The prism's light caught and carried him, showing his deaths:
Brought down by the guard outside his cell.
Caught in the open entrance hall of the palace, lasered while he
stood unsure where to go.
Lifting the babies, their cries giving him away, the tightening
around his throat as well-trained hands took him in a strangle-hold.
His ship, drifting, disabled. The sound of being boarded. Alarms,
Fire, burning through him.
So many, many ways to die.
Ealyn lifted his head, ignoring the dry pull of his lips. Later,
they’d come and let him off his chains, give him water to drink and what passed
for food. For now, he closed his eyes and relived his deaths, focusing on the
minutiae of each moment. The Empress had been close when she'd last visited,
her stomach swollen and huge, the children a presence within her. He had to know
if he had seen each death, or if were there more he needed to live through. He
had to know if he'd remembered everything, or if some of his answers were lost
in the daze of time-slipping.
The Empress' presence, running through the palace, lifted, shocking
in its suddenness, for all he’d foretold it. He brought his head up. It was
time. The moment of the births. The one opportunity. Fear seized him. He'd
spent months exploring the paths, going into each without hesitation, welcoming
each death as the answer it was, but this was not the what-will-be. It was the
First, the chains. He’d tried waiting for his feeding time and the
chains to be lifted from him. That had been a quick death, a single blow as his
legs, weakened for months, betrayed him.
He knew this dance, this step. Slowly, he pulled his power to him.
He’d been building to this day for the last week. He’d walked fewer paths,
holding his power within, a miser in a world of nothing. Now, when he needed
it, his power was there – faint, but more than could be expected after these
long months. He took it and focused on the cuffs, finding the magnet that
bound. Like a miracle, they fell away.
He freed his ankles, rubbing life back into them. Slowly, this
stage. He’d followed it, quick and slow, and, even though impatience was eating
at him – it would not last long, this hiatus – he took his time, getting to his
feet, grabbing the wall for support, waiting until the room stopped spinning.
He closed his eyes, knowing the threatened vision would leave him lying on the
floor, shaking, to be found by his guards and returned to his chains. That
would be the slowest death, held until the Empress drained what was left of him
and left him raving and lost in time.
At last, the world settled. He drew in a breath, and another,
letting the fear fill him with nerves that held him taut and concentrated. He
needed something to guide him – let adrenalin be enough, let it take him and
carry him. He crept to the door, imagining the outside of his cell.
The day he’d been taken here, long months ago, his head had been
aching and dull from the space crash. He hadn’t thought to pay attention to the
layout, or consider how a man might free himself. Darwin would have. He’d have
focused like the soldier Ealyn was not and never would be. All he had was the
flying, and his mind, shaped whatever way it was, for whatever purpose. He
wouldn't be a soldier, but a wraith in the darkness. He smiled. Like the
magician he was purported to be.
He touched the door and felt the locking mechanism within it. That
was easy, for any psycher. But the guard beyond? He trawled memories: bursting
from the door, to be gunned down; bursting through and running past, to be
brought down as he left the prison block; killing the soldier, his hands on the
man’s neck, tightening and tightening, the shouts as the body was found, the
shot taking him high in his back. He’d lived them all, felt the pain and
blackness of death, before coming round in his cell, the prism mocking him.
Carefully, he focused. He knew the cell-block from days walking it,
in vision after vision. Knew it from being chased down it, from murdering in
it. Did each murder committed in his visions, each death brought to men still
breathing, count? The room swam as he fought the certainty that this was what
he’d become – a murderer of men, not once, but many times. Certainly, the guard
who waited outside his door, the ruddy-faced soldier no older than twenty, had
been killed by Ealyn more times than he knew. And yet, death was not the
answer. Not now.
He turned his head, focusing on the cell to his left. A small crack
in the wall, a sharp ricochet of noise that didn’t alarm, but intrigue. A
moment’s waiting, trusting only that his visions had been right, counting a
slow agonising beat.
At ten, he slipped the door to the side and stepped out to the
corridor, not doubting. A psycher must never doubt, only believe. A single
glance confirmed the guard was missing, that the first path chosen had been
Ealyn closed his door over, snapping the lock mechanism so it
jammed. He remembered the death not doing that had brought – cornered in the
gardens, night falling, the deep scent of jasmine around him, the closing in of
the prison-guards, the smile of the ruddy-faced guard as he raised his blaster.
He ran. Softly, crouched, without looking back. His shoulders were
tight, his back exposed. How many visions had ended with a single shot spinning
him against the wall. At least that was quick.
A step at a time. He moved down the corridor to his right, feet
echoing on the stone floor, until he reached a covered trash-holder. He pushed
its hinged lid back, wincing at the shriek of metal on metal, and clambered in.
He knew enough to hold his breath as he pulled the lid to, and sat, knees to
his chest, face and nose buried. Moments ticked by, moments to bring doubt and
fear. Moments to remember how few of his visions led to what lay beyond.
The trash-holder moved with a jerk. Prepared for it, he stayed
motionless. He listened, a well-played recording of bumps, of doors opening, of
voices. Of sudden silence. And then, the drop.
He spun, rubbish covering him, and fumbled for the lid. So little
time. He grasped it, but his hand slipped as he was turned again. He struck
out, disorientated. The bin grew hot, the metal burning into him.
The lid fell open. Too late, it was too late. He looked down, into
the furnace's flames below. Heat bellowed from it, enshrouding him. The hairs
on the back of his hand tightened and burned. The bin tipped. Rubbish streamed
out. Ealyn yelled, waiting to drop. He searched visions, seeking an answer than
wouldn't come. He slipped down, hands flailing for something buried in his
knowledge, something he needed to remember.
He hooked his fingers on the riveted seam of the bin. Ignoring the
heat, ignoring anything but the deep-buried memory, he hitched his feet to the
side of the lip, hunched himself in the opening, and clung on. The bin rattled,
shaking out its remaining contents. His hand slipped, his heart leapt into his
throat. How many times had he fell and burned? More than he remembered. His
legs cramped with effort, and still the bin shook.
It slammed away from the furnace, knocking him back inside. He
laughed. He'd held on. The bin rolled to a halt, joining the others emptied and
ready for reuse. Shaking, he climbed out, and stumbled to the top of the
furnace. Sweat broke across his shoulders. The burning deaths had been the
worse, the heat taking him. He’d come round in his cell, still shrieking.
Carefully, he dropped his shirt into the furnace below and watched
it catch fire as it fell. He made his way towards an access panel, set high in
the wall. He clambered onto the nearest bin and across the top of them, ears
alert. Time was short, and he was sure he was over it already. Slippage was the
great danger, moving out of the practiced timeline.
He stood, teetering, and pulled at the hatch, weakening the corner
he'd viewed in his vision, getting his fingers under it, wincing as a nail
pulled away. Finally - too long, everything was taking too long - he freed the
bottom length of it, and managed to clamber into the accessway, scraping his
back. He clambered along and stopped at a sister hatch, overlooking a small
locker room. He allowed himself one single breath, one congratulation, and then
he crawled out. Quickly, he stripped and took a shirt and heavy work trousers
from a selection hung and waiting for their owners.
He paused at the door. This one led into the palace, the lion’s den.
No solitary guards here, protecting an inner core of cells so secure no one had
ever left them. In the palace, there weren’t guards but soldiers. Elite ones.
And in the Empress’ own quarters, nothing other than Star Ops. His throat was
dry, but he opened the door and entered the palace.
Already, he was calculating what would be happening in the Empress’
wing. The doctors would be working on her, frantic, as the blood ran from her.
He imagined the surgeons fighting the race against her failing body, pumping
pint after pint into her, slowing and sealing the wound. The urgent call for a
healer to be summoned. He had been in the room with her, watching; it had ended
in darkness and searing pain.
He emerged into one of the servants’ corridors, mirroring the
structure of the main palace, squeezed between opulence, where staff scurried
like mice, overlooked by the gentry.
Now, today, they would give Ealyn the chance to walk through the
Leviathan and not be taken. To dance amidst his enemies and live. Because space
pilots didn’t look old and stooped after months of chains. They weren’t thin
and bones, but dashing.
He hurried along the corridor, passing few. He looked up,
surreptitiously, but saw nothing in any others’ way of walking to show they had
noticed the imposter. With each moment the Empress was away his steps were a
little stronger. She had been imprisoning him more than the chains ever had.
He reached a section of the corridor where the walls drew closer.
His breath grew harsh, knowing this was the path between two futures. In one,
he could continue walking. He'd reach the kitchens, and blend in with the
workers. Within half an hour he could be out in the city before he’d even been
found missing. Before the Empress could come round and know he was gone; she’d
feel his missing presence as sharply as he felt hers, and as quickly.
Temptation bit. Once in the city he’d find a way to call the Banned
to him – there were agents, and Darwin would have them on alert for him. Once
out, he was free.
He found himself stopping, heaving breaths. There was no one in
sight. Just him and the churning knowledge that if he did leave, he’d never
face himself in the mirror. That, and the vision of himself as an old man,
seeing how hard his children had become, how cruel. Knowing that it was he
who’d made them so by not following the harder path.
Without giving room for doubt, he tapped the wall in front of him,
giving the push required. A small door opened, and he stepped into the library.
He shut the door behind him, and closed the path of temptation.
His steps took him across the library, silent in his cell-bare feet.
Walking in the palace like this woke a memory in him, one of a different
time-place, not his own. He’d walked through the palace like this before,
padded through this room bare-footed.
He stopped at the other side of the library, and focused on one of
the books, an ancient one, possibly old enough to have been carried on the
Earth-ship. He waited, not allowing himself to move. A muscle twitched in his
cheek, but still he waited and watched as moonlight, framed through a high
window, crawled down the spine, over letters once gilded and now faded.
The light cleared the letters. He took a breath, flexed his fingers,
and left the library, slipping through into an apse in a second servant’s corridor.
This one was more secret than the other, known only to those cleared to work in
the Empress’ private quarters.
He heard the footsteps of the guard. He’d remembered the book well,
had paid attention. Hard not to, when he’d been slammed to the ground each time
he’d got it wrong, his hands secured, his body beaten before being returned to
his cell. He remembered the soldier taking him, the shoulder barging Ealyn out
of the way. He tensed his hands, ready. He had to bring the guard down here.
Another step, and another. A shadow falling over him. He tensed,
counting, thinking of all the ways he’d tried this, of the man’s weight, of the
soft yell he’d give.
Ealyn dove forwards. Always, always if he was too slow, this was his
death. He shouldered the man to the side and kicked out. Awareness came the
soldier’s face, his mouth a rounded O, and only the fear that he was facing a
psycher gave Ealyn the chance he needed. He drove the man against the wall
opposite, bringing him to his knees. He grabbed the man’s truncheon, turned the
shock to high, and hit the back of his neck. And again. Panting, desperate, he
hit it one more time. The man toppled forward, and lay still.
Ealyn crouched over the body, taking the laser-rifle from the man’s
belt with shaking hands. He wasn’t Darwin, he was Ealyn. He wasn’t able to kill
and move on. He backed the guard’s body into the library, cursing his weight.
It was hard to leave the body behind the heavy curtains, hard to believe it
could be safe, and yet he had to trust. The body in the library had never been
a cause of death. He exited back to the apse and walked to the end of it.
A deep breath. This was it. Once he stepped out, the chase would
begin. The nearest soldier was gone, of course, but not those watching in the
Control Room. He looked at the ceiling, told himself he knew what he was doing,
laughed and stepped forwards.
Nothing changed. No alarms, no sirens. Yet already the word would go
out. He ran. To the right, then a left, up a set of stairs. His lungs burned,
but he didn’t stop. Couldn’t stop. Only audacity would get him through. He took
the steps two at a time, hit the top so quickly he had to grab the newel or
fall, and ran again. They wouldn’t expect him to go for the nursery. No one
should know about the children, the Empress’s secret. She’d tell no one until
they were born and in her control.
He heard shouts from the stairs. A bolt passed him, and he ducked to
the side, and rounded another corner. His feet sank into thick carpet, and made
no sound. He ran around the corner, past the room where they’d be working on
the Empress and along to the nursery. He burst into the room, and slammed the
door behind him, sealing it.
Already the guards would be getting into position around the palace,
covering any exits. They’d be coming up outside the door, ready to take him.
He’d be trapped. It was hard to stop his throat clawing closed, hard to fight
what lay ahead. Hard to admit how little chance he had, how few of his attempts
to leave this room had worked.
He stepped forwards, away from the door, and a soft gasp made him
stop. A girl was looking at him, one who’d been in none of his visions. Blonde
hair fell from where she’d pinned it back. Her dress was the simple one of an
inner-chambers maid. Beside her, in the crib, lay the children.
“You know who I am?” he asked.
She backed away, eyes uncertain, darting between him and the cot.
“I’m Ealyn Varnon.”
He wouldn’t have believed it was possible to pale further, but she
did. Her mouth was open, her eyes not watchful, but fearful. What stories had
she heard of him to be so afraid? What monster did she imagine him to be? He
pointed at the cribs.
“My children. I’d like to take them.”
What would happen to her, when the children were found missing? He
didn’t know – he’d been well away from the palace when it happened. But it
didn’t take a Seer to know who the blame would fall on. He raised the soldier’s
weapon to her.
“You’re coming with me.”
Fool. The future unravelled. He’d walked this, so many times. He
knew the dance he had to perform. It didn’t include taking the girl. A ripple
in time came over him, a wondering what he’d changed, but he pushed it away.
“Lift the babies.” He kept the rifle trained on her.
The girl hesitated, and he could sense the waves of fear coming off
her, the fear of going, the fear of staying. He tried a smile.
“Trust me. I’m the better option.” The first sound of the door being
forced came to him, and his smile fell away. “Lift them. Now.”
She crouched over the crib, lifting the babies. He took the boy, his
weight a comforting same-ness as in his vision. He touched the babies’ foreheads,
one after the other.
“Hush, now.” He sent out his power, touching theirs, and they
responded. His eyes met the girl’s as the babies stilled. He hefted the rifle,
awkwardly in one hand, and turned to the door. “Let’s go.”
She didn’t fight. She didn’t speak. She followed him as he opened
the panel to the corridor behind. There was only one place to go – the palace
would be ringed below. He wondered how many soldiers were already climbing up
to where he was, coming through the corridors to get the best shot they could
at him. The crawling lack of knowing where he was, the sureness that he’d
changed the path in taking the girl, the sick fear that brought, all surged in
him, but he kept moving, ushering her through, then himself, and then running,
upwards, upwards, always upwards.
The steps were familiar. He’d run this way before. Ran and died.
Still he climbed. That path was no longer his; nor was the path he’d seen, the
simple lifting of the children and going. He burst out into the cold night, the
desert as cold in the evening and it was warm during the day. The girl held the
child against her; he kept the other close against him.
In front of him was the Holy Grail, the one thing he’d banked on.
The one part of his vision that had made him keep going, the only hope he had.
He ran up to the corvette, sitting on the platform on its own. He stepped to
the edge of the platform, the baby held against him where it could be clearly
“Guards! I know you’re watching. Approach and I kill the children.”
He lifted his voice, hoped his bluff worked. “I won’t let her have them.”
Nothing in the shadows moved. He backed away. The ship was close. He took the
girl’s elbow and held her close to him. The children didn’t struggle, their
minds still in tune with his. He felt their trust; knew they knew him as
theirs. It filled him, as nothing else had – gave him a sense of rightness. He
couldn’t let her have them.
He boarded, helping the girl in and handing her his son. “Strap in!”
he called, darting to the control room. Even as he was punching in the launch
commands, figures converged on the ship. His hands danced on the control panel,
bringing it to life.
He hit the thrust and the ship lifted, soaring up into the sky. He
let the Control fill his mind, let the stars guide him, his instinct quicker
than any pilot, and set course away from Abendau, and to the Banned.