Defy the Stars

By: Claudia Gray

For my parents





1


IN THREE WEEKS, NOEMI VIDAL WILL DIE—HERE, IN THIS very place.

Today is just practice.

Noemi wants to pray like the other soldiers she hears around her. The soft ebb and swell of their whispers sounds like waves against the shore. Zero-G even makes it look as if they’re underwater—their hair fanning out from their heads, their booted feet swaying out from their launch harnesses as if caught by the tide. Only the dark star field outside the few small windows reveals how far they are from home.

The troops around her share a mix of faiths. Most of the People of the Book are seated close together: The Jews clasp hands with one another; the Muslims have been seated in one corner, to better pray toward the distant dot in the sky where Mecca lies. Like the other members of the Second Catholic Church, Noemi has her rosary beads in hand, the small stone-carved crucifix floating near her face. She clutches it tighter and wishes she didn’t feel so hollow inside. So small. So desperate for the life she’s already given up.

Every single one of them volunteered, but none of them is truly ready to die. Inside the troop ship, the air is electrified with terrible purpose.

Twenty days, Noemi reminds herself. I have twenty days left.

It’s not much comfort to cling to. So she looks across the row at her best friend, one of the noncombatants who is here only to map potential trajectories for the Masada Run, not to die in the process. Esther Gatson’s eyes are shut in fervent prayer. If Noemi could pray like that, maybe she wouldn’t be so scared. Esther’s long golden hair is pinned up in thick braids that ring her head like a halo, and Noemi feels her courage kindle back into flame.

I’m doing this for Esther. If I don’t save anyone else, at least I can save her.

For a while, anyway.

Most of the soldiers harnessed near Noemi are between the ages of sixteen and twenty-eight. Noemi is only seventeen. Her generation is decimating itself.

And the Masada Run will be their greatest sacrifice.

It’s a suicide mission—though no one uses the word suicide. Seventy-five ships will strike at once, all running at the same target. Seventy-five ships will blow themselves up. Noemi will be flying one of them.

The Masada Run won’t win the war. But it will buy Genesis time. Her life for time.

No. Noemi looks at Esther again. Your life for hers.

Thousands have fallen in the past few years of this war, and there’s no victory in sight. This spaceship they’re on now is almost forty years old, which makes it one of the newest in the Genesis fleet. But each glance shows Noemi another flaw: the patching that hints at a past hull breach, the scarred windows that blur the stars outside, the wear on the harnesses that anchor her and her fellow soldiers into their seats. They even have to limit the use of artificial gravity to conserve power.

This is the price Genesis pays for a pristine environment, for the health and strength of every living thing on their world. Genesis will make nothing new while something old still functions. Her society’s oath to limit manufacture and industry has profited them more than it cost—or it had, before the war erupted again, years after all the weapons factories had been shut down, after new fighter ships had been built.

The Liberty War had seemed to end over three decades ago; of course they’d trusted in their victory. Her planet had begun scaling back. The scars of the war still lingered; Noemi understands that more than most. But even she, along with everyone else, had believed they were truly safe.

Two years ago, the enemy returned. Since then, Noemi has learned to fire weapons and how to fly a single-pilot fighter. She’s learned how to mourn friends who had fought beside her only hours before. She’s learned what it’s like to look over the horizon, see smoke, and realize the nearest town is now only so much rubble.

She’s learned how to fight. Next she has to learn how to die.

The enemy’s ships are new. Their weapons are more powerful. And their soldiers aren’t even flesh and blood. Instead they have mech armies: robots, shaped like humans but without mercy, without vulnerabilities, without souls.

What kind of cowards go to war but refuse to fight it themselves? Noemi thinks. How evil do you have to be to kill another world’s people and risk none of your own?