The emperor’s palace stood on the border where one of Kilrah’s biomes met another, where the sprawling grasslands that had been the birthplace of Kilrathi civilization abutted a range of great mesas crowned by swirling clouds of nutrient gas. Constructed on and rising several hundred meters above one of those flat-topped elevations, the palace resembled a collection of geometric shapes that had tumbled out of a giant sack. Uneven towers of copper-colored stone and plastisteel sprang up from unlikely locations. Tremendous gaps stood between guard walls that in places rose as high as a dozen meters and in others dropped as low as one. The barbaric principles that dictated much of Kilrathi culture had an equally strong influence on their architecture, and the imperial city that trickled back behind the palace and into the valleys exemplified this influence even more sharply; it appeared to the untrained eye as the smoldering ruins of a once thriving metroplex. In truth, the black smoke that coiled into the air originated from dozens of manufacturing facilities fiercely contributing to the Kilrathi war effort. Boxy freighters assigned to those plants maintained an interminable cycle of liftoffs and landings, with thrusters burning avenues through the dust.
Despite having polluted and decimated most of their planet, the Kilrathi had ardently protected the land within a thousand kilometer radius of the palace. Paladin was not sure whether this was a ridiculous attempt to give the emperor something pretty to look at or simply the cats’ guilt-inspired desire to preserve a scintilla of their own primeval past. In any event, as Paladin looked out through the triangular window of his cell and beyond the concentric energy domes that shielded the palace, he spotted a lone shuttle rising vertically from somewhere below and kicking up vortices of emerald gas. He imagined himself on that ride, stowed away in the hold, waiting to jump the two cats at the controls. At least the Kilrathi had not stolen his gift to dream. What had the poet Yeats written about dreams? “But I, being poor, have only my dreams; / I have spread my dreams under your feet; / Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
Believing he had heard his name called, Paladin ambled away from the window and glanced down at Aristee, who had assumed her usual spot on the stone floor. She suddenly rose, winced as she rubbed her rump, then straightened. “Are you satisfied with this? I mean, you got what you wanted. In eight days, Tolwyn will kill my people--unless he finds debris from the Olympus. And now we’re here with the cats, who will pick our brains for everything we know, then literally pick our brains, which, I’ve heard, they serve with a mild cream sauce.”
“I’m very satisfied,” he shot back. “And I’m not worried at all. I destroyed the ship and the hopper drive data, and I’m sure someone will find her before Tolwyn drops the bombs. Besides, our capture will only help everything. Isn’t that right, Protur?”
The pot-bellied Pilgrim leader had sat in a corner, had tugged his knees toward his chest, and had fallen asleep. His breath now rang hollowly in the dank cell.
Paladin leaned down toward the man’s ear. “Protur!”
“Yes, yes, yes,” the man said, shuddering awake and squinting at Paladin. “You wish to sit for a katores so we may give thanks for our lives, yes?”
“You said our capture will only help,” Aristee reminded him. “So, is it helping?”
“Oh, I’m quite sure it is. But there will be a problem if these animals don’t bring us some food. They expect us to eat only once per day?” He cried out as he lowered his legs, then reached for Aristee’s hand. She helped him to his feet, and he went to the cell’s heavily scored bars for a peak at the murky tunnel beyond. He opened his mouth to shout, then thought better of it. The cats who guarded the cell block stood on the other side of the air lock and would never hear him. And, since ordering them here two days ago, the emperor had not returned.
The protur turned away from the bars, then glared at a stone box in the corner of the cell. “That’s disgusting. I can’t relieve myself in that anymore.”
“They’re a spacefaring race, but indoor plumbing still eludes them,” Aristee said. “Let’s get our minds on something else--like a way to escape.”
“Unless they move us or there’s a long-haired old man in the next cell who has built a series of secret tunnels and wants to help us escape, that won’t happen,” Paladin said flatly.
Aristee blew a few locks of hair from her eyes. “Had this happened to me ten years ago, I’d be curled up into a ball and crying over how my rebellion has been quashed.” She stared longingly through the window. “But I’ve done a lot of living since then, and after sitting in this hole for two days, I’ve figured that the rebellion is still in me. And as long as I’m alive, it’s alive. So the next time someone opens the door on this cell, he’s mine. I have to die trying to escape. That’s the only way I’ll feel good about this.”
“Oh, my dear Amity,” sang the Protur. “There’s no need to throw away your life. Patience. That’s all you need. Patience.”
“You keep using that word, but what does it really mean?” Paladin asked. “You pretend you know something that we don’t. But I think you’re just afraid that we’ll be tortured and killed. You can’t accept that. So you pretend that being patient will make it all go away. Well, I’ve got news for you, Protur: You’re going to die here--whether you’re patient or not. Better make your peace with Ivar, the continuum, the quilt, with all of it. Tell them to hang the banners ‘cause Carver Tsu the Third will be riding a donkey into town.”
“James, it’s been so difficult getting used to your irreverence. But I’ve discovered that every time you insult me, you reinforce my own patience. I feel I should thank you for that. You’ve been placed here for a reason.”
“We all have,” Aristee chipped in. “To die.”
“But not before you tell us everything you know,” said the emperor, whose holographic form--reproduced to scale--shimmered in one corner. “Mr. Taggart. I understand that you’ve been a guest of my people once before. Let me assure that you there will be no endurance tests this time. We already know exactly what it takes to kill a human. But we’ve made significant progress in studies of the human brain. I’m sure you’ll find our exercises quite engaging.”
“I wasn’t aware that Kilrathi like to gloat,” Paladin retorted, biting off each word. “Why not just get to it?”
“Get to it? Why, we already have. Look--”
Aristee and the protur dematerialized, as did the stony confines of the cell. Paladin now found himself sitting cross-legged and naked in a cage identical to the one that had held him prisoner so many years prior, a box with glass walls on all four sides, the bottom three inches open and barred. Crimson spotlights positioned somewhere above illuminated his cell and the thousands of others that floated in an enormous chamber the size of a shuttle hangar. He expected to be wearing a helmet or find sensors taped to his head, but the interrogation system was obviously wireless. He glanced to his right and saw Aristee seated likewise and looking as though she had applied a phosphorescent war paint. A quick look to the left revealed the protur, glimmering in his own red puddle. Both had their eyes closed, and their heads and hands jerked spasmodically.
“You’ve ruined your experiment by revealing it,” Paladin said, wondering if the emperor could hear him. “Whatever you show me is not real.”
“Yes, you’ve touched upon the real power of our interrogation system,” the emperor said with a mild chuckle. “We’ll erase this memory and take you forward. Your reality is now in our hands. Admittedly, this is a very old idea, but getting the technology to work makes it all seem exciting and new. Ironically enough, we bought most of it from some of your own Pilgrim friends living in the Border Worlds. It seems that humanity will always sell its soul to one devil or another. Now then, Mr. Taggart. Relax. And as your protur would say, be patient.”
Dozens of replies flashed through Paladin’s mind, but he forgot each of them as quickly. Then a familiar man pushed open a hatch marked: ARES 098 ORBITAL STATION, VENUS, and came into a small living room.
Paladin barely found his voice. “Father?”
For nearly a week, Blair had gone along with Obutu and Angel’s plan to set up the people responsible for attacking him. He had requested and received a transfer to Second Squadron and was now under the direct supervision of one Gary “Gunner” Berkholtz, a sinewy Marine pretending to be a Navy flyer and squadron commander. Twice Gunner had questioned Blair’s motivation for wanting to transfer out of First Squadron, and twice Blair had given him the same answer: “Sir, this is awkward to admit, but the squadron commander and I, well, sir, we’ve become too close. I think it would be unhealthy for us and the squadron if I remained.”
Gunner had requested details regarding Blair’s relationship with Angel, going so far as to ask the average number of times per week that they had sex. Blair had smirked. “Don’t you mean per day, sir?”
He had a few suspicions why Angel and Obutu had asked him to transfer. He knew that Second Squadron’s arrival had come just prior to his beating, but he still wasn’t convinced that any of them had committed the crime. First off, how had they learned that he was a Pilgrim? And could any of them really hate Pilgrims so much that they would risk their hard-fought careers on something so heinous and illogical? It just didn’t make sense.
However, the exceedingly warm welcome he had received from Gunner’s people did affect his judgement. They had heard about his jump through the Charybdis Quasar, which had thwarted a Kilrathi invasion of Earth. They had learned of his skip across the Olympus’s gravity well, with his entire squadron linked via tractors. One night, a demure lieutenant who went by the mystery callsign of “R,” came out of her shell at the bar and told him that she had never met a real hero before, that she wasn’t flirting, and that she only wanted to shake his hand. Blair would have laughed at her if she had not sounded so sincere. And the others seemed to regard him with equal measures of respect and admiration. Blair felt nearly as comfortable with them as he did with his own squadron.
Then again, they could be putting on an excellent charade, directed by the infamous Gunner himself--a performance meant to steer suspicion away from them.
Now, as Blair assumed the duties of wing commander and flew a routine sweep of the Sirius system, continuing to scan with his Pilgrim senses for the missing ship, he felt more certain that his transfer merely represented a diversion for something more important carried on by Obutu and Angel. He sighed over Angel’s lack of faith in him, then lined up his navigation crosshairs with the nav point marked on his Heads Up Display, adjusting course in slight increments until he found the bull’s-eyes. The two Rapiers behind him, piloted by Mango and Loaf, held perfect formation. And a half million kilometers farther back hung the brilliant star of Sirius, throwing a sheer scarf over the encompassing void. Blair and his wingmen had maintained radio silence for the past hour, and he had repeatedly shaken off the urge to activate Merlin. He wanted the PPC to speculate on who had attacked him and why Karista had not contacted him for so long. While lying in the sick bay, he thought she had spoken to him, but he attributed that impression to the drugs. If he only knew how to reach out himself to find her. He had tried to do that several times in the past week. Whether his failure to reach her was a limitation of being only half-Pilgrim or simply his ineptness when wielding his extrakinetic senses, he wasn’t sure. He knew that if he didn’t hear from Karista soon, he would spend every free moment trying to sharpen his senses to contact her.
“Oh, Christopher. You’re all right.”
This time she did not appear before him, but her voice sounded gentle and near. He shuddered over her timing, although she could have been waiting until his thoughts were on her. “Where are you? What’s happening?”
“I’m on McDaniel. I think we’re getting close to learning what these visions are. I’m on my way to see a woman who may know something. But Christopher, I don’t think we can stay here. Some people saw us land. I’m sure the Marines will question them, and I’m sure they already have the troopship we stole. I might need your help getting off planet. But how are your feeling? I sensed the beating. What happened?”
“It’s over. And I’m all right. Been thinking about something, though. Since the attack, I haven’t had a single vision.”
“I have. Yours will return, especially now that you’re in the Sirius system. You’re close to where Ivar Chu McDaniel and his followers ascended to a higher plain.”
“I’m here because the Altamonte battle group lost one of its destroyers.” He grinned over a sudden and cynical conclusion. “I hope it didn’t ascend to a higher plain, too. Any ideas?”
“No. I don’t sense anything.”
“Neither do I, but I have a captain breathing down my neck and expecting results. And you said you might need help. I’m not sure how I can do anything from here.”
“A comm drone is on its way to the Tiger Claw. You’ll be ordered back to Netheryana, and you’ll be only three jumps from McDaniel.”
“Last I heard, the Concordia battle group was there.”
“It is. Can you get yourself transferred?”
“Yeah, no problem. And I’ll be there in six months when the approvals finally come in.”
“I’ll try to find another way out, but it won’t be easy. Getting off of Mars worn me down like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Oh, no, here comes the guilt. I know you’re my pair, and I know I need to help. But do you have any idea what you’re asking?”
“I know you’re worried about your career, but I have a feeling that it won’t matter soon.”
“Pilgrim, you’re overshooting the nav point,” Loaf said, his wide eyes beaming from Blair’s Visual Display Unit.
“Holy shit,” Blair muttered, returning to a more immediate and dangerous reality. He fired maneuvering thrusters while banking hard to get back on course.
“Didn’t you hear the warning, sir?” Mango asked.
“Yeah,” Blair managed, his ears still ringing with Karista’s premonition. “But I’m having trouble with my Tempest,” he lied. “Keep getting the eight-sixty error message.”
“Better have ‘em run a diaog,” said Loaf. “Last time I got an eight-sixty, I lost all nav during a landing, and I know at least one better way to get a cardiovascular workout.”
Blair smiled weakly as his computer confirmed that he had reached the nav point. He scanned his radar scope and found his next target. He continued going through the motions of the patrol, his thoughts light years away and on a lean blonde whose smile barely concealed the pain of not having him. Karista was his pair, and together they would make what Pilgrims deemed a perfect union. But he had denied her that. And she had accepted the fact. But every time they spoke, he was reminded of what he had done.
And before he knew it, the guilt became so tightly coiled around his heart that he envisioned himself making those three jumps to McDaniel.
But she didn’t need a knight, just a cab driver. Maybe she could find someone else.
Son of a bitch. She’s going to make me do it. But if I leave, won’t that ruin Obutu and Angel’s plan?
“Sir, you all right?” Mango asked. “You should be on auto to the next point, but you’re manual, and begging your pardon, sir, but you’re flying like you’re goobered.”
“Sorry, gentlemen. I’m auto. Let’s get to it.”
Still warding off the initial shock, Paladin rushed to his father and embraced him. “You didn’t tell me you were coming home. I thought I’d only see Mom.”NEXT
“But this could be your last leave for a long time.” Father pulled back, tightened his grip on Paladin’s arms, and gave a mock frown. “What kind of dad do you think I am?” The old man’s shoulder-length hair fell into his face, affording him the appearance of an obsessed researcher who had spent far too many years away from humanity so that he could roam the technological jungles of his own creation. However, everyone who knew Shamus Taggart knew that his terraforming studies took precedence over most things--but never his family.
The old man sighed and left Paladin, carrying himself to the sofa. He sat with a groan.
“Up all night again?” Paladin asked.
“Yeah. But it isn’t research that’s given me insomnia. Sit down.”
Alarmed by his father’s solemn tone, Paladin immediately took a seat. Just don’t tell me you’re dying. Not now. You’re still too young.
“Have you heard the news? Last night the Confederation declared war on the Pilgrim Alliance.” He snorted. “The year is twenty-six thirty-two, and we still haven’t learned a damned thing about tolerance.”
Whew. You’re not dying. “Tolerance? I don’t know if that’s possible now. And I feel really bad about this, especially since we’re Pilgrims, but the alliance is out of control. We offered to renegotiate. They destroyed our outpost on Celeste and wiped out a mining colony while they were at it. We lost nearly two million. You won’t hear that on the news. Something has to be done. Personally, I think it’s about time.”
Father yanked himself to the edge of the sofa. “James, I’ve taught you that your true home is Earth. We descended from Terrans. We should never forget that. But the lines have been drawn. And there are too many in our family who have chosen to fight for the alliance.”
“What are you saying?”
Closing his eyes and lifting his palms, Father paused a few heartbeats before speaking. “I’m saying that you’ll go your own way. And I’ll go mine.”
“What?” Paladin bolted to his feet.
“My broturs and sosturs need me.”
“Where is this coming from? You’re not a soldier. You’re a terraformer. They don’t even need you. What the hell are you saying?”
“My work for the Confederation is finished. I can’t stand by and watch them wipe out our people. I won’t.”
“What about Mom?”
“She’s not coming. It seems her side of the family chose the Confederation.”
Paladin stood there, rooted by shock. “I’ve been here all morning, and Mom hasn’t said a word to me. She’s been her cheerful self. And she’s in there now, taking a nap like nothing’s happened. Mom?” he shouted. “Mom?” He charged to the bedroom, ordered the lights on, and found his mother lying supine in bed, the covers tucked tightly under her arms.
She hemmed. “James?”
“Why didn’t you tell me that he’s joining the Pilgrim Alliance?”
After taking in a long breath, his mother shut her eyes and took the blanket into her fists. “He wanted to tell you.”
“Move aside, James,” said father from the doorway.
Paladin cocked his head--
And lost a heartbeat as he spotted the sidearm clutched in his father’s hand. “What now?”
“Move aside,” his father urged again, training the pistol on mother. “She’s threatened to turn me in. We can’t have that.”
“I don’t believe this. I don’t--”
The pistol went off.
Mother shrieked, and the malodor of seared flesh poured into the small room. Her left arm had been blasted off at the elbow and now lay at an improbable angle near her hip.
Father grimaced. “Sorry, Delli. I’ve never fired one of these. Close your eyes. I’ll try for a clean kill this time.”
“No, you won’t,” Paladin said, stepping into his father’s line of fire.
“Get out of the way, son.”
“I don’t think so, Dad.”
“James, do you want to put an end to this? All you have to do is tell me about Confederation Intelligence. What do you know about Robert’s Quadrant? I want the locations of every Confederation listening post in that region. You tell me, and this ends.”
Paladin repressed a violent shudder. “I can’t believe what you’re asking.”
“I’m asking you to save your mother’s life.”
Holding his breath, Paladin dove at his father. A nanosecond before he could wrap hands around the pistol, it went off. He seized the weapon, and they crashed to the floor.
Surprisingly, the old man wrenched himself free and came rolling back up with the gun like a Marine thirty years younger.
Paladin caught a glimpse of his mother. And wished he hadn’t. She had no face.
A foot suddenly connected with Paladin’s chin, and he found himself sprawled on his back. The foot came down on his chest, and he looked into his father’s blazing eyes. “I am your father. You will obey. Tell me what I need to know.”
The pressure on his chest increased, and Paladin felt his air being cut off. He gasped, and tears rolled down into his ears.
“Tell me!” Father screamed.
But his voice now echoed into gibberish and yield to the soft tones of a flute player. “Be brave, Brotur,” came a disembodied voice resounding out of the notes. “You will not suffer long.”