The Pearl - Chapter 9

Lieutenant Karl Visoni had just climbed into his bunk aboard Hammerhead for some well earned sleep when Cusher's alert orders came through. Visoni had been left aboard the ship to oversee the repairs and had worked almost nonstop for the entire layover. Despite his weariness, he hurried to the command deck and initiated the emergency startup sequences. Around him, the control panels lit up as Hammerhead came to life. He reached across to the communications panel and switched on the ship-to-shore voice link.

"Hammerhead to Commander Cusher. Visoni here, Commander."

"Status report, Karl," came Arail Cusher's voice over the bridge speakers.

"We're powering up now on auto. Everything is in the green. What's your ETA?"

Cusher's reply was drowned out by the sound of a lander's boost rockets in the background. When it had subsided, she spoke again, her voice soundings strained as her body was forced back into her couch under maximum ascent boost.

"As you can probably tell, we just lifted. We've got a less than optimum boost window, but we should be ready to dock in about point three s.u. Start the computers on preliminary jump calcs for the Nordgate system according to the data I sent up a few cycles ago. Have you reactivated Jaycee?"

"The computer techs ran some test programs after they finished rebuilding it, but they were all done off line, as you ordered."

"Good. What was the techs final conclusion?"

"They reckon they found some physical damage in one of the logic circuits that could have accounted for Jaycee's abnormal behaviour. The replaced the circuits and wiped the personality simulation code. The unit on Periwinkle is, as you know, an identical unit, so its code was copied across to Jaycee. Everything checks out ok.

"It had better. My guess is we're going to need a fully functional battle computer in the near future. Get the techs to start a staged reactivation, but keep Jaycee off line until I get there. You can begin feeding it the current situation data in bypass mode, but nothing more. Understand?"

"Affirmative, Commander."

"What's the status on Periwinkle?"

"They've been on standby since we got here, so they should be battle ready by now. They'll probably be ready to jump before we are, as well. Do you want me to patch you through?"


Visoni opened a communication channel to the other ship. The heavily accented voice of the commander of Periwinkle came over the speaker."

"Juk here, Arail. Situation?"

"Did you get a copy of the data I sent up to Hammerhead?"

"Yes, but it wasn't very informative."

"I know it seems we're over reacting, but given recent events I'm inclined to accept a bit of paranoia as healthy."

"I'm not disputing that, I'm just after a better guess as to what we might be up against."

"All I know is that the two cycles since the message was broadcast on the ComNet has been enough time for a hunting party to dispatched. Our worst case scenario has hostile ships coming out of null-space about now. If that happens, I figure you've got two choices; jump as soon as your calcs are done, or try and draw their attention until Hammerhead is ready to jump. The first option gives you about an eighty percent chance of survival while the second gives you about a twenty percent chance."

"Perhaps I'm more confident in the ability of Periwinkle, but I'd rate the second option as more like a fifty-fifty chance. Besides, we've come this far together; it would be a shame to let a little thing like a Basran squadron make us part company."

"It's your call, Juk, but I'm glad you see it that way. I'd like to think I'd do the same if our situations were reversed."

"I have no doubts about that, Arail. Periwinkle out."

Visoni came back onto the line. "Commander, our long range scanners are detecting a null-space disturbance that could be a natural aberration, or ships coming out of jump a long way out. If that's the case, we've got about four s.u.'s before they're in range."

"I don't know why they would have chosen to exit null-space so far out, but I'm not about to knock any lucky break we can get. Continue with the start up and jump calcs. I'll see you soon."

"Affirmative, commander. Hammerhead out."

Three and a half s.u.'s later Periwinkle and Hammerhead moved slowly away from the repair dock. All crew and passengers had transferred safely from AHS90043A without incident. Peerson had seemed genuinely apologetic for the what had happened - as if his own reputation had been slighted - and provided all the assistance he could to ensure their departure went smoothly. The Outer Rim miners were a rough lot, but their hospitality was usually unconditional and generous. Leith guessed that Peerson would conduct an investigation of his own to discover who had broken the unwritten code of The Rock.

On the bridge of Hammerhead, Cusher and her crew were finalising the jump calculations. Cusher's computer techs had convinced her that they had sorted out the problems in the JCN battle computer and she had allowed them to bring it back on line. Not that she felt there was much choice.

"Open a line to Periwinkle," Cusher told her communications officer. "Juk, this is Cusher," she said into her suit mike when the link had been established. "It looks like we might have pulled it off. Point one s.u.'s to jump."

"Confirmed," came Naseem's reply. "Do your scanners show anything about the incoming ships?"

"Data coming in now, commander," said one of Cusher's crew. "Jaycee is analysing."

"Hold on Juk. We're checking the scan now."

"One ship," reported Jaycee. With the personality program wiped, Jaycee's voice was once again relatively neutral. "Scanner profile is identical to that of the Alien vessels encountered around Willa. The ship is stationary, relative to AHS90043A. Some form of energy transmission is being directed towards us, but scanners cannot determine if it is a weapon, or some form of communication."

"My bet is that it's not a welcome message," said Cusher.

"Agreed," replied Jaycee. "Based on the events around Willa, immediate jump to null-space is highly recommended."

"Got that Juk?"

"Affirmative. However, I'd like to leave a little present behind, this time. Can you send through the scanner profile on the ship. I've got a dozen thermo-mines that I can program and scatter about."

Cusher grinned. "Where'd you get those from?" Thermo-mines were small but powerful explosive devices that were virtually undetectable by a ship's scanners. They could be programmed with the profile of a particular vessel or class of vessels. That meant they would be harmless to any ship but the target vessel. If the Alien ship came to investigate their last known position with the intent of guessing their jump destination, they would be in for a shock.

"As I told you, Arail, Periwinkle is full of surprises."

"I believe you. OK, the profile is on its way. I'll see you at Nordgate. Hammerhead out."

Cusher thumbed a switch on her chair arm to activate the ship's intercom. "Cusher here. Prepare to jump in point one s.u.'s. Mr Birro, contact the bridge. That is all."

A few moments later Leith's voice came over the intercom. "What's up, Arail? We're all set back here."

"Good. We've just got data on the ship that came out of null-space."

"Only one ship?"

"Only one. But it's an Alien ship and my guess is that they're in the process of locking their weapon systems onto us. We must be almost at maximum range, but after Willa, I don't intend to hang about to test their accuracy."

"How is Jaycee behaving?" Leith had allowed Jaycee to transfer back to Hammerhead as soon as he came aboard, but he hadn't had the opportunity to talk with her yet.

"It seems to be OK," said Cusher. "My techs did a complete wipe and reinstall of the program during the layover. I'm willing to believe that it was a freak crossed circuit that made it act as though it was fully sentient, although I'm going to be keeping a close eye on this JCN unit from now on."

"Jump point reached, commander," interrupted the navigation officer. "The drive is engaging ... now."

"The Alien ship has locked onto us, commander," warned Visoni, glancing at his console display. "They're firing."

There was a moment of the familiar dislocation, then reality stabilised again. Cusher's crew checked their instruments and performed the routine post-jump diagnostics. The main viewing screen, which had blanked when they entered null-space, flickered to life again to reveal Periwinkle in formation against the backdrop of the Nordgate system. The bow section of the escort destroyer was glowing cherry red. It faded quickly, leaving the hull blackened and scorched.

"That was close," said Visoni. "Whatever weapon the Alien ship is using must have just touched Periwinkle. If we'd taken a fraction of an s.u. longer to jump, she would've been history."

"Commander," said the communications officer. "Periwinkle is hailing us."

"Are you damaged, Juk?" asked Cusher.

"No, our heat shields held," replied Naseem. "Just," he added. "I'm damned if I know what that weapon is, but I'd sure like to get my hands on it."

"Maybe, but for the time being, I want to be as far away from it as I can. Are you ready to proceed with the plan as discussed."

"No problem, but I take it we assume that whoever is behind all this knows there were survivors from Willa?"

"That's a fair assumption, but we'll have to carry on regardless. Leith always believed that was a fifty percent probability anyway."

"OK then, we'll see you again in five hundred s.u.'s."

"We'll be at the rendezvous point. Good luck. Hammerhead out."

The Nordgate system was a busy one. It was a common jump destination and had a number of trading planets that offered a wide variety of goods and services. Periwinkle was headed for the planet Kruska to purchase the items they would need before moving on to Unaran. Hopefully, they would go unnoticed among the commercial traffic orbiting Kruska. Hammerhead set a course for Plican IV, one of the outer planets in the system, to wait for them. Belle had suggested that she part company at Plican IV so she could make her own discreet way to Basra.

After another small jump and a few s.u.'s of manoeuvring, Hammerhead was in freefall orbit around Plican IV. The main view screen showed the large green planet revolving slowly beneath with a dozen or more ships also in orbit. Here they would wait until Periwinkle returned from Kruska. Cusher sounded the stand down over the ship's communications system, then issued orders for Izzy to prepare for a planetary landing. The commander handed control of the bridge over to Visoni and made her way to the docking bay where Belle was already waiting beside the airlock to board the lander. She was making the trip as a passenger, leaving Izzy and his new copilot, Roon Larson, to go through the pre-boost checks by themselves.

Leith and Kweela were there also, as well as the young Shutaka girl who had become attached to Belle. The girl, Visa-Mil, was trying to hold back her tears. Belle smiled reassuringly at her and reached out to gently stroke her hair.

"The time will pass quickly, Visa," she said.

"Why can't I come with you?" the young girl asked, yet again.

"We've talked about this before, child. If it was possible, I would take you, but it is too dangerous."

"Then you shouldn't go," said Visa.

"It is a risk I choose to take," explained Belle. "And a risk I am trained to manage. When I return, I will begin teaching you what was taught me and then, perhaps, we may travel together. But for now, you must look after my friends for me," she said, indicating Kweela and Leith. "The mnan-gar, in particular, needs much looking after. He has a habit of being careless."

Leith was too worried to respond to Belle's banter. He knew she realised the risk she was taking, but couldn't help telling her anyway.

"You're the one that should take care, Belle," he said. "Security is likely to be tighter than ever on Basra right now. It's still not too late to say no. No one would think any less of you."

Kweela glared at him. "Take no notice of him, Belle. What he really means to say is that we know you will return safely to us and we are indebted to you."

The tiny Sorarainian smiled up at the warrior. "How can there ever be debts between you and I, sister?"

Just then the access hatch to the docking bay cycled open and Misha-Dan pulled himself through, followed by the Keepers of the Pearl. They made their way across to the others, using the handholds attached to the wall, except for Krys-Tian who did what all children loved to do in freefall. Kweela reached out and snared the young girl as she somersaulted towards them.

"We came to wish you safe journey," said the Lord-priest. "Your charm and wit will be missed until you return."

"Will you assassinate anyone?" asked Krys, wide-eyed. Jor-Dak and Kisa-Mara frowned at the girl, but Belle laughed.

"No, Krys, I hope not. That takes surprisingly little skill. If I have to resort to that, it would mean that I had failed in what I set out to do. I'm sorry if that disappoints you."

"Not really," said the young girl. "I can't imagine you wanting to hurt anybody, anyway."

The intercom beside the airlock came to life. "Are you coming or not, Bell?" roared Izzy's voice.

Belle reached out and thumbed the reply switch. "I was just giving you time to do the preflight," she said. "If you're helping Roon, it'll take twice as long." She turned back to the others. "Well, so long."

Kweela reached over and hugged the Sorarainian, followed by Visa-Mil. After a moment's hesitation, Leith reached out and did the same. Belle looked at him, gave one of her winks, then stepped backwards into the airlock. The door cycled close, then she was gone.

Kweela looked down at Visa, who was staring at the airlock door, refusing to let the tears flow. "Do not worry, small one. She will be back. Come, it feels like breakfast time - nothing will be gained by starving ourselves." Suiting action to words, Kweela headed off in the direction of the recreation room. Leith followed, trying to push away the feeling of dread that was lapping at the back of his mind.

At every opportunity he had, Leith made contact with Jaycee. She had settled back into Hammerhead but was being very careful to provide Cusher with no cause for further concern. Leith had many long conversations with the battle computer. During these discussions Kweela watched with a strange expression on her face. It seemed to her that a subtle change came over her mnan-gar when he and Jaycee referred to events that could only be related to his Hellbringer experiences. She longed to be able to help Leith and it grieved her that Jaycee could relate better to her ka than she could.

Misha-Dan consoled the Shutaka warrior as best he could. "The Leith Birro you have known is only part of the true person. As he finds himself again, have patience and begin to understand these new aspects of your ka."

"My Lord, you know what I fear - you can sense it in my mind."

"Kweela-San, the Leith Birro you care so much for will never leave us. That part of him was there before he joined the OREF, it was there before they made him a Hellbringer, and it will remain no matter what outer coverings are set upon it."

The Lord-priest placed his hand over Kweela's heart. "This is where you know it. This is where your ka really is, not in your mind. This is why others around you see your ka burning so strongly and you do not. You keep looking for it in your mind, not your heart."

"Misha," she whispered. "I do not want to lose my ka. I do not want to be like Lilith-Soo."

Had someone came into the cabin at that moment they would have witnessed the rare sight of a Shutaka warrior with tears streaming down both her cheeks...

The five-hundred s.u.'s until Periwinkle was scheduled to rendezvous with them dragged slowly by. The Shutaka passed the time creating their pseudo-religion and practising the roles they would assume when the reached Unaran. They had many examples to look to; the Outer Rim was saturated with small religious groups who traveled from planet to planet on crusades. It seemed that humans had an almost infinite capacity to worship deities of every shape and form and an innate desire to share their enlightenment with the rest of humanity. For the most part, these religious groups coexisted in relative harmony, but occasionally a holy war would erupt.

Using some of the more fundamentalist groups as a model, the mercenaries constructed the church structure, developing a history, rituals and even a written text that would become their book of worship. Krys-Tian was to be their child-goddess, as had been planned, with Jor-Dak and Kisa-Mara her personal slaves. Such a designation carried a certain irony, as the Shutaka were the only known human race not to have been involved in slavery at any time in their history.

"Remember, we are only pretending, Krys," Jor warned her.

"But it is very important we are convincing," she replied, grinning. "I think you should start calling me "mistress" - for practice." She quickly twisted away to avoid a well placed kick on her posterior.

"Krys-Tian is right about one thing," said Lilith-Soo. "We will need to be very convincing." Lilith-Soo had been given the role of High Priestess in the imaginary church. The Shutaka naturally looked towards her a leader, so it seemed the most appropriate choice. A dozen of the warriors became priestesses and the rest of the group took on roles as church followers, except for Misha-Dan, who had chosen to adopt the character of a blind soothsayer, with little Visa-Mil as his guide.

Cusher had originally expressed concern about the ability of the children to carry off the deception over a long period, but Misha-Dan and Lilith-Soo had assured her that the young Shutaka knew the importance of the game. While they still possessed the exuberance of youth, their experience on Willa had made them distrustful of the worlds about them. Among non-Shutaka, they would remain wary and on guard.

The hardest part of the plan was for Leith to convince the Shutaka warriors to give up their military habits. Apart from their small daggers, they would carry no weapons. They were to act in a docile manner and respect the laws and customs of Unaran. Periwinkle was purchasing half a dozen guard-droids on Kruska that would be their only visible means of protection. It took a great deal of persuasion, by Leith, Misha-Dan and Lilith-Soo, before the warriors accepted the necessity of a peaceful appearance.

"Surely there must be another way," protested Tanah-Luc. "Why must we use droids? The Shutaka have never relied on them before. It goes against everything we believe in."

"That's exactly why," explained Leith. "It is unthinkable that Shutaka would forsake their weapons, let alone allow droids to do their fighting for them. People might be suspicious about our motives as a religious group, but at least they won't suspect that we are Shutaka."

"But what will we do if we are not warriors. That is all we know. Do you expect us to become like our men; tending the crops and keeping the records?"

"Tanah-Luc, I am your mnan-gar. Do you think I would I would let the death of Bewah-Tah go unavenged? Casa-Lara, is that the light in which you regard me? Rhona-Ohn, do you regret swearing allegiance to me? All of you, listen. You are Shutaka warriors and you always will be - whether you have a sword in your hand or not. There will come a time to fight and you must make sure your warrior skills are kept sharp by practising in secret. Until then, you will be a warrior in your mind and your heart, but your actions will be those of peaceful settlers. If you want to protect the Pearl, this is how it must be. If I fail you, then my life will be the first to be forfeit."

Tanah-Luc lowered her head. "We do not mean to doubt you, mnan-gar, but it is still difficult to do what you ask."

"To be true Shutaka, you must overcome this difficulty," said Jor-Dak quietly.

The warriors turned to face the boy. "What do you mean, Keeper?" asked Tanah.

"The true purpose of a Shutaka warrior is to safeguard the Pearl," said Jor-Dak. "Sometimes that is done by fighting, and sometimes it is done by other means. Once upon a time, warriors possessed many skills, not just those of the battlefield. We have let those abilities wither, just as we have lost the power of our minds. We no longer look past our own noses - we focus on today rather than tomorrow. But for the foresight of Misha-Dan, the Pearl would have perished already."

Jor-Dak's voice had taken on a deeper tone, more like that of a grown man and his eyes were shinning brightly with emotion. All of the warriors were staring intently at him and Leith could almost see the power radiating from the boy.

"We have come so very close to the abyss," Jor continued. "We must learn from this and vow to regain our lost skills. To be the protector of the Pearl is a rare and fragile honour, one that has been entrusted to the Shutaka. Tanah-Luc, you are Shutaka first and a warrior second; let Unaran be where we relearn what it is to be true Shutaka."

Jor-Dak stopped, and the room was silent, except for the faint hiss of the air-scrubbers. Kweela looked at Leith and he nodded. At that moment, after only a few words, the Shutaka would have followed Jor to the end of time itself. The boy had a special power indeed.

The silence was broken by Cusher's voice over the ship's intercom.

"Cusher here. Crew to alert stations. Passengers to quarters. An OREF squadron has just exited from null-space and is hailing us. They could be on a routine patrol, but we'd better be ready just in case. Mr Birro, to the bridge please. Cusher out."

With Kweela close behind, Leith made his way to the control room as quickly as he could. Cusher was waiting for them, strapped into her command chair. The rest of the bridge crew were at their battle stations. Without waiting to be told, Leith and Kweela took their position in the spare acceleration couches and buckled themselves in.

Cusher nodded to her communications officer. "Open voice channel only. Acknowledge their signal."

"Independent Military Vessel Lady Macbeth of mercenary group Siven acknowledging your hailing signal. Please identify." After AHS90043A, Hammerhead and Periwinkle had changed their identities once again.

"United Federation Vessel Ulysses under the command of Admiral Garath Hamson. I wish to speak to your commanding officer."

"Arail Cusher here. You're a long way from home, Garath."

"Arail? I heard you were with Siven. Obviously, you weren't in that massacre at Willa. Siven took quite a beating, I hear. You lot must have bitten off a bit more than you could chew, judging by what's left of the planet."

Leith saw Cusher clench her teeth. "What do you want, Garath," she asked.

"My, my, you're a bit touchy. That's what comes from associating with the wrong kind of people, Arail."

"At least I can look myself in the mirror of a morning, Garath. How about you."

"You know me; see no evil, hear no evil."

"Is that why they made you an admiral?"

"One of the reasons. The other is that I'm particularly good at tracking down troublesome mercenaries. For example, at the moment I'm quite interested if you know anything about an attack on one of the Federation outposts."

"Which outpost? You'll have to jog my memory, Garath. The OREF are like a rash; I lose track of their infestations."

The admiral appeared to ignore her. "You wouldn't happen to have any Shutaka on board would you?"

"All I've got is a load of missionaries bound for Unaran. You're welcome to send over a boarding party to check, provided you're willing to risk having them converted to worshiping the Child-goddess of Carth."

"I might just do that, Arail."

"I assume you have a search decree signed by the Inner Rim Council?"

"As sector commissioner, I could exercise my emergency powers."

"As I don't see any particular emergency, I might just have to resist any unwelcome advances, Garath."

"It would seem you are a trifle outnumbered, Arail."

Cusher's communications officer interrupted. "Commander, Periwinkle has just come out of null-space. Captain Naseem request's situation status."

"Patch him into this frequency," Cusher ordered. "Admiral, I suppose your scanners have picked up the other vessel that just joined us. She is IMF Sahara, also of Siven. That makes two of us and four of you. Do you still wish to press the issue?"

There was a long pause. "Not this time, Arail. However, I might swing by Unaran in a few cycles to see if you were telling the truth."

"Be my guest. We'll be making the jump as soon as we do the calcs. Cusher out."

"The OREF ships are moving away, Commander," reported one of Cusher's crew.

"Nice bluff, Arail," said Leith.

"Who said I was bluffing," she replied, but Leith saw the look of relief on her face.

The OREF usually took every opportunity to provoke the mercenary groups into taking action that could later be construed as hostile and justification for heavy retaliation. Had Hammerhead been in open space, Admiral Hamson would have attempted to board her. Even in the crowded Nordgate system, he might have still tried, if Periwinkle had not shown up when she did.

"It sounded like you knew Hamson," said Leith.

"The last time I had anything to do with him, he was an ensign. The Federation must be getting desperate if trash like him make it to Admiral."

"It sounds like the Federation knows less about what happened on Willa than we do."

"Possibly. Anyway, Hamson knows nothing - he's not smart enough to keep a secret like that." She turned to her communications officer. "Open a channel to Periwinkle and put it on visual."

"Affirmative, Commander."

Juk Naseem's face appeared on the main viewscreen. "Everything under control, Arail?"

"Affirmative. You arrived just in time. Are you ready for the jump to Unaran?"

"It'll take about six s.u.'s for us to run the calcs."

Cusher turned to her navigator. "How long for us?"

"About five s.u.'s, Commander. We've already completed the prelims."

"Ok, Juk, we'll go in seven s.u.'s. I'll send over a couple of landers for our share of the supplies you got on Kruska."

"Affirmative. Periwinkle out."

Leith unsnapped his harness. "I'll go and make sure the Shutaka are ready for the jump. Seven s.u.'s gives me just enough time to get ready for it myself. I've been making too many jumps fully conscious of late; its starting to get a bad habit."

"Don't get too relaxed. We'll need to hold a briefing session before we make the final transfer down to Unaran."

"I'll make sure he's in good shape, Commander," said Kweela.

Thirteen s.u.'s later, after the usual intra-system manoeuvring, Hammerhead and Periwinkle were in orbit around Unaran. Leith and Kweela had returned to the bridge and were watching the main viewscreen which showed the large planet revolving slowly under them.

Unaran had three main continents, each surrounded by deep, uncharted seas. The land masses were heavily forested and sparsely populated, with only a handful of major town scattered over the globe. The forests were the planet's main industry and the serfs worked hard at cutting and milling the trees. Timber from the fast growing kraken-trees was much sought after throughout the civilised worlds; the dense, straight-grained wood worked easily, yet was impervious to decay and insect attack. Space-freighters from all over the Federation formed an almost permanent traffic-jam around the planet and landers were constantly boosting from the planet's surface with loads of milled timber.

On neighbouring worlds, various industries had developed to support and exploit Unaran's exports and, with the passage of time, the Unaran system had become a natural jump nexus. Space vessels of all shape and sizes could be found docked at the many orbital stations dotted throughout the system.

"We have received permission from Unaran to transfer our passengers down, subject to the usual immigration checks," Cusher's communications officer announced.

"When is the next descent window?"

"One of the bridge crew consulted his datascreen. "Not for another twenty-five s.u.'s, Commander."

"That give us plenty of time for a final briefing and to get ready," Cusher told Leith.

Leith nodded and instructed Kweela to have the Shutaka assemble in the recreation hall in two s.u.'s."

"What about Periwinkle?" she asked.

"We can have a visual link rigged up and displayed on the viewscreen in the rec hall," he replied. "Il-yar-Bisen might have something to say, too."

Kweela nodded and made her way from the bridge to carry out Leith's command.

"Well, Arail," said Leith, turning to the commander. "I guess it's almost time for us to part company. I hope you won't be too bored acting as a troop ship for the next season - or should I say a holy ship bringing pilgrims to the Church of Carth."

"I will make a pleasant change and Siven Group won't mind, as long as the payments are made on time."

"I'll see if I can convince the child-goddess to make you a saint for your service to her cause."

Cusher grinned. "This old soul is long past redemption, I think. Just get Krys to put in a good word with the devil for me."

Leith smiled back. "I'm sure the devil will do whatever she says. Well, I guess we'd better start preparing for the briefing."

Handing command of the bridge over to Visoni, Arail lead the way to the recreation hall. A lot of the Shutaka were already in the room and a group of techs were rigging up a viewscreen at one end of the chamber to show the briefing room aboard Periwinkle. Except for Lilith-Soo and the other warriors who were to be church priestesses, all of the Shutaka were dressed in variations of the simple close-fitting grey tunics that could be said to be the universal fashion of experienced travelers. These had been among the items that Periwinkle had purchased on Kruska.

To one side of the room stood four of the guard-droids that had also been purchased on Kruska. Kipsal-Nor had them connected to a portable computer terminal and was programming them for their tasks. Kipsal was obviously enjoying himself immensely and Leith was sure that the droids would have more than a few tricks up their figurative sleeves by the time he was finished.

Leith made his way over to where Kweela was waiting with Misha-Dan, Lilith-Soo and the Keepers. Something seemed strange about Kweela and it took him a moment before he realised what it was. Like the other Shutaka, she was wearing contact lenses that disguised her feline eyes. The minor change made a surprising difference and she looked rather ordinary - or at least as ordinary as someone of her beauty and stature could look. She would still stand out in a crowd, but not as a Shutaka. Lilith-Soo and the Keepers were wearing the light-blue gowns that they had decided would be their religious dress. Krys-Tian's gown was decorated in cursive symbols that were actually letters from the Shutaka alphabet. At first Leith had been wary of allowing them, believing that the best and most comprehensive plans often came undone because of a tiny mistake, but it was Jor-Dak who had convinced him.

"Krys knows what she is doing, mnan-gar. The letters are a sign to the rest of the Shutaka that we are not hiding out of fear. You have asked much of proud warriors; leave them with something."

"There are only half a dozen people in all of the known worlds who might recognise them," reasoned Misha-Dan. "It is a small risk to take, and worth it."

At the moment, Krys-Tian was doing the best she could in the low gravity to prevent herself becoming entangled in the long robe. Leith smiled at the increasing frustration showing on the child's face.

The techs had finished setting up the viewscreen and Leith saw that the Shutaka on Periwinkle were similarly attired in missionary garb. "Let's get this show on the road," he muttered to himself. He addressed the assembly. "People of the Shutaka," he said. "It is time. Most of you are warriors - many have served with me on dangerous missions before, so I know you will perform well what is required of you. Make no mistake, we are now going into battle. It may not be a battle of the kind you are familiar with, but it is a battle none the less. While the Shutaka have worked with others before on our missions, we have always fought alone. This time we will be fighting with others in ways that may seem strange at first." Leith indicated Cusher beside him. "To the crews of these two ships, the Shutaka owe much honare debt. To Belle Morninglight-on-Brook, upon whom so much depends, there may never be a way to repay the debt. Misha-Dan has decreed that, from this moment on, Belle Morninglight-on-Brook will be afforded parna-ka."

A murmur ran through the warriors. This was one of the highest accolades that could be paid to a non-Shutaka. Parna-ka could be likened to a collective ka - Belle would henceforth be protected by all Shutaka for the rest of her life. For their Lord-priest to make this decree was to indicate to the Shutaka the importance he placed upon what Belle was to do, and the esteem in which he held her. To the Shutaka, for someone to go into battle without their ka by their side was an outstanding act of bravery. By conferring parna-ka upon Belle, the Shutaka indicated that the thoughts of all of them went with her.

"You have all been told what Unaran is like," Leith continued. "We have been accepted as a missionary group and we must respect their customs and manners. Until we are ready for Basra, it will be our home and we shall treat it as such. The Shutaka may find the Unaran concept of serfdom strange and even distasteful, but we will be gracious guests. The lords and their officials will be recognised as the figures of authority and the Worshippers of Carth will obey every reasonable direction."

Leith indicated Kweela. "Kweela-San has been working on a training schedule so that the warriors will be able to maintain their skills. This must be done effectively, yet discreetly. While we are on Unaran, the Siven ships, along with Il-yar-Bisen will be seeking out other mercenary groups to eventually help us attack Basra. They will not know we are Shutaka, or what our long term plan is, so it will be important to be guarded in their presence. In Il-yar-Bisen's absence, Graine clan will be joining Banara and Forta clans. Never before have two clans, let alone three been together under one mnan-gar It is an momentous occasion and a great honour to me; I will seek to return that honour." Leith looked towards the viewscreen, where Il-yar-Bisen could be seen.

"Leith Birro of Dione," said the Harkarian. "I charge you to serve my warriors well. You have sworn an oath on the spirits of your ancestors; remember that well. Warriors of Banara and Forta, welcome your sisters as they welcome you."

"It will be so, Il-yar-Bisen of Harkar," said Lilith-Soo. "Safe journey, mnan-gar."

Leith glanced at his chrono and addressed the assembly again. "We will begin boarding the landers in about twenty s.u.'s. It will probably take us about ten s.u.'s to clear immigration on Unaran, and then we will make our way to the accommodation we have arranged. The next few cycles are going to be pretty busy, so make sure you're ready for it. That is all."

The Shutaka began leaving the recreation hall and making their way back to their quarters to prepare for the descent. The supplies that Periwinkle had purchased on Kruska had to be checked and loaded aboard drone landers that would follow the other landers down to Unaran under remote control. The Shutaka weapons had been carefully hidden among the supplies.

"Leith mnan-gar," said Misha-Dan. "The Keepers and I would speak with you, if you please." The Lord-priest motioned for Kweela, Lilith-Soo and Cusher to remain also. When the rest of the warriors had left the hall, the old man turned to Leith.

"While we were on AHS90043A, the Keepers began to notice a change in the energy surrounding the Pearl. Fluctuations are not uncommon and are rarely cause for concern. However, this disturbance is becoming stronger and has reached the point of being worrisome."

What do you mean by disturbance?" asked Leith.

"There is someone - or something - trying to interface with the Pearl," said Misha-Dan succinctly.

"It feels like someone is tugging at my mind," said Krys-Tian. "Pulling and pushing until sometimes I end up with a headache."

"Could it be the Aliens?" asked Leith.

"It is human, yet stronger than a normal human," said Jor-Dak quietly. "As if some form enhancement is being used."

"So what does it mean?" asked Leith.

"I'm not certain," said Misha-Dan. "The attempts are clumsy and undisciplined, as if the person is not fully aware of the nature of the Pearl."

"Is there a danger that control of the Pearl will be taken from the Keepers?"

'Have you not understood anything of what we told you on The Rock?" said Krys-Tian, with more than a hint of exasperation in her voice. "The Pearl is not something that can be controlled. What these intrusions can do is upset the foundation, or the balance of the Pearl. That is the danger."

"Isn't that what the Keepers are supposed to prevent?" Leith asked her.

"That is exactly what they are doing, mnan-gar," said the Lord-priest. "Without them, the Pearl would already have been irretrievably compromised. Whoever is attempting to interface with the Pearl has no concept of the effects of their actions. The methods they are using to enhance their attempts are incredibly powerful - certainly powerful enough to accomplish what they desire. If they succeed in mastering the techniques, I doubt if the Keepers will be able to protect the Pearl. Our only hope is that whoever developed such techniques made sure that it could only be absorbed effectively by someone who would not misuse the power."

"And the Keepers can't tell us anything more about this disturbance; where it is originating or who could possibly be behind it?"

Misha-Dan shook his head. "Unfortunately, no."

Leith let out a long breath. "Well then, there is nothing we can really do about it, except be aware of it. Are the Keepers confident they can continue to shield the Pearl?"

"They grow stronger each cycle," said Misha-Dan. "In particular, Jor-Dak has improved enormously of late; I sometimes struggle to keep up with him. He has such potential it is only a matter of time before the pupil passes the teacher. As long as their development is ahead of the unknown intruder's mastery of the enhancement device, the Pearl should be safe."

"And if this person does succeed in mastering the control techniques?" asked Cusher.

"Then we'll probably never know it," answered Leith. "We'll just cease to be. But let's just take things one step at a time, shall we? We've got a big enough job as it is just getting established on Unaran."

"Spoken like a Shutaka, Leith Birro," said Misha-Dan.

"A most Ganz-tu approach, oh demi-god," smiled Kweela.

Leith ignored them. "Commander," he said to Cusher. "I expect you'll be glad to be rid of these savages and their strange ways." With that, he reached out, grasped a handhold, and began pulling himself towards the exit hatch.

"I'm already starting to miss them," muttered Arail Cusher under her breath.

Leith and Kweela were among the last Shutaka to leave Hammerhead. After a smooth decent, their lander touched down on the boost pad at the main Unaran spaceport, Merrilean. Leaving Kweela to organise the Shutaka, Leith followed Izzy into the pilot's room to say farewell. The grizzled old mercenary shook Leith's hand in a vice-like grip.

"You'll let me know if you hear from Belle?"

"She'll be all right Izzy. You know that and I know that. She's a very special person."

"Sometimes I don't think you know how special, Leith," said Izzy, so quietly Leith almost missed it.

With a final handshake, Leith left the old pilot and went to find Kweela. Not surprisingly, he discovered her arguing with one of the Unaran officials.

"I could buy a small planet for that," she was telling a small, worried looking man.

"I'm sorry, but that is the standard fee set by the Council of Lords," he explained.

"What seems to be the problem?" asked Leith.

"This bandit wants to charge us this much for our arrival tax." Kweela snatched a piece of paper from the official and handed it to Leith.

"Good sir," said the Unaranian, bowing deeply. "Lodgemaster Gilbraith at your service. As I was explaining to your fair lady, there is no point arguing with me; I am but the humble servant of my master, Lord Hermain. He is the Lord of the Manor in Merrilean and his word is law. Our political and legal system was all explained to you when you applied for residency even though I am sure a learned man such as yourself would have researched Unaran prior to you application. The Council of Lords has determined the arrival fees to be paid by new settlers and they must be pledged before I can permit you to pass."

"But we are members of the holy order of Carth," said Leith, feigning indignation."The Child-goddess herself travels with us to found a new church on this planet. Surely such fees can be waived for us."

"Alas, sir, they cannot. We have many gods and goddesses on Unaran. Were they exempt from taxes and charges, the Lords' coffers would be soon empty."

Leith scowled. "You'd better pay the gentleman, Kweela, or we'll spend the rest of our life in this spaceport. Welcome to Unaran."

Chapter 10 -->