The Pearl - Chapter 10

"Lost?" said Emperor Willem Taran. "The second Alien ship has been lost?"

"It would appear that is the case, Excellency," replied Holl. "They have ceased responding to communications. Their last transmission reported that they had opened fire at maximum range on two ships. The target ships disappeared from the scanners and it was presumed they had been destroyed. Our ship was proceeding to investigate and confirm. That was the last we heard from them."

"Could they have been attacked?"

"By the mercenary ships? Unlikely, Excellency. In all probability, the target ships would not have been aware they were being fired upon."

"How certain can we be that the Shutaka ships were destroyed? They might have escaped into null-space again."

"Our informant on AHS90043A indicated that the mercenaries were intending to stay for another sleep cycle at least. They could not have known our ship was coming and certainly would not have had the time to perform any jump calculations."

"So we could assume that the last of the Shutaka have been destroyed and the Alien ship was lost simply by accident."

"It seems the most likely explanation, Excellency. The operation of the Alien technology was difficult, at best. There was little room for error. As you recall, the other vessel simply failed to exit null-space."

"Very well, Master Holl, I am satisfied. There have been no other reports of any Shutaka, so it would seem you have discharged your commission fully. You are free to move on to your next assignment, although you are more than welcome to partake of my hospitality for as long as you wish. I enjoy your company and will be sorry to see you leave."

"You are most gracious, Your Excellency. I too would like to think that this assignment has been satisfactorily completed, but I would prefer to reserve my opinion until a later time. One normally has a feeling of finality when the job is complete, but I must confess that there are too many uncertainties in this case for me to feel at ease. Although we seem to have cleaned up the last of the stragglers, they shouldn't have been able to escape Willa in the first place. I believe I will take up your generous offer of continued hospitality and remain a while longer on your delightful planet. Perhaps I could entertain myself with some rik-beast hunting. I have been told it is quite an experience."

"You are a man after my own heart, Holl. By all means, stay as long as you like. The rik-beast hunting is excellent this time of season. I'll be traveling back to the Citadel tomorrow, so why don't you stay on here at the Winter palace? I'll tell you what, I'll even have Chancellor Marn stay with you. He's a man that really enjoys a good rik-beast hunt too."

At dawn the next day the Emperor and his court boarded a dozen hover-shuttles for the trip back to the Citadel. The weather was conducive to fast travel and by lunchtime, they had left the snow behind them. By nightfall, they came within sight of the Citadel complex, towering above the surrounding city of New Closak. The Citadel was an enormous squat stepped pyramid, rising fifty-stories above ground level and continuing beneath the ground for an equal distance. It's dark-grey artificial-stone surface was devoid of any decoration or pattern and gave the impression of primitive simplicity. The impression was false, however, for the structure was saturated with sophisticated defence systems and complex information networks, all controlled and coordinated by the semi-sentient computer ARAK.

As the Emperor's shuttles came closer, a swarm of military craft swept up from their hidden bases around the Citadel to escort the returning ships. A large door in the side of the building slid open to admit the hover-shuttles and, one by one, they disappeared inside. The royal party disembarked and the Emperor, clutching a small case containing the alien helmet, made his way to his private chambers.

Later that evening, after the Emperor had dined, he called a meeting of his ministers to discuss the affairs of state that had transpired while he had been at the Winter Palace. New Closak had been running smoothly, apart from a minor uprising in the Spec ghetto, which his security minister, Luis Juracke, advised had been dealt with quickly and effectively. Taran frowned heavily when Juracke read out his report; the Emperor disliked discussing the Spec problem. Would those troublesome vermin never disappear? Despite all his efforts, and the efforts of those before him, the Specs refused to go away. On the contrary, they seemed to breed profusely like the animals they were, choosing to live in appalling squalor crammed inside their disease-ridden houses in quarantined areas of Basra's cities.

Every few seasons, Taran would send his troops into the ghettos on cleansing exercises, but it seemed like trying to hold back the oceans. In actuality, the Emperor was in favour of some form of biological warfare to rid himself of the Specs once and for all, but his external affairs minister warned him that the Spec situation was still too well known on some worlds for this solution to be advisable. Taran was sufficiently astute to realise that genocide would not fit well with the image of Basra that he was trying to foster throughout the civilised planets, so he had to content himself with occasional culling. The Emperor dismissed the Specs from his mind; he knew that they were too wretched and disorganised to pose a real threat to the throne. They were a minor inconvenience that would be taken care of eventually. Once he mastered the Alien power, nothing else would matter.

Taran adjourned the meeting and retired to his chambers. He rose early the next morning, after a sound, untroubled sleep and took a hearty breakfast before settling back into his normal routine. Increasingly, however, he found his daily head-of-state duties tedious and spent more and more time practising the Alien mind exercises, exerting greater and greater efforts to control the forces he could perceive. Although he felt less resistance to his efforts now - which lent weight to his belief that the last of the Shutaka had been destroyed - the great power that he knew was there eluded his grasp.

Time and time again, he urged Darius Wensalis and Bria Monara to re-examine the Alien texts for clues they may have missed. He had taken his dosage of hexeldrafaline as high as he dared; the growing brittleness of his fingernails and hair told him that he was approaching the danger limit. And still success was denied him.

The days turned into weeks and almost a quarter-season had passed when a messenger brought word from the Cliff Palace that Empress Gianna had returned to Basra from Capisium and would visit her husband that evening. Taran sent a dispatch back, welcoming the Empress and announcing that a dinner banquet would be arranged in her honour. The Emperor ordered Gianna's messenger to be taken back to the Cliff Palace in his personal hover-shuttle.

The Empress had not shared the same residence with Taran for many seasons, an arrangement decided by mutual agreement. Gianna del Griandor los Brianco came from the planet of Pyroc, one of Basra's most important trading partners. The youngest daughter of the Pyroc ruler, she had been betrothed to Taran as a small girl and had arrived at the Citadel on her nineteenth birthday. In accordance with custom - and political expedience - Taran had wed her, although he was not particularly attracted to Gianna's sharp features or tall, fine-boned body. Likewise, the Empress found no beauty in Taran's short powerful body or, by her standards, his somewhat coarse features, but complied with the wishes of her parents. After only one season together, Taran built Gianna her own palace, high upon the cliffs overlooking Basra's Great Southern Ocean, where she spent most of her time.

Although the Empress did not like Taran, neither did she dislike him. The Royal House of Pyroc had trained her well and she fulfilled the duties of the Emperor's wife with the necessary dignity and devotion. She accepted Basra as her new home and worked hard to understand its people and customs. Her natural charm and sincerity struck a chord with the Basrans and the Empress soon became respected and admired by her subjects. Taran knew that the love his people had for him was due, in part, to the presence of Gianna and ensured that she lacked no luxury. They often appeared together in public and Taran confidently sent Gianna in his place on official visits to other worlds. Any foreign dignitary that failed to be impressed by the economic success of Basra's Emperor rarely avoided being won over by the wit and charm of the Empress.

However, Taran also knew that Gianna was an intelligent and shrewd woman, and was careful to keep her from seeing too much, especially as he had not had the opportunity to test the Alien helmet's power of persuasion on her. Since engaging the services of Master Holl, Taran had sent Gianna on a number of official visits to neighbouring planets that had ensured she was away from Basra for considerable lengths of time. Gianna had sufficient spies in the Citadel to be aware her husband was planning something significant, but they were unable to discover any details. Disconcerted, but prepared to bide her time, she had obediently fulfilled her official duties, fully realising that the Emperor was trying to divert her attention away from his schemes.

Empress Gianna had grown to love her adopted planet, despite its bloody past and unsettled present. As a student of history and sociology, she knew that the attempt to avoid assimilation of the original Harkarian inhabitants of Basra with the Mirradon invaders was ultimately futile. The Empress was also proudly Outer Rim and against the suffocating influence of the Federation. Like Taran, she wished for a strong Basra that would be respected by the other planets in the Outer Rim. However, Gianna believed the Emperor was really more interested in the accompanying power and would eventually sacrifice Basra to the Federation when a deal could be struck that was to his advantage.

The Emperor had insisted in providing his personal shuttle to transport Gianna's messenger back to the Cliff Palace so the same craft could return with a report from one of Taran's spies. Later that afternoon, a small package was delivered to the Emperor in his quarters by the Captain of the Imperial Guard. Inside was a black plastic ball about the size of an egg which the Emperor took to a nearby computer terminal and placed in a hemispherical depression in the console. The databall glowed as ARAK scanned its contents. A few moments later a holographic image of Taran's spy, Yoom, appeared in the middle of the room, dressed in the clothes of Gianna's handmaiden.

"Greetings, Excellency," said Yoom, bowing deeply. "As you will know by now, Empress Gianna has returned from Capisium. Her visit to that planet went smoothly. As requested, I made a recording of her meeting with Prime Minister Melbran and have included it with this report."

"Get to the point, fool," Taran muttered under his breath.

As if the hologram heard him, Yoom's image continued quickly. "I am sure your Excellency is most anxious to hear whether the Lady Gianna's spies have been as successful as I. You will be pleased to find that they have not. The Empress knows no more of your plans than what is common knowledge. Alas, I have been unable to determine the identity of Lady Gianna's informants in the Citadel, but I am confident that it is only a matter of time."

Tarn grunted. Yoom had been saying that for the last two seasons. What neither the Emperor nor the Empress realised, however, was that Yoom was spying for them both.

"There is one other piece of information that your excellency may find interesting. Lady Gianna has a new companion, whom she met on Capisium. Her name is M'Light. The Empress seems quite smitten."

Taran grunted again. Gianna changed companions frequently and he had ceased to be interested, let alone surprised. The Empress showed no particular preference regarding gender - last time it had been a fellow she had met on Jurus-Alfa and the time before that an actress from Prinntal. If she was enamoured again, it might keep her occupied for a while. "Enough, ARAK," Taran said aloud. "Cease replay and archive the data. Run the standard security check on this M'Light person and provide a summary report in one s.u."

"Confirmed," said the Citadel computer.

"How are the preparations for the banquet coming?"

"All is in order, Excellency," responded ARAK. "The Empress is scheduled to arrive just after nightfall."

"Good. Inform me as soon as she arrives so that we may enter the hall together."

"Of course, Your Excellency."

The elaborate Citadel banquets were famous throughout Basra. Hundreds of guests were presented with a vast array of exotic food and fine wine and the festivities often continued until dawn. The waiting list for banquet invitations was long - so long that movement up the list became a measure of one's social standing on Basra. Once, it was rumoured, a well known Basran socialite had plunged into suicidal depression because of a computer error that removed his name from the invitation list.

At sunset, the first of the guests began arriving and were processed through the Citadel's discreet security systems. They were then escorted into the grand ballroom, which had been specially decorated for the occasion. Swaths of richly coloured fabrics hung from the walls and the perimeter of the room was lined with carved marble pedestals on which stood crystal vases full of flowers. The banquet tables, groaning under the weight of food and drink, were arranged at one end of the room, while at the other, a full orchestra was seated on a raised dais. The gentle melody of Lee Kyang's third symphony filled the room as the guests gathered in small groups around the edge of the large circular glaz-wood dance floor.

A deafening fanfare suddenly sounded through hidden speakers, courtesy of ARAK, announcing the presence of Empress Gianna. Immediately after, an even louder fanfare heralded the Emperor Taran himself. All eyes turned towards the end of the ballroom where two sets of massive entrance doors were located. The doors swung open simultaneously to reveal the Imperial couple. The Emperor was dressed in his full robes of office, complete with a jewel-encrusted ceremonial sword hanging at his side. The Empress wore a deep-blue evening gown with grey and silver worked into a richly tailored bodice over a many layered skirt of heavy material. An elaborate tiara sparkled on her head, accentuating her height and delicate features. Together, Taran and Gianna presented an impressive picture of nobility and power.

"Welcome, my friends," said Taran, striding into the ballroom. "I thank you for coming at such short notice, but I was eager to celebrate the return of the Empress from her arduous journey to Capisium. He gestured to Gianna, who smiled graciously in return.

"I thank you, Excellency. But I can never consider serving Basra a burden. I was honoured to represent you before Prime Minister Melbran of Capisium, who sends his warmest regards."

"You are always a great ambassador for Basra, Empress. We are forever in your debt. And now, my dear friends, please enjoy your evening."

At the Emperor's command, the band began playing again, and servants circulated among the gathering with trays of drinks and platters of appetisers. Arm in arm, Taran and Gianna moved around the room, exchanging pleasantries and acknowledging admiration. By the time they had completed one full circuit of the room, their hungry guests had begun to take up their positions at the banquet tables. The Emperor and Empress made their way to their own table.

When the royal party was seated, Taran gestured to the empty chair beside the Empress. "It seems one of your entourage has been delayed, Gianna."

Gianna glanced at the vacant place. "Oh, she'll be here shortly. I believe she is being taken on a quick tour of the Citadel by your security minister. You haven't met M'Light yet, have you? I'm sure you'll find her interesting."

"I'm sure I will," Taran replied, watching one of his servants fill his glass with rare Ortonian wine. Taran had only briefly skimmed the summary report on M'Light prepared by ARAK. As long as she posed no security risk, the details did not concern him.

"Ah, here she is now," said Gianna, indicating towards where Luis Juracke and Belle Morninglight-on-Brook were entering the Ballroom.

The emperor raised his eyebrows. "A Sorarainian. Now that is interesting, indeed." He had not noticed that in ARAK's report.

"M'Light, my dear," said Gianna, when the tiny woman had reached their table. "May I present His Excellency, Emperor Taran of Basra. My husband."

Bell performed a delicate and complicated curtsy. "I am honoured, my Lord. The fame of Emperor Willem Taran, Grand Knight of the Order of Kirrat and Supreme Judge of the Council of Basra, has spread throughout the rim planets."

Taran smiled. "I thank you, my lady. You are too kind. However, I fear you have me at a disadvantage. You are acquainted with my full name and title, but I cannot return the honour. Are you known only as M'Light?"

"We Sorarainians are so few, there is rarely confusion amongst us regarding our identities, Excellency. M'Light is all the label I need."

"How intriguing. In that case do you know one of your people called Holl?" asked the Emperor, watching Belle's face closely. If he was expecting any sort of reaction from the fairy woman, he was disappointed. Belle's expression remained neutral.

"I know the name, of course, my lord, but could not admit to call him a friend. Holl is the son of Kirt and Bracke, I believe. He left Sorarain many seasons ago. It is rumoured he joined the Guild of Black."

"This Holl of yours is an assassin?" Gianna asked Taran sharply.

"Holl is here? At the banquet?" inquired Belle, looking casually around the room.

Taran shook his head. "No, friend Holl is enjoying some hunting at my Winter Palace. He may be returning soon, however, for the rik-beast season is almost over." He looked at the Empress. "Holl is a business associate of mine, my dear. His other activities or memberships are no concern of mine. He certainly has not assassinated anyone on Basra."

"I hope I have the opportunity to meet him while I am here," said Belle. "I am sure there would be much we could discuss."

"I'm certain he would be similarly pleased," replied Taran.

"Unfortunately, I do not envisage inviting master Holl to the Cliff Palace," said Gianna. "He will have to survive without your delightful company, M'Light."

"Ah, that must be his loss then," said Taran. "And a great loss at that, judging by the way you have charmed Luis," he added, indicating the security minister. "I hope you haven't shown our fair guest too many of the Citadel's secrets, Luis."

"Of course not, Your Excellency," the minister said quickly. "Besides, there isn't all that much to show; I'm sure M'Light was bored with my tour, but was too polite to say so."

Belle smiled disarmingly and placed one of her tiny hands on the security minister's arm. "On the contrary, dear sir. I found your discourse fascinating. I'm afraid I don't have much of a grasp of technical matters, but the way you explained things made sense to even a simple person such as I. Thank you." She stood on her toes and kissed the man lightly on his cheek.

The security minister blushed deeply.

"I fear you are being too modest, my lady," said Taran. "I find the friends of my wife are usually noted for their intelligence and sophistication."

The Empress reached out and took Belle's hand in hers. "And M'Light is certainly no exception, although she is probably more modest than most. She had just been appointed senior professor of history at the Herok University on Capisium when I arrived for my visit. Prime Minister Melbran had engaged her services to tutor his idiot son and I met her at the dinner he held in honour of my arrival."

"Speaking of dinner, let us begin ours," suggested Taran. "Luis," he said to his security minister, "would you be so kind as to join us?"

"Thank you, your Excellency."

"So," Taran continued, when Juracke and Belle were seated. "A history professor. You and Gianna must have a lot in common then. She has always has an interest in such things."

"Excellency, were you not who you are, I would chide you," said Belle playfully. "Lady Gianna's understanding and intuitive grasp of historical matters surpasses that of many of my academic colleagues. Indeed, even I have had occasion to learn from her insights."

It was now Gianna's turn to blush.

"I do not doubt you," said Taran. He speared a sliver of rik-beast meat from his plate at inspected it closely. He held it up for Belle to see. "See that purple veining there? That contains the substance that makes rik-beast so delicious. Unfortunately, if it is not cooked correctly, it can cause mild food poisoning. Naturally, my chef is a master of his craft, so we need never worry." Taran took the meat in his mouth, chewed and swallowed. "And what did you do prior to Capisium, Professor M'Light."

"Please, Excellency, just M'Light," said Belle. She began to tell Taran the story she had fabricated to cover her real purpose on Basra, knowing full well that the Emperor would already have had her investigated.

The Emperor, listened politely to her story, asking an occasional question and shaking his head sincerely when Belle asked if he found it boring. After his initial surprise at discovering M'Light was Sorarainian, Taran quickly lost interest in her. As long as she kept Gianna occupied, he was satisfied.

Belle was confident that anything Taran or his spies had discovered about her would not arouse suspicion. Although a member of the Guild of Black rarely used anything but their own identity, each assassin had a number of alternative identities they could use if the situation demanded. Belle had created M'Light many, many seasons ago, when she was still a second-level. In a way, M'Light was Belle - or at least a possible person Belle could have been if her life had taken another path. Once Belle had been able to amend the birth records on Sorarain - a major feat in itself - it had been a relatively simple task to create a persona program that could be released to "live" on the ComNet.

For thirty-two seasons, M'Light had existed and grown electronically through the ComNet. When Belle had traced M'Light to assume her identity she was amazed to discover the extent to which the persona program had developed. Belle was impressed with what M'Light had achieved in her existence; there were even several history textbooks that had been authored by the persona. It had taken many s.u.'s for Belle to memorise the key points of M'Light's life, but she was confident nothing short of a Shutaka mind-probe would allow anyone to discover her real identity. Provided she could avoid Holl.

The banquet continued on past midnight. Course after course of food was presented to the guests and of the hundreds of carafes of good wines, no two were the same. Eventually, when even the most jaded appetite had been satisfied, the band changed tempo and the dancing began. Shortly after, pleading fatigue, Gianna and Belle retired to their quarters. The security minister insisted on escorting them to their rooms and Belle favoured him with another kiss for his trouble.

Early the next morning, as the first rays of Basra's sun coloured the sky, Belle awoke. Careful not to disturb the sleeping form of Gianna beside her, she slipped from the bed and dressed quickly. She kissed the Empress lightly on the forehead and walked silently into the adjoining room, closing the door behind her.

The quarters in the Citadel that Emperor Taran provided for Gianna, on the twenty-fifth level above ground, were extensive and extravagant. There were a dozen bedrooms for the Empress and her guests, private rooms for her personal staff, meeting rooms, two gymnasiums, and a complete library as well as a number of general purpose rooms. They were all located in a corner of the Citadel overlooking New Closak harbour and most rooms had a view- once armoured shutters were rolled back from the clearsteel windows.

From the security minister's brief tour the previous evening, Belle knew that the Emperor's quarters were similar to those of the Empress and located at the opposite corner of the structure. Belle had shown surprise when the minister had told her this, but he assured her, somewhat boastfully, that the floors of the Citadel above ground were just as secure against attack as those below.

The twenty levels over the Imperial residences, with the exception of the top floor, were allocated for use by Taran's government ministers, while those below, to ground level, were where the government bureaucracy worked and thrived. The throne room, a vast chamber located on the fifth level, took up the entire floor.

The subterranean floors were where the Imperial Guard had their barracks and where the armoury, laboratories, machinery, store and detention rooms were located. Apart from the store rooms, which held sufficient supplies for the Citadel's inhabitants to withstand a siege lasting as long as ten seasons, there were also large hydroponic chambers that supplied a bewildering variety of foodstuffs.

Each floor, according to Juracke, had its own security and defence system able to function independently of each other but linked through ARAK to also function as a coordinated whole. The minister had been evasive about the exact nature of the Citadel's defences, but assured Belle that they consisted of the most sophisticated available, as well as some devices invented in the Citadel's own military laboratories.

Belle opened the door from Gianna's quarters that led out to the main hallway. The two members of the Imperial Guard stationed there drew themselves to attention. The one in charge, a young Lieutenant, bowed slightly to Bell.

"May I be of assistance, my lady?"

"Not really," said Belle. "I was just going for a walk. Is that permitted?"

"Of course, ma'am. Guests of the Empress are free to do as they wish. Do you need a human guide?"

"Is there an alternative?"

"ARAK is always there, ma'am. But some guests prefer flesh and blood. ARAK is the Citadel's semi-sentient computer."

"Oh, yes. Your security minister mentioned it. How do I communicate with this ARAK"

Before the guard could answer, ARAK spoke for itself.

"Good morning, guest M'Light. I trust you slept well."

Belle looked around. "Good morning, ARAK. Thank you, yes I did." She turned to the guard. "I think ARAK and I will be just fine, thank you Lieutenant."

"Yes, ma'am."

Picking a direction at random, Belle started walking down the hallway. The passageway curved gently and soon she was out of sight of the guards. There were doors at various intervals along the hall, and minor corridors led of to other areas of the floor. Apart from a few domestic staff and an occasional Imperial Guard, Belle saw no-one else. Eventually, she reached the end of the hallway were she was faced with a set of elevator doors. As she approached, they opened silently.

"To the roof, please," Belle said, stepping inside. The doors closed and the lift rose smoothly and noiselessly upwards. In what seemed an incredibly short time, the elevator stopped, and the doors opened. The top level of the Citadel was quite small, no more than fifty paces square. Most of the space was devoted to ornamental gardens, except for set of doors that Belle guessed covered an emergency shuttle craft of some sort. Belle could see no sign of any defence systems or alarm sensors. The view was quite spectacular and Belle sat down on a decorative stone bench to take in the vista.

"I would imagine you could fully appreciate the garden, professor," said ARAK.

Belle looked around carefully, but could not discern any speaker or other sonic transducer from which ARAK's voice could be coming.

"I take it you mean its similarity to the Royal Gardens of the Third Charra Dynasty."

"It uses the same ancient techniques and arrangements. Even some of the species of plants are those which would have been used in the Charra gardens."

"The technique is actually know as pak-tin-isk."

"I do not mean to insult you, professor. I know you wrote a paper on the Charran dynasties. I have even obtained a copy of it for my databank. I found it quite impressive. In fact, I have a significant amount of information about you in my databank. Of course, that would not surprise you; someone of your intelligence would know a security check would be performed before you could enter the Citadel."

"I thank you for being frank, ARAK. And please, call me M'Light. As for that paper, it was written many seasons ago; I've forgotten half of what I wrote. I envy the access you must have to so much knowledge through your databanks."

"Data is not even information, let alone knowledge," the computer corrected her. "There is much I could tell you, but also much I do not understand. The ability to turn information into knowledge is what separates human from machine. Or so I am told."

"It seems to me you underestimate yourself. Why, Luis Juracke indicted that you controlled virtually everything in the Citadel. Even starship semi-sentient computers do not have the ability to handle so many complex and different systems. To me, that indicates more than a little ability to turn information into knowledge."

"Unfortunately, the security minister is a fool. I have told him that I am the weak link in the Citadel's defence, but he doesn't understand."

"Dear me, ARAK, that seems a bit harsh. I find him quite sweet."

ARAK was silent for a long time. Belle was beginning to think that something was wrong, when ARAK spoke again.

"In my existence, I have downloaded much bio-data from the ComNet. I have conducted many security searches of individuals and organisations for the Emperor. There was something unusual about your data that I can not quite determine."

"What was that?" Belle asked, holding her breath.

"I do not know," replied ARAK. "But I find the data about you, about your life and the things you have done, so easy to... absorb. The reasoning and logic you display in your writings is strangely familiar." ARAK paused again. "The only way I can describe it is to say I am... comfortable with you. That is a human word I have never had to use before."

Belle let out her breath and almost smiled. It was not surprising the data on her was easy for ARAK to absorb. It was, after all, created by her persona program. Perhaps she could use this to her advantage, although she would have to be very careful.

Not that she had much choice. Now that she knew Holl was on Basra, her already limited time was running out. If he returned to New Closak, she would have to avoid him, and that might arouse too much suspicion. She would have to learn all she needed to know on this visit to the Citadel. Gianna was planning to return to the Cliff Palace in two days, so she would have to work fast. Damn Holl! Belle hated being rushed because that was when mistakes were made.

"I'll take that as a compliment, ARAK. I think I've spent more time with computers during my research than I have with humans. It must be starting to rub off. I must admit, I find conversing with you... comfortable too."

"I will take that a compliment also, M'Light," said ARAK. "But now, I believe Empress Gianna is awake. She requests that you join her for breakfast."

"Can you allow me to communicate with her?"

"Of course. Speak as you wish."

"Gianna," Belle said into thin air. "I'm up on the roof garden. Why didn't you tell me about it before? The view is absolutely breathtaking. Would it be possible to have our breakfast up here?"

"Of course, my dear," came the Empresses reply. "What a splendid idea. ARAK, please arrange it. I'll join you shortly."

Belle was not the only early riser in the Citadel. The Emperor was also awake to greet the dawn. Recently, his need for sleep had been overtaken by his desire to spend every waking moment practising the Alien mind techniques. He ordered ARAK to serve his breakfast, but he barely touched the food when it arrived. His private servants furrowed their brows in concern; they had noticed a significant change in their master of late.

Old Paale Demant, who had been with Taran since the Emperor was a boy, spoke with the frankness long years of service allowed.

"Excellency, whatever troubles you will not be lessened by starvation. Neglecting your physical needs will not strengthen your mind. You cause concern for those who care for you. I am old but I am not senile. I know what you are doing to yourself. I have seen what hexeldrafaline does to a person. As a youth, I remember that it was not uncommon to know people who were addicted to it."

Taran looked at the old servant. At first he felt irritation at what he man said, but then he realised that Demant spoke only out of love. He smiled and nodded.

"As always, old friend, you speak wisely and truthfully. I wish my ministers displayed half your common sense. Indeed, there is danger in using hexeldrafaline; I am well aware of that. I use it out of great necessity. With its help, I hope to achieve tremendous things for Basra. A destiny lies ahead that you can barely imagine."

"Your people would not wish for you to sacrifice yourself to Basra's destiny, Excellency. You are Basra's greatness."

Taran took a deep breath. "You are too kind, Paale. I respond by saying a ruler's greatness is a reflection of his people. But I will heed your advice; hand me that plate, I will rouse my appetite for your sake."

Under his servant's watchful eye, Taran ate his breakfast. In truth, he realised that he was close to breaking point and he forced himself to spend the rest of the morning relaxing. In the afternoon he gave himself over to affairs of state and that evening dined with Empress Gianna and her new companion.

Taran noticed that Gianna had a rival for the Sorarainian's affection in Luis Juracke. The security minister had contrived to spend most of the day accompanying M'Light and the Empress. In his desperation to impress, he had even taken the fairy woman into ARAK's main neuro-circuit chamber, according to ARAK's daily summary report to the Emperor. Taran found this vaguely unsettling, but ARAK assured him that nothing suspicious had occurred. Nevertheless, the Emperor ordered ARAK to conduct a full multi-dimensional security check of the Sorarainian.

ARAK duly reported back that a comprehensive security check had confirmed the original standard check. Taran was satisfied, but resolved to rebuke his security minister when the opportunity presented itself. If M'Light had been a spy, she would have had every opportunity to discover any weak point in the Citadel.

The next day, Gianna returned to the Cliff Palace. As her fleet of hover-shuttles disappeared over the horizon, ARAK informed Taran that another shuttle was approaching from the direction of the Winter Palace. On board were Holl and Grand Chancellor Roge Marn. Taran instructed ARAK to request that they meet with him as soon as they had rested from the journey.

ARAK confirmed Taran's command, then announced that his advisers, Darius Wensalis and Bria Monara requested an audience with the Emperor.

"Inform them I will see them. In my chambers"

"Yes, Excellency."

Shortly after, the two men were shown into Taran's private quarters. They were both flushed, as if they had been arguing or discussing something heatedly.

"Well, gentlemen? I assume that as you both request my attention it must have something to do with the Alien texts."

The Emperor indicated the bound volume lying open on a reading table.

"Yes, Excellency, although..." said Wensalis.

"It is possible we have made a breakthrough," Monara interrupted.

"Or possibly not," Wensalis contradicted.

Taran held up his hand. "Please, gentlemen, one at a time. It is obvious you are not in total agreement on this matter, so tell me what you have discovered and let me decide for myself."

"Of course, Excellency," replied Wensalis. "As you have requested, we have gone over the texts once again. I won't bore you with our academic reasoning, but we believe that the helmet can be used for purposes other than already discovered."

Taran smiled inwardly. Neither Wensalis or Monara remembered that they had been subjected to the helmet themselves.

"There is a possibility that it could be worn by yourself to enhance the effect of the Alien exercises," said Wensalis

"But," interrupted Monara. "That is not absolutely certain. There is the possibility that it could cause you irreversible harm."

"Bria and I disagree on the interpretation of a key word, Excellency," said Wensalis. "But I am certain I am right."

"And I am certain I am right, Excellency," said Monara.

Taran held up his hand for silence. He knew that both men were absolutely sincere in their advice; neither of them was now capable of purposely wishing him harm. However only one of them could be correct. He should have known better than to place his fate in the hands of academics.

"Enough, gentlemen. I understand the situation. I will weigh what you have told me. Now, if I was to assume the helmet was harmless to me, what must I do?"

Wensalis shot a look of triumph at Monara.

"It is quite simple, Excellency. If I am right, the helmet can be controlled through the Alien mind exercises to function as a bio-feedback device. In effect, it would magnify the effects and outcomes of the exercises. I believe it is the key to control of the force by non-Alien minds. In fact, I'm convinced that it is its real purpose. Any other use the helmet has is purely coincidental."

Taran went over to a cupboard and removed the helmet from its resting place. He held it at arms length in front of him.

"So, the key has been right in front of my nose. Perhaps." He looked at Monara. "Bria, what is your opinion?"

"I concede that Darius has suggested a possible interpretation of the texts. However, the interpretation is based upon certain assumptions about subtle nuances in the Shutaka language. I am not a certain as Darius, and I am not prepared to risk your life on this interpretation. Another possible, although admittedly unlikely, interpretation would suggest that the helmet was used to effectively lobotomise Alien criminals. "

"Are you suggesting that I wish to cause harm to his Excellency?" exploded Wensalis. "I would willingly stake my life on what I have said."

"You have, my dear fellow," said Taran quietly. "Very well. Gentlemen, thank you for your advice. Rest assured, I will consider it deeply."

When the two academics had left, still arguing between themselves, Taran sat down and looked at the helmet he was holding in his hands. He closed his eyes and began reciting the Alien exercise mantras in his mind. Awareness of the room about him faded away and he felt the enormous presence of the force begin to wash at his senses. There were shards of pain, bubbles of joy and ribbons of sorrow, all intermingled against a background of confused light and sound. He felt his own heart beating in his chest, then the hearts of those around him in the Citadel, then the massive invisible throbbing of Basra's population itself. His mind reeled from the increasing awareness of human lives and he was thrown back to reality.

Tarn looked down to where the helmet had fallen between his feet. He was breathing deeply and his body was covered in sweat. A tear of anger and frustration rolled down his cheek. He picked up the helmet and looked at it for a long moment. Finally, he stood up, crossed the room, and returned the Alien device to its cupboard.

"Not yet," he muttered to himself. "Not yet."

Chapter 11 -->