Commodore Richard Bellegarde extended his arms, scrutinized the Concordia’s Olympic-sized swimming pool, then repressed a final shiver and drove his weight down onto the diving board. With a sharp rebound, he sailed into the air. The water became a blur, and his heart rang in his ears as he dropped four meters and split the waves. He shot toward the pool’s bottom, feeling the tickle of escaping air bubbles across his cheeks, then curved up and paddled toward the surface.
He broke water to the sound of one man’s applause.
Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn sported a stiff-looking pair of neon blue swimming trunks that he had probably just bought from the quartermaster. He appeared markedly solid for a man who spent more time strategizing than exercising. Tolwyn tested the water with a big toe, held his nose, then stepped in with a mild splash. When he came up, he slicked back his gray hair into a widow’s peak and blinked water out of his eyes. “Quite invigorating, Richard. I’m glad I joined you, though you didn’t have to close down the pool for an hour. Makes us seem snobbish and unwilling to swim with the enlisted.”
“I agree, sir. But I didn’t want to flap my gut around here and lower morale.”
The admiral cocked a brow. “Very wise.”
Bellegarde swam toward the shallow end of the pool and stood. “So when are getting under way?”
“We’re still waiting on the space marshal.” Considering what he had learned about the woman, Tolwyn’s tone remained surprisingly neutral. He backstroked to the ledge, then extended his arms and hung on, kicking slowly, his expression conveying that he enjoyed the mild burn. “Apparently, she hasn’t finished saving our careers.”
“Ms. Gregarov allows Amity Aristee and her Pilgrim accomplices to build a hopper drive that can destroy a planet--because she plans to steal it when they’re done. Then Ms. Gregarov fails to do that, which results in the deaths of millions and situation we’re in now. But it’s our careers that need saving. Sir, that’s more irony than I can savor in a lifetime.”
“You’re forgetting that we issued the threat to Aristee without the senate’s blessing.”
“There wasn’t time for a vote.”
“Which wouldn’t have been in our favor. So we acted. The lack of time is our only defense. Without the space marshal’s help, you and I would be awaiting our general court-martials.”
“So the deal gets dirtier. She’ll smooth things over with the senate if we keep silent about her botched operation. Sorry, but that’s not good enough. She’s responsible.”
Tolwyn closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. “She’ll never admit it, but I think she’s been working for someone well above her, and I have a feeling she’ll take the fall. She won’t need our help.”
“Someone well above her? One of the joint chiefs? The president, for God’s sake?”
Two beeps resounded from the main entrance panel. The hatch yawned inward to admit the silver-haired harridan herself, ears probably ringing, lips curled in a smug little smile. “Drowning our sorrows are we?”
Bellegarde barely contained his growl. “Not exactly, ma’am.”
“Given the crisis, your records, and my recommendations, the senate and joint chiefs have allowed you to maintain your current active duty status so long as I maintain my field office here,” she said, smoothing a wrinkle from her dress uniform to avoid facing them with the news.
“You have field marshals for that,” Bellegarde said. “And more important duties than babysitting.”
Gregarov showed her teeth. “Thank you for prioritizing my career, Richard. Without you--”
“Have the senate and joint chiefs given you their recommendations regarding Aristee?” Tolwyn asked impatiently.
“They have. We’re to continue our search for the Olympus, utilizing the gravitic residuum trail. We’ve found two Pilgrims with extrakinetic senses to help.”
“You mean you sent out your press gang and conscripted them,” Tolwyn corrected with a sigh. “In any event, we’re back to where we started, only this time Aristee has James Taggart to help her evade us. I suggest we proceed on schedule. If Aristee does not surrender that ship and its hopper drive to us by one-five-eight, we will destroy every Pilgrim system and enclave. The ship is heavily damaged. There’s a chance that she might enlist the aid of the Kilrathi, particularly the emperor. We can’t allow that to happen.”
“But she fought the Kilrathi at Aloysius,” Gregarov said. “What makes you think that she’ll strike a deal with them?”
“Wilson’s failure made the Kilrathi shy. But with the emperor losing his ground, the cats are now ripe for a deal. Mutual desperation breeds alliance. So we should maintain our threat and keep Aristee on a short fuse.”
“And we can’t maintain these no-fly zones forever,” Bellegarde added. “We’re tying up the fleet and already feeling the effects of a hollow navy.”
“I agree with you there, Richard,” the space marshal said. “Our presence is fueling rather than quelling the fires. I’ve brought some new holos for you.” She withdrew a portable holoplayer from her hip pocket and aimed it over the pool.
A metroplex street shimmered into view, and a databar beneath the image read TAMAYO SYSTEM, PLANET SEVA, PILGRIM ENCLAVE DIVINITY. The image panned to reveal bodies strewn everywhere, men upon women upon children. Two, maybe three thousand corpses littered the road and extended far off into a wall of black smoke pouring from the shattered windows of a burning building. The tiny form of an infant caught Bellegarde’s eye and lumped his throat.
“Mass suicide?” he asked.
Gregarov hesitated. “I wish it were.”
“Christ,” Tolwyn said. “What happened?”
“The Marine detachment fired the wrong ordnance into the rioters. It was supposed to be sylago gas. Somehow, they were armed with ferrilli. Over twelve hundred dead. The investigation is underway. News is reporting it as an accident.”
“That was no accident,” Tolwyn said. “I bet that CO fought in the Pilgrim war.”
Gregarov nodded solemnly and switched off the player. “I could show you more, but suffice it to say that the rioting continues on Triune. Communications have been reestablished at the strike bases at Tung and Sylee, so stolen craft shouldn’t get off planet. It’s a bit more quiet at Spiritia, though we’ve actually had reports of seventy-one AWOLs and a number of abuses against the citizenry. Eighty-seven Marines have already been charged with rape and twenty-three more with unauthorized kills. These numbers seem small, given that we have nearly one hundred thousand people on planet, but consider how many violations have gone unreported. The data I’m receiving from Mythada and Commune is equally disturbing. The planets Faith, Promise, and McDaniel’s World are faring much better since they’re more autonomous than the enclaves, though maintaining martial law and the no-fly zones remain, as you stated, Richard, heavy burdens.”
“Which is why we need to draw out Aristee quickly,” Bellegarde argued.
“The senate will never endorse an order to destroy the systems and enclaves. But there may be a way around that. It’s costing their constituents a fortune via new ‘crisis taxes’ to maintain the Pilgrim safe camps, and I’ve even received reports that cargo shipments have been delayed or even halted to some because of payment disputes. I can argue that maintaining our threat may very well bring a swift and peaceful solution to this crisis.” She turned a warning gaze on Tolwyn. “But I have to assure them that you will not destroy the systems and enclaves. Judging from your reaction to that holo, I don’t think you could do it anyway, Geoff.”
Tolwyn pulled himself out of the pool and searched for the towel he had forgotten to bring. “I’m willing to live with that act. And I’m certainly capable. Do I want to do it? Of course not.” He folded arms over his chest and shuddered.
“Take mine, sir.” Bellegarde gestured to the diving tower, where he had draped his towel over a railing.
The space marshal turned toward the hatch. “One more thing, Geoff. It seems we’ve intercepted several Kilrathi communiqués in reference to the Shak’Ar’Roc, a Snakeir-class superdreadnought that’s been missing since one-two-eight CST. We believe it’s the same cap ship that was pursing Aristee in the Aloysius system. Interesting in that the Kilrathi don’t know where she is, and neither do we. The only debris we recovered in that area is from her battle group. I wonder if that commander has already struck a deal with Aristee.”
“God help us if that’s true,” Tolwyn said, wrapping the towel around his waist. “The task force I originally assigned to find the Olympus is still at it. Strange, though. I’ve never known Kilrathi to act independently--unless that skipper is doing the emperor’s bidding, which would account for the communiqués. A few of the clans have already withdrawn from or have refused to join the emperor’s new alliance, so we can assume that he’s withholding information from those clans. We’ll cross reference our communiqués with intell on the clans who won’t join the alliance.”
Bellegarde swam to the steps at the pool’s end and hauled himself out. “I’ll see to that myself, sir.”
“Very good, Richard. And sound the pre-jump alarm when you’re ready. I’d like to be out of here within the hour.”
Admiral Vukar nar Caxki sat in his meditation chair and stared blankly around his quarters aboard the KIS Shak’ar’roc.
How does it feel to be a renegade? he thought. How does it feel to break the precepts? All of your life you have obeyed without question. Now, for nine days, you have shunned the proper course and have been branded a ryha’kara, a heretic by your crew. You have driven a third of them to zu’kara because of your defiance of centuries-old principles. You have followed the heart of a young fighter whose thoughts intrigued and lured you onto this course. But where to go from here? Where to go?
Vukar reflected on the Confederation supercruiser that had eluded him for the final time. He thought of how its loss should have driven him back home to Kilrah, where he should have atoned for his failure by spilling his blood before the clan elders. He thought of his decision to run from failure, to go on believing that they could somehow catch up with the supercruiser, that they would find it or die trying. But logic dictated that the supercruiser could be back in Confederation control or it could be anywhere in the galaxy, let alone sector. It could have been destroyed by the Terrans. Tactical Officer Makorshk, Vukar’s inspiration in rebellion, had analyzed the ship’s last jump residuum and had calculated that the supercruiser had jumped to the Sol system. For three days, Vukar had entertained the thought of jumping in pursuit, but he had reasoned that there would be more honor in zu’kara than in jumping into the enemy’s hands. Since his people had learned of an avenue through space-time that would take them directly to Earth, the Terrans had reinforced defenses at the jump’s exit point. Any ship coming through would be devastated before the crew realized a threat existed. Only a ship capable of producing its own gravity wells could make a covert jump and launch a successful attack. The Confederation supercruiser Vukar had been chasing represented such a ship.
What will my children think of me when they learn of what I have done? Have I ruined their futures? Those two have lived but a third of their lives. Can they go on knowing what their own blood has done to them?
He dug deeper into the chair and stroked long whiskers. Nutrient gas burst from his nose, and he followed the swirling emerald serpents up toward the overhead, where a net of conduits reminded him of just how confined he had become.
Wincing a bit, he reached down into his lap and picked up the piece of dried and salted ruxfra. He wrenched off a piece with teeth sore from poor hygiene and chewed so loudly that he could hear his concubine back on Kilrah telling him to be more quiet. A library record glowed on his private comm display, a record he had been studying for several days now. There were no stories of rebels in Kilrathi history, no tales of a single warrior who changed the course of his people. The emperors of Kilrah had always acted on behalf of the clans. They had been born pack hunters, and the group had always been more important than the individual. But now clans had begun to break away from the alliance. Perhaps the natural order of things dictated that individuals should break away from their clans and decide their own fates. So it had always been with Terrans. Vukar had read of a concept called “peaceful protest.” For centuries Terrans had sacrificed their lives to demonstrate their desire for change in their societies. The stories shocked him at first, but the more he had learned, the more he had realized that the Terrans had always been free, while he had been born with shackles of imposition removed only by death.
So I failed. I am a disgrace. Why can I not learn from my mistakes and move on? Why must I die? Would Sivar want me to become a stronger warrior by learning from errors? Or should those who witness my death be the ones to learn?
Vukar jerked as the hatch slid open and Makorshk pounded excitedly into the narrow suite. His eyes radiated like ivory-yellow mountain flowers, and his whiskers stood on end. “Kalralahr, I bring important news.”
Though Vukar opened his mouth to reprimand his subordinate for barging in unannounced, the young warrior’s expression and announcement made him overlook the gaffe. “Tell me.”
“We’ve been monitoring all communications within the quadrant and have intercepted several text-only messages between Bokureath of the Kiranka clan and the emperor. But I believe that the emperor is communicating with the captain of the supercruiser we’ve been stalking. They’ve planned a rendezvous to discuss how they can benefit each other.”
“Nonsense. No Pilgrim skipper would know our encryption and decryption codes.”
“I thought the same. But if you remember, Bokureath’s brother, Bokoth nar Kiranka, formed an alliance with a Pilgrim named Bill Wilson. Bokoth might have shared that information with Wilson, who shared it with the supercruiser’s captain.”
“You assume a great deal, Makorshk.”
“If the emperor is communicating with Bokureath, then why are they using text-only messages? You don’t find that odd?”
Vukar cleared his throat, feeling the initial excitement slip away. “Not at all. The emperor’s continuing failure to establish the new alliance explains his frustration and his secrecy. If the emperor is going to meet with anyone, it is Bokureath.”
Makorshk’s lips flared. “Then why would Bokureath claim to have a hopper drive?”
Vukar lifted his brow at that. “I want to read those messages.”
“I wish you would, Kalralahr. And even if you’re right and it is Bokureath who has recovered the hopper drive, then he will use it to bring power to the Kiranka clan--the emperor’s clan--and our hrai, along with all others who have refused to join or have seceded from the alliance, will be terminated. If we’re to save our honor and our clan, we must recover that hopper drive and use it to persuade the emperor to abandon his desire for alliance.”
Grunting his agreement, Vukar swiveled toward the comm display. “Show me these messages.”
Makorshk worked the touchpad to bring up the information. “I’ve already plotted our course to the rendezvous, which is here in Robert’s Quadrant. We can be there with time to spare.”
The characters of the Kilrathi language spilled across the display, and as Vukar read them, hunting instincts suddenly heated his blood and sent a rush of saliva into his mouth. “Alert the helm. Set new course.” He bolted up from his chair. “We shall lie in wait like our forefathers, and when our prey draws near, we shall spring...”
Sostur Inanna Pandathy awakened suddenly. She sat up, and her bones cracked as she wiped grit from her pale blue eyes. The quella sleeping robe she donned each night had become too small and threadbare over the years, thus the cabin’s cool, damp air sent gooseflesh fanning across her shoulders. She rose and shifted unsteadily toward the bedroom door, a mere silhouette in morning light that still struggled to find her window. With a creak she could mimic perfectly, the door yielded to her hand, and she padded into her narrow hall.NEXT
Still shaking off the dregs of sleep, she crossed into the shadows of a small living area cluttered with Pilgrim holoart, some of the framed pictures hanging on the walls and waiting to be turned on, some on easels, some leaning on the simple chair and sofa. During the past seven decades of living on McDaniel’s World, Inanna and her pair had collected a half dozen sculptures of the various Pilgrim proturs. The sculptures stood in a neat row near two glass doors that led to her yard. After her pair’s passing, the stone proturs became companions to whom she confessed her most secret thoughts. She moved toward the representation of Protur Revca, a proud-faced bald man in formal robe. “Tell me, Protur, why am I awake so early?”
She smiled inwardly over the touch of madness that had her talking to statues, then felt drawn to the glass doors. She slid one aside, and the morning breeze set off the aitora chimes that hung from her low ceiling. Metal discs and seashells joined by threads of gold clanged into each other and produced hollow, flute-like notes. Inanna shivered as she stepped outside the cabin, seemingly announced by the chimes.
Her yard had become overrun by govita weeds, and the small fence that boxed in her meager plot had been sun-bleached, streaked black by fungus, and worn rickety by the wind. Her neighbors’ cabins stood far off, pyramids of wood and stone reaching toward a sky flushed pink and veiled in the west by the sun’s cortege of clouds. She ventured farther into the yard, toward the lone veracia tree that had been in her family for generations. The tree charged upward nearly twenty meters, and its light blue bark and thick limbs became more distinct--until something unprecedented and miraculous caught Inanna’s eye.
With a trembling hand she reached up, plucked a thick, brown leaf, then rubbed it between her thumb and forefinger.
Inanna stepped back and realized that her tired eyes had failed her again. There was not just one leaf but thousands in half as many shades, a great chute of color that brought her to her knees.
She clutched the leaf to her heart and cried, for never in all its years had the tree bore leaves.
And now, overnight, it had.