The Pearl - Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Kweela, tell me what's wrong."

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

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

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

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

"I don't think so, Commander."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Jaycee," she said quietly.

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

"Analysis," Cusher demanded.

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


"Reject Shutaka demands."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You do not know my price, yet."

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

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

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

"On your soul, Kweela-San."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Chapter 3 -->