Chapter 1. Flight

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A shiver runs across my back.

I made it, I remind myself again. I escaped. I'll be one of the first to cross these borders in well over a hundred years. Before me, it was just drones, bombs, and suicide pilots. Well, and ambassador Pilger and other diplomats. And I guess other space shuttle pilots and crews to ferry them over the border. But nobody like me.

Sennai beams as he gets back up, blocking my view again, and I think: nobody like us. Dark-skinned, wild-curled, towering Sennai is making history just as much as I am. I have to remember that. The best and brightest of Upper, they called us.

I tentatively smile back.

The Ambassador's voice in front of us says: "We're officially in Base space."

"Let's hope we're not shot out of the sky," Sennai murmurs, and my stomach clenches. The thought has crossed my mind, too. Someone down there could still reconsider the entire thing.

Pilger starts to say something – probably some kind of reassurance that would do nothing to allay my nerves – that becomes inaudible when the intercom suddenly crackles to life, making me jump in my seat again.

"Attention, passengers," our pilot announces. "We will shortly start our descent back to Earth. Our entry velocity will be about 28,000 kilometers per hour, which means you'll feel the equivalent of three G-forces as we decelerate, so make sure you're properly strapped in." About the same speed as our ascent; over ten times faster than any passenger plane on Earth could comfortably fly. The physics of space flight is wonderful, in spite of my powerful dislike of its practical applications. For a moment I find myself wishing for the luxury to continue studying it, maybe become a scientist, creating something more useful than strategy and politics. Nothing but a pipe dream, of course. My father would never allow it.

"You might want to keep looking forward while our G's are going up," the pilot continues, "you'll be more comfortable."

"Comfortable," Sennai mocks in a whisper.

I nod. This wasn't great on takeoff; I'm sure I'll like it even less going down.

"After we've landed, stay in your seats until you are instructed otherwise by our flight crew." The intercom shuts off, then a millisecond later comes back on again to add: "Thank you." An afterthought. This is a military crew, not a commercial flight.

Sennai mutters in protest as the ablative shielding slides back over the windows, blocking his view, but I'm glad – even though I now feel as if I'm inside a giant tin can ready to be boiled. If there were missiles coming our way, we wouldn't know it until we were dead.

A shudder runs through the space shuttle as we skid into the atmosphere, and I suppress the thought of what might happen if the hull plating fails at 1600 degrees Celsius. There is a whooshing sound around the shuttle as the pressure builds and keeps building, pushing me back into my seat, like someone is crushing my body with a hydraulic press; and I have to remind myself to keep breathing, through the weight threatening to collapse my chest, in, out, in, out, agony, out.

Finally, the pressure drops; my legs stop feeling like they belong to someone else, my chest is liberated from the death grip of descent. I breathe a deep and relieved breath. We made it. I'm across. I'm... well, not safe. But free.

Beside me, Sennai says, "That was fun," in a tone that belies the words.


His fingers graze the back of my hand, and I flinch back from his touch. Although my head moves no more than an inch, the movement still makes me feel sick.

"You may want not want to move at all," the Ambassador's voice says, before I have a chance to see if Sennai is perhaps more ruffled by our descent than I realized. Otherwise, he would never try to touch me. He knows how instinctive my reaction is. "Not until we're at one G again."

"Okay." Pilger should know. I wonder how he manages this every time, at his age.

"How are you both?" I can't see his face, but I know Pilger never asks anything out of mere courtesy. He's ever the ambassador: always assessing, managing, steering the conversation. No denying he is brilliant at it. But it's always difficult to know what he wants from me, or what he wants in general.

Sennai doesn't seem to care much either way. "Great view," he deflects. And then, when Pilger allows a meaningful silence to fall, he adds reluctantly: "Ask me again in a couple of days."

To Pilger's credit, he doesn't push. Although Sennai and I have both learned the uncanny ability the ambassador has to detect when he's being lied to, he only calls us out on it on rare occasions. I've made it a point never to tell him any flat-out lies. Of course, I have never told him the whole truth. He doesn't have to know everything. "I'm a bit nervous," I say. That is true enough for him, for now.

It sounds like he smiles. "You'll feel better after we land."

I'm pretty sure I won't, but I don't correct him. Sennai doesn't reply at all.

The window covers slide back to reveal a forest below us in clusters of emerald, lime and juniper that looks deceivingly peaceful. Right before I quickly shut my eyes, I can see a few white buildings scattered across the landscape and something ahead of us that looks like a giant dome.

"Welcome to Base," the pilot announces over the intercom. "We'll be landing in five minutes."

"There's the City," Sennai says. And then, in awe: "Is there anyone alive down there?" My eyes fly open involuntarily and I catch Sennai scanning the outside, frowning. "There's no traffic at all."

"A lot of things will be different here," ambassador Pilger says. I try to focus on his voice instead of on my weight shifting in my body as the plane descends. "But however strange their customs may seem to you, always remember the mission." His voice has a curious quality for a moment, and I glance back at him – but he is staring outside. So I close my eyes again and decide to wait until this ordeal is over before I consider the next one.

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