One of the Lakelanders steps forward, a captain or lieutenant judging by the white stripes on his uniform. He shouts something, a hand outstretched, his lips forming the word stop. But we can’t hear him above the growing roar of engines.
“Go!” Farley shouts, appearing at the back of the plane. She hurtles into the closest seat, buckling herself in with shaking hands.
Cal doesn’t need to be told twice. His hands work double-time, twisting and pressing, as if this is second nature. But I hear him muttering under his breath, like a prayer, reminding himself of what to do. The Blackrun lurches forward, wheels rolling, while the rear ramp rises into place, sealing the interior of the craft with a satisfying pneumatic hiss. No going back now.
“All right, let’s get this thing moving,” Cal says, settling back into his pilot’s chair with an almost excited twist. Without warning, he grabs a lever on the panel, pushing it forward, and the jet obeys.
It rolls ahead, on a collision course with the line of soldiers. I grit my teeth, expecting a brutal scene, but they’re already running, fleeing the Blackrun and her vengeful pilot. We tear from the hangar, gaining speed with every passing second, to find the runway in chaos. Transports roar past the barracks, heading for us, while a troop of soldiers fires boldly from the roof of the hangar. The bullets ping into the metal hull, but never puncture it. The Blackrun is made of stronger stuff and pushes on, turning a hard right that rattles us in our seats.
Kilorn gets the brunt of it, not having fastened his safety belts properly. His head bangs against the curved wall and he curses, cradling his bruised cheeks. “You sure you can fly this thing?” he growls, directing all his anger at Cal.
With a sneer, Cal pushes further, urging the jet to its top speed. Out the window, I see the transports falling away, unable to keep pace. But ahead, the runway, a bland gray road, is steadily coming to an end. Soft green hills and stunted trees have never looked so menacing.
“Cal,” I breathe, hoping he hears me over the scream of engines. “Cal.”
Behind me, Kilorn fumbles with his belt, but his fingers are shaking too badly to be of any use. “Barrow, you got one last jump in you?” he shouts, glancing at my brother.
Shade doesn’t seem to hear him. His eyes stare forward, his face pale with fear. The hills are closing in, seconds away now. I picture the jet driving over them, steady for a moment, before tipping end over end to explode in a fiery wreck. Cal would survive that, at least.
But Cal won’t let us die. Not today. He leans hard on another lever, the veins in his fist standing out sharply. Then the hills fall away, like a cloth pulled off a table. It’s not the island I see anymore but the deep blue autumn sky. My breath disappears with the land, stolen away by the sensation of rising through the air. The pressure pushes me back into my seat and does something almost painful to my ears, popping them. Behind me, Kilorn stifles a yelp and Shade curses under his breath. Farley doesn’t react at all. She’s frozen, her eyes wide in shock.
I’ve experienced many strange things these last few months, but nothing compares to flying. It’s a jarring contrast, feeling the immense thrust of the plane as it ascends, every tick of the engines throwing us skyward, while my own body is so powerless, so passive, so dependent on the craft around me. It’s worse than Cal’s speeding cycle, but also better. Biting my lip, I make sure not to shut my eyes.
We climb and climb, listening to nothing but roaring engines and our own pounding hearts. Wisps of cloud flit by, breaking across the cockpit like white curtains. I can’t stop myself from leaning forward, almost pressing my nose to the glass to get a good look outside. The island wheels below, a drab green against the iron-blue sea, growing smaller by the second, until I can’t distinguish the runway or the barracks.
When the jet levels out, reaching whatever height Cal decides on, he turns in his seat. The smug look on his face would make Maven proud. “Well?” he says, staring at Kilorn. “Can I fly this thing?”
A grumbled “yes” is all he gets, but that’s enough for Cal. He turns back to the panel, hands resting on a U-shaped mechanism centered before him. The jet responds to his touch, dipping gently when he turns the U. When he’s satisfied, he punches a few more buttons on the console and leans back, seemingly letting the plane fly itself. He even unbuckles his safety belts, shrugging out of them to get more comfortable in his seat.
“So where are we heading?” he asks the silence. “Or are we just winging it now?”
I wince at the pun.
A resounding smack echoes through the jet as Kilorn slaps a stack of papers against his knee. Maps. “The Colonel’s,” Kilorn explains, his eyes boring into mine. Trying to make me understand. “There’s a landing strip near Harbor Bay.”
But Cal shakes his head like an annoyed teacher with an increasingly foolish student. “You mean Fort Patriot?” he scoffs. “You want me to land us in the middle of a Nortan air base?”
Farley is the first out of her seat, almost ripping her buckles apart. She examines the maps with sharp, deliberate motions. “Yes, we are completely stupid, Your Highness,” she says coldly. She unfolds one map, before shoving it under his nose. “Not the fort. Nine-Five Field.”
Gritting his teeth against a retort, Cal takes the map gingerly and examines the square of lines and color. After a moment, he laughs outright.
“What is it?” I ask, pulling the map from his hand. Unlike the giant, indecipherable ancient scroll in Julian’s old classroom, this map displays familiar names and places. The city of Harbor Bay dominates the south, bordering the ocean coast, with Fort Patriot occupying a peninsula jutting out into the water. A thick brown strip around the city, too uniform to be natural, can only be another stretch of barrier trees. As in Archeon, the greenwarden’s creation of strange forests protects Harbor Bay from pollution. In this case, probably from New Town, the labeled area hugging the barrier trees like a belt, forming a wall around the outskirts of Harbor Bay.
Another slum, I realize. Like Gray Town, where Reds live and die beneath a sky full of smoke, forced to build transports, lightbulbs, airjets, everything and anything the Silvers themselves can’t comprehend. Techies aren’t allowed to leave their so-called cities, even to conscript to the army. Their skills are too valuable to lose to war, or their own free will. The memory of Gray Town stings, but knowing it’s not the only abomination of its kind cuts even deeper. How many live in the confines of that slum? Or this one? How many like me, for that matter?
I taste bile as it rises in my throat, but swallow hard, forcing myself to look away. I search through the surrounding lands, mostly mill towns, the occasional small city, and dense forest dotted with a few dilapidated ruins. But Nine-Five Field doesn’t seem to be anywhere on the map. A secret probably, like anything to do with the Scarlet Guard.
Cal notes my confusion and allows himself one last chuckle. “Your friend wants me to land a Blackrun on a damn ruin,” he finally says, tapping the map lightly.
His finger lands on a dotted line, the symbol for one of the ancient, massive roads of long ago. I saw one once, when Shade and I got lost in the woods near the Stilts. It was cracked by the ice of a thousand winters and bleached white by centuries of sun, looking more like craggy rocks than an old thoroughfare. A few trees grew straight through it, forcing their way up through asphalt. The thought of landing an airjet on one turns my stomach.
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