(Note: The text that appears below is a pre-release preview which is taken from a version of the manuscript prior to final proof reading and formatting. As such, it may contain minor errors or typos which will be corrected in the final version of the novel.)
SEAN STRETCHED SLOWLY, MOVING through a well-rehearsed series of poses designed to properly seat her hardsuit’s under-layer. She could feel Reagan’s impatience but forced herself to ignore it. Properly fitted, she could live in her hardsuit for months, if necessary, but putting it on in a rush was always a bad idea. It practically guaranteed chafing or blisters, both of which were effective combat kills unless the wearer treated them with nanite gel.
Since nanite gel was a limited, and expensive, resource, she preferred to save it for less preventable problems, like sucking chest wounds.
“You need help with that?” Caila asked when she bent down to tighten the ankle straps.
“No, I’ve got it,” Sean said, glancing up to give her a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry so much.”
Caila shook her head. “Easy for you to say. You get to spend all your life-threatening injuries unconscious.”
Her tone was light, but Sean could tell by the look in her eyes that Caila was still upset. If they’d been alone, she would have said something to reassure her.
“If you two are done,” Reagan said, “can we figure out what we’re going to do about the pod?”
Sean looked over at her. “Have a little patience,” Sean said.
“Sean,” Caila said. Sean knew the tone she used well. It was what Sean thought of as her ‘please don’t say something that will make me regret letting you speak’ voice.
“Why did you feel the need to bring her with you?” Reagan asked. “The Council would have assigned a guard of a dozen Knights if you’d asked.”
“If they had, there would be thirteen dead Paladins instead of three.”
Reagan glared at her, and she shrugged.
“Tell me I’m wrong,” she said. “Tell me, of the four Paladins they did send along with her, how many did you see carrying her to the escape pod?”
“Stop it.” Caila reached up to rub her temples. “Twenty-nine people are dead. It’s not something for you two to score points off each other. If you two are going to act like a pair of five-year-olds, take it outside.”
“I’m just telling the truth,” Sean said as she started tightening her knee straps.
“Sean, you’re not helping. Besides, she does have a point. We’ve only got so much air and food on this thing.”
Sean closed her eyes, taking a moment to run through the list of supplies in her head. “Seven days’ worth of consumables for eight people. That gives us roughly eighteen days from launch, with two days already consumed. The water cycler is rated for almost a year of capacity use, and I’ve about a month’s worth of high-density ration packs in my personal kit. Divided three ways, and combined with the pod’s on-board supply, that will stretch the food to just under a month. The average human can go four to six weeks without food, so two months before we starve to death. That leaves O2 as the limiting factor. If it comes to it, we can bypass the pod’s scrubber and feed through my hardsuit’s life support system. That would give us another five days’ worth of air, but twenty-three days from launch is a hard limit.” Sean tightened the last strap, then walked up to the front of the pod, and sat down at the pilot’s station and started keying in commands.
“Any chance of a rescue in that timeframe?” Reagan asked.
Caila shook her head. “None. Even if the Olive Branch got off a distress signal, she didn’t have an Ansible onboard, and the Herculanians have control of the Ansible relays in-system. This was supposed to be a simple dispute over control of a hyperlane junction. There’s no reason for them to assume we’re in any danger. The First Consul won’t declare an emergency just because we don’t report in on schedule. Say, seven days before we’re officially declared missing, then three weeks for any follow up mission to get here.”
“In other words, if we wait for help, we’ll be five days dead before it arrives. And that assumes whatever help they send doesn’t hit the same minefield we flew into,” Sean said.
“So, what do we do?” Reagan asked.
“That’s a good question,” Caila said. “Another good question is why the Herculanians mined the hyperlane to begin with.”
“What makes you so sure it was the Herculanians?” Reagan asked.
“The Ptolemians are the ones who invited us here,” Caila said. “If they didn’t want us here, they could have just asked us to leave.”
“Is it possible the minefield was meant for the Herculanians?” Reagan asked.
“It’s unlikely,” Sean said. “We were squawking a Ptolemian IFF alongside the standard Republic code. So, unless the Ptolemians have decided to start blowing up their own ships, I’m guessing Caila’s assumption that the Herculanians deployed the minefield is a pretty safe bet. Which means it’s very likely any rescue ship is going to end up in the same condition as the Olive Branch.”
“That said, things aren’t quite as grim as they could be,” Sean said, looking up from the navigation console.
“What do you mean?” Caila asked.
“I checked our heading. The pilot of the Olive Branch knew what he was about. You remember the floor jerking out from under us?”
“Yes,” Reagan said.
“I thought it was an impact. It wasn’t. The pilot snap turned faster than the inertial dampers could compensate for. I’m surprised it didn’t rip the ship in half, honestly.”
“So?” Reagan asked.
“He stood the ship on its nose, which pointed all the escape pod launch tubes in-system.”
“So we’re headed in the right direction?” Caila asked.
“Not really. More like, we’re not headed in the wrong direction. We were lined up to make the trip at point seven-five C, which would have taken about an hour, but we dropped out of hyperspace right on top of the minefield, so we never got a chance to accelerate. We’re currently traveling at point zero zero two C. Which means, we’ll cross the orbit of Ptolemy about thirteen days after we were supposed to.”
“Not good. How far off will that make us?” Caila asked.
“Without running the numbers through the nav program, I couldn’t tell you exactly. Ptolemy is a little more than one point one AU from a G2V star, which means it’s moving in excess of thirty KPS. Best guess, I figure we’ll miss it by thirty-five million kilometers, give or take.”
“Why do I sense there’s a ‘but’ coming?”
“Because you’ve known me for thirty years?”
Caila grinned. “Really? It feels longer.”
“Laugh it up, shorty. Just remember who’s got the extra CO2 scrubbers.”
Caila held up her hands. “Point taken. So, how are you going to pull my ass out of the fire this time, oh great one?”
“Thirteen days isn’t long enough for the L5 point to come around,” Reagan said.
“We don’t need the point itself. Hand me my left bracer.”
Caila reached down into the pile of hardsuit pieces and pulled out the bracer, then tossed it to Sean. Sean caught it and keyed in the command to link it to the pod’s wireless network, then used the built-in holo-projector to bring up a diagram of the system.
“In a two-body orbital system with circular orbits, the Lagrange points would be perfectly stable. This system has twelve major planets, and a dozen or so minor ones, and no planet has a perfectly circular orbit. So, the only way to create a stable anchorage is to orbit the point.” Sean hit a key and a small kidney-shaped area behind Ptolemy appeared in the diagram. “This is the stable zone for Ptolemy’s L5 point.” A line appeared, passing between the icon showing Ptolemy’s location and the highlighted zone. “This is our current path.”
“That’s still not going to do us any good,” Reagan said.
“Oh, ye of little faith.” Sean keyed in another command, and a red cone appeared around the line marking their course. “The main engine is gone, but this is the area of space we can hit using the reaction control thrusters.” She entered another command, and the diagram zoomed in, showing the forward edge of the L5 zone and the red cone intersecting. “We can reach the L5 zone, barely, if we maneuver during the next four hours. The sooner we fire the thrusters, the deeper into the zone we get.”
“Well,” Caila said, “what are you waiting for?”
“There’s a tiny problem. Well, two, really, but one’s not terribly important.”
“Give me the unimportant one first,” Caila said.
“We’ll be completely out of fuel after the burn. The RCT’s were never designed for generating serious Delta V.”
“So, if we need to change course later, we’re in trouble,” Caila said.
“Great. So, what’s the bad news?”
“Ptolemy declared the L4 and L5 habitats sanctuary zones over fifty years ago. So, whoever picks us up—”
“Will be untouchables,” Reagan said. “You can’t seriously be suggesting we take a Grand Master of the Paladin Order, a member of the Inner Council, into a Harijan colony?”
Sean looked at Reagan. “Unless you’ve got a better idea, we don’t have a lot of choice.”
“Reagan,” Caila said. “Now would be a good time to be silent.”
“You’re still a Sergeant, barely past your vows. As you pointed out, I’m a Grand Master, and I gave you an order. Hold your tongue.” She turned to Sean. “Change course.”
Caila rubbed her eyes as the trance faded and thought longingly of walking across the pod and murdering Reagan in her sleep. It would be easy, really. Press her null lance against Reagan’s temple and activate the blade.
She wasn’t normally a violent person, and it was difficult for even the most unpleasant of people to try her patience, but trapped the way they were, she’d been denied her normal safety valve.
Normally, two weeks trapped in a confined space with Sean would have been a pleasant sort of torture. They would have worked their way through thirty years’ worth of shared jokes. Sean would have told stories from the years they’d been separated after she was expelled from the Order of the Paladins. Some of them might even have borne a passing resemblance to the truth. They’d have argued, teased, yelled, thrown things, and in the end, spent hours curled up together on one of the fold-down bunks, politely pretending not to want what they couldn’t have.
It would have been the same cheerful sort of misery that had filled her life even since Sean had charged back into it with an accelerator cannon blazing in a display of suicidal bravery some fifteen years earlier.
Reagan’s presence had turned those same two weeks into an unmitigated hell. She bristled every time Sean spoke, was rude to her, and seemed to take her competence as some sort of personal affront. Caila thought they were going to come to blows the day Sean had pointed out that the only reason they had weapons and armor at all was her insistence that they store their field gear in the escape pod’s equipment rack during the flight to Ptolemy. There was no peace, just hour after hour of endless, stifling tension.
She didn’t understand it at all.
She was used to having to pull aside Paladins she’d worked with and explain, in very pointed terms, just how unforgiving she would be of anyone who didn’t treat Sean with the utmost respect. She’d even had to warn a few of the more gossip-minded members of the Order just how unpleasant she could make their lives if they were of a mind to repeat any of the less savory rumors floating around. Sean, for her part, never seemed bothered by any of it.
Reagan was different. Subtle reminders would go unnoticed. Outright reprimands only seemed to make her angrier, and all of that anger was focused on Sean.
The worst part was, for some reason, the Sergeant got under Sean’s skin. Normally, Sean was unshakable. Sometimes, Caila was convinced she actually enjoyed the whispers, the wary looks, and the general discomfort her presence caused. Had it been any other Paladin, Caila would have expected Sean to respond to her attitude with a mix of amusement, scorn, and her usual inability to resist poking the hornet’s nest.
Instead, she’d taken most of the abuse in silence, punctuated by a couple of spectacular screaming matches, and yesterday, an argument that had very nearly come to blows.
Last night, after Reagan had dropped off to sleep, she’d asked Sean why she, of all people, got to her. To Caila’s surprise, Sean had refused to talk about it. That, in and of itself, worried her. Sean had always been completely honest with her.
Sometimes painfully so.
Sean’s silence had scared her so badly, she’d sought out the only refuge she had left. She’d retreated into meditation, casting herself into the Akashic Field, seeking answers there.
It had been a mistake.
She’d plunged into the well of knowledge and followed its threads. The entire reason she was the youngest Master in a thousand years, the reason the Inner Council turned a blind eye to her association with an excommunicate of the Order, was her gift as a Seer. She might be less skilled than most at using the Akashic Field in battle, but she’d yet to meet someone who could lie to her, and when she chose to look, threads of the future opened themselves to her like a book.
Which brought her back to her impulse to murder Reagan as she lay sleeping. She’d followed thread after thread into her future, and in hundreds of places, she saw Reagan causing Sean pain. Worse, there was another figure, one whose fate was so closely tied to Reagan’s as to be inseparable. Their threads had not yet crossed, but they would soon. Very soon. And once they did, there were only a handful of futures where Sean did not die at the end of this other figure’s null lance.
A Paladin would kill Sean.
She was tempted to do something she’d only done twice before, and only once deliberately. The night Sean had been dragged in front of the entire Order and stripped of her status as a Squire, Caila had looked into the Field and followed Sean’s threads. It had been one of the worst nights of her life. She’d known before she’d done it why Sean had been cast out. But there was a difference between knowing and seeing and seeing had shamed her so much that she hadn’t been able to look at her own reflection for months without feeling ill. It was the shame that made her follow the threads forward, to see what would happen to Sean after she left. So many of them lead into darkness and pain, she’d nearly turned away. She hadn’t, though, and it was only that fact that kept her from breaking, because she hadn’t found a single thread that didn’t lead Sean back to her.
She’d never let herself look beyond that moment. In the twenty years since, including seventeen years as the official seer of the Order, she’d never once followed her own thread. She’d always been too afraid.
She looked up towards the front of the pod. Sean was sitting at the pilot’s station. They were less than a day out from the L5 zone, and Sean was running the passive scanners hard, looking for Herculanian patrols, as well as any locals she could lay a whisker laser on and squawk a distress signal to.
So many threads. So many moments of pain. She wanted to look, to see if there was any way to avoid what she’d seen in Reagan’s future, but fear stopped her.
Paladins weren’t supposed to be afraid. They were supposed to be able to banish fear. They were supposed to be able to look into the Akashic Field and find peace and understanding there.
She’d always, very privately, scoffed at that idea. The only ones who found peace looking into the Field where the ones who saw it imperfectly. The truth of it was, she’d never followed her own threads, and never again dared to follow Sean’s because she was afraid of what she’d seen there the first time she’d followed Sean’s thread. The time it had happened accidentally. The horror of what she’d seen in those few moments still haunted her nightmares.
That’s why she’d worked so hard to become a Seer. She’d thought if she used her gifts, maybe she could keep those horrors from finding them. But she’d failed. She must have. Because there was no possible future where a Paladin could kill Sean without killing her first.
She reached into the Field and carefully nudged Reagan down into a deeper sleep. A more adept Paladin would have sensed it and woken up fighting, but Reagan was young, barely past her vows.
“Using your powers on other Paladins. Isn’t that frowned upon?”
Caila smiled. “So is insubordination, but that doesn’t seem to stop the young Sergeant.” She stood up and moved to the co-pilot’s seat, dropping down with a sigh. “Any likely targets?”
“I’ve got a drive signature off a tramp freighter. If it holds course, I should be able to lay a whisker on it in about ten hours. If nothing else, they’re bound to be interested in the pod. The stealth field generator alone is probably worth more than their ship.”
“Well, that’s good, assuming they don’t just kill us and take it.”
“You seem awfully sure of that.”
“Well, not all of us can be official Council Seers, but our threads lead to that freighter.”
“You’ve been following our threads?” Caila asked, a little shocked.
Sean shrugged. “Not far. You know me. I don’t like Looking. I just like getting shot less.”
Caila grinned. “Given the number of scars you have, I find that hard to believe.”
Sean laughed. “You’re the one who’s supposed to be this great Seer. Maybe you could duck a little more often, so I have fewer bullets to catch.”
“Maybe I could hand in my lance.”
Sean shook her head and started another sensor sweep. “Don’t joke about that.”
“Who says I’m joking?”
Sean went still, her hands gripping the console in front of her. “Caila—”
“You’ve said it before. We could take the Sniper Bait, head out past the rim, or get lost on one of the pastorals or a colony world.”
“I’ve said it. You’ve always been the one who told me it wasn’t possible.”
Sean let go of the console and turned to face her. “Why now?”
“Does it matter?”
“After fifteen years of waiting, you’re God-damned right it matters.”
Caila leaned back into the acceleration couch and considered her answer. She could lie, but Sean would never let her get away with that. Not considering what was at stake. But there was truth, and there was truth.
“You want to leave the Order because you’re tired.”
Caila nodded. “Yes. I’m tired of the way these idiots treat you. I’m tired of watching you get hurt for people who’d just as soon spit on you as acknowledge the fact that you’ve done more for the Order than most Paladins on the Inner Council. But mostly, I’m tired of wondering when one of my missions is going to get you killed.”
Sean shook her head and turned back to the console. “You’re not ready yet.”
“It’s still about the Paladins. It always is with you. What they need, how they’re acting. You’ve let them define your whole life, and you’re still doing it. So, no.”
“Wait. For fifteen years, you’ve been asking me to leave the Order, to run off with you on that rust bucket of a ship, and when I finally agree, you turn me down?”
“First, the Sniper Bait isn’t a rust bucket, and I’ll remind you that it’s saved your life no less than twenty-seven times. Second, yes. I’m turning you down.”
“Thirty years and I still don’t understand you.”
Sean looked at her. “I love you, Caila.”
“You’ve got a strange way of showing it.”
Sean just gave her a sad smile and turned back to the pilot’s console. “You’ve got a gift for missing the point.”
Reagan shifted in her sleep, her mind straining towards consciousness. Akasha called to her. Something was coming. Something important. She was never one of those Paladins who believed in destiny, but no one who looked into the Field and followed its threads could deny the existence of what the sages called ‘knots of fate’. Places in time and space where dozens, sometimes hundreds of possible threads of time collapsed down into a single intersection. A fixed moment in time that was seemingly unavoidable.
Those moments had a way of calling to Paladins.
She opened her eyes. Caila sat across from her on a folded-down bunk, her legs folded with her hands resting on her knees. A perfect lotus. Her breathing was the slow rhythm of a deep Akashic trance. She was tempted to reach out and follow the thread of her trance. Thread following was a practice most masters encouraged, but something told her it would be an unwelcome intrusion. Caila was well known for holding herself away from the other Paladins. ‘The Hermit’ was among the nicer nicknames her eccentricities had earned her.
“Don’t even think about it,” Sean said.
Reagan looked at her, though all she saw was the back of the pilot’s acceleration couch. She had to bite her tongue. It took a few deep breaths to fight down the stab of anger she felt towards her. She wondered, not for the first time, why she hated her so much. She was a Paladin. Her loyalty was to the Akasha, the Paladins, and the Republic. The actions of any one individual should be meaningless in the face of her duty and her vows.
She just couldn’t forget what Sean had meant to her. How important it was to the small, lonely child she’d been to know she had a sister right there in the Amber Citadel. Any more than she could forget the shame she’d felt when she found out that the sister she looked up to so much had betrayed the Order. Or the anger she felt at the way she continued to disrupt the Order, though she had to admit, much of the blame for that lay with Caila.
“Think about what?” she asked, as calmly as she could manage.
“Following her into that trance.”
“What business is it of yours if I do?”
“Funny you should use that word, business. Her privacy is one of the things I’m contracted to protect. So, legally speaking, business is exactly the right term for what it would be.”
She glanced at Caila again but admonished herself for the impulse to follow her trance. She’d already made the decision not to before Sean had spoken, and the only reason she could find to change her mind was simple spite. The fact that the temptation was so strong said unpleasant things about her character.
She stood up and moved to the co-pilot’s acceleration couch.
“Where are we?”
“We passed into the L5 zone about an hour ago, and I’ve laid a laser on a tramp freighter. Just waiting for the attenuation numbers to drop low enough that I can punch an actual signal through.”
“How’d you decide on which freighter to signal?”
“That was easy. I picked the only one that would be in range.”
“Are you always this cavalier about her safety?”
“You’re about to cross a line you don’t want to cross.”
“I have a duty here as—”
Sean turned to face her, and the look in her eyes sent a shiver of fear down Reagan’s spine.
“If I had my way, we wouldn’t be here right now,” she said. She turned back to the pilot’s console. “If I had my way, we would have brought the Sniper Bait instead of that senate-issue death trap, and those twenty-nine people would still be alive.”
“You seem awfully sure of that.”
“I’ve been cleaning up the Paladins’ messes for a long time. I’ve gotten very good at it.”
She opened her mouth to say something, but she couldn’t find the words. Much as she hated to even think it, Sean’s characterization of her job was a lot closer to the truth than anyone would care to admit.
“And, coming into range now.” Sean hit the transmit key, and Reagan watched as the power indicator on the comm laser jumped. Nearly two minutes passed without anything happening, then the freighter’s icon on the navigation plot changed heading. “Well, they’re on their way. Here’s hoping they’re friendly.”
“If they aren’t?”
“Then I’m going to have to kill a lot of people.”
Reagan looked at her again. “How can you be so casual about it?”
She shook her head. “Not casual, Reagan. Honest. Don’t know why. Been nothing but honest all my life, and it’s never bought me anything but trouble and pain. Just stubborn, I guess. Or stupid. Hard to tell the difference sometimes. Especially in yourself.”
“You haven’t always been honest.”
She turned and looked at her, then smiled. It wasn’t a kind smile. It was a pitying one. “If it makes you feel better, you just keep telling yourself that. But you might want to ask yourself why lying to my master was the one charge leveled against me that I did not admit to.”
Reagan shifted in her seat, not wanting to look at Sean anymore. She wanted to argue with her, but the truth was, only a handful of people knew what happened the night Sean had been arrested, and she wasn’t one of them. She’d stood with the others and listened to the edict of excommunication, but all the charges had been frustratingly vague, and Sean was right. She had stood in front of the Order, and admitted her guilt in every charge, except lying to her master.
She turned to the co-pilot’s console and brought up the freighter’s transponder and looked at her name. Last Hope.
The Akasha pulled again, harder than before. Almost reflexively, she threw her perceptions open, following the threads. It was like trying to run through an ocean of spider webs. Thread after thread fell towards a single point in spacetime. Hundreds of them. Thousands. Millions. More and more threads, until they were beyond counting, yet they were immaterial.
“They’re possibility threads.”
It took her a moment to realize Caila had spoken. She floated off to Reagan’s left in the Akasha, staring into the convergence.
“I don’t understand.”
She smiled. “Neither did I, the first time.”
“What does it mean?”
“That each of these threads is tied to a certain moment, but that the significance of the moment is in flux.”
“How is that possible? Convergences like this are fixed.”
“The convergence, yes. It’s unavoidable. But unavoidable does not mean important. Waking up in the morning is unavoidable. Emptying your bladder is unavoidable. But those things are rarely important. This moment, this convergence is unavoidable. But whether it’s important or not, that’s left up to you. Whatever decisions you make will determine whether this moment affects the fate of trillions, or if it’s merely the universe taking a piss.”
“You’ve spent too much time around Sean.”
She shook her head. “Give me from now until the end of time to spend with her and I still wouldn’t call it enough. But then, I was too much of a coward to admit that when it might have changed something.” She raised her right hand and pointed towards the knot in front of them. “Remember this moment, Reagan. You’ll need to find your way back here.”
“How do you know?”
Caila laughed, but it was a cold, bitter sound. She turned, shifting her whole body so Reagan could see her chest. Her robes were ripped open from neck to waist, baring her blood-stained breasts. Between them was a thick smear of nanite gel, covering a ragged-looking wound, and a pressure bandage was wrapped around her stomach. From the amount of blood, it looked like it might be the only thing holding her guts inside. Oddly, it was the smeared, bloody handprint on the left side of her face she couldn’t take her eyes away from.
“I’ve seen you make the wrong decisions.”