After you fly Rapiers for a while, you realize that the afterburners, like drug pushers, condemn you as they supply that necessary and urgent fix of speed. While the self-contained fuel-oxidizer systems create all the punch you need for any given sortie, they inspire your fuel gauge into its own ballet of acceleration as your tank plunges toward empty. You want a boost in velocity? It’ll cost you.NEXT
Now, when deploying on a long-range mission that, say, involves jumping across three systems to deliver a particular young woman to a particular supercruiser, you tend to think a whole lot more about fuel rationing than punching a continuous, four-hundred-and-fifty-kilometer-per-second hole in the vacuum.
Unless, of course, you have four bandits trying to ride the apex of your wash so that they can get missile lock on your AWOL butt and reduce you into a piece of vacuum-sealed jerky in the name of Confederation justice. Yes, that’s when you realize that there is a time and a place for everything, including speed.
With one hand locked on the control yoke, Blair eyed the velocity gauge at the top of his dash: 447 KPS. The set speed indicator beside it showed that he had selected 450 as the target acceleration. And yes, he feared looking at the fuel gauge. Instead, he reached forward and switched the left VDU to display the active weapon delivery system, praying that this variant of Rapier still packed the full array of missile ordnance. He sighed. It did.
Then his relief tightened into anxiety as he accidentally caught sight of the fuel gauge. “Sir? We can’t hold this burn any longer.”
“Got my Tempest on it,” Obutu answered. “We have twenty-two seconds more. Eighteen seconds. Mark.”
“Yes, sir. But once we throttle down, they’ll get the lock.”
“They’re not shooting to kill, Lieutenant.”
“Better remind them,” Blair said as a spate of glistening neutron fire rented the vacuum just meters above his Rapier. He checked his Radar scope. One of the pilots had redlined his thrusters and now came in at nearly 460 KPS, though he couldn’t do that for long. Then again, it didn’t take long or much effort to press a secondary weapons trigger.
Another wave of neutron fire charged beneath Blair’s Rapier, and several rounds struck glancing blows to the shields. The reverberation found his boots. He flicked his gaze to the tactical display, to the radar scope, then to the armor and shield indicator. Armor still in the green. Belly shield rebuilding.
Sudden movement on the scope drew his attention. A second Rapier pilot redlined himself alongside the first. The pilot opened up with wing-mounted laser cannons, delivering twin streams of bolts meant to lasso his target. As Blair broke into a thirty-degree dive, the incoming lit up his canopy and cut within a meter of the shields.
Though Blair could pop open a rear station and dump off a few Porcupine mines that would humble these two, no way in hell would he kill a comrade.
“Three seconds to burnout,” Obutu cried. “Mark!”
Blair punched the burner control. The Rapier wrenched him forward, and the burners’ characteristic howl faded. Velocity plunged below four hundred kilometers per second. He spotted Obutu’s Rapier off his port bow and adjusted course to form on the XO’s wing. White crosshairs winked on Blair’s Heads Up Display, and he aligned them with the jump point coordinates. ETA to point: six minutes, with three minutes remaining until they could fire their jump drives and reach near-light-speed velocities.
The two Rapiers pursuing him and the three who had targeted Obutu began consuming the gap since they could care less about rationing fuel. Rounds from neutron and laser cannons scissored through each other’s wakes, carrying their gluttony for shields and armor even closer to Blair and Obutu.
Swearing under his breath, Blair realized that he needed to turn on the comm and distract the ordnance delivery guys tailgating his ass. “Pilgrim to pursing craft, copy?”
“Blair? It’s me and Mango,” Loaf said. “C’mon, man. You don’t want to do this.”
The neutron and laser fire suddenly ceased.
“Guys, listen to me. I could tell you that the XO and I are trying to save the entire Confederation, but you’d think that’s bullshit.”
“Sir, you’re ordered to return to base,” announced Mango in a stoic tone. “If you fail to do so, we have orders to shoot to kill, roger.”
“C’mon, Blair,” Loaf pleaded. “Man, this is like desertion. I don’t care how important you think this is. You know what they’ll do to you?”
“Actually, I do. Don’t feel bad about it, guys. I mean, we hardly know each other.”
“Ninety seconds to drive fire,” Obutu interjected.
Blair glanced at the XO on his display. “Copy that, sir. Initiating pre-jump sequence.” He cocked his head toward the jump drive display panel at his elbow. “I’m warm and nominal. Establishing intership drive and navigation links.” Blair worked the panel’s touchpad, synchronizing his jump drive to Obutu’s so that they would simultaneously plunge into the stable gravity well that lay ahead. Their Tempest AIs would account for each other’s mass displacement and keep them at distances sufficient to avoid antigraviton interference.
“Sir, we won’t permit you to jump,” Mango said, the ice in his voice beginning to crack. “You’re either goobered or got a death wish. I’m telling you, we will fire.”
Blair snickered. “You don’t have to convince me, Lieutenant.”
“Sir, we’re ordering you to stand down,” Loaf said, now adopting his wingman’s grave tone.
Twenty seconds to jump drive fire.
The tactical display chirped and flashed a warning that both Rapiers had locked on to Blair. Glowing red lines extended from the two blips behind him and penetrated a three-dimensional simulacrum of the Rapier.
“Stand down now,” Mango shouted. “Last warning.
Fifteen seconds to drive fire.
Blair switched the comm channel to the frequency Obutu and his pursuers were using. No surprise. Their conversation mirrored the one he was having with his own shadows.
Alarms drummed rapidly in the cockpit as Mango and Loaf--the two jocks who Obutu and Angel believed had beaten him--now had the opportunity to finish job without penalty.
Or maybe they weren’t responsible. They simply acted on orders now. In any event, the missiles would reach Blair’s Rapier two seconds before he could fire the jump drive and outrun them. If he fired the drive too early, the computer would have to recalculate the entire jump, which would mean pulling away from the gravity well to allow it the half dozen or more minutes needed. Sure, Blair could feel his way through the well, but he wasn’t sure about Obutu’s abilities. He had to fire the jump drive on schedule, yet divert the missiles.
Though Blair had a solution to the problem, he feared it more than the oncoming missiles. If he only had choice... He closed his eyes and reached deeply into himself, finding the continuum and forcing himself up and away from the Rapier. He materialized beside the first pair of missiles and willed them into each other, then glided unharmed through the white-hot orb of their collision. Before the flash faded, Blair found the next two rockets and drew them together as though he were connecting the leads of live wires. The Dumb-Fire missiles swallowed each other in a burst that crowned Blair’s incorporeal form.
At once, the consequential cold from using his extrakinetic ability on inanimate objects coursed through him so fiercely that he found it hard to breathe. He forced himself to Obutu’s Rapier, spotted the three missiles punching into the XO’s exhaust, then shrieked as he sent an impulse to each rocket’s triggering system. A trio of short-lived suns birthed in Obutu’s wash.
Three seconds to jump drive fire.
Blair willed himself back to his Rapier and simultaneously reached out to engage the jump drive.
Something held him above Obutu’s fighter.
He pushed against the familiar energy and turned back to watch both Rapiers fire jump engines and suddenly stretch into points of light that held a moment, a moment more, then winked out.
Though Blair had successfully engaged his jump drive while still outside of himself, he still could not return to his starfighter. The energy gripped his wrists, and as he struggled to free himself, the energy took form.
With bulb-shaped eyes that regarded him unblinkingly and a torso shaped like the front bumper of a delivery hover, Lieutenant Victor “Mango” O’Brien jerked Blair’s arms apart as though he were about to pin Blair to a crucifix.
Just then, the three Rapiers that had been hunting Obutu streaked directly through them, and as they did, Blair rolled his wrist inward and slipped out of Mango’s grasp.
“So you’re the Pilgrim Karista felt,” Blair said. “Then you saw the ships. You saw them. And you know why we’re leaving. You know we have to.”
“I can kill you in here, Blair. Did Karista teach you that?” Mango lunged forward to seize Blair’s throat.
Blair forced himself deeper into Mango’s script, realizing that, indeed, the lieutenant was one of the “welders” who had beaten him, the one who had not spoken. Mango had held him down with an extrakinetic force. Now if Blair could penetrate deeply enough into Mango’s thoughts, he would learn the identities of the others.
But he had another desire at moment: to breathe. As Mango choked him here, his body seated in the Rapier gasped for air. He dug fingers into Mango’s wrists until the jock groaned and suddenly fell back.
“You’re a Pilgrim,” Blair screamed. “Why are you doing this?”
“I’m a cursed man, Blair. It’s my goddamned blood.” Mango hunched over, arms outstretched as he searched for an opening in Blair’s own defenses.
“You can’t deny who you are,” Blair said through clenched teeth. “And you can’t deal with it by beating other Pilgrims.”
“Our XO should be glad he’s not an extrakinetic. He would’ve gone down first. Then you. Don’t you get it? I hate who I am. I hate it.”
“So that gives you a license to beat up other Pilgrims?”
“As a matter of fact, yeah. You have no idea how many fanatics I’ve shoved back down Ivar’s throat. I can’t serve with Pilgrims. I won’t. And the fleet that’s coming? Bring ‘em on! The Confederation will kick their asses.”
Another force tugged on Blair’s shoulders, and he realized that his Rapier was about to reach Point of No Return velocity for the gravity well. He had to leave.
And Mango sensed that. He sprang on Blair, who ducked and turned past the man, then swept himself away to find his Rapier. He descended, and, with a horrific shiver, returned to his body.
“Point of No Return velocity achieved,” said the onboard computer. “System lock activated. Pilot, you are committed to the jump.”
“Blair, you with me?” Obutu hailed. “Blair?”
“I’ve been hailing you. Got a comm problem?”
“No, sir. But I found our other Pilgrim. It’s Mango, from Gunner’s squadron.”
“Yes, sir. But we don’t have any evidence against him, and I don’t know anyone who will take us seriously--especially now.”
“You’re probably right. But there are other ways to go about this... Now then, we’re thirty-three seconds off the jump. Systems nominal.”
Even as Obutu finished, the G forces drove Blair hard into his seat.
But then he realized that something else had added its presence to the G force and dwelled within, trying to conceal itself. Blair lifted himself up and into the continuum, where he found Mango in the cockpit, shifting in open air and passing through instrumentation as though it were incorporeal instead of him. The pilot stared intently at Blair’s jump drive control, and his fingers drummed on the touchpad.
Realizing that Blair had entered the continuum, Mango looked up from the console and flashed his teeth. “You ain’t going anywhere.” In a movement so quick that Blair could hardly react, Mango drove his forearm against Blair’s chest and used his free hand to continue working the jump drive control panel.
Blair seized Mango’s wrist and forced him back, if only a little. Mango applied more pressure, and the pilot’s arm felt like a slab of concrete pinning Blair to his seat.
“Warning: jump drive deactivation sequence not possible,” the computer said. “Jump drive lockout in progress.”
“Guess I am going somewhere,” Blair said, then groaned as he forced Mango away from the panel.
“You got me locked out of the drive but not life support,” Mango said, then ripped himself free and whirled to a panel on the pit’s starboard side.
Blair allowed himself a whole second to gasp before he slapped gloved hands on Mango’s shoulder and jerked him back.
In the meantime, the Heads Up Display switched to show a glowing, cone-shaped glide path funneling toward the gravity well ahead. Coordinates appeared nominal as the autopilot adjusted for gravitic and other temporal disturbances.
And the report remained that way for another two seconds until Mango switched off the autopilot and the Rapier suddenly veered off course amid a duet of rapidly beeping alarms. Then the pilot turned his attention back to the life support panel.
Yes, Karista had clearly explained how in the continuum extrakinetic strength equals physical strength, which simply meant that both in and outside of the continuum, Mango had the advantage.
Blair bolted out of the continuum. “Merlin. Activate.”
“What is it?” the hologram groaned as he quavered on and paced a winding path of air.
“Switch ship back to autopilot. And if there’s any tampering with life support, order systems back to nominal.”
“Who the f--”
“Merlin! I order you to obey.”
“--do you think you are?”
“Warning: life support system disengaged. Oh-two flow will shut down in five seconds.”
“I’m going to die here, Merlin! And when I go--”
“I hear you,” the old man said through a sigh. “I’ll get to work.”
The Rapier shimmied as the jump drive fired another burst. Blair cocked his head to the panel and watched the seconds to jump flash down from nine, eight--
“Life support system engaged.”
--seven, six, five--
Blair glimpsed into the continuum for a millisecond and found Mango beating his fist violently on the life support panel. No, the pilot could not work as quickly as Merlin did. Each override that he tapped in was as quickly overridden by Blair’s PPC.
--four, three, two--
The wavering sea of darkness that pooled before the Rapier and suddenly streaked into great glowing paws that cupped the fighter for... a moment? A week? A year? An eternity?
With his senses shutdown and residing purely in the continuum, Blair watched them come, all of them, the Pilgrims from the Olympus, the ones who had joined with him to battle the Kilrathi that last time. He saw the pudgy boy, the woman who had held his hand, and the rest all coming forward to rip Mango from the cockpit.
And there was Karista at the front of the group, staring at him with an expression daubed heavily with sadness. “There are too many like him,” she said, tipping her head toward Mango. “I wish he wasn’t so ashamed.”
“Don’t hurt him,” Blair said.
“Just get him away.”
They vanished, along with Mango, as an utter darkness and silence smothered Blair. Even his thoughts felt crushed under the unrecognizable power.
After a time that he could not judge, music rose from the omnipresent silence, and as the darkness bled off into a sheet of blue, Blair recognized the music. The flute player of his visions had returned to lull him with a new melody.
As he stared deeper into the blue, he saw his mother come forward and nod. “It’s okay, now Christopher. They’re coming. And it’s finally time for you know who you are.”
“You once said that if I did, I would fall like others. I tried. I fell. But Karista saved me. What about now? Why are they coming? What will they tell me about who I am?”
“The truth, Christopher. Only the truth.”
A triple crack of thunder resounded in his ears, and a jerk from braking thrusters sent Blair slamming into his harness. A billion streaks of light rolled back into pinpoints as the jump engines announced with a decrescendo that he had returned to normal space.
The VDU snapped on with an image of Obutu. “Blair, you copy?”
“I’m here, sir.”
“We’re tight on the beacon and about twenty-two-point-two-one hours from the Blackmane jump point. That’ll take us to Alliance, then another jump to McDaniel.”
Blair pulled up his own navigation map and confirmed Obutu’s assessment. “Sir, if we follow the shipping lanes, we can shave a couple hours off our time.”
“I don’t want to risk contact with any other ships. But the LSR looks clear for now. We’ll follow the lanes until first contact.”
“Aye, sir. And sir? Sorry I got you into this.”
“I did the getting myself, Lieutenant. Just set for auto and keep your eyes bugged. I’ll take second watch in four hours.”
Breathing a long sigh of relief, Blair complied, then he unclipped his mask and palmed sweat from his brow. He glimpsed course ahead, and for a second he saw a flash of blue far off to port. When he looked again, only the icy void stared back.