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Sunreach: Epilogue

We appeared in the room where the slugs were housed on Platform Prime, all bunched together in a group and about four feet off the ground. We landed in a tangle of limbs both alien and human, with a chorus of groans and ouches and Nedd yelling, “Get the scud off my neck!” My knees were bruised and my neck tweaked, adrenaline still pumping so hard you’d think I’d faced a firing squad.

But I laughed. I laughed because we were somehow, all of us, alive.

As my flightmates on the edges extracted themselves and began helping the aliens to their feet, I sat in the center of the floor laughing my head off, until Gill came and tucked himself up under my arm. “Home?” he said uncertainly.

“Home,” I said. “Home, home, home.” And I hugged the slug tight to my chest.

“Um, FM?” Jorgen said. “I don’t think you’re supposed to squeeze them like that.”

“Shut up, Jorgen,” I said. And then, right in the middle of laughing, I also burst into tears.

That was what I looked like when the door to the room flew open and Rig stood there, gaping at all of us, Cobb right behind him looking like he’d seen a ghost.

Rig watched me sitting there, laughing and crying, and came over to kneel next to me. He looked up at Jorgen. “You broke FM?” he asked.

“Apparently,” Jorgen said.

Cobb shook his head. “I thought Spensa was the only one who pulled scudding stupid stunts like that. You realize you left your scudding starfighters behind, don’t you? I can’t turn my back on any of you for a moment.”

I wiped away my tears and stood. The ships were a loss, no question, but I could tell from the way he looked at us that this wasn’t Cobb’s primary concern. He’d been as worried for our team as I was. “Apparently not, sir,” I said.

Cobb looked up at the aliens then, cleared his throat, and held out his hand.

“Minister Cuna, I presume?” he said. “I’m Admiral Cobb. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Cuna stood to their full height, which was taller than Cobb, and bared their teeth at him. Cobb looked worried for a moment.

“It is a pleasure,” Cuna said. “Thank you for sending your team to our aid. We look forward to repaying your trouble.”

Out in the hallway, Jorgen’s mother cleared her throat. Cobb’s face darkened briefly, and then he stepped to the side. “Minister Cuna,” he said. “May I introduce Jeshua Weight, our emissary from the National Assembly. She’s eager to speak with you.”

I exchanged a look with Jorgen. His mother had barged in and scared away our last diplomatic opportunity. I didn’t know where Alanik had gone, but I doubted very much that she was ever coming back.

“Of course,” Cuna said, gliding elegantly out of the room, their teeth still bared, their retinue following after them.

Scud, was that supposed to be a smile?

“The rest of you,” Cobb said, “come up to the command center for debriefing.”

“Sir,” I said. “I’d like to get the slugs settled, if you don’t mind.”

“Fine,” Cobb said.

“Fine!” several of the slugs replied.

“Stars, those things are annoying,” Cobb said, and he led the rest of the team up the hallway.

Only Rig stayed behind.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” I said back. “Were you listening over the hypercomm to all of that?”

“Some,” Rig said. “It sounded pretty dire.”

“It was,” I said. “I thought Jorgen had been eaten by a giant space monster, but the slugs jumped him out.”

Rig gaped at me, and I felt a bit of hysterical laughter welling up again. “A space monster?”

“Mammoth starpod, specifically. You should have seen it. It was bigger than Platform Prime. And then Gill took me to find Jorgen, and for a while we thought we were going to have to leave the rest of the team there to die.”

“Gill took you,” Rig said. “Of his own accord.”

“Kind of,” I said. “He thought I wanted him to. These things are a lot smarter than we assumed.” I found Gill wrapped around the leg of the table and scooped him up, running my fingers through the fringe on his back. “We need to figure out how to communicate with them. Once they know us and care about us, they want to help us out. We don’t have to scare them. We can…ask them.”

“Like a partnership,” Rig said.

“Like a partnership.” I set Gill down on the table and looked up at him.

Rig stood awkwardly with his arms crossed like he didn’t know what to do with them.

Scud, that boy was cute. “I’m sorry to have worried you,” I said.

“Yeah, well,” he said, scuffing his toe on the floor. “I should have known you wouldn’t break your perfect record.”

“Not if I can help it,” I said.

I didn’t know if I’d always be able to help it, not really. There was always the chance that I’d go out on a mission and never return, like Lizard, like Hurl and Bim before her. Like so many others we’d lost. We weren’t done. The hyperdrives gave us hope for the future, but things were only going to get more dangerous from here, not less.

Maybe it would have been safer to protect myself. Maybe it would have been kinder to Rig not to let either of us get attached.

But I reached out a hand, and Rig took it. His fingers laced through mine.

It wasn’t enough to survive for survival’s sake. I wanted to live. I leaned in and kissed him, slowly and tenderly, like we had all the time in the world. And by the stars, I hoped we did.

“Help it!” Gill said, and I turned around to see all of the slugs we’d returned with gathered around a stack of goods that must have been brought in from requisitions in our absence. Several boxes of algae strips, some vacuum-packed mushrooms.

And an entire tower of jars of caviar.

“All right,” I said. “You guys have earned it.”

I cracked several jars open and let them eat their fill.


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