by Kathy Tyers
High Commander Brennen Caldwell rushed upship from his sleeping cabin. A tightly closed service hatch vibrated visibly as a metallic bell rattled bulkheads. The starboard deck seemed to be sinking, which meant the Daystar had to be turning hard. In all his trips across this quadrant of Federate space, Brennen recalled no such maneuver.
This alarm bell was no drill.
The service corridor ended in a hatch. Brennen pressed his palm to a side panel, and the hatch slid aside. The alarm jangled even louder in the passageway beyond.
He stepped in. A guard in Sentinel midnight blue stood beside a wider hatch. Between one stride and the next, Brennen scattered his mental shields and saluted. The guard was shielding his thoughts heavily. Not even emotion seeped through.
Brennen restored his mental shields. “Permission to enter, Lieutenant.”
The guard slapped a control panel. It gave off a sweet piping sound as the wide hatch slid aside. “High Commander on the bridge,” the guard called.
Brennen strode through. The guard followed. The hatch slid shut behind them, muffling the klaxon’s metallic shriek.
Very well, Holy One. Brennen sent the words subvocally out into the universe. Trying to alter chain-of-command could cost lives, and he’d been a warrior since his youth—but just now, for only the sixth time in his long life, he’d heard a distinct holy Voice. I’m here, he prayed. Use me!
Daystar’s six-station bridge was shaped like a blunt wedge surrounding a black acceleration chair. To starboard, he recognized Major Tewana Kirzell sitting at Systems—her grandfather had flown under his command at Netaia—but he did not know the equally young shields officer seated beside her. The main sensors screen dominated the wedge’s apex, and a startlingly young man sat beneath that screen. Beyond Sensors were Pilot and Engineering.
For the moment he kept his eyes on those personnel, not the sensors screen high on the bulkhead, nor the nav monitor below it. Six crew members, plus the guard: seven imperiled lives. I see, Holy One. I will do what I can.
Brennen paced straight to the Commander’s acceleration chair. Passing Shields and Systems, he resisted the temptation to check those officers’ status boards or their emotional state.
Commander Cort Harris spun the central chair. His chin tilted upward. Sir, Harris subvocalized directly to Brennen’s mind, we want you and Lady Fi in Secure.
Not this time. Brennen took a few seconds to explain subvocally to Commander Harris what the Voice had told him to do. As he subvocalized, the pilot and the engineering officer—two more Sentinels in their late twenties—called off numbers to each other.
“Line twelve, eight six percent.”
“Eight six, confirm.”
“Execute.” Commander Harris turned back around. Brennen felt his reluctance. Apparently Commander Harris wasn’t shielding his emotions in Brennen’s direction. Only if you’re sure, sir.
Brennen dipped his chin. More than sure.
Commander Harris spun the chair away. Carry on, then.
Forty-six years ago, Brennen had also occupied a command chair. Today they faced no human enemy, which made some choices easier. This bridge didn’t need to be fully staffed.
Brennen turned and saluted the guard who had piped him in. “Sentinel, I relieve you. Get to Secure.”
It was harder than it used to be to sense others’ emotions. Still, through Brennen’s thinned shields he felt the guard’s surge of gratitude and a sudden wave of fear. Obviously, the guard had controlled himself on duty. He hesitated a moment, looking Brennen up and down.
Brennen squared his shoulders, knowing the young Sentinel saw a body still trained and taut but unmistakably eighty years old—his white hair thick, his shoulders thinning. “Go,” Brennen murmured.
The hatch slid aside. For a few horrendous seconds, clanging filled the bridge again. Bootsteps pounded away, and the hatch slid shut.
Next, Holy One? Pilot and Engineering kept singing off numbers behind him, a syncopated bass-soprano duet.
Sensing no clear reply, Brennen fell back upon common sense. He strode forward to Systems Officer Tewana Kirzell. “Major Kirzell, I relieve you. Get to Secure.”
Without even glancing at the command chair—after all, Commander Harris hadn’t countermanded Brennen’s previous order—Major Kirzell unbuckled and stood. “Thank you, sir.”
He returned her salute and gestured her toward the hatch.
She too fled. The horrendous clanging rattled the deck and again fell silent.
Brennen eyed the slanting systems board as he sat down and buckled in. On the display, half the gleaming status lines blinked cautionary yellow, one shone orange, and two had already gone red. Emergency power was on line.
Systems wasn’t his specialty, and he couldn’t run this station as well as an experienced systems officer, but for one watch, that wouldn’t be necessary. He switched off a nonessential grid and linked another to timed sweep, and he double checked everything Major Kirzell had done. Once Daystar had passed the threat up ahead, Major Kirzell could fix anything Brennen had botched.
Finally, satisfied by the stabilized readings, he stared up and forward, into the main sensors screen.
At the enemy’s eye.
The star designated Sabba Six-alpha did look eerily like a gold-rimmed eye, focusing its brilliant pupil toward Daystar’s external sensors. The main monitor would normally be split into six quadrants. At this moment, a composite image filled the array.
Coronal mass ejection, the physicists would call it—a black blaze headed directly toward them. After a century of relative stability, Six-alpha was flinging out a spray of radiation and charged particles that would have dwarfed Brennen’s homeworld.
Below that display, the sensors officer spoke softly. “No outrunning that, is there, sir?”
“No.” Brennen also spoke aloud, out of courtesy. “And if it takes down our shields, every one of our civilian passengers will be dead in minutes.” His wife and granddaughter’s faces appeared in his mind. Tenderly he dismissed the images and returned to his task. Military ships carried powerful slip, particle, and energy shielding, and military grade shields might have easily deflected this assault. The group aboard this shuttle had been denied a small cruiser, though, since Elysia to Tallis was a passenger route. If only…
In light of the current political situation, Brennen hadn’t pressed.
And not even full shields would completely protect them, up here in the crew cabin.
His right hand trembled. He stilled it, seeing a dark irony: That deadly sun was a natural object, the Holy One’s creation, while in every cell of his body he was a genetically altered human, the only Thyrian Sentinel in history to sit on the Federate High Command.
Frowning, he pushed up onto his feet. He reached the forward station in a few strides—it was strange how the aches vanished when there was a job to do—and he grasped Sensors’s backrest, looking down over the young man’s shoulder. Unfortunately, in the shock of sudden retirement and evacuation, he’d never bothered to learn the younger crewers’ names.
Sensors’s boards looked grim. Half the ship’s external eyes had blinked out in the ejection’s first wavefront. The other half gave impossible readings—to be expected, as they crossed this unusual region. Physicists had predicted more major activity here within ten to twenty thousand years.
But not this soon. On the nav monitor, along the graphed vector that Daystar would travel—they had too much momentum to significantly change it—bubble-like wavefronts pulsed like coals, fanned by solar wind gusts.
Even in quasi-orthogonal slip space, this storm could kill.
Brennen cudgeled his memory, trying to bring up Sensors’s name. He couldn’t even address the young man by rank. No Sentinel, not even a High Commander, wore any rank insignia other than the small gold star on one shoulder.
Sensors glanced up at him.
Brennen frowned. “Wavefront. We’re going to fly straight through one.” He raised his head and looked aside.
Pilot and Engineering sat staring back at him. “Yes, sir,” Sensors answered. He looked no older than Brennen’s eldest granddaughter.
She should have reached the secure cabin by now. Firebird Mari would take care of her.
Commander Harris spoke. “We’ve altered pitch and initiated a turn. We can use the particle stream for extra broadside propulsion. It should drive us into that shadow lane fairly quickly.” He pointed toward the main display. “If we don’t lose thrust.”
Brennen narrowed his eyes, focusing an excellent pair of lens implants, his only physical concession to age. Six-alpha’s dwarf companion star cast a conical shadow on the monitor, a narrow safe zone that pointed north-spinward into the Federacy’s Tallis region. He looked over his shoulder at Commander Harris. “How long will we be critically exposed?”
“Best guess: two point six hours. Peaking eighteen minutes, six seconds from now.”
Brennen’s certainty wavered. Service didn’t always require martyrdom. “Is there anything more we can automate for three hours?” He would’ve liked to see his family’s prophecies come true. His own children hadn’t fulfilled them, but his grandchildren were reaching their twenties.
Assuming the Federacy didn’t—
He cut off the thought. No time for it. “Can’t we automate for twenty minutes?”
Commander Harris waggled a hand. He gripped a sideboard on his chair with his other hand, his shoulders slightly rounded. Brennen didn’t envy the load he carried right now. “Auto systems are fluttering. Tricky course.”
Brennen understood. If Harris could have emptied the deck of personnel, he would already be commanding this ship from its hardshielded secure cabin.
Brennen saved regrets for later. In sickbay. “Good.” He turned back down toward the young man at Sensors, the most vulnerable position on this bridge in a radiation event. “Then I relieve you.”
The face looking back up at him had lost all color. “Sir, you—”
“Sentinel.” Brennen let his voiced interruption deliver the threat of authority. Then he sent privately, We’ve seen all we need.
Sensors glanced at the command chair. This time, Commander Harris frowned deeply before he swiveled away—but again, he did not object.
Sensors glanced down at his armrest panel. Every crew member had one of these. It recorded vital signs, including cumulative radiation exposure. That light still shone green. “Sir.” He unbuckled hastily, stood, and paused to salute. “Thanks.”
Brennen seized his upper arm and leaned close. “Don’t panic the passengers. Control your emotions.” Better than anyone else on the bridge, Sensors knew what would shortly wash through this ship.
Dispersing his mental shields again, Brennen felt the young man strengthen his ayin static cloud. “You may inform them that this is no drill if they don’t already know. Tell them we’re on the safest course, but don’t frighten the civilians. Remember, there’s an outsider on board.” Unfortunately, Annalah had brought a friend.
“Yes, sir.” Sensors touched his eyebrow again. He glanced at the hatch.
“Go,” Brennen ordered. “And switch off that alarm.”
The hatch slid aside and shut again.
In the silence that fell, Commander Cort Harris stared his direction and raised an eyebrow.
Brennen subvocalized, We can’t change course now. Can we override the failsafes?
Negative. Civilian shuttle—
Right. There must be human hands on Pilot’s and Engineering’s controls. Anyone else?
Harris flicked a glance to starboard. Tully has a sick son at Tallis, but we need Shields.
Yes, we do. Brennen let Harris feel his regret. He might still relieve the young pilot, but at Shields, as at Engineering, he didn’t feel even marginally competent. If the oncoming surge took down slip-shields, there’d be nothing left of the Daystar but quarks. For the next 2.6 hours, even life support—completely automated—would remain secondary to the shuttle’s civilian rated slip, particle, and energy shields. Balancing them would take trained oversight.
Very well, Commander Harris’s subvoice said at the back of Brennen’s mind. Commander Harris pushed out of his acceleration chair and strode aside. “High Commander, the Daystar is yours. Shields, I relieve you. Get downship. I am about to seal the bridge.”
Shields didn’t pause to salute. As the hatch opened and shut one last time, the pilot gripped his steering rods. Engineering shifted a hand on her own board.
The four of them would ride into the storm together. I’m sorry. Brennen wanted to send them all that thought—especially the pilot, whom he might have saved—but he knew better than to distract them now. There were civilians to protect, including his wife and one of their granddaughters, and Annalah’s friend Meris. The other Sentinels also had family aboard. Brennen kept two beloved faces in his mind’s eye as he sank into the command chair. Commander Harris buckled into the acceleration seat nearest the sealed hatch.
Staring up at the enemy on screen, Brennen recalled a hymn that had sustained him years ago, on another desperate flight:
Holy Speaker, Shaliyah,
With your own hands lift us past sorrow
To your land before time, where you are the light,
And there is no darkness at all….
He glanced down at an armrest, called up a duty roster and identified the pilot and engineer: Sentinel Captain Danton “Dusty” Harris, Sentinel Lieutenant Dijka Gardner. Was it still possible that they might not all take fatal doses? Please, Holy One. They could still live for decades. “Sentinel Harris, Sentinel Gardner.” He swiveled his chair slightly to port. “It’s an honor to serve with you. Thank you for remaining on station.”
“You too, sir.” How could such a young looking man have such a deep voice? Just beyond his station, Lieutenant Gardner nodded and pressed her lips together. Perhaps she’d been tempted to bolt for Secure.
Brennen swiveled the chair starboard again. Beyond the empty systems station, Commander Cort Harris—our pilot’s father, uncle, cousin?—sat staring back at him. Realizing he’d let his mind’s ayin shields thicken again, Brennen dispersed them in that direction. Commander Harris had the slightly uneasy savor of a man wanting to ask questions. What is it? Brennen subvocalized privately. Might as well ask. We’re staring down death.
Commander Harris’s shoulders relaxed a few degrees. I’ve just been wondering, sir. Very unprofessional, I know—but you were Head of Intelligence. Did you get the evac order any more pleasantly than I did?
Brennen compressed his lips and swiveled the command seat forward once more. As he locked it down, he shot a thought in Commander Harris’s direction. Probably. A handsome but firmly worded request that I take retirement, so that my well-trained Assistant Head could move smoothly into my office. Mari and I will be glad to be closer to the grandchildren. I’m sorry if you were summarily dismissed.
About exactly that.
Unable to see the nav board beyond Sensors’s empty chair, Brennen flicked a finger toward one of his sideboards. A miniature display appeared over his tri-D projector. Daystar was visibly closer to that wavefront.
I wondered if Elysia was getting as uncomfortable for you in your office as for me at my command. Commander Harris’s tone, normally disciplined and firm, felt oddly mournful. All those years of service. Nearly all of us, doing all we could for the Federacy. They’re turning on us anyway.
They’re afraid of us. For good reason. Brennen kept scrolling through primary displays. Had he missed anything?
Commander Harris’s subvoice continued. With you and Lady Fi gone from High Command, there’s not one of us left. Not even the students in school. Annalah among them.
Brennen nodded. It had been good to have his granddaughter close enough for visits, these three years.
What’s next, Commander Harris added. Mass murder?
Brennen glanced back up at the screen. The cosmic eye had started to cloud. The wavefront was upon them. We know one thing, he sent Commander Harris. A holy promise is at stake. We will not die out until Boh-Dabar comes.
Maybe all those prophecies just pointed to you, sir. You burned out the Shuhr at the Golden City. And I can’t see the Whorl turning to one of us. Commander Harris’s tone sounded dubious. Not anymore.
Brennen also had doubts. Politics were getting ugly. Still, he answered as calmly as possible. We don’t know the future. A yellow warning light appeared on his right armrest: Daystar’s automated life support system was diverting power to the gradually strengthening shields.
Commander Harris, manning those shields, subvocalized again. And your granddaughter’s friend onboard—she has powerful parents. If Meris Cariole is hurt or killed along with us, there could be repercussions for our… survivors.
That’s also out of our control, Brennen returned firmly. How are shields?
Commander Harris glanced down. Holding.
A red light appeared on Brennen’s armrest. Beneath the yellow life-support warning, a radiation alert now glimmered.
Daystar was well shielded for normal space.
But not for this situation.
Save us, Holy One!
Body, relax. Mind, be still. I fear what I only imagine.
Meris Cariole sprinted up an empty passway and shifted her internal focus to a more powerful Collegium litany. She must not dwell on the danger. Mind, you are calm. Body, you are strong.
A falsely tranquil, androgynous voice drifted down from the bulkhead: “Passengers, report to shelter area. Please walk. Do not endanger yourself or others by running. Passengers, report …”
She careened around a corner and was absorbed by a crowd plodding along in soft shipboard slippers. A green light flashed up ahead. Someone shouted. Heads turned right and vanished through a hatch. Breathing hard, Meris let the flow carry her through the doorway.
The secure cabin was barely adequate for thirty passengers, as she’d learned in yesterday’s shelter drill. Grey metal containers lined the bulkheads. Ventilation fans hummed softly, but it smelled close anyway. Blue striplights high overhead cast an eerie light on stressed faces. Since nearly everyone on board the Daystar could speak mind-to-mind, it seemed weirdly quiet. She’d gotten used to people around her acting strangely, cocking their heads or staring as if listening to voices she couldn’t hear. In this moment, it felt freshly ominous.
She paused just inside the door, heart thumping. Where was Annalah?
She spun around. Several people knelt around something down on the deck, including her college room-partner Annalah Caldwell. Annalah straightened and waved. “Meris!”
Meris guided on Annalah’s coppery hair and a glimpse of something redder—blood?—as she shouldered between two older people. “Med student. Let me through.” Was Annalah hurt? They might all die of radiation, but maybe not—and here was an immediate crisis.
A youngster lay on the textured black deck, a boy of maybe ten or eleven. Face shocky, blood spurting from his thigh. Jagged bone poked through his pant leg. Meris swallowed, her throat suddenly thick. Fractures weren’t her school specialty, nor Annalah’s. Still, that bleeding had to be stopped, and there was no MedSpec on this shuttle’s passenger manifest. She shoved aside her fear of radiation as she reached the group. Swiftly twisting her hair into a rope, she knotted it at the back of her neck. “Tell me what to do. Is there a styptix kit?”
“I just sent for … here it comes!” Annalah’s river of red hair was already tied back. “Simple fracture, thank the Holy One.” Annalah scooted aside, and a man wearing a midnight blue uniform tunic wedged himself into the kneeling circle and sank down. He pushed a red metal container at Annalah. Annalah plunged both hands into the box and tossed Meris a sterile wipe. Then she went back to digging.
The injured youngster whimpered. A black-haired woman knelt beside him, gripping his hand and trying to turn his head away. She plainly didn’t want him to look at the ugly injury. Since he wasn’t screaming, she probably was doing something mental against his pain too.
Or maybe not. Meris scrubbed her hands with the wipe, wondering how in the starry Whorl a child could have broken a femur in this small space. High above this deck, the stacked containers looked climbable. Had he been playing up there?
If he hadn’t been lying there bleeding, she might have envied his freedom. She focused on the moment’s need instead, eyeing her room-partner’s progress. Step one always was to treat for shock. Someone had covered him with a grey blanket. Next, stop bleeding—would they need a tourniquet? No, Annalah had a stypix kit. Third, reduce the fracture. That would be next.
Actually, it was good to think about something other than having her chromosomes cooked. Femoral fractures required major traction. It looked like they would have plenty of strong help.
Still, that looked like a lot of blood. Meris addressed the black-haired woman holding the boy’s hand. She couldn’t be many years out of school herself. These Sentinels married so young! “Can you do anything special to slow down that bleeding, too? It looks like the bone nicked an artery.”
“Wait!” Annalah donned pale blue exam gloves. “This should do it.” She tucked a hand into the wound, spread its edges, tucked some tiny objects inside, and sprinkled white powder. Welling blood crusted rapidly.
Absorbable sponges, styptix powder—just like in school at Elysia Central.
Except this time, they were light-years from Elysia and about to be bathed in hard radiation—
Don’t think about that! Meris commanded herself. Mind, you are calm. Body, you are strong.
Annalah hadn’t stopped talking. “They can’t put him in t-sleep until the fracture’s reduced. He might need to be transfused, too.” She dug deeper into the red box. “Marta, Kason, one of you might need to donate.”
“Of course.” A man kneeling beside the black-haired woman nodded, his face almost as pale as the child’s.
“All right.” Annalah straightened. “We’ll try the reduction. I want our biggest and strongest holder on his shoulders. Kason, you don’t weigh enough. Take the uninjured leg. Marta, keep cutting his pain.” She looked around the circle.
Meris did too. “Come on. Move. Somebody heavy, take the shoulders. One hand under each arm.”
The others rearranged themselves. Meris scooted into a position opposite Annalah, careful not to jostle the patient. The black-haired woman sprang up and made room for a burly man wearing snug grey shipboards. Really, it was impressive how these people rallied together.
She mustn’t envy them either.
“Okay.” Annalah glanced left, then right. “Count of three. One.” The burly man leaned forward. “Two.” The father and another man tightened their hands around the boy’s ankles. “Three. Pull!”
Meris closed both hands around the leg just below the break. She must angle the broken end toward his pelvis … someone cried out, close by … Annalah would push and manipulate the upper stub … once the injured leg muscles were pulled taut, releasing pressure from the femur, those bone ends ought to move easily … she felt disoriented, trying to aim one jagged end toward the other….
There! A distinct relaxing of muscle tension. Annalah had rejoined the ends. “Don’t stop pulling,” Meris ordered the traction team. “I’ll anchor. Annalah, how’s the artery?”
“Bleeding’s stopped. Getting ready to fuse and brace it.” Annalah reached into the kit again. “You’re doing great, Rex. Just another minute.”
Meris relaxed slightly. With standard shipboard med gear, they should be able to immobilize the break. Then, these people could … they could make sure he rested.
She shied away from that thought and kept both hands firm on the crusted wound, one above and one below the break. The child’s face had relaxed, showing no sign of pain. They hadn’t used a drop of anesthetic, and his nerves ought to be screaming. The black-haired woman’s mind powers were obviously strong. Shortly, his father would put him into … into tardema-sleep. After all, there were no stasis crypts on board.
A sweat droplet trickled down Meris’s temple. As if traveling in tandem, a tear dribbled along her nose. How ironic, that these strange and unpopular people had such caring families.
Annalah leaned in again, brandishing an osteo fusion light like a weapon. She trained it over the wound for half a minute. Meris kept her hands steady. Annalah slid the metal bands of a Ramsey brace around the injured boy’s leg. “Hold on,” she muttered, closing the brace’s first latch. “Almost done.”
Meris’s shoulders ached. Still, she’d seen worse fractures at Elysia General. The boy would be fine, provided they all didn’t die here in deep space, cooked by radiation or smeared across space like so many bloodstains, if the slip-shields failed—
Body, relax. Mind, be still.
“Okay.” Annalah gave the Ramsey brace a last click of pressure, and she reached into the red box once more to pull out a palm-size scanner. “Blood pressure’s low, but he’s within normal range. All right for t-sleep, Kason.”
Meris backed away hastily.
The young father leaned across his son’s body. “Rex. Eyes here.”
The boy looked up. He inhaled a long breath and coughed once. Then he lay utterly still.
Tardema-sleep. In memory, Meris heard her physiology professor: “Tardema-sleep is a unique variety of deep hibernation, almost as quiescent as cold stasis. The procedure is never recommended for normal individuals, except in situations where death is otherwise inevitable and imminent. Non-Sentinels have been known to die in tardema-sleep. Conventional cold stasis is nearly always available.”
Cold stasis was Meris’s medical specialty. It wasn’t available here, though. She got to her feet and backed away, trying to keep her crusted hands from touching anyone and hoping the Sentinels hadn’t sensed how badly tardema-sleep unnerved her. This time, she guessed, they were listening to their own fears. Not hers.
Annalah flung her a wiping cloth.
“Thanks.” Motion mid-cabin caught Meris’s eye. A small, grey-haired woman sidled toward her, carefully stepping over and around passengers who’d sat down on the deck. Meris hadn’t given any of them a moment’s thought. Annalah’s grandmother, the High Commander’s wife, looked like an aged little bird under the striplights. Maybe it was the blue light’s reflection in her bright eyes, or the way it shimmered in her hair as she cocked her head to one side. She had admitted that “Lady Fi,” as these people called her, was a shortened form of “Firebird.”
She was one of exactly three people in this secure room with no Sentinel powers, which had made her an instant friend. Meris had already enjoyed talking Federate politics and culture with her.
She reached Meris. “Anything I can do?” She shot a glance toward Annalah. “Looks like you two controlled the crisis very competently.”
Meris stretched her aching shoulders. “Thanks. His dad just put him into … t-sleep.” She avoided saying tardema. The very word repelled her. Thank goodness Lady Fi wouldn’t be able to read her mind or emotions.
The Lady’s loose grey shipboards blended with her hair. Here and there, a faint streak of its former reddish brown shade shone through the silver. These people didn’t use anti-aging implants, so their elders looked old. “I think your parents would have been proud, if they could have watched that.”
“Oh.” Meris gave her hands a final hard wipe and tossed the cloth back to Annalah, who tucked it into a debris bag. “No.” She took a deep breath. “No, they still wouldn’t approve. Inferior minds can set bones, they’d say.”
Lady Fi cocked an eyebrow. “Even your mother? She’s a—”
“She’s a researcher, not a practicing medspec.”
“Hm.” Something clattered near the main door. Frowning, Lady Fi turned around. Nothing else happened over there, and she faced Meris again. “I know how badly that hurts, Meris. Move on. Your future lies along a different path. Some day, they’ll understand you.”
Meris doubted that Lady Fi grasped the depth of her private pain. Surely, no one else in the history of the Whorl had ever been so thoroughly betrayed. By her own parents, no less!
Lady Fi looked straight up into her eyes. “We all admire you for wanting to help people, Meris.”
Meris glanced away. “Wasn’t it supposed to be safe, crossing this region of space?” No world near Sabba Six-alpha was settled, but commercial shuttles traveled it regularly.
“Of course.” There was more noise near the door, and this time the uniformed door guard beckoned toward Lady Fi.
Lady Fi nodded. “Excuse me. Please tell Annalah we’re proud of you both.” She turned carefully and stepped back in the direction she’d come from.
Meris flicked a wisp of hair out of her face. Lady Fi’s husband was up on the bridge, taking the worst of the radiation storm. For Lady Fi, waiting to learn his fate would be awful.
Someone moved on Meris’s other side. She too turned in place, careful not to step on outstretched hands or legs. Other people were mopping the deck and tossing cloths into the debris bag. The boy and his parents had retreated into a corner. Meris spotted Annalah springing up to take a seat on a large, grey metal container. It looked as if people had made enough room for them both up there.
Very well, then. Meris shuffled forward. Was she imagining things, or did she feel slightly strange, as if radiation were washing through her? Or was that simply the normal buzz of slip-shields, turning everything onboard sideways to real space?
She made it to the inner row of containers and sprang up to sit beside her room-partner. “Your grandmother says to tell you she’s proud of us.”
“Thanks.” Annalah smiled for an instant. Her long, waving red hair still was tied back, and the prominent widow’s peak over her forehead, her delicate cheekbones, and her fine chin made her face look oddly heart-shaped. “Has she had any updates?”
“Not yet. She could be getting one right now.” Over by the door, Lady Fi conferred with the door guard. The cabin still seemed unnaturally quiet. Meris wouldn’t have wanted to travel with these people, except that Annalah had offered passage—gratis!—to Tallis for their practicum year. It had seemed like a stellar solution to her sudden financial squeeze.
And her father, the senator, had liked the political implications well enough to answer her query. He’d written back, “You never know what you might learn from them, before they die out.”
But he had not sent love. He hadn’t wished her a safe trip or shown any other sign of affection. To him, she was already dead. Her chest ached, as if someone had stepped on it. Fear and grief were getting the upper hand again. Polluting her thoughts. Mind, you are calm …
Abruptly Annalah rocked forward off the container. “We should be praying.” She raised an arm and started to sing. Meris didn’t recognize the language or the weird, vaguely minor key. The woman sitting on Meris’s other side joined in. So did the parents of the injured boy. He now lay perfectly still in the nearby corner.
Meris frowned and scooted back on the container, resting her shoulders against the hard metal behind her. She had no prejudices. She was liberal-minded enough to know that these people really weren’t the abominations that some people called them. Still, that music had all the comforting quality of a sob. If they all didn’t die in the next few minutes, she’d teach them some Collegium litanies. She had dozens of them filed on her handheld.
Stars swam in front of her eyes. Hyperventilation. Body, relax—
The overhead light faded to orange and winked out.
Meris gasped. The big engines’ thrum sounded loud in her ears.
Had they lost shields? Was this the end?
Body, relax. Mind, be still. Body, relax—
The fans started again. Striplights came back on, dimmer than before, giving upturned faces a darker blue cast. The left wall seemed to have sunk. The ship must have been turning hard this whole time.
Near the doorway, the man in the uniform tunic still leaned toward the wall panel. What was he hearing?
He turned toward the cabin’s center. “Attention.” He didn’t raise his voice, but he did speak aloud. “Daystar has lost some onboard systems. However, shields and life support are intact.”
A young voice cheered. Heads turned, clothing rustled. Meris shut her eyes as relief fluttered through her veins.
The door guard crossed his arms. “They’re requesting that any of you who can t-sleep would please do so. They’re going to try and get us down out of slip-state in ten or twelve hours. We do have adequate onboard air for that length of time, plus passage afterward. Still, we’d like to retain a safety margin.”
Tardema-sleep! Meris didn’t dare look at Annalah. It would save oxygen if they all tardema-slept, but surely they wouldn’t make her risk it. It was safe for them.
“Please,” she whispered to Annalah. “I’d rather not.”
“Of course not. They’ll be glad to have one of us conscious, since there isn’t a real medspec this trip. I’ll see you when we get … wherever we end up.”
Meris straightened, not particularly reassured. Would they finish this trip stranded on some low-tech Federate world? Who would fly the Daystar, if everyone on the bridge succumbed to radiation poisoning?
Annalah stretched out atop the container. Meris scooted down onto the deck. She pulled off her slippers and the pullover she wore over her shipboard suit, wrapped them together, and made a lumpy pillow.
Straightening carefully, she lay down. She never would be able to sleep, but at least she wouldn’t have to make small talk with strangers. She could concentrate on her litanies.
The woman who’d been sitting next to Annalah leaned over her, covered Annalah’s forehead with a hand, and stared down at her face.
Meris rolled away. Body, relax. Mind, be still. I fear what I only imagine. Already most of her shipmates lay squeezed down onto available surfaces, head to head or foot to foot like a school of psychotic fish. A few of them walked back and forth, helping the ones who couldn’t reach tardema-sleep on their own. Soon Meris lay alone, wide awake in blue half-darkness near her immobilized friend. It seemed pathetic, now, that she’d feared instant death. She would have simply become nonexistent. Reabsorbed into the Infinite Divine, free from pain and fear.
Since the shields seemed to have held—so far—it had become likelier that they’d all die over the next weeks or months. Radiation sickness generally set in long after the exposure, in cancers or other debilitations that required bothersome treatment … or killed slowly and inescapably.
The cabin smelled distinctly sweaty. Someone’s stocking foot lay close to her nose. She tried to breathe slowly.
A low rustle came from near the door. Meris pushed up on both straightened arms. Uniform Man backed toward that bulkhead panel again, looked around, cleared his throat, and raised a hand toward Meris.
She pushed up onto her knees and finally dared look at Annalah, who lay with her eyes closed and face relaxed. If she were alive, Meris saw no sign. She got to her feet and gingerly stepped over several sleepers.
Lady Fi had also stood. She was probably staying awake until she heard from her husband. They both pressed close to Uniform Man, and Lady Fi spoke first. “Well?”
“Mostly good news, ma’am.” He spoke softly. “We’ve got major systems back on line and a new course calculation. The rad counters in this cabin show no significant exposure to passengers.”
Unspeakably relieved, Meris blurted, “But the crew?” As soon as she’d said it, she wished she hadn’t.
Lady Fi winced.
Meris tried to look apologetic. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“Somebody had to ask.” Lady Fi stood stiffly, her chin high. “Well?”
“They’re seriously dosed, ma’am.”
Wrinkles deepened between Lady Fi’s darkening eyes. Almost without thinking, Meris laid a hand on her shoulder. Lady Fi nodded slowly. Plainly, the bridge crew had sacrificed themselves to protect their families. They were the ones who would die slowly, over the next days and weeks.
“There’s some good news, though.” Uniform Man spoke hurriedly. “We’re overshooting the Tallis system, so they’ve set a course for a safe drop point from slip state and then steady deceleration within towing range of the Procyel system.”
Lady Fi’s eyes brightened. “Well done, Brenn,” she said softly. “Our most gifted psi healer is right there at the Sanctuary.”
Their special private world? A whole planet, reserved by Federate law for a handful of Sentinels and nobody else—was that where they would end up? Meris had heard terrible things about outsiders who had tried to go there. She tried to push another new fear away. “Your husband. He … that is, I hope …” Meris faltered, remembering all she had heard about radiation sickness. “I’m sorry. He’s very brave.” Her own voice sounded awkward. How could she comfort Lady Fi, with the prospect of ending up on Procyel added to her troubles?
But it would be perfect for the crew. For everyone on board except Meris Cariole.
Lady Fi looked down at the deck. “When a second shift relieves them, they’ll all be put into t-sleep. Quickly. That should arrest any damages, until they’re reawakened at Sanctuary.”
This was no time to remind Lady Fi that Procyel II was off limits to normal persons. “That will be a good place for them.” … To die. Meris thought it but didn’t speak. It was a relief to know Lady Fi, like Annalah, couldn’t hear her thoughts.
A new question occurred to her: Why not? What had happened to those two, out of everyone onboard?
“Yes. The best. Go on, sleep if you can. Or shall I … are you ready to let someone help you?” Lady Fi glanced toward Uniform Man.
“No! But thank you.” After all, the offer had been meant as a kindness.
Lady Fi’s mouth twitched. “I didn’t grow up around these people either. I would have refused at your age. Now I know better.”
Rather than answer, Meris turned and stepped back toward Annalah.
Procyel! Sentinels never let outsiders land on that forbidden world. The planet was blockaded with some kind of mind-destroying technology. Obviously, they had reasons for keeping ordinary people away. They wouldn’t want her running loose down there, spying on their private place. Rumors abounded: military stronghold, genetics research center, a location for secret breeding programs—
But they didn’t seem to be bad people. Furthermore, they wouldn’t want to make an enemy of her father by mistreating her. They would undoubtedly put her in stasis if they had a good med center, but she’d experienced stasis as part of her training. It was nothing to dread.
She found her place and lay down again. There on the deck, the loneliness caught her. All her life, her father had assumed she would intern for his Senatorial position. Through three years of med school he’d pursued her, insisting this was why he and Mother had given her life in the first place.
Two weeks before her scheduled departure from Elysia, he’d made a public announcement: Since his only offspring could not be persuaded to accept the coveted internship in his department, that position would go to someone he barely knew—so far, it was all fine with Meris—but he and her mother had officially disowned her as well, cutting off all contact and financial support.
Originally, she would have been able to afford commercial transport to Tallis. She wouldn’t have been Annalah’s suddenly impoverished friend. She wouldn’t be a charity case, the only normal person on a genetically altered passenger list. She wouldn’t be headed where they didn’t want her and she didn’t want to go.
Surely, the Sentinels would book her a place on the first shuttle off Procyel. They would want to get rid of her too.
She glanced into the corner. The young family lay together, as motionless as if they all had died, the father on one side of the injured boy, the mother resting her arm on his other shoulder.
Meris shut her eyes and tried to sleep.
Shipboard days dragged after the disaster. Decelerating into the Procyel system provided a few exciting hours, but then Meris had to wait in the stinking galley while a ten-seat landing shuttle took groups offship. Annalah left on the first shuttle down, since her specialty was regeneration therapy. Lady Fi left too, naturally. The radiation-sick crew members had been wakened from tardema-sleep and were barely upright. They would need immediate regen at the very least. As they boarded the shuttle, each leaned on the arm of a younger officer—those whose lives they’d saved, Meris guessed. All the members of that honor guard wore dress-white uniforms. So did a cordon of others who stood at attention along the main corridor.
Meris boarded the third and final ride down, leaving a dead and darkened ship behind her. She felt lonely and mousy, and she hoped they would let her bathe before putting her in stasis.
Stasis, not t-sleep!
The landing shuttle’s cabin air had a sharp, sweet odor that was delicious after what she’d been breathing. She settled into a comfortably padded passenger seat next to a round window, wriggled her shoulders … and abruptly, she found the shuttle’s cabin tilted for deceleration. Could she actually have slept, or might they have done something to her?
Slept seemed likelier. She stretched her back.
Her middle-aged seatmate leaned away from the window. “Oh, good. You’re awake. Look! Isn’t it beautiful?”
Meris stared down and out, expecting to see laser-cannon installations. Instead, they seemed to be descending toward a broad valley. Her window gave her a view off to the left. Rugged hills rose toward a country of jumbled, jagged mountain peaks.
She stretched her shoulders again. How nice, that they were letting her get a look from the air. This planet seemed to have been thoroughly ecologized, unlike her homeworld. Elysia was primarily urban. Here, it looked as if oxygenation was maintained not by vast algae farms but a dark green fabric of trees spread over the hills—and paler green plant life of some sort, down in the valleys.
“Looks like late spring,” her seatmate remarked.
Seasons. How quaint. Meris kept staring. The mountains ahead seemed to grow larger, each jagged peak reaching into the sky as if they wanted to grab any aircraft that flew too low.
The shuttle swooped lower into that valley. A river below her branched and then meandered off toward the distant mountains. The shuttle’s nose tipped up, and Meris flattened her back against the seat. Wherever these people were headed, it might be the only settlement on the whole world.
They bumped to a landing. Everyone around her unharnessed. Meris stood, shuffled up the aisle, and fished her duffel out of a forward compartment, determined to see as much as they would let her. What was it about this place that made it such a tightly guarded secret?
She ducked out a hatch and descended a short ramp. Planetside air smelled almost unbearably sweet. It was heavy with leafy scents and a musty smell it took her a moment to recognize: soil, like her father sometimes poured from a bag into flower pots. Here it was everywhere. Beneath her feet, even. This landing strip was covered with genuine mowed grass, where previous landings hadn’t dug up long brown furrows of the musty-smelling dirt.
She saw two big metal doors in the hillside to her left, but the people in her group trudged straight ahead up a short slope instead, toward a grove of trees that were all covered with small pink and white flowers. Plainly, these people had all been here before. Every one of them grinned. It was as if simply by standing on this world, they left anxiety behind.
Meris wished she could feel that way. She paused a moment and peered up the hill ahead. Several laborers were perched on ladders amid the flowering trees, doing something—she squinted—were they actually picking those flowers? Not one of them even bothered to look in her direction. She supposed that was a good sign. Apparently they weren’t too concerned about her being here.
She plodded uphill with her group. Where the grassy slope leveled off, they all turned left. It looked like they were headed toward a small white building. It stood alone, between this grassy hillside and a long, flat field that looked like bare dirt. Those jagged peaks made a formidable backdrop behind that field.
Where were all the buildings? Where was the housing complex, and where were the military defenses? Underground? She glanced to her right again. Farther up the long slope stood several wooden barns. They looked like they were made of wood … wood that had been allowed to turn grey, exposed to the elements.
They reached the small white building. It was surrounded by low-growing plants with spearlike leaves and fat stalks that supported floppy purple flowers. The building’s double doors looked as if they were rimmed in real gold.
Everyone crowded inside. Meris shouldered into the middle of the group. At least these people knew her. They were used to her. She’d helped save a child they all loved.…
The floor dropped beneath her, confirming her guess. Below ground, someone was surely waiting for her. I fear what I only imagine. She hadn’t seen any hostility, though. Just the other passengers’ very normal relief to be off the Daystar. She mustn’t accuse them of any ill will. Surely, they would let her wait out her time here in cold stasis.
She could use a good long rest. She silently recited a Collegium litany for exhaustion: The eternal is in me. I cannot know defeat. The eternal is in me….
The doors slid open. Meris stepped with the others into a soaring underground chamber. It seemed to be jammed with hurrying people. Quite a few wore their midnight blue uniforms, but no one seemed to be waiting for her. Younger adults were all dressed in incongruous pale blue gowns or fitted tunics, and they too all seemed to be headed somewhere. Off to her right, in what looked like an open-air dining area, a mixed-age group sat at wooden tables. Their clothing was as rough and brown as the rustic furniture. Muddy overcoats hung over several chairs. Swishing and splashing noises seemed to be coming from somewhere.
Meris’s shuttle-mates all turned toward the dining area. At its near end, a group milled around a table littered with writing paper. She pushed forward with them. The floor under her feet was white stone. So was the wall ahead of her.
It was one of the young gowned women, not a uniformed Sentinel, who appeared beside her and tapped her shoulder. “Meris?” she asked. “Meris Cariole?”
Meris raised her head. Body, relax. “Yes, that’s me.”
“Good day. My name is Shari. Please, would you follow me?”
Several strangers who hadn’t been on board the Daystar turned to stare as she followed Shari out of the dining area and got another good look at her surroundings. This chamber was probably two full stories in height. After so many days confined shipboard, she felt oppressed by its immensity.
Still, she appreciated a chance to look. All the chamber’s squared walls and its ceiling appeared to be white stone. And … oh my.
Straight ahead, dominating the artificial cavern, an enormous pool—more like an underground lake—lay rippling under broad strips of skylights. Large, roughly conical trees seemed to grow out of the water, stretching toward those skylights. A path of large, square white stepping stones crossed the water from where she stood. Two uniformed Sentinels, who appeared to be walking across the pool from right to left, were undoubtedly treading on more stepping stones.
Well. This world defended by mind-destroying technology was nothing like Meris had imagined.
But of course, she was not seeing all of it. Just what they were allowing.
“Please come, Meris.” Her young guide swept a hand left along the poolside, indicating what looked like a broad stone walkway. A white metal railing surrounded the pool, broken only where the stepping stone paths led out over the water.
She stood still, took another deep breath, and followed her guide along the waterside walkway. Mind, you are calm. Body, you are strong. I fear what I only imagine. The first Collegium litany she ever had learned—against fearfulness—was her own sanctuary today. She caught herself fiddling with the ends of her hair. Not wanting to look as nervous as she felt, she knotted it back. “Have you been here long?” she asked.
The young woman’s freckles were framed by closely cropped brown hair. She held up her right hand to display a thin gold ring. “Most of a year. It’s part of our College rotation. We all spend a year here, on Sanctuary duty. I’m due to be rotated home in a few weeks, but I’ll miss the place.”
Meris looked down. They were walking on more of the white stone, with faint grey veins. “It is beautiful.”
“Thank you.” Her guide stopped in front of an unmarked arch built of more white stone. “Here you are. The Administrator will speak with you.”
Meris stepped through the stone arch. Beyond an impressively broad data desk—the first sign of high tech Meris had seen, she realized—a tall woman stood waiting. Then she saw the woman’s long oval face, pure black eyes, and greying black hair. Meris controlled a sudden urge to turn and run. She’d seen people who resembled this woman, but only in historical tri-Dramas. Just one people group in the Whorl unnerved her worse than the Thyrian Sentinels: the Mikuhran Shuhr, who’d been the Federacy’s worst villains. These truly evil, genetically modified people had spent 100 years raiding, robbing, and murdering on all twenty-three Federate worlds.
Supposedly, the Mikuhran Shuhr had been defeated and absorbed by the Sentinels. They had never dared show those long faces on Elysia. To Meris’s relief, there hadn’t been any on board the Daystar. But this woman had absolutely classic Mikuhran features. Meris swallowed, her throat suddenly tense.
“Come in, Meris. Sit down.” The woman indicated a wooden chair near one end of her data desk.
This room was also walled and floored with white stone, with stone benches around its edge. Strangely, fabric streamers dangled from the ceiling. Meris sidestepped to the chair, wondering whether that arm gesture signaled the woman’s intention to voice-command her—to force her to do things she did not want to do. It was one of these people’s more frightening abilities.
“Meris, I’m the Sanctuary Administrator, Wind Haworth-Caldwell.” As Meris sat, the woman lowered her arm and sank onto a large black desk chair. “And I’m sorry you’ve been caught in this situation. I understand that my niece Annalah invited you to travel with the Daystar group.”
Niece? “Yes. Annalah has been my room-partner for three school terms.” The safest approach was honesty. These people could also detect deception. One false word might land her in tardema-sleep. Instantly.
Still, the administrator didn’t need to know about her family troubles. “My parents encouraged me to accept Annalah’s offer.” Before the tall woman could speak again, Meris squared her shoulders. “My specialty at Elysia General has been medical stasis, and I would be glad to assist here. I’m sure some of the radiation sick crew members will need stasis care, not just regeneration.”
“Yes.” The administrator spoke blandly. “Our medical specialist is extremely capable.”
“And stasis should be redundantly monitored.” Dread squeezed Meris’s gut. This was their Sanctuary, their secret place, fully authorized by the Federate government. The fact that it wasn’t what she expected did not change her status here.
The administrator looked down at her desktop’s reflective dark surface. A gold Sentinel’s star gleamed on the shoulder of her formal brown coat. “Meris, tardema-sleep is perfectly safe for periods up to forty days, but we don’t like imposing it on anyone who’s unwilling. I must stress that in all our history, we never have allowed outsiders on this world. We have nothing against you personally.”
Meris leaned forward. “Surely medical stasis is a better option. If cost is a factor, I … my parents … that is, I will repay you. As soon as I can.” And how would she do that? Never mind. She pressed on. “I honestly would like to assist your medspec, if I may. I owe your people my life. The crew—they were terribly brave, up there on the bridge.” If they’d altered the Daystar’s flight path enough to bring it down out of slip-state within towing distance of this place, could she criticize?
The administrator’s mouth looked stern, and her black eyes seemed to bore into Meris’s subconscious. If Lady Fi hadn’t assured Meris that mind-access created a distinct, prickly nauseous sensation, Meris would have suspected her mind was being read. “Please, Administrator—”
The administrator’s mouth softened slightly. “Minster, please. I did not feel qualified to take the same title as my gifted predecessor. And I understand why my appearance unsettles you. I also know how it feels to be an outsider. I was born on Mikuhr, but I grew up on Thyrica. Imagine that, if you will.” She raised a hand and touched the shoulder star. “Their acceptance didn’t come easily. I have tried to serve the Federacy faithfully, by maintaining this Sanctuary in safety and security.”
Buoyed by a faint hope, Meris followed the shift in the conversation. “You have the same surname as Annalah. And her grandfather.”
“Yes. I married her grandfather’s other son. Annalah calls my husband ‘Uncle Kinnor.’”
“Oh.” Meris had never asked about Annalah’s family. It would have felt … nosey … given these people’s declining popularity.
She braced herself. “I’m quite willing to be put in medical stasis, Minster. I experienced stasis as a student.”
The administrator—Minster—slowly shook her head. “I’m sorry, but we will need all our available stasis units for those radiation patients.”
As Meris sat groping for some other argument, part of the broad data desk lit with a moving image. Meris couldn’t tell for certain from this angle, but it looked like the head and shoulders of another woman—another black-haired woman, almost as long-faced as this one, apparently wearing medical yellow. “Wind?” A deeper voice spoke out of the desktop. “Are you with Meris Cariole? Lady Fi just told me that Meris has been offering to assist me. And I certainly need help. For the next few hours, at least.”
Meris’s breath caught. This was her chance. “Yes.” She spoke slightly louder. “I would be happy to—”
The Minster raised a hand. She addressed the image on her desktop. “Unfortunately, security is a higher concern.” Meris caught motion back at the arched entry and saw that a uniformed Sentinel had stepped inside. The Minster glanced at him and nodded.
Body, relax. Meris tilted her head for a better look at the woman in the image, her best remaining hope. This woman, also plainly Shuhr-descended, wore her black hair in a braid that accentuated her long features. “I was already short-handed, and now the center’s overwhelmed. If Meris is headed for t-sleep, may I at least take her up on that offer for a few hours?”
The Minster folded her hands on the desktop. She stared back at Meris, who tried to keep her emotions under control. She’d heard that feelings could be sensed, even if one’s mind wasn’t being read. Did she really want to stay conscious, surrounded by these people?
Yes, I do! Given another hour, she might convince the medspec to keep her around. As those thoughts flitted across her mind, she wondered whether the man standing under the door arch had been called specifically to put her in tardema-sleep.
The Minster glanced up at Meris and back down at the desk. “Saried, please assure her that medically, t-sleep is nothing to fear.”
“I will,” the voice said.
The Minster shrugged. “All right. I’ll send her with a guard. Please keep her close, until she’s safely asleep.”
The desktop went dark.
Meris got a deep breath. “Thank you, Minster. If I can repay even one of those crew members by helping, I’ll be glad.” It sounded sycophantic, but she meant it.
“Mm.” The Minster got to her feet, walked around the broad desk, and sat down on one corner of its surface. Did she wear brown, instead of the ubiquitous midnight blue, because she was Shuhr—or because she wasn’t military? “I promise, we’ll send you to Tallis as quickly as possible. We’re not on a commercial route, so if no one heads there before the safe limit for t-sleep approaches, I promise we’ll bring you out for a recovery period.”
That cold, invisible hand squeezed Meris’s gut again. She needed to convince these people not to do that to her, nor to subliminally change her feelings about it. “I’ve already missed the start of term.”
A hint of humor warmed the Minster’s voice. “We’ll do our best. I’m truly sorry this incident gives you the impression we’re unreasonable. Our own safety is simply paramount. Would you go with Lieutenant Prescott, please?”
Meris stood. She bowed slightly toward the Minster and followed the uniformed man back out onto the waterside.