“Did you find out more about where exactly they keep the Seer, Caya Lindemay?” the tall woman the participants in the meeting referred to as Number One asked.
“In luxury.” A baldheaded man, Number Five, spat the words. “At the presidential level on cube one. All her meals are carried to her from a caterer on cube six.”
“Luxury? A prison is still a prison,” a woman, Number Eleven, stated dryly.
“In protective custody,” the bald man said and flicked his chubby hand in the air. “The president is quite taken with her, or so the rumors have it.”
“What do you mean, taken with her? A young woman with flaming red hair and freckled skin looked wide-eyed at the other twenty-one men and women around the table.
“Number Twenty,” Number One said to her reproachfully. “We’ve known for months now about the two changers that snuck aboard Pathfinder. One is the woman we’re talking about, Caya Lindemay, who is in protective custody. The other is her older sister, Briar, who is not incarcerated for some unfathomable reason and is working at the hospital on cube eleven.”
“That’s not the whole truth about Briar Lindemay,” another woman, Number Eight, said. “She’s also known as Red Angel. This is why we haven’t approached her. Everyone aboard reveres and loves her for her empathic abilities. Untouchable.”
“What about the Seer? The one in custody?” Number Twenty asked. “Can she be obtained?”
Number Two snorted. “Not likely. She has President Tylio’s ear and sources claim they spend a lot of time together, which Tylio’s schedule lists as ‘counseling.’ This is one of the most dangerous parts of this whole mess. Tylio is perilously influenced by her.”
The people around the table looked suitably dismayed.
The door opened and a woman stepped inside. They all stood immediately and greeted her with reverent nods.
“Sir,” Number One said politely. “We weren’t expecting you.”
The woman, their ultimate leader, referred to only as Grand Superior and the reason they were there in the first place, strode up to the empty chair next to Number One. “Sit. I just met with the president, and I have some disturbing news. Her cabinet of ministers and military advisors is ready to pass and enforce a law that will make it virtually impossible to move around freely aboard Pathfinder without being detected by their new and extensive surveillance. “
“Is she insane?” Number Eleven whispered. “Wasn’t this one of the reasons for leaving Oconodos? To get away from the micromanaged society with surveillance at every intersection?”
The Grand Superior nodded solemnly. “That’s actually one road we can take, among all our planned strategic attacks. We can spread the word and emphasize how Tylio is monitoring her people as if we are all criminals. How it interferes with our right to privacy, our integrity is under siege, that sort of thing. It will infuriate the Oconodian and Gemosian people, especially our young ones.”
“Our network is growing and I have formed four subunits, sleeper cells if you wish, who are ready to do their best for us.” Number One smiled. “Before you give the go-ahead, sir, we need to find a way to hatch a viable plan to free the Seer. Until she’s in our midst, Tylio will have the upper hand.” She pulled up a large floating screen in the center of the oval table. “As our group consists of experts at plotting countermeasures as well as planning attacks, I need you all to work out ways to make this happen.”
“Yes, Number One,” the cell members said in unison.
The Grand Superior smiled thinly. “Good. Excellent.”
Number Two and Number Eleven stood and began outlining their next attack. No doubt, the young changer would envision something about this and report it to Tylio. This was all right, since the closest cells would be there waiting.
Before long, Number One would make sure Tylio’s administration had to accept the new order.
“Madam President?” A male voice interrupted President Gassinthea Mila Tylio’s thoughts where she sat at her
desk in her office. Around her, the ten large screens showing all sides of the vast spaceship Pathfinder gave the illusion of viewports. Pathfinder consisted of twenty-one cubes, each holding approximately 100,000 individuals on their way to their new homeplanet, P-105.
“Yes, Commander?” Thea said and leaned back in her chair.
“We have to leave for the ceremony in half an hour, but…once again we cannot persuade Caya Lindemay to follow your orders.”
Of course. Thea sighed inwardly but merely nodded to the burly man in the doorway. It was rather ironic that a man his size and with his commanding presence couldn’t make a petite young girl join in the awaiting festivities. “I’ll talk to her.”
“Thank you, sir. And as I said, we need to leave in thirty.”
“I hear you, Commander.” Thea stood and adjusted her ceremonial robe. “I’ll see you at the presidential jumper. Dismissed.”
The commander looked quite relieved that Thea would approach Caya herself and strode down the corridor toward the gate where they would board the presidential jumper car ready to take them to the park area. The jumpers consisted of a multitude of huge cylinders crisscrossing the twenty-one cubes, transporting people where they needed to go. The presidential ones were fortified to sustain anything but a black-garnet attack, or so the specs claimed.
Thea left her office and locked the door with her security code and retinal scan. She hurried to the far end of the corridor, where her presidential suite was located next to her main cabinet members’ quarters. She had stopped in front of a door and raised her hand to the chime, when she had to stop and take a deep breath. Caya Lindemay had been under house arrest in the luxurious guest quarters for more than six months. She could leave them only while escorted by the presidential guards, which didn’t sit well with the young changer. Their discussions regarding this matter had grown increasingly heated.
The door hissed open, and Thea stood eye to eye with the apparition that was Caya. Slender, ethereal, and with her waist-long blond hair flowing around her shoulders as if it were weightless, she scanned Thea very carefully with transparent turquoise eyes.
“I see you’re off to the naming ceremony. Have fun.” Caya stood with her hands on her hips. “If you’re here for a security update, I can tell you I don’t see any malicious intent happening there.” She turned to leave and the door began to slide shut, but Thea put her hand out, which triggered the sensors and reopened it. To her surprise, Caya had instantly turned around and pressed a hand on the sensor. If Thea didn’t know any better, she’d have sworn Caya had reacted with instinctive protectiveness.
“I want you to join me. Us.” Thea inspected Caya’s clothes. “You don’t even have to change.” Caya was dressed in a white-embroidered light-blue caftan over white slacks.
“Letting me out for good behavior? That can’t be right. I’m barely able to be civil to you these days. So why?” Caya tilted her head. “Let me see. I don’t have my sister’s knack for clairvoyance, but I can bet you want me there to smooth the waves. Try to show me off as a harmless little girl and make the Oconodians and Gemosians see that I’m not going to burst into flames or throw plasma spheres at them. Or—oh yes—or you think my being there will take the brunt of everyone’s speculations about what happened between you and Hadler, your lovely ex-spouse.”
Thea flinched. She couldn’t stop it. The mention of her former husband who had made her private life a living hell for so many years, said with such spite by the young woman before her, was like a blow to her midsection.
“Thea.” Suddenly pale, Caya lowered her hands to her side. She looked very young and also tremendously tired at the same time. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for, no matter what.” The huskiness of her voice showed how the stress and sorrow over the long incarceration was taking a toll on her.
“I suppose you assume I deserve whatever harsh words you fling at me.” Thea’s back was rigid now; she was trembling and could only hope her lifelong training made her reaction invisible. She had aimed for greatness from the age of ten, when her father saw her potential as a leader. This ambition had taken her on different paths, some rewarding, some heartbreaking. And some of the heartbreak had seemed to happen over time, like fate had chipped away at her soul little by little until one day she would wake up and find most of it gone.
“No.” Caya sighed and ran a hand over her face. “That’s a lie. I do have moments when I think you deserve horrible things for keeping me locked up in this…this golden cage. I’m going crazy in here. Yes, Briar comes by almost every day. As does Adina. Since they became officially betrothed, at least I don’t have to worry so much for Briar. Meija and Korrian visit too. And some of the Vantressa family when they can sneak past their megalomaniac matriarch. How she can be Adina’s mother, I don’t know. So I’m not lonely that way.”
“But you’re still a prisoner.”
“And I did nothing wrong!” Caya held out her hand, anguish now written over her face. “You—you say you keep me here because threats have been made and it’s for my own safety, but, please. Please, Thea. Madam President. I can take care of myself and—”
“No. Don’t ask me. I will not be responsible for any changer-hating individual taking your life.” Stirrings of sheer nausea at the thought of anyone snuffing out this precious girl’s existence due to stupid fear made Thea sound harsher than she intended.
“All right.” Going very still, Caya closed her hands into tight fists. “Will my sister be there?”
“Yes. She and all your friends are invited to the presidential box.”
Caya nodded slowly. “Fine. I’ll come. At least I’ll see other people for a bit. Perhaps I’ll get some readings on something useful as well. Who knows?” She stepped into the corridor and the door closed behind her. “What? No guards?”
“The corridor is monitored remotely. They’re only seconds away.” Thea knew she had said Caya could join the naming ceremony as she was, but her hair needed tying back. “You need a hair ribbon.”
“Oh, right. Wait.” Caya pushed her hand into a deep pocket and pulled out a long, dark-blue silk one.
Thea took it from her and motioned for Caya to turn around. She pulled the blond masses of hair back and arranged them into a low ponytail. As she tied the ribbon securely, her fingers tingled at the feeling of the silky strands. A surprisingly spicy scent emanated from Caya’s hair, and this together with her otherworldly beauty made Thea yank her hands back before she dug her fingers deep into the golden treasure.
“There. Good to go.” Thea motioned for Caya to follow as she strode toward the presidential jumper gate.
The guards knew better than to react openly to Caya’s presence. They merely saluted their president and treated Caya like she wasn’t there. As they took their seats, joined by four of the most seasoned presidential guards, Thea had to exhale in relief. She hadn’t enjoyed pulling rank or being subjected to such resentment, but having Caya come with her was yet another step in the right direction. If Caya, as well as her sister Briar, were to have any kind of normal existence when they reached their new homeplanet, the people needed to see them for what they were. Changers, yes. The sisters possessed the mutation that gave them extraordinary powers, but in their case they were harmless to others. Nothing about them was violent or malicious. Instead, they had saved lives and would continue to do so if allowed.
Briar Lindemay was revered already. She was Red Angel, a moniker ordinary people had given her when they knew her as a nurse ready to risk her life for her patients and possessing a level of empathy for them that superseded anything they’d ever known. She was untouchable. They regarded her younger sister Caya, however, as a stowaway changer, which in part was true, but it also meant they feared she hadn’t showed her true self with her full arsenal of powers. The Oconodian people had grown up fearing the violent changers: the ones that spewed fire, threw plasma spheres, altered people’s minds, hypnotized, and created explosions with their powerful minds. Oconodos had eventually become a society ridden with fear and demonstrations, and when the last few years before the Exodus operation to leave the planet to find a new home had commenced, Thea had been forced to issue martial law.
Remembering how she had felt when it turned out the young woman she’d come to take quite an interest in was a changer, Thea closed her eyes briefly. Caya had gone into convulsions during a presidential ball, right there on the dance floor, and foreseen Hadler Tylio’s death in a terror event. Thea had wanted to remove herself from the ballroom and distance herself from the writhing young woman, but she hadn’t been able to move. Instead she had knelt next to Caya and kept her safe until her sister reached them. When it turned out Briar was also a carrier of the changer gene and every bit as powerful as her sister, Thea knew she had reached the point of her presidency that would define her as a person and politician forever.
The jumper stopped, and the loud background noise of excited people slammed into them when the doors opened. Thea stood and followed two of her guards. The others moved in, two steps behind Caya. As they entered the lane leading to the presidential box at the large park area at the center of cube one, Thea felt the usual pull at how beautiful it was. The engineers and botanists had created a real park with actual vegetation and grass. At the center stood a semicircular stage that Thea would soon enter to announce the name of their new homeworld. Protective transparent shields would keep her safe from potential terrorists, but she wasn’t worried about herself. Caya was the true target. Her intelligence officers had confirmed that the chatter among the population hinted that most of them feared her and her abilities.
“How many people have gathered here?” Caya spoke quietly.
“Last estimate, 110,000 including the official cube representatives from the different enclaves. Thea cast a glance forward. “Look. There’s your sister with Adina and Admiral Heigel and her spouse.”
“Meija.” It looked like Caya might forget herself and rush forward to greet her sister and their friends, but she dug her teeth into her lower lip and remained between the guards. “It’s been too long.”
“We’ve all been insanely busy after that last attack. Not finding the culprits in a timely manner—”
“If you’re going to use this moment to twist my arm, I might as well go back.” Caya’s light, transparent eyes fired off lightning bolts. “I can’t force images to appear. How many times…”
“That wasn’t my intention at all. Come on. Let’s join your sister before she leaps over the railing and drags us in.”
As they entered the box, the presidential march played, and the gathered Oconodians and Gemosians stood and sang the ancient lyrics.
Along the path where hills turn into mountains,
Where brooks grow into rivers
And raise the mighty seas,
I dream about the plains of Galamanor
And the colors of the skies
Above the purple beetles’ trees.
As always, the song made Thea momentarily homesick. Yes, for her entire life, the threat of growing numbers of hostile changers had cast its shadow over the Oconodian homeworld, but no other planet could possibly be as devastatingly beautiful. Not to mention how brave its people were. Most of them had never even contemplated entering a spaceship. The military or freighter crews were usually the only ones who traveled in outer space.
Thea continued up onto the stage, where Interim President Bymento of the Gemosians and his wife, Dalanja, met her. He was a sparsely built man, low-key in the way he spoke and carried himself, while Dalanja was exuberant and glamorous. Thea had learned over time that the president’s soft-spoken manners hid an iron will and a brilliant intellect, and his wife was not shallow at all, but sweet and loyal to a fault.
“Mr. President. Mrs. Bymento.”
“Madam President.” The Bymentos greeted her, he cordial and correct, she with obvious warmth. “This is a great day.”
“It is.” Thea motioned to the conductor of the orchestra, and the musicians began to play the Gemosian anthem. Thea hummed along in the ancient Gemosian tongue, as did the vast crowd below the stage. When she glanced at the couple next to her, she saw how Bymento’s features had softened and Dalanja had tears leaking from the corners of her eyes.
“Thank you,” Bymento murmured as the music ended. “I did not expect that.”
“Sir. We’re one people now.” Thea allowed her eyes to fall upon Caya, where she sat with her sister Briar’s arm around her shoulders and Meija Solimar on her other side. The social anthropologist simply patted Caya’s knee and then smiled up at Thea, who could have sworn Meija winked at her.
Thea pulled her self together and, after a deep breath, stepped up to the sound system. “My fellow Oconodians. My friends, the Gemosians. This is a very special day. It’s not a mere naming ceremony, even if it is important what we will call our future home from now on, but in fact, this is the official day when we merge our two people. We will no longer be known as merely Oconodians or Gemosians. As we continue on our journey toward our new homeworld, where we will be met by the advance team that is working so diligently to receive all 2,100, 000 of us, we will do so as one. If and when we face adversaries, we will meet and combat them as one nation. When we reap the fruits of what we sow, we will enjoy them as one. The Oconodians will not be superior because we were originally in the vast majority. Nor will the opposite be said of the Gemosians. From now on, there is no ‘them.’ There is only ‘us.’ We are capable of so much more when we work together side by side.”
Thea looked at her colleague to the left of her. “President Bymento has shown great leadership skills, and until we can hold the first democratic voting procedure on our new homeplanet, he has agreed to act as our vice president.” She held her breath now, waiting for protests to erupt among the Gemosians. When that didn’t happen, she almost lost her train of thought.
“Now the moment has come to reveal the name suggestion that sixty-five percent of you voted for. P-105 will from now on be called Gemocon!”
The park area erupted in cheers, and people stomped and clapped so hard, Thea feared this sound might affect Pathfinder’s course. She smiled, relieved and with a sense of accomplishment, as she had dreaded their respective people would hate the merger of Gemosis and Oconodos. As it turned out, people really did like the name. A new calmness flooded her, and she laughed out loud until her eyes met Caya’s. Then Caya nodded where she sat, still with her head on Briar’s shoulder. Why this gesture made Thea finally relax fully, she wasn’t sure, but if Caya had hated the name, she wouldn’t have been able to.
As the ceremony continued with performances by dancers, singers, and actors, Thea returned to the president’s box with the Bymentos. She sat down just in front of Caya, which she didn’t like at all. Thea wanted to watch her young clairvoyant changer, make sure she didn’t do anything to set off alarms or alert the guards. Instead, she had to sit there, straight and in control, when her entire being was wrapped up in Caya’s scent.
Afraid Briar might inadvertently read her thoughts, Thea used some meditation techniques to empty her mind of thoughts of Caya. She knew Briar, the Red Angel oracle, did not invade someone’s thoughts if she could help it, but she was still perfecting her gift and might stumble into someone’s personal contemplations without meaning to. Thea could not risk Briar discovering just how much time during her waking as well as sleeping hours she had Caya on her mind.
Caya sat among the people she loved, watching President Tylio give her speech, followed by the Gemosian interim president Bymento’s. He addressed mainly the Gemosian but made sure everyone knew he was pleased to assume the office of vice president.
“His wife is actually quite lovely,” Adina said. “She comes off as trendy and glamorous, but when I talked to her at the presidential dinner, she was so much more than that.”
“I know,” Briar replied. “She came to see me for a few sessions, and as it was her initiative, I figured I might learn from the experience. I mean, until then, I hadn’t had any one-on-one meetings where I’ve tried to use my gift.”
“I know you can’t say what you talked about, but was she pleased?” Caya hugged her sister’s arm against her, eager to get as much closeness while out in public as possible.
“She was. We’ve had more sessions and I’ve learned a lot.” Briar looked down at Caya, who easily spotted the sorrow in her eyes. “It’s so good to be out here with you and Adina and our friends. I just hate—”
“Shh.” Caya placed a finger on Briar’s lips. “We know I have to go back after this is over. I’m doing all right in those quarters. You know.”
“I know. I don’t worry for your physical wellbeing. I fear for your mind. You must miss everyone when we cannot visit.”
“I do.” What Caya didn’t tell her sister was how frustrated she was, how angry and upset and filled with resentment for being held captive by the woman on the podium. Gassinthea Mila Tylio, who insisted they should be on a first-name basis, hadn’t budged when it came to Caya’s incarceration. Yes, her friends and family could visit as much as she and they wanted, and the Creators knew that the president came by at least every other day. Caya also knew she could page Thea on her private communicator at any given time if she had a vision of some impending doom. That, somehow, didn’t make Caya feel any better.
Thea went up to the sound system again and waited until the applause after Bymento’s speech died out. Caya regarded her with that strange emotion she had felt ever since she first met Thea. Adina, her sister-in-law, had been hospitalized after a severe red-garnet burn, and together with Briar, she had saved the entire neonatal ward at the hospital and potentially more than that. Caya had visited Adina together with her sister Briar when Thea and her entourage entered the hospital room. Something had happened then that defied everything Caya had ever hoped to experience. Thea had commented on what she called Caya’s unusual eye color. Caya never knew until then that she and her sister’s eyes held the rarest transparent turquoise hue. Thea had seemed mesmerized then, and Caya had caught her getting lost while looking at her on several occasions. She knew Briar had picked up on it, but apart from looking mystified, she hadn’t commented.
Now, Thea locked her gaze on Caya, again, and began to speak.
“Pathfinder has passed its half-journey mark. According to Admiral Korrian’s calculations, we have traveled past the buoy put in place by the advance team that came here two years ago. They of course traveled much faster than we do and reached Gemocon in a little more than a year. If all goes well during our second half, we’ll be there in about four hundred days. The advance team is working hard mapping out the territory where we’ll set down our cubes when the time comes. Admiral Caydoc, the woman who lent her name to this park area, sends me constant updates via the buoys they left like breadcrumbs for us to follow. The latest message also showed some footage—we have yet to receive live films—and we’re happy to be able to show you. Can we project the photos, please?”
A large screen lowered from the tall, sky-like ceiling. As soon as it clicked into place, photos of the advance team began to appear. Caya looked wide-eyed at pictures of machines digging, people pulling wires and other equipment. Far away, she saw tall, snowy mountains and, at the foot of them, bright-green woods. The possibility of feeling solid ground beneath her feet in the near future made her tremble. Then reality caught up with her and she stood so fast, Briar fell away from her and onto Adina, who barely caught her.
“Caya?” Briar frowned and struggled to get to her feet.
“No. You stay. I’ll—I need to go back to my quarters. My prison. You stay here and enjoy your freedom and the wonderful prospects all the advance team’s hard labor has to offer a free person.” Caya pivoted and signaled to the presidential guards that she wanted to leave. They looked confused for a moment, but eventually two of them stayed as the other two flanked Caya.
“Please. Just wait until Thea is done up there. She’ll want to—”
“But I don’t. I don’t want to do anything. Yes, she might plan to treat us all to dinner, or some other festive event, but it won’t matter. Once it’s over, you, Adina, Korrian, and Meija will return to your quarters, where you can come and go at your leisure. I, on the other hand, will return to the presidential guest quarters. No fancy dinner or entertainment will change that. I can’t stand it, Briar. Don’t you see?” Caya’s throat hurt, and the idea of being in Thea’s presence as if she were on an equal footing with everyone else made her nauseous.
“I do. I actually do.” Pale now, Briar pulled Caya into a firm embrace. “For a moment, before you shut me out, I did look into the bright light that is your soul, and the solitude there hurt.”
“You read me?” Caya hadn’t thought it was possible for Briar to penetrate her defenses. She rarely let her guard down, but of course, in Thea’s presence, Caya lost her bearings.
“I had to. You scare me when you are this…this vehement. This is not the little sister I recall.”
Caya wondered if Briar was being deliberately obtuse. “Back then, I wasn’t incarcerated. Well, at least not to this degree.”
“And you’re not incarcerated now.” Thea’s sonorous voice made them all jump. “You’re in protective custody.”
Less affected by Thea’s commanding presence than the others, Caya placed her hands on her hips again. “Of course. It’s all for my own good. Why can’t anybody here get it into their heads that if something horrible were to happen to me, I would sense it ahead of time and be able to avoid it?” To Caya’s dismay, her lower lip began to tremble, and she pinched her midsection hard on either side to keep from making a fool of herself by showing vulnerability in public.
“She does have a point, Caya,” Meija Solimar said, her gentle voice pensive. “Perhaps your gift doesn’t work so well when it comes to your own safety? So far, your predictions have always been about other people. Even the despicable Had—oh. I am very sorry, Madam President.”
Caya knew Meija had almost spoken the president’s ex-husband’s name out loud in her presence. Glancing carefully at Thea, she saw Meija didn’t have anything to fear for her faux pas.
Thea smiled wryly. “Even the despicable Hadler. Yes, Caya. Meija does have a point as well. Perhaps your gift extends to your own safety as well, but for now, my ruling stands. That said, I think Briar and Adina would be heartbroken if you didn’t join us for dinner. I have arranged for something out of the ordinary. We’re going to have our meal at one of the places aboard Pathfinder very few people are ever allowed to go. I’d hate for you to miss it.” Holding out her hand, Thea focused her dark-blue eyes on Caya, imploring her. Her blond hair, streaked by white highlights, framed her perfect oval face. Her pink lips kept smiling, but now with a touch of uncertainty and with an onset of nerves that Caya didn’t have to have her sister’s empathic abilities to sense. Curious now, and also reluctant to hurt Briar in any way, or Adina, who had been nothing but majorly wonderful to her and her sister, Caya sighed and nodded. “So much for my grand exit in a huff.”
“Oh, good!” Briar hugged her again, this time hard and rocking back and forth. “I know everything will work out. It has to.”
Caya wasn’t so sure. She walked between Briar and Adina when they left the park, unable to disregard the long looks and whispered comments around her. People knew who she was. She’d been seen with Thea in public many times, and her face had been plastered across the view-screen transmissions many times after she helped save lives when the saboteurs were active.
Thea and the guards took them through to the presidential jumper that carried them to a set of uninhabited corridors. From there, they rode a lift up through several decks and exited into what seemed to be a small, white hallway. There were two doors, and Caya automatically searched her mind, but she received no warning signals from what she had begun to call her ‘inner scanner.” Usually the premonitions started with slight nausea and a strange taste in her mouth. She used to get really sick, faint, and have convulsions sometimes, but nowadays she could calm the strange sensations and focus on the imagery flickering through her mind. Every scene that she felt displayed on the inside of her eyelids was for her to interpret, and the way she had developed this skill amazed even her.
The guards opened the door to the left and stood back to let Thea and her guests in. As they walked inside, Briar gasped and Caya just stared. Around them, in full view as if there were no walls at all, space hurtled by at magnetar-drive speed. Silver streaks around them gave Caya a sense of actually traveling for the first time since she had boarded Pathfinder. Normally, being aboard the massive ship consisting of twenty-one individual cubes felt like being planetside. The artificial gravity and the attention to detail that the ship’s designers had taken made it almost impossible to fathom that she traveled through space. Caya walked closer to the—she wanted to call them windows but realized the walls couldn’t be made of regular glass. “Is it safe to touch?” she asked over her shoulder.
“Absolutely.” Korrian came up to her. “As you may have guessed, this is a rare component, far too expensive to use on any surfaces larger than this. We have twelve lookout quarters such as these scattered around the ship. That way, no matter how we move the cubes around, a couple of them will be turned toward our surrounding space.”
“What’s it made from?” Caya let her fingertips slide across the transparent surface.
“A rather innovative blend of transpar alloy and brace-crystalline. The latter strengthens the alloy and emphasizes its transparency. If you look really closely, you can see the facets of the crystalline-like glitter particles.”
“Your invention?” Caya looked up at the tall, dark-skinned woman who was a revered hero for her role in constructing Pathfinder.
“My invention, but not my idea. Actually, Meija came up with it. She claimed it was vital for some individuals to really grasp that we’re indeed traveling through space. Apparently, some people who aren’t used to space travel at all can’t get a sense of not living in the real world unless they witness the truth themselves.”
“It’s true,” Meija said and wrapped her arm around Caya’s shoulders. “As of now, we’ve had more than eight hundred people visit these lookouts. They need a prescription from a doctor, as this is not a tourist attraction. It’s intended for mental-health issues.”
“Except right now,” Caya said, and glanced at Thea.
“I beg to differ.” Thea motioned for her guests to take a seat around the table. “I needed some peace of mind, and I had been here only once before and thought we might just benefit from it.” She sat down at the other side of the table, straight across from Caya, who wasn’t sure she could manage a single bite if the president was going to scrutinize her like this.
“Well, I’m grateful I was able to see this at least once,” Briar said from Caya’s right. “The food looks amazing. And fresh! Is this all from the hydroponics chambers?”
“It is. We’re starting to see bigger crops finally, and I thought you might like to sample it. Having only food from the dispensers in your quarters can become a bit bland, I’m afraid.” Thea placed a napkin on her lap and gestured toward Korrian to start with the plates on her side. Vegetables, fruits, and roots were so beautifully arranged that Caya’s mouth watered.
“Oh, look! Water berries.” Briar sighed. “I never thought I’d taste those again. Remember the bushes by the brook in our garden back ho—” She blinked and gripped her utensils hard. “I mean, back on Oconodos.” Adina placed a hand on Briar’s hand.
“Even though we just named our new home today, we can still recognize how much we miss our old homeplanet.” Thea spoke softly, her eyes scanning Caya’s again.
“And the ones we left behind,” Caya said. “I can’t stop thinking about what their lives are like now.” A nudge from Briar under the table said “not now, not here,” but Caya was too agitated to play nice. “I know I’m not the only one who agonizes over what the conditions are for them. I mean, I’m sure the regular population doesn’t see all the reports coming through via the beacon system, but even the ones we’re privy to tell of such hardship…” She wiped at a tear, but it escaped her and landed on her plate, blending with the pink dressing. “Orphan changer kids living on the streets…it’s insane.”
“Sweetheart,” Briar said, but stopped when Caya put up her hand, palm toward the others.
“I know. I know. I should pick my moments. The thing is,” and now she locked her gaze on Thea, “I don’t have very many moments to pick. Usually, I dine alone in my quarters, study alone, and when I do spend time with someone, I can tell it’s understood that I must cherish those moments, which clearly means I should keep it light and pleasant and not talk about anything real or important.” She lost her breath after her long sentence and gasped painfully for air.
“You have a point, Caya.” Thea nodded slowly. “We can’t share all the messages from Oconodos. It’s my responsibility to keep everybody aboard safe, whether it is one changer girl or large groups with family members who remained on Oconodos. If people fear that their friends and family left behind are in any way not faring well, we might face uproars, even a mutiny. I’m well aware that there’s an undercurrent of perpetual guilt aboard Pathfinder. If I allow it to run rampant, the entire Exodus operation will be in jeopardy.” Thea pierced a water berry with her fork. “My job is as simple as it is difficult. I need to get you to Gemocon in one piece and, once we arrive, keep the interim government going until we can have new elections.” She lowered her gaze for a moment. “And then I’m free.” She stared at the piece of fruit on her fork. “Anyway, I don’t want you to feel censored in any way when it comes to topics of conversation in your quarters, Caya.”
Caya couldn’t find the words to explain that it wasn’t just about that. Of course she realized her sister and friends might feel inclined to keep their visits bright and cheery for her sake. This tactic tended to backfire, as Caya needed to talk about the injustice she felt was done to her. Some days she even resented Briar for being free to continue with her life and her career, despite being a changer, an empath, and sometimes a mind reader. Briar’s moniker, Red Angel, protected her better than anything else, as she had helped so many people they were ready to airlock anyone who tried to hurt her. Caya didn’t have any following. She wasn’t even sure anyone but the president and her closest family and friends knew of how her ability to see the future could benefit the people on Pathfinder.
“I know,” Caya answered now, trying her best to look polite and reasonable. It took more effort than the others realized to calm the resentment and anger to something manageable. “I am grateful I’m not confined to the brig, after all.” She knew her acerbic comment was too much as soon as it left her lips. Briar looked at her with such sorrow, and Adina pressed her lips into a fine line. Oddly enough, only Thea looked at her with an open and steady gaze.
“I would never allow for you to spend so much as a second in the brig. You’re an asset to this vessel and under my personal protection. I’m prepared to go quite far to stop anyone from exploiting you—or your sister, for that matter.”
Thea’s passionate words startled Caya. She hadn’t heard the president speak like that in a long time. Usually when they were in the same room, Caya kept her distance. She had been an avid admirer of Thea from the moment she first met her. Gushing about her to Briar and Adina, Caya had been ready to give her life to keep the president safe and even protect her from her abusive husband. It hadn’t dawned on her that she’d still be incarcerated at this point and that it would be Thea’s decision all along to keep her locked away from the rest of Pathfinder.
“Caya knows this, Thea,” Briar said quietly. “The thing is, she was cooped up with me for the longest time while I homeschooled her on Oconodos. We were so scared people would find out she was a changer; we were doing…what you’re doing now. Keeping her locked up for her safety.” She turned to Caya, and tears filled her eyes. “You were just coming into your own with friends and the last year of school after boarding Pathfinder. You went jumper-cruising with your friends and you were free. I’m so sorry, sweetheart.” Briar’s voice broke, and she extended her hand.
Caya stood slowly, knowing if she gave in now, if she took Briar’s hand, she would break down and cry…and she feared she might not be able to stop. “I don’t think I can—I mean, I want to go back to my quarters now. I’m just bringing everyone down, when this meal and these surroundings should be a celebration. We finally have a name for the planet that will be our home. You all can’t wait to reach our destination and begin your new life. I’m not as confident as you that I will find it as wonderful or exciting. I may just switch to new quarters to be confined to, for all I know.”
“Caya!” Thea stood also, her shoulders pushed back and with fire in her eyes. “I have never said I’d keep you in protective custody forever. On Gemocon you will most likely be free to carry on with your life and fend for yourself.” She looked furious, which made Caya wonder about her wording in the beginning—“most likely.” It was a far stretch between “most likely” and “absolutely.”
“This discussion is quickly getting old, and it goes on in circles every time without anyone actually listening.” Caya bent and kissed Briar’s cheek and then Adina’s. Glancing briefly at Briar she said, “Thank you for the meal and the view.” She raised her hand in a limp sort of wave and left the lookout with her head high, but with tears burning behind her eyelids.
“Caya…” Briar called out but was interrupted by Adina.
“She’s upset. Give her some time.”
Caya shook her head at the well-meant words. She had all the time in the world, and still her thoughts wouldn’t line up enough for her to be able to think things through logically. Perhaps if she refused to have company for a few weeks she might be able to come up with a plan to make life more tolerable.
More worth living.
“What proof do you have that this intel of yours is factual and not just speculation, Lieutenant?” Thea sat among the ministers and high-ranking officials, her entire focus on the gangly man in the center of the semicircle.
Lieutenant Diobring squared his shoulders and placed his hands behind his back in the customary stance of a soldier briefing a superior officer. “Sir.” He nodded toward Thea. “My team of seven and I have been undercover in disguise for eight weeks. We have covered cubes four, eight, and ten, as some of the law-enforcement officers had heard through reliable sources that something may happen there soon.”
“Did they reveal their reliable sources?” Korrian asked. She sat next to her wife, hands folded before her.
“No, Admiral. Not then. They offered.” Diobring looked seriously at Korrian and then shifted his gaze back to Thea. “I trust my team with my life, but we still thought it prudent to contain information to a need-to-know basis only. I asked Commander Vantressa to construct a non-connected computer for us to use for this type of intel. The team leaders involved with our operation are the only ones who can access the information, and it takes a joined command of at least two of us to access it.”
“I’m glad you approached Commander Vantressa.” Thea knew Adina’s integrity was beyond reproach. She had stood by Caya and Briar throughout the media’s gauntlet and public outcry. Now she was Thea’s most trusted advisor when it came to technological and electronic-engineering issues. “So, in short, you’re of the opinion that several teams of terrorists can be operating aboard Pathfinder?”
“Yes, sir.” Diobring pulled out a small device and used it to switch on a set of twelve holographic lights between him and the men and women around the semicircle. A three-dimensional view of Pathfinder in blueprint mode appeared and pivoted slowly. “Everywhere you spot a small green light on the blueprint represents a sighting. They are not confirmed, but they’re probable. I found this evidence credible enough to bring before you, sir.”
“I see.” Thea rose from her chair in the center of the table and circled it to stand next to Diobring. She bent forward and scrutinized the blueprint. All the cubes were represented, and none of them were without small glowing green dots. Thea could see how the green dots congregated in three cubes especially. “Don’t tell me. Cubes four, eight, and ten.”
“Correct, Madam President.”
“And now you want to escalate the surveillance, perhaps even go after these terrorists directly.”
“If we don’t stop them, we won’t reach Gemocon in one piece. That’s my honest opinion, sir.” Diobring clenched his jaw, and it wasn’t hard for Thea to see how he was ready and motivated to stop the ones who’d had caused so much pain and suffering since they left Oconodos.
“I hear you, Lieutenant.” Thea stood silent for a moment while she considered what her next move would be. No matter what, ultimately the responsibility was hers. “Lieutenant. Give us the room and wait in the common area outside my office. I’m going to confer with my advisors and the members of the cabinet. If they agree with me, I’ll need you to accompany me shortly, so stay within earshot.”
Diobring stood at attention. “Aye, sir. I’ll be outside.” He saluted, hand to chin, and then left the room.
“What are your thoughts, Madam President?” Korrian raised an eyebrow at Thea, as if the seasoned admiral couldn’t guess already. “Am I assuming too much when I think you want to run his intel by a certain clairvoyant young woman?”
Glowering at Korrian, Thea nodded briskly. “Very astute, Admiral. We won’t get much better intel than the lieutenant provided. The next step is to give Caya Lindemay a chance to verify—or perhaps even add to Lieutenant Diobring’s facts. She may also advise against it.”
“And no matter what this girl says, will you let her have the last say?” one of the ministers, a frail-looking middle-aged woman, asked.
“I have learned to listen to Caya, yes.” Thea turned slowly and narrowed her eyes deliberately as she challenged the woman to contradict her. “I believe you were in these halls when the Lindemay sisters saved all of us by issuing warnings and, in Briar Lindemay’s case, physically dragging two people to safety while risking her life. Since then, Caya has given us advice several times, which has all been true and thus saved both lives and resources.”
“I still find it disconcerting that you are at the mercy of a changer, Madam President,” the female minister said. To her credit, she sounded sincere, albeit overbearing enough to make Thea grind her teeth.
“Let me reassure you—all of you—that I’m at nobody’s mercy.” Giving them her broadest smile, the one she knew made younger assembly members tremble, Thea accepted her official cloak from her assistant, who knew by now exactly when her boss meant to leave. “I know we have more talking points to address, but let’s do that tomorrow, or perhaps tonight via communication links. Thank you. Leave in heavenly splendor.”
Thea strode out the door, followed by her usual entourage of presidential guards, assistants, and personal secretary. She spotted Lieutenant Diobring at the far end of the corridor and waved for him to join her. He trotted up next to her, about to salute again, but she gestured dismissively.
“No need. We’re on our way to visit a person that I hope will be able to add to your intel. This person is somewhat special, and you might not entirely believe in her methods or in my listening to her, but I ask you to bear with me. Can you do that, Lieutenant?” Thea glanced up at the tall man next to her. He was good-looking and in his late twenties, hardened to some degree by his profession, but also with an honest expression.
“Yes, sir. I try to keep all options open to a degree.”
“Good to know.”
They rode the lift up to the corridor where Thea’s private quarters were located, along with the most prominent ministers’. She stopped outside Caya’s door, which used to be the president’s guest quarters. Now Caya called it a luxurious prison, which wasn’t fair. She wasn’t a prisoner but kept in protective custody, though Thea didn’t know how to convince her of the difference.
“I will enter with Lieutenant Diobring,” Thea informed her guards. “Remain here until we’re done.” She turned to her assistants. “Continue to the workstation at the far end and make sure the computer has transcribed the notes from today’s briefings properly. The last few had serious mistakes.”
“Yes, sir.” The two assistants hurried down the corridor just as Caya’s door opened.
Thea nearly gasped out loud but managed to restrain herself. Caya stood there, dressed all in white silk and lace, her hair billowing around her shoulders and down to the small of her back. A white headband kept it out of her face, which made her disdainful expression all the more readily visible.
“Madam President. What a surprise.” Caya spoke in a low, menacing voice. “And you brought a guest.”
“I did. May we come in?”
Making quite a production of widening her eyes, Caya pressed a hand to her chest. “But of course. These aren’t really my quarters after all. I’m humbled that you deign to pay me a visit after all this time.”
Thea flinched before she managed to stop herself. It was true that she’d kept her distance these last thirty-some days. Wary of Caya’s vitriol, she had been relieved that she didn’t have to call upon Caya for official reasons. Until now.
“Stop it, Caya. That’s enough.” Thea stepped into Caya’s quarters and motioned for Diobring to follow her. The door closed behind them. “This is Lieutenant Diobring. He has some information we need to share with you. His team and others are about to go into a situation blind, and if you can shed some light on any of it, it could save lives.”
“I see.” Suddenly looking tired and older than her twenty years, Caya motioned to the couches by the far wall. “Please, have a seat.” She looked back and forth between Thea and Diobring as they sat down. “Life and death, hmm? Nothing like a bit of pressure to make one’s day interesting.”
Thea understood what Caya meant. To put such a burden on her narrow shoulders was inhumane, to say the least. If Caya hadn’t been as gifted as she was, but instead a normal girl about to start her courses at university, like the rest of her peers, Thea would have gladly used any other means. But now that Caya could do more for their tactical advantage than several covert units combined, Thea couldn’t allow herself to go soft.
Caya sat down on one of the couches, one seat away from Thea. Her transparent, turquoise eyes shifted between Thea and Diobring, their expression guarded and just one degree away from hostile.
After confirming with Thea that he really was meant to brief Caya with the latest intel, Diobring spoke for a good ten minutes. Once he was done, Caya unfolded her arms and turned to Thea. “And what does this have to do with me?”
Thea disregarded Caya’s attitude and spoke matter-of-factly, which was how she knew she would get through to Caya. “You can imagine the damage covert groups could do to individual cubes, not to mention their inhabitants. Of all the scenarios possible, covert operatives are bad, but potential sleeper agents are worse. Is it possible for you to see anything?”
“Excuse me, Madam President,” Diobring said. A frown marred his strong features. “What’s going on here? What is Ms. Lindemay supposed to ‘see’?”
“I can tell that your president has conveniently forgotten to tell you that I’m a clairvoyant changer.” Caya looked expectantly at Diobring. “This is news to you, right?”
“It certainly is.” Diobring’s expression had gone a lot colder. “I didn’t want to believe the rumors of stowaway changers. Are you telling me this girl is one?” He refused to look at Caya.
“She is. As is her sister. You did promise me to keep an open mind. Caya has saved this ship on several occasions, and now I hope she can help us find out more about the hostile plans you have almost uncovered.”
Diobring pressed his lips together and turned back to Caya, clearly uncomfortable. “Very well.”
“Let me try.” Caya sighed and moved a little farther from Thea. She closed her eyes and pressed her palms against her knees. Rubbing slowly back and forth, she hummed just below her breath.
Thea had seen Caya do this several times, but she didn’t think she’d ever seen her look this pale, her complexion transparent as the air around her seemed to sparkle.
“Creator of all things,” Diobring whispered, and Thea shook her head, gesturing for him to be quiet. He nodded absentmindedly, clearly enthralled by what was going on.
“Everything is blue. Dark blue, almost black.” Caya spoke with a low, husky voice, very unlike her normal melodious tone. She opened her eyes, startling Thea, as that normally didn’t happen. “The woman is fragile. White skin, freckled, hair fiery red. She’s wary, afraid, and she has good reason. Something, no, someone, knows she’s not entirely devout. Her life is in danger. She’s not going to survive longer than three days from now unless you take action.” Caya curled up, hugging her knees close to her chest. “She’s in a dark alley. I’m not sure which cube. She’s on her back, half hidden among a set of…barrels, I think. H-her injuries are extensive…oh, Creator…it’s bad. So bad.” Caya’s eyes filled with tears as she turned toward Thea. Dazed, Caya gripped her hand, which made Diobring stand, but Thea stopped him with a short gesture. She held on firmly to Caya’s cold hand.
“Go on,” Thea said quietly.
“Her throat is slit. She’s lying in a large pool of her own blood.” Caya shook now. “And the police and the military surround her now. They begin to move her when—oh, no! No!” Arching her back so violently it had to be a spasm, Caya sobbed furiously, pressing her eyes closed. “Her body…her body was a trap. Thea. Something around her, or underneath, exploded. So much destruction and death. You have to stop them. Save them.” She gasped with each breath. “And save her. If you don’t, there’s no turning back. People will once again blame the changers.”
“Changers are behind this?” Diobring rose, pulling at his communicator.
“Sit down, Lieutenant.” Thea heard the crack in her voice and so did Diobring, who sat down as if she’d whipped his ankle with an energy rod.
Caya sat up straight. Her tears ran all the way down her neck, but her voice was once again fierce. “I don’t think so. I don’t know. It really doesn’t matter at this point if you don’t find this woman and save her. Once they get to her and her secret is out, it’ll be too late.”
“Can you describe her more than red hair and freckles?” Thea slid closer and tried to take Caya’s hand. To her dismay, Caya flinched and pressed her back against the armrest behind her.
“Maybe. She is thin. Very thin, almost emaciated.”
“Wait. Let me record your words.” Thea reached for her bag and pulled out her personal, highly encrypted recorder. While working with the settings, she glanced up briefly at Diobring. “Get your team together again, Lieutenant. Only use the core officers, as we cannot afford to bring anyone not properly vetted.”
“Certainly, Madam President.” Diobring stood and bowed toward Thea and Caya. “I hope we meet again during less ominous circumstances, Ms. Lindemay.” Diobring smiled cautiously and then left the guest quarters. It didn’t escape Thea that Caya had returned his smile. She couldn’t remember when Caya had last reciprocated any of her smiles.
“All right. It’s recording. Please continue.”
Caya tore her longing glance from the door as it closed behind Diobring. “Right. Yes. So, she’s very thin, has shoulder-blade-long, copper-red hair. Her freckles are evenly distributed across her face, neck, and lower arms. As for the rest of her body, I have no idea. In my vision she wore a soft-grey trouser suit with white hems, lining, and lapels. I got the feeling she was dressed quite formally. Perhaps she holds some official capacity?”
That was an astute observation. “Anything else. Lips, teeth, eye color?”
“Brown eyes. Short, straight nose. Narrow, peach-colored lips. Didn’t see the teeth.” Caya rubbed her temples. “Short, well-kept nails.”
“Thank you. That’s a good start. If you have any more visions, regarding this woman or anything or anyone else, please let me know right away.”
“Sure. I’m at your beck and call as always, Madam President,” Caya said, her lips tense. Standing up, she began rounding the table between the couches as if she couldn’t stand to be in close proximity with Thea a single second longer.
“Caya. Please.” Without realizing her intention, Thea gently grabbed Caya’s right wrist.
Caya stopped instantly and glowered down at Thea, who looked up at her with narrow, ice-blue eyes. The woman wielding such power over every single person aboard Pathfinder—including Caya—gazed at her as if she wanted to say something but didn’t know how to begin. This was of course ludicrous, as there was not one single day in the year when Gassinthea Mila Tylio wasn’t the smartest, shrewdest person in the room. She exuded intelligence, and that trait, combined with her brilliant and calculating political prowess, was enough for Caya to know for certain that Thea always held the winning cards in any game.
This didn’t stop Caya’s skin from tingling where Thea held her in a firm but gentle grip.
“Sit back down, Caya. It’s been too long since the naming ceremony.” Thea rubbed her thumb against the back of Caya’s hand. “I know I’m hardly your favorite person at the moment, but I still want to know—”
“What I’m up to? What my days are like? What if I were to tell you I’m going insane, little by little, cooped up in here? Would that matter to you at all?” Caya slowly sat down, close enough for their knees to touch.
Thea leaned closer. “If you were to tell me you’re not faring well here, I would do anything beneath the stars to change that, short of endangering your life.”
“Ah. But of course. Naturally. You’re the judge and jury on that particular topic, right?” Caya pushed back against the much-too-old frustration. Thea had let go of her wrist, but her skin still buzzed from the unexpected touch. Normally, Thea knew better than to initiate such things. Perhaps she really was afraid deep down, thinking that Caya might affect her subconsciously?
Not sure of her own motive, Caya took Thea’s hand in hers. It was obvious how this shocked the president. Her eyes went from narrow to wide within a fraction of a second. “What are you doing?” Thea asked in a low growl.
“Trying to make you see reason if that is at all possible.” Caya held Thea’s hand gently. Caya hadn’t counted on her own response when Thea remained motionless with her hand in hers.
Images began to flicker behind Caya’s eyelids, forcing her to close her eyes tight as she clung to Thea’s hand. Visions of a young woman, looking much like Thea, but perhaps at age sixteen, maybe eighteen, streamed through Caya’s mind. “What the…?” Caya gasped, and now she clung to Thea’s hand. Now the vision was clearing up, and Caya could tell the very young Thea stood by a middle-aged man, pale and upset.
“Father. I refuse. I’m going to the capital.” Young Thea pleaded, but defiance shone from her eyes. “I was accepted to the university there. You can’t keep me here.”
“I can cut off your funds, you ungrateful child!” The man, tall and burly as he stood up, raised his hand. Caya cried out as he hit Thea’s cheek, sending her to her knees.
“Caya?” Thea’s older voice reached Caya through the haze of the vision, but she had already been whisked away to another scenario. This time, Thea was older, perhaps in her mid-twenties, and a much-older Hadler stood next to her on a tall staircase outside an impressive building. Caya recognized the governmental building, as no other structure on Oconodos was made of bronze-veined marble. At first Caya thought it was a vision from happier days, but then she spotted Hadler’s iron grip of Thea’s upper arm. She wanted to yell “Let go of her!” to the despicable man Thea had married, but it was futile. Instead, she saw how Thea stealthily rubbed her arm when Hadler finally let go. Another whooshing sound and Caya’s vision morphed into Thea looking her current age. She stood by her desk in her office when Hadler stormed in, apoplectic and spitting as he cursed her with foul language. To Caya’s amazement, Thea didn’t look afraid any longer. Instead, she stepped well within Hadler’s personal space and poked him in the chest with two fingers as she hissed some inaudible words to him. A white flash broke the tableau into spinning shards, and now Caya gasped out loud and wanted to stop the visions from crashing into her mind. Here Thea was on her knees in a ballroom, and before her on the floor was Caya, writhing in what looked like a seizure. Thea held one of her hands on Caya’s shoulder, the other raised to keep the shocked spectators away. “Give her enough room to breathe!” Again, the vision changed, and this time, Thea was alone in her living-room area sitting curled up in the armchair and holding a pillow as she stared into nothing. Thea’s lips trembled, and just before the last vision faded, Caya thought she heard her whisper, “She hates me.”
As the mist disappeared from her mind, Caya became aware of still holding Thea’s hand.
“What did you see?” Thea spoke quietly and used her free hand to stroke up and down Caya’s lower arm. “Anything about what Lieutenant Diobring spoke of earlier?”
“No.” Caya was still shocked at her visions; she needed time to process them.
“Then what?” Thea held on to Caya’s hand with both of hers.
“They weren’t the usual visions. You know, of the future. These…oh, Creator of everything, these were like small scenes from the past. I’ve never had that happen before. Not even when it comes to Briar.” Caya let go of Thea’s hand, and for a moment the lack of connection actually brought her a stab of physical pain. She whimpered and curled up much like Thea had done in her vision.
“What’s wrong? Talk to me.” Thea looked startled and slid forward, raising her hands.
“No!” Caya flinched. “Don’t. Don’t touch me.”
“But—Caya, I wasn’t going to hurt you.” Hurt tinged Thea’s words as she lowered her hand and placed them on her lap in a heartbreakingly awkward gesture.
“Not your fault. Not this time.” Caya attempted some gallows humor, but it fell flat as her words made Thea go paler.
“Then tell me what was in your vision.”
“It was more than one. It was like a series of scenes from…from someone’s life. I think I’m not far off when I interpret them as pivotal moments in their life.”
“So it was about someone you know.” Thea studied Caya’s expression, and it wasn’t very hard to detect the moment Thea figured it out. “It was about me? My life. My ‘pivotal moments’?” She tightened her hands into fists.
“I can’t control where my visions take me, Thea. You know that. If I could, I’d stay as far as I could away from you and your life. I would never invade anyone’s privacy, least of all yours.”
“Yes. You’ve made it bloody clear that you don’t want anything to do with me.” Thea stood. “I want you to tell me everything about your visions about my past. I need to know if it is something your mind conjured up or not.”
After that volley of hurtful words, Caya only wanted Thea to leave. “I don’t—”
“No! What you fail to understand is that I need to know. This is not optional, Caya. Tell me.” Thea sat down again, back straight and her hands clasped. Two bright red spots burned on her cheeks, which was rarely a good sign.
Reluctantly, Caya gave a brief recount of the tableaus she had witnessed. With each one, she received confirmation about their accuracy by merely watching Thea’s expression and how she grew increasingly ashen. “I take it you really did live through those moments?” Caya winced at her words, but she had to make sure.
“Yes.” So tense now, she looked like she might shatter at the slightest touch, Thea rose and walked over to the food and drink dispenser. Punching in a few commands, she grabbed a glass and placed it under the spout, filling it with a green-tinted liquid. After she knocked it back, Thea put the glass on the counter and returned to Caya and sat down. “This is a first? Seeing someone’s past like this?”
“Yes. I’ve only had visions of future events so far. I’m not sure what I did different this time.”
“You held my hand.” Thea gazed down into her lap and untangled her fingers. “Can that be it?” She examined her hand and then looked at Caya’s.
“I don’t thi—wait.” Frowning as she tried to remember if she’d ever had any physical connection apart from with Briar when a vision hit, Caya had to conclude that she hadn’t. Back on Oconodos, while being homeschooled by first her parents and later Briar, her changer status had been a well-kept secret. It had taken her family quite a bit of time to realize she wasn’t just having seizures. Initially, they were afraid of her having a brain tumor or some other cerebral illness, but when they learned that she had the genetic makeup of the feared mutation, her parents almost wished she had been ill instead. As she grew older, Caya realized her parents had to have suspected the mutation as they had the test done in secret. When the Exodus operation commenced years later, Caya’s genetic results would have made it impossible. Briar had promised their parents to get them to safety, and when the time arrived to get the tests done, she used the same contact that had once helped her father to have them both changed. They didn’t know even Briar had the mutated gene, as her tests had given a false negative when they were younger. If Briar hadn’t been as meticulous as she was in changing both their test results, as they were sisters and had to look like sisters even genetically, she would have been found out long before she herself knew.
“Caya?” Thea broke through Caya’s reverie. “Can it be the case?”
“I think so. Yes. Damn it.”
“There’s only one way to figure it out.” Thea extended her hand. “Try again.”
Caya didn’t want to. She really, really didn’t. Mustering courage, she slid forward. “If we’re going to do it, let’s do it properly. If holding your hand gave me so much…” She shrugged as her cheeks grew warm.
“What do you mean?” Thea tilted her head. “Oh. Right.” She lowered her proffered hand. “How do you want to do this?”
“Want?” Snorting, Caya scooted even closer and wrapped her arms around Thea. She found it so ironic that she was holding the woman she had such conflicting feelings about for scientific reasons and nothing else. Thea was softer and curvier than her strict dress code and commanding persona suggested. Where Caya had expected to find a thin, wiry frame, she instead held full breasts and a narrow waist above slender hips. Just as Caya was about to let go since she had never felt more self-conscious in her life, Thea slowly raised her arms and wrapped them lightly around Caya’s shoulders.
“Anything?” Thea murmured.
“Please, Madam President, give a girl a chance to adjust, will you?” Perhaps it was their close proximity that made some of Caya’s hostility dwindle. That first month or two of Caya’s protective custody, they had been able to banter and enjoy each other’s company. Back then, Caya had just been relieved that Briar and Adina were all right, and in love, and she’d thought her stay in the guest quarters would be temporary.
“All right. Do take your time.”
Caya was about to snort again at Thea’s arrogant tone when Thea suddenly leaned her cheek against her temple. Unable to stop her entire system from responding, Caya gasped. “Thea…” She meant to say they had to stop, but then more images poured over her, flooding her mind, and acute vertigo made her cling to Thea as if outer space had tried to suck her out through an airlock.
“Thea?” A stunning blond woman dressed in an ankle-long, flowing, off-white dress came into the room where a little girl with the same hair color sat playing with a large tablet. She moved her little fingers deftly as she made her small hovercraft move across the screen. Now she looked up, a big smile on her lips.
“Mommy!” She let go of the tablet and rushed toward the woman. “Daddy said you weren’t coming until tomorrow.” The little girl, yes, of course it was Thea. Caya could clearly see the resemblance between the child and her mother.
“I know, darling. I just couldn’t wait to see my best girl.” The woman hugged young Thea to her. “Tomorrow is your eighth birthday. I couldn’t miss that.”
“But—but Daddy said the doctors wanted you to stay and get stronger.” Thea looked up at her mother, her long hair cascading down her back. She was dressed in blue shorts and a white shirt, which Caya recognized as parts of a school uniform. She saw Thea had kicked off her shoes and taken off her socks, as they were right beside the tablet on the floor.
“I feel stronger just for being with you and your father,” Thea’s mother said and rocked her daughter back and forth. “You’re more important than anything else to me.”
“Now, Thea. Don’t tire your mother out.” A tall, dark-haired man stepped into Thea’s room. He had a becoming, well-trimmed beard and was dressed in an old-fashioned blue suit. He put an arm around Thea’s mother. “Rionna? I thought we agreed you could come home today if you stayed down here. You’re not well enough to climb the stairs.”
Thea looked alarmed, but Rionna placed a kiss on the man’s cheek while still holding onto her. “Don’t be such a worrier, Mattner. I’m perfectly able to climb one set of stairs. What do you think I’ve done during my physical-therapy sessions? Have them carry me through the exercises?” Rionna chuckled. “Now, I could smell the food being prepared. Let’s not disappoint Ms. Dimin. No doubt she’s been cooking up a storm.”
The vision blurred, and then Caya found herself in a large foyer. Black-and-white marble walls stretched up toward a skylight that showed it was evening or night. Young Thea stood clinging to the banister halfway up the stairs, whimpering. “Mommy. Mommy…”
“Stay there, Thea,” Mattner called out from behind Caya. She turned and gasped at the sight of Rionna. Thea’s mother lay on the floor, her head in her husband’s lap. Her skin was as white as the marble. “Rionna. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up!” Mattner’s voice rose to a roar. “Damn the Creator, wake up!”
Thea’s whimper rose until she was screeching for her mother. She passed Caya and threw herself next to her. Taking Rionna’s hands, Thea kissed them and hugged them to her. “She’s so cold, Daddy. She’s so cold.” Crying fat tears now, Thea suddenly hit her father on the arm closest to her. “Make her wake up. Make her warm again. She’s too cold.” She hit him over and over again, her voice getting hoarse from crying. “Mommy…mommy…”
Caya was crying along with Thea, her heart breaking for the child and remembering when she and Briar had lost their parents. At least they had each other, but who had taken care of Thea once her mother was gone? Had Mattner been as loving and nurturing as his wife? Caya studied the man’s expression through her tears. Thea was still hitting him with her little fists in her anguish, but he wasn’t even looking at her. He was holding his dead wife, and Caya had the distinct sense that what love he had been able to share with anyone had died with her. Slowly the scene faded and Caya was back in grownup Thea’s embrace, crying so hard she was shaking.
“Caya? Please? What’s the matter? What did you see?” Thea rubbed her hands up and down Caya’s back. “I’m so sorry. We shouldn’t have tried this again so soon. Let me page Briar—”
“No. No. I’m all right. Or I will be.” Trying to pull herself together, Caya was reluctant to let go of Thea. She wasn’t quite sure if she needed the comfort of her embrace or she had just witnessed what had to have been the most traumatic event in Thea’s life.
“Of course you’ll be all right. Just breathe.” Thea rocked her. “That’s it. Breathe.”
Slowly the impact of the vision receded, and Caya pulled back enough to wipe at her wet cheeks. “I think I soaked your jacket.” She felt foolish now. Young Thea’s pain hadn’t been hers. A small, inner voice insisted that her feelings for Thea were the reason for her strong reaction. Not ready to confess any type of strong feelings for the woman who wielded such power over her life, Caya let go of Thea completely and slid back so their bodies didn’t touch anymore. She didn’t want to risk any other inadvertent visions from Thea’s past until she knew what triggered them.
“Never mind the damn jacket. What did you see?” Thea moved as if to take Caya’s hand again and winced when Caya shook her hand and backed off some more. “That bad?”
“I witnessed your mother coming home from some hospital the day before—”
“—my eighth birthday.” Her complexion grey, it was Thea’s turn to pull back. “Oh, Creator of mercy.” She covered her eyes for a few moments with a trembling hand. “What exactly did you see?”
“How much she loved being back home with you and your father—especially with you. Then you and your parents were in a foyer and your mother was dead.” She could find no easy way to say it. No well-meaning, cautious words would help minimize the pain Thea had felt the night her mother died.
“It was actually the next day. I mean, it was past midnight and I couldn’t sleep because I was so happy to have my mother home—and for turning eight. I had wished for a hover bike, and my father had hinted that I might get one. More than that, though, I had wished for my mother to get well and come home, which happened in part, I suppose.” Thea spoke with calm, measured words that were completely contradicted by the pain in her eyes. “I heard my father yell my mother’s name from downstairs and ran to see what was going on, afraid she was ill again, but she wasn’t. As you saw, it was much worse. She had left the bedroom my father had installed for them downstairs and probably fainted as she was walking up the stairs. She fell down and broke her neck. I learned many years later that she would have perhaps lived another ten or twenty days if she hadn’t fallen. Her condition was rapidly deteriorating, and she knew it. That’s why she came home even if she wasn’t well enough. She wanted to be with her family.” Thea’s expression hardened. “The autopsy results showed her condition clearly, but that didn’t stop my father for blaming me for her death.”
“What? But why?” Caya came close to taking Thea’s hand again. “That’s insane.”
“You would think so, wouldn’t you? Remember, she was going upstairs even after promising him not to. In his mind, that was my fault. If I hadn’t been so selfish and excited about my birthday, my mother wouldn’t have ventured up the stairs and fallen down when her weakened state caused her to faint or get dizzy. I believed him for years.”
Caya sobbed and wiped at her tears. “That’s just so wrong. Your mother loved you more than anything. She loved your father too, I could tell, but you—she adored you. I think—and this is just a hunch—that he was jealous. And when she died, he couldn’t handle the grief, or the shock…or both. It’s what I felt from him during my vision anyway.” Caya wiped quickly at her tears again. Her skin was starting to feel raw from all the crying.
“You may well be correct,” Thea said and sighed. “I think we proved our theory regarding how your visions of someone’s personal past occur. At least to some degree.” She smoothed down her hair. “I apologize that you had to witness the birth of my dysfunctional relationship with my father,” she said, her tone stiff.
“Thea. Don’t. I need to make a few things clear because I can tell you’re about to bolt, and knowing you, you’ll stay away and send your minions to deal with me until we reach Gemocon.”
Looking affronted, Thea folded her hands on her lap. “Do go on.” She raised her chin in a clear challenge.
“I promise never to tell anyone, not a single soul, what I learned and what I saw during my visions about your past today. If you never want to mention any of it again, I’ll respect that. I know I’m often furious with you for my situation, but, that said, I don’t want you to stop coming to my quarters. The only thing worse than being furious at you—is being angry with you and never seeing you again. I’m probably not making sense at all, but please. Don’t withdraw behind President Tylio, the public figure, even if you only stop by when you need something from me.” Caya tried for a smile but knew it probably looked more like a weird grimace.
Thea studied her quietly for a good minute, and Caya held her breath for nearly as long. “Very well. I trust your work ethic. I always have since that day when you had a vision at the presidential ball.”
As that had been one of the first visions, Caya realized she hadn’t read too much into Thea’s expression when she had warded off the crowd around them with such fury.
“All right.” Caya slumped against the backrest of the couch. “Good.”
Thea stood and adjusted her jacket. “I will let you know when we find the young woman in your vision. I pray she’s all right.”
Caya nodded. “Me too.”
Thea walked to the door and was about to push the sensor to open it when she stopped, still with her back toward Caya. Lowering her head, she spoke in a barely audible voice. “I did get the hover bike. Our cook found it hidden from my prying eyes in the pantry later in the day and gave it to me.” Tugging at the hem of her jacket and resuming her trademark proud posture, Thea cleared her throat. “I never rode it.” She slammed her palm against the sensor and walked out the door.
Caya curled up on the couch and pulled one of the blankets around her. She was cold and tired, having depleted all of her energy. Thea had lost her mother and her father’s love in one instant. Something told Caya that the woman who had just left her quarters had never celebrated any of her birthdays again. Had she perhaps been looking for a father figure of sorts when, at twenty-two, she had married the much-older Hadler? It made horrible sense. To think that he had turned out to be an abusive cheat of a husband, not worthy of someone as amazing and beautiful as Thea, infuriated her.
Closing her eyes reluctantly, as she was afraid of what any potential dreams might entail, Caya hugged a pillow close to her chest under the blanket. She could still feel Thea’s arms around her and her cheek against her temple as she finally drifted off to sleep.