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.Acknowledge these orders.”Michelle stopped grappling with Matt.For a moment, her visor was the only thing in his field of view.It reflected the rust-colored dust and gas of the protoplanet, as if in sync with her own internal turmoil.“Kyle’s alive?” Michelle breathed.“Yes,” Stoll said.“Acknowledge your orders.”“Acknowledged, ma’am,” Matt told her.“Yes, ma’am,” Michelle echoed.Without waiting for Matt, she hugged Kyle’s Mecha tight and shot upward toward Mecha Base.Back at Mecha Base, Ash’s Demon was already clamped down into the dock.Its red metallic skin shone smooth and perfect, in stark contrast to Matt’s carbon-burned Mecha and Kyle’s one-armed Demon.Lucky Ash, Matt thought, as the cargo loaders clamped him down.She’d missed the insanity.The insanity.Matt’s guts twisted in sudden reaction, and he doubled over.He’d shot an antimatter weapon at a fellow teammate.If he’d missed by just a few thousandths of a degree, Kyle would’ve been vaporized.He could have killed him.But there wasn’t anything else he could do, right? He had to stop Kyle.He’d gone rogue.Like a Corsair.Matt waited impatiently for the magnetorheological fluid to drain.As soon as the cockpit opened, he yanked off his face mask and leapt out of the Demon.Michelle hovered near Kyle’s Demon’s chest, watching as Auxiliaries in gray jumpsuits dragged him from the cockpit.Kyle sputtered and opened his eyes.His eyes were bloodred and his gaze darted from one face to another as if they were the strangest thing he’d ever seen in his life.He was like a man who had been on a weeklong bender; he had no recollection of where he’d been or what he’d been doing.Michelle launched herself at Kyle and enveloped him in her arms.Kyle looked confused for a moment, then returned the embrace.Matt fought sudden anger.That should be me, damn it!One of the Auxiliaries put a hand on Michelle’s shoulder.She jumped, then looked embarrassed.She let Kyle go.“We have to take you to the infirmary, cadet,” the Auxiliary told Kyle.Kyle shook his head.“Not a chance.”“Cadet—”“No,” Kyle said.“I’m fine.”The Auxiliary shook his head and backed off, his hands up in defeat.He glanced at Matt and Michelle.“Are either of you injured?”“No,” Matt and Michelle said in unison.“How are you mentally?”“I’m fine, sir,” Michelle told him, squaring her shoulders.I could have killed him, Matt thought.His fingers trembled.“No problem,” he lied.Matt’s Perfect Record fed him 3-D visions of the worst of the Merge.That terrible thing scratching at his mind.Kyle’s red-hot hate.Ash’s vibrant memories, fading to nothingness.Ash’s memories.Matt’s mouth went dry.“What about Ash?” he asked.The Auxiliary hung his head and looked away.“Reverse Mesh,” he said, in a low, rough voice.“She’s dead.”13QUESTIONSIn the pilot’s chamber outside the Demon Dock, two gray-uniformed Mecha Auxiliaries were already packing away the contents of Ash’s locker.They worked quickly and efficiently, not speaking, their lips set in hard lines.Matt watched, numb, as they carefully folded Ash’s gray Mecha Cadet jumpsuit and slipped her long, tarnished steel chain and wedding band into a pocket.One of the Auxiliaries fumbled with a razor-slim folio of holos, and they went spinning away in the microgravity.Matt caught glimpses of the brighter-than-life images: a blond boy, about nine, holding up a blurry slate covered with mathematics.A shaggy-haired man wearing dust-caked LithiChem mining coveralls and holding a tiny baby.A sandy-haired boy, maybe four, standing next to a craggy, ochre rock backdrop.The man in the overalls grinned like he couldn’t imagine a more perfect place in all the Union.Matt blinked back tears.Ash Moore was dead.Mom.Wife.Colonist.Union citizen.Believer.Mecha Cadet.Demonrider candidate.Dead.But people die, Matt told himself.Serghey.His father.Every twelfth digger on the Rock.This was different, though.They’d been Merged.Everything Ash experienced, he felt.He saw her life cut away, piece by piece.He’d experienced her final moment of terror and diminution.Her ending.A tiny voice called in the back of his mind, Is this all?Matt slumped.For the first time, the path to his future blurred and doubled.What did killing the Corsair mean if it killed everything he believed in to accomplish it?“I’m sorry,” Michelle said, coming to lay a warm hand on Matt’s shoulder.Out of the corner of his eye, Matt saw Kyle stiffen.“It’s not your fault,” Matt said.It’s mine, he thought.If I’d helped everyone, she might be here today.“It’s not your fault either,” Kyle said, coming up to put his own hand on Matt’s shoulder.“I pushed too hard—,” Matt began.“Shut the fuck up,” Kyle said.“We all pushed hard.You can’t blame yourself for this.None of us can.Not if we ever want to do it again.”Matt straightened.Of course they’d do it again.As many times as it took.But he said nothing.Kyle filled the silence.“My mother.She did that.Blamed herself.” His voice, sandpaper rough, was almost inaudible.The Auxiliaries cast furtive glances at him as they blanked out the name on Ash’s locker and headed for the exit.“For what?” Michelle said.“My brother.He had.special needs,” Kyle’s voice rose, his mouth twisting in grim irony.“What happened?”“Kent’s in an assisted-care home on Eridani.Mom.she killed herself ten years ago.One of those things where everyone says, ‘I never saw it coming.’ But it was on a day when Kent was at the house, and the bathroom she did it in looked out over his playground.”Matt squeezed his eyes shut but remained silent.What could he say?Michelle gathered them both into a tight hug.She squeezed them together and didn’t let go, even as they left the floor in the microgravity.Matt opened his eyes, watching little drops of her crystalline tears float up and away.“We’ll get through this.We have to.”Soto and Stoll entered the room.“Cadets, I’m sorry I’m late.I had to deal with—” The big man stopped short, gaping at the three embracing cadets.“If you’d like, I’ll come back later.”“It’s all right,” Kyle said, pushing away from them.Matt and Michelle drifted away to grab handholds on the tops of the lockers.“We can understand if you need more time—”“I need a drink,” Kyle said, his voice quavering.Soto nodded.“I could join you in that.”“I’m coming too,” Michelle told them.Stoll held up a hand.“The word is out about the Mecha Cadets being the Demon pilots.It might be better to maintain a lower profile.”“Lena, please.”Sergeant Stoll blinked.“Yes.You’re right.”All eyes turned to Matt.He looked back at them, knowing exactly what would come next.The only question was who would say it.“You coming?” Michelle asked.On the way to the Decompression Lounge, the long, curved passageways of Mecha Base seemed to stretch into infinity, grim metallic corridors leading to an uncertain future.Matt couldn’t shake the Perfect Record of Ash’s death, playing over and over again in his mind.Every passing Mecha Corps seemed to be glaring right through him, judging him on the death of his teammate.“Good job, Demon boy,” one of them said finally, coming up from behind to pace them.He was a blond-haired kid not much older than Matt, wearing his Mecha captain’s uniform with a single Hellion pilot pin.Another young Mecha Corps captain came up to join the first man.His nametag read N.SANJIV, and the blond kid’s read J.PELLETIER.“All the pretty boys,” Sanjiv said.“Whose daddy did you have to know to get the Demon jobs?”“Stand down, Corps,” Soto called out.“Sir, just expressing our opinion, sir,” Pelletier snapped.“Completely nonphysical.”“I’d rather be physical,” Pelletier said, bouncing off the handrail to pass close by Michelle, almost touching her.“Don’t kill this one next, guys [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]