We’re at an abandoned Jumpbase somewhere in the Sahara east of Dakar. It used to be a checkpoint, probably some way of checking for diseases for people seeking sanctuary in one of the greatest scientific centers of the world. At least, that’s what Jumplead says. To me, it’s just a half-standing golden box with a massive rectangular entrance in the front that both welcomed us and made us targets for pillagers. However, between the dust storms billowing in through the broken window and the paralzying cold at night, I’m not sure that I’d call us protected.
Instead of placing the tube into the small metal bin next to us, Jumplead stares at it in her gloved hand. I can’t see her reaction behind the near-black faceglass of her bluish-gray bodysuit, but as soon as she spits out, “Shit!” I know something is wrong. She smashes the vial onto the ground, splattering my blood onto a combination of dust and sand and shattered concrete. She throws her hands to her suit helmet, slamming her fists against it and pacing wildly around the room we’ve been staying in for the past two nights. I watch as my blood rushes through the sand, picking up clumps and dragging them further in all directions like a wildfire.
After a few minutes, she turns to me. For just a second, I feel like I can see her eyes behind the faceglass. Panicked, tired. We’re both so tired.
“I need to call Command,” she says, walking towards the entrance to this cavern-like room we’ve holed ourselves in.
The silence she leaves behind her after shattering the vial instantly makes me uneasy. I can feel my pulse quickening, my heart rate rising with each grain of sand that rolls across the ground into the maze of my scattered blood. The last time I felt this way was years ago before I met Jumplead. When I was still with Mama and Papa. That feels so long ago now, but I’m here now and I can’t look back, because forward, into my future, is a chance at greatness on the Colony. Jumplead returns within minutes and leans against the wall of the room.
“Is something wrong with my blood?” I ask. I know there shouldn’t be, but part of me worries that I’ve somehow caught a new disease or inhaled something that could kill me.
“No, it’s the vial. It had a crack, it wasn’t safe to send,” she says slowly. I can hear something held back in her voice, like a thread coiling around her throat and making it harder to speak. She’s not usually like this.
“So what’s wrong, then? Use another vial.”
“That was the last one.”
I frown. This feels like such a simple problem with such a simple solution. “So . . . have the Colony send you more.”
She sighs. “I can’t, Aliishi. The air is only getting worse down here. My suit can only filter so much out of the air before it takes a toll on my body. I’m already feeling the effects when I sleep. And the Breeders have been following us nonstop for months. Command says it’s time to go before things get worse.”
At the mention of Breeders, I feel the point where the needle pricked my skin ache and throb, sending my whole arm into a numb shock. My throat goes dry, too dry, as their hunting calls echo in my thoughts. It’s times like these where I wish, just once, that she’d let her faceglass down or dim the filter or something to show me who she is behind it. But anytime I questioned it, she told me it was for our protection. She puts a hand out to me, which I take instinctively and pull myself up from my squat.
“Okay, so what do we do?” I ask.
She puts her hands on her hips, giving me one long stare. I can feel the pressure of it without seeing her eyes. It’s the same weight she’s put on me with training and procedures a million times over. It’s the same pressure to make sure I understand the angles and speeds that I should focus on during my jump and the exact millisecond to pull my tether. But this isn’t practice.
“We’re jumping tomorrow night,” she says. “We’re going to the Colony.”
My heart skips, then soars with excitement.
• • • •
By the next night, we’re to the east of Kaédi and staring at what Jumplead says is one of the few operational jumpbases left in Africa, solely to make sure we could complete our jump one day. No one has made a jump to Earth since Jumplead came here on a mission a few years ago, though I’m not sure why, and Jumplead refuses to explain. The jumpbase isn’t too interesting at first glance. It’s a building that Jumplead says used to be a prison, and the prison yard in the center was turned into the jumpfield. We’re surrounded by four massive cell blocks that make up the prison compound. The dark, gaping holes that make up each cell’s door sends shockwaves of anxiety through me. Anyone could be hiding in these cells, though Jumplead reassures me we’re the only ones here. There are ten flat, sand-covered platforms grouped in pairs around the jumpfield. As soon as Jumplead touches a panel on a wall close to the entrance to this courtyard, the platforms light up underneath with sporadic flashes of red and white, like a warning. As it powers on, a distorting sound cascades into my ears—an unnatural hum of electricity pumping through the space, something I’ve never heard or seen before.
The Moon is almost perfectly, peacefully angled above us against the lavender and rose and tulip desert sky. If I squint hard enough, I can make out the Colony like I used to with Mama. It sits in the center of the biggest Moon crater. Papa loved telling me about all of the amazing things they’re doing in their scientific sanctuary to fix the Earth and make it habitable again. That’s what our goal was back then—to make it to a research center and fly to the Colony. Find a cure for being Shortened, a cure that rested in my blood. For some reason, I was born resistant to the awful atmosphere. And that meant that no matter where we went, when people saw I wasn’t living with a cough or poor eyesight or bad hearing, they knew I wasn’t Shortened. Papa and Mama said that the people who stared at us wanted to breed with me to potentially have their own healthy kids. The Colony was a place where I was told I could be safe. Where I could grow up happy and healthy and protected.
Back then, I never thought I’d actually get to see it. The Colony felt like a distant dream, some fairy tale land. Yet here I am, thirteen and dressed in a blue-gray jumpsuit just like my Jumplead. It hides everything, even my midnight black skin. The jumpsuit is full of all kinds of tech that Jumplead says I don’t need to understand, just to control. It’s heavy on my shoulders and baggy around my ankles, but as long as I can move without tripping, I’ll be fine.
Jumplead says something into her speaker. I stare at her as she talks in that Moon-speak voice. Even though I’ve learned to interpret her accent these five years, it still gives me chills. Sometimes I wonder if she’s human underneath that suit. If she’s allowed to be human underneath that suit.
“Let’s run through it one more time,” she says. “We’re going to stand together. I’ll be in control of the timing, but you have to be aware of everything, too. What’s going to happen first?”
I hate when she quizzes me on things I already know, but this time feels different. This time feels like if I answer wrong, I’ll doom us both. “The jumppads will send us up. Once we’re safely exiting the Earth’s orbit, we have to stop holding hands so that you can Lead us safely.”
“Exactly, and what does that look like?”
“It means we let go in space, but I can’t panic.” My heart is pounding in my temples. “I have to let go and throw my tether to you. Then you’ll latch it to your suitbelt.”
“And we’ll sync our velocities above the gravitational pull before I take control and Lead us to the Colony’s base.”
Silence. She’s staring at me, searching for something. I don’t have anything left to add, but it still feels like I’m sitting on this edge, looking down and waiting to fall into the dark indestructible surface that makes up her faceglass. All I want, more than anything, is to get to the Colony. To finally put our practice to good use. It’s almost too good to be true. Salvation, something Mama and Papa tried so desperately to provide for me.
I was eight. We’d been hopping from city to village to cluster of people hoping to find someone who could escort us to Lagos, where the research center and Jumpbase were to get us to the Colony. That’s when the Breeders ambushed us. Papa was the first to go, a sacrifice for Mama and I to escape. I didn’t even hear him die—he was just gone. Mama and I tried escaping through a nearby abandoned town, and we barricaded ourselves in a closet. I held Mama’s hand so tight that day, terrified of what would happen if I let go. There was a noise, a snap, and her hand yanked out of mine. I stayed quiet under a fallen cabinet while I heard her limbs snap as they tortured her for my location. I’d never heard a scream so horrific. Then everything was silent. That was the day I learned that silence is death’s mating call.
When I came to, Jumplead was hovering over me with a protein bar and a flask of water in her hands as a peace offering. She told me she would protect me. And after sampling my blood, she told me she’d take me to the Colony—but not through Lagos. We’d do it ourselves. And here we are, doing it ourselves.
“When we get there, will you train me to be a Jumplead?” I ask my guardian. “I want to help with the research. Find more people like me.”
The more I think about the Colony—what life is like up there, how Mama and Papa and I would’ve fit in, if everyone up there sounds like Jumplead—the more anxious I feel. I need to be there. Papa and Mama can’t have died for nothing.
She chuckles, a rarity. “Maybe. If we can figure something out, maybe.”
Her “maybe” is all I need. My cheeks hurt from smiling too hard, and my heart flutters with anticipation. Suddenly, Jumplead snaps her fingers at me: “Hey, focus up. Are you ready?”
I’m suddenly terrified. “What will it feel like?” I’ve asked her a million times, but the question still blurts out before I can stop myself.
She taps on the side of her helmet and looks up at the Moon, then back at me. ““Like falling, but up.”
I nod. “Right . . .”
“Don’t worry, it’ll be just like we practiced. Just don’t let go of my hand and stay calm.” I can almost hear her smiling. She must be just as eager to get off this dying rock as I am. To go back home, to her home. My future home. She gives me a thumbs up, which I match with my own gloved hand before interlocking our fingers.
We walk onto the nearest jumppads together. Hers has the controls, mine is simply the passenger side. I sort of know what to expect, but I’m still completely unnerved. It’ll start with the jumppad and our jumpsuits syncing energy, building a thrust so powerful that it will literally launch us into space. The suit is designed to keep our bodies intact while still carrying the momentum needed to make the jump happen. Jumplead reassures me again that as long as I remember what we’ve practiced, I’ll be okay. Just like we practiced: maintain the magnetic hold on Jumplead’s hand, latch our tethers once we break the atmosphere, and let Jumplead guide us in. Hold, latch, release. Soon enough, I’ll be landing on the Colony’s jumpbase and feeling what clean air is like for the first time.
Before I know it, Jumplead is signaling that it’s time. The noises around us are deafening, a roar of surging pulses of power that make it so loud it’s almost silent again.
I hear her voice, a crackle in my ear through our shared speaker: “Countdown.”
My chest swells and shrinks at the same time. The suit feels so heavy, so full of too much to carry. I feel like I can’t breathe, even though the suit is forcing air into my lungs.
“Five . . . four . . . three . . .”
My heart stops.
“Two . . .”
This is it.
“One . . .”
Bye Mama. Bye Papa.
“. . .”
It’s like I’m being dragged by my face. Everything hurts. Everything is fast, so fast, too fast. I can’t open my eyes. I squeeze my hand tight, tighter. She’s there, squeezing back. Faster. Pulling me apart and keeping me together. The static in my ear goes off. She’s talking to me. I can’t hear it. It’s all noise. Rumbling. I’m inside a thunderstorm. I want to scream. My mouth can’t open. There’s too much pressure. It hurts, I’m falling apart, I can feel it, I—
My eyes open. We’re past the highest clouds. There’s no blue, it’s all darkness. Blackness. And suddenly, the pressure isn’t in my face. It’s at my feet, pulling me down. Yanking me back. I keep squeezing. She’s still there.
I force my eyes to look to my right. The edge of the Earth and the beginning of space. I think Jumplead called it the mesosphere? It’s beautiful. So much blue below, so much void above. The faintest ring of light around the Earth. The sun still just as far as ever. I force my eyes to the left. Jumplead is looking right at me. She’s saying something, but I still haven’t adjusted to the emptiness. To the loud silence. She keeps saying it, almost screaming it at me. It comes out like friction in the space between my ears.
Finally, it clicks.
I’m supposed to let go so she can lead us through space at the right speed. Hold on to her. Latch our tethers. Release and let her guide.
I can’t let go.
I try. I look down at my hand and feel my pulse pounding in my throat. I want to throw up. My fingers are tightening. Jumplead is screaming.
“Let go! I can’t Lead if you don’t let go!”
I’m terrified. I’ve never jumped before. My fingers won’t move. Tears stream down my cheeks. My throat is tighter than it’s ever been.
My stomach sinks.
We’re falling. I’m falling. I’ve let go. And Jumplead is above me, reaching down for me. I’m falling. Shit shit shit. I force my arms to reach for my tether hook in my suit. I can’t find it. I can’t think straight. Nothing makes sense.
I’m falling faster, harder. I’m screaming. Nothing is coming out. I’m spiraling. Everything around me is shaking. I can’t focus. It’s all a blur. I’m flipping. Tumbling. Falling. Crying.
Clouds zoom past me. The water forms frozen droplets on my faceglass that streak like tears. Suddenly, just as the ground comes into view, my whole body jerks upward. I feel the air, the everything, leave my lungs. My feet touch the ground. I collapse, throwing my helmet off. Vomit. Heaving. Sobbing. I can’t think. I’m alive. Jumplead is next to me. Silent. I feel dead. I failed.
A few moments later, I look up. “I’m sorry,” I croak. “I don’t know what happened . . .”
She’s not looking at me. I wonder how much I’ve messed up. I wonder how much I’ve let her down.
“It’s my fault. You’re just a fucking kid. I should’ve told them you’re not ready yet.”
The air around me freezes with her words. No. I stand up, wiping my mouth of bitter spit and doing my best to stand in her line of sight.
“I’m ready. I freaked out. I didn’t—I couldn’t get the tether. I’m sorry. We can do it again! There’s still time to set it up, right? There’s still power in the base, right?”
She shakes her head slowly. “No. I’m not risking this. We need your blood for treatment for Shortened people. I’m not risking you. This is too much.” She starts to walk towards the entrance to the prison compound. I grab her arms.
She jerks away from me and snatches my left wrist with her right hand. “You think this is a fucking game? You almost died, Aliishi. Any other Jumplead—anyone with less experience—would’ve died with you. This is your only chance, and I’m not fucking it up for a kid ready to be Lead before they complete a jump, okay? We’re done for now. This isn’t your time. The best I can do is go back by myself and try to schedule a Jump back with more supplies. Another crew maybe.”
“You’ll be okay by yourself. I’ve taught you enough self-defense and hiding techniques to survive if—”
“No!” My tears won’t stop. Jumplead still won’t look at me. “Please . . . I can’t be alone again. I need to leave with you. You’re all I have left. We have to go there together. I want to be safe up there with you. I can do this.” I wipe my face and stand at attention, swallowing back more bile. Waiting. It feels like ages before she looks my way again.
“I can’t lose you, okay? You’re the whole reason I stayed behind.” She sounds like she’s forcing back more emotion than she’s ever shown me before. “I can get them to boot it up one more time. This station is old, it doesn’t have much left in it. We do this now, or we don’t do it at all. You hear me, Aliishi? We’ve got one shot.”
“Yes, Jumplead,” I say, mimicking the countless practices we’ve done. My voice is clear. It feels like I can hear everything perfectly. I’m ready.
Within a half hour, we’ve reset. The sun is almost fully behind the dunes to the west, and this time I know it’ll be my last view from Earth. The edge of the sky is ablaze with clay-oranges and raw flesh-pinks and bruise-purples. Stars poke into view at the highest points of the sky, like the gentle way the first raindrops patter on the ground to signal the start of spring. Soon the night sky will be full of them. I bet they’re stunning from the Colony.
Our fingers interlock once more as the pads beneath us rev with power. I hear her in my ear again:
“You’ve got this. Countdown.”
I close my eyes.
“Five . . . four . . .”
“Two . . .”
. . . One.
• • • •
When I open my eyes again, we’re breaking through the clouds. It feels like my soul is being ripped upwards, but can’t escape my body. She’s still there, hands interlocked with mine, when we break into the fringes of zero gravity. My breathing is going shallow. I’m taking deeper gulps of air the higher we go. The suit feels like I’m carrying two dead bodies on my shoulders.
She squeezes my hand before loosening her grip. Let go.
I panic. What if she lets go and I can’t grab her again? What if our tethers don’t connect? What if something happens when we try to enter the Moon’s gravitational pull? ALIISHI.
I know she’s pleading, screaming at me. I know I need to let her fingers slip out of mine.
So why won’t it happen?
My grip tightens.
I feel her squirming. Kicking. I can’t. She was right.
Shouts echo through my helmet as I let go and feel Jumplead push away. She’s trying to save herself from my grip while also keeping control of the Lead. She’s pushed too far away. I didn’t let go soon enough. I’m falling.
A spectrum of colors swirls around me as I spiral back to Earth. Back home.
I hear her staticky cries in my helmet. She’s begging me to throw my tether long after it’s possible to grab. I failed. I’m choking through tears. Gravity pulls harder, and I lose all control. I’m being launched at Earth. For one second, I look up and see the distant spec of Jumplead’s suit glowing above. She’s hovering. Watching. As soon as I pass my first wisp of cloud, I see her lights brighten for a moment before getting smaller as she gives up. She’s heading to the Colony.
I flip. The desert is closing in.