Byrne’s sleek command ship touched down on Lok, its cargo door already hanging open. With a matching atmosphere outside, Molly was finally able to open the cockpit door manually, the safety overrides having become disengaged. With her wrists still bound and her lifeless Wadi nestled in the crook of her arms, she stumbled out of the death-filled cockpit, past the tangle of wires hanging from the bulkhead, through the cargo bay, and out into the bright day and dry grasses. She had landed a stone’s throw from the downed ship from hyperspace, but only a handful of faces turned her way—everyone was too busy or in too much shock to care about her arrival.
“Cole?” Molly stumbled toward the horrific scene.
The large Bern ship lay in a bent heap. Survivors staggered around it, walking among and carrying the bodies of those less fortunate. Still mounds were laid out in a neat line across the trampled prairie. Some were being tended to; a hand with life still in it clutched to someone’s shirt. Scant covering hid another’s face, knelt over by someone sobbing. Molly passed through the outer edge of the dead and wounded, so many alien races present, as she looked for recognizable features, dreading finding them in case those she loved were amongst the still.
A girl with hair like fire caught Molly’s attention, her bright green eyes tracking her. Molly didn’t see Cole at first, not until the girl grabbed someone’s arm, directing a man’s attention—
Molly ran to him. She clutched her Wadi and weaved her way through the crowd. Cole moved to stand, winced as if in pain, then sank back down. Molly threw herself into his arms.
He didn’t respond.
His arms went limply across her back and felt heavy with fatigue. Molly kissed his shoulder, his neck, his skin scented like smoke and grease. She sat back, placed the Wadi on the grass like so many other dead, and went to throw her manacled hands over his neck.
Cole grabbed her wrists and stopped her. He still hadn’t smiled or said a word. He shook his head, and Molly noticed the tear-tracks cutting through the soot on his cheeks.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered.
She wanted to ask what he could mean, then Cole’s gaze drifted to the girl with the fiery hair. Molly turned to her. She noticed for the first time that the girl cradled a man’s head in her lap.
A cold vacuum filled Molly’s lungs.
She tried to breathe, to call out, but could do neither.
Her father was lying in the bent grass, his head turned to the side. Molly could see his lips, barely parted, amid the tangle of his beard. A beard much grayer than she remembered.
Molly placed her bound hands on Cole’s shoulder and shuffled closer on her knees. Her vision blurred as she groped for her father’s hand. A distant part of her registered the wide stain of blood seeping through his white flightsuit.
She looked to Cole, and then the girl. This couldn’t be happening. She dropped her father’s limp hand and felt his neck. There was nothing there, but his body was still warm. Molly arranged herself beside him. She placed her palms on top of his chest.
Cole started to say something, to pull her back, but seemed unable.
Molly performed a series of thrusts.
The girl cradling her father’s head held out a hand. “We’ve tried—”
“So try again!” Molly yelled. She bent forward and blew into her father’s mouth, his lips not cold and lifeless yet. It was those around her that seemed frozen, the dead and the alive alike. They all grounded to a halt as Molly began another round of thrusts.
She pushed down and counted, looking at her father’s face as she did so, which rocked eerily with her compressions. He looked like he was merely asleep. He looked so much like Molly remembered him. She wanted him to wake up, to say something, to make sense of the hurricane her life had become. Molly moved to give him more air, but the other girl stopped her. She slid out from under his head, rested it gingerly on the grass, then bent to do the breaths herself.
As Molly waited, she spotted more crimson by her father’s collar. She undid his flightsuit’s zipper and found, rather than a wound and more blood, a Drenardian headband tucked down by his neck.
Molly ignored it, went to perform another series of thrusts, then felt her mind spin with wild notions.
She grabbed the band and reached for her father’s forehead. The girl seemed to understand; she moved out of the way while Molly arranged the band, working as well as she could with the short length of steel rope between her shackled wrists.
Molly patted her own chest, feeling for the band she’d taken off Byrne’s body. She pulled it out as the girl bent for another round of breaths. Molly checked the fabric for any damage from the Wadi’s burrowing. She felt Cole’s hand on her back as she slipped the band on and spun the seam to the back. The icy hollow in her lungs was matched by a stab through her chest. To have Cole so near after so long—the thought of losing her father—not knowing if the galaxy was doomed or saved—she forced it all out of her mind and concentrated on a single thought, bringing it to the surface, bright and loud:
The universe was a dull thumping. Her own pulse filled her ears, the same pounding felt in her chest, muffled wails and shouts a background around her, dim awareness of the bright flashes high above as ships bloomed into fire and then faded to nothingness, the last of the melting snow as the great rift closed up in the hazy Lokian sky, even the flutter of the parched grasses, their beady tips waving in a breeze, brushing against one another—
She turned to Cole, but her love’s cheeks were pulsing as he clenched and unclenched his jaw.
He hadn’t spoken.
She fought the urge to throw herself across his chest.
Arms straight, Molly leaned her shoulders over her hands and gave his chest five more sharp thrusts.
Molly fought to keep her words calm. Intelligible. She had to remind herself to breathe as well.
Molly shook her head, and tears leapt off her nose.
She kept her palms on his great chest and heaved down. She watched herself move as if a spectator from some great height. She saw her hands splayed wide, knuckles white from exertion and shock. She saw that the red stain across her father’s chest had spread. She felt a wall of rapt eyes arranged around her. The other girl forced his cheeks wide with more air pushed down into his lungs.
Molly stopped her thrusts and checked for a pulse. She ran her fingers along the edge of her father’s graying beard, probing his neck for any feeble hint of life. The girl with the fiery hair bent over and turned to the side, hovering her cheek above Mortimor’s lips, waiting for a puff of breath. She looked up and met Molly’s questioning gaze out of the corner of her eyes.
Set lips said enough.
Her father’s words leaked into Molly’s mind, pleading her in her own voice. Reluctantly, she allowed her bound hands to fall from his sternum and her hopeful fingers to retreat from his neck. She clasped her father’s hand with both of her own and held it tight. Some distant sense, some numb awareness, told her that Cole was holding her shoulders and crying, whispering her name, his body shaking with sobs.
Molly squeezed his hand harder.
Molly shuddered with trapped sobs. Her tears were welling up so thick and fast, the world around her had become a shiny, bulging blur. The only things clear were the words in her head, her father’s and her own.
Molly looked down where her cream-white hands were wrapped around her father’s. She squeezed as hard as she could, holding him as if she could trap what remained of his life and keep it forever.
Molly shook her head. She dropped his hand and went back to his sternum. This time, she didn’t bother counting her thrusts. She just pressed and pleaded, shaking her head, tears falling down on him.
Molly stopped pushing on his chest and clapped her hands over her face. She searched the pounding silence in her head for some lingering thought, for some connection, for a single word from her father.
But he was gone. All that remained were the numb echoes of his quiet thoughts, the fading sense of a connection to another mind, and then the narrow rift between the two of them closed up and sealed itself with silence.
Molly cried out. She screamed. She sobbed into her hands and fumbled in vain for that retreating connection. She clawed after it in the harsh and lonely darkness of her own mind. She filled the vacuum of her loneliness with a rage for all that had been taken. And then she shuddered, her hands balled up in front of her, her fists empty of all else, as Cole wrapped her up in gentle and loving restraint. She felt his tears fall on her neck, heard his sobs of anguish and whispered, muted sorrow, all of it mixing with her own.