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A Soldier's Duty

Jean Johnson - Author

Paperback: Mass Market | $7.99 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9780441020638 | 432 pages | 26 Jul 2011 | Ace | 6.49 x 4.29in | 18 - AND UP
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Ia is a precog, tormented by visions of the future where her home galaxy has been devastated. To prevent this vision from coming true, Ia enlists in the Terran United Planets military with a plan to become a soldier who will inspire generations for the next three hundred years-a soldier history will call Bloody Mary.

Prologue

It was horrible. Terrible. No fifteen-year-old—and barely fifteen, at that—should have had to face such a frightening, unrelenting truth. But she had to. She had no choice.

Her eyes were open. She was sure of that much. But in the grey glow of pre-dawn, brightened occasionally by the usual morning electrical storm, her bedroom looked out of place: banal and slightly surreal compared to what she had just seen. Crowded, but banal.

There were actually two beds, a narrow one for herself and a broad one that her brothers shared in quiet sleep, with a meager aisle between them. A long counter underneath the window served as part desk, part bureau. Every toy, every book, every data chip was tucked in its place, because there was literally no room for a mess. Neat and tidy. Innocent.

Behind the evidence of her eyes, this whole building—her parents' small but prosperous restaurant—lay in smoldering ruins. Inside her head, she could see the broken plaster boards, scorched plexi tiles… and the body of her birthmother, sprawled and bloodied, eyes open but unseeing.

No… no! Covering her eyes, elbows braced on her knees, the girl on the narrower of the two beds tried to shut out the images. She couldn't banish them; she could only shove them aside. When she did… others took their place. Her elder brother fighting to survive, her younger brother dragged away by brute force, a laser bolt shaded in cruel dark orange arrowing for her own throat. No! No, no, no!

She shoved harder at the images, tried to force her way around them, but it was like wading through a muddy river, a hard, cold, murky struggle that swept her relentlessly downstream. It didn't matter which fork she chose, the flow of Time itself dragged her inevitably to the end. To the horrific images of an inevitable end, where rapacious invaders tore whole worlds to shreds. Her world, and the others. Choked by the roiling, cold waters, she couldn't see the right way to go, the best path to survive, a way to escape the lifeless, frozen wasteland lying ahead.

…NO!

There had to be a way out. She refused to accept that this… this vision was unbreakable. That it was unstoppable, inevitable. Clasping her arms around her knees, squeezing her eyes tightly shut, she forced her inner self to climb out of the waters sweeping inexorably onward to their ugly end. To climb onto the banks of the river—the banks of all the rivers in her mind, to stop herself from drowning in the ice-cold waters of Time itself.

There has to be a way out. There has to be.

Determined to find that way, some path that could be followed through the tangle of lives and possibilities, she searched through the stream-scattered plains. She didn't stop to check each creek; instead, she leapt from bank to bank, looking for the point where all the rivers turned into rivulets, where all of them ran into a dried, barren, hopeless desert. It was hard to see, though the more she moved and searched, the more light there was in this dark, grey, foreboding place inside her head.

Slowly, as the grey of twilight changed to the amber-gold of dawn, she found a thin trickle, a single stream… a thread of hope that led through a tiny hole in the barrier of the desert, expanding into an oasis of triumph and beauty beyond that frightening wall of inevitability.

Here—this is the path! This is what I want…

But when she looked back, the complexity of the path confounded her. It stretched well past anything she herself could affect in her own lifetime—and not just her own life-time, but her own life-place, tying into yet more rivers and streams that ran through fields beyond this single, visible plain. Cautiously tracing her way back, she found nodes of influence, little nudges, artificial canals and bolstering dykes, levees built up to prevent the flooding of failure, and aqueducts bringing in knowledge from other realms. Twists and turns, knots and braids artificially plaited into the naturally woven strands of what should have been reality.

Along every centimeter of the intertwining streams she followed, images flickered in the waters, showing her meager glimpses of the way to make that one slender stream of a chance survive. Make, not just help.

My god… This will take more than a lifetime to make happen. She hurried back toward her entry-point, only to stumble and fall to her knees, seeing the drastic changes wrought in her own future, just to make all of it possible. No… no… No, there has to be a better way. Some side-stream I could take… some other option!

Scrambling to her feet, straining to see through the shifting, flowing waters, she searched the currents in the meadows stretching out to either side. Time did not have the same meaning in this place as it had out there, beyond the boundaries of her mind—she knew her brothers were now awake, that they were quietly getting dressed for breakfast and for school, somewhere out there beyond the edges of her consciousness—but she couldn't stop searching. Couldn't stop looking for an escape. For a way out.

There wasn't one.

Not for everyone.

With eyes that were learning to skim the images rippling and shifting in the lengthy tangle of waters crisscrossing the plains, she saw there was no safe path for herself. No quiet life to be led. No escape from her fate; not from what she had to do, not with this radical of a departure from all of her childish dreams and expectations. No avoiding what would happen to herself, nor what would happen to her family, to her friends and neighbors if she ignored this single, meager thread of possibility.

Worse, when she turned to look back at the future, looking out across the other rivers and their subsidiary streams, the way they dried into curdled, cracked mud and crumbled into sand… there was no other hope for anyone else.

Not a viable one. Nothing that would bear fruit. Just the one, rivulet-sized chance to avoid that distant, inevitable, widespread desert of destruction. One chance to stop everything from turning into nothing. One chance to avoid annihilation.

But… if she redirected all those streams and rivulets, gouging out a new set of paths for the waters to take… If she changed the riverbeds of all those lives, both here and elsewhere, fighting to redirect the course of everything, there was hope. If she drastically altered the flow of her own life, she could have a chance at saving the rest.

Most of the rest. Some could be saved, she realized; many, in fact. But not everyone.

Not everyone.

It was a horrible, terrible choice for a fifteen-year-old to have to make.

CHAPTER ONE

May 4th, 2490 T.S.
Melbourne, Australia Province
Earth

"Name?"

"Ia." Back straight, hands clasped in her lap, she waited for him to comment. She pronounced it EE-yah, and not the EYE-ah most people assumed. "Just like it says on my ident."

The brown-uniformed recruitment officer quirked his brow and sat back at that. Light from the glow strips overhead gleamed off his service pins for a moment, allowing her to read the badge holding his name. Lieutenant Major Kirkins-Baij. "I know what it says on your ident, young lady. But given how the Terran United Space Force has roughly two billion soldiers to keep track of, it helps to have more than one name. Usually, a Human has at least three: a family name, a personal name, and an additional name. Some even have two family names, like myself.

"So. What is your full legal name, meioa?" he asked.

"My full legal name is Ia. Capital I, lowercase a. Ia," she repeated. "Nothing more, and nothing less."

The corner of his mouth quirked up for a moment. "With a name that short, I don't see how you could have anything less." Glancing at the workstation screen displaying her stats, he frowned a little. "Independent Colony World Sanctuary? Where's that?"

"It's on the backside of Terran space, close to the border of the Grey Zone. Not quite thirteen hundred light-years from here," she told him. "It's relatively brand-new. I'm second-gen."

"We don't normally get recruits from any I.C., not here on Earth," the lieutenant major offered. "I'll presume your Colony Charter permits its citizens to join the Terran military, and that you're prepared to sign the necessary waivers, but if your Charter was sponsored by the V'Dan Empire instead, I'll have to get out a different set of forms."

"Sanctuary's Charter was actually sponsored by I.C. Eiaven," she clarified. "That cuts the paperwork down to almost nothing."

"That doesn't make sense. Eiaven is almost the exact opposite direction from here," he pointed out, lowering his brows in a doubtful frown. "Most sponsoring worlds are next to each other, not hundreds of light-years apart."

Ia didn't let his skepticism faze her. Rather, she welcomed it as a positive sign that she was doing the right thing at the right time.

"That's true for most worlds, but most heavyworlds are sponsored by Eiaven. Sanctuary is merely the latest to prove itself viable. Article VII, Section B, Paragraph14, subparagraphs c, g, h, and j of the Sanctuary Independent Colonyworld Charter—duly registered with the Alliance—state that, as a Sanctuarian citizen, all I have to do to join either the Terran or the V'Dan military is to take the Oath of Service as a recruit, and my citizenship will automatically transfer to the appropriate government. We're not so much an independent colonyworld as an interdependent one. Life on a heavyworld is tough enough without adding political troubles, and both Human governments recognized this long ago. Eiaven and its sponsored colonies are legally considered joint neutral territory.

"If I choose to serve in the Terran military, I automatically become a Terran citizen, with all the rights, responsibilities, and privileges thereof, and disavowing all rights to V'Dan citizenship, should I choose to do so. Which I do, which is why I am here," she said.

"And you came all the way to Earth, almost thirteen hundred light-years from home, just to do so?" he repeated, still skeptical. "Exactly on your eighteenth birthday?"

"Yes, meioa," Ia admitted, reminding herself to be patient. "Provided I am a full, legal adult—which I now am—I can join up at any Recruitment Center anywhere across the Terran United Planets. I just happened to pick Melbourne, Australia Prefecture, Earth. I'd also like to join the TUPSF-Marine Corps in specific, which is why I'm sitting here in front of you, meioa-o, instead of one of the other officers at this facility," Ia stated patiently. "You are the local recruitment officer for the TUPSF-MC," she reminded him, pronouncing the acronym tup-siff-mick. "Now, may I please do so?"

"And your name is just… Ia?" the lieutenant major asked dubiously. "The military needs more than that to be able to identify you, meioa."

"I have an ident number, duly registered with the Alliance," Ia reminded him, nodding slightly at his workstation, which still displayed her civilian profile. "Ident # 96-03-0004-0092-0076-0002. All I need to join any branch of the Space Force is a name and a valid ident number, both of which I have provided, and to state which Branch I wish to apply for. My name is Ia, you have my ident number, and I would like to join the TUPSF-Marines."

Sighing roughly, the lieutenant major typed a command into his workstation. "It's not quite that easy to get into the Marines. Your background check hasn't turned up any legal troubles yet, but we'll still need to place a vid-call and confirm your citizenship status with the authorities on Sanctuary. You'll also need to take the Military Aptitude Test. You can apply for a preference in Service Branches, but depending on how well you score in the various categories, you might end up in the TUPSF-Navy, the Army, or even the Special Forces… though you shouldn't hold your breath on that last one. Very few are selected to join the elite Branch of the Service."

"Oh, I'm willing to take the test," she assured him. "I'm ready right now, in fact. I also know I'm well-suited for the Marines."

"…We'll see. There is a twenty credit non-refundable processing fee, whether or not you pass recruitment standards, Meioa Ia," Lieutenant Major Kirkins-Baij told her, his tone just flat enough to reassure her he had said this part to a hundred recruits before her, and would recite it to a hundred more once she had gone. "On the plus side, your MAT scores are transferrable when applying for a government job, should you choose to look elsewhere."

The look he slanted her said he thought she would be smarter to look elsewhere, being a strange, one-named woman who probably wouldn't fit into the orderly categories of military life. But he didn't actively try to dissuade her. Instead, he typed in a few more commands, accepted the two orange credit chits she dug out of her pocket and handed over, then rose from his seat.

"The testing booth is this way." A gesture of his hand showed her which way to turn as they left the small room that served as his office. "I'll be placing that call to your government while you are undergoing evaluation. If you need to visit the bathroom, now is the time to go. Be advised that you will be tested for illegal substances from this point forward."

"I understand." She followed as he showed her to the facilities, leaving her alone for a few moments.

If I didn't have to go to a specific Camp at a specific point in time, I would've picked a more congenial recruiter… but this one needs to fill his recruitment quota. If I can antagonize him just enough, prick his pride, push the right buttons, he'll not try to push me into a different path, based on my testing. Using the facilities, she scrubbed her hands at the sink, knowing they would be subjected to sensors determining her stress and reflex responses via her sweat glands, impulse-twitches, blood-pressure, heart rate, and other detection means. A more congenial soul would be eager to help me, ruining everything I have planned.

I cannot let him get in my way.

That was an old mantra. A familiar one, if not necessarily a comfortable one for her conscience to bear. To it, she added a new, fresh thought. I cannot let these tests place me in the wrong Service path, either. That would be a disaster of unforgivable proportions.

Not that it would be an easy thing. She had practiced at home with a makeshift testing center, thanks to the help of her brothers and the local chapter of the Witan Order. But the Kinetic Inergy machines the Witans had loaned her were old and most likely less sensitive than whatever the military could afford; at least, the military here on the Human motherworld. She would have to rely mostly on rote memorization to pass if she didn't want to trigger the wrong sensors.

Squaring her shoulders, she emerged from the refreshing room and followed the lieutenant major to the testing booths. There were three of them, hatchway-sealed rooms with their doors standing open, each one looking in on a bulky, sensor-riddled chair ringed by view screens and the like. Outside each door, a quartet of helmets hung on a hook.

"Please pick the headset size which fits most comfortably on your head, and seat yourself in the chair inside this room," he instructed her, his tone reverting to that bored, done-it-a-thousand-times tone he had used before. "Follow the instructions you are given at all times to the best of your ability. You are expected to be proficient at reading and listening to Terranglo; if you are unable to do so, you must indicate which languages you are proficient at on the tertiary second screen. Inability to follow orders in Terranglo both written and verbal will affect your placement scores.

"You will be subjected to audio, text, and spatial questioning, your reflexes and strength tested, your ethics probed, your mind monitored for KI strength and other hallmarks of psychic ability, and you will even undergo timed testing at certain steps along the way. The entire testing session will last between two and a half to three hours, depending upon the untimed portions. If you are thirsty, you may access bottled water from the dispensary, but otherwise you will not be allowed a break from the testing procedure.

"If you have any questions about the equipment, the tertiary fifth screen, the one on the lower far right, contains a diagram of what to touch and when to touch it. The pertinent equipment on the diagram will light up with arrows when you are to touch it." Gesturing, the lieutenant major pointed at the screens. "These vidscreens are arranged in the standard Terran pattern: primary is in the center, flanked to either side by secondary left and secondary right. Below them from left to right are the tertiary first through fifth screens. Please remember their positions, as they will be critical for some of your testing.

"You will also be subjected to pain threshold tests, and gravity stress tests. Please do not exit the booth during the gravity stress tests, as the gravity shear forces may cause undue injury. If you wish to end the testing at any time, simply repeat three times in a row, 'End the test, end the test, end the test,' and wait for the screens to fall dark and the door to open before exiting the equipment. Your twenty-credit fee is non-refundable, and incomplete MAT scores are not admissible for military, civilian, or government jobs. Do you understand these things as I have explained them to you?"

Plucking one of the helmets from the rack lining the outer edge of the alcove, Ia nodded. "Yes, Sir, I understand them."

"Your placement in the Service, if any, will depend almost entirely upon the machine's evaluation of your performance coupled with the current needs of the military. Some of the questions you answer may direct your career path, but placement is not guaranteed. I myself can make certain recommendations if an ambiguity shows up in your testing profile, but the Space Force has invested a lot of effort and experience in these testing centers to gauge your abilities with great accuracy. If there are no true ambiguities, I cannot sway the testing center's decisions for you. Good luck," he wished her, "and don't hold your breath. Unless the test asks for it, of course."

Ia knew he was expecting her to laugh. Most applicants did. She also knew he was serious. Settling the helmet on her head, she fastened the chin strap and climbed into the testing chair. The primary and tertiary fifth screens lit up, the former with a greeting and a list of instructions on how to strap into the equipment, and the latter with sections of the depicted chair displayed, lighting up as each point scrolled up the screen. Once her legs and right arm were strapped in, she inserted her left arm with its ident bracelet into its slot as directed, and waited while the machine pulled up her information file.

It recorded her homeworld of Sanctuary without commentary, unlike the recruitment officer. It also revved up the gravity weave built into the alcove with the warning message, "Adjusting gravity to native homeworld standards of 3.21gs for physical stress test. Please stand by, and do not exit the testing chair during the enhanced gravity phase."

It'd be rather hard for me to "stand" by and not exit the chair, Ia thought, letting her rare sense of humor surface for a moment. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled, accompanying a faint hum from a new machine. Damn. They've turned on the KI sensors sooner than I expected. Clamping down on her mind, she blanked it of all stray thoughts, and all stray abilities. Now was not the time to go off into an involuntary temporal fit. Not with the machine off to her left ready to record just how much Kinetic Inergy she might use, and what kinds.

Now is not the time for the military to find out I'm a psychic. Not for a long, long time, if I can help it.

"Meioa Ia. Are you ready to begin the Military Aptitude Test?" the pleasant audio voice of the testing unit asked.

"I am. Begin," she instructed it.

"Section One: Physical Aptitude. Grasp the blue handles and pull them down as fast as you can," the recorded voice instructed. On the secondary left screen, a question flashed in white text. "Section Two: Military Knowledge. 1) When was the Space Force founded?"

Grasping the overhead handles, Ia yanked them down, pulling hard and fast despite their pneumatic resistance. "April 14th, 2113 Terran Standard, by order of the newly formed Terran United Planets Council."

"Place both feet on the green pedals and push them far away from you," the voice instructed, while the secondary left screen printed another question. "What is the primary difference between the Space Force and planetary Peacekeeper forces?"

This one, she also knew. "Peacekeepers are civilian organizations with jurisdictions limited to a specific city, region, Prefecture, space station, and/or planet. The Space Force is a military organization with a jurisdiction limited only by the interstellar boundaries of the Terran United Planets, its sovereign territories, and its duly authorized activities."

Text and voice switched, with the voice asking the next question and the text directing her to grasp the orange handles and twist from side to side. She complied, glad she had practiced taking verbal and written directions at the same time. The cuffs on her right arm and legs measured her physiological responses to the efforts, recording without surprise her overall strength and speed. Those two things were key to survival on a heavyworld, where bodies fell faster than expected and landed harder than preferred.

Those were qualities the military liked to see, both V'Dan and Terran. Strength and reflexes were bred into the survivors of heavyworld acclimatization. For as long as she could remember, Ia had seen recruiters from both the Terran Space Force and the V'Dan Imperial Military visiting her homeworld, most with their lightworlder bodies wrapped in gravity webs so that they could withstand the pressure of being planet-side long enough to try and encourage her fellow colonists to join the military of either government. Sanctuary was more than twice as far from the V'Dan worlds than the rest of Terran space, but the First Human Empire still sent their recruiters each year, scouting for the most physically impressive soldiers they could find. Heavyworlder soldiers, preferably from the heaviest gravitied world.

Strength and speed weren't enough, though. They helped, but they weren't enough. It would take far more to make a civilian into a competent, disciplined warrior. For the sake of everyone else, Ia had to try.


Lieutenant Major Kirkins-Baij studied the data pad Ia had just signed. He glanced up at her twice, each time returning his gaze to the results of her tests, then sighed and set the pad on his desk. "Well. Congratulations, Recruit. You have just signed up for a three-year attempt at becoming a Marine. If your test scores translate into the real world, and if you can pass the training, you'll make a good soldier. But only if.

"There is a mandatory twenty-four hour Terran Standard cooling period. If at any time in the next twenty-four hours you wish to change your mind, you may contact me and sign the appropriate release forms." Tapping his military-issue wrist unit, he nodded at her civilian one, which chirped. "I've beamed you my contact information if you wish to do so. If you do not change your mind immediately, be advised that changing your mind after the twenty-four hour grace period will require you to reimburse the Space Force for any and all expenses incurred for your processing, transportation, training, housing, and so forth, up until the point of your discharge, as well as being liable for any other potential legal ramifications.

"Twenty-six hours from now, if you have not changed your mind, you have an obligation to be on the suborbital commuter shuttle to Darwin, on the north side of the continent. Your ticket will be downloaded to your ident half an hour before boarding begins—you will, of course, have the costs of the ticket and all other transportation, housing, equipping, and other sundry needs deduced from your recruit pay, starting twenty-four hours from now. The Space Force doesn't give free rides; we even charge the Premiere of the Terran United Planets. She gets a discount," the lieutenant major allowed, "but she still gets a bill.

"In Darwin, you will be met at the terminal by one of the instructors from Camp Nallibong. He or she will be clad in the brown uniform of the Marines, and will be easy to spot. Do not delay in looking for him or her. Once you have reported in, you will then be given transportation to the base, where you will begin your training." Rising, he offered her his hand. "Good luck, Recruit. You'll need it."

Standing up, Ia squared her shoulders and lifted her hand to her brow in crisp salute, just as she had practiced for the last three years in the bathroom mirror. "Thank you, Sir."

The lieutenant major quirked his brow, but returned the salute, giving her permission to drop her arm. Then he held out his hand again. "No, thank you. Thank you for being willing to serve."

Hiding her distaste, Ia clasped hands with him. She tried to clamp down on her mind, but caught glimpses of his future anyway. Snippets of his family, of him driving his hover car, of his offer to re-enlist in active duty… She retrieved her hand the moment he released her, glad to note that he didn't seem to have noticed what she had just done. Nodding politely, she turned and left his office, exiting the recruitment center.

The burning heat of early afternoon pressed down on her head and shoulders the moment she stepped onto the sidewalk. Turning left, she started wandering back in the vague direction of her lodgings. It wouldn't take her long to return to the salle if she went there directly, but she knew she would have to get used to the Australian heat sooner or later.

Twenty-six hours, she thought, looking around at the angular buildings of the city. She wasn't far from the spaceport; every few minutes, the bone-deep thrummm of some transport shuttle taking off could be felt, now that she was outside. Twenty-six, and I'll be living the life I need. Praying every step of the way for success. God… how am I going to get everything done?

The city looked as banal as her bedroom once had, three years ago. Blissfully ignorant, most of the people around her went about their business with mindless happiness, or at least a facsimile of content. Hundreds of millions of people. Billions and trillions who didn't know the horrors lying ahead.

No. I don't have time to wander. I have to prepare. Languid steps turning to purposeful strides, Ia headed up the street and turned right at the corner. She could have called for a hover cab, but physical exercise was as much preparation as anything mental. She had a lot of mental preparation left to do.

The moment she entered the salle several minutes later, she headed straight for the water fountain. Drinking water was a must on such a hot day. Only after her thirst was satisfied did she hear the sounds of bodies hitting mats in the training rooms off to the right. Some of the monks were giving lessons. Or maybe just practicing against each other, given the lack of vocal instructions. To her left, the chapel was an island of quiet.

What she wanted to do was retreat to the chapel and stay there, where no one could touch her. Where she had nothing to fear regarding unwanted visions of nonessential futures. What she knew she had to do was join the monks in their practices, to train her body and her mind to work together.

A few minutes in the chapel, first. Then I'll join them, she decided. Taking another mouthful of water, she left the fountain and headed for the domed hall. Like most Afaso chapels, it was based on the Unigalactan faith, which had sprung up after Terrans had reached out to the stars and found similar beliefs among the other races. Beliefs in some sort of divine Creator, beliefs in being good and kind toward one another, and the underlying tenets of wisdom stored and revered by each sentient race.

Promoted as an adjunct to every faith, The Book of the Wise had been at first reluctantly examined by the leaders of various religions. Philosophers and theologians had argued and debated every point being made, but could not deny that many of the words of their own holy texts were repeated in the wisdom of other beliefs. Now the Unigalactans were everywhere, promoting peace and understanding.

It was true that many practitioners of a specific faith tried to proselytize that theirs was the only true faith, and attempted constantly to argue that other beliefs were utterly wrong—including the chosen faith for about half the colonists who had settled on her own homeworld. In turn, the Unigalactans had always responded with the words of wisdom culled from their opponents' very own texts, countering such arguments.

It was very hard to maintain a religious war against people who agreed with the core tenets of one's faith.

Not that it doesn't stop the Church of the One True God, back home, she acknowledged, passing the padded pews edging the room. Her goal was one of the large floor cushions arranged around the hologram slowly rotating in the center under that beautifully arched dome. The isolation of being on the backside of inhabitable space, coupled with the difficulties of lightworlders visiting such a heavy-gravitied planet make it an ideal breeding ground for fanaticism to flourish without day-to-day disruption from the saner elements of overall society.

Sinking cross-legged onto the cushion, she didn't look up at the rotating stars of the spiral galaxy overhead. Instead, she propped her elbows on her knees and slouched her chin into her hands. Thinking of home, I should take a look at how things are going back there.

Closing her eyes, Ia turned her thoughts inward, then out, like a gymnast flipping around a bar. She had always been able to see glimpses of the future, and sometimes even peek into the past, but as a young child, the ability had been sporadic and rarely under her control. But once she had understood that she was seeing the future, her younger self had struggled to control her psychic abilities. She had even sought instruction, what little there was of it on her far-flung, backwater, recently settled homeworld.

The clergy of the Witan Order—who, like the Afaso, were affiliated with the Unigalactan movement—had done their best to train her, since the Witan were one of the duly registered institutions for psychic instruction in the Alliance, as well as being a religious order. The PsiLeague was more popular, more funded, and more capable, but they hadn't made it to Sanctuary yet, mainly because of the heavy gravity problem.

That had been a lucky break for her; Ia had already seen what would happen to her carefully laid plans if the League found out what she could do. At least, if they found out any time soon. Being clergy, the Witan had sworn to keep her abilities a secret at her request, and they had kept their word.

But their training had only gone so far. For most of her other abilities, yes, they could and had helped her greatly. For this… no one could do what she could do. Not to her extent. Her precognition had remained mostly untrained until that fate-filled morning when she was fifteen. Now, flipping her mind in and out, she climbed out of the timestream of her own life, hauling herself onto the grassy bank of existence. Willpower and concentration were all she needed now.

The timeplains shifted under her feet, then stilled. Dropping to her knees, Ia peered into the waters of four streams. The first stream belonged to her biomother, Amelia Quentin-Jones. Ia only skimmed the surface of the water; she could have immersed herself in her mother's future, living it as if inside her mother's head like a silent observer, but she didn't need to do that. Instead, she watched her mother working in the kitchen of their restaurant, cooking for the hardworking colonists who didn't want to bother with fixing their own meals at the end of each day, struggling to carve a home for themselves on a too-heavy, slightly inhospitable world.

She watched as the curly-haired woman smiled and chatted, serving up dishes filled with meat, vegetables, and the ubiquitous Sanctuarian topado, aqua blue and vaguely potato-like, but far more tasty. There would be some dark looks sent toward the shop, but Amelia herself wouldn't receive them. Not in the near future, at any rate.

Mom will be fine… so let's see about Ma. Switching her attention to the next flow of life, Ia watched her mother's wife, Aurelia Jones-Quentin, smiling with too many teeth at certain of her neighbors. Ia smiled, too, albeit with more humor. And there she goes, being polite when she doesn't want to be polite. It'll get her in trouble if she's not careful. The Church's members are slowly moving into our neighborhood, infiltrating business districts and taking over council positions. But she's always polite. Always finds the right way to tell someone to go to hell and still be socially acceptable in language and demeanor.

Bu… I can't see any trouble she'll get into in the next year. That's good. Thorne is next. Her half-twin, as she liked to think of him. They had the same father, of course, and had even been born half an hour apart, though Thorne had been born to Aurelia and herself to Amelia. There he is… ah, great. Getting into a fight on the school grounds in a few days' time. A pity he couldn't just take the scholastic tests and graduate early like I did, but then he doesn't have the advantages I had.

At least this fight isn't his fault, and I can foresee him handling it carefully, so he doesn't hurt the other kid. And the year's almost over. Two more local months, and he can move on to business college. Most of it on the Nets, since Sanctuary is still so small. He'll need to know how to run a business, if he's going to be the anchor-stone for Rabbit's underground revolt against the Church.

Fyfer… She sighed mentally as she turned her attention to her younger brother. Fyfer was still young, four years younger than Thorne and her. He was her half brother, since they shared the same mother, but not the same father. Amelia, wanting another child and having Aurelia's permission to beget one, had dallied with an entertainer visiting from Parker's World, an equally new, equally heavy-gravitied colony. Fyfer had inherited his father's dark hair, good looks, and charm. Front-man to Thorne's bedrock support. I'd warn him about the fights he's going to get into… except I can see that they'll teach him how to use his tongue rather than his fists to get out of conflicts. Rabbit will need his charisma in the years to come.

A shift of her knees, a sway of her body, and she leaned over the other girl's life-stream to make sure she would be all right. Rabbit was five years older than Thorne and Ia, and already she had gotten into trouble with the law. Nothing warranting a severe punishment, but the petite girl had a habit of exploring places the government and her high-ranked, Church-fanatic parents didn't think she should. Like the caves under the capital city, where the Space Force had dug bunkers for the brand-new settlement just a couple decades ago, back when the Terrans and the Dlmvla had briefly gone to war. Rabbit's predilection for amateur spelunking would serve Ia well in the years to come, as would her keen insight into what was going wrong in the local government.

Her parents were members of the Church, on Sanctuary, but Rabbit didn't subscribe to their beliefs. It would cause conflicts in the future, but Rabbit would be well-placed to hear of the Church's xenophobic plans toward the few non-Human settlers on the planet. Well-placed to warn them to get off-world before it was too late. Well-placed to sort out the nonbelievers from the believers when the Church decided to go to war against the other half of the planet.

There's that incident at the subway station she has to watch out for, but . . . yes, in the most probable time-path, she does reread my notes to her in advance, instructing her on what to do and what not to do at that moment in time. Satisfied, Ia rocked back on her heels, letting the wind of the timeplains play with her hair. I took great pains to convince them of what to do, and when to do it. The time for action isn't now. But it will be, soon enough. I have faith they'll be able to carry out what needs to be done to protect and preserve our world for the Future.

It was a mantra she kept repeating to herself, to stave off her doubts. She didn't have the energy to spare for those doubts, not when her own tasks would take up most of her time and attention. Dropping out of school and passing her scholastic tests early had given her some of the time she needed to prepare for the future. The rest of it, she would have to handle on the run.

So. Back home, everything is fine. I guess I should go work on my battlecognition with the monks, if they're not too busy. Unfolding her body, she rose and stretched, filling her lungs as she refilled her senses with the here and now. Thank you, Grandmaster, for believing me, and for believing in me… and for spreading the word to all the chapters of your Order. Without the Afaso, my goal would literally be impossible. No one else can train the Savior, and I need you to do what I myself cannot.

Then again, when I put my mind to it, I can be pretty damn convincing. At least, to a fellow being of faith. I have a plan for convincing the Command Staff, bu…. well, they're a tougher and far more skeptical lot. Everything she had to do, everything she needed to remember, she had to keep reminding herself about it. Too many lives could be jeopardized, if she forgot.

Leaving the chapel, she crossed to the teaching hall, the actual "salle" of the facility, pausing only for another mouthful of water from the fountain. Despite the air-conditioned temperature keeping the interior comfortably cool, the three men and one woman sparring on the padded mats were sweating from their workout. Clad in the batik-printed tank shirts and loose trousers the Afaso Order had adopted for its humanoid members' uniform, they whirled and struck, kicked and flipped. Dodging, ducking, grappling, and punching at each other, they didn't stick to just one partner, but actually flung their opponents whenever possible at the other sparring pair.

They moved quite fast, but her eyes were used to things falling at three times the gravitational pull of the Motherworld. She knew she wasn't as good at fighting as they were, but she was fast, and she had undertaken some of their training. Originally, her instructors had been costly hologram programs and her sparring partner her slightly older brother, Thorne, but for the last month, she had been a guest of the Grandmaster of the Afaso Order and had thus gained some practical experience with real teachers. She had even sparred with these particular Afaso yesterday, while waiting for her eighteenth birthday and the opportunity to join the military as a full, legal adult.

So when Sister Na'an threw Brother Tucker at her, Ia reacted as she had been taught. Her arms flung up to ward off his blows as he tumbled, straightened, and swung at her. Her knee shifted up to block his kick, and her heel slammed down, following the movement of his leg as he tried to protect his foot. And her body twisted under the arms that tried to flip her onto her back, locking their upper limbs together, thanks to the fingers he hooked into her blue flowered blouse.

Even as he let go of her shirt, she grabbed the back of his trousers, lifting and flinging him back toward the tanned, Indonesia Province woman… only to find Brothers Charles and T!ongun leaping her way. Her grey slacks weren't cut with the same level of give as their bright red and yellow batiks, but she managed to avoid or block most of their incoming blows. No one used their full strength, and Ia took particular care not to strike anyone hard enough to bruise; their flesh literally wasn't as heavyworlder-dense as hers.

It also helped that her gift didn't trigger involuntarily. No flashes of their pasts, no glimpses of their futures, and no involuntarily dragging any of them onto the timeplains with her. She did focus just enough of her abilities on trying to accurately guess where each blow was coming next, and get her own limbs into position to dodge or block where appropriate, but keeping track of four opponents in a free-for-all melee wasn't easy. Sweat sheened her skin and stained the air, competing with the ventilation ducts trying to keep the air fresh as well as cool.

The scrimmage ended when Na'an slipped a blow past her defenses, smacking her fist into Ia's jaw hard enough to spin the heavyworlder around. It wasn't the blow, per se, so much as the gasp from the doorway that broke up their fight. The first of the afternoon's students had arrived, a young girl with wide blue eyes. She watched them with avid curiosity as the Afaso broke apart, bowing to each other in thanks for the practice, then moved into the salle when another student poked the girl in the back, urging her to move out of the doorway.

Na'an paused to check Ia's chin, then patted her on the shoulder. "You'll be fine, meioa-e. Do you want to join us in teaching the students?"

"I really shouldn't. I'm only a Full Master, not a Senior Master," Ia demurred. She didn't add that she didn't want to foresee the potential-possible futures of the school-aged youths now entering the room.

"The Grandmaster said you needed to practice more against unanticipated blows," Sister Na'an pointed out. "And there's nothing so unexpected as the raw attacks of a young, half-trained student. You have enough control to work with children. I think it'll do you good."

I don't want to! part of her mind protested. But duty poked at her conscience. A quick probe of her near future, more instinct than inner sight, proved that nothing she did here—provided it wasn't outlandish or unusual—would affect the timestreams adversely. Sighing, Ia nodded. "Alright. I'll be their sparring partner. But I still don't think I'm qualified to be a teacher. Not yet."

"Teachers are made, not born," Na'an countered, clapping her on the shoulder before giving the younger woman a push toward the changing rooms. "Go change into a spare set of batiks. They'll be more comfortable than those civilian clothes."

Those civilian clothes… For a moment, the view of the crisp, clean, uncluttered lines of the salle slowly filling with students were replaced by the shadowed, cluttered depths of a bar crammed with off-duty Service personnel. For a moment, Ia could see her reflection in the mirror on one of the walls, her long white hair cropped short, her blue and grey clothes replaced by a bloodred dress that bared her shoulders. Laughter and the chatter of scores of soldiers sharing stories and bragging rights filled her ears, including some comment about how she herself looked in her civilian clothes, but all she could focus on were her own eyes, wide and yet shuttered with the knowledge of things she hadn't done yet.

Someone clapped her on the shoulder in her vision, startling her back out of it. Grounded back in the present, the younger Ia headed for the women's locker room, blinking off her visit to the future. Most of the time, she could control such trips, but not always. Sometimes all it took was an echo of another point in time, a moment of déjà vu, to disorient her in the here and now.

I have to get better at handling those. I literally cannot afford to be caught with my attention muddled by Time itself. This entire galaxy can't afford to catch me with my psychic pants down. A glance at the chrono on the wall as she passed it reminded her that Time was not entirely on her side. Forty-one more hours to go. These are the last hours of my freedom, yet I don't have enough time to truly enjoy them.

I don't think I ever will, from now on.

And she didn't dare change it.


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