1.13 In Ruins

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Margo shielded her eyes to see knobby towers starkly outlined against the fiery white pillar. The living city looked unaffected by the nuclear bomb. The Stratower continued to loom as the enormous backdrop to everything.

A few buildings might be rattled, but Margo guessed the Torth wouldn't care about minor structural damages. They had an endless supply of slaves they could work to death. 

The choreographed swarm of Torth transports must be loaded with more nuclear warheads. If the Torth had been judicious about dropping one nuclear bomb, they might lose their caution as Alex continued to fight back. Especially if he took the battle into the wasted no-man's-land of the dead city.

It was going to get a lot more violent.

No one dared argue with Alex. No one sat close to him except for Margo. Tendrils of electricity rolled down his armor and winked out. His face was unreadable under the crude helmet, but he sat perfectly balanced on the rolling floor, whereas everyone else had to brace themselves. Loose items floated as if eager to obey his silent commands.

Alex seemed unaware of these signs of his imperfect control. He sat like a meditative statue, eyes closed and legs folded. Margo figured she was the only person who noticed his nearly imperceptible flinches. She alone saw the tension in his jaw. He was pouring himself into this fight.

Enemy transports blocked access to the dead city. Missiles rocketed towards their ship, and although Alex batted them away, making the faraway explosions harmless, the Torth shot more missiles in a ceaseless barrage.

There seemed to be an increasing number of Torth and missiles.

"Watch your top right," Thomas said. "Stab lightning that way."

Lightning webbed the night on their starboard side, and Margo realized that Thomas was helping Alex, giving him instructions. Alex must be listening, which meant he was getting more proficient at using his powers and staying conscious of who he was at the same time. 

"You'd do well to make the hail-balls thicker," Thomas said.

Compared with their frantic entry into the living city, their exit was low and wobbly. Margo had time to see guns mounted on buildings, shooting automatic rounds while swiveling to track their progress. Searchlights pierced veils of hail, and shone past grainy holographic looped recordings of meals, beverages, sleek vehicles, and vacation spots. Margo wondered if she would die in this alien city, unable to ever explain to her mom or her friends why she had disappeared or where she had gone.

But it seemed Stratower City was not her fate. The lights below vanished all at once.

Her eyes needed a few seconds to readjust to the darkness ahead. Their ship continued its gradual rolling drop, held aloft either by vapors of fuel or by Alex's sheer willpower. A tornado must have swept the transports out of their path, because now all she saw were the vague outlines of ancient devastation.

They were gliding between the decayed ruins instead of above them.

Skeletal towers drooped like starvation victims. The remnants of buildings looked rotten, missing vital parts such as walls and floors. For the briefest of crazed moments, Margo thought she saw shadowy apes swinging and monkey-climbing through a broken tower. That had to be her imagination.

Thomas bit his lower lip in a haunted way. Maybe he was afraid he would never get a chance to apologize to Cherise. Margo hoped it was that, and not a vision of imminent defeat and death-by-torture. It was too soon to give up. They still had a chance. Surely they could survive as long as Alex was with them.

A nuclear glare lit the storm up brighter than a supernova.

The inkiness of the dead city violently rejected that noonday brightness. It remained cataclysmic, dripping, and black. Storm clouds churned above—

—And an unseen tsunami smashed into their ship.

Screaming passengers tumbled against each other. Everyone and everything loose flew and crashed into one another. Margo curled into a ball and braced for a bone-shattering impact. She had the inane worry that her blaster glove might be in the wrong mode and might blast a friend by accident.

"Thrusters are gone!" Thomas shouted in a shrill panic. "We're crashing!"

"No." Alex's voice was as fathomless as the storm. He sounded in control, and Margo marveled that he could talk while trying to pull them out of a death spin.

Her landing was a lot softer than she'd anticipated. The floor came up to meet her, tilted at just the right angle so that she could roll instead of splatter. She slid against a chair leg and scrambled up, pushing a loose strand of hair away from her eyes.

Everyone was regaining their equilibrium. Ummins moaned from bruises, and the supplies were in disarray, but the ship had righted itself and was still flying.

Supplies levitated around Alex. It had to be him flying the ship, because Thomas was sprawled halfway across the room with a dazed look, thrown from his hoverchair.

"You'll be all right," Margo told Thomas, reassuring him as if he was a normal child instead of a telepathic super-genius. Maybe the years he had been her foster brother outweighed the months he had been a slave-owning Torth.

He looked human now, despite his yellow eyes. A Torth would not look frightened the way he did.

Their ship canted one way, then another, like a wind-up toy running out of energy. Missiles and Torth transports got sucked into the storm above. Ghoulish strands of lightning combed the dead city ruins; large versions of the electric ripples on Alex's armor.

They glided for what seemed an improbably long time.

During that time, nobody spoke. They were all holding on for dear life, bracing themselves, prepared for a crash-landing.

Margo crawled towards Thomas. But she doubted she was tough enough to protect the fragile boy, so she caught Weptolyso's gaze.

He made his way towards Thomas without needing to be asked. The nussian might not have any fondness for mind readers, but he had heard Thomas's story about abusive foster homes and brainwashed adults. Like Alex, he seemed to have some grudging respect for Thomas. Or maybe he simply wanted to keep their pilot alive.

Their ship glided between jagged towers. Fiery explosions pounded them from above. They kept almost hitting rotted ruins, but missing each one by what looked like a few feet. Margo wondered how long Alex could keep dodging problems.

All of her bracing wasn't enough preparation.

The ship's belly grazed something solid, and suddenly they were spinning in a violent arc that had nothing in common with their wobbly glide downwards. They wrenched around, facing backwards, and slammed into another tower.

Floor and ceiling swapped places. Margo fell painfully against a curve that must be the dome. She slid, helpless, unable to stop herself from free-falling, hitting ummins on her way down.

Clawed hands grabbed her. She tried to grab hold of anything.

The domed window died, and so did all the lights, plunging the room into pitch blackness, transforming it from a luxury capsule to a nightmarish tomb. Bodies flew past Margo in the darkness. People cried out in pain.

Another violent roll, and she tumbled across the padded floor, unable to break her fall. All she could do was wrap her arms protectively around her head.

She smashed into something arm-first, hard enough to leave a nasty bruise. The ship was still tumbling fast and she couldn't grab onto anything.

They must have hit a tower. They still had a long way to fall, and Margo braced herself for worse violence.

Instead, they lost momentum. Someone—Alex—must be cushioning their fall. 

The ship slid to a stop on some unknown surface, and rocked back the other way, settling.

This seemed to be the final configuration of their tiny capsule of safety, or their possible tomb. People drew shuddering breaths or sobbed. Margo clung to a tilted floor. All was dark, and she strained to see with her eyes wide, but she might as well be blind.

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