walked to the center of the ring of seats. How could a boy have a face that was so extremely punchable? He cleared his throat, then clapped his hands sharply. “Get to attention, cadets! Is this how we want to present ourselves to our instructor? Lounging about, making idle chitchat? Line up!”
Kimmalyn, bless her stars, jumped up and stood at a kind of sloppy attention. His two cronies stepped over and fell into step as well, doing a much better impression of real soldiers. Everyone else just kind of looked at him.
“What gives you the right to order us around?” asked Hudiya, the athletic girl from my own cavern. She stood leaning against the wall, arms folded.
“I want to make a good first impression on the instructor, cadet,” Jerkface said. “Think how inspiring it will be when he comes in to find us all waiting at attention.”
Hudiya snorted. “Inspiring? We’d look like a bunch of suck-ups.”
Jerkface ignored her, instead inspecting his line of three cadets. He shook his head at Kimmalyn, whose version of “attention” involved standing on the tips of her toes and saluting with both hands. It was ridiculous.
“You look ridiculous,” Jerkface said to her.
The girl’s face fell, and she slumped. I felt an immediate burst of protective anger. I mean . . . he was right, but he didn’t have to belt it out like that.
“Who taught you to stand at attention?” Jerkface asked. “You’re going to embarrass us. I can’t have that.”
“Yeah,” I said. “She’d be stealing your spot, since embarrassing us is clearly your job, Jerkface.”
He looked me up and down—taking obvious note of the patched state of my pilot’s jumpsuit. It had been one of my father’s, and had required serious modification to fit me.
“Do I know you, cadet?” he asked. “You look familiar.”
“I was sitting in the front row taking the test,” I said, “when you turned in your exam without a single question answered. Maybe you saw me there when you glanced at the rest of the room, to see what people look like when they actually have to work to get things.”
He drew his lips to a line. It seemed I’d touched a nerve. Excellent. First blood.
“I chose not to waste resources,” he said, “making someone grade my test when I had already been offered a slot.”
“One you didn’t earn.”
He glanced at the other cadets in the room, who were watching with interest, then he lowered his voice. “Look. You don’t need to make trouble. Just fall into line, and—”
“Fall into line?” I said. “You’re still trying to give us orders?” “It’s obvious I’m going to be your flightleader. You might as
well get used to doing what I say.”
Arrogant son of a supernova. “Just because you cheated your way into—”
“I didn’t cheat!”
“—just because you bought your way into flight school doesn’t mean you’ll be flightleader. You need to watch yourself. Don’t make an enemy out of me.”
“And if I do?”
Scud, it was annoying to have to look up at him. I leaped onto my seat to gain a height advantage for the argument—an action that seemed to surprise him.
He cocked his head. “What—”
“Always attack from a position of superior advantage!” I said. “When this is done, Jerkface, I will hold your tarnished and melted pin up as my trophy as your smoldering ship marks your pyre, and the final resting place of your crushed and broken corpse!”
The room grew quiet.
“All right . . . ,” Jerkface said. “Well, that was . . . descriptive.” “Bless your stars,” Kimmalyn added. Hudiya gave me a thumbs-
up and a grin, though the others in the room plainly had no idea what to make of me.
And . . . maybe my reaction had been over the top. I was used to making a scene; life had taught me that aggressive threats would cause people to back off. But did I need to do that here?
I realized something odd in that moment. None of these people seemed to know who I was. They hadn’t grown up near my neighborhood; they hadn’t gone to class with me. They might have heard of my father, but they didn’t know me from any other cadet.
Here, I wasn’t the rat girl or the daughter of a coward. Here I was free.
The door chose that moment to open, and our instructor—
Mongrel—stopped in the doorway, holding a steaming mug of coffee in one hand, a clipboard in the other. In the light, I recognized him from the pictures of the First Citizens, though his hair was greyer, and that mustache made him appear much older.
We must have looked like quite the menagerie. I was still standing on the seat of my mockpit, looming over Jerkface. Several of the others had been snickering at our exchange, while Kimmalyn was again trying to execute a salute.
Mongrel glanced at the clock, which had just hit seven hundred hours. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything intimate.”
“Uh . . . ,” I said. I jumped off my seat and tried a little laugh. “That wasn’t a joke!” Mongrel barked. “I don’t joke! Line up
by the far wall, all of you!”
We scrambled to obey. As we lined up, Jerkface pulled off a precise salute, and he held it, at perfect attention.
Mongrel glanced at him and said, “Don’t be a suck-up, son. This isn’t basic training, and you aren’t grunts from the ground corps.”
Jerkface’s expression fell and he lowered his arm, then snapped to attention anyway. “Um, sorry, sir!”
Mongrel rolled his eyes. “My name is Captain Cobb. My callsign is Mongrel, but you will call me Cobb—or sir, if you must.” He trailed along the line, his limp prominent, taking a sip of his coffee. “The rules of this classroom are simple. I teach. You learn. Anything that interferes with that is likely to get one of you killed.” He paused near where I stood by Jerkface. “That includes flirting.”
I felt my face go cold. “Sir! I wasn’t—”
“It also includes talking back to me! You’re in flight school now, stars help you. Four months of training. If you make it to the end without being kicked out or shot down, then you pass. That’s it. There are no tests. There are no grades. Just you in a cockpit, convincing me you deserve to remain there. I am the only authority that matters to you now.”
He waited, watching to see how we responded. And wisely, none of us said anything.
“Most of you won’t make it,” he continued. “Four months may not seem like long, but it will feel like an eternity. Some of you will drop out under the stress, and the Krell will kill some others. Usually, a flight of ten ends up with one cadet graduating to full pilot, maybe two.” He stopped at the end of the line, where Kimmalyn stood biting her lip.
“This bunch though . . . ,” Cobb added, “I’ll be surprised if any of you make it.” He limped away from us, setting his coffee on a small desk at the front of the room, then riffling through the papers on his clipboard. “Which of you is Jorgen Weight?”
“Me, sir!” Jerkface said, standing up straighter. “Great. You’re flightleader.”
Cobb eyed me, but said nothing. “Jorgen, you’ll need two assistant flightleaders. I’ll want the names by the end of the day.”
“I can give you those now, sir,” he said, pointing to his two cronies—a shorter boy and a taller one. “Arturo and Nedd.”
Cobb marked something on his clipboard. “Great. Everyone, pick a seat. We’re going to—”
“Wait,” I said. “That’s it? That’s how you choose our flightleader? You’re not even going to see how we do first?”
“Pick a seat, cadets,” Cobb repeated, ignoring me. “But—” I said.
“Except Cadet Spensa,” he said, “who will instead meet me in the hallway.”
I bit my tongue and stomped out into the hallway. I probably should have contained my frustration, but . . . really? He immediately picked Jerkface? Just like that?
Cobb followed me, then calmly shut the door. I prepared an outburst, but he spun on me and hissed, “Are you trying to ruin this, Spensa?”
I choked off my retort, shocked by his sudden anger.
“Do you know how far I had to stick my neck out to get you into this class?” he continued. “I argued that you sat in the room for hours, that you finished a damn near perfect test. It still took every bit of clout and reputation I’ve earned over the years to pull this off. Now, the first chance you get, you’re throwing a tantrum?”
“I . . . But you didn’t see what that guy was doing before class! He was strutting around, claiming he’d be flightleader.”
“Turns out he had good reason!”
“But what?” Cobb demanded.
I stifled the words I was going to say, and instead remained silent.
He took a deep breath. “Good. You can control yourself at least a little.” He rubbed his brows with his thumb and forefinger. “You’re just like your father. I spent half the time wanting to strangle the man. Unfortunately, you’re not him—you have to live with what he did. You have to control yourself, Spensa. If it looks like I’m favoring you, someone will call improper bias, and you’ll be pulled from my class faster than you can spit.”
“So you can’t favor me?” I asked. “But everyone can favor the son of an aristocrat who didn’t even have to finish his test?”
Cobb sighed. “Sorry,” I said.
“No, I walked into that one,” he said. “Do you know who that boy is?”
“Son of a First Citizen?”
“Son of the Jeshua Weight, a hero of the Battle of Alta. She flew seven years in the DDF, and has over a hundred confirmed kills. Her husband is Algernon Weight, National Assembly Leader and high foreman of our largest intercavern shipping company. They’re among the most heavily merited people in the lower caverns.”
“So their son and his cronies get to be our leaders, just because of what their parents did?”
“Jorgen’s family owns three private fighters, and he has been
training on them since he was fourteen. He has nearly a thousand hours in the cockpit. How many do you have?”
“His ‘cronies,’ ” Cobb said, “are Nedd Strong—who has two brothers in the DDF right now—and Arturo Mendez, son of a cargo pilot who had sixteen years in the DDF. Arturo has been acting as copilot with his father, and is certified with two hundred hours’ flight time. Again, how many hours do you have?”
“I . . .” I took a deep breath. “I’m sorry for questioning you, sir. Is this the part where I do push-ups, or clean a bathroom with a toothbrush or something?”
“I already said this isn’t infantry training. The punishment here isn’t some menial stupidity.” Cobb pulled open the door to the room. “Push me too far, and the punishment will be simple: you won’t get to fly.”
You won’t get to fly.
Never had I heard words more soul-crushing. When the two of us reentered the training room, Cobb pointed at a seat by the wall. Not a cockpit, just an empty chair.
I slunk over and settled down, feeling thoroughly routed. “These contraptions,” Cobb said, rapping his knuckles on one of
the boxes in front of the mockpits, “are holographic projectors. Old technology from the days when we were a fleet. When these machines are on, you’ll think you’re in a cockpit; they will let us train you to fly without risking a real fighter. The simulation isn’t perfect, however. It has some haptic feedback, but it can’t replicate g-forces. You’ll need to train in the centrifuge to accustom yourself to that.
“DDF tradition is that you get to pick your own callsign. I suggest you start considering, as you’ll carry the name for the rest of your life. It will be how the most important people—your flightmates—come to know you.”
Jerkface’s hand went up.
“Don’t tell me now, cadet,” Cobb said. “Anytime in the next few days is fine. Right now, I want to—”
The door to the room banged open. I leaped to my feet, but it wasn’t an attack or an emergency.
It was Rig. And he was wearing a cadet’s pin.
“I was wondering if you’d show up,” Cobb said, picking up his stack of papers. “Rodge McCaffrey? You think it’s a fine idea to show up late to your first day in flight school? You going to show up late when the Krell attack?”
Rig sucked in a breath and shook his head, going white, like a flag of truce. And . . . Rig was a cadet. When he’d gone in last night to talk to them about his test, I’d been worried, but it looked like he’d gotten in! I wanted to whoop for joy.
But there was no way Rig had been late without good reason. This was a kid who scheduled extra time in his day for sneezes when he had a cold. I opened my mouth, but held back at a glance from Cobb.
“Sir,” Rig finally said, catching his breath. “Elevator. Malfunction.”
Cobb walked to the side of the room and pushed an intercom button. “Jax,” he said, “will you check if there was an elevator malfunction today?”
“Don’t need to check, Captain,” a voice replied through a speaker above the button. “Elevator 103-D was down for two hours, with people trapped inside. It’s been giving us trouble for months.”
Cobb released the button, then eyed Rig. “They say you got the highest score on the test this year, cadet.”
“That’s what they told me, sir. They called me in, and the admiral gave me an award and everything. I’m so sorry I’m late. I didn’t meant to do this, particularly on my first day. I about died when—”
“Yeah, that’ll do,” Cobb said, waving toward one of the seats. “Don’t wear out my goodwill, son.”
Rig took the seat gladly, but then saw me on the side of the
room and gave me a huge thumbs-up. We’d made it. Both of us somehow, with Rig at the top, which was awesome—so at least the test really was fair for him.
Cobb walked over to Jerkface’s seat, then flipped a switch on
the side of the box in the front. A veil of light surrounded the mockpit—silent, shimmering, like a glowing bubble. From inside, Jerkface breathed out a soft—but audible—prayer to the North Star. I leaned forward in my chair.
“It can be disorienting,” Cobb said, walking over and turning on Arturo’s machine, then Nedd’s. “Though it’s no match for actually being in the air, it’s a reasonable substitute.”
I waited, tense, as he went around the circle, flipping on devices one after another. Each cadet made some audible signal of appreciation—a little gasp, or a “Wow.” My heart just about broke as Cobb turned away from the last empty seat and walked toward the front of the room.
Then, as if remembering something he’d left behind, he looked over his shoulder at me.
I nearly exploded with anticipation.
Finally he nodded toward the empty mockpit. I scrambled out of my seat and climbed in as he flipped the switch. Light flashed around me, and in the blink of an eye I seemed to be sitting in the cockpit of a Poco-class fighter on a launchpad outside the building. The illusion was so incredible that I gasped, then stuck my hand outside the “canopy” just to be sure. The hologram wavered and fell apart into little grains of light—like falling dust—when my hand broke through it.
I pulled my hand back in, then inspected the controls: a throttle lever, a dashboard full of buttons, and a control sphere for my right hand. The sphere was a globe I could palm, with grooves for my fingers and buttons at the tips.
Outside the holographic cockpit canopy, I could see the other “ships” in a line beside a picture-perfect reproduction of Alta Base. I could even look up and see the sky, the faint patterns of the rubble belt . . . everything.
Cobb’s mustachioed face broke through the sky—like one of the Saints themselves—as he leaned in through the hologram to speak with me. “You like the feel of this, cadet?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “More than anything.” “Good. Don’t lose it.”
I met his eyes and nodded.
He backed away. “All right, cadets,” he said. His voice felt ghostly coming from seemingly nowhere. “I don’t waste time. Every day you’re training is a day good pilots are dying in the fight without you as backup. Put on the helmets at your feet.”
I did so, and Cobb’s voice now came through the earpiece inside my helmet. “Let’s practice takeoffs,” he said. “That should—”
“Sir!” Jerkface said. “I can show them.” I rolled my eyes.
“All right, flightleader,” Cobb said. “I’m willing to let someone else do the hard work for me. Let’s see you get them into the sky.”
“Yes, sir!” Jerkface said. “Flight, your fighters don’t need their boosters to raise or lower your altitude. That is handled by the acclivity ring, the hooplike device underneath every starship. Its power switch is . . . um . . . top of the front console, the red button. Never turn that off when flying, or you’ll drop like a piece of debris.”
One ship down the line suddenly lit up beneath as the acclivity ring turned on.
“Use your control sphere to bank right or left,” Jerkface continued, “or to make small movements. To do a quick ascent, use the smaller lever beside the throttle and pull it upward.”
Jerkface’s starship lifted into the air in a steady ascent straight up. His ship, like the rest of ours, was a Poco-class. They looked like glorified pencils with wings, but they were still starships, and I was in a cockpit. Holographically kind of almost, but still it was happening.
I flicked the red switch, and my entire dashboard lit up. I grinned, holding the control sphere in my right hand and yanking on the altitude control with my left.
My ship sprang backward in a sudden jerking motion, and I managed to crash it into the building behind us.
And I wasn’t the only one. Our ships responded with far more sensitivity than we were expecting. Rig flipped his completely upside down somehow; Kimmalyn darted up into the air, then screamed at the sudden motion and brought herself back down and flattened right on the launchpad.
“Altitude control only,” Jerkface said. “Don’t touch the control sphere right now, cadets!”
Cobb chuckled from outside somewhere.
“Sir!” Jerkface said. “I . . . er . . . That . . .” He fell silent. “Huh.”
I was glad nobody could see how much I was blushing. I appeared to have crashed my ship into a holographic version of the flight school mess hall, judging by the tables and spilled food. I felt as if I should have whiplash, but while my chair shook a little when the ship moved, it couldn’t replicate the true motions of flight.
“Congratulations, cadets,” Cobb said. “I’m pretty sure half of you are dead now. Thoughts, flightleader?”
“I didn’t expect them to be that hopeless, sir.” “We’re not hopeless,” I said. “Just . . . eager.”
“And maybe a little embarrassed,” Kimmalyn noted.
“Speak for yourself,” a girl’s voice said through my earpiece. What was her name again? Hudiya, the ponytailed girl with the loose jacket. She was laughing. “Oh, my stomach. I think I’m going to hurl. Can I do it again?”
“Again?” Kimmalyn asked. “It was awesome!”
“You just said you thought you were going to hurl.” “In a good way.”
“How do you hurl in a good way?”
“Attention!” Cobb snapped. My ship fuzzed around me, and suddenly all of us were back in a line, our ships whole again, the simulation apparently reset. “Like a lot of new pilots, you’re not accustomed to how responsive your ships can be. With the power of the acclivity ring and your booster, you can perform precision maneuvers—particularly once we get you trained with light-lances.
“That versatility comes at a cost, however. It’s really easy to get yourself killed in a starship. So today we’re going to practice three things. Going up. Coming down. And not dying while you do either. Got it?”
“Yes, sir!” came our chorus.
“You’re also going to learn to control your radio. The set of blue buttons on the top left of your control panel manages that; you’ll need to accustom yourselves to opening a line to the whole flight, or to your wingmate alone. We’ll go over the other buttons later. I don’t want you distracted right now. Stars only know how you could do worse than that little performance you just gave, but I’m disinclined to give you the opportunity!”
“Yes, sir!” we belted out, somewhat sheepishly.
And so, for the next three hours, we took off and landed.
It was frustrating work because I felt like I should be able to do far more. I’d studied so hard and I’d practiced in my mind. I felt like I knew this.
Only I didn’t. My crash at the start proved that. And my continuing inability frustrated me.
The sole way to overcome that was to practice, so I dedicated
myself to the instruction. Up and down. Up and down. Time after time. I did it with gritted teeth, determined not to crash again.
Eventually, we all managed to make five trips up and down without crashing. As Cobb sent us up again, I leveled at five hundred on the altimeter, then stopped myself there. I released a breath, leaning back as the other cadets joined me in a line.
Jerkface zoomed past and did a little flip before settling in.
“All right, flightleader,” Cobb said. “Call your flight roll and get a verbal confirmation of readiness from each member. You’ll do this before every engagement, to verify that nobody is having mechanical or physical troubles. Flight, if you are experiencing troubles, tell your flightleader. If you fly into battle knowing something is wrong with your ship, then you are responsible for the damage you might cause.”
“Sir,” Bim asked over the line, “is it true that if we crash a real ship while in training, we can’t graduate?”
“Usually,” Cobb said, “if a cadet crashes their starfighter, it’s a sign of some kind of negligence, the type that indicates they shouldn’t be trusted with that kind of equipment.”
“And if we eject?” Bim said. “I’ve heard that cadets do training in real combat situations. If we get shot down and eject, does it mean we’re out? As a cadet, I mean?”
Cob was silent for a moment. “There’s no hard-and-fast rule,” he said.
“But it’s tradition, right?” Bim asked. “A cadet who ejects and scuttles their ship stays grounded from then on.”
“It’s because they’re looking for cowards,” Hudiya said. “They want to kick out cadets who are too eager to eject.”
I felt a jolt of adrenaline, as I always did when someone mentioned the word coward. But it wasn’t in reference to me, and never would be. I would never eject.
“Real pilots,” said one of Jerkface’s cronies, “the best of the best? They can steer a crashing ship into a salvageable landing, even if they’ve been shot. Acclivity rings are worth so much that pilots have to protect them, because the pilot isn’t worth as much as—”
“That’s enough, Arturo,” Cobb cut in. “You’re spreading stupid rumors. Both pilots and ships are valuable. You cadets ignore that talk—you might hear it from other flights—about steering your ship into a controlled landing. You hear me? If you’re shot down, you eject. Don’t worry about the consequences, worry about your life. If you’re a good enough pilot it won’t impact your career, tradition or no tradition.”
I frowned. That wasn’t what I’d heard. Full pilots who got shot down, they were given second chances. But cadets? Why graduate someone who had been shot down when you were looking for only the very best?
“Stupid pilot pride,” Cobb grumbled. “It’s cost us more than the Krell have, I swear. Flightleader, weren’t you going to call roll?”
“Oh, right!” Jorgen said. “Cadet Flight B! Time to—”
“Cadet Flight B?” Cobb said. “You can come up with a better name than that, flightleader.”
“Er. Yes, sir. Um . . .” “Skyward Flight,” I said.
“Skyward Flight,” Jerkface said, jumping on the name. “Roll call and confirmation of readiness, in order of dashboard ship identification!”
“Skyward Two,” said the taller of the two cronies. “Callsign: Nedder. Confirmed.”
“Skyward Three,” said Hudiya. “Callsign: Hurl. Confirmed.” “Seriously?” Jerkface asked. “Hurl?”
“Memorable, isn’t it?” she asked. Jerkface sighed.
“Skyward Four,” said Rig. “Um . . . Callsign: Rigmarole. Wow, it sounds good to say that. And, um, confirmed.”
“Skyward Five,” said Arturo, the shorter of the two cronies. “Callsign: Amphisbaena.”
“Amphi-what?” Hurl asked.
“It’s a two-headed dragon,” Arturo said. “It’s an extremely fearsome animal from mythology. Confirmed.”
“Skyward Six,” Kimmalyn said. “So . . . callsign. I need one of those, eh?”
“Saint,” I suggested.
“Oh, stars no,” she replied.
“You can pick one later,” Cobb said. “Just use your first name for now.”
“No, no,” she said. “Just call me Quick. No need to procrastinate my choice; the Saint always said, ‘Save time and do that job now.’ ”
“How,” Arturo said, “does doing something ‘now’ save you any time? Theoretically, the indicated job will take the same amount of time now as it would later.”
“Tangent, Amphi,” Jerkface said. “Skyward Seven?” “Skyward Seven,” said an accented girl’s voice I didn’t think
I’d heard before. “Callsign: Morningtide. Confirmed.”
Wait. Who was that? I wracked my brain. The Vician girl with the tattoo on her lower jaw, I realized. The one who brushed me off earlier.
“Skyward Eight,” said Bim. “Bim. That’s my name, not my callsign. I’ll get back to you on that later. I don’t want to screw it up. Confirmed, by the way.”
“Skyward Nine,” said Freyja, the tall blonde girl. “Callsign: FM. Confirmed.” She’d launched her ship the first time without crashing, the only one who had done that except for Jerkface and his cronies. Her expensive clothing and those golden clasps on her boots made me think she must be from the lower caverns too. Her family obviously had enough merits for fancy requisitions.
“Skyward Ten,” I said. “Callsign: Spin. Confirmed.”
“What a bland callsign,” Jerkface said. “I’ll be Jager. It means
hunter in one of the old—”
“Can’t be Jager,” Cobb said. “We’ve already got a Jager. Nightmare Flight. Just graduated two months ago.”
“Oh,” Jerkface said. “I . . . er. I didn’t know that.”
“How about Jerkface?” I said. “It’s what I’ve been calling you in my head. We can call you that.”
“No. We. Can’t.”
I heard a number of snickers—including one I was pretty sure came from Nedd “Nedder” Strong, the taller of Jerkface’s cronies. “All right,” Cobb said, ignoring us. “Now that you’ve done that, maybe we can talk about how to actually move somewhere.”
I nodded, eager, though I realized nobody could see me.
“Hold the throttle with a light touch,” Cobb directed. “Nudge it forward slowly, until the dial says point-one.”
I did so, timid—extra worried that I’d repeat my embarrassment from earlier—and I let out a breath as my ship moved forward at a modest boost.
“Good,” Cobb said. “You’re now going point-one Mag. That’s a tenth of Mag-1, which is normal combat speed. Even-numbered designations, you lower yourselves three hundred feet. You’d be more used to saying a hundred meters, but it’s tradition to use feet for altitude, for some scudding reason, and you’ll get used to it. Odd-numbered designations, you go up three hundred. That will give you some space to try very slight moves to the left and right as you fly.”
I did as he said, diving down, then leveling out. I tried a veer right, and a veer left. It felt . . . natural. Like I was meant to do this. Like I—
A series of loud alerts erupted. I jumped, then—panicked—I searched my dashboard, worried I’d done something wrong. Finally, my brain put together that the sound wasn’t coming from my ship, or even from our room. It was alarms outside the building.
That’s the attack warning, I thought, pulling off my helmet to hear better. The trumpet sounds were different up here in Alta. Faster-paced.
I pushed my head up through the canopy of my hologram, and saw several others doing the same. Cobb had stepped toward the windows of our classroom and was looking out toward the sky. I could barely make out some distant falling debris burning in the atmosphere. Krell attack.
The speaker on the wall crackled. “Cobb,” Admiral Ironsides’s voice said. “Do you have those greenmoss cadets hovering yet?”
Cobb walked to the panel on the wall and pushed a button. “Barely. I’m still convinced one of them is going to find a way to make their ship self-destruct, even though Pocos don’t have that function.”
“Great. Get them up, spread formation, above Alta.”
Cobb glanced at us before pressing the button again. “Confirmation requested, Admiral. You want the new cadets in the sky during an attack?”
“Get them up there, Cobb. This is a large wave. Nightmare Flight is down in the city for R&R, and I don’t have time to call them back. Ironsides out.”
Cobb hesitated, then he barked out an order. “You heard the admiral! Skyward Flight, to the launchpad. Go!”
To the launchpad?
After one day of flight training?
Cobb slammed a button on his desk, shutting down all of our holographic emitters. I couldn’t help wondering if this was some kind of test or a strange initiation—yet the pale look of Cobb’s face persuaded me otherwise. He didn’t like this.
What in the stars was the admiral thinking? Surely . . . surely she wouldn’t get my entire flight killed just as retribution for Cobb letting me into the DDF? Right?
We left the training room in a ragged jumble. “Rig,” I said, falling in beside my friend as we jogged down the hallway, alarms blaring in the distance. “Can you believe this? Any of this?”
“No. I still can’t believe I’m here, Spin. When they called me in and told me about my score, I thought they were going to accuse me of cheating! Then the admiral gave me an award and took some photos. It’s almost as incredible as the way Cobb let you in, after—”
“Never mind that,” I said quickly. I didn’t want anyone overhearing that my circumstances were unusual.
I glanced to the side and found Jerkface jogging a few paces away. He narrowed his eyes at me. Great.
We burst out of the training building and gathered on the steps outside right as a flight of Fresa-class starships launched into the sky. One of the on-duty flights; there were usually several of those, along with another flight or two that could be called up in an emergency.
So why did they need us? I didn’t get it.
Cobb emerged from the building and gestured to a line of ten Poco-class fighters on a nearby launchpad. Ground crew were positioning ladders by them.
“On the double!” Jerkface shouted. “To your ships! Everyone remember your number?”
Kimmalyn stopped in place. “You’re six, Quirk,” Cobb said. “Um, it was actually Quick—”
“Get going, you fools!” Cobb yelled. “You’re on orders!” He glanced at the sky. A set of sonic booms exploded from the ships that had taken off earlier. Even though they’d moved far out, the booms still rattled the windows.
I hurried to my ship, climbed the ladder to the open cockpit, then stopped. My ship.
A member of the ground crew climbed up the ladder after me. “You getting in?” he asked.
I blushed, then hopped into the cockpit.
He handed me a helmet, then leaned in. “This ship is straight out of repairs. You’ll use it when you’re on orders, though it’s not a hundred percent yours. You’ll be sharing it with a cadet in another flight until enough wash out.”
I pulled on my helmet and gave him a thumbs-up. He climbed down and pulled the ladder away. My cockpit’s canopy closed, then sealed. I sat there in silence, collecting my breath, then reached forward and tapped the button that engaged the acclivity ring. The dash lit up, and a hum vibrated through the ship. That hadn’t been in the simulation.
I glanced to the side—toward the mess hall I’d crashed into not four hours ago.
Don’t stress. You just did this a hundred times, Spensa.
But I couldn’t help thinking about what we’d discussed earlier. That cadets who crashed, or ejected, weren’t—by tradition— allowed to graduate . . .
I gripped the altitude control and waited for orders. Then I blushed again and pushed the blue button that turned on the radio.
“—anyone wave at her, maybe?” Arturo’s voice came through my helmet. “FM, can you see—”
“Spin checking in,” I said. “Sorry.”
“All right, flight,” Jerkface said. “Lift off, smooth and easy, like we practiced. Straight up fifteen hundred feet, then hover.”
I gripped the controls, and found my heart thundering inside my chest. First time into the sky.
Go. I lifted my Poco into a vertical ascent. And it was glorious.
The sense of motion, the press of g-forces pulling me down, the view of the base shrinking beneath me . . . the open sky, welcoming me home . . .
I leveled off right when the altimeter read fifteen hundred. The others gathered in a line next to me, stark blue acclivity rings glowing underneath each ship. In the far distance, I saw flashes of light from the battle.
“Flight roll,” Jerkface said.
All nine of us confirmed back to him, then we fell silent. “Now what?” I asked.
“Trying to call in for orders,” Jerkface said. “I don’t know the band I’m supposed to—”
“I’m here,” Cobb’s voice said over the radio. “Looking good, cadets. That’s a damn near perfect line. Except for you, Quirk.”
“Quick, sir,” Kimmalyn said—indeed, her ship had gone up maybe fifty feet above the rest of us. “And . . . I’m just gonna sit tight here, snug and happy I didn’t crash into anyone. As the Saint said, ‘Ain’t nothing wrong with being a little wrong once in a while.’ ”
“Fair enough,” Cobb said. “But I have orders from Flight Command. Flightleader, lead your flight up to two thousand feet, then throttle to point-two Mag, and head—carefully—out past the city. I’ll tell you when to stop.”
“Right,” Jerkface said. “Everyone, two thousand and hover, and I want you to stop sharp this time, Quirk.”
“Sure thing, Jerkface,” she replied.
He cursed softly as we went up higher—high enough that the city below looked almost like a toy. I could still see the flashes in the distance, though the falling debris was more dynamic. Streaks of red fire, trailing smoke, falling right through the battlefield.
Per Cobb’s instructions, we inched our throttles forward and engaged the boosters. And just like that, I was flying—really flying—for the first time. It wasn’t fast, and I spent most of it sweating and overly cautious about my every movement. A part of me was still in awe.
It was finally happening.
We flew out toward the battlefield, but before we’d gotten very far, Cobb called again.
“Halt it here, cadets,” he said, sounding more relaxed. “I’ve been given more information. You aren’t going to fight—a problem with the elevators caught us with our pants down. One of the flights that was supposed to be on reserve got stuck below.
“They’ll relieve you soon. Until then, the admiral wants to make it seem like we have more reinforcements than we actually do. She sent you and another flight of cadets to hover close outside the city. The Krell won’t fly in and risk engaging what they assume are fresh ships.”
I nodded slowly, remembering one of Gran-Gran’s lessons. All warfare is based on deception, Sun Tzu had said. When we are able to attack, we must seem unable. When we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. It made sense to use a few dummy flights to worry the Krell.
“. . . Sir,” Jorgen said, “can you tell us what is happening on the battlefield? So we can be ready, just in case?”
Cobb grunted. “You all passed the test, so I assume that you can tell me basic Krell attack strategy.”
I started to answer, but Arturo beat me to it.
“When debris starts crashing down,” he said, speaking quickly, “the Krell often use the fall to mask their radar signatures. They fly low, underneath our larger AA guns, and try to approach Alta. If they arrive, they can drop a lifebuster bomb.”
I shivered. A lifebuster would not only vaporize everyone in Alta—shields or no shields—it would collapse the lower caverns, burying Igneous and destroying the apparatus.
“The Krell don’t always use a lifebuster though,” I said, jumping in. “Those take a special slow-moving bomber to carry them. They must be expensive or difficult to make or something— because the Krell often retreat the bomber if threatened. Most of the time the Krell and the DDF fight over the falling debris. It often contains salvageable acclivity stone, which we can use to make more starfighters.”
“I suppose you might be right,” Arturo said, sounding dissatisfied. “But he asked for their basic strategy. The basic strategy is to try to destroy Alta.”
“Three out of four skirmishes never involve a lifebuster!” I said. “We think they’re trying to wear us down, destroy as many ships as possible, since it’s harder for us to replace them than it is for the Krell.”
“All right,” Cobb said, cutting in. “You two can show off for each other later. You’re both very smart. Now shut up.”
I sat back in my cockpit, uncertain if I should feel complimented or insulted. That . . . seemed a common mix of emotions when dealing with Cobb.
“Nobody in today’s battle has seen a lifebuster bomber,” Cobb said. “That doesn’t mean one couldn’t approach, but today’s debris fall does contain a lot of machinery with old acclivity rings.”
Ha! I thought. I was right. I looked to see if I could spot Arturo, to gloat, but couldn’t make him out in the lineup of ships.
“Sir,” Jerkface said, “something has always bothered me about
the way we fight. We respond to the Krell, right? When a debris fall comes, we fly out to check it. If we find Krell, we engage them.”
“Generally, yes,” Cobb said.
“So that means we always let them pick the battlefield,” Jerkface said. “Yet the way to win in war is to surprise the enemy. To keep them off balance. To make them think we’re not going to attack when we will, and vice versa.”
“Someone’s been reading a little too much Sun Tzu,” Cobb said. “He fought in a different era, flightleader—and with very different tactics.”
“Shouldn’t we at least try to bring the fight up to the Krell?”
Jerkface asked. “Attack their base beyond the debris field, wherever it is? Why does nobody talk about that?”
“There are reasons,” Cobb said. “And they’re not for cadets.
Stay focused on your current orders.”
I frowned at that, acknowledging—grudgingly—that Jerkface had asked good questions. I looked over my shoulder at the green proliferation that was Alta. Another thing struck me as strange. Cobb was an expert pilot, and a First Citizen. He’d flown in the Battle of Alta. If reserves were needed, even the illusion of them, why hadn’t he come up here with us?
We sat quietly for several minutes.
“So . . . ,” Bim said over the line. “Anyone want to help me pick a callsign?”
“Yeah,” Jerkface said. “I need one too.”
“I thought we already decided on yours, Jerkface,” Nedd said. “You cannot call your flightleader something embarrassing,”
“Why not?” Hurl asked. “What was that famous pilot, with the name about gas or—”
“Broken Wind,” I said. “One of the First Citizens. She only recently retired, and she was an amazing pilot. A hundred and thirty career kills. An average of twenty engagements a year.”
“I’m not going by Jerkface,” Jerkface said. “That’s an order.” “Sure thing,” FM said. “Jerkface.”
I smiled, looking out of my cockpit toward FM’s ship right beside mine. Had she known him before? I thought I could pick out a hint of an accent to her voice. The same one that laced the voices of the three boys—rich people accents, from the lower caverns. What was her story?
Lights continued to flash in the distance, and I found myself itching to grab the throttle, engage overburn, and send my ship blasting toward it. Pilots were fighting, maybe dying, while I just sat here? What kind of warrior was I?
The kind that crashed into the mess hall the first time she turned
on her engines, I thought. Still, I watched those lights, tried to imagine the battle, and squinted to try to catch a glimpse of a Krell ship.
I was still shocked when I saw one streaking toward us.
I’d seen hundreds of depictions of their ships in art. Small, bulbous, it had a strangely unfinished look—with wires trailing behind like tails. It had a small, opaque black cockpit. Most Krell ships exploded completely when damaged or when they crashed, but in some few, we’d recovered burned-out remnants of the wicked armor they wore. Never an actual Krell though.
“Jerkface!” I said. “Don’t call me—”
“Jorgen! Flightleader! Whatever! Look at your eleven, down about two hundred feet. You see that?”
He cursed softly.
Hurl said, “All right! The game is on!”
“It’s not a game, Hurl,” Jerkface said. “Instructor Cobb?” “Here. What is it?”
“Krell ship, sir. It looks like it flew low, under AA gun range, and is heading for Alta.”
Cobb didn’t respond immediately. I sat, sweating, hands on my controls, trailing that ship with my eyes.
“Flight Command knows about it,” Cobb reported back. “Your replacements are climbing into their ships now. They should get here soon.”
“And if they’re not fast enough?” I asked. “What if that ship has a lifebuster?”
“Flight Command has visual ID on it, Spin,” Cobb said. “The ship isn’t a bomber. A single ship can’t do that much damage.”
“Respectfully, sir, I disagree,” Jorgen said. “While the base is shielded, it could fire on the farmers with destructors, kill dozens before it’s—”
“I know the capabilities of the damn Krell, boy. Thank you.” Cobb took a deep breath. “It’s close?”
“Yes, sir. Getting closer.”
Silence over the line, then finally, “You may engage. But stay on the defensive. No grandstanding, cadet. I want you to distract it until the reinforcements get into the air.”
I nodded, nervous sweat slicking the sides of my head, inside my helmet. I got ready to fly.
“I’m on it, sir!” Jerkface said. “Nedder, you’re my wingmate!”
“Roger, Jorg,” Nedd said.
Two ships broke out of our line. And before I knew it, I had grabbed my throttle and zipped after them.
“Spin,” Jerkface said. “Back into line!”
“You need me,” I said. “The more of us there are, the more likely we’ll be to scare the thing off and back toward the real fighters!”
“And she’ll need a wingmate,” Hurl said, pushing out of line and tailing me.
“No, no!” Jerkface said. “Everyone else should stay in line!”
“Take her,” Cobb said. “Hurl and Spin, you’re with the flightleader and his wingmate. But the rest of you hold position. I don’t want you slamming into each other up there.”
Jerkface fell silent. Together, the four of us flew in an intercept course, picking up speed, moving to cut in front of the enemy fighter before it could get too close to Alta. I was worried we wouldn’t reach it in time, that it would zip right past us. But I needn’t have been so worried.
Because the moment we drew close enough, it swooped around and came straight for us.
My pulse raced. My face went cold.
But I realized, in that moment, that I wasn’t afraid.
I’d always worried that I would be. I talked big, I pretended like a champ. But how many fights had I actually been in? One or two scuffles with other kids when I was younger? Some sparring matches in judo classes?
A part of me had always worried that when I got into the sky, I’d panic. That I’d prove myself to be the coward everyone claimed I was. Like . . . like the lies said my dad had been.
But with a calm and steady hand, I eased up on the throttle and pulled into a turn, trying to position myself behind the enemy. I knew dogfighting techniques. I knew them backward and forward; I’d drawn them out in the margins of basically every set of notes I’d taken in class, regardless of the subject.
I was still hopeless. I made the curve way too wide, and Hurl
nearly smashed into me because we had banked at different times. “Wow,” Hurl said as the two of us recovered. “This is harder
than it seems, eh?”
The Krell ship chose Jorgen to attack, letting out a blast of glowing destructor fire. I tried to help, but my turn was too sharp this time. Jorgen, Nedd, and the Krell ship all zipped away behind me in a sequence of dogfighting maneuvers.
I blushed, feeling useless. I’d always assumed I’d just . . . well, take to this naturally. But I struggled to get my ship even pointed in the right direction.
The Krell pulled into position again behind Jerkface—who cursed softly, and then did a near-perfect twin-S dodge. Suddenly all of this became so much more real to me. That was one of my flightmates. And the enemy was doing its best to kill him.
“Nice work, Jorgen,” Cobb said. “But be careful with those maneuvers in the future. If you fly too much better than your companions, the Krell will immediately target you. If they can identify flightleaders, they attack them first.”
“Shouldn’t they attack the weakest pilots first?” FM asked. “The easiest to kill.”
But that wasn’t the way the Krell thought. They always targeted the best pilots they could find, in an attempt to destroy our chain of command.
“I’ll explain later,” Cobb said, voice tense. “Nedd, you need to stick closer to Jorgen, if you can. Make the Krell have to worry about you tailing it if it tries to tail him.”
It was fortunate the Krell focused on good pilots, because Hurl and I would have made easy target practice. We could barely steer. Jerkface though . . . he performed a perfect Ahlstrom loop, almost losing the Krell ship.
Unfortunately, Jerkface’s next spin wasn’t as masterful—he performed it well, but when he pulled out of it, he ended up accidentally pointed toward the rest of the flight. I heard him curse over the radio as he tried to swerve, but that sent shots from the pursuing enemy ship right into our team.
They scattered, ships twisting in all directions. Bim clipped Morningtide, the quiet girl with the tattoos. Their ships bounced away from each other, but didn’t hit anyone else. A few destructor blasts hit Rig’s ship full on, but his shield held. He still screamed over the radio as the flashes of light rocked his Poco.
I gritted my teeth, heart thumping as Hurl and I managed— finally—to head in the right direction. But that meant we passed among the scattering ships, and I nearly collided with Bim this time.
Scud. I understood the admiral’s reasoning, but there was no way we should be up here fighting. At this rate, the only funeral pyres burned today would be our own. Poor Kimmalyn had leaned on her altitude controls, and had retreated some five hundred feet below us.
Jerkface barely kept ahead of the Krell, though he’d long since outpaced Nedd. I pushed the throttle forward, and my ship compensated briefly for the g-forces, but after a few seconds they hit me, pushing me back in the seat, making me feel heavier.
“Where are those reinforcements!” Jerkface said as the enemy fired on him, blasting at his shield.
“Any moment now,” Cobb said.
“I may not have a moment!” Jorgen said. “I’m going to try to get the ship to follow me up high so the AA guns can shoot it. Radio them.”
“Done,” Cobb said. “The Krell ship’s shield is still up, so you might have to keep it in AA-gun range long enough for the gunners to score several hits.”
“Okay . . . I’ll try . . . What’s this red flashing light on my dash?”
“Your shield is down,” Cobb said softly.
I can save him, I thought, desperate. I have to save him! The two had gained a lot of altitude. My only hope was to get there fast, to tail the Krell ship and shoot it down. So I pointed my ship’s nose up and slammed my throttle forward, hitting overburn.
The g-force crushed me downward as I flew up, and I felt myself grow heavier. It was the strangest sensation, far different from what I’d imagined. I could feel my skin pulling down, like it was going to slide off my face, and my arms grew heavy—making it difficult to steer.
Worse, a wave of nausea hit me as my stomach was pulled downward. Within seconds I started to black out.
No . . . I was forced to grab the throttle and pull it back, slowing my ship. I barely managed to keep from losing consciousness.
Below, the massive AA guns that protected Alta began firing, but they seemed clunky and slow compared to the zipping fighters. Explosions blasted the air behind Jorgen’s little Poco and the strange unfinished Krell ship. In a burst of light, an AA gun hit the Krell, breaking its shield, but it kept flying, right on Jorgen’s tail.
There was no way its next shot would miss him.
At that moment, a single beam of pure light shot upward from below and pierced the Krell ship right through the center. It blasted apart in a flash of fire and debris.
Jorgen let out a long sigh. “Thank the reinforcements for me, Cobb.”
“That wasn’t them, son,” Cobb said.
“Oh!” Kimmalyn said. “Did I get it? I got it! Oh, are you okay, Jerkface?”
I frowned, looking down. That had been a shot from Kimmalyn. She’d positioned herself lower and over to the side, not to escape, but to get a good shot at the enemy without having to fire through the rest of us.
I was, quite frankly, stunned. Jorgen sounded like he shared the emotion. “Scud!” he said. “Quirk, did you just snipe a Krell fighter from long range?”
Cobb chuckled over the radio. “Guess the file is right on you, Quirk.”
“It’s . . . ,” she began, but then sighed. “Never mind. Quirk it is. Anyway, yes, sir.”
“What is this?” Jorgen asked.
“She’s the daughter of AA gunners from Bountiful Cavern,” Cobb said. “Historically, people with good accuracy on the smaller AA guns tend to make good pilots. The rotating seats in the small AA guns accustom one to moving and firing, and young Quirk here has some very impressive accuracy numbers.”
“I wasn’t even going to take the pilot’s test, to be honest,” she said in a conspiratorial tone. “But the DDF recruiters showed up and asked me for a demonstration, so I had no choice but to give it to them straight. ‘The best modesty is shown while bragging,’ as the Saint said. And after they told me I might be able to do it . . . well, I’ll admit I did get a tad excited by the idea.”
Suddenly her place among us made sense.
“Vocal sound off,” Jorgen said, sounding shaken. “Status report, starting with anyone wounded.”
“I . . . ,” Rig said. “I got hit.” “How hurt are you?”
“Just shaken,” Rig said. “Though I . . . I threw up in my ship.” Hurl laughed hard at that.
“Rigmarole, return to base,” Jorgen said immediately. “Morningtide, provide him with an escort. Everyone else into line.”
We obeyed, now far more reserved. The banter died off as we watched the firefight in the distance, but soon our replacements came up around us and spelled us off. Cobb ordered us back to base, and we accompanied the other cadet flight that had been used as fake reinforcements.
We landed near Rig’s and Morningtide’s ships; the two of them had already left, perhaps to take Rig somewhere to sit and calm down. He could get rattled easily; I’d have to find him and see if he needed someone to talk to.
As we climbed out of the ships, Hurl let out a whoop of excitement and ran for Kimmalyn. “Your first kill! If you hit ace before you’re done with flight school, I’ll hurl!”
Kimmalyn obviously didn’t know what to do with the praise as the rest of us gathered around, holding helmets and congratulating her. Even Jerkface gave her a nod and a raised fist of acclaim.
I edged my way to him. That had been some awesome flying.
“Hey, Jerkface . . . ,” I started.
He spun on me, and practically snarled. “You. We need to talk, cadet. You are in serious need of an attitude adjustment.”
What? Right when I was going to compliment him? “Coincidentally,” I snapped, “you are in serious need of a face adjustment.”
“Is this how it’s going to be? You insist on being a problem? Where did you get that flight suit anyway? I thought robbing corpses was illegal.”
Scud. He might have pulled off some awesome flightwork, but that face . . . I still just wanted to punch him.
“You watch yourself,” I said, wishing I had something to stand on to bring my eyes level with his. “When you are broken and mourning your fall from grace, I will consume your shadow in my own, and laugh at your misery.”
“You are a weird little girl, Spin.” Little girl?
“Attention!” Cobb shouted, limping up to our gathering.
I seethed, but—remembering how I’d been chewed out earlier—managed to keep my temper in check as I fell into line with the others. I pointedly did not look at Jerkface.
“That,” Cobb said, “was somehow the most embarrassing and inspiring display I’ve ever seen out of cadets! You should be ashamed. And proud. Grab your packs from our training room, then meet me in epsilon hall of the flight school building for bunk assignments. You all need to hose down and grub up.”
The other cadets rushed off. I tried to linger, to ask after Rig, but Cobb ordered me on ahead. Seemed he didn’t like people waiting for him while he limped.
I still trailed after the others, feeling . . . well, like Cobb had said, actually. Both ashamed and proud.
I’d flown. I’d been in a battle. I . . . I was in the Defiant Defense Force.
At the same time, my performance had been awful. For all my bragging and preparations, I’d been more of a liability than an asset. I had a lot of work to do.
And I would do it. I’d learn. I was a warrior, as Gran-Gran had taught me. And the warrior’s way was not to run from failure, but to own up to it and do better.
As we walked down the building’s hallways, the PA system cracked on. “Today’s fight was an incredible victory,” Admiral Ironsides said. “Proof of Defiant strength and tenacity. Remember what you fight for. Remember that if the enemy manages to get a lifebuster bomb into range, they can not only destroy this base, but everyone below, and everything we love. You are the line between civilization and madness.
“In particular, I’d like to acknowledge the new cadets of the as-of-yet-unnamed Cadet Flights B and C. Their first sortie proves that they, with possible exceptions, are a group to be admired.”
With possible exceptions. Scud. How could the admiral of the
entire DDF be so petty?
We walked to the classroom, where we’d left the packs of clothing we’d brought to Alta. As I swung my pack onto my shoulder, it banged into Hurl. The athletic girl laughed and made a wisecrack about how she’d almost crashed into me earlier, and I smiled. She seemed pumped up, rather than discouraged, by our performance.
As we walked toward the hallways with the cadet bunks, Hurl hung back with me so I wouldn’t have to walk alone. Ahead, the others laughed at something Nedd said, and I decided I wouldn’t let Ironsides get to me. I had my flight as my allies, and they seemed—Jerkface excepted—to be decent people. Maybe here, for the first time, I’d find a place where I would fit in.
We reached the cadet bunks, two hallways with rooms all along them—one hallway for the guys and a separate one for the girls. Everyone knew that there were strict no-romance rules during flight school; no funny business was allowed until after graduation. Who had time for that anyway? Though I had to admit, Bim did look pretty good in a flight suit. I liked the blue hair too.
We went with the boys to check on Rig. Their room was almost as small as the one I shared with Mom and Gran-Gran back in Igneous. The small chamber had a stacked-up set of two beds on each wall. Arturo, Nedd, and Jerkface had plaques on their beds, and Rig was already in the fourth one. A cot had been pulled in for Bim, poor guy.
Rig was sleeping—well, probably pretending to, but that meant he wanted to be alone for now. So the girls and I walked back to our hall. We located the room assigned to us, and it was just as small and cramped. It had four beds like the boys’ room, and each had a plaque saying who was to bunk there. Kimmalyn, Hurl, FM, and Morningtide, listed by their real names—but I preferred to think of them by their callsigns. Except maybe Kimmalyn. Did she really want to be known as Quirk? I’d have to talk to her about it.
Regardless, at the moment, I was distracted by something else.
There was no bed or plaque for me. Not even a cot.
“Well, that’s unfortunate,” Kimmalyn said. “Guess you ended up with the cot, Spin. Once they bring it. I’ll switch off with you every second night, if you want.”
That girl was way too nice to be in the military.
So where was my cot? I looked down the hallway and saw Cobb limping up. Two men in military police uniforms stopped in the hall behind him, then lingered—not advancing on us, but also conspicuously waiting.
I trailed up to Cobb, leaving the others in the room. “Sir?”
“I tried. They won’t listen.” He grimaced. “No bunk for you.
No meals in the mess hall.”
“What?” I couldn’t have heard him right.
“You are allowed in my classroom—I get ultimate say over that—but the rest of the DDF disagrees with what I’ve done. I have no authority over the facilities, and they’ve decided not to allocate resources to you. You can train, you can—fortunately— fly a Poco. But that’s it. I’m sorry.”
I felt my face grow cold, anger rising inside me. “How am I supposed to fly if I can’t even eat?”
“You’ll have to take meals down in Igneous,” he said, “where your family requisition chits will work. You’ll need to take the elevators down each night, and then back up in the morning.”
“The elevators can take hours!” I said. “I’ll spend all my free time commuting! How am I supposed to be a member of the flight if I can’t live with the others? This is— This is—”
“Outrageous,” Cobb said, meeting my eyes. “Agreed. Will you give up, then?”
I took a deep breath, then shook my head.
“Good girl. I’ll tell the others you were denied a bunk because of some stupid internal politics.” He glanced at the MPs. “Those cheerful fellows will show you the way out of the complex, and make sure you don’t sleep on the street.” He leaned in. “It’s just another fight, Spin. I warned you. They won’t make this easy. I’ll watch for a chance to fix this. Until then, stay strong.”
Then he hobbled away.
I slumped against the wall, feeling like someone had cut my legs off. I’m never going to belong, I realized. The admiral will make sure of it.
The MPs took Cobb’s departure as their cue to approach. “I’m going,” I said, shouldering my pack and walking toward the exit. They trailed behind.
I wanted to say goodbye to the others, but . . . I didn’t want to explain. So I just left. I’d answer the questions in the morning.
Suddenly, I felt exhausted.
Don’t let them see you bend, I thought, walking straight-backed. The MPs escorted me out of the building—and down one hallway we passed, I was fairly certain I spotted Ironsides watching to see that I left.
Once I was outside flight school though, the soldiers left me. So much for making sure I didn’t sleep on the street. Maybe that was exactly what Ironsides wanted—if I could get arrested for loitering, she might be able to have me kicked out of the DDF.
I found myself pacing outside the building, not quite wanting to leave. Not wanting to abandon the others, and the sense of camaraderie I’d been imagining.
Alone. Somehow, I was still alone.
“I just can’t stand it, Cobb!” a voice said nearby. Was that . . . Jerkface?
I inched closer to the building and looked around the corner. It was the back entrance to the school. And indeed, there was Jerkface standing near the doorway, talking to Cobb, who stood inside.
Jerkface threw his hands up. “How can I be flightleader if they don’t respect me? How can I give orders when they call me that? I have to beat it out of them somehow. Forbid it. Order them to obey.”
“Son,” Cobb said, “you don’t know much about the military, do you?”
“I’ve been training for this my whole life!”
“Then you should know. Respect doesn’t come with a patch or a pin. It comes from experience and time. As for the name, it’s started to stick, so you’ve got two valid options. Ignore it, roll with it, and hope it goes away—or embrace it and accept it, to take away the sting.”
“I won’t do that. It’s insubordinate.”
I shook my head. What a terrible leader. “Kid . . . ,” Cob began.
Jerkface folded his arms. “I have to get home. I’m expected for the formal dinner with the ambassador from Highway Cavern at nineteen hundred.” Jerkface walked out to an extremely nice- looking vehicle on the street. A private hovercar, with its own small acclivity ring? I’d seen them occasionally down below.
Jerkface climbed into the vehicle and started it up. The engine purred, somehow more primal than the smooth power of a booster.
Scuuuuuuud, I thought. How rich is this guy?
His family must have tons of merits to afford something like that. And that left him too rich to bunk with the others, it seemed. He pulled away in a smooth motion. It seemed distinctly unfair that the thing I was denied, he tossed aside like it was a bad bite of rat meat.
I shouldered my pack, then trudged off. I left through the gate in the walled DDF compound, where another set of MPs marked my passing on a notepad. Then I trudged down the wide street toward the elevators. My neighborhood was at the far edge of Igneous, so I really would spend hours and hours commuting this way. Maybe I could find someplace to stay nearer the elevators below?
It still made me feel sick. I walked to the elevator complex— but there were long lines, probably because of the problems they’d been having earlier. I braced myself for a wait, but then turned and looked to my left—beyond the buildings, beyond the fields. Though Alta Base itself had a shield and wall, this improvised town—full of farmers who were Defiant in another way—didn’t have a fence. And why would it need one? The only things out there were dust, rocks . . . and caverns.
A thought took me. It wasn’t far . . .
I stepped out of the line to the elevators and walked outward, past the buildings, past the crops. Farmers working there glanced at me—but didn’t say anything as I left the town behind. This was my real home: the caverns, the rocks, and the open sky. I’d spent more time here since Father’s death than I had down in Igneous.
It was about a thirty-minute walk to the cavern with the crashed ship, but I found my way without too much trouble. The opening was smaller than I remembered, but I had my light-line and was able to lower myself.
The old ship looked more broken-down than I remembered. Perhaps it was because I’d just flown something new. Still, the cockpit was comfortable, and the seat reclined all the way.
It was a stupid idea. If debris fell above, I could get caught in a cave-in. But I was too hurt, too wrung out, and too numb to care.
So it was that—lying in the improvised bunk of a forgotten ship—I drifted off to sleep.
Waking up in the cockpit of a starfighter was basically the most incredible thing that had ever happened to me. Well . . . next to
I stretched in the darkness, impressed by how much room the cockpit had. It was larger than those of the DDF ships. I engaged my light-line for a little illumination and checked the clock. 0430. Two and a half hours until I needed to report for class today.
All things considered, I wasn’t that tired. Just a little achy from—
Something was sitting and watching me from the inside rim of the cockpit.
The creature wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen in the caverns. It was yellow, for one thing. Flat, long, and kind of blobby, it had little blue spikes along its back, making a pattern against its bright yellow skin. It looked like a big slug the size of a loaf of bread, but thinner.
I couldn’t make out any eyes, but the way it folded up on itself—the front portion raised—reminded me slightly of a . . . a chipmunk? Like from the videos we’d watched in class of a few wildlife preservation caverns.
“What are you?” I asked softly. My stomach growled.
“And, equally importantly,” I added, “are you edible?”
It twisted its “head” sideways to look at me—though it still didn’t seem to have any eyes. Or a mouth. Or, well, a face. It did let out a soft trill, a flutelike sound, from its back spikes.
If I’d learned anything from collecting mushrooms in the caverns, bright colors meant: “Don’t eat me, or soon my brethren will be eating you, sapient one.” Better to not put the strange cave slug into my mouth.
My stomach growled, but when I fished in my pack, I found only half of an old algae ration bar. I might have had barely enough time to get down to Igneous for food, but that would feel like . . . like slinking home, tail between my legs, beaten.
The admiral wanted to break me, did she? Well, she didn’t know what she was up against. I was a world-class, highly trained, longtime expert rat girl.
I leaned my seat up and dug around in the back of the surprisingly spacious cockpit. Usually, every centimeter of room was needed in a fighter—though this one seemed to have a cargo spot behind the pilot’s chair and what looked like a fold-out jump seat for a passenger.
Last night, I thought I’d seen some old tools in here. Sure enough, I found a coil of plastifiber rope. The sealed cockpit had preserved it, though this stuff was pretty much indestructible anyway. I uncoiled some and unwound it into string.
The slug thing remained on the control panel, watching me, occasionally tilting its “head” and making flute noises.
“Yeah,” I said. “Well just you watch.” I pushed the canopy open all the way—I hadn’t dared close it last night, for fear that there wouldn’t be ventilation—and jumped down. As I had hoped, I heard scuttling in the darkness and found rat droppings near some mushrooms along the wall.
I’d have preferred my speargun, but in a pinch, a snare would work—set with my ration bar as bait. I stepped back, pleased. The slug had moved onto the wing of the old ship, and it fluted at me in a way that I chose to hear as inquisitive.
“Those rats,” I said, “shall soon know the wrath of my hunger, dispensed through tiny coils of justice.” I smiled, then realized I was talking to a weird cave slug, which was a new low even for me.
Still, I had some time to kill, so I looked over the ship. Originally, I’d contemplated fixing the thing. After finishing my test, I’d daydreamed an entire future in which I brought my own ship to the DDF and forced them to take me.
Those imaginings now seemed . . . farfetched. This thing was not in good shape. Not just that bent wing, or the broken boosters at the back. Everything that wasn’t in the cockpit was scratched up, warped, or ripped apart.
But maybe that was only the outside. If the guts were good, then perhaps the ship was fixable?
I fetched the toolbox. It had stood the test of time worse than the rope—it looked like a little moisture had gotten trapped in the box—but a rusty wrench was still a wrench. So I moved some rocks, then crawled in under the ship, near the acclivity ring. I knew some basic mechanics, like all the students, though I hadn’t studied that as hard as I had flight patterns and ship layouts. Rig had always chided me, saying a good pilot should be able to repair her ship.
I hadn’t ever imagined that I’d be in an old cavern, lit only by the red-orange glow of my light-line, trying to pry an access panel off an old piece of junk. I finally got the thing off and looked in, thinking back to my lessons.
That’s probably the booster intake and injection system, and that’s got to be the stabilizer for the acclivity ring . . .
There was a lot up in here that I didn’t recognize, though I was able to locate the power matrix—the half-meter-wide box that was the ship’s power source. I unhooked it with some difficulty, then crawled out and used my light-line to pull it from underneath the ship.
The wires that hooked it to the ship were in good shape, surprisingly. Whoever had built this thing had made the electronics to last. The power matrix also used the same plugs we did now— which were the types we’d used in the fleet, before crashing on Detritus. Maybe that could somehow help me place its age?
I crawled back down and looked into the bowels of the ship. But what’s this? I wondered, rapping my knuckles on a large black box. Sleek, reflective despite the weight of years, it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the machinery. But then, who was I to say what did and didn’t fit in a ship this odd?
On a whim, I opened up the tiny power matrix on my light-line, then plugged one of the smaller cords from the ship into it. A soft dinging came from the front of the ship, and a light turned on inside the access panel.
Scud. My light-line’s power matrix was obviously too weak, but if I had a real power source I might be able to get some of the ship’s functions running. It would still have a bent wing and broken boosters, but the idea was exciting to me. I looked back up into the ship’s innards.
The slug was inside, wrapped around a cord and hanging there, staring down at me with a distinctly inquisitive posture.
“Hey now,” I said. “How did you get in there?”
It fluted a response. Was it the same slug, or another? I crawled back out and checked, but I couldn’t see any other slugs around. I did hear a scrambling from near the wall, where my snare had caught a decently meaty-looking rat.
“See?” I said, peeking down under the ship. The slug dropped onto the rocks there. “And you doubted me.”
I skinned, gutted, and stripped the meat from the rat. The toolbox had a small microwelder, and my light-line’s power matrix was more than enough for that. With it, and a piece of metal, I made a frying pan—and soon I had some rat cooking. No seasoning, but I also didn’t have to go hungry.
I can use the lavatory at the school, I thought. They didn’t deny me that yesterday. And the lavatory had cleansing pods for washing up after PT. I could get some mushrooms in the mornings, set up more snares, and . . .
And was I really planning to live like a cavewoman?
I looked down at the cooking rat. It was either live here, or commute every night like the admiral expected me to.
This was a way to control my life. They wouldn’t give me food or a bunk? Fine. I didn’t need their charity.
I was a Defiant.
Sure enough, when I got to the training building at 0630, the MPs didn’t forbid me from going straight to the lavatory. I washed my
hands, waiting for a moment when the other women were gone. Then I quickly stripped down, threw my clothes and underclothes in the clothing bay, and swung into the cleansing pod—a machine shaped roughly like a coffin, but with a hole on the small end.
The cycle took less than two minutes, but I waited until the lavatory was empty again before climbing out and retrieving my now-clean clothing. By 0650, I was seated with everyone else in our classroom. The others chatted animatedly about the mess hall’s breakfast, which had included real bacon.
I will let my wrath burn within me, I thought to comfort myself, until the day when it explodes and vengeance is mine! Until then, let it simmer. Simmer like juicy bacon on a hot skillet—
Unfortunately, there was a larger problem. It was 0700, and one of the mock cockpits was still empty. Rig was late again. How in the stars had he been early to class every day for the last ten years, yet managed to be late to flight school twice in a row?
Cobb limped in, then stopped beside Rig’s seat, frowning. A few moments later, Rig himself darkened the doorway. I checked the clock, anxious, then did a double take. Rig had his pack over his shoulder.
Cobb didn’t say a word. He just met Rig’s eyes, then nodded.
Rig turned to go.
“What?” I said, jumping to my feet. “What?”
“There’s always one,” Cobb said, “the day after the first battle. Usually that comes later in the training than it did for you all, but it always happens.”
Incredulous, I chased after Rig, scrambling out into the hallway. “Rig?”
He kept walking.
“Rig? What are you doing?” I ran after him. “Giving up after one little battle? I know you got shaken up, but this is our dream!” “No, Spensa,” he said, finally stopping in the otherwise empty
hallway. “That’s your dream. I was only along for the ride.”
“Our dream. All that studying, all that practice. Flight school,
Rig. Flight school!”
“You’re repeating words like I can’t hear you.” He smiled. “But I’m not the one who doesn’t listen.”
He patted me on the shoulder. “I suppose I’m being unfair. I did always want to make it in. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the excitement when someone close to you dreams so big. I wanted to prove to myself that I could pass the test. And I did.
“But then I got up there, Spensa, and I felt what it was like . . . When those destructors hit me, I knew. I couldn’t do that every day. I’m sorry, Spensa. I’m not a pilot.”
Those words made no sense to me. Even the sounds seemed strange leaving his mouth, as if he’d somehow switched to some foreign tongue.
“I thought about it all night,” he said, sounding sorrowful. “But I know, Spensa. Deep down, I’ve always known I wasn’t cut out for battle. I just wish I knew what I was supposed to do now. Passing the test was always the end goal for me, you know?”
“You’re washing out,” I said. “Giving up. Running away.” He winced, and suddenly I felt awful.
“Not everyone has to be a pilot, Spensa,” he said. “Other jobs are important too.”
“That’s what they say. They don’t mean it.”
“Maybe you’re right. I don’t know. I guess . . . I need to think about it some more. Is there a job that involves only taking tests? I’m really good at that part, it turns out.”
He gave me a brief hug—during which I kind of stood there in shock—then walked off. I watched for a long while, until Cobb came out to get me.
“Dally any longer, cadet,” he said, “and I’ll write you up as being late.”
“I can’t believe you just let him go.”
“Part of my job is to spot which of you kids will best help out down here, instead of getting yourselves killed up there.” He shoved me lightly toward the room. “His won’t be the only empty seat when this flight graduates. Go.”
I walked back into the room and settled into my mockpit as the implication of those words sank in. Cobb almost seemed happy to send one of us away. How many students had he watched get shot down?
“All right,” Cobb said. “Let’s see what you remember from yesterday. Strap in, put on your helmets, and power on the holographic projectors. Get your flight into the air, flightleader, and prove to me it hasn’t all bled out your ears into your pillows. Then maybe I can teach you how to really start flying.”
“And weapons?” Bim asked, eager.
“Scud, no,” Cobb said. “You’ll just shoot each other down by accident. Fundamentals first.”
“And if we get caught in the air again, fighting?” Arturo asked. I still had no idea how to say his callsign. Amphibious? Something like that?
“Then,” Cobb said, “you’ll have to hope that Quirk will shoot them down for you, boy. Enough lip! I gave you cadets an order!”
I strapped in and engaged the device—but took one last look at Rig’s empty seat as the hologram went up around me.
We spent the morning practicing how to turn in unison.
Flying a starfighter wasn’t like piloting some old airplane, like a few of the outer clans used. Our ships not only had acclivity rings to keep us in the air—no matter our speed or lack thereof— starfighters had powerful devices called atmospheric scoops, which left us much less at the whims of wind resistance.
Our wings still had their uses, and the presence of atmosphere could be handy for many reasons. We could perform a standard bank, turning our ship to the side and swinging around like a bird. But we could also perform some starship-style maneuvers, like just rotating our ship the direction we wanted to go, then boosting that direction.
I got to know the difference intimately as we performed both maneuvers over and over and over, until I was almost tired of flying.
Bim kept asking about weapons. The blue-haired boy had an enthusiastic, genuine way about him, which I liked. But I didn’t agree with his eagerness to shoot guns—if I was going to outfly Jerkface someday, I had to learn the fundamentals. Sloppy turns were exactly what had slowed me down in the skirmish yesterday. So if Cobb wanted me to turn, I’d turn. I’d turn until my fingers bled—until I rubbed the flesh from my hands and withered away to a skeleton.
A skeleton who could turn really, really well.
I followed the formation to the left, then jerked downward by reflex as Hurl turned too far on her axis and swooped too far in my direction. She smashed right into FM, whose invisible shield deflected the hit. But FM wasn’t good enough to compensate for the shove, and she went spinning out of control the other direction.
Both went down, smashing into the rock surface in a pair of twin explosions.
“Scud,” FM said. She was a prim one, with her golden boot latches and her stylish haircut.
Hurl, however, merely laughed. She did that a lot, enjoying herself perhaps too much. “Wow!” she said. “Now that was an explosion. How many points do I get for that performance, Cobb?”
“Points? You think this is a game, cadet?” “Life is a game,” Hurl said.
“Yes, well, you just lost all your points and died,” Cobb said. “If you fall into an uncontrolled spin like that, eject.”
“Um . . . how do I do that, again?” Nedd asked.
“Seriously, Nedd?” Arturo asked. “We went over this yesterday. Look at the lever between your legs. See the big E on it? What do you think that stands for?”
“I figured it meant emergency.”
“And what do you do when there’s an emergency? In a fighter?
You . . .”
“Call you,” Nedd said. “And say, ‘Hey Arturo. Where’s the scudding eject lever?’”
Arturo sighed. I grinned, looking out my window toward the next ship in formation—I could barely see the girl inside. Morningtide, her tattoo visible even with her helmet on. She glanced away sharply. Not even a smile.
“Fly back in,” Cobb said to us. “It’s nearly time for lunch.” “Fly back in?” Bim complained. “Can’t we just turn off the
holograms and go grab some grub?”
“Sure. Turn it off, get something to eat, then keep walking on back to where you came from—because I don’t have time for cadets who refuse to practice their landings.”
“Er, sorry, sir.”
“Don’t waste radio waves with apologies, cadet. Just follow orders.”
“All right, flight,” Jerkface said. “Standard spread, bank to heading 165.”
We obeyed, maneuvering back into a line, and flew toward the virtual version of Alta. “Cobb,” I said, “are we going to practice recovering our ship from an uncontrolled descent?”
“Not this again,” he said. “You’ll very rarely be in such a situation—and so, if you are, I want you trained to yank that eject lever. I don’t want you distracted by some bravado about saving your ship.”
“What if we could have saved it, sir?” Jorgen said. “Shouldn’t a good pilot do everything he or she can in order to protect their acclivity ring? They’re rare enough that tradition states we should—”
“Don’t quote that stupid tradition to me,” Cobb snapped. “We need good pilots as much as we need acclivity rings. If you are in an uncontrolled descent, you eject. You understand me?”
A few of the others gave verbal confirmation. I didn’t. He hadn’t contradicted the most important fact—that if a cadet ejected and scuttled their ship, they would never fly again. Maybe once I became a full pilot I could think about ejecting, but for now I was never pulling that lever.
Having this taken away from me would be basically the same as dying anyway.
We landed, and the holograms shut down. The others started to pile out of the room toward the mess hall for lunch, laughing together about how spectacular FM and Hurl had looked when they exploded. Kimmalyn noticed me hanging back in the room, and tried to stop—but Cobb gently steered her from the room after the others.
“I explained the situation to them,” he said, stopping in the doorway. “The elevators say you didn’t go down to Igneous last night?”
“I . . . I know of a little cave, about a half hour’s hike outside of town. I figured it would save time to stay there. I’ve spent my life scavenging in the tunnels. I feel more comfortable there.”
“Suit yourself. Did you bring in a lunch today?” I shook my head.
“Do so from now on. I won’t have you distracted by hunger during training.” Then he left. Soon after, I heard voices in the distance. Laughter, echoing from the mess hall.
I considered getting in more training, but wasn’t certain I was allowed to use the machines without supervision. I couldn’t sit there and listen for an hour though, so I decided to take a walk. It was strange how exhausted I could feel from flying, yet still have so much nervous energy from sitting so long.
I exited the training building—noting the two MPs stationed in the hallway. Were they really there just to keep me from snatching a roll? That was a lot of resources for the admiral to expend to satisfy her rivalry with an insignificant cadet. On the other hand, if you were going to pick a fight, you should fight to win—and I had to respect that.
I left the DDF base and made my way to the orchard right outside the walls. Though there were workers here tending the trees, other people in uniforms walked among them, and benches had been set out along the path. It seemed I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the presence of real plant life. Not fungus or moss, but actual trees. I wasted a good five minutes feeling the bark and picking at the leaves, half convinced the whole thing would be made of some highly realistic plastic.
I eventually stepped out and looked up at the debris field. As always, I could make out vast patterns, muted greys and lines in the sky, though it was too distant to see any specifics. A skylight was moving straight overhead, bright enough that I couldn’t look directly at it without my eyes watering.
I didn’t spot any holes through the debris. That one moment with my father was the only time I’d ever seen into space itself— there were just too many layers of junk up there, orbiting in different patterns.
What had the people been like, the ones who had built all of this? Some of the kids in my clan had whispered that Detritus was actually Old Earth, but my father had laughed at that notion. Apparently the planet was far too small, and we had maps of Earth that it didn’t match.
But they had been human, or at least they’d used our language. Gran-Gran’s generation—the crew of the Defiant and its fleet— had known Detritus was here. They’d come to the old abandoned planet intentionally. To hide, though the landing had been far more destructive than they’d intended. I tried to imagine what it had been like for them. To leave the skies, to leave your ships, being forced to break into clans and hide. Had it been as strange for them to look up and see a cavern ceiling as it still was for me to look up and see the sky?
I continued to wander the orchard pathways. There was a certain rugged friendliness about the workers up here. They smiled at me as I walked past. Some gave me a quick, informal salute. I wondered how they’d react to hearing I was the daughter of Chaser, the infamous coward.
As I rounded the orchard and headed back toward class, I passed a number of people in suits and skirts getting an official tour of the orchards. That was the kind of clothing you saw on overseers below; people rich in merits who had been moved to deep caverns, the safer, better-protected locations that might survive a bomb. People like Jorgen and his cronies.
They seemed too . . . clean.
As I walked away, I spotted something curious: between the orchard and the base was a row of small vehicle hangars. The door to one of them was up, revealing Jerkface’s hovercar peeking out. I glanced in, noting the polished chrome and baby-blue colorings. Cool, soft, and obviously expensive. Why stash it here, outside the base?
Probably doesn’t want the other cadets asking for a ride, I thought. I resisted the urge to do something nasty to it. Barely.
I passed through the gate, then arrived at our training room before the others. I walked straight to my seat—already feeling like it had been too long since I’d been in a cockpit. I settled in, sighing, happy. I looked to the side, and found someone watching me.
I jumped practically to the ceiling. I hadn’t noticed Morningtide by the wall as I’d entered. Her real name was Magma or Magna, I couldn’t remember. Judging by the tray on the counter beside the Vician girl, she’d brought her food back here, and had eaten it alone.
“Hey,” I said. “What did they have? Smells like gravy. Algae paste stew? Potato mash? Pork chops? Don’t worry, I can take it. I’m a soldier. Give it to me straight.”
She just looked away, her face impassive.
“Your people are descended from marines, right?” I asked. “On board the Defiant? I’m the descendant of people from the flagship myself—the engine crew. Maybe our great-grandparents knew each other.”
She didn’t respond.
I gritted my teeth, then climbed out of the seat. I stalked right over to her, forcing her to look me in the eyes.
“You have a problem with me?” I demanded. She shrugged.
“Well, deal with it,” I said.
She shrugged again.
I tapped her on the collarbone. “Don’t taunt me. I don’t care how fearsome the Vician reputation is; I’m not going anywhere except up. And I don’t care if I have to step over your body to get there.”
I spun and walked back to my mockpit, settling down, feeling satisfied. I needed to show Jerkface a little of that. Spensa the warrior. Yeah . . . felt good.
The others eventually piled into the room, taking their positions. Kimmalyn sidled over. Her long, curly dark hair shook as she looked one way, then the other, as if trying to see if she was being watched.
She dropped a roll into my lap. “Cobb told us you forgot to bring a lunch,” she whispered. Then she stood up and walked the other way, speaking loudly. “What a lovely view of the sky we have! As the Saint always said, ‘Good thing it’s light during the day, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to see how pretty daytime is!’ ”
Cobb glanced at her, then rolled his eyes. “Buckle in,” he told the group. “Time to learn something new.”
“Weapons?” Hurl asked, eager. Bim nodded as he climbed into his seat.
“No,” Cobb said. “Turning. The other direction.” He said it completely straight, and when I snickered, he glared at me. “That wasn’t a joke. I don’t joke.”
Sure you don’t.
“Before we get to turn on the holograms,” Cobb continued, “I’m supposed to ask how you feel about your instruction so far.”
“What?” Nedd asked, squeezing his large frame into his cockpit. “Our feelings?”
“Yes, your feelings. What?”
“I’m just . . . surprised, Cobb,” Nedd said.
“Asking questions and listening is a big part of effective teaching, Nedder! So shut up and let me get on with it.”
“Um, yes, sir.”
“Flightleader! Your thoughts?” Cobb said.
“Confident, sir. They’re a ragtag bunch, but I think we can teach them. With your expertise and my—”
“Good enough,” Cobb said. “Nedder?”
“Right now, a little confused . . . ,” Nedd said. “And I think I ate too many enchiladas . . .”
“Bored, sir,” she said. “Can we just get back to the game?” “Two-headed-dragon-stupid-name!”
“Amphisbaena, sir!” Arturo said. “I honestly haven’t been highly engaged by today’s activities, but I expect that practicing fundamentals will prove useful.”
“Bored,” Cobb said, writing on his clipboard, “and thinks he’s smarter than he is. Quirk!”
“Pilots are never ‘peachy,’ girl. We’re spirited.”
“Or,” I added, “briskly energized by the prospect of dealing
death to the coming enemies.”
“Or that,” Cobb said. “If you’re psychotic. Morningtide.” “Good,” the tattooed woman whispered.
“Speak up, cadet!” “Good.”
“And? I’ve got three lines here. Gotta write something.”
“I . . . I can’t bother . . . of much . . . ,” she said, her voice heavily accented. “Good. Good enough, right?”
Cobb looked up from his writing board and narrowed his eyes. Then he wrote something on the board.
Morningtide blushed and lowered her gaze.
She doesn’t speak English, I realized. Scud. I’m an idiot. The old ships had represented various Earth cultures—of course there would be groups that, after three generations of hiding as isolated clans, didn’t speak my language. I’d never thought about it before.
“Bim?” Cobb asked next. “Boy, you have a callsign yet?”
“Still thinking!” Bim said. “I want to get it right! Um . . . my
response . . . er, when do we learn weapons again?”
“You can have my sidearm right now,” Cobb said, “if you promise to shoot yourself. I’ll just write ‘eager to get himself killed.’ Stupid forms. FM!”
“Constantly amazed by the toxic aggression omnipresent in Defiant culture,” said the well-dressed girl.
“That’s a new one.” Cobb wrote. “Sure the admiral will love that. Spin?”
“Hungry, sir.” Also, I was stupid. Extremely stupid. I glanced again at Morningtide, and thought back to how she’d always seemed standoffish. That had a new context, now that I listened for the thick accent and the misspoken words. The way she’d looked aside when someone talked to her.
“All right, that’s done, finally,” Cobb said. “Buckle in and fire up the holograms!”
“You are the weakest point in our defenses,” Cobb said, walking through the center of the classroom, speaking to the nine of us in
our seats, our holograms not yet engaged. “Your ship can accelerate at incredible speeds and make turns you can’t survive. It is far more capable than you are. If you die up there, it won’t be because the ship failed you. It will be because you failed the ship.”
A week had passed already, almost in a blur. Training each day in the simulations, doing time in the centrifuge, then sleeping each night in the cockpit of the ancient ship. I was beyond tired of unseasoned rat and mushrooms.
“G-forces are your biggest enemy,” Cobb continued. “And you can’t just watch your g-forces, you have to be aware of which direction they’re pushing on you. Human beings can take a reasonable amount of g-force backward, like when you’re going in a straight line.
“But if you pull up or do a hard bank, the g-forces will push downward, forcing the blood out of your head into your feet. Many people will g-lock—go unconscious—after pulling only nine or ten Gs that way. And if you turn on your axis, then boost another direction like we’ve been practicing . . . Well, you can easily push over a hundred Gs, enough to turn your insides to soup by the sudden jerk in momentum.”
Nedd raised his hand. “So, why did we learn those moves?” “GravCaps,” I said.
Cobb pointed at me and nodded. “Your ships can compensate for sudden extreme g-forces. DDF vessels have things called Gravitational Capacitors. When you change direction or accelerate quickly, the GravCaps will engage and deflect the force. GravCaps can work for about three seconds before needing a brief moment to recharge, so they’re of most use when making tight turns.”
I knew this already. In fact, Nedd probably would have known it, if he’d been forced to study for the test. So I let my mind wander, thinking of my broken-down ship. I hadn’t made much progress on the ancient ship, as I’d spent most of my time hunting and curing rat meat. I still needed to find a power matrix somewhere . . .
“Your ships have three kinds of weapons,” Cobb said.
Wait, weapons? My attention snapped back to the class, and I noted Bim also perking up. It was cute how he responded to any mention of weapons in an overeager-puppy sort of way.
“Yes, Bim,” Cobb said. “Weapons. Don’t wet yourself with excitement. The first of these three is your basic destructor—your primary weapon, but also your least effective. It shoots a concentrated beam of energy, and is usually fired in bursts at short range.”
Cobb stopped near Kimmalyn’s seat. “Or, less often, it can be charged for very precise long-range sniping. Most pilots only use this function for finishing off disabled ships, or perhaps picking off an enemy during an ambush. Hitting an active target at distance with a destructor requires incredible skill.”
“Don’t get cocky,” Cobb said, walking on. “A destructor is practically useless against a shielded foe—though you’ll still fire them at every opportunity, as it’s human nature to hope for a lucky hit. I’ll attempt to beat this out of you, but honestly, even full pilots cling to their destructors like they’re scudding letters from their childhood sweetheart.”
“That wasn’t a joke,” Cobb snapped. “Holograms on.”
We powered up the devices, and suddenly we were on the launchpad. Once we were up in the air and had done verbal confirmations, Cobb’s voice crackled in my helmet’s speaker. “All right. Stars help us, it’s time for you to start shooting. The destructor trigger is the button next to your index finger on the control sphere. Go ahead.”
I hesitantly pressed the button. A burst of three white-hot blasts shot in rapid succession from the pencil nose of my ship. I grinned and pressed it again and again, firing bursts one after another. Just like that, I was granted the very power over life and death! And for more than rats!
“Don’t wear it out, Spin,” Cobb said. “See the dial on your throttle? The one you can rotate with the thumb of your left hand? That’s the destructor rate control. Top position is steady fire. It’s loved by every drooling, meathead, idiot pilot who didn’t train with me.”
“What about those of us who are still drooling, meathead idiots?” Nedd asked. “But did train with you?”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Nedder,” Cobb said. “I’ve never seen you drool. Second position on the dial is burst. Third position is a charged long-range shot. Indulge yourselves. Get it out of your system.”
He made a bunch of Krell ships appear in the air in front of us. They didn’t fly or move; they simply hung there. Target practice? I’d always wanted to do target practice—ever since I’d been a little girl, throwing rocks at other, more nefarious-looking rocks.
Together, we launched a hailstorm of death and devastation through the air.
We missed by what seemed like miles. Even though the ships weren’t that far away. I gritted my teeth and tried again, switching between different destructor modes, angling my ship with my control sphere, firing with everything I had. But scud . . . for how close everything looked, there sure was a lot of empty space to shoot.
Jerkface finally got a hit, knocking one of the ships down in a spray of fire. I grunted, focusing on a single vessel. Come ON.
“Go ahead, Quirk,” Cobb said.
“Oh, I thought I’d give them a chance, sir!” Kimmalyn said. “‘Winning isn’t always about being the best,’ you know.”
“Humor me,” Cobb said.
“Well, okay.” Her ship charged for a couple of seconds, then released a focused line of light—which blasted a Krell ship from the sky. She repeated the feat again, and again, and then did it a fourth time.
“Kind of like trying to hit the floor with a rock, sir,” she said. “They aren’t even moving.”
“How?” I asked, in awe. “How did you learn to shoot like that, Quirk?”
“Her father’s training,” Hurl said. “Remember? The story with the mushroom that looked like a squirrel?”
FM laughed, and I even heard a peep out of Morningtide. But no, I didn’t know any stories about mushrooms or squirrels—it had to be a story they’d chatted about at night, in the bunks. While I was walking back to my cave.
I pressed hard on my destructor button, and managed— remarkably—to finally hit one of the targets. The way it sprayed sparks as it fell was immensely satisfying.
“All right,” Cobb said. “That’s enough of that stupidity. I’m shutting down your destructors.”
“But we only just got them!” Bim said. “Can’t we do a little dogfighting or something?”
“Sure, all right,” Cobb said. “Here you go.”
The remaining Krell fighters—the dozen or so we hadn’t managed to shoot down—suddenly came streaking toward us, destructors blazing. Hurl let out a whoop, but I snapped into focus and dove out of the way.
Kimmalyn went down first, in an immediate flash of light and sparks. I dove into a twirling spin, watching the red line on my canopy that indicated in the real world how much g-force I’d be feeling. Cobb was right—the GravCaps protected me when I did a quick turn, but I had to be careful not to run them out midturn, then slam myself with all that g-force.
I pulled up, and fire and explosions surrounded me, debris from the ships of other cadets raining down.
“We’ve tried to reverse engineer Krell technology,” Cobb said in a calm voice, a striking contrast to the insanity around me. Nedd screamed as he was hit. Morningtide went down quietly. “But we have failed. They have better destructors and better shields. That means, fighting them, you’re outgunned and outarmored.”
I was consumed entirely with survival. I swerved, dodged, and spun. Three Krell ships—three—swooped in on my tail, and one hit me with a destructor shot. I cut right hard, but another shot took me, and the warning light started flashing on my control panel. Shield down.
“You’ll have to hit a Krell a half dozen times to bring down their shields,” Cobb said. “But they will do the same to you with two or three hits.”
I pulled up into a loop. Blasts marked the deaths of my companions—flares in the dim sky. Only one other ship was still flying, and I knew—without needing to see the numbers on the fuselage—that it would be Jorgen. He was a way better pilot than I was.
That still grated on me. I growled, spinning in that wide loop, trying to get one of the enemy into my sights. Almost . . . there . . . My controls went dead. The ship stopped responding. During that loop, I’d redlined the g-forces, and the GravCaps had run out. Though my body couldn’t feel it here, if I’d been in an actual ship
I’d have passed out.
A Krell ship disposed of me with a passing—almost offhand— shot, and my hologram fuzzed. Then my canopy vanished, and I was in the classroom. Jorgen managed to last another seventeen seconds. I counted.
I sat back in my seat, pulse thumping rapidly. That had been like witnessing the end of the world.
“Let’s assume you were approaching competence,” Cobb said. “A remarkable fantasy, I realize, but I’m ever an optimist. If you managed to fly better than the average Krell ship, you’d still be at a severe disadvantage using only destructors.”
“So we’re screwed?” FM said, standing up.
“No. We just have to fight differently—and we have to even the odds somehow. Strap back in, cadet.”
She did, and the holograms started again with us in the sky in a line. The Krell ships reappeared in a silent formation in front of us. I eyed them more suspiciously this time, index finger itching to spray them with destructor fire.
“Dragon-boy,” Cobb said to Arturo. “Press the buttons next to your third and fourth fingers. Hit them both at once.”
My ship shook, and a little pop of light exploded from Arturo, like a radiant splash of water.
“Hey!” Hurl said. “My shield is down.” “Mine too,” said Kimmalyn.
“And mine,” Arturo added.
“Mine’s up,” Jerkface said, as did several others.
Arturo’s shield went down, I thought, as did those of the two ships next to him in line. I leaned forward, looking out the cockpit canopy, keenly interested. In my days of studying, I’d been taught booster specs, flight patterns, acclivity rings—basically everything about the fighters except weapon specifics.
“The IMP,” Cobb said. “Inverted Magellan Pulse. It will completely negate any protective shield a ship emits—including, unfortunately, your own. It has an extremely short range, so you’ll basically have to be crawling into a Krell’s engines before you activate it.
“The key to beating the Krell is not to pound them with destructor shots. It’s to outmaneuver them, team up against them, and outthink them. Krell fly individually. They barely support one another.
“You, instead, will fight in traditional wingmate pairs. You’ll work to engage the IMP in a way that gives your wingmate a clear, unshielded shot. But you also always need to be aware—engaging the IMP leaves you exposed and vulnerable until you reignite your shield.”
A sudden burst of light from nearby sent FM cursing softly. “Sorry!” Morningtide said with her thick accent. “Sorry,
sorry!” It was the most I’d heard out of her all day. “What’s the third weapon?” Jerkface said.
“Light-lances,” I guessed. I’d read the term, but again, the specifics on what they did weren’t covered in the books.
“Ah, so you know about them, Spin,” Cobb said. “I thought you might. Give us a little display.”
“Um, okay. But why me?”
“They work very similarly to their smaller cousins: light-lines.
I have a hunch you’ve got some experience there.”
How did he know? I wore my light-line to class, as I needed it to get in and out of my cavern, but I thought I’d kept it hidden under the long sleeve of my jumpsuit.
“Thumb and little finger,” Cobb said, “buttons on either side of the control sphere.”
Well, sure. Why not? I pushed the throttle forward and moved out of line, approaching the hovering Krell ships. I picked one, the wires at its rear floating down behind it. Like all ships, it had an acclivity ring—with a standard size of about two meters in diameter—glowing with a soft blue light underneath.
The Krell looked even more sinister up close. It had that strange, unfinished feel to it, though it wasn’t actually incomplete. Those wires hanging from the back were probably intentional, and its design was simply alien. Not unfinished, but made by creatures that didn’t think like humans did.
I held my breath, then clicked the buttons Cobb had indicated. A line of molten red light launched from the front of my ship and attached to the Krell ship. As Cobb had indicated, it worked just like the light-line, but larger—and launched from my ship like a harpoon.
Wow, I thought.
“Light-lances,” Cobb said. “You’ve probably seen their smaller cousins on the wrists of pilots; they were used by the engineering department in the old fleet to anchor themselves while they worked on machines in zero gravity. Spin has one, somehow— which I’ve decided not to mention to the quartermaster.”
“You can thank me by shutting up when I’m talking,” Cobb said. “Light-lances work like a kind of energy lasso, connecting you to something you spear with it. You can use it to attach to an enemy ship, or you can use it on the terrain.”
“The terrain?” Arturo asked. “You mean we stick ourselves to the ground?”
“Hardly,” Cobb said.
The sky exploded above and I looked up, gasping, as the ubiquitous haze of debris began to rain down balls of fire. Superheated metal and other junk, turned into falling stars by the heat of re-entry.
I quickly spun my ship, then pushed on the throttle and moved back toward the line. It took a few minutes for the debris to start falling around us, some chunks glowing more brightly than others. They moved at a variety of speeds, and I realized some of the falling junk had acclivity stone glowing blue inside it, giving it some lift.
The junk smashed into several of the Krell fighters, pulverizing them.
“The Krell usually attack during debris falls,” Cobb said. “The Krell don’t have light-lances, and though they tend to be maneuverable, a DDF ship with a good pilot can outpace and outfly them. You’ll often engage them in the middle of the falling debris. In there, the light-lance will be your best tool—which is why we’re going to spend the next month training on them. Any idiot with a finger can fire a destructor. But it takes a pilot to fly the debris and use it as an advantage.
“I’ve seen pilots use the light-lances to pull Krell into one another, stick them to space junk, or even yank a wingmate out of danger. You can pivot unexpectedly by attaching yourself to a big chunk and swinging around it. You can toss debris at your enemy, instantly overwhelming their shield and smashing them. The more dangerous the battlefield, the more advantage the better pilot will have. Which, when I’m done, will be you.”
We watched the debris fall, burning light reflecting against my canopy. “So . . . ,” I said. “You’re saying that by the end of our training, you expect us to be able to use grappling hooks made of energy to smash our enemies with flaming chunks of space debris?”
“That . . . ,” I whispered, “that’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.”
I tied off the set of wires—working by red-orange glow in the otherwise dark cavern—then wrapped them in tape. There, I thought, stepping back and wiping my brow. Over the last few weeks, I’d managed to find a working power matrix in an old water heater at an Igneous recycling facility. I knew the guy who worked there, and he let me trade him rat meat to look the other way as I did some salvaging.
I’d also retrieved some supplies from one of my hidden dumps outside Igneous. I’d made a new speargun, and had fashioned a kitchen that had a real hot plate, a dehydrator, and some spices. I’d stopped by my home to fetch Bloodletter, my old stuffed bear. He made a fine pillow. It had been good to see my mother and Gran-Gran, though of course I hadn’t told them I was living in a cave.
“Well?” I asked Doomslug the Destroyer. “Think it will work?”
The little yellow-and-blue cave slug perked up on the rock nearby. “Work?” she fluted.
She could imitate noises, but there was always a distinctly fluty sound to what she said. I was pretty sure she was just mimicking me. And to be honest, I didn’t know if “she” was a she—weren’t slugs, like, both or something?
“Work!” Doomslug repeated, and I couldn’t help but take that in an optimistic light.
I flipped the switch on the power matrix, hoping my little hotwire job would hold. The diagnostic panel on the side of the old ship flickered, and I heard a strange sound coming from the cockpit. I hurried over and climbed onto the box I used as a ladder to get in.
The sound came from the instrument panel—it was low, kind of industrial. Metal vibrating? After I listened for a moment, it changed tone.
“What is that?” I asked Doomslug, looking to my right and—
as expected—finding her there. She could move very quickly when she wanted to, but seemed to have an aversion to doing so when I was watching.
Doomslug cocked her head to one side, then the other. She shivered the spines on her back and imitated the noise.
“Look how low the lights are.” I tapped the control panel. “This power matrix isn’t big enough either. I’ll need one made for a ship or a building, not a water heater.” I turned it off, then checked the clock on my light-line. “Keep an eye on things while I’m gone.”
“Gone!” Doomslug said.
“You don’t have to act so excited about it.” I quickly changed into my jumpsuit, and before I left, I took another glance at the ship. Fixing this thing is way beyond me, I thought. So why am I trying?
With a sigh, I hooked the end of my light-line to a rock, threw it up to smack against a stone near the entrance to my cave, then grabbed hold and hauled myself up to the crevice so I could shimmy out and head to class for the day.
* * *
Roughly an hour and a half later, I shifted my helmet—which was chafing my head—then grabbed my ship controls and buzzed past an enormous floating piece of debris. In real life that would have been dropping in a fiery blaze, but in the hologram Cobb had suspended the chunks in midair for us to practice on.
I was getting pretty good at dodging between them, though I wasn’t certain how well that skill would translate once they started—you know—hurtling down from above with horrific destructive potential. But hey, baby steps.
I launched my light-lance, which burst from a turret on the underside of my ship. A glowing line of red-orange energy speared the large piece of space junk.
“Ha!” I said. “Look at that! I hit it!”
After I flew past the chunk, however, the light-lance grew taut, and my momentum caused me to pivot. My ship spun on the line—setting off my GravCaps—then slammed into a different chunk of floating debris.
When I was younger, we’d played a game with a ball on a string, connected to a tall pole. If you pushed on the ball, it would spin around the pole. The light-lances were similar, only in this game, the debris was the pole and I was the ball.
Cobb sighed in the ear of my helmet as my hologram went black upon my death.
“Hey,” I pointed out, “at least I hit the thing this time.” “Congratulations,” he said, “on that moral victory as you die.
I’m sure your mother will be very proud, once your pin is sent back to her as a melted piece of slag.”
I huffed and sat up, leaning out of my cockpit to look toward Cobb. He walked through the center space in the room, speaking into a hand radio to communicate with us through our helmets, even though we were all right next to each other.
The ten mockpits made a circle, and the floor in the center had its own projector, one that spat out a tiny reproduction of what we were experiencing. Eight little holographic ships buzzed around Cobb, who watched us like some enormous god.
Bim slammed straight into a piece of debris near Cobb’s head, and the shower of sparks looked kind of like our instructor had suddenly had a really great idea. Perhaps the realization that the lot of us were worthless.
“Zoom out your proximity sensors, Bim!” Cobb said. “You should have seen that piece floating there!”
Bim stood up out of his hologram and pulled off his helmet. He ran his hand through his blue hair, looking frustrated.
I pulled back into my cockpit as my ship reappeared at the edge of the battlefield. Morningtide was there, hovering, watching the others flit between chunks of metal. It looked like Gran-Gran’s descriptions of an asteroid field, though of course it was in atmosphere, not up in space. We usually engaged the Krell at a height of somewhere between ten thousand and forty thousand feet.
Bim’s ship appeared near us, though he wasn’t in it. “Morningtide!” Cobb said. “Don’t be timid, cadet! Get in there!
I want you to swing from so many scudding lines of light that you get rope burns!”
Morningtide flew timidly into the field of debris.
I shifted my helmet again; it was seriously bothering me today. Maybe I needed a break. I turned off my hologram and stood up out of my seat to stretch, watching Cobb as he inspected a run that Jerkface was doing with Nedd as a wingmate. I put my helmet on my seat, then walked over to Morningtide’s hologram.
I peeked in, my head appearing as if in the top of her cockpit. She was huddled inside, an intense look on her tattooed face. She noticed me, then quickly took off her helmet.
“Hey,” I said softly. “How’s it going?”
She nodded in Cobb’s direction. “Rope burns?” she asked softly, with her thick accent.
“It’s when you rub your hand on something so fast, it hurts. Like if you scrape yourself on carpet—or on ropes. He just wants you to practice more with the light-lance.”
“Ah . . .” She tapped her control panel. “What was he said before? About prox . . . proximation?”
“We can zoom the proximity sensors,” I said, speaking slowly. I reached down and pointed at a toggle. “You can use this to make the sensor range bigger? Understand?”
“Ah, yes. Yes. Understand.” She smiled thankfully.
I gave her a thumbs-up and pulled out of her hologram. I caught Cobb glancing at me, and he seemed approving, though he quickly turned away to yell at Hurl—who was trying to get FM to bet her dessert on the outcome of the next run.
Perhaps it would have been easier for Cobb to explain himself better, but Morningtide did seem to understand most of the instruction. She was merely embarrassed about what she misunderstood, so I tried to check in on her.
I settled into my seat, then felt around inside my helmet, trying to figure out what was bothering me. What are these lumps? I thought, prodding the inside of the helmet. Maybe the size of a requisition chit or a large washer, the round lumps were underneath the inside lining of the helmet, and each had a small metal portion at the center, sticking through the lining. Had those been there before?
“Problem, cadet?” Cobb asked.
I jumped; I hadn’t seen him approach my mockpit. “Um, my helmet, sir. Something’s wrong with it.”
“Nothing’s wrong, cadet.”
“No, look. Feel in here. There are these—”
“Nothing’s wrong, cadet. Medical ordered your helmet swapped out this morning, before you arrived. It has sensors to monitor your bioreadings.”
“Oh,” I said, relaxing. “Well, I suppose that makes sense. But you should tell the others. It might distract some of the flight if their—”
“They only swapped out your helmet, cadet.”
I frowned. Only mine? “What . . . kind of readings are they taking about me, then?”
“I wouldn’t want to guess. Is this a problem?”
“. . . I suppose not,” I said, though it made me uncomfortable. I tried to read meaning into Cobb’s expression, but he was stoic as he met my eyes. Whatever this was, he obviously wasn’t going to tell me. But I couldn’t help feeling that it had something to do with my father, and the admiral’s dislike of me.
I pulled on the helmet, activating the radio and then my hologram. “Bim!” Cobb said in my ear, acting as if nothing had happened. “You knitting a sweater or something? Back into your seat!”
“If I have to,” Bim said.
“Have to? You want to go sweep floors instead of being a fighter pilot, boy? I’ve seen rocks that fly almost as well as you do—I could drop one in your seat, paint the head blue, and at least I’d stop getting lip!”
“Sorry, Cobb,” Bim said. “No lip intended, but . . . I mean, I talked to some cadets from Firestorm Flight this morning. They’ve been dogfighting this entire time.”
“Good for them! When they’re all dead, you can move into their room.” Cobb sighed—loudly, in an exaggerated way. “Here, let’s try this.”
A set of glowing golden rings appeared on the battlefield. They were just larger than a ship, and several were dangerously close to floating chunks of debris.
“Line up and confirm,” Cobb said.
“You heard the man!” Jerkface said. “Fall in at my mark!”
The eight of us flew to Jerkface’s ship and settled into a line, then gave him verbal confirmation.
“Flight ready, instructor!” Jerkface said.
“Here are the rules,” Cobb said. “Each ring you pass through gets you one point. Once you begin a run, you have to maintain a speed of at least Mag-1, and you can’t circle around if you miss a ring. There are five rings, and I’ll let you each do three runs through the course. Highest score gets two desserts tonight—but a warning, if you crash, you’re out with your score frozen where it was before you died.”
I perked up and tried not to dwell on the idea that the prize was useless to me. At least this might distract me from the uncomfortable helmet.
“A game,” Hurl said. “Like, you’re actually going to let us have fun?”
“I can have fun,” Cobb said. “I know all about having fun. Most of it involves sitting and dreaming of the day when you all stop asking me stupid questions!”
“That wasn’t a joke!” Cobb said. “Go.”
Hurl whooped and hit her overburn, zipping toward the debris field. I responded nearly as fast, accelerating to Mag-3, and almost beat her to the first ring. I flew through it right behind her, then glanced at my radar. Bim, FM, and Morningtide were on my tail. Arturo and Nedd flew in formation, as they often did. I expected Kimmalyn to be last, but she actually flew ahead of Jerkface—who delayed for some reason.
I focused on the course, racing through the next ring. The third one was practically behind a big chunk of debris. The only way through it at speed would be to use a light-lance to turn extra sharp.
Hurl whooped again and executed a near-perfect hook turn through the ring. I made the tactical decision to shoot past it— which proved wise as Bim tried to pivot through it, and smashed right into the chunk of debris.
“Scud!” he yelled as his ship exploded.
Jerkface still hasn’t started the course, I noted.
I made the fourth ring—it hovered between two hunks of debris—but missed the last one, which was behind a large floating metal box, requiring a light-lance turn to spin around it. I ended that run with three points, though Hurl got four. I hadn’t counted the others. Poor Kimmalyn crashed getting through the fourth ring.
The rest of us curved around the outside of the debris field for another run, and Jerkface finally flew in for his first run. He was watching to see us go through, I realized. He was scouting the battlefield.
Clever. Indeed, he got four rings like Hurl.
Hurl immediately raced in for her second run, and I realized that—in our eagerness—we’d been going several times faster than Cobb’s stated minimum speed. Why would we want to fly faster? Simply to get done first? Cobb hadn’t offered any points for that.
Stupid, I thought. It isn’t a race. It’s a test of precision. I slowed down to Mag-1 as Hurl—trying to hook that third ring again for the sharp turn—lost control and slammed herself into a nearby chunk of rock.
“Ha!” she exclaimed. She didn’t seem to care that she’d lost.
She just seemed happy that there was a game to it now.
I focused on the third ring, going over and over in my head the things Cobb had taught. As I swooped past, I launched my light-lance into the asteroid and not only hooked it, but—to my surprise—swung around on the energy line so that I curved right through the ring.
Bim whistled. “Nice one, Spin.”
I released the light-lance and pulled up.
“You wanna try this one, Arturo?” Nedd asked as the two of them flew toward the third ring.
“I think our chances of victory are higher if we skip that ring each pass.”
“Too bad!” Nedd said, then hooked Arturo with his light-lance and pulled him after, diving for the ring.
Of course they both crashed. I hit the fourth ring easily, zipping between the two flying chunks of debris. But I missed the fifth one, spearing only air with my light-lance.
“Nedd, you idiot,” Arturo said in my ear. “Why did you do that?”
“I wanted to see what would happen,” Nedd answered.
“You wanted . . . Nedd, it was obvious what would happen.
You just got us both killed!”
“Better here than the real world.” “Better neither. Now we won’t win.”
“I never eat my first dessert though,” Nedd said. “Bad for the bod, my friend.”
The two went on bickering over the radio. FM, I noticed, didn’t try either of the difficult rings—she stuck to the three that were easier.
I gritted my teeth, focusing on the contest. I had to beat Jorgen. It was a matter of honor.
He finished his second run with four points again, making the third ring but skipping the last one, which was hardest. That put him at eight points, and me at only seven. FM, playing it safe, would be at six. I wasn’t sure about Morningtide, but she tried the last ring and missed, so I was probably ahead of her.
The four of us remaining swooped around for our final run. Again, Jerkface hung back, waiting for the rest of us to go first. Fine, I thought, hitting overburn and zipping through the first ring. I had to hit every one of these to have a chance. FM, notably, didn’t try to fly through even the first ring. She just zoomed carefully over the top of the course.
“FM, what are you doing?” Cobb asked.
“I figure these clowns will all get themselves killed, sir. I could probably win without any points at all.”
No, I thought, streaking through the second ring. He said we keep our points if we crash—we merely can’t get any more. So she wouldn’t win, careful or not. Cobb had accounted for that.
I approached the third ring, hands sweating. Come on . . . Go! I launched the light-lance and hit the debris square-on, but didn’t push into the throttle the right way, so I ended up swinging around, but missed the ring.
I gritted my teeth, but disengaged the light-lance and managed to pull out of the turn without smashing into anything. Morningtide tried the ring, and almost made it, but ended up crashing. Jerkface still waited outside, watching to see exactly how many rings he’d need to win. Clever. Again.
Scud, I hated that boy.
I was so distracted that I actually missed the fourth ring, which was one of the easy ones. Furious, my face growing cold, I used my light-line to spear the big square piece of debris, then spun downward—curving straight through the fifth ring, which so far as I’d seen, nobody had hit.
That left me with a total of ten points, while Jerkface was at eight. He would close that gap easily. I felt my anger boil as he finally started toward the course. Who did he think he was, sitting back there like some ancient king, watching the plebes scramble before him? He was so arrogant. But worse, he’d been right to wait. He’d been smarter than I had, and he’d gained a distinct advantage. He was going to win.
Unless . . .
A terrible idea took root in my mind. I spun and hit my overburn, accelerating to Mag-5 and sprinting back toward the starting line. Above me, Jerkface went through the first ring at a leisurely pace, at exactly the minimum speed.
“Hey, Spin?” Nedd asked. “Whatcha doing?”
I ignored him, turning upward, dodging through floating pieces of debris. Ahead of me, Jerkface approached the second ring, an easy one—and the one that would bring him to ten points.
Straight on . . . , I thought, overburning. Pushing my acceleration to the red line of where—in a climb like this—I’d risk dropping unconscious.
“Spin?” Bim asked.
I grinned. Then smashed my ship right into Jerkface’s, overwhelming both shields and blowing us to pieces. We exploded into light.
Then we both re-formed at the edge of the battlefield.
“What the hell was that?” Jerkface shouted. “What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking how to win,” I said, sitting back in my seat, satisfied. “The way of the warrior, Jerkface.”
“We’re on a team, Spin!” he said. “You brash, selfcentered, slimy piece of—”
“Enough, Jorgen,” Cobb snapped.
Jerkface fell quiet, but notably didn’t give his usual obsequious “Yes, sir!”
The holograms switched off, and Cobb walked over to my seat. “You’re dead.”
“I won anyway,” I said.
“It’s a tactic that would be useless in a real fight,” Cobb said. “You don’t get to take home points if you’re dead.”
I shrugged. “You set the rules, Cobb. Ten points for me, nine for Jerkface. It isn’t my fault that he doesn’t get to try for the last few points.”
“Yes it is!” Jerkface said, standing up out of his cockpit. “It
absolutely is your fault!”
“Enough, son,” Cobb said. “It’s not worth getting worked up over this. You lost. It happens.” He glanced at me. “Though I guess I’ll be wanting to change the rules of that game.”
I stood up, grinning.
“Five-minute break,” Cobb said. “Everyone cool down and don’t strangle one another. That causes too much damn paperwork.” He hobbled over to the door and stepped out, perhaps to fetch his midday coffee.
Kimmalyn ran over to my seat, her dark curls bouncing. “Spin, that was wonderful!”
“What does the Saint say about games?” I asked.
“‘You can’t win if you don’t play,’ ” Kimmalyn said. “Obviously.”
“Obviously!” She grinned again. Bim walked by and gave me a thumbs-up. Over his shoulder, I saw Jerkface glaring at me with unmitigated hostility as Arturo and Nedd tried to calm him down.
“Don’t worry, Jorg,” Nedd said. “You still beat Arturo.” “Thank you very much, Nedd,” Arturo snapped.
Kimmalyn left the classroom to get something to drink, and I settled into my seat and dug one of my canteens out of my pack. I made sure to refill all three each day at the bathroom.
“So,” Bim said, leaning against my hologram projector, “you’re really into warriors and things, eh?”
“They inspire me,” I said. “My grandmother tells stories about ancient heroes.”
“You have any favorites?”
“Probably Beowulf,” I said, then took a long pull of water from the canteen. “He literally slew a dragon, and ripped the arm off a monster—he had to resort to his bare hands after his sword wouldn’t cut the thing. But then there’s Tashenamani—she slew the great warrior Custer—and Conan the Cimmerian, who fought in the ancient times before writing.”
“Yeah, they were great,” Bim said, and winked. “I mean . . . I hadn’t heard of them until now. But I’m sure they were great. Er. I’m thirsty.”
He blushed and walked off, leaving me confused. What was . . .
He was . . . he was flirting with me, I realized, stunned. Or, well, trying to.
Was that possible? I mean, he was actually cute, so why would he . . .
I looked at him again, and caught him in the middle of what seemed like a blush. Scud! That was the strangest thing that had happened to me since starting flight school, and I spent my mornings talking to a slug.
I thought about guys, but my life hadn’t exactly left me time for that kind of thing. The last time I’d had any romantic inclinations had been when I’d been eight and had given Rig a particularly nice hatchet I’d made out of a rock and a stick—then had decided he was gross the next week. Because, well, I’d been eight.
I jumped to my feet. “Uh, Bim?” I said. He looked at me again.
“You ever heard of Odysseus?” “No,” he said.
“He was an ancient hero who fought in the greatest war that ever happened on Earth, the Trojan War. It’s said he had a bow so strong that, other than him, only a giant could pull the string back. He . . . had blue hair, you know.”
“Yeah?” Bim asked.
“Pretty cool,” I said, then immediately sat down, taking a long gulp from my canteen.
Was that smooth? That was smooth, right?
I wasn’t sure what Sun Tzu or Beowulf would say about flirting with cute guys. Maybe share the skulls of your enemies with them, as a gesture of affection?
I felt kind of warm and gooey (in a good way) until I spotted Jerkface—across the room—watching me. I gave him a hard glare.
He, pointedly, turned to Nedd and Arturo. “I guess we shouldn’t expect real honor,” he said, “from the daughter of Zeen Nightshade.”
A bolt of coldness shot through me.
“Who?” Nedd asked. “Wait, who did you say she was?”
“You know,” Jerkface said, voice loud enough to carry through the entire room. “Callsign: Chaser? The Coward of Alta?”
The room went quiet. I could feel everyone’s eyes turning toward me. How had he found out? Who had told him?
I stood up. Scud, even Kimmalyn seemed to know who Chaser was. Her canteen dropped from her fingers and bounced against the floor, spilling water that she didn’t notice.
“Who?” Morningtide asked. “What is happen?”
I wanted to flee. Hide. Escape all those eyes. But I would not run.
“My father,” I said, “was not a coward.”
“I’m sorry,” Jerkface said. “I’m only stating the official history.” He stared at me, with that arrogant, so-punchable face. I found myself blushing in embarrassment—then in anger.
I shouldn’t feel embarrassed. I’d lived practically my entire life with this mantle. I was accustomed to those looks, those whispers. And I wasn’t ashamed of my father, right? So why should I care that the others had found out? Good. Fine. I was happy to be Chaser’s daughter.
It was just that . . . it had felt nice. To be able to make my own way, without standing in anyone’s shadow.
That thought made me feel like I was betraying my father, and that made me even more angry.
“She lives in a cave, you know,” Jerkface said to Arturo. “She
goes there every night. The elevator operators told me they watch her hike out into the wilderness, because she’s not—”
He cut off as Cobb stepped in with a steaming cup of coffee in his hand. Cobb focused immediately on me, then Jerkface. “Back to your seats,” he snapped at us. “We still have work to do today. And Quirk, did you drop that canteen?”
Kimmalyn unfroze and picked up her canteen, and everyone climbed into their cockpits without another word. At one point shortly after we went back to practicing with our light-lances, I caught Cobb looking at me with a grim expression, with eyes that seemed to be saying, It was going to happen eventually, cadet. Are you going to give in?
But that didn’t stop me from feeling sick through the whole set of drills.
A few hours later, I trailed out of the women’s bathroom, canteens refilled. A new pair of MPs walked me to the doors and saw me out, then—like normal—left me there.
I trudged across the base grounds, feeling frustrated, angry, and alone. I should have kept going out of the base, on toward my cave. But instead I took a path around the training building, one that let me walk past the mess hall.
I looked through the window there and spotted the others seated along a metal table—chatting, laughing, arguing. They’d even bullied Jerkface into joining them tonight—a rare treat for the plebes, as he usually drove off to the exclusive elevator. Nedd said it could reach the lower caverns in under fifteen minutes.
So there he was, enjoying what I was forbidden, after tossing away my secret like a fistful of expired rations. I hated him. In that moment, I kind of hated them all. I almost hated my father.
I stalked off into the night, leaving the base through the front gates. I turned to my left, toward the orchard, and the shortcut through it toward the wilderness. My path took me straight past the small hangars where Jerkface parked his hovercar.
I stopped there in the darkness, eyeing his bay. The front door was closed this time, but the side door was open, and I could see the car inside. It took me all of about half a second to come up with another really terrible idea.
Looking around, I didn’t see anyone watching. Darkness had come early tonight, the skylights moving away, and the orchard workers had already gone home. I was far enough from the front gates of the base that the guards there shouldn’t be able to see me in the gloom.
I slipped in the side of the small hangar and closed the door, then lit my light-line for a bit of illumination. I found a wrench on the wall of the small shed, then pulled open the hood of the blue hovercar.
Jerkface could walk home tonight. It would only be fair. After all, I had to walk home—and tonight I would have to do it while lugging a large, car-size power matrix tied to my back.
Excerpt copyright © 2018 by Dragonsteel Entertainment, LLC. Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.