Page 41

I am not no one.

I am my parents’ daughter, and then I realize—I realize that in this universe they’re alive too. They’re alive through me.

Fashioning my hands into a pistol, I point it at the ceiling, lifting my chin, raising my eyes against the blinding stage lights, and I ignite the stars.

IT’S HER EYES. THE WAY SHE looks at you like you’ve got all the time in the world and yet you’re still running out. Her gaze is steady, her shoulders held high even though she’s carrying the weight of the Federation on them. Her hair glows red, like the body of a dying sun, snarled and wild, around the golden crown.

As she walks, slow and steady, the clip of her sparkling heels on the stage, her dress swirls around her, fluttering, yards and yards of universe wrapped around her curves and edges. Her mouth, thin with determination, sits against her pale face like a rigid dark line. She comes to a stop in the center and raises her hand in the form of a phaser, aiming it to the sky, and then lifts her eyes to me.

Her gaze strikes a familiar chord, but I can’t for the life of me think where I’ve seen it. I think it’s from the show, from the princess herself, the way her shoulders ease back and her chin rises.

Defiant, like in the final episode.

She’s wearing Princess Amara’s ball gown, like the one Jess wore in that scene where we danced in the ashes for eight hours. But this Amara is a little different, a little changed, just a step to the side. What Amara would look like, perhaps, on the other side of that great Black Nebula. Not just a princess but the commander of the Prospero, the captain of her own life, with Carmindor’s jacket draped over her shoulders, the collar crisp, the coattails starched and flaring behind her, the tips glimmering with a dusting of gold like a comet tail.

Her jacket—of a blue you see at dusk, a hue that makes you wish you could fly off into it—is the perfect shade. The right shade. The brass buttons along it are polished, gleaming, not because they’re new but simply from being cared for. The starwings pinned on her lapel glimmer in the stage lights.

This is Amara. The true Amara. The one Carmindor fell in love with. The one he would have looked back at two seconds earlier. She makes me remember why I fell in love with Starfield, the hypothesis that in every universe, in every world, there is a Carmindor and an Amara.

In any universe, in any world, as anyone—we are them. They are us.

I glance over at the other two judges. They gape at her, enthralled. I begin to grin. Right? I want to tell them. My thoughts exactly.

THE MOMENT I WALK OFFSTAGE I shake out all my limbs, trying to get the nervous sizzle out of them. I feel like I just touched a live wire. But I actually did it. I walked out there. I stared up at the judges, blind as a freaking bat, and hoped like hell I made eye contact with at least one of them.

And I sort of hope Darien Freeman didn’t recognize me.

“Your Highness!” Sage whisper-yells, throwing herself at me. We hug and she prances, throwing her arms in the air. “That was stellar! You were stellar. Everything was stellar! There were some other good ones, but oh god, I’m feeling good about this. Really good!”

“You are? Because I think I blacked out,” I whisper back. “Do you think Chloe recognized me?”

“She didn’t,” says Cal’s voice. She’s behind us, hovering. “I—I texted her at the last minute about an emergency with my costume, so she had to leave the theater. There’s a good chance she won’t be getting back in.”

I look at Cal, full of surprise and gratitude. “Thank you.”

“Don’t.” She shakes her head. “I really don’t deserve it. It’ll take a long time before I do.”

“Contestants?” The stagehand calls us all back toward the stage.

Sage hugs me one last time and whispers “Good luck!” before I’m ushered back into the bright glaring lights. I glance at her in the wings, unable to stop the grin spreading across my face, and in that moment I sort of realize it doesn’t matter if I win. We made it this far, we competed, and nothing can take that away.

Third place goes to a Euci, who looks exactly like the movie promos. Not me. I knew it wouldn’t be me, but still. I had a little hope. It was a good run. When I glance back at Sage, how come she’s smiling? Does she know something I don’t?

It’s just the residual high of competing. There’s forty-three of us and only three winners. Cal stands beside me, nervously twitching.

“I hate this,” Cal whispers. “It reminds me of tennis tournaments.”

“My dad used to say it was the best feeling in the world.” I look out over the crowd, my heart thundering in my ears and lungs expanding in short, frantic puffs.

Cal looks at me strangely. “What, this?”

“Being your favorite character. I don’t care if I win. I’m just glad I’m here,” I whisper back.

“I wish I’d known him better,” she says, picking at her nails. “I wish I knew Starfield better.”

“I can teach you,” I offer.

She looks over at me. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. Sage and I both can.”

A blush tinges her cheeks. “I wouldn’t mind that.”

It must be a strange thing to say because she’s just about to ask another question, her face twisted in concern, when the emcee cries, “Second place goes to…number forty-two, the Black Nebula Federation Princess Amara!”

The crowd cheers.

I don’t hear him at first. Like, my ears didn’t register those sounds in that order. But then Cal elbows me and jerks her head toward the front. Her lips move around the words “That’s you.”

That’s me?

I look back toward the audience. The crowd. They’re cheering so loudly it rattles in my ribcage. The emcee gives me a patient smile, nudging his head toward the front of the stage. I take one step. Every great journey always begins with one, doesn’t it? All it takes is one. Then another. And another.

“Congratulations!” the emcee cries, handing me the prize. Two tickets to the Cosplay Ball. Second-place prize. Second place. I clutch the tickets tightly to my chest.

The emcee takes the last card from the envelope and looks down at it. His eyebrows jerk up into his hairline. “And first place, with a five-hundred-dollar prize and exclusive tickets to the premiere of Starfield is…number seventeen, Princess Carmindor!”

From the other side of the lineup, a cosplayer gathers up her tattered Federation uniform dress and sways up to retrieve her prize, waving to the audience. Even without her crown, she still nabbed first.

That’s good cosplay. Fantastic cosplay. Gender-bending Carmindor? She was amazing. I clap with the rest of them, smiling.

The judges come out from the wings to congratulate us. I’m in a daze, trying to soak in everything but at the same time just trying to keep breathing. I didn’t win. I don’t have the cash prize. I’m not going to L.A.


I look down at the golden tickets in my hand and my eyes begin to tear up. The Cosplay Ball.

“Good job,” says a deep voice. It sounds familiar.

I glance over. Darien Freeman.

“You were amazing—I mean, that costume. You did a jood gob. I mean, a good job. Thank you—I mean—”

“Nox got your tongue?” I say before I can stop myself.

His eyes widen. His hands go slack. “You—you’re the girl from the office. Rebelgunner.”

There’s a strange control to his voice that makes me want to both apologize for calling him spoiled and scold him for treating Miss May like an idiot.

Instead I just ease a smile onto my lips—he was one-third of my second-place vote, after all. “Glad you didn’t try and chicken out of this too.”

His eyes darken and his lips twist slightly downward, as if he’s about to say something incredibly bratty, when Sage slings her arm across my shoulder and the other cosplayers—Nox knight and Steampunk Euci and Lord Dragnot (episode 3, minor character), along with a rainbow of others, flood around me with promise-sworn cries of joy.

How come I feel like I won even though I didn’t?

Sage pulls me into a hug. “Second, yeah! I can take second.”

“So who’s your date?” Cal asks, nudging her chin toward the tickets. “For the ball.”

“I don’t know…” I chew the inside of my cheek. “I mean, I guess I figured Sage would—”

“Oh no,” Sage interrupts. “You’re relishing your winnings. Besides, I don’t have a costume, duh.”

“Sage’ll be too busy hanging out with me,” Cal blurts out. I barely understand what she says.

Sage’s mouth drops open. “I…um…,” she stammers. And then she blushes beneath already-rouged cheeks.

My stepsister turns to her. “I mean, um, what do you say? Maybe we could grab a bite? If you want to.” She stares at the ground. “With me, I mean.”

Sage’s mouth is moving but nothing’s coming out. So I help her along and press the heel of my starlight slipper onto her toes. It must kick-start her brain because she yelps.

“Yes! I mean—like a date? I mean, um, yeah. Yeah, that’d be cool.” And then she smiles, her eyes trained on Cal like she’s the North Star.