Colonel, respectfully, I share your concern about Ford’s little mishap the other day. I absolutely do. And I agree that a project would help keep everyone out of trouble. In theory.
Cleaning up the market sector, though? It just feels so… permanent.
It feels like giving up.
But since everyone else seemed to be enamored of the place when we hiked through it before, and I did want to go back to the bookshop, I made your suggestion.
And yes, I took it as a suggestion; I’m not military anymore unless you change your mind about me flying for the Alliance again. So that does make it a suggestion, not an order.
I made your suggestion, and everyone took to it like I’d produced s’mores and a campfire. The looks on their faces alone. Totally worth it.
Ten points for you on that one, Colonel.
I called dibs on the bookshop, and when Ethan tagged along, I handed the kid a broom. (Brooms seem to be plentiful around here. Which is lucky, because there’s plenty to sweep.) He ditched it with a gasp as soon as he saw the book-stuffed shelves, though.
Smart kid, that one.
David came with us, maybe because he was as entranced by the place as I was. Or maybe because he wasn’t as interested in exploring all the nooks and crannies of the market sector, after Ford’s misadventure with the bots.
The shop had a few features I neglected to notice the first time we entered. First because of my general awe at the sight of the place, and second, well, because of the murderous bots that attempted to eat their way into my skull.
This is going to seem like a major oversight, but the bookshop has a tree. A real, living tree, with green leaves and everything.
I know. It doesn’t seem like it would be easy to overlook. But to be fair, the entrance is sort of built into it; the trunk makes up the right side of the doorway, so it’s pretty easy to walk in with the tree at your back and not quite notice how it expands into the space behind you.
Again, there were bots trying to kill me.
This time, obviously, I noticed the tree. As David wandered further into the shop, I also noticed a pedestal just inside the entrance. About waist-high and carved from cold, white stone, the pedestal acts as a base for a glass cube. The sides look like they’re made of screens, only they’re clear as windows. It’s a strange combination.
I pressed a fingertip to the side, hoping it’d light up for me like that guide screen back in the travel area. It didn’t, so I ran my fingertips along the sides, searching for a button. Nothing.
Ethan was busy making friends with the helper bots—there were two of them, apparently—asking them to bring him books from high up on the shelves like a game of fetch. Occupied, in other words.
Giving up on the cube, at least for now, I picked a random aisle and wandered down it, my eyes skimming along the rows of unintelligible spine writing.
The bookshop’s got messes in every corner: stacks of books covered in dust, cobwebs in every corner, more stacks of books covered in more dust. I can’t say what called my attention to this particular fallen book. It was one of many, no different from the others that’d been dropped in the center of an aisle. It had a soft blue cover, with a tear in the corner and writing I couldn’t read.
But for some reason I stopped, and I picked it up. I turned it over in my hand, wiping a layer of dust away, then scanned the shelves for an empty spot.
I jumped when David spoke. Lost in my own thoughts, I guess. He was pointing to an open slot on the shelf. And smiling at me. Like he does.
“I should hit you with this book,” I said.
His answering shrug said but you won’t. I’m too charming. Plus, I stopped Ford from killing you.
OK, David probably doesn’t think of himself as charming. To be fair.
I reached up to shelve the book, but before I could slot it in, the cover of the one beside the space caught my eye. The writing was unintelligible, just like everything else in this aisle; but the cover was also embossed with the metallic outline of a fighter plane.
Cradling the first book in the crook of my elbow, I slid the second one down and cracked it open.
The first page showed an intricate diagram of a fighter, a ship like none I’d ever seen before. It had a sleekly pointed nose that would make a racing pilot weep—and a collection of missiles to make an Alliance pilot drool. I would know.
Aside from the nose, it didn’t look like a real plane in any other respect. It was too thinly cut, for one thing—flat as a blade—though a bubble popping out of the top suggested it was meant to be human piloted, rather than controlled remotely like a drone. There were circular attachments on the bottom, and matching ones on the top. No idea what they might be for.
It looked like a dream. A terrifying, deadly kind of a dream.
“I’ve never seen a plane like this,” I said. “Have you?”
David leaned over my shoulder, his breath tickling my hair. “I haven’t.”
I ran my finger over the diagram, my own breath coming faster. I might not understand the words, but the numbers on the page matched ours well enough. “That can’t be referring to speed,” I said.
David shook his head. “Sam might know. But then, if you don’t… maybe he wouldn’t, either.”
His brother’s a pilot now, though. He could well know more about the current planes, the current prototypes. I’ve been out of service for a while.
But that doesn’t mean I stopped loving planes. And I couldn’t stop staring at the diagram in the book.
The weapons. The speed this page seemed to promise. It seemed impossible, and maybe it was—maybe it was just a dream, like da Vinci’s machines. The wish of some underdog pilot or engineer who wanted to win a war for once, instead of getting beaten down.
“If we had something like this to use against the Hub,” I said, “we could get Mandel back.”
David was quiet for so long that I turned my head to look over my shoulder. When he looked at me, it caught right in my throat. He was so serious. So… unsure.
“Kay,” he said softly. “When are you going to tell them?”
My hands felt numb, holding that book. The two books. “Tell them what?”
“That you’ve got a direct line to the Alliance. That Mandel’s gone.”
“I really don’t see the point.”
He drew in a breath, shaky. How long had he been thinking about this? “I think—”
“They need hope,” I interrupted. “They don’t need to learn that their families are dead or imprisoned by now. They don’t need to learn that their old lives are gone, changed forever.”
David took my upper arm, gently, and gave it a squeeze. He was still standing behind me, and I was still looking up at him over my shoulder, and it was starting to feel a little awkward. And a little warm.
“Okay,” David said. “But I still think honesty would be the best policy here. We’re all in this together, and you don’t have to carry it alone.”
I shut the book, hugging it to my chest. “I’m not alone,” I said, keeping my voice light. “I’ve got you.”
It wasn’t easy to say. His expression softened a touch, which was saying something since he was already looking at me like I was about to shatter. I’m not sure what would’ve happened next, if Ethan hadn’t summoned us back to the main floor.
“Hey,” he called. “Come check out the constellations!”
Still hugging the books, I stepped away from David and hurried along the stacks, my cheeks warm with embarrassment. For absolutely no reason at all.
Ethan was lying on his back, pointing up at the dome—which was definitely darkening to a midnight blue now, the stars glittering out.
“What about the constellations?” I asked, as David gave me a wink and joined Ethan on the floor to gaze up at the dome.
“They’re not ours,” Ethan said simply.
I followed the kid’s gaze up to the glimmering dome, and I gave them another look. A good one this time.
It seemed I’d missed more than the tree when I first looked around in here.
Maybe these constellations are a fabrication, a copy of something from a story or a legend. Maybe they’re meant to be an interactive mural, just artwork. Not meant to be real.
But the kid’s right, Colonel. These constellations? They don’t match with the ones we see from our star system. Do you know what that’s about?
And if you do—would you tell me?