(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 FELT IT BEFORE it happened. A future echo like the one that had warned them that the Olive Branch was about to die sounded in her mind, warning her of the sudden spike of terror about to tear through Reagan. She dropped her hand to her franger as she slid her acceleration couch away from the pilot’s console and turned towards Reagan. She stopped short of actually drawing the franger when she saw her. She was frozen, sitting perfectly motionless, gazing out through unseeing eyes.
“Echo trance,” Caila said.
Sean nodded. “Yeah. Not a pleasant one either. You feel it?”
“It’s what woke me up.”
Reagan jerked away from the co-pilot’s console like it had bitten her, all color draining from her face as she scrambled back. She overbalanced and Sean leaned forward, catching her before she could roll off the acceleration couch.
“Easy does it, tiger,” Sean said, the old endearment rolling off her tongue without a thought. She gave Reagan a small shove to shift her weight back onto the furniture. “You okay?”
Reagan looked around the pod. Sean waited, trying to tamp down her worry. She remembered all three times she’d slipped into an echo trance perfectly. None of them were even remotely pleasant memories, made worse by the confusion afterward. It was like waking up from a nightmare with no idea where you were.
Reagan’s eyes locked on Caila and she let out a sigh of relief. Sean tensed up as sympathy for Reagan was replaced with worry for Caila. Her hand tightened on the franger’s grip. If Reagan had a vision about Caila that caused a reaction like that, something was wrong.
“What is it?” she said.
“Give her a minute, Sean.”
“We might not have a minute,” she said. She reached out and gave Reagan a shake, which seemed to bring her around a bit. “What did you see?”
“I…” She shook his head. “I’m not sure. It was confusing.”
“Not good enough.”
Caila placed a hand on her shoulder, and Sean felt the confusion, concern, and frustration rolling through the other woman, but she stepped on the desire to stop and explain. Find the danger first, comfort Caila later. It was a simple rule. It made her feel like a cold-hearted bitch more than once, but it had also kept them both alive for a decade and a half.
Reagan looked at her, and Sean could see the anger starting to build in her face. Anger was good. Anger she could work with.
“Out with it. What did you see?”
Reagan looked up at Caila.
“Tell her,” Caila said, “please.”
“A knot of fate. A big one. More threads than I could count. Thousands. Millions maybe. And it’s close. But there was something wrong with the threads. They were thin, more like smoke trails than real threads.”
“Possibility threads,” Caila said.
“That’s what you called them,” Reagan said.
“What I called them?”
Sean saw her face redden. She’d given away more information than she’d intended, and Sean had to push through the warring urges inside her. The part that wanted to protect Caila wanted to grab Reagan and beat the rest out of her, but the part of her that still loved her sister was horrified at the thought and wanted to protect Reagan just as desperately as she wanted to protect Caila.
Reagan nodded her head. “You were there, towards the end. Well, not you. Another you.”
“A possible future version of me was with you in the Field?”
Reagan straightened, bristling with anger. “In the Akasha.”
Sean could feel Caila roll her eyes at that one. “Fine. A possible me was with you in the Akasha. What else?”
“She… You… The other you said that the knot was inevitable, but my decisions would determine if was important or if it was just—”
“The universe taking a piss,” Sean said, finishing her thought.
Reagan nodded. “I thought that sounded like something you’d come up with.”
“It wasn’t,” Sean said. “Just an expression I’ve heard before.” She didn’t even need the skeptical look Reagan was giving her to know neither her nor Caila believed a word of it. She could feel Caila’s eyes on her and knew without looking that Caila was wearing her ‘we’ll talk later’ expression. Didn’t matter. She’d been stonewalling people on that particular topic since she was five.
“Well, I haven’t,” Caila said. “Which makes it odd that I’d use it.”
The pilot’s console beeped. Sean looked over. The freighter would be within tractor-beam range in less than ten minutes. She stood up and headed for the equipment rack near the pod’s boarding hatch. “It wouldn’t be odd if you were trying to send me a message.”
“Why would I send you a message through Reagan?” Caila asked.
“You’re the expert on causality dynamics. You tell me. Just armor up first. We’re about to have company.” She pulled her gear kit and helmet off the equipment rack and dropped them next to the pistol. She unzipped the ends, then unrolled the kit. “Come on, we don’t have all day.”
“What makes you think they’re hostile?” Caila said.
“You pay me the Order’s hard-stolen tax revenue to be paranoid, remember?”
Caila snorted and started towards the equipment locker. “I don’t see you complaining about where the money comes from when I authorize the deposit.”
“I don’t see you complaining about the twenty percent discount you get because Order contracts are tax exempt, either.”
“And here I thought I was getting a deal because you like me.”
“Well, I do like you. Just not twenty percent worth.”
“Hmph!” Caila pulled Reagan’s bag off the rack and tossed it to her, then pulled out her own bag.
Sean turned back to her own gear, forcing herself to ignore Caila stripping naked less than two feet away. Instead, she looked over her weapons with a sigh. She really wanted her accelerator rifle and pistol, along with the grenade launcher and sniper cannon, but taking any of them would be a mistake. She’d gotten too used to fighting dirt side over the years, and too used to having the thousand-round magazines that accelerators sported. But frangers were better for boarding work. They didn’t punch through things like bulkheads, environment plants, and hypertaps.
She pulled on the ammo harness for the frangers, locking it to the connection points on her hardsuit then picked up the twenty-millimeter pump action franger, fed twenty slugs into each of the two tube magazines, fed one into the chamber, and double-checked the power collector. Once she was satisfied, she shut her weapons case and dropped it back into the equipment rack, then turned to check on Caila.
Caila was just fitting the last side panel into place. Sean reached down and closed the latch. Caila gave her a smile.
“You know I can do this myself, right?”
Sean just shrugged and looked over Caila’s armor. “I wish you’d let me get you a real hardsuit instead of this Paladin crap,” Sean said.
“What’s wrong with Paladin armor?” Reagan asked, and to Sean’s surprise, she sounded genuinely curious.
“Accelerator rifles and needle guns will cut right through it,” Sean said as she checked the power collector on Caila’s suit. “A heavy enough franger could cause spalling and—”
“I don’t want to walk around in thirty kilos of armor all day,” Caila said, cutting her off before she could finish enumerating the armor’s deficiencies.
“With a proper set of boosts, you wouldn’t even feel it. Not to mention, you’d have a better chance of surviving if anything got through the suit.”
Caila just smiled and started putting on her robes. Sean sighed again. Like most of their arguments, it was an old one. Sean was more concerned with keeping Caila alive, while Caila was more concerned with fulfilling her vows as a Paladin. Part of that, to Caila, was keeping up appearances to those outside the Order. Even if it did mean walking into a firefight in less armor than a hover biker would wear on a trip to the corner market.
The comms console chimed, announcing an incoming message. She walked up to the pilot’s station, stepping around a frowning Reagan on the way, and accepted.
“This is the SS Last Hope calling the escape pod. Do you require assistance?”
The voice was male and young. That didn’t mean much. She’d joined a frontier mercenary legion at fifteen. On the other hand, it could mean it was a family ship. That would be good. It would make it a lot less likely she’d have to kill anyone.
“Last Hope, this is Escape Pod Seven, late of the RDSS Olive Branch. Affirmative on the assistance. Our main engine was damaged during launch, leaving us adrift.”
“Understood Seven. Standby for tractor-beam. Do you have environment suits?”
“Negative.” It wasn’t quite a lie. If she put on her helmet and sealed it, she could last a week. The Paladin suits didn’t have helmets, and while their force fields could hold an atmosphere, the rebreathers they had were only good for about forty-five minutes in hard vacuum.
“Understood. This is going to take a little longer, in that case. We’re going to have to cross load some cargo so we can bring you into one of our holds. Give us about thirty minutes.”
“Acknowledged. And thank you, Last Hope.”
She looked up at the ship through the forward viewport. Its hundred-meter length dwarfed their five-meter pod, but even so, it was just a bulk freighter. Assuming the crew were using bots, you could run one with eight people. Six, if you really pushed it.
She glanced behind her. Reagan and Caila were both looking at her. She turned back around and dropped into the pilot’s seat. It didn’t surprise her. Independence wasn’t really encouraged in the Paladins, so when she gave an order, Reagan followed it out of simple habit. As for Caila, they had worked out their roles long ago. Caila was the negotiator, the diplomat. Sean kept her alive long enough to do the negotiation, or busted heads until both sides were ready to listen. So, she was in charge. She had to make this decision.
She hadn’t quite lied to Caila earlier, but she had never been completely honest with her either. She didn’t need to follow the threads. She could feel them without trying. Where they led, when danger was coming. She’d known from the moment the ship appeared on the scope that they would end up aboard her. But Reagan had asked the question that had been in the back of her mind. Was it important, or was the universe taking a piss?
There was one way to find out. She could follow the threads. It would cost her, it always did, but if Reagan was seeing a possibility knot, she didn’t really have much choice.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then let it out slowly, letting her awareness ride the air out of her body.
She wasn’t even fully immersed in the trance when she felt the presence she’d been dreading.
She turned to find the Red Lady floating in the Field, waiting for her. The same visage she’d seen every time she entered the Field since she’d first received her implants. She was a tall woman, regal, with a beauty that was tempered by care, hardship, and age. She wore her long white hair in a tight braid that fell to her waist. Her knuckles were swollen and calloused, her face slightly sunken as if she’d gone too long without rest. The way she stood spoke volumes about both the quality and quantity of combat training she’d received, but the grace with which she moved was something you’d expect to see in a member of the upper castes, the Patricians, the corporates, the bankers, or as was more likely in the Red Lady’s case, the Hetaera courtesans.
There were also the scars. One across the back of each hand, as if someone wanted to cut the tendons leading to her fingers, and one running from above the hair line down the right side of her face, right over the eye. Sean had never felt the need to wonder why her right eye was bionic.
But the left eye was what always left Sean at a loss. The dark gray iris surrounded by reflective silver sclera. Despite the rarity of the species, that particular trait was almost legendary. She was a Hathoran. Which made no sense at all. There had never been a Hathoran Paladin. The Hathoran were among the dozen or so subspecies of humanity the Paladins flatly refused to admit.
Purple lips curled into a smile that Sean always found unsettling.
“Stubborn as ever.”
“I don’t have a lot of time.”
The Red Lady laughed, but Sean could feel the emotions behind it, and amusement wasn’t one of them. Bitterness, sorrow, regret, and anger, but not amusement. She moved, stepping out of Sean’s field of vision, giving her a clear view of the largest knot she’d ever seen.
“This is what you’re looking for,” the Red Lady said. “This is the beginning.”
“The beginning of what?”
“What I’ve warned you about for the last thirty years. War. Death. Ruin. The end of history.”
Sean felt as if a lead weight had settled in her stomach. She turned to face the Red Lady. “These are possibility threads. This isn’t set in stone.”
“You’re below the Event Horizon. Up is the past, down is the future, and we’re all falling at the speed of light. This moment is the inevitable singularity. It will happen. But remember what I’ve always said. Inevitable does not mean important. Waking up in the morning is inevitable. Emptying your bladder is inevitable. In this moment, this one moment, it’s your actions which will determine whether any of this matters, or if it’s simply the universe taking a piss.”
“What do I need to do?”
“Make a choice.”
Sean turned back to the knot. “But which choice?”
“That depends on you. I can only tell you what I’ve always told you. There are two futures. One has centuries of peace. One is full of war and death. One leads only to pain, suffering, and oppression. The other leads to an age of freedom such as has not been seen since before the founding of the Republic itself. Caila is the balance point. If she lives, one future. If she dies, another.”
“Which future are you from?”
The Red Lady looked up at the knot and Sean knew she was about to get the same answer she always got when she asked that question.
“I’m from the best and worst possible future.”
“You’ve always said that.”
“It’s always been true.”
“It’s a bullshit answer.”
“Of course. Because for thirty years, it’s been a bullshit question. You’re out of time for games, Sean. Why don’t you ask what you really want to know?”
Sean wanted to yell and scream. She wanted to rage and throw all the tantrums she never had as a child because Pages and Squires in the Temple were disciplined and respectful. Not because the Red Lady was avoiding her question, but because she’d come closer to the truth than either of them had in all the time that they had known each other. Despite all the vague warnings the Red Lady had given her, and all the frustration over the years, there was one question Sean had always been too afraid to ask. One she’d hinted at and danced around, hoping to find out without ever asking, so she could ignore the answer if she didn’t like it. Now, staring at the moment that would fix the destiny of the galaxy for generations to come, she no longer had a choice.
She had to ask.
“What should I do?”
The Red Lady stared at her for a long time, the silence hanging between them like a curtain. Then, finally she turned back to the knot in front of her. Sean watched as tears rolled down her cheeks.
“Take Caila, climb aboard the Sniper Bait, and vanish into the Colony Worlds or the Outer Rim. That’s what I hope for every time I see you.”
“But that isn’t the future you’re from, is it?”
“Do you really have to ask?”
“No. But you still haven’t answered the real question. Which future is the better one? The one where Caila lives, or the one where she dies?”
“That isn’t one of the questions you asked, is it?” the Red Lady asked without ever looking away from the knot. “You asked me which future I’m from. So, I’ll tell you. I’m from a future where I lay awake nights, praying that the warnings I’ve given you will convince you to flee. I’m from a future where I know that she offered to leave the Paladins and run away with you.
“You asked me what you should do. So, I’ll tell you. You’ll get a chance, before the end, to run. The ship will be there, you’ll be standing on the ramp, and someone will say you can’t leave. They’ll say you have to go back. Ignore them. Take Caila and go. Run away with her and never look back. Not even if the galaxy tears itself apart.”
Sean wasn’t sure if it was the Akashic Field, or if it was just the tone of the Red Lady’s voice, but she could feel the woman’s pain as if it were her own. It was a raw, gut-wrenching pain, as if everything in the universe that mattered was about to be taken away from her. It was a feeling Sean had a little too much firsthand experience with.
“She offered to leave with you. Take her up on that offer. Don’t wait, Sean. I know what you’re waiting for, and I tell you, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that she’s willing to go. Accept that for what it is.”
“If I do, what will happen to the rest of the galaxy?”
The Red Lady didn’t reply. Instead, she just faded from sight. Which, in the end, was all the answer Sean really needed. She turned and looked at the knot that presented her with a choice. Caila or the galaxy. Not much of a choice, really. Not for her. The answer was obvious. She would save Caila.
The galaxy could burn.
Coming in the second half of 2023 from Desert Palm Press