Take our children to the stars.
Reva’s awareness expanded through the dark, cold void of space. She heard, as if from a great distance, a chorus of whispering voices. All around her was darkness, but on the edges of her vision, she saw brief pulses of white-blue light. When she turned to look, however, the light faded into the darkness the way that stars fade when looked at straight-on.
The pulses were combining and recombining, forming a vast network. It reminded her of neurons in the human brain. In the silence, signals spread through this network with remarkable speed.
She closed her eyes and reached out to them, offering herself to the collective mind.
Her awareness spread wide enough to encompass an entire planet, and as it did, the ancient alien consciousness began to awaken. She heard the gurgling of the underground streams, the drip drip drip of the subterranean caves, the bubbling of countless hot springs that had never seen the sun. A light began to rise over the horizon, sending the darkness to flight.
But it was not the light of the sun that dispelled the darkness. It was fire, falling from the sky in great sheets like a deadly aurora.
Everywhere it touched, all was extinguished. Her skin began to prickles as it swept over the entire world. She tried to run, but her legs wouldn’t respond. She was unable to do anything but watch. The worldfire bathed the entire planet, sending frantic signals like screams through the collective before it was broken and destroyed.
Take our children to the stars.
Reva’s eyes flew open. She was lying on her bed in the captain’s quarters of the Temujin, the tangled sheets drenched with her own sweat. Her heart raced so fast that sitting up made her dizzy. Several minutes past before she was able to sit up.
It had been nearly two weeks since their flight from Star’s End. Even so, the captain’s quarters still felt eerie to her. Gulchina had furnished it lavishly, but her taste in furnishings made the place feel old and austere. The central piece was a low-set table made from cherry wood and inlaid with a pattern of burgundy, teal, and mother-of-pearl. It lacked any sort of holoscreen or other smart device, which gave it the feel of an antique. In much the same way, the finely woven rug on which it sat was like something out of the ancient past, like an heirloom taken from Earth itself. Of course, that was impossible. Yet still, Reva couldn’t shake the feeling that something haunted the place, some malevolent spirit from a long lost age.
Isaac checked the scanners for the dozenth time since their last jump. The bridge of the Temujin was deathly quiet. Only the hum of the ventilation system broke the silence. Outside the forward window, which spanned a full semi-circle around the bridge, the endless sea of stars shone softly. All of the chairs were empty, and all of the screens were dark except his at astrogation. And yet, as Reva awoke, he couldn’t help but feel that whatever haunted the captain’s quarters haunted the whole ship.
I had the dream again, Reva thought to him.
I know, he thought back to her. I saw it too.
She sighed and pulled off her sweat-drenched sheets. The woolen rug felt pleasantly soft against her bare feet, and she took a few moments to stretch out the kinks in her neck and shoulders. The light breeze from the ventilation shafts immediately cooled her bare skin. She began to shiver.
You’ll feel better after a shower, Isaac suggested.
He was right. The hot, pressurized water washed the sweatiness away, replacing it with a refreshing fragrance. She stood in the center of the unit with her arms above her head while jets of soapy water sprayed her from every side and angle. For the first time since waking, her muscles relaxed.
Tomas closed his eyes and enjoyed the sensation of the water rushing over Reva’s body. He’d been unable to sleep through her nightmare, but now, he could finally get some rest.
Reva waited until he fell into a peaceful sleep. A cold rinse reinvigorated her, and the hot air blasting through the ceiling vents left her comfortably dry. She stepped out and wrapped a towel around her hair, then made for the bridge without bothering to put on anything else.
Isaac tensed a little, but otherwise made no objection. Nudity always made him uncomfortable. That was just something he was going to have to live with, though, because Reva abhorred the unnatural custom of wearing clothes. To his credit, he’d come a long way toward making peace with it. And even in his own traditions, it wasn’t entirely unheard of. After all, hadn’t Adam and Eve been naked and unashamed?
That was different, he thought to her. Adam and Eve were innocent.
She kept her thoughts to herself, though of course he was still welcome to evesdrop. Unlike Isaac and Tomas, she kept every part of her mind and memory open to scrutiny. As the mother-queen, that was her duty. It also gave her power, though after the destruction of Star’s End, that power was considerably lessened.
She palmed the door open and stepped onto the bridge. Isaac stared at his screen as she took her seat in the command chair at the center.
“What’s our status?” she asked aloud.
“Everything is nominal,” Isaac muttered. “No sign of Gulchina.”
She glanced at the main holoscreen display, and reading her desires, he brought up a fifty light-year starmap of the local vicinity. Star’s End was still only a short distance away, but the vast bulk of the Good Hope Nebula spilled off beyond the field of view. On the other side, more than a hundred parsecs away, was everything they knew. Friends, family, allies, enemies—they were all more than a year’s journey away.
All except for Gulchina, of course. No doubt she was already hunting them.
“We could still turn and go around the other side of the Good Hope Nebula,” Isaac suggested.
“No,” said Reva. “That’s a part of the Outworlds we don’t know. Our best route is to head for the New Pleiades.”
“But Gulchina’s men may already be between us and the New Pleiades.”
And if they’re using jump beacons to try and intercept us…
I expect they already are, Reva thought silently.
Every jump they made sent a ripple through space, an electro-magnetic signal that announced where they were. Since these ripples could only spread outward at the speed of light, they were safe for at least a few months in deep interstellar space. Sooner or later, though, one of Gulchina’s scouts would pick up a signal, and use it to follow them. They had to decide soon which way to go.
Isaac swallowed. “There is another option.”
“I know,” said Reva. “Tomas has pieced together only a fraction of the starlane, though. I may still be able to puzzle out the rest, but we have no way of knowing that it’s safe.”
“Not unless we have a mole.”
She took a deep breath. It’s too dangerous.
But it’s still our best option.
He was right, of course. The starlane was a network of jump beacons known only to Gulchina herself, linking Star’s End to the rest of the Outworlds. If they could piece together a map of it from the memories of the men now frozen in cryo, it would shorten their voyage from years to mere weeks. But there was always the risk that Gulchina was patrolling it. They could ill afford falling into an ambush, what with only the three of them to pilot the ship.
Isaac didn’t want to spend a year of his life in this deep space game of cat and mouse. There was a war raging on the frontiers of the New Pleiades, and his brother Aaron was caught up in it. More than anything else, he yearned to see his brother.
Don’t be afraid, Reva thought to him. You’ll see him again. I swear it.
But Isaac wasn’t so sure.
She sighed, leaning back against the well-worn leather command chair.
“You’re right. We need a mole.”
“Gulchina is more apt to trust a low-level officer than a mid-level one.”
“What makes you say that?”
Can’t you look into my mind and see?
Yes, Reva answered, but there’s a difference between pondering something inwardly and thinking it out loud.
Isaac sighed. “Lower-level officers don’t threaten her. She’s a paranoid psychopath with delusions of grandeur. You remember how she pitted you against Wolf.”
“That was just one of her tests.” And I didn’t fail it.
Yet here we are.
“Jebe’s probably our best choice,” she said, changing the subject. “But I won’t send him out until we have a working map of the starlane.”
“Better get back to work on that, then.”
“All in due time.”
She stared out at the deep space starfield. The purple-blue clouds of the Good Hope Nebula reminded her of her nightmare. The billowing towers of gas and dust were static, of course, but they shone the brightest in the rifts carved by the nearby stars, whose light was reflected in every wisp and filament.
What did you think of my dream? she asked silently.
Isaac closed off his mind to her. She prodded him just enough to get him to relent.
I think it’s creepy as hell.
His answer made her heart sink. She knew he didn’t like the connection they now shared, but she’d hoped that he was coming around to accept it. Apparently not.
“Sorry,” he said aloud.
“I made a promise, Isaac. This is bigger than the both of us now.”
“I know. It’s just…”
He left the thought unsaid.
Reva stood up and walked over to him. He tensed a little, but didn’t look away. She put a hand on his arm.
“I didn’t ask for this either, but that isn’t important anymore. We’re the last hope of an intelligent race that’s all but extinct. They’re in us now, part of us.”
Like a virus.
“They don’t mean us any harm. They’re not even a ‘they’ anymore, if that makes sense. They’re us. We’re them.”
“We have to get back to civilization and spread out so that the collective is distributed. It’s the only way to save what little of them is left.”
“And then what are we going to do?” he asked, his eyes narrowing.
“Assimilate as many people as we can? Force them to join our hive mind?”
Reva shook her head. “No, of course not. We’re not going to force ourselves on anyone.”
“Even if it’s the only way to save ‘them’?”
The forcefulness of his anger took her aback. She blinked and took a deep breath.
“There’s no ‘them’ anymore, Isaac. Just us.”
“Us the collective, or us Reva and Isaac?”
And all the rest of the pirates.
The ones you forced yourself on?
That was one time. We’re not going to do it again.
Until we need to.
She put he hands on his shoulders and looked him squarely in the eye. “I swear to you, Isaac, we’re not going to do that again. As for your other question, us the collective, and us Reva and Isaac.”
He met her gaze without flinching, but his mind was sealed off from her. She sighed and let her hands drop.
What are you thinking, Isaac? Please don’t do this to me.
“We’ve got a good four or five hours before the next jump. You’d better get to work on those cryo chambers.”
A lump rose in her throat. She mentally poked at him, asking again for him to open to her, but received no response.
“All right,” she said, nodding. “You know where to find me.”
When we can both see through each others’ eyes, how can we possibly get away from each other?
Even she had to admit that he had a point.