Commodore Richard Bellegarde had been craving a drink all morning, and he had something much stronger than orange juice or coffee in mind. He had been lounging in his quarters, watching previously recorded holos of the Terran News Channel and growing more incensed by the minute. The media had turned the Pilgrim crisis into a black comedy replete with fancy logos, computer animations, interviews with experts, and graphic images of the dead and dying. Bellegarde had little trouble believing that what he viewed was reality, but he knew that to the average Confederation citizen, it was all quite surreal and created by news moguls to earn greater ratings. Foreboding music would fade in, the title PILGRIM CRISIS--DAY: 70 would flash, and smartly attired anchors would speak with phony concern about the latest tragedies. Bellegarde rose and was about to switch off the circus when an alert from the local Confed News hub cut into the channel:
“We interrupt this recorded broadcast to bring you a special report from CNH, Vega and Sol sectors.” The news hub emblem faded into the grim countenance of a young captain in dress blues. “This just confirmed from CNNH Sol sector: Three days ago CST, Pilgrim saboteurs gained access into the Hall of the Great Assembly, where they detonated a CF-three-two-seven-A explosive device, killing two hundred and twenty-nine senators, including the Assembly Master himself, Pequin Gydideron, and three representatives from the Pilgrim enclave Triune. The facility has been declared a disaster area by President Vasura, and as per the constitution, Vice-president Harold Rodham will assume the duties of Assembly Master until a new master is elected. Rodham has called for an emergency meeting of the surviving senators. Not since the first Pilgrim War have so many of our leaders been killed in one event.” President Vasura appeared in the holograph, standing behind a podium before throngs of reporters. “The Confederation we will mete out punishment to those behind this act of cowardice. The saboteurs themselves were merely instruments and gave their lives for their cause. Believe me when I say that those who sent them will make the same sacrifice.”
With the public outraged, Bellegarde expected that the surviving senators and interim senators would whole-heartedly support the destroying of all Pilgrim systems and enclaves by one-five-eight. Anything to make their constituents happy.
The hatch bell chimed. “Richard?”
Admiral Tolwyn hastened past the hatch, glimpsed the holograph glowing behind Bellegarde, then nodded. “Just caught a bit of that myself. There’s absolutely no way that Pilgrim saboteurs could have gained entrance into the great hall without having help from inside.”
“Meaning no disrespect, sir, but I think that’s a given.”
“Yes, but who gave them that help--and why?”
Bellegarde shrugged, then a wry smile tightened his lips. “Since we’ll now get support to destroy the systems and enclaves, you and I would have reason to help those terrorists.”
“Exactly. This could be an attempt to frame us or some of the surviving senators who happened to be out on the day the bomb exploded. Or maybe some of those senators are responsible. They endorsed our policy but couldn’t get support from the others. Perhaps the saboteurs weren’t even Pilgrims.”
“The media’s saying they are. What leaked?”
“Space Marshal Gregarov just told me that the terrorists made several vidcalls within sixty seconds of the explosion. They identified themselves as Pilgrims. Someone in the assembly master’s office leaked the recordings.”
“That still proves nothing.”
“You’re right. But they claimed the explosion in the name of Pilgrims. And that’s all the public needs to hear.”
“You said someone might be framing us. Who? The space marshal?”
“I threatened to go before the senate and expose her. Maybe this is her retaliation.”
“But she doesn’t want those systems and enclaves destroyed. Why would she come up with a plan that would ensure that?”
“I’m not sure that she cares anymore about saving those systems. And if she’s responsible, she wasn’t targeting the senators. President Vasura was scheduled to address the assembly during that time, but she broke the appointment that morning because her daughter was ill.”
“You’re telling me that Gregarov wants the president dead?” Bellegarde lifted his palms and stepped back. “Sir, I request an immediate transfer. This is way out of my league.”
“Remember that hunch I told you about it? I don’t have hard evidence yet, but I think that Gregarov and the president conspired to allow Aristee’s people to build the hopper drive. I believe that the president covered her tracks and now wants Gregarov to take the fall. And maybe this bombing was Gregarov’s way to get rid of the president and us.”
“If you’re right, then I bet Gregarov has had help forging communiqués and coming up with even more creative and complex ways to implicate us.”
“I’ll send off a comm drone to my friends at Intell within the hour,” Tolwyn said, suddenly distracted as he worked through the problem. “And I’ll speak with the president myself.”
“Sir, we’re too far out. The communications delay--”
“I know, Richard. I’ll be leaving for Earth now.”
“Gregarov won’t let you go.”
“Which is why we’re not telling her until I’m gone.”
“She’ll report you AWOL.”
Tolwyn beamed. “Of course.”
“So you’re leaving me to tame the lioness?”
The admiral steered himself toward the hatch. “You’ll be fine, Richard. You’ll piss her off so much that she’ll do something rash--and that’s just what I’m counting on.”
“Then I guess you can count on us both. And something else before you go. We heard back from Winnagard and Gerald. Lieutenant Blair has failed to locate the Horatio Marx. Gregarov sent the Bristol Mary and Zhou Chen to Sirius. Should I order the Tiger Claw back to Netheranya?”
“Do that. But I doubt Gregarov’s Pilgrims will find anything if Mr. Blair did not. God help us if the cats have a new weapon.”
“And speaking of the Kilrathi, report just in this morning. Fleet reconnaissance picked up the emperor’s battle group along the Kilrathi border of Robert’s Quadrant. Projections put it en route to Kilrah. Six days ago ConComs from Naval Station Thor detected a massive disturbance several million kilometers behind it. They’ve sent a pair of destroyers to investigate, but the ships won’t arrive until one-five-six.”
“Very well. Keep me updated.”
“Aye, sir. And sir? Good luck.”
“More like good hunting. Take care of yourself, Richard.”
Tolwyn had barely left the room when Comm Officer Wilks’s voice sounded through the intercom. “Sir? The XO wants you on the bridge. A Marine Corps troopship just broke through our no-fly zone and landed on McDaniel.”
“It did what?”
“It got through our zone, sir. Dunno how. You’d better get up here.”
Bellegarde swore under his breath. “On my way.”
For the past several weeks, thousand of fires had raged out of control on McDaniel’s World, particularly in the capital city of Ivar. The sky, once a perfect, Earth-like azure, had become the dusty brown ceiling of a cave that slowly descended upon the citizenry.NEXT
As Karista, Dennet, and Fey picked their way up a deserted avenue that led straight toward the protur’s temple and adjoining rectory, Marine Corps rifle fire echoed in the distance. The trio kept to the shaded walls of the many shops that aligned both sides of the street and carefully planned each break across intersections.
After landing, they had brought the children directly to the Sosturs of Nurture, who operated a small school located on the city limits. Karista had attended the school herself and knew every one of the fourteen sosturs who had lived and worked there for the past quarter century. The sosturs had welcomed the youthful refugees with open arms, and with that done, she, Dennet, and Fey had begun their trek toward the protur’s rectory, where five of the protur’s concubines still resided. Aristee felt compelled to speak with them, though she could not explain the feeling to Dennet and Fey. They came along, nonetheless, and Karista knew why.
“We leave one prison for another,” Dennet remarked as he espied the pair of Marines posted at the black stone and durasteel gate of the protur’s grounds. “It’s not that they won’t let people into the temple, although that’s true; it’s more that they won’t let anyone out.”
“I understand these bastards occupy all of our systems and enclaves,” Fey said. “So every Pilgrim home’s a prison. Want to hear something funny? One of the sosturs told me that the Marines blame us for what happened to the city. They say we shouldn’t have protested their occupation. I’d like to step on a Marine’s neck and see if he protests my occupation of his neck. No difference.”
“You’re much too lithe for such an act,” said Dennet with a frown. “He’d flick you away like a bug.”
Fey grabbed Dennet’s thumb and twisted it back until he moaned. “Why don’t you lie down, and we’ll test your theory.”
With the street ahead clear of pedestrians and Marines trundling along in their APCs, Karista bolted ahead of the others and ran headlong at the temple guards. With helmets off and wearing only partial body armor, the Marines snapped back, dropped to their knees, then raised their rifles. One fell to the right, the other to the left as Karista taped into the well of her extrakinetic senses. She reached the gate, and, panting, keyed the intercom as Dennet and Fey made an absurd attempt to cross the street without being noticed. Dennet hunched over, and Fey did likewise, prowling in his scarecrow’s shadow.
Karista faced the screen, where Sostur Elya’s surprised expression turned the flawless curves of her young face into a bundle of circles lit by pale blue eyes. “Hello, Sostur Elya.”
“Karista? What happened to the guards? And I thought you went off with Sostur Aristee and the protur?”
“I did,” Karista answered impatiently. “Let us in. Please. I’ll tell you everything.”
“Come to the library.”
The intercom beeped, and the gate lumbered aside.
They advanced up a cobblestone path overhung on both sides by ancient gazia trees whose knotty limbs mingled to form a dense, blue-green canopy. The path ended at the temple’s foot, and Karista would never grow tired of marveling over the structure--a trioak masterpiece of spires and parapets whose architects had been heavily influenced by the designs of Terran medieval castles and cathedrals. A wooden and bejeweled portcullis creaked upward to permit them entrance into the temple’s bailey, an open courtyard that rolled back some five hundred meters to the far wall. Once inside the bailey’s confines, the ornate grating lowered behind them, and Karista led Dennet and Fey across the yard toward the rectory’s main door. Like the rest of the temple, the door had been crafted of trioak and bore a carving of Ivar Chu McDaniel’s journey to the Sirius system. A lone sloship hung in relief near the door’s ancient brass handle, and far above it, a massive star radiated and half-eclipsed a much smaller star shyly glimpsing the Pilgrim travelers.
“Have you ever been here,” Karista asked them.
Fey shook her head.
“Thank Ivar I haven’t,” Dennet said, pouting at the door. “Ostentation run amuck. And the doorway is, of course, too short. We Caravans keep our architecture simple and functional. Nothing should stand between the elect and the continuum.”
Karista gave Dennet a dismissive nod, then ventured inside the rectory. They stepped tentatively down a series of narrow, candlelit corridors until they reached the protur’s oval-shaped library, where Carver Tsu the Second had always been fond of receiving his guests. His sudden death after Amity Aristee’s arrival continued to gnaw at Karista. She didn’t want to believe that Aristee had somehow murdered Carver Tsu the Second, but the timing seemed much more than coincidental, as did the fact that Carver Tsu the Third embraced Aristee’s rebellion. Whether Carver Tsu the Second would have done the same, Karista did not know, for politics had been a subject they had rarely discussed. They had spoken mainly of dance, of music, and of art. She could still hear the warm tones of his voice echoing up to the library’s domed ceiling.
Sostur Elya glided soundlessly into the room, wearing the black, unadorned robe of mourning, the hood pulled over her head. Sosturs Giya, Torya, Ploya, and Sheya trailed closely, they, too, dressed in the simple yet stunning black, heads obscured behind cowls. The concubines were no older than Karista, yet their once beautiful faces had become drawn and sallow. Without a word, they fanned out and took seats in chairs or on the well-padded sofa, the imported leather worn down on the right side by the protur himself.
Elya, the tallest and most outspoken of the concubines, lowered her hood to reveal the stubble of newly growing hair. Karista closed her eyes and bowed, for Elya had shaven her head and had buried her dark locks with the protur, as had the others. No one could look upon a concubine’s shaven head without bowing first. Karista’s bow meant that she acknowledged and even shared in Elya’s pain. Tradition aside, Karista truly felt that pain since Elya was an extrakinetic like herself. For a few seconds, their scripts touched, and Karista saw the horror of the day that Elya had found the protur’s body. She pulled from Elya’s script with a shudder--but not before sensing that Elya, too, had been having the visions of blue.
“She killed him, you know,” Elya said abruptly. “Aristee killed our protur--with Carver Tsu the Third’s help. I found the protur’s script. And he couldn’t hide the truth.”
Karista exchanged a grave look with Dennet and Fey. “I wish there was something we could do.”
“Maybe there is. You’ve had the visions. And your script tells me that they’ve brought you here. You’re trying to find out what they are. I’ve been doing the same. Come with me.”
Elya led them out of the library and down several more corridors. She apologized for the poor lighting but explained that Confederation Marines had turned off the power a few hours after martial law had been declared. Only the security remained operational on battery backup.
They reached a door, and behind it lay a staircase that wound its way down into the murk. Elya wielded a boxy portable light, while Dennet found a smaller one from a rack mounted just inside the stairwell. The stone felt slippery under Karista’s sandals, and she braced herself on the wall, mindful of each step. Dennet and Fey mumbled their complaints, and Fey broke into several fits of sneezing before they finally reached the bottom. Elya’s light revealed a trioak archway as well-crafted as the rectory door. Literally hundreds of hand-shaped leaves had been carved into the arch, and it welcomed them into a maze of tunnels that appeared very much like the hollowed out limbs supporting those leaves. Beyond lay the sacred catacombs.
“I’d like to see the protur,” Karista said.
“You will,” Elya answered with a nod. “But after.”
Gifts had been piled along the tunnel walls, thousands upon thousands of gifts including pieces of art, sculpture, clothing, and jewelry, as well as any other inanimate object that Pilgrims had deemed worthy of offering up to their deceased leader. Within hours after the announcement, the gifts had begun pouring in, and when Karista had brought her own dancing shoes to bury with the man, she had been directed to the bailey, where the piles had stood taller than her.
“Here,” Elya said, coming upon a metallic frame two meters square. The frame stood upright and leaned against the stone wall. A small panel in the frame’s right corner flashed after Elya touched it.
“Laid our heads upon guillotines more than once. And each time we escaped before the fatal blades fell. But for what? To look at holoart,” Dennet said with a grimace.
“Shut up,” Fey commanded, elbowing past him. “And you?” she called to Elya. “You show us what the hell that is.”
The concubine snickered, then touched a second button. A black, undulating cloud grew swiftly in the frame’s center and reached out with a dozen swollen appendages to spread across the frame. The thing grew darker, deeper, and specks of light burned through to unveil a brilliant field of stars. Suddenly, a tremendous sloship streaked out of the void and came head on, its hull awash in the powerful light of a nearby yet unseen sun.
“Watch now,” Elya instructed, then turned and took Karista’s hand.
An amorphous blue something swept over the sloship, and while it seemed somewhat different than the blue of Karista’s visions, she sensed that it was the same. And with the abruptness of one of Ivar City’s summer spates, the blue shied away into the night, carrying off the sloship.
Elya squeezed Karista’s hand, then said, “Something drove me down here to find this. That same force that drove you here. Thousands of people gave us gifts when the protur died. I didn’t know who gave us this until just a few days ago, when I read the note attached. The woman’s name is Sostur Inanna Pandathy. One of her descendants made this. He claims to have been with Ivar Chu in Sirius. He says he was an eyewitness who flew alone in a scout ship. But his voice was stifled by the Alliance elders because they couldn’t explain why he hadn’t been carried to the higher plain. Some said he was just mad.”
“Have you spoken to this sostur?”
“Not with the power down, but I’ve wandered her script. She’s old and frail, and I didn’t want to invade her privacy for more than a few seconds. But I think she knows something. And I can’t tell you how much I’ve wanted to leave and go to her. But it’s just too dangerous with the Marines everywhere. They’re arresting people for the most trivial reasons.”
“You’re an extrakinetic like me. Why haven’t you--”
“I can only bring down so many.” She stared past Fey and Dennet to the other concubines. “And they need me. Especially now. But from here, I can help you get to Pandathy’s.”
“Where does she live?”
Elya’s expression darkened. “In Ardenta.”
“That’s nearly five kilometers west,” Dennet said with a severe frown. “Would it not be quicker to shoot ourselves?”
“No one asked you to come along,” Karista snapped. “If you’re here because you think you owe me, you don’t.”
“This is where we pretend to leave, then the guilt gets the best of us and we come back later on to save Karista when all seems lost,” Fey told Dennet. “So would it not be quicker if we just shut our damned mouths and stuck with her?”
Dennet released an exaggerated sigh. “I suppose.”
Karista held still a moment more as her anger slowly evaporated. Then she eyed Elya, never more sober. “Take me to see the protur.”
“This way,” the concubine said, tipping her head toward a tunnel on the right. “You’ve no idea how much we miss him.”