The bulkheads hummed in the bowels of the Merope-7. Mara palmed open the door to the cryo deck and stepped inside.
Cryotanks stood in their slots around the edges of the room. Windows in the upper sections showed the faces of those who were frozen. Sergeant Pallas, his chin tilted upward, his eyes peacefully closed. He looked as if he were about to ascend into heaven, if there were such a place. Mara had her doubts. The other members of his commando team were similarly frozen, ready to be thawed at her command. While they all looked so peaceful, in truth they probably expected to pick up their guns and fight the moment they awoke.
As she looked at each of their faces, Mara wanted nothing more than to tell them the war was over. She imagined the looks of relief on their faces as she thanked each one of them for their service.
Of course, where they would go next was anyone’s guess. As she thought back to her time on the Aegis, she realized that Sergeant Pallas was more likely to meet the news with disappointment than relief. The others, she hadn’t served with long enough to know their reactions.
You would be disappointed, too, if the war had ended before you’d had your chance to avenge your father.
The thought stabbed her like a knife. She could still see the Imperial officer’s face the moment before she’d blown his brains out. The terror in his eyes, mixed with the sinking realization that he was already dead. She’d expected that moment to feel satisfying. Instead, she’d felt dead inside ever since.
And yet, if she could turn back the clock and end the war, preventing that awful moment from ever happening, she didn’t know that she would.
The door hissed open, and Mathusael stepped inside. “There you are. Been looking all over for you, Captain.”
“Don’t call me that.”
He put a broad hand on her shoulder. “Hey. What’s wrong?”
“When is this war going to be over?” When can I stop sending people to their deaths?
“Last I heard, there’s some intrigue on Gaia Nova that could shape up to be another coup. Who knows what the outcome will be, but the odds at Vulcana are three to one that the war ends within a standard year.”
“Come on. You and I both know that’s bullshit.”
Mathusael grinned. “As a betting man, I prefer to see it as an opportunity. It’s not like our pay is going to get any better.”
“Some would say that it’s enough just to win our liberty.”
She smirked. “I’d put the odds at four to one that we get out of this damn thing alive. What difference does it make when you’re dead?”
“And yet, here you are.”
To that, she didn’t have an answer.
She walked past the commandos to the last cryotank in the corner. The face on the other side of the glass wasn’t peaceful at all, but contorted in terror and pain. Aaron Deltana: drop-ship pilot on the Aegis and former captain of the Merope-7. Now, little more than a brain-fried vegetable. She’d frozen him in cryo in the hopes that they’d find some way to cure him. But now, that hope seemed as far-fetched as a swift and peaceful end to the war.
“There’s only three of us left from Delta Oriana,” she said in their native Deltan. “Four, if you count Isaac. God only knows what’s happened to him. And Aaron might as well be dead, so that leaves just you and me.”
“What are you saying?”
“Three to one, Mathusael. One of us is gonna go, and it sure as hell had better not be you.”
“Hey, Aaron’s not dead yet. Don’t give up on him.”
Mara laughed bitterly. “Well, if Aaron doesn’t count, that means we both go down together. That certainly seems more likely. And with Aaron’s luck, he’ll probably end up drifting in space for another thousand years until someone finally finds and rescues him. The last Deltan. Poetic, don’t you think?”
“It won’t all be bad, of course. They may even be able to cure him. But when he realizes that all the rest of us are gone—”
“Stop,” Mathusael repeated. He wasn’t laughing. His frown was so deep, his thick black beard hid his mouth. Mara hadn’t realized how much her words had affected him.
“Sorry,” she said. “Ever since the war, I’ve been something of a pessimist.”
“In all seriousness, when this war is over, do you think we’ll be able to cure him?”
Mathusael grunted. “It’s a wide universe, Mara. I’m sure there’s someone out there who can help him.”
“How can you be sure?”
He smiled. “How can you be so sure that there isn’t?”
Mara rolled her eyes at his non-answer. Then she realized it wasn’t a non-answer at all. He really meant it.
“I’m not sure of anything anymore,” she admitted. “All I know is that people are depending on me, even though my job is to send them to their deaths.”
“That’s not quite true. High Command makes the life and death decisions. Your job is to clean up their mistakes.”
“What’s the difference?”
His smile turned into a look of puzzlement. “There’s a huge difference. Your job is to help us live and find on, not to send us to our deaths.”
“Not when High Command says otherwise.”
“You should lose the pessimism, Mara. It isn’t doing you any favors.”
“On the contrary,” she retorted. “It’s an excellent defense mechanism. Pessimists are always right in the long run.”
“But they always get their timing wrong.”
She shrugged. “Why does that matter?”
“Because if all you do is wait for your world to end, you’ll never be able to change it.”
Mara stared at Aaron’s contorted face and pondered Mathusael’s words. He was right, of course. But then again, he didn’t face the same burden of command.
“We’ll be at Colkhia soon,” he said, breaking the silence.
She nodded. “That’ll make the crew happy. A short leave will be good for them.”
“Yes, it will.”
“How about your wife and children? Do you think you’ll hear from them?”
He chuckled. “If I do, it’ll probably be that she wants money or something. That, or some dashing young star wanderer has run off with her.”
“Who’s the pessimist now?”
“Hey, so long as she’s happy.”
The shipwide intercom switched on, with Apollo’s voice carrying through. “Attention all hands, we are making the final jump to Colkhia in five minutes. Captain and first officer to bridge.”
“Duty calls,” said Mathusael.
Mara nodded, making one last glance around the room. The men frozen in cryo were depending on her, as well as everyone else on the ship. Her decisions would determine whether they would live or die. If it was just herself, that wouldn’t be so hard. But to have the lives of so many others at stake—that was enough for her to envy the men under ice.