Dark times are ahead.  Only a fool could believe anything different.  The death of planets is the harbinger of things worse to come.  We can hope for better, but all we can do, at the end of the day, is expect worse.

— Frederick Rose, c. 5226

25 Novem, 5249 PD

Timrel Winston adjusted the cuffs of his jacket, tugged at the front placket, and adjusted his cuffs again.  He flexed his gloved hands, taking a deep, slow breath as he waited outside of the red wooden door, studying the whorls and patterns of the wood’s grain.  Being called here was big.  There’d been a notice left on his desk to report to the office of the Inspector General immediately.  Since he hadn’t screwed up anything lately, it could only mean one thing.

A new assignment.  A big one.  Considering that the only really big thing that would require an investigation was the bombing of the Whispers…

Focus.  Breathe.  This is huge.  Huge.  This could be a career maker.  The biggest difference I’ve made ever.  It could mean the difference between war or continued peace.  His stomach twisted.  War or continued peace…

The door came open, startling him.  The Inspector General’s page smiled at him and stepped clear of the doorway.  “The Inspector General will see you now, Inspector Winston.”

Tim took a deep breath and stepped into the office of Inspector General Sephora Damerian.  She stood as he entered, towering over her large desk and the shorter man standing at the window.  Tim swallowed hard.

The prime minister.  Shit, she is assigning me to investigate the Whispers bombing.  He found his voice after a moment.  “Inspector Damerian.  I came as soon as I got your message.”

“Yes,” the tall woman said quietly, “I know.  I’m sorry we kept you waiting.  Mr. Parkstone inquired about your qualifications and I was obliged to inform him of my utmost confidence in you as an investigator.”  The dark-skinned woman was a head and a half taller than Prime Minister Anton Parkstone and he was significantly less impressive in the presence of the Inspector General.  Tim suddenly realized why they never appeared in any broadcasts together.  “Prime Minster, this is Inspector First Grade Timrel Winston, one of only three First Grade inspectors still in service to the Office of the Inspector General.”

Parkstone turned fully from the window and extended a hand to Tim, who moved over toward the older man to shake his hand.  “She speaks quite highly of you, Inspector.  Tell me, how did you get to the rank of First Grade so young?  You couldn’t be more than thirty.”

“Twenty-nine, sir, and the same way Frederick Rose did: hard work, determination, not being afraid to make enemies and getting the job done.”

Parkstone glanced toward Damerian.  “Ironic that he brings up Inspector Rose.”

Damerian winced.  “Yes, well, who wouldn’t?  The man’s legendary in the halls of our office, and tragic.”  Her throat convulsed as she swallowed hard before she glanced sidelong toward Tim.  “Frederick is the only one to be killed in the execution of his duties as an Inspector First Class.”

She means that as a warning.  Rose died investigating Mimir.  She’s telling me this is going to be about as dangerous for me, especially since no one’s taken responsibility for the destruction of the Whispers the same way no one took responsibility for Mimir’s death…everyone just swooped in to pick up the pieces and finish the job, like Chinasia and the Compact and Idesalli.  “I have no intention of meeting an end like Inspector Rose did, ma’am.  I’d like to think I’ve learned from his mistakes.”

Except that the only mistake he ever made was being a zealous investigator.  He was going to figure out who bombed his home come hell or high water.  And that’s what got him killed.

Her expression briefly darkened, then cleared.  He’d hit a nerve without meaning to.  Tim smothered a wince himself as the Prime Minster opened his mouth.

“That’s good to hear, Inspector Winston, given what’s going to be asked of you.”  The Prime Minister drifted toward the corner of Damerian’s desk.  He leaned against it, studying Tim for a few long moments, as if taking his measure.  “You seem like a smart man, though.  I imagine you can already guess what we’re going to ask of you.”

“You need me to investigate what happened at the Whispers.”  And not die in the process of investigating.  He glanced toward Damerian.  “Right?”

The Inspector General nodded slightly.  “You’re correct, Inspector.  That’s exactly what we’re going to ask you to do.  Alone.”

Alone?  This really is like Rose’s investigations into Mimir.  He sobered.  Except some of the stories have Inspector General Damerian helping him.  I wonder if those are true.  “Alone, ma’am?”

“The Whispers is a long way out, Tim.  I only have two dozen inspectors.”

And they’ve got their hands more than full investigating irregularities and violations here.  He nodded slowly.  “I understand, Inspector.”

“Do you?”

What isn’t there to understand?  I’m flying solo because it’s a long way out and she can’t spare the hands.  I’m sure it’ll be fine.  There’ll be someone local to help, right?  “I think so, Inspector.  I mean…there will be local authorities to help, right?”

The prime minster and the inspector general exchanged glances before Damerian looked back to Tim.  “That would mean that there were extant local authorities.  Most word that we have says that the place was wiped out entirely.  Other reports say that what few survivors there were died at the hands of the attackers or have run for E-557.”

The Rose Foundation colony.  Maybe I’ll find some answers there.  “That’s the nearest trustworthy system, I assume?”

“The nearest neutral system, at least.”

Damerian ignored the mumble from the prime minster and nodded.  “As close as it comes, yes.  The Whispers is pretty far out there.”  She rubbed at her temple and finally sat back down.  “I’m not sure how much help the Wanderers will be, either.  They’re very insular.  You’ll need an in and I’m afraid we just don’t have one.”

“Well, maybe I’ll find one at E-557,” Tim said, trying to inject optimism into his voice.  I’ve got a lot of research to do before I hit the space lanes.

“We can only hope,” Damerian said, sounding momentarily tired.  She glanced toward the prime minister again and sighed silently.  Tim bit the inside of his cheek.  Her gaze shifted back to Tim.  “Good luck, Inspector Winston.  You leave tomorrow.”

“Understood.”  He pivoted on his heel and strode back toward the door.


He turned toward the Inspector General, tilting his head slightly to one side.  “Yes, ma’am?”

“Don’t try to be Frederick,” the Inspector General said softly, pain reflecting in her eyes.

He nodded slowly.  “Yes ma’am.”

She nodded back and let him walk away.

Next stop, the last colony.


The story continues in Ashes to Ashes, coming in 2013. 

Chapter Forty-three

The humans who began the Diaspora and the generations preceding them made many mistakes.  They are mistakes we continue to make today, with our rapacious use of resources, the bleeding of our worlds dry ecologically.  If we do not learn from these mistakes, we are doomed to repeat those of our forbearers.  This is not a lesson we can afford to ignore.

— Erich Quizibian, Roots of Disaster: Predicting the Death of the Human Race, c. 5073 PD


20 Novem, 5249 PD

“Lin?  Are you going to be okay?”

She turned toward the sound of Kara’s voice and smiled a weak, watery smile as she laid a roll of gauze down in the pile on one of the side tables.  “I’ll be fine as long as he’s going to be okay.”  Her shoulders rose and fell in a slight shrug.  “And that’s what this is designed to ensure, right?”

Her friend nodded slightly.  “Yeah, yeah it is.”

“Then I’ll be fine.”

Kara smiled lopsidedly and came over, enfolding the younger woman in a hug so tight that Lindsay wasn’t sure if it was shared worry or the strength of the embrace that made it hard to breathe.  She hugged her friend back, clinging for a long moment as her eyes stung.

“I’m scared, Kara.”

“We’re all scared, Linny.”

Lindsay took a deep, steadying breath as their arms loosened.  “I can’t keep being me without him.  He’s my rock.”

“He’s your Farragut,” Kara said quietly, looking down at her.

“To my LeSarte,” Lindsay whispered.  Her hand strayed unconsciously to her middle.  Kara’s eyes widened.

“And to your Ian,” her friend breathed.  “When?”

“It must have been right before he left,” Lindsay said as Kara’s arms closed around her again.  She leaned against her friend and squeezed her eyes shut.  I can’t lose him now.  I just can’t.  “He doesn’t know.  I didn’t even know until a few days ago, but I know it.  I can feel it.”

“Did anyone confirm it?”  Kara asked softly.

“Doctor V did yesterday,” Lindsay said quietly.  She took a deep breath and straightened, pulling away and looking up at Kara.  “She’s here to help Ezra with him, isn’t she?”

“I guess he asked for her,” Kara said, her brows drawing together as her lips tightened into a thin, white line.  “I—”

Lindsay managed a smile.  “It’s okay.  You can’t scare me any worse than I already am, Kara.”  She squeezed her friend’s arm and turned away, peering out the window at the endless blue of the sky.  They’re up there, out there, on their way home.  It won’t be long.  “Did you see Uncle Adam?”

“The Marshal said it’ll be another half an hour, twenty minutes,” Renee Vilenauva said quietly from behind them.  Her gaze met Lindsay’s as the younger woman turned.  “How close can I expect you to be hovering while Dr. Grace and I are working on him?”

She caught her lower lip between her teeth.  “Depends on how bad it is,” she said.  “And the look on Ezra’s face when he sees me.  That’ll tell me everything I need to know.”  I’ll be close, regardless.  Probably not in the room, but close.  She closed her eyes for a moment and forced herself to exhale slowly.  “I’ll stay out of the way.  I promise.”  After I see him once, anyway.  After I touch him and know that I haven’t lost him.

            Not yet, anyway.  She swallowed the bile that suddenly bubbled up in her throat and shivered.  Kara’s arm slid around her shoulders and squeezed.

“It’s going to be okay,” her friend breathed in her ear.

Lindsay nodded.  “Of course it is,” she murmured back.  “He’s got too much to live for to die.”

●   ●   ●

            “It’s an impressive view from up here,” Rachel murmured to Adam as he came up beside her and put a comforting arm around her shoulders.  From the edge of the ridge, they could see the sea in the distance.  The tides were coming in, the waters rising against the pale sand and dark rocks of the shore.  “But I can feel why Kara and Ezra stay away.”

“There’s a lot of memories,” Adam agreed, his voice as quiet as hers as he squeezed her close.  “The Graces lived a full life, though, both of them.”  He kissed her jaw gently.  “A spirit healer could cleanse the place and it wouldn’t be bad.”

“It wouldn’t be home, though.”  Rachel took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly.  “But you’re not talking about it as a place for us, are you?”

“Daci and Freder are going to need a place.  So are Meri and Grant.”

She shook her head.  “That’s a bridge to cross another time.  Besides, aren’t Daci and Freder going to eventually go back to Urgarthe?”

“Maybe,” Adam said.  “Maybe not.”  Not if I get my vote.  Not if I can talk him into it.

“You’re scheming,” Rachel said, her tone only vaguely accusing.  Adam chuckled softly.

“Was there ever a time when I wasn’t?”

Her gaze flicked up to him even as her free hand lifted to stroke his jaw.  It was rough with a day and half of stubble; he’d forgotten to shave that morning.  One corner of her mouth quirked upward in a faint smile.  “No,” she said.  “Not ever, I don’t think.”  Her free arm slid around his waist.  “It’s good to know some things don’t change.”

He drew her against his chest and stared out into the distance, resting his chin on top of her head.  “Especially on the eve of everything being different.”

She looked up, blinking.  “You think so?”

“Your sister and her husband are coming home,” Adam said quietly.  “They’ve been prisoners of two of the conglomerates for almost two decades.  Tell me that they’re not going to have horror stories.  Tell me that they’re not going to tell us something that’s going to make war even more inevitable than it already is.”

“Adam,” Rachel said his name quietly, firmly.  “We’re only going to war because they’re going to bring it to us.  What happened to the Whispers made it inevitable.  Lindsay’s visions of the war coming to us made it inevitable.  My sister and Grant coming home aren’t going to make the war that’s coming happen.  It’s just going to confirm who our enemies are.”

“Which is almost everyone,” Adam breathed, brushing hair back from his wife’s face.  “Everyone with the power to make us hurt.”  His jaw tightened.  “What if they tell us that the Cullings are coming again, Rachel?  What will we do then?  Leave every psychic that’s not already here to suffer?”

She sucked in a sharp breath and jerked away, turning toward the cliff and staring blankly at the ocean.  “No,” she said after a long moment of silence.  “No, of course not.  How could we?”

“It’ll be a fight with the Council to get them to approve it,” Adam warned.

“Maybe,” she said.  “Maybe not.”  A shudder ran through her and Adam put his arms around her again, this time around her shoulders as he stood behind her.  She leaned back into his chest and shook her head slowly.  “We’ll have to see,” she said, her voice barely audible over the wind coming off the water.  “Fear is a powerful motivator.”

“For both sides,” Adam said.  D’Arcy and anyone loyal to him will dig in their heels.  They won’t like anything that brings more psychics to this haven.  But it’s all we’ve got—it’s all any psychic has left.

            This is where the last vestiges of the Guard are safe.  The Foundation and the Guard might as well be the same thing, but they’re not.  People like D’Arcy make sure that’s the case.  His jaw tightened and he knew that Rachel sensed his sudden shift toward tension.  She turned to look up at him.

Cuore dell’anima mia,” she whispered.  “Adam.”

He closed his eyes.  She hasn’t called me that in a long time.  “I’m sorry.  Morbid thoughts.  They’re the last thing either of need right now, I know.”

“Especially if Lindsay picks up on them,” Rachel said, stroking his face gently with both hands.  She smiled weakly.  “All the bridges we have to cross are ones we’ll cross when we get there.  We can’t afford to make assumptions at this point.  Everything’s changing too fast.”

“You’re right,” he said, resting his forehead against hers.  “You’re right.”  It was a lie, but he let it pass and so did she.  There were some things they should be prepared for because they were inevitable.

It was just a question of what was going to happen no matter what and what they could mitigate or prevent.

His comm trilled an alarm.  He swallowed.

“Is it time?”  Rachel asked softly.

He nodded.  “It’s time.”

They turned back toward the house.  His arm settled around her shoulders and together, they walked toward the edge of the landing field that once upon a time, Zephaniah Grace had built for his beloved wife, the mother of his twin children.

Kara and Lindsay emerged from the house a few moments after Adam and Rachel reached the edge of the field, trailing behind Daci and Frederick.

“Where’s Aidan?”  Adam asked, gaze flicking to his fellow Marshal.

“Seeing to the perimeter,” Daci said.  “I was going to stay with him, but he sent me up here instead.”

Adam nodded absently.  His eyes drifted toward his niece.  Kara Grace-Forester had the younger woman’s hand in a death grip.  Both women were white-knuckled.  He barely suppressed the urge to shake his head and stepped away from Rachel.  He cupped Lindsay’s chin gently in one rough hand.

“He’ll be fine, Linny-pie,” he said.

“He better be, Uncle Adam,” she said.  A bare trace of a smile flickered across her lips, through her eyes.  “Otherwise, I get to hurt you, remember?”

He laughed and nodded.  “I remember.”  I might let you hurt me anyway for what I sent them into.  Depends on how badly he’s hurt.

Rachel caught his hand and squeezed.  He squeezed back and moved away, joining the others in a ragged line facing the field.

In the distance, a dark speck grew bigger, more defined as it glided toward the field, toward Halo Ridge.  Out of the corner of his eye, Adam saw Daci wince.

“I don’t like that wobble,” she said, squinting against the sky.

“Alana will bring them in safely,” Adam said with a confidence he didn’t quite feel.  He squeezed Rachel’s hand again.  Having her here somehow helped him steady himself, steel himself to tell the lies he had to tell—to his colleagues, to himself.

She’ll bring them in safe.  Don’t underestimate Alana Chase.  That’s how you end up with a dagger in your spine.

Gradually the ship became clearer.  Adam winced as he saw evidence of damage, some apparently from lasers, others the normal—or almost normal—evidence of close encounters with space debris.

No wonder there’s a wobble.  Looks like half a stabilizer sheered off.

A few seconds before the ship settled onto the pad, Dr. Vilenauva joined them with three corpsmen and a stretcher.  She exchanged a look with Rachel and nodded slightly.  Whatever silent exchange had just happened, Vilenauva’s nod meant she’d do what Rachel had asked.

He closed his eyes for a moment.

The shuttle touched down in a wash of hot wind.

The moment of truth was at hand.

Later, he would only remember the moment in fragments, snatches of images.  Alana shepherding America and Grant off the ship and to the ground.  Shaking his old friend’s hand again as Rachel embraced her sister for the first time in decades.  Ezra Grace emerging from he ship’s dark interior only to be engulfed in his sister’s arms.

Laying his hand on Lindsay’s shoulder and squeezing as Ezra led the medical team back into the ship and carried Brendan out.

“At least let them get him to the ground, Linny-pie.”

The pain etched on her face and the heartbreaking tenderness of his niece’s touch as she brushed hair away from her husband’s forehead and kissed him gently before Ezra and the rest whisked him away, into the house.

And Alana grasping his arm, jaw set grimly as she laid a data card in his hand.

“The Whispers is dead, Marshal.  God help us all.”

Chapter Forty-two

Change, though painful, is often necessary.  We often fear it, though, simply because it hurts too damn much sometimes.  I speak from experience—volumes of it.

— attributed to Ryland LeSarte, circa 4856 PD

20 Novem, 5249 PD

“So that’s home,” America said softly as she stared out through space, down at the blue and green and white ball that was E-557.  There was a storm swirling through the southern ocean and a weather front was sweeping east toward the more heavily populated areas of the main continent.  It was hard to tell where the cities might be from up here.  If Ezra didn’t already know where they were, he’d be hard-pressed to tell from this altitude.

“Yeah,” he said quietly.  “That’s home.”

“You have Brendan secured, Ezra?”  Alana asked without looking up from the controls.

“Just about,” he said, crossing his arms and leaning with one hip against the back of Alana’s seat.  “Are we going to run into any of that weather?”

“No.”  She didn’t bother to look up.  “We’re landing on the coast, so we should be able to avoid it.  I’m not very experienced with the wind sheering here, though.”

Ezra squeezed her shoulder.  “You’ll be fine.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” she muttered, jaw tightening for a moment.  “I’d still rather be safe than sorry.  Make sure he’s strapped in tight.”

America chuckled weakly as she looked at Ezra.  “Seems she’s not going to leave you alone until you do it.  Do you need help?”

He shook his head.  “No, I can handle it just fine.”  He glanced at Grant as he headed back toward the bunks.  The older man was slumped in one of the observation seats, arms crossed, staring broodingly out at the planet that spun lazily below them.

“Not much in the way of defenses, is there?” Grant said as Ezra passed.

It was Alana that answered.  “There’s a few orbitals, but they’re cloaked.  Isolation has been our greatest defense for the most part, and vigilance.  The planetary sensor net is very much  like the systems employed at Mimir.”

Grant made a disgusted sound low in his throat.  “Much good that did us.  We didn’t see them coming until it was too late—and even then, we couldn’t tell who it was.”

“There have been some upgrades to the old systems,” Ezra said as he double-checked Brendan’s vitals and then started to fasten an extra layer of crash webbing over his friend.  “A couple dozen of the best minds the Foundation and the Guard had worked on the project.”

“We also built redundancy into the system,” Alana said, tone dry.  “Constant air patrols, small but effective.  Brendan flies them, like most of the other pilots in our flight corps.”  She exhaled, her voice dropping to almost a mutter.  “At least they have flight hours logged even if they’re not combat hours.”

Ezra swallowed the thin trickle of bile that welled up at the back of his throat.  “Maybe it won’t come to that.”

“Keep hoping, Dr. Grace,” Alana said.  “Keep hoping—keep praying—and maybe something will have mercy on us.  For my part, I’ll keep right on worrying.”

Ezra bit back stubborn denial and looked down at Brendan, his jaw tightening painfully for a moment.  “Right,” the doctor muttered.  “Keep on worrying.  I’ll keep praying.”  He fell silent as he slid the last few fasteners home, securing Brendan in a cocoon of crash netting substantial enough that Ezra was fairly certain if the ship did crash, Brendan would survive even if the rest of them didn’t.

Comparatively, we’re all expendable.  He barely kept himself from wincing at the thought as he straightened up.

“Where are we landing, anyway?”

Alana hesitated for the barest moment before she said, “Halo Ridge.”

“We can’t,” he said.

America and Grant both looked at him askance.  America tilted her head to one side.  “Is there something wrong with this place where we’re landing?”

“No,” Alana said.  “It’s a perfectly lovely landing zone. I’ve seen it.  And if we somehow accidentally overshoot, we’ll end up in the water.”

Ezra could have throttled her.  His breath caught, throat tightening painfully.  “No one’s landed at Halo Ridge since Mom died.”

Alana shook her head.  “All I know is that I was told that’s where we’re landing, Ezra.  I have my vectors and it’s way too late for me to ask them to reroute us now.”

Ezra clamped his mouth shut so tightly his jaw hurt.  America’s gaze flicked between him and Alana as he stiffly made his way to another of the observation seats and dropped into it.

Kara must know we’re coming home.  None of the Marshals would have come up with us landing at Halo Ridge.  I don’t think any of them realize that it’s still the way Dad left it the last time.

He closed his eyes. Five years had done little enough to soften the blow of two deaths only weeks apart.

“How long has it been since you were there?”  Alana asked after a few minutes of aching silence.

“Halo Ridge?  Not since we found out that Mom was never going to land there again.  Been to the house a few times, but I could never live there.  Too many memories.  Too many ghosts.”

The way she exhaled said that she understood.  He managed a weak smile as he turned to America and Grant.  “My father set up a landing field at Halo Ridge for my mother.  They died five years ago.”

America glanced at her husband.  “Quite a gesture.”

Ezra smiled faintly.  “Yeah.  I guess it was.”  His smile faded.  “When will we be there, Alana?”

“Forty-five or less,” she said as she nosed the ship down toward their reentry vector.  “Keep on praying.”

“I won’t,” Ezra said quietly, staring at the planet growing larger and larger in the windows.  “I promise I won’t.”


●   ●   ●


The ride out to base had been too short for the conversation Daci clearly wanted to have with him, but he didn’t have the same luck on the trip between the base and the old Grace house overlooking the water.  Daci sat next to him in the skimmer, back ramrod-straight.  For a few moments, he thought that maybe, just maybe, she wasn’t going to say anything.

Then she took a deep breath and said, without preamble, “I cannot believe the risk you took with his life.  He is your best friend.  You have almost as much interest in keeping him breathing as I do and you bring him to a fragging Council meeting.”

“Ostensibly, we’re supposed to be able to trust the Council,” Adam said, though he believed it as much as she did and it was audible in his voice.

“We don’t trust D’Arcy Morgause.  Don’t pretend that even Speaker Petremoore does.”  Daci grit her teeth.  “The only thing that saved your life in there was the fact that I don’t think that anyone recognized Frederick.  Believe me, if anyone had recognized him, I would have shot you on the way to base and disappeared with him again.”

“You wouldn’t have,” Adam said.  “If you did, he’d never forgive you.”

“He’d forgive me eventually,” Daci said.  Her hands tightened into fists on her knees.  “What the hell were you thinking, Adam?”

“He was already there, Daci.  He decided that he was coming when Rachel and Lindsay left the house.  He said he was coming to the meeting.  Was I supposed to tell him no, make him wait in the skimmer?”

Daci stayed quiet, staring at trees as they cut out of town and up into the wild beyond Nova Spexi, out toward a rocky spate of shoreline that jutted out into the ocean north of town.  A quarter mile later, she said, “You guys should have found a way to talk him out of it.”

“Once he sets his mind to something, there’s no talking him out of it.  You know that, Daci.”  Adam shot her a rueful smile.  “It’s why he’s here.”

“That’s a true statement on a lot of different levels,” Daci murmured, eyes focusing distantly for a long moment.  “Adam, when they land, everything’s going to change.”

The abrupt subject shift startled him so badly he nearly swerved off the narrow, two-lane roadway.


Daci snorted.  “Are you trying to get us both killed?”

“No.  What the hell are you talking about now?”

Daci gave him a long, hard look.  “Once they land.  Then we’ll know the truth.  Everyone will know the truth about what happened at the Whispers.  We’ll know whatever the Compact and Chinasia are planning because America and Grant will be able to tell us.”

“They might not,” Adam said, heart sinking.  She’s right.  Damnation, she’s right.

“Prisoners or not, Adam, they’ll know something.  We both know that it’s probably not going to be good.”

“No,” he agreed.  “Probably not.”  Certainly not.  “But then, where Chinasia and the Compact are involved, things are never good, are they?”

“Typically not.”  Daci exhaled.  “We need a new spymaster.”

Adam nodded.  “I know.”  I want Freder for it, but you won’t go for it—and I have to convince him first.  “We’ll sort it all out.”

“Before we can oust D’Arcy, we need to have someone we can install in his place.  It could be Alana.”

Adam made a noncommitmental sound.  “We’ll sort it all out,” he said again.

Ahead of them lay the perimeter that Aidan’s people had arranged.  Adam took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly.

Within the hour, everything would change.  It was just a question of how—and how drastically different their world would be.

Chapter Forty-One

Apologies for the short chapter – it’s really a continuation of the previous…  I’ll try to have Forty-Two be a bit beefier, I promise.

Fear makes cowards of us all.

— Unknown

20 Novem, 5249 PD

“If you ladies don’t mind,” Frederick said quietly as he limped over to join Lindsay and Rachel at the other end of the chamber, “would you be adverse to my hitching a ride with you up to…wherever we’re going?”  He glanced back over his shoulder toward Daci and Adam, a frown creasing his brow.  Lindsay followed his gaze and frowned herself.

“He looks like he swallowed a lemon,” Lindsay said quietly.

“Yes,” Frederick agreed.  “I don’t think the conversation that the two of them are about to have is one I want to be a party to, especially when it’s concerning me.”

Rachel shook her head.  “You don’t think that you could defuse the situation?”

“Not a chance,” Frederick said.  “I’m good, but I’m not that good.”

“Where are we going?”  Lindsay asked quietly.  “Do you know?”

“Dr. Grace’s sister said something about halos.”

Lindsay and Rachel exchanged a look even as Lindsay’s heart skipped a beat.

Halo Ridge.  They’re going to have them land at Halo Ridge.  The old Grace house on the cliff.

            They’re coming home.  They’re coming home right now.  She swallowed hard.  They’re coming home.

“Well, we’d better get going out to Zephaniah’s, then,” Rachel said quietly, shoving her hands deep into her pockets.  “I’ll drive.”

“Straight there?”  Lindsay asked as she and Frederick followed Rachel out of the Council chambers and into the corridor.

“Straight there,” Rachel confirmed, not looking back.

“We don’t need to stop and get anything?”

Rachel looked at her strangely.  “What would we need to get, Lindsay?”

“I don’t know,” she said quietly, momentarily hating herself for the sudden nervousness that she felt, the sudden urge to hide.  “Supplies, I guess.  I…Aunt Rachel, I saw something. About them coming home, I saw something.”

Frederick climbed into the skimmer first, followed by Lindsay and her aunt, who continued to give the younger woman a strange look, though one that was now laced with concern.

“What sort of something?”

Lindsay caught her lip between her teeth.  “I saw them coming back.  I saw Kara hug Ezra, but I never saw Brendan or Alana.  We know Alana’s okay because she’s been on the comm with Uncle Adam—she’s flying the damn ship.  But I don’t know how Brendan is—how bad it is.  What am I going to do if he’s not going to be okay?”

“Alana would have told us, Lindsay,” Rachel said, her tone careful and voice soft.  She was trying to be reassuring, and the fact that she was trying both touched Lindsay’s heart and terrified her that much more.

How can I be sure she didn’t and everyone isn’t just trying to find a gentle way to tell me?

Frederick’s hand closed around hers and the frail man squeezed with what felt like every ounce of his strength.  “Have faith,” he said softly to her.  “Just because they call you the Oracle doesn’t mean everything you’ve ever seen will come to pass.”

A shiver shot down her spine and she swallowed hard.  “How can you know that, Frederick?”

“Ask your father sometime.”  His fingers tightened again and he looked toward Rachel.  “How far is it?”

“Not far,” she said.  “But far enough that D’Arcy might not notice the landing until it’s too late.”

“He’s getting more dangerous,” Lindsay mumbled.

“He’ll only get as dangerous as we let him get,” Rachel said.  “And I don’t intend to let him get very dangerous at all.”

He’s already reached that level, Aunt Rachel.  You’re too late.  Lindsay closed her eyes and slumped in her seat, trying to take deep, calm breaths, trying not to dwell on what lived in her nightmares.

She tried not to believe that Brendan dying was a possibility.

She knew that she was wrong.

Chapter Forty

That was the day that everything started to change.

— Kara Grace-Forester, member of the Rose Council (5245-5250)

20 Novem, 5249 PD

In the sudden silence reigning over the Council’s chambers, Adam Windsor’s comm began to trill loudly, insistently.  He shoved a hand into his pocket to retrieve it, keenly aware of how sharply all eyes had turned to him.

“My apologies,” he murmured as he fumbled out the comm., still half numb from Scarelli’s announcement.

“It’s all right, Marshal Windsor,” Sergei said, traces of irony in his voice, in his smile.  “I doubt one more interruption could disrupt our proceedings further than they’ve already been disturbed.”

You’d think that, Adam thought as he stared at his comm..  Chase’s code.  He stood up.  “Pardon me for a moment.  Matter of defense.”

“Are we under attack?”  Amelda asked as Adam made his way to the stone steps and then crossed toward the door.

“No, Consul,” Adam assured her as he shoulder the doors open.  “But it’s a matter of defense nonetheless.”

It was cool and quiet in the corridor.  He let the doors thud closed behind him and wandered partway down the hall, his comm. Still trilling in his hand.

He subvocalized a command and then spoke.  “Windsor.”

“You have twenty minutes to get me landing vectors,” Alana said at the other end of the line.  “We’re an hour out, but I need to adjust course for landing.”

“You’ll have them,” Adam said, heart starting to beat a little faster.  With Scarelli’s announcement throwing down a proverbial gauntlet, the proof Operation: Quebec was carriny became that much more critical, that much more important.  If they have what she said they have, D’Arcy won’t have a choice in the matter.  He’ll have to believe.

            Hell, the whole Commonwealth will have to believe.

            And the cycle would start all over again.

He shivered.

Gods and monsters, I hope not.  The last thing the galaxy needs is another Frederick Rose.

“We also need a medical team on standby on landing.  Doctor V, if it can be done.”  She paused.  Adam could hear Ezra Grace’s voice in the background.  “Correction,” Alana said, voice dry.  “If you can’t get her, you’re going to have to debrief Ezra en route to his clinic because Brendan needs work as soon as we land.”

Adam’s heart froze for a moment and he found himself swallowing against the sudden sickness that bubbled up in his throat.  “It’s that bad?”

Her voice got quiet, as if she didn’t want Ezra to overhear.  “Bad enough, Marshal.  He stabbed his implant and then piloted us through a nasty storm on extraction from Anduril.  Collapsed after that.  I don’t think Ezra’s sure what’s actually going on or how serious everything really is.  I really don’t.”

He frowned, suddenly aware that he was pacing up and down the corridor.  “Well,” he said, “I guess we don’t have a choice.  I’ll have to make sure he’s got Vilenauva if he needs her and keep his debrief as short as possible.”

“He really didn’t—”

“—see anything?  Except that he saw the Whispers die, same as you did.”  Adam shook his head, though Alana couldn’t see it.  “We’ll need to talk to him.  I have to get off the comm.  I’m wasting time.  You need those vectors.”

“Yes, sir.  As soon as possible.”

“And you’ll get them as soon as I have them.”

“Thank you, sir.  Chase out.”

The comm. Went dead.  For all his talk of haste, Adam stood there for a long moment, staring at nothing.

He was already dreading telling Lindsay the news.

We have to get them out of this meeting.  Me, the other Marshals, Linny-pie, Rachel…  He exhaled quietly, rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck.

Easier said than done.  What kind of excuse am I going to come up with this time?

            Matter of defense?  D’Arcy will want to know what’s going on.  They all will.  He smiled grimly.  Need to know.  And you don’t.

He turned and walked back inside.

“Forgive me,” he said as he strode through the doors and onto the Council floor.  “But I’m afraid that the situation at hand is a touch more complex than I’m able to handle without the input of my fellow Marshals.  With the Speaker’s permission, might we suspend this meeting and reconvene at a later time?”

“Is everything all right?”  Jensen Moore asked, head tilted slightly to one side.

Damn, but the man actually sounds concerned.  I wonder if it’s because it could be his own safety at stake or if he’s genuinely concerned by what’s going on.  Adam nodded.  “Everything’s fine, it’s just a logistical situation that requires more input than simply my own.”

Sergei cleared his throat.  “Since this meeting has already been disrupted twice after turning into a complete fiasco, I see no reason why we shouldn’t adjourn and reconvene tomorrow.  Is the Council agreeable?”

Most of the council was, in fact, agreeable, but D’Arcy Morgause had the temerity to stand up.  “We weren’t done with our presentation.”

“I think, in fact, you were,” Sergei said quietly, all the while shooting the spymaster a look that could melt steel.  “We may resume our discussion of whatever incident might have taken place beyond the boundaries of this system that had a major impact on the stability of the Commonwealth and the homosphere as a whole at a later date.”

D’Arcy turned a cold glare toward Adam, who smothered a smirk before it could bloom.

I made an enemy today—or made a man who was already my enemy even more so.

He found he really didn’t care.

He beckoned to Lindsay even as he headed back toward Daci and Aidan.  He leaned across the curved table toward them, voice low.  “It’s time.”

Aidan nodded and stood from his seat, coming down the steps toward the floor.  “I’ll secure a landing zone and advise you as soon as I’ve got the location.”

“Make it close to Dr. Grace’s clinic if you can,” Adam said.

A hand fell on his shoulder and he turned, expecting Rachel until he realized that he could sense her on the other side of the room, with Lindsay.

Kara Grace-Forester stood behind him, her expression caught somewhere between stern and grim.  “Marshal,” she said quietly, “is my brother alive?”

His mouth went dry, but he nodded.  Bloody hell.  I should have known she’d pick up on something like this.  But how?

“Is he in one piece?”

He nodded again.  “He is, to the best of my knowledge.”

Kara nodded slowly.  “Good.  Will he be after he lands?”

He almost choked on a laugh that tried to bubble up in his throat.  At the table next to Daci, he heard Frederick do just that.  “I certainly hope so.”

“Tell Marshal Church that he can set a perimeter at Halo Ridge.  The field should still be in okay shape.”

Adam arched a brow at her.  “Halo Ridge?”  I didn’t realize Zephaniah kept a landing field up at the old house.”

Kara shrugged.  “Dad liked it when Mom could just land by the house instead of going somewhere else.”

He nodded and glanced at Daci.  “Could you get on the horn and tell Aidan?”

“As long as you promise me explanations for other things later,” Daci said, giving him a look that promised the discussion they were going to have about Frederick’s presence at the meeting wasn’t going to be a pleasant one at all.

“On my honor,” Adam said, then turned away again, back toward Kara.  “I imagine you and Gabriel will be meeting him up there?”

“I’ll send Gabe up to unlock everything,” Kara said.  “Ezra can get started with whatever he’s got to do at the big house.  We ought to have enough for him to work with up there.”

“That sounds like it’ll work,” Adam said, then frowned to himself.  “Could you do something for me on your way up?”

“Depends on what it is.”

“Round up Vilenauva and bring her and her kit up there.”

Kara arched a brow and Adam shook his head.

“I’ll explain when we meet you.  Get going before folks start wondering what the hell we’re talking about.”  He looked at Daci and Frederick.  “The two of you come with me.”

Daci just shook her head as she came around the table to join him, already getting on the comm.  “You realize we’re going to have that long talk in the skimmer.”

“Yes,” Adam said, suddenly feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders.  “I know.”

Chapter Thirty-nine

There are some people who will continue to deny the truth even when it hits them squarely in the face.

— Ambassador Alexander Channing, Psychean Guard, c. 5201

 20 Novem, 5249 PD

D’Arcy and his team of “experts” had been presenting for nearly an hour before the first consul reached the limits of their patience.

“This is insane,” Kara said flatly, glaring across at D’Arcy.  “You actually expect us to believe that nothing happened?  Half the people in this room felt it and the other half probably watched while someone else did.  Why are you wasting our time?”

“On the contrary, Miss Grace-Forester, I do not actually believe that any such large-scale assault took place.  Further, if something did happen, I fail to see how anyone this far away could have felt it.”

Kara opened her mouth to respond, but Mugabe beat her to the punch.  The dark-skinned man’s tone was deceptively mild.

“Perhaps the elder Farragut could enlighten us on that count with some examples from history?”

Rachel cleared her throat and took time to apparently gather her thoughts before she began speaking.  ‘There are several examples from Post Diaspora history when psychics perceived major events from great distances.  LeSarte—”

“Oh hell,” D’Arcy snapped.  “When in doubt, fall back on LeSarte.  You know there are people who think he was a charlatan.  A clever actor.”  He glanced pointedly toward Lindsay.

Oh he didn’t just start this game, did he?  “I hope you’re not implying the same of me, Consul.  Everyone in this room has been a witness to what happens when the goddamned visions come.”  If not for Brendan being here the last time, I don’t’ know what might have happened.

that act you and your pilot pulled off was quite the show,” D’Arcy said, voice dripping malice and sarcasm.  “How long have you been—what is it you refugees call it?  Bonded?”

Lindsay went cold.  All she could do was stare blinking at him for a moment before her heart began beating again.  “Yes, that’s what we call it.  Why does it matter?”

“I would imagine that the Council is entitled to know when an…asset such as yourself chooses to take up with a refugee and potential spy for a hostile power—”

“Consul Morgause,” Sergei interrupted.  “Are you implying that Commander Cho is not entirely loyal to the Foundation?”

D’Arcy shrugged, attempting to appear nonchalant, pretending that he hadn’t just accused Brendan Cho of betraying everything the young man held dear.

Aidan Church snorted.  “There’s no way,” he said.  “The man is the best flight instructor we have.  Every native-born pilot we’ve got, he trained.  Spies wouldn’t do that, not at the level he’s performed at.”

“Not to mention his volunteering for the mission to liberate Senator Farragut’s daughter and Ambassador Channing’s son,” Amelda said.  “Really, D’Arcy, I think your suspicion in this case is sorely misplaced.”

“Regardless, I think we are entitled to know what our lauded and coddled Oracle does beyond these august chambers,” D’Arcy said, staring at Lindsay once again.

Stay calm.  Stay calm.  You can borrow someone’s sidearm and shoot him later.  “I don’t see why it’s anyone’s business but mine.” It was a struggle to keep her voice even.  “But if you absolutely must know, going on seven years, and they’ve been fantastic.”  Her eyes narrowed.  “How long has it been since you had a woman in your bed, D’Arcy?”

Sergei cleared his throat.  “That was uncalled for, Oracle.”

She folded her hands in front of her and looked toward the Speaker.  “No more or less so than the rest of this conversation.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Frederick leaning forward, whispering something in Adam’s ear.  Adam just smiled and leaned back to murmur something in response.

Wonder what they’re saying.

Lindsay took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly.  “Consul Morgause is trying very hard to pull wool over all of our eyes and deflect this council from the matter at hand.  All the evidence not marshaled—indeed, ignored by Consul Morgause—points toward a massive attack on one of the outlying worlds.  We haven’t been able to confirm which one because is scrambling to make sure it wasn’t one of theirs.  Everyone here knows that something happened, though, whether we want to admit it or not.”

“But where is the evidence?”  D’Arcy demanded.  “All you have are rumors and headaches.”

The door into the chamber creaked fully open then.  Adriano Scarelli looked grim as he stepped into the room, swinging the door shut behind himself with a loud bang.

“I didn’t want to interrupt,” he said as he strode across the floor.  “But it seems I picked a good time to do it.”  He stopped in the heart of the room, standing at the center of the rose.  “It was the Whispers.”

“I beg your pardon?”  Sergei said, half rising from his seat.  “What was the Whispers, Mr. Scarelli?”

“The planet someone killed,” he said.  “It was the Whispers.  Mission Systems has a ship coming in as we speak carrying refugees.  Found a crippled ship on the edge of the system.  They saw it happen.”  He drew himself up a little straighter.  “Furthermore, I am here to inform you that Mission Systems has begun to dismantle its operations in the inner homosphere and is in the process of transporting our personnel and shipyards to the agreed-upon position in orbit of E-Trel five.”

Lindsay watched D’Arcy Morgause collapse back down into his chair, cotton-pale with sweat beginning to bead on his brow.  His specialists were looking at each other nervously.  One woman gnawed at her lip so hard that Lindsay was sure she was about to draw blood.

The room was dead silent for exactly fifteen seconds before Adam Windsor stood up.

“What’s the ETA?”

“Our ship from the Whispers should be here in thirty-six hours.  As I understand it, the system has become an even larger navigational hazard than it used to be.”

“There’s no guarantee—”  D’Arcy began to say.

“That we will take on any survivors from the destruction of our nearest neighboring system?”  Amelda interrupted, voice tart.  “Consul Morgause, you are not the one who makes that decision, now are you?  That is left to a very specific subset of this Council and you are not a part of it.”  Her gaze sharpened as she turned her eyes toward Scarelli.  “Do we know how many, Mr. Scarelli?”

“No,” he said.  “If I can get estimates before they go to jump, I will certainly do so.”  He swallowed, Adam’s apple bobbing as his gaze swept the room.  “…I’ll let you get on with your meeting.”

He spun on his heel and walked away.

Chapter Thirty-eight

Everything happens for a reason, whether we know what it is or not.  Sometimes, the reason is a test.  Sometimes, the reason is to bear witness.  Usually we never know why, we just thank our lucky stars that we were in the right place at the right time and curse the moment when we weren’t.

— Sara Farragut, circa 4857 PD

20 Novem, 5249 PD

Alana cursed softly under her breath, glaring at the control board as if it had betrayed her.  She’d been staring and cursing at it for the past hour, since they dropped out of jump on the far side of Eridani Trelasia’s asteroid field—evidently not where she’d hoped they’d end up coming out of their jump from the Whispers.

“Swearing at the controls won’t get us there faster,” America said from inside the guts of the secondary boards.  “And it’s not the console’s fault we popped out where we did.  Gravity wells.  That bullshit.”  She peeked out and up toward the commando.  “You’re not a ship jockey, Alana.  Don’t beat yourself up because you don’t fly like one.”

“Every damn second of delay gives D’Arcy Morgause more time to poison the Council and convince them what we saw at the Whispers didn’t happen.”

“He can’t possibly be that powerful or that influential,” Grant growled softly from his seat in one of the observation chairs.

“If there’s only one voice shouting, it’s going to end up sounding like the truth no matter how you slice it,” Alana said, voice dripping bitterness.  “He’ll put together some kind of mountain of manufactured and circumstantial evidence and since it’ll sound just credible enough to be true, everyone who wants to hope that maybe the Commonwealth isn’t dying, that maybe humanity isn’t so damn sick it would murder entire planets, will believe it because he’s the only one in the room speaking their language.”

Grant shook his head.  “I don’t think the people of the Foundation could be that stupid.”

“They’re not stupid,” Ezra said as he straightened from tending to Brendan.  “They are that afraid, though.  Who would want to believe it could happen not once, but twice?”

“No one,” America said, voice half muffled.  “But it did, and we’re the ones with the proof.”  She hauled herself out from under the console, a glimmering bit of electronics stuck to one of her palms by sweat and lubricant.  She held it out to Alana, who took it wordlessly and tucked it into a pocket of her jumpsuit.  “And we’ve got multiple copies.  You can’t kill the truth.  Not easily, anyway.”

Ezra nodded, trying to quell the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.  “You’re right—you can’t.  But the proof we’re bringing is going to fuel more fear and that fear is going to lead to denial because what other weapon do most people have?  If someone killed not one but two planets, they’re not going to have any moral compunction about killing more.  That’s going to keep people up at night.”

“We just have to convince them that fighting back is a better idea than laying down and waiting to die,” Grant said.  “That shouldn’t be too difficult.”

“You forget that we’re dealing with a planet chock full of pacifists.”  Alana looked directly at Ezra, who flinched and looked away.  “And with that comes a lot of fear and a lot of difficulty in mobilizing for war.”

“They’re already mobilizing,” Ezra said quietly, slumping into one of the other seats.  “It’s just a question of whether there’ll be enough bodies and if it’ll be fast enough.  Seems to me that the answer is going to be no on both counts, Lindsay’s warnings nonwithstanding.”

“Our daughter saw the war coming?”  America asked as she cleaned her hands on a rag she’d left laying on the secondary boards, leaning against the edge of the console.  “She saw it?”

“Lindsay sees a lot of things.  She doesn’t always tell the Council what she sees when she sees them, but in this case, she did and she told them exactly what they didn’t want to hear.”  Alana closed her eyes for a moment.  “It should have been enough to get the entire planet to gird for war, but all it did was show us exactly where people are going to end up when the chips are down—until someone shows up shooting.  Even then, I’m not so sure that ideals aren’t going to crumble under the weight of certain death.”

Ezra swallowed hard.  “Give the pacifists some credit, Alana.  Some of us realize when a fight is necessary.”

“Not all of them are as smart as you, Ezra,” Alana said, then turned toward the console.  She swore at it again, this time under her breath, then sighed and leaned her head back.  “I just want this bucket to move faster.”

Me too, Ezra thought glumly, glancing at America and Grant.  Lindsay’s mother frowned to herself, then finally shrugged and shook her head.  Grant just sat there, stone-faced, apparently deep in thought.

Ezra glanced at the timer.  Three hours to go.  Not fast enough.  Not nearly fast enough.  What if she’s right?  What if D’Arcy manages to convince the Council that the Whispers weren’t destroyed before we manage to get there and prove the truth?  What happens then?  His stomach flipped over once, then again.  Kara wouldn’t believe it.  Neither would the Marshals, or Rachel and Lindsay.  But everyone else…everyone else is a wild card, aren’t they?  Mugabe would probably side with us.  Amelda might—as deeply as she believes in the Foundation’s ideals, she knows that humanity has an innate capacity for self-harm, for self-destruction.

            But it wouldn’t be enough.  It’d split the Council.  That wouldn’t do anyone any good, not when we need to be united.

“Damn,” he breathed, staring at the glowing numbers of the countdown clock.

Alana looked back at him.  “Yeah.  Exactly.  Start praying again, Ez.  We’re going to need it.”

“We can’t just tight-beam a message back or something?”

“I already did.  The Marshals know we’re coming and they’re going to be there to meet us when we set down.  I’m not handing this ship over to anyone but Aidan Church or Adam Windsor.  The last thing we need is for D’Arcy to get his dirty paws on it and erase everything we risked our asses to get.”

Ezra didn’t remind her that it had been accident that pulled them out at the Whispers, happenstance.

Or was it?  What if that was meant to be?

He shook himself, trying not to go down that path.  Down that path lay madness.

But we were in the right place at the right time.  There must have been a reason for it.  It couldn’t have just been random chance.

            Could it?

Chapter Thirty-seven

Another of humanity’s traits that is terrible and admirable all at once is our capacity for denial.  It is both a mechanism that enables us to survive and something that will, someday, get us all killed.

— Erich Quizibian, Roots of Disaster: Predicting the Death of the Human Race, c. 5073 PD

20 Novem, 5249 PD

Adam met them outside the meeting hall.  He was waiting for them, expression serious, almost grave.  His eyes betrayed a brief flicker of surprise when he saw Frederick in the skimmer’s backseat, but it was quelled in an instant.

“What’s wrong?”  Lindsay asked as she climbed out.  Her heart began to beat a little faster.  Bloody hell, what’s gone wrong now?  She felt sick, stomach bucking like a boat in rough seas.

“I heard from Alana,” he said, gaze flicking between his niece and his wife.  “She sent a tight-beam signal to my personal comm half an hour ago.  They made the system and they’re about five ours out by her estimation.”

“Five hours out?  That’s pretty shoddy plotting,” Rachel said.

Lindsay’s lips thinned.  Brendan’s a better astronavigator than that, but I don’t think ‘lana is.  I’m not surprised they’re still so far out.  She felt the overwhelming urge to mentally reach for Brendan, a desire she quashed, though denying it left her feeling even queasier.  Focus, Lindsay.  You can come unglued later.  You can give in later.  She caught her lip between her teeth, biting down hard enough that she was surprised she wasn’t leaving marks, drawing blood.

Frederick, silent as a wraith, appeared beside her.  He took her hand and squeezed.

She sucked in a breath.  “What’s going on, Uncle Adam?”

“Alana wouldn’t talk about it on an unsecure line, but she said that none of them would be speaking to anyone when they got back unless it was me, Aidan, or the two of you.  I imagine that Alana doesn’t trust Daci yet.”  His gaze slid toward Frederick.  “I want you at their debriefing.  Whatever they saw and learned is apparently disturbing enough to make an ex-Compact black ops agent paranoid.”  He shook his head.  “She also said that we have to pull the sensor logs of that ship as soon as they set down, before D’Arcy gets wind of their return.  Up to that, Eaglet?”

Rachel frowned slightly.  “I’m rusty and I’ll need my kit, but I think I can manage.”

Adam nodded.  “Good.  Now we just need to make it through this Council meeting without anyone suspecting that something’s amiss.”  He crossed his arms, looking between the three.  “Who’s aide is Freder supposed to be?”

“Mine,” both women said simultaneously.  Rachel looked at Lindsay curiously as Adam favored them both with an amused expression.

“What are you thinking?”  Rachel asked.

Lindsay shrugged with one shoulder.  “That odds are on one’s going to notice me dragging someone along.  No one ever noticed Brendan until he made himself noticed.  You’ll be under more scrutiny, if Kara and the Marshals and I are right and you’re the Speaker’s top choice to succeed him.”

Rachel’s lips thinned.  “I’m not.”

Adam squeezed her shoulder and shook his head.  “Like as not, Eaglet, you are.  Amelda’s too young and Kara’s too young and the rest don’t have the balls for it.”

Rachel just shook her head.  “That’s not how it’ll be.”

“Then Sergei is going to work himself to death,” Adam predicted.

Lindsay shivered.  He’s right.  She’s the only valid choice in there, and I’m willing to bet the Speaker knows it.  Aunt Rachel’s apparently the only one who doesn’t.

            Well.  Her and D’Arcy Morgause.  She’s just got too much self-doubt.  He’s delusional or something.

“Well,” Frederick said quietly, “I suppose that means that I’ll be the Oracle’s aide, since I don’t imagine you’ve got a uniform available in my size, Grumpy.”

Adam’s gaze slid sideways.  “Don’t tempt me, Freder.  It wouldn’t take much to get one.”

“That might actually be the least remarkable,” Lindsay said.  “No one would say anything crosswise if Uncle Adam showed up with some kind of advisor.  Even one that’s not in uniform.  They just might assume that Freder’s someone from Mission Systems or something.”

“Your wife is going to have an apoplexy,” Adam said to Frederick.  He was grinning, though.  Apparently, he didn’t think this was that terrible of an idea.  “And she will probably try to murder me sometime after we leave the meeting, but my gut’s screaming this will be worth it in the long run.”

Lindsay smiled briefly.  “Trying your hand at some prophecy yourself, Uncle Adam?”

“Everyone’s got a little bit of it in them, even me.”  He winked at her, then sobered, glancing toward the stone walls behind them.  “This isn’t going to be a pleasant meeting.  Not with the rumors on the newsnets.”

Rachel blinked.  “After the screams every psychic around the world heard?  We still haven’t managed to confirm that someone wiped out a planet?”

Adam sighed.  “D’Arcy’s made an art form of dragging his feet.  He doesn’t believe it happened, so he doesn’t want to spend resources confirming that it did.  I don’t have the assets to spare right now or else I’d be sending someone to have a look myself.”  He headed for the doors and they trailed behind him, Frederick first, followed by Lindsay and Rachel.  Lindsay shoved her gloved hands into her pockets, trying not to scowl.

Of course he doesn’t believe that a planet died.  I wouldn’t want to believe it, either, but I heard the screams.

            I saw the dying, the burning, three months before it happened.  Her lips thinned again.  But I thought it was a nightmare then.  I’m such a goddamned fool.  I could have done something about it.

            Couldn’t I?

            She looked down at her feet as she followed her aunt, uncle, and a dead man down the stone corridors toward the Council chamber.  Some bloody prophet I’ve turned out to be.  Don’t I have a duty to more people than just the ones on this planet?  Do I?

            I wish Brendan was here.

Swallowing the lump that rose in her throat at the thought of her husband, she took a deep breath and stepped into the chamber.

About half the Council had already arrived.  She caught the flicker of shock and fear that washed across Daci’s face when she laid eyes on Frederick, emotions that the Marshal was quick to bury.

That was good, because Lindsay had scarcely settled into her seat before D’Arcy Morgause arrived with an entourage of three of his agents on his heels.  Her jaw tightened as she watched them haul some projection equipment into the room with them.

Oh.  This ought to be good.

Her gaze flicked across the chamber to her uncle, who looked disgusted and sick at heart all at once.  D’Arcy gave him a cat-like smile before he turned his gaze, full of hate and loathing, toward Lindsay.

She swallowed.

And very, very bad.

            Damnation and hellfire, Brendan, I wish you were here.  I really, really wish you were here.

            We’re going to need all the help we can get this time around, aren’t we?

Chapter Thirty-six

Sins and secrets—sometimes, they are one and the same.  Advisors and traitors—sometimes, they’re one and the same as well.

— Unknown

 20 Novem, 5249 PD

“You could come, you know,” Rachel said softly, leaning in the doorway and watching Frederick stare silently out the window of the room he was sharing with Daci.  Their spouses had already left for the day, headed for a confab with Aidan Church to prepare a situation briefing before the Council meeting.  Lindsay was out in the garden, taking out frustrations and worries on some weeds that had begun to overgrow the dying tomato plants.  It was only the two of them indoors, two old friends who understood each other more than either cared to admit.

Frederick turned from the window, a brow arching slightly.  “Eh?”

“The Council meeting.  You could come.  It’s the flip of a coin whether someone would notice you or not.  I imagine some would, but they may say nothing of it.”  She straightened and joined him in the bedroom, wandering toward the window to stand alongside of where he stood, leaning on his cane.  “There’s going to be so much going on, Freder.  You should come. Whoever was hunting you…they must have stopped by now, right?  They think you’re dead, and it’s been so long.”

Frederick shrugged.  “I don’t know, Rachel.  Daci thinks if I resurface, then someone will come after me again.  I’m not sure what to think.  I’m not even sure why they wanted to kill me.”

Rachel shook her head.  “It must’ve been something about Mimir, Freder.  What else could it have been?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted.  “But I’m not entirely sure it had to do with home.”  He gave her a rueful smile.  “Then again, I’m not entirely certain it didn’t, either.”

“We never will be,” Rachel said softly.  She startled herself with the admission.  When did I give up on ever knowing?  It must have been when I thought he’d died and took all the secrets with him.  Maybe it was after Aidan told me I was being foolish, worrying about the past when I had a future to consider.

            I don’t know when it happened.  But it did.

“No, we won’t,” Frederick said.  “Not unless they come after me again.”

“They won’t.”

He smiled.  “Your niece is the Oracle, Rachel.  Not you.”

She smiled back.  “That may be true, Freder, but sometimes I see things just as clearly as she does.”  She took his hand and squeezed.  “Come with us.”

“Daci will kill me,” he murmured, eyes growing distant as he stared out the window at the trees.

“If she does, none of us—or whoever wanted you dead back then—will have anything to worry about where you’re concerned, now will we?”  Rachel gave him a cheeky grin and tugged on his hand.  “We just won’t tell anyone who you are.  Won’t be like we’re announcing your presence!  You’ll be there.  You’ll see what we’re all going on about, and probably no one will even notice that you’re around, much less know who you are.  I doubt they’d make the connection.”  It’s been too long and you look different now.  None of them knew you like we did back home.  No one will know.  It’ll be fine.  You’ll be safe.

            Adam needs you, Freder.  He’s got plans.  I just don’t know what they are yet.

“And recognize where the issues and the breakdowns are,” Frederick said.

“Exactly.”  Her fingers tightened around his again.  “Will you come?”

He stared out the window for a moment longer before he finally nodded. “Yes.  I’ll come.”

Rachel tried to smother a triumphant grin as she squeezed his hand one last time.  He shot her a smile that said she’d failed, but it was all right.

“Adam has plans, doesn’t he?”

“If he does, he hasn’t told me.”  Rachel shrugged.  “We can still keep secrets from each other.  Life wouldn’t be any fun otherwise.”

Frederick laughed and squeezed her hand back.  “Give me ten minutes to make myself presentable.  Are you going to tell Lindsay, or is this going to be a surprise?”

“I’ll tell her, but I’m not going to call up there and tell them.”  Let them all be surprised to see him.  We’ll see how well they cover.

The thought must have been loud, because the corners of his mouth twitched upward in a smile.  “It’ll be interesting to see the look on their faces, but if we don’t tell them, they can’t say no.  Better to ask forgiveness than beg permission.”

“Exactly.”  Rachel smiled and let go of his hand.  “I’ll be out with Lindsay.”

Frederick nodded and shooed her out of the room.  Buoyed by her apparent victory, Rachel practically skipped all the way out to the garden as if her body weighed nothing at all.

Lindsay glanced up from the weeding and raised a brow.  “…you’re really pleased by something.”

“I talked Frederick into coming along with us,” Rachel said as she waded between rows of vegetables toward where Lindsay crouched among the fading tomato vines.

Lindsay’s brow creased.  “Are you sure that’s a good idea?  What if…Aunt Rachel, what if someone on the Council is some kind of traitor?”

Rachel’s heart gave a little stutter-step.  “Lindsay, none of us like D’Arcy, but he wouldn’t betray the Colony.”

“How can we be sure of that?” she asked softly, sitting back against her heels.  “How can we be sure, Aunt Rachel?  We can’t, can we?  I don’t trust him, not now.  Not after what he did to try to keep us from rescuing my parents and definitely not after he tried to keep us from welcoming Mission Systems.  I don’t think he’s got the Colony’s best interests at heart.  I really don’t.”

“Just because he doesn’t agree with  you doesn’t mean he’s got it out for the Colony.  He just has other priorities that are different from ours.  I’m sure he’s got his own ides about what would be best.”

Lindsay grimaced.  “I’d love and hate to hear what they are.”

Rachel laughed.  “Me too.  Are you ready for the Council meeting?”

“I don’t suppose I can skip.”

“No.  You’ve done enough of that.  Now’s the time for you to be seen and heard, Lindsay.”  Rachel crouched down and looked her in the eye.  “You’ve got so much more strength in you than anyone I’ve ever known.  You don’t have to hide from anyone, not today and not ever again.  People are starting to see it in you—that strength you’ve been hoarding all this time.  The Council’s starting to sit up and take notice.  You’re not the child they thought you were.  You’re a grown woman with a strong voice and a good heart.  You belong on that Council and the others are finally starting to realize why.”

“D’Arcy hates me,” she said, her clear-eyed gaze meeting Rachel’s head-on.  “He thinks I’m a threat.  He thinks all of us are a threat.  All of us who came from Mimir.  He’s afraid of us.  He honestly thinks that we’re going to somehow destroy the Colony, Aunt Rachel.  How am I supposed to trust that, to believe that he’s got our best interests at heart when he thinks that half the population is going to destroy the Foundation and the dream that’s this place?”

Rachel’s stomach flipped and she fought to suppress a shiver.  I never realized that.  Why didn’t I?  Did I try not to read it in him?  Did I just…ignore any warning flashes?

            You didn’t like him, Rachel.  You never did.  Could his hate be why?  Her lips thinned.  That could be it.

“I guess I understand,” Rachel said quietly as she straightened.  “But we still have to work with him, Lindsay.  At least for now.”

Lindsay nodded, wiping her hands on the seat of her pants.  “For now.  Until something changes.”

For a moment, Rachel was deeply tempted to ask her niece about what might change.  The sound of the back door opening and Frederick’s footsteps kept the question trapped behind her teeth.

“Are we ready, then?” he asked as he approached the edge of the garden.

“As long as you are,” Rachel said, picking her way out from amongst the rows of green.

Frederick smiled.  “Then we are.  Lead on.”

Rachel grinned and headed for the skimmer, leaving the other two to trail in her wake.

Chapter Thirty-five

Quizibian got it right when he said that humanity to a man is bred for war.  We are consistently sucked into internecine squabbles that will eventually be the end of us all.  The bombing of Mimir is reflective of this behavior, but it’s only made more heinous by the fact that not only were millions of innocent people killed, but the knowledge of ten thousand generations was lost.  Someone has to pay the price for that.  It’s my job to find the son of a bitch and make him pay.

— Frederick Rose, Chief Commonwealth Inspector, circa 5222

20 Novem, 5249 PD

“Do we have confirmation on those reports yet?”

Padraig had been wearing the same clothes for the past forty-eight hours.  He’d forgotten to eat, barely slept, and was running on a cheese danish he’d eaten eight hours ago and five cups of coffee in as much time.  It was the beginning of the end, he could feel it in his bones.  Ten years with theNewEarthCommonwealth’s Colonial Office had taught him more than a few things, chief amongst them when the congloms began to stop respecting the authority of other entities, it was a prelude to war—or worse.  In this, he was hoping only for war, but suspecting worse, far worse.

“Coming across now, Padraig.”  Miriam leaned closer to her screens, squinting at the tiny text of the bulletin scrolling across it.  “It’s confirmed.  An Argopian LCC trawler just made it into New Ardis and confirms that the Whispers have been bombed almost to bedrock.  They’re not reporting any survivors.”

“None that we know of.  Yet.”

Miriam looked over her shoulder and smiled at him weakly.  “Right.”  She turned back to the screen and resumed her checking, brow furrowed as she read on.

Padraig tried not to shake his head.  He suspected that here in the Colonial Office, they already knew who was responsible for the bombing of the Whispers but couldn’t admit to knowing.  The why, that was more tricky.  He suspected it had more to do with E-557 than anyone else might believe.  The Whispers was a trade hub, an all-but-neutral port of call.  Yet it had been the first target in what was sure to be another bloody war.

He could feel it in his bones, like an old man could feel the coming rain in his gnarled, arthritic joints.

A hand fell lightly on his shoulder and he glanced to the side to see Amie standing at his elbow with a paper-wrapped sandwich in her hand.  “You need to eat, Padraig.  I’d tell you that you need to sleep, but you’re not going to until someone over all of our heads tells you do.”  She pressed the sandwich into his hand before she slid quietly into the chair at the station next to Miriam’s and settled her headset on again.  Amie, who probably had felt this coming, too, but maybe had seen something else.  And Miriam, who was starting to understand, slowly but surely, exactly how high and deadly the stakes had become.

None of it was supposed to turn out this way.

It had all started when Mimir died.

“Sir?  I’m getting some funny chatter over here.”

Padraig turned sharply toward one of the younger technicians who sat with a hand pressed against his earpiece as he frowned at a screen.  “What is it?”

“Sir…it sounds like Mission Systems is responding to the attack at the Whispers by shutting down operations at their plant near Xingaou and getting ready to dismantle their orbital platforms at Tarsis.”

“What?”  Padraig frowned.  That didn’t make any sense.  Unless…  “Was anything nearing completion at Tarsis?”

“Uhm…let me look.”  It took the sandy-haired young man a few long moments to sort through some file data.  “Yes, sir.  An older style battleship commissioned circa 5220.”

“By the Psychean Guard.”

“Yes, sir.  How’d you know?”

Behind them, Miriam and Amie exchanged a look.  Amie went back to her board with a slight frown.  Miriam watched a moment longer before she went back to her work.  Padraig shook his head.

“I have a sneaking suspicion that Mission Systems will be shifting more of its operations to the outer reaches of the homosphere.”

“Why would they do that, sir?  I mean, I know they don’t do as much business as they used to before the Psychean Guard fell, but they still have a lot perfectly good operational areas and a lot of resources at their disposal here in the inner rings.  Why would they head out to the fringes?”

Padraig patted the young man on the shoulder.  “Because they can see the writing on the wall better than most.”


Padraig waved off the question and walked toward the screen that displayed the map of the homosphere, dotted with star systems that were color-coded by the conglomerate that held sway in each system.  Some of those colors—the red of Chinasia Corp and the violet of the Eurydice Compact—covered far more territory than they had when he’d joined the Colonial Office as a much younger, much more idealistic man.  He stared at the map for a few long moments before he glanced over his shoulder toward Miriam.

“Have they announced who’s going to be heading up the investigation into the attacks yet?”

Miriam shook her head slightly.  “Not yet.  Who do you think it’s going to be?”

Padraig turned back toward the screen and stared at it for a few long moments.  “I don’t know,” he said quietly.  “But I have the feeling that whoever it is will go the way of Frederick Rose.”

Miriam and Amie exchanged another look in silence.  There had long been a conspiracy theory about Frederick Rose: that he’d actually found out who killed Mimir but been murdered before he could tell anyone who it was.  Whether that was true or not didn’t matter.

The last time a claim filed with the Colonial Office had been grossly violated in this way had lead to the death of a Chief Commonwealth Inspector on top of the millions of lives lost on Mimir.  There were already at least a quarter of a million dead at the Whispers.  Whatever was brewing could be the death knell, the final toll of the bell for the human race.

“E-557 is sounding better,” Amie murmured to Miriam.

Miriam shook her head slightly.  “I don’t think anywhere’s going to be safe soon, Amie.  Least of all here or there.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Call it a hunch.”  Miriam stared at their supervisor’s back for another few, long moments before she got back to work.