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Blast off on a New Adventure With This First Look at ‘The Disasters’

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Blast off on a New Adventure With This First Look at ‘The Disasters’

The Disasters

Chaos, adventure, and hilarious outcasts reign supreme in The Disasters, this epic new space adventure that we cannot wait for you all to board.

Can you imagine surviving a terrorist attack only to be scapegoated? Or being forced to choose between death and never seeing your family again? Welcome to Nax’s world—he’s one of the galaxy’s best pilots… who manages to get kicked out of the Ellis Station Academy within 24 hours.

But Nax, along with his fellow washouts, are the sole witnesses to the crime of the century. They think they’ve made it out—barely, maybe even luckily—but after barely escaping with their lives, and before all contact with Earth has been shut down, the real terrorists have already begun an intergalactic smear campaign. Now, our would-be heroes are on the run, hoping to live long enough to bring the truth out. They may not be “Academy material.” And they may not even get along. But they’re the only ones left to step up and fight.

The best part of this epic adventure? You can start reading it now! Scroll down for the first three chapters of The Disasters by M.K. England!

 

One

Name: Nasir Alexander “Nax” Hall

Admission Status: Denied

 

I’ve been at Ellis Station Academy for exactly twenty-four hours. Twenty-four hours, and I’ve already washed out.

Honestly, I’m not even surprised.

I shove a wadded-up, still-clean pair of boxers into my travel bag, right next to the brand-new Academy T-shirt I just bought yesterday. May as well burn it now. Maybe I’ll light it on fire and hoist it up the flagpole at Command once I’m back on Earth soil.

A cluster of guys sprawls across the back wall of the barracks, laughing as they pass their exam scores around. They’re either too oblivious to know how loud they are or they just don’t care, but I hear every word of their conversation.

“Why’d he even bother unpacking? He thought he was such hot shit in the cockpit, but y’all saw how that went.”

My flight papers crumple in my hand, and I breathe in, slow and deep, barely resisting the urge to put my fist right in the asshole’s face. Like I really need a reminder when my brain keeps up a constant lecture on how much of a screwup I am.

Only one other person from my high school made it to the Academy, and of course it had to be Tucker Fineman. Somehow this guy, who once got high in a cornfield on laughing gas stolen from his mother’s dental practice, is worthy of being an Academy pilot. And I’m not.

I thought I hated him back home, but apparently his douchery hadn’t yet achieved its greatest heights. He waltzed into the exam room this morning with a fake smile and a cheesy handshake, like some kind of wannabe politician. I held my breath through his whole entrance interview, waiting for him to spill all my dirt, tell the examiners every reason they should send me home.

He never did. Turns out I didn’t need his help getting kicked out anyway.

But if asshats like Tucker are what they’re looking for in future colonists, then it’s no wonder they decided to pass on the cow-town failboat. Me.

I dump a pile of travel-sized toiletries on top of my packed clothes and tug at the zipper. It resists me, of course, because nothing would make this day better than missing the shuttle back to Earth because I’m too incompetent to even zip my bag. I yank it once, twice, and it closes bit by bit . . . until finally it breaks altogether.

I stare at the bag. The bag stares back.

Finally I pick up it up by the shoulder strap and storm out of the room, followed by snickering whispers and a trail of leaking mouthwash.

Left turn, then right turn, past staff-only doors and high-voltage-area warnings. Eyes up and forward. Don’t meet anyone’s gaze. Something hot and terrible burns in my chest every time an Academy student walks by with squared shoulders and straight back, laughing, the Academy logo prominent on their chest and sleeves. I count air vents in the ceiling and breathe.

Uniformed instructors and students slowly give way to working officers and plainclothes citizens as I cross from the Academy wing into the common area of Ellis Station. Behind me, new students settle in for their training—six months for civilians relocating to the colonies, and anywhere from one to four years for pilots and officers. Ahead of me, people who have completed their training prepare for their one-way trip out into the black, looking forward to their new lives.

I get neither option. I get awkward parental silences and overly formal politeness instead. Whoo.

The terminal for Earth-bound shuttles isn’t far, but my ride is supposed to arrive any minute, so I break into a light jog. My deodorant bounces out of my open bag and clatters to the floor behind me, but I’ve got no shits left to give for it. Honestly, if I miss this shuttle, I think I’d rather swim back to Earth without a vacuum suit than stay here for a second longer. The bright outline of Earth glows through the viewports like a taunt, casting eerie shadows over the craggy lunar terrain beyond. The silhouettes of the old cargo tunnels connecting the station to the abandoned first settlement slice through the light like something out of a nightmare. They seemed massive and beautiful when I arrived yesterday evening.

Now they’re just ugly.

One more left turn, and I’m there. Through the enormous bay window, the arrival/departure board glows with a single flight status: mine, marked as ARRIVING SOON. I haven’t missed it. I’d be thankful, but I was actually starting to look forward to that little vacuum walk. Probably better than showing my face back home after screwing up yet another thing.

My parents will be nice enough about it, like they always are, but “nice” and “disappointed in their loser son” aren’t mutually exclusive. Nothing like a lecture about good life choices with a side of motherly weeping in the morning. Can’t wait. They watched me play pilot while herding the goats out in the field behind the house from age five until embarrassingly recently. Now that future is impossible. Their pity will be excruciating.

At least the golden boy won’t be there to witness my grand return and scold me like a child. Malik actually got his one-way ticket to life in the colonies. Of course. It’s cool, I’ll just live with my ammi and dad for the rest of my life, feeding the chickens and flying simulators.

The terminal door is blocked by a black guy about my age locked in conversation with none other than Dr. Herrera herself, the headmaster of the Academy. The guy stands straight and confident, his expression calm, with long English vowels smooth and reasonable on his tongue. His well-fitted polo shirt bears the crest of the School of Colonial Relations stitched over the right side.

Another wannabe politician type. Great.

“Surely there’s something we can work out,” he says, oozing charm, but apparently the conversation is already over. Dr. Herrera cuts him off with a sharp gesture.

“You made your choice, Rion. Now you have to live with it. Excuse me,” she says, glancing at her watch as she dashes away. The guy’s cool mask slides into a scowl, and he runs a hand through his dyed-red hair. I catch his eye and grin.

“Guess that means you’re with me,” I say with false cheer. “What’d you do to get kicked out?”

His lip curls. “Piss off, wanker.”

Ooh, never been sworn at in an English accent before. Can’t say I mind it.

Rion snatches his posh leather travel bag off the ground and slaps the door control. A green light blinks as the system verifies the breathable atmosphere beyond, then it whooshes open in a rush of stale, recycled air tinged with engine fluids and exhaust. Mechanics and deckhands shout orders and off-color jokes to one another down on the flight deck, their voices echoing in the vast landing bay, mingling with the clanging of tools and the hiss of pressurizing airlocks.

Two girls are already seated at the small cluster of uncomfortable metal chairs bolted to the floor at the back of the bay, underneath the LANDING ZONE 6 sign. We get a special late-evening shuttle just for us, coming to whisk away the freaks and failures under the cover of dimmed hallways and lights-out orders. They may as well glue my feet to the ground once we’re back planetside. This is the only space piloting program, and I can’t reapply for five years. But why bother, only to fail out again? I’m done.

The two girls in the waiting area are a study in contrasts. The blond white girl compulsively bounces her right leg, constantly in motion, staring off into the distance. The other girl is utterly still, practically a statue, her face hidden behind warm brown hands and black semitextured hair come loose from its tie. Neither seems terribly open to conversation, which is fine by me. I’d rather sit and wallow in silence. I wish they had let us bring our tablets to the Academy; at least then I could play some Starhunters and ignore everyone. I walk up and drop my bag, and the darker-haired girl startles at the noise.

“Whoa, on edge much?” I ask, jumping up onto a chair and seating myself on top of the back.

“Oh, bite me.” Now that she’s looking up, I recognize her; someone in the flight school dorms pointed her out over lunch, said she was one of those college-at-fifteen prodigy types. Some kind of genius. Her accent is 90 percent New York City, 10 percent Spanish, much sharper than my mostly suppressed North Carolina drawl. Her eyes are sharp and intelligent, a beautiful hazel brown that I study for a moment too long, and framed by arched eyebrows that telegraph how completely unimpressed with me she is.

“You know your gear’s covered in shaving cream?” she says with innocent sweetness.

I glance down. Sure enough, my shaving-cream can seems to have exploded on impact. Rion gives it a wide berth as he claims a chair for himself, setting his fancy bag down with much more care.

I scoop up a bit of the blue foam from my bag and flick it away. “It’s just my Academy shirt, and it’s not like I’ll be needing that anymore. Why are you all still wearing yours?” I sneer. “If you’re here, that means you failed out. Still clinging to the dream?”

As soon as the words are out, I wish I could call them back, but it’s like I’m watching someone else be an unbearable asshole and I’m too far away to intervene. Genius Girl purses her lips and looks away, crossing her arms over the tech school’s pointed logo on her shirt, but not before I catch the flash of hurt in her eyes. Rion glares up at me from behind long lashes, disapproving.

“Everyone’s so uptight,” I mutter, eyeing the guy up. He’s broader than me—I’m more the long, lean soccer-player type—and he’s clean-shaven, compared to my perpetual irritating stubble. His face is angular and handsome underneath his tight curls, with narrow eyes that I’d much rather see bright with humor than glaring at me.

Oops. Too late now.

At the far end of the seating area, the other girl finally looks our way. She shoves her blond hair back from her face, revealing bright streaks of blue at her temples and perfect eyeliner around gray-green eyes. Her toned legs say athlete, but she’s wearing the red-and-white of the Academy Medical Corps. I shift in my seat under her level gaze.

“You’re right, though,” she says, her accented consonants pointed and precise. Russian or something. “There’s no point in clinging. They told me right at the start of the entrance interview that I shouldn’t have even made it through prescreening. Apparently the colonies are in desperate need of doctors, but not desperate enough to take me. It is what it is, right?”

Genius Girl knits her brows and frowns. “That’s awful. Why’d they wash you out?”

Dr. Eyeliner shrugs.

“It’s personal,” she says with a wry smile. “Sorry. What about you?”

Genius Girl is quiet for a long moment.

“It’s personal,” she finally echoes, combing her fingers through the ends of her tied-back hair. Everyone watches her, waiting for her to elaborate, but all she says is “I just want to go home.”

Rion snorts. “I want literally anything other than home.”

Dr. Eyeliner reaches over for a silent fist bump of solidarity.

A low, soothing tone reverberates through the landing bay, and a wave of blinking red lights chases around the edge of the huge transparent doors holding the vacuum of space at bay. We all turn to watch as a boxy, blue-striped Earth Command shuttle maneuvers into place beyond the outer doors. A calm voice drones over the interior speakers: “Warning. External doors opening.” The shuttle nudges forward, and the doors slide shut behind it, trapping it in the transfer airlock. A hissing sound, a warning klaxon, then the voice again: “Inner doors opening.”

As the internal doors crack open to admit the shuttle, I close my eyes and breathe slowly through my nose, willing the burning in the corners of my eyes to ease. This is it. The official, final, irreversible end to the only thing I’ve ever really wanted. The only time I’ll see the colonies for the rest of my life will be when I’m sprawled on the couch in my friend’s basement, playing Settlement III and covered in Cheetos dust.

I steal a quick glance at my companions, the Fail Class of 2194. Genius Girl takes deep, calming breaths through her nose, her face twisted with pain. Rion’s eyes are blank, locked on his folded hands. Eyeliner is on edge, though, her gaze suddenly sharp. She points toward the shuttle as it settles to the deck a hundred yards away from us and to the right. There’s a weird splash of color out of place, something bright blue and green on the starboard side.

“What’s that on—?”

The lights go out.

The all-station alarm shrieks, the sound reverberating through the vast landing bay in a piercing cacophony. I drop to the floor on pure instinct, crouching behind the row of metal chairs, my heart hammering against my rib cage.

“Communication system failure. Warning. Communication system fail—”

Static.

I poke my head above the chairs just in time to see shadowy figures spill from the newly arrived shuttle, bathed in the dim red glow of the emergency lights. My entire body goes stiff. There are at least six of them, clad in all-black combat-grade vacuum suits and moving in tight, precise formation. Four of them break off and head straight for the doors that lead to the station’s main control room. They pause near the traffic controller’s booth, and there’s a sound like a tiny, faraway gunshot. A distant thud, and the figures continue on.

This is not right, so not right. My harsh breaths echo in my ears, and my stomach is singing a reprise of the evening’s gravy potatoes. I look to Genius Girl, can just barely see the outline of her face in the dark. The whites of her eyes are wide as she grabs my sleeve.

“There are still two of them in here,” she whispers, just as the two commandos pick off a group of mechanics with six quick shots. Genius Girl barely suppresses a scream when the bodies hit the deck.

“They stayed behind to guard their shuttle,” Eyeliner says. I nearly jump out of my skin. She’s crouched directly next to me; I didn’t even hear her move.

The overhead speaker crackles again, but the voice is garbled. “Lifeboat access locked. Life support error in-inin-in atmospherics. Estimated breathable air remaining: two—”

Silence, but for the distant hissing rush of air escaping into space.

“Two what?” Genius Girl snaps, her voice loud enough that I check for movement near the shuttle. “Two hours? Two minutes? Two seconds?”

“One minute, forty-fi—” the speaker adds, and our eyes meet, all four of us.

“We have to get to the lifeboats,” Rion says, but Genius

Girl cuts him off.

“They’re locked. Were you even listening? We have to—”

“The shuttle, now!” I snap.

I explode from my crouch and dash off into the darkness, not bothering to check if the others are behind me, my breath rasping harsh in my throat. There’s no time for subtlety, so I run as fast as I can, cutting left and right at random, my long legs tearing up the hundred yards between us and the shuttle. If the intruders have a chance to aim, we’re dead, but if it’s death by shooting or death by asphyxiation, I’ll eat a bullet any day. My heart leaps into my throat, but I have to keep it together, keep it together, run, don’t lose it—

Eyeliner catches up easily and slaps my arm, interrupting my panic. “I have the guard on the left,” she says, and breaks away, leaping over a discarded tool chest with powerful grace. Definitely an athlete.

Another tiny gunshot cracks from somewhere, and there’s a disturbance in the air as the bullet whizzes by my ear. The adrenaline of the near miss hits me like a sledgehammer. No time to think, no time—

“One minute, thirty seconds breathable air rema—” The speaker cuts off again.

We reach the ship.

I have half a second to process the gun barrel hovering a meter from my face, illuminated by the terminal’s pale emergency track lighting. I drop, the gun goes off, and I ram my fist between my assailant’s legs.

Shit.

No balls. I’m screwed.

A slight oof comes from above me, but then the pistol whips down and catches me on the shoulder. I’m about to kiss my ass good-bye when a boot swings out of nowhere and rams into the woman’s kidney, quickly followed by a second boot to the head. The woman drops to the ground, motionless, and cool relief floods through me. Dr. Eyeliner to the rescue. Holy hell, this girl is a powerhouse.

“Come on!” Eyeliner urges, fumbling for my arm. Beyond her, Rion and Genius Girl charge up the narrow ramp and into the ship. I hope there are no more commandos up there to greet them.

“Go, I’m right behind you,” I tell her as I relieve the passed-out woman of her gun. If action movies have taught me anything, it’s never leave the gun behind.

I hit the controls for the docking ramp behind me, make sure it’s set to lock, whirl around, and charge down the central corridor. The others are already crammed into the cockpit, strapped into the crew seats. Genius Girl sits in the navigator’s seat, but the pilot’s chair is empty.

“Tell me you have a flight permit,” Genius Girl says as soon as I trip through the door. She’s tapping furiously at the touchscreen display and doesn’t look up, the light of the screen glowing over her face.

I wince, an instant jolt of fear stabbing into my heart. “Uh, not exactly.”

Rion swears creatively. I hold up my hands, then realize I’m still holding the gun and flick on the safety. Whoops. My ammi the police officer would be horrified with me right now.

“Hey, I didn’t say I couldn’t fly!” I slide into the pilot’s seat, set the gun down on a side console, and grab the control wheel with shaking hands. “Just not legally.”

Flying is what I came to the Academy for, after all. Can’t have a space permit until they say I can, and they’ve already made their feelings on that perfectly clear. Should I tell them I’ve never flown a real ship, just simulators? Should I tell them about—

Well. What would be the point of that? I’m our only option, apparently. Better to just get my shit together and do this.

Yeah. I can do this.

I adjust the seat until my feet fit comfortably on the rudder pedals, blow out a slow breath, then look over at Genius Girl. “Any chance we can get those bay doors open, or do we have to do this the explodey way?”

“I’ve almost got it,” she snaps back. “Scans show four more ships on the edges of Academy space, by the way, 269 by 53 by 620. You should see them on your heads-up display once we’re out of here.”

I wipe my sweaty palms on my pant legs and grip the controls again, glancing up at the HUD. “Great. Fantastic. Anyone religious? Want to say some prayers, maybe sing a hymn or two?”

Dr. Eyeliner forces a smile when I peek back around my chair, but Rion only taps his fingers against his folded arms, eyes fixed on the viewport. No one’s impressed by my attempt at levity, but it helps tame the writhing ball of nerves in my stomach all the same. Flying by myself? Fine. That would be fine. If I screw something up and get myself killed, that’s my problem.

But all these other people in the ship with me?

I close my eyes to the vivid memory of flashing ambulance lights, twisted metal, and blood, my brother’s voice and the sirens melding into a blaring alarm in my mind.

“Got it!” Genius Girl says. My eyes snap open, and true to her word, the inner bay doors creep apart. I take a deep breath, say bismillah in my head, and steady my hands.

I feed some power to the magnetic coils, and the ship lifts smoothly off the deck. Okay, good so far. I can do this. Slowly, carefully, I spin us around and ease the throttle open. The ship jerks forward, way too fast.

“Open the outer doors!” I shout as we careen past the first opening.

“I’m trying!” Genius Girl taps away. The doors stay stubbornly closed. I ease back on the controls and tip the ship up, bringing the magnetic coils to bear on the closed doors in front of us, which bounces us back the other way, toward the closing inner doors. This is the worst game of Pong ever.

Someone behind me makes that hissing inhale-between- the-teeth noise my ammi used to make when she was teaching me to fly. I’d floor it and go hurtling down Route 401, racing past the cornfields, and she’d make that sound as she held her hair out of her eyes with one hand and choked the life out of the oh-shit handle with the other.

I hate that sound.

The outer doors finally begin their slow parting, and as soon as the gap is large enough I push the throttle wide open. The sudden momentum slams me deeper into my chair, my favorite feeling in the world. Simulators never quite got it right—it’s even better in a real ship. My stomach swoops as the shuttle’s inertial dampener struggles to compensate, and three terrified screams replace the irritating hiss as we hurtle toward the still-opening doors.

Much better.

My timing is fine, though, of course it is, and we rocket through the opening with several generous inches on either side of the stubby wings. The screams die out as we roar away from the moon’s craggy surface, toward the gentle blue glow of the Rock.

I put the ship through a little barrel roll just because I can. I can’t resist, even though my brain is half waiting for the ship to explode underneath me or careen out of control without warning. The controls feel different, somehow. More . . . physical, like I can feel the ship as an extension of my feet and hands. I pull a few more maneuvers to get it out of my system, grinning like little-kid me running through the field with his arms out like wings.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Rion calls from behind me. “You! You’re that asshole all the pilot trainees were bitching about, aren’t you? The guy who showed up with a perfect score on the prescreening flight exam.”

“Yeah, that was me.” I grin, letting it cover up the hollow ache in my chest. It started so well, but obviously it didn’t end that way.

“Seriously?” he says. “How in the hell did you manage to fail out?”

“Bigger problems, guys,” Genius Girl cuts in. “Point us back toward the station so we can see, hotshot.”

I do as she asks, and we swing around just in time to see the billowing clouds of escaping oxygen from the station taper off, then cease altogether. And all at once, the gravity of the situation hits.

“Did they manage to keep the last of the atmosphere from venting?”

I know the truth even as I ask.

No one stopped it. The station ran out of air.

“I’m only getting a handful of heat signatures from the entire station. They’re all . . .” Genius Girl trails off, her voice thick with tears.

Tucker Fineman is dead. We went to high school together. I just saw him fifteen minutes ago.

The guy I passed who was cleaning out the vac-suit lockers . . . did he manage to get one on in time? Is he dead, too?

And it’s not just the Academy, but all of Ellis Station. The emigration port. The warehouses. The laboratories. All of the air from the whole station, gone.

All of those people, gone.

My stomach is hollow.

I dial back the throttle and let us drift for a moment. The emptiness of space surrounds us, swallows us up in blackness. Stars fill the void beyond the curve of the moon’s surface, beyond the reflected light of Earth, dotting the endless horizon with glittering points of brightness.

It’s silent in the cockpit for a moment. Just four strangers breathing the same air. Being alive. Trying to process. Who would do this? Why would they do this?

Finally Eyeliner speaks. “Should we try to hail the station? See if any of those heat signatures are survivors? Maybe they were able to—”

Then the comm crackles. “All ships, you are clear to approach along your assigned vectors. The station has been neutralized.”

The speakers hiss, then a different voice takes over. “Acknowledged, lead. Should we expect resistance?”

“We cut communications before Earth could be alerted. Clean and quiet. Our insiders are adjusting the logs and flooding the station with fresh atmosphere. We’ll be ready by the time you dock. Everything should look status quo from the surface.”

Insiders? Someone on the station knew this was going to happen? And helped? My breath catches in my throat, and I turn to Genius Girl. “We have to tell someone.”

She nods, mouth hard and eyes blazing. “I’ll open a link with Command down on the planet. It’ll give away our position, but the GCC shou— Break hard starboard!”

My hands and feet obey before my brain processes her words, and the ship flips up and to our right. A missile flashes past the viewport, and a new voice crackles from the comm, lean and assertive.

“Alpha, this is Tiger Five. Two Flight has located the rogue shuttle. Terminating now.”

“Good hunting, Tiger Squadron.”

I jam my foot down on the rudder pedal, banking hard as a stream of bullets flashes past. Two hard maneuvers in a row, in an unfamiliar ship, and I’m completely disoriented.

Gotta angle for Earth, shitshitshit, which way is . . .

I spend a precious two seconds studying my instruments, then swing us around to port and tip the nose of the shuttle back. Earth comes into view, a long arc of blue backlit by the sun. With my brain finally calibrated correctly, I open the throttle wide again, prepared this time for the feeling of my organs being squished against the back of my rib cage. Two hundred thirty-nine thousand miles from Ellis Station on the moon to Earth Command down on the surface. My heart pounds deafeningly loud in my ears. I can’t screw this up, gotta keep us alive, we’re the only ones who know.

A flash of color in front of us, two, and a hail of cracking gunfire. Our shields handle most of it, but a single ping of metal-on-metal sounds from the aft, sending a coughing vibration through the ship. Not good, not good . . .

“Damn bastards!” I yank back on the controls as the HUD blares a shrill warning. Missile lock. Again. One of the fighters is on our tail, and there are at least three others circling around, skilled and confident predators. I wasn’t actually planning on dying today, and as much as I didn’t want to be stuck back down on the Rock, I like this even less.

“Another flight incoming!” Genius Girl reports. “About thirty seconds out. They’re cutting us off.”

I blow out a breath. Steady my hands on the sweat-slick controls. Push down the panic clanging in my skull.

“Okay. Unless you’d like to go home with significantly more holes, I think we need a plan B here,” I shout over the ship’s groaning complaints and alarms. “All cards on the table, y’all, because there’s no way we’re gonna make it back to the Rock. This is a clunky-ass shuttle, not a fighter jet, and I can’t keep these assholes dancing forever.”

Rion leans forward, gets a hand on the back of my chair. “Let’s fight back,” he shouts in my ear, then loses his grip as I cut the throttle and pull a hard maneuver. A fighter goes sailing past. “I’m a good shot. We can do this!”

“Yeah, great idea! Only we’ll have to hang you out the window and let you throw rocks at them, because, once again, this is a damned shuttle, not a fighter. We’re toothless,” I shoot back. A politician who’s good with weapons? There’s a scary thought. Where did the fourth fighter go? What I wouldn’t give for a ship with weapons right now. . . .

“Call for reinforcements, then,” Rion says.

The shields flicker for a brief moment.

“We’re being jammed,” Genius Girl yells in between bursts of gunfire. She flips a switch, and the cockpit speakers hiss with random garbled patterns.

“Well, fix it!” I jerk the controls hard, throwing everyone against their restraints, just in time to avoid another missile.

“I can’t find a clear frequency!”

I grit my teeth. The nearest fighter wing would have been stationed at the Academy anyway. The pilots are probably all dead. We’d be dust long before help arrived, either by the fighters or the orbital defense guns ready to shoot down anything without landing clearance. We’re out of options.

My stomach sinks. I hesitate, gulp for air to calm my racing heart, but there’s no time.

Say it.

“I think we have to jump for the colonies.”

A beat of silence.

“Do it,” Dr. Eyeliner says, precise and calm.

“You’re cracked!” Genius shouts over the increasingly worrying noise from the engines. “What about the no-return rule? If we leave—”

“What choice do we have?” Rion shoots back. “If we’d made it through our time at the Academy, we wouldn’t have been able to go back anyway. That was always the deal. I want to live. So we have to jump.”

I don’t bother adding to the commentary. The HUD is solid red, and between its screeching and the static over the speakers, my head is crowded and panicked. I’m definitely going to get us killed. I can’t do this, I’m terrible, I’ve never even flown a real ship before, this is impossible. My hands slip on the controls, nervous sweat and trembling muscles making the job so much harder. One fumble, one wrong maneuver, and those fighters will have us.

I take one last look at the sun rising over Earth’s jeweltone arc, then swing the shuttle around and throw us into the black, out of the moon’s gravity shadow. The bullets follow, slamming against hull instead of shield now.

“Does this thing even have an A-drive?” I think to ask at the last second.

But it must, because Genius Girl pulls up the nav chart and picks an illuminated destination at random. The whining from the engines ramps up, increasing in pitch and sending a horrific shudder through the pedals under my feet. Oh god, we’re actually doing it, actually leaving Earth space, never coming back, never seeing our families again, and I knew it was coming, I wanted it, but not like this, not—

Stomach dropping, rib cage compressed, light bending in incomprehensible headache-inducing ways. Hold her steady, hit the mark, one last sudden acceleration . . . then the space in front of us scrunches. A tiny hole in the universe appears, just for us.

We’re gone.

 

TWO

 

BA-CLANG, BUMP, BA-CLANG, BUMP. SCREE-eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. . .

The noises as we pop back into normal space are not comforting. The ship’s vibrations crawl up my legs, an intense itch, and the controls buck in time with every CLANG from the aft.

“Status report!” I snap, because it seems like the kind of thing someone should say in this situation. It comes out less like authority and more like a plea for reassurance.

Genius Girl looks over her shoulder to check on Rion and Eyeliner. “Everyone’s okay,” she says, her voice shaky. “We’re in the A-jump arrival zone outside the colony world al-Rihla. Um . . .”

She trails off, and her tapping on the display is much slower than it was before the jump, her fingers shaking over the glowing screen. She closes her eyes for a second and bites her lip, breathing in for four counts and out for eight. I have to look away. Her expression is too close to the same cracking feeling inside my chest, the one threatening to steal the breath from my lungs; I’m going to break open right along with her if I don’t get us moving again.

I open the throttle halfway to move us out of the arrival zone, just in case any more ships jump in behind us. Good first step. It would be embarrassing to escape a daring firefight in the skies over Earth’s moon only to be obliterated by some arriving supply ship. Once we’re safely away, I flop back in the pilot’s seat.

“Well,” I start, then swallow painfully. My throat is thick, my voice a ragged disaster. “So much for Earth.” The no-return rule is officially in effect. We can never set foot on Earth soil ever again. Rion and Dr. Eyeliner don’t seem too bothered—both staring out the viewport with blank expressions—but Genius Girl makes a strangled sound and hides her face in her hands.

The enormity of it comes crashing down on me.

I never got to say good-bye to my parents. Not for real. We sat in the spaceport parking lot in near silence for almost ten minutes before I gave up and got out of the car, grabbed my bag, and just . . . left. I was supposed to be back in six months for the winter break. I was supposed to come home with a flight permit and a wingleader insignia on my uniform, and they were supposed to cook me dinner and call my uncles and aunts to brag and forgive me for every mistake I’ve ever made.

And now it’ll never happen, along with video games at Mel’s house and pickup soccer at the abandoned farm and climbing all over ancient crumbling barns with Riz. No more stuffing my face during endless Eid visits with my ammi’s whole family, or Christmas cider and pecan pie with Grammy and Pa, and it’s all gone, gone.

It’s not even like I disagree with the no-return rule, really. The last thing the human race needs is some weird space virus that only affects the fruit-fly population but leads to a worldwide ecosystem collapse. They have proven decontamination procedures out in the colonies, but no one trusts them enough to risk the homeworld. A bit paranoid, maybe, but it only takes one space plague to bring ruin to the birthplace of humanity. Besides, we couldn’t just go out into space, multiply, then let all those people come back to an Earth that’s already bursting at the seams and just barely over its first energy crisis. Harsh, but necessary.

I always planned to end up out here permanently. My parents mostly supported me, and I knew I’d be leaving Earth forever after my four years at the Academy. But this . . . this is not what I imagined at all. So soon. And sudden.

My stomach roils with the weight of it. This would be such a bad time to vomit.

“Hey, everyone?” Rion asks, his voice deep and even. “Does that screeching sound like venting atmo to anyone else?” He says it with the cadence of a joke, but his knuckles are pale where they grip the back of my seat.

Genius Girl wipes her eyes and peers at her display. “I would love to disagree with you,” she says, breath still ragged, “but this blinking red screen in front of me seems to think you’re right.”

“Can we make it to al-Rihla before the air runs out?” Doc Eyeliner asks, straight to the point.

I thumb the throttle control slowly forward, easing more juice to the engines, but they only cough harder. I really have killed us all. Deep breath, Nax. “Looking less likely by the minute.”

“The atmo is actually not our biggest problem,” Genius Girl says. Rion’s and Eyeliner’s calm seems to have steadied her somewhat. These people have their shit surprisingly together when faced with imminent doom. How the hell did they end up as washouts?

Al-Rihla grows larger on the horizon, filling the starboard side of the viewport with its glowing red-and-blue arc, its two moons reflecting the light of the yellow sun. I gently turn the controls to the right to bring us more in line with the planet.

Nothing happens.

I test the roll using rudder pedals, and the wings tip up and over just fine; I push the controls in and pull out again to test the pitch, and the nose of the shuttle tips up and down. Finally I wiggle the controls left and right to test the yaw, with small motions at first, then larger, until I’m wrenching it from one extreme to the other.

Nothing. No side-to-side motion. We can’t turn.

“So, I’m guessing this is our biggest problem,” I say, lying back against the headrest to look at Genius Girl. I’m hovering right on the sharp edge of panic, every muscle in my body tense, but I keep my words as even and chill as I can. If I give in to that shivery tingle of dread in my gut, they’ll all panic, too, and they’ll figure out that I really shouldn’t be flying this ship and we’ll definitely all die.

Genius Girl’s jaw tightens, too caught up in her own fear to notice mine. “Yeah. The yaw control mechanism is out.”

“Okay,” I say, wiping my palms on my thighs and checking my grip on the controls. “I’m fine. This is fine.”

The ironic thing is, my first reaction to stress has always been to go blow money on flight sim time. What am I supposed to do when the stress happens while flying?

I close my eyes and picture the HUD as a video game screen, then study it again. “Okay, from our current angle, we should still hit the planet. Not literally hit, I hope, but I mean . . . I should be able to land. I think.”

Super-inspiring leadership there, Hall. “I’m pretty sure I won’t screw this up! You’re okay with that, right, y’all?” Asshat.

Rion unbuckles himself and leans forward to look out the front viewport, his hand pressing into my shoulder where he grips the back of the pilot’s chair. I glance over at the other two; Genius Girl has gone pale, and Eyeliner is unconsciously bouncing her legs again. We need to refocus.

“Okay, I don’t want to keep calling you Dr. Eyeliner and Genius Girl in my head,” I say, my voice light. “Don’t suppose I could get some real names before we try to not crash this thing?”

“Dr. Eyeliner is a terrible nickname,” Eyeliner says.

Very helpful. I blow out a slow breath.

“Well, give me something else to work with, then.”

Eyeliner studies me with those cool green eyes and stills her fidgeting, her mouth playing at a smile as if she gets what I’m trying to do. “Zinaida. Call me Zee,” she says.

“Case,” Genius Girl says without looking up from her display, the name offered like a bullet. I shrug and look up to meet Rion’s eyes.

“And you I already know, I suppose.”

“Do you, though?” he asks, a playful lilt to his voice. “Well, you have one up on me. Do I get to know your name?”

Hello, now we definitely have to live through this. I put on my most charming grin and offer him my hand, which he takes in a firm grip. “Nax Hall, at your service.”

Rion squeezes once, a tiny quirk at the corner of his mouth, then releases my hand.

“So, yeah, nice to meet you all and everything,” he says, “but I’d still prefer to not die if at all possible. What can I do to help?”

The naming exercise has just the effect I’d hoped. The others look to me, and I nod to bolster my confidence.

“Okay, um, Case,” I say, trying my best to cement “Genius Girl = Case” in my mind. “Do you think the manual yaw will still work, or was the entire mechanism blown off?”

She taps the screen a few times, then shakes her head. “I can’t tell. The computer can’t see the yaw control, so I don’t know if it’s because it’s not there, or because the connection to the computer was damaged. We’ll just have to try it.”

“Right.” I look over my shoulder. “Rion, the manual crank should be—”

“I got it, hotshot,” he says, clapping me on the shoulder as he ducks out the door. Doc Eyeliner—Zee—unstraps herself too.

“I’m going to see about parachutes and medical supplies. Good luck, friends. You’ll be fine,” she says, and disappears after Rion, muttering something under her breath in Russian with a shake of her head.

“Did you catch that last part?” Case asks me, shaking out the tension in her hands. “I think I get the general idea,” I say, though Russian isn’t one of my languages. Swear at me in Pashto, then we can talk.

We sit in silence while al-Rihla, the jewel of the colonies, gradually takes over more and more of the viewport. It looks exactly like it did on the pages of my textbooks, only so much more. I let my eyes linger for a moment, taking in green continents outlined in rich red sand and huge, intensely blue oceans that glitter below. I know we’re in a life-or-death situation, but it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the view. I can see why all the antiexploration crap went away once a few humans actually got out here. Who could look at all this and not want it? It’s bizarre—I’ve only seen Earth from space once, and I was busy trying not to die at the time. Now I’m looking down on a completely different planet, in person, in space, while flying a ship I stole.

I’m actually here. This is all I’ve ever wanted, though I didn’t get it in the way I wanted.

And in a few painfully long minutes, I’ll find out whether I get to live to see the other seven colony worlds one day, or if I get to die in a dramatic crash and kill all my new friends instead.

Fantastic.

Case interrupts my thoughts with a harsh laugh out of nowhere.

“Crashing in slow motion is the worst,” she says, the bright edge of panic tearing her sarcastic words to ragged pieces. “My brain really doesn’t need more time to list every possible thing that could go wrong. When we’re doing stuff, it’s fine, but now it’s like, are you sure you rerouted the power correctly? Better check again. Okay, back to the main screen. But are you sure it was okay? Better check again. God.

I almost chuckle, though she probably wouldn’t appreciate that, because I know exactly what she means. Those obsessive thoughts—Don’t screw it up, you’re gonna screw it up, just wait until you screw it up. It’s torture. Her hands twist and writhe in her lap, and her breath is getting worryingly labored. Maybe I should intervene.

“The slow motion thing, yes. It’s like, hey! Wanna know if there’s a fiery crash in your future? Well, you’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, please enjoy an in-flight beverage. The latest SkyMall catalog has been uploaded to your tab.”

A surprised laugh bursts out of her, the sort that’s already halfway to a sob. I look over and catch her gaze, her dark eyes wet and lovely and defiant.

“Hey.” I hold out my hand to her. “We got this.” She holds my gaze for a beat too long, her expression unreadable, then reaches out and gently squeezes my hand. “We got this,” she echoes.

And she smiles, just a little bit, but it makes her hand in mine feel suddenly intense. I run my thumb over her knuckles, once, twice.

She’s quiet for a moment, then squeezes my hand once more and drops it. She goes back to tapping on the display like nothing happened, swiping a map over to my screen with a quick gesture. “It looks like our present course will take us over the beach right outside the founding city, Saleem. No casualties on the ground if we can manage to aim there. Just a little help from the manual yaw should do it.”

“I can think of worse places to crash than the most beautiful beach on the best of the colony worlds. Assuming we don’t overshoot and land in the ocean, I mean, but it’ll be a nice view on the way down.” Silver lining, right? Maybe we’ll get really lucky and they’ll bury us here.

Case hums her agreement. “My moms always wanted to retire on al-Rihla, actually. They were planning to pack up and move as soon as I graduated the Academy. They’ll be pissed I saw it first.”

Then the comm crackles to life. “Unidentified shuttle, you have entered al-Rihla airspace. Flight is restricted to those who have filed an approved flight plan with the Air and Space Travel Control Commission. Please state your affiliation, cargo, and intentions immediately.”

Case’s gaze snaps to mine, her eyes wide. My mouth hangs half open, but my brain hasn’t supplied it with any words to speak. A high-pitched warning tone pierces my skull, and I check the HUD: surface-to-air missiles locked on.

Shit.

I yank the controls sharp to the left, then remember. No yaw. We won’t be avoiding any missiles unless their aim is incredibly terrible. Gotta do something, gotta . . .

“Say something!” I hiss to Case.

“Uhhhh . . .” She looks all around the cockpit as if it might provide a magic solution. The comm crackles again: “Unidentified shuttle, we have a missile lock on your vessel and will fire in fifteen seconds if you do not identify yourself. Now.”

Case slaps the control and shouts through a burst of static. “Mayday, mayday, mayday, our yaw control mechanism has been damaged and we are coming in for a hard landing. Please clear our approach vector. We’re aiming for undeveloped terrain and will avoid collateral damage as much as possible.”

“Negative, shuttle, break off and maintain orbit. We will send a transport up to—”

“Sorry, control, but we can’t do that. We’re leaking atmosphere, and asphyxiation is a really terrible way to go,” Case says, and I snort. It wasn’t funny, not really, but as the ship enters the outer atmosphere and begins to shake apart, I find it hard to keep a grip on myself—or the controls. My eyes burn with welling tears, but my breath keeps hitching like I’m about to bust out in hysterical laughter or start sobbing. Gotta pull it together. Gotta keep them safe. No fancy piloting, no sudden maneuvers. Do. Not. Mess. This. Up.

The nose of the ship glows a dull orange as we hit the atmosphere in earnest, and the ship gives a violent shudder beneath us. There’s an awful creaking sound, slow, then faster, faster until the metal shrieks, and clangclangclangfwing!

“What the hell did we just lose?” I shout, my arms shaking with the effort of holding the ship steady.

“You don’t want to know. We need that yaw control now if we’re going to avoid taking a bunch of people out with us, though!”

“RION!” I throw my weight forward onto the controls to keep the nose of the ship from tipping backward. The atmospheric drag desperately wants to send us tumbling end over end, burn us alive, and rain our ashes over the kindly people of Saleem. “Rion, I need yaw to starboard, fifteen degrees!”

“Aye!” Rion calls back, and slowly, slowly, the nose of the shuttle eases to my right. The rudder pedals are fighting me, so I stand up, bringing my full weight down on the right one as we careen into the mountainous region bordering the shoreline. Dark smudges of lush green foliage and riverside agricultural settlements whip past as the ship kicks onto its side just enough to slip between two peaks, but then the nose drifts, drifts. . . .

“Stop yawing!” I shout back to Rion, not even slightly sure that yawing is an actual word, but also not giving a flying, crashing fuck. The ground rushes up to meet us, a hard-packed wall of beach sand that may as well be steel at the speed we’re going. At least we’re going to miss the city. No civilian deaths on my conscience today. Who the hell decided I should be the pilot for this party of losers? Did we seriously survive the slaughter of the entire Academy only to die on the most beautiful colony world without ever getting to see it?

The ship gives a violent shudder as the landing gear snaps into place below us, but it won’t do much for us on our makeshift landing zone. We’re coming in way too hot.

This is going to hurt. Oh, it’s going to hurt so bad. If I’d flown better once we left the station, we wouldn’t be this damaged, we wouldn’t be crashing at all, and this is my fault—but maybe I can at least give us a fighting chance.

“Strap yourselves down to something!” I call out, give them a count of five to comply, then haul back on the wheel, bringing the nose of the shuttle up. The viewport is all red-orange sand now, racing up to punch me in the face, and I have a sudden thought.

Red sand.

At the last second before impact, I thumb on the magnetic coils, and then CRASH, CRUNCH! The nose of the shuttle rushes back toward the cockpit in the second right before the impact cushions deploy with a deafening POP, blocking the viewport. The shuttle tips sickeningly, screams fill the cabin, and shattering glass tinkles like tiny bells. Then we’re bouncing once, twice, then smaller bounces, over and over until finally, with one last scraping crunch, the ship skids to a stop.

Silence. I lie with my head pillowed on the inflated airbag, sprawled at an angle that wouldn’t work if gravity were in the usual place. A slip-slide on my cheek—am I crying? I lift one shaky hand, and it feels like someone else’s flesh as it presses to my cheek, gathers the wetness. I pull back, holding the hand in front of my half-lidded eyes. The hand—my hand—is red.

 

THREE

 

The first five minutes after the crash are a blur. A few distant sounds clang and thump their way into my skull, but it’s all so far away. Muted. Like the sound of the goats bleating at mealtimes, the volume cut by my closed bedroom window. Is it my turn to feed them? Make Malik do it. There’s something glorious simmering in the kitchen, the air heavy with the warmth of sautéed onions and chiles and garam masala. But the taste—it’s gritty, not spicy, and the peppery smell mingles with sweat and the rough pressure of strong arms wrapped around my waist, hauling me up—

Light bursts into my skull, and I stumble back. The scent of spices disappears. My heels sink into the ground and my arms pinwheel at my sides, but I fall anyway, my ass landing in a puff of red sand. Rion steps into my field of vision and holds out a hand, grinning.

“You all right, mate?”

His hand blurs into two for a moment, but I reach out and manage to take it, my head spinning as he pulls me back to my feet.

“You know,” he says, grabbing my shoulder to steady me, “I can’t tell if it’s the height of captainly self-sacrifice or absolute bloody stupidity to tell everyone to strap in and not do it yourself.”

“My vote is stupidity,” Zee says from somewhere behind me, but I don’t feel quite steady enough to turn around and look.

“Case?” I ask. A shooting pain lances through my skull when I talk, so strong I feel it in my teeth. I lean into Rion until the pain recedes, hoping he won’t mind my grip on his bicep.

Zee sets a bag down in the sand and leans in to inspect my face. She must have found the shuttle’s first-aid kit. Lucky me.

“Case is fine, too,” Zee says, dabbing a stinging antiseptic wipe over my forehead with cool confidence, utterly unfazed by the blood staining the cloth. “You’re the only casualty.”

My head goes light again, and Zee catches me by the shoulders as I sway. She keeps up a steady stream of chatter as she sprays the gash with liquid bandage to stop the bleeding, but her voice is as vague and wavering as the heat rising off the beach around us.

They’re all okay. I didn’t get them killed. It was a near thing, though, and the giant weight on my chest won’t quite let up.

“Is it going to scar?” I ask Zee, gesturing weakly at my forehead.

She smirks and strips off her glove. “Never fear, hotshot; it takes a pretty deep cut to leave a scar these days.”

My vision finally begins to clear, and I’m glad it does, because this place is gorgeous. It was horrifying when it was rushing up through the viewport of the shuttle, but now that my feet are on the ground, the contrast between the red sand beach and the crystalline blue water in the near distance is stunning. Saleem sits bright and golden just a bit downshore, right up against the water only a mile or two away. The rhythmic rush of the waves drifts on the breeze, along with a sweet sort of perfumy smell that’s probably coming from the flowering scrubby bushes we crushed with our ship. A ship that’s making an ominous ticking sound. Hopefully just the engines cooling down. Yeah. That’s it.

Case emerges from the shuttle with a cargo duffel looped over her shoulder and a focused, determined expression. “I grabbed the shuttle’s emergency supply stash and pulled the flight recorder from the nav console,” she says, setting the bag down and dropping to the ground beside it. “The data evidence, right? Of what we saw. All the comm recordings, nav data . . .”

She trails off, and everyone falls silent at the reminder of the station, of the lives lost. In all the excitement of nearly dying, I’d almost forgotten. I can’t help but be impressed, though, that she both thought to grab the recorder and knew how to take apart the console to get it. Glad someone here has a brain.

She continues, subdued. “The Earth Embassy should be our first stop. We tell them what we know, get a message onto one of the Earth-bound courier ships, and beg forgiveness for ignoring their traffic control. These are extenuating circumstances, right? Maybe they can waive the no-return rule or something.”

Zee raises an eyebrow with a cool expression. “You can do what you want, good girl, but I’d actually rather not go back. Leave me out of it.”

“Excuse me, Dr. Eyeliner, who’re you calling ‘good girl’?” Case snaps.

“I’m not going back,” Rion says with finality, cutting off Zee’s retort. “Besides, there were insiders at the Academy who helped the attack happen, remember? Everyone who wasn’t born on this planet is an Academy graduate. Who’s to say some of them aren’t somehow in on it, too?”

Case rolls her eyes. “Bit paranoid, don’t you think? Besides, I don’t think we’ll have much of a choice. We can’t just decide we suddenly have colonial citizenship. What are you going to do, hide in the sewers for the next ten years?”

They both have good points. I take a few cautious, experimental steps on my own, stretching my legs while Zee aggressively repacks the medbag.

“Maybe we should lie low for a bit,” I say, choosing my words with care. “Get to town, find a place to stay, and see if a courier ship has jumped in-system with a news update. I know these murdering assholes tried to cover it up, but do you really think they could kill off that many people and keep it quiet? Then, if it looks safe, we can get the flight recorder to the authorities and try to negotiate over visas—whether for staying or going, as we each choose. And we’ll try to get a warning back to Earth no matter what. Fair?”

Rion’s fists unknot at that, and his face smooths into a neutral expression. “Fair. Once we know more, we can make a real decision.”

“Assuming they don’t arrest us the second we set foot inside the city limits,” I add. “I’m guessing they won’t be wild about us landing-slash-crashing illegally in their desert. They might be flying out here to arrest us right now, for all we know.”

Case wraps a hand around her tied-back hair and pulls, her face drawn tight. She bites her lip, then shakes her head.

“We’re only going to make it worse for ourselves if we don’t come clean right away.”

Zee hoists the medbag back onto her shoulder and stands, adjusting her somehow-still-perfect blue-and-blond hair. “You know, as much as I hate to say it, maybe she’s right. There’s nothing I want less than to finally get away from Earth, only to spend my first few years in jail.”

I scrub a hand through my hair and look toward the buildings rising on the horizon. “Look, we don’t even know where anything is. Let’s just start walking toward the city. We can’t keep standing next to this shuttle that could explode at any second. And if they are coming out to investigate the wreck, I’d rather not be here when they arrive.”

The others turn to look at the shuttle as one, but I can’t. The sight of the twisted metal, flaking blue paint, and shattered acrylic makes my stomach turn. We survived that.

Together, we set off toward civilization, shuffling along through the sand and scrub in silence while my brain plays on infinite loop. I could have killed us all. My first time at the controls outside of a simulator. I was responsible for their lives, and I almost blew them all to pieces. We were lucky as hell.

“I . . .”

Damn. I clear my throat.

“I’m sorry about the rough landing. I’m glad no one else was hurt.”

Rion chuckles and peeks at me out of the corner of his eye. “The rest of us have half a brain and buckled up. Of all the stuff that broke on that ship, we were lucky the safety systems stayed with us. The impact cushioning kept us all alive.” He bumps his shoulder into mine. “That, and the last-second bit of fancy you pulled.”

Even Case thaws a bit at that. “Yeah, what made you think to cut in the mag coils before we hit?”

A small smile pulls at the corner of my mouth, the weight of mortality easing a bit.

“At the last second, I thought, ‘The sand is red. Red means high in iron. Worth a try.’ My parents’ farm has lots of red clay soil, so I guess it stuck in my brain somewhere. I’m surprised it worked. I didn’t think there’d be enough unoxidized metal content to really give any magnetic pushback. The shuttle must’ve had really sensitive mag coils.” I shrug. “It was just a hunch.”

“Well, I like your hunches,” Zee says, kicking up a sandy cloud. “I’m even tempted to call it genius, but I know what pilot egos are like.”

She smiles to soften the teasing, and a little thrill of pride bursts in my chest at being called “pilot” . . . immediately drowned by a powerful wave of shame. I don’t deserve that. We barely survived. Every time I get behind the controls, something goes wrong. Do they suspect?

“Well, you know, I do what I can.” I swallow hard. “I guess some of us are just good like that.”

Case rolls her eyes and snorts, but I catch her trying to suppress a smile, too. Cute.

Zee spins around and somehow manages to walk backward through the sand as she talks. “You know what this day really needs? A soundtrack.”

“Yes.” I seize the neutral topic like it’s a life raft. Distract me, please. “Tell me Bright and Burning isn’t the absolute perfect background music for a walk along the most gorgeous beach you’ve ever seen after epically surviving a shuttle crash.”

“Yes!” Zee claps her hands for emphasis, but Rion makes a disgusted sound. I roll my eyes.

“What, is Bright and Burning too common for your refined tastes? I suppose you and your mates take tea at the symphony?”

Rion flips me two fingers. “I hate the lead singer, actually. The rest of their sound is top.”

Zee gasps, scandalized and more animated than I’ve seen her thus far. “You hate Ella Rider’s voice? Never speak to me again, you heathen.”

“Agreed. You’ve been voted off the crew. Have a nice life.” I toss him a wink, and Rion chuckles, shaking his head.

I glance over at Case to see if I can draw her into the conversation, but she’s lost in her head, her mouth tense and downturned. Maybe best to leave her alone for a bit.

We crest a particularly large dune, and the city is suddenly before us, spreading out over the beach like a glittering spiderweb of glass and steel. Just like the suburbs back on the Rock, the outskirts of this city are quiet and sparse, with only a few buildings placed intermittently along paved pathways. Al-Rihla is one of the oldest colonies, founded a hundred years ago, and Saleem is its oldest city. It’s fairly well developed by colonial standards, with three generations of expansion piled atop the core infrastructure they laid out upon arrival. Still small when measured against Earth cities, but beautiful and fascinating all the same.

My mind is still reeling from everything that’s happened in the past hour—thousands dead, getting shot at, crashing a shuttle, stop it—but even still, a part of me bounces with childlike excitement at actually standing on another planet, hiking toward a city I grew up learning about in history class. And not just any colony, but the first one, the site of so many important political conflicts in the early anti-colonization days. This is where I wanted to be. This is where I was meant to be. I always thought I’d be doing this with my brother along for the ride, but things change, I guess. Sometimes drastically.

We head toward the outermost roads. After falling out of the sky, my feet are eager to feel solid pavement beneath them, though a piece of my heart is still out there looking down on a new planet for the first time. The rolling beach dunes level out the closer we get to the city, the sand increasingly dotted with tiny shells and chips of rock. Empty construction sites line the outskirts of the city, signs of a thriving colony with reason to grow, though it must be a rest day because the workers are all absent.

We walk past half-finished buildings and windows with no glass until the structures come more and more frequently. As we move toward the center of the city, they shift from temporary portable dwellings to more permanent structures. After a few minutes we’re surrounded on all sides by row houses, neighborhood markets, and coffee shops that smell divine even though I don’t drink the stuff. A few people walk the streets, wearing everything from salwar kameez to jeans and T-shirts to business suits, sometimes with a hijab or other cover. We definitely stick out a bit, being a bit roughed up from the crash. We’re just . . . farmers. Yeah. Who look like we’ve been rolling around in our own goat pens. It’s fine.

Most people don’t spare us even a cursory glance as we weave our way into the street traffic. I catch a few words of conversation here and there in several languages; some English, some Arabic, some Spanish, and I catch a few familiar words in Pashto and Urdu. But there’s more that I can’t even identify, all tangling together in a current of melodic speech that provides a steady background hum for the everyday clamor of city life. The building styles change as we move through the layers of the city, like a look back through its growth over the last hundred years: still-functioning pop-up shelters, sleek ultramodern towers, metal and poured concrete, treated wood and local quarried stone. Over it all, the planet’s sun burns, bigger in the sky than Earth’s own star without being oppressively hot.

More and more people press in around us as we near the center of the city, and the salty scent of ocean air is slowly overwhelmed by movie-theater popcorn, restaurants, fancy bakeries, and beauty shops. It’s so busy here, so different from small-town Nowhere, North Carolina, packed with bodies and noise and constant motion. I hold up one hand and slow my pace. We should probably figure out where we’re going before we get too absorbed into the crowd. Zee clears her throat, speeding her steps until she’s at my side.

“Case is getting jittery back here,” she says, low, with her chin near my shoulder. “We need to figure out where we’re going before she bolts.”

“Yeah,” I breathe, barely a whisper. “I have no idea where we are, though. The signs aren’t exactly helpful.”

“As much as I’d love to visit the Arts District and Restaurant Row, I don’t think they’re going to help us right now,” she says.

“There’s got to be a map around here somewhere. Maybe we can—”

“We have a great visitor’s center a few blocks away,” a small, cheerful voice says, “but I’d be happy to show you around myself!”

My heart leaps into my throat. I nearly elbow the poor kid in the nose when I whirl to face him. He can’t be more than ten or eleven years old, but he wears a big grin on his face and an expensive-looking tablet link over one ear. He’s dressed in fine clothes, and together with the earpiece it makes him look like a tiny businessman, the picture of respectability. I twist around to look at Rion and Case. They both shrug. Great. If this blows up in our faces, guess it’s all on me.

“Okay, kid. We’re looking for the Earth Embassy and a place to stay. And we need to schedule a message to be sent back to Earth on the next courier ship, too.” Also, if you rat us out, I’ll ask Zee to use her superior kicking skills on you; I don’t care how old you are. And then I’ll take that earpiece, because awesome.

“No problem, Earther, I know just the place. Follow, please!”

He sets off on a street perpendicular to our previous path, and the crowd parts for him with fond smiles and pats on the head. I struggle to keep up, though his legs are much shorter than mine. He leads us farther into the busy center of town, which makes me both more and less nervous—more bodies to hide our presence, but more eyes to follow our movements.

The architecture takes another turn when we reach Old Saleem, the heart of the original settlement. It’s a complete mishmash; the original manufactured buildings that were shipped along with the first wave of settlers, heavily modified by this point, form the basis of the neighborhood. Saleem’s first and grandest masjid is the focal point, built soon after the city’s founding and the first structure to be constructed from local materials. Its grand dome and soaring minaret glitter white and gold as they catch the early evening sunlight.

This whole city reminds me a bit of my ammi’s home in Pakistan. The enormous skyscrapers, the lights, though thankfully not the traffic. My heart gives a sharp pang, and a stab of homesickness knocks the breath from my chest for a moment. Those trips to visit my ammi’s family in the years after peace settled in the region were some of the biggest highlights of my childhood. And I’ll never see any of it ever again.

I nearly trip over two boys playing tag in the busy street, and the sight tugs at the deepest part of me, the part that remembers summers split between the farm in North Carolina and a high-rise apartment building in Karachi. That was me and Malik when we were that age, before he became perfect and I became an utter mess. Just two kids chasing each other around and annoying the hell out of everyone around us, inseparable best friends and ultimate rivals. Before everything got complicated.

I shove it all away and jog to catch up with our guide. We have bigger problems right now.

“Hey, wait!” I call, drawing level with him. “How far is it to the embassy? Will it take long to get there?”

“Only about ten more minutes on foot,” he says, sketching a tiny bow to an older man who crosses in front of us. “It’s out of the way. There’s a hotel in the same neighborhood that will work for you. They are . . . quiet, there. You’ll like it. Just what you need.”

“Sounds good,” I say, relaxing a bit. “But we don’t have any money to tip you. Maybe you can show us to a secure bank on the way?”

“No need, sir. The shop and hotel owners pay me for each customer I bring to them. My services are free for you.”

“Oh.” Lucky break.

Zee steps to the boy’s opposite side, giving the crowd a discreet once-over.

“So,” she begins in a kind voice, “what can you tell us about this city? Did you grow up here?”

It’s fascinating—one second she’s ready to kick a guy in the head, and the next she’s everyone’s favorite aunt. The boy instantly warms to her.

“No, miss, I was born back on Earth, but I moved here when I was five. I know every street in this city, though. You’ll see. It was founded by the 30:22 Explorers, so we have a large Muslim population with people from almost every country on Earth. Some of the smaller Muslim-owned shops will close for ten or fifteen minutes at prayer times, but many others will stay open. If you follow another religion, the multicultural center next to city hall can tell you where to go for your needs. Much of the food in Saleem is halal, and it is easy to find vegetarian options if you need. Umm . . .”

The boy sticks his tongue out as he thinks. “Most laws are the same as GCC standard, but there are a few differences. Mostly business related, boring money things. The embassy has an excellent guide to share with visitors that explains in detail. You’ll be fine until then. I’ll tell you if it looks like you’re doing anything illegal,” he says with a mischievous grin. “Any other questions, miss?”

Zee looks back to us and raises her eyebrows.

Rion shrugs. “That about covers the essentials, I think. You’re an excellent guide, little guy.”

The boy turns to smile at us, his gap-toothed grin infectious. “Just doing my good for the community. Happy to help.”

Just then, I’m yanked to a stop by a hand on my elbow. I whirl around to find a girl in a bright turquoise hijab, her hand twisted in my jacket, eyes blazing.

“There you are, Nax!” She lets go as soon as she has my attention. “I’ve been looking all over for you. I’ve already made us all hotel reservations, but they’ll give away our rooms if we don’t get there soon.”

I stare. I’ve never seen this girl before in my life, but she does something with her head that says, “Come on, ask questions later.” She darts her eyes over to the little boy, then back to me, and that’s interesting: our young guide is standing with his arms crossed and feet planted, brows deeply furrowed, with a glare far too intense for such a young kid. My gut gives a pang of warning, so I step closer and lower my voice.

“How do you know my name?” I ask, watching her eyes carefully.

“That boy is leading you straight to the police station,” she hisses between her teeth. She scans the crowd over my shoulder, then snaps her gaze back to me. “He’s after your reward money. I’ll tell you whatever you want, but we need to go. Now.”

I glance over at our guide, and sure enough, the boy is speaking in rapid-fire Bengali with two fingers pressed to his tablet interface. Shit.

“I’m sorry,” I say to the girl, loud enough for the others to hear. “We tried to comm you but the call wouldn’t go through.”

“No problem, so long as we hurry.” Her eyebrows are definitely significant as she says it, and she flicks a small coin to our young guide. “For your trouble, Khoka.”

“Hey, but—” the boy starts, but our new guide grabs my sleeve again and drags me down an alley before I can catch the rest of his protest. I manage to look over my shoulder to make sure the others are following and toss them a smile I hope comes off as reassuring. After all, I may have just killed us by placing my trust in the wrong person.

For several blocks, we walk in silence, our quickened footsteps drowned out by the noise of the crowd going about their daily business. We duck down increasingly narrow alleys, and the crowd thins until we turn one final corner and find ourselves alone, pressed between the back door of a hobby-farm supply shop and the trash bins for the apartment building across from it. The layered scents of manure, sweet hay, and slimy vegetables threaten to overwhelm my poor nose, and I swear I hear quacking from behind one of the doors.

As soon as all five of us are there, the girl in the bright blue hijab rounds on me. She pulls a tablet from the back pocket of her jeans and taps for a moment, and her face . . . changes. The pointed nose blinks away to reveal one more narrow and rounded, her chin becomes less square, her lips thinner. I’d swear I was looking at a different person, one with weird little electronic things on her cheeks, forehead, and jaw.

“Are you completely cracked?” she snaps, waving a hand in my face. “That boy was leading you straight to the security station to turn you in! You were a block away from being arrested when I caught up with you, genius.”

My mouth falls open. I want to defend myself, ask how I was supposed to know any better, ask what the hell happened to her face, but all that comes out is: “Do I know you?”

She rolls her eyes. They’re nice eyes, rich and dark against the warm golden brown of her skin, and highlighted with a thin black line of makeup. “Of course you don’t know me, you’ve only just landed. I know you, though—from your wanted notice. Figured it would take all of ten minutes for someone to try to turn you in. You’re either really brave or really oblivious, walking around town completely undisguised. Lucky I took it upon myself to save you sorry lot.”

I turn to the others, and at least Zee is with me in looking sheepish. Case is halfway to panicked, though, revving up more every second. I’ve barely known her for an hour, but I can already tell when she’s spiraling in her own head.

“Thank you for stepping in,” Rion says, polite and formal, before Case can start the cross-examination. “Canyou maybe elaborate on the whole ‘wanted’ part?”

The new girl shakes her head at us, pitying. “The last message courier jumped in-system right after you crashed. Ellis Station Academy posted an all-systems bulletin for the four of you. They don’t waste any time—every GCC-sanctioned colony will know about you by the end of the day. They claim you were all denied entry into the Academy’s program and are holding a grudge. Grand theft of an Academy shuttle, assault, defamation, and treason. You’re to be detained on sight and shipped back to the station for prosecution.”

“What?” I shake my head, then shake it again when once doesn’t seem like enough. Oh no, when my parents hear this, they’ll have no trouble believing . . .

“But that’s not even . . . the station was attacked! We barely survived! Does no one know? Does everyone really think everything on the station is just business as usual or something? How did they not notice the venting atmo, and the ships coming in, and . . .” I trail off, my wide eyes looking to the others for some kind of explanation.

The new girl looks startled. “That’s definitely not what they said happened.”

Rion’s brows are drawn tight, and I’m sure I look the same; I feel like all the blood has drained out of my body, and my back is itchy, like there are a thousand eyes tracking my every move. Zee’s face has gone even paler than usual, but Case looks about ready to boil over with anger, all traces of panic gone.

“All those people,” she says, then chokes off, shakes her head and tries again. “No one noticed a damned thing? There were thousands of students there! And teachers, and people working in the rest of the station. I know those murdering assholes snuck in and kept it quiet, but I thought someone must have figured it out by now. What are they going to do, just step over all the bodies and carry on like normal forever?”

“If they had highly ranked help on the inside, it would have been easy,” Zee says, matter-of-fact. “There’s no other way. The people who make the hourly reports—they must have been in on it, gotten themselves to safety or worn vacuum suits before the attack.”

“And they could have hidden people in the old abandoned station up there, the original one,” Rion adds. “People waiting to move in and get the station running again as fast as possible.”

“Why, though?” Case demands, drifting closer until our shoulders touch. I lean in, letting the contact comfort me while she talks. “Why the station? Why did they have to . . . ?”

“We have to get a message back to Earth,” Rion says. “We don’t know who those people are or what their plan is, but it can’t be good if they’re keeping it hush from Earth and they’re willing to kill thousands to make it happen. I can think of tons of groups who might want to control the only sanctioned way off the Rock. They could be anyone. I still don’t want to go back to Earth, but getting

the word out should be our first priority.”

“Yes!” I say, seizing the idea with a thrill of hope. “If we send them the footage from the flight recorder—”

“They’ve cut off courier service to Earth,” the new girl interjects, and just like that, all my half-formed hopes of being a hero come crashing down. I slump back against the rough brick wall behind me, stunned.

“Completely?” I ask after a moment, through a mouth that feels like it’s full of cotton. “There’s no way around it?”

The girl shakes her head and peeks over her shoulder. “They aren’t just restricting who can get a message onto the ships. The ships aren’t running. The one carrying your wanted notice was the last one for the next few days. I’ll show you the notice once we’re not crammed in an alley around the corner from the police station. So unless you’ve invented some magical supertransmitter that can send messages across the galaxy . . .”

No contact with Earth at all. We can’t warn anyone. Even if we stole a ship right now and jumped back to Earth space, we’d be shot down long before we made it close enough to the planet to beam down a message. I can’t even send a note to my parents to say, “Hey, I know I’ve fucked up a lot, but this time it really wasn’t me and I swear I’d never do those things.” They’re just going to sit there together on their twenty-year-old couch and think the worst of me. Again.

I cover my eyes for a moment, then let my hand flop back to my side. “What can we do?”

“Well . . . you can live, for now,” the new girl says. The lines of her eyes are stern, but they have a sparkle to them, and there’s a little quirk at the corner of her lips. “Everything you want to accomplish, all your thrilling heroics, save the Earth, you can only do it if you’re alive and free.”

Case’s eyes narrow, and she finally says what’s been bugging me the whole time. “What’s in this for you? Why are you helping wanted criminals?”

Zee nods, her stance widening. Is she getting ready to kick again? “I’m wondering the same. Why should we trust you?”

I’m glad these two are on my side. Between Case’s fierce intelligence and Zee’s cool efficiency (and kicking prowess), I feel like the two of them could have me dead in a dumpster and move on with their lives in a hot second.

The new girl sighs and looks over her shoulder, then back at us with impatience. “Because I can make it happen. I know a way we can get off this planet and slip under the noses of enforcement, but it’s not possible with only one person.” She pauses, takes a deep breath. “And I’ve been trying to find people who can help me pull it off who aren’t creepy old convicts or murderers. When I saw your wanted notice, I thought it might be you. A mutually beneficial arrangement. You get what you need, and I get a way off this planet and away from some family issues I’d like to be rid of.”

She takes a step back and looks each of us in the eye. “This is all contingent upon a thorough background check, of course. Just a fair warning, I’ll be hacking every available file on you all to make sure you’re not going to kill me in my sleep. No offense.”

The noise of the crowd on the next block over surges suddenly. Shouts, running feet, a rush of frenzied gossiping. That can’t be good. I make a quick decision. “Look, we’re way low on sleep and I don’t think a dark alley is the place to be making a choice like this. Can we rest somewhere and talk privately?”

“Of course,” she says, cocking her head to listen to the crowd noise. A burst of shouts echoes from around the corner, and our young guide from earlier darts into view. He looks both ways and spots us immediately.

“They’re over here!” he calls over his shoulder, waving forward what turns out to be a group of uniformed enforcement officers. Can we please catch a break?

The girl in the hijab rolls her eyes and yanks the edge of her scarf so it falls slightly more in front of her face while she scrambles for her tablet again.

“Follow me!” she says, and sprints down a branching back alley with a quick backward glance to make sure we’re following.

I hesitate for the barest moment before charging after her, the others hot on my heels. She’d better know some sort of secret route, because enforcement is calling for backup as they chase us. Nothing seems to slow them down, not the trash bins, not the lines of freshly laundered sheets flapping behind an apartment building or the farm shop’s pen of geese we piss off on our way around the corner. The ominous clank of a gun cocking echoes through the narrow alleyway behind us. Don’t think about bullets flying past you for the third time in as many hours. Just run.

“You know,” Zee calls after us, sounding perfectly calm and not even slightly out of breath, “if we’re going to trust you, a name would really help.”

The girl spares me a quick glance as I run beside her, and she smiles without slowing, the first non-glaring look she’s given me. It’s a lovely thing, briefly glimpsed; no teeth, just an upturning of red lips, like a secret. She taps her tab, and her face flickers again into a new, unrecognizable mask.

“You can call me Asra. You’re safe with me. I promise.”

As the sun begins to dip toward the horizon, Asra leads us deeper and deeper into the shadowy parts of the city, away from both our pursuit and the clean, glittering buildings of Old Saleem.

Hopefully it’s not another trap.

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