If you haven’t finished FLIGHT, you might not want to spoil yourself.
Every breath I take feels like it’s going to be the last one; as if the air in this tiny cell is quickly dissipating, and soon there will be none left. The stark white walls are blinding, and my eyes play tricks on me after staring for hours and hours.
Of course, there’s nothing else to look at, not even a window in the door. Just pure, maddening white.
Rupert Elder, my boss and my oppressor, told me that I knocked a man unconscious when they tried to drag me here. I wish I’d done worse; they managed to succeed, locking me up in this tiny cell. After everything that happened, I thought I’d be allowed to stay under guarded watch at my house with my mother, but I should have known that would never happen. Rupert can’t be trusted.
I repeat my daily mantra in my head; the only thing that keeps me sane.
Somewhere out there, Asher is going through the same thing. Somewhere out there, he’s lying on the ground staring up at the stars thinking about me, wishing we were together. The warmth of his kiss defrosts the chill encompassing my body. The memory of his laughter keeps me whole. He’s the only thing that keeps me going.
I have to keep breathing, so I can see him again.
The jangling of keys sounds from the hallway, and a click echoes before the beep of a scanned security card. The outer door to my cell opens, revealing a young scientist in a black jacket. My heart sinks. It’s time again.
“Good morning Miss Madden,” he says cheerfully. His dark hair is curly and haphazard, and thick black frames sit on his nose. His skin is a silky caramel color, and he’s always wearing a smile.
“What’s so good about it?” I reply. He winces, and for a second I feel bad. It’s not his fault that he has to do this; it’s his job. Doing terrible things used to be my job, too.
“You know that all of this has a purpose, right? We’re not doing this just to torture you.” His expression is so goddamned innocent and sincere, but it doesn’t change anything. I just stare at him, chewing on my lip.
“You don’t have to do it, Evan. I won’t tell anyone,” I plead. The weakness echoing from my mouth kills me, but I don’t know if I have the strength to keep doing this, day after day. My lower lip trembles. I try to picture Asher, to see his lopsided smile, but his face is slowly fading from my memory.
Evan sighs and looks around, and bleak hope fills me as I wonder if he’s considering not performing the tests, but in the end, he just stares at the ground.
“All of the results are relayed directly back to the lab. There’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry,” he says quietly.
He enters my cell, bringing a silver briefcase in with him. He sets it down on the floor and pops it open with a click. I stare longingly past him, at the dark hallway that is freedom. But I know there are two armed guards standing right outside of the door, ready for anything. I found that out the hard way the first time I tried to escape.
Evan pulls out a large syringe first, tipping back a vial of clear liquid and filling it up. My body tenses. I used to hate needles before, but now that fear has doubled. My heart beats faster as he gently grabs my arm.
“All right, here is the first dose,” Evan says. He slaps my inner elbow with his fingers and jams the syringe into my bloodstream. I bite my lips so hard I draw blood. A gasp escapes from me and I clench my fist until the plunger drops and the needle is withdrawn. My body goes limp suddenly; my lips go numb. All the pain I’d felt before quickly fades away.
I want to speak, to beg him not to continue, but my tongue just hangs in my mouth, unable to move. Evan quickly sticks patches of different colors to my temple and around my collarbone.
“Almost done now.”
My head is starting to go fuzzy. The room wanes from focus, and my body feels like it’s floating. One more needle to go, but this one I won’t feel. This one I might not even remember.
After Evan is finished administering the drugs, he packs up his briefcase and seals the door of my cell without even looking at me.
My body floats higher and higher, until I’m at the top of the cell. The white walls bleed until I am nowhere; not in my cell, not in my body, just in pure space. I feel his breath on my neck and I don’t need to turn around to know it’s him.
Asher wraps his arms around me, and his lips gently caress my neck. He smells so good. His skin is so soft and warm. I spin around, my arms clasped around his neck. His hair is trademark messy, and he grins at me, his nose pressed against my nose.
“I miss you, Sparrow,” I whisper. He places his finger against my lips. His ebony wings wrap around me, creating a barrier between us and the rest of the world. He presses his lips to mine, and all of a sudden the world is all right again.
He grips me tightly, and suddenly we’re in the air, soaring through the night sky. The stars twinkle down on us, and the fresh air whips through my hair. I don’t know where we’re going. I don’t care where we’re going, as long as we’re together.
But as we continue to fly, our speed increases until the stars are just specks of light whipping by. We’re going too fast; there’s no way we can make it at this speed.
Up ahead a giant fireball appears, eating everything in its path. At the rate we’re going, there’s no way we’ll be able to miss it. Tears crop up in the corners of my eyes, knowing the fiery end that awaits us.
But I hold on, because I’d rather die with him than live without him. I hold on because it would kill me more to let go.
And I hold on because as real as Asher feels; I know that he’s not, that he’s just a product of the drugs administered to my system.
This is the only way I can see him now; a hallucination in my mind.
It’s almost good enough.
I walk through the busy halls of the Elder Corp headquarters, a small grin on my face. The colleagues I pass smile and nod, and I wave back. Today is a big day; it’s the anniversary of my Ace status with the Corporation. I’ve been an Ace for six years now, and my kill record is second only to my brother’s. One of these days, I’m going to surpass him.
When I enter the Hunter lounge, and I’m scooped up into the air and I squeal with delight. I look down to see David’s grinning face, his white teeth shining.
“Put me down!” I shout. The other Hunters in the lounge surround us, all wearing cone-shaped party hats like it’s my birthday. The colors smear together as I’m whirled around. David finally sets me onto the floor and kisses my forehead as my gaze continues to spin.
“Let’s hear it for the best Huntress in Central on her sixth Ace Day, my beautiful sister Piper Madden!” he shouts. My cheeks blush as my colleagues cheer for me. I settle them all down with my hands.
“Thanks so much for this everyone, it means a lot,” I say, somewhat bashfully. I’m not usually shy, but I wasn’t expecting such a turnout. Almost every Hunter I know is in the room… all except one. I eye David and he winks at me knowingly.
I’m lead into the lounge where there is a cake and a banner that reads Happy Ace Day! A few people flash pictures as I cut the cake—badly—and lick the imitation icing from my fingertips.
I look up then, and I see him. He’s at the doorway to the lounge, his travel bag still hanging from his shoulder. His blond hair is tousled and he wears a soft smile on his pink lips. I leave the cake and David and my colleagues and run toward him. He wraps his arms around me as I stick my face into his chest, just to smell his clean-laundry smell.
“I got back just in time,” Tor says, stroking my hair with his hand. Cameras flash, and I step back quickly, embarrassed. David saunters over and gives his best friend a bro-hug; one arm around with a tap on the back.
“We didn’t think you’d make it,” David says. Tor just grins.
“I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”
Even though they’ve been best friends for life, an unspoken tension builds between them. David has never approved of my relationship with Tor, even though he’s known him forever; or maybe because he’s known him forever. He’s never elaborated on it, but I know he doesn’t like seeing us together.
“Come, get some cake,” I say, slicing a knife through the silence. David leaves us then, getting my hint. Thankfully he’s always respected my wishes, though it’s not like he has much of a choice. We’ve fought too many times in the past and I think our mother would kill us both if we put another hole in the wall of the house.
“Wow. David really put this together,” Tor remarks as we reach the cake. He looks around the room, taking the party in. I can’t help but grin.
“He totally got me. I wasn’t expecting it at all,” I admit. An awkward silence hangs between us. I haven’t seen Tor in two months. He was put on assignment at one of the Western bases. I wrote him letters, but didn’t get any back. The sting of running to the mailbox to return empty handed still twinges in my chest.
“Listen, I need to ask you something,” Tor says finally. I turn to look at him, eyebrows raised. His voice is serious.
“What is it?” He blushes a little, like he’s working up the courage to speak.
“I was thinking that, since we’ve lost some time, you might want to move in with me,” he says. My heart jumps. Move in with him? Leave the house I’ve been in forever and live… with Tor?
It’s not like I haven’t thought about it. I’m usually at his house more often than not, but this is a big step for us, especially since we’re co-workers and will have to fill in some paperwork with administration. I must be wide-eyed, because Tor chuckles nervously.
“You could say something, you know,” he says. I bite my lip. Am I ready for this?
“Can you give me some time to think about it?” I ask. Tor looks so disappointed, but he nods.
“Yeah, no problem. Take all the time you need. For now let’s just celebrate your Ace day, okay?”
I sigh gently as the pressure of his question is lifted from my shoulders. I’m about to ask him how his trip went, when David rushes over to us. His eyes are wide and his mouth is taught.
“What’s going on?” I ask. David grabs me around the shoulders, steering me away from Tor.
“Sorry buddy, this is official Ace business,” he says. He leads me to a sheltered corner of the room. Tor’s mouth turns into a frown as he stabs at the cake with a plastic knife. I turn to my brother.
“You didn’t have to be such a dick about it. You know he’s getting promoted to Ace this year,” I mutter, but David doesn’t have a quippy comeback like usual. This must be serious.
“They spotted a few Harpies near the tunnel exits. Rupert said they’re not even trying to be inconspicuous. This could be an attack,” he says quietly.
My heart thumps. My adrenaline rushes. My eyes widen at him.
“How many?” I ask. David just shrugs.
“Doesn’t matter. We need to get moving.”
We excuse ourselves, keeping the mission secret even from our colleagues, though they know what we’re off to do. At least somewhat.
Why does it always seem like our special occasions are ruined by Harpies?
Look for more on the follow-up for Flight in the future!