/ Language: English / Genre:sf_space_opera / Series: The Bern Saga

Molly Fyde and the Blood of Billions

Hugh Howey

It’s been ten years since Molly last set foot on her birth planet, and this isn’t how she’d imagined her homecoming. The sky is full of an invading fleet, one powerful enough to threaten the entire galaxy. The new family she has come to rely on—her crew of alien misfits and runaways—are scattered in three directions. As they struggle to reunite, events beyond their control seem to be driving more than just them apart: the universe itself may be torn asunder if the bond between these unlikely heroes is broken.

MOLLY FYDE AND THE BLOOD OF BILLIONS

The Bern Saga: Book 3

by Hugh Howey

The Song of Sorrow

“A billion quests of almost, I’ve
seen, a countless number of nearly.
Wondrous sagas of might-have-been
wherein heroes paid, and dearly.

I could relate many a tale,
brutal, believable, and dreary. But
who cares to hear of those who fail: the
sputtering, the sad, the weary?

The following, then, is no coincidence,
not good fortune, nor blessed timing.
It is naught but sad recompense
for those billion others…
…dying.”

~The Bern Seer~

Prologue: The Land of Light

“Only time—that plodding mute—will tell.

And only the blind will see it coming.”

~The Bern Seer~

0

The cabin is small and old, a hasty jumble of overlapping wood planks rattling on rusty nails. It appears more outpost than residence, like a shelter built for a specific purpose in a rugged land, then abandoned and forgotten. Something itinerant hunters might squat in for a night or two, but certainly not what it actually is: a permanent home.

The poor structure bucks and sways as it races along at the edge of time. Now and then, it shudders mightily, responding to some major happening in the universe. Oh, and the noises it makes! Below the rotting joists, a dozen axles grind, groan, and wail in their ungreased housings. The overall effect is a symphony of decrepit sounds—decay and dilapidation in aural motion. It sings the song of things built long ago and in dire need of upkeep; it’s the peal and complaint of a slow dying, like an orchestra of the ancient. And it’s all paced by its perpetual rhythm section: the steady patter of rain beating on dented tin.

A sheet of the simple metal covers the cabin’s forward wall as well as its roof. Forward is where the rain comes from. It doesn’t fall; it flies in with the eternal stream of photons parallel to the ground, hammering the thin metal incessantly. Coupled with the sound of the jostling, the groaning axles, and the creaking boards, the pounding rain allows sleep to come easily and linger a while. For the cabin’s sole occupant, it makes getting up a daily measure of her will. But the good thing—perhaps the only benefit that comes with living on the edge of time—is that one can never be considered “late” to anything. The lady inside the cabin stirs when she feels like it, which always makes it just the right time:

Morning.

And the start of her routine.

First comes the pointless blinking, followed by some stretching as old joints pop and creak in time with the loose flooring. Eventually, she peels her single bed sheet back like the skin of an overripe pod, revealing the shriveled bean of a woman within.

Legs, thin as saplings yet rough like old wood, swing out. They find the floor and test it. They test themselves. The woman rests her reedy hands on her sharp knees and somehow by pushing down on one part of her body, she helps raise the rest.

Groaning, her back full of aches no stretching nor rubbing could ever reach, she staggers toward the sound of water drip-dripping in a nearby barrel. The cabin sways slightly, and the woman’s hands fly out for balance. Old knees bend and hips shift as she dances alone to gravity’s tune. It feels like a fast day outside, which means a lot is happening in the universe. Still, there isn’t any rush. Things will occur whether or not she’s there to witness them.

The old woman shuffles to the barrel and grasps its rim to steady herself. A collection of hoses lead back from the forward gutters to keep the container full, enough so that another series of tubes can take the overflow and deliver it to the animals out back. Feeling for the ladle hooked to one side, she brings a few deep gulps to her lips and then wipes her narrow chin. With another dip, she fills a shallow pan and rubs some of the cool wetness on her face, refreshing herself and waking up just a tiny bit more.

The woman next moves to the sagging pantry and considers its contents. Suddenly, the shack sways to one side. A hammock of fruit loses its tempo and swings wildly, one of the brass hooks it hangs from squealing against the wood. The old lady clutches the counter and waits for the occurrence to recede into the past, further up the surface of her cone-shaped land.

As she stands there, some old memory brushes against her. It elicits a smile, even as she gropes for the details. But the recollection escapes, losing itself among countless others. It becomes a part of the faceless crowd that haunts her: another ephemeral ghost of some past adventure on a distant planet whose name she has long forgotten.

She isn’t senile. Not yet. She’s just bumped against the capacity of the human brain to remember. So many years have passed and so much has been seen that not all of it can fit. As the new and more recent come in, the old memories are pushed down, compacted away somewhere deep, somewhere she can’t reach. But they can still reach her, sparking emotions devoid of details.

Such moments seem to occur more regularly of late and always without warning. It feels invasive, as though bad things creep into her mind unannounced. She thinks of them as these twin burglars: Déjà-Vu and Nostalgia, who steal through her thoughts, rummage through her old memories, and leave behind a mess of feelings.

Sometimes, rare though it may be, they even uncover good ones. They somehow stir up a pleasant sensation amid the clutter, freeing it to swirl up into her consciousness. Such as this one: a recollection warm and dry with a hint of companionship. Someone laughing, perhaps. Possibly even her—

It passes and her smile fades; all traces of the event recede with whatever triggered the feeling, chased back into the past where it was made and still belongs.

The woman sighs and reaches for her mixing bowl. With a heavy heart, she taps in some flour ground from a mixture of alien grasses. A buttery paste is cut in next, then one of the fruits from the hammock, finely diced. Strapping her iron skillet above the hole in the counter, she bends down and fiddles with the lens below.

Through a small glass window in the tin wall—low down and behind the counter—a violent stream of photons enters the cabin. The rays of harsh light pass through a series of filters before slamming into the bulging lenses. They bend through them, curving and condensing, sliding and squeezing together before mirrors divert them up toward the hole in the counter. There, the powerful and focused beam of light strikes the bottom of the iron skillet with all the force of a laser, and the cabin fills with the aroma of hot oil.

The concoction goes from the mixing bowl to the skillet, and old hands work fast, stirring it to heat evenly. When it smells just right, she blocks off the light and spoons the mixture onto the counter. It’s still piping hot, but her old hands hardly notice; what nerves remain have become calloused with more time and tragedy than they were built for. Now they’re lucky to feel anything, even a burn.

While she shapes the treats with her palms, she listens to the rain ahead of her pepper the tin, roaring in occasional, thick sheets. The density of the sound makes her anxious to get out there and see what’s going on. Something about the day feels unusual. Momentous. She pops one of the plump morsels in her mouth, preferring them fresh and hot, and chews while her curiosity swells. She puts the rest of the dumplings in her old basket and hangs its woven handle in the crook of her arm. Turning, she moves to the solitary door at the rear of the shack, pushes it open, and steps out onto the small porch beyond. As she shuts the door, her home hits another large happening, and everything lurches to one side. Steadying herself, she cringes at the sound of things rustling and banging together inside her tiny home. When things move too far, it takes her a good while to find them again.

Securing the basket, she crosses the narrow porch toward the thundering sounds emanating nearby: the deep and faithful roar of six Theryls, galloping in their tireless way. She opens the small gate in the middle of the porch and moves out onto the gangway leading down the center of the harnessed team, three of the majestic beasts to a side.

Boo comes first, a habit she rationalizes as mere routine, but he really is her favorite; they’ve had too many adventures together to help from loving him more. The animal’s head swings over to nuzzle her, his nose like cold sandpaper brushing below her ear. Before she can even get the treat out of the basket, her old friend takes it from her, his coarse tongue scratching her palm. She slaps his neck fondly, and Boo squeals with delight, sounding like one of the worn axles below her feet.

Continuing down the tight boardwalk, she feeds each of the team members in turn, and they take their food and eat without breaking step. There’s more than enough calories in the bits of mysterious fruit to keep them galloping along for what she likes to consider a day. Another round of dumplings tomorrow will keep them going for that day, and so on and forever. Coupled with the overflow of water sloshing in the troughs ahead of each animal, the Theryls remain well-nourished, if over-worked.

She thanks each of them in turn and wishes them well before feeling her way back to the porch. Turning right, she moves between the two old trunks that face each other. The woman lowers herself to one—the one she never opens—and lifts the lid on the other. She places the basket inside and pulls out the old flightsuit, neatly folded. First, she shakes it out in front of her, feeling for the zipper, and then she works it over her thin legs.

The suit has plenty of room to spare, more with each passing day, it seems. She forces her stiff arms back and into the sleeves, then zips up the front. Next, she pulls out the old helmet. Her fingers brush over a dent; their wrinkled pads come across a deep scrape repaired with epoxy long ago, and those twin robbers return, tossing through her past and forcing her to gasp for air.

She remains still for a moment, only her hand moving as it rubs the smooth visor. Eventually, she remembers where she is. Reaching inside, she makes sure the red band is arranged just so—the seam in the back. The shell comes down over her head, the fit still nice and snug. She tucks her longish, wispy hair down into the collar of her flightsuit before locking the helmet into place.

The world outside falls pleasantly silent, reminding her of the vacuum of space. She enjoys the sensation for a moment before standing and pushing the side gate open. Keeping a grip on the rail, she steps out into the horizontal rain and works her way toward the front of the shack, the water droplets pelting her with more force than usual. They pop up and down her suit like gunfire, tingling and tickling. Now and then, a large drop explodes against her visor with a sharp crack. She ducks her head and pushes into it, her curiosity swelling even further.

At the front of her shack, she turns to follow the porch around the wall of tin and crouches down where the rail splits. Ahead of her, sticking out beyond the forwardmost axle of her home, lies a curved wooden frame covered in slick leather, like a saddle for her entire body. With practiced ease, she stretches out and slides across the wet surface, grasping the metal handles at the far edge.

Pulling herself into place, she wiggles until she feels comfortable enough to endure the unmoving hours. Once she’s perfectly settled, she gropes for the seeing-device mounted in front of her and makes a few adjustments. Lying on her belly at the front of her speeding cabin, she imagines she looks like a mermaid carved onto the prow of a ship, or a figurehead for some strange procession. She smiles and lifts her visor, the rain glancing off her back as she brings the old scope close to her helmet. Pressing the seeing-cups to her eyes, she lowers her chin to keep most of the driving rain out and blinks several times, her lashes whisking across the lenses they are so close.

With the cover on the front of the device closed, her world continues to be as pitch-black as ever to her blinded eyes. The irony of it all never gets old to her: she lives in a place called the Land of Light and can’t see a thing. Can’t, that is, unless she stares right into the source of it all: the singularity at the end of her cone-shaped world. It’s the point in hyperspace through which all photons in the universe flow. Through which all time moves.

The shack shudders again; she squeezes the saddle with her knees as it passes. On the other side of the cabin, the Theryls do a noble job of keeping her home in place, holding it against the inevitable slide back into the past. They toil while she watches. That’s their existence, hers and the animals’. It’s their lives at the edge of hyperspace: a daily vigil into all events, some of which have not yet happened. Her task is to sort through them, looking for the bad things, warning of them cryptically lest someone abuse the knowledge, lest things happen before they should.

Mostly, though, she remains on watch for the worst things she’s foretold, things she predicted long, long ago. She continues to observe, looking for any sign of them and hoping to be daily disappointed.

Rain streaks off the scope and flies back inside her helmet, a torment she has grown used to. The small drops gather forces, forming rivulets. They march in columns through her flightsuit, down her nakedness underneath and out the holes she’d cut in the bottom of the suit’s feet. She holds her eyes tight to the cups as she opens the cover at the end of the cylinder, letting the compressed photons slide through the tubes and their narrow slits.

Inside the device, quanta of time and light do remarkable things. Approaching the side-by-side slits, the particles multiply, dividing and reproducing in order to pass through every gap, obeying simple but strange laws of physics. On the other side of the filter—before the photons can coalesce and continue their journey as one—they are interrupted by the woman’s eyes. They bombard her blind orbs while they’re still split apart, and thereby reveal their inner mysteries.

The woman blinks reflexively, even though her ocular nerves no longer function properly. The visions that fill her head can be seen even with her lids closed. The sights move like neutrinos, boring straight through her skull and leaving hazy images behind. She sees visions of reflected events, of some things long-ago, and many things that have not yet happened.

Not yet.

She focuses on the day’s images while another bump rocks the cabin, the shudder followed by a sheet of thick rain. The woman watches the images blur together. The visions are like overlapping transparencies; bringing just one layer into focus requires a force of will, a practiced bit of mental gymnastics. It feels as if she must squeeze her concentration like a muscle.

The visuals shimmy before forming into solid pictures, confusing at first. They’re large and jarring, hitting her like a bump in time.

Her head comes away from the seeing device with a start, her lids blinking across brown eyes with their yellow starbursts at the center. She leans forward and peers into the light once again, wary from the many false positives she’s been fooled by in the past, the many strange things that always end up being nothing. Or at the very least, a different sort of something.

She studies the images intently, focusing her perception, needing to make sure… but there isn’t any doubt:

The Bern.

Thousands and thousands of ships, some of them carrying hundreds of smaller ships, are arranged in a grid for battle; they’re jumping into her land from a dozen different galaxies. She sees them crossing through hyperspace before forming up in the midlands—that part of the sideways cone where the snow flies. She sees them preparing to invade the Milky Way, sees them sliding through an open rift and out over a dry and dusty land. She sees death and destruction on a scale the universe normally reserves for the ends of time.

The old woman waits for the scene to change, for any indication that this is the future, but it remains solid. Unwavering. And in a land where things happened out of sequence, where cause and effect have to be re-learned, where it’s often impossible to distinguish what happened and in what order, she sees quite clearly that this has already begun.

“Mortimor!” she thinks. She focuses the word into the red band, sending it out to all the other paired bands, the devices that can intercept even the softest of thoughts through hyperspace and beyond.

“Pops, can you hear me?”

She waits.

If he can hear her, he doesn’t think it. The red band remains silent.

And so the woman known as the Bern Seer lies motionless on her leather saddle, zipping along just before the very edge of time. Ahead of her, a scene she once glimpsed with blind eyes plays out yet again, only clearer this time. The frightening visuals dominate her senses, downing out the other events taking place elsewhere. She’s left with only the Bern to watch.

And a lifetime of doubts, an eon of fears that she had seen incorrectly, or had started a panic over some fleeting dream, gradually washes away. Those old worries regarding her senility are driven off by a flood of the now. A flood of horror.

Countless years she has endured, waiting, living with the anxiety of having possibly been wrong.

And suffering the even worse terror that she may have been right.

Part XI – Worlds Apart

“It isn’t the distance that tears—it’s what’s stretched between.”

~The Bern Seer~

1

“My name is Mortimor Fyde, son. Welcome to hyperspace.”

“Hello,” Cole asked out loud, “is anyone there?”

He shook his head. His thoughts were still rattled from the crash landing, his vision partially blinded from the harsh light outside. He knelt on the buried canopy of the stolen and upturned Firehawk and groped for the strange voices he thought he’d heard during the crash.

It was nearly impossible to concentrate, however, with someone else trying to yell at him. Riggs, his former Academy mate and friend, hung overhead, strapped to the nav chair, completely restrained. Cole could see the whites of his eyes glaring down at him, his cheeks puffing out around the tape, his nostrils flaring with rapid, shallow breaths. In the dull, green glow of the emergency lightstick, Riggs’s angered visage seemed outright menacing, like a monster eager to attack. He grunted more unpleasantries through the tape and shook his head side to side, his eyes squinting with rage.

“Okay, hold on,” Cole said. He stood and reached for a corner of the tape. “Stop struggling.”

Riggs held still, but his eyes tunneled straight through Cole. The tape came off with a loud ripping sound, followed by a bout of cursing.

“You flanker!” Riggs yelled. “What in hyperspace have you done?” He shook his shoulders, struggling against the restraints and the flight harness.

The sight of Riggs’s bound arms made Cole wince with guilt. Tying him up had been necessary during his and Molly’s escape from the Navy, but after the brutal crash they’d just endured, the bindings seemed cruel and pointless.

“Cool your jets,” said Cole. “I’m just as confused as you are.” He touched the red band on his forehead, thinking as loud as he could, but the voices had gone silent. He took the Drenard invention off and held the lightstick close to check that the seam was in the back—

“Why’re we upside down?” Riggs yelled. “What’ve you done? Get me out of here, Cole, I mean it.”

“Okay, okay, just save the air. There’s atmosphere here, but I don’t know what’s in it.” Cole stuffed the band in his breast pocket and reached up to undo the restraints around his old friend’s elbows and hands. “Don’t get crazy, okay? I’m gonna untie you.”

As soon as one of Riggs’s hands came free, he slapped Cole’s away and worked on the other strap himself. “Where in hyperspace did you take us?”

“Funny you should ask like that.” Cole watched Riggs fumble with his harness; he jumped aside just in time. Riggs landed on the inverted canopy with a thud and a crunch.

Cole went to help him up. “If my sources are… well, unless I’m hearing things, we might be in—”

Before he could finish, Riggs was on top of him, swinging wild blows with his fisted flight gloves.

“Stop it!” Cole yelled. He grabbed one of Riggs’s arms after a blow grazed the side of his head. Pulling down on the arm, he twisted his body and tossed Riggs over his hip. Riggs spun and landed with his back against the glass canopy; Cole fell on top of him, spreading his weight out to hold his old friend in place.

“Stop,” he said again as he groped for the lightstick. It had rolled beneath them, reducing the glow to almost nothing.

Riggs panted hard in the darkness; he twisted his shoulders and hips in an attempt to buck Cole off.

“Listen to me—”

“Flank you.”

“Seriously, Riggs, listen. Hold still—”

“Get the flank off me!”

“Okay, I’m getting off, but no blows. Just relax for a second.”

He got off Riggs and backed to one side of the upturned cockpit. Riggs scrambled away, grabbing the lightstick as he went and holding it out between them.

Cole showed his palms and tried to imagine how his old friend must see him: some mad vigilante—a dangerous criminal. There was the theft of Parsona, the death of Admiral Lucin, and what had happened on Palan during the floods. He knew none of it looked good, especially the recent act of kidnapping Riggs and escaping from the Navy, which he couldn’t even begin to deny.

“Hey,” Cole said. “I’m not gonna try and convince you I’m innocent—”

“Good,” spat Riggs.

“I’m not even gonna ask you to put aside your hatred of me—”

“Trust me, I won’t.”

“Fine. But unless I’m hearing voices, we need to get out of here, which means working together if you wanna stay alive long enough to kill me yourself.”

Riggs seemed to consider the logic behind that. “Yeah. Fine,” he said. He waved the lightstick around the cockpit, taking in the scene of the crash. “As long as you understand, I’m gonna do that as soon as possible.”

“But not right now?”

“Probably not,” Riggs said, glaring at him. “So, where are we?”

Cole wondered how to break the news, or if he was just being delusional. He felt for the red band in his breast pocket as the illumination from the lightstick faded, leaving them in complete darkness.

“Damn,” Riggs said. “My eyesight’s screwed.”

“Mine too,” said Cole. The large spot in his vision had broken up, replaced with a dozen smaller dots that danced around like flying, glowing creatures. He hoped the change was a good sign—the searing light they’d encountered upon arrival seemed powerful enough to do permanent damage.

“These things suck,” Riggs said, banging the lightstick against the canopy. Cole could hear him cracking it back and forth to get a bit more glow out of it.

“It was in my suit, the one from Parsona. It’s an old design. The Naval emergency kits are under out seats, we need—”

“I know where the kits are, you Drenard. This is my ship and I stowed them there.”

“Jeez, okay, then help me get them down. We need the—”

“The biosticks, yeah. Tell you what, Cole, let’s agree I outrank you so you can stop pretending you’re in charge here.”

Cole watched a dark silhouette fumble near one of the hanging seats.

“I’m a captain,” Riggs continued, “and you’re not even a navigator anymore.”

“Drop the Navy crap,” Cole said. “It means nothing right now.”

One of the emergency kits fell to the glass. Riggs pushed past Cole and started unstrapping the other one. “To you, maybe, but just because the Navy dropped you doesn’t mean I need to drop the Navy crap.”

Cole reached into the soft case and felt for the cylindrical biosticks; they would last a lot longer than the older lightsticks from whatever era Molly’s parents had salvaged them from. He gave one of them a half-twist, lining up the two inner chambers with each other. The cockpit filled with a soft, blue glow as bioluminescent creatures came out of hibernation and began to feed.

Cole held up the stick—and the first thing he saw in the new glow was Riggs turning to punch him in the nose.

New flashes of light sparked in his vision to join the dull, persistent ones. Cole threw his hands up to fend off the next attack, but it didn’t come.

That’s for tying my ass up,” Riggs said. “When I kill you later, it’ll be for what you did to Lucin.”

Cole didn’t dare defend himself and get that argument raging again. Besides, he had shot their old Academy instructor in the back. No point in trying to explain why. He reached up and felt his nose. It was sore, but not broken. Pulling his hand away, he saw he wasn’t bleeding, either, just stunned.

The ambient blue light doubled in intensity as Riggs pulled a second biostick from the other kit and activated it. Cole nearly chastised him for not rationing the supplies, but the lines in Riggs’s brow suggested it might be a bad idea. Instead, Cole peered down at the canopy, their only exit. The entire bubble of glass was buried in the ground, blocking off the crazy light outside, but also their chance of escape. Cole couldn’t believe the carboglass had held. If that was solid ground they’d hit, the entire nose should’ve crumpled up around them. He lowered the biostick toward the glass, but he couldn’t see anything through the cockpit—just a dark mass pressing against the clear shield.

“Is there any point in trying to slide the canopy back?” Cole asked.

“Only if it kills you before it kills me.”

Cole swung his biostick around to illuminate the space between them. He studied Riggs’s face intently. “Listen, man, I’m serious. We need to put this aside and think. Be rational.”

“Fine.” Riggs looked around the cockpit, and Cole did the same. The two flight seats hung overhead, and the canopy rose up to the inverted dash, where every control was blank and dark. At the rear of the cockpit stood the flat wall separating the crew from the flight systems: the life-support, engines, and hyperdrive.

“The landing gear,” Riggs suggested.

“Yeah? What about them?”

“Did you lower them?”

“No. Why? What are you thinking?”

Riggs pointed with his biostick toward the metal panel bolted aft of the seats. “We go out through the landing gear shafts. There’s a maintenance tunnel that runs the length of the ship big enough for the grease monkeys to crawl through. We just need to unscrew that panel—” Riggs fumbled in his kit. “Should be a multi-tool in here.”

“Good thinking.”

“Thanks,” Riggs said. “It isn’t something you can learn from a simulator. Hell, if you hadn’t tied me up, I betcha I could’ve landed this thing with my left hand.”

Cole bit down on what he wanted to say; there was no room in the tight confines of their predicament for making Riggs angrier. He’d rather take more blows right on his nose and keep smiling, wearing out Riggs’s rage with a bit of patience.

“Lower the gear with the manual crank while I work on the panel,” Riggs instructed.

“Okay,” Cole said, as pleasantly as he could muster his voice. If they were going to survive this together, he was going to have to build up some trust.

He would start by carefully and meticulously restraining himself for a change.

2

Following her controversial speech before the Circle, Anlyn travels to the Great Rift, accompanied by Edison and an escort of volunteers.

They hope to be present for the invasion foretold by prophecy.

They don’t yet know they are at the wrong rift.

“What are you doing?”  Rend asked. He yanked Dor’s hand away from the weapons rack.

“I was just going to touch it!” Dor insisted.

“Are you crazy?” Rend eyed the lance warily. The large weapon stood upright in a padded harness parallel to a dozen others. It rested there as if it were no different than its neighbors, but he knew better. “That’s Lord Campton’s lance,” he said in a hushed whisper, never taking his eyes off it. “The Lance of a Thousand Suns.”

“A thousand suns? That’s ridiculous.”

“Well, I heard it was forged from the magma of Hori I and Hori II and pounded into shape on the coldest corner of Drenard’s dark side.”

Dor narrowed his eyes. “Those are fairy tales, like flying Wadi. How old are you?”

“Same age as you, hot-head, but my dad was there when the lance was wielded for the first time. He said it went off with the power of a thousand suns, and that it made a noise like the universe coming alive.”

“Your dad’s been in the Wadi juice, sounds like.”

“No he hasn’t, my dad—”

Anlyn cleared her throat behind the bickering boys before the argument could get personal. The volunteer peacemakers spun around, and she took as much pleasure in their shocked expressions as she had amusement in their whispered delusions.

“Am I interrupting?” she asked.

“Princess Hooo,” Rend said—

Lady Hooo,” Dor whispered, elbowing his friend. He shrugged for Anlyn, as if he couldn’t be held responsible for his crewmate’s imprecise knowledge of royal etiquette.

“I’m sorry, Lady Hooo,” Rend said, “I forget you’re engaged. We were just talking about Lord Campton and his lance. My father was there for the speech. He saw—well…” The poor kid glanced at the lance, seemingly miserable with nerves. His hands squeezed fistfuls of his outer tunic as he fidgeted in place.

Anlyn gave each of the boys a serious look as she walked around them and approached the weapons rack. She rested a hand reverently on Edison’s lance. “It belonged to one of my uncles,” she said. She turned to Rend and Dor. “A guard once used it to cut a friend of mine in two. Lord Campton later turned it into a symbol of peace, not war.”

“Told you,” Dor said to Rend.

Rend ignored him. “I heard it was you who used it in the Pinnacle, that the great speech came about because of…” Rend gazed at the lance.

Anlyn could sense he wanted to touch it. She pressed the pad of her finger to the security harness and the clamps clacked open. Pulling it from the rack, she turned around and held it out to the two lads.

Dor reached for it eagerly. Rend grasped the other half as if the lance were as fragile as Thooo eggs.

“Don’t touch the trigger,” she warned them.

Neither boy looked up; they just nodded and turned the large device over and over, inspecting the royal markings and the electrical modifications Edison had made. Rend ran his hand down to the Wadi hook on the one end while Dor tested the point on the other side with a cautious finger.

“I would let you inspect it further,” Anlyn said, “but I actually came to retrieve it before our meeting with the Rift Commander.”

“It was an honor, Lady Hooo,” Rend said. He pulled the lance away from Dor and extended it to her. “I would love to speak with you sometime, perhaps hear more of your interpretations of the prophecy.”

“I would enjoy that as well, peacemaker. And it would please me to hear your interpretation. Now, return to your duties. There will be time enough to gossip while we wait for the prophecy’s fulfillment. For all we know, we may have years together for swapping tales.”

Both boys smiled and bowed low, pulling their outer cloaks up to their chins. Anlyn returned the gesture with one hand, touching the  deck with the tip of the lance as she did so. She then moved off in the direction of the embassy ship’s cockpit, smiling to herself.

Behind her, she could hear one of the boys whispering excitedly. Something about “a thousand suns” and “Wadi queens.”

••••

Anlyn kept the end of the Wadi lance just off the deck as she made her way to the cockpit. Several crewmembers and peacemakers greeted her as she passed, bowing low and grasping the edges of their tunics. Anlyn returned the stiff formalities, but all the time-consuming ceremony just heightening her eagerness to join Edison near the bow of the ship. She felt herself hurrying, needing to be near him. She passed through the narrow communications room and crossed the staff corridor, pausing to wave to the off-duty crew dining in the officer’s mess. She then turned toward the nose of the large starship and hurried down the wide central passageway. As she went through the last sliding door, she found Edison waiting for her just outside the cockpit, mindful as always of her fear of going inside.

“Pleasant awakenings,” Edison said, greeting her in his thick, growling English.

Anlyn stepped into his embrace. Her head rested against his belly, her Glemot lover a full meter taller than she.

“Pleasant awakenings to you,” she cooed. She wrapped one arm as far around him as she could and remained there, taking deep breaths. Of all the things she missed about her time aboard Parsona—excepting Molly’s and Cole’s company, of course—she most regretted no longer being able to sleep on Edison’s chest, warm and safe. Now that they were back among her people and Counselors of the Circle, certain decorum had to be observed.

They had planned on marrying, on making their union official, but had promised Molly and Cole they wouldn’t do so until they were all back together. That impulsive and sincere vow had now created the distinct possibility that the marriage would never occur, but they had decided to respect the wishes of their friends. And—as Edison had once put it in his awkward English—they would respect “her culture’s non-optimal stance on betrothal co-habitation.”

Anlyn pulled away from him and gazed up at the silky coat of fur sticking out of his tunics and at the intelligent, bright eyes below his strong brow. She patted his arm and glanced into the cockpit. “Are we there yet?” she asked, unable to see anything over the flight crew, as everything in the ship was built for the height of a Drenard male.

“Approximately,” Edison said. “I have a visual.” He looked down at his lance, which Anlyn held with one hand. “Will that be required?”

“No, but it does carry a certain mystique, which may help.”

Edison frowned.

“I know how you feel about the prophecy stuff, but we’ve gotten quite far on superstition, so wield it as if you believe.” She handed him the lance. “Are you ready?”

Edison grunted. “Approximately.”

Anlyn smiled. She thanked the flight crew without stepping inside, then the two of them turned and set off for the airlock. Once again, the walk was punctuated with bows and raised tunics. Anlyn fought the urge to politely wave them along; she participated in each ritual as she attempted to build solidarity amongst her crew. With Dani’s help, she had hand-picked each crewmember from a legion of volunteers. They had initially thought it would be impossible to find a full ambassadorial complement to accompany her to the Great Rift, but the opposite problem had occurred: so many believers of the Bern Prophecy had shown up that most had to be turned away. And—instead of looking for the few faithful—they had found themselves weeding out the truly fanatic, searching among them for the rare moderate and temperate heads.

A second and larger worry had arisen during their selection process: sniffing for the moles her ex-fiancée Bodi had attempted to plant within the mission. It wasn’t a question of whether some had made it through, but how many.

And what they had planned.

••••

For security reasons, the embassy ship was not allowed to couple with the Rift Keep. A shuttle met them several hundred kilometers out and ferried them to the command corner of the great structure: a small outpost kept separate from the living and business sectors, accessible only by ship.

Anlyn and Edison admired the Keep from their padded seats as the shuttle pilot transferred them over. Like other defensive keeps from the histories of so many races, its position had been determined by tactical necessity. Of course, where most keeps of old were placed on high overlooks, along critical waterways, or by the mouths of important Wadi canyons, the Great Keep stood in the middle of nowhere, out in the vast expanse of empty space. Because that’s precisely where the Bern Rift had been discovered so many eons ago.

“Approximate its diameter,”  Edison said, peering through the glass.

Anlyn looked out her porthole at the Keep, even though she knew the answer by heart. The scaffolding of the structure formed a mesh of metal, like a giant cage hanging in the vacuum of space. Ribbons of steel crisscrossed from one side to the other, creating a tangle of obstructing debris around the tear. It looked like something in mid-construction, but it had been completed many Hori cycles ago.

“It’s just over a thousand kilometers across,” she told Edison.

He grunted, obviously impressed.

Anlyn turned to him and smiled; it wasn’t often she saw him in awe of Drenard-built things. The sensation filled her with pride for her race, even as the reason for having constructed the Great Keep gave her a shiver of fear.

“And central to the structure?” Edison put a claw against the glass, pointing toward the occasional flash of golden light emanating from within the keep.

“The stuff in the middle? That’s the armored cube right across the tear. If you think of the cosmos as having a wound, that’s the bandage.”

“Increase specificity,” Edison said, reminding Anlyn just who she was dumbing things down for. She rooted around in her childhood studies, then recited in a sing-song manner:

“It’s saturated fluoroalkane in gold alloy armored canisters. The fluorine and carbon are bonded together, making them extremely inert, therefore hard to demolish from the other side.” She took a deep breath. “Still, the Bern do find ways to destroy it now and then. It’s a constant battle to keep enough in place that nothing gets through.”

Edison turned and looked toward the cockpit of the shuttle. His brows were down, his eyes unfocused.

Anlyn smiled at him. “Oh, my. Did I just get too technical for you?”

“Hmm?” He turned to her. “No, I lapsed into ruminations. What prevents the Bern from employing a Birch reduction using electride salts? The ejected anion would destabilize the bond, resulting in one-four cyclohexadienes. Reacting through the rift on such a solution would be elementary, especially considering the electrical conductance of the golden vessels.”

Anlyn shook her head. “Do what?

“A Birch reduction. Using electride—”

“No, no.” Anlyn waved her arms. “Forget it. Look, talk to some of the physicists about—”

“Chemists,” Edison corrected.

“Okay, talk to the chemists about that. The point is, the stuff works. Mostly.”

Mostly? Elaborate further.”

“Well—”

Before she could elaborate further, telling him about the frequent escapes and the methods used to chase blockade runners down, the shuttle thumped against the locking collar of the Keep and it was time to depart. One of the flight crew exited the cockpit and opened a hatch forward of them. He bowed and waved them through as Edison and Anlyn left their seats and approached the door.

“Thank you,” Anlyn said, as much for rescuing her from the conversation as for the flight. She bowed and then stepped out of the shuttle and into one of the many connecting tubes ringing the Great Rift Keep. Through the transparent passage, she could see the vast network of visisteel corridors stretching out for hundreds of kilometers in every direction. They converged on each other like a Drenard freeway, further than the eye could see. Several shuttles buzzed along the perimeter, their hulls twinkling with navigation lights as they ferried workers from one part of the Keep to another.

Strolling down the passageway to greet them was Lord Bishar Nooo, the Commander of the Keep. Anlyn recognized him more by his elaborate tunics than his face. They were family—as she could tell by his outermost layers—but they had never actually met.

“Anlyn Hooo,” he said in greeting, using her common name. He bent over and embraced her fondly. “You must be Edison,” he said, showing his palms and bowing, his eyes darting to the lance held by the Glemot’s side. “Pleased to have you both.”

Are you?” Anlyn asked. “I’d heard you weren’t amused with our mission.”

Bishar smiled. “Let’s walk,” he said, waving them along the tube. A dozen meters or so from the locking collar, the passage opened into the command center, the military heart of the Keep.

Anlyn followed, looking down at the grav panels visible in the floor of the visisteel tube. They not only provided physical weight, they also seemed to manufacture psychological comfort. She didn’t suppose it would feel pleasant to walk across solid visisteel and nothing else, not with the cosmos hanging on all sides.

“Unsuitable for agoraphobics,” Edison mused in English, obviously thinking the same thing.

“What was that?” Bishar asked, turning to face them.

“My betrothed said this place would be unpleasant for people frightened by open places.”

Bishar laughed. “Without question. Our job, though, is one of constant vigilance. There are outbreaks now and then, and every staff member carries a warning device and possesses a keen eye.” He patted the small object hanging around his neck, nestled in the folds of his outer tunic. “The visisteel makes sure nothing is missed, and a battalion of Interceptors are always on standby, ready and alert.”

“A full battalion? Even with the extermination of the Humans underway?”

Bishar frowned. “Let’s not call it an ‘extermination,’ shall we? It will mean an end to the hostilities in the rest of the galaxy, which will eventually make our job here that much easier. Until then, there will be some cutbacks, of course, and some pilots taking extra shifts. Come, step inside.”

Bishar waved them through a set of clear blast doors and into a room full of manned consoles glittering with purposeful lights. The walls, ceiling, and most of the floor were transparent, creating an uncanny scene of hovering workspaces amid a backdrop of stars, nebulae, and woven strips of steel.

“Cutbacks?” Anlyn asked, pressing the point home. She watched as Edison wandered to one of the control booths and peered over an operator’s shoulder, probably figuring out how to rebuild the entire machine from twigs and grasses if he had to.

Bishar looked down at her, frowning. Like Edison, he was nearly a full meter taller than her and he stood close by, as was the habit of Drenard males. Also habitual was the intimidating sensation this elicited from Anlyn; she turned to gaze out at the Keep beyond the glass rather than strain her neck looking upwards.

“The cutbacks aren’t too severe,” Bishar said. “Besides, we’ve seen an incredible reduction in breakthrough attempts over the past few sleep cycles. We’ve been able to rest up two entire regiments as we prep some of the pilots for transfer to the war effort. It’s a small sacrifice for the defense of the empire.”

“There’s been a drop-off in breach attempts?”

“Quite. Practically to nothing, in fact. Perhaps that’s why you find me in such a pleasant mood, Cousin. Besides, it’ll be a Wadi Winter before you convince me that anything will come of your little plan.”

Bishar laughed in the panting, breathy Drenard way. “Ambassador to the Bern!” he said. “That’s as good as they get!”

Anlyn frowned and waited for him to settle down. “I’m afraid it isn’t your call, Cousin. It’s entirely within my rights as a Councilman of the Circle and member of the royal line to make diplomatic gestures to a hereto uncontacted race of sentient beings—”

“Spare me,” Bishar said, waving his hand. “Uncontacted is a stretch, and you know it. Besides, nobody knows the Scrolls better than I. Ever since the Rift was discovered and the Keep created, the old hierarchy has ceased to apply here. Anything that comes out of the Rift will continue to be hunted down and exterminated. Period. You can sign treaties with the ensuing debris, if you like.” Bishar smiled. “Now, I’ve set aside suitable living quarters where you and your volunteers can get a good look at the entire process. You’re welcome to stay for however long your lunacy persists.”

Anlyn bristled. “As second in—”

Bishar waved her off. “I heard about our uncles, and I know where you stand in the royal line. However, even if you and your furry friend manage to one day scrounge up a male heir—and let’s say the hybrid boy assumed the title of king—even then, you’ll not have jurisdiction here. The importance of this job grants me full immunity from our family’s politics, from your superstitious followers, and thank Hori it walls me off from the Council’s petty squabblings.”

Anlyn turned her back once more, this time to hide the disgust on her face. Then she saw it herself, clearly reflected in the visisteel. She realized Bishar could see it as well. There certainly seemed to be no hiding of anything on the Keep.

“There now, Cousin, let’s keep our temperate selves. If I’m being too cold, I assure you it’s with an inner warmth of mirth. These are exciting times for the Empire, a chance for lasting peace—”

An enormous explosion interrupted Bishar’s optimism. It registered all around them, blossoming like a new sun in a thousand panes of visisteel—a prismatic glory of destruction reflected everywhere at once.

The command room filled with sounds: beeping machines, alarms,  and cursing Drenards. Anlyn looked from one bright image to another, hunting for the original as all the workers reflexively slapped at the devices around their necks, triggering even more alarms.

“The ship,” Edison roared in English.

Anlyn turned and found him pointing, a quivering claw extending out toward one transparent wall. His gesture directed her to the sight of the original image, to the burning fury beyond the Keep responsible for all the false reflections.

Anlyn felt her body grow cold. She placed her hands on the visisteel, staring. Disbelieving. The ambassadorial ship had been replaced with a cloud of expanding fire and chunks of glowing steel.

Its crew. Her supplies. Everything.

They were all gone.

3

Two weeks after their struggle with Byrne, Molly and Walter search planet Lok for a member of the Drenard Underground.

Meanwhile, the rift they thought they’d prevented from opening releases ship after Bern ship.

The craft gather as a fleet in orbit.

Molly weaved her way through the dusty, crowded market full of anxious shoppers, the bark of hagglers, and the desperate leer of eager booth attendants. The place looked identical to the last five markets she’d visited in the last five dry husks that called themselves villages. And everywhere they went, the desiccated Lokian air attacked her in the same manner: it wicked the moisture from her mouth, substituting it for cotton. Even her Wadi, who rode along on Molly’s shoulder, seemed weary of her arid, childhood planet. The lizard-like creature’s normally active tongue remained in its mouth as its head bobbed lazily with Molly’s gait.

She scanned the crowd for Walter, which had become another familiar pattern. He was supposed to be helping her find an old friend of her mother’s, but Molly seemed to spend as much time looking for the troublesome Palan as she did hunting down the lady who could get them to hyperspace and back.

A young Callite snuck up and tugged on Molly’s sleeve, interrupting her thoughts. She turned and politely declined whatever he was selling. As she waved the boy off, however, something in a nearby glass case caught her eye—the shape of the thing popping out in her peripheral as intimately familiar.

“Relays and converters,” the boy said more insistently. He held up a basket of electrical parts in front of Molly and rattled them for effect.

“I have what I need,” Molly said. She patted the canvas sack dangling by her hip.

The boy ignored her and launched into his practiced spiel, detailing every sick member of his family and every atrocity committed by the Lokian government. Molly hardly heard him as she brushed past and moved toward the booth of used electronics. She knelt down by the display case and peered inside at the reader propped up on its stand. It was the same make as the one she’d lost on Palan, but just a few years older. There’d been a dozen instances over the past two weeks when she’d wanted one—not so much for reading a book as to have something to write in that her mother couldn’t access. She checked its condition while her Wadi pawed at its own reflection in the glass.

The reader appeared a tad beat up, but no more than a new one would after a few weeks of use. Molly studied the pads of her fingers: swollen and purple, they bore dozens of scabbed-over prick marks and throbbed with a dull, persistent ache. She hated the idea of bartering for any more supplies, but she really wanted that reader.

“Excuse me, how much for that one?” She looked up at the shopkeeper and pointed through the smeared glass.

The Callite booth attendant bent down behind the counter to see which one she was pointing to. He rubbed his brown, scaly jaw, and a forked tongue flicked out over his lips. “Three hundred,” he said in a gruff voice not yet accented by his time on Lok. “And, of course, a vote for the Freedom Party.”

Molly groaned and clenched her fists protectively. Beside her, the Wadi pulled its head back and shot out a forked tongue of its own. It wasn’t that Molly had anything against the Freedom Party—she didn’t care one way or the other about Lokian politics—she was just sick and tired of being polled in general.

“How much if I don’t vote?” she asked.

Through the glass, she could see the shopkeeper’s eyes narrow, his pupils squeezing into vertical slits. He stood and peered over the counter at her. “It’s the elections,” he said. “Everyone votes.”

Molly held up her hands, palms out, to show him her fingers. “I’ve already voted dozens of times. I’ll give you three-fifty for it.”

“The Freedom Party really needs your vote,” the shopkeeper whispered. His English was impeccable, obviously learned in an off-planet school and at a young age, nothing at all like the drawling slang common to Lokians and local Callites. He narrowed his eyes at her silence, the sideways lids coming together like elevator doors. “Don’t you care about what’s going on up there?” He pointed up to the tattered fabric roof of his stall. “The Navy is putting together a new fleet, disguised as aliens. The Liberty Party is behind it all.”

Molly shook her head but kept her mouth shut.

“What about my people?” the Callite asked, moving to a sales tactic Molly had heard too often. “Every day more and more are shipped out—”

“Only the illegals,” Molly interrupted, unable to contain herself. She looked down at the reader behind the glass, wondering if it was worth getting in an argument over.

“But now those shuttles are being shot down. My people are being daily murdered, and you hesitate to vote.”

“I’ve voted plenty,” she said.

The Callite hissed. “For all I know, half those marks on you are for the Liberty Party. The least you can do is cancel one out. And I’ll make it two-fifty.”

Molly blew out her cheeks. “Four hundred and no vote,” she said. “I promise you, I’ve voted Freedom twice as much as Liberty.”

A mother trailing three squealing kids approached, stopping for a moment to look in the shop’s display case. Molly and the Callite stared at one another, waiting for the family to move on.

“Fine,” he finally said, his pupils relaxing. “Do me a favor, though—” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Stick your finger in and pretend, just in case anyone’s watching. I can’t have you making this a trend.”

Molly nodded and reached gingerly into her front pocket to fumble for some chips. Her fingers were too injured and numb to tease the denominations apart by feel, so she brought a few of them out to look through. The Callite made a coughing sound at the sight of the money. Molly tried to curl her fingers around the small pile to hide them. She plucked out two decas and slid them across the counter.

The Callite nodded to the voting machine beside the register. It had become a familiar, fear-inducing sight with its Galactic Voting Company seal stamped on the side. It was about the size of a portable toolbox, but with a single opening on the front and two buttons on the top marked ‘F’ and ‘L.’ Molly noted the letter ‘F’ was nearly worn off the button, while the ‘L’ was shiny and new. Voting machines on Lok tended to bear the mark of their owners, rather than the political stance of its users.

Missing, of course, was any list of candidates—or any way to know who or what one was actually voting for. When Molly told her mom they’d arrived in the middle of an election cycle, she thought Parsona was going to fry a circuit board. After their first few supply runs and stays in a handful of small towns, Molly and Walter had discovered why: election years weren’t the safest of times to be running around, needing things. Most people stocked up well in advance.

The Callite swiped his arm over the two chips, and the money disappeared from the counter. He deposited them in the slit at the top of the register, where they fell a long way and landed with a hollow thunk. The keeper frowned, then reached to the top of the voting machine, pushing down the ‘F’ with a loud click.

“I appreciate this,” Molly said. She stuck her index finger into the machine, looking up and down the stalls at the milling shoppers to see if anyone was watching—

Without warning, the padded clamps inside the device squeezed around the joints of her finger, locking her digit in place. Molly whirled on the keeper, and her Wadi hissed.

She put her other hand on the face of the machine and tried to pull her finger out. The Callite placed both of his hands on top of the heavy device, holding it firmly in place. He leaned close.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just such an important election. Hold still, there’s only a tiny—”

Prick.

Her index finger had already been hit once that day in order to secure a full tank of water for Parsona. The metal needle hit that fresh wound, and it felt like a bullet ripping through the pad. Molly gasped as the pain shot all the way up to her elbow like an electrical current. She slapped the top of the counter with her other hand and bit her lip to keep from yelling out. The Wadi shot down her back, sticking its head under the hem of her shirt, its tail swishing madly.

With a loud click, the ‘F’ at the top of the machine popped up, and the chemicals in her blood logged one more vote for the venerable Freedom Party.

The clamps loosened soon after, and Molly withdrew her finger. She pressed it into her shorts, which were already spotted on both sides with brown dollops of dried blood. The Callite bent down and smiled as he removed the reader from the case. He laid it on the counter, and then dropped an “I Voted” adhesive healing strip on top of it.

Molly grabbed the reader and shook the strip off onto the counter. The stupid things just made her hands more useless.

“Thanks for shoppi—”

“Flank off,” Molly grumbled. She dropped the reader into her shopping bag of assorted fruits and hardware parts and shooed the Wadi to her shoulder. She stalked away from the booth, kicking up plumes of dust with her flightboots as she went.

All around her buzzed yet another dry, dusty village she couldn’t wait to get out of. And as soon as she found Walter and finished her latest project on the ship, that’s exactly what they’d be doing. For the past two weeks, they’d traipsed halfway across her birth planet looking for an old acquaintance of her mother’s: a Callite that went by the name of Cat. The ephemeral alien possessed an uncanny blend of notoriety and elusiveness. Everyone knew her, had recently seen her, but wherever they gestured, Molly and Walter found only another trace of her passing—another nod and extended arm pointing them ever after the mysterious woman. But now Molly had a solid lead on Cat’s whereabouts, even though she loathed where it was taking her.

High above the small village, another Bern ship tore through Lok’s atmosphere, its passage marked with a loud rumble. Molly fought the urge to look up, to see which direction it was heading. Like the other ships, it no doubt came from her father’s old place, leaving the rift she had failed to close. Whatever Byrne had done, it had been enough. Or, if her mother’s guess was right, it wasn’t the old rift they were coming through at all, but rather the new one Byrne’s body had made when it was zapped out of existence. Molly wasn’t sure which scenario made her feel more guilty. Either she’d failed to stop him from opening the old rift, or her life had been saved by the same act that now threatened the rest of the galaxy. Either way, a door to a very bad place was currently open, and Byrne’s fleets were pouring through. Her feeble, bumbling efforts to stop him had come too late and proved too little.

Molly walked faster as the ship roared up into orbit, her cheeks burning with the memory of her failure. She concentrated on looking straight ahead, ignoring the complaints from the other market-goers. Even though none of them could possibly know of her involvement, the presence of the ships filled her with a paranoid dread, as if the annoyed crowds might suddenly realize the fault was hers and descend on her in the form of an angry mob.

“The Liberty party has the best plan for dealing with those things,” a lady walking behind her said. A male voice agreed, but a Callite walking the other direction didn’t. Molly quickened her pace even more as an argument broke out, the din of political discourse competing with the roar of thrusters vaporizing air.

If there was one thing she had learned and learned well regarding Lokian elections, it was that the process spilled copious amounts of blood. For votes and otherwise. And frankly, she was growing sick of the sight of the stuff.

As she left the squabble in her wake, she felt ever more impatient to do the same for the entire village. Her entire planet, even. All she wanted was to get to hyperspace, to find Cole, to be in his arms, and to see her father. Hopefully, the next stop would be their last. The problem was, Cat the Callite’s trail seemed to be taking them toward Bekkie, Lok’s capital city.

The absolute last place she wanted to be with elections looming.

4

Cole worked the manual crank to open the landing gear hatches and heard the distant hiss of air leaking inside the ship. He grabbed his helmet from the ground and snapped it on, even though his suit could only retain an hour or so of air. Riggs left his helmet off as he worked the last bolt out of the panel behind the seats. He pulled the sheet of flimsy steel free.

“Drenards, it’s freezing out there!” Riggs said. He turned to Cole and smiled at his closed visor. “The air’s fine, man. Frigid, but breathable.”

Cole lifted his visor and felt the draft of cool air on his face. It didn’t match the bright, searing light he’d seen during their rapid descent. “I wanna go first,” he told Riggs.

“Be my guest. I’d rather keep you in sight, anyway.”

Cole bit his tongue and grabbed one of the survival kits before ducking under the back of the hanging nav seat. He squeezed past Riggs and pushed the kit into the maintenance tunnel, then crawled head-first after it.

Cole held his biostick aloft as he worked his way across a series of jutting pipes and bundled wires. Above him, a smooth track ran into the distance, a mechanic’s car hanging from its rails just a few meters ahead. Inverted and useless, the track and car taunted Cole as he moved across a rough terrain of mechanical systems, trying not to cut his flightsuit open on any of the sharp hose clamps.

The air he crawled into became more frigid by the meter. Cole snapped his head forward, locking his visor down against the biting cold. He could see light coming in from an opening ahead, which reminded him of a little problem: the blinding light they’d encountered during the crash landing was still out there. Without the canopy filters, they’d be blinded in an instant.

“What’s taking you?” Riggs asked from behind.

Cole leaned on one elbow, his chest resting uncomfortably on a pump housing. He flicked his visor up and yelled back through the cold air: “That blinding light is still out there. It’s gonna be hard to see a thing.”

“Follow the grease-monkey track,” Riggs yelled up to him. “There’s a tool locker past the belly panel. Might be some welding plates in there.”

Cole nodded and continued forward, heading toward the bright shaft of light. It came down through the nose gear bay, just five meters or so behind the cockpit. The harsh rays filtered past the landing pads and the hydraulic gear. Soon, more spots danced in Cole’s vision. He thought his sight was getting worse until one of the spots flew through his open visor and hit him in the face.

It was snow. A flurry of dancing flakes streamed down through the open hatch.

Cole didn’t dare look up as he passed beneath the shaft. He kept his head down and stowed the emergency kit off to the side before heading deeper into the belly of the Firehawk.

“Damn, it’s snowing,” he heard Riggs say. “Doesn’t burn the tongue, either, so we’re good on water.”

Cole felt relieved to hear Riggs thinking like that. It gave him hope that they could work together to survive the mess they were in. He crawled over a piece of ductwork and felt the red band push into his ribs. It reminded him of the voices he’d heard during their crash landing. He wondered if they’d been real, or if he was just losing his mind. Maybe he had been hearing things amid all the alarms. Was he really in hyperspace? What did that even mean? Had he hallucinated the entire conversation?

He felt himself leaning toward the latter. They were probably on a planet, somewhere near the polar caps. Any time now, the Navy would trace their hyperspace signature and come to rescue them.

Well, rescue Riggs, anyway. They would want to imprison him.

He continued to crawl forward, not sure what to believe. Or even hope for.

“Should be right there,” Riggs hollered.

Looking back, Cole could see Riggs just past the pool of light and the descending snow. He had retrieved and donned his helmet, and his open visor already held a dusting of the white flakes. Riggs pointed to one side of the tunnel; Cole followed the gesture and recognized a handle on the hatch beside him. He rolled over to one side and flicked the compartment open. The door was just as upside-down as everything else, so he had to hold it up against gravity while he set the biostick inside. Grunting—his ribs resting on something hard and sharp—he tried to find a more comfortable position while he peered inside.

Most of the tools were still strapped in place, but several of the boxes had come loose in the crash. The gear had been stowed with a ton of combat Gs in mind, which meant the crash had been rougher than it felt. Cole thought about how he’d barely gotten his grav suit connected in time and shivered with delayed fear.

The compartment contained a lot of useful stuff. He grabbed a utility blade and leaned back on his shoulder, still holding the heavy door up. He stuffed the knife into one of the pockets on the front of his flightsuit.

“Did you find them?” Riggs asked.

Cole grunted and forced himself back on his side. “Not yet,” he hollered. He saw a large wrench strapped to one wall of the compartment and worked it loose, then propped it under the heavy hatch, holding it up. Letting go of the lid, Cole worked his head into the bin and started rummaging around by the soft, blue light of the biostick.

“Got ’em,” he said, his voice echoing in the metal compartment. He came out with three welding plates held together with a rubber band. Each of them should snap into the inside of their visors, hopefully providing protection from the light outside. One of them was marred with scratches and small blisters where bits of glowing metal had landed on it. Someone must’ve been welding as they held the plate in their hand, pretty much ruining the thing. Cole rolled over and slid the curved piece of plasteel into his hip pocket and looked for anything else useful. Satisfied with what he had, he turned around in the tight crawlspace, banging his helmet on some pipes as he wiggled back toward the shaft of light.

“One for each?” Riggs asked, looking at the dark plates of plasteel in Cole’s hand.

“Yup. And a third that’s in pretty bad shape. Here.”

They had to pop their helmets off to snap the plates to the insides of their visors. Every movement brought grunts of exertion as they tried to position themselves on mechanical systems that should’ve been above them, easy to access from the sliding mechanic’s cart.

Cole got his helmet back on and snapped the visor down. It made everything pitch-black, so he lifted it back up. He hadn’t done much welding, not since making it into flight school, but he could remember how you had to move the wand into place by feel, not able to see anything until the plasma arced out to whatever you were working on.

“I’m going first this time,” Riggs said. He had his helmet back in place, his visor open.

Cole nodded. He left his own visor cracked just enough to see where he was putting his hands and knees; the angle of the plasteel blocked off the blinding light from above.

Riggs worked both survival kits between the mechanic’s rails and up into the landing gear housing, a square column of hydraulic pistons, wires, and cables. He slowly wormed his way out of sight, his feet ascending up into the falling flakes of snow. Cole pushed behind and prepared to make the climb out as well.

“It’s cold as Pluto up here,” Riggs said, his voice muffled by his helmet. “I can’t see anything.”

Cole made his way up the struts of the extended landing gear, his head level with Riggs’s knees. He looked away and raised his visor a little more so he wouldn’t have to yell.

“Can’t see because it’s too bright?” Cole asked.

Riggs crouched down in the landing gear well, his boots perched on the retracting struts by Cole’s hands. He cracked his visor. “No, the plates work great, there’s just snow in every direction. The drifts look like they’re up to the ship’s belly on one side. A few more hours and we’ll be buried.”

Cole looked at the two survival kits lodged by the hydraulic reservoir. With heavy rationing, they contained enough food and supplies for a week at the very most. He thought about what they should salvage out of the ship. “Can we build a lean-to on the sheltered side of the hull?”

“I don’t know, man. The snow is coming in sideways, and there’s lots of it. Probably gonna cover the entire ship. Looks like you really screwed us big-time.”

Cole couldn’t look up to read Riggs’s face because of the light streaming down around him, but he could hear some of the raw malice returning to his old friend’s voice.

“I swear we jumped to open space,” was all he said in defense.

Riggs snorted. “Obviously.”

Cole grabbed the extended struts and swung himself around to the other side of the gear. He flipped his visor shut and climbed up the opposite side of the hydraulic pistons Riggs clung to.

“I’m gonna have a look,” he shouted.

“Be my guest.”

The smooth hydraulic arms were slick with oil and snow, causing Cole’s boots to slide around as he searched for a good perch. The welding plate made the world so dark he could barely see, even with the bright light beginning to filter in. Above, the sides of the landing gear well were lined with the open hatches that normally protected the skids when they were stowed. The flat plates of steel pointed up into the sky, creating two high walls Cole couldn’t get to the top of. He reached instead for the rear portion of the well, wrapping his gloves around the thick plating that formed the underbelly of the Firehawk’s fuselage. Hoisting himself into the bright light, Cole found the darkness replaced with a featureless landscape of snow and ice. The flakes in the air were huge, thick, and moving sideways. Moreso than the light wind seemed to warrant.

If fact, there didn’t seem to be much wind at all, not enough to explain snow moving horizontal to the ground. Suddenly, the incongruent mix of sight and sense induced vertigo, and Cole felt as though he were peering out through a window in a cliff face. He cracked his visor a little to see if perhaps the helmet was blocking out the wind.

Nothing.

He snapped the visor back in place, banishing the sliver of bright light that had attempted to work its way inside. Looking beyond the belly of the Firehawk, Cole noted the visibility would probably have been pretty good without all the driving snow—the visor seemed to filter the light perfectly.

Which means, Cole realized suddenly, the ambient air in this place is as bright as a cutting torch!

He checked out the side of the hull catching the drifting snow. Like Riggs had said, the level had already ramped up even with the massive bulk of the upturned ship. He lowered himself back down below the lip of the open hatch and cracked his visor; Riggs knelt across from him, clutching the other side of the landing struts.

“Give me one of the kits,” he told Riggs.

Riggs passed it up, and Cole worked the long strap over his helmet. He then pulled the utility knife out of his flightsuit and held it out to his former friend.

“What? I get to kill you know?” Through the crack in his visor, Cole could see a thin smile on Riggs’s lips.

“Maybe, but not directly. I want you to follow these wires from the landing gear down into the maintenance tunnel and cut them back as long as you can.”

“You gonna rappel down with them?”

“I want to see if the snow is packed enough to walk on. If not, we’re gonna be trapped here while we get buried alive.”

Riggs took the knife. “Joy,” he said. He worked his way down the well, tracing the wires and cutting them free of their zip-ties as he went.

A minute later, Cole pulled the free end of the wires up to him. He had a good seven meters of the stuff, more than enough to get to the edge of the snow.

He checked the other end of the wire to make sure it was secured to the hatch, and then began climbing out.

Riggs grabbed one of his boots before he could get very far. Cole looked down at the black visor peering up at him.

“Be careful,” he heard Riggs yell through his helmet, his voice muffled and distant. “Don’t die before I can kill you.” He shook the utility knife at him for effect.

Cole smiled behind his visor and pulled himself out, crawling all the way up on top of the metal belly of the Firehawk.

The surface had already iced up, making Cole’s boots slip as he tried to rise to his feet. Coupled with the vertigo of the sideways flurry, the slickness made him feel unstable and a tad nauseous. His brain wanted to lean into the snow, but there was no wind to hold him. His stomach flipped; he sank back to his hands and knees and decided to stay there, the survival pack dangling off one side of his back.

Cole kept one end of the wire wound tight around his glove and played the rest out behind him. It was a half-dozen meters to the edge of the white, fluffy snowbank that led up to the ship’s belly. The thick flurries in the air made everything fuzzy, but it seemed as if the bank was visibly growing and creeping forward, the large flakes piling up fast.

Riggs was right: they didn’t have very much time. If they didn’t figure out something quick, they were going to freeze to death in a large Navy-built coffin.

Cole crawled toward the snowbank, reaching it just as the mostly flat belly of the ship started curving down to the side. He pressed one gloved hand into the whiteness and felt the solidity of wet pack, not the dry stuff he feared he’d find. He crawled into it another meter until his knees crunched in the stuff, and then his boots. He worried about the dizziness, his head still reeling from vertigo, but at least the snow gave him more traction than the ice. Enough to think about standing up.

Before he could, he saw something strange in the snow. One of his gloves was inside a boot print. Cole lifted his hand and looked down at the impression, feeling even more turned around. He looked over his shoulder, back at the bare metal of the Firehawk’s belly, and saw his tracks through the snow—the parallel furrows created by his knees as straight as the wire trailing through them.

How did I make that impression? Cole thought.

When he looked forward again, the mystery resolved itself: out of a thick flurry of snow, he saw a boot a few meters away. Looking up, he saw there was a furry leg inside that boot—and a twin next to it. Together, they supported a humanoid wrapped in scraps of fur to the top of its head. Black goggles poked out of the mottled strips; the figure seemed to be staring down at him.

Cole reached one arm to the man. “Mortimor?” he shouted inside his helmet. He couldn’t believe it. He felt giddy with the thought of not just finding living beings out there, but possibly the very person he thought he’d heard during the crash, the last person he thought he’d ever meet in person.

The figure nodded his head as if he’d heard Cole.

But the gesture must’ve been a signal to whoever had crept behind him, because that’s where the blow to his neck came from.

Cole collapsed, his helmet striking the metal hull through a few inches of snow. The impact popped his visor open, letting in the searing light and the biting cold. Cole squeezed his eyes shut and tried to bring his hands up to close his helmet, but someone knelt on his back, bending his arms high in a direction they didn’t normally go. Cole felt the emergency kit being ripped off him.

Whoever it was barked out orders to someone else. He spoke English, but with a strange accent: “Check for more crew. Grab everything you can, fusion fuel first.”

“Why we still raiding?” someone else yelled. “Ain’t we getting outta here soon?”

“And leave this lovely weather? Hell, no. Now get moving. You’ll be buried in an hour.”

Several pairs of boots stomped away; Cole could feel the vibrations coming up through the fuselage and into his helmet. He yelled out to warn Riggs, but the person on his back twisted his arm up until his shouts turned into gasps. As Cole fell silent, fighting to breathe past the pain, he heard more sounds: the crunch of snow as someone approached from the other direction, stomping up the drift. Cole tried to peer ahead, to see who it was, but his visor was open too wide to hazard even a glance.

“Take this one to the sled. I’ll help Saul.”

The person on Cole’s back released him. Before he could move to close his visor, a new set of powerful hands—more than one pair—seized his arms. Cole was dragged forward; he dug his toes into the snow in protest. He tried to snap his visor shut by whipping his neck, but it had already frozen in place.

The men on either side had no problem handling his weight as they crunched down the bank of snow. They marched for what seemed a hundred meters or so. Cole heard more voices ahead; he kept his head down and his eyes tight, conserving his energy.

When they stopped walking, one of his escorts let go of his left arm. Cole didn’t hesitate; he spun in that direction, back around the guy holding his right arm and lashed out with one knee. It connected with something soft, causing his other arm to come free. He reached up and slammed his visor shut so he could see what he was fighting.

The blow to his stomach came just as he was blinking the world into focus. He doubled over. Something slammed into his right knee, buckling him. Cole fell to the snow as several people crashed down on his back, beating him unconscious.

5

Anlyn screamed. She ran out of the command center and down the hallway, the glass tube providing an anguishing and perfect view of the fiery destruction beyond.

The corridor beneath her feet trembled as Edison raced to her side, reaching for her as she collapsed to her knees.

“Nooo,” she whimpered. She covered her face with her hands so she wouldn’t have to see, but the flashing lights and warning alarms from the command room echoed off the glass around her, sliding through the cracks in her fingers and hammering home the reality of the loss—of the so many lives destroyed.

“It came from the Rift,” someone in the command center yelled.

Anlyn could hear Bishar screaming orders, demanding updates, and scrambling a regiment. She felt like the great paradox of burning ice—the frozen heart of the depressed wrapped in a flame of vengeance.

That didn’t come from the rift, she told herself. She knew. Bodi, her ex-fiancée, was responsible. It was an act of sabotage, designed to spare only her. It stunk of him. Immediate. Remorseless. Savage. The cowardice of asking lackeys to sacrifice their lives.

Anlyn looked at her palms. Below—past the grav panels and through the transparent visisteel—she could see ships darting out from their stations. She watched them as they roared toward the expanding cloud of debris.

Edison wrapped his arms around her as she fought valiantly to not break down. She felt like a Wadi canyon with its base eroded by the wind. Her shoulders shivered as if they threatened to topple off her body. Outside, all her hopes were scattering in a billion pieces. So many noble, valiant believers had been reduced to dust. Thinking of them—of the many faces, smiling and bowing in the corridors—it made the ridiculousness of her mission hit home. It made her feel lonely and young. A little princess, spoiled and spouting prophecy, journeying to the Great Rift because of some old words handed down through time.

The shame she felt—the guilt—they shattered floodgates already weakened by despondency. Anlyn sobbed into Edison’s fur. She heard his lance drop, felt him scoop her up into his lap.

Over his arm and through the tears, she watched a pointless fleet of emergency response ships circle the new nebula, looking for clues. The only good they did was to whip what remained into whorls and eddies of nothingness.

••••

“We caught something on vid,” Bishar said softly.

Anlyn tore her eyes away from the debris field. She had no idea how long she’d been staring, transfixed, into the blossoming cloud. She wiped her face and looked up at Bishar, then pushed herself from Edison’s lap. She took a few steps away from them both, trying to look less like the child she suddenly felt.

“It looks like a solid beam of light,” Bishar said. “It’s only there for a single frame, right before the explosion. We’ve never seen anything like it from the Rift. It’s—there’s nothing we could’ve—”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Anlyn told her cousin. “And it wasn’t the Rift’s. I know who did this, and I know why.”

“Cousin, I know you’re upset. We all are. Several among your volunteers had family here at the Keep. There will be a great cooling for all—”

Anlyn turned to face Bishar, her face as stern and serious as she could muster. “There will be a great burning, Bishar Nooo, that’s what there’ll be. And I do not doubt the Rift’s involvement out of some superstitious fancy—I know the work of my former suitor. Check your vid again, and tell me which direction that beam of light was going.”

“But Cousin, I already told you it was on a single frame. How do you suppose we determine the direction if we can’t see it moving?”

“I don’t expect we will. You have your bias and I have mine. They just point in opposite directions.”

Bishar rose to his feet and looked through the visisteel. “If what you say is correct, I’ll file the charges myself. There’ll be an investigation. The Circle will look into this—I’ll demand it.”

“The Circle is aflame,” Anlyn said, “and Bodi’s the torch. My mission here was our only chance at snuffing it.” She looked down the passage-way toward the control center. “I’ll not be surprised if the flash of light you saw was a message to the Bern, or that the reduced break attempts are no coincidence ahead of my coming—”

“Preposterous! I’ll hear your theories of jilted lovers and such barbarisms as this,” Bishar waved a hand at the scene beyond the glass, “but not of treason against the Empire. Not from the Circle, nor from any Drenard for that matter.”

“I wouldn’t put it past him,” she muttered.

Edison picked up his lance from the floor and rose, taking his place by Anlyn’s side.

“I detest supposition,” he said, looking out at the ships encircling the cloud. “All theories are testable, or they are not truly theories.”

“I don’t follow,” Bishar said. “Is he speaking English?”

Anlyn turned to Edison. “I think he’s saying we should go and see for ourselves. Is that right?”

Edison nodded.

Anlyn rested her head against his side and reveled in his warmth. She looked out at the swirling loss, at the stars of her galaxy beyond. Reflected in the glass, she could see the confusion on Bishar’s face.

“He means,” she told her cousin, “we need to enter the rift to know.”

Bishar gaped at Anlyn. “I hated the idea of you hanging out here with a full complement of peacekeepers while you waited on some insane prophecy to come true. What makes you think I’ll go along with this plan?”

Anlyn looked over at him; she noted the way his hands clenched the sash across his tunics.

“Because,” she said, “I asked the former as is my right and duty as a member of the Circle, a right you were prepared to deny. I ask you now as my cousin—”

“A cousin I hardly know!” Bishar shook his head. “I’m sorry, but what you need now is some rest while my men investigate. You can burn away your woe in peace and think with a cooler head come morrow.”

“Come morrow, I will be on the other side of that rift or I’ll be dead by your hands,” Anlyn said. “For that’s what you’ll have to do to stop me.”

Bishar laughed, but eyed Edison warily. “Nonsense, Cousin. To stop you, I’ll just have to stop you. Come, my men are on the alert, and my best experts will go over the evidence. We’ll travel to Keep Central and get you more cloaks and a warm meal. While you rest, I’ll prepare my report for the Circle and request transport for your safe return to Drenard. It does no respect to the dead for you to add to their number.”

Anlyn reached over and took hold of Edison’s lance; he relinquished it willingly. Bishar made a sudden move forward, but Anlyn backed away, and Edison shoved her cousin so hard he nearly fell.

“Not a move!” she told him as he staggered backward.

In the command center, several heads watched the scene intently, hands reaching for warning devices—and worse.

“In case legend of this lance has not yet arrived to this corner of the galaxy,” Anlyn yelled beyond Bishar, “I will tell you that what you saw beyond this glass is easily reproducible right here! I’ll take an entire corner of the Keep with me, by the twins of Hori.”

“Anlyn.” Bishar held out his hands, pleading. “I understand your rage, but you must cool yourself.”

“I am cool, Cousin. Cool as ice. And I take it from the quiver in your voice that you know of this lance.”

It was a bluff, the lance a mere pyrotechnic toy, but in Anlyn’s experience, rumors rarely dwindled in their retelling.

“I’ve heard stories,” he said, a false smile creeping across his face.

“You’ve heard whispers from shadows carried on a Drenard wind compared to what this device is capable of. What I am capable of. Here’s what you’ll do. Before you write your security report, you’ll craft a letter to every family from that ship expressing my—expressing our deepest grief. Then you’ll swear by Hori it was sabotage and open an investigation. But first, call your best pilot and have him bring the swiftest Bern ship you have in impound and lock it to the end of this corridor. Make sure there’s plenty of fuel and supplies. One pilot. He’ll be free to go.”

“And what will you do with this ship?” Bishar asked. He kept an eye on Edison, who had backed to Anlyn’s side. “Do you think I’ll unblock the rift for you?”

“Yes, I think you will. Feel free to tell the Circle we were on my ship when it blew, if such will protect your job. And if you think your soul is better served by blasting us out of the cosmos and living with your family’s blood on your hands—that is your decision to make. The other option is to allow us to depart and face our deaths in our own manner. Choose this, and no harm will come to your people.”

Bishar continued to show Anlyn his palms. He glanced at the lance.

“Very well,” he said. “My men will escort you to your end. We had an interior barrier patch upcoming, anyway. I’ll move it up the schedule. I’ll even use the attack on your ship as an excuse for having done so.  But know this: any sign of a breach, and your ship will not prevent us from firing. Also, I will not chance discriminating between Bern craft if things get ugly.”

Bishar looked at her sternly. “One more thing,” he said. “Your mission will not pass back through here, no matter what happens. You’ll not be allowed through. Ever. Understand that I am doing this not for you, but to get you out of my tunics so I may perform my duties. You leave this galaxy never to return, because even if you did, you would not find your Empire welcoming you home as they did the last time. I’ll make sure of that, Cousin.”

6

The starship Parsona roared a dozen meters above the prairies of Lok, low enough to scatter wild game and part the tall grasses. It was nearly dawn, and the stars over the eastern horizon had disappeared as the black gradually melted into blue. With her lights off and altitude low—clinging to the cover of a slipping night—the old ship flew with a mind of not being seen. More importantly, she flew herself for just the second time.

“Feel any better?” Molly asked. She looked up from her reader to the instruments arrayed across the dash.

“It’s not quite as sluggish as before,” Parsona said through the radio speakers. “Firing the thrusters myself feels better than updating waypoints and letting the autopilot do the rest. Of course, I wouldn’t trust me in a dogfight or in a tight canyon.”

Molly laughed. “Neither would I. You know, we have a few relays left—I’m pretty sure I could interface you with the hyperdrive. It’s the same basic hook-up we did with the laser cannons, and the nav computer has a ton of electrical triggers left—”

“I’m not sure about that,” Parsona said.

“Why? It’s no different than firing the lasers or operating the thruster solenoids.”

“I know,” Parsona said. “It’s not that. It’s just that—I’m not sure I want to be in control of the hyperdrive. I don’t know that I’d trust myself.”

Molly nodded. “Okay. I understand.”

And she did. Ever since she found out her father and boyfriend were probably stuck in hyperspace, the temptation to just jump to the center of Lok had become unbearable. She felt a shiver of panic every time she considered it, followed by a pang of cowardice each time she did nothing.

“Another contact on SADAR,” her mom said, interrupting her thoughts.

“I see it,” Molly said. “Looks like one of the big models.” She watched the blip intently, having become something of an expert on recognizing the signatures of the Bern ships. The flashing indicator moved away from the rift situated over her home village and slowly worked its way toward a low-altitude orbit. Leaning forward, Molly peered up through the carboglass at the glimmer of orbiting hulls overhead. The fleet moved smoothly, like an animated constellation against the backdrop of fading stars. One of the vessels, a potato-shaped monster the size of a decent moonlet, was usually visible even during the daytime. All the ships did was shuffle around in various formations, almost as if drilling for upcoming maneuvers.

“What are they waiting on?” she asked her mom. “Why don’t they attack us or just move on to someplace else?”

“I don’t know. Maybe they’re just being methodical. Or perhaps they’re waiting on something. I know as little of the Bern as you do.”

Molly looked down at her lap; her Wadi was stretched out along her thigh, its gleaming scales catching the first rays of dawn. She stroked the animal’s back, right between the two nubs rising from its shoulder blades, and fretted over her mounting concerns.

“Between the Bern up there and news of the Drenard invasion, even if we do get to hyperspace, will there be any reason to come back? I mean, will there be anything left to come back to?”

“We need to plan as if there will be,” her mother said.

“And you’re sure this Cat person can help?”

“She knows the people who can. She’ll remember me.”

“You, the ship? Or the old you?”

Molly still had a difficult time separating the experiences of her mothers—the personality copied to the ship’s computer and the husk of a woman she’d met, virtually, on Dakura. Somehow, the former had become more real to her than the latter. And that was true even before she found out Walter and Cole had pulled the plug on her mom’s physical body.

“She knows of the old me, not as I am now.”

“And she was part of the group you and dad were sent to investigate? The source of the illegal fusion fuel?”

“She did some work for them, yes. It took your father and myself a long time and a spot of luck to get an introduction. Unless we go through her, it’ll take just as long if not longer to make contact again. Especially with everything else that’s going on.”

“You mean the Bern?”

“Partly. More the elections, though. Callites are tolerated seven out of eight years. Ignored, really. But come polling time, their numbers—the amount of votes they can wrangle together—it creates tension. Contacting and dealing with the Underground would be easier any other time.”

Molly sighed and looked back to her lap. Her new reader rested on her other thigh, opposite the Wadi. The creature pawed at the device playfully, almost as if it knew Molly was about to redirect her attention away from scratching its back and return to the letter she was writing Cole. She patted the animal’s head and looked over the first line of the note, wondering why she was bothering with writing it. It wasn’t like she could send it to him, or even be sure he was still alive. Her thoughts drifted to her father—and the same nagging doubts arose for him as well.

As her chest grew heavy, the Wadi gave up its jealous jousting and crawled from her thigh to her shoulder; it wrapped its tail around Molly’s neck and flicked its tongue against her cheek. It did stuff like that, and always in response to the same few moods, almost as if it could sense how she felt. Molly was cautious, however, about reading too much into its idiosyncrasies. She tilted her head to nuzzle the animal and wished, not for the first time, they could somehow communicate with each other, mostly to find out what was wrong with the alien creature. No matter how much she fed it, or how much water it drank, the poor thing kept getting smaller and smaller.

It had taken a few days to be sure, but by now there wasn’t any doubt. Except for some plumpness around its belly, the colorful lizard had gone from iguana-sized to something half that, like a big gecko. The troubling part was not being able to ask anyone about the species or research it any way. There was little enough out there on the Drenard planet and even less on its fauna. All Molly knew was that the strange animal had taken to eating and drinking more than a Glemot—but despite all that intake, it continued to waste away…

••••

Walter’s door slid open, recessing into the jamb with a quiet hiss. The young Palan exited his room and peeked across the cargo bay. Up in the cockpit, he could see one of Molly’s elbows sticking out over the flight controls. The ship was dark and silent, the barest glow of dawn lighting up the sky beyond the canopy. Walter tip-toed across the hallway and unlocked Molly’s cabin door with her Captain’s codes. He kept an eye forward as he waited for her room to slide open.

Slipping inside, Walter forced down the panicked feeling that gets Junior Pirates in trouble—the “heist shakes” that’ll get someone busted faster than the floods. You have to think clearly, he always reminded himself. Stay focused on the loot. Remember what you’re after.

It helped that he’d done this several times in the past weeks.

He went to her dresser, dropped down to one knee, and opened the narrow drawer at the bottom. Two stacks of clothes: the white tanks she wears under her flightsuit on one side and the plain cotton underwear on the other.

Walter reached under the latter, feeling for his treasure. His.

He wrapped his fingers around the small piece of fabric and pulled it out. Rubbing it with one thumb, he realized how unnecessary this charade was. She should just give it to him. Willingly.

Bending close to the carpet, he looked for the single hair he knew would be there and found it. He slid the drawer closed, holding the hair in place until it caught in the dresser. Walter shook his head at the ancient trick, resolving to love her even though she did stupid stuff like this.

He keyed open her door and bent down low, his palms on the ship’s decking. Slowly, he peeked around the corner of the doorway, keeping his head in a spot people rarely looked. Molly’s elbow was still visible sticking out over the controls. Walter pushed up from the deck and darted across the hall, back to his own room. As he ran, he clutched his new favorite thing to his chest, eager to get alone with it.

He left the lights out in his room and went straight to the bed, jumping under the covers. Feeling with his fingers, he found the seam in the piece of cloth and made sure it was in the back. With a shiver of anticipation, he lowered the red band down over his forehead.

“Hello?” he thought.

Silence. He waited, growing impatient. Several minutes seemed to go by, but it could’ve been a fraction of that—

“Ah! Walter, it’ss been a while.”

“Yeah,” he thought, “I haven’t had the time. Been bussy.” It was a lie. Truth was, Molly hadn’t been off the ship long enough to do any proper snooping in almost three days.

“Well, I can’t wait to hear about what you’ve been up to.”

“Ssure, but not now. I, uh, can’t talk long thiss time.”

“I undersstand. Hey, I meant to assk you about ssomething lasst time, but you had to run before I could bring it up. You know thosse two armss you have? The oness in the bottom of the tool chesst?”

Walter cringed at the incessant hissing from the stranger’s choice of words, the red band relaying everything in his own voice.

“Arms?” he thought aloud. “I—how did you know about thosse?”

“You were thinking about them the firsst time we sspoke. Don’t you remember? I heard it quite clearly.”

“Oh.” Walter forgot it worked that way. But why would he have been thinking about those stupid things?

“Ssurely you know the armss I’m talking about. Unlesss you jusst have armss sstrewn all over the sship—”

“What? No. No. They’re the only oness. But I wanted to talk about—”

“Right, right. The gold. Well here’ss the deal, Walter, I really would love to help you claim it, but firsst I’m going to need a favor from you.”

“Okay, but it better not get me in trouble.”

“Of coursse, of coursse. All I need you to do iss get me thosse armss. Do you think you could do that?”

“What? Why?”

“Doess it matter? I could jusst asss eassily assk you what you want with thoussandss of barrelss of gold.”

“I don’t know.” Walter rubbed his head, thinking. His coppery hair felt soft under his hand; it was getting too long and needed another pass with the shaver. He tried to picture himself with it grown out and what Molly would think about it. “How do I get them to you?” he asked. “Where are you?”

“I’m on my way to a little planet called Lok. Do you know it?”

Walter nodded. “Yeah.”

“Exscellent. Wait, you’re not there now, are you?”

“Am I thinking that?” Walter asked.

“Why don’t you tell me where you are?” the voice asked. “I’ll come right to you. Quick as I can.”

Walter shook his head. He knew how these transactions went down. It was always best to get information, never a good idea to give it.

“I’ll bring them to you,” Walter thought. “Jusst pick a sspot.”

“And you can deliver them? You have a sship?”

“Yess,” Walter hissed.

It was another lie, but he kept those thoughts deep. Palan deep. The truth was: it didn’t matter that he had no ship of his own, nor did it matter he couldn’t even fly one. What he could do was reprogram hyperdrives to go wherever he wanted, just like how he’d sent Cole into a star and what he’d done back on Palan. With that kind of talent, every ship was practically his, and he may as well be the one flying them.

••••

Molly checked the instruments on the dash one more time, making sure her mom was on course and holding steady, before she leaned over her reader. Typing on the thing was quite painful with the current state of her fingers, all of which were scabbed and blistered with dozens of votes. And yet, the writing was psychologically soothing, somehow, even though she couldn’t properly phrase an ounce of what she was feeling. It didn’t seem to matter; just attempting to do so—to reach out to Cole in some tangible way—eased the pressing weight off her chest, allowing her to breathe a little.

She stared at the first two sentences of the journal tab while the Wadi crawled down her flightsuit and stretched back out along her thigh.

••••

6/10/2414

Dearest Cole,

I got a new reader on Lok. So, here I am, writing you a letter on it.

Horrid. She deleted the entry. Then she wrote the exact same thing. She deleted it once more. She repeated the same stilted, juvenile wording over and over. Molly finally shook her head and decided to start from scratch, forgetting the need to make it perfect. She would simply write her thoughts as they came to her, unscripted and unedited.

Cole. I don’t know where to start. Trust me, I’ve tried. It’s just… I’ve always been bad at this, being faithful to a journal. I never know what to write. I think my last one had two entries in it. The first entry was about how many entries I was planning on writing. I remember composing that one on my first day of school at Avalon. My second entry was an apology to myself for going so many months between entries. I remember writing it on the Orbital Station while I was waiting on you. I’d love to read what I wrote back then. Can you imagine if I knew all the things that would take place as soon as we left Earth? I wonder if I would’ve gone. Anyway, that reader is long gone, probably being used by a pirate somewhere on Palan.

Speaking of Palan, Walter kinda saved my butt again. Some crazy stuff went down when we got to Lok. That guy from Dakura, the one who tied me up in his ship, he was here. I thought he was you when I landed. Walter and I zapped him to hyperspace, but we may’ve accidentally opened a very bad door in the process. I’ll tell you more about it once we’re back together…

Gods… who am I kidding? Who am I even writing this to? I think I’m getting too used to talking to machines. It doesn’t help that the only crewmate I have left is the color of metal and that my mom is a computer.

Speaking of mom, she told me where you probably are—that you’d be in hyperspace somewhere. She also told me how awful it was there. And that my father is probably there, too. I hope you landed someplace safe. I hope you two already found each other and are just hanging out and swapping stories and waiting on us to come pick you up.

Just… watch each other’s backs, ok? I’m trying to get there, I promise. I’m coming to rescue you both. Just stay alive until i get there, okay? Cause I’m a little messed up without you…

Drenards… now I’m blubbering. I shoulda waited till Bekkie and bought a waterproof reader. This stinks.

You know what else stinks? Not telling you I loved you the second I felt it. It was years ago. I bet you don’t remember. It was after Hobbs showed us how we could stream vids to our school computers. You and I stayed up all night watching episodes of Water Marines and we had to hide under my bunk after lights-out with the sheets hanging over the edge.

Actually, you probably do remember, just… maybe not the same way I do. It was when our foreheads touched, leaning over the little screen, and you were laughing and I could smell your breath. I remember thinking how much I loved your laugh, and how normal everything felt. It was like being on a date. Like regular kids. I even liked the way your breath smelled, which has to mean something, right?

I’ve loved you since then, I’m pretty sure. Or maybe I’m just projecting back. That’s been, like two years? And I’ve told you what… three times? I feel like an idiot. And not just for typing you a letter you’ll never read. I should’ve let you call me “babe” or “sweetheart” or whatever you wanted to. If you were here you could call me anything…

Molly looked up as Parsona swerved to port a little. She checked the cargo cam to see if Walter was milling about, but the screen was empty, the boy still asleep. She bent back to the reader, annoyed at how stiff the buttons were on the keyboard and how her fingers throbbed after using them.

Anyway, you aren’t here, and I seem to have to lose crap before I appreciate it. My parents, my reader, you, Glemot, Lucin… everything I really love gets snatched away. Or that’s what I used to think. Now I think the things that get snatched away are the only things I can truly love. Jeez… I hope that isn’t true. I hope neither’s true.

Well, i guess that’s my first entry. I think it sucks vacuum and I’ll probably delete the whole thing later and this keyboard is the worst. Anyway, we’re on the last leg to Bekkie, looking for an old friend of mom’s so we can get some kinda special fuel for the hyperdrive. So, I gotta go. And now I can’t stop typing, like I’m hanging up on you or something. This is definitely getting deleted.

I love you I love you I love you. Now be alive when I get there, ‘cause I’m gonna kill you if you aren’t.

You know what i mean.

-Molly

She looked over the entry and felt like a fool, every sentence clumsier than the one before. Holding down the function key with one finger—the pressure causing her pulse to throb up into her wrist—she hovered another finger over the “del all” button.

She stopped and wiped at her eyes. She powered the thing off, instead.

“Whatcha doing?” Walter asked.

Molly jumped, and the Wadi shot up to her shoulder, wrapping its tail around her neck and licking the air.

“Good gracious, Walter, don’t sneak up on me like that.”

“That wass my loud walk,” Walter said. “What’re you working on?”

“Oh, just writing some notes to myself.”

“Like a diary?” Walter peered over at her reader.

“No. And don’t you think of hacking into it. You’ve got enough gadgets to play with that you can leave mine alone.”

Molly knew it was pointless as soon as she said it. Keeping the little pirate out of anything electrical was like tugging against the pull of a black hole. He was gonna get in, and she probably just made it more tempting to tell him not to.

“How far are we from the next csity?” Walter asked. He crawled over the flight console and into the navigator’s seat. Cole’s seat.

“Not far. Another half-hour. See where it says ETA on the nav computer?”

Walter leaned forward and glanced at the dash. He nodded, and Molly told herself he probably didn’t need the lesson. The kid had recently done stuff with the ship’s missile systems that she didn’t think possible. He was worthless with a physical tool but a wiz with the digital sort. Then again, that may have just been due to laziness—

“There it iss!” he hissed, practically standing up in the nav seat.

Molly peered through the carboglass and saw it as well. Beyond the prairies and past a long stretch of dry dirt lay Bekkie. The town was nothing more than a wide and growing sprawl of hastily-built wooden structures, yet it was as cosmopolitan a city as Lok could boast. Which wasn’t saying much.

“Careful where you put your hands,” Molly told Walter, urging him back in his seat.

“It’ss ugly,” he groaned. “Jusst like all the lasst placses.”

His disapproval was quite a blow to Molly’s birth planet, seeing that his home planet of Palan was the sort of place you wouldn’t strand an enemy.

“It’s just different, that’s all,” said Molly, not able to summon up anything more positive. “Hopefully this’ll be our last stop.”

“The friend I sspoke to on the radio iss here?”

“Yeah,” Molly lied. The truth was: Walter had spoken with her mother, but Molly had kept her presence in the nav computer a secret for so long, revealing her now would be hard to explain—and harder the longer the ruse lasted. She felt like a kid probably does who keeps something from their parents until they can’t figure out why they started lying in the first place. And then they find themselves trapped into lying even more.

“What’ss her name again?”

“Are you kidding me? We’ve been looking for her for two weeks and you still can’t remember her name? It’s Catherine. With a cee.”

“That’ss right. A hard csee.” Walter turned and smiled at Molly. “I like that name.”

“Yeah, well try and remember it. This is already taking longer than I’d hoped. Now, the mechanic I met in the hardware store said we’ll probably find her in one of the pubs, so I want us to stick together, okay? The election stuff will probably be worse here than it was in the smaller towns, so we really need to be careful.”

“Okay.”

“Another thing: No looting.”

“Fine.”

“I really mean it, Walter.”

“I ssaid fine!”

Molly narrowed her eyes at him to hammer it home, then leaned forward to disengage the autopilot relays, taking over from her mom. She pulled back on the flightstick to gain a bit of altitude. There was enough traffic in the air around town to feel safe from the fleet above, almost like a solitary bird feeling emboldened by joining a large flock.

With a better view of the layout of town, she started picking out which of the many stables to land in. There were several to choose from on the near side of town, all of them a few kilometers from the city center to minimize thruster noise. Most looked extremely busy, whether due to the Bern fleet or the upcoming election, she couldn’t know. She picked one in the middle of style, with not too many fancy ships, but no derelicts propped up on wooden stilts, either. Something she could afford, but where Parsona wouldn’t get robbed.

“There’ss a better one over there,” Walter said as she peeled away for the stable she’d chosen. He pointed to one closer to town where fancy hulls gleamed in the growing light of dawn.

“A little out of our league, pal.”

Molly thumbed the landing gear down and grabbed the radio. The town ahead stirred with plenty of activity despite the early hour. Headlights moved through the city streets, each pair kicking up a plume of dust that streaked off and thinned in the breeze.

Molly squeezed the mic. “GN-290 Parsona to…” she read the stable’s info from the nav screen, “… Pete’s Hideaway. Come in.”

She pulled into a hover and waited for a reply.

“Pete’s Hideaway, here. Come back.”

“Yeah, this is the Gordon Class ship hovering east of you. The two-ninety. We’re looking for a place to stay, over.”

“Roger and welcome, you picked the right place. Anywhere you like. Those small huts with lotsa room around them are the heads. Over.”

Molly laughed. “Thanks for the heads-up. Parsona out.”

She hung up the mic and brought the ship down between two other craft a little nicer than her own. The thrusters sent up a puff of dust, blocking out the view through the windshield. Molly moved the Wadi to the back of her seat and crawled over the control console to go check in at the stable office. As she crossed the cargo bay, she felt a sudden surge of giddiness, a rare crack in her two weeks of loneliness and dour moods. She could feel it as she lowered the cargo ramp into the cloud of swirling dust outside: today was going to be her lucky day.

••••

“How many nights you need her stabled?” the man behind the counter asked. A patch on his coveralls said “Pete,” but it looked like a logo rather than a nametag. Molly pegged his age at sixty, but knowing Lok, it was probably a rough forty. They had skipped introductions, so she decided to think of him as Possibly Pete until she discovered otherwise.

“I’m not sure how long we’ll be here, to be honest.” Molly eyed the voting machine on his counter, the ‘L’ nearly worn off. “Should I pay as I go?”

“Yup, that’ll work. Just need you to fill out them papers. She need water?” Probably Pete bent down over the counter and squinted through a grime-streaked window in the general direction of Parsona. Like the pane of glass, Pete had a sheen of grease on him, almost like it oozed straight from his pores. Even his long hair, which fell out of a backward cap in stringy clumps, seemed coated in something foul.

“She need water?” he asked again, giving Molly a curious glance.

“Uh, no, but thanks. We filled up in Cramerton.”

“Cramerton? They got water out there?” Potentially Pete slapped the counter. “Don’t that beat all!”

Molly laughed politely, but wasn’t sure it was a joke. On her mental to-do list, she added dropping another iodine tablet into the freshwater tank, just in case Possibly Pete’s sense of humor wasn’t intentionally dry.

“There you go,” she said, handing back a form with mostly made-up information. She had checked the “Liberty” box under political affiliation to match his voting machine.

Probably Pete narrowed his eyes at the form, his hands coating the fresh paper with his oily perspiration. “Fyde,” he said. “Wait a second—” He pulled off his cap and ran a tarry hand through his hair, the black on him so dark it verged on purple. “I know your ship. My Uncle Pete did some work on her once. What was your father’s name?”

Is,” Molly corrected him. “His name is Mortimor—”

“Mortimor!” Poseur Pete slapped the counter, leaving another hand-print. “That’s right! How’s your old man doing?”

Molly shivered, a sudden wash of paranoia tickling her scalp. Two weeks of traipsing across her childhood home had teased her with a weak sense of nostalgia, but she never considered the chances of bumping into someone who might know her. She had been six when she left and could barely remember anything from her childhood.

“My dad? He’s, uh… fine, I guess. We don’t talk much anymore. He, um…”

“He split on you, did he?” Pretend Pete pulled off his hat and slapped the counter with it, smearing the grease there. Molly was beginning to pick up on his unique brand of non-verbal communication. It made her feel sorry for the counter.

“Don’t that beat all?” he said, tugging his hat back on. “Never thunk him to be a runner.”

“Yeah…” Molly didn’t know what to say, figuring it didn’t do any good to replace a misconception with a lie. “Do I pay now, or at the end of the day?” She clenched her fists, waiting for the reply.

“Each night up front, usually.” He turned his cap the correct way and pressed the bill up with a single, blackened finger. “But we’ll settle up when you get ready to go, how’s that?”

“Thank you so much,” Molly said, sighing. She smiled at him and relaxed her fist. Pretend Pete pulled out a slip of paper and shoved it across the counter, leaving a trail of purplish slime behind.

“The codes for the heads are on the back. TP’s for sale in the ship store. If you need power for any reason, we have one thousand and two thousand amp hook-ups. No partyin’ after three, and welcome to Pete’s.” He smiled at Molly. “I’m Pete, by the way. Pete the fourth. And that’s my boy in the picture.” He pointed a filthy digit at a curling print of film taped to the register. “That’s the newest Pete. Pete the fifth.”

He beamed with pride. Molly wasn’t sure if it was for siring another Pete or being able to count that high—or maybe both.

“Nice to meet you,” Molly said. “And good looking kid.”

 He rubbed one hand on his coveralls, the direction of the grease transfer questionable, and held it out to Molly. “Nice to meet you too, Molly Fyde.”

She moved her hand into his nasty clutches as gently as possible. Penultimate Pete shook it, his grip firm and slick. She could feel her hand sliding around inside his palm and half expected it to pop out like a freshly caught fish.

Pete’s lips pulled back in a smile so wide she could see his gums. A bright trace of purple gunk ran along the edges of his teeth.

“Molly Fyde,” he said again, pumping her trapped hand.

••••

“Walter?” Molly poked her head into his room and then looked back through the cargo bay toward the cockpit.

“He left almost as soon as you did,” her mother said through the intercom. “I almost said something—”

Molly glanced at the camera in the corner of the bay; it had begun to feel as natural as looking someone in the eye. “No, that’s okay. I’m glad you didn’t.” Molly went to the sink and started washing her hands. “I guess this is what being a parent is like, right?” She shook her hands over the basin and reached for a towel.

“I wouldn’t know,” her mother said.

“Yeah… sorry, I wasn’t trying to—”

“No, I’m sorry. I was just thinking out loud. And I want to remind you to be careful looking for Cat today. If she’s still politically active, there’s no telling what she’s getting herself into.”

“I’ll be fine.” Molly folded the towel, left it on the counter, and walked toward the cockpit. “I’m probably better off hunting her down without Walter, anyway. Oh, by the way, the guy who runs the stables knew Dad. Pete the fourth.”

“Hmmm. Never heard of him. Must’ve been during the years I was out of action—after my body went to Dakura but before your father smuggled a copy of me off.”

“Do you think I could ask him about the fusion fuel? He seems shady enough. Like, literally.”

“Maybe. Could be dangerous. If Cat doesn’t turn up, we’ll give it a shot. Check in with me if you don’t find anything.”

“Okay. Is there anything else you want to tell me about her—?”

“Head’s up,” her mother said tersely. The speaker popped, the intercom falling silent as Parsona killed the connection.

Molly heard footsteps on the boarding ramp and turned to lecture Walter on what “stay put” means.

But it couldn’t have been Walter stomping up the ramp.

He doesn’t have six legs.

7

Cole came to and made the mistake of opening his eyes. A stinging whiteness—more of that harsh light—invaded his retina like an infection just waiting for an open wound. Between the blows to the back of his helmet and the lance of photons, it felt as if his skull had been split wide open. He kept his eyes squeezed tight and tried to concentrate on his surroundings with his other senses.

Whatever he lay on seemed to be swaying with a gentle motion. He could hear a group of men talking and laughing in the distance. Over that, he heard the sound of runners plowing through snow, coupled with the rhythmic crunch of heavy weight on wet pack.

The temptation to crack an eye and look around was fierce. Even stronger, though, was his desire to avoid pain, which he knew would come with any more of the light. He tried to move his arms, but he could feel that they were tied in front of him. His elbows were also seized to his body and his wrists had been bound tight. They’d left him on his side, on a metal deck of some sort, and taken away his helmet and gloves.

Cole wiggled his elbows back as far as they would go and brought his hands up. Something kept them from coming all the way: a line that tugged between his hands and his feet. He bent over, curling into a ball, and was able to reach his mouth with his fingers, but couldn’t get his wrists high enough to probe the knot with his teeth. He relaxed his body, giving up. They’d tied him up good. Almost as if they’d had plenty of practice.

Cole patted his chest and felt the mound in one pocket created by his red band. The knife was gone. If he remembered correctly, Riggs had it last. Thinking of his old friend—and not knowing what they’d done with him—very nearly caused him to open his eyes and look around. Cole cursed to himself. He curled his cold fingers around each other to warm them, and then he felt something hard across his chest.

The other welding plate.

The voices were coming from somewhere ahead of him, so Cole went into a tight fetal position and slipped the plate out of his pocket. Holding it by the edge, vertically, he brought his hand up to his chin and adjusted the plate until the other side pressed tight against one eye socket. His head was still woozy from the crash and the blows to his back, so he concentrated hard on which eye he was about to open before cracking it.

Light reflected around the edge of the plate, creating a halo of the brightest white that rimmed Cole’s vision, but he could still squint and see. To either side of him stood bundles of gear—sacks and crates—all tied to a metal deck with line made out of some natural-looking fiber. Beyond, he could see half a dozen figures, all covered in fur. They looked like wild game teetering on hind legs, smoke trailing out of their mouths as they yelled and laughed. A few of the men worked handles on a tall mast in the center of the deck, but the thing had no sail. It was just a flat, vertical bar with slits running up and down the length of it. The men kept working on something at its base. They would look up the pole, glance ahead, and then repeat the procedure.

Cole shut his eye to rest his retina from the halo of leaking light; he wiggled back against a pile of goods. One entire side of his body was almost completely numb from the cold metal, but he didn’t want to attract attention by sitting up. He worked the edge of the plate tight to his face again and cracked his eye to look for Riggs.

There was no sign of him, but he couldn’t see the entire deck. He craned his neck as much as possible, but the uncomfortable position and the constraints of his bound hands didn’t give him much of a vista. One thing he did notice was the absence of snow on the deck. Looking past the fur-clad men, he could see it was still driving sideways in heavy sheets, but none of it was in the air around the little craft. He couldn’t quite make out the bow of the ship, but something up ahead must’ve been splitting the flurries, sending the flakes to either side.

He raised his head to investigate, and one of the furry figures tapped another and pointed in his direction.

Cole froze. The alerted figure marched back in his direction, descending the few steps from the platform around the mast. At the base of the steps, the man stopped by a wooden barrel crisscrossed with ropes and pulled something from the lid—a mug of some sort. Stooping down in front of the barrel, he came up with a trail of steam rising from the mug,  which wafted back in Cole’s direction.

The smell got to him before the man did: chocolate with a hint of rum. Or more like rum with a hint of chocolate. Cole felt paralyzed with indecision, wondering whether it was better to hide the plate and await his fate in darkness, or stay alert and have it stolen from him. Before he could decide, the figure was before him, crouching down close.

“I’ll have that,” the man said, snapping the plate out of Cole’s hand.

Cole squeezed his eyes shut and held them tight. The man’s accent was a bit different from the others, but there was still a hint of something foreign in it, or perhaps something archaic.

“Who are you guys?” Cole asked, his own voice shaky from the cold and fear.

The response was a loud sip from the mug, then the figure smacking his lips. Cole heard him put the mug down, followed by the sound of fluid being swished inside a vessel, like someone shaking a thermos back and forth.

“Who are we? We’re the same as you lads,” the man replied. “We’re the tainted.”

Before Cole could ask what that meant, he felt a wet rag laden with the smell of something chemical pressed to his face. He held his breath as long as he could, but he finally had to gasp for air.

As soon as he did—he was out again.

8

The Bern ship brought up from impound was far larger than Anlyn had expected. It was a warship, twice the size of the Ambassadorial craft she’d lost. She nearly balked and asked for another, wondering if she and Edison could operate such a craft for long periods of time.

The airlock hissed open, and a frazzled-looking pilot exited with his arms held high. Anlyn and Edison moved aside as the large Drenard squeezed past the duo to get to the control room. Bishar waved him through the door and thanked him, ushering him to the others who had stopped what they were doing to watch the bizarre confrontation.

“You aren’t thinking clearly,” Bishar said to Anlyn.

For a brief moment, she wondered if he was right. Perhaps setting off to aid Molly was just another way of running from home, from the looming war, from all her royal responsibilities. Maybe her real duty was back in Drenard’s Pinnacle, sitting around the Circle where she could fight with words.

She shook the doubts away and backed toward the door, keeping the lance between her and Bishar. “Check the ship,” she told Edison in English.

She stayed near the airlock, the weight of the lance and the bluff it represented already exhausting her. Edison disappeared inside.

“There’ll be no foul play,” Bishar assured her. “My actions will not be questioned when I write this up.”

“I’m not in the most trusting of moods, Cousin. I’ve half a mind to take you with us to make sure nothing happens. I hope you can appreciate my honor for not doing so.”

Bishar laughed nervously. “I do. More than you know. When you get to the rift, I’ll have a barrier tug remove a few canisters. We’ll replace some of the interior ones, but I won’t have them out for long. If you hesitate to go through, I’ll assume you came to your senses, and you can dock up back here. I’ll gladly forgive these transgressions and have you as a guest for dinner. We’ll prepare the finest Drenardian cuisine and eat in honor of the dead. Then we’ll see about working toward justice come morrow.”

“If you’re sincere, I appreciate the offer. You’ve been more than fair.”

After a few minutes, Edison stomped back through the airlock, his chest puffing as if after a great run. He spoke to Anlyn in English: “Vacated, by rough inspection. Single deck with a looped perimeter passageway. Adequate nourishment and spares, but absolute dearth of armaments.”

“You had the weapons systems removed?” Anlyn asked Bishar.

“Of course, but not just now. We do that for every ship we capture and impound.” He glanced back and forth between the two of them. “Are you really planning on waging war with those who rule the rest of the universe?”

“I’m hoping I don’t need to defend myself from friends and family before I get there,” Anlyn replied.

A sudden sadness washed over Bishar’s face, erasing the tension and anger. “I’m sorry we met like this,” he said.

“As am I.” Anlyn handed Edison his lance and bowed to her cousin, keeping her eyes on him all the while. He gave her a nod and a frown as she backed through the collar adapter and into the starship.

Edison followed. She left him behind to close the ship’s door and secure the hatch while she rushed off alone toward the bow. As her bare feet padded along the steel decking, she tried to prepare herself for what must come next. She was about attempt something she had promised herself she’d never do again. Something she’d hoped to avoid for the rest of her days:

Fly.

••••

Anlyn had learned to pilot in the Royal Academy—just the rudimentary basics needed to qualify licensure and uphold ancient traditions for Drenardian royalty. She likened it to the Pheno people’s habit of teaching their important females to ride Theryls, even if there was no chance of them ever taking one into battle.

Her real mastery of the art of space warfare came at Darrin, during the tumultuous civil war between the two planets and her time spent as an arm-dealer’s slave afterward. She had spent more than a Hori cycle there chained to a cockpit, learning to kill and speak English while daily tortured by a vile human named Albert.

Since her flight into freedom just over a month ago, Anlyn had pledged to stay away from cockpits for the rest of time. She could imagine herself sinking back into a depression if she had to work in one—could see herself losing her sanity again. Now, she didn’t know she had a choice. She couldn’t ask Edison to take over for her while she cowered in a bunk; that was just a different sort of slavery, one self-imposed.

Anlyn jogged along the empty corridor, past a few crew quarters and a mess hall full of hastily stacked boxes. She went through a large cargo bay and then finally came upon the dreaded place. She paused at the imaginary boundary between passageway and cockpit, that invisible line in the decking rising like some Darrin forcefield. She stood there for a moment, listening to the pounding of her own pulse. When she heard Edison stomping through the cargo bay, his gait drowning out the sound of her heart, she knew she could no longer delay. Summoning her courage, she stepped inside and approached the forward seating.

Her skin crawled as she pushed through the invisible barrier, the sight of the empty chairs filling her with a sense of dread. They were human-sized, just like Lady Liberty’s, and nothing at all like the Drenard Ambassadorial ship. She rested a hand on the back of the nav chair and lifted one foot, using it to scratch her other ankle. It took her a moment to realize she was doing it. It took a moment longer to remember that the metal hoop of steel was no longer welded around her leg, the chain no longer coiled by her feet.

“Are you okay?” Edison asked. He spoke in Drenard, a sign he was communicating for feelings, rather than information.

“I’m fine,” Anlyn lied. “Just worried about where you’re going to sit.”

“The removal of the armrest mechanisms will be elementary. I’ll have the task performed prior to our intersection with the rift in spacetime.” He bounded aft to search for tools, his switch back to English telling.

Anlyn felt a stab of annoyance, but she had herself to blame for lying to him. She wasn’t worried about how poorly he’d fit in his seat, but how well she would in hers.

Walking around the outside of the pilot’s seat, she noticed the Bern arrangement conformed to human standards: leader on the left. All the controls seemed familiar in layout, though covered in the Bern alphabet. It was one of those languages she recognized, even if she couldn’t make out much of what it said. The stylistic swoops and curls were often printed in political cartoons back home; the Drenard translations below would say something funny or satirical about their sworn enemy.

Anlyn sat down and adjusted the harness straps. She figured out how to raise the seat while she waited on Edison to get back and translate; the pilot had left the thrusters running, but she couldn’t tell which control released the clamps.

When she heard Edison set down a toolbox behind her, she turned and asked him which switch decouples the ship from the airlock.

“That one,” he said, after scanning the dash a moment.

Anlyn thanked him, amazed at how quickly he’d picked up yet another language. His intellect occasionally threw up emotional barriers in their relationship, but it often opened other sorts of doors. Like getting him on the Circle as the Cultural Counselor, for example. And now it served them well as he had become, through unspeakable tragedy, their mission’s sole Bern translator.

Anlyn wrapped her pale blue hand around the control stick; she checked the needles on the gauges, making sure they were all between the black high and red low marks. She flipped the switch Edison had indicated and pushed away from the Keep.

Before she knew it—before her emotions could stage a revolt—she was flying again. Slow at first. Hesitant. But getting to the center of the Keep required a lot of twists and turns as she dodged around the trusses and steel beams built specifically to impede progress from Bern interlopers heading in the opposite direction.

As she weaved between the glass corridors, passing close to several, she could see her people lined up inside, blue hands spread out on the glass. Pairs of eyes tracked her passing, either wide with astonishment or narrow with accusations. Anlyn felt like a criminal, or a specimen arousing curiosity. Meanwhile, off to either side of her, sleek Drenardian starfighters kept pace, bobbing in and out of the mazelike structure while keeping their guns trained her way.

Just in case the specimen turns hostile, she told herself. She wondered if the rumored power of Edison’s lance was all that kept them at bay.

As they progressed into the interior of the keep, the habitable corridors disappeared, and the density of the obstructing beams increased. Also, more and more of the gold canisters became visible—larger slivers and triangles of shimmering honey flashing out between the beams.

After a few tight, final squeezes, the three ships rounded into an open workspace where Anlyn could see several tugs pulling the blockade apart, creating a hole for her to fly through. A collection of replacement canisters stood nearby, another tug busying itself around them like a herder tending his flock.

Anlyn had to wait while they finished. She held the ship perfectly still as the two starfighters hovered to either side, their bows pointing straight at her. As if we pose more of a threat than the rift ahead, Anlyn thought. She tried to ignore them, as well as the hollow pit forming in her gut from having their weapons aimed directly at her. Instead, she lost herself in watching the tugs work. They pulled out several more layers of armored canisters—the innermost eaten away in places—until the rift was eventually exposed.

When the tear in space became visible, Edison grumbled something in English too obtuse for her to follow. In the recess of gold opened by the tugs, she could see empty space and stars beyond. A few structures glimmered in the distance beyond that, like bright stars. It was an odd sight, for the tugs had only removed half the layers in one spot. The hole in space stood in front of the rear half of the rest of the golden cube. She and Edison were looking through them, rather than at them. And not through them so much as through a rip in the very fabric of the galaxy, a doorway to another galaxy that was not theirs.

Anlyn shook the wonder of the scene away, scared that Bishar’s men would see her hesitation as a change of heart. She increased thrust, moving the large craft forward.

“How’s the hyperdrive?” she asked Edison, wishing she’d boned up on some basic Bern during their flight from Drenard.

He pulled up a different screen on his readout. “Cycled and optimal.”

They passed the outer boundary of canisters, entering a bright, golden cave. Ahead of them loomed a hole in space where the other half of the Keep should be. Anlyn continued to power the ship forward, slow and steady. She thought of all the brave men and women who had come on the mission with her, their lives lost. And why? Had she misread the prophecy? Was she misreading it again? No longer were they waiting for the Bern to show up—she and Edison were now going to them. Once more, it felt like a mistake. She wondered if their arrival in a Bern craft would give her and Edison more time to announce their arrival in peace, or if she and her love were about to join the rest of her mission in being reduced to dust.

The nose of the Bern ship broke the boundary between the two galaxies, and then the cockpit did the same. The walls of gold were suddenly replaced with tar-black space salted with an unfamiliar constellations of stars.

Before Anlyn knew it, she and Edison were out among them. The Keep was gone, and their massive warship immediately felt like a tiny speck drifting into the dark—piercing the vast and wild unknown.

9

Molly exited the cockpit preparing to scold Walter, but instead found three strangers stomping into her cargo bay: a human and two Callites. All three of them were enormous, and all three wore coveralls splattered with a purplish paint. Plumes of dust trailed them from outside, the kicked-up fog swirling around their feet.

“Excuse me—?” Molly was barely able to begin her question before choking on the nauseating reek of the figures. A foul gaseous cloud had entered with them—the smell of alcohol and sweat and something rotten. Molly nearly gagged as the human strolled up, appraising the interior of her ship with a smirk.

“Mortimor?” the man yelled. “You in here, you old bastard?” He looked over at Molly and smiled, as if they were all awaiting some gruff reply from her father.

None came, of course. Molly blinked the tears out of her eyes and covered her mouth with the back of her hand. “Can I help you?” she managed.

One of the big Callites plopped down in Edison’s wide crew seat, his brown skin webbed with the outline of interlocking scales. The small plates gave their kind a reptilian look, despite the long, flowing hair most sported. And while the majority of aliens in the galaxy looked roughly humanoid, Callites took the similarities to another level. Human kids who painted themselves up as Callites for Halloween were almost  indistinguishable from the real thing. The overall likeness didn’t help the local tensions between them and Humans, of course. Differences in skin texture seemed to be quite enough for most people. If anything, the many other traits they had in common just made cohabitation more difficult.

While one Callite got comfortable in Edison’s chair—his body sagging with obvious weariness—the other large male crossed over to the tool bench and picked up a power driver.

“Hey, don’t touch that!” Molly said.

“It’s okay,” the Human said, walking over to her. “We’re old friends of…” he looked pointedly at Molly’s ring finger, which was helping shield her mouth and nose from the stench, “… your boyfriend?”

“My boyfr—? You mean my father? And he’s not—hey, seriously, don’t touch that!” Molly stepped toward the guy inspecting her tools, but the Human grabbed her shoulder, spinning her around.

“Mollie? Mollie Fyde?” He whistled, looking her up and down. “Drenards in hyperspace, is that you? My goodness, you’ve grown up. And out!” He stared directly at her chest. The massive beast in Edison’s seat looked at her as if to confirm the observation, and then started toying with the flight harness.

“I’m Scottie,” the man said. He pulled her close, attempting to transform his grip on her shoulders into an embrace. Molly pushed against him, both hands on his chest, which left her mouth unguarded. “Scottie Paulson, your father’s old friend.”

His breath went right into her mouth, all over the surface of her tongue and back down her throat. It tasted like cheap liquor and cavities full of rotten meat. She gasped, which just drew the burn deep into her lungs. Molly visualized puking all over his coveralls but couldn’t quite manage it.

She shoved on his chest, instead. “Get off!” she squeaked, bending back over the galley counter as he pushed forward. He easily weighed twice as much as she did. “Seriously—” Molly coughed. “Get off me!”

Scottie took a step back and chuckled to his friend by the workbench. “I just wanted a hug. Hell, last time I saw you, I could bounce you in my lap!”

“Look,” Molly said. She held her hands out in front of her and scanned the three males. “I don’t know where my dad is, so I can’t help you guys. I’m gonna have to ask you to leave, okay? I was getting ready to go into town, and I won’t be on-planet long, so I need to lock up and—”

“Lock up?” The Callite by the workbench waved a power shunt through the air. “But then we can’t leave!”

“Good point, Ryn.” Scottie studied Molly, grinning. “Be odd of you to lock us up inside here, wouldn’t it?”

“Inside? I—no, you guys need to get out! My father isn’t—”

“Here? Yeah, you said. Tell you what, we’ll just wait for him to get back.” Scottie walked aft through the cargo bay. “You go on to town and we’ll keep an eye on things here.” He poked his head into the engine room, then turned and smiled at the silent oaf in Edison’s chair. “Check it out, Urg.”

Molly moved to intervene as the large Callite rose and stomped across the cargo bay. It was as futile as trying to wave down a StarCarrier.

“Listen—” she said. But nobody was.

The large Callite disappeared into the engine room while Scottie moved aft, peering inside each crew quarter.

“Hey, you guys really can’t—”

Scottie slapped his hand by Molly’s door. “I call this one!” he told his friends. He looked at Molly. “Smells nice,” he added, bouncing his eyebrows suggestively.

Molly wanted a gun. Plasma, laser, mechanical, she didn’t care. She wasn’t sure if anything would stop the two big fellows, but she really wanted to try. She turned and looked at the security cam in the corner of the bay and saw it twitching to follow the action.

Molly frowned at the camera. She backed slowly toward the cockpit as the two Callites jostled with each other, both trying to squeeze into Cole’s room at once.

••••

The cockpit door shut itself as soon as she stepped inside. Molly locked it, pulled up the cargo cam, and the Wadi jumped from the back of the captain’s seat to her shoulders. She flicked on the radio.

 “You know these guys?” she asked her mom.

“Never seen them before in my lives. Either of them.”

“Either? Oh, you mean your lives. So are they’re lying? What should I do?”

“It could be your father knew them when I was on Dakura. What you should do is go find the local law. Or Cat.”

“You think the law’s a good idea? What if they check the ship’s name?”

“That won’t be a problem. The local government hates the Navy as much as you distrust them. Besides, the Navy has a minimal presence here. Your father and I were sent undercover just as much to avoid bureaucratic wrangling over jurisdiction as anything else.”

Molly leaned over the dash and looked through the carboglass toward the stable offices. She could see Pete standing by the door. He seemed to be squinting through the dust in their general direction.

“Okay, I’m gonna go for help. Can you lock the doors to the crew quarters?”

“No, but that’d be something nice for us to hook up.”

“Yeah, let’s make that a priority. I’ll lock the cockpit from the outside. Keep an eye on things.”

“That’s all I can do,” her mother said.

Molly nudged the Wadi to its favorite spot behind her neck and keyed opened the door. She snuck out, locked the door with her captain’s codes, and then hurried toward the cargo ramp.

The mute oaf stuck his head out Cole’s door and saw her leaving. “Hey,” he said, proving to be not quite as mute as she had thought. He pointed at her, obviously trying to think of something else to say, while Molly jogged down the boarding ramp. She weaved through the stables, around and under the parked ships, and headed toward Pete. Hopefully he could help.

Before she got close enough to ask, however, he called out across the dusty lot, his hands cupped around his mouth: “Scottie and his boys find you okay?”

“What?” Molly asked. “It’s not okay they found me! Did you tell them where I was?”

“Hell, I called right after you checked in. Them boys been looking for your father for some time.”

“He’s not with me!” The Wadi scampered down the back of her shirt with the outburst, sticking its head in one of the baggy pockets on Molly’s cargo shorts.

“That’s right! You told me that didn’t you?” Pete smiled at her and pulled his hand out of his coveralls. He had a toothpick sticking out of his fist, the exposed half dark purple. He put it in his mouth and used his tongue to slide it to the other side.

“I want them off my ship,” Molly told him.

“Well, now, you’ll have to talk to them about that.” Pete leaned to the side and somehow spit a stream of dark juice past the toothpick. A long trail of the stuff hung from his lower lip, thick as molasses. He reached up and swiped it away with his palm, then rubbed it on his coveralls.

Molly looked at the stains covering him and wondered just how much of Pete’s coloration was actual grease. If any.

“I tried to tell them to go,” she complained. “But they wouldn’t listen.”

“Could be they think it’s their ship,” Pete said flatly.

“What? Their ship? That was my father’s ship and now it’s mine!” Molly looked down at the Wadi as it tried to curl itself into her pocket. Its tail swished in the air, then disappeared.

“Well, now.” Pete spit again, dribbling it right down the front of his coveralls. The maneuver seemed to save him a step or two. “What I heard was your daddy owes Scottie some money. You never know with interest compoundin’—they might have a claim on her.” He nodded toward Parsona. “Besides, why’d your daddy give such a fine ship away? How old are you?”

“Where’s the sheriff’s office?” Molly asked, ignoring the questions and cursing herself for allowing a tangle of lies to develop.

“Directly on Main,” Pete drawled.

Molly turned and headed off in the direction of town.

“But he’s gonna tell you just what I said,” Pete hollered after her.

••••

Molly followed the busiest road into town. She preferred the thick plumes of dust from the traffic and the catcalls from the vehicles’ occupants to the unknown of quiet streets. Especially with so much dangerous politicking in the air.

Most of the cars on Lok were large-tired buggies suitable for travelling between towns with no interconnecting roads. They passed by in one of two speeds: slow—the people trying to sneak away from the trouble they’d just caused; and fast—the ones about to effect their own.

Ignoring offers for rides and things less-pleasant, Molly kicked at rocks along the shoulder and fumed over the idea of those brigands being on her ship and likely going through her things. The Wadi rode along across the back of her neck, its tiny claws gripping her shirt and a little flesh, its head lolling with her gait. Grumbling to herself, Molly walked past rows and rows of politicians smiling down from their posters and banners, all of them promising her something for just a few drops of blood.

She stopped at the outdoor counter of the first cantina she came to and bought water for herself and the Wadi. She chose her left pinky for the vote, even though it was swollen to the point of uselessness. Her new strategy was to sacrifice one digit completely so she could heal up the rest.

After paying, her Wadi curled across her forearm, leaning sideways with its back against her chest. Molly dripped water into its mouth, then took some for herself. Walking like that caused her to flash back to planet Drenard and that hot, arid, and dusty hike they’d taken together. The comparison of that horror-filled day to her current annoyance lifted her spirits somewhat. As long as she didn’t look up at the fleet in orbit, she could pretend things weren’t quite as bad as they could be.

Another buggy roared past, kicking a plume of chalk into the air. Molly could hear the powdery dirt crunching between her teeth, could feel it turning into a film of mud in her mouth. She took another gulp of water and tried to fight off the panicked sensation she sometimes felt in crowds—the need to run and escape from the noise and commotion, seeking the vacuum of space.

As she made her way into the center of town, her complete dearth of vivid memories of the place struck her for the first time. She seemed to remember visiting Bekkie with her father several times, but they were just memories of memories of memories, built up over a longer lifetime of forgetting. The only building she recognized was the tall church, its several spires sticking out over town. And even its familiarity was likely no more than a recollection from an old photograph, or a postcard that she’d seen more recently.

The noisy traffic gradually ground down to an even noisier standstill around the central square. Buggies with trailers unloaded goods, while Sisyphean storekeepers swept dirt back into the streets, and pedestrians milled about through the gridlock amid a chorus of bleating horns. The town had a familiar odor and sound, a boisterousness that touched her nostalgia, but it also seemed bigger and more crowded than it had before.

Perhaps it was the political rallies, which Molly could hear in several directions. They mostly consisted of large groups of people chanting names or terse phrases that somehow captured an entire (and mostly vapid) platform. Or maybe the larger crowds had something to do with the Bern fleet. Perhaps rural Lokians had come to Bekkie in hopes of an affordable ticket off-planet, only to find the strange ships overhead weren’t allowing anything of the sort.

Then again, not that many people in the crowd seemed to be looking up, at least not beyond the posters of smiling faces, all promising something. While Molly stressed about her family and friends and what seemed to be a looming disaster of galactic proportions, everyone else was worried about whether or not their candidate would be in power when it all came crashing down. What little politics she’d followed on Earth—a planet that never felt enough like home to get invested—seemed magnified and uglier on Lok. In yet one more way, the planet she had been born on felt incredibly foreign to her.

One thing she could remember about Bekkie, and something that hadn’t changed, was the paucity of non-Humans in Lok’s capital. After living on Earth with all its diversity for so many years—and having spent the last two weeks in the poorer countryside—Molly felt abnormally surrounded by her own kind. Oddly enough, it made her feel more conspicuous. She felt like the only alien in town, surrounded by nothing but Terrans, and therefore unable to blend in.

The sensation brought back a clear childhood memory of Bekkie, an emotion, really. As a kid, she’d only known a handful of people, all of them Humans, their faces blurred by time. She could remember a trip into town with her father once, how she’d expected to see so many new races, and how disappointed she’d been to see so few.

She wondered if that’s where her fascination with aliens came from. The flight out to Palan had been so exciting—that long queue of diversity strung out just for her like a parade of exoticness. But did that make her a xenocist in a way? Pining for some exhibitionistic display of otherworldliness? Celebrating a thing just because it was different?

In the shops she passed, she did see a few Pherons and Callites working, usually with a smock on and some cleaning or serving prop in their hands. Both of their home planets were just a jump away from Lok, providing a nice source of cheap labor. The more Molly looked for them, the more she saw—but she really had to seek them out. They blended too well with their environment, partly because of their camouflaging uniforms, and partly because they seemed so less kinetic, less boisterous, than their Terran counterparts. They seemed perfectly content—or trained, perhaps—to fade into the layered background to which they’d been relegated.

A loud crunching sound interrupted her scanning of the crowd; Molly looked down to find the Wadi eating the lip of the water bottle, the vessel sucked completely dry.

“No.” She pulled the plastic out of the Wadi’s mouth and moved the animal to her shoulders; she waved down an older couple passing by.

“Do you know where the sheriff’s office is?” she asked them.

“Almost there,” the gentleman said, eyeing the Wadi with some curiosity. “Everything okay?”

“Do what?” Molly asked. The man’s genuine concern had thrown her off guard. “Oh, yeah, I’m fine. Thanks, though.”

“Just keep going and it’ll be on your right,” his wife said.

“Thanks. Both of you.”

The pleasant exchange felt odd after a few days of bad run-ins, mostly with shopkeepers. It reminded her that not everyone in the galaxy was evil scum out to kill her, take her blood, or destroy the universe. She wiggled her shoulders, trying to work some of the tension out of her body. She knew it wasn’t good to let other people’s rudeness dictate how she felt. She kept that in mind as she weaved through the crowd  for another block. Finally, she spotted a building ahead with bars across the windows and recognized the painted silver star hanging over the door. Molly kicked her flightboots against the jamb, dislodging the chunks of caked dirt deep in the treads. She pushed her way inside.

The door hinged back with a creak, and bells jangled overhead. The office inside looked like a huge shoebox hewn out of rough lumber. Two shafts of dust highlighted the place, the particulate matter so dense in the morning sunlight that Molly considered ducking under them. In the back sat a table, pressed up against two of the shut cells. A prisoner in each cell sat close to the bars, their hands poking through and holding fans of cards. A young man sat at the table outside the cells. He wore a vest over a buttoned-up shirt, and a gun hung from his belt. Molly nodded to the three figures as she closed the door, setting off another racket from the bells.

Someone cleared their throat to Molly’s side. She turned and squinted through one of the shafts of dust to find a man appraising her over a folded newspaper. He sat behind a desk, leaning way back in his chair, his old herder boots propped up on a smattering of loose papers. When he pushed his hat back with a solitary finger, Molly felt like looking around for the holo cameras. The entire scene was so cliché, it had moved from comical, directly to spooky.

“No pets,” the man said. He shaped his hand like a gun and aimed it at the Wadi.

“She’s trained,” Molly said. “She won’t be a problem.”

“Better not.” His thumb decocked, and his finger came up a few inches with the imaginary recoil. He blew across the tip, smiled, and then holstered it away. “What can I do for you?”

Molly approached the desk, fighting the urge to swim through the shaft of lit dust with her hands. She glanced at the group of men playing cards, their faces slowly turning to follow her movement across the room. She noticed the walls were papered with election posters, rather than wanted posters. The only giveaway was the smiles; otherwise, even the actors would probably have been the same.

“I, um, have a problem with some men, Sheriff…” she bent forward and tried to read the name on his star.

“Browne,” he said for her, looking down at the star as if he needed to be reminded. “And I ain’t much help on marital disputes. Unless you need a lesson on starting a few.”

One of the card players chuckled at this, and the Sheriff shot him a look, as if prisoners could have fun, but not at his expense.

“No, it’s nothing like that. I just pulled in today, and some people claiming to be friends with my father—”

“Scottie?” Sheriff Browne interrupted. “You come in on Parsona?

Molly swallowed. “That’s right. And I—”

“Can’t help you,” the Sheriff said. His newspaper flapped back up in front of his face, and his hat sank down a few inches.

“Can’t, or—”

“No pets, ma’am. I’m gonna have to ask you to leave.”

“But I—”

“No pets!

The Wadi’s head recoiled from the outburst. Molly reached up and rubbed its back, trying to soothe it. “Could you at least tell me where I might find someone?” she asked. “I’m looking for…”

“Ain’t no tourguide, neither.”

“…a woman, a Callite that goes by the name of Cat.”

The newspaper came down, just low enough to expose Browne’s eyes.

Cripple Cat?” he asked.

Molly looked to the card players. The other lawman gave her a huge smile. She turned back at Sheriff Browne. “Uh, I guess. I just know her as Cat. Or Catherine. Do you know where I can find her?”

The Sheriff pulled his feet off the desk and shot forward as his boots fell heavily. Molly took a quick step back.

“You’re lucky to know her as Cat. Most people don’t.” Browne shuffled some papers around on his desk and came up with a few stubs. He handed them out to Molly. “Twenty each.”

“What are they?”

“Tickets to see Cat.”

One of the card players chuckled again and got another visual blasting from the sheriff. Molly reached into her pocket for some change from the cantina and held it out. Sheriff Browne looked at the two coins.

“Just one ticket?”

“Just one,” Molly said.

Her heartbeat quickened as she took the stub.

She was getting close, she could feel it.

10

Cole startled awake as if from a bad dream. His arms and legs jerked reflexively but wouldn’t move; they were pinned in place. He blinked, gradually bringing the world into focus, fearing more of the bright light. What he found proved worse.

He was strapped to an inclined platform, his legs tied down a meter apart, the thick ropes looped around his ankles and through holes in the solid steel. He glanced up at his hands, which were similarly bound high over his head. He tried jerking down on them and felt his bruised ribs sing out in pain, jolts of electricity lancing from his chest to every new bruise across his body.

“Good luck with that,” someone said.

Cole turned to his side. He had to lean his head forward to look around his own arm, then saw Riggs tied up a few meters away, strapped to an identical structure: an angled sheet of steel halfway between flat and vertical. He also noticed several empty racks scattered about the small room, all roughly arranged around a gated drain in the center of the floor.

“Couldn’t tell if you were breathing or not,” Riggs said. “Was gonna be pissed if you’d already died on me.”

 Cole grimaced. It felt like the room was swaying, but it could’ve been a problem with his head. He leaned it back against the steel and thought he could hear the crunching of snow reverberating up through the metal contraption and into his skull. He assumed they were still on the move, just in a bigger craft. Above, a ceiling of dark plastic allowed a wan glow of light to filter into the room. The spots were gone from his vision, but his headache lingered.

“How long have I been out?” he asked.

“No clue,” Riggs said. “Longer than I was, obviously.”

“Yeah,” said Cole. He tried to push up with his restrained ankles to take some of the pressure off his ribs, but every movement caused him to wince in pain.

“Doesn’t feel too good, does it?”

Cole looked over and saw a smirk on Riggs’s face. He decided to roll with the jab, stunned that Riggs could actually take pleasure in Cole’s condition as if he had nothing to fear himself.

“What do you think they want with us?” Cole asked, changing the subject and also trying to remind Riggs that they were on the same side and had a common enemy to worry about.

“I’m guessing it’s nothing good, but at least they seem to want us alive. Maybe ransom. Surely they’re not dumb enough to kill a Navy pilot, which means I’m probably safe. You still got no clue where you jumped us?”

Cole wondered how best to tell Riggs that they might be in hyperspace. But then, he couldn’t shake the doubt, the feeling that it had been an auditory hallucination. He couldn’t even remember what he’d heard, exactly. He glanced down at his flightsuit, looking for the bulge of the red band in his breast pocket, but he was unable to tell if it was there or not.

“You didn’t double-check your jump vector, did you? We could be anywhere in the galaxy right now, right?” Riggs groaned. “Flankin’ useless.”

Cole clenched his jaw to hold back the retort forming in his throat. He twisted his arm in the restraints, trying to force his thumb flat so he could pull it through the knotted rope.

“Well, at least they’re Human,” Cole told Riggs, trying to change the subject. “I think so, anyway. They were speaking English around me.”

“I can do you one better. They speak Late-Millennial English.”

“Do what? How can you tell that?”

“Junior Academy poetry reading.” Riggs grunted; it sounded as if he were attempting to arrange himself more comfortably, or pull himself free. “I had to memorize that accent for a recital.” He said the last in a strange voice, one that nearly matched what Cole had heard from the men.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Cole said.

“What? Me in poetry class? Or that you either discovered time travel or jumped us to a frozen rock full of Late-Millennial poets?”

“They don’t hit like poets,” said Cole.

“Yeah, you’re right, but they don’t have to be poets, just from the same era.”

“Twenty-first century?”

“Late. Or early twenty second. Jeez, man, did you sleep through English and history?”

“Yeah, I was more interested in Planetary Astronomy. Listen, I don’t think we’re on a planet. What would you say if I told you we were in—?”

A click of metal and an explosion of light cut him off. Cole shut his eyes and turned his head to the side as hinges squealed, and a door across the room opened. He waited until he heard it slam shut—returning the small space to a comfortably lit state—before reopening his eyes. He blinked rapidly and tried to focus on the shape shuffling toward him. Several men wrapped in fur had joined them in the cramped space. Two of them crouched down on either side of the door, their goggles off and dangling around their necks. One had the fur over his face pulled down, exposing a snarl.

The third man approached Cole and Riggs. He slowly pulled his goggles off and pushed his arm through the strap to secure them around his elbow. His face was completely covered with strips of fur, dotted with melting snow. Reaching up, the man began unwrapping himself, gradually revealing a tan face with a leathery complexion and a head topped with a mop of bright, blonde hair.

A mouth was exposed, smiling, his white teeth standing out against a rich tan and the dark creases in his skin. The man looked like a surfer—like someone who had spent his entire life on the beach. Cole had a hard time matching that neck-up look with the garb for an endless winter.

“What do you want with us?” Riggs asked.

The man turned to him. “A few answers,” he said calmly. “Oh, and then your undying loyalty, of course.” His smile broadened. His voice was warm, deep, and thick with a forgotten accent. It harkened back to a time when English was spoken by a minority of Humans, back before it gathered the rich pronunciations that would come with universalizing the language. It reminded Cole of some old pre-holo vids, flat stuff he had watched in Portugal as a kid.

Riggs laughed. “Not the best way to win us over, asshole!”

Cole ground his teeth together, wishing Riggs would calm down. He watched the blonde man pull off his gloves and tuck them into his belt. Every motion seemed both purposeful and relaxed. An odd combination, yet seductive, like watching an expert perform some complex task without pause or worry, just sure precision. The man reminded Cole of one of his old flight instructors: rugged and handsome in an ageless way, a guy who could speak through a smile and somehow make you want to follow him anywhere.

“Actually, Captain Riggs, we’ve found this to be the best way to win people over.”

“Do I know you?” Riggs stammered.

“You may’ve heard of me,” the man said. “My name’s Joshua. Joshua O’Connell.”

Cole felt a twinge of recognition; he looked to Riggs, who was shaking his head.

“How do you know who I am?” Riggs asked.

The man laughed. It was like warm honey being poured into Cole’s ears. The two men by the door joined in, whether by some shared joke or sense of duty, it was hard to tell.

“Your name’s on your flightsuit,” Joshua said, pointing at his chest.

The two men by the door laughed harder. Cole watched Riggs turn red as he glanced down at his chest. Cole did the same, looking at his flightsuit from Parsona, the one with Molly’s father’s name on it.

Joshua waved down the two hyenas by the door and smiled warmly at Riggs. “Normally, I leave these orientations to my subordinates. They break you down, I build you up, that sort of thing. However,” he turned to Cole. “You are causing quite the stir. Got people whispering all up the chain of command. Enough to make my new boss pay a visit.”

“He’s nobody,” Riggs said. “A flunky. You leave him be.”

Cole glared at Riggs, begging with his eyes for him to be quiet.

“Now, now, lads.” Joshua clapped his hands in front of him and left them clasped. The double-fist moved up and down as he spoke. “Let’s not think about what you should or shouldn’t say to me. My advice? Just skip the resistance bit. Assume we’re already the best of friends.” He spread his hands out to include the two goons by the door. “All of us will be on the same team before you know it. The sooner, the better.”

“Cool,” said Riggs. “When do we get to dress in coon skins and tie you guys up?”

Joshua’s smile faded. His bright eyebrows came down over his eyes, draping his sockets in darkness. “Look, boys, I know you have a lot of that Academy nonsense rattling around in your skulls, lord knows we get our share of noobs here—”

“Noobs?” Riggs asked.

Joshua turned to him. His eyes were bright, despite the dimness of the light filtering through the dark ceiling above. “Newbies,” he said. “People that don’t know how to calculate proper jump coordinates.” He walked over to stand close to Riggs; Cole followed with his eyes. “I don’t know where you kids thought you were jumping to, but something got in your way.” He spread his arms. “Welcome to hyperspace. Now let’s stop annoying me with questions and start soothing me with answers.”

“Hyperspace?” Riggs leaned forward against his restraints. “What are you talking about?”

Joshua started to say something, but he turned instead to Cole. His mouth remained hinged open, hovering around a half-formed word. Slowly, his frozen expression transformed into a smile. He snapped his fingers at the two men by the door.

“Why aren’t you just as surprised?” he asked Cole as the other men crossed the room.

Cole pulled against the knots around his wrists, dragging himself up the incline as much as he could. He took a deep breath once his diaphragm had the weight off and then slid back down. He felt winded just from being tied up in the position; it wasn’t conducive to long conversations.

“I’m shocked speechless, is all,” he finally said.

The two men walked toward Riggs, disappearing from view behind Cole’s arm. There was a loud screeching noise as they pushed Riggs’s rack around, lining up the base with the drain on the floor. One of the goons approached Joshua and held out his hand.

Reaching in a fold of his furs, Joshua brought out a bag of purple fluid and handed it to the guy, who set it on the ground near the drain.

“What’s your story?” Joshua asked.

“I’m just a noob,” Cole said, repeating the strange word but without the ancient accent. “A flunky, just like he said.”

Riggs shook his head. “Don’t tell them anything!” With his rack adjusted, Cole could now see him without straining his neck.

Joshua signaled to one of the goons; the man dug a thumb in Riggs’s armpit, causing him to gurgle with pain.

“What can it hurt?” Cole asked his old friend, pleading with him to go along so whatever happened, they’d do it quick.

“Precisely,” said Joshua, turning to Riggs and waving the goon off. “The only way it hurts is if you refuse to talk.” He turned back to Cole and lowered his voice. “Who did you contact with the D-band?”

“The what?” Cole scanned the three men. “Wait, what year do you think it is?” He wondered if Riggs’s time-travel joke had any merit—

Joshua shook his head. “We know what year it is, now stop asking questions and start answering them. Who did you contact with the band?”

“Nobody,” Cole said, wondering how they even knew what the thing was for. “I heard some voices, that’s all.” He glanced over at Riggs. “Please don’t hurt him.”

“What did the voices say?”

“That you were coming. And welcome to hyperspace.”

“You knew?” Riggs hissed. Cole turned to his friend, saw his eyes wide with astonishment. Riggs grunted in agony as the goon dug his furry mitt into his ribs again.

Cole grimaced with empathic pain and looked away. He turned to Joshua. “Please stop,” he begged.

“Are you coming from Lok?” Joshua asked.

Cole swallowed and shook his head.

“Speak up.”

“Never been there.”

Joshua pointed a finger at him. “But you know something, don’t you? You recognized the name of the planet.”

“I’ve heard of it.”

“But not as part of an invasion? Maybe an alien force with a different name?”

“No.”

Joshua’s finger shook. “Tell me what you know about Lok or I’ll have your friend’s limbs removed.”

One of the goons laughed. Joshua snapped his fingers in the man’s direction and the goon fell silent. Cole stole a glance at Riggs, whose lips were pursed thin and tight.

“I know someone who was born there. That’s all.”

Do you, now?”

There was a knocking at the other side of the metal door. The three men put on their goggles; Riggs leaned away as the man beside him let go of his neck. One of the goons walked over to the door and opened it, letting in a flash of light.

“What is it?” Cole heard Joshua say, his own face averted and his eyes closed.

“Our esteemed guest is on deck, sir,” he heard a voice say.

“Excellent. Tell him we’ll be there in a minute.”

“He wants you right away, sir.”

“And I want you to stall. Take him to the mast if he’s impatient, that way we’ll be there before he knows it.”

“Yes, sir.” The door banged shut; Cole opened his eyes and waited for them to adjust to the relative darkness. Joshua stood in front of him, his goggles now down around his neck, his hand reaching into his fur coat. “What’s your name?” he asked Cole.

“Mortimor,” Cole said, looking down at the patch on his suit.

“No, it’s not.” Joshua pulled something out of the folds of fur—two cylinders of wood, bright and polished. “I recognize the getup. I know you’re not him.”

“You’ve got me confused for someone else,” Cole said. “Where I come from, it’s a common na—”

“Do you know what this is?” Joshua asked. He held the two cylinders up for Cole to see, gripping them in a single fist, side-by-side.

Cole shook his head.

“Ever heard of the Luddites?”

“I know what a luddite is,” Cole said. He snuck a quick glance at Riggs, who seemed livid and confused by the discussion—his forehead was full of wrinkles, but his jaw kept clenching and unclenching.

The Luddites,” Joshua said. He held one of the glossy cylinders away from his body. The other one dropped toward the ground and then stopped, hovering in mid-air less than a meter below its twin.

“The terrorists?”

All three of the men laughed. “No, not terrorists, my friend. Freedom fighters. We were once devoted to liberating mankind from the technology that blinded them to a good life.”

“You preferred to die toothless and young, is that it?”

Cole regretted saying it as soon as it came out. He tensed for a blow, but none came. Eying Joshua warily, he saw a thin smile creep across the man’s face.

“There were some… flaws in our worldview, sure, but we have a much higher purpose now. We now know and understand mankind’s failings, and we’re working to fix them. However,” he twisted his outstretched hand slightly and the levitating stick swung in the air, “we still loathe technology. Deep down—the original members who are still with us—we prefer the simple things in life.”

Carefully, Joshua reached below the hovering wooden handle and grasped it with his other hand. He then brought both of the cylinders parallel to the ground while keeping them apart.

“Simple is always better, don’t you think?”

Cole raised his eyebrows.

“The wire between these two pieces of wood is constructed almost entirely out of carbon. Lovely, beautiful carbon. The matrix of life.”

He moved the handles closer, but Cole still couldn’t see a thing.

“The strand is just a few atoms wide, and yet, it is nearly unbreakable, held together by the natural forces of electromagnetism. Gorgeously simple, really.” Joshua’s eyes changed focus, away from the nothingness and fixed on Cole. “Do you know what that makes this lovely wire?”

“Easy to lose?” Cole joked.

Joshua tilted his head to the side and smiled. “It makes this the sharpest thing in the universe.” He turned to the goons beside Riggs and nodded. The man with his wrappings down off his mouth smiled, his shaded eyes darting toward Cole before he knelt down and yanked Riggs’s pantleg out of his boot. He unzipped the expander on the side of the flightsuit’s leggings, then slid the black fabric up past Riggs’s knee. He pulled hard, bunching the material in a band so tight around his thigh, that Riggs grimaced in pain.

Cole stared at Riggs’s exposed, pale leg and noticed for the first time a trough in the rack right behind the thigh, running from side to side. The goon performed the same ritual on the other pantleg, unzipping the boot expander and yanking the material up high.

“What do you want to know?” Cole asked.

Joshua flashed the briefest of smiles, there only for an instant. He frowned and shook his head. “For starters, I want you to stop asking me questions. I want the both of you to concentrate instead on spilling your guts.”

The goons laughed at this. Joshua nodded to one of them and jerked his head toward Cole; the man came over and stood by his side. Cole expected him to jam his fingers in his ribs or armpit, just as he had with Riggs, but the man clamped his hand over his mouth, instead.

He pulled Cole’s chin to the side, forcing him to watch as Joshua knelt down in front of Riggs with the two handles held far apart. Cole saw his friend’s boots twitch, straining against the ropes. Riggs tried to yell something, but the other goon clamped his hand around his mouth, forcing the two former friends to look at each other. Riggs’s eyes were wide, his nostrils flaring with desperate, shallow breaths.

Taking extreme care, Joshua slowly inserted one of the handles in the rack’s trough and fed it behind Riggs’s legs until it slid out the far side. He again grasped both handles and held them far apart, his muscles straining as if pulling the invisible thread taut. He looked back at Cole and smiled, then turned to Riggs’s legs.

Cole could feel his own eyes bulging as he shouted into the furry mitt covering his mouth. His cheeks filled with the muffled roar of his own voice as Joshua brought the handles toward his chest. Cole knew Joshua would turn to him, would give him one last chance to speak before he did anything bad. Or maybe it would all be a cruel joke. A hazing ritual. A prank meant to bond them together.

But Cole was wrong.

There was almost no effort in what Joshua did. He brought the two handles together in front of Riggs’s thighs, switched them to the opposite hands, and then pulled them away from one another. Cole couldn’t even tell if the motion made a sound over his own muffled pleas.

Riggs’s face remained frozen for a moment, then his face twisted up in confused concentration, almost as if he were fighting to place a smell. Cole tried to breathe through his nose as Joshua stood back and began rolling one of the handles in the air, sucking the other one up to it.

The real horror didn’t begin until the goon by Riggs let go of his mouth and reached for the purple bag. Riggs struggled against his restraints, grunting. One of his thighs came away from the rack.

His boot didn’t.

Cole gaped in sick disbelief at the lower half of his friend’s two legs, both of which were still strapped to the rack. There seemed to be a long delay before the thighs began jetting blood, splattering the boots and running down the steel toward the drain. The thighs kicked even more as Riggs writhed in horror. Cole’s head filled with a dull roar—his own moans reverberating through his skull, back into the steel rack, then echoing in his ears. It gave his rage a metallic tinge, like fear and hate wrapped in foil.

He could barely hear Riggs scream as the goon began slapping purple goo on the ends of his stumps. Thick pulses of blood sprayed through the man’s fingers before he could get it stopped. It came in rapid, forceful spurts, a visual measure of Riggs’s racing heart.

After what felt like minutes of struggle and abject terror, Riggs’s head finally fell forward, his jaw slumping to his chest. Blood continued to leak out of his legs; the man tending to them paused for a moment, licking some of the purple goo off the back of his hand.

The man holding Cole’s face let go and stepped away. Cole tried to suck in a lungful of air, but before he could, he heard his own disbelieving wail leak out, the last of his held breath forced into a whimper vying to become a scream:

“What the flank? What the flank!”

Part XII – Lessons Learned

“The surface confounds with its visibility.

Truth always lurks beneath.”

~The Bern Seer~

11

Molly stepped out of the sheriff’s office and back onto the crowded sidewalk. She looked down at the ticket stub she’d just purchased. There was no name on it, just a date, time, and place: that very night at eight o’clock, the opera house. Lok’s extremely short days meant she didn’t have long to wait, but it also meant skipping a shift of sleep. She tried to calculate how long she’ll have been up by the next nightfall—when the Wadi’s claws dug sharply into her shoulder, breaking her concentration.

She turned to chastise the animal, then saw it had cowered down low to peer over her shoulder at something. Following its eyes, she looked across the street and spied Walter walking amongst the crowd.

Molly let a buggy go by, its un-muffled engine blatting loudly as it revved up to cajole the buggy ahead of it. She ran across the street behind it, hot exhaust blasting her bare knees. Weaving through the foot traffic, she took long strides to try and catch up to Walter. The boy was walking unusually fast and quite close to the two Humans just ahead of him.

She nearly caught up to him when a ruckus occurred. Some kid came out of an alley right in front of the couple. The boy collided with them, sending the woman to the dirt, and then ran off without even apologizing. Molly rushed forward to help her and her husband, to see if they were okay. Shockingly, Walter did the same. He steadied the man by the hips to make sure the gentleman didn’t go down as well.

“Are you alright?” Molly asked the lady as she helped her up.

“Little snot came out of nowhere!” she said, brushing the dirt off her knees.

“Now Sandra, it was just an accident.” The gentleman patted Walter on the back. “Alright lad, I’m fine. Thank you very much.” He smiled at Molly and tipped his wide-brimmed hat. “Thanks for your assistance, young lady.”

“Molly!” Walter said. He glanced up and down the street as the couple merged with the crowd and disappeared. “What’re you doing here?”

“I’m looking for the person who’s gonna help get us out of here. What’re you doing?”

“Nothing,” Walter said. He thumbed through folds of paper in his hand. “What wass her name again?”

“Cat. I’ve told you that a hundred times.” She pulled him out of the middle of the sidewalk so the crowd wouldn’t have to part to get around them.

“I think I found her,” Walter said.

Before Molly could respond, a young boy forded the river of foot traffic and tugged on Walter’s elbow. Walter turned and pushed him away, hissing softly.

“Did you just give that kid something?” Molly asked.

“What?”

“Was that the kid from the alley?”

“Huh? No!” Walter turned and resumed thumbing through something in his hands. All Molly could see was the top of his stubbled, metallic head, which seemed to be glowing a little. He turned around and pressed a wad into Molly’s hands. She looked at them: a thin stack of tickets, all to that night’s show at the opera house.

She shook them at him. “Where did you get these, Walter?”

“People gave them to me.”

Gave them?” She reached out and grabbed a fistful of his flightsuit, pulling him close. “Where did you get them? Did you steal them?”

“No! They’re free!” he squealed.

Molly glared at Walter and had a visual of spanking him, right there in public, age be damned. “C’mon,” she said, pulling him back across the street. She veered toward one of the many outdoor cafes lining a busy side-alley.

Walter pried her fist off his cuff and grabbed her hand. As they crossed the street, he practically skipped along beside her, trying in vain to interlock his fingers with hers.

••••

A few minutes later, Walter sat across a small café table from Molly, sulking. He took his finger out of his mouth and asked, “Why can’t we go back to the sship?” He pouted and resumed sucking on his digit.

Molly took a sip of her water, which she had made Walter vote for, then leaned back in her seat. “I already told you, some bad people are setting up camp in there, and the sheriff won’t have anything to do with them. Besides, I don’t wanna miss our chance at finally tracking this Cat character down.”

“So let’ss go get ssome gunss,” Walter said. Molly glanced away from him and over his shoulder. Two Callites were walking down the alley, both wearing coveralls splattered with the same purple paint Scottie and his friends had sported. She watched them curiously over the lip of her glass.

“I ssaid, let’ss get ssome gunss,” Walter hissed.

“Get them where? Guns are illegal here.” Molly reached into her glass and pulled out a cube of ice. She squeezed it between the pads of her fingers to numb the persistent soreness there. “That’s why you don’t see people on Lok shooting at each other.”

Walter looked down at his computer for a moment, then back up at Molly. “How do you protect yoursself from whoever’ss in charge?”

“Look around you, pal—this isn’t Palan. A bunch of pirates aren’t gonna take over and let the last people out of prison before putting some different ones in. It doesn’t work like that here.” She raised her voice as she talked, speaking over a protest marching down Main street. Someone on a bullhorn was promising to handle the Drenard invasion differently, and also to get rid of the ships overhead, if only the electorate would throw the current bums out and install him in their place.

“But if the ssheriff won’t help, and he’ss the one with the gunss, how do we get the sship back?”

“I don’t know. Hopefully they’ll be gone by the time we return. I think they were looking for someone else, anyway. Maybe they’ll give up. Anyway, we’re just gonna hang out here until the show. We need to find out about the fusion fuel. That’s the most important thing right now.”

“I thought we had plenty of fuel. You don’t tell me anything.”

“Yes I do. I’ve told you a dozen times, you just don’t listen. We need a different kind of fuel or we can’t get back from where we’re going. Besides, this lady might be an ally, which we’re in desperate need of. Our crew has dwindled down to—”

I’m your ally!” Walter said, beaming.

“Yeah?” Molly took a long pull from her water, and then fished for another cube of ice. “Where in hyperspace were you this morning when I needed you?”

Walter frowned and looked back down at his computer; he’d hardly touched his food. Molly wondered if she should give the plate to the Wadi. She looked down at the creature, which was curled up in her lap, chewing on the tablecloth.

“Are you still not in yet?” Molly asked Walter.

He shook his head, which seemed to glow with an inner light. It was a sign she’d begun to recognize as either shame or excitement. Not knowing which made for some interesting interpretations of his moods.

“Seriously? You can crack a StarCarrier mainframe and remotely hack a Navy-issue missile, but you can’t get a wireless signal in a cafe? Look, just let me pay for it.” She glanced at her poor pinky, rationalizing the sacrifice.

Suddenly, the roar of thrusters in the atmosphere caused everyone in the café to glance up. It sounded at first like another Bern ship heading off to orbit, but they were too far from the rift for it to be that. She and Walter joined the rest of the patrons in searching the sky for the source.

She finally spotted the vertical plume from the lift-off. The tiny ship at its head didn’t match up with the sonic boom it created, as the sight of it reached them well ahead of the lagging noise. It was a strange optical illusion: a silent ship being chased by the grumble of an invisible one. It was especially unnerving as Molly still had not gotten used to hearing spacecraft move.

She looked away from the ship and watched the other patrons follow the scene. They soon began arguing politics amongst themselves, often saying something about Callites and immigration laws.

Walter peered down at his computer, frowning. “Coffee sshopss are much tougher than Naval encryption,” he said, still smarting over her jab at his technical prowess. “They update their sstuff weekly—the Navy takes decadess. Thiss sshop csycle’ss its passsword every half-hour and they usse ten twenty-four bit encryption.” He took a sip of his gelatte and wiped the foam off his lips with the back of his hand. “If the Navy took half thesse precautsionss, you’d probably be dead.”

He smiled up at her. “Twicse,” he added with a grin.

Molly glared at him over the lip of her glass. “You can’t die twice—”

A gasp from the upward-gazing crowd cut her off. Molly shielded her eyes and looked up as well. A second later, the distant roar of the spacebound ship went silent. As she followed the plume of exhaust upward to locate the ship, she saw the craft tumbling down past the pillar of smoke it had created, bow spinning over thrusters, over and over.

Everything in the café froze as the patrons watched solemnly, waitresses frozen in place with pitchers of water dripping condensation. When the plummeting hull disappeared behind the building’s awning, there was a distant rumble, the sound coming from many kilometers away. Everyone gradually looked back to their food. Forks tinked against plates. Whispers began to grow back into conversations.

Molly took it all in, desperate to know what had just happened. Were they testing some kind of new craft? Something to use against the fleet? Everyone else seemed to know something, or at least they weren’t terribly shocked by the display. She leaned over to ask a nearby table, when Walter hissed excitedly.

“I’m in,” he said, his face glowing. He bent over the computer, typing furiously and sneering.

Molly reached across the table. “Let me see it.”

Walter continued to peck away.

“Walter, it’s important. Give it here.”

He frowned and handed over the computer. “Won’t be long before you’re kicked off,” he said.

Molly nodded and moved to swipe the top screen away, then noticed it was Palan’s planetary homepage. The weather forecast was being displayed, showing the projected hour for the next rains. She glanced up at Walter, who was looking back over his shoulder at a political dispute in the alley. She felt a sudden pang of sadness for him as she realized he must be feeling homesick.

Swiping the page to the side, Molly dragged up a new one from the bottom. The few times they’d been connected to the Net in the past two weeks, the datastream had been too thin to do even the most rudimentary of tasks. The remote Lokian villages had suffered from poor connectivity and bandwidth, even when they were lucky enough to find an available signal. A seemingly countless number of items had built up over the past weeks that she really wanted to check on, but first there were a few she had to.

Using the virtual keyboard, she typed: “Molly; Fyde; Navy,” and hit enter. Hundreds of hits registered, but she could see most of them were junk. Lots of false positives and a ton of spelling suggestions for “mollified.” She sorted the results by date, looking for something recent, but there wasn’t anything within the last two months.

She swiped that away and tried: “Parsona; Ship; Navy.”

“You looking for newss about thosse sshipss?” Walter asked. “The oness from the bright light?”

“No. I probably know more about them than the Bel Tra do. Not that that’s saying much. I’m actually looking for news about us. Trying to find out how much trouble we’re in.”

Walter pushed up from his chair and leaned forward. “You ssearching on Latticse?” he asked.

“Yeah. Don’t worry about—”

Walter leaned over the table and snatched the computer away from her. He pecked furiously at the keys while Molly tried to snag it back. “I said not to worry about—”

Walter relinquished the computer. Molly glanced at the screen and nearly dropped the device. She looked behind herself, scanned the crowd, then moved the tablet to her lap and stared at the screen.

It showed the welcome page for the GN Naval database.

“How did you do that?” she whispered.

“Eassy. I already had the passsword.” He slurped through ice cubes for the last of his drink, then looked around for their waitress.

“Is this how you hacked the missiles?”

He frowned at her as if the question didn’t merit answering. “Completely different,” he said.

The waitress came up from behind. Molly moved the computer under the table and threw her napkin over it. Some more water was sloshed in their glasses—their one free refill. Walter was told the gelate top-up would cost. He demurred, peering at the pads of his fingers. Molly glared at him, jerking her head to the side to let him know she needed some privacy.

He finally said “no thankss,” and the waitress moved on. Molly placed the computer on the table as the Wadi munched on her napkin. She looked over the welcome page for the Navy database, the appearance of the familiar site filling her with memories of the Academy. The only difference was the tall stack of red bars running down one side of the screen, indicating her current clearance level. She had no idea it even went that high.

Pulling up the keyboard display, she repeated her search query from Lattice and hit enter.

••••

Classified. Zebra Log. 2148.08.12.2214.

Today, at precisely 1934 UTC, the 12th of Eight 2148, two prisoners (Molly Fyde and Ensign-II Cole Mendonça) escaped from Star Carrier Zebra with the aid of an informant (Walter Hommul) and a suspected Navy accomplice (Captain-III Jason Riggs). Along with their escape, Zebra command suffered the theft of a loaded and armed Firehawk (s/n 492857295-F) and an impounded craft (GN-290 Parsona). The latter had already been deemed both a C-8 High Target and an L-10 Object of Interest.

Memo: Escape was effected by the use of a high-level hack of StarCarrier Zebra’s mainframe and the re-routing of personnel. All, repeat, ALL Navy admins should change their login and password information immediately and begin cycling them according to Navy regs.

Memo: Whereabouts of both craft unknown at this time, but hyperspace signature for stolen Firehawk was found and traced by the science team on the Cruiser Sagan. Whether or not the result was a case of negligent navigation, a suicide mission, or an attempt to cover their tracks remotely, has yet to be determined. The hyperspace signature led straight to the core of Delphi’s primary star, leaving a trace strong enough to drown out Parsona’s exit coordinates. A deeper analysis of the trace will be performed, as will further scans for Parsona’s trajectory.

Memo: All targets and personnel in this case have been upgraded to L-15 Objects of Interest. Zebra command takes full responsibility for the loss, but gladly accepts the High Admiral’s confidence and charge of reclaiming the Navy’s property.

Memo: Please reference Palan Log 2148.06.23.0715 for more on Mendonça and Fyde. The same suspects were involved in the death of three Navy staff and the destruction of Navy property. They were subsequently assigned L-5 ratings, each.

Memo: Please reference Earth Log 2148.07.18.1640.3 for even more on Mendonça and Fyde. The same suspects were involved in the death of Rear Admiral Lucin and an attack on other Navy personnel. They were both upgraded to L-10 Objects of Interest following the events detailed therein.

Admiral Griffin Saunders Z-HQ StarCarrier Zebra

••••

Molly scanned the report one more time, frowning at the results of the hyperspace signature scan. Somehow, it actually felt comforting to know what had happened, that Cole had definitely jumped into an object with mass and would likely have ended up in hyperspace. But how had he mistakenly jumped into a star? Did Riggs play some part in that? She peeked up at Walter, who was holding his empty gelate to the sun as if to make the ice melt faster.

The database search also showed the older memos linked to the most recent one. She glanced over the one detailing her and Cole’s escape from the Academy, but she didn’t read it. She could get lost in that memory: the door banging, Lucin yelling, the silent shots, just a crinkle of glass and a life ended…

The overall image created by the search results made her feel nauseous. Two escapes, several deaths, theft of Navy property, and a string of violence. She couldn’t imagine what more the higher-ups would be saying about her if they weren’t so busy dealing with the Bern invasion overhead, or the rumored expansion of Drenard hostilities.

Her mother, of course, had insisted that none of this was her fault, that perhaps things foreseen couldn’t be stopped—but Molly didn’t believe that. The mistakes she’d made, with the Navy and now on Lok, it was Glemot all over again. But unimaginably, impossibly, on an even larger scale.

“You’re wassting the connection,” Walter hissed.

Molly shook her head and looked back to the screen. She tried searching for: “Cat; Catherine; Lok,” but once again got too many hits to weed through them or make sense of it all. Most went too far back to be the correct person. She cleared the computer screen and handed it to Walter, then thought about the odd fatality count reported from Palan. She felt certain four people had died in those flooded streets. And yet: Lucin, Saunders, and now the official reports all claimed three. Did someone survive the rains? Or did they just not find the body?

“We’re in trouble,” Walter hissed.

Molly snapped her head around, her hands moving to the table and ready to push off, to flee or fight. The Wadi, asleep in her lap, jumped up and hit its head on the bottom of the table and came out woozy. But Walter was just looking at the computer. She could see the reports she’d just found back up on the screen.

“Close that stuff out!” she hissed at him. “And you nearly gave me a heart attack.”

He looked up. “Ssorry, but if you didn’t want me to ssee it, you sshould’ve cleared the hisstory tab.”

Molly settled back down, her heart racing. “No, Walter, that’s not the way it works.” She patted the Wadi on the head, comforting it, then leaned forward, hoping he’d see how serious she was. “If I wanted you to see what I was looking at, I would’ve left it up or shown it to you, understand? You can’t take stuff that’s not offered to you. At the very least, you need to learn to ask.”

“Why? If I don’t take it, ssomeone elsse will. What’ss the differencse? It’ss sstill taken, but then I don’t have it.”

“You shouldn’t even want something stolen. You—haven’t you ever had someone give you something?”

“No, not—” he looked down at his flightsuit, his name scrawled across the breast with a black marker. “Thiss,” he said, placing one hand on his chest.

“Okay, and how do you feel about that flightsuit? You love it, right?”

Walter nodded.

“More than that computer, am I right? And yes, I know you stole the computer from your uncle back on Palan.”

Walter looked at his computer, then ran his fingers over the bare patch of material on his suit where he had printed his name.

“I like the computer better,” he said.

Molly threw her hands up. “Oh, forget it.” She threw some credit chips on the table for a tip and shooed the Wadi up to her shoulder.

“C’mon, I think the waitress is telling us to buy something or scram. We’ll go hang at the square for an hour and wait until the show starts.”

She stood up and began weaving through the tables to reach the alley. Walter remained seated. He stared at his computer some more, then looked down at his flightsuit.

“Thiss iss my favorite outfit,” he muttered to himself.

12

Anlyn piloted the Bern ship through the Great Rift, sliding from one galaxy to another. As she scanned the backdrop of stars ahead of her, checking out the various structures floating in the void beyond, Edison began his prepared spiel in flawless Bern. She couldn’t understand most of the individual words—her Bern in deplorable shape for a member of royalty—but she’d helped write the speech in Drenard, so she could somewhat keep up, translating in her head:

“Greetings, members of the great Bern race. We come unarmed and without malice. Please do not fire upon us. As ambassadors for the Drenard empire, we wish to communicate, nothing more. Please do not fire. We wish to speak in peace with your cultural representatives.”

Edison lowered the mic and Anlyn checked the SADAR screen, or whatever the Bern called their version of it. Seeing nothing, she peered forward, squinting at the large structures floating silently in the distance.

“Another iteration?” Edison asked.

Anlyn shook her head. “I don’t think anyone will hear you.” She spread her hands toward the view through the canopy. “Where are the ships? All the activity?”

“The prophecy contained much accuracy,” Edison said, chortling.

Anlyn didn’t laugh. She settled back into her seat and grabbed the flight controls, spinning the ship in place. “We should tell Bishar. The Circle will want to—”

She fell silent. Looking back, a solid wall of gold stood in the open slit of space. The last hole in the barrier could be seen squeezing shut, one of the armored canisters brought forward and locked into place.

Anlyn reached for the radio. “Bishar, this is Anlyn, respond.” She waited a moment for a reply. “Hello? Anyone, please answer.”

Nothing.

Her hand dropped to her lap in frustration.

Edison took the radio from her grasp and returned it to the dash. “Reveal your ruminations,” he said.

“You want to know what I think? I’m starting to wonder what we’re doing here. Where are the Bern? I don’t—we aren’t supposed to be doing this by ourselves.” Anlyn looked down at her lap. “Those two boys playing with your lance… what were their names—?”

“Who? You speak with adequate volume,” Edison said, “but it appears self-directed.”

“This was all a mistake. Everything. The speech, the prophecy, all those people…” Anlyn glanced over at Edison, then looked away. “I’m sorry, I think I really messed up this time—”

Edison reached over and squeezed her arm; he growled in her native tongue: “Love, are we more lost than when we met?”

Anlyn thought about that.

“No,” she whispered, shaking her head. “But back then, we had at least known what galaxy we were in.”

“Ceti,” said Edison, switching back to English.

“What?” Anlyn lifted her head.

“We currently occupy the galaxy designated Ceti by the Terran federation.” He gestured to the screen ahead of him, then clacked a few buttons with his claws and the image zoomed in. “Observe. Our position is precisely determined.” He flashed his teeth.

“Like I know where the Ceti galaxy is,” Anlyn said, wiping at her face. She couldn’t tell if her love was being sweet to change the subject, or just unaware. Either way, she tried to pull herself together.

“It is situated approximately two point eight five million light years from the Local Cluster,” Edison said.

Anlyn glanced at his screen, then sat up straight and looked at her own. “How do I pull that up over here?”

Edison pointed to a button on his display. Anlyn pressed hers and tried to memorize the swirling shape of the word and the position of the key. The display of ranged targets disappeared from her screen, replaced with a standard looking chart. The names were gibberish, but she took the dotted trails for supply routes between good hyperspace jumps.

“How are you telling which galaxy we’re in? Mine just shows nearby systems.”

Edison clacked on his keys, and her screen duplicated his view. Their ship stood in the center, a blip nearly the size of what seemed to be an elliptical galaxy. Edison marked a target off to one edge, a fuzzy spiral in a cluster of several other blurry patches.

“The marker indicates home,” he said.

“You’re sure?”

He turned to her with a hurt look, then bared his teeth. “Positive.” His claws tapped on the keys, and more targets lit up, his deep voice calling out names as they flashed. “The Milky Way. Andromeda. Triangulum. The more diminutive objects in periphery represent the dwarf galaxies within the cluster. The overall pattern is immediately recognizable. The only difference is the angle of reference, which is inclined forty two degrees from normal, and askew eighteen degrees clockwise.”

Edison glanced over at her and seemed to catch the confused expression on her face. He looked back to the map and held his hands out like he was clutching an invisible sphere. He swiveled both hands together and said in Drenard: “If you just rotate the map in your mind—”

“If you rotate it in your mind,” Anlyn said. “Some of us are normal.”

Edison’s teeth winked out in a sideways smile.

“Okay,” Anlyn said, wiggling to sit up straight, “So, the one we’re in, it’s called ‘Ceti?’” Anlyn tried to memorize the squiggle below their ship indicator; her brain didn’t feel quite up for the challenge. It was weird enough hearing Edison refer to galaxies with their Earth-names while speaking in Drenard. The last thing she needed was a third language thrown into the mix.

“That’s correct. And this one is labeled ‘Bern.’” He typed something, and a galaxy became highlighted in red.

“Oh, wait. I recognize that one. The shape anyway. Okay, I think I have my bearings. I’m just used to everything being centered on Drenard and right-side up.” Anlyn traced the black space around their ship’s indicator. “I wonder if the lack of lines between galaxies means we’re stuck in this one?” She shook her head. “No, of course not. There won’t be any resistance out here, no blockades and no keeps. It’s all Bern space, so there should be rifts with lots of traffic.”

“I’m confused,” Edison said. “The only way home should be through there.” He pointed at the shiny wall of plated armor ahead of them.

“It is.” Anlyn gripped the flight controls and spun the ship around to face the silent structures in the distance. “But we aren’t going home.”

She began accelerating out toward the large stations.

“We’re going to find the Bern and make first contact,” she said. “All over again. Prophecy or no prophecy, we’re here and we’re together, which makes this galaxy as good as any other.”

Edison reached over and rubbed her arm. “Agreed,” he said. “Besides, the most impossible thing we’ll ever do in all our lives has already been accomplished.”

“Which is?” Anlyn asked.

“Locating each other, of course.”

13

“Tickets! Get your free tickets!”

A man standing in front of the old opera house yelled the line over and over as he waved a fan of narrow stubs in the air.

“Ssee?” Walter hissed, turning to Molly.

Molly pulled him to a halt. “Did you know they were free when you stole them?”

Walter looked away.

“Thought so,” she said, releasing him with a slight shove.

She approached the gentleman, noticing as she did so that most people were doing just the opposite: they were scurrying into the street to avoid him. She wondered if the repulsive effect came from his comical attire: the man had on red pants, a velvety red jacket, and a white shirt with ruffles so long and stiff, they looked like a dozen pale hands reaching up to strangle him.

“Why free?” she asked him. She held up her own ticket as he tried to shove a few in her hand.

“Oh! Very good. Coming to see tonight’s show? Excellent. It’s free because—” He turned to a passing group. “Free tickets!” he yelled, frowning as they declined. “It’s always free on Tuesday nights. Tough day of the week— Free tickets!” More people scurried to the other side of the street. “Tough day of the week to get a crowd,” he finished. “We make it up in fruit and alcohol sales. Free tickets! And of course, we haven’t had this performer in several months. She’s been making quite a circuit around Lok, refining her act. Free tickets! We need to get people hooked again, am I right?”

He smiled and nodded as if answering his own question. Or perhaps to let Molly know he was quite busy enough without having to talk to her. She turned and studied the façade of the old opera house, which loomed up beside her.

It didn’t seem like much, not at first. Colorful dabs of paint clung to ornate carvings in desperate little chips. Rained-on dust dripped down massive columns in streaks, the tracks of brown smears blending with the dirt splattered upward from the sidewalk. The flaking and dripping made the entire building look like a half-burned candle of mud.

Through the grime and neglect, however, Molly saw something: an old grace, like a woman whose beauty had become shrouded in time. The building had tasteful architecture; it possessed a forgotten style that used to require an investment, back when artisans and laborers worked side-by-side, carving and painting masterpieces atop inspired engineering. But it was something else that made Molly’s breath catch in her chest. Something familiar. She actually remembered the place. Her father had brought her there when she was young—to see a magic act, she thought. A man had made loads of things disappear right off a stage before bringing them back again.

The old memory flooded her brain, striking for its clarity: a portly gentleman, bearded, wearing overalls instead of a magician’s suit. Fidgety and nervous, his head had been sheening with perspiration, his voice cracking with discomfort, and yet he had been wildly popular with the crowd. She could hear them in her recollection of that day: roaring all around her as a prairie buggy vanished from stage, then going wild again as it returned with members of the audience sitting inside—the very people who had just disappeared from traps and what-not.

Molly closed her eyes and attempted to corral more details of that night. She placed herself inside the theater of her imagination and tried looking to the side to see her father. She felt like he was right there, turning to her and smiling—

She lost it. It was too dark, that place they’d been in. Or maybe it was her childhood that remained too dimly lit. Still, it felt as though she’d won a kind of lottery, had reclaimed some portion of her fuzzy past.

The Wadi put its cheek next to hers and flicked its tongue out as if it were trying to taste the memory as well. She opened her eyes and coaxed the creature down by her belly where she could cover it with her arm. Walter stood by her side, looking at her as if she’d lost her mind. Molly ignored him and strolled up to the entrance of the soiled building.

“Tickets?” a young boy by the door asked.

Molly fumbled for hers, exposing the Wadi, but the kid didn’t seem to notice or care. “Why do you need them if it’s free?” she asked, trying to make conversation.

The boy looked at her curiously, then glanced out at the gentleman in the street. “Good question,” he said.

Walter pushed on her back, shoving her inside before brandishing his collection of tickets to the boy.

“You only need one,” she heard the lad say.

Molly smiled and stepped deeper into the building, taking in the sight of the lobby, which was slathered in the same sort of red velvet worn by the ticket hawker.

“Thiss is nicse,” Walter hissed.

Molly looked at the stains in the carpet, the torn posters on the walls, the crumbling ceiling tiles. Both the concession stand and ticket office were dark and empty. The former had a glass counter with several of the panes broken, fragments hanging like transparent teeth. The latter looked like it had been broken into, the door askew and clinging to a single hinge. In the center of the lobby stood four grand columns, one of which had a wide crack running its length with rough-hewn lumber nailed across it, making it look like an arm in a splint.

Molly frowned and rubbed her own arm.

“Thiss iss like a date,” Walter said.

Molly turned and saw him looking up at her, his hand reaching out to grab hers.

She pulled it away and used it to squeeze his shoulder. “This is not a date, Walter. We’re here to meet someone.” She glanced at the various doors leading to the seats. “Let’s go sit up close so we can get her attention after the show.” She headed for the stairs leading down, but Walter ran toward the door marked “Balcony.”

“I wanna ssit up top!” he called over his shoulder.

Molly sighed and headed up after him. She didn’t think it would be difficult to race down after the show and introduce herself to Cat, so she ascending the wide stairway darkened by burnt-out bulbs. Feeling her way up using the railing, Molly groped with her feet for that last, non-existent “ghost step” that always made her feel like a lepton.

Just as she started worrying about it, someone jumped at her, fingers digging into her ribs and nearly knocking her back down the steps.

“BOO!” Walter yelled.

Molly jumped so hard, she nearly pulled a muscle. She swung an open hand at him, but he was already rolling around on the red carpet, panting and wheezing in a full-on Palan giggle fit. Molly pictured herself kicking him in the shins, but somehow restrained herself. Then, the sight of something incredibly familiar loomed in her peripheral, distracting her.

She stepped over Walter and went to the rail, looking down across the seats and the handful of people milling about. She took in the stage, lit only by the house lights, and knew she’d been there before. And more recently than her early childhood. Much more recently.

Dakura. Her mother’s simulated afterlife!

Her mom had whisked her there virtually in an attempt to keep her quiet. It had only been for a moment; her mother’s next tactic had been to strap her into a dentist’s chair, a memory Molly didn’t feel like revisiting. She concentrated on the stage, instead. It was definitely the same place. And it had to be the same theater her father had brought her to as a kid, right before they fled to Earth. She must’ve been six, or very nearly. She looked up at the dimly lit dome above her head, the tall walls to either side dotted with private viewing booths. She remembered sitting in one of those, leaning across the rails—

“Ew!” Walter yelled. Molly turned, and in the dim light she could see him patting his flightsuit, his hands coming away as if something were on them. “Thiss floor iss ssticky!” he hissed.

“Serves you right, you Drenard.”

Walter scrambled to his feet. He looked down at the faint stains on his clothes. “I am a Drenard!” he said proudly.

Molly laughed, reminded once again that some of her habitual cursing no longer made any sense—or at the very least had become ineffectual. She led Walter along the rail to the seats at the center of the balcony, thinking about how she couldn’t tell people to “go to hyperspace” the way she once had. Not since she was yearning to get there herself.

“Where iss everybody?” Walter asked, looking down at the sparse gathering below.

“I hate to break it to you buddy, but I don’t think Cat’s performance is gonna be that nebular.”

She glanced at her watch, which was still on universal time. She did the math for Bekkie, taking into account its fourteen-hour days, and confirmed that it was almost eight. And yet, she and Walter were the only people on the balcony, and just a handful seemed to be gathering below.

Walter settled back and spread both of his arms across the generous armrests. Molly looked at all the empty seats around them and wondered why she felt obligated to sit directly next to him. The Wadi must’ve had a similar thought; it moved from her shoulder to the back of the adjacent seat and flicked its tongue out at a stain. Molly squirmed in her chair and wondered what those jerks on her ship were doing at that very moment.

After a few minutes of agonizing over Parsona and watching the Wadi explore its environment, a chorus of boos signified the start of the show. Molly leaned forward to glare down through the railing at the rude behavior. As the lights began to dim, she saw several people hurriedly purchasing fruits and vegetables from a vendor. A handful of spectators stood in the aisles, carrying on and making a ruckus.

The only other quietly seated people in the audience besides her and Walter were an older couple in one of the box balconies. Molly strained to get a view of them, but the house lights dimmed, and soon, the entire space was pitch-black.

An electric speaker popped, and then blared with a shriek of feedback. Finally, a voice—deep and loud—boomed through the mostly-empty building: “Ladies! Gentlemen! Lokians! Welcome to another Tuesday performance from Cripple Cat! We regret to inform you, she has made a change in her routine during her recent tour of Lok. The management would like to stress the need to throw early and aim true.”

The speakers clicked and popped again as a button was released somewhere. There was another shrill of feedback as it was pressed once more: “Enjoy the performance!”

As the announcer fell quiet, a new and worse sound took his place: a metallic crash followed by a terrifying wail of vibrating steel. It threw Molly’s spine sideways, then the sound rang out again. And again. Each bang was like an off-key tuning fork sending out sonic tendrils to molest her ears. Through the noise, Molly could just barely hear the screams and boos calling out from below. The poor Wadi jumped from its perch, did a few circles in her lap, then started digging its way under her shirt.

Bang! Screeee! Over and over.

Molly stuck her fingers in her ears, but the horrid sound wormed its way through and just rattled around, trapped inside her skull. The assault on her one sense was so terrifying, it seemed to bleed over to others. She could taste metal. Pops of light burst in her stunned vision, although it was still pitch-black all around her. Even her nose hallucinated somehow, as an electrical burn tickled her nostrils.

The stage lights gradually brightened as the horrendous noise continued; they revealing a lone figure on the stage: a nude Callite, her back turned. At first, Molly couldn’t tell what she was doing. Then she noticed several objects rising and falling in front of the woman. She glanced at Walter and could see his outline huddled and cringing from the awful noise.

They needed to get out of there before they went permanently deaf.

Just as Molly considered an escape from the barrage of awful sounds, the first volley of fruit arced from the crowd and into the puddle of light on stage. Molly watched, horrified, as the raw and rotten foodstuffs splattered across the alien’s bare back. Something like cabbage exploded against her head, and the crowd could be heard whooping over the furious noise. The female Callite, seemingly naked, kept throwing the objects up in the air. Her back, brown and webbed with the lines of interlocking plates, shed the incoming missiles, her muscles rippling like turbulent, muddy water.

Molly pushed on her ears and watched intently. The Wadi finally managed to dig its way under her shirt; it crawled around to the small of her back where it huddled and shivered.

The woman began to turn. Another light came on, illuminating something floating down from above. Molly glanced up and saw a clear bubble descending—and the audience must have noted it as well. The hail of rotten edibles became thick and frantic, most of them missing. The spectators began using both hands, as more objects zoomed through the air at once than there had been people below.

Some of the produce found their target, and as Cat spun around, Molly saw she wasn’t completely nude. She wore a very short apron—almost like a welder’s smock—that just covered her body from her breasts to the top of her thighs. She completed her turn, facing the audience and the hail of edibles, and Molly finally recognized the source of the clamor: two hammers, like small sledges, were being wielded in each hand. The woman swung them in tight circles, knocking the falling objects repeatedly into the air. The things she hit looked like woks, but with the handles removed. She struck them on their flat bottoms with such precision that they rose straight up, never spinning over. She just kept juggling them with noisy violence.

Molly matched each of the objects with their unique brand of auditory pain. All three had their own signature, like merciless handwritten scrawls etched with fingernails on a blackboard. A piece of fruit glanced off one of the woks, sending it wobbling. Molly heard excited whistling from the crowd as Cat fought to stabilize the blaring cone of steel. Meanwhile, the lip of the descending bubble was close to protecting her, so the aim from the unseen firing squad shifted to her bare legs, both of them already flecked with the salad of disgruntled viewers.

Molly felt hope swell in her chest for the tormented performer, glad that Cat had added the shell as some sort of feeble defense. The lip of the inverted bowl finally met the stage, locking inside a round collar and sealing it tight. Residual noise continued to ring in Molly’s ears, but she could tell the source of the painful vibrations had gone away, as she could no longer feel the fabric of her shirt buzzing against her chest. She pulled her fingers out of her ears and worked her jaw, feeling something pop inside her skull.

The Wadi wiggled out of its makeshift cave and crawled up inside her shirt, peering out the collar. Molly leaned forward to take in the scene below as fruit from the audience continued to impact the barrier, sliding down and leaving colorful tracks behind.

Inside the bubble, Cat juggled the woks, each one rising up toward the ceiling of her shield before sinking back down. Without the agonizing noise, Molly could begin to appreciate the physical ordeal taking place. Each hammer looked to weigh a few kilos, and the woks had to be sturdy to take such a beating and put off so much sound.

Cat’s arms, popping with sinewy muscles, were beautiful in motion. They vibrated with each impact, relaxed, then tensed, then vibrated again. The definition in them stood out through her dark, scaly skin, the movement of them reminding Molly that Callites appeared to be made up of hard plates, but they were just as soft and pliable as she, the webbing no different than how her own skin looked on close inspection.

She shifted her gaze to Cat’s legs, where the alien’s larger muscle groups fought to keep her body stable, her torso rotating gracefully through the cycles of the juggling, hips and shoulders weaving in time to a tune Molly could no longer hear. The entire display was a sort of grace moving to the beat of torture, a sensuous expression of pain. Molly studied Cat’s body and her motions intently, finally noticing the two bands encircling the woman’s thighs, the only things she wore besides the smock-like apron.

Movement in the crowd broke Molly’s concentration. She watched as the bored spectators threw the rest of their ammunition toward the dome. The missiles impacted and exploded as the unhappy silhouettes filed toward the exits.

For them, the night’s entertainment was over.

For Molly, it had just begun.

A hum-filled silence ensued. There wasn’t a peep outside Molly’s head, just a dull, residual roar from the earlier explosions of sound. She watched, mesmerized, as Cat slammed the objects up into the air. It took her a moment, lost as she was in the lovely display of dexterity, to realize something truly awful. Something horrifying:

It wasn’t quiet in that bubble.

The shield, Molly finally understood, wasn’t meant to protect Cat from the hurled objects—it existed for the audience’s benefit. It protected Molly and the rest of the spectators from the gods-awful noise.

Inside that shell—alone and unguarded—Cat endured a torment far worse and of greater frequency than the petty strikes hurled from the crowd.

Molly leaned over the railing, her empathy drawing her down inside that dome. She tried to imagine the horror of standing there, of enduring not just the noise, but the confined echoes of that shield. She felt the sickening inability to escape or win reprieve, the anguish of willingly secluding oneself in tight proximity to such violence.

The thought made her want to yell out for it to stop; she wanted to float to the stage and pound on the glass and put an end to it all; she wanted to throw something, anything at whoever was doing this. But the silence, the barrier between her and that agony, even the sheer beauty of Cat’s precise movements, it all completely paralyzed her.

So she continued to watch, transfixed, at the sublime mastery of kinesthetics on display. And without even realizing it, she began to cry. The tears silently streamed down her face as she clutched the railing with white knuckles and watched an event more meaningful and more beautiful and more terrible than her imagination could properly bear.

••••

Close by, the old Wadi responded to the tears and sadness. She kept her head tucked beneath the jutting outcrop of her pair-bond’s chin, and she bobbed her head with grief, swaying with the somber scents she could see and smell like columns of smoke. Falling into a deep trance, she forgot even her great and persistent hunger. She forgot her need to feed her brood. She just lost herself in her pair-bond’s emotions—clear and as moving as canyon music. And those emotions stirred something deep inside. Deep, where her pair-bond had triggered other changes by removing her from her lair. Changes she had once fled to the canyon of solitude to never feel again.

As the chemicals and smells of sadness swirled all around her, the Wadi remembered back to long ago. She remembered the arduous, dry, and hot run to the eggless canyon, that place where she could avoid what the male Wadis had done to her. She had made her home in those canyons where offspring were never produced and where the blue hunters rarely came. It had been so long ago, but she was willing to stay there even longer. She had planned on staying forever, hoping to avoid these changes for the rest of her days.

But now they were taking place, and emotions coursed down her scent tongue, traveling like liquid rays of the twin lights to fill her head and heart. They swelled and consumed her near to bursting—even as her body continued to dwindle. Continued to dwindle as whatever she ate and drank was robbed from her, pulled through some sucking void she couldn’t understand, racing off to feed eggs laid in the eggless canyon, which was so impossibly far away that she could no longer taste it. Impossibly far away, but somehow connected to her, nutrients flowing through a corridor that shouldn’t be there.

14

“What the flank are you doing?” yelled Cole. “What the flank!”

Joshua smiled and calmly returned the wooden sticks to their furry folds. He then brushed his hands along his thighs, smoothing the pelt covering them. “More questions?” he said. “Should I divide your friend into smaller pieces?”

Cole shook his head and panted for air. He watched the two goons bend down and grab Riggs’s boots, pulling his calves forward so they could smear the cut edges with the purple goop. Blood leaked out the top of them. As they held them away from the rack, Cole could see the concentric circles of Riggs’s insides, the white of bone surrounded by bright layers of red meat.

“Are you ready to answer my questions?”

Cole nodded.

“What’s your name?” Joshua asked.

“Cole,” he whispered. His mouth responded directly to the question, bypassing his brain, his heroics, his fear.

“Where are you from, Cole?”

“Earth. Portugal. What are you going to do with us?”

“If you ask me another question, I’m going to pull out my favorite toy again, do you understand?”

Cole looked away from Riggs, whose head had begun lolling from side to side, dull moans leaking out that seemed to come straight from Riggs’s gut, not his vocal cords. The sound—primal and eerie—snapped Cole out of his zombie-like state. He nodded at Joshua.

“How do you know Mortimor?”

“I don’t, I swear. I know his daughter.”

Joshua nodded as if that made sense. “Have you been to Lok?”

“Never.”

“Do you know what fusion fuel is?”

Cole dipped his head. “Yeah, of course. I went to the Academy, I—”

“No. Not what it’s used for. What it is. What it’s made of.”

The question startled Cole. He thought of Dani back on Drenard, the conversation they’d had on that prison rooftop. Dani had told him that this was the most important question. He lowered his brows and shook his head.

“Were you about to say something?” Joshua asked.

“No, just… it’s an odd question.”

Joshua stepped close, frowning at Cole, his gaze boring straight through his skull. “I’m only going to ask the following once,” he said, “so be honest with me. Are you a Drenard?”

Cole stopped breathing. He glanced at Riggs, who seemed awake, but in shock. His friend’s head rolled around, the whites of his eyes showing.

“Yes,” he said, not looking back at Joshua. “I’m a Drenard.”

“Well, well!” Joshua slapped his thighs. “This is just unbelievable. Jons, finish putting that boy’s legs back on. Kelly, untie Cole. You and I are taking the Chosen One to meet his maker.”

Cole had no idea what any of that meant, but at least half of it sounded very bad for him. He kept his eyes on Riggs as one of the goons stood up, wiped his hands on his fur, and came over to untie him.

Joshua smiled at Cole and moved his goggles from his neck to his forehead. “If it makes you feel any better,” he said, “we were always going to take the legs off both you lads. Had nothing to do with the questions.”

Cole grimaced as the goon pulled him down from the rack. The brute loosened his hands and yanked his arms around his back before re-tying his wrists. Cole kept looking to Riggs, waiting for his eyes to focus, to see if he was going to survive. The guy at his feet had the ends of his legs forced together, the purple paste squeezing out between the severed edges. The man met Cole’s stare for an instant before turning away; Cole closed his eyes right as the door squeaked open, blasting the room with harsh light. The last thing he saw before squeezing his eyes shut was one of Riggs’s thighs twitching involuntarily, a trickle of blood oozing past the purple paste where the two parts of him were pressed together.

••••

They dragged him outside, the cold air and searing light washing over him. The light flashed through his eyelids, his thin flesh filtering the photons to the redness of glowing steel. Part of him wanted to open them a little—just to cauterize the image of the severed legs out of his memory. He instead forced himself to concentrate on other sensations, both to get a feel for his surroundings and to be distracted by something.

The first thing he noticed was a slight breeze swirling around his neck and flecks of freezing snow on his face. He could feel dollops melting in his hair, turning it wet. Forceful hands gripped his arms and shoulders on both sides, and hinges squeaked behind him as the door was pushed shut. Just before it clanged tight, Cole heard agonizing moans leak out from his friend, the sound bringing back the very images he was trying to avoid.

“Goggles!” Joshua barked.

Cole tried to shake the echo of the moans out of his head. He focused on the other sounds around him: the groaning of metal as if massive sheets of it twisted under pressure; the stomping of feet on steel decking, vibrations coming up his own shins; people shouting commands in the distance; the clatter of a sparse crowd. Behind it all—the sound of a soft yet persistent wind; the crunching of packed snow and crackling ice; a slight sway in the deck, like a boat at sea, or a ship with dying grav panels.

Hands went to Cole’s face. He tried to pull away, but his arms were still strapped behind his back, and somebody had him by the shoulders, fixing him in place.

“Keep still,” a voice said.

He felt something tight come down over his head—hair ripping out painfully—before the cups snapped over his eyes. Someone slapped him on the back of the head, either to tell him they were done or to punish him for being difficult, he didn’t know.

With the red glow gone from his vision, Cole tried cracking his eyelids. Blinking, he looking down at his feet and away from the dangerous light, but everything looked… normal.

They pulled him forward again, forcing him to take in his surroundings on the move. A clump of his hair had been trapped inside the goggles, obscuring his vision, but he could still see pretty well. Around him stood several small huts; they would’ve been normal looking if they weren’t made of metal plating. Cole recognized the colors on quite a few. Navy black and gray with words stenciled in blocky white letters:

DON’T STEP. CAUTION: HOT. CAPTAIN MICKLES.

Each phrase stood at odd angles or upside down, the hull they used to be a part of long disassembled and the shape of the crafts beaten flat with hammers. Cole saw a few ship names and designations that qualified as antiques, Navy hardware that hadn’t been used since the galactic expansion.

Their group weaved in and out of the square structures, through little alleys of zig-zag confusion. Cole looked down at his feet and wondered what they meant by putting Riggs’s legs back on and how he was going to “meet his maker.” His boots clomped on the steel decking dusted with the barest cover of snow. The rivets that dotted the deck and the thick welds that held the plates together gathered the white flakes in small ridges, like miniature drifts. Here and there, these drifts were crushed flat by the boots ahead of him, pressed with the designs of mismatched soles.

They rounded another shed and popped out into a clearing—an expanse of flat steel. The area bustled with fur-clad people carrying things, coiling lines, someone welding amid a shower of golden embers. In the center of the square, a cluster of men clashed with sticks, as if training. Everyone looked exclusively human where the absence of fur revealed anything.

Cole looked down at his getup of flightsuit and jumper and wondered how they weren’t burning up in all that fur. He was cold, but not freezing. His trio of escorts, Joshua, Kelly, and whoever had joined them outside the door, pulled him through the square and toward the far side. Getting away from the tightly packed buildings gave Cole his first vista of the overall area, allowing him to appreciate the size and scale of the massive ship. The deck stretched out thirty or so meters to either side and probably a few hundred or more to the far end. Through gaps in the buildings to his left, he could see a railing at the very edge and a white field of snow beyond. Out there, the flakes continued to move sideways in thick sheets, even though only a smattering of flakes fell over the village. It reminded Cole of the smaller craft he had been on. He assumed a barrier up front was parting the heavy snow, and that the sounds and vibrations in the steel meant the entire metal village was underway, sailing across the snow-covered land on large runners.

They were halfway across the square before Cole finally noticed the fleet overhead. Ships, dozens of them, possibly hundreds. Large and black, they looked menacing beyond the veil of snow, fierce in the way only half-hidden things could be. It was impossible to count them, which added to their awful potential, but there were enough to blot out the sky. Anywhere he could see through the flurry, dark hulls loomed, their overlapping forms creating an artificial cosmos to replace the harsh whiteness he’d seen from the Firehawk’s belly. Across that black, the snowfall whizzed horizontal like speeding stars in some holovid’s corny rendering of what traveling through hyperspace might be like.

Joshua spoke with the other two escorts as they dragged him along, but Cole couldn’t concentrate on what they were saying. Besides the fleet, there was another distraction: a massive tower—a larger version of the mast-like pole from the smaller vessel—that rose above a cluster of steel buildings ahead. Cole tried to follow it up to the top, but the spire rose further than he could see without arching his back. His group seemed to be heading straight for the strange object.

Beyond the tower, he could just barely make out the tall walls of dull steel that seemed to form the prow of the monstrous craft. The high barrier, shaped like a “V,” must be what broke the driving snow to either side. The sheets of steel had to be three stories high, at least. Between them and the mast there was another large clearing on which sat a few ships. Cole could see their tails sticking up over the squat buildings, the light snow swirling around them. One of the tails he recognized as a Firehawk, the rest were alien. Not just indistinguishable: alien.

“You sure about him, boss? This is the guy from the prophecy?”

A fragment of the conversation grabbed Cole’s attention, and something told him they’d been speaking of him for a while. They passed through an alley on the far side of the clearing, exiting at the base of the tall mast. Cole tried to focus on what was being said, but yet another curiosity caught his attention: another group of men were practicing with wooden sticks ahead of the mast, but they were doing it in slow motion.

Then Cole saw that everyone up ahead was moving slowly, all across the wide deck as far as he could see. A figure descended from one of the ships, taking forever to move between rungs. A woman walked across the deck in half-speed. She had fur up to her neck, black goggles over her eyes, and her long ponytail swayed side to side like a pendulum through viscous water. A man with a blowtorch cut away at one of the ships, but the shower of sparks flew up as slow as lazy bugs, arcing out forever and drifting down as if frightened of actually landing. Cole looked at his own feet; they appeared to be moving at a normal speed.

He started to ask Joshua about the effect, then saw they had almost reached the base of the large tower. About ten meters wide and perfectly round, it appeared to have a flat top—like a squat cylinder sitting on one end. The tower rose up from the center of this platform: thin and wide like a blade, but with dozens of slits running its length.

As his escorts led him past the structure, Cole thought he sensed it twist a little, the entire cylinder rotating slightly. The people in the distance moved even slower now, nearly at a stand-still. Some sort of game they were playing on him?

One of his feet hit the back of his ankles, and he nearly tripped forward, but the arms at either side caught him. Another hand smacked the back of his head, the blow echoing with laughter.

“Enough,” he heard Joshua say.

Cole tried to look over at Joshua, and then he noticed the world had returned to normal: everyone had picked up their pace across the moving village. To his side, the tower definitely moved a little, twitching and rotating. They led him around the perimeter of the base to the forward side of it.

Meet his maker? The phrase rang in Cole’s ears again. Was he about to be strung up? Executed? Simple as that? And why cut off Riggs’s legs to put them back on? How was that even possible? And why put them back on if they were to be executed? What in hyperspace was going on?

Cole felt his pulse quicken as he ran through the questions and the likely answers. He still felt shaken up from the crash landing, from the strange voices in his head, from the fight with Riggs. There was too much going on and none of it made sense. He needed one thing he could understand, something to somehow web the rest of it together.

But he had nothing. His entire environment felt out of focus as they pulled him in front of the tower’s base. He saw a steep flight of stairs there, cut into the flat cylinder and leading all the way up and aft toward the top of the platform. They started pulling Cole up the stairs while some inner self yelled: fight back. But as soon as he put his feet out to resist, they just lifted him up and carried him. Now and then, the entire tower would twitch to one side, and the men would sway together, grabbing handrails and dragging Cole roughly.

Definitely an execution. A flogging at the mast. The more Cole struggled, the more hands he felt on him, some coming swiftly and in the shape of fists.

Suddenly, the world started flashing by around him. He must’ve been going into shock. Everything moved at a blistering pace, the snow a blur to either side, people whizzing across the deck below. He squirmed and kicked and felt himself picked up by all four limbs, laughter filling his ears.

After the last step, they threw Cole down and wrenched his arms up; somebody forced his knees under him and he tried to kick out—he shook his shoulders back and forth. When someone punched him in the liver, Cole bent to the side in agony. He thought of Molly—tried to focus on his love for her—pulling her face out of memory to have something solid to cling to.

Rough hands grabbed his head and forced his gaze up, while his arms were yanked against the restraints. He was having the hardest time remembering what Molly looked like. It heaped sadness on his despair. He could feel tears welling up in his eyes, threatening to drown him inside his goggles.

A face swam into view. Not Molly’s, not the face he was trying to conjur, but one familiar. It loomed down in front of him, smiling.

Cole couldn’t make sense of it. He recognized the man, the thin face, the wicked smile. Cole blinked, trying to focus through his goggles, feeling like this was exactly how he’d seen him before: through a sheet of thick plastic. Or carboglass.

Dakura.

The man from Dakura who was after Molly! Cole couldn’t remember his name, wasn’t sure if he ever knew it, but he knew that face—

Byrne. He did know it. He remembered Molly saying it in horror. But didn’t they leave him for dead in that loading bay?

Joshua stepped forward and began whispering in Byrne’s ear. He waved his hands as he spoke.

Byrne’s smile grew. He stared at Cole, nodding his head.

Cole tried to focus on what was being said, then noticed the strange man was wearing a red band around his forehead. He wondered if it was his; he wondered if the man remembered him from Dakura.

Byrne whispered something in return to Joshua, who stepped back and relayed it to the people holding Cole. As Joshua stepped aside, Cole realized there was something different about the thin man, something besides the red band. Byrne wore the same outfit of thin canvas pants, a shirt with large white buttons, his wiry frame poking out at the shoulders—

But Cole could’ve sworn the last time he’d seen him, Byrne had been in possession of both his arms.

15

Cat eventually seemed to tire and make a mistake, and one of the woks fell and rattled silently inside the bubble. Molly tried to sense how long the beautiful and brutal display had been going on. Half an hour? Longer? Cat pulled her foot out of the way of the spinning wok as her arms continued looping in large circles. The strained grimace on her face was visible even from the balcony. She looked away from the remaining two mid-air objects and nodded to someone off-stage. As her head turned, Molly spotted a bright trickle of blue blood leaking out of the Callite’s ear and weaving its way down her brown neck.

A moment later, the lights began to dim, and Cat juggled the last two woks lower and lower, allowing them to settle to the ground. Finally, the torturous and sublime show came to a silent conclusion, but Molly remained transfixed, staring into the darkness as her mind struggled to comprehend the powerful display she had just witnessed: a solitary figure, on stage, enduring incredible violence while exhibiting such practiced expertise. She had to meet this person. She wanted to get backstage somehow and thank her. Congratulate her.

Then she remembered: that’s why we’re here!

She turned to grab Walter and saw that he had passed out across the armrest on the other side of himself.

“Walter, are you asleep?”

He lifted his head as the dim house lights flickered and returned. Molly looked to the stage and saw that Cat was gone, the bubble rising slowly toward the rafters.

“Iss it over?”

“Yeah, let’s go.”

Molly shooed the Wadi to her neck and hurried toward the stairs. Behind her, she heard someone clapping; she glanced over her shoulder to see the couple in the box seats giving the performance a standing ovation.

“Let’s go,” she repeated impatiently. She turned down the stairwell and took them two at a time, not waiting for Walter to catch up.

The lobby was empty save for one man—the ticket hawker from the street—who leaned on a mop. Molly ran toward the doors that led down to the lower seats, then whirled to ask him: “How do I get backstage?”

The man threw both arms wide, dangling the dripping mop in the air.

“Practice!” he announced, smiling like a fool.

Walter staggered down the last few steps, still half-asleep.

“I’m serious,” Molly said. “I need to speak with Cat.”

“Well, you better hurry if you want an autograph.” The man laughed to himself. “She’ll be in no shape to write before long.”

“What? Where is she? It’s important.”

The man pointed slantwise through the building. “She’s most likely in the back alley with her meager pay, heading off to a pub to get tore up.”

“Thanks!” Molly said. She grabbed Walter and pulled him toward the exit.

“No problem,” the man said. He then hollered after them: “But next time, there’s a two tomato minimum!”

••••

Molly kept one hand on the Wadi’s back as she ran down the side of the opera house, not so much to keep the creature in place but to let it know the claws weren’t necessary, at least not deep enough to sting.

At the back of the building, she turned the direction she thought the ticket hawker had pointed and peered down an alley that serviced the rears of two rows of businesses. In the dim light of a few bare bulbs, she could see dumpsters dominating the lane, their quiet bulk contributing to the smell of things dead and rotting. Detritus was strewn everywhere, and bits of paper floated in the dark and dusty night air; they caught the feeble light and seemed like things alive and fluttering intently.

Molly hesitated, wishing a Palan flood upon the place. That miserable weather phenomenon would be a blessing for the alley. Squinting into the distance, she thought she saw someone turn a corner half a block away, but she couldn’t be sure.

“Drenards!” she cursed.

Walter skidded to a stop beside her. “Sslow down—” he complained.

“Hold her,” Molly said, handing him the Wadi so her claws wouldn’t be a concern. After he took the animal, Molly set off in a full sprint toward the corner she thought someone had moved around, berating herself as she ran for not bringing a flashlight. Pumping her legs, she weaved around the dumpsters, her boots growing heavy as the treads collected mud made of dust and discarded cooking grease.

Around the corner, she came to a halt. Another alley—long, narrow, and empty—stretched out before her like an urban canyon. The high buildings on either side blocked out all the streetlights; they rose up so far they seemed to be leaning in on one another.

Molly called down the passage: “Cat? Hello? Anyone?”

She stepped into the narrow crack between the two buildings and peered toward the shaft of light at the far end. The light seemed to come from the streetlamps of a busy road; they pulsed as shapes moved across them, headlights blooming and receding behind the silhouettes of a conveyor-like crowd.

The din of nighttime activity seemed the logical place to find a pub, but the dark alley made it seem so very far away. Despite her sense of urgency to catch up with Cat, Molly moved through the alley slowly. She could feel raw, childlike fear creep up her spine. She silently urged Walter to hurry and catch up.

As she crept deeper into the darkness, she felt internally torn. The impatient part of her urged her to hurry after the woman she’d spent two weeks searching for, but the fearful part of her begged to run back, to get out of that dark alley. She pleaded with Walter to come faster, for some physical company to wave away the creepiness. She was a dozen meters into the dark space when she finally heard him pad up behind her in his near-silent way. She turned and groped in the darkness for Walter, whispering his name…

But all she seized hold of was the bad thing reaching out to grab her.

16

Byrne nodded to the two goons holding Cole in place, and the men lifted him to his feet. They shoved him forward and presented him like a trophy. Cole and Byrne faced each other, one man with his arms strapped behind his back, the other lacking them altogether.

It made for an awkward moment.

Cole glared at the red band around Byrne’s forehead and cursed his stupidity. Joshua approached and whispered once more into Byrne’s ear; he jerked his head in Cole’s direction as he spoke. Cole tried to read his lips, but found himself again distracted by the dizzying speed with which the world flew past to either side. He glanced to the deck far below where the fur-clad people moved so fast, they left trails behind like human blurs. And the snow flying by to either side, drifting lazily a moment ago, now stretched out in a sheet of fuzzy white. Cole felt another wave of vertigo, and the men behind him had to support his weight as his knees buckled.

“Bring that chair closer,” Byrne said, nodding to one of the several pieces of furniture scattered around the mast.

As the goons went to work, Cole fought to regain his balance. He turned back to the scene around him, dizzy and confused. The circular platform was everywhere cluttered with tables and chairs and sprinkled with the debris that came from lounging men: empty cups, trays filled with ash and butts, plastic bags smeared with a film of purple. The normal seemed juxtaposed with the bizarre, as if regular people lived in this, the most irregular of places. For a moment, Cole wondered if he’d died in the Firehawk crash. Maybe the dreamlike inconsistency of the place was nothing more than the mad firings of his dying brain. Riggs’s legs; the snow; the slow and fast people; someone that should be dead, now alive, but missing his arms… all of it layered on a backdrop of people he knew from history books. People that shouldn’t be alive.

He watched, detached, as a chair constructed of metal strips was placed beside a seat ornate enough to qualify as a throne. Byrne sat in the latter, and Cole vaguely felt someone tugging at his arms, working the restraints loose. His hands came free. Cole rubbed the red mark around one of his wrists and went to adjust his goggles and get the clump of hair out of his eyes. Before he could, he found himself being pushed forward and forced down into the chair.

“Leave us,” Byrne said to the others.

Joshua flushed. “Sir, I—” he stammered.

“Have your men remain on deck, outside of the mast’s time-flow. Put them in shifts if need be. You may cut him down if he runs.” Byrne studied Cole. “But I don’t think he will. The prophecy has failed, and now there’s nothing left but time.”

“Any word from—?” Joshua tapped his forehead, his eyes darting over to Cole.

“Our friend will come through, don’t worry. And anyway, the invasion has already begun. It will succeed no matter what. Now go prepare your men. Don’t come back unless four days pass below. I’ll be returning to the command ship at that time.”

Joshua’s faced twitched at the news, his leathery complexion not quite weathered enough to hide his disappointment. Still, he bowed low to Byrne and forced a wan smile. “Very well,” he said. He stood upright, his eyes flickering over to Cole, then up to the men holding him in place.

Their hands came off his shoulders, and Cole finally had a chance to adjust his goggles. He closed his eyes, reseated the dark lenses, and brushed the wet clumps of hair off his forehead. Joshua and his men were halfway down the steps by the time he opened them again, their limbs twitching as they picked up speed. He turned to the armless man to his side.

“What in the galaxy is going on?” Cole asked. “What is this place? And my friend, is he—?”

“Do you know who I am?” the man interrupted.

“You were on Dakura,” Cole said. “You—you were kidnapping Molly. Byrne, right? What were you planning on doing with—?”

“With Mollie?” Byrne smiled. “I thought she was you.”

“What?”

Byrne settled back in his ornate chair and closed his eyes, smiling.

“Are you talking to someone right now? Is that my band?”

Byrne opened his eyes. “Was your band. And I think it was ordained that you bring it to me. I’ll have you know that I’m truly savoring this.”

Cole watched the men shuffle around at the base of the tall pedestal, out of earshot. Joshua’s blonde hair was no longer among them. The group moved to and fro somewhat faster than normal—twitching and jerking—but nothing like the distant crew, who continued to race around impossibly fast.

Cole turned to Byrne. “None of this is real, is it? I’m dreaming, right?”

“Oh, no,” Byrne said. “You are not dreaming. I am.”

Cole rubbed his hands through his hair and acted like he was drying them on his flightsuit. He felt his pockets for the utility knife or the band, but found nothing. He rubbed the edges of Mortimor’s name patch, the detail and consistency of some things causing him to doubt he was dead, dying, or dreaming.

“So, what, we’re just gonna sit here? You’re not gonna tell me where I am or how my friend’s doing?”

“Petty concerns, Chosen One.” Byrne laughed, shaking his head. “I dreamed of this day in a million different ways, but never like this. Sitting with you, in hyperspace, the invasion underway, this will be an enjoyable report to write.” He glanced down at his own shoulder, the sleeve of his thin, white shirt tied in a knot where his arm should be.

“Enjoyable to dictate, perhaps,” he said.

Cole leaned back and rubbed his face. “You’re talking in riddles, man. What invasion?”

Byrne turned to him. “Just how little do you know?”

“Less than zero. Seriously. I feel like I just woke up in someone else’s body. Why is everything moving so fast out there? And what’s this prophecy and chosen one nonsense? Who are you? Is my friend going to be okay?”

Byrne pursed his lips, his thin mouth set at an angle. Cole imagined a nonexistent hand reaching up to scratch his chin, completing the pose.

“How were you supposed to stop something you never understood?” Byrne wondered aloud.

“By accident?” Cole offered.

Byrne smiled. “I suppose. Strange that Mollie came so close to stopping the invasion. I should’ve known she was no Drenard.”

Cole swallowed. Loudly. “What does being a Drenard have to do with anything? Or are you just trying to frustrate me before you kill me?”

Byrne shook his head. “That’s the problem with you Humans, always thinking we want you dead for the pure thrill of it.” He paused, his thin eyebrows coming down. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

“Humans?” Cole studied the man’s face closely, looking for some major difference. “What are you?”

“We’re known in this area as the Bern, but we go by many names. We are everywhere. This is our universe, and it has been for many passings. You… you are one of us. Well, almost.” Byrne gazed up at the black shapes barely visible through the whizzing streaks of snow.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. How much time does my friend have—?”

“Time.” Byrne laughed, his voice oddly full and thick for so thin a frame. “Time does strange things here, that’s for sure. Take the mast behind us. When time meets it, each quanta of moment—the very constituent particles that move events along—they split in two and then split again. All those particles pass through the slits, propelling this magnificent collection of metal and men forward. Ingenious. Almost Bern-like to have been crafted by Humans. And for one such as myself, who the eons have made impatient, that makes this such a wonderful spot to rest. To usher events along.” He looked over at Cole. “If you wanted to live forever, you would just need to spend a few hours a day up here, letting time split around you, undoing the decay. Or, if you wanted to meet your end faster, in mere moments even, try your luck on the other side.” Byrne smiled.

“I don’t understand,” Cole said.

“Why don’t I tell you a story?”

“Is it more riddles? Are you going to kill me afterward?”

“It’s a simple story. And, no.”

“Good. To both.” Cole leaned back in his chair. He made a show of crossing his arms, defiant and mocking at once. “I hope it’s not a long one, then.”

Bern laughed in his deep, throaty way.

“In many ways, it’s the longest story,” he said. “But don’t worry. We have plenty of time.”

17

Molly groped in the darkness for Walter, but the hands that groped back weren’t his. They were too strong to be his. They wrapped around her, and she screamed at the top of her lungs, cut off when a hand clamped down on her mouth. She felt herself lifted off the ground, her back pressing up against someone’s broad chest.

She kicked back at her captor’s shins and tried to shake her head free, but it felt like being back in Byrne’s arms, like struggling inside a vise. The dim alley turned to complete darkness as she was pulled through a doorway and into one of the buildings framing the alley. A thick door slammed shut and another opened, filling the small foyer with light. She found herself dragged backward and into a larger room, trembling and confused.

“Whatcha got?” someone asked.

“Don’t know yet,” a voice said close to her ear. “She’s a feisty one, though.”

The man holding her turned around, giving her a sweeping view of the room. It looked like a small warehouse that had been transformed into a triage unit. High tables were arranged in a grid with people on at least half of them. Cords and tubes ran out of the figures, and tables of medical utensils sat to their sides. Molly tried to reach up for the hand over her mouth as another man approached. He was short and bald but with a dark beard that ran from ear to ear. He wore a white blood-splattered apron over a traditional business suit.

“Oh, very pink,” the man said, looking Molly up and down. He grabbed one of her wrists and twisted her hand around violently. Molly tried to pull away, but the guys were too strong. The man with the beard bent back one of her fingers to inspect her swollen pads; he wrenched the digit nearly to the point of breaking, the sudden jolt of pain taking her breath like ice water.

“You a local?” he asked Molly.

She grimaced and shook her head as much as the other man’s grip would allow. She could feel her eyes widening, tears of terror pooling up. She had to force herself to blink, her eyelids swiping the blurriness out of her vision.

“Yeah, you don’t look like a local. Shame.” The short man looked up at the figure behind her, and then pointed to one of the tables. “Number fifteen,” he said. “Find out where she’s from and get started. Oh, and don’t nab any more. I told the wife we wouldn’t be pulling a late shift tonight.”

“Yeah, boss,” the man holding her said. He carried her toward one of the tables. Molly twisted her hips, trying her best to squirm away, but the guy had one of his massive arms wrapped around her elbows, pinning them to her side. Even though she’d once taken out a male Drenard warrior with her bare hands, she felt absolutely powerless against such strength and in that position.

Another large guy looked up from a distant table. “You need help with that one?” he asked.

“And split the commission? Flank you, Randie, I’ve got this one.”

The other guy laughed and went back to tightening leather restraints across another person, who moved and grunted through a gag of some sort. Molly’s heart raced in panic—she couldn’t get enough oxygen through her nose.

Her captor released her mouth and reached down to grab one of her knees. He squeezed it painfully. Molly screamed as loud as she could as he picked her up and lifted her to the cold, metal surface. She continued screaming as he held her down with one hand. There was a busy street nearby; she just needed someone to hear her.

“Shut up!” the man said through clenched teeth. He struggled to hold her down as she squirmed and continued yelling. As he leaned over to grab a set of restraints, she got her first look at the brute. Human, with a head as big as a bull’s. He chewed on his lower lip as he tried to work one of the straps together with a single hand.

Molly yanked one of her arms free and swung at his blocky, stubbled face. The man blocked the blow, and she got a slap across her own cheek for the effort, hard enough to see spots of light. While she was stunned, her cheek on fire, the brute corralled both of her hands together and held her wrists in one of his fists. He pinned them against her stomach while he leaned across her legs with his torso.

Molly resumed screaming bloody murder, as high-pitched and piercing as she could. She twisted her torso back and forth, trying to break his grasp.

“Okay! A little help!” the man yelled.

The other guy lumbered over and held her legs with both hands while the first guy got a strap across her arms.

“You got this one, huh?” the second man asked, laughing.

“Let me go!” Molly yelled. She screamed at the top of her lungs.

The first guy reached to the small table nearby and grabbed a rag, covered in blood. He forced it into Molly’s mouth. She gagged immediately, her head convulsing, her throat seized by spasms as it tried to eject the foul thing. She couldn’t help but taste the coppery bitterness, feel the wetness of someone else’s blood on her tongue. One corner of the rag fell back on her gag reflex, triggering it over and over.

Coughing into her own mouth caused a corner to flap loose. It wiggled against the deep reaches of her tongue, partway down her throat. As she gagged and sucked air through her nose, she began to panic with the possibility of breathing the thing in deeper, sucking it down where the choking would become total.

Molly quickly found herself as close to death as she had ever been. She couldn’t get enough air into her lungs. She forgot about the men and the restraints and the other bodies, and just concentrated on the obstruction in her mouth. She forced her tongue over—it wouldn’t obey—she finally got an edge, curled her tongue around it—that nasty taste—and pushed the rag forward just a little bit.

Again. Concentrating, working her tongue, forgetting the slick and wet, ignoring the rank on her tastebuds, wrapping her tongue around the back side, collecting the drooping piece that threatened to kill her, the raw taste of it making her gag over and over—

There.

She had the offending piece corralled, but the abhorrent taste made her feel like vomiting; her mouth was full of foul saliva, too much to swallow. She very nearly worked the entire rag out of her mouth, almost had it past her teeth—her entire being had become mouth and tongue and cheek, working them all with the force of several limbs—

A strip of adhesive went across the rag, holding it in place. Molly flexed her arms and legs and found she’d been locked down tight, several straps cinched across her body. She strained, arching her back, grunting and moaning with frustration, but she couldn’t move. And somehow, having been in that exact position before, the depressing familiarity of it all—it made the terror and panic and unfairness even worse.

“Thanks,” one of the guys said, punching the other one playfully. Molly lifted her head and watched the two men as the panicked fog from the rag ordeal melted away. She tried to give them her widest, most beseeching eyes, but they weren’t paying her any attention. The second guy, who also wore a smattered apron but over a jumpsuit, lumbered back to his work. The man from the alley stood by her side. He crisscrossed the sash of his own apron around his back before knotting it right in the middle of an old, dull stain.

“You’ve been a busy voter,” the man said, looking down at her scabbed and raw hands. He pulled something from the table. Molly tried to get a glimpse of it before he slid it over her finger. She couldn’t see it, but she knew what it was as soon as the padded clamps gripped her knuckles.

Molly moaned into the blood-soaked rag, anticipating the pain before the needle hit. It felt like a rod the size of a coin shooting through the raw pad of her index finger. She felt herself grow dizzy, then gag again, nearly vomiting in the back of her throat. She started coughing, the useless reflex muffled and hollow. The bloody rag fluttered inside her cheeks, touching her tongue and the roof of her mouth, dabbing them with metallic nastiness.

“Okay, now, let’s see where you’re from,” the man said, studying a small screen as if routinely taking her temperature.

••••

Walter pressed his ear to the door and looked down the length of the dark alley. He’d heard a scream as he rounded the corner, but couldn’t tell where it had come from. The Wadi stood on his shoulder, scratching at the metal door with its claws.

Walter stood back and pounded on the door again, but the slab of metal sounded like it was a foot thick; his fist hardly made a noise. He turned to the other side of the alley and scrambled for the Wadi as it tried to jump off his shoulder.

“Sstay put,” he told it. He shoved it into one of the hidden pockets he’d sewn into his flightsuit—the one right across his belly big enough to steal most anything worth having.

The other door, the one on the opposite side of the alley, made a normal sound as he pounded it with his small fist. Surely Molly would’ve had the good sense to go through this one. He continued knocking until the door cracked, letting out a wedge of light framing someone’s head.

“The flank you want?” the person asked.

“Hi. I’m Walter. I’m looking for—”

“Entrance is in the front, you freak!”

The door slammed shut, startling Walter.

He frowned and looked down the dark alley, toward the glow of civilization at the far end where fast, moving things zipped past. There were only two doors, and he had knocked on them both. He pressed a hand against his stomach to stop the Wadi from squirming and set off toward the bluster of happening things. If the entrance was in the front, he’d have to look for Molly there.

18

“This is the story of our universe,” Byrne said.

Your universe?” It was the second time Byrne had referred to it like that.

Byrne nodded. He glanced over at Cole, then out at the white lines created by the hyper-fast snow as it streaked across the dark ships beyond. “Not by conquest or fiat, mind you. I’m not being lordly, just stating a fact. It’s ours because we made it.”

“You mean hyperspace? Is that what you made?”

Byrne laughed. “No,” he said. “I wish we had, but this is the first time around we’ve even discovered it.” He gazed toward the bow of the large, moving village. “Everything will be so much easier from now on,” he said quietly. He shook his head and looked at Cole, who could feel the muscles in his forehead ache from keeping them furrowed in constant confusion.

“No, when I say we made the universe, I mean the one you are familiar with. We made the last several thousand of them—”

Byrne paused and frowned at the blank stare Cole must’ve been giving him. “I apologize,” he said. “I forget how limited your cosmological theories are. When I look at you, at any of you Humans, it’s like looking at a mirror. So few differences…” Byrne crossed his legs and seemed to settle back in his strange, metal throne. “Why don’t I start by explaining how the universe works, how it moves and operates. Let’s imagine for a moment that we’re on your home planet—”

“Gladly,” Cole interrupted.

Byrne smiled. “If you don’t get this lesson, my friend, the rest of the story will be lost. Now, imagine yourself on Earth, anywhere you like. Pretend you can walk across water and over any mountain. If you were to set off in a straight line in any direction, where would you end up?”

“On the other side,” Cole answered quickly, hoping to move the story along. “No—” With his index finger extended, he drew a circle in the air in front of him and focused on it through his goggles. “You’d end up where you started. Right?”

“Only if you stopped there.” Byrne had taken the tone of a teacher guiding along a favored student. He smiled at Cole, and for the first time, Cole realized Byrne didn’t have on goggles and didn’t seem to need them.

“You could keep going forever, if you liked,” Byrne said. “And that’s how the universe is shaped, only one dimension higher—”

“Well, you’re wrong about our cosmology, then. We’ve known this for a long time. If you travel in a straight line anywhere in the universe, you’ll end up where you started. It curves around on itself.”

“Oh, you’ve got the shape right,” Byrne agreed. “You’ve had that nailed for hundreds of years. However, your cosmologists don’t seem to appreciate the consequences, even though it’s completely obvious.”

“Consequences?” Cole asked.

“Everything in the universe is indeed traveling in a straight line. Which means—” He frowned, pursing his thin lips as if formulating a dumbed-down version for a child. “Imagine we’re sitting on the North Pole of your planet.”

Cole looked up at the snow flurries, at the large spire behind him. His imagination hardly needed to exert itself. “Done,” he said.

“Now picture the matter of the universe spreading out from here, all of it heading in every direction possible around your planet. Where is it going?”

“Back to where it started, just like when I go walking in a straight line.”

“Except you were traveling alone,” Byrne pointed out. Cole could almost imagine the armless man wagging his finger like Professor Phister used to. “Don’t forget,” Byrne said, “that there’s a lot of stuff in this example. If it’s all moving roughly the same speed—”

“The South Pole!” As soon as Cole uttered the answer, a lot more fell into place; he could almost hear his brain click audibly. The leading theory of their day, hundreds of years old and mostly unchanged, remained the Big Bang theory. Even with the problems of inflationary theory and dark energy, it was still the best they had, as messy and patchwork as it had become.

Cole thought about all that matter spreading out across the surface of a sphere, all heading away from the North Pole. He could see it traveling through the dips and rises, thinning out as it moved away. And then he could see it starting to come back together. All of it—all of everything—meeting in a big crunch at the South Pole. He considered the expanding universe and pictured for the very first time where it was expanding to!

“That’s why the expansion is speeding up,” Cole murmured. It was one of the mysteries of cosmology, the odd fact that expansion was accelerating when gravity should be slowing it down. Now he knew why. He turned to Byrne. “We’re halfway there, aren’t we? The matter is no longer flying away from itself, it’s now coming closer together! Gravity is working the other way, speeding it along.”

Byrne nodded. “Precisely how we like to put it. We are ‘past the universal equator.’ Well past, in fact.”

Cole forgot where he was, all the trouble he’d seen, all the matters relatively inconsequential. His brain went giddy with the possibilities, scrambling to assemble them into a coherent whole.

“That also explains hyperinflation,” he said. “It explains why things are going so quick in the beginning. All that matter just finished its downward swoop, so it would be absolutely flying as it came together!” He paused, finding a problem with the theory. “But why don’t we see it coming if we’re getting closer?” he asked. “Where’s all the other stuff?”

“All that stuff is over the horizon, to extend the metaphor.”

Cole pictured that. “But not because the light fails to bend, right? Is it because of the speed everything’s traveling?” Cole held up his finger, seeing it clearly. “It’s because of the direction it’s traveling through this fourth dimension.”

Byrne smiled broadly at Cole. “You are the one, aren’t you? I can see it, now. I never could in Mollie.”

Hearing her name elicited a shiver from Cole, snapping the descent into philosophy and cosmology. He remembered where he was, felt it like an icicle stabbing through his chest. He pictured Molly strapped to the gurney in Byrne’s ship, and the vision angered him, breaking the physics lesson. It helped him see another flaw in Byrne’s theory.

“That can’t be right,” he said. “The Big Bang didn’t happen in a place, it happened everywhere. It created space. Hell, the Big Bang happened just as much in my Portugal as it did in the Andromeda galaxy!”

Byrne laughed at this, bending at the waist and uncrossing his legs. It was a jolly laugh, very Human-like. When he settled down, he turned to Cole: “Son, we aren’t talking about hypotheticals, here. I’m not discussing theory. This is what we know, what we’ve known for a very long time. We’ve observed it.”

“That’s impossible,” Cole spat. “How can you observe something that destroys everything?”

“Oh, but it doesn’t. Very nearly but not quite. Not everything arrives at the same time, and some of it gets deflected. Besides, the South Pole of the universe, if you like to consider it that, is a very big place. As hot as it gets—and it gets hot enough to melt down nature’s laws—there are ways to get information through. Just as a particle can escape a black hole now and then, we can make sure data survives the Great Passing.”

Cole’s jaw dropped. “You’ve done this? This isn’t the first time we’ve been here?”

“Literally? You and I?” Byrne looked at the world zipping around them. “Of course it is.” He laughed. “There’s nothing mystical here, none of that repeating-our-actions nonsense. No, no, in fact, each universe is vastly different. That’s our job. That’s why I say this is our universe.”

Cole shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

“What is life but information, my young friend? We are just—well you are just chemical programs and mindless routines. Ahh, you frown, and you are right to do so. Sentient things cannot grasp the accidental nature of their existence, and they are correct to feel this way. Tell me, do you know why Humans and the Bern look so similar?”

Cole looked at his hands and considered the question. “Convergent evolution?” he guessed. “The simplest solutions predominate?” But he knew that wasn’t right. Hadn’t Dani given him clues in the hallway of that Drenard prison?

“Nonsense. The odds are prohibitive. Look at the diversity of life on any one planet. An honest account of them is more bizarre than the differences between you and a filthy Bel Tra. No, my little Chosen One, the reason the Bern look alike all across the universe, the way they are able to rule all of creation with an iron and beneficent embrace, is simple: we set everything up in advance.”

Cole continued to stare at his palms; he peered at the lines in them. “You made us?”

“Almost,” Byrne said. “There are problems now and then. We just get the—to use a Terran expression—the ball rolling. And most times, the ball is kind enough to go downhill, following the route we set up in advance. It’s all about rules, you see. If the laws of nature are within certain parameters, you get a universe conducive to life. And when you can rig impervious seeds full of genetic information, seeds that can only be blown apart by the forces present at the end of the universe, seeds that ablate just right during the creation process, then you achieve what all life seeks.”

“Which is?” Cole asked.

“Immortality, of course.”

Byrne smiled. “And not the temporary sort. We’re not talking organ transplants, or colonies on a different egg but still in the same solar basket. We’re talking about real descendants surviving the end of time and making it through to the next beginning.”

“But it’s all your life, right? Only what you decide lives and ever gets that chance.”

“Most of it. But then, we’re setting up our universes to be warm and wet, which is a habitat conducive to other sorts of breeding, mutating brands of scum. The problem for these life forms is that we’ve given ourselves a head start. And the… unique method we use to communicate with the next generation is tied to our DNA, so we know what’s going on first. Of course, there have been mutations in the past that outpaced our local representatives, but since intergalactic spaceflight is—or has been thought to be—impossible, these were just pockets of annoyance scrubbed away every twenty billion years or so, motes that contaminated a mere galaxy or two, but what are a few galaxies in the grand scheme of things? Practically nothing.”

“So why are you flanking with us now?” Cole asked. “Give us our twenty billion years and leave our galaxy alone.”

Byrne shook his head. “No can do, Chosen One. Everything is different now. Past mutations were a mere bump in the road compared to what happened in your Milky Way. The rules have been rewritten. Our entire empire has been thrown into discord. This isn’t one of those changes we log in the master program and tweak our next go-around.”

“I don’t understand. What’s different? And why do you keep calling me the Chosen One?”

“Hyperspace is what’s different. We never knew it was there. A twenty-fifth dimension? It made no sense. Twenty-four is such a perfect number. Now, keep in mind, my ancestors were just like you thousands of iterations ago. They were a single species trapped inside the gravity well of their home galaxy with no chance of escape. When they realized the end of the universe was approaching, they could watch the Big Crunch coming—mathematically, of course, not visibly—but they were powerless to stop it. But then the seeds were invented, and the first program was written.

“And what looked like a problem at first, the Big Crunch, actually turned out to be a golden opportunity. Travelling between galaxies was prohibitively expensive. Space begins stretching faster than you can cross it, so there’s no way for one species to spread out and ensure their survival. Even if you got there, what had you accomplished? Long term, I mean? Even galaxies are doomed as they collide into one another. That means no one place is safe, and even with hyperspace, not all places can be reached. How much better, then, to wait until all places come to you!” Byrne beamed at Cole, clearly excited to be having the conversation.

“The first seed made the next universe even more conducive to life. The very laws of nature were tweaked. Carbon was made more eager to chain with itself. Water was given a wider range of fluid temperatures. The primordial elements, the building blocks of life, were put into place ahead of time. Everything needed to create more Bern and to educate them, to prepare them for the next trip around—”

“I’m sorry,” Cole interrupted, “even if all this is true, I don’t see what it has to do with us. Besides, why didn’t we stumble onto this Program? If we were made just like you, why don’t we know this stuff?”

“You do stumble onto them,” Byrne said. “Fragments, anyway. You see them in visions and dreams, and you hear them as voices in your heads. They are the very elements of your religions and your superstitions. This is why so many of them have so much in common. Your species plays these slices of our instructions over and over, but you hear only small chunks, and you hear them out of order. You inspect shards of the Program as if they were the whole.”

“You say that like we’re some sort of computer drive.”

“That’s a perfect analogy. Only, we write with four bits instead of two, and we coil them together in what you call DNA. The problem is, your drives are fragmented. Everything is haphazard, even as you continue to read them sequentially.” Byrne laughed. “The priceless irony is that you label as junk the most important parts of your DNA!”

Cole shook his head. “That’s not possible.”

“Look around you and say that again.”

Cole didn’t have to. It sounded foolish and naive the first time he had said it.

“This entire cluster of galaxies is infected. That’s why you’re different, why our code didn’t take, not fast enough anyway. There’s a mutation here that threatens everything. Everything my people—billions of generations of them over thousands of cycles—have worked to create.”

“What?” Cole placed a hand on his chest. “Us? We’re the mutation?” He crossed his arms, shoving his hands in his pits to keep them warm. “So being the Chosen One isn’t really a compliment, huh?”

“Not from our perspective, no. The Drenards in your galaxy named you that. They hold out hope for our extinction, thinking a Human will be the one to effect it. Some crazy old bat foresaw the end of our entire race. A complete impossibility, of course, but enough of her other predictions hit home that some of my people became worried. As this Prophecy spread, it made many of us nervous. We began looking for the signs, for someone both a Human and Drenard. We had a few scares, years ago, but now—after thousands of years—things are finally playing out in our favor. And as everything falls together, new programs are being written for the next passing, new defenses erected in case of—”

“Defenses? Against us? Or against the Drenards?”

“The Drenards?” Byrne laughed. “They are a non-issue. There’s always a few species that evolve and put up a noble fight. None of them matter, even if they defeat an entire galaxy full of Bern. What is their conquest? Temporary lordship over a small cluster of stars for twenty billion years? The end will consume them, and our seeds will spread on the winds of finality.

“No, the real threat is much smaller and more nefarious. It’s the substance that polluted this entire galaxy, the mutation that threatens all of creation—” Byrne’s voice climbed and continued to climb as he went on, “—it’s the foul slime that coats and smothers our program, eating all!”

Cole leaned away from the outburst, pulling his arms tighter to his chest.

“Cyclidinous,” Byrne hissed, his voice full of venom.

“Do what?

“The organisms, the single-celled monsters that move the stuff of life through hyperspace, spreading throughout your cluster of galaxies. Cyclidinious is what they’re called. That’s the mutation I speak of, not you.”

“Never heard of it,” Cole said. “But if it’s screwing you guys and helping us, I’m a fan.”

“Oh, you’ve heard of it,” Byrne said. “You reek of it. It’s your damned fusion fuel! That’s what it’s made of.”

Byrne’s angry words drifted off, swirling in a pocket of calm air around the mast. And in a land where time did not agree, where events did not always happen at the same time, at the same pace, or in the proper order, it was an unusual and lucky circumstance for his annoyed utterance to linger at that very moment.

For the very substance Byrne cursed, the answer to a riddle that had gravely puzzled Cole, suddenly brought forth a small group of armed men. A raid—a suicidal mission through hyperspace—being launched against the very first group to ever attempt such a thing.

They came, focused, clad in white and wielding invisible swords. They were looking for the One, not knowing it was far too late for prophecies.

Or perhaps, just unwilling to accept it.

Part XIII – Visitors

“We are all of us—everywhere and at all times—mere visitors.”

~The Bern Seer~

19

While Anlyn guided the Bern ship toward one of the distant structures, Edison repeated his speech one more time, just in case anyone was listening. Anlyn felt soothed by his sonorous voice, even though the words sounded like complete gibberish. Unlike his English, she laughed to herself, which only sounds like half gibberish.

Anlyn had arbitrarily chosen the middle of the three major stations to head toward. Each of them was covered with long docking arms to accept massive ships; as a result, they looked like pincushions with the needles inserted at precise intervals. What really looked odd about the stations, however, was that they all stood perfectly empty.

Anlyn glanced over at Edison as he wrapped up his speech one more time. They waited.

Nothing.

“Do you still think it’s a good idea to explore that station?” Anlyn asked in Drenard.

“Absolutely,” Edison said, replying in kind. He peered through the canopy at the distant structures hanging in the void. “It would’ve been quite the raid if your cousin had left the way open. There’s nothing here to stop us.”

“I’m actually shocked he let us through at all. But you’re right, this has been anti-climactic.” Anlyn paused and pointed to her screen. “Hey, according to these charts, we’re going to pass near a major jump point on the way. There’s at least a dozen of those route lines converging on a few spots, probably where they directed outbound traffic. You think we should stop and look for any trace signatures?”

“I don’t follow,” Edison said.

“Hyperdrive traces,” Anlyn said. She turned to him, reminded once again that her betrothed was a genius, but he hadn’t been exposed to everything. He just seemed so comfortable with space flight—and technology in general—that she found it easy to forget he’d grown up around none of it.

“When you jump through hyperspace,” she explained, “you leave a signature. They fade over time, but if someone jumped out in the last few days, we could possibly get a general idea of where they went.”

“Fascinating,” Edison said. He leaned over the ship’s computer and typed away. His fingers paused for a split second. “I found a help file on it,” he murmured, then went back to typing furiously.

“Great,” Anlyn said. “That means I’m going to be the expert on the subject for another five whole minutes.”

Edison turned his head and flashed his teeth, which made Anlyn laugh. Edison snorted, which really got her going. The two of them chuckled and wheezed far more than the moment merited—perhaps laughing off some of the day’s anxiety. They laughed with tears in their eyes, with a mind to stop laughing and soon. They laughed with the release of trauma, with the energy that probably should’ve found an escape with a good cry. Most of all, though, they laughed to fake it. They laughed for each other.

It took a moment for Anlyn to compose herself, to keep from carrying on like that forever. She took deep breaths, her heart pounding in her back as the sad echoes of their gaiety filtered aft through the empty ship. She wiped her eyes and looked up at Edison, a somber smile on her face.

“Love, what in the galaxy are we doing here?”

“I’m just following you,” Edison said between pants.

“I’m serious. Are we crazy? Are we wasting our time? What were we thinking?”

Edison finally stopped laughing and gazed out at the wasteland of empty starship stations. He took a deep breath, his chest swelling to fill his tunics. “I’d rather be here than around that table, arguing with your people,” he said. “I was always more up for a good raid than a council meeting.” He turned to Anlyn, his face suddenly full of sadness. “Now my brother, he would’ve preferred the other.”

Anlyn felt a chill at the sudden turn in the conversation. She held her breath, torn between her desire to chase the topic and the fear of scaring Edison away—back to his native English. She toyed with the SADAR using the few buttons she had memorized and watched as he began the trace scan on his own screen. Anlyn took advantage of the distraction:

“You hardly ever mention your brother. Why is that?”

Edison fiddled with the dials along the edge of his SADAR. He cleared his throat, and Anlyn braced for a bout of English techno-babble.

“My brother and I didn’t see the universe the same way,” he said.

Edison fell silent; Anlyn turned to face him. She watched him move to his other display and flip through pages of Bern writing. His head  went from side to side as he scanned the lines. She held her breath as he read a few pages and made an adjustment to the scan. Finally, the scan having begun, he turned away and looked out his porthole.

“You don’t have to talk about it—” Anlyn said.

“I killed him,” Edison blurted out.

“Love.” Anlyn reached over and ran her fingers through the fur on his arm. Suddenly, she didn’t want him to talk. She didn’t desire to hear, to know. She felt guilty for ever wanting to drag anything out of him before he was ready. “I didn’t mean to bring that up,” she said. “We don’t have to talk about your home—”

“No.” Edison shook his head. “Before that, before the EMP, my brother and I fought in a bunker. Cole and Molly were there and… and I killed a member of the council with my bare hands. Then I left my brother in there. I left him in that bunker to die, knowing what I was about to do.”

Edison turned and faced Anlyn, tears streaming across his fur.

“I hated him,” he said. “I hated my brother, but exterminating my  entire people was easy compared to that—” He stopped, too choked up to continue.

Anlyn reached for him; she wrapped both arms around his head and cooed softly. In the back of her neck, her heart stabbed with pain, hurting at having brought the subject up. Or maybe—at hearing him say the same things in her own language that she’d been used to puzzling through in his rigid English.

“I love you,” she said in the common, Drenard form.

“And I you,” Edison replied.

So they held each other, floating beyond the Great Rift on the Bern side of the universe, Edison with his head snuggled against her tunics, Anlyn with her cheek resting on his fur. They stayed like that for several minutes, precisely the length of time it took the Bern computer to crunch the hyperspace signatures.

And thereby destroy the mood.

20

Walter slapped his flightsuit, thumping the Wadi on its head, but the stupid thing just continued to squirm in his pocket. He reached the end of the alley and rounded the corner, having decided to try the building with the thick door first, mostly to stick to the same order as before. Unlike other Palans, he liked order.

As he reached the wooden sidewalk, he merged with a weaving stream of boisterous and drunk nighttime people. He stuck close to the side of the building, wincing at the sound of the traffic blaring in the street.

Just ahead, he spotted a wallet bulging in a back pocket, the badge of a tourist. He scooted forward, drying his hands on his flightsuit, before he remembered what he was supposed to be doing:

He was looking for Molly.

He shook his head, turned, and surveyed the building next to him.

It was lit up inside, but he didn’t see an open or closed sign. He cupped his hands around his face and leaned close, trying to look past the glare of light bouncing back and forth between the glass and his face. The interior seemed shallow, just a bit of standing room and a tall counter that ran the width of the building. Two large Humans worked behind the counter moving boxes and doing boring, officey stuff.

Walter stepped back to look for a sign on the building. The only thing he found was a single line etched into the large pane of glass:

TALLY INC — YOUR ELECTION HQ

That narrowed it down. Walter knew how Molly felt about politics, no way would she have followed Cat in there. Besides, hadn’t that ticket guy said something about a pub?

He turned and squeezed through the crowd, passing the dark alley to see what the other building was. The first thing he noticed was all the neon lights in the windows, the glowing tubes bent into the shapes of frothy mugs and gigantic bottles. Definitely a pub.

A cluster of figures stumbled out the front door—Humans and otherwise—somehow staying upright by clinging to their fellow drunks. Walter frowned at them. He waited for the group to pass before ducking through the entrance and into a small foyer, where he found a second set of double-doors. These were slathered with posters for upcoming events and hand-scrawled pages put up by people selling things. A half-dozen flash drives dangled from the ends of the latter, no doubt loaded with product pictures and info. Walter considered stealing a few—he knew how to wipe and unlock them for general use—then remembered he had an entire sock drawer full of them on Parsona.

He thumped the Wadi one more time before pushing the doors open and stepping into the pub. The blatting traffic and yelling from outside were immediately replaced with a smoky, clamorous din that somehow managed to be worse. A wall of large shouting aliens—Humans mostly—crowded a bar running the length of one wall. The rest of the place was filled with small tables surrounded by clusters of mismatched chairs, but nobody seemed to be sitting in them. Much of the furniture had been pushed aside to create a clearing where another raucous crowd stood in a vibrating mass. Pushing and yelling, holding their beers aloft and splashing their neighbors, it looked like a bunch of Palan pirates gambling on a game of Rats.

Walter stepped closer, trying to peek between the forest of legs, but they were too dense. He went to one of the tables instead and pushed aside the collection of empties and smoldering ashtrays. Using one of the chairs, he stepped to the top of the table and took a quick look at the center of the group, trying to sate his curiosity quickly before one of the barmaids told him to get down.

It was a fight. A big man was beating on a little one, the latter’s face so covered in blue blood he couldn’t even make out its race. He tried to remember how many species bled blue as the little one’s head whipped around from a heavy blow, the crack of bone-on-bone coming just before another roar from the crowd. Long hair flew out in an arc, blonde with streaks of light blue.

Walter recognized the hair, the only thing he’d noticed from the stupid show. The little person was the woman they were after! And she was getting her ass kicked.

Walter looked around for Molly, wondering where she had gotten off to. He jumped down from the table and started for the bar, saw the thick wall of patrons there and stopped. He turned back to the fight, not knowing what to do.

The Wadi clawed him through his secret pocket, tiny claws jabbing into his flesh, the stinging pinpricks spreading as the creature’s toxins coursed through his veins.

Walter thumped the thing on the head and fought to come up with a plan. He cursed Molly for disappearing whenever he seemed to really need her.

••••

The man standing over Molly yelled across the room to the others. “Hey boss? I think she is local. Been voting as if, anyway.”

The man with the beard strolled over and checked a small screen. Molly groaned at him, pleading in her head for them to remove the foul rag. She gagged again and started coughing, her cheeks puffing against the tape and cloth.

“Hmmm. Pretty good cyclid count. Either she was born here, or she’s been on-planet a while.” He looked up at the larger man. “Good work. Take it all and label it Bekkie for now.”

“Thanks, boss.” The brute looked down at Molly and winked, as if this were good news for both of them. “Five liters,” he said to himself. “That’s a buck seventy ounces at eight thousand an ounce.”

“Divided by two!” the other guy yelled.

The man frowned and glowered at the speaker. After a moment, he smiled again. “Still, I can’t even do the math, which means a good night. A very good night.”

He whistled to himself and picked up a needle from the tray before inspecting it. Molly raised her head and yelled into the blood-soaked rag; she banged the back of her skull against the metal table and flexed her biceps as hard as she could against the restraints.

“Ah, there’s our vein,” the guy said. He slapped her arm with a flat palm. Molly looked down at her elbow as he brought the needle close. She tried moving it side to side to avoid the plunge, but the man just tightened his grip, causing the purple web beneath her skin to stand out even more.

He shoved the needle into the biggest of them.

Molly felt a burning sensation up and down her arm. She groaned as blood squirted out the back of the needle and splashed against the man’s apron.

“Damn!” He fumbled with a valve at the end of the needle and got it closed; Molly fought to not pass out. She watched him place several strips of tape across the inserted device before untangling coils of clear tubing and hanging empty bags from the side of the table.

Across the room, the other two men chuckled at something, making the scene too bizarre for Molly to comprehend. The laughter and horror didn’t mix, they just wrapped around each other, swirling like oil and water.

A distant voice called out amid the laughter: “Hey Paulie, anything you spill is coming out of your cut!”

And that really got them going.

21

Anlyn pulled out of Edison’s embrace as the hyperdrive traces flared up on the nav screen. She tapped him on the shoulder and pointed. Edison glanced at her screen and grunted at the results.

“We just missed them!” Anlyn said.

Edison brought up a different display on his own screen and typed something on the keyboard. The info showed on Anlyn’s as well, but she couldn’t read any of the numbers. Still, she didn’t have to know what they said. The intensity of the signatures was more than enough.

“This is impossible,” Anlyn said. “You don’t see traces like this except for right after someone jumps. These are too fresh to be—”

“They’re a week old,” Edison said.

“No, love, these are brand new.” She hit the zoom button, bringing the scope out. The traces were spread throughout the entire system. Hundreds of them. “This doesn’t make any sense.”

“The computer says they’re a week old, and it has a destination.”

A destination? They all go to the same place?”

Edison grunted. “You’re right. This doesn’t make any sense.”

“What? Where do they lead?” She hated not being able to read the screen, relying on just the raw images.

Edison flipped over to the nav chart, pulling it up on both screens. He zoomed in on a single point.

“Here,” he said.

Anlyn couldn’t read the name under the object, but she recognized the symbol from Bern charts. It was a star. A class V star.

“They jumped into a star? So the traces are blowback.” Anlyn shook her head. “That explains the strength and age. Maybe they are a week old. But still, why would they… why jump into a star?

“I’m not a big fan of the prophecy,” Edison said. “You know that. But I also don’t like coincidences. Do you think—?”

“That the Bern are gone? Mass suicide? No. Only because I’ve learned to not jump to my favorite conclusions.”

“Give me an alternative.”

“Okay…” Anlyn thought for a moment. “They scuttled their ships before moving off, keeping them out of our hands.”

Edison frowned.

“Or they… maybe it was a waste-disposal program.”

“Only if they were disposing themselves of ships. A dozen of these signatures come up as the same class and model as this one.”

“Maybe there’s a rift in the center of that star!”

Edison shook his head. “Wouldn’t work. The mass in the star would just leak out to the other side. No, I think they did it on purpose. Maybe they figured out some way to slingshot past your barrier. They could be attacking Drenard right now.”

“Don’t say that. And we were on Drenard a week ago. I—should we still go explore one of these stations, or should we jump along a few trade routes until we bump into someone? There’s a ton of settled worlds on this map.”

“What about jumping after them?” Edison asked.

What? Jump into the center of that star? Have you melted your mind?”

“It was just a suggestion,” Edison said. “Then again, think about it, think about where we are. This is the front line of the Bern-Drenard war. We’re standing in the trenches of the most important standoff in your history. Do you really think they just left? Or that they killed themselves? I think it’s more likely they aren’t here because the front has moved elsewhere.”

“I know you hate it when I say this, but I don’t understand. Even without the English.”

Edison blew out his breath, then sucked in another deep one. “At almost the exact instant your Circle voted to change a tactic that has been in place for thousands and thousands of years, the moment they decided to move out of their arm of the Milky Way, the Bern disappear? Like I said, I loathe coincidences more than I hate prophecies.”

More?” Anlyn asked, doubting him.

“Absolutely. A prophecy might be nothing more than a prediction, or a well-reasoned theory with flowery language. A major coincidence like this? I just don’t buy it.”

“What they did, if these scans are correct, it seems suicidal,” Anlyn said. “Desperate. Like something we should be celebrating instead of getting worried about.” Anlyn looked from the screens to the orbital base they had been approaching. “I say we go check out that station, maybe broadcast our message a few more times.”

Edison lowered his brows, peering at the distant station. Eventually, he nodded. “That seems logical. Still, something tells me we should follow them, but perhaps there is more to that than just jumping to a precise spot. A modification of some sort…”

“Exactly,” Anlyn said, not enjoying his line of reasoning. She turned to one of the stations and increased thrust. Edison adjusted the SADAR for her so she could see any major debris in the way. But no matter how much he played with the gain, the SADAR remained dominated by the hyperdrive traces: bright, big blooms of pixilated energy.

They were like the ghosts of something fierce, haunting the dark closet Anlyn had been taught to fear her entire life. But now, having stepped through that mystical and lore-filled door, she had found the closet to be perfectly empty, a prospect somehow worse.

As they approached one of the traces, she felt her cold side dominating. The absence of the bad men—not knowing where they were right then—was far more powerful than their presence. It was as if they could be around any corner, or off doing worse things than merely lurking in her imagination.

Anlyn found herself holding her breath as she flew through the hyperdrive trace, a hollow feeling in her chest matching the ghostlike apparitions hanging in the void. As she pierced the image, she thought about what would drive someone to jump into the center of a star, and the fear she had felt when Edison had hinted at doing just that.

22

At first, the attackers were nothing more than extra blurs below, mere background noise in the bizarre world in which Cole had found himself. It wasn’t until objects on the deck fell still—as dead bodies are wont to do—that Cole realized something was amiss.

Out of a blur, a body appeared on the deck, its limbs at odd angles, a large pool of blood popping into existence with incredible speed.

The fur-clad guards at the base of the platform stomped up the steps, and Cole wondered for a moment if his jailors were about to become his protectors. He looked to Byrne, expecting some words of wisdom or advice.

“Kill the One!” Byrne barked to the men.

Cole rose from his seat and backed away. “Wait!” he said.

Two of the men pulled out long wooden handles and wielded them as if they contained blades. After seeing what had happened to Riggs’s leg, Cole didn’t feel like testing the illusion.

One of the men lunged forward, raising his arms. Cold grabbed his metal chair; he spun and slung it at the man’s face.

It flew right at the man, turning once in the air—and then it split in two, falling to either side and past the guy. Cole glanced at the ten meter drop to the deck—a height like a three-story building—and took another step back. Two of the men circled toward the other side of the mast, trying to get behind him.

Cole turned and moved toward the rear of the pedestal, hoping to put the large, flat tower between him and his attackers. One of the fur-shrouded figures yelled for him to stop—or yelled to the others to stop him. As Cole backed away, the man’s scream plummeted through several octaves and seemed to draw out forever. He also noticed the blurs moving across the deck below had turned into statues, and the men running after him on the pedestal seemed to swim through molasses.

Still—they slowly gained, and Cole could sense they would soon pierce whatever barrier he had stepped through and be upon him with their swords. With no place to run, the decision to jump no longer seemed like a decision at all. Cole moved to the edge of the pedestal and nearly lost his balance as it twitched beneath his feet. He knelt down, grabbed the lip, and lowered himself over the edge to minimize the fall. Holding on by his fingertips, he had a brief pang of doubt before letting go.

He kept his body spread out across the smooth metal surface, hoping the friction from his flightsuit would slow the fall. It worked better than it should have, as he almost seemed to float to the ground, sliding through the air as if it were fluid. When he hit the deck, however, his knees still buckled from the height of the fall. Cole rolled with the impact, pushed up into a crouch, and looked around, wondering where to run to, which small metal building to hide inside of, when the men from above came raining down around him with uncanny slowness.

Cole dashed between two of them before they could get to their feet, and several other fighters across the deck noticed him. One of them pointed, and the rest gave chase. Cole sprinted into one of the alleys created by the squat structures, angling toward the port side of the deck. As he got away from the mast, everyone started to move at the same rate of time again—and most of them in his direction.

Fleeing through the haphazard twists and turns of the tight alleys reminded Cole of his nefarious Portuguese childhood. He felt right at home as he changed directions repeatedly, snaking his way aft.

Skirting the wide clearing from earlier, he tried to get his bearings, to locate the room they’d kept him and Riggs in. Several times, he found himself dodging hellish scenes of gore littered across the deck. Dead bodies—some clad in so much fur they looked like roadkill—lay in hacked up pieces amid large pools of blood. They weren’t the only dead; the other figures that had shown up lay here and there in white combat gear turned grisly shades of pink by the time Cole ran past.

When he came to a wider area with less cover, Cole glanced back to find several pursuers gaining on him. He looked ahead again just in time to dodge around another puddle of death; he ran past the nastiness while searching for an alley to dodge down.

Checking over his shoulder, Cole saw that two pursuers had attempted to cut him off. They slipped in the puddle of gore and fell, covered in blood. Cole darted behind one of the low buildings, then changed direction and ran directly aft, hopefully keeping the building between himself and those chasing after. Once he crossed the open area, he ran around the next shack and hugged the back, pausing to catch his breath. He knew he couldn’t keep up such a pace forever, especially not with his heart and adrenaline going full-bore.

He slowly made his way to the far side of the small shack, sucking in deep gulps of oxygen as he went. When he got to the corner, he peeked around and saw a cluster of men running toward an adjacent structure; they were following along in the last direction they’d seen him running. Cole looked forward, toward the bow of the moving village, and didn’t see any threats heading his way. He did, however, notice something familiar. The tall mast—the size of it from that distance and the buildings blocking the view of its base—it all looked identical to the first time he’d noticed it. He had to be close to the room he and Riggs had been held in.

Cole pressed his ear to the wall next to him. Nothing. But if Riggs was dead from his wounds, that’s exactly what he’d expect. And anyway, with the way people were blurred into motion while he was with Byrne—there was no telling how much time had passed during their conversation. Perhaps they’d already disposed of his body, or taken him someplace else.

He considered all these possibilities as he made his way around the side of the building. Shouts could be heard in the distance, growing closer. Cole stole around to the front of the small structure and pulled open the door he found there.

Bingo.

He immediately recognized the inclined racks with their dangling restraints, even though they seemed to have been rearranged. What’s more, he knew that tangy scent of blood, a hint of which remained in the air. He looked to the floor for signs of it, expecting to find a wide streak heading toward the drain along with dotted trails spurting off in one direction, but they had already cleaned it up. There was no sign of Riggs. Not even a part of him.

Cole turned to leave. Surely they would eventually look for him in the only room he’d been inside of. He wondered which direction he should head: aft into the unknown, or forward and toward the Firehawk. He was about to set foot outside and let fate decide for him, when loud footsteps began approaching from the side of the shack. Cole jumped back into the room and shut the door as quickly and quietly as he could.

The thunder of several running men passed, and a sense of panic crept up in Cole’s chest. What good is running? He thought. Where would I go?

The severity of his situation began to sink in: he was trapped in hyperspace with a collection of ancient Earth bandits, and the things Byrne had told him about the universe—the utter scale of time and space and destruction—it made all his petty concerns of self-preservation seem ridiculously small. Temporary, at best. The sane course of action, he began to suspect, had been to stay put. He should probably just step out with his hands up and turn himself in.

The sound of someone running up to the door ended that internal debate. The natural tendency to run—to protect himself—surged through his body, surfing a second wave of adrenaline. Cole grabbed the door handle and held it tight just as someone outside tried to operate it.

The bar twisted in his hands. He tried to grip it hard enough to make it seem locked, but it moved just enough—with the tension of tendons rather than steel—that he knew the person outside wouldn’t be fooled.

“Hey!”

The shout came through the door muffled but audible. Something thumped against the door, a hand or a lowered shoulder.

Again, with a dull thump.

Cole listened to two more before getting the timing down. He turned the handle the other direction, using the man’s pressure against him, and pulled the door open right before the next blow came.

A fur-clad man stumbled inside, waving his arms for balance. Cole kicked the side of one knee to help the figure go down faster. The man let out an agonized roar and fell, clutching his leg. Cole jumped on him immediately, the metallic taste of awful necessity rising up in his throat as he pictured himself killing this man with his bare hands.

He jumped for the guy’s back, hoping to strangle him from behind, but the man rolled out of the way and Cole ended up clutching his chest instead. He pulled himself on top of the figure; the man writhed in agony and kept trying to grab at the leg Cole had kicked.

Cole threw one of his own legs over the guy, straddling his waist. He kept his knees wide so the man on the bottom couldn’t buck him off,  locked his heels under the figure’s legs to keep him from rolling over, and reached for his neck.

Ignoring the weak efforts to fend him off, Cole worked his hands past the fur, groping for raw flesh. The man’s goggles—his face swaddled and obscured—made the job easier. They allowed him to forget what he was trying to do; he could simply pretend there wasn’t a human inside.

Digging his thumbs into the soft depression below the Adam’s apple, Cole squeezed as hard as he could against the main arteries, pulling both hands toward each other with his thumbs.

He thought clinical thoughts. This was just a task. Something that needed doing.

The man grabbed Cole’s wrists, but he didn’t have the leverage to do anything about the stranglehold. His hands just remained encircled there, gloveless and young-looking.

A weak croak, muffled by the fur, escaped the man’s mouth. Cole turned away from the sight of what he was doing. The man tried to say something; Cole dug his thumbs into the trachea, not wanting to hear. It sounded like the man was going into shock, complaining about how cold he was even with all that fur around him.

Cole concentrated on nothing but the throbbing against his palm as he waited for the life to eke out of the man’s body. He focused on the pulse, distracting himself with something mechanical. As it became difficult to distinguish the man’s raging heartbeat from his own, Cole knew the end was coming. The man’s hands loosened their grip around his wrists and fell away, his elbows striking the metal decking. Both hands remained there for a moment—empty, but still shaped as if to grasp something. Finally, they too sagged to the floor, slowly like something inside still provided resistance.

Cole maintained a tight grip, knowing that he would pretend to go out in the same circumstance, lashing out as soon as his attacker pulled away. He waited until the muscles in his arms burned and his knuckles ached—only then did he take his hands away, his stomach churning with disgust.

A few flakes of snow drifted in through the open door behind him. Cole turned and realized how brazen and exhibitionist the murder had been. Reaching out, he threw the door shut with a metallic bang, dropping the room into complete darkness. He pushed his goggles up to his brow and surveyed his victim in the light filtered through the semi-transparent ceiling. He knew what he needed to do to delay his capture.

He pulled the boots off first, and then the man’s fur jacket. He hesitated a moment before stripping the jerkins from his legs—more out of respect than embarrassment—then proceeded to loosen them up and tug them off as well.

The man’s body offered quite a bit of resistance, the heaviness of death forcing Cole to struggle with the pants. As they came free, he noticed the legs were slathered in a purple mess, like a war-paint of some sort. Setting the clothing aside, he reached for the strips of fur around the man’s face, having saved that for last. He hated to look, but he needed to see what he was doing in order to untangle the covering.

He lifted the man’s head to unravel the continuous strip of fur. After the first wrap came away, he saw that the goggles were on top of the rest, the rubbery strap helping to hold it all in place. He pulled the goggles off and made the mistake of looking at the man’s eyes. They stood open, tear-tracks of pain running back from the corners.

Cole tucked the goggles into one of the jacket pockets and looked away from the accusatory glare. Even with nothing of the man’s face visible but those eyes, he couldn’t take the sight. He worked blindly, staring down the man’s body, gritting his teeth with the nastiness and intimacy of the task. As he untangled the head covering, he tried to lose himself in the bands of purple paint encircling the man’s thighs. He wondered what their significance was. He unraveled more fur, one hand looping behind the man’s neck, and he suddenly became even more fixated on the colorful bands of paint. There was a pink line wrapping around each, right above the man’s knees and barely visible through the purple stain.

Something stabbed Cole in the chest before he was fully aware of it on a conscious level—the primitive part of him outpacing his frontal lobe and reaching the awful truth first.

Flashes of terrible awareness strobed through his brain: an image of the man clutching at his leg; him thinking to look for Cole in that awful room; even what he had been trying to say right before he died. The man wasn’t complaining of the cold, he had been saying a name, over and over.

All these things occurred to Cole at once, jumbled and overlapping. In a split second, he knew. He knew before he looked back to the man’s face just why those frozen, tear-streaked eyes had bored into him so.

Holding the last of the rags, he turned to face the man he had just killed with his bare hands. He turned and begged the universe that he might be wrong. He didn’t want to be right. He could feel the world swallowing him up if he was…

And he was.

23

Walter snuck up behind the circle of men, stooping down to see between their legs. It was like an orchard of poorly dressed stumps shifting to and fro. He squeezed past the outer layer, trying his best to ignore the easy pickings in such a melee—wallets and jewelry ripe and ready for harvest, begging to be plucked.

He shook his head and waited for a shift in the crowd to create an opening, then he surged forward, getting out of the way again before they crashed back into each other. The rowdy men seemed to sway with the sounds of the beating ahead, loosening up as they groaned, their arms flying in the air, then packing back in as they waited for the next blow.

Taking his time, getting a sense of the flow of the action, Walter gradually made his way to the inner edge of the circle, nearly on his knees he was stooping so low. He finally got a good look at the participants, just as the fight seemed to reach its conclusion. The lady Callite from the bubble—the one who had made the flood-awful sounds—was lying on the floor, a bloody mess. A large man stood over her, waving his hands to the crowd.

“No more!” someone yelled.

“C’mon, she’s had enough!” screamed another.

The lady hollered something herself, flecks of blue foam spitting out of her mouth. Walter stared at her—amazed she was still conscious after bleeding so much—and tried to read her lips.

“More,” it looked like she was saying. She waved at the man above her and tried to sit up. “More!” she groaned.

The crowd quieted down, sensing the show was over. The man above her shook his head. “That’s plenty, Cat. You don’t pay me enough for this.”

Her head fell back to the floor as she struggled for something in her pocket. Walter watched intently, wanting to end the spectacle, wanting to help her, but not knowing why.

The man bent down and took something from her: a roll of money. He flicked through it, dropped a few pieces on her stomach, then stepped away. The lady curled her fist around the change and seemed to go limp.

The crowd dispersed—their tribal rumbles transforming into chairs scraping across the ground, hollered drink orders, and the crash of glass on glass in trashcans. Walter hurried over to the lady, compelled by the sight of her blood-covered form. He suddenly thought of his mother, but shook the memory away as he crept to the lady’s side.

Her face was a mess, covered in blood the color of deep water. One of her eyelids cracked open; a bright eye swiveled around to study him—

Walter ran off, dashing to one of the tables. He grabbed a fistful of paper napkins, ignoring the men yelling insults at him, telling him to just leave her alone. He hurried back, falling to his knees and reaching out to dab her wounds.

“Flank off!” she yelled at him, knocking him back with incredible force.

Walter hissed in alarm and felt the Wadi go nuts in the pocket by his stomach. He moved close enough to the woman to talk, but stayed out of arm’s reach.

“I’m Walter,” he said.

The lady looked at him, her brown, scaly face covered with a film of blood, both of her eyes nearly swollen shut. “You’re scrawny,” she said.

Walter looked down at himself. “Leasst I’m in one piecse.”

“If you’s bigger, I’d ask you ta kick me,” the woman said. She gave him one last appraising look, then allowed her battered head to settle back to the floor. She closed her eyes and ran a forked tongue over her busted lip.

“Leave her alone,” a guy behind Walter said. Walter turned around to find a table had been scooted nearby; several men lounged around it, working on fresh, foamy drinks. “She’ll be fine, little man. Best you can do is leave her be. Sammie will clean up the mess.”

Walter ignored the guy and turned back to Cat. “We’ve been looking for you for two weekss,” he told the lady.

“I’d congratulate ya, but I ain’t been hiding.” Her eyes remained closed as she spoke. “Now scram, or go buy me a beating.”

Walter felt for his wad of cash, all the money he’d lifted since they got to Bekkie. He unzipped his loot pocket, inserted his hand—and regretted it immediately. The Wadi inside bit him, sending toxins through his knuckles. He grabbed it around the belly, the sensation of its soft flesh between his fingers reminding him of the one he’d crushed on Drenard. He considered repeating that feat, becoming twice the Drenard he currently was, but remembered what he’d reached in his pocket for. He yanked his hand out and strips of confetti followed—all that was left of the bills he’d stolen from the locals.

“Sstupid lizsard!” he yelled, zipping his pocket closed. He sucked on his burning knuckle, which just made his tongue sting. He looked down at the lady, who had one eye as open as it could get.

“Palan, huh?”

Walter nodded. He pulled his finger out of his mouth. “And proud of it,” he boasted.

“Grab us some chairs,” the lady said. She grumbled to herself: “I hardly made enough tonight to feel it.”

Walter had to go almost to the other side of the bar to find two unoccupied seats. He dragged them back, drawing glares from other patrons as they screeched across the floor. He almost expected the woman to be gone by the time he returned, but she was just sitting up.

“You with a sadist club?” she asked Walter, as he helped her into a chair. “Cause I still do those meetings for a fee.”

“I don’t think sso,” Walter answered, picking up the napkins and holding them out to her. He felt happy when she accepted them. There was something about the woman he couldn’t quite place; he’d seen a lot of bizarre alien stuff in his time, but nothing quite like her. “Why do you do this?” he asked.

The Callite leaned back in her chair. She looked him up and down as she wiped two kinds of blood off her hands. Somehow, having sat up, the swelling around her eyes didn’t look quite as bad as it had before.

“You’re too young to get it,” she finally said. “Now, you wanting an autograph, or you got a paying gig?”

“I… we—” Walter looked around, expecting Molly to walk in at any moment; he wondered where in hyperspace she’d gone to. “My friend Molly hass been trying to find you. Ssomething about fussion fu—”

A sticky hand latched onto his mouth faster than a Wadi firing from a hole in a cliff. Walter looked down his nose at it; he peered across the brown arm it was attached to, tracing it up to the very stern and blood-streaked face. There was no doubt about it: the swelling around the lady’s eyes had gone down a lot. He watched them dart from side to side before boring right through his skull.

“Who’re you with?” she asked.

Walter mumbled into her palm.

“Softly, now,” Cat said, pulling her hand away.

“Molly Fyde,” he whispered, looking around.

“That’s crap,” the woman said. “How do you even know that name?”

Walter pointed to his flightsuit, at his name scrawled across his left breast. “I’m crew on the sstarsship Parssona,” he hissed. “I’m the ssupply officser!”

The hand returned, grabbing Walter’s collar and pulling him out of the seat, hauling him close to the lady’s face—which, now that he was up-close, really seemed to be in not that bad of shape, to be honest.

“Where’s the ship?” the lady demanded. “And where’s Molly?”

Walter swallowed. Or tried to.

“I don’t know,” he whispered.

24

Cole cradled Riggs in his arms and sobbed. He held his old friend’s neck, pressed Riggs’s face up against his own, and cried as hard as he ever had. His body shook from the effort. Snot, saliva, and salt mixed on his lips as his moans turned into screams—mad, inhuman sounds that barely registered in his ears as his own voice.

He wanted to pound his friend’s chest. He wanted to rip his own open. He wanted to claw out his heart and pack snow inside. Anything to fill the gaping, burning, crushing void he’d created there.

Deep down, something yelled at him to undo it, to bring his friend back. It wrestled aside the angry beast that had taken him over, giving him instructions on CPR, telling him it wasn’t too late. But before he could think to begin, the door burst open, filling the room with harsh light and forcing him to bring his goggles back down.

Cole turned and saw that his inhuman screams had summoned men dressed up as animals. And something odd seized him. That beast within took over, and Cole fell into a dream-like state untouched by time, a nightmare of slow and fast in which he was but a passenger riding along inside someone else’s skull. He felt a body around him, but it wasn’t his. That body jumped up, taking him along with it, elevating his view. He watched the body’s fists fly at a face.

You aren’t supposed to punch that hard, he felt like telling the body, but the arms kept going straight out, impacting a skull, trying to punch straight through it.

Blood splattered and leaked out from between the strips of fur covering the man’s face; Cole watched the mangled hand hit again, knowing it was broken. Not knowing it was his.

The other man swung his arms as if he held an invisible bat. The person Cole occupied—whose brain he resided in—seemed to jump back reflexively. The torso of the man with the bleeding face flew apart, his insides spilling out like red ropes soaked in oil.

The nightmare slowed down even further as the opened man collapsed, and Cole’s bodily vehicle slipped in the mess. The man with the invisible bat swung again, his black goggles seeming to pop with rage.

Cole felt himself duck inside the skull, willing the man he was occupying to get low. They crashed down as one, and the invisible blade made a noise above. He watched as two arms—arms he should recognize as his own—scrambled ahead, swimming through the blood and mess on the decking, trying to reach the dangerous man with the invisible blade.

The broken hand reached out and clutched the opened man’s torso, grabbing his lifeless furs and pulling forward. Somehow, Cole could feel the vehicle’s legs pushing and slipping in the blood; they propelled the scene ahead, lurching for the man with the goggles whose brow hinted at wild, unseen eyes.

A hand grabbed the swordsman’s thigh. Cole watched, completely detached, as it yanked the man down, the slick blood assisting as it spread out beneath them. The man’s arms wind-milled, swinging for balance. He landed in a heap, then brought the invisible blade up, preparing to swing. Cole watched other hands—hands he barely recognized as his own—grab the man’s arms and wrestle them down. He admired the way the good hand pinned the man’s wrist while the mangled hand went to work on his face. That hand was no good as anything but a club, anyway. He wondered what it would feel like to own a hand destroyed like that. What the sensation might be like to ball crushed bone into something resembling a fist and throw it, as hard as one could, into a solid thing. Over and over.

He wondered how that would feel, because he couldn’t know. He watched the scene for a little while, the horror slowly speeding up to real-time before he grew bored of it. The striking stopped.

Cole couldn’t even tell what the hand had been hitting. Below him lay a red mess, the orb of one eye dangling from a bundle of nerves. It hung out of something misshapen and leaking. And what had been a crushed hand, now looked like ground-up meat. Splinters of white bone stuck out where knuckles once were, all of it dripping with blood.

The person he was riding inside staggered to its feet, legs wobbly and shaking. It moved toward the light, toward the rectangle of air filled with sparkling flakes that rode on the wind. Unable to do anything but watch, Cole rode along as the person left the small room, taking him out as well, out into a world full of silent fighting.

Men were everywhere, men and aliens, fighting in clusters. It all had the sloppiness of a dream as people split in two and some seemed to disappear altogether. Cole watched the legs beneath him march away from it all, moving toward the edge of the deck where more light and sparks of whiteness—miniature angels—danced and beckoned, offering a calm, seductive reprieve.

When several men came running after him, after the body he was in, Cole hardly noticed the legs beneath him begin to kick. To Run. He jounced around inside the skull—confused trapped and alone—riding along and screaming for everything to stop.

The men gave chase, swishing the air with nothingness. Cole could only see them when the head he was huddled inside turned around. Mostly, though, it looked forward, giving him a view of the approaching rail. But he was more concerned about the men, having seen what those blades could do. The body ran—the railing was so near—yet the legs beneath him continued to churn across the frosted deck.

He felt trapped, a little creature in someone’s head. He imagined his tiny arms and legs stretched out, pressing on the walls of the skull, straining to hold himself in place. He wanted to steer away from the rail, away from the edge of the metal deck, but the thing he rode inside sprinted on. He could feel the blades whiz behind him as they threaten to spill him out of the skull and onto the decking.

The body hit the rail at full speed. It bent in half at the waist, tumbling over. The head holding Cole became inverted. He had a brief glimpse of the snowy ground rushing past—far, far below. He grabbed at the controls for the arms, urging them to do his bidding. The nightmare slowed, proceeding at a crawl, each moment drip, drip, dripping.

Then: a hand gripping. Gripping the rail. Both hands now, clutching the metal bar, stopping his plummet. One of them was whole, the other a disgusting mess. Above, several men gathered, their pants and gasps puffing out like smoke. They looked down over the rail, black goggles wrapped with fur. Cole watched from his prison as they scrambled for the arms, trying to pull the body back into the nightmare.

The view turned, forcing Cole to look back down at the ground, at the inhospitable wasteland of snow racing by. When the view returned to the rail, the hands were leaving the arms, one man pushing the others away.

Cole recognized him, recognized the blonde hair and small goggles.

Joshua.

Joshua smiled, almost as if he could see Cole through the goggles, could see inside the body’s skull where he was cowering, confused and afraid.

Joshua held something over the rail: a wooden stick, hanging from another wooden stick.

Cole froze. He leaned closer to the inside of the body’s eyes; he pressed his palms against the pupils and peered out, staring at the familiar device.

Joshua swung the invisible thread right at him—right at the skull he’d receded into. Cole screamed at the hands to let go, at the arms to come up and block the blow.

The good arm still had enough fear in it to obey, but the mangled one did not. One hand let go, coming up in front of the skull to protect him; the ruined hand somehow kept its grip. Cole braced himself as the body  he was in rotated on the single grasp of that bloody, pulped hand. He watched as the invisible thread flew past, seeming to miss everything.

But then, he started falling away. He fell into the sinking embrace of open air even though one arm remained fastened to the rail—remained there, frozen in the shape of a claw.

Cole stared at it from within the head, watched it slide away from the body along a neat line of red separation.

My body, Cole thought.

This is me.

That arm, still grasping the railing, he finally understood it to be a part of him. He came to the realization moments after it was no longer true.

His good arm waved in the wisps of snow, but he focused on the other one. He watched the dismembered limb as he fell away from it, watched it remain up high, dripping blood through the whizzing white. The arm became smaller, a tiny piece of meat stuck to the side of the ship, as he fell away, down to the snowy drifts below.

Air roared past his ears. Accelerating. Stomach rising with the speed. He landed with a pained crunch, a thump of lifeless heft. His body smashed through the hard, frozen exterior of the snow and drove down, deep down into the soft wetness.

The cold seeped into his bones immediately. Cole lifted his head. He pushed up with one arm to get his face out of the moisture, away from the tight hole he’d created. He wiggled back and forth, yelling at the pain and horror of it all, the frustration of not being able to move, of being wrapped in the freezing embrace.

His right arm came free. He looked down at it, saw how the limb ended in the middle of his bicep. Blood arced out in spurts, melting red canyons into the wall of white before him.

Cole fought to free his other hand from the clutches of the packed snow. He yelled and yanked it free, grabbed a handful of snow and pushed it against the wound. The raw, exposed nerves burned with pain beyond compare. He could hear himself screaming, could feel the white world around him growing dark. He struggled against the dying sensation, kicked at the brutality of it all, shook with rage at the approaching blackness squeezing in around him…

Cole collapsed forward. His eyes rolled up behind his lids, and his face fell into the cold and wet.

25

A cylindrical column of blood marched out of Molly’s arm and snaked through the twisted tube attached to the needle. Molly felt faint from watching it leave her body; she could feel her pulse shoving against her temples. She shook her head and pushed at the rag with her tongue, trying to find room to breathe. Beside her, the large man prepared a row of empty bags, hanging them one at a time from the side of her table.

One of the other men in the room told another joke, and everyone laughed. The man over Molly slapped her table with his hand, then wiped his eyes. The sight of his yellowish teeth, his mouth pulled back in a smile, his apron covered in blood—the banality of it all made her realize: the end of her would come right there on that table. No remorse. No heroics. Nothing special. She just stepped into a dark alley, and was gone. Soon to be a few bags of votes vibrating with punch lines.

She laid her head back and concentrated on her heartbeat, on slowing down the thumps against her temples, if for no other reason than to be resistant. She breathed slowly through her nose and focused on the gradual rise and fall of her chest against the tight restraints—

Another quip from someone and the room rocked with more laughter.

Another bag was hung.

••••

“Aren’t you hurt?” Walter asked Cat as he followed her outside.

“I wish,” she said, speaking over her shoulder as Walter scrambled to catch up. “It’s a cinch to pick a fight in a new town, but then folks catch on. Soon as they reckon you’re looking for it, they ain’t so game. Eventually you gotta start paying ’em, or hanging out with sickos. Before long, you move on. You move on long enough, and you’re going in circles, know what I mean?” She stopped at the alley and peered down it, squinting at the darkness like it had done something wrong.

“This the last place you saw her?”

“At the far end,” Walter said, pointing down the crack between the two buildings. “Sshe ran around the corner like sshe wass chassing you.”

Cat looked down the street at the front of the elections office, then back down the alley. “You don’t reckon she went back to the ship, do you?”

Walter shook his head. “No way. There’ss bad people on the sship and we’ve been trying to find you for agess.” Walter felt for the Wadi, made sure it was still there. “I heard sscreaming when I came around the corner. Thought it came from one of the doorss. I banged on both, and a guy told me to get losst.”

“From that building?” Cat asked.

“No, from the bar. Nobody ansswered from there.” He nodded at the other place.

“Let’s go ask,” Cat said, marching toward the entrance of the place. “I know one of the guys that works here. Throws a helluva right cross.”

••••

“Paulie! Somebody here to see you.”

Molly watched the man leaning over her look up to the far end of the room.

“Tell ’em I’m busy,” the guy said.

“It’s that Callite chick from the bar. She looks pretty rough, man.”

“Aw, hell.” The guy left the second bag to fill and took off his apron; he casually tossed it across Molly’s chest as if she were a part of the furniture. “I got no time for her bullshit tonight,” he grumbled.

Molly tried to ignore the commotion and concentrate on her pulse—on the long, steady breaths she pulled in through her nose. She turned her head to the side and relaxed her muscles, no longer fighting against the restraints. The other guy, the one who had held her legs, was filling close to his tenth bag. The person giving the blood had stopped thrashing a while ago, their moans slowly drifting off as if to sleep.

Molly’s procedure was definitely going slower. She tried to make each breath, each slow filling and exhalation as gradual as possible. She pretended the tangy metallic taste in her mouth was her own precious blood reentering her body, filling her back up. The illusion was enough to keep her from gagging, allowing her to slow her metabolism down to a crawl.

She was going to go out on her own terms, she decided. Not thrashing and speeding the inevitable up, but going with a calm and peaceful mind.

It’ll be a bonus if it irks these bastards, she thought to herself.

••••

Walter picked up one of the election brochures and studied it while he and Cat waited. “Wasste of time,” he hissed to himself. He knew Molly better than anyone. Anyone still alive, anyway. Why would she come to a place like this? She hated voting.

The Wadi twisted and struggled inside his flightsuit, which made him suddenly annoyed at Molly for running off and leaving him with the stupid animal. You weren’t supposed to catch the creatures; you were supposed to kill them. Any real Drenard knows that. Besides, the thing had been eating so much food over the past weeks, it was beginning to cut into the money he’d bartered for back in Darrin. Hell, it had already eaten the money he’d made that day—and literally!

Walter put the brochure down and popped the thing on the head once more. The stupid thing had become like another crewmember, someone else Molly spent more time with than him. He thought about bopping it again when a large man in a jumpsuit came out of the back, wiping his hands on his butt. He smiled at Cat.

“Hey, Cripple. Looks like you’ve been having a good time tonight.”

“Yeah. Not bad, Paulie. Look, I was wondering—”

“Listen, we’re not really open right now, and I’m pretty busy in the back, so why don’t I come over and find you later? I’d be up for cracking some ribs if you’re buying.”

Walter watched a smile creep across Cat’s mouth—a mouth that didn’t seem near as busted up as it had earlier.

“Actually, I’m trying to help my friend here find someone. A young girl. You seen anyone stop in?”

“Not a soul. Been real quiet tonight. Big rally over on the square and all. Tell you what, I’ll keep an eye out and find you at the bar if I hear anything, okay?” He smiled at Cat, but his eyes darted over to Walter.

“Yeah,” Cat said. “Sounds good. Come by later.”

Paulie gave a half-wave and backed through the door, pushing it open with his elbows. Cat turned to Walter. She squatted down to be on his level while the men behind the counter continued with their work of moving heavy boxes, ticking items on clipboards, and eyeing the duo warily.

“Maybe we should head back to that ship of yours,” Cat said to Walter.

He shook his head and sniffed the air.

“No? Whatcha thinking?”

“He’ss lying,” Walter hissed quietly.

Cat jerked her thumb at the door behind the counter. “Paulie?”

Walter nodded. “It issn’t a guesss,” he said.

Cat touched her nose. “The Palan thing?”

He nodded again. “It reekss in here,” he said.

••••

“Hey, Paulie, what did she want?”

The far worker’s voice throbbed in Molly’s ears, mere background noise to her calm meditations. It was like falling asleep in the cockpit and feeling the thrum of the engines coursing up through the hull. More than that, actually. More like being in the vacuum of space and sensing vibrations through her fingertips. Her fingertips were tingling.

Molly couldn’t tell how much of her detached feeling was from blood-loss, how much from fear, and how much from the meditation. Her world had become a feeble set of inputs—dull and jumbled in her fuzzy thinking. She heard the other guy say something and a third voice tell them to get back to work. All of it took place far away, seemingly heard by someone else’s ears.

The large man appeared beside her once again. He dragged his apron off her chest and draping it around his neck. He fumbled with the sash, wrapping it around his back as he glanced down at the second bag.

“What the flank?” he asked. With both hands, he traced the tube from the bag to her arm, obviously searching for kinks.

Molly smiled ever so slightly.

The man must’ve noticed the twitch at the corner of her lips. He reached down and grabbed her neck, bent over and brought his face close to hers. He started to say something through a toothy sneer, but there was a crash at the other end of the room.

The man looked up.

“What the flank?” he asked again, louder, this time.

Or maybe Molly just heard it more clearly as the carefully wrought fog began dissipating from her senses. She felt it in her temples again: her pulse. Betraying her.

••••

“Jesus,” Cat said, looking out across the room of bodies. They were spread across a grid of tables, the forms as still as the two men she’d dropped behind the counter. She saw the bags hanging from one of the gurneys, saw the insulated cooler below a table stamped “Votes,” and a sickening puzzle fell together. She felt like she’d wandered into the back of a morgue to find them churning out links of sausage.

A short, bald guy with a beard came running over, yelling something. Cat drove her fist into his trachea to shut him up. She felt a lot of meat give way under the blow, felt her knuckles impact the ridge of spine beyond that softness—and figured she’d gone a little hard on him.

The man collapsed in a quiet mound. He just folded up on himself and remained as he landed, strangely still. He weren’t the sort of guy she usually tangled with. Part of her felt horrible for him. The other part wondered what it had felt like to get hit like that. Had it hurt? Or been done and over too quick?

Looking up, she saw two men more her likable size: brutes with lots of muscle and mean faces. Her favorite combo.

“Paulie? What the flank is going on here?” She turned around and made sure the door to the front was closed, saw the Palan kid rushing over to check the bald guy. “You goddamn draining people?” She walked across the room. The two guys formed up in the aisle, both wearing aprons splattered with brown smears of dried blood. Except for Paulie’s. His looked awful fresh.

“Oh, hell, Cat, we’re just making a living.” He reached over and held the other guy back. “We can get you in on this if you want. Guarantee it pays more that the performin’ arts. You could make enough to get yourself a real ass-whoopin’.”

Cat scanned the room. There were at least a dozen bodies in there, most of them too pale to be alive. “Where’s the girl?” she asked.

“Don’t know nothing about any girl. Look, you’ve had a rough night. Why don’t I give you enough coin for a few fights and you let us see to our friend over there.”

“Why don’t we just flank her up?” the other guy asked.

“Yeah,” Cat said. “Why don’t you boys just flank me up?”

Paulie laughed. “For free? C’mon, Cat, I like you and all, but you don’t know what you’re messing with here.”

“Yeah,” the other guy said. “This ain’t some small racket. You’re gonna get a world of hurt.”

Cat smiled. “Promise?”

Paulie waved his partner down. “Seriously, Cat, you should take your little friend and get out of here. Pretend you never came. Besides, we ain’t seen no girl tonight.”

“He’ss lying,” Walter said, arriving by her side.

Cat placed a hand on the boy’s chest and pushed him back. “Trust me,” she said. “I know.”

She turned and faced the men and smoothly changed her stance, bringing her fists up and taking her hips off square. Small things, but enough to change the game and quick. It was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Paulie’s friend came fast. Fast and dumb. She’d never seen him around any of the pubs, so he obviously didn’t know what he was dealing with. Cat watched his feet as he ran, figured out where he’d be planting his foot just before he got to her and made sure her own foot was driving to where his knee would be.

It sounded like a thick branch snapping in two. The knee bent back the wrong way, and she barely moved in time to keep from getting wrapped up in his flying bulk. He landed with a thud and went to screaming holy hell, writhing on the ground, fumbling for his foot, but it was trapped beneath him, out of reach.

Cat watched the Palan kid go from silver to white, his eyes bulging at the sight of the man.

“Can you shut him?” Cat asked.

The boy nodded and ran back to the screaming figure, pulling something out of one of the pockets on his flightsuit. Cat turned back to face Paulie.

“Now you see why I never bring him out,” he told her, smiling nervously and gesturing to the gurgling man behind her.

Cat took a few steps forward.

“Damn, Cat, fine. The girl is right there. Barely gotten started on her. Take her and go.”

Cat shook her head slowly. “I don’t think so, Paulie ol’ buddy. I ain’t had such a great night. Or not bad enough, anyway.” She called back over her shoulder: “Hey little man, see to your friend over there.”

The boy padded by, wiping something off on a bloody rag. He hopped up and down, looking on top of the tables for his friend.

Cat pointed, showing him which one, and then stepped closer to Paulie.

Close enough that he could hit her.

••••

Molly didn’t understand what was going on. She saw one of the guys go down, tripped up by a Callite. One of the other victims? Had someone gotten loose? She shook her head, tried once more to spit the rag out, and then felt her pulse quicken, pumping out more blood.

She tried to find a balance between staying calm and getting free; her struggles would hasten the end, but her stillness would ensure it. Her moment of panicked indecision was interrupted by Walter, who appeared out of nowhere.

Molly moaned at the sight of him; she could feel tears streaking down the sides of her face. He ripped the tape free and pulled the foul rag out of her mouth, holding it with his fingertips like it was something dead. Molly turned her head to the other side and spat, scraping her tongue against her teeth. She saw the other victim, the Callite, get hit in the face and go down.

“Hurry,” she told Walter, who fumbled with the straps across her.

Walter peered over her at the fight in progress. He bit his lip in concentration and reached for one of the straps.

“Arms first,” she said, as he went straight for her thighs.

He flicked the leather strap open and her arms came free. She worked on the one across her chest, then sat up to do her legs—and nearly blacked out.

She lay back down, remembering the needle. A dark cord of crimson trailed off her left arm, spiraling down to one of the bags hanging from the table. Molly gnashed her teeth together and fumbled with the little valve on the end of the needle. The device tugged against her flesh as she twisted the small, plastic handle; she could feel the metal needle move around inside her arm as she fumbled with it.

Walter got her feet free as she finally closed the valve. She pulled the hose away from the device and felt nauseas as it started dripping her blood from the bag to the floor. She looked away and toward the fracas—saw her kidnapper on top of the blood-splattered woman. Molly wanted to help, but she wasn’t sure if she was even strong enough to stand. She swung her legs over the side and felt Walter’s hands on her arm. He had some of the tape from her mouth and a clean rag. He held them out as if to make a bandage across the needle.

“Wait,” she told him. She pulled the needle out with a grimace, then Walter pressed the cloth against the rising bubble of bright blood welling up from her arm. Molly looked over her shoulder, keeping an eye on the two fighters while Walter wrapped tape around the cloth. He, too, was keeping an eye on the one-sided action.

“That’ss wasssername,” he told Molly.

“Who?” Molly glanced back at the woman, who was being pummeled into the ground. “You mean Cat?” she asked.

Walter nodded.

Molly jumped down from the table and her brain toyed with passing out; her knees jittered, and Walter steadied her. She glanced at the bags of blood, trying to figure out how much was in them and remember how much she’d started with. There were a dozen or so hanging from the table with only two full, so she had to be okay. Just deciding so gave her enough psychological strength to remain upright. She turned and sized up her predicament as the man in the apron continued to pound her mother’s friend. Wet, slapping sounds accompanied each blow. The noise had the same effect as the taste of that foul rag—it nearly made Molly gag.

“See if you can open the back door,” she told Walter. He hurried off while Molly tried to figure out how she was going to get Cat out of there—if she was even alive. The man’s body obscured most of the Callite, but what she saw looked horrible. A small pool of the alien’s blue blood spread out from underneath her, and dotted trails of the stuff streaked away in wide arcs that matched the man’s blows. Molly checked the tables for a scalpel, or anything sharp, but there were only the extraction needles, some tubing, and a bunch of bags.

She grabbed a full bag of her own blood and one of the needles, formulating a plan as she crept up behind the large man. Her heart, so recently calmed to slow its draining, raced as she snuck closer. She cringed as another blow landed. She watched the man’s hand—clad in dripping blue—come back up, then plummet with another fleshy crack. Molly expected him to turn around and see her, to stop her. She fought the urge to run, which she knew would just make her pass out. She carefully re-opened the valve on the needle. When she got close enough, she didn’t hesitate. Forming a fist around the valve end, she swung her hand around the man’s shoulder and buried the needle in his neck.

The large man spun around, eyes wide, his bloody hands fumbling above his collar where jets of crimson stole away his pulse. Molly bit into the bag, tearing it open with her teeth. The man growled at her and reached out—

Molly crammed the spilling bag of fluids into his face, aiming for his eyes, shoving it hard before letting go. He pawed at himself, screaming, blood flying through blood, his head still level with her waist. Molly grabbed the back of his head, wrapped her fingers in his hair, and pulled down as she threw her knee up. She tried to drive her leg all the way to her palms.

There was a dull crunch. The man’s arms fell to his side and his body went still. Molly’s knee lanced out in pain. She wobbled from the exertion—fell down to her hands and knees and fought hard to not black out.

Nearby, Cat’s head rolled around, blood and gore making her look like something out of an alien horror vid. She gave Molly a nasty smile. Her teeth—the ones not missing—were covered in her own blue blood; her lips were torn in two, bifurcated like her tongue.

Cat tried to say something, and flecks of azure mist popped up into the air. Molly scurried to her side, trying to figure out which wound to tend to first and how she was going to get them out of that damned place before more people showed up. She glanced to the back of the room where Walter stood holding the door to the alley open. He waved one arm for her to hurry up.

Cat spoke again. Molly tried to tell the woman to save her energy, but the Callite’s hand came up and clutched her shirt, pulling her down with ferocious strength.

Molly turned to her; she saw a maniacal grin spread across the woman’s pulped face, saw eyes vibrant with life meet her own.

Cat whispered something. Molly leaned in closer, turned her head, concentrated on committing to memory the woman’s words, in case they were her last.

“I felt that,” the woman whispered. She let go of Molly’s shirt and smiled even broader. “I felt that good.”

26

In his snowy grave, Cole had a dream.

A final dream, perhaps.

A sequence of dreams.

He floated in space as stars rushed by, white streaks against the black. He saw his face reflected in a helmet. Molly’s helmet? He saw his own visage fishbowled in another’s visor, his lips black.

The persistent burn. His flesh on fire, a popping fire as the numbness receded, the cold draining away and exposing the agony beneath. Cole could feel his individual nerves stretched out across the cosmos, shuddering with dying sensations, electrocuting him with pain.

Dying. Lips black, reflected in a visor. Swollen or fishbowled or both.

He hung in the vacuum, surrounded by white.

Plucked. God’s fingers holding him. Lifting him.

Dangling and dying amid the fuzzy white all around him and the shady blackness of his dreams within.

••••

Flickers of non-dream. The real invading his final sleep. Strings of meat, of tendon and vessels hanging from his arm. Hanging like wire. Wire and blood everywhere.

A twitch. A thrumming pain. A dream of aching, of burning and freezing, of thawing and cooking, of hell and heaven.

A universe of pain, full of aching.

An aching.

A never waking.

••••

Cole’s life didn’t flash by—it loomed and froze. A single image. A boy, dark-skinned and poor. White teeth, but no smile. Lisboa. Portugal. Bairro de lata. Slum. Home.

He saw fury creased across a young forehead, too young to crease like that. Black furrows full of the blackest rage. Fists clenched, arms thrown wide for balance. A boy at his feet, bent in half. The image was frozen, but the boy’s leg was blurred. The boy’s leg kicked, action without motion. A frozen blur, vivid and remembered. The last kick that did it, pushing a nose back into a brain. Silencing it.

Cole didn’t need to see it. Didn’t need to see the before—the years of life abused and wasted. Didn’t need to see the after—the hours of being beat on. So much pain on either side of that frozen slice of rage. Towering stacks of pain squeezing a sliver of time, that frozen horror of violence. Of killing.

Cole didn’t need to see it. He had another life worth flashing by. A life of redemption. Of learning to love. But he didn’t get that one. Just got the brutality and error—looming and frozen.

••••

Something else. New. Guilt and pleasure intertwined and swirling through Cole’s mind, becoming one.

Arms waving, reaching, swimming out of the fog. Out of unconsciousness. The world, a world solidifying, congealing into the half-real, half-imagined.

A woman kissing him, her hands on his body, on his chest.

Lips touching, over and over.

Cole looked up—saw it wasn’t Molly.

Red hair. Bright. The color and flicker of fire, of precious warmth. It danced and waved all around him—it draped across his bare chest. He was naked, the girl hovering.

It felt like—

It felt like forever.

Like wholeness and emptiness, like something spilling out and refilling, like infinite desire and eternal sating, the two racing and endless, like lines stretched out through the unknown, meeting at forever.

Pleasure.

Lust laced with fear and shame.

It wasn’t Molly.

He tried to fight back, to push her off, but every movement—deflected. Every effort—turned against him. The fiery woman. Resistance became passion.

The gradual giving in. His body worn down. Exhausted. Dead. She was kissing him—he kissed back. Hands wrapped in the wild hair, pulling her down.

Skin sparked with electricity everywhere it touched, where it touched other skin. Something jolted him alive.

Alive.

Cole looked at his hands. Fiery hair slid between his fingers. Ten fingers. But he didn’t have two hands. Not anymore. A dream. It was a dream—the last firings of frozen neurons as he perished in a bank of snow.

He pushed the girl away—or tried to.

She was strong. And the more he fought, the more beautiful she became, smothering him with a longing.

Cole groaned. He wondered if this would be the last he ever felt. A parting gift for a life too soon ended.

He longed for Molly.

The lips, full and fiery, shut out his moaning, clamped down on his mouth. Biting. He felt his body betray him, betray his promises and do another’s bidding. Cole cried, tears streaming down his face. Tears that felt incredibly—powerfully—real.

Part XIV – Salvation

“To find oneself, you must first lose a piece.”

~The Bern Seer~

27

Molly gripped the spigot with the palm of her hand to avoid using her damaged fingers. She gave the valve a turn, and water gurgled out of the hose, discolored at first, then running clear. She offered the stream to Cat, who knelt beside her.

Cat pushed the hose away. “You first.”

Molly held the stream against her lips and took in a mouthful of the cool water. She shook her head, swishing it around before spitting it out, trying to purge the taste of the rag. She ran more water over her lips and drank some down, enjoying the burn of the frigid fluid. She passed the hose back to Cat, who began splashing some on her face.

Molly collapsed against the dumpster behind her and looked up at the lone and naked bulb above, which cast a sad pool of light into the alley. On the other side of the restaurant, she could hear the blare of horns and the rattle of traffic. Occasional shouts from drunks and angry pedestrians reminded her that people were out there. Civilization, going about its nighttime business. Oblivious. Meanwhile, she cowered against a dumpster in some dark alley, a seeming world away. Her body was literally drained, and she felt lucky to be alive.

“We need to get you to a hospital,” Molly said. She turned to the side and watched Walter pace up and down in the darkness, hissing to himself. “And then I need to alert the authorities, tell them what’s going on in that place.”

Cat swished some water in her mouth, then spit it out in a pale, blue stream. She wiped her chin with one of the few clean patches of her shirt. “Those probably were the authorities,” she said.

“They were going to kill me, weren’t they?” Molly inspected the mark in her arm, wondering how many times that needle had been used. Her vein seemed red and irritated, standing out against her pale skin. She worried she was imagining things. She looked up at Cat. “They’re rigging the elections, right? They were gonna take it all—every ounce I had, weren’t they?”

Cat nodded and splashed some water on her face. She looked up at Molly. “Was at least six dead in there.”

“But why?” Molly didn’t get it. Living people gave blood forever. It was as dumb as a parasite killing its host. Didn’t politicians need to keep their constituents alive, at the very least? She started to say something to Cat about it, then saw her face as the water washed away the blood. Molly leaned forward from the dumpster and gaped at the Callite’s lips, touching her own. “Your face—!”

“Still bad?” Cat asked, smiling a little.

“No, I—your lips, I could’ve sworn—”

“I’m fine.” Cat bent the hose to stop the flow and handed it out to Molly. “What about you? You need a doctor? They do anything ’sides bleed you?”

Molly drank some more water and shook her head. She ran the cool liquid over the pads of her fingers, numbing them a little. “No, I just… feel a little weak. I… I’d be dead if you hadn’t come along.”

“We!” Walter hissed from the darkness.

Cat and Molly smiled at each other, complete strangers sharing a post-adrenaline moment where bonds were immediate and humor oddly enticing. Again, she marveled at how untouched Cat appeared. What had seemed a missing tooth must’ve been darkened by blood. And perhaps some of the blood on her belonged to another Callite—from a donor bag, or something. She watched as Cat reached down to adjust one of the strips of fabric around her thigh, bringing it up to hide a tattoo of some sort, a purple line that encircled her brown, scaly leg.

“So, I’m Molly,” she said, holding out her hand. “Not quite how I’d hoped to meet you.”

Cat wiped her own hand on the back of her shorts and held it out.

“Gently, if you don’t mind,” Molly said. After shaking, she held her palm up for Cat to see. “I’m what they call a frequent voter.”

“Looks like you need a lesson on haggling, I’d say. Or at least on stocking up before an election.” Cat smiled at her, looking her up and down before shaking her head. “You was just a baby when I saw you last. Hand couldn’t wrap around my finger.”

Molly froze, the column of cool water splashing from the hose to the dirt. “Do I know you?” she whispered.

“Naw. Just saw you the once, after you was born.”

There was a sound down the alley, a banging and rattling noise like the lid of a garbage can falling. Cat leaned out and looked around the dumpster while Walter hissed with alarm.

“Probably a night glyph, but we should keep trucking. Can you walk? Them two boys behind the counter won’t be out forever, and I’m certain they’ll come looking for us. Especially after how we left their friends.”

Molly nodded and let Cat help her up. “Do you have a place nearby?” she asked Cat. “My ship might not be safe.”

“No. No place. No need, really.” She frowned at Molly. “Look, I knew your dad, and for him I’m glad to help you out. But once I get you tucked away someplace, I have a few things I wanna look into. Starting with that election joint.”

“Of course,” Molly said. “And I’ll—”

Cat raised her hand. “All I’m sayin’ is that I don’t have time for helping you track down your past, if that’s why you came hunting for me—”

“No, that’s not why—”

“There’s a lot I’d rather forget than stir up, is what I mean. And if the galaxy’s endin’ soon, you’re not gonna get a lotta complaints from me.”

Molly shook her head. “It’s not like that. I just need help getting in touch with a group of people. My mom said you’d know where to start, maybe introduce me.”

Walter popped out of the shadows, tugging on Molly and Cat. “Let’ss go,” he hissed, looking down the alley.

Cat nodded and pointed the way, causing Walter to scurry off into the shadows. Molly watched him go, marveling at how at-home he seemed in the dark, grimy alley. Cat pulled her along, her gait light and full of bounce, especially for someone who had just taken such a brutal beating. Molly racked her memory for information on Callites, whether they healed faster than Humans. She was pretty sure they didn’t.

“Wait a second,” Molly said, pulling Cat to a stop. “Exactly what are you?”

Cat laughed. “What am I? If I wasn’t what I seemed, would I tell you?”

“I don’t know,” Molly said. “It’s just… I’ve seen some things lately that didn’t turn out how I’d hoped. Men that weren’t really men—”

Cat took a step closer. “Listen, you need to up and run if you suspect shit like that. Don’t stand around gabbing—”

“Are you with the Bern?” Molly took a step back as soon as she heard herself utter the question. She looked around for Walter, her thoughts flitting to the last humanoid she’d encountered with godly powers and an uncanny resemblance to what he wasn’t.

Cat moved swiftly and seized Molly by the shoulders. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?

Molly attempted to pull away, but the woman’s vice-like grip held her firm and seemed to confirm what she was thinking—

“No, I’m not one of them,” Cat said. She let go and slapped Molly on the shoulder. “Now, c’mon. Walk and talk.”

Molly hesitated, rubbing her shoulder. Something rattled in the alley behind her, and she found herself hurrying forward, catching up with the mysterious woman.

“What are you, then?”

“What does it look like?” Cat peered over at her. “I’m a sodden Callite, that’s what. Well, mostly, I think.”

“You think?”

“You were born on Lok, weren’t you? How old were you when your pops took off?”

“Six. And yeah, I was born here. Almost on the other side of the planet, though.”

“Yeah, I know the place. Hell, maybe you were too young to remember, but Lok is a crazy place. There’s shit in the water.”

Molly looked over her shoulder at the receding pool of light by the dumpster. She spit to the side, the taste of the water from the hose already nasty with the hint of someone else’s blood.

Cat laughed. “Little late for that. Besides, it takes a lot before something goes wrong. And the city probably treats their shit.”

“You cuss an awful lot,” Molly pointed out.

“Yeah, well I fell in with some Drenards and I’ve been to hyperspace. Kinda narrows the expletive vocab, you know? Gotta go with the archaic shh— stuff.” Cat cupped her hands around her mouth. “Little man,” she hissed. “Next left.”

“You’ve been to hyperspace?” Molly felt her heart skip a beat; she hurried up beside Cat. “I—that’s why I came to find you. I need to get there myself.”

“What? Why’d you wanna go there? That place’ll give you one helluva migraine.”

Molly wasn’t sure what her mom wanted her divulging, but she felt like she was already erring on the side of un-caution just by being near the alien.

“My dad’s there,” she said. “Maybe a friend of mine as well.”

“Mortimor? What in the galaxy’s he doing there? Thought he slunk back to Earth years ago.”

Molly shook her head. “I don’t know.” She followed as Cat turned down another side-alley. “I’ve been told we need some special fuel.”

Cat laughed. “Yeah. That, and a hyperdrive that don’t exist. Speaking of which, you wanted to know what was in the water?”

“I have the hyperdrive, I think.”

“What?” Cat pulled Molly to a stop, right in the middle of the narrow side-alley. Molly looked to the side and saw Walter’s diminutive silhouette framed by another well-lit and busy street.

“You have the hyperdrive?”

The hyperdrive?” Molly repeated. “I don’t even know what that means. But according to this Byrne guy, I think I opened the hole above Palan that my mom escaped from.”

“Your mom? Parsona? Ain’t she a little… dead?”

“The ship,” Molly said, realizing it would be easier to introduce them than explain it.

“Oh, that Parsona.” Cat gave her a brief, concerned glance, as if she were thinking it’s not healthy to anthropomorphize ships to such a degree. Instead of saying anything, however, she simply turned and gazed down the dark alley for a moment. “Well, if you say you opened a door like that, then you must have the drive.” She laughed to herself, shaking her head. “Damn, that’s a clever place to put it. Ryke must’ve rebuilt it though, or someone would’ve noticed.”

Molly froze. She had a flashback to the smelly guy in her ship pointing out something in the engine room to one of his Callite partners.

“Shit,” she said, tasting the old word, which mixed well with the after-taste of the foul rag. “I think we might have a problem.”

“What’s that?” Cat asked, following along as Molly hurried off toward Walter.

“The guys on my ship,” she said, “I think they know about the drive!”

She broke out into a trot, her head balanced on the knife edge of worry and woozy.

Cat came running up alongside her—the alien’s strides easy and effortless. “These guys you keep mentioning,” she said, “they didn’t happen to smell like raw death by any chance, did they?”

28

Edison grunted and stood up from another of the Bern computers. “Complete data destruction,” he said. “I hypothesize demagnetization.”

Anlyn frowned and stepped close to the control station’s carboglass window. Looking out, she could see their borrowed Bern ship locked to the end of the long coupling corridor. After the first few computers were found perfectly clean, she had assumed they all would be. Edison, bless him, thought the sampling size was “statistically insignificant,” and had insisted they check several more.

“Are you satisfied?” she asked, smiling at his reflection in the glass.

“They scuttled their endeavor completely,” he said.

Anlyn nodded. “Which still leaves us wondering if they gave up or just changed tactics.”

“I disagree.”

Anlyn turned to give him her full attention. Edison spoke while removing the battery and power inverter he’d been using to temporarily juice up the computers. “The Bern abstained from fleeing this structure in haste, nor did they sulk off in defeat. They methodically scrubbed everything.” Edison aimed a claw at a patch of the rubberized decking. “Impressions there and there indicate removed equipment containing much mass. Equipment repurposed elsewhere.”

“Yeah, but where? And why leave this place unguarded?”

Edison gestured beyond Anlyn. “Visualize. These structures are devoid of defenses. No impediments to movement, no blockades, all open vectors of sight, all engineered for offense, a launching pad for unbridled attack.”

Anlyn frowned. “With no worry of reprisal?” she asked.

Edison shook his head. “Without Drenardian fear,” he said. “More parallel to a Glemot’s clinical precision. You must cogitate as a Bern.”

Anlyn gazed back out the window, imagining the way she would set things up if she were expecting an attack. Edison was right. Her side of the rift was purely defensive, and she couldn’t help but think that way. For generations, her people had held the lines, learning how to build trenches that never budged. This side was all seek-and-destroy.

“It still doesn’t make sense to leave in such a hurry,” she said. “You think they just jumped into a star because it gave them a way around our barrier? Then why didn’t we hear about them from Bishar? Surely if an invasion had begun he’d have been notified by the Circle.”

“You’ve stated the exact quandary I’ve been pondering.”

Edison came over and rested a hand on Anlyn’s shoulder. “What becomes of interstellar craft that hyperjump into preexisting mass?”

Anlyn shrugged and lifted her empty hands, palm up. “They disappear?”

“Precisely, but to what location?”

“Nobody knows—they never come back.”

“Include this variable: assume the Bern determined a reliable method for returning.”

“Returning from where?”

“Hyperspace.”

Anlyn frowned. “Hyperspace isn’t a place, though, is it? It’s just a made-up name. An idea.”

“That is one possibility, statistically likely, perhaps. However, something interconnects point A to all possible point C’s. Travel requires existence. Movement must be analog, not digital. Objects occupy all states between.”

Anlyn scrunched up her face, trying to follow along. “The point B’s, you mean?”

“Correct. It’s not theoretically impossible that myriad such points constitute a physical place hyperjumpers travel through. If that supposition is correct, one logical conclusion could also explain—”

“What happens to bad navigators,” Anlyn finished for him. “So, if you accidentally jump into another object, you get inside hyperspace and you can’t come out. Like something is blocking your way.”

“Theoretically,” Edison said.

“Okay, so you’re stuck somewhere. Won’t your oxygen run out?”

“Probably. Perhaps hyperspace consists of a junkyard of failed navigational attempts, derelict ships drifting throughout a large void similar to the vacuum of space but without the stars. Survivors could temporarily resort to looting, taking by force oxygen and spares from recent arrivals—”

Anlyn laughed. “Is this a real theory, or an idea for a holovid? Sounds to me like wishful thinking on your part.”

“Incorrect. I’m being scientifically rational—”

“I can totally see you as a hyperspace pirate,” Anlyn said, squeezing his arm. “You’d be ferocious, and have the best ship with all these spare parts cobbled together. And a peg-leg!”

Edison flashed his teeth. “Humorous visual, but I am being unbiased and logical. Dwell on the theory and compare it to our observations. The Bern deduced something new about hyperspace, found a primal door that opens all others. Is that not what hyperspace is?”

“Nobody knows what hyperspace is,” Anlyn said.

“We know some. We know one can travel extreme distances through-out our galaxy. If it connects all that space, it logically follows it could connect even more. Perhaps we heard nothing of an invasion because the Bern are preparing their attack from within hyperspace. Perhaps they’re building structures similar to this one. Perhaps, when they attack, it’ll be from every possible vector at once—”

Edison’s eyes flashed, his fur bristling with all the signs Anlyn had come to recognize as him having an idea.

“That explains the most confounding variable! They do not calculate it necessary to be here because they can return at any time of their choosing. Instantaneously. Setting up in hyperspace is synonymous with setting up everywhere. They are here, by all practical military measures. More crucially, their raid could target Bishar and the Great Rift from hyperspace with less effort than from these obsolete stations. Perhaps—”

“These are a lot of ‘perhaps,’ coming from you.”

“Perhaps,” Edison said, smiling. “And perhaps we should forget the prophecy and our previously stated mission of peace. Transmitting word back to the Circle becomes direr, or ascertaining the Bern fleet’s location and effecting an ambush before they diverge along too many vectors to defend.”

“I don’t know,” Anlyn said. She looked out the glass, mulling it over. In the distance, the armored wall of the Great Rift could be seen, the gold glimmering like a nearby star. It felt strange to see an object residing in her own galaxy while her home was so impossibly distant and inaccessible.

She looked at the foreign design of the ship they had become stranded in. Massive and black, with menacing barrels and rocket pods, its fearsome demeanor hid its toothless condition. She looked down the hull at the strange squiggles adorning it.

“What’s its name?” she asked Edison.

“Increase specificity.”

“The ship,” she said, pointing. “What’s it called?”

Edison gazed out with her. “The Exponent,” he said.

“The Exponent,” she repeated. “How coincidental is that?”

“I believe ‘ironical’ is the correct term. Exponent is a mathematical notation for enormous numbers, and we are but two. It also pertains to rapid growth, and barring advances in xenobiology, such is statistically unlikely for us.”

Anlyn smiled and shook her head. “That’s what I love about English. So many words have multiple meanings, the reader ends up injecting some of their own. Like the Bern Prophecy, for instance.”

Edison grunted. “That’s what I loathe about the language. English can be imprecise when wielded improperly. It leads to conversational derailments such as this.”

“I don’t see a derailment—I see a detour. And where you see a mathematical notation, I see a deeper meaning, a coincidence that’s hard to ignore.” Anlyn turned and faced her love. “Exponent can also mean a person who brings forth a new or great idea. Like maybe the one you just had about hyperspace.”

Edison frowned down at her. She leaned close and wrapped her arms around his waist, resting her head against his tunic. “I think we need to test your theory, and that scares me,” she said.

Edison lightly stroked her back with his massive paws. They both looked to the side, out through the glass to the quiet cosmos beyond.

“I’m unable to deduce a reason for your frightened state,” Edison said. He smiled at Anlyn’s reflection. “Calculate the statistical likelihood of my incorrectness.”

29

“Hello? Son, can you hear me?”

Cole cracked his eyes. There were no goggles, no bright, searing light from everywhere, just the soft warmth of artificial bulbs. Two men leaned over him. One of them he recognized but couldn’t place. He had short hair and a generic-looking face. Very generic, like Cole had seen a hundred people who looked just like him.

The other man seemed slightly familiar as well. Cole blinked and attempted to bring them into focus. The second figure had wavy brown hair and a neatly trimmed beard, both laced with gray. Cole felt he should know their names.

“Can you hear me?” the man with the beard asked.

Cole nodded.

He looked around and saw the same room from his last dream: beds and curtains and white walls.

“Can you move your arm?”

Cole watched the lips move, forming the words. It all seemed to be happening at a normal pace. Very un-dream-like. He smiled up at the men.

“Your arm, son, can you move it?”

Cole raised his left arm. He tried to make a fist, but it felt weak and tingly, like he’d been asleep a long time.

The generic-looking man smiled. “The other one,” he said.

Cole continued to admire his own hand while the other arm came up. He lifted his head and stared at it in disbelief. It wasn’t his. Flaps of skin hung open like fleshy shutters. Inside, small pistons, bundles of wiring, metal plates—they moved at his command. He traced the mechanics down past a hinged elbow until it met his own flesh, the two slightly different colors of dark skin adjoining in a neat line.

“Very good,” someone said.

But it wasn’t good. It wasn’t good at all. Cole tried to sit up, but several hands forced him down. He tried to complain, but a mask was placed over his face. He took a deep breath to protect himself from whatever was about to happen. He looked up at the man holding the mask and tried to remember where he knew the guy.

Dakura! The guy was a Stanley! Cole gasped in disbelief—then he found himself hoping and praying that all his nightmares had been dreams, some simulated hell—

All he got for the sudden intake of air, however, was a heaping lungful of the stuff from the mask…

••••

He came to again, but in a different room. Sitting up, the various visions mixed together, confusing and piecemeal: his own face reflected in a visor, a boy he had murdered so many years ago, a girl with fiery red hair—

Cole looked down at the black bedsheets draped over him and the cot beneath. Glancing up, he saw an IV dripping fluids into his arm. Beyond, rows of elevated cots stretched down the narrow room, most of them full of still figures with their own IVs and breathing machines. Two doctors stood by one of the cots, obviously working on someone. Tools clattered on a tray; their heads remained bowed in concentration. One of them whispered commands to the other, calm but insistent.

Cole looked at the needle taped to his left arm. He turned and studied his right one. It appeared perfectly normal. He couldn’t keep all the nightmares straight, couldn’t sort out the real from the unreal. He hoped Riggs was part of the latter. It certainly hadn’t felt real at the time. But then, some things he knew to be dreams had felt incredibly, indelibly real…

Hoping to sort the true from the fake, Cole tapped along his right arm with the pads of his fingers. He came across tendons, but they felt strange and unyielding. He felt the same part of his other arm, just to make sure. Completely different. Except that he could sense stuff through this other hand, could feel with the pads of the fingers as if they were real. He was pretty sure that sort of thing was still science fiction.

Cole pulled the sheets back and discovered he wore the barest of coverings: a surgical gown made of some thin material. He started to swing his legs off the cot to see if he could stand, when an alien groan emanated from the body next to him. Cole watched the bulky form stir slightly beneath its black sheets, then fall still.

When he looked back to the doctors, he saw one of them looking his way. It was a Stanley, there wasn’t any doubt. He held up a gloved hand—blue latex dappled with blood—and said something to the other person, the doctor whose back was to Cole.

When she spun around, Cole recognized the hair immediately. It was mostly tucked away under the hood of the surgical gown, but bright, red trails of it hung down over the white, making the splattered blood on her gown seem pale and lifeless by comparison. The girl’s eyes met his for a brief instant—then she dashed out of the room, leaving the Stanley to continue his work alone.

Cole grabbed his pillow and sat upright. He then became distracted by his arm, as it had done what he’d asked without him having to think about it. He held it up again and flexed his fingers one at a time. The girl and another man strode into the room, both of them visible between his new digits.

It was the man with the beard. Cole tried to place his face as he crossed the room; the girl went right back to helping the Stanley.

“Where am I?” Cole asked, as the figure approached his bed.

The man ignored the question. He grabbed a stool from beside another cot and rolled it next to Cole’s before sitting down.

Cole realized who he was, the sudden recognition hitting him like a bullet. He remembered seeing the man’s face—a younger face—in pictures aboard Parsona.

“Mortimor?”

The man nodded. “It’s Cole, right? You’re the kid I spoke to over the D-band?” Mortimor glanced at Cole’s new hand. “I’d offer to shake your hand, but let’s wait until you get used to using it.”

Cole pushed himself back on the cot, sitting up even more as he tried to clear his head. “You’re Molly’s—you’re her father,” he said.

Mortimor frowned. “I know you’ve been through a lot, but we’ve got some problems, and I need answers. Let’s start with who you are and how you got here. Then I’d like to hear how you know Molly and where she is. Also, I need to know where that Drenardian band is you were thinking through the other day. I know it’s a lot to dump on you, but we don’t have a lot of time, if we have any.”

Cole swiped his hair off his forehead and tried to swallow, but his mouth felt dry, his tongue swollen. “Can I get some water?” he asked.

“Penny!” Mortimor snapped his fingers. “Some water,” he said, after she turned.

She rushed off, and Mortimor turned back to Cole. “Is Molly okay? How do you know her? And why were you wearing one of my flightsuits?”

“We found the ship,” Cole said.

“Parsona?”

Cole nodded.

“How—?” Mortimor stared at the wall beyond Cole. “What about the man aboard the ship?”

Cole shook his head. “No one was aboard. But we did… we found what was in the ship. The hidden thing.”

Mortimor narrowed his eyes, and Cole suddenly felt trapped in one of those situations where two people both know a secret, but don’t know how to tell the other person they know without giving the secret away in case they don’t.

Where did you find it?” Mortimor asked, obviously feeling caught in the same snare.

Cole chose his words carefully: “In the chart data.”

Mortimor nodded, but something else seemed to flash behind his eyes. Relief?

“Did you serve with Molly? You seem a bit young.”

“We were cadets together. At the Academy.” Cole looked up as the girl reentered the room. More of her hair had come loose as she hurried to the cot. She held a glass of water in her bare hands, her gloves pulled off. Cole felt a wave of guilty excitement from seeing her. He noted her freckles and the way her cheeks were flushed from the rapid walk. He barely managing to nod his thanks as he reached for the glass—

“Ah… left hand,” Mortimor said, pointing.

Cole obeyed. He smiled at the girl, who turned away quickly, hurrying back to Stanley. Cole took a long swig from the glass, dribbling some down his chin. He went to wipe it off his mouth with his right hand, but Mortimor grabbed his wrist.

“Careful,” he said. “People tend to hurt themselves at first, even with the temporary limiters.” He reached down and used part of Cole’s sheet to dabble at the moisture on his chin. The way he did it—like a doctor tending to a patient—suddenly made Cole feel like a useless invalid.

“You’ll need some therapy,” Mortimor said. “Some training. First, though, back to Molly…”

“Yeah.” Cole took another sip of water and swallowed. “We were flight partners in the Academy. I was sent with her to get the ship. Everything went to hell from the beginning—”

“Byrne?” Mortimor asked.

“What? No, that came after. Hell, I just found out about him. You do know he’s here, right?”

Mortimor nodded.

“Okay, no, our problems started on Palan, some pirates there—”

Palan? What in the galaxy were you doing on Palan?”

“That’s—that’s where the ship was. I don’t know what—”

“No, that’s fine.” Mortimor shook his head. He looked back to the Stanley, who was peering over his patient at their conversation. “So, I imagine Parsona told you what needed doing. Where did things go wrong? On Dakura? Lok? Is Molly okay?”

“Go wrong?”

Cole looked for some place to set the glass, then gave up. “Things went wrong everywhere.” He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. “We barely got out of Palan alive, we committed genocide on our way back to Earth, the Navy framed me and we had to kill Lucin—”

“What?” Mortimor pushed away from Cole’s cot, a wary eye on his right arm. “Two guards!” he shouted to Stanley. Several of the nearby forms stirred from the outburst.

Cole held up both hands. “No, that—it wasn’t like that. He was about to shoot Molly, I swear. He’s the guy who set us up, who had us go get your ship.”

Mortimor squinted at Cole. Two aliens ran into the room dressed in Navy black, reaching for weapons at their sides. Mortimor held up his hand, keeping them at bay.

“How did you end up here?”

“I don’t know. Molly and I split up on our way to Lok. I made a jump. I was in a Firehawk with a friend—”

Cole stopped, whatever words he had queued up next shattered in a spasm of anguish. He thought of Riggs, dead by his own hands.

It had been real. That part had been very, very real.

He leaned forward, rested his face into both palms, and began to cry. There was no escaping into his skull this time—no shrinking down and getting away from it. There was nobody to hurt, to take it out on. There was just the shame and the depression, the guilt and the torment, wrapping their tentacles around him, squeezing the air out of his chest.

“Leave us,” he heard Mortimor say.

Cole tried to remember where he was, to get a grip on himself, but the scramble for sanity just made him fall even faster. He sobbed into his hands, the tears dripping through his fingers.

“My friend—” he croaked, his voice high and embarrassing.

Mortimor came to him, placed a hand on his shoulder. “Take your time,” he said.

“My friend’s legs,” Cole sobbed.

“Shhhh. I know. It’s okay, son.”

Cole shook his head and swallowed. He licked the salt from his lips. “It’s not okay,” he mumbled. “Nothing’s okay. Molly—” He pushed his hands up through his hair, clenching fistfuls until the roots tingled with pain.

“Where is she?” Mortimor whispered.

The question hung in the air between them, between two strangers. They knew almost nothing of each other, but they both orbited that same drifting unknown, that haunting absence in both their lives. For Cole, the question opened some internal hatch holding back all his atmosphere, and the vacuum sucked at it. His body quaked with grief as a moan unlike any he’d ever uttered welled up and out.

Mortimor wrapped his arms around Cole and pulled his head to his shoulder. Cole latched on and cried even harder, a thousand horrible things dragging their claws across his insides as they were yanked through that newly opened hatch. He cried and fought it, trying to keep them in. Shame and guilt, they tore through him, far more powerful than the embarrassment of breaking down in front of a stranger.

••••

Mortimor waited. Despite his sense of urgency, he let the lad have it out. He could very well imagine the things the boy had been through. While the young man’s frame shuddered with agony, he looked around the room protectively. He looked to the others in their cots, to their heads lifting from pillows, their faces full of empathy and regret. Mortimor clenched his jaw and didn’t say a word—he just let the boy have his cry.

It was all he could do to not join in.

30

“Did they smell like raw death?” Molly repeated. “They smelled worse than that!”

She hurried alongside Cat, wondering what the Callite knew about the people on her ship. And worried about what they might know about the mysterious hyperdrive within it.

The two of them left the dark alley and crossed the main road leading out of town. They angled toward the stables, cutting between two more buildings and running past Walter, who had become distracted in front of an electronics boutique. Finally, they darted into another alley to get out of the glow of the streetlights, the blood on them both conspicuous. They jogged along the side road parallel to the bustling strip Molly had walked down earlier that day.

“Are they—will they steal my ship?” she asked Cat, panting between the words.

“Depends.”

“They said they knew my father, does that narrow things down?” Molly glanced back and urged Walter along. Then something occurred to her—and she felt like she was going to throw up. Reaching up to her neck, she felt the empty air there, and had a sensation like she was missing some part of herself.

“The Wadi!” She stopped and yelled back to Walter, who jogged up to join them, panting. “Where is she?”

Walter’s eyes widened. He reached down and unzipped something on his flightsuit, and her Wadi burst out amid a cloud of colorful confetti like a cannonball followed by fake, pixelated smoke. It leapt to the ground and ran to Molly, scampering up to her neck and sticking its head down the back of her shirt. Molly’s heart nearly burst with relief. She kept one hand on its back and rubbed the stubble of Walter’s head.

“You’re the best,” she said, stooping over to kiss his forehead.

Behind her, Cat clapped her hands. “The ship?” she said.

Molly turned and nodded, and the three of them set off at a jog, the Wadi’s claws digging into her skin as it held on.

“The Callites are huge,” Molly warned Cat. “Bigger than the guy beating you up at that blood-letting place.”

“Won’t be a problem,” Cat said.

Lots bigger,” she added, trying not to sound winded.

“Trust me,” Cat said, her voice even and smooth. “It won’t be a problem.”

They ran along in silence for a while, the buildings thinning as they reached the outskirts of town. Ahead, Molly could see the beginnings of the stables. Most of the ships had their anchor lights on, red over white up the back of their tails or on extended rods for the ships that eschewed tails altogether. Molly berated herself for having not turned hers on; but then, she hadn’t expected to be out all day.

“Where’re you parked?” Cat asked.

“Other side of the johns.” Molly pointed in the general direction, but didn’t need to. They were downwind from them and could’ve nosed their way in the dark. “What’s the plan?” she asked. “Should we get Pete for backup?”

Cat laughed. “He’d get in the way. The plan is for you to wait outside and for me to go in and handle it. I’ll try not to get blood all inside your ship.”

Molly wasn’t sure what to make of that. They ran past a few ships, ducking under wings here and there to cut down the distance. She yelled back at Walter to watch a power cord snaking from one of the pedestals toward a ship, then heard him trip over it and bite the dust, anyway.

“The loading ramp was down when I left, but I don’t— there!” Molly reached for Cat, trying to slow her up. “That’s her right there.”

Cat held up her hand. “I see her,” she said. “Wait outside.”

Molly nodded; she followed behind as Cat ran to the ship. She stopped just outside—close enough to hear what was going on. Walter caught up, dusting himself off as Cat disappeared up the boarding ramp. The two crewmembers crouched in the shadows, panting and looking at each other with wide eyes. The Wadi leaned over from Molly’s shoulder and hissed at Walter, the first time she’d ever seen it do that.

“No,” she whispered to the animal. She turned the other direction and peeked around the corner and into the cargo bay. She hated the idea of waiting and letting someone else take the risk alone; she felt on the verge of going in to investigate, when Cat came back down the ramp, her posture relaxed.

“Are they gone?” Molly asked.

Cat shook her head. “No, they’re sleeping—”

“Good! Then we can take them by surprise. I can rig up a taser from the twenty-four volt panel, hit them with wires—”

Cat waved her off. “No doing,” she said. “I know these guys.”

“You know them?”

“Yeah,” Cat said, nodding. “Old friends of mine. And they’re exhausted, so why don’t I introduce you in the morning?”

Introduce me? I want them off my ship!”

Cat leaned her head to one side. “I doubt that,” she said. “These are the people you’ve been wanting to meet.”

••••

Molly woke up in the pilot’s chair sideways, her feet over the control console. She had an awful crick in her neck and a Wadi on it—the creature was curled up under her chin and snoring contentedly. Dawn had come and gone, the sun fully up and heating the cockpit, giving her the headache she always suffered from rising late.

She moved the Wadi to the back of her seat before sitting up and rubbing her eyes. The first thing she noticed was that she was starving. Secondly, that the nav chair was empty. She leaned forward and turned on the cargo cam, then grabbed the helmet behind her. When the vid screen came up, she saw Walter pulling the galley apart to cook breakfast.

“Morning,” she said into her helmet, greeting her mom.

“Morning, sweetheart. Are you feeling better?”

Molly adjusted the volume and pulled the visor shut to muffle her own voice.

“Yeah, sorry I couldn’t talk more last night. I was on empty.”

“Literally, from the sound of it. Sweetheart, before we do anything else, we need to look into this election place, find out who else has disappeared. This could—it could go back to one of the cases your father and I were working on.”

“Really? What would the elections have to do with fusion fuel?”

“Nothing, but when your father and I were stationed here, our main investigation kept getting sidetracked by a never-ending string of missing persons cases.”

“I remember you telling me that. Well, the other you. On Dakura.” Molly paused, trying to remember some things and forget others. “Do you think I just avoided becoming one of those missing people?”

“I don’t know. It wasn’t an election year when we arrived, and yet some of the cases went back several years and were pretty steady. Maybe this is something different.”

“Maybe they preserve the blood,” Molly said. “They could steal it over time and then flood the polls with votes.”

“That’s what I don’t understand about what they did to you. The tally machines don’t work that way, otherwise donor banks would run dry every six years. The machines do skin conductance readings to make sure the voter is present, and they look for chemicals in the blood that have a very short shelf life, hormones and what-not.”

“Well, the boxes in that place were marked ‘Votes,’ and Walter said the building was some kind of election joint.”

“Which is how I would hide blood if I were stealing it,” Parsona said.

“Stealing it for what?” Molly asked, exasperated. “Why do you have to make everything more complicated?”

Her mom didn’t reply, and Molly regretted the outburst. She looked down at the Wadi, who had crawled into her lap and was looking up at her, a pink tongue spiraling in the air between them.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that,” Molly said.

“It’s okay. I probably deserve worse.”

“No. You don’t.” Molly held the sides of her helmet and groaned. “This is just too much for me to handle, I think I… I need Cole, or somebody. Can we just go to hyperspace, find him and dad, just deal with all this other stuff later?”

“I think that’s a good idea, actually. We’ll talk about it after breakfast.” The cargo cam panned up toward the crew quarters, drawing Molly’s attention. “Walter’s cooking is waking the ship.”

Molly watched as two of the squatters emerged from their bunks. Her bunks, she corrected herself.

Molly flipped up her visor. “I’m gonna send Cat up here and have her put on Walter’s helmet. I haven’t told her about you, so break it however you like. Hopefully the two of you can figure out what to do next—I don’t think I can handle being in charge of this.”

“I need to talk to her anyway, find out how soon we can fill up with fusion fuel. Now, go drink plenty of juice, okay? I don’t want you doing anything for the next few days besides resting up and recharging.”

Molly mumbled a promise before popping off her helmet. She left it in the nav chair with the visor open and shooed the Wadi into what had become its favorite home. She crawled over the controls and exited the cockpit, entering a fog of tasty aromas.

“Good morning, guys.” She nodded warily to the two men, then squeezed Walter on the shoulder as he tended a skillet layered with popping meat.

Scottie tipped a non-existent hat at her. “You must’ve come in late. Sure left in a flash.” He crossed the cargo space toward the galley, and Molly saw he was wearing one of Cole’s favorite t-shirts, his bulk stretching it near to bursting. The sight of it on him undid everything the smell of breakfast was attempting with her tastebuds. It also made it easy to forget that these were the people she needed to associate with.

“I’m Scottie,” he said, holding out his hand toward Walter.

Walter shrugged and held up two cooking utensils, as if putting them down to shake would entail some exhausting ordeal. “Walter,” he mumbled back, the sizzle of frying meat almost hiding the annoyed hiss that came after.

“This is Urg,” Scottie said, patting the large Callite on the back. Molly recognized him as the near-mute from the day before. Nods were exchanged. She marveled at how close the Callite came to filling one of Edison’s flightsuits. Seeing these strangers in her crew’s clothing sent ripples up and down her flesh. A full day of loathing these men had built up some sort of venom within her. Being told that these were the people she’d been looking for wasn’t much of an antidote. She felt slightly nauseas from their presence—so much so, it took a while to notice their stench had disappeared.

“You guys figured the showers out?” she asked, rounding up mugs for everyone.

“Yeah,” Scottie said. “I really appreciate you letting us shack up here and get cleaned up. We’ve had… some real troubles the past week or so.”

“Well, you’re more than welcome to stay for one more night, but we need to work out a different bunk arrangement. You guys can double-up or someone can sleep out here. Oh, and once we top up with fuel, we’ll be moving on, so it’s best you start looking for something more permanent.”

Scottie glanced at Urg. They both accepted cups of instant coffee from Molly.

“Additives are in the fridge,” she told them. “I’m gonna get Cat up, but your other friend can sleep as long as he likes.” She headed across the cargo bay.

“Oh, Ryn’s not in there. He left early this morning to… take care of some things. Should be back by noon.”

Molly waved over her shoulder to let him know she’d heard, but continued to Walter’s room. She keyed the door open and turned the lights on dim. Cat was sitting up in the bunk with her legs crossed, staring at the door.

“Morning,” Molly said, wondering how long she’d been sitting like that.

“Morning. Everyone else up?”

“Yeah. Coffee’s the instant kind. Breakfast’ll be ready soon.”

Cat popped up and stepped toward her. Her hair was wet, as if she’d recently showered. She had on the clothes Molly had set out for her. In the dim light, her face looked flawless, or unscathed at least, a very far cry from how Molly had first seen her. She also looked small in a plain shirt and shorts. Her wiry muscles seemed lean with their definition hidden. Molly wouldn’t have given her a second glance in a crowd, even with the bright hair knotted back on her head.

“Hey,” Molly said, “before you do anything else, I need you to go to the cockpit and talk to someone.”

Cat lowered her brow to something between curious and wary. “Who?”

“There’s a helmet on the starboard rack. Just put it on, the mic is still live. And don’t be alarmed if the door shuts behind you, okay?”

Cat narrowed her eyes but nodded. She headed toward the cockpit while Molly checked in on the other rooms to make sure everything was intact. The engine room, especially.

When she got back to the cargo bay, a plate piled high with meat and eggs was waiting on her. She grabbed a few pieces of bread and took one of the empty crewseats, pulling out the table in the handrest. Everyone else had already dove in, filling the room with contented, smacking sounds. Molly watched them eat, wondering why she felt so alone with so many people on the ship. She also marveled at how she could possibly feel anything other than ravenous.

She ate slowly, forcing everything down. She had to remember her promise to her mom and her pragmatic need for sustenance—her appetite simply wasn’t there anymore. Walter set a glass of local juice on her tray. She took a sip, then touched her arm around the bandaid, wincing at the bruised and sore feeling that had spread from the needle. She couldn’t tell if it had gotten worse overnight, or if it was getting better.

“You okay?” Scottie asked.

Molly glanced up. “Cat didn’t say anything about last night?”

“Only that attendance was light and she didn’t find many takers at the pub.”

Molly watched him take another large bite and chew voraciously. Beside him, Urg continued to cut his food into tiny pieces and eat them with careful, steady precision, chewing subtly before swallowing. Molly wondered why Cat hadn’t said anything about her ordeal—if it was a trust issue, or just a result of the late hour.

“What’s she doing in the cockpit?” Scottie asked.

Molly shrugged. “I hope she’s lining up a tank of fuel.” She stabbed blindly at a bite of food and watched Scottie and Urg glance at one another. “You wouldn’t know where I could find some, would you?”

Scottie took a bite of his toast and made a show of chewing, but he was obviously considering how best to answer.

“I might know someone,” he said around a mouthful of masticated bread. He swallowed. “I have to warn you, though, the price has gone up considerably.”

Molly looked over at Walter, who was following the conversation closely. “I can pay,” she said.

“I’d be surprised. It’s gone up a lot.” Scottie smiled and jabbed his fork in her direction. “I think we could work something out, though. Barter with something besides cash.”

  Molly felt her throat constrict with disgust, even though she had no idea what he was talking about.

“Bartering goess through me,” Walter said, leaning forward from his seat.

Scottie looked from Molly to him, then back again. He raised his eyebrows and took a loud sip from his coffee.

“Give me a price before you tell me we can’t pay,” Molly said.

“The price,” he said, setting down his mug, “is the use of your ship for a few weeks.”

Molly slapped her fork to her plate, then grabbed her armrest and squeezed so tight, it felt like her hand would lock there forever. She found it difficult to unclench her jaw to reply, so she hissed through her teeth: “Never.”

Scottie smiled and held up his fists—a knife in one and a fork in the other. “It’d be for a good cause,” he said. “You’d be helping a lot of people out.”

“There are other people needing my help more. Tell you what, you give me a tank of fuel and I’ll come back in a week and you can ask my dad to use his ship.”

“I thought it was your ship,” said Scottie.

Our ship. Same thing. Look—” Molly released the armrest and grabbed her napkin. She dabbed the corners of her mouth with it. “I’ve been traipsing across Lok for two weeks looking for some of this fuel. I don’t have time for—”

“For my people,” Urg said quietly.

Molly looked over to the Callite, his broken silence stunning her into one of her own.

“You haven’t been here when one of the shuttles goes up, have you?” Scottie asked.

Molly shook her head, but then she remembered the craft she and Walter had seen lift off from the café. “Did one go up yesterday?” she asked.

Scottie nodded.

“I saw it,” she said. “And you say it was a shuttle?”

“An immigrations shuttle. During election years, they round up Callites with expired work permits and ship them home.”

“But that’s the law, right?”

Scottie frowned. He reached over and rested a hand on Urg’s arm, even though the Callite didn’t seem to be making an effort to rise, or even speak.

“Things aren’t right or wrong because they’re the law. They’re supposed to be the law because they’re right or wrong.”

“Look,” Molly said. She pushed her eggs away from her toast, but her meager appetite had dwindled to nothing. “I don’t want to argue politics, or whatever. I’m not trying to be a crusader. I just want to get back to my family. Surely you can understand—”

“I do,” said Urg. “I understand.”

Molly glanced up and locked eyes with the massive Callite; she watched his lids scissor shut in a slow blink.

“I want my family back as well,” he said.

“Can’t you just go home to them?” Molly asked. “That’s all I’m trying to do, get back with my family.”

Urg shook his head.

“They were on yesterday’s shuttle,” Scottie said.

Molly looked back and forth between them. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she whispered. “Maybe it would be best if he just—”

“The shuttle was shot down by that fleet up there,” Scottie continued. “The last four shuttles have all been sent crashing straight back to Lok, no shots fired, nothing. They just go limp and fall back to the prairie. It’s like they get halfway to orbit and just give up.”

Molly looked from Scottie to Urg, disbelieving. “It crashed?

“All of them have for the last two weeks.”

“With people on them?”

Scottie leaned forward slightly. “My two friends should’ve been on that last one. With their families.”

Molly looked down at her plate where she had idly swirled her food into a miserable mess.

“I didn’t know,” she said.

“They won’t stop,” Scottie said. “They’ll round up more today and more the day after, right up to the elections.”

“But why would they—?” Molly shook her head. Surely they wouldn’t. She dropped her fork and reached for the bandage around the crook of her arm, rubbing it reflexively. Looking down at the red skin spreading out from the puncture wound, she considered that they possibly would.

“It’s the same to them,” said Urg, as he shrugged his massive shoulders. “Gone is gone.”

Molly turned to him, saw the deep furrows in his scaly forehead that seemed to convey confusion rather than the sad resignation in his voice.

“Then why come here?” she asked. “I’m sorry. That came out wrong. I don’t mean to blame you, but why risk it?”

“The government on Shurye isn’t much better,” Scottie said, speaking for his friend. “There’s just as much of a chance taken by sitting still.”

“Everything is chance,” said Urg.

Something beeped. Molly looked over, thinking it was an alarm of some sort, then saw Walter had finished eating and had brought out his videogame.

“I feel bad for your loss,” she said, turning back to Urg. “Truly, I do. I lost my family when I was younger, so I hope you can understand what it feels like to have a chance to get them back. Besides, I can’t do anything about that fleet, and the law is probably not on your side—”

“Screw the law,” spat Scottie. “This isn’t about law or legality—”

Molly looked down at her plate and away from the outburst.

Scottie took a deep breath, calming himself.

“Think about what the law is saying,” he said. “People born inside one invisible line are confined there. Even if they wanna pay the taxes, buy some land, obey the local rules, they aren’t allowed to move. They don’t have the basic freedom to choose where to live or where to raise their families. It’s like the days of being born a cobbler’s son and having to become a cobbler.”

“There’s legal immigration,” Molly said, unable to restrain herself from arguing her point.

“And there’s limits to that, which means after a certain number, we get right back to that invisible line a sentient being can’t cross. This isn’t about laws. It’s about xenophobia. It’s about Lokians scared their planet will be overrun, that its future makeup might be different than what it was in the past.”

Molly shook her head. “I don’t think that’s the primary motivation—”

“No?” Scottie pushed his plate across the galley table and leaned back in his seat. “I think you’re wrong. The same government restricting immigration from Shurye does everything it can to get more Terrans to move here. And I don’t think you understand how much good you could do with this ship of yours.”

Molly stood up and stacked her plate with Scottie’s and Walter’s. She scraped her leftovers in the degrader before piling the dishes in the sonic washer.

“You guys can stay here until you find a safe place,” she said. “I’ll pay you double the market value for the fuel, or I’ll ask you to point me in another direction. I’ll even let you use the ship when I get back, but I won’t be delayed. I can’t be.” She looked over Walter’s head to Urg, whose lids flicked together once, removing the wet sheen from his eyes.

“I just can’t,” she said.

Molly topped up her coffee and crossed the cargo bay to open the ramp and let in some fresh air. She leaned against the jamb with her second cup and peered through the steam as the metal decking swung out and into the dusty stable lot.

Outside, several crews from other ships performed their daily chores, making Molly feel like there was something productive she should be doing. They washed down their hulls, performed repairs out on their wings, scrubbed bugs off the carboglass, all reminders of the tasks she’d been neglecting. The weather was great for the work, but she could tell it was going to get hot later in the day. And without a breeze, it wouldn’t be long before those crews went scurrying back inside, hovering around the AC vents and waiting until nighttime to finish the day’s work.

She blew on her coffee and was about to take a sip when she noticed a cluster of men crawl up on a wing a few ships to Parsona’s rear. One of them held something to his head, a portable radio, perhaps. Everyone in the group looked back to the west, shielding their eyes from the sun.

Molly leaned out from the doorway and followed their gazes. She noticed several other captains and crewmembers exiting their ships to look the same direction.

“What’s going on?” she asked a young man in coveralls, who was running between her ship and the neighbor’s.

“A fleet,” the guy yelled over his shoulder. “There’s a massive new fleet on SADAR!”

Molly looked to the sky, her hand shading her eyes. She couldn’t see anything, but she thought she heard a rumble growing, like distant thunder.

Scottie joined her by the ramp. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“Something—” Molly cursed herself and ran back inside. She keyed open the cockpit and apologized to Cat. Leaning over the control console, she fired up the SADAR and waited for it to initialize.

“You okay?” Cat asked.

“I think there’s something going on in orbit,” Molly told her.

The SADAR popped up, and she extended the range. There was the cluster of the Bern fleet overhead, which hadn’t changed much—just grown since she’d last looked. The largest of them dominated the group, the one she liked to think of as Lok’s new potato-shaped moon.

“There!” Cat said, pointing.

“I see it,” Molly said. A cluster of new targets were in motion, and more were streaming in behind—blips that signified ships popping out of hyperspace. And something about the formation triggered a tremor of recognition in Molly.

“Can your mom see this?” Cat asked. “Nevermind, she just said she could now that the SADAR is on.”

“Yeah, that’s how it works. I think I know what—”

Cat raised her hand as red warning lights flashed on SADAR. Molly reached to locate the threat, when Cat grabbed her wrist.

“You need to hear this,” she said, pulling the helmet off.

Molly switched to the external radio and hit the “Center Target” button.

“—yday, mayday,” the voice crackled. “Cruiser Engala has been hit by something. No flight controls. Gravity sensors are haywire. Mayday, mayday, ma—”

The radio fell silent. The SADAR centered on the cluster of new targets that had just jumped in-system, their IDs blinking as Parsona’s computers scanned them. But Molly didn’t need to wait for the computer to do its work. She knew the formation without needing the ships’ IDs:

Navy.

The cavalry had arrived.

“We need to get into flightsuits and scramble,” Molly said.

“We’re no help up there,” Cat said. “We need to hunker down.”

Molly looked at the screen. The Bern ships were moving, responding to the Navy fleet. Only—they seemed to be moving away from them. Her normally tactical brain remained blank, not knowing what the Bern ships were capable of. It felt like the beginning of a surprise simulation, those tense moments when you weren’t sure who you were up against. She reached for the dash and started warming the thrusters and cycling the hyperdrive, just in case.

“Why don’t you grab some food?” she said to Cat. She fought to keep her voice calm as several of the red Navy targets began flashing with mayday beacons. It made no sense. The Bern ships seemed to be retreating, but the Navy fleet was winking with distress.

“I’m not that hungry,” Cat said, “but I get your drift. Tell your mom we ain’t done talking.” She crawled out of the nav seat and handed the helmet to Molly before exiting the cockpit.

Molly put the helmet on its shelf and leaned over the nav seat to tap the top of her own. The Wadi came out with a sleepy look; she scooped it up and followed Cat into the cargo bay. “Walter, take the Wadi and make sure it eats plenty.” She looked down the ramp as Walter pulled the hissing creature from her arms. “Scottie, I need you to come back inside. We’re buttoning up.”

“What about Ryn?” he asked.

“We’ll let him in when he gets here, if we’re still here when he gets back.”

If we’re still here? We aren’t going anywhere without—”

A loud blast cut him off, and Scottie fell forward as a wave of compressed air rocked the ship. Something exploded nearby. Molly ran to him, helping him up as a wall of dust and debris roared across the stables.

Molly’s hair stirred from the breeze of concussed air. The incredible noise left her ears ringing, but she didn’t see a fireball, didn’t feel heat in the air from a munitions blast. She ran to the door, squinting into the storm of dust that had risen around the neighboring hulls.

Another impact boomed farther away and was followed by the rumble of kinetic energy. Molly looked up—Firehawks and larger ships were raining down through the atmosphere, clear across the sky to the horizon. They dropped through the air with the glow of accidental reentry, leaving behind trails of dirty smoke.

“What the flank?” Scottie asked, peering out beside her. “Holy hell,” he said, “it’s like the shuttles—”

“Get inside,” Molly told him. “We need to get out of here.”

31

Cole stared up at the ceiling of his new room. He lay in a narrow bunk, the one beside him empty. He wondered if Mortimor’s people had that much extra space, or if it had belonged to one of the aliens he’d seen die on the Luddite’s moving village. Maybe it had belonged to someone who had perished during that raid, a raid he assumed was meant to rescue him.

He ran bits of that hellish scene over and over in his head; he thought back to the conversation with Byrne and tried his best to remember everything he had spoken of. He puzzled over the strange way time seemed to alter around that mast. He recalled with a shudder the horror of fleeing across the deck, of being chased… he stopped himself before he got to what came next.

Cole rubbed his face. So much had happened over the past few days, so much information had passed through his ears, it made him feel like a cadet cramming for an exam even though they knew they didn’t stand a chance. The clock beside his bunk went off for the third time. Cole slapped its top and tried to fight off the depression. He’d lain around recuperating for half a day, and now he was late for his orientation and rehab. Begrudgingly, he tore off his sheet and swung his feet off the cot. He reached for the outfit they’d left folded on the stool: a faded pair of civilian denims and a t-shirt with a logo for some unknown sports team. He was thankful to not be donning Navy Blacks, which most of people he’d seen seemed to be wearing. He also hoped they had burned whatever remained of his flightsuit—he didn’t want to see the stains in them ever again.

Dropping the surgical gown, Cole stepped into the faded pants and pulled them up. For a bit of practice, he used his right hand to work the zipper. He didn’t understand what Mortimor had meant by rehab—the thing worked perfectly well, just like a real hand. The zipper slid up smoothly, the hand firm and steady—and then it kept on coming, the metal tab ripping off with a soft click.

Cole held up the broken piece to inspect it. In the shiny, neatly sheared ends of the snapped metal, he got his first glimpse of what Mortimor had meant.

“They’re waiting on you.”

Cole snapped his head up just in time to see a flash of red hair swirling through the air, following the speaker out through the door. Her voice rang in his ears, burning his cheeks. He shook his head and cursed at himself, then closed his eyes and pictured Molly.

With red hair.

“Aw, c’mon!” he said, clasping both hands to his face in frustration.

And regretting it immediately.

••••

When Cole left the room, he saw Mortimor and the Stanley conferring at the end of the hall; he hurried down to meet them.

“What did you do to your face?” Mortimor asked, his eyes wide.

Cole touched his bruised cheek, using the only hand he trusted at the moment. “I was practicing what I’m gonna do to the guy who took my arm,” he said.

“Oh, boy,” the Stanley said, smiling. “Another hothead.”

Cole returned the robot’s smirk, then noticed something strange about the Stanley. The skin around the mouth was perfectly natural, not folded and plastic-looking. Cole’s hand fell to own lip, his jaw dropping.

“We haven’t been formally introduced,” the man said. “I’m Arthur. Arthur Dakura.”

“You’re not a Stanley,” Cole said.

Arthur laughed. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “Well, not really. I guess you could say they’re me. I modeled them after me, anyway.”

Mortimor grinned and slapped Arthur on the back. “C’mon, let’s walk. You boys can chat on the way.”

He pulled Arthur along, and Cole hurried after them. At the end of the hallway, the trio turned a corner, and Cole got his first glimpse of the motley makeup of the place’s inhabitants. Callites and Delphians and several races he’d never seen pictures of strolled in and out of connecting passageways. The place had the bustle of the Academy during a drill. Hallways, offices, classrooms, dormitories—each room they passed had a chaos of bodies stirring within. All manner of creature moved between the doorways, but only a smattering of Humans.

Cole tried not to flinch as a male Drenard rounded the corner wearing a white combat suit. The blue alien nodded to Mortimor, who greeted the massive alien in a different language. Cole held up a finger, like a student with a question. He watched the Drenard pass, his jaw hanging agape. Arthur tugged him along, asking a question before Cole could get his own out:

“I take it from your confusion of my identity that you’ve met my simulacrums. How long ago were you there?”

“Dakura?” Cole looked over his shoulder as the Drenard ducked into another doorway. “Um, a week? Or less, actually. I’m not sure, to tell the truth.”

“Just a week?” Cole turned back to Arthur and saw the man’s eyes grow wide. Arthur rested a hand on Cole’s shoulder as they steered through traffic after Mortimor. “Tell me, how was the planet looking?”

“The planet? It was, uh, dark gray. Kinda boring, to be frank.”

Dark gray? Excellent!” Arthur clapped his hands together. “Brilliant.”

“Yeah, real nice place you got there,” Cole said distractedly. He turned to watch a creature go by that seemed covered in plates of stone.

“Did you take a tour? Of LIFE, I mean?”

“Up close and personal,” Cole said, not caring to relate his run-in with security. He followed Mortimor through a door and into a stairwell; Cole held the door open for Arthur, who nodded politely like everything buzzing around them was perfectly natural.

“What’re you doing here?” Cole asked.

“Thank you,” Arthur said, shutting the door behind him. “Well, I wish I could say I was here on an important mission to save the galaxy, but I landed quite by accident. I was out training with my yacht—”

“You were showboating,” Mortimor called back. He had already begun to take the stairs two at a time.

Arthur smiled at Cole and winked. He rested a hand on Cole’s back and guided him up the stairs, talking as they went. “I was just having some fun in a time trial course, trying out some alterations to my own thruster design. I got in a spot and took a chance on jumping out. The rest is too long a story to relate.”

Cole shook his head. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean you specifically. What are all you people doing here? I don’t even recognize half the aliens back there.”

Arthur came up beside Cole, shaking his head. “The Luddites made this about race a while back. What you see here is just the fraction of the Underground that remains, and a lot of them are members from other galaxies. The majority of incoming are Human now, ever since the war in Darrin. Most of them are snagged by the Luddites before we can get to them. The Milky Way tends to dump out in the colds for whatever reason.”

“So this is where people disappear to?” Cole quickened his pace, trying to catch up with Mortimor. “Why can’t we just jump back out?”

The stairs ended on the next level, terminating at a single door. Mortimor had a tall locker open. He brought out sheets of plastic and what appeared to be goggles. “Doesn’t work that way,” Mortimor said. “Here, put these on.”

He handed Cole a clear poncho-like outfit and a pair of goggles. Cole worked the plastic over his head while Arthur did the same and continued talking:

“Normally, the little critters can’t see into hyperspace, what with the light and all. We’ve bred some that can, but they have the opposite problem: they can’t see out. Well, metaphorically speaking. Supposedly it’s two types of light, or the medium they vibrate in, but that’s more of Ryke’s bag, all I do is play doctor.” He glanced at Cole’s arm as Cole fumbled with his goggles. “Best I know how, anyway.” He met Cole’s gaze and frowned. “I’m sorry, you have no idea what I’m talking about, do you? Of course you don’t.”

“Fusion fuel,” Cole said. He strapped the goggles to his forehead and hoped he’d said it like it wasn’t one of the most recent things he’d learned, trying to come across as cool and adult-like as the other two. He pulled the hood of the poncho over his head, trying to copy what they were doing and not seem completely lost. “So we’re stuck here? Is that what you’re telling me?”

“You ever met a guy in a bar with a lot of cool stories from hyperspace?” Arthur asked.

Cole shook his head, getting the point.

“Grab your neighbor,” Mortimor said. He reached for Cole’s elbow and lowered his goggles. Cole did the same, making his world completely black as he reached out for Arthur.

“Ready?”

“You betcha,” Arthur said.

“Sure,” Cole said, not knowing what to expect.

Mortimor cracked the door, letting in enough light to see clearly through the blackened spectacles. The three men stepped out onto a rooftop covered in water. Cole didn’t feel the rain at first; they were sheltered by the small stairwell sticking out of the roof. Once he stepped out, however, he saw it to either side—drifting sideways, parallel to the ground, just like the snow.

“That’s weird,” he said, still clinging to Arthur and fighting the vertigo.

“Makes perfect sense once you get a handle on the physics. Light and water, my friend, the components of life—”

“I didn’t bring you boys up here to discuss the weather,” Mortimor said. He leaned close so they could hear him clearly over the patter of rain on the back of the stairwell. “Follow me.”

Arthur shrugged at Cole and raised his eyebrows. The two of them turned and followed Mortimor around the stairwell and into the driving rain. Cole looked down at his feet as he walked so we wouldn’t feel so dizzy. He noticed the top of the building was coated with a rubbery surface, probably put there to provide traction through the film of water in addition to keeping the rain out of the structure beneath.

As they walked directly into the sideways torrent, the large drops of water popped up and down his chest, sounding much like the incessant gunfire of the Academy’s rifle range. Cole kept his head low and marched with the others toward the edge of the flat, rectangular roof, the size and shape of which reminded him of boring office buildings.

As they neared the edge, however, Cole realized the place was far more interesting than that. The entire structure was moving. Or maybe the ground below was simply sliding by beneath them. Either way, as Cole stopped a meter from the edge and looked down, Mortimor and Arthur had to reach out and grab his elbows to steady him before the vertigo sent him reeling.

“Don’t get too close,” Mortimor warned. He and Arthur pulled Cole away from the edge.

Cole found it hard to turn away from the sight of the land rushing by. The world below was a field of mud covered by a skim coat of water—an infinite, brownish mirror. The lowest layers of rain skipped right across it, leaving furrows like waterfowl coming in for a landing. And all of it slid beneath the building, giving it the appearance of a dirty, rippled ocean viewed from the bow of a steaming ship. Cole’s stomach began to protest all the myriad cues of motion that belied the solid footing beneath him.

“Best not to even look at it,” Mortimor said.

Cole agreed. He turned away from the sight and put his back to the rain, huddling close to the other two men.

“Then why bring me up here?” he asked.

“So we won’t be overheard,” Mortimor said.

“What, like spies?”

Cole looked to Arthur, whose grin had been replaced with tight, flat lips. “Is he serious?”

“We have a few embedded within the Luddites—we’re pretty sure they have some here. It’s complicated, but a lot of soldiers have defected over the years. It’s easy to forget why you’re here after a while. Some people flip just to see if they’ll be more comfortable on the other side.”

“Or because they’ve grown too comfortable,” Mortimor suggested. “Some just get bored.”

“So why are you here?” Cole asked. “And what’s up with this place? Is this building on wheels?” He concentrated on his feet, trying to sense any movement.

“Grav panels,” Arthur said rather loudly to compete with the rain. “They cycle, pushing and pulling, smooth as a baby’s—”

Mortimor waved him silent.

“Listen, son, there’s an invasion underway. A very nasty people—”

“The Bern.” Cole nodded. “They design the universe every time it goes around. I’m the Golden One. I got a lot of this from the armless dude.”

Mortimor’s eyes narrowed.

“Byrne. I told you he was here.”

“You didn’t tell me you talked to him,” Mortimor said.

“Well, I mostly listened.” Cole faced the far end of the roof, allowing the rain to smack the plastic across the back of his head. The men to either side of him did the same, the three of them standing in a line, their heads bent close to confer over the pattering drops.

“And he called you the golden one?”

“Or chosen, I can’t remember. Anyway, he said it was too late. Then a bunch of people came in, dressed in white—you guys, I take it—and everyone started getting hacked up—” Cole stopped.

“Yeah, that was some of our men,” Arthur said.

“I picked up a little of what Byrne was thinking,” Mortimor explained. “It was just coming through too damn slow to decipher easily. What part we got, well, no offense but I thought you were someone else.”

Cole glanced over at Mortimor. “Do what?”

“I picked up another name—” Mortimor looked across him to Arthur. “We thought Molly—”

“Yeah,” Cole said, “it sounded like Byrne was confused about something similar. And look, I’m sorry to disappoint, but I have no idea about any of this stuff. All I care about now is getting back to her. And maybe visiting that camp on the way and kicking some ass.” He held up his new arm, tenting the poncho in front of him. He clenched and unclenched a fist, visible through the clear plastic. “I’m ready to try out this new hand,” he said.

Mortimor shook his head. “Forget about it. We don’t go on raids for revenge. Besides, there’s an endless supply of idiots on both sides, there’s no changing anything by bashing against each other.” He gestured out to the moving, inundated world beyond. “The best we can hope for out here is to stay in one piece and in one place.”

“What kind of ship did you arrive in?” Arthur asked.

“Firehawk,” Cole said. He reached up to adjust his hood and keep the water from dripping in.

Arthur looked across at Mortimor, who shook his head.

“Why’d you guys bring me up here?” Cole asked, feeling like there was something they weren’t telling him.

“To ask you a favor,” Mortimor said. “But first, we need to know everything you know. Are you sure you never heard any news about Lok?”

Cole shook his head. “Like I told you yesterday, we were heading there, but we got picked up by the Navy—”

“That’s where the Firehawk came from?” Arthur asked.

“Yeah.”

“Why’d the Navy pick you up?” Mortimor asked.

“We were leaving Dakura where we— Molly’s mom, the one on the ship—”

He looked to Arthur for help, but got a blank look.

“We were told to unplug her mom—your wife, sir. I—I didn’t want to, but… you should have seen—”

“And did you?”

Cole nodded.

“Good,” Mortimor said. “I’m sorry you had to clean up one of my mistakes, but we wanted that done years ago. We all agreed.”

Cole bobbed his head again, unsure of what to say.

“So, you never made it to Lok, and you don’t know if Molly did.”

Cole shook his head. “Do you think she’s okay?”

“I don’t know,” Mortimor told him. “I’m worried about all of us, to be honest.”

“So what’s the plan?”

“For you? Some rehab with that new hand and some rest. What’s done is done. But first, there’s someone who’s dying to meet you.”

Cole looked out across the rooftop. The sideways rain made it feel like his feet were glued to a wall and the water was falling straight down. “Who would want to meet me?” he asked.

“I want you to listen and listen carefully, okay? This person’s name isn’t to be spoken where anyone can overhear.”

“Who is it?”

“As far as anyone knows, she works more for the enemy than us, okay?”

Cole swallowed. “Who wants to see me?” he asked.

Arthur squeezed his shoulder and leaned in close.

“Have you ever heard of the Bern Seer?”

32

Parsona wasn’t the only ship leaving the stables in a hurry, or Bekkie, for that matter. Dozens of craft lifted up from all around town as crewmembers ran across Pete’s dirt lot in panic, trying to get back to their ships. Through the carboglass, Molly could hear improperly warmed thrusters screaming as neighboring starships lifted off cold. In the distance, a Navy cruiser fell through the atmosphere, glowing bright red—a sign of breached reentry panels. It disappeared over the horizon, followed by a flash of light.

“Why’re they in atmo?” Cat asked. She leaned forward from the nav chair while Scottie hovered behind, his hands on the backs of their seats.

“I don’t know,” Molly admitted. “Maybe they were trying to land, or something.”

“A cruiser?” Cat asked incredulously.

“They don’t want debris,” Scottie said. “That explains the shuttles.”

Molly avoided the crush of departing traffic and flew low, skirting the prairie as she headed out of town. There weren’t many more blips falling, but a few big ones were still in orbit.

“No debris?” Cat asked, turning to Scottie.

“For the rift. They’re shooting them down intact.”

“I think you’re right,” Molly said. “They’re somehow disabling them and knocking them out of orbit. And they’re making it look easy.”

“Poor Ryn,” Scottie said.

“I’m sure he’s fine. Probably just as safe wherever he is.”

Scottie didn’t say anything. Behind them, Molly could hear Walter arguing with Urg about which dishes went where.

“Where should we go?” Molly asked. She looked at their current course and realized she had subconsciously begun flying back toward her home village and the rift—the very last place they needed to be.

“Mount Jeffers?” Cat asked Scottie.

“Probably what everyone else is thinking. So, no.”

“We could hide out in the woods beyond Ashron,” Cat said. “There’s tons of clearings big enough to set down in. Maybe we should wait there and see if things calm back down.”

“Which way is that?” Molly asked, turning to the others.

Cat pointed through the carboglass, her face rigid. Molly followed her trembling arm, adjusting course to match the direction she was pointing, mistaking the gesture for an answer to her question.

“What the flank?” Scottie muttered, leaning forward between the two seats.

Ahead of them, descending through the atmosphere nose-down like a dropped dart, was a Navy StarCarrier.

“Holy shit,” Cat whispered.

Molly pulled back into a hover, sinking down toward the grasses.

Cowering.

The almighty bulk of the greatest class of starship ever built was descending from the heavens. Tilted slightly—falling slower than gravity warranted—the thing seemed to be straining against the inevitable, its forward thrusters raging to slow its impact. The great ship’s nose disappeared over the horizon, and then the rest of the monstrosity came to a sudden, sickening halt.

They all waited, breathless, for some cataclysmic noise to accompany the horrific fall. They watched for the ship to crumble, tip over, or maybe even explode.

It did none of those things.

Impossibly, the tail of the great StarCarrier remained in the same position. Askance. Aloft. Thrusters pointing up to the sky from which it had plummeted.

It just stood there, perfectly still. Terrible and lifeless.

33

Anlyn wrapped her hand in Edison’s and squeezed one of his large fingers. “How confident do you feel about this?” she asked.

“Ninety-two percent,” he said. “Rounding down, of course.”

Anlyn frowned; she let go of his finger and hovered her own over the hyperdrive button. The coordinates for a class V star were locked in the computer, a sight that ran counter to everything she knew about astral navigation. Red lights flashed and alarms sounded, warning her of the poor choice of arrival coordinates. Only once before had she ever jumped while overriding a hyperdrive’s alarms, and she was pretty sure that decision, for better or for worse, had been the most momentous of her entire life. This decision, however, seemed to rival that other one.

She closed her eyes, said, “I love you,” and then pressed the switch.

Her stomach dropped. More warning alarms went off.

Edison screamed beside her.

Anlyn opened her eyes and caught a wave of harsh light across her face right before the windshield darkened, returning things to normal. A thousand white dots crawled across her vision like albino ants. She blinked rapidly, trying to sort out the foreign alarms and worrying about Edison.

“Are you okay?” she yelled. She applied thrust, then gripped the steering column with both hands. Her stomach had dropped because they were in free-fall. And the spots of light seemed to be flurries of snow.

“Zero optical functioning!” Edison roared in English.

“Great Hori, we’re in atmosphere! I’ve got targets everywhere. Trying to get lift!”

A voice interrupted in a language she recognized, just as she knew the general look of their script: Bern. The words rattled for a few seconds, then stopped.

“Did you hear that?” Anlyn asked.

“Affirmitive,” Edison said, fumbling for the radio, “They find our arrival vector non-optimal.”

Anlyn grabbed the mic and pressed it into his groping paw. She had the ship leveled off and rejoining the other SADAR targets at altitude. She heard Edison grunt, clearing his throat; he launched into a conversation in Bern.

“That didn’t sound like our speech,” she said, once he was done.

Edison sat back in his seat, dabbing at his eyes with the back of his paws. “I’m ignoring our prior schematics,” he said.

“What?” Anlyn settled into formation, flying by the instruments, the outside world shrouded in white. “What did you say to them?”

“I said flight eight twelve four, Exponent, falling into line, apologies for the fright.”

“Why would you do that?” Anlyn glanced over at Edison. “We came here to talk!”

He shook his head. “Our surviving the jump obviates the need for talk,” he said. “Assumptions have been validated: there’s an invasion underway. By extension, the Bern are little interested in nonmilitant communications.”

Anlyn settled down, the shaking in her arms subsiding as the rush of jumping into the center of a star and surviving gradually faded away. She looked at the grid-like pattern of targets spread out over thousands of kilometers, the blips flickering and sporadic from some sort of interference. Still, there was no doubting what she was seeing. A massive invasion force was assembled all around her—in fact she was now a part of it. Edison had been right about everything.

The voice on the radio returned and carried on for half a minute.

“What did he say?”

“He expressed grievances with our flight commander followed by orientation procedurals for us. We are presently queued up for the rift, number four hundred eighteen. Maintain velocity and minimize chatter. Resume three hour shifts.”

Anlyn laughed, her voice shaking with all things but humor. “Three hour shifts? Great. Who’s gonna take over for us so we can get some sleep?”

Edison shrugged. “Such logistics normally fall upon the commander, Commander.”

Anlyn turned to frown at Edison and saw his furry cheeks peeled back—his teeth flashing.

Anlyn laughed at him. Once more, without humor.

34

As Parsona crept toward the horizon, the full bulk of the Star-Carrier came into view. It seemed to rise out of the ground like a geological formation—an obelisk defying time and gravity. While the majority of the ship appeared intact, the forward twenty percent had been crushed, or perhaps driven into the ground. Smoke streaked off the massive wreck in dozens of places, emanating from glowing-orange fires. Other than that, the hulking tower stood as a quiet memorial to a battle lost.

“Dang,” Urg muttered.

Molly looked over her shoulder to see that the large Callite had squeezed in beside Scottie. The two of them were leaning forward, peering out through the carboglass at the gigantic ship ahead. Behind them, she could hear Walter continuing to put things away in the cargo bay. She turned back around and concentrated on keeping low to Lok’s grasslands, rising now and then only to clear strips of straggly trees. She couldn’t help but notice the way Cat strained forward in her seat, taking in the view. The Wadi did the same beside her, its neck stretched out, tongue flicking.

“Crazy to see something so invincible look… dead,” Scottie said.

“I was just thinking the same thing,” Cat said. She tore her gaze away and glanced around at the dash. “You got any ’scopes in this thing?”

“Like binoculars?” Molly shook her head. “No.”

“I think they set down in the lake,” Scottie said. “That’s a shame.”

As they got closer to the wreck, Molly saw he was right. Lok had no oceans, just a few puddles the locals exaggerated by calling them  “lakes.” The StarCarrier had landed right in the middle of one; the nose of the great ship was buried in a muddy crater and surrounded by pools of water covered in oil and fuel—some of them on fire. A wall of mud and dirt had been thrown up by the force of entry, forming a berm on the perimeter. The resulting barrier and moat looked purposefully built, like a warning to interlopers saying: “Stay out.”

Molly flew over the glistening brown wall and felt sad for the flashes of light twinkling on dry ground—the flapping of displaced swimming things. As she banked around to perform a full circuit of the ship, keeping Parsona low enough to feel safe from the fleet in orbit, she couldn’t help but see the once-powerful craft in the same light as the fish: an animal out of its element with no way of putting it back. A thing dying, if not already dead.

As they rounded the port side, the stenceling on the side of the ship came into view, and Molly lost what little breath she’d been holding.

ZEBRA-9200 “Gloria”

This wasn’t just any StarCarrier, it was the very one she and Cole had escaped from two weeks ago. The realization made her feel like thrusting away from it, as if it still posed some threat to her. She read the hull designation several times, the surge of adrenaline passing as she forced herself to remain calm.

“So big,” someone whispered.

Molly nodded. Up close, the ship seemed even more massive than it had in space, perhaps because the enormity of an entire cosmos wasn’t swallowing it up, providing some sense of scale. It took almost fifteen minutes to do a slow lap around the mountain of metal. There were no signs of life, no lights or movement from survivors. Everywhere along the ground, the ship’s hull was a twisted mess of shrapnel and torn plasteel, entire decks of the carrier crushed and impassible.

“There’s no way in,” Cat said.

“And no safe place to land and walk in from. I don’t know what we were thinking to come out here.”

“Curiosity,” Scottie said. He leaned over the control console to peer up at the metal cliff looming ahead of them. “And didn’t that kill the cat?” he asked.

“What about the hangar bay?” Cat asked, ignoring Scottie.

“We can look,” Molly said, “but I’d think they’d have shut it before reentry.”

She took Parsona up and spiraled around toward the ship’s belly, remembering the last time she had flown along that very section of the massive carrier. Four Firehawks had been escorting her—their missiles armed and locked. The size and shape of the hull hanging in space had filled her with fear. She’d been convinced the Navy was about to airlock her and her friends for a string of tragic events.

Now, despite the unease she felt from recognizing the craft, it leaned sadly in the dry atmosphere of her backwoods home planet. Unmoving. Harmless. It didn’t seem right that such a large creation could meet its end in such a short period of time, or end up somewhere as inconsequential as Lok.

“Damn thing’s open,” Scottie said, pointing to one of the carrier’s airlock bays. “Can we fly in?”

Molly pulled up opposite the airlock. The StarCarrier was leaning to one side, the open hangar pointing up to the sky, which meant she had to angle Parsona’s nose down so they could see inside. She reached for the spotlight controls before noticing the lights inside the bay were still functional.

“Something’s not right here,” she said.

“Nobody’s home,” said Cat.

That’s exactly what didn’t seem right. Molly could see the full length of the tilting hangar, all the way to the far wall, which hung way below them. There should’ve been a pile of Firehawks and Scouts down there, trillions of dollars of destroyed Navy hardware lying in a pile.

“Must’ve been in the fight,” Cat said.

“Or the crew used everything they had to escape.”

“I didn’t see nothing fly out on its way down,” Scottie said.

“Me neither, but there were Firehawks raining down earlier, before we left Bekkie.”

“Not enough,” Molly said. “There would’ve been hundreds of them aboard.” She turned to the others. “Should we peek inside? Look for survivors?”

Cat turned to her and shook her head. “Ain’t no one survive this. Not a crash like this.”

“Yeah, but there’s still power. Maybe someone—I dunno, I just always think there’s a chance.”

“If you wanna stick your nose in and take a sniff, be my guest. But get ready to hightail it when this puppy goes down.”

Molly turned the radio down to its lowest broadcast setting, just in case anyone in the fleet above was listening in. She brought the mic to her lips.

“Zebra wing—” She hesitated, trying to think up a lie, then figuring it didn’t matter. “—Parsona here. Any survivors, please come back on twenty-two eighteen.”

They waited. She adjusted the squelch until a faint hissing and popping assured her the speakers were operational. Nobody responded.

“Just a peek,” she told the others. She gripped the flight controls and replaced the mic, then nosed Parsona forward, back into the same bay from which she’d fled with Cole just a few weeks prior.

An easy in-and-out, she promised herself.

35

“You want me to meet someone called the Bern Seer?”

Cole shook his head. “I don’t think so. I’ve had enough of the Bern.”

Mortimor laughed. “She’s no more a Bern than you or I, Cole. She’s the one who’s been watching them come. She’s on our side, if there is such a thing.”

“Where is she? Here?”

“No—”

“Further ahead,” Arthur interjected, shouting above the rain. “As far ahead as you can go, in fact.”

“Why does she want to meet me?”

“Won’t say, but she’s calling in a favor, a big one, and… well, I can’t force you to go, but I’d owe you one of my own if you did.”

Cole looked down at his hands beneath the folds of his clear plastic poncho. Water coursed across it, giving his flesh an artificial sheen.

“I’ll go,” he said quietly.

“Good,” Mortimor said. He slapped Cole on the back. “Now, let’s get out of the rain. I’ll introduce you to doctor Ryke, who’ll take you out.”

Cole followed the two men forward, the pelting at his back driving him along and the rain to either side making him feel as if he could fall clean off the roof and go drifting after the droplets forever.

“Wait,” he yelled up to the others. “Who’s Ryke? Aren’t you guys coming with me?”

“Sorry,” Mortimor said, waiting up for him to catch up. “We’ve got plenty enough to do without a trip forward.” He worked his hand out of the poncho and put it on Cole’s back, urging him toward the stairwell. “Besides,” he said, “she specifically asked to see you alone. Ryke’s just driving you.”

“Driving me? In what?”

••••

Half an hour later, Cole found himself cowering in the passenger seat of the answer. They called it a hyperskimmer, and it raced across the water on three foils, skipping like a cast stone and feeling completely out of control. As the craft sped directly into the driving rain, Cole fought the urge to scream; he ground his teeth and gripped the dash in pure terror, wondering how the hell Doctor Ryke could see where they were going. As the craft’s forward skiff tore through the watery surface of hyperspace, it kicked up twin roostertails to either side—large sheets of foaming whiteness that created an artificial canyon the small vehicle seemed to glide through. Every now and then, Cole glanced over to Ryke to make sure they were going to be okay. Each time, he found the strange man fiddling with a dial on the dash or looking at Cole while he talked.

“Don’t you need to concentrate?” Cole asked the doctor.

Ryke looked at him for a long while. He took one hand off the steering column and scratched his thick, brown beard. He rubbed his bald head and adjusted his black goggles. Cole couldn’t take it anymore. He turned and peered down the narrow chute of visibility created by the roostertails, certain that they were travelling far too fast for anything meant to come in contact with water.

Earlier, the vehicle had seemed pretty damn nebular, back when it was in the garage and sitting still. It was basically a flat triangle of steel sitting on three runners and topped with a sleek bubble cockpit. Ahead of the cockpit was a flat deck with a crane-like apparatus stowed flat. The whole thing was painted stark white and appeared fast even when idling. Cole had been excited to crawl inside, but now that they were racing along, hydroplaning across the wet surface of hyperspace half-blind, he just hoped to survive long enough to get back out.

“Concentrate on what, exactly?” Ryke finally asked.

Cole shook his head and pointed forward. “On where we’re going!”

“Oh, I know exactly where we’re going. Alls you gotta do is head right for the rain.”

“Well, we seem to be doing that awful fast,” Cole said.

Ryke laughed. “If we didn’t, we’d never get there!” He leaned over toward Cole, as if about to confide in some secret. “She’s shaped like a cone, you know.”

Cole peeled his eyes away from the smeared carboglass. “What? The Seer?”

That really got Ryke going. He laughed and slapped his thigh. “Don’t be silly! It’s hyperspace that’s shaped like a cone.”

“Can we talk when we get back?” Cole asked. “I’m feeling a little sick.”

“No problem. You just listen, then, and I’ll do the talking.”

Cole groaned.

“It all comes in at a point, hyperspace does. Like I said, it’s pretty much a cone, but laying on its side. And it’s always moving, not just the stuff in the air, but the surface, too. It’s always sliding back into the past with new stuff and happenings coming in at the tip.”

He paused, scratched his beard, and fiddled with a dial. “Not sure where it all goes, though. Maybe back around? Still working on that…”

Leaving the dial alone, he pointed forward, through the center of the two roostertails. “Anyways, the Seer lives out there. Impossible to miss her as long as we head into the rain. All the way forward, hyperspace ain’t so far around. Like I said, it’s the tip of a cone, so we don’t need a map. Now, getting back is different, but quicker. That’s what the radio’s for, so they know where to meet us.”

“Mortimor and them.”

“Right. Now, you keep quiet, not enough room in here to get sick.”

Ryke scratched his beard.

“Darnation, I was about to ask you a question. You gonna chunk if I ask you to nod?”

Cole shook his head. What he should’ve said was the listening was making him queasy. He altered his grip on the dash and saw his right hand had dented it, leaving impressions under each finger.

“I heard you was on Mortimor’s ship, the Parsona.”

Cole nodded.

“I built her, you know. The hyperdrive, anyway, not the ship. You notice anything peculiar about it? The hyperdrive, I mean.”

Cole shook his head.

“Hooo-eeee!” Ryke hollered. “That’s right!” He slapped the steering column with a flat palm. “Done her up good!”

Cole felt like sticking his head between his knees.

“Broke my heart to see her go, especially seeing as how.”

That piqued Cole’s interest. He turned to the doctor, who was looking right at him, one hand idly twisting a dial on the dash.

“What do you mean, seeing how?”

“Stolen,” Ryke said, growing solemn. He glanced forward for a picosecond, then stared back at Cole. “Dontcha know?”

Cole shook his head.

“Been about a year, now. Outside time, anyway. One of the sentinels—the guys that ride out in a perimeter around the HQ—they saw a patch of stars in the rain. Looked like a rift. We was prepping Parsona to make a break, get as many of us out as we could, when Byrne took off with her by himself. Broke Mortimor’s heart.”

“How did Byrne get his hands on the ship?” Cole asked.

“What? It was on the roof. We never even kept the thing locked.”

“Yeah, but where did Byrne come from? Why didn’t you guys stop him?”

Ryke stared at him. He rubbed his beard. “Darnation, son, how ill-informed are you? Mortimor and Byrne were best of buds. Joined at the hip. That skinny freak took us all in.”

“He lived here? Byrne?”

“Of course. We all came together. You do know he delivered his daughter, right? He was there when she was born. Saved his wife’s life. That’ll bond you to a feller.”

“He—he delivered Molly?” Cole’s nausea began to take a different form.

“Yup, but he didn’t work his way into the group then. Not completely. Naw, it was really when Parsona took ill. That Bern bastard had loads of money. The sort of group we were, it never occurred to us to question anything for fear of those questions being redirected our way. When he offered to set her up at Dakura with the high and mighty, that pretty much made him an honorary member.” Ryke shook his head. “A Bern in the Drenard Underground,” he said.

Ryke turned away from Cole and peered through his side of the cockpit, even though there was nothing to see there but a wall of foamy spray. “I reckon we were all blinded by the glimmer of that jerk,” he said softly.

“Any idea why he might’ve abandoned the ship when he got to Palan? You think he was worried the Navy might still be looking for it?”

“Don’t know. Maybe. I’m more curious about why that rift even went to Palan. How in hyperspace did it form? Makes no sense, really. When we heard one was open, we figured it’d be one of ours on Lok actin’ up.”

“One of yours?”

“Yeah. Dontcha know? I’m the stupid genius that got us into this hubbaloo. Tried to help the resistance stage an invasion, but they got their butts whooped. Now that same passage is being used the other way around.” Ryke lowered his bushy brows. “You looking a might bit pale, son, you’re not gonna get sick, are ya?”

Cole shook his head. “No. Just confused.”

“Good! That means you’re paying attention. And yeah, I’d love to hear the story of what went down on Palan. Bet that’s a good one.”

“So why did Mortimor hide his wi—I mean, do you know about . . ?”

“Parsona? Yeah, he told Arthur about her after the ship vamooshed. That was a row. Like admitting to a good friend that you stole from him. Why hide her, you ask? I’ve got my own theories, but we ain’t talked about his wife much. I reckon—just from my dealings with her, helping set that rig up—that she was gonna go crazy in that thing. Crazy as artificial intelligence can get. One’s and zero’s all scrambled, if you know what I mean. I think he was just freezing her in time to lock her away like that. Putting her down without erasing her, you know? Like he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Same reason people put their loved ones in cryo, even though there ain’t no chance of getting them back.”

Cole rolled that around while Ryke glanced forward for just a second.

“Other idea is he was hiding her from Arthur once he showed up. Or maybe he didn’t trust Byrne deep down, I don’t know. I think he was a lot ashamed of stealing her away—the selfishness of it all. Poor boy loved her too much, if such a thing’s possible.”

“It is,” Cole said.

“Yeah? I wouldn’t know.”

Cole sat and watched Ryke power the hyperskimmer along, looking forward for the longest time he’d seen him do that, his goggles hiding whatever he was thinking.

“You’re an okay guy, Doctor Ryke,” Cole finally said.

“That’s what they tell me!” the man hollered, laughing. “Ooops, there she is.” He pulled back on the throttle and the roostertails receded, giving Cole a wider expanse of blurry nothingness to squint into.

“Where?” Cole asked.

“There!” Ryke said, pointing.

Cole peered through the sheets of spray until he saw it. At first, all he spied was some water flying upward—then he saw the hooves the water flew from! As they got closer, he could see a team of six horse-like animals galloping behind a small house, a shed roof over them and a porch to one side. At the end of the porch lay a small wall blocking the rain, creating a protected pocket for vehicles to dock up to.

Ryke eased into the space, putting them in the lee of the small wall as he matched speeds with the shack. He flipped a switch and Cole watched two claws come out the side of the skimmer and grab the walkway, pulling them tight.

“You go on ahead,” Ryke said, popping the canopy open. “I’m gonna wait here and spell the Theryl’s, give them hooves a rest.” He patted the throttle lever for effect.

“Just go inside?” Cole asked.

Ryke laughed. “Way I’s raised, we’re taught to knock first!”

Cole shook his head and crawled out of his seat, keeping low to stay out of the rain. He knelt on the flattened rubbery deck just ahead of the skimmer’s cockpit and reached across for the wooden railing. There was a gate there that hinged inward, but he just stepped over the thing instead.

The narrow passageway on the side of the cabin was unprotected, the water racing through the air sideways, so he hurried to the back and around the corner to find shelter on the wide porch. The heads of two of the animals were just beyond the porch railing, their necks rising and falling with their long gait. One of them seemed to watch Cole with its large, single eye on the front of its head. Long whiskers trailed back from its mouth, making it seem like the creature was smiling. Cole studied the animals as they eased up, their legs just moving in easy circles instead of driving the shack forward. He wondered how long they could run like that.

As he was studying the animals, the shack lurched to one side unexpectedly, and Cole reached out to steady himself, clutching at the railing. His stupid right hand went straight through it, knocking out a chunk and leaving two splintered ends.

“Ah, hyperspace,” he said, looking at the mess he’d made. He gripped one of the porch’s posts to steady himself while he surveyed the damage, wondering what to do.

“It’ll be fine,” a voice said behind him. Cole turned and saw an old woman standing in the open doorway, her body draped in a thin gown.

He looked back at the broken railing, then turned to her. “I’m sorry,” he said.

She waved him over, and Cole noticed she wasn’t wearing goggles to protect her eyes. His heart fluttered with panic. He remembered Byrne, the only other person he’d seen who could withstand the light. He also remembered what they called the woman and wondered briefly if he’d been set up, if this was some sort of trap—

The woman waved again, the sleeve of her gown falling back to reveal an arm narrower than bone. “Come inside and get comfortable,” she said. She backed through the doorway, her eyes focused on something distant and to Cole’s side.

Cole stood a moment, indecisive. He looked over at the rear of the hyperskimmer, its engines purring with the strain of pushing the cabin into the rain. Everything within him said to feel threatened by the situation, but he couldn’t. His normally reliable paranoia failed him for some reason. He crossed the porch, keeping his feet wide in case the cabin shuddered again, and stepped inside the cabin after the woman, who shut the door tight behind him.

There was a brief moment of pitch black as he worked his goggles loose. “I’m Cole,” he said. He blinked in the dim light of the interior and took in his surroundings. The room was tiny, a hair more than a few meters to a side. A neatly-made bed rested in one corner, almost as narrow as the woman herself. The far wall had a counter, a sink, and some cabinets. A large barrel had been strapped to another wall; it sloshed with water, and a hose added more to its contents in steady drips. The entire space crackled with the sound of rain on tin, the boards squeaking as the place rumbled along.

“But then,” Cole said, “I guess you already knew my name, being a seer and all.”

The lady smiled, her wrinkled face not matching her bright, beautiful teeth. She sat down by the head of the bed and patted beside herself. “I’m sorry I don’t have much in the way of furniture. There’s not enough need to merit straining the animals.”

“That’s okay,” Cole said. He sat down at the foot of the bed and fidgeted with his goggles, turning them over and over in his lap. He concentrated on keeping his posture stiff as an uncomfortable silence somehow grew amid the din of rain on metal. He noticed the woman looked near him, but not right at him.

“Your eyes—” he stammered.

“Not so good in low light,” the lady said, laughing. She leaned close to Cole. “Do you mind?” She held up both hands, palms out.

“I— sure,” Cole said. He took her wrists, his hands easily encircling them, and leaned forward as he closed his eyes. She reached for his forehead first, just the pads of her fingers moving lightly against his skin. Cole let go of her wrists and remained still. It didn’t feel invasive like he thought it would. It didn’t feel strange at all. He kept his eyes tight as her fingers moved down to his checks, feeling his jawline and chin.

When he opened his eyes, he found himself looking right into hers; they seemed bright but unfocused.

Cole felt his heart stop for a moment as he lost himself in them—the brown with the yellow starburst, little ridges of black flying out from the pupil, giving them a depth he found… familiar.

“Do I know you?” Cole asked, as the lady sat back, smiling.

“Not yet,” she said. “And I’m not who you think I am.”

“You’re not—?”

“Molly?” She laughed, a pleasant sound. “No, I’m not. I’m not half the woman she is.” More laughter. “Literally,” she said, running her hands through the air and down the length of her frail form, “as you can plainly see.”

“Why did you want to meet me?” Cole asked. “Am I supposed to do something?”

“All you need to do is be who you are.” She reached behind herself and arranged a pillow, then settled back, bringing one leg up onto the bed. “Can you keep a secret?”

“I think so.”

“Don’t tell Mortimor, but I wanted you out just so I could meet you. You can tell him it was important if you want, but that’s the truth of it. I don’t have much more to look forward to, but this was one of the biggies.”

“Meeting me.”

She nodded. “Absolutely.”

“I feel honored, I guess. So, how long do we have? What do you want to talk about?”

“Oh, life. Philosophy. The same sort of stuff you’re interested in. I also have a story or two you might find fascinating. But first, I wonder if you could do me a favor.”

“Sure,” Cole said. Already, he felt the most relaxed he had since crashing into hyperspace. The small cabin was like a pocket of normalcy within a raging storm of bewilderment. “What can I do for you?” he asked.

“Well, there’s a leak behind that counter,” the Bern Seer said, “and for the life of me I can’t see where the water’s coming from.”

36

Parsona’s nose dipped into the carrier’s flight bay, the glare of Lok’s sun replaced by the warm glow of artificial lights.

“Suns ’a britches,” Cat whispered. She cupped her hands around her face and pressed them against the porthole beside the nav chair. Molly hovered the ship just inside the cavernous hangar and looked out to port through her own circle of glass to see what Cat was reacting to.

“Flank me,” she whispered.

It was the Firehawks. Dozens of them. Hundreds, maybe. They were piled high along the upper wall like they’d been shoved out of the way and had somehow gotten stuck there. The StarCarrier’s hangar bay wasn’t empty at all, the ships just weren’t down around the bottom where they should’ve been—they were heaped up along the upper wall to either side of the open airlock.

Molly noted several ships had crashed back to the decking in front of the pile. They lay apart from the rest, forlorn, their wings crushed. The sight made her chest feel hollow, her stomach nauseous. Shapes she equated with power and grace looked like broken animals. Like dead things.

“Don’t make no sense,” Scottie said.

“It makes perfect sense,” Molly whispered. She kept her voice soft, almost as if in reverence of the shattered hulls. She flew deeper into the hangar, then spun the ship around to survey the scene. The pile of debris sat on the sloping deck, up at the top, seemingly in defiance of Lok’s gravity.

“The grav panels went out at some point,” Molly said. “Maybe on impact, maybe before. The ships must’ve rattled around in here, crashing against that side, and then the grav panels kicked back on. Now they’re holding the ships to the decking, which must feel like down for them.”

Scottie leaned over the control console to peer at the wreckage. “Watch your hands,” Molly said, nodding at the controls.

“Yeah, sorry.” He gripped the back of the flightseats and squinted out through the carboglass. “You don’t have any binoculars?” he asked.

Molly shook her head. “No. Just SADAR. Why do you ask?”

“Thought I saw something moving up there,” Scottie said, pointing.

“That’s not—”

“I see it too,” Cat said. She leaned forward and peered toward the line of busted ships. “I’ll be a Drenard’s uncle,” she said, “somebody’s alive in that cockpit!”

Molly was about to argue with them when she saw it as well. Something definitely moved inside one of the shattered canopies. It was impossible to make out any detail—it was just a dark form shifting behind a spider web of fractured glass.

“I’m gonna test the panels,” Molly announced, almost out of habit, as if Cole were there and she needed someone to second the idea.

She lowered the landing gear and settled gently to the decking. As she reduced thrust, Molly waited for the ship to slide back, matching the lean of the StarCarrier, but Parsona didn’t budge. The solid decking beneath them matched the evidence hanging above in all those Firehawks and their scattered debris: the StarCarrier’s grav panels were fully functioning.

“This feels freaky,” Scottie said.

“Forget about the planet,” Molly told them. “Just concentrate on the decking. The decking is down.” It was easy to say, but hard to sound convincing. White puffy clouds slid across the rectangle of blue at the end of the hangar bay. They were looking up a steep slope and trying to tell their bodies it was something else.

“Are we all gonna go out there?” Scottie asked.

“We might need the muscle,” Molly said, already formulating a plan and making a list in her head. She looked back through the cockpit. “We might even need Walter. Anybody know where he is?”

••••

“I have to go,” Walter thought. He peeked out of his room and up the length of the ship.

“Everything okay?” he heard through the band.

“Yeah, jusst—”

“Why are you thinking about sshipss going down, Walter? Iss everything alright?”

Walter cursed himself. He was concentrating on not thinking about that!

“It’ss fine, I jusst need to go help Molly.”

“I undersstand. Hey Walter?”

“Yeah?” He glanced out again, then ran across and snuck into Molly’s room while his mysterious friend kept talking.

“When you come ssee me and bring me thosse armss, why don’t you bring Molly with you?”

Walter knelt by her bottom drawer, looking for the tell-tell hair. “Why?” he asked, dying to end the conversation and get out of there.

“I’d like to meet her. And bessidess, what good iss all that gold if you don’t have ssomeone to sspend it on?”

“I’ve gotta go,” Walter said, pulling off the band. He folded it up and stashed it away, then finally found the hair.

As he put the single follicle in place and snuck out of her room, he thought about a block of gold the size of a small moon. Barrel after barrel of solid gold so big you needed tugs to move them around.

And then he thought of how much Molly would really love a brand new starship. And he would buy her one. But first, he had to get her into orbit to meet this guy, which meant reprograming the crappy ship they were already in. How would he get his chance to do that? Molly wouldn’t trust him near the systems, and whatever she’d done to the cockpit door, it was enough that he couldn’t crack it. It was like the thing had a mind of its own. He had to find a way, somehow. His new friend—the voice behind the band—had said was that he was a very smart Palan and that he would figure something out.

And I will, Walter told himself.

He sure was glad to have met someone who knew he wasn’t stupid.

••••

Molly parked several hundred meters from the pile of ships, just in case any of them shifted. It made for a long hike with all the heavy gear they were toting—and it gave her plenty of time to appreciate how large the hangar was without ships arranged throughout.

Scottie and Urg carried the fuel tank for the cutting torch between them; Molly had the handheld radio and the large medkit; Cat carried a duffle full of blankets, water, and clean rags. Walter had volunteered to carry the torch and its tubing, which had started off neatly slung over his narrow shoulders, but loops kept sliding off, knotting in coils that he had resorted to dragging across the deck.

Together, they approached the Firehawk in which they’d seen movement. It lay upside down, on top of another broken ship. Everyone set their gear down in a base camp of sorts, all acting professional and calm. Except for Walter, who hissed with annoyance as he began unknotting the hose for the cutting torch.

“I’ll go up,” said Molly, “since I’m familiar with the torch. Scottie, you and Urg can give me a boost to the wing; Cat, you play out the hose.” She pulled the basic medkit out of the larger duffel and slung it around her neck.

Urg raised his hand.

“What is it, big guy?”

“I wanna look for others,” the Callite said, frowning.

“That’s a good idea. Scottie can boost me himself. Take the radio with you in case anyone starts transmitting.”

Urg nodded. He grabbed the portable radio from the top of a duffle and stomped off.

“Make some noise if you find anything!” Scottie yelled after him.

Molly waited for Walter to get the last knot out before attaching one end of the hose to the cutting tank. The dial showed a quarter-full, more than enough. She couldn’t believe they had found a single survivor, much less the dozen or so cuts it would need to deplete the tank.

“I’m ready,” she told Scottie, jerking her head up at the wing above.

He stood directly under it and formed a basket with his hands. Molly draped the hose around her neck and reached up for his shoulders as she put her weight in his palms. She could feel the muscles around his neck harden as he lifted her up effortlessly, high over his head.

“Whoa!” Molly reached up and grabbed the lip, steadying herself as Scottie practically tossed her on top of the wing. She stayed on all fours and turned around. “Nice and easy, big guy.”

Scottie smiled sheepishly as Molly took the loop of hose from her neck and pulled the cutting torch up. Behind her, she could hear the faint sounds of someone knocking, the thump of a boot against thick carboglass.

It took several tries with the sparker before the torch lit, the flint inside worn nearly smooth after so many years of use. When it finally caught, there was a loud pop as the excess gas exploded, followed by the purposeful hiss and blue flame of pressurized fuel burning upon release.

Molly twisted the dial on the side and concentrated on the shape of the white teardrop in the middle of the blue flame. Once it looked perfect for cutting plasteel, she locked the valve and slapped the carboglass several times with her palm. She waited for the noise within to stop, the dark form pulling away from the hazed glass. The entire canopy was so finely cracked, she couldn’t see inside, even from a meter away.

She studied the shape of the cockpit for a moment, determining the best and safest place to cut. One entire lip of the canopy was twisted out of shape, preventing it from sliding back and trapping the person inside. Looking at the way the Firehawks around her were warped out of shape, she couldn’t believe a human being could survive whatever had happened. She bent down and worked the flame over the lip of the side porthole, squinting at the bright light of plasma as she gradually cut a circle out of the hull.

The entire section of frame fell inside the cockpit as the last of the cut was made. Molly killed the torch and bent down near the hole. “Keep back for a sec!” she yelled. She opened one of the water bottles and doused the edges of the plasteel, which popped and hissed violently but lost their red glow.

Two gloved hands emerged. They grabbed the jagged lip, and a helmet followed. Molly realized at once how the pilot had survived the crash: his lifesupport umbilical was still jacked in by his armpit, catching on the edge of cut steel. She reached down and popped it loose as the man fell out of the hole and onto the wing of the lower Firehawk. He kicked at the surface with his heels, scrambling backward and fumbling with his helmet.

“What’s going on up there?” Scottie yelled from below.

Molly ignored Scottie’s shouts. “Hold still,” she told the pilot. She grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed him down before reaching for the clasps on his helmet. The dome popped off, revealing a young spaceman with sweat-matted hair and eyes wide with fear.

“It’s okay. Calm down.” Molly looked him over for signs of injury. “What’s your name?” she asked.

“Higgins. Private Higgins,” he said. “Deck maintenance, third shift. I—” his eyes focused on something beyond Molly. “Where’re the others?” he asked.

“Keep calm.” Molly handed him a bottle of water from the medkit. “You were smart to get plugged in,” she told him.

Higgins took a long swig from the bottle, wiped his chin, then looked down at his flightsuit. “Jonesy,” he said, rubbing his fingers over the name patch. “He told me to do it. Gave me one of his extra flightsuits. I think he knew we were going down before we even got hit. He ran off for the Admiral, I think he was trying to save the old man—”

“Saunders?” Molly asked.

Higgins nodded. “Yeah.” He stopped and looked up at Molly. “Are you a part of some kinda rescue operation?”

“I— Not really. There might not be anyone else to rescue,” she said.

“Everything okay up there?”

Molly went to the edge of the wing and looked over. “A scared mechanic. He jacked into the life support. The antigrav suit kept him alive. Gimme a sec with him so he’ll be okay to climb down—”

Loud banging echoed down the line of ships, cutting her off. Scottie and Cat turned and looked toward the sound; Molly followed their gazes. In the distance, she could see Urg waving his arms and pointing up to another Firehawk.

“Pants on fire,” Cat whispered. “I think we have more survivors.”

••••

There were eight of them in all. Five pilots, two navigators, and Higgins. The two paired-up crew members had been on deck, ready for lift-off, when the grav panels failed. Everyone’s story was the same and equally awful: they had held tight in abject terror while the ships were flung from one side of the hangar to the other, everyone fearful their Firehawk would rattle out the open hangar doors, or they would lose life support.

Certainly, some others had.

None of the Gs suffered had been too much for the flightsuits, and everyone seemed fit, if dehydrated and terrified. Molly and her little rescue crew stayed so busy crawling across the wreckage, cutting people out and getting them food and water, that she hardly noticed the odd dynamic forming. Pilots—some of them twice her age—were looking to her and her friends as if they were in charge.

While Urg continued to search for anyone left alive in the tangled mess—refusing to give up even when it seemed unlikely there were any more—Molly and the others sat with the crewmen, trying to console them. They all had a defeated, dazed look, almost like animals after a near-drowning.

Molly peeled the wrapper off a protein bar and handed it to one of the pilots. His eyes were unblinking, wide and wet.

“It was the Drenards, wasn’t it?” he asked her.

She shook her head. “No. It’s something worse. Now listen, we need to figure out—”

“What’s worse than Drenards?” someone else asked.

“Is it the Tchung?”

“It’s not the Tchung,” Molly said.

“Gotta be the Dremards. I heard they were coming out of their arm of the Milky Way for the first time. They attacked Rigel!”

Molly held up her hands. “It’s not Drenards—”

“What then? Did you see them? What was it?”

“Listen,” she said. “The first thing we need to do is help the rest of the crew. See if any of the staff survived. Then we can—”

“Survived?” Higgins squeaked. “Nobody but us survived! How could they? There was almost ten thousand people on this ship, and now there’s eight!” He looked at his palms. “Darlene,” he said, then started sobbing, covering his face with his hands.

Molly rose and went to him. She wrapped her arm around his shoulders and looked to the others. “We’ll mourn when we can and for as long as they deserve, but right now we need to—”

“We need to get off this ship!” someone said.

“And we will,” Molly told them. “We will. But first, we need to see if anyone else survived. According to Higgins, here, one of the pilots went off to help the senior staff—”

“They’re dead!” one of the pilots said. “C’mon, the only safe place in this bucket was to be rattling around in one of our little tin cans.”

“That’s not true,” Molly said. “There’s one other place we need to check. Just in case.”

One of the pilots—Roberts, according to his name patch—met her with a solid look. His eyes were aware, vibrant, not as red as the others.

“Where’s that?” he asked.

“The simulator room,” Molly said.

••••

They left the survivors behind with Urg, who insisted on continuing his search for life among the debris. Several of the pilots suggested they come along and help, but Molly stood firm, pretending to be looking out for their well-being. In reality, she didn’t want to get bogged down if they came across bodies of people they knew, forcing her to tend to their nerves instead of potential survivors. Also—and she hated to admit it—she didn’t want to get outnumbered if any of them found out who she was. According to the report she’d found in the Navy database, she and her ship were the highest of high-priority targets. And now they were back on the same damned Navy StarCarrier she had once escaped from.

She swiped one of the pilot’s badges through a door reader and let Walter go through first. He led the way with his computer, the schematics for the ship pulled up from his last hack of the place. Molly looked at the badge in her hand, the one that had opened the door, and wondered if the gesture had even been necessary.

They made haste down the hallway that led to the stairwells, not trusting the elevator shaft after a crash landing; it could easily be just as twisted as the Firehawks. They each carried biotubes from one of the pilot’s survival kits, and Cat had a flashlight, just in case.

Inside the landing of the stairwell, they came across their first bodies, barely recognizable as such. Not welded down like everything else aboard the ship, they had been flung all over the stairwell when the grav panels had temporarily failed. They left behind not much more than smears of red wetness on the walls and on the underside of the rising flight of steps. Flightsuits lay scattered in lumpy reminders of what the mess had originated from.

Molly tried to focus into the distance as she stepped gently through the slick, chunk-filled puddles. She gripped the railing to the side. When her hand went into something wet, she had to stifle her gag reflex and fight to remain in control of her senses. She led the way down the steps, two flights, both of which were covered with and reeking of human remains.

Behind her, Scottie coughed into his hand. Molly reached back and clutched Walter’s sleeve, helping steady both of them, physically and emotionally. She scanned open the door on the crew deck and waved them through, each of them pale and holding their breath. All except for Walter, who didn’t seem fazed; his attention was firmly locked onto his computer.

“This way,” he said calmly.

Scottie leaned against the bulkhead, his head bowed down. “We’re gonna have to find a different way back,” he said. “I’ve seen some flanked-up shit in my day, but nothing like that.”

“They were probably told to—” Molly fought hard to swallow, “—told to get in the stairwell. Like an emergency drill. Either that, or everyone thought of the suits in the hangar and got backed up trying to get there.” She grabbed Scottie’s arm and led him after Walter, who was waiting at the next turn.

“I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like to be in there,” Cat said.

The words popped a visual in Molly’s mind: the tight confines, packed and rattling with dozens and dozens of Gs. It would’ve been awful.

“We’re not gonna find anybody down here,” Scottie complained. “I’m thinking we should head back.”

“It’s just around the corner,” Molly assured him. Walter had shown her schematics of the carrier; the sim room and the hangar were situated above and below the pilot’s quarters, as if to reduce their foot travel.

Walter ran ahead, leading the way to the simulator room. The smell of blood and oil seemed to permeate the lower decks as fluids leaked out of broken things. Molly fought to ignore the occasional body they went by. Even the sight of a bag of laundry, open and disgorging crumpled Navy blacks, filled her with sorrow. What was left of the person who had been rushing off to wash those? she wondered.

As they caught up to Walter and neared the simulator room, Molly realized Scottie had been right. They weren’t going to find anyone alive down there. If someone had survived in a simulator pod, they would surely be running up and down the decks by now, looking to rescue others or trying to flee the ship.

Expecting to find the room intact, the pods empty or full of more horror, Molly stepped inside with her hopes low—when she should’ve been concentrating on keeping her defenses up.

Hundreds, maybe thousands of crewmen had been packed in the simulator room—it was impossible to tell exactly how many. Their bodies formed a wall of gruesome death on the far side of the room, stacked up in a scene eerily reminiscent of the Firehawks piled high in the hangar. Jumbled up, mounded like a snowdrift, they formed a slope of tangled forms, their individual parts woven together and indistinguishable.

The marks their flying bodies had made spotted the room, dotting the pods, the floor, even the ceiling with bright marks of crimson. Molly caught herself on the doorjamb and tried to wave away the others before they joined her. The sound of Scottie gagging behind her let her know she’d been too late.

“Flank me,” Cat said. “They were all thinkin’ the same thing.”

“Let’s go,” Molly told them. She pushed her way past her friends and back into the hallway, which suddenly seemed positively laden with fresh air. She tried not to think about what those people had gone through, what their last moments had been like. The crowded panic, the fearful silence, and then… the horrible rattling and crushing.

“Ssomethingss knocking,” Walter said from the room.

“I think that’s my knees,” Scottie said. “I don’t feel so good.”

“Ssssshhhh,” Walter hissed.

Molly stepped back by the door but didn’t dare look inside. She listened around the corner for a sound, but could only hear her heartbeat in her ears. Scottie came out bent over and covering his mouth with the back of one hand.

“Damn, I think I heard it too,” Cat said.

“It’ss coming from the podss,” said Walter.

Molly steeled her nerves. Keeping her eyes low, she reentered the room. She stood there, perfectly still, holding her hands out to urge the others to be as quiet as possible.

There. A muffled pounding. Running to the nearest pod, she clanged up the steps and slapped on the egg-shaped compartment before pressing her ear to it.

“You hear anything?” Cat asked, climbing up the steps.

“Someone yelling, I think. But these things open from within, so I don’t get why they’d need help.”

Cat ran up the steps of another pod and rubbed her hands across the hatch. “Are they damaged?”

“Doesn’t look—”

The pod twitched, rotating in its base. Molly stepped back. Walter hissed at the pod closest to him, which seemed to have moved in unison.

“Of course!” Molly ran down the steps and toward the control room.

“Of course, what?” Cat called out after her.

“A simulation is still running. Somebody must’ve—”

She stopped when she entered the control room. The remains of that very somebody were smeared all over the small booth. Their body lay crumbled in a heap in one corner, the spaceman’s flightsuit so flat it appeared empty. Molly looked away, but the sight was seared on her retina, overlaid onto so many other horrific images. She thought about the sacrifice this person had made and silently honored him.

The keyboard and screen were a mess, but she had to do something about the pod controls. She pulled the medkit over her shoulder and around in front, then groped inside for a gauze pad. Using the medical fabric to remove a smear off the screen made it impossible to imagine the mess as anything other than blood. The pad soaked it up dutifully.

CONTROLLER  -           GERALD “JONESY” RICKSON

PROGRAM       -           ZERO G MAINTAIN

E.T.C.            -          1:42

ENEMY TYPE    -           NONE

ENEMY COUNT  -          0

POD LINK        -          ALL

CONTINGENCY   -         DISABLED

Molly glanced at the flight routine summary. The adjacent SADAR screen showed a cluster of virtual Firehawks drifting in space. The routine still had almost two hours to go, a gross overestimation for how long the crash would take. Then again, she probably would’ve done the same thing, taking no chances on an early exit.

Using the gauze to hold down the CTRL button, she jabbed the BREAK key with a knuckle, then ran back outside while the simulation wound down.

“Scottie, we’re gonna need you in here,” she called out the door. “Everyone, get ready to guide any survivors out. Keep their focus away from the back of the room. We’ll form up and meet in the hallway.” She turned to Cat. “Come with me,” Molly said.

She ran toward the far pods, the ones that would be closest to the tangle of bodies. It would be important to get any surviving occupants away as quickly as possible. Molly wasn’t sure how, but having something to work on—people to be responsible for—made crossing the room possible. She felt grateful for the temporary immunity and focused on the slim chance that the simulators had kept the Admiral safe.

She forgot, for just a moment, that she might not be safe if he was.

••••

The hatches started popping open as soon as the simulation shutdown procedure completed. Cries of anguish and relief spilled out of the pods just before the people did. Men and women exited their simulators and shouted for one another. As they emerged, it proved impossible to keep them from seeing what lay at the far end of the room. Moans of agony and peals of disbelief rang out, along with a smattering of curses. Molly found herself yelling at grown men to head for the exit, the white hair and beards on many of them signifying rank their borrowed simulator suits belied.

Everyone seemed too stunned to care that they were being yelled at by a teenager, a Callite, a Palan, and a roughneck local. Their state of shock made them more like cattle, giving Molly and her friends easy verbal control of them. She felt a wave of confidence and surety wash over her—the hours they had already spent around the horror had put her group in a much better state than these survivors. The four of them had descended through the gore in stages, rather than hatching directly into the worst it had to offer.

Molly corralled a dozen survivors together and guided them, pushing and prodding, toward the hallway. They clung to one another like refugees, knees weakened by an emotional ordeal no less taxing than a physical one might be.

Cat lagged behind with another cluster, including a few women. In fact, ahead of Molly—clustered around Walter and Scottie—there seemed to be quite a few women among the survivors. Further ahead, an older gentleman leaned against the rear of a pod and threw up on the decking. Several other people seemed to have been physically sick. Molly swallowed hard and tried to focus on getting everyone out of there.

“Into the hallway,” she yelled.

Most of them didn’t need to be told. Many ran out, clutching their stomachs or sobbing into their hands, men and women alike.

As she guided her own group forward, Molly heard someone yelling from inside one of the simulators. She left Cat in charge of her survivors and stomped up the steps, only to find yet another level of disgust: someone hadn’t gotten their suit plugged in. Either that, or the grav link had failed. The other occupant, a young man, seemed unscathed but in a state of shock. He held the body in his lap, the arms of the deceased dangling to either side with the litheness of a hundred joints.

At least, thank the gods, the suit’s seals had remained intact.

“I need you to come with me,” Molly told him. She ducked into the pod and reached for the limp body in his lap. The survivor stared at her, visor open, mouth slack, a dull whine leaking out. It was the sound of distilled agony. Of confusion and regression.

Grabbing the limp figure, Molly shifted it to the other seat and nearly threw up inside the simulator pod. The form inside the outfit felt pulverized. Chunked. She bit down on her tongue to divert her attention with some pain while she folded the suit and its contents out of the man’s lap.

“We need to go,” she told him. She unbuckled his harness and pulled him toward the open hatch. The man continued to make a strange moaning sound as she guided him out and down the steps.

They were the last two out into the hallway. As they approached the door, Molly felt the need to turn around, to make sure there weren’t more people to help. It was hard to do with the knowledge of what lay behind, but she looked anyway. Everyone that could be saved was out. The percentages—seeing how many didn’t stand a chance—it made her feel sick.

In the hallway, she found most of the survivors sitting along the wall, some of them prone. The medkit felt ridiculous across her back; nobody needed so much as an adhesive strip. What they should’ve brought down was more water and rations. Molly saw that the little nourishment they did have was already being passed around; she worked her way down the line of bedraggled spacemen, checking eyes for alertness—when she found him. Found herself face-to-face with Admiral Saunders.

Their eyes met—and his widened.

“You.”

Molly nearly burst out in tears to see someone she knew, someone from her seemingly long-ago past. Saunders represented a thread back to normalcy; she could see him and remember being young and only miserable in frivolous ways. She could remember, with longing, the simple pain of being yelled at, of being treated poorly. She approached, holding out a bottle of water, but he slapped it away.

“You need to drink,” she told him.

He looked to either side of himself, surveying those nearest him. Molly noticed the men and women clustered around him had the most gray in their hair and the least trauma in their eyes. They bore the haggard look of veterans, the creases made by years of worry had become permanent in expressive wrinkles.

“Arrest her,” Saunders said meekly, looking to his subordinates. “She’s the one—”

Molly knelt down and rested a hand on his shoulder. “We need to get everyone out of here,” she said, “and you need to drink some water. You can airlock me later, if you like.”

He frowned as she pushed the water into his hand. A thin man with wispy gray hair slid close and grabbed the bottom of the bottle, moving it to Saunders’s lips. The gray man met Molly’s eyes with his own; he nodded slowly to her as the Admiral slurped from the bottle.

Molly stood up and looked around herself. There had to be almost a hundred of them. With what few they had rescued above, it was but a sliver of a fraction of a percent of the total crew. The tragedy of this one act alone was mind-numbing. The thought of it happening throughout the galaxy was too terrible to even register. At least one cruiser had also gone down, then there were all the Firehawks and support craft—

Molly left Saunders in the care of the others and walked back down the center of the hallway. She wondered how they were going to get everyone through the stairwell and into the ship. And how many flights back and forth with Parsona would it take to keep everyone comfortable? And where would she take them? All the way back to Bekkie?

She was mulling this over, surveying the crowd, when she noticed Walter standing by the doorway of the simulator room, staring inside. His eyes were narrowed, his silvery, stubbly head leaning forward as he gazed in the direction of the far wall.

“Don’t look at it, Walter.” She walked up and put her hands on his narrow shoulders, trying to turn him away.

“Ssomething’ss wrong,” he hissed.

“I know, buddy, but we’ll get through it together, okay?”

“No.” He shrugged her hands off his shoulders. “Ssomething’ss really wrong. It moved.”

Molly forced herself to look at the pile of bodies in the distance. “Nothing moved in there, Walter. Your eyes are playing tricks on—”

One of the bodies on top of the steep pile fell away from the rest; it rolled sickeningly across the simulator room, joints folding in ways they shouldn’t. And then it came to a sudden halt. Several other bodies followed suit, all of them coming to a stop at the same place, their limbs tangled and supple.

Suddenly, a large chunk came loose—a crowd. The rest of the wall followed in a sudden avalanche of bodies. The corpses tumbled across the steel decking together, skidding to an eerie halt in a wide dune of the dead.

Walter pulled back from the room, hissing.

“What’s wrong?” Cat asked, walking over and steadying Walter. She peered past Molly. “What in the hell?”

“Get everyone together,” Molly whispered. “We need to get out of here.”

“What’s going on?”

Molly turned to Cat. “The grav panels are failing.”

Part XV – Coming Together

“What greater tragedy is there than two lovers, racing for each other, desperate and longing, only to pass, unbeknownst, in the darkness?”

~The Bern Seer~

37

Cole held the wooden sword with his right hand and twirled it in the air. It made a satisfying, swooshing sound. Arthur frowned at him.

“More wrist,” he said. “You don’t have a new shoulder, so the power has to come from your elbow and wrist.”

“Why not just give me a new shoulder?” Cole asked, smiling.

“Because it’s expensive and parts are hard to come by. But more importantly, where would you want me to stop? Replace everything from the neck down? At what point would you quit feeling like you?”

“Maybe everything from the neck up would be better,” someone said.

Cole turned to the voice—

It was the girl with the red hair. She had on one of the same training suits he’d been given, her bright locks up in a tight bun and a wooden sword in her hand.

“Have you two officially met?” Arthur asked.

“That’s a good question,” Cole said. He stepped forward and extended his hand. “Have we?”

“Penny,” the girl said, grabbing his hand and squeezing it. Hard.

Cole tried to pull away, but she had an iron grip.

“I don’t think we have,” she said, smiling. “Not officially.”

Arthur clapped his hands together. “Okay, you two square off. Just the basics today. Bear with me, Penny, and go easy on the lad.”

“I will,” she said, winking at Cole and freeing his hand.

He looked down at it and flexed his artificial fingers, marveling at the pain interface.

Arthur turned to Cole. “Any fencing at the Academy?”

“Two semesters,” he said proudly.

“Aw, hell,” Arthur said. “Well, do me a favor and forget all that nonsense. Buckblades aren’t swords.”

“Buckblades? The invisible things?”

“That’s right.” Arthur stepped over and adjusted Cole’s grip on the handle. “Buckminster Fuller came up with the design hundreds of years ago. Well, sorta.” He ran his hand down the wooden approximation of a blade while he talked. “It’s a single matrix of carbon laced with iron, neodymium, and cobalt. Extremely ferromagnetic, okay? Super sharp. But the trick is in the blade’s handle, that’s where the electromagnetic field is created that spools the wire out and keeps it stiff. The blade’ll cut through damn near anything.”

“Even each other?”

“Sharp kid,” Arthur said, looking at Penny and jabbing a thumb his way. She shrugged and twirled her stick in a graceful pattern, so fast Cole could hear the air screaming in protest as it tried to move out of the way.

“No, not each other. Buckblades have orthogonal magnetic charges, otherwise they’d fly out of your hand and stick to something metal, get it?”

“Orthogonal?” Cole asked. “Is that positive or negative?”

“Neither. There’s two other kinds of magnetic fields, monopoles that can be harvested here in hyperspace. All Buckblades have the same charge, so it’s almost impossible to get them together, much less cut through one another.”

“They fly away from each other? Why not make some of them with the opposite charge, then?”

Cole tried to mimic the pattern Penny was making, which made her laugh.

“You just lost your clever points, son. Now I have to assume you got lucky before.”

“What do you think would happen?” Penny asked, taunting him.

“They’d stick together?”

“That’s putting it mildly, now pay attention. When someone swings at you, you can’t get hit. Not even a little, okay?”

“I think he’s learned that lesson,” Penny said. She darted forward and smacked the back of his right hand with her sword.

Cole dropped his weapon and shook his hand, glaring at her.

“Good point, Penny. Now, Cole, keep a firm grip on your sword.” Arthur bent down, picked it up, and handed it back to him. “Don’t crush the thing, but try not to drop it.”

“Why’d you make the thing feel pain?” Cole asked, rubbing his hand.

“Same reason God made the other one that way. So you’d take care of it. Now listen, you don’t want to get hit. Not once. And you can’t really block your opponent’s attacks, they’ll just repulse each other—”

“How does this work, then? He who swings first, wins?”

“The other way around, usually. See the slits on your sword?”

Cole inspected the wooden blade. There were deep cracks running down the length of the thing. He nodded.

“When you swing the practice swords at each other, internal sensors calculate where they would be repulsed to. Lights in the blade shine out and your suit picks them up—”

“Oh, so it’s like a game of billiards. It’s all about the bank shots.”

“Okay, another clever point for you. Now, most fights end with someone’s own sword coming back and hitting them. With the right block and a forceful enough stance, you can send most attacks back where they came from. Think of your sword more as a shield. It’s your opponent’s sword that’s your real weapon, and your sword is theirs. Get it? So learn to fear what you’re holding and figure out how to attack with what their wielding. Now, Penny will show you the basic attack angles—the safest ones. They aren’t what you’d think, so pay attention and unlearn your fencing.”

Cole nodded and tried to take the same stance as Penny: feet apart, shoulders square, pretty much the exact posture that would’ve gotten him a beating from Lieutenant Eckers, his old fencing instructor.

“The power is from side to side,” Penny told him. “It’s in your hips.” She moved hers back and forth while Cole watched.

“You’re supposed to try it too,” she said, reaching out and smacking his sword.

“Oh, yeah.” He moved his hips side to side, swinging the wooden stick just like she did.

“It’s a lot like a judo throw, or a good roundhouse. If you don’t get your whole body in on it, you won’t go far.”

“Gotcha,” Cole said, trying to ignore the way her suit hugged her body.

“Give me your best shot.”

Cole’s feet shuffled automatically, trying to get back into a proper fencing stance. Penny lashed out with her sword, which he instinctively blocked. Solidly. The wooden shafts smacked together with a satisfying crack.

Both thighs on his suit lit up, showing him where he would’ve lost them.

“You’ve got no power like that,” Penny said, tapping his hip with her sword. “This isn’t a contest where you score points and gab with your opponent about whose mother smells worse.” She rapped his sword with hers, then tapped him in the stomach. “There’s nothing noble or fun about this, okay? It’s one swing and you’re dead. There isn’t anything heroic about it, and nothing fun or pleasant, even for the winner.”

Cole nodded, resuming his square-on stance. “Have you been in real fights with these?”

“Do I sound like I’m reading from a textbook? Trust me, it isn’t pretty.”

“I’ve seen what they can do,” Cole told her.

“It’s different when you’re the one doing it. Now, there are three major angles you need to learn and two sub angles—they’re your safest attacks and the hardest to parry. Forget thrusts altogether, okay?”

Cole nodded as she began the first lesson; he tried his best to absorb it all. He also tried to watch her hips only when she told him to. Finally, he tried his damnedest to pretend that Arthur—standing to one side and offering suggestions—was Molly. Watching him. Reading his mind with a D-band. Forcing him to stifle his thoughts.

It helped him to imagine Penny was someone else. Anyone but the flaming girl from his strange dream. And finally, as they began to spar, their swords clashing while they discussed angles of deflection, he tried his damnedest to ignore her red hair. He pretended instead that Penny was a blonde.

The one who had taken his arm.

38

“Move swift, but stay calm,” Molly told everyone, as the survivors marched past in a black column of Navy flightsuits. They jogged, but refrained from pushing on one another. Their brains may have checked out, but the military training remained, coming back thanks to the hint of danger—the fear propelling them forward. Ahead, Scottie stood by the door to the stairwell, waving the crewmen through.

When a logjam forced everyone to a halt, Molly fought her way through to the stairwell where she found several people on the ground, sliding in the spilt blood and gore.

“Grab the rails!” she told them. “Help each other up! C’mon, let’s go!”

Back in the hallway, someone screamed, and it soon turned into a chorus of frightened shouts. Molly stuck her head back into the hallway and saw—in the distance—bodies dripping out the door of the simulator room.

The panels were failing in sequence.

Pure terror coursed up through Molly’s body. She expected, at any minute, the gravity holding her to the deck would simply vanish. She imagined the ship as she’d seen it from outside, its thrusters up in the clouds. The visual gave her vertigo. She realized, suddenly, that she was standing on the face of a cliff. The thought made her feel faint; people began pushing past her, scrambling up the slick steps, some of them on all-fours.

Molly found herself swimming amongst them, pulling herself ahead, racing up wet steps and over bodies alive and otherwise. The fear was gone, replaced with a keen awareness of what could happen next.

She needed to get to Parsona, and fast.

At the top of the stairs, she came across Cat, who was helping people up and through the door. The entire front of her was smeared with blood; Molly looked down and realized she was covered in it as well.

“I have to get to the ship. Get everyone to me as fast as you can!”

“Will do!” Cat yelled as she helped another person up. The two of them locked eyes, and Molly saw none of her own panic and fear in the Callite’s eyes. If anything, they sparkled with life.

Molly turned away and bolted through the door. She ran at a full sprint down the hallway, urging the stumbling survivors on as she passed them. She yelled for them to get to the hangar bay and into her ship. As she ran ahead, she tried to picture the layout of the StarCarrier to figure out which direction the panels were failing. She wondered whether she was heading toward the problem panels or away from them.

Away, she finally decided. Otherwise she would probably have already met them.

She skidded through the open door halfway down the hall and burst into the hangar; she slipped, fell, then scrambled back to her feet. “Get to the ship!” she yelled to Urg, who was still ranging up and down the line of Firehawks in the distance, looking for survivors. She didn’t see the other pilots at first, but saw movement inside Parsona. She pictured the number of upright people she could cram in its hull as she sprinted toward her ship and past the staggering survivors who had reached the hangar ahead of her.

“What in hyperspace?” one of the pilots asked as she stomped into the cargo bay. Molly imagined how she must look to them, all covered in blood. She thought about what they were in store for.

“Get ready to help,” she told them. She flipped the thrusters on and looked through the carboglass at the line of survivors spilling out the door. “There’re bottles of water in the cabinet above the fridge. We’re gonna need to pack people into every corner of the ship, even the lazarrette and cargo holds. Get them open. And grab that med kit over the sink, just in case.”

Several of the pilots went to work, their focus galvanized by her tone. Higgins leaned over the control console. “What can I do?” he asked, jumping back as the Wadi took its place on Molly’s shoulders.

“Help the others,” she said. “Actually, get out there and yell at Urg to get a move on.” She looked up. “There’s no time to find any more—”

She stopped and sucked in her breath. Urg was sliding across the steel decking, toward Parsona, followed by a wall of tumbling, ruined starships.

He came to a sudden stop before reaching the door the survivors were streaming through. Molly held her breath; she watched him glance over his shoulder at the pile of plasteel and carboglass heading his way. The long queue of surviving crewmen filing out of the hallway door ducked and turned at the sound of it all; some of them covered their heads with their arms. Molly could see Walter among them, tugging on someone in black, urging them toward the ship.

She looked back toward Urg, but he had disappeared under the line of sliding debris. Gone. The end of his life missed behind her blinking eyelids. The entire tangle of ships had come to rest in a long line, signifying the temporary boundary between failed panel and good.

Several more survivors staggered through the door in the distance as the first of the crewmembers stomped into Parsona. Molly could hear some of the pilots directing them aft and urging them to take water. She saw Cat in the distance, helping someone along who seemed to be limping, their front solid red.

The dune of debris behind them shifted once again. One of the Fire-hawks flipped over on its side. Cat and the crewman left their feet, sliding ahead of the ships and across the deck, everything falling toward Parsona.

Cat popped to her feet as soon as she came to a halt at the next line of functioning grav plates. Molly saw her look back over her shoulder at the man she’d been escorting, but she seemed to know better than to struggle with him. She dove forward as the rolling crush of taxpayer dollars ground to a halt right behind her, smashing the crewmember flat.

Molly silently begged Cat forward as she feathered the thrusters. They were warm enough for lift, but not much more. She aligned the ducts ahead of time and looked over her shoulder to see how things were going in the cargo bay.

The staterooms must’ve already been packed—the hallway had filled up, and people were crammed together up to the galley. The last large crush of survivors could be heard working their way inside—only Cat and a few stragglers remained.

That’s when the struggling grav system gave up the ghost—the last of the panels giving away completely. Molly felt it shudder through Parsona before she saw the effects outside. She could hear the screeching of the ship’s landing pads as they scraped across the deck, could see the walls outside shift forward as Parsona slid back along the hangar floor. Beyond the wall of tangled Navy ships, she could see through the top of the StarCarrier’s airlock door to the bright, blue Lokian sky beyond.

The view disappeared as the jumbled mess of Firehawks ground forward, chasing after Parsona. Between the two, Cat and a few other crewmen slid on their backs, their screams deadened by the roar of all else. Everything was in free-fall, like all the players had been tossed over a cliff.

Molly pulled Parsona up to stop her slide backward. She retracted the landing gear to get it out of the way, but left the cargo hatch open. Behind her, passengers were screaming. She glanced at the chase cam and saw several forms falling away behind, people that had not quite made it to the loading ramp.

There was nothing she could do for them. She wasn’t even sure she could save the rest. The thrusters were still warming up, barely managing the vast weight onboard, the turbines wailing in complaint. Molly fought to hold the ship steady; she watched as Cat and the others slid across the deck ahead of the tumbling crush of ships.

“Get ready back there!” she yelled over her shoulder. Feathering the thrust a little more, she turned the ship sideways, watching everything through the nav porthole. She held the lip of the cargo ramp to the deck as she backed up—lining it up with the crewmen sliding ahead of Cat. Behind them, the rolling mass of Firehawks seemed to be gaining.

The crewmen disappeared from sight as they got close. Molly could hear grunts and yells behind her, along with the satisfying thud of heavy objects impacting the lowered ramp, all sounds that hinted at Cat and the other crewmen having been scooped up. Someone shouted for her to go—but she already was. She fired the thrusters up and back as she fell away from the onrush of twisted, roaring steel, doing everything she could to lift the struggling ship above it.

A collision warning sounded out as she approached the solid wall at the back of the hangar—at the bottom of the hangar now that Lok’s gravity was in charge. Molly adjusted the thruster vents and punched the accelerator to full, shooting Parsona above the lowest section of the mound of moving debris.

The wing of a spinning Firehawk caught Parsona’s belly, shuddering the entire ship and sending out a deafening clank of metal on metal. One of the pilots squeezed up beside her and fumbled for the controls to close the cargo hatch. He then clutched the dashboard, knuckles white, as the danger passed beneath with a sickening shriek.

Even with the ship sealed shut, and dozens of people screaming in fear, Molly could hear the explosion of plasteel crashing against the wall of the hangar bay, the small fleet of ruined craft completing their plummet with a mix of squeals and bangs.

In the distance—at the other end of the cavernous space—a square of blue sky beckoned, urging them to safety.

Molly raced for it, eager to oblige.

39

Cole toweled off his face and nodded as Arthur gave him some final pointers. By the end of their two-hour session, he had finally scored some deflections on Penny, who seemed equal parts annoyed and impressed by the accomplishment. Arthur was setting up a time for practice the following day, when Mortimor entered the training room.

“Might have to reschedule that,” he said, interrupting their discussion.

“More people to meet?” Cole asked.

“You could say that. Or you could call it a field exercise. We’re planning another raid for tomorrow—”

Arthur shook his head. “No can do, buddy. We’ve got one batch of fuel growing—it’ll be a few days before it doubles.”

“We’re going to use most of it. We have no choice.”

“More than half? But then it’ll be a week before we get production back up.”

“We don’t have a week—”

“What are you guys talking about?” Cole asked.

The two men looked at each other. Arthur raised his eyebrows pleadingly. Mortimor hesitated, then shrugged.

“You said earlier that you knew what fusion fuel was,” Arthur said.

“Yeah, a microorganism, right?” He tried to remember what Byrne had told him.

“Yeah, well, we breed them. Just like the Navy does, but our own variety.” Arthur frowned. “The problem is, it takes quite a bit of time—”

“Time we don’t have,” Mortimor said. “Quite a few ships from the Bern fleet have already jumped out, and something massive popped into hyperspace last night and went through the rift as well. The thing was the size of a small moonlet. Our informant says Byrne flew the coop along with the craft, which means it might already be too late.”

“Too late for what?” Cole asked.

Mortimor turned to Cole. “These Bern are invading the Milky Way. If we can’t stop them, or close that rift, they’ll extinguish every piece of sentient life they find there. Some of the people you see roaming these hallways are all that survived entire other galaxies. Unless we do something, we might be all that’s left of ours.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding.” Cole looked to Arthur, as if he would tell him it was all a joke.

Arthur shook his head. “The frustrating bit is that the rift is right there in that fleet somewhere, but we have no way of getting to it in order to close it.”

“Wouldn’t they just open another one, even if we did?”

Mortimor frowned. “Not from this side, they couldn’t. What kills me  is that we are the ones who opened the rift.” He took a deep breath. “Over a decade ago, we opened a hole between Lok and hyperspace—”

“Well, not we, exactly,” Arthur said.

“Right.” Mortimor nodded. “The Drenard underground did, not too long before I became a member. They opened two rifts, both leading to hyperspace, one from our central part of the cone and another in the wide part, where the rain freezes.”

He frowned. “It was a backdoor plan, a way to pull what they hoped would be a final raid, ending the deadlock here. They moved an entire army through in a single day. I was there for that part. My wife and I were staying in a house not long after Molly was born. An entire battalion came through one wall and disappeared into another. And then—”

Mortimor fell silent; Arthur shook his head, as if in empathy.

“And then what?” Cole asked.

“It’s history,” Mortimor said. He waved his hand, as if to brush away some lingering and awful memory. “The point is, when we—when they, the Underground, realized their attack had failed, they sealed the rifts, thinking that would be the end of it.”

“Obviously not,” said Cole.

“Yeah, well Ryke furthered his research from here and he realized these holes could be reopened from the other side—and with a normal hyperdrive, no less. To put it mildly, we got worried. Especially when we realized my wife, Parsona, had overhead enough in her fevered state to maybe put everything together—”

“When I found out about her,” Arthur interrupted, “I explained how my memory retrieval system worked. There’s the potential for total recall, even if it’s implemented in a manner to simulate forgetfulness.”

“And that’s when we figured out how the Prophecy was going to take place,” Mortimor said. “It explained the significance of Lok, at least. What we needed was our rift opened, the one near our headquarters, but Joshua and his men somehow beat us to it.”

“So now what?” Cole asked. “They’re invading Lok as we speak? That’s what those black ships were? And that’s where Molly is right now?”

“Yes. To all but the last, which I can’t know. I hope she’s a long way from whatever’s going on out there.”

“Well, why don’t we just fly through the rift and close it from the other side? You guys have ships, right?”

“Not really. Most of them don’t survive coming here, not if they aren’t adequately equipped beforehand. The ones that do usually end up in the snow, carried back into the cold and distant past. Besides, we wouldn’t last a second against that fleet. They probably don’t even see us as a threat. We’re just a bunch of freedom fighters camped out in the rains.”

“And Joshua’s men? What do they have to do with this?”

“Well, they’ve been here a long time,” Arthur said, “but their numbers really swelled when the war in Darrin popped up. Everyone jumping into that system met the asteroid fields and ended up here. Most of those characters fell in with Joshua’s men, being a better match for their sick philosophy.”

“Yeah, but why are they doing this?” Cole asked. “Why help the Bern invade our galaxy?”

“They’ve turned their anti-tech fanaticism into racism, even to the point of self-loathing,” Arthur said.

“They see the Bern as perfect examples of themselves,” Mortimor added. “They think by helping them, they’ll expunge whatever it is that makes us different. They want whatever universe the Bern are concocting. Homogeneity is their goal. They’ve gone from hating everything humanity makes to hating humanity itself.”

“So the plan is to put on some snow camouflage and jump over there with our swords? Duke it out with these guys and try and close the rift?”

“Not you,” Arthur said. “We’re gonna teach you to drive a hyper-skimmer so you can help pick up raiders after the attack. Everyone’s getting shuffled around after our casualties from the last raid.”

Mortimor narrowed his eyes and fixed them on Cole. “You think you’ve got a better idea, don’t you? Listen, there’s a lot you don’t understand about this place. Navy tactics are useless, here. For one thing, we can’t see this rift unless we’re right on top of it. SADAR is pretty much blind with all the rain and snow. The best we can do is measure the overall size of their fleet and tell it’s shrinking. So, if you think you’ve got a better plan—”

“A better plan? Hell yeah I’ve got a better plan. Screw jumping back to that village of theirs, let’s jump on some of the Bern ships before they leave. We can close the rift from the other side, even without our own ships!”

Mortimor and Arthur looked at each other. Arthur started laughing first, Mortimor doing a better job of stifling it. “Just jump blind into a ship?” Arthur asked. “Son, what makes you think you’d hit open space? Look, this isn’t like jumping through hyperspace, we’re in it!”

“What he means,” Mortimor said, placing a hand on Arthur’s shoulder, “is that there’s no place left to bounce to.”

Arthur laughed. “Yeah, that clears it up—”

“Wait.” Cole held up his hands. “One at a time,” he said.

“Okay,” Arthur said, beating Mortimor to it. “Let’s say you jump into one of their ships and you meet a bulkhead. Well, you’re gonna have a bulkhead bisecting your body when you’re done. We don’t even take a chance on our raids, even though we have a visual. We jump in a meter or two off the deck and roll. And you can feel a burn from every snowflake you absorb.”

“You have a visual?”

Mortimor waved Arthur off. “We have sources,” Mortimor said.

“What about jumping bombs in?”

“You got any bombs? They’re rarer than fusion fuel since the war. Hell, we’ve tried jumping random things in where we thought the cockpits would be, but it’s like throwing darts in the dark. The only thing we could see we were doing was running low on fuel and getting no results. The stuff is precious, and the denser the object, the more you use. Jumping metal really eats the stuff up.”

“What about jumping cameras in and sending shots back and using that?”

Mortimor frowned and shook his head. Cole could tell he was getting annoyed, but he couldn’t stop thinking about what the Seer had said: that he would find a way out of hyperspace…

“There’s no way to transmit real-time coordinates,” Mortimor told him. “The best you could do is know a place that used to be safe, and even then, the only thing reliable out here seems to be longwave radio. Look, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but we’ve gone through all these ideas for years. We’ve wasted liters of precious fuel trying every trick in the book. If there was a way, we would’ve thought of it by—”

“I’ve got it!” said Cole.

Mortimor held up his hands, trying to calm him down.

But before he could, Cole launched into his idea, gesturing wildly with his arms, waving schematics in the air, pausing to slap Arthur on the back.

The two older men fell silent, listening. Then grinning. Then smiling at each other, nodding.

40

Parsona crouched down on her landing gear, her hatch already opening. Scottie had directed Molly to a small clearing in a wide forest a few hundred kilometers from Bekkie. While Parsona’s strained thrusters cooled, the cramped passengers exploded out into the fresh air where they took turns consoling and comforting each other; the sounds of their frustrated sobs wormed their way through the cargo bay and into the cockpit. Molly pulled on her helmet, shutting out the horrible reminders of what she’d just been through.

“Mom?”

“Sweetheart, are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

Molly looked down at the stains across her chest, feeling anything but fine. “I’m sorry to keep you—”

“Nonsense. And no apologies. I—that was some amazing flying back there. How are those people holding up?”

“I’m not sure yet.” Molly looked over her shoulder at the thinning crowd in the bay. Cat was helping people climb out of the cargo pods recessed in the floor, and she could see Walter making his way forward, ushering several people ahead of himself. “I’m gonna go check on them. I’ll talk to you later—I just wanted to let you know I was okay.”

And I wanted to hear your voice, Molly added to herself.

“I love you,” her mom said.

Molly was too choked-up to respond. She pulled off her helmet and dropped it in the nav seat. The Wadi jumped after it, crawling through the open visor and curling up inside. Molly was about to get out of her seat when Walter entered the cockpit. She reached for him, pulled him over the control console and buried her head in his flightsuit. And she sobbed. She cried, as much in relief as in sadness. The dam of responsibility—that wall holding back her grief and horror—it ruptured, flooding her at once with all the tragedy of that day.

“It’sss okay,” Walter told her, holding her with one arm and patting her hair. Molly felt the Wadi return, crawling to her shoulder and wrapping itself around her neck.

“It’sss okay,” Walter said again.

It took a moment to get herself together. She felt embarrassed by the display and sat back in her chair, wiping her face. “I’m sorry,” she told Walter, looking at the wet patch of tears on his shoulder and the smear of red below.

“Don’t worry about it.” He looked back through the cargo bay. “I need to go. I want to keep an eye on them.”

Molly laughed. “If you’re worried about them looting—don’t.”

Walter looked back at her, his mouth firmly set and his eyes wide. “I need to make ssure they’re okay,” he said.

He padded aft and ran back through the galley. Molly and the Wadi stared at one another, shocked into silence and disbelief.

••••

The scene that awaited her outside was a mix of triage and refugee camp. The only serious wounds, of course, were psychological, but these were no less likely to make a victim prone than the physical variety. Molly moved among the survivors, a new flightsuit ridding her of the external stains, leaving only the other kind within her. As she looked for people to tend to, she was amazed at how many of the crewmen were already working to care for the rest, losing themselves in the ability to help another.

She approached Cat, who was spreading some of the blankets from Parsona’s crew bunks out across the forest floor. She touched her shoulder and Cat turned. The two women frowned at each other, eyes glazed over with tears. They hugged, the power in Cat’s arms squeezing out some of the painful stress in Molly’s back. The touch of another, even as the embrace with Walter had shown, gave her hope that she could get over the things she’d seen, could summit the awfulness and perhaps rappel safely down the other side.

“You did good, kiddo,” Cat whispered.

They separated and Molly looked away, rubbing at the bottom of her eyes.

“Where’s Scottie?” Molly asked. “Is he doing okay? Urg—I’m the one who told him to keep looking for—”

“Stop that.” Cat turned her around and held Molly’s shoulders. “Don’t do that. He was doing what he had to. There’s bad luck involved, you’ve gotta remember that.”

Molly nodded, but only to last thing Cat said. She bent over and grabbed two of the blanket’s corners and helped spread it out over the dried leaves and broken twigs. Several crewmen immediately helped others sit down, each of them cradling a cup, bottle, or a mug of water. One of the crewmen—an older woman Molly remembered from the simulator room—tugged on Molly’s elbow and pointed over to a cluster of seated figures.

“The Admiral wants to see you,” the lady said.

Molly turned to Cat. “Be loose with the water. I’ll make a run into Bekkie tonight and top up the tank and load up with food. Don’t let anyone set up camp too close to the thruster wash.”

Cat nodded and gave her arm a squeeze.

Molly took a deep breath and marched over to the small circle where Saunders seemed to be conferring with a group of higher-ups. They fell silent as she approached, their wrinkled eyes swiveling around to watch her. She felt ridiculous standing there, on display, so she sank down to the blanket, and everyone adjusted to make room.

“Admiral.” She gave him a somber look, which took little effort given how she felt.

Saunders glanced around at the others, almost as if on the verge of dismissing them. The gray gentleman—the one from the hallway of the StarCarrier—looked at her warmly, the corners of his mouth curling up.

After an uncomfortable moment, Saunders extended his hand to Molly. She gave it a long look, then grasped it with her own.

“This isn’t a pardon, not by any stretch. It’s just a thanks. We’ll deal with the rest after—”

“There won’t be an after,” she interrupted.

The small gathering tensed up at the breach of protocol, several of them moving to say something. Molly spread her hands, gesturing to the pathetic encampment forming throughout the clearing. “This is the after,” she said.

“Nonsense,” one of the staff members interjected. “We’ve knocked the Drenards back before, we’ll do it again!”

“These aren’t the Drenards.” Molly turned to take them all in.

“Not the Drenards?” Someone asked. “Do you have any idea what—?”

Saunders held up his hands. He looked past the group and toward the rest of the survivors. “Let’s stay calm,” he told everyone.

Molly followed his gaze. She saw dozens of faces pointing their direction from the blankets scattered across the forest floor. They were shocked faces, scared faces, watching and waiting. Her sense of being on display heightened even further.

“The Drenards began pushing out of their spiral arm a week ago,” Saunders said.

Molly turned back and saw he was addressing her.

“They’ve only hit frontier planets so far. Regan, Osis, a few others. As I told you before, and as you can now see, your parents chose unwisely to side with them.”

“Unwisely?” someone asked, winning a glare from the gray man beside Saunders.

Molly let out a sigh. She turned to take them all in. “Admiral. Everyone. These are not Drenards. I know for a fact. I—”

“How could you know?” one of the younger officers asked. “And why should we believe her anyway,” he asked the others. “You do know we came here to find you, right? None of this would’ve happened if it weren’t for you!”

Molly gaped at the young officer; his eyes flared with rage.

“Carlton, you’re dismissed.”

The young man turned to Saunders. “Sir, I’m sorry, it’s just that—”

“I said you’re dismissed, son. Go tend to the others.”

“Yes, sir.”

As soon as he’d gone, Molly turned to the Admiral. “Is that true? You came here because—it’s my fault that you—?”

Saunders waved her off. “Of course not. I mean—that this is your fault. The fleet’s defeat was mine. And don’t flatter yourself too much. One of the fleets had to check in on Lok. We hadn’t heard from them for over two weeks. I volunteered Zebra so we could pull double-duty, just in case you’d come home. We were expecting Drenard hostilities when we jumped in, just nothing like…”

He fell silent, and Molly shook her head.

“If they aren’t Drenards, what are they?” one of the officers asked. “Don’t tell me the Tchung are back from wherever they—”

“They’re called the Bern,” she whispered. “They’re coming from another galaxy—”

“Hogwash!”

“Silence,” Saunders told the group. “Go on,” he said to Molly.

She cleared her throat and glanced at the cup of water the gray man clutched in his thin fingers. “Do you mind?”

“Not at all.” He handed her the cup. “Captain Robinson, by the way.”

“Thank you,” Molly said, taking a gulp. She handed the cup back to him. “They call themselves the Bern, and they come from another galaxy. There’s a rift here on Lok. It’s what my parents uncovered. I think. Anyway, I know they were working to prevent this. The Drenards—”

Molly glanced over at Robinson, whose brow seemed knitted with worry.

“And the Drenards?” Saunders asked.

“The uh… the Drenards…”

“More water?” Robinson asked, extending the cup to her.

“Uh…” Molly looked to Saunders. She glanced once more at all the faces turned her way. “Sir? Can I have a word with you in private?”

••••

Saunders leaned against Parsona’s workbench. He had his arms folded over and resting atop his belly while Molly fumbled around in one of the cabinets. She finally brought out a bundle wrapped in a towel.

“What’s going on?” Saunders asked her. “Anything you want to tell me, you can say in front of my staff.”

“That’s the thing,” Molly said. She stood up and placed the bundle on the workbench. “I don’t think I can. Hear me out, and I mean really hear me out, just let it sink in before you react. I think these people that attacked you—I think they’ve been trying to get here for a long time. There’s a rift on Lok they’re coming through, and another one somewhere in the Drenard arm. I’m pretty sure the Drenards have been guarding that rift, preventing anything from coming out of it.”

“A rift?”

“Yeah. I mean, I don’t know what to call it, I’m not a scientist, but I do know what they look like. I saw the first ships come out of the one here on Lok. Walter and I were hiding in the woods nearby, making sure the escape pod was secure, when—”

Saunders pointed up. “You saw these ships come out of a rift?”

“Yeah.”

“And you didn’t tell anyone? Didn’t contact the Navy?”

“Are you kidding? Everyone on Lok saw them. They’ve been flying overhead for weeks and gathering in orbit. It hasn’t been a secret. And then the big one came through, and everyone thought that one—”

“Wait, go back to the Drenards. Why the bloodshed if they’re supposedly protecting us?”

“I didn’t say they were protecting us, they’re protecting the entire galaxy. That’s why they never push the war past their arm. Why they just defend their territory.”

Saunders rubbed his face. “That’s nonsense. Why wouldn’t they just tell us? And your little theory falls apart now that they are pushing out and attacking our planets.”

Molly thought about that. “Maybe it’s because the Bern are attacking here,” she said. “Maybe they’re looking for the other rift, or something.”

It sounded horrible, even to her own ears, like Cole trying to rationalize one of his theories by fitting the data to his bias.

“The timing sure is strange,” Saunders admitted. “Unless this is just a two-pronged attack—”

“Look at this,” Molly said, picking up the bundle and unwrapping it. “And don’t be freaked out, it’s not human.”

He stepped back, despite the warning. Byrne’s arm looked extremely lifelike; the flesh hadn’t even discolored. Saunders took it and immediately looked at the interior, which was neatly cut and seemingly made of some alloy with a few bits of detail, like metal piping and wires.

“What is this?”

“It’s the arm of a Bern, but my—I know someone who thinks they might not all be like this, that most of them are flesh and blood, just like you and me.” She grabbed the towel from him, then looked around. “Where’s the other one?”

“You have two of these?”

“Somewhere. I—well, the rest of the guy is in hyperspace for all I know. And this is why I don’t feel comfortable telling your staff about everything, and also why the Drenards couldn’t tell us about the rift. The Bern look just like us. They’ve probably infiltrated our Navy, even our government. I mean, this might be the only reason that we keep attacking the Drenards.”

“Flank me.” Saunders set the arm on the workbench and staggered to the center of the cargo bay. He looked outside before turning back to Molly. His jowls were sagging, his mouth open. “It makes perfect sense.”

“It does?”

He pointed at the arm, crossed back over and picked it up. “You’ve seen one of them?”

Molly nodded.

“And they look like us?”

“A lot.”

“I—” Saunders looked around the cargo bay. “There’s nobody else aboard, is there?”

Molly couldn’t help but glance at the cargo cam.

“Just us,” she said.

“We’ve been getting some weird orders lately. And there’s been a ton of sealed communiqués between interfleet staff, stuff I can’t even access. Then Alpha fleet was called out of Earth orbit and sent to—Flank! They’re defenseless. Earth—I how could I be so stupid? We need to get to a long-range radio. We need to—”

“And call who?” Molly asked. “Don’t you see the problem? Call a Bern, and you’ll get yourself killed. Call a human, and you’ll start a panic and get everyone killed. Trust me, I was in the same place as you not that long ago. Hell, you’re coming around faster than I did.”

“Your parents knew this, didn’t they?”

Molly nodded. They know this, she thought, but kept that secret to herself.

“I feel so idiotic. It never occurred to me that orders could be questioned. You obey, right? How many kids did I teach to obey? Oh, gods, the Academy. I—”

Saunders fell silent; his face went white, his fat, rosy cheeks turning to ash. Molly reached out for him as he stumbled forward, his eyes becoming unfocused. She grunted with effort, catching him under his arms and guiding him gently to the ground.