Breaking Sky by Cori McCarthy
For Maverick Archer,
“There is an art, or rather, a knack to flying.
The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground
—Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe and Everything
The lake held up a mirror to the sky’s razor-blue, and Chase heard glass cracking in that color. An icy wind dried the blood on her chapped hands. She made a fist and her knuckles split.
She had killed him.
His body drained a red thread into the faint waves, blooming, fading, and pulling deeper into the water. She said his name in a whisper. Then a scream. She said it as if the word might let her keep him, but his name only echoed once over the lake and then died.
The government would take that name. Stamp it onto some monument, and he’d be nothing more than the first casualty of the war. The world war that had started moments ago.
All her senses were misfiring. Her jet was in three pieces and half-sunk against the shore. Chase stared at its crumpled body as the wind turned on her, pitching black smoke at her face. She squeezed her eyes, but the blue world stabbed inward.
Everything was fracturing, and it had been ever since she chased Phoenix out of the sky.
Break It, Baby
Speed turned her on.
The other cadets talked about the thrill of flying, but Chase didn’t relate. Her love was more specific. She flew for the high-g press of ten times the weight of gravity. For the throttle thrust forward, the roar-rev of the engines, and then, the mach rush.
Chase was in the atmosphere—flying so fast she felt like solid muscle. Her thoughts were a dance of impulse as she backed off the speed and looked through the tempered glass canopy. The earth knelt before her like she was holding court over the whole damn planet.
“I don’t suppose you see a gas station.” Pippin sat a few feet behind her, but his voice was closer, a direct link from his mask to her helmet’s headphones. “Nearing bingo fuel, Nyx.”
“Give me two minutes.” Chase smelled a challenge. Or she imagined one. Anything to prolong the hop and do something fun. She pulled back on the stick, pointing the nose of her jet straight at the midday sun.
Brilliance charged the crystal dome.
“Tower to Nyx. Come in, Nyx,” Pippin mocked. “My sense of mortality insists I ask if we’re coming down anytime soon. As much as I wanted to be an astronaut when I was five, Dragon isn’t a starship. Where are we going exactly?”
“Somewhere. Anywhere.” The sun blinded through her smoky visor, but she kept her eyes ahead. “Up.”
“Yes, I was going to point out that somewhere feels like up today. Sylph is already halfway home.”
“Good.” Chase gripped the throttle, and the leather of her gloves gripped back. “We don’t need Sylph sniffing around for this.”
Moments scratched by, and Pippin cleared his throat. Twice.
“We got to get high, Pip. Real high. Otherwise, we’ll smash into the ground before we can break the sound barrier in a downward spiral.”
Her reasons stacked. Because the training runs were tedious. Because Sylph, the pilot of the other experimental Streaker jet, had never and would never try such a stunt. And because Chase was Nyx, and with that title came certain wild expectations.
And the cherry on top? Because Chase needed to prove she could do it.
When they were nearly thirty miles up, about to leave the stratosphere, she turned the jet toward the curve of the earth’s surface and let them freefall. Gravity took hold, and she steeled herself to punch through it.
“Wait, Nyx. I’m all for fun, but this is—”
The engine howl took over. They blazed at the blue-on-blue planet, the green smatterings coming into focus. She felt the mach tuck, the air trying to slow her down, just as the sound barrier broke.
The sonic boom was lost behind them, but a pearly halo erupted in their wake.
Chase Harcourt, call sign “Nyx,” had broken the speed of sound at absolute zero sink rate. The other cadets could put that on her headstone.
Speaking of, she was about to die.
“Nyx!” Pippin yelled. “We’re not going to pull up in time!”
The earth was growing larger fast.
Chase reeled in the speed, but the jet resisted. Pippin panic-hummed “Ode to Joy,” and Chase’s arm muscles shook. Land filled the cockpit glass. They were going to slam into it. Houses came into focus.
Chase caught an updraft at the last second. They soared into the sky, leveling above the blush of wispy clouds. Pippin ripped off his mask to gasp, while Chase’s eyes stuck a little too wide. Far below, the humped back of South America led to the arm of Panama, rising fist-up through the Caribbean Sea.
Chase let go of the throttle slowly, her fingers stiff. “Christ. That was fun.”
“Balls of fi—”
A flash of shining silver cut Pippin off. Cut everything off. Dragon flipped. Chase fought to frame the horizon, but what she saw next iced her blood.
A Streaker. A twin to the prototype she sat in.
It was like walking by a mirror she didn’t know existed. It made her jump, defensively jinking her wings. The other pilot looked her way right before jet-washing Dragon. Chase and Pippin spun through the fiery engine wake. Long seconds passed before she won the stick back and blinked the red out of her vision. By the time Dragon had stabilized, nothing but the other Streaker’s contrail remained. A white highway.
Chase exploded after it.
“Time for a conference call, Nyx.” Pippin’s tight voice belied his mocking. “What in the blazes was that?”
“That looked like Sylph.”