The woman is the first to speak.
“I’m glad to see you’re all right,” she says. “I’m afraid we had no choice but to shoot your plane out of the sky.”
“What? What are y—”
“Castle?” Kenji’s quiet, tentative voice reaches out from behind me.
Castle steps forward just as Kenji moves toward him, and the two embrace, Castle pulling him in so tightly I can practically feel the tension from where I’m standing. They’re both visibly emotional, and the moment is so touching it puts my fears at ease.
“You’re okay,” Kenji says. “I thought—”
Haider and Stephan, the son of the supreme commander of Africa, step out of the crowd. Shock seizes my body at the sight of them. They nod at Nazeera and the three of them separate to form a new group, off to the side. They speak in low, hurried whispers.
Castle takes a deep breath. “We have a lot to talk about.” And then, to me, he says, “Ella, I’d like you to meet my daughter, Nouria.”
My eyebrows fly up my forehead. I glance at Aaron, who seems as stunned as I am, but Kenji lets out a sudden whoop, and tackles Castle all over again. The two of them laugh. Kenji is saying, No way, no way
Nouria pointedly ignores them and smiles at me. “We call our home the Sanctuary,” she says. “My wife and I are the leaders of the resistance here. Welcome.”
Another woman separates from the crowd and steps forward. She’s petite, with long blond hair. She shakes my hand. “It’s an honor to meet you,” she says. “My name is Samantha.”
I study both of them, Nouria and Samantha standing side by side. Castle’s happiness. The smile on Kenji’s face. The cluster of Nazeera, Haider, and Stephan off to the side. The larger group crowded in the distance.
“The honor is ours,” I say, and smile. Then: “But are we safe out here? Out in the open like this?”
Nouria nods. “My powers allow me to manipulate light in unusual ways,” she says. “I’ve cast a protective shield around us right now, so that if someone were to look in our direction, they’d see only a painful brightness that would force them to look away.”
“Whoa.” Kenji’s eyes widen. “That’s cool.”
“Thank you,” Nouria says. She’s practically emanating light, her dark brown skin shimmering even as she stands still. There’s something breathtaking about just being near her.
“Are those your people?” I hear Aaron say, speaking for the first time. He’s peering over her head, at the small crowd in the distance.
“And are they here to make sure we don’t hurt you?”
Nouria smiles. “They’re here to make sure no one hurts you,” she says. “Your group is welcome here. You’ve more than proven yourselves worthy.” And then, “We’ve heard all the stories about Sector 45.”
“You have?” I say, surprised. “I thought The Reestablishment buried everything.”
Nouria shakes her head. “Whispers travel faster than anyone can control. The continent is buzzing with the news of all you’ve been doing these past couple of months. It’s truly a privilege to meet you,” she says to me, and holds out her hand. “I’ve been so inspired by your work.”
I take her hand, feeling at once proud and embarrassed. “Thank you,” I say quietly. “That’s very kind of you.”
But then Nouria’s eyes grow somber. “I am sorry we had to shoot you out of the sky,” she says. “That must’ve been terrifying. But Castle assured me that there were two among you who would be able to fly.”
“Wait, what?” Kenji hazards a look at Castle. “You planned this?”
“It was the only way,” he says. “Once we were able to get free of the asylum”—he nods gratefully at Nazeera—“I knew the only place left for us was here, with Nouria. But we couldn’t have radioed to tell you to land here; our communication would’ve been intercepted. And we couldn’t have you land at the air base, for obvious reasons. So we’ve been tracking your plane, waiting for the right moment. Shooting you out of the sky punts the problem straight back to the military. They’ll think it was action from another unit, and by the time they begin to figure it out, we’ll have destroyed all evidence of our being here.”
“So— Wait—” I say. “How did you and Nouria coordinate this? How’d you find each other?” And then: “Castle, if you’ve abandoned the citizens— Won’t Anderson just murder them all? Shouldn’t you have stayed to protect them? Tried to fight back?”
He shakes his head. “We had no choice but to evacuate Omega Point members from Sector 45. After the two of you”—he nods at me and Aaron—“were taken, things fell into complete chaos. We were all taken hostage and thrown in prison. It was only because of Nazeera—who connected us with Haider and Stephan—that we were able to make our way here. Sector 45 has since been returned to its original state as a prison.” Castle takes a tight breath. “There’s a great deal we need to share with each other. So much has happened in the last two weeks it’ll be impossible to discuss it all quickly. But it is important that you know, right now, a little bit about Nouria’s role in all this.”
He turns to Nouria and gives her a small nod.
Nouria looks me in the eye and says, “That day you were shot on the beach,” she says quietly. “Do you remember?”
I hesitate. “Of course.”
“I was the one who issued that order against you.”
I’m so stunned I visibly flinch.
“What?” Aaron steps forward, outraged. “Castle, are you insane? You ask us to take refuge in the home of a person who nearly murdered Ella?” He turns back, stares at me with a wild look in his eyes. “How could y—”
“Castle?” There’s a warning in Kenji’s voice. “What is going on?”
But Nouria and Castle are staring at each other, and a heavy look passes between them.
Finally, Castle sighs.
“Let’s get settled before we keep talking,” he says. “This is a long conversation, and it’s an important one.”
“Let’s have it now,” Aaron says.
“Yes,” Kenji says angrily. “Now.”
“She tried to murder me,” I say, finally finding my voice. “Why would you bring me here? What are you trying to do?”
“You’ve had a long, difficult journey,” Castle says. “I want you to have a chance to get settled. Take a shower and eat some food. And then, I promise—we’ll give you all the answers you want.”
“But how can we trust that we’ll be safe?” I say. “How can we know Nouria isn’t trying to hurt us?”
“Because,” she says steadily, “I did what I did to help you.”
“And how is that plausible?” Aaron says sharply.
“It was the only way I knew how to get a message to you,” Nouria says, still staring at me. “I was never trying to kill you—and I knew that your own defenses would help protect you from certain death.”