The holograph of Ivar Chu McDaniel addressing the Confederation senate faded, and Blair gazed over at the Ivar Chu standing across from him on the warship’s bridge. “If that’s McDaniel on Earth, then who are you?”
“I understand your frustration,” said the Pilgrim leader with a weak smile. “We’re not clones. Think of us as parts of the whole. You’ve seen this ability before. You just didn’t recognize it.”
Blair glanced sidelong at Paladin, who simply shrugged.
“Now you gentlemen have a decision to make. You are Pilgrims, and I invite you to come with us. In truth, we’re all human beings with a burning desire to explore. And there’s so much out there.”
“I’m tempted,” said Paladin, squinting in thought. “Sounds better than a court-martial.”
“I hope you make the right choice. Maybe it’s time that your life became your own.”
They shook hands, then McDaniel cocked his brow at Blair. “What about you, brotur?”
“He said, I mean you said, that it would take a month or so to evacuate everyone. So I guess I have some time. But I swore an oath to the Confederation, both of us did. If we leave, we’ll break that oath. Most of my friends would say I’m nuts. But from the day I learned I was a Pilgrim, I’ve been trying to figure out whether I’m a human, Pilgrim, or what. Maybe it’s no big revelation. Maybe I’m just both.”
McDaniel nodded. “You’ll be an inspiration to those who remain.” He proffered a hand, which Blair took. “If you’d like, you can head back to the Concordia. An exchange is in progress now. I’ll leave you on our flight deck.”
Suddenly, the ceiling rose fifty meters and blossomed into a dome. The bulkheads stretched back twice that distance. The harsh but wonderfully familiar scents of hydraulic fluids and burning thrusters wafted toward Blair as he gazed across a hangar the size of a small metroplex, a hangar configured for Confederation craft. Before he could take in all of the magnificent facility, he spotted a familiar pilot weaving past Pilgrim and Confederation personnel, ducking under loading ramps, and leaping over fuel lines. “Sons of bitches,” cried William Santyana.
“Thought you went up with the Olympus,” Paladin said. “Or were taken out by the cats.”
“We got out on a troopship before the Olympus blew. The cats were closing to pounce--”
“And you woke up here,” Paladin finished. “Just like us.”
Santyana nodded. “Thought we had died.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t wait for you,” Blair said, remembering the pain of launching in the Diligent without Santyana and his family.
The ex-test pilot grabbed Blair’s shoulder and squeezed. “Forget it, Mr. Blair. You did your job. That’s all anyone could’ve asked. Are Karista and Maniac here?”
“No, she’s on the Concordia. I don’t know where he is.”
“So what’re you doing now? Leaving?”
Blair looked to Paladin, who only sighed.
“What?” Santyana asked. “You can’t tell me you’re going back? Not with an offer like this.”
“What about you?” Blair asked. “Thought you hated Pilgrims.”
“I settled on Mylon Three to get away from this bullshit. I’ve already done my time with the service--and then some. Just wanted to raise my family on a little farm. Now I can do that and never have to worry about the Confederation guilt-tripping me into coming back.”
“So you believe everything these Pilgrims say?” Blair shook his head. “They’re very humble for people with this kind of tech. That bothers me. What if they’re lying? What if the reason they came back has nothing to do with saving us. What if you go, and it turns into a nightmare?”
“You think they’ve come to enslave us or that they’re cannibals in search of a food source? This ain’t a bad holo. I’ve felt what they feel, and I know what they know. I’ve never come this close to feeling right about my life. You should come. It’s the only way you’ll know what I mean. I don’t want to sound like a mystic, but it’s the truth.”
Paladin shifted restlessly, then abruptly extended his hand. “Good luck, Mr. Santyana. Godspeed to you and your family.”
“Thank you, sir.” Santyana regarded Blair, his expression as sober as they came. “Think about it.” He snapped off a salute, turned, and strode away.
“At least someone around here is sure of himself,” Paladin said.
Blair crossed in front of his mentor. “So, what’re you going to do?”
“Talk to her,” Paladin said, his gaze riveted to a group on the opposite side of the hangar. He bolted off.
And Blair bounded into his wake.
Amity Aristee, an older man in protur’s robe, and four Pilgrim soldiers marched toward a Confederation troopship that had just landed.
Paladin shouted for them to hold, and the soldiers regarded him with scowls that faded as he drew closer. The group paused, and Paladin arrived, gasping for breath.
Blair came up hard behind Paladin and realized that he had just run headlong into a bittersweet reunion sure to become a bitter good-bye.
“James,” the older man said with a wry smile. “Come to see us off, eh? Now you’ve no reason to gloat. Yes, I’m sure that the Confederation will find a way to execute us, despite the long and costly litigation. I would’ve loved to have gone with these Pilgrims, but they don’t understand that radical behavior can only be suppressed through the same. They think they’re punishing us, but they’re not. We’ll die martyrs. Wasn’t the whole point to draw them here and save our people? Bill Wilson’s death means something now--as will ours.”
“Still love to hear yourself talk,” Paladin said with a groan.
“You’ll die with us,” Aristee said, her eyes burning. “It’s too late for us and the Confederation.”
Paladin reached under his robe and freed the Pilgrim cross she had given him. He turned it over and read the inscription: “To James. Remember love across the distance. Remember me. Amity.” He thrust the cross toward her. “I don’t need this to remember,” he said, grimacing. “How could I ever forget?”
Aristee retreated a step and would not accept the cross.
Bearing his teeth, Paladin threw it at her feet, then hustled away.
“No, you won’t forget, you bastard,” Amity cried. “You think this will make you feel better? It won’t. We’re paired, James. That’ll never change.”
Blair gazed after Paladin, then soured his expression as he faced Aristee. “You just wanted to save your people, but they didn’t need saving. Most of them were pretty happy where they were. Some of them will go now; some of them won’t. And all you’ve done is make life rougher for those who stay.”
“You still don’t get it,” she rasped. “Maybe when you’re old, lying in your death bed, it’ll come to you, and you’ll regret those words.” With a snort, she drove herself past the guards and toward the troopship.
As Blair turned to catch up with Paladin, he suddenly found himself staring in a mirror. His hair had thinned and grown white. Age spots dotted his wizened forehead. His shoulders slumped and his chest sagged. The mirror shattered, and the pieces hurled back across a scarred and blackened landscape that he recognized as Washington D.C., Earth. Pilgrim fighters and bombers streaked overhead, dropping unceasing salvos. Fires raged. Pillars of smoke supported a dusty blanket of sky.
A hand slid across his neck, and he found his mother standing beside him on a mountain of rubble. “You won’t be able to stop this, Christopher. Nor will you remember this vision until the day it comes to pass. You’ll have your life to live. And one day, people will think that you’re dead. But you won’t be. You’ll live to see this. And I want you to know that it wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t your fault...”
Commander Obutu shook Blair’s shoulder.
“Damn, I’d like to visit that world you go to. Must be a nice place. Anyway, I got word that you and the commodore were leaving. They sent me down here. Where’s our ride?”
“I don’t know,” Blair said, repressing a chill and trying to remember what had just happened. Amity had said something, and then... oh, well. Weird.
“Hey, there we are.” Obutu pointed to a Confed Marine posted at the foot of a troopship twenty meters to their left. The Marine waved them over. “When we get back, Lieutenant, let me do all the talking. We’re AWOL, remember?”
“Yeah, and the commodore’s a traitor. Guess there’ll be a line of screw-ups waiting to see the admiral.”
Commodore Richard Bellegarde dug his fingernails into his palms as the ship carrying Amity Aristee and Protur Carver Tsu III set down in the Concordia’s aft flight deck. The hatch slid open, but no one appeared.
Finally, a Marine sergeant trudged down the ramp and met Tolwyn and Bellegarde. “Sir? I’m sorry, sir.”
“Where are they?” Tolwyn demanded.
“Still in the hold. We didn’t think the leaves were poisonous. They must’ve eaten some on the ride over. We tried to revive them, sir. We did everything we could.”
As the sergeant finished, two Marine’s carried Amity Aristee’s body down the loading ramp and placed it on the flight deck. They headed back inside, presumably for the protur.
“The Kilrathi call it zu’kara,” Tolwyn muttered.
“I call it justice,” Bellegarde said coldly. “Just wish we had a chance to interrogate her first. Really wanted to see what makes her tick.”
“She did get the last word, though, didn’t she. And she’ll certainly be remembered--especially by you.”
“You owe her a great debt, Richard.”
“She gave you the chance to demonstrate that you can handle a fleet. I have a feeling that our days together are numbered. And I mean that in the best possible way.”
“Don’t think I’ll get that fleet, sir. My actions here have been, at best, questionable. I disobeyed direct orders from the space marshal. Then there was that little incident where I, well, shot her.”
“Language is a wonderful tool for, shall we say, designing the truth. I’m sure we can work it out.”
“Next ship’s coming in now,” Bellegarde said as the warning lights near the energy curtain flashed. “Paladin, Blair, and Obutu are on board.”
“Very well. When they’re ready, send them up to the ward room.”
Karista welcomed Blair into the sick bay with a smile that made him feel too warm. “I thought you were going up for a meeting with the admiral,” she said.
“Already? I thought you said that Paladin might be court-martialed and that you and Obutu would be charged with going AWOL. I figured that would take a while.”
“Obutu and I will probably pay a fine and serve out a suspension to make Gerald happy. Paladin’s still up there, and I don’t know how he’s remaining calm considering that he just found out about Aristee. Gives me the chills. I just talked to her. Thing is, with her dead, he can make up any story he wants because there are no witnesses left to disprove it.”
“But he won’t do that, will he.”
“No. He’ll just tell them the truth and let them sort it out. I don’t think they’ll court-martial him. But you never know.” Blair sat on the edge of her bed and took one of her hands in his own. “You and I, we should--”
“Christopher, there’s not much to say. We both know what’ll happen now.”
“But you don’t have to go,” he said, tightening his grip on her hand.
“You don’t have to stay.”
“But I have to because--”
“And so do I because... you see what I mean?”
He held back a curse. “I just don’t understand why you have to go.”
“I’m confused about you staying. It’s just what we have to do. And yes, this is good-bye, but just for a little while. I’ll contact you, somehow, and tell you all about it.”
“No, you won’t.”
“You’ll be surprised. Now hug me, say you’ll miss me, then leave and don’t look back.”
Karista buried her face in the pillow and wept for a few minutes after Blair had gone. Then she lay for another hour, just staring at the stump of her leg until muffled voices from just beyond the hatch broke the trance. A tall flash of white caught her attention, and she suddenly felt rejuvenated as Dennet crossed tentatively into the room. “You made it,” she uttered through sigh.NEXT
“Obviously. Now Kari, I--” He spotted her leg. “They’ve quite a defense set up here. Took me nearly an hour from the time I was brought aboard.” He looked away from her stump.
“It’s okay,” she said. “You can look at it. And they say they can grow me a new one.”
“Who says? Confed doctors. Forget them.” He hovered over her, then seized her shoulders. “Kari, you wouldn’t believe what these Pilgrims can do. I tried to get off McDaniel, but I got shot by a pigheaded Marine. I mean, I was dying, Kari. Dying. The wounds have almost healed.” He pulled back his robe to expose a finger-nail-sized scab. “They saved my life.”
“Wish I been there,” she said. “I still owe you.”
“You owe me nothing, except, well, I was hoping for some company. I hear it’ll be a long ride.”
“Don’t worry. I’m going with you. There’s a park out there somewhere. We can struggle for ways to be happy. And maybe happiness is in the struggle.”
“I know you don’t love me. That’s okay.”
“Ah, yes, another poor fool with delusions of what lies in a woman’s heart,” she said, mimicking his accent. “Thought you were smarter than that.” She rose on her elbows, and he helped her up. “See that powerchair? Get me to it.”
“Kari, are you sure about this?”
“Neither am I.”
“It’s settled, then.”
She grinned. “I guess it is.”