Freedom. Safety. Within sight. An end to this endless flight. A beginning of truth.
The seeking, ever the seeking, will there ever be an end?
I feel the ending in my bones and in my heart.
If only I can survive a little longer, I will know who it is that I seek. Who can re-sanctify the rituals.
Will the search begin again with only one new clue, or will this truly be the end?
What am I without the search? What are we without the sacred rituals?
“Stupid, useless, sons of a Denubian muscle cat. Why can’t Ambassador Telvino and Lord Lukan just sign the damned treaty! Then we’d have access to Badger Metal and could defeat the Maril once and for all.”
Colonel Jeremiah Devlin tossed aside the coded communiqué from Admiral Pamela Marella, the spymaster of the Confederated Star Systems. Pammy thought she should be Jake’s boss. Ambassador Telvino claimed him as well. Lord Lukan, Ambassador from Harmony, thought he belonged on his delegation.
Jake slammed his fist into his thigh. His blow bounced off hard muscle, a side benefit from hours spent in the heavy grav gym trying to work himself to exhaustion so he could get some sleep.
Jake rubbed his bleary eyes, and the encrypted words swam before his mind.
The Maril are changing tactics. After their defeat at Harmony Six by the combined fleets of Harmony and the CSS, the Maril amassed a new fleet and attacked our border at Haven IV, our closest outpost to Harmony. We hold them off for the present. Prepare to depart your current assignment with six hours’ notice to rejoin our defense forces.
Damn, damn, and damn again. If he left the space station, he’d also have to leave Laudae Sissy, High Priestess of Harmony, to the mercies of the ambassadors and Admiral Marella. None of them had the frail young woman’s best interests in mind. Only their own agendas.
Our enemy also now makes forays to frontier worlds on the rim. Worlds beyond our protection, either by choice or by distance. We have reports that planets that surrender or put up only token resistance are absorbed into the Marillon Empire. Serious attempts are made to convert humans to their religion and culture. Rumors of DNA manipulation so they can interbreed are spotty and unreliable but worth investigating.
Worlds that resist are wiped out, as per Maril SOP.
Jake knew that as well as anyone. He’d lost both his parents and his brother when Maril bombs annihilated all traces of civilization on their home planet. But that was back when he was Cadet Jake Hannigan at the CSS Military Academy. Under his new identity as diplomatic liaison between the CSS and Harmony delegations on this cursed and lonely space station—after a six month stint in deep cover as a spy on Harmony—he wasn’t supposed to feel that loss.
But he did. And the words of the memo still imprinted upon his memory, blotting all else from his consciousness.
The Maril still seek a new source for Badger Metal. As do we. We suspect they will open a new battlefront near Harmony, the only source for Badger Metal, when they have augmented their forces with human troops.
Returning to First Contact Café soonest.
Seeking solace, he fell to his knees before his makeshift altar in the corner of his pie-shaped quarters. His hands folded and his head bowed automatically into respectful prayer. Unconsciously he flexed and relaxed his muscles, counting sets of seven. Ever seven, for the seven gods of Harmony and Her seven castes. Always seven.
“Words. They fight over words while our alien enemies build new fleets and man them with our own people.” He bowed his head until his forehead nearly touched the altar, silently begging the line drawing of Goddess Harmony and her divine family for guidance. He wanted to light the purple candle stub and saucer of incense to speed his prayers. But no way would he violate the most sacred law of life on a space station by igniting anything.
If he had a crystal, any crystal, he could make it chime and get the attention of Someone out there who could acknowledge his seven prayers.
He stared long and hard at the crude picture. The blank eyes of Harmony, her Consort Empathy, and their children, Nurture and Unity, stared back at him almost in accusation. They embraced their stepchildren, Anger, Fear, and Greed, as part of the balance of nature that banished Discord. He’d seen the original painting in a mural deep within the funerary caves on the planet Harmony.
Brooding about blasted memo was better than brooding about the love of his life—a woman he could never have.
He stood up and jumped to the crossbar he’d set in his closet. Twenty-one pull-ups barely strained his shoulders. Forty-nine, he began to feel the stretch and burn.
Fifty-six . . .
I need you. A thought brushed his mind. A sense of distress flared within him. Then it was gone.
The figures on the line drawing shuddered. So did the station bulkheads. Just the slightest vibration where none should be.
Come. Now. The plea for help became more urgent. It had a feminine quality.
Jake cursed. Only one person in all the universe had that kind of hold on his mind and his heart.
Under the mental noise of people in distress the distant keen of an alarm rose and fell.
Which had come first?
He swung off the bar, landing halfway to the exit hatch. Long strides took him to the circular lobby of level MG 2 in the CSS diplomatic wing of the space station. With every step the klaxon grew louder, more insistent.
The lift, moving platforms three meters apart on a conveyor belt, rotated up to the nulgrav hub and back toward the heavygrav end of the wing in their placid rhythm. The double spiral staircases around the lift looked empty.
Three long corridors, running between groups of quarters, stretched toward the hull. The rest of the circle showed firmly closed doors to diplomatic suites and high-ranking crew quarters.
Each tubular wing stuck out from the vastly larger cylinder of the station core. Station spin gave the outermost ends of the wings heavier gravity and made the core appear “up” from any given location. Smaller tubes stretched between adjacent wings for stability and maintenance robot access. From outer space the entire complex looked like a tin can with twenty-seven clusters of three or four strands of spaghetti sticking out of it.
Frightened voices, screams, bangs, and thuds at the end of the corridor directly ahead drew his attention.
He skidded to a halt in front of a maintenance access hatch. This two-meter-diameter tube connected his wing to the living quarters of the delegation from Harmony. Designed primarily for maintenance robots, only a few highly trusted, heavily screened personnel were allowed to use it. Only one of those had a key.
It was locked to all others. An override from Control could open the hatches in case of emergency evacuation. Otherwise, people were prohibited from using them as a shortcut.
As special liaison and military chief of staff, Jake had keys that would open any door or hatch in the seven wings assigned to Harmony and the CSS. It had to be seven to satisfy Harmony even though they had to borrow one from another cluster. Lord Lukan from Harmony and Ambassador Telvino of the CSS also had emergency keys.
Jake invoked special diplomatic privilege and beamed a coded signal from the comm unit strapped to his wrist to the panel. The locking mechanism took its own sweet time accepting his authorization. It wanted another password, then a thumbprint, and finally accepted a retinal scan.
The voices behind the hatch reached hysteria.
At last the light blinked a benign green.
Using all of the strength he’d gained from those hours in the gym, he applied his weight to the latch. The bolt grunted and heaved as loudly as he did. Then it slid back slowly, protesting and grinding every millimeter of the way. Rust should not have developed on a new station! At last it pushed free. Then he had to spin the bolt to open the hatch.
“Archaic, redundant, miserable . . .” He exhausted his litany of abuse on the thing before the hatch gaped a scant ten centimeters.
Now he recognized the coded alarm in the background. Three short blasts, a long one, then three more short, repeated again and again until someone in Control could override it. Hull breach. Losing atmosphere.
That tiny shudder of the goddess in the line drawing should have warned him. Instead, he’d ignored Her.
A wind grew behind him, pushing itself into the crack of an opening. Atmosphere trying to equalize.
He needed help. But first he had a wing full of people to evacuate. He prayed that the Labyrinthe Corporation had implemented full safety protocols in their hurry to complete the station before the CSS and Harmony delegations arrived.
Bracing his feet on the bulkhead, he pulled the hatch open with both hands. The door swung free suddenly and flung Jake away. He landed against the wall and slid down hard on his butt, legs sprawled, back screaming in protest.
He ignored the stabbing pain his shoulder blade. Dimly he knew that a free fall grip might have penetrated his skin.