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The Hostile Stars

XXIII. Confrontation

The air lock was large, big enough to move bulky cargoes or an entire squad of troops through it at one time. The short Imperial was standing by the right-hand wall. Carrying a captured Imperial plasma gun, the tall Zhodani came charging at him as soon as he raised his pistol.

Arkadian fired, aiming the parabolic dish at the end of the gun directly at the Zhodani's head. The tall man dropped his weapon and clutched his head in surprise. He continued to stagger forward. Arkadian glanced at the weapon's readouts. It was taking a tremendous amount of power to have any effect on the Zhodani.

Tlienjpraviashav's mind was a riot of pain. What was the Imperial doing to him? His awareness was becoming unfocused. He could feel the first exploratory tendrils of another mind trying to contact his - was it this man with his strange weapon?

He lurched forward. The Imperial inched closer. The weapon must diminish in effectiveness with range. Good. Let him get close. Tlienjpraviashav's had to rely on his reflexes, honed by thousands of hours of training. He had to act without thought.

In one motion he drew a knife from his belt and slashed outward, slicing into the Imperial's stomach in one killing arc. He pulled back the knife and thrust straight forward. The Imperial dropped his pistol and collapsed against Tlienjpraviashav's arm. The Zhodani took the knife out of his stomach and let the Imperial fall to the floor.

"Amazing, isn't it?" he said, letting his suit's speaker carry the clipped tones of his Anglic flatly into the air. "We who live so much in the mind - our own, those of others - forget the basic realities.

"It's truly a problem, isn't it? In some way, I envy the Imperials and their refusal to access a higher reality. They remain in the regular, physical world, the world of brawn and bone and blood.

"I could cut you down with a thought. You, perhaps, could do the same to me. But, ah, power can blind, yes? A knife can cut just as well."

Arkadian had managed to crawl to the side of the air lock. Blood soaked through his tunic, left a smeared trail on the floor behind him. Tlienjpraviashav picked up the pistol and regarded it for a moment. "An interesting device. We have explored similar ideas, of course."

He regarded the wounded man coldly. "I hadn't suspected that one of your kind would be aboard. Perhaps your commanders are more far-sighted than we believed. In any case -"

He pressed the trigger, holding the pistol so that its invisible beam would intersect with Arkadian's head. He was surprised at how quickly the other man's defenses fell. He began to probe his mind. The Imperial weapon, he observed, was a device of great brute power. But it leveled out all the mental structures of its target. Arkadian's mind was barely coherent; it was difficult to extract anything useful.

But - here and there - there were images. Recent events were clearer.

Plieznabr, dead, lying on the floor of a corridor. Arkadian was regarding the readouts on some instruments he had attached to the boy's head, his mind probing into the fragmenting consciousness of the boy.

There is no Anglic word for the offense he was committing. There were rumors of perverted minds among the Zhodani, people who would kill a sentient being just to experience its mind at the moment of death and beyond, the gradual unspooling of a personality into the nothingness and entropy that would be the universe's ultimate fate. Necrophilia is not severe enough a term.

Tlienjpraviashav dropped the pistol in disgust. At least he knew now. Knew what the boy had been trying to tell him, trying to warn him about - Arkadian, this miserable creature. The Imperial psionic. Powerful, perhaps, among his own kind, but no match for one trained by the foremost minds in the Consulate.

So much lost, for nothing! He should have sensed the desperate need for heroic deeds in the boy, his urgent desire to please him, and given him stricter orders not to travel alone. Instead, the boy had made a pointless sacrifice.

Part of him, he realized, was already feeling guilt that he had not realized the Imperial's secret to begin with. All the clues were there. Yet his own pride had kept him from coming to the correct conclusion.

Guilt was frowned upon in the Consulate. It tended to restrict one's options too much. A truly aware sophont must be able to make a decision only upon its own merits, not one based on his prior failures. He hoped that he would not require reeducation. That might be unpleasant.

He stooped suddenly, picked up the plasma rifle, and fired it through the open inner doorway, into the darkened corridor outside.

Anton shrieked with pain as he stumbled into the airlock. The shot had hit him in his right leg and he fell to the floor, writhing in pain. He managed to sit up for a moment and glanced uncomprehendingly at his leg.

It was missing below the knee.

Tlienjpraviashav spoke: "Today I have learned new admiration for Imperial technology. First your device, Arkadian. Most clever, being able to remotely breach a psionic's defenses. And this -" he lifted the plasma rifle. "A weapon as devastating as one of our heavy plasma guns, but able to be fired by a person not wearing combat armor. Quite an improvement, wouldn't you say?"

Arkadian watched him talk to Anton through a haze of pain. He had to do something. It couldn't end like this. He turned his head to its side and looked at the grav cart hovering just outside the airlock door. He recognized what was on top of it: the warhead from a nuclear missile.

An idea came spread across his mind gradually. He smiled. He knew what to do. It calmed him down, gave him a moment of clarity. He reached out of the wreckage of his mind, grasping towards the cart.

Slowly it began to move towards him.

Tlienjpraviashav had gotten behind Anton and dragged him to the other side of the airlock, careful to stay out of range of the Marine's arms. Weakened as he was by pain and shock, the Marine's battle dress still gave him enough strength to hurt the Zhodani commander.

Tlienjpraviashav studied him for a moment, and then closed his eyes. He spread his awareness out, letting his mind hunt through the circuitry of the Marine's helmet. He found the crucial areas and used his telekinetic powers to wreck them. "There, now," he said. "Your shield is useless."

Anton shuddered as he felt his mind being invaded. The experience was beyond words. Suddenly, there was the cool presence of another inside his mind, forcing him to show it things, to reveal things about him that remained inchoate even to himself. Then it was gone, leaving some indescribable taint of madness in its wake.

"Ah..." said Tlienjpraviashav. "Zirkuniashav. Most unexpected. Most excellent. More complete than I could have hoped."

"What...is more..."

"My revenge, of course. In a moment, I will leave this ship. Before I do so, I will trigger the timer on a nuclear weapon. Which will, of course, destroy this ship and everything on it.

"Rather sad that you will not be able to join your crewmates in their moment of immolation, of course. But I will have to kill you before I leave."

"Can't...get away..."

"Yes I can. There will be no shock wave. A command suit has far greater acceleration capabilities built in to it than I think you expect. As well as greater radiation shielding. Boy," he said to Paul, without even looking at him, "Go fetch the cart and bring it in here."

Paul, his face as blank as a sleepwalker's, shuffled through the airlock door. He walked right past the grav cart, which was drifting behind Tlienjpraviashav's back.

Anton saw the cart and dropped his eyes. He forced himself to look at the blasted stump of his right leg. The medical routines built into his armor had already applied a tourniquet to the wound, and anesthetics were beginning to slowly numb him to sleep. Concentrate on the pain, he thought. Don't let him sense anything is wrong. Concentrate. Concentrate.

"But what if I don't escape?" continued Tlienjpraviashav. "What if I share your death, either in the moment of this ship's destruction, or weeks later, wasting away in my own body from radiation sickness? It makes no difference to me anymore."

Arkadian reached out with his hand and caught the cart. The emergency airlock controls were less than a meter away from him. He tried using his telekinesis on them.

No good. The force required was too great, and his power was too depleted.

Gradually, he began to edge down the wall.

Tlienjpraviashav bent down close to Anton's helmet, heedless of whether or not the Marine could grab him. They made a strange tableau, these two helmets, almost touching. Like knights of some primitive world met on a battlefield.

I don't care anymore, thought Tlienjpraviashav, both their minds sharing his awful moment of pain and lust and vengeance. I will kill those who have killed me! Who have killed what was best in my life!

Arkadian braced one hand against the missile warhead and pulled himself into a sitting position next to the cart. With his other hand he reached up and grasped the handle for the emergency evacuation controls. He took a short, sobbing breath, and pulled down on it.

A klaxon began ringing as a blast shield rolled down the inner doorway, sealing it shut. At the same time, explosive bolts blew open the outer airlock door.

Tlienjpraviashav was grabbed from behind by the wind that instantly sprang up in the airlock. He hurtled through space, his arms and legs desperately trying to grasp onto something, and flew through the outer door and into the void beyond.

Arkadian hugged the bomb to his chest as he was lifted up off the floor and into the fast-vanishing air. Anton, who had caught one of the handholds against the other wall in the powerful grip of his mechanically enhanced arms, reached out towards him with the other as he fell towards the outer door. Arkadian stabbed out with his own hand towards Anton's. For a moment, he held onto the contoured battle plastic of the Marine's gauntlet.

Then he was tumbling outside the ship, the air exploding out of his lungs in one silent scream, his chest and guts and eardrums an agony of pressure and pain. Deathly intense cold seemed to crush him as Rhylanor, still making over one gravity, sped past him in an instant.

As he fell, he looked upon the stars with his naked eyes, and, uncloaked in all their glory, they shone their hostility down upon him.

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