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Renegade Flight

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Aurora Rising meets Top Gun, with the addition of cybernetic dragons, in this is the witty, romantic, and electrifying sci-fi novel by Andrea Tang.

Viola Park's life is over.

She's gone from planning her future as a pilot-in-training to resigning herself to life on the ground. And it's all because she made one tiny, not-altogether-legal maneuver on the prestigious GAN Academy's entrance exam. It's bad enough that she didn't get into the Academy, but getting caught cheating? It's probably the worst thing Vi could imagine.

Still, there are perks that come with Vi's family legacy at the school, and when Vi learns that recent pilot disappearances have left the Academy desperate for recruits, she does what any good Park would do--uses her connections to wiggle her way back in. But instead of matriculating with the regular class of future Peacekeepers, Vi is forced to enter as a probationary student, which means she'll have to work twice as hard to prove herself worthy of a place in the cockpit of one of the legendary dragon mechs.

Lucky for Vi, the Academy has set up a combat tournament for all students, and the prize is a guaranteed spot in the Peacekeeper corps. Unlucky for Vi, she'll have to compete against her probie classmates, including Nicholas Lee, a mysterious boy prone to throwing Vi off her game. And as more Peacekeepers go missing, what starts out as a ploy to save her reputation turns into a fight for the future of Peacekeepers everywhere, and if Vi can't master her mech combat skills, she might not survive the battle.

In this standalone set fifteen years after Prudence Wu took flight in Rebelwing, a new generation of scrappy young pilots challenge corruption, competition, and more dangerous mechs than ever, as they redefine what it means to be a revolutionary.
Andrea Tang grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, and currently lives, writes, and works in the Washington, D.C. area. She loves martial arts in general and Brazilian jiu-jitsu in particular, and in her spare time, enjoys learning new sports and checking out live theater. Andrea is the author of Rebelwing and its companion novel, Renegade Flight. View titles by Andrea Tang

The thing that pissed Vi off the most about ruining her life and dishonoring her family was the absurd amount of work she’d put into her own downfall.

Like most people who fucked themselves over, Vi had not actually woken up one morning and said to herself, “Ah, today’s the day: commence Operation Fuck-Over!” She had, instead, very modestly planned on making her childhood dream come true. At no point was said childhood dream supposed to morph into a nightmare, much less one largely of her own making.

Later, much later, people would ask why she did it. Did she think she could get away with it? Did she ever wonder if she’d get caught? Did she even understand that what she did was wrong at all?

“It could have been avoided,” some would cluck, or “How stupid, not to see how much trouble you’d create for yourself,” or worst of all, “You should have known better.” And Vi, with the benefit of hindsight, no matter how she turned the words over in her head, never came up with a satisfactory answer, except this: in the grand, toiling, earnestly misguided process of ruining her own life, she hadn’t ever once considered what would happen next.

That was the thing about nightmares, after all. The worst were always the ones you never saw coming.

 

Dear Miss Viola Elizabeth Jiyeon Park,

 

It has been brought to the attention of the admissions committee of the Global Alliance of Nations Academy for Combat and Cybernetic Arts that you have been found guilty of improper tampering with the Tenth Annual Entrance Exams. Given the seriousness of this violation, you are hereby denied entry to the Academy and, furthermore, barred from additional attempts to sit any future entrance exam.

Appropriate representatives of the GAN Council and the GAN Academy, and members of the North American Barricade Coalition Board for Mech Pilot Certification, will convene in two weeks’ time to determine the status of your current piloting license. Depending on the findings of our collective efforts, consequences of your misconduct may include the termination of your license.

 

With regards,

 

Karolyn Winchester, Headmaster, GAN Academy

Nolan Goldstein-Davies, Examiner

Fernando Diaz, Examiner

Jacinda Rogers, Examiner

 

Once upon a time, Viola Park had dreamed of ending wars and taming dragons. It wasn’t such a farfetched goal, so far as childhood dreams went. After all, ending wars and taming dragons was a bit of a family business. People called the Parks a lot of things—defenders of democracy, if you loved them; Machiavellian assholes, if you hated them—but no one could deny that they were big fat overachievers when it came to warfare and politics. Theirs was an old, canny family of soldiers and politicians alike, as stalwart and seemingly indestructible as the North American cities where they’d made their home—or built their empire, depending on your perspective. Without the Parks, there would be no Global Alliance of Nations, and without the GAN, unscrupulous arms dealers—hand-selling their rogue battle bots and dangerously experimental AI—would have blown every last functioning government on Earth to smithereens by now.

Vi couldn’t remember a point in her life when she couldn’t name at least one family member serving in the GAN Peacekeeper Corps, and another sitting on the GAN Council. Parks protected what was theirs, whether it was a city, a continent, or the entire world. Vi’s parents, both of them Peacekeeper pilots, had died for it. The aunts who’d taken her in afterward, one a GAN politician and the other a GAN mech engineer, had made it abundantly clear that it was the way of things in their clan: you lived to uphold GAN creed, or died trying. So the year Viola turned eighteen, it went without saying that she’d be sitting the entrance exams for the GAN Academy for Combat and Cybernetic Arts. She’d never really doubted she’d pass. After all, that was the road map she’d been following her entire life, the GAN her eternal true north: attend New Columbia Prep for three years, earn straight As, turn eighteen, sit the GAN entrance exam, pass with flying colors on the first try, transfer to the Academy before senior year, graduate in another three, and go directly into a plum job among the Peacekeepers. It was easy to be certain of your destiny when no one had ever called it into question.

The Sunday morning before the exam was really when all that began to change.

Few things more obviously announced the arrival of certain individuals than the dramatic crescendo of a Tchaikovsky arrangement on the baby grand in the foyer. Vi, limbs akimbo beneath her duvet, smothered a few choice obscenities into a pillow before fumbling for her phone.

“Time,” she croaked.

“It is currently eight o’ clock a.m., Miss Park,” replied her phone, obnoxiously crisp.

“It’s Sunday,” protested Vi.

“It is currently eight o’clock,” agreed her phone. “a.m.”

“A day of rest!”

“It is currently—”

Vi hurled the phone across her bed, along with the duvet, just as the dulcet sounds of the Nutcracker pas de deux swelled anew. “All right!” she yelled at the offending pianist. “You win! Goddammit! You win!”

The adagio, if anything, grew louder still, each note perfectly, delicately placed. “Fucker,” muttered Vi. She threw a dressing gown over her shoulders, barely sliding into a pair of slippers, before slamming out of the bedroom. “You know one of my uncles was a former chief of intelligence for the North American Barricade Coalition, right?” she called, as she descended the swirling mahogany staircase. “If I wrote to him and promised to up my Christmas chocolates game, I bet I could have you murdered in your sleep.”

“What a terrible stressor that would be for poor Jay,” said the pianist over the final notes of the adagio. “Your slippers are mismatched, by the way.”

“Your fault for dragging me out of bed! On a day of rest!” Vi tapped one red-slippered foot against her ankle, ignoring for the moment the hideous print of giggling cartoon dragons embroidered over the opposite foot. “I don’t exactly have many of those right now, Alex. It’s crunch time.”

Alex played a little flourish across the keyboard. “Indeed.”

“Crunch time for the GAN Academy entrance exams, I mean.”

“I’m aware.”

“The Academy for Combat and Cybernetic Arts!”

“I don’t believe there’s another GAN Academy, no.”

“So why are you waking me up before noon on a Sunday!”

Alex’s hands stilled, along with the music. At last, he looked up the staircase to where Vi stood. Vi, fuming at the railing in her dressing gown and hideous mismatched slippers, glared at him. They froze for a moment like that.

Then Alex burst into peals of laughter.

“Oh, fuck you very much,” groused Vi. Her hair was probably a disaster. “If my idiot classmates knew what a troll you were under your whole sensitive musician act, they’d scrap all their tacky 3-D pinup posters of your stupid face faster than I can shoot a plasma rifle.”

“Why on earth does a pinup poster of all things need a 3-D edition?” asked Alex. Between all his dumbass cackles, he sounded genuinely puzzled.

“I love that that’s your takeaway question about all this. Aren’t you, like, thirty now?” Vi leaned over the railing, stretching out the cracks in her spine with a wince. That’s what she got for five hours of sleep after three hours of mech fighting practice. “Isn’t that a little old for the whole teen heartthrob schtick?”

“I’m twenty-nine, thank you, chiquitita, and still younger than the actors they’ve got playing your fellow sixteen-year-olds on those wireless dramas you love so much.”

“I’m eighteen!” Vi hugged her dressing gown over her chest, cheeks flaming. “And I watch those ironically!”

“I wasn’t judging.” Her uninvited houseguest raised his hands in surrender, a smile creasing the corners of twinkling dark eyes. “Watch anything you like, so long as you remember to practice your scales. Speaking of which, Academy exams or no, you have a piano lesson.”

“Today? Now?” Vi raked a hand through her bedhead, irritation warring with a horrifyingly tender nostalgia she didn’t care to examine too closely. Alex wasn’t a Park by blood or marriage, but he was probably the closest thing she had to consistently present family. He’d been her music teacher since she was too small to reach the piano pedals, a tutor for hire on paper but, in reality, something halfway between doting older brother and mischievous young uncle. “How am I supposed to deal with piano scales when I still don’t have a battle mech simulation picked out to perform?”

Alex shrugged. “To quote your esteemed aunt Anabel, ‘That sounds like a you problem.’” He tapped his chin, contemplative. “What was it exactly she said again? Oh yes, ‘Cutthroat fights between giant robots may be stupidly important to geopolitics right now, but they are no excuse to neglect culture.’” He actually did a pretty credible imitation of Aunt Anabel’s voice.

Vi scowled, shifting from one foot to the other. The looming entrance exam had left a small but steadily growing knot in her belly from the day the dates were announced. The reminder of Aunt Anabel’s general existence did not loosen it. “Where is she, anyway?”

“Anabel?” Alex’s handsome face did something complicated. “The usual, I suppose. On top secret state business for the GAN Council.”

“Surprise,” muttered Vi.

“Hey, chiquitita,” said Alex. His voice had gone all gentle and knowing, in that way it always did whenever Vi hit a mood. “You know Anabel loves you, right? Your aunt took you under her wing for a reason.”

“Yeah.” Vi stared at the dragons on the one slipper. “I needed to be someone’s ward on paper, I guess, and any of my cousins would kill to be Aunt Anabel’s. And I—she knows I’m a good pilot. I’d be a credit to her, as a Peacekeeper-to-be. It’s a fair exchange.”

Alex sighed. “One day, you and I are going to have words about what literal children do and don’t owe their legal guardians.”

“I’m eighteen!” protested Vi.

“Barely. And you’re Anabel’s niece, not a weapon or a political pawn.” Alex stood and stretched his fingers. “Now, how’s your Debussy piece coming along?”

“Um,” said Vi.

The music teacher’s brows arched. “Have you practiced this week?”

“Yes.”

“How many hours?”

Vi tried, frantically, to think of a number he would buy. “Six!”

The eyebrows only climbed higher.

“Three?”

“Vi.”

“Okay, so I’m lying; I practiced exactly zero hours, but could you blame me? It’s crunch time for—”

“The Academy entrance exams. I’m aware.” Alex gave her a long, inscrutable look. “There’s more to life than mech piloting, you know. Even the chance at piloting a dragon for the Peacekeeper Corps.”

Vi snorted. “Like what, becoming some bohemian singer-songwriter with a niche following of teen girls and a side hustle as a really annoying piano teacher? Is that why you quit the Peacekeeper Corps?”

She regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth. Alex’s face, always so expressive, shuttered as he fell silent. He never talked about it, and the gossip columns had eventually piped down, but back in the day, Alex quitting the Peacekeepers had been a big deal. You couldn’t really tell now, with his rumpled hair and big lumpy grandpa sweaters, but Vi’s music teacher had been destined for greater things, once upon a time. He’d been nephew to the first Head Representative of the North American Barricade Coalition, a top-notch student at one of the best prep schools on the continent—and by all reports, the finest mech pilot of his generation. No one knew exactly why he’d thrown that all away before the age of thirty to pen semi-obscure love songs and teach music theory to teenagers, but it had been a slap in the face to the GAN. Some called it selfishness. Others called it madness.

Vi wondered, sometimes, in her more shameful moments, if Alex had quit simply because he was a coward. Then she’d remember every time he’d ever fixed her a plate of chilaquiles after a recital, or tucked her into bed when her aunts were away, or simply existed in her life, all careworn smile and dancing fingers at a piano bench, his warmth steadfast and dependable.

She always hated herself so much for thinking that Alex might deserve her disdain.

“It’s not just the piano. I also teach guitar lessons sometimes,” he said at last, voice mild. If she’d offended him, he gave no sign. “But since your mind is clearly more wrapped up in mechs than music for the moment, why don’t we switch gears?”

Vi blinked, surprised, straightening her spine. “You want to do a round of mech sparring?” She’d never seen her music teacher in action, but she’d heard the stories, and seen some of his old combat simulation reels. She could learn a lot more from him than how to play Debussy, but he’d never once offered to train with her, and every time she’d asked, he’d always had an excuse ready. By her midteens, she’d given up on ever getting his help.

“Lord, no.” The corner of Alex’s mouth tipped upward. “I’m going to make hot cocoa.” He laughed at the look on her face. “You’re welcome to go beat up giant robots instead, of course, but there will be an extra mug of my mother’s old Mexican recipe waiting on the counter.” His eyebrows waggled. “With marshmallows.”

“I like marshmallows,” Vi allowed grudgingly. They were, at any rate, immensely preferable to Debussy. “Can I still pick your brain about the giant robots?”

She wasn’t sure if she imagined the pause before his almost too-casual reply: “If you insist.”

She followed him to the kitchen. “What was your exam like, when you joined the Peacekeepers?”

“What exam?” Alex chortled, as he poured milk into a saucepan. “We’d barely just figured out that sentient mechs were even possible to engineer, and all the governments of the world were in a panic over how to put the genie back in the bottle. You can’t, of course. Once one engineer proves it can be done, it’s not long before everyone else is doing it too, for good or ill.”

Vi squinted at him, thoughtful. “Is it true that you helped fly the first sentient? The one dragon that became the prototype for the whole GAN fleet?”

The stirring paused, for just a beat. “Rebelwing. Yes.”

"Viola’s headstrong nature, drive to succeed, and complicated rivalry with Nicholas, paired with plentiful action sequences, are sure to satisfy." Publishers Weekly

"Stay for the sassy characters and mech battles." Kirkus Reviews

"Sharp language, smart dialogue, and inclusive cast of vivid characters." Booklist Online

About

Aurora Rising meets Top Gun, with the addition of cybernetic dragons, in this is the witty, romantic, and electrifying sci-fi novel by Andrea Tang.

Viola Park's life is over.

She's gone from planning her future as a pilot-in-training to resigning herself to life on the ground. And it's all because she made one tiny, not-altogether-legal maneuver on the prestigious GAN Academy's entrance exam. It's bad enough that she didn't get into the Academy, but getting caught cheating? It's probably the worst thing Vi could imagine.

Still, there are perks that come with Vi's family legacy at the school, and when Vi learns that recent pilot disappearances have left the Academy desperate for recruits, she does what any good Park would do--uses her connections to wiggle her way back in. But instead of matriculating with the regular class of future Peacekeepers, Vi is forced to enter as a probationary student, which means she'll have to work twice as hard to prove herself worthy of a place in the cockpit of one of the legendary dragon mechs.

Lucky for Vi, the Academy has set up a combat tournament for all students, and the prize is a guaranteed spot in the Peacekeeper corps. Unlucky for Vi, she'll have to compete against her probie classmates, including Nicholas Lee, a mysterious boy prone to throwing Vi off her game. And as more Peacekeepers go missing, what starts out as a ploy to save her reputation turns into a fight for the future of Peacekeepers everywhere, and if Vi can't master her mech combat skills, she might not survive the battle.

In this standalone set fifteen years after Prudence Wu took flight in Rebelwing, a new generation of scrappy young pilots challenge corruption, competition, and more dangerous mechs than ever, as they redefine what it means to be a revolutionary.

Author

Andrea Tang grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, and currently lives, writes, and works in the Washington, D.C. area. She loves martial arts in general and Brazilian jiu-jitsu in particular, and in her spare time, enjoys learning new sports and checking out live theater. Andrea is the author of Rebelwing and its companion novel, Renegade Flight. View titles by Andrea Tang

Excerpt

The thing that pissed Vi off the most about ruining her life and dishonoring her family was the absurd amount of work she’d put into her own downfall.

Like most people who fucked themselves over, Vi had not actually woken up one morning and said to herself, “Ah, today’s the day: commence Operation Fuck-Over!” She had, instead, very modestly planned on making her childhood dream come true. At no point was said childhood dream supposed to morph into a nightmare, much less one largely of her own making.

Later, much later, people would ask why she did it. Did she think she could get away with it? Did she ever wonder if she’d get caught? Did she even understand that what she did was wrong at all?

“It could have been avoided,” some would cluck, or “How stupid, not to see how much trouble you’d create for yourself,” or worst of all, “You should have known better.” And Vi, with the benefit of hindsight, no matter how she turned the words over in her head, never came up with a satisfactory answer, except this: in the grand, toiling, earnestly misguided process of ruining her own life, she hadn’t ever once considered what would happen next.

That was the thing about nightmares, after all. The worst were always the ones you never saw coming.

 

Dear Miss Viola Elizabeth Jiyeon Park,

 

It has been brought to the attention of the admissions committee of the Global Alliance of Nations Academy for Combat and Cybernetic Arts that you have been found guilty of improper tampering with the Tenth Annual Entrance Exams. Given the seriousness of this violation, you are hereby denied entry to the Academy and, furthermore, barred from additional attempts to sit any future entrance exam.

Appropriate representatives of the GAN Council and the GAN Academy, and members of the North American Barricade Coalition Board for Mech Pilot Certification, will convene in two weeks’ time to determine the status of your current piloting license. Depending on the findings of our collective efforts, consequences of your misconduct may include the termination of your license.

 

With regards,

 

Karolyn Winchester, Headmaster, GAN Academy

Nolan Goldstein-Davies, Examiner

Fernando Diaz, Examiner

Jacinda Rogers, Examiner

 

Once upon a time, Viola Park had dreamed of ending wars and taming dragons. It wasn’t such a farfetched goal, so far as childhood dreams went. After all, ending wars and taming dragons was a bit of a family business. People called the Parks a lot of things—defenders of democracy, if you loved them; Machiavellian assholes, if you hated them—but no one could deny that they were big fat overachievers when it came to warfare and politics. Theirs was an old, canny family of soldiers and politicians alike, as stalwart and seemingly indestructible as the North American cities where they’d made their home—or built their empire, depending on your perspective. Without the Parks, there would be no Global Alliance of Nations, and without the GAN, unscrupulous arms dealers—hand-selling their rogue battle bots and dangerously experimental AI—would have blown every last functioning government on Earth to smithereens by now.

Vi couldn’t remember a point in her life when she couldn’t name at least one family member serving in the GAN Peacekeeper Corps, and another sitting on the GAN Council. Parks protected what was theirs, whether it was a city, a continent, or the entire world. Vi’s parents, both of them Peacekeeper pilots, had died for it. The aunts who’d taken her in afterward, one a GAN politician and the other a GAN mech engineer, had made it abundantly clear that it was the way of things in their clan: you lived to uphold GAN creed, or died trying. So the year Viola turned eighteen, it went without saying that she’d be sitting the entrance exams for the GAN Academy for Combat and Cybernetic Arts. She’d never really doubted she’d pass. After all, that was the road map she’d been following her entire life, the GAN her eternal true north: attend New Columbia Prep for three years, earn straight As, turn eighteen, sit the GAN entrance exam, pass with flying colors on the first try, transfer to the Academy before senior year, graduate in another three, and go directly into a plum job among the Peacekeepers. It was easy to be certain of your destiny when no one had ever called it into question.

The Sunday morning before the exam was really when all that began to change.

Few things more obviously announced the arrival of certain individuals than the dramatic crescendo of a Tchaikovsky arrangement on the baby grand in the foyer. Vi, limbs akimbo beneath her duvet, smothered a few choice obscenities into a pillow before fumbling for her phone.

“Time,” she croaked.

“It is currently eight o’ clock a.m., Miss Park,” replied her phone, obnoxiously crisp.

“It’s Sunday,” protested Vi.

“It is currently eight o’clock,” agreed her phone. “a.m.”

“A day of rest!”

“It is currently—”

Vi hurled the phone across her bed, along with the duvet, just as the dulcet sounds of the Nutcracker pas de deux swelled anew. “All right!” she yelled at the offending pianist. “You win! Goddammit! You win!”

The adagio, if anything, grew louder still, each note perfectly, delicately placed. “Fucker,” muttered Vi. She threw a dressing gown over her shoulders, barely sliding into a pair of slippers, before slamming out of the bedroom. “You know one of my uncles was a former chief of intelligence for the North American Barricade Coalition, right?” she called, as she descended the swirling mahogany staircase. “If I wrote to him and promised to up my Christmas chocolates game, I bet I could have you murdered in your sleep.”

“What a terrible stressor that would be for poor Jay,” said the pianist over the final notes of the adagio. “Your slippers are mismatched, by the way.”

“Your fault for dragging me out of bed! On a day of rest!” Vi tapped one red-slippered foot against her ankle, ignoring for the moment the hideous print of giggling cartoon dragons embroidered over the opposite foot. “I don’t exactly have many of those right now, Alex. It’s crunch time.”

Alex played a little flourish across the keyboard. “Indeed.”

“Crunch time for the GAN Academy entrance exams, I mean.”

“I’m aware.”

“The Academy for Combat and Cybernetic Arts!”

“I don’t believe there’s another GAN Academy, no.”

“So why are you waking me up before noon on a Sunday!”

Alex’s hands stilled, along with the music. At last, he looked up the staircase to where Vi stood. Vi, fuming at the railing in her dressing gown and hideous mismatched slippers, glared at him. They froze for a moment like that.

Then Alex burst into peals of laughter.

“Oh, fuck you very much,” groused Vi. Her hair was probably a disaster. “If my idiot classmates knew what a troll you were under your whole sensitive musician act, they’d scrap all their tacky 3-D pinup posters of your stupid face faster than I can shoot a plasma rifle.”

“Why on earth does a pinup poster of all things need a 3-D edition?” asked Alex. Between all his dumbass cackles, he sounded genuinely puzzled.

“I love that that’s your takeaway question about all this. Aren’t you, like, thirty now?” Vi leaned over the railing, stretching out the cracks in her spine with a wince. That’s what she got for five hours of sleep after three hours of mech fighting practice. “Isn’t that a little old for the whole teen heartthrob schtick?”

“I’m twenty-nine, thank you, chiquitita, and still younger than the actors they’ve got playing your fellow sixteen-year-olds on those wireless dramas you love so much.”

“I’m eighteen!” Vi hugged her dressing gown over her chest, cheeks flaming. “And I watch those ironically!”

“I wasn’t judging.” Her uninvited houseguest raised his hands in surrender, a smile creasing the corners of twinkling dark eyes. “Watch anything you like, so long as you remember to practice your scales. Speaking of which, Academy exams or no, you have a piano lesson.”

“Today? Now?” Vi raked a hand through her bedhead, irritation warring with a horrifyingly tender nostalgia she didn’t care to examine too closely. Alex wasn’t a Park by blood or marriage, but he was probably the closest thing she had to consistently present family. He’d been her music teacher since she was too small to reach the piano pedals, a tutor for hire on paper but, in reality, something halfway between doting older brother and mischievous young uncle. “How am I supposed to deal with piano scales when I still don’t have a battle mech simulation picked out to perform?”

Alex shrugged. “To quote your esteemed aunt Anabel, ‘That sounds like a you problem.’” He tapped his chin, contemplative. “What was it exactly she said again? Oh yes, ‘Cutthroat fights between giant robots may be stupidly important to geopolitics right now, but they are no excuse to neglect culture.’” He actually did a pretty credible imitation of Aunt Anabel’s voice.

Vi scowled, shifting from one foot to the other. The looming entrance exam had left a small but steadily growing knot in her belly from the day the dates were announced. The reminder of Aunt Anabel’s general existence did not loosen it. “Where is she, anyway?”

“Anabel?” Alex’s handsome face did something complicated. “The usual, I suppose. On top secret state business for the GAN Council.”

“Surprise,” muttered Vi.

“Hey, chiquitita,” said Alex. His voice had gone all gentle and knowing, in that way it always did whenever Vi hit a mood. “You know Anabel loves you, right? Your aunt took you under her wing for a reason.”

“Yeah.” Vi stared at the dragons on the one slipper. “I needed to be someone’s ward on paper, I guess, and any of my cousins would kill to be Aunt Anabel’s. And I—she knows I’m a good pilot. I’d be a credit to her, as a Peacekeeper-to-be. It’s a fair exchange.”

Alex sighed. “One day, you and I are going to have words about what literal children do and don’t owe their legal guardians.”

“I’m eighteen!” protested Vi.

“Barely. And you’re Anabel’s niece, not a weapon or a political pawn.” Alex stood and stretched his fingers. “Now, how’s your Debussy piece coming along?”

“Um,” said Vi.

The music teacher’s brows arched. “Have you practiced this week?”

“Yes.”

“How many hours?”

Vi tried, frantically, to think of a number he would buy. “Six!”

The eyebrows only climbed higher.

“Three?”

“Vi.”

“Okay, so I’m lying; I practiced exactly zero hours, but could you blame me? It’s crunch time for—”

“The Academy entrance exams. I’m aware.” Alex gave her a long, inscrutable look. “There’s more to life than mech piloting, you know. Even the chance at piloting a dragon for the Peacekeeper Corps.”

Vi snorted. “Like what, becoming some bohemian singer-songwriter with a niche following of teen girls and a side hustle as a really annoying piano teacher? Is that why you quit the Peacekeeper Corps?”

She regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth. Alex’s face, always so expressive, shuttered as he fell silent. He never talked about it, and the gossip columns had eventually piped down, but back in the day, Alex quitting the Peacekeepers had been a big deal. You couldn’t really tell now, with his rumpled hair and big lumpy grandpa sweaters, but Vi’s music teacher had been destined for greater things, once upon a time. He’d been nephew to the first Head Representative of the North American Barricade Coalition, a top-notch student at one of the best prep schools on the continent—and by all reports, the finest mech pilot of his generation. No one knew exactly why he’d thrown that all away before the age of thirty to pen semi-obscure love songs and teach music theory to teenagers, but it had been a slap in the face to the GAN. Some called it selfishness. Others called it madness.

Vi wondered, sometimes, in her more shameful moments, if Alex had quit simply because he was a coward. Then she’d remember every time he’d ever fixed her a plate of chilaquiles after a recital, or tucked her into bed when her aunts were away, or simply existed in her life, all careworn smile and dancing fingers at a piano bench, his warmth steadfast and dependable.

She always hated herself so much for thinking that Alex might deserve her disdain.

“It’s not just the piano. I also teach guitar lessons sometimes,” he said at last, voice mild. If she’d offended him, he gave no sign. “But since your mind is clearly more wrapped up in mechs than music for the moment, why don’t we switch gears?”

Vi blinked, surprised, straightening her spine. “You want to do a round of mech sparring?” She’d never seen her music teacher in action, but she’d heard the stories, and seen some of his old combat simulation reels. She could learn a lot more from him than how to play Debussy, but he’d never once offered to train with her, and every time she’d asked, he’d always had an excuse ready. By her midteens, she’d given up on ever getting his help.

“Lord, no.” The corner of Alex’s mouth tipped upward. “I’m going to make hot cocoa.” He laughed at the look on her face. “You’re welcome to go beat up giant robots instead, of course, but there will be an extra mug of my mother’s old Mexican recipe waiting on the counter.” His eyebrows waggled. “With marshmallows.”

“I like marshmallows,” Vi allowed grudgingly. They were, at any rate, immensely preferable to Debussy. “Can I still pick your brain about the giant robots?”

She wasn’t sure if she imagined the pause before his almost too-casual reply: “If you insist.”

She followed him to the kitchen. “What was your exam like, when you joined the Peacekeepers?”

“What exam?” Alex chortled, as he poured milk into a saucepan. “We’d barely just figured out that sentient mechs were even possible to engineer, and all the governments of the world were in a panic over how to put the genie back in the bottle. You can’t, of course. Once one engineer proves it can be done, it’s not long before everyone else is doing it too, for good or ill.”

Vi squinted at him, thoughtful. “Is it true that you helped fly the first sentient? The one dragon that became the prototype for the whole GAN fleet?”

The stirring paused, for just a beat. “Rebelwing. Yes.”

Praise

"Viola’s headstrong nature, drive to succeed, and complicated rivalry with Nicholas, paired with plentiful action sequences, are sure to satisfy." Publishers Weekly

"Stay for the sassy characters and mech battles." Kirkus Reviews

"Sharp language, smart dialogue, and inclusive cast of vivid characters." Booklist Online

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