The Cold Minds

Chapter 1

 

Terranova Nearspace

 

We’re flying blind. Fear flickered in Linnea Kiaho’s mind. She stretched out her perceptions into otherspace, searching for the feeling of rightness that marked their jumpship’s point of transition to the safety of normal space. Her trainee, Joro, could not sense it, she was sure; she could feel him wavering on the edge of total panic. And the ship was in his control, not hers.

“Joro,” she said, putting as much calm into her non-voice as she could. “Release control.”

The eerie grandeur she not-quite saw, not-quite heard did not distract her from the sense of rushing forward. Running out of time. Training jumps were short; if they did not drop back into realspace soon, they would overshoot, would not have the fuel to return safely to Terranova orbit. Through their mutual connection to the ship, she felt the shivering edge of the young trainee’s fear. Pushed it away. It must not spread to her.

Joro’s “voice” in her mind was faint, strained. “I can’t breathe.”

Locked down in the instructor’s life-support shell, Linnea reached out tensely through her link to the old jumpship, to the main controls usually routed to the piloting shell. Her fingers and toes tingled, a ghost of sensation, as the connections awoke. “Joro. You are breathing. You just can’t feel it in otherspace. Let go of that. Let go of your body. Float.” Seconds spun past. “Joro! Answer. Can you feel the ship?” Here in otherspace her physical senses did not function; she could not see the ship around her, or the shell that enclosed Joro. But both the ship and her own internal sense told her that the time to drop back to normal space was only minutes or seconds away.

No time for calming drugs to take effect in Joro—he would botch the reinsertion. If they overshot, Linnea would have to bring them back to it, and she was still a new pilot herself—in an old ship, a half wreck they had managed to steal and repair well enough for training runs—had the pilot interface failed? “Joro!”

“It’s too dark!”

“Reach in,” she said tensely. “Get back to the center. The way I taught you. Feel for the ship, in your hands, in your feet—”

“Nothing’s there!” His terror washed toward her along their connection, and again Linnea fought it back. It must not infect her.

“Joro. I'm taking over. You must not move. Don’t move, in your mind, anywhere. You’re still linked to the ship even if you can’t feel it. Don’t move!” As she spoke, she was collecting the threads of control that hung in her mind. Time whirled past. If she had five more seconds—

The ship gives direction. The pilot, volition. Her lover Iain sen Paolo’s words rang in her mind, calming her. She had it, she had it now, clear in her mind, under her hands. Her mind flexed.

Realspace slammed into existence around her, the ship’s air cold around her body, her eyes its eyes, the stars and glowing gas clouds forming familiar patterns. They must have—

A sharp thunk, a lurch, and the stars began to wheel around her. Joro had moved. Fired one of the attitude jets, that was all, but if he did anything more— “Freeze, Joro!” Her voice cracked as she fought the spin, fought it. She could do this.

She could do this— Calm. A mental twitch of two fingers produced a light tap on the necessary jets. Steady. Another. Another. Overcompensated—a twitch in the other hand— And the little ship steadied down, settled into normal flight.

“Keep still, Joro. I’ll have you out of there in a minute.” Ranging, she said to the ship, and a silent readout seemed to float before her eyes: They were within range of their beacon. Safe. She took a shuddering breath and set them on course for Terranova orbit. The great blue-and-green globe, whorled with white, half-lit, half-dark, began to grow slowly.

No more maneuvers would be needed for a while. Linnea brought her vision inboard. She had to blink hard to clear her eyes, closed and useless for so long while she was seeing through the ship. Here was the familiar piloting compartment of the jumpship, low and narrow, lit by two flickering old light panels and the glow of a few readouts. The piloting shell hulked in the center, gray, sealed, blank. The cold air still smelled of the oil that had coated all the bulkheads for so many years, preserving the old ship in case it should ever be needed for parts.

She heard Joro’s muffled sobbing inside the shell. No. He would never make a pilot—not this one. He was not her first failure, either.

Anger flared again inside her. She had had hopes for Joro, and he’d let her down. And Iain, her partner in this work, would merely think: here was further proof that pilots not from the Line might never amount to much. . . . But then he had been brought up on Nexus, a Pilot Master, and whatever he said, she knew that Iain’s instincts, his prejudices, were still what they had been formed to be.

And maybe he had a point. Half a standard year of work, and they’d not found many likely candidates. Fewer than a thousand names on the list of those who had agreed to be tested—a dozen or so in each city they’d visited. And they had just this one decrepit ship for training—Iain’s was a personal jumpship, made for him when he first became a jump pilot. He had stolen it when he escaped from Nexus to rescue her on Freija. A beautiful little ship, a commnet linker and quick as a fish—but it could not easily be adapted to other pilots. And with only one ship, the testing and training was a slow process. Maybe a hopeless one.

Linnea touched a control, then held carefully still as the microfine wires withdrew from her brain, back into the coiling silver leads that touched her temples and encased and protected the wires. Always it felt like the coming of a kind of blindness, the loss of that inner sight, that connection to the ship. Always a faint sense of absence, of being incomplete, lingered until the next time.

The leads curled back onto their spools. She unstrapped herself from the instructor’s couch with a sigh. Three flights, she had invested in Joro; and now she would have to send him back groundside to his old work at the shuttle field in Port Marie. And move on to the next unlikely prospect. . . .

She floated free from the couch and toed herself over to the pilot’s shell, cracked it open. Winced at the acid smell of vomit. Of course the ship’s systems had cleared it from the air, but some still clung to Joro’s naked body. He hunched in his straps, fists clenched against his chest, eyes shut tight.

She gripped his shoulder. “Joro, feel that. We’re back. We’re in realspace. On our way home.”

“Never doing this again,” he muttered.

“That’s right enough,” she said dryly. “Hold still. I’ll get you out of there.”

She had to tug him around like a child’s balloon, but in the end she got him strapped onto the instructor’s couch, without connecting him to the ship. Then she took his place in the sour-smelling piloting shell. In Joro’s state he could not have managed the precise insertion into orbit, down the preapproved flight path that Station Six had assigned them, a path from which they dared not deviate or the Line patrols would spot them. Force them down at the very least, or simply shoot; it was their choice.

Stationmaster Segura had been willing to honor the dying request of an old friend, to help Iain and Linnea so far as he could; and without that help they would never have been able to carry out these testing and training flights. Terranova was a rich world the Pilot Masters valued, so the orbital patrols were numerous and vigilant—watching for any ships off-plan, off-beacon. Any ship that might mean a landing attempt by the Cold Minds. A single small ship, loaded with nanobots, setting down near one of Terranova’s crowded cities. . . . Linnea shuddered, pushing away memories of the infested world named Freija where she had been marooned, hiding for months with a handful of still-human survivors. The blank faces of their nanobot-infested captors, the sickly blue glow in their eyes, still haunted her dreams.

Freija was gone. But the threat remained. After six hundred years the Cold Minds had tracked humanity to its last refuge, the Hidden Worlds. Linnea knew with a cold inner pricking of fear that they were here still. Watching, somewhere in the dark between the Worlds.

Steadily, in frozen calm, Linnea guided the ship along the docking pods of Station Six, past the upper levels, where the gleaming jumpships of the Pilot Masters lay in their cradles, down to the haphazard network of docks and fueling stations and cargo transfer facilities that served the local-orbit ships and ground shuttles.

In public the Pilot Masters denied the threat of the Cold Minds —denied the news that she and the exiled pilot Iain sen Paolo had spread through the commnet from world to world. Worked to undermine them, sought to arrest them. It was better to preserve their monopoly than to allow ordinary people to learn the secrets of piloting, the secrets the Pilot Masters had long held under the pretense that only their sons, the sons of the Line, had the gift.

And yet here she was, piloting. Piloting a jumpship. She felt, again, a brief surge of triumph at that.

She had been the first new pilot who’d been born outside the Line. But the human race needed thousands more pilots to give them a fighting chance against the Cold Minds—to save not just the wealthy worlds, but the poor, small colonies like Santandru.

Not now. She pushed the thought of home away, home and worry. Nothing to be done, not from here. Messages took months to reach Santandru, and she had sent enough for now; her sister Marra had never once replied.

Once they were docked, anonymous among the smaller ships, she sent Joro off to clean up and get himself a spot on a shuttle down to the surface. Where he would, she hoped, stay forever. Then she worked doggedly for more than two hours to clean the filters in the air system and to clear and lock down the jumpship.

By the time she sealed the hatch with her palmprint, it was past midnight station time, and she was tired and sweaty inside her stained work coverall. She stood for a moment, alone in the long, curved sweep of dimly lit docking bay, and leaned her forehead against the cold metal bulkhead—just for a moment, just to rest. Here, at least, they were safe from Line Security, not like the crowds groundside, where any stranger might be looking for them. . . . And it was at that moment, of course, that Iain spoke behind her. “Linnea? Are you all right?”

She smothered a yawn, turned, and smiled at him. He was dressed in his best clothes, a night-black work coverall, clean and pressed. His long black hair was tied back in a simple tail. No longer a Pilot Master, exiled from the Line, he still carried “Pilot Master” in every line of his body, the lift of his chin, his dark, direct gaze. The pride, the breeding. For most of his life he’d believed he was one of them; and it told on him, of course.

“You’re fancy,” she said, caressing his arm.

“I had a meeting with the stationmaster. This is the best I can do.” He caught her hand in his and kissed it.

She remembered him, in a time that seemed long ago, in his home on Nexus, in the sober, elegant, precisely cut black tunic and trousers of a jump pilot, his hair in a long, shining braid woven with the crimson lineage-cord. His face had been younger—his eyes had not seen what they had seen since. . . .

She found herself wanting to pull him close, and—she yanked herself back under control. “Do you want my report?”

He lifted an eyebrow. “Do I need it? You sent him off before the ship was secured. In my experience, that’s not a sign that you’re happy.”

“It was a rough run,” Linnea said. “He’s not trainable. At least, I can’t train him.” And Iain, of course, had no time; always the next recruiting trip to organize, always an eye on Line Security.

“You could have commed me. I would have come down to help you lock things down.”

She grinned. “You’d ruin your best clothes.”

He smiled back at her, then picked up her flight bag, and they started for the lift. “And so another one drops out,” he said. “After three flights.” He shook his head. “I wonder if they’re really trying.”

Linnea felt a flicker of annoyance. She took a breath to steady herself and said, “You know they need more than just the gift.” She kept her eyes on the worn plastic decking. “Being able to see otherspace doesn’t do any good if they can’t hold the flight clear in their minds. Or if they panic.” She sighed in frustration. “These people aren’t like you, they weren’t born to the Line. They haven’t been soaking in piloting culture since they were babies.” They reached the lift, and she pressed her palm against the call switch. “They need better teaching. More time. Not to be pushed like this.”

“We don’t have time,” Iain said reasonably. “You know that, Linnea. The Cold Minds could be anywhere. Massing for an attack here, for all we know. Or already established on one of the fringe worlds, just as they were on Freija.”

As always, the careful patience in his voice only increased her annoyance. “Freija was not a fringe world—“

“A farming world,” Iain said. “Producing only enough to supply its own needs.”

“And so no use to the Pilot Masters,” Linnea said, the old bitterness finally spilling over. “And so they let it fall, and in the end destroyed it. To save themselves, and the rich worlds.” She and Iain had barely escaped the artificial bombardment of asteroids that had sterilized the surface of Freija.

The lift doors hissed open, spilling harsh bluish light into the docking bay. Linnea stalked into the lift, and when the doors had closed on them, she said, “I wish you would stop talking about fringe worlds. They are people’s homes.” Her voice shook. “If you dismiss them like that, you’re no better than the Pilot Masters yourself.” She took a breath. “And maybe that’s true for me, too. Here we are, giving all our attention and help to Terranova—“

Iain spread his hands. “We are two people. Terranova has tens of millions of people we can search among, mostly concentrated in cities. Look how many have already come forward and volunteered. This is where we must be.”

And, of course, in every sensible way, Iain was right. Linnea’s shoulders slumped, and she let herself sag against the wall of the lift for a moment.

Iain looked down at her, his dark gaze full of thought. Then he set his hands on her shoulders, gently caressing. “Segura just gave us two more flights, tomorrow and the next day. I’ll send down to have the next candidate come up. Then—let me take him out.”

“I'm expendable,” she said bleakly, as the lift halted and the doors opened on the bunkroom level. “You’re not.”

“Neither of us is expendable,” Iain said, letting go of her. “I’m taking the flights.”

Another good moment broken. She did not try to speak to him again as they threaded the narrow metal corridors, dim-lit for night, to their small room. A tepid, spattering shower, a packaged meal, and she climbed silently into her narrow bunk opposite his. “Are you coming to bed?” He still sat at the room’s tiny table, a commscreen open in front of him.

“I need to do a bit more reading,” he said. “There are some news feeds from the outer worlds I haven’t followed for a few days.” She knew what he was looking for: odd events, ship disappearances, breaks in communications—anything that might be a sign of activity by the Cold Minds.

“You know the Line is looking just as carefully as you are,” she said, settling into the hard mattress. “And they have more resources.”

“But they will not tell me what they learn,” Iain said. “Go to sleep, Linnea.”

She closed her eyes resentfully. Things had been better, lately, between them; she had been easing up, the long drought in her soul maybe coming to an end. But sometimes all the matters that still lay between them weighed on her like lead, everything they could not speak of: Their differing hopes for this effort. Her deep fears for her sister, so far away on Santandru. Her memories of Freija, the world whose death they had witnessed. And the Pilot Master Rafael, Iain’s cousin. . . .

She shivered and turned on her side, her back to the hard metal wall. Rafael was dead. He was dead, his ashes stirring in the sterile dust of Freija. . . . So why could she not have peace?

 


 

Iain heard Linnea’s breath quiet into sleep. He leaned back carefully in the creaking metal desk chair and looked at her. In the faint amber glow from the commscreen, her face seemed young, peaceful. As she rarely looked when awake, even when they were alone together.

Especially when they were alone together.

He let his head roll back against the wall and considered, again, whether it would be easier for her if they lived separately for a while. They had been lovers again for a few weeks now, but it was always a fragile warmth, and fleeting. She had made clear after Freija that she needed peace, time to heal, and he had given her that; but he could see that the wounds were still there. Perhaps it was too soon.

Yet he could not let her go. To see her only when they worked together would not be enough. He needed her close, even when he dared not touch her. For it was not her body he needed; it was her honest mind, her generous spirit, her courage. She had hidden them away, even from him. Perhaps even from herself. He had to help her find them again, free them again.

He had seen her soul, for a while. For a while, in their first days on Nexus—before his father’s suicide, his own arrest, her captivity with Rafael—for that brief time she had been truly open to him. If they could ever have a few days, a few weeks, of peace and safety together, he felt sure he could break through to her again. Yet that would not happen for years now, if ever. Unless his brothers forgave him, joined with him, took the burden of training from her.

But that could never be. Not— He took a breath, and finished the thought. Not while Rafael is alive.

He looked again at Linnea’s peaceful, sleeping face. If she knew Rafael had survived the destruction of Freija, was even now on Nexus, was no doubt plotting to capture them again—if she thought Rafael might ever touch her again, Iain did not know what she might do. Certainly it would shatter the fragile structure of security that she had built for herself since their escape from Freija. And it would end their peace together.

No. He would protect her from the knowledge at all costs, for as long as he could. It was the only gift he could give her, the only way he could keep her at his side.

At his side, where she must be. For her sake, and for his.

 


 

In their small room, darkness pressed against Linnea’s eyes. In the narrow bunk across from hers, Iain slept at last.

She would not sleep, not for a long time. She knew the signs: another long, gray night. She’d learned to hide them from him, this past half year.

The hard memories came in these dark hours, when she lay alone, when Iain had gone from her into sleep. She no longer tried to fight them; it did no good. Instead she let them flicker past her inner eyes, trying—again—not to feel old grief, terror, pain.

Here, her last sight of her sister Marra, back home on Santandru, through a rainswept window at night: Marra smiling at one of the children, safe, warm, happy—because she did not know that Linnea stood outside, Linnea who was already dead to her.

A flash of those brief days on Nexus when she and Iain had been almost happy together, before his uncle Fridric murdered Iain’s father and destroyed Iain’s life. She sighed and turned onto her back, looked over at Iain’s sleeping face. Back then she had been sure she loved him. For a long time, then, she’d felt only empty—of purpose, of hope, of feeling. Even for him.

And yet, and yet—she knew him in a way she had never imagined possible; he had changed the whole shape of her life, forever. Was that love? She didn’t know. But the thought of breaking it hurt.

She had left him so easily, back in those other days, to make her attempted escape. She remembered being betrayed, and the Line Security tanglenet settling around her, gripping tight.

She huddled into herself and closed her eyes, remembering. Oh, God. . . .

Rafael. Iain’s cousin. Ghost-pale, bone-thin, his red hair loose around his shoulders as he smiled at her. Here and now saliva flooded her mouth and she fought back nausea, again.

And then Rafael had sent her to Freija, marooned her there. The doomed world, invaded by the Cold Minds. The infested, the few who survived, moving stiffly under control, their dead eyes flickering. Old Kwela, jumping to her death to escape that end. The men who accepted infestation so that she and Iain could escape.

So she and Iain could come here to Terranova and try to save the Hidden Worlds—with the equivalent of two sticks and a piece of string.

She squeezed her eyes shut tighter. Iain thought all was well, and he had important work to do. . . .

And he loved her. He must, or he would not endure this with such patience. Every day, she saw him at her side, as if she were seeing him through thick, watery glass. There he was, warm and present and willing.

There he was, patient, waiting, always kind. But at times like this she felt herself fading away from him, slipping down into the dark. She couldn’t help it. She couldn’t help herself.

She blinked back tears, fighting to keep the steady breathing of pretended sleep.

She’d tried to give him hope. That kindness was all she could offer him, when she was honest. The world was ending anyway—if they could not defeat the Cold Minds. . . .




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