“We have to try to land the plane,” Nazeera is saying. “We have to figure out— Shit,” she says. She covers her mouth with one hand. “We just lost another engine.”
“So we’re just going to fall out of the goddamn sky?” This, from Kenji.
“We can’t land the plane,” I say, my heart beating furiously even as I try to keep a level head. “Not like this, not when we’re missing two engines. Not while they’re still shooting at us.”
“So what do we do?” she says.
It’s Ella, at the door, who says quietly, “We have to jump.”
The three of them turn to face me.
“What are you talking about?” Kenji says.
“Love, that’s really not a good idea— We don’t have any parachutes on this plane, and without them—”
“No, she’s right,” Nazeera says carefully. She’s looking me in the eye. She seems to understand what I’m thinking.
“It’ll work,” I say. “Don’t you think?”
“Honestly, I have no idea,” she says. “But it’s definitely worth a shot. It might be our only shot.”
Kenji is beginning to pace. “Okay, someone needs to tell me what the hell is going on.”
Aaron has gone pale. “Love,” he says again, “what—”
“Nazeera can fly,” I explain. “If we all find a way to secure ourselves to one another, she can use her powers to bolster us, you can use your power to bolster her power, and because there’s little chance either of you could use that much of your strength while still carrying our combined weight, we’ll eventually, slowly, be dragged down to the ground.”
Nazeera glances at the dash again. “We’re eight thousand feet in the air and losing altitude quickly. If we’re going to do this, we should jump now, while the plane is still relatively stable.”
“Wait—where are we?” Kenji says. “Where are we going to land?”
“I’m not sure,” she says. “But it looks like we’re somewhere over the general vicinity of sectors 200 through 300.” She looks at Aaron. “Do you have any friends in this region?”
Aaron shoots her a dark look. “I have friends nowhere.”
“Zero people skills,” Kenji mutters.
“We’re out of time,” I say. “Are we going to do this?”
“I guess so. It’s the only plan we’ve got,” Kenji says.
“I think it’s a solid plan,” Aaron says, and shoots me a hesitant, but encouraging look. “But I think we should find a way to strap ourselves together. Some kind of harness or something—so we don’t lose each other in the air.”
“We don’t have time for that.” Nazeera’s calm is quickly giving way to panic. “We’ll just have to hold on tight.”
Kenji nods, and with a sudden heave, shoves open the airplane door. Air rushes in fast and hard, nearly knocking us off our feet.
Quickly, we all link arms, Nazeera and Aaron holding up the outer edges, and with a few reassuring shouts through the howling wind—
It’s a terrifying sensation.
The wind pushes up fast and hard and then, all at once, stills. We seem to be frozen in time, whirring in place even as we watch the jet fall, steadily, into the distance. Nazeera and Aaron appear to be doing their jobs almost too well. We’re not falling fast enough, and not only is it freezing up here, oxygen is scarce.
“I’m going to drop my hold on your power,” Aaron calls out to Nazeera, and she shouts back her agreement.
Slowly, we begin to descend.
I watch as the world blurs around us. We drift downward, unhurried, the wind pushing hard against our feet. And then, suddenly, the bottom seems to drop out from under us, and we go shooting down, hard, into the terrain below.
I give out a single, terrified scream—
Or was that Kenji?
—before we pull to a sudden stop, a foot above the ground. Aaron squeezes my arm and I look at him, grateful for the catch.
And then we fall to the ground.
I land badly on my ankle and wince, but I can put weight on my foot, so I know it’s all right. I look around to assess the state of my friends, but realize, too late, that we’re not alone.
We’re in a vast, wide-open field. This was, once upon a time, almost certainly farmland, but it’s now been reduced to little more than ash. In the distance appears a thin band of people, quickly closing in on us.
I harness my powers, ready to fight. Ready to face whatever comes our way. Energy is thrumming inside me, sparking in my blood.
I am not afraid.
Aaron puts his arm around me, pulls me close. “Together,” he whispers. “No matter what.”
Finally, after what feels like immeasurable minutes, two bodies separate from their group. Slowly, they walk up to us.
My whole body is tense in preparation for an attack, but as they get closer, I’m able to discern their faces.
They’re two adults:
One, a slender, stunning woman with closely cropped hair and skin so dark it gleams. She’s luminous as she walks, her smile widening with every step. Beside her is another smiling face, but the familiar sight of his brown skin and long dreadlocks sends shock and panic and hope rushing through me. I feel dazed.
His presence here could be either good or bad. A thousand questions run through my mind, among them: What is he doing here? How did he get here? The last time I saw him, I didn’t think he was on my side at all—has he turned against us completely?
The woman is the first to speak.
“I’m glad to see you’re all right,” she says. “I’m afraid we had no choice but to shoot your plane out of the sky.”
“What? What are y—”
“Castle?” Kenji’s quiet, tentative voice reaches out from behind me.
Castle steps forward just as Kenji moves toward him, and the two embrace, Castle pulling him in so tightly I can practically feel the tension from where I’m standing. They’re both visibly emotional, and the moment is so touching it puts my fears at ease.
“You’re okay,” Kenji says. “I thought—”
Haider and Stephan, the son of the supreme commander of Africa, step out of the crowd. Shock seizes my body at the sight of them. They nod at Nazeera and the three of them separate to form a new group, off to the side. They speak in low, hurried whispers.
Castle takes a deep breath. “We have a lot to talk about.” And then, to me, he says, “Ella, I’d like you to meet my daughter, Nouria.”
My eyebrows fly up my forehead. I glance at Aaron, who seems as stunned as I am, but Kenji lets out a sudden whoop, and tackles Castle all over again. The two of them laugh. Kenji is saying, No way, no way
Nouria pointedly ignores them and smiles at me. “We call our home the Sanctuary,” she says. “My wife and I are the leaders of the resistance here. Welcome.”
Another woman separates from the crowd and steps forward. She’s petite, with long blond hair. She shakes my hand. “It’s an honor to meet you,” she says. “My name is Samantha.”
I study both of them, Nouria and Samantha standing side by side. Castle’s happiness. The smile on Kenji’s face. The cluster of Nazeera, Haider, and Stephan off to the side. The larger group crowded in the distance.
“The honor is ours,” I say, and smile. Then: “But are we safe out here? Out in the open like this?”
Nouria nods. “My powers allow me to manipulate light in unusual ways,” she says. “I’ve cast a protective shield around us right now, so that if someone were to look in our direction, they’d see only a painful brightness that would force them to look away.”
“Whoa.” Kenji’s eyes widen. “That’s cool.”
“Thank you,” Nouria says. She’s practically emanating light, her dark brown skin shimmering even as she stands still. There’s something breathtaking about just being near her.
“Are those your people?” I hear Aaron say, speaking for the first time. He’s peering over her head, at the small crowd in the distance.
“And are they here to make sure we don’t hurt you?”
Nouria smiles. “They’re here to make sure no one hurts you,” she says. “Your group is welcome here. You’ve more than proven yourselves worthy.” And then, “We’ve heard all the stories about Sector 45.”
“You have?” I say, surprised. “I thought The Reestablishment buried everything.”
Nouria shakes her head. “Whispers travel faster than anyone can control. The continent is buzzing with the news of all you’ve been doing these past couple of months. It’s truly a privilege to meet you,” she says to me, and holds out her hand. “I’ve been so inspired by your work.”
I take her hand, feeling at once proud and embarrassed. “Thank you,” I say quietly. “That’s very kind of you.”
But then Nouria’s eyes grow somber. “I am sorry we had to shoot you out of the sky,” she says. “That must’ve been terrifying. But Castle assured me that there were two among you who would be able to fly.”