Read an Excerpt
By Cori McCarthy
Sourcebooks, Inc. Copyright © 2015 Cori McCarthy
All rights reserved.
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."
"Sylph's almost home. You said it yourself. That was someone else."
Pippin didn't bother to agree. He was into his controls in a desperate way. After all, he was her RIO, her radar intercept officer. The sky was his ingrained map, and it was his job to make sure the air was clear around them, like a human satellite. "That bird has no signal," he finally said, a hint of wonder in his voice. "How could it have no signal?"
"No signal and it's headed for U.S. soil." Chase's pulse picked up. Her muscles went tight as she leaned into the pursuit. This wasn't like the stunt she'd just pulled. This was what she was trained for, and she left safe speeds way behind.
"What are you going to do if we catch it? We're not armed, Nyx."
"Track it. See where it lands." Make sure it isn't a sneaking spy from China, she added to herself.
They passed Mach 3.
Chase grinned so fiercely from the pressure that she felt crazed. "There. You see him?"
Far below, metal winked over the serpentine glisten of the Mississippi. She pulled lower, closer to the blue-ferocity of the engines — dual engines that reached under each narrow wing and married together at the back like the infinity symbol. Just like Dragon's engines.
Chase dove under the jet. God, it was blinding fast. The pilot tilted into her space, their wings nearly kissing. She'd never gotten remotely this close to Sylph's bird in the air ... it made her laugh out loud and test how much closer she could get. The other pilot's bloodred helmet shot a look her way, and she had the funniest feeling he was laughing too.
"Pip, look at that helmet —"
Dragon's emergency low fuel alarm pierced the cockpit. She slapped at the control board to turn it off, but her speed died as the engines defaulted to reserve levels. The other jet broke east toward the indigo muscles of the Great Lakes.
Chase had just enough time to read the sharp military stenciling along its side:
An Enemy without a Face
Pippin wanted that jet to be Sylph. He wouldn't let it go. "The Star could be trying out some new music or a block. Maybe they fuzzed my radar to see how close Sylph could get."
"Sylph doesn't have the lady balls to fly that fast," Chase said. Dragon was far west now, above Seattle, and headed due north. The clouds evaporated, revealing a jagged coastline. "Pip, I saw red."
"No, surely not." He checked his sarcasm with a growling sigh. "You went feral flyboy. You would have followed that contrail straight across the d-line if it had headed that way."
"Red helmet." She touched her black standard-issue helmet. Chase wasn't technically in the Air Force yet, but as a top-ranked cadet, she had fought for the opportunity to pilot one of two Streaker prototypes.
One of three ...
"Are you scanning for drones?" Chase's voice pitched, betraying her standard cool. Pippin grunted a confirmation. They were only a few hundred miles from the demarcation line, the invisible boundary that split the Pacific Ocean and kept the Second Cold War so chilly.
She pulled her mask from her face only to reattach it. Bingo fuel meant autopilot, and autopilot meant that Dragon was flying at tricycle pace. In the meantime, Chase drilled her emotions, set up each worry like a toy soldier. Where did that bird come from? Who knew about it? And more importantly, who didn't know about it?
"Did you see its name, Pip? That bird had Phoenix stenciled on its side."
"Phoenix looks a lot like Sylph's Pegasus. Seven letters. Begins with P."
"Except for the fact that they're different words."
"Different mythological beasts, in fact."
"That wasn't Sylph, Henry." She hoped using his real name might emphasize her point. "Why do I feel like you're trying to convince me to drop it?"
"Because I'm smarter than you. Chase."
"You're smarter than everybody."
"My cross to bear."
Chase's impatience held down her smirk. She drummed her fingers on the cockpit. Most canopies were made of thick plastic, but Dragon's was crafted from tempered glass, the strongest in the world. "That Phoenix had the same crystal canopy. The same blue-silver skin."
In Chase's mind, the Streakers stood apart in the sky and in aviation history. Light, sleek, and fueled by rip-roaring twin engines. They were hybrids of the older manned jets with HOTAS controls — hands-on throttle and stick — and the popular aerodynamic drones of the early twenty-first century.
"You saw it," she said a little harder.
"Maybe it's a backup," Pippin tried. "The Air Force's dirty little secret. Or hey, maybe the Navy academy has a Streaker we don't know about." "Bite your tongue," Chase grumbled. "The Streakers are the Air Force's babies. Kale promised me that much."
"I forgot. You think the brigadier general is all hand to God."
"Hey, now," she said. "You're supposed to warn me before you snark that hard."
He chuckled, and that alone was worth the bickering. Pippin needed a laugh these days like most two-year-olds needed a nap. Not that Pippin was the only one struggling. Chase, the other cadets, the airmen at the Star — everyone needed a break from the strangling tension of the Second Cold War. Chase's thoughts plunged as she watched the beach below run a white scar toward the horizon. She couldn't stop herself from imagining World War III. Battleships crowding the West Coast. The black rain of missiles falling.
America on fire.
The blaze she imagined was a collage of crimson. Red drones. Ri Xiong Di's bleeding flag. And that maroon-helmeted pilot. Could Phoenix have come from the New Eastern Bloc? Did the Asians steal the design? Build their own Streaker?
No. That would be impossible. Catastrophic.
"You think Kale is fuming in the tower right now?" Chase asked. "No doubt they caught that near collision on the satellite feed."
"By design, Dragon comes up as little more than a speeding blip on their radar. If we didn't, the bad guys would have crossed the line and taken us down two years ago."
"Don't say 'bad guys,'" Chase said. "That makes them feel like a joke."
"I prefer when they feel like a joke." He added under his breath, "So do you." Pippin sprinkled everything with cynicism.
"We could radio in," she tried. "Let Kale know about the phantom Streaker."
"Nyx, that bird wasn't armed. It's not an immediate threat. Kale wouldn't want you to risk opening up our signal to anyone waiting to shake us down." Pippin said anyone, but he meant Ri Xiong Di. Spying jerks, they were always listening, always sending out code viruses that could cripple navigation, misfire missiles, or worst of all, crash jets kamikaze-style into civilian areas. Bam.
So the Streakers flew off the grid, which necessitated a two-man team and radio silence. But Ri Xiong Di's cyber superiority affected more than just airpower. Any time they wanted to take over a TV station or satellite, they did. Even the U.S. military's network had been hacked in the past.
Nothing was safe.
Chase leaned into the canopy glass. They crossed the Canadian border, skirting a never-ending white-on-woods landscape. Canada was rumored to be as depressed as America these days. No one could say for sure — the borders had been closed since 2022 — and communication wasn't permitted between America and other countries.
The U.S. had been on its own for twenty-six years, which meant constant vigilance and a raw state of survival. Chase felt that responsibility through her hands, her gloves, her throttle and stick. Straight to the titanium bones of the beautiful bird she called Dragon.
"Kale needs to know about that Streaker, Pip. ASAP. I'm going to break autopilot."
"We only have enough fuel to keep this speed. Besides, we're almost there." His subtext was wait. After all, the cold war was purely that: endless waiting.
In poli-sci, Chase had learned that Ri Xiong Di had spread through Asia during the 2010s like a quiet cancer. The continent solidified under the anti-democratic political faction, and the new superpower took a stand by toppling the old one. They limited America's global trade and scared away natural allies like Canada with fleets of red drones.
Chase had to be proud of what happened next. It was the reason she was only a junior and yet flying a multibillion-dollar jet. Congress enacted the Youth Services Charter, establishing junior military academies to rescue the nation's brightest teens from the country's bleak poverty. At the same time, the Air Force began to experiment with manned fighter jets that might someday best the red drones. The latest secret hope was the Streakers — jets so fast they required teen pilots in top physical form with impulse-swift reflexes.
Banks Island came into view as the sky darkened. From the air, the ice-covered archipelago was shaped like a tousled T-shirt, complete with river wrinkles and a star structure where the chest pocket would be.
The United Star Academy.
The place glittered with life, serving as both a full-functioning Air Force base and the junior military academy. Chase traced the six triangular buildings fanned around a hexagonal center as the blue blink of the runway greeted her like a string of Christmas lights. The Star always welcomed, which never felt small after her smoking hole of a childhood.
Chase stole the jet from autopilot and sped into the landing, letting down with a shriek of tires and engines. The fuel gauge hung like a broken arm, and she kept off the brakes as she headed across the landing apron toward the hangar.
"Care to slow down?" Pippin asked. "We're going to get pulled over, and I think you've been drinking."
"Be serious for a sec, Pippin."
"Okay. Seriously slow down."
"Can't. Might stall out."
Pippin did that annoying thing where he knew what she was thinking. "Kale's not going to react when you tell him about Mr. Red Helmet. Not the way you want him to."
Her RIO's continued dismissal of the phantom Streaker finally hit her too hard. She unhooked her harness and turned around in her seat to face him. Dragon jerked off course, and they headed for the side of the hangar, still taxiing fast.
"How can you think we should drop this?"
Pippin unstrapped his mask and flipped up his visor. "Remember when Crowley said he saw drones over Florida? They put him on the Down List before he'd finished filing the report. Also" — he pointed forward — "there's a wall there."
"You're really not curious?"
"I'm really not worried. There could be three Streakers instead of two. Wall. The military is a labyrinth of lies. Wall."
"Interesting career choice you've made."
"Wall, Chase! WALL!"
"All right!" She swung around and turned too fast. Dragon careened through the hangar doors and scattered ground crew like pigeons before sliding into a neat stop beside the other Streaker, Pegasus, with a light bump of wing against wing.
Chase popped off her helmet. "I need you on my team, Pippin."
"Do I get a Team Nyx T-shirt?"
"As a bullfight." Pippin unstrapped his harness and flipped up his visor. Their eyes met the way they always did after a long hop. With relief and exhaustion and whatever was on the shadow side of trust. Chase thought it scanned like regret, but whatever it was had been rooted throughout their friendship. What they did, they did together. Hands down.
"I know you're serious," Pippin said, giving the word its full meaning for once. "I'll back you up."
She swatted his helmet affectionately and opened the canopy. Densely cold air sunk into the cockpit, but she took a deep, leveling breath. She was home.CHAPTER 3
Safety Is Overrated
Chase spent the next five minutes getting chewed out by the deck officer. Irresponsible. Show-off. Reckless. Maverick. He spent all the standard criticisms so fast that she couldn't help being impressed. All that for a slightly rushed parking job — he didn't even know about the stunt she'd pulled in the air.
A couple of freshman ground crew waited by the fuel tanks, chatting up Pippin. They gave her thumbs-ups from behind the officer's back. Chase knew her fan club by sight, but she hadn't bothered to learn their names. That might have seemed flyboy elitist like everything else at the Star, but she really just wasn't the kind of girl to focus on anyone or anything outside of Dragon.
When the officer finally stomped away, Chase strode over with her helmet under her arm. She couldn't keep back a smile. She loved riling up an officer — putting on a show. It was better than being overlooked, and it also kept people at a manageable distance.
Excerpted from Breaking Sky by Cori McCarthy. Copyright © 2015 Cori McCarthy. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.