Read the Author's Forward posted only on the web, not printed in the book.
Read the Author's Afterword, posted only on the web, not printed in the book.
It was just an overheard comment, a nonhuman voice floating on the echoes trapped in the ship's corridor: "… that woman Kyllikki! She thinks she's so much better than the rest of us." But the comment stung. I'm not like Zimor! I'm not!
Kyllikki focused on the red of the lift doors ahead of her and kept walking toward them, breathing deeply to suppress the unbidden tears, trying not to hear the echo of a voice answering the bitter comment.
"How do you know what she thinks? She's the telepath, not you."
"Look at how she wears her uniform, how she walks, how she holds her hands away from contamination, how she speaks in that distant voice, never meeting your eyes. You don't have to be a telepath to tell what someone thinks of you."
The nonhuman voices faded, but the thoughts didn't. //She used to be some kind of Teleod princess. You can't fault her if she has Imperial manners—human manners!//
Kyllikki's face flushed and her heart sped faster. She could not blot out the searing reply. //I can fault anything Teleod. In the Teleod I'd be considered little better than an animal because I haven't a single human gene in me.//
A hatch clanged shut, reducing the amplitude of the thoughts, and at last she gained control. She hadn't even been able to guess what species the two were. Too arrogant to learn the voices and accents of the people I live among?
The lift doors whipped aside and Kyllikki flung herself into the empty compartment, hitting the controls. As the lift moved, she let herself sob out loud, once, and then marshaled the tattered remnants of her mental barriers and fought down guilt for the accidental intrusion.
She'd known defecting to the Metaji Empire wouldn't be easy. If Zimor ever saw me like this, she'd laugh so hard the servants and guards would think she'd been drugged!
The vision of her ruthless cousin laughing at her in triumph stiffened Kyllikki's spine. It had been nearly a year since she'd given the woman a single thought. Now, three times in one day, she'd reacted as if she were still in Zimor's household, having to face Zimor over the dinner table each evening. Is there to be no escape, anywhere?
She told herself that anyone would react to overhearing such scathing comments. It didn't mean Zimor had reached through space and across stellar empires to corrupt her mind.
But if she could, she would!
The lift opened onto a crowded passenger corridor. In her panic, she'd misdirected it. Some ship's officer I am! Politely, she yielded the compartment to the passengers and pushed her way into the streams of moving people.
The passenger liner Prosperity was carrying more than a capacity load. Since the Teleod had begun to attack Metaji civilians, the Metaji Emperor had assigned a fighter escort to every passenger liner. This meant cutting passenger service and filling every ship on every trip.
Kyllikki defiantly let herself be jammed against a Paitsmun, who was waddling along on powerful hind legs that were designed for leaping or running, not gliding under low ceilings. His hard armor plating was polished smooth as glass, the sections rubbing musically as he moved. He darted a glance at her, recognized her uniform and murmured an apology as he shied away, embarrassed by his own thoughts, worried she'd pick them up.
She refused to react. He meant no offense. He was trying to control his reaction to her uniform. She had to get hold of herself. She'd be on duty soon.
Her destination, the Window Room, was the one place insulated from the mental noise in the ship, yet where a telepathically transparent bubble allowed a telepath to scan space outside the ship. Once past the main dining saloon, she'd be there. Within the hour, Prosperity would be passing close to a courier ship. By reporting for duty early, she'd have time to gossip with the courier's telepath.
The mere thought made her tremble. In the Teleod, she'd never starved for deep contact, but here they'd exacted a dire oath from her, shackling her mind into their protocols. And that's why I can't keep my barriers in place, she told herself, not Zimor's mockery but simple sensory deprivation. Her barriers slipped again, and the whirling mind-mutter of the people around her roared through her skull.
Suddenly, warm breath rushed into her ear and arms came around her shoulders from behind. "What's the matter? You look like you're about to faint."
She started so hard she nearly screamed out loud, then realized it was only Zuchmul, his luren Influence encasing her in a shell of his presence. She could feel the fine chain mesh worn under his clothes to protect his radiation-sensitive skin. Only his pasty-white face was exposed, the mask draped to one side, jingling against his shoulder. As he held her close, she felt his Influence despite the inhibiting device he wore at the base of his throat. A hand's breadth from his body, she'd have felt nothing.
"Zuchmul, you're not supposed to do that!" she hissed. He had oaths to obey, too. A luren's Influence—a kind of mind power unknown to any other human race—could make a person see and believe anything. The effect was stronger when he was hungry, as now. One of her duties was to monitor the luren aboard to be sure they didn't use their power illicitly. But he was shielding her from the mental roar, his touch so mild she felt no reflexive aversion.
Half supporting her, he guided her into the dining saloon. Tables, round, square and oblong, dotted the thick carpet, many draped with white cloths and set with gleaming utensils. Those were meant for the human passengers. Among them were tables for various nonhumans, which gave Kyllikki the feeling of dining in a zoo. Zuchmul positioned her over a gold upholstered chair and let go. Her knees collapsed.
As her weight came onto the chair, an air curtain surrounded the table, controlling sound and odor.
Zuchmul took a place beside her and poured a hot drink from the pitcher on the table, shoving it under her nose. She leaned back, objecting, "This is passengers' mess!"
"The Captain ordered us to mingle."
"Not us, the officers."
He fingered the brocaded sleeve of her uniform. "Don't look if it will scare you, but you've been an officer since you signed onto the ship. Communications Third Officer."
She wrapped her shaking hands around the cup and managed to get it to her mouth without spilling any.
"Kyllikki, are you going to tell me about it? Or are you just going to wander around mentally screaming for help?"
"I didn't know luren were telepaths."
"Empaths," he corrected. "You're hurting. And—you're, well—hungry. I don't know for what."
She gripped the cup. Hungry. But there's no chance. Not now. Not ever. Because I ran from Zimor.
A deeper male voice cut across the table. "Zuchmul, what are you doing here?"
"Idom. I could ask you the same. Aren't you on duty?"
"Finished. We make planetfall late next shift—Barkyr, the Paitsmun colony." The big white-bearded man was the ship's Guide, responsible for interstellar astrogation. He wore the typical Guide's uniform, dark purple silk cape over a white cassock that parted to show a black robe, ship's insignia on the collar, Guide's medallion around his neck.
He sat down on Kyllikki's other side. "Are you hungry, Zuchmul? I think you've disturbed the lady."
The luren sighed and fastened the sheer mesh mask across his face, obscuring the limpid black eyes, made brighter by their light shielding inserts. "She was worse than this when I found her in the hall."
"I'm not a stray pet, you know." But the two friendly presences close around her had helped. All three of them were exiles of a sort, Zuchmul because the power of luren Influence was so feared, Idom because the Guide's Guild kept their practices secret, and Kyllikki because she could invade the most private places of mind and soul. "I'm sorry," she said. "I know you were just trying to help, and you did. But I need some time alone before I go on duty."
Zuchmul refilled her cup and rose as a human waiter came to the table, all white coat, clean black accessories, and professional smile. Zuchmul bowed courteously to the waiter. "I will seek my refreshment elsewhere." And he departed on silent feet, presumably to feed on the blood of the livestock they carried for him and the luren passengers.
Kyllikki ordered thrixal-root pudding and Idom asked for a pastry, settling in as if to stay awhile. When the waiter had left, Kyllikki said, "You can have my pudding, too," and started to rise.
Idom caught her wrist, fingers closing around her sleeve and pulling her back down. She sat, not daring to make a scene. "Idom, I meant it. I have to get away."
"It's not isolation you need. It's contact."
She started as if he'd scalded her. Then she took a schooled breath, relaxed, and concentrated on building her barriers. In the Metaji, she wasn't allowed to project thoughts to a non-telepath—not even worded thoughts.
When she raised her attention to him again, Idom was saying, "…do I have to do to get through to you?"
"Don't be so sure you haven't," she replied, keeping her eyes on her drink. The surface was mirror smooth. At least her hands had stopped shaking. He can't possibly know.
"You've been like this all day," he insisted. "If something has upset you, you should talk about it, and of all the people on this ship, I'm the most likely to understand."
"Talk!" She heard the scorn in her voice and clamped her mouth shut. Too late.
He leaned close, making sure no one would overhear. "Even if I'm mute in your medium, at least I can 'listen.'"
Wouldn't it be legal if he volunteered? But he was only offering to open himself to voice-analogue, worded thoughts, not to any real contact. The temptation was so intense she knew she'd abuse his trust if she permitted herself to accept. She lurched to her feet and started for the door.
She'd gone only two steps when his sympathy overwhelmed her. She turned. His hands were folded neatly on the table, his eyes closed, and out of him beat wave upon wave of pure feeling—not images, not verbalized thoughts, just sympathy. Not pity. Sympathy. He knew what she hungered for.
His Guild training, whatever it was, had fostered his ability to concentrate and to focus emotion to such a fine degree that he might as well have been luren. The air around him throbbed with power.
All at once, it was too much for her. //If you're so brave, then come to my quarters tonight and listen!//
She wrenched herself around and plunged out into the corridor. Behind her, the throbbing waves of sympathy cut off. He didn't mean it. He'll report me. As it was her job to watch the luren, so there were those who watched her. If he'd been testing her, she'd failed. No. He's my friend. He wouldn't trap me like that.
She flung herself against the hatch of the Window Room, set her palm against the AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL sign, and waited for the hatch to yield. It took its time identifying her, but then she was inside, sealed off from the mental chaos of hundreds of minds. She paused in the lounge to catch her breath, hardly aware of the subdued lighting, the bland decor, or the standard chairs, racks, and perches.
"You're early." A voice came from a speaker. There was no glad welcome in it, but no rejection either.
"Oh. Lee. I wanted to work the courier traffic. We're approaching range now, right?"
"Yes. I was just about to Search. Come on out."
She pushed through an airlock and into the Window itself. It was a huge, visually and telepathically transparent bubble set into the skin of the ship, so that they seemed to be working in a waist-high pit with nothing over them but space and stars. Their fighter escort wasn't visible, and the solar system they were approaching was barely distinguishable from the more distant stars.
Three communications work stations were set into a circular rim. Ship's intercom, transmitters, recorders, and screens for all manner of data displays surrounded each work station. Lee, Com Second, was alone.
He turned to look up at her. Lee was a slightly built human with a dark complexion and the most beautiful black eyes she'd ever seen. But they were neutral, not friendly. //The courier is the Otroub. My record shows their Com Officer is Etha Ckam. Do you know her?//
Adopting the formal, businesslike manner she'd been taught, she slid into the place at his right and brought up her screens. //We've met. She seems competent.// Actually, Ckam was one of the few Kyllikki seriously hoped would become a friend one day. Otroub, according to the records she had before her, would be in traffic range for two hours. //I'm showing a long list of messages for Otroub. Apparently their owners have been trying to get in touch with them by relay.//
//Yeah. Something about Sa'ar Stock needing transport—you know, orl, the experimental animals the luren make.//
//I know about orl. We carry some to feed luren.//
//Sa'ar designs special laboratory animals, one of the few things we still import from the Teleod despite the war.//
//The luren citadels are officially neutral. What they import—or export—is strictly legal. Zuchmul was telling me yesterday how careful they are about that.//
//Yeah,// answered Lee, //but Zuchmul hasn't heard the latest. Now that the scion of the Sa'ar family, the richest luren family in Metaji or Teleod, is missing with a shipload of expensive orl, the Teleod is saying that we—the Duke of Fotel, actually—captured the Sa'ar and his orl as hostages.//
//Why would a Duke want to antagonize the luren?//
//Who knows? But Otroub is owned by D'sillin Service, which is luren owned and based on one of Fotel's fiefs. If Sa'ar is dealing with Fotel, willing or not, it could affect the outcome of the war. Deny that, if you can.//
//Can't. But if Fotel wanted Otroub to transport hostages, they wouldn't be filling space with the message. No, the Sa'ar was lost, just like hundreds of others. Luren in the Teleod use their own ships, a design that can't be relied on anymore, from the days when they didn't even carry life pods. Sa'ar runs a fleet of them. Or used to.//
Prosperity was older yet, and carried a full complement of life pods, which let them charge extra for passage now.
//Well, maybe he was just lost, then,// he allowed. He glanced at her, and she picked up an unworded idea. Unless the Sa'ar heir is defecting, like she did, and bringing the luren with him. In which case, I'll bet she knows.
She bent over her station, poking things at random, struggling to discipline her mind. But it was too late. She felt Lee's thoughts recede as if stung. Her heart stopped. Metaji protocols demanded working telepaths stay out of each others' minds. Shog! I hate this place!
"What's the matter, Kyllikki?" His barriers were so tight she might have been hearing a voice transmission.
At least he's not crying traitor. Her heart slammed into action again. She bent to repair the damage she'd done to her displays. "I'm sorry. I've been nervous all day."
"I guess I can understand how hard it must be here for you. I just do this kind of work because I'm not much good at anything else. You were bred for it."
Not for this kind of work, she wanted to say. She had been bred for the total immersion of the Dreambond, the unique linkage that could form only between a member of the Eight Families, like Kyllikki, and a Dreamer. That linkage was illegal in both Teleod and Metaji, the Dreamers confined to their planet. In the Teleod, Bonders like Kyllikki had to survive on an occasional deep contact, and when it got particularly bad, there were drugs to blunt the need. But not here. Her Metaji retraining had supposedly conditioned her to block out even that need. Until today, it had. She met Lee's eyes. "You're right. The work will steady my coordination so I won't make any more… mistakes."
"That's what it was, ill-coordination?" She assented and he got to his feet, shutting down his station. //All yours, then, Com Third.// His mental voice was disciplined, distant, perfectly modulated.
But even so, the surface touch was such a tremendous relief that she looked up at him with a grin of pure joy. //Thank you, Lee.// She turned to log onto the bridge stations and accept the hails from the bridge officers who were surprised to find her on duty already. As Lee departed, she sealed herself into the Window, making sure she wouldn't be disturbed when her mental barriers were down, and at the same time she readied a file for incoming traffic and began the mental Search Lee had been about to do for Otroub and the courier's Com Officer, Ckam.
In moments, she had forgotten herself in the routine of tracking the approach to the Barkyr system, exchanging relayed greetings, and coordinating with Prosperity's three matched escort ships, Gita One, Gita Two, and Gita Three.
Each escort fighter carried a crew of three, one of whom was a marginal telepath with minimal training and range. Such talent was plentiful enough to be expendable, or so the military thought.
The three fighters escorting the liner Prosperity had split up. One had gone out to check on Otroub, one was behind them, and the other was ahead of them clearing their way into Barkyr space. Otroub would bypass the system, not even coming within coherent spectral transmission range of either the system or Prosperity. Kyllikki would send Otroub the mail bound for a military base, which was Otroub's next stop, and pick up any messages bound for Barkyr or Station Prime, the free orbiting habitat that housed Barkyr Defense.
When she finally made contact with Otroub's Etha Ckam, Kyllikki wasted no time pushing her traffic. Each message was read, then read back as the ships neared closest approach, then began to separate again.
As she had expected, Kyllikki's nerves steadied down once the routine was established and she had contact with a friendly, open mind, however formal. They worked quickly and smoothly together and finished before contact faded.
//Kyllikki, what do you make of this business with the Sa'ar livestock?// added Ckam. //Do you think it could be important enough to keep us from delivering our passenger?//
//Passenger? Couriers don't carry passengers.// To compensate for the fading contact, Kyllikki lowered her barriers, suddenly very interested.
//We've got one this trip. He's some kind of exotic entertainer bound for a court functionary's reception, or that's the story. He is gorgeous enough, but—//
Without warning, a whole sensory image exploded into Kyllikki's mind, filtered and embroidered by Ckam's libido, and fraught with fulsome overtones. She learned more from that one instant than she could have from an hour of words. But it was illicit knowledge. She'd invaded another mind, and again broken out of audio-analogue. Unaware of what Kyllikki sensed, Ckam added, //—you're right, no mere entertainer would be on a courier—what's the matter?//
The image throbbed through Kyllikki's whole being.
//—Kyllikki?// Ckam had withdrawn to a cool professional distance. The image was no longer coming from her, but Kyllikki couldn't let it go.
//Etha, do you know what race he is?// Can't be. Just simply can't be. There are no Dreamers in the Metaji. None.
It was rude to ask about race here. //Never mind. It's just that he—uh—sounded familiar.//
//You recognized his voice from my memory! Who is he? Come on, you can trust me. I won't—// Suddenly, her mental voice escalated into a gasp.
//Six ships! Your Gita One is under attack.// Ckam's attention went to close focus. Kyllikki strained to follow what was happening on the retreating ship. Meanwhile, her hands flew over her own board, alerting Prosperity's bridge crew and the Captain minutes before lightspeed transmissions could reach them. A moment later, without any volition, she received another image from Ckam's mind, the illicit contact suddenly wide open between them, showing her Ckam's displays.
Six fighters were streaking by Otroub on a heading that would intersect Prosperity at the edge of the Barkyr system, outside local defenses. Two of them were laying down fire at the rapidly maneuvering Gita One, and two more were firing directly on Otroub.
Gita One's Com Officer yelled a telepathic warning that pierced through Ckam's mind and lanced into Kyllikki's awareness like an electric shock. Suddenly, Kyllikki was deadly calm, her mental voice firm as she announced, //Gita Two, Gita Three, this is Prosperity. Gita One and Otroub are under attack by six incoming ships which will intercept Prosperity.// She added speed and course figures. //Barkyr Defense, I have relay from Gita One. Bogeys on trajectory intercept your Station Prime, one-oh-two-mark-six-seven. Advisement; use all force. Shall I repeat.//
//Alert acknowledged, Prosperity. One-oh-two-mark-six-seven. All force. Advise Gita One—//
White pain smashed through Kyllikki's eyes, a stark searing heat so hot it made death welcome. No. That's Etha's pain. She's closer. The relayed pain hardly touched the icy core of calm within Kyllikki. //Barkyr Defense. Gita One is destroyed.// She made sure the escorters heard also as she tapped the data into Prosperity's bridge display.
The two remaining escorters near Prosperity were struggling to maneuver around the wallowing liner to meet the incoming ships. The attackers were small, but moving so fast they must have materialized at full velocity somewhere nearby, planning to nail Barkyr's Station Prime without slowing, then head directly into their next dive point. They were going too fast to change direction, and so were simply taking advantage of the chance to destroy two Metaji ships that happened to be in their path.
In the back of Kyllikki's mind, Ckam's awareness of the evacuation sirens on Otroub blatting away mixed with Gita Two's Captain snarling, "I don't care if we have to ram them. We're going to stop them! Override!" Barkyr Defense cut across it all: //Stand clear, Gita Two and Three. We got 'em.// And, from the very distant colony planet, a nonhuman mentality added, //It's a diversion. Give me a full scan.//
That must be a Paitsmun telepath. Inanely, Kyllikki recognized the mental tones of her overheard critic, who had no human gene in his body, and who must also be Paitsmun.
And then, for the second time, the world was wiped out in heat, pain, and an unbearable white light that illuminated her bones and sizzled through her guts. She hadn't realized how deep into Ckam she'd been until she died with her. The darkness was so welcome.
Kyllikki came to draped over her screen's housing, unbidden tears of pain leaking from her eyes, her own gasping sounding in her ears. Then her mind cleared.
"—llikki, you all right? This is Captain Brev. Answer or I'll override your seals!" His voice faded. "Lee! Where is Lee? Get him in there!" Then louder: "Com Third!"
"Here, Captain." Aloud and mentally, she sent to all points. // "Otroub has been destroyed. Com Officer Etha Ckam is dead with all hands… correction. There is one survivor. In a pod. Unconscious. The passenger. I presume."//
There was no harm broadcasting that. The attackers couldn't very well turn around and finish the job. They were now bearing down on Prosperity.
Kyllikki had never been so close to death before and was surprised that her hands were more steady than they'd been all day, despite the real pain that burned through her whole body. She tapped into the helm screens and brought up the spectrum display. Minutes out of date, it had just begun to show Gita One and Otroub as expanding clouds of debris. I was out that long? No wonder the Captain was upset. There was no life-pod distress beacon out there. Defective pod?
Nearby, the six attackers showed as streaks of light surrounded by a flashing array of arcane military symbols.
Six Teleod ships. And someone coordinating their attack. Has to be a master telepath coordinating. Not Family, though, a middling-good coordinator. Expendable.
All at once, she knew what she had to do and did it.
Mentally, she summoned the proper key image, swallowed the exquisite nostalgia, and ventured through the image into the working realm, a "place" none of the Metaji had the keys or the training to reach.
In a nearby segment of the working realm, the master telepath had created a large cave, a comfortable private space. His presence filled it with multisensory gestalts, his orders. To enter his space was to know his plans. Kyllikki lurked in the "shadows," striving to grasp his tactical thinking without revealing the presence of a Laila Family telepath.
Her ears registered a voice from her console, jarring her partially away from the realm. She groped for the balance of bilocation—It's been so long! But in seconds, the skill came back and she was hearing with her ears and apperceiving the working realm simultaneously.
"…knowledge, Com Third, this is the Captain. Abandon that Window. You have ninety seconds. Acknowledge."
She knew the Window's radiation shielding wasn't meant to absorb weapons fire, but then neither was the ship's. Inside, she'd be virtually blind and hardly any safer. "With all respect, Captain, I've a job to do here."
"That was an order, Com Third!"
Then the Teleod telepath caught her attention with a command image. //On my mark, execute.//
As the six ships acknowledged the order, she retreated from the working realm, fumbling for the way to speak to her allies again. //Gita Two, Gita Three, Station Prime, Barkyr, this is Prosperity. I've broken their code. The two lead ships will be firing jump-cannon, the next two lightspeed projectors, and the trailing two will lay down a field of proximity devices.//
The jump-cannon was a particularly nasty weapon. The energy knot it fired dived through a space warp and appeared inside the defenses of the target.
//This is Gita Three. Thanks, Prosperity.//
The two fighters fired maneuvering jets in unison, altering trajectory by the tiniest increment. They're going to ram! Kyllikki didn't have a tactical display, just the helm tracker with gross estimates on an overlay, but she knew the escort intended to take out the jump-cannons.
Determined to distract the enemy coordinator until it was too late, she retraced her steps into the working realm. The key image she had dismissed still lurked, clean and precise, in her foreconscious, as if she'd never missed a daily exercise at these skills.
She moved into the periphery of the Teleod coordinator's working awareness, feigning clumsy stealth. He started, and turned on her. //Who—Korachi!// he swore. //A spy! They've broken into the realm!//
She retreated, darkening her key image by an act of trained will, simultaneously building a wall of silver bricks around herself, tensing for the mental blow she knew he'd launched at her. Simultaneously, she flung herself under her work station and curled into a ball.
Before the coordinator's attack connected, the two escorters smashed into the two lead ships.
Four telepaths died simultaneously, inadvertently amplifying the deathscreams of the others who died with them. The four remaining telepaths on the other Teleod ships filled the working realm with magnified pain.
The working realm's key image floating in Kyllikki's consciousness, so dark she was not even aware of the outlines, suddenly flared, limned with intense light. It burned itself into her, leaving an afterimage. The echo of the two Metaji telepaths deathscreams deafened her. Her body was outlined in pain, shaken by sound, burned by light.
Still, she was aware of the artificial gravity rippling under her. She felt the bulkhead shudder against her back. The air throbbed with alarms. The lights failed, and dim emergency lights flickered on. An acrid tang diffused from the air registers. Curled in fetal position, her muscles locked in spasm, she endured somewhere outside of time.
Eventually, it was over. Her body went limp. She was still breathing, so the Window had to be intact. Smoke had fogged the transparent bubble above her and swirled in the air, though near the floor, she could breathe. She might be radiation-fried, but she wasn't bleeding. And to her complete shock, she discovered she could move.
Got to go help find the injured. She scrabbled to get her knees under her.
A sign she'd never seen before flashed over the exit hatch. BRIDGE OVERRIDE! The sealed lock clicked open.
//Kyllikki?// Lee peeped around the cowling. Then he was on his knees beside her, one arm over her shoulders. //Don't move. Understand? I'll get you to sick bay.//
She humped up against the pressure of his arm. "Don't shout at me, all right?" Her voice was husky, and her throat felt as if she'd been screaming.
"Shout?" he whispered. What's the matter with her?
She pulled away, clamping her hands to her head. The key image to the working realm was burned into the back of her mind and would not darken and disappear. Lee's mind was washing through her, uncontrolled. Barriers. Come on. Image. Make the image. She found the wall of silver bricks, mirror-bright on the outside, half-transparent from the inside, showing the outer world dim but undistorted.
"Kyllikki? What are you doing?"
The edge of panic in Lee's voice, reinforced by a vibrant mental bleed-through of fear, went right through her.
She wanted to turn on him, to shove him out the hatch, get away from him. "Barriers," she gasped.
He withdrew his hands and she apperceived the thick felt damper he folded around himself. Sound analogue. They do everything with sound analogues. He was not using an image, yet she apperceived his effort as an image.
With supreme determination, she pulled herself to her feet, coughed and rubbed tears from her eyes. "Thanks. I've got it now. We've got to go help—"
"Abandon ship. Captain ordered." He coughed. "Fires. Damage control in the hold inoperative. We've got weapons in that hold as cargo. The Captain was informed by Main Data only after damage control failed." He urged her toward the lock. "The ship is going to go up in a matter of minutes."
And he came to pry me out of here.
She squeezed through the lock, which had jammed halfway open. The lounge was a tumbled mess, filled with smoke. They found breathing masks and emergency gear, fastened the belts around them, and forged out into the corridor.
People were moving swiftly, with determination. There was no panic, but the babble of voices that filled the air was edged with terror. In moments, the ship's uniforms made Kyllikki and Lee the target for the helpless and confused.
They split up, trying to help everyone, beating their way toward their assigned evacuation stations.
Using an emergency lantern, Kyllikki ushered people down dark side corridors and into life pods, stacking them in by the numbers, preventing fatal overcrowding, disregarding species preferences for speed. "That's all for this one!" she shouted more than once. "The rest of you follow me!" And she forged back through the press to another pod slip.
Even after the three mandatory drills and five extra ones the Captain had required, the passengers couldn't find their way around through the dim smoke.
Occasionally, she encountered another crew member, exchanged a quick "See you on Barkyr!" or traded power cells or breathing packs. Not all of Prosperity's emergency equipment worked. At one point, she provided a bandage pack to a Paitsmun, the very one who had criticized her arrogant manners. He was very grateful for her help in dealing with the wound of a soft-fleshed Zund.
Gradually, the noise diminished, the thump-whump of launching pods ceased, and Kyllikki began to wonder how she, herself, might get off. The standard launch pattern had not been followed. Her assigned pod had probably been launched.
She made her way aft, considering that passengers who couldn't find their own pods wouldn't have located the crew's pods or the extra ones. People who knew where the explosives were probably wouldn't head toward them. Most of the unused pods would be in the crew's quarters or behind Cargo and Stores.
She passed a lounge where the ceiling had fallen. There were body parts protruding from the rubble, no sign of movement. But, despite her own pain, she had to stop and scan for life. There was none. Beyond that, she came to a pressure barrier slammed across a corridor. Crew's quarters.
The hold, then. She turned and shimmied down an access tube, crawled through a smoke filled duct, and battered her way out the duct's register into the cargo area. Here she could barely hear the beat of the emergency announcements and alarms. Her light carved a tunnel through the smoke, and she scanned for signs of life as she went, glad that she had the map of the ship engraved in her memory.
And then she felt them. Familiar. Desperate. Which way? She wasted precious seconds trying to listen mentally, then remembered she could still speak. "Idom! Zuchmul!" Her worn voice was husky and muffled by the breathing mask.
She advanced, flashing her light this way and that, certain they had to be at one of the pod hatches in the bulkhead in front of her. "Zuchmul! Idom! Zuchmul!"
"Kyllikki?" It was the luren's voice. "This way!"
His Influence grew to a beacon, then cut off with a guilty start. He's not wearing his Inhibitor! Then she remembered. Zuchmul had been on his way to feed. The only time he was permitted to set the inhibiting device aside was when he was using his Influence on his food animals, a physiological imperative.
A dim glow emerged from the smoke and gradually became a pair of emergency lanterns. Two shadows developed into Idom and Zuchmul struggling with a tumbled pile of crates that blocked a pod hatch with glowing ready lights. Together, they heaved, and the last of the crates crashed aside. Idom smacked the control and the hatch swung open.
Zuchmul grabbed Kyllikki's elbow and propelled her toward the opening ahead of him. Knees sagging, she took one last look around and suddenly realized which pod ejector she was entering. It would throw the pod straight aft.
"No!" She pulled back, breaking the luren's hold.
"We're the last aboard," said Idom. "Come on!"
"No!" She pointed. "We've got to get down to that pod! This one will hit a flight of proximity mines! Come on!"
They followed as she beat her way aft and starboard, in one place crawling over containers that might well be the weapons no passenger liner should be carrying. No. If they were here, they could have been jettisoned manually.
They found another pod hatch with ready lights showing but the controls didn't open the portal. "Here, let me!" Zuchmul shouldered her aside and ripped the panel open, studying the circuitry. "Stand back." He snatched a tool from his belt and rammed it into the mechanism.
The door flicked open faster than it was supposed to. "What if it doesn't close?" she asked.
Idom said, "Decompression will stop the fire. In this hold, anyway. Go!"
They piled in, and the pod's own hatch closed. The launch was rougher than she remembered from the drills, but they were away and safe.
In unison, they lifted their breathing masks and took huge breaths.
Zuchmul went to the control board and glanced over the displays. "Anyone trained to fly this thing?"
"Not me," said Idom. "I thought you—"
"Not me," asserted Zuchmul. The two looked at Kyllikki.
"I was trained as pod medic."
They looked at each other. The pods didn't really need pilots. The distress beacon was automatic. All they had to do was wait. But a young colony like Barkyr wouldn't have unlimited resources to chase stray life pods. The closer they could get, the better their chances of survival. She had launched only one other pod without a certified pilot, and that one had had a boy who held an insystem yacht license.
Idom laughed first. Zuchmul joined and Kyllikki found her own hoarse voice wheezing along with them. "The last three ship's officers, so careful in their duty to see the passengers safe—and what do we do? Pack ourselves into a pod without a pilot!"
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copyright © 2002 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg. All rights reserved.
Those of My Blood copyright © 1988 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg
Dreamspy copyright © 1989 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg