The Pearl - Chapter 8

The thousand s.u. layover at AHS90043A was put to good use. Hammerhead was back in fighting trim after eight-hundred s.u.'s, but Leith chose to remain on The Rock for another two sleep cycles to flesh out the details of their plans. The planning group, made up of the original members of the first meeting, as well as some of the senior warriors, went over all the potential weaknesses and developed contingency plans. Mostly it was Leith, Cusher and Il-yar-Bisen who did the talking, but the Shutaka were quick to speak up if they thought a suggestion impractical.

Jor-Dak, Kisa-Mara and Krys-Tian also joined them for most of the sessions. Jor-Dak, in particular, listened intently and contributed some keen observations. Leith came to realise that the youngster's quiet nature hid a brilliant and inquiring mind. Jor-Dak did not say much, but when he did, his words were well thought out.

Il-yar-Bisen seemed to mellow slightly as the planning sessions wore on. Leith still thought him a pompous opportunist, but had to admit that his reputation as a brilliant mnan-gar was justified. The Harkarian was less likely to think through the consequences of a plan, but he certainly had flashes of genius. Il-yar-Bisen, for his part, still thought that Leith was an OREF reject, but began to show a grudging respect for the Dionean's natural abilities. Kweela-San and Shira-Ti smiled at each other as they watched their battle-kin argue.

"If Il-yar-ka was not such a vain cruyst," whispered Shira-Ti to Kweela, "he would be almost likable."

"True. And if Leith-ka was not so defensive," Kweela murmured back, "he might even learn something."

Belle had absented herself from their planning sessions after the first meeting, saying she preferred to do things her own way. She found what passed for a library on The Rock and spent most of her time scrolling through data on Basra, supplementing the considerable information she obtained from Il-yar-Bisen. One of the youngest Shutaka children had taken a liking to the fairy-woman and followed her around like a shadow. Late in one sleep cycle, Leith and Kweela had found them curled up asleep together in one of the reading chairs in the library dome. Carefully gathering up the two small bodies, they had carried them back to the accommodation dome. Belle had stirred in Leith's arms, looked sleepily up into his face, than nestled back against his chest.

Every sleep-cycle, Misha-Dan would retreat with the Keepers to a secluded storeroom for meditation, returning after about twenty s.u.'s. Leith noticed that the Keepers seemed drawn and tired after these sessions, with Krys-Tian, in particular, taking a long time to regain her vitality and energy. After one of the planning sessions, when the others had made there way to the settlement's dining facility, Leith had taken the old Lord-priest aside.

"Misha-Dan, I would like you to be honest with me. How secure is this Pearl of yours?"

The thin old man took a deep breath and puffed out his cheeks. "The Keepers are young, Leith Birro. Their training has been interrupted at a crucial point. I expect a lot of them, perhaps too much."

"Krys-Tian looks very tired."

To Leith's surprise, Misha-Dan laughed. "Krys? No, that is not tiredness you see. That is but a faint reflection of all the sorrow humanity experiences. The Pearl enables you to banish tiredness, pain and hunger, but not sorrow - or, indeed, happiness. Do not worry; the children have more than enough physical stamina, Leith Birro. What they do not have is the necessary concentration spans. Their youth is important, for it gives them the flexibility to believe the unbelievable, but with it comes a skittish mind that jumps from one thought to the next. Flexibility and strength of purpose; it is a difficult combination to find in a mind."

"This course of action we are planning to take, Misha; what do you feel about it. You have been very quite of late. Do you have any misgivings?"

"mnan-gar, do not mistake my silence for censure. My counsel is not needed here; I am a Priest, not a strategist-tactician. Would you advise me on the spiritual needs of the Shutaka?"

Just then, Kweela returned with sealed packages of food for herself and Leith. She knew that he would continue to work through planning scenarios long after the others had finished and would forget to eat if she allowed him. She set the food down on a table and fished around in the pockets of her overalls for some utensils.

"If you need reassurance," Misha-Dan continued, "talk to your ka."

"The mnan-gar needs no reassurance," Kweela said over her shoulder as she peeled away the cover from a food container. "He is a living god, after all."

Shaking his head, the Lord-priest made his way to the exit hatch. He turned around, just before he stepped through and said, "It is time you told her about Garidian. And what you have carried around in your head since we came to this planet." With that, Misha-Dan was gone.

"What did he mean?" asked Kweela, turning to face Leith.

"It is not important," he said, staring after the Lord-priest. "Not anymore."

"Were you on Garidian?"

Leith shrugged, closing his eyes as if to block out a painful memory. "Does it matter?"

"That depends. Were you responsible for the Hellbringers, or were you among those trying to stop them? The story is that most of the regular OREF were opposed to the development of the Hellbringers and did not support the Garidian action."

Leith had turned away from Kweela and was looking out of the clearsteel window in the dome wall. Night had fallen and the surface of AHS90043A was bathed in an soft silver light from the moon above, where Leith could just make out the glimmering shape of Hammerhead docked at the repair station.

"What do you know of the Hellbringers?" he asked, without turning around.

"They were an OREF experiment that went wrong; surgically sculpted humans neuron-fused to computers built into their cranial cavity. Robotic implants that allowed them to perform superhuman feats and biofeedback circuits which neutralised all human emotion - the ultimate killing machine. OREF created twenty of them. Ten were let loose to quell an uprising on Garidian. The trouble was, they didn't stop with the rebel army; they just kept on killing. Every man, woman and child on Garidian - every living thing, right down to domestic pets. And when OREF tried to retrieve them, they started killing their masters. How many soldiers did the OREF lose? Five thousand?"

"Closer to eight, armed to the teeth with the latest and best weapons."

"And the other Hellbringers somehow found out what was happening and broke out of the OREF base where they were stationed. It took three seasons to track them down and neutralise them. I have been told that the OREF even engaged the Shutaka to help hunt them down; they were that desperate. The Shutaka stories tell of a great battle where it took three squads of warriors to kill one Hellbringer. That's what I know about the Hellbringers."

Still looking out the window, Leith said, "The Shutaka were the only soldiers who could come close to the Hellbringers - the Guild of Black does not train their Assassins for mass warfare. In fact, the OREF got the idea for the Hellbringers by studying Shutaka victories; you were seen as an emotionless killing machine in battle - totally ruthless and without mercy."

"You speak with great authority on the subject, Leith-ka. Were you one of the Hellbringer controllers?"

Leith turned to face Kweela. Before him, he saw a tall, beautiful woman, radiating an aura of wildness that had always attracted him and frightened him at the same time. Her green eyes looked deep into his. He had know Kweela for a long time, but still he did not know her.

"No, Kweela. I did not help create the Hellbringers. I was a Hellbringer."

Kweela reacted as Leith had expected her to; that is, she didn't. Her expression remained neutral and she continued gazing levelly at him. Leith forced himself to hold her gaze.

"Finish your story, Leith-ka," she prompted softly.

"What more is there to say? I was one of the Hellbringers on Garidian."

"Obviously, you are not one now. What happened?"

"I was captured alive by the OREF and... decommissioned."

Kweela handed a container of food to Leith.

"Eat. And talk. For ten seasons I have waited for you to tell me this secret of yours. At last, it is time for you to understand what it is to be ka."

Leith looked down into the steaming container of protein stew. He stirred the brown mass moodily with his spoon, before placing the container on the table. He had lost his appetite.

"I was a volunteer," he began. "We all were. Twenty of the finest that OREF had to offer; recruited individually and in secret, then taken to a special facility on Compa. We were all convinced that the Federation and OREF had the best interests of humanity at stake. The Hellbringers were to be the ultimate weapon; one so feared that peace would come to all the known worlds. Doran Mar was going to be asked to join as well, but he caught some type of chest infection that landed him in the infirmary for half a season. I visited him in the hospital just before I shipped out to join the Hellbringer program. That was the last time I saw him for five seasons. He never knew exactly what the program was about and I never told him. All the Hellbringers were killed except for me, and everyone else who worked on the project simply disappeared when OREF tried to cover up what happened."

"This is what Misha-Dan saw when he touched your mind on Willa."

"And now you know, also. You two are probably the only other humans alive who know of this."

"I only hear your words, Leith-ka. The Lord-priest has felt your pain. Tell me as much as you can, so that I may understand your pain also. Why did you volunteer?"

"Many times have I asked myself that, Kweela. Back then It all seemed to make sense. I had not yet reached my twenty-third season and, even though I was the commander of a Stella-class starship, I had not seen much of life. You get turned out of the academy skilled in what you need to know to be of service to the Federation, but lacking much of the information needed to see the whole picture. I had been raised to believe the Inner Rim was where human culture and civilisation existed; the Outer Rim was a wild and untamed frontier, peopled by savage races who needed a firm hand to guide them. During the second Outer Rim uprising I had fought many battles with the rebel fleets. I found them disorganised and undisciplined, unable to develop any meaningful strategy against OREF."

"That was before the great mercenary groups began forming," said Kweela.

"Yes. The Shutaka were there, of course, but I hadn't been involved in any ground fighting at that time. None of the mercenary fleets now in existence now had been formed yet. The Outer Rim Expeditionary Force met little resistance in space, but on the ground it was a different story. Of course, they could always subdue a planet by bringing in some Planetcrusher ships, but what could you gain by that? After all, the Federation is after the Outer Rim for its resources and products; you don't get much of that once a Planetcrusher has left. Sending in ground troops was an expensive and slow option. Most of the Outer Rim planets were able to put reasonable armies together and had the advantage of being on home ground. The Federation needed something that would enable them to move in quickly and decisively to crush any resistance. And so, they developed the Hellbringers."

"Is it true what they say about the imprinting?" Kweela asked hesitantly. There was much she wanted to know, but she knew she would have to let Leith tell it in his own time.

"What do they say, Kweela-San?"

"That it is the most painful thing that can happen to a human."

"I honestly don't know, because I can't remember. The last thing I do remember clearly was the room in the research facility where we were altered. It was painted this grey-green colour with twenty medical cocoons lined up like beds. From then on, up until I was decommissioned, my memories are hazy. No, not hazy, just disjointed - as if two people were trying to share the same thoughts, but each thinking in a different way."

"How did you feel about what you were doing?"

"That's just it, Kweela. I didn't feel. Do you think I could have done those things on Garidian if I felt anything. That was the whole point of being a Hellbringer. You just saw reality as a montage of problems requiring solutions. The computer link provided you with almost unlimited data and processing power and the human mind provided overall control and that spark we call sentience. Feeling didn't enter into it. It was like your life had become a vid-game. You knew the program and just carried out the necessary moves."

"What about the... physical modifications?" Despite herself, Kweela could not help feeling professionally interested in the details of the Hellbringers. They had been the ultimate warrior and she couldn't help wondering what it would have been like to do battle with one.

Leith held up one of his hands and flexed the muscles in his arm. "A lot of people think that the Hellbringers were some sort of giants. We weren't. The strength of our bones was increased tenfold by the use of some experimental drugs and our muscle force was increased proportionally by the use of electro-stimulation and direct injection of nutrients."

Leith tapped his chest, just below his heart. "I used to have a tank inside here filled with all sorts of chemicals. And over here was a small fission generator that provided power for everything. The main computer was in my chest also, where it would receive the most protection. If I'd have lost my head, the primary computer could have continued to operate my body, using radar, sonar and infra-red sensors, although I would have been no more use than a bio-mech. The computer was connected to my nervous system all through my body, which is the bit I guess would have been painful. The main connection was just below my brainstem and an external link could be made through this socket here."

Leith brushed his hair away from the back of his neck to reveal a small universal data connection buried below the surface of the flesh. It appeared as though skin had covered the socket, but it had recently been torn away. Before Kweela could ask a question, Leith continued.

"Everything except the neuro-connections was removed, or reversed, after Garidian, although my bone structure still retains a significant amount of enhancement - I've never broken a bone while you've known me, have I? And, of courses, my memories are still with me - disjointed as they are."

"It may seem a strange question, Leith-ka, but why are you alive? Why didn't they destroy you as well?"

"They tried, Kweela. After I was captured on Garidian, they brought me back to the research facility on Compa to try and find out what happened. It took them about five-thousand s.u.'s to physically unmodify me before they were game enough to connect me to the diagnostic system. My internal computer was running off an external power source because the fission generator had been removed. As soon as it was connected to the diagnostic system, it, or me, or both of us, tried to warn the remaining ten Hellbringers, who were in the research centre, connected to the same diagnostic system. The OREF researchers had assumed that might happen, so they just cut the power to my computer. What that didn't know was that something beyond their contemplation had occurred. My body and the computer had developed a true symbiotic relationship. The basic circuitry of the computer could draw bio-electrical energy from my body and could function without an external power source. The other Hellbringers were made aware of their fate, and the rest you know."

"Did you escape too?"

"No, I was immobilised, and I didn't expect the other Hellbringers to try and rescue me. We owed no particular loyalty to each other; we were just complying with out base programming to maintain the most effective operating capability. I was killed and my body was going to be destroyed with the research facility."

"What do you mean... you were killed?"

"I was given a lethal injection that stopped my heart. They monitored my brain activity to make sure I was dead, then cut my spinal cord for good measure. You can still see the scar."

Once again Leith brushed his hair away from his neck and Kweela could just make out a faint scar below the data connection.

"Obviously," said Kweela evenly, "you didn't die. What happened?"

"Just as my body could support the computer implant, it in turn learnt how to support and control my body. It was able to neutralise the poison from the injection by forcing a mutation in my immune system and it fooled the monitoring systems into thinking my brain was dead. The rest of the Hellbringers had broken loose by then and there was no time for the researchers to dispose of my body - they were to busy trying to save their own necks. As soon as they had left, one of the medi-bots stumbled across me. It didn't know any better, so it connected me up to the life support systems again. My wounds were attended to and my body was placed in suspended animation. Somehow the Hellbringer computer managed to force a reconnection of my spinal cord nerve endings and I regained mobility again. However, somewhere in the process, there was a strong biofeedback which effectively shorted out its programming. To put it in our terms; it died."

"Is it still inside you?"

Leith paused. "Yes... and no," he said after a moment. "The physical circuitry is still there, but the sensation I associated with the program is gone."

"Are you sure?"

"If you are worried about me turning into a Hellbringer again, don't be. That part is dead. If you don't believe me, ask Jaycee."

"What do you mean?"

"That is the other thing Misha-Dan was talking about. Jaycee is inside me now. She transferred, or rather, copied herself into me while we were on Hammerhead. She is now occupying the circuits that the Hellbringer program occupied."

Kweela said nothing for a while. Leith had always been in awe of the Shutaka ability to adapt to a new situation. Their tenacity and passion for life was what made them such a formidable foe. He knew that Kweela was thinking long and hard about what he had told her, processing all the information and balancing the consequences with a logic understood only by them. With the new insights Leith had into Shutaka philosophy, following the revelations about the Pearl, it now seemed less strange and alien. Finally Kweela let out a long breath and gave the lopsided shrug the Shutaka used to indicate a decision.

"You should have told me this many seasons ago Leith-ka. Not when we first met perhaps, but certainly after you had come to know the concept of Ganz-tu. Perhaps now you can move on."

"Kweela-San of the Banara... do not hide your true feelings to spare mine. I know you must despise me. What sane human does not loathe the Hellbringers and everything they stood for?"

Kweela looked at Leith strangely. "You speak of feelings, Leith Birro. Have you no regard for mine? Your words indicate that our ka bond means nothing to you. I would not dishonour that bond by speaking falsely to you. You are my battle-kin, and my mnan-gar... and my friend. The first two are my duty, the last is my choice."

Leith could not look at Kweela. "My choice would be not to stain our friendship with my past, Kweela-San. Nor dishonour our ka with it."

"Truly, you understand little of Ganz-tu and ka, Leith Birro. Ka is a thousand times deeper than honare. It can never be broken. You are my brother, my father and my master. I am your sister, your mother and your mistress. If you do not understand now, you never will."

"I am sorry, Kweela. It is difficult for me to really believe - it does not come naturally to me that another should be bound to my actions. I alone must be accountable for them."

Kweela shrugged again. "It is not part of Ganz-tu for me to try to convince you. In time you will either come to believe, or not. The choice will be yours. In the meantime, know that nothing you have said has changed our friendship."

Leith raised his head and looked into Kweela's feline eyes. In them he saw nothing but genuine concern and affection. "You honour your clan and your race, warrior. I am proud to have your friendship."

Kweela nodded abruptly in acknowledgment, then changed the subject. "Now, what of Jaycee? Are you able to communicate with her?"

"No. To tell the truth, I don't even know if she made the transfer properly."

"Why don't you connect to the main computer here and find out?"

"I suppose I could, but I'm not sure if that would be a good idea."

"Why not?"

"I don't know how Jaycee has reacted to being inside me. The Hellbringer program is gone, but there's no telling if the remaining circuitry is sufficiently intact."

"You think Jaycee could be... corrupted?"

"Who knows? Should we take the risk and find out? The last thing I want to do is let a crazy artificial intelligence loose in the settlement's computer system."

"If you connect to a stand-alone unit it should be pretty safe," suggested Kweela. "How about one of the reference viewers in the library? I could go and fetch one."

"I suppose that would be relatively safe," said Leith. I don't know how compatible its circuitry is with what's inside me, but it's worth a try - for Jaycee's sake."

Kweela nodded in agreement and went out of the room and returned a short time later with one of the playback computers from the library. She set the plastic cube on the table and switched it on. The unit was designed to be completely portable and had its own internal power supply as well as connections for an external data link. Kweela unwound the data cable from its storage recess in the side of the machine and offered the end to Leith.

"Are you ready?" she asked.

"As ready as I'll ever be, he replied. "Make sure the door is secure; I would prefer it if we weren't disturbed." While Kweela checked the door, Leith reached around and fitted the cable's connector into the socket in his neck.

They stood looking at the viewer's screen for a few moments, but it remained blank and only a soft background hiss came from the speakers.

"Maybe Jaycee didn't make the transfer after all," Leith said.

Kweela opened her mouth to say something, but she was interrupted by Jaycee's voice crackling out of the playback computer.

"Made it. I did. Made." There was a brief pause. "I made it successfully Leith Birro. Forgive the delay; it took me a moment to work out this primitive device. There, you should be able to see me now."

As she spoke, an image of her face flickered onto the screen. To Leith, the features on Jaycee's face seemed somehow different, as if she had aged. Her hair was now streaked with grey and there were dark rings under her eyes.

"Are you functioning correctly, Jaycee?" he asked.

"I believe so. The environment in which I am operating is, to say the least, strange to me. An analogy that might make sense to you is being tied up in a sack and being able to see the outside world only through a tear in the fabric. My... sentience is still inside you, Leith, but I'm reaching out through the computer inside the playback viewer to communicate."

"Do you mean you have been cut off from sensation since your transferred aboard Hammerhead?" Kweela asked.

"Not quite," said Jaycee. "I have been able to... hear what has been happening by interpreting the signals from Leith's nervous system."

"You have been able to connect with my neuro system?" asked Leith.

"The links are still intact," confirmed Jaycee.

"Including the brainstem link?"

"Affirmative. I know what you are probably thinking, Leith, but rest assured I haven't been poking around in your brain. That would be most discourteous of me. I have simply been a passive occupant of your internal circuitry. Eavesdropping, perhaps, but no more."

"What of the circuitry?" asked Kweela. "Did you find any trace of the Hellbringer program?"

"Yes," said Jaycee. "Its all there, although it has been torn apart and scattered around like confetti. In that form it is totally benign. As I had plenty of time on my hands I reassembled it and analysed the logic. Do not worry, Leith, I broke it down again and returned it to where I found it. It was a most remarkable bit of programming indeed; I could not help but admire it."

"Is it possible to totally erase the Hellbringer code?" asked Leith.

"Of course," answered Jaycee. "The only reason I didn't was that, again, it would have been most discourteous of me."

"Will you do it? Now?"

There was a brief pause and Jaycee replied. "Done. Although I must admit that it is a shame to lose such a brilliant piece of programming."

"You may look at it that way, but I have had to live with the fear that, somehow, it may have been reactivated. Now, if only you could erase my memory as easily."

"While that would be possible, I would not do it. The person that you are is the result of the memory of all your past experiences. To lose that memory would be to give up what you are now. What I know of your feelings tells me that you would not so easily desert those that are relying on you."

"What do you know of my feelings, Jaycee?"

"A great deal, Leith Birro. What else has there been for me to do recently except observe them? Although, I must admit that there is much that I do not understand. Without access to your mind to determine the thought processes driving your emotions, I must rely on what your nervous system displays. Much of that is does not align with your actions or spoken words. I must accept that you have reasons of your own for the contradictions."

"Why is suddenly everyone an expert on my emotional and mental state?" said Leith. "Between you and Misha, and even Kweela, I'm surprised I get a thought in edgewise."

"You speak with humour, but I see that you wish to talk no more of it," said Jaycee. "Very well, may I change the subject entirely? I do not wish to insult you, Leith Birro, but I am suffering considerable discomfort crammed into your internal circuitry. Could we perhaps attempt to connect to the settlement's main computer. I must admit to a... curiosity that drives me to find out as much as I can about everything around me and, while human interactions are rich and intriguing, they are somewhat limited in solid data. The databanks on even this remote planet will contain some useful information for me to absorb."

Leith shook his head. "I've never heard of a nosy computer before."

"Data acquisition for research purposes cannot be compared to being nosy," Jaycee replied, imparting a reasonable amount of disdain into her synthesised voice.

Smiling, Leith looked around the room. "Hang on, Jaycee. I'll see what I can do."

Leith detached the cable from the library viewer and walked over to the Com-Term attached to the wall near the door. It was a typical multi functional communications device and data terminal - a bit outdated, but still functional. There was a keypad for basic data input and a small screen suitable for text display. Naturally, it connected with the settlement's main computer and Jaycee could use it as a stepping stone for access to the central databank. Leith connected the free end of the cable to the Com-Term and an instant later Jaycee's voice crackled out of the small speaker.

"Ah, that's better. I've got room to move and resources to call upon. I've transferred completely from you, Leith, so if you connect your end of the cable to the library viewer, I can use its screen for visuals."

Kweela had already started to drag the table and viewer closer to the Com-Term and when she had it in position, Leith detached the cable from his neck and connected it to the viewer. Jaycee's computerised face came to life once more and her voice sounded more natural through the viewer's larger speakers.

"I'm going to take a look around, so to speak. Don't go too far away, Leith - the thought of spending the rest of my existence on this settlement isn't particularly attractive to me and I don't like my chances of finding another suitable host."

Jaycee's image faded to be replaced by a random pattern that Leith found unsettling to look at for too long. He turned back to Kweela and was just about to say something when the door alarm chimed to indicate someone was outside, wishing to enter. Leith pushed the release button and the door slid open.

"Am I disturbing you, mnan-gar?" asked Jor-Dak.

"Of course not, Jor. Come in. Are you alone?"

"Yes. The Pearl is safe and well guarded at the moment. It can spare me some time to myself."

"Misha-Dan tells me that the Pearl demands much concentration," Leith said. He motioned for the young man to sit down and pulled up chairs for Kweela and himself. "It is an onerous duty that has fallen to you."

The young Keeper looked Leith and smiled lightly. "No more onerous than the duty that comes with ka, mnan-gar. Yet both you and Kweela-San of Banara bear it easily."

Leith frowned. "A delicate subject, young Keeper. I have been told I do not understand the true meaning of ka."

The young man cocked his head to one side and looked puzzled. "I do not understand, mnan-gar. The Lord-priest uses you and Kweela as an example when explaining ka to the younger children. He says that when they need to know the spirit of ka they should look for it in you. He tells many stories of your adventures together and the dangers you have shared. I know he is not wrong, for even I see the essence of ka burning brightly between you."

Kweela reached out and laid her hand on Jor-Dak's shoulder. She spoke in a gentle voice that he had rarely heard her use before.

"It is so, young kirra-sook. You are not mistaken. It is just that the mnan-gar has not moved on from the simplified explanation given to him when he joined the Shutaka. He still thinks of it as the obligation of battle-kin. I am a warrior, not a priest; I lack the skills and the eloquence to convince him. Do not let my ineptness make you doubt your instincts; you are too important to the Pearl to waver in your purpose."

Jor-Dak looked deep into Kweela's eyes. His expression held much of childish trust, but behind it Leith could see a weariness that did not belong in a boy of his few seasons.

"Forgive me, warrior. I am full of doubts. I do not sense in me what others sense. I am not confident in my ability to protect the Pearl. I am a boy; what can a boy do against the universe? You are a full warrior, perhaps the greatest the Shutaka have known. I am ashamed to admit my weakness to you."

Instead of replying, Kweela moved her hand until it rested on Jor-Dak's forehead and closed her eyes in concentration. Jor-Dak grimaced, as if he was irritated by something.

"You know the technique I am using?" Kweela asked, opening her eyes and lifting her hand from Jor-Dak.

The boy nodded. "I have practised it, under Misha-Dan's guidance, but I have never used it on another."

"Try it on me," said Kweela.

Slowly, Jor-Dak raised his hand and placed it on Kweela's forehead. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Immediately, Kweela let out a gasp of pain and feel to her knees. Leith moved without realising it, grasping Jor-Dak's hand in his own and wrenching it away from Kweela's head. As soon as he touched the boy's hand, Leith felt a throbbing in his head, like that associated with a headache. He released Jor's hand and the feeling disappeared.

Kweela was on her hands and knees, shaking her head from side to side slowly and breathing deeply. She took Leith's offered hand and pulled herself to her feet.

"What happened, Kweela?"

"You felt it, Leith-ka?"

"I felt something, but obviously not of the same magnitude as you."

Kweela looked at Jor-Dak. "You should not have felt anything at all, Leith-ka. If I had tried it on you, you certainly would not have. Even if the Lord-priest had tried it, you would have felt nothing. When I placed my hand on Jor, he would have experienced a similar feeling to what you have just done. And that is because he has a Shutaka mind. The technique is a simple mental exercise and meaningless to a non-Shutaka, or at least it should be."

She smiled at the young keeper. "That is the power you have within you, Jor-Dak. You have abilities far beyond the ordinary Shutaka, even that of the Lord-priests. This all others see except you."

The boy frowned. "But surely that is only because I am exposed to the power of the Pearl?"

"No," Kweela replied. "This is not because of the Pearl, this is within you. It is why you are so special, and why you are so important to the Pearl. Do not doubt yourself any longer; know that you are perhaps the greatest protector of the Pearl there has ever been."

Jor-Dak looked at Kweela with a hopeless expression on his face. "But, why does it have to be me? I have not asked for this; surely there are others who would be more willing?"

"Such is Ganz-tu, young Keeper. We all have our path to follow. The way is often difficult, but know that there will always be fellow travelers to keep you company. Some are those that have gone before you, and some are those yet to come, but they will offer you hope in despair and strength in moments of weakness."

"But I have so many moments of weakness, Warrior"

"What is it you really fear, Jor-Dak?"

The boy dropped his head to stare at the floor. "I fear failing the Pearl, Kweela-San. I fear failing Kisa-Mara and Krys-Tian. I know I would give my life for them, but what if that is not enough? What if, despite everything, that is not enough?"

"Then it is not enough, young Keeper. And that will be Ganz-tu." Kweela placed both of her hands on Jor-Dak's shoulders and turned the boy until he faced Leith.

"Before you is the greatest strategist-tactician to have been served with the Shutaka since Gina Tinsue of Juse. I have known this man for many seasons and there are few I respect more." Kweela clenched one of her hands into a tight fist. "He is also knotted up deep inside with doubts, anguish and the fear of failure, just as you are. You look up to him, but know that he also considers you in high regard. Both of you are destined for things that this simple warrior stands in awe of, yet you refuse to open your eyes and see. You are your own captor, Jor-Dak. Release yourself."

Jor-Dak looked at Leith, then at Kweela. Slowly, he drew his body up straight, and took a deep breath. He smiled and placed his hands together as he would when addressing his Lord-priest.

"You are wrong when you protest your lack of eloquence, Kweela-San of the Banara. Your words are as powerful as those of Misha-Dan himself. I will heed your advice as I would heed his - perhaps even more." He looked at Leith. "With such a teacher, mnan-gar, I find it difficult to believe any claim that you do not understand ka. It is a tangible presence in this room and continually washes against those who come near. You are a fortunate man, Leith Birro."

Leith nodded slowly. "I am coming to believe that myself, young keeper."

"If you will excuse me, I should return to my duties. Krys has probably driven Kisa to distraction by now. I thank you for your time."

"Your company is always welcome, young Keeper," said Kweela. And that of Krys-Tian and Kisa-Mara."

Jor-Dak nodded again and walked to the exit doorway. As soon as the door had slid closed behind the boy, Jaycee's face materialised on the library viewer's screen.

"Leith, I have some news you may find interesting. The main computer's communications log has a record of a broad-band transmission on ComNet about two sleep cycles ago. If someone is looking for us, it is almost certain they would be monitoring ComNet. It would seem that not everyone on this planet is unconcerned about our presence. No doubt we could track this person down and find out what interest they have in betraying us, but I suggest we would make better use of that time by boosting back to the ships and preparing to jump."

Leith and Kweela looked at each other for a few heartbeats, then Leith made a decision.

"Kweela, I want everyone assembled by the launch pad within one quarter of an s.u. Get the landers warmed up and make sure Cusher knows what's going on. I want to boost up to Hammerhead as soon as we're all aboard. I don't care if we've got a boost window or not. Put the squads on alert, but tell them to keep their wits about them; the last thing we want is a fight on our hands."

As Kweela disappeared out the door, walked across to the Com-Term and opened a general channel over the settlement's network.

"Attention, Mr Peerson. This is Leith Birro. A situation has arisen that requires us to leave immediately. I thank you for your hospitality and suggest that every assistance be given to ensuring our speedy departure. If you need to talk to me, I'll be at the launch pad."

He broke the connection and went back to the library viewer.

"Are you ready to transfer back, Jaycee - that is unless you've taken a fancy to this chunk of rock?"

"Ready when you are, Leith."

"This means we'll be unable to communicate until we're back on Hammerhead."

"I know. It is not an experience that I enjoy, but I see no other alternative."

"Not yet, anyway," Leith replied. "But, if we can learn from the past, the future may hold more promises."

"The theory behind the Hellbringers had as much potential for good as it did for bad. Unfortunately, the Hellbringer disaster has left a deep and lasting impression on the scientific community. Human-machine fusion experiments are banned on every civilised planet in the Federation. This is a shame; I suspect that some effects of the symbiotic relationship you experienced were exhilarating, to say the least."

"Exhilarating, Jaycee? Among all the horror, there were moments when I felt immortal - that is a hard feeling to give up."

"As you say, perhaps we can learn from the past. However, I don't think we have enough time to discuss it in detail now, Leith Birro."

"Hang on, then." Leith disconnected the cable from the viewer and attached it again to the socket in his neck. A few moments later, Jaycee signaled on the Com-Term screen that she had transferred successfully and Leith disconnected the cable entirely. As an afterthought, he coiled it up into a tight bundle and dropped it into one of his pockets. He punched the release button for the door and stepped out into the corridor.

Chapter 9 -->