SOL SECTOR, VEARRIER QUADRANT
PLANET PROMISE, SERAPH SYSTEM
1830 HOURS LOCAL TIME
Lured by the sweet scent of favaya root carried on the evening's cool breeze, Joa Autumnsoul pried himself out his recliner and switched off the holoplayer. Nothing but bad news on the channel anyway. The Confederation blockade of all Pilgrim systems and enclaves remained in place, and at any moment the world as Joa knew it could blister away under great folds of fire and smoke. One rogue Pilgrim and her ship of followers had stirred up enough trouble to warrant the blockade, and in order to call her bluff, a Confederation admiral had threatened genocide.
Since then, most Pilgrims like Joa prepared through meditation for gomuth--death by murder. As his neighbors had so readily reminded him, Joa had led a worthy life and had kept true to his Pilgrim heritage for all of his eighty-seven years; he should resign to the inevitable and be thankful that he had had a good run. He should prepare for gomuth.
But Joa would resign to nothing and thank no one. He would shake a bony fist at the heavens as the planetary torpedoes fell.
Gathering his breath and shivering away the thought, Joa shuffled out of the den and onto the back porch of his durasteel hovel, one of thousands of glorified sheds doled out regularly by the local council to those unable to afford their own housing.
"Done watching the news, Grandfrotur?"
Joa gazed painfully at the boy whose contralto voice had broken the still night. The boy sat cross-legged on the porch's warped planks and chewed on a long stick of favaya. The second sun's dying light barely illumined the boy's face, though his ko'a'ka robe phosphoresced, edging him in silver. He's only ten years old, Joa thought. Haven't those Confederation bastards considered the children? He forced a smile. "Yes, Ravi, I've finished. I'll tell you that story now."
Ravi sprang to his feet with an ease that Joa envied. The boy shifted to the edge of the porch, where Joa joined him. They sat, their feet dangling over the matted, black canvas of soso grass that reached out toward the tan lines of the garden and the silhouettes of neighboring hovels. Rooftops reared up in sharp angles against a thin rind of sun.
On each Broturday, when Ravi had no school and could visit until Proturday, Joa and his grandsontur would come together. And always, in the evenings, under the watchful tarpaulin of stars, Joa would tell the boy stories of his youth, stories of travel aboard great sloships, and stories of the great anguish of war.
Reacting to the gloom of recent events, Joa decided to tell Ravi an uplifting story, a story he needed to hear as much as the boy. He scratched his bald, freckled pate and took in a deep breath. "The year was twenty-three eleven. That's over three hundred years ago. It was the time of Final Exodus. Our frotur, Ivar Chu McDaniel, gathered twelve hundred aboard an enormous sloship called the Exodia and led them on a journey to find the truth within themselves..."
Ivar Chu McDaniel stared for a long moment at the Hopper Drive's display, then rested a hand on Sostur Robinanne's shoulder as she brought up the status report of the drive's secondary containment field. "My two favorite words in the language: systems nominal," she said, then grinned back at him.
McDaniel could barely remain in his skin as he returned her smile, then drifted away, back toward command and control's forward viewport. In just a few moments, thirty-two days of interstellar travel and years of devotion to ecstatic visions that had guided him to publish his words and had drawn others to his insights would reach a pinnacle. He and his broturs and sosturs would make the final hop to the Sirius system, where, according to the echoes and whispers of his dreams, Pilgrims would attain spiritual and genetic perfection. They would complete their salvation from the Hell of Terra and the purgatory of Sol system.
When he considered his goals in such simplistic terms, they seemed foolhardy, derived from an insane or corrupt mind. But he had no mental disorders or ulterior motives. In fact, he had not asked for any spiritual awakening to happen; the visions and sensations had come knocking on his door. He had been a simple organic chemist assigned to the Neptune Research Base and regarded by his peers as a shy, nondescript academic. Nothing in his appearance or actions had ever betrayed the charismatic pulpiteer he would become. Living on the fringe of human settlement had, he posited, gained him access to powers far greater than humanity knew and had transformed him into a spiritually receptive individual. Perhaps his transformation had been one great accident that now set into motion the ultimate deliverance of his people.
Yes, McDaniel's broturs and sosturs would truly become "The Elect" and escape the remnants of the apocalypse and the divine judgement now occurring in Sol system. They would be saved, protected, connected to the universe in way more intimate and wonderful than they could ever imagine.
"Frotur, coordinates calculated," Executive Officer Solomon reported. He stood at Exodia's helm, stroked his closely-cropped beard, and scrutinized Sostur Oricka's course adjustments. "Gravitic interference decreasing. We'll reach safe hop zone in ten seconds. Sirius A-B standing at point-two-two light years away."
"Very good, brotur," said McDaniel. He cocked a brow at Exodia's captain, Sostur Hella Ti, a white-haired intellect as devout as she was efficient.
The broad-shouldered woman took McDaniel's cue and straightened in her captain's chair. "Brotur Solomon? Begin hop sequence on my mark."
"Aye, ma'am. On your mark."
"We're just about clear," Hella muttered, studying a navigation monitor mounted near her chair. "Mark."
"Hop sequence engaged," Solomon cried. "Hop in five, four, three, two..."
McDaniel had never made a hop before, and the experience tore his nerves into live wires, positive and negative and leads crossing in explosive flashes for a moment--
Then all sensation seeped away for a trillionth of a second or a trillion millennia. Every clock had spun back to that first day, that first hour, that first second of the universe...
Waiting. Darkness. Trying to see, to feel something.
And suddenly the bulkheads crashed like cymbals and blinding light shone through the viewport before polarizers compensated. To their starboard corner lay a large, blue-white globe roughly twice the diameter of Sol: Sirius A. Somewhere out there, in all of that glare, hid Sirius B, a dim, white dwarf star that orbited Sirius A.
"Brotur Solomon?" the captain called.
"Hop complete," the XO responded. "Nav analysis confirms system Sirius A-B."
A cheer crescendoed over the residual shuddering of bulkheads and instruments, and McDaniel added his whoop to the chorus.
Hella nodded at the XO. "Launch the scout."
"Aye, ma'am. Brotur Pandathy reports ready." Solomon turned to a monitor near the oval command and control's tactical station. "Scout is away."
McDaniel picked out the tiny gleam of thrusters coming from the single-pilot scout ship as it streaked well ahead of the Exodia. His gaze tracked the ship, but something else drove his attention to the portside, a powerful force that urged his head there and caused his eyes to involuntarily focus on a glittering splotch of blue that rapidly expanded and grew thousands of ghostly tendrils from all sides.
"What is that?" the captain asked.
"Uncertain," answered the XO. "Doesn't appear on active scanners."
"Whatever it is," McDaniel said as a warm feeling crept over his neck, "it's beautiful."
The splotch had now become a swelling azure cloud more than five times the size of the sloship. Tendrils flailed against space, with ringlets of white-hot energy flashing along their lengths. For a moment, McDaniel thought he heard music, a lone flutist producing a siren's call in a great, high-ceilinged hall. Then his thirst suddenly felt quenched, and the other physical discomforts of being human--the slight backache, the heaviness of his eyes, the stiffness in his joints--disappeared. He thought he heard the crew reacting to the cloud's approach, but their voices rang pleasantly like wind chimes instead of curtly like a bridge crew facing a strange phenomenon. The cloud engulfed the Exodia in its soft, cerulean cotton, as though bracing it for some inexplicable journey.
"So they just disappeared, Grandfrotur?"
Joa lifted his gaze toward the sky. Stars fought against twilight's upstaging wash, and one victorious orb, no more than a crumb of light but more meaningful than any star in his sky, bore the name Sirius A.
"Yes, Ravi." Joa raised his arm and pointed. "See that star?"
"It is. From there our frotur and the others were carried directly into a higher place. Now they guide and watch over us."
Ravi frowned at the star. "How did they get to the higher place? Did they fly? Did someone help them?"
"I don't know. But I know this: Someday, you and I will meet them."