Possible responses hung in my head, most of them bad. I settled on, “I’m sorry. I wish we could have done something, but none of us are any good at healing.”
I thought back to my friend Alex. He was good at healing. It would have been nice if the Ghosts had grabbed him along with Rachel. He couldn’t have survived the trip without a spaceship, and everything I knew through my implant and Rachel said that they didn’t bother with them.
Kals shook her head. “Iolan could have done it if he had access to all his equipment. The Ascendancy killed her in more ways than one. I hate them. I don’t know how, but somehow we have to destroy them. Not everybody, but the Ascendant and the Ascendant Council, the Guard… It all needs to end.”
“Iolan seemed to think that grabbing Marcus’ DNA would be a start.”
Kals laughed. “Yeah. In 300 or 400 years, we’ll have them on their knees. I’m sorry, but right now I don’t want to wait that long.”
“Good point,” I searched for something else that might distract her. “Four Hands seems to be starting something sooner. I gave him some of my tech that he thought might help. If the resistance talks to him, maybe you could coordinate. He’s still in the solar system. He’ll probably stay until he picks up all of his people on the other Ascendancy battleships. I don’t know where he’s going after that.”
She looked up toward space. “I’ll have to bug our Council about that. We should talk to him. I don’t know why no one thought to talk to four handers before. If anybody should hate the Ascendancy, they should. They’re dying in Ascendancy ships even if they don’t care who they’re fighting.”
Turning to look at the shelter and then back at me, she said, “With Mom dead, I feel like I have to take over what she’s left unfinished. There’s too much of it. I know I don’t have to do it all on my own, but even if I don’t lead the movement myself being visible will help keep it together. That’s what I’ve got to give that no one else does. I can show people that her presence can still be felt here.”
She looked up at me. “How long are you all going to stay?”
“Not long,” I said. “We’ve all got to get home. We’ll do what we can to help, but the mission’s over. I’ve got classes to get back to. So does my sister. And I feel like I should tell you that we’re not from where we said. I can’t tell you where we are from, but not that.”
She laughed again. “I figured that out on my own. Wherever you’re from, you’re not from an Ascendancy world. You don’t act like us and even though you know about us, it’s like you’re reading it from a book. You were leaning on your implant for everything.
“Even if I hadn’t guessed from that, your sister is with the Cosmic Ghosts and Tikki or Kee or whatever-she-is just wasted all the Ascendancy troops at once? Nobody does that. What are you really? Are you even human? I know your DNA’s got Artificer DNA in it.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know right now. I’ll let you know when I find out. If I’m somehow connected to the Artificers it shouldn’t be that hard, right?”
“Are you going to stay for her funeral?” Kals stood, waiting for my answer.
“I don’t see why not. Unless you have a tradition that requires we wait here for months.”
Kals shook her head. “No. We have the funeral and then cremate the dead and we do it within a day or two.”
“We can stay for that,” I said, and we did, leaving the planet three days later with Jaclyn, Marcus, Cassie, Rachel, and I. We also brought Tiger. The dog wasn’t too big yet, but I had no idea what we’d do with him when he reached full growth. I didn’t even know what we’d feed him.
Katuk went back with the Xiniti, telling us that, “Perhaps I’ll visit your home someday.”
Kee disappeared during the cleanup after the fight. We didn’t see her again, but she did talk with Marcus before she disappeared. He didn’t give any details about what she’d said. “It’s personal,” he told us. “It wouldn’t mean much to you anyway.”
He didn’t say more than a few words at a time for the first few days of the flight back home.
* * *
We didn’t go back the same way. We stopped at K’Tepolu briefly, but Kee wasn’t back yet according to the people at her store. I made a quick call without telling Marcus. I wasn’t sure what I would have done if she’d come back, but I felt compelled to check.
We avoided the solar system and old battle site where Lee had sensed one of his own kind, but found Lee in a backwater system we were cutting through to avoid observation. Hal got a message and using the coordinates we’d been given, we matched speed with Lee and got close enough that he could pull himself into the airlock.
He spotted Tiger immediately, and said, “Interesting.”
The dog growled at him. Ignoring it, he grinned at Rachel, “Nice to see you getting in touch with family.”
Rachel leaned back in her chair and folded her hands over her chest. “It might have been nice to know earlier.”
Lee shrugged. “It wasn’t my place. The Ghosts tell their recruits what they need to know at their own pace.”
Rachel nodded. “No shit. A slow pace.”
I turned back from my place in the pilot seat to look at him. “What were you doing?”
Lee found a seat and pulled on a seat belt. “This and that. I created a powerful distraction, one that exists in more than one universe, making it impossible for my people to guess which universe’s distraction is the important one.”
“Good,” Cassie grinned at him. “It’d be nice if we get home to find a planet instead of a smoking ruin. And by the way, we succeeded too.”
“Mostly,” Jaclyn stretched her legs in her seat. She’d been complaining about soreness in her thigh, but it was healing.
Lee sat up in his chair. “I know. I saw some of it. I didn’t get too close. I couldn’t risk Kee sensing me, and to be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if she did anyway.”
Turning in his chair, Marcus said, “If she did, she didn’t say so.”
Nodding, Lee said, “She wouldn’t. She’s careful. But anyway, I can’t deny it, you did everything you needed to do. You didn’t know that you were doing most of what you were doing, but you succeeded nonetheless.”
There, he had my full attention (and Jaclyn’s to guess from her look at him), “What did we do that we weren’t trying to do?”
Lee met my eyes and gave a wide smile. “A number of very important tasks that I couldn’t be seen doing. First, you got the Earth genes necessary to break down the Ascendancy caste system to a group that will use them to do that. Second, you connected the nascent fourhander rebellion with the Alliance and the Ascendancy’s rebels. Third, you connected yourselves and by extension me, with an old friend of mine, one that wouldn’t have known whether or not she could trust me if I showed up on my own. Now, even if she never said so, Kee knows that I’m working with you and against Destroy.”
He looked around the cabin, meeting eyes with all of us. “Because of you, the Ascendancy will fall in 100 years at most, possibly as soon as fifty. Plus, Kee will find a way to get in touch with me. She’s resourceful that way. Once that happens, I’ll be able to find out what the Live faction’s been up to for the last few eons. I don’t know where that will lead me, but I’m sure it will be interesting.”
Sitting up, Marcus strained against his seatbelt. “Are you kidding me? Did you use us? Was this all part of some kind of plan?”
Lee looked him in the face. “Exactly. It’s part of a plan that keeps Earth the least interesting planet on this side of the galaxy, thereby keeping it alive for thousands of years longer than if Destroy noticed it.”
Frowning, Marcus said, “When you put it that way, I’m okay with it.”
“You and me both,” Cassie said. “Big picture, everyone, Big picture.”
Not long after that, we stopped talking. Hours, days and many jumps later, we arrived home, joining Stapledon for the rest of the summer.
As grateful as I was to be home and see Daniel, Haley, and everyone else, I dreamed of Hideaway–the good and the bad, the battles we fought, and the people we knew. I remembered the scent of its forest, the roars of its migrating megafauna, the sizzle of handheld beam weapons, the ashes of the last battle, and the many, many deaths.
While I didn’t find myself diving for cover at the sound of car backfires, I felt that my memories had a weight to them and wondered how people did this job for 20 years.
Grandpa, I knew, had done it for nearly 40 years even though I knew he remembered things he’d rather have forgotten. If you had a reason to do it, you found a way to continue.