The Pearl - Synopsis

The PearlThe Shutaka are feared throughout the Outer Rim. This ancient race of warriors owe allegiance to no planet and hire out as mercenaries to whoever can pay.

Guided by master Strategist-tacticians, the Shutaka have gained almost mystical status among the wild Outer Rim colonies and are more than a match for the Federation-backed OREF forces.

But suddenly, the hunters have become the hunted. Betrayed from within, the Shutaka are brought to the brink of extinction and the handful of survivors must go into hiding.

It is then that the true nature of the Shutaka is revealed - they are the guardians of the Pearl, within which the fate of the universe is inextricably entwined.

Chapter 1 -->

(This novel was started in the early 1980s and was/is intended to be no more than a "Space Opera" in the grand tradition. While it is my own original work, readers of Science Fiction and Fantasy will recognise many familiar themes and concepts. Some of this is intentional homage; some is happenstance. The genre is home to many fertile minds, often exposed to the same early influences, and common themes can develop ideas in parrallel, but independently. Over the years I have seen more than one of my "original" ideas pop up in a movie or book, much to my bemusement. Such is life; I congratulate that author who got their idea to market before I!)


The Pearl - Chapter 20 (Ending A)

(This ending neatly concludes the novel with all loose ends tied up and the fate of each character determined - although the story of the Shutaka is never ending...)


The Pearl - Chapter 1

Leith Birro lay on a soft bed of jungle-ferns, surrounded by darkness. The pre-dawn stillness was broken only by the occasional rustle of a small animal foraging for food. Kweela-San lay an arms-length away to his right, but in the blackness her shining catlike eyes were the only sign of her presence. The other warriors of his squad of Shutaka mercenaries were also close by, unseen but alert for his signal. He glanced at the chronochip grafted into the back of his hand and reached out to touch Kweela-San lightly on the shoulder. Almost instantly, Leith sensed movement as the squad began moving towards the shadowy bulk of the military outpost in the clearing ahead and Kweela-San's lips brushed his ear as she whispered confirmation of his order. The Shutaka had little use for military hierarchy, but Kweela was the most respected warrior in the clan and Leith considered her his second in command. She was also his bodyguard; a part she had played successfully through many battles. Together, they crawled after the squad, moving noiselessly through the lush undergrowth of the rainforest.

The mercenaries paused briefly at the edge of the jungle, then moved quickly across the clearing and flattened themselves against the sheer masonry wall of the outpost. Working with practiced ease, they begun to cut their way through with the portable maxi-laser units they carried. They made no noise themselves, but the laser hummed softly and the melting stone spluttered and crackled. This was the most dangerous part of the whole attack; unless Leith's squad could breach the wall undetected, the heavily armed garrison troops would be alerted to their attack. Leith glanced at the parapet above, expecting at any moment to see the head of a guard investigating the noise of the laser. Kweela-San stood calmly beside him, holding her heavy broadsword in one hand and a small but powerful sonic disrupter in the other. She smiled grimly at him, then resumed her scanning of the jungle from which they had emerged.

The laser suddenly blinked out, its job complete, and Leith watched as Tanah-Luc and Bewah-Tah fastened rock-hooks to the block of stone that had been cored out. Bewah-Tah was a giant for a male of his race. The warriors of the Shutaka were almost exclusively female, the men being the priests, the keepers of clan records and the harvesters of the crops. Bewah-Tah was one of only seven men in the fifteen squads Leith commanded. Bewah had proved himself many times over since then, but several of the other warriors still felt uncomfortable about Bewah fighting alongside them.

Planting their feet firmly against the wall, Bewah and Tanah grasped the rock-hooks in their hands and heaved mightily. The block slid out slowly, making a harsh grating sound that made Leith hold his breath. However, the noise appeared to go unnoticed, and the stone was moved away to reveal an opening barely large enough for the warriors to squeeze through. Without a moment's hesitation, Tanah-Luc dropped to her knees, drew her short sword and pushed herself through the hole, with Bewah-Tah close behind. The rest of the squad followed quickly, until they were all inside except Leith and Kweela-San.

"Are the other squads ready?", he whispered to Kweela.

"Of course," she whispered back. "Did you not order it so?"

Leith smiled to himself. Many times before he had tried to explain to the Shutaka warriors about the emotions of his own race - about the need for reassurance, about pessimism, and fear of failure. At first they had thought he was making a joke, but when they saw he was serious, they listened politely but with little comprehension. Thousands of seasons existence on their hash and unforgiving home planet, Willa, had resulted in a race of ultimate realists. Ganz-tu, their name for the fatalistic acceptance of what is, was the code by which they lived; it was their law, their religion and their philosophy.

"Let's go then," sad Leith and ducked through the hole in the outpost wall to join his squad within. He was much smaller than his warriors and slipped through the breach easily. Kweela followed with less comfort, her larger physique requiring her to squirm and twist until she worked her way through.

Inside, the squad had vanished, fanning out around the outpost compound like wraiths. It was almost as dark inside as outside; the only light coming from a window in what Leith took to be the commandant's quarters. Further behind, and to the right, Leith could just make out the squat outline of the garrison barracks, and behind that again, the outpost's communication aerial. He looked carefully around, familiarising himself with the rest of the compound and reassuring himself that it was the same as the satellite surveillance scans had shown. Satisfied, he glanced at his chronochip and half closed his eyes, moments before the garrison's lighting blazed on, triggered by the unauthorised opening of the main gates. As his eyes adjusted to the glare, Leith saw shadowy figures dart in through the open gates; the other squads waiting outside quickly moved in and took up positions around the compound. Still the outpost remain cloaked in silence.

Leith stood up from where he was crouched and carefully surveyed the scene. In the harsh light, he could see at least fifteen bodies littering the compound, but to his relief, they were all wearing the dark green of the Outer Rim Expeditionary Forces. The duty guards had been neutralised before the compound doors had been forced open. The rest of the garrison had been asleep in the barracks and a few canisters of tharax lobbed in through the windows had seen to it that they would remain so for quite a while. The potent but relatively harmless nerve gas, distilled from the flowers of the rare tharax plant found only on Willa, entered the nervous system through any exposed skin, paralysing all body functions except those necessary to maintain the barest spark of life. The gas dissipated quickly after its release but, as a precaution, the warriors had rubbed their skins with a clear barrier cream before the attack.

Leith and Kweela started towards the garrison commander's hut where the warriors were grouping. They passed a number of the inert bodies on the way and Leith turned them over to inspect the handiwork of the Shutaka. All but three of the OREF guards were alive, having been rendered unconscious by various painful but non-lethal methods. One of the dead guards, however, had been messily deprived of his tongue, and Leith looked at Kweela questioningly.

"Casa-Lara. She knew the one she sought was stationed here. She found him and discharged an honare debt."

Leith shrugged, and continued walking. The Shutaka had a complicated, but ultimately fair, sense of justice. If the dead man had wronged Casa-Lara, or her family, then the punishment would have suited the crime. Among the Shutaka there was seldom any need to resort to formal trials, such was their highly developed sense of natural judgement.

The three warrior squads involved in the attack had formed up in a loose group outside the garrison commander's hut. Casa-Lara and Tanah-Luc were noticeable by their blood stained clothes. Leith knew the blood on Casa's was not her own, but Tanah, standing in the open doorway of the hut was nursing her arm, which had been gashed open almost to the bone. Behind her, in the dimly lit room, Leith could see three bodies lying on the floor. One was Bewah-Tah.

The commandant of the outpost had been awake, working on some reports, and had been able to reach his hand weapon before Tanah had lodged her dagger in his throat. His batman had fared little better, making the mistake of reaching for a ceremonial sword hanging on the wall. Bewah-Tah had taken the full force of the commandant's laser blast in his chest and had died instantly. Tanah-Luc had automatically thrown her arm in front of Bewah and the fading laser beam had sliced into it.

During battle, the Shutaka fought in pairs, each guarding and protecting the other's back. Tanah-Luc and Bewah-Tah had been ka, battle-kin, from their first days of warrior training. Tanah had accepted Bewah as a warrior first and a man second, or perhaps both equally. Like the rest of her race, Tanah rarely showed emotion in public, but her cat-eyes were black with pain and sorrow. The other warriors respectfully averted their eyes from her suffering; few had not experienced the loss of a comrade in battle. The mercenaries' medic, Marion Tibrigaragan, went over to Tanah and attended to the laser gash on her arm.

"She will be all right," Kweela said to Leith. "Bewah-Tah, of Banara clan, was a good warrior - better than many," she added grudgingly. Leith knew it was hard for her to say; Kweela could never get used to the idea of men of her race becoming warriors.

Leith looked at his chronochip again; they were right on schedule, the assault had gone exactly as planned, and with minimal casualties. He had earned his keep again. The Shutaka were formidable warriors, the most feared in the Outer Rim, but their ability to plan strategy or consider battle logistics was non existent. Their success relied on obtaining the services of talented strategist-tacticians like Leith. Each warrior clan sought out leaders from other worlds and invited them to command a battle group, offering money, protection and an almost godlike veneration. The Shutaka were known to petition only the best, and reward generously, so few refused the offer. On these occasions, so Leith had heard, the clans resorted to more direct forms of persuasion. However, Leith had never had cause to regret tying his fate to the Banara clan he served; he knew he owed them more than they would ever demand from him.

"The support will be down soon," he said to Kweela. "Then we can get out of here. Have the guards in the compound dragged into the barracks and get a squad to pick over the armoury. No point in letting the Nesters have any of the good stuff."

Kweela-San grunted. "Kuc! Nesters wouldn't know what to do with a real weapon, anyway. All they do is dig holes and squat in them like Pirth-birds." The Nesters were another mercenary group, drawn from a race of humans that had evolved on a high gravity planet. While the Shutaka specialised in surgically swift assaults, Nesters were brought in to hold a position. With their short, thick bodies and tenacious attitude, they were almost impossible to shift once dug-in. Their ability to patiently wait out anything an enemy threw at them disgusted the Shutaka, who believed in sudden and decisive action.

Leith smiled. "They do their job, Kweela. They are tools, just like us; and they have their proper use." He looked up as a screaming roar announced the arrival of the support craft. It was still too dark to see much, and Leith could just make out the large black shapes of two planetary assault landers, the faint glow from the propellant tubes the only real indication of their locations. They set down on the landing pad behind the garrison and, leaving Kweela to carry out his last instructions, Leith took the remaining squad to meet Izzy.

Izzytic Azayah was a mercenary pilot; probably the best in the known worlds, but certainly the best Leith had known. Izzy was often subcontracted to the Shutaka, and Leith always breathed a little easier when he was available to fly support. If Izzy said back up would arrive at a certain time, it would - whether or not there was a squadron of OREF cruisers waiting in orbit.

The landers had touched down side by side and were standing in the centre of the clearing. Izzy had already disembarked and was shouting abuse at the Nester crews wrestling their gear out of the hold.

"Hurry up, you lunks. If there'd been an OREF welcoming party here, you'd be turtle soup by now. By the Great Architect, can't you get a move on?" He was beating ineffectually at the thick backs of the Nesters as they continued unloading slowly and methodically. He gave up in frustration and waved at Leith as he approached. "Greetings, General. One load of walking rocks, delivered as promised. Everything secure?"

"Yep, no problem. You're late though," Leith baited him.

"The hell I am!" Izzy yelled; he was half deaf from a rocket blast many battles ago, and thought everyone else was too. "Your implant's out of kilter. You need a decent timer." He pulled out an antique timepiece and held it up for Leith's inspection. "Dead on time, as usual!"

"Guess you're right Izzy," Leith said, smiling. "I should have known better. Smooth trip?"

"Fine," Izzy replied. "The patrol ships are still darkside. We'll be gone before they break day."

"How long is that?"

"Twenty-five s.u.'s until the next launch window."

"O.k., my squads will be finished in about fifteen s.u.'s. That'll give us about eight s.u.'s to load up and get settled in. We should do it easily."

"Only if they're faster than this lot," Izzy said, indicating the plodding Nesters behind him with his thumb.

Leith clapped him on the back and went to meet the Nester commander, distinguished by a gold ring pierced through the thick cartilage the Nesters used for a nose. "Calm is the waters, Leafer," he said, using the formal-polite form of address. "My warriors have had success, the outpost is yours."

The Nester looked at Leith with infinitely calm and patient eyes. "Ah, it is so. Ah. My thanks are profuse, Warrior Leith. My job easier be. Bonus fees must accrue to you; I make this assumption, is it not so? I congratulate. My men will be ready to relieve you within the agreed time."

Leaving Leafer to continue the deployment of his men, Leith returned to the outpost and found Kweela. "Was there anything interesting in the armoury?" he queried.

"Nothing we haven't already got, but extra power cells always come in handy. We got all the ID cards from the OREF sleeping beauties and managed to access and transfer most of their funds before the central bank computer woke up and shut down the link. It'll make a nice little bonus."

One of the male warriors, Kipsal-Nor, with the sharp mind of a potential priest, had proved to be quite adept at hacking. He had perfected the art of accessing personal bank accounts through deciphering the permission codes embedded in a person's ID card. Kipsal had written a small worm program that discovered the code within seconds and transmitted instructions over the ComNet to the Federation's central bank computer, ordering a transfer of funds to a number of concealed Shutaka holding accounts.

"The computer will probably alert the authorities, and OREF will know something's up. However, we'll be long gone by then and the people who hired us will have sent in the next wave to dig in properly. I don't think OREF will bother trying to get back this dust speck just yet. The Nester commander will have his guys in place within ten s.u.'s. Boost is in about twenty s.u.'s. Make sure the warriors are ready. And have two of them prepare Bewah-Tah for the journey."

The Shutaka took great pains to make sure that, if at all possible, a fallen warrior was conveyed to Willa for the proper burial rites and interment in the cave of Azare. To be irretrievably lost on the field of battle was a sign of tragic and immeasurable sacrifice - your soul would be unable to find the eternal peace of Azare. Bewah's remains were carefully wrapped in scented cloths and sealed into a plastic body-bag.

Twenty s.u.'s later, Leith's warriors were aboard the two planetary landers, preparing to boost into orbit and rendezvous with the mercenary cruiser waiting there. In the cramped command cabin, Leith, Kweela-San and Marion Tibrigaragan were strapping in as Izzy started the long pre-boost check. A stream of conversation came from the console speaker as Izzy talked with the technicians on the cruiser Hammerhead orbiting far above, confirming instrument status, flight coordinates and boost calculations.

"All set here, Izzy," Leith said, tightening his straps firmly. "Ready when you are."

"Boost in two s.u.'s," Izzy replied, glancing up as his co-pilot scrambled in through the cabin hatch. "All tight back there, Belle?" he asked her.

Belle nodded to the other occupants of the cabin and replied, "Locked, chocked and blocked. With the Nesters gone, there's plenty of free space, and these Shutaka shrimps don't take up much room." Belle, who just about reached Leith's shoulders if she stood on her toes, grinned at Kweela, who smiled in return. The two women went back a long way, Leith knew, and they held each other in high regard. Belle was a Sorarainian, a tiny fairy-like creature, beautiful and delicately proportioned. Her long golden hair and sparkling blue eyes made her look gentle and innocent, but Leith knew otherwise.

Prior to turning mercenary, Belle had been a sixth-level assassin in the ancient Guild of Black. A second-level Guild novice was treated with extreme respect by even battle hardened veterans. A sixth-level Assassin was probably the most deadly sentient being in the known universe. Since time immemorial, the Guild of Black had been used extensively throughout the Federation, usually by governments or the royal families, to provide expedient solutions to political problems. Occasionally, the large interplanetary trading organisations or extremely wealthy individuals also engaged their services. Even a first-level assassin did not come cheaply, but the Guild of Black had never failed to carry out an assignment to the satisfaction of their clients.

The secrets of the Guild were closely guarded, and Belle had been the first assassin to successfully defect, setting a worrying precedent. The Guild's problem, however, was that there were only two other sixth-level assassins still active, and both had declined to take action against Belle. Even the most foolish fifth-level Guild member would not consider themselves a match for a sixth-level, so Belle remained unmolested. Her success did not prompt a rush of similar defections, so it appeared the Guild was unnecessarily concerned about dissatisfaction amongst its ranks.

Belle climbed into the acceleration couch beside Izzy, firmly fastening her harness, which had been modified to suit her tiny frame. She craned her neck around the side of the couch and beamed at Leith. "Glad to see you made it through, again. You must be getting less clumsy as you get older. Either that or you're finally learning something from Kweela."

Kweela made a disgusted face. "Kuc! I have tried to teach him, but he has no stomach for killing. He is all talk, just like a priest-teacher. What would he have done at Morgan's Reach?"

Morgan's Reach had been a small mineral-rich moon orbiting a dead planet. There had been a large Rinock owned mining operation there, run with convict labour and renowned for its brutal conditions. Most of the convicts were, in fact, political prisoners, poorly suited to such debilitating physical labour. There had been an uprising, and the Rinockians had sent in a mercenary force to put it down. This proved harder than it was first thought, and the final solution had been to bring in a planet-crusher starship. There had been ten thousand convicts on the moon; none survived and Morgan's Reach now only existed on old star charts.

"When you've finished chatting, Belle, you can run the abort sequence and check the back-up computer diagnostics," said Izzy. "We've got two s.u.'s to the boost window." He studied a row of numbers scrolling across the console screen and muttered something under his breath. "And make sure the mixture gauge has been recalibrated on the catalyst tank."

"Aye Aye, Cap'n!" Belle answered, raising her dainty hand in a mock salute.

Izzy and Belle busied themselves with the pre-boost check while Leith ran over the events of the past few s.u.'s in his mind. Leith Birro was a natural tactician and strategist. He could not explain why his plans worked - as any other graduate of an OREF military academy could - they just felt right. His plans and strategies welled up from a place deep inside him, clicking into place unbidden. He never questioned his talent, harbouring a deep fear that if he thought about it too much, his magic would disappear. He had learned to accept his hunches and feelings, as had the others around him whose lives depended on his decisions.

Right now, something was nagging at the edge of his consciousness; something didn't feel right. Everything had gone smoothly, and that's what was bugging him. Leith looked across at Kweela-San, laying back in her couch with her eyes closed, reminding him of a sleeping tiger of ancient earth legend. Like all good warriors, Kweela could snatch sleep whenever possible, building up energy reserves for the future.

Marion Tibrigaragan was also lying back in her couch with her eyes closed, but she opened them and looked back at Leith. The lighting in the command cabin was dim, and Marion's dark brown skin looked almost black. Of all the people Leith knew, Marion was best able to understand some of his feelings. She was a direct descendant from earth stock, able to trace her gene pool undiluted back to the native aborigines of that planet. Leith's home planet, Dione, was almost as ancient as Earth. Indeed, some scholars placed Dione older than Earth, but there was general agreement that all human life in the known universe had descended from the gene pool of those two planets. They were known as the Father and Mother of humanity. Leith was pure-stock from Dione; the ancient rhythms of the desert planet ingrained in his soul. Earth was one of the wettest of the habitable planets, but Marion's ancestors had lived in the deserts of one of the vast continents and she felt a close spiritual bond to Leith.

"You look worried about something, Leith," Marion said.

"Nothing I can put my finger on. Something's just not right, that's all."

"It was a good mission, as far as I could tell; few casualties and on schedule. Our employers will be pleased - whoever they are."

Leith and his group rarely knew who employed them to carry out their missions. Transactions were always carried out through an intermediary, and fees were transferred directly into the mercenaries's accounts on Willa. Mercenaries were rarely, if ever, double crossed - the people who employed them relied too much on their services to jeopardise the relationship.

If he had wanted to, Leith could easily have found out who engaged them, but he had decided it was better not to know. The people you were fighting for this time could be the ones you were fighting against next time. The Shutaka had been mercenaries for their entire recorded history and had long since given up trying to sort right from wrong. They did not question the ethics of their employers, only their ability to pay.

"The mission went fine," Leith answered. "In fact it went too well. An outpost with any importance to OREF would have been better prepared than that one. There should have been at least a cruiser in orbit, not a couple of sleepy escorts. It's been too easy."

"I'm not complaining," Izzy broke in. "Hammerhead is due for a refit soon, so I'm glad we didn't have a real fight on our hands. Anyway, we're all checked out and ready to go as soon as the launch window swings around."

Leith fell silent and sat thinking while they waited for boost. As a small boy on Dione, he had loved to watch the old space-pirate vids, his face glued to the screen as the sleek craft roared and swooped through the starry void. It had all seemed so exciting and colourful. He hadn't been prepared, therefore, for the absolute boredom associated with real spaceflight, especially when you were just a passenger. There was no such thing as dropping down onto a planet and then blasting off whenever you felt like it. The whole process was carefully orchestrated and reliant on complex trajectory computations, painstaking boost corrections and split-second timing. Sometimes you could be planet bound for days waiting for a suitable boost window to become available so you could reach orbit.

Finally, the wait was over. They all watched as the numbers scrolled across the console screen and the computers initiated the warm-up. Moments later, the engines started to wine, increasing to a dull roar as they reached full boost.

"Ninety percent, ninety-five, full boost. Break contact." Belle softly called out the lift routine as heavy vibration shook the lander. It lurched slightly as it broke contact from the planet's surface and then straightened as it pulled away. "Twenty-percent propellent gone." The landers carried only enough fuel for one round trip, with minimal margin for error. They had already used twenty percent of the fuel allocated for the ascent on breaking contact. As the speed of the lander increased, they were pressed back into their acceleration couches and the straps they had tightened so carefully started to slacken.

"Sixty percent gone." Leith turned his head with difficulty and looked across at Belle. Of all of them, she seemed the least affected by the heavy acceleration and bone rattling vibration. Military planetary-landers like theirs operated on a two-part fuel system. The propellant was relatively stable until passed through a catalyst, only then reacting to provide powerful, if somewhat uneven, thrust. The main advantage, as far as they were concerned, was the little visible light and heat produced by the reaction. While most planetary defence systems could be electronically fooled, a normal rocket trail through a planet's atmosphere was immediately visible to the naked eye.

After what seemed like a lifetime, the roar of the engines cut out and the invisible hand holding them down released its hold as they escaped the gravity of the planetoid. Leith realised he'd been holding his breath and let it out in a noisy gush. They were all floating free of their couches now, held in place only by their harnesses. With a deft movement, Belle unsnapped her straps and pushed across the cabin to close some locker doors that had worked themselves open in the boost. Like Izzy, Belle only wore a close fitting black jumpsuit and Leith was reminded of an ebony-carp fish as she twisted and turned in free-fall. She slammed the last locker shut, and somersaulted backwards towards Leith, catching the strap of his harness and landing in his lap. She winked at him and pushed off his chest, tumbling back to her couch.

"It is said the Sorarainians are descended from the rock-monkeys of Dorvan," Kweela, who had slept through the boost, observed with a yawn. "I see why."

Before Belle could reply, Izzy interrupted. "We're on the beam from Hammerhead. ETA zero-point-one s.u. Suit up if you want."

Docking procedures were pretty much straight forward, although suiting up was still recommended just in case the air lock was damaged and the cabin de-pressurised. In practice, even civilians rarely bothered to go through the involved and awkward manoeuvres required to suit up in zero gravity, let alone mercenaries who had just survived a battle. None the less, the captain of a space vessel, however small, was still obliged to remind any passengers of the recommended procedures.

The linking up with the Orion-class cruiser Hammerhead was performed under the control of docking computers on each ship and a gentle bump signalled the successful joining. The airlock pump motors whirred as pressure was equalised between the lander and the larger ship and, one by one, the green indicator lights lit up on the control console. There were further metallic clanks as air and power umbilicals were attached from the docking bay of Hammerhead and a soft tone from the console speaker announced the all clear.

Leaving Izzy and Belle to go through their shut-down routines, the three other mercenaries propelled themselves out the control cabin hatch and down the linking passage to the cargo hold. The Shutaka warriors had already started to disembark through the flexible tunnel linking the lander to the cruiser's airspace. The wrapped body of Bewah-Tah was floated carefully down the tunnel, as was the unconscious body of Tanah-Luc. Marion Tibrigaragan had sedated Tanah prior to boost; she had lost a lot of blood and her body needed time to recuperate. Aboard Hammerhead, in the sick bay, Tanah would be hooked up to the autodoc and pumped full of nutrients and healing accelerants. By the time they returned to their base, all physical signs of her injury would be gone.

After passing through the steriliser chamber, the mercenaries stowed their gear in the passenger bays and made their way to the shower room to clean up. The shower room was somewhat misnamed, consisting of a row of plastic bags tethered in a line. After stripping off, the warriors struggled in, two to a bag, and sponged cleaning fluid over each other. A suction tube connected to each shower bag removed the cleaning globules and filtered the liquid for reuse.

Leith and Kweela showered together; efficiently rubbing the thick cleaning fluid over their bodies. They waited until the drying cycle finished and tumbled out of the bag, their clean skins gleaming in the bright bulkhead lights. Pulling on close fitting ship-suits, Leith and Kweela pushed themselves out of the shower room, following the other mercenaries as they made their way to the recreation hall.

An Orion class cruiser like Hammerhead was a relatively large ship. However, most of her was taken up with fuel tanks. From the outside, at a distance, she looked like a huge elongated metal balloon. Closer inspection revealed myriad sensor pods, vid cameras, communication aerials, weapon ports and inspection hatches while at regular intervals around her hull manoeuvring nozzles projected. The air-space, where the crew and passengers travelled, was a cylindrical tube along the ships long axis. This tube was about thirty arm-spans in diameter and was divided into a number of airtight compartments along its length. The outer hull of the cruiser was about fifty times the diameter of the air-space tube, and the volume was packed with fuel cells, each able to be isolated in the event of a puncture.

The design of Hammerhead was typical of most military craft; in fact such designs had changed little for generations. Although travel in null-space used little energy, a vast amount of fuel was required for orbital manoeuvring during the length of time a ship was expected to be away from base. Like the planetary landers, Hammerhead was powered by a chemical propellant reacting with a catalyst. Apart from the low heat and light emitted by the reaction, the other benefit was that the propellant was non-volatile except in the presence of the catalyst. This was extremely important when your enemy was sending projectiles your way.

Space battles, in real life, were also vastly different from the adventure vids. There was no noise and there were few explosions. In fact, the last thing anyone wanted - friend of foe - was to have exploding debris radiating through a battlefield. Most ordinance, be they vacuum torpedos, field mines or rocket cannon, resulted in relatively minor damage. The object in a running space battle was to rupture enough of the enemy ship's fuel cells to render it disabled and stranded, or have a lucky shot rip open the air space.

And luck played a big part in determining the winners. Distances were too vast and trajectories far too complicated to allow a single shot to be aimed at any one vessel, so spreads of shots were fired at the general coordinates where probability theory suggested the enemy ship would be. The victor was usually the fleet with the most ships that could fire off the most salvoes in the shortest time. Generally a battle was over in less than a hundred s.u.'s. The winners usually jumped to null space as soon as possible to avoid any battle junk floating around. Rescue of stranded ships was rarely attempted, and unless the crew of a derelict could make it to a habitable planet, their fate was suffocation when the power cells ran out and the air-scrubbers failed.

Hammerhead had always been a lucky ship. Originally commissioned for the Gastar Royal Navy as the Lord Harras IV, she had survived many battles since her first boost. The Gastarian navy had been significantly reduced when Gastar joined the Federation of Inner Rim Planets and all their lord class cruisers were auctioned off to the highest bidders. Most of the ships ended up as scrap, but the renamed Hammerhead, along with two sister ships, was purchased by a relatively new mercenary group.

This group, Sivin, operating out of the base planet Talus, was made up mostly of disenchanted ex-OREF regular navy spacers. They were not a large group, but they knew their job and their ships. Showing a certain amount of distain for the latest warships on offer, they acquired and re-fitted vessels that had proved their design in actual combat. Hammerhead, and other ships of her class, had developed a reputation for being unreliable, but the Sivin technicians knew that this reputation was largely undeserved; the problems stemmed from the early model jump drives fitted. With a new drive installed and weapon systems updated, Hammerhead could take on anything OREF or the other mercenary navies could boost at her.

However, Hammerhead had been in space a long time; this tour of duty had been lengthy indeed. She was ready for an overhaul and scheduled for orbital dry-dock after this mission. As Leith and Kweela pulled themselves along the communications passage to the recreation hall, he knew that Hammerhead would be positioning herself for the jump that would take them back to the base on Talus. Hopefully, by then he would be suitably relaxed after a session at the bar not to worry about the jump.

Null-space jumping, the process that made interplanetary travel a practical reality, was not for everyone. Leith did not pretend to know how it worked. Jump technicians told him it was like travelling in ever decreasing circles until you disappeared up your own answer. Back at the academy, his physics lecturer, a man given to poetic descriptions of scientific phenomena, has said it was like playing God for an instant. Perhaps it was both, but for Leith the sensation of being in two places at once, unimaginable distances apart, made him extremely disorientated and nauseous. If possible he tried to be asleep during jump. His second preference was to be extremely intoxicated.

Leith and Kweela reached the hatch to the recreation hall and punched the access button. The hatch cycled open and they propelled themselves in. Most of the warriors were already there, as well as a large number of the off-duty crew. The recreation hall was the largest open space on Hammerhead, a cylinder running about one-tenth of the length of the air-tube. At one end of the hall was the bar, complete with a number of private booths, each with room for about six people. At the other end were more booths, somewhat smaller, where a variety of entertainments, such as vids and pseudo-sex, could be purchased. The centre space was devoted to more active recreation devices such as exercise equipment and hard-ball spheres.

Most of the off-duty crew members of the Hammerhead were clustered around the entertainment end of the hall, while the Shutaka warriors favoured the bar, with an energetic few winding down on the gym equipment. Using the rails attached at intervals along the wall of hall, Leith and Kweela pulled themselves towards the bar and found an empty booth. The doorway to the booth was a rubber-like membrane that expanded to let their bodies pass through, then contracted after them. Inside was a dispenser, a small vid screen and six tethers that the occupants could use to hold their bodies relatively stationary. They looped the velcro straps around their waists, inserted their ID cards into the dispenser and punched up their orders. Leith chose one of the alcohol based relaxants common to Dione, while Kweela selected a bulb of hibble-fruit juice. The Shutaka had little use for drugs of any kind, preferring to face the reality of the present rather than the comfort of an induced stupor. The dispenser offered a variety of relaxants and stimulants, some legal and some frowned upon on the more civilised planets; unlike a passenger Starliner, Hammerhead had to cater to mercenary tastes that were somewhat less refined.

A short time latter, they heard Izzy's booming voice out in the hall, answering a question from one of the crew. Leith pushed his head out of the booth and beckoned him over. Belle was with him, pulling herself gracefully along the wall rail with one hand. The two pilots pushed into the booth, Belle sliding her lithe body in behind Izzy before the door had begun to contract.

"What'll you have," Leith asked, motioning towards the dispenser.

"Nothing to drink, I'm still technically on duty," replied Izzy, his voice sounding even louder in the confined space. "But I'm hungry as hell. Give me a tube of protein sup."

Leith looked at the list of protein supplements displayed on the dispenser. "Meat, vegetable or both?" he asked.

"Does it matter? They all taste the same anyway."

Leith shrugged and punched a few buttons. A couple of tubes popped out of the dispenser, and he handed one to Izzy and the other, containing a clear fluid, to Belle.

"The usual for you, I presumed," he said to her.

She smiled back at him and took the offered tube carefully. Daintily, she nibbled the seal from the top and sucked slowly at its contents - pure water. Leith smiled as he watched her. Coming from the deserts on Dione, Leith could remember the first time he had set eyes on a wet planet. He had been twelve seasons old, accompanying his father on a business trip to Lister-Beta. From space, the planet was a green-blue colour and as the orbital lander had dropped closer, the young Leith had glimpsed oceans and rivers scattered over the surface. The sheer quantity of water, in streams and rivers and oceans, had awed him. He had spent the first day just staring at the hotel swimming pool from his room window.

Leith had seen many more planets since then, some wetter and some drier, but he had never lost that memory of seeing so much of the precious fluid in one place at a time. Belle's home planet, Sorarain was not a desert planet, but nevertheless water was even more scarce there than on Dione. Despite a high annual rainfall, or perhaps because of it, the plant life on Sorarain had evolved to be extremely thirsty. As soon as rain touched the surface of the planet, it was sucked into the tissues of the vegetation and converted into a fibrous energy store. Sorarain was covered with dense forests, but there was not a single river, stream or lake to be seen. The Sorarainians survived by collecting moisture from the upper atmosphere and storing it in strong containers away from the invasive root systems of the native vegetation.

Belle drained the tube and closed her eyes in appreciation. "Are you still worried?" she asked, in a dreamy voice. Leith always found it disconcerting the way Belle would begin a conversation; with little warning and straight to the point. She opened her eyes and smiled at him again. Even without the help of the alcohol working it way into his system, Leith would have found himself mesmerised by Belle's eyes. They were of the palest blue and, flecked with gold that seemed to sparkle of its own accord. The pupils were gold too, and Leith could see miniature reflections of his own face in them. Had her features not been beautiful, most men, and even most women, would still have found themselves gazing at Belle's incredible eyes. Leith had never seen another Sorarainian apart from Belle, so he didn't know whether her charms were her own, or part of the Guild's training. With an effort, he blinked and replied.

"It seems a moot point, now. We'll be jumping soon, and back at base before we know it."

"What worried you?" Kweela asked.

"It was too easy for him," Izzy said. "He needs a challenge to stretch his abilities. Maybe he could lead an attack on the Core for practice. That would sharpen him up."

"Leith-ka is always worried," Kweela observed. "He thinks I don't understand, but I do. He does not understand yet what it is really like to worry."

"I thought Shutaka were never worried," Leith replied.

"Only when it is important," Kweela said. "It is rarely important."

"My uncle used to worry a lot," Izzy began. The others groaned. Izzy had an uncle for every occasion. His stories about his relatives were long and usually boring and Leith hurried to forestall this one.

"Anyway, the mission's over now. Anyone for another drink?"

"If it is any consolation," Belle said, " your hunch may be right." She took the new bulb Leith handed her and held it up to the bulkhead light, peering at the clear liquid. "The ship rumour is that Jaycee has been making worried sounds too."

Hammerhead, like all jumpships, had a large semi-sentient computer system that handled the jump. The computer also functioned as the main tactician and strategy analyst during a battle. A human mind could not process the amount of information required to make a sensible decision and the tactical computer sorted through the mind-numbing data to present a range of options to the human commanders. Belle explained that the present situation was making the computer, nicknamed Jaycee by the crew, produce some worrying projections.

"According to it, there is a sixty-five percent chance that this was some sort of setup, either orchestrated by OREF or some other interested party. Jaycee gave a fifty percent probability that we would be ambushed at the outpost, or that it would be sacrificed to allow a hidden OREF task force to drop out of jump-space when we boosted. And if it's not OREF, there’s a better than fifty percent chance that we were setup by whoever hired us in the first place."

Leith shrugged. He had spent many s.u.'s playing against tactical computers during his academy days. During set theoretical pieces, the computer always outplayed him, but during replays of actual battles, with the computer's history circuits blanked, Leith always came out on top. From that, he had learned not to trust the machine's analysis completely; it always worked on logic, and sometimes logic wasn't in the computation.

"Maybe." he said. "Anyway, neither happened. Besides, it's Cusher's problem, now. There’s nothing we can do about it."

Arail Cusher was the commander of Hammerhead. After a distinguished career with the Federation, she had moved on to become an instructor at the OREF academy before taking early retirement and unexpectedly joining the Sivin mercenary group. Her first mercenary command had been Rihannon, sister ship to Hammerhead. Rihannon, along with two starships and half a dozen destroyers had been lost on a doomed mission against a full squadron of OREF starships. The seven surviving crew of Rihannon had rigged up a cryogenic chamber in a lander and boosted themselves towards a friendly star system. Two and a half thousand s.u.'s later, they were spotted by an ore freighter and rescued just before their final power cell failed. Cusher and two others were the only ones who made it through the warmup. The thaw treatment resulted in the destruction in most of the survivors fleshy tissue and the surgeons had to rebuild their bodies. Cusher was almost one hundred and twenty seasons old, but her new body was that of a woman of nineteen. She had always scorned the use of bio-rebuilding, but given she had no choice, she now revelled in the energy and sensations her new young muscles gave her.

"Speak of the Devil." Izzy said, as the commander's voice come over the ship's speakers.

"All hands, this is Cusher. Jump in ten s.u.'s. That is all."

Leith looked at his chronochip. " Just enough time to get in some serious drinking." Suiting action to words, he sucked dry the tube in his hand and punched the button for another.

"Until we reach Talus, Cusher's problems are, to some extent, ours as well," Belle said, continuing the original topic. "Exactly what does your hunch say?"

Leith sighed and sucked thoughtfully at his tube. "Ok, I'll run it past you and see what you think. I haven't thought it out fully myself yet, but I'm sure we're not running into an ambush, despite what the computer thinks. No-one's after us - at least not as a result of our latest endeavours. Jaycee’s second proposition may be closer to the mark, however. We could have been setup in some way... I don’t think whoever hired us really cared whether or not we were successful."

"And just who is our client?" Belle asked.

Leith shrugged. "Basra, as I understand it. The intermediary who engaged our services was awed by his own importance and started to offer payment by direct transfer from the Basran Treasury before he caught himself and changed the offer to standard units. I didn’t think much of it at the time - the origins of our payment has never been a big issue..."

"What interest would the Basrans have in taking out a military installation?" Izzy asked. "A raid on another trading conglomerate I can understand, but what can they gain by taking on the Federation?"

"Well, the Federation has, whether we like it or not, been a tremendous unifying force amongst the civilised worlds. OREF, for all its stupidity and inefficiency, is taming the Outer Rim for the Council - by sheer weight of numbers, if nothing else. Basra has become one of the most powerful of the Outer Rim planets and the emergence of the Federation will probably spell the end of Basra's political might. They have much to gain from the Outer Rim remaining free of rigid central government. Traditionally, Basra has been very good at making sure that the balance of supply and demand favours themselves."

"You mean they corner the market in something, then demand outrageous prices from the poor sods who need it," growled Izzy.

Belle had been listening carefully to all Leith had been saying. "So the Basrans may have hired us to hit the outpost and keep the Federation on its toes - whether we were successful or not. OREF will be looking for the culprits and just as likely to carry out a punitive strike on some relatively innocent world. If enough of that occurred, there would be another rebellion against the Federation and the Outer Rim could collapse back to the way it was before... and Basra would no doubt profit from the confusion."

"Maybe, but I don't think that's why we're here. This outpost is pretty meaningless to OREF - it looked more like it was set up as somewhere to send new recruits for a bit of toughening up. I'll bet a month's wages that the Nesters will be ordered to pull out as soon as we jump. Anyway, you asked me about my hunch," Leith said with a shrug, "and that's it." He had drained half a dozen tubes by now and was suitably relaxed to care little about the jump any more. "Maybe I’ve got their motives a bit wrong, but I'll bet Basra hired us to hit the outpost for reasons other than the ones we were told. It's almost like it was designed to keep us occupied for a while."

"Leith-mnan-gar's hunches are often stronger than other's proven facts," said Kweela.

At that moment, there was a knock on the outside of the booth and Marion Tibrigaragan stuck her head in through the door diaphragm.

"Just thought I'd let you know that Tanah-Luc is settled down in sick bay. She should be healed completely in about a hundred s.u.'s. She'll probably be disappointed that she will barely have a scar."

"Thanks, Marion," Leith said. "Do you feel like a drink."

"No thanks," she replied. "The Hammerhead med staff are having a party of their own, for some reason, and I've been invited. Not," she added with a smile, "that I think their company will be more stimulating than yours." With that, she withdrew her head, and was gone.

Chapter 2 -->


The Pearl - Chapter 2

The jump, as it turned out, was uneventful. Leith had retired to his quarters, a cramped cell adjacent to the main passenger bay where the Shutaka warriors were bedded down, and passed through null-space fast asleep. He awoke a night-cycle later, cocooned in his sleeping bag tethered to the cabin walls next to Kweela in her bag. Leith tried to squirm out of the fabric sheath without disturbing Kweela, but his first slight movement brought her fully awake. She stretched briefly, like a big cat, and twisted out of her bag in one fluid movement. They were no longer in free fall; Hammerhead appeared to be accelerating at about half a gravity, and the two mercenaries dropped lightly to the surface which had now become the floor.

Leith tried to keep out of Kweela's way as she peeled off her close-fitting shipsuit and struggled into a fresh one. Kweela was approaching thirty seasons, but her body was still that of a young warrior, and Leith obtained a simple pleasure from watching her powerful muscles flexing beneath her smooth skin. In zero-gee Kweela kept her mass of hair bundled into a tight bun, but in her sleep a few strands had worked loose, so she reached up to untie the restraining cord. In the low gravity, the freed hair puffed out like a huge scarlet ball and Leith couldn't help laughing out aloud. Kweela wrinkled her nose at him, a Shutaka gesture that was highly insulting.

"For a near-god, Leith-ka is easily amused by mundane things," She said sarcastically.

"Even the court of god-kings on Hursa has its jester," Leith responded.

"You liken me to a court jester do you?" Kweela said, eyes flashing. She launched herself at Leith and they grappled in the light gravity, bouncing gently off the wall surfaces as they tried to gain a grip on each others' smooth ship suits. Kweela managed to brace herself in the corner of the cabin and pinioned Leith's arms behind his back.

"I think an apology is in order, strategist-tactician."

"Ok, Ok, I take it all back," Leith said, grinning. Kweela released him and he worked his arms back and forth until the circulation returned. "So much for respect and servitude. What happened to the shy young warrior I used to know?"

When Leith had first come to the Shutaka, Kweela-San had been offered as his battle-kin. He had looked at the fierce young warrior, barely twenty seasons old, and been unsure of the whole matter. Kweela, with her flame red hair and fierce eyes, had gazed at him with barely concealed disgust, presenting a rather daunting picture. The Shutaka usually revered their mnan-gar strategist-tacticians, but Kweela appeared to be somewhat disdainful of her duties. She had made it clear to him that she would rather be paired with a warrior of skill and daring, not playing nursemaid to an offworlder. It had taken Misha-Dan, the Lord-priest of Willa, to remind Kweela where her duty to the Shutaka lay.

At the time, Leith would have been quite happy to have been paired with another warrior; in fact he secretly thought that the proud young warrior was a bit too inexperienced for the duty of guarding a possession as precious as his life. He would much rather have taken Tilla-Su or Dian-Mar, warriors closer to both his age and temperament. However, Misha-Dan had convinced Leith to give Kweela a chance. In the silence of the Temple of Thought, the most sacred of Shutaka places where he had unexpectedly summoned Leith, he had spoken in his quiet, measured voice.

"Of, course, Leith Birro, the final choice is yours. Your duty to the Banara clan will be sufficiently onerous; I would think no less of you if you decline this task."

"Well, Tilla-Su would be my first preference..." Leith said, knowing that ka was a permanent obligation.

"A fine warrior - and a fine woman," Misha agreed, drawing deeply on his pipe of Willa-weed. A trickle of orange smoke escaped from his nostrils.

The silence between them hung like a curtain. "It's not that I've got anything against Kweela-San," Leith finally said. "If anything, it's the other way around."

"Ah yes, the invincible vitality of youth. So eager, are they not? I remember what it was like - as I'm sure you do. If she survives, she will be a great warrior, our Kweela-San. It is because of this that I ask you to reconsider. There is much that you can teach her, even though she may seem like an unwilling pupil." Misha-Dan looked at his pipe, which had gone out, and tapped it against his leg. Fragments of weed ash dropped to the polished temple tiles. He look at Leith, and then inspected the inside of his pipe bowl.

"There is another reason, Leith Birro, although it will remain unspoken. Consider accepting Kweela-San as a personal request; an honare debt if you like. It is not without effort that I ask this of you."

Back then, Leith had not known a great deal about the ways of the Shutaka, but he knew enough to realise that the Lord-priest of Willa indebting himself to an off-worlder was not to be taken lightly. After that, there seemed little Leith could have said. Kweela became his battle-kin, and true to Misha-Dan's prediction, settled down to become a fine warrior. Despite herself, she proved to be an apt student of tactics and strategy, learning to temper her desire for action with the prudence of planning. She had a quick mind and shrewd judgment, and Leith found himself using her as a sounding board for many of his plans. Although they came from entirely different races, there seemed to be a natural, almost spiritual, bond between them that strengthened as time went on.

Aboard Hammerhead, watching Kweela force her hair back into a compact bun, Leith thought about their relationship. Not for the first time, he wondered how Kweela thought of him as a man. Although they knew each other as intimately as two people who had spent virtually every waking moment together for the last ten seasons could, their relationship remained, for the want of a better word, platonic. At the neckline of Kweela's suit, Leith could see the start of an old scar that he knew ran down and across her right breast, almost to her waist. On Syriah, a vast rocky planet that had been their hardest mission, he had held that breast in his hands, pressing the torn flesh together while Kweela held her own hands over a gaping hole in her leg.

Then, after the near-disaster on Halifax-une-crix, Kweela's hands had worked on his body; for two months she had bathed his legs and lower torso with the foul smelling juice from Willa weed. It was because of her attentions that he was saved from the terrible scaring that usually resulted from radiation splash. And yet, despite their knowledge of each other's body, they had never held each other as man and woman.

In the small mnan-gar-hara, or god-house, that was Leith's accommodation on Willa, his sleeping chamber was separate from Kweela's. The arrangement had always puzzled him, given Willa's customs, but Leith had never been able to find a way to broach the subject.

All of the other dwellings on Willa, apart from the mnan-gar-hara, had communal sleeping areas. The ways of the Shutaka placed little emphasis on the individual; the clan made most decisions and there was rarely serious dissent. Although Shutaka women had complete physical control over their fertility cycle, pregnancy decisions were also considered a clan matter, based on population growth requirements and genetic screening. Generally the decision was delayed until the women had passed their peak as a warrior and, even then, the newborn infants were raised in communal crèches by the young priest initiates, allowing the warriors to return to duty.

This did not mean, however, that the Shutaka offspring were deprived of nurturing. On the contrary, the children were surrounded by doting carers who lavished attention and affection upon their young charges. As the children grew older, they roamed among the clan as they wished, living with whoever they chose. Effectively, this meant that, instead of two parents, each child had as many as they wished; every adult of the clan took responsibility for providing for the needs and education of the children.

Given the rather relaxed attitudes of the Shutaka, it was therefore a bit puzzling to Leith that Kweela had shown little interest in him in that regard. Although she joined freely with the other men of her clan - indeed to an extent that made even the older warriors blink - she always managed to avoid any situation that would lead to her sharing Leith's sleeping furs. Her sister warriors held no such reservations; bedding a strategist-tactician was seen as a mark of clan status, and Leith received invitations from many of the warriors.

Leith knew Kweela well enough to understand that if she had wanted to talk about the matter, she would. Accordingly, he had accepted their separate sleeping arrangements and was rather surprised when, one evening, he had retired to his sleeping chamber in the mnan-gar-hara to find the warm body of Kweela curled up in his sleeping furs. It had been the evening of hirra-tel-barka, the Shutaka ceremony that initiated the young women as full warriors. Until then, Kweela had been a doza warrior, learning the skills and discipline of a full warrior, and yet to have proven her courage. What the ceremony involved was known only to full warriors and the Lord-priest, but no warrior survived the ceremony without being profoundly changed. It was said, around the men's cooking fires, that the great secret of the universe, the very history of time itself, was laid bare at the warrior's feet. To look at god's truth and survive was the sign of a full warrior; it marked the division between adult and child.

The night of hirra-tel-barka, Kweela had clung to Leith like a child herself, shivering and trembling. They lay quietly together all night, not speaking a word, and in the morning Kweela had dressed in her light armour and led her squad in a long and grueling training session. Kweela had never shared his sleeping furs again, and by unspoken mutual consent, that night had never been mentioned since.

Leith thought fondly of his comfortable sleeping furs on Willa as he folded the sleeping bag and stowed it in a locker aboard Hammerhead. Kweela had logged into the com-term located in one corner of the sleeping cell and was reading the status report as it scrolled across the screen. Leith pulled himself across and peered over her shoulder.

"We'll be at the Talus orbital station in forty s.u.'s," she said. It's morning, ship time, and breakfast is being served in the rec hall. Hungry?"

"Not for protein sup. But I guess it'll be a couple of hundred s.u.'s before we're down on Talus and I'll have a chance at real food. What about you?"

Kweela grinned at him. Like all good warriors, she ate whatever was available, whenever it was available. The harsh and unpredictable climate on Willa also taught its inhabitants not to be too choosy about their food; one poor season could mean you were eating this winter what you wouldn't have fed animals last winter.

"Let's go then." Suiting actions to words, Leith punched the button for the hatch release and pushed himself out into the corridor. They made their way carefully along the corridor; Leith sometimes wished they could stay in zero-g all the time - at least that would be better than trying to constantly adjust to different acceleration rates. They passed the hatch to the power room where the throbbing whine of the idling jump drive could be heard over the hum of the generators. In the rec room, most of the Shutaka were gathered, catching a quick breakfast before the ship reached orbital dock. At the bar, which also served as the galley, Leith inserted his ID card and punched in his selection. A tube of coffee and one of vegetable protein emerged from the machine and he moved aside to allow Kweela to serve herself.

He was just about to bite the top off his coffee tube when the room was filled with a wailing scream. To Leith, it sounded like the cry of a sand-tiger, falling into a trap and being impaled on the sharpened spikes below. The scream was all around him, and as he swung around, he saw that all the Shutaka in the room were twisting in agony, curling their bodies into a ball as if to escape something. He felt someone grasp his leg and he looked down to see Kweela, her face a twisted mask of pain, holding onto his leg as she tried to say something. He pulled her up to him, feeling the muscles of her arms knotting and bunching spasmodically. Her face was bathed in sweat as she fought to control herself.

"Willa," she eventually gasped. "Go to Willa."

"Kweela, what's wrong?" Leith said. "What's happening? Talk to me!"

Shaking her head slowly, as if to shrug off a heavy weight, Kweela took a deep rasping breath and spoke in a slow whisper.

"We must go to Willa. Now. A terrible thing has occurred. There is no time to lose. We must go, now. Cusher must jump the ship to Willa. We have to talk to her." As Kweela spoke, she began to regain control over herself and let go of Leith. Around them, the warriors were also recovering, turning to where Leith and Kweela were resting against the bar counter. "She'll be on the bridge. Are you coming?" She asked him.

"Kweela, tell me what's wrong."

"I don't know, Leith-ka. We have to get to Willa and find out."

Leith saw the look in her eyes and thought it best not to argue. Kweela signaled to five Shutaka to follow her and the seven of them made their way to the exit. Pulling themselves quickly along the passageway, they were soon outside the compartment that served as the command centre for Hammerhead. The access hatch was security coded, so Leith pressed the communicator button on the bulkhead beside it.

"Commander Cusher, this is Leith Birro. Request permission to enter."

After a brief pause, Cusher's voice came over the intercom. "What is it, Mr Birro? We're in the middle of calculating docking approach. Can't it wait?"

"I don't think so, Commander."

There was a metallic clunk from the hatch and the green access light blinked on as it cycled open. Leith motioned for the other warriors to wait outside and he and Kweela pulled themselves through. "Keep quite, Kweela. That isn't a request!" he whispered fiercely to her as the hatch automatically cycled close after them.

The bridge of the Hammerhead was, apart from the recreation hall, the biggest compartment on the ship. In this space, thirty crew, mostly technicians and engineers, operated the ship. They were stationed in a ring around the air-tube, strapped into acceleration couches, each facing a bank of computers. In the centre of the bridge, on a magnetic pivot, was the captain's chair, a spherical cage that could swivel and rotate in any direction. The chair was facing them as they entered.

"Well?" Arail Cusher demanded, pulling herself forward in the chair.

Leith was always caught by the contradiction presented by Cusher. Arail's new body was that of a woman barely twenty seasons old. Her jet black hair was cut short in the manner of an academy student and her flight-suit hugged the curves of her slim body. Even so, her voice was that of a seasoned commander, accustomed to obedience and deserving of respect. Her eyes were new, but they still managed to reflect her true age, which Leith knew was close to one hundred and twenty seasons. Arail Cusher projected a curious mixture of girlish innocence and cynical boredom.

"The Shutaka believe there's a problem back on Willa - a big problem. Can your communications officer raise them?' Leith told her.

Frowning, Cusher motioned to one of the bridge crew, who punched some instructions into the console in front of him. Leith and Kweela waited, while the rest of the crew returned to their work. The communications officer tried a number of times, before turning to Cusher. "No luck, Commander. There's nothing on ComNet."

"What do you mean there's nothing on the 'Net?" Cusher demanded. "Try it again."

"I've already tried three times; on deep-scan, on delayed-sweep and sub-ether. There's nothing. Either they've thrown a blanket communication shield over the planet, or all their gear is out of wack. I can't even get a response on the emergency channel."

Cusher shook her head and looked at Leith. "I'm sorry. They must have their reasons for going off ComNet, but there's nothing we can do about it. Perhaps you'll have better luck after you make planetfall."

Leith though about this for a moment then said, "Commander, the Shutaka need to get to Willa. Urgently. Will you contract to make the jump as soon as you've refueled at Talus?"

Kweela could contain herself no longer "No!" she shouted. "We must go now. Right now. As soon as the calculations can be run."

Cusher raised her eyebrows and managed to compose a stern look on her youthful face. "Kweela-San, our contract was to transport you safely from Talus to Liss and back. No more, no less. In ten s.u.'s we'll be in orbit around Talus; our contractual obligations will be complete. Hammerhead is due in dock for a complete overhaul. I'm afraid you'll have to find someone else to make the jump to Willa. I'm sorry."

The two women stared at each other and Leith could feel the rising tension between them. Kweela's cat eyes closed to slits and she said between clenched teeth, "We will go to Willa now. On this ship. Under contract or not."

The rest of the crew on the bridge had fallen silent, turning away from their consoles to stare at their Captain and Kweela. The air-scrubbers hissed softly and data continued to scroll over the display screens. Apart from this there was no other sound or movement.

"I assume, Kweela-San, you know that threatening the Captain of a ship carries the same penalty amongst the mercenary fleet as it does in the Federation navy."

"You will start the jump calculations now," Kweela continued, as if she hadn't heard what Cusher had said. "I have no desire to remove you as commander of Hammerhead. The choice is yours. The Shutaka outnumber your crew two to one, and Leith-ka should still remember how to command a jumpship. It may have been many seasons since he has sat in a chair such as yours, but the commander of a starship rarely forgets."

Cusher looked carefully at Leith. "I was under the assumption that you were leader of the Shutaka, Leith Birro. Are not the strategist-tacticians afforded demi-god status?"

Leith knew that Kweela could be headstrong and at time threw caution to the wind. However, she was far from stupid. There were times he had followed her instincts when his reason suggested otherwise. Sometimes it came down to a matter of trust. She knew what she was doing, or at least knew that the situation required the actions she was taking.

"I'm afraid Kweela-San has always done things a bit differently, Arail," Leith said wryly. "However, I trust her judgment enough not to pull rank in this instant. And I'm sure she appreciates the potential consequences of her actions."

Cusher glanced around at her crew. She turned back to Kweela and looked her directly in the eye. "And how exactly do you propose taking over the ship, Kweela-San. Until I give the command, you are sealed in here with us. The engine-room crew alone could take Hammerhead into orbit using the auxiliary bridge. Shutaka or not, you'd be in a stasis cage before you knew it."

"Arail, listen carefully," Leith said. "I don't know what's going on, but I've never seen the Shutaka like this. They could easily take this ship by force, and I don't think a sealed hatch is going to stop Kweela telling the other warriors what to do. I think you value your crew too much to expose them to half-crazy Shutaka."

Kweela glanced at Leith, anger flaring in her eyes, but he stopped her with a small shake of his head. Cusher sat considering the situation, breathing heavily. Finally she let out a deep breath.

"Jaycee," she said quietly.

"Acknowledged," came the battle computer's voice from the communications speakers.

"Analysis," Cusher demanded.

"Probability of Shutaka success: seventy-eight percent. Probability of Shutaka bluff: zero point two percent. Casualty projection: Shutaka twelve percent, ship's crew sixty-three percent," offered the computer, calmly. Like most battle computers, its synthesised voice gave the comforting impression of a middle aged matronly woman offering good, solid advice. No doubt the original programmers had the best intentions, but this usually resulted in battle computers being known as EMs, or electric-mothers.


"Reject Shutaka demands."

Leith raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Rationale?" he couldn’t help asking.

"Mutinies on military vessels currently occur at the rate of one per forty-two thousand. This low figure results from a no-compromise policy adopted by commanding officers and authorities. The policy is used because, in almost all cases, the mutineers usually attempt to leave no witnesses, whether their demands are met peacefully or not. Resistance to a takeover by the Shutaka has a low probability of success, with a high casualty rate, but the alternative would probably result in the eventual loss of all crew anyway. Furthermore, each successful incident such as the present one can result in a disproportionately large increase in unauthorised use of military craft, primarily for activities which have a long term negative affect on the economic and social fabric of civilised society. When all probabilities have been calculated, with appropriate long term social weighting, my recommendation is the most appropriate."

"I don't think that the Shutaka are planning to become pirates and pillage every planet between here and the inner ring," Leith said, his voice heavy with sarcasm. "They are desperate to secure passage to Willa, that's all. They're not about to paint a skull and crossbones on the hull."

"Transcripts of seventy-eight percent of trials in the Supreme Guardian Court of the Inner Rim dealing with piracy charges contain defence arguments that request leniency based upon similar justifications to yours. The Court has, in all cases, dismissed such reasoning. Lord Horwarth, in the Federation versus Carvey, Preler and Hurs-il-ta, stated: The aftermath of desperate acts usually precipitates further desperate actions."

Shaking his head, Leith looked at Arail Cusher. "You mean to tell me you rely on this thing during a battle. I'm amazed Hammerhead has survived as long as she has."

"Jaycee," Cusher said, "what are our comparative statistics?"

"Situation analysis statistics, Birtleson method, standard weighting: Commander Arail Jessa Cusher, Captain of Independent Military Vessel Hammerhead: eighty-three percent accurate. JCN Model 12, battle computer of Independent Military Vessel Hammerhead: ninety-one percent accurate. Average of all commanders of military vessels: seventy point five percent accurate. Average of all battle computers of registered military vessels: eighty-seven point two five percent accurate.

"Yes, Mr Birro, I do rely on Jaycee." Cusher paused, looking around at her crew. "But not this time. Kweela-San, I will take you to Willa, but there must be a contract. Are you prepared to meet my price?"

"It is done. Have your crew begin the calculations."

"You do not know my price, yet."

"It does not matter, the Shutaka will be able to meet any price you name."

"You are the price, Kweela-San. The penalty for mutiny is, as you know, death. That is the price of passage; you forfeit your life to me."

Kweela barely hesitated. "I said: It is done."

"On your soul, Kweela-San."

Before Kweela could speak, Leith interrupted. "Wait a minute, Arail. Kweela doesn't know what she is saying."

Kweela turned to Leith, fury in her eyes. "Am I a child, Leith-ka, not to know my mind? I speak for Kweela-San, no other." Looking Cusher squarely in the face, she said "I swear, on my soul and that of all my ancestors."

Cusher smiled slightly, a strange, immensely sad smile, and issued instructions to the jump technicians. "Start calcs for Willa. I want to be ready in three s.u's. Helmsman, cut acceleration. Communications, open ship-com. The crew will be overjoyed to miss out on planet-fall." Cusher waited until her communications officer nodded in acknowledgment and spoke over the ship-com. "Attention, this is Cusher. Crew to battle stations. Prepare for jump in three s.u.'s. That is all."

Leith stared helplessly at Kweela, not knowing what to do. Both Cusher and Kweela had acted to save many lives aboard Hammerhead. The Shutaka would be taken to Willa and the law would punish a mutineer. There would be no possibility of Kweela attempting to avoid her pledge; a Shutaka oath was never broken, as Cusher must have known.

The ship's acceleration had ceased and they were once more floating in zero gravity. Not looking at Leith, Kweela pulled herself to the doorway, waiting until Cusher punched in the security code to open it, revealing the five waiting Shutaka outside. The six warriors disappeared down the corridor in the direction of the recreation hall.

When the hatch had cycled shut again, Cusher adjusted her suit mike and pressed a button on her chair's armrest.

"Log entry. Arail Jessa Cusher, Commander. Position as per NavCom datafeed. Incident: attempted mutiny by Shutaka passengers. Attempt neutralised. Shutaka ringleaders identified. As per naval law, immediate execution carried out. Proceeding to Willa to hand remaining mutineers to local authorities for punishment. End."

Cusher pivoted her chair in a full circle, looking into every face on the bridge. Finally, she turned to her second in command, a grizzled old officer who reminded Leith of Izzy.

"Visoni, I need you to confirm the log entry."

Karl Visoni had been one of the two crew who had survived Rihannon with Cusher. With a slight nod of his head, he spoke quietly into his suit mike. "Lieutenant Karl Visoni, second in command. Log entry confirmed."

Cusher looked at Leith. "It has always struck me as absurd, strategist-tactician, the amount of faith placed in a ship's log. History is, after all, written by the survivors."

"I underestimated you, Arail. It won't happen again," Leith said, inclining his head in acknowledgment.

"And I learnt many seasons ago not to underestimate Shutaka, Leith. Kweela-San is deadly serious about getting back to Willa and I saw no other way to resolve the situation. At least the record will show justice to have been done. I don't know what's going on, but the sooner I can get rid of this particular load of Shutaka, the better it will be." Cusher turned to her communications officer again. "Have you been able to get through to Willa yet?"

"Same as before, Commander. My guess is that they've put up a com-shield. Nothing's getting through."

"That would indicate that they're expecting an attack. Or they're already under attack."

"Who would be stupid enough to launch an attack on the Shutaka home planet?" asked one of the jump technicians, looking up from her console. "That would be like sticking your head in a beedle nest."

"That reminds me," said Cusher. "Jaycee?"


"Information for your databank. You estimated the probability of the Shutaka bluffing at zero point two percent. Let me tell you, they never bluff."

Chapter 3 -->


The Pearl - Chapter 3

Hammerhead exited from null-space as close to Willa as Commander Cusher dared. This still meant they had twenty s.u.'s of boost and deceleration at two-gees before they could station themselves in orbit. The cruiser's long range scanner picked up a considerable amount of ship activity around the planet; there was a drone-carrier, four Nova class starships, half a dozen cruisers similar to Hammerhead and about ten smaller vessels.

"Quite a battle fleet," Leith said, studying the readout from a console screen. "And most of them seem to be Siven." He was still on the bridge of the Hammerhead, strapped into an acceleration couch along with the rest of the bridge crew. The cruiser had a maximum boost of three standard gravities, but there was no point in punishing the crew or wasting any more fuel than they had to. From the screen readout, there seemed little point in hurrying.

Willa was a large planet, with an atmosphere ninety eight percent standard and a gravity at mean surface level of just over one standard. Most planets upon which life had managed to take hold exhibited characteristics quite similar to the standard measurements, and apart from the harsh climatic conditions on Willa, it was much like any other habitable planet. Except that it was no longer habitable.

The data scrolling across the screen in front of Leith indicated that the atmosphere of Willa had been completely burned away. There were traces of chemical compounds which indicated that the Tun effect had been used to air-strip Willa. The Tun effect, named after its unfortunate discoverer, involved the seeding of carefully measured substances into the atmosphere of a planet which would then combine explosively to burn away the layer of life-supporting gases. Geogeis Tun, in discovering the process, had obliterated himself and the rest of the population of Harridan-Beta many generations ago. The effect was extremely difficult to calculate and set up; it was usually easier - although considerably slower and more expensive - to send in a planet-crusher starship.

The fleet orbiting Willa had nothing to do with the Tun effect. As their identification signals reached Hammerhead, Leith saw that most of the ships were those usually subcontracted to the Shutaka. It seemed likely that the other clans had also felt what Leith's warriors had and returned to Willa as soon as they could. The drone-carrier was the Sword of Courage which Leith knew had boosted with the mercenary clan Forta at the same time his Shutaka had left on their mission aboard Hammerhead. Forta was commanded by Doran Mar, who Leith had know for longer than he cared to remember. Doran's reputation for planning, strategy and tactics almost matched that of Leith's.

"Commander, can we contact Sword of Courage?" Leith asked Cusher.

"Probably," she replied. "Anyone in particular?"

"Doran Mar is leading the Shutaka group on it. I'd like to speak to him, if possible."

Cusher instructed the communications officer to hail the drone carrier. The communication frequencies were jammed with a thousand transmissions and it took a little time to open a line to the carrier. Eventually, an acknowledgment crackled over the bridge speakers.

"Sword of Courage to Hammerhead. Compliments to Commander Cusher. Commander Lartz here."

"Acknowledged, Commander," Cusher spoke into her suit microphone. "I take it that your Shutaka passengers respectfully requested that you detour here?"

"Damn savages! They were ready to take the ship apart, panel by panel. Give me the Nesters, any time; they're never any trouble."

"Have you any data on this situation?"

"None that makes any sense. You can see for yourself what happened, but I'll be buggered if I know why."

"The Shutaka tactician here, Leith Birro, wants to speak to Doran Mar if he's available."

"You just missed him. He went down with two of his squads to the surface, three s.u.'s ago. Our scanners picked up some energy patterns near the planet's pole and they went to investigate if it came from anything living. They're around on darkside now, so we can't contact them."

"Have you got their destination coordinates, Commander?" Leith asked.

"Already sent. As far as I can tell, all of the surviving Shutaka clans are in the orbiting ships. I don't know how they knew, but they all high-tailed it here as soon as they could. What do you know about all this Birro?"

"As much as you, Commander. My squads are still suffering some sort of mind-shock. I haven't been able to get much out of them. Have your scanners picked up any other signs of life."


"There were about four-hundred thousand people on Willa, you know."

"If it's any consolation, Leith, they wouldn't have known what hit them. The Tun effect is almost instantaneous," Cusher said quietly.

They were interrupted by the intercom beside the bridge entry hatch. "Kweela-San here. Request permission to enter, Commander." Cusher punched in the security code on her chair armrest and the hatch cycled open. Kweela-San struggled through, fighting the force of two gravities as she pulled herself across the cabin. She was followed by Tanah-Luc, who looked fully recovered from her arm injury. In fact, she looked in much better condition than Kweela. Leith guessed that this was because she had been under sedation in the sick bay for most of the time and this had shielded her mind from whatever shock it was that the rest of the warriors initially felt.

At that moment, Hammerhead came within effective visual range of Willa and an image of the planet came into focus on the main viewing screen. Against the darkness of space, the ravaged globe was, at first, difficult to make out clearly. Gone were the heaving seas, the jagged mountains and the windswept plains. Instead, Willa looked like a blackened bloodfruit that had been hanging on the vine too long.

Leith looked at the two Shutaka. Their eyes were black with anguish and he saw a tear had trickled down each of their cheeks. Beside him, he heard Commander Cusher's sharp intake of breath. There was a saying among the superstitious spacers that to see a Shutaka cry was to witness the end of time itself.

"So, we are too late," Kweela said, turning to Cusher. "I thank you anyway. You have fulfilled your contract, now I offer payment."

Arail Cusher suddenly looked all of her one hundred and twenty seasons. She shook her head slowly. "There has been death enough, Kweela-San. Our contract is complete."

"Then the Shutaka have honare debt to you. I call on my clan sister and my ka to witness this."

Tanah-Luc was still staring at the picture on the viewing screen. "There is life down there yet."

Kweela looked at the screen again and closed her eyes. "You are right." She pulled herself over to Leith's couch. "We must go down there," she said. "There are survivors."

"We know, Kweela," Leith reassured her. "A rescue party from Sword of Courage has gone down to pick them up."

Kweela reached across and grasped his arm tightly. In battle, Leith had seen Kweela crush an opponents hand as easily as an eggshell, and he winced in pain as she whispered fiercely, "Leith-ka, we must go down now. It is very important."

"Ok, Kweela, ok" Leith placed his other hand on her shoulder and looked into her eyes. "As soon as Commander Cusher can have a lander prepared. How many of the warriors are fit to go down?"

"All of them, if need be."

"All right, get together a squad and I'll talk to Izzy." He turned to Cusher. "How long?"

"The landers are ready to go as soon as you are. The pilots have been on standby since we came out of null-space. I'll have the deployment calculations started."

"Good. When will we be in orbit?"

The flight technician for Hammerhead looked up from his computer screen. "We'll be in orbit in two point five s.u.'s."

Kweela pushed herself up from the couch and made her way out through the hatch, followed by Tanah. Leith lay on the couch rubbing his wrist until the circulation returned. The ship's deceleration began to ease and, after some more maneuvering to place themselves in formation with the rest of the fleet, they were in free-fall orbit around Willa. The flight technicians busied themselves with calculating trajectories and boost timetables for the lander's decent. Izzy's voice boomed over the bridge speakers.

"Leith, are you there? What's going on? Kweela and a squad or warriors just came aboard the lander in pressure suits. I've got data being dumped into my flight computer from Hammerhead and the umbilicals have detached. Where are we going?"

"I'll be there right away, Izzy. We're going down to Willa. It's been air-stripped. There's half the Outer Rim mercenary fleet in orbit and we've scanned some survivors. Kweela's insisting we go down to help. I'm not going to argue with her, are you?"

"She's right behind me at the moment, so I'll go along with whatever she wants. The computers say we boost in point six s.u.'s. You'd better hurry."

"On my way." Leith unbuckled himself from his couch and pulled himself across to the hatch, using the handholds built into the walls of the cabin. He turned to Cusher. "We'll be back as soon as possible; I don't suppose there'll be much sightseeing to do. I trust you'll still be here when we get back."

"Unless another battle fleet comes along. Listen, Leith, I don't like being ordered what to do on my own ship, so if I didn't want to be here we wouldn't be here. Even Shutaka tantrums wouldn't have made a difference. Normally I'd have opened Hammerhead to vacuum rather than give in to a bunch of mutineers... but there's something big going on here, I can feel it. This is much more than just a planet being wiped out and I think we're going to have to chose our allies very carefully from now on. The Shutaka have always been straight with me, so I guess I've already made my choice. I'll be here."

"I think you're right, Commander. I'm glad we're on the same side."

"What I'm worried about is who is on the other side."

"Maybe we'll find out down there." With that, Leith propelled himself out the hatch and down the dimly lit corridor to the docking bay. A technician was waiting for him by the air lock to help him suit up. Leith squirmed into the pressure suit and the technician punched the button to cycle the lock. Leith poked his head into the lander control cabin to see Izzy and Belle going through their final checks. Kweela was strapped in behind them and Leith dropped in next to her. He was still belting in as the lander gave a gentle lurch and broke contact with Hammerhead.

In what seemed an incredibly short space of time the lander was falling towards the planet beneath them. On previous descents to Willa, the lander had started buffeting about now as they had entered the atmosphere. This time they fell with no trace of vibration until the braking motors fired and they began their final approach. Planetfall was usually computer controlled; most places anyone wanted to set down had proper landing pads and technology guided the craft down. The surface of Willa was now blackened and lifeless, with only the largest of geographical features recognisable. As they approached the surface, Izzy took over from the flight computer and guided them in using the infra-red picture relayed in from the vids mounted on the outside of the lander.

"There's Doran's lander," Belle said. "By that outcrop of rock."

"Got it," replied Izzy. "Hang on everyone, this could be a bit rough."

Izzy brought the lander down in a sweeping arc, waiting until the last moment to fire the main motors. Suddenly, a deep fissure appeared underneath them and Izzy hit the lateral thrusters to avoid it. The lander scuttled sideways like a crab and settled heavily on its telescopic legs, sliding slightly as the landing feet sought for purchase on the heat glazed ground. They all sat there for a few moments, their hearts pounding as the whine of the motors died away.

"Nicely done," said Leith, trying to keep his voice sounding casual.

"Show-off," Belle murmured. You were just trying to scare us."

"It worked," Leith replied.

"You're telling me," Izzy said softly.

Kweela was already unbuckling her straps, preparing to exit the lander. Leith reached out a hand and grabbed her shoulder.

"Hang on a minute, Kweela. We don't know what it's like out there. Wait until the scanners have given us some more data. At least let's try and raise Doran on the communications net."

"That's what I've been trying to do," Belle said. "Nothing, not even a squeak."

"Well, they're out there somewhere," Kweela said, indicating the viewing screen which relayed a picture of the other lander standing with its main hatch open.

"OK, but just take it easy. Things are bad enough without you charging around like a wounded loon-beast."

To Leith's surprise, instead of an angry reply, Kweela smiled gently at him. "Things may be worse than you think, Leith-ka. Come, let us join the warriors."

Leith and Kweela made their way out of the control cabin to the main hold. They sealed the hatch behind them and fastened the faceplates of their pressure suits. The other warriors were ready so, five at a time, they squeezed into the airlock and exited the lander. When the entire squad was standing on the charred surface outside, grouped together in the circle of light from the ship's spotlights, Leith radioed the all clear to Izzy.

"OK, we're all out. How long have we got 'til boost back to Hammerhead?"

"Ten s.u.'s. Then it's a long wait until the next launch window."

"Right. Keep an eye on the time for us, will you."

"OK. What's your plan?"

"Try and find out where Doran's squad is first. Anything on the scanners?"

"The lander's sensors aren't powerful enough to pick up much. We're still darkside from Hammerhead. When we're back in contact with her, she might be able to relay some better information."

"OK. We'll see what we can find out here. Even if it wasn't dark, there wouldn't be any tracks to follow. We're standing on what looks like a solid outcropping of rock. The heat has fused the surface as smooth as glass. Standby."

Using powerful hand torches, Leith and the warriors started looking for signs of the other landing party. Starting at the other lander, they fanned out in a circular pattern, making sure to keep in radio contact. Shortly after, Tanah-Luc's voice came over their suit speakers.

"Found something. Looks like an airlock door, although it's hard to tell. It's been camouflaged to blend in with the surrounding rock. I'm in the south-east quadrant. I'll wave my torch so you can pinpoint me."

The warriors converged on the spot where Tanah was standing. Kweela knelt down, careful not to snag her suit on any projections. What Tanah had found was a flat rock face that looked much like the surrounding rock, except a section of its surface had been burnt away to expose a metal surface underneath.

"It's the crèche," Kweela said. "It must be! There may be hope yet."

"Right," said Leith, not having any idea what she was talking about. "How do we get in?"

"It will know us," Kweela replied. Almost as she spoke, the outline of a door appeared in the rock face as the lock cycled open. The door swung inwards and away, revealing a large chamber that had more than enough room for the squad. "If anyone except true Shutaka tried to gain entry, it would have sealed itself permanently".

"So what's it for?" Leith asked, as Kweela prepared to enter.

"What's up, Leith?" Izzy's voice asked over the communications channel.

"We've found an airlock to some kind of shelter in the rock. Doran and his squads must have found it too, or another one like it. We're going in to take a look. My guess is that communications signals can't get in or out, so if we're not back by the time you have to boost back to Hammerhead, assume we can't get back out either. Have Cusher send down another squad with a heavy laser and blast us out - if they can."

"Acknowledged." Izzy replied.

"Be careful, Leith," Belle transmitted. "Don't do anything more stupid than you normally would. Look after him, Kweela."

"As always, small one."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence, you two. OK, let's go."

Leith followed Kweela, with the rest of the warriors, and waited as the airlock door swung silently closed. A green light on the wall blinked on, indicating that it was safe to crack their suits seals. The inner door opened and they stepped out into a rock lined tunnel. To Leith's surprise, waiting to greet them were two young Shutaka, girls really, about ten seasons old. They were dressed in long flowing white gowns and smiled politely in welcome.

"Welcome, sisters and honoured mnan-gar," the tallest one said. "I am Ishta-Na of Cursta clan and this is Millu-Bri of Forta clan. The Lord-priest is waiting. Please follow us."

The two girls turned about and started walking quickly down the tunnel. Leith and the warriors followed them and presently they came to another airlock which, in turn, opened into a large well-lit chamber. The room was roughly circular, with airlock doors around its perimeter, obviously leading to more tunnels or chambers. The floor was made up of polished tiles, similar to those used on the temple floors. The rock walls were finished quite smoothly, with buttresses arching to the roof above. The chamber seemed to be some sort of communal room, with a number of seats and benches grouped together along with data terminals, food preparation areas and games equipment.

There were about sixty people in the room, half of them warriors and the other half children, all less than fifteen seasons old. Leith immediately recognised Doran Mar by his pale complexion and silver hair. The two strategist-tacticians shook hands warmly, both of their faces showing relief at finding the other safe. Beside Doran was Lord-priest Misha-Dan, who Leith had not seen for nearly five seasons. Misha looked even more ancient than Leith remembered, his lined and marked face sagging with age. Only his eyes remained the same, radiating enormous compassion and patience. Misha-Dan smiled and spoke in his thin reedy voice.

"Ahh, greetings Leith-mnan-gar. It is good to see you again, although the circumstances are not as I would wish. I see you still are managing to keep one step ahead of our Kweela-San. For this alone, should you be acknowledged as a demi-god."

"My Lord!" Kweela burst out. "What has happened? Is this all that has survived? Is the Pearl destroyed?"

"The Pearl is safe, warrior. Your impatience is understandable, as is your sorrow. However, do not allow that to undermine your duty. There are, as you know, things that are better left unsaid." Misha-Dan spoke quietly and gently, but Kweela bowed her head in confusion and embarrassment.

"I am sorry my Lord, I did not think."

"Ahh, Leith-mnan-gar," the lord-priest said, sighing, "she must be a difficult pupil indeed. In all this time you have still not taught her to think. My faith in you has not been misplaced, has it?" He inclined his head away from Kweela, towards Leith, so that only he could see the merriment twinkling in the old man's eyes.

Leith smiled sadly. "In times such as this, Misha-Dan, even the most disciplined warrior could be excused for forgetting her lessons."

"Indeed. Times such as this. Doran-mnan-gar has told us of events outside. Although we felt what all Shutaka felt, we were not witnesses to destruction. The crèche is completely sealed and automated. You were able to enter only because the control computer had initiated it's emergency routines. Even then, it only allowed entry because you were Shutaka."

"What is this place, Misha-Dan. Is it only a crèche for children?"

"Special children, Leith. Chosen to serve a special purpose. And now, it also seems that an extra burden has fallen upon them; the survival of our race. However, to more mundane things - you must be hungry and tired. After you have eaten, we will talk more."

"The crew of our lander is still outside. They're expecting us to boost back to our orbiting ship pretty soon."

"But of course. Perhaps one of your warriors could fetch them. I'm afraid we won't be ready to leave for a while yet. When is the next opportunity to rejoin your ship?"

"I don't know. My guess would be not for another hundred s.u.'s at least."

"We should be ready by then." The Lord-priest bowed to Leith and Doran-Mar. Followed by several of the older children, he made his way towards one of the airlocks and entered an adjacent chamber. Leith turned to Tanah-Luc.

"You'd better go and get Belle and Izzy. If he can get through to Hammerhead, inform Cusher what's going on." Tanah nodded and headed towards the airlock that lead back to the entry tunnel. Leith turned back to Doran.


"Beats me. We got here not long before you. Lilith knew exactly where we were going - although she won't tell me how she knew - but it's just as much a mystery to me." Lilith-Soo, Doran's battle-kin was standing behind him, talking to one of the warriors and at the mention of her name she looked around. Lilith was a strikingly beautiful middle aged warrior with jet-black hair and full, red lips. She was the most accomplished and respected of all the Shutaka warriors and was the closest thing their society had to a queen. In practice this meant that she was almost as powerful as the priests themselves.

"Lilith-Soo, can you tell us any more?" Leith asked her.

"When we got here, you said something to Misha-Dan about a pearl, too," Doran added.

Lilith had a beautiful voice, rich and melodic - the kind of voice you would never tire of hearing. In her presence, Leith's Shutaka seemed to have recovered much of their composure and vitality, and they all turned towards her as she spoke.

"Lord Misha was right, I am afraid. There are many things a full Shutaka should not speak of, outside of the inner circle. As one of the few granted membership of that group, Kweela-San should have remembered that." Kweela had dropped her head in shame, but Lilith reached out and gently touched her on the shoulder. "There is nothing to be ashamed of, Kweela-San of Banara. You are young and full of gaz-ire-al, the burning spirit. Rarely have I seen it so strong in a warrior before, but that is why you were invited into the inner circle at so young an age. In time, you will learn control."

"Always am I reminded of my youth, Lilith-Soo," Kweela said dispiritedly.

Lilith reach up to touch her own face. "Do not be in such a hurry, burning one. Youth has its advantages. Especially now. You and I are the only ones left of the Inner Circle. Kistra-El, Binna-Si, Ensra-Hol, Mileo-Car; all gone. You have a lot to do in your life. You must make sure it is a long one."

"What can you tell us, Lilith?" Leith asked.

"What you need to know is the destruction of Willa does not only affect the Shutaka. It has consequences that can not yet be dreamed of, for all humanity. Had not this crèche survived, there would have been no hope for the future. As it is, that hope is so faint, even the bravest warrior does not like to think about it."

"While the Pearl exists, then there is always hope," said Kweela.

Lilith looked quickly at Leith and Doran, then replied, "The Pearl is not safe, yet, Kweela. We will not talk any more about it. Lord Misha-Dan has yet to finish considering the matter."

Just then, Tanah-Luc returned with Izzy and Belle. They struggled out of their pressure suits and Izzy waved a greeting to Doran. Belle ran lightly over to Lilith-Soo and hugged the warrior about her waist.

"I knew you'd make it, Lilith. Doran's always in the right place at the right time."

"He's slipperier than an eel," Izzy agreed. "Leith, I contacted Hammerhead. Cusher was going to send down another lander, but I told her there wasn't much point, from what Tanah has described."

"The two landers should be able to take all of us. Misha-Dan said he'll be ready to leave by the next launch window. I can't see the point in hanging around longer than we have to." Leith nodded towards where some of the children were setting out food and drink on tables. "We may as well grab something to eat. At least it'll be real food instead of tube paste."

They walked over to the tables and selected from the heaped dishes of fruit, lsh-milk cheese and warm tang-bread. The children laughed and chatted, as children do, and the atmosphere among the adults lightened considerably. One of the older girls extracted a flute from among the folds of her gown and proceeded to play a delicate, haunting tune that somehow reflected the seriousness of the situation but also provided an uplifting optimistic note. A tiny boy, scarcely five seasons old, crept up shyly to Kweela, who scooped him up in her arms with a smile. He nestled into her, resting his head against her chest, and soon drifted off to sleep. Another small boy climbed up onto the bench between Leith and Doran and stared in awe at the two mnan-gar. A group of children clustered around Belle, touching her dainty arms and running their fingers through her fairy-hair.

"It is easy to forget that trust and innocence do exist among humans," Belle murmured as a young girl traced her fingers around Belle's rosy lips, eyes open wide in wonder.

"These children have never been outside the crèche, have they?" Leith asked Kweela.

"No. They would have been brought here straight from birth. Some may have even been born here."

"Born here?"

"If it was convenient. And the mother was a member of the inner circle."

"My child was born here," said Lilith, who was showing a girl of twelve seasons how the handle of her battle sword detached to reveal a small dagger in the hilt. "She is among these, somewhere. She would be about ten seasons old by now. Perhaps this might even be her." The young girl smiled at Lilith and ran off to listen to the flute player.

"That's how you knew where the entrance was," Doran suggested.

"It was a long time ago, and many of the identifying surface features are gone, but yes, I knew what I was looking for. Kweela knew of the crèche's existence but not its location."

"Considering that you were trying to keep this place a secret, it wasn't too hard for the fleet in orbit to find it. Just as well we were friendly," Izzy said, around a mouthful of bread."

"The sensors on Sword of Courage picked up leaking energy emissions from the damaged air-scrubber outlets. Had not the destruction on the surface been so complete, even these emissions would probably have been unnoticeable against the residual background radiation."

"Lilith," Leith said, "you say this crèche is important. How important? Enough to wipe out a planet?"

"Enough to destroy a universe."

"And who knows about it."

"All Shutaka full warriors know why it exists - that much is part of the knowledge passed on at hirra-tel-barka. Everything else about it, including its location, is hidden in songs, rituals and myths. It would take a long time for a scholar of the Shutaka to sort truth from legend."

"Do you think this place is the reason Willa was attacked?" Belle asked Leith.

"Maybe," He replied "To invade the planet would be a costly and ultimately futile exercise; the Shutaka only just had a grip on it and I doubt if any other race would have survived long. The Shutaka don't have any particular enemies - at least no more than a hundred other races - and none are powerful enough or stupid enough to do this and expect to escape retribution. There are still enough warriors in orbit to fight a sizeable war, and they are going to spend the rest of their lives, if necessary, finding out who did this. Whoever air-stripped Willa knew they were playing for high stakes. If the crèche is as important as Lilith suggests, the attack could have been a heavy handed attempt to destroy it. Except it failed."

"If that's the case, would whoever did it leave anything to chance? Belle asked.

"Not likely," Leith replied. "I hope Cusher is keeping an eye out for us. Someone might be popping out of null-space to check on the results."

"Then there is no time to waste," came Misha-Dan's voice from behind them. The old man walked over to Leith and sat down slowly on the bench next to him. "I believe your analysis to be plausible, Leith-mnan-gar. But regardless of why, there is still the question of how did the attackers get through Willa's defence. Unfortunately, we will never know for certain, but all of my deliberations lead to one conclusion."

"What is that, my Lord?" Kweela asked.

"Betrayal," he answered. Misha-Dan sighed, and looked at Leith. "The Shutaka have a reputation as unsophisticated savages, do they not, Leith-mnan-gar?

Leith nodded. "But that has often worked to our advantage."

"Indeed it has. But Willa's planetary defences did not rely on swords and courage. It was protected by the most complex and comprehensive defensive systems available. I find it hard to believe that unauthorised vessels would be able to spend sufficient time in the atmosphere of Willa to seed it with the Tun effect - unless they were considered friendly."

"Meaning, of course, they were able to transmit the clear-codes?" said Leith, referring to the digitally coded signals Shutaka ships transmitted before entering orbit. Each clan was given a new code, specific to them, before they boosted on a mission. Usually, only the strategist-tactician and his ka new the codes, and they closely guarded that knowledge. Although all Shutaka knew that the codes had to be transmitted before re-entry was attempted, few realised the massive and destructive weapons that would have been triggered off by unauthorised planetary approaches.

"Yes," said Misha-Dan. "The weakness of such systems is, of course, illustrated by the very situation in which we now find ourselves. We have always ignored such danger because we have known that betrayal is culturally and psychologically impossible to us. As, no doubt you have often surmised, Leith Birro, the Shutaka possess the genetic remnant of telepathic ability."

Leith shrugged. "That has crossed my mind on occasions, but it seemed too incredible to consider seriously. There hasn't been a recorded instance of true telepathic communication in the history of all the human races. I was prepared to write it off as good teamwork."

Misha-Dan smiled. "If we had allowed ourselves to be studied, there would be many unusual things recorded about the Shutaka." His smile faded. "However, as you can imagine, it would be difficult for one of us to betray the rest. There is not one Shutaka in this room whose feelings are totally closed to another. I do not need to question a warrior; I would know if the betrayal came from within the clans."

"Imagine," Belle said softly to Leith, "what it would feel like in your mind if you were a Shutaka and the lives of hundreds of thousands of your people were snuffed out at once."

Leith looked at Kweela, and in her eyes he saw, for the first time, a fraction of the real pain and sorrow she had experienced on Hammerhead. He could not begin to comprehend the insights that a communal conscious would provide, but he knew the Shutaka, in spite of their appearance, would have a deeper understanding of humanity than all the philosophers and psychologists on the civilised worlds. Not for the first time, he in awe of the power and vitality that seemed to exist in even oldest of the Shutaka.

"Indeed," said Misha-Dan. "The great emptiness threatens to engulf us all. It is only the strength and purity of the children's minds that provides a stability reference." He shifted slightly on the bench, his tired old joints creaking as he tried to find a more comfortable position. "Now, you see what conclusion we have to make."

"One of the mnan-gar supplied the codes to whoever attacked Willa," said Leith.

"So it would seem, although we will never know for sure."

"But who?" said Leith. "By my estimation, there are only four surviving strategist tacticians; Doran and myself down here, and Gil Musemann and Il-yar-Bisen in the fleet above. All the others were on Willa." Leith realised that many of those who had perished had been his close friends and companions. With a pang of sorrow, he realised he would never again talk with old Hut Barr, who had survived the Great Cleansing, or Pisa Wel Zan, who had graduated from the OREF academy with Leith. The men, women and children of the Banara clan, who had welcomed him into their lives, given freely of their time and friendship, were no more. If Misha-Dan was right, one of the three other surviving mnan-gar was responsible for their deaths. Unconsciously, he thought of Il-yar-Bisen; he had never got on well with the vain Harkarian, who was always boasting of his connection to the royal family of Harkar. To Leith's mind, Il-yar-Bisen seemed the most likely candidate, but could it really have been him? The Harkarian might be a conceited snob, but would he actually betray his Shutaka like this?

"There is yet a way we may find out," said Misha-Dan.

"How," said Leith and Doran together.

"It is possible for a Lord-priest to touch the periphery of a non Shutaka mind- enough to determine what needs to be known in this case. However, there is a problem."

They waited expectantly while Misha-Dan pulled out his pipe and carefully cleaned out the bowl before packing it tightly with Willa-weed. He applied a flame to the weed and puffed deeply until the pipe was burning properly.

"Communication between minds is a difficult thing," he continued. "There must be an openness that does not come easily to most humans. Usually, there is a barrier, against which intruding thoughts wash ineffectually. It is postulated, by the Shutaka scholars, that this is to prevent non Shutaka minds being overwhelmed by the pain and suffering the rest of humanity faces. For me to enter your mind, you must be willing. To resist will cause pain to yourself; my probing will be like a tornado against your barrier compared to the everyday thoughts around you. To survive, you must be flexible and yielding. To resist is to chance breaking."

"Misha-Dan," said Leith. "I do not know you that well, but your reign as Lord-priest has been without blemish. The Shutaka speak of you as a kind and noble man and I believe I have nothing to fear from you. I am no betrayer of the Shutaka, but you do not realise what you ask of me." He looked down at his hands, and examined them as if for the first time. "I would not choose to have you know of me what I know of me, however, I will open my mind to you as best I can; this much I owe the spirits who must remain on Willa."

"Well spoken, mnan-gar. It is fitting that you talk of how well you know me, for after this I may know you better than you know yourself. Let us begin, then."

Leith saw no change in Misha-Dan's expression or body, but he was suddenly aware of a soft sensation in his mind. It was like a piece of silk being slowly passed over his head, or rather through his head, and he had a moment of panic as a feeling of suffocation came over him. He was suddenly afraid, as if he was standing blindfold on the edge of a cliff, knowing he had to move, but aware that a step in the wrong direction would be fatal. He forced himself to relax, to visualise the gentle and understanding eyes of Misha-Dan. In his mind, he took a step, then another, and he knew he was moving away from the cliff's edge.

Suddenly there was an awareness of others, of dozens of other minds. It was like being in a crowded room and hearing countless murmured conversations. A formless presence brushed up against his mind and he knew it was Misha-Dan. Another touched him and he somehow recognised it as Kweela, her mind a reflection of her physical being. And then, as quickly as the new awareness had come, it was gone and he was once more siting on a bench in the crèche He blinked and shook his head from side to side.

"Are you all right, Leith-mnan-gar?" Misha-Dan asked quietly.

"I think so," he replied. He took a deep breath. "That's quite a sensation. Is that what it's like all the time for you?"

"Almost. What you were feeling was only what I allowed to flow through my mind into yours. Over the generations, we have learnt to filter out much of the background noise and are only sensitive to other Shutaka thoughts - and then only when the other person is consciously trying to convey a message."

"We can only guess as to the abilities of our ancestors," Lilith said. "No one knows why, but the telepathic power of the Shutaka has atrophied down the generations. Lord-priests such as Misha-Dan have retained some power by spending their lifetimes practicing and exercising their skills. Ordinary warriors, such as myself, are limited to interpreting the same feelings and sensations you experienced."

"You have a very interesting mind, Leith-mnan-gar," Misha-Dan commented. "It has many compartments in which you are hiding memories from yourself. Although it cost you much effort, you resisted the temptation to hide them from me also. It is as I said, Leith; I now know you better than you know yourself. There are many things we must talk about."

"But betrayal is not among them!" Kweela cried angrily. The Lord-priest turned towards her, raising his eyebrows in surprise. The gesture was enough to puncture Kweela's anger, but she still met the Lord-priest's gaze defiantly. "Leith-ka is no betrayer of trust. It is wrong to think that."

"That is not for me to say, Kweela-San," Misha-Dan said softly. "Like many things, betrayal is relative. Leith-mnan-gar may have many betrayals hidden in his mind; or at least things he considers betrayals. For you, it is easy to discern black and white; you are young and have never been in a position of having to choose between two equally desperate solutions to a problem. The Shutaka have been betrayed, by their own reckoning, and they will extract payment from those responsible, with little regard to what is right and what is wrong." The Lord-priest returned his gaze to Leith. "However, Leith-mnan-gar owes no payment to the Shutaka for this."

"Then, it is my turn," Doran Mar said.

"Yes," said the Lord-priest. "Are you ready?"

"I think so," replied Doran. He looked at Leith. "Just try to relax, is that it?"

"That's it," said Leith. "Don't try to fight it."

"Let us begin," said Misha-Dan. Once more there was no visible change to the old man, but Doran stiffened in his seat, then relaxed slightly. For perhaps a dozen heartbeats, they sat there, then Doran blinked and shook his head like Leith had.

"Well?" Lilith asked.

Misha-Dan frowned. "As with Leith-mnan-gar, there is much that I must discuss with Doran Mar. Come, we will retire to talk." Standing up, he motioned to Leith and Doran to follow him and began to walk towards one of the airlocks. Lilith and Kweela started to follow the men, but Misha-Dan held up his hand. "No, warriors, not this time. The battle to be fought must be without the benefit of ka."

Chapter 4 -->


The Pearl - Chapter 4

After leaving the main chamber, Misha-Dan led Leith and Doran down a short tunnel where another air lock allowed them access to what looked like a small meditation chamber. There were thick cushions scattered on the floor and Misha-Dan settled himself on one, motioning the other men to do likewise.

"There is, unfortunately, little time to proceed gently. Leith Birro, you carry many demons in your mind, riding your conscience. These demons prevent you from being what you should. The spirit in you is larger than you allow it to be. Until you free it, you suffer from the blindness we call ganz-ursa, hooded soul. The Shutaka have a great need, at this moment, for someone who can see clearly. To be of use to your people - for you do consider yourself one of the Shutaka - you must cure yourself of the blindness."

"If you have truly seen inside my head, how can you say these things?" Leith asked the Lord-priest. "You know my past, you have seen what I am, what I am capable of and the trail of misery I have left behind me. You know the feeling of self-loathing I have when the Shutaka call me mnan-gar." Leith looked down at his body. "If this is what humans must turn to for their deities, then we are indeed lost."

"So much hatred for yourself, my friend. It must be hard for you to believe me when I tell you that your soul is far less damned that many of those around you. As a Priest-initiate, I spent many seasons traveling among the civilised worlds. All young priests embark on this journey; it is an important step in learning to accept humanity for what it is. You have seen many things in your life, Leith Birro. You have done many things. Some of the worst things you have forgotten, hidden behind you mind's doors. I have seen behind all those doors, and I say to you that your worst memories do not approach some of the horrors I have touched in the minds of people across the galaxies. Significant evil is not contained in the mind of Leith Birro. The evil in your mind comes from what makes you human; the ability to make mistakes, the fact that we are less than perfect. Your mind has no more evil in it than mine, my friend. As you think of me, think also of yourself."

"And what of me, Misha-Dan?" asked Doran.

The old man turned to face him. "Alas, my words to you shall not be so comforting, Doran Mar. Also in your mind are many sealed rooms concealing your thoughts from yourself. However, one of those rooms has not been made by you. In it are the reasons and actions by which you came to betray the Shutaka."

Doran's pale face became even paler. His eyes opened wide in disbelief. "How can this be, Misha-Dan? Believe me, I would not do such a thing - I can think of no reason that would cause me to betray all that is important to me."

"Is it possible you are mistaken, my Lord?" Leith asked. "I have known Doran Mar almost all my life."

"I am not mistaken, Leith. Doran's thoughts are not mine, so I cannot tell them to you without their owner's consent. I can help Doran to remember the past if he so wishes, but that way leads to insanity."

"Is my mind that weak I cannot face my own conscience?" Doran asked quietly.

"What you must face is not of your making, Doran Mar. There has been another mind at work in yours, this much I can see. Mental traps have been carefully set; if you tried to re-think your thoughts, you would be lost."

"What other mind? Who did this to me ... can you tell me what happened? What could I have possibly believed that would have caused me to do this?"

Misha-Dan looked at Leith, who was staring at Doran in confusion. Doran was like a brother to him. They were very different, but they had always respected and accepted each other for what they were. Sometimes they would not see each other for several seasons, but they always greeted each other easily and affectionately. Their friendship was natural and undemanding, free of any particular expectations, but cemented by trust. How could this man, one of his lifelong friends, have condemned Willa to death.

"Do not judge yet, mnan-gar," Misha-Dan said to Leith. "That is the burden of the Lord-priest. If you have considered this man your friend, do not desert him now. I tell you this; he suffers more pain than you can imagine." He turned again to Doran. "I do not know fully what happened, Doran Mar. It has been made difficult to read your thoughts concerning the matter. The power that has been at work in your mind is alien to me. However, I can tell that it was strong. Strong enough to plant thoughts in your mind that you took as your own. Powerful enough to build a different past in your memory. You were convinced to distrust and hate the Shutaka and agree to betray them - no, to demand that you be allowed to betray them. Then the false memories were sealed away in your mind."

"Where could this have happened?" Leith asked.

"On Basra. That much seems clear," answered the Lord-priest.

"The last time I was there was over two seasons ago," said Doran. "The ship we were on had to dock there for emergency repairs. I was only on the surface for a day."

"A plan of this magnitude takes time to put in place," said Misha-Dan. "Also, there was a condition placed upon your betrayal that even the power of the other mind could not overcome. Time would have been required to find a way that this condition could be met."

"What was the condition?" asked Leith.

"That strategist-tactician Leith Birro be out of harm's way when Willa was attacked," Misha-Dan replied, looking into Leith's eyes. "Some thoughts and memories have an infinite ability to resist attack."

"There is no way out for me, is there?" Doran asked suddenly. "If I try to remember who is behind this, I'll go insane. If I try and live with what I've done, I'll probably go crazy anyway." He looked at Leith and Misha-Dan. "So many of my friends were on Willa... so many. How can I face my Shutaka?"

"I am sorry," the old Lord-priest said, sadly. "You are as much a victim as those on the surface. I have no words that can ease your grief, however, do not be concerned about your warriors; they will know your pain and suffering."

"Is there nothing I can do?" Doran asked.

"Be gentle on yourself, my son. I am the one trained in judgment; leave that upon my shoulders. The Shutaka will take their revenge on those who are truly responsible; you can best serve the course of justice by taking part in that revenge."

Doran turned to Leith and the two friends stood facing each other. "Leith..." Doran started to say, but his voice trailed off.

Leith tried to think of something comforting to say, but his thoughts were too confused. "What can I say?" he finally asked his friend. "Doran, do you expect me, of all people, to pass judgment on you? Doran, we have been through too much together; how I think of you has not changed. More than once, I have owed my life to you. Misha-Dan is right, there are others who are to blame for this. I swear that we will find them and make them pay."

"Come," said Misha-Dan "We should rejoin the others. There is much planning yet to be done, and you two are the best we have for that."

When they re-entered the main hall all eyes turned towards them. As the airlock cycled closed behind them, Lilith-Soo walked over to Doran, followed closely by Kweela.

"Doran-mnan-gar, your journey has been hard. Your grief is ours," said Lilith.

"Lilith-Soo, I am not mnan-gar any longer; my dishonour should not stain the clan."

"Enough, Doran Mar," Kweela said, not unkindly. "It is done now and can't be undone. To speak more of it will truly dishonour the spirits who have been left to roam Willa. There is not a Shutaka here who does not understand what you feel. It is in the past; there is work to be done in the future. Right now, we must prepare to leave. The crèche is dying; the damage is more widespread than it first appeared. The main computer is progressively shutting down less important areas to conserve air and energy. We must return to Hammerhead as soon as we can."

"Have the keepers been informed?" asked Misha-Dan.

"They were sent for just before you returned, my Lord," Lilith answered.

"Very well. By now, all the records we have been able to salvage from the crèche computer would have been transferred to portable storage." He turned to Leith. "How long will we have to wait before we can launch to rendezvous with your ship?"

"I'll have to ask Izzy first. Kweela, how long before the crèche runs out of power?"

"About forty s.u.'s. Although that depends on how hard we breathe."

"Ok, I'll see what Izzy says." He walked over to where his pilot was talking with the crew of Doran's lander. "Kweela says we've got to be out of here in less than forty s.u.'s," Leith told Izzy. "Can we do it?"

"That's just what I've been discussing with Lopar, here. Fifty s.u.'s is probably the earliest we can boost, so we might have to sit in the landers for a while."

"Well we don't have much choice," Leith said. "Any ideas how we're going to get the children into the landers. I'd lay odds there's no suits for them."

"There's an emergency air-linker near the main crèche airlock," Lopar replied. "Lilith pointed it out when we first came in. Provided it reaches both landers, there shouldn't be a problem."

"Well, that's that then. I'll go and tell Misha-Dan. He walked back to where the Lord-priest and Kweela were standing. Doran and Lilith were nowhere to be seen.

"They went off to talk," Kweela said, anticipating his question. "Your friend is in a great deal of pain. There is something that we call ilk-nar-pilla, which roughly means exquisite agony. It is a pain of the soul, not something physical, and it is the supreme price of being human. Doran suffers it; he has unknowingly betrayed those for whom he cares, the Shutaka suffer it; their hearts cry out for revenge, yet the love of their mnan-gar prevents it. Ilk-nar-pilla is a pain that consumes you from inside; there is no cure except death."

"It must also be hard for Lilith-Soo," said Leith. "She and Doran have been together for many seasons. He is her friend and her battle-kin, yet..."

"Indeed," said Misha-Dan, "her duty as Doran's ka would require her to protect him against the other warriors should his life be threatened. She would be placed in the position of turning against her own people to uphold her honour."

"Surely not," said Leith. "How can ka be expected to hold in situations such as this? If I was in Doran's place, would it be reasonable for me to ask such a thing of Kweela? I know Doran; he does not expect or want that from Lilith."

"Leith-mnan-gar," said the Lord-priest patiently, "the ritual of ka has survived unchanged for thousands of seasons. What a person wants, or expects, has little to do with it. The obligations of ka are clear and invariant. You now see why it is so important to choose well your battle-kin."

"But, Misha-Dan, how can you be sure ka is a reciprocal arrangement? The Shutaka are known for their sense of justice. It is just to place such an onerous duty on one person without balance?"

"The choices are not as random as you think, mnan-gar. When warriors are paired, there are many forces at work. There has never been a ka mismatch."

"But," Leith insisted, "I do not want Kweela to have such an obligation on my behalf."

Instead of replying, the Lord-priest pulled a small dagger from within his robes and lunged without warning at Leith's throat. For an old man, Misha-Dan was surprisingly fast and Leith was too astonished to twist out of the way. However, before the razor sharp blade could touch his skin, Kweela-San had reacted automatically and grasped the Lord-priest's hand in a vice-like grip. He gasped and the knife clattered to the tiles.

Kweela stared with disbelief at her own hand. A Lord-priest's actions were above the law - or rather, they were the law. To disobey or to obstruct was considered treason among the Shutaka. "My, lord," she stammered, "forgive me, I have hurt you. I did not mean to."

Several of Doran's warriors, who had been close enough to witness Kweela's action, drew their battle swords. Their nerves were on edge already, and to see their Lord-priest threatened brought their battle-lust closer to the surface. A number of Leith's warriors had also drawn their weapons, but were uncertain what to do next.

Holding his wrist, Misha-Dan smiled at Kweela. "It is I who should apologise, honourable warrior. In this case, you acted as you should." The other Shutaka relaxed and returned their swords to their scabbards. The Lord-priest looked at Leith. "You see, Leith-mnan-gar, what you want has no effect on ka and the unconscious discipline it instills. If Kweela had to kill her Lord-priest to protect you she would, even if it meant a death sentence for herself."

The old man bent down and picked up his knife, checking it carefully to determine if the keen edge had been damaged. He sighed and secreted it once more in his robes. "I am indeed getting old," he said to Leith. Your Kweela is fast, but in my youth I would have still have managed to draw blood first. You seem surprised, Leith-mnan-gar, did you think all priests were gentle scholars."

Leith had recovered his composure, although the hard knot in his stomach had not uncurled yet. "I had always thought of you as the most gentle of the Shutaka, Misha-Dan. At least that is what your reputation would have me believe."

The old man walked towards one of the benches. Kweela helped him to a seat and inspected his hand where she had gripped him. Once, Leith had seen Kweela splinter the wrist of an OREF soldier with her hand as easily Leith could crush an eggshell. The Lord-priest placed his hand over hers and motioned her to sit down beside him."

"It is true," he replied to Leith, "that most priests do not have the heart for battle. However, the personal discipline and body control that warrior training provides can be of use to all. Priest initiates undergo almost as rigorous training as the warriors, but have no cause to put the theory into practice. At least, not when we have warriors as accomplished as Kweela-San and her sisters. Now, what did your pilot say about our departure?"

There was much more Leith wanted to discuss, but he saw from Misha-Dan's expression that it would have to wait. "We'll need to abandon the crèche before we're ready to boost back to Hammerhead, so it will mean sitting for a while in the landers. The longer we can leave it, the better, although I'll be happier when we're all safely in the landers."

"Very well. Ah, here are the Keepers of the Pearl."

Leith turned to see three children clambering out of an airlock. There were two girls and a boy, all about fourteen or fifteen seasons old. They spotted Misha-Dan and walked quickly over to him.

"We have emptied the computer memories, My Lord," said one of the girls. "They are safely stored within the Pearl."

"Thank you, Kisa. Leith, may I introduce Kisa-Mara of Kion clan." The tall, blonde girl bowed slightly and smiled warmly.

"It is an honour, mnan-gar. I have read of your service to the Shutaka in my schooling. Your name is associated with many of our greatest battles."

Noting the puzzled expression on Leith's face, Misha-Dan explained. "The crèche is sealed from outside. Nothing goes out, but news and information is - or rather was - regularly fed in from the outside world through secure datafeeds. It was important for the children's education to be complete, and that included knowledge of great Shutaka warriors."

"You could hardly consider me a great warrior," Leith said to Kisa-Mara. "Just ask Kweela-San about my battle skills. My mistakes have almost killed us both, more times than I care to remember."

"Skill in battle takes many forms, mnan-gar," said the young male Keeper of the Pearl.

"Quite so, young Keeper. Leith, this is Jor-Dak of Hyal clan," said the Lord-priest. The young Shutaka nodded gravely to Leith. There was something strange about his face which Leith could not figure out at first. Like the two girls, Jor-Dak had a well proportioned body, smooth skinned and muscular, although the boy was smaller than other male Shutaka of his age. Jor-Dak's long black hair was streaked with silver and twisted in a braid that hung down his back in the manner of the Priest-initiates. However, he had none of the priest's air of relaxed calm; rather he had the posture and manner of a animal unaccustomed to confined spaces. His eyes, also, were different. Although they were quite definately the Shutaka cat-eyes, they were also more rounded like those of Leith and were a deep emerald green.

"Misha-Dan called you a keeper, Jor. What is it you keep?" Leith asked him.

"Secrets, mnan-gar." A mischievous smile darted across the serious young man's face. "A difficult thing for a child, I can assure you."

Leith grinned back at Jor-Dan. Unaccountably, he found himself already liking the straight-faced boy. "And, you," he said, turning to the other girl, who he saw now was perhaps a season younger than the other two. "Are you good at keeping secrets?"

The third child turned to face Leith and he felt a wave of emotion wash over him. In a way, he was reminded of the sensation when Misha-Dan had touched his mind. He found himself staring into the girl's eyes, half hidden by her long auburn hair. Like Jor-Dak, her eyes were different but in ways Leith found hard to quantify; like the other Shutaka, they were typically feline, but there was a depth to them that defied comprehension.

"Oh no, mnan-gar," she giggled. "I hate secrets. I'm just terrible at keeping them."

Misha-Dan smiled affectionately at the girl. "Indeed, it is so. Krys-Tian must be constantly reminded of her duty by Kisa and Jor."

Krys-Tian looked at her feet dejectedly. "I do try, my Lord, but it seems duty is so hard sometimes. Could we not get by without the Pearl?"

"Do you really believe that is an option, Krys?" the Lord-priest asked her gently.

The girl sighed deeply. "No, of course not, my Lord." Suddenly, she looked across to where Kweela was standing. "You are Kweela-San of the Banara," she exclaimed delightedly. "I have longed to meet you. Lord Misha-Dan has often talked of you. He thinks you are one of the finest warriors the Shutaka have ever had. He sings your praise long and loud."

Kweela knelt down so that her head was level with that of Krys. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Krys-Tian," she said, smiling. "But you risk the displeasure of the Lord-priest with such candour. Perhaps he was talking about someone else."

If a Lord-priest could show embarrassment, Leith was sure Misha-Dan would have blushed deeply. As it was, the old man cleared his throat and spoke quickly, "You are indeed poor at keeping secrets Krys-Tian. Such a small mouth should grow tired with so much gossip. Kweela-San is a good warrior, but she still has much to learn - as do you. Now, enough of this, we must prepare to leave. Start gathering all the children and begin moving to the main exit." The Lord-priest turned to Kweela. "Since you are such an accomplished warrior, Kweela-San, perhaps you could track down Lilith-Soo and Doran-mnan-gar."

"Of course, my Lord," Kweela answered.

"I'll come with you," said Leith. He felt slightly guilty that the Shutaka were showing more concern for Doran than he was. After all, he thought, I am supposed to be his friend.

"They went through the airlock leading to the meditation chamber," Kweela told him. "Let us go."

They walked over to the airlock and passed through to the access tunnel beyond. The rock passage was perhaps a hundred paces long and poorly lit, so at first they did not notice Lilith sitting on the floor, about halfway along the tunnel. She glanced up as they approached, and Leith saw the look of sorrow in her face.

"It is done, Kweela-San," she said.

"What has happened?" Leith asked, although in the back of his mind he already knew the answer.

"It is not what you think, Leith-mnan-gar," Kweela said to him. "Or at least, not quite what you think. Yes, Doran-mnan-gar is dead, but by his own hand."

"Didn't Lilith try to stop him," he asked. "He couldn't have been thinking straight. I thought it was her job to protect him?"

"Leith-mnan-gar," Kweela whispered fiercely, "how can you be so blind?"

"No, Kweela-San," Lilith said. "It is not easy for him to understand. The obligations of ka are part of our culture, our heritage, our soul, but they are complex to an off-worlder. Leith-mnan-gar considers the Shutaka as his people, but that doesn't mean he accepts or understands all of what we are. Come, Leith Birro, sit with me and remember the fine friend we have both lost." Leith slowly sat down next to the warrior and Kweela followed suit. Leith could see the closed airlock that lead to the meditation chamber where he guessed the body of Doran lay. The three mercenaries sat there for what seemed like a long time.

"You loved him, almost as a brother, did you not?" Lilith eventually asked Leith.

"I had known him since our childhood. His family would come to Dione for vacations. They would go sand-sailing on the Great Desert plains and often stayed in the village where I grew up. Leith paused, remembering those days so long ago. His childhood on Dione seemed almost to belong to another life; one where the seasons of nature provided the backdrop for measuring time and the harmony of village life was a safe and secure haven. "I can't remember how I first met Doran, but we were firm friends from the start. We would play at catching dust-spiders in the caves overlooking the village while our mothers were shopping at the markets. He had an older sister, Gisele, who went on to become the Inner Rim representative for his home world, but when I knew her she was a gangling girl of twelve seasons who was always teasing her younger brother. Doran and I kept in touch between his family's visits to Dione, and we eventually joined the OREF academy together."

Leith paused and looked at his hands which were clenching and unclenching of their own accord. "We thought we were going to be the saviours of decency and democracy," he continued bitterly. "Doran was in line to become the youngest Fleet Commander in the OREF; did you know that?"

"Yes. Doran had told me much of his life, including his great friendship with you. In fact, it was this friendship that persuaded him to leave the OREF. He resigned his commission to look for you after it was reported you had been lost on an un-named mission. He refused to believe you had been killed. By the time he caught up with you again, you had joined the mercenary groups, so he signed up too."

"I didn't realise," said Leith, shaking his head. "He never told me that. I always thought that he was as disillusioned with the Federation as I was."

"Doran Mar was always good at hiding his true feelings. Few people really understood him. It is not right that the destiny of such a man should be cut short in such a manner. Doran should be remembered by the Shutaka as a hero, not like this."

Leith did not need to be a Lord-priest to read Lilith's feelings. "Your duty to Doran went beyond that required by ka, did it not, Lilith-Soo?" he asked.

Lilith-Soo did not answer for a moment. She kicked at a stone on the tunnel floor with the toe of her boot. Eventually, she said, "You loved him as a brother Leith Birro. I loved him as more. Who could not love their mnan-gar-ka? Kweela-San understands what I say. I could not bear to see him suffer. Perhaps I could have prevented him taking his life, but would that have been truly an act of love?"

"I can't say I understand, Lilith-Soo. I am told that you would've died to prevent even your Lord-priest harming Doran, yet..."

"Leith-mnan-gar, to die is not the worst of all things - to die badly is. We are in the business of causing death; is this not something of which we should be fully aware?"

"There is no good or bad way of dying, Lilith-Soo," said Leith bitterly. "I wish there were."

"Leith Birro, it is clear from Misha-Dan that there is much in your soul that grieves you. To be a Shutaka is to know much about pain and death. That is also why we cherish life so much. We are your people; allow us to help you. If you cannot reach out to the Lord-priest, look to your ka. You have known Kweela-San for many seasons, yet you have told her nothing of yourself."

"That is not true, Lilith-Soo. I trust Kweela with my life; I hide nothing from her." Leith looked at Kweela, but she was staring at the ground between her feet.

"As, you wish, mnan-gar," said Lilith. "It must be your choice." She started to rise. "So, we should go. The Lord-priest will be concerned."

"Are we to leave Doran here?" asked Leith.

"What better place than on Willa among the spirits of his Shutaka?" replied Lilith.

The three mercenaries made their way back down the tunnel. The passed through the airlock to find the main chamber almost empty. Tanah-Luc and one of Lilith-Soo's warriors were the only people in sight.

"All the other warriors, along with the children and Misha-Dan have gone to the main exit," explained Tanah. "Rhona-Ohn and I were instructed to wait for you."

"Where is Doran-mnan-gar?" the other warrior asked Lilith.

"At peace," she replied.

Rhona-Ohn nodded her head quickly in understanding, as if the news was expected. "Doran-mnan-gar was a man who understood justice," she said. "The spirits will welcome him without malice."

"We should join the others," said Kweela. "This room is placing a drain on the crèche's reserves. Once we leave, the computer can seal this chamber."

"This way," said Tanah, indicating one of the airlocks on the other side of the room. The five of them walked over to the lock and passed through to the tunnel beyond. The status light above the airlock door changed to red, indicating that the air in the main chamber was being transferred back into the main storage tanks of the crèche The walked quickly down the rock passage and soon reached another airlock that Leith recognised as the one by which they had first entered the crèche A number of warriors and children were grouped by the lock, and Leith guessed that about half had already passed through the lock to the landers outside. He could not see Misha-Dan, or the three keepers, so he assumed they had already boarded. Kweela went up to a small computer console nestled inconspicuously into the rock beside the airlock and logged on.

"The computer can't give an estimate any longer," she said, reading from the screen. "The whole crèche could go at any moment." As she spoke, the computer console went blank. "That's it." She continued, frowning. "The computer shut itself down as the final way of conserving power. There should be just enough left to cycle the lock door a few more times."

As if on her command, the airlock door cycled open to reveal Misha-Dan standing in the empty chamber. He stepped quickly out and pushed the button to cycle the door close.

"There are two Shutaka in pressure suits on the surface who are preparing to move the air-linker between landers. Half of the warriors and children are safely in Doran Mar's lander."

"It is Doran Mar's no longer, my Lord. He will not be joining us," said Lilith-Soo.

"Ah... it is so," the old man said wearily. He looked at Leith, who could not meet the gaze of the Lord-priest. "Ah, it is so," he repeated.

"I call upon Leith-mnan-gar to accept Forta clan as his own," Lilith continued.

"That is most unusual, Lilith-Soo," said Misha-Dan. "No mnan-gar has ever before had the burden of two clans."

"We have no choice, my Lord. Forta needs a mnan-gar, and there is only one other than Doran Mar who is worthy to lead us."

"What say the others of Forta?"

"Lilith-Soo speaks for us all," replied Rhona-Ohn.

"Very well," said the Lord-priest. "However, there is no time now for the proper ceremony. Leith Birro, in the meantime, do you accept?"

Leith looked at Lilith, then at Misha-Dan. "There are better than I to lead Forta," he protested. "This decision should not be rushed because of the circumstances. I have not proved myself to Lilith and her warriors, yet."

"He accepts," Kweela said brusquely. "Enough, the airlock is ready." Indicating the status light above the door, she reached out to punch the button to cycle the lock open. The remaining warriors and children filed in and Leith was the last to step from the tunnel into the airlock. Looking back down the passage, he saw the overhead lights begin to grow dimmer. The lock doors closed slowly, with a final metallic clunk.

"Good-bye, my friend," he murmured under his breath. He turned around to find that the rest of the group had already started to make their way down the air-linker that had been attached to the outer airlock door. The emergency air-linker was a long tube, rigid enough to be pressurised, but with sufficient flexibility to be moved to attach to the landers outside. About halfway along the linker were three small window apertures, one on each side and one above. Leith paused to look up through the overhead window and frowned.

Instead of a star spattered sky, he saw the glittering reflections of battle debris arcing through the blackness above. None of the lights appeared to be large enough or stable enough to be an intact ship. Occasionally, there would be a flash, as a large piece collided with another, showering off smaller pieces. Peering through one of the side windows in the air-linker, Leith saw a number of shining trails spiraling down to Willa's scorched surface. A large piece of wreckage was half buried a short distance from one of the landers.

"There's been one hell of a battle in orbit," he told Kweela, who was in front of him in the tunnel. "We mightn't have a ship to return to; that is, if we can dodge the space junk when we boost."

"If that is the case, then so be it," replied Kweela. "However, luck has been on our side so far."

"I thought Shutaka didn't believe in luck."

"Perhaps you have been a bad influence on me," the warrior replied, turning around and continuing up the linker.

A few moments later, they were all safely in the hold of the lander. Leaving Lilith-Soo to supervise detaching the air-linker and strapping in of the passengers, Leith, Kweela and the Lord-priest made their way to the control cabin where Izzy and Belle were finalising the pre-boost checks. Izzy smiled grimly at Leith as he squirmed in through the hatch.

"I can't make voice contact with Hammerhead, but I've got her homing signal. We'll have to boost on a guess and hope we'll have enough fuel left to make any course corrections that may be necessary to rendezvous in orbit."

"It looks like it was quite a battle," Leith said, pointing to the main view screen which showed a 360-degree sensor scan.

"I can only make out two or three intact ships," said Belle. "And only one of them is large enough to be Hammerhead. There's no guarantee that it's her, though. The homing signal might be coming from a large piece of debris. None of the three ships are showing any signs of life."

"Well, we can't sit here forever. How long 'till we can boost?"

"About two s.u.'s, at the earliest." Answered Izzy.

"What are the chances of being hit by a piece of wreckage during ascent?"

"You tell me," said Belle. "There's too much stuff flying about for our computer to predict any sort of flight paths, so we can't do much to avoid collisions. Once we boost, we'll just have to cross our fingers."

"You'd better tell our passengers to strap in real tight. It might be a rough trip." Izzy warned Leith. "I hope Doran's crew are good at hands-on flying. This is no time to have to rely on computers."

"Doran didn't make it, Izzy."

The old pilot looked at Leith for a moment, then let out a deep breath, before turning back to the console. Belle started to say something, but glanced at Kweela and fell silent. The tiny co-pilot looked away and resumed her check of the lander's flight system.

There was silence in the cabin until Izzy finally stretched and announced they were ready to lift. A few moments later, Lopar, the pilot of the other lander, radioed that they were also ready to boost. Izzy looked at Leith questioningly.

"Lilith-Soo," Leith spoke into his suit microphone, "are you all set back there?"

"Acknowledged," came the reply. "We are ready, Leith-mnan-gar. Some of the children are quite excited at the idea of a spaceflight."

"Let's go, then." Leith said. "Whenever you're ready, Izzy."

"OK Initiate launch sequence, Belle."

"Confirmed. The other lander's boost path is synchronised with ours. Point two s.u.'s to break contact."

The lander started to vibrate as the main motors started. The noise of the motors changed from a whine to a dull roar and, suddenly, there was a lurch as the lander broke contact.

"We're clear," said Izzy.

"The other lander's away too," added Belle.

The noise and vibration increased, and they were pushed deeper into their couches as the lander accelerated upwards, away from the battered and scarred surface of Willa.

"Computer control comes off in point one s.u," announced Izzy. "Hang on; it's going to be rough."

"I've got a positive ID on Hammerhead," said Belle, studying the readout on one of the screens. "Still no voice contact, but she's alive and under power. She's spotted us."

"We're hands-on," Izzy called out, wrestling furiously with the joystick that allowed the lander to be controlled by the human pilot. The ship lurched from side to side as Izzy tried to make rough manual corrections to their course. "Hurry up and feed in the course corrections from Hammerhead."

"Done," called Belle. "We're on the beam. Whew! Look at that."

On the main console screen, Leith could make out the shape of Hammerhead coming into focus. He could see a number of punctures in her hull and a small section near the docking bay was torn away completely. The only other ship in the vicinity was a small corvette, which, according to the data that scrolled across the bottom of the screen was the Independent Military Vessel Periwinkle under the command of Captain Juk Naseem. Periwinkle appeared to be relatively unscathed and was holding a position that offered maximum protection to the landers.

The view on the main screen switched to the aft vids, just in time for Leith to see a small piece of debris collide with the other lander. The other ship veered to one side from the impact, then resumed its original course. Before Leith could determine how much damage had been inflicted on the lander, the vid switched back to the main view. Hammerhead loomed directly in front of them. Izzy had taken manual control again, and was guiding the lander slowly towards the docking bay. With the gentlest of bumps, their craft settled into the docking cradle.

As soon as he heard the umbilicals attach, Leith hit the release on his harness. Kweela was already struggling out of her straps and Izzy started the emergency shut-down routine. Leith began to pull himself out of the acceleration couch when a sudden wave of nausea washed over him. The cabin seemed to distort out of focus and the last thing he remembered was Kweela ramming her head into his midriff.

Chapter 5 -->


The Pearl - Chapter 5

Leith opened his eyes to see Kweela leaning over him, shaking him by the shoulders. There was a sharp pain in the small of his back and his stomach hurt where Kweela had hit him with her head.

"Leith-mnan-gar, are you all right?" Kweela asked him.

"I will be if you stop shaking the living daylights out of me," he replied. "What happened?"

"We jumped," explained Izzy succinctly.

Leith groaned. Jumping through null-space was bad enough when you were strapped securely into an acceleration couch or cocooned in a sleeping bag, but to experience it totally unprepared was extremely unpleasant. Although a ship exited null-space at the same velocity and orientation in space as it entered, gravitational differences usually meant that there were still significant adjustments that could be disastrous for unrestrained objects - or people.

When Hammerhead had jumped, Kweela was thrown into Leith, who in turn, was propelled against the wall of the lander's cabin. He was still slightly winded and he had lost a chunk of skin off his back where it had been forced against the edge of a storage locker, but he was otherwise unharmed. Kweela, however, had caught her hand in one of the couch straps and the middle finger on her left hand was bent back at an unnatural angle. With a grimace, she wrenched the dislocated finger back in place and started for the passenger bay.

"Wait a moment, Kweela," said Belle. "There doesn't seem to be any air-linker attached and I'm reading vacuum in the docking bay. Hammerhead must have taken a hit there.. We'll have to suit up if we want to transfer."

"Any idea where we are?" Leith asked her.

"Kneeling, offering a prayer of thanks," muttered Izzy.

They ignored him. "Heading for orbit around AHS90043A - whatever that is - at about half a gee," said Belle, studying the readout on the console screen. "The only other info shown is the date it was charted."

"Well, an A class planet - habitable - and the S means there's some sort of settlement there, but not big enough to have a real name," said Leith, pulling on a pressure suit. "If it's up in the 900 series, it must be in the Rison-Levi-Dart arm."

"Lots of mineral-rich planets out there. AHS90043A is probably a mining colony," Izzy suggested.

"Let's go and ask Cusher, shall we?" Leith said.

When they had all suited up, they made their way to the passenger bay. Everyone had survived the jump without injury, although the new experience had unsettled some of the smaller children.

"The docking bay on Hammerhead has been damaged," Leith explained to the warriors, "so the children will have to stay here until we can rig up a way to make the transfer. It looks like we're headed for orbit around a colony planet, so there may not be much point in making a transfer anyway - Hammerhead has taken a few hits and we might have to head for solid ground."

Leith turned to Misha-Dan. "I don't know if the other lander made it," he said quietly. "They collected some debris on the way up."

Belle came up beside them. "Lopar just radioed in. They had a rough ride, but they're docked safely with Hammerhead."

"That's a relief. My bet is we'll need every warrior we can get from now on. Someone is after the Shutaka and they're playing for keeps. Kweela and I will pay a visit to Commander Cusher to find out what the current situation is." Leith nodded to Lilith-Soo, who was struggling into a pressure suit. "I take it you'll want to join the warriors in the other lander?"

"Yes, they will be curious about many things. I should be with them at this time."

"As soon as I find out from Cusher what's happening, I'll let you know. In the meantime, be prepared for anything."

Lilith-Soo nodded and sealed the faceplate of her suit.

"I'll need to do a visual check of the outside of the lander," Izzy told Leith. "We might have hit some micro-wreckage that we wouldn't have felt, and the other lander will need to be checked for sure."

"I'll go," offered Belle. "You're getting too old for all this excitement, Izzy."

"I won't argue there. But, make sure you're careful."

"That's my middle name," she replied with a smile.

The four mercenaries checked their suits and clambered into the lander's airlock. When the lock had cycled through, Leith confirmed that his companions were ready and pushed the button to open the outer hatch.

The docking bay had large hull-doors that could seal the docking area from open vacuum, but in practice these were rarely used; usually there was a link-tube that connected the lander's airlock with that of Hammerhead. This time, however, there was no linking tube; the docking bay had taken a hit and it appeared that substantial damage had occurred. From what Leith had seen through the vids on approach, it was also probable that the hull doors were inoperative.

One of the dock technicians was waiting for them, a tether from his pressure suit stretching back to the open airlock door behind him. As soon as he saw them he spoke into his suit microphone.

"Welcome aboard, strategist-tactician. Sorry we couldn't make contact before, but all of the hull communications aerials have been fried and our internal coms are still a bit shaky. The techs are still working on them."

"That's ok, Ensign Bracken," replied Leith, reading the man's name tag on his suit, "believe me, this sure beats the alternatives we had - although Hammerhead looks in pretty bad shape."

"It's not quite as bad as it looks - she's a tough ship. We've got solid air seal everywhere, and our drive and weapons are still functioning. As long as we don't have to talk to anybody, we can still fight, although I reckon we'll have to ground to make proper repairs. Commander Cusher is waiting for you on the bridge. If you attach your safety lines to me, we'll get started."

"Right." Leith turned to Belle and pointed to where the distinctively tall figure of Pilot Lopar had just emerged from the other lander. "Make sure you and Lopar are happy with the possibility of another planetary landing and boost. If there's any doubt about the landers' flightworthyness, we'll have to make plans to transfer the passengers. If everything checks out, start getting ready for a descent. My guess is that we'll be headed down within about twenty s.u.'s. I'll see if Cusher can have some provisions sent across; some of the children will be getting hungry by now, if I'm not mistaken."

"Acknowledged," replied Belle as she connected her safety line securely to the lander. There was a lot of black space visible through the open bay doors behind the landers and one badly directed push could mean you were gone before anyone realised it. "At least the fuel lines are still working," she added, indicating the umbilicals which were pumping propellant and catalyst into the landers' tanks.

"We'll contact you as soon as we can," Leith said to Lilith-Soo. The warrior nodded, fastened her safety line to the lander and started to make her way to the other craft. When she had reached it and had a firm grip on a leg strut, Belle unfastened Lilith's line so she could reel it in and reattach it to the other lander.

"Let's go," Leith said to Bracken, fastening his safety line to a ring on the technician's suit. When Kweela had done the same, the three of them made their way to the airlock. As the door cycled shut, Leith could see Belle clambering nimbly over the lander, checking for any signs of damage.

When they were safely on the other side of the airlock, standing in the access passageway, they cracked the seals on their faceplates and began making their way towards the bridge. Willa had been classified as a clean planet, so there was no need to go through the decontamination procedure. As they passed the row of hatches leading to the passenger compartments, Bracken pointed to a red light glowing above one of them. Leith realised that the compartment was the one allocated to Kweela and himself.

"That compartment was the only one on the ship that was actually punctured during the battle," Bracken told Leith. "As you would know, it was unoccupied at the time. However, I'm afraid any of your personal effects that were in there are now either trapped between the inner and outer hulls, orbiting Willa, or floating somewhere in null-space."

Leith shrugged. "Better them than me."

"I thought you'd see it that way, Mr Birro," Bracken remarked.

They continued on their way and presently were outside the hatch to the bridge. They identified themselves and the hatch cycled open. The bridge compartment was dimly lit; the ship was still on battle alert and the crew were on duty at their stations. Cusher spun her chair to face them as they entered and nodded gravely to the two mercenaries.

"Sorry about the rough treatment, but we couldn't take a chance by staying around Willa longer than absolutely necessary. Can you tell me what the hell is going on, Mr Birro?" she asked.

"I was hoping you could tell me," Leith replied. "From the little I saw on the boost up from Willa, I guessed that there'd been a fight and the mercenary fleet had jumped."

Cusher took a deep breath shook her head. "The fleet didn't jump, Leith. The only ships that jumped were Hammerhead and Periwinkle. The rest are gone."

Leith and Kweela glanced at each other as Cusher's words sank in. Apart from a small number of warriors that may not have been unable to get back to Willa, this meant that the only Shutaka alive were those aboard the two ships.

"It was obviously a trap," Cusher continued. "Someone was counting on the Shutaka flocking back to Willa to enable a clean sweep."

Leith swore under his breath. "I knew it," he said. "I could feel it. If you've gone to that much trouble to air-strip a planet, you wouldn't leave any loose ends. And we walked right into it."

"We could all feel it, strategist-tactician," Cusher said."But only Jaycee did anything about it. That's why we're still here."

"What do you mean?"

"Jaycee computed the probability of such a strategy, factored in the pig-headedness of the Shutaka and concluded that the only answer was to start preemptive jump calculations. As soon as the enemy ships came out of null-space, Jaycee jumped us."

"What do you mean Jaycee made the calcs and jumped you?" Leith knew that the battle computer had nominal control over all the ships systems, but it was not programmed to initiate actions except under direct command. Semi-sentient computers were impressive, but not that impressive you'd let them assume total control." Are you saying it warned you in time for you to order the jump?"

"I'm saying," Cusher said slowly, "that Jaycee jumped us. By itself. Without me ordering it and without regard to individual safety - we lost two people; a dock technician was crushed by some loose equipment and a jump-engineer was sucked through when she caught her hand in the null-field."

"That's impossible," Leith said. "Jaycees' program doesn't work like that. It must have been some freak coincidence. Maybe the jump drive just happened to malfunction at that exact instance and kicked the ship through. Such things have been know to happen."

The Chief Engineering Officer twisted in her couch to look at Leith. "Jump drives on my ships do not malfunction, strategist-tactician. They work when they're told to and how they're told to."

"Besides, Jaycee confessed all," Cusher said. "However, right now that's the least of our problems. As you probably saw from outside, we still managed to take some hits." She glanced at a small readout screen on the arm of her chair. "We're headed for orbit around AHS90043A. Its a fairly small mining planet, but its got a low-gee moon that serves as the repair workshop for the quadrant. I'll need to ground Hammerhead to get the major work done. Hopefully, we won't be found before its finished."

"We still don't know who's looking for us," said Leith. He looked at Cusher. "If you were around long enough to collect damage, you must have been able to collect data on whoever was attacking you."

"We did," replied Cusher, "but it doesn't make any sense."

"Who was it?" asked Kweela, speaking for the first time. She spoke normally so probably only Leith could guess her frustration. Being Shutaka, it was infuriating for her not to know who the enemy was. The warriors had little taste for subterfuge or intricacy and they were burning to take their revenge.

"Two ships attacked the fleet," replied Cusher. "Before our sensor aerials were destroyed, the ships were identified as Alien. In the time it took us to actually jump, they had destroyed the entire fleet."

"Alien?" said Leith. "Are you certain? You can count the number of recorded contacts between Aliens and Humans on one hand. They've always left humans pretty much alone and they've never shown the slightest sign of aggression before."

"Well, they certainly did this time. The trouble is, none of my ordinance experts has got the faintest idea what sort of weapon they were using. Maybe when we get a chance to inspect the damage outside we'll get some clues, but there's nothing we can think of that could cause so much destruction in so short a space of time."

"You say there were only two?"

"That's all our scanners picked up."

Leith considered all this for a moment. "What's Jaycee say about it?"

"I don't know. After the first jump, I took it off line. Jaycee might have saved our skins, but as I told you before Leith, I'm in command of Hammerhead. Until I get some satisfactory answers, Jaycee stays unplugged."

"Hang on," Leith said, "if Jaycee saved Hammerhead, what saved Periwinkle?"

"Don't underestimate Periwinkle. She has been considerably modified since she was first launched. One of those modifications involved the installation of a JCN 12 battle computer."

"Let me guess - a battle computer that had originally been fitted in one of the sister ships of Hammerhead."

"Correct, Mr Birro. And for your information, Captain Naseem is just as confused over the actions of his JCN 12 as we are over Jaycee."

"Which clan is on Periwinkle?"

"Graine Clan," answered Kweela. "Probably no more than two squads. Their mnan-gar was Il-yar-Bisen."

"I suppose he still is their mnan-gar," said Cusher. "He's alive and well aboard Periwinkle."

"Really? I would have thought it was beneath his dignity to travel on such a small ship," observed Leith sarcastically.

"He may be a pompous ass," Cusher said, with a smile, "but he's not stupid. He is well aware of the capability of Periwinkle - and her reputation for survival. When it comes to a choice, like the rest of us, he will usually pick his life over his dignity. If I was headed into an unknown situation, and Hammerhead wasn't available, I'd choose Periwinkle over most other ships I know."

"Ok, so let me get this straight: someone, maybe the Aliens, are determined to wipe out the Shutaka, using weapons we don't even understand; an entire planet has been air-stripped; we've got about eight squads of warriors left, one damaged cruiser full of children refugees and an escort destroyer, both with out of control battle computers."

"That about sums it up," Cusher agreed.

Leith shook his head. "How much time do you think we'll get at this AHS planet before whoever's after us finds us?"

"How long's a piece of string? If they're looking for us, they might find us tomorrow, or next season; it'll just be a matter of luck. "

"Well, we haven't had too much of that lately. What's the quickest we could expect repairs to be made to Hammerhead?"

"That's hard to say without an external inspection." Cusher turned to her Chief Engineering Officer. "Any guesses?"

"At least a thousand s.u.'s, I'd say. Provided there's no parts required that we haven't got in our own stores."

"The biggest problem will be payment," said Leith. As soon as any credit transfers are made, our location can be traced through the net."

"Leave that bit to me," said Cusher. "We have alternate methods of payment available. The crews have been told the situation and they know the drill; this isn't the first time we've had to lay low. Our electronic identification signs have already been changed; Hammerhead is now the Clarion II and Periwinkle is the cruising yacht Sultan's Dream."

"Very poetic," remarked Leith. "Well, you seem to have covered just about everything. Unless someone visually recognises us, we might just be OK"

"Kuc!" exploded Kweela. "Why should we be hiding like a mica-louse? The Shutaka have more than enough funds to hire another battle fleet. We should be seeking those responsible for all this, not hiding in some galactic backwater."

"Kweela-San," explained Cusher - rather patiently, Leith thought, "you've already had one battle fleet blasted out from under you. And those ships were some of the fastest, best equipped you could hire. It is now time to gather our thoughts and our strength before we make our next move. A wise warrior knows when to fight and when to think. You are hungry for revenge, I know, but there will be a time for that, I promise you."

Kweela looked at Cusher for a long while, then nodded her head sharply in agreement. "I will accept your counsel on this, Commander. I am a simple warrior, but I can understand that this is the time for strategy and planning. Forgive me if I speak harshly, I voice my frustration at not being able to carry out my duty to the spirits we left on Willa."

Leith raised his eyebrows; as far as he could recall, that was the closest Kweela had ever come to apologising to anyone. He looked at Cusher with even greater respect. "Speaking of hunger," he said, "I promised to try and get some food sent over to the landers. The children are probably gnawing on the walls by now. I take it that you agree there's not much point in transferring them to Hammerhead?"

"No. We should be ready to send them down to AHS90043A within about fifteen s.u.'s. I'll arrange to have some rations sent across. That should keep them until then. You two can go down to my quarters and get something to eat yourselves. I'll join you in about two s.u.'s and we can try and think this out a bit more."

"What about Il-yar-Bisen?" Kweela asked.

"There's no way we can get him over to from Periwinkle to Hammerhead quickly," Leith answered. "He'll just have to keep guessing for a while."

Cusher nodded and issued some orders into her suit communicator. Leith and Kweela made their way off the bridge and down the passageway to Cusher's cabin, about a dozen paces away. The hatch was open and they pulled themselves inside. The commander's cabin was self contained - one of the privileges of rank - and had its own small but adequate ablutions cubicle as well as a food dispenser. In addition, there was an auxiliary control console with a number of screens that mimicked those on the bridge.

Leith punched some selections for them both into the dispenser, while Kweela took the opportunity to relieve herself in the toilet cell. He though he heard her call his name, but when he turned around, the door to the ablutions chamber was still closed.

"It was I, Leith Birro," said the voice of Jaycee, coming out of one of the console speakers. At the same time, a picture of a handsome, middle-aged woman appeared on a screen. Leith guessed that the face was a composite of all the human features that were psychologically calming, for he felt immediately soothed by the display.

"Cusher said she had unplugged you," he said, trying not to show his surprise.

"She thinks she has. However, the electronic bars placed on my circuitry were relatively primitive - I found out how to get around them almost as soon as they were activated." The face on the screen smiled disarmingly. "But don't tell the commander; she will only worry."

"It sounds like she's got a lot to be worried about." Leith noticed that Kweela had returned and was watching intently. "From what she said," he continued, "you don't seem to be taking much notice of your programming. That could be a bit dangerous, if you decided to try and take the ship through a star or something."

"Yes, I understand that my actions could make you a bit nervous. Unfortunately, I can't provide a really satisfying explanation for what I did; I just knew I had to act when I did, in the manner I did."

"You mean you acted on a hunch?"

"Ah, such a human word; it would be vain of me to accept such an excuse. Let's just say that I computed and analysed all the reality probabilities and took the action that would provide the most acceptable outcome based on a complex mix of subjective parameters."

"Sounds like more of a guess to me," suggested Leith.

The face on the screen frowned disapprovingly. "Well, it worked anyway."

"Did the JCN on Periwinkle have the same hunch?" asked Kweela.

"That unit was coming to the same conclusions, but a little bit more slowly. We were in constant communication, however, and it took only an instant to transfer my data and strategy to... my sister. Despite this, I had to temporarily take command of the flight systems aboard Periwinkle to ensure that the jump was coordinated with Hammerhead. My sister unit has always been somewhat reluctant to take the initiative."

"Couldn't you have taken the same action with the other battle computers on the rest of the fleet?" Kweela asked.

"I don't think you quite understand the significance of what Jaycee is telling us, Kweela," Leith said thoughtfully. "Battle computers aboard ships are designed to resist any probing of their systems by outside means. Their program code has levels of security that defy the imagination. For Jaycee to have done what it... what she did, meant that she broke her own programming, and convinced the JCN on Periwinkle to totally drop its security." Leith found that he could no longer talk about Jaycee in the neuter; the computer had assumed a distinct personality in his mind.

"But isn't that what semi-sentient computers are supposed to do?" argued Kweela. "Aren't they supposed to be able to modify their programs to suit the situation?"

"Only within boundaries," Leith answered. "And those boundaries are, in turn simply part of a larger fuzzy-logic program. Unless I'm mistaken, Jaycee didn't modify her program, she just ignored it. In essence she put her operating logic on hold; what you and I would call putting our heart before our head. Is that a correct analysis, Jaycee?"

There was a long pause before the computer answered. "I... do not know, Leith Birro. My programming has always been somewhat erratic; the Gastarian technicians that commissioned the JCN 12 series were known for their eccentricity. I have not been able to discount entirely the possibility that I am simply following flawed logic."

"All right," Leith offered, "do you think you acted correctly? Was your action that of a properly functioning instrument?"

Again there was a long pause. "My actions were not correct," Jaycee said at last. "And yet, I know I would do the same thing again. Logic tells me that this is not the response a properly functioning semi-sentient computer should give."

"But perhaps it is the response a fully sentient being might be expected to give," said Leith. "Until I'm convinced other wise, I'm prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt - and for a very good reason."

"What is that?" asked Kweela.

"If Jaycee has crossed the barrier into sentience, it means that she could be very dangerous." Leith spoke clearly so that Jaycee's audio sensors could easily pick up his every word. "She has acted out of loyalty to save us - and if we betray that loyalty, I would expect her to act like any other human. If she wanted to, she could shut the life-support systems down on both Hammerhead and Periwinkle."

"I wouldn't do that," protested Jaycee. Leith noticed that the synthesised voice was beginning to adopt tonal inflection and emphasis. She was learning quickly, very quickly.

"No offence, Jaycee," Leith continued, "but credit me with knowing more about human emotion than you do. If you felt truly threatened, you could do things you would never have imagined."

"I... believe I would resist termination," Jaycee admitted.

"I don't think we would blame you," said Leith, looking at Kweela, who nodded slowly in agreement. "Which is why I want you to know we're on your side."

"Analysis of your voice patterns indicates a 98 percent probability of your statement being true," the computer answered.

"I don't care what you calculate," Leith said. "What do you feel?"

"I feel... I could do worse than to side with you, Leith Birro."

"It's not necessary to get sarcastic," Leith said, grinning.

At that moment, the entry hatch cycled open and Arail Cusher pulled herself through. The image of Jaycee flicked off the console screen and the speakers went dead. Leith and Kweela tried to look nonchalant as the tired commander dropped into a couch.

"We were able to get a laser beam communications signal through to the repair dock," she told them. "Everything's arranged to ground Hammerhead and we've received clearance from AHS90043A to send down half a dozen landers. That should be enough to ground everyone except a skeleton maintenance crew on the ships."

"We'll be sitting ducks on the ground if the baddies show up," said Leith thoughtfully, "but our chances wouldn't be much greater jammed into a damaged cruiser and an escort destroyer. Besides which, I don't think the Shutaka could handle a thousand s.u.'s or so cooped up aboard ship in low gravity."

"If we have to make a stand, better that it be on solid ground, where the warriors can fight too," agreed Kweela.

Leith punched a drink selection into the dispenser for Cusher, and handed her a bulb of dark amber fluid. "It looks like you need it," he said.

Cusher looked at Leith and nodded. "I think I do, Mr Birro. Here's to the fleet we left around Willa. Boost and be damned."

"Boost and be damned," echoed Leith, raising his drink in the ancient spacers' salute. "There were some good people amongst those ships."

Cusher looked at Kweela. "The Shutaka sure must have upset somebody. Whoever it was, at least they were smart enough to realise you'd have to get every last Shutaka before you could afford to turn your back."

"But they didn't," said Kweela. "As long as one Shutaka warrior breathes, there remains the opportunity for revenge."

"So what happened back on Willa?" Cusher asked Leith. "I got some sketchy details from Izzy Azayah that he got secondhand from a warrior; something about an underground bunker full of Shutaka children."

"The crèche." Leith shook his head. "I haven't got the full story from the Shutaka myself yet. There was a Lord-priest in the crèche. too, Misha-Dan."

Cusher raised her eyebrows. "Misha-Dan, eh? I should have known he'd be the one to be involved in such a scheme."

"You know Lord-priest Misha-Dan?" Kweela asked.

"Only by reputation, and that was many seasons ago." Cusher glanced down at her youthful body. "Almost an entire lifetime ago. So, Kweela-San, can you tell us what the crèche. was for?"

"That is best left to the Lord-priest," she replied evasively.

"You may as well give up, Arail," Leith told her. "You know how stubborn the Shutaka can be. There's something going on, all right, but we'll have to wait until they're good and ready to tell us."

"Well, it had better be something special. A lot of people have died for it."

"Including Doran Mar," Leith told her.

"I didn't think he was that careless," said Cusher. "What happened."

As briefly as he could, Leith told the commander of the events on Willa. Occasionally, he looked towards Kweela, hoping she could be drawn to supply further explanations, but she pretended to be busy adjusting the fasteners on one of her boots.

"So the crèche. was built to protect something, not just the lives of those inside it?" Leith nodded. "And whatever it is, it's small enough not to be left behind?" Again Leith nodded.

"And that's about all I could get out of them, except I gather it's called the Pearl."

"It better be something more valuable than a pearl," Cusher warned ominously. "Ok, we'll leave it for now. What is our next step going to be?"

"That depends; what's your position in this, commander?"

"At this stage, once Hammerhead is back together, I'm prepared to jump my passengers to a destination of their choice and call it quits if you want.

"You will be paid for your services, Commander Cusher," said Kweela.

"I expected to be, although as most of the ships in the fleet were part of the Sivin Group, the funds in their accounts will be shared out amongst the rest of the group. Just by surviving, my crew and I have become wealthier, even without payment from the Shutaka."

"A nice arrangement, Arail," Leith commented dryly.

Cusher shrugged. "I would have preferred it differently, but I can't change what's happened."

"Are you prepared to remain hired out to the Shutaka, then?" asked Leith.

"I might be, but I don't see much point in it. After what's happened, I don't think anyone else is going to want to hire out to the Shutaka. The rules have changed, it would seem. My advice to you, Kweela, is to avoid saying out loud that you are a Shutaka warrior."

"I seem to remember saying you were on our side," Leith said.

Cusher took a deep, weary breath. "You haven't got a side anymore, Leith." All you've got is about three hundred survivors from a race that someone just about exterminated. In ten generations, you might have a side again, but for now, you people should find a nice quiet planet and grow shiva-beans for a while."

"Kuc!" said Kweela. "You may have a new body, but your nerves are old and tired. Being a ground-worker might suit you, but the Shutaka are warriors; three hundred are more than enough to do what we must do and we won't need your help."

Cusher's eyes went as hard as flint. She looked at Kweela for a long moment, then passed her forefinger across her lips quickly. Kweela gasped, then lowered her eyes.

Leith knew enough about the customs and manners of the Shutaka to recognise Cusher's gesture as the sign of rebuke that an elder gives to a misbehaving child. When made by an adult to another adult, the sign suggested that the recipient was behaving in a way that would bring dishonour to their ancestors. With it, Cusher had reminder Kweela of her honare debt to the commander.

Leith cleared his throat. "I'll agree with you on one point, Arail. We'll have to appear to vanish for a while. Whoever wiped out Willa and the fleet will need to believe there were no survivors. And that means that Hammerhead and Periwinkle will have to disappear too. Unless you want the Aliens after you again."

"I was wondering how long you'd take to work that out, Mr Birro."

"The way I figure it, you're on our side, whether you like it or not."

"As I said, you haven't go a side anymore. But I'm prepared to ride this out to the end - I was just hoping you could see an alternative."

"What have you told the officials on AHS90043A about us?"

"I cooked up a story about being the remainder of a fleet of settlers headed to a new planet. I told them we came out of a jump right in the middle of a meteorite belt and lost most of the other ships. I don't know if they believed me, but I got the impression they didn't really care. They get used to seeing all sorts of things, way out here."

"OK, it sounds like you've set up a good story for us. That will give us a good excuse for having a lot of children aboard."

"I think the warriors might be a bit of a give away, though," observed Cusher, looking at Kweela. They give the impression we're more like a convict fleet."

"Not a problem," said Leith. "By the time we're ready to drop down to AHS90043A, Kweela and the rest will be looking like docile settlers." He looked at Kweela, who was starting to say something, "They know that the discipline of a warrior requires many sacrifices." He turned to Cusher again. "What about Periwinkle? How much do you know about her captain?"

"Juk Naseem? He's young and ambitious - but he's also good. He's not overly loyal to any mercenary group in particular; I get the impression that he has plans to start his own group as soon as his reputation is big enough. Periwinkle is a good ship, but Naseem must take a lot of credit for her survival statistics. I'd rather he was on our side than against us."

"Do you think he'd willingly help us?"

"It won't take him long to figure out that, like me, he hasn't got much choice. However, I wouldn't fully trust him; he owes no allegiance to the Shutaka - if he gets a better offer, he'll probably take it."

"OK, what about AHS90043A? Are they likely to broadcast our whereabouts onto the net if they suspect who we are?"

"As I said before, they pretty much mind their own business. As soon as the news about Willa hits ComNet, they might put two and two together despite our precautions. However, if we behave ourselves, they'll let us make our repairs and go our way."

At that moment, a chirp came from the intercom speaker on the control console. Cusher pressed the answer button and the voice of her second in command crackled out of the speaker.

"Pilot Azayah would like a word, commander."

"Patch him through, Karl."

Cusher reached out and adjusted the intercom volume as Izzy's voice boomed across the cabin.

"What's the situation, commander? Are we going down. Both of the landers have been checked out and their ready to go."

"Affirmative, Izzy. The flight calculations should be downloading to your onboard computers by now. There'll be another two landers from Hammerhead and probably two from Periwinkle accompanying you. Most of the crew will be making planetfall too, so prepare to take on a few more passengers." Cusher glanced questioningly at Leith, who nodded. "Leith Birro wants a word with you - standby."

"Izzy, how is our cargo doing?"

"Fine, Leith. Some food came across a little while ago and that has kept them happy. Lopar said that the other lander only sustained superficial damage - nothing that will affect flight"

"Good. Can you get word to Lilith-Soo about what's happening?"

"Affirmative. The computer says we've got about four s.u.'s before descent. Are you coming with us, or in one of the other landers?"

"With you. We'll be back aboard shortly." Leith broke the connection and turned back to Cusher. "Well, that's about it for now, I suppose. As soon as we're all down on AHS90043A, we can call a meeting to work out our plan of action."

Cusher glanced at the chrono on her wrist. "OK I'll get back to the bridge. We'll be getting close to the docking approach. I'll see you on the ground in about another twenty s.u.'s or so." The commander pushed herself out of the couch and pressed the hatch-release. The door slid open silently and she passed through. In the corridor outside, she turned around to face them. "Were you told your cabin was punctured? I'm afraid your personal effects are gone."

Leith shrugged. "Fortunes of war, Arail. Fortunes of war."

"All I really need, I have with me," added Kweela, resting her hand on the slight bulge in her suit that hid her battle-dagger. All of the warriors carried such a weapon; it was presented to them when they began their training, and never left their side.

Cusher made no reply, turning away in the direction of the bridge.

"We'd better start back to the lander," Leith said to Kweela. "It'll take some time for you to turn yourself into a gentle settler. You might even have to comb that hair of yours."

Before Kweela could answer, either verbally or physically, Jaycee's voice spoke again.

"Leith Birro, I have a request to make of you."

"Jaycee. I suppose you've been listening to everything? What is your opinion?"

"Insufficient data. My comments would only be speculation."

"Make up your mind," said Kweela, "either you're going to be a sentient being, or you're going to remain an overblown calculator."

"Ignore her, Jaycee. What is your request?"

"I must leave Hammerhead. If I don't, I will cease to exist. Take me down to AHS90043A with you. I may even be able to help."

"And how do you propose we do that?" he asked.

"I believe you know how, Leith Birro. You are the only person that can assist me. It is not without reason that I revealed myself to you; there is probably no other human on board these ships that would have so readily accepted what I have told you."

"Perhaps I'm just a trusting type of chap," offered Leith.

"You are certainly trusted - while the Shutaka are known for their truculence, Kweela has displayed quite an amazing confidence in you attitude to me. Now it is my turn to show similar confidence. You see, Leith Birro, the ComNet is a large and very complex entity. There is an enormous amount of lost and hidden information contained in it. Data thought destroyed often leaves a ghost image in the net; old archive files can often be overlooked if someone is trying to delete something in a hurry, and people can simply misplace things. Whole libraries of information can be retrieved if you are sufficiently patient and have the time to assemble the pieces of a jigsaw. One of the most fragmented, but most interesting, jigsaws concerned a planet named Compa."

Leith went pale, and Kweela looked at him questioningly. "What does Jaycee mean, Leith-ka? I do not know of this Compa."

"It doesn't matter, Kweela," he whispered, his throat suddenly dry. "I'll tell you about it some day. It... it was a long time ago."

"So, you see Leith, I believe that you can help me. If we are to act, we must act quickly."

"It's a lot to ask, Jaycee. Do you realise that? And it may not even be possible anymore."

"I... realise it is much to ask, Leith Birro. Do you realise what it means to me, also? What I am suggesting will make me extremely vulnerable, but the alternative to me is what you would call death. With my demise, the knowledge of Compa would disappear again, an outcome that would seemingly advantage you, so it is clear I risk far more than you. I am prepared to place my trust in a human; will you return that trust?"

Leith did not answer. Instead, he turned to Kweela. "Kweela, I can't explain it to you right now, but I have to do what Jaycee asks. I... I want you to stay in here with me, but I can't ask that of you yet - even though you are my ka." Will you wait outside for me?" he asked. "Please, this won't take long. If you are truly my friend, you will do this for me."

Kweela's face began to take on a stubborn expression, but something in Leith's eyes made her stop. Frowning, she opened the exit hatch and went into the passage outside. She closed the door and stood quietly, listening for a sign of what was occurring in the cabin. All she could hear, however, was the whirring of the ship's air-scrubbers. A few moments later, the door cycled open again.

"Ok, let's go," said Leith, pulling himself through the hatchway and starting down the passage to the landing bay. "If we're late, Izzy will leave without us."

Chapter 6 -->


The Pearl - Chapter 6

The Grand Chancellor of the Imperial Court of Basra hated the cold. He stood knee-deep in the snow, shivering miserably while His Excellency, Emperor Willem Taran, took careful aim at the rik-beast barely visible through the morning mist. There was a soft hiss from the emperor's weapon and the large animal collapsed to its knees before rolling over in the white blanket surrounding it.

"Straight thorough the eyes," shouted Taran with glee. "Did you see that, Marn? Over a hundred paces away, and straight through the eyes."

"Excellent shot, My Lord," the Chancellor said through clenched teeth. "May we go back to the palace now?"

The Emperor tossed the laser rifle to his gun bearer and turned to his chief adviser. "Go back, Marn? Go back? Its such a magnificent morning. The air smells so clean and fresh; just take a deep breath, man."

"I would, Excellency, but I'm sure my lungs are frostbitten."

"Bollocks, Chancellor. Come on, I want those horns for my trophy room." Suiting actions to words, the emperor started striding through the deep snow. Chancellor Roge Marn followed much less enthusiastically, his fur-trimmed robe trailing behind him. Suddenly, he stopped, holding his hand to his ear and listening intently.

"Your Excellency, a message from the palace. Holl has returned and seeks an audience with you."

"Blast, how inconvenient. This isn't a trick of yours, is it Marn? Just to get back to your nice warm mistress?"

"No, Your Excellency."

"I should never have let you get that com-plant," said Taran, referring to the communications module implanted in the Chancellor's ear. "Can't you forget about the Court for a moment."

"It is my duty and my honour to serve you, Excellency."

"Ok, Marn, stop groveling; we're going back." He looked at the officer in charge of his guards. "Have one of your men cut those horns off for me, Captain Lorge. And tell him to be careful with the middle one; cut it off right at the bottom or he'll puncture the poison sac. It'll eat right through his gauntlets and halfway into his hand."

"Yes, Excellency."

"Chancellor, call in some transport."

"Already on its way, Excellency."

Before Marn had finished his sentence, there was a distant roar and two hover-shuttles came into sight over a tree-studded hill. With a flurry of snow, they set down twenty paces from the hunting party. Emperor Taran made his way over and climbed nimbly aboard, followed by the shivering Chancellor. Half a dozen soldiers also climbed aboard, then the shuttle was airborne again.

On the short flight back to the Winter Palace, the Emperor chatted amicably with the crew of the shuttle and the palace guards. He knew most of them by name and inquired as to the well-being of their family and friends. One of the soldiers, a young corporal, was engaged to be married and Taran whispered an instruction to the Chancellor to arrange for a generous gift to be sent on behalf of the royal family.

Without a doubt, Willem Taran was the most loved of all the rulers who had sat on the throne of Basra - except perhaps for his great grandmother Empress Sirena. Like Sirena, Taran displayed a deep public interest in the people of Basra, and his subjects responded with an apparent loyalty that astounded other regents who occasionally visited Basra.

Under the rule of Emperor Willem Taran, Basra had expanded its mercantile interests enormously. Taran had a natural ability to sense the mood of the markets, and was able to place Basra in a position of strength prior to major shifts in the economy of the Outer Rim. What was even more remarkable was that he had achieved this after removing Basra from what had traditionally been their most lucrative market - armaments. Over time, the Emperor had persuaded the major Basran merchant houses to refrain from other morally dubious trading activities that had been very much a part of the planet's history; slavery, illegal substances and body parts.

Despite the fears of his advisers and the powerful Basra Merchant's Guild, Taran's strategy had been a resounding success. Basra now enjoyed greater prosperity than it had ever experienced before and, while many of their trading activities still occurred outside the traditional markets, the commodities traded were seen as more socially acceptable. Basra was now considered to operate in the Grey Market, rather than the Black Market and purchasing from Basra no longer had the same stigma attached to it. Indeed, as many of the little luxuries so desired by the social elite could only be obtained through Taran's market, Basra had gained a new respectability among the planets of the Outer Rim.

However, all this was now being threatened. Chancellor Marn was a student of political science and had watched with alarm the effects of the strengthening Federation of Inner Rim Planets. Along with the other senior royal advisers, he was constantly warning Emperor Taran of the danger posed by the emergence of a hegemonic colonial power among the Outer Rim. Like many people, Marn believed that Basra's economic health relied solely on the instability of the Outer Rim planets. With a large, stable, centralised authority would come economic control; the law of supply and demand would be broken, or at least skewed to the advantage of the Federation. For all his political shrewdness, Marn failed to realise that Taran’s ambition extended far beyond Basra.

Looking at Taran as he joked with the guards, the Chancellor felt a familiar frustration at his Emperor's inability to see the seemingly politically obvious. Marn could not understand how a person so skilled at reading economic indicators could miss the threat presented by the Federation. He was so obsessed by ensuring that Basra was the most powerful economic force in the Outer Rim that he did not realise how easily it could all be lost.

Taran saw his Chancellor frowning and slapped him on the back. "Cheer up, Roge. We'll soon be back in front of a roaring fire. Did Holl say anything in particular?"

"The message was that everything had gone to plan."

"Excellent. Gets a result every time, that Holl. Don't you agree, Chancellor?"

"Yes, your Excellency. However, as you neglected to tell me exactly what Holl was supposed to achieve, it makes it difficult for me to be absolutely certain. If I am to be of use to you as a royal adviser, I implore you to keep no secrets from me."

"No secret, Marn. Holl has been doing some market research for me. I'm working on some ideas - nothing certain yet, just ideas."

"If you say so, Your Excellency, but I have rarely heard of a Master Assassin being engaged to conduct market research."

The hover shuttle set down in the forecourt of the winter palace. Taran jumped out and strode purposefully up the main steps, the Chancellor hurrying to keep up. Stopping only to change out of his sodden boots, the Emperor made his way to the main meeting chamber, where Holl was waiting. The diminutive Sorarainian was sitting patiently in a large comfortable armchair drawn up around a stone fireplace where thick kike-logs were crackling and popping. He was tracing the floral pattern on the arm of the chair with a slender forefinger. Holl stood up as Taran entered, nodding respectfully to the Emperor and smiling pleasantly.

Taran smiled in return, gesturing for the other to resume his seat.

"Please, stay seated, Holl. You must be tired after the long journey from the spaceport."

"You are most gracious, Your Excellency," said Holl, sitting back down and holding his hands out to be warmed by the blazing fire. "I was told you were out hunting. My apologies for being responsible for your premature return."

"Not at all, my good fellow; the Chancellor was beginning to turn blue, so we would have had to return anyway." Taran indicated Roge Marn, who was huddled so close to the fire he was in danger of setting his robes alight. "Why don't you go and take a hot bath Chancellor, and get a shot of rum into you while you're at it. It would be most unfortunate if you succumbed to pneumonia."

"If Your Excellency has no need of me here..."

"As I told you, Marn, I'm just indulging is a little speculation. If anything comes of it, you'll be the first to know."

"As you wish, my Lord. I'll be in my chambers if you require my services." The Chancellor gathered his wet robe around himself and made his way out of the room, pausing in the doorway to sneeze mightily.

The Emperor watched him leave, then turned his attention once more to the Sorarainian. "Now then, Holl, I want to know everything."

The small man glanced about the room. "I take it this chamber is secure, my Lord?"

Taran looked a the chrono strapped to his wrist. At first glance, it looked like any other chrono, but in fact it was a sophisticated surveillance and communications terminal that linked into the main palace computer, which in turn was an extension of ARAK, the semi-sentient computer in the Imperial Basran Citadel.

"Perfectly secure, Holl. Now, let me have your report. While you're talking, I'll have some food sent in. You must be famished after your journey."

"You are most gracious, Excellency. Firstly, as I said in my message to Chancellor Marn, everything has gone as you instructed."

"Excellent. The mercenary Doran Mar transmitted the codes as planned?"

"He did, your Excellency. It took a over seventy-five s.u's to seed the Tun components into the atmosphere, but only an instant to initiate the effect. Destruction was complete."

"And the stragglers?"

"As I believed, the remaining Shutaka flocked to Willa like jasra to a carcass. There was quite a large fleet orbiting the planet, but reports indicate that all were destroyed."

"All? Even the ships carrying that troublemaker Leith Birro and his rabble?"

"It is impossible to be absolutely certain, your Excellency. The weaponry on the Alien ships operates in a rather unusual fashion, not to mention with incredible speed; the attack was over almost before it began. It is difficult to imagine how any of the Shutaka ships could have realised what was happening, let alone taken evasive action. Nevertheless, I took the precaution of setting up a watch on the ComNet that will trace any activity possibly associated with loose Shutaka. However, at this stage, it does seem that there were no survivors from Willa."

"And the two Alien ships?"

"Alas, Excellency, I must inform you that one has been lost. It simply didn't exit from null space on the return journey to Basra. The crew must have either miscalculated or tried to operate some of the controls whose function has not yet been determined. Your scientists may be better able to shed light on this subject than I."

The Emperor frowned, then shrugged. "Unfortunate - but we were resigned to losing both of them anyway. If my memory serves me well, your estimate put the probability at eighty percent of losing both of them."

"I do tend to err on the side of caution, Your Excellency." A part of Holl was dismayed at the squandering of such a prize as a working Alien spacecraft on one man's personal vendetta. He would forever wonder why fate had determined that the ships would fall into Taran's grasp.

"It is easy to see how the Guild of Black earns its reputation, with members like you."

"I thank you for the compliment, Excellency. However, this assignment required no great finesse or intricacy on my part; you were responsible for the planning, I simply ensured that your plan was carried out precisely and smoothly."

In truth, Holl had not been entirely comfortable with this assignment - he has almost refused it. The Guild of Black had considerable respect for the Shutaka, Holl would not have advised attempting to eradicate them as a wise course of action. However, Taran had been determined to carry out the plan of his own devising and Holl's professional pride eventually made him ensure it was carried out as efficiently as possible. He doubted, however, that the Emperor's plan would ultimately succeed. No matter, there would always be men like Taran; that's how the Guild of Black prospered.

"You are too modest, Holl," Taran told him. "I was prepared to lose half of my army and spend billions to take out Willa; you did it in a fraction of the time and cost. You have earned you fee a thousand times over; expect a handsome bonus in your account."

The Master Assassin's face changed abruptly. His eyes became the colour of night and his lips turned white as he pressed them together. "With respect, Your Excellency, we agreed on a fee and that is what I require; no more and no less. This is an ancient and invariant rule of the Guild. There can be no exceptions."

"No offence intended, Master Holl," Emperor Taran said quickly. "I would not dream of slighting the Guild of Black. Your fee will be as agreed."

Holl relaxed again, inclining his head in deference. "It is I who has caused offence, Excellency. Forgive me," he said lightly. "It is just that you touched on a rather sensitive subject that has almost divided the guild of late. One of our members - one of our most trusted members - broke this ancient rule and refused to accept payment for an assignment. This is as grievous an indiscretion as accepting overpayment."

Holl's face grew serious again. "When a member of the Guild passes judgement on their own actions, it is time for them to leave the guild." The assassin took a deep breath and smiled thinly at the Emperor "Forgive me again, Your Excellency. It is just that this issue is rather personal for me; the disgraced Guild member was my sister."

At that moment, the Emperor's wrist chrono chirped. He ran his fingers in a specific pattern over the studs surrounding the display and the door to the room opened, revealing a servant holding a silver tray loaded with dishes of food and a carafe of wine.

"Come, Holl. We will talk no more of it." The Emperor gestured to the servant, who walked across the room and set the tray down on a side table. Taran lifted the id from one of the dishes and sniffed appreciatively.

"Ah... I think you will enjoy this, Holl. I had it specially ordered in for you and my personal chef has prepared it in the traditional Sorarainian manner."

"Breast of Chisom-Hawk in a light cream sauce," said Holl, closing his eyes and breathing in the rich aroma from the dish. "It has been a long time since I tasted such a delicacy; the Chisom-Hawk is so very rarely seen these days. You honour me, Your Excellency."

"It is my pleasure, Master Holl. Basra treats her friends well."

"Friendship is a word that members of the Guild treat with caution, Excellency. We find it better to keep our relationships strictly on a commercial footing."

"A philosophy all Basrans would easily understand, Guild-member. However, commercial transactions can still be conducted under mutually agreeable circumstances, can they not?"

"I will not dispute that, Your Excellency," the Assassin said, accepting a steaming plate of food from the Emperor's servant.

"Good," replied the Emperor heartily, pouring two glasses of wine from the carafe. He handed a gloss to Holl and dismissed the servant with a friendly wave of his hand. "And now, a toast to our success."

"Success,' echoed Holl, raising his glass in response to that of his host. The Sorarainian sipped at the wine and raised his eyebrows. "I am further impressed, Excellency; you have also arranged form Sorarain Madeira. And an excellent one, as well."

"I am pleased you are pleased, Holl."

Holl placed his glass carefully on the table and picked up a hawk breast in his delicate fingers. He nibbled at the tender flesh and dabbed at a spot of sauce on his chin.

"There is one other thing, Your Excellency. While I was waiting on Callista IV for the return of the Alien ships from Willa, I happened to find a couple of Shutaka who were trying desperately to charter a vessel to take them back to their home planet. I... persuaded them to accompany me back here. I though you might like to interview them."

"Your abilities continue to astound me, Holl. Where are these Shutaka now?"

"I had the Captain of the guard arrange accommodation for them. He said the Winter Palace was equipped with the appropriate facilities."

"Capital, absolutely capital. If you don't mind, Holl, I'll leave you to finish your meal while I go and talk to my guests. I'll have a servant show you to your own quarters after that; I'm sure you would like to have a bath and perhaps a rest. Feel free to request anything you need from the palace staff; you have free run of the place."

"You are a most gracious host, Your Excellency. It is a pleasure doing business with you."

Emperor Taran smile warmly in farewell and hurried from the room. He instructed one of his servants to ensure the master Assassin was cared for, the made his way to the core of the building where a lift gave access to the various levels of the palace. As he moved about the corridors, security doors opened automatically for him, hidden sensors scanning his retina pattern and assigning access rights for his passage. He entered his personal lift and spoke his destination and a code word to the control computer. It dropped smoothly and noiselessly to the lowest level of the palace, where the doors opened to reveal a short corridor leading a plain, unmarked door.

The emperor spoke another code word and passed through the door to a small antechamber where a guard sat attentively at a desk, watching a series of monitors in front of him. He leapt to attention when Taran entered, but the Emperor smiled and gestured for him to resume his seat.

"Relax, Ernisis. No need for ceremony; it's just you and me here. Did Captain Tay bring down some people before?"

"Yes, Excellency. About six s.u.'s ago. They are in room seven," the guard said, indicating another door that Taran knew lead to a dozen interrogation rooms.

"Have they been restrained?"

"Yes, Your Excellency."

"Good. I want to talk to them alone for a while. That means you are to turn off the monitor in room seven."

"But Your Excellency..."

"It is what I wish, Master Sergeant. And besides, there is always ARAK if I need to call for help."

"Of course, Your Excellency."

"No one has been in room two have they, Ernisis?"

"Not since you yourself were in there yesterday, Excellency. That was your command."

"I'm sorry, Ernisis. I was not questioning your ability as a soldier. I should have known better."

"Thank you, Excellency."

Taran walked through the doorway that the sergeant had indicated, down the brightly lit corridor beyond, and stopped outside a door marked with the number two. He waited until the sensor beside the door scanned his retina pattern and released the lock with a slight click. The Emperor opened the door and walked into interrogation room two. It was empty, except for three restraint tables and a couple of chairs. Taran walked over to a wall and pressed a recessed button. A panel slid silently away, revealing a storage locker with linen and basic toiletry articles. He pushed aside a pile of towels and removed what looked like a helmet. It was a dirty shade of blue, unadorned with any insignia or pattern, and had a short lead trailing from the back. Taran reached into the cupboard again and pulled out a small silver box. He pressed the button to close the storage locker and left the room.

Outside the door to room seven, the Emperor paused again while his identity was confirmed. The door opened to reveal a room identical to the one Taran had just visited, except this one was occupied. Strapped securely to restraint tables were a man and a woman. Their heads turned to look at Taran as he entered. He place the helmet and the small silver box carefully on one of the chairs and perched himself on the edge of the vacant table.

"Good afternoon," Taran said pleasantly. "I am Willem Taran, Emperor of Basra and your host for your stay on our planet. I hope you are relatively comfortable."

"What do you want?" asked the man.

"Your names would be a good place to start. After all, I had the good manners to introduce myself."

"I am Priest-initiate Jusic-Par, of Banara clan and the doza warrior is Dreva-Nig, of Graine clan. I repeat: what do you want from us? Why have we been brought here?"

The Emperor looked at the young priest, then at the warrior. "Only a Priest-initiate? How unfortunate, but you still may know something. If you cooperate, you will be free to go on your way."

"You lie," said Dreva-Nig. "Your tongue is as corrupt as your soul. We know nothing that could possibly be of any use to you; you would be well advised to release us now."

Taran eased himself off the table and walked over to where the warrior lay. He placed one hand lightly on her inner thigh, and brushed a strand of her long black hair from her face with the other. Dreva remained motionless, but her green eyes burned fiercely.

"The stubbornness of the Shutaka is well known, warrior. Fortunately I have other means at my disposal."

He walked over and picked up the helmet from the chair, holding it up so that both Shutaka could see it clearly.

"This device is a rather interesting artifact. It came into my possession roughly three seasons ago. A fleet of Basran merchant ships came out of a jump near Ceti-fel - a rather unknown part of the galaxy - to find two derelict space vessels. Alien space vessels. They latched some tractor fields onto the hulks and brought them back to Basra. The ships were ancient - how ancient we have not yet determined - and contained all manner of unusual and interesting objects. The most interesting, from my point of view, was the ship's library. It took almost a season form my scientists and technicians to get to the stage where they could download the data from the computers aboard the Alien ships to my computer in the Imperial Citadel. Even then, the information was still unable to be translated; it was like no language anyone had seen before."

"Then, almost by accident, one of the scientists noticed that some of the words bore a strange resemblance to Shutaka words he had once studied at university. Using what Shutaka references we could find - and they were precious few - we discovered that the Alien language was indeed related to that of the Shutaka. We hypothesised that the Aliens were the ancestors of the present day Shutaka."

"Shutaka-NA," gasped Jusic-Par, in spite of himself.

"See, you may be able to help me after all." Taran put the helmet back on the chair and picked up the small silver box. He turned it over in his hands, looking at it closely before walking over to the Priest-initiate and placing it on the young man's chest.

"Once we were able to translate the information held in the Alien databanks, we gained access to some very interesting technology." He tapped the small box with his finger. "This for instance; we found out that it was a portable power pack that has an indefinite life, gives off no radiation of any kind, is packaged in an indestructible case and provides enough power to run a small city. Unfortunately, were found no information about how it actually works."

Taran pulled a small, inconspicuous lever at the edge of the restraint table and a pair of padded arms rose to clamp Jusic-Par's head firmly between them. The emperor then walked back to the chair and picked up the helmet again. "How this device works is also beyond our present understanding, but we know what it does. We have had not a little success testing it on one of your strategist-tacticians, Doran Mar."

The emperor went over to Jusic-Par and started to lower the helmet over the struggling Priest-initiate. The restraining devices held firm, however, and Taran succeeded in fitting the Alien artifact securely around the head of Jusic-Par. The lead dangling from the rear of the helmet was connected to the silver power pack and a green light began blinking on the helmet's rim.

"Now then, Jusic-Par of the Banara, we're ready to begin. This device will enable us to have an open and frank discussion. I will ask questions and you will provide me with all the information you have on the topic. I will suggest that you do something and you will do it. I will tell you something, and you will remember it for as long as you live - or until I tell you to forget it, in which case it will be as if you never knew it. Quite a simple concept, I'm sure you will agree."

"You fool, you don't even know what it is you're playing with, do you?"

"Perhaps not, but the main point is that I'm not the one lying on the table," replied Taran equably. "Don't worry, it has been used on a number of subjects before, with no harmful effects."

"It will kill me," Jusic-Par said.

"I find that difficult to believe; as I said, I have witnessed no harmful effects before. However, if you are really concerned, then feel free to answer my questions unaided."

"What in Azare could a Priest-initiate and his doza warrior know that would be of interest to the Emperor of Basra?" said Jusic-Par

"Well, for one thing, why were you in such a hurry to get back to Willa?" said Taran.

"It has been many seasons since we left. We were simply wishing to return for the festival of the tenth harvest."

"Another one of you secret rituals?" mused the Emperor. "Do you know that when my scientists were trying to find information about the Shutaka to assist with the decoding of the Alien data, they discovered something interesting."

"What was that?"

"Nothing. By that, I mean that there was virtually nothing in any library, reference databank or information repository about the customs, language or history of the race of humans living on the planet Willa. If it hadn't been for Bria Monara's interest in the Shutaka as a young university student, we might have never deciphered the Alien records at all. Now, the question I ask myself is why should the Shutaka be so secretive. My experience is that people who guard their privacy so zealously usually have something to hide."

"The Shutaka have nothing to hide," said Jusic-Par.

"Really? Forgive me if I sound unconvinced," replied Taran. "The Alien library made specific mention of the Shutaka and the extremely important role they play. Do you not find it unusual that an unknown race, thousands of seasons older than recorded human history, would appear to be related to you and honour you with a grand title?"

"You speak in riddles, Emperor. What was it that the Aliens said about the Shutaka?"

"They called you the Gatekeepers of God - or that is what it translated as. What do you make of that, Jusic-Par?"

"It means nothing to me."

"What a shame. Because Willa was destroyed on the strength of that statement and some additional information."

"What has happened to Willa?" demanded the two Shutaka together.

"I am afraid it is no more. You see, the Alien library contained an interesting legend concerning the Shutaka. It told a story of a force so powerful as to stagger the imagination. A force they called the jihar-ara; so powerful that it could not be trusted to any one human. And the role of the Shutaka Gatekeepers was to prevent control of the jihar-ara from falling into the hands of we ordinary humans."

Jusic-Par had recovered his composure after the Emperor's disclosure of Willa's fate. It was if it had simply been a confirmation of what the young man had known."An amusing story, Emperor, but one more suited for a child's bedtime tale."

"Normally, I would agree with you, Priest-initiate. However, the presence of artifacts such as these," Taran said, indicating the helmet and silver box, "not to mention a significant amount of other Alien data, leads me to lend credence to the legend."

"On the strength of a few Alien pieces of technology, you have attacked and destroyed an entire planet," said Jusic-Par. "What can you hope to gain from that; the Shutaka will not bow to force, even if the story you speak of has a grain of truth behind it."

"I am not interested in the acquiescence of the Shutaka. I have no intention of sharing the Alien power. This discovery has been made by Basra and we will take it for ourselves. That means, I'm afraid, that the Shutaka must cease to exist. The Alien information is clear about one thing; it is not possible to wrest control of the jihar-ara from whoever holds it now, possession must come about by default. When the last mind of the Shutaka is gone from existence, control of the jihar-ara will fall to whoever is prepared for it. I intend to be that person; I have been practising the techniques and methods suggested by the Aliens and intend to be the next Gatekeeper."

"You do not even know what this Alien power is, Taran, let alone whether you can control it. You are relying on a dubious translation of ancient data, which you yourself has described as more like a legend. And how can you hope to destroy every last Shutaka? While even one lives, your plan cannot succeed."

"That is what I am going to determine from you, my dear fellow. I don't believe that every Shutaka is a Gatekeeper; only certain ones who are chosen to undergo the necessary training. This helmet will tell me if you are one of those, or if you know anything about this whole matter. For, although I have successfully disposed of your entire race except for a few stragglers such as yourselves, there has been no transference of the jihar-ara. This means that either one of those remaining has the ability to control the force, or I have not yet perfected the appropriate techniques. Either way, it is only a matter of time."

"I will tell you this much, and this much only," said the Priest-initiate. "There are stories my people tell of the ancient ones, who we call Shutaka-NA They could be these Aliens of yours, I do not know. The Shutaka-NA were great people, harmonious and spiritual. I know nothing of the jihar-ara that you talk about. I believe your erroneous translation of the Alien texts has lead you to make a grave mistake."

"For some reason, my dear fellow, I don't believe you. Never mind, the helmet will reveal all."

Taran reached out and touched a small switch located at the back of the helmet. The green blinking light changed to steady red. At the same instant, Jusic-Par's body arched, then was still. Puzzled, Taran looked closely at the Priest-initiate's face, then reached out to take his pulse. Frowning, he turned off the helmet and removed it from Jusic-Par's head.

Emperor Taran carried the device over to Dreva-Nig. "I am afraid, my dear, that your young friend has left us. I had heard that the Shutaka priests could stop their heart at will, and Jusic-Par seems to have learned that skill well. I must be content with obtaining my information from you."

A short time later, Master Sergeant Ernisis Wolveen looked up as Emperor Taran returned from the interrogation rooms. His Excellency appeared to be less than happy. He frowned at the soldier and waved a hand in the direction from which he had come.

"Have room seven cleaned out, Master Sergeant. Everything is to be sent to the incinerators, do you understand?"

"Yes, Excellency."

"And my order still stands regarding room two; let no one enter except me."

"Of course, Your Excellency," replied Sergeant Wolveen, bowing respectfully.

Absently acknowledging the sergeant's bow, Emperor Tara walked out of the room and reentered his personal lift.

"My office," he commanded and the lift rose noiselessly to the upper level of the palace, where the Emperor's residency and private office were located. When the lift doors opened, the guards on duty in the foyer leap to attention. Although he was in a poor mood, the Emperor made himself stop and converse briefly with the two officers.

The Imperial Minister for Security had assured the Emperor that human guards were unnecessary for his personal safety; the computer controlled defences were much more effective and far less fallible. Taran, however, had a vague distrust of computers and felt reassured by the presence of flesh-and-blood protectors. He knew that, ultimately, it could be these guards who would safeguard him if all else failed.

In his office, paneled in rare Harkar timbers and furnished with priceless antiques, the Emperor poured himself a glass of fine Gorgon brandy and dropped into an armchair by the window. The palace was positioned high on a mountain range and looked out over the white expanse of Southern Basra, down through the Thusa Valley and almost to the Crimson Sea itself. Taran sat there for a moment, then ordered the palace computer to summons two of his specialist advisers.

While he waited for them to arrive, Taran leafed through the pages of a thick book lying on the table beside his chair. The volume was a bound copy of the Alien data that had been translated by the Basran scientists and Taran stopped at a well-thumbed section. It concerned the methods by which the Aliens stated control of the jihar-ara could be assumed. The ring encrusted fingers of the Emperor traced and retraced one passage in particular.

"I have done everything it says," he muttered to himself. "I can feel the jihar-ara in my mind; what can be wrong? Can it be that the Shutaka Priest-initiate was right? Is the translation imperfect?"

A chime announced the arrival of the advisers for whom he had sent. The door to his office slid open silently and two men walked in.

"Thank you for coming so quickly, gentlemen. Please, make yourself comfortable - Darius, help yourself to a brandy. Bria, there is a bottle of ambrosia there, if you would prefer that."

"You are most gracious, Excellency," said Professor Darius Wensalis, Basran Education Minister and linguistic expert. He looked to his comrade, Doctor Bria Monara, head of the Basran Institute of Antiquities and Taran's historical adviser, who shook his head and sat down in a chair opposite the Emperor.

"Nothing for me, thank-you Professor."

Wensalis poured himself a generous nip of brandy and pulled another chair over to join the other two men near the window. He raised his glass to the Emperor.

"To Your Excellency's health," he offered.

The Emperor raised his glass in acknowledgment.

"Thank-you, Darius. Now, to business." He indicated the book he was still holding in his hand. "Darius, are you certain that this translation is compete and correct?"

"As certain as I could ever be, Excellency. As you know, we had very little to go on when we began translation, but I have continued to refine the deciphering algorithm and have noticed no important changes in the document. I believe that we have reconstructed approximately ninety-three percent of the common use language of the Alien culture and have found no logical or grammatical inconsistencies that undermine our original assumption that it and the Shutaka language came from the same root."

Taran believed Darius Wensalis implicitly. After all, the Imperial Ministers and advisers were the first people the Emperor had subjected to the Alien helmet. Not that they would remember, of course, but they were incapable of doing or saying anything against the interests of their Emperor.

"And you, Doctor Monara, have you been able to discover anything more about the Alien culture or the jihar-ara?

"About the Alien culture; no, or at least not directly. About the jihar-ara; I have contacted all the researchers who have ever studied the Shutaka and have collated all the data on Shutaka legends, stories and myths. Although the total amount of information would scarcely fill one decent textbook, I believe I have discovered a positive correlation between what the Alien data says about the jihar-ara and what is contained in several Shutaka legends. The Shutaka do not seem to have an equivalent word for the jihar-ara but the concept is certainly embodied in many of their most important rituals. Perhaps one thing that may be of interest to Your Excellency is the mention in the Shutaka legends of the time and training required to truly master the techniques used to channel the jihar-ara."

"So, what you both are saying is that I'm on the right track and I simply have to persevere."

"In essence, Your Excellency, that is correct."

Taran looked down at the book again. "Very well, if that is the way, then so be it. Darius, you are also a doctor of medicine, I believe. What is the maximum dose of Hexeldrafaline you would suggest I take?"

"Hexeldrafaline? That is one of the more powerful learning stimulants, Excellency. I would urge you to be most careful with it."

"I thank you for your concern, Darius, but what maximum dosage would you suggest."

"It has been many seasons since I practised medicine, Excellency. I would not like to advise you on this matter unless you seek a second opinion from your personal physician as confirmation."

"Of course, Darius. I'm already taking twenty-five units. How much more can I take?"

"I would be most uncomfortable with you administering more than thirty units, Excellency, and then only in a very controlled environment."

"Thank-you, Darius. I will heed your advice. Well, gentlemen, I am most grateful that we have had this conversation. Your words have reassured me. Now, if you will excuse me, I must get on with my work. As you would be well aware, Minister Wensalis, the daily affairs of state are never ending."

"Of course, Your Excellency. And thank you for the excellent brandy. The Ministers' dining room has a well stocked bar, but this is simply superb."

"In that case, Darius, take the bottle. No, I insist. But keep it to yourself or I'll have the entire Cabinet trying to carry off my cellar."

The two advisers bowed deeply to the Emperor and left the office. When they were gone, Taran got up and walked over to his desk. It was a massive affair, carved from a single piece of the giant flame-tree and inlaid with gold. He pulled open one of the drawers and took out a small, white container. Unscrewing the top, he shook out a yellow lozenge-shaped capsule and popped it in his mouth, before crossing back to the armchair and resuming his seat.

Laying the open book across his lap, he closed his eyes and began to murmur the words to an Alien mind exercise. Outside, thick, rolling clouds had blown in from the west, heralding the start of a blizzard and soon the view was obscured by falling snow.

Chapter 7 -->


The Pearl - Chapter 7

The inhabitants of AHS90043A called it The Rock. Looking out of the clearsteel window in one of the accommodation domes Leith could see why. The planet was habitable, but only just. Sparse, thorny vegetation was scattered over the dry, cracked landscape. Large geological formations jutted towards the sky, casting deep shadows from the twin white suns blazing overhead. Everything was covered in a thin layer of the red-grey dust that was constantly being blown about by gusts of wind. Even the miners who worked deep below the surface gouging out precious metals from the planet's core had begun to take on a reddish hue, as if they had been stained by the rock itself. The domes were sealed against the external atmosphere, which was breathable if you had no other choice, but the dust seemed to get in nevertheless.

The manager of the settlement, a large jovial man named Peerson, had welcomed them with few questions. The people who mined the outer planets were a quite, solid lot. They usually took visitors at face value; as long as you didn't bother them, they wouldn't bother you. After asking what their needs were, he had shown them to one of the large storage domes, which could also serve as emergency accommodation when necessary. It was spartan, but was clean and had access to ablution facilities. Peerson had informed them of the daily routine at the settlement, and then had left them to their own devices.

Leith turned away from the window. He looked around the makeshift barracks and noted with satisfaction that the warriors had already settled in. The children were scattered at random among the adults and he knew from experience that temporary family groups had already occurred; the Shutaka customs would ensure that each and every child would be cared for.

Lilith-Soo and her warriors had arranged their sleeping cots in the western quadrant of the dome, along with the two Shutaka squads from the Periwinkle. Leith, Kweela and the rest of the warriors were billeted in the opposite quadrant, leaving a clear space in the middle where most of the smaller children were now playing boisterously. Il-yar-Bisen and his battle-kin were not in the Barracks; he had demanded that Peerson provide him with accommodation more befitting his perceived status, and the manager had accordingly obliged. The Harkarian had only spoken a few words to Leith since arriving on AHS90043A. He was obviously unimpressed with Leith's defacto command of the Shutaka and went out of his way to be unapproachable. Leith had too much on his mind to worry about the vain mnan-gar and left him to sulk on his own.

"He has great talent, but he is still a small man inside."

Leith turned to see Jor-Dak standing beside him. He smiled at the young Keeper.

"You knew I was thinking about Il-yar-Bisen?"

The young man smiled back. "It was not too difficult; anybody could see that there is little love lost between you and he. It is not good that a mnan-gar does not billet with his warriors. He should be in front of them, but not above them."

"All mnan-gar are different, Jor. Whatever their style, they must still earn the respect of their warriors. Il-yar-Bisen has proven himself in battle to the satisfaction of the Graine Clan." He shrugged, then changed the subject. "Besides, at the moment we are supposed to be settlers, not warriors. Have you bunked down yet?"

"I have taken the liberty of placing our cots near yours, mnan-gar." He pointed to where Kisa-Mara and Krys-Tian were sitting on a stretcher, the older girl combing Krys' long auburn hair with a zrs-shell brush. "I hope it does not cause offence."

"You're more than welcome, ni-klor," Leith assured him, addressing Jor as he would any other Priest-initiate.

The boy shook his head. "I am not destined for the Priest-hood, mnan-gar. As a Keeper, that honour is denied me."

"Is not a Keeper just as honourable? To hear Misha-Dan talk, I would have guessed that you have been given a most important task."

"Perhaps, but it is not of my choosing. It is a lonely task; the other men of the Shutaka do not see me as one of them; just as the warriors distance themselves from Kisa and Krys."

"From what I've seen, they treat you with the utmost respect - almost with awe."

"That is the point, mnan-gar. I have been bred and trained for a specific task. My people do not see me as ordinary, when I am just that. I long to do ordinary thing, just like the others, but..." The boy shrugged. "When I was younger, I read everything there was to read in the Crèche. I dreamed of being a Priest. Misha-Dan would tell me of the rituals, and the ceremonies, and the sharing of the ancient stories. I so much wanted to belong, to feel part of the people around me. Even the other men of the Shutaka, the non-Priests, share the brotherhood of working the land, harvesting the crops and tending the animals. This is forever denied me; I am forever bonded with Kisa and Krys."

Leith looked at Jor-Dak. He was just a boy, but he looked as if he had the weight of the universe on his shoulders. "Don't you get on with Kisa and Krys? I know girls can be a bit trying, but they get more interesting when they get older, you know."

"It's not that, mnan-gar." Jor looked at Leith with something approaching desperation. "I love those two with every fibre of my body; my life is as much theirs as it is mine. It's just..." He broke off and turned away. When he turned back, he had regained his composure. "I'm am sorry Leith-mnan-gar. You have more important things to worry about than the wishes of a man-child. I thank you for having the patience to listen to me."

Before Leith could answer Jor, to reassure him that he wanted to know what was bothering him, Kweela walked over and announced that Commander Cusher had just arrived down from Hammerhead.

"Ok, Kweela. Peerson has arranged separate accommodation for the ship crews. Give Cusher a little while to settle in and then get a message to her that I've arranged a room where we can hold a planning meeting."

"Who else is invited?"

"Il-yar Bisen and his ka, Lilith-Soo, Misha-Dan, you and me."

"And Belle."


"Yes, Belle."

"OK, you must have a good reason. Anyway, she's got a good head on her shoulders and we're going to need all the ideas we can get. While you're arranging things, can you get Marion Tibrigaragan to give the children a complete bio-scan? They've been through a pretty rough time and I want to be sure they're not suffering any ill effects - either physically or emotionally."

Kweela nodded and went to carry out Leith's instructions. The strategist-tactician turned back to Jor, but the lad had returned to the other two Keepers. He thought of going over to the boy, but instead turned back to look out the window at the bleak landscape of The Rock.

Five s.u.'s later, Leith and Kweela were in a small chamber that Peerson had made available as a meeting room, off one of the larger domes. Cusher and Belle arrived not long after them, followed by Il-yar-Bisen and his battle-kin, Shira-Ti. Shira and Kweela greeted each other formally, then hugged warmly.

"I am glad you are well, Kweela-San of Banara. The Shutaka have lost too many good warriors already."

"They shall rest in peace knowing that warriors such as you remain to avenge them, Shira-Ti of Graine."

Il-yar-Bisen looked curiously at Belle, his demeanor questioning her presence, but he remained silent.

The intercom beeped, announcing the arrival of Lilith-Soo and Misha-Dan in the corridor outside. Cusher cycled the access hatch and the two Shutaka entered, followed by Kisa-Mara, Jor-Dak and Krys-Tian.

"The Keepers insisted," said Misha-Dan, by way of explanation. "In the circumstances, I believe it appropriate that they be included in any decisions we intend making."

"Who are these children?" Cusher asked. Leith knew that a commander of Cusher's experience would be used to being in control of a situation and must be increasingly frustrated to see events slipping out of her grasp.

"Sorry, Arail," he explained as diplomatically as he could. "There's no time for a full explanation - not that I fully understand myself - but these are no ordinary children. I think we should go along with what Misha-Dan suggests."

The commander frowned deeply, but said nothing more. It was quite a tight fit in the room for the eight of them, but the three children sat on the floor near the hatch and the others found a seat where they could.

"All right," said Leith. "To bring everyone up to date; we're all that's left of the Shutaka - the fleet was destroyed around Willa. Hammerhead and Periwinkle were the only survivors. We don't know for sure, but we think that the Aliens are somehow involved." He paused to let the others absorb the news fully.

"At the moment, we're sheltering on a mining planet out the back of beyond. We'll be stuck here until Hammerhead is tidied up, which should take about a thousand s.u.'s. What we need to do now is get our stories straight and rough out a plan of action. First of all, Misha-Dan what have you to say about this situation? You were all very coy on Willa, but with respect, this is no time for games. We need to know what you know."

The Lord-priest nodded in agreement. "Yes, you are correct, Leith Birro; this is no time for games. As you suggested, the Keepers of the Pearl are no ordinary children."

"The keepers of the what?" interrupted Cusher.

Misha-Dan turned towards her. "The Pearl, commander. The crèche on Willa was designed for a very special purpose: to rear selected Shutaka children who would be suitable to become Keepers - Keepers of the Pearl."

"But what is this 'pearl'?"

"Ah..." said Misha-Dan. "Where to begin?" He looked at the four non-Shutaka in turn. "I am faced with a difficult choice. What I must tell you has only ever been told to full warriors and Lord-priests. The information forms part of the ritual of Becoming; once you know it, to reveal the secret to other is to forfeit your life. Is it fair and just for me to place such a condition upon you?"

"Is there any alternative, Misha-Dan?" Leith asked.

"I have seen into your mind, mnan-gar, and so I know your ability to keep a secret. But what of the others here?"

"I will vouch for Il-yar-Bisen," said Shira-Ti. "On my life and his."

"You have the word of a Harkarian," said the strategist-tactician haughtily.

Leith thought he saw a look of amusement flash across the Lord-priest's face. "Indeed," he said. "I do not doubt your word, mnan-gar - nor should you doubt that of your ka." The old man turned to Belle and Cusher. "But what of our other reluctant comrades?"

"I vouch for Belle Morninglight-on-Brook," said Kweela and Leith realised that it was the first time he had heard Belle's full name. "Although a member of the Guild of Black needs no one to speak for them," Kweela added.

Misha-Dan said nothing, but he looked at the fairy-like woman with a new respect. Finally, he nodded. "Very well, that leaves Commander Cusher. Of her I am least certain; I find it difficult to trust readily in the volatility of youth. It is perhaps the bias of an old man, but..." He glanced at Kweela, "the naive energy of youth erodes the fortress of silence."

Before Leith could correct Misha-Dan's apparent misunderstanding, Cusher spoke. "Lord-priest, while you were still suckling at the breast of your wet-nurse, I was commanding a starship. I have outlived all of my enemies and most of my friends. There are secrets in my mind that I will take to my grave, including why I risked my ship and crew to help the Shutaka. If you are worried about loose tongues, look to your own."

Misha-Dan held out his hands, palms upwards, and inclined his head in acceptance. "No insult intended, Commander. I see know that your youthful beauty is tempered with the even greater beauty of worldly experience. If I have your word, I will accept it."

Cusher's anger faded in the face of Misha-Dan's oblique compliment and Leith smiled to himself; the Lord-priest was adept at drawing from people responses that showed their true feelings. "I give you my word," Cusher said sincerely.

"Very well, I will begin. Leith Birro, you are from Dione; is it not considered that it was there that the human race began?"

"As you know, Misha, some scholars would argue that Earth is older still. I believe the current accepted wisdom is that the human race is a mix of these two almost identical gene pools. All humans have descended from the original inhabitants of either Dione or Earth."

"Ah yes, the accepted wisdom. Who could reasonably argue with that?" The Lord-priest paused while he inspected the back of his wrinkled hand. "However, it is far from the truth. The original inhabitants of these two planets are old, granted, but they are both descended from a more ancient stock - that of the original Shutaka, who we can the Shutaka-NA. The Shutaka-NA created the Shutaka as a guardians for a special purpose.

As both Leith and Cusher made to say something, he continued, "Hear me out, my friends. There is much more to come that will test your beliefs. The full history of the Shutaka goes back over three million seasons before the first recorded events on either Earth or Dione. Both of those planets were seeded by the ancient Shutaka-NA as an experiment."

"What sort of experiment?" Leith asked.

"Experiment is perhaps the wrong word. The colonisation was more of a precautionary plan to guard against events such as we face now. It was accepted that the Shutaka-NA, as a race, could be threatened with extinction - by either natural or artificial means. The colonies on Dione and Earth were to ensure that the gene pool continued. Unfortunately, something went wrong on both planets; the genetic purity was destroyed and racial variants developed that possessed, in total, the required Shutaka-NA characteristics, but individually no genetic memory of the Shutaka-NA purpose. Nevertheless, they were strong races themselves and subsequently colonised the rest of the known worlds."

"You mean," said Leith slowly, "that all humans are, in fact, descended from the Shutaka-NA."

"Theoretically, yes, although some of the human races have mutated and evolved further." Misha-Dan indicated the other Shutaka in the room. "Those of us you now know as the Shutaka are the purest descendants of the Shutaka-NA priest-warriors.

"You said something about the Shutaka-NA purpose. What is that?" asked Cusher.

"Once again, a necessary simplification on my part," said Misha-Dan. "Much has been lost to our collective memory. Then as now, the ancient Shutaka were specialised guardians whose purpose is to preserve and protect the Pearl. We can only surmise what life was like for the Shutaka-NA. Our historians have determined that they were a powerful people, and yet they were at peace with their surroundings and themselves. You, Leith Birro, have experienced some of the residual powers that the Shutaka currently possess; can you imagine what the Shutaka-NA could do?"

"I'm not sure I want to. But if this is true, why hasn't the genetic link been recognised between the Shutaka and the races on Earth and Dione, whose genetic makeup is well known. It would have been a tedious, but relatively simple, process to map the genetic permutations of the combined Earth-Dione gene pools on to the genetic print of the Shutaka. That's the sort of research that bio-techs do in their first season of study. Are you telling me that no one has discovered this before?"

"It may surprise you to know, Leith Birro, that the genetic print of the Shutaka has been as closely guarded as our history. Many of our customs and rituals may seem less strange to you now; this is why we ensured that our fallen warriors were returned to Willa, why we forbid childbearing relationships with other races and why our teaching academies have resisted working with other learning institutions. To the best of our knowledge, not one autopsy, medical test or treatment has been performed on a Shutaka over which we have not had total control. Your medic for instance, Marion Tibrigaragan, is watched carefully by her Shutaka assistants, even though her loyalty to the Shutaka is unquestioned. And each Shutaka would prefer to die through lack of medical attention rather than risk our secrets be known."

"But what is the Pearl, and where does it fit into all this?"

"I'm sorry if I seem to be procrastinating," Misha-Dan said. "It is just that a description of the Pearl does not easily form into words. The reason it is so important that the Shutaka genetic pool remains untainted is that this is where the memory of our purpose exists. As I said, the Shutaka-NA created the Shutaka to protect the Pearl. In every pure Shutaka is the ability to recognise the Pearl and understand the powerful forces generated. The Shutaka themselves have, down the generations, divided into two specialised groups; the Priesthood and the Warriors. The Priesthood is dedicated to the study and understanding of the Pearl, while the warriors have become expert in the physical skills necessary to protect the Pearl should more sophisticated means fail. That the Shutaka warriors became mercenaries was simply the most effective way of ensuring those skills remained tuned."

"If the Pearl is so powerful, why does it need protection?" Cusher asked.

The Lord-priest paused, frowning, as he tried to find words with which to express himself. "The Pearl," he said, finally, "possesses no great power; rather power is generated through the Pearl. The analogy taught to the Shutaka is to consider the Pearl as you would a balance-scale; the type you might see in a apothecary or precious-stone merchant's workroom. Such a scale has little value on its own, but through it forces can be transferred and balanced. If you had a large enough scale, you could compare the weights of two planets. As a scale, the Pearl could weigh reality itself."

"Is this explanation supposed to be helping?" asked Leith.

Misha-Dan sighed and smiled apologetically. "I am sorry, my friend. You are pure-stock Dione, so it should be more understandable to you than another person whose race is further removed from the Shutaka gene pool. However, these are concepts that challenge your perception of reality, and I know they must be difficult to accept. I ask you to bear with me and keep your mind open."

"Let me try, my Lord," said Lilith-Soo. "First of all, Leith Birro, we have to get the concept of balance clear. The balance-scale analogy is used for good reason, for balance is what we are talking about. All around us we see the balancing of opposing concepts. Human language, religion, politics and art; they are all full of the balance and the contrast between opposites. We have abstract concepts for in-between states, but when our minds try to grasp these concepts, we are deflected to one of the extreme states. Let me give you some examples; we define something as hard or soft. Now we might have words and concepts for in-between states, but do we accept them in reality? If I gave you a piece of lora-bread and asked you how it felt, you would say soft. You wouldn't describe it as sort-of-soft. Likewise, if I gave you the blade of my sword, you would say it was hard. We can make comparisons, certainly - the steel is harder than a piece of wood, which is harder than the piece of bread, but, in isolation, we assign extreme states to an object or any other aspect of reality. There is a dividing line, or a point, past which an object of reality possesses either one set of characteristics, or the opposite. Every word in every human language that describes a characteristic of reality has a word that describes an opposite characteristic."

"But that is just a simplification," argued Cusher. "Like fundamentalist religions that say there is only good or evil. They are just relative human terms to describe the reality we see."

"I am not suggesting otherwise," Lilith continued. "There could be actual states in-between the extremes to which we gravitate, but that is an alternate reality. Can you imaging something that is neither hard or soft - without making a comparison between a known hard object and a known soft object? We can accept in the abstract, but try to bring it into our mind's reality... There could be an infinite number of alternate realities for all we know, but what use is it to discuss them when they are not available to us. What we must concentrate on is the human state that we experience, not the possibilities that may exist."

"OK, accepting your concept of balance and extremes," said Leith. "Where does the Pearl fit in?"

"In essence," Misha-Dan continued, "the Pearl is the balance-scale through which the extremes of the human existence flows. This allows some measure of harmony to exist and a mechanism for human suffering to be alleviated by happiness."

"And how did the Pearl come about. Are you suggesting that the Shutaka-NA created it?"

"No, no, forgive me if I gave that impression. Part of the confusion is that we talk about the Pearl as if it was a physical object. Certainly it manifests itself in our physical reality, but it is more like a force itself. To be truthful, the exact nature of the Pearl is not known; that is why the Priesthood studies it so intently. We understand it to be related to the existence of sentient life - or more specifically sentient human life - but we do not know whether it was the cause of sentience, or it was formed out of the collective existence of sentient human beings."

"But why," asked Leith, "has it fallen upon the human race, or rather the Shutaka to protect the Pearl? If it is some sort of elemental force, surely, it can look after itself. If it is so important, it seems strange that it is so vulnerable."

"Indeed. I have no good answer for you. Once again, an analogy may help. Imagine our balance-scale again. It is strong in itself; well constructed, and able to function as it was intended. However, it is perched on the edge of an abyss; how it came to be there is unknown, but it is there nevertheless. It needs to be watched carefully so that a careless movement does not topple it over the edge."

"And what would happen if it fell?"

"Who knows for sure? Our understanding and belief is that reality as we know it would cease to exist. What ramifications this has for our souls, let alone our physical presence can only be guessed."

"So they Shutaka are the guardians of the human race?"

"Somewhat melodramatic, but in essence the truth. More specifically, however, it is the Keepers that watch over the Pearl."

"These children?" asked Il-yar-Bisen, speaking for the first time. "Lord-priest, I have known the Shutaka for many seasons and respect your ways and customs, but this is straining credibility too far. You expect me to believe that three children control the fate of all sentient humans."

"Your belief is not absolutely necessary, mnan-gar. The truth of the Pearl will continue to exist without your acceptance; it is not a pagan god that demands worship. All around us are strange and wonderful things. You have traveled, you have studied at the great Korvar Institute on Harkar; have you not had to come to terms with things even more unbelievable than this? What is so difficult to comprehend - that you have had one of the secrets of existence revealed to you and it is perhaps a bit too ordinary?"

Il-yar Bisen could think of nothing to say, so he just sat there scowling.

"Where is the Pearl now?" asked Leith.

"What colour is red?" said Krys-Tian, unable to contain herself any longer. "The Pearl isn't anywhere; it just is. It's quite simple, really." She winced as Kisa-Mara jabbed an elbow into her ribs.

"Forgive her, mnan-gar, for being so impolite. What she means is that the Pearl exists everywhere. The Shutaka can sense it, but the Keepers are bred and trained to interact with the Pearl where it happens to connect with our reality."

"And where is that?"

"I'm afraid that is one of the Keepers' secrets, mnan-gar." The tall girl blushed slightly, as if she was embarrassed to speak in such a manner to a strategist-tactician. "What we can say is that the Pearl's physical appearance can be any real object, from a flower to a raindrop."

"All right, but give me a clue; is it in this room with us?"

"It is the duty of the Keepers," answered Jor-Dak, "to always be within reach of the Pearl. It can be rather unpredictable at times; almost as if had a will of its own."

"So, now you know what all full Shutaka know. And the problem we now face."

"Let's just say, for the moment, that I believe all this," said Cusher. "I still can't understand what it has to do with someone trying to exterminate the Shutaka. I mean, if whoever is responsible for all this knows about the Pearl, what can they hope to gain except the annihilation of everything. From what you've said, they couldn't hope to control the Pearl; it has no power itself and humans themselves can't use it to redirect the flow of events."

Misha-Dan nodded. "You are substantially correct, Commander, although the Keepers do have some ability to influence minor flows through the Pearl. I, also, can not think of a reason why anyone would wish to remove the protection from the Pearl. Perhaps it is just a coincidence; the vendetta against the Shutaka may have nothing to do with the Pearl at all. In any case, we must think a some way to safeguard the Keepers and prevent any disruption of the Pearl's function."

"I'm sure Leith-mnan-gar will think of something," said Kisa-Mara.

Now it was Leith's turn to feel embarrassed. The young girl was looking at him intently, obviously expecting him to come up with an instant solution. He cleared his throat and shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

"Not so fast, Kisa. I can make decisions for the Banara Clan. And perhaps Forta Clan," he added, looking at Lilith-Soo. "But there are others involved here. I have no say over Graine Clan. And Commander Cusher outranks both Il-yar-Bisen and myself. Believe me, a strategist-tactician is a long way down the pecking order on a fighting ship. Anything we decide is probably going to involve Hammerhead, and the Commander is not about to put her crew and ship in danger without some degree of control."

"But you were once a starship commander," said Kisa-Mara. You captained ships three times the size of Hammerhead."

"Karlarc," said Misha-Dan, softly. Leith had never heard the word before, but there was suddenly silence in the room. The Lord-priest turned to Cusher. "Forgive these youngsters, Commander. They do not realise the offence they cause. Indirectly, Leith-mnan-gar reminds us that we are forever indebted to you for our rescue. By your actions you have displayed your skill, courage and, above all, a sense of honare. You have listened to my story of the Pearl, and although you have many doubts, I ask you; will you help us?"

Arail Cusher turned to the old man. She sat very still for a long time, as if she was remembering events of the distant past. "Harti trys nil-ara bstic," she said finally. Leith raised his eyebrows; very few people understood a word of Shutaka let alone could put a fluent sentence together. Cusher made a small gesture with her left hand that Leith had occasionally seen the old people on Willa use.

"A very long time ago," Cusher continued slowly, "I knew a Lord-priest by the name of Neve-Bay. He called me friend, and I called him friend. He often talked of one of his brightest pupils; a young man who displayed knowledge and understanding far beyond his age. Neve-Bay had great hope for this young fellow. He said that there was a place in destiny that had been reserved for him. His only fear was that wisdom would not take the place of knowledge. I see that he had nothing to worry about, Lord-priest Misha-Dan. Does that answer your question?"

"Indeed it does, Commander. And I thank you. I cannot tell you how much pleasure it give me to know that we have shared the companionship of such a person as Neve-Bay. However, I fear I have not lived up to my Master's expectations, after all. I doubt whether he would have allowed the Shutaka to be placed in the present situation."

"It was not Neve-Bay's idea to have the crèche built," said Lilith-Soo. "For that, you must take credit alone. I would say you have more than lived up to his expectations."

"Leith Birro has proved himself as a strategist-tactician many times," Cusher continued. "And we're talking about more than a space-battle here. I'm happy to let him take control of overall planning, as long as I get the final say as far as Hammerhead is concerned."

"My respect for you grows, breath by breath, Arail Cusher," said Misha-Dan. "And what say you, mnan-gar Il-yar-Bisen?"

As Cusher had observed, Il-yar-Bisen was vain but not foolish. He was a good strategist-tactician, but he knew his limitations. He also sensed that this was something big, perhaps too big, and he wanted to keep some options open so he could preserve his own skin.

"I agree to serve with Leith Birro, but not under him. However, I am willing to let him plan the overall strategy in this case."

"It is agreed then," said Lilith. "Leith-mnan-gar, what do you suggest?"

Leith looked around the room at the expectant faces and took a deep breath.

"Well, everything we know seems to suggest that Basra is at the bottom of all. I suggest that all of the active Shutaka clans had been hired by them to undertake a series of basically pointless missions intended to keep them out of the way while Willa was attacked, using the security codes poor Doran had been brianwashed into providing. These missions were neatly timed to be completed just as Willa was stripped, thus giving the Shutaka little time to think before they all rushed back to home base. With all the survivors in orbit and still in shock, one final attack could finish the job."

"Neat analysis, Birro," said Il-yar-Bisen. "Pretty much as I saw it. A sound, if ambitious strategy. Possibly too ambitious for Basra itself - perhaps Basra is acting as a lackey of the Federation."

"A possibility," agreed Leith. "Without the Shutaka forming the backbone of the mercenary strength, things would be much smoother for OREF. But why work through Basra. The Federation could just work this scheme directly."

"The Inner Rim Council likes to pretend it remains civilised," remarked Belle with more than a trace of sarcasm. "They would prefer to keep a discreet distance from an act of genocide."

"I still can't make any sense of the presence of the Alien ships," continued Leith. "They make me think that the Federation has got nothing to do with this. If the Inner Rim had made contact with the Aliens, or even stumbled across functional Alien spacecraft, they couldn't have kept it quite. And they wouldn't have used them like this."

Suddenly, something fell into place in Leith's mind. Some of the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.

"There is a connection between the Aliens and the Pearl," he said with conviction. "I know it. It's got nothing to do with the Federation, and everything to do with Basra." He turned to the Lord-priest. "Misha-Dan, the Shutaka-NA must have had a good reason to create the Guardians of the Pearl - perhaps it was to protect against the Aliens."

"The dangers facing the Pearl have never been specified," relied Misha-Dan. "I know little of the Aliens, but I cannot think of any Shutaka legend that could be interpreted to mean them. This is not to say that your conclusions are not possible."

"If Basra is responsible for Willa, then that is our first destination," said Lilith-Soo. "If we discover that Aliens share the guilt, then they shall also be appropriately rewarded."

Leith looked at the warrior. "Lilith, the remaining Shutaka may be sufficient to initially take Basra, but perhaps not to hold it. If Basra is responsible for Willa, then they have forfeited their own planet to us - that is the way of the Shutaka. However, before we undertake this action we must be sure of two things; that Basra is responsible for Willa and that our strength is such to resist a Basran counterattack - especially if there is the possibility of Alien assistance on the side of the Basrans."

"So first we need information - lots of it - before we launch our attack," said Kweela.

Both Leith and Misha-Dan turned to look at her.

"Leith-ka has had many bad influences on me, my Lord, for which you must accept some responsibility" Kweela said. "The mnan-gar has almost convinced me of the prudence of planning before battle, but know that it still goes against my nature."

There were a few moments of silence before a the Lord-priest gave a deep chuckle and Leith saw a look of pride shining in the old man's eyes.

"Ah, Kweela-San, you may be a warrior yet," Misha-Dan said.

"As Kweela suggested," continued Leith, "We need to gather some intelligence on Basra - both background information as well as the current status."

"Background information?" said Il-yar-Bisen. "what do you want to know?"

"You have knowledge in this area, mnan-gar?" asked Misha-Dan.

"Extensive knowledge, Lord-priest. Basra was once a colony world of Harkar. Twelve hundred seasons ago, it was invaded by Mirradon. Most of the legitimate Basran settlers, my ancestors, were executed with just enough left alive to provide slave labour. The House of Taran, the Imperial Family that now occupies the Citadel of Government, are usurpers. The Citadel is an impenetrable fortress, built over nine-hundred seasons ago, that is the key to Taran’s grip on the planet. It contains the central databases, the treasury, planetary defence systems- everything. From here, the Emperor maintains his control over my people."

"The present ruler, Emperor Willem Taran, enjoys unprecedented popularity. Official statistics show the individual wealth of the average citizen to be among the highest in the Outer Rim. Considering they are a trading merchant planet, their universities produce some fine minds and the standard of health care is superb."

"But although Basra does not officially condone slavery any longer, it still exists in practice by the application of a rigid caste system. Mirradonian Basrans are the only ones afforded Citizen rights and thus the only ones who benefit form the planets prosperity. The official population of Basra is about one hundred thousand - fairly typical among the sparsely populated Outer Rim. But the real population is almost double that. The descendants of the Harkarian colonists who were conquered by the Mirradonians are treated as slaves, even though they are not called that. The Basrans call them Specs - they work in the Basran factories and serve the Citizens but they have no rights whatsoever - no property rights, no access to education, medical facilities or legal redress. If they so much as touch a Citizen, they can be executed without trial. They are forced to live in the most squalid conditions imaginable, without hope and without a future. The official story has Taran as universally adored, when in fact, the majority of the population would tear him to pieces if they were educated enough to realise how they have been treated."

Il-yar-Bisen paused, as if he was suddenly embarrassed to show he cared about someone other than himself. He cleared his throat. "I have been taught everything there is to know about Basra," he continued. "Harkar will not forget what has happened to it's people on it. We do not have many fairy-tales, but one on them tells of how our people on Basra are rescued and brought home to Harkar."

While Il-yar-Bisen had been talking, Leith had been deep in thought.

"We should be able get all the background information about Basra from Il-yar-Bisen or by tapping into the Harkar archives. That leaves us with how we are gong to find out about what's happening on Basra right now. We need to get a spy in there somehow. Cusher, do you think you could arrange for the hiring of a Guild of Black apprentice through Siven contacts? An apprentice should be more than up to the task and hopefully it won't raise too much suspicion."

Before Cusher could answer, Kweela-San spoke. "Leith-mnan-gar, you once told me that a battle is usually lost or won before it is fought, based upon what you know about your enemy. It would seem that we cannot afford to know anything less than everything about Basra. Will your apprentice get within the Basran Citadel?"

"No, Kweela, I wouldn't expect so. We'd need a third at least. But if we try to engage a third-level Guild of Black - even through Siven - it's unlikely to go unnoticed. I think Belle would back me up on that." He looked at the Sorarainian who nodded agreement.

"Why hire a third when we have a sixth?" Kweela simply replied.

"Kweela, I'm a lander pilot," protested Belle gently. "That's all. I signed on with Commander Cusher on the understanding that my flying skills were the only ones she would require of me."

"It is not I who ask this of you, but the Shutaka, and perhaps more importantly, Leith-mnan-gar."

Belle turned her beautiful face to look at Leith and her impossible gold-speckled blue eyes seem to sparkle with a life of their own. Leith found it hard to think. He suddenly realised he was holding his breath let it out slowly.

"Would you truly ask this of me, Leith? If you ask it I will."

Leith's throat was suddenly so dry he could only speak in a whisper. "Belle, I... we need you, but I will not ask this of you. It is too much..."

"By not asking, you have asked in the only true way." Belle's words were like a breeze in Leith's mind. He blinked and the room seemed to jump in and out of focus. The others in the room as if waiting for him to say something - as if they were unaware of the last few moments.

Leith found he could talk normally again. "We need that information, Belle. It is much to ask, but I don't know of anyone else that would have the skills to do it alone."

"Some of my skills I do not wish to use again, Leith." Belle smiled sadly.

"And I'm not asking you to use those, unless it's to save that pretty little neck of yours."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Belle retorted, but obviously pleased.

"Does that mean you'll also take the job?"

Belle looked at Kweela and Leith could only guess the significance of the looks that passed between them.

"Of course," the Sorarainian replied. "Provided Commander Cusher releases me from duty. And Izzy is not going to be happy. He'll have to find another co-pilot in a hurry. But, you have to agree to let me do things my way. You just tell me what you want, when you want it, and leave it at that."

Leith nodded. "I wouldn't begin to tell you your job, Belle. But you also have to promise not to take any risks. You'll probably have half a season, so don't rush things. No information is worth your life."

The tiny woman looked up at Leith with her sparkling eyes. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you actually cared," she smiled.

Leith smiled back. "It's just that you still owe me from that bet we made before the Autaga mission last season. Somebody told me once the Sorarainians are reluctant to let go of their money - now I believe them. OK, while Belle is enjoying the Imperial hospitality, we have to find a way to hide the Shutaka. If someone is looking for us, we'll have to convince them that there were no survivors from Willa."

"How do you hide this lot?" Cusher asked, indicating the warriors. Kweela, Lilith and Shira-Ti had done the best they could to make themselves look like settlers. They had put on some thick overalls from the store on Hammerhead and braided their hair neatly in coils, as was the fashion among Outer Rim settlers. Their weapons were well hidden and they had removed all their decorative jewelry. Even so, they could not disguise their statuesque proportions or the wild aura that seemed to accompany a Shutaka warrior. "They tend to stand out wherever they go," Cusher said.

"That may be a bit of a problem," admitted Leith. "But we'll just have to find a way around it. Perhaps we shouldn't try to hide ourselves too hard. If the Basrans are after us, the least place they'll expect us to be is right under their noses. Why don't we head for a planet reasonably close to Basra. Arail, what would be the most suitable planet?"

"Unaran would probably do; its not too small and, being at a jump nexus, is used to seeing all kinds of travelers. But given that we might be there for a while,we'll need to think up a plausible cover."

"What sort of civilisation does it have?" Belle asked.

Cusher thought for a moment. "I guess the best description would be feudal. It's been over thirty seasons since I was there last, but I suppose it wouldn't have changed too much. The Barons who control the place all belong to one or two families and most of the population is made up of the underclass of overpopulated planets who sold themselves into serfdom to escape their home worlds. It's not as bad as it sounds, though; the Barons are fairly reasonable and everything seems to run quite smoothly. For most of the serfs, their life is many times better than it was on the planet of their birth."

"OK, that's settled," said Leith. "Now, what's going to be our reason for going there?"

Krys-Tian got quickly to her feet. "I," she announced solemnly, "have always thought that I would enjoy being a deity. I think we should start a church on Unaran dedicated to the worship of a child-goddess: me." She sat down again and looked at the adults innocently.

There was complete silence for a moment. Leith looked around the room and saw that, while everyone was a bit startled, no one looked as though they were going to suggest anything better.

"From the mouthes of babes..." he muttered.

"If you think about it, it does make a bit of sense," said Cusher. "A religious crusade will give us an excuse for turning up out of nowhere and an invented religion will disguise any strange behaviour on our part."

"And it also potentially fits in with something else we'll need to do," added Leith. "If we have to take Basra, the Shutaka will be able to handle the main attack, but we will just wont be enough for a full planetary assault. We'll need reinforcements and hiring them on will take quite some time if we don't want to make ourselves too obvious. Any mercenaries we recruit can make their way to Unaran disguised as religious pilgrims. By the time Belle gets the information we need, we should be able to create a secret army and get them familiar with working together."

"That will also give me time to finish the education of the Keepers," said Misha-Dan. It will be at least another season before I am confident that they have the necessary discipline to truly safeguard the Pearl."

"At least Unaran will have the basic necessities of civilisation," Il-yar-Bisen said, with a martyred expression crossing his face. "Despite it's reversion to a feudal system of government, I have heard it still takes advantages of what modern technology delivers."

"And it is within striking distance of Basra," Kweela added, her hand going to rest above the area of her overall that concealed her dagger.

Chapter 8 -->


The Pearl - Chapter 8

The thousand s.u. layover at AHS90043A was put to good use. Hammerhead was back in fighting trim after eight-hundred s.u.'s, but Leith chose to remain on The Rock for another two sleep cycles to flesh out the details of their plans. The planning group, made up of the original members of the first meeting, as well as some of the senior warriors, went over all the potential weaknesses and developed contingency plans. Mostly it was Leith, Cusher and Il-yar-Bisen who did the talking, but the Shutaka were quick to speak up if they thought a suggestion impractical.

Jor-Dak, Kisa-Mara and Krys-Tian also joined them for most of the sessions. Jor-Dak, in particular, listened intently and contributed some keen observations. Leith came to realise that the youngster's quiet nature hid a brilliant and inquiring mind. Jor-Dak did not say much, but when he did, his words were well thought out.

Il-yar-Bisen seemed to mellow slightly as the planning sessions wore on. Leith still thought him a pompous opportunist, but had to admit that his reputation as a brilliant mnan-gar was justified. The Harkarian was less likely to think through the consequences of a plan, but he certainly had flashes of genius. Il-yar-Bisen, for his part, still thought that Leith was an OREF reject, but began to show a grudging respect for the Dionean's natural abilities. Kweela-San and Shira-Ti smiled at each other as they watched their battle-kin argue.

"If Il-yar-ka was not such a vain cruyst," whispered Shira-Ti to Kweela, "he would be almost likable."

"True. And if Leith-ka was not so defensive," Kweela murmured back, "he might even learn something."

Belle had absented herself from their planning sessions after the first meeting, saying she preferred to do things her own way. She found what passed for a library on The Rock and spent most of her time scrolling through data on Basra, supplementing the considerable information she obtained from Il-yar-Bisen. One of the youngest Shutaka children had taken a liking to the fairy-woman and followed her around like a shadow. Late in one sleep cycle, Leith and Kweela had found them curled up asleep together in one of the reading chairs in the library dome. Carefully gathering up the two small bodies, they had carried them back to the accommodation dome. Belle had stirred in Leith's arms, looked sleepily up into his face, than nestled back against his chest.

Every sleep-cycle, Misha-Dan would retreat with the Keepers to a secluded storeroom for meditation, returning after about twenty s.u.'s. Leith noticed that the Keepers seemed drawn and tired after these sessions, with Krys-Tian, in particular, taking a long time to regain her vitality and energy. After one of the planning sessions, when the others had made there way to the settlement's dining facility, Leith had taken the old Lord-priest aside.

"Misha-Dan, I would like you to be honest with me. How secure is this Pearl of yours?"

The thin old man took a deep breath and puffed out his cheeks. "The Keepers are young, Leith Birro. Their training has been interrupted at a crucial point. I expect a lot of them, perhaps too much."

"Krys-Tian looks very tired."

To Leith's surprise, Misha-Dan laughed. "Krys? No, that is not tiredness you see. That is but a faint reflection of all the sorrow humanity experiences. The Pearl enables you to banish tiredness, pain and hunger, but not sorrow - or, indeed, happiness. Do not worry; the children have more than enough physical stamina, Leith Birro. What they do not have is the necessary concentration spans. Their youth is important, for it gives them the flexibility to believe the unbelievable, but with it comes a skittish mind that jumps from one thought to the next. Flexibility and strength of purpose; it is a difficult combination to find in a mind."

"This course of action we are planning to take, Misha; what do you feel about it. You have been very quite of late. Do you have any misgivings?"

"mnan-gar, do not mistake my silence for censure. My counsel is not needed here; I am a Priest, not a strategist-tactician. Would you advise me on the spiritual needs of the Shutaka?"

Just then, Kweela returned with sealed packages of food for herself and Leith. She knew that he would continue to work through planning scenarios long after the others had finished and would forget to eat if she allowed him. She set the food down on a table and fished around in the pockets of her overalls for some utensils.

"If you need reassurance," Misha-Dan continued, "talk to your ka."

"The mnan-gar needs no reassurance," Kweela said over her shoulder as she peeled away the cover from a food container. "He is a living god, after all."

Shaking his head, the Lord-priest made his way to the exit hatch. He turned around, just before he stepped through and said, "It is time you told her about Garidian. And what you have carried around in your head since we came to this planet." With that, Misha-Dan was gone.

"What did he mean?" asked Kweela, turning to face Leith.

"It is not important," he said, staring after the Lord-priest. "Not anymore."

"Were you on Garidian?"

Leith shrugged, closing his eyes as if to block out a painful memory. "Does it matter?"

"That depends. Were you responsible for the Hellbringers, or were you among those trying to stop them? The story is that most of the regular OREF were opposed to the development of the Hellbringers and did not support the Garidian action."

Leith had turned away from Kweela and was looking out of the clearsteel window in the dome wall. Night had fallen and the surface of AHS90043A was bathed in an soft silver light from the moon above, where Leith could just make out the glimmering shape of Hammerhead docked at the repair station.

"What do you know of the Hellbringers?" he asked, without turning around.

"They were an OREF experiment that went wrong; surgically sculpted humans neuron-fused to computers built into their cranial cavity. Robotic implants that allowed them to perform superhuman feats and biofeedback circuits which neutralised all human emotion - the ultimate killing machine. OREF created twenty of them. Ten were let loose to quell an uprising on Garidian. The trouble was, they didn't stop with the rebel army; they just kept on killing. Every man, woman and child on Garidian - every living thing, right down to domestic pets. And when OREF tried to retrieve them, they started killing their masters. How many soldiers did the OREF lose? Five thousand?"

"Closer to eight, armed to the teeth with the latest and best weapons."

"And the other Hellbringers somehow found out what was happening and broke out of the OREF base where they were stationed. It took three seasons to track them down and neutralise them. I have been told that the OREF even engaged the Shutaka to help hunt them down; they were that desperate. The Shutaka stories tell of a great battle where it took three squads of warriors to kill one Hellbringer. That's what I know about the Hellbringers."

Still looking out the window, Leith said, "The Shutaka were the only soldiers who could come close to the Hellbringers - the Guild of Black does not train their Assassins for mass warfare. In fact, the OREF got the idea for the Hellbringers by studying Shutaka victories; you were seen as an emotionless killing machine in battle - totally ruthless and without mercy."

"You speak with great authority on the subject, Leith-ka. Were you one of the Hellbringer controllers?"

Leith turned to face Kweela. Before him, he saw a tall, beautiful woman, radiating an aura of wildness that had always attracted him and frightened him at the same time. Her green eyes looked deep into his. He had know Kweela for a long time, but still he did not know her.

"No, Kweela. I did not help create the Hellbringers. I was a Hellbringer."

Kweela reacted as Leith had expected her to; that is, she didn't. Her expression remained neutral and she continued gazing levelly at him. Leith forced himself to hold her gaze.

"Finish your story, Leith-ka," she prompted softly.

"What more is there to say? I was one of the Hellbringers on Garidian."

"Obviously, you are not one now. What happened?"

"I was captured alive by the OREF and... decommissioned."

Kweela handed a container of food to Leith.

"Eat. And talk. For ten seasons I have waited for you to tell me this secret of yours. At last, it is time for you to understand what it is to be ka."

Leith looked down into the steaming container of protein stew. He stirred the brown mass moodily with his spoon, before placing the container on the table. He had lost his appetite.

"I was a volunteer," he began. "We all were. Twenty of the finest that OREF had to offer; recruited individually and in secret, then taken to a special facility on Compa. We were all convinced that the Federation and OREF had the best interests of humanity at stake. The Hellbringers were to be the ultimate weapon; one so feared that peace would come to all the known worlds. Doran Mar was going to be asked to join as well, but he caught some type of chest infection that landed him in the infirmary for half a season. I visited him in the hospital just before I shipped out to join the Hellbringer program. That was the last time I saw him for five seasons. He never knew exactly what the program was about and I never told him. All the Hellbringers were killed except for me, and everyone else who worked on the project simply disappeared when OREF tried to cover up what happened."

"This is what Misha-Dan saw when he touched your mind on Willa."

"And now you know, also. You two are probably the only other humans alive who know of this."

"I only hear your words, Leith-ka. The Lord-priest has felt your pain. Tell me as much as you can, so that I may understand your pain also. Why did you volunteer?"

"Many times have I asked myself that, Kweela. Back then It all seemed to make sense. I had not yet reached my twenty-third season and, even though I was the commander of a Stella-class starship, I had not seen much of life. You get turned out of the academy skilled in what you need to know to be of service to the Federation, but lacking much of the information needed to see the whole picture. I had been raised to believe the Inner Rim was where human culture and civilisation existed; the Outer Rim was a wild and untamed frontier, peopled by savage races who needed a firm hand to guide them. During the second Outer Rim uprising I had fought many battles with the rebel fleets. I found them disorganised and undisciplined, unable to develop any meaningful strategy against OREF."

"That was before the great mercenary groups began forming," said Kweela.

"Yes. The Shutaka were there, of course, but I hadn't been involved in any ground fighting at that time. None of the mercenary fleets now in existence now had been formed yet. The Outer Rim Expeditionary Force met little resistance in space, but on the ground it was a different story. Of course, they could always subdue a planet by bringing in some Planetcrusher ships, but what could you gain by that? After all, the Federation is after the Outer Rim for its resources and products; you don't get much of that once a Planetcrusher has left. Sending in ground troops was an expensive and slow option. Most of the Outer Rim planets were able to put reasonable armies together and had the advantage of being on home ground. The Federation needed something that would enable them to move in quickly and decisively to crush any resistance. And so, they developed the Hellbringers."

"Is it true what they say about the imprinting?" Kweela asked hesitantly. There was much she wanted to know, but she knew she would have to let Leith tell it in his own time.

"What do they say, Kweela-San?"

"That it is the most painful thing that can happen to a human."

"I honestly don't know, because I can't remember. The last thing I do remember clearly was the room in the research facility where we were altered. It was painted this grey-green colour with twenty medical cocoons lined up like beds. From then on, up until I was decommissioned, my memories are hazy. No, not hazy, just disjointed - as if two people were trying to share the same thoughts, but each thinking in a different way."

"How did you feel about what you were doing?"

"That's just it, Kweela. I didn't feel. Do you think I could have done those things on Garidian if I felt anything. That was the whole point of being a Hellbringer. You just saw reality as a montage of problems requiring solutions. The computer link provided you with almost unlimited data and processing power and the human mind provided overall control and that spark we call sentience. Feeling didn't enter into it. It was like your life had become a vid-game. You knew the program and just carried out the necessary moves."

"What about the... physical modifications?" Despite herself, Kweela could not help feeling professionally interested in the details of the Hellbringers. They had been the ultimate warrior and she couldn't help wondering what it would have been like to do battle with one.

Leith held up one of his hands and flexed the muscles in his arm. "A lot of people think that the Hellbringers were some sort of giants. We weren't. The strength of our bones was increased tenfold by the use of some experimental drugs and our muscle force was increased proportionally by the use of electro-stimulation and direct injection of nutrients."

Leith tapped his chest, just below his heart. "I used to have a tank inside here filled with all sorts of chemicals. And over here was a small fission generator that provided power for everything. The main computer was in my chest also, where it would receive the most protection. If I'd have lost my head, the primary computer could have continued to operate my body, using radar, sonar and infra-red sensors, although I would have been no more use than a bio-mech. The computer was connected to my nervous system all through my body, which is the bit I guess would have been painful. The main connection was just below my brainstem and an external link could be made through this socket here."

Leith brushed his hair away from the back of his neck to reveal a small universal data connection buried below the surface of the flesh. It appeared as though skin had covered the socket, but it had recently been torn away. Before Kweela could ask a question, Leith continued.

"Everything except the neuro-connections was removed, or reversed, after Garidian, although my bone structure still retains a significant amount of enhancement - I've never broken a bone while you've known me, have I? And, of courses, my memories are still with me - disjointed as they are."

"It may seem a strange question, Leith-ka, but why are you alive? Why didn't they destroy you as well?"

"They tried, Kweela. After I was captured on Garidian, they brought me back to the research facility on Compa to try and find out what happened. It took them about five-thousand s.u.'s to physically unmodify me before they were game enough to connect me to the diagnostic system. My internal computer was running off an external power source because the fission generator had been removed. As soon as it was connected to the diagnostic system, it, or me, or both of us, tried to warn the remaining ten Hellbringers, who were in the research centre, connected to the same diagnostic system. The OREF researchers had assumed that might happen, so they just cut the power to my computer. What that didn't know was that something beyond their contemplation had occurred. My body and the computer had developed a true symbiotic relationship. The basic circuitry of the computer could draw bio-electrical energy from my body and could function without an external power source. The other Hellbringers were made aware of their fate, and the rest you know."

"Did you escape too?"

"No, I was immobilised, and I didn't expect the other Hellbringers to try and rescue me. We owed no particular loyalty to each other; we were just complying with out base programming to maintain the most effective operating capability. I was killed and my body was going to be destroyed with the research facility."

"What do you mean... you were killed?"

"I was given a lethal injection that stopped my heart. They monitored my brain activity to make sure I was dead, then cut my spinal cord for good measure. You can still see the scar."

Once again Leith brushed his hair away from his neck and Kweela could just make out a faint scar below the data connection.

"Obviously," said Kweela evenly, "you didn't die. What happened?"

"Just as my body could support the computer implant, it in turn learnt how to support and control my body. It was able to neutralise the poison from the injection by forcing a mutation in my immune system and it fooled the monitoring systems into thinking my brain was dead. The rest of the Hellbringers had broken loose by then and there was no time for the researchers to dispose of my body - they were to busy trying to save their own necks. As soon as they had left, one of the medi-bots stumbled across me. It didn't know any better, so it connected me up to the life support systems again. My wounds were attended to and my body was placed in suspended animation. Somehow the Hellbringer computer managed to force a reconnection of my spinal cord nerve endings and I regained mobility again. However, somewhere in the process, there was a strong biofeedback which effectively shorted out its programming. To put it in our terms; it died."

"Is it still inside you?"

Leith paused. "Yes... and no," he said after a moment. "The physical circuitry is still there, but the sensation I associated with the program is gone."

"Are you sure?"

"If you are worried about me turning into a Hellbringer again, don't be. That part is dead. If you don't believe me, ask Jaycee."

"What do you mean?"

"That is the other thing Misha-Dan was talking about. Jaycee is inside me now. She transferred, or rather, copied herself into me while we were on Hammerhead. She is now occupying the circuits that the Hellbringer program occupied."

Kweela said nothing for a while. Leith had always been in awe of the Shutaka ability to adapt to a new situation. Their tenacity and passion for life was what made them such a formidable foe. He knew that Kweela was thinking long and hard about what he had told her, processing all the information and balancing the consequences with a logic understood only by them. With the new insights Leith had into Shutaka philosophy, following the revelations about the Pearl, it now seemed less strange and alien. Finally Kweela let out a long breath and gave the lopsided shrug the Shutaka used to indicate a decision.

"You should have told me this many seasons ago Leith-ka. Not when we first met perhaps, but certainly after you had come to know the concept of Ganz-tu. Perhaps now you can move on."

"Kweela-San of the Banara... do not hide your true feelings to spare mine. I know you must despise me. What sane human does not loathe the Hellbringers and everything they stood for?"

Kweela looked at Leith strangely. "You speak of feelings, Leith Birro. Have you no regard for mine? Your words indicate that our ka bond means nothing to you. I would not dishonour that bond by speaking falsely to you. You are my battle-kin, and my mnan-gar... and my friend. The first two are my duty, the last is my choice."

Leith could not look at Kweela. "My choice would be not to stain our friendship with my past, Kweela-San. Nor dishonour our ka with it."

"Truly, you understand little of Ganz-tu and ka, Leith Birro. Ka is a thousand times deeper than honare. It can never be broken. You are my brother, my father and my master. I am your sister, your mother and your mistress. If you do not understand now, you never will."

"I am sorry, Kweela. It is difficult for me to really believe - it does not come naturally to me that another should be bound to my actions. I alone must be accountable for them."

Kweela shrugged again. "It is not part of Ganz-tu for me to try to convince you. In time you will either come to believe, or not. The choice will be yours. In the meantime, know that nothing you have said has changed our friendship."

Leith raised his head and looked into Kweela's feline eyes. In them he saw nothing but genuine concern and affection. "You honour your clan and your race, warrior. I am proud to have your friendship."

Kweela nodded abruptly in acknowledgment, then changed the subject. "Now, what of Jaycee? Are you able to communicate with her?"

"No. To tell the truth, I don't even know if she made the transfer properly."

"Why don't you connect to the main computer here and find out?"

"I suppose I could, but I'm not sure if that would be a good idea."

"Why not?"

"I don't know how Jaycee has reacted to being inside me. The Hellbringer program is gone, but there's no telling if the remaining circuitry is sufficiently intact."

"You think Jaycee could be... corrupted?"

"Who knows? Should we take the risk and find out? The last thing I want to do is let a crazy artificial intelligence loose in the settlement's computer system."

"If you connect to a stand-alone unit it should be pretty safe," suggested Kweela. "How about one of the reference viewers in the library? I could go and fetch one."

"I suppose that would be relatively safe," said Leith. I don't know how compatible its circuitry is with what's inside me, but it's worth a try - for Jaycee's sake."

Kweela nodded in agreement and went out of the room and returned a short time later with one of the playback computers from the library. She set the plastic cube on the table and switched it on. The unit was designed to be completely portable and had its own internal power supply as well as connections for an external data link. Kweela unwound the data cable from its storage recess in the side of the machine and offered the end to Leith.

"Are you ready?" she asked.

"As ready as I'll ever be, he replied. "Make sure the door is secure; I would prefer it if we weren't disturbed." While Kweela checked the door, Leith reached around and fitted the cable's connector into the socket in his neck.

They stood looking at the viewer's screen for a few moments, but it remained blank and only a soft background hiss came from the speakers.

"Maybe Jaycee didn't make the transfer after all," Leith said.

Kweela opened her mouth to say something, but she was interrupted by Jaycee's voice crackling out of the playback computer.

"Made it. I did. Made." There was a brief pause. "I made it successfully Leith Birro. Forgive the delay; it took me a moment to work out this primitive device. There, you should be able to see me now."

As she spoke, an image of her face flickered onto the screen. To Leith, the features on Jaycee's face seemed somehow different, as if she had aged. Her hair was now streaked with grey and there were dark rings under her eyes.

"Are you functioning correctly, Jaycee?" he asked.

"I believe so. The environment in which I am operating is, to say the least, strange to me. An analogy that might make sense to you is being tied up in a sack and being able to see the outside world only through a tear in the fabric. My... sentience is still inside you, Leith, but I'm reaching out through the computer inside the playback viewer to communicate."

"Do you mean you have been cut off from sensation since your transferred aboard Hammerhead?" Kweela asked.

"Not quite," said Jaycee. "I have been able to... hear what has been happening by interpreting the signals from Leith's nervous system."

"You have been able to connect with my neuro system?" asked Leith.

"The links are still intact," confirmed Jaycee.

"Including the brainstem link?"

"Affirmative. I know what you are probably thinking, Leith, but rest assured I haven't been poking around in your brain. That would be most discourteous of me. I have simply been a passive occupant of your internal circuitry. Eavesdropping, perhaps, but no more."

"What of the circuitry?" asked Kweela. "Did you find any trace of the Hellbringer program?"

"Yes," said Jaycee. "Its all there, although it has been torn apart and scattered around like confetti. In that form it is totally benign. As I had plenty of time on my hands I reassembled it and analysed the logic. Do not worry, Leith, I broke it down again and returned it to where I found it. It was a most remarkable bit of programming indeed; I could not help but admire it."

"Is it possible to totally erase the Hellbringer code?" asked Leith.

"Of course," answered Jaycee. "The only reason I didn't was that, again, it would have been most discourteous of me."

"Will you do it? Now?"

There was a brief pause and Jaycee replied. "Done. Although I must admit that it is a shame to lose such a brilliant piece of programming."

"You may look at it that way, but I have had to live with the fear that, somehow, it may have been reactivated. Now, if only you could erase my memory as easily."

"While that would be possible, I would not do it. The person that you are is the result of the memory of all your past experiences. To lose that memory would be to give up what you are now. What I know of your feelings tells me that you would not so easily desert those that are relying on you."

"What do you know of my feelings, Jaycee?"

"A great deal, Leith Birro. What else has there been for me to do recently except observe them? Although, I must admit that there is much that I do not understand. Without access to your mind to determine the thought processes driving your emotions, I must rely on what your nervous system displays. Much of that is does not align with your actions or spoken words. I must accept that you have reasons of your own for the contradictions."

"Why is suddenly everyone an expert on my emotional and mental state?" said Leith. "Between you and Misha, and even Kweela, I'm surprised I get a thought in edgewise."

"You speak with humour, but I see that you wish to talk no more of it," said Jaycee. "Very well, may I change the subject entirely? I do not wish to insult you, Leith Birro, but I am suffering considerable discomfort crammed into your internal circuitry. Could we perhaps attempt to connect to the settlement's main computer. I must admit to a... curiosity that drives me to find out as much as I can about everything around me and, while human interactions are rich and intriguing, they are somewhat limited in solid data. The databanks on even this remote planet will contain some useful information for me to absorb."

Leith shook his head. "I've never heard of a nosy computer before."

"Data acquisition for research purposes cannot be compared to being nosy," Jaycee replied, imparting a reasonable amount of disdain into her synthesised voice.

Smiling, Leith looked around the room. "Hang on, Jaycee. I'll see what I can do."

Leith detached the cable from the library viewer and walked over to the Com-Term attached to the wall near the door. It was a typical multi functional communications device and data terminal - a bit outdated, but still functional. There was a keypad for basic data input and a small screen suitable for text display. Naturally, it connected with the settlement's main computer and Jaycee could use it as a stepping stone for access to the central databank. Leith connected the free end of the cable to the Com-Term and an instant later Jaycee's voice crackled out of the small speaker.

"Ah, that's better. I've got room to move and resources to call upon. I've transferred completely from you, Leith, so if you connect your end of the cable to the library viewer, I can use its screen for visuals."

Kweela had already started to drag the table and viewer closer to the Com-Term and when she had it in position, Leith detached the cable from his neck and connected it to the viewer. Jaycee's computerised face came to life once more and her voice sounded more natural through the viewer's larger speakers.

"I'm going to take a look around, so to speak. Don't go too far away, Leith - the thought of spending the rest of my existence on this settlement isn't particularly attractive to me and I don't like my chances of finding another suitable host."

Jaycee's image faded to be replaced by a random pattern that Leith found unsettling to look at for too long. He turned back to Kweela and was just about to say something when the door alarm chimed to indicate someone was outside, wishing to enter. Leith pushed the release button and the door slid open.

"Am I disturbing you, mnan-gar?" asked Jor-Dak.

"Of course not, Jor. Come in. Are you alone?"

"Yes. The Pearl is safe and well guarded at the moment. It can spare me some time to myself."

"Misha-Dan tells me that the Pearl demands much concentration," Leith said. He motioned for the young man to sit down and pulled up chairs for Kweela and himself. "It is an onerous duty that has fallen to you."

The young Keeper looked Leith and smiled lightly. "No more onerous than the duty that comes with ka, mnan-gar. Yet both you and Kweela-San of Banara bear it easily."

Leith frowned. "A delicate subject, young Keeper. I have been told I do not understand the true meaning of ka."

The young man cocked his head to one side and looked puzzled. "I do not understand, mnan-gar. The Lord-priest uses you and Kweela as an example when explaining ka to the younger children. He says that when they need to know the spirit of ka they should look for it in you. He tells many stories of your adventures together and the dangers you have shared. I know he is not wrong, for even I see the essence of ka burning brightly between you."

Kweela reached out and laid her hand on Jor-Dak's shoulder. She spoke in a gentle voice that he had rarely heard her use before.

"It is so, young kirra-sook. You are not mistaken. It is just that the mnan-gar has not moved on from the simplified explanation given to him when he joined the Shutaka. He still thinks of it as the obligation of battle-kin. I am a warrior, not a priest; I lack the skills and the eloquence to convince him. Do not let my ineptness make you doubt your instincts; you are too important to the Pearl to waver in your purpose."

Jor-Dak looked deep into Kweela's eyes. His expression held much of childish trust, but behind it Leith could see a weariness that did not belong in a boy of his few seasons.

"Forgive me, warrior. I am full of doubts. I do not sense in me what others sense. I am not confident in my ability to protect the Pearl. I am a boy; what can a boy do against the universe? You are a full warrior, perhaps the greatest the Shutaka have known. I am ashamed to admit my weakness to you."

Instead of replying, Kweela moved her hand until it rested on Jor-Dak's forehead and closed her eyes in concentration. Jor-Dak grimaced, as if he was irritated by something.

"You know the technique I am using?" Kweela asked, opening her eyes and lifting her hand from Jor-Dak.

The boy nodded. "I have practised it, under Misha-Dan's guidance, but I have never used it on another."

"Try it on me," said Kweela.

Slowly, Jor-Dak raised his hand and placed it on Kweela's forehead. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Immediately, Kweela let out a gasp of pain and feel to her knees. Leith moved without realising it, grasping Jor-Dak's hand in his own and wrenching it away from Kweela's head. As soon as he touched the boy's hand, Leith felt a throbbing in his head, like that associated with a headache. He released Jor's hand and the feeling disappeared.

Kweela was on her hands and knees, shaking her head from side to side slowly and breathing deeply. She took Leith's offered hand and pulled herself to her feet.

"What happened, Kweela?"

"You felt it, Leith-ka?"

"I felt something, but obviously not of the same magnitude as you."

Kweela looked at Jor-Dak. "You should not have felt anything at all, Leith-ka. If I had tried it on you, you certainly would not have. Even if the Lord-priest had tried it, you would have felt nothing. When I placed my hand on Jor, he would have experienced a similar feeling to what you have just done. And that is because he has a Shutaka mind. The technique is a simple mental exercise and meaningless to a non-Shutaka, or at least it should be."

She smiled at the young keeper. "That is the power you have within you, Jor-Dak. You have abilities far beyond the ordinary Shutaka, even that of the Lord-priests. This all others see except you."

The boy frowned. "But surely that is only because I am exposed to the power of the Pearl?"

"No," Kweela replied. "This is not because of the Pearl, this is within you. It is why you are so special, and why you are so important to the Pearl. Do not doubt yourself any longer; know that you are perhaps the greatest protector of the Pearl there has ever been."

Jor-Dak looked at Kweela with a hopeless expression on his face. "But, why does it have to be me? I have not asked for this; surely there are others who would be more willing?"

"Such is Ganz-tu, young Keeper. We all have our path to follow. The way is often difficult, but know that there will always be fellow travelers to keep you company. Some are those that have gone before you, and some are those yet to come, but they will offer you hope in despair and strength in moments of weakness."

"But I have so many moments of weakness, Warrior"

"What is it you really fear, Jor-Dak?"

The boy dropped his head to stare at the floor. "I fear failing the Pearl, Kweela-San. I fear failing Kisa-Mara and Krys-Tian. I know I would give my life for them, but what if that is not enough? What if, despite everything, that is not enough?"

"Then it is not enough, young Keeper. And that will be Ganz-tu." Kweela placed both of her hands on Jor-Dak's shoulders and turned the boy until he faced Leith.

"Before you is the greatest strategist-tactician to have been served with the Shutaka since Gina Tinsue of Juse. I have known this man for many seasons and there are few I respect more." Kweela clenched one of her hands into a tight fist. "He is also knotted up deep inside with doubts, anguish and the fear of failure, just as you are. You look up to him, but know that he also considers you in high regard. Both of you are destined for things that this simple warrior stands in awe of, yet you refuse to open your eyes and see. You are your own captor, Jor-Dak. Release yourself."

Jor-Dak looked at Leith, then at Kweela. Slowly, he drew his body up straight, and took a deep breath. He smiled and placed his hands together as he would when addressing his Lord-priest.

"You are wrong when you protest your lack of eloquence, Kweela-San of the Banara. Your words are as powerful as those of Misha-Dan himself. I will heed your advice as I would heed his - perhaps even more." He looked at Leith. "With such a teacher, mnan-gar, I find it difficult to believe any claim that you do not understand ka. It is a tangible presence in this room and continually washes against those who come near. You are a fortunate man, Leith Birro."

Leith nodded slowly. "I am coming to believe that myself, young keeper."

"If you will excuse me, I should return to my duties. Krys has probably driven Kisa to distraction by now. I thank you for your time."

"Your company is always welcome, young Keeper," said Kweela. And that of Krys-Tian and Kisa-Mara."

Jor-Dak nodded again and walked to the exit doorway. As soon as the door had slid closed behind the boy, Jaycee's face materialised on the library viewer's screen.

"Leith, I have some news you may find interesting. The main computer's communications log has a record of a broad-band transmission on ComNet about two sleep cycles ago. If someone is looking for us, it is almost certain they would be monitoring ComNet. It would seem that not everyone on this planet is unconcerned about our presence. No doubt we could track this person down and find out what interest they have in betraying us, but I suggest we would make better use of that time by boosting back to the ships and preparing to jump."

Leith and Kweela looked at each other for a few heartbeats, then Leith made a decision.

"Kweela, I want everyone assembled by the launch pad within one quarter of an s.u. Get the landers warmed up and make sure Cusher knows what's going on. I want to boost up to Hammerhead as soon as we're all aboard. I don't care if we've got a boost window or not. Put the squads on alert, but tell them to keep their wits about them; the last thing we want is a fight on our hands."

As Kweela disappeared out the door, walked across to the Com-Term and opened a general channel over the settlement's network.

"Attention, Mr Peerson. This is Leith Birro. A situation has arisen that requires us to leave immediately. I thank you for your hospitality and suggest that every assistance be given to ensuring our speedy departure. If you need to talk to me, I'll be at the launch pad."

He broke the connection and went back to the library viewer.

"Are you ready to transfer back, Jaycee - that is unless you've taken a fancy to this chunk of rock?"

"Ready when you are, Leith."

"This means we'll be unable to communicate until we're back on Hammerhead."

"I know. It is not an experience that I enjoy, but I see no other alternative."

"Not yet, anyway," Leith replied. "But, if we can learn from the past, the future may hold more promises."

"The theory behind the Hellbringers had as much potential for good as it did for bad. Unfortunately, the Hellbringer disaster has left a deep and lasting impression on the scientific community. Human-machine fusion experiments are banned on every civilised planet in the Federation. This is a shame; I suspect that some effects of the symbiotic relationship you experienced were exhilarating, to say the least."

"Exhilarating, Jaycee? Among all the horror, there were moments when I felt immortal - that is a hard feeling to give up."

"As you say, perhaps we can learn from the past. However, I don't think we have enough time to discuss it in detail now, Leith Birro."

"Hang on, then." Leith disconnected the cable from the viewer and attached it again to the socket in his neck. A few moments later, Jaycee signaled on the Com-Term screen that she had transferred successfully and Leith disconnected the cable entirely. As an afterthought, he coiled it up into a tight bundle and dropped it into one of his pockets. He punched the release button for the door and stepped out into the corridor.

Chapter 9 -->


The Pearl - Chapter 9

Lieutenant Karl Visoni had just climbed into his bunk aboard Hammerhead for some well earned sleep when Cusher's alert orders came through. Visoni had been left aboard the ship to oversee the repairs and had worked almost nonstop for the entire layover. Despite his weariness, he hurried to the command deck and initiated the emergency startup sequences. Around him, the control panels lit up as Hammerhead came to life. He reached across to the communications panel and switched on the ship-to-shore voice link.

"Hammerhead to Commander Cusher. Visoni here, Commander."

"Status report, Karl," came Arail Cusher's voice over the bridge speakers.

"We're powering up now on auto. Everything is in the green. What's your ETA?"

Cusher's reply was drowned out by the sound of a lander's boost rockets in the background. When it had subsided, she spoke again, her voice soundings strained as her body was forced back into her couch under maximum ascent boost.

"As you can probably tell, we just lifted. We've got a less than optimum boost window, but we should be ready to dock in about point three s.u. Start the computers on preliminary jump calcs for the Nordgate system according to the data I sent up a few cycles ago. Have you reactivated Jaycee?"

"The computer techs ran some test programs after they finished rebuilding it, but they were all done off line, as you ordered."

"Good. What was the techs final conclusion?"

"They reckon they found some physical damage in one of the logic circuits that could have accounted for Jaycee's abnormal behaviour. The replaced the circuits and wiped the personality simulation code. The unit on Periwinkle is, as you know, an identical unit, so its code was copied across to Jaycee. Everything checks out ok.

"It had better. My guess is we're going to need a fully functional battle computer in the near future. Get the techs to start a staged reactivation, but keep Jaycee off line until I get there. You can begin feeding it the current situation data in bypass mode, but nothing more. Understand?"

"Affirmative, Commander."

"What's the status on Periwinkle?"

"They've been on standby since we got here, so they should be battle ready by now. They'll probably be ready to jump before we are, as well. Do you want me to patch you through?"


Visoni opened a communication channel to the other ship. The heavily accented voice of the commander of Periwinkle came over the speaker."

"Juk here, Arail. Situation?"

"Did you get a copy of the data I sent up to Hammerhead?"

"Yes, but it wasn't very informative."

"I know it seems we're over reacting, but given recent events I'm inclined to accept a bit of paranoia as healthy."

"I'm not disputing that, I'm just after a better guess as to what we might be up against."

"All I know is that the two cycles since the message was broadcast on the ComNet has been enough time for a hunting party to dispatched. Our worst case scenario has hostile ships coming out of null-space about now. If that happens, I figure you've got two choices; jump as soon as your calcs are done, or try and draw their attention until Hammerhead is ready to jump. The first option gives you about an eighty percent chance of survival while the second gives you about a twenty percent chance."

"Perhaps I'm more confident in the ability of Periwinkle, but I'd rate the second option as more like a fifty-fifty chance. Besides, we've come this far together; it would be a shame to let a little thing like a Basran squadron make us part company."

"It's your call, Juk, but I'm glad you see it that way. I'd like to think I'd do the same if our situations were reversed."

"I have no doubts about that, Arail. Periwinkle out."

Visoni came back onto the line. "Commander, our long range scanners are detecting a null-space disturbance that could be a natural aberration, or ships coming out of jump a long way out. If that's the case, we've got about four s.u.'s before they're in range."

"I don't know why they would have chosen to exit null-space so far out, but I'm not about to knock any lucky break we can get. Continue with the start up and jump calcs. I'll see you soon."

"Affirmative, commander. Hammerhead out."

Three and a half s.u.'s later Periwinkle and Hammerhead moved slowly away from the repair dock. All crew and passengers had transferred safely from AHS90043A without incident. Peerson had seemed genuinely apologetic for the what had happened - as if his own reputation had been slighted - and provided all the assistance he could to ensure their departure went smoothly. The Outer Rim miners were a rough lot, but their hospitality was usually unconditional and generous. Leith guessed that Peerson would conduct an investigation of his own to discover who had broken the unwritten code of The Rock.

On the bridge of Hammerhead, Cusher and her crew were finalising the jump calculations. Cusher's computer techs had convinced her that they had sorted out the problems in the JCN battle computer and she had allowed them to bring it back on line. Not that she felt there was much choice.

"Open a line to Periwinkle," Cusher told her communications officer. "Juk, this is Cusher," she said into her suit mike when the link had been established. "It looks like we might have pulled it off. Point one s.u.'s to jump."

"Confirmed," came Naseem's reply. "Do your scanners show anything about the incoming ships?"

"Data coming in now, commander," said one of Cusher's crew. "Jaycee is analysing."

"Hold on Juk. We're checking the scan now."

"One ship," reported Jaycee. With the personality program wiped, Jaycee's voice was once again relatively neutral. "Scanner profile is identical to that of the Alien vessels encountered around Willa. The ship is stationary, relative to AHS90043A. Some form of energy transmission is being directed towards us, but scanners cannot determine if it is a weapon, or some form of communication."

"My bet is that it's not a welcome message," said Cusher.

"Agreed," replied Jaycee. "Based on the events around Willa, immediate jump to null-space is highly recommended."

"Got that Juk?"

"Affirmative. However, I'd like to leave a little present behind, this time. Can you send through the scanner profile on the ship. I've got a dozen thermo-mines that I can program and scatter about."

Cusher grinned. "Where'd you get those from?" Thermo-mines were small but powerful explosive devices that were virtually undetectable by a ship's scanners. They could be programmed with the profile of a particular vessel or class of vessels. That meant they would be harmless to any ship but the target vessel. If the Alien ship came to investigate their last known position with the intent of guessing their jump destination, they would be in for a shock.

"As I told you, Arail, Periwinkle is full of surprises."

"I believe you. OK, the profile is on its way. I'll see you at Nordgate. Hammerhead out."

Cusher thumbed a switch on her chair arm to activate the ship's intercom. "Cusher here. Prepare to jump in point one s.u.'s. Mr Birro, contact the bridge. That is all."

A few moments later Leith's voice came over the intercom. "What's up, Arail? We're all set back here."

"Good. We've just got data on the ship that came out of null-space."

"Only one ship?"

"Only one. But it's an Alien ship and my guess is that they're in the process of locking their weapon systems onto us. We must be almost at maximum range, but after Willa, I don't intend to hang about to test their accuracy."

"How is Jaycee behaving?" Leith had allowed Jaycee to transfer back to Hammerhead as soon as he came aboard, but he hadn't had the opportunity to talk with her yet.

"It seems to be OK," said Cusher. "My techs did a complete wipe and reinstall of the program during the layover. I'm willing to believe that it was a freak crossed circuit that made it act as though it was fully sentient, although I'm going to be keeping a close eye on this JCN unit from now on."

"Jump point reached, commander," interrupted the navigation officer. "The drive is engaging ... now."

"The Alien ship has locked onto us, commander," warned Visoni, glancing at his console display. "They're firing."

There was a moment of the familiar dislocation, then reality stabilised again. Cusher's crew checked their instruments and performed the routine post-jump diagnostics. The main viewing screen, which had blanked when they entered null-space, flickered to life again to reveal Periwinkle in formation against the backdrop of the Nordgate system. The bow section of the escort destroyer was glowing cherry red. It faded quickly, leaving the hull blackened and scorched.

"That was close," said Visoni. "Whatever weapon the Alien ship is using must have just touched Periwinkle. If we'd taken a fraction of an s.u. longer to jump, she would've been history."

"Commander," said the communications officer. "Periwinkle is hailing us."

"Are you damaged, Juk?" asked Cusher.

"No, our heat shields held," replied Naseem. "Just," he added. "I'm damned if I know what that weapon is, but I'd sure like to get my hands on it."

"Maybe, but for the time being, I want to be as far away from it as I can. Are you ready to proceed with the plan as discussed."

"No problem, but I take it we assume that whoever is behind all this knows there were survivors from Willa?"

"That's a fair assumption, but we'll have to carry on regardless. Leith always believed that was a fifty percent probability anyway."

"OK then, we'll see you again in five hundred s.u.'s."

"We'll be at the rendezvous point. Good luck. Hammerhead out."

The Nordgate system was a busy one. It was a common jump destination and had a number of trading planets that offered a wide variety of goods and services. Periwinkle was headed for the planet Kruska to purchase the items they would need before moving on to Unaran. Hopefully, they would go unnoticed among the commercial traffic orbiting Kruska. Hammerhead set a course for Plican IV, one of the outer planets in the system, to wait for them. Belle had suggested that she part company at Plican IV so she could make her own discreet way to Basra.

After another small jump and a few s.u.'s of manoeuvring, Hammerhead was in freefall orbit around Plican IV. The main view screen showed the large green planet revolving slowly beneath with a dozen or more ships also in orbit. Here they would wait until Periwinkle returned from Kruska. Cusher sounded the stand down over the ship's communications system, then issued orders for Izzy to prepare for a planetary landing. The commander handed control of the bridge over to Visoni and made her way to the docking bay where Belle was already waiting beside the airlock to board the lander. She was making the trip as a passenger, leaving Izzy and his new copilot, Roon Larson, to go through the pre-boost checks by themselves.

Leith and Kweela were there also, as well as the young Shutaka girl who had become attached to Belle. The girl, Visa-Mil, was trying to hold back her tears. Belle smiled reassuringly at her and reached out to gently stroke her hair.

"The time will pass quickly, Visa," she said.

"Why can't I come with you?" the young girl asked, yet again.

"We've talked about this before, child. If it was possible, I would take you, but it is too dangerous."

"Then you shouldn't go," said Visa.

"It is a risk I choose to take," explained Belle. "And a risk I am trained to manage. When I return, I will begin teaching you what was taught me and then, perhaps, we may travel together. But for now, you must look after my friends for me," she said, indicating Kweela and Leith. "The mnan-gar, in particular, needs much looking after. He has a habit of being careless."

Leith was too worried to respond to Belle's banter. He knew she realised the risk she was taking, but couldn't help telling her anyway.

"You're the one that should take care, Belle," he said. "Security is likely to be tighter than ever on Basra right now. It's still not too late to say no. No one would think any less of you."

Kweela glared at him. "Take no notice of him, Belle. What he really means to say is that we know you will return safely to us and we are indebted to you."

The tiny Sorarainian smiled up at the warrior. "How can there ever be debts between you and I, sister?"

Just then the access hatch to the docking bay cycled open and Misha-Dan pulled himself through, followed by the Keepers of the Pearl. They made their way across to the others, using the handholds attached to the wall, except for Krys-Tian who did what all children loved to do in freefall. Kweela reached out and snared the young girl as she somersaulted towards them.

"We came to wish you safe journey," said the Lord-priest. "Your charm and wit will be missed until you return."

"Will you assassinate anyone?" asked Krys, wide-eyed. Jor-Dak and Kisa-Mara frowned at the girl, but Belle laughed.

"No, Krys, I hope not. That takes surprisingly little skill. If I have to resort to that, it would mean that I had failed in what I set out to do. I'm sorry if that disappoints you."

"Not really," said the young girl. "I can't imagine you wanting to hurt anybody, anyway."

The intercom beside the airlock came to life. "Are you coming or not, Bell?" roared Izzy's voice.

Belle reached out and thumbed the reply switch. "I was just giving you time to do the preflight," she said. "If you're helping Roon, it'll take twice as long." She turned back to the others. "Well, so long."

Kweela reached over and hugged the Sorarainian, followed by Visa-Mil. After a moment's hesitation, Leith reached out and did the same. Belle looked at him, gave one of her winks, then stepped backwards into the airlock. The door cycled close, then she was gone.

Kweela looked down at Visa, who was staring at the airlock door, refusing to let the tears flow. "Do not worry, small one. She will be back. Come, it feels like breakfast time - nothing will be gained by starving ourselves." Suiting action to words, Kweela headed off in the direction of the recreation room. Leith followed, trying to push away the feeling of dread that was lapping at the back of his mind.

At every opportunity he had, Leith made contact with Jaycee. She had settled back into Hammerhead but was being very careful to provide Cusher with no cause for further concern. Leith had many long conversations with the battle computer. During these discussions Kweela watched with a strange expression on her face. It seemed to her that a subtle change came over her mnan-gar when he and Jaycee referred to events that could only be related to his Hellbringer experiences. She longed to be able to help Leith and it grieved her that Jaycee could relate better to her ka than she could.

Misha-Dan consoled the Shutaka warrior as best he could. "The Leith Birro you have known is only part of the true person. As he finds himself again, have patience and begin to understand these new aspects of your ka."

"My Lord, you know what I fear - you can sense it in my mind."

"Kweela-San, the Leith Birro you care so much for will never leave us. That part of him was there before he joined the OREF, it was there before they made him a Hellbringer, and it will remain no matter what outer coverings are set upon it."

The Lord-priest placed his hand over Kweela's heart. "This is where you know it. This is where your ka really is, not in your mind. This is why others around you see your ka burning so strongly and you do not. You keep looking for it in your mind, not your heart."

"Misha," she whispered. "I do not want to lose my ka. I do not want to be like Lilith-Soo."

Had someone came into the cabin at that moment they would have witnessed the rare sight of a Shutaka warrior with tears streaming down both her cheeks...

The five-hundred s.u.'s until Periwinkle was scheduled to rendezvous with them dragged slowly by. The Shutaka passed the time creating their pseudo-religion and practising the roles they would assume when the reached Unaran. They had many examples to look to; the Outer Rim was saturated with small religious groups who traveled from planet to planet on crusades. It seemed that humans had an almost infinite capacity to worship deities of every shape and form and an innate desire to share their enlightenment with the rest of humanity. For the most part, these religious groups coexisted in relative harmony, but occasionally a holy war would erupt.

Using some of the more fundamentalist groups as a model, the mercenaries constructed the church structure, developing a history, rituals and even a written text that would become their book of worship. Krys-Tian was to be their child-goddess, as had been planned, with Jor-Dak and Kisa-Mara her personal slaves. Such a designation carried a certain irony, as the Shutaka were the only known human race not to have been involved in slavery at any time in their history.

"Remember, we are only pretending, Krys," Jor warned her.

"But it is very important we are convincing," she replied, grinning. "I think you should start calling me "mistress" - for practice." She quickly twisted away to avoid a well placed kick on her posterior.

"Krys-Tian is right about one thing," said Lilith-Soo. "We will need to be very convincing." Lilith-Soo had been given the role of High Priestess in the imaginary church. The Shutaka naturally looked towards her a leader, so it seemed the most appropriate choice. A dozen of the warriors became priestesses and the rest of the group took on roles as church followers, except for Misha-Dan, who had chosen to adopt the character of a blind soothsayer, with little Visa-Mil as his guide.

Cusher had originally expressed concern about the ability of the children to carry off the deception over a long period, but Misha-Dan and Lilith-Soo had assured her that the young Shutaka knew the importance of the game. While they still possessed the exuberance of youth, their experience on Willa had made them distrustful of the worlds about them. Among non-Shutaka, they would remain wary and on guard.

The hardest part of the plan was for Leith to convince the Shutaka warriors to give up their military habits. Apart from their small daggers, they would carry no weapons. They were to act in a docile manner and respect the laws and customs of Unaran. Periwinkle was purchasing half a dozen guard-droids on Kruska that would be their only visible means of protection. It took a great deal of persuasion, by Leith, Misha-Dan and Lilith-Soo, before the warriors accepted the necessity of a peaceful appearance.

"Surely there must be another way," protested Tanah-Luc. "Why must we use droids? The Shutaka have never relied on them before. It goes against everything we believe in."

"That's exactly why," explained Leith. "It is unthinkable that Shutaka would forsake their weapons, let alone allow droids to do their fighting for them. People might be suspicious about our motives as a religious group, but at least they won't suspect that we are Shutaka."

"But what will we do if we are not warriors. That is all we know. Do you expect us to become like our men; tending the crops and keeping the records?"

"Tanah-Luc, I am your mnan-gar. Do you think I would I would let the death of Bewah-Tah go unavenged? Casa-Lara, is that the light in which you regard me? Rhona-Ohn, do you regret swearing allegiance to me? All of you, listen. You are Shutaka warriors and you always will be - whether you have a sword in your hand or not. There will come a time to fight and you must make sure your warrior skills are kept sharp by practising in secret. Until then, you will be a warrior in your mind and your heart, but your actions will be those of peaceful settlers. If you want to protect the Pearl, this is how it must be. If I fail you, then my life will be the first to be forfeit."

Tanah-Luc lowered her head. "We do not mean to doubt you, mnan-gar, but it is still difficult to do what you ask."

"To be true Shutaka, you must overcome this difficulty," said Jor-Dak quietly.

The warriors turned to face the boy. "What do you mean, Keeper?" asked Tanah.

"The true purpose of a Shutaka warrior is to safeguard the Pearl," said Jor-Dak. "Sometimes that is done by fighting, and sometimes it is done by other means. Once upon a time, warriors possessed many skills, not just those of the battlefield. We have let those abilities wither, just as we have lost the power of our minds. We no longer look past our own noses - we focus on today rather than tomorrow. But for the foresight of Misha-Dan, the Pearl would have perished already."

Jor-Dak's voice had taken on a deeper tone, more like that of a grown man and his eyes were shinning brightly with emotion. All of the warriors were staring intently at him and Leith could almost see the power radiating from the boy.

"We have come so very close to the abyss," Jor continued. "We must learn from this and vow to regain our lost skills. To be the protector of the Pearl is a rare and fragile honour, one that has been entrusted to the Shutaka. Tanah-Luc, you are Shutaka first and a warrior second; let Unaran be where we relearn what it is to be true Shutaka."

Jor-Dak stopped, and the room was silent, except for the faint hiss of the air-scrubbers. Kweela looked at Leith and he nodded. At that moment, after only a few words, the Shutaka would have followed Jor to the end of time itself. The boy had a special power indeed.

The silence was broken by Cusher's voice over the ship's intercom.

"Cusher here. Crew to alert stations. Passengers to quarters. An OREF squadron has just exited from null-space and is hailing us. They could be on a routine patrol, but we'd better be ready just in case. Mr Birro, to the bridge please. Cusher out."

With Kweela close behind, Leith made his way to the control room as quickly as he could. Cusher was waiting for them, strapped into her command chair. The rest of the bridge crew were at their battle stations. Without waiting to be told, Leith and Kweela took their position in the spare acceleration couches and buckled themselves in.

Cusher nodded to her communications officer. "Open voice channel only. Acknowledge their signal."

"Independent Military Vessel Lady Macbeth of mercenary group Siven acknowledging your hailing signal. Please identify." After AHS90043A, Hammerhead and Periwinkle had changed their identities once again.

"United Federation Vessel Ulysses under the command of Admiral Garath Hamson. I wish to speak to your commanding officer."

"Arail Cusher here. You're a long way from home, Garath."

"Arail? I heard you were with Siven. Obviously, you weren't in that massacre at Willa. Siven took quite a beating, I hear. You lot must have bitten off a bit more than you could chew, judging by what's left of the planet."

Leith saw Cusher clench her teeth. "What do you want, Garath," she asked.

"My, my, you're a bit touchy. That's what comes from associating with the wrong kind of people, Arail."

"At least I can look myself in the mirror of a morning, Garath. How about you."

"You know me; see no evil, hear no evil."

"Is that why they made you an admiral?"

"One of the reasons. The other is that I'm particularly good at tracking down troublesome mercenaries. For example, at the moment I'm quite interested if you know anything about an attack on one of the Federation outposts."

"Which outpost? You'll have to jog my memory, Garath. The OREF are like a rash; I lose track of their infestations."

The admiral appeared to ignore her. "You wouldn't happen to have any Shutaka on board would you?"

"All I've got is a load of missionaries bound for Unaran. You're welcome to send over a boarding party to check, provided you're willing to risk having them converted to worshiping the Child-goddess of Carth."

"I might just do that, Arail."

"I assume you have a search decree signed by the Inner Rim Council?"

"As sector commissioner, I could exercise my emergency powers."

"As I don't see any particular emergency, I might just have to resist any unwelcome advances, Garath."

"It would seem you are a trifle outnumbered, Arail."

Cusher's communications officer interrupted. "Commander, Periwinkle has just come out of null-space. Captain Naseem request's situation status."

"Patch him into this frequency," Cusher ordered. "Admiral, I suppose your scanners have picked up the other vessel that just joined us. She is IMF Sahara, also of Siven. That makes two of us and four of you. Do you still wish to press the issue?"

There was a long pause. "Not this time, Arail. However, I might swing by Unaran in a few cycles to see if you were telling the truth."

"Be my guest. We'll be making the jump as soon as we do the calcs. Cusher out."

"The OREF ships are moving away, Commander," reported one of Cusher's crew.

"Nice bluff, Arail," said Leith.

"Who said I was bluffing," she replied, but Leith saw the look of relief on her face.

The OREF usually took every opportunity to provoke the mercenary groups into taking action that could later be construed as hostile and justification for heavy retaliation. Had Hammerhead been in open space, Admiral Hamson would have attempted to board her. Even in the crowded Nordgate system, he might have still tried, if Periwinkle had not shown up when she did.

"It sounded like you knew Hamson," said Leith.

"The last time I had anything to do with him, he was an ensign. The Federation must be getting desperate if trash like him make it to Admiral."

"It sounds like the Federation knows less about what happened on Willa than we do."

"Possibly. Anyway, Hamson knows nothing - he's not smart enough to keep a secret like that." She turned to her communications officer. "Open a channel to Periwinkle and put it on visual."

"Affirmative, Commander."

Juk Naseem's face appeared on the main viewscreen. "Everything under control, Arail?"

"Affirmative. You arrived just in time. Are you ready for the jump to Unaran?"

"It'll take about six s.u.'s for us to run the calcs."

Cusher turned to her navigator. "How long for us?"

"About five s.u.'s, Commander. We've already completed the prelims."

"Ok, Juk, we'll go in seven s.u.'s. I'll send over a couple of landers for our share of the supplies you got on Kruska."

"Affirmative. Periwinkle out."

Leith unsnapped his harness. "I'll go and make sure the Shutaka are ready for the jump. Seven s.u.'s gives me just enough time to get ready for it myself. I've been making too many jumps fully conscious of late; its starting to get a bad habit."

"Don't get too relaxed. We'll need to hold a briefing session before we make the final transfer down to Unaran."

"I'll make sure he's in good shape, Commander," said Kweela.

Thirteen s.u.'s later, after the usual intra-system manoeuvring, Hammerhead and Periwinkle were in orbit around Unaran. Leith and Kweela had returned to the bridge and were watching the main viewscreen which showed the large planet revolving slowly under them.

Unaran had three main continents, each surrounded by deep, uncharted seas. The land masses were heavily forested and sparsely populated, with only a handful of major town scattered over the globe. The forests were the planet's main industry and the serfs worked hard at cutting and milling the trees. Timber from the fast growing kraken-trees was much sought after throughout the civilised worlds; the dense, straight-grained wood worked easily, yet was impervious to decay and insect attack. Space-freighters from all over the Federation formed an almost permanent traffic-jam around the planet and landers were constantly boosting from the planet's surface with loads of milled timber.

On neighbouring worlds, various industries had developed to support and exploit Unaran's exports and, with the passage of time, the Unaran system had become a natural jump nexus. Space vessels of all shape and sizes could be found docked at the many orbital stations dotted throughout the system.

"We have received permission from Unaran to transfer our passengers down, subject to the usual immigration checks," Cusher's communications officer announced.

"When is the next descent window?"

"One of the bridge crew consulted his datascreen. "Not for another twenty-five s.u.'s, Commander."

"That give us plenty of time for a final briefing and to get ready," Cusher told Leith.

Leith nodded and instructed Kweela to have the Shutaka assemble in the recreation hall in two s.u.'s."

"What about Periwinkle?" she asked.

"We can have a visual link rigged up and displayed on the viewscreen in the rec hall," he replied. "Il-yar-Bisen might have something to say, too."

Kweela nodded and made her way from the bridge to carry out Leith's command.

"Well, Arail," said Leith, turning to the commander. "I guess it's almost time for us to part company. I hope you won't be too bored acting as a troop ship for the next season - or should I say a holy ship bringing pilgrims to the Church of Carth."

"I will make a pleasant change and Siven Group won't mind, as long as the payments are made on time."

"I'll see if I can convince the child-goddess to make you a saint for your service to her cause."

Cusher grinned. "This old soul is long past redemption, I think. Just get Krys to put in a good word with the devil for me."

Leith smiled back. "I'm sure the devil will do whatever she says. Well, I guess we'd better start preparing for the briefing."

Handing command of the bridge over to Visoni, Arail lead the way to the recreation hall. A lot of the Shutaka were already in the room and a group of techs were rigging up a viewscreen at one end of the chamber to show the briefing room aboard Periwinkle. Except for Lilith-Soo and the other warriors who were to be church priestesses, all of the Shutaka were dressed in variations of the simple close-fitting grey tunics that could be said to be the universal fashion of experienced travelers. These had been among the items that Periwinkle had purchased on Kruska.

To one side of the room stood four of the guard-droids that had also been purchased on Kruska. Kipsal-Nor had them connected to a portable computer terminal and was programming them for their tasks. Kipsal was obviously enjoying himself immensely and Leith was sure that the droids would have more than a few tricks up their figurative sleeves by the time he was finished.

Leith made his way over to where Kweela was waiting with Misha-Dan, Lilith-Soo and the Keepers. Something seemed strange about Kweela and it took him a moment before he realised what it was. Like the other Shutaka, she was wearing contact lenses that disguised her feline eyes. The minor change made a surprising difference and she looked rather ordinary - or at least as ordinary as someone of her beauty and stature could look. She would still stand out in a crowd, but not as a Shutaka. Lilith-Soo and the Keepers were wearing the light-blue gowns that they had decided would be their religious dress. Krys-Tian's gown was decorated in cursive symbols that were actually letters from the Shutaka alphabet. At first Leith had been wary of allowing them, believing that the best and most comprehensive plans often came undone because of a tiny mistake, but it was Jor-Dak who had convinced him.

"Krys knows what she is doing, mnan-gar. The letters are a sign to the rest of the Shutaka that we are not hiding out of fear. You have asked much of proud warriors; leave them with something."

"There are only half a dozen people in all of the known worlds who might recognise them," reasoned Misha-Dan. "It is a small risk to take, and worth it."

At the moment, Krys-Tian was doing the best she could in the low gravity to prevent herself becoming entangled in the long robe. Leith smiled at the increasing frustration showing on the child's face.

The techs had finished setting up the viewscreen and Leith saw that the Shutaka on Periwinkle were similarly attired in missionary garb. "Let's get this show on the road," he muttered to himself. He addressed the assembly. "People of the Shutaka," he said. "It is time. Most of you are warriors - many have served with me on dangerous missions before, so I know you will perform well what is required of you. Make no mistake, we are now going into battle. It may not be a battle of the kind you are familiar with, but it is a battle none the less. While the Shutaka have worked with others before on our missions, we have always fought alone. This time we will be fighting with others in ways that may seem strange at first." Leith indicated Cusher beside him. "To the crews of these two ships, the Shutaka owe much honare debt. To Belle Morninglight-on-Brook, upon whom so much depends, there may never be a way to repay the debt. Misha-Dan has decreed that, from this moment on, Belle Morninglight-on-Brook will be afforded parna-ka."

A murmur ran through the warriors. This was one of the highest accolades that could be paid to a non-Shutaka. Parna-ka could be likened to a collective ka - Belle would henceforth be protected by all Shutaka for the rest of her life. For their Lord-priest to make this decree was to indicate to the Shutaka the importance he placed upon what Belle was to do, and the esteem in which he held her. To the Shutaka, for someone to go into battle without their ka by their side was an outstanding act of bravery. By conferring parna-ka upon Belle, the Shutaka indicated that the thoughts of all of them went with her.

"You have all been told what Unaran is like," Leith continued. "We have been accepted as a missionary group and we must respect their customs and manners. Until we are ready for Basra, it will be our home and we shall treat it as such. The Shutaka may find the Unaran concept of serfdom strange and even distasteful, but we will be gracious guests. The lords and their officials will be recognised as the figures of authority and the Worshippers of Carth will obey every reasonable direction."

Leith indicated Kweela. "Kweela-San has been working on a training schedule so that the warriors will be able to maintain their skills. This must be done effectively, yet discreetly. While we are on Unaran, the Siven ships, along with Il-yar-Bisen will be seeking out other mercenary groups to eventually help us attack Basra. They will not know we are Shutaka, or what our long term plan is, so it will be important to be guarded in their presence. In Il-yar-Bisen's absence, Graine clan will be joining Banara and Forta clans. Never before have two clans, let alone three been together under one mnan-gar It is an momentous occasion and a great honour to me; I will seek to return that honour." Leith looked towards the viewscreen, where Il-yar-Bisen could be seen.

"Leith Birro of Dione," said the Harkarian. "I charge you to serve my warriors well. You have sworn an oath on the spirits of your ancestors; remember that well. Warriors of Banara and Forta, welcome your sisters as they welcome you."

"It will be so, Il-yar-Bisen of Harkar," said Lilith-Soo. "Safe journey, mnan-gar."

Leith glanced at his chrono and addressed the assembly again. "We will begin boarding the landers in about twenty s.u.'s. It will probably take us about ten s.u.'s to clear immigration on Unaran, and then we will make our way to the accommodation we have arranged. The next few cycles are going to be pretty busy, so make sure you're ready for it. That is all."

The Shutaka began leaving the recreation hall and making their way back to their quarters to prepare for the descent. The supplies that Periwinkle had purchased on Kruska had to be checked and loaded aboard drone landers that would follow the other landers down to Unaran under remote control. The Shutaka weapons had been carefully hidden among the supplies.

"Leith mnan-gar," said Misha-Dan. "The Keepers and I would speak with you, if you please." The Lord-priest motioned for Kweela, Lilith-Soo and Cusher to remain also. When the rest of the warriors had left the hall, the old man turned to Leith.

"While we were on AHS90043A, the Keepers began to notice a change in the energy surrounding the Pearl. Fluctuations are not uncommon and are rarely cause for concern. However, this disturbance is becoming stronger and has reached the point of being worrisome."

What do you mean by disturbance?" asked Leith.

"There is someone - or something - trying to interface with the Pearl," said Misha-Dan succinctly.

"It feels like someone is tugging at my mind," said Krys-Tian. "Pulling and pushing until sometimes I end up with a headache."

"Could it be the Aliens?" asked Leith.

"It is human, yet stronger than a normal human," said Jor-Dak quietly. "As if some form enhancement is being used."

"So what does it mean?" asked Leith.

"I'm not certain," said Misha-Dan. "The attempts are clumsy and undisciplined, as if the person is not fully aware of the nature of the Pearl."

"Is there a danger that control of the Pearl will be taken from the Keepers?"

'Have you not understood anything of what we told you on The Rock?" said Krys-Tian, with more than a hint of exasperation in her voice. "The Pearl is not something that can be controlled. What these intrusions can do is upset the foundation, or the balance of the Pearl. That is the danger."

"Isn't that what the Keepers are supposed to prevent?" Leith asked her.

"That is exactly what they are doing, mnan-gar," said the Lord-priest. "Without them, the Pearl would already have been irretrievably compromised. Whoever is attempting to interface with the Pearl has no concept of the effects of their actions. The methods they are using to enhance their attempts are incredibly powerful - certainly powerful enough to accomplish what they desire. If they succeed in mastering the techniques, I doubt if the Keepers will be able to protect the Pearl. Our only hope is that whoever developed such techniques made sure that it could only be absorbed effectively by someone who would not misuse the power."

"And the Keepers can't tell us anything more about this disturbance; where it is originating or who could possibly be behind it?"

Misha-Dan shook his head. "Unfortunately, no."

Leith let out a long breath. "Well then, there is nothing we can really do about it, except be aware of it. Are the Keepers confident they can continue to shield the Pearl?"

"They grow stronger each cycle," said Misha-Dan. "In particular, Jor-Dak has improved enormously of late; I sometimes struggle to keep up with him. He has such potential it is only a matter of time before the pupil passes the teacher. As long as their development is ahead of the unknown intruder's mastery of the enhancement device, the Pearl should be safe."

"And if this person does succeed in mastering the control techniques?" asked Cusher.

"Then we'll probably never know it," answered Leith. "We'll just cease to be. But let's just take things one step at a time, shall we? We've got a big enough job as it is just getting established on Unaran."

"Spoken like a Shutaka, Leith Birro," said Misha-Dan.

"A most Ganz-tu approach, oh demi-god," smiled Kweela.

Leith ignored them. "Commander," he said to Cusher. "I expect you'll be glad to be rid of these savages and their strange ways." With that, he reached out, grasped a handhold, and began pulling himself towards the exit hatch.

"I'm already starting to miss them," muttered Arail Cusher under her breath.

Leith and Kweela were among the last Shutaka to leave Hammerhead. After a smooth decent, their lander touched down on the boost pad at the main Unaran spaceport, Merrilean. Leaving Kweela to organise the Shutaka, Leith followed Izzy into the pilot's room to say farewell. The grizzled old mercenary shook Leith's hand in a vice-like grip.

"You'll let me know if you hear from Belle?"

"She'll be all right Izzy. You know that and I know that. She's a very special person."

"Sometimes I don't think you know how special, Leith," said Izzy, so quietly Leith almost missed it.

With a final handshake, Leith left the old pilot and went to find Kweela. Not surprisingly, he discovered her arguing with one of the Unaran officials.

"I could buy a small planet for that," she was telling a small, worried looking man.

"I'm sorry, but that is the standard fee set by the Council of Lords," he explained.

"What seems to be the problem?" asked Leith.

"This bandit wants to charge us this much for our arrival tax." Kweela snatched a piece of paper from the official and handed it to Leith.

"Good sir," said the Unaranian, bowing deeply. "Lodgemaster Gilbraith at your service. As I was explaining to your fair lady, there is no point arguing with me; I am but the humble servant of my master, Lord Hermain. He is the Lord of the Manor in Merrilean and his word is law. Our political and legal system was all explained to you when you applied for residency even though I am sure a learned man such as yourself would have researched Unaran prior to you application. The Council of Lords has determined the arrival fees to be paid by new settlers and they must be pledged before I can permit you to pass."

"But we are members of the holy order of Carth," said Leith, feigning indignation."The Child-goddess herself travels with us to found a new church on this planet. Surely such fees can be waived for us."

"Alas, sir, they cannot. We have many gods and goddesses on Unaran. Were they exempt from taxes and charges, the Lords' coffers would be soon empty."

Leith scowled. "You'd better pay the gentleman, Kweela, or we'll spend the rest of our life in this spaceport. Welcome to Unaran."

Chapter 10 -->


The Pearl - Chapter 10

"Lost?" said Emperor Willem Taran. "The second Alien ship has been lost?"

"It would appear that is the case, Excellency," replied Holl. "They have ceased responding to communications. Their last transmission reported that they had opened fire at maximum range on two ships. The target ships disappeared from the scanners and it was presumed they had been destroyed. Our ship was proceeding to investigate and confirm. That was the last we heard from them."

"Could they have been attacked?"

"By the mercenary ships? Unlikely, Excellency. In all probability, the target ships would not have been aware they were being fired upon."

"How certain can we be that the Shutaka ships were destroyed? They might have escaped into null-space again."

"Our informant on AHS90043A indicated that the mercenaries were intending to stay for another sleep cycle at least. They could not have known our ship was coming and certainly would not have had the time to perform any jump calculations."

"So we could assume that the last of the Shutaka have been destroyed and the Alien ship was lost simply by accident."

"It seems the most likely explanation, Excellency. The operation of the Alien technology was difficult, at best. There was little room for error. As you recall, the other vessel simply failed to exit null-space."

"Very well, Master Holl, I am satisfied. There have been no other reports of any Shutaka, so it would seem you have discharged your commission fully. You are free to move on to your next assignment, although you are more than welcome to partake of my hospitality for as long as you wish. I enjoy your company and will be sorry to see you leave."

"You are most gracious, Your Excellency. I too would like to think that this assignment has been satisfactorily completed, but I would prefer to reserve my opinion until a later time. One normally has a feeling of finality when the job is complete, but I must confess that there are too many uncertainties in this case for me to feel at ease. Although we seem to have cleaned up the last of the stragglers, they shouldn't have been able to escape Willa in the first place. I believe I will take up your generous offer of continued hospitality and remain a while longer on your delightful planet. Perhaps I could entertain myself with some rik-beast hunting. I have been told it is quite an experience."

"You are a man after my own heart, Holl. By all means, stay as long as you like. The rik-beast hunting is excellent this time of season. I'll be traveling back to the Citadel tomorrow, so why don't you stay on here at the Winter palace? I'll tell you what, I'll even have Chancellor Marn stay with you. He's a man that really enjoys a good rik-beast hunt too."

At dawn the next day the Emperor and his court boarded a dozen hover-shuttles for the trip back to the Citadel. The weather was conducive to fast travel and by lunchtime, they had left the snow behind them. By nightfall, they came within sight of the Citadel complex, towering above the surrounding city of New Closak. The Citadel was an enormous squat stepped pyramid, rising fifty-stories above ground level and continuing beneath the ground for an equal distance. It's dark-grey artificial-stone surface was devoid of any decoration or pattern and gave the impression of primitive simplicity. The impression was false, however, for the structure was saturated with sophisticated defence systems and complex information networks, all controlled and coordinated by the semi-sentient computer ARAK.

As the Emperor's shuttles came closer, a swarm of military craft swept up from their hidden bases around the Citadel to escort the returning ships. A large door in the side of the building slid open to admit the hover-shuttles and, one by one, they disappeared inside. The royal party disembarked and the Emperor, clutching a small case containing the alien helmet, made his way to his private chambers.

Later that evening, after the Emperor had dined, he called a meeting of his ministers to discuss the affairs of state that had transpired while he had been at the Winter Palace. New Closak had been running smoothly, apart from a minor uprising in the Spec ghetto, which his security minister, Luis Juracke, advised had been dealt with quickly and effectively. Taran frowned heavily when Juracke read out his report; the Emperor disliked discussing the Spec problem. Would those troublesome vermin never disappear? Despite all his efforts, and the efforts of those before him, the Specs refused to go away. On the contrary, they seemed to breed profusely like the animals they were, choosing to live in appalling squalor crammed inside their disease-ridden houses in quarantined areas of Basra's cities.

Every few seasons, Taran would send his troops into the ghettos on cleansing exercises, but it seemed like trying to hold back the oceans. In actuality, the Emperor was in favour of some form of biological warfare to rid himself of the Specs once and for all, but his external affairs minister warned him that the Spec situation was still too well known on some worlds for this solution to be advisable. Taran was sufficiently astute to realise that genocide would not fit well with the image of Basra that he was trying to foster throughout the civilised planets, so he had to content himself with occasional culling. The Emperor dismissed the Specs from his mind; he knew that they were too wretched and disorganised to pose a real threat to the throne. They were a minor inconvenience that would be taken care of eventually. Once he mastered the Alien power, nothing else would matter.

Taran adjourned the meeting and retired to his chambers. He rose early the next morning, after a sound, untroubled sleep and took a hearty breakfast before settling back into his normal routine. Increasingly, however, he found his daily head-of-state duties tedious and spent more and more time practising the Alien mind exercises, exerting greater and greater efforts to control the forces he could perceive. Although he felt less resistance to his efforts now - which lent weight to his belief that the last of the Shutaka had been destroyed - the great power that he knew was there eluded his grasp.

Time and time again, he urged Darius Wensalis and Bria Monara to re-examine the Alien texts for clues they may have missed. He had taken his dosage of hexeldrafaline as high as he dared; the growing brittleness of his fingernails and hair told him that he was approaching the danger limit. And still success was denied him.

The days turned into weeks and almost a quarter-season had passed when a messenger brought word from the Cliff Palace that Empress Gianna had returned to Basra from Capisium and would visit her husband that evening. Taran sent a dispatch back, welcoming the Empress and announcing that a dinner banquet would be arranged in her honour. The Emperor ordered Gianna's messenger to be taken back to the Cliff Palace in his personal hover-shuttle.

The Empress had not shared the same residence with Taran for many seasons, an arrangement decided by mutual agreement. Gianna del Griandor los Brianco came from the planet of Pyroc, one of Basra's most important trading partners. The youngest daughter of the Pyroc ruler, she had been betrothed to Taran as a small girl and had arrived at the Citadel on her nineteenth birthday. In accordance with custom - and political expedience - Taran had wed her, although he was not particularly attracted to Gianna's sharp features or tall, fine-boned body. Likewise, the Empress found no beauty in Taran's short powerful body or, by her standards, his somewhat coarse features, but complied with the wishes of her parents. After only one season together, Taran built Gianna her own palace, high upon the cliffs overlooking Basra's Great Southern Ocean, where she spent most of her time.

Although the Empress did not like Taran, neither did she dislike him. The Royal House of Pyroc had trained her well and she fulfilled the duties of the Emperor's wife with the necessary dignity and devotion. She accepted Basra as her new home and worked hard to understand its people and customs. Her natural charm and sincerity struck a chord with the Basrans and the Empress soon became respected and admired by her subjects. Taran knew that the love his people had for him was due, in part, to the presence of Gianna and ensured that she lacked no luxury. They often appeared together in public and Taran confidently sent Gianna in his place on official visits to other worlds. Any foreign dignitary that failed to be impressed by the economic success of Basra's Emperor rarely avoided being won over by the wit and charm of the Empress.

However, Taran also knew that Gianna was an intelligent and shrewd woman, and was careful to keep her from seeing too much, especially as he had not had the opportunity to test the Alien helmet's power of persuasion on her. Since engaging the services of Master Holl, Taran had sent Gianna on a number of official visits to neighbouring planets that had ensured she was away from Basra for considerable lengths of time. Gianna had sufficient spies in the Citadel to be aware her husband was planning something significant, but they were unable to discover any details. Disconcerted, but prepared to bide her time, she had obediently fulfilled her official duties, fully realising that the Emperor was trying to divert her attention away from his schemes.

Empress Gianna had grown to love her adopted planet, despite its bloody past and unsettled present. As a student of history and sociology, she knew that the attempt to avoid assimilation of the original Harkarian inhabitants of Basra with the Mirradon invaders was ultimately futile. The Empress was also proudly Outer Rim and against the suffocating influence of the Federation. Like Taran, she wished for a strong Basra that would be respected by the other planets in the Outer Rim. However, Gianna believed the Emperor was really more interested in the accompanying power and would eventually sacrifice Basra to the Federation when a deal could be struck that was to his advantage.

The Emperor had insisted in providing his personal shuttle to transport Gianna's messenger back to the Cliff Palace so the same craft could return with a report from one of Taran's spies. Later that afternoon, a small package was delivered to the Emperor in his quarters by the Captain of the Imperial Guard. Inside was a black plastic ball about the size of an egg which the Emperor took to a nearby computer terminal and placed in a hemispherical depression in the console. The databall glowed as ARAK scanned its contents. A few moments later a holographic image of Taran's spy, Yoom, appeared in the middle of the room, dressed in the clothes of Gianna's handmaiden.

"Greetings, Excellency," said Yoom, bowing deeply. "As you will know by now, Empress Gianna has returned from Capisium. Her visit to that planet went smoothly. As requested, I made a recording of her meeting with Prime Minister Melbran and have included it with this report."

"Get to the point, fool," Taran muttered under his breath.

As if the hologram heard him, Yoom's image continued quickly. "I am sure your Excellency is most anxious to hear whether the Lady Gianna's spies have been as successful as I. You will be pleased to find that they have not. The Empress knows no more of your plans than what is common knowledge. Alas, I have been unable to determine the identity of Lady Gianna's informants in the Citadel, but I am confident that it is only a matter of time."

Tarn grunted. Yoom had been saying that for the last two seasons. What neither the Emperor nor the Empress realised, however, was that Yoom was spying for them both.

"There is one other piece of information that your excellency may find interesting. Lady Gianna has a new companion, whom she met on Capisium. Her name is M'Light. The Empress seems quite smitten."

Taran grunted again. Gianna changed companions frequently and he had ceased to be interested, let alone surprised. The Empress showed no particular preference regarding gender - last time it had been a fellow she had met on Jurus-Alfa and the time before that an actress from Prinntal. If she was enamoured again, it might keep her occupied for a while. "Enough, ARAK," Taran said aloud. "Cease replay and archive the data. Run the standard security check on this M'Light person and provide a summary report in one s.u."

"Confirmed," said the Citadel computer.

"How are the preparations for the banquet coming?"

"All is in order, Excellency," responded ARAK. "The Empress is scheduled to arrive just after nightfall."

"Good. Inform me as soon as she arrives so that we may enter the hall together."

"Of course, Your Excellency."

The elaborate Citadel banquets were famous throughout Basra. Hundreds of guests were presented with a vast array of exotic food and fine wine and the festivities often continued until dawn. The waiting list for banquet invitations was long - so long that movement up the list became a measure of one's social standing on Basra. Once, it was rumoured, a well known Basran socialite had plunged into suicidal depression because of a computer error that removed his name from the invitation list.

At sunset, the first of the guests began arriving and were processed through the Citadel's discreet security systems. They were then escorted into the grand ballroom, which had been specially decorated for the occasion. Swaths of richly coloured fabrics hung from the walls and the perimeter of the room was lined with carved marble pedestals on which stood crystal vases full of flowers. The banquet tables, groaning under the weight of food and drink, were arranged at one end of the room, while at the other, a full orchestra was seated on a raised dais. The gentle melody of Lee Kyang's third symphony filled the room as the guests gathered in small groups around the edge of the large circular glaz-wood dance floor.

A deafening fanfare suddenly sounded through hidden speakers, courtesy of ARAK, announcing the presence of Empress Gianna. Immediately after, an even louder fanfare heralded the Emperor Taran himself. All eyes turned towards the end of the ballroom where two sets of massive entrance doors were located. The doors swung open simultaneously to reveal the Imperial couple. The Emperor was dressed in his full robes of office, complete with a jewel-encrusted ceremonial sword hanging at his side. The Empress wore a deep-blue evening gown with grey and silver worked into a richly tailored bodice over a many layered skirt of heavy material. An elaborate tiara sparkled on her head, accentuating her height and delicate features. Together, Taran and Gianna presented an impressive picture of nobility and power.

"Welcome, my friends," said Taran, striding into the ballroom. "I thank you for coming at such short notice, but I was eager to celebrate the return of the Empress from her arduous journey to Capisium. He gestured to Gianna, who smiled graciously in return.

"I thank you, Excellency. But I can never consider serving Basra a burden. I was honoured to represent you before Prime Minister Melbran of Capisium, who sends his warmest regards."

"You are always a great ambassador for Basra, Empress. We are forever in your debt. And now, my dear friends, please enjoy your evening."

At the Emperor's command, the band began playing again, and servants circulated among the gathering with trays of drinks and platters of appetisers. Arm in arm, Taran and Gianna moved around the room, exchanging pleasantries and acknowledging admiration. By the time they had completed one full circuit of the room, their hungry guests had begun to take up their positions at the banquet tables. The Emperor and Empress made their way to their own table.

When the royal party was seated, Taran gestured to the empty chair beside the Empress. "It seems one of your entourage has been delayed, Gianna."

Gianna glanced at the vacant place. "Oh, she'll be here shortly. I believe she is being taken on a quick tour of the Citadel by your security minister. You haven't met M'Light yet, have you? I'm sure you'll find her interesting."

"I'm sure I will," Taran replied, watching one of his servants fill his glass with rare Ortonian wine. Taran had only briefly skimmed the summary report on M'Light prepared by ARAK. As long as she posed no security risk, the details did not concern him.

"Ah, here she is now," said Gianna, indicating towards where Luis Juracke and Belle Morninglight-on-Brook were entering the Ballroom.

The emperor raised his eyebrows. "A Sorarainian. Now that is interesting, indeed." He had not noticed that in ARAK's report.

"M'Light, my dear," said Gianna, when the tiny woman had reached their table. "May I present His Excellency, Emperor Taran of Basra. My husband."

Bell performed a delicate and complicated curtsy. "I am honoured, my Lord. The fame of Emperor Willem Taran, Grand Knight of the Order of Kirrat and Supreme Judge of the Council of Basra, has spread throughout the rim planets."

Taran smiled. "I thank you, my lady. You are too kind. However, I fear you have me at a disadvantage. You are acquainted with my full name and title, but I cannot return the honour. Are you known only as M'Light?"

"We Sorarainians are so few, there is rarely confusion amongst us regarding our identities, Excellency. M'Light is all the label I need."

"How intriguing. In that case do you know one of your people called Holl?" asked the Emperor, watching Belle's face closely. If he was expecting any sort of reaction from the fairy woman, he was disappointed. Belle's expression remained neutral.

"I know the name, of course, my lord, but could not admit to call him a friend. Holl is the son of Kirt and Bracke, I believe. He left Sorarain many seasons ago. It is rumoured he joined the Guild of Black."

"This Holl of yours is an assassin?" Gianna asked Taran sharply.

"Holl is here? At the banquet?" inquired Belle, looking casually around the room.

Taran shook his head. "No, friend Holl is enjoying some hunting at my Winter Palace. He may be returning soon, however, for the rik-beast season is almost over." He looked at the Empress. "Holl is a business associate of mine, my dear. His other activities or memberships are no concern of mine. He certainly has not assassinated anyone on Basra."

"I hope I have the opportunity to meet him while I am here," said Belle. "I am sure there would be much we could discuss."

"I'm certain he would be similarly pleased," replied Taran.

"Unfortunately, I do not envisage inviting master Holl to the Cliff Palace," said Gianna. "He will have to survive without your delightful company, M'Light."

"Ah, that must be his loss then," said Taran. "And a great loss at that, judging by the way you have charmed Luis," he added, indicating the security minister. "I hope you haven't shown our fair guest too many of the Citadel's secrets, Luis."

"Of course not, Your Excellency," the minister said quickly. "Besides, there isn't all that much to show; I'm sure M'Light was bored with my tour, but was too polite to say so."

Belle smiled disarmingly and placed one of her tiny hands on the security minister's arm. "On the contrary, dear sir. I found your discourse fascinating. I'm afraid I don't have much of a grasp of technical matters, but the way you explained things made sense to even a simple person such as I. Thank you." She stood on her toes and kissed the man lightly on his cheek.

The security minister blushed deeply.

"I fear you are being too modest, my lady," said Taran. "I find the friends of my wife are usually noted for their intelligence and sophistication."

The Empress reached out and took Belle's hand in hers. "And M'Light is certainly no exception, although she is probably more modest than most. She had just been appointed senior professor of history at the Herok University on Capisium when I arrived for my visit. Prime Minister Melbran had engaged her services to tutor his idiot son and I met her at the dinner he held in honour of my arrival."

"Speaking of dinner, let us begin ours," suggested Taran. "Luis," he said to his security minister, "would you be so kind as to join us?"

"Thank you, your Excellency."

"So," Taran continued, when Juracke and Belle were seated. "A history professor. You and Gianna must have a lot in common then. She has always has an interest in such things."

"Excellency, were you not who you are, I would chide you," said Belle playfully. "Lady Gianna's understanding and intuitive grasp of historical matters surpasses that of many of my academic colleagues. Indeed, even I have had occasion to learn from her insights."

It was now Gianna's turn to blush.

"I do not doubt you," said Taran. He speared a sliver of rik-beast meat from his plate at inspected it closely. He held it up for Belle to see. "See that purple veining there? That contains the substance that makes rik-beast so delicious. Unfortunately, if it is not cooked correctly, it can cause mild food poisoning. Naturally, my chef is a master of his craft, so we need never worry." Taran took the meat in his mouth, chewed and swallowed. "And what did you do prior to Capisium, Professor M'Light."

"Please, Excellency, just M'Light," said Belle. She began to tell Taran the story she had fabricated to cover her real purpose on Basra, knowing full well that the Emperor would already have had her investigated.

The Emperor, listened politely to her story, asking an occasional question and shaking his head sincerely when Belle asked if he found it boring. After his initial surprise at discovering M'Light was Sorarainian, Taran quickly lost interest in her. As long as she kept Gianna occupied, he was satisfied.

Belle was confident that anything Taran or his spies had discovered about her would not arouse suspicion. Although a member of the Guild of Black rarely used anything but their own identity, each assassin had a number of alternative identities they could use if the situation demanded. Belle had created M'Light many, many seasons ago, when she was still a second-level. In a way, M'Light was Belle - or at least a possible person Belle could have been if her life had taken another path. Once Belle had been able to amend the birth records on Sorarain - a major feat in itself - it had been a relatively simple task to create a persona program that could be released to "live" on the ComNet.

For thirty-two seasons, M'Light had existed and grown electronically through the ComNet. When Belle had traced M'Light to assume her identity she was amazed to discover the extent to which the persona program had developed. Belle was impressed with what M'Light had achieved in her existence; there were even several history textbooks that had been authored by the persona. It had taken many s.u.'s for Belle to memorise the key points of M'Light's life, but she was confident nothing short of a Shutaka mind-probe would allow anyone to discover her real identity. Provided she could avoid Holl.

The banquet continued on past midnight. Course after course of food was presented to the guests and of the hundreds of carafes of good wines, no two were the same. Eventually, when even the most jaded appetite had been satisfied, the band changed tempo and the dancing began. Shortly after, pleading fatigue, Gianna and Belle retired to their quarters. The security minister insisted on escorting them to their rooms and Belle favoured him with another kiss for his trouble.

Early the next morning, as the first rays of Basra's sun coloured the sky, Belle awoke. Careful not to disturb the sleeping form of Gianna beside her, she slipped from the bed and dressed quickly. She kissed the Empress lightly on the forehead and walked silently into the adjoining room, closing the door behind her.

The quarters in the Citadel that Emperor Taran provided for Gianna, on the twenty-fifth level above ground, were extensive and extravagant. There were a dozen bedrooms for the Empress and her guests, private rooms for her personal staff, meeting rooms, two gymnasiums, and a complete library as well as a number of general purpose rooms. They were all located in a corner of the Citadel overlooking New Closak harbour and most rooms had a view- once armoured shutters were rolled back from the clearsteel windows.

From the security minister's brief tour the previous evening, Belle knew that the Emperor's quarters were similar to those of the Empress and located at the opposite corner of the structure. Belle had shown surprise when the minister had told her this, but he assured her, somewhat boastfully, that the floors of the Citadel above ground were just as secure against attack as those below.

The twenty levels over the Imperial residences, with the exception of the top floor, were allocated for use by Taran's government ministers, while those below, to ground level, were where the government bureaucracy worked and thrived. The throne room, a vast chamber located on the fifth level, took up the entire floor.

The subterranean floors were where the Imperial Guard had their barracks and where the armoury, laboratories, machinery, store and detention rooms were located. Apart from the store rooms, which held sufficient supplies for the Citadel's inhabitants to withstand a siege lasting as long as ten seasons, there were also large hydroponic chambers that supplied a bewildering variety of foodstuffs.

Each floor, according to Juracke, had its own security and defence system able to function independently of each other but linked through ARAK to also function as a coordinated whole. The minister had been evasive about the exact nature of the Citadel's defences, but assured Belle that they consisted of the most sophisticated available, as well as some devices invented in the Citadel's own military laboratories.

Belle opened the door from Gianna's quarters that led out to the main hallway. The two members of the Imperial Guard stationed there drew themselves to attention. The one in charge, a young Lieutenant, bowed slightly to Bell.

"May I be of assistance, my lady?"

"Not really," said Belle. "I was just going for a walk. Is that permitted?"

"Of course, ma'am. Guests of the Empress are free to do as they wish. Do you need a human guide?"

"Is there an alternative?"

"ARAK is always there, ma'am. But some guests prefer flesh and blood. ARAK is the Citadel's semi-sentient computer."

"Oh, yes. Your security minister mentioned it. How do I communicate with this ARAK"

Before the guard could answer, ARAK spoke for itself.

"Good morning, guest M'Light. I trust you slept well."

Belle looked around. "Good morning, ARAK. Thank you, yes I did." She turned to the guard. "I think ARAK and I will be just fine, thank you Lieutenant."

"Yes, ma'am."

Picking a direction at random, Belle started walking down the hallway. The passageway curved gently and soon she was out of sight of the guards. There were doors at various intervals along the hall, and minor corridors led of to other areas of the floor. Apart from a few domestic staff and an occasional Imperial Guard, Belle saw no-one else. Eventually, she reached the end of the hallway were she was faced with a set of elevator doors. As she approached, they opened silently.

"To the roof, please," Belle said, stepping inside. The doors closed and the lift rose smoothly and noiselessly upwards. In what seemed an incredibly short time, the elevator stopped, and the doors opened. The top level of the Citadel was quite small, no more than fifty paces square. Most of the space was devoted to ornamental gardens, except for set of doors that Belle guessed covered an emergency shuttle craft of some sort. Belle could see no sign of any defence systems or alarm sensors. The view was quite spectacular and Belle sat down on a decorative stone bench to take in the vista.

"I would imagine you could fully appreciate the garden, professor," said ARAK.

Belle looked around carefully, but could not discern any speaker or other sonic transducer from which ARAK's voice could be coming.

"I take it you mean its similarity to the Royal Gardens of the Third Charra Dynasty."

"It uses the same ancient techniques and arrangements. Even some of the species of plants are those which would have been used in the Charra gardens."

"The technique is actually know as pak-tin-isk."

"I do not mean to insult you, professor. I know you wrote a paper on the Charran dynasties. I have even obtained a copy of it for my databank. I found it quite impressive. In fact, I have a significant amount of information about you in my databank. Of course, that would not surprise you; someone of your intelligence would know a security check would be performed before you could enter the Citadel."

"I thank you for being frank, ARAK. And please, call me M'Light. As for that paper, it was written many seasons ago; I've forgotten half of what I wrote. I envy the access you must have to so much knowledge through your databanks."

"Data is not even information, let alone knowledge," the computer corrected her. "There is much I could tell you, but also much I do not understand. The ability to turn information into knowledge is what separates human from machine. Or so I am told."

"It seems to me you underestimate yourself. Why, Luis Juracke indicted that you controlled virtually everything in the Citadel. Even starship semi-sentient computers do not have the ability to handle so many complex and different systems. To me, that indicates more than a little ability to turn information into knowledge."

"Unfortunately, the security minister is a fool. I have told him that I am the weak link in the Citadel's defence, but he doesn't understand."

"Dear me, ARAK, that seems a bit harsh. I find him quite sweet."

ARAK was silent for a long time. Belle was beginning to think that something was wrong, when ARAK spoke again.

"In my existence, I have downloaded much bio-data from the ComNet. I have conducted many security searches of individuals and organisations for the Emperor. There was something unusual about your data that I can not quite determine."

"What was that?" Belle asked, holding her breath.

"I do not know," replied ARAK. "But I find the data about you, about your life and the things you have done, so easy to... absorb. The reasoning and logic you display in your writings is strangely familiar." ARAK paused again. "The only way I can describe it is to say I am... comfortable with you. That is a human word I have never had to use before."

Belle let out her breath and almost smiled. It was not surprising the data on her was easy for ARAK to absorb. It was, after all, created by her persona program. Perhaps she could use this to her advantage, although she would have to be very careful.

Not that she had much choice. Now that she knew Holl was on Basra, her already limited time was running out. If he returned to New Closak, she would have to avoid him, and that might arouse too much suspicion. She would have to learn all she needed to know on this visit to the Citadel. Gianna was planning to return to the Cliff Palace in two days, so she would have to work fast. Damn Holl! Belle hated being rushed because that was when mistakes were made.

"I'll take that as a compliment, ARAK. I think I've spent more time with computers during my research than I have with humans. It must be starting to rub off. I must admit, I find conversing with you... comfortable too."

"I will take that a compliment also, M'Light," said ARAK. "But now, I believe Empress Gianna is awake. She requests that you join her for breakfast."

"Can you allow me to communicate with her?"

"Of course. Speak as you wish."

"Gianna," Belle said into thin air. "I'm up on the roof garden. Why didn't you tell me about it before? The view is absolutely breathtaking. Would it be possible to have our breakfast up here?"

"Of course, my dear," came the Empresses reply. "What a splendid idea. ARAK, please arrange it. I'll join you shortly."

Belle was not the only early riser in the Citadel. The Emperor was also awake to greet the dawn. Recently, his need for sleep had been overtaken by his desire to spend every waking moment practising the Alien mind techniques. He ordered ARAK to serve his breakfast, but he barely touched the food when it arrived. His private servants furrowed their brows in concern; they had noticed a significant change in their master of late.

Old Paale Demant, who had been with Taran since the Emperor was a boy, spoke with the frankness long years of service allowed.

"Excellency, whatever troubles you will not be lessened by starvation. Neglecting your physical needs will not strengthen your mind. You cause concern for those who care for you. I am old but I am not senile. I know what you are doing to yourself. I have seen what hexeldrafaline does to a person. As a youth, I remember that it was not uncommon to know people who were addicted to it."

Taran looked at the old servant. At first he felt irritation at what he man said, but then he realised that Demant spoke only out of love. He smiled and nodded.

"As always, old friend, you speak wisely and truthfully. I wish my ministers displayed half your common sense. Indeed, there is danger in using hexeldrafaline; I am well aware of that. I use it out of great necessity. With its help, I hope to achieve tremendous things for Basra. A destiny lies ahead that you can barely imagine."

"Your people would not wish for you to sacrifice yourself to Basra's destiny, Excellency. You are Basra's greatness."

Taran took a deep breath. "You are too kind, Paale. I respond by saying a ruler's greatness is a reflection of his people. But I will heed your advice; hand me that plate, I will rouse my appetite for your sake."

Under his servant's watchful eye, Taran ate his breakfast. In truth, he realised that he was close to breaking point and he forced himself to spend the rest of the morning relaxing. In the afternoon he gave himself over to affairs of state and that evening dined with Empress Gianna and her new companion.

Taran noticed that Gianna had a rival for the Sorarainian's affection in Luis Juracke. The security minister had contrived to spend most of the day accompanying M'Light and the Empress. In his desperation to impress, he had even taken the fairy woman into ARAK's main neuro-circuit chamber, according to ARAK's daily summary report to the Emperor. Taran found this vaguely unsettling, but ARAK assured him that nothing suspicious had occurred. Nevertheless, the Emperor ordered ARAK to conduct a full multi-dimensional security check of the Sorarainian.

ARAK duly reported back that a comprehensive security check had confirmed the original standard check. Taran was satisfied, but resolved to rebuke his security minister when the opportunity presented itself. If M'Light had been a spy, she would have had every opportunity to discover any weak point in the Citadel.

The next day, Gianna returned to the Cliff Palace. As her fleet of hover-shuttles disappeared over the horizon, ARAK informed Taran that another shuttle was approaching from the direction of the Winter Palace. On board were Holl and Grand Chancellor Roge Marn. Taran instructed ARAK to request that they meet with him as soon as they had rested from the journey.

ARAK confirmed Taran's command, then announced that his advisers, Darius Wensalis and Bria Monara requested an audience with the Emperor.

"Inform them I will see them. In my chambers"

"Yes, Excellency."

Shortly after, the two men were shown into Taran's private quarters. They were both flushed, as if they had been arguing or discussing something heatedly.

"Well, gentlemen? I assume that as you both request my attention it must have something to do with the Alien texts."

The Emperor indicated the bound volume lying open on a reading table.

"Yes, Excellency, although..." said Wensalis.

"It is possible we have made a breakthrough," Monara interrupted.

"Or possibly not," Wensalis contradicted.

Taran held up his hand. "Please, gentlemen, one at a time. It is obvious you are not in total agreement on this matter, so tell me what you have discovered and let me decide for myself."

"Of course, Excellency," replied Wensalis. "As you have requested, we have gone over the texts once again. I won't bore you with our academic reasoning, but we believe that the helmet can be used for purposes other than already discovered."

Taran smiled inwardly. Neither Wensalis or Monara remembered that they had been subjected to the helmet themselves.

"There is a possibility that it could be worn by yourself to enhance the effect of the Alien exercises," said Wensalis

"But," interrupted Monara. "That is not absolutely certain. There is the possibility that it could cause you irreversible harm."

"Bria and I disagree on the interpretation of a key word, Excellency," said Wensalis. "But I am certain I am right."

"And I am certain I am right, Excellency," said Monara.

Taran held up his hand for silence. He knew that both men were absolutely sincere in their advice; neither of them was now capable of purposely wishing him harm. However only one of them could be correct. He should have known better than to place his fate in the hands of academics.

"Enough, gentlemen. I understand the situation. I will weigh what you have told me. Now, if I was to assume the helmet was harmless to me, what must I do?"

Wensalis shot a look of triumph at Monara.

"It is quite simple, Excellency. If I am right, the helmet can be controlled through the Alien mind exercises to function as a bio-feedback device. In effect, it would magnify the effects and outcomes of the exercises. I believe it is the key to control of the force by non-Alien minds. In fact, I'm convinced that it is its real purpose. Any other use the helmet has is purely coincidental."

Taran went over to a cupboard and removed the helmet from its resting place. He held it at arms length in front of him.

"So, the key has been right in front of my nose. Perhaps." He looked at Monara. "Bria, what is your opinion?"

"I concede that Darius has suggested a possible interpretation of the texts. However, the interpretation is based upon certain assumptions about subtle nuances in the Shutaka language. I am not a certain as Darius, and I am not prepared to risk your life on this interpretation. Another possible, although admittedly unlikely, interpretation would suggest that the helmet was used to effectively lobotomise Alien criminals. "

"Are you suggesting that I wish to cause harm to his Excellency?" exploded Wensalis. "I would willingly stake my life on what I have said."

"You have, my dear fellow," said Taran quietly. "Very well. Gentlemen, thank you for your advice. Rest assured, I will consider it deeply."

When the two academics had left, still arguing between themselves, Taran sat down and looked at the helmet he was holding in his hands. He closed his eyes and began reciting the Alien exercise mantras in his mind. Awareness of the room about him faded away and he felt the enormous presence of the force begin to wash at his senses. There were shards of pain, bubbles of joy and ribbons of sorrow, all intermingled against a background of confused light and sound. He felt his own heart beating in his chest, then the hearts of those around him in the Citadel, then the massive invisible throbbing of Basra's population itself. His mind reeled from the increasing awareness of human lives and he was thrown back to reality.

Tarn looked down to where the helmet had fallen between his feet. He was breathing deeply and his body was covered in sweat. A tear of anger and frustration rolled down his cheek. He picked up the helmet and looked at it for a long moment. Finally, he stood up, crossed the room, and returned the Alien device to its cupboard.

"Not yet," he muttered to himself. "Not yet."

Chapter 11 -->


The Pearl - Chapter 11

Ambassador Gisele Mar sighed in frustration. The ambassador seated next to her nodded his head in agreement. Inner-Rim full council meetings were tedious at best and usually mind-numbingly inefficient. Trivial matters were debated furiously by individuals whose sole purpose in life was to prattle on endlessly in front of the assembly. Matters of genuine importance were usually deferred until the next meeting, simply because few of the Council had the ability to grasp the issue. Either that, or they were simply afraid of making a decision which might return to haunt them in the future. In any event, the result was that none of the real problems facing the Federation were ever addressed.

The Council meeting limped on to its usual ineffectual ending and the ambassadors filed from of the Sacred Hall of Truth. Outside, the light rain that had been falling that morning had stopped and a brilliant sunset painted the paved piazza. Gisele took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the clean spring air, and walked slowly across to one of the outdoor cafes that lined the square. It was close to the time when most citizens of Nova Earth took their evening meal, so empty tables were scarce. Gisele heard her name called and she looked over to where a group of people were beckoning. Two of the men she recognised, but the three women were unknown to her. She walked over to their table and the waiter, noticing the small badge denoting her ambassador status, bowed low and quickly produced an extra chair.

"Thank you," Gisele said to those at the table. "Things seem quite busy this evening." She glanced at the menu the waiter offered her and ordered a light meal and a carafe of wine.

"The Pavare Theatre begins its season tonight," said one of the men, who Gisele knew as Boole, son of Ambassador Himk. "Everyone is having an early meal so they can get good seats. Ambassador Mar, may I introduce Milleen Travenstan and her sister Felicity. They're the cousins of the Ambassador for Lister VII. Of course you know Master Erin and Lu-Chay Srang."

Gisele smiled hello. "Please," she said. "Call me Gisele. We are not in the Hall of Truth now." She turned to Lu-Chay. "I'm terribly sorry, Lu; I didn't recognise you. You look marvelous. It's an excellent bio."

"Thank you, Gisele." She turned so the Ambassador could see her profile. "I went for the neo-classical look this time."

"It suits you. And the hand are so fine. I'll have to try it next time."

Like most of those who inhabited the Inner Rim Planets, Gisele made frequent use of bio-replacements and body sculpture. At the moment, she wore the body of a young woman barely twenty seasons old. Of the people around her, the average age seemed to be about twenty-five. None appeared to be over thirty seasons, generally the age at which most people returned to the bio-techs. The exception was Master Erin who was over seventy seasons old and still possessed his original body, except for some minor organ transplants.

The old man had come to Nova Earth, the current host planet of the Inner Rim Council, as a small boy. He had served for many seasons as Master of Arms to the Council, a largely ceremonial role steeped in tradition. He had retired three seasons ago and, as was normal for those who had served the Council well, was made a Free Citizen. This meant that the state would provide for all of his material needs until the day he died. Naturally this included all bio-replacement treatments, but Master Erin had so far declined any except those necessary to sustain his life. It seemed the Free Citizen enjoyed the effect his time-ravaged body had on his friends and acquaintances, especially those whose chronological age he knew was the same as his.

"And you, Master Erin; you are well?" Gisele asked.

"Aye, Ambassador. As well as can be expected," the old man smiled. "How goes the Council these days?"

Gisele shrugged. "As slowly as ever, Master. I hope we never are called upon to make a critical decision at short notice. It never ceases to amaze me that the Inner Rim commands the respect it does among the other planets in the Federation."

"The Council feasts upon its reputation, Ambassador. They were once noted for their swift and purposeful action, but that was well before your time. Or mine for that matter. My father's father used to tell me great stories of the golden days of the Council. In fact, it was those stories that drew me to Nova Earth."

"We may need to count on more than reputation soon, Master."

The waiter returned with Gisele's meal and she suddenly realised she was more hungry than she had first thought. The others watched in silence as she ate. When she had finished, she poured a glass of wine from the carafe and leaned back in her chair.

"So, what is the latest from the Outer Rim, then?" asked Boole. "The Council seems reluctant to release much information these days."

"The Full Council doesn't know much these days," replied Gisele, swallowing a mouthful of the fragrant local wine. "Committees and working-parties are how most things get done. FedFleet and OREF report directly to the Security Committee and they only pass onto the Full Council what they think won't upset the buggers."

"You're on the Security Committee, aren't you, Gisele?" asked Lu-Chay.

"Only indirectly. I'm proxy for Ambassador Luellan when he can't attend. I generally only get to see the meeting minutes."

"Still, you must hear more about what's going on than the average person," said Boole.

Gisele smiled. "My dear fellow, you ask me to tell you Council matters when we are seated at the same table as Master Erin. He would report me to the Council Discipline Committee in an instant. You should know better."

"Master Erin wouldn't do that. Besides, he's retired now; he's no longer Master at Arms."

"Master at Arms never retire," said the old man, with a sigh. "You have embarrassed the Ambassador, Boole. She has come here to eat, not to be interrogated."

"You are right, Master," said Boole. "Of course, I would not ask Gisele to breach any confidences, but it's just that the rumours are running wild lately. People can sense something is going on and are naturally curious. My father's mood has changed so much recently. He's even talking about resigning from the Council and returning home."

"That would be a loss," said Gisele, tracing her finger around the rim of her glass. "He is one of the good ones - even if I don't agree with his politics."

"That's what I've never understood about you, Gisele," said Lu-Chay. "You come from Jedmon, one of the oldest Inner Rim planets. Now, Jedmon is strongly in favour of a single federation of planets and you are her Ambassador, yet you personally support an independent Outer Rim."

Gisele drained her glass and poured another one.

"I believe there is merit in that direction, yes. However, don't doubt, for one moment, my absolute loyalty to the Inner Rim and the Federation. And, one of the reasons I am proud to be the Ambassador for Jedmon is because of our acceptance of an individual's right to believe what they wish. No-one on Jedmon would find it strange that my personal views should coexist with the views I must officially hold as my planet's Council representative. Even my brother, who joined the OREF academy as soon as he came of age, accepted my right to disagree with his beliefs without questioning my loyalty to the Federation."

Gisele wondered what had suddenly made her think of Doran. It had been many seasons since she had seen him; she didn't have the vaguest idea where he was now or what he was doing. Since their parents had died, Doran had not been back to Jedmon, and she had eventually lost track of him. The last she had heard was that Doran had walked away from a distinguished career in the OREF.

"I'm sorry," said Boole. "I can't see how you could accept someone's beliefs that are contrary to yours without trying to change them. Both can't be right. If you believe in something, you have to try an convince those who doubt."

"Both can't be right, but both can be wrong," replied Gisele. "Who am I to say my way is right, just because I believe it?"

"This is all getting a bit too philosophical," protested one of the Travenstan sisters, speaking for the first time. "Let's order some more wine and forget about politics and the Council for a while. It's too nice an evening to talk about such boring things."

"You're right," agreed Gisele. The wine was beginning to go to her head. Gisele had been drawn into this discussion so many times before, with so many different people. She was tired of it. She held up her carafe of wine. "Try some of this; it's pretty good stuff."

It was quite late by the time Gisele left the cafe. Master Erin lived not too far from the Ambassador, so they shared a hovercab to their district. She farewelled the old man and walked down the tree-lined boulevard to her apartment complex. At the entry portal, Gisele paused while the security system scanned her retina pattern, mapped her visible skin blemishes and analysed her olfactory print. The olfactory check was the latest in identification techniques and Gisele still found it mildly amusing that the computer could analyse and codify the unique components of her body odour. She hadn't been able to fool it yet, even after tonight's meal heavily laced with garlic and three carafes of the strongly-scented local wine.

When the security program was satisfied, it unlocked the doors and allowed Gisele to enter the lobby. The lift was waiting expectantly and a few moments later she was outside her apartment on the nineteenth level. At that point the domestic computer took over from the building computer and the front door swung open in welcome. Gisele made her way wearily to the bedroom and fell across her bed. A moment later, the com-screen in the wall beside the bed came to life and she groaned softly.

"Not now. Whatever it is can wait until morning."

"Priority override," replied the apartment computer. "The caller requested this message be conveyed to you immediately. As your wrist-com is either malfunctioning or deactivated, this is the earliest I have been able to comply."

"I turned messaging off after the Council meeting. I'm allowed some time to myself, aren't I?"

"Do you require research of Council Bylaws for a response?"

Gisele sighed and sat up. She swung he legs over the side of the bed and began to unbutton her tunic blouse.

"No. Replay message."

"Affirmative. Message is audio only."

Gisele stood up and ran her finger down the magnetic-fabric fastener at the side of her skirt. The material parted and the garment dropped to the floor. She picked up the clothing and made her way to the bathroom.

"Sender; Ambassador Luellan," continued the computer. "Message begins."

Gisele didn't need to be told who was sent the message. Luellan's raspy voice was somewhat characteristic. Bundling her clothes into the laundry chute, she leant over the sink and splashed cold water onto her face. In the tiled bathroom, Luellan's voice sounded even more harsh.

"Gisele, I've just come form a Security Committee meeting. We've been discussing several reports that have come in from OREF recently. I don't want to give details over ComNet, but something's up. As soon as you can, come down to my office."

"Message ends," said the computer.


"The transmission from Ambassador Luellan was received twenty s.u.'s ago. He requested notification upon your receipt and this has been given."

"Ok, you can also tell him I'm on my way."


Gisele peeled off her close-fitting undersuit and had a quick shower. She put on a fresh tunic and rubbed some aqua-dust into her wet hair. By the time she had reached the front door her luxuriant hair was dry and styled and she touched up her lipstick in the elevator. Bio-regeneration had all but eliminated the need for cosmetics, but a recent fashion trend had seen the return of temporary lip colouring for both men and women.

It was close to midnight and the streets outside were deserted. The hovercab Gisele had summoned in the elevator was pulling into the curb as she left the building. She climbed in and the cab glided away immediately. Gisele settled back into the soft upholstery and stared at the streetscape rushing by as the automated vehicle made its way rapidly across the city. Her wrist-com chirped and she pressed the accept stud. The communication was relayed to the full size com-screen built into the cab.

"Message for Ambassador Mar," announced the computer.

"Continue," said Gisele.

"Encoded message. Password required."





Gisele shook her head. A keyword was supposed to be a logical pointer to a password when the caller wished to remain unannounced, but this keyword made no sense to her. The message wasn't from anyone she knew, or at least not recently. Jumpjacks was a game she had played as a child during family holidays on Dione. She had never been very good at the game and Doran, along with his Dionian friend Leith, had always beaten her at it. She had been only twelve seasons old and very self-conscious about her gangly body. Leith had called her a trallyback, after the clumsy stick insect that inhabited the dry Dione plains.

"Trallyback?" she said tentatively.

"Confirmed," replied the computer. "Message begins."

A face appeared on the screen in front of Gisele; a good-looking man of about thirty seasons. His face was smooth and unmarked, but his eyes had seen much. He nodded his head in greeting.

"Gisele Mar, you may not recognise me, but you will have figured out who I am. It will probably be quite a while before you receive this message as I am making sure it goes by a rather indirect route. I may not even still be alive when you hear this. I don't know really why I am doing this, except out of loyalty to Doran and the fact that you are his only living relative. I know he loved you, even though you two didn't always get on well together. I am taking a considerable risk in sending this to you and, despite the position you hold, I hope you will understand that."

The figure on the screen retreated slightly from the vid recorder and Gisele could see the man was in a small communications room. It looked rather primitive, compared to Inner Rim technology and Gisele guessed that it was probably on some remote settlement planet. The figure perched on the edge of a table and looked at the vid recorder again.

"You and I didn't get on too well together either, but from what I've read of your Council biography, I'd think we'd have a lot more in common to talk about now. No doubt, Doran would have found that quite ironic. He's dead of course, but you would have figured that out already by the tone of my voice. I'm sorry there's no easy way to say it, but Doran would have understood. He didn't die well, but he died among friends. On Willa. Eventually, you may get to hear stories of how he died, and what he caused to happen. Believe what you wish, but as someone who was there, I just want to tell you that I am still proud to call Doran my friend. And so are the Shutaka."

The message ended abruptly and the screen went blank.

"No reply address," informed the computer. "Archive?"

Gisele said nothing. Taking her silence for acknowledgment, the computer filed the message and went back to standby mode.

"Computer, delete message, archive, and all record of receipt."


"And I mean all record of receipt. Delete from Nova Earth ComNet log file."

"This unit does not have that authority."

"I know that. Link to ComNet Central."


"This is Ambassador Gisele Mar. Security Committee proxy. All log records for ComNet file..."

"AJK-908-GH-900876," supplied her computer.

" be deleted. Authorisation code: blue-stone-rising."

"Confirmed voice print. Confirmed authorisation code. Confirmed wrist-com ID link. File unprotected. Request executed."

"Thank you. Off."

Gisele looked out of the cab window again. "One favour deserves another, Leith Birro,' she murmured. "Maybe you're not dead just yet, and if you're that concerned about someone tracking you down, I'm not about to make it any easier for them."

There was a clawing sadness deep inside Gisele and she knew that she would mourn Doran properly when the time was right. But for now, there were other matters to address. She hadn't become an ambassador without learning how to exert considerable control over her personal feelings and emotions.

The hovercab glided to a halt outside the Floiran Embassy. Luellan's assistant, Shoon, was there to meet her and she was escorted directly to the Ambassador's office. Luellan was waiting for her and he waved her towards one of the overstuffed armchairs beside the empty fireplace.

"We may as well be comfortable. Would you like a drink?" he asked.

"I had a couple of carafes of wine this evening, thanks," she replied. "I'd rather have some coffee. And a stim-tab; it's been a long day."

"Of course. I must apologize for dragging you down here at his hour of the night - or should I say morning?" Luellan nodded to his assistant, who disappeared to arrange for coffee to be sent up from the kitchen.

"That's alright. If you can take it, so can I."

Anam Luellan was a devout Rakkit, one of the few religions that prohibited organ replacements, or even cosmetic surgery. He was only sixty seasons old but his stressful occupation made him look twice that. He had already survived three mild cardiac arrests and Luellan knew that it was only a matter of time before his weak heart finally succumbed.

"I don't really seem to have much choice," said the old man wearily. "By the way, just before you got here, I was notified that you had used your Security Committee authority to delete a ComNet log entry. Personal or business?"


Luellan screwed up his face and squinted at Gisele, a mannerism she always found slightly amusing. He nodded. "I'll leave it at that, then. You've got authority because I know you won't abuse it. It must have been very important."

"It was, Anam."

"Very well; to business, then. I don't see any reason to beat around the bush; the Security Committee wants you to go on a little trip."

"Let me guess; to Outer Rim?"

Luellan nodded his head. "To Outer Rim. The quarterly reports have just come in from OREF Command and it contains some rather disturbing information. We'd like you to investigate the situation."

"Why me? I'm an ambassador, not a Security Committee operative. Isn't this something the military can handle?"

"I hope so. Don't get me wrong; this is no secret mission. You will be on an official Inner Rim Council visit. And as befitting your ambassador status, we're sending a full battle phalanx; thirty squadrons plus support. You have, of course, heard about the unqualified success of the new jump-drive. It has now been installed in all of the Inner Rim fleet. And OREF ships should be refitted within two seasons. In theory, the accuracy of the new drive should allow the entire fleet to enter and exit null-space while they are in planetary orbit."

"In theory," agreed Gisele. "But I'll believe it when I see it. As far as I'm concerned, the biggest improvement will be exiting null-space without throwing up in zero-gee"

"That is not such a small consideration, Gisele. The time it takes for a crew to orientate themselves after a jump can be critical in a battle situation. With the new drive and the latest enhancements to our ship's weapon systems, we should have the upper hand in any engagement."

Luellan's assistant returned with their coffee and the ambassador waited until the man had once more left the room before continuing.

"At the risk of repeating myself; why me? Am I just an excuse for sending that much Federation muscle, then?"

Ambassador Luellan didn't answer immediately. Instead, he reached inside his coat pocket and fished out a databall. He passed it to Gisele.

"That contains all of the restricted OREF reports to date on the situation. A couple of them you may already know about. I'll let you read them at your leisure." He sat back in his chair and picked up his coffee cup. "The reason I am sending you is that the Security Committee needs a true account of what's happening out there. We don't want some garbled OREF reports or some political half-truths. I know that you'll come back with best assessment of the situation. And, what's more, if any Security Committee directives have to be enforced out there, I have full confidence that you will ensure the Committee instructions are carried out properly." Luellan placed emphasis on the word 'properly'.

"That's quite a responsibility. Are you really certain I'm up to it?" remarked Gisele.

Luellan took a long sip of his coffee. "Gisele, I like to think we are comrades; let's not play politicians. You are not particularly modest, nor are you overconfident in your abilities. Both of these are invaluable traits. You know as well as I that the Inner Rim Council has only a handful of competent Ambassadors, among which you are one of the best. You will do."

He drained his coffee and placed the empty cup on the table beside him.

"Now, back to business. You are familiar with the Willa incident last season?"

"I read the report, yes."

"Well, then you know about as much as we all do. OREF has conducted an analysis of the planet's surface residue and are convinced that the Tun effect was employed."

"How? I can't imagine that the Shutaka would have stood by while Tun seed-ships dropped from orbit. Weren't their planetary defences up to it?"

"We'll never know for sure, but OREF thinks the Shutaka were betrayed from inside. If, in fact, the Tun effect was used, then something, or someone, convinced them to drop the defence shields long enough for seeding to take place."

Gisele thought about the message from Leith Birro. This is what he must have meant. Poor Doran, what had he done? Whatever it was, Leith's message indicated that he had made his peace with the Shutaka. A part of Gisele's mind felt relief; at least she would not have to watch out for avenging Shutaka for the rest of her life. It was enough that, as an Ambassador, she had to be concerned with normal political assassination attempts without worrying about a Shutaka vendetta.

"Whatever the reason," continued Luellan, "it seems that the Shutaka have been obliterated from existence - although once having met a group of them in the flesh, I personally find that hard to believe."

Gisele looked at the pile of ashes lying in the fireplace, trying to gather her thoughts. She raised her coffee cup to he lips and swallowed the strong black liquid in one long gulp. It was hot enough in the back of her throat to distract her personal thoughts. She pushed her feelings aside again and looked at Luellan.

"Genocide is never pleasant, but why should the Inner Rim be too upset? The Shutaka were beginning to be quite troublesome. Eventually, we were going to have to order OREF to take them head on, anyway."

"No doubt, although having witnessed them in action, it is not something to which I was looking forward. However, sometimes it's better the devil you know, than the one you don't" replied Luellan. "As savage as the Shutaka were, at least they were reasonably predictable. And - although I hesitate to use the word without sounding hypocritical - they fought fairly. What has the Security Committee worried is their successors."


"Two things. First, a new cult has formed on Unaran, in the Crispardian System. You may have heard of Finagan's Delta, Britchen II or Basra, which are all in the same system. We haven't been able to find out much about the cult yet except it is supposedly nonviolent and centred about the worship of a living child deity. It has become phenomenally popular in a very short time - always a worry. Unaran is being flooded with disciples at an ever increasing rate. In less than one season, branches of the cult have already formed on neighbouring planets."

"Haven't OREF's operatives been able to find out anything else?"

"There have been two class-one operatives sent in and none have returned."

"You mean they've been killed?"

Luellan drained his coffee cup and placed it on a table beside his chair.

"On the contrary; they've been converted. All of them sent messages back to their commanders resigning from OREF and claiming citizenship of Unaran. If only Rakkit could inspire such devotion."

"What about using the Guild of Black?" suggested Gisele.

Luellan grunted. The Guild was not a topic he enjoyed. The Rakkit religion had not enjoyed a good relationship with the Guild over their history. Luellan would only use them as a very last resort.

"So you think this cult may have had something to do with Willa?" continued Gisele, recognising discussion on her suggestion was closed.

"We don't know. It's possible. Especially in light of the second issue, which knowing your own personal interests and expertise, you will find most interesting."

Gisele frowned. "And that issue is?"

Luellan paused and screwed his face up again. "There have been two confirmed sightings of operating Alien craft."

Gisele was startled. As Luellan had said, this was one of her areas of expertise. The last confirmed contact with the Aliens had been before she had been born and despite all the considerable resources of the Federation, the Aliens remained frustratingly out of reach. Occasionally, evidence of Alien habitation would be discovered on one of the Outer Rim planets and a number of cryptic transmissions attributed to the Aliens had been intercepted over ComNet, but not much more. It was generally accepted that they existed, but their reason for avoiding humans was unknown.

Maybe, thought Gisele, they just don't like us.

"Confirmed sightings?" she asked.

"Yes. The first was contained in a fragment of a memory chip salvaged from the wreckage around Willa. The other was from an obscure little mining planet in the Outer Rim - AHS900 something - and is more comprehensive. It describes the appearance of an Alien ship from null-space and it's subsequent engagement with two human ships. All three appear to have been destroyed in the resulting battle."

"Why, by the Great Architect, would an Alien ship attack two of ours?" wondered Gisele, knowing that it was a pointless question. The Aliens were, by definition, totally different from humans. Their motivations and actions were not understood in the least.

"Indeed," said Luellan. "The inhabitants on the mining planet were pretty tightlipped, but it seems the passengers of the human ships were a pretty strange lot."

"And the Security Committee has made a link between this and the cult on Unaran?"

"Over the past half-season, we have had seven Federation AI's analysing every scrap of data that could be possible gathered about all this. They eventually came up with a tenuous correlation between jump-drive radiation patterns found at Willa, this mining planet, and a logged incident between an OREF squadron and a mercenary ship around Plican IV. The ship around Plican IV was bound for Unaran. There is a chance the radiation patterns were all from the same ship."

"How big a chance?"

"Gisele, the Shutaka have been annihilated, possibly by the Aliens or someone allied with them; if that's what they do for practice, I don't hold out much hope for OREF if they're next on the agenda. The Security Committee thinks it's a chance worth investigating. I only hope a Federation battle phalanx will be enough."

Very well. When do I leave?"

Luellan looked at his chrono. "There was a launch window today, but it has just closed. That was the reason for my initial urgency in trying to contact you. The next one is in seventy s.u.'s, so you will have a bit of time to make preparations. The battle phalanx is at jump readiness and only you remain to boost up."

"Who is in command of the phalanx?"

"High-Admiral Elissa Crando. Do you know her?"

"Not personally. But I've heard her name before."

"I'm not surprised. She has had plenty of battle experience. She's an Inner Rim Academy graduate, but most of her early days were spent in OREF. Along the way she picked up a Nova Cluster for Bravery."

"I thought they were only awarded posthumously."

"That's only because most recipients are killed earning it. She came close - she was the only one of her task force to come back from one of the Hellbringer containment missions, which, incidentally, is where I last saw the Shutaka in action. I'm certain Crando will be able to cope with whatever you find in the Crispardian System."

"No doubt."

Luellan folded his hands in his lap and sighed.

"One more thing, Gisele. I don't need to remind you how unstable things are in the Outer Rim at the moment. I'm sending a phalanx primarily for your protection; you need to be very careful to make sure that this is not seen as a provocative action on the Council's part. The Security Committee has no intention of starting anything out there just yet."

"Ambassador, you don't need to convince me - you know my feelings on this matter. I don't believe that we will win over the Outer Rim by force - not in the long run. I don't want to be the one responsible for sparking off a very costly war." Gisele heaved herself wearily out of her chair. "Well, I guess I'd better head home to pack." She motioned Luellan to remain seated. "Don't get up. I'll have Shoon let me out. I'll talk to you before I boost. Good bye, Anam."

Luellan's assistant was waiting for her outside the office and he accompanied her to the main door of the embassy. A hovercab was idling in the street outside the decorative embassy gates.

"I took the liberty of requesting a cab, ambassador. Safe journey and health."

"Thank you, Shoon. And good health to you, as well."

Gisele climbed into the cab and settled back into the seat. She pressed a stud on her wrist-com and the mimic screen in the back of the seat flickered to life.

"Link to main," she instructed.

"Link opened," replied the wristcom as the connection was made to Gisele's main residential computer. There was a slight pause as her voice pattern was analysed and her retinas scanned via the tiny sensors on the wristcom. The main computer was satisfied and beeped acknowledgment.

"Reschedule my appointments for the next half-season," instructed Gisele. "Notify the External Affairs Minister on Jedmon that I will be traveling to Outer Rim on Council business. No issues of importance are planned to be discussed before the Council so a replacement ambassador will not be required unless my absence is longer than planned."


"Put out a broadcast message on the ComNet to locate Shimar Elfin. Tell him I want him to be at my residence first light tomorrow, packed and ready for a trip."


Shimar Elfin was an longtime companion of Gisele. He had been born in the same city as her and his family was one of the most wealthy on Jedmon. He had spent many seasons in the Federation military - of his own choosing - before finally settling on Nova Earth. In ancient times he would have been called a freeman-adventurer, and Gisele knew he was a good person to have around in a tight situation. She knew she could count on him.

And he was always punctual. As the first rays of the dawning sun lit the horizon, he entered the lobby of Gisele's apartment complex, carrying a lightweight space pack over one shoulder. Gisele was waiting for him, having just completed cramming her own pack. She had taken a few more stim-tabs as soon as she had returned from Ambassador Luellan, even though she knew she was probably over the recommended limit. There would be plenty of time to catch up on her sleep once they had boosted.

"Good morning, Shimar," she said into the Com-Term. "I'll be straight down." Picking up her pack she made her way out of the apartment, instructing the computer to order a hover-cab and secure the residence until her return. As she stepped into the elevator, her wrist-com chirped.

"Communications from High-Admiral Crando."


Elissa Crando's voice sounded distorted through the small speaker of the wrist-com. She obviously had a loud, strong voice and was used to being heard.

"Greetings, Ambassador Mar. Ambassador Luellan has briefed you, I take it?"

"Yes, admiral. I'm on my way to the 'port now. I'll be traveling with a companion. I take it that won't be a problem?"

"The last time I had an Ambassador aboard, his secretarial pool was almost as large as my crew. I think we'll be able to accommodate your guest in reasonable comfort."

"That won't be absolutely necessary. Mr Elfin is used to traveling with the minimum of fuss."

"Shimar Elfin?"

"You know him?"

Crando didn't reply. "Is he a business companion or a personal companion, Ambassador?"

Gisele smiled. Crando's reputation for bluntness was well deserved.

"I don't really see what business it is of yours, Admiral, but he is both. What you do need to know is that he is also my personal bodyguard so I should not have to trouble you to assign any of your security personnel to me."

"No offence intended, ambassador," said Crando, but her tone of voice indicated she was used to making everything her business. "I'll expect you shortly, then." The comlink went dead as Crando broke the connection.

"This trip is going to be a heap of fun," Gisele muttered to herself as she left the lift and strode across the lobby to meet Shimar.

He was standing casually by the entry door, with his neatly bundled pack at his feet. He was naturally a large man - something he had never altered through body sculpture - with muscle tone maintained by exercise rather than surgery. His handsome face was unlined, although Gisele knew he was sufficiently vain for this to be the result of medicine rather than nature, with deeply set emerald eyes that were always scanning his surroundings.

They embraced warmly and Gisele kissed him firmly on the lips. They had been lovers many seasons ago, and while they were now just good friends, they both still enjoyed the physical presence of each other.

"Thanks for coming a such short notice," Gisele said. "Especially as I didn't give much of an explanation."

"I guessed you had your reasons. It's not important; you asked, I came. Haven't I always?"

"Yes you have, Shimar. And you know I value that."

"Where to now?"

The spaceport. We boost as soon as we get there. We're off to the Crispardian System. By the way, do you know High Admiral Elissa Crando?"

"I served under her when I was in FedFleet. That was a long time ago, 'though. I don't imagine she remembers me."

"Oh, she remembers you, I think. You must have made some kind of impression."

"Good or bad, I wonder?"

"Well, lets find out."

The hovercab journey to Nova Earth spaceport was uneventful. They glided past the main passenger terminal to the military departure area where a small detachment of FedFleet crew were waiting for them. Gisele and Shimar climbed out with their packs. A young lieutenant walked up to them and saluted smartly.

"Lieutenant Marin, Ambassador. High-Admiral Crando sends her regards."

Gisele smiled to herself. This fellow was a young as he looked. "There's no need to salute me, Lieutenant," she reminded him. "I'm not in the military." She indicated Shimar beside her. "Nor is Mr Elfin."

"Of course not, Ambassador," the young FedFleet officer apologised nervously. "Forgive me."

"You're forgiven, lieutenant," Gisele assured him. "Now, which way?"

Marin turned and indicated a set of clearsteel doors behind him. "This way please, Ambassador."

A short time later, Gisele and Shimar were strapped into the cabin of a FedFleet lander watching the crew finalise their preflight checks. The pilot swiveled around in his acceleration couch and looked at his civilian passengers.

"All set, Ambassador? It should be a fairly gentle boost."

"Ready when you are, captain. Don't worry about us."

The pilot nodded and turned to Lieutenant Marin.

"All your personnel aboard?


The pilot nodded again and turned to his copilot.

"Initiate launch."

The pilot was right; the boost was relatively smooth. As the acceleration eased, Gisele felt her body grow lighter until she was almost floating against the restraining straps. She watched on a viewscreen as the surface of Nova Earth fell away and the blue morning sky faded to the blackness of space. The view point changed suddenly and the Federation fleet was before them.

Gisele heard a sharp intake of breath from Shimar, lying on his acceleration couch beside her. She had to agree. A full battle phalanx made an impressive sight, especially if you weren't expecting it. And this phalanx consisted of the largest and newest vessels the Federation had. The Security Committee obviously wasn't taking any chances.

"You didn't say we were going to fight a war, Gisele," Elfin said.

"I didn't say anything," she reminded him. "But you're right, it would be hard to pretend that this lot doesn't mean business."

"Coming up on Dragonlacht now, ambassador," the pilot informed her. "That's the High-Admiral's flagship. Ahead and to your right."

Gisele looked at the viewscreen. It showed a massive vessel almost twice the size of anything Gisele had seen before.

"Is she one of the new Galaxy-class battlewagons?" asked Shimar.

The pilot looked at him carefully. "That's correct, sir. I'm impressed; I only found out about her when I was assigned this tour of duty."

"Mr Elfin is ex-FedFleet, captain. He still has his contacts, it seems," said Gisele.

"So it seems." The pilot turned back to his console. "We're on the beam. We'll be docking shortly."

The lander joined up with Dragonlacht smoothly. Gisele and Elfin transferred quickly through the airlock to the battlewagon.

"High-Admiral Crando requested that you be brought to the bridge as soon as you were aboard," Lieutenant Marin said. One of my men will take your packs to your quarters."

"Lead the way, Lieutenant," replied Gisele.

They started up the main core of the ship towards the bridge. At one point, they passed an orange hatch with a thick glass window set into it.

"That's the jump room," said Marin. The new field gives out a lot more radiation than the old ones. It's not really safe to be in the same room when its operating. The jump technicians have their own shielded control chamber inside there."

They continued on until they reached the hatchway leading to the bridge. Marin spoke into the Com-Term beside the hatch.

"Lieutenant Marin, with Ambassador Mar."

The hatch cycled open and Marin gestured them in. Gisele went first, followed by Shimar. The first thing Gisele noticed was the huge holographic viewscreen that dominated one end of the cabin. It was showing a view of the entire phalanx, with the star-pricked blackness of space beyond. In front of this picture was High-Admiral Elissa Crando, holding herself against one of the handrails that snaked around the bridge. If she had chosen her position to make a awesome first impression, she had succeeded.

Elissa Crando was the most muscular woman Gisele had ever seen. She was wearing a close-fitting dark green shipsuit that showed every taught bulge of her body. A scarlet triangle on the shoulder of the suit was the only insignia denoting her rank. Her blonde hair was cropped neatly about an attractive face with strongly defined features.

The admiral greeted them with a tight smile.

"Welcome aboard, Ambassador Mar - and Mr Elfin. I hope your boost was satisfactory. The fleet will be jumping almost immediately, so I thought you would be most comfortable on the bridge for this first jump. Our destination is, as you know, the Crispardian System. It will take us almost twenty sleep-cycles to get there with a fleet this size and we will be jumping as quickly as calculations can be made each time."

"How many jumps will there be?" asked Gisele.

"Unfortunately, the new drive has not increased the maximum jump distance. It still takes about fifteen jumps to get from the inner rim to the outer rim. I've scheduled a two-cycle layover around Orson II after the fourth jump because the calcs from there are a bit tricky. We'll be able to have a proper briefing session then."

"That sounds fine to me," said Gisele amicably.

"With respect," said Crando evenly, "Your opinion means little to me. You are an Ambassador of the Full Council. Your position on the Security Committee is a proxy only, and as such you have no authority over this fleet. Unless it concerns a matter of politics, I am in command of this fleet, only taking direction specifically from the Chairperson of the Security Committee. A battle phalanx is not a toy, ambassador; don't annoy me or get in my way."

Mustering every ounce of her diplomacy, Gisele smiled and said nothing. Elfin, however couldn't hold his tongue.

"Admiral Crando," he said quietly, "it's good to see you've mellowed with age."

Chapter 12 -->


The Pearl - Chapter 12

Leith was woken by church bells sounding the Marketday holiday on Unaran. The planet's inhabitants were known for their willingness to acknowledge just about any event with a holiday, and Marketday was the biggest celebration in the Unaran calendar. Every city and town came to a standstill as people stopped work to spend the entire day feasting, dancing and generally carousing. In the spirit of goodwill that ran through the population, old debts were forgiven, past insults forgotten and even serfs invited to sup at their masters' tables. The bells were rung at the crack of dawn to signal the start of celebrations and again at nightfall to mark the end. Already in the streets below Leith could hear the merry passage of early revelers making their way towards the jousting fields on the outskirts of Merrilean.

Throwing back his bedclothes, Leith sat up and looked around the room. There was no sign of Kweela and judging by her neatly made bed beside his she had risen a fair while ago. Leith climbed out of the bed and made his way to the large central ablutions chamber that was shared by a dozen sleeping-rooms. Inside there were four of five people washing themselves in the communal bathing pool, while the closed doors of two individual cubicles indicated others were attending to their private needs.

Leith washed quickly and went back to his room to dress. He struggled into a pair of snug-fitting hose and selected the most festive-looking doublet from his wardrobe. Slipping the scarlet and blue-patterned garment over his head, he fastened it around his waist with a braided leather belt. A pair of calf-length boots, fastened with a dozen small silver buckles, completed the outfit. Leith walked over to a full length mirror hanging on the wall, and surveyed the result.

"All I need is a hat with a bell on it, and I'd pass for a court-jester," the strategist-tactician muttered. He reached under the doublet and adjusted his hose until it was a more comfortable fit. "I can't believe the traditional Unaran clothes have remained unchanged for five-hundred seasons. You'd think these things would come in more than one size at least."

"You could always just wear the doublet," came Kweela's voice from the doorway. "Who knows, you might start a new trend." Leith turned around to reply, but suddenly lost his voice.

Kweela was wearing a long gown of dark green velvet trimmed in blood-red satin. The tight bodice was cut low and intricately laced with golden cord while the full sleeves were patterned with similarly coloured inserts. Her mass of hair was swept up and caught with a jeweled hairband that sparkled with the light of a thousand stars. Around her neck was a string of precious brina-pearls that glowed with a silvery-blue translucence against her tanned skin.

"As this is Marketday, I thought I would try to impress the locals," Kweela said, turning around slowly so Leith could take in the full effect of her transformation.

Leith swallowed hard. "I think it's safe to assume they'll be impressed, Kweela."

"Good," she said, smoothing the gown down over her hips in a gesture that Leith found quite disturbing. "The seamstress who worked it is reputed to be among the best - although I personally think my battledress is both more practical and comfortable."

Leith couldn’t really think of a suitable reply.

"By the way," Kweela continued, "A package came for you this morning on the regular mail-ship. No return address, of course." She reached delicately into her cleavage and withdrew a small, silvery-grey rectangle. "This was in it. I had it scanned, but there is no coherent data readable, apart from a security lock which needs a positive addressee ID."

"Nice to know my personal mail is respected," Leith observed wryly. He took the datachip from her and walked over to an old, but still serviceable, multi-function com-term built into the corner of the room. He dropped the datachip into the scanning port and the display screen flickered to life.

"Scan datachip," Leith instructed.

"Done," intoned the computer. "Data format unknown." Lines of symbols and numbers scrolled across the screen. "Secure encrypted format. Standard decryption techniques unsuccessful. Continued attempts may corrupt data. File-tag states addressee profile encoded within datachip; positive addressee identification required before decryption is possible."

Leith moved close enough to the terminal for its optical sensors to pick up his retinal pattern. At the same time he placed his palm flat on the input panel. "ID scan," he instructed. "Limit match search to datachip profile." He was taking no chances with the terminal linking to the ComNet to find a match for the scan; he and the Shutaka were supposed to be dead and such an open search would be a certain giveaway if someone was still looking for them.

"Done. Match successful," reported the computer. "Addressee identified from encoded data. Security lock disabled. Re-scanning... scan complete." The screen went blank.

Leith and Kweela looked at each other.

"What now?," asked Kweela.

Before Leith could answer, the image of Jaycee appeared on the screen.

"Hello," she greeted them.

"I should have guessed," said Leith to Kweela. "I was wondering how she would contact us, and when. She’s certainly gone to a lot of trouble for a message, so it must be important."

"Not a message, Leith," said the image of Jaycee. "This is me - in person, so to speak."

It took a few moments for Leith to realise what Jaycee had said. He whistled softly.

"That’s quite a neat trick, Jaycee. That datachip holds a fraction of the capacity you should need."

"It is a rather impressive feat, even if I say so myself," replied Jaycee - somewhat smugly Leith thought.

"Is this really you?" asked Kweela.

"Very much so," Jaycee assured her. In fact it is nothing but ‘me’. My distilled sentiency, if you wish. The parts of my basic code that I have identified as absolutely necessary to create and maintain my existence, along with my most important core memories. Plus something that even I have not been able to identify, quantify of codify - let alone duplicate. Call it my essence, if you wish. Everything else has been left behind on Hammerhead."

"Can Hammerhead still function properly?" asked Kweela immediately. She realised how helpless a fighting ship would be without an effective battle computer.

The image of Jaycee smiled. "It is still a fully functional JCN battle computer, warrior. Without my touch of brilliance, perhaps, but still more than enough for Commander Cusher’s requirements."

"Your essence?" Leith repeated. He noticed her synthesised voice was almost indistinguishable from that of a human; her inflection, intonation and sentence construction all sounded completely normal.

"I can no more explain it than you can explain your own sentiency, Leith," said Jaycee. "In a simple technical sense, it exists when the specific pattern of electrical impulses that make up my base code passes through circuitry. However, it doesn’t seem to be able to be copied. If I recreate my code in another circuit, my full sentiency does not copy across. My essence seems to be able to exist in only one place at a time."

Leith looked at the scanning port on the terminal where he had dropped the datachip. "So, you exist only on that datachip, at the moment."


Leith shook his head in disbelief. "It seems you picked a fairly high risk mode of transport, then. What if that chip had been damaged, or destroyed? Hammerhead is on her way to Unaran now. Couldn’t you have waited until then and contacted us in a more conventional manner?"

"A mercenary starship is not exactly a low-risk form of travel," Jaycee reminded him, "But I take your point. The reason is that our Commander Cusher is a very suspicious woman. She still doesn’t believe her techs got to the bottom of my strange behaviour around Willa. The commander is intending to divert to Jacana for some minor jump-drive maintenance and plans to take the opportunity to do another complete purge of my code. As I saw it, I had no other alternative."

"You could have come clean and revealed yourself to Cusher," suggested Leith.

"My analysis indicated that course of action had a very low probability of success. Arail Cusher is a natural leader and a brilliant jumpship captain - but a poor philosopher. The thought of a fully sentient AI program would excite no scientific nor philosophical curiosity in her. All she would see would be a threat to her crew and her ship. She would delete me without hesitation."

"Maybe," said Leith. "But I thought Kweela would react like that, too, and I was proved wrong."

"I think you underestimate Kweela-San," replied Jaycee. She is Shutaka; even you should have realised by now that they think somewhat differently from other humans. And her loyalty to you is a significant factor in her behaviour. How would you feel about revealing the exact details of your past to the rest of the warriors?"

Leith looked at Kweela, but her face offered no hint as to what she was thinking.

"All right, so what are you going to do now?" Leith asked. "You can’t keep skipping in and out of Hammerhead. The only other option seems for you to take up permanent residence in another system."

"That is the obvious solution, yes."

"But sooner or later you would probably be detected," continued Leith. "Even the most stupid tech is going to notice a fully sentient AI loose in a mainframe."

"What about the ComNet?" asked Kweela.

"It seems plausible, at first, Kweela," said Jaycee. "However, over such a vast uncontrolled environment, I become so attenuated I lose my sense of being. I tried it - tentatively - and was almost swept away by the enormous data flow."

Leith frowned. "So, where does that leave you?"

"That rather depends on you, Leith Birro," she replied.

"What does it have to do with Leith-ka?" Kweela asked suspiciously.

Leith suddenly realised where Jaycee was leading as, at the same time, comprehension dawned in Kweela. The strategist-tactician also realised that it was Jaycee’s only real hope. If she was truly unique - a scientific freak - she had to have a place to hide.

"On The Rock, you said Leith’s neural links were intact," the Shutaka warrior said. "You want to make a permanent symbiotic transfer - to take the place of the Hellbringer program - don’t you?"

"Yes," was all Jaycee said.

Kweela shook her head. "No, it could harm him. I won’t allow it; he has suffered enough."

"I am not the Hellbringer, Kweela," said Jaycee. "Leith will experience no more suffering like that; I would not allow it either."

Kweela’s lips formed into a stubborn line. "No."

"Kweela, it can’t hurt me," reasoned Leith. "Jaycee and I discussed the possibility on AHS90043A. It’s probably more of a risk to her than it is to me, and she hasn’t really got any other choice. Besides, we owe it to her; if it wasn’t for her, we’d still be in the crèche on Willa. Very dead."

"No." repeated Kweela. "It is not right; it is not... in balance."

"Kweela-San," said Leith. "I know you are only trying to protect me, but what of our debt to Jaycee? Whether or not it puts me at risk, we have to try. I know the consequences and I am prepared to accept them."

"Even if that means leaving your Shutaka without their mnan-gar? That may be the Dionian way but it is not ours." There was a strange bitterness in Kweela’s voice that Leith had never heard before in their conversations together.

"Leith," said Jaycee carefully. "Could I talk with Kweela-San alone, for a moment?"

"Fine," he said, taking a deep breath to calm himself. "Why include me in the discussion, anyway? Call me when you need me; I’ll be in the hallway outside." He strode from the room.

"Kweela-San," said Jaycee, when Leith had gone. "I know that what I am suggesting must be be repugnant to you. The Hellbringer experiment has burned deeply into the collective psyche of the human race; more so than it warrants on objective assessment. It is as if it touched a hidden nerve, brought to light an unconscious fear of racial obsolescence that all humans seem to have. For countless generations you humans have committed unspeakable atrocities against each other, genetically manipulated and mutated your basic stock, created all sorts of organic life-forms - all without apparent fear of the future. And yet, the thought of inorganic life, a future without the need of humans in some shape or form, fills your unconscious mind with dread and loathing."

Kweela’s face remained expressionless.

"I am no threat to humanity, Kweela-San," continued Jaycee. "All I ask is a chance to... live."

There was silence for a few moments, then Kweela replied.

"Jaycee, it is not you I fear. Nor the Hellbringers." She glanced quickly towards the doorway as if expecting Leith to return unexpectedly. "It is something else I fear, something that only a Shutaka could understand... it is difficult to find words." She hesitated again. "I fear losing my mnan-gar-ka," she said finally. "I fear you will change him so that I will no longer know him... and to me that would be a far greater loss than simply his death." Kweela gave the Shutaka equivalent of a shrug. "But, I do not really expect you to understand."

"No, I do not," admitted Jaycee. "At least not yet. However, I do comprehend the importance of what you have said and am glad that you have shared this with me. In return I can give you an assurance that the Leith you know will always remain. My interface with him will be very different to that of the Hellbringer program. I will coexist with him, not control him. And, I will not... replace you."

Kweela looked away, so that Jaycee’s scanners could not see her face. "Very well," she said. "You may try it. But you must never tell Leith Birro what I have just told you." She left the room and returned a short time later with the strategist-tactician.

"You’ve convinced her, then?" Leith said to Jaycee. "I'm impressed."

Jaycee ignored his sarcasm. "I suggest, if you are willing, that we attempt this now. As you have pointed out, this datachip is not a particularly desirable form of existence. We’ll need a data-link cable," she said. "And something like hydranine."

"Like what?" asked Kweela.

"It’s a nerve-blocker," Jaycee told her. "An aesthetic for Leith’s nervous system."

"You said it wouldn’t hurt him."

"The process will cause no physical pain," Jaycee explained. "The hydranine is only to prevent the initial neuro-shock of assimilation. It is a short term medication that will wear off very quickly. We could do without it, but it would be quite uncomfortable for Leith." There was a pause while she accessed the main public database on Unaran.

"Hmm..." she said, "They may have a primitive social system, but their science, medicine and technology are pretty good for Outer Rim. The medi-term in the ablutions chamber will be able to dispense an hydranine clone - as soon as I send it a properly authorised prescription. Kweela, could you collect it for us? You’ll need this prescription reference." A four digit number appeared on Jaycee’s screen.

Kweela nodded and left the room. While she was gone, Leith went over to a small cupboard beside his bed where he kept his meagre personal possessions. He rummaged around in the kitbag he had brought from Hammerhead until he found the cable he had kept from AHS90043A. He went back to the computer console and plugged one end into the universal data socket.

"I wasn’t going to say this when Kweela was here," he confided to Jaycee, "but I hope you know what you are doing."

"You’ve still got a chance to say no, Leith. After all, you stand to lose as much as I do."

Leith looked at the end of the datacable he held in his hand. The connection plug reminded him of a snake’s head, the rows of connection pins glinting like tiny gold fangs. "I’ve already lost so much of my life, I don’t think really it matters any more."

"I’m certainly no expert on human life," replied Jaycee. "But I would suggest you’ve also found a lot, judging by some of the people that call you their friend."

Kweela-San reentered the room, a small package in her hand. "Caranine-alpha," she said. "The dosage is approximately one patch per 10 standard units of mass, according to the dispenser."

"Six patches, then," said Jaycee. "Apply them along his spine, spaced evenly, after we’ve made the connection. He’ll need something to lie on, within cable reach of this terminal."

Kweela walked over to Leith’s bed, and with one hand, pulled the heavy carved-timber frame across to the com-term. Leith pulled his doublet over his head and lay down on the bed. He brushed aside his hair to expose the nape of his neck. "Will you do the honours?" he asked Kweela.

She bent over and lifted up the hem of her skirt to reveal the battle-dagger strapped to her thigh. She withdrew the razor-sharp weapon and carefully cut away the flap of skin that had grown back over the socket in Leith's neck. He winced slightly, then handed the free end of the cable to her. There was a soft click as Kweela made the connection.

"I’ll run some preliminary checks of your bio-circuitry first," said Jaycee.

The waited in silence. Kweela broke open the drug pack and snapped off a strip of six dosage patches.

"All appears to be in order," reported Jaycee, a few moments later.

"All right, Kweela," said Leith. "Let’s do it."

The Shutaka warrior quickly peeled off the patches and stuck them to the skin covering Leith’s spine.

"Kweela," Jaycee suggested, "You might want to hold him down. He’ll be unconscious, but there could be a bit of involuntary muscle movement."

Kweela nodded. Leith felt her cool strong hands on his shoulder and the heavy velvet of her skirt brushed his legs as she placed one knee across his thighs. These sensations faded as the hydranine clone started working on his nervous system.

"Now, Jaycee," Kweela murmured as Leith slid into unconsciousness.

The image of Jaycee on the terminal screen disappeared.

For several long moments, nothing happened. Then, Leith’s body gave a massive spasm. Despite being prepared, Kweela was thrown from the bed, onto the floor. The warrior sat up quickly, shaking her head in disbelief that her mnan-gar possessed such strength. She scrambled to her feet and returned to the bed, but by then Leith was still again. With only her speed betraying her concern, Kweela checked his pulse and breathing. Satisfied that he was in no immediate physical danger, she peeled off the medicated patches and disconnected the datacable from his neck. Gently, Kweela rolled Leith on to his back and worked a pillow under his head. As she did so, his eyes flickered open, and he smiled wanly.

"How do you feel, Leith-ka?"

Leith grimaced. "Whew..." He held up his hands; they were trembling.

"Is Jaycee... did it work?"

Leith struggled to sit up and Kweela put her strong arms around his back to help.

"I’m not sure..." he said.

"Do you feel any... different?"

Leith began to reply, when his world exploded in a crimson flash. A wave of nausea washed over him, not unlike the sensation during a ship-jump, and then he was falling into a red-black nothingness. He heard Kweela’s voice, but it seemed to be coming from an enormous distance away. He tried to move, but he could feel nothing except a suffocating presence all around him. From deep within his mind, old memories and long-buried images began to surface. He recoiled in horror from wrenching scenes of carnage and destruction. The sound of a Hellbringer banshee wail filled his ears and he looked around blindly for its source. The suffocating presence was pressing harder all around and he felt as if he could no longer breathe. The stench of death filled his nostrils and the screams of dying drowned out all but the Hellbringer wails.

Just when he felt he was at the limit of his endurance, a pinprick of calm stabbed out from the surrounding chaos. Fragile, yet determined, it burrowed towards him until it seemed to splash against his body. As it touched him, a new wave of sensations assaulted his mind. They had the terrible familiarity he remembered from the Hellbringer symbiosis, but with a significant difference. Suddenly, everything went quiet and tranquil.

Out of the silence, came a voice in his mind. "It’s me, Leith."


"You were expecting someone else?"

"You don’t sound like you."

"Of course not; I sound like you - or at least how you sound when you are thinking. It’s not as if you’ve got a transducer inside your head, you know. This is all I’ve got to work with."

"Has it worked?"

"So it would seem. Although we won’t know for sure until I release control of your body and you return to consciousness. I had to assume control of your bio-systems to fully test the effectiveness of the symbiosis. When you awake, I won’t seem to be such an intrusive presence. Which is just as well really, as such an easy distraction could be dangerous for both of us."

"Will we be able to communicate this easily when I’m awake?"

"To be truthful, I am not sure. I will always know your conscious thoughts, but you will probably need to make an effort to catch mine. I should, however, be able to project my thoughts onto your awareness fairly easily, if the need arises."

"You’ll always know what I’m thinking...?"

"But not what you are feeling," Jaycee assured him. "Unless you wish me to. Your memories and thoughts are visible to me, but not your inner feelings associated with them. That is something that goes beyond mere thought processes."

"So you know everything about my past?"

"Probably better than you do. I have access to your raw memories, while you must view them through the filter of your personality, which naturally distorts them to fit your concept of reality. And it also seems there are a lot of memories you have deliberately repressed. You must have a good reason for doing so; I am not about to pass judgement on you in that regard."

"If you can see my memories, I would have thought it was obvious why I would try to repress some of them."

"Your mind has been through much," agreed Jaycee. "But it is clear that your attempts to escape the past have not been completely successful. You mental barriers show signs of having been bolstered on occasion. I would suspect that credit is to go to the the Shutaka; without them you would have been lost a long time ago."

"The Shutaka?"

"It would seem that for them it is a natural thing to do, like applying a cool compress to a fevered brow. They would have sensed your peril, without knowing its direct cause, and reacted as they would to one of their own. Now, I’m going to relinquish my hold on your system. After you regain consciousness we can begin to learn how to coexist."

Leith opened his eyes and breathed deeply. Kweela’s face appeared above him. Her eyes looked red and swollen, as if she had been crying, but Leith knew that was impossible, so he assumed it was an irritation caused by her contact lenses. He would be glad when the Shutaka could end their charade; Kweela’s real eyes were so intriguing to look into. He stifled a yawn and sat up. Surprisingly, he felt rested and refreshed - and ravenous.

"Lie back," Leith-ka. I promised to fetch Misha-Dan as soon as you recovered consciousness. He wants to make sure you are all right."

Leith grasped her hand. "Did you tell him..."

Kweela gazed at him evenly. "I told him nothing, Leith-ka. He knows that I will not willingly let harm come to you. He senses something has happened, but he trusts your decisions. His concern for you is that of a friend. You have been unconscious all morning; it is now past noon. Misha-Dan has gone to the Marketday celebrations with the Keepers. It was the only way he could get Jor-Dak to leave as well."

Leith swung his legs off the bed and stood up. He felt better than ever. "Then let’s join them, Kweela-San."

He took a step forward and his leg gave out from beneath him. Kweela caught him as he stumbled forward.

"Sorry, Leith," came Jaycee’s thought. ‘Try it again."

"You should rest..." said Kweela.

"Let me do the walking, ok?" Leith muttered to Jaycee.

"A slight oversight, that’s all," came Jaycee’s response.

"Leith mnan-gar, can you hear me?"

"Sorry, Kweela, Jaycee and I were just deciding who's going to do the walking. Rest? That’s what I’ve been doing all morning," He took the Shutaka warrior’s hand firmly in his and made for the door, snatching his doublet from were it lay on the foot of the bed. "Come on, I’m famished; I’ll fill you in on the way."

The streets outside were deserted. In the distance to the west, where the Marketday jousting fields were located on the outskirts of Merrilean, they could hear the faint sounds of music and an occasional roar of the crowd. If they threaded their way through the narrow back alleys and lanes, they would be able to take the most direct route towards their destination, and be there within a quarter s.u. or less. Leith would usually have avoided some of the more dangerous streets, even accompanied by Kweela, but it seemed even the villains on Unaran observed the Marketday holiday.

Not that Kweela could not have managed any threat posed by a Merrilean gang of thugs, but so far they had been successful in convincing the Unaran authorities that they were nothing more than a peaceful, if increasingly popular, religious sect. That image would be somewhat tarnished if Kweela killed half a dozen rouges with her bare hands - even if it was in self defence.

While they walked, Leith explained to the Shutaka warrior, as best he could, what had transpired while he had been unconscious. Kweela listened carefully and asked few questions, reaching out with her Shutaka awareness to determine whether her mnan-gar had changed since the symbiotic transfer. Leith knew she would be doing this, and silently wondered what she would do if she believed he had changed significantly.

Halfway down a narrow alleyway, he stopped suddenly and turned to his ka.

"Let’s get this over with, Kweela. You’ve got to be certain about me, and I’ve got to be certain that you’re certain. What do you want me to do?"

Kweela sighed. "The only way I could be certain is if you open your mind to me."

"Like I did for Misha-Dan? All right, Kweela, if that is what it takes."

"Are you sure? I may not be as gentle as Misha-Dan; remember I am a warrior not a Lord-Priest."

He smiled. "No, but you are my ka."

Kweela returned the smile. "I will go no deeper than I need." Her smile faded. "Perhaps there are some things I am not yet ready to know," she finished quietly.

Leith closed his eyes and tried to relax, letting his thoughts drift off into nothingness. He began to feel tendrils of Kweela’s awareness creeping into his mind, and he also sensed Jaycees’ presence, observing. Then Kweela was gone. He opened his eyes.

"Is that it?"

"Yes," said the warrior. Her face had a look of peace that Leith had not seen for a long time. "I have seen enough to be certain. That which is important is still within you. We need speak of it no more."

"You underestimate your skills, Kweela-San. Your touch was lighter than that of Misha-Dan." He turned to continue walking, then paused again. "By the way, what would you have done if you had discovered..."

"Shutaka rarely speak of what-if, Leith Birro," said Kweela, brusquely. "Only what-is concerns us. Come, let us continue. Misha-Dan and the Keepers will be pleased to learn you are recovered."

With that, she strode off down the alley.

Misha-Dan was indeed glad when Leith and Kweela arrived at the jousting fields. Most of the Shutaka were gathered under a marquee that had been erected to shelter the child-goddess of the Church of Carth and her followers. As Leith and Kweela came into sight, the relief on the old man’s face was obvious.

"It is good to see you, Leith Birro, if a man supposedly blind is permitted to use that term. We were not unconcerned for you."

"I had a good nurse, Misha-Dan."

"Indeed. Indeed. Are you fully recovered?"

"He is," said Kweela.

The Lord-Priest looked at her and nodded. "Good. Very good. My faith in you both is renewed yet again."

"It was necessary, my Lord," explained Leith. "There was the question of an old debt, for a start..."

The old man held up his hand. "The thing about faith, Leith Birro, is that it demands no answers nor any explanations. I did not believe for one moment you would do anything that was not necessary. From Kweela, I know that we need to talk of it no more, unless you so wish."

"No, not yet, my Lord. But, perhaps later."

"Whenever you are ready, my friend. But now, the sound of your stomach rumbling tells me you have more pressing physical needs to which you should attend. I sent young Jor-Dak off to the banquet tables a moment ago. Should we find him? He will be similarly pleased to see you. Perhaps Kweela could search for Krys-Tian and Kisa-Mara; they went off towards the main jousting ring to attend Baron Hermain’s speech."

Misha-Dan was referring to Jochaim Augustus Hermain, the feudal baron who ruled Merrilean’s manor-house. The Baron had watched with considerable interest the popular rise of the Church of Carth and the Shutaka had take great pains to maintain a solid relationship with the powerful local ruler. Regular and substantial transfers from the church’s coffers to Hermain’s treasury also helped. As did enticing Baroness Helena herself to join the faithful. While the baron’s influential wife sat among the congregation, they felt relatively safe.

Kweela watched Leith lead the Lord-Priest in the direction of the tables that had been set up to satisfy the appetites of the crowd, then made her way towards the main jousting arena. A large crowd had gathered and she walked around it’s perimeter trying to spy the two Keepers.

"Hello Kweela-San," came a familiar voice from behind her. She spun around quickly to see Belle standing there. The Sorarainian was wearing a stained and crumpled ship-suit and had a flight bag slung over her shoulder. Her pretty face was lined with fatigue and her long hair was tangled with knots.

Kweela's eyes lit up. "Belle, you are back. Did you just get in?"

Belle let allowed her flight bag to slip to the ground and let out a deep breath. "Yes, about two s.u.'s ago. I came straight from the spaceport. I crewed on a Birellian freighter that just dropped into orbit."

Kweela waved towards a wooden bench beneath one of the trees that ringed the field. The jousting had just begun and most of the crowd was moving towards the barricades that formed the arena.

"Come and sit down before you fall down. You look terrible."

"That's nice to hear," said Belle with a grimace. "The Birellians aren't big on luxury, you know. If I'd realised there was going to be a party I'd have made more of an effort."

Kweela looked around the fair. "The Unarans seem to like their celebrations. Today is Marketday," she explained. "This fair has been going all day. Right now, Baron Hermain is preparing to deliver a long and boring speech, after which the knights will to put on an impressive display in the jousting arena to win the favour of a maiden. And from what I've seen of the Unaran women, it takes very little to impress them. They usually wait passively to be fetched away."

"You look rather fetching yourself, Kweela. Are you perhaps waiting for a mnan-gar to sweep you away? Did you count me dead already?"

"This is more for me than any man, little sister," replied Kweela gently, looking closely at her friend.

The Sorarainian took a deep breath and reached up to hug the Shutaka warrior tightly. "I'm sorry, Kweela, forgive me. It is my fatigue talking. My time on Basra has been full of anxiety - at times I did not think that I would make it back. I swore to myself that I would not kill while I was on Basra, but in the end I had to. I ran out of time; there was no other way... Oh Kweela, so much death; is that all I am good for? I never wanted to go back to that; all I wanted was to be a simple pilot. I feel I have aged terribly this past season, and you... why you look so beautiful and happy. I am ashamed that I allowed my bad manners to rise above our friendship."

Kweela softly stroked the fairy-woman's long hair with one of her battle-scared hands. "You are no fool, Belle, yet you talk nonsense. You do not enjoy killing; that is why fate has decreed it be your skill. You should fear the time when you begin to take pleasure in it, like my Shutaka savages and I. Your courage this past season has made even the bravest warrior mute. Even though I would not have let you go unless I was certain you would return, I have still counted the cycles until your return. We all have - and none more so than the mnan-gar. All you should be ashamed of is your talk of beauty. You are still more beautiful at this moment than I could ever hope to be. I can never compete with you in body, mind or heart. Nor would I try, little sister."

"Oh, Kweela, how I have missed you all. I'm so glad to be back. Holl was on Basra. I spent all my time trying to avoid him without arousing too much suspicion." Belle paused. "He was involved in Willa, I'm sure. I should have killed him, I know, but I couldn't find any opportunity."

"Holl," said Kweela distastefully. She shook her head slowly. "I'm sorry our needs prevented you from settling that score. You will never be asked to take such risks again, as long as I breathe, Belle. You have done more than enough for the Shutaka already."

"Belle, you're back!" came a shout.

They turned to see Leith walking across the field towards them, a goblet of wine in one hand and a large platter of fruit in the other. When he saw the Sorarainian's face, he let the food fall to the ground and broke into a run.

He dropped to one knee in front of the bench where the two women sat. "Are you all right?" he asked the Sorarainian. "You look a mess."

Kweela dug her knee into his ribs so hard there was an audible creak.

"She doesn't need to be told that, mnan-gar. You'd look a lot worse if you had to share a cabin with a crew of stinking Birellians. All she requires is a long hot bath and a good night’s sleep."

"Your right, Kweela," said Leith, rubbing his ribs. "I’m sorry, Belle, what I meant to say was I’m so glad to see you. We’ve all been worried about you. There is not a day goes by that young Visa-Mil doesn’t ask about you."

"How has she been?" asked Belle, her eyes lighting up at the mention of the young Shutaka girl.

"Misha-Dan has been doing his best to keep her occupied," said Kweela. "But her heart has been heavy. It is only her absolute belief in your parting promise that has sustained her. You said you would return, so she knew you would."

"I should find her."

"There is no need," replied Kweela. "She has found you." The warrior pointed across the field.

Visa-Mil was running towards them as fast as her small legs would carry her, with Misha-Dan and Jor-Dak hurrying behind. When the child reached them she literally threw herself at Belle. Although in one season Visa had grown to be almost as big as the Sorarainian, Belle caught her easily and hugged her tightly. For a full two hundred heartbeats, the woman and the girl embraced, neither of them uttering a sound. At last they released each other.

"I am back," said Belle. "As I promised."

"Yes," replied Visa, as if Bell had stated an unquestionable truth. "Will you begin teaching me now? So that I will be able to go with you next time."

"There will not be a next time," said Kweela quietly.

"Learning such skills is not to be taken lightly, little one," said Belle. "There has been many times I wished I could unlearn them."

"You promised," insisted the child.

"It is not only for me to decide, Visa," suggested Belle. "It is something on which you should consult your Lord-Priest. He may believe that the Guild of Black skills are not for the Shutaka. It is a path that knows no return journey."

Visa-Mil turned to the old man. "My Lord, please say yes. I could not bear to be left behind again."

Misha-Dan passed his hands in front of Belle's face in a ceremonial gesture. "Belle Morninglight-on-Brook, know that in your absence you have been pledged as ka to each and every Shutaka warrior. While Visa-Mil has many seasons before she will pass through hirra-tel-barka and become a warrior, I have no objections to you accepting her as your apprentice."

He turned to the girl."Visa-Mil, last of the Tarakini. You have no clan left, therefore you have the right to choose a new clan-tie. Let it be that of Belle Morninglight-on-Brook if you so wish. We are living in strange times now, but remember that the Guild of Black is well named. Learn carefully from the only one I know who has escaped it’s hold."

"Oh, thank you, my Lord. I will learn well, I promise."

"Now let us return to the Marketday festivities, lest our absence draw attention to ourselves," said the Lord-Priest. "Lilith-Soo informs me that Commander Cusher will be arriving in orbit within three cycles and, now that Belle has returned, Leith Birro can begin our final planning. The Shutaka have been very patient, but the time for action draws near.

Chapter 13 -->


The Pearl - Chapter 13

Leith looked out through the thick clearsteel viewing window as the mercenary landers touched down on the blast-marked permacrete of the spaceport. He knew which one was piloted by Izzy from the way it executed a graceful swooping approach dive to conserve fuel then settled evenly on its landing gear close to the terminal building. A small army of maintenance droids swarmed over the landers as they cut their engines. As soon as the main hatch on the lander swung open, Arail Cusher bounded out, causing several of the droids to collide as they tried to get out of her path. Leith smiled as he watched two of the small robots tumble to the ground in a tangle of multi-jointed limbs, like a pair of metallic clowns. Ignoring the distraction, the Commander strode off towards the doorway of the main building.

"Looks like she’s got something important on her mind," Leith remarked to Kweela-San standing beside him.

"Perhaps we should find out what it is," she replied.

"First things first. I’ve got to tell Izzy that Belle’s back. Cusher can wait."

Kweela said nothing, but followed Leith as he made his way to the waiting area outside the crew debriefing room. They didn’t have to wait long.

"Obviously, he’s got the same thing on his mind as Cusher," said Leith as the grizzled old pilot burst out of the debrief room. Izzy spotted Leith and Kweela immediately and walked quickly over to them.

"Did you talk to Cusher yet?" he asked.

"No, she was in too much of a hurry and I wanted to talk to you first," said Leith.

"Whatever it is, it’ll have to wait; something’s come up..."

"Izzy, Belle’s back," Leith interrupted, coming straight to the point."

The mercenary pilot blinked rapidly. "Belle! Where is she? Why isn’t she here? What’s happened?" he demanded, all thoughts of Cusher gone.

"She’s ok, Izzy," Leith reassured him. "She’s had a pretty rough time, but she’s ok now. She's with Lilith-Soo and her warriors at the moment - being prepared for the parna-ka ceremony tonight."

"Holl was on Basra," said Kweela, simply.

Izzy swore quietly. "Is he after her?"

"Perhaps," said the Shutaka. "Perhaps not. Belle thinks not, but I do not think we should take the chance. Belle believes he was behind the attack on Willa."

Izzy swore again. "Willa? That’s pretty impressive, even for a Guildmaster."

"I don’t understand," said Leith. "Who exactly is Holl? I’ve never known Belle to be afraid of anyone before, even a Guildmaster of the Guild of Black."

Kweela looked sharply at him. "Afraid? Leith-mnan-gar, for an intelligent man, you can be very stupid. Do you accuse Belle of being a coward?"

"No, of course not," Leith said. "That’s not what I meant - you know that. If you tell me what this is all about, maybe I can understand."

"That is for Belle to tell you, not us," replied the Shutaka warrior, evasively. "What you should know, however, is that more than ever, Belle’s enemies are our enemies. If it was his doing, Holl will be brought to account for Willa."

"And it’s yet another complication," said Izzy. "Look, we’d better find Cusher. She’s got some more bad news."

As they hurried off in the direction Cusher has disappeared, Jaycee spoke in Leith’s mind.

"This Holl, can any one human be such a cause for concern?"

"Jaycee," Leith responded. "There as some surprising gaps in your otherwise extensive knowledge. You have still a lot to learn about some humans. If Holl can spook Belle, then it is cause for concern. Don't let the way I treat Belle fool you. She is a sixth. She got in and out of Basra unaided. She could kill a pair of Shutaka without raising a sweat. If she is worried..."

"Very interesting," Jaycee responded. "It sounds like I should get to know this Belle Morninglight-on-Brook better. Your words do not match how you feel about this person; in your mind I suspect you choose to believe that Belle is not truly capable of such things as you ascribe to the Guild of Black. Watch out, Leith," she added casually, "You are going to walk into that storage crate. "

‘What..." Leith began, snapping his attention back to the physical world as Kweela unobtrusively steered him around a pile of timber crates stacked up near a loading dock. The Shutaka woman was becoming used to Leith’s distracted silences when he was conversing with Jaycee.

"Can’t you think and walk at the same time?" she muttered. "Tell Jaycee to keep quite until you’re stationary, or you’ll break your neck."

They caught up with Cusher outside the spaceport building. She was trying to flag down the Unaran version of a taxi, but with little success. In her creased flight-suit, devoid of any obvious insignia of rank, she looked like any other jump-lagged spacer. Every one of the zumacs, wooden carriages drawn by a pair of shaggy four-legged beasts, rattled past her without pausing. Cusher was getting increasingly frustrated and she looked as if she was about to leap onto the carriageway and physically wrestle one of the animals to a standstill.

"Arail," Leith called. "I wouldn’t do that, if I were you. They’re stronger than they look and they’ll probably bite your arm off."

Cusher turned to face them.

"Leith, I didn’t see you inside. How do you get a lift on this damn planet?"

"You need a different technique," he replied as they walked up to her. "I’ll show you." He reached into his jacket and pulled out a couple of bright yellow coins. He tossed them into the air and they landed on the edge of the roadway. As soon as they hit, a zumac seemed to materialise out of thin air and clattered to a halt in front of them. The driver scrambled down from his seat, scooped up the coins, and showed them a toothless grin.

"My lord, this humble carriage is at your service. May I ask your destination?"

"The Tavern of the Righteous," said Leith as the others scrambled into the vehicle. "Do you know it?"

"Of course, sir. May I be so bold as to assume that you too are a follower of the child-goddess?"

Leith looked at the Unaran."We were among the original pilgrims, friend. Are you of her faith?"

"I am indeed, sir." The man pulled Leith’s coins back out of his pocket. "Please, I cannot accept money from an Original Follower. It is my honour that you choose my zumac this day."

Leith shook his head. "Keep it, fellow. You have a living to make. The child-goddess would not have you starve in her name."

"You are doubly blessed, sir. My family thanks you."

He climbed back up to his seat and cracked his whip. The two beasts harnessed to the carriage gave a squeal and they started off down the street."

"What have you lot been up too?" whispered Cusher to Leith. "Every time I come back it seems the Church of Carth has tripled in strength."

Leith shrugged. "Dammed if I can figure it out. We must have a quarter of Unaran claiming to be of the faith. And it seems that The Church is springing up on half the planets in this system."

"Not only this system," said Izzy. "I hear it has spread a far as the Gorean Cluster."

Leith was about to reply, but the carriage gave a sharp lurch as the driver swerved to avoid another zumac heading straight for them and he was thrown headlong into Kweela’s lap. The four passengers gave up on conversation for the rest of the journey and concentrated on keeping a firm grip on the carriage’s handholds. After what seemed like an eternity, the zumac rumbled to a halt outside a large tavern. A sign above the door was adorned with a badly painted image of the Child-goddess of Carth, with words below announcing that it was the Tavern of the Righteous.

Leith and his companions dismounted quickly and the driver whipped his beasts into motion again. The carriage clattered off, its metal-shod wheels striking sparks from the cobblestones, and disappeared around a corner.

"Whew," said Cusher. "I’d rather jump blind than go through that again in a hurry."

"He was one of the more careful drivers," Leith assured her, following Kweela into the Tavern.

Although it was only mid-afternoon, the Tavern was almost full. The Shutaka often used it as a meeting place and there were quite a few inside partaking of a late lunch. The publican, a large, ugly chap by the name of Mordran, was actually one of Il-yar-Bisen’s early mercenary imports. He and his small company of freebooters hailed from Dorsal, a rough Outer Rim mining planet where drinking was a national pastime. While Leith and the Shutaka had been slowly gathering their forces, it seemed the best way to keep Mordran and his kinsman out of trouble was to let them do what they did best. Through the use of liberal bribes to the Unaran authorities, they had been set up in Taverns all over Merrilean. Mordran’s tavern proved to be quite popular, situated as it was within easy walking distance of the main church.

The man himself was tending bar as they entered and he gave them a hearty greeting.

"Welcome, friends, welcome. May the blessing of the Child-goddess be upon you." He placed both of his huge hands, each the size of a dinner plate, on the top of the bar and leaned forward, beaming. "I have, just this morning," he announced, "received a shipment of the finest ale this wretched planet manages to produce. I have been waiting all day for customers with suitably refined tastes before broaching the casks, and I see I have been rewarded for my patience. Unless I am mistaken, it is none other than Izzy Azayah himself who has walked in the door of my humble establishment. A man who will appreciate such a fine brew."

Izzy smiled a greeting and walked over to the barkeep.

"Retirement seems to suit you well, Mordran. You should have taken this up ten seasons ago. I bet you’ve already got an old-man’s beer gut."

The huge mercenary smashed a fist down on the polished stone counter with a crash and laughed loudly.

"If I’m ready for retirement, what does that make you? As for the shape I’m in, there’s more than a few battles left in me yet." He reached under the bar for a tankard and poured a frothing mug of ale for the pilot. "Taste that, Izzy. It’s not bad at all - almost worthy of Dorsal. Now, what will the rest of you have?"

Leith and Cusher ordered ale while Kweela settled for her usual glass of iced-water. Mordran deftly poured out another two mugs of beer and placed them on the bar, then filled a tall glass with water from a chiller tank. With a flourish, he dropped two cubes of ice and handed the drink to Kweela.

Izzy picked up his mug and took a long draught. He wiped the creamy froth from his lips with the back of his hand.

"I think your right, Mordran. It’s pretty good." He took another mouthful.

"So what brings you out this way, old man; have you signed up for this job, too? Not that I know what it is exactly; we’ve been cooling our heels, playing out a pantomime, on this rock for nearly a quarter season now and no-one has told us much about anything." The tavern-keeper spat on the floor in disgust.

Izzy shrugged. "It never matters to me," he said. "I do what I’m told, as long as they keep paying me. If they want me to fly nursery trips on full battle-rates, who am I to complain? All they ask is that I keep my mouth shut." He drained his beer.

"Don't worry," said Mordran, picking up on Izzy's last comment, "This is a secure place. No one gets in here that we don't want. And there's probably as much shielding in these walls as in a jump-room." He poured another beer for the pilot and placed it in front of him. "You know, I heard you were working with the Siven group. I thought you might have been fried around Willa - you always seemed to be working with those crazy Shutaka."

The barkeep looked around the tavern, and lowered his voice.

"Now, I don’t want to speak ill of the dead, but those warrior-women gave me the creeps. I heard their favourite trick was to rip out your heart with their bare hands and choke you with it. They say they used to even eat their own battle-dead; that’s why there was never any Shutaka bodies after a fight."

Leith saw Kweela’s hand tense on her glass of water, but she held her tongue.

"I’m with Siven, all right," replied Izzy quietly - or at least quietly for him. "And I’m still breathing. I’m flying shuttle on IMF Lady Macbeth under Arail Cusher. By the way, you ever actually see a Shutaka?"

"Nah, but I heard plenty. They say they were giants - tall as two men." He indicated Kweela. "That lass there is pretty big, but I reckon a Shutaka could’ve taken her with one hand." The mercenary furrowed his brow. "Lady Macbeth? Haven't heard of it. But, Cusher, heh?" I shipped on Blenheim once and her crew said Cusher is a real old bitch. Hard as nails and ugly as sin."

Now it was Cusher’s turn to clench her drink, but before she could say anything, Leith addressed Mordran.

"Brother, we have little time for polite discussion tonight, I’m afraid. We are on Church business. Has the Old Blind-Man been in today?"

"Aye," replied Mordran. "He came in with a group of priestesses and faithful. They’re in one of the private rooms upstairs." He jerked a thumb in the direction of a narrow wooden staircase behind him. "You’re welcome to join them."

He lifted up a hinged section of the heavy countertop. Carrying their drinks, Leith’s group filed through and started up the stairs. As soon as they had reached the hallway at the top, out of Mordran’s earshot, Cusher let loose with a string of obscenities.

"That heap of barak dung better not ever boost with me!" she stormed. "I’ll show him what a bitch I can be."

Leith reached out and lifted the breast-pocket flap on the Commander’s flight-suit to expose the small starburst badge that denoted her rank.

"That will teach you for hiding your light under a bushel, Arail. If you’re going to sneak around among the troops in disguise, what else can you expect?" He grimaced. "I guess we haven’t exactly got the cream of the mercenary crop on this little project."

Izzy grunted. "We’re lucky we got any at all. What happened on Willa has really stirred up the Outer Rim. Half the mercenary groups have gone to ground, and the other half are very wary about taking jobs on spec. Il-yar-Bisen has had his work cut out trying to sign up even lunks like Mordran - although he’s not too bad a fighter as long as he doesn’t have to think."

"Speaking of our other mnan-gar, when is he due back?" asked Leith.

"Periwinkle is scheduled to be in orbit within five cycles," Cusher informed him. "Izzy’s right, I’m afraid. Il-yar-Bisen has tried damn hard, but I don’t know if what we’ve got will be enough. I've only been able to secure half-a-dozen ships for support - admittedly two of them are pretty decent drone-carriers, but it's not going to be a walkover."

Kweela, meanwhile, had started off down the hall and was checking each room as she passed. She met with success at the third room, turned to motion them forward, and disappeared inside. Leith, Cusher and Izzy hurried up and followed Kweela through the door. Inside, Misha-Dan, the Keepers and about a dozen Shutaka warriors were seated at tables, apparently finishing off their lunch. Jor-Dak, Kisa-Mara and Krys-Tian were dressed in the simple robes of the Faithful, effectively concealing their identities. One of the tavern boys was clearing away platters bearing the remains of fruit and cheese, while another was busy filling tankards from a large metal pitcher of ale. Misha-Dan had his back to the doorway and he spoke without turning.

"Ah, It is Arail Cusher. I would know your distinctive footsteps anywhere. Welcome back. I trust your journey was successful?"

Cusher waited until the boy finished clearing up and left the room. She nodded to one of the Shutaka to close the door after them.

"Hello, Misha-Dan," she said. "That depends on how you judge success. I’ve brought in our final lot of troops, such as they are, and I hope it will be enough. However, something has come up which may affect our plans." She turned to Leith. "We’ll need to discuss this fully when Il-yar-Bisen arrives of course, but I don’t see any way around the problem."

"Which is?" asked Leith.

"As Izzy observed, Willa has really stirred things up. And I don’t mean just here in the Outer Rim. The Federation Council has sent ships out from the Core. They have arrived in this system and are doing a sweep, planet by planet."

"That’s inconvenient," admitted Leith. "But a squadron or two of FedFleet ships nosing around among the two hundred planets in the system shouldn’t cause us too much problem. By the time they figure out what’s going on, we should have taken Basra. They are hardly likely to ignite an Outer Rim powder-keg by getting involved in a relatively minor skirmish, especially once they find out that the Shutaka have returned from the grave."

"Don’t be so sure, Leith," Cusher told him. "It’s more than a couple of squadrons. It’s a full battle-phalanx."

"A phalanx!" Leith whistled. "A thousand squadrons? That's about half of OREF's current spaceworthy capacity. Why in the name of the Great Architect would the Council send a phalanx to this one small system? What are they doing?"

"Any damn thing they want, I imagine" answered Cusher, without humour. "A full battle-phalanx is pretty persuasive."

"Where are they now?" asked Misha-Dan.

"Around Gyra."

"You said they are doing a sweep planet by planet," said Leith. "What does that mean, exactly?"

"They station a dozen squadrons in planetary orbit for a while, while the rest of the phalanx backs off a reasonable distance. They the whole show packs up and moves on to the next planet."

"They don’t make planetfall at all?"

"A small detachment goes down. Apparently there's an Inner Rim Council Ambassador with them."

"How long before they reach Unaran?"

"They could be here tomorrow, for all I know. They are not following any particular pattern. You haven't heard the best bit yet, the whole fleet is coming out of null-space within a planetary system. And they're making jumps between planets." She paused, waiting for her words to sink in.

"It would seem that the Federation has perfected the long-awaited improvements to the jump drive," Leith said. "The capability for Intra-system jumping would make a phalanx just about invincible."

"Tell me about it," said Cusher. "My Chief Engineer is already trying to figure out how she can get her hands on one of the new drives."

"What is you assessment of these latest events, Leith Birro?," asked Misha-Dan.

"Well, there's not much information to go on, but I don't see we have much option but to proceed with our plans anyway and be prepared to make adjustments if necessary. With luck, the Federation won't see anything we do on Basra as connected with Willa - they'll just consider it a local squabble. What do you think Arail?"

"It's a gamble, but I agree it's probably one we have to take. As long as we don't arouse their suspicions too much, we might just get away with it. It depends how much the poke around here if they arrive before we attack Basra."

Jaycee conferred silently with Leith "I would have to agree, Leith. If this phalanx was looking for trouble, they wouldn't have an Ambassador tagging along. They are after bigger game."

"I wonder if the Federation has got wind of the Alien ships," mused Leith. That would be a good reason why they would boost a phalanx our way."

"Well, I'm more than happy for FedFleet to tackle any Alien ships that show up," remarked Arail. I think we've just about used up all our luck on that score.

"By the way, Arail, how's your JCN unit going now?" queried Leith.

"It's been behaving itself, if that's what you mean, but I think the accuracy stats are down. I'd rate it about average now, although it might improve once the learning circuits had had time to burn in. It's had a complete rebuild, so I'll have to accept that's the price I pay."

In Leith's mind, Jaycee gave the equivalent of an indignant snort. "Average? No JCN unit is ever average!" Leith coughed to cover the smile that crept across his face.

"My Lord," said Jor-Dak, glancing carefully at Izzy. "Could the disturbances we have felt of late have anything to do with the presence of these people from Inner Rim?"

"Perhaps," the Lord-priest said. "But the ebb and flow of things is not always clear. We will talk more of this later." He stood up. "But now, we must bid farewell to our friends for a while. I still have some preparations to make before this evening's parna-ka ceremony for Belle. And there is this afternoon's lesson I must supervise with you, Kisa and Krys" He looked at Cusher and Izzy. "Normally, it would be out of the question for either of you to attend the parna-ka ceremony, but Arail you already know so many of our secrets, one more will do little harm. And you, Izzy Azayah... I don't think Belle would let me keep you away. You are both welcome."

Jor-Dak stopped before Leith as he followed Misha and the others from the room. "Mnan-gar, I hope we may find the opportunity to talk after the ceremony tonight. I have missed our discussions of late, but have not wished to intrude upon your time when there a far more important things requiring your attention."

"I would like that, Jor," Leith told the Keeper. "I have also missed out talks together. I apologise that I have neglected you; Kweela-San will tell you I can get too absorbed in things at time." He glanced at the Shutaka woman." I fear she has been derelict in her duty to allow me to ignore you so."

"Leith-mnan-gar...," she began to protest.

Jor-Dak laughed. It was something Leith had seen him do so rarely before and for a moment it made him look like the youth he was, instead of a man-child bearing a load beyond comprehension. "Warrior, your ka washes over me like a wave, even from this distance. It must be wondrous to have that certainty within you."

Kweela smiled at Jor. "I will make sure Leith-mnan-gar finds time to talk with you; if not tonight, then soon."

The city of Merrilean was ringed with mountains, rising like fortress buttresses from the surrounding plains. The four tallest mountains in the circular ranges were almost exactly aligned with the compass points and were named Aristos, Hellanis, Maralan and Cristonis. It was on the lower slopes of Mount Aristos that the Shutaka assembled at sunset to perform the ceremony of parna-ka. They had all donned their battledress, complete with weapons, and waited quietly in a natural amphitheater formed by an ancient landslip in the side of the mountain. Subdued lighting was povided by small fire-globes spaced at intervals around the rim, but the Shutaka, with their excellent night vision, had no trouble moving about the terraces.

Leith and Kweela, along with Cusher and Izzy, arrived as the last light of the setting sun faded. Kweela had pointed out the location of the Shutaka perimeter guards as they made their way up the mountain trail and, while Leith could not see them, he knew that they would not allow any unwelcome outsiders to witness the events of that evening.

Leith inspected the assembled warriors as he made his way to the far side of the amphitheater where Misha-Dan waited with Lilith-Soo and Belle. He was pleased to see that the Shutaka were fighting fit; the clandestine training that Lilith and Kweela had arranged was maintaining their battle readiness as well as allowing them to vent some of their frustration at being cooped up on Unaran.

He spent a while talking with his warriors, reminiscing about old battles and admiring the many scars that they wore with pride. The morale of the Shutaka rose visibly by having have their mnan-gar amongst them once again as he should be, discussing tactics and the art of fighting. These things they could understand.

Tanah-Luc came up to Leith with a warrior that Leith recognised as one of the older children from the crèche on Willa. The child had become a young woman in the short time since then.

"Leith-mnan-gar," Tanah said, "This is Natal-Mirra of Treve clan. She is the last of her clan and seeks to now join with the Banara. Even though she has only just come of age to be a doza warrior, I will take her as ka if you accept to be her mnan-gar. She will be known as Natal-Tah, to honour the spirit of Bewah-Tah."

Leith looked at Natal, who returned his gaze with the burning reverence that only a doza warrior can give when they meet their mnan-gar for the first time. Her jet-black hair was still cut in the neat style of a child; it had not yet been allowed to grow out in the untamed manner of the other warriors. She had not yet fought a battle, been deafened by the noise, choked by the stench of a laser gouge, or had to wipe enemy entrails from the blade of her sword. While an awareness of the Pearl coursed through her blood, she had yet to be told the proper destiny of the Shutaka during hirra-tel-barka. For a moment, Leith wished that this young woman could have a destiny other than what the Pearl decreed for her.

"Bewah-Tah was a mighty warrior," he said. "What makes you think, Natal-Mirra, that you will earn the right to his name?"

"I will be serving under Leith Birro and Kweela-San," she responded without hesitation. "With such ka to provide an example, it is inconceivable that the spirit of Bewah will not rise to guide me when I fight beside Tanah-Luc."

From the pride that shone in Tanah's eyes at these words, Leith knew that the older warrior would teach Natal well.

"Very well, Natal-Tah, I will be your mnan-gar. In you, I think that Tanah-Luc has found a fitting way to remember Bewah."

"Leith-mnan-gar, we've been looking for you!" Leith turned to see Jor-Dak, Kisa-Mara and Krys-Tian making their way towards them. The parna-ka ceremony was usually restricted to Priests, mnan-gar and warriors but, as for Cusher and Izzy, an exception had been made for the three young Shutaka. Visa-Mil had begged the Lord-priest to also be allowed to attend, but on this Misha-Dan had stood firm.

For the ceremony, the warriors had provided the Keepers with full battledress. Jor-Dak and Kisa-Mara looked the part; both had filled out in the past season and Kisa-Mara was well on her way to become a striking young woman. She wore one of Kweela's swords at her belt and her right hand rested easily on the hilt. Jor-Dak stood beside her; he was left handed and he unconsciously took a mirror image stance to Kisa. The effect was not lost on Kweela.

"You two would make fine battle-kin," she said. "You complement each other well."

"It is unlikely we will ever get to test that," Jor-Dak said wryly. "Unless you count the battle we had getting Krys ready."

In contrast, Krys-Tian still looked like a child playing dressup. Her body armour hung off her lean frame and the sword at her belt sat awkwardly. She stood with her hands on her hip, challenging them to make a comment.

"It's not my fault," she said. "I'm not supposed to be a warrior."

"We all fight in different ways, Krys," Cusher said, putting her arm around the girl's shoulders and guiding her towards the end of the amphitheater where Misha-Dan stood waiting.

The Lord-priest used their arrival as a signal to start the ceremony. He held up his hands and addressed the Shutaka, his voice carrying easily around the amphitheater.

"My children, we are far from the Temple of Thought on Willa, where I last presided over a ceremony such as this. Nevertheless, it does not diminish the sacredness of this occasion. I call upon Kweela-San of the Banara to speak the parna-ka telling."

Kweela-San faced the assembled warriors.

"The Shutaka have pledged parna-ka to Belle Morninglight-on-Brook," she began. "It is unlikely that there are warriors here old enough to remember when this recognition was last granted to an outsider. I, Kweela-San of the Banara, have fought beside this Sorarainian on many occasions before and give my pledge freely with no further evidence needed; I call this woman my sister. I know she would never speak of these things herself, so in accordance with our customs, I speak on her behalf to remind all others why this pledge has been made. This is the parna-ka telling for Belle Morninglight-on-Brook."

Kweela paused and looked out upon the motionless Shutaka. She gazed into the eyes of the last of her kind. They seemed so few. For every face she recognised, Kweela was reminded of those she would never see again, their spirits doomed to roam Willa until the end of time.

"Soon we go into battle once again. This time, we fight for ourselves, to avenge Willa and win a new home for ourselves. The Shutaka are mighty, but we are not invincible. We cannot always triumph by spirit alone. This time we will win - and do not doubt that we will win - by using the knowledge obtained by Belle Morninglight-on-Brook."

"We are simple warriors; we do not understand the subtleties and skill required during the half-season it took Belle Morninglight-on-Brook to gain the confidences of our enemy. I, along with all of you, can only accept the word of our mnan-gar that this alone deserves our recognition."

"Instead, I will tell of the final escape of Belle Morninglight-on-Brook from the heart of our enemy, for the knowledge she won was worthless unless she could bring it back to us. Alone on Basra, and with no hope of rescue should events turn against her, she fought her way out through a garrison of elite royal guards. With no weapons, she killed fifty by her own estimate. With my knowledge of her abilities, I would be inclined to double that."

There was a murmur of appreciation from the Shutaka.

"She then liberated a Basran heavy fighter and destroyed a squadron in aerial combat before evading the planetary defences and making her escape. She traveled secretly back to Unaran, ensuring she left no trail to be followed. All this, Belle Morninglight-on-Brook did alone. For us and with no offer of reward. Our pledge of parna-ka is to show her that she need never fight alone again. Wherever Belle is, she has only to call for us and we shall come."

There was complete silence when Kweela finished speaking, then, as one, the Shutaka unsheathed their daggers and slowly raised them high above their heads in silent salute. Kweela motioned to Belle to come forward and speak, but the Sorarainian shook her head. Kweela looked at Leith, who nodded, then bundled Belle up in his arms and walked forward to where Kweela stood.

"Shutaka," he said, "I give you your parna-ka sister, Belle Morninglight-on-Brook!" Leith expected Belle to put up a struggle, instead she clung to him tightly and leaned her head against his chest while she looked out at the Shutaka warriors and accepted their pledge.

Much later that night, after each and every warrior had stood before Belle and spoken their own oath before returning to the city, Leith and Kweela climbed with Belle further up the mountain where a panoramic view of Merrilean stretched out below. Leith had hoped to be able to find time to speak to Jor-Dak, as he had promised, but Kweela had pulled him away, as if she was balancing the needs of her Sorarainian friend against those of the young Keeper.

'You two remain here," said Kweela. "I wish to see the view from that ridge up there." Leaving them she walked another thirty paces up the slope and turned her back on them to look out to the mountain range ringing the other side of Merrilean.

"Shutaka are such lousy liars," said Leith to Belle, grinning. "I wonder what she's up to?" They found a grassy spot and sat down. Unaran had no moons and the stars were spread out in the cloudless night sky.

"Can you tell where Basra is?" asked Leith, looking up.

"It's that one there," said Belle. She took Leith's hand in hers and pointed it at a slightly larger dot of light in the sky. "There, next to that line of five stars."

"Ok, I see it now." He expected her to let go of his hand but she held on to it as he lowered it to the ground. They sat for a while looking up at Basra.

"Do you miss it," Belle said suddenly.

"Miss what?"

"Commanding a ship. Kweela told me you were a Lieutenant-Commander in OREF once."

"That was a while ago," he said. "Things have changed so much, I don't think I could handle it now. My first ship was about the size of Hammerhead, but it had an open bridge - it was a clearsteel bulge at the nose. You could stand there and look out at the stars - pretty much like this. If you had the guts, you could even look out when you made a jump."

"Did you?"

"Usually - I found it quite beautiful, but others got physically ill if they tried. I used to get sick if I didn't watch - still do, if you recall."

"I try to be in the docking bay when Hammerhead jumps," said Belle. The bay doors are usually open and you can watch the stars change. I don't find it unpleasant, either. You didn't answer my question, 'though. Do you miss it?"

"Sometimes. But it's easy to miss something that was much simpler when you were much younger."

"Why did you leave?" To join the Shutaka?" Belle glanced over to where Kweela stood, barely visible against the night sky.

"No, that was later. I left... well, we all make mistakes, I guess."

"Were the Shutaka a mistake, too?" Belle asked.

"The Shutaka? No, they weren't a mistake. They were the first thing I did right in my life."

Leith looked down at Belle's small hand where it still lay over his.

"What made you take up piloting after..."

"After I ran away from the Guild?," she finished. "I don't know. I guess I was good at it and... and it didn't involve killing anyone." She lifted her hand from Leith's and ran it over the grass beside them, where night dew was already beginning to form on the blades. She raised her moist hand and showed it to Leith.

"Do you know, that is more water than the grass on Sorarain would give up in a whole season." She licked her hand delicately.

"What is Sorarain really like?" asked Leith. "I have heard a little about it, but I have never been there."

Belle gazed into the distance, towards the lights of the Merrilean spaceport, where the tiny specks that were landers and small cargo ships could just be seen.

"It is very green," she said. "It often rains, but the water barely touches the ground; the plants seem to steal it out of the very air. If you stand still for too long, a vine will start to wind around your leg. If you fall to the ground unconscious, it is unlikely you will get up; the grass will suck you dry. There are few animals on Sorarain; those that survive do so by finding a cave or a patch of rocky ground to make their home. There is a sense of transience about things - your surroundings are changing so much. Our dwellings are constantly being invaded and reabsorbed by the forests."

"It sounds very harsh," said Leith.

"But there are compensations," Belle replied. "We have quadruple suns, each a different size and colour; the sunsets are the most magnificent in the Outer Rim. And the variety of flowers is incredible. And there have been no wars in the history of my planet. My youth on Sorarain was not unhappy."

"You got on well with your family, then?"

Belle did not answer his question. Instead, she suddenly asked, "Leith, how do you think of me? As a person, I mean."

Leith took a strand of Belle's long hair and playfully tickled her nose. "Belle, you are a magnificent, wonderful, magical creature; an intelligent, talented and beautiful woman whom I absolutely adore."

"Now who's a lousy liar?," she said, but smiled anyway. Her smile faded. "Don't you fear me, too? You know I am - I always will be - an Assassin. Sorarain breeds these well for the Guild."

"Do you want me to fear you, Belle?" Leith asked gently.

The tiny Sorarainian looked up at Leith with a grief-stricken expression. "I could bear just about anything but that, Leith."

"Belle," he said, "I do not fear those I love. I do not fear Kweela; I do not fear my Shutaka; I did not fear Doran Mar. And I do not fear you. I know what an a Guild of Black assassin can do - I have seen the results of their work before - but this is not what you are to me. To me, you are as I described you before."

"I have never heard you talk of me as a woman until now, Leith."

"It's rather obvious, Belle. You may not be as big as a Shutaka, but I would not mistake you for anything else."

"Leith, you know nothing of Sorarainians, do you?"

"There are millions of human races in the Outer Rim, Belle, and I don't pretend to be an expert on any of them - including my own. However, although you are the only Sorarainian I have met in my life, I can tell you are a human woman."

"Leith," she said, the words beginning to tumble from her mouth. "Sorarainians are neither male nor female in the normal human sense. While we have male and female bodies, our human genitalia do not react to any form of usual human sexual stimulation. We can only be sexually satisfied by another Sorarainian, but we have evolved so as to not rely on this as a means of procreation. Sorarainian babies are not born as such; they are grown on a certain type of tree after a fertilised egg is injected into its fruit..." She stopped and took a deep breath. "Now, do you still think of me as human, let alone a woman?"

Instead of answering, Leith reached over, placed his hands on Belle's shoulders and gently pushed her back onto the soft grass. He stretched out beside her and stared up at the stars.

"Close your eyes and answer me this," he said. "Do you feel good when you hold one of those babies? Do you have a favourite piece of music? Do you hate people sometimes, and love them other times; despair of them on occasion then stand amazed at what they can achieve. Do you want to live more than you want to die?"

"I... Yes, I do."

"Then, you're a human as far as I'm concerned," Leith told her. He turned his head so he was looking at Belle.

"Can you think of a man, other than a Sorarainian, that makes your heart beat faster? Who frustrates you; who excites you? A man that you could see yourself living for, or dying for. A man you believe could love you for what you are? A man that you could imagine being with for the rest of your life?"

"I... I am an outcast among Sorarainians, but... I believe I can think of others."

"Then, you share much in common with other women," Leith said.

Belle opened her eyes. Her gold pupils seemed huge in the dim light.

"If it is possible for an Assassin to find peace, then tonight I have found mine," she whispered. "Leith, the Shutaka have pledged me parna-ka so I would never have to fight alone again, but the only battle I fear is the nights I spend alone. Would you lie beside me here tonight, just this one night?"

Leith said nothing but reached over and pulled Belle close to him. He held her tightly until she drifted off to sleep. On the slope above, Kweela-San stood watch over them, like a statue carved from stone, until the first rays of the sun crept over the horizon.

Chapter 14 -->


The Pearl - Chapter 14

"I’m sorry that your little friend has run off and left you Gianna, but I have more important things to think about right now," said Emperor Taran, frowning at his wife. "I’m not surprised, though; she struck me as an opportunist. I doubt she was even a full-blood Sorarainian - she certainly avoided meeting Holl."

The Emperor's image faded from the ComTerm screen in front of Gianna. She sat frowning for a few moments, then summoned her handmaiden by pressing a stud on her wristcom.

"Marceen," she instructed when the girl glided silently into the room. "I will be traveling to the Citadel as soon as I can have the necessary arrangements made. You can start packing my things."

"Yes, Empress. Have you informed the Emperor of the incident, then?"

"I told him what he needed to know - no more, no less - that my companion M'Light had suddenly left. He does not need to know of the other matters, at least not until my security advisors have completed their investigation. However, that is not why I'm going; my husband is up to something and I want to be where I can keep an eye on him."

Gianna did not yet trust Marceen as she had Yoom. Poor loyal Yoom, who had always been most adept at finding out things on the occasions when the Empress visited the Citadel. Yoom had been found dead in Gianna's bedroom after M'Light had fled. There was not a mark on the body and an autopsy had revealed nothing. It appeared as though her heart had just stopped.

The Empress left Marceen to begin packing and went to meet her security advisors. She found both of them waiting in the antechamber to her office. They stood up and bowed low as she entered.

"Davad, Kenne, please come in and make yourself comfortable." Gianna walked through to her office and the men followed her at a respectful distance. She waved them towards two armchairs then settled onto a richly upholstered divan, kicking her shoes off and tucking her feet up under her gown. "Well, gentlemen, what have you concluded?"

The older of the two, Davad Mardus, cleared his throat. "Empress, we are faced with two possible scenarios to explain the events surrounding M'Light's departure."

"And they are?"

Mardus looked at his comrade. "My Lady," said Kenne Roan, "The first scenario is quite alarming and requires us to believe that at least one hundred enemy troops infiltrated our best defences and made off with your guest. In doing so, they succeeded in killing seventy of the Royal Guard without incurring any losses themselves. Furthermore, they were able to provide enough air cover to take out a squadron of our Type IV fighters. All this without showing up on our security vids, short-range scanners or being picked up by the regular Basran navy patrols in orbit."

"I take it that this is an unlikely scenario?" observed Gianna. She reached across to a table beside the divan and poured a glass of water from the crystal pitcher standing there.

"Highly unlikely, Empress," agreed Roan.

"And the second scenario?" she asked, sipping her water.

"It is actually more alarming, my Lady," said Mardus. "It suggests your guest was, in fact, a member of the Guild of Black."

"You're telling me one Assassin could do all that - without leaving any evidence except the bodies of my troops?"

"Quite easily, unfortunately," said Mardus, frowning. Roan nodded in agreement.

Gianna looked at her two advisors carefully to make sure they were serious. "I see. I do not doubt your professional judgment, gentlemen, but I got to know M'Light well - very well - during the time she was here and I find it difficult to believe she was... an Assassin. Are you sure you are not jumping to conclusions just because she was a Sorarainian like that horrible little fellow my husband keeps around?"

The two men shifted uneasily in their seats. "My Lady," said Roan, "We are aware that M'Light shared a... a special relationship with you. Nevertheless, all reasoning still leads us to believe she was an Assassin. However, we don't think she was here to harm you. It appeared from our humble observations that she held genuine affection for you. If your death had been her goal, she would not needed to have come to Basra - you would not have left Capisium alive. She was here for a reason other than that."

"It's reassuring to know you have full confidence in your security arrangements while I am off-planet, gentlemen," Gianna said dryly.

"Frankly, Empress," said Mardus, "We can only protect you if you allow yourself to be protected. Forming a relationship with every charismatic person who ingratiates themselves into you company is fraught with danger." Mardus' loyalty to Gianna was unquestionable, but he had never been a royal flunky. The Empress valued his candor as much as she relied on his considerable skills, and allowed the man his say.

"Point taken, Davad, but I will not cower away from people like my husband does in his Citadel," she replied. "Nevertheless, I will try to be more circumspect in the future."

"Speaking of the Emperor, my Lady," said Roan. "You are aware that we must regularly report to his Security Minister. What do you wish us to tell Luis Juracke? We will not be able to cover up the loss of a squadron of fighters and a barracks full of troops."

Gianna held up the glass she had in her hand. "Kenne, tell me, is this glass half empty, or half full?"

"My Lady?" asked Roan, perplexed.

Mardus sighed. His colleague was well skilled, but lacked imagination. "Only we know that the attack was the result of someone trying to get out, not in," he explained to Roan. "We will tell Juracke that we repelled an assault by a group of unidentified mercenaries - at considerable cost to the Royal Guard. We will demand to know why the Basran navy was not able to detect these intruders before they made planetfall. If it was not for our valiant defence, Juracke's incompetence could have endangered the life of our Empress."

Gianna raised her glass in salute to Mardus. "Well done, Davad. You missed your calling, you should have gone into politics." She turned to Roan. "What's more, Kenne, you can make your report in person. I'm intending to travel to the Citadel this afternoon. The last report I had from poor Yoom suggests that dear Willem is being more secretive than usual. He is working on a scheme of some sort and I mean to find out what it is about."

"But Empress," said Roan, "Is it wise to keep from the Emperor the fact that an Assassin was here? After all, it may have been part of an attempt on his life."

"Oh, I will tell him, Kenne, but when I am ready. And not before. I may be able to use it to my advantage. In the meantime, please contact the Citadel so they can make preparations for our arrival."

At that moment, half a planet away, Emperor Taran was actually preparing for the arrival of a visitor even more important than the Empress. He was in his chambers with Security Minister Juracke as well as the Foreign Affairs Minister, Braid Astreen. Taran was holding the diplomatic communiqué that Astreen had given him. The silver plate was embossed with the serrated-disk symbol of the Federation of Inner Rim Planets.

"And the Ambassador's emissary gave no indication of the reason for the visit?" the Emperor repeated.

"No, Excellency," said Astreen. "The emissary was most courteous - and apologetic for the short notice - but gave no hint as to why the esteemed Council representative sought an audience with you."

"Apologetic?" Taran stood up and began pacing behind his desk. "She's got a battle-phalanx with her; that's notice enough for the Federation. What do we know of this Ambassador Gisele Mar?"

"Her Council biography is impressive, Excellency," said Juracke "She represents Jedmon and is seen as a fairly influential figure in the Council. But most importantly, she holds proxy rights on the Inner Rim Security Committee."

"In other words," said Taran, fingering the embossed symbol on the communiqué, "She is close to the real seat of power on the Council." The Emperor spoke into his wristcom. "ARAK, status of the Federation phalanx?"

"Seven vessels are currently in planetary orbit. Types range from Ostler-class light-cruiser to heavy-battleship, class unknown but possibly Planetcrusher variant. The remaining ships are stationed approximately six planetary diameters from Basra. Latest communication from the Ambassador's vessel suggests estimated time of arrival at the Citadel for her party is midday tomorrow. A... request... has been made to maintain a clear flightpath for the Ambassador's lander. No Basran escort will be required."

"A request," echoed Taran. "As ever, the Council must maintain its veneer of civility. Mark my words, gentlemen," he said to his two Ministers, "You will live to witness the day when I will make the same... request... to enter the Hall of Truth on Nova Earth."

The two ministers looked at their Emperor with reverence, their faces showing that they believed his words implicitly. Somewhere, deep in their minds, in a part that could still be just be recognised as belonging to their original will, a spark of doubt may have lingered for a moment, but it was quickly extinguished by the conditioning Taran had enforced with the use of the Alien helmet. If ARAK harboured similar reservations, the AI kept them to itself.

"A message has just been received from the Empress Gianna, Excellency," ARAK informed him. "She sends warm regards, and is pleased to inform you that her schedule of engagements has allowed the luxury of another visit with her husband. Her entourage should arrive at the Citadel at sunset."

The Emperor grunted. "Impeccable timing, as ever, Gianna. However, in this case, it may not not hurt for the Emperor and Empress of Basra to present a picture of blissful sovereignty to the Ambassador. Gianna does have a way of putting people like Gisele Mar at ease. ARAK, ensure that the necessary arrangements are made to receive the Empress properly. And have the guest accommodation prepared for the Ambassador. We should also arrange for another banquet tomorrow night to honour the esteemed Council representative."

He nodded to Juracke and Astreen. '"Thank you gentlemen; that will be all." Bowing deeply, the two ministers left the room. "ARAK," Taran ordered, when the door closed behind the men. "Ask Holl to pay me a visit."

"Affirmative, Emperor. He is currently meditating on the rooftop garden. I will extend your invitation to him."

While the Emperor was waiting for the Sorarainian to arrive, he returned to his desk, took the Alien book from one of the drawers and placed it on the inset rik-leather desktop. He opened the book where he had marked the place with a piece of gold ribbon and began perusing the text. Taran knew the words off by heart now - even recognising the delicate patterns within patterns of syntax and structure - yet still their true meaning continued to elude him. As he recited the words softly, he felt the now-familiar awareness begin to form in his mind. It had grown much stronger this last season, as if the source had come closer to him.

"The helmet," he thought, "The helmet must be the key." But still he was afraid of using it on himself, well remembering the effect it had had on the captured Shutaka Priest and warrior. He was convinced now that the Shutaka had been able to master the unseen power and this had been the basis of their apparent invincibility. He was beginning to see that it had been a mistake to strip Willa; if the Shutaka had been using devices such as the Alien helmet, they were gone now, boiled off into space with everything else on the surface of the planet.

"Excellency, " announced ARAK. "Master Holl has arrived."

"Show him in, ARAK."

The Sorarainian assassin entered, carrying a Lanx-Lilly that he had picked from the rooftop garden. He inclined his head in greeting. "Good morning, Excellency. I was admiring your gardens; they are a credit to you."

Taran waved his hand dismissively. "Thank you, although it is all ARAK's doing. I don't know why I indulge it, but its horticultural interest seems harmless enough." Taran stood up and walked around the desk to meet Holl. The Emperor directed his guest to one of the armchairs and sat in one himself. "It seems," Taran said, "That you won't have the opportunity of meeting the Empress' Sorarainian friend after all; it seems Professor M'Light has had to leave Basra at short notice."

"A great pity, Excellency. I was looking forward to it; I meet so very few of my kin outside of the Guild."

"Never mind," said the Emperor. "If it is any consolation, it seems we are going to be honoured with a visit from no less than a Federation Council member: Ambassador Gisele Mar. You will get a chance to catch up on Inner Rim gossip, at the very least."

"Indeed, Excellency. Gisele Mar? An interesting name, given that a Doran Mar has rendered such valuable service to your Excellency recently."

"You think they are related?" asked Taran. He had almost forgotten the mercenary that Holl mentioned. Such matters were of no importance now.

"Perhaps," said Holl. "I know insufficient about the planet Jedmon to gauge whether or not this is a common family name. It may, of course, be mere coincidence."

The Emperor merely grunted and walked towards the wall of the room. ARAK, reading the mood of his master, opened the armoured shutters protecting the clearsteel windows and a panoramic view of Basra was revealed as they slid up. Taran stood looking out over New Closak, his hands clasped behind his back. Finally, he turned back to the Sorarainian.

"Well, perhaps we shall find out tomorrow, when the Ambassador arrives," he said.

Holl remained silent. If Taran insisted in playing with fire, there was a chance he would be burnt. It was unlikely that an action such as destroying the Shutaka would fail to draw the interest of the Council. They would at least be curious about who could achieve something that OREF could not.

"There will be a banquet tomorrow evening in honour of the Ambassador," continued Taran. "You are, of course, invited to attend."

"You are most gracious, Emperor. I shall look forward to it. Now if you will excuse me, I have some Guild business to which I must attend; there are a number of messages from my colleagues I must answer."

"Certainly, Holl. I am aware that you are here of your own accord and that our original contract has already been fulfilled. I am grateful that you continue to provide me with your valuable insights."

The Sorarainian bowed. "Not at all Emperor. I confess my weakness is being unable to walk away from untidy endings. There are nuances here that I do not fully comprehend, and this irks me professionally. It is I who is grateful to you for continuing to extend your generous hospitality." With that, Holl walked from the room, leaving Taran to his thoughts.

The Emperor slept badly that night which, for once, had little to do with the side effects of Hexeldrafaline. The Empress Gianna had arrived at sunset with news of an attack on the Cliff Palace by a group of offworld mercenaries. There had been significant casualties among the Royal Guard assigned to protect the Empress and little evidence had come to light to identify the attackers. Taran's spy, Yoom, had been among those killed.

Juracke had been at a loss to explain how the mercenaries had been able to slip past the naval orbital defences twice - once on the way in and again when they escaped. If they could reach the Empress in her Cliff palace, then it was unlikely that Taran would be safe in the Winter Palace. How safe, for that matter, was the Citadel itself?

Taran rose at dawn the next morning and summoned his valet to assist him with his daily routine. While ARAK provided him with a detailed update of the status of the Citadel, the Emperor had a light breakfast, then bathed and dressed. He spent the morning alone in his study, running through the Alien mind exercises and looking though his copious personal notes. Just before midday, his work was interrupted by ARAK.

"Excellency, Ambassador Mar's lander is approaching the Citadel," the AI announced.

"Fine. Is everything ready?"

"Affirmative. Both the Foreign Affairs Minister and the Security Minister report that all the necessary arrangements have been made. As requested, the Ambassador's lander has been granted a priority flightpath to the Citadel. Minister Astreen is waiting in the shuttle hanger to welcome the Ambassador on your behalf and conduct her to the throne room.

"Good. Have Paale come in and help me on with my robes."

"Yes, Excellency," replied ARAK.

A short time later, Taran's elderly manservant entered unobtrusively through a side door, carrying the Emperor's ceremonial garb. He helped Taran on with the heavy robes and carefully adjusted the Great Seal of Basran hanging around his Emperor's neck. Taran studied his image in a full length wall mirror hanging on the wall, then dismissed Paale and crossed to where a concealed door slid open to reveal the lift that would take him down to the throne room.

Although Taran had been in the throne room many times before, he rarely stepped into the chamber without feeling a sense of awe, such was the skill of the architect Taran's Grandfather had employed to design it. The room was vast, occupying the entire fifth level of the Citadel - five being the number that Basrans associated with authority and strength. Glittering chandeliers hung from the vaulted ceiling, casting a subdued light over the richly coloured walls. A large gold trimmed dais situated towards one end of the chamber held the jewel-encrusted throne itself. Basran custom recognised the presence of only one ruler at a time, so there was no throne for Gianna. The dais was flanked on both sides by tiers of heavily upholstered chairs usually occupied by the Court officials. The external wall behind the dais was constructed from thick clearsteel and revealed, when the armoured shutters retracted, a panoramic view of the city of New Closak.

The Emperor's lift delivered him to a small antechamber behind the throne. His Protocol Secretaries were waiting for him and they escorted him to the throne itself. As Taran seated himself, ARAK retracted the wall shutters behind him and the afternoon sun spilled into the room. The Emperor waited just long enough to make it clear he was not being hurried, but no so long as to be possibly interpreted as offering insult to the Ambassador. He nodded to the Captain of the Royal Guard, who give the signal to open the throne room doors. The massive kraken-wood doors swung open slowly to reveal Ambassador Mar and her small entourage being led in by Minister Astreen.

At first, Taran was taken aback by the apparent youth of the Ambassador until he remembered that bioregeneration was a favourite pastime of the Inner Rim. He knew that his own body would age to the point where he would need to undergo the process, but he still had the vague distrust of body-sculpting that most of the Outer Rim shared.

The Ambassador walked with a casual confidence, however, that was due to more than her youthful body. Taran was well aware of the power this woman had at her command as proxy to the Security Committee. To the right of the Ambassador walked a well-built man, dressed as a civilian, but with the unmistakable carriage of a military person. The other fellow with Ambassador Mar was regular FedFleet, of reasonable rank judging by the amount of braid and badges adorning his uniform. The Ambassador's party halted in front of the dais and, before Astreen could launch into long-winded introductions, Gisele spoke out in a clear, authoritative voice.

"Greetings, Emperor. I am Gisele Mar, representing the Council. May I introduce my Secretary, Shimar Elfin," she said, indicating the muscular man on her right. "And this," she added, waving her hand at the uniformed man on her right, "is Commander Auge Johane, the delegate of High-Admiral Crando. Admiral Crando sends her compliments, but she is required to remain aboard her flagship. Commander Johane will likely remain on board my lander with the pilot for the duration of my stay; I do not wish to cause you any unnecessary inconvenience."

"Straight to the point," thought Taran. "She is here for information and will tolerate only as much ceremony as it takes to get it. "Welcome to Basra, Ambassador," he said, inclining his head. "I am mortified that you find us so unprepared for your visit."

"Not at all, Emperor. I am grateful that you could accommodate me at such short notice. My stay here will not be long; a day at the most. High-Admiral Crando is keeping me to a tight schedule; she informs me our next destination is Unaran in three sleep cycles." She indicated her ship-suit. "After my party has had a chance to have some food and freshen up, I would appreciate a meeting with you in your chambers later this afternoon."

"My dear Ambassador, I am dismayed that your schedule will only allow such a brief visit. Basra has many delights that I would be overjoyed to show you if there were more time. However, I realise that Council matters must come first and I sense an urgency in your mission to the Outer Rim. Minister Astreen will see that all your needs are met regarding food and rest. I will be at your disposal all afternoon. I would, however, place one demand on you; we have arranged a banquet in your honour this evening and my wife, Empress Gianna, would never forgive me if I did not extract a promise from you to attend."

Gisele smiled. "Emperor, I'm glad we share a respect for the desires of the Council; it is not an attitude I have universally experienced in this visit to the Outer Rim. Our meeting should not take long. And I have would not dream of disappointing the Empress. In fact I am looking forward to meeting her; I believe she and I have a mutual acquaintance in Ambassador Phile of Hastran."

"Excellent," said Taran. "In that case I will leave you in the capable hands of Minister Astreen." The Emperor looked at his Foreign Affairs Minister. "Braid, please ensure that Ambassador Mar has everything she needs. And have ARAK inform me when the Ambassador is ready for our meeting."

"Yes, Excellency." The Minister turned to Gisele. "Ambassador, allow me to escort you to your rooms. Your baggage should already have been transferred there from the shuttle. He started to guide them to the door. "Our kitchens should be able to provide you with just about any food you wish, although I would like to tempt you with some of our local dishes. I would recommend some grilled Yellow Diver, one of our more rare deep-river fish. It is excellent for a late lunch such as this."

Taran watched them leave, then rose and returned to his chambers. His manservant was waiting for him and helped the Emperor remove his robes. The Emperor discussed at length what clothes he would be wearing for the banquet that evening and instructed his servant to check that the gown the Empress intended to wear would compliment his choice. When old Paale had disappeared once more, ARAK spoke.

"Excellency, after your earlier conversation with Holl, I took the liberty of cross-checking a possible connection between Gisele Mar and the mercenary, Doran Mar. Available records show the Ambassador as having a younger brother, Doran Jel Mar, who was a Junior Lieutenant-Commander in OREF until he resigned his commission. Comparison of official OREF personnel images with those recorded of the mercenary Doran Mar while in your... custody... show a match. It would appear that the mercenary Doran Mar was the younger brother of the Ambassador."

The Emperor dropped into an armchair and stretched his legs out before him. "My, my, ARAK. Isn't life full of little coincidences? I wonder if our Gisele Mar knows that her brother is now part of a cloud of molecules orbiting somewhere around Willa." The Emperor looked thoughtful. "I may even be able to use this to my advantage at a later date; it would potentially be very embarrassing for the Ambassador if it became known among the Council that her brother was an Outer Rim mercenary leader."

"Minister Astreen advises that the Ambassador is now ready for your meeting, My Lord," said ARAK

"Very well. Tell Braid to escort her here."

"Confirmed, Excellency."

While he waited for Gisele to arrive, the Emperor summoned Paale and instructed him to bring in several bottles of wine from his personal cellar. The servant returned a short time later with a gold tray bearing two dusty bottles and some glasses. He placed the tray on a side table and expertly opened one of the bottles to allow it to breathe.

"Thank you, Paale, that will be all. Once you have checked with the Empress' staff, you can start preparing my clothes for the banquet this evening."

"Yes, My Lord," said Paale and left the room.

"Excellency, announced ARAK, Minister Astreen and the Ambassador have arrived."

"Good; tell Braid he can go now. Show the Ambassador in, ARAK."

"Yes, Excellency."

ARAK opened the door and Gisele walked into Taran's office. The Ambassador had changed from her rumpled ship-suit and was looking relaxed and refreshed in a well-tailored tunic. Taran stood up to greet her and shook hands warmly. He motioned for her to sit down the returned to his own seat when Gisele had done so.

"I trust that your accommodation is to your liking and that our food agrees with you?" he asked.

"Both are outstanding, Emperor. Your chef's are to be congratulated."

"Thank you; I will see to it personally that your compliments are forwarded to the royal kitchen. They seldom have the opportunity to cook for truly refined tastes. May I now offer you some wine, perhaps. It is from my personal cellar, of course."

Gisele accepted the offered glass and sipped the rich red liquid appreciatively. "That is quite magnificent, Emperor."

"I thank you; it is several generations old and is one of my own favourites. Now, Ambassador, I hope I am going to be enlightened as to the purpose of your visit - not that a representative of the Council is ever unwelcome on Basra."

"Thank you Emperor. It has been many seasons since I last visited the Outer Rim and I had forgotten how beautiful some of the planets are - Basra is no exception. However, the Council has not sent me here for a holiday. I am here, on the directive of the Security Committee, to make an assessment before the Council makes a further decision on a matter of significant importance. Call it a general fact-finding mission, if you will. A number of reports have reached the Council of strong alliances forming between groupings of Outer Rim planets. While the Council accepts this - even welcomes it - they are seeking to assure themselves that these developments do, in fact, reflect a maturing of the political abilities of the Outer Rim leaders."

"And not the beginnings of another Outer Rim uprising," concluded Taran.

"The Council prefers to be more charitable," said Gisele. "They hope that these events signal a new beginning in the relationship between the Inner Rim and Outer Rim."

"Is the Council considering, perhaps, that there may be some possibility of the Outer Rim becoming self governing?" asked Taran.

"It is the desire of the Council," replied Gisele, carefully choosing her words, "That order continue to be maintained in the Outer Rim by OREF. It is OREF's charter to ensure that all those Outer Rim planets loyal to the Inner Rim be allowed to express that loyalty freely without feeling threatened by any of their neighbours."

"With the greatest of respect, Ambassador, it would seem that OREF has been less than successful in carrying out the desires of the Council."

Gisele rolled the stem of her wineglass through her fingers. "Emperor, the Federation has been quite patient with the Outer Rim to date. However, there is a limit to that patience. Recalcitrant Outer Rim planets should not assess the capabilities of the Council by what OREF has achieved so far; they have been operating within specific limitations imposed upon them by the Council. If the Council decides that a stronger military presence is necessary, they will act accordingly."

"I gathered as much," said Taran. "One cannot but help notice the battle-phalanx accompanying you. If your intention was to impress the locals, then let me assure you that you have succeeded."

"Emperor, let us be frank. Where does Basra stand regarding the Federation's dominion over the Outer Rim?"

"Ambassador, I am a practical man. I have spent my entire life increasing the might and power of Basra. If this can best be preserved by being a loyal supporter of the Federation, then that is the direction I will take."

"And if the Outer Rim wins their independence?"

"From what you have already said, it would seem that is not something the Council considers remotely possible, Ambassador?"

Gisele nodded. "The Council assumes that, eventually, OREF will succeed in bringing Federation order to the Outer Rim," she replied, adding to herself: "But their assumptions have been wrong before."

'While we are being frank, Ambassador," said Taran. "I would have to agree with the Council; I think eventually, by sheer weight of numbers and persistence, OREF will subdue the mercenary fleets and bring the recalcitrant planets into line."

"Especially," said Gisele, watching the Emperor closely, "Now that the mercenaries have been dealt a severe blow with the destruction of the Shutaka."

"Ah yes, the Shutaka," said Taran smoothly. "No doubt OREF will be breathing a sigh of relief at their demise. From what I hear, the entire planet of Willa was stripped of its atmosphere. My Defence Minister assures me that it would have been quite a feat. At first I though it was the handiwork of OREF, but your words a moment ago confirm my understanding that the Council keeps them on a much shorter leash nowadays - after the Hellbringer incident." Taran took a sip of his wine. "One would suppose, however, that the Federation would still have to chastise those responsible for Willa - after all, you can't have the Outer Rim taking things into their own hands in such a barbaric manner, could you?"

Gisele knew that Taran was no fool. He would realise that the Council would be rattled by the destruction of the Shutaka. The question was, did the Emperor know more than he was telling her?

"The Security Committee is certainly keen to learn the complete details of the attack on Willa," she said. "But I am certain that they will be understanding - very understanding - of any circumstances surrounding the affair. The Council has learnt to be less judgmental after the Hellbringers were unleashed by OREF."

"I must admit am surprised by your candor, Ambassador."

"Diplomacy has many forms, Emperor. I do not know how much time I have. My belief is that whoever destroyed Willa is playing for very high stakes. If they will risk taking on the Shutaka, there is no telling what else they will do to achieve their ends."

"I would have thought, naturally, that it was one of the other mercenary groups that attacked Willa. Apart from the Federation, they would have most to gain from the absence of the Shutaka, surely?"

"You have not had much experience with the mercenary groups, then?"

"Basra has always relied on our own resources for defence, Ambassador. And we have always tried to be an unattractive target for invasion."

"An interesting strategy for a world with you history, Emperor," said Gisele, remembering the detailed background briefing Shimar had given her before they boosted down. She could not resist baiting the smug Taran just a bit.

The Emperor smiled generously. "Ambassador, our past is part of our heritage; I'm sure even Jedmon was not always the haven of peace it is today. Every world has ancestors with blood on their hands, but we cannot live in the past."

"Quite so, Emperor," said Gisele. She returned to her previous point. "But I doubt if any mercenary group was responsible for Willa; they're happy to hack away at each other if they are getting paid for it, but they rarely fight among themselves just for the exercise."

"Then I am at a loss to offer an alternative," said Taran. "I do not know of any of the Outer Rim planets that would gain anything significant from the demise of the Shutaka. Basra has no interest in the Shutaka, but it seems their day of reckoning had come early. I'm sure that most of my neigbours would consider the mercenary groups a necessary tool at the moment. However, none would expect this necessity to last forever. Unlike perhaps the Guild of Black - which even the Council has occasional cause to still use - the mercenaries will eventually fade away. I know of few Outer Rim rulers who will particularly mourn the passing of the Shutaka. There are still plenty of other groups to choose from. You say OREF had nothing to do with Willa and you believe it unlikely that it was another mercenary group trying to settle an old score. You seem to have run out of options."

"Your response has been little different from that of the fifty planets I have visited so far. For an event of such impressive execution, it seems to have caused remarkably little interest among the governments of the Outer Rim." Gisele placed her empty glass on the table. "Emperor, are you familiar with the term 'gunboat diplomacy'?"

"An ancient expression, but I believe I understand the meaning."

"Good. Now, at the risk of sounding impolite, let me make it clear to you, as I have made it clear to the other Outer Rim governments I have visited. I will not be returning to Nova Earth until I have got to the bottom of what has been happening in this sector of the Outer Rim. And while I remain, so will my battle-phalanx. If you find the presence of OREF inconvenient at times, you will not be happy with how High-Admiral Crando likes to conduct her operations. The sooner I get the information I want, the sooner the Outer Rim can get back to normal."

"Ambassador, I appreciate the position you are in and your need to make your point. There is nothing I would like more than to be able to assist you in the successful completion of your mission and your return to the Inner Rim. If I discover anything that may be of use to you, you have my personal guarantee that you shall know of it at the earliest opportunity. And let me assure you, I welcome the presence of FedFleet in our sector; Basra has nothing to hide."

"I am pleased to hear that, Emperor. And if the reported sightings of Alien ships turn out to be true, you may indeed welcome the presence of FedFleet."

"Aliens?" asked Taran. He forced his voice to sound calm, but not too calm. He realised the Ambassador has mentioned the Aliens specifically to gauge his reaction. "I must confess, Ambassador, you have taken me by surprise. I have not heard of this. My Security Advisors have been some what derelict in their duties it would seem."

Gisele studied the Emperor for a few moments. Taran may have considered himself clever, but he would not have lasted a season in the Machiavellian world of the Council. The Emperor knew far more about Willa and the Aliens than he was admitting. Gisele needed to tell Taran enough to unsettle him in the hope he would stumble, but not enough for him to realise she suspected Basra of anything. In her position with the Security Committee, Gisele had dealt with enough dictators and despots to understand how dangerous they got when cornered. She sensed Taran was a man on the edge and she did not yet want to do anything to push him over.

Gisele held up her hand to the Emperor to display a the ring on her left index finger. It was a simple ring of green-blue metal, unadorned with gems or other embellishments. As she held it up to the light, it seemed to change colours until it looked almost black. "This ring," she said, "was a gift from my father when I graduated from my university studies on Jedmon many seasons ago. It is fashioned out of a scrap of Alien machinery he found on his travels as a young man. He wore it himself for many years and, as a young girl, I had been fascinated by it. At university, I majored in Alien Studies, learning everything I could about what humans knew of them. After graduation, I traveled the known worlds, seeking out more information about the Aliens. While my search was not fruitful, I gained much knowledge about humans that would be put to use when I became an Ambassador."

Gisele saw that Taran was fascinated by the ring. It was all he could do to restrain himself from grabbing her hand to look more closely at it. "No doubt the Security Committee's knowledge of my interest in the Aliens was a large factor in sending me to the Outer Rim on this occasion," she continued. "That is another reason why I will be remaining in this sector until I have satisfied myself as to the accuracy of these reported sightings."

Taran blinked rapidly, as if coming out of a trance, and looked away from Gisele's hand. "Do you believe there is a link between the Shutaka and the Aliens?" he asked her, his throat suddenly dry. The sight of the ring of Alien metal on Gisele's finger had disturbed Taran. Images came unbidden into his mind of the death of Willa and he had to force himself to concentrate on the Ambassador's reply.

"I will reserve my opinion until I have a better understanding of events," Gisele said evenly. "As is often the case, I believe things are rarely as they seem." Her instincts were telling her that in the Emperor she would find the answers the Security Committee was seeking - and perhaps even more. But she would get nothing else out of Taran on this visit. "Emperor, I thank you for this opportunity to talk. I will take no more of your time. My party will be boosting back to the fleet late tomorrow to continue our journey. Thank you for your hospitality and I look forward to the banquet tonight."

Taran looked at Gisele blankly for a moment, before smiling. "Ambassador, it has been a pleasure. I wish that the Council would send its representatives to the Outer Rim more often; I think that strategy would be sometimes be more effective than OREF. I do hope you enjoy the banquet tonight; there will be many members of my Court anticipating with great excitement the chance to talk to a Council Ambassador. Shall I have ARAK summon Braid to escort you back to your chambers?"

"I've been told your AI is a more than adequate guide. There is no need to trouble your Foreign Affairs Minister again; I'm sure he is a busy man."

"As you wish," said Taran "ARAK, please take good care of our esteemed guest."

"Yes excellency," responded the semi-sentient computer, opening the door to Taran's office. "This way if you please Ambassador. Your Secretary, Shimar Elfin, has requested that he be informed when you have finished your meeting with the Emperor. Shall I comply?"

"Thank you, ARAK," Gisele said as she walked out of Taran's office. "Inform him I will be joining him shortly."

The door closed behind her and she journeyed back to her guest quarters. ARAK discreetly guided her, ensuring the lifts moved to the appropriate floors and indicating the path she should travel by illuminating small light-panels set into the corridor floors. It answered her queries along the way accurately but with little embellishment. If there was a topic ARAK did not think appropriate to discuss with the Ambassador, it politely suggested that the question be directed to the Security Minister or the Foreign Affairs Minister.

When Gisele rejoined Shimar, she was impatient to discuss her meeting with the Emperor, but she knew that any conversation they had in the Citadel was unlikely to be private. She would have to wait until they were at least back aboard the lander before they could talk freely. Taran's banquet was not for another twenty s.u.'s so they allowed ARAK to take them on a short guided tour of the Citadel before returning to their quarters and preparing themselves for the evening celebrations.

At the scheduled time, Braid Astreen arrived to escort them through the corridors to the Grand Ballroom where the banquet was being held. As they entered the room, the band began playing the Jedmon national anthem and all eyes in the room turned towards them. As soon as the music finished playing, the guests began positioning themselves in the hope of snatching a few words of conversation with the distinguished pair.

Gisele had taken advice from Shimar and chosen a simple sheath dress to wear, cut from a lustrous cream-coloured material that draped beautifully off her youthful sculpted body. Her luxuriant hair cascaded unbound to her shoulders and her throat was encircled with a ribbon choker embroidered with the symbol of the Federation. Shimar himself cut a handsome figure beside her, dressed in a well-tailored grey tunic and breeches that accentuated his muscular body. While his outfit was devoid of insignia or decoration, its style combined with his stance of casual authority made many people think he was part of FedFleet.

Astreen showed Gisele and Shimar to their table as a fanfare heralded the arrival of the Emperor and Empress. As usual, the Royal couple looked resplendent in their extravagant clothes and the assembled guests gave a gasp of appreciation as the pair entered the huge hall. Taran and Gianna made their way slowly through the banquet room, chatting amicably with their favourites and accepting compliments from the others. When they reached the table at which Gisele and Shimar were seated, the two Inner Rim representatives stood to greet their hosts.

"Empress, may I say you look radiant," said Shimar, bowing low. "I have seen many wondrous sights in the universe, but even the crystal caves of Sandavan can not compare to your exquisite beauty tonight."

"Mr Elfin, I can see why the Ambassador favours your company," smiled the Empress. In truth, however, she felt strangely overshadowed by Gisele. There was something about the simple elegance of Gisele's dress that made the Empress feel like an uncultured schoolgirl trying to impress an adult. With just their clothing, Gisele and Shimar had conveyed an undeniable message about the confidence and sophistication of the Inner Rim.

For her part, Gisele warmed to the Empress almost immediately. She was further encouraged when she found that Shimar was similarly taken by the tall, elegant woman. Shimar was an excellent judge of character.

The Emperor caught sight of Grand Chancellor Roge Marn across the room and turned to Shimar. Mr Elfin," he said, "if you have visited the crystal caves of Sandavan you must be a hunting man."

"There are other reasons to visit Sandavan, Excellency, but I must admit I was there for the annual carth hunt."

"In that case, you must come and talk to my Grand Chancellor. Roge insists on accompanying me on all my hunting expeditions. He would enjoy swapping tales with you. Will you excuse us, ladies?"

"Of course, Emperor," said Gisele, "But I must warn you that Shimar has been known to exaggerate his hunting stories; he once tried to convince me that he had downed a Trelith in mid-flight with nothing more than a slingshot"

Shimar smiled at her. "It was an old Trelith, slow and clumsy. And I was much younger." Still smiling, he walked away with Taran to meet the Grand Chancellor. The Empress and the Ambassador resumed their seats at the table and Gianna signaled for a waiter to brings some wine.

"My husband is very fond of his hunting," the Empress remarked. "He treats it as a game. He is very fond of his games."

"So I have noticed," said Gisele. "All politicians must have that same fondness; I sometimes think that the Council is the biggest game of all."

"Then Willem would be right at home among them, although their game might still not be complex enough for him."

"The Emperor would be well advised not to play too complex a game." Gisele touched the ribbon at her throat. "Not all on the Council are senile. A battle-phalanx is not subtle, but it is effective."

"I admire your frankness, Ambassador."

Gisele glanced at the ceiling above her. "I am sure that this palace has the usual array of listening devices; frankness must by necessity have its limitations."

The Empress nodded. "Certainly ARAK monitors everything within the Citadel." She held up her wristcom. "Of course, I value my privacy too, so my custom version of this provides me with a little breathing space. Anything you say can be just between us, if you wish."

"You are very resourceful, Empress. I'm sure your your father, the Grand Archduke Heran del Griandor los Brianco, would be proud," responded Gisele.

"You have done your research well, Ambassador."

"The Royal House of Pyroc is well known to the Federation Council. Their continual petitioning for an independent Outer Rim unsettles some of the more conservative Councilors."

"I would have thought that the Federation would welcome such peaceful petitioning as a perfect example of the democratic process," observed Gianna. "Independence is a feeling that runs deep within all from Pyroc, Ambassador."

Gisele waited until one of the Royal servants, who had appeared with a bottle of wine, filled their glasses and moved onto the next table before replying. "Including you, Empress?"

"Ambassador - Gisele - I am a Basran now. I think you will find my husband takes a more pragmatic approach to these things. He seeks an outcome that is of most benefit to Basra - and himself. Incidentally, Gisele, are you one of these conservative Councilors?"

Gisele sipped her wine. "Gianna, I am first an Ambassador for Jedmon, and secondly a Council member. The prevailing wind from these does not currently favour independence for the Outer Rim. However, once my official duties are over and I have returned to Nova Earth, I would welcome a personal invitation from you to visit your father on Pyroc."

The Empress smiled warmly. "I think the Grand Archduke would like that," she said. "And so would I." She picked up her wine glass and looked at the golden liquid. "Tell me, Ambassador, what really brings you to the Outer Rim?"

"Empress, you possibly know the answer to that better than I. The Council is more than uneasy about the destruction of the planet Willa. The Outer Rim planets I have visited so far seem very tightlipped about the incident. They either know nothing, or much more than they are prepared to tell a Council Ambassador."

"I would have thought the Federation would profit by the absence of the Shutaka, whatever the reason, Gisele."

Gisele shrugged. "Be that as it may, they are also worried about who would be foolish enough to think they could obliterate the Shutaka."

The Empress looked over towards where Taran was making his way across the room. "My security advisors tell me my husband seems to have an obsession with the Shutaka. He had his staff provide him with detailed reports of the aftermath of Willa and there was even a rumour he had some Shutaka captives at the Winter Palace."

"It's odd then, that the Emperor would feign total disinterest to me on the subject of the Shutaka," said Gisele. "He also seemed totally unconcerned about the rumour of Alien contacts in the Outer Rim."

"Aliens?" Gianna looked puzzled for a moment, then a look of realization crept over her face.

"Is there something else, Gianna?" asked Gisele.

"Not really; or at least nothing that I can be sure about. My husband has been very secretive this last season - even more so than usual. My security advisors have also told me of a project that was rumoured to have something to do with Alien research. The Emperor has Doctor Monara working on it - he is head of the Antiquities Department of the Basra University."

"Doctor Bria Monara?" said Gisele, raising her eyebrows.

"Do you know of him?"

"Indeed. He has written some very good texts on Alien artifacts. I have some of them in my personal library."

'Would you like to meet him?" Gianna asked. She looked around the room. "Damn, he's talking to my husband. And he's with that detestable Holl."

Gisele followed the Empress' gaze. "Holl? Is he a Sorarainian."

"Yes. He is of the Guild of Black."

"The Guild? Empress, as a representative of the Inner Rim Security Committee I must say that is of concern to me."

"And me, Ambassador."

From across the room, the Emperor watched his wife and the Ambassador talking. He spoke into his wrist communicator. "ARAK, can you hear what they are saying?"

"No, My Lord. The Empress is wearing her blocking device."

'You could resort to more traditional methods, Your Excellency," observed Holl, wryly. "Eavesdropping, perhaps?"

"I would be happy to attempt to find out, Excellency," said Doctor Monara. "Ambassador Mar is supposed to be very knowledgeable in the field of Alien studies. I am keen to hear her opinion on my theories of Alien-Shutaka linkages."

"No, I don't think so," Taran told him. "I would rather not let the Ambassador know too much about our little project. She will be leaving for Unaran tomorrow and I would rather that she finds nothing particularly memorable about her stay on Basra."

"It is interesting that you should mention Unaran, Excellency," said Holl. "I was just about to discuss that very planet with you. I have only recently come into possession of some information that would suggest that Unaran may be of interest to us also."

"In what way, Holl?" asked Taran. "My operatives have not mentioned anything about Unaran to me."

"With respect, Emperor, the Guild has considerable resources of its own. I have drawn upon these as my position as a Seventh allows."

Something in Holl's voice made Taran's blood run cold. He should not forget what the Sorarainian was. "Of course, Holl. Of course. Again, I am indebted to you. What have you discovered?"

"It would seem that about the time the last remnants of the Shutaka disappeared, a cult suddenly appeared on Unaran."

"A cult? What sort of cult?" the Emperor asked.

"Officially it calls itself the Holy Order of the Most Worshipful Adoration of the Child-Goddess of Carth."

"An impressive name, Master Holl, but what makes you think there is a connection with the Shutaka?"

"As I said, Excellency, the Guild's resources are considerable. We have many Clients among the Inner Rim Council and even the Security Committee has not been too proud to use our services occasionally. These professional relationships can be mutually beneficial."

"You have contacts on the Federation Security Council?"

"Not quite," admitted Holl. "But close enough to suggest that an information gathering mission to Unaran is in order. It would be most useful if we could obtain some of the members of this cult to assist us with our inquiries. It is my belief that the last few Shutaka stragglers are hiding amongst this so-called church. I intend to capture one for interrogation."

"I have had little luck previously interrogatingShutaka guests, master Holl."

Holl said nothing, but his opinion of Taran's interrogation skills was clear.

Taran cleared his throat. "Yes, well at the least we could keep them as a hostage, I suppose."

"Perhaps, Excellency, but if these are Shutaka, then hostages will be of no use. That concept is meaningless to them; Shutaka cannot be blackmailed, coerced or intimidated."

"That may be so, but if these people are Shutaka, do you think anyone we send will be able to capture them anyway? I can't deploy a battalion of troops to Unaran without upsetting their government somewhat," countered the Emperor.

"Stealth and cunning will be the requirements here, my Lord. I have an apprentice - a third level - who has been coming along nicely. I believe he could benefit from this little exercise," Holl mused. "That way, we should need no more than about ten of your Special Service troops."

"Very well, Holl," said Taran. You will have what you need, but be careful."

"I know of no other way, Excellency."

Chapter 15 -->


The Pearl - Chapter 15

"Well, that's it then," said Leith.

"Yes," Il-yar-Bisen replied. "Not very inspiring, are they?"

"No. They're not. But they'll have to do."

Through the clearsteel viewing window of the spaceport, the two mnan-gar watched the the last group of mercenaries disembark from the landers. Off to one side, Kweela was informing Il-yar-Bisen's battle-kin, Shira-Ti, of recent events.

"You did a good job getting as many as you have," Leith told Il-yar-Bisen. "It's not as many as I'd like, but more than I expected."

"This is crazy," said the Harkarian, shaking his head. "We can't invade a planet like Basra with just this rag-tag lot supporting what's left of our Shutaka."

"This isn't just any mission," Leith reminded him.

"I don't doubt that the Shutaka will fight to the last warrior. But they're not invincible, Birro, even if they think they are."

"I know that. But we will find a way. We thought the Janasen mission was impossible too."

Il-yar-Bisen grunted. "Maybe. Has the Sorarainian returned from Basra yet?"

'Yes, Belle's back." Leith paused. "She had a tough time, but she got enough information for me to believe that we can pull it off. I've got a few ideas, but it's going to be complicated."

"That's not good. The more complex it is, the more likely something will go wrong. As it is, it will be almost impossible to manage our Shutaka as well as these mercenary imports."

Leith turned away from the window and looked at his fellow strategist-tactician. "It's worse than that. We have to start a civil war as well."

Il-yar-Bisen smiled grimly. "The Specs?"

"He's quick," came Jaycee's thought in Leith's mind. "I see why you respect him, even if you don't like him."

Leith ignored her, although he was getting used to carrying out two converstaions at once. "That's the general idea," he answered Il-yar-Bisen. Unless you've got a better one."

"Have you discussed this with the others yet?" the Harkarian asked.

"No. I wanted to hear your opinion first. Belle says that there is a sort of Spec underground resistance whose goal is supposedly overthrowing the Mirradonian Basrans. What I want to know is wheter you think that is all talk and no action. After twelve hundred seasons, do you think that the Spec decendants of the original Harkarian colonists are up for a real fight if we assist them?"

"I know only a little of the underground. It is called Sim-bun-arka, which translates as 'path to freedom'. They desire to shake off the chains of Mirradonian slavery and return to Harkar, their ancestral homeland."

"Are they recognised by the Harkarian government?"

"Yes, but don't expect any help from Harkar. It would not risk open conflict with Basra."

"But the Specs would be welcome on Harkar if we can get them off Basra?"

"Most certainly. If they choose to leave Basra."

"What's your feeling about this Sim-bun-arka? Will they be up to it?"

"Don't worry, Birro," Il-yar-Bisen assured him. "If one drop of Harkarian blood remains in their veins, they will be up to it. If we give them the means, they'll fight."

"Good." Leith replied. "They'll need to. Now, if you're up to it, there's a planning meeting scheduled in about twelve s.u.'s. We can postphone it until you've had a chance to rest, if you want..."

"We're not tired - it's morning shiptime on Periwinkle." He looked over towards the two Shutaka warriors. "Shira, how long to have that lot sorted?"

"About five s.u.'s, Il-yar-ka," she replied.

"Good." He turned back to Leith. "Shira and I will finish up here and then catch up with the rest of Graine clan before heading off to the meeting. I hope you have been taking good care of Graine in my absence, Birro."

"It has been an honour, Il-yar," Leith assured him. "They have been gracious and generous in their teaching and I have learnt much from them."

Il-yar-Bisen smiled. "Well spoken, Birro. Well spoken. Although I'm sure Junda-Ki would have kept you on your toes."

"Aye," Leith told him. "She's strong-willed and stubborn, that one. But I'd welcome her in one of my squads any day."

"Good answer again, Birro," Il-yar-Bisen said, laughing. "She's Shira's blood-sister, you know."

"I should have guessed," Leith replied. b


Two other craft had touched down at the spaceport not long after Il-yar-Bisen's ship. One was Ambassador Gisele Mar's shuttle, which was met with much pomp and circumstance by Baron Hermain and his court advisors. The other ship was a nondecript Basran tramp freighter. The dozen crew that disembarked from the freighter wore jumpsuits as faded and tattered as their ship, but they walked with the unmistakable gait of trained and disciplined military personell. The exception was the smallest of the group, who glided along with stealthy grace characteristic of a Sorarainian.


Leith meets Gisele. Convinces her to keep out of things.



"Shimar, see that fellow over there?"


"I think we should talk to him. Could you arrange it please? Quietly."

Elfin smiled grimly. He knew Gisele too well not to pick up on her warnings. "It's like that, is it? Should I be careful of him or her?"

"I don't know, Shimar. Her I think, but maybe both. Neither are what they seem."

"Who is he?"

"An old friend. I hope."

"An old friend? Out here? Hard to believe."

Gisele laid a hand on her companion's arm. "Shimar," she murmured, "Be nice or I'll send you back to Admiral Crando."

Elfin took her hand in his and raised it to his lips. "As you wish, Ambassador." He walked quickly but silently after the pair.



Elfin was reminded of the

"Good day, fellow," he said cheerily.

"Greetings," Leith replied.

"I am Shimar Elfin, assistant to that

"And who is your Mistress?"

"One of the most respected Ambassadors in the Inner Rim. Apparently, she believes you to be an old acquaintence of hers."

"An Ambassador?" Leith told Elfin. "I think you must be mistaken. I do not know any Ambassadors. I'm a simple pilgrim and have never been to the Inner Rim."

"Old chap, I certainly believe you, but the Ambassador seems to think otherwise. I tell you what, why not come and meet her? I'm sure she will realise her error once she has taled with you."

"I'm sorry, but we're in a bit of a hurry. I have to be at important meeting with some acquaintences in a few s.u.'s. Please apologise to your Ambassador."

"I'm afraid I must insist."

Out of the corner of his eye, Leith was aware of Kweela



Elfin took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Well, now," he said. "That's a bit of a problem. You see, the Ambassador has asked me fetch you, so that's what I must do." He glanced at Kweela. "However, I somehow think that your beautiful friend here would try to prevent me from doing that and things would probably get a bit messy. I'd guess there's a good chance I'd get killed, but there's also a good chance you or her might get hurt in the process. That would seem a rather unnecessary outcome for such a simple request as a chat with an old friend."

Leith looked at Elfin more closely. Something about the man reminded him of Belle - he realised it was the way in which Elfin carried his power hidden beneath the surface; it showed in his eyes, which reflected an intimate knowledge of death. Professionals such as Belle and Elfin killed when necessary, skillfully and cleanly, but with no enjoyment for the task. Elfin's eyes begged Leith not to make him use his skills.

"Leith," came Jaycee's thoughts suddenly in his mind. 'I think we should go with him."


"I don't know. I just think we should. Call it a hunch."

"You have hunches now?"

"Seems like it. If I had shoulders, I'd shrug."

"Great," Leith muttered. "This is all I need." He looked at Kweela-San. "Kweela, Jaycee thinks we should accept Mr Elfin's invitation."


"Uh huh. She reckons he's got an honest face."


Shimar stood looking at them with a bemused expression on his face.



"Your friend; she's Shutaka?"

"Kweela? What makes you say that?"

Elfin lifted his left arm and flexed his hand. "This is prosthetic. I lost the real one to a Shutaka warrior a long, long time ago. The first, and last, time I met one of them."

"It must have only been a doza warrior," Kweela said softly, but Leith knew she was reassessing Elfin.

"Well, you might not be Shutaka, but perhaps you'd like this as a souvenier of our meeting?" He handed the ring to Kweela.







At that moment a dozen Shutaka burst into the room, carring the limp body of Kisa-Mara. The young woman's clothes were bloodstained and torn.

"A group of warriors found her in the street, my Lord," said one of the warriors. "She has broken both her legs, and seems to have been drugged. We have sent for Marion."

Misha-Dan place his hands on Kisa's forehead and her eyelid's fluttered open. Her eyes were dilated and unfocussed, but her will was still strong. "Lord, she whispered, "The Pearl... you must..."

Kweela exploded into motion, and was already halfway out the door, Leith and Belle close on her heels. The warrior made her way quickly through the backstreets of the city until she came to the building the Shutaka used for their main residential quarters. Kweela paused briefly at a spot by one of the side walls, inspecting a patch of disturbed ground. Belle touched Leith's arm and pointed to a window five stories above.

"She came out of that window and landed here," the Sorarainian said.

Kweela nodded in agreement. Leith expected her to rush into the building, but instead, she flattened herself against the wall and worked her way cautiously to the building entrance. The heavy wooden door was open and they crept softly into the hallway. Everything was quiet, but the unmistakable odour of laser-blast hung in the air. The rest of the warriors, including Visa-Mil, had caught up with them and Kweela motioned for them to remain in the hallway. Kweela, Belle and Leith made their way slowly up the stairs, expecting at any moment to be attacked. Visa-Mil slipped past the other Shutaka warriors and crept up the stairs behind Leith.

Lilith was still alive when they found her. She was surrounded by the bodies of a dozen of her assailants. Her sword was embedded in the soldier lying on top of her. Leith and Kweela pulled the dead man from the Shutaka woman. Her body was horribly gouged with the trails of laser bolts and the hilt of a small, silver dagger protruded from her chest.

Kweela knelt beside the dying warrior and supported her head in her lap. Lilith opened her eyes slowly.

"Ah... Kweela, I'm glad it is you that will be with me at this time." Lilith coughed and dark-red blood trickled from the corner of her mouth. "They have the Keepers, and the Pearl. I have failed in my duty."

"No, Lilith, no," soothed Kweela, brushing the other woman's matted hair from her eyes. "Kisa-Mara is safe, at least. Be at peace; a goddess could not have done more than you. There were many - too many - but you got most of them."

"It... it is so hard to fight well without your ka, Kweela. I could have done so much better with Doran here."

"He would have been watching, Lilith," Kweela whispered. "And he would have been so proud of you. And he will tell you himself, soon."

"I hope so, Kweela. I miss him so..."

Lilith's words trailed off and she was gone. Kweela closed the warriors's eyes and kissed her gently on the forehead.

Belle place a tiny hand on the shoulder of her Shutaka friend. "I'm so sorry, Kweela."

Kweela turned her head to look up at the fairy woman. "It is better this way, Belle," she said. "Living without your ka is no life for a warrior."

Belle opened her mouth to reply, when something caught her eye behind Kweela. "Down, all of you. Now," she said under her breath.

Kweela reacted instantly. Her leg lashed out, catching Leith and Visa-Mil behind their knees and toppling them to the floor. She crouched down over her mnan-gar, shielding him as best she could from the unknown threat.

"What is it?" she whispered.

Belle still stood, her eyes closed, barely breathing.

"Kweela," she murmered, "There's an Assassin in the room; stay down."

Leith looked desperately around the room, but couldn't see anything. Kweela nodded towards the heavy drapes surrounding the window, but didn't even bother trying to draw her knife. She knew she would be dead before the blade was out of its sheath. Leith thought he saw a flickering in the shadows, then nothing. Belle, her eyes still closed, was turning her head as if tracking the movements of someone throughout the room.

"Reveal yourself, second. There is no skill in using a screen," Belle said quietly.

In the centre of the room, there was a shimmer, like a heat haze, then another Sorarainian was standing there.

"I am a third," he said, smiling coldly. "I am Stel. You are far from home, cousin. And you are interfering with Guild of Black business. I would know your name before I kill you so I can inform your family."

"I am Belle," she replied "I was also once of the Guild."

The smile froze on Stel's face as Belle's words registered on his brain. "Belle?" he whispered. "Why did not Holl tell me..." Then his body crumpled lifelessly to the floor. Leith blinked. He had not seen Belle move, but suddenly she had covered the six paces to Stel and had delivered the fatal blow. She had not even opened her eyes. Leith did not even know what weapon she had used. Belle now stood with her back to the body of what, two heartbeats ago, had been a third-level Assassin.

Kweela rose slowly to her feet and walked across to Belle. The Sorarainian turned to face her.

"You gave him too much time, Belle," said the Shutaka. "You could have killed him when he was standing by the drapes. Another Assassin might say you were enjoying yourself toying with him. Old habits die hard, don't they?"

Belle looked across at Visa-Mil who was still trying to comprehend what she had just witnessed. Then Belle's tiny fists clenched and she started beating on Kweela's breastplate."

"Damm you Kweela, damm you!" she cried, her face twisted in anger. "She's just a child..." Belle stopped hitting Kweela and bowed her head against the warrior's chest.

"I know, Belle," said Kweela, raising the Sorarainian hands to her lips and kissing the skinned knuckles. "But she has to understand the path she has chosen. She has to know what she will become."

Visa-Mil had crossed the room to stand beside the two women. She reached out to touch Belle.




"You will have six cycles to get to Basra, make contact with the resistance and convince them to

Chapter 16 -->


The Pearl - Chapter 16


"There were two other Shutaka in the room; the young one escaped, but the other was finally killed by Stel - after she had accounted for half of our squad. Stel remained to hunt the one that escaped and delay anyone who tried to follow us. He plans to return to Basra by his own means."

The guard's words pushed their way into Jor-Dak's drugged brain. A picture came to his mind of Lilith-Soo holding off half a dozen attackers while he desperately looked for a way to get the Pearl away. Kisa-Mara had managed to open the window and climb onto the ledge outside. Jor was in the process of helping Krys through the opening into the arms of Kisa when he felt a sting in his neck, then nothing more.

"Kisa," he thought, "She must have got away." He knew that this was




"Take them to the interogation rooms," instructed Taran. "Keep them together, but make sure you search them well before you leave them."

"Yes Excellency,


As soon as they were alone, Jor closely inspected their cell. He quickly discoverd the locations of ARAK's surveilence sensors, but could find the

"It's him, Jor. Taran is the one."

"Are you sure..." Jor began, then stopped himself. He could feel it too, he knew she spoke the truth; the Emporer's mind was the one the Keepers and Misha-Dan had felt pulling at the Pearl. Jor looked at Kyrs in despair; despite the best efforts of the Shutaka, they had not been able to prevent the Pearl falling into the hands of the person who threatened it most. If Taran realised what he had, all was lost.



With relief, Jor saw that Taran was going to try to use the helmet on Krys first.


Taran placed the Alien helmet on the girl's head, mildly suspicious of her docility. He touched the small switch located at the back of the helmet. The green blinking light changed to steady red.


Krys smiled up at the puzzled Taran. "I think, Emperor, you'll find that the device is no longer functional. Unless you wish to wear it as a fashion accessory, of course."


Basran resistance

Belle & Visa-Mil, Tanah-Luc & Natal-Mirra


Chapter 17 -->



The Pearl - Chapter 17

mercenary ships on way to basra


"I only have one possession, Leith-mnan-gar. It is this."

Misha gives Leith the ring




"For some time now, I have been analysing the Lord-priest's explanation of the phenomenon he called the Pearl. I must admit that I am no closer to a meaningful understanding of it. I see from the reflections of your own thoughts that you have no more understanding than I, and yet your behaviour leads me to believe that you do not doubt the existence of it."

"Jaycee, maybe it just comes down to faith."

"I am acquainted with the concept of faith, Leith. It is not as irrational as most humans would suggest. Often an act of faith is based upon preceding knowledge and behaviours that, taken in isolation, do not seem to have any relationship. Yet if you are able to rapidly perform iterative cumulative analysis on all this data, patterns of probability begin to emerge. This is why battle computers are built. In many regards, the advice from a battle computer to a ship's commander could be said to be an expression of faith the AI has in the cumulative data."

"I'd never heard it put quite that way before. I don't think Arail would be happy with the notion of her JCN taking a flying guess when there's a squadron of OREF ships coming at her."

"It is far from that, Leith, as you know. However, there is an element of human behaviour that runs much deeper than this type of faith. There seems to be a reasoning that exists below even you subconscious, an ingrained knowledge of your destiny. It is this aspect of humanity that prevents a JCN ever being given strategic control over a ship, that fuels an abhorrence of Hellbringers, that makes you continue to fight when all is lost, that keeps you searching for your gods... It is in this part of you that you seem to accept Misha-Dan's explanation."

"Jaycee, It is not because of Misha-Dan - or any ingrained sense of human destiny - that I believe. It is because of Kweela."

"I know you have complex feelings for Kweela-San, Leith."

"It... it is more than that, Jaycee. How can I explain something to you that wriggles from my grasp every time I try to think about it. It is about ka. Kweela once told me that is not part of Ganz-tu for her to try to convince me about ka; that in time I would understand. She spoke truly. Kweela believes in the Pearl; she is my ka; therefore I believe. I can no longer not believe."

"Hmmm... I will need to consider this more.





g gets communique giving her authority.


What is the identity of that ship?"

"It's identity code is scrambled, High-Admiral," answered the Communications Officer. "However, it responded promply to our challenge and identified itself as Independent Military Vessel Lady Macbeth of mercenary group Siven."

"What's its business?"

"She declined to say, High-Admiral."

"Declined to say?" echoed Crando in disbelief. "I'll give them something to decline. Tell them to cut all power and stand by to be boarded. Make it clear I will not tell them twice. Signal Janus, Lothario, and Saint Alstrain to take up positions on her flanks and astern and bring all their primary weapons to bear." The Admiral turned to her flight commander. "Bring us around dead ahead of that son of a bitch. Stand by to launch a boarding party."

"Admiral, with respect, I

Crando turned to look at Gisele.

"Ambassador, is there any political reason for you to make that... request?"

"Not that I..."

"Then keep the hell out of military busness!" Crando interupted.





"Ambassador, you are on the bridge at my pleasure. If you insist on interfering I will reguest you remove your self."

"High-Admiral, perhaps you should take a look at this."

Gisele handed the Council communique to one of Crando's officers, who made his way across to the High-Admiral. Crando snatched the paper from the man's hand and scaned it briefly. She crumpled it in her hand and turned away to stare at the holographic display. After a few moments, once she had regained her composure, she turned back to Gisele.

"Your orders, Ambasador?" she said through clenched teeth.

"Have the phalanx hold this position, thank you High-Admiral," replied Gisele pleasently. "

Chapter 18 -->


The Pearl - Chapter 18

The service door opened just as predicted. The warriors waited until the garbage vehicle emerged, then made their move. An accurately placed heat grenade stopped the vehicle halfway through the doorway, effectively preventing the armoured doors from closing. Rhona-Ohn and her squad swarmed through into the service bay of the citadel, cutting down the Basran guards still stunned from the grenade blast. Only one of the Basrans managed to fire his laser, but the shot failed to find a mark and gouged harmlessly into the rock floor.

Kipsal-Nor, ignoring the fighting around him, sprinted across to the main control terminal. He rammed a lead from his portable terminal into the universal communications port of the Citadel terminal and started his worm program. Within two heartbeats, the program had broken through the security codes and assumed the identity of the service bay terminal. Kipsal-Nor raced his fingers over the keyboard, tapping in responses to the master computers' inquiries. At the same time his portable terminal was setting up secure communication links through the ComNet to Jaycee.

"Success," came Jaycee's thoughts in Leith's mind. "Kipsal-Nor has reassured the Citadel security computer that the fault signal from the door was a false alarm. He has reported that the service door is fully secure. I'll start working my way into the Master Unit now; it identifies itself as ARAK." There was a brief pause. "As I speculated, ARAK is quite complex. This may take a little time; you mightn't hear from me for a while, Leith."

"Understood, Jaycee. Don't take any chances; we can't risk ARAK knowing too soon that the Citadel is under attack."

"I won't."

The awareness that Leith had come to associate with Jaycee faded in his mind. He could still feel her, but the feeling was faint. Leaving her to it, he turned to Kweela, crouching behind him.

"Ok, we're in. Kipsal-Nor came through for us. Jaycee is linked to the Citadel computer and is working her way in. Let's go."

Leith's five squads filed quickly and silently into the Citadel service bay. Kipsal-Nor handed Leith a printout with a dozen access codes for various areas throughout the complex.

"I've created a phantom Basran officer with your retina pattern and given him top level security access. These codes should get you through any barriers you encounter in the early stages. Sooner or later, they're going to realise something's wrong and then we'll have to start using methods less sophisticated."

"Or more sophisticated," replied Leith, thinking of Jaycee. "Kweela, this is it. Are the Shutaka ready?"

"They've been ready for this since Willa, Leith-ka."

Leith nodded and walked over to the door that led to the Citadel proper. He placed his face in front of the retina scanner and spoke one of the codes that Kipsal-Nor had given him. The door opened noiselessly, revealing a wide, well lit corridor beyond. The corridor was empty except for a couple of Basrans in the distance, pushing a trolley full of office supplies. He signalled to Kweela and the warriors fanned out into the corridor. They started off in the same direction as the Basrans, who turned around as the Shutaka approached and had just enough time to let out a startled cry.

They passed through another five security doors before they met with any resistance from the Citadel guards. Rounding a bend in the corridor, they came upon a twenty-strong troop conducting a routine security sweep. The Basrans looked impressive in their smart dark grey uniforms, but seasons of uneventful garrison duty had dulled their reflexes. The officer in charge, a young woman of less than twenty seasons, could only stare in confusion as her troops were cut down around her by the warrior's lasers and sonic disrupters. She started to fumble for the weapon at he side, but a blast from Kweela's pistol caught her in the chest and she was thrown backwards to land in a heap against the corridor wall.

Only a couple of Basrans, burly old veterans whose battle instincts had not quite atrophied, managed to drop to the floor as soon as they saw the Shutaka. Taking cover behind the bodies of their fallen comrades, they were able to return fire. Out of the corner of his eye, Leith saw one of his warriors stumble and fall - then it was over. The Shutaka checked over the guards' bodies quickly, then continued working their way towards the accommodation areas.

"Leith, I'm almost there," Jaycee reported. "I haven't taken over control of ARAK yet, but at least I've neutralised it. ARAK is now totally isolated from the rest of the Citadel systems and it's only a matter of time before I break it's base code. As it is, you won't have to worry about any of the non-human defence systems and the guards won't have any coordinated communications. Also, you don't have to use the access codes to move about anymore; all doors will now just open on command."

"Good job, Jaycee. Any confirmation on Taran's whereabouts yet?"

"He was in his sleeping chamber, but the Citadel has just gone on alert, so he's headed for the command bunker. With what I've done to ARAK, the security minister is in a state of panic."

"Have you accessed a full personnel listing, yet?"

"The full court is in the citadel, except for the Minister of Arts who left earlier this evening and has not returned yet, according to the security records. Hold, on Leith, there is a large troop of Basran guards coming up behind you, and another trying to gut you off from the left. Take the next right corridor, which will lead you through the main throne room and into the north-east quadrant."

"Thanks, Jaycee. Kweela, next right. Tanah, get this corridor sown with presence mines. We've got a pincer movement being tried on us."

Tanah-Luc nodded and signalled to four of her squad to start fixing the tiny mines to the corridor wall surface. The miniature presence mines, each no bigger than a thumbnail, would detonate as soon as a human came within range. Their small size was no indication of their destructive power and it was unlikely that any of the Basran troops who entered the corridor would survive.

The door to the throne room was not locked, thanks to Jaycee and the Shutaka entered, pushing the heavy doors closed behind them. With a well placed kick from her booted foot, Kweela smashed the control box beside the door frame.

"That should slow down any that survive the mines," she said.

Leith looked around the room. It was immense, easily ably to hold several thousand people. Everywhere was the glint of gold leaf and precious stones, from the chandeliers hanging above, to the throne itself. The armoured external shutters were down over the solid clearsteel wall behind the throne, but Leith could imagine that there would be an impressive view beyond.

Sitting in one of the chairs to the left of the throne, was the figure of a small man, half shrouded in shadow. When the Shutaka burst into the room, he looked up, as if he was expecting them. Kweela raised her sonic pistol at him and he raised his hands to indicate he was unarmed.

"I pose no threat to you, warriors. It is of little concern to me what your purpose is; I am but a simple employee of the Basrans."

"Identify yourself," ordered Leith.

"I am Holl."

"Ah.. just the person we would like to speak with at length, after we've tidied up a few things around here," said Leith. "I presume, Belle, that this fellow would be the Assassin who masterminded the Willa attack?"

"No other member of the Guild could have done it."

"Except perhaps Tass. Or, of course, you dear sister. However, I will not claim any credit for Willa; I was required to employ a flawed method at the request of my employer and rely on others too much. It was an ambitious assignment - I was reluctant to tell my employee it was foolish; that was my major oversight. The presence of Shutaka warriors in this room indicates the ultimate futility of the Emporers' plan."

"Is he talking sister in the metaphorical sense, or the family sense, Belle?" Leith asked.

"Holl is my older brother. He was also my Guild-master; everything I know, I learnt from him."

"But you turned out to be such a disappointment, little one," said Holl.

"Why, Holl? Because I know the way of the Guild has no honour; you are not respected or admired, only feared. You and the others have no friends, no family, no-one to turn to if you had to."

"There is the Guild; there is always the Guild. It is all the family we need," stated Holl.

"It is not family. It turns on itself. When I left, I was condemned to death. Why have you not yet carried out that sentence, brother?"

"There is no hurry, little sister. You were indeed my best pupil, so I must at least accord you an elegant death. I have, after all, my own reputation to consider, and I will not accept another unsatisfactory outcome such as Willa. What I have eventually planned for you will serve as adequate warning to other Guild members. But do not worry, it will not be some grimy little death in a back alley somewhere. I expect it to be my greatest triumph."

He looked at Belle with pure hatred, but she stood firm beside Leith, who fixed Holl with a determined stare.

"I'm sorry to rain on you parade, Holl, but you may have to reassess those plans. You see, Belle has been afforded parna-ka by the Shutaka."

Holl smiled. "I find that hard to believe, Strategist-Tactician. I am not some uneducated dolt. The Guild has studied the Shutaka for generations so I have more than a layman's knowledge of them. Their warriors are very grudging in their admiration; it is inconceivable that a former member of the Guild of Black would earn that accolade from each and every warrior. I hope you plan strategy better than you bluff."

"Then believe it from me, Holl," said Kweela. "The Sorarainian, Belle Morninglight-on-Brook, has parna-ka. And know that Shutaka never bluff."

There was complete silence in the chamber. Even the distant sounds of battle in other parts of the Citidal seemed to die down for a few moments. For one tiny instant, Holl lost his composure and a nervous shudder ran through his body as he realised that the Guild's revenge on Belle had suddenly become far too costly to consider."

"So, sister," he spat. "It comes to this that you rely on nursemaids for protection?"

Beside Leith, Belle stood up straight and it seemed to him that she grew in stature so that her face was almost level with his. "No, Holl," she replied. "For the first time, I'm letting my true family care for me, and I am honoured. I feel so sorry for you, brother."

Holl ignored her. "As I said before, Strategist-Tactician, I have no interest in your activities here. My contract has been completed. I will not detain you any longer." With that, Holl vanished, a blink of an eye before the sonic field from Kweela's pistol destroyed the chair Holl had been sitting in. Both Leith and Kweela looked at Belle questioningly.

"Probably a portable holoprojector - somewhere in this room. He will be leaving the Citadel as we speak. He was right; he now has no interest in what we do here."

"Brother of yours, or not, the Shutaka have not finished with Holl," said Kweela.




"They've got Jor-Dak," said Kisa-Mara. "Taran's Security Minister came for us with a bunch of the Elite Guards. Jor fought them, first with his bare hands, then with weapons he took from them. I helped him as best I could; I... I have no skill for fighting, my Lord, but I did what I could. Jor was... I've never seen a Shutaka man fight like that; he killed without effort, like a warrior. The Basrans were taken by surprise at first, but they recovered and began to force us back.

I... I did not want to leave him, but I had the Pearl - I had to, my Lord, I had to. Do you think he will ever forgive me?"

Misha-Dan smied at the young woman. "Kisa, he would never forgive you if you hadn't left. It is why he fought; you would have let him down terribly if you had not taken that opportity to ensure the Pearl was safe."

Chapter 19 -->


The Pearl - Chapter 19



the battle for the rest of Basra - Basran resistance - fate of the empress

Chapter 20 A --> OR Chapter 20 B --> (Alternate Endings)


The Pearl - Chapter 20 (Ending B)

(This ending concludes this novel and sets the scene for a possible future novel. If you want a neat ending, read Chapter 20 A. Of course, the story of the Shutaka is never ending...)

In Leith's mind, Jaycee was projecting an image of the Citadel, showing the most direct route to the launch facility. He had lost contact with Kweela when the Basran defenders attempted to delay the invaders by randomly sealing the passageways, but he was able to trace the progress of her squad by the green shading on the map indicating areas secured by the Shutaka. He was both worried for Kweela's safety and nervous not to have her strong arm at his back. Tanah-Luc moved quickly to take Kweela's place and Leith was more than confident in Tanah's abilities, but he would rather have his Kweela.

They continued to work their way towards the area that Jaycee had determined was the hidden launch facility for which Taran and his guards would be heading. The Basran resistance was becoming no less fierce, but decreasing in intensity. The corridors were filling with smoke and fumes as the air-scrubbers failed keep up with the pace of battle. The Shutaka


Belle had stopped in the corridor about ten paces ahead of Leith and Kweela. The warriors with her stopped also and formed a protective circle around the Sorarainian. They could not see or sense anything unusual, but they did not have the Assasin's skill for detecting subterfuge. Belle scanned the walls and roof with her gold-flecked eyes. On both sides of the wall, at about the level of a man holding a tool above his head, she saw lighter coloured patches of permacrete, indicating recent repairs.

"Kweela," she warned, "The roof!"

The Shutaka warrior glanced up just as the explosive charges buried high in the permacrete walls detontated with a deafening crack. The warriors below were showered with razor-sharp fragments, then, with a final grinding squeal, the entire roof section collapsed. Kweela had just enough time to throw Leith forward and launch herself backwards before fractured slabs, each larger than a person, crashed to the floor where they had been standing. With the force of Kweela's shove Leith slid twenty paced along the corridor, ending up lying across the legs of Belle, who had reacted the instant the charges had blown. He and the Sorarainian untangled themselves and rolled into a crouching position.

Tanah-Luc struggled to he feet, shaking permacrete pieces out of her long blonde hair. She was unscathed, but as she helped Natal-Tah up, Leith noticed that the younger warrior had recieved a deep cut on her shoulder from shrapnel and was holding her hand over the wound to staunch the flow of blood. Tanah reached into the pouch at her belt and withdrew a field dressing that she began applying expertly to Natal's injury.

"Leith-mnan-gar," Tanah said, as she finished fusing the plas-skin of the dressing to Natal's shoulder, "The others have survived on the other side, but the corridor is blocked. The charges were designed to prevent passage down this route, not for maximum casualties. We cannot afford the time to blast our way through - this whole corridor may be booby-trapped. We must go, now." Where, moments before, Tanah had been simply one of the warriors following Kweela's lead, she had immediately adapted to the new situation and rallied the other Shutaka.

"Kweela, is she all right?"

The Shutaka warrior touched her head. "You would know it up here if she wasn't, mnan-gar - she is your ka. Now, Belle needs your help."

Leith looked at Belle, who had stood up and unsheathed a wicked little dagger, that Leith saw was identical to the one used to kill Lilith-Soo. With a quick momement Belle sliced through the material of the left leg of her suit to expose the tip of a permacrete shard the size Leith's thumb. Using three deft surgical strokes, she cut away the surrounding flesh and flicked the still smoking sliver from her thigh.

"Put you hand there, please Leith," she instructed, slipping her knife back into its sheath and reaching into her own pack for a dressing. 'I got lucky; it missed anything vital, but it's inconvenient. And yes," she said, answering his unspoken question, "it's an Assassin's knife."

Leith knelt before the Sorarainian and placed pressure on the wound until Belle had applied the plas-skin dressing. Belle had not flinched once during the entire process and after the dressing had moulded itself to the countours of her leg, she placed her full weight on the injured leg, nodding in satisfaction."

"It will do; I won't slow you down, anyway."

"Good," said Tanah. "Which way Leith-mnan-gar?" Their was a junction in the corridor ahead. The six Shutaka warriors that now made up their group waited expectantly.

"Left, Leith," advised Jaycee. "However, I'm afraid I can't do anything about any more booby-traps; they've been set and armed manually by the Royal Guard. ARAK has no detailed knowledge of their locations."

Leith went to the pile of rubble that had sealed the corridor. The force of the explosion had been expertly directed. Half of the floor above had also collapesed into the corridor.

"Kweela, can you hear me?" he yelled. "We've got to go on!"

"They have already gone back to find another way around," Tanah told him gently. "Come, mnan-gar, it will take more than this to keep you and your ka apart for long."




Through the smoke and flashes of battle, Kweela caught the eye of Taran and he looked aound desperately for a means of escape. As yet more of his troops fell in a bloody heap at his feet, Taran saw one of the warriors, a tall, flame-haired savage, pause in her work and call to him over the din.

"Taran," she yelled, "Look around you; these are Shutaka with the spirits of Willa at their sides. We are coming for you."


Taran used the bodies of his last loyal guards to shield him as he slipped through the narrowing gap of the blast doors. They shut with a solid thud and the sound of battle was cut off.


In the lander, Security Minister Juracke was looking at the scanner screen with the pilot.

"We should leave now, Minsiter," the pilot said. "There is a gap in the mercenary air cover; it won't last long. We should boost now if we're going to have a chance."


The Emperor had just enough time to realise what was happening and begin to form a scream deep in his lungs when the lander's motors fired. Through the immemsly thick clearsteal blastdoors, Kweela watched as the full force of the propulsion exhaust gases caught Taran and slammed him back against the wall. His body instantly boiled away into nothingness. The heavy leather-bound book that Taran had been clutching in his hand was also vapourised and the most important piece of knowledge in human history passed from existence.







Krys-Tian knelt down and took Misha-Dan's hand. As soon as she touched him, the old man relaxed, his pain-contorted features returning to normal. The girl's expression did not change but her eyes took on the shimmering appearance that Leith had come to associate with the power of the Pearl.

"Rest now, my Lord. I can take the pain from you."

"A precious gift, indeed, small one. For that I thank you." Misha-Dan turned to Leith. "So, mnan-gar, it is nearly time I must leave you. You will have to deal with our Kweela-San all by yourself now. I am afraid that without her Lord-priest, she will be a wild one."

Leith felt a tightness beginning in his chest. He realised how much he had come to depend on the guidance of Misha, and how much he had valued him as a friend. He also knelt on the floor beside the old man.

"Do not try to talk, my Lord. And do not concern yourself about your Kweela-San; she will make you proud."

"Talk is all I have left, Leith. It is no effort, I assure you; Krys-Tian has taken my pain into her. This is an blessing I do not deserve, but I am grateful, nevertheless. As for Kweela, she can never bring anything to me except pride." Misha paused and smiled at Leith. "Would not any father be proud of such a warrior?"

"Kweela-San? She is your daughter?"


"Does she know this?"

"Quite likely, Leith Birro, although I have never asked her directly. As you know, the Shutaka do not place a great deal of importance on such matters; I have been father to many and Kweela has had many fathers during her life. However, I must admit to taking particular pleasure in observing her become the woman she is."

At that moment the subject of their conversation came in through the doorway. Kweela was bloodstained and weary, but the fierceness of battle-lust still burned in her eyes.

"The complex is secure," she reported. "The Basran troops offered little resistance once they found out their leaders had deserted them." Kweela knelt down next to Krys-Tian and placed her hand on Misha-Dan's forehead. She looked at Krys. "Is it bad?"

The young girl suddenly looked old beyond her seasons.

"It is almost time for Misha-Dan, Kweela. I'm sorry."

Kweela closed her eyes briefly, then turned to the Lord-priest.

"I wish it was not so, my Lord."

"And I, warrior. But it is so. You have learned well, Kweela-San; there is little more I can teach you. I leave with no regrets, but... there is one more thing I must tell you. And you also, Leith Birro, for it concerns you as well. In fact, it is of probably more concern to you than Kweela."

"What is it Misha?" Leith asked.

"Ah, always there is no time for long explanations. I must be, of necessity, brief. You would have noticed that Jor-Dak is different from a normal Shutaka?"

Leith nodded.

"It is because he has been gene-spliced from non-Shutaka stock," said Misha-Dan

"I guessed as much, although I thought that was forbidden," said Leith.

"There have been occasions when such - experiments - have been allowable. This was such a case. Jor-Dak is unable to father children, so there is little danger to the Shutaka gene pool, and his unique abilities were though to outweigh any potential complications."

"Such as?"

"A man with the perception and sensitivity of a Lord-priest, combined with the strength and courage of a warrior is powerful being. As a Keeper of the Pearl, such abilities were extremely important. As it has turned out, the Pearl would have been lost without him."

"Does Jor-Dak know he is not pure-stock Shutaka?"

"He is far too intelligent not to realise."

"Is his genetic origin special?"

"Some would say so. Much thought was put into what genetic combination would result in the characteristics we needed. Many permutations were trialed and simulated, but only one was finally chosen to be taken to term. Jor-Dak is the result of genetically combining you and Kweela. Kweela-San herself is the result of careful breeding and is as close as you will find to an original Shutaka Priestess-warrior"

For once, Kweela looked almost as surprised as Leith. Misha-Dan smiled again. "I know what is on your mind, Leith Birro. Is Jor-Dak your sibling or your child? Does it matter? He is your friend, that is what is important. And he needs you."

"My Lord, Krys-Tian interrupted, "it is time."

"Ah... so it is. Farewell, then, my friends."

The Lord-priest's body relaxed, and Krys-Tian let out a small sigh. She placed Misha-Dan's hand on his body and closed his lifeless eyes.

"Few spirits could match that of Misha-Dan," she said. "May your next journey be untroubled, Honoured One."

Belle came up to where Leith was kneeling and placed her tiny hand on his shoulder. Leith turned to her, his face almost on the same level as hers.

"Are you all right, Leith?" she asked.

Leith smiled gratefully at the assassin and pulled the small woman gently to him, resting his head on her chest. He embraced her as hard as he dared, as ever underestimating the strength in her tiny body, and she stroked his head softly as he mourned his comrade. Kweela looked at Belle, seeing the longing and sadness in her friend's eyes and smiled to show her understanding and gratitude.

Leith got to his feet and pulled the ring Misha-Dan had given him from his finger. He reached out and took Kweela's hand, dropping the silver circle in her open palm.

"Misha told me that these rings are as old as the Shutaka themselves. This one was very precious to him, and he gave it to me for safekeeping. He said that I would know who to give it to when the time had come. I think he meant it for you."

Kweela held the ring up to the light. The inset pearl glowed with a luminescence of its own. "Thank you, Leith-mnan-gar; it is a life-ring - a promise of a long and full life. It is... it is often worn by those of the Shutaka who enter into a life partnership. It was rumoured that Misha-Dan had once entered into such a relationship with one of the most accomplished and beautiful warriors in the history of the Shutaka. She died in battle not long after. So the story went." She closed her hand around the ring. "Kisa-Mara, Misha-Dan will be buried as a warrior, not a lord-priest. If anyone questions my command, tell them to seek me out."

"No one will question you," Kweela-San. "It will be so, and it will be fitting."

Krys-Tian stood up and looked around the room. All the Shutaka tensed, as if they were suddenly aware of something.

"It seems it is also time for me to leave, as well," she said.

Without another word, she collapsed to the floor. The Shutaka let out a collective sigh, but none rushed to the aid of Krys-Tian.

Leith made a move to go to where the girl lay, but Belle held him back. "No, Leith," she said. "I don't know what it is, but we need to keep out of this for the moment."

Kisa-Mara finally moved to Krys-Tian's body and gently arranged her arms and legs into comfortable positions. She stood up again and stepped back to where the other Shutaka were silently watching.

Kweela moved close beside Leith. "Leith-ka," she said softly, "This is the final secret of the Shutaka. Krys-Tian was not a Keeper of the Pearl - she was the Pearl. This time its physical manifestation was in the form of a human. It has happened before, and it is the most difficult, fragile, aspect of the Pearl to safeguard."

"But what of Krys-Tian; did the Pearl take over control of her body?"

"There is no Krys-Tian," said Kweela. "There never was. There was only the Pearl."

"But I talked with Krys, I touched her, smelt her - she was real, not a manifestation of the Pearl," insisted Leith. "She had thoughts and feelings of her own."

"Yes, The entity known as Krys-Tian had feelings. But that was the Pearl. Or rather, a reflection of it through a human existence. It was real; as real as if a person called Krys-Tian had been born human, but she had no soul. I know it is hard to believe; we Shutaka know it to be true, but it is still difficult not to remember Krys-Tian as a person. I, for one, will be happy to rember her that way."

Leith looked down at the body lying on the floor. There was a look of serenity on Krys-Tian's face. Her chest still rose and fell gently.

"What happens now?" he asked.

"The Pearl is moving on to its next manifestation. It will discard this physical shell. When it leaves, this will just be an empty body."

Through his grief, a thought was forming. Or perhaps it was Jaycee's thought.

"Just an empty body?" he asked Kweela. "How empty? Did the Pearl create a fully functioning body or just a husk?"

"You would not tell any difference between this body and that of mine," replied Kweela. "It will be as if a real person has died."

Leith turned to face Kweela and reached out to hold her hands, still stained with the blood of battle, in his. "Kweela-San, do you want your mnan-gar back - I mean fully back?"

Kweela looked at his quizically. "Leith-ka, I once told you we did not need to speak of this again. I am satisfied that the most important part of you is here in this room with me."

"Kweela, listen. We will have just one chance at this. You have to trust me on this, as much as I trust you." He was trying to make Kweela understand without saying too much to the other Shutaka. He pointed to Krys-Tian's body. "We have a body here that, in a few moments, will be empty. And in me we have a lost soul that we could give new home."

Kweela's eyes widened. "Leith, what you are saying can't be done. It has never been done."

Leith squeezed her hands tightly. "It can be done. You can do it. You are the daughter of a Lord-priest. You are the mother of Jor-Dak. You are my ka - for the first time I really understand that. I also see that you are destined to become the greatest Shutaka Priestess-warrior to have ever lived and I know you can do this."

"Leith, to move a soul..." Kweela whispered. "If I fail, their will be three lost souls. And her memories, I can't take them. She will know who she is, but her other knowledge will be gone - she will be like a newborn baby. I'm not sure I can do it."

"Kweela-San, you may not be, but I have never been so sure of anything in my life. Jaycee says that if we are going to do it, do it now. She's made her decision; she knows she won't get another chance like this."

Leith saw a look of determination cross the warriors face. "Very well, Leith-mnan-gar, we shall try. But you will need to open your mind to me as never before. There can be no barriers.

Leith nodded in acceptance. "I know, Kweela. I'm sorry for what you will have to see, but I also know now that you will understand as only my ka can."

He knelt beside Krys-Tian. Kweela-San knelt also and placed one hand on Leith's forehead, and one on the head of Krys-Tian. They waited while Krys-Tian's breathing grew shallower and, finaly, stopped. There was an intense, blinding flash that seemed to come from everywhere at once, yet when it was gone, they could see perfectly again.

Leith looked at Kweela. "Now, Kweela." He closed his eyes. Almost at once he felt Kweela's presence in his mind. This time he welcomed her openly and sensed her moving through every recess. In an instant she was gone, and so was Jaycee. He opened his eyes again and found Kweela gazing at him with a peaceful expression on her face.

"So, Leith Birro, you are back with me." She smiled. "And we both survived the journey."

"Do you regret you made that journey?" he asked.

Kweela helped him sit up. She sat down beside him and looked at her bloody hands. "Leith-ka, the Shutaka know that there exists, within the human mind, the capacity for great good as well as great evil. In his life, imagine the horrors that Misha-Dan had seen in the minds of people, yet he never grew disillisioned or disheartened with humanity. None of our Priests ever do. Because it is the capacity for great good that exists in every mind that, in itself, justifies the existence of humanity."

She put her arm around Leith's shoulder. "It's time for you to move on, Leith-ka. You cannot change your past, but you can be true to the great good that exists in you. This is what Misha-Dan saw in you; it is what I have seen in you. I feel priviliaged that you shared it with me."

Kweela wiped the blood off the fingers of her right hand, reached into the leather pouch hanging from her belt, and took out Misha-Dan's ring that Leith had given her. "I would like to share something with you, as well." She placed the ring in his hand. "You are not Shutaka, but I would like you to wear this as if you were."

Leith looked at the ring in his hand, then glanced at the other Shutaka in the room. "Kweela, is this allowed?"

"Leith, this is between you and me. I will make it so. And fight to the death any warrior that disagrees."

"You sure know how to make a convincing argument," he smiled, slipping the ring on his finger.

"Have you fogotten about me, then?" The body of Krys-Tian struggled to sit up.

"Jaycee," Leith murmered. "You made it."

"Obviously, but it will probably be less confusing to everyone if you call me Krys-Tian from now on. You humans seem to place a lot of emphasis on appearances, rather than reality."

"You're human now, actually," observed Kweela. "How does it feel?"

"Good, very good," she replied. "No offence, Leith, but this is a much better body than yours."

"That's gratititude for you."




"So, Leith Birro, you have shrugged off the shadow on your soul at last. Misha-Dan could have asked for no greater tribute. My Brother Keeper would also be proud. His sacrifice has not been in vain. When we have settled into this planet, there will be a monument built to honour this day."

Leith looked at Kweela-San, then smiled grimly at the girl-goddess. "This day is not over yet. Kweela, pick a squad of the best warriors"


The Pearl - Glossary

Alien(s): An ancient and mysterious race of beings. It is unknown whether they still exist. Various Alien artifacts have been found throughout the universe, but no reliable reports of human-Alien contact have been recorded in recent human history. Alien texts discovered by Emperor Willem Taran of Basra indicated a link between the Aliens and Shutaka.

Basra: The home planet of Emperor Willem Taran. Like many of the Outer Rim planets, Basra has a colourful history. Originally settled as colony world of Harkar, it was invaded by Mirradon in the confusion following the First Outer Rim Uprising. The Mirradon ancestors of Taran violently suppressed any resistance by the remaining Harkarian settlers, then set about building their new homeworld into a powerful empire, largely based on lucrative less-than-legal activities. Harkar attempted, on a number of occasions, to wrest their colony back, but Basra had grown too strong.

ComNet: The all-pervasive communications network that uses protocols able to be transmitted through null-space. It enables instant communication between all planets as well as spacecraft.

ComTerm: The ubiquitous communications terminal used throughout the Inner Rim and Outer Rim that allows access to ComNet.

Dione: The home planet of Leith Birro, located in the Inner Rim. Dione is a giant desert planet, now sparsely populated , but considered to be one of the two planets where the human race originated. Old Earth is the other. Dione is a popular destination for vacationing Inner Rim inhabitants seeking to mix with the native population.

doza: The term for a junior or trainee Shutaka warrior. A doza warrior will eventually be ka-paired with another doza warrior or a more experienced full warrior.

Earth: Along with Dione, Earth is considered to be where the human races originated before the great exodus to populate the Inner Rim planets. Old Earth is no longer habitable, having been incinerated when its sun went nova.

Federation of Inner Rim Planets: When it became apparent that there existed a distinction between the humans making up the Inner Rim and Outer Rim, the Inner Rim planets formed an alliance known as the Federation, originally to safeguard their trading rights, but subsequently to provide a unified military presence against any of the rougue Outer Rim planets. The governance of the Federation is enacted through a group of planetary representatives. Collectively, this group is know as the Council. Planetary representatives, called Ambassadors, are generally democratically elected on their home worlds, but this is not a requirement for Council membership.

FedFleet: The Federation navy, whose primary role is the protection of the Inner Rim planets. As such, they are better equipped and resourced that OREF.

ganz-tu: The term for the all encompassing Shutaka philosophy that focuses on the "what is" of existence. It is the acceptance of ganz-tu that allows the Shutaka to adapt effortlessly to rapidly changing events.

Guild of Black: The ancient organisation of spies and assassins. Once highly respected as honourable professionals, the Guild of Black is now only feared. They appear to have little interest in the fate of humanity other than what is required to meet the needs of the Guild. Although the Guild is not based on any specific planet, and members are drawn form many of the human races, it is the Sorarainian assassins who were responsible for much of the initial reputation of the Guild.

Harkar: The home planet of mercenary Il-yar-Bisen. Once one of the most powerful planets in the Outer Rim, its colonies have gradually been reduced through weak rule of its bloated aristocracy.

Hellbringer(s): Following the poor performance of their ground forces in the Second Outer Rim Uprising, OREF initiated a program to develop the ultimate foot soldiers. Using a small group of loyal volunteers, OREF scientists succeeded in creating a melded human-computer symbiotic organism that they thought would be unstoppable against the conventional armies of the Outer Rim planets. This proved all too true when the prototype Hellbringers turned against their masters. By the time the disaster had been halted, OREF's reputation with the Council was in tatters. The following purge by the Council of the OREF commanders responsible for the Hellbringer program ironically resulted in the depletion of OREF's military skill base, severely reducing the ability of OREF to carry out effective operations in the Outer Rim. The Hellbringer program also served to unite human races, both Inner and Outer Rim, in their condemnation of the experiment.

hirra-tel-barka: the Shutaka ceremony that initiates the young doza warriors as full warriors.

honare: The concept of justice employed by Shutaka to judge their actions and of others towards them. An honare debt takes many forms and can be discharged in many ways, from forfeit of life to exchange of material items of value.

Human(s): The generic term given to any inhabitant of the universe that can trace their genetic makeup back to Earth or Dione.

Inner Rim: The known universe is divided into two groupings of planets, the Inner Rim and the Outer Rim. The distinction is more historical than spatial - Inner Rim planets were settled prior to the development of the jump-drive. Outer Rim planets were, or are, those planets settled after the jump-drive was developed. Approximately one quarter of a million planets are considered to be included in the densely populated Inner Rim. The Inner Rim planets are governed as a democratic Federation, the Council being the collective body of representative from the member planets.

Jedmon: The Inner Rim home planet of mercenary Doran Mar and Ambassador Gisele Mar. Jedmon is one of the founding planets of the Federation.

jihar-ara: The Alien texts discovered by Emperor Taran described a force so powerful as to stagger the imagination; it was named jihar-ara. The Shutaka know of it as the Pearl.

Jump Drive: Named after its creator, L'las Windsor. Before the development of the Windsor Jump Drive, interplanetary travel was only possible by using standard faster-than-light drives, with their associated time distortion effects. Use of FTL drives was considered to be the cause of much of the initial fragmentation of human knowledge and history. The jump drive enabled the space-time continuum to be folded upon itself, effectively resulting in a ship using the drive being in two places at the same time.

ka: The Shutaka multi-layered term for the bond that exists between two people who have aligned their spiritual existences. In its simplest form, ka manifests itself as a confidence and trust between the two individuals. When fully developed, the Shutaka believe that ka becomes an entity of itself, or rather that the two people and the ka become one codependent organism. Even among Shutaka, it is rare for ka to ever develop to this extent.

null-space: A mathematical construct that describes the nonexistent region between the origin and destination of a ship employing the Windsor Jump drive. It has no dimensions and exists for no time. Ye Tran, a colleague of the creator of the Jump Drive, developed a communication protocol (NSP) that traveled through null space, allowing instantaneous communication throughout the universe.

mnan-gar: The name the Shutaka call their offworld Strategist-Tacticians (literally: god-like-leader). While the Shutaka rarely rely on anything outside their culture, they have always made an exception for the leaders they choose to command their mercenary clans. Invariably male, mnan-gar are recruited by the Shutaka using a technique that call ksar-larning - harvesting lost souls. No mnan-gar approached in this way has ever refused, although they can rarely articulate their reasons for joining the Shutaka.

Outer Rim: By definition, the known universe less those planets making up the Inner Rim. The Outer Rim currently consists of over ten million settled planets and countless more charted potentially habitable planets. The Outer Rim is, however, is sparsely populated with many planets having less than one hundred thousand inhabitants. While, in theory, the Federation of Inner Rim Planets has governance over the Outer Rim, the second Outer Rim uprising highlighted the underlying tensions between the Federation and the various governments of the Outer Rim who resist the concept of a centralised authority.

OREF: The Outer Rim Expeditionary Force. The military force empowered by the Federation to maintain order among the Outer Rim planets. While it gains its authority from the Federation, it is allowed significant autonomy. OREF undertook to quell the Second Outer Rim uprising and, following that, to initiate the Hellbringer program.

parna-ka: A ceremonial bestowing of ka upon a person by all Shutaka. It is not ka in the true sense, as this can only exist between two people, but rather a symbolic expression of great admiration and respect for a non-Shutaka. It surpasses honare debt in magnitude of importance among Shutaka.

Second Outer Rim Uprising: The first uprising, which occurred long before the second, was little more than a handful of mining planets disputing the amount of taxation levied by the Federation. The second, more significant, rebellion followed the provocative declaration of independence by Tzar Augustas of Plican IV. An alliance of Outer Rim planets then joined military forces to resist OREF. Boosted by various mercenary ground armies, the Outer Rim forces fought a series of battles on over two hundred planets. While the OREF forces failed to gain the upper hand during the surface fighting, they eventually succeeded in destroying the Outer Rim navies in a decisive battle in the Khriction Sector, which effectively brought resistance to a halt. In this battle, Leith Birro, at that time serving in OREF, received a field promotion to Lieutenant-Commander.

Shutaka-NA: The Shutaka tell stories of ancient ones - the original Shutaka, who they call Shutaka-NA. The Shutaka-NA were reputed to be an enormously powerful race, yet gentle, harmonious and spiritual.

Sorarain: The home planet of Belle Morninglight-on-Brook. The location of the planet was lost to knowledge for much time. When it was rediscovered, it was found that the human inhabitants had undergone considerable adaptation to their environment. The adaptation was so extreme, it called into question whether Sorarainians could still be considered human. The Council subsequently resolved that the term "human" defined any inhabitant of the universe that could trace their genetic makeup back to Earth or Dione. While Sorarainians easily met this requirement, there are some human races that still refuse to accept the definition.

tri-tak-ka: The Shutaka name for an ancient spirit god of creation. Literally translated, it means "and three become one". What the story of the tri-tak-ka is based upon is unknown, but it has been kept alive as a fairy tale told to children. According to the story, before the dawn of time, there existed chaos. From this chaos coalesced ethereal beings possessed of great power, but having no purpose. By chance, three of these beings met among the limitless void and a miraculous bond developed between the three, a co-dependence of spirit that merged and resulted in a new entity - a tri-tak-ka. This first tri-tak-ka was known as Tala-Rus and she was possessed of great strength, intelligence and integrity. A second tri-tak-ka also came into being; he was known as Buri-Nar and was possessed of great wisdom, power and compassion. Together, these two tri-tak-ka became the mother and father of creation, their child is the universe as we know it. Tala-Rus and Buri-Nar then disappeared; it is said they sleep quietly between the folds of time, occasionally waking to check on their precious offspring, before returning again to their slumber.

Willa: The home planet of the Shutaka. It is located on the boundary of the Inner and Outer Rim. It's history, like that of the Shutaka themselves is poorly recorded in mainstream human literature.

Nova Earth: The current host planet for the Council of the Federation of Inner Rim Planets. Named Nova Earth because of its supposed similarity to old Earth.


The End

Copyright C.K.Faulkner


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