Change, though painful, is often necessary. We often fear it, though, simply because it hurts too damn much sometimes. I speak from experience—volumes of it.
— attributed to Ryland LeSarte, circa 4856 PD
20 Novem, 5249 PD
“So that’s home,” America said softly as she stared out through space, down at the blue and green and white ball that was E-557. There was a storm swirling through the southern ocean and a weather front was sweeping east toward the more heavily populated areas of the main continent. It was hard to tell where the cities might be from up here. If Ezra didn’t already know where they were, he’d be hard-pressed to tell from this altitude.
“Yeah,” he said quietly. “That’s home.”
“You have Brendan secured, Ezra?” Alana asked without looking up from the controls.
“Just about,” he said, crossing his arms and leaning with one hip against the back of Alana’s seat. “Are we going to run into any of that weather?”
“No.” She didn’t bother to look up. “We’re landing on the coast, so we should be able to avoid it. I’m not very experienced with the wind sheering here, though.”
Ezra squeezed her shoulder. “You’ll be fine.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” she muttered, jaw tightening for a moment. “I’d still rather be safe than sorry. Make sure he’s strapped in tight.”
America chuckled weakly as she looked at Ezra. “Seems she’s not going to leave you alone until you do it. Do you need help?”
He shook his head. “No, I can handle it just fine.” He glanced at Grant as he headed back toward the bunks. The older man was slumped in one of the observation seats, arms crossed, staring broodingly out at the planet that spun lazily below them.
“Not much in the way of defenses, is there?” Grant said as Ezra passed.
It was Alana that answered. “There’s a few orbitals, but they’re cloaked. Isolation has been our greatest defense for the most part, and vigilance. The planetary sensor net is very much like the systems employed at Mimir.”
Grant made a disgusted sound low in his throat. “Much good that did us. We didn’t see them coming until it was too late—and even then, we couldn’t tell who it was.”
“There have been some upgrades to the old systems,” Ezra said as he double-checked Brendan’s vitals and then started to fasten an extra layer of crash webbing over his friend. “A couple dozen of the best minds the Foundation and the Guard had worked on the project.”
“We also built redundancy into the system,” Alana said, tone dry. “Constant air patrols, small but effective. Brendan flies them, like most of the other pilots in our flight corps.” She exhaled, her voice dropping to almost a mutter. “At least they have flight hours logged even if they’re not combat hours.”
Ezra swallowed the thin trickle of bile that welled up at the back of his throat. “Maybe it won’t come to that.”
“Keep hoping, Dr. Grace,” Alana said. “Keep hoping—keep praying—and maybe something will have mercy on us. For my part, I’ll keep right on worrying.”
Ezra bit back stubborn denial and looked down at Brendan, his jaw tightening painfully for a moment. “Right,” the doctor muttered. “Keep on worrying. I’ll keep praying.” He fell silent as he slid the last few fasteners home, securing Brendan in a cocoon of crash netting substantial enough that Ezra was fairly certain if the ship did crash, Brendan would survive even if the rest of them didn’t.
Comparatively, we’re all expendable. He barely kept himself from wincing at the thought as he straightened up.
“Where are we landing, anyway?”
Alana hesitated for the barest moment before she said, “Halo Ridge.”
“We can’t,” he said.
America and Grant both looked at him askance. America tilted her head to one side. “Is there something wrong with this place where we’re landing?”
“No,” Alana said. “It’s a perfectly lovely landing zone. I’ve seen it. And if we somehow accidentally overshoot, we’ll end up in the water.”
Ezra could have throttled her. His breath caught, throat tightening painfully. “No one’s landed at Halo Ridge since Mom died.”
Alana shook her head. “All I know is that I was told that’s where we’re landing, Ezra. I have my vectors and it’s way too late for me to ask them to reroute us now.”
Ezra clamped his mouth shut so tightly his jaw hurt. America’s gaze flicked between him and Alana as he stiffly made his way to another of the observation seats and dropped into it.
Kara must know we’re coming home. None of the Marshals would have come up with us landing at Halo Ridge. I don’t think any of them realize that it’s still the way Dad left it the last time.
He closed his eyes. Five years had done little enough to soften the blow of two deaths only weeks apart.
“How long has it been since you were there?” Alana asked after a few minutes of aching silence.
“Halo Ridge? Not since we found out that Mom was never going to land there again. Been to the house a few times, but I could never live there. Too many memories. Too many ghosts.”
The way she exhaled said that she understood. He managed a weak smile as he turned to America and Grant. “My father set up a landing field at Halo Ridge for my mother. They died five years ago.”
America glanced at her husband. “Quite a gesture.”
Ezra smiled faintly. “Yeah. I guess it was.” His smile faded. “When will we be there, Alana?”
“Forty-five or less,” she said as she nosed the ship down toward their reentry vector. “Keep on praying.”
“I won’t,” Ezra said quietly, staring at the planet growing larger and larger in the windows. “I promise I won’t.”
● ● ●
The ride out to base had been too short for the conversation Daci clearly wanted to have with him, but he didn’t have the same luck on the trip between the base and the old Grace house overlooking the water. Daci sat next to him in the skimmer, back ramrod-straight. For a few moments, he thought that maybe, just maybe, she wasn’t going to say anything.
Then she took a deep breath and said, without preamble, “I cannot believe the risk you took with his life. He is your best friend. You have almost as much interest in keeping him breathing as I do and you bring him to a fragging Council meeting.”
“Ostensibly, we’re supposed to be able to trust the Council,” Adam said, though he believed it as much as she did and it was audible in his voice.
“We don’t trust D’Arcy Morgause. Don’t pretend that even Speaker Petremoore does.” Daci grit her teeth. “The only thing that saved your life in there was the fact that I don’t think that anyone recognized Frederick. Believe me, if anyone had recognized him, I would have shot you on the way to base and disappeared with him again.”
“You wouldn’t have,” Adam said. “If you did, he’d never forgive you.”
“He’d forgive me eventually,” Daci said. Her hands tightened into fists on her knees. “What the hell were you thinking, Adam?”
“He was already there, Daci. He decided that he was coming when Rachel and Lindsay left the house. He said he was coming to the meeting. Was I supposed to tell him no, make him wait in the skimmer?”
Daci stayed quiet, staring at trees as they cut out of town and up into the wild beyond Nova Spexi, out toward a rocky spate of shoreline that jutted out into the ocean north of town. A quarter mile later, she said, “You guys should have found a way to talk him out of it.”
“Once he sets his mind to something, there’s no talking him out of it. You know that, Daci.” Adam shot her a rueful smile. “It’s why he’s here.”
“That’s a true statement on a lot of different levels,” Daci murmured, eyes focusing distantly for a long moment. “Adam, when they land, everything’s going to change.”
The abrupt subject shift startled him so badly he nearly swerved off the narrow, two-lane roadway.
Daci snorted. “Are you trying to get us both killed?”
“No. What the hell are you talking about now?”
Daci gave him a long, hard look. “Once they land. Then we’ll know the truth. Everyone will know the truth about what happened at the Whispers. We’ll know whatever the Compact and Chinasia are planning because America and Grant will be able to tell us.”
“They might not,” Adam said, heart sinking. She’s right. Damnation, she’s right.
“Prisoners or not, Adam, they’ll know something. We both know that it’s probably not going to be good.”
“No,” he agreed. “Probably not.” Certainly not. “But then, where Chinasia and the Compact are involved, things are never good, are they?”
“Typically not.” Daci exhaled. “We need a new spymaster.”
Adam nodded. “I know.” I want Freder for it, but you won’t go for it—and I have to convince him first. “We’ll sort it all out.”
“Before we can oust D’Arcy, we need to have someone we can install in his place. It could be Alana.”
Adam made a noncommitmental sound. “We’ll sort it all out,” he said again.
Ahead of them lay the perimeter that Aidan’s people had arranged. Adam took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly.
Within the hour, everything would change. It was just a question of how—and how drastically different their world would be.