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
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
The ship gives direction. The
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
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
“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
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
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 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
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
“You could have commed me. I
would have come down to help you lock things down.”
She grinned. “You’d ruin your
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
“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
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
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
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
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.