Kals shook her head, “Sometimes I think that all I am is a sad story for these people. You know, the orphaned daughter of the martyred mom who united the resistance… Let’s hear her speak and be inspired… I get it. I really do. People need a flag to wave. They need a cause. I’m available and I’m ready to work for it because I think it needs to happen too.
“The Human Ascendancy is nothing more than a leftover of the Abominators’ military bureaucracy and they rule with no more thought to humanity’s good than the Abominators did. They need to go and I’m willing to work to make it happen, but I’m not in charge. The rebellion has a council and I go where they tell me to.”
She let out a sigh and added, “And that’s what I’ll be doing until this war is over, I give up, or die.”
She stood there then, staring out into space or maybe inward, eyes drifting toward the floor. If this were Haley, I’d have put my hand on her shoulder and tried to figure out whether she wanted to be held or whether she was too angry for that.
It might send the wrong message to her, but except for the one time she’d contacted me via ansible, she’d never gone over the line.
I walked over to her and put my hand on her shoulder, “Are you okay?”
She looked up at me and over at Daniel, “I’m… I’m sorry for unloading on you. I’m not okay. I’m the figurehead for a rebellion I don’t really control and almost everybody I know is going to war in a few days and all I can do is root for them.”
Flashes of all the battles we’d fought in passed through my memory, “They’re not sending you in?”
She shook her head, “Figurehead, remember? If I die, they’ll have to find someone else and no one else has a better story. Besides, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t want the Human Ascendancy to burn. They’ve run my entire life even after we rebelled. When my family wasn’t running from them, we were fighting them.”
Reaching up with her hand, she touched my hand on her shoulder, “We can’t even touch people outside of our genetically engineered caste. The Ascendancy could have changed that. They chose not to.”
Letting go of my hand as I brought it back to my side, she added, “The most I can stay is three days. Then I’ve got to go back.”
Katuk stepped closer, “That’s true. The council requested that you be back two weeks from now. This was an unauthorized detour.”
He stopped, turning his head to look at me with his black, alien eyes, and then added, “I approve of the detour. It’s good to assist former teammates.”
“Thanks,” I said, knowing that while he’d said teammates he’d meant a Xiniti word that could mean squad, team, or even family. The lack of distinction had everything to do with the fact that Xiniti were asexual most of the time, but when factors were right, they shifted to whatever sex was needed.
With that, the conversation stopped as we all tried to figure out where things went from here. Even as I thought about grabbing cots for the two of them from one of our storage rooms, Daniel said, “there’s someone else who wants to say hi.”
Before any of us could question him, I heard the tapping of claws on concrete. We all looked over to our left where the massive metal doors hung that led to the hanger. They were open and standing in between them stood a dog. Shaggy, with loose stripes of black and orange in his fur, Tiger stood at more than six feet tall at the shoulder. A terrier the size of a large horse, we’d brought him home from space after Jaclyn found the abandoned puppy.
He saw Kals and Katuk and bounded toward them, barking, and stopping only to lick them with his massive red tongue. Katuk’s suit of silver armor extended upward to encase his head, sparing him the worst of Tiger’s drool. Kals either didn’t have protection or couldn’t turn it on in time.
Tiger’s tongue covered half of her face and left dog saliva not only there but also on her hair.
Knowing how careful Kals was about her hair and how she dressed even on a colony world in the middle of nowhere, I didn’t know how she’d react.
She laughed, sinking her hands into his fur and petting the dog, “I didn’t think you’d remember me.”
That got her more licks.
Even as that was happening, I got a notification from the sensors that Jaclyn had entered through the hangar. I didn’t have time to tell anyone before she appeared next to Kals in a blur of purple, saying, “I am so sorry. Tiger, give her a chance to breathe.”
Kals said, “Jaclyn!”
“In the flesh. Marcus will be here in a few minutes and so will Cassie. Let’s call this a reunion. Welcome to Earth. I’ll get you a towel.”
* * *
In a kind of odd parallel to one of our first nights on Hideaway, we had a party—not a big one because we were still reeling from everything that happened with Uncle Steve. So, no drinking was allowed except for people like Cassie or Jaclyn whose metabolisms murdered the alcohol before it got a chance to do anything.
Most of the team wandered through at one point in the evening or another even if they were picking up updates for their suits or bots to place around their parents’ houses. That should have made it feel gloomy, but it wasn’t.
Kals got to meet everybody currently in the city, even people I hadn’t imagined she’d meet—Amy, for example. How do you introduce the leader of an interstellar rebellion to a magical girl from an alternate universe? You tell them each other’s first names and go from there.
Kals even got to talk to Julie for a little while. I wasn’t close enough to hear them, but I had a guess as to what the conversation had to be.
I didn’t get to ask either of them about it before the end of the night.
I woke up with Haley the next morning. She’d stayed after being drawn into a conversation that lasted to long for her to want to go back to her dorm.
We lay there next to each other in what had many years ago been my grandparents’ room. Outside the window, the first hints of sunrise were in the sky. In November in Michigan that meant it was nearing eight in the morning. Haley had classes, but not for a couple of hours. I wondered if I had any chance of not waking her up.
Given her senses, I doubted it was more than one percent.
I didn’t have any more time to think about that before my implant notified me of a call that Major Justice left 30 minutes before. Major Justice, the guy who’d been complaining about our irresponsibility to anyone who’d listened over the last month, had apparently felt the need to move from complaining to direct contact.
I opened the message.
A gravelly, baritone voice said, “Rocket, I and my team will be arriving in the next hour. When we get there you will justify your actions and associations over the past few years or there will be consequences.”
So, he’d be here half an hour from now or maybe less. Plus, it sounded like he was bringing his team. Plus, what was wrong with that guy? I didn’t know him or have any reason to respect him. Why did he feel he had the right to be some kind of disciplinarian?
As emotions rippled through me, Haley sat up in bed wearing one of my t-shirts, her eyes shifting from human pupils to catlike slits, claws extending from her hands, “What’s wrong?”