Sostur Karista Mullens paused at the window of her dorm room and scanned the courtyard four stories below. Two dozen heavily armed Confederation Marines had positioned themselves along the half dozen walkways to guard the district of student apartments. The Marines’ crimson pressure suits glowed against a backdrop of walls and placards sandblasted to a dull copper by the relentless Martian wind.
“You’re protecting me now,” Karista whispered to them. “But if the order comes, you won’t think twice.”
She reached out with extrakinetic senses to one of the guards, a young woman about her age. Boredom ruled the guard’s thoughts, but the woman occasionally slipped into the memory of a tryst she had had with the woman positioned twenty yards to her left. Karista had already touched that Marine’s mind and knew she hated Pilgrims more than any of the others. That one’s father had fought in the Pilgrim war, and that one would present the largest problem.
Karista broke the link and looked beyond the sloped roofs of the apartment buildings. A frozen sea of tawny foothills stretched into the dusty gloom. I’m only here two days. It feels like two years. And we’re so far away from everything...
The university had been built near the Albor Tholus volcano, and not unlike several universities on Earth, it provided the only oasis in an otherwise remote, lifeless region. Confederation authorities had made a very wise decision in canceling classes here, evacuating students, faculty, and support staff, then converting the facility into an interment camp for nearly ten thousand Pilgrims. Even if some Pilgrims managed to steal pressure suits and escape on foot, they would not have enough oxygen to traverse the rugged terrain and reach the metroplex at Elysium Mons, where, of course, they would be arrested. Students joked about the university being a prison. Not a single Pilgrim in residence found that amusing now.
“Kari, Kari, for what we are waiting I do not know. We’ve the wings, the means. Shall we?” Brotur Dennet Dearborn gave an exaggerated bow, then turned back to the doorway, scowled, and waved for her to leave. Dennet’s height had turned doorways into headaches by the time he had reached eighteen, and even now, at thirty, he seemed to keep growing, his rangy limbs and neck seemingly too large for his thin pillow of a torso. And no, Karista would never get used to Dennet’s syntax and formal deportment, products of being raised on the planet Faith, a planet founded by a fundamentalist sect of Pilgrims known as “The Carava.” Their literal translations of the Book of Ivar Chu McDaniel made the protur as nervous as the Confederation’s joint chiefs. Ironically enough, Caravans had not instigated the recent Pilgrim rebellion; Confederation officers of Pilgrim descent had seen to that. Admiral Bill Wilson had made his attempt to destroy Earth with the aid of the Kilrathi Empire. His failure had set off Captain Amity Aristee, whose similar stratagem had also failed. But while Wilson had been killed, Aristee remained free, floating somewhere out there in her crippled supercruiser, plotting her next move. Until she could be brought in, the Confederation would continue to treat innocent Pilgrims like subversives. Going to “safe camps” had first been a suggestion, but the Confederation had since made internment mandatory for all people of Pilgrim descent. That order had, according to the Terran News people, split the Confederation senate along partisan lines.
“Again I say, Kari, for what are we waiting?” Dennet raked black hair wired with gray out of his eyes. His pageboy cut--distinctly Caravan--hardly became him, but the casting of a mushroom-shaped shadow had been an important symbol of virility among male Caravans for at least a century.
It takes much more than a shadow, Karista thought as she raked her own blond hair behind her ears and went to him. “Did you do as I asked?”
He nodded. “I saw the kind doctor--and whatever else I could along the merry way. Clear-eyed, reasonably fed, mostly bored is how we look and feel. But a rumor met my ear and set off a shiver. The food? It’s running out. The guards have no information about the next shipment. It seems that our captors have taken the university’s generosity but will not foot any future bills. And so begins our slow torture.”
“Which is why we’re getting our asses out of here,” said Sostur Fey Windmaiden as she limped into the room and drew up the collar of her robe with a shiver. She, like Karista, had been raised on McDaniel’s World, but Fey hailed from a southern colony called Wickatti. There, the women and men submitted themselves to a sundry of physical “corrections” to become “more pleasing” to their spouses. Women enlarged their breasts, lightened their skin, bound their feet, starved themselves, and pierced their bodies according to their spouse’s whims; men engaged in a number of painful piercing and stretching techniques as well as making “enhancements” to their hair, skin, eyes, and muscles.
For ten years, since the age of fifteen, Sostur Fey had undergone the corrections. Now, with a ghostly complexion, breasts unnaturally firm and too large for her wiry frame, earlobes and eyebrows drooping from too many earrings, and feet bound so much that she could barely place her weight on one of them, she seemed more mutilated than corrected. Since first meeting Fey two days ago, Karista found it more and more difficult to meet the woman’s gaze, for Fey seemed so frail and pathetic that a wrong look might cause the poor woman to dwindle.
But out of Fey’s stricken frame came a proud, strong voice that could be overcompensation for her appearance or simply the last vestige of her will. “C’mon, you fools. We’re wasting time. Everything’s set.”
Karista shook her head. “We can’t go.”
Dennet rolled his eyes. “She puts on her necklace of guilt, and it chokes her.”
“We can’t go?” repeated Fey, hazel eyes seeming to levitate from the powdery valleys of her face. “Then we stay here and die--for nothing.”
“Our broturs and sosturs... we can’t leave so many behind,” Karista said.
“You told us you’d come to terms with that,” countered Fey through clenched teeth. “We don’t have time to go through this again. Preparations have been made, others will help, and we should leave now.” Fey whirled to Dennet. “If she won’t come, we go without her.”
Dennet snorted. “On this planet, there’s but one extrakinetic--her. Escape requires assistance. Death requires none.”
“Come on, Karista. What will it take?” Fey asked. “If we die here, we achieve nothing. Maybe we can help them if we get off planet.”
Karista’s shoulders slumped under the burden of her decision. She faced the window and once more let her gaze wander to the horizon’s gloom. Strange blue spheres dotted the ocher dust clouds, blossomed and bled into each other, then finally turned the horizon into a band of swirling sapphire. She tapped the window. “Do you see that?”
“See what?” Dennet asked.
“Karista, we’re going,” Fey said.
Like a raging tidal wave heaving up some sixty meters, the band of blue rolled toward the apartment buildings, its translucent innards spanned by white veins pulsating with ringlets of energy. Karista threw up her arms as the wave crashed soundlessly over the building--
And every sensation that troubled Karista, every itch and ache, seemed appeased by the blue wave. Even as she marveled over that miracle, music sounded from somewhere far off, notes echoing from a flute player, a soft alluring tune not unlike a lullaby. She had never known such peace of mind and body. Even the air calmed her through a scent she could not fully identify, though it reminded her of myrrata oil, an element in perfume obtained from several trees and shrubs on her homeworld. She did not know how or why, but she sensed the need to reach extrakinetically into the blue, but an energy held her back and whispered, “Not yet...
...but soon. You need to learn. You need to help.”DEVI SOULSONG
Lieutenant Christopher Blair squinted into the blueness and listened to a voice whose sex he could not discern. “What do I have to learn? And how can I help? What’s this about?”
Out of the blueness came the broad nose of the Drayman-class transport he had tagged.
“Blair! Twelve o’ clock, dead on!” Lieutenant Todd “Maniac” Marshall cried. “What’re you waiting for? Jinx!”
Before his wingman even finished speaking, Blair jerked the stick of his Rapier fighter to port, executing a high-G roll. A collision warning flashed on the Heads Up Display as he held his breath and swept along the transport’s starboard side with all of a meter gap between ships.
Flashes from neutron fire lifted behind him as Maniac swept down and took on the hijacked transport himself. Blair wheeled back and watched as Maniac delivered an inspiring and cautionary sermon regarding the dangers of attempting to cross a Confederation no-fly zone. But the Pilgrims aboard the transport were probably too busy to be awed by Maniac’s marksmanship. Their ship’s engines split like pulpy fruit in successive explosions, and those fireballs quickly yielded to a rainbow of fluids spewing from the scores of breaches in the housing.
Well beyond the transport, the planet Netheryana glowed a hundred shades of brown broken by the occasional beige raft of clouds. To Blair’s three o’clock hovered that gargantuan cylinder of durasteel that he called home: The Bengal-class strike carrier CS Tiger Claw. The ship had been ordered back to Netheryana to assist the destroyers Mitchell-Hammock and Oregon in maintaining the no-fly zone over the Pilgrim enclave Triune. And since arriving just a day prior, Lieutenants Blair and Marshall had suppressed a remarkable number of violations to the zone. Intell had reported that Pilgrims on planet had disrupted communications at the Confederation strike bases at Tung and Sylee, both of which provided atmospheric air support. Thus, in the diversion, several hundred Pilgrims had launched in Drayman- and Yllman-class transports and had successfully crossed the atmospheric no-fly zone to head into Tiger Claw country. Big mistake.
“Troopship Whiskey Five?” Maniac hailed over the general frequency. “She’s all yours and ready for boarding.”
“Roger that, Maniac,” came the pilot’s response. “We’ll tell ‘em you said ‘hey.’”
The wedge-shaped Marine troopship curved sharply past Maniac’s Rapier and came up alongside the crippled Pilgrim transport. A docking umbilical extended from the troopship’s starboard side, and the umbilical’s hull cutters flamed on like the fiery teeth of a worm with a healthy appetite for durasteel.
Blair glanced to one of his Visual Display Unit’s, where Lieutenant Commander Jeanette “Angel” Deveraux glared at him, her oxygen mask unclipped and dangling from her helmet. Even while wearing such a potent look, Angel could not camouflage the rich landscape of her eyes or the soft cream of her skin that rolled in delicate curves.
“Lieutenant Blair? Are you with us?”
“Yeah, I’m sorry, ma’am.”
“What happened?” she demanded, quite comfortable with her squadron commander’s tone, despite what they shared off duty. “You called that one, turned toward him, and did nothing.”
“I don’t know. I saw something, I think.”
“I don’t know. It was... blue.”
“What he saw was a ship full of Pilgrims,” Maniac interrupted. “And he choked up. Couldn’t risk harming his own kind. Yeah, he helped us disable a few other transports, but I knew it would get to him sooner or later. Face it, Blair. You ain’t fit for duty. At least not this one.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Angel said. “Off the channel, Lieutenant. Return to base.”
“Aye-aye,” Maniac said half-heartedly.
As his wingman’s Rapier leapt off on a heading toward the silhouette of the Tiger Claw, Blair brought his Rapier to a hover beside Angel’s. He dialed up her private frequency. “I’m sorry. I really am.”
“Sorry doesn’t change a goddamned thing. You hesitated. Gerald will reach the same conclusion as Maniac. I want you out here, but I’m not going to argue on your behalf unless I know what happened.”
“How can I tell you what happened when I don’t know myself?”
She bit her lip and looked away. “Then you did hesitate.”
“I saw something. Blue. Everything went blue. And there was a voice.” Angel’s expression grew more creased, and Blair sighed. “Maybe I am losing it.”
“You’re off the duty roster. You’ll train in the SIRE for a few days to prove your reflexes. And I’m ordering a psyche eval.”
“Return to base.”
Blair gritted his teeth and slapped the throttle, tearing away from her. He lined up with the distant strike carrier and flew absently toward her, thoughts replaying the experience with the blue cloud. Was he really having psychological problems? Were the vision and voice part of some subconscious manifestation? He had been through so much in the past few months, what with Paladin’s disappearance and all.
Commodore James “Paladin” Taggart had quickly become an inspiration, a Pilgrim and Confederation officer to whom Blair had given his complete loyalty and utmost respect. He and Paladin had gone aboard the Olympus to try to persuade Amity Aristee to stand down. But in the end, Aristee had escaped with the ship, and it appeared that Paladin had helped her. Then again, maybe Paladin had not defected and had only allowed the Amity to escape to buy himself more time. Paladin loved her. They were naturally paired Pilgrims, perfect mates, and Blair felt certain that Paladin wanted to bring in Aristee alive.
Or maybe he knew nothing, and the pain of not knowing whether or not his mentor was a traitor had brought on the visions and voices. He had always heard that the manifestations of stress were many and varied.
Now his thoughts suddenly took him back to his homeworld of Nephele, to his eighth birthday. His Aunt Jennifer had gone off to the metroplex before he had awakened that morning, and his Uncle Samuel had, for some odd reason, shaven off his beard and had put on an expensive suit instead of his usual farmer’s coveralls. Then he had asked that Blair stay home from school and put on his finest dress shirt and trousers. They had piled into the old hover and had driven for several hours over a dirt road that had taken them deep into the countryside. Fields of wild sohoa and goborise stood taller than the hover and had cowered in the hover’s wash. Finally, the great field of green and violet had parted to reveal a cleared plain that extended as far as Blair could see. Huge, carved stones of varying shape and design stood in even rows like an immense military assembly of personnel.
“Is this a graveyard?” Blair had asked.
“Right. It’s an old Earth tradition, brought back as land became more available on colonized worlds.”
“How come I haven’t heard of this one?”
“No one talks about it. Most of these people died in the Pilgrim war.”
“Why are we here?”
Uncle Samuel had parked the hover, and they had ventured out across the dirt road an onto a Terran variety of blue-green grass. Blair had glanced at the names and dates carved into a few of the tombstones and had noticed that several had bouquets of flowers, long since wilted, resting beside them. They had walked for twenty or thirty minutes, Blair remembered, until they had come up behind a modest stone marker that had risen to Blair’s waist. His uncle had crossed in front of the gravestone and had placed a hand over his mouth. Blair had joined the man and remembered shielding his eyes from the sun so he could read the inscription:
DAUGHTER OF ABRAHAM TRUEPATH
WIFE OF ARNOLD BLAIR
Blair had looked accusingly at his uncle and had shaken his head. “You took me here because of that news-net story, right? Because now my friends at school won’t talk to me because everyone knows my mother was a Pilgrim. They used to like me. My dad was a war hero. But none of that matters now.”
“Don’t believe anything you hear,” Uncle Samuel had said, gripping Blair’s shoulders. “Listen to me. Your mother was a great woman, and your father loved her more than you could know.”
“It doesn’t matter. She was a Pilgrim. Everyone hates them. And now they hate me. I don’t know why. Do you and Aunt Jennifer hate me now?”
“I can’t make you understand what happened during the war. But I want you to know who you are and not be ashamed of it.” His uncle had reached into his jacket and had produced something shinny, something made of silver and gold. His thick fingers had slid aside to reveal a cross, its top composed of a semicircle trimmed in gold. “This was your mother’s.”
As Blair had accepted the cross, he had felt--
I remember that day, don’t I? I took the cross, threw it to the grass, and stomped on it. But now I remember something different. That’s not what happened. I took the cross, and oh my God, the blue. I saw the blue and heard the voice: “Know who you are. Don’t let her stop you. Trust blood.” And the smell, that sweet smell...
But I’ve never remembered any of that.
Not until now.
“Lieutenant Blair, are you going to request landing clearance, or is it wing and prayer time?” Fight Boss Raznick asked, three seconds away from his own self-detonation.
Blair jolted to regard the beefy man, and for a moment, he thought he saw heat waves billowing from Raznick’s shaven head. “Sorry, Boss.”
“You’ve ignored our hails. You got a malfunctioning temporal lobe or what?”
“I don’t know, sir. I’ll have my crew check out systems once I’m birthed.”
“It’s not an onboard system, you... ah, forget it. You’ve got your clearance. And wake up, Lieutenant.”
Raznick bit back expletives as Blair finally brought the Rapier down with a terrific, sparking thump.
That was the shittiest landing I’ve ever made. Blair closed his eyes, rested his head back on the seat, and braced himself for the boss’s wrath.
“Lieutenant Blair? Report to flight control. Now!”