Go beyond the stars in Starsight, the sequel to Brandon Sanderson’s New York Times bestseller Skyward! Spensa has made it to the sky, but what will she do with the truth she discovered there? Start reading Chapters 1-4 now!
I slammed on my overburn and boosted my starship through the middle of a chaotic mess of destructor blasts and explosions. Above me extended the awesome vastness of space. Compared to that infinite blackness, both planets and starships alike seemed insignificant. Meaningless.
Except, of course, for the fact that those insignificant starships were doing their best to kill me.
I dodged, spinning my ship and cutting my boosters midturn. Once I’d flipped around, I immediately slammed on the boosters again, burning in the other direction in an attempt to lose the three ships tailing me.
Fighting in space is way different from fighting in atmosphere. For one thing, your wings are useless. No air means no airflow, no lift, no drag. In space, you don’t really fly. You just don’t fall.
I executed another spin and boost, heading back toward the main firefight. Unfortunately, maneuvers that had been impressive down in the atmosphere were commonplace up here. Fighting in a vacuum these last six months had provided a whole new set of skills to master.
“Spensa,” a lively masculine voice said from my console, “you remember how you told me to warn you if you were being extra irrational?”
“No,” I said with a grunt, dodging to the right. The destructor blasts from behind swept over the dome of my cockpit. “I don’t believe I did anything of the sort.”
“You said, ‘Can we talk about this later?’ ”
I dodged again. Scud. Were those drones getting better at dogfighting, or was I losing my touch?
“Technically, it was ‘later’ right after you spoke,” continued the talkative voice—my ship’s AI, M-Bot. “But human beings don’t actually use that word to mean ‘anytime chronologically after this moment.’ They use it to mean ‘sometime after now that is more convenient to me.’ ”
The Krell drones swarmed around us, trying to cut off my escape back toward the main body of the battlefield.
“And you think this is a more convenient time?” I demanded.
“Why wouldn’t it be?” “Because we’re in combat!”
“Well, I would think that a life-and-death situation is exactly
when you’d like to know if you’re being extra irrational.”
I could remember, with some measure of fondness, the days when my starships hadn’t talked back to me. That had been before I’d helped repair M-Bot, whose personality was a remnant of ancient technology we still didn’t understand. I frequently wondered: Had all advanced AIs been this sassy, or was mine just a special case?
“Spensa,” M-Bot said. “You’re supposed to be leading these drones toward the others, remember?”
It had been six months since we’d beaten back the Krell attempt to bomb us into oblivion. Alongside our victory, we’d learned some important facts. The enemy we called “the Krell” were a group of aliens tasked with keeping my people contained on our planet, Detritus, which was kind of a cross between a prison and a nature preserve for human civilization. The Krell reported to a larger galactic government called the Superiority.
They employed remote drones to fight us—piloted by aliens who lived far away, controlling their drones via faster-than-light communications. The drones were never driven by AIs, as it was against galactic law to let a ship pilot itself. Even M-Bot was severely limited in what he could do on his own. Beyond that, there was something that the Superiority feared deeply: people who had the ability to see into the space where FTL communication happened. People called cytonics.
People like me.
They knew what I was, and they hated me. The drones tended to target me specifically—and we could use that. We should use that. In today’s pre-battle briefing, I’d swayed the rest of the pilots reluctantly to go with a bold plan. I was to get a little out of formation, tempt the enemy drones to swarm me, then lead them back through the rest of the team. My friends could then eliminate the drones while they were focused on me.
It was a sound plan. And I’d make good on it . . . eventually. Now, though, I wanted to test something.
I hit my overburn, accelerating away from the enemy ships. M-Bot was faster and more maneuverable than they were, though part of his big advantage had been in his ability to maneuver at high speed in air without ripping himself apart. Out here in a vacuum that wasn’t a factor, and the enemy drones did a better job of keeping up.
They swarmed after me as I dove toward Detritus. My home- world was protected by layers of ancient metal platforms—like shells—with gun emplacements all along them. After our victory six months ago, we’d pushed the Krell farther away from the planet, past the shells. Our current long-term strategy was to engage the enemy out here in space and keep them from getting close to the planet.
Keeping them out here had allowed our engineers—including my friend Rodge—to start gaining control of the platforms and their guns. Eventually, that shell of gun emplacements should protect our planet from incursions. For now though, most of those defensive platforms were still autonomous—and could be as dangerous for us as they were for the enemy.
The Krell ships swarmed in behind me, eager to cut me off from the battlefield—where my friends were engaging the rest of the drones in a massive brawl. That tactic of isolating me made one fatal assumption: that if I was alone, I’d be less dangerous.
“We’re not going to turn back around and follow the plan, are we?” M-Bot asked. “You’re going to try to fight them on your own.”
I didn’t respond.
“Jorgen is going to be aaaaaangry,” M-Bot said. “By the way, those drones are trying to chase you along a specific heading, which I’m outlining on your monitor. My analysis projects that they’ve planned an ambush.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Just trying to keep you from getting me blown up,” M-Bot said. “By the way, if you do get us killed, be warned that I intend to haunt you.”
“Haunt me?” I said. “You’re a robot. And besides, I’d be dead too, right?”
“My robotic ghost would haunt your fleshy one.” “How would that even work?”
“Spensa, ghosts aren’t real,” he said in an exasperated tone. “Why are you worrying about things like that instead of flying? Honestly, humans get distracted so easily.”
I spotted the ambush: a small group of Krell drones had hidden themselves by a large chunk of metal floating just out of range of the gun emplacements. As I drew close, the ambushing drones emerged and rocketed toward me. I was ready though. I let my arms relax, let my subconscious mind take over. I sank into myself, entering a kind of trance where I listened.
Just not with my ears.
Remote drones worked fine for the Krell in most situations. They were an expendable way to suppress the humans of Detritus. However, the enormous distances involved in space battle forced the Krell to rely on instantaneous faster-than-light communication to control their drones. I suspected their pilots were far away— but even if they were on the Krell station that hung out in space near Detritus, the lag of radio communications from there would make the drones too slow to react in battle. So, FTL was necessary.
That exposed one major flaw. I could hear their orders.
For some reason I didn’t understand, I could listen into the place where FTL communication happened. I called it the nowhere, another dimension where our rules of physics didn’t apply. I could hear into the place, occasionally see into it—and see the creatures that lived there watching me.
A single time, in the climactic battle six months ago, I’d managed to enter that place and teleport my ship a long distance in the blink of an eye. I still didn’t know much about my powers. I hadn’t been able to teleport again, but I’d been learning that whatever existed inside me, I could harness it and use it to fight.
I let my instincts take over, and sent my ship into a complex sequence of dodges. My battle-trained reflexes, melded with my innate ability to hear the drone orders, maneuvered my ship without specific conscious instructions on my part.
My cytonic ability had been passed down my family line. My ancestors had used it to move ancient starfleets around the galaxy. My father had had the ability, and the enemy had exploited it to get him killed. Now I used it to stay alive.
I reacted before the Krell did, responding to their orders—
somehow, I processed them even faster than the drones could. By the time they attacked, I was already weaving through their destructor blasts. I darted among them, then fired my IMP, bringing down the shields of everyone nearby.
In my state of focused concentration, I didn’t care that the IMP took down my shield too. It didn’t matter.
I launched my light-lance, and the rope of energy speared one of the enemy ships, connecting it to my own. I then used the difference in our momentum to spin us both around, which put me into position behind the pack of defenseless ships.
Blossoms of light and sparks broke the void as I destroyed two of the drones. The remaining Krell scattered like villagers before a wolf in one of Gran-Gran’s stories. The ambush turned chaotic as I picked a pair of ships and gunned for them with destructors— blasting one away as a part of my mind tracked the orders being given to the others.
“I never fail to be amazed when you do that,” M-Bot said quietly. “You’re interpreting data faster than my projections. You seem almost . . . inhuman.”
I gritted my teeth, bracing, and spun my ship, boosting it after a straggling Krell drone.
“I mean that as a compliment, by the way,” M-Bot said. “Not that there’s anything wrong with humans. I find their frail, emotionally unstable, irrational natures quite endearing.”
I destroyed that drone and bathed my hull in the light of its fiery demise. Then I dodged right between the shots of two others. Though the Krell drones didn’t have pilots on board, a part of me felt sorry for them as they tried to fight back against me—an unstoppable, unknowable force that did not play by the same rules that bound everything else they knew.
“Likely,” M-Bot continued, “I regard humans as I do only because I’m programmed to do so. But hey, that’s no different from instinct programming a mother bird to love the twisted, featherless abominations she spawns, right?”
I wove and dodged, fired and destroyed. I wasn’t perfect; I occasionally overcompensated and many of my shots missed. But I had a distinct edge.
The Superiority—and its minions the Krell—obviously knew to watch for people like me and my father. Their ships were always on the hunt for humans who flew too well or who responded too quickly. They’d tried controlling my mind by exploiting a weakness in my talent—the same thing they’d done to my father. Fortunately, I had M-Bot. His advanced shielding was capable of filtering out their mental attacks while still allowing me to hear the enemy orders.
All of this raised a singular daunting question. What was I?
“I would feel a lot more comfortable,” M-Bot said, “if you’d find a chance to reignite our shield.”
“No time,” I said. We’d need a good thirty seconds without flight controls to do that.
I had another chance to break toward the main battle, to follow through with the plan I’d outlined. Instead I spun, then hit the overburn and blasted back toward the enemy ships. My gravitational capacitors absorbed a large percentage of the g-forces and kept me from suffering too much whiplash, but I still felt pressure flattening me against my seat, making my skin pull back and my body feel heavy. Under extreme g-forces, I felt like I’d aged a hundred years in a second.
I pushed through it and fired at the remaining Krell drones. I strained my strange skills to their limits. A Krell destructor shot grazed the dome of my canopy, so bright it left an afterimage in my eyes.
“Spensa,” M-Bot said. “Both Jorgen and Cobb have called to complain. I know you said to keep them distracted, but—”
“Keep them distracted.” “Resigned sigh.”
I looped us after an enemy ship. “Did you just say the words
“I find human nonlinguistic communications to be too easily misinterpreted,” he said. “So I’m experimenting with ways to make them more explicit.”
“Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?” “Obviously not. Dismissive eye-roll.”
Destructors flared around me, but I blasted two more drones. As I did, I saw something appear, reflected in the canopy of my cockpit. A handful of piercing white lights, like eyes, watching me. When I used my abilities too much, something looked out of the nowhere and saw me.
I didn’t know what they were. I just called them the eyes. But I could feel a burning hatred from them. An anger. Somehow, this was all connected. My ability to see and hear into the nowhere, the eyes that watched me from that place, and the teleportation power I’d only managed to use once.
I could still distinctly remember how I’d felt when I’d used it. I’d been on the brink of death, being enveloped by a cataclysmic explosion. In that moment, somehow I’d activated something called a cytonic hyperdrive.
If I could master that ability to teleport, I could help free my people from Detritus. With that power, we could escape the Krell forever. And so I pushed myself.
Last time I’d jumped I’d been fighting for my life. If I could only re-create those same emotions . . .
I dove, my right hand on my control sphere, my left holding the throttle. Three drones swept in behind me, but I registered their shots and turned my ship at an angle so they all missed. I hit the throttle and my mind brushed the nowhere.
The eyes continued to appear, reflected in the canopy, as if it were revealing something that watched from behind my seat. White lights, like stars, but somehow more . . . aware. Dozens of malevolent glowing dots. In entering their realm, even slightly, I became visible to them.
Those eyes unnerved me. How could I be both fascinated by these powers and terrified of them at the same time? It was like the call of the void you felt when standing at the edge of a large cliff in the caverns, knowing you could just throw yourself off into that darkness. One step farther . . .
“Spensa!” M-Bot said. “New ship arriving!”
I pulled out of my trance, and the eyes vanished. M-Bot used the console display to highlight what he’d spotted. A new starfighter, almost invisible against the black sky, emerged from where the others had been hiding. Sleek, it was shaped like a disc and painted the same black as space. It was smaller than normal Krell ships, but it had a larger canopy.
These new black ships had only started appearing in the last eight months, in the days leading up to the attempt to bomb our base. Back then we hadn’t realized what they meant, but now we knew.
I couldn’t hear the commands this ship received—because none were being sent to it. Black ships like this one were not remote controlled. Instead, they carried real alien pilots. Usually an enemy ace—the best of their pilots.
The battle had just gotten far more interesting.
My heart leaped with excitement.
An enemy ace. Fighting drones was exciting, yes, but also lacking. It wasn’t personal enough. A duel with an ace instead felt like the stories Gran-Gran told. Brave pilots engaging in grim contests on Old Earth during the days of the Great Wars. Person against person.
“I will sing to you,” I whispered. “As your ship burns and your soul flees, I will sing. To the contest we had.”
Dramatic, yes. My friends still tended to laugh at me when I said things like that, things like were said in the old stories. I’d mostly stopped. But I was still me, and I didn’t say those things for my friends. I said them for myself.
And for the enemy I was about to kill.
The ace swooped toward me, firing destructors, trying to hit me while I was focused on the drones. I grinned, diving out of the way and spearing a chunk of space debris with my light-lance. That let me pivot quickly, while also swinging the debris behind me to block the shots. M-Bot’s GravCaps absorbed most of the g-forces, but I still felt a tug pulling me downward as I swung through the arc, destructor fire blasting into the debris, one shot coming very near me. Scud. I still hadn’t found a chance to reignite my shield.
“This might be a good time to head back and lead the enemy ships toward the others,” M-Bot said. “Like the plan said . . .”
Instead, I noted the enemy ace overshooting me—then I swung around and gave chase.
“Dramatic trailing-off of speech,” M-Bot added, “laden with implications of your irresponsible nature.”
I fired at the ace, but they spun on their axis, cutting their boosters. Momentum carried them forward, although they’d turned back-to-front and were now facing me. They couldn’t steer well flying in reverse, so the maneuver was usually risky, but when you had a full shield and your enemy had none . . .
I was forced to break off the chase, boosting to the left and dodging out of the way of the destructor fire. I couldn’t risk a head-on confrontation. Instead, I focused on the drones for a moment, blasting one out of the sky, then screamed through its debris—which scraped up M-Bot’s wing and smacked the canopy with a fierce crack.
Right. No shield. And in space, the debris didn’t fall after you shot the ship down. That felt like a rookie mistake—a reminder that despite all my training, I was new to zero-gravity combat.
The ace fell in behind me in an expert tailing maneuver. They were good, which was—on one hand—thrilling. On the other hand . . .
I tried to veer back toward the battle, but the drones swarmed in front of me, cutting me off. Maybe I was in a little over my head.
“Call Jorgen,” I said, “and tell him I might have let myself get cornered. I can’t lead the enemy into our ambush; see if he and the others are willing to come help me instead.”
“Finally,” M-Bot said.
I dodged some more, tracking the enemy ace on my proximity monitor. Scud. I wished I could hear them like I could the drones.
No, this is good, I thought. I need to be careful never to let my
gift become a crutch.
I gritted my teeth and made a snap decision. I couldn’t get back to the main battle, so instead I dove toward Detritus. The defense shells surrounding it weren’t solid; they were made up of large platforms that had housed living quarters, shipyards, and weapons. Though we’d begun reclaiming the ones closest to the planet, these outer layers were still set to automatically fire at anything that got close.
I hitmyoverburn, acceleratingtospeedsthat—inatmosphere— would have caused most starfighters to rattle or even rip apart. Up here I only felt the acceleration, not the speed.
I quickly reached the nearest space platform. Long and thin, it curved slightly, like a chunk of broken eggshell. The remaining drones and the single ace were still on my tail. At these speeds, dogfighting was much more dangerous. The time for me to react before colliding with something would be much smaller, and the smallest touch on my control sphere could veer me off course faster than I might be able to deal with.
“Spensa?” M-Bot said.
“I know what I’m doing,” I muttered back, concentrating. “Yes, I’m sure,” M-Bot answered. “But . . . just in case . . . you
do remember that we don’t have control of these outer platforms
I focused my full attention on sweeping down close to the surface of the metal platform without running into anything. The gun emplacements here tracked me and started firing—but they also started firing on the enemy.
I concentrated on dodging. Or really just weaving erratically—
I could outfly the drones in a raw contest of skill, but they had superior numbers. Down near the platform, that translated into a liability for my enemies—because to the guns, we were all targets.
Several of the drones flared up in explosions—which vanished almost immediately, flames smothered by the vacuum of space.
“I wonder if those guns feel fulfilled, finally getting to shoot something down after all these years up here,” M-Bot said.
“Jealous?” I asked with a grunt, dodging.
“From what Rodge says, they don’t have true AIs, merely some simple targeting functions. So that would be like you being jealous of a rat.”
Another drone fell. Just a little longer. I wanted to even the
odds a bit while I waited for my friends to arrive.
I sank into another trance as I flew. I couldn’t hear the controls of the gun emplacements, but in moments like these—moments of pure concentration—I felt as if I were becoming one with my ship.
I could feel the attention of the eyes back on me. My heart thundered inside my chest. With those guns trained on me . . . tails giving chase and still firing . . .
A little further . . .
My mind sank down, and I felt as if I could sense M-Bot’s very workings. I was in severe danger. I needed to escape.
Surely I could do it now. “Engage cytonic hyperdrive!” I said, then tried to do what I’d done once before, teleporting my ship.
“Cytonic hyperdrive is offline,” M-Bot said.
Scud. The one time it had worked, he’d been able to tell me it was online. I tried again, but . . . I didn’t even know what it was I’d done that once. I had been in danger, about to die. And then I . . . I’d done . . .
A blast from a nearby gun nearly blinded me, and with gritted teeth I pulled up and zipped out of the defensive guns’ range. The ace had survived, though they had taken a hit or two, so maybe their shield was weakened. Plus, only three drones remained.
I cut my thrust and spun my ship on its axis—still moving forward, but pointed backward—a maneuver that indicated I was going to try shooting behind me. Sure enough, the ace dodged away immediately. They weren’t so brave with a weakened shield. Instead of firing, I boosted after the ace—escaping the drones, which swarmed toward my former position.
I got on the ace’s tail and tried to draw in close enough for a shot—but whoever they were, they were good. They spun into a complex series of dodges, all while increasing speed. I misjudged a turn, and suddenly I swung out away from them. Quickly recovering, I matched their next turn and let out a blast of destructor fire—but now I was pretty far back and the shots went wild, vanishing into space.
M-Bot read off speeds and angles for me so I didn’t have to break concentration for even the fraction of a second it would take to look at my control panel. I leaned forward, trying to match the other starfighter turn for turn—swooping, spinning, and boosting. Seeking that critical moment when we’d align just long enough for me to take a shot.
They, in turn, could twist at any moment and fire back—so they were likely watching for the same thing that I was, hoping to catch me off guard during a moment of alignment.
This perfect focus. This boiling intensity. This bizarre moment of connection where the alien pilot mirrored my efforts, striving, struggling, sweating—drawing closer and closer in a paradoxically intimate contest. For a flash we’d be as one. And then I’d kill them.
I lived for this challenge. For fighting against someone real and knowing it was either me or them. In moments like this, I didn’t fight for the DDF or humankind. I fought to prove I could.
They swooped left just as I did. They spun and pointed toward me as we came into alignment briefly—and we both shot a burst at each other.
Their shots missed. Mine didn’t. The first of my blasts broke their weakened shield. The second hit them just left of their cockpit, ripping the disclike ship apart in a flash of light.
The vacuum consumed that eagerly, and I cut to the right, dodging the debris. I took deep breaths, struggling to slow my heart. Sweat soaked the pads on my helmet and leaked down the sides of my face.
“Spensa!” M-Bot shouted. “The drones!” Scud.
I turned my ship and boosted to the side just as three flaring explosions lit my cockpit. I winced, but those lights weren’t the result of me getting shot—they were the lights of drones exploding one after another. Two DDF ships swooped past.
“Thanks, guys,” I said, tapping the group channel on the communications panel of my dash.
“No problem,” Kimmalyn replied over the channel. “As the Saint always said, ‘Watch out for the smart ones. They tend to be stupid.’ ” She had an accent and an unhurried way of speaking— somehow intrinsically upbeat, even when she was chastising me.
“I thought the idea was for you to distract the drones,” FM said, “then bring them back toward us.” She had a confident voice, the type that sounded like it should be coming from someone twice her age.
“I was planning to do it eventually.”
“Yeah,” FM said. “And that’s why you turned off your comm so Jorgen couldn’t yell at you?”
“It wasn’t off,” I said. “I just had M-Bot running interference.”
“Jorgen really hates talking to me!” M-Bot said enthusiastically. “I can tell by the way he says so!”
“Yeah, well, the enemy is retreating,” FM said. “And you’re lucky we were already on our way to help, even before you decided to admit you were in trouble.”
I was still something of a sweaty mess—heart racing, hands slick—as I reignited my shield, then turned my ship and flew toward the other two. The course took me past the wreckage of the ship I’d defeated, which was still moving along at roughly the same speed as when I’d hit it. That was space for you.
The ship had cracked apart rather than exploding completely, and so with a chill I was able to spot the corpse of the enemy ace. A boxy alien figure. Perhaps the armor it wore could protect it from the vacuum . . .
No. As I passed by, I saw that its armor had been broken apart in the blast. The actual creature inside was kind of like a small, two-legged crab—spindly and bright blue, with carapace along the abdomen and face. I had seen some of them piloting shuttles near their space station, which was farther out, monitoring Detritus from a distance. They were our jailers, and while the data we’d stolen called this crablike race the varvax, most of us still called them the Krell—even though we knew that was an acronym in some Superiority language for a phrase about keeping humans contained, not their actual race’s name.
This one was truly dead. The liquid bath that filled its armor had spilled out into the void, first boiling explosively, then freezing into solid vapor. Space was weird.
I fixed my gaze on the body, slowing M-Bot, and hummed softly one of the songs of my ancestors. A Viking song for the dead.
Well fought, I thought to the Krell’s departing soul. Nearby,
some of our salvage ships came swooping in from where they’d watched the fight in relative safety nearer the planet. We always salvaged Krell ships, especially those that had been flown by living pilots. There was a chance we’d be able to capture a broken Superiority hyperdrive that way. They didn’t travel using the minds of pilots. They had some kind of actual technology that let them travel between stars.
“Spin?” Kimmalyn called to me. “You coming?”
“Yeah,” I said. I turned away and fell into line with her and FM. “M-Bot? How would you judge that pilot’s flying abilities?”
“Somewhere near your own,” M-Bot said. “And their ship was more advanced than any we’d faced before. I’ll be honest, Spensa— mostly because I’m programmed to be incapable of lying—I think that fight could have gone either way.”
I nodded, feeling much the same. I’d gone toe-to-toe with that ace. On one hand, it was a nice affirmation that my skill wasn’t tied only to my abilities to touch the nowhere. But coming fully out of my trance now—feeling the odd sense of deflated purpose that always tailed a battle—I found myself strangely worried. In all our time fighting here, we’d seen only a handful of these black ships piloted by live beings.
If the Krell really wanted to kill us, why send so few aces? And . . . was this really the best they had? I was good, but I’d been flying for less than a year. Our stolen information indicated that our enemies ran an enormous galactic coalition of hundreds of planets. Surely they had access to pilots who were better than I was.
Something struck me as off about all of this. The Krell used to only ever send a maximum of a hundred drones against us at once. They’d relaxed that, and now they would field upward of a hundred and twenty at once . . . but that still seemed a small number, considering the apparent size of their coalition.
So what was going on? Why were they still holding back?
Kimmalyn, FM, and I rejoined the rest of our fighters. The DDF was growing stronger and stronger. We’d lost only a single ship today, when in the past we’d lose half a dozen or more in each battle. And we were gaining momentum. In the last two months we’d begun deploying the first of our ships fabricated using technology learned from M-Bot. It had only been half a year since our casualties in the Battle of Alta Second, but the boost to our morale— and the fact that our pilots were surviving longer to hone their skills—was making us stronger by the day.
By intercepting the enemy out here, and not letting them get in close, we’d been able to expand our salvage operations. Because of this, we were not only reclaiming the closest of the defense platforms, but we were also able to scavenge materials for more and more ships.
All this meant shipbuilding and recruitment were both increasing dramatically. We’d soon have enough acclivity stone, and enough pilots, to field hundreds of starships.
Together, it was an ever-increasing snowball effect of progress. Still, a part of me worried. The Krell’s behavior was odd. And beyond that, we had a huge disadvantage. They could travel the galaxy, while we were trapped on one planet.
Unless I learned how to use my powers.
“Um, Spensa?” M-Bot said. “Jorgen is calling, and I think he’s annoyed.”
I sighed, then hit the line. “Skyward Ten, reporting in.” “Are you all right?” he asked with a stern voice. “Yeah.”
“Good. We’ll discuss this later.” He cut the line. I winced. He wasn’t annoyed . . . he was furious.
Sadie—the new girl who had been assigned as my wingmate— flew up behind me in Skyward Nine. I sensed a nervousness to the posture of her ship, though perhaps I was reading too much into things. According to our plans, I’d left her behind when the Krell had sent an overwhelming force to destroy me. Fortunately, she’d had enough sense to follow orders and stay close to the others rather than tail me.
We had to wait for orders from Flight Command before flying back toward the planet, so we hovered in space for a short time. And as we did, Kimmalyn nudged her ship up beside mine. I glimpsed through her canopy into her cockpit. She always looked odd to me wearing her helmet, which covered her long dark hair.
“Hey,” she said to me on a private line. “You all right?”
“Yeah,” I said. It was a lie. Every time I used my strange abilities, I felt a conflict inside me. Our ancestors had been afraid of people like me, people with cytonic powers. Before we’d crashed on Detritus, we’d worked in the ships’ engine rooms, powering and guiding our travel.
They’d just called us the people of the engines. Other crew members had shunned us—instilling in our culture traditions and prejudices that had lasted even after we’d forgotten what a cytonic was.
Could it all be just superstition, or was there more to it? I had felt the malevolence of the eyes. In the end, my father had attacked his own kind. We blamed the Krell for that, but I worried. He’d seemed so angry on the tapes.
I worried that whatever I was, my actions would bring more danger than any of us understood.
“Guys?” Sadie asked, pulling her ship up alongside mine. “What does this warning on my console mean?”
I glanced at the flashing light on the proximity monitor, then cursed under my breath and scanned out into the void. I could just barely see the Krell monitoring station out there, and as I watched, something new appeared next to it. Two objects that were even larger than it was.
Capital ships. “Two new ships just arrived in the system,” M-Bot said. “My long-range sensors confirm what Flight Command is seeing. They appear to be battleships.”
“Scud,” FM said over the line. So far, we’d faced only other fighters—but we knew from stolen intel that the enemy had access to at least a few large-scale capital ships like these.
“We have limited data on the armaments of ships like those,” M-Bot said. “The intel you and I stole contained only generalized information. But my processors say those ships are likely equipped to bombard the planet.”
Bombard. They could launch ordnance on the planet from outer space, hitting it with enough firepower to turn even those living in deep caverns to dust.
“They won’t be able to get past the defensive platforms,” I said. That was, we assumed, why the Krell had always used low-altitude bombers in the past, not orbital bombardment. The planet’s platforms had been built with countermeasures to prevent bombardment from a distance.
“And if they just destroy the platforms first?” Sadie said. “The defenses are too strong for that,” I said.
It was bravado, in part. We didn’t know for sure if Detritus’s defenses could prevent a bombardment. Perhaps once we gained control of them all, we’d be able to determine their full capabilities. We were months away from that, unfortunately.
“Do you hear anything?” Kimmalyn said.
I reached out with my cytonic senses. “Just a faint, soft music,” I said. “Almost like static, but . . . prettier. I’d have to get closer to understand any specifics of what they’re saying.”
I’d always been able to hear the sounds coming from the stars. I’d first thought of it as music when I was younger. During my months of training, and talking to my grandmother, we’d determined that “music” to be the sound of FTL communications being sent through the nowhere. Likely, what I heard now was the sound of that station or those battleships communicating with the rest of the Superiority.
We waited for a long time, orders saying for us to hold position to see if those battleships advanced. They didn’t. It seemed that whatever they’d been sent to do, it wouldn’t happen in the immediate future.
“Orders are in,” Jorgen eventually said over the comm. “Those battleships are settling in, so we’re to report back at Platform Prime. Come on.”
I sighed, then turned my ship around and headed toward the planet. I’d survived the battle.
Now it was time to go get yelled at.
M-Bot calculated our approach.
The others still weren’t completely comfortable with him. A computer program that could think and talk like a person? Gran- Gran—who had been a little girl during the days before our people had crashed on Detritus—said she’d heard of such things, but they had been forbidden.
Still, M-Bot provided an advantage we couldn’t ignore. With his hyperefficient calculations, we could easily navigate a path through the defensive platforms surrounding Detritus without the aid of DDF mathematicians.
We carefully maintained the course he indicated, passing just outside the range of the gun emplacements on metal platforms the size of mountain ranges. I noted the shadows of skyscrapers. During my schooling, I’d taken mandatory heritage classes each year—where we’d seen pictures of Old Earth, and had been taken to see animals of many varieties in special caverns where they were bred. So I knew about life there, and about things like skyscrapers, even if I’d always found Gran-Gran’s stories of the ancient times more interesting than the heritage classes.
Those skyscrapers indicated that these platforms around Detritus had been inhabited once, like the planet had been, but something had destroyed them centuries ago.
The sight of all the platforms—curving into what seemed like infinity—never failed to leave me breathless. Our fifty starfighters were specks of dust by comparison. How long had it taken to build all of this? There were maybe a hundred thousand people living in the cave networks that made up our nation, the Defiant Caverns. But that entire population could vanish into just one of these platforms.
The command came to decelerate. I spun M-Bot with the others and pointed my boosters toward the planet. A quiet, easy burn slowed my ship.
Facing backward toward the shells, it all looked faintly like the gears of some eldritch clock going about an unknowable purpose. Each platform rotating in its turn, guns ready to vaporize anyone—human or alien—who tried to interfere. These shells were the reason we were still alive though, so I wasn’t complaining.
Our ships soon passed the nearest shell to the planet, which was distinctive for several reasons. The most obvious was that it held thousands of massive lights that shone like spotlights, illuminating sections of the planet below. These skylights created an arti cial day/night cycle.
This inner shell was also in a far worse state of repair than the outer ones. Enormous fields of debris tumbled through space here just outside the atmosphere. This junk was the remnants of— we assumed—platforms that had been destroyed. Some sections had fallen inward, crashing into the planet after losing power.
A voice crackled in my helmet speaker. “Skyward Flight,” a man’s voice said, “and Xiwang Flight. Admiral Cobb has ordered you to dock on Platform Prime. The rest of you, head down to the surface for off-shift rotation.”
I recognized the speaker as Rikolfr, a member of the admiral’s
staff. I complied, turning my ship in the right direction. That brought Detritus into my view: a blue-grey sphere with a bright, inviting atmosphere. Thirty ships from our fleet flew off down toward the planet.
The rest of us skimmed along outside the atmosphere, passing several platforms whose lights blinked a friendly blue, instead of the angry red of the other platforms. Thanks to M-Bot’s stealth capabilities, we’d been able to land on one and hack its systems. Fortunately, the platforms’ internal security protocols made some small exceptions for humans, which had given the engineers a brief respite—long enough to finish their work.
That done, Rodge and the other engineers had figured out how to power down a few of the platforms nearby, letting us reclaim those too. Our work had captured only ten out of thousands so far, but it was a promising start.
Platform Prime was the largest of these—an enormous platform with docking bays for starfighters. We’d turned it into an orbital headquarters, though the engineering teams were still working on some of its systems—most notably the ancient data banks.
I flew into my assigned dock, a small individual hangar. The lights flickered on as the bay door closed, and the room pressurized. I drew in a deep breath and sighed, then opened the canopy. It felt so dull to return after a battle and go back to ordinary life. Unrealistic though it was, I wished that I could continue patrolling and flying. The answers to who I was—to what I was—were out there somewhere, not in these sterile metallic hallways.
“Hey!” M-Bot said as I climbed out of the cockpit. “Take me with you. I don’t want to miss the fun.”
“I’m just going to get a lecture.” “Like I said . . . ,” he replied.
Fine. I reached back under the front control panel and unhooked his new mobile receptor: a bracelet device that contained some sensory equipment, a holographic projector, a receiver to boost M-Bot’s communication capabilities, and a small clock display. He claimed to have had a mobile receptor like it in the past, but it was missing—his old pilot had probably taken it hundreds of years ago when he’d gone out to explore Detritus.
When M-Bot had given the engineers plans to create a new one, they’d gone crazy over the microhologram technology it contained. Fortunately, they’d stopped celebrating long enough to fabricate me a replacement. I’d taken to wearing this rather than my father’s light-line, as I rarely found chances to use that now that I wasn’t exploring caverns regularly.
I snapped on the hologram bracelet, then handed my helmet to Dobsi—one of the ground crew members—as she climbed up the ladder outside to check on me.
“Anything we should look at?” she asked.
“I took a chunk of debris on the right side of the fuselage with my shield down.”
“I’ll check it out.”
“Thanks,” I said. “And fair warning: he’s in one of his moods.” “Is he ever not?”
“There was this one time,” I said, “when he was processing a self-diagnostic, and didn’t say anything for a whole five minutes. It was pure bliss.”
“You know,” M-Bot said, “that I’m programmed to be able to recognize sarcasm, right?”
“The joke would be wasted if you weren’t.” I entered the changing room, which doubled as my bunk up here—not that I owned a lot. My father’s pin, my old maps of the caverns, and a few of my improvised weapons. I kept them in one trunk beside the cot, with my changes of clothing.
As soon as I entered, a fluting trill greeted me. Doomslug sat on her perch beside the door. Bright yellow, with little blue spikes along her back, she was snuggled into some of my old shirts, which she’d made into a nest. I scratched her on the head, and she gave another joyful fluting sound. She wasn’t slimy, but rather tough, like the feel of good leather.
I was glad to see her here; she was supposed to stay in my bunk room, but kept slipping away somehow, and I’d often find her in the hangar. She seemed to like being near M-Bot.
I washed up, but didn’t change out of my flight suit. Then, having wasted as much time as I could justify, I steeled myself with a warrior’s determination and stepped out into the hallway. The light here was always too bright after being out in space—the white walls shiny and reflective. The only part that wasn’t overly polished or lit was the carpet down the center, which had aged remarkably well—likely because this had all been a vacuum until the engineering team had patched the station’s holes and turned on the life support systems.
In the hallway waited the other members of my flight. Nedd and Arturo were arguing about whether or not pilots should be allowed to paint designs on the fronts of their ships. I ignored them and stepped up beside Kimmalyn, whose hair was messy now that she held her helmet under her arm.
“You do realize how mad Jorgen is,” she whispered to me.
“I can handle him,” I said. Kimmalyn raised an eyebrow.
“Really,” I said. “I just have to be properly confident and intimidating. Got any eye black handy?”
“Uh, what’s that?”
“A kind of war paint used by the men who fought on the gridiron on Old Earth. A type of deathmatch involving a dead pig.”
“Neat. But I’m fresh out. And . . . Spin, wouldn’t it be better to not aggravate Jorgen? For once?”
“Not sure I’m capable of that.”
FM walked past, giving me an encouraging thumbs-up. I returned it, though I still felt awkward around her sometimes. The tall, slender woman somehow managed to wear even a flight suit in a fashionable way, while the bulky clothing always made me feel like I had on three layers too many. She joined T-Stall and Catnip, a pair of guys who had been added to our flight to fill in holes. They were in their early twenties, older than the rest of us by a few years, though they were doing their best to integrate.
Aside from Jorgen, the only other member of our team was Sadie, the new girl. She promptly tripped over the small ledge on the ground between her changing room and the hallway, nearly dropping her helmet. Her blue hair and distinctive features reminded me of . . . well, painful memories.
Most of the others continued on down the hall toward the mess, but I waited around for Jorgen—better to confront him now, though he was usually last out of his ship, as he went through the postflight checklist every time, in detail, even though it was okay to let the ground crew do it. Kimmalyn waited with me, and Sadie hurried over to us.
“You were so amazing out there,” she said, clutching her helmet to her chest as she beamed. Scud. We were only one class ahead of her group, so were basically the same age. But surely we didn’t look nearly as young as she did.
“Yeah, well, nice flying today yourself,” I said. “You were watching?”
I hadn’t been watching, but I nodded to her encouragingly. “Maybe soon I’ll be able to be like you, Spin!”
“You did wonderfully, dear,” Kimmalyn said, patting Sadie on the shoulder. “But never try to be who you aren’t; you don’t have nearly enough practice to pull it off.”
“Right, right,” Sadie said, digging in her pocket and pulling out a little notepad and a pencil. “Never . . . who you aren’t . . .” She scribbled down the saying as if it were scripture, though I was sure Kimmalyn had made it up on the spot.
I glanced at Kimmalyn. Her serene expressions were famously hard to read, but the twinkle in her eyes revealed she loved the idea of someone recording her sayings.
“I wish I could have followed you today, Spin. It looked dangerous for you to be alone.”
“The only thing I want you to follow, Sadie,” a firm voice said, “is your orders. If only others were so inclined.”
I didn’t have to look to know that Jorgen—flightleader, and sometimes Jerkface—had finally joined us, and was standing behind me.
“Um, thank you, sir,” Sadie said, then saluted and scampered off toward the mess.
“Good luck,” Kimmalyn whispered to me, squeezing my arm. “May you only get what you deserve.” Then, of course, she abandoned me.
Well, I could slay this beast on my own. I turned around, chin up—then had to tip my head back a little farther. Why did he have to be so scudding tall? Jorgen Weight, with his deep brown skin, was a pillar of exquisite, rule-following determination. He went to bed each night with the DDF Code of Conduct tucked under his pillow, he ate his breakfast while listening to patriotic speeches, and he exclusively used silverware that had the words Don’t let Spensa have any fun stenciled on the handles.
I might have made a few of those things up. Regardless, it did
seem that he spent far too much of his life complaining about me. Well, I’d grown up around bullies. I knew how to stand up for myself against someone who—
“Spensa,” he said to me, “you need to stop being such a bully.” “Ooooooh,” M-Bot’s voice said from my wrist. “Nice.”
“Shut up,” I muttered to him. “Bully? Bully?” I poked Jorgen in the chest. “What do you mean, bully?”
He eyed my finger.
“I can’t bully you,” I said. “You’re taller than I am.”
“That is not how it works, Spensa,” Jorgen growled, his voice growing lower. “And . . . what are you wearing on your face?”
On my face? It was such a non sequitur that I momentarily forgot the argument with Jorgen, glancing instead at the polished metallic wall to see my reflection. My face was painted with black lines under my eyes. What?
“Eye black,” M-Bot said from my wrist. “Paint worn by athletes on Old Earth. You said to Kimmalyn that—”
“That was a joke,” I said. The skin paint was a hologram M-Bot had projected onto me by his mobile receptor. “You really need to have someone rewrite your humor program, M-Bot.”
“Oooohhhhh,” he said. “Sorry.” He made the hologram vanish.
Jorgen shook his head, then brushed past me and stalked down the hallway, leaving me to hurry to catch up.
“You’ve always been independent, Spin, I get that,” he said. “But now you’re using your powers and your status to shove everyone else—including Cobb—around. You’re ignoring protocol and orders because you know there’s not a scudding thing the rest of us can do about it. Those are the actions of a bully.”
“I’m trying to protect the others,” I said. “I’m drawing away the enemy! I’m becoming a target!”
“The plan was for you to do that, then lead them back toward us so we could attack them from the sides. I noted several chances where you could have done this, and you specifically chose to double down on fighting them by yourself.” He eyed me. “You’re trying to prove something. What is wrong with you lately? You were always eager to work as part of the team before. Scud, you practically forged this team. Now you act like this? Like you’re the only one who matters?”
I . . .
My objections faded away. Because I knew he was right, and I knew that making excuses here would be fighting with the wrong weapon. There was only one that ever really worked with Jorgen. The truth.
“They’re determined to kill me, Jorgen,” I said. “They will
throw everything they have at us until I’m dead.”
We stopped at the end of the hall, beneath a blaring white light.
“You know it’s true,” I said, meeting his eyes. “They’ve figured out what I am. If they destroy me, then they can trap us on Detritus forever. They will cut through anyone to get to me.”
“So you make it easier for them?”
“I’m distracting them, like I said, so that . . .” The words died on my lips. Scudding Jerkface and his intensely knowing eyes. “Okay, fine. I’m trying to push myself. The one time I did it, the one time I hyperjumped, I was in the middle of an explosion. I was desperate, threatened, about to die. So I figure if I can recreate that emotion, I might be able to do it again. I might be able to figure out what it is I can do, what it is . . . that I really am.”
He sighed, looking up toward the ceiling with what seemed to me a melodramatic expression. “Saints help us,” he muttered. “Spin, that’s crazy.”
“It’s bold,” I said. “A warrior always tests herself. Pushes herself. Seeks the limits of her skills.”
He eyed me, but I held my ground. Jorgen had a way of making me vocalize the things I didn’t normally acknowledge, not even to myself. Maybe that made him a good flightleader. Scud, the fact that he could kind-of-somewhat handle me was proof enough of that.
“Spensa,” he said. “You’re the best thing we have. You’re vital to the DDF . . . and to me.”
I was suddenly aware of how close he was standing. He leaned down just a little, and for a moment seemed like he wanted to go further. Unfortunately, there was something blocking us at the same time, interfering with whatever we might have been able to have. For one, the flightleader-pilot relationship was awkward.
There was more than that though. He was the embodiment of order, and I . . . well, I wasn’t. I didn’t know what or who I really was. When I was honest with myself, I had to admit that was why I hadn’t moved forward with him these past six months.
Jorgen eventually leaned away. “You know the National Assembly has been talking about how you’re too important to risk in battle. How they want to keep you back.”
“I’d like to see them try,” I said, angry at the thought.
“Part of me would too,” he said, then smiled fondly. “But really, do we need to give them ammunition? You’re part of a team. We are part of a team. Don’t start thinking you have to do things alone, Spensa. Please. And for the stars’ sake, stop trying to put yourself in danger. We’ll find another way.”
I nodded, but . . . it was easy for him to say things like that. Gran-Gran said that even when our ancestors had been part of a space fleet together, people like me had been feared.
The people of the engines. The hyperdrives. We were strange. Maybe even inhuman.
Jorgen keyed his code into the doorway at the end of the hall, but before he finished, the door opened. Kimmalyn had activated it from the other side. “Guys,” she said, breathless. “Guys.”
I frowned. She wasn’t normally this excitable. “What?” “Rodge sent me word,” she said. “The engineers working on
the platform’s computer systems? They just found something.
Jorgen and I followed Kimmalyn to the room everyone was calling the library, despite the lack of books. Here, the Engineering Corps had been working full-time on the old data banks. They’d ripped out several of the wall panels, exposing the networks of wires running inside like tendons. Though much of this platform had come online with minimal fuss, we had been locked out of several computer systems.
Kimmalyn led us to a group of engineers in ground crew jumpsuits whispering and chatting excitedly, gathered around a large monitor they’d set up. I looked around for the rest of my flight, but they weren’t here—it was just me, Jorgen, Kimmalyn, and some officers from the admiral’s staff. I tugged at my bulky flight suit, which was sweaty from my time fighting. “Wish I’d decided to change,” I muttered to Jorgen.
“I could create a hologram of a new outfit for you!” M-Bot offered. “It—”
“How would that change the fact that I feel sweaty?” I asked him. Seriously, now that we had the remote bracelet and hologram working, he was just looking for any excuse he could get to show off.
At my voice though, someone perked up from the crowd of engineers. He turned, then grinned when he saw us.
Rodge was lanky and pale, with a mop of red hair. He smiled more now than he had when we were growing up. In fact, I kept feeling like I’d missed something—somehow, during our time repairing M-Bot together, someone had snatched away my nervous friend and replaced him with this confident person.
I was proud of him, particularly when I noticed he’d gone back to wearing his cadet’s pin—one that Cobb had specifically ordered to be enameled red for him, a new symbol of achievement reserved for outstanding members of the engineering or ground crews.
Rodge bounced over to us, speaking in a soft voice. “I’m so happy she found you. You’re going to want to see this.”
“What is it?” Jorgen asked, craning his neck to see the monitor.
“Last station records,” Rodge whispered. “The final video logs before this place was shut down. They were interrupted mid- recording, and the encryption process didn’t finish as they were archived. It’s the first good chunk of data we’ve been able to recover.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Commander Ulan insisted we wait for Cobb before showing it, and I figured nobody would complain if the Hero of Alta Second wanted to watch.”
Indeed, my arrival had drawn some attention. A couple of the engineers nudged one another, nodding toward me.
“You know, Spin,” Kimmalyn noted from my side, “it can be rather convenient to be around you. Everyone pays so much attention to you, the rest of us can get away with whatever we want.”
“What would you want to get away with?” Jorgen asked. “Taking an extra sip of tea?”
Since he was still trying to get a glimpse of the monitor, he didn’t notice Kimmalyn giving him a shockingly rude gesture. I gaped at her, my jaw dropping. Had she really just done that?
Kimmalyn shot me a mischievous smile, which she then covered with her hand. This girl . . . I thought I had her figured out, then she did something like that, deliberately intended—I was sure—to shock me.
Further conversation was interrupted as the door opened and Cobb entered. He wore a short white beard and still walked with a limp from his old wound—but refused to use a cane except in the most formal of situations. He carried a steaming mug of coffee in one hand, and was wearing the crisp white uniform of the Defiant Defense Force Admiral of the Fleet—the right breast bedecked with ribbons of merit and rank.
He’d reluctantly stepped up to the position after Ironsides— with equal reluctance—had taken her retirement. By some metrics, Cobb was the most important living human being. And yet, he was still just . . . well, Cobb.
“What’s this about a log file?” he demanded. “What’s on the blasted thing?”
“Sir!” said Commander Ulan, a tall woman of Yeongian heritage. “We don’t know yet. We wanted to wait for you.”
“What?” Cobb said. “Don’t you know how slowly I walk? Damn station could rotate through three shifts in the time it takes for me to limp across the stupid thing.”
“Er. Sir. We thought . . . I mean, nobody believes your leg makes you slow . . . er . . . not too slow, I mean . . .”
“Don’t pander to me, Commander,” he snapped. “We just wanted to be respectful.”
“Don’t respect me either,” he grumbled, then took a sip of his coffee. “Makes me feel old.”
Ulan forced a laugh, at which Cobb scowled, making Ulan look even more uncomfortable. I empathized with her. Learning how to deal with Cobb was as specialized a skill as performing a triple Ahlstrom loop with a reverse jumpback.
The techs made way for Cobb, so Kimmalyn and I took the opportunity to slip closer to the screen. Jorgen hung back, standing with his hands clasped behind him and letting higher-ranking officers take the closer positions. Sometimes that boy could be too dutiful. Almost made a girl feel bad for using her notoriety to get a good spot.
Cobb eyed me. “I hear you’re pulling stunts again, Lieutenant,” he said softly as one of the senior technicians fiddled with the files.
“Um . . . ,” I said.
“She sure is!” M-Bot’s voice at my wrist said. “She told Jorgen she was intentionally trying to—” I hit the mute. Then, just to be careful, I turned off his holographic projector too. I blushed, looking at Cobb.
The admiral sipped his coffee. “We’ll talk later. I don’t want to anger your grandmother by getting you killed. She made me a pie last week.”
“Um, yes, sir.”
The screen fuzzed and then the video opened, showing an image of this very room—only without the walls torn apart. A group of people sat busy before monitors, wearing unfamiliar uniforms. My breath caught. They were human.
We’d always known that would be the case. Though we’d found Detritus uninhabited, Old Earth languages decorated much of the machinery. Still, it was eerie to be looking back in time at these mysterious people. Millions upon millions—if not billions—of them must have inhabited the planet and these platforms. How had they all vanished?
They seemed to be talking—indeed, they seemed agitated, bustling around the room. On closer inspection, it looked like several were screaming, but the picture didn’t have sound. A man with blond hair scrambled into the seat in front of this monitor, his face filling our screen. He started talking.
“Sorry, sir!” said one of the techs near me. “We’re working on audio. Just a sec . . .”
Sound suddenly erupted from the screen. People shouting, a dozen voices overlapping. “—make this report,” the man at the screen said, speaking in heavily accented English. “We have initial evidence that the planet’s cytoshields are, despite long-standing assumptions, insufficient. The delver has heard our communications, and followed them to us. Repeat, the delver has returned to our station and . . .”
He trailed off, looking over his shoulder. The room was mass chaos, some people breaking down and collapsing to the floor in hysterics, others screaming at one another.
The man on our screen typed on his keyboard. “We have video from one of the perimeter platforms,” he said. “Number 1132. Turning to that view now.”
I leaned forward as the recording switched to show a starfield— the view from a camera on the outer shell, looking out into space. I could see the curvature of the platform on the bottom of the screen.
The people in the recording quieted. Were they seeing something in that star-speckled blackness that I wasn’t? Was it—
More stars were appearing.
They winked into existence, like pinpricks in reality. Hundreds . . . thousands of them, too bright to actually be stars. In fact, they moved in the sky, gathering and collecting. Even through the monitor—even from a vast distance away, in both time and space—I could feel their malevolence.
These weren’t stars. These were the eyes.
My lungs seized up. My heart started to pound in my chest.
More and more of the lights appeared, watching me through the screen. They knew me. They could see me.
I started to panic. But beside me, Cobb continued to quietly sip his coffee. Somehow, the calm way he stood there helped fend off my anxiety.
This happened a long time ago, I reminded myself. There’s no danger to me now.
The lights on the screen started to grow blurry . . . Dust, I realized. A cloud of it appeared, as if leaking through punctures in reality. The dust glowed with white light and expanded at an incredible speed. Then something followed, a large circular shape that emerged as if from nothing in the center of the dust cloud.
It was hard to make out more than the shadow of the thing. At first, my mind refused to accept the awesome scale it presented. The thing that had appeared—that blackness inside the glowing dust—dwarfed the enormous platform. Scuuud. Whatever it was, it was the size of a planet.
“I have . . . I have visual confirmation of a delver,” said the man recording the video. “Mother of Saints . . . It’s here. The cytoshielding project is a failure. The delver turned back and . . . and it’s come for us.”
The black mass shifted toward the planet. Were those arms I picked out in the shadows? No, could they be spines? The shape seemed intentionally designed to frustrate the mind, as I tried— against reason—to make sense of what I was seeing. Soon, the blackness simply became absolute. The camera died.
I thought the video was over, but the view switched back to the library room, where the man sat at his desk. Most of the other monitors had been abandoned, leaving only the man and one woman. I heard screams from elsewhere in the platform as this one man, trembling, stood up—knocking into the monitor he’d been using, twisting the camera angle.
“Life signs vanishing from the outer defensive rings!” shouted the woman. She stood up at her desk. “Platforms falling dormant. The High Command has ordered us to engage autonomous mode!”
Shaking visibly, the man sat back down. We watched through an off-kilter monitor as he typed furiously. The woman in the room pushed back from her desk, then looked up at the ceiling as a low sound rumbled through the platform.
“Autonomous defenses engaged . . . ,” the man muttered, still typing. “Escape ships are falling dead. Saints . . .”
The room shook again, and the lights flickered.
“The planet is firing on us!” the woman screamed. “Our own people are firing on us!”
“They’re not firing at us,” the man continued, typing as if in a daze. “They’re firing on the delver as it envelops the planet. We’re just in the way. We need to make sure the nowalk is closed . . . Can’t access it from here, but maybe . . .”
He continued to mutter, but my attention was drawn by something else. Lights gathering at the back of the room on the screen. They were breaking reality, making the far wall seem to stretch, become an infinite starfield penetrated by intense, hateful pinpricks.
The eyes had arrived. The woman in the room screamed, then . . . vanished. She seemed to twist in on herself, then shrink, crushed by some invisible force. The remaining man, the one who had been speaking, continued furiously typing at his station, his eyes wide. A madman working as if on his last will and testament. Though his face dominated the screen, I could see the blackness gathering behind him.
Lit by stars that were not stars. Infinity coalescing.
A shape stepped from the darkness. And it looked just like me.
Excerpt copyright © 2019 by Dragonsteel Entertainment, LLC. Cover art © 2019 by Charlie Bowater. Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC, New York.