After he had listened to Flight Boss Raznick’s expected harangue regarding landing protocol, Blair left the flight deck in a daze and somehow found his way back to his quarters, where he had collapsed on his bunk. At least Maniac had not been present to taunt him; the lanky blond had gone with his new fling Zarya to see an original play written and performed by the jump and impulse drive crews. The day before, Maniac had invited Blair to go with them, but he had declined, a decision he thanked himself for now.
“Christopher, are you going to lie there all night and feel sorry for yourself?”
Merlin shimmered in the shadows at the foot of the cot, and Blair frowned over the old holograph’s black silk robe, matching slippers, and the meerschaum tobacco pipe that dangled from the corner of his mouth. “Well?”
Blair sat up. “I’m not feeling sorry for myself.”
“Really? I was just getting ready to retire, when your agitation triggered me on.” Merlin flung his silver ponytail over his shoulder and narrowed his gaze. “But I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do. I did not detect this cloud of blue that you insist was there, though I’m merely a Portable Personal Computer, and while my CPU is quite sophisticated and fits nicely within your wrist, I can only engage in first and second level particulate sweeps. Have you checked your Rapier’s recordings yet?”
“My chief called. They ran them and found nothing, so I guess being ODR is a good thing. Can’t afford to send out a pilot who’s seeing things. Rapiers ain’t cheap.”
Merlin puffed contentedly on his pipe, his face quickly obscured by a cloud of holographic smoke. “I believe that you saw and heard something. But the only evidence we have is your memory.”
“And it’s not working very well, either. Today wasn’t the first time I saw that thing. I had a similar experience years ago on the day I got my mother’s cross. The blue. The voice. But I never remembered it until now. And just an hour or so ago, I was thinking of this rainy day when me and Uncle Samuel we’re fighting over my joining the military. I remember yelling at him, cursing, saying things... oh, man. And he just walked away--into a blue fog. I remember standing there, listening to the rain fall and trying to see beyond the blue, and this voice told me that he would be okay, that I would be okay, that a shield had been placed over us. But don’t you get it, Merlin? I remember it that way now. But when I used to think back on that day, I would just see him walk away. There was no blue, no voice. So why am I remembering it like this?”
Merlin pulled the pipe from his lips and turned it toward Blair. “I don’t know. Perhaps these experiences are the result of your extrakinetic training with Karista.”
“When we were back on the Olympus, she never mentioned that my memories would be altered or that I would experience this blue cloud or the voices.”
“That’s because I didn’t know about them until now,” came a familiar voice.
Blair jerked his head and gasped. Merlin had vanished, and in his place sat Karista, her delicate features pulled taut in deep concern, her robe hanging too low off one shoulder, her eyes red from stress, lack of sleep, or both. She had stepped outside of her physical constraints and had reached out across interstellar space to find his thoughts. While it appeared as though she sat in the room with him, they actually conversed in the continuum. He had thought links over such long distances were impossible and had never attempted one himself. But now he realized that time and distance meant nothing in the continuum. Their thoughts rode on the first waves of the universe and existed at both the dawn and end of everything.
“Where are you?” he asked nervously. “I mean I know we’re together now, but where did they take you?”
“Mars. I’m at a safe camp. The food’s running out here. Supplies aren’t coming.”
“No way. The Confederation would never do that.”
“I don’t think the Confed senate really knows what’s going on. Anyway, I’m the only extrakinetic Pilgrim here. A few others know this, and they want me to help them escape. We can only get about twenty into a shuttle. Christopher, there are...” She swallowed and looked away in disgust. “There are nearly ten thousand of us here. I wish Amity could see what she’s done.”
He leaned forward and seized Karista’s hand. She felt as warm and soft as he remembered. “Get out of there.”
“I will. But I need to get food to our people.”
“Don’t be a martyr. Just go.”
“Christopher, I reached out into the quilt and touched the others. We’ve had similar visions. Blue clouds, waves, and spheres that smell sweet, talk to us, and play music. Did you hear the music?”
“Yeah. And I’ve had memories.”
“But you’re remembering more clearly now. And you realize that you’ve been having these visions all of your life.”
A chill coiled up his spine. “You, too?”
“All of us.”
“So what do we do about it?”
“If I make it out of here, then I’m going to McDaniel. I’m going to talk to some women who might know more about this.”
He squeezed her hand. “There’s a Confed battle group in place at McDaniel. You’ll never make it past their no-fly zone. Go anywhere but there. Go to the Border Worlds. Paladin told me that there are some of us there. Hide with them. Don’t come back until this is over.”
“Like I would do that. Guess you still don’t know me. You just do your job. If you can. I know she took you off the flight roster. I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do?”
“Is there any way to shake off this vision when it comes on? The first time felt so overwhelming.”
She lowered her gaze. “I don’t know. Be polite? Ask it to leave?”
“Right. I’ll just find a way to deal. And what about you? I can’t imagine you taking on a whole garrison of Marines by yourself. Anything I can do from this end?”
“Just be here for me. Listen. Don’t be too nice. I’m trying to fall out of love with you.”
“Karista, I’m sorry about--”
Too late for apologies. Shadows draped over and consumed her as she broke the link. Blair sat there, staring through his incensed interface.
“It’s one thing to be ignored,” Merlin was saying. “But it is another when that person is staring directly at you and refuses to respond. Are you taking any prescription medication, Christopher?”
“Never mind. I see you’ve returned. Would you like to--”
“No. Merlin off.”
“Sleep,” the holograph moaned. “Finally.”
William Santyana returned to his cabin aboard the supercruiser Olympus, where he found his wife Pris and three-year-old daughter Lacey wearing their Pilgrim robes and seated on the sofa. Pris read to the little girl from a leather-bound edition of the book of Ivar Chu McDaniel. Santyana took one look at the book and tore it from Pris’s hands.
She made a face. “What’re you doing?”
“I don’t want you reading this to her.”
“Why not? It’s part of her heritage. She needs to learn those stories.”
“She’s only half Pilgrim. And she can grow up forgetting about that part of her. I did. It wasn’t hard.” He settled into a chair, unzipped his flight suit, then tossed the book to the floor. “We need to get off this ship.”
“That’s right. Just so you’ll stop saying that.”
“Do you realize how close we came to dying? If Taggart hadn’t changed his mind and let the ship jump, that would’ve been it.”
“I have a memory, Will.” She crossed to him, hunkered down, and rested her cheek on his shoulder. “And I know you feel trapped. But there’s nothing you can do. There’s no way we can get off this ship unless Aristee lets us go.”
“Daddy? I want you to read the book to me.”
Lacey’s brilliant eyes usually worked wonders on Santyana’s moods, but his frustration had become a more powerful and controlling force. He had more than once been short with his daughter, and swore at himself for that. “Maybe later, honey. Daddy and Mommy have to talk now.”
“But I want you to read me--”
“Go in the bedroom, Lacey. I’ll be right there,” Pris said. “We’ll play on the terminal.” She widened her eyes.
“Okay.” The little girl pushed herself off the sofa and sprinted blithely away.
“She’s doing pretty well, considering,” Pris observed. “But I am worried.”
“Word has gone out. We have to get off this ship. And I mean soon. I think I’ve recruited a few more to my side. I’ve got a person on the bridge now, an important one. And he tells me that Aristee is going to make a deal with the Kilrathi.”
Pris lifted her head and frowned. “But didn’t they try to kill us back at Aloysius?”
“Yeah, but apparently she’s going to deal with the Kilrathi emperor himself. Right now, we’re headed toward a rendezvous point in Robert’s Quadrant. If she makes a deal with the cats, we might move into Kilrathi space. We have to get off this ship before that happens. I’m working right now on getting us a troopship.” He faced her, never more grave. “This time I’m going to get you and Lacey off this ship. Or I’ll die trying.”
“Hero? Asshole? What’s the difference?”
“Come on, you can’t--”
“It’s really not that bad here. We have plenty to eat. The Sosturs treat us well. They’re even concerned about us becoming bored. Yeah, what Aristee is doing is beyond wrong, but maybe we should wait. Maybe the Confederation will end this, and we’ll be released.”
“We can’t wait for them. Besides, Aristee has Taggart working for her now. The guy’s a goddamned commodore from Intell. He can help her evade capture. But when it comes to the Kilrathi, there are no experts. Aristee’s putting trust in them, but they’ll double-cross her the same way they did at Aloysius. We have to get off this ship.”
“You go,” Pris said. “I won’t risk my baby. You go. Then come back for us.”
“I didn’t leave the first time, and I won’t leave you now. We’re all going. I’ve made the decision.”
“Oh, you’ve made a decision?”
“We can’t just wait around!” he roared, then wrenched himself from the chair. “She’s going to make a deal with the goddamned Kilrathi. You got a clue what that means? We have to get the hell off this ship. And we’re going!”
“Daddy? Why are you yelling?” Lacey ran to Santyana and gripped his leg. “Would you read me the book?”
He took a long breath and waited until the tension had eased from his throat. “I’m sorry for yelling. Go back in the bedroom. Mommy will be there in a moment.”
As Lacey scurried off once more to the bedroom, Pris looked after the child and said, “I won’t let you do this.”
“I have to go,” he mumbled, then turned and hustled toward the door.
“Think about it, Will.”
He keyed open the door and battled off the desire to face her, knowing her expression would change his mind.
Out in the corridor, the Marine guards who had once been posted at each end were gone. Most of them had evacuated back in Sol. Aristee could no longer keep close tabs on him, which made planning an escape all the more attractive. Santyana headed toward the lift, intent on scouting out a few prospects on the flight deck. The key would be in getting the ship to identify him as an authorized pilot. He wished Douglas Henrick had not escaped back at Aloysius. He could use that pilot’s computer trickery. But Henrick wasn’t the only one on board who knew how to blind an ID system.
And Santyana had already been given a name.
Amity Aristee held her breath and entered the protur’s anteroom.NEXT
Protur Carver Tsu III held the Pilgrim theocracy’s highest office, and while the Catholic religion’s pope had in recent centuries become little more than a figurehead, the protur’s authority remained well intact--even after the first Pilgrim war. While the alliance had been dismantled after the Pilgrims’ surrender, the Confederation could not tear the convictions from hearts of its enemy. Although the alliance was no more, the theocracy stood quietly in the wings, with proturs succeeding each other and tracing their roots back to Ivar Chu McDaniel’s original followers. Every system and enclave received instructions from the protur, and most Pilgrims obeyed him without question.
Aristee finally remembered to breathe and inched a little farther into the subdued light of candles resting on brass pedestals. The anteroom itself had once been her executive officer’s quarters. Bulkheads that divided room from room had been removed, and a hatch had been set into the rear to allow the protur entrance to his suite, formerly the lieutenant commander’s bunk. Between the two rooms, the protur had a respectable living space larger than any other on board. Aristee had not visited the place in nearly a week, and the changes reassured her that the protur had thus far settled in sans the customary carping of the Pilgrim elite. His multihued tapestries depicting Pilgrim settlements had finally been hung to cover the drab walls; two small veracia trees stood in their pots near the hatch, their limbs sagging under the weight of so many leaves; the hivicense had been lit and now filled the room with its sweet aroma; and the standard-issue furniture had been covered in richly detailed quilts woven by the Sosturs of Faith. While it had been impossible to move the protur’s extensive book collection from his rectory on McDaniel, Amity had created for him a modest library stocked with books donated by the crew. She had contributed her own trioak bookcase, a three-meter-wide affair that nearly reached the overhead, and she noted that many of the texts had been pulled and examined, some jutting out from the others, some pulled from the stacks and lying on their sides. She hoped the protur had found distraction in the books and had kept her many failures to the wayside of his thoughts. She reached the open hatch and decided she would rather beckon him than step boldly into the adjoining room. “Protur?”
Sostur Ezbeth Marn suddenly appeared from the gloom beyond the hatch. “Sostur Aristee. Hello.”
“I, uh, didn’t realize that...”
Ezbeth grinned as she twirled a finger through a grove of black hair that splayed in curls over her firm breasts. She stood there, completely naked, unabashed, flaunting a body that was the envy of many sosturs on board. But the concubine’s boldness and conceit only vexed Aristee, though she would never convey that feeling. The protur must have at least six concubines and was entitled to his indulgences. The Book Ivar Chu made this clear. Ezbeth had recently become the protur’s favorite, and she had been the only woman he had taken with him from McDaniel. The other five lamented and waited for his return.
Grimacing, Aristee consulted her watchphone. “I didn’t realize that the protur was busy. He did say he would give me an audience now.”
“Oh, I’m sure that’s fine.” Ezbeth drew her legs together and winced. “We’re finished. Come.” She padded back into the room, her rump impossibly firm and rekindling Aristee’s hatred.
As they walked, the gloom peeled back to expose the remarkable changes the protur had made to his bedroom, which now resembled an adytum in an ancient Pilgrim temple. Two standard bunks had been placed together and transformed into a stunningly lavish four-poster bed with a cotton canopy. Brilliant blue storicals, symbols that told the history of Ivar Chu, had been stitched into the canopy’s hem, and for a second, Aristee found herself lost in Ivar Chu’s first ecstatic vision. She was not sure where the protur had obtained the bed posts, but they, like her bookcase, were made of rare trioak and conveyed wealth, craftsmanship, and a healthy dose of ostentation.
The man himself sat up in bed, resting back on his red velvet pillow. A winter squall of white, curly hair raged across his bare and sagging breasts, then funneled down to a navel folded to a slit by his paunch. You could tell he had spent too many years in McDaniel’s merciless sun and had had too many surgeries to compensate for its wizening effects. He smiled at Aristee, reptilian skin heavily grooved, large, round eyes a fluorescent gray that had always been his most notable feature. He had often been accused of fanning a peculiar and dangerous fire in those eyes, and while Aristee had heretofore dismissed that superstition, the protur’s recent requests seemed, in a word, incendiary.
“My dear, dear Sostur Amity. Come here into the better light,” the protur said, adopting a regal if not sincere tone. He leaned forward, and long hair parted perfectly in the middle draped like glimmering ribbons of durasteel over his shoulders. “Oh, yes, you’re a sight. A sight, indeed.” He palmed sweat from his forehead, and only now did Aristee catch of whiff of his recent activities.
Repressing the urge to gag, she said, “Protur, thank you for seeing me.”
He extended his hand, which she took and kissed.
“You’ve come again for advice, dear Amity.”
She took a step, careful to always face him. “I’ve contacted the Kilrathi emperor as you asked, and we’re en route to meet with him. But you still haven’t told me how we can succeed through alliance with them. Bill Wilson did as you asked. And forgive me, protur, but he died.”
After sliding himself to the edge of the bed, the protur bowed his head in deference to Wilson. “He gave his life for us, as he was meant to do. He succeeded.”
“I don’t see how.”
“You succeeded back at Sol.”
“I failed to destroy Earth. I lost many of my crew. And now we’re hobbling around in a damaged ship. I must be blind.”
“You’re not blind, dear Amity. You just haven’t seen the distance. But you will. You saw very clearly on the day we killed my predecessor. You saw that you needed the protur’s blessing, and you saw how to get it. Now look beyond Sol, beyond the loss of your crew and your damaged ship. All of that you’ve done has inspired the Confederation.”
“I killed millions on Mylon Three to make a statement. Oh, that inspired them, all right. They’ve set up no-fly zones and have denied our people supplies. They’ve killed many in accidents and continue to rape and abuse us.”
“And the more they kill, the better.”
Aristee stiffened in shock. “Protur...”
“Both you and Brotur Wilson wanted to make a rallying cry to our people.”
“And we both failed.”
“No, you’ve both already made that cry, a cry much louder than you could possibly know.”
“But our people can’t rebel if they’re imprisoned and dying. And how can more deaths be better?”
He stood and, like Ezbeth, took no shame in his nudity. He leaned toward her. “Seeds of truth are planted, watered, nurtured. We often never know what they’ll yield. And sometimes, like the seedlings of the veracia tree, they take many years to grow. It is a matter of patience.”
More enigmatic metaphors instead of straightforward answers. And why? Because the protur delighted in knowing what others did not.
Dealing with him was also a matter of patience.
“So, we should bargain with the Kilrathi?” Aristee asked.
His lips hinted at a smile. “I think you’ll be surprised at how agreeable they can be.”