The shuttle bays on the Canticle of Reason relied on massive doors to regulate air pressure and atmosphere, unlike the force fields the Breitenfeld had upgraded to in recent months. A Mule flew into the bay and settled against the deck without a sound in the total vacuum.
It took five minutes to pump atmosphere into the bay. Green lights blinked around the bay, then went steady.
Dotok, wearing nothing but their simple robes, came into the bay. Two bore clipboards, the rest carried plastic-wrapped packages. One Dotok waved to Jorgen, and he lowered the Mule’s ramp.
The last of the Dotok evacuated from the mesa filed down the ramp. The shell-shocked survivors glanced around the spacecraft, then went to the welcoming party.
Standish helped the young mother with her newborn clutched to her chest down the ramp, her feet wrapped in bandages.
“Nice ship you’ve got here,” Standish said to her. He looked around, noting that everything looked worn, recycled.
“Noor!” Un’qu ran into the bay and hugged the young mother, who broke into tears and a blubbery recount of her tale. The baby broke into a ragged cry and Un’qu held it in his arms. The Dotok officer gave Standish a nod and led his family away.
“Well, that’s something,” Standish said. He sat down on the ramp and watched as the Dotok took care of the refugees. He ran a hand over the dried sweat and grime on the top of his head, then took a long hard look at the dried blood on his gloves and forearms. He’d helped the medics get Hale and Bailey off their transport after it made it to the Breitenfeld. He hadn’t heard a word about them in the hour since. No word about Cortaro, Orozco or Steuben. For all he knew, he was the last man standing. The only person he was sure about was Torni. He’d seen the banshees charging up the mountain. There was no chance she’d survived.
Jorgen sat next to Standish and handed him a canteen.
“Shitty day,” the pilot said.
“At least it’s over, right?”
“Nothing on the scanners. This system’s got a couple rocks in it, not a lot else. No Xaros. No gates. Nice and quiet for a while,” Jorgen said. “We’ll head back once they clear out.” Jorgen gave Standish a pat on the shoulder and went back inside.
“Standish?” a little voice said.
Caas and Ar’ri stood beside the ramp, hand in hand. They wore new clothes and looked like they’d been cleaned up since the last time he saw them.
“Caas and Annie, right?”
“Ar’ri!” the little boy piped up.
“Where is Sarge Torni? She said she’d come see us,” Caas said.
Standish felt like someone punched him in the gut.
“Oh…um…” Standish got off the ramp and knelt in front of the two children. “Torni…she’s…” He pressed two fingers against his lips. “Ehtan. She’s dead, little guys. Ehtan.”
Caas’ lips trembled. Her chin fell against her chest and she started sobbing.
Standish wrapped his arms around them and pulled them close.
Stacey rematerialized on Bastion. She staggered to a wall, breathing heavily. The white squares of the transit room never looked so welcoming.
“Chuck, is it me, or did that trip take a hell of a lot longer than it should have?” she asked the station’s AI.
“Welcome back, Stacey Ibarra. Due to an unanticipated gate usage, the system had to keep you in queue until the platform was reset and prepared for your arrival,” came from the ceiling.
“I must have been in transit for…twenty hours!”
“Eighteen hours and thirty-seven minutes. Did you experience discomfort?”
“‘Discomfort?’ I thought I was going to spend the rest of eternity floating through a white abyss with no hope of rescue.” Stacey stood up and recomposed herself. “My return was scheduled. This sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen. Explain.”
“Ambassador Pa’lon signaled an emergency gate travel. We regret any discomfort you may have experienced,” the AI said.
“He’s back? Where is he?”
“Pa’lon is in the atrium. Would you like me to connect you?”
“No, I’ll go see him in person.” The doors slid aside and Stacey strode out into Bastion. Representatives of the many species present on the station appeared to her as unique human beings. Some chatted amidst the hallways, others passed her by with nary a second glance or bit of attention. The station maintained a hologram around each ambassador displaying each as a member of an observer’s own species—all in the effort of cooperation.
The atrium held a small forest of pale white trees, their tall boughs draped through the space forming covered walkways. The trees glowed from within, casting sterile light that made Stacey think of the white hell she’d just gone through.
The nature and origin of the trees was a mystery. Chuck and other AIs claimed not to have the information. Most suspected that the trees were some sort of remnant of the Qa’Resh’s home world. The leaders of the Alliance were notoriously secretive and if the trees were connected to the giant floating crystal entities, it would be something they’d keep hidden.
Pa’lon sat on a bench in the middle of a small clearing, his shoulders low and his head in his hands.
“Pa’lon?” Stacey asked. She reached out to touch his shoulder. Her hand stopped several inches from him and a buzzer sounded.
“Contact not authorized,” the AI said.
Pa’lon’s head jerked up, ending whatever reverie he’d been in. “Stacey, my girl, so good to see you again.” He was as young as she’d remembered him, but he looked as though the weight of many worlds rested on his shoulders.
“What’s going on? Did the Breitenfeld make it to Takeni? Don’t keep me in suspense,” she sat next to him on the bench.
Pa’lon told her of the Breitenfeld’s arrival and everything that happened up until he had to leave Takeni, leaving his people behind.
“They’ll make it, Pa’lon. Valdar’s tough and smart. If there’s anyone who can find a way, or make a way, it’s him,” Stacey said.
“I know, I was most impressed with him and the rest of the humans. I have some hope left,” Pa’lon sank back against the bench.
“You’re acting like things are a lot worse than they really are.”
“When I returned, I went to the cartography lab and ran some simulations. The Grand Fleet was likely overrun by only a few drones. Given when the fleet must have been compromised and the time it took to reach Takeni…the AI think that all our fleets have been destroyed or corrupted. The Grand Fleet knew every planet we were going to colonize. Transmitting that information to drones in neighboring star systems would be too easy,” Pa’lon said.
“You don’t know that for sure,” Stacey said.
“No, but the math is not in our favor. We won’t know for centuries if the other fleets made it to their chosen planets, or if the Xaros are there waiting for them in force. That is a long time to wait to know if your species is extinct,” he said. “There’s a part of Bastion just for ambassadors who’ve lost everything. They’re not allowed to interact with the rest of us. They have nothing else to contribute to the war. No vote at assembly. I wonder what it’s like there…”
“You know, I’m probably closer to that fate than you are. Xaros are a little over a decade away from Earth. We lose that fight and I’ve got nothing. Do you see me having a pity party?”
“No, not at all. If I am morose, I apologize. My hopes for the Dotok to spread across the stars and contribute more to this war…have been turned to ashes. How would you suggest I take it?”
“You have hope. Your people will get off Takeni and they’ll make it to Earth. Just a little hope is enough to get me through the day,” she said.
“I never knew humans could be so wise until I met you—or so ugly when I saw the rest of you up close. Though that one you always talk about, Hale, he seemed less ugly than the rest.” Pa’lon sat up and took a deep breath of the pollinated air around them.
“You didn’t say anything to him about me, did you?”
“No, should I have?”
“No! In fact, never mention me to him. Unless he asks about me. Did he?”
“Our conversations revolved around survival and killing noorla. Your behavior becomes remarkably different when Hale is mentioned. Can you explain this to me?”
Stacey frowned and shook her head. “Nope. Nothing to explain. I’m glad you made it back to Bastion.”
“And I am glad to see you again. Thank you for your help saving my people.”
“Moving furniture, dinner parties, saving each other from genocide. That’s what friends are for.”