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“Thank you for letting me take that quick break from this interview. It wasn’t anything serious, just some new orders and a course correction. I do appreciate the opportunity to share some of this background information with everyone, though of course much of it is classified and you are—ah, forgive me, I’m starting to use ‘military-speak’ and ‘military-think’ again, aren’t I?
“During my first trip back home after enlisting, I had that same problem with my family. The military has counselors for this sort of thing, they give you lectures and advice, but… For a solider who’s been away for months, even years like myself, it can be a bit of a system shock to come back to civilian life. Things are organized almost down to the minute in a military setting because they have to get done at a certain time in a certain way, or everything descends into chaos. Things don’t always get done in civilian life, because they often can be ‘done later’ or ‘done some other way.’
“A lot of soldiers have difficulty making that transition back to civilian life. Even those of us who merely go home for a short visit sometimes have difficulties. Both sides need to remember to slow down, take it easy, and readjust to each other. Don’t throw a pot of cold water on the cooker and expect it to instantly boil; even in this day and age, that won’t happen right away. There’s always a period of readjustment. Sometimes it’s quick, and sometimes it’s slow, but it’s always necessary.”
July 18th, 2492, Terran Standard
Our Blessed Mother
Independent Colonyworld Sanctuary
“This is so exciting!”
Ia glanced over at the woman settling into the next seat. The orbital shuttle was nearly full, and the crew were urging passengers to take their places. The woman who was Ia’s seat-mate fished for her restraint straps. Her efforts at pulling the three-point belt into place was somewhat hampered by the added bulk of her gravity weave. Nudged a few times by the woman’s elbow, Ia rolled her eyes and held out her hand, silently offering to latch it.
“Oh, thank you! Wait—where’s your gravity weave?” the woman asked as Ia slotted the tab into its latch. “You’re taller than me!”
Ia’s rare sense of humor surfaced. Since she was clad in camouflage Browns, the speckled, mottled uniform of the Space Force Branch Marine Corps, she flashed a brief smile and stated, “I’m a Marine. We don’t need gravity weaves.”
The woman blinked, her brown eyes widening in shock.
Ia rolled her eyes. Really, some people will believe anything about the SF-Marines.“I’m also a native. Born and bred on Sanctuary. I’m coming home on Leave.”
“Ah. Um…thank you for serving,” the weave-wrapped woman finally offered.
“It’s an honor to serve, meioa,” Ia murmured in reply. Now that her seat mate had settled in, her mind was elsewhere, busy going over her schedule for the next three weeks. Some things would have to take place at exactly the right moment in time, while others would be more fluid. Like the problem of her tainted sword-turned-anklet.
The crew finished checking and securing the cabin. The woman at Ia’s side said nothing for a long while, paying dutiful attention to the safety procedures lecture. Then, as they detached from the space station with a slight bump, the woman muttered once again, “…This is so exciting!”
Sensing the woman was one of those sorts who just had to talk or burst, Ia sighed and asked the most obvious question, rather than dipping into the timestreams. “Is this your first trip to Sanctuary?”
The woman nodded quickly and smiled. She also held out her hand. “Amanda Sutrepya. And yes, it’s my first time to your homeworld. I’m here on a missionary trip. And you are…?”
“Lieutenant Ia.” Ia shook the other woman’s hand as briefly as possible. The closer she got to her homeworld, the more she feared her precognitive gift would turn unpredictable again. Plus there was the fact that physical contact always enhanced her ability to read another sentient being’s plethora of potential futures. The combination held too much danger to risk it, though there wasn’t much else she could do to avoid brushing up against someone in such crowded conditions. At least the other woman was wearing a purple, long-sleeved shirt under the lumpy web wrapping her limbs.
“Missionary trip?” The question came from the short, balding man on the other side of the aisle. He gave the woman, Amanda, a derogatory look, snorting, “Great. Another godless heathen,” before returning his attention to the reader pad in his hands.
“Excuse me?” Amanda asked, her tone and her expression both taken aback. “I am not a godless heathen, I am a Christian!”
The man gave her a look somewhere between disdain and pity. “Even worse, then. A deluded polytheist.”
The woman started to protest. Ia quickly reached over and touched her sleeve. “Don’t.”
“—Just don’t,” Ia murmured again, cutting her off. “See the corona pin on his jacket lapel? He’s a member of the Church of the One True God.”
“I…don’t understand,” Amanda muttered. She glanced back and forth between Ia and the man, finally settling on Ia. “Aren’t they Christians, too? I thought their worship were based on the same general beliefs. One loving God, Abrahamic teachings…”
“So are Muslims and Jews, if you measure it by that method…but no, they are not Christians, they are not Muslims, they are not Jews,” Ia told her, flicking up one finger per listing. “In fact, if you must get technical, their dogma actually began as an offshoot of The Witan.”
“We are not an ‘offshoot’ of anything. We are on the true path,” the man across the aisle corrected tartly. His eyes were on the text of his book pad, but his ears were clearly listening to his neighbors. “Not my fault if the rest of you have been misled by the sweet-sounding poison of the Devil’s books. The Bible, the Koran, the Torah…”
“Well, I never!” Amanda gasped, visibly upset.
Ia’s tone, more sharp than actually loud, cut across the missionary’s splutterings, and caused the Church man to look up at her once more. A few others in the nearby seats glanced her way as well, but they didn’t protest. Ia kept her eyes on the Church man. When she was sure she had his attention, she had her own say, leaning forward slightly while she held his gaze.
“I am on Leave from two years’ worth of fighting on the far side of the known galaxy.” That was a slight exaggeration, but she wasn’t going to bother with the full truth. “It has taken me three weeks of travel to get this far. I have exactly three weeks, one day, and four hours from the moment we land, precious, precious days and hours to spend with my family, before I have to go back. I would therefore like to finish this last, tedious leg of my journey in peace and quiet.”
“You’d be better off spending those three weeks on your knees in Our Blessed Cathedral, confessing the sins of spilling blood from some godless heathen’s orders,” the balding believer retorted.
Ia gave him a not-smile. “And I say unto you in reply, from Book Nine, The Righteous War, Chapter Three, verses four and five: ‘Succor the weary and wounded soldiers who claim Sanctuary and take shelter among you. Give them rest and peace, and honor them for the sacrifices they make for the betterment of all.’”
He reddened a bit, having his own holy words flung in his face.
“I am a weary soldier of Sanctuary,” Ia reminded him, speaking softly, but with enough point to cut to the bone, “and I am here to take shelter among my people. Give me my rest and peace, and honor me for the sacrifices I make…or spend your weeks on your knees, for failing to follow through on God’s Own True Words.”
Holding his gaze, she stared at him until he backed down, subsiding into his seat. He refocused his attention on his book pad. Only then did Ia settle back in hers. Just in time, too; they hit the atmosphere with a jolt and a rattle that made her grateful for the cushioning supporting and sheltering her body. A few jolts later, the cabin speakers came to life.
“This is Captain D’Sall. We are currently traversing the edges of the local early evening thunderstorm, so some mild in-flight turbulence is to be expected. Please remain in your seats with your restraint belts firmly fastened. However, our flight will be short, as we will be landing at Our Blessed Mother Inter-Orbital Spaceport in approximately fifteen minutes.
“As a reminder, all passengers wearing gravity-weaves should have their weaves set to Adaptive Gravimetrics on the Low Strength setting so as not to interfere with the integrity of the shuttle. Do not adjust them back to Full Strength until we are fully on the ground and the Gravity Weave permission sign has been turned on. If you need help fighting the gravity to do so, please remain calm, press the button on your armrest or alert your seatmates, and the cabin crew will be by to check on you shortly. Once we land, only the flight crew are allowed to move about the cabin until we have reached the terminal, so please remain seated.
“If at any time you experience difficulty in moving, breathing, or even thinking, or feel like you are going to black out during your visit to Sanctuary, these are the primary symptoms of the onset of adjustment sickness, which can lead to more serious complications. If you suspect you are about to be ill at any point during your visit to Sanctuary, contact the emergency nets immediately, and go straight to the nearest medical facility to be checked out for the possibility of gravity sickness.
“The government of Independent Colonyworld Sanctuary wishes to remind all visitors and returning natives that it assumes no liabilities, fiscally or legally, for the complications of gravity sickness or any related injuries. Neither does Gateway Inter-Orbital Transit, of which you were advised before boarding this flight. However, we thank you very much for flying with us. We hope you’ll have a safe time while on Sanctuary, and wish you a good day.”
The shuttle jolted again. Ia winced as the woman next to her grabbed at her forearm.
“God Almighty!” Amanda exclaimed, bouncing in her seat with the next jolt of turbulence. “This is mild?”
Prying the woman’s hand off the sleeve of her brown camouflage shirt, Ia pressed it to the armrest and tucked her own hands into her lap. “Since we’re due to arrive at the equivalent of near-sunset, yes, it’s just one of the mild, daily thunderstorms. If it were a real storm by Sanctuarian standards, the pilot would have delayed the flight. This one isn’t nearly as risky as you’d think.”
The other woman started to relax, then yelped a little as the ship bucked again. A flash of light and a not quite muffled boom beyond the porthole windows made her yelp a second time, along with a handful of the other passengers. The rest were either too busy enduring the ride, or like Ia and the balding believer across the aisle, weren’t fazed by the local weather. Certainly this turbulence wasn’t as bad as some of the planetfalls she and the rest of Ferrar’s Fighters had made, riding to the rescue of various colonyworlds.
Now I’m riding to the rescue of my own world, in a way. Though my efforts won’t bear results for a few more years at the earliest. Enduring the bouncing with stoic patience, she absently rubbed her left hand over the hard cuff hidden beneath the mottled browns of the opposite shirt sleeve. Presuming all my speculations on the trip out here are in any way accurate, that is…
I wonder what my brothers are going to think when I ask them literally to shed their blood for me, this week?
Thorne was the easiest of her family to spot. He stood literally head and shoulders above everyone else waiting on the far side of the Customs peacekeepers, as tall as a local doorway and as broad as a tank. His dark brown hair had been trimmed with bangs in the front since she had last seen him in person, though it looked like it was as long as ever, pulled back in a ponytail.
She’d seen the change in the timestreams, but seeing it in person was another matter. It struck her just how much everything had changed back home. How much she had changed, even though Ia had known it would happen.
His hazel eyes met hers within moments, drawn to her thumb-length white locks and mottled brown uniform. There were other tall-by-comparison people arriving, mostly visitors from light-gravitied planets who were wrapped in gravity weaves, but she wasn’t lost in a crowd; the others had spaced themselves out so that their personalized repelling fields, now set to full strength, wouldn’t conflict and cause each wearer to stagger off balance.
The only thing that made her want to stagger was the full resumption of her home gravity, which she hadn’t felt in over two years. Weightsuits and artificial gravity could compensate somewhat, but she could tell she was out of shape by home standards. Until she saw her mothers.
Aurelia Jones-Quentin had gained a few fine worry-lines between her brows and at the corners of her eyes, but her straight, dark brown locks were as grey-free as her son’s. Amelia Quentin-Jones had picked up a few more streaks of silver among her lighter brown curls, but no extra lines on her face. They were clad in the same soft pastels the two women had always favored, and both their faces lit up with the same delight as they spotted her in the queue. Just the sight of her parents banished most of the annoying drag of the planet on her body. Gravity could not stop the lifting of her spirits.
As soon as she cleared the last checkpoint, Ia hurried forward. She dropped her bags to the plexcrete floor as her family moved up to meet her, and swept both of her mothers into a hug. Both of the older women laughed and sniffled and hugged her right back. She’d forgotten how stooping to hug them could put a crick in her back from the awkward angle, but Ia didn’t care. Given everything that had happened since she had left, the pain was an old, revived pleasure by comparison.
For a moment, she let herself be a young woman again, saying goodbye to her family before heading to her destiny. Then one of her brothers ruffled her hair; from the downward pull of his palm, it was Fyfer, too short to have been seen immediately, compared to their elder brother.
“Look at that hair, all short and ugly, now!” Fyfer crowed, ruffling it again.
“Fyfer!” Aurelia scolded.
As her mothers released her, Ia pushed his hand away, then pulled him into a half-hug and rubbed her knuckles over his brown locks. He squirmed and spluttered a protest, then twisted into her grip and pinched her inner bicep in the spot she had taught him. Even toughened up by her life in the military, it hurt like hell. Grunting and flinching, Ia released him. Then oofed as he flung his arms around her ribs in an enthusiastic hug.
Chuckling, Ia hugged him back. Unlike their elder brother, Fyfer was normal for a Sanctuarian. Naturally muscular, but short and not nearly the brick walled body that Thorne was. So she squeezed and sort-of picked him up. Just a few inches, but enough to prove she was still stronger. He oofed in turn, then laughed and slapped her on the back.
“Slag, Ia! You used to pick me up higher than that! What happened to you in the Army?” he joked.
“It was the Marine Corps,” Ia shot back, dropping him gently onto his feet. “And I’ve been living in lesser gravity. Working out as heavy as I can get it for several hours a day, but still living in lightworlder spaces.”
Releasing her younger brother, she faced her half-twin. They had different mothers but the same father, both of them born barely half an hour apart. Both were anomalies in a world of gravitationally challenged heights. Thorne just held open his arms and Ia walked into them, nestling her head on his shoulder and her arms around his waist. He didn’t threaten her ribs, just hugged her back.
“Mizzu,” he murmured, his voice a quiet bass rumble. I missed you. The word was the short-hand speech from their childhood, raised like full-blooded twins, treated like twins, thinking like twins, until her gifts started developing in earnest.
“Mizzu tu,” she agreed. I missed you, too. She hugged him, relaxing for a long moment…until her skin crawled, warning her that her precognitive gift was trying to open, trying to read all the possibilities of his future. Thankfully, the moment she shifted back, he released her. It might have been two years, but he still remembered how touchy her abilities could be.
“You okay?” Thorne asked her as she stepped back. He wasn’t the only one giving her a concerned look.
Ia nodded…then shook her head. This was more than just the timestreams prickling at his proximity. Holding up her hand, she squeezed her eyes shut and focused on strengthening the walls in her mind. No. Not right now. Not here and now, among all these people. I will not succumb to the Fire Girl Prophecy right now…
Pushing it away, resisting, she breathed hard for a few moments. Someone else screamed, making her jump and snap her eyes open again. It wasn’t a member of her family that had collapsed; instead, it was a familiar, purple-wrapped body. The Christian missionary, Amanda Something-or-Other, had dropped to her knees.
“Fire!” Amanda screamed, startling the mostly Human collection of tourists into wide-eyed, wary looks. “Fire! Birds in the sky! A girl—fire in her eyes! Fire in the world! A…a cathedral—a wall in the sky—aaaaaaah!”
Those who were native to Sanctuary looked at her, too. They, however, weren’t confused by her outcry. Instead, they were broken into three groups. A few concerned-looking spaceport personnel hurried forward, mostly to ward off the few concerned tourists who were about to touch her—never a good idea, since the Fire Girl attacks tended to spread on contact more often than not. The rest were either blasé about the attack, looking for a few moments in curiosity before shrugging and moving on, or they hastily backed up, sketching corona-circles on their foreheads and muttering under their breath, no doubt prayers warding off any evil influence from the “demonically possessed.”
Since it looked like the missionary would get some of the help she needed, a sketchy explanation of the phenomenon and suitable reassurances from spaceport staff, Ia herself settled into the non-Church category of natives and ignored the poor woman’s plight. Stooping, she picked up her kit bag and the locked travel case stuffed with her writing pad and all the post-dated letters she had printed out during the journey home. “…I’ll be fine. We have a lot to do. Move out.”
She didn’t miss the look her mothers exchanged, nor the glance they shared with Thorne, but Fyfer immediately started chatting about all the things she had missed, his graduation half a year early and subsequent enrollment in an acting school, Thorne’s fast-paced progress in his space station governance degree, and of course questions on what her own last two years had been like. Ia did her best to listen and respond, but Fyfer didn’t cease the steady stream of chatter until they were at the family groundcar, and he finally noticed that Ia wasn’t moving to put her things into the vehicle parked on one of the tiers of the spaceport’s garage.
Instead, she had stopped, closed her eyes, and was simply breathing. Deep, steady breaths, the kind that sought to fill every last corner of her lungs.
“Hey,” Fyfer admonished her. “Are you falling asleep already? I thought you Marines were tough!”
“I’m not that tired. I’m just enjoying the smell of home. You don’t get ozone like this on other worlds, unless you deliberately go around creating sparks. Or the dampness, or the flickering of lightning pressing through your eyelids like little feathery touches…” She sighed and opened her eyes, smiling wryly. “It’s just not the same, elsewhere.”
“So what is it like on other worlds?” Thorne asked her, taking her bags and tucking them into the boot.
She held up her hand and gestured for the others to climb into the car, then took the front passenger seat, her preferred spot so her gifts didn’t trigger. Thorne took the driver’s seat; with his broad, muscular shoulders, it was either let him drive or be squished in the back seat as he took up half of the space usually meant for three people. Once they were moving, Ia answered his question.
“…What’s it like on other worlds? Bouncy, until you get used to the gravity. The air can smell like a million different things. Recycled and dusty if it’s a mining domeworld. Slimy and moldy if you’ve set down in a rainy spot on an atmospheric world, like that planet where we helped out the flood victims. And then there’s the recycled air of a starship, with cleaning products and sweating bodies in the gym, lubricants and hydraulics fluids in the mechsuit repair bays…and of course the greenery in lifesupport, but they limit access to that part of the ship. The Motherworld didn’t smell bad,” she added. “Lots of flowers and green growing things. Not enough thunderstorms, but not bad.”
“Ooh! Tell us about the Motherworld!” Amelia interjected.
“Yes, please,” Aurelia urged Ia. “What’s it like? I’ve always wondered.”
Smiling, Ia complied. “My first view was from orbit. It’s really not that much different from Sanctuary, except the night-side glows with a million cities, and not from crystal fields and the few settlements we have. And only so many lightning storms can be seen, and only so many aurora curtains and sprite jets… You can’t really see the lightning on Earth from space unless it’s in a really big storm. And then of course my first stop was Antananarivo, on Madagascar Island. It’s very tropical in the lowlands, but where I was, which was up in the hills, it’s a bit cooler. More like around here.”
“That was at the Afaso Headquarters, right?” Thorne asked her, directing the car into the flow of traffic skirting the capital city.
Ia nodded. “That’s right. Grandmaster Ssarra says hello, by the way. They have a lot of land, much of it established as a nature preserve as well as farmland for self-sufficiency. There are lots of green plants there, compared to here—yes, the grass really is greener, on Earth.” That made her family laugh. Enjoying their humor, Ia smiled and continued. “They have none of the blue plants like we have, not even as imports, and very few that look even vaguely purple. There are some yellow ones—grass when it’s dry, for one—but the first impression you get of a non-desert landscape on Earth is of a million different shades of green…”
A door opened down the hall. It was followed by shuffling footsteps which were not quite lost under the soft, rhythmic grunts coming from Ia as she measured out a set of sit-ups, toes hooked under the living room couch for counterbalance. Her bio-mother, Amelia, squinted at her in the light from the reading lamp.
“Gataki mou?” Amelia shuffled a few steps closer, her bare feet tucked into worn pink slippers and her body wrapped in a fuzzy green bathrobe. “What are you doing, child?”
A little distracted by being called her old, Greek nickname of my kitten, Ia struggled to finish the set. Uncurling her stomach after three more crunches, she relaxed on the springy, rubbery floor, breathing hard. “I’m doing my morning calisthenics…and I’m really out of shape. I did what I could on the flight from Earth, but…I had to leave my weightsuit behind. It would’ve cost too much to transport all that mass.”
“Well,,,can you keep it down a little?” her mother asked. Behind her, the door opened again. “And maybe not start so early? I know we changed the beds in your old room so your brothers could have a little more room, which means you have to sleep out here, but…well, the floor here in the living room kind of squeaks, and…”
“Have you lost all sense of common courtesy?” Aurelia demanded, coming up behind her wife. Being slightly taller, she glared at Ia over her partner’s shoulder. “It’s five in the morning! Not even your brothers get up until seven at the earliest, and only because Thorne goes to school that early.”
“Sorry.” Sitting up, Ia shrugged. “I’ll go for a run or something.”
“In this neighborhood? At this hour?” Amelia asked.
Pushing to her feet, Ia arched her brow, looking down at her mothers. “Would you mess with someone as tall as me, who can comfortably jog in this gravity?”
“No, but we’re not talking about vagrants or gang members,” Aurelia reminded her daughter. “The Church has been moving more and more converts into this area. They’re not going to look kindly on some…some solitary weirdo jogging around the block at this hour. Anything that isn’t in Church doctrine, they won’t like it.”
“And they’ll let you know,” Amelia agreed.
Rolling her eyes, Ia swept her hands over her hair, raking back the sweaty locks. “I do know, Mother. But I’m going straight into the Naval Academy after this, and they’ll be expecting me to stay in shape even while on an Extended Leave.”
It didn’t matter which one she was addressing. Amelia was Mom, Aurelia was Ma, but both were forever Mother to all three of their kids, and usually addressed as such when the pair were tag-teaming said kids.
Aurelia lifted her finger. “Don’t sass us, gataki. If you’re going to go jogging, then go. But go quietly. Your mother and I need our sleep. We closed the restaurant for your homecoming yesterday, but we’ll have a busy day of it today, since it’s the end of the week.”
“I’ll go put on my cammies,” Ia offered, holding up her hands. “Even Church members have seen the occasional episode of Space Patrol, so they should know what a soldier looks like…and I’m just as sure that, by now, everyone who came into Momma’s Restaurant in the last month knows that you’ve been expecting me home from the military.”
“I suppose that’ll have to do,” Aurelia muttered. She pointed a tanned finger at her daughter. “And no more getting up at ‘oh dark hundred,’ you got that? That’s an order.” She folded her arms across her chest as Amelia turned to eye her. “A mother always outranks her little girl.”
There were several retorts Ia could’ve made to that, but she refrained. Her mothers were trying to reduce her to the little girl they knew and loved—and they were succeeding to a point—but Ia’s universe had changed. It was an uncomfortable, unhappy realization, acknowledging that her parents were no longer the center of that universe.
Instead of replying, she sighed and grabbed her kitbag, tucked at the end of the couch where she had been sleeping. Fishing out a set of mottled browns, she headed for the bathroom. Amelia and Aurelia let her pass, then returned to their bedroom.
Her parents had never had much room in their apartment above the small but popular restaurant: just the two bedrooms, a bathroom, an office, the living room and its small nook of a kitchen, which was rarely used to cook any meal other than breakfast. Sleeping on the couch wasn’t any worse than sleeping in a tent, and she was already in the habit of tidying her bed, so folding up the blankets right after waking and rising hadn’t been a problem.
It was the getting up part that seemed to be the problem. I forgot to adjust my hours to Mom and Ma’s hours, not Sanctuarian hours, on the trip out from Earth. I forgot they don’t get up until almost 9 a.m. and don’t go to bed until midnight—though I’d think I would’ve noticed last night how “late” everyone stayed up, catching up with all the gossip I never bothered to scry for in the timestreams…
Speaking of which, I should check the timestreams, see what I need to do versus what I should do, while waiting for my family to wake up again. Better yet, I’ll take my writing pad with me and work on jotting down yet more prophecies electrokinetically while I jog, she decided, slipping out of her plain brown tee-shirt and shorts. It was a little chilly outside, the weather more autumn-like than late summer, so jogging in long pants and a long-sleeved shirt wouldn’t be too warm.Three hundred years goes by awfully fast when you’re dead and can’t tell anyone how to stop a galaxy-wide war.