Villanueva was not built in a day, but it burned within minutes. Even huddled deep in the thicket behind town, Lurlei can smell the smoke, hear the police sirens screaming. She has to leave soon. They’re going to search for survivors. The Citizens’ Guard always does, every time they pick a safe place to raze to the ground. If she doesn’t get out of here soon, she can expect to be caught and taken into custody, wrung out, tossed around, torn up, twisted. The problem is this: her little cousin Lita is curled up in a ball under a spiny clump of bushes, crying and hyperventilating and—gross—snotty, and Lurlei can’t leave her behind. “Lita, my Lita, come out from there. We gotta leave,” she coaxes. “They’re dead! They’re dead, and we left them,” Lita is sobbing. She isn’t listening. Lurlei is tempted to cry, too, but she knows the clock is ticking. There will be time to paint over scars and play with grief later, when they’re out of this mess. It is nothing for her to bury emotion, to become single-mindedly focused on escape, a caged animal scratching at bars, because the alternative is worse. The alternative is to replay the sound of bone crunching, the crackle of fire mingled with screams. The precise spatter of blood on a dirt path. A sweaty palm pressing a prism into her hand minutes before falling limp. She inhales shakily. “Lita. Please get out of there. We need to hide farther from here.” No response. Lurlei has never been good with children, and she’s pretty sure Lita doesn’t like her as a babysitter. She has just three years over Lita’s twelve and her older sister was always the one who dealt with the kids, the motherly type. A lump swells in her throat. God, she’d just seen her sister dragged out and executed from across the street. Special new silent weapon. Lurlei turns away, half-ready to leave all this behind and run, but she knows she will carry this for the rest of her life: it would be just like she’d condoned Lita’s execution herself. The killings of political prisoners have become grotesquely public. Just last week, a man accused of treason against the state in wartime appeared on the television. Lurlei kneels on her knees, an object with sharp angles pressing into her thigh. “If you don’t stop it we’re going to die. Do you think your parents would want that? They snuck us out the back door so we could get out of this place.” She digs the hexagonal prism out of her pocket and holds it out for Lita. Her stomach clenches at the rough texture of the image code on her fingers. “We have an easy way to get out. All you have to do is come with me. Look at me. Look at my hand.” Lita finally lifts her head from her knees, dragging a hand across her nose. Her eyes widen. “That’s not possible.” Emblazoned on the prism is an image of Sanctum. Rumored to be the last safe place for those who choose to live without the loyalty chip embedded in their spinal cords, Sanctum is a legend among the Unattached on Earth. Lurlei’s parents had once told her the base of the resistance was there, but no one is even certain if the settlement exists. They certainly haven’t done anything to help those stranded on Earth in the ten years since they left. The Guard hasn’t managed to locate the place; they’ve sent no communications or anti-war broadcasts. This is their ticket to freedom, if they can get there. “According to this transport prism it is possible. Can’t you see it? Now, get out of there, Lita.” Lita scrambles out and clutches at Lurlei. The older girl grimaces at the wetness on her sleeve, tucking the prism safely back into her deepest pocket. She twists her arm out of her cousin’s grasp. “We go that way through the forest.” She points west, toward the setting sun just visible through the trees. “One-by-one, quietly. I know a path across the river that will get us close to a cave system. Smells like sulfur, but that will keep the hounds away. We’ll stay there for a few days, until the patrol lets up. Then we get to the nearest airport.”
It takes a few days for the Chief of the Citizens’ Guard to report to his employer. He was busy making mental preparations for his funeral.
“What do you mean you lost it?” the President roars. His shrieks of frustration echo in his antechamber. An aide mists his purpling neck. “You don’t take the only key we have to Sanctum out on patrol with you like a good luck charm! I should never have promised your mother to claim you as my son. You’re absolutely worthless, Crant!”
The Chief Crant of the Citizens’ Guard wipes spittle from his cheeks, staring at the floor. “I found it at 5PM, sir, but I had to finish my patrol,” he sniffles. “Two routine raids. A woman in Villanueva attacked me and stole my gun. I thought that was all she took. We had her shot and everything searched, but we couldn’t find the prism.”
The President grinds his teeth together. Funny, the Chief thinks, I assumed he had everything completely filed down.
The Chief looks up at his father’s venomous glare. “It shouldn’t be a problem. We just installed the long distance trackers on all our pods, so if anyone tries to get out of this system in an uncharted direction, we can follow.”
The crease between the President’s eyebrows relaxes a little. He plucks a towel from his aide’s ready hand and dabs at his forehead. “The point behind the campaign to destroy Sanctum is to demoralize the resistance completely. Sanctum definitely doesn’t have the resources for weapons or anything like that, despite the circulating rumors among the Unattached. But I can wait. I’m a patient man. Australia is collapsing as we speak. The plan is going well. The doctor says I should be able to rule at least another fifty years. What’s a few days, a few weeks?”
“So, Crant, I might not have you erased after all. I want at least ten of your people watching the feed at all times. Track this perfectly. This will be your last mistake, Crant. Don’t remind me again that I like your brother more than you. Dismissed.” He waves a hand at the Guard.
Chief Crant and his followers march out. The Chief is practicing his calming breaths. In for one, out for eight. In for two, out for six. Four in, four out. With luck, he hasn’t blown his chance at making it into his father’s will. The old man has one regularly updated, despite all his talk about living another hundred years. His brother, the most legitimate one, is a champion speedflyer, dumb as a bag of rocks, but Father has always had a soft spot for sports stars. What he would give to be that lucky idiot.
A few years before he can roll his own plans out. A chance accident, two colliding pods, perhaps. Nice and clean, easily blamed on Antarctica’s agenda. Then he will loot what he can in the aftermath, maybe act in a few movies before fleeing to Hawaii and letting his erstwhile nation work itself out or collapse.
Money, fame, luxury: the Chief wants it all. And none of the responsibility.
But until he proves his worth and bombs the life out of Sanctum, he won’t get to rest on his laurels.
The airport at 2AM still bustles with life. Mostly rich businesspeople flying halfway across the world for fun in the tropics. Lurlei and Lita tidy themselves up in the port’s restroom, picking leaves out of each other’s hair and scrubbing grime off their cheeks. To blend in, they’d bought crisp new dresses with the little money Lurlei had on her.
The challenge would be getting past security. They didn’t have tickets or documentation, none of the material required to get into the long-distance transports.
“What are we going to do, Lei?” Lita says, smoothing her curly hair down. “There are so many guards.”
“We’ll work it out,” she reassures her cousin, though she’s far from confident.
They both tense at the sound of someone entering the restroom, then continue to groom themselves quietly. But the new arrival pays no attention to them, intent on a phone call to her boss. She unzips her purse and withdraws a makeup kit with her other hand as she speaks.
“Yes, yes, of course I have the tickets. All four of them. In my purse, where do you think they are? No need to be so paranoid, Carlie.”
Lurlei and Lita catch each other’s gaze. “Dress shop by Gate 5,” Lurlei whispers, and she grabs the woman’s purse as Lita bolts off.
“Oh, no, the shipping is scheduled for—” The woman turns to see Lurlei’s fleeing sneakers. “Hey!”
She attempts to run after them, but they quickly blend into the jostling crowd. “Guards!” she screams just outside the restroom door, thinking this is the last time she wears heels to an airport.
The dress store is a vibrant mess of color and voices, customers calling for alterations and harried employees throwing automatic measurement tapes at them. Lita is already there by the time Lurlei strolls casually in. Together they duck into a stall, and Lita pulls the dresses out. They toss their old, dirty clothes into a trash chute and wriggle into the dresses, flowery pink things that aren’t out of place in this crowd. As Lurlei braids her cousin’s hair, Lita rummages through the woman’s purse for the tickets and an id, plucking a few bills for her own pocket.
Not the time for a morality check, Lurlei reminds herself, biting her tongue.
“Here!” Lita waves the tickets triumphantly, twirling her skirt. “Gate 10. Pod 27.” She checks her watch. “We have fifteen minutes.”
“Good. It’ll take a while for that woman to get a report through.”
They dump their old clothes and the purse in the trashcan, making their way to escape.
The pod escort is a skinny man in his twenties who looks like he skips meals and the state physical assessments on a regular basis. He greets them with bored familiarity, going through the motions of scanning them for weapons, ruffling them up more than is necessary. His warm breath on the back of Lurlei’s neck smells of pickles and mustard.
Lurlei hides a scowl. “Here are our tickets, sir.”
He flips through the two slips of paper. “You’re Dr. Sullivan and Ms. Chang? And where are the other two?” he asks disbelievingly.
“Bad case of food poisoning,” Lurlei says brightly. “But there’s a very important meeting we have to get to.”
“Pictures are way off. Let’s do a fingerprint scan.”
He begins to detach a thumb scanner from his belt. With an almost practiced swiftness, Lita drives her fist under his jaw and knees him, following up with a flurry of punches to his stomach. He bends over in pain and yells for help.
The young girl takes Lurlei’s hand and drags her into the pod. “Hurry, get the prism.”
She seals the door and searches for the fly lever as Lurlei inserts the transport prism. It fits snugly into the map compartment.
Still in a state of shock, Lurlei reads the “READY” blinking on the pod’s screen twice, fumbling for the fly lever. Lita gets there before her and yanks it back. Above them, the skyscreen slides open with a pneumatic hiss.
They hurriedly sit and buckle their seatbelts.
“My hand hurts,” complains Lita, and they are launched into the clear blue sky, laughing from exhilaration and accomplishment and more than a little fear.
“Where did you learn how to do that?” Lurlei says, eyeing her cousin suspiciously once the turbulence of the atmosphere has died down and they’re sailing smoothly through the blackness of space.
“It was in a boxing book. I added the crotch kick and everything else since the knockout didn’t work.”
“I didn’t agree to go to Sanctum with a criminal,” Lurlei mutters. “What goes around—”
“—comes around. Yes, Aunt Mallory, I know. I’ll come clean,” Lita giggles, “once we get there. Your dad would be so excited. He talked about exoplanet architecture all the time.”
Lurlei remembers her father, building imitation bridges and carving buildings for decorations to sell in the market.
“He would,” she says, forcing a smile. A pause.
“These pods have never gone farther than KY 54. How do we know if we’ll get there?”
“Don’t worry about it, kid.”
They fall silent.
The rumbling wakes them. They’d eaten the last of the food stores three days ago, and they settle themselves comfortably in their chairs with their seatbelts strapped tightly down.
“We must be reentering,” says Lurlei.
“That means we’re safe. We’re landing in Sanctum.” Lita grins.
“We can’t be sure. When a pod starts failing, it gets sent to the nearest exoplanet. And those landings are where the greatest number of deaths happen.”
The rumbling turns to a roar; the entire pod shakes. They’ve never been able to input the calibrations for Sanctum’s atmosphere, Lurlei considers, and then she blacks out.
Lurlei awakes disoriented, bracing herself for impact, but the stillness stops her. She is flat on a woven mat, a skyroof letting in warming rays of this solar system’s sunlight. Lita lies beside her, snoring gently. She shifts to sit upright, wincing at an ache in her shoulder. A window in the wall looks out onto a vast twist of metal spires.
“Your pod design… it’s Earth-made. I didn’t think there were any prisms to Sanctum out on Earth anymore,” says a voice from behind her, and Lurlei startles. She turns to see a blue-haired woman sipping at a glass of some violet liquid.
“I’m Mara,” the woman offers.
“Lurlei.” Her tongue is dry and unwieldy. “And this,” she motions at her cousin, “is Lita.”
“Sorry if I woke you. We’ve all been waiting for news from Earth for so long. No one’s crash-landed here in ten years. Not since we sent over the last of our prisms.”
“Is this really Sanctum?” Lurlei asks.
Mara scoffs. “Where else would we be?” She pushes her glass into Lurlei’s hands. “Drink up; I need you to be able to talk.”
Lurlei sips, figuring if this is her host she might as well follow her rules. The fluid is tartly sweet, soothing her raspy throat as it goes down. “Can we... stay here?”
“Well, your pod’s still in decent shape, but the emergency mechanisms are broken so you can’t leave. And we have plenty of room. We’ll figure out everything at tonight’s city meeting. Until then, I can show you around. Everyone will want to know how you got here.”
Lita stirs beside her, eyes, fluttering open. “Where are we?” she groans, rubbing at her forehead.
“Space, maybe,” Lurlei says, staring out of another window at a vast stretch of gently rolling meadows. Uncluttered, as her grandparents said Earth once was. A pale moon hovers in the sky, round and full as a newborn’s cheeks.
“Oh, good, both of you are awake.” Mara stands, pushing her home’s door open. “We’re going out this way. Food will be our first stop, if that’s okay with you.”
Lita hops to her feet, pulling Lurlei up with her. They follow the woman down the steps.
Beyond them, Sanctum whirs on, as smoothly as ever.