Defy the Stars(2)

By: Claudia Gray

Today’s just a practice run, she reminds herself. No big deal. You’ll fly it through, get it down, so when the day comes, no matter how scared you are, you can—

Orange lights along each row begin to flash, warning all troops that the artificial magnetic gravity is about to kick in. It’s too early. The other soldiers exchange worried glances, but the threat galvanizes Noemi. She shifts herself into position and takes a deep breath.

Wham! Hundreds of feet slam onto the metal floor at once. Noemi’s hair tumbles down to her chin, kept back from her face by the padded band she wears at the top of her forehead. Instantly she snaps into battle mode, untethering herself from her harness and reaching for her helmet. Her dark-green exosuit feels heavy again, but it’s supple, as ready for battle as she is.

Because it sounds like the battle is waiting for them.

“All warriors to their fighters!” shouts Captain Baz. “Signs indicate we’ve got ships coming through the Gate any second. We launch in five!”

Her dread vanishes, scorched away by warrior instinct. Noemi joins the lines of soldiers separating into squadrons and hurrying down the narrow corridors that lead to their individual fighters.

“Why are they here?” murmurs one round-faced guy, a newbie just ahead of her in line, as they dash through a tunnel with missing panels and exposed wiring. His skin has gone death-white beneath his freckles. “Do they know what we’re going to do?”

“They haven’t blown us up yet, right?” Noemi points out. “That means they haven’t found out about the Masada Run. It’s lucky we were up here when they came through, so we can fight them off farther from home. Okay?”

The poor new kid nods. He’s shaking. Noemi would like to be more comforting, but the words would probably come out wrong. She’s all rough edges and sharp elbows, her heart hidden so well by a quick temper that almost nobody ever recognizes she has one. Sometimes she wishes she could turn herself inside out. That way people would see the good in her before they saw the bad.

Battle brings out her bad side, where it’s actually a positive. Anyway, no point in trying to improve herself now.

Esther, who’s directly ahead of the boy, turns and smiles at him. “It’s going to be all right,” she promises in her soft voice. “You’ll see. When you’re in your fighter, your training will kick in, and you’ll feel braver than anything.” He smiles back, already steadier.

After Noemi was orphaned, she hated the world for existing, she hated other people for not hurting as much as she did, and she hated herself for continuing to breathe. As kind as the Gatsons had been to take her in, she couldn’t miss the looks Esther’s parents gave each other—the exasperation of doing so much for someone who couldn’t or wouldn’t appreciate it. Years went by before Noemi could feel any gratitude, or much of anything at all besides anger and bitterness.

But Esther never made her feel bad. In those first awful days, even though they’d been only eight years old, Esther had already known not to try comforting her friend with cheap words about memories or God’s will. She’d known all Noemi needed was for someone just to be there, asking nothing of her but making sure she knew she wasn’t alone.

How come none of that ever rubbed off on me? Noemi thinks as they hurry through the final corridors. Maybe she should’ve asked for lessons.

Esther shifts to the side, guiding the scared boy ahead of her to fall into step by Noemi’s side. Immediately she says to Noemi, “Don’t worry.”

Too late. “You don’t have a fighter today. Only a scout ship. You can’t go out into battle in that thing; you should just monitor us from here. Tell Captain Baz.”

“What do you think she’ll say? Sit here, get some knitting done? Scouts can transmit a lot of valuable info during a skirmish.” Esther shakes her head. “You can’t keep me out of every fight, you know.”

No, just the worst one. “If you get hurt up here, your parents will kill me, and that’s if Jemuel doesn’t get to me first.”

Esther’s face does this thing every time Noemi mentions Jemuel: Her cheeks pink with pleasure, and she presses her lips together to hold back her smile. But her eyes look as stricken as if she’d just seen Noemi lying wounded and bleeding on the floor. Once, Noemi had been glad to see that—to know that Esther cared about Noemi’s heartbreak as much as her own happiness—but now it’s just irritating. She says only, “Noemi, it’s my duty to be out here. The same as yours. So let it go.”