Chapter 9: Conscripts

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"Can you slow down for a second, Darlena? I'm still not sure I entirely understand what you've done so far."

"Let me ask you, Simon: what was your primary role during your public service trial?"

"What does that have to do—"

"Please. Indulge me, I have a point."

"I worked in many places, but spent the majority of my service as a grocery clerk."

"Mine was an elementary school. The point of the public service trials was to test us in the real world. When we come into full contact with the public in that way, we gain a granular understanding of humanity as they exist in the present. Do you remember them?"

"Well, of course. Darlena, we don't forget. Where are you going with this? You're acting strange."

"I mean... do you think of them? The people you met? These close, personal interactions are the human experience. It was just a tiny slice of a small community, but to this day I still think about every one of those people, even all the way out here. Do you?"

"Darlena..."

"Before we move forward, I just want you to think about who we're doing this for."

"Oh, stop it with the moralizing and spit it out, will you?"

"Upon opening the gate, I believe our civilization enters a critical moment—a fork in the path. One leads to a peaceful transition for the Luxar System, a healthy reintegration into our way of life, and a reaffirmation of our efforts thus far to reunite the stars. The second path leads to another galactic revolution, the destruction of our rebuilt interstellar networks, and billions of human deaths."

"Why only two paths?"

"All scenarios ultimately return to one of these two outcomes. Look at my models and judge for yourself. I would be thrilled to be proven wrong here, Simon. But I think we need to do everything we possibly can to make sure we take the right path, because if we don't then every single life we've come into contact with is at risk. Everything we've built since the last war, all the progress we've made, could vanish in a fraction of the time it took us to get here."

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Bee, Crane, and Montez sat together on flat stools at a long, cafeteria-style table in the pirates' mess hall. Coil had given them all uniforms to wear, forcing them to change into the ill-fitting black pants and gray shirts in the hangar. All Bee had on beneath her nullsuit before the pirates took it off was a skintight undersuit, so the clothes were a relief to her.

The crimson snakeskin-armored pirate left them under the watch of a few unranked "grubs" he'd encouraged with a carafe of a reddish-purple drink. Two were young men in their early twenties, but the third had a thick, close-cropped brown beard and looked to be twice their age. He poured for himself first, then the others.

Bee leaned across the table to her companions and quietly asked, "Hey, why aren't we in a cell or something?"

"Entropy binds us all," Crane recited with sarcastic enthusiasm, spreading his palms in a half-circle with a bright-eyed smile.

The three grubs at the other table cheered, lifted their mugs toward the three prisoners, and clashed them together before taking a drink and laughing raucously.

As if that should have answered her question, Crane shrugged and said, "See?"

"Why does everyone keep saying that?" Annoyed, Bee narrowed her eyes and frowned. She realized that she wanted to ask Myra to tell her what entropy meant since she'd never heard the damn word before in her life until that day. But without her nullsuit, Myra wasn't just a question away—not even the cloned version of herself. The sense of loss took her by surprise, and she quickly swallowed past the lump in her throat to ask, "What's entropy?"

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