While the town of Ardenta had not been as thoroughly ravaged as Ivar City, the Confederation Marines garrisoned there had cordoned off all main roads, had built bunkers at every intersection, and had set up radar dishes that towered over the rural community living in about five hundred wood and stone cabins. Known as a refuge for artists, antique dealers, and retired folks, Ardenta seemed the last place on the planet that would require the military’s presence, crisis or no. Dennet had speculated that the Marines had simply created outposts in every town surrounding Ivar City, assuming that the most fanatical Pilgrims lived near the capital. They could not be more wrong. The devout and militant Caravans made their home on the planet of Faith and were not particularly welcome among the more passive Pilgrims residing on McDaniel.
Karista ducked behind a cabin on the town’s perimeter, then followed Dennet to a front door draped in the shadows of late day. He looked for an intercom, found none, then rapped twice.
Seeing him wince and grip his wounded shoulder, Karista checked the extra robe sash she had tied over his wound; this time he yielded to the help without wrenching away.
The door opened slightly. A thin young man with a shaven head and a Pilgrim cross tattooed on his cheek scrutinized them for a second, then his face tightened into an ugly knot. “We can’t help you.”
“You’ve a mouth, a voice, and obviously a brain,” Dennet said. “I think you can. We want to see Sostur Inanna Pandathy.”
“Who is it, Collab?” came an old woman’s voice from somewhere inside.
“Are you Inanna Pandathy?” Karista called.
“Go away,” Collab said, shutting the door.
But Dennet pounded the wood with the bottom of his fist and forced himself inside. “Sostur? We must speak with you.”
“I won’t speak with soldiers,” the woman cried. “Collab, send them off. They’ve no right to bother me. I’ve obeyed their orders.”
“You heard her,” Collab said, then slapped palms on Dennet’s chest and began a vain attempt to block him.
“Little man, we’ve come too far for this,” said Dennet with a chilling calm. He wrapped his free hand around Collab’s throat and drove him deeper into the cabin.
Karista slipped by them and crossed into a hall that would carry her to a small living area. She felt taken aback by the sheer number of holoart frames, sculptures, and souvenirs from dozens of different worlds that congested the passage and formed part of a burgeoning museum of Pandathy’s life. As Karista emerged into the living area, she spotted the frames of more Pilgrim holoart strewn about, and she raised her brow over the sculptures of proturs that resembled wardens posted at the rear doors. Above them, aitora chimes wound down from the ceiling and shifted fractionally, awaiting inspiration from the next breeze. How anyone could live in such clutter eluded Karista, but the place held an unexplainable allure and familiarity. She felt something akin to déjà vu, a sense that she belonged there. Outside, beyond the glass doors, stood a the lone veracia tree, skirted by govita weeds and backlit magnificently by the sun. Karista had never seen a more uniform and colorful tree. The old woman had probably spent years nurturing it.
“What are you doing in my house?”
Karista whirled and found Pandathy seated in a white chair supporting a pile of blankets on one arm, holo art frames on the other, and a second stack of blankets on its back. The disarray and the woman’s white quella sleeping robe served as an effective if not planned camouflage. “Sostur. The protur’s concubines suggested that I come. I’m Karista Mullens. I used to be a dancer in Carver Tsu the Second’s private troupe.”
“It was some years ago, but I believe I saw you perform.” Pandathy’s blue eyes seemed to warm as they focused. “You say the concubines sent you? Whatever for?”
“Sostur Pandathy!” Collab shouted. “Leave, sostur! Leave!”
“It’s all right. They can stay.”
“Let him go, Dennet,” Karista ordered.
Pandathy glanced toward the hall. “Collab comes to check on me now and then. He’s a neighbor and a dear friend. He worries about the old lady with no family.”
She had barely finished when the young man came charging into the room. “Are you okay, Sostur?”
“I’m fine. These two were sent by the protur’s concubines,” Pandathy said as Dennet entered, looking ruffled and nursing his shoulder. “Did you hurt him?” she asked Collab. “Apologize.”
Collab lowered his gaze. “Sorry. But he was already wounded. And Sostur, how do you know they’re not lying?”
Pandathy widened her eyes and gave Karista a solemn nod. “I know. And you can leave, Collab. Thank you for coming.”
“Are you sure?”
She took his hand. “I’ll be fine.”
“And I’ll be just outside until they go--if you don’t mind.”
With a shrug, she released him, watched him amble toward the hall, then turned her attention to Dennet. “Well, now. You’re a Caravan. And a big one at that. I’ve only a met a few of you over the years. Are you as literal and argumentative as the others?”
“Sostur, we did not come here to debate the validity of Caravan stereotypes. Then again”--he glared at Karista--“I’m not sure why we’re here. Maybe we should have a good debate. But first I’d like to clean up. Have you a washbasin?”
She snorted. “I have pipeless plumbing--the expensive kind you won’t find even in Ivar City. The bathroom’s just around the corner. The field switch is on the wall. Streams of water will appear to float in midair. I’m sure you’ll be entertained.”
Karista felt relieved as Dennet returned only a weak smirk and headed out. A stronger look or a few more words from him, and Karista betted that Pandathy would be angered into silence.
“So then, young Karista, former dancer in the protur’s private troupe, I take it that you’ve been experiencing ecstatic visions of the Divine--the same ones that Ivar Chu himself experienced centuries ago."
“I’m not sure. I think so. I see blue. I hear something. I feel the pain leave my body. And afterward, I’m scared.”
Pandathy struggled forward, and Karista quickly helped her out of the chair. “The me that’s in this old body thinks young thoughts. Yes, our scripts transcend this time-bound existence. If only our flesh could...”
“Do you know what the visions mean?”
“Of course I do.” She padded toward the glass doors. “They mean that a young man who lived three hundred years ago--a man who bore my surname, a man who was cast out and branded a heretic--was telling the truth.” She placed a palm on the glass and squinted at the veracia tree.
“The concubines told me about him. You gave them a piece of holoart that he created. So Ivar Chu really did ascend to a higher plain.”
“Most have never doubted that. But don’t you get a sense that the visions mean something more?”
Unsettled by her insight, Karista joined Pandathy at the doors. “I do.”
“Do you know about the return myth?”
“Just a little. I was taught that it contradicted the Book of Ivar Chu.”
“Indeed, it does. It’s more Christian than anything else. It’s like a story from the Old Testament about a Hebrew prophet and lawgiver who delivered his people from bondage. They called him Moses.”
Karista barely repressed her snicker. “So you’re saying that the visions mean that Ivar Chu is coming back to deliver us from bondage?”
And with that, Karista felt her hopes slip away and shatter across the floor. She had come so far just to listen to an old woman spin an absurd tale. “How do you know this? Or is it just a feeling you have?”
“See that veracia tree? It has never bore leaves until now.” Pandathy’s lip trembled, and a tear suddenly raced down her wizened cheek.
“I’m sorry, Sostur. But the tree proves nothing. Any combination of conditions could have...” Karista let herself drift off as Pandathy slid open a door and shambled outside.
They moved slowly across the yard, with Pandathy’s gaze locked on the tree, her expression growing more awestruck. Once they reached a patchwork of shade that encircled the veracia, Pandathy reached up and plucked a crimson leaf. “Here is your proof.” She proffered the leaf.
Karista shook her head. “Sostur, I’m sorry, but I--”
“Take it. Take it to someone who can look deep within its cells, and you’ll know.”
Accepting the leaf, Karista turned it over and stared dubiously at its veins, blades, and petiole. “Is there anyone in Ardenta who can analyze this?”
“Then how do you know there’s more in here?”
“Faith, child. Faith. But you’re young, and I know you need more. Trust me. You’ll have your proof.”
Amity Aristee sprinted down the street, stitching a course between gaping holes in the asphalt and debris that had fallen from the bombed out buildings now rising like rotted teeth. The Confederation air attack had ended a few hours prior, and life had begun to emerge from the twisted and smoldering wreck of an enclave.NEXT
Aristee reached an intersection, turned left down an avenue--
And a soldier sprang from behind a fallen section of storefront. “Don’t move, little girl.”
“Okay.” She lifted her hands into the air.
He flipped up a visor and looked disgusted as he climbed over a chunk of stone. “Christ, how old are you? Seven? Eight?”
“I’m nine. And I’m looking for my mom and dad.”
As he reached out to seize her arm, Aristee ducked under him and bounded across the stone. She hoped he wouldn’t fire, and his shout seemed to confirm that. She chanced a look back. He hustled after her.
Fighters screamed overhead as she ran down the street, with the soldier just a few steps behind. They neared another intersection, where a half dozen hovers had collided when the saturation bombing had begun. She took herself around the wreck and kept on until she heard the soldier holler a curse. She threw a quick look back and saw him lying in a crater, clutching his knee. She smiled inwardly, turned her attention forward--
And saw her parents kneeling on the sidewalk ahead, their hands clasped behind their head. Five other Pilgrims knelt with them before a quartet of Pilgrim Marines wielding large rifles.
“There’s no room for traitors here,” shouted one of the Marines. “This is a war now. And since you’ve chosen to join the Confederation, we’ve chosen to end your lives.” He turned to his comrades. “Gentlemen. In Ivar’s name!”
Although Amity increased her pace and shouted for the Marines to stop, the sidewalk grew longer as the Marines’ rifles thundered. Even as her mother’s sweet, dark face broke into a stiff look of horror and her father’s defiance turned to a knot of agony, Amity let out another cry, as did a few people who glimpsed the execution from across the street.
She continued to run but got no closer to the scene. Her senses diminished into the lone sound of her own labored breath. Then something caught her foot. She fell, but arms reached under hers to catch her fall.
“Are you all right, Motur Aristee?” A lithe woman with a pronounced jaw gazed wide-eyed and deeply concerned. The woman wore the ornate robe of a motur’s attendant. With a slight turn of her head, Aristee realized that a second attendant stood with her, and beyond them lay a vast chamber whose ceiling rose so high that Aristee’s vision blurred before she could see where it ended. She thought of asking them where she was, but the answer came just as quickly. All of her life she had imagined a room such as this, a great throne room where her people could come and speak directly with the protur, a room that would house the great collections of art acquired by the Alliance, and a room whose walls would echo with the wisdom of Ivar Chu.
“Yes, I’m all right,” she told the attendant. She looked down and saw her toes peaking out from sandals encrusted with rare gems. Her gaze moved up her legs to the sheen of her motur’s robe, a garment reserved for women who achieved the second highest rank among the Pilgrim elders. Seven moturs advised one protur, and since for the first time in history there was no protur to succeed Carver Tsu the Third, one of the seven moturs would be chosen by him to assume the highest office upon his death. Aristee was now in line for that position.
As they strolled on, Aristee admired the pale blue floor made of a shiny, unfamiliar stone. Light fell from somewhere above and dotted the floor with hundreds of reflections. Within each reflection shimmered a holograph that told one piece of Pilgrim history. Planets were discovered, settled, and destroyed. Quasars were charted and jumped. Peron fell to the stalwarts of the Confederation.
Despite having imagined a great dais upon which would stand a massive throne of gold, Amity found herself led toward the center of the chamber, toward a small, nondescript desk of trioak and a simple, armless chair.
“Please be seated, Motur,” said one of her attendants. “The Protur will see you in a moment.”
Puzzled, Aristee pulled the chair away from the desk, sat, then looked up to find that the attendants had vanished. She took a deep breath, then, with nothing better do, decided to rummage through the desk’s single drawer. She tugged it open and found a computer slate, the screen active and flashing her name. She removed the slate, and a familiar schematic rippled across the display: a modified Pilgrim hopper drive.
“It’s what they want, dear Amity. I suggest you give it to them. Otherwise, I’ll be forced to kill you.” The protur crossed in front of the desk, tapping the blade of his Pilgrim cross on his chin.
And with a chill that mounted from her feet, Aristee remembered everything. She now knew that the image of her parents’ deaths was not real. Her parents had betrayed the Pilgrims and had gone to fight for the Confederation, but she had never witnessed their execution. The Kilrathi who were now holding her had generated that image. But why? What had they gained from it? And now did they really expect her to simply hand over everything she knew about the hopper drive? Or were they simply ripping it from her since the slate had turned her thoughts to the drive?
“You won’t kill me, Protur. I’m your future.”
He shifted to the desk and sat on the corner. “There are others who would carry on my work, but none so diligently. They’ll get what they want. Be assured of that. All you can do now is beg them to stay out of your mind. They’ll bring back the day you were raped, the day that Govar died, the day that Frotur McDaniel lost his life. They’ll pour poison into your wounds, suck it out, then spit it back in. There’s nothing you can do but comply. Make it all end quickly.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“You rarely have. You used me to endorse your rebellion. But you’ve no idea how much you’ve been used. It began with Admiral Bill Wilson, and it will end with you. Yes, you’ve awakened the Confederation, and that, dear Amity, was you’re only purpose. With that task completed, I’ve but one thing to do.” He leaned toward her--
She never saw the blade coming. The punch drove her back hard into the chair. Hot fingers of pain groped out from her heart. She drew back her head and eyed the Pilgrim cross sticking from her chest.
I don’t understand.
Losing control of her head, she fell back and searched for the ceiling as sweet, hot blood pooled in the back of her throat. I’m not dying. I can’t be. This isn’t real. I didn’t give them what they want, did I? What does this mean?
A voice came to her and whispered between the gentle notes of a flute player. “Sostur, what is your truth? And why should you know it?”