Real friends are our greatest joy and our greatest sorrow. One would almost wish that all true and faithful friends expire on the same day.
Kim was barely aware of being retrieved by the Patrol. They gave her something to calm her down. They assigned a female officer to stay with her until the trank took effect, and Kim fell into a nightmarish sleep in which Solly was alive and well and talking to her as if nothing had happened, but she knew he was dead, knew it was only a reprieve until she returned to the real world.
She had flashes of being carried on a stretcher, of getting into the lift at Sky Harbor, of being loaded into a flyer.
The real world, when she got back to it, consisted of white sheets, an uncomfortable pillow, and Matt Flexner. And the impression that somebody else was standing behind him.
“How’re you feeling, Kim?”
There were blank spots in her memory. She recalled the lander, but not how she’d got on it. She recalled finding Emily, but not how they’d tracked her down. She knew that Solly was gone. But that knowledge was attended by a general numbness.
“Okay,” she said. “I’m okay.”
“You want to tell us what happened?”
The person behind him came abruptly into focus. Canon Woodbridge. Casually dressed in black slacks and a gray pullover. She hadn’t seen him since the night they’d launched the Beacon Project. He came forward, essayed a smile, pulled up a chair, and said hello.
Kim returned the greeting. Then: “Solly’s dead, Matt.”
“We know. How did it happen?”
“Where are we?”
“Friendship Hospital. You’re okay. You’ve been released.”
“There’s something out there. Celestials.”
Woodbridge looked at her for a long moment. “What happened?” he asked. “Where did Emily’s body come from?”
Everything was coming back now, although details still eluded her. “She was left behind,” she said.
“Where?” demanded Woodbridge.
“It’s one of the stars in Orion’s Belt,” said Matt.
She could see the pulse in Woodbridge’s throat. “Please explain what happened, Kim,” he said, in a surprisingly gentle voice.
She described everything. She explained that they were trying to find out where the Hunter had gone. She told them how they had intercepted the broadcasts between the Tripley mission and an unknown vessel, and she showed them the disk. She described the object that had come in pursuit, and how Solly had gone outside to get rid of it. “But it didn’t work,” she said. “Something got on board. And it tried to take us over.”
“Kim,” said Matt, “are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure,” she said. “It’s in the ship’s record.”
“There’s not much left of the ship’s records,” he said softly.
Of course. Her mind was still at quarter speed. The Hammersmith had died. And Solly with it.
“It doesn’t matter at this point,” said Woodbridge. “Whatever happened, it’s over.”
“You need to warn people about the Alnitak region,” said Kim. “Probably about that whole area. Quarantine it. Keep them away.”
Woodbridge frowned. “I don’t see how we can do that.”
“Why not? These things are malevolent, Canon.”
“That’s why we can’t do it. Look—” He turned the chair around, moved it closer to the bed, crossed his arms over its back, and braced his chin on them. “It’s not that we wouldn’t if we could. But we’ve no way to enforce any such stricture. Not even with Greenway registrations, let alone with anybody else’s ships.”
“Then issue a warning.”
“What do you think would happen if we did that?” He lowered his voice, suggesting he was taking her into his confidence.
“Every private vessel with long-range capability,” she said, “would immediately go out there.”
“That’s right. That’s exactly what would happen.” He looked over at Matt. “Your colleague here is already thinking he’d like to go himself. Isn’t that right, Matt?”
“Not if these things are lethal,” he said.
Woodbridge managed a reassuring smile, “What it means is that somebody would eventually give them our address. If your story, and your interpretation, are correct, we have a serious problem.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I beg your pardon.”
“Nothing. Not a thing. We want to keep people away from the area. That’s our prime concern.”
“You’ve just said you can’t do that.”
“I said we can’t order them to stay away. Or warn them. But nobody ever goes there anyhow. When was the last survey done at Alnitak?”
“Two centuries ago,” said Matt.
Woodbridge looked with satisfaction at the ceiling. “My point exactly. The place is remote, nobody cares about it, it’s not exactly a tourist spot. If we say nothing about this, nothing to anyone, I think we can assume there’ll be no further visits over the short term.”
“What about the long term?” asked Kim.
“The government will begin to prepare quietly. I’m sure those preparations will include some automated probes. We should be able to find out what’s happening without undue risk. Of course, everything depends on nothing being said about celestials outside this room.” He looked at Kim. “We can count on your discretion, I’m sure.”
“I was expecting a parade,” she said, trying to make a joke of it.
An uneasy smile touched his lips. “I’ll arrange something.” He got up and turned to Matt. “The Institute of course will want to drop the charges.”
“Oh,” said Matt. “I don’t think Phil would be amenable to that.”
“He’ll have to be. Bury the incident. The ship wasn’t stolen; it was a communication breakdown.”
“I’ll tell him what you want,” Matt said. “How do we explain the loss of the Hammersmith to our board of governors?”
Woodbridge pulled on a jacket and started for the door. “I don’t know. We haven’t completed our investigation yet. Tell Agostino I’ll call him this afternoon and let him know what caused the accident. It was an accident, by the way.” He glanced at Kim, but continued talking to Matt. “When’s the next nova?”
“In a couple of weeks.”
“That’ll be the third one.”
“It’s the one that will establish the timing sequence. Identical intervals between events.”
“It’s what indicates the events are triggered.”
“Cancel it?” Matt looked shattered. “We can’t do that.”
“I don’t think the Council would agree, under the circumstances, that advertising our presence is a good idea.”
“But, Canon, light from the novas won’t reach Alnitak for a thousand years.”
“Matt.” The room grew intense. “There’ll be a court order in a few days suspending the operation for environmental reasons. It’ll only say ‘suspension.’ But you won’t want to plan on any more of these explosions.”
Matt looked over at Kim and she could see he was assigning the blame to her.
“Something else you should know, Canon,” Kim said. “The creature that was on the ship—”
“There’s another one, or something very much like it, in the Severin Valley.”
His brow creased. “The Severin Phantom?”
“Yes.” She saw him glance at Matt. Too many wild stories for one day.
“We’ll look into it,” he said.
“Canon,” she asked, “this didn’t happen before, did it? A cover-up?”
He stroked his beard, apparently puzzled. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Twenty-seven years ago.”
“Oh,” he said. “The Hunter. No. Not that I know of.” He must have read the skepticism in her face. “I wouldn’t lie to you, Kim.”
“Okay,” she said.
He paused in the doorway. “I’m glad to see you’re all right. And I’m sorry about Solly.”
At home, Shepard greeted her with enthusiasm. He was glad to see her again after all this time. He’d been worried, he said, about reports of her misadventure. And he was dreadfully sorry about Solly, whom he’d liked.
Messages were waiting.
Most were from friends and relatives, some with advice, others saying they were glad to hear she wasn’t a thief after all. The Institute had already released its statement, explaining that the entire Hammersmith affair had been a misunderstanding. There were a few lawyers who thought she should sue somebody, usually the Institute for operating a vessel with unsafe engines, or for defamation of character. Sheyel expressed his concern, saying that he assumed the incident was connected with the Hunter, that he’d been surprised and gratified that she would go to such extraordinary lengths. He was, he added, anxious to hear what she had learned.
The cause of Emily’s death, the authorities announced, had been massive abdominal and chest wounds. Possibly inflicted by a particle beam or a laser. Rumors of scandal swirled: There’d been a lovers’ quarrel and she’d been thrust out the air lock; Kane and Tripley had been in collusion and had murdered the two women, probably because they refused to cooperate in some sort of bizarre sexual ritual; Life on board the Hunter had been orgiastic in nature and the murder had occurred after a wild night of debauchery; Tripley and Kane had been homosexuals who’d wearied of trying to deal with the constant demands of the women, had killed one, and let it serve as a lesson to the other. Authorities promised a full investigation. Meantime, both men’s reputations were demolished. And Kim was sorry for that.
So was Ben Tripley, who had been thrown on the defensive by the blizzard of charges that rained down on him. Tora Kane issued a terse statement denying that her father would ever deliberately have harmed anyone. Next day an editorialist commented dryly that any number of Pacifica’s defenders had died at his hands during the late war.
The official story moved Emily’s death several hundred light-years, well away from Alnitak, so as not to rouse any interest in that area.
Kim still had no idea how or why either of the women had died. She felt responsible for the charges being laid against Tripley and Kane, but for all she knew it was possible the two men had done everything that was now being charged against them. Somebody, after all, had killed the women.
She got a cold reception back at the Institute. Solly’s friends, who were legion, wondered, sometimes in her presence, what was so important that it had cost his life, how she had happened to get clear in the lander while Solly was left in a ship with, as the official report put it, an “overload” in the jump engines. They pressed her for answers and found the story she contrived, that they were following a first-contact rumor, unconvincing. She became a pariah.
Agostino rehired her, but refused to allow her in his office when she went up to thank him. She was informed that he blamed her for the cancellation of the Beacon Project. She pointed out to Matt that the project had become redundant.
“Doesn’t matter,” Matt said. “A lot of people put their life’s work into Beacon. And it was a moneymaker for us. Nobody knows that better than you. And the general public doesn’t know it’s redundant. They think it failed in some way.”
When Emily’s body was released, Kim arranged a memorial service.
They held the ceremony on a beautiful April afternoon, under a quiet sky. Kim selected a grove not far from the Institute for the service, and the place filled with friends and family. The Sea Knights came out and stood by her, asked how she was, and offered their condolences.
Two days later, a similar event was held for Solly.
The second memorial was conducted on a windswept hillside near the ocean. Solly’s family was there, mostly people she’d never seen before. The Sea Knights returned and gathered beneath a flapping banner that carried their insignia, a trident on a white field. The Institute turned out in force. Even Agostino showed up.
Solly’s friends, as custom directed, came forward to talk about him. Others simply stood, wiping their eyes.
The wind blew off the ocean. A composer whom Solly had once carried from Earth, and whom he’d befriended, had written a score, “Though Tomorrow Never Come,” for the occasion. He’d brought along a vocalist to perform it, and Kim stood listening while tears ran down her face.
Eventually, as she knew would happen, her name came up.
Solly’s brother pointed her out, standing with the Knights. “Kim Brandywine,” he said, “the young lady for whom Solly gave his life.” They all looked her way, expectantly. “Kim,” he added, “why don’t you come on up and say a few words.”
She’d hoped to be left quietly to herself. But this had been unavoidable, the least she could do, and she’d prepared. She had taken a trank to try to hold herself together, but it seemed to have done nothing to assuage the grief and loss, so her mind went blank and she forgot the lines she’d memorized, and instead talked in a halting tone, on automatic, uttering banal phrases which the wind blew away.
“—Most selfless man I’ve known—” She could see a sail receding on the horizon and it seemed less real than the seascapes she’d seen in the windows of the Hammersmith, with Solly at her side.
The sun was bright and the sky empty. “—I would not be here today—”
She fought back the tears and, at the end, her voice rose over the wind. “God help me, I loved him—” A pair of gulls soared over the surf.
And she heard a child’s voice up front: “Then why’d she leave him, Mommy?”
When she finished the brother thanked her politely, took a few more speakers, announced that refreshments were available in the south pavilion, and drew the ceremony to a close.
Kim stood for several minutes, unable to leave. Several of the Knights came over to talk to her and wish her well. Then she was startled by a glimpse of Solly’s perceptive blue eyes. They belonged to a young woman with long dark hair.
“I’m Patricia Case,” she said. “Solly’s sister. I just wanted to get a good look at you.” She bit the words off like pieces of ice, fought to hold back tears, and stalked away.
It was the only time in her life Kim could recall seeing naked contempt directed at her. “It’s not what you think,” she called after the woman. “It wasn’t like that—”
The media portrayed her in a similar light: a helpless passenger on a scientific research mission who’d needed rescuing when, shortly after emerging from hyperspace, the engines had run wild.
She received requests for interviews, guest spots on several panel shows, and lucrative offers for exclusive accounts of events on the Hammersmith. All of which she declined.
Ben Tripley had left a message for her at home. She ran it and was surprised when he looked at her sadly and only wished her well. Her heart sank. She had expected him to take her to task for destroying his father’s reputation, to point out he’d warned her something very much like this would happen. But he avoided the recriminations and only said he understood this was hard on everybody. And he expressed his regrets for Emily. “I don’t know what happened,” he said, “I can’t imagine what happened. But I’m sorry. I wish it could have been otherwise.”
How could she respond? You were right all the time? I don’t know what happened either, and maybe your father is completely innocent, but the damage is done. Maybe if your father and Kane had spoken up when they came home about whatever occurred out there, everything would have been okay. It’s not my fault.
After a long time she recorded a message, thanking him, telling him she was confident that when the investigation was complete, his father would be vindicated. She watched it through, decided it was a disaster, and deleted it.
She delayed calling Sheyel because once again she didn’t know what to say. She had no appetite for lying to him, but her agreement with Canon Woodbridge prevented disclosure. Still, she needed to talk to someone, and Sheyel seemed to be the only person left.
She punched in his code. Moments later his dragon chair appeared, and then he walked into the image and eased himself into it. “Kim,” he said. “It’s good to see you.” He wore a dark brown robe.
They exchanged pleasantries, although she could see he was anxious to hear about the flight of the Hammersmith. He looked more pale and drawn than when she’d seen him last. He was losing ground.
“I can’t tell you much,” she said. “I just wanted you to know I’m okay.”
“I understand.” His silver hair and beard had become straggly. She suspected he hadn’t adjusted well to the news about Yoshi. “You lost a friend,” he said.
“Solly Hobbs. Yes.”
“I read what he did. Such friends are rare.” He reached beside him and picked up a cup. Steam was rising from it. “What will you do now?”
“I think I owe Ben Tripley an apology,” she said.
“When are you going to do that?”
“Maybe tomorrow if I can get an appointment.”
“You’re going up there personally?”
“Yeah. I think I should. Anyway I want to get a closer look at the Valiant.”
She hadn’t meant to say that. But what the hell, he already knew. “The ship in the mural,” she prompted. “You remember the model?”
“Oh yes,” he said. “How could I forget?” There was, she thought, something very strange in his eyes, but she let it go. Probably the light.
She got through to Tripley’s secretary, who said she could make room for her next afternoon toward the end of the day. Kim consented, and put in a call to Tora Kane.
Tora came right on. Strictly audio. “Yes, Kimberly. What did you want?”
The key to the Hunter logs, Kim thought, had to lie with the captain’s daughter. There was no one else.
“I wanted to apologize,” she said. “I know this has been a difficult time.”
“I really needed somebody to explain that to me.” She paused, and Kim could hear the ocean in the background. “Was there anything else?”
“Yes. I wanted you to know that I don’t believe your father’s in any way responsible for the deaths.”
“That comes a little late.” Her fury was barely restrained. “You’ve ruined his name. You know that, don’t you? You’ve destroyed him.” With no warning her voice broke. She swallowed, waited, took a deep breath. “Everything he lived for, everything he did, it’s all gone now. And what they’re saying about him is a lie.”
“Maybe we can get to the truth.”
“Sure we can. You want truth? Stop by the museum and take a look.” The voice was pure venom. “Anything else?”
Yes! Where are the Hunter logs? “Do you have anything, access to anything, that might show us what really happened on the mission?”
She paused. Kim wished she could see the woman’s face. “No,” she said at last. But the hesitation put the lie to it.
“Tora,” said Kim, “I can’t do this without your help.”
“Do me a favor, Doctor,” she said. “Don’t do anything, okay? I just don’t need any more of your help.” She broke the connection.
Kim walked over to the window and looked out at the sea.
“I want to talk to Solly. How long will it take to—?”
“Acquire the data and assemble the psyche? Not long. And you’ll need to fill me in on the details of the mission. But I do not advise the procedure.”
“Do it anyway.”
“Kim, you’ve often advised against—”
“How long, Shep?”
“I won’t know until I see what’s available. If there is online access, you can speak with him tonight.”
An hour later she went up the front steps into the Mighty Third Memorial Museum.
It required no shrewdness to guess what she’d find: Another hero from the battle of Armagon had replaced Markis Kane. The attack on the Hammurabi was no longer on display. The glass case which had sheltered artifacts from the 376 was empty. Signs indicated that a new exhibition, describing the exploits of fleet physicians, was being prepared.
Even the pictures of Kane helping the museum staff assemble the display were gone.
She went looking for Mikel and found him conducting VIPs through a simulator designed to recreate an attack run against a capital ship in a laser boat. He saw her and signaled her to wait in his office. But she returned to the empty case. She was still standing there fifteen minutes later when he joined her. “I’m glad you’re well,” he said. “It must have been a terrible experience.”
“It wasn’t good, Mikel.” She watched him sit down, not behind his desk, but on a divan.
“Can we get you something?” he asked. “Coffee, perhaps?”
“No, thank you,” she said. “Mikel, what happened to the Kane display?”
“We removed it.”
“I see that. May I ask why?”
His eyes widened. “You can’t be serious. You of all people. The man’s a killer. What would you expect me to do?”
“You don’t know that.”
“Either he’s a killer or he protected Tripley after he did it. The details don’t much matter.” He looked at her accusingly. “I’m surprised that you would object. I mean, that was your sister they threw out the air lock. I’d have thought you’d be pleased we took down the display.”
“We don’t know yet what really happened out there.”
“Kim.” His voice acquired its bureaucratic tone. “I’m sorry. I don’t quite understand your attitude in this. Kane’s guilty of something, possibly murder, aiding and abetting at the very least, and everybody knows it.”
She pushed her hands into her pockets and looked through the office window at the exhibit, at the images of warships, the pictures of the captains. Off to her left a theater was running a recreation of Armagon.
“Children come in here,” Mikel continued. “How would it look to have a tribute to a killer?”
“Mikel,” she said, “when the truth comes out, I think you’re going to be embarrassed.”
He looked bored. “It’s hard to see how that could be. How many people were on the ship? But, okay, if I’m wrong, and it turns out that somehow or other he’s innocent, we’ll just put everything back up and no harm done.”
“No harm done.”
“Kim, do you know something I don’t?”
“No,” she said.
He took a deep breath. “Look, I didn’t want this. It was terrible news, learning about Emily. I really didn’t know much about Kile Tripley. But Kane—We don’t have many heroes. We couldn’t afford to lose one. Not this one, especially.”
“Then don’t give up on him.”
He wore a green shirt, open at the neck; dark blue slacks; and the peaked cap that he usually affected when they were out sailing. Shep had given him his captain’s chair from the yacht. “Hi, Kim. It’s good to see you.”
Tears started immediately to run down her cheeks. She knew, had known all along, that this wasn’t a good idea. Still, psychoanalysts maintained this was the best kind of therapy after an unexpected loss. If one didn’t go too far. “I hate what you did,” she said.
“There was no point in our both getting killed.” He smiled, and Shep had it exactly right. “How are you making out?”
“I’ve been better.” She gazed at him, wishing she could will him back. Seize the image, hold him, never let go. It seemed somehow as if it should be easy. As if she could just reach across the room and snatch him into the world.
“How are they responding to the news you brought back? When’s the parade?”
“We’re keeping it quiet. I’ve talked to Woodbridge. He’s concerned about the possibility of other people going out there.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“If I had my way, I’d try to find out where the sons of bitches are from, and I’d send the fleet after them.”
“That doesn’t sound much like the peace-loving Kim Brandywine I’ve always known.”
“I don’t feel very peace-loving. They killed Emily. Killed you.” He was nodding, agreeing. “Solly, they’ve taken everything I ever cared about.”
“Not everything. That’s an overreaction—”
“How can you say that—?”
“Because you have a long future waiting for you. I’m sorry I won’t be around to share it. But we took our chances and it didn’t work out the way it was supposed to.” He rearranged his cap at a rakish angle. “What did Woodbridge have to say?”
“He agreed they were dangerous and that we needed to avoid contact.”
“Yeah. They’re dangerous. But listen. Kim—”
“Woodbridge makes me uncomfortable. He’s a little too righteous.”
“You didn’t tell him about the Archives, did you?”
“Good. Don’t.” He gazed at her for a long time. “What’s next?”
“I want to try to set things right with Ben Tripley.”
“You going out there?”
“He’s a jerk. You don’t owe him anything.”
“Okay. But be careful around these people. Don’t trust any of them.”
“Solly, Ben’s all right. He’s just wound a little tight. Anyhow, I feel guilty. Everybody thinks Kane and his father murdered Emily.”
“Maybe they did. Who else was on that ship?”
“I just don’t believe it.”
“You know what you have to do, right?”
“Sure,” she said. “Find the Hunter logs.”