Chapter One ONE
I WAS GETTING USED TO running. From aliens, from bounty hunters, from underground criminals—when it came to escaping, I was something of an expert by now, even if I didn’t always manage the most graceful exits. So you wouldn’t think plodding through a desert would be all that difficult, even if it was on an alien planet.
But we were hitting the point where I’d almost welcome an alien, or the sound of bullets, or anything to break up the sweltering, tedious trudge. My clothes, sticky with sweat, clung to my body, and loose strands of my hair matted to my face. We didn’t have any water, and no one had spoken in maybe an hour, not even Reed, our resident wisecracker. We were all too parched. I almost laughed at the irony. Somehow, after everything we’d survived, we just might die after all, and it wouldn’t be alien claws or Omnistellar bullets that did us in. It would be the sun.
Better still, it was my fault we were stranded here. Of course, I hadn’t had much choice. The ship we were on was about to explode, thanks to my father activating the self-destruct system. It was either teleport us out or explode with it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t direct my own teleportation power. It wasn’t even mine, technically. It was borrowed from Liam, a treacherous alien with superpowers of his own. Because apparently, borrowing powers was something I did now.
I brushed a piece of heavy wet hair out of my face and peered at the city in the distance. Hours of walking, and the stupid thing wasn’t even a glimmer closer than it was when we started. When a flash of light appeared over the city, we’d set off at a near jog, clinging to Cage’s assertion that our friends must have caused the light. Now, hours later, we’d slowed to a trudge.
The flash could have been anything. Lightning. Other people. There was no reason to believe it was my friends. It was still entirely possible I’d dropped people I cared about somewhere in space and left them to die.
My heart sank. Yeah, the others had pressed me into using my borrowed power. Sure, we’d have died if we’d stayed where we were.
But at least it wouldn’t have been my fault.
That knowledge tore my insides to shreds. So many people had died since I opened my eyes that fateful morning just a few weeks ago, the day I was taken hostage: most of the prisoners I’d been responsible for, my parents, my friends. The idea that I might have abandoned even more of those friends somewhere in space …
No. I tightened my shoulders, refusing to give the thought purchase. If determination counted for anything, my friends were here somewhere. I would find them, and they would be all right. I simply wouldn’t allow things to work out any other way.
The sun had moved all the way across the sky while we walked and was now slipping below the horizon. We were going to find our friends here. I wouldn’t let myself consider any other possibility. But even I had to admit it wasn’t likely to be anytime soon.
To distract myself, I went back to listing facts about deserts. My dad had taught me not all deserts were sandy, either. This one was, though, and I was just then learning something new: walking in sand sucks. I remembered it as pleasant, but that was because I was thinking of beach holidays with my little cousins back on Earth. Walking in sand was great when it was the twenty feet between the cottage and the ocean. It was a little different when you were plodding through miles of shifting dirt, never really able to get a grip on the ground or tense your muscles properly. Put simply, it hurt.
And as the sun vanished completely, I learned another thing: once the sun sets, hot deserts turn cold. Fast. The sweat evaporated from my body, leaving me shivering. I untied the sweater I’d knotted around my waist and slid it over my arms. Around me, my friends did the same.
Cage stopped, his profile sharp and shadowed in the twilight as he examined the city. “Is it any closer?” he groaned.
“It must be.” Without ceremony, Reed plopped down in the sand, a small puff surrounding him. He fell back and sighed heavily. “We’ve been walking for three days. I mean, I assume. That’s what it feels like.” His eyes popped open. “Unless … You don’t think it’s a mirage?”
“It’s only been a couple of hours,” chided Imani, but she didn’t seem any happier than the rest of us. “And even if it is a mirage, that’s where we need to go. We saw sparks from that area, remember? That had to be Alexei.”
Near the edge of the group, Rune, Cage’s twin sister, thoughtfully monitored the stars as if she could tell the time or the direction by their position. And maybe she could have, back on Earth. Rune was full of surprises. Sure, she melded with machines—her own special superpower, courtesy of the alien probes that visited our planet fifty years ago and altered the DNA of future generations. But she was also strong and kind and surprisingly tough at her core, all things I’d never have guessed about her when I was the guard responsible for making sure she stayed in prison.
But I doubted even Rune would be able to tell anything from the stars on an alien planet.
I considered Reed in the dirt and seriously contemplated joining him. Instead I nudged him with my foot. “Get up,” I ordered.
He showed me his middle finger and closed his eyes.
Cage kicked him—not hard, but harder than I had. Reed groaned in protest. “Reed,” said Cage patiently. “I know you’re tired. We all are. But it’s cold out here and getting colder. We have no food, no water, no shelter. Our only hope is to make the city. It can’t be much farther.”
“That’s what you said an hour ago, gege,” said Rune tiredly.
Cage arched an eyebrow. “You have a better idea?”
“No,” she said. “I think we should keep moving. But I don’t share your confidence about how close that city might be. We should consider other options.”
“What other options?” sighed Imani. She extended a hand to Reed. “Come on. Or we’ll leave you here.”
He flashed us one of his blinding grins. “No, you won’t,” he said, correctly. But he did take her hand and let her pull him to his feet, and we resumed our tired slog across the desert.
Of course there were no lights to illuminate the city ruins, not in this barren and desolate world. I drew close to Cage and lowered my voice. “Do you think we’ll find the others there?”
His hand slid around my shoulders, rubbing my arms through my sweater, sending a rush of warmth through me, and not just because of his body heat. “I hope so,” he said. “They’re here somewhere, Kenz. I hope the flash we saw earlier came from them. But even if it didn’t, we’re going to find them, no doubt about it.”
His words held tremendous confidence, but I’d long since learned how Cage manipulated situations. He was a smooth talker without too many qualms about misleading people, although he’d promised never to lie to me.
Of course he didn’t have to be lying, exactly, to deceive me. The fact was that Cage had no more idea where our companions were than I did, because when I’d teleported us here, I’d somehow lost them: Mia and Alexei and Jasper, our friends; Priya and Hallam, our hunters; and Matt—whatever he was. Neither? Both? I didn’t even know anymore.
“You could use your speed to go ahead,” I pointed out.
Cage grinned at me in the near dark. “And you could borrow my power and come with me,” he pointed out. “But then who would keep Reed moving?”
Even though he didn’t say it, I followed his thoughts: he didn’t want to leave his sister behind. No matter how brief the separation, Cage hated Rune being out of his sight, especially in an unfamiliar and potentially hostile world.
“Well, we’d better do something before we have a revolution.” I squinted at the city. It did seem like it was getting closer, but then, as Rune said, it had seemed that way an hour ago. “For now, I guess we keep walking.”
And walk we did. I didn’t know how long. My world became an endless repetition of sinking into sand, forcing myself to lift my foot, stumbling another step forward. I shivered violently and, instinctively, all five of us huddled together for warmth. We plodded along in silence. The quiet reminded me of spacewalks, there was so little noise: only our feet crunching in the sand, punctuated by Reed’s occasional complaints, which continued until I wished Mia were here to shut him up. She probably would have threatened to bury him in the sand, or feed him to a cactus, or—
I stumbled into Cage, who steadied me. “Are you okay?” he asked softly.
I nodded, blinking. Teleporting everyone to wherever we were had taken a lot out of me. In spite of Reed and Imani working to heal me, I was still exhausted. I was also carefully avoiding the thought that I was now an orphan. My dad had died in space, gored by alien claws just when he seemed on the verge of listening to me. My eyes swam and my throat swelled, threatening to choke me. I resolutely swallowed. It was too cold for tears, and I was too dehydrated to allow them.
The sheer utilitarianism of that thought almost sent me into a bout of hysterical laughter. A few months ago I’d thrown a fit when I ran out of the freeze-dried strawberries I kept on our orbital home. Now I was holding back tears of grief to preserve moisture.
“Hey,” said Rune softly. She was close on my other side, her presence a constant, silent comfort. “I know we’ve said this before, but this time I really do think the city is closer.”
I blinked back the last of my tears and peered into the shadows. A rebellious surge of hope burst through me. It was hard to tell in the darkness, but the city’s silhouette did look close—very close, maybe even over the next hill.
The toll of the last few days surged against me: my dad dying in front of me. Matt, apparently returning from the dead, only to vanish—with half of my friends. The aliens reappearing. Learning that the corporation I’d dedicated my life to wasn’t only selfish, they were flat-out willing to risk the Earth in their overconfident search for alien technology.
I didn’t have a shred of hope left.
Or I shouldn’t. But still it welled inside me. Maybe if we just kept going, we would reach sanctuary—not the false Sanctuary held out by Omnistellar, but someplace real, someplace temporarily safe.
Of course, on the heels of that thought, something screamed in the desert.