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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 ident.i.ty of the ships in the Conclave fleet. It a.s.signed 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. 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 d.i.c.kory. 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."
"Admit it," Enzo said, through the PDA. "You forgot."
"I did not," I said, with what I hoped was just the right amount of indignation to suggest that I had not forgotten, which I had.
"I can hear the fake indignation," he said.
"Rats," I said. "You're on to me. Finally."
"Finally? There's no finally, finally," Enzo said. "I've been on to you since I met you."
"Maybe you have," I allowed.
"And anyway, that doesn't solve this this problem," Enzo said. "We're about to sit down for dinner. You're supposed to be here. Not to make you feel guilty or anything." problem," Enzo said. "We're about to sit down for dinner. You're supposed to be here. Not to make you feel guilty or anything."
This was the difference between me and Enzo now and then. There used to be a time when Enzo would have said those words and they would have come out sounding like he was accusing me of something (besides, of course, being late). But right now they were gentle and funny. Yes, he was exasperated, but he was exasperated in a way that suggested I might be able to make it up to him. Which I probably would, if he didn't push it.
"I am in fact wracked with guilt," I said.
"Good," Enzo said. "Because you know we put a whole extra potato in the stew for you."
"Gracious," I said. "A whole potato."
"And I promised the twins they could throw their carrots at you," he said, referring to his little sisters. "Because I know how much you love carrots. Especially when they're kid-hurled."
"I don't know why anyone would eat them any other way," I said.
"And after dinner I was going to read you a poem I wrote for you," Enzo said.
I paused. "Now that's not fair," I said. "Injecting something real into our witty banter."
"Sorry," Enzo said.
"Did you really?" I asked. "You haven't written me a poem in ages."
"I know," he said. "I thought I might get back into practice. I remember you kind of liked it."
"You jerk," I said. "Now I really do do feel guilty for forgetting about dinner." feel guilty for forgetting about dinner."
"Don't feel too guilty," Enzo said. "It's not a very good poem. It doesn't even rhyme."
"Well, that's a relief," I said. I still felt giddy. It's nice to get poems.
"I'll send it to you," Enzo said. "You can read it instead. And then, maybe if you're nice to me, I'll read it to you. Dramatically."
"What if I'm mean to you?" I asked.
"Then I'll read it melodramatically," he said. "I'll wave my arms and everything."
"You're making a case for me being mean to you," I said.
"Hey, you're already missing dinner," Enzo said. "That's worth an arm wave or two."
"Jerk," I said. I could almost hear him smile over the PDA.
"Gotta go," Enzo said. "Mom's telling me to set the table."
"Do you want me to try to make it?" I asked. All of a sudden I really did want to be there. "I can try."
"You're going to run across the entire colony in five minutes?" Enzo said.
"I could do it," I said.
"Maybe Babar could," Enzo said. "But he has two legs more than you."
"Fine," I said. "I'll send Babar to have dinner with you."
Enzo laughed. "Do that," he said. "I'll tell you what, Zoe. Walk here at a reasonable pace, and you'll probably make it in time for dessert. Mom made a pie."
"Yay, pie," I said. "What kind?"
"I think it's called 'Zoe gets whatever kind of pie she gets and likes it' pie," Enzo said.
"Mmmm," I said. "I always like that kind of pie."
"Well, yeah," Enzo said. "It's right there in the t.i.tle."
"It's a date," I said.
"Good," Enzo said. "Don't forget. I know that's a problem for you."
"Jerk," I said.
"Check your mail queue," Enzo said. "There might be a poem there."
"I'm going to wait for the hand waving," I said.
"That's probably for the best," Enzo said. "It'll be better that way. And now my mom is glaring at me with laser eyeb.a.l.l.s. I have to go."
"Go," I said. "See you soon."
"Okay," Enzo said. "Love you." We had started saying that to each other recently. It seemed to fit.
"Love you too," I said, and disconnected.
"You two make me want to vomit so hard," Gretchen said. She'd been hearing my side of the conversation and had been rolling her eyes the whole time. We were sitting in her bedroom.
I set down the PDA and whacked her with a pillow. "You're just jealous Magdy never says that to you."
"Oh, dear Lord," Gretchen said. "Leaving aside the fact that I so do not so do not want to hear that from him, if he ever want to hear that from him, if he ever did did try to say that to me, his head would actually try to say that to me, his head would actually explode explode before the words could even get out of his mouth. Which now that I think about it might be an excellent reason to try to get him to say it." before the words could even get out of his mouth. Which now that I think about it might be an excellent reason to try to get him to say it."
"You two are so cute," I said. "I can see you two standing at the altar and getting into it right before saying 'I do.'"
"Zoe, if I ever get anywhere near an altar with Magdy, I authorize you to make a flying tackle and drag me away," Gretchen said.
"Oh, fine," I said.
"Now let's never speak of this again," Gretchen said.
"You're so in denial," I said.
"At least I'm not the one who forgot her dinner date," Gretchen said.
"It gets worse," I said. "He wrote me poetry. He was going to read it to me."
"You missed dinner and and a show," Gretchen said. "You are the worst girlfriend ever." a show," Gretchen said. "You are the worst girlfriend ever."
"I know," I said. I reached for my PDA. "I'll write him an apology note saying that."
"Make it extra grovelly," Gretchen said. "Because that's s.e.xy."
"That comment explains a lot about you, Gretchen," I said, and then my PDA took on a life of its own, blasting an alarm sound from its speaker and scrolling an air attack notice on its screen. Over on Gretchen's desk, her PDA made the same alarm sound and scrolled the same message. Every PDA in the colony did the same. In the distance, we heard the sirens, posted near the Mennonite homesteads, alerting them because they didn't use personal technology.
For the first time since the defeat of the Conclave fleet, Roanoke was under attack. Missiles were on their way.
I rushed to the door of Gretchen's room. "Where are you going?" she asked. I ignored her and went outside, where people were bursting out of their homes and running for cover, and looked into the sky.