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 -->