Paladin watched with swelling resignation as ragged hordes of fighters from the Kilrathi superdreadnought broke through the clouds of antistarcraft fire thrown up by the Olympus’s big guns. The fighters dove menacingly to strafe the now unshielded hull. Impacts from lasers and missile fire beat an unceasing and chaotic rhythm that crescendoed as they neared the bridge. Though most of Aristee’s command staff had been recruited from seasoned Confederation personnel, Paladin assumed that none of them had served aboard a ship so close to defeat.
“Maneuvering thrusters offline,” the XO reported. “Propulsion will not answer to calls.”
“James? What’s our status?”
Amity Aristee strode across the bridge, gaping at the Kilrathi onslaught. The emperor, his guards, and the protur, trailed behind her in an improbable parade.
“Get them off the bridge,” Paladin said from his position at the port observation station.
“The emperor claims he had nothing to do with this. The cat commanding that superdreadnought, Admiral Vukar nar Caxki, is acting independently. He was charged with finding this ship and bringing it back. He’s been missing for a while now. Guess he finally caught up with us.”
“That’s correct,” the emperor said through a growl that made the translator buzz. “Let me speak to Vukar.” He cocked his seed-like head in search of the comm station.
“Over here,” Aristee said, waving him toward her command chair. She keyed in the appropriate command, and a miniature camera mounted on the overhead swiveled to find the emperor. Aristee hailed the superdreadnought herself, and Admiral Vukar finally appeared, all hulking shoulders, wizened face, and dull, yellow eyes. He uttered but three words: “Surrender. Or die.”
“Vukar, break off your attack,” the emperor commanded.
Aristee noticed a definite reaction in the admiral’s face--not a look of shock but more a curious gaze that deepened into puzzlement. “My Emperor, I know why you are there.”
“Yes, I’m completing the task you failed. Together with the Pilgrims we will put an end to Confederation expansion and unite our clans under one house.”
“No. If you wish to live, then our people will be united under two houses: the Kiranka and the Caxki. We will return to Kilrah with this ship, and you will proclaim that every warrior in my charge is a hero. There will be two ruling clans. Together we will bring the others into our fold. This is Sivar’s will.”
The emperor snarled and broke into an untranslatable rant that drew hoots and howls from his royal guards.
“The ship is damaged,” Vukar continued. “Even with Pilgrims trying to kill us with their minds, we still have enough warriors to destroy it. You cannot jump. You have no propulsion.”
“I agree to your terms,” the emperor said. “Break off your attack and prepare to tow us to the jump point. There, we will initiate a moored jump.”
Paladin smiled to himself. The cats had become famous for docking with stranded vessels and adjusting their jump engines so that they could jump both ships out of a sector. While Confederation engineers continued to conduct experiments in two-ship jumps, they had been unable to get the jump drives to exceed structural and gravitic limitations. Paladin wished he could allow the cats to make that two-ship jump so he could examine how they programmed the jump drive to compensate.
But his nod to Brotur Vyson engaged a clock that could not be changed by any conventional being, a clock that now ticked down to doomsday. The computer’s obligatory self-destruct warning boomed over the intercom, and Paladin took great pleasure in seeing Aristee and the protur stare slack-jawed at the diagnostic panel on her command chair.
In fact, Paladin had never felt more sure of himself. He had finally come full circle and had realized that despite his heritage, he had the power to choose his own destiny. He believed in what the Confederation was doing, what it had done, and what it would do. He believed that he could respect his heritage and remain loyal to the institution that had taught him the tenets of an honest and decent life. He didn’t love Aristee any less. And he didn’t love the Confederation more. He simply knew that if the Kilrathi gained control of the Olympus, billions would die in the name of conquest. While he knew that stopping them was more important than trying to save one woman whom he loved, he couldn’t help but want it both ways.
And that, of course, was asking too much.
“You,” Aristee began, a heartbeat away from throttling him. “But you couldn’t have done this. You’re locked out. Only me and the XO--”
Brotur Vyson shifted away, his head lowered.
Vyson closed his eyes and held his ground. “Ma’am. The system is locked down. None of us can stop it now. This ship will explode.”
It took Aristee all of three seconds to round her command chair and seize Vyson by his collar. “You’d better have a reason.”
“We can’t let them have the hopper drive.”
“Have you forgotten who you are?”
“No, ma’am. That’s why I’ve done this. We can’t trust them. I did this for my family. I’m sorry.”
With a snort, Aristee released him, then regarded Paladin. “You couldn’t get to me, so you worked on my XO. That’s so obvious, James. I should have seen it coming. Now, I hope you’ve planned our escape.”
He drew in a long breath and eyed her with resolve. “No, I haven’t.”
Sostur Karista Mullens had argued with Brotur Dennet and Sostur Fey that they could not leave Albor Tholus University without getting food to the remaining ten thousand incarcerated Pilgrims. Dennet and Fey had insisted that they could never pull off such a stunt and that they should jam as many as they could aboard a troopship and leave. But the lanky giant of a man and the tiny stick figure of a woman had forgotten that Karista could use her extrakinetic senses to subtly suggest to the colonel in charge of the Marine detachment on Mars that if he did not bring in more food, there would be an uprising that would ruin his flawless service record as well as his day. She had, in effect, made him paranoid. Very paranoid. And it had taken him nearly a week’s worth of communiqués to procure enough foodstuffs to feed ten thousand. The food had come directly from the Confederation Navy--the entity who should have been feeding the Pilgrims in the first place. The Navy had relied upon supplies donated by the university, and Karista speculated that there were those among the joint chiefs who would rather see the Pilgrims on Mars starve than pay to feed them.
Now, with the transports on their way, Karista finished packing her duffel and felt a tad more comfortable leaving, though she vowed to return for these poor souls.
Dennet burst into the room, panting, his face slick with sweat. “I tell you, Kari, it’s a decision no one should make. Be glad you weren’t there to see them cry. They have chosen seventeen little ones to join us. They’re lined up in Fey’s dorm, looking for all the world like they’re heading off to school.” He took her hand in his own. “The burden falls on you, sostur.”
Karista nodded, pulled away, then clipped her duffel closed and threw the bag over her shoulder. She dug her toes a little deeper into her sandals, making sure they were tight enough for running, then held up an index finger. “I want to tell someone we’re leaving. Just a moment.”
She reached out across the light years to Netheryana, to the Tiger Claw, to Lieutenant Christopher Blair’s script.
And found only dull impressions, distant feelings of anguish, of reverberating pain, and images like reflections on water at dusk. She saw masked figures kicking, one swinging an object.
Christopher, where are you?
His reply sounded garbled and distant.
Suddenly, she stared at Dennet, his face a bony landscape of concern.
“You stopped breathing,” he said. “What’s wrong?”
She struggled for breath. “I don’t know.”
“You’ve glimpsed something, Kari. Do share.”
“Not this time, Dennet.”
They caught the lift down to the main level, then stole their way along the hall, bound for the main entrance. Word had traveled quickly through the confined masses, and Karista noticed how more than one dorm room door creaked open to partially reveal residents eyeing their escape. Yes, her people knew she was leaving, and she felt proud that they had not rioted or turned her departure into a great debate. Sure, many had expressed their anger over not being able to leave, but she had assured them that food was on its way. Some of the loudest dissenters had been quickly quelled by reminders from Dennet that Karista could kill any one of them with a single thought. She hated the threats, but they did preserve order.NEXT
Once they reached a corner that looked out on the dormitory’s main airlock, Karista stepped outside of herself and got to work on the three guards posted there. From the Marines’ point of view, a ghost came, seized their weapons, then slithered into their heads. They felt the pins and needles of blood loss forging a path up their spines, then a plate of darkness smashed over them. In point of fact, Karista had cut off the blood supply to their brains long enough for them to lose consciousness. She and Dennet stripped two out of their pressure suits and helmets, then fumbled with zippers and buckles as they put them on. She felt somewhat ridiculous in the big armor and disappointed in the tired idea of wearing the enemy’s clothes to travel unnoticed, but she surrendered to the necessary evil.
Dennet chinned on the comm channel. “Crimson is not your color.”
“At least mine fits,” she said, observing how his suit was pulled taut to accommodate the altitude of his shoulders.
They double-checked each other, ran six-second diagnostics, then ventured into the airlock. She waited impatiently as atmospheres slowly mixed. The outside hatch finally gave way, and they stepped into the ocher-edged shadows of twilight.
Once more, Karista left her corporeal form and took down each of the guards assigned to the courtyard--including the one she had thought would give her the most trouble. Her pulse increased under the strain, and she realized she would have to pace herself and select targets more carefully. If she expended too much energy too quickly, she would be too weak to get them past air and space defenses.
The shuttle pads lay about fifty meters north of the dormitory complex, and she and Dennet left behind the tall buildings of her dormitory district. They jogged into the swirling dust that all but swallowed a tortuous asphalt road leading down a ridge. Now and then she caught a glimpse of the dozens of pads below, positioned in a square acre plowed flat and girdled by rolling hills. Navigation lights mounted to the pads flashed in concentric circles, and Marines in a small, two-seater hopabout, which resembled a flying motorcycle with side car, rose off one of the pads in a vertical takeoff, then jetted forward to fly a security patrol. The university’s small flight tower stood on the south side of the valley like a sandblasted pyramid twinkling against the rugged horizon. A three meter tall force fence marked the field’s perimeter, its beams filled with in inexhaustible supply of shimmering dust motes. Standard guardhouses had been positioned on the east and west sides. Karista and Dennet headed for the nearest house. Just two pads away from that check-in stood the ominous triangular fuselage of a Marine Corps troopship, its hull seeming to rail against the dust.
“It’s been too quiet,” Dennet said gravely. “There’s always a calm before and after the storm.”
“About the time we reach the guardhouse, a dozen or so Marines will come down that hill, and the hopabouts will be just behind them,” Karista predicted.
But strangely enough, it remained quiet for the rest of their trek downward, and Karista finally gave up looking over her shoulder.
Two Marines approached them as they neared the guardhouse. One asked for orders and ID, while the other dropped to his knees, then onto his stomach. By the time the first realized what was happening, he was already falling to the road. The Marine inside the house leaned back in his chair and went to sleep.
Karista felt lightheaded, put her foot down, and the ground seemed to vanish for a second before coming up to smack her in the faceplate. Just as quickly, Dennet hauled her up. With her breath coming in gasps, Karista strained to keep up with Dennet as they crossed the first pad and reached the troopship.
“Now the truth be told,” Dennet said, tapping in an access code on the ship’s hatch panel. The colonel had “volunteered” the code as well as several others that would gain them access to the ship’s flight controls.
The hatch pressed inward, then slid away. They stepped up a half meter into the troopship’s airlock. While Dennet sealed the hatch behind them, Karista fell back onto the bulkhead and closed her eyes. She swallowed several times and reached into herself to find that calm place of which protur Carver Tsu the Second had so often spoke. She thought of her childhood on McDaniel, of her father’s warm embrace, of her mother’s smile, of the day she had been chosen to be a dancer in the protur’s private troupe. Rays of sunlight fueled by her parents’ and the protur’s love embraced her, kept her warm and safe, and whispered that she had the power to do anything.
“Kari. Please.” Dennet shook her back to the moment, then guided her past the inner hatch and into troopship’s hold.
They removed their helmets and hurried up a narrow aisle to arrive in the cockpit. Dennet dropped into the pilot’s chair as Karista found the co-pilot’s seat and reminded herself of the weapons procedures she had studied for the past few days. Dennet exhaled with glee as the computer accepted his code. Thrusters bellowed into their warm-up sequence.
“Shields powering up,” he reported, sounding more like a military pilot than a fundamentalist Pilgrim. “And dear Kari, remember those Marines and hopabouts you said would come thundering down the hill?”
Karista brought up an external camera view on her monitor. A bullet-shaped Armored Personnel Carrier did most of the thundering as it rolled on tracks down the winding road. The barrel of the APC’s hood-mounted neutron cannon swung toward them, and Karista saw the Marine behind the gunner’s dome as he unleashed his first salvo. The troopship’s portside shield thrummed loudly as it absorbed the impacts and deflected rounds.
Through Karista could reach out and stop the APC’s driver, she had to conserve energy. Instead, she dialed up one of troopship’s rotary barrel neutron guns and targeted the APC. She barely felt the vibration as the gun spewed out a steady bead of glowing projectiles. Then her head jerked back as Dennet slammed the thruster levers forward. The troopship’s landing skids scraped along the pad for a moment before he gained altitude and folded them in.
Still under the APC’s fire, Dennet managed to double back in a high G turn for the dormitory complex, now just a collection of columns in silhouette, barely visible through the dust and darkness.
The radar scope chirped a warning, and the screen beside it identified an oncoming ship as a Marine hopabout. Karista grabbed the co-pilot’s control yoke, thumbed off the secondary weapons safety, then launched a heat-seeker. The rocket’s fiery light vanished into the night, then a flaming bud dotted the sky off the starboard bow.
“All right, then. One down. And only Ivar knows how many to go,” Dennet said.
“I just killed two people.”
She shook her head. Most of her life she had been surrounded by Pilgrims. The brief time she had spent with Christopher Blair had allowed her to see past the prejudice so deeply rooted in her people. He represented a link between cultures, and she so desperately wanted to speak with him again.
“Let’s see if Fey’s on the channel,” Dennet said, sliding on a headset. “Sostur Fey, you miserable woman. Are you there? The bell has rung.”
“Shut up, asshole, and get here,” Fey snapped. “You got any idea what it’s like to entertain seventeen children?”
“Just give me a moment, my dear,” Dennet said calmly. “And why not tell them the story of the two wise Caravans who turned dust to water.”
“I see your long neck,” Fey said in a dark sing-song. “And I’m digging my nails into it right--”
“She sounds well,” Dennet observed, smiling and switching off the channel.
Still drawing fire from the APC, they swept down toward the four apartment buildings in Karista’s district, then banked to port, coming around the high-rises to the northeast structure. Dennet brought the troopship into a parking hover outside Fey’s dorm even as he extended the ship’s umbilical. The tube met the apartment’s eroded wall, and lasers cut easily through stone and durasteel. Karista unbuckled her harness, then shifted to the hold to help the children inside.
“Of course, they wouldn’t forget a sendoff,” Dennet cried as rifle fire from the ground chewed into the belly shields.
As she waited for the children to begin stepping into the umbilical, Karista reached out with her Pilgrim senses to note that a dozen Marines had, indeed, gathered below to fire up at them. The group grew steadily as pairs all over the district left their posts and hustled around the building, their weapons already blazing.
The APC had turned around and now rumbled up the ridge. ETA: about a minute.
Four more hopabouts screamed in from the west perimeter, and their pilots would begin firing in just a few seconds. If they struck the unshielded umbilical, the children inside would die immediately, and those in Fey’s dorm would be sucked through the breeches, into a choking wind of carbon dioxide.
It only took a millisecond for Karista to find the first pilot’s body and squeeze the arteries that carried blood to his brain. The hopabout plummeted. She found the second pilot, the third, and felt herself shrink to the deck as she hung on to the fourth’s body and stopped his blood flow. Through a wave of dizziness, she watched as the first group of three children, two boys of about six and a girl of about four, walked tentatively through the umbilical and hopped onto the deck. More came behind them, and at the umbilical’s end stood Fey, still inside her dorm. She lifted a blond boy up to the tube’s rubberized floor.
“Fifty seconds on the belly shield before recharge,” Dennet called back. “So, as Fey would so warmly put it, move your asses!”
Groaning, Karista pulled herself up and ordered children into the jump seats along the hull. She strapped in a little girl, then moved on to the first two boys she had spotted. The task so consumed her that she barely heard Fey’s report that all of the children were on board.
Despite a half dozen kids still not buckled down, Dennet opted to seal off the umbilical and break the link since the APC’s incoming neutron rounds began striking direct hits. Leaving Fey to finish buckling in their passengers, Karista dragged herself to the cockpit.
“Oh my,” Dennet said, glancing at her. “You can barely stand let alone knock out thirteen radar and defense system officers.”
“So I’ll sit and do it.”
The colonel had supplied them with enough information regarding planetary defenses so that Karista knew exactly which people needed to “be sleeping on the job” when they escaped. Early Warning and Control Officers, Polar Defense System Specialists, and a sundry of other specialists all needed to ignore their squawking instruments so that the troopship could break atmosphere, clear the planet’s gravitic distortion, and jump.
Everything depended upon Karista and her extrakinetic senses. She shivered as she acknowledged the full weight of her burden.
Dennet climbed at a seventy-five degree angle through a veil of dust that soon thinned to reveal the stars. As the acceleration dampeners engaged, Karista leaned back, shut her eyes, and thought only of her task.
One by one, officers stationed all over Mars and aboard orbiting stations slumped at their controls. Karista reserved nothing this time. She welcomed the drain and the enfolding night of unconsciousness as the thirteenth and final officer in their way set down his coffee mug and succumbed to an unseen and unstoppable will.