The Pearl - Chapter 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Have you any data on this situation?"

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"All of them, if need be."

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

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

"Good. When will we be in orbit?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It worked," Leith replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"OK. What's your plan?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Acknowledged." Izzy replied.

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

"As always, small one."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Born here?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Enough to destroy a universe."

"And who knows about it."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"How," said Leith and Doran together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Well?" Lilith asked.

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

Chapter 4 -->