Defy the Stars(3)

By: Claudia Gray


As usual, Esther’s right. Noemi takes a deep breath and runs faster through the corridor.

Her division reaches its launch array—a line of small, single-pilot fighter ships as sleek and streamlined as darts. Noemi jumps into her pilot’s seat. Across the room, she can see Esther doing the same, with just as much purpose as if she could really fight. As the translucent cockpit canopy locks over her and Noemi clamps her helmet into place, Esther gives her a look, the one that means Hey, you know I’m not really upset with you, right? She’s good at that look, especially for someone who almost never loses her temper.

Noemi gives her the usual smile back, the one that means Everything’s fine. Probably Noemi isn’t good at that, because Esther’s the only person she ever shows it to.

But Esther grins. She gets it. That’s enough.

The launch-bay panel begins to open, exposing the squadron’s fighters to the cold darkness of space at the farthest reaches of their solar system. Genesis is hardly more than a faint green dot in the distance; the sun she was born under still dominates the sky, but it appears smaller from here than either of her planet’s moons looks from the surface. For that first instant, when there’s nothing before Noemi but infinite stars, it’s beautiful—beyond beautiful—and she thrills at the sight as if it were her first time seeing it.

And as always, she wishes her most secret, most selfish wish: If only I could explore it all—

Then the panel opens fully to reveal the Genesis Gate.

The Gate is an enormous, brushed-silver ring of interlocking metal components, dozens of kilometers wide. Within the ring, Noemi can glimpse a faint shimmer like the surface of water when it’s almost too dark for a reflection, but not quite. This would be beautiful, too, if it weren’t the greatest threat to Genesis’s safety. Each Gate stabilizes one end of a singularity—a shortcut through space-time that allows a ship to travel partway across the galaxy in a mere instant. This is how the enemy reaches them; this is where all the battles begin.

In the distance Noemi can make out the evidence of some of those past battles—scrap left over from ships blown to pieces long ago. Some bits of the debris are mere splinters of metal. Other chunks are enormous twisted slabs, even entire blasted-out ships. These remnants have settled into lazy orbit around the Gate’s gravitational pull.

But they hardly matter compared to the dark gray shapes speeding away from the Gate, slicing into their system. These are the ships of the enemy, the planet determined to conquer Genesis and take their lands and resources for its own forever:

Earth.

They poisoned their own world. Colonized Genesis only so they could move billions of people here and poison it in turn. But worlds that sustain life are few and precious. They’re sacred. They have to be protected.

The signal lights flare. She releases her docking clamps as Captain Baz’s voice speaks to the squadron via her helmet mic: “Let’s get out there.”

Disengage clamps: Check. Noemi’s ship floats free of its moorings, hanging weightless. The others rise beside her, all of them ready to scramble. Her hands move to the brightly colored panel before her. She knows each button and toggle by heart, understands what each light means. Systems readouts normal: Check.

Ignition: Check.

Her fighter leaps forward, a silver comet against the blackness of space. The shimmer in the Gate brightens like a star going supernova—a warning that more Earth forces are on the way.

Her hands tighten on the controls as she sees the Gate burst into light, and ships begin to crash through, one after the other.

“We have five—no, seven confirmed Damocles-class ships!” Captain Baz says over comms. “We caught ’em by surprise. Let’s use it.”

Noemi accelerates, her silver fighter streaking toward the farthest Damocles vessel. These long, flat, boxy ships are unencumbered with artificial gravity or extensive life support, because they aren’t for carrying humans. Instead, depending on ship size, each Damocles carries anywhere from a dozen to a hundred mechs, each one heavily armed, programmed for battle, and ready to kill.

Mechs aren’t afraid to die, because they aren’t even alive. They have no souls. They’re pure machines of death.