The protur’s concubines had treated Karista, Dennet, and Fey to a meal of local vegetables, cheese, and sweet cider, which they had devoured as though it would be their last. Afterward, everyone had gathered into a circle for a tyristee session of meditation and prayer led by Dennet, whose fundamentalist shouts had made the rectory walls quake in ecstasy. Then, in the early evening, the trio had set out for Sostur Inanna Pandathy’s cabin in Ardenta, some five kilometers due west.
That had been two evenings ago, and they had only come about three kilometers since, having lost countless hours hiding from the Marines whose relentless patrols had Fey swearing to the high heavens and Dennet trembling with the desire to jump one of them. They had taken refuge in a workshop where Pilgrim icons were manufactured. They had hid under the display racks of a clothing shop, its heavily bearded owner barely able to answer the Marines who questioned him. They had hiked along an embankment just off the main road and been severely bitten by ghytis flies, who made homes near the stagnant ponds that paralleled their path. They had trudged through the dank, humid air of early morning and had winced over the blisters on their feet.
Now, with robes pulled tight against the evening chill, they skulked along a two-meter-high trioak fence that separated a residential zone from the factories of a small town called Credence. Dark warehouses stretched off to their right and abutted yet another residential zone, the faint light of cabins flickering in the damp air.
As he had from the beginning of their trek, Dennet took the lead. While Karista had argued that they should take turns walking point, Dennet had insisted that as a Caravan and a man he must assume the most vulnerable position. Karista and Fey had finally assented to his ego, but Karista kept within a few paces, and Fey followed equally close.
Which was why the four Marines who suddenly jumped the fence had little trouble surrounding them.
“Halt!” hollered the tallest soldier, his shoulder light beaming in Karista’s eyes.
Even as she reached out of herself and brought him down, the second Marine swung to train his rifle on Fey, while the third and fourth jammed their muzzles into Dennet’s abdomen as he reeled back toward the fence.
Fey dove for the fallen Marine’s rifle.
Karista brought down the soldier tracking Fey just as he fired. The round missed Fey’s head by a hairsbreadth.
But one of the Marine’s guarding Dennet turned before Karista could get to him. The shot made her stiffen and stagger back, her ears ringing so loudly that she thought she had been shot herself.
With the barest of groans, Fey dropped into a clump of weeds.
The Marine who had shot her shifted his aim to Karista, his gaze darting between her and his fallen comrades. “Gosa? Jimenez?”
Karista immediately squeezed his innards until he joined his friends.
“Yontillo? Yontillo?” cried the last Marine, who retreated two steps from Dennet. “What did you do? Tell me!”
Knowing she could drop him faster than he could fire, Karista braced herself for a final surge of extrakinetic energy.
But as she stepped out of herself, pulling her senses taut, her arms and legs felt like tremendous columns of durasteel. She thought she saw the night sky tip on its side to reveal the underbellies of a billion stars before she crumpled to the dirt.
The shuffle of footsteps, the sun’s heat pulsing down on her cheek, the agony of strained muscles in her arms, and the pungent scent of perspiration bid Karista a brutal good morning. She opened her eyes and found herself slung over Dennet’s shoulders, a sheet of tan grass bobbing below and carrying her swiftly toward nausea. “Dennet?”
Sans one of his glib replies, her friend stopped, gasped with exertion, then slowly lowered her to the ground. She sat up and surveyed the landscape--a sparsely wooded area with stands of taka trees drifting back toward a dark brown ridgeline. She suddenly realized where they were: in Ardenta’s Validity Park, a protected zone for wildlife and in this case, rogue citizens. They had traveled over a kilometer since their encounter with the Marines, and with the memories returning in a surge, Karista stared through the grass and thought of Fey.
“So...” Dennet began, hunkering down.
She finally regarded him, then flinched as she saw the dark worm of a bloodstain covering his right shoulder. “What happened?”
He noticed her stare and lifted his robe by the collar. “Single round. Conventional. It’s not bad. And he paid dearly for it.”
“You took down a Confederation Marine?”
“Who killed my friend,” he finished through gritted teeth. “She’s still back there. Wonder if they’ll pick her up. So much woman packed into a tortured little frame. Ivar has a special place for her. I know that.”
“Oh no,” Karista said, her gaze shifting to his feet, which were now swollen and caked with blood. “You didn’t have to carry me. You should’ve--”
“I needed to walk. So I did.”
His abruptness startled her. “Are you all right.”
He sighed, lowered himself onto his rump, then stretched out onto his back. “I’ve been an outsider all my life. Too tall, too thin, too outspoken. And along comes this war, giving me yet another reason to stand outside. I even had a dream that I was in a place like this, with a woman like you. I was in love with her. And we struggled that day for ways to be happy. We weren’t. We created our own barriers and made them too high to hurdle. Isn’t that what we always do?”
Karista pulled herself to her feet. “Come on. It’s my turn to carry you.”
Though not fully recovered from the night’s toll, Karista felt strong enough to reach out with extrakinetic senses and lift him into the air. She started for the ridgeline, with a squirming Dennet behind her.
“You’re wasting your senses on me,” he cried. “Put me down.”
“Oh, shut up and enjoy the ride.”
With the Hall of the Great Assembly destroyed by terrorists, the approximately twelve hundred senators and interim senators from Confederation-held worlds had gathered in one of Washington D.C.’s nearby sports complexes, in a zero G stadium now set for Earth standard so that the only thing floating around the room were vicious exchanges. The senate had lost two hundred and twenty-nine of its members, had lost its buildings, and had, as a result, lost something that threatened to undermine it even more than those losses. Without a sense of decorum, the senate would be doomed.
So it was with great trepidation that Geoffrey Tolwyn stepped up to the podium and addressed the raucous representatives, having indicated on his control panel that he would accept questions throughout and after his address from any member present. “Distinguished senators, colleagues, and friends. I’ve spent the last two days rushing here so that I could address you on a matter as dire as the Kilrathi War itself.”
“Yes, a volatile situation created by your ill-conceived response,” shouted a portly senator in the front row who wore a Pilgrim robe and whose holo ID flashed in a three-meter-wide billboard: GORUNGA SYLBOONE, PILGRIM ENCLAVE OF SPIRITIA. “Threats of Pilgrim genocide are not the way to deal with terrorists. And neither are no-fly zones. Hundreds of thousands have already died, Admiral. If nothing else, you’ve perfected a means of population control.”
A roar lifted in the stadium.
But Sylboone had no time to enjoy the reaction, as he had already broken into a shoving match with two senators from the Lafayette system who fully supported Tolwyn’s plan to bring Pilgrim doomsday on one-five-eight.
Vice-President Harold Rodham, who sat behind Tolwyn and appeared the epitome of smartly dressed Confederation blue blood--right down to his waxed cheeks and surgically defined jaw--rose and hustled to Tolwyn’s side. Though not a tall man, his booming voice seemed to add several inches to his height. “As interim assembly master, I call for order!”
“I call for peace,” replied Sylboone.
Rodham trained his index finger on the man. “Another word, senator, and I’ll have you removed. Now, the Admiral’s come a long way. He has the floor. Admiral?”
Tolwyn returned a polite nod. “Thank you, Mr. Vice-President. Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve come here to ask for your endorsement of the ultimatum I originally issued to Aristee. I know you’ve already voted to have the military stand down if she fails to comply with our terms. But consider what we will accomplish by doing that. I know Aristee. She’ll regard that as sign of weakness and make another attack. The threat must remain real. I don’t want to destroy those systems and enclaves, and I’m sure you agree with me on that count. I am willing to begin moving all those citizens to Pilgrim safe camps already established throughout the Confederation.”
Sylboone rose. “So you don’t want to kills us--just destroy our land and enslave us!”
That sent a ripple of hoots and guffaws through the assembly, and even before the commotion died, two security officers elbowed their way to Sylboone. One stunned the senator into flaccidity with his pistol, then both carried off the triple keg of a man amid a second round of hoots.
“Senators, our military resources are strained. I assure you that the Kilrathi will take advantage of our situation. There are eight days left. Aristee knows this. If she’s still alive, she’ll bring in that ship.”
“But what if she’s not?” asked the senator from North Mars, a tall, middle-aged blonde woman named Kendall Duparis, an influential member of the Armed Services Committee whom Tolwyn had pissed off on more than one occasion. “Will you destroy the systems and enclaves simply because you don’t hear from her?”
“I’ve wrestled with that point for many days now,” Tolwyn confessed. “I’m worried that if we do nothing and she’s still out there, then she’ll attack. I’m also worried that if we destroy the systems and enclaves, only to learn later that Aristee has been killed by us or the Kilrathi, then we’ll never live that down. I seek your endorsement, but I’ll take full responsibility for whatever happens. If you need a fall guy, I’m it. We issued the ultimatum. We should stand by it.”
“Don’t you mean that you issued the ultimatum?” Duparis asked. “Space Marshal Gregarov testified before us and tried to smooth things over for you, Admiral. You’re lucky we’re at war with the Kilrathi and need personnel. Nevertheless, you may have already made a decision that will end your career. Many here have already called for your resignation.”
“I’m well aware of that, Senator. But I will not yield to terrorism. And anyone in this room who endorses such an action should study the events of the first Pilgrim War more closely. We tried to negotiate. We failed. A massive, concentrated strike on the systems and enclaves will not only send a clear message to Aristee but to the Kilrathi as well. We’ve eight days to move those people. If I may be so bold, I motion that you vote on this plan.”
Forty minutes later, Tolwyn stood in the hoverlot outside the stadium, leaning on his ride and engrossed in a computer slate that showed the senator’s votes as they came in. Finally, the polls closed. “I guess I should celebrate,” he told his driver, a young ensign, second class, who repeatedly raked hands nervously through his hair and failed to meet his superior’s gaze. “Winning by a two percent margin isn’t that bad.”
“No, sir. It isn’t.”
“I’m being sarcastic, son.”
“A lot of people are going to die.”
“Yes, sir. This is a war, sir.”
“Indeed it is--a fact that too many people forget.”
Tolwyn’s watchphone beeped: incoming message from Lieutenant Commander Vincent Chopra, JAG office. “Yes?”
“Hello, Admiral. We heard you were in Washington. Would you mind stopping by our office today? We have a few questions.”
“That’s very good,” Tolwyn said with a wink. “You really do make it sound like a suggestion. I guess the space marshal warned you that sending MPs would just tick me off.”
“Uh, yes, sir. She did. She said you wouldn’t run.”
“She’s right. I’m on my way. And I suppose that once I arrive, I’ll be under arrest?”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“That’s okay, Commander. Be sure to prepare the evidence against me and Commodore Bellegarde. I have a right to see it before you question me.”
“Very well, sir.”
“JAG office, then, sir?” the ensign asked.
“No,” Tolwyn said, climbing into the hover. “Let’s stop at a bar first. Have you ever sipped Scotch with an Admiral, son?”
“Well, it’s nothing to write home about, but I’m buying.”
“Are you ordering me to drink while I’m on duty, sir?”
“Son, I’m about to brought up on charges of conspiracy, sabotage, and murder. Ordering you to drink, well, you get the idea.”
The ensign cocked his head and eyed Tolwyn sympathetically. “What happened, sir?”
“Oh, it all started with this silly idea I had of joining the Confederation Navy. Just drive. We’ll talk on the way.”
Blair stood at parade rest in Gunner’s office. “Sir?”
Gunner sat in his chair, hands clasped behind his head, boots up on his desk, gaze riveted to a data screen. “Lieutenant, I’m just reading here that the little honey who’s the JAG liaison had three welders arrested for your beating. No names have been released. Thought you should know.”
“Sir, permission to leave so that I may speak with Lieutenant Commander Jhinda, sir.”
“Request denied. And not by me. Says here that no one from this squadron--including me--shall consult with the Lieutenant Commander, which I gotta say really rubs me the wrong way.” He slid his boots off the desk and leaned forward. “Let me get this straight. Three guys beat you up in the sim room. They’re all wearing welders uniforms and masks, so you can only ID them by their voices, which sound kind of similar and muffled because of the masks. You told me yourself that she had you trying to ID over a hundred different voices and none of them sounded like your boys. So how the hell did Jhinda tag ‘em?”
“I don’t know, sir. But I’d like to ask.”
“Me, too. Tell you what, Lieutenant. Let me do a little hunting myself. No one’s ever managed to keep old Gunner in the dark for long. Pisses him off. And when Gunner’s pissed, the whole parade goes to hell.”
“Yes, sir.” Blair snapped to attention.
Blair found Lieutenant Commander Obutu waiting for him in the corridor outside Gunner’s office. “You got them?”NEXT
Obutu shook his head. “We brought in Jhinda to help. No one’s been arrested. The report is fictitious and meant for our perpetrators.” Obutu gestured that they walk to avoid being seen by Gunner.
“You think he’s responsible,” Blair asked, cocking a thumb over his shoulder.
“I would’ve bet everything on it. But no, he’s not.”
“Then I already know them,” Blair said. “I’ve served with them. Maybe it’s my own flight crew. Shit, why don’t you just tell me?”
“Then maybe you’re lying. Maybe it was Gunner and his people. I thought you wanted me to transfer just to get me out of the way, but maybe you threw me into the den. And Maniac told me about your little drinking binge and confession to everyone at the bar that you’re a Pilgrim. You really want to get your ass kicked, don’t you.”
“It’s been a few days. The word has gone out that I’m a Pilgrim--and nothing’s happened. The JAG investigation has our boys worried. We needed to put them at ease, so we arrested three others to build up their confidence. That’s all I can tell you.”
“And when they strike again, everyone will know that the real assholes are still on the loose. What academic thought up that part of the plan?”
“Do remember, Lieutenant, that we’re not dealing with the brightest of individuals. They will seize another opportunity, especially after security returns to normal shifts.”
“Yes, sir. And sorry for being rude, sir.”
They reached his hatch, and Blair gave Obutu a piercing stare. “Still won’t tell me, sir?”
“If the same happened to me, I wouldn’t trust myself.”
“The same will happen to you.”
“I hope so--because this time we’ll be ready for them.”