The Dark Reaches

Chapter 3

 

Santandru Nearspace

 

As Linnea guided her ship out to jump radius, with Iain's ship pacing her own, she let herself look back at Santandru. Through the close neural connection to her ship, she saw her home world slowly receding, a thin sunlit crescent of blue and gray and white. Even the ship's sharp "eyes" showed her no visible lights on the nightside of the planet: The tiny fishing villages were lit by fading power plants, or only by oil.

That was her world. And she might never see it again.

With an effort, Linnea turned her eyes and her thoughts away, remembering Iain's words this morning: Do nothing that makes you feel emotion. You must always be calm when you face otherspace.

Linnea's mouth twitched in a bitter smile. She knew Iain had not followed that rule last year, when they finally made their escape from the contaminated ruins of Nexus. He'd tried to hide his grief, then and in the long months since. Don't feel—always safer not to feel. The custom of the Line, the custom his father had taught him. That she'd hoped she was finally beginning to break through.

She'd tried that way of living for a while—she'd thought it would numb her to the pain of memory, of what she had suffered in Rafael's hands. But, in the end, only Rafael's death had let her do that. That and time.

And her happiness with Iain.

She checked her distance from Iain's ship—steady, of course; they'd flown together so often. She must do this exactly right: She must prove to Iain that she was capable of piloting safely. Or, thinking to protect her, he would take away the last freedom that mattered to her: the freedom to use her piloting skills to fight the Cold Minds. Instead, she would become something else he had to protect. A burden. Useless.

Iain's voice spoke in her ear, relayed from his own ship but sounding as close as if he lay beside her in her piloting shell. "Radius achieved. Are you ready for jump?"

"Ready," she said.

"Focused? The way I taught you?"

Shut down, he means. "Yes," she said, her voice tight.

She heard his quiet sigh—knew he was forcing himself not to say more, not to make it worse. "The mark is Paradais," he said, "minimum radius plus twenty thousand, nightside. Pilot, have you the mark?"

"I have it," she said, visualizing it. She had never been to Paradais, but her shipmind stored multiple images of all standard jump points, and she had studied this one last night.

"Calm," he said. "Remember that, Linnea."

She did not answer.

After a moment, he said, "Engaging jump. Follow in five," and the green-circled mark of his ship vanished from her sight.

Linnea caught her breath.

Five.

Four.

Three.

Two.

One.

Her mind flexed, and the universe vanished. Her body vanished. For the first moments, in the utter absence of sensory input, she felt the usual prickle of panic. But she knew it would pass. She reached out in her mind and found the input from her ship, the shipmind an insentient but comforting presence, ready to respond if she "spoke" to it. Iain was beyond her reach now, of course; there could be no communication between ships in otherspace.

Be passive, Iain had said that morning. Let otherspace come to you. Don't seek it.

But she could not help seeking it. She stilled her mind, knowing that the body she could not feel would calm as well. It was like straining to hear a faint skirl of music carried on a night wind. Like the brushing touch of silk. Like the cool damp breeze before dawn.

And then otherspace was around her, enfolding her as she sailed through it, filling her mind and her senses and her heart. She stretched herself out, farther, farther, reaching for the beauty, for the soaring sense of freedom. Beyond anyone's reach. Joyous. Alone—

Wait.

Not alone.…

A ghost-touch seemed to slide along the back of her neck. A physical sensation that she should not, could not feel.

But this had happened before.

With it came, again, that sense of an other. Another mind—out here. Not Iain, not the familiar, beloved presence she knew from jumps where they had been linked in the same ship. This was the faint, unfamiliar edge of a mind she had never known. Except here, once, twice before—sharp, questing. She knew what was coming, and braced her mind for it.

This time it came as a wash of emotion—the fear of loss, a longing for—something. Hope?

Longing and command. Wordless, but the meaning was there:

Come to us.

Come to us, find us, we are here.

We are still here.

Then her inner sight filled again with an image like the others that burdened her dreams. This was a new one, a still image of a waterfall of incredible size and height, plunging in a deep wide U into a misty blue abyss. A big yellow sun hung low on the horizon beyond, rising or setting, touching the mist of the waterfall to a veil of gold. She felt again the knot of another mind's grief in her heart. Lost to us forever, the other mind said. Clearer now. Gone into the cold.…They're killing us. We need you. Hurry. Come. Come now.

No. Linnea pulled back into herself, in terror. No. She was nowhere near Paradais yet, with long days to go even in the jump; but the call had never been this strong before. As she struggled to focus and quiet her mind, more images bloomed and flickered in her inner sight: blue mountains impossibly tall. Then a rocky coastline, with bright water shading light blue to blue-green to indigo.

Then a broad tan desert covered with tall plants with thick, curved branches.

Then ice, ice like home on Santandru—but burning white in hard pure sunlight. Not like home. Not like anyplace she had ever seen.

No. She reached out unthinking, calling for Iain, seeking the familiar, seeking safety.

The wordless call again, carrying meaning somehow: Come. You must come now. Soon it will be too late.

Yearning.

Direction.

A jump point, forming in her mind, a strange one: a world faintly banded in cold blue-green, no white at all; a globe of mist, half-lit by a dim sun she could not see. It was not any world she knew—a gas giant hanging alone among cold stars, bare in blackness, frigid, dark.…

Here, here. Nearer, louder, triumphant now—

No! Desperate, blind, alone, Linnea flexed her mind again.

Dropped out of otherspace.

Silence flooded her mind, as the clouded glory of the stars of the Hidden Worlds flooded her ship's eyes. She seemed to be hanging motionless among the silent stars and nebulae. Too far away from anything for any motion to be visible.

Alone in the dark of her piloting shell, she took a hissing breath and swore. A stupid trainee's mistake. She had panicked. And now it would take her half a day, more, to recalculate her present position, find the correct reinsertion vector for Paradais, make her way on along the hyperdesic to safety.

And it would take her more time than that to think of what to tell Iain. How to tell him.

How to tell him, in a way that would not make him certain she was mad, that now otherspace was speaking to her.

She took a breath, trying to slow the pounding of her heart. Someone was speaking to her in otherspace. Someone had summoned her. A human mind had summoned her.

Summoned her—it had to be—to Earth.

 

Paradais Nearspace

 

Iain sen Paolo stretched out his limbs again in sequence, in the familiar routine used by pilots confined too long in their shells: to ease his stiff muscles and, he hoped, clear his mind. His fingertips brushed against the smooth inner walls of his own shell. Weariness fogged his brain, swirled queasily in his stomach.

Two days he had spent here, in his ship orbiting the small, bright world of Paradais—ever since he had emerged from otherspace to find no sign of Linnea. No sign then or since. She had not appeared at the rendezvous.

Again fear prickled along his skin. Again he took a calming breath, forced his mind back to hope—a stone he had worn nearly smooth in these two days.

She will come, his mind told him, stubborn, disciplined as always; it was only his body, only his heart that feared. He would overcome it as he always had.

Once more he assessed the space around the ship. He was linked in; its eyes were his, and through them he could see in all directions. He turned his attention out-orbit, then in-orbit, scanning the bright limb of Paradais, thick clouds swirling over shining ocean. Then around to nightside, where the lights of a few small cities glowed.

His ship's systems would spot Linnea's jumpship before Iain could, but still he searched. Still, again, he saw only the familiar stars, the veils and folds of surrounding nebulae bleached pale by the nearness and brightness of Paradais. This world had little orbital traffic, and nothing was moving now. Only his own ship. Paradais had no orbital port where he might have waited in greater comfort, still within quick reach of Linnea when she appeared.

The voice of Paradais groundside spoke in his ear again. "Pilot sen Paolo? You didn't respond."

Iain sorted through his mind for the words that he had last heard. They still wanted him to land, eat, rest. The commander of the Paradais orbital patrol thought he'd been up here too long.

Best remind her who was senior. "It is not your decision, Ground," he said. "I will remain in orbit."

There was a pause. He knew she would not give up. She had responsibilities, and if anything happened to him, she would certainly have trouble with Terranova Central.

Her voice when she spoke was cool, measured. "If—when Pilot Kiaho arrives, our patrol ship can reach her just as quickly as your own ship could, and we can help her just as efficiently."

"I must be there as well," he said, and took a breath of the sour air inside his shell, released it slowly. Brought an image into his mind, the flame of a candle, a quiet tongue of light in a dark, still place. Focus.

"Sleep at least, Pilot sen Paolo," the woman's voice urged him. "You can sleep. Your ship will wake you if there is any change in the situation."

"I note your advice with thanks," he said, and broke the connection.

Though he could not see the dark interior of his shell while his vision was linked to the "eyes" on the hull, he could smell his own stale sweat. All the time in otherspace on the jump from Santandru, and the days in orbit.…The ship, as always, continued to sustain him with fluids and nutrition—and stimulants, until the shipmind had begun refusing his demands a few hours ago—but the shells weren't designed to be used for long periods in normal space, where the pilot could sense his surroundings.

Yet only in here, linked in, could he share his ship's eyes. Only in here would he be able to instantly spot and instantly assess any incoming ship.

Which would be Linnea's. Logic said it would be. Must be. He closed his eyes just for a moment, to focus, to think—drifted. Drifted.…

A windy beach, in a vast, flat, empty landscape under a gray sky. He saw Linnea—he knew it was Linnea: a dark figure far away, so far he could not call to her, but he sensed her restless spirit, the stubborn courage he loved. She stood gazing out to sea, her back to him.

Then he saw her begin to walk toward the water—white surf that foamed and churned in eerie silence. He must reach her, touch her—stop her.…He saw a wave break around her ankles, far ahead. But he could not run. His feet dragged in the sand. She was moving away, moving deeper—he was losing her. He could not catch her. He would have to follow.

Follow Linnea—

Iain jerked awake, the quiet new-signal alarm chiming in his ear. He forced his mind to alertness, scanned the sky. There, out-orbit, right at the chosen emergence point, he saw it: the orange ring the shipmind placed to mark an unidentified ship, too distant to see but visible to the ship's sensing systems. Then the ring flicked green, flagged with familiar call numbers.

Linnea's ship. He caught his breath.

And then he let his shoulders sag, let himself feel how tired he was—dizzy with relief. That was Linnea's voice, giving her name and call sign to Ground, requesting permission to land. He heard the weariness under the routine words.

He opened the private link between their ships. "Linnea. It's Iain. I'm in orbit. Are you all right?"

Another burst of communication interrupted before she answered, this time from Paradais Ground—assigning Linnea a landing site, speaking words of formal welcome. He heard exhaustion echoing his own in the flatness of Linnea's response. But she was following procedure. So far.

"Linnea," he said again on the private frequency. His voice was unsteady. What had happened? He would not ask her yet—he wanted to see her, see her eyes. Judge her condition. Know the truth, whatever it might be.

Again she did not answer him. He dug down into the anger that had built over the past hours and days, used its strength to make his voice cool and even. "Pilot," he said, senior to junior. "Report." If that new, insufficiently tested ship had given her trouble, he would—

Now she answered. "I'll explain groundside." Which was no answer at all. And still he heard that sinking exhaustion in her voice.

Before he could respond, the vector codes attached to her ship's symbol shifted, flickered to new values, and he realized that she was beginning her landing sequence. Which effectively cut him off from speaking to her; one did not interrupt a pilot during a maneuver, no matter how routine.

"Groundside, then," he said tightly, and broke the connection.

 

Iain settled his ship into its landing cradle at his assigned site beside Linnea's. It was night at the skyport, but the high yellowish field lights burned bright. He saw Linnea's ship steaming faintly as drizzle struck its hot skin. Then he cut off his connection to his ship, removed the sensory leads with careful urgency, disconnected himself from the support systems in the shell. For these few moments he could not see outside, could not see her ship. As he pulled a black coverall over his sweaty, aching body, he realized that his hands were shaking, his breath coming hard.

Fear flamed into anger. She'd had no right to do this, no right to risk herself. Her life did not belong only to her. It hadn't for years.

Dressed, booted, Iain dilated the hatch and climbed out onto the hard field. The warm mist fogged the lights, gave an eerie yellowish cast to the dark, shining pavement, the two or three off-duty patrol ships locked down and empty. He started toward Linnea's ship. His legs felt rubbery after the long jump, the many hours waiting in orbit, but he forced himself to walk steadily. Two ground crewmen were already helping Linnea's ship link to fueling lines, ground power, but no one had tried to open the hatch; it was not done, a pilot's ship was his domain. Her domain.

Never mind that. Without speaking to the crew, Iain slapped his hand onto the control plate next to the hatch, tapped out a pilot instructor's emergency override code. The hatch dilated, and Iain blinked as light spilled out. Without another thought or word of formal request he boarded and passed through into the piloting compartment.

She was there. She stood staring at him, clutching the coverall she had been about to put on. Her dark hair twined around her shoulders, matted and oily, as was to be expected after a jump. Her eyes were wide, dark. "Iain," she said.

In two strides he reached her, but stopped short of embracing her. He set his hands on her shoulders, looked hard into her face. "Are you all right?" Again he heard the raggedness in his voice, heard his own fear for her.

She looked away. He slid his arms around her, drew her closer. "Tell me."

She dropped the coverall, set her clenched fists on his chest. He felt the tension in her bare, slender shoulders ease slightly, but still she kept her eyes down, on her hands. "There was—I felt—" She broke off, and swayed against him. He caught her, steadying her.

Then she pushed away from him, picked up her dark blue coverall, and stepped into it. He saw her hands fumble with the front seal but did not reach out to help her. Covered, she ran her fingers through her hair and stared up at him. "How quickly can we refuel?"

Iain blinked at her. "We'll settle that after we've both rested, had some real food and a good night's sleep—"

"I don't need any of that," she said. She turned and leaned over her ship's status board, studying the readouts. "Just full fuel tanks, full supplies—"

"We're heading home," Iain said. "You don't need full supplies now."

She turned her head, and he saw the opaque reserve in her eyes. "Just in case."

Iain set one hand on the bulkhead, let it shore up his exhaustion. "Linnea—it was worse this time, wasn't it?"

"Better," she said distantly. "Clearer. I even—Iain. I saw a jump point. He, they, showed me a jump point."

Iain could not speak at first. Then he took a breath and said, "Let's go find our quarters." He took another breath, to keep his voice from showing his fear for her, or the grief for what he knew he must do. "We both need rest."

"I only want—"

"If you love me," he said, and he knew she could hear the edge of fear in his voice, "please—come and rest."

She looked at him for a long time, considering, and the band of ice tightened around his heart. But then she shut down the board with a sharp wave of her hand, straightened, came to him.

She came to him.

As he took her into his arms, his throat aching, he wondered if it would be the last time.

 

Neptune Penumbral Space

Earth System

 

Esayeh moaned. Always so hard to wake, to return, always so hard. He turned over and over, blind, knowing he was twisting the piloting leads plugged into his skull behind his left ear.

No matter. This time he'd done it: clear, definite contact.

Through the sparks of his joy his mind sent him a wandering melody, and he sang it, the words clear in his mind: Out of the deep have I called unto thee—

Familiar hands caught him, her hands, as they were always ready to do; her dry voice, Pilang's voice, the beloved friend of years and wandering: "Blasphemy, Esayeh?" Her hands pulled his rotation to a stop, uncovered his eyes, and he blinked hard in the dimness, all music fled.

"I did it," he said. "Connection. Connection, Pilang!"

"Oh, no doubt." She was unlinking him, snap, snap, snap, from the piloting plugs.

"No," he said, against the rising weariness; after all her patience, patience of years, he wanted her to see, to share this moment. "I made contact. I reached another pilot's mind. A pilot from the Hidden Worlds, Pilang."

Now she floated with her back to him, pretending to fumble with folding the leads into storage. She would not let him see her face, but he knew. She did not believe him. "I did it," he said stubbornly. "The first rope across the chasm. The way is opening."

She was silent for a while. "And you believe that now they will come? Just because of this—connection?"

"Now, at least, there's hope of it," he said. He caught her ankle, made her spin to face him. "Someone has to try," he said to the brightness of the tears in her eyes. "Or—"

She closed her eyes. Nodded. A bright tear floated free.

"Hope," he whispered, to her, to himself.

To all of their people.




Image by David Landon—see more at his deviantART site.