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 -->