12 · Lok · The Present

“Longing is the fuel for dissatisfaction.”

~The Bern Seer~

Molly leaned forward in her seat as Gloria’s tail section rose into view. As the rest of the StarCarrier’s hull crept over the horizon, she saw that the downed Navy ship remained upright but was slightly tilted, her black thruster cones pointing obliquely up at the sky.

“It’s a shame we can’t just jump straight out to it,” she mused aloud. Her hand automatically drifted to the hyperdrive controls, feeling the switches that could move them anywhere in an instant, ignoring all things in between.

Cat, standing just behind the control console, laughed. “I think your friends in black would have a question or two about how we did that.” She pointed to the cargo cam where the Navy climbing team could be seen shrugging on harnesses and coiling ropes.

Molly pulled her hand away from the controls and rubbed the pads of her fingers together. “I know. It’s just hard to see how I’m supposed to have this power and not use it any time I want.”

“I ssay we jusst do it,” Walter said from the nav seat. He had his helmet on but with the visor open. He leaned forward and fiddled with one of the dials on the dashboard radio. “Let’ss sshut the cockpit door and do it.” He jerked his head toward the cargo bay. “We’ll tell them we took a sshortcut,” he hissed.

Molly laughed—then realized Walter wasn’t joking.

“This is what gets you in trouble,” she told him. “You need to work on being more patient—”

“Are we there yet?” Scottie asked. Molly turned to see him squeezing into the cockpit beside Cat, who rolled her eyes at the coincidental interruption. She and Molly shared a smirk.

“She’s just coming into view,” Molly said. She turned back around and gestured toward Gloria’s tail cones. “Are our guests clear on the plan once we get there?”

“I think so,” Scottie said. “All they know is they’re climbing down to the armory for flightsuits and combat gear, the stuff they’ll need for the raid on Darrin.”

“Do they seem nervous at all?”

“About what? The ship falling over or something? I guess they figure if it ain’t toppled by now—”

“No, about going back in there,” Molly said. Images of the previous day’s horror flashed through her mind: the mounds of dead bodies, the stairwell draped in gore, people crushed from toppling Firehawks.

“I think they know what needs to be done, and they’re up for doing it,” Scottie said.

“Sounds about right,” said Cat.

Molly glanced over at Walter as he fiddled with the radio. “I’d really rather you didn’t play with that,” she said.

“I’m hearing sstuff,” Walter hissed.

“That’s what radios do,” she told him. “Now please leave it—”

“But I’m hearing weird sstuff. Ssomeone sstrange iss on here.” Walter’s hand remained frozen on one of the knobs, sensing he should stop but unable to pull away. “Anyway, I almosst decrypted it—”

“Decrypted—?” Molly leaned over and saw Walter’s computer in his lap, his arm partially obscuring its screen. She pushed his elbow up and saw wavy lines and moving bar graphs rippling across the display.

Mom!

She slapped his hand away from the dial, then felt along the back of his helmet and turned the internal speakers off.

“Hey—!”

Molly reached up and grabbed her own helmet from its shelf, sending her Wadi scrambling. She brought it down over her head, snapped the visor shut, and reached for the radio switch, dreading what she was about to discover from her mother—

“??? ??? ???? ?? ????”

Molly froze, her hand poised above the radio dials. She looked over at Walter, who had torn his helmet off and had turned away from her. She could see him pouting in the reflection of his porthole. Molly lifted her visor and removed her helmet. She flicked the radio to the external speakers, allowing the strange language to fill the cockpit:

“??????? ????? ??????? ??? ?”

Walter glanced at the dash, obviously interested in the sounds.

From behind them, Cat cursed.

“What is this?” Molly asked Walter. “What did you do to the radio?”

“That’s the Bern talking,” Cat said, her voice a whisper. “It must be from the fleet.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding.” Molly grabbed Walter’s arm. “Walter, how did you—?”

He yanked his arm away, still pretending to be hurt. Molly realized the how wasn’t important. She spun in her seat to face Cat. “Do you understand any of this?”

Cat shook her head. “Not a lick. I heard it plenty in my day, though. Enough to know what it is.”

“Is there any way we can translate it?”

Cat frowned. “Everybody I know that speaks that language is… well, gone,” she said.

Scottie smiled. “I can give you a good guess. I bet they’re saying ‘Bern mother ship, this is Bern baby ship, over. Commence galactic domination on my mark—’”

Cat smacked him on the arm playfully, but the blow knocked him against the bulkhead. Scottie went to wincing and laughing at the same time.

“I wass decrypting the Englissh,” Walter grumbled. “Not thiss.”

“Wait,” Molly said. She held up a hand to silence Cat and Scottie’s jovial bickering. “What did you say?”

“The Englissh iss riding a carrier wave.” He pointed to his computer. “I wass decrypting it. For fun. Before you hit me.”

“Oh, gimme a break. I barely slapped your hand away. Now what’s this English? Can you play it?”

“It’ss sstill garbled,” Walter hissed. He wasn’t giving up the pouting without a fight.

Molly took over the flying from Parsona and decreased thrust. She wanted to hear more of the broadcast before they got inside the StarCarrier and the hull interfered with the signal. “Do what you were doing, but play it through the speakers,” she said.

Walter made a show of gazing out the porthole.

Molly took a deep breath. “Please, Walter, as your captain and friend, I’m asking you to do this for me.”

Walter fidgeted in his seat and brought his feet up underneath him. He brushed some nonexistent dust off his shoulder, then reached for the dash. He turned the volume down on the radio and did something to his computer, which began emitting garbled phrases, but clearly English.

“They’re not happy,” Walter said. “That’ss all I can tell.” He placed the computer on the control panel where its speakers could be better heard while he continued to adjust the virtual dials on its screen.

“—nothing we — do for —. Group — and — two — lost. Mo — or went down — Co —. Repeat, form — continue — planned.”

“Can’t you clean it up some more?” Molly glanced back and forth between his computer and the view beyond the carboglass. Parsona’s belly was literally sliding through the feathery heads of Lok’s tall grasses as she continued to pull back on the throttle and move into a hover.

“I already did clean it up,” Walter complained. “It doessn’t get any clearer.”

“— planet Lok. — can — confirm?”

Molly settled Parsona into a hover just a few kilometers from the StarCarrier. She keyed the cockpit door shut, and the four of them leaned over Walter’s computer. The small group fell silent, concentrating on every popping utterance and trying to surmise the missing gaps:

“Confirm. — am — speaking to?”

“Edi — on. I — member of Dre — — cil.”

“— the —”

“Confirm. — are — Exponent.”

“Did you hear that?” Molly whispered.

“Too much basss,” Walter hissed. He reached to adjust the dials.

Molly waved him off. “Don’t. Didn’t you hear—? Why can’t we get the rest?”

“Approxima — — ordinates —.”

“It’ss a carrier wave,” Walter said. “It jumpss frequencsiess oncse a ssecond. I’m jumping after it, but the sscanner tracse I wrote hass too much lag.”

He pulled the computer into his lap and fiddled with it. Molly looked up through the canopy at the steel cliff of StarCarrier looming ahead. Something about the garbled phrases kept tugging on her subconscious, begging her to understand. She heard Cat and Scottie whispering back and forth between themselves—and then someone banged on the cockpit door.

“Tell them we need a second,” Molly said, keying the door open.

While Cat and Scottie chatted with the climbers in the cargo bay, Molly turned to see how Walter was doing, then noticed her nav screen had gone blank. A single line across the top read:

LET ME HELP_

Molly leaned forward in her seat and reached for the keyboard.

HOW?_ she typed.

LET ME TALK TO HIM_

Molly hesitated. She turned and saw one of the Navy men by the door frowning at the unexpected delay. Scottie gestured and made excuses, and finally the man turned away.

“The boys in black wanna know what’s taking so long,” Cat said.

Molly keyed the door shut. “They’re gonna have to wait.” She flicked the speakers on. “Go ahead,” she said to her mom. “Talk to him.”

Cat and Scottie gave her a funny look, then her mother’s voice came through the speakers:

“Walter,” Parsona said. “Do you remember me?”

Walter looked at the dash, then at Molly. “You’re Molly’ss friend, right?”

Molly wondered what he meant, then remembered her mom’s ruse the night Byrne nearly killed her. They had spoken before, but Parsona had pretended to be radioing in from another ship.

“That’s right,” Parsona said. “Do you remember helping me with the missiles?”

“Yeah,” Walter said. “About that, I didn’t mean to be ssso—”

“No, that’s fine. You did great. Now I want to help you.”

“With what?” Walter asked. He looked to Molly and shrugged.

“I want you to give me that program you’re using. I can do the frequency switching a lot faster than your computer.”

“Okay,” Walter said. “I guessss that’ss okay.” He turned to Molly. “Sshould we go and meet her?”

“She’s in the computer, Walter.” Molly pointed to his nav screen, which had gone black except for a blinking cursor. “She’s a part of the ship.”

Walter stared at the screen. He reached forward and poked one of the keys on the dash. The letter ‘W’ appeared, and the blinking cursor shifted to the right.

He glanced over at Molly, then bent forward, typing out the rest:

WALTER_

He hit enter.

HELLO WALTER_

He smiled at the screen, then turned to Molly, beaming. “I thought you were talking to yoursself all thosse timess!”

“Can you type in the program, or do you want to interface with my computer?” Parsona asked.

“I’ll type it,” Walter said, rather hurriedly. He bent to the task, referring to his small screen several times. Molly looked back and widened her eyes for Cat and Scottie. They both shrugged and remained silent. The Wadi flicked her tongue out into the air.

After less than a minute of typing, Walter sat back, and the nav screens changed. Molly felt her stomach drop a little, realizing she’d just let the Palan write a program into the ship’s computer. When the conversation with her mom went blank, her heart stopped for a brief moment, but then the screen flashed and showed a display similar to the one on his portable unit with audio bar graphs dancing up and down.

The same radio chatter as before came through Parsona’s speakers, louder, though, and without the annoying pauses:

“—need to fall back. Listen to your translators. Group two will have the lead from here on out, assuming they make it through. We’ll give them time before zipping up the rift. Until then, nobody transmits on standard frequencies. Keep chatter to a minimum on this channel. Follow your instructions and be good Berns until we can sort this out.”

“Group Five, affirmative.”

“Three, out.”

The chatter ceased, leaving the cockpit silent. Molly shook her head and grumbled under her breath.

“Why so glum?” Cat asked. “This could come in handy. We’ll know what them bastards are thinking before they pull it.”

“I know,” Molly said. “It’s just… one of those voices reminded me of someone. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

She waited for the chatter to return, but the radio remained silent, the bar graphs flat and mocking. Molly let out her breath, drew in a new one, and reached for the ship’s controls, pulling Parsona out of its low hover and up along the tilted cliff of steel toward Gloria’s hangar. Behind her, Scottie keyed the cockpit door open and went back to join the climbers. Walter leaned toward the radio, presumably to shut it off.

“Can you leave it scanning?” Molly asked him. “Just in case the Bern say something important?”

He nodded and pulled his hand away. “Why would they be sspeaking Englissh?” he asked as he returned to his computer.

“They have to be good at blending in,” Cat answered.

“They look a lot like us,” Molly added. “Do you remember the guy from Dakura that nearly—that you rescued me from?”

Walter nodded.

“He was one of them, but you would never have known it.”

Molly saw Walter flinch. He looked at her with a strange expression—fear mixed with something else. She thought she understood how he felt, having been floored by the revelation herself.

“The ssame guy that sstrangled you,” he hissed.

“That’s right. We don’t have to worry about him anymore, but now you know why they speak English. You have to keep all this a secret, okay? People would panic, otherwise. Nobody would know who they could trust.”

Walter sniffed and nodded.

Molly guided Parsona into the Carrier’s hangar, high up the ship’s leaning belly. As she flew along the downward-sloping floor, she sensed Walter was dying to ask her another question, or possibly tell her something. She nearly pressed him to come out with it, but the more important task of close-quarters piloting required her attention.

She flew at a steep angle down the calm sea of riveted steel, ignoring the craggy reef of ruined and twisted Firehawks piled up at the bottom. Just above the open stairway door, she spun Parsona around and lined up the open door with her own ship’s cargo bay. As the landing struts settled to the decking, she locked the thrusters and accelerator just right to keep the ship from sliding back or flying forward. Parsona was basically in an inclined hover, held fast to the side of a steep cliff with her skids pressing against the bay’s decking.

Walter excused himself. He left his computer behind, crawled over the control console, and padded back through the cargo bay. Molly turned and watched him scurry past the climbers and their piles of gear, wondering what had gotten into him. She turned back around and adjusted the throttles one final time, double-checking that Parsona wasn’t sliding through the StarCarrier’s hangar.

Satisfied they were stable, Molly keyed open the cargo door, allowing the muffled anger of Parsona’s thrusters to invade the hull. She watched the cargo cam as the door opened fully, its rim swinging out and touching down to the StarCarrier’s deck.

The Navy climbers wasted no time, lowering bags of gear and coiled ropes out the opening and toward the stairway door below. The visual effect was surreal: Objects dangled out of Parsona sideways, even as her grav panels kept everyone upright inside the cargo bay. In the vacuum of space, Molly was able to cope with there being no true down, but seeing Lok’s gravity have an effect beyond her ship made her head spin.

Scottie and Ryn seemed unaffected by the vertigo. The large Human and Callite stood by the open bay door and shrugged harnesses on. The duo watched the Navy climbers intently, duplicating their knots and rope-handling, absorbing everything from the first climb that they’d need for the next one.

Molly felt fortunate to not be going on either expedition; she opened a packet of cheese for the Wadi and settled back in her seat for the long wait. She checked the rate of fuel burn from the thrusters and watched the video screen as the climbers scrambled backwards out of the hatch, one by one. The Navy guys seemed comfortable as gravity took a ninety degree turn; they bounced along on bent knees, letting the rope slide through their harnesses and gloved hands as they descended like spiders on thick strands of silk. Scottie and Ryn went last, mimicking them as well as they could, feeding the line in fits and starts as they scampered uneasily toward the stairwell. Molly felt a sudden surge of panic as the enormity of the expedition fully set in. She watched Scottie disappear into the doorway last. The collection of ropes twitched across the decking in time with some unseen movement.

The Wadi finished with the packet of cheese and went to work on the wrapper, nipping Molly’s finger as it did so. Molly yelped. She was sucking on her finger when Cat joined her in the cockpit.

“How’s everything up here?” Cat asked.

“Restful,” Molly said, pulling her finger out of her mouth. She nodded to the cargo cam. “I’m surprised you’re not going with them. Seems like your sort of thing.”

Cat stepped gracefully over the control console and slid into the nav seat. She placed a mug of steaming something in one of the cup holders.

“I think the boys will have more fun without me,” she said.

Molly laughed. “You mean without them feeling weak and pathetic in comparison?” She remembered Cat’s display in the opera house and wondered if the Callite couldn’t do the climb without a harness.

“Maybe I just wanted some peace and quiet, like you.” Cat laughed as she said it, like there was some inside joke Molly wasn’t privy to.

Molly smiled politely and looked over her shoulder to see where Walter was, but there was no sign of him. For the thousandth time, she wished there was a camera in his stateroom. For the thousandth time, she shuddered at the thought and retracted it.

The handheld radio squawked: “Belay, this is descenders. We’re through the stairwell and playing out line to the armory, over.”

Molly checked the cargo cam, only to see a half dozen taut lines and nothing else.

Cat squeezed the portable radio. “Roger,” she said.

“Belay and over,” Molly repeated, shaking her head. “What is it with men and their love of jargon?”

“I think one of those guys fancies himself a professional climber. You know what a belay is, right?”

Molly nodded. “I did some climbing in the Academy, which is also where I learned how much boys love jargon and acronyms.” She pulled the plastic wrapper away from the Wadi and threw it into the small trash bin behind the controls. Reaching into the vacu-seal compartment by her seat, she pulled out her leftover sandwich from the flight out. She only got it halfway to the Wadi before the animal snatched at it greedily, sniffing for the rest. Molly felt like her poor Wadi had gotten even smaller in just the last day.

“This is group four. We’re clear of the rift.”

Cat reached for the portable radio, but Molly grabbed her arm. She nodded toward the dash. “It’s them,” she said, indicating the ship’s radio and Walter’s computer.

“Group three, copy. Welcome to the party.”

“Five, copy. What’s the latest on one and two?”

“Two is queued up, not sure how far out. One is not going to make it, I hate to report. Over.”

Molly leaned forward and turned the volume up. Parsona’s thrusters and open cargo bay made the back and forth chatter difficult to hear.

“Copy that. Hold for instructions.”

“They sound very calm about taking over our galaxy,” Molly said. “Like it’s nothing.”

“Quite calm,” Parsona agreed. Her mother’s voice came out of the radio speakers as the hiss-filled chatter ceased.

Cat took a sip from her mug and returned it to its holder. “It ain’t their first dance, you know.”

“What do you mean?” Molly asked.

“I mean, there’s probably just a handful of galaxies they don’t already got their mitts on. I imagine this ain’t as exciting or novel for them as it is for us.”

Molly moved the Wadi to the control console, its tail tracing circles in the air as it chomped on the last few bites of sandwich.

“What do you know about them?” Molly asked Cat. She turned in her seat and pulled her knees up to her chest.

Cat smiled and arranged herself sideways as well, her lean brown legs folded up in front of her. She adjusted the fabric band around one of her thighs and looked over her knees at Molly. “Whatcha wanna know?”

“Why are they doing this? If they have so much, why not just leave us alone?”

“What if we ain’t the good guys?” Cat asked.

“Cat, don’t you fill her head with any nonsense,” Parsona said. “I don’t want to hear—”

Molly reached over and flicked the radio speaker off. “Mom, I love you, and you can listen in, but I want to hear what she has to say.”

Cat lifted her mug and smiled through the steam, almost as if to salute Molly for taking a stand. She then turned up the lip and took another deep gulp without first bothering to blow across the piping hot surface.

“Your mom’s right,” Cat said, smacking her lips. “You shouldn’t listen to me.”

“But I want to know what you mean. What you think. I want to help you, if I can.”

Cat laughed. “Help me?” She shook her head. “What makes you think I need helping?”

“I—” Molly reached to the side and muted the cockpit mic, silently apologizing to her mom for excluding her fully from the conversation. “I saw you with the rod in the campfire the other night, how you kept making it glow before wrapping your hand around it. I asked Scottie about it and he told me—”

“He told you to mind your own business, didn’t he?”

Molly nodded.

“He’s sweet to protect me like that, but I don’t care if you know.” Cat shrugged. “Hell, I told people all kindsa stuff for years, but they just look at me like I’m crazy.” The Callite glanced up at the ceiling of the cockpit, her eyes narrowing to vertical slits. “Don’t care if your mom hears, neither.”

Molly reached to turn off the mute but then stopped herself. She did care about letting someone else in on the conversation.

“What have you been telling people for years?” Molly asked, with-drawing her hand.

“That the Drenards mean no harm. That we’re the bad guys. Stuff that tends to get you beat up.”

“Is that why you say those things? Just to get beat up?”

Cat shrugged.

“You enjoy the pain, don’t you? Why is that?”

Cat shook her head. “Naw, that ain’t it. I don’t enjoy the pain. I just hate the numbness. And I say them things because they’re true, that’s all.”

“So you don’t feel anything?” Molly crossed her arms and settled back against the panel behind her. “That sounds nice, to tell you the truth.”

“Bullshit,” Cat said softly. She spread her knees and leaned closer to Molly. One hand came up, a brown and scaly fist. It wavered in the air. “Ain’t nothing worse than being numb,” she whispered. “Nothing. I—” She took a deep breath and dropped her hand. “I was born with numbness, with problems in both legs. Couldn’t walk a lick.” Cat leaned back and grabbed her mug. She didn’t drink; she just kept both hands wrapped around it and peered into the steam.

“Go on,” Molly said, then felt bad for being pushy.

“I was raised by my grandparents,” Cat said. “They hadn’t raised their own kids, though. It was like parenting skips a generation in my family, you know? Anyway, they were clueless. Didn’t know nothing was wrong till I was five or six and still crawling around on my hands and knees. Other kids knew something was up long before. They took to calling me Cat, like one of the strays in the village.”

“I thought it was short for Catherine,” Molly said.

“Naw, I lengthened it to Catherine. No point in fighting every kid in town over something so stupid, so I adopted the name. Soon as they figured that out, they started calling me Cripple. Or Cripple Cat.”

“Why would they do that?”

“Spoken like an only child.” Cat smiled through the steam rising out of her mug. “I thought you said you went through the Academy.”

Molly clenched her jaw. She thought about some of the abuses she’d suffered, but none seemed as bad as what Cat had been through. Still, she got Cat’s point about the random cruelty of youth.

“Them kids done me a favor, way I see it. They not only showed me how I was supposed to be walking, they showed me how not to be behaving. Family couldn’t afford no hoverchair or prosthetics, so I made myself some walking sticks and started working out at a young age. Went health crazy. Started eating nothing but fruit and veggies from a half dozen planets and drank a few gallons of water a day.” Cat slapped her thighs and stared at her bare legs. “Thought I could fix ’em by working hard enough at it.”

“And you obviously did,” Molly said.

Cat shook her head. “Naw. I was—”

“Belay, we’ve reached the armory. Bagging up supplies and rigging the ascenders, over.”

Cat squeezed the radio. “Copy.”

“Make sure they leave the lines,” Molly said.

“Be sure to leave everything in place,” Cat radioed.

“Copy that. Belay, over and out.”

Molly and Cat smirked at each other.

“Where was I?” Cat asked. “Didn’t you want to hear about the Bern? How’d we get to talking about my childhood?”

“It’s fine. It’ll take them a lot longer to climb back up. You were telling me how you learned to walk by eating healthy.”

Cat shook her head. “Nope. I never did. Well, not like that. I dropped out of school when I was twelve. Moved to another town and started working in a plant putting buggies together. I could sit in one place with the other Callites while the parts came by, doing the stuff they did, only with a Lokian accent they made fun of me for. Anyways, I made enough not to starve. Won’t bore you with the next few years, but I eventually moved up to delivery and learned to fly. Did some local stuff around Lok, then eventually got assigned to the run between here and Vega.”

“You were a pilot?”

“Yeah, something you don’t need legs for, apparently. Unless, of course, your shift is short a man one day and you decide to run a shipment solo, then your boss figures you can do that all the time, and he starts cutting corners and pocketing the savings. Then, one day, your nav computer goes haywire and you need to run to the engine room to hit the emergency shutdown button on the hyperdrive before it jumps with bum digits, but you’re crawling through the cargo bay, dragging yourself along, breaking fingernails back on rivets and crying like a sap, and you’re not halfway to the engine room before the ship makes a bad jump—”

Cat peered into her mug.

“All that happened to you?” Molly whispered.

“Brightest shit I ever seen came next, the light flooding the ship through every porthole and crack. Thought I was in heaven. Thought maybe some sin-tallying machine had gone as haywire as my hyperdrive. Next thing I know, I’m being thrown all over the cargo bay as my ship crashes into a pile of ice. Screwed me up real good. I remember being drug through the snow, I remember when they cut my legs off, but that was about it.” Cat took one hand off the mug and rested her palm on the band around her thigh. “Wasn’t awake when they put them back on.”

Molly shook her head. “Someone cut off your legs?” She reached for the Wadi, remembering what Cat had done to save the animal’s life.

“I was half-dead anyway, the way Josh told it. But then, a few days later, I’m good as new. Legs working and everything. Some egghead ex-Navy chap is telling me the water on Lok had done it, that those gallons and gallons I drank every day while growing up had unlocked some old Callite genes from back when our ancestors could re-grow their tails. Wild-ass guesses, if you ask me. Science stirred with gobbly-gook.”

She took a loud sip, both hands back to cupping the mug.

“The next few years were a blur, sometimes literally, with people moving by so fast. I learned to fight. Learned to fight for them. Started adopting all kinds a weird beliefs—whatever they told me, I believed. You see a place like that, you’re a fool to doubt anything. Them boys loved me, said I was almost good enough to be Human. They couldn’t get over the way I could all of a sudden walk around without goggles. And my blood was useful to them. A steady supply of the Callite stuff—well, you saw how bad they needed that for yourself. I thought it was ritual shit—”

Cat looked over and frowned at her language. Molly waved her off.

“I thought it was ritual stuff. I shoulda seen what was going on, where the purple paste came from, the fusion fuel, all of it. I shoulda seen it earlier.”

Cat took another deep gulp, the bottom of the mug coming up high above her chin. She lowered the mug and peered inside, as if watching would somehow make it refill.

“It took a while for the numbness to return. Didn’t notice the sensations going away at first, not ’till I was just about completely numb all over.”

“Who were these people that did this to you?”

“Humans trapped in hyperspace. Remnants and new recruits from an old terrorist group. They think the Bern are onto something. They see aliens as a problem—and that includes themselves and other Humans. They’re pretty convincing, too. Of course, the other side also had a way with words.”

“The other side?”

“The Underground. I spent some years with them as well, after one of our raids didn’t go so well and I got captured.” Cat looked up. “It wasn’t long after I fell in with the Underground that your parents came to Lok, but of course I didn’t know about that ’till later. We eventually made a huge push, one of those raids that grows into a war, and it nearly wiped out both sides. The fighting spilled out into Lok, pretty much leveling the village where that rift is now. Most people got trapped on the hyperspace side. Me and a few others got stuck back here. I kept up the fight for a while, tried to talk sense to some people, but kept getting numb to it all. I eventually stopped caring. Hell, now I go back and forth between the two sides, seeing how one’s right and the other’s wrong, then changing my mind.”

“How we’re wrong?” Molly asked. “Wrong to want to live and be free?”

Cat shrugged. “Free and bumbling around aimlessly. Hell, your side might mess up the universe for a whole load of future people. You might unwittingly end life for everyone.”

“How would we do that?”

“Buncha physics I can’t half understand, but it’s possible. The universe goes ’round and ’round, you see? If it gets different enough, it might be the end of everything alive. The Bern basically make sure the universe is kosher for living things each time it resets itself.”

“It sounds like they make the world hunky-dory for them, but what about us? And why are you helping me if you aren’t sure who’s good or bad?”

Cat tilted her mug up and tapped the bottom, letting the last few drops fall on her tongue. She put it back in its holder for the final time and wiped her chin with her sleeve.

“These days, I just go wherever the pain is,” she said. “And you seem to be doing the same, so here I am. Here we are, you and me.”

“Belay, ascenders here. Coming up with the first load. Should be able to get it all in two, over.”

Cat grabbed the radio. “Roger,” she said. “Copy. Belay is over and out. Ten-four.”

She smiled up at Molly and winked.

But Molly wasn’t finding anything humorous at the moment. She frowned and stared off into space, thinking about the things Cat had said. There was something familiar in the argument, the claim that it might be worth it to sacrifice a few million lives to prevent the possibility of some future, even larger calamity.

Glemot,” she whispered to herself. Cat’s claim was that the Bern might have a right to torch them all, just to keep her people from performing some unknown evil in some unseen tomorrow.

Her mind felt fevered at the thought that it all came down to that. Another calculation of risk, another bout of destruction on such a grand and unfortunate scale, and all over a bunch of what-if’s.

“What’s Glemot?” Cat asked, having overheard Molly’s disgusted whispers.

“It was the biggest mistake ever made,” Molly said, tears welling up in her eyes at the memory of that beautiful and haunting planet. “It was the biggest mistake in the universe up until this one.”

Contents