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 -->