Starlight, Pact Arcanum: Book Three – Excerpt

September 2141; Jumpvessel Singularity, interstellar void

Antonio Jameson stretched out in bed and looked at the window, watching the stars that were still visible through the coruscating glow of recursion drive. He was fit without being muscular, the bronze of his skin highlighting his shoulder-length, white hair. At ninety-nine years old, he looked like he was in his mid-twenties. His aging had slowed to a crawl since he reached physical maturity, gaining only a year over the course of each decade. Which was a plus, given the nine years of travel time between Chiron colony and the Solar system.

I don’t know how the Sentinels and humans can stand to emigrate either way, given their brief lifetimes. Armistice scientists were still working on the technology to put the mortal colonists in stasis for the length of the trip, but so far, the power demands of maintaining a temporal ward on top of environment and propulsion for that length of time remained prohibitive.

In the meantime, Antonio was the leader of a miniature city in flight, completely self-sufficient, and home to over thirty thousand inhabitants. During the flight, the entire population operated as members of the crew, and they all answered to him: human, Sentinel and Daywalker alike. There were no Nightwalkers, of course. The Children of Darkness were always denied passage out of the Solar system, in order to facilitate the Great Work.

Besides, it would have been too much of a burden on their fragile ecosystem to maintain a supply of bloodwine to feed them. It’s hard enough to keep up the rations for the Daywalkers, and they need to feed only once a month.

His own physical need for blood was even more limited, being more recreational than required, so he restricted himself to a small bottle on special occasions. He was a bit of a lightweight, though, and the indulgence always gave him a hangover the next day. Today was no exception.

He climbed out of bed and stumbled to the small washroom. He dug some painkillers out of the medicine cabinet and swallowed them dry. Then he splashed some water on his face and checked the virtual clock hovering to the side of the mirror. Ten minutes. He considered shaving, but decided not to bother. They probably won’t even notice.

It was a juggling act to keep all the elements balanced, allowing the community to function smoothly, but Antonio found it immensely satisfying. He always felt a letdown whenever he reached the terminus of one of his journeys and the passengers dispersed to their final destinations. Many of them kept in touch afterward, however, allowing him to maintain that sense of connection to the miniature societies he had fostered.

This had been a good trip. Everything had run like clockwork for the last eight years. The surprises had been mostly pleasant ones, such as the Child of Starlight that had been born to one of the shipboard unions that inevitably sprung up in transit. There were still only a few dozen of his race in existence, and Antonio had made a point of meeting them all personally as their informal patriarch. Given the travel schedule he kept, he had never been there for the early years of one of his people’s lives, and this was a rare opportunity to experience his childhood again from another perspective. On top of that, it meant that there was another Fourth Order telepath on this voyage to keep him company.

On a whim, he extended his senses and touched the mind of his six-year-old godson, and found him playing with a toy spaceship in the aeroponics bay on deck seventeen. It was refreshing to see the boy acting his age. Most of the Children of Starlight reached intellectual and emotional maturity at an accelerated rate far in advance of their physical development. “Good morning, Brad.”

The other telepath looked up and smiled. “Morning, Captain. Enjoying your day off?”

“I’m still trying to decide how to spend it.”

“Well, do something fun! You’re always working so hard. It’s a wonder your hair doesn’t turn white.”

“Very funny. I could say the same thing to you, but I happen to know you never do any work, and your hair’s as white as mine.”

The Harbinger child laughed. “Hey, it’s Tenth-day. I don’t have to be in school. Want to go for a run?”

Antonio walked back into his bedroom and glanced at the virtual screen of the clock on his desk. It projected the time and date in both Solar and Centauri time, though they kept to the ten-day Centauri week on board ship. “I can’t right now, buddy. I’m expecting a call in a few minutes, and I can’t miss it.”

“Okay. Happy birthday, Tony.” The younger telepath broke the connection.

Antonio looked at the clock again and sighed. Then he walked to the dresser and pulled a threadbare tunic out of a drawer, colored Daywalker white with the collar dyed Spacer green. It had accompanied him on his last trip, and was one of his favorites. He put it on over his sleeping pants, just as a soft tone sounded in his cabin. “Incoming personal message from the Citadel, Antonio,” said his AI. “Shall I put it through to your office?”

Antonio stepped to his desk and dropped into a chair. “Here will be great, Pathfinder. Thanks.”

“Stand by.”

The room glowed white as the immersive virtual environment engaged, and then he was sitting on a stone bench in the carefully maintained forest setting of the Citadel Arboretum. Two figures stood waiting for him in the dappled, artificial sunlight that filtered through the trees: an African woman in a long, white dress, and a blond man dressed in a dark-blue suit. They both carried themselves with confidence, comfortable in their authority. “Evening, Mother. Uncle Nicholas. How are you today?”

Nick snorted at the sight of Antonio’s casual dress and tousled hair. “Tony, you look like you just got out of bed.”

“That’s very perceptive of you, Uncle.” Antonio gave them an exaggerated yawn.

Layla smiled in amusement. “I trust you don’t wander the decks like that.”

Antonio grinned. “Don’t worry, Mother. I always comport myself with proper dignity and decorum among the crew. Unless I’ve been drinking. Then all bets are off.”

Nick laughed aloud. “It’s good to see you again, Tony.”

Antonio’s mood sobered, a note of seriousness threading into his voice. “It’s good to see you, too. If it didn’t require so much power to maintain a real-time videolink at this distance, maybe we could do this more often.”

Layla sat beside him on the bench. “It’s your calling, son. We understand the limitations of your ship’s systems. Thank you for taking the time to write every month. And we’ll be able to see you in person next year.”

Nick nodded. “Any idea how long you’ll be staying this time?”

“At least four months for refit of critical systems, and then I’ll have to interview new key crew members once the upgraded systems are in place.” Antonio hesitated. “I’ll be there for your anniversaries.”

Nick squeezed Layla’s shoulder. “Thank you, Antonio,” he said softly. “We both appreciate that.”

The three of them were silent for a time, lost in their memories.

“Almost a century,” she said eventually. “I still miss him.”

“Both of them,” said Nick. He sighed. “At least I had a lifetime with Jeremy.”

Layla turned her head to look into the shifting hues of her son’s eyes. “There is much of Tobias in you, Antonio. You have the same sincerity, the same honest joy in living. I wish we could spend more time together. It makes the world seem less empty when I hear your voice.”

Antonio swallowed nervously, as he reached up to stroke the filigreed, gold cross at his throat. “Mother, we’ve been through this.”

She looked away. “I know, and I apologize. I would never ask you to sacrifice your dreams for the sake of mine. That would only serve to hurt both of us. It doesn’t stop me from missing you during your flights, however.”

“I’ll call you as soon as I make it dirtside, Mother. I promise. I’ll need to bring the ship to Hephaestus Station to offload passengers before the refit. We can meet then.”

“We look forward to it,” Nick said. He glanced at the antique, mechanical watch on his wrist. “We’re going to have to cut this short, Tony.”

Antonio blinked. “What? We still have another couple of minutes before the comm array needs to power down.”

Layla stood from the bench. “It was lovely to speak to you again, son. We just wanted to make a little time for a friend.”

Nick and Layla walked away as Antonio watched in confusion.

“Hello, Tony.”

Antonio jerked his head to the side, his eyes shifting color to a vivid blue as he saw the other speaker, a tall man with Spanish features, dressed in a green flight suit. He looked like he had just walked out of the cockpit and, all things considered, he probably had. “Raf!”

Rafael smiled as he stepped off the teleport gateway. “It’s been a long time since we were able to talk face-to-face. Your mother has been pleased with my service—it seems, to yield to me the last minute of her time.”

Antonio stood and walked closer. “It’s good to see you again.” He grinned widely. “What have you been up to?”

Rafael shrugged. “The usual. My duties as Primogenitor Curallorn keep me busy. What little free time I have is taken up with teaching. There are always new cadets at the Academy who couldn’t get a feel for flying if they jumped off one of the towers. The other instructors like to send me their problem students. I always enjoy a challenge.”

“Like with me?” Antonio laughed. “I remember the first time you let me take the controls of the Starlight, after I was promoted to Third-Stage Cadet. Ten minutes and you declared you would have to start all over again just to break my bad habits.”

Rafael grinned. “You had the science down, Tony. I just had to teach you the art.”

“So…” said Antonio, staring at his mentor speculatively. “Still single?”

Rafael groaned. “Oh no, don’t start this again. You can’t seriously try to fix me up from half a light year away.”

Antonio looked at him with a sly expression. “Well, no. But there’s this Lieutenant down in Life Support who’s just dying to meet you.”

Rafael rolled his eyes. “Tony, your little matchmaker project was amusing when you were a teenager, but you’re almost a hundred years old now. When are you going to give up?” He scowled in mock annoyance. “How would you like it if I started in on your love life?”

Antonio gulped. “What?”

Rafael smiled, showing his fangs. “You’re obviously still a bachelor, if you’re able to take an interstellar call while wearing pajamas and a ratty, old shirt.” He looked over Antonio’s clothes critically. “A shirt that I gave you the last time you were here, incidentally, almost twenty years ago.”

Antonio stared at him indignantly. “Hey, I like this shirt. It’s comfortable.”

“If you had a woman in your life, she’d already have burned it.” Rafael grinned. “And a man would have stolen it from you.”

Antonio was about to say something scathing in reply when he heard the musical chime in his quarters. “Um…Raf, the comm array is about to shut down to prevent it from overheating. I’ve got to sign off now.”

Rafael sighed. “I know. It was great to see you again, Antonio. I look forward to your arrival.”

“Goodbye, Rafael.” The world went white again for a moment as the virtual environment terminated, leaving Antonio standing alone in his quarters. He sat again in his chair, and looked down at his clothes. “I like this shirt,” he muttered to himself. Then he looked out the window again. “Pathfinder, what’s our estimated time of arrival at Arcadia Colony?”

“At present speed, we will arrive at Arcadia in eleven months, three days, ten hours.”

Antonio slumped in his chair. “See if you can find Bradley Ellestan. Tell him I’m ready for that run now.” He stared out the window for a time, then regretfully got out of his chair and changed into a t-shirt and sweatpants.

“Junior Crewman Ellestan informs me that he will be waiting for you on the Engineering deck,” said the AI.

Antonio left his quarters for the core elevator. The vessel was laid out in a cylinder—circular decks stacked along the long axis of the ship, with the bridge at the top and the living quarters at the base. The upper floors were dedicated to ship’s services and manufacturing, but the Engineering deck in the center was one of the few that had entry points to the maintenance tunnels that ran the length of the ship. Those corridors housed the mechanism of the conventional gravity drive, which would be activated only when the ship entered a planetary system, so they were largely deserted while the ship was under inertialess flight. But given that their internal gravity was adjusted perpendicular to the rest of the decks, they remained the longest horizontal spaces anywhere on the ship.

Antonio had taken to running the circumference of the vessel about three times a week, especially when he needed to relax and clear his mind. Brad had been delighted when he discovered that aspect of Antonio’s exercise routine, and made a point of tagging along every weekend. Antonio had been resistant to the intrusion at first, but eventually he found that he enjoyed the company.

Rafael had been right. There wasn’t really anyone special in his life at the moment, though there had been a Daywalker he’d been sweet on at Chiron Colony on the last break between trips. He’d gone so far as to ask her to come with him this time, but she had declined to uproot her life for a two-decade round trip in an enclosed environment. He didn’t blame her. It took a unique level of commitment to travel the void, and most people just weren’t up for it.

He exited the elevator at the Engineering deck, and found his godson stretching out in the open area next to the radial corridor that led to the outer hull. The boy looked up as Antonio approached, and smiled widely, his eyes shifting to a cool blue. “Ready to eat my dust, Captain?”

Antonio grinned at the blatant challenge, his dark mood lifting as his competitive streak emerged. “Winner buys breakfast?”

The six-year-old gulped, and Antonio watched him mentally tally his finances. Then Brad shot to his feet in spite of his misgivings, appearing supremely confident of victory. “You’re on.”

Antonio set a gentle pace as they jogged down the radial corridor to the access point. Then, once they entered the empty maintenance tunnel, he poured on a burst of speed. He might not be able to run as fast as a pure vampire or an Earth Sentinel, but he was close. Behind him, he heard his godson cursing up a storm before quickly closing the gap. Even given his tender years, Bradley Ellestan was a speed demon, and Antonio knew he would have to push himself to stay ahead.

They ran neck and neck all the way up to Deck Two below the bridge, then down the twisted ramp that brought them back in line with the gravitic axis of the rest of the ship. They sprinted through the radial corridor around the morning pedestrians to the maintenance tunnel on the opposite side. Then Antonio stumbled in shock as Bradley leapt over him, the Harbinger child twisting in the air as he crossed the gravity interface, landing lightly on his feet in the maintenance corridor. The boy flashed his fangs at Antonio, eyes red, then blurred down the maintenance tunnel toward the lower decks.

Shaking off his surprise, Antonio gave chase, but never really made up the distance before they completed their circuit of the ship. Back at the Engineering deck, he collapsed against the wall next to the core elevator and tried to catch his breath. Two steps away, his godson sat with his head down, gulping air. “Are you all right, Bradley?”

“Yeah.” Brad raised his head and took a deep breath. “I don’t think I could keep down breakfast, though, so we’ll have to do that some other time.”

Antonio laughed weakly. “My treat.”

Brad smiled at him, still looking a little green. “And that makes it worth it.”

Antonio relaxed against the wall, ignoring the amused looks of the other crewmembers as they exited the core elevator. “Enjoy your victory, little man. Next time, you’re buying.”

Brad’s smile slipped, and he tentatively grasped Antonio’s arm. “I didn’t mean the bet,” he said, his expression serious. “It was worth it to hear you laugh. You’re always so depressed after you talk to your folks.”

Antonio stared at him in shock, and then pulled his arm away. “I don’t know what—”

The younger telepath extended a tendril of thought to speak to him privately. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, Tony. But we all know when you’ve called home, and we know to stay out of your way afterward.”

Antonio frowned in confusion. “What does that mean?”

“You come down hard on everyone, you find fault with everything, and you’re never happy until you’ve made someone else’s life miserable.” The boy dropped his gaze. “I thought it was going to be my turn this time.”

Antonio was appalled. “Bradley, I would never do anything to hurt you. You have to know that.”

Brad shook his head sadly. “You wouldn’t mean to, but I heard you yelling at my mom last year. You called her a soulless bloodsucker.”

Antonio flushed as he remembered. It was a grievous insult to denigrate the Grace to a Daywalker, and Brad’s father had been heartbeats away from punching him out before Antonio had apologized. “I didn’t know you were there.”

“I hid.”

Antonio felt his cheeks burn with shame. “I thought your parents wouldn’t let me near you for a week afterward because they were angry, but you didn’t want to see me either, did you?”

Brad didn’t reply, but his eyes shifted to a deep purple, mutely expressing his anger.

Antonio sighed and looked away, unable to face the accusation in the boy’s stare. “My family thinks I’m a failure.” He felt Brad’s surprise over their telepathic connection, but didn’t look back. “They wanted me to fulfill the destiny the White Wind picked out, to lead the Children of Starlight. They interpreted it to mean that I had to be groomed to be Archangel one day, and they drilled me unmercifully in diplomacy and protocol. Every decision had to weighed and judged for its political implications. My father was the first Speaker for the Word, even before AI emancipation, and they expected me to live out the life they thought he should have had. But I never knew him. I only had a vague memory of touching his mind a few times. My whole adolescence, I tried to live up to their expectations and be what they wanted. Eventually, I just had to get away.

“My uncle was the Archangel and my mother was the Speaker for the Dawn. The Spacer Guild was the only shelter from their authority in the Armistice, and I begged my friend Rafael to sponsor me in secret for admission. When I got in, they didn’t want to let me go. The only ones who stood up for me were Raf and Uncle Jeremy. I still don’t know how they convinced the rest of the family to back off and let me enroll in the Academy. Uncle Nick came to my graduation ceremony, but he barely said six words to me afterward. I didn’t speak to my mother in person for eight more years, until I made Captain and chose the Singularity as my permanent berth. I think that’s when it finally sunk in that I wasn’t going to back down.”

Bradley reached out and lifted Antonio’s left sleeve to expose the blue and red-gold phoenix tattoo on the elder Harbinger’s shoulder. “Suddenly, this image makes a lot more sense.”

“It took us a long time to get over our pride and try to be a family again, but every time I talk to them I see only the disappointment in their eyes. I…I didn’t realize I was taking it out on the rest of you. I’m sorry.”

Brad squeezed his shoulder gently. “Apology accepted.”

Antonio turned back to face the younger telepath. “I wonder if the galley AI could dig up a recipe for ice cream. Uncle Jeremy once said it always cheered him up after confessing his sins.”

Brad frowned in confusion. “What’s ‘ice cream’?”

Antonio smirked. “Trust me, you’ll love it.”

 

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