Chapter 1. Flight

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There are three things in life that terrify me, and since I'm escaping one, the universe or karma or the god of irony seem to have conspired to make me face another. So in the past thirty minutes I have been strapped into a suit and into one of three chairs in the back of a space shuttle barely large enough to fit its three passengers and two crew. Which was then boosted to an altitude that is making my stomach do a loop-de-loop whenever I stop to think about it.

And I can't seem to stop thinking about it.

"Check it out, Roz."

I startle at Sennai's voice, but manage to hold back an undignified yelp. Fortunately, he has his back to me, his eyes glued to the porthole beside him, staring out over the hundred-kilometer drop to Earth. Over eighty kilometers of nothing before there is even the suggestion of breathable air.

"I think we're just crossing the border," he says.

Unlike me, Sennai looks comfortable with the idea we might plummet to Earth like Icarus if something went wrong. Ambassador Pilger sits equally unperturbed, eyes closed, head resting comfortably against the back of his chair. How many times has he done this now? Ten? More?

"Come see this," Sennai says. He turns to me, revealing a sweep of clouds below that at this altitude seems like a continent-sized ice floe passing over the intense blue of the ocean.

My fingers tense around the armrests, and I have to make an effort to keep a neutral expression. Still, my voice sounds hoarse, the one thing I can't control. "That's all right. I believe you."

Damn the architect who felt space shuttles needed windows. Just standing close to my father's fifth-floor office window is enough to make my hands tremble. He's always telling me to stop whimpering.

"Come on, Roz," Sennai reproaches, "you have to actually look. Who else gets to see this?" But he's already distracted again, mesmerized by the view, removing the depths from my sight with his bushy hair.

I pull my nails out of the leather to rest my hands in my lap, but they are carried upward instead. No gravity in space. Of course not. I yank my hands back to my body.

Remember why you're here, I think to myself. Once you're back on the ground, this will all be over, and it will all be worth it.

It will be worth all of it.

From the other side of the narrow aisle, Ambassador Pilger lifts his head from the white leather rest and looks at me in sympathy. I can only imagine what he'll tell my father after we land. How afraid I looked. How sorry he felt. That's just what I need: for my father to think I've disgraced him before I even arrived.

I can't use sympathy. Sympathy is dangerous. Sympathy makes you weak. And since we are about to land among our enemies, I can no more afford to be weak here than I could at home. The exchange program is too important for me, for us, to fail.

I forcibly relax and throw Pilger a smile and a nod that don't feel convincing – then make a snap decision and unbuckle, my stomach doing a backflip in protest as my body surrenders to the weightlessness of space. I float over to Sennai and nudge him. Only when he moves his head to the side do I realize the horrible mistake I have made: it's like I'm toppling straight into the shimmering blue of the atmosphere.

I probably make a sound, because Sennai says, "Easy," and all of a sudden I am pulled down to the empty seat next to his. He bends over me to strap me in, allowing me another brief but nauseating view of the oceans – and, traversing them, the Borders. From up here, they are no more than fairy lights dividing Earth's seas, like the trimming on a Christmas tree. I remember the only time I saw one of those lights, when I escaped another of my father's tedious receptions to go explore the border island we were visiting. The Border buoy was a cold, unblinking blue eye that covered the surface of the entire bay, staring up into the sky from below the waters, ready to seek and destroy whatever neared its threshold from the wrong side.

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