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Shannon Hale


The warehouse was coffin dark. I put out a hand, feeling my way up the stairs.

I knew I wasn’t alone.

I strained to hear movement. A scuffed foot, the rustle of clothing. The clink of ammunition. Anything.

There was nothing. Just the sound of my own labored breathing.

If I had known all that would happen these past months, would I still have entered that stupid sweepstakes?

No, I thought. Never.

But my hand pressed against the tokens in my chest, pro- tective.

I climbed faster.

Our team was shattered. Two of us left. Only one would walk away from this encounter. But I didn’t want to kill again.

And I didn’t want to die.



Chapter 1

Every superhero has an origin story. Mine began with a box of cereal.

“Mom?” I said, pulling a box of Blueberry Bonanza out of a grocery sack. “Really?”

I’d like to say I was helping her unload the groceries be- cause I’m that wonderful. Really it was an excuse to escape.

When she’d returned from the store, I’d been working on Ac- cursed Geometry.

“They were on sale,” Mom said. “I thought you’d like to try something different.”

I opened the box and poured some “Fruitish Nuggets and Marshmallow Fun” into my hand to show her.

“Oh!” she said. “I didn’t realize they were so blue.”

“Guácala,” I said. The Spanish word for gross sounded so perfectly gross.

“Guácala,” she agreed.

I was going to put the cereal to solitary confinement on a high shelf when I noticed the words “Astronaut Boot Camp” on the back of the box: SWEEPSTAKES OPEN TO US RESIDENTS AGES 12-18. GRAND PRIZE INCLUDES THREE WEEKS AT HOWELL ASTRONAUT BOOT CAMP.

“Thanks for the spontaneous help,” Mom was saying as she put away the fridge items. “Am I correct in assuming I’m saving you from geometry?”

“Now Mom, you know I find nothing so thrilling as calcu- lating the area of a triangle.”

I shelved the box, too ashamed to show Mom the sweep- stakes. Since I was five I wanted to be an astronaut. But little kids always dream of being astronauts, princesses, or spies and then grow up to realize that’s impossible. I should have out- grown my space fantasy by now.

“Hey, Maisie,” Dad said, coming in from the garage. “Did you hear about the dog that gave birth to puppies in the park?

She was arrested for littering.”

“Heard it,” I said. “Can you really not remember which puns you’ve tried on me?”

“I have a photographic memory, but it was never developed.”

“Heard that one too.”

Newly motivated, I hurried through math so I could get on the Astronaut Boot Camp website.

In order to enter the sweepstakes online, I had to fill out a survey. It was crazy long.

“Wow, there’s something shockingly unnatural about bright-blue food, isn’t there?” Dad called from the kitchen.

How had he even found the cereal? “Did you know there’s no FDA-approved natural source for blue food dye?”


“The color blue is an appetite suppressant, our body’s pri- mal instinct to warn us away from poisonous things,” he went on, in full lecture mode. “Blueberries are actually purple skin around green pulp. And red foods like maraschino cherries owe their color to the ground-up bodies of female cochineal insects.”

“Mom bought the cereal,” I called back. I started to feel guilty, as if I were lying to my parents, so I added, “Um, read the back of the box.”

“Oh!” Dad leaned around the kitchen wall. “Maisie, you know the odds of winning the sweepstakes must be astronomi- cal, no pun intended. For once.”

“I know. I just thought, why not enter, right?”

“Okay then. When you grow up to be a famous astronaut, don’t forget your humble roots. Those who get too big for their britches will be exposed in the end.”

“Enough already!”

And the survey went on and on.

“This is weird . . .”

“What?” Dad was sitting on the couch now, reading a sci- ence journal and absently rubbing his bald spot. These past few years, the spot had degraded into more of a bald territory. He only had a rim of puffy hair left. I was afraid I’d hurt his feelings if I suggested he just shave it all off.

“It’s a marketing survey,” I said, “but listen to these ques- tions: ‘How would you rate your memorization ability? How many languages do you speak at home?’ Here’s my favorite:

‘What would you do if you were in an elevator on the fiftieth floor of a building, the brakes broke, and you began to plum- met?’”

Dad put down the journal. “What would you do?”

“I’d climb through the hatch in the elevator’s ceiling, take off my pants, wrap them around one of the cables and tighten until I slowed my fall, and then I’d swing onto a ledge and wait for rescue.”

“And put your pants back on, of course.”

I frowned at him. “I just escaped a runaway elevator, and you’re worried that someone will see me without pants?”

“Are you kidding? My baby girl is a teenager—I worry about everything. Cariña!” he shouted toward Mom in their bedroom, which doubled as her office. “Can we hire someone to guard Maisie for the next several years? Maybe a Navy SEAL?”

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