The Pearl - Chapter 4

After leaving the main chamber, Misha-Dan led Leith and Doran down a short tunnel where another air lock allowed them access to what looked like a small meditation chamber. There were thick cushions scattered on the floor and Misha-Dan settled himself on one, motioning the other men to do likewise.

"There is, unfortunately, little time to proceed gently. Leith Birro, you carry many demons in your mind, riding your conscience. These demons prevent you from being what you should. The spirit in you is larger than you allow it to be. Until you free it, you suffer from the blindness we call ganz-ursa, hooded soul. The Shutaka have a great need, at this moment, for someone who can see clearly. To be of use to your people - for you do consider yourself one of the Shutaka - you must cure yourself of the blindness."

"If you have truly seen inside my head, how can you say these things?" Leith asked the Lord-priest. "You know my past, you have seen what I am, what I am capable of and the trail of misery I have left behind me. You know the feeling of self-loathing I have when the Shutaka call me mnan-gar." Leith looked down at his body. "If this is what humans must turn to for their deities, then we are indeed lost."

"So much hatred for yourself, my friend. It must be hard for you to believe me when I tell you that your soul is far less damned that many of those around you. As a Priest-initiate, I spent many seasons traveling among the civilised worlds. All young priests embark on this journey; it is an important step in learning to accept humanity for what it is. You have seen many things in your life, Leith Birro. You have done many things. Some of the worst things you have forgotten, hidden behind you mind's doors. I have seen behind all those doors, and I say to you that your worst memories do not approach some of the horrors I have touched in the minds of people across the galaxies. Significant evil is not contained in the mind of Leith Birro. The evil in your mind comes from what makes you human; the ability to make mistakes, the fact that we are less than perfect. Your mind has no more evil in it than mine, my friend. As you think of me, think also of yourself."

"And what of me, Misha-Dan?" asked Doran.

The old man turned to face him. "Alas, my words to you shall not be so comforting, Doran Mar. Also in your mind are many sealed rooms concealing your thoughts from yourself. However, one of those rooms has not been made by you. In it are the reasons and actions by which you came to betray the Shutaka."

Doran's pale face became even paler. His eyes opened wide in disbelief. "How can this be, Misha-Dan? Believe me, I would not do such a thing - I can think of no reason that would cause me to betray all that is important to me."

"Is it possible you are mistaken, my Lord?" Leith asked. "I have known Doran Mar almost all my life."

"I am not mistaken, Leith. Doran's thoughts are not mine, so I cannot tell them to you without their owner's consent. I can help Doran to remember the past if he so wishes, but that way leads to insanity."

"Is my mind that weak I cannot face my own conscience?" Doran asked quietly.

"What you must face is not of your making, Doran Mar. There has been another mind at work in yours, this much I can see. Mental traps have been carefully set; if you tried to re-think your thoughts, you would be lost."

"What other mind? Who did this to me ... can you tell me what happened? What could I have possibly believed that would have caused me to do this?"

Misha-Dan looked at Leith, who was staring at Doran in confusion. Doran was like a brother to him. They were very different, but they had always respected and accepted each other for what they were. Sometimes they would not see each other for several seasons, but they always greeted each other easily and affectionately. Their friendship was natural and undemanding, free of any particular expectations, but cemented by trust. How could this man, one of his lifelong friends, have condemned Willa to death.

"Do not judge yet, mnan-gar," Misha-Dan said to Leith. "That is the burden of the Lord-priest. If you have considered this man your friend, do not desert him now. I tell you this; he suffers more pain than you can imagine." He turned again to Doran. "I do not know fully what happened, Doran Mar. It has been made difficult to read your thoughts concerning the matter. The power that has been at work in your mind is alien to me. However, I can tell that it was strong. Strong enough to plant thoughts in your mind that you took as your own. Powerful enough to build a different past in your memory. You were convinced to distrust and hate the Shutaka and agree to betray them - no, to demand that you be allowed to betray them. Then the false memories were sealed away in your mind."

"Where could this have happened?" Leith asked.

"On Basra. That much seems clear," answered the Lord-priest.

"The last time I was there was over two seasons ago," said Doran. "The ship we were on had to dock there for emergency repairs. I was only on the surface for a day."

"A plan of this magnitude takes time to put in place," said Misha-Dan. "Also, there was a condition placed upon your betrayal that even the power of the other mind could not overcome. Time would have been required to find a way that this condition could be met."

"What was the condition?" asked Leith.

"That strategist-tactician Leith Birro be out of harm's way when Willa was attacked," Misha-Dan replied, looking into Leith's eyes. "Some thoughts and memories have an infinite ability to resist attack."

"There is no way out for me, is there?" Doran asked suddenly. "If I try to remember who is behind this, I'll go insane. If I try and live with what I've done, I'll probably go crazy anyway." He looked at Leith and Misha-Dan. "So many of my friends were on Willa... so many. How can I face my Shutaka?"

"I am sorry," the old Lord-priest said, sadly. "You are as much a victim as those on the surface. I have no words that can ease your grief, however, do not be concerned about your warriors; they will know your pain and suffering."

"Is there nothing I can do?" Doran asked.

"Be gentle on yourself, my son. I am the one trained in judgment; leave that upon my shoulders. The Shutaka will take their revenge on those who are truly responsible; you can best serve the course of justice by taking part in that revenge."

Doran turned to Leith and the two friends stood facing each other. "Leith..." Doran started to say, but his voice trailed off.

Leith tried to think of something comforting to say, but his thoughts were too confused. "What can I say?" he finally asked his friend. "Doran, do you expect me, of all people, to pass judgment on you? Doran, we have been through too much together; how I think of you has not changed. More than once, I have owed my life to you. Misha-Dan is right, there are others who are to blame for this. I swear that we will find them and make them pay."

"Come," said Misha-Dan "We should rejoin the others. There is much planning yet to be done, and you two are the best we have for that."

When they re-entered the main hall all eyes turned towards them. As the airlock cycled closed behind them, Lilith-Soo walked over to Doran, followed closely by Kweela.

"Doran-mnan-gar, your journey has been hard. Your grief is ours," said Lilith.

"Lilith-Soo, I am not mnan-gar any longer; my dishonour should not stain the clan."

"Enough, Doran Mar," Kweela said, not unkindly. "It is done now and can't be undone. To speak more of it will truly dishonour the spirits who have been left to roam Willa. There is not a Shutaka here who does not understand what you feel. It is in the past; there is work to be done in the future. Right now, we must prepare to leave. The crèche is dying; the damage is more widespread than it first appeared. The main computer is progressively shutting down less important areas to conserve air and energy. We must return to Hammerhead as soon as we can."

"Have the keepers been informed?" asked Misha-Dan.

"They were sent for just before you returned, my Lord," Lilith answered.

"Very well. By now, all the records we have been able to salvage from the crèche computer would have been transferred to portable storage." He turned to Leith. "How long will we have to wait before we can launch to rendezvous with your ship?"

"I'll have to ask Izzy first. Kweela, how long before the crèche runs out of power?"

"About forty s.u.'s. Although that depends on how hard we breathe."

"Ok, I'll see what Izzy says." He walked over to where his pilot was talking with the crew of Doran's lander. "Kweela says we've got to be out of here in less than forty s.u.'s," Leith told Izzy. "Can we do it?"

"That's just what I've been discussing with Lopar, here. Fifty s.u.'s is probably the earliest we can boost, so we might have to sit in the landers for a while."

"Well we don't have much choice," Leith said. "Any ideas how we're going to get the children into the landers. I'd lay odds there's no suits for them."

"There's an emergency air-linker near the main crèche airlock," Lopar replied. "Lilith pointed it out when we first came in. Provided it reaches both landers, there shouldn't be a problem."

"Well, that's that then. I'll go and tell Misha-Dan. He walked back to where the Lord-priest and Kweela were standing. Doran and Lilith were nowhere to be seen.

"They went off to talk," Kweela said, anticipating his question. "Your friend is in a great deal of pain. There is something that we call ilk-nar-pilla, which roughly means exquisite agony. It is a pain of the soul, not something physical, and it is the supreme price of being human. Doran suffers it; he has unknowingly betrayed those for whom he cares, the Shutaka suffer it; their hearts cry out for revenge, yet the love of their mnan-gar prevents it. Ilk-nar-pilla is a pain that consumes you from inside; there is no cure except death."

"It must also be hard for Lilith-Soo," said Leith. "She and Doran have been together for many seasons. He is her friend and her battle-kin, yet..."

"Indeed," said Misha-Dan, "her duty as Doran's ka would require her to protect him against the other warriors should his life be threatened. She would be placed in the position of turning against her own people to uphold her honour."

"Surely not," said Leith. "How can ka be expected to hold in situations such as this? If I was in Doran's place, would it be reasonable for me to ask such a thing of Kweela? I know Doran; he does not expect or want that from Lilith."

"Leith-mnan-gar," said the Lord-priest patiently, "the ritual of ka has survived unchanged for thousands of seasons. What a person wants, or expects, has little to do with it. The obligations of ka are clear and invariant. You now see why it is so important to choose well your battle-kin."

"But, Misha-Dan, how can you be sure ka is a reciprocal arrangement? The Shutaka are known for their sense of justice. It is just to place such an onerous duty on one person without balance?"

"The choices are not as random as you think, mnan-gar. When warriors are paired, there are many forces at work. There has never been a ka mismatch."

"But," Leith insisted, "I do not want Kweela to have such an obligation on my behalf."

Instead of replying, the Lord-priest pulled a small dagger from within his robes and lunged without warning at Leith's throat. For an old man, Misha-Dan was surprisingly fast and Leith was too astonished to twist out of the way. However, before the razor sharp blade could touch his skin, Kweela-San had reacted automatically and grasped the Lord-priest's hand in a vice-like grip. He gasped and the knife clattered to the tiles.

Kweela stared with disbelief at her own hand. A Lord-priest's actions were above the law - or rather, they were the law. To disobey or to obstruct was considered treason among the Shutaka. "My, lord," she stammered, "forgive me, I have hurt you. I did not mean to."

Several of Doran's warriors, who had been close enough to witness Kweela's action, drew their battle swords. Their nerves were on edge already, and to see their Lord-priest threatened brought their battle-lust closer to the surface. A number of Leith's warriors had also drawn their weapons, but were uncertain what to do next.

Holding his wrist, Misha-Dan smiled at Kweela. "It is I who should apologise, honourable warrior. In this case, you acted as you should." The other Shutaka relaxed and returned their swords to their scabbards. The Lord-priest looked at Leith. "You see, Leith-mnan-gar, what you want has no effect on ka and the unconscious discipline it instills. If Kweela had to kill her Lord-priest to protect you she would, even if it meant a death sentence for herself."

The old man bent down and picked up his knife, checking it carefully to determine if the keen edge had been damaged. He sighed and secreted it once more in his robes. "I am indeed getting old," he said to Leith. Your Kweela is fast, but in my youth I would have still have managed to draw blood first. You seem surprised, Leith-mnan-gar, did you think all priests were gentle scholars."

Leith had recovered his composure, although the hard knot in his stomach had not uncurled yet. "I had always thought of you as the most gentle of the Shutaka, Misha-Dan. At least that is what your reputation would have me believe."

The old man walked towards one of the benches. Kweela helped him to a seat and inspected his hand where she had gripped him. Once, Leith had seen Kweela splinter the wrist of an OREF soldier with her hand as easily Leith could crush an eggshell. The Lord-priest placed his hand over hers and motioned her to sit down beside him."

"It is true," he replied to Leith, "that most priests do not have the heart for battle. However, the personal discipline and body control that warrior training provides can be of use to all. Priest initiates undergo almost as rigorous training as the warriors, but have no cause to put the theory into practice. At least, not when we have warriors as accomplished as Kweela-San and her sisters. Now, what did your pilot say about our departure?"

There was much more Leith wanted to discuss, but he saw from Misha-Dan's expression that it would have to wait. "We'll need to abandon the crèche before we're ready to boost back to Hammerhead, so it will mean sitting for a while in the landers. The longer we can leave it, the better, although I'll be happier when we're all safely in the landers."

"Very well. Ah, here are the Keepers of the Pearl."

Leith turned to see three children clambering out of an airlock. There were two girls and a boy, all about fourteen or fifteen seasons old. They spotted Misha-Dan and walked quickly over to him.

"We have emptied the computer memories, My Lord," said one of the girls. "They are safely stored within the Pearl."

"Thank you, Kisa. Leith, may I introduce Kisa-Mara of Kion clan." The tall, blonde girl bowed slightly and smiled warmly.

"It is an honour, mnan-gar. I have read of your service to the Shutaka in my schooling. Your name is associated with many of our greatest battles."

Noting the puzzled expression on Leith's face, Misha-Dan explained. "The crèche is sealed from outside. Nothing goes out, but news and information is - or rather was - regularly fed in from the outside world through secure datafeeds. It was important for the children's education to be complete, and that included knowledge of great Shutaka warriors."

"You could hardly consider me a great warrior," Leith said to Kisa-Mara. "Just ask Kweela-San about my battle skills. My mistakes have almost killed us both, more times than I care to remember."

"Skill in battle takes many forms, mnan-gar," said the young male Keeper of the Pearl.

"Quite so, young Keeper. Leith, this is Jor-Dak of Hyal clan," said the Lord-priest. The young Shutaka nodded gravely to Leith. There was something strange about his face which Leith could not figure out at first. Like the two girls, Jor-Dak had a well proportioned body, smooth skinned and muscular, although the boy was smaller than other male Shutaka of his age. Jor-Dak's long black hair was streaked with silver and twisted in a braid that hung down his back in the manner of the Priest-initiates. However, he had none of the priest's air of relaxed calm; rather he had the posture and manner of a animal unaccustomed to confined spaces. His eyes, also, were different. Although they were quite definately the Shutaka cat-eyes, they were also more rounded like those of Leith and were a deep emerald green.

"Misha-Dan called you a keeper, Jor. What is it you keep?" Leith asked him.

"Secrets, mnan-gar." A mischievous smile darted across the serious young man's face. "A difficult thing for a child, I can assure you."

Leith grinned back at Jor-Dan. Unaccountably, he found himself already liking the straight-faced boy. "And, you," he said, turning to the other girl, who he saw now was perhaps a season younger than the other two. "Are you good at keeping secrets?"

The third child turned to face Leith and he felt a wave of emotion wash over him. In a way, he was reminded of the sensation when Misha-Dan had touched his mind. He found himself staring into the girl's eyes, half hidden by her long auburn hair. Like Jor-Dak, her eyes were different but in ways Leith found hard to quantify; like the other Shutaka, they were typically feline, but there was a depth to them that defied comprehension.

"Oh no, mnan-gar," she giggled. "I hate secrets. I'm just terrible at keeping them."

Misha-Dan smiled affectionately at the girl. "Indeed, it is so. Krys-Tian must be constantly reminded of her duty by Kisa and Jor."

Krys-Tian looked at her feet dejectedly. "I do try, my Lord, but it seems duty is so hard sometimes. Could we not get by without the Pearl?"

"Do you really believe that is an option, Krys?" the Lord-priest asked her gently.

The girl sighed deeply. "No, of course not, my Lord." Suddenly, she looked across to where Kweela was standing. "You are Kweela-San of the Banara," she exclaimed delightedly. "I have longed to meet you. Lord Misha-Dan has often talked of you. He thinks you are one of the finest warriors the Shutaka have ever had. He sings your praise long and loud."

Kweela knelt down so that her head was level with that of Krys. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Krys-Tian," she said, smiling. "But you risk the displeasure of the Lord-priest with such candour. Perhaps he was talking about someone else."

If a Lord-priest could show embarrassment, Leith was sure Misha-Dan would have blushed deeply. As it was, the old man cleared his throat and spoke quickly, "You are indeed poor at keeping secrets Krys-Tian. Such a small mouth should grow tired with so much gossip. Kweela-San is a good warrior, but she still has much to learn - as do you. Now, enough of this, we must prepare to leave. Start gathering all the children and begin moving to the main exit." The Lord-priest turned to Kweela. "Since you are such an accomplished warrior, Kweela-San, perhaps you could track down Lilith-Soo and Doran-mnan-gar."

"Of course, my Lord," Kweela answered.

"I'll come with you," said Leith. He felt slightly guilty that the Shutaka were showing more concern for Doran than he was. After all, he thought, I am supposed to be his friend.

"They went through the airlock leading to the meditation chamber," Kweela told him. "Let us go."

They walked over to the airlock and passed through to the access tunnel beyond. The rock passage was perhaps a hundred paces long and poorly lit, so at first they did not notice Lilith sitting on the floor, about halfway along the tunnel. She glanced up as they approached, and Leith saw the look of sorrow in her face.

"It is done, Kweela-San," she said.

"What has happened?" Leith asked, although in the back of his mind he already knew the answer.

"It is not what you think, Leith-mnan-gar," Kweela said to him. "Or at least, not quite what you think. Yes, Doran-mnan-gar is dead, but by his own hand."

"Didn't Lilith try to stop him," he asked. "He couldn't have been thinking straight. I thought it was her job to protect him?"

"Leith-mnan-gar," Kweela whispered fiercely, "how can you be so blind?"

"No, Kweela-San," Lilith said. "It is not easy for him to understand. The obligations of ka are part of our culture, our heritage, our soul, but they are complex to an off-worlder. Leith-mnan-gar considers the Shutaka as his people, but that doesn't mean he accepts or understands all of what we are. Come, Leith Birro, sit with me and remember the fine friend we have both lost." Leith slowly sat down next to the warrior and Kweela followed suit. Leith could see the closed airlock that lead to the meditation chamber where he guessed the body of Doran lay. The three mercenaries sat there for what seemed like a long time.

"You loved him, almost as a brother, did you not?" Lilith eventually asked Leith.

"I had known him since our childhood. His family would come to Dione for vacations. They would go sand-sailing on the Great Desert plains and often stayed in the village where I grew up. Leith paused, remembering those days so long ago. His childhood on Dione seemed almost to belong to another life; one where the seasons of nature provided the backdrop for measuring time and the harmony of village life was a safe and secure haven. "I can't remember how I first met Doran, but we were firm friends from the start. We would play at catching dust-spiders in the caves overlooking the village while our mothers were shopping at the markets. He had an older sister, Gisele, who went on to become the Inner Rim representative for his home world, but when I knew her she was a gangling girl of twelve seasons who was always teasing her younger brother. Doran and I kept in touch between his family's visits to Dione, and we eventually joined the OREF academy together."

Leith paused and looked at his hands which were clenching and unclenching of their own accord. "We thought we were going to be the saviours of decency and democracy," he continued bitterly. "Doran was in line to become the youngest Fleet Commander in the OREF; did you know that?"

"Yes. Doran had told me much of his life, including his great friendship with you. In fact, it was this friendship that persuaded him to leave the OREF. He resigned his commission to look for you after it was reported you had been lost on an un-named mission. He refused to believe you had been killed. By the time he caught up with you again, you had joined the mercenary groups, so he signed up too."

"I didn't realise," said Leith, shaking his head. "He never told me that. I always thought that he was as disillusioned with the Federation as I was."

"Doran Mar was always good at hiding his true feelings. Few people really understood him. It is not right that the destiny of such a man should be cut short in such a manner. Doran should be remembered by the Shutaka as a hero, not like this."

Leith did not need to be a Lord-priest to read Lilith's feelings. "Your duty to Doran went beyond that required by ka, did it not, Lilith-Soo?" he asked.

Lilith-Soo did not answer for a moment. She kicked at a stone on the tunnel floor with the toe of her boot. Eventually, she said, "You loved him as a brother Leith Birro. I loved him as more. Who could not love their mnan-gar-ka? Kweela-San understands what I say. I could not bear to see him suffer. Perhaps I could have prevented him taking his life, but would that have been truly an act of love?"

"I can't say I understand, Lilith-Soo. I am told that you would've died to prevent even your Lord-priest harming Doran, yet..."

"Leith-mnan-gar, to die is not the worst of all things - to die badly is. We are in the business of causing death; is this not something of which we should be fully aware?"

"There is no good or bad way of dying, Lilith-Soo," said Leith bitterly. "I wish there were."

"Leith Birro, it is clear from Misha-Dan that there is much in your soul that grieves you. To be a Shutaka is to know much about pain and death. That is also why we cherish life so much. We are your people; allow us to help you. If you cannot reach out to the Lord-priest, look to your ka. You have known Kweela-San for many seasons, yet you have told her nothing of yourself."

"That is not true, Lilith-Soo. I trust Kweela with my life; I hide nothing from her." Leith looked at Kweela, but she was staring at the ground between her feet.

"As, you wish, mnan-gar," said Lilith. "It must be your choice." She started to rise. "So, we should go. The Lord-priest will be concerned."

"Are we to leave Doran here?" asked Leith.

"What better place than on Willa among the spirits of his Shutaka?" replied Lilith.

The three mercenaries made their way back down the tunnel. The passed through the airlock to find the main chamber almost empty. Tanah-Luc and one of Lilith-Soo's warriors were the only people in sight.

"All the other warriors, along with the children and Misha-Dan have gone to the main exit," explained Tanah. "Rhona-Ohn and I were instructed to wait for you."

"Where is Doran-mnan-gar?" the other warrior asked Lilith.

"At peace," she replied.

Rhona-Ohn nodded her head quickly in understanding, as if the news was expected. "Doran-mnan-gar was a man who understood justice," she said. "The spirits will welcome him without malice."

"We should join the others," said Kweela. "This room is placing a drain on the crèche's reserves. Once we leave, the computer can seal this chamber."

"This way," said Tanah, indicating one of the airlocks on the other side of the room. The five of them walked over to the lock and passed through to the tunnel beyond. The status light above the airlock door changed to red, indicating that the air in the main chamber was being transferred back into the main storage tanks of the crèche The walked quickly down the rock passage and soon reached another airlock that Leith recognised as the one by which they had first entered the crèche A number of warriors and children were grouped by the lock, and Leith guessed that about half had already passed through the lock to the landers outside. He could not see Misha-Dan, or the three keepers, so he assumed they had already boarded. Kweela went up to a small computer console nestled inconspicuously into the rock beside the airlock and logged on.

"The computer can't give an estimate any longer," she said, reading from the screen. "The whole crèche could go at any moment." As she spoke, the computer console went blank. "That's it." She continued, frowning. "The computer shut itself down as the final way of conserving power. There should be just enough left to cycle the lock door a few more times."

As if on her command, the airlock door cycled open to reveal Misha-Dan standing in the empty chamber. He stepped quickly out and pushed the button to cycle the door close.

"There are two Shutaka in pressure suits on the surface who are preparing to move the air-linker between landers. Half of the warriors and children are safely in Doran Mar's lander."

"It is Doran Mar's no longer, my Lord. He will not be joining us," said Lilith-Soo.

"Ah... it is so," the old man said wearily. He looked at Leith, who could not meet the gaze of the Lord-priest. "Ah, it is so," he repeated.

"I call upon Leith-mnan-gar to accept Forta clan as his own," Lilith continued.

"That is most unusual, Lilith-Soo," said Misha-Dan. "No mnan-gar has ever before had the burden of two clans."

"We have no choice, my Lord. Forta needs a mnan-gar, and there is only one other than Doran Mar who is worthy to lead us."

"What say the others of Forta?"

"Lilith-Soo speaks for us all," replied Rhona-Ohn.

"Very well," said the Lord-priest. "However, there is no time now for the proper ceremony. Leith Birro, in the meantime, do you accept?"

Leith looked at Lilith, then at Misha-Dan. "There are better than I to lead Forta," he protested. "This decision should not be rushed because of the circumstances. I have not proved myself to Lilith and her warriors, yet."

"He accepts," Kweela said brusquely. "Enough, the airlock is ready." Indicating the status light above the door, she reached out to punch the button to cycle the lock open. The remaining warriors and children filed in and Leith was the last to step from the tunnel into the airlock. Looking back down the passage, he saw the overhead lights begin to grow dimmer. The lock doors closed slowly, with a final metallic clunk.

"Good-bye, my friend," he murmured under his breath. He turned around to find that the rest of the group had already started to make their way down the air-linker that had been attached to the outer airlock door. The emergency air-linker was a long tube, rigid enough to be pressurised, but with sufficient flexibility to be moved to attach to the landers outside. About halfway along the linker were three small window apertures, one on each side and one above. Leith paused to look up through the overhead window and frowned.

Instead of a star spattered sky, he saw the glittering reflections of battle debris arcing through the blackness above. None of the lights appeared to be large enough or stable enough to be an intact ship. Occasionally, there would be a flash, as a large piece collided with another, showering off smaller pieces. Peering through one of the side windows in the air-linker, Leith saw a number of shining trails spiraling down to Willa's scorched surface. A large piece of wreckage was half buried a short distance from one of the landers.

"There's been one hell of a battle in orbit," he told Kweela, who was in front of him in the tunnel. "We mightn't have a ship to return to; that is, if we can dodge the space junk when we boost."

"If that is the case, then so be it," replied Kweela. "However, luck has been on our side so far."

"I thought Shutaka didn't believe in luck."

"Perhaps you have been a bad influence on me," the warrior replied, turning around and continuing up the linker.

A few moments later, they were all safely in the hold of the lander. Leaving Lilith-Soo to supervise detaching the air-linker and strapping in of the passengers, Leith, Kweela and the Lord-priest made their way to the control cabin where Izzy and Belle were finalising the pre-boost checks. Izzy smiled grimly at Leith as he squirmed in through the hatch.

"I can't make voice contact with Hammerhead, but I've got her homing signal. We'll have to boost on a guess and hope we'll have enough fuel left to make any course corrections that may be necessary to rendezvous in orbit."

"It looks like it was quite a battle," Leith said, pointing to the main view screen which showed a 360-degree sensor scan.

"I can only make out two or three intact ships," said Belle. "And only one of them is large enough to be Hammerhead. There's no guarantee that it's her, though. The homing signal might be coming from a large piece of debris. None of the three ships are showing any signs of life."

"Well, we can't sit here forever. How long 'till we can boost?"

"About two s.u.'s, at the earliest." Answered Izzy.

"What are the chances of being hit by a piece of wreckage during ascent?"

"You tell me," said Belle. "There's too much stuff flying about for our computer to predict any sort of flight paths, so we can't do much to avoid collisions. Once we boost, we'll just have to cross our fingers."

"You'd better tell our passengers to strap in real tight. It might be a rough trip." Izzy warned Leith. "I hope Doran's crew are good at hands-on flying. This is no time to have to rely on computers."

"Doran didn't make it, Izzy."

The old pilot looked at Leith for a moment, then let out a deep breath, before turning back to the console. Belle started to say something, but glanced at Kweela and fell silent. The tiny co-pilot looked away and resumed her check of the lander's flight system.

There was silence in the cabin until Izzy finally stretched and announced they were ready to lift. A few moments later, Lopar, the pilot of the other lander, radioed that they were also ready to boost. Izzy looked at Leith questioningly.

"Lilith-Soo," Leith spoke into his suit microphone, "are you all set back there?"

"Acknowledged," came the reply. "We are ready, Leith-mnan-gar. Some of the children are quite excited at the idea of a spaceflight."

"Let's go, then." Leith said. "Whenever you're ready, Izzy."

"OK Initiate launch sequence, Belle."

"Confirmed. The other lander's boost path is synchronised with ours. Point two s.u.'s to break contact."

The lander started to vibrate as the main motors started. The noise of the motors changed from a whine to a dull roar and, suddenly, there was a lurch as the lander broke contact.

"We're clear," said Izzy.

"The other lander's away too," added Belle.

The noise and vibration increased, and they were pushed deeper into their couches as the lander accelerated upwards, away from the battered and scarred surface of Willa.

"Computer control comes off in point one s.u," announced Izzy. "Hang on; it's going to be rough."

"I've got a positive ID on Hammerhead," said Belle, studying the readout on one of the screens. "Still no voice contact, but she's alive and under power. She's spotted us."

"We're hands-on," Izzy called out, wrestling furiously with the joystick that allowed the lander to be controlled by the human pilot. The ship lurched from side to side as Izzy tried to make rough manual corrections to their course. "Hurry up and feed in the course corrections from Hammerhead."

"Done," called Belle. "We're on the beam. Whew! Look at that."

On the main console screen, Leith could make out the shape of Hammerhead coming into focus. He could see a number of punctures in her hull and a small section near the docking bay was torn away completely. The only other ship in the vicinity was a small corvette, which, according to the data that scrolled across the bottom of the screen was the Independent Military Vessel Periwinkle under the command of Captain Juk Naseem. Periwinkle appeared to be relatively unscathed and was holding a position that offered maximum protection to the landers.

The view on the main screen switched to the aft vids, just in time for Leith to see a small piece of debris collide with the other lander. The other ship veered to one side from the impact, then resumed its original course. Before Leith could determine how much damage had been inflicted on the lander, the vid switched back to the main view. Hammerhead loomed directly in front of them. Izzy had taken manual control again, and was guiding the lander slowly towards the docking bay. With the gentlest of bumps, their craft settled into the docking cradle.

As soon as he heard the umbilicals attach, Leith hit the release on his harness. Kweela was already struggling out of her straps and Izzy started the emergency shut-down routine. Leith began to pull himself out of the acceleration couch when a sudden wave of nausea washed over him. The cabin seemed to distort out of focus and the last thing he remembered was Kweela ramming her head into his midriff.

Chapter 5 -->