Spensa's life as a Defiant Defense Force pilot has been far from ordinary. She proved herself one of the best starfighters in the human enclave of Detritus, and she saved her people from extermination at the hands of the Krell - the enigmatic alien species that has been holding them captive for decades. What's more, she traveled light-years from home as an undercover spy to infiltrate the Superiority, where she learned of the galaxy beyond her small, desolate planet home.
Now, the Superiority - the governing galactic alliance bent on dominating all human life - has started a galaxy-wide war. And Spensa's seen the weapons they plan to use to end it: the Delvers. Ancient, mysterious alien forces that can wipe out entire planetary systems in an instant. Spensa knows that no matter how many pilots the DDF has, there is no defeating this predator.
Except that Spensa is Cytonic. She faced down a Delver and saw something eerily familiar about it. And maybe, if she's able to figure out what she is, she could be more than just another pilot in this unfolding war. She could save the galaxy.
The only way she can discover what she really is, though, is to leave behind all she knows and enter the Nowhere. A place from which few ever return.
To have courage means facing fear. And this mission is terrifying.
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I dropped out of a wall.
Like, I emerged straight from the stone. I flopped forward in a heap of tangled clothing and limbs. M-Bot made a grunting noise as his drone body fell out beside me, but there was no sign of Doomslug.
I scrambled to my feet, orienting myself, looking around to see . . . a jungle? Like, a real jungle. I’d seen pictures in school of Old Earth, and this place reminded me of those. Imperious moss-covered trees. Branches like broken arms, twisted and draped with thick vines like power lines. It smelled like the algae vats, only more . . . dirty? Earthy?
Scud. It truly was a junglelike where Tarzan of the Apes had lived in Gran-Gran’s stories. Were there apes here? I’d always thought I’d make a good queen of the apes.
M-Bot hovered up, turning around to take it in. The wall we’d fallen out of was behind us. A flat stone freestanding in the jungle, like a monolith. It was overgrown with weeds and vines, and I recognized the carvings in it. I’d seen similar carvings on a wall in the tunnels on Detritus.
I knew from the delver’s impressions that this was the nowhere. That felt right to me, for reasons I couldn’t explain. Somehow I had to find answers in this place. Which seemed a whole lot more daunting to me now than it had moments ago. I . . . scud, I had barely escaped the Superiority with my life. Now I thought I could find answers about the delvers, one of the universe’s greatest cosmic mysteries?
Not merely about the delvers, I thought. About myself. Because in those moments when I touched the nowhere, and the beings that resided in it, I felt something that terrified me. I felt kinship.
I took a deep breath. First order of business was an inventory. M-Bot looked fine, and I still had my stolen energy rifle. I felt a ton more safe holding it. I wore what I’d escaped in: a standard Superiority pilot’s jumpsuit, a flight jacket, and a pair of combat boots. M-Bot hovered up to eye level in his drone, his grabber arms twitching.
“A jungle?” he asked me. To him, the time I’d spent communing with the delver would have passed in an instant. “Um, Spensa, why are we in a jungle?”
“Not sure,” I said. I glanced around for any sign of Doomslug. She was cytonic like meslugs were what made ships able to hyperjumpand I hoped that she’d done as I’d asked, and jumped to safety on Detritus.
To be certain, I reached out with my powers to see if I could sense her. Also, could I jump home? I stretched outward, and felt . . .
Nothing? I mean, I still had my powers, but I couldn’t sense Detritus, or the delver maze, or Starsight. None of the places I could normally hyperjump to. It was eerie. Like . . . waking up at night and turning on the lights, only to find infinite blackness around you.
Yes, I was definitely in the nowhere.
“When we entered the black sphere, I felt the delvers,” I said to M-Bot. “And . . . I talked to one of them. The one from before. It said to walk the Path of Elders.” I rested my fingers on the wall behind us. “I think . . . this is a doorway, M-Bot.”
“The stone wall?” M-Bot asked. “The portal we entered was a sphere.”
“Yeah,” I said, looking up at the sky through the trees. It was pinkish for some reason.
“Maybe we passed through the nowhere and came out on another planet?” M-Bot said.
“No, this is the nowhere. Somehow.” I stomped my foot, testing the soft earth beneath. The air was humid, like in a bath, but the jungle felt too quiet. Weren’t these places supposed to be teeming with life?
Beams of light filtered in from my right, parallel to the ground. So was it . . . sunset here? I’d always wanted to see one of those. The stories made them sound dramatic. Unfortunately, the trees were so thick that I couldn’t make out the source of the light, merely the direction.
“We need to study this place,” I said. “Set up a base camp, explore the surroundings, get our bearings.”
As if he hadn’t heard, M-Bot floated closer to me.
“I . . . Spensa, I am angry!”
“Me too,” I said, smacking my hand with my fist. “I can’t believe that Brade betrayed me. But”
“I’m angry at you,” M-Bot interrupted, waving an arm. “Of course, what I feel is not real anger. It’s just a synthetic representation of emotion created by my processors to present humans with a realistic approximation of . . . of . . . Gah!”
I set aside my own concerns and focused on how he sounded. When I’d first found M-Bot in the little drone, his speech had been sluggish and slurredlike he’d been on heavy pain meds. But he was speaking clearly now, and quickly, more like his old self.
He buzzed back and forth in front of me like he was pacing. “I don’t care anymore if the emotions are fake. I don’t care that my routines simulate them. I am angry, Spensa! You abandoned me on Starsight!”
“I had to,” I said. “I had to help Detritus!”
“They ripped my ship apart!” he said, zipping the other direction. Then he froze in place, hovering. “My ship . . . my body . . . It’s gone . . .” He drooped in the air, sagging down almost to the ground.
“Uh, M-Bot?” I said, stepping up. “I’m sorry. Really. But look, can we have this conversation later?”
I was pretty sure that jungles like this were full of dangerous beasts. At least, in Gran-Gran’s stories people always got attacked in jungles. It made sense: anything could be hiding out among those shadowed trunks and deceptive ferns. I remembered how intimidated I’d felt when I’d first stepped out of the caverns and seen the sky. There had been so many directions to look, so many open places.
This was even more unnerving. Something could come at me from any direction. I reached down to touch M-Bot’s drone, which still hovered near the ground. “We should map the area,” I said, “and see if we can find a cave or something for shelter. Does that drone of yours have any kind of sensors? Are you picking up any signs of civilization, like radio broadcasts? There are mining operations in here, I think.”
When he didn’t reply, I knelt beside him. “M-Bot?”
“I,” he said, “am angry.”
“You don’t care. You never care about me! You left me!”
“I came back,” I said. “I left you because I had to! We’re soldiers. Sometimes we have to make difficult decisions!”
“You’re a soldier, Spensa!” he shouted, hovering up in the air. “I’m a survey AI designed to search for mushrooms! Why do I keep letting you push me into doing things? I didn’t want to even enter that sphere, and you pulled me in! Aaah!”
Scud. That drone had surprisingly powerful speakers. And as if in reply to his shouts, something roared in the distance. The sound echoed in the forest ominously.
“Look,” I said softly to M-Bot. “I understand. I’d be a little angry in your place too. Let’s”
Before I could finish he zipped away into the jungle, sobbing softly to himself.
I cursed and tried to follow, but he could flywhile I had to deal with the underbrush. I leaped over a fallen tree trunk, but on the other side I had to wiggle through a tangle of vines and fronds. After that something caught my foot, and I ended up tumbling to the ground.
When I finally managed to right myself, I realized I had no idea what direction he’d gone. In fact . . . what direction had I come from? Was that log over there the one I’d climbed over? No . . . that had been before I’d pushed through the vines. So . . .
I groaned, settling into the hollow of some overgrown roots, gun in my lap, and sighed. Well, my quest had started in a traditional Spensa-like fashion: with everyone mad at me. I realized that I needed a moment to decompress. M-Bot wasn’t the only one with a lot of powerful emotions.
I’d gone from confronting a delver to floating in space thinking I was dead, to waking up in a hospital, to escaping a hit squad sent to kill me. Now I’d had to make a snap decision about coming to this place, and I worried I was wrong.
Maybe I should have gone home and found a way to send someone else into the nowhere to find answers. Someone smart, like Rig. Or someone careful, like Kimmalyn. Right now I felt lost. I didn’t know what had happened to Cuna, and I worried about my friends.
I was alone, isolated, lost. And to top it off, my only companionwho was supposed to be the emotionally stable one, by programming designhad just thrown a tantrum and left.
Did people in Gran-Gran’s stories ever feel like this? I wished I knew what Khutulun of Mongolia or Calamity Jane of the Wild West had done when feeling overwhelmed.
I don’t know how long I sat there. Long enough to notice that whatever was providing the light here didn’t seem to be moving. I let myself fixate on that instead of my mounting anxiety about Jorgen and my friends.
I’d made my decision. Now that I was here, I needed to learn what I could, then find a way home. “M-Bot?” I said to the trees, my voice coming out as a croak. “If you can hear me, would you please come back? I promise to apologizeand I’ll even let you have the first insult.”
No reply. Only the sound of faintly rustling leaves. So I forced myself to focus on a more detailed inventory of my assets. A way to do something about my situationno matter how smallin order to start reasserting control. Cobb had taught me that.
Scud. I’d told Cobb that Cuna’s faction wanted peace. Winzik and Brade could use that to lure Cobb into talksthen double-cross him.
No, I told myself. Inventory.
I gave my rifle a quick once-over. I’d barely used up any of its charge during my escape, which meant I had a power sourceand roughly five hundred shots, depending on whether I used standard energy rounds or amped rounds.
My jumpsuit didn’t include a medic belt, unfortunately, or a pilot’s survival kit. I did have the translator pin I’d been using at Starsight to understand alien languages. I fished in the pockets of the jacket, hoping maybe I’d shoved a knife or something into one of them without remembering. Instead I pulled out a handful of glowing sand.
Silver, like it was made of ground-up starfighter hull, and glistening. It was such an incongruous sight that I sat there staring at it as some dribbled between my fingers.
Saints. What was it? I closed my hand and returned it to my pocket, where I noticed something else. A lump at the bottom of the sand? I dug down and pulled out my father’s pilot’s pin. The one I’d kept hidden away since his death. Yet I knew it hadn’t been on me when I’d jumped into the portal. I didn’t even have it on Starsight. I’d left it on Detritus, in my bunk. So how was it suddenly in my pocket, surrounded by silver sand?
Weirded out by its appearance, I tucked the pin away. I didn’t find anything else hiding in my pockets, but I had one other asset I could think of: my powers. I knew I couldn’t hyperjump homeI couldn’t even feel home in here. But I had other abilities; the first I had ever manifested was the power to “hear the stars.” Which in practical terms meant I could communicate across long distances. Maybe I couldn’t hyperjump out of here, but could I reach Gran-Gran mentally?
I settled back against the tree and decided to give it a try. I just closed my eyes and . . . listened, extending my mind. That sounds silly, but I’d spent hours with Gran-Gran practicing this. And today I felt something.
There was a mind near me. It was familiar, like a presence I’d once known. Who was it? Not Gran-Gran . . . not Jorgen . . . not even the delver. I tried contacting the mind, and I got . . . a sensation of contentment? That was odd.
Then I felt something else. A second mind nearby. They were cytonic, whoever they were, because the moment our minds brushed a voice popped into my head.
Ho there! it said. Another cytonic, in the belt?
Yes! I sent. I’m lost. Can you help?
Careful now, the voice said. Dangerous things can hear you in here if you use your powers! Where are you? Describe your fragment, and I shall endeavor to locate you.
Fragment? I sent. I’m in a jungle. By . . . um . . . a tree?
I needed to find a better landmark. As soon as I considered it though, I hesitated. What if this was an enemy? How did I know the voice could be trusted?
At that moment, I got attacked.
There were three of them. Two birdlike humanoids with wing-arms leaped around the tree from the right to tackle me, and a blue-skinned dione came in from the leftprobably to go for the rifle, which I had slung over that shoulder.
It was a good plan, but man were they sloppy. The first avian slipped as it jumped, tripping the other one and giving me enough warning to turn and start raising my weapon. That almost let me shoot thembut the energy blast went wild as the dione got a hand on the gun.
They grunted, trying to brute-force wrestle the rifle away. The wrong move; even I knew that from my limited DDF training. They should have slapped the barrel, controlled the weapon with one hand, and then gone for my face with the other.
I shoved the dione away, but the two avians tackled me. Grunting, I rammed the butt of the gun into one of them, earning me a squawk of pain. I pulled hard, twisting, and started to wiggle free.
Unfortunately, just as I was about to slide out of the writhing mess of people, someone else grabbed me from behind. A feathered fourth enemy? The group had apparently been smart enough to leave someone in reserve.
I struggled against the fourth attacker, disoriented, as a fifth creature bodychecked me. I didn’t get a good look at this last guyhe was furry, and roughly the size of a refrigerator. While I’m . . . well, not. I’d stretched the truth to get 152 centimeters listed on my pilot records.