IT DIDN’T feel like coming home.
The Phoenix broke into the upper atmosphere of Sekoia, flying nose down, and for a moment the desert plateau flashed into view through the glass windscreen of the pilot’s cabin, dizzyingly far below, patched with tan and ocher and the bleached yellow of dead grass.
The pull of the ship’s artificial gravity, of what felt like down, didn’t correspond with the actual ground, and Elissa, harnessed into her seat in the front passenger row, just behind the copilot’s seat, had one of the moments she didn’t think she’d ever get used to, when ears and eyes and mind all disagreed, creating the momentary illusion that the ground they were going to land on was rising up like a wall in front of them.
The Phoenix’s wings had swung out the moment they breached the atmosphere, and now Cadan adjusted the flight angle so they were flying parallel to the desert plateau. Sunlit
sky blazed through the glass above Elissa’s head, a wash of color that seemed, after the darkness of space, impossibly bright. A long way off, a line, a joining of land and sky, of dusty ocher and flawless blue, showed her the horizon.
Some hours before they entered Sekoia’s orbit, Cadan had set the Phoenix into what he called amphibious mode, able to go seamlessly from traveling through space to flying within the atmosphere of a planet. The main flight deck and most of the body of the ship had been sealed off, and Cadan was piloting it from a secondary cabin tucked in the side of the ship beneath the flight-deck floor.
The first time Elissa had seen the ship, it had looked like a giant silver squid, head pointing toward the sky it would launch itself into, the impression strengthened by the surrounding tentacle-like landing gear. Now she thought that with the ship’s wings out, flying belly-down, it would seem more like a wide-finned fish, the little pilot’s cabin a bulging eye on its smooth silver head.
Cadan set them on a course toward the Central Canyon City spaceport while he called ahead to initiate landing protocol. Between the ship and the far-off horizon, the upper levels of the city glinted, the sunlight bouncing off what, much closer, would reveal itself to be an eye-wateringly bright tangle of steel walkways and glass-domed roofs.
Elissa had lived there her whole life, traveling the slidewalks, using the beetle-cars, walking under the shining expanse of roofs that kept the city’s precious water from evaporating into the baked-dry desert air.
And now she found herself looking at it with alien eyes.
It wasn’t like she’d never descended toward the city from the upper atmosphere before; she’d done so twice, once
returning from a school outing and once from a family vacation, and both times this view had come with a rush of familiarity, a feeling of being back where she belonged. Not this time.
But then, I don’t belong here anymore.
She’d known that, really, six weeks ago, standing on this same ship, surrounded by black, endless space, watching Sekoia dwindle to a silvery sphere of cloud and ocean. Back then, though, she’d thought she was leaving for good. That she’d never see it again.
Now, descending toward the city where she’d lived her whole life, and yet somehow looking at it as if she’d been away, not for a few weeks, but for a lifetime, she was realizing that, whatever Sekoia was to her, it was no longer home.
Elissa gave her head a little shake, refusing to be morbid. Sekoia was a whole different place than it had been some weeks ago, even for the people who still lived there. The Phoenix was Elissa’s home now. And if it was a little weird to think of a spaceship that way, well, what over the last few weeks hadn’t been weird?
Finding out three years’ worth of hallucinations were actually her telepathic link with the identical twin—Lin—she’d never known she had, discovering that Lin had escaped from the secret government-run facility where she’d been brought up, then turning fugitive with her to prevent the authorities from taking Lin back to imprisonment and torture . . . it would take a whole lot of weird to top that.
Cadan eased the Phoenix into a lower speed, angling the ship down to skirt the city itself, bringing them into a careful descent toward the spaceport.
The secondary cabin was set up, like the bridge, with a
copilot’s seat next to the pilot’s, and two short rows of passenger seats behind them. Now Lin began to lean sideways from the copilot’s seat to get a better view of the main screen, then caught herself and sat back upright with a look of such conscious virtue that Elissa had to stop herself laughing out loud.
Lin was endlessly fascinated by spaceflight and determined to learn everything Cadan could teach her, but it had taken weeks of him snapping at her for Lin to finally grasp how very much he didn’t appreciate her craning over his shoulder.
Elissa thought he wouldn’t have snapped if it hadn’t been supremely obvious that Lin was only a slow learner with the things that didn’t interest her. Everything to do with actually flying the ship, she’d picked up so fast it didn’t seem possible.
Even after all these weeks, Elissa sometimes found herself taken aback by how easily her twin could work out anything technological—and how difficult she found it to remember the social norms that came instinctively to everyone else on the crew.
But then, when you’d grown up in a secret government-run facility, when you’d been taught that you weren’t even human, but a “nonhuman human-sourced entity”—a Spare—how could you end up like a normal person?
The Phoenix banked, sharply, as Cadan pulled her out of her glide.
“What are you doing?” said Lin, still—just—managing not to lean over, sitting determinedly upright in her seat. “I thought we were going down to the spaceport.”
Cadan pulled the Phoenix away from even the perimeter of the city, the desert plateau swooping below them. “They’ve made it a no-fly zone.”
“You mean because there’s no space to land?” Lin said.
Cadan shook his head. “No. That wouldn’t warrant a no-fly order.” He made a noise of irritation at his own mistake, pulling up an info-screen. “I thought air-traffic control was slow in responding. Turns out it’s because they’re not intending to respond. They’ve closed off airspace over the whole city. The spaceport’s shut down.”
“We saw no orbital patrols on the way in,” Markus, the head—and now the only—technician, said quietly from his seat next to Elissa. He was one of the three crew members who’d remained when Cadan had discovered that Elissa and Lin were fugitives from the Sekoian authorities, when he’d made the decision to help them escape his own government, when he’d given the whole crew the opportunity to leave.
Cadan didn’t look around, but his head came up a little, alert. “You think that’s why?”
“We could already guess they were overstretched. It makes sense, don’t you think?”
No orbital patrols. Something inside Elissa tightened. When she and Lin had fled Sekoia, the authorities had pursued them, forcing them eventually to seek refuge on the planet Sanctuary, the headquarters of the Interplanetary League. There, Lin had been given full human status, and the Sekoian government’s treatment of her—and of the other Spares—had been judged illegal under interplanetary law. The Interplanetary League had deposed the Sekoian government and instituted a planetary takeover.
Elissa had already known they were coming back to a planet with a disrupted social order, a planet with military law imposed on it. A planet that, when it had lost the ability
to use the Spares’ psychokinetic powers, had also lost the top secret superfuel that had powered its ships into hyperspeed. A planet that no longer had a long-distance spaceflight industry of its own. It was why she and Lin were returning, to offer Lin’s electrokinesis, enhanced by their telepathic link, to support the spaceflight industry, to try to stem the slide toward planetary disaster.
But no orbital patrols? All her life had been lived in the safety that orbital patrols brought to the planet, the defense measure that meant people could go about their business without the threat of attack or abduction by space pirates. You heard awful stories sometimes, of isolated settlements on unguarded planets. . . .
Now Sekoia was one of those unguarded planets, able to institute only such protections as closing off airspace, so that any unauthorized craft could be instantly identified and repelled.
The idea of space pirates descending into Sekoia’s residential canyons made her go cold all over. If shutting down air travel would prevent that, she understood why the IPL authorities had done it, it made sense. But all the same . . .
She’d grown up within earshot of that spaceport, built on the plateau at the top of the canyon, above the residential shelf where her family’s house stood. She’d only needed to look out of her bedroom window to see the fiery streaks of ships, night and day, rising or descending against the sky.
Sekoia’s whole society had been built on their spaceflight industry. She already knew that, she knew that was why it was so catastrophic that it had been shut down. But she hadn’t expected to feel it like this, to feel the knowledge of catastrophe like a physical blow, so strongly she couldn’t speak.
“But we’ve come to help,” said Lin. “They’ll be IPL people, won’t they? They’ll know who we are.” There was a slightly arrogant tilt to her head. Interplanetary League personnel would indeed know who she was: the fugitive Spare who’d precipitated a whole-planet takeover. “Why don’t you just land, and then we can explain?”
In the seat next to Elissa, Felicia, the forty-two-year-old light-skinned woman who’d been part of the security team on the Phoenix’s original crew, smothered a laugh. Cadan slanted a half-exasperated look toward Lin. “Because no-fly zones are enforced. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of being shot at for the moment. But if I can land just outside the perimeter—” He tapped the screen. “Ah. Damn it.”
Elissa and Lin spoke at the same time, but while Elissa’s voice came out sharp with sudden fright, Lin’s was full of nothing but curiosity.
Cadan spared a quick smile over his shoulder to Elissa. “The no-fly zone extends a lot farther than I thought it would, that’s all.”
“We can’t land near the city? Not at all?”
“That’s right.” His hand moved on the controls and, with a roar of its engines, the Phoenix swung right away from the city, out over the desert.
“But then where are we going to go?” Elissa asked.
“We’ll have to land outside the no-fly zone.”
“But how will we get back to the city?” She was trying to hold her voice steady, but couldn’t keep it free of an edge of anxiety. “If it’s a no-fly zone, we won’t be able to even use the shuttlebug, will we? But we can’t walk for hours across the desert—people die trying to do that!” Memories of
news stories flashed across her brain—drunken college boys, schoolkids taking dares.
“Not necessarily,” said Cadan calmly. “But it’s okay, I don’t think it’ll come to that.”
“But then what are we going to do? You and Felicia have to find your families, Lin and I have to find some kind of central IPL command so we can find out where we can offer help—”
“It’s okay. We will.”
His voice was still calm, but now she could hear that it was deliberately so. She stopped, her cheeks heating.
Weeks ago she’d gone to Cadan Greythorn to get her and Lin off Sekoia. She had gone unwillingly, driven by desperation, hating to have to be indebted to her older brother’s arrogant best friend and fellow high-flying Space Flight Initiative trainee pilot.
And she’d lied to him, and cheated him, paying him with a stolen credit card, with phantom credit that didn’t really exist. Drawn danger—although she hadn’t meant to—after him and his ship and his crew. The Sekoian government had sent bounty hunters, intending to recapture Lin and destroy the link between her brain and Elissa’s. Because of her, Cadan’s ship had been damaged, most of his crew had resigned, and they’d all come closer to death than she liked to think about.
It had been the most terrifying time of her life. And probably his as well. And yet through it all, they’d come to know each other as something other than Bruce’s arrogant best friend and Bruce’s spoiled little sister. And despite all the trouble she’d brought after him, he’d fallen in love with her.
And she . . . Well, she’d found out what she should have realized ages ago, that she’d been in love with him since she was thirteen years old.
Knowing that he loved her should mean she no longer felt like a little girl around him, ignorant and inferior, without any of the intense work and training that had made him able to command a spaceship, fight off pirates, have knowledge of things like the Humane Treatment Act that had eventually helped save Lin. It should mean that. But somehow it didn’t. And she no longer had the defense of pretending she didn’t care.
“There’s a training base we used to use,” he said now, in possession, as always, of all the most useful information. “SFI owned it, of course, although I’m guessing it’s technically IPL property now. I can’t imagine IPL will have commandeered all the land vehicles we used to keep there. We might even be able to use the facilities there to refuel the Phoenix.”
“For free?” Lin said, eager and interested.
Cadan laughed. “Wouldn’t that be nice? Let’s see when we get there. Do me a quick scan of this route, okay, Lin? Let’s just check that there aren’t any other unexpected blocks.”
Lin bounced into action, throwing open a screen and tapping in a line of commands.
Knowing the best thing she could do was not distract either of them, Elissa sat still, a well-behaved passenger, watching while Cadan dealt with everything and Lin did everything else. He’d been teaching Elissa some of what it took to fly the Phoenix over the last few weeks, but she couldn’t hope to match Lin’s lightning speed at picking up all the skills required, and it would be a long time before she’d be able to act as copilot for him—or as anything else useful.
Weeks ago she’d joined with Lin in saving them all, linking telepathically with her twin and using their joined minds
to throw the ship into hyperspeed, escaping that last attack by SFI ships. If it hadn’t been for her, her link with Lin providing the extra power and steadiness that Lin needed, they wouldn’t have made it. Lin would have killed herself trying to do it by herself, and the rest of them—herself and Cadan and the three crew members—would have been blasted to pieces under the bombardment from the SFI ship.
But all she’d done was helped. It had been Lin’s power—and Lin’s willingness to sacrifice herself—that had really saved them.
Elissa bit the edge of her thumbnail as Cadan took the Phoenix out over the desert.
She had paid for half the refueling of the ship, too. And—obviously—if she hadn’t helped her twin in the first place, Lin would never have escaped Sekoia.
Elissa shifted in her seat, feeling as if the straps were digging into her. It wasn’t like she’d done nothing over the last few weeks, it was just that, compared to everything Lin and Cadan had done, that was how it seemed.
It was weird. She’d spent so much of the last few years just surviving, wanting to fit in, to be ordinary. Now, compared to the others she was sharing the ship with, she was too ordinary.
The three crew members were all specialists in several different fields—you didn’t get a place on an SFI ship without attaining excellence in a whole bunch of disciplines. Cadan had aced every test he’d ever taken and had been fast-tracked to captain duty even before he’d graduated. Lin was the superpowered version of Elissa. Among them all, Elissa was the most normal, the most ordinary.
It didn’t feel as good as she’d thought it would.
After all, when you’re with a guy like Cadan . . .
Having your big brother’s best friend, the person you’d adored since you were seven years old, fall in love with you—it still felt too amazing to be real. Amazing in a good way, obviously, but also, sometimes . . .
It wasn’t so much that she was younger than him, but that she was so far behind in terms of everything else. Going on the run with Lin meant that she hadn’t quite completed high school. But even if she had, it would have been with a bare handful of passing grades, scraped together during those years made a nightmare by attacks of pain and disorienting flashes of a life that wasn’t hers. And before that, back when her life had been flawless, easy—well, he’d said himself he’d thought she was . . . The word still hurt, and she tried not to think it, but all the same it came floating inexorably into her mind. Shallow. She’d thought he was amazing, had hero-worshipped him, glowed whenever he spoke to her. And he’d thought she was shallow.
“All clear,” said Lin, calm and competent at the controls. Cadan turned his head a little to smile at her, and something stabbed through Elissa. Something she tried to push away before she needed to acknowledge what it was.
Lin was her sister. Her twin, who over the time since they’d met had become more important than anything, more important than Elissa’s home or family. She might be struggling with jab after nasty jab of insecurity, but she was not going to start feeling jealous of her own sister.
“And we’re there,” said Cadan.
Elissa dragged her thoughts back under control as the Phoenix banked again. The straps tightened against her body. They’d been in Sekoia’s atmosphere long enough for the
ship’s gravity to switch off; it was Sekoia’s own gravitational field she was feeling now.
The Phoenix skimmed downward, circling as she lost height, and under them the desert floor swooped and slid away. Then a complex of buildings rose up beneath them: stone-built, squat and utilitarian, connected by steel tunnels.
“Hang tight for landing,” said Cadan, and, as sand rose in clouds and rocket-fuel smoke billowed up around the ship, enveloping the glass and filling, for a moment, the viewscreens with a blur of yellow-tinged smog, the Phoenix touched down on Sekoian soil.
Lin turned slightly in her chair. The lit-up look she got whenever she did anything to do with flying the ship had dimmed. She was biting her lip, her face tight, and Elissa instantly forgot all other preoccupations.
If it was weird for her to return to Sekoia, what must it be like for Lin, being back on the planet where she’d been trapped and tortured?
Elissa unsnapped her harness, wriggled out from the tangle of straps and leaned forward to put her hand on Lin’s shoulder. Lin reached her own hand up to clasp Elissa’s.
“They’re gone,” said Elissa. “The facility staff, the people who ordered what they did to you—they’ll be in prison by now.”
Lin’s head moved a tiny bit. “Not all of them.”
“Yeah, okay, not all. But most. And any of them who haven’t been arrested yet—they’ll be keeping a completely low profile. They’re not going to want to come near us.”
Behind them, Ivan the chef, huge and gorilla armed, added, “And they’d be sorry if they did. No one’s going to be touching you girls without your permission, not anymore.”
Markus laughed, a wordless acknowledgment of what they’d seen Lin do, of what they knew her electrokinesis could accomplish.
Under Elissa’s hand, Lin’s fingers relaxed a little.
The sand and smoke cleared. Blue sky and brilliant sun blazed once again through the glass. Cadan ran a quick hand over the controls, turning everything down to maintenance level, a standby setting that would save fuel without shutting the ship down entirely. They’d all learned over the last few weeks not to make any premature assumptions about safety.
Which was just as well, because when they’d gone through the dilating door that led from the cabin, climbed down the narrow staircase, then through two more safety doors and an external air lock, and emerged into bright, dusty sunlight, they found themselves surrounded by an armed crowd.