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I feel like I've been dealt a hard blow to the head as I climb back aboard the stair rungs and enter the shuttle.

. . . You matter to him, Lark . . .

The words go round and round, ringing inside my mind. Even now, I don't dare understand what it means.

I am so numb that the unfamiliar Atlantean standing at the doors has to repeat himself as he scans my ID token. "Move along, Candidate, take a seat! No stalling!"

I stagger inside, and the interior looks familiar, a transport shuttle identical to the kind that we rode to L.A. during the Semi-Finals.

Candidates are filling the seats fast, and I see Laronda a few rows to the back. She hurriedly waves to me.

"Hey! What was that about, girlfriend?" Laronda says, as soon as I reach her and take the seat next to her that she's saved for me.

"Oh," I mutter. "Nothing. Just spoke with Instructor Oalla Keigeri. She came to say goodbye—or whatever."

"Oh really?" Laronda can see my strange, dazed expression. "Wait, she actually showed up just to see you? How come? What's wrong? Did she say something?"

Quickly, I try to get a grip. Laronda is too perceptive for her own good. I need to tone my emotions down, and fast. "Oh, no biggie! And yeah, no, of course she isn't here for me, she's just seeing all of us off. She happened to see me. . . ." I trail off, hoping the line of vague bull is sufficient.

Because there is simply no way I can say anything about what just happened—to Laronda, or to anyone.

Instead I try to put my mind in a calming zen state. Focus, focus, Gwen!

I need to concentrate on the here and now, because this is Finals. This is life and death. So I need to get a grip and push everything else out of my mind and pay attention.

And somehow, after several deep breaths, during which I and everyone else fiddles with our seats and our individual safety harnesses, I am sufficiently calm and clear-headed that I can think once again.

. . . You matter to him, Lark . . .

No, just stop it.

About five more minutes pass, and our shuttle fills with Candidates. Every available seat is taken.

There are two Atlantean pilots on board. The one at the hatch entrance introduces himself as Pilot Ekit Jei. He is metallic haired, compact and muscular, and his skin is river-clay-red, which reminds me of Nefir Mekei.

As soon as we are in our seats, Pilot Ekit tells us to make sure we are buckled in, and then proceeds to check us, walking our rows.

The other pilot, a female Atlantean, sits in one of the four command chairs up in the back control and navigation center. "I am Pilot Radra Vilai," she announces over a voice amplifier in a rich alto. I glance back and can only see her profile and the back of her gilded head.

"Good morning, Team USA Fourteen-C," Pilot Radra tells us, as a familiar resonant hum begins to rise in the hull of the shuttle. "This is your Final Test for Qualification. Your instructions will be given to you as soon as we take off. You are going to be taken to the site where you will begin the task that will Qualify you. And now, Pilot Ekit, please, lift-off on your count—"

Ekit quickly moves to the back of the shuttle to take the adjacent pilot seat next to Radra. At the same time, the razor-fine lines of golden light that slither throughout the hull start racing with motion. . . .

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