Defy the Stars(146)

By: Claudia Gray

Gratitude, Noemi reminds herself. When she smiles a moment later, she means it.

The judges don’t seem to know quite what to do. One of them starts gathering her tabulator and belongings; another becomes suddenly interested in smoothing out his robe. However, the head judge holds it together. “Lieutenant Vidal, you are hereby freed to return to duty.”

Noemi gets to her feet, only to have Akide’s hand close firmly over her shoulder. “Actually, she has a new assignment—advising the Council about what she’s seen on her journey through the Loop. We read her debrief, of course, but there’s much more to learn, I think.” He looks her in the face then, for the first time, and misinterprets the dismay he must see there. “The assignment’s only temporary, Vidal. We wouldn’t keep you from flying forever.”

“Thank you, sir.” But really, inside her head, she’s thinking only, Me, advise the Council? Noemi had braced herself for disgrace, even for time in jail. But this is something else completely, unexpected and intimidating. As she takes in the cold fury on Kaminski’s face, the way his fingers curl around the edges of his lectern as if it’s a neck he can wring, she realizes it might be dangerous, too.

With the Council by her side, though, she might be able to change things—to get another, truer chance to save Genesis.

Afterward, Noemi expects to be swept someplace very grand, very secret, or both. Maybe to a meeting of the entire Elder Council, or some secret archive where sensitive information is kept. Instead Darius Akide walks with her by the riverside, in full sight of countless passersby. This is her public vindication, then: quiet and uneventful. Noemi isn’t sure whether she likes that or not.

Well, it beats prison.

The sun has just dipped below the horizon, and the sky still glows with the last of the light. Noemi takes in the many buildings—the great ones carved of stone, the smaller ones of wood, with their domes and arches. She watches the low, long boats skimming over the water, competitors laughing to see who can reach the far bridge first. A flock of white birds skitters overhead; they’re native to Genesis, splendid things with pink-tipped tails that look newly exotic to her now. The dress uniform that gave her courage in court feels out of place while others stroll by in loose robes and cloaks of bright jewel colors. Those robes have never seemed lovelier to her before, and she can’t wait to slip into one again. Standing on her world is even more beautiful than flying above it.

If only she could send Abel a video—even a picture—but he’s gone now. All Genesis’s scans have failed to find any trace of their nameless ship anywhere in the system. Abel had the sense to take the chance she gave him.

“Sometimes,” Akide begins, in his deep voice, “traveling to new places feels strange, but coming home feels even stranger. You don’t expect the familiar to become unfamiliar, and yet it does.”

Other people feel that way, too? Noemi resists a sigh of relief. “It’s quiet here. In good ways, mostly—”

“But not entirely.” When Akide sees her expression, he laughs. “Yes, even members of the Elder Council sometimes criticize Genesis. We’ve gained so much on this world by claiming our independence, but only zealots believe we didn’t lose a lot, too.”

“Is that why you guys want to talk to me? To find out what we’ve lost?”

“Partly. But, I admit… there was one topic I wanted to discuss with you personally. Not as a member of the Council. I wanted to talk about Abel.”

Of course, Noemi realizes. One of the reasons Darius Akide is legendary even among the elders is the same reason he’s the one who teaches military courses about mechs: He was, in his youth, a cyberneticist like Mansfield. According to their histories, Akide was considered Mansfield’s greatest student and closest collaborator. But when the Liberty War broke out, Akide chose Genesis. That doesn’t mean he lost interest in what he’d studied and built for so long. “What do you need to know about him?”

Akide chuckles. “I know all there is to know. I helped Mansfield design him.”

Shock silences her, makes her take a step back. Why didn’t she realize that Mansfield’s top student would have played a role in Abel’s creation? It makes so much sense, and infuriates her at the same time. Once, she could never have imagined talking back to a member of the Elder Council, but now her voice rises as she says, “You agreed to build a machine as intelligent as a human? With the same feelings and thoughts—”