27 · Lok

After the stirring rally, the attack plans on the Darrin asteroid belts were reviewed for the final time. Squads were formed, gear equipped, rations portioned out. Molly busied herself among the fevered activity, helping where she could, her own mission to the StarCarrier lingering at a lower level of thought. She had no time to fear her involvement in the next day’s plans—she was too busy worrying over the impossible task she was about to send these poor, bedraggled survivors out to perform.

Perhaps, she wondered to herself, this was too much for any of them to absorb and process all at once. Most of the raiders had only a few hours training with the bizarre swords sent down from the Underground ships. The vast majority of the Navy pilots had never flown a real mission outside a simulator. And with their paltry numbers, they only had the crew and supplies for forty ships with an average of three crewmembers per ship—a minimum verging on unsafe.

Molly went over the plan in her head one more time, taking each stage individually to remind herself how doable might be the whole: Using the data from Parsona’s recent visit to Darrin, each squad would jump inside one of the asteroid bases, just on the other side of their force fields. Teams of three would then storm each weapons shop, commandeering any ships they might find. Once secured, the crews would jump out to the predetermined rendezvous point where they would lock up in pairs, moving Ryke’s engineers from one craft to another as they modified the hyperdrives. If any of the ships need more fusion fuel, or any of the crews needed medical attention, that would be taken care of at the same time. Meanwhile, the pilots could familiarize themselves with the ships’ controls and test the weapons systems.

They had set aside a full eight hours for the Darrin phase of the plan, with two hours reserved for the rendezvous and modifications, which meant—thanks to Ryke’s modifications to the drives—they would be back at Lok by local sunup. That should give Molly and her crew plenty of time to set up in the StarCarrier and begin bombarding the Bern command ship with teleported missiles.

Going through it slowly, it seemed almost too simple. However, as she watched Navy brass squeeze their bellies into combat armor, and Scottie show Callite civilians how to load firearms, the plan seemed destined to fail. Molly helped one of the crewmen secure a Velcro strap around the back of his armor, getting it as tight as possible; she then walked around Parsona to see how Ryke and Walter were coming with their “rift.”

“You guys about ready?” she asked, walking out to where they’d set up a few floodlights.

Walter nodded without looking up from his computer. He typed furiously, wires trailing from his handheld to a control console that had been jumped down from one of the Underground ships. The device had been one of the five originally meant for closing the rift on Lok. The Underground command was still waiting until the bulk of the Bern fleet moved off before risking a flight to the planet’s surface. They had sent the console reluctantly, seeing the distraction gained from the Darrin mission as a greater boon than the loss of one more backup platform.

The number-crunching for the jumps to Darrin would fall to Parsona, who had the SADAR data from their recent trip to that system in her memory banks. With the mass of the hundred and twenty or so crewmembers and their gear, they had more than enough fuel for the one-way jump with plenty left over for the missiles. All the fusion fuel Molly had longed for and bartered for, and had nearly used to jump to hyperspace, would go instead to this mission. The consequences of her decision, the reality of having fully made it, dawned on Molly for the first time as she watched Walter and Ryke work. This was the thing she had wrought, whatever happened next. This was her plan, with real lives at stake. This was what she had chosen to do, rather than rescue Cole and her father.

She suddenly felt pregnant with doubt.

Stepping past the console, she checked on the appearance of their fake “rift.” It was nothing more than a gap between two trees that had been smeared with the droppings of mooncrawls, giving the halo a pale glow. Molly found the getup ridiculous, but she figured it seemed ominous enough. Besides, once people started disappearing as they walked through the “rift,” there would be no doubts that it was working. And work it would, thanks to the jump platform sunk into the ground between the trees and the four insulated wires snaking from it to Parsona’s hyperdrive.

Molly saw Walter had covered the platform with leaves, even though he must know they would only be sitting there until the first jump. After that, she guessed everyone would be too nervous to see that they were passing over a flat, black pad on the ground.

Satisfied with her inspection, Molly turned back to the console. Ryke looked up from its display screen, his face lit with an eerie, green glow.

“It’ll be almost two in the morning Darrin local time when they arrive,” he told Molly.

“Perfect,” she said. Molly squeezed Walter’s shoulder. “Are you set?”

He nodded without looking up from his computer. Molly had given him a supervisory role of making sure the rate of escaped fuel was matching their projections—nothing he could cause trouble with but something that made him a part of the greater plan. Over the past day or two, perhaps ever since the StarCarrier incident, he had seemed overly eager to lend a helping hand. It was something Molly wanted to foster as much as she could.

Seeing that she wasn’t needed around the rift, Molly walked back toward her ship, steering for the small planning group that included Saunders, Anlyn, and several of his senior staff.

“How long?” Saunders asked as she approached.

“We can go at any time. We just need to get everyone lined up in the correct order so we know who we’re sending where.”

“Quite lucky to have one of these rifts so close,” Lieutenant Robinson said. Saunders’s chief of staff flashed Molly a friendly smile.

“No luck involved,” Molly told him. “That’s how my friends even knew this clearing was here. Besides, the rifts are everywhere, you just have to know how to look for them and how to open them up.”

The lies came out like honey, sweet and smooth. Molly felt an odd sense of d?j? vu, remembering another time in a wooded clearing when she’d been shocked with the ease that lies could be told. The flash of recollection settled like particulates in water, arranging themselves in a thickening film. She suddenly remembered Cole lying to Orville on Glemot, how she’d barely known him back then—not as a civilian, anyway. She recalled how shocked and disgusted she’d felt, afraid even, of Cole’s ability to lie so well and so easily.

And now it’s a new power for me, she realized. Molly watched the staff members nod to one another; they seemed to think her explanation was the only rational one. Robinson continued to smile, obviously buying it as well.

“Well, I think we’re due a little luck,” Saunders said grimly.

The rest agreed with him while Anlyn pulled Molly to the side.

“Everything okay?” Molly asked.

Anlyn nodded. “Fine. People are actually going out of their way to be nice to me. I think they’re overcompensating a little.” A grave expression washed over Anlyn’s face, one that filled Molly with dread.

“What is it, Anlyn?”

“Edison and I switched assignments with group thirteen,” Anlyn said.

“But I thought you two were going to retrieve Lady Liberty.”

“I know. But then Edison and I got to thinking that it just made more sense this way. We’re both familiar with the layout of his base, and I know what kind of ship he would have replaced her with—”

Molly shook her head. “This is about revenge, isn’t it?”

Anlyn didn’t say anything. Her eyes didn’t waver from Molly’s.

“You’re even more familiar with Lady Liberty,” Molly pointed out. “I mean, you’ve flown her into combat a thousand times. And besides, there won’t be any fighting involved in picking her up. She’s right where we left her, and we can’t afford to lose either of you—”

“I’ll still command Lady for the flight here,” Anlyn told her. “We’ll transfer over when Edison goes to modify the hyperdrive.”

Molly ran her fingers through her hair. She looked up through the clearing at the stars overhead.

“And you’re right,” Anlyn whispered. “It is about revenge.”

Molly stared at her, agape. “You admit it?”

Anlyn nodded.

Molly turned away from her friend, disappointed by the decision. She watched the dozens of small squads as they formed up in a jagged line stretching from the console and back around her ship. In the glow of Parsona’s worklights, she could see flat hands zooming through imaginary space, dogfighting one another in mock battle as old lessons were dusted off and honed to something approximating sharpness.

Anlyn moved by her side; her tiny hand settled in the small of Molly’s back.

Molly started to voice her objection, but Anlyn interrupted.

“Look at them,” she said quietly.

Molly swallowed her thoughts. She watched as hands soared in mock battle and eyes were cast upward toward the fleet that had taken away the friends and family of those gathered.

“This whole mission is about revenge,” Molly said. “Isn’t it?”

Anlyn’s small hand moved from Molly’s back and went around to her side, squeezing her. Their bodies rested on one another as the two friends pulled themselves close.

“It is,” Anlyn said softly. “So let me have mine.”

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