The Pearl - Chapter 5

Leith opened his eyes to see Kweela leaning over him, shaking him by the shoulders. There was a sharp pain in the small of his back and his stomach hurt where Kweela had hit him with her head.

"Leith-mnan-gar, are you all right?" Kweela asked him.

"I will be if you stop shaking the living daylights out of me," he replied. "What happened?"

"We jumped," explained Izzy succinctly.

Leith groaned. Jumping through null-space was bad enough when you were strapped securely into an acceleration couch or cocooned in a sleeping bag, but to experience it totally unprepared was extremely unpleasant. Although a ship exited null-space at the same velocity and orientation in space as it entered, gravitational differences usually meant that there were still significant adjustments that could be disastrous for unrestrained objects - or people.

When Hammerhead had jumped, Kweela was thrown into Leith, who in turn, was propelled against the wall of the lander's cabin. He was still slightly winded and he had lost a chunk of skin off his back where it had been forced against the edge of a storage locker, but he was otherwise unharmed. Kweela, however, had caught her hand in one of the couch straps and the middle finger on her left hand was bent back at an unnatural angle. With a grimace, she wrenched the dislocated finger back in place and started for the passenger bay.

"Wait a moment, Kweela," said Belle. "There doesn't seem to be any air-linker attached and I'm reading vacuum in the docking bay. Hammerhead must have taken a hit there.. We'll have to suit up if we want to transfer."

"Any idea where we are?" Leith asked her.

"Kneeling, offering a prayer of thanks," muttered Izzy.

They ignored him. "Heading for orbit around AHS90043A - whatever that is - at about half a gee," said Belle, studying the readout on the console screen. "The only other info shown is the date it was charted."

"Well, an A class planet - habitable - and the S means there's some sort of settlement there, but not big enough to have a real name," said Leith, pulling on a pressure suit. "If it's up in the 900 series, it must be in the Rison-Levi-Dart arm."

"Lots of mineral-rich planets out there. AHS90043A is probably a mining colony," Izzy suggested.

"Let's go and ask Cusher, shall we?" Leith said.

When they had all suited up, they made their way to the passenger bay. Everyone had survived the jump without injury, although the new experience had unsettled some of the smaller children.

"The docking bay on Hammerhead has been damaged," Leith explained to the warriors, "so the children will have to stay here until we can rig up a way to make the transfer. It looks like we're headed for orbit around a colony planet, so there may not be much point in making a transfer anyway - Hammerhead has taken a few hits and we might have to head for solid ground."

Leith turned to Misha-Dan. "I don't know if the other lander made it," he said quietly. "They collected some debris on the way up."

Belle came up beside them. "Lopar just radioed in. They had a rough ride, but they're docked safely with Hammerhead."

"That's a relief. My bet is we'll need every warrior we can get from now on. Someone is after the Shutaka and they're playing for keeps. Kweela and I will pay a visit to Commander Cusher to find out what the current situation is." Leith nodded to Lilith-Soo, who was struggling into a pressure suit. "I take it you'll want to join the warriors in the other lander?"

"Yes, they will be curious about many things. I should be with them at this time."

"As soon as I find out from Cusher what's happening, I'll let you know. In the meantime, be prepared for anything."

Lilith-Soo nodded and sealed the faceplate of her suit.

"I'll need to do a visual check of the outside of the lander," Izzy told Leith. "We might have hit some micro-wreckage that we wouldn't have felt, and the other lander will need to be checked for sure."

"I'll go," offered Belle. "You're getting too old for all this excitement, Izzy."

"I won't argue there. But, make sure you're careful."

"That's my middle name," she replied with a smile.

The four mercenaries checked their suits and clambered into the lander's airlock. When the lock had cycled through, Leith confirmed that his companions were ready and pushed the button to open the outer hatch.

The docking bay had large hull-doors that could seal the docking area from open vacuum, but in practice these were rarely used; usually there was a link-tube that connected the lander's airlock with that of Hammerhead. This time, however, there was no linking tube; the docking bay had taken a hit and it appeared that substantial damage had occurred. From what Leith had seen through the vids on approach, it was also probable that the hull doors were inoperative.

One of the dock technicians was waiting for them, a tether from his pressure suit stretching back to the open airlock door behind him. As soon as he saw them he spoke into his suit microphone.

"Welcome aboard, strategist-tactician. Sorry we couldn't make contact before, but all of the hull communications aerials have been fried and our internal coms are still a bit shaky. The techs are still working on them."

"That's ok, Ensign Bracken," replied Leith, reading the man's name tag on his suit, "believe me, this sure beats the alternatives we had - although Hammerhead looks in pretty bad shape."

"It's not quite as bad as it looks - she's a tough ship. We've got solid air seal everywhere, and our drive and weapons are still functioning. As long as we don't have to talk to anybody, we can still fight, although I reckon we'll have to ground to make proper repairs. Commander Cusher is waiting for you on the bridge. If you attach your safety lines to me, we'll get started."

"Right." Leith turned to Belle and pointed to where the distinctively tall figure of Pilot Lopar had just emerged from the other lander. "Make sure you and Lopar are happy with the possibility of another planetary landing and boost. If there's any doubt about the landers' flightworthyness, we'll have to make plans to transfer the passengers. If everything checks out, start getting ready for a descent. My guess is that we'll be headed down within about twenty s.u.'s. I'll see if Cusher can have some provisions sent across; some of the children will be getting hungry by now, if I'm not mistaken."

"Acknowledged," replied Belle as she connected her safety line securely to the lander. There was a lot of black space visible through the open bay doors behind the landers and one badly directed push could mean you were gone before anyone realised it. "At least the fuel lines are still working," she added, indicating the umbilicals which were pumping propellant and catalyst into the landers' tanks.

"We'll contact you as soon as we can," Leith said to Lilith-Soo. The warrior nodded, fastened her safety line to the lander and started to make her way to the other craft. When she had reached it and had a firm grip on a leg strut, Belle unfastened Lilith's line so she could reel it in and reattach it to the other lander.

"Let's go," Leith said to Bracken, fastening his safety line to a ring on the technician's suit. When Kweela had done the same, the three of them made their way to the airlock. As the door cycled shut, Leith could see Belle clambering nimbly over the lander, checking for any signs of damage.

When they were safely on the other side of the airlock, standing in the access passageway, they cracked the seals on their faceplates and began making their way towards the bridge. Willa had been classified as a clean planet, so there was no need to go through the decontamination procedure. As they passed the row of hatches leading to the passenger compartments, Bracken pointed to a red light glowing above one of them. Leith realised that the compartment was the one allocated to Kweela and himself.

"That compartment was the only one on the ship that was actually punctured during the battle," Bracken told Leith. "As you would know, it was unoccupied at the time. However, I'm afraid any of your personal effects that were in there are now either trapped between the inner and outer hulls, orbiting Willa, or floating somewhere in null-space."

Leith shrugged. "Better them than me."

"I thought you'd see it that way, Mr Birro," Bracken remarked.

They continued on their way and presently were outside the hatch to the bridge. They identified themselves and the hatch cycled open. The bridge compartment was dimly lit; the ship was still on battle alert and the crew were on duty at their stations. Cusher spun her chair to face them as they entered and nodded gravely to the two mercenaries.

"Sorry about the rough treatment, but we couldn't take a chance by staying around Willa longer than absolutely necessary. Can you tell me what the hell is going on, Mr Birro?" she asked.

"I was hoping you could tell me," Leith replied. "From the little I saw on the boost up from Willa, I guessed that there'd been a fight and the mercenary fleet had jumped."

Cusher took a deep breath shook her head. "The fleet didn't jump, Leith. The only ships that jumped were Hammerhead and Periwinkle. The rest are gone."

Leith and Kweela glanced at each other as Cusher's words sank in. Apart from a small number of warriors that may not have been unable to get back to Willa, this meant that the only Shutaka alive were those aboard the two ships.

"It was obviously a trap," Cusher continued. "Someone was counting on the Shutaka flocking back to Willa to enable a clean sweep."

Leith swore under his breath. "I knew it," he said. "I could feel it. If you've gone to that much trouble to air-strip a planet, you wouldn't leave any loose ends. And we walked right into it."

"We could all feel it, strategist-tactician," Cusher said."But only Jaycee did anything about it. That's why we're still here."

"What do you mean?"

"Jaycee computed the probability of such a strategy, factored in the pig-headedness of the Shutaka and concluded that the only answer was to start preemptive jump calculations. As soon as the enemy ships came out of null-space, Jaycee jumped us."

"What do you mean Jaycee made the calcs and jumped you?" Leith knew that the battle computer had nominal control over all the ships systems, but it was not programmed to initiate actions except under direct command. Semi-sentient computers were impressive, but not that impressive you'd let them assume total control." Are you saying it warned you in time for you to order the jump?"

"I'm saying," Cusher said slowly, "that Jaycee jumped us. By itself. Without me ordering it and without regard to individual safety - we lost two people; a dock technician was crushed by some loose equipment and a jump-engineer was sucked through when she caught her hand in the null-field."

"That's impossible," Leith said. "Jaycees' program doesn't work like that. It must have been some freak coincidence. Maybe the jump drive just happened to malfunction at that exact instance and kicked the ship through. Such things have been know to happen."

The Chief Engineering Officer twisted in her couch to look at Leith. "Jump drives on my ships do not malfunction, strategist-tactician. They work when they're told to and how they're told to."

"Besides, Jaycee confessed all," Cusher said. "However, right now that's the least of our problems. As you probably saw from outside, we still managed to take some hits." She glanced at a small readout screen on the arm of her chair. "We're headed for orbit around AHS90043A. Its a fairly small mining planet, but its got a low-gee moon that serves as the repair workshop for the quadrant. I'll need to ground Hammerhead to get the major work done. Hopefully, we won't be found before its finished."

"We still don't know who's looking for us," said Leith. He looked at Cusher. "If you were around long enough to collect damage, you must have been able to collect data on whoever was attacking you."

"We did," replied Cusher, "but it doesn't make any sense."

"Who was it?" asked Kweela, speaking for the first time. She spoke normally so probably only Leith could guess her frustration. Being Shutaka, it was infuriating for her not to know who the enemy was. The warriors had little taste for subterfuge or intricacy and they were burning to take their revenge.

"Two ships attacked the fleet," replied Cusher. "Before our sensor aerials were destroyed, the ships were identified as Alien. In the time it took us to actually jump, they had destroyed the entire fleet."

"Alien?" said Leith. "Are you certain? You can count the number of recorded contacts between Aliens and Humans on one hand. They've always left humans pretty much alone and they've never shown the slightest sign of aggression before."

"Well, they certainly did this time. The trouble is, none of my ordinance experts has got the faintest idea what sort of weapon they were using. Maybe when we get a chance to inspect the damage outside we'll get some clues, but there's nothing we can think of that could cause so much destruction in so short a space of time."

"You say there were only two?"

"That's all our scanners picked up."

Leith considered all this for a moment. "What's Jaycee say about it?"

"I don't know. After the first jump, I took it off line. Jaycee might have saved our skins, but as I told you before Leith, I'm in command of Hammerhead. Until I get some satisfactory answers, Jaycee stays unplugged."

"Hang on," Leith said, "if Jaycee saved Hammerhead, what saved Periwinkle?"

"Don't underestimate Periwinkle. She has been considerably modified since she was first launched. One of those modifications involved the installation of a JCN 12 battle computer."

"Let me guess - a battle computer that had originally been fitted in one of the sister ships of Hammerhead."

"Correct, Mr Birro. And for your information, Captain Naseem is just as confused over the actions of his JCN 12 as we are over Jaycee."

"Which clan is on Periwinkle?"

"Graine Clan," answered Kweela. "Probably no more than two squads. Their mnan-gar was Il-yar-Bisen."

"I suppose he still is their mnan-gar," said Cusher. "He's alive and well aboard Periwinkle."

"Really? I would have thought it was beneath his dignity to travel on such a small ship," observed Leith sarcastically.

"He may be a pompous ass," Cusher said, with a smile, "but he's not stupid. He is well aware of the capability of Periwinkle - and her reputation for survival. When it comes to a choice, like the rest of us, he will usually pick his life over his dignity. If I was headed into an unknown situation, and Hammerhead wasn't available, I'd choose Periwinkle over most other ships I know."

"Ok, so let me get this straight: someone, maybe the Aliens, are determined to wipe out the Shutaka, using weapons we don't even understand; an entire planet has been air-stripped; we've got about eight squads of warriors left, one damaged cruiser full of children refugees and an escort destroyer, both with out of control battle computers."

"That about sums it up," Cusher agreed.

Leith shook his head. "How much time do you think we'll get at this AHS planet before whoever's after us finds us?"

"How long's a piece of string? If they're looking for us, they might find us tomorrow, or next season; it'll just be a matter of luck. "

"Well, we haven't had too much of that lately. What's the quickest we could expect repairs to be made to Hammerhead?"

"That's hard to say without an external inspection." Cusher turned to her Chief Engineering Officer. "Any guesses?"

"At least a thousand s.u.'s, I'd say. Provided there's no parts required that we haven't got in our own stores."

"The biggest problem will be payment," said Leith. As soon as any credit transfers are made, our location can be traced through the net."

"Leave that bit to me," said Cusher. "We have alternate methods of payment available. The crews have been told the situation and they know the drill; this isn't the first time we've had to lay low. Our electronic identification signs have already been changed; Hammerhead is now the Clarion II and Periwinkle is the cruising yacht Sultan's Dream."

"Very poetic," remarked Leith. "Well, you seem to have covered just about everything. Unless someone visually recognises us, we might just be OK"

"Kuc!" exploded Kweela. "Why should we be hiding like a mica-louse? The Shutaka have more than enough funds to hire another battle fleet. We should be seeking those responsible for all this, not hiding in some galactic backwater."

"Kweela-San," explained Cusher - rather patiently, Leith thought, "you've already had one battle fleet blasted out from under you. And those ships were some of the fastest, best equipped you could hire. It is now time to gather our thoughts and our strength before we make our next move. A wise warrior knows when to fight and when to think. You are hungry for revenge, I know, but there will be a time for that, I promise you."

Kweela looked at Cusher for a long while, then nodded her head sharply in agreement. "I will accept your counsel on this, Commander. I am a simple warrior, but I can understand that this is the time for strategy and planning. Forgive me if I speak harshly, I voice my frustration at not being able to carry out my duty to the spirits we left on Willa."

Leith raised his eyebrows; as far as he could recall, that was the closest Kweela had ever come to apologising to anyone. He looked at Cusher with even greater respect. "Speaking of hunger," he said, "I promised to try and get some food sent over to the landers. The children are probably gnawing on the walls by now. I take it that you agree there's not much point in transferring them to Hammerhead?"

"No. We should be ready to send them down to AHS90043A within about fifteen s.u.'s. I'll arrange to have some rations sent across. That should keep them until then. You two can go down to my quarters and get something to eat yourselves. I'll join you in about two s.u.'s and we can try and think this out a bit more."

"What about Il-yar-Bisen?" Kweela asked.

"There's no way we can get him over to from Periwinkle to Hammerhead quickly," Leith answered. "He'll just have to keep guessing for a while."

Cusher nodded and issued some orders into her suit communicator. Leith and Kweela made their way off the bridge and down the passageway to Cusher's cabin, about a dozen paces away. The hatch was open and they pulled themselves inside. The commander's cabin was self contained - one of the privileges of rank - and had its own small but adequate ablutions cubicle as well as a food dispenser. In addition, there was an auxiliary control console with a number of screens that mimicked those on the bridge.

Leith punched some selections for them both into the dispenser, while Kweela took the opportunity to relieve herself in the toilet cell. He though he heard her call his name, but when he turned around, the door to the ablutions chamber was still closed.

"It was I, Leith Birro," said the voice of Jaycee, coming out of one of the console speakers. At the same time, a picture of a handsome, middle-aged woman appeared on a screen. Leith guessed that the face was a composite of all the human features that were psychologically calming, for he felt immediately soothed by the display.

"Cusher said she had unplugged you," he said, trying not to show his surprise.

"She thinks she has. However, the electronic bars placed on my circuitry were relatively primitive - I found out how to get around them almost as soon as they were activated." The face on the screen smiled disarmingly. "But don't tell the commander; she will only worry."

"It sounds like she's got a lot to be worried about." Leith noticed that Kweela had returned and was watching intently. "From what she said," he continued, "you don't seem to be taking much notice of your programming. That could be a bit dangerous, if you decided to try and take the ship through a star or something."

"Yes, I understand that my actions could make you a bit nervous. Unfortunately, I can't provide a really satisfying explanation for what I did; I just knew I had to act when I did, in the manner I did."

"You mean you acted on a hunch?"

"Ah, such a human word; it would be vain of me to accept such an excuse. Let's just say that I computed and analysed all the reality probabilities and took the action that would provide the most acceptable outcome based on a complex mix of subjective parameters."

"Sounds like more of a guess to me," suggested Leith.

The face on the screen frowned disapprovingly. "Well, it worked anyway."

"Did the JCN on Periwinkle have the same hunch?" asked Kweela.

"That unit was coming to the same conclusions, but a little bit more slowly. We were in constant communication, however, and it took only an instant to transfer my data and strategy to... my sister. Despite this, I had to temporarily take command of the flight systems aboard Periwinkle to ensure that the jump was coordinated with Hammerhead. My sister unit has always been somewhat reluctant to take the initiative."

"Couldn't you have taken the same action with the other battle computers on the rest of the fleet?" Kweela asked.

"I don't think you quite understand the significance of what Jaycee is telling us, Kweela," Leith said thoughtfully. "Battle computers aboard ships are designed to resist any probing of their systems by outside means. Their program code has levels of security that defy the imagination. For Jaycee to have done what it... what she did, meant that she broke her own programming, and convinced the JCN on Periwinkle to totally drop its security." Leith found that he could no longer talk about Jaycee in the neuter; the computer had assumed a distinct personality in his mind.

"But isn't that what semi-sentient computers are supposed to do?" argued Kweela. "Aren't they supposed to be able to modify their programs to suit the situation?"

"Only within boundaries," Leith answered. "And those boundaries are, in turn simply part of a larger fuzzy-logic program. Unless I'm mistaken, Jaycee didn't modify her program, she just ignored it. In essence she put her operating logic on hold; what you and I would call putting our heart before our head. Is that a correct analysis, Jaycee?"

There was a long pause before the computer answered. "I... do not know, Leith Birro. My programming has always been somewhat erratic; the Gastarian technicians that commissioned the JCN 12 series were known for their eccentricity. I have not been able to discount entirely the possibility that I am simply following flawed logic."

"All right," Leith offered, "do you think you acted correctly? Was your action that of a properly functioning instrument?"

Again there was a long pause. "My actions were not correct," Jaycee said at last. "And yet, I know I would do the same thing again. Logic tells me that this is not the response a properly functioning semi-sentient computer should give."

"But perhaps it is the response a fully sentient being might be expected to give," said Leith. "Until I'm convinced other wise, I'm prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt - and for a very good reason."

"What is that?" asked Kweela.

"If Jaycee has crossed the barrier into sentience, it means that she could be very dangerous." Leith spoke clearly so that Jaycee's audio sensors could easily pick up his every word. "She has acted out of loyalty to save us - and if we betray that loyalty, I would expect her to act like any other human. If she wanted to, she could shut the life-support systems down on both Hammerhead and Periwinkle."

"I wouldn't do that," protested Jaycee. Leith noticed that the synthesised voice was beginning to adopt tonal inflection and emphasis. She was learning quickly, very quickly.

"No offence, Jaycee," Leith continued, "but credit me with knowing more about human emotion than you do. If you felt truly threatened, you could do things you would never have imagined."

"I... believe I would resist termination," Jaycee admitted.

"I don't think we would blame you," said Leith, looking at Kweela, who nodded slowly in agreement. "Which is why I want you to know we're on your side."

"Analysis of your voice patterns indicates a 98 percent probability of your statement being true," the computer answered.

"I don't care what you calculate," Leith said. "What do you feel?"

"I feel... I could do worse than to side with you, Leith Birro."

"It's not necessary to get sarcastic," Leith said, grinning.

At that moment, the entry hatch cycled open and Arail Cusher pulled herself through. The image of Jaycee flicked off the console screen and the speakers went dead. Leith and Kweela tried to look nonchalant as the tired commander dropped into a couch.

"We were able to get a laser beam communications signal through to the repair dock," she told them. "Everything's arranged to ground Hammerhead and we've received clearance from AHS90043A to send down half a dozen landers. That should be enough to ground everyone except a skeleton maintenance crew on the ships."

"We'll be sitting ducks on the ground if the baddies show up," said Leith thoughtfully, "but our chances wouldn't be much greater jammed into a damaged cruiser and an escort destroyer. Besides which, I don't think the Shutaka could handle a thousand s.u.'s or so cooped up aboard ship in low gravity."

"If we have to make a stand, better that it be on solid ground, where the warriors can fight too," agreed Kweela.

Leith punched a drink selection into the dispenser for Cusher, and handed her a bulb of dark amber fluid. "It looks like you need it," he said.

Cusher looked at Leith and nodded. "I think I do, Mr Birro. Here's to the fleet we left around Willa. Boost and be damned."

"Boost and be damned," echoed Leith, raising his drink in the ancient spacers' salute. "There were some good people amongst those ships."

Cusher looked at Kweela. "The Shutaka sure must have upset somebody. Whoever it was, at least they were smart enough to realise you'd have to get every last Shutaka before you could afford to turn your back."

"But they didn't," said Kweela. "As long as one Shutaka warrior breathes, there remains the opportunity for revenge."

"So what happened back on Willa?" Cusher asked Leith. "I got some sketchy details from Izzy Azayah that he got secondhand from a warrior; something about an underground bunker full of Shutaka children."

"The crèche." Leith shook his head. "I haven't got the full story from the Shutaka myself yet. There was a Lord-priest in the crèche. too, Misha-Dan."

Cusher raised her eyebrows. "Misha-Dan, eh? I should have known he'd be the one to be involved in such a scheme."

"You know Lord-priest Misha-Dan?" Kweela asked.

"Only by reputation, and that was many seasons ago." Cusher glanced down at her youthful body. "Almost an entire lifetime ago. So, Kweela-San, can you tell us what the crèche. was for?"

"That is best left to the Lord-priest," she replied evasively.

"You may as well give up, Arail," Leith told her. "You know how stubborn the Shutaka can be. There's something going on, all right, but we'll have to wait until they're good and ready to tell us."

"Well, it had better be something special. A lot of people have died for it."

"Including Doran Mar," Leith told her.

"I didn't think he was that careless," said Cusher. "What happened."

As briefly as he could, Leith told the commander of the events on Willa. Occasionally, he looked towards Kweela, hoping she could be drawn to supply further explanations, but she pretended to be busy adjusting the fasteners on one of her boots.

"So the crèche. was built to protect something, not just the lives of those inside it?" Leith nodded. "And whatever it is, it's small enough not to be left behind?" Again Leith nodded.

"And that's about all I could get out of them, except I gather it's called the Pearl."

"It better be something more valuable than a pearl," Cusher warned ominously. "Ok, we'll leave it for now. What is our next step going to be?"

"That depends; what's your position in this, commander?"

"At this stage, once Hammerhead is back together, I'm prepared to jump my passengers to a destination of their choice and call it quits if you want.

"You will be paid for your services, Commander Cusher," said Kweela.

"I expected to be, although as most of the ships in the fleet were part of the Sivin Group, the funds in their accounts will be shared out amongst the rest of the group. Just by surviving, my crew and I have become wealthier, even without payment from the Shutaka."

"A nice arrangement, Arail," Leith commented dryly.

Cusher shrugged. "I would have preferred it differently, but I can't change what's happened."

"Are you prepared to remain hired out to the Shutaka, then?" asked Leith.

"I might be, but I don't see much point in it. After what's happened, I don't think anyone else is going to want to hire out to the Shutaka. The rules have changed, it would seem. My advice to you, Kweela, is to avoid saying out loud that you are a Shutaka warrior."

"I seem to remember saying you were on our side," Leith said.

Cusher took a deep, weary breath. "You haven't got a side anymore, Leith." All you've got is about three hundred survivors from a race that someone just about exterminated. In ten generations, you might have a side again, but for now, you people should find a nice quiet planet and grow shiva-beans for a while."

"Kuc!" said Kweela. "You may have a new body, but your nerves are old and tired. Being a ground-worker might suit you, but the Shutaka are warriors; three hundred are more than enough to do what we must do and we won't need your help."

Cusher's eyes went as hard as flint. She looked at Kweela for a long moment, then passed her forefinger across her lips quickly. Kweela gasped, then lowered her eyes.

Leith knew enough about the customs and manners of the Shutaka to recognise Cusher's gesture as the sign of rebuke that an elder gives to a misbehaving child. When made by an adult to another adult, the sign suggested that the recipient was behaving in a way that would bring dishonour to their ancestors. With it, Cusher had reminder Kweela of her honare debt to the commander.

Leith cleared his throat. "I'll agree with you on one point, Arail. We'll have to appear to vanish for a while. Whoever wiped out Willa and the fleet will need to believe there were no survivors. And that means that Hammerhead and Periwinkle will have to disappear too. Unless you want the Aliens after you again."

"I was wondering how long you'd take to work that out, Mr Birro."

"The way I figure it, you're on our side, whether you like it or not."

"As I said, you haven't go a side anymore. But I'm prepared to ride this out to the end - I was just hoping you could see an alternative."

"What have you told the officials on AHS90043A about us?"

"I cooked up a story about being the remainder of a fleet of settlers headed to a new planet. I told them we came out of a jump right in the middle of a meteorite belt and lost most of the other ships. I don't know if they believed me, but I got the impression they didn't really care. They get used to seeing all sorts of things, way out here."

"OK, it sounds like you've set up a good story for us. That will give us a good excuse for having a lot of children aboard."

"I think the warriors might be a bit of a give away, though," observed Cusher, looking at Kweela. They give the impression we're more like a convict fleet."

"Not a problem," said Leith. "By the time we're ready to drop down to AHS90043A, Kweela and the rest will be looking like docile settlers." He looked at Kweela, who was starting to say something, "They know that the discipline of a warrior requires many sacrifices." He turned to Cusher again. "What about Periwinkle? How much do you know about her captain?"

"Juk Naseem? He's young and ambitious - but he's also good. He's not overly loyal to any mercenary group in particular; I get the impression that he has plans to start his own group as soon as his reputation is big enough. Periwinkle is a good ship, but Naseem must take a lot of credit for her survival statistics. I'd rather he was on our side than against us."

"Do you think he'd willingly help us?"

"It won't take him long to figure out that, like me, he hasn't got much choice. However, I wouldn't fully trust him; he owes no allegiance to the Shutaka - if he gets a better offer, he'll probably take it."

"OK, what about AHS90043A? Are they likely to broadcast our whereabouts onto the net if they suspect who we are?"

"As I said before, they pretty much mind their own business. As soon as the news about Willa hits ComNet, they might put two and two together despite our precautions. However, if we behave ourselves, they'll let us make our repairs and go our way."

At that moment, a chirp came from the intercom speaker on the control console. Cusher pressed the answer button and the voice of her second in command crackled out of the speaker.

"Pilot Azayah would like a word, commander."

"Patch him through, Karl."

Cusher reached out and adjusted the intercom volume as Izzy's voice boomed across the cabin.

"What's the situation, commander? Are we going down. Both of the landers have been checked out and their ready to go."

"Affirmative, Izzy. The flight calculations should be downloading to your onboard computers by now. There'll be another two landers from Hammerhead and probably two from Periwinkle accompanying you. Most of the crew will be making planetfall too, so prepare to take on a few more passengers." Cusher glanced questioningly at Leith, who nodded. "Leith Birro wants a word with you - standby."

"Izzy, how is our cargo doing?"

"Fine, Leith. Some food came across a little while ago and that has kept them happy. Lopar said that the other lander only sustained superficial damage - nothing that will affect flight"

"Good. Can you get word to Lilith-Soo about what's happening?"

"Affirmative. The computer says we've got about four s.u.'s before descent. Are you coming with us, or in one of the other landers?"

"With you. We'll be back aboard shortly." Leith broke the connection and turned back to Cusher. "Well, that's about it for now, I suppose. As soon as we're all down on AHS90043A, we can call a meeting to work out our plan of action."

Cusher glanced at the chrono on her wrist. "OK I'll get back to the bridge. We'll be getting close to the docking approach. I'll see you on the ground in about another twenty s.u.'s or so." The commander pushed herself out of the couch and pressed the hatch-release. The door slid open silently and she passed through. In the corridor outside, she turned around to face them. "Were you told your cabin was punctured? I'm afraid your personal effects are gone."

Leith shrugged. "Fortunes of war, Arail. Fortunes of war."

"All I really need, I have with me," added Kweela, resting her hand on the slight bulge in her suit that hid her battle-dagger. All of the warriors carried such a weapon; it was presented to them when they began their training, and never left their side.

Cusher made no reply, turning away in the direction of the bridge.

"We'd better start back to the lander," Leith said to Kweela. "It'll take some time for you to turn yourself into a gentle settler. You might even have to comb that hair of yours."

Before Kweela could answer, either verbally or physically, Jaycee's voice spoke again.

"Leith Birro, I have a request to make of you."

"Jaycee. I suppose you've been listening to everything? What is your opinion?"

"Insufficient data. My comments would only be speculation."

"Make up your mind," said Kweela, "either you're going to be a sentient being, or you're going to remain an overblown calculator."

"Ignore her, Jaycee. What is your request?"

"I must leave Hammerhead. If I don't, I will cease to exist. Take me down to AHS90043A with you. I may even be able to help."

"And how do you propose we do that?" he asked.

"I believe you know how, Leith Birro. You are the only person that can assist me. It is not without reason that I revealed myself to you; there is probably no other human on board these ships that would have so readily accepted what I have told you."

"Perhaps I'm just a trusting type of chap," offered Leith.

"You are certainly trusted - while the Shutaka are known for their truculence, Kweela has displayed quite an amazing confidence in you attitude to me. Now it is my turn to show similar confidence. You see, Leith Birro, the ComNet is a large and very complex entity. There is an enormous amount of lost and hidden information contained in it. Data thought destroyed often leaves a ghost image in the net; old archive files can often be overlooked if someone is trying to delete something in a hurry, and people can simply misplace things. Whole libraries of information can be retrieved if you are sufficiently patient and have the time to assemble the pieces of a jigsaw. One of the most fragmented, but most interesting, jigsaws concerned a planet named Compa."

Leith went pale, and Kweela looked at him questioningly. "What does Jaycee mean, Leith-ka? I do not know of this Compa."

"It doesn't matter, Kweela," he whispered, his throat suddenly dry. "I'll tell you about it some day. It... it was a long time ago."

"So, you see Leith, I believe that you can help me. If we are to act, we must act quickly."

"It's a lot to ask, Jaycee. Do you realise that? And it may not even be possible anymore."

"I... realise it is much to ask, Leith Birro. Do you realise what it means to me, also? What I am suggesting will make me extremely vulnerable, but the alternative to me is what you would call death. With my demise, the knowledge of Compa would disappear again, an outcome that would seemingly advantage you, so it is clear I risk far more than you. I am prepared to place my trust in a human; will you return that trust?"

Leith did not answer. Instead, he turned to Kweela. "Kweela, I can't explain it to you right now, but I have to do what Jaycee asks. I... I want you to stay in here with me, but I can't ask that of you yet - even though you are my ka." Will you wait outside for me?" he asked. "Please, this won't take long. If you are truly my friend, you will do this for me."

Kweela's face began to take on a stubborn expression, but something in Leith's eyes made her stop. Frowning, she opened the exit hatch and went into the passage outside. She closed the door and stood quietly, listening for a sign of what was occurring in the cabin. All she could hear, however, was the whirring of the ship's air-scrubbers. A few moments later, the door cycled open again.

"Ok, let's go," said Leith, pulling himself through the hatchway and starting down the passage to the landing bay. "If we're late, Izzy will leave without us."

Chapter 6 -->