Blair wrenched the control stick toward his chest and ripped into a sixty-degree climb until he cleared a trio of shuttles at the rear of the ragtag flotilla. He leveled off and thundered his way over hundreds civilian of vessels, coming within a mere ten meters of some and slicing his way through the dissipating but still dangerous waves of torpedo impacts.
He had heard Karista’s cry for help, had seen her get blasted from the dinghy, and now had a distinct sense of her location.
“Lieutenant, you’re burning too much fuel,” Obutu said, having fallen eight hundred meters behind.
“I know, sir. But we’re out of time.”
The plan had been to cut burners in synch and conserve fuel for landing by riding inertia until they reached Karista. But she now drifted just off the Concordia’s stern, and a dozen meters away, gleaming antimatter fire unloosed from the supercruiser’s big gun tore through the night. The slightest nudge from an impact wave would send her into the unforgiving bead. Blair figured that he would get her out of the fire zone, and Obutu could bring her in--if the battle between the Concordia and the Semoran ever reached a cease fire.
“Hey, Merlin? Little help,” Blair called to his PPC.
A rotating sphere of white light blossomed just above Blair’s console. The old man stepped regally from the sphere, and Blair did a double take at Merlin’s sandals and white Pilgrim robe. “I’m here for you, brotur.”
“I don’t get the... never mind. Network with the Tempest and the retrieval system. Karista’s out there. Calculate maximum distance for retrieval. Brake ship at coordinates and fire beam.”
“I saw it, brotur. It took a while to get into my system, but I saw the blue, and I heard those sweet notes. It was so beautiful.”
“Great,” Blair barked as he squinted at a hundred flashing specks of debris superimposed over the raging crossfire between cap ships. “Can you do what I said?”
“Of course, brotur. And I can do it much more efficiently than your onboard systems.”
The Concordia had pulled out of her standard high-orbit and into a series of evasive maneuvers that put her about three thousand meters ahead and about fifty degrees above the civilian craft. Her battle group had pulled well away from the fray, and Blair wondered why they had not come to her aid. Maybe Bellegarde held them in reserve.
After a rapid beeping, the Tempest AI fired retroes and slowed the Rapier to 100 KPS, 75, 50, 20, and Blair fell forward into his harness as the fighter stopped on the proverbial dime. Thrusters emitted small blasts to sustain the hover.
“Coordinates for maximum retrieval distance reached,” Merlin said. “Tractor retrieval system on line. Target acquired. Firing beam.”
Blair imagined the system’s invisible hand reaching out and taking Karista into its palm.
According to the Tempest, she was unconscious and breathing normally. Her suit had been damaged but still functioned, and the O2 supply would hold out for another eighty-six minutes.
As Blair squinted at the rubble, trying to catch sight of her, he realized that the Semoran and Concordia had ceased fire. He scanned his radar scope. Rapiers flying near the CS Carraway had regrouped to resume escort positions, though he could tell from their configuration that they could easily resume the attack. The Semoran had turned tack on a course parallel to and about kilometer away from the Concordia, keeping the admiral’s flagship in her sights. Commander Obutu continued along Blair’s original vector and had twice called for a report.
“I got her, sir,” Blair finally answered, switching off the comm’s mute mode. “Retrieving now. Mark my position, and I’ll turn her over to you. My fuel’s nearly out.”
“You did it the hard way, Lieutenant. But you got results. How is she?”
“Unconscious. Probably got space sick and passed out. Her suit indicates that she had breach, but it’s been sealed. Oh-two’s not a problem.”
“Good. Now tell me she didn’t stow her evidence in a travel bag, one that got burned up or one that’s floating out there, somewhere.”
“Doubt that, sir. If I know Karista, she took dozens of leaves. Probably tucked them in every pocket she’s got. She’d keep them close.”
“Then let’s hope you know her. Contacting the Concordia now. Will request permission to land, OBP tractor crew for Karista, and assistance for you. Standby.”
“Copy that, sir.”
Within five minutes, Blair had brought Karista within two meters of his Rapier. Obutu arrived, they engaged in the switchover, and the commander took Karista toward the Concordia, where the OBP tractor crew fired another beam to bring her into a heavily padded airlock designed to recover overboard personnel. Blair had contacted the OBP team to make sure that Karista’s clothing was not burned during decontamination. They could quarantine it and her, yes, but coming this far only to have the evidence destroyed would confirm the existence of a malevolent god.
Obutu landed, and Blair waited for another twenty minutes until a Hauley-Class tanker launched from the Concordia and passed overhead, its refueling line wagging like a durasteel tail. Blair rushed through the procedure, anxious to get aboard the Concordia and see Karista. With his fuel gauge reading only a quarter full, he broke away and sped toward the supercruiser’s aft bay. His thoughts focused so intently on Karista that before he knew it, his canopy slid open. He shivered, wondering how the hell he had pulled off the complex task of landing without thinking about it. He climbed out of the Rapier, hit the deck, and collapsed as though he had no legs.
“Same thing happened to your XO,” said the Concordia’s deck boss, a middle-aged woman with snake-like eyes and a flat nose. She came up to Blair, shoved arms under his, and effortlessly dragged him up as two medics arrived with a gurney.
“I can walk,” Blair said, embarrassed over all the attention.
“No you can’t,” corrected the boss. “Four days in a pit will do that to you. Your XO’s in sickbay. You’re headed there yourself.”
“What about Karista? I mean the woman we brought in? The OBP team got her.”
“She’s down there, too. Don’t know her condition. She looked pretty burned up, though. You’ll find out.”
The boss helped him onto the gurney, and, refusing to lie back, Blair held fast to the durasteel railing as one medic rushed him toward the lift while the other waved her scanners and asked a long list of boring questions that all began with “Are you feeling...”
Once in sickbay, the medic rolled Blair past Obutu, who sat up in a bed and spoke with space marshal Gregarov and another man Blair identified as the supercruiser’s XO. Two Marines shadowed Gregarov and drew Blair’s frown. Was the space marshal so important that she required guards wherever she went?
The medics slid him into a small medical station partially walled in by monitoring devices mounted to rolling carts. Blair scanned the long, narrow room and caught the gazes of a half dozen unfamiliar patients lying in beds. “What about Karista?” he asked.
“She’s in ICU, next bay,” said the woman who had questioned him. “I’ll check on her.”
As the one medic hustled off, the other jabbed a syringe in Blair’s forearm. He swore over the pain as the medic shushed him. “You’re slightly dehydrated. This’ll take care of that.”
“Lieutenant Blair?” the space marshal called, striding toward his gurney.
Blair despised the woman because she believed that Paladin had defected to the Pilgrims. He tried to hold back his contempt for her--
“You don’t look too happy to see me, son.”
--and failed. “I’m just tired, ma’am. It was long flight.”
“Commander Obutu told us about the leaves. We already recovered about twenty from Karista’s robe and flight suit. They’re being analyzed now. God willing they contain those images your XO told us about.”
“So you believe they’re coming? Just like that, you already believe?”
“What I do believe is that we can’t bomb these people. And if this evidence will ensure that, then I fully support it.”
“I beg your pardon, ma’am, but aren’t you the one who’s supposed to issue the bombing order? And hasn’t the senate already endorsed that order?” He looked to the Marines. “Or am I not understanding this? And what happened with the Semoran?”
“Talk to your XO.” She turned to leave, then whirled back, gripped by a thought. “Once we have the data analyzed, I’d like you there when we show it to Commodore Bellegarde.”
Blair glimpsed his watchphone: 1915 hours. “You’d better hurry. If you begin bombing McDaniel’s World, that Pilgrim fleet will attack. And you won’t believe how many ships they have. Billions, I think.”
She snorted a little, then left with her escorts. The XO gave Blair and Obutu a terse nod and caught the hatch before it closed.
Once they were out of earshot, Obutu called to Blair from across the bay. “We flew out of one mess right into another.”
“What do you mean?”
The XO rolled onto his side. “I spoke to the Commodore during my landing. It’s quite a story. Let’s just say that the space marshal is under arrest, though don’t tell that to the Semoran’s skipper, and Admiral Tolwyn will be here at about oh-three-twenty.”
“But the order to bomb or stand down has to be issued at zero hour.”
“Which means that the commodore is the one we have to convince. And right now he has every intention of carrying out the senate’s order.”
“So the space marshal--who’s under arrest--is our ally?”
“Don’t act so surprised,” Obutu said with a twisted grin. “We’re criminals ourselves.”
The medic who had gone to check on Karista abruptly returned. Blair struggled to read her expression, but her occupation had taught her a coolness most poker players would envy. “How is she?”
“Stable. Conscious now. Mild case of smoke inhalation. I’m afraid she suffered a near-fatal suit breach. Lost a leg from the knee down. She’s lucky to be alive. Good news is that she has a common blood type and a solid pattern. She’s a good candidate for regrowth.”
“Can you take me to see here?”
“In a little bit.” The medic checked a monitor that emitted an irritating beep every half minute or so. “You have to rest yourself.”
He closed his eyes and opened a door to the continuum. With mental legs unaffected by the rigors of his flight, he walked out of the sickbay, into the corridor, then entered the adjoining ICU. He found Karista’s bed and glided toward it. She lay on her back, eyes closed, a white sheet pulled up to her neck. Sweat darkened the roots of her blond hair, and her face seemed much more tan than he remembered. He reached down and stroked her cheek.
“You,” she whispered, opening her eyes. She took his hand in her own and held it to her cheek. “This was supposed to be easy. I should’ve remembered that it’s always difficult. At least with me.”
He half-shrugged. “Either way, we made it. They have the evidence, and the space marshal is already predisposed to believing us. She doesn’t want to bomb anyone.”
“That’s... good.” Karista stared down her chin to where the sheet grew terribly flat, just beyond her right knee. “No dancing today. They say they can grow me a new one. Why bother if there won’t be anyone left to see me dance?”
“Don’t talk like that. This is going to work.”
“I don’t think so, Christopher. I reached out to the bridge and observed. The commodore won’t believe us.”
“He’ll say that the leaves are just a Pilgrim trick.”
“If that’s what you think, then why did we waste our time coming here? I went AWOL for you!”
“I had a really good feeling about Admiral Tolwyn. He’s had more experience with Pilgrims than Bellegarde has. I thought we could convince him. But Bellegarde? He’ll begin the bombing. And the Pilgrim fleet is almost here. They’ll come out of nowhere and wipe out the Confederation.”
“What about Aristee? Can you find her in the continuum? I’m thinking that even if the Pilgrims wipe out the Confederation, a lot of our people will still die. That might persuade her to help us.”
“Strange thing. I’ve already searched for her. I can’t find anything. The last impression I had was of her aboard the Olympus, somewhere near the Kilrathi border. After that, I haven’t sensed anything.”
“Do you think she’s dead?”
“Wouldn’t matter. I’d still be able to find her script. It’s as though something or someone is blocking me.”
“Maybe it’s the Pilgrim fleet. Maybe they don’t want Aristee to stand down. Maybe they really want to attack.”
“I don’t believe that. Maybe it’s Carver Tsu the Third who’s behind this. Maybe he’s the one promoting the attack. He has extrakinetics working for him; they could be blocking me.”
“Well, can you contact the Pilgrim fleet? There might be someone in control who’s reasonable.”
“I’ve tried that, too. I can’t get inside their ships. But I know that they’ll contact us. I wish I knew when.”
The continuum took a sudden dip, and Blair reached to the bed for support. “Whoa. I guess I’m--”
“Yes, you are. Go back. Rest. They’ll call you when it’s time. I wish I could be there.”
“It’s okay. We’ll handle it. I’m... we haven’t had any time to talk.”
She put an index finger to her lips, then released his hand.
He found himself back on his own gurney, driven there by a gentle, unyielding force. He fell back on the bed, and like warm bath water, the exhaustion crept up his legs, reached his chest, and finally took him.
That voice. It’s not part of the dream. Or maybe it is. Maybe I’m dreaming that I’m having a dream. Maybe--
“Out of your rack,” Commander Obutu ordered, shaking Blair’s shoulder.
Eyes open. Thick, black face knotted by frustration. “Sorry, sir. I’m just so tired. What time--”
“It’s nineteen fifty-five. Got about four hours. Nothing like cutting it close.”
Blair’s gaze finally focused. Obutu sat in a narrow powerchair operated by a small touchpad near his right hand. A second chair sat beside his.
Obutu tipped his head toward the ride. “First class all the way, Lieutenant.”
The XO hustled into the sickbay and shifted up behind Obutu. “Gentlemen, are we ready?”
The two medics who had initially helped Blair returned to get him out of the gurney and into the chair. He still felt too stiff to walk though significantly better than he had forty-five minutes prior. It took a moment to sample the powerchair’s controls, then he drew a winding course behind Obutu. Only twice did he crash into the XO during their trip to the Concordia’s map room.
ommodore Bellegarde, Space Marshal Gregarov, and the two Marines stood like specters in the shadowy map room. As Bellegarde crossed into the better light of dozens of glowing viewers, Blair and Obutu snapped to and saluted.NEXT
“At ease, gentlemen.”
“Sir, we appreciate you seeing us,” Obutu began. “I assume your analysis of the leaves is complete?”
“It is, Commander. And yes, there is data recorded within their cells.” He reached over to a holoplayer control panel and tapped his finger on the pad.
The image Karista had shown Blair and Obutu came to life in the center of the room, swirled at about knee-height, then rose and swelled from bulkhead to bulkhead. Blair sat in the middle of interstellar space as Pilgrim warships passed through him and his powerchair.
“This is but a small representation of the fleet that’s headed our way,” Space Marshal Gregarov said, coming forward to gaze threateningly at Bellegarde. “If we begin the bombing, then it’s safe to assume that we’ll awaken this sleeping giant.”
“That’s right, sir,” Obutu added. “As a Confederation officer with nearly twenty years of loyal service, I can say with confidence that this fleet does exist and that it is headed our way.”
Bellegarde made a face. “The leaves come from McDaniel’s World. And while we were waiting for them to be analyzed, I did a little research on my own. It’s true that those trees rarely bear leaves. It’s also true that Ivar Chu McDaniel disappeared somewhere near the Sirius system. And it’s also true that we recently lost a ship there. What troubles me is who put this data into the leaves and for what purpose. You would have me believe that it was these Pilgrims who performed some kind of biotech miracle. You would have me believe that these are the descendants of the original Pilgrims who were lost over three hundred years ago. Their technology now exceeds ours, and they’re coming back to save their people. It’s quite a story. Almost biblical.”
“When the time comes, sir, all you have to do is stand down,” Blair said, unable to stave off his attack on Bellegarde’s cynicism. “If you don’t, you’ll start a war that we can’t win.”
“You’re right about one thing, Mr. Blair. Standing down is easy. Too bad Amity Aristee couldn’t realize that. We won’t yield to terrorists. Our evacuation efforts have been fairly successful. The death toll will be far less than it would have been. But we will render Pilgrim soil lifeless for a thousand years. I’m not a fanatic or a murderer. I’m a solider. Just like you. And this is my duty. And I can’t dismiss that based on what you’ve presented here. Besides, this could be ploy designed by Aristee so that we lower our guard. She might be using you without your knowledge.”
“What about that destroyer in Sirius? Don’t you think it’s too much of a coincidence to lose it in the same system where Ivar Chu disappeared? You can’t ignore that, sir.”
“Mr. Blair, unless my radar officer can show me a Pilgrim fleet on his scope, I’m afraid that the bombing will proceed on schedule.”
Blair tried to push himself out of the powerchair, but his knees buckled. “Problem is, they don’t want to be seen, sir. And they have the tech to conceal themselves. They’ll be on us before we know it.”
“The Fourteenth is already on full alert,” Bellegarde retorted, then switched off the holoplayer. “If these Pilgrims do show up, will be ready for them.”
“With all due respect, sir, we’ll be dead.”
“Richard, listen to him,” cried Gregarov. “The kid’s right. And it won’t be my grave they’re spitting on.”
Bellegarde pursed his lips, and for a second his expression softened before the iron mask returned. “I have my orders.”