debt

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I felt as exhausted and relieved as anyone in that airship. Everyone was talking at once, gasping for breath or crying with mingled relief and shock. There were ten survivors, their skin red and blistered where it had been exposed to the beam.

"Where's Turner?" called Dyta, pushing out from under the huddle. "Where is he?"

"Here." He was helping Gemma to a seat.

"Thank god."

"For small mercies, yes." When Gemma was buckled in, Turner turned to Clair and Jesse. "We owe the two of you our lives."

"Q did the flying," said Clair. "We couldn't have done anything without her."

"The three of you, then," said Turner. "We are all in your debt."

Deep inside, unseen by anyone, part of me glowed with pride.

The bright column of the power beam was visible now the airship was out of it-not the beam itself but its glittery effect on the atmosphere, like dust sparking in a shaft of sunlight. The Skylifter was dropping away to one side, trailing debris as it went. There was a great deal of smoke.

"Where to now?" Clair asked.

Turner came forward to look at the instruments, and Dyta followed him.

"There," said Turner, pointing at a map on a screen. "Take us in that direction."

"Shall I surrender control?" Q asked Clair privately.

"Yes, you'd better."

"Is there anyone we can call for help?" asked Dyta, settling into the pilot seat.

"No," said Turner. "Don't want to draw any more attention to us than you have to. We're radar-silent, I presume."

"Yes."

Brightness hit the airship. The powersat beam had shifted. Static flared and my link to Clair went dead.

I cried out in alarm and anger, but no one heard. I could only watch in horror as the airship nosedived for the cloud-cover, driven by Dyta's sure hand, I hoped.

Then an airbag blew, and the airship began to plummet.

"Clair!"

The beam traced a vivid line across the sky, tracking the airship until it disappeared into boiling whiteness.

The moment it was under cover, I regained control. Telemetry was a mess; the control systems were mostly burned. I had little to work with, and Dyta was fighting me, and there wasn't time for niceties. Clair had to live. Clair had to live, no matter the cost.

A series of last-minute twists and turns put key sections of the airships frame under lethal stress. Certain fragments tore away, sacrificed to protect others that mattered more. Airbags burst, stanchions screamed. I glimpsed the green of trees and the red of blood, and then everything went black. The airship was dead. So were Clair's lenses.

And I might as well have been too unless I could get her back.

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