An Officer's Duty
An Excerpt From
An Officer's Duty

CHAPTER ONE

Thank you for letting me take that quick break from this interview. It wasn’t anything serious, just some new orders and a course correction. I do appreciate the opportunity to share some of this background information with everyone, though of course much of it is Classified and you are—ah, forgive me, I’m starting to use “military–speak” and “military–think” again, aren’t I?

During my first trip back home after enlisting, I had that same problem with my family. The military has counselors for this sort of thing, they give you lectures and advice, but . . . For a solider who’s been away for months, even years like myself, it can be a bit of a system shock to come back to civilian life. Things are organized almost down to the minute in a military setting, because they have to get done at a certain time in a certain way, or everything descends into chaos. Things don’t always get done in civilian life, because they often can be “done later” or “done some other way.”

A lot of soldiers have difficulty making that transition back to civilian life. Even those of us who merely go home for a short visit sometimes have difficulties. Both sides need to remember to slow down, take it easy, and readjust to each other. Don’t throw a pot of cold water on the cooker and expect it to instantly boil; even in this day and age, that won’t happen right away. There’s always a period of readjustment. Sometimes it’s quick, and sometimes it’s slow, but it’s always necessary.

-Ia

July 18, 2492 Terran Standard

Our Blessed Mother

Independent Colonyworld Sanctuary


“This is so exciting!”

Ia glanced over at the woman settling into the next seat. The orbital shuttle was nearly full, and the crew were urging passengers to take their places. The woman who was Ia’s seatmate fished for her restraint straps. Her efforts at pulling the three–point belt into place were somewhat hampered by the added bulk of her gravity weave. Nudged a few times by the woman’s elbow, Ia rolled her eyes and held out her hand, silently offering to latch it.

“Oh, thank you. Wait—where’s your gravity weave?” the woman asked as Ia slotted the tab into its latch. “You’re taller than me!”

Ia’s rare sense of humor surfaced. Since she was clad in camouflage Browns, the speckled, mottled uniform of the Space Force Branch Marine Corps, she flashed a brief smile and stated, “I’m a Marine. We don’t need gravity weaves.”

The woman blinked, her brown eyes widening in shock.

Ia rolled her eyes. Really, some people will believe anything about the SF–Marines. “I’m also a native. Born and bred on Sanctuary. I’m coming home on Leave.”

“Ah. Um . . . thank you for serving,” the weave–wrapped woman finally offered.

“It’s an honor to serve, meioa,” Ia murmured in reply. Now that her seatmate had settled in, her mind was elsewhere, busy going over her schedule for the next three weeks. Some things would have to take place at exactly the right moment in time, while others would be more fluid. Like the problem of her tainted sword–turned–anklet.

The crew finished checking and securing the cabin. The woman at Ia’s side said nothing for a long while, paying dutiful attention to the safety procedures lecture. Then, as they detached from the space station with a slight bump, the woman muttered once again, “This is so exciting!”

Sensing the woman was one of those sorts who just had to talk or burst, Ia sighed and asked the most obvious question, rather than dipping into the timestreams. “Is this your first trip to Sanctuary?”

The woman nodded quickly and smiled. She also held out her hand. “Amanda Sutrepya. And yes, it’s my first time to your homeworld. I’m here on a missionary trip. And you are . . . ?”

“Lieutenant Ia.” Ia shook the other woman’s hand as briefly as possible. The closer she got to her homeworld, the more she feared her precognitive gift would turn unpredictable again. Plus there was the fact that physical contact always enhanced her ability to read another sentient being’s plethora of potential futures. The combination held too much danger to risk it, though there wasn’t much else she could do to avoid brushing up against someone in such crowded conditions. At least the other woman was wearing a purple, long–sleeved shirt under the lumpy web wrapping her limbs.

“Missionary trip?” The question came from the short, balding man on the other side of the aisle. He gave the woman, Amanda, a derogatory look, snorting, “Great. Another godless heathen,” before returning his attention to the reader pad in his hands.

“Excuse me?” Amanda asked, her tone and her expression both taken aback. “I am not a godless heathen, I am a Christian!”

The man gave her a look somewhere between disdain and pity. “Even worse, then. A deluded polytheist.”

The woman started to protest. Ia quickly reached over and touched her sleeve. “Don’t.”

“But he—”

“Just don’t,” Ia murmured again, cutting her off. “See the corona pin on his jacket lapel? He’s a member of the Church of the One True God.”

“I . . . don’t understand,” Amanda muttered. She glanced back and forth between Ia and the man, finally settling on Ia. “Aren’t they Christians, too? I thought their worship was based on the same general beliefs. One loving God, Abrahamic teachings . . .”

“So are Muslims and Jews, if you measure it by that method, but no, they are not Christians, they are not Muslims, they are not Jews,” Ia told her, flicking up one finger per listing. “In fact, if you must get technical, their dogma actually began as an offshoot of The Witan: The Book of the Wise.

“We are not an ’offshoot’ of anything. We are on the true path,” the man across the aisle corrected tartly. His eyes were on the text of his pad, but his ears were clearly listening to his neighbors. “Not my fault if the rest of you have been misled by the sweet–sounding poison of the Devil’s books. The Bible, the Koran, the Torah . . .”

“Well, I never!” Amanda gasped, visibly upset.

“Meioas.”

Ia’s tone, more sharp than actually loud, cut across the missionary’s sputterings, and caused the Church man to look up at her once more. A few others in the nearby seats glanced her way as well, but they didn’t protest. Ia kept her eyes on the Church man. When she was sure she had his attention, she had her own say, leaning forward slightly while she held his gaze.

“I am on Leave from two years’ worth of fighting on the far side of the known galaxy.” That was a slight exaggeration, but she wasn’t going to bother with the full truth. “It has taken me three weeks of travel to get this far. I have exactly three weeks, one day, and four hours from the moment we land, precious, precious days and hours to spend with my family, before I have to go back. I would therefore like to finish this last, tedious leg of my journey in peace and quiet.”

“ You’d be better off spending those three weeks on your knees in Our Blessed Cathedral, confessing the sins of spilling blood on some godless heathen’s orders,” the balding believer retorted.

Ia gave him a not–smile. “And I say unto you in reply, from Book Nine, The Righteous War, Chapter Three, verses four and five: ’Succor the weary and wounded soldiers who claim Sanctuary and take shelter among you. Give them rest and peace, and honor them for the sacrifices they make for the betterment of all.’”

He reddened a bit, having his own holy words flung in his face.

“I am a weary soldier of Sanctuary,” Ia reminded him, speaking softly, but with enough point to cut to the bone, “and I am here to take shelter among my people. Give me my rest and peace, and honor me for the sacrifices I make . . . or spend your weeks on your knees, for failing to follow through on God’s Own True Words.”

Holding his gaze, she stared at him until he backed down, subsiding into his seat. He refocused his attention on his pad. Only then did Ia settle back in hers. Just in time, too; they hit the atmosphere with a jolt and a rattle that made her grateful for the cushions supporting and sheltering her body. A few jolts later, the cabin screens came to life, showing the smiling face of their middle–aged Human pilot.

“Greetings, everyone; this is Captain D’Sall. We are currently traversing the edges of the local early evening thunderstorm, so a bit more of this mild in–flight turbulence is to be expected. Please remain in your seats with your restraint belts firmly fastened. However, our flight will be short, as we will be landing at Our Blessed Mother Inter–Orbital Spaceport in approximately twenty minutes.

“As a reminder, all passengers wearing gravity weaves should have their weaves set to Adaptive Gravimetrics on the Low Strength setting so as not to interfere with the integrity of the shuttle. Do not adjust them back to Full Strength until we are fully on the ground and the Gravity Weave permission sign has been turned on. If you need help fighting the gravity to do so, please remain calm, press the button on your armrest, or alert your seatmates, and the cabin crew will be by to check on you shortly,” the captain added politely. “Once we land, only the flight crew are allowed to move about the cabin until we have reached the terminal, so please remain seated.

“If at any time you experience difficulty in moving, breathing, or even thinking, or feel like you are going to black out during your visit to Sanctuary, these are the primary symptoms of the onset of adjustment sickness, which can lead to more serious complications. If you suspect you are about to be ill at any point during your visit to Sanctuary, contact the emergency Nets immediately, and go straight to the nearest medical facility to be checked out for the possibility of gravity sickness.

“The government of Independent Colonyworld Sanctuary wishes to remind all visitors and returning natives that it assumes no liabilities, fiscally or legally, for the complications of gravity sickness or any related injuries. Neither does Gateway Inter–Orbital Transit, of which you were advised before boarding this flight. However, we thank you very much for flying with us. We hope you’ll have a safe time while on Sanctuary, and wish you a good day.”

The shuttle jolted again. Ia winced as the woman next to her grabbed at her forearm.

“God Almighty!” Amanda exclaimed, bouncing in her seat with the next jolt of turbulence. “This is mild?”

Prying the woman’s hand off the sleeve of her brown camouflage shirt, Ia pressed it to the armrest and tucked her own hands into her lap. “Since we’re due to arrive at the equivalent of near–sunset, yes, it’s just one of the mild, daily thunderstorms. If it were a real storm by Sanctuarian standards, the pilot would have delayed the flight. This one isn’t nearly as risky as you’d think.”

“Oh.”

The other woman started to relax, then yelped a little as the ship bucked again. A flash of light and a not quite muffled boom beyond the porthole windows made her yelp a second time, along with a handful of the other passengers. The rest were either too busy enduring the ride, or like Ia and the balding believer across the aisle, weren’t fazed by the local weather. Certainly this turbulence wasn’t as bad as some of the planetfalls she and the rest of Ferrar’s Fighters had made, riding to the rescue of various colonyworlds.

Now I’m riding to the rescue of my own world, in a way. Though my efforts won’t bear results for a few more years at the earliest. Enduring the bouncing with stoic patience, she absently rubbed her left hand over the hard cuff hidden beneath the mottled browns of the opposite shirt sleeve. Presuming all my speculations on the trip out here are in any way accurate, that is . . .

I wonder what my brothers are going to think when I ask them literally to shed their blood for me, this week?


Thorne was the easiest of her family to spot. He stood literally head and shoulders above everyone else waiting on the far side of the Customs Peacekeepers, as tall as a local doorway and as broad as a tank. His dark brown hair had been trimmed with bangs in the front since she had last seen him in person, though it looked like it was as long as ever, pulled back in a ponytail.

She’d seen the change in the timestreams, but seeing it in person was another matter. It struck her just how much everything had changed back home. How much she had changed, even though Ia had known it would happen.

His hazel eyes met hers within moments, drawn to her thumb–length white locks and mottled brown uniform. There were other tall–by–comparison people arriving, mostly visitors from light–gravitied planets who were wrapped in gravity weaves, but she wasn’t lost in a crowd; the others had spaced themselves out so that their personalized repelling fields, now set to full strength, wouldn’t conflict and cause each wearer to stagger off balance.

The only thing that made her want to stagger was the full resumption of her home gravity, which she hadn’t felt in over two years. Weight suits and artificial gravity could compensate somewhat, but she could tell she was out of shape by home standards. Until she saw her mothers.

Aurelia Jones–Quentin had gained a few fine worry lines between her brows and at the corners of her eyes, but her straight, dark brown locks were as grey–free as her son’s. Amelia Quentin–Jones had picked up a few more streaks of silver among her lighter brown curls, but no extra lines on her face. They were clad in the same soft pastels the two women had always favored, and both their faces lit up with the same delight as they spotted her in the queue. Just the sight of her parents banished most of the annoying drag of the planet on her body. Gravity could not stop the lifting of her spirits.

As soon as she cleared the last checkpoint, Ia hurried forward. She dropped her bags to the plexcrete floor as her family moved up to meet her, and swept both of her mothers into a hug. Both older women laughed and sniffled and hugged her right back. She’d forgotten how stooping to hug them could put a crick in her back from the awkward angle, but Ia didn’t care. Given everything that had happened since she had left, the pain was an old, revived pleasure by comparison.

For a moment, she let herself be a young woman again, saying good–bye to her family before heading to her destiny. Then one of her brothers ruffled her hair; from the downward pull of his palm, it was Fyfer, too short to have been seen immediately, compared to their elder brother.

“Look at that hair, all short and ugly, now!” Fyfer crowed, ruffling it again.

“Fyfer!” Aurelia scolded.

As her mothers released her, Ia pushed his hand away, then pulled him into a half hug and rubbed her knuckles over his brown locks. He squirmed and spluttered a protest, then twisted into her grip and pinched her inner bicep in the spot she had taught him. Even toughened up by her life in the military, it hurt like hell. Grunting and flinching, Ia released him. Then oofed as he flung his arms around her ribs in an enthusiastic hug.

Chuckling, Ia hugged him back. Unlike their elder brother, Fyfer was normal for a Sanctuarian. Naturally muscular, but short and not nearly the brick–walled body that Thorne was. So she squeezed and sort of picked him up. Just a few inches, but enough to prove she was still stronger. He oofed in turn, then laughed and slapped her on the back.

“Slag, Ia! You used to pick me up higher than that! What happened to you in the Army?” he joked.

“It was the Marine Corps,” Ia shot back, dropping him gently onto his feet. “And I’ve been living in lesser gravity. I’ve been working out as heavy as I can get it for several hours a day, but still living in lightworlder spaces.”

Releasing her younger brother, she faced her half–twin. They had different mothers but the same father, both of them born barely half an hour apart. Both were anomalies in a world of gravitationally challenged heights. Thorne just held open his arms, and Ia walked into them, nestling her head on his shoulder and her arms around his waist. He didn’t threaten her ribs, just hugged her back.

“Mizzu,” he murmured, his voice a quiet bass rumble. I missed you. The word was the shorthand speech from their childhood, raised like full–blooded twins, treated like twins, thinking like twins, until her gifts started developing in earnest.

“Mizzu tu,” she agreed. I missed you, too. She hugged him, relaxing for a long moment . . . until her skin crawled, warning her that her precognitive gift was trying to open, trying to read all the possibilities of his future. Thankfully, the moment she shifted back, he released her. It might have been two years, but he still remembered how touchy her abilities could be.

“You okay?” Thorne asked her as she stepped back. He wasn’t the only one giving her a concerned look.

Ia nodded . . . then shook her head. This was more than just the timestreams prickling at his proximity. Holding up her hand, she squeezed her eyes shut and focused on strengthening the walls in her mind. No. Not right now. Not here and now, among all these people. I will not succumb to the Fire Girl Prophecy right now . . .

Pushing it away, resisting, she breathed hard for a few moments. Someone else screamed, making her jump and snap her eyes open again. It wasn’t a member of her family that had collapsed; instead, it was a familiar, purple–wrapped body. The Christian missionary, Amanda Something–or–Other, had dropped to her knees.

“Fire!” Amanda screamed, startling the mostly Human collection of tourists into wide–eyed, wary looks. “Fire! Birds in the sky! A girl—fire in her eyes! Fire in the world! A . . . a cathedral—a wall in the sky—aaaaaaah!”

Those who were native to Sanctuary looked at her, too. They, however, weren’t confused by her outcry. Instead, they were broken into three groups. A few concerned–looking spaceport personnel hurried forward, mostly to ward off the few concerned tourists who were about to touch her—never a good idea, since the Fire Girl attacks tended to spread on contact more often than not. The rest were either blasé about the attack, looking for a few moments in curiosity before shrugging and moving on, or they hastily backed up, sketching corona–circles on their foreheads and muttering under their breath, no doubt prayers warding off any evil influence from the “demonically possessed.”

Since it looked like the missionary would get some of the help she needed, a sketchy explanation of the phenomenon and suitable reassurances from spaceport staff, Ia herself settled into the non–Church category of natives and ignored the poor woman’s plight. Stooping, she picked up her kitbag and the locked travel case stuffed with her writing pad and all the postdated letters she had printed out during the journey home. “I’ll be fine. We have a lot to do. Move out.”

She didn’t miss the look her mothers exchanged, nor the glance they shared with Thorne, but Fyfer immediately started chatting about all the things she had missed, his graduation half a year early and subsequent enrollment in an acting school, Thorne’s fast–paced progress in his space station governance degree, and of course questions on what her own last two years had been like. Ia did her best to listen and respond, but Fyfer didn’t cease the steady stream of chatter until they were at the family ground car, and he finally noticed that Ia wasn’t moving to put her things into the vehicle parked on one of the tiers of the spaceport’s garage.

Instead, she had stopped, closed her eyes, and was simply breathing. Deep, steady breaths, the kind that sought to fill every last corner of her lungs.

“Hey,” Fyfer admonished her. “Are you falling asleep already? I thought you Marines were tough!”

“I’m not that tired. I’m just enjoying the smell of home. You don’t get ozone like this on other worlds, unless you deliberately go around creating sparks. Or the dampness, or the flickering of lightning pressing through your eyelids like little feathery touches . . .” She sighed and opened her eyes, smiling wryly. “It’s just not the same, elsewhere.”

“So what is it like on other worlds?” Thorne asked her, taking her bags and tucking them into the boot.

She held up her hand and gestured for the others to climb into the car, then took the front passenger seat, her preferred spot so her gifts didn’t trigger. Thorne took the driver’s seat; with his broad, muscular shoulders, it was either let him drive or be squished in the backseat as he took up half of the space usually meant for three people. Once the doors had slid up into place and they were moving, Ia answered his question.

“What’s it like on other worlds? Bouncy, until you get used to the gravity. The air can smell like a million different things. Recycled and dusty if it’s a mining domeworld. Slimy and moldy if you’ve set down in a rainy spot on an atmospheric world, like that planet where we helped out the flood victims. And then there’s the recycled air of a starship, with cleaning products and sweating bodies in the gym, lubricants and hydraulics fluids in the mechsuit repair bays . . . and of course the greenery in lifesupport, but they limit access to that part of the ship. The Motherworld didn’t smell bad,” she added. “Lots of flowers and green growing things. Not enough thunderstorms, but not bad.”

“Ooh! Tell us about the Motherworld!” Amelia interjected.

“Yes, please,” Aurelia urged Ia. “What’s it like? I’ve always wondered.”

Smiling, Ia complied. “My first view was from orbit. It’s really not that much different from Sanctuary, except the night–side glows with a million cities, and not from crystal fields and the few settlements we have. And only so many lightning storms can be seen, and only so many aurora curtains and sprite jets . . . You can’t really see the lightning on Earth from space unless it’s in a really big storm. And then of course my first stop was Antananarivo, on Madagascar Island. It’s very tropical in the lowlands, but where I was, which was up in the hills, it’s a bit cooler. More like around here.”

“That was at the Afaso Headquarters, right?” Thorne asked her, directing the car into the flow of traffic skirting the capital city.

Ia nodded. “That’s right. Grandmaster Ssarra says hello, by the way. They have a lot of land, much of it established as a nature preserve as well as farmland for self–sufficiency. There are lots of green plants there, compared to here—yes, the grass really is greener, on Earth.” That made her family laugh. Enjoying their humor, Ia smiled and continued. “They have none of the blue plants like we have, not even as imports, and very few that look even vaguely purple. There are some yellow ones—grass when it’s dry, for one—but the first impression you get of a nondesert landscape on Earth is of a million different shades of green . . .”

A door opened down the hall. It was followed by shuffling footsteps, which were not quite lost under the soft, rhythmic grunts coming from Ia as she measured out a set of sit–ups, toes hooked under the living room couch for counterbalance. Her bio–mother, Amelia, squinted at her in the light from the reading lamp.

“Gataki mou?” Amelia shuffled a few steps closer, her bare feet tucked into worn pink slippers and her body wrapped in a fuzzy green bathrobe. “What are you doing, child?”

A little distracted by being called her old, Greek nickname of my kitten, Ia struggled to finish the set. Uncurling her stomach after three more crunches, she relaxed on the springy, rubbery floor, breathing hard. “I’m doing my morning calisthenics . . . and I’m really out of shape. I did what I could on the flight from Earth, but . . . I had to leave my weight suit behind. It would’ve cost too much to transport all that mass.”

“Well . . . can you keep it down a little?” her mother asked. Behind her, the door opened again. “And maybe not start so early? I know we changed the beds in your old room so your brothers could have a little more room, which means you have to sleep out here, but . . . well, the floor here in the living room kind of squeaks, and . . .”

“Have you lost all sense of common courtesy?” Aurelia demanded, coming up behind her wife. Being slightly taller, she glared at Ia over her partner’s shoulder. “It’s five in the morning! Not even your brothers get up until seven at the earliest, and only because Thorne goes to school that early.”

“Sorry.” Sitting up, Ia shrugged. “I’ll go for a run or something.”

“In this neighborhood? At this hour?” Amelia asked.

Pushing to her feet, Ia arched her brow, looking down at her mothers. “Wouldyou mess with someone as tall as me, who can comfortably jog in this gravity?”

“No, but we’re not talking about vagrants or gang members,” Aurelia reminded her daughter. “The Church has been moving more and more converts into this area. They’re not going to look kindly on some . . . some solitary weirdo jogging around the block at this hour. Anything that isn’t in Church doctrine, they won’t like it.”

And they’ll let you know,” Amelia agreed.

Rolling her eyes, Ia swept her hands over her hair, raking back the sweaty locks. “I do know, Mother. But I’m going straight into the Naval Academy after this, and they’ll be expecting me to stay in shape even while on an Extended Leave.”

It didn’t matter which one she was addressing. Amelia was Mom, Aurelia was Ma, but both were forever Mother to all three of their kids, and usually addressed as such when the pair were tag teaming said kids.

Aurelia lifted her finger. “Don’t sass us, gataki. If you’re going to go jogging, then go. But go quietly. Your mother and I need our sleep. We closed the restaurant for your homecoming yesterday, but we’ll have a busy day of it today, since it’s the end of the week.”

“I’ll go put on my cammies,” Ia offered, holding up her hands. “Even Church members have seen the occasional episode of Space Patrol, so they should know what a soldier looks like . . . and I’m just as sure that, by now, everyone who came into Momma’s Restaurant in the last month knows that you’ve been expecting me home from the military.”

“I suppose that’ll have to do,” Aurelia muttered. She pointed a tanned finger at her daughter. “And no more getting up at ’oh dark hundred,’ you got that? That’s an order.” She folded her arms across her chest as Amelia turned to eye her. “A mother always outranks her little girl.”

There were several retorts Ia could’ve made to that, but she refrained. Her mothers were trying to reduce her to the little girl they knew and loved—and they were succeeding to a point—but Ia’s universe had changed. It was an uncomfortable, unhappy realization, acknowledging that her parents were no longer the center of that universe.

Instead of replying, she sighed and grabbed her kitbag, tucked at the end of the couch where she had been sleeping. Fishing out a set of mottled browns, she headed for the bathroom. Amelia and Aurelia let her pass, then returned to their bedroom.

Her parents had never had much room in their apartment above the small but popular restaurant: just the two bedrooms, a bathroom, an office, the living room, and a small nook of a kitchen, which was rarely used to cook any meal other than breakfast. Sleeping on the couch wasn’t any worse than sleeping in a tent, and she was already in the habit of tidying her bed, so folding up the blankets right after waking and rising hadn’t been a problem.

It was the getting up part that seemed to be the problem. I forgot to adjust my hours to Mom and Ma’s hours, not Sanctuarian hours, on the trip out from Earth. I forgot they don’t get up until almost 9 a.m. and don’t go to bed until midnight—though I’d think I would’ve noticed last night how “late” everyone stayed up, catching up with all the gossip I never bothered to scry for in the timestreams . . .

Speaking of which, I should check the timestreams, see what I need to do versus what I should do, while waiting for my family to wake up again. Better yet, I’ll take my writing pad with me and work on jotting down yet more prophecies electrokinetically while I jog, she decided, slipping out of her plain brown T–shirt and shorts. It was a little chilly outside, the weather more autumn–like than late summer, so jogging in long pants and a long–sleeved shirt wouldn’t be too warm. Three hundred years go by awfully fast when you’re dead and can’t tell anyone how to stop a galaxy–wide war.

July 20, 2492 T.S.

“How much longer?” Fyfer asked, his tone bored.

“If I can put up with Mom and Ma throwing that surprise welcome home party for me at the restaurant yesterday . . . and then making me wash all the dishes afterwards,” Ia muttered half under her breath, “you can put up with a little drive into the countryside this morning.”

“The question is, how far of a drive?” Thorne asked her. Once again, he was driving, guiding the family ground car over the ruts in the unpaved, barely graded road they were following. Hovercars strong enough to counteract the local gravity were too expensive for most settlers to afford on Sanctuary, but that didn’t mean the government sank a lot of money into high–quality back roads, either.

“Yeah, you said you’re looking for a crysium field, but we’ve already passed three,” Fyfer added, shifting forward as far as his safety restraints would allow, bracing his elbows on the backs of their chairs.

“One where we won’t be interrupted. What I’m about to do, no one outside of the three of us is to ever know about, and I do mean no one—turn left up ahead,” Ia ordered Thorne.

He complied, carefully turning between the red–barked, purple–leaved trees. The side road she picked wasn’t even really a road, more like a leafer–path. Aquamarine grass had sprung up in the leafer’s wake, along with small bushes, making him slow the car. “How much farther? I am not damaging Ma’s car on one of your quests if it can be avoided.”

“Quarter klick, no more. There’s a small clearing of crystals off to the right. Up there,” Ia added, pointing ahead at a gap in the growth. “You can just turn around right there. Point the car outward.”

“Ia . . . pointing the car back the way it came is the new version of the archaic handkerchief–on–the–doorknob trick,” Fyfer warned her.

“All the more reason the few who might make it this far will back up and find another spot,” Ia countered.

Thorne sighed and carefully jockeyed the ground vehicle around so that it faced back toward the dirt road. “At least with a path this wide, the leafer isn’t likely to wake up until late winter at the earliest.”

“Another thing I’m counting on.” Disentangling herself from the restraints, Ia opened her door and climbed out as soon as the panel had tucked itself beneath the floorboards. Steadying herself against the hard, half–forgotten tug of high gravity, she faced the other way. The partially recovered path ended about a hundred and fifty meters away in what looked like a brush–choked, grass–strewn slope, a modest hill that rose a good twenty–five meters at its crest, twenty or so meters in width, and probably extended for five times that in length. But a leafer was no hill.

Thankfully, it wasn’t a carnivore, either. Instead, it was the largest land–based herbivore in the known galaxy. If the beasts could have been tamed and trained, the government of Sanctuary would have done so, but the few times they had tried had proven too disastrous. Leafers were too dumb, too interested in the recyclable plastics and elastics known as plexi—a common prefab building material—and too prone to torpor and months–long hibernation after only a kilometer or so of feeding, depending on the size.

Her brother’s assessment was fairly accurate; a quick probe into the local timestreams showed that it wouldn’t bother them, so long as they didn’t try to climb up and dig a hole through the outer patina of dirt hosting all those bushes on its back. Closing the car door, she looked over at the field bordering the leafer–path. Rocky outcrops poked up through the ground to the east, a rugged clearing too stony to permit the growth of many trees. A few bushes did their best to cling to pockets of soil, but there was plenty of evidence that this little meadow flooded whenever a heavy rainstorm came through. The back and forth cycle of dry–and–drowned kept most plants away from this area, making it the perfect zone for a different sort of growth.

The real growth, slow as it was, came from the sprays of crystals dotting the field, pastel and glowing faintly, just bright enough to be seen even in the light of midmorning.

The predominant color among the shafts was transparent gold, not quite amber, but here and there, other hues could also be seen. Mint green, aquamarine, lilac, and rose. All of them were clear enough to see through. They also ranged in sizes from tiny, sharp–edged sprays no bigger than her head, to towering, conifer–like shapes four times her height. Heading toward them, she stopped when her younger brother gasped, dropping to his knees.

“Fire!” he yelled, clutching at his head, eyes wide and focused on things that weren’t there. “The Phoenix rises! The cathedral on fire—golden birds covering the sky!”

The attack startled her. She hadn’t felt anything building up around her. Normally, those who were the most psychically sensitive suffered the most from the phenomenon, and her brother Fyfer was about as mind–blind as any second–generation resident of Sanctuary could possibly claim to be. Slightly more sensitive than the rest of the Humans in the known galaxy, but only slightly.

Thorne rolled his eyes and aimed a kick at his brother’s rump. “Get up. Your acting isn’t that good.”

Laughing, Fyfer dropped his hands and pushed to his feet. He grinned at his siblings, brushing the dirt from his knees. “You know I’ve been practicing . . . but I’ll bet I had her fooled!”

“If I weren’t so sensitive to the buildup of precognitive KI—or rather, the lack of it this time—then yes, I would’ve been fooled,” Ia agreed. “You were good in every other detail I could see.”

“Annoying is more like it,” Thorne snorted, eyeing his younger brother. He returned his attention to their sister. “So, why are we out here? I’m supposed to be studying for my second big test in Economics.”

“We’re here to experiment.” Ia removed the cuff from her right arm. Not the left one, which was her military ident unit, but the one hidden under her right sleeve. Molding it with a touch of electrokinetic energy to soften the material and a nudge of telekinesis to shape it, she formed it into a round, pink peach sphere. Unlike the sprays, it wasn’t completely transparent, as the pink infusing the gold clouded the material. She held it out on the palm of her hand, displaying it to her siblings. “Do you know what this is?”

“A holokinetic illusion?” Fyfer asked, dropping his jester’s attitude with a shrug. Underneath the charming jokester, he was quite bright for such a young man. “Or maybe some sort of psychic gelatin? At least, I’m presuming it’s one or the other, either holokinesis of something that doesn’t exist, or telekinetic manipulation of something that does. Except the last I checked, you weren’t a holokinetic.”

Thorne, for all that he looked like a walking mountain of muscle, frowned at the sphere on her palm, then looked at the sprays. “It sort of . . . That can’t be . . . can it? Is that crysium?”

Ia drew out energy from the sphere, making the solid ball sag. She poured energy back into it, enough that her palm crackled with miniature lightning, and the ball crystallized. Literally, it grew crystals, turning into a miniature version of the much larger, cone–spoked spray around them. Both of her brothers swore under their breath, eyes wide.

“How . . . ?” Thorne managed.

“Special abilities,” she dismissed, carefully staying vague even in front of her own siblings. “The next person to be able to do this won’t come around for another two hundred years . . . and she will be Phoenix, the Fire Girl of Prophecy. The thing is, this stuff isn’t your standard crysium.”

Drawing energy out, which destabilized the otherwise tough mineral, she reshaped it as ball, then tossed it at Thorne. He caught it on reflex . . . and stiffened and stared at nothing. Blinked. Breathed. Blinking again, he focused on her. “You . . . this . . . what . . .”

She crossed the few meters between them and plucked the sphere from his palm. “What did you see?”

“The . . . time moved. The day sped up and raced by. The evening lightning storm came by . . . but I knew I was still standing here in midmorning,” he finished, confusion creasing his brow. “Ia . . . I saw the future.”

She nodded, and held out the ball to Fyfer. He quirked one of his dark brows but took the crystal ball—and sucked in a sharp breath, as real as the previous one had been faked. He didn’t drop to his knees, but he did shudder. Taking pity on him, Ia took it back.

“What did you see?” she prodded him when he just blinked and breathed.

“Uh . . . the crew, the other students from school . . . they’re going to call me on my wrist unit . . . ask me out to dinner with the group,” he revealed.

Ia probed the future, and nodded. “Go ahead and accept . . . but tell them you plan to shift majors at the end of the semester.”

“Shift majors?” Fyfer protested. “Why would I want to shift majors? I’m great at acting! I actually enjoy it. Besides, you told me to go into acting school.”

She pinned her brother with a firm look. “Because I also told you that you would need to shift majors. You’re going to start studying law—”

“Law!” he protested, throwing up his hands. “Why me? Why law?”

“And politics,” Ia finished. Sphere cupped in her right hand, she ticked off three of the fingers on her left hand. “Rabbit is studying sociology, psychology, and behavioral sciences. Thorne is studying economics, business management, and logistics. You need to study law, acting, and politics. I’ve told you this, Fyfer. Over and over and over.

“Rabbit will be in charge of organizing the Free World Colony and its resistance movement. She can write a very moving speech, but she is not a public speaker, and thus not a public motivator. We all know that the adults wouldn’t take her seriously just because of her size. Thorne will be in charge of the FWC’s physical needs, making sure the cities are well–planned and well–provisioned, with strategic defenses, housing and feeding, powering and cleaning needs all carefully considered and arranged. You will be the face of the Free World Colony, but you need to be more than just a face to motivate people. You need to know the difference between wrong and right, just and unfair, and that means studying acting, politics, and law.”

“Only Church slaves study law and politics. All those classes at Thorne’s college are filled with forehead–circling fanatics.” He wrinkled his nose in disgust, then mockingly scribbled his finger on his forehead, making a face.

Ia gave him a disgusted, sardonic look. “How else did you think the Church was going to take over the government? They’re going to do it by the book, Fyfer. The Church’s leaders have been planning this since they funded their half of the push to find a new heavyworld to settle. It may have been a cosmic accident that they ended up on this world along with the saner contingents from Eiaven and the other heavyworld colonies who contributed, but they are here, and we have to deal with them. Your job will be to stave off the too–rapid degeneration of Sanctuarian society from within the political and legal framework.”

“Isn’t there some other way?” Fyfer protested, throwing up his hands. “Any other way? You’re supposed to be able to see all the twists and turns for a thousand years! Isn’t there some other way than . . . than to turn me into a Kennedy, or a MacKenzie, or some other historically big–named politarazzi?

She wished there was. Ia clenched her hands and closed her eyes. She searched on the timeplains, the great, amber–hued prairie of existence crisscrossed by a thousand million life–streams. What she needed was a way to show him what his best future path could be, without the trauma of actually dragging him into his own timestream and holding him there. Fyfer had the grace to stay silent while she dipped into stream after stream in rapid, practiced succession, but pouted when she opened her eyes and shook her head, fingers tightening on the ring in her grasp.

“I’m sorry, Fyfer. But I need you to do what I’m telling you. You’re very charismatic and quick–witted when you want to be, and you know how to skirt the fine line between believability and showmanship. You are going to save a lot of people from slipping into the madness of believing the Church’s doctrines and dogmas in the coming years.” Ia held his gaze, though she softened her expression. “I need you, Brother. I need you to do what I myself cannot.

Everyone on this world needs you . . . and they will need you to study law and politics, so you can use those as your sword and shield in the fight against the fanatics of the One True God!” She flung out her left hand in the direction of the city . . . and realized her right hand was no longer clutching a sphere. Instead, it now held a pink peach bracelet, a wrist–sized torus of rippling, stiffened crystal shaped something like either a turbulent stream or a fluttering veil. Confused, Ia stared. She hadn’t consciously tried to shape it . . . or . . . had she?

Acting on impulse, Ia grabbed Fyfer’s wrist with her free hand and dropped the torus–bracelet–thing on his palm. He shuddered, eyes widening much like they had when it had been a mere sphere, but this time dropped to his knees as well. Sagged, more like it. Thorne hissed and shifted forward, ready to catch Fyfer in case he didn’t fall safely, but Fyfer ended up merely kneeling. Rather than touching his brother, Thorne stopped next to him, glancing up in confusion at their sister.

Unsure what was happening to him, Ia extended a finger and brushed his temple very lightly, intending to use her minor telepathic skill to probe his thoughts. What she got instead was swept onto the timeplains next to her brother, who stood waist–deep in the waters of his own stream, his gaze fixed on the surface as scene after scene rushed past. Hissing, she hauled herself out and snatched the overgrown ring from his hand, freeing him as well.

Fyfer sucked in a deep breath and let it out again, coughing a bit. “God! God above!” He blinked and looked up at her. “Is . . . is that what you always see? Like a series of 3–D movies, snippets of . . . of moments . . . ?”

Wary, Ia merely asked, “What, specifically, did you see?”

“I . . . saw myself going to law school. It was hard—I could see myself hating you at times, but . . . then I saw what you were talking about. I was in a debate over some council position . . . and I turned some Church woman’s arguments upside down and in her face and . . . and I was winning, and it was a rush to win . . .” Fyfer shook his head. “I never would’ve thought I’d like politics. Politics are . . . ugh! But, this?”

Patting him on the shoulder, Ia left him to deal with whatever it was he had seen. Whatever it was, it hadn’t harmed her cause. Turning to her other brother, she held out the bracelet. Thorne backed up, hands raised out of accepting range.

“No, no, not me; that’s not necessary,” he protested. “Honest. I remember all too well my last visit into your timestreams.”

“And normally I wouldn’t subject you to that again,” Ia promised. “But unlike Fyfer, you know what that’s like . . . and I need to know if this is like that.”

Holding it out, she waited. He shifted, clearly uncomfortable, then wrinkled his nose and held out his palm. Dropping the bracelet onto his skin, she waited. He, too, gasped and sagged to his knees. His eyes blinked, flicking this way and that, no doubt viewing the same timestream images that Fyfer had seen. Or maybe not. After several seconds, her curiosity overwhelmed her, and Ia touched his forehead as well.

What she found shocked her. He wasn’t seeing his brother’s life–choices. Some of them, yes, but only from his own perspective, wherever their lives crossed. Most of what he was seeing were his own possible paths. Since they would continue to live and work together, the two stepbrothers’ lives intertwined quite a lot, but the perspective was purely from Thorne’s life and its choices. Plucking the bracelet from his hand, Ia waited while he shuddered and recovered.

“Okay . . .” Fyfer finally murmured, head nodding slightly. “How did you do that, Ia? You weren’t even touching me, yet you put all those images in my head!”

“That’s what I’m here to find out,” Ia confessed, shrugging. She eyed the bracelet on her hand, then set it on the grass–trampled ground. As soon as she released it, the ever–present lurking of the timestreams in the back of her mind diminished just a little bit. Barely enough for her to notice, but it was just enough to detect. Picking it up again, she could hear the faint, psychic “hum” of the crysium, and could once again feel the timestreams crowding a little closer than usual.

Whatever she had done to the bracelet had changed it. This wasn’t a brief look into the immediate future by a few minutes, or a few hours. This was a look into the future by months, even years.

The strange, semi–alive biocrystal already defied logic. It was literally the discarded matter of the Feyori. The only known sentient race to have evolved as beings of energy instead of matter, they were the only race in the known galaxy who could manage to convert energy to matter and back at the squared speed of light.

They did so by traveling faster than the fastest spaceship, whether it traveled through normal space by greasing the laws of physics through faster–than–light panels, or by siphoning itself through a hyperrift via other–than–light travel. Because the transformation from one form to the other was never 100 percent complete, it was the Feyori who had introduced psychic abilities—using energy to manipulate matter, rather than the other way around—into the sentient races they had secretly bred with over the millennia.

The converse was also true. When they shifted back to energy–based bodies, the Feyori took a little bit of matter across with them. The easiest way to shed it and “purify” themselves was to find a world with a high enough gravity to pull it out of their bodies. By preference, they preferred high–energy worlds where they could “snack” at the same time. Sanctuary, with its churning core of both molten iron and gold, had a natural electrosphere as well as a natural magnetosphere. Lighting was nothing more than candied popcorn to the Feyori, making it a favorite dumping ground.

That dumped matter, discarded in the form of dust, combined itself with rainwater and the constantly generated energies from the storms plaguing Sanctuary every day. Seeded on bare rocks like the ones scattered through this field, the solution crystallized into sprays, with growth dependent upon just how much energy each shaft received. It was too tough to be cut, too difficult to break in all but the thinnest of shafts, and too bizarre for anyone to figure out how to use . . . unless they knew the secrets of both its origins and its strength, as Ia did.

But what to do with it? How to do it?

“ Ia?” Thorne finally asked, catching her attention. She looked down at him. He shrugged. “What’s going on?”

“I’m not sure, but . . . I think this is the solution to my not being able to be in two, or three, or five hundred different places at once. Follow me,” she ordered, tucking the bracelet into one of the pockets on her brown military pants.

Without looking back, she headed into the middle of the field, looking for an easily overlooked spray. Selecting one, she touched the shaft. This time, the humming resonance was louder in her mind; this was a full–sized shaft on a spray twice as tall as her body. She only needed some of it, however.

Concentrating on the flow of energies, she siphoned off just enough to pull away a chunk barely the size of her head, then carefully reshaped the end of the shaft so that it looked whole and untouched. Only someone who intimately knew each and every shaft would be able to tell this one was now shorter. Settling on the ground, Ia prepped the lump she had separated. Carefully dividing it into eight fist–sized chunks, she shaped them into balls with a thought, then looked up.

Fyfer and Thorne had followed her, thankfully. She held out a sphere to each of them. Both hesitated. At the arch of her brow, each of her half brothers settled on the ground across from her and took a clear pink sphere.

Tense, they waited for the future to once again drag them under.


An Officer's Duty

An Officer's Duty