Those Who Trespass: Part 3

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Hadley REDACTED: Freewrite #1

When I was a kid, I had this thing about my hair. I thought it was like the best hair anyone could have. I drove my sister Sophie nuts, taking up hours in the bathroom washing it, drying it, styling it. I think it’s because her hair is average. Was average.

Don’t you wonder why I didn’t just backspace, fix the tense rather than restating it?

I wonder that, too.

I’m a little over dramatic though. I think I want you to know that I’m still learning how to put my sister in the past.

But anyway, back to my hair. One day I started messing with it. Clawing my fingers through it for no reason, pulling it out strand by strand. I couldn’t stop. After about a cycle and a half of this, Sophie came up behind me in the kitchen, and suddenly I felt her fingers touching the skin under my hair—but I wasn’t feeling it through my hair.

“What are you doing?” she asked, “scalping yourself?”

“None of your business,” I said, and from that day on, I stopped trying to stop. Instead, I let it become ugly, and then I made it uglier, dyed it crazy colors and twisted it into knots, and once it was ugly enough, I didn’t need to mess with it.

The same thing happened with my nails. For years they were long and sharp and beautiful, and then all of a sudden, I was picking at them, chewing them down until my fingers were nubs that felt strange and blunt against the bare spots of my scalp.

Sophie noticed that, too.

I couldn’t stand Sophie back then.

Now she’s dead, and I hate her.

Jake REDACTED: Freewrite #3

    Sophie’s consecration was unreal, and I kept waiting for it to stop being real, or start, but it stayed strangely visceral and dreamlike. I was standing there with Billy and Bryne, but my brain wasn’t there. I don’t know where it was—strange places I guess. I’d never thought about how weird death was before, it had been this amorphous, abstract thing until they burned a girl I’d known down to the size of a box I could hold in my palm and we all stood round while they put her in a wall. And that’s when it hit me. Death is becoming amorphous, abstact—unreal.

    Billy, as class leader, said a few words. Bryne, as Sophie’s best friend and replacement on the Exchange list, said a few more. I said nothing. And neither did her sister, Hadley, who I couldn’t stop sneaking glances at.

    I don’t know if you know her, but you wouldn’t if you saw her now. Hadley used to have all the color that her sister didn’t: startlingly bright eyes, iridescent hair threaded through with multicolor hair decorations, skin that flushed with the extremities of her emotions. She has the same temper and sarcastic attitude as her sister, but where Sophie was sexy, Hadley is vulgar. Sophie was sharp; Hadley is serrated.

But I don’t know if that’s true anymore. Hadley doesn’t look vulgar or lethal or anything anymore, just washed out and dull. I kept watching her, but she never moved, never even looked up. She wasn’t crying, which made me feel rancid because here she was, keeping it together, while I had tears running down my face like it was Sarah in that box instead of Sophie.

And while I was watching Hadley, Bryn was watching me.

I’m telling you, that girl can read my mind. When I’d been staring at Sophie’s family long enough that it was getting weird, she reached out and touched my hand to get my attention. It wasn’t a stroke, or even a brush, just the pressure of her fingertips pressed against my knuckles, her eyes on mine, letting me know she understood, that her grief measured up where Hadley overwhelmed and Billy fell short.

    Just when I thought it was over, a man stood up. He was probably about my dad’s age, but he seemed both older and younger, somehow. Everything about him said success. He was wearing the kind of suit that costs more than our hover, and his hair looked like polished silver. It was more than how he looked though, it was the way he walked up to the front of the room, You could tell he was used to being the center of attention. My dad is used to attention, too, but he doesn’t wear it like this guy does. He slumps from it, shrugs it off, hides from it in his oversized shirts that are older than me.

    I said to Bryn that he looked familiar.

    Billy overheard and shot me a look that said: you dumb nuke.

Apparently he was Aldous Porter, the newly elected leader of the Ascis Party. He was in town because he’s running his campaign from his wife’s family house in Chesport. All of which apparently I should have known, and would have if I listened to my dad’s Feed.   

    When he got up in front of us, he spent a long moment surveying us, letting us survey him. It was like he knew we’d like what we see, but somehow he didn’t look smug. Then Porter nodded respectfully toward Sophie’s parents and started talking. A lot of it was political, and don’t judge me, but it went over my head. He kept mentioning the Exchange, and there was an undertone in his voice that was making some people in the crowd shift uncomfortably. My dad and Sarah were two of them.

    At one point, he framed Sophie’s tiny space in the wall with his hands and declared, “This is not enough.”

And Billy murmured, “Interesting.”    

I wanted to know what was so interesting, but Billy didn’t bother to answer, so I looked over at Hadley again. Her head was raised, and she was staring at Porter through her tangled knots of multicolored hair. I couldn’t figure out her expression, couldn’t tell if she was nerved he was talking about the Exchange at her sister’s consecration (likely) or if she was getting something out of this I wasn’t (also likely).

    “This is not enough,” Porter had repeated, returning to face us. He had adjusted the tiny microphone clipped to his collar and stared back at Hadley compassionately. “I want you to know that I will be here for this town. Change is coming on us, whether we’re ready for it or not, and I’m going to be right here with you to make sure that no one else ends up with only this.” He made the tiny frame with his hands again, and held it up. “Because every one of you deserves more.” Then he spread his hands wide apart, and it was like something in me shrank.

I looked sideways at dad, wondering if I was reading too much into this Porter guy, if maybe he wasn’t implying that the Exchange somehow contributed to Sophie’s death. But dad had straightened from his usual slump and was looking nerved. His eyes were locked on Porter, but he’s gotten too good at hiding.

    Porter never looked back.

Darwin REDACTED: Freewrite #2

    We leave tomorrow.

    I can’t even explain how I’m feeling. Nervous. Lit. Part of me wants to call up my grandparents. I don’t know what I’d say, what I’d want them to say. Maybe I don’t want them to say anything. Maybe I just want to remember why I’m going, because another part of me wants to heave.

    I wasn’t going to tell you this, because in my application packet I didn’t check off any phobias, but I’m scared of heights. I don’t even know if that qualifies as a phobia, but when I think about liftoff tomorrow, I can already feel the same cold sweat that used to break out on my forehead all the time in that last year we lived with my grandparents. It’s going to be okay once we’re beyond the gravitational field. I handle weightlessness like a champ, and then once the ship’s gravitational field is turned on and we’re walking around like we could be anywhere, I’ll be great.

    But let’s just say that’s not where things are now.

    Okay, I want to remember everything, and I have to stop thinking about launch, so I’m going to tell you about yesterday.

Yesterday Morning (I don’t remember what time)

Coleman was talking about Sophie’s funeral as I was packing. The shuttle company sent us all square, metal trunks that someone came to collect later, but yesterday morning, mine was still empty except for my running shoes and clothes. My mom came in with a pile of washed clothes and frowned at my progress, but she stayed quiet because Coleman was talking about how Sophie’s parents let the leader of the Ascis Party make a speech.

“This was a tragedy,” Coleman said, “And Aldous Porter is treating it like another stop on his campaign.”

My  mom nodded approvingly, but she’d nod approvingly at anything Coleman says. She can’t wait for me to meet him. When his feed ended and I switched the transmission off, she said, “I’d be so worried about you going there if it weren’t for him.”

“Yeah, it was great of U-Gov to assign him to me as a personal bodyguard,” I joked. I took the clothes from her and dropped them in the trunk.

“I just folded those.”

    “Shouldn’t have. They’re going to run everything through the decontamination.”

    She rolled her eyes, “Right.”

    “They have to do it before they come here, too,” I reminded her.

    But there are too many differences between us and them for that to make much of a difference to my mom. She’d support me in anything, but sometimes I think she’s just as mad at the U-Gov as my grandparents, but for different reasons. My grandparents are mad because they remember being on 511820-H1. My grandfather remembers his parents and his two older brothers getting the sickness. My grandmother remembers being hungry. Mostly they remember U-Gov not stepping in until my grandfather’s two older brothers were dead and my grandmother’s family had to kill and eat her pet rabbit. My mom is mad because she doesn’t remember any of that, so doing her mandatory service and living under the strict U-Gov guidelines doesn’t feel fair.

    I’m not mad though. I mean, sometimes when we get to the last few days of the month and we have to walk everywhere because we’ve hit our carbon emissions allowance that’s the lowest of any other planet, that kind of sucks, but that’s how I figured out I loved running in the first place. And I wouldn’t have minded doing Service if the Exchange hadn’t taken care of my obligation. If running for U-Sports doesn’t work out, maybe I’ll go do it anyway.

If I can get over this fear of heights thing.

    Because she was getting stressed out again, my mom sat down cross legged next to my trunk and begins to refold everything. “You’re packing light,” she said when she finished too quickly.   

    “We’re going to wear uniforms there.”
    She reached for my frame screen that was currently cycled to a picture of us. She couldn’t quite reach it, so I handed it to her to pack, even though I doubted I’d be taking it out until I get back home next year. Then she packed a hat I don’t wear anymore and asked, “Are you nervous?”

    And I thought: Is she kidding? I feel like I’ve been kicked in the stomach so many times I can’t even throw up anymore. I’m not nervous, I’m petrified. But I was lit, too. My Exchange friends and I have spent the last few years building each other up about how great this was going to be. So I told her no, and then I looked down at my trunk, at my running shoes, and I felt this sense of power and destiny building in me, a wave that sweeps through my bloodstream, wiping out the fear (for a few hours).

“No,” I said, and that time I meant it. “I’m ready.”

[line space]

    So that was yesterday. Then this morning, an armored governmental bus picked us all up at our houses. It’s because of the backlash from the fringe separationist party, all the threats and stuff, which I guess you probably even know more about than I do. My mom said that once the new Sophie—Bryn—arrives, there will be round-the-clock security on our house.

    Cohan and Gilles were already on the bus when it picked me up. They were wearing their dark blue travel jumpsuits and looked as stupid as I did, but they still howled at the sight of me in mine.

    “Wait until Pen sees you, sir,” Cohan sneered. “She won’t be able to resist anymore.”

    I might as well explain. I’ve been trying to get Pen, the tiny red-haired dancer, to go out with me for years, but she actually follows the rule about Exchange students not dating each other. And, I noticed, she was already on the bus.

    “Ignore them,” I said.

    “For years now.”

    I sat down next to her, just because. No point in giving up now.

    Cohan was punched by then, his energy level is always off the charts. He couldn’t sit still, even though the driver kept twisting back to snap at him to sit down. We picked up his girlfriend, Hesper, next. She climbed aboard with Maris and Maddock, who live near her. Maris is a cute girl with long, thick dark hair and big green eyes. She can be quiet, but not as quiet as Maddock, who looked as focused and serious as he always does. He gave us a distant smile and sat down alone. He’s studying to be a historian, and the present doesn’t exactly light him up. I bet his journal is a real laugh.

    When we picked up Gordon, he sat next to Maddock. Gordon is into school politics, and somehow he’s become the unofficial leader of our band. He’s committed to keeping Maddock anchored to the here, the now, and the us, not letting him drift off like I think Maddock wishes Gordon would let him do.

    Jules and Tylka were last to be picked up because they live closest to the launch site. From there, it wasn’t long before the bus was being waved through tall, heavily armed gates. When we were inside and the gates were locked behind us, two small, low vehicles fell in, flanking us. The windows were darkly tinted, like ours, but we all tried to peer in anyway.

    “We’re a big deal,” Cohan said. “Those are T6s.”

    “I’m a big deal,” Gilles said. “What’s a T6?”

    “The most expensive, armored guard vehicle there is.”

    We have two, but we see another car coming across the wide gray expanse of the launch pad surrounded by a whole fleet of T6s.

    “Whoever that is is a big deal,” Pen said.

    The fleet pulled to a stop so smoothly and suddenly it looked orchestrated. We could see the ship rising behind it, a great orb balanced on a tripod. Our bus stopped, too, but we weren’t near the ship yet. We were at the Port, the building with the dorm and dining facility.

    A tall woman jumped out of one of the fringe T6s and opened the door of the T6 that had been in the center. About that time, we all figured out that we were about to meet the World Leader in person for the first time.

    I don’t know if it was being inside the gates--which already felt like a different planet; seeing the ship being prepared for launch; or seeing the small blonde woman we’d only ever seen on screens in person for the first time, but suddenly it was hitting us that this was actually happening. This wasn’t another retreat or meeting. My stomach flipped over, even Cohan got quiet, and Pen grabbed my arm and whispered, “I’m scared.”  

    Pen and I have never talked about it, but I think we have the same reason for wanting to be in on this Exchange. Her dancing is as important to her as my running. I put my hand on hers and tried to channel that wave of confidence I felt yesterday. “Don’t worry. It’s going to be great.”

    And it will be. Just as soon as we get through launch.

Hadley: Prompt 2

Prompt 2: Describe the day the students from your town left for 511820-H2.

I’m lying on Sophie’s bed, staring at Sophie’s ceiling, wearing Sophie’s lipstick. I’ve got her pot of MLW right next to me, and I’ve gone through so many straws that the edges of the room are blurred.

    Holding my latest straw away, I push the tube of lipstick hard against my mouth, tasting the waxy flavor. It leaves red rings on the ends of the flavor straws, and I examine them before tossing them on the floor. It’s bright, like smeared blood. I bring the straw back to my mouth and wonder if Sophie bled when her hover crashed, or if it was a neat death, like a snapped neck. I’ve never seen my own blood. I got a burn once, fighting with Sophie when she was smoking, but salve smoothed the blistered circle in hours.

    There’s a hand mirror on the nightstand next to Sophie’s bed, because my sister could never be far from her reflection. That day she burned me, she brushed her hair and changed her clothes before going to get the salve. I pick it up and smash it back down. The surface cracks and jagged shards clatter down, skittering across the table surface and falling to the floor. I smack my hand down and curl my fingers around the first one I can get a grip on.  

    I clamp my straw between my teeth and examine the pale underbelly of my slim arm. I narrow my eyes at it, wondering why its unblemished smoothness has never bothered me before. I push the jagged edge of the shard against my skin clumsily. It’s sharp, jabbing my skin but not cutting into it. The dormant girl in me, the one who spent hours on her hair and thought her nails were like, epic, revolts, and I freeze. The room is too blurry now, and I’m nauseous.

    I want to stop.

    Instead, I inhale black licorice MLW deep into my lungs. I taste a dead girl’s mouth. I angle the shard, watch my skin split beneath it, and drag it down the length of my arm.

    [line space]

    I’m still hazed out the next day, launch day, when I wake up in my sister’s bed. This day Sophie would have left anyway. I think things will be easier tomorrow, when we can pretend she’s gone and not dead.

    The pot of MLW is still burning on the nightstand next to me. It’s a miracle my parents didn’t come in, or maybe it would have been a miracle if they had. My head hurts in a way that I’m used to. When I sit up, the sheet tears away from my torn flesh and fresh blood wells up in the long trenches I’ve dug for myself.

    I stare at the mess I’ve made, both sickened and pleased. Sophie would go nuclear if she saw the blood on her bedding—dark brown, I’m surprised to see, instead of the bright red color of her—my—lipstick. I stand up, flop the comforter over the whole mess and kick the discarded flavor straws under the bed. I’m clumsy and slow because I have to do it all with one arm. If I move my other one at all, the delicate seams of repairing skin rip open again. And besides, it hurts.

    I think about getting the salve but then what would the point of cutting have been? Instead I throw on a long-sleeved shirt, feel the material adhere to my flayed skin, attaching to and pulling at the nerves that signal pain. I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the shattered glass remnants, and I guess I’m pretty vain, too, because I think the girl who looks back at me is a disaster of glorious proportions. My lips are so red and glossy it looks like they’re bleeding, too. My hair is at its wildest, so tangled and twisted that it feels heavy, pulling on my scalp. My nails are shorn and torn, but my expression is strangely, ethereally, calm.

    Before I head to the launch site, I grab the lipstick from the floor where it fell in the night and tuck it in my back pocket. For no reason at all,I think about that runner, the one who hadn’t loved Sophie best.

Jake REDACTED: Prompt Response 2

Prompt 2: Describe the day the students from your town left for 511820-H2.  

I’m glad you asked that question.

No, I’m not, but sometimes that’s the first thing that pops into my head when I don’t know what else to say. It’s a trick my dad uses on his Feed to delay for time. My dad is pretty good on the spot. You give him that five second reprieve and he can come up with a halfway decent followup.

I’ve had more than five seconds though, and I still don’t know how to describe it. It was intense? It was in my house anyway. I literally woke up hearing about it, my dad and Sarah had the U-Gov feed on, and they were eating breakfast in front of it. You’d think they’d be excited, right? Maybe dad would’ve even made a special breakfast for it? That’s what I thought. But when I got to the kitchen, it was the standard issue morning meal, and they’d barely even left me my third.

“Thanks a lot,” I said, sitting down next to Sarah with my scraps.

“You’re welcome,” my dad said absently.

Sarah kicked me until I was completely off her half of the couch. “I didn’t think you were still here,” she said. “Aren’t you and Billy taking Bryn to the launch site?”

“We are,” I checked the timestamp on the screen that had split to show the preparations on both planets, “soon.”

“Are you coming back?” my dad asked.

I shrugged, not sure what Billy wanted to do.

“Launch isn’t until this afternoon,” Sarah pointed out. “Are you guys just going to wait around all day?”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” I said, because it annoys her when she doesn’t get straight answers.

“I’m planning to get there early, too, and start broadcasting,” my dad said. He has a feed that I guess is popular. Billy and Bryn listen to it, anyway. I used to listen when I was a kid, but that was before mom left, when Coleman the Feed personality and Coleman my dad seemed like the same person.

After Sarah kicked me again for crossing onto her half of the couch and I finished the three bites of breakfast they’d left me, I headed outside to wait for Billy at the hover track. The sky was off. I don’t normally notice these things, but it looked like a hard gray shell, smooth and impenetrable, without a single ripple or ragged current of cloud. Looking at it, my mind flashed this horrible image of the ship launching, spiking into the sky, the burners beneath propelling it higher and higher, and then it hitting the shell of the sky and smashing, the pieces burning over our heads for hours.

Sometimes my imagination gets at me. Shows me something so rancid and unrealistic I wonder where it comes from. My dad and Sarah aren’t like that. I think maybe my mom was. We were alike in a lot of ways. For example, I bet she isn’t keeping a journal. She doesn’t have to. It’s a school assignment for Sarah and me, and Dad just wants to. Mom’s like me though, she thinks better when she’s running.

No offense, but writing these things is kind of torture. I’d probably be processing it better if I was moving instead of dictating, if my brain could turn off a little. You’re making me do the opposite. I keep getting distracted by how to tell you everything. Am I telling you too much? Not enough? Sometimes I try to describe things, like the morning and the hard gray shell, because that’s what you said, right? Describe it. But it makes me self conscious because I’m not that good at it. You wouldn’t know it by looking at me, but I’m kind of a perfectionist. I don’t play other sports because I’d want to be the best at them. I don’t take electives because I know if I like them, they’ll end up taking too much of my time. That happened with art a few cycles ago. I was kind of getting into this art class, and then--

Prompt Reminder: Describe the day the students from your town left for 511820-H2.

You know the best thing about running?

It doesn’t interrupt you mid sentence.

So anyway. I was standing out on the curb, thinking about fire, when Billy pulled up.

“You’ve got that stupid look on your face again,” he said.

“What stupid look?” I asked, ducking in and pulling the door closed behind me.

“The one that looks like you’re trying to think.”

That made me laugh, “Maybe I was.”

“About what?” Billy asked, turning back to the navigation grid.

Your girlfriend, I almost reeled off glibly, but I swallowed it. It takes more nerve than I had that morning to joke about the truth. “My mom,” I said instead, because it’s also the truth and it does what it’s supposed to: Billy stopped asking questions.

When we got to Bryn’s house, it felt off, too, like it was already empty even though her shoes were still in the hall.

Her mom was in the kitchen when we walked in, head bent over her viaface. She looked up when she heard the door, tried to smile, and said: “Bryn will be down in a minute.” Then we talked about the election, or at least, she and Billy did. I won’t try to put that dialogue down for you, because I only half listened. Occasionally I thought of things I could say, but it wasn’t anything original. It was stuff Sarah or Dad had said, or that I’d heard on the Feeds. Nothing I really thought, or even, if I’m being honest, completely understood.

So I stared out the window until Bryn came down the stairs.

She was not her two-shaded self anymore. The gold and chestnut was accompanied by another color--dead pale. Her long hair was pulled back in a ponytail and her eyes were wider than usual. She looked at Billy who stood up when she walked in.

“It shouldn’t be me,” she said, and none of us answered. It was true. It shouldn’t be her.

“Where’s your luggage?” Billy asked instead.

“They picked it up last night.”

“Right,” Billy looked off balance for a second. He wanted something to do, something heavy to lift, something tangible to move. At least, that’s what I wanted. “We should go then.”

    There was more awkwardness as we tried to figure out where to sit in the hover. I ended up in front, Bryn and her mom sat together in the back.

    Billy gave me a killing look when he saw who had ended up beside him. “You can hold my hand,” I offered.

“No thanks,” he typed in the coordinates for the launch site.

The Space Commission set up the pad on the Sports field so that the students could leave from and arrive in the town. Normally, the craft only takes travelers as far as the Space Center and then they take the elevator down, but they made an exception for the Exchange. When we got there in what seemed like no time, it was a strange sight. The large round ball hovered over the pad, pale gray and glistening in the light of the sun. It had three rows of wraparound windows, a line of blue blinking lights between each row. Several authority and crewmembers were busy beneath the ball, moving about between the three delicate legs that are extended like a tripod.

We all heard Bryn swallow when she saw it.

There was a sharp rapping on Billy’s window right after. We all startled and looked over to see one of the authorities standing outside. He frowned in at us and jerked his head toward the hill where other people were already sitting.

“She belongs here,” Billy said, sliding back the doors so Bryn could get out, “She’s one of the exchange students.”

The man frowned harder, then his face cleared, “Sophie Brooks replacement.”

“That’s me,” Bryn said quietly, and brought up her identification card on her viaface so he could confirm it.

“Breaks my heart,” he said, barely looking at it.

Bryn looked stricken.

“Yeah, ours too,” I said loudly from across Billy. “Look, are we in the right place?”

His scowl returned and he directed his words to Bryn, ignoring me completely. “Go through those gates. They’re going to send you through a decontamination room, suit you up, and then they’ll let you board.”

As another guard came out and escorted Bryn through the gate, I heard Billy suck in his breath sharply, saw his hands and face turn to fists, hard and clenched and violent. I’ve ridden with him plenty of times when he drove his parents to launch pads. They’re interstellar botanists who spend months at a time orbiting other planets, and I think he loves them.

But he’s never watched them go the way he watched Bryn.

“You all right?” I asked after a long moment.

He nodded, his face slowly smoothing out. “Yeah.”

We drove over to the parking lot with Bryn’s mom, but she quickly found her own friends. Billy and I found a place on the hill that brought us almost eye-level with the bottom row of windows, and then spent the next few hours alternating between staring into them and killing time on our viafaces.

As launch time grew closer, the entire town found its way to the hill. Sarah and her flat-faced, monosyllabic boyfriend Daniels sat a few feet below us. Dad and a few people I recognized from his work stopped by but didn’t sit near us. News crews and food vendors set up camp as close as they were allowed, and we killed more time eating and watching different Feed personalities broadcasting. It was nearly time for the big show when a shadow fell over us, and we looked up to see Hadley.

“Hi,” Billy said. I knew him well enough to recognize the surprise that briefly flickered across his face before smoothing away into a polite mask. Hadley didn’t though, and anyway, she was looking at me.

“Aren’t you cold?”

The question was incongruous, considering she was wearing a thin shirt and no jacket. Her wild hair was blowing all around her face, making her expression hard to see.

“I’m okay.” I said.

“Can I sit with you?”

“Yeah, sure.” I said, and she settled beside me, stretching her legs out so that her heels almost touched the blanket Sarah and Daniels sat on.

“How are you doing, Hadley?” Sarah asked in a voice that made me wince. It was too kind, too tender.

Hadley stared at her, hair whipping like snakes. “I’m fine.”

“This has to be so hard for you.”

The old Hadley would have eviscerated her. The new Hadley just nodded.

Sarah opened her mouth again. I braced to head her off, but Hadley spoke instead, “But I didn’t want her to go anyway. It’s bad enough the nukes are coming here.”

There was no venom in her voice, it was weary and worn, like this was something she’d been telling herself.

But Sarah didn’t get that. She doesn’t hear what’s behind words like I can, and before she could remind herself that things must be so hard for Hadley, she snapped, “Don’t call them that.”

Hadley glanced back at her with interest. There was a spark in her dull gaze now, like she was glad her barbs were finally hitting their mark again. She took a moment to watch Sarah curiously, and then asked, “What should I call people who killed off 70% of their population and destroyed their own planet?”

“Well, your sister—.” Sarah started.

“Is dead.”

Sarah’s mouth snapped shut and silence slammed down around us. Sophie has been placed firmly in the past tense. Other lines have been crossed.

“And she won’t be the last one,” Hadley said, dragging the subject away from Sophie, back to something her venom can get traction on. “Bryn and the others are all going to end up with some weird nuke diseases--whatever you get from drinking poisoned water and breathing contaminated air for three cycles.”

“This isn’t 511820-H1.” Sarah said, “U-Gov has made sure they’ve taken care of this planet.”

Before Hadley could respond, someone else did.

Daniels said, “That’s what they want you to believe, Sarah.”

Sarah drew back to look at him, and I thought: you’re done for. My sister wouldn’t hold back on him like she was doing with Hadley.

But before she could unleash the deathblow, Billy said. “Hey, look.”

We looked. He was pointing to the top of the hill where a news crew was filming.

We looked back at him, so?

“Porter is up there.”

We looked back. He was standing with two other men, but I recognized him easily. He was taller and more visible, and he was just more there, somehow. The other two guys, they looked like his shadows, pale imitations. If I were going to paint that scene, I’d make them so watered down they’d be nearly transparent. They stepped back and the camera was just on Porter. I couldn’t make out what he was saying.

“Can you hear anything?” I asked Hadley, but she didn’t answer. Her deadened gaze was bright again as she pushed back wild coils of hair and stared at him intensely.

This is the first time I’d ever seen through her attitude and hair, and I have to tell you, it was a hard gut punch to realize how much she looks like her sister. She’s a warped mirror image with her pale skin and large dark eyes that make her look colorless except for her red, red lips. For a minute, I stared at her mouth, wondering if she’s always worn the same shade of lipstick as her sister. When I looked back at her eyes, I realized the intensity in them was familiar, too. All of a sudden, I was disoriented, not sure which girl I was looking at.

Told you my imagination gets me.

“He has a son,” Daniels volunteered, reverting back to his normal, 5-syllables-or-less conversational style, and it snapped me out of my trance.

“Our age?” I asked, dragging my eyes away from Hadley.

Daniels shrugged, distracted by new action on the field.

“It’s starting,” Billy said, noticing it, too.

He was right. The crewmembers had disappeared into the belly of the craft, and the tripod legs were slowly rising into it, leaving the ball floating above the launch pad.

“Epic,” Hadley muttered, looking impressed in spite of herself.

Once the legs were reabsorbed into the craft, the blue lights began to blink brighter, and then spin. They blurred into dizzy blue lines as the craft began its tremulous ascent. I stared right into the windows for as long as I could, and then up at the underbelly of the craft.

Sarah and Daniels laid back flat. Billy had stood up. Hadley was looking down, her fingers like claws digging into the soft grass beneath her hand.

I was transfixed. When the craft was so high that it was barely distinguishable from the stars, it flared reddish-violet and disappeared completely.

The Exchange had begun.