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Page 25

And so I went home, Consu gift in tow.

John and Jane greeted me as I jumped off the Obin shuttle, all of us ending in a pile as I ran into Mom full speed and then we dragged Dad down with us. Then I showed them my new toy: the sapper field generator, specially designed by the Consu to give us a tactical advantage when Nerbros Eser and his friends came to call. Jane immediately took to it and started fiddling with it; that was her thing.

Hickory and Dickory and I decided that in the end neither John nor Jane needed to know what it took for us to get it. The less they knew, the less the Colonial Union could charge them with at their treason trial. Although it looked like that might not happen - the Roanoke council did remove John and Jane from their posts once they revealed where they had sent me and who I was supposed to see, and had appointed Gretchen's dad Manfred in their place. But they had given Mom and Dad ten days to hear back from me before they informed the Colonial Union about what they'd done. I got back just under the wire and once they saw what I brought, weren't inclined to offer my parents to the tender affections of the Colonial Union judicial system. I wasn't going to complain about that.

After I got Mom and Dad acquainted with the sapper field generator, I went for a walk and found Gretchen, reading a book on her porch.

"I'm back," I said.

"Oh," she said, casually flipping a page. "Were you gone?"

I grinned; she hurled the book at me and told me that if I ever did anything like that again, she would strangle me, and that she could do it because she always was better in our defense courses than I was. Well, it was true. She was. Then we hugged and made up and went to find Magdy, so we could pester him in stereo.

Ten days later, Roanoke was attacked by Nerbros Eser and about a hundred Arrisian soldiers, that being Eser's race. Eser and his soldiers marched right into Croatoan and demanded to speak to its leaders. They got Savitri, the administrative assistant, instead; she suggested that they go back to their ships and pretend their invasion never happened. Eser ordered his soldier to shoot Savitri, and that's when they learned how a sapper field can really mess with their weapons. Jane tuned the field so that it would slow down bullets but not slower projectiles. Which is why the Arrisian soldier's rifles wouldn't work, but Jane's flame thrower would. As did Dad's hunting bow. And Hickory's and Dickory's knives. And Manfred Trujillo's lorry. And so on.

At the end of it Nerbros Eser had none of the soldiers that he'd landed with, and was also surprised to learn that the battleship he'd parked in orbit wasn't there anymore, either. To be fair, the sapper field didn't extend into space; we got a little help there from a benefactor who wished to remain anonymous. But however you sliced it, Nerbros Eser's play for the leadership of the Conclave came to a very sad and embarrassing end.

Where was I in all of this? Why, safely squirreled away in a bomb shelter with Gretchen and Magdy and a bunch of other teenagers, that's where. Despite all the events of the previous month, or maybe because of them, the executive decision was made that I had had enough excitement for the time being. I can't say I disagreed with the decision. To be honest about it, I was looking forward to just getting back to my life on Roanoke with my friends, with nothing to worry about except for school and practicing for the next hootenanny. That was right about my speed.

But then General Gau came for a visit.

He was there to take custody of Nerbros Eser, which he did, to his great personal satisfaction. But he was also there for two other reasons.

The first was to inform the citizens of Roanoke that he had made it a standing order that no Conclave member was ever to attack our colony, and that he had made it clear to non-Conclave races in our part of space that if any of them were to get it into their heads to make a play for our little planet, that he would personally be very disappointed. He left unsaid what level of retaliation "personal disappointment" warranted. It was more effective that way.

Roanokers were of two minds about this. On the one hand, Roanoke was now practically free from attack. On the other hand, General Gau's declaration only brought home the fact that the Colonial Union itself hadn't done much for Roanoke, not just lately but ever. The general feeling was that the Colonial Union had a lot to answer for, and until it answered for these things, that Roanokers felt perfectly justified in not paying too close attention to the Colonial Union's dictates. Like, for example, the one in which Manfred Trujillo was supposed to arrest my parents and take them into custody on the charge of treason. Trujillo apparently had a hard time finding either John or Jane after that one came in. A neat trick, considering how often they were talking.

But this folded into the other reason Gau had come around.

"General Gau is offering us sanctuary," Dad said to me. "He knows your mom and I will be charged with treason - several counts seem likely - and it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility that you'll be charged as well."

"Well, I did commit treason," I said. "What with consorting with the leader of the Conclave and all."

Dad ignored this. "The point is, even if people here aren't in a rush to turn us in, it's only a matter of time before the CU sends real enforcement to come get us. We can't ask the people here to get into any more trouble on our account. We have to go, Zoe."

"When?" I asked.

"In the next day," Dad said. "Gau's ship is here now, but it's not like the CU is going to ignore it for long."

"So we're going to become citizens of the Conclave," I said.

"I don't think so," Dad said. "We'll be among them for a while, yes. But I have a plan to get us somewhere I think you might be happy with."

"And where is that?" I asked.

"Well," Dad said. "Have you ever heard of this little place called Earth?"

Dad and I spoke for a few more minutes, and then I walked over to Gretchen's, where I actually managed to say hello to her before I broke down in sobs. She gave me a hug and held me, and let me know it was okay. "I knew this was coming," she said to me. "You don't do what you've done and then come back and pretend nothing has happened."

"I thought it might be worth a try," I said.

"That's because you're an idiot," Gretchen said. I laughed. "You're an idiot, and my sister, and I love you, Zoe."

We hugged some more. And then she came over to my house and helped me and my family pack away our lives for a hasty exit.

Word spread, as it would in a small colony. Friends came by, mine and my parents', by themselves and in twos and threes. We hugged and laughed and cried and said our good-byes and tried to part well. As the sun started to set Magdy came by, and he and Gretchen and I took a walk to the Gugino homestead, where I knelt and kissed Enzo's headstone, and said good-bye to him one last time, even as I carried him still in my heart. We walked home and Magdy said his good-bye then, giving me a hug so fierce that I thought it would crack my ribs. And then he did something he'd never done before: gave me a kiss, on my cheek.

"Good-bye, Zoe," he said.

"Good-bye, Magdy," I said. "Take care of Gretchen for me."

"I'll try," Magdy said. "But you know how she is." I smiled at that. Then he went to Gretchen, gave her a hug and a kiss, and left.

And then it was Gretchen and me, packing and talking and cracking each other up through the rest of the night. Eventually Mom and Dad went to sleep but didn't seem to mind that Gretchen and I went on through the night and straight on until morning.

A group of friends arrived in a Mennonite horse-drawn wagon to carry our things and us to the Conclave shuttle. We started the short journey laughing but got quiet as we came closer to the shuttle. It wasn't a sad silence; it was a silence you have when you've said everything you need to say to another person.

Our friends lifted what we were taking with us into the shuttle; there was a lot we were leaving behind, too bulky to take, that we had given to friends. One by one all my friends gave me hugs and farewells, and dropped away, and then there was just Gretchen and me again.

"You want to come with me?" I asked.

Gretchen laughed. "Someone has to take care of Magdy," she said. "And Dad. And Roanoke."

"You always were the organized one," I said.

"And you were always you," Gretchen said.

"Someone had to be," I said. "And anyone else would have messed it up."

Gretchen gave me another hug. Then she stood back from me. "No good-byes," she said. "You're in my heart. Which means you're not gone."

"All right," I said. "No good-byes. I love you, Gretchen."

"I love you too," Gretchen said. And then she turned and she walked away, and didn't look back, although she did stop to give Babar a hug. He slobbered her thoroughly.

And then he came to me, and I led him into the passenger compartment of the shuttle. In time, everyone else came in. John. Jane. Savitri. Hickory. Dickory.

My family.

I looked out the shuttle window at Roanoke, my world, my home. Our home. But our home no longer. I looked at it and the people in it, some of whom I loved and some of whom I lost. Trying to take it all in, to make it a part of me. To make it a part of my story. My tale. To remember it so I can tell the story of my time here, not straight but true, so that anyone who asked me could feel what I felt about my time, on my world.

I sat, and looked, and remembered in the present time.

And when I was sure I had it, I kissed the window and drew the shade.

The engines on the shuttle came to life.

"Here we go," Dad said.

I smiled and closed my eyes and counted down the seconds until liftoff.

Five. Four. Three. Two.


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