“Long range spectral report coming in, ma’am,” reported James Ki, the Harbinger’s tactical officer. “Better have a look.”
Captain Chrystina Alsa lifted her brows, nodded at the comm screen, then hustled out of the destroyer’s ready room. She passed through a narrow hall made even more narrow by the thick conduits bolted to its walls. Once in command and control, she double-timed for Ki’s station. “Let’s see it.”
One of Ki’s six screens revealed a cloud of debris several thousand kilometers in diameter and expanding by the minute. Thermal images indicated that hundreds of pieces still retained some heat, which was remarkable given the extreme cold of interstellar space and symptomatic of a terrifically hot explosion. Two other screens came to life with data bars that reported on the debris’s composition: mostly durasteel and plastisteel, the primary materials of Confederation and Kilrathi ships, respectively. The scanners had also identified fragments of Kilrathi and human corpses among the flotsam, and the death toll steadily increased.
The largest of Ki’s screens divided into three displays. Telescopic imagers zoomed on each element of debris, identified it, then turned it over to another computer that would create a simulacrum of the object destroyed. There, before Alsa’s eyes, three capital ships were slowly reassembled. As the system continued that process, a third computer compared those images to a database of known Kilrathi and Confederation capital ships.
“What do you think?” Alsa asked.
Ki skimmed his screens. “Analysis is still incomplete, and we’re comparing scans with the Feyt-Tang, but it’s a safe bet that two Kilrathi cap ships went up against at least one of ours. I’ve inputted the Olympus’s footprint and pasted it at the top of the list.” A pulsing alarm drove Ki’s attention to his touchpad. “Got it, ma’am.” His gaze lit. “Positive ID on the Olympus. Second ship was the Kilrathi superdreadnought KIS Shak’Ar’Roc. Third vessel definitely Kilrathi. Awaiting ID.”
“So the cats did our work for us,” Alsa said. “Mr. Ki, the second you have a complete analysis, I want it encrypted and downloaded to a comm drone. Better yet, make that two comm drones. Send one back to Thor and send the other directly to the Concordia. We may have just saved millions of lives, be they Pilgrim or otherwise.”
“Maybe not, ma’am. At best speed, our comm drone won’t reach the Concordia for another forty-seven-point-nine-eight hours. Relays through Thor will take even longer. Tolwyn’s clock runs out on one-five-eight. We got here about three hours too late.”
Karista and Dennet had left Sostur Inanna Pandathy’s cabin in Ardenta and had spent the last five days living on the rooftops and in the alleyways of small businesses of Ivar City. They had noticed a sharp increase in Confederation Marine activity and had resisted the temptation to venture down to I-CAS, the city’s air and spaceport, to see if they could evacuate before the official order came in. Being wanted criminals who had stolen a Marine Corps troopship from a Pilgrim safe camp on Mars, they would have been apprehended by Marines during the check-in process. They had planned to wait until the evacuation had reached a fever pitch, since the chaos would offer good cover.
Karista had contacted Blair and had learned that he and Commander Obutu were en route and would arrive at approximately 1845 hours on 157. Now, keeping her head low and remaining close to Dennet as they shoved their way through the masses that had been pouring into the spaceport since the official order had come in, she glanced at her watch and converted local time to Confed Standard Time: 1750 hours, 156. She had just over a day until Blair arrived. She and Dennet had heard that most of the evacuating ships had remained in orbit with the Concordia battle group, thus getting off planet early would help. Blair would come, she would simply guide him to their ship, and he would escort them on to the Concordia. Of course, Karista might have to “persuade” the shuttle’s pilot. No problem. She had been conserving energy for the past five days and felt up to the task.
Word had filtered down through the crowd that the Marines stationed at the port’s one hundred and twenty-seven gates had been so overwhelmed with the extra precaution of manually checking-in Pilgrims that they had given up and now asked individuals to pass through the weapons scanner. Trouble was, that scanner might also be equipped with a retina ID. Karista would have to disable that unit before she and Dennet moved through the gate.
They reached a hub of sorts, with lines of people forming the spokes of a colossal wheel. Babies cried. People shouted and elbowed past her, jockeying for a better position on line. Fights broke out. Marine gunfire thundered in great echoes up to the high-ceilinged terminal. Surprisingly, the line they had chosen moved swiftly forward.
Dennet tugged at the hem of the Pilgrim robe he had borrowed from Pandathy’s neighbor, a robe much too short but nonetheless clean. “If they fail to recognize me as a criminal, I’m certain they’ll arrest me for wearing this abomination.”
“Don’t worry,” Karista said, smiling weakly. “We all look alike to them. Fanatics in white robes.”
“As opposed to fanatics in red armor?”
He tightened his lips and, being a head taller than the crowd, peered to the front of their line. “At this rate, we should be up there in about an hour. I see light at the end of tunnel, of course it’s night now and it’s taken us all day to see the light.”
“Some people have waited on longer lines just to catch a glimpse of the protur.”
“Not me.” Dennet turned his gaze floorward. “Kari, I’ve a confession. I’m not sure if I believe any of this. I mean a leaf of all things, a leaf from an old woman who wants more than anything to believe. What if she’s wrong? What if all of this is for nothing?”
“I saw it myself.”
“And that’s why I’ve come. I believe in you. But I don’t want you to get hurt if this turns out to be nothing more than delusion and superstition. If they destroy our worlds, I don’t know how we’ll get over something like that. Perhaps knowing that we tried to stop it will help, if just a little.”
“I’m not worried about our worlds, Dennet. The original Pilgrims are coming, and if they find us under attack, the Confederation as we know it will cease to exist. I wouldn’t want to live knowing that we failed to bring peace to both sides.”
“Oh, how nice it would be if for once you were selfish. Refreshing. Yes. A sostur without a mission. Where is that woman?”
Karista contemplated his question for a moment before a heavy-set man came toppling toward her. She shifted out of the way, even as he collapsed onto his back. A teenaged boy in a dingy robe leapt over the fallen man and knifed between Karista and Dennet. A few seconds later, a Marine parted the crowd with the muzzle of his rifle as he charged in pursuit.
“Probably stole a troopship on Mars,” Dennet quipped, staring after the boy.
“Come on,” said Karista as she dropped to her knees to help the heavy-set man to his feet. She took an arm, Dennet the other, and they hoisted the Pilgrim to his feet.
“Brotur, sostur,” the man gasped. “Thank you.” Then his expression of gratitude abruptly morphed into one of fearful recognition. “They were showing holos of you two and another woman. Very short, thin girl. They said--”
Dennet gripped the man’s elbow. “They’ve spread a plague of half-truths that we won’t discuss or defend here, eh brotur?”
The man shook his head. “We won’t. In fact, don’t talk to me.” He faced forward and pressed himself closer to the three women in front of him.
“Alone in a crowd,” Dennet said, just loud enough for Karista to hear. “The woeful tale of my existence.”
Karista inched closer to Dennet. She wrapped an arm around his back. “We’ll be all right.” Then she closed her eyes and reached out to Christopher, or, more precisely, to a location nearby so that she could observe his progress without distracting him. He and Obutu weren’t far from the Alliance jump point. Good. They would be on time.
Without warning, a force beckoned her away and whisked her on blue wings to a gravity well that opened up on the Sirius system. She plunged through the jump point and found herself stretched out across the great Pilgrim fleet.
“You are faith, and you are peace,” came a strong, masculine voice. “The meek inherited the Earth. You shall inherit the stars.”
“Kari? We’re almost there. Are you all right?”
Karista craned her head and found Dennet’s gaze. The juxtaposition between the real world and the continuum rendered her cold and confused. “What?”
“You haven’t said a word for nearly an hour. I thought you just wanted to be quiet.”
An hour? Were had the time gone? She blinked hard and surveyed the terminal. Perhaps only twenty Pilgrims stood in front of them now, with a pair up front being urged through the weapons scanner’s black, durasteel arch.
“C’mon, Kari. You with me?”
She nodded. “They’re close. They’re very close.”
“We’re very close, and I need you now.”
Dreading the chill to come, Karista wound her way through the internal components of the weapons scanner and found the retina ID unit’s power source. With her target pinpointed, she slipped back into herself as she and Dennet came to the head of the line.
A Marine who looked far too young to wear the uniform gave them a weary once-over, waved them on, then turned her attention to the Pilgrims behind them.
“Wait a minute,” shouted a second Marine who stood on the other side of the weapons scanner. The jarhead spoke quickly into his headset as he scrutinized them.
“We’re in trouble,” Dennet muttered.
“I can take them,” Karista said. “We’ll have to run.”
“Got room for one more,” cried the Marine with the headset.
The other Marine stepped in front of them. “You heard the man, got room for one. Which of you is going? You want to stay together? You got to wait for another shuttle.”
Karista thought a curse. “How long?”
“Don’t know,” the Marine said. “Could be an hour. Could be a day.”
Dennet broke into muffled, ironic laughter, then craned his head back. “Ivar, you son of a bitch.”
Before Karista could say another word, Dennet shoved her forward, and, taking the cue, the Marine finished the job by leading Karista through the weapons scanner--even as Karista caused a power surge to the retina ID unit.
“Hey, we just got a bad readout,” said a tech from behind a nearby console. “Make her walk through again.”
“My shuttle’s leaving,” Karista blurted out, then stared emphatically at the tech.
“We don’t have time for this,” said the Marine at the scanner. He cocked a thumb over his shoulder. “Go.”
Shivering from more than the effort of tricking the ID unit, Karista gazed longingly at Dennet, who simply bowed his head. She wanted to reassure him that she would come back for him, and together they would go back to Mars to help the Pilgrims still interned there. But until she could act on those good intentions, they meant nothing. She broke her gaze and left him standing there, framed by thousands trying to flee, looking for all the world like an overgrown lost boy who needed more than friendship to lead him home. She reached out and rubbed his shoulders, then whispered, “You’ll never be alone.”
“Orders just came in from the joint chiefs,” Tolwyn’s lawyer said. “They want you back on the Concordia and back in command of the Fourteenth. All charges have been dropped.”
“Well isn’t that convenient,” Tolwyn said. He set down his glass of Scotch, rose from the hotel room’s easy chair, then went to the window to take in the city’s lights and calm his sudden pulse over his equally sudden exoneration.
“The data that President Vasura turned over to the tribunal confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that she and Gregarov were responsible for allowing the hopper drive to be constructed. The records date back over four years, to the time they first discovered that Pilgrims were doing covert research on the system, and it seems that the Pilgrims had been working on the thing for over ten years. The president exposed a massive conspiracy.”
Tolwyn’s mouth fell open. He faced Solz, then went for his Scotch. After downing half a glass, he rode the burn, then shook his head. “Gregarov’s people didn’t get to the president. In fact, Gregarov wouldn’t have been reckless enough to make another attempt on Vasura’s life. She’d be risking exposure. And maybe the president knew that she couldn’t expose Gregarov without exposing herself.”
“Or maybe she tried to do that and realized it was impossible,” Solz ventured.
“And that’s why the president’s cause of death hasn’t come out yet.”
“Suicide, Commander. Plain and simple. Millions have already died because of what she and Gregarov did. Could you live with that guilt? It’s all unsurprising and very sad.”
“And I really liked the woman,” Solz said. “She was the first president this century who knew how to handle the senate. We won’t find another like her.”
“I believe you’re more right than you know.” Tolwyn consulted his watchphone and cursed. “I’ll be in transit at zero hour. And Commodore Bellegarde might be on his way here. If Gregarov is still in command of the fleet, she’ll dispatch a stand down order that will invite Amity Aristee’s attack.” He went to the closet and pulled out his travel bag.
“So what now?”
“Even if I arrived on time and ordered the attack on one-five-eight, the systems and enclaves would still fall in secession based on the arrival of comm drones. McDaniel’s World would be the first. The bombing would spread outward from there. It could take as long as a week for final order to be received.”
“Which gives Aristee a little more time to surrender before all of the worlds are wiped out.”
“That’s true, but I believe that if she hasn’t surrendered by now, she won’t. Let’s pray that when I arrive onboard the Concordia, it’s to the news that she has, indeed, stood down.”
Even the Kilrathi piloting the Imperial shuttle voiced their surprise as thousands of the quavering ships lumbered by, heading for Kilrathi space. Paladin had never seen craft of their design, nor did he have an inkling of what propelled them. Bordered in blue and pushing through the vacuum like fluttering banderoles, the ships paid them no heed as they came within a thousand meters.NEXT
“And they will return in the night for their children,” said the protur, staring awestruck through a viewport.
“It’s them, James,” Aristee said, pointing over the protur’s shoulder. “I saw them in my head. And I keep hearing this voice asking what is my truth and why should I know it. They’re Pilgrims. And just look at them. You see? You chose the right side after all.”
“If they come any closer, in the name of Sivar I will fire upon them,” warned the pilot, whose agitation came through his translator and was then piped into the intercom. The cat and his co-pilot sat in the cockpit, breathing in nutrient gas and sealed off from the hold’s Earth-standard atmosphere. Paladin had hardly minded the barrier between them until now.
He crossed to the cockpit hatch and thumbed the intercom. “Don’t fire.”
“Shut your hole, you hairless ape. They will draw no closer to an Imperial ship without suffering our wrath!”
With his head resting back on an oversized seat meant for Kilrathi passengers, the protur smiled broadly and waved Paladin away from the intercom.
“They’ll fire at them,” Paladin said, heading toward the protur. “And I don’t know who they are, but--”
“Why James, they’re your broturs and sosturs,” the protur cut in, narrowing his gaze over the insult. “Amity already told you that. Here they are. And you still don’t believe?”
“They’re Pilgrims? I don’t think so. Not with technology like that. I can’t even tell what material those ships are made of. And you heard the cats. They don’t even show up on spectral, thermal, or any other scan.”
The protur winked and spoke in a commanding baritone. “Be brave, Brotur. You will not suffer long.”
Paladin jolted as the protur’s words echoed in his ears and took him back to Kilrah, to the interrogation the cats had performed on him. A voice had come with reassurance, a voice that the protur somehow knew.
“They’ve come to deliver us, James. And they won’t allow interference. Not from the Kilrathi. Not from anyone.”
“Listen to me,” Paladin began, seizing the protur’s collar and hissing out his words. “I won’t listen to your cryptic bullshit anymore. What’s going on? Tell me!”
“Ohmygod,” Aristee cried as a thunderous reverberation swept across the hold.
“Shit! They’re firing their cannons,” Paladin shouted. He released the protur, sprinted for the intercom, then punched open the channel. “What are you doing?”
“No more taunts!” shouted the pilot.
“You were supposed to get us to the shipping lane, then send us off in the launch. If we don’t make it, you fail your mission and die in disgrace.”
“Pilot! Listen to me! If you...” Paladin’s voice fell away as he spotted something through the cockpit hatch’s window. He had clean view over the pilot’s shoulder and out past the canopy. One of the alien craft streaked toward them, its pointed bow opening to form a gloomy orifice.
Paladin thought that the ship would swallow them as a ball of blue light exploded from the orifice and enveloped the shuttle. He blinked hard against the flash, trying to focus before he realized that he controlled only his thoughts.
The rest belonged to the light.