I always tense up just before landing. There’s always a tiny bit of my mind that’s bracing for a crash, for the plane to disintegrate into a fiery wreck and my body to be pulverized by rubble. My chief of staff reaches out and squeezes my hand reassuringly; I flash him a grateful look. Bear has been with me long enough to know me almost as well as I know myself.
Crash. The cabin shudders from the force of the landing, and then it’s over. I exhale a breath I didn’t realize I was holding as the propellers begin to slow. Bear pats my hand.
“You know the next part’s going to be even worse, right?”
“You always know just what to say.” I roll my eyes. “You’ve got the paperwork, right?”
“For the third time, Kess, yes.” Bear hefts a briefcase.
“Maybe go through it one more time? Make sure we’ve got everyone’s entry cards?”
“Alright, alright. You should talk to them, you know.”
“Who, the Greens?”
“Your people. Right now it’s hitting them all exactly where we are and where we’re about to go. They’re going to be wondering if it isn’t too late to bail.” Bear takes me by the shoulder, looks me in the eye. “They need a good old-fashioned Kestrel barnburner right about now.”
I laugh shakily. “Shit. I’m too used to having time to write them in advance now.”
“Peace has spoiled you.” Bear grins. “Go on, remind them why they came.”
I point at the blue icon on the wall. “Seatbelt lamp is still on,” I offer lamely.
Bear rolls his eyes. “Kess. Get out there.”
“Fiiiine.” I reluctantly unbuckle my seat straps. “If I break any bones, I’ll know who to blame.”
I take hold of the seatback as I haul myself to my feet. Bear is right, as usual. I can see it on their faces. What sounded doable a hundred leagues away in Stormvale is feeling a lot more daunting taxiing down a Society airstrip.
“Hey,” I say gently. They look up, eyes instantly fixed on me. That sudden rush of fearful attention — that’s something I haven’t felt in years. Not since the war.
I need to make this a good one.
“I remember when we all signed on for this job,” I begin, looking to each in turn, from Heather Autumn-Rose, to Jay Moonspear, to Ash Summer-Dahlia, to Willow Autumn-Daisy, to Crane Fenwind, to Piper Stargrace. Piper’s leaning forward, squeezing her shoulders, legs pressed tight together. Her eyes are wide, darting anxiously; she’s biting her lower lip. I focus on her, calculating my words and tone to soothe her. “Back in that little conference room where everything seemed so simple. I remember the light in your eyes when they read you in and told you we’d been accepted. I remember how quick some of you put your hands up when they asked for volunteers. And I know right now, you’re all feeling a lot different than we did back on that day. I am too.”
Piper is staring raptly at me now, her hands between her knees. I smile at her encouragingly. “You’ve had a lot of time on this trip to think. For your imaginations to run wild. It’s no small thing we — I — ask of you, to separate yourselves from your families and your loved ones and your daily lives for a whole four years. Everything seems a lot realer than it did all those leagues away at Destiny Garden. A lot of you are wondering if you didn’t make the wrong choice. If you acted too fast, too passionately, too thoughtlessly.”
I walk slowly down the aisle, looking into everyone’s eyes in turn. Jay can’t meet my gaze, her eyes dropping as I look to her. I smile gently at her. “You didn’t. I promise you, each and every one of you, that you are where you are supposed to be, where you are needed most. We are about to embark on the journey of our lifetimes. We are about to make history. To change the fate of our world, our Republic, forever.”
I lower my voice. “It’s daunting. I’m not ashamed to admit I’m scared half to death. We have no idea what awaits us, not in that embassy, not on that starship, not on that world. But don’t tell me that prospect doesn’t call out to your hearts. God made everyone in this plane an explorer. It’s in our blood, our souls. Even if you could turn back now, can you really tell me you wouldn’t spend the rest of your life feeling just a little bit hollow? Feeling like you’d settled for a safe, familiar world, over one alien and exhilarating?
“Be honest with yourselves. I know you feel that little spark of restlessness, of wanderlust, just the same as I do. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t. This is completely unknown territory, it really is — but there are some things in life more important than comfort and safety. If we hadn’t been true to who we were, we wouldn’t be proud Sapphirians; we’d still be the peons of Victorious Sapphire Upon the Crest of Morning, still laboring under the heel of venial peers and petty merchant-queens.”
Jay finally meets my gaze. Her eyes have narrowed just a little, her lips are pursed. I keep my eyes fixed on hers as I continue. “What I can tell you for sure is this. When we’re old and gray and our grandchildren crowd around us after dinner, we’re going to have the best goddamn stories to tell them.” I extend my hand, and raising my voice, I ask, “Who’s with me?”
Piper is nodding to herself now. I look back to the other members of my staff, looking each in the eye. “I am so proud of you all for coming this far with me. It is my profound honor to know you, to be able to call you comrades. We are going to make history together. Say it with me—” I raise my fist in a salute. “Liberty and sisterhood!”
“Liberty and sisterhood!” Piper cries out, leaping to her feet, then suddenly freezing in embarassment. I walk to her seat and turn her to face the rest of the staffers, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.
“Come on,” I cajole. “Piper’s got it right. Let me hear you!”
“Liberty and sisterhood!” Jay says with a grin, saluting lazily.
“Liberty and sisterhood.”
“Liberty and sisterhood!”
The battle-cry of the Republic fills the cabin. Finally, everybody is on their feet. Their resolve is steeled, if only for the moment. But sometimes a moment is all you need.
I lower my fist. “It’s time to do our people proud, boys and girls.”
“Ambassador to the cockpit,” calls the pilot over the intercom; “ambassador to the cockpit.”
I look around the cabin one last time. “I’m so damn proud of you all,” I say, patting Piper on the shoulder. “Let’s get to work.”
The pilot glances up at me as I enter the cockpit. “Greens on the radio, ma’am,” she says, brandishing a headset. I fit it awkwardly over my ears and hold the microphone to my lips.
“Embassy Air Control to local flight 717,” says a female voice in halting Zia Ţai. “Please to confirm your identity and your purpose for landing, over.”
“This, um, this is Ambassador Kestrel Winterblossom,” I respond. “We’re the League ambassadorial legation, um. We were told to land here.”
“Flight 717, ready to copy entry code, over.”
“Entry—” I blink. “I’m sorry, didn’t the pilot already pass you the approach sequence?”
“Flight 717, we require the codes for Ambassador Kestrel diplomatic accreditation, over.”
“Uh. Okay. Sorry, one second.” I key off the microphone. “BEAR!”
Bear pokes his head into the cockpit. “Right here. Who d’you need me to kill?”
My eyes are fixed on the railguns and missile pods spaced around the landing strip, some of which have definitely been tracking us. “I need my entry card, now.”
Bear unlocks the briefcase and hands me a card. I squint at the sequence of numerals as I recite them into the radio, and release the transmit key.
“Flight 717, confirmed,” Air Control responds after a moment. “You are now authorized to disembark. Be advised, any personnel who deboard place themselves within sovereign jurisdiction of the Society of Worlds per the Hallowcove Status of Forces Treaty. Failure to present embassy-issue entry cards in a White Zone is summarily punishable under Shevshol Citshelradi and will be treated as a Level Two security incident. Remain in the vicinity of your aircraft until you receive further instructions. Embassy Air Control out.”
“Isn’t it a bit weird they sent us to the Society embassy?” the pilot comments as I pull the headphones off. “I’d have thought a League world, surely.”
“We're heading to the Parliament of Nations, not the Stellar Assembly. You know where that is, right?” I ask, eyeing the pilot.
“Er. Teu Ka Şan, right?”
“Tel Casran,” I correct her, my tongue contorting to produce the foreign syllables. “And they don’t let any ships but their own into their solar systems.”
The copilot scratches her chin thoughtfully. “Isn’t that a little… inconvenient?”
“You would think.” I pat her on the shoulder. “Keep up the good work, ladies.”
My old comrade in arms is gazing thoughtfully out the window as I turn to him. “Time to pass out the entry cards, Bear,” I tell him. “I think they might actually shoot anyone who goes down without one.”
Bear whistles. “These guys do not mess around. What do we do about the honor guard?”
“I never wanted the President’s thugs on this flight in the first place. They can stay right where they are, as far as I’m concerned.” Gingerly, I slip my card into a pouch in my robes. “Captain, lower the ramp. I’m heading down.”
“We’ll be right behind you,” says Bear. He cracks a grin. “Just like old times.”
“Yeah,” I murmur quietly. “Just like old times.”