And wouldn't you know. Something big was arranged.
The Colonial Union showed up.
The shuttle landed and a little green man popped out. And I thought, This seems familiar. It was even the same little green man: General Rybicki.
But there were differences. The first time I saw General Rybicki, he was in my front yard, and it was just him and me. This time his shuttle landed in the grassy area right in front of Croatoan's gate, and a large chunk of the colony had turned out to see him land. He was our first visitor since we came to Roanoke, and his appearance seemed to give the idea that maybe we would finally be out of exile.
General Rybicki stood in front of the shuttle and looked at the people in front of him. He waved.
They cheered wildly. This went on for several minutes. It's like people had never seen someone wave before.
Finally the general spoke. "Colonists of Roanoke," he said. "I bring you good news. Your days of hiding are over." This was interrupted by another gout of cheering. When it calmed down, the general continued. "As I speak to you, my ship above is installing your communications satellite. Soon you will be able to send messages to friends and loved ones back on your home planets. And from here on out, all the electronic and communication equipment you had been ordered to stop using will be returned to you." This got a huge whoop from the teenage sectors of the crowd.
"We know that we have asked much from you," Rybicki said. "I am here to tell you that your sacrifice has not been wasted. We believe that very soon now the enemy that has threatened you will be contained - and not just contained, but defeated. We couldn't have done this without you. So for all of the Colonial Union, I thank you."
More cheering and nonsense. The general seemed to be enjoying his moment in the sun.
"Now I must speak with your colony leaders to discuss how to reintegrate you into the Colonial Union. Some of this may take some time, so I ask you to be a little patient. But until then, let me just say this: Welcome back to civilization!"
Now the crowd really went nuts. I rolled my eyes and looked down at Babar, who went with me to the landing. "This is what happens when you spend a year out in the wilderness," I said. "Any dumb thing looks like entertainment." Babar looked up at me and lolled his tongue out; I could tell he agreed with me. "Come on, then," I said. And we walked through the crowd to the general, who I was supposed to escort back to my dad.
General Rybicki saw Babar before he saw me. "Hey!" he said, and bent down for his slobbering, which Babar duly and enthusiastically applied. He was a good dog but not a hugely accurate judge of character. "I remember you," he said to Babar, petting him. He looked up and saw me. "I remember you, too."
"Hello, General," I said, politely. The crowd was still milling around us but quickly dispersing as folks raced to all corners of the colony to pass on what they were told.
"You look taller," he said.
"It's been a year," I said. "And I am a growing girl. This despite being kept in the dark all this time."
The general seemed not to catch this. "Your mother said that you would be escorting me to see them. I'm a little surprised that they didn't come out themselves," he said.
"They've had a busy couple of days," I said. "As have we all."
"So colony life is more exciting than you thought it would be," the general said.
"Something like that," I said, and then motioned. "I know my dad is very interested in talking to you, General. Let's not keep him waiting."
I held my PDA in my hand. There was something not quite right about it.
Gretchen noticed it too. "It feels weird," she said. "It's been so long since we carried one around. It's like I've forgotten how to do it."
"You seemed to remember pretty well when we were using the ones in the information center," I said, reminding her of how we'd spent a fair amount of the last year.
"It's different," she said. "I didn't say I'd forgotten how to use one. I'm saying I've forgotten what it was like to carry one around. Two different things."
"You could always give it back," I said.
"I didn't say that," Gretchen said, quickly. Then she smiled. "Still, you have to wonder. In the last year people here actually did manage to get along without them just fine. All the hootenannies and the plays and the other stuff." She looked at her PDA. "Makes you wonder if they're all going to go away now."
"I think they're part of who we are now," I said. "As Roanokers, I mean."
"Maybe," Gretchen said. "It's a nice thought. We'll have to see if it's actually true."
"We could practice a new song," I said. "Hickory says Dickory's been wanting to try something new for a while now."
"That's funny," Gretchen said. "One of your bodyguards has become a musical fiend."
"He's a Roanoker too," I said.
"I guess he is," Gretchen said. "That's funny, too."
My PDA blinked; something happened with Gretchen's as well. She peered at hers. "It's a message from Magdy," she said. "This is going to be bad." She touched the PDA to open it. "Yup," she said, and showed me the picture. Magdy sent a short video of him mooning us.
"Some people are getting back into the swing of things sooner than others," I said.
"Unfortunately," Gretchen said. She tapped onto her PDA. "There," she said. "I made a note to kick his ass the next time I see him." She motioned at my PDA. "He send it to you, too?"
"Yes," I said. "I think I'll refrain from opening it."
"Coward," Gretchen said. "Well, then, what is going to be your first official act on your PDA?"
"I'm going to send a message to a certain two someones," I said. "And tell them that I want to see them alone."
"We apologize for being late," Hickory said to me, as it and Dickory stepped into my bedroom. "Major Perry and General Rybicki gave us priority status on a data packet so that we could communicate with our government. It took some time to prepare the data."
"What did you send?" I asked.
"Everything," Hickory said.
"Everything," I said. "Every single thing you two and I did in the last year."
"Yes," Hickory said. "A digest of events now, and a more comprehensive report as soon as we can. Our people will be desperate to know what has happened with you since they last heard from us. They need to know you are well and unharmed."
"This includes what happened last night," I said. "All of it. Including the part where you oh so lightly mentioned your plans to murder my parents."
"Yes," Hickory said. "We are sorry to have upset you, Zoe. We would not have wished to do that. But you offered us no alternative when you told us to speak the truth to your parents."
"And what about to me?" I asked.
"We have always told you the truth," Hickory said.
"Yes, but not all of it, have you?" I said. "You told Dad that you had information about the Conclave that you didn't tell him about. But you didn't tell it to me, either. You kept secrets from me, Hickory. You and Dickory both."
"You never asked," Hickory said.
"Oh, don't give me that crap," I said. "We're not playing word games here, Hickory. You kept us in the dark. You kept me in the dark. And the more I've thought about it, the more I realize how you acted on what you knew without telling me. All those alien races you had me and Gretchen study in the information center. All the races you trained us how to fight. Hardly any of them were in the Conclave. Because you knew that if the Conclave found us first, they'd try everything not to fight us."
"Yes," Hickory said.
"Don't you think I should have known that?" I asked. "Don't you think it would have mattered to me? To all of us? To the entire colony?"
"We are sorry, Zoe," Hickory said. "We had orders from our government not to reveal information to your parents that they did not already know, until such time as it became absolutely necessary. That would have only been if the Conclave were to appear in your sky. Until then, we were required to exercise care. If we had spoken to you about it, you would have naturally informed your parents. And so we decided that we would not bring these things up with you, unless you asked us directly about them."
"And why would I do that?" I asked.
"Indeed," Hickory said. "We regret the necessity. But we saw no other alternative."
"Listen to me, both of you," I said, and then stopped. "You're recording this now, aren't you."
"Yes," Hickory said. "We always record, unless you tell us otherwise. Would you like us to stop recording?"
"No," I said. "I actually want all of you to hear this. First, I forbid you to harm my parents in any way. Ever."
"Major Perry has already informed us that he would surrender the colony rather than destroy it," Hickory said. "Since this is true there is no reason to harm either him or Lieutenant Sagan."
"It doesn't matter," I said. "Who knows if there's going to be another time you decide it's going to be necessary to try to get rid of John and Jane?"
"It seems unlikely," Hickory said.
"I don't care if it's more likely that I was going to sprout wings," I said. "I didn't think it was ever possible that you might think to kill my parents, Hickory. I was wrong about that. I'm not going to be wrong about it again. So swear it. Swear you will never harm my parents."
Hickory spoke briefly to Dickory in their own language. "We swear it," Hickory said.
"Swear it for all Obin," I said.
"We cannot," Hickory said. "That is not something we can promise. It is not within our power. But neither Dickory nor I will seek to harm your parents. And we will defend them against all those who would try to harm them. Even other Obin. This we swear to you, Zoe."
It was the last part of this that made me believe Hickory. I hadn't asked him to defend John and Jane, just not harm them. Hickory added it in. They both did.
"Thank you," I said. I felt as if I were suddenly coming unwound; until that second I didn't realize how worked up I was just sitting there, talking about this. "Thank you both. I really needed to hear that."
"You are welcome, Zoe," Hickory said. "Is there something else you want to ask us?"
"You have files on the Conclave," I said.
"Yes," Hickory said. "We have already given them to Lieutenant Sagan for analysis."
That made perfect sense; Jane had been an intelligence officer when she was in the Special Forces. "I want to see them, too," I said. "Everything you have."
"We will provide them to you," Hickory said. "But there is a lot of information, and not all of it is easy to understand. Lieutenant Sagan is far more qualified to work with this information."
"I'm not saying give it to me and not her," I said. "I just want to see it too."
"If you wish," Hickory said.
"And anything else that you might get from your government on the Conclave," I said. "And I mean all of it, Hickory. None of this 'you didn't ask directly' junk from now on. We're done with that. Do you understand me?"
"Yes," Hickory said. "You understand that the information we receive might in itself be incomplete. We are not told everything."
"I know," I said. "But you still seem to know more than we do. And I want to understand what we're up against. Or were, anyway."
"Why do you say 'were'?" Hickory asked.
"General Rybicki told the crowd today that the Conclave was about to be defeated," I said. "Why? Do you know any different?"
"We do not know any different," Hickory said. "But we do not think that just because General Rybicki says something in public to a large crowd, it means he is telling the truth. Nor does it mean that Roanoke itself is entirely out of danger."
"But that doesn't make any sense," I said. I held up my PDA to Hickory. "We were told we can use these again. That we can use all of our electronics again. We had stopped using them because they would give us away. If we're allowed to use them again, we don't have to worry about being given away."
"That is one interpretation of the data," Hickory said.
"There's another?" I asked.
"The general did not say that the Conclave had been defeated, but that he believed they would be defeated," Hickory said. "That is correct?"
"Yes," I said.
"Then it is possible that the general means for Roanoke to play a part in the defeat of the Conclave," Hickory said. "In which case, it is not that you are being allowed to use your electronics because it is safe. You are being allowed to use them because you are now bait."
"You think the Colonial Union is leading the Conclave here," I said, after a minute.
"We offer no opinion one way or another," Hickory said. "We note only that it is possible. And it fits what data we have."
"Have you told my dad about this?" I asked.
"We have not - " Hickory began, but I was already out the door.
"Close the door behind you," Dad said.
"Who have you talked to about this?" he asked.
"Hickory and Dickory, obviously," I said. "No one else."
"No one?" Dad asked. "Not even Gretchen?"
"No," I said. Gretchen had gone off to harass Magdy for sending her that video. I was beginning to wish I had gone with her instead of making Hickory and Dickory come to my room.
"Good," Dad said. "Then you need to keep quiet about it, Zoe. You and the alien twins."
"You don't think what Hickory is saying is going to happen, do you?" I asked.
Dad looked directly at me, and once again I was reminded how much older he was than he appeared. "It is going to happen," he said. "The Colonial Union has laid a trap for the Conclave. We disappeared a year ago. The Conclave has been looking for us all that time, and the CU has spent all that time preparing the trap. Now it's ready, so we're being dragged back into view. When General Rybicki's ship goes back, they're going to let it leak where we are. The news will get back to the Conclave. The Conclave will send its fleet here. And the Colonial Union will destroy it. That's the plan, anyway."
"Is it going to work?" I asked.
"I don't know," Dad said.
"What happens if it doesn't?" I asked.
Dad laughed a very small and bitter laugh. "If it doesn't, then I don't think the Conclave is going to be in any mood for negotiations," he said.
"Oh, God," I said. "We have to tell people, Dad."
"I know we do," he said. "I tried keeping things from the colonists before, and it didn't work very well." He was talking about the werewolves there, and I reminded myself that when all this was done I needed to come clean to him about my own adventures with them. "But I also don't need another panic on our hands. People have been whipsawed enough in the last couple of days. I need to figure out a way to tell people what the CU has planned without putting them in fear for their lives."
"Despite the fact they should be," I said.
"That is the catch," Dad said, and gave another bitter chuckle. Then he looked at me. "It's not right, Zoe. This whole colony is built on a lie. Roanoke was never intended to be a real colony, a viable colony. It exists because our government needed a way to thumb its nose at the Conclave, to defy its colonization ban, and to buy time to build a trap. Now that it's had that time, the only reason our colony exists is to be a goat at a stake. The Colonial Union doesn't care about us for who we are, Zoe. It only cares about us for what we are. What we represent to them. What they can use us for. Who we are doesn't actually enter into it."
"I know the feeling," I said.
"I'm sorry," Dad said. "I'm getting both abstract and depressed."
"It's not abstract, Dad," I said. "You're talking to the girl whose life is a treaty point. I know what it means to be valued for what I am rather than who I am."
Dad gave me a hug. "Not here, Zoe," he said. "We love you for you. Although if you want to tell your Obin friends to get off their asses and help us, I wouldn't mind."
"Well, I did get Hickory and Dickory to swear not to kill you," I said. "So that's progress, at least."
"Yes, baby steps in the right direction," Dad said. "It'll be nice not to have to worry about being knifed by members of my household."
"There's always Mom," I said.
"Trust me, if I ever annoyed her that much, she wouldn't use something as painless as a knife," Dad said. He kissed me on the cheek. "Thanks for coming to tell me what Hickory said, Zoe," he said. "And thanks for keeping it to yourself for now."
"You're welcome," I said, and then headed for the door. I stopped before I turned the handle. "Dad? How long do you think it will take before the Conclave is here?"
"Not long, Zoe," he said. "Not long at all."
In fact, it took just about two weeks.
In that time, we prepared. Dad found a way to tell everyone the truth without having them panic: He told them that there was still a good chance the Conclave would find us and that the Colonial Union was planning on making a stand here; that there was still danger but that we had been in danger before, and that being smart and prepared was our best defense. Colonists called up plans to build bomb shelters and other protections, and used the excavation and construction machinery we'd kept packed up before. People kept to their work and stayed optimistic and prepared themselves as best they could, readying themselves for a life on the edge of a war.
I spent my time reading the stuff Hickory and Dickory gave me, watching the videos of the colony removals, and poring through the data to see what I could learn. Hickory and Dickory were right, there was just too much of it, and lots of it in formats I couldn't understand. I don't know how Jane managed to keep it all straight in her head. But what was there was enough to know a few different things.
First, the Conclave was huge: Over four hundred races belonged to it, each of them pledging to work together to colonize new worlds rather than compete for them. This was a wild idea; up until now all the hundreds of races in our part of space fought with each other to grab worlds and colonize them, and then once they created a new colony they all fought tooth and nail to keep their own and wipe out everyone else's. But in the Conclave setup, creatures from all sorts of races would live on the same planet. You wouldn't have to compete. In theory, a great idea - it beats having to try to kill everyone else in the area - but whether it would actually work was still up in the air.
Which brought up the second point: It was still incredibly new. General Gau, the head of the Conclave, had worked for more than twenty years to put it together, and for most of those years it kept looking like it was going to fall apart. It didn't help that the Colonial Union - us humans - and a few others expended a lot of energy to break it up even before it got together. But somehow Gau made it happen, and in the last couple of years had actually taken it from planning to practicality.
That wasn't a good thing for everyone who wasn't part of the Conclave, especially when the Conclave started making decrees, like that no one who wasn't part of the Conclave could colonize any new worlds. Any argument with the Conclave was an argument with every member of the Conclave. It wasn't a one-on-one thing; it was a four-hundred-on-one thing. And General Gau made sure people knew it. When the Conclave started bringing fleets to remove those new colonies that other races planted in defiance, there was one ship in that fleet for every race in the Conclave. I tried to imagine four hundred battle cruisers suddenly popping up over Roanoke, and then remembered that if the Colonial Union's plan worked, I'd see them soon enough. I stopped trying to imagine it.
It was fair to wonder if the Colonial Union was insane for trying to pick a fight with the Conclave, but as big as it was, its newness worked against it. Every one of those four hundred allies had been enemies not too long ago. Each of them came in to the Conclave with its own plans and agenda, and not all of them, it seemed, were entirely convinced this Conclave thing was going to work; when it all came down, some of them planned to scoop up the choice pieces. It was still early enough for it all to fall apart, if someone applied just the right amount of pressure. It looked like the Colonial Union was planning to do that, up above Roanoke.
Only one thing was keeping it all together, and that was the third thing I learned: That this General Gau was in his way a remarkable person. He wasn't like one of those tin-pot dictators who got lucky, seized a country and gave themselves the title of Grand High Poobah or whatever. He had been an actual general for a people called the Vrenn, and had won some important battles for them when he decided that it was wasteful to fight over resources that more than one race could easily and productively share; when he started campaigning with this idea, he was thrown into jail. No one likes a troublemaker.
The ruler who tossed him in jail eventually died (Gau had nothing to do with it; it was natural causes) and Gau was offered the job, but he turned it down and instead tried to get other races to sign on to the idea of the Conclave. He had the disadvantage that he didn't get the Vrenn to go along with the idea at first; all he had to his name was an idea and a small battle cruiser called the Gentle Star, which he had gotten the Vrenn to give him after they decommissioned it. From what I could read, it seemed like the Vrenn thought they were buying him off with it, as in "here, take this, thanks for your service, go away, no need to send a postcard, bye."
But he didn't go away, and despite the fact that his idea was insane and impractical and nuts and could never possibly work because every race in our universe hated every other race too much, it worked. Because this General Gau made it work, by using his own skills and personality to get people of all different races to work together. The more I read about him, the more it seemed like the guy was really admirable.
And yet he was also the person who had ordered the killing of civilian colonists.
Yes, he'd offered to move them and even offered to give them space in the Conclave. But when it came right down to it, if they wouldn't move and they wouldn't join, he wiped them out. Just like he would wipe us all out, if despite everything Dad told Hickory and Dickory we didn't surrender the colony - or if, should the attack the Colonial Union had planned on the Conclave fleet go wrong, the general decided that the CU needed to be taught a lesson for daring to defy the Conclave and wiped us out just on general principles.
I wasn't so sure just how admirable General Gau would be, if at the end of the day he wouldn't stop from killing me and every single person I cared about.
It was a puzzle. He was a puzzle. I spent those two weeks trying to sort it out. Gretchen got grumpy with me that I'd been locked away without telling her what I was up to; Hickory and Dickory had to remind me to get out and work on my training. Even Jane wondered if I might not need to get outside more. The only person not to give me much grief was Enzo; since we got back together he was actually very accommodating about my schedule. I appreciated that. I made sure he knew. He seemed to appreciate that.
And then just like that we all ran out of time. The Gentle Star, General Gau's ship, appeared above our colony one afternoon, disabled our communications satellite so Gau could have some time to chat, and then sent a message to Roanoke asking to meet with the colony leaders. John replied that he would meet with him. That evening, as the sun set, they met on the ridge outside the colony, about a klick away.
"Hand me the binoculars, please," I said to Hickory, as we climbed out to the roof of the bungalow. It obliged me. "Thanks," I said. Dickory was below us, on the ground; old habits die hard.
Even with the binoculars General Gau and Dad were little more than dots. I looked anyway. I wasn't the only one; on other roofs, in Croatoan and in the homesteads, other people sat on roofs with binoculars and telescopes, looking at Dad and the general, or scanning the sky, looking in the dusk for the Gentle Star. As night finally fell, I spotted the ship myself; a tiny dot between two stars, shining unblinkingly where the other stars twinkled.
"How long until the other ships arrive, do you think?" I asked Hickory. The Gentle Star always arrived first, alone, and then at Gau's command, the hundreds of other ships would appear, a not-at-all-subtle bit of showmanship to get a reluctant colony leader to agree to get his or her people to leave their homes. I had watched it on previous colony removal videos. It would happen here, too.
"Not long now," Hickory said. "By now Major Perry will have refused to surrender the colony."
I took down my binoculars and glanced over to Hickory in the gloom. "You don't seem concerned about this," I said. "That's a different tune than you were singing before."
"Things have changed," Hickory said.
"I wish I had your confidence," I said.
"Look," Hickory said. "It has begun."
I glanced up. New stars had begun to appear in the sky. First one or two, then small groups, and then entire constellations. So many had begun to appear it was impossible to track every single appearance. I knew there were four hundred. It seemed like thousands.
"Dear God," I said, and I was afraid. Truly afraid. "Look at them all."
"Do not fear this attack, Zoe," Hickory said. "We believe this plan will work."
"You know the plan?" I asked. I didn't take my eyes off the sky.
"We learned of it this afternoon," Hickory said. "Major Perry told us, as a courtesy to our government."
"You didn't tell me," I said.
"We thought you knew," Hickory said. "You said you had spoken to Major Perry about it."
"We talked about the Colonial Union attacking the Conclave fleet," I said. "But we didn't talk about how."
"My apologies, Zoe," Hickory said. "I would have told you."
"Tell me now," I said, and then something happened in the sky.
The new stars started going nova.
First one or two, then small groups, and then entire constellations. So many expanded and brightened that they had begun to blend into each other, forming an arm of a small and violent galaxy. It was beautiful. And it was the worst thing I had ever seen.
"Antimatter bombs," Hickory said. "The Colonial Union learned the identity of the ships in the Conclave fleet. It assigned members of your Special Forces to locate them and plant the bombs just before the jump here. Another Special Forces member here activated them."
"Bombs on how many ships?" I asked.
"All of them," Hickory said. "All but the Gentle Star."
I tried to turn to look at Hickory but I couldn't move my eyes from the sky. "That's impossible," I said.
"No," Hickory said. "Not impossible. Extraordinarily difficult. But not impossible."
From other roofs and from the streets of Croatoan, cheers and shouts lifted into the air. I finally turned away, and wiped the tears off my face.
Hickory noticed. "You cry for the Conclave fleet," it said.
"Yes," I said. "For the people on those ships."
"Those ships were here to destroy the colony," Hickory said.
"I know," I said.
"You are sorry they were destroyed," Hickory said.
"I am sorry that we couldn't think of anything better," I said. "I'm sorry that it had to be us or them."
"The Colonial Union believes this will be a great victory," Hickory said. "It believes that destroying the Conclave's fleet in one engagement will cause the Conclave to collapse, ending its threat. This is what it has told my government."
"Oh," I said.
"It is to be hoped they are correct," Hickory said.
I was finally able to look away and face Hickory. The afterimages of the explosions placed blotches all around it. "Do you believe they are correct?" I asked. "Would your government believe it?"
"Zoe," Hickory said. "You will recall that just before you left for Roanoke, my government invited you to visit our worlds."
"I remember," I said.
"We invited you because our people longed to see you, and to see you among us," Hickory said. "We also invited you because we believed that your government was going to use Roanoke as a ruse to open a battle against the Conclave. And while we did not know whether this ruse would be successful, we believed strongly that you would have been safer with us. There is no doubt that your life has been in danger here, Zoe, both in ways we had foreseen and in ways that we could not. We invited you, Zoe, because we feared for you. Do you understand what I am saying to you?"
"I do," I said.
"You asked me if I believe the Colonial Union is correct, that this is a great victory, and if my government would believe the same," Hickory said. "My response is to say that once again my government extends an invitation to you, Zoe, to come visit our worlds, and to travel safe among them."
I nodded, and looked back to the sky, where stars were still going nova. "And when would you want this trip to begin?" I asked.
"Now," Hickory said. "Or as close to now as possible."
I didn't say anything to that. I looked up to the sky, and then closed my eyes and for the first time, started to pray. I prayed for the crews of the ships above me. I prayed for the colonists below me. I prayed for John and Jane. For Gretchen and her father. For Magdy and for Enzo and their families. For Hickory and Dickory. I prayed for General Gau. I prayed for everyone.
"Zoe," Hickory said.
I opened my eyes.
"Thank you for the invitation," I said. "I regret I must decline."
Hickory was silent.
"Thank you, Hickory," I said. "Really, thank you. But I am right where I belong."