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Authors: Julie E. Czerneda

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BOOK: The Gate to Futures Past
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Save me from the planetborn, I thought. The food we had was what the ship doled out each day, rationed from a supply that would inevitably—even if enough for more than were on board—end. The below-freezing nights precluded any attempt to produce our own food. Coincidence? Unlikely, according to Morgan.

Morgan, who was little more than
distant preoccupation
, being focused on his immediate concern.

Don't invent more, I warned myself, forcing a smile. “Of course, Holl. You're right. Thanks for this,” I lifted the packet.

Planetborn, but not slow by any means. “Are you concerned over the food, Sira?” Holl asked in a low voice. “What does the ship say? If there are repairs needed—”

>
I do not require repair, Keeper.<

Was that a tinge of
annoyance?

My own, certainly, having the ship interrupt. “
Sona
claims to be fine,” I replied, preferring truth to accuracy.

“Good to hear.” Holl's guarded expression told me she understood the difference. “I'll have someone do a final sweep through the storage area once we're done.” Her lips sounded out “Morgan.”

No one better, but I'd no idea how long my Human would need. “Ask Barac.” I grinned. “Give him something to do.”

Other than help his Chosen with the ship's children.

I took my meal to an empty table, eating with slow care. There were green biscuits that tasted fishy—or like pepper, depending on how long they sat on the tongue—as well as shiny purple globes reminiscent of spiced tea. The sum was nutritious, without the metabolic accelerants of the Om'ray diet.

Along our link, I knew the moment Morgan laid his palm, space-tanned and callused, over Ruis'.

Deliberately, I took another bite.

She'd be surprised. My Chosen, especially in the M'hir, was unlike any Clan. Warm,
real,
and reassuring, his presence was steady and sure, as if nothing there could disturb him, a
steadiness that revealed astonishing Power. That didn't make him invulnerable.

Not that I'd interfere.

Not, more grimly, that I'd leave him linked to another Clan mind without protection.

I chewed, ignoring taste, dismissing texture, my
awareness
of Jason Morgan strengthening until his heartbeat became a counterpoint to my own.

On guard.

Interlude

T
O MORGAN, the M'hir flowed away, before and behind, as an endless beach, with firm yet yielding sand beneath his feet, the only sound the gentle lap of black waves to either side. Waves to watch, for they could become a tumultuous nightmare without warning, their foam like flame, able to sweep him away if he wasn't aware and braced.

Sira? If she were close, the light of her
presence
would burn away the dark and calm the sea to glass.

Ruis had no such
impact.
Her mind manifested in the M'hir as a faint indecisive shimmer, near, but not. They needn't be here to communicate—and wouldn't. But such introduction between adults was, according to Sira, important.

He'd the feeling his Chosen liked her kind to see him here, not that she'd ever told him why.

Introduction complete, by mutual agreement he and Ruis let go of the M'hir, their thoughts mingled only at their outermost layering. Wait. There. The
path
to the depths of her well-organized mind, unprotected.

A test, no doubt, of Human manners. Ruis had the Talent and skill to make him regret any intrusion.

Manners he had. As for his own mind—well, what he wouldn't share lay locked, shrouded, and beyond any possible reach. He
let no one but Sira behind those shields. That there were some beyond which even she couldn't pass, not without damaging his mind?

Half the fun.

The tempting path vanished.
I am ready. Show me the child, Morgan.

He guided Ruis through his memories of what had happened, protecting her, as much as possible, from those of the backlash that had consumed him and almost his Chosen.

She wasn't fooled.
Risky,
the Om'ray commented.
And for an unChosen?
Before he could react, she continued with overtones of
respect. Well done. But you've more to share, and worse, have you not?

Perceptive, but a Healer-of-minds would be. Other Healers could remove a blockage or repair injury to the brain, but very few had the Talent to grasp and manipulate the workings of a mind.

Yes,
he replied, letting her feel his
concern. I fear Eloe and these Chosen are only the beginning.

You believe their madness has spread, despite our care?
Doubt.
I've seen no evidence of it.

Not spread.
He readied another, much older memory.
I fear—
confined in this ship, with no escape? It wasn't fear. It was sickening terror.
I fear what's happened to the Clan has left wounds, wounds that will fester and become madness unless we heal them first. I know it can happen
—

Memories gushed forth as though from a reopened wound. Terrible, consuming. War. Loss. Rage born of grief twisting into self-destruction—

The agonizingly slow process to heal, to let go the past, to begin to live again. Hard, leaving that pain, even now. Hard—

Beloved.
Sira, nearer than he'd expected, letting him
feel
her presence. He followed her
calm warmth
along their link.

As Morgan came back, Sira retreated, leaving him alone with Ruis.

To Om'ray, those who have gone before are no longer real,
Ruis assured him, her mindvoice distant and proud.
We do not cling to our dead, as you or the M'hiray—

Have you rung the bells?
Aryl's mindvoice glanced by Morgan like a sharp and bitter wind, aimed at Ruis.
Have you spoken their names the final time?
Om'ray may no longer
feel
the dead, but let us have truth here, Healer. You are the last of the Rayna Adepts—what of your fellows? You had children—a brother—his family—

Ruis let out a cry, but Aryl, far stronger, had neither compunction nor pity.
Your dead haunt your memory, Healer.
The wind fell away, became like pealing bells.
As do mine. As do those of everyone aboard. We will be in pain until we have paid those respects and have time to mourn. Do not dare deny
—

The connection broke.

Morgan withdrew his hand, his eyes locked on Ruis'
.
Though hers were dry and met his with a surely justified anger in their depths, she caught her lower lip between her teeth and was silent.

Perhaps thinking better of a protest.

“No time.” He used Aryl's word. “No certainty or comfort. Only this ship and where it might take us. Under such strain no wonder minds are crumbling. I'm amazed more haven't. We need to act before they do, Ruis. Heal their wounds.”

“What you suggest is impossible.” Almost bitter. “To pull a mind back from the brink, yes, that we can sometimes accomplish—if we catch that mind before it fails. But these wounds you speak of—” Ruis grimaced. “Grief and dark memories. Despair and unhappiness. Who doesn't struggle with those now? Morgan, you know as well as I do our Talent can't heal what isn't yet broken. Our only recourse is to watch for signs—”

“We're trapped in a can,” he countered grimly. “Wait for madness to manifest, and it'll be too late.”

Ruis gestured understanding. “The problem—and its answer. We must end this journey and get off the ship. Be under a sky—a proper roof. Feel some hope, Morgan. That above all.”

Circling back to
Sona
, again. To a shipmind that wouldn't—or couldn't—answer the most basic questions about where and when and how. There had to be a way— “Which may never happen,” he said, a warning to himself as much as the other Healer-of-minds. “What then?”

“One. Two and three.” She made an unfamiliar gesture, brushing her palms across one another with each number to produce a soft susurration. “Eloe and her heart-kin took most of your strength. I value your skills and know my own, Jason Morgan, but if it is all of us, or even most? Four, five, six—” her hands moving faster and faster, more numbers tumbling forth, “—fifteen—” becoming a blur—

He trapped her hands midstrike. Held them. “There's too many,” the Human agreed, his voice catching in his throat. “I know. We couldn't heal them all, not in time. But maybe we won't have to—not if we ease the strain within everyone's mind at once.”

“I've told you—” She stopped, staring at him. “You would use the Maker. Morgan, no!”

“Yes. I've seen it in action. You were Rayna's Keeper. You know how to use it.”

Ruis hesitated. When she spoke, it was as though the words were being pulled from her. “I've sent the dreams. Helped those Lost. But this—I wouldn't know how.” She turned her hands in his, tightened her grip before letting go. “Even if I did, I'm not
Sona
's Keeper.” Softer. “Even if I were, Morgan, there's a greater problem.” She nodded at the di Kessa'ats, still asleep—or unconscious—in their beds. “Everyone knows what the Maker did to the M'hiray, how it changed them into different people. No one will allow its use again.”

“We don't tell them.”

Her head rose sharply, hair twitching at the ends. “Dreaming to learn what's needed by a Clan is one thing. What you're suggesting—it's Forbidden.”

“So is letting people suffer when we could have helped.” The mind he'd touched cared more for her patients than her own life. “So is risking the lives of everyone on this ship, because it could come to that, Ruis, if any go mad and strike out, instead of in.”

The Rayna closed her eyes. He waited without moving, watched her hair slowly settle over her shoulders.

When her eyes opened, their expression was bleak. “We need proof of all this. We Heal these two.” Ruis indicated the di
Kessa'ats. “If you're right and their illness is like Eloe's, we search for similarities that could be warning signs. If—if, Morgan, we find such signs, we look for them in others. If we prove more are at risk, that we can identify them, then—” with
conviction,
“—we take what we've found to Council. They must decide what to do. It's not up to us.”

“Agreed,” he said. “But if we find those signs, the trick's who to test first.” Of course, the Human nodded to himself. “Council. Decent sample of our population, none more discreet, and—as you say—it's their decision. What better way to show them the urgency of making one?”

Her lips had parted in a half-gasp. Very slowly, they curved into the first full smile he'd seen on her face. “You are different. I keep forgetting that.”

Morgan gave a small bow. “Some never will,” he replied honestly.

“‘You can't make an Oud swim.'” Ruis' smile faded. “We need new sayings. As far as I'm concerned, you're the finest Healer-of-minds I've ever met, Morgan. You'd have made an exceptional Keeper.” She gestured apology. “By so saying, I mean no slight to your Chosen. Though untrained for the position, Sira's done well.”

By not doing anything—despite being unsaid, the qualification came through, loud and clear. Morgan grinned. “She'll appreciate that.”

As for his being Keeper?

Oh, he'd been thinking about that, too, in his “different” way. Ruis was right about one thing—the sooner they'd a realistic hope of leaving this ship, the sooner most could start to heal on their own.

Which required answers
Sona
wasn't providing.

First things first. Heal these two, then—

Sira,
he sent to his Chosen,
would you join
us?

Chapter 5

G
IVE ME A MOMENT.

Morgan's unexpected invitation could mean they needed me. Just as likely, I grinned to myself, he'd decided having me there was better than my
listening
along our link, but I wasn't about to ask. Instead, I warmed four more of the damaged packets, reasoning they might be welcome—and it made Holl happy.

Then formed the locate and concentrated . . .

. . . I arrived, at a small distance, and quietly put the packets down on the nearest table.

Morgan and Ruis didn't notice, being busy doing whatever Healers-of-minds did for those in need.

I sat by the packets to watch. Not that there was much to see. Fingers on foreheads; looks of effort and concentration. Matching frowns that eased before I could start to worry.

And, in the end, eyelids opening on sane awareness. Ruis looked at Morgan.
Something
passed between them before she went back to Luek di Kessa'at, murmuring as she loosened the Clanswoman's wrappings.

Nyso, finding a Human leaning over him, twisted himself in a sheet-encumbered knot and fell off the bed, squawking like one of his Chosen's birds.

Why we'd saved the pair—

Prejudice, according to Morgan, was a greater problem for the one who harbored it. At the time, he'd been referring to my wearing a space helmet to our meeting with a roomful of Lemmicks, thus bringing the meeting to a swift, unprofitable end. There may have been insults, but as they were honked, loudly, I couldn't swear to it.

I suspected then, as now, that my captain hoped to convey a broader lesson than my regrettable lack of compassion for the odorous. Admittedly, I wasn't the best student.

Right now, I was in no mood for nonsense. I shared my
displeasure
with Nyso, pleased to see him gesturing an apology so frantically he tangled himself again.

Chit!

None too pleased, my Chosen.

Not a problem.

Neither was I. The tension between him and Ruis grated along my nerves.

“Tell me what's going on.”

Morgan hesitated, so briefly I doubted anyone else would have noticed. Then, smoothly, “We need you to summon the ship's Council—”

Like that, was it? I concentrated . . .

. . . reappearing, with Morgan, under the stars.

What we'd come to call the Star Chamber was the only place left on
Sona
to permit a look outside, courtesy of its partly transparent ceiling. Granted, in subspace, all we could see were the distorted smears that marked, Morgan assured us, stars, but it was worth it. Long trails of every imaginable color flowed overhead, punctuated at seeming random by sparks or pools of dazzling white, as if music could be seen.

Rows of elongated white benches curved along one side, facing an open space presumably for briefings or presentations. Add pillows and the benches would have been fine for sleeping, had
Sona
not sent the chamber below freezing each shipnight.

Hence its more euphemistic name: “Happy Place.” Dim the ship lighting to free the ever-changing display, watch it flicker and dance around the chamber, and the Star Chamber became the most romantic spot on the ship.

No Chosen were immune; even those M'hiray who'd come together only at Council order eagerly sought this space and each other. Our kind, it turned out, was hard-wired to reproduce, an instinct avoidable when Chosen lived on different planets but not now, confined within the ship. Age was irrelevant: two thirds of our Chosen were beyond childbearing.

Why not seek comfort? As for the rest, we desperately needed to increase our number, no matter what the future held.

By unspoken protocol, Chosen weren't to sneak up here more than once a shipday and whomever 'ported first won sole right to the chamber, for a reasonable length of time. Rumor had it some of the Sona weren't overly concerned with privacy.

Though we'd the “Happy Place” to ourselves at the moment, there was nothing romantic about Morgan standing apart from me, arms crossed and a frown tight between his eyes. “What are we doing here, chit?” he snapped, in full “captain” mode. “Council must convene. We'll need someone to step in for Ruis with our patients, so she can attend as well. There's no time to waste—”

I arched an eyebrow. “I've time.”

Silence. The sort that might imply I'd cycled the air lock backward—again—except I hadn't. This time, my Human, my esteemed captain, was in the wrong.

I watched the realization slowly dawn. “Sira, I—”

“Wait. I almost forgot.” I concentrated . . .

. . . reappearing with his pack in both arms, it being heavier than I remembered.

Morgan took it without a word. He pretended to check a fastening, then swung the pack, one-handed, onto the nearest bench. Gathering thoughts, at a guess, behind shields I wouldn't challenge.

He looked up at last. The sober intensity of his gaze told me he wouldn't be tricked or cajoled.

Honesty, then. “Jason, you keep two kinds of secrets from me.
Where you've hidden a present—which is fine, by the way.” I couldn't smile. “The other? The ‘thing you suspect is so terrible you must prove it first' kind? That's not fine. Not here.”

“You've—” my Chosen stopped, running fingers through his hair. “That obvious?”

“It's hardly the first time,” I reminded him, glad as something
eased
between us. “I can guess some of it. You showed Ruis your past.” The darkest part, a forge that had, in many ways, created the Morgan I loved with all my being. It could have destroyed him. “You think Eloe—Nyso and Luek—suffered as you did. That more Clan will unless—” of course, “—you fix it.”

“Yes.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Fix it how, exactly?”

Morgan sat, hands locked around a knee. “That is the question, isn't it?”

He'd a plan, or the start of one. A plan he knew I wouldn't like—or was it worse? Was it something “Forbidden,” putting it squarely under the authority of— “Is that why you want a Council meeting?” I accused. “To trick them into letting you do what you want?”

“I wouldn't put it quite like that.”

I would. Watching Morgan manipulate others, especially those Clan who underestimated the master trader's skills, was my favorite sport: warmer than hockey and often profitable. Not this time. Not when I suspected what he wanted to do was Forbidden because it should be.

I sat beside him, turned so our knees brushed. “Tell me,” I said gently. “I could help.” Or stop this first.

His hand cupped my cheek, eyes searching mine. “I'm counting on it.”

Not good. That meant it wasn't only the ship's Council he intended to trick into whatever this was, but me as well. A ploy we'd used before: my ignorance of a move he planned made my reaction admittedly more convincing than any I could rehearse, but—

I pulled from his touch. “We're not bargaining for engine parts. This is—it's not a game.”

Beneath the beard, muscle worked along his jaw. “That's where you're wrong, Sira. The stakes are higher, that's all.” Our eyes
locked for a moment, then he tipped his hand, palm-up. “You decide. I tell you what I have so far, which isn't much. Or you let me do this my way and we'll see where the sparks fly.”

He asked me to trust him—trust Human instincts, which weren't mine and had, on notable occasions in the past, conflicted. To let him use me along with those leading the Clan.

To swallow my pride, I thought, all at once feeling the
rightness
of it. To be his partner and help those who trusted us.

“Your way, then. But watch those sparks,” I advised primly. “We've a closed atmosphere.”

“‘Closed—'” The start of a relieved smile transformed to a grin. “Good one. Remind me to tell—”

The grin vanished. A flicker, no more, of pain; then, in the next instant, Morgan's face showed nothing at all.

He'd no one to tell I'd made my first spacer joke. No other spacers. Not Huido Maarmatoo'kk, the giant Carasian who was his closest friend. Not Russell Terk, the gruff enforcer, nor his boss, the redoubtable Lydis Bowman, who'd been part of Morgan's life—and the Clan's, I now knew, from the start. Everyone who'd have cared was gone from his life.

Left behind, for me. “Jason—”

“A good trade.”
No regrets here, Witchling.
Shields fell away, and it was true and beyond wonderful that what coursed between us held only
love
.

A finger lifted in invitation. A lock of hair accepted, slipped around his hand and wrist, wove distractingly up his bare arm. I watched the blue of his eyes deepen, resisted the urge to lose myself in them. “What about the Council meeting?” I said, attempting to be responsible. “We—”

The rest was lost beneath his lips.
Later . . .
the kiss exquisitely tender and slow, as if he discovered the shape of my mouth for the first time.

Or wanted never to forget it.

Later,
I agreed, with all my heart.

How long it was before we lay still, bathed in starlight and sweat, cloaked in my now-sated hair, I didn't know and couldn't care. Our hearts slowed in harmony; our breaths matched, then didn't, then did again, like dancers; and the meaning of life itself could be found in the scent of him and the warmth of us and now.

Yet there was more. With us, between Chosen, always, there was more. Our thoughts mingled, heavy and comfortable, wrapped together like our legs and arms. The rush of heat and ecstasy that had exploded—or had it sung—between our minds eased into bliss.

Wife.
Morgan stroked my hip.

I smiled.
Husband.
In the Trade Pact, lifemate was more common, or contract partner, but my Human had his own heritage and it wasn't only war.

As he had his own needs. We weren't the same. What gave me pleasure lay within my mind, cued by touch, but
felt
inside. Among Clan, only Chosen could satisfy one another. What fulfilled Morgan lay outside, conveniently accessible to any partner.

He'd not dared just any partner, nor let down his guard. The risk to a telepath—of exposure, of fatal vulnerability—was too great.

Until now. I found I could squeeze closer, and did.

I
felt
his smile.
Didn't know what I was missing. Witchling.

No other partner would do for him either, I thought rather smugly. Not now. As a telepath, Morgan had discovered he also
felt.

Making what we did together, for one another, work very well indeed.

Fingertips tenderly traced where scars had once crossed my abdomen, then his hand pressed warm over where Aryl slept—or didn't. Either way, she kept a discreet distance, allowing us this.

Odd. The memory of my scars had been a reminder of survival and pain. Now, Morgan's hand reminded me I held within me a treasure.

Family.
With a certain
smugness
of his own.

I could, I thought, grow to like that word, too.

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