Sample text for The choice / Gloria Skurzynski.

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Chapter 1

The sky was vast. Forty-five minutes of darkness followed forty-five minutes of light as Corgan circled Earth one more time. Before the next orbit, and while the others were still asleep, he needed to make his decision.

The choice was his -- they knew that, he'd told them that. Cyborg's silence didn't matter, Sharla's wishes didn't matter, and neither did Ananda's tears.

Flying the spacecraft was easy for Corgan. Choosing where to go was infinitely harder. The Prometheus could make it all the way to Mars, if he chose Mars, but it would take two months to get there and would use up a huge amount of fuel. Why waste time and energy to arrive on a planet that might be as dead as the colonists who'd once tried to settle it? Those colonists had flown on a rocket ship to Mars in 2018, sixty-four years ago, but no one on Earth had heard from them since their landing. If they ever landed.

Corgan touched the controls to set the numbers that would keep the Prometheus circumnavigating Earth. Then, cautiously, he turned to look at his three passengers: Cyborg, the closest friend he'd ever had; Ananda, whose heart he'd just broken; and Sharla, who kept on breaking Corgan's heart. They stayed asleep, all three of them. Ananda and Cyborg lay together on the flight deck, her tearstained face pressed against his shoulder. Sharla slumped forward in one of the deck seats, her head resting on her arms as though she'd grown tired looking through the window -- or port, as Cyborg kept reminding them to call the wraparound pane that circled the top deck of the Prometheus.

Corgan turned his back on them because he had to decide, and if he didn't look at them, deciding would be easier. He knew well enough what each of them wanted. Ananda was desperate to return to the space station, but Corgan couldn't go back there because he'd stolen something valuable from the three people who lived on the station. Sharla and Cyborg wanted to go back to the Florida domed city, where Brigand ruled -- Brigand, Cyborg's clone-twin and Corgan's worst enemy, who would happily destroy Corgan as soon as he saw him.

He'd grown weary of all the battles and fears and controversy he'd lived through in the past year. He felt tired, disillusioned, used by everyone and without ever getting much back. He wanted to feel good again, to be happy once more, like he'd been those six great months after he won the Virtual War. Remembering, letting his mind fill with scenes of the island, Corgan could almost feel the clean air and the surf and the growing trees that gave fruit as well as shade. The islands were the one and only place on Earth where a person could live in complete freedom from contamination. Far outside the domed cities, the Isles of Hiva were a world where sun warmed your skin and moonlight shone pure into your eyes, instead of being filtered to dullness through domeglass. On Nuku Hiva he used to run on the beach with Sharla, watching her golden hair turn even brighter gold in the sunlight. Once, he danced with her on the beach -- but only that one time -- when he thought she might love him. Maybe Sharla remembered it too, and all those memories would bring them closer once again, if they returned to the island.

He studied the holographic control panels, the ones he'd installed by himself back in the Florida domed city. Where did the Prometheus happen to be flying right then, right that split second? He wasn't sure because navigation was his weakest skill, but it seemed that they were high above the South American continent.

Okay, he said to himself, you know where you want to go, so do it -- lift up your hand and change direction. According to the holographic sphere of Earth, he was in the southern hemisphere. Focusing intently, he reached for the transparent touch screen. He would need to pilot the ship from a latitude of 26° south to 9° south, from a longitude of 48° west to 139° west.

Stay asleep, he silently urged the other three. Don't wake up and find out what I'm doing. The change of course as the Prometheus turned in the sky was so gentle that they slept undisturbed. Heading in its new direction, softly, quietly, the Prometheus felt almost becalmed -- Corgan had to fight to keep himself awake. He hadn't slept for nearly two days, or to be exact, for forty-two hours, thirty-seven minutes, and seventeen and a quarter seconds. Funny how his time-splitting ability kept on functioning even when he felt groggy.

Wake up! he commanded himself. Stay alert! He didn't worry about the Prometheus crashing -- Thebos had designed it to avoid sudden, dangerous impacts -- but if Corgan dozed off, the spaceship could go wandering all over the Pacific Ocean far beneath them. He bit the back of his hand, not hard enough to draw blood, but with just enough pain to keep himself sharp.

After two hours of biting his knuckles he noticed Sharla lift her head slowly, raising her hand to push her hair away from her cheek. Once, that hair had been long and flowing, but now it was cropped shorter than she liked it, barely brushing her neck. What a contrast the two girls were: Sharla all ivory and gold, with wide blue eyes; Ananda a jewel of dark amber with eyes coffee brown, her hair black and shiny. Both were beautiful, Corgan thought.

As Sharla peered sleepily through the port, she caught sight of Corgan's reflection in its pane. He put a finger to his lips to signal her to stay silent. Would she? Sharla didn't react too well to orders from anyone.

"Where are we?" she mouthed.

Silently he pointed to the Earth hologram, his hand hovering over the emptiness of the ocean.

This time she whispered her question. "Where are we going?"

To the place where we were happy. He didn't say anything out loud; he just shook his head a little, gesturing toward Cyborg and Ananda.

They woke up anyway. Like Sharla, they stared through the port, curious about where Corgan had brought them. Just as Cyborg was about to speak, Corgan held up his hand and said, "Before you ask me anything, I want to say something to Ananda. I know how awful you feel about the dog, Ananda, and I want to say I'm really sorry. Really sorry. I'm telling you the truth when I say that I had to leave Demi up there on the space station to honor the deal I made with the Driscolls. For 'one of the girls' to stay with them."

"You already told us that, Corgan," Cyborg said.

"But I have to say it again until Ananda finally understands. It was the only way they'd let us use the Locker, and we had to use the Locker. So I dealt with it. In my mind I classified Demi as 'one of the girls.'"

"She is a girl!" Ananda cried, those dark eyes glistening with tears again. "To you she's just a dog, but to me she's my beloved friend that I was closer to than any human in the world after I lost my parents and grandparents. She was my family. I love her as much as I love Cyborg."

"Thanks a lot," Cyborg muttered.

Ananda whirled on him. "I know you don't understand it. No one understands. Now that I'll never see Demi again, it'll take me a while to get over the hurt."

"Hey, listen!" Corgan cried. "I did the best I could in a bad situation. I gave them my pledge, and that's got to count for something." The words came rushing out of his mouth as he tried to justify his actions, to himself as much as to Ananda. "I did what I promised, and it may not have been a perfect execution, but it saved you or Sharla from a pretty bad life, Ananda. If you want to stay mad at me, that's your choice."

"You're the one who's making all the choices, Corgan," Cyborg broke in. "We don't even know where you're taking us."

"You'll figure it out in a few minutes," Corgan replied tensely. At least he wasn't fatigued anymore -- defending himself had fired him up. Now he felt alert and in command.

Just before they broke through the cloud cover, Corgan set the Prometheus to hover slowly at five kilometers altitude, and soon afterward at four, because that's where the clouds began to thin and they could see small patches of ocean. Curious like the others, Corgan peered through the port to discover what lay beneath them. He saw that he was right where he wanted to be. "Strap yourselves in," he told them. "We'll be landing soon."

As the Prometheus descended slowly, they could see the whole chain of islands stretched across the ocean, looking like a handful of rocks thrown randomly onto a blue carpet. The spaceship dropped lower in altitude, making the islands appear larger.

"Nuku Hiva," Cyborg said.

"Nuku Hiva," Sharla agreed.

"What's Nuku Hiva?" Ananda asked, peering through the port.

Not answering, Corgan glanced at Sharla and Cyborg to check their reactions, but they looked neither surprised nor particularly pleased.

"Is this the island where...?" Ananda began.

"The island Corgan chose as his reward after winning the Virtual War," Cyborg answered.

"Well, if you won't go back to the space station, Corgan, why can't we just fly back to Florida?" Ananda demanded.

Corgan was about to tell her where she could go, but he cut it off in time. Do not start out with conflict, he cautioned himself. Instead he would work toward what was calm and good, and maybe create a whole new life where all of them could bury their hurts and blame and jealousies and bond into tight friendship once again.

"The Isles of Hiva are the only uncontaminated place on Earth," Sharla told Ananda. "Good choice, Corgan."

"Thanks." He hadn't expected approval from anyone, especially Sharla, but he couldn't soak it up right then because he had to land the spacecraft. At one kilometer above Earth the whole island had become visible, a lush, tropical paradise with waves rushing the shores and then sweeping back as though gathering energy for another dash forward. Corgan maneuvered the Prometheus toward the concrete landing pad, then suddenly slammed the controls into hover as two figures ran out from beneath the trees. Staring up in amazement, the two people shaded their eyes and bent back to get a better look. Corgan could imagine their bewilderment, since they'd be the first beings on the entire planet Earth ever to see this particular spacecraft land on solid ground.

"That's Delphine down there," Corgan said.

"Who's that with her?" Cyborg asked.

A husky boy, or man, or something in between, was running fast across the sand toward the landing pad. His skin was brown, and his hair looked black and very thick, even from forty meters up. "I guess he's the guy who came to herd the cows after I left," Corgan answered.

"He's kind of cute," Sharla murmured.

On the ground Delphine hurried to catch up to the boy, who'd reached the landing area before she did.

"Hey, he's right in the middle of the pad," Corgan cried. "He needs to move, or we'll land on top of his head."

Delphine must have realized that -- she yanked the boy backward. Both of them looked worried, unsure who might be in this strange, saucer-shaped vehicle touching down on their island, but when Sharla pressed her face against the port and waved, Delphine recognized her and began to jump up and down eagerly, her face lighting with pleasure.

Cyborg waved too, with his good hand, and so did Corgan, but then he warned his passengers, "This is the first time I've ever brought down this baby. I hope it won't bounce or -- "

"Or crash," Cyborg said.

"Yeah, so you better hang on to something."

The landing couldn't have been smoother. Maybe a soft landing was a good omen, Corgan hoped. Maybe life would be a little smoother too, here on Nuku Hiva.

Copyright © 2006 by Gloria Skurzynski

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Science fiction.