White. Too much white. The walls. The floor. The overhead. People dressed in white robes casting shadows that seemed frosty. A face now. Dark, rugged features. Hair slicked back. The trace of a smile.
“You’re okay, Lieutenant. You’re on board the Pilgrim Flagship Exodia Chu. This place is a kind of sick bay, but other than these resting surfaces there isn’t much else. We’re orbiting McDaniel’s World. I know there’s a tingle in your spine and your vision is still a little cloudy. It takes a few hours for the field to wear off. They say the younger you are, the faster you recover--which is why it took me so long.”
Though he failed to focus on the man’s face, the voice that came half whisper, half rasp belonged to none other than Commodore James “Paladin” Taggart, and his presence struck Blair into contemplative silence. Was Paladin a traitor to the Confederation? Had he aided and abetted Amity Aristee because she was his perfect pair and he was in love with her? Had he put those feelings before his sworn duty to defend the Confederation?
Or had he allowed Aristee to escape because he just needed more time to convince her to stand down? And had he known from the beginning about the Pilgrim fleet?
Admiral Tolwyn’s words echoed back from the past: “Lieutenant, according to your own report, Commodore Taggart was the only one who could’ve programmed that hopper drive. He had locked everyone else out of the system. His orders were to seize control of that vessel and return it to the Confederation. By feeding in those jump coordinates, the commodore committed an act of treason--one for which he will be executed.”
“What’s the matter, Mr. Blair? It’s only been a month. Forgotten me already?”
No, Blair had certainly not forgotten the man. He had often thought back to their last good-bye:
“I’ll meet you on the flight deck,” Paladin answered a little too quickly. “But here...” He removed his Pilgrim cross, then turned and proffered it to Blair. “In case I don’t make it back.”
Paladin tossed the cross, and Blair could not help but catch it. “You’re my anchor, Mr. Blair.”
“That why you took me along?”
“You’ve been pressing me about Pilgrim culture and history. So you got a look.” He glanced to Karista. “And you met your pair. Now evacuate this area. That’s an order.” The commodore suddenly looked very old, very lost, sure of nothing.
Blair hoisted a painful salute and mumbled, “Aye-aye, sir.”
“Guess you think I’m traitor,” Paladin said, jarring Blair into the present. “Maybe they’ll kill me for what I did, but I want you to know the truth. For a while, I just wasn’t sure where I belonged. Then I thought I knew. Now I’m confused.”
“They should have killed me out there,” Blair said disgustedly. “Would’ve spared me this.” He reached up to his chest, fumbling for Paladin’s Pilgrim Cross; he intended to throw it in the man’s face.
“There’s a footlocker sort of thing over there with your gear in it. I already took back my cross, if that’s what you’re looking for. Thanks for holding it.”
Throwing his weight into his arms, Blair sat up, and the clay-like surface gave a little. He rode out a wave of dizziness, then blinked hard against the filmy flashes. “They spare me because of you? Feeling pretty good about yourself right now? Do you know how many people died out there?”
“There were a few accidental deaths on both sides. I think the last count was nineteen.”
“But I saw--”
“You saw the field. And you rode one yourself.”
“Then Commander Obutu--”
“Is just over there. Oh, you can’t see. He’s about twenty meters to your right. Sleeping now.”
“I don’t understand. Are they just trying to scare the Confederation? Is Aristee part of this?”
“No, she’s not. Honestly, I don’t know where she is. I finally destroyed the Olympus. The rest is long a story better told over drinks. In the end, we were taken like you. I woke up here. I’ve been looking for her and the protur ever since. And I don’t know about you, but being here gives me this strong sense of--I’m not sure what it is--home, maybe. Never weather-beaten sail more willing bent to shore.”
“I’ve heard that. Merlin said that when--”
“That was me. Or more precisely, that was me quoting an old poet named Thomas Campion. I wanted to tell you more, but we got cut off. I’m not an extrakinetic, Mr. Blair. But being here somehow heightens that ability. It’s remarkable, really.”
Paladin’s new-found senses hardly impressed Blair. “Maybe these people aren’t killing us, but they’re taking us prisoner. And they have the numbers and the technology to defeat the Confederation. So now, Pilgrims or not, we might be their slaves. I don’t know, bang me in the head or something, I just can’t find the positive here. And there are still way too many unanswered questions.”
“Then let me answer some for you,” came another voice.
The air suddenly felt warmer, and the walls, blurry though they had been, now yielded to the stars. Nearly able to focus, Blair saw that he and Paladin had, in a heartbeat, been transferred to another part of the ship, the bridge perhaps. Patterns of blue light and shadow swirled on walls that swept toward an oval pane of stars resembling a viewport, but the Plexi appeared too clear and unreflective. No form of instrumentation met his gaze, nor could he find a bridge crew. He immediately concluded that this either wasn’t the bridge, or if it was, then comprehending this kind of the technology would take longer than his meager life span.
“Gentlemen, my name is Ivar Chu McDaniel. Some just call me Frotur.”
Blair whirled back to face the man, a somewhat amorphous individual that the eye tended to dismiss. He stood a little shorter than Blair, and his wrinkled Pilgrim robe hung loosely about his shoulders. He looked like a late twentieth century software geek and billionaire who had just emerged from being locked in a sauna for two days. This was the leader of the Pilgrims, a man who should have died two and a half centuries ago?
“You’re Ivar Chu?” Paladin asked with a snort. “Impossible.”
The man smiled. “Of course. From your point of view.”
“I’ve seen pictures of Ivar Chu McDaniel,” Blair said. “You do look like him. So what are you people, time dilation junkies? You spend most of your time traveling at near-light speeds to create your own fountain of youth?”
McDaniel sighed. “I knew this would be difficult. Where to begin... and how to explain?”
“Rumor had it that you disappeared in the Sirius system,” said Paladin. “So what happened?”
He gestured around the ship. “This did.”
“They said you and the others ascended to a higher plain of existence. This it?”
Paladin shook his head. “I don’t feel like I ascended.”
“Neither do I,” Blair added.
“Gentlemen, this ship, the fleet, everything you see, is us. It’s all created and controlled by us. These aren’t walls, they’re thoughts. Mr. Blair, you’ve drawn on your extrakinetic senses. We’ve taken those beyond the quilt, beyond the cone of thought.”
“Why? So you can probe our thoughts and take us prisoner?”
“You’re not prisoners. Anyone who wants to stay behind can do so--including yourselves.”
Paladin gave an exaggerated sigh. “Mr. McDaniel, we come from a school that teaches us that power corrupts. I’m looking around, and I’m seeing a whole lot of power.”
“Yes, the frailties of being human. Unavoidable, but in this case, inconsequential.”
That triggered a lopsided grin from Paladin. “An eloquent blow off. But tell me, if you are McDaniel and you’ve managed to survive all of these years, then what really happened to you out there?”
“Yeah, and how did you go beyond the quilt and the cone?” Blair asked.
“There are some questions that I’m not permitted to answer, but I can tell you this much... we had help.”
The communications link defied conventional physics, and while Confed scientists struggled to figure out how the invaders had accomplished the feat of establishing instantaneous connections with every Confederation and Kilrathi system, President Harold Rodham stood on the tarmac at Washington Dulles Air and Space Port, waiting to receive one Ivar Chu McDaniel, purported leader of the Pilgrims.
One of the invaders’ more nondescript troopships landed. An orifice appeared in the quavering fuselage, and out stepped a kindred spirit, a man who, like Rodham, carried himself too timidly to suggest that he led billions. Surprisingly enough, he came unarmed, without guards, and seemed unfazed by the Marines who hustled up beside him. “Mr. President,” he called in a thin lilt, then advanced and extended his hand.
Rodham took it. “If you’ll follow me?”
“I was disappointed that you called in those two battle groups from Saturn. Still, I admire your fortitude.”
Jerking his hand away, Rodham glowered at the wiry man. “We won’t go down easily.”
“You won’t go down at all, sir. Has the senate convened? I’m looking forward to explaining everything.”
“They’re waiting for you.” Rodham said, and you’ve made it all too easy, you bastard. “This way.” He led McDaniel back toward the waiting hover.
“They call me Maniac.”
“Do you know why?”
“What else do you know about me?”
Three painfully gorgeous blondes sat beside Maniac’s bed, cot, or whatever the flat thing was. The one who liked to talk had the brightest eyes and the longest hair, though the neckline of her robe could plunge a tad more dramatically. He would talk to her tailor about that. And legs... God, did all three have legs.
“Is that all you think about?” Ms. Bright Eyes asked.
“You mean sex? Yeah. I’m a guy. Duh.”
“What about the spirit?” the one with curly hair asked. “You should work on that.”
“Why? I mean, I’m dead, right? Who cares. You three are in my head or whatever, so let’s get down to business. Old Maniac hasn’t lit the pipe in a while.” He undid his sash, then let his robe slide open.
In unison, the three blondes crinkled their noses and dematerialized as Zarya walked through them. She glanced at his crotch and snickered. “That pipe’s not up to spec.”
He slapped the robe over himself and bolted from the resting surface. “I thought--”
“Me, too. But instead of lusting after these people, I asked questions. Everybody from First and Second made it. They didn’t want to kill anyone. And they say that they’ll eventually release us. And get this, they say they’re Pilgrims.”
“So where have they been hiding?” He eyed the shifting blue walls. “Is this one of their ships? Where the hell are we?”
“See, instead of drooling over those women, you should’ve been--”
“I know. So what now? Have you seen anyone else? How ‘bout Angel? She was with me when, well, I guess when we got taken here.” He grinned as the reality of his situation finally hit home. “Shit. I’ve been abducted by beautiful blonde aliens. No one will ever believe me.”
“Oh, God, I made the right decision.”
His expression soured. “To dump me?”
“I mean, think about it, Todd. For all intents and purposes we’re POWs. I’m over here trying to learn as much about our situation as possible, while you want to get laid. I used to think that your priorities were just screwed up, but now I realize that you only have two: flying and f--”
He put a finger over her mouth. “I know I got problems. And I know I have to do something about ‘em. I just feel like if buy into all this seriousness, I’m going to lose something, and I’ll never get it back.”
“You’ve already lost me, Todd. You working on your career next? I’m sure it won’t take long to ruin that. Blair tried to warn me about you. I said I’d take my chances. And I guess it wasn’t so bad. I only lost time.”
Maniac looked away, then dragged himself back to the bed. “When we first got together, you were talking about a soft monkey or something and trying to tell me that I was just on the rebound from Rosie. I kind of thought that was true. But then I just started thinking about you and being with you and learning everything I could about you. And that was it. And then when you came to the brig... I don’t know, I usually don’t get hurt. I’m pretty good about that. You know, just call up the next one, right? But for the first time in my life, I didn’t call.”
“You were locked up.”
He frowned. “You know what I mean. I just want it to work with you.”
“It’s too late. I can’t change you. That’s not my job. And you know what, Todd? You’ll get over me faster than I’ll get over you.”
“You don’t have to get over me.”
“Sorry. I’ve already stepped off the ride. Now if we somehow get out of this, we’ll still have to work together, so I’ll give you the professional courtesy you really don’t deserve, if you’ll return the same.”
“I won’t let you go, Zarya.”
But as he turned and gaped at the empty room, he realized that he already had. Shit.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the senate, over three centuries ago twelve hundred of us ventured out to the Sirius system, much like the original Pilgrims who packed up their ships and sailed across this world’s Atlantic Ocean. We’ve always been religious separatists, and that hasn’t changed. We reside now in a system that would take the sentient races of this galaxy a hundred billion millennia to reach. How did we accomplish this? I can only say that we did not do it alone and that we are no threat to you.”
If Rodham had a Confederation dollar for every hoot and guffaw that now met his ears, his wealth would span the aforementioned galaxy. The protests echoed throughout the stadium, and he waited a moment for them die off. But they didn’t. In fact, fifteen or twenty senators tried to push their way past the wall of Marines that separated the podium from the stands. “Order!” Rodham cried from his position behind Ivar Chu McDaniel. “Let him speak.”
“Senators,” McDaniel shouted, his voice rising so loudly above the racket that Rodham knew that the stadium’s sound system was not responsible. “We have no intentions of ruling the Confederation or the Kilrathi Empire. We’ve come for our people, for all those who are willing to come home with us.”
“What about the people you killed?” shouted a twenty-year-old woman whose holo ID read NYLATTA FABOR, NEPHELE. Fabor had the distinction of being the youngest woman ever elected from that world.
McDaniel raised a palm and produced a huge holograph of his own, a patchwork of thousands of real-time images of Confederation military personnel aboard Pilgrim warships. If he had used a device to create the image, Rodham didn’t see one. A hush fell over the stadium as some senators viewed the pictures with awe, others with expressions knotted by mistrust.
“A few did die,” McDaniel went on. “A few on both sides. But the majority of your people are safe and will be returned, along with their vehicles. We were forced to take a ship in the Sirius system that strayed too close to our master jump point. That vessel is already heading home.” The holograph switched to show a Confederation destroyer washed in the intense light of Sirius A as it sailed toward its battle group. “We’ve returned ships to the Kilrathi as well. And soon as we have our people, we’ll return the rest of yours and be gone.”
“An exchange of hostages, eh?” asked Fabor. “Why should we trust you?”
“Contrary to the belief of the Pilgrims who live here, these stars are not ours--they’re yours. Destroy them if you wish. We’ve found our own.”
Rodham shifted beside McDaniel to pose a question of his own. “So you came to save your people from the bombing. Why didn’t you come during the first Pilgrim war? Don’t you realize how many of your people died back then?”
McDaniel pursed his lips, and his eyes glazed over. “Our people started that war alone. And they had to finish it alone. It was a grave error, an act of hubris, and they paid dearly for it. But now they shouldn’t pay for one rebel’s ambition, a rebel who is, by the way, in our custody and will be returned to you for punishment.”
Once again, the holograph transformed into a three-dimensional image of Amity Aristee sitting in a blue room and speaking with an older man whom Rodham recognized as the Pilgrim protur Carver Tsu III.
“What’s to stop you from taking your people, then destroying us?” Fabor challenged.
“I can show you holographs. I can take some of you to the battlefields, where you can witness for yourself that our word is truth. But even after seeing it with your own eyes, there will always be doubt. That’s why your president has decided to hold me hostage until all of your people are returned.” McDaniel whirled to face Rodham--
Who looked suddenly to the Marine colonel. After a shout, several of the soldiers turned their weapons on McDaniel.
A hush fell over the senators.
“I came here unarmed and in good faith. And I understand your trepidation. You may keep me as a hostage. We estimate that it will take about a standard month for us to evacuate our people. In the mean time, I will live here with you and try to answer as many of your questions as I can. And do know that it is impossible to kill me, since my presence here is a subjective experience for each one of you.” With that, he vanished.
And now a half dozen Ivar Chu McDaniel’s stood on the dais. Then a dozen, two dozen, and suddenly scores of Ivar Chu McDaniels appeared in the gap between the podium and the Marines. They lingered another moment, then dematerialized back into the single McDaniel, who nodded and said, “Yes, it’s quite subjective.”
“Somehow, someone will get to him,” Bellegarde said, turning away from the comm monitor.NEXT
Admiral Tolwyn thought a moment, then nodded. “He’s a fool. Or he’s so powerful that he has nothing to fear.” Tolwyn glanced over his shoulder at the Pilgrim warship captain behind him. “Which is it Brotur Solomon?”
The man scratched at his beard as he smiled. “I was the executive officer aboard the Exodia, which is to say I’ve served under the Frotur for a very long time. The only fools are those who fail to listen.”
Tolwyn swiveled the command chair to face the robed captain. “All right, then. Your story matches his. But I’d rather a simultaneous exchange. The distinguished senator from Nephele has, shall we say, a sharp eye for the obvious. We’ll allow our civilian flotilla to land on your warships as you return our people.”
“Interesting how you so convincingly pretend that you’re still in a position to bargain,” Solomon said. “But we agree to your terms.”
“Excellent,” Tolwyn said, then rose. “Now get the hell off my bridge.”