Taran River, West Branch
Early Spring, Year 1057
It was hard to guess how deep the water was, but it didn’t look promising for wading across. A tumble of large rocks lay like thrown dice in the river, and the water shattered and frothed silver where it struck. Piers stood on a boulder at the edge, a foot or two above the tumult, and watched a large branch hurtle past and snap against a jutting rock. Beside him, Arthur stooped for a stick, and sent it arcing through the rain to splash into the current halfway across.
The rain was coming down harder, and here at the edge of the water there was no shelter from the canopy of leaves behind them. Piers was soaked, so wet that he no longer distinguished the drips from the sky and the drips from his hair as the water trickled over his face and under the collar of his jacket. Their first two days here had been clear and dry, and then they’d had day after day of intermittent but gentle rain; this shiver-inducing sogginess wasn’t nearly as pleasant, but he told himself to enjoy the novelty of it. He wondered where all this water came from.
“Just once,” Arthur said, voice raised over the sound of the water. “Just once, I’d like to report back to the ship that we made good progress.”
Piers laughed. “We’re learning how to cope down here. Exactly what scouts are supposed to do.”
He knew what Arthur was thinking—and he didn’t need his psi-enhanced Empathy to know how his fellow scout was feeling. Arthur hadn’t intended to be a landing scout; he’d trained as a planner. Walking miles in the rain, traipsing through fields and forest, sorting out who to trust and what was safe: landing scouts like Piers were supposed to do all that. Arthur had intended to be comfortable and surrounded by the familiar while he incorporated what Piers and the others learned into Redemption’s integration plan. In the two weeks since their shuttle had dropped them here, Piers had coaxed and coached Arthur through more novel situations than either of them had imagined.
It would have been so different if Kathleen were with him. He tried not to think about her, since neither the regret nor the longing would help him focus, but Arthur’s cautious reluctance was a nearly constant reminder. If Kath were with him, they would be sharing observations, puzzling things out, and laughing at their surprises. She had trained for this, too—more than he had, really, since she joined the landing scout team before him—and had been nearly out of her mind with excitement as they got closer to their departure. Her accident by itself wasn’t the tragedy, since her body would heal. Being unable to be part of the scouting, though, that came close to killing her. Even so, even when she was in the worst of her pain, she’d been sympathetic about the fact that her other ex-boyfriend would take her place as Piers’s scout partner.
Knowing them both as well as she did, she’d predicted both their vacillating friendship and the difficulty Piers would have with Arthur’s unpoetic, rule-bound determination. For Arthur, nothing mattered more than the assignment. Three thousand people were up there in orbit, crammed in an ark ship that wasn’t meant to support even eight hundred, and they were counting on the scouts to arrange a welcome among a population that should have been expecting them but wasn’t. As Arthur saw it, there’d be time enough later to marvel at the wonders of planetary life when all of them were on the ground.
“I’m getting sick of surprises,” Arthur said, his voice rasping. He squared his shoulders. “Anyway, we have to get across, if we’re going to get to the city.”
Piers pictured the low-orbit images they’d studied before landing. They’d had limited options for bringing the shuttle down somewhere remote enough to avoid notice but not impossibly far from civilization, and it had been a rough start for them. It had been a relief when they’d finally come to the road that would lead them through the long tract of dense forest between the shuttle’s landing spot and the nearest settlement. If nothing else, it was much easier walking for people who’d only ever known the smooth, level corridors of the ship.
Before it vanished under the trees, the road crossed a river that had looked like a small, silvery blue thread from the ship. When they’d come to the bridge, the punishing force of the water had been a lesson in false perceptions. They had watched the rushing, rippling band of water seem to bend against the structure and sentiently flow around obstacles, with a hiss that sounded distressingly like a punctured air-seal. A dropped twig on the upstream side shot out from under the bridge before they could even cross to watch it reappear. It made Piers feel like the ground was sliding under his feet, and he’d enjoyed the novelty of the sensation, but it had made Arthur’s ground-sickness flare up again.
They knew the road would emerge from the forest just north of the city, with a mile or so of open approach to a clearly visible wall. At the south-eastern edge of the city, there was no wall except the forest itself. They’d left the road to cut through the forest to that more discreet entry—and to try to get some respite from the pelting rain. From the ship’s only remaining camera, this second branch of the river had looked trivial, something to step over.
Up close, it turned out to be more turbulent than the branch spanned by the bridge. “The road’s north of us now,” Piers said. “Backtrack?”
Arthur was fiddling with the dangling end of his pack’s strap, and his eyes were fixed on the swirling brown water at their feet. “No,” he said. “I don’t want to waste time. We need to keep going—and I really want to get into the city without the long hello.”
Near where they stood, there was a flat rock almost level with the water, and beyond that, the scattered rocks and boulders made a broken path across the river. Piers put a hand on Arthur’s thin shoulder and channeled a bit of his own enthusiasm for the challenge. Arthur wasn’t an Empath, and wasn’t the most psi-sensitive individual, but Piers could usually bolster him with a Push of confidence or optimism. “Looks like we could step across here.” He pointed at a few rocks in sequence. “Just another new experience. Come on. See you on the other side.”
Piers stepped out to the rock and discovered that seeing the motion of the water around him made him a little queasy. Better to focus on the next step rather than his feet, so he plotted his next move—another one-man island. Next was a large rock with several ledge-like angles. Other steps beckoned beyond that. The rocks gleamed, wet, and he wondered if the water would be colder than the rain. Soaked as he was already, he still didn’t want to have to wade. He tried not to notice the ferocity of the river, and tried not to be distracted by Arthur’s timid progress to his right.
He stretched over to the ledge rock and planted his right foot on one of the ledges, straddling a fury of water until he pulled himself forward. It was narrower than he’d thought, and he had to balance on his toes. Water sprayed his legs and rain stung his face. Now what?
“Careful, Haldon,” Arthur called. “Don’t want to get wet!”
With a grin at Arthur’s wisecrack, Piers looked for a way forward. Nothing convenient. There was a small rock just under the water, a mid-point to a better option, so he stepped there intending to keep moving. It was coated with algae and he started to slip. Ice-cold water poured over his foot—much colder than the rain—and his already bruised hip took the impact when he caught himself against a wall of rock, but he stayed on his feet. Adrenaline shot through him, and he made himself slow down. It was maybe forty feet to the other side—probably not even that—but it felt like a good portion of forever passed before he found himself standing on the broad, flat boulder on the western bank.
Arthur seemed to be at an impasse halfway across, stalled and contemplating his choices. He hesitated, apparently debating whether to follow Piers’s route or try something else. He looked around for options, and then stepped on a submerged rock. It looked like he was trying to walk on the water.
He started to paddle the air and then fell sideways with a shout. The water started to drag him away, but Arthur grabbed a prominent boulder and fought to hold on against the force of the current. One arm slipped, and he struggled to reattach to the slick rock. The river swept over his shoulders and pack.
Piers shrugged off his own rain-sodden pack and started back toward Arthur, shouting encouragement as he tried to hurry on the rocks he’d just carefully navigated.
He saw Arthur try to stand, but the water jerked him down. Arthur yawped as he fell again, his body twisting. His legs were swept out from under him. His pack dislodged, somehow, and he lunged to grab it. Water smacked into his face and snatched the pack out of his reach.
“Arthur!” A rock Piers had crawled over earlier now blocked his view—Arthur was on the other side. “Hang on, Arthur!” He slipped again, and his legs plunged into the frigid water, over his knees. At the shock, his psi screens fell, and inadvertently he Reached for Arthur, Empathically, as if that would help Arthur find his feet.
Arthur had no capacity to accept the extra psychic energy, and since Piers had left himself Open, the force of Arthur’s terror blasted him instead. It tore away his own control. All he could feel, all he could be at that moment was an extension of Arthur. He felt his own legs being dragged by the current, his own face battered by the angry river, not the sensations but the confusion and panic. He fought to find the psychic boundary between himself and Arthur, and to center his thoughts again.
He pulled himself around the upstream side of a boulder, scrabbling under the water to keep in contact with the rock. He heard Arthur shout again, and saw Arthur’s pack ricochet against a boulder before the river tossed it a yard downstream. Then he saw Arthur tumble after it, feet first, arms flailing, knocking against the same sequence of boulders.
“Hang on!” Piers yelled again. He splashed and spidered back to his pack, which was half in the water at the edge of the river. He fumbled with the straps and yanked stuff out until he found the coil of rope and then scrambled along the bank to keep Arthur in sight. The merciless current ripped his partner into the swift center of the river. Only yards away, the water crashed into another span of rocks. Piers shouted for Arthur, who was thrashing sideways. Neither of them could swim, but Arthur kicked and paddled and kept his head above water, and he managed to reorient himself in the smoother water. Piers thought Arthur saw him, and cast one end of the rope out over the water.
Arthur reached for it, but missed. He thrashed harder as he was swept past it, trying to get within reach. The water spun him as it poured into the funnel between rocks. His back slammed into a rock; his body folded over and he dropped into the rapids backwards, his legs pointed upstream. Piers saw Arthur’s face just before he was dumped into the violent whitewater. He seemed to be staring right at Piers.
Piers flung the rope aside and forced his way through the woods and brush at the edge of the bank, stumbling and skidding down the incline beside the rapids. Branches lashed at him, roots tried to trip him, but he ran on, shouting Arthur’s name with decreasing hope. He Scanned; nothing. He had to climb back up to stay beside the river, but he could still see the racing water. He sprinted as long as he could, high on the bank, then walked while his lungs burned. He thought he was perhaps a half-mile from where he crossed.
The river curved to the southeast, suddenly gentler and shallower. Branches and vegetative detritus were piled in the bend, caught against a tree that overhung the water. Pinned against the pile, a piece of fabric waved in the water. With his heart in his throat, Piers worked his way along the bank to get as close as he could. He knew it was one of Arthur’s ship-made shirts.
Piers paced beside the water, oblivious to the rain as he stared at Arthur’s shirt. His mind was stuttering over questions, useless ones like: why only one shirt? The more important question, the obvious one, his mind refused to formulate. The river deposited another small branch at the pile and swirled on.
He Reached as far as he could. Nothing. Arthur could be unconscious. Piers strained his psychic senses further, even risked a prolonged Scan. His heartbeat was too loud. His temples started to pound and the nausea began to rise, but he made himself Reach still farther. There was nothing, no one, and the feeling he dreaded—the sense of utter, desolate isolation—started to cling to him. He stopped Scanning before it overwhelmed him.
He shivered. Best to at least keep moving, even if he didn’t know what to do. At the farthest edge of his sight, downstream, the river narrowed again and he saw white. Upstream, he could see nothing but the smooth current. Something drifted into his attention—a sock. He watched as the swifter water snagged it and it sped toward the pile of debris.
If there were still things from Arthur’s pack being pulled loose, the pack might be caught among the rocks. So might Arthur.
Running back, on ice-water legs that had started to stiffen, was harder. Piers felt like he had to concentrate on every muscle’s effort as he retraced his path. Easy to see where he’d been, from the trail of broken twigs and disturbed leaves.
When he got to the woods beside the rapids, he grabbed hold of a tree and leaned out for an unobstructed view. Arthur’s pack was barely a quarter of the way from the end of the rapids. One strap had snagged on something, and the flap was open, inviting the water to reach in and take whatever it could carry. Hope flared. Piers moved, and raked his eyes over the next section of the rapids, then the next.
He saw the boot first, when he looked downstream, because the pale sole stood out against the dark rock. Then he realized it was there because Arthur’s ankle was wedged between two sharp rocks, twisting his leg at an impossible angle. Piers tasted copper as he saw Arthur’s body bucking and slamming against the rocks, face-down, arms reaching downstream as if diving. Blood streamed into the water.
Piers dropped to his knees and retched.
He hadn’t noticed that the rain had stopped. He didn’t remember making his way back to his own pack. As his senses reawakened, those were his first realizations. Awareness of aching ribs and a burning throat followed, and then he learned he was cold, bruised, and hungry.
Piers discovered he had pointlessly wrapped himself in his blanket, which was now as wringing wet as everything else, and settled on the ground with his back against a tree. He remembered none of that. The sky was still light, and he didn’t think he’d been asleep, but he’d shut down so completely it amounted to the same thing—except he didn’t feel rested.
The ship chimed in his ear: in range. That must be what pulled him out of the daze. He initiated contact through the implant, and Jon replied.
“Hey, scout! What news?” Jon’s encoding was familiar, and that alone almost broke Piers’s control. It wasn’t Jon’s voice, exactly, but he knew how it should sound. The words took shape in Piers’s inner ear with Jon’s resonance and cheery inflection.
His own words were tangled, but Jon teased out the story, weaving the details together until he understood what had happened. There was silence, then.
Eventually, Jon said, “No way you can get to him?”
“No.” Cables, harnesses, pulleys…it could be done, if he had help and equipment.
Another long space, and then it wasn’t Jon but the captain who said, “Piers, you don’t have to play out the tether on this one, if you don’t want to.”
His eyes brimmed at the sound of his father’s voice. It surprised him that Jon had called in the captain for a real-time update, interrupting bridge duties when the scout program was the commander’s responsibility, not the captain’s. Plus, Jon knew that Piers had struggled to relate to his father after his parents’ divorce, despite their best efforts. But the calm concern was Dad at his best, ready to help but leaving enough space for Piers to decide what he needed.
Piers’s father said things like play out the tether when he wanted to keep a little bit of emotional distance, almost like promising in a code language not to resort to any psi shortcuts. It was just a figure of speech, but Piers did feel like he was on a spacewalk—not that he’d ever experienced that. He’d seen the maintenance team do it. Drifting through a vacuum, isolated, with just one tenuous link to safety. Dad meant: do you want to keep going and see this through, or do you want to be reeled in?
Piers closed his eyes. He wanted to shut everything out and think this through. No one would rush him.
He couldn’t go back to the ship. He and Arthur had stood at the edge of the clearing with their backs to the trees, and watched the departing shuttle become a toy, then a dot, then a speck, and finally a glint that faded into the sky. They’d known it wasn’t coming back.
It was just one more unconsidered consequence of the compromises the people on Redemption had made over the years. When the crew on the original manifest of the ship had woken from their suspension and realized they had missed their timemark, they’d had to make hard decisions. To live for three or four generations on a ship that was only meant to hold seven hundred and twenty newly re-awakened humans for a week or so, they knew they would have to make strategic use of everything they had, from the stock of Earth seeds and genes they had in store to the ship itself. Living from the cargo meant when they did finally arrive at the planet that had been prepared for them, they wouldn’t be delivering settlers and supplies so much as sending down a fully fledged community of people whose only experience with Earth was generational memory. And that had been the way of it.
Through the decades of realspace travel, three of Redemption’s four maintenance pods had been cannibalized for various good reasons, their systems and parts sacrificed to repair and extend the ship’s own. They hadn’t been intended for in-atmosphere excursions anyway. The eight-seat shuttle meant for an advance team’s landing had been, unbelievably, half-wrecked by a Manifester in the mad days of despair and disappointment when they first realized what had happened. So the engineers had managed to cobble together two tiny autopilot shuttles for the scouts from the skeletons of the pods and the remnants of the eight-seater, but they were little more than wind-up toys held together with plas-tape.
After the first two scout teams were down, the ship recalled the shuttles. The engineers re-clad them with the last of the heat-shielding from the sabotaged vehicle, and it was just enough to protect the second teams through the fiery entry. There were no resources left to gin up a shuttle to fetch him home.
So. He was on his own.
After Kath’s accident, when they had finally been forced to admit that they couldn’t wait long enough for her to heal, there had been a lot of discussion about whether a scout could manage alone. There were good reasons why they’d decided it was worth finding a substitute on short notice. Commander Barston had been strong on the argument that a pair of scouts could watch out for each other. Arthur had shown the other truth: the buddy system didn’t guarantee protection.
Kath had also raised some thoughtful points about Piers being on his own, considering his potent psi abilities. At the time she was the only other scout who knew that he was being asked to use that ability on the planet. On the crowded ship, there were always other Empaths around. There was no way to avoid it, when there was no way to be more than a few feet away from at least one other person. They were pretty sure the Empathic link wouldn’t reach from ground to orbit, so Kath insisted that Piers needed to have someone with him, because they didn’t know how he’d react to being cut off from the familiar minds on the ship.
He’d bristled at her caution, thinking he heard subtext that he wasn’t self-sufficient. He knew his abilities to Screen and Block were well beyond average, too, and thought she underestimated his experience with being Separated. Despite their history, and the way his abilities had both enhanced and interfered with their relationship, she still didn’t recognize how much his psi talent could cost him. It dragged him into vulnerability, and it laid him open to a soul-deep kind of suffering when things went wrong.
When his parents’ marriage had disintegrated, he’d felt every poisonous drop of their antagonism—because they were both psi and he was Connected to them both. When his sister had wrestled with depression, Connection brought all the pain into Piers’s own mind and heart. And when his grandfather died, that part of his psyche was torn out of him, leaving ragged edges that were still raw even now. Even his connection to Kath, which wasn’t truly even a Link because she wasn’t psi, had meant that he felt every moment of her intensifying unhappiness before they broke up. That was just the fallout from having made himself Open to her feelings.
All that was nothing rare for an Empath, really; probably the others could match him horror for horror, if they ever compared their experiences. And the same gift amplified love, joy, and happiness, too, so most of them wouldn’t trade it. The difference for Piers was one of degree, and from the moment his psi ability had activated, his personal challenge was to learn to calibrate his sensitivity. On the rare occasions when he’d dropped his psi screens completely, he’d been assaulted with psychic cacophony—not just the gentle hum from fellow Empaths but blasts of emotion from Separates as well, all competing for his attention. If he worked at it, he could sometimes corral their contradictory emotions for a while to give himself time to process, but it took so much out of him that it could leave him in tatters.
By now, he had an acquired physical aversion to intense psi efforts. The nausea and headaches were incentive to try to break the habit of his Empathic impulses, to stop him from reflexively Scanning to see how someone was feeling, or Pushing to nudge along a friendship. There had been times in the past few years when using his ability had come pretty close to putting him in medibay; the physical consequences were getting serious. Living like a Separate—a non-Empath—hurt less and seemed safer, even though it meant forsaking the possibility of that deep, connected comprehension, that mutual understanding so complete it was like a saturation of self. He hadn’t been Connected to another Empath for years, and hadn’t left himself fully Open to anyone else’s emotions more than once or twice since Kath.
So it hadn’t been the easiest decision of his life when they asked him to join the program, even though he wanted to, and even though there really wasn’t a choice. Just like the ship’s navigation system was fueled by active Empaths working in concert, the landing sequence depended on an equal amount of planet-side psionic energy to hold the ship in equilibrium through the transition, descent, and landing. Piers was the only strong psi Redemption could spare; no one else, beyond a few of the bridge crew, came anywhere close to his level. If there were Empaths here, Redemption needed to find them. With his formidable psi talent, Piers was the ship’s best hope for this surreptitious scouting assignment—and the only backup plan they had.
He’d been open with Jon and the Commander about his doubts. The ship’s nav required eight Empaths at all times, so the crew were all needed just to maintain operations across the shifts. No creative permutation of the schedule made it possible for the ship to do without the three or four crew members whose psi ability was strong enough to be useful for this mission. The other Empaths on the ship didn’t have the capacity or the control to do this, and trying to draw out and channel their psi energy would burn through his. All the same, Piers didn’t think their chances were too good if they had to rely on any lone Empath, no matter how exceptional. Still, Jon and Barston argued, the long shot was better than no shot, and in any case Piers’s talent would be needed in the search for other Empaths.
So his doubts were overruled. His fears, well, those he’d shared only with the Captain. That had been a terrifying discussion, but unavoidable. His father knew how bad the pain could be, and knew, too, that Piers had been quite deliberately not using his psi abilities. “As your father, I want to keep you safe and happy, and I wouldn’t send you,” he had said. “As the captain, I have to deploy the resources I have in the best way I can.” They had talked through the stakes, and gone over the realities, and what it came down to was the simple truth that Piers was the only one who could take the assignment.
No one—himself included—really knew what it would take to guide Redemption to a safe landing. The plans just said that the Empaths should Connect as equals to create a path for the ship. Based on previous headaches and fever-like exhaustion, it was a fair bet that trying to direct his psi energy as kinetic power, and concentrating it against an eight-strong force, would leave him catatonic, insane, or dead. It had taken some soul-searching, but he’d finally accepted that if giving all he had was enough to give everyone on the ship at least a chance at surviving the landing, he was willing.
The exploration, the adventure, the purpose this mission offered was what he had craved all his life, and it was worth the price.
“What else can I do?” he asked. “I knew it was a one-way trip.” There was a momentary, unanchored, and nauseating giddiness. Without Arthur, he’d be alone in a way that made Separation seem like companionable silence. Being on his own on the planet with no one to talk to, no one who would understand the impressions and experiences he was facing—that felt like exile. “I’ll manage.” He imagined a tether unspooling.