The Pearl - Chapter 7

The inhabitants of AHS90043A called it The Rock. Looking out of the clearsteel window in one of the accommodation domes Leith could see why. The planet was habitable, but only just. Sparse, thorny vegetation was scattered over the dry, cracked landscape. Large geological formations jutted towards the sky, casting deep shadows from the twin white suns blazing overhead. Everything was covered in a thin layer of the red-grey dust that was constantly being blown about by gusts of wind. Even the miners who worked deep below the surface gouging out precious metals from the planet's core had begun to take on a reddish hue, as if they had been stained by the rock itself. The domes were sealed against the external atmosphere, which was breathable if you had no other choice, but the dust seemed to get in nevertheless.

The manager of the settlement, a large jovial man named Peerson, had welcomed them with few questions. The people who mined the outer planets were a quite, solid lot. They usually took visitors at face value; as long as you didn't bother them, they wouldn't bother you. After asking what their needs were, he had shown them to one of the large storage domes, which could also serve as emergency accommodation when necessary. It was spartan, but was clean and had access to ablution facilities. Peerson had informed them of the daily routine at the settlement, and then had left them to their own devices.

Leith turned away from the window. He looked around the makeshift barracks and noted with satisfaction that the warriors had already settled in. The children were scattered at random among the adults and he knew from experience that temporary family groups had already occurred; the Shutaka customs would ensure that each and every child would be cared for.

Lilith-Soo and her warriors had arranged their sleeping cots in the western quadrant of the dome, along with the two Shutaka squads from the Periwinkle. Leith, Kweela and the rest of the warriors were billeted in the opposite quadrant, leaving a clear space in the middle where most of the smaller children were now playing boisterously. Il-yar-Bisen and his battle-kin were not in the Barracks; he had demanded that Peerson provide him with accommodation more befitting his perceived status, and the manager had accordingly obliged. The Harkarian had only spoken a few words to Leith since arriving on AHS90043A. He was obviously unimpressed with Leith's defacto command of the Shutaka and went out of his way to be unapproachable. Leith had too much on his mind to worry about the vain mnan-gar and left him to sulk on his own.

"He has great talent, but he is still a small man inside."

Leith turned to see Jor-Dak standing beside him. He smiled at the young Keeper.

"You knew I was thinking about Il-yar-Bisen?"

The young man smiled back. "It was not too difficult; anybody could see that there is little love lost between you and he. It is not good that a mnan-gar does not billet with his warriors. He should be in front of them, but not above them."

"All mnan-gar are different, Jor. Whatever their style, they must still earn the respect of their warriors. Il-yar-Bisen has proven himself in battle to the satisfaction of the Graine Clan." He shrugged, then changed the subject. "Besides, at the moment we are supposed to be settlers, not warriors. Have you bunked down yet?"

"I have taken the liberty of placing our cots near yours, mnan-gar." He pointed to where Kisa-Mara and Krys-Tian were sitting on a stretcher, the older girl combing Krys' long auburn hair with a zrs-shell brush. "I hope it does not cause offence."

"You're more than welcome, ni-klor," Leith assured him, addressing Jor as he would any other Priest-initiate.

The boy shook his head. "I am not destined for the Priest-hood, mnan-gar. As a Keeper, that honour is denied me."

"Is not a Keeper just as honourable? To hear Misha-Dan talk, I would have guessed that you have been given a most important task."

"Perhaps, but it is not of my choosing. It is a lonely task; the other men of the Shutaka do not see me as one of them; just as the warriors distance themselves from Kisa and Krys."

"From what I've seen, they treat you with the utmost respect - almost with awe."

"That is the point, mnan-gar. I have been bred and trained for a specific task. My people do not see me as ordinary, when I am just that. I long to do ordinary thing, just like the others, but..." The boy shrugged. "When I was younger, I read everything there was to read in the Crèche. I dreamed of being a Priest. Misha-Dan would tell me of the rituals, and the ceremonies, and the sharing of the ancient stories. I so much wanted to belong, to feel part of the people around me. Even the other men of the Shutaka, the non-Priests, share the brotherhood of working the land, harvesting the crops and tending the animals. This is forever denied me; I am forever bonded with Kisa and Krys."

Leith looked at Jor-Dak. He was just a boy, but he looked as if he had the weight of the universe on his shoulders. "Don't you get on with Kisa and Krys? I know girls can be a bit trying, but they get more interesting when they get older, you know."

"It's not that, mnan-gar." Jor looked at Leith with something approaching desperation. "I love those two with every fibre of my body; my life is as much theirs as it is mine. It's just..." He broke off and turned away. When he turned back, he had regained his composure. "I'm am sorry Leith-mnan-gar. You have more important things to worry about than the wishes of a man-child. I thank you for having the patience to listen to me."

Before Leith could answer Jor, to reassure him that he wanted to know what was bothering him, Kweela walked over and announced that Commander Cusher had just arrived down from Hammerhead.

"Ok, Kweela. Peerson has arranged separate accommodation for the ship crews. Give Cusher a little while to settle in and then get a message to her that I've arranged a room where we can hold a planning meeting."

"Who else is invited?"

"Il-yar Bisen and his ka, Lilith-Soo, Misha-Dan, you and me."

"And Belle."


"Yes, Belle."

"OK, you must have a good reason. Anyway, she's got a good head on her shoulders and we're going to need all the ideas we can get. While you're arranging things, can you get Marion Tibrigaragan to give the children a complete bio-scan? They've been through a pretty rough time and I want to be sure they're not suffering any ill effects - either physically or emotionally."

Kweela nodded and went to carry out Leith's instructions. The strategist-tactician turned back to Jor, but the lad had returned to the other two Keepers. He thought of going over to the boy, but instead turned back to look out the window at the bleak landscape of The Rock.

Five s.u.'s later, Leith and Kweela were in a small chamber that Peerson had made available as a meeting room, off one of the larger domes. Cusher and Belle arrived not long after them, followed by Il-yar-Bisen and his battle-kin, Shira-Ti. Shira and Kweela greeted each other formally, then hugged warmly.

"I am glad you are well, Kweela-San of Banara. The Shutaka have lost too many good warriors already."

"They shall rest in peace knowing that warriors such as you remain to avenge them, Shira-Ti of Graine."

Il-yar-Bisen looked curiously at Belle, his demeanor questioning her presence, but he remained silent.

The intercom beeped, announcing the arrival of Lilith-Soo and Misha-Dan in the corridor outside. Cusher cycled the access hatch and the two Shutaka entered, followed by Kisa-Mara, Jor-Dak and Krys-Tian.

"The Keepers insisted," said Misha-Dan, by way of explanation. "In the circumstances, I believe it appropriate that they be included in any decisions we intend making."

"Who are these children?" Cusher asked. Leith knew that a commander of Cusher's experience would be used to being in control of a situation and must be increasingly frustrated to see events slipping out of her grasp.

"Sorry, Arail," he explained as diplomatically as he could. "There's no time for a full explanation - not that I fully understand myself - but these are no ordinary children. I think we should go along with what Misha-Dan suggests."

The commander frowned deeply, but said nothing more. It was quite a tight fit in the room for the eight of them, but the three children sat on the floor near the hatch and the others found a seat where they could.

"All right," said Leith. "To bring everyone up to date; we're all that's left of the Shutaka - the fleet was destroyed around Willa. Hammerhead and Periwinkle were the only survivors. We don't know for sure, but we think that the Aliens are somehow involved." He paused to let the others absorb the news fully.

"At the moment, we're sheltering on a mining planet out the back of beyond. We'll be stuck here until Hammerhead is tidied up, which should take about a thousand s.u.'s. What we need to do now is get our stories straight and rough out a plan of action. First of all, Misha-Dan what have you to say about this situation? You were all very coy on Willa, but with respect, this is no time for games. We need to know what you know."

The Lord-priest nodded in agreement. "Yes, you are correct, Leith Birro; this is no time for games. As you suggested, the Keepers of the Pearl are no ordinary children."

"The keepers of the what?" interrupted Cusher.

Misha-Dan turned towards her. "The Pearl, commander. The crèche on Willa was designed for a very special purpose: to rear selected Shutaka children who would be suitable to become Keepers - Keepers of the Pearl."

"But what is this 'pearl'?"

"Ah..." said Misha-Dan. "Where to begin?" He looked at the four non-Shutaka in turn. "I am faced with a difficult choice. What I must tell you has only ever been told to full warriors and Lord-priests. The information forms part of the ritual of Becoming; once you know it, to reveal the secret to other is to forfeit your life. Is it fair and just for me to place such a condition upon you?"

"Is there any alternative, Misha-Dan?" Leith asked.

"I have seen into your mind, mnan-gar, and so I know your ability to keep a secret. But what of the others here?"

"I will vouch for Il-yar-Bisen," said Shira-Ti. "On my life and his."

"You have the word of a Harkarian," said the strategist-tactician haughtily.

Leith thought he saw a look of amusement flash across the Lord-priest's face. "Indeed," he said. "I do not doubt your word, mnan-gar - nor should you doubt that of your ka." The old man turned to Belle and Cusher. "But what of our other reluctant comrades?"

"I vouch for Belle Morninglight-on-Brook," said Kweela and Leith realised that it was the first time he had heard Belle's full name. "Although a member of the Guild of Black needs no one to speak for them," Kweela added.

Misha-Dan said nothing, but he looked at the fairy-like woman with a new respect. Finally, he nodded. "Very well, that leaves Commander Cusher. Of her I am least certain; I find it difficult to trust readily in the volatility of youth. It is perhaps the bias of an old man, but..." He glanced at Kweela, "the naive energy of youth erodes the fortress of silence."

Before Leith could correct Misha-Dan's apparent misunderstanding, Cusher spoke. "Lord-priest, while you were still suckling at the breast of your wet-nurse, I was commanding a starship. I have outlived all of my enemies and most of my friends. There are secrets in my mind that I will take to my grave, including why I risked my ship and crew to help the Shutaka. If you are worried about loose tongues, look to your own."

Misha-Dan held out his hands, palms upwards, and inclined his head in acceptance. "No insult intended, Commander. I see know that your youthful beauty is tempered with the even greater beauty of worldly experience. If I have your word, I will accept it."

Cusher's anger faded in the face of Misha-Dan's oblique compliment and Leith smiled to himself; the Lord-priest was adept at drawing from people responses that showed their true feelings. "I give you my word," Cusher said sincerely.

"Very well, I will begin. Leith Birro, you are from Dione; is it not considered that it was there that the human race began?"

"As you know, Misha, some scholars would argue that Earth is older still. I believe the current accepted wisdom is that the human race is a mix of these two almost identical gene pools. All humans have descended from the original inhabitants of either Dione or Earth."

"Ah yes, the accepted wisdom. Who could reasonably argue with that?" The Lord-priest paused while he inspected the back of his wrinkled hand. "However, it is far from the truth. The original inhabitants of these two planets are old, granted, but they are both descended from a more ancient stock - that of the original Shutaka, who we can the Shutaka-NA. The Shutaka-NA created the Shutaka as a guardians for a special purpose.

As both Leith and Cusher made to say something, he continued, "Hear me out, my friends. There is much more to come that will test your beliefs. The full history of the Shutaka goes back over three million seasons before the first recorded events on either Earth or Dione. Both of those planets were seeded by the ancient Shutaka-NA as an experiment."

"What sort of experiment?" Leith asked.

"Experiment is perhaps the wrong word. The colonisation was more of a precautionary plan to guard against events such as we face now. It was accepted that the Shutaka-NA, as a race, could be threatened with extinction - by either natural or artificial means. The colonies on Dione and Earth were to ensure that the gene pool continued. Unfortunately, something went wrong on both planets; the genetic purity was destroyed and racial variants developed that possessed, in total, the required Shutaka-NA characteristics, but individually no genetic memory of the Shutaka-NA purpose. Nevertheless, they were strong races themselves and subsequently colonised the rest of the known worlds."

"You mean," said Leith slowly, "that all humans are, in fact, descended from the Shutaka-NA."

"Theoretically, yes, although some of the human races have mutated and evolved further." Misha-Dan indicated the other Shutaka in the room. "Those of us you now know as the Shutaka are the purest descendants of the Shutaka-NA priest-warriors.

"You said something about the Shutaka-NA purpose. What is that?" asked Cusher.

"Once again, a necessary simplification on my part," said Misha-Dan. "Much has been lost to our collective memory. Then as now, the ancient Shutaka were specialised guardians whose purpose is to preserve and protect the Pearl. We can only surmise what life was like for the Shutaka-NA. Our historians have determined that they were a powerful people, and yet they were at peace with their surroundings and themselves. You, Leith Birro, have experienced some of the residual powers that the Shutaka currently possess; can you imagine what the Shutaka-NA could do?"

"I'm not sure I want to. But if this is true, why hasn't the genetic link been recognised between the Shutaka and the races on Earth and Dione, whose genetic makeup is well known. It would have been a tedious, but relatively simple, process to map the genetic permutations of the combined Earth-Dione gene pools on to the genetic print of the Shutaka. That's the sort of research that bio-techs do in their first season of study. Are you telling me that no one has discovered this before?"

"It may surprise you to know, Leith Birro, that the genetic print of the Shutaka has been as closely guarded as our history. Many of our customs and rituals may seem less strange to you now; this is why we ensured that our fallen warriors were returned to Willa, why we forbid childbearing relationships with other races and why our teaching academies have resisted working with other learning institutions. To the best of our knowledge, not one autopsy, medical test or treatment has been performed on a Shutaka over which we have not had total control. Your medic for instance, Marion Tibrigaragan, is watched carefully by her Shutaka assistants, even though her loyalty to the Shutaka is unquestioned. And each Shutaka would prefer to die through lack of medical attention rather than risk our secrets be known."

"But what is the Pearl, and where does it fit into all this?"

"I'm sorry if I seem to be procrastinating," Misha-Dan said. "It is just that a description of the Pearl does not easily form into words. The reason it is so important that the Shutaka genetic pool remains untainted is that this is where the memory of our purpose exists. As I said, the Shutaka-NA created the Shutaka to protect the Pearl. In every pure Shutaka is the ability to recognise the Pearl and understand the powerful forces generated. The Shutaka themselves have, down the generations, divided into two specialised groups; the Priesthood and the Warriors. The Priesthood is dedicated to the study and understanding of the Pearl, while the warriors have become expert in the physical skills necessary to protect the Pearl should more sophisticated means fail. That the Shutaka warriors became mercenaries was simply the most effective way of ensuring those skills remained tuned."

"If the Pearl is so powerful, why does it need protection?" Cusher asked.

The Lord-priest paused, frowning, as he tried to find words with which to express himself. "The Pearl," he said, finally, "possesses no great power; rather power is generated through the Pearl. The analogy taught to the Shutaka is to consider the Pearl as you would a balance-scale; the type you might see in a apothecary or precious-stone merchant's workroom. Such a scale has little value on its own, but through it forces can be transferred and balanced. If you had a large enough scale, you could compare the weights of two planets. As a scale, the Pearl could weigh reality itself."

"Is this explanation supposed to be helping?" asked Leith.

Misha-Dan sighed and smiled apologetically. "I am sorry, my friend. You are pure-stock Dione, so it should be more understandable to you than another person whose race is further removed from the Shutaka gene pool. However, these are concepts that challenge your perception of reality, and I know they must be difficult to accept. I ask you to bear with me and keep your mind open."

"Let me try, my Lord," said Lilith-Soo. "First of all, Leith Birro, we have to get the concept of balance clear. The balance-scale analogy is used for good reason, for balance is what we are talking about. All around us we see the balancing of opposing concepts. Human language, religion, politics and art; they are all full of the balance and the contrast between opposites. We have abstract concepts for in-between states, but when our minds try to grasp these concepts, we are deflected to one of the extreme states. Let me give you some examples; we define something as hard or soft. Now we might have words and concepts for in-between states, but do we accept them in reality? If I gave you a piece of lora-bread and asked you how it felt, you would say soft. You wouldn't describe it as sort-of-soft. Likewise, if I gave you the blade of my sword, you would say it was hard. We can make comparisons, certainly - the steel is harder than a piece of wood, which is harder than the piece of bread, but, in isolation, we assign extreme states to an object or any other aspect of reality. There is a dividing line, or a point, past which an object of reality possesses either one set of characteristics, or the opposite. Every word in every human language that describes a characteristic of reality has a word that describes an opposite characteristic."

"But that is just a simplification," argued Cusher. "Like fundamentalist religions that say there is only good or evil. They are just relative human terms to describe the reality we see."

"I am not suggesting otherwise," Lilith continued. "There could be actual states in-between the extremes to which we gravitate, but that is an alternate reality. Can you imaging something that is neither hard or soft - without making a comparison between a known hard object and a known soft object? We can accept in the abstract, but try to bring it into our mind's reality... There could be an infinite number of alternate realities for all we know, but what use is it to discuss them when they are not available to us. What we must concentrate on is the human state that we experience, not the possibilities that may exist."

"OK, accepting your concept of balance and extremes," said Leith. "Where does the Pearl fit in?"

"In essence," Misha-Dan continued, "the Pearl is the balance-scale through which the extremes of the human existence flows. This allows some measure of harmony to exist and a mechanism for human suffering to be alleviated by happiness."

"And how did the Pearl come about. Are you suggesting that the Shutaka-NA created it?"

"No, no, forgive me if I gave that impression. Part of the confusion is that we talk about the Pearl as if it was a physical object. Certainly it manifests itself in our physical reality, but it is more like a force itself. To be truthful, the exact nature of the Pearl is not known; that is why the Priesthood studies it so intently. We understand it to be related to the existence of sentient life - or more specifically sentient human life - but we do not know whether it was the cause of sentience, or it was formed out of the collective existence of sentient human beings."

"But why," asked Leith, "has it fallen upon the human race, or rather the Shutaka to protect the Pearl? If it is some sort of elemental force, surely, it can look after itself. If it is so important, it seems strange that it is so vulnerable."

"Indeed. I have no good answer for you. Once again, an analogy may help. Imagine our balance-scale again. It is strong in itself; well constructed, and able to function as it was intended. However, it is perched on the edge of an abyss; how it came to be there is unknown, but it is there nevertheless. It needs to be watched carefully so that a careless movement does not topple it over the edge."

"And what would happen if it fell?"

"Who knows for sure? Our understanding and belief is that reality as we know it would cease to exist. What ramifications this has for our souls, let alone our physical presence can only be guessed."

"So they Shutaka are the guardians of the human race?"

"Somewhat melodramatic, but in essence the truth. More specifically, however, it is the Keepers that watch over the Pearl."

"These children?" asked Il-yar-Bisen, speaking for the first time. "Lord-priest, I have known the Shutaka for many seasons and respect your ways and customs, but this is straining credibility too far. You expect me to believe that three children control the fate of all sentient humans."

"Your belief is not absolutely necessary, mnan-gar. The truth of the Pearl will continue to exist without your acceptance; it is not a pagan god that demands worship. All around us are strange and wonderful things. You have traveled, you have studied at the great Korvar Institute on Harkar; have you not had to come to terms with things even more unbelievable than this? What is so difficult to comprehend - that you have had one of the secrets of existence revealed to you and it is perhaps a bit too ordinary?"

Il-yar Bisen could think of nothing to say, so he just sat there scowling.

"Where is the Pearl now?" asked Leith.

"What colour is red?" said Krys-Tian, unable to contain herself any longer. "The Pearl isn't anywhere; it just is. It's quite simple, really." She winced as Kisa-Mara jabbed an elbow into her ribs.

"Forgive her, mnan-gar, for being so impolite. What she means is that the Pearl exists everywhere. The Shutaka can sense it, but the Keepers are bred and trained to interact with the Pearl where it happens to connect with our reality."

"And where is that?"

"I'm afraid that is one of the Keepers' secrets, mnan-gar." The tall girl blushed slightly, as if she was embarrassed to speak in such a manner to a strategist-tactician. "What we can say is that the Pearl's physical appearance can be any real object, from a flower to a raindrop."

"All right, but give me a clue; is it in this room with us?"

"It is the duty of the Keepers," answered Jor-Dak, "to always be within reach of the Pearl. It can be rather unpredictable at times; almost as if had a will of its own."

"So, now you know what all full Shutaka know. And the problem we now face."

"Let's just say, for the moment, that I believe all this," said Cusher. "I still can't understand what it has to do with someone trying to exterminate the Shutaka. I mean, if whoever is responsible for all this knows about the Pearl, what can they hope to gain except the annihilation of everything. From what you've said, they couldn't hope to control the Pearl; it has no power itself and humans themselves can't use it to redirect the flow of events."

Misha-Dan nodded. "You are substantially correct, Commander, although the Keepers do have some ability to influence minor flows through the Pearl. I, also, can not think of a reason why anyone would wish to remove the protection from the Pearl. Perhaps it is just a coincidence; the vendetta against the Shutaka may have nothing to do with the Pearl at all. In any case, we must think a some way to safeguard the Keepers and prevent any disruption of the Pearl's function."

"I'm sure Leith-mnan-gar will think of something," said Kisa-Mara.

Now it was Leith's turn to feel embarrassed. The young girl was looking at him intently, obviously expecting him to come up with an instant solution. He cleared his throat and shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

"Not so fast, Kisa. I can make decisions for the Banara Clan. And perhaps Forta Clan," he added, looking at Lilith-Soo. "But there are others involved here. I have no say over Graine Clan. And Commander Cusher outranks both Il-yar-Bisen and myself. Believe me, a strategist-tactician is a long way down the pecking order on a fighting ship. Anything we decide is probably going to involve Hammerhead, and the Commander is not about to put her crew and ship in danger without some degree of control."

"But you were once a starship commander," said Kisa-Mara. You captained ships three times the size of Hammerhead."

"Karlarc," said Misha-Dan, softly. Leith had never heard the word before, but there was suddenly silence in the room. The Lord-priest turned to Cusher. "Forgive these youngsters, Commander. They do not realise the offence they cause. Indirectly, Leith-mnan-gar reminds us that we are forever indebted to you for our rescue. By your actions you have displayed your skill, courage and, above all, a sense of honare. You have listened to my story of the Pearl, and although you have many doubts, I ask you; will you help us?"

Arail Cusher turned to the old man. She sat very still for a long time, as if she was remembering events of the distant past. "Harti trys nil-ara bstic," she said finally. Leith raised his eyebrows; very few people understood a word of Shutaka let alone could put a fluent sentence together. Cusher made a small gesture with her left hand that Leith had occasionally seen the old people on Willa use.

"A very long time ago," Cusher continued slowly, "I knew a Lord-priest by the name of Neve-Bay. He called me friend, and I called him friend. He often talked of one of his brightest pupils; a young man who displayed knowledge and understanding far beyond his age. Neve-Bay had great hope for this young fellow. He said that there was a place in destiny that had been reserved for him. His only fear was that wisdom would not take the place of knowledge. I see that he had nothing to worry about, Lord-priest Misha-Dan. Does that answer your question?"

"Indeed it does, Commander. And I thank you. I cannot tell you how much pleasure it give me to know that we have shared the companionship of such a person as Neve-Bay. However, I fear I have not lived up to my Master's expectations, after all. I doubt whether he would have allowed the Shutaka to be placed in the present situation."

"It was not Neve-Bay's idea to have the crèche built," said Lilith-Soo. "For that, you must take credit alone. I would say you have more than lived up to his expectations."

"Leith Birro has proved himself as a strategist-tactician many times," Cusher continued. "And we're talking about more than a space-battle here. I'm happy to let him take control of overall planning, as long as I get the final say as far as Hammerhead is concerned."

"My respect for you grows, breath by breath, Arail Cusher," said Misha-Dan. "And what say you, mnan-gar Il-yar-Bisen?"

As Cusher had observed, Il-yar-Bisen was vain but not foolish. He was a good strategist-tactician, but he knew his limitations. He also sensed that this was something big, perhaps too big, and he wanted to keep some options open so he could preserve his own skin.

"I agree to serve with Leith Birro, but not under him. However, I am willing to let him plan the overall strategy in this case."

"It is agreed then," said Lilith. "Leith-mnan-gar, what do you suggest?"

Leith looked around the room at the expectant faces and took a deep breath.

"Well, everything we know seems to suggest that Basra is at the bottom of all. I suggest that all of the active Shutaka clans had been hired by them to undertake a series of basically pointless missions intended to keep them out of the way while Willa was attacked, using the security codes poor Doran had been brianwashed into providing. These missions were neatly timed to be completed just as Willa was stripped, thus giving the Shutaka little time to think before they all rushed back to home base. With all the survivors in orbit and still in shock, one final attack could finish the job."

"Neat analysis, Birro," said Il-yar-Bisen. "Pretty much as I saw it. A sound, if ambitious strategy. Possibly too ambitious for Basra itself - perhaps Basra is acting as a lackey of the Federation."

"A possibility," agreed Leith. "Without the Shutaka forming the backbone of the mercenary strength, things would be much smoother for OREF. But why work through Basra. The Federation could just work this scheme directly."

"The Inner Rim Council likes to pretend it remains civilised," remarked Belle with more than a trace of sarcasm. "They would prefer to keep a discreet distance from an act of genocide."

"I still can't make any sense of the presence of the Alien ships," continued Leith. "They make me think that the Federation has got nothing to do with this. If the Inner Rim had made contact with the Aliens, or even stumbled across functional Alien spacecraft, they couldn't have kept it quite. And they wouldn't have used them like this."

Suddenly, something fell into place in Leith's mind. Some of the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.

"There is a connection between the Aliens and the Pearl," he said with conviction. "I know it. It's got nothing to do with the Federation, and everything to do with Basra." He turned to the Lord-priest. "Misha-Dan, the Shutaka-NA must have had a good reason to create the Guardians of the Pearl - perhaps it was to protect against the Aliens."

"The dangers facing the Pearl have never been specified," relied Misha-Dan. "I know little of the Aliens, but I cannot think of any Shutaka legend that could be interpreted to mean them. This is not to say that your conclusions are not possible."

"If Basra is responsible for Willa, then that is our first destination," said Lilith-Soo. "If we discover that Aliens share the guilt, then they shall also be appropriately rewarded."

Leith looked at the warrior. "Lilith, the remaining Shutaka may be sufficient to initially take Basra, but perhaps not to hold it. If Basra is responsible for Willa, then they have forfeited their own planet to us - that is the way of the Shutaka. However, before we undertake this action we must be sure of two things; that Basra is responsible for Willa and that our strength is such to resist a Basran counterattack - especially if there is the possibility of Alien assistance on the side of the Basrans."

"So first we need information - lots of it - before we launch our attack," said Kweela.

Both Leith and Misha-Dan turned to look at her.

"Leith-ka has had many bad influences on me, my Lord, for which you must accept some responsibility" Kweela said. "The mnan-gar has almost convinced me of the prudence of planning before battle, but know that it still goes against my nature."

There were a few moments of silence before a the Lord-priest gave a deep chuckle and Leith saw a look of pride shining in the old man's eyes.

"Ah, Kweela-San, you may be a warrior yet," Misha-Dan said.

"As Kweela suggested," continued Leith, "We need to gather some intelligence on Basra - both background information as well as the current status."

"Background information?" said Il-yar-Bisen. "what do you want to know?"

"You have knowledge in this area, mnan-gar?" asked Misha-Dan.

"Extensive knowledge, Lord-priest. Basra was once a colony world of Harkar. Twelve hundred seasons ago, it was invaded by Mirradon. Most of the legitimate Basran settlers, my ancestors, were executed with just enough left alive to provide slave labour. The House of Taran, the Imperial Family that now occupies the Citadel of Government, are usurpers. The Citadel is an impenetrable fortress, built over nine-hundred seasons ago, that is the key to Taran’s grip on the planet. It contains the central databases, the treasury, planetary defence systems- everything. From here, the Emperor maintains his control over my people."

"The present ruler, Emperor Willem Taran, enjoys unprecedented popularity. Official statistics show the individual wealth of the average citizen to be among the highest in the Outer Rim. Considering they are a trading merchant planet, their universities produce some fine minds and the standard of health care is superb."

"But although Basra does not officially condone slavery any longer, it still exists in practice by the application of a rigid caste system. Mirradonian Basrans are the only ones afforded Citizen rights and thus the only ones who benefit form the planets prosperity. The official population of Basra is about one hundred thousand - fairly typical among the sparsely populated Outer Rim. But the real population is almost double that. The descendants of the Harkarian colonists who were conquered by the Mirradonians are treated as slaves, even though they are not called that. The Basrans call them Specs - they work in the Basran factories and serve the Citizens but they have no rights whatsoever - no property rights, no access to education, medical facilities or legal redress. If they so much as touch a Citizen, they can be executed without trial. They are forced to live in the most squalid conditions imaginable, without hope and without a future. The official story has Taran as universally adored, when in fact, the majority of the population would tear him to pieces if they were educated enough to realise how they have been treated."

Il-yar-Bisen paused, as if he was suddenly embarrassed to show he cared about someone other than himself. He cleared his throat. "I have been taught everything there is to know about Basra," he continued. "Harkar will not forget what has happened to it's people on it. We do not have many fairy-tales, but one on them tells of how our people on Basra are rescued and brought home to Harkar."

While Il-yar-Bisen had been talking, Leith had been deep in thought.

"We should be able get all the background information about Basra from Il-yar-Bisen or by tapping into the Harkar archives. That leaves us with how we are gong to find out about what's happening on Basra right now. We need to get a spy in there somehow. Cusher, do you think you could arrange for the hiring of a Guild of Black apprentice through Siven contacts? An apprentice should be more than up to the task and hopefully it won't raise too much suspicion."

Before Cusher could answer, Kweela-San spoke. "Leith-mnan-gar, you once told me that a battle is usually lost or won before it is fought, based upon what you know about your enemy. It would seem that we cannot afford to know anything less than everything about Basra. Will your apprentice get within the Basran Citadel?"

"No, Kweela, I wouldn't expect so. We'd need a third at least. But if we try to engage a third-level Guild of Black - even through Siven - it's unlikely to go unnoticed. I think Belle would back me up on that." He looked at the Sorarainian who nodded agreement.

"Why hire a third when we have a sixth?" Kweela simply replied.

"Kweela, I'm a lander pilot," protested Belle gently. "That's all. I signed on with Commander Cusher on the understanding that my flying skills were the only ones she would require of me."

"It is not I who ask this of you, but the Shutaka, and perhaps more importantly, Leith-mnan-gar."

Belle turned her beautiful face to look at Leith and her impossible gold-speckled blue eyes seem to sparkle with a life of their own. Leith found it hard to think. He suddenly realised he was holding his breath let it out slowly.

"Would you truly ask this of me, Leith? If you ask it I will."

Leith's throat was suddenly so dry he could only speak in a whisper. "Belle, I... we need you, but I will not ask this of you. It is too much..."

"By not asking, you have asked in the only true way." Belle's words were like a breeze in Leith's mind. He blinked and the room seemed to jump in and out of focus. The others in the room as if waiting for him to say something - as if they were unaware of the last few moments.

Leith found he could talk normally again. "We need that information, Belle. It is much to ask, but I don't know of anyone else that would have the skills to do it alone."

"Some of my skills I do not wish to use again, Leith." Belle smiled sadly.

"And I'm not asking you to use those, unless it's to save that pretty little neck of yours."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Belle retorted, but obviously pleased.

"Does that mean you'll also take the job?"

Belle looked at Kweela and Leith could only guess the significance of the looks that passed between them.

"Of course," the Sorarainian replied. "Provided Commander Cusher releases me from duty. And Izzy is not going to be happy. He'll have to find another co-pilot in a hurry. But, you have to agree to let me do things my way. You just tell me what you want, when you want it, and leave it at that."

Leith nodded. "I wouldn't begin to tell you your job, Belle. But you also have to promise not to take any risks. You'll probably have half a season, so don't rush things. No information is worth your life."

The tiny woman looked up at Leith with her sparkling eyes. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you actually cared," she smiled.

Leith smiled back. "It's just that you still owe me from that bet we made before the Autaga mission last season. Somebody told me once the Sorarainians are reluctant to let go of their money - now I believe them. OK, while Belle is enjoying the Imperial hospitality, we have to find a way to hide the Shutaka. If someone is looking for us, we'll have to convince them that there were no survivors from Willa."

"How do you hide this lot?" Cusher asked, indicating the warriors. Kweela, Lilith and Shira-Ti had done the best they could to make themselves look like settlers. They had put on some thick overalls from the store on Hammerhead and braided their hair neatly in coils, as was the fashion among Outer Rim settlers. Their weapons were well hidden and they had removed all their decorative jewelry. Even so, they could not disguise their statuesque proportions or the wild aura that seemed to accompany a Shutaka warrior. "They tend to stand out wherever they go," Cusher said.

"That may be a bit of a problem," admitted Leith. "But we'll just have to find a way around it. Perhaps we shouldn't try to hide ourselves too hard. If the Basrans are after us, the least place they'll expect us to be is right under their noses. Why don't we head for a planet reasonably close to Basra. Arail, what would be the most suitable planet?"

"Unaran would probably do; its not too small and, being at a jump nexus, is used to seeing all kinds of travelers. But given that we might be there for a while,we'll need to think up a plausible cover."

"What sort of civilisation does it have?" Belle asked.

Cusher thought for a moment. "I guess the best description would be feudal. It's been over thirty seasons since I was there last, but I suppose it wouldn't have changed too much. The Barons who control the place all belong to one or two families and most of the population is made up of the underclass of overpopulated planets who sold themselves into serfdom to escape their home worlds. It's not as bad as it sounds, though; the Barons are fairly reasonable and everything seems to run quite smoothly. For most of the serfs, their life is many times better than it was on the planet of their birth."

"OK, that's settled," said Leith. "Now, what's going to be our reason for going there?"

Krys-Tian got quickly to her feet. "I," she announced solemnly, "have always thought that I would enjoy being a deity. I think we should start a church on Unaran dedicated to the worship of a child-goddess: me." She sat down again and looked at the adults innocently.

There was complete silence for a moment. Leith looked around the room and saw that, while everyone was a bit startled, no one looked as though they were going to suggest anything better.

"From the mouthes of babes..." he muttered.

"If you think about it, it does make a bit of sense," said Cusher. "A religious crusade will give us an excuse for turning up out of nowhere and an invented religion will disguise any strange behaviour on our part."

"And it also potentially fits in with something else we'll need to do," added Leith. "If we have to take Basra, the Shutaka will be able to handle the main attack, but we will just wont be enough for a full planetary assault. We'll need reinforcements and hiring them on will take quite some time if we don't want to make ourselves too obvious. Any mercenaries we recruit can make their way to Unaran disguised as religious pilgrims. By the time Belle gets the information we need, we should be able to create a secret army and get them familiar with working together."

"That will also give me time to finish the education of the Keepers," said Misha-Dan. It will be at least another season before I am confident that they have the necessary discipline to truly safeguard the Pearl."

"At least Unaran will have the basic necessities of civilisation," Il-yar-Bisen said, with a martyred expression crossing his face. "Despite it's reversion to a feudal system of government, I have heard it still takes advantages of what modern technology delivers."

"And it is within striking distance of Basra," Kweela added, her hand going to rest above the area of her overall that concealed her dagger.

Chapter 8 -->