Authors: Christie Golden
Rosemary pointed at a freighter. She lifted a small device and thumbed a button. Sure enough, after a few moments, the freighter powered to life and began to move steadily away from them.
“Nice job, Rosemary,” Jake said.
It was quite possibly the most pleasant exchange the two of them had ever had.
However, the good mood was short-lived. A few moments later, as R. M. was slowly and carefully steering them out of the debris field, she swore under her breath.
“Yep, looks like our decoy’s stirred up a bit of interest. Buckle up, Jake. We might have to make a run for it, and it could get pretty bumpy.”
He sat down at once, strapping himself in, and peered over at the screen. He could see a few blinking red dots, and knew by this point that red signified Dominion.
“You think they’ve found us?”
“Not sure yet.” Both of them watched the screen intently. After a few seconds, the red dots began to converge on the decoy. Jake felt a quick stab of horror, relief, and then fresh worry in rapid succession. Rosemary’s ploy had worked, but pursuit had found them much too quickly for comfort. It wouldn’t take their pursuers long to determine that this was a trick. And then they would start looking around the ruins of this old battlefield to see where the real quarry was.
With perfect calm, Rosemary continued to move the system runner. Jake bit his lip nervously. The Dominion vessels closed in on the decoy freighter.
“Rosemary …” Jake said.
“Not yet,” she murmured. Her face was focused, intent. Jake felt sweat break out beneath his arms.
The red dots stopped moving. The decoy freighter continued on.
“They figured it out,” Rosemary said. She hit something, and the system runner surged forward. The red dots stirred to life and began to close in on them. Jake gripped the metal arms of his chair.
“Now!” Rosemary pressed the button. Space shimmered around them. There were no more small blinking red dots on the screen. Rosemary leaned back in her chair and laughed. “Piece of cake.”
Jake smiled weakly.
“A decoy. I see.”
Valerian’s voice was cold with disapproval, and the woman on the screen looked dreadfully unhappy. He supposed he shouldn’t be too surprised that, once again, the damnably clever Rosemary and Jake had slipped through his fingers. The handful of people set to guard what had essentially disintegrated into a space junkyard were hardly the best and the brightest the Dominion had to offer. He’d never have gotten even this close to finding the two fugitives—or was it three? Should he count the protoss intelligence in Jake’s brain as a separate entity? How unfortunate that he did not know—had it not been for Devon Starke’s knowledge of the tracking code.
“There, uh, is something,” the woman was saying, shuffling papers with a rather frantic air. She was clearly going to do everything she could to make this not seem like the disaster it was.
She nodded. “Yes. Security did report seeing another ship power up shortly after we caught up with the decoy. Now, Mr. V, you understand that that’s not unusual. The wreckage is tempting to a variety of scroungers and we aren’t sufficiently manned to patrol it as thoroughly as we would like.”
He gave her a smile. “I understand. But please continue.”
She seemed heartened. “Let me send you the documentation we have on it.”
A few second later, Valerian and Starke were watching a poor-quality hologram. They watched in silence as the somewhat battered Wraiths followed the Valkyrie, took a scan, and listened to the two pilots express their annoyance in colorful words at having been tricked. More colorful words ensued as they realized another vessel was moving out of the debris field and into open space. The Wraiths turned to follow, but the system runner they were following had made it to a clear place and had subwarped to who knew where, and who really cared, and it was time for lunch anyway.
“I hope that was helpful, sir.” The woman was slightly pink, realizing, as she knew he had to, that it hardly painted security in a particularly inspirational light.
“It may well be. Thank you.”
Unable to continue smiling politely, Valerian thumbed off the switch and scowled. “We almost had
them. If my father staffed these places with intelligent people rather than lazy buffoons, we would have.”
Even as he said the words he knew they were unfair. A government that had the luxury of staffing remote space junkyards with top-notch staff by definition would have far fewer problems than the Dominion had.
He sighed and turned to Starke. “The question is, where would they go next? There are hundreds of places in this sector alone they could hide.”
Starke nodded thoughtfully. “In the … the link, for want of a better word, I managed to sense a little something of this protoss that’s using Professor Ramsey. Of course, it is much more adept at hiding its thoughts and feelings than even the best-trained ghost is, because it’s a protoss. But one thing I did get was a trace of annoyance at the links being utilized, and a hint of concern. Dahl was right. The protoss didn’t just force itself into Professor Ramsey’s brain for amusement or as part of a normal cycle. It did it because it felt it had to. So, knowing this, my best guess is that the protoss would want to rejoin its people. And look at this.”
Starke pressed the rewind button and again they watched the hologram. He paused it at one point. “Look at where the system runner is heading.”
“It leaps, Devon; we can’t follow it if we don’t know its destination.”
“True enough. But think about what we know of human nature. You’ve been discovered, you know
where you are heading, you make a run for it—silly as it might sound, even if you’re planning a jump—wouldn’t your first instinct be to flee in the right direction?”
Valerian smiled slowly. “Yes. Yes, it would be.” He called up a star chart of the galaxy and smiled. “Of course. They’re heading for Aiur.”
AS JAKE HAD KNOWN IT WOULD, AIUR HAD PROSpered under Adun’s guidance as the executor of the templar, which managed to be strong and yet not heavy-handed. Directing the templar to the will of the Conclave, Adun had overseen the settling of several colonies that were thriving and content. Any disputes with other races that had broken out had been quickly quelled with few casualties to the pro-toss. It was a good time to be alive.
Jake entered the executor’s citadel, which was a small, private retreat that hovered gracefully above Antioch. He found Adun in deep contemplation, wearing the heavy purple, black, and white robes of his office, staring out onto the cityscape below. In the distance, the lush green and blue hues of the rain forest softened the line of the horizon.
Jake inclined his head deeply, respectfully. Adun turned from the view and repeated the gesture.
“You sent for me, Executor?”
Adun nodded. “Yes, Vetraas. I have been called in front of the Conclave. It seems they have some information they wish to impart.”
Curiosity flickered in Jake, but was quickly hooded before Adun could pick up on it. Over two millennia ago, the great Khas, as he had become known—“He who brings order”—had rediscovered the profound link all protoss could have with one another. He had drafted a series of rules on how best to navigate this intimate space, and the collection of rules and the emotional and mental link itself had become known as the Khala. Jake knew that Khas had had another name, but it was lost to everyone but the preservers now, and besides, what Khas had done was more important than who he had been before such a significant discovery.
“I don’t know that that’s true,” Jake said to Zamara. As before, when Jake had relived the memories of a protoss named Temlaa as if they were actually happening to him, Zamara was with him, guiding him through the process so he retained himself. “Savassan was a pretty remarkable fellow before he even found the first khaydarin crystal. It’s a shame his name has been forgotten.”
“The preservers know it. The preservers know all. Well, almost all. And that is what matters now. Khas he has become, and Khas he shall be, until the final protoss closes his eyes for the last time and all becomes lost to the stars.”
Part of the dictates of the Khala had advised a caste system, with various tribes falling into one of the three castes of
judicator, templar, and khalai. The vast majority of protoss tribes were collected under the khalai, who were the artisans, scientists, and builders of their people. This caste was as valued as the others, for without them, there would be no infrastructure, no development in culture and science and art. Their contributions were vital.
The templar, of which Adun and Jake were a part, was the warrior caste. The templar tribes were those who had great physical prowess or agility, or tended toward sound military insight and strategy. In the early days of the Khala, they fought to protect the newly unified protoss culture from those who did not agree with the tenets, or were too afraid to do so. It was, Jake mused, an indication of how relatively primitive the protoss were then. It did not take long for all the protoss to eventually realize that the only way to peace and prosperity was through the Khala. There could be no hatred then, for even if you disagreed with someone, you felt him as yourself. Once this harmony was achieved, the pro-toss society flourished quickly and healthily, and the templar were free to focus on protecting their people, at first from the fearsome creatures who prowled Aiur, and later from hostile alien beings they encountered while settling their colonies.
The third and final caste, the judicators, were the elders and statesmen, the governing body of the protoss. Their highest members were known as the Conclave. This was a select group of elders, chosen for their wisdom and knowledge of the Khala and a passionate adherence to its rules. Some of them were protoss whom Jake deeply admired and respected. Others were … not. Nonetheless, Adun and the other templar answered with unquestioning
obedience to the Conclave. Which was why Jake was surprised to note Adun’s discomfort at having been summoned to appear before them at the Great Forum, the Khor-shakal, the seat of Aiur’s government.
“I would have you accompany me, Vetraas,” Adun continued. “They have asked to speak with me alone, but I would prefer to have my most trusted adviser with me at such a meeting. There was something … well. Will you come?”
“Of course,” Jake responded.
The Conclave, led by the elder Kortanul, was none too pleased that the executor had disobeyed their instructions and not come alone. Adun calmly and respectfully asked that Jake be included, and after some private discussion the Conclave agreed. While the thoughts they directed toward Jake were definitely not conciliatory, he was only amused and curious as to the need for such secrecy.
“Before we begin,” said Kortanul, “it is imperative that you both swear that word of what transpires here goes no further.”
Jake and Adun nodded. Kortanul stepped forward to Jake, holding up his hand, palm facing out. Jake mirrored him. A gentle glow began to pulse between them and easily, naturally, their minds merged. So linked, Kortanul asked for Jake’s solemn promise. So linked, in a deep place within the Khala where he could not lie, where violation of this oath would result in swift punishment, Jake made the oath.
He watched, filled with apprehension, as Adun did likewise. Never before, in the centuries in which he had served, had anything like this been asked of him. He wondered what was so dire that the Conclave felt they had to resort to
such measures to ensure loyalty from two whose loyalty had never once been questioned.
The members of the Conclave nodded, satisfied, and Jake and Adun were permitted to sit in the beautifully carved chairs that were usually reserved only for the Conclave. Jake noted that while they were lavish and opulent, set with crystals, inlaid with precious metals, and of a form pleasing to the eye, they were not very comfortable.
“We can either show you this information in a link or tell you,” Kortanul continued. “It is your choice, Adun. Though I will advise you that if this is merely told, you may find it hard to believe.”
“Speak,” Adun said. “If this is as portentous as you say, I would hear reasoned thoughts about it, not the emotions you feel toward it.”
Kortanul inclined his head. “As you wish, Executor.” Despite his words, he seemed deeply reluctant to speak. Adun and Jake waited patiently.
“Impossible as it may seem, there are those among us who would destroy everything we have sought to build over the last millennium. They—”
“We’re finally here,” Rosemary said, shaking Jake awake. “But boy, Professor, I’d talk to your travel agent of a protoss. This place doesn’t look at all like you described it to me.”
Jake woke up with a start. He’d slept wrong and had a terrible headache. He went to rub his temples and winced; he’d forgotten about the bump on the head he’d taken not that long ago. It took a second for
Rosemary’s words to register. He threw off the blanket and got to his feet, sitting down heavily and looking through the screen as Rosemary guided the ship into orbit around the homeworld of the protoss.
“Oh my God,” he breathed.
He had come expecting the verdant lands of Temlaa and Savassan, a world of lush rain forests and oceans, of gleaming cities and mysterious temples. But the planet that filled the screen had been horribly brutalized. With a sickening feeling, Jake beheld mammoth patches of blackened, charred earth. Here and there were what struck him as being pathetically small patches of green rain forest, although his rational mind realized they must stretch for hundreds of kilometers. What lakes there were looked brown and unhealthy. The oceans alone seemed to have escaped….
Jake’s mind flashed back to the dinner conversation he had had with Rosemary and the late Ethan Stewart. Ethan had said something about Aiur—but Jake had been more than a little the worse (or better) for the alcohol and focused on the sorbet.