Chapter 2

 

Aboard The Scamp Princess, Hangar Deck, Gaitune-67

 

“Okay, another twenty minutes, and that will be all of it. Oz, you got that?”

 

“Yes. Downloading fine.”

 

“Good.” Brock leaned back on his haunches from under the console of The Scamp Princess. He started tidying his tools away.

 

Crash rocked gently in the navigator’s seat. “Sure there’s nothing I can do?”

 

Brock unplugged a connector from the console he had a device hooked into. “Not yet. Not until we’ve got any clue about where we’re going.” He winked at Crash.

 

Crash leaned an arm on the nearest console. “Okay. Well as soon as we do, I can get the coordinates plugged in and find out what we’ll be walking into.”

 

Brock continued to clean up tools and pieces of debris he’d left strewn around as he worked. “Yeah. That’s a good idea. Shit, I can’t believe that all the time we were talking about our vacay, Sean was sitting there contemplating taking off without us.”

 

Crash just watched Brock.

 

“Makes me feel guilty for having gone away,” he continued.

 

“Hey, we needed a break,” Crash said flatly. “And maybe if Sean took a day off once in a while, he wouldn’t be wound so tightly.”

 

Brock snorted at the thought of Sean heading out to Club Sark with them. “Yeah. You may have a point. You don’t think he’s actually… you know? I mean, Scamp wouldn’t leave him if he were still alive so…” He left the thought hanging in the air, wanting closure, but also not wanting to be told his friend was dead.

 

Crash shook his head. “Stop thinking like that. He wouldn’t be the first military tool to bite off more than he can chew. Don’t worry. We’ll find him and bring him home,” he told him decisively. “And then give him shit about running off to save damsels on his own.”

 

Brock sighed. “Yeah. You’re right.” He packed away the last of the tools, leaving one connector hooked up to the console. “Okay, I’m going to take this lot over to The Empress. Nothing we can do until Oz finishes that transfer.”

 

Crash hauled himself to his feet. “Okay. I’ll pack a bag. Want me to do one for you, too?”

 

Brock nodded and rested his hand on Crash’s bicep as they headed out of the cockpit. “Thanks, man.”

 

Crash patted him gently on the back, comforting him. “It’s all gonna be fine,” he reiterated.

 

The pair made their way through the passage to the side door and carefully headed down the invisible staircase to the hangar deck.

 

 

Aboard The Empress, Hangar Deck, Gaitune-67

 

The crew clambered on board The Empress. It was familiar territory and comforting, despite the unspoken dread that their mission may already be a failure before it had begun.

 

And yet, no one dared admit that Sean may already be dead.

 

Jack plonked herself opposite Pieter, who was more anxious than normal. She smiled at him reassuringly, without being too nice. Too friendly, and he would know that they were worried, and that would stop his brain from doing what they needed him to do.

 

She glanced over at Joel. Joel nodded, catching on to her tactic to keep Pieter calm.

 

Pieter, oblivious, threw his pack into an overhead locker and sat down. A moment later, he was up again and fussing with his pack. Jack watched without looking directly at him, smiling to herself as if she were just a fly on the wall. Detached. Collected.

 

Molly was the last one to board. Joel had seen her giving her instructions to Paige. He hovered, not quite deciding where he would sit. Jack was on to him. He was going to pull “Operation: Calm Molly Down.”

 

She stomped through the cabin with her pack and gun belt thrown over her shoulder. Her holo hadn’t been closed down, and if she had been wearing boots with laces, Joel guessed they wouldn’t have been tied, either.

 

She threw her pack down on a lounge chair and collapsed next to it, preventing anyone from sitting next to her.

 

Joel, quick as a flash, grabbed his jacket and mirrored her move by throwing his jacket down in the chair opposite her and plonking himself down across from her.

 

That was as close as he was going to get. Clearly.

 

The gentle hum of the drive started up. Crash’s normal banter was nowhere to be heard in the liftoff process. In fact, Molly found herself checking out the window to confirm they were indeed airborne and heading out of the hangar. Only Emma’s voice recited the normal announcements and safety notices.

 

Molly closed her eyes and allowed the process to wash over her. She tried to still her mind as Arlene had taught her in her realm-jumping training.

 

Her body was a mishmash of emotions. Emotions she’d rather not have to deal with right now.

 

She felt a nudge on her leg and reluctantly opened one eye, letting the outside world invade. Joel was looking at her pointedly. He’d nudged his knee against hers.

 

“What?”

 

“Wondering if you’re ready to talk.” He nodded at her bag on the seat in front of him. She took the hint and moved it to the one opposite her where he’d dumped his jacket. Joel deftly moved from his seat to the one next to her and buckled his harness.

 

“You’re taking this hard,” he said quietly.

 

Molly shoved her arm onto the outside armrest and stared out of the window. Her other shoulder half shrugged.

 

“I know you don’t want to talk about it,” Joel persisted, “but we need to. You need to.”

 

Molly turned her head and glared at him.

 

“I’m here for you,” he continued, ignoring the glare and looking straight ahead of him now. He knew how to handle Molly and her avoidance strategies. She just needed to feel safe enough to open up.

 

And not pushed.

 

He readjusted himself in his chair so that his upper arm was touching hers. He felt her defenses come down. All the hardness that she used to shield herself from her own feelings melted, and a single tear trickled down her face.

 

She sniffed as quietly as she could and rummaged for a tissue to catch the tears before anyone else could see.

 

“I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this,” she confided.

 

Joel’s gaze snapped to her. She continued to look down at the tissue, avoiding his eyes. “What’s changed?” he asked.

 

Molly shrugged. He could see the tension welling inside of her again. He didn’t want her to start crying here in front of the crew. She wouldn’t want that, and it wasn’t fair on her. But she needed to process.

 

He leaned in a little more. “Is this about Sean?”

 

“Kinda. But also everything else.” She paused and swiped away another tear. “It’s just one thing after another. It feels like it never ends. I’m exhausted.”

 

Joel bobbed his head and pressed his arm more against hers. She responded and leaned into him, resting her head on his shoulder. He glanced over at Jack and Pieter, wondering if he should put his arm around her, or whether that would arouse too much interest from the others.

 

He decided against it. “Hey. It’s okay. We’re going to get through this.”

 

“Will we?” she asked combatively. “I just can’t help thinking that if I wasn’t around, none of this would be happening.”

 

Joel frowned. “What are you talking about?”

 

“Sean. He wouldn’t have needed to go off on his own. He’d still be with the Federation and have their backup.”

 

Joel’s brow furrowed deeper, confused at what she was saying.

 

Molly continued. “You can’t ignore the fact that his relationship with them has become strained because of his relationship with us.”

 

Joel hesitated, processing what she was saying. “Well, there may be some truth to that, but that’s not going to get him killed. And it’s certainly not your fault. What’s really going on?”

 

Molly pursed her lips. “Sean came to see me before he disappeared.”

 

“About his mission?”

 

“No. About me.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“He thinks I have some ability to push my will onto people. Another side effect. He was going to report it to Lance, and I asked him not to.”

 

“And now he’s gone, and you’re feeling guilty.”

 

Molly sniffed, finally finding the strength to bring her gaze up to meet Joel’s. “And wondering if somehow I also influenced him to disappear…”

 

Joel put his arm around her. “That’s just crazy talk. I mean, even if you could push your will onto other people, you would never want him dead. You’re just not wired that way.”

 

“But what if it was a component of his decision making?”

 

Joel shook his head. “No way,” he told her firmly. “This thought process is a pattern you run. You look for ways to make things your fault. Or your responsibility.”

 

Molly allowed herself to sink against his body, allowing his arm around her to stay. “How do you figure that?” she mumbled.

 

“Look at all the things that have happened: the way you want to change every injustice on Estaria. The way you relate to each team member personally, helping them to find their groove. No way you could even accidentally do what you’re suggesting.”

 

Molly pulled away and tried to look at Joel. “You think I’m doing things wrong?”

 

“No,” he corrected her. “I think there is a reason that you’re wired this way, and if we understood it better, you wouldn’t need to feel so damn guilty all the time. So, what is it?”

 

“What you mean?”

 

“Well, what happened in your childhood? What is this really about?”

 

Molly thought for a long while, even though her mind had jumped immediately to what the issue was that Joel was trying to get out of her.

 

Eventually she spoke, sitting up a little. Joel removed his arm.

 

“I was about twelve. I’d been hacking into my parent’s EI to find out stuff. Actually, stuff about The Empress. Rumors. History. Missions. There wasn’t much, but I used the EI because it had greater reach, beyond just the local Estarian network.”

 

Joel nodded.

 

“Well,” she continued, “my parents had told me it was off limits. Turns out, they had been using it for the business and had taken it offline because they were attracting heat from certain criminal elements in their line of work.”

 

“And you got it back online?”

 

She nodded, fiddling with her tissue. “Yeah. I must have triggered some flags or something because one night, I heard something in the house. And shouting. I went downstairs and there were men in the house—in full combat gear. With guns.”

 

“Who were they?”

 

Molly shook her head. “I dunno. Dark ops. Mercenaries. We never found out. But they took my parents. At gun point.”

 

“Philip and Carol?”

 

She nodded again.

 

“But they’re still alive,” Joel reminded her, trying to understand what had happened.

 

“Yeah,” she agreed. “No thanks to me. They managed to escape somehow. Goodness knows how. They said something about having some help. They were gone for about a day. It was the worst day of my life. The police kept asking me questions about what happened, and their work, and their business. I didn’t know anything, but they treated me like a criminal. Like I knew what was happening.

 

“After they came back, the police had very few questions, and everything just seemed to go back to normal again. They wrapped up that business a few years later when Dad retired and Mom got some kind of government job. And we never really talked about it again. They just said it wasn’t my fault and that they were fine, so it didn’t matter.”

 

Joel frowned.

 

“But it was my fault,” she insisted. “If I hadn’t been poking around with that EI, none of it would have happened.”

 

Her voice started to break. Joel put his arm around her again as she sobbed quietly.

 

“Look,” he whispered. “I know it feels like it’s your fault, but things happen. Maybe the EI wasn’t the trigger. Maybe it was. They should have told you why the EI was offline. And besides, they’re still alive and doing fine. Something tells me that whatever they went through, it can’t have been that bad.”

 

Molly’s face was hidden from him. He felt his T-shirt getting wet from her tears. He held her tighter and continued to whisper in her ear. “It wasn’t your fault. You were a kid. You didn't have all the information… and you don’t know what other good things that served.”

 

Her muffled voice spoke into his T-shirt. “I don’t understand…”

 

“Well, think about it. Maybe it was the shock your folks needed to get out of that business they were in. Sometimes these things demand too much of us, either in terms of risks we need to take or in terms of working too hard. Sounds like your folks were already taking risks, for those kinds of people to show up at the house.”

 

Molly’s sobbing subsided, and she became still.

 

“Also,” Joel continued, “imagine if they’d continued, and your dad didn’t retire. Maybe he would have ended up working too hard and giving himself a heart attack or something. Maybe your mum would have had problems if she hadn’t taken a more low-pressure job in the government.”

 

Molly nodded her head, still up against Joel’s T-shirt.

 

He squeezed her reassuringly under his arm. “Sounds like that was a well-timed warning shot to me. And they don’t seem too traumatized by any of it.”

 

She sat up. “No. You’re right. They were fine afterward. But that was the unnerving thing. Everything went back to business as usual.”

 

Joel’s eyes flickered with some kind of recognition.

 

“What?” Molly pressed.

 

Joel took a deep breath, thinking. “Well, I wonder… have you talked to them about it since? You know, now that you’re all grown up and all?”

 

Molly shook her head. “I’ve barely spoken to them at all since I escaped to university early.”

 

Joel pursed his lips. “Well, our perceptions as kids are super different from the reality of what happened. Sometimes, we misinterpret things, or we misunderstand. We try and make sense of it from the schemas that we’re operating from at the time, but as we get older, we have more understanding of the world. You know, you’re a lot older now. And you’ve seen a huge amount. You’ve got all your life and military experience. You think maybe if you talked to them about it now, you might understand it better?”

 

Molly sat herself up again, drying her eyes. “Yeah, probably,” she admitted.

 

Joel smiled. “Of course, it would mean braving your parents again. But it would probably be worth it.” He paused. “I’d come with you if that would help?”

 

Molly hesitated.

 

“No pressure,” he added. “I’m here for you, though.”

 

She bobbed her head then lunged forward to her bag on the other seat, rummaging for another tissue as a distraction. “Yeah, maybe. When we get Sean back…”

 

Joel put a hand on her back and rubbed it soothingly. “Okay, when we’ve got Sean back,” he agreed.

 

He checked over his shoulder, briefly catching Jack’s eye. Jack looked away quickly, respectful of their semi-privacy. Pieter looked like he had his implant feeding him sound and was off in his own little world.

 

Joel kicked back his seat and pretended to relax. He knew it was good for Molly for him to just hang nearby. Even if she didn’t understand that herself right now.

 

 

 

Aboard The Empress

 

Joel, Jack, and Pieter sat quietly, spread out through the main cabin of The Empress. Pieter had several holoscreens open and seemed to be continuing the work he had started as soon as they had access to Scamp’s data.

 

Molly gazed out of the window, her thoughts dancing from sensations of anxiety, to sadness, to determination, and back again.

 

“Molly?” Crash interrupted her thoughts through her audio implant.

 

Molly hit her audio device. “’Sup?”

 

“We’ve got a call coming in via the ship’s quiet link. It’s Giles, calling from The Scamp Princess.”

 

“Okay, patch him through.” She sat up in her seat and took a deep breath.

 

“Hi, Molly.” Giles’s voice announced himself in her ear. He sounded uncomfortable.

 

“Giles, hi. Everything okay?”

 

“Well, yes. Although not really. I heard about Sean, of course.”

 

Molly leaned her head backwards against her headrest, her gaze flicking to the ceiling. “Yes, we’re on our way to his last known now.”

 

“Good. Oz told you I offered my services?”

 

Molly assumed that was a question, even though his intonation suggested otherwise. “He did. Thank you.”

 

“Okay. Well, erm, the other thing is, we’ve had a lead on the talisman thing. So, erm… if you’ve cleared Scamp for duty, would you mind if Arlene and I went and chased this lead down?”

 

Molly processed the request for a moment. Her mind scrambled for any reasons for or against. Anything that wasn’t insurmountable. Then she hit one.

 

“What about the part where I needed you at the university to make sure everything is handled there?”

 

“Oh… erm. Right. Of course.”

 

There was a silence on the line. Molly felt Joel looking over at her but chose to remain focused on one conversation at a time. She knew he’d only interject in favor of Giles.

 

She spoke again. “How long do you think it will take?”

 

“Well, you know how these things are…”

 

“I have an idea,” she said.

 

“What if I promise to be back before the semester starts up again?”

 

“Yes, that would be fine. But stay in touch with Paige, and make sure that she can make any decisions that need making for the school.”

 

“Right you are. Thanks Molly. And… good luck.”

 

“You too, Giles. Good hunting.”

 

She could hear him breathing on the line for a second or two longer. She wondered if he might have something else to say. And then the line went dead. She turned her head and gazed out the window, watching the stars shift around them. She didn’t have the brain power to allocate any to Professor Kurns right now. She needed to stay laser focused on finding Sean.