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I’m not the dreamy type, but oftentimes I wonder what would happen if a jet’s side windows could pull down like a car’s would. Not that I’ve actually been in a car, I’ve just seen them in Earth movies. As I weave my assigned aircraft through the canyon course, I imagine the chaos that would descend upon me as the wind rushed in from all sides, yanking at my body and tearing down all the plastic informational posters until there was nothing I could see in the front window but a whirlwind of typed instructions. I would probably run headlong into the spike of bleak grey stone that I’m swerving around now.
Buttons and levers glow and blink around me like alien eyes. If I closed my own eyes for a second, I’d probably still see them. I know my way around Milky-Way fighters like I know every single one of planet Griseon’s constellations. I lean forward in my seat. Faster, I think. Just two more weeks. Then you’ll be free. The galaxy will be yours. You’ll have passage to Earth. To your brother you haven’t seen in almost a decade.
I look at the timer to my right. It reads three minutes and thirty-six seconds. I need to finish the course in four to pass and become a Ranger. I stamp my foot onto the accelerator, and practically hug the controller to my chest. I keep my gaze to the canyon, not looking around the inside of my vehicle anymore in case I don’t see any of the spikes that are fading from my sight as the three suns dip lower. I flick on my front rays, and every obstacle lights up in response. I can see Austero’s two sleek towers glinting in the dusk. The finish line is close. Faster. The aircraft’s controls are my hands. I can feel my steel body slice through the frigid Griseon air. I am the jet, and I can sense the clock in the corner ticking. Faster.
It takes years and seconds for the glowing white line to approach. When I cross it, I’m back inside myself again and I pull up on the handles, shooting into the sky, slowing down, maneuvering down onto the landing pad with grace that took years to master. With swift fingers I release myself from the seat’s death-hold on me, walk across the slick floor and stumble out the still-opening hatch, yanking off my helmet as I go.
“Four minutes and point five three seconds!”
I try not to flinch as my instructor screeches my time again into the small space between us, even louder.
“If you were chasing a Andromede501 you’d lose him. If he was chasing you, you’d die.” The old man was only a couple feet away from me now, unafraid of the old jet’s dying engines. His dwindling swath of grey hair stands straight up like a stalagmite in the wind. “You’re a decent student, Miss Hunter Browntree, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to become a Milky Way Ranger before you’re eighteen. It’s simply never done.”
I hop off of the ramp and don’t look at it again as it rises. The engines are now only a soft murmur, and my own dull stone-colored hair falls from where it had been blown onto my face. “I was closer this time, Sir Dunsby. You can’t deny it. I’ll make it.”
Dunsby’s wrinkles on his ancient forehead deepen, the only sign of any emotion he could possibly have besides anger. “This is a dangerous path, girl. You’re not the first one to enter early. I’ve watched children in their twenties get bashed to bits on their Last Mission.”
“You’ve been telling me this all year, now,” I retort. “What happens in my L.M. happens. I’ll be ready after a couple weeks. I can’t wait another year.”
I drop my gaze from his hawkish blue eyes, and walk away.
The University of Austero is ugly and immense. I’ve heard people say that the tall buildings are like Griseon’s long and crooked nose, but when inside, I’m prone to thinking it’s just the snot. Actually, I’m wrong. Austero is the nose--the students are the snot. Nobody who’s anybody sets foot on Griseon. The only settlement here of true significance is Austero, and ninety percent of its graduates become the brunt of the Milky Way’s transport drivers. The Rangers? Well, we aren’t really appreciated by anybody.
I quicken my pace to my dorm. The once-white halls are grey with age and Griseon’s dust. My hair is grey because of Griseon, but not age. I am one of very few born here, and I’ve never left. My shoulder-length locks might as well scream “poverty!” No one my age looks like me—only a few middle-age janitors.
If my twin brother hadn’t been taken, I would have never been so alone. I am the dirtiest booger in the bunch, and my flight skills don’t mean anything to anyone in this prison but Sir Dunsby. Even then, he’s just an old man who became critically injured during his own training and was dubbed a teacher as Austero’s last resort.
I stop by a glowing number 15 carved into the wall. I push on it, and the metal plate it sits on lights up as well and flips upside-down so a display of square-encased symbols replaces it.
I hear someone striding down the hall. I look up to see the familiar black of a Ranger apprentice jumpsuit, much like the one I have on now. In the suit is a hard-faced young man with an unkempt brown stubble. I know him. He’s twenty-five, and my competition this year. I refrain from typing in my code until he passes, but his glare bores into me all the while. I return it.
When he’s gone, I click in my code. With a faint snick and whoosh the door disguised into the wall slides open, revealing the entirety of my home. I dart inside and press a button for the wall to slam shut.
I toss my round helmet under my cot, and slide into the rolling chair by my desk. The fluorescent light in my room has been dim and flickering for ages, so I flip a switch on the table to turn on a bluish table lamp.
With a slight grunt, I lift up the upper part of my desk. Squashed under it is my stack of secrets. I take out the papers, close the hiding spot, and lay them across the hard plastic surface.
Maps of my route to Earth stare back at me blandly. Even more maps of where I think Avi is located flash brilliant blue and yellow lines and green backdrops. I’ve seen pictures and videos of Earth. I’ve never seen so much green in one place. The only green stuff in Griseon is the kelp harvested from under the Meadow Lake’s ice, and I’ve always thought it looked yellowish.
Avi Browntree was most likely taken to Washington D.C. After the intense research I’ve done in the off-limits-to-students Grand Study, I found a prestigious engineering school located in what was supposedly the headquarters of the long-dead NASA astronomy organization. It seems to be known for taking in brilliant minds at young ages.
I let out a small sigh and press three fingers to the little red dot on the map printed out on Austero’s small resources of ancient paper. I couldn’t use my own devices to take pictures. Too risky. If I get caught sneaking like I do, I could be stripped of my position as a Ranger apprentice. I need to be a Ranger if I want my own jet and a way to Earth.
I leave my secrets on my desk and lay down for a few hours, my lights still on.
When my communication device buzzes in my vest pocket, I wake and quietly gather up a few of the papers and slide them into a black nylon sack. I make sure I’ve packed enough stuff around them so they don’t make any noise. Lastly, I remove a plain silver ring from my finger, the word AUSTERO etched into it. I’ve already hacked into it so it won’t set off an alarm when it loses contact with my body heat.
The wall-door opens up to a pitch-black tunnel that was once a hall. At 65:20 at night, the night watchers are changing spots. I tap a button to close my door, and I flinch at the noise. Someone could turn the corner any second with a deadly flashlight in hand. My heart racing like it does every single time, I fly through the dark.
My eyes adjust quickly, so fast that it seems like the moon itself has settled into a cozy spot behind my eyeballs. I can see my own boots as they tap the floor, and I can see the handles and labels of every door, but the world is as colorless as my hair and my irises.
The sneaking goes by smoothly. I do see one night-watcher, but he doesn’t notice as I slip through the darkness between the interval turns of his light.
It actually takes twenty minutes just to get to the Grand Study, even when running half the time. Austero is a dump, but an enormous one at that, if I haven’t mentioned. I pass through endless rows of regular dorms.
They aren’t nearly as secure. Metal bars and possibly century-old padlocks make the place look like a prison from some old Earth movie. Of course, there are curtains and invisible soundproof installations, but I am still at high risk of being spotted by some sleepless student. To prevent this, I hold my head up imperiously high, and walk stiff-legged. I’m just a lone watcher, I tell myself.
The Study’s entrance soon looms in front of me. An arch is carved into the wall, decorated with softly glowing geometric blue lines. I feel exposed as I slip a stolen Superior card into a special slot in the arch, and pray to myself that no one passes and no instructor or professor has decided to pull an all-nighter. The huge, shiny doors swing open instead of sliding. I scurry inside, and hold my breath until the doors close again.
The room is dark, as it should be, and for a moment I am blind again.
Then something happens that nearly makes me faint.
A bright light blazes on in some point in the room. I hear a curse, and scrambling. The light goes out, but not before I see a human figure, silhouetted against one giant Computer screen.
Then there’s nothing but me, and the stranger in a room. This person definitely isn’t a professor. I press a hand to my heart as if I could possibly slow it down, because maybe I have the upper hand. Actually, it’s likely. I’m a Ranger apprentice. I’ve trained in combat for years. I slide a covered, two-pronged plasma-knife from my sack, the weapon second in illegality only to a gun. I strain my ears to hear the stranger’s movements, even their breath. I can’t so I take a few wary steps forward, navigating chairs and Computers as they appear through the dark.
I’m halfway to where the person was when I’m attacked first.
A dark form leaps out from behind a large and expensive wooden desk. A dark fist meets my shoulder with such pure force that I spin with the momentum and land breathlessly on my stomach. Before I can move the stranger is on top of me, pinning me to the ground.
From the sounds my enemy makes, he’s male. I recall defense lessons and jerk my head up. It hits his forehead with a crack. The pain makes me dizzy but I expect it. He doesn’t, and I have stunned him long enough to jump free. He scrambles up, but before he can finish I land a solid kick to his stomach. He falls again, and I immediately pin him to where he lays and hold my knife to his throat. The blades glow a burning orange.
“Why are you here?” I demand. My voice cracks with fear.
I can see his face clearly now. He’s unfamiliar, but that’s no surprise, since this is a big university. He’s close to my age. In the warm light I think his hair is red, but it’s probably a regular light brown. He looks shocked, as if he thought he’d easily be able to overcome someone who had the same nerve to sneak their way inside the Study in the first place.
“Why?” I repeat, my voice deepening and my countenance hopefully changing from fear to anger. “Who are you?”
“Amos Grittysand,” he says, eyeing the plasma-knife warily as he speaks in gasps. “I’m a transfer student from Fuga University.”
I lean forward threateningly. “Why are you snooping around in here?”
Amos meets my gaze with more or less boldness. “I could ask you the same.”
“It looks like we’re in a quandary. I’m not going to tell you that.”
Amos’s brown eyes return to the knife, then to me. “Truce, then. I won’t say a word, and you won’t kill me with that thing.”
I think there’s sincerity in his voice. He’s not one of the apprentices, so I can trust that he doesn’t have much of a reason to stab me in the back. Rangers are competitive like that. But still, I keep him down for a bit longer.
“Why did you move to Griseon? It’s not like we’re bursting with opportunity.”
“You’re not.” Amos’s grin was a cringe. “I lost mine to breaking every other law in the system. I was aiming to become Marshall of planet Tang.”
“And now you’re a truck driver.”
I absentmindedly pull back my weapon a few inches, and Amos takes the open window and jerks swiftly out of my grip. We are both on our feet now, a safe distance apart. He doesn’t make a move to continue the fight. Neither do I. My shoulder and head are throbbing. I can only imagine the headache he has.
“I still need to use that Computer.” In the darkness he points to the giant one that originally gave his place away. The device is one of five, and at the moment looks only like a little slot in the ground. The Computers are supposedly used by Admin to to track the comings and goings of their transport industry. I use them to find Avi.
“I do too.”
We sort of look at each other for a moment. Amos fidgets, and I can see the gears in his brain working. Is he thinking about what I’m thinking? How I would most neatly get rid of his obstacle between me and my success?
“I need the Computer tonight. It’s mandatory.”
“I don’t have time,” I bite back. My knuckles whiten on my knife.
“Both of us already know that the other has done something bad enough to be thrown into jail for who-knows-how-many years if caught,” Amos begins warily. “It doesn’t matter now if we see each other’s crap, does it?”
“I guess not.”
Amos lowers a protectively raised hand and lets out a sigh like one might after being faced by a rabid dog only for it to be caught by it’s chain. I sheathe my plasma-knife, step around him and approach a Computer without another word. The screen slides up in one huge blue ray of light. Amos trods over to another one nearby.
I’m looking around Washington D.C. again. I’ve planned to look for places surrounding his school where I could possibly find him. Surely I wouldn’t be able to just waltz up to the most prestigious school in the Milky Way.
I snapped my head to where Amos stood in front of his own pulsating blue screen. His eyebrows brush his hairline. I ignore the question. This whole situation has gone preposterously wrong.
“You looking for someone there?”
Pause. The silent moving of objects on screens.
“Earth’s population is over fourteen billion. Do you really think-”
I cut him off. “Yes.” I close and unfurl my fingers on a satellite map I’ve stared at for months. It zooms in to look at the roof of a skyscraper.
Amos proceeds to ask me a string of nosy questions. After awhile I decide to return them. As I write notes about D. C. on a piece of paper, he tells me about his goal to escape this prison, and also about his involvement in Tang. I’ve only heard a little bit about the planet, and Amos seems to brush over the details. It doesn’t interest me any more than it did before, and it makes me wonder what exactly this juvenile delinquent has done.
The next week is nothing but insanity. I get few chances to go to the Study due to late Superior meetings, and every time I do go, Amos is there. Trials begin, testing my physical stamina and prowess with guns and flight. I’m in a promising position in the top of my class, but the Last Mission comes in only a few days. Anything could happen then. Anything.
But a realization dawns on me, one that I should have recognized far earlier. Once I’m a Ranger, I am yet again under the government’s control.
They’ll still be able to track and plan my every move once they pair me with a jet.
I find this the night before my class graduation.
As I’m scrolling across a map of the Solar System, I notice a moving arrow symbol cutting its way across Space between Mercury and Venus. I point my finger on it, and an extensive profile pops up. Killian Frozenwaters. Age, gender, height, background. “Headed to planet Venus to inspect military base. After will be going to Betelgeuse System to quell rising black market in Breithtin. Two Earth-Month deadline. Then to Everest Camp in nearby asteroid belt. One Earth-Month deadline to capture fugitive York Slicksteel. Next will…”
This went on and on and on. I found another Ranger, and the same thing showed for him, and for her, and for him, and for all the following moving arrows I could spot. I curse under my breath.
“Why so surprised?”
I jump and curse again when I see Amos watching over my shoulder. Unease creeps up in my stomach. “I thought Rangers were independent,” I say.
“Like little lone superheroes?” he laughs. “Of course not. Once a Ranger gets his or her jet, they’re under their Superior’s control indefinitely.”
I want to hit him and tell him he’s lying, but angry tears beat me to the action. I turn to my screen, my breaths coming far too fast and heavy.
That’s when I realize I’m going to have to take a easier, but a far more illegal way out.
I’m going to steal a jet.
The graduation ceremony is the most pompous thing I’ve ever been a part of. It’s ridiculous, really. I’m here in the sparingly decorated Grand Hall in a neon pink champagne dress, and the Last Mission hasn’t even started. I assume our head instructor wishes us to have a little fun before most of us die. I’m not having fun, to say the least. I stick to the corners, watching as my peers I’ve known and generally disliked for so long chug bottles of flat Griseon-water, a murky drink that probably has a few miniscule drops of alcohol mixed into it.
I find my chance to exit shortly. As a speaker in the far corner starts to pump out a beat, every lingering eye forgets me.
I’ve changed back into my jumpsuit in seconds. Most of the hallways are clear for celebration. This is the one part of my extensive mission that I have not planned, but everything seems to work for me, until an alarm starts. I’m so panicked, I don’t even hear what they say over the speakers. Several lights near me turn from white to red, and my vision tunnels.
I reach the Hangar promptly. A distracted and tired-looking guard stands by one of the entryways. He looks like he’d rather be asleep. I do him a favor and send him dreaming with an unannounced punch to the forehead. He falls to the ground, and I search his belt for a key. I find a square metal card. I swipe it through a little slot by the side of the metal door, and I’m in, as easy as that.
Jets are lined up like ducklings. Just pick one. I think. All the lights here are blinking red.
“Intruders in the West Hangar!” a woman yells calmly into a microphone somewhere.
I find my jet, a JetWaer, the one I’ve wanted since a child. I approach its backside. Then I have to stop, because Amos is blocking my way.
I do what I find appropriate at the moment, and scream at him.
“Get away!” he screams back, sidestepping my plasma-knife. I lunge for him again, and only then do I see what he’s holding out on his palm.
A bomb. It’s sleek and deadly, all black iron and reflective glass in the blinking red light. He drops it on the ground.
“We have forty seconds!” he yells. He snatches my hand and flees with me in tow. We exit out of a narrow door, one opposite from where I came in. The door slams shut. Over the alarm I hear the frantic shouts of guards. I’m counting in my head. Twenty-five. Twenty-six. We jump down a couple flights of stairs and enter another room. Thirty-two. We race to the farthest door. It has a normal knob and Amos wrenches it open. It’s a janitor’s closet. Thirty-eight. He practically throws me inside and slams the door behind him. Thirty-nine.
There is a force so strong it busts the door off of it’s hinges and it sails over our heads. We’re crouched in fetal positions on the concrete, but we’re blown away to the far side of the closet and the door lands hard on our backs. Debris pelts our door, but I’m too in shock to be thankful for the protection.
I still think I’m hearing an explosion when Amos pulls me to my feet. His destruction has put out the lights, but I can still see his wild blue eyes and brown hair now grey with the dust that’s covering everything.
For some reason the sight of him sends a throb of familiar emotion in me. I don’t know why. I should hate him. I do hate him, now. I’ll tell him.
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?” I screech to his face. The wind of my words actually blows some of the grit from his cheeks. “Who are you, and what have you done?”
“They won’t help you find your brother,” he says, attempting to subdue my coming tirade.
Spittle flies as I talk. “Well OF COURSE they won’t help me now! You’ve BLOWN THEM UP!”
“Those things have trackers. You’d be caught and arrested in milliseconds.” Amos retrieves a backpack he’d dropped during the explosion from the rubble. He grabs my arm. “Follow me,” he commands.
I tear my arm away. “No! What are you doing?”
“No time!” Amos pleads. “Backup will be here any second!” He runs to another door and flings it open. Feeble light pours through. He runs, assuming that I will follow. I have no other choice.
We run through corridors and little rooms and offices that I didn’t even know existed. We pass people occasionally, but I don’t stop long enough to see how they react. All the while I’m looking at the back of Amos’s grey head. The pang hits me again. I don’t think I’ve ever truly seen him in the light.
After nearly ten minutes, we enter a gigantic room. I’ve never been here before, and haven’t been informed that it actually existed either.
In the center is a battleship.
“I’ve placed distractions all over Austero,” Amos says, slowing to a jog. Sweat is causing some of the grey to drip off of his face. “This place is totally unprotected now.”
Realization hits me. “We’re going?”
“Yes.” Amos turns to me. The bright overhead lights reveal every inch of his face. It’s freckled from sun. It’s narrow and angular, like mine. His blue eyes are like my piercing grey, but they’re blue.
“You can drive that thing?”
No teenager can drive a battleship. No one who goes to a simple flying university like Austero or Fuga knows about anything of the sort.
“The Milky Way is at war,” Amos states in a monotone.
“Austero is sending kids to the air with no clue. I hope I’ve impaired their flight arsenal. Your Superiors are demons, Hunter.”
I open my mouth, close it again. I don’t know much about the outside world, but I do know one thing. I’ve never told this boy my name.
“I’m taking this battleship to the Crest System. Milky Way is in the midst of a civil war. I’ll explain...” He trails off. Anguish flickers across his face. When he looks at me, the sheer emotion in his eyes make me shudder. They’re rimmed with red, and I see a tear escape. He takes my hands in his. “You don’t need to look for your brother anymore.”
I’m trembling so much, his own fingers shake from holding mine. The breathless question that follows emerges from a part of me that was long ago put away.
A shout echos from the far side of the room, but I dismiss it for a few seconds because I’m embracing my long lost brother for the first time in almost ten years. Exposure to Earth’s vitamins and minerals has changed his appearance indefinitely, but I know him. He’s back, and I’ll follow him through any explosions and onto any mysterious, locked-up battleship he finds.