I'm not sure that's a
good idea,'" Emeril muttered, kicking her ceremonial robe beneath the bed.
"God's Breath! Could I have been more weak, more indecisive?" She stared at the
empty place on the floor where the robe had been and sighed as she bent to retrieve it,
angry with herself for not telling Torsten flat out that his plan was foolish and maybe
even dangerous. But no. Caught by surprise at the reception where he made his request-and
it was a request, she'd give him that-the best she could do was simper a stupid I'm not
sure that's a good idea. What was it about the man that made saying no to him so
She glanced at her desk, where a three-dimensional Vgram of Mac and Souheila
stood shining. Mac smiled winsomely, captured forever as he was ten years ago, on their
daughter's first birthday. Captured was a good word to describe his bond to Niam Torsten,
she thought, sure that `no' rarely entered the exclusive fellowship the two shared. If Mac
hadn't said yes to his marrow-which meant more than friend-so often, he might not have
died just months after the picture was taken.
She lifted the portrait and held it tight, not wanting to activate it. That,
she couldn't bear. With a tenderness that belied the pain in her voice she kissed her
husband's face. "Damn you to hell, Ian MacBrae." She set the Vgram down
again and closed her eyes, forcing every thought but one to leave her mind. To serve. She
must serve. It was her duty-and her pride.
With a calm only surface deep she slid into her Mentor's raiment, allowing
the voluminous material to embrace her. If she didn't perform as she'd been trained to do
from childhood, her outcast status would be irrevocable, and her daughter
The chime rang twice. It was time. As she went to
receive her visitor she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. It had been years since
she had conducted a dream but even now, a woman midway through her fourth decade, she
looked as she did then. Almost. Her red diaphanous robe revealed gleaming dark butternut
skin beneath two thick braids of chestnut, but there was a tightness now around her mouth
that showed she was no longer the heedless girl she used to be. She looked solemn, less
accessible. Good. A mere girl would never have the power to say no to him.
When the door slid open she found herself staring
into warm grey eyes that widened in appreciation as they looked at her. Perhaps it's my
height, she thought; Mac had loved to tease her by claiming that the women on Jade grew as
tall as the trees. She did not greet Torsten as she let him in, but felt his steady
gaze on her as they walked to an adjoining room, virtually enhanced to her exact
specifications. It was stark, devoid of everything but carved coral stones set in a ring
around a circular, high-domed tent.
"Enter and be served," she said coolly, pulling back the flap. The
skirts of her robe grazed her ankles as she followed him to the cushioned mats that
surrounded a fiery heap of smooth coral chips. The walls of the tent glowed as if warmed
by a setting sun, and as she took her seat near a woven basket that held the sacred oil
she noted that he'd at least dressed properly for the ceremony.
An obsidian tunic stretched across his shoulders and fell in stiff folds,
beneath which a soft caftan bared his muscular chest. She inspected the man whose gaze
remained so fixed on her. Mac's description had been apt. Stick a sword in his hand and a
helmet on his rough-hewn head, and Niam Torsten could be part of any clan that had ever
come marauding across the Norse sea. No, she thought, scrutinizing him more carefully;
he'd be leading them.
He seated himself on a mat. "Where's Commander
Vrede?" he asked in a cold voice that matched her earlier tone.
"Finishing up with Doctor Baines. But I wanted
to speak with you privately first, before we began."
"To allow me time to reconsider?"
"No." He dismissed her concerns without a
second thought. "We'll continue. But if there's something you feel I should
know to make this easier for you, I'll be happy to listen."
Amazing. She'd known the man nearly a dozen years
and was still surprised by his smugness. "Very well, Captain. How much did Mac tell
you about what a Mentor does?"
"Not much. I'd like to know more."
"Then the first thing you should know is that
your quest will fail." Her voice rose. "I'm neither wizard, nor seer, nor
prophet, nor can I change the past for you-or anyone. If I had that kind of power,
" Emeril stopped, shocked by her own outburst.
"Use it for yourself," he said, finishing
She glanced at him, drawn by the genuine pain she'd
heard in his voice. Then she remembered who he was. She looked away.
"I accept the limitations," he said
evenly, after watching her turn from him. "I'd like to hear about the
"As you wish." She poured a cup of
herb-infused liquid onto the burning chips, creating a fine mist that spread rapidly. When
the aromatic haze filled the tent, she breathed deeply. "Jade is a poor planet with
few natural resources. All we've ever had in abundance are dreams. And dreamers. While
that made for a culture rich in symbolic spirituality, it was useless to anyone but
ourselves for thousands of years. Until a century ago, when we joined the Alliance
and discovered the planet Rosta."
"Which, though also poor, possessed
"A mineral by-product of their mines, and
useless to them. So
you do understand."
"About the synergy created between your two
worlds?" he said. "Yes. But not how your dreams and the vaneeden works."
"No one but the Eternal Spirit knows that.
Still, have you ever had a dream-exciting or frightening-in which you told yourself: `this
is just a dream, I can wake any time I want'?" She waited for his affirming nod.
"And have you woken yourself up?"
"Only when it's been frightening."
She peered at him, surprised to see a glimmer of a
smile. Did a sense of humor lurk beneath all that duty he wore like a hair shirt?
"Lucid dreams occur more often than you think," she said,
"and to some extent humans have the power to control them."
"Need Mentors?" She held up her hands.
"Because of these." His eyes widened. Emeril knew there had been curiosity about
her hands ever since she'd come aboard. Wild tales were told about the mysterious powers
of Mentors, supposedly derived from their volutia-the ruby receptors etched deeply into
their palms. Though she'd been taught to dismiss the stories for the absurdity they were,
she found his frank interest discomfiting.
"They're beautiful," he said.
She blushed; it wasn't the response she'd expected.
"I meant that vaneeden affects my people in a strange way. We extract an oil from the
mineral"-she showed him the bottle-"and when I place a few drops on my volutia
the drug is absorbed by my body and excreted through my pores." She pointed to the
heated stones, and the steam that rose from them. "When that mist reaches my skin it
diffuses the drug, which lets me touch you safely. The slightest contact on a human will
induce a lucid dream."
"Why can't I just use the oil on myself?"
Was the man mad? Had Mac never told him about
"For humans, direct
contact with vaneeden is not possible," she said.
Unbelievable. Why was he so stubborn? "Try to understand. Once a seeker
and I are linked by the drug, I become his
dreambearer. This lets humans experiment,
allows them to explore all possible outcomes of their desires in safety."
"Outcomes?" he said harshly. "Don't you mean alternate
"Alternate choices, perhaps. This makes you
"Whose choices really are they? I can imagine
the inducement to
"Insert our own wishes? Subtly direct the
outcome? Yes, it would be easy, if
" she broke off angrily, having heard this
insulting implication from others as ignorant as he. "Let me tell you something,
Captain. A girl chosen for training by the Illuminata confers a great honor on her people,
but to the child it's more; she knows her family will be taken care of forever. If she's
initiated. And for that she must learn to forfeit her own desires, even her will-that she
might become a vessel for others to use. Most do not succeed, but those who do are given
the best our world has to offer. And what is asked of us in return? Only that we honor the
guiding principle of our Order: to find death preferable to altering the content of a
Though he made no response she knew what he was thinking. She could
see it in his eyes, that revealed so little yet said so much: more was asked of a Mentor
than obedience to one immutable law. She added liquid to the fire, hoping the rising mist
would hide her face before he discovered even more. But his watchful silence was
unnerving, and she felt compelled to continue. "There is one
rule," she stammered. "To
to ensure that we are never tempted to divide
our loyalties, we vow never to marry
or have children."
As if he hadn't just heard a bleak recitation of
all her sins, he merely nodded. "Why are only women selected for this training?"
She was grateful for the simple question, but
surprised by its generosity. Another man might have commented on her disgraceful failure
to keep an oath, and the shame she'd always carry.
"Jadean males are also born with volutia and are surely as capable, but
vaneeden seems to have an
unintended effect on men." When he looked uneasy, she
smiled. Perhaps he was human after all. "Vrede will be here soon," she said.
"We should begin."
She lifted the engraved stone bottle and removed the stopper, allowing the
volatile oil to foam to the surface. The pungent spice plunged her into memories she'd
thought lost forever, and her eyes closed in anticipation. She murmured a prayer to the
Eternal Spirit to guide her on the coming journey, but the vaneeden called to her, a
silken intoxicant that sought a mating with her palm. Her volutia throbbed, unfurling to a
deep crimson as her desire to give herself to the drug increased. She wanted it
the rhythmic beat that would come the moment she
"Wait." His voice was commanding.
She felt a strong hand encircle her wrist and her
eyes snapped open to find him staring at her, his face almost
"One question more. You were chosen by the Illuminata. Who chooses
her-and her vows?"
Emeril gasped. No one doubted the probity of the
Anointed, not even Mac, who'd held little sacred. She shook off his hand and whatever
warmth she'd begun to feel for the man. "The Illuminata is not chosen. Unlike us,
she's born to her destiny."
"I intend no insult, but in the Vgram on your
desk your daughter's volutia forms a pattern I've never seen on any Jadean."
God's Breath! Did the man miss nothing? She'd have to choose her words more
cautiously. "Sometimes a girl is born with the Avo-Mar. The Mark. Her path to the
future is secure; she will become the next Illuminata. Much more rare is the Char'Avo-Mar.
It has not been seen on a Jadean child in over two thousand of our years."
"The Starmark?" He looked at her sharply.
"But the shape of the volutia on your daughter's hand is clearly a st
"Mac named her," she whispered.
"Souheila. Morning Orient Star." She faltered. How far could he be trusted? She
sought his eyes but they were shrouded in mist, and despite the heat in the tent she
shivered and moved closer to the fire. "Souheila's path is dark, unprotected, because
no outsider, no half-Jadean will ever be permitted to guide the Order."
He rose and sat by her side, his tunic glittering
in the firelight. "You had to leave her on Jade? What will happen to her?"
"I don't know. The Illuminata implied that
renewed proof of my loyalty might give Souheila a chance to
" She stopped and
stared at him. "I just realized how much you look like her-Ymir, I mean. Especially
around the eyes."
Despite his concern, he laughed. "And all
these years I've told women that I have my mother's eyes."
She found herself laughing with him. "What an
idiotic thing for me to say; I'm sorry. But you've never been this close before
"That's my fault, Emeril, not yours. But if we
could just talk about Mac, we might be able to
"No!" she said, determined to never open
that door. He'd have to find absolution for killing Mac elsewhere; she had none to spare.
Whatever slim wedge to her heart he'd opened, she'd close. "The past is someplace I
don't want to go, and if you think revisiting it will change a single thing that happened
to your father that day, you're wrong. Your request for this ceremony is my only reason
for being here, Captain. What's yours?"
"The nano-circuitry is open, Doctor," Ben Tyler
informed Baines, "and the frequency has been modulated. You should be able to
complete the cluster scan now."
"Fine." Baines turned to Vrede with
something resembling a smile. "This last baryon reading won't take long."
His left side plate open and plugged into the panel behind him, Vrede sat in
the cybernetics lab waiting for the final round of tests to be over. He'd been here since
his return to the Halcyon six days ago, enduring an increasingly difficult series of
diagnostics as well as Baines' verbal disquisition.
"Damn!" Baines reviewed his scan a third time. "These results
are not only inconclusive, they're inconsistent with your last evaluation. Your neural
patterns have changed, but I don't know why. Tyler, where the hell is that schematic of
his pre-synaptic axons? Give me a correlation."
Seated at the main computer array, Ben patiently carried out Baines' orders.
"Computer: duplicate Vrede's synaptic net; matrix match one point eight two."
A Vgram displayed the old schematic along with the current one and
highlighted the differences. All three men stared at the models for several minutes, yet
none of them learned anything more by the end than he'd known at the beginning. But Baines
refused to give up. "Tyler, how long to compile a diagnostic of his neural grid now,
compared to this time last year?"
"Do it." Baines turned back to Vrede.
"This is getting us nowhere-and I intend to get some answers. Let's start at the
"Is there something wrong with your auditory
"No, sir." Vrede cycled through a series
of databases and opened the appropriate file. "I was created by Dr. Vaader Timmerman
on a warm spring day in 2294, during which I
"Is this an attempt at humor, Commander?"
"No, Doctor. You failed to specify which
`beginning' you sought, and I was merely attempting to
"Let's just stick to the pertinent issues,
shall we? Tell me again what happened on Kalar."
"As you wish," Vrede said evenly.
Ben glanced at him. If he didn't know better, he'd
swear Vrede looked uneasy at the question, and he thought about the rumors that had been
circulating since his return from Kalar. Life on a Starship was like living in a fishbowl;
sooner or later everyone on board was both observer and fish. But which was Vrede?
Baines sauntered to the main computer array to adjust the instruments linked
to Vrede's brain. "You may begin."
"As I've already stated, two Kalarens claimed
they'd poisoned the blade which was about to wound a member of the negotiating team. A
claim that appeared valid," Vrede added. "If I hadn't stepped in quickly, Ms.
Robertson would have been killed."
"That's not a certainty. You could have
stopped the fight instead of continuing it yourself. After all, despite the ridiculous
rumors I've heard, that you dislike the
woman, you were her Second. Why weren't you by her side?"
Ben watched as Vrede reviewed the duel by accessing
the diurnal cached within his memory bank. But he would have been surprised to learn that
he'd retrieved the same information many times since that day, without having been asked
by anyone to do so.
"My presence seemed to distract her," Vrede said, "and there
was no time to stop the fight. Not safely."
"So you say. But didn't that fight let you
relive your experience on the Sojourner's escape pod fourteen years ago?" Baines
scanned his file. "The record shows that you felt power, even rage, when you
destroyed the droid that attacked Admiral Torsten. Surely battling a young warrior in
hand-to-hand combat would have produced similar sensations."
"As I've told you repeatedly over the years,
the feelings on the pod were generated by
by my concern for Doctor Timmerman and his
wife." Vrede indicated the padd in Baines' hand. "And as my report also stated,
I eliminated all components of those particular emotions from my synaptic core before
"This regard for your creator is touching, but
frankly, irrelevant. As for your report
are you categorically asserting that since
then, especially on Kalar, you've never felt anger or even
"Dislike? No, sir, I have not. But why are you
so intent on pursuing this issue? Do you feel the incident on Kalar has somehow rendered
me unfit for service? Or is it related to my having refused to participate in your own
Baines smiled, but his eyes revealed anger at
having his judgment questioned. He and Vrede might be of equivalent rank, but he never
allowed himself to forget that the being in front of him was just a finely wrought
machine. A machine no one in the military seemed willing or able to control. First it was
the droid incident and now, interfering with a crucial mission. It had ended well enough,
but what if it hadn't? He thought of everyone in the Qualos Cluster whose lives depended
upon the outcome of the Kalaren Treaty, including his brother Frank.
"Don't flatter yourself, T-Sap; my only concern is safe replication of
your model when we're ready. We were about to launch into full production when the
rebellion occurred. If not for that there'd be hundreds, even thousands more of you, all a
hell of a lot better behaved."
"The droid rebellion was a long time ago, Doctor Baines. If you had the
ability to reproduce Timmerman's work, wouldn't you have done so by now?"
Baines flushed at the insult. "Vaader Timmerman was a fool who
wasn't willing to build into you or your model the safeguards on which the Senate
insisted. In the end, the great man squandered
away his talent in an insignificant little laboratory, and you are all we have."
"But you do not have me, sir. I belong to no
one. And despite the disparaging remarks about my creator, you still have not
As the comlink flashed, Mariamne's warm voice
flowed through the lab. "Vrede?"
He quickly responded. "Mari
Robertson. Yes. I'm
"You're an elusive man. I wanted to tell you
that Tom Delgato finally talked me into singing," she laughed, "in public
anyway. He said that since I was leaving, the least I could do was
Baines looked up. There was something in Vrede's
voice that hadn't been there moments ago. Racing to the panel, he stared at the
indicators, all fluctuating wildly. He blinked like a cat who's discovered a mouse-hiding
right between his paws.
"I can't stay here forever," Mariamne
continued. "Now that Rosta has agreed to join the Alliance, I need to write my final
report and return to D-Corp for my next assignment. Tonight will be my first performance -
and my last, so I hope you'll be there." She paused. "As a friend." The
comlink went dead.
"Tyler!" Baines kept his eyes on the
indicators. "Hasn't that mechatronic scanner been repaired by now?"
"If it was, I'll have Engineering send it over."
"I'd prefer for you to check it out first."
Ben rose reluctantly. While Baines had been watching the panel, he had been
watching Baines' face. "I'm sure it's fine,"
"I'm in charge here, Lieutenant. Either get
or go on report."
After Tyler left Baines stretched his arms and
strolled toward Vrede who, unlike himself, was tethered to an immobile collection of
circuitry. "Let's go back to my earlier question. One you answered before it was even
finished, I believe." His voice was smooth, silken-and encased in steel. "Since
the incident with that droid fifteen years ago, and more specifically on Kalar, you've
never felt rage
or any other intense feeling?"
"I have not allowed myself to be angry since
leaving Chronos, that's correct. My first response was accurate."
"But incomplete?" Baines tapped his
fingers impatiently. "I asked you a question, T-Sap. Answer it. You've
experienced other extreme emotions since then?"
"Sporadically. However, I
I'm as much in
the dark as you about what may be causing them."
"Perhaps a history review will shed some
light on the situation." Baines peered into Vrede's eyes. "The optical component
you found the day Timmerman died was unfinished, but you said then that you weren't sure
how it was to be used, or for what purpose."
"That's correct. His last journal
"To which you held the security code,"
Baines exclaimed. "You. I worked with him for over a decade but I never got so much
as a glimpse of
" He glared at Vrede. "Go on."
"I shuttled from the Reverie to Chronos to
look for Timmerman. I found his journal in what was left of the lab, then discovered he'd
stored the code to open it in a secret file embedded within me. His last entry recorded
his creation of what he termed an `optical-sensory upgrade', and when I searched I found
the component itself."
"Next to Katherine Timmerman's dead
body." Baines said acidly.
Vrede hestiated. "Her body. Yes." He
opened a special program he'd written to keep his voice level. "Since you were as
incapable as myself of comprehending the component's purpose or perfecting it, I kept it
in remembrance of the man who made me. I've never used it."
"Yet you've been capable of augmented neural
activity anyway? And, apparently, fully able to hide that information during the most
comprehensive tests I've ever conducted." The anger in Baines' voice was
unmistakable. "I underestimated you, T-Sap. I won't make the same mistake twice. Now,
what shall we do about this?"
"I presume it will be written up in your
"Let's not be hasty." Baines sauntered to
the instrument panel, watching it as he spoke. "I would guess these sporadic feelings
have something to do with the person who just contacted you?"
Despite his secret program there was a tension in
Vrede's voice that contradicted his calm words as he began to unplug himself and close the
openings to his circuitry. "Ms. Robertson is a friend of mine, nothing more."
"What else could she be?" Baines scoffed,
until a glance at Vrede's face stopped him cold. His eyes slid away. "On the other
hand, if that upgrade were to be repaired
" The indicators jumped one last time,
then went dead. "And why not? Industrial Droids is doing some of the greatest
duothermic research of the century."
Vrede snapped his side plate shut and pulled on his
"Legally, that upgrade is still the company's
"If today's session is finished, Doctor, I'm
Baines grabbed his arm. "Your creator was a fool. Give me that
component and I'll give you a life he could only dream about."
For a brief moment Vrede considered giving it to
him, a thought which would have been inconceivable just a week ago. But a week ago had
been before Kalar, and Mariamne. Before the possibility, however remote, that the upgrade
what? A relationship of the sort he had glimpsed through her eyes? The
prospect was tempting. But a glimmer of hope, and the integrity of the person who
stood before him were two different things.
He brushed away Baines' hand and rose to face the man who offered one but
not the other. "It's true; I did withhold information from you. And since I don't
wish to make the same mistake twice, let me tell you now that I neither like, nor trust
you." When he reached the door he paused. "Vaader Timmerman was never a fool,
sir; he was a dreamer. And I'll consider myself fortunate if I fulfill even one of his
dreams for me."