We emerge on an icy mountainside in the middle of a blizzard. The shock of the cold steals my breath, and my lashes immediately freeze over, going spiky with ice. As quickly as possible, we don some thermal gear and set up our signal for Dina and Hit. It would have been smart to put it on before we came out, but the channel Vel cut simply wasn’t wide enough to permit extra centimeters. In fact, the bounty hunter had to shove his pack before him.
Despite the all-weather gear, my teeth start to chatter. I’ve been pushed to my physical limits, and I don’t know how much more I can take. I’ve gone somewhere beyond exhaustion. Everything seems strange and distant.
As we wait, March wraps his arms around me. “We’re going to be fine,” he whispers. “You did it. We made it out in time.”
I can only guess whether we did. For all I know, we might be abandoned, marooned on this icy mountainside. Despair plucks at me with icy fingers. Countless minutes pass while we huddle together for warmth. There’s no shelter to be had, unless we go back inside. If we do that, we admit failure—that they’re not coming.
At last, just as I’m about to lose hope, lights appear in the snowstorm, just down the slope from us. I start to run.
We did it. They’re here. March is safe.
Dina and Hit hug us tight as they pull us into the shuttle, but they don’t waste time with questions, though the mechanic levels a look on March that promises she’ll kick his ass for him later. There will be a time for talking, affectionate ass-kickings, and joyful reunions. It’s not while we remain on Ithiss-Tor.
Hit immediately starts the systems check that will take us out of the atmosphere. “Hold on,” she says softly. “There are gonna be some bumps as we go.”
“Let me trick out the readings.” Dina taps away at the panel. “Okay, we’re good. Strap in, you three.”
We comply, Vel and March on either side of me. As the thrusters burn, I can hear the hiss of melting snow. The shuttle slides hard starboard as Hit takes it up, the wind buffeting us all the way. I’ve never been more conscious of how thin a skiff can be. Then the sky opens up to us, a white tornado bleeding gray at the edges. We pierce the heart of it, the dreamy landscape receding beneath us.
“You know they may never let you come back,” I tell Vel quietly.
He lifts his shoulders. Yes, I know, he says without a word. I accept exile if it comes to that.
But maybe it won’t come. After today, I believe in miracles.
I take March’s hand in mine, glorying in the fact that I can. My euphoria lasts only until we’ve reached the ship out in orbit. There’s talk of a party, but I don’t have the energy. Instead, I stagger to my quarters, wanting a shower, but I find a message from Chancellor Tarn waiting for me instead. With a sigh, I play it.
“You did well, Sirantha, better than anyone could have asked, but I am afraid it was not enough.”
I sink into a chair, shaking with dread. March curls his hands over my shoulders, watching with me in silence. I remember how he said we needed to be out there, marshaling our forces, not wallowing in diplomatic bullshit. Mary, I don’t want him to fight another war.
Tarn continues, “Our worst fear has come to pass. Though I do not know who supplied the intelligence, the Morgut know the Ithtorians no longer have a powerful fleet. To prove their strength, they have attacked an installation shockingly close to New Terra. We need all hands—” The satellites give up at this point, leaving me wondering what’s next. One thing’s sure, though.
The war has begun.