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planets just to grab a photo op. Those of us at the Explorer Academy believed
that Ramos would be named president of the new High Council; she was the only
admiral who still held the public's confidence. Rumor said the civilian
government wanted to announce a complete slate of High Admirals all at once,
and needed time to make sure none of the new appointees had been involved in
the old council's crimes... but as soon as the background checks were
complete, Festina Ramos would surely become the navy's admiral-in-chief.
Then Ramos disappeared. No word where she was going just a brief interview
with a third-string reporter who happened to be hanging around New Earth's
main spaceport. Ramos said duty called her elsewhere, and she might not be
back for some time. "Best wishes to the new High Council, may they serve with
honor, I trust they'll receive everyone's full support, gotta go now, bye." Or
words to that effect.
With that, Festina Ramos swept off the public stage like a tired ballerina
who wants to get away before someone calls, "Encore!"
Navy gossip occasionally reported Ramos sightings around the galaxy a day on
Troyen with Queen Innocence... four days on Celestia with Lord Protector York
and his Mandasar wife... three weeks in seclusion on Demoth with some junior
proctor of the Vigil... rumors of surprise visits to archaeological digs,
disease research centers, and the YouthBoost vats on Sitz but Ramos avoided
the media, never gave public statements, and kept on the move. By the time
word leaked out where she'd been, she was already someplace else.
Her behavior provoked countless theories. For example, some suggested that
during her investigations into the High Council, she'd discovered something
she hadn't made public: a threat much worse than the crimes she'd revealed,
and now she was racing from planet to planet, trying to end the danger before
disaster struck. A number of my fellow Explorers, however, were sure she was
the victim of "pretty people politics" the top echelons of the Technocracy
couldn't stomach a disfigured purple-cheeked woman taking command of the
fleet, so they sent her on meaningless errands to remove her from the
spotlight. Personally, I wondered if she'd just got fed up with the
politicians, the media, and all the other talk-talk-talk. If she'd really been
offered the highest post in the navy, she might have turned it down as more
trouble than it was worth. Then she'd happily fled the public eye and was now
on extended vacation, going wherever she liked... perhaps helping out here and
there, but certainly not battling galactic-scale dangers.
Still, I'd known better than to mention my suspicions to other Academy
cadets. They'd worshiped Ramos as a hero. She'd been an Explorer herself
before the Admiralty abruptly bumped her (at age twenty-six) to lieutenant
admiral and made her the navy's problem-solver-without-portfolio. Nobody knew
how she'd won such a promotion, though everyone suspected she'd caught the
High Council in some mischief and blackmailed them into making concessions.
Certainly, Ramos's first official act was to conduct a "policy review" of the
Explorer Corps, leading to an overhaul of corps operations and substantial
improvements in the treatment of Explorers by other branches of the service.
That alone would have made her popular among us "expendable crew members"...
but more important, she carried out her highly visible activitieswhile still
looking like an Explorer. As an admiral, Ramos could easily have obtained
treatment to remove her florid birthmark; but she'd stayed the way she was, no
matter how much it disconcerted "normal" people.
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Was it any wonder Explorers loved her?
I'd admired her as much as anyone else had. But now, as she checked that my
wound was closed, I felt a dawning resentment.
Ramos's history proved she was surrounded by extraordinary karma which is not
some mystical force but the everyday processes whereby seeds sown in the past
bear fruit in the present. Karma simply means that the choices you made
yesterday affect the options you have today. It's common sense. Nothing is
inevitable or predetermined... yet your actions and the actions of others can
sometimes produce a cumulative momentum almost impossible to resist. That's
what karma is: the momentum of cause and effect that drives you forward,
occasionally into bottlenecks or booby traps.
Some people have more momentum than others. Some are riding an avalanche.
Festina Ramos was clearly one of those avalanche riders; her karma would sweep
her from crisis to crisis until her luck or momentum ran out.
And people like me would be caught in the avalanche too.
Here's what I was thinking as I lay paralyzed, watching Ramos repack the
first-aid kit. Why would the Balrog care about an Ugly Screaming Stink-Girl?
It wouldn't. Itwould care about a high-ranking avalanche rider like Festina
Ramos; she could be useful in the Balrog's plans, whatever they were. And if
those plans required a pawn to serve as host for fuzzy red spores, the Balrog
would find great amusement in choosing a host who looked like the admiral's
dark twin.
In other words, I'd been picked because my appearance would get a rise out of
Festina Ramos.
She and I were almost the same height. We were both strong, lean, and
athletic. Her hair was cut much like mine: short and uncomplicated. Our faces
weren't similar if you compared individual features her green eyes, my brown,
her finely cut nose, mine wider and flatter but anyone looking at Ramos and me
would ignore such minor differences. Observers would be transfixed by our
disfigured cheeks. Nothing else would matter.
Even Ramos couldn't help staring. She checked that Tut was sleeping
peacefully and shooed away some curious Cashlings by brandishing her pistol;
then she came back and knelt by my side. For almost a minute, she did nothing
but gaze at my face. If I'd been able to move, I would have told her to stop.
It reminded me too much of my mother, who'd gaze at my cheek in sickened
fascination when she thought I wouldn't notice. But at least there was no
disgust in Ramos's expression I was used to stares of disgust, and the
admiral's eyes were blessedly free of such condemnation. Free of pity too.
Whatever Ramos was thinking, she hid it well.
In time, she turned away from my face. That's when she saw the blood pricks
on my feet. "Oh fuck," she said not angrily, just a whisper. "Are those Balrog
bites? Is that why your partner went after you with the knife?"
When the word came out of my mouth, I was just as surprised as Ramos. For a
terrifying moment, I thought I was still paralyzed, and the Balrog was
speaking through me as if I were a ventriloquist's dummy. But somehow I'd [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]


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