Straightening from where I’m slumped on my bench, I shrug into her jacket, a little too tight on me, but warm. I try not to imagine Jubilee, her commanders, the relief of the other soldiers to have her returned to them. I try not to see her back at the bar, surrounded by her platoon, safe in a world where what she’s done doesn’t exist. But I see it all anyway. I watch her, in my mind, being reabsorbed into her world once more, the way I’ll never be with mine again.
I reach slowly for the boat’s oars and point the bow back out into the swamp. Away from the base, away from my home. Away from everything except the empty expanse of Avon’s wilderness.
The girl is on Patron with her old captain, running patrols, when they get the call that shots have been fired in the next sector over. The rebellion on Patron has been over for a decade, but pockets of insurgents still hide here and there, simmering with hatred and boiling over at random intervals.
They’re not geared for full-on combat, but her captain doesn’t hesitate. It’s a quick march back to the skimmer, and then he gives orders to head for the next sector, to back up the platoon pinned down at the edge of the forest.
The girl has never been in combat before, not front-line combat. She glances at her captain, and her fear is all over her face. Her captain looks back at her and winks, and she takes a breath. He has warm eyes, and she holds on to that detail.
“It won’t be like your drills,” he says, and though his voice is pitched for the whole platoon, he watches her while he speaks. “Anyone says it is, they’re lying.”
The girl swallows hard, shifting her grip on her Gleidel and wishing she had a rifle instead. When she looks back again at her captain, they’re the only two soldiers in the skimmer.
“You’re quick on your feet, Lee, and you learn fast. All you have to do is pay attention. Keep your eyes open. You’ll see what no one else does.”
THE SPOTLIGHTS ILLUMINATING THE BASE perimeter are blinding, and as I make for a weak spot in the fence that Flynn told me about, the adrenaline’s starting to recede. In its wake I’m left numb, stumbling; my fingers struggle to unwind the parts of the fence enough to slip through. Entering through the checkpoints will raise more questions than I can answer. If they discover what I’ve done, I’ll be transferred off-world and there’ll be no one left to piece together what’s happening to Avon.
I should try to sleep, or eat something to stop shaking, but I can barely remember which direction my bunk is. I find myself retracing the path Flynn took when he abducted me, ending up in the alley next to Molly’s. It’s full of graffiti, some half scrubbed away, some fresher. One is written half in Spanish, half in Irish—I can only recognize the word trodaire. The bright red paint was sprayed on so thickly that it dripped in long skinny rivulets before drying, and my eyes fix on them.
I can’t escape the images burned into my mind of blood and scorched flesh and crimson-stained stone and…I wrench my gaze away from the red graffiti, shivering. He didn’t save you so you could fall apart.
Before I can gather my strength to move again, the back door of the bar bursts open and out stumble three soldiers. Molly’s close on their heels. “Go home,” he’s saying. Though his voice is firm, he doesn’t sound angry. It’s easy to see that the three rookies have had more to drink than they should, but they’re all upright. None of them are from my platoon.
Molly spots me standing in the shadows and straightens. “Lee?” He flips on the light over the door, flooding the alleyway with a blast of illumination. Dimly I hear the soldiers speaking, calling to me, saying words I can’t process. I take a step back, head spinning as my heart starts pounding so hard I can barely breathe. I reach out in the same instant I realize there’s nothing nearby to grab on to, and I’m about to fall.
A strong hand grabs my shoulder, grounding me, supporting me. I blink to see Molly’s face not far from mine, his eyes worried. “Think I’ve got that special order somewhere in the back, babe,” he rumbles in that gentle, booming voice of his. The words are for the benefit of the trio now making their way back toward the barracks.
“Great,” I say weakly as he starts marching me toward the back door.
As soon as he’s gotten me inside the dimly lit, dusty storeroom, Molly guides me to an old packing crate and sits me down on top, so my quivering legs can relax. When I finally lift my head, he’s waiting for me with concern and apprehension.
Even Molly can’t see Captain Chase half ready to faint without wondering if the world’s about to end.
“You look awful,” he says in a low voice. “Something happen on patrol?”
I look down, noticing with surprise that my clothes are stained with mud, still wet in places. A few of the stains are different. Reddish brown. I open my mouth, but instead of a reply comes a half-hysterical gulp.
“I’ll make you a drink,” he says, fretting and starting to turn for the door.
I put a hand on his arm to stop him. “I don’t need a drink right now. Molly—I need your help.”
He rubs one hand over his shaven scalp, the tattoos winding around his fingers seeming to shift in the low light of the back room. Not for the first time I wish I could read the characters tattooed up and down both arms—but while I remember how to speak a little of the Mandarin my mother made me learn as a kid, the written characters have long since slipped away. Molly told me once that on one arm he’d gotten passages from The Art of War and The Prince, and on the other, quotes from wise men from every corner of ancient Earth, like Confucius, Dr. King, and Gandhi. War and peace, he’d explained, when I told him he was a lunatic. Light and dark. Yin and yang.
Rebel and soldier.
Molly was big into trying to find himself in his cultural past and bought into every stereotype he could find in ancient movies and books. Probably why he liked me right away—I’m one of the few people on the base who can even pronounce his real name. He was a terra-trash orphan when he was a baby—parents brought him to a new world, died in the rough conditions, and he ended up adopted by a family on Babel. I’ve got no idea how he ended up here, in a colony largely dominated by Irish folks. He’s got no link to our shared Chinese heritage except by blood, but it never ceases to fascinate him. Whereas I couldn’t get far enough away from my mother’s teachings.