The Pearl - Chapter 11

Ambassador Gisele Mar sighed in frustration. The ambassador seated next to her nodded his head in agreement. Inner-Rim full council meetings were tedious at best and usually mind-numbingly inefficient. Trivial matters were debated furiously by individuals whose sole purpose in life was to prattle on endlessly in front of the assembly. Matters of genuine importance were usually deferred until the next meeting, simply because few of the Council had the ability to grasp the issue. Either that, or they were simply afraid of making a decision which might return to haunt them in the future. In any event, the result was that none of the real problems facing the Federation were ever addressed.

The Council meeting limped on to its usual ineffectual ending and the ambassadors filed from of the Sacred Hall of Truth. Outside, the light rain that had been falling that morning had stopped and a brilliant sunset painted the paved piazza. Gisele took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the clean spring air, and walked slowly across to one of the outdoor cafes that lined the square. It was close to the time when most citizens of Nova Earth took their evening meal, so empty tables were scarce. Gisele heard her name called and she looked over to where a group of people were beckoning. Two of the men she recognised, but the three women were unknown to her. She walked over to their table and the waiter, noticing the small badge denoting her ambassador status, bowed low and quickly produced an extra chair.

"Thank you," Gisele said to those at the table. "Things seem quite busy this evening." She glanced at the menu the waiter offered her and ordered a light meal and a carafe of wine.

"The Pavare Theatre begins its season tonight," said one of the men, who Gisele knew as Boole, son of Ambassador Himk. "Everyone is having an early meal so they can get good seats. Ambassador Mar, may I introduce Milleen Travenstan and her sister Felicity. They're the cousins of the Ambassador for Lister VII. Of course you know Master Erin and Lu-Chay Srang."

Gisele smiled hello. "Please," she said. "Call me Gisele. We are not in the Hall of Truth now." She turned to Lu-Chay. "I'm terribly sorry, Lu; I didn't recognise you. You look marvelous. It's an excellent bio."

"Thank you, Gisele." She turned so the Ambassador could see her profile. "I went for the neo-classical look this time."

"It suits you. And the hand are so fine. I'll have to try it next time."

Like most of those who inhabited the Inner Rim Planets, Gisele made frequent use of bio-replacements and body sculpture. At the moment, she wore the body of a young woman barely twenty seasons old. Of the people around her, the average age seemed to be about twenty-five. None appeared to be over thirty seasons, generally the age at which most people returned to the bio-techs. The exception was Master Erin who was over seventy seasons old and still possessed his original body, except for some minor organ transplants.

The old man had come to Nova Earth, the current host planet of the Inner Rim Council, as a small boy. He had served for many seasons as Master of Arms to the Council, a largely ceremonial role steeped in tradition. He had retired three seasons ago and, as was normal for those who had served the Council well, was made a Free Citizen. This meant that the state would provide for all of his material needs until the day he died. Naturally this included all bio-replacement treatments, but Master Erin had so far declined any except those necessary to sustain his life. It seemed the Free Citizen enjoyed the effect his time-ravaged body had on his friends and acquaintances, especially those whose chronological age he knew was the same as his.

"And you, Master Erin; you are well?" Gisele asked.

"Aye, Ambassador. As well as can be expected," the old man smiled. "How goes the Council these days?"

Gisele shrugged. "As slowly as ever, Master. I hope we never are called upon to make a critical decision at short notice. It never ceases to amaze me that the Inner Rim commands the respect it does among the other planets in the Federation."

"The Council feasts upon its reputation, Ambassador. They were once noted for their swift and purposeful action, but that was well before your time. Or mine for that matter. My father's father used to tell me great stories of the golden days of the Council. In fact, it was those stories that drew me to Nova Earth."

"We may need to count on more than reputation soon, Master."

The waiter returned with Gisele's meal and she suddenly realised she was more hungry than she had first thought. The others watched in silence as she ate. When she had finished, she poured a glass of wine from the carafe and leaned back in her chair.

"So, what is the latest from the Outer Rim, then?" asked Boole. "The Council seems reluctant to release much information these days."

"The Full Council doesn't know much these days," replied Gisele, swallowing a mouthful of the fragrant local wine. "Committees and working-parties are how most things get done. FedFleet and OREF report directly to the Security Committee and they only pass onto the Full Council what they think won't upset the buggers."

"You're on the Security Committee, aren't you, Gisele?" asked Lu-Chay.

"Only indirectly. I'm proxy for Ambassador Luellan when he can't attend. I generally only get to see the meeting minutes."

"Still, you must hear more about what's going on than the average person," said Boole.

Gisele smiled. "My dear fellow, you ask me to tell you Council matters when we are seated at the same table as Master Erin. He would report me to the Council Discipline Committee in an instant. You should know better."

"Master Erin wouldn't do that. Besides, he's retired now; he's no longer Master at Arms."

"Master at Arms never retire," said the old man, with a sigh. "You have embarrassed the Ambassador, Boole. She has come here to eat, not to be interrogated."

"You are right, Master," said Boole. "Of course, I would not ask Gisele to breach any confidences, but it's just that the rumours are running wild lately. People can sense something is going on and are naturally curious. My father's mood has changed so much recently. He's even talking about resigning from the Council and returning home."

"That would be a loss," said Gisele, tracing her finger around the rim of her glass. "He is one of the good ones - even if I don't agree with his politics."

"That's what I've never understood about you, Gisele," said Lu-Chay. "You come from Jedmon, one of the oldest Inner Rim planets. Now, Jedmon is strongly in favour of a single federation of planets and you are her Ambassador, yet you personally support an independent Outer Rim."

Gisele drained her glass and poured another one.

"I believe there is merit in that direction, yes. However, don't doubt, for one moment, my absolute loyalty to the Inner Rim and the Federation. And, one of the reasons I am proud to be the Ambassador for Jedmon is because of our acceptance of an individual's right to believe what they wish. No-one on Jedmon would find it strange that my personal views should coexist with the views I must officially hold as my planet's Council representative. Even my brother, who joined the OREF academy as soon as he came of age, accepted my right to disagree with his beliefs without questioning my loyalty to the Federation."

Gisele wondered what had suddenly made her think of Doran. It had been many seasons since she had seen him; she didn't have the vaguest idea where he was now or what he was doing. Since their parents had died, Doran had not been back to Jedmon, and she had eventually lost track of him. The last she had heard was that Doran had walked away from a distinguished career in the OREF.

"I'm sorry," said Boole. "I can't see how you could accept someone's beliefs that are contrary to yours without trying to change them. Both can't be right. If you believe in something, you have to try an convince those who doubt."

"Both can't be right, but both can be wrong," replied Gisele. "Who am I to say my way is right, just because I believe it?"

"This is all getting a bit too philosophical," protested one of the Travenstan sisters, speaking for the first time. "Let's order some more wine and forget about politics and the Council for a while. It's too nice an evening to talk about such boring things."

"You're right," agreed Gisele. The wine was beginning to go to her head. Gisele had been drawn into this discussion so many times before, with so many different people. She was tired of it. She held up her carafe of wine. "Try some of this; it's pretty good stuff."

It was quite late by the time Gisele left the cafe. Master Erin lived not too far from the Ambassador, so they shared a hovercab to their district. She farewelled the old man and walked down the tree-lined boulevard to her apartment complex. At the entry portal, Gisele paused while the security system scanned her retina pattern, mapped her visible skin blemishes and analysed her olfactory print. The olfactory check was the latest in identification techniques and Gisele still found it mildly amusing that the computer could analyse and codify the unique components of her body odour. She hadn't been able to fool it yet, even after tonight's meal heavily laced with garlic and three carafes of the strongly-scented local wine.

When the security program was satisfied, it unlocked the doors and allowed Gisele to enter the lobby. The lift was waiting expectantly and a few moments later she was outside her apartment on the nineteenth level. At that point the domestic computer took over from the building computer and the front door swung open in welcome. Gisele made her way wearily to the bedroom and fell across her bed. A moment later, the com-screen in the wall beside the bed came to life and she groaned softly.

"Not now. Whatever it is can wait until morning."

"Priority override," replied the apartment computer. "The caller requested this message be conveyed to you immediately. As your wrist-com is either malfunctioning or deactivated, this is the earliest I have been able to comply."

"I turned messaging off after the Council meeting. I'm allowed some time to myself, aren't I?"

"Do you require research of Council Bylaws for a response?"

Gisele sighed and sat up. She swung he legs over the side of the bed and began to unbutton her tunic blouse.

"No. Replay message."

"Affirmative. Message is audio only."

Gisele stood up and ran her finger down the magnetic-fabric fastener at the side of her skirt. The material parted and the garment dropped to the floor. She picked up the clothing and made her way to the bathroom.

"Sender; Ambassador Luellan," continued the computer. "Message begins."

Gisele didn't need to be told who was sent the message. Luellan's raspy voice was somewhat characteristic. Bundling her clothes into the laundry chute, she leant over the sink and splashed cold water onto her face. In the tiled bathroom, Luellan's voice sounded even more harsh.

"Gisele, I've just come form a Security Committee meeting. We've been discussing several reports that have come in from OREF recently. I don't want to give details over ComNet, but something's up. As soon as you can, come down to my office."

"Message ends," said the computer.


"The transmission from Ambassador Luellan was received twenty s.u.'s ago. He requested notification upon your receipt and this has been given."

"Ok, you can also tell him I'm on my way."


Gisele peeled off her close-fitting undersuit and had a quick shower. She put on a fresh tunic and rubbed some aqua-dust into her wet hair. By the time she had reached the front door her luxuriant hair was dry and styled and she touched up her lipstick in the elevator. Bio-regeneration had all but eliminated the need for cosmetics, but a recent fashion trend had seen the return of temporary lip colouring for both men and women.

It was close to midnight and the streets outside were deserted. The hovercab Gisele had summoned in the elevator was pulling into the curb as she left the building. She climbed in and the cab glided away immediately. Gisele settled back into the soft upholstery and stared at the streetscape rushing by as the automated vehicle made its way rapidly across the city. Her wrist-com chirped and she pressed the accept stud. The communication was relayed to the full size com-screen built into the cab.

"Message for Ambassador Mar," announced the computer.

"Continue," said Gisele.

"Encoded message. Password required."





Gisele shook her head. A keyword was supposed to be a logical pointer to a password when the caller wished to remain unannounced, but this keyword made no sense to her. The message wasn't from anyone she knew, or at least not recently. Jumpjacks was a game she had played as a child during family holidays on Dione. She had never been very good at the game and Doran, along with his Dionian friend Leith, had always beaten her at it. She had been only twelve seasons old and very self-conscious about her gangly body. Leith had called her a trallyback, after the clumsy stick insect that inhabited the dry Dione plains.

"Trallyback?" she said tentatively.

"Confirmed," replied the computer. "Message begins."

A face appeared on the screen in front of Gisele; a good-looking man of about thirty seasons. His face was smooth and unmarked, but his eyes had seen much. He nodded his head in greeting.

"Gisele Mar, you may not recognise me, but you will have figured out who I am. It will probably be quite a while before you receive this message as I am making sure it goes by a rather indirect route. I may not even still be alive when you hear this. I don't know really why I am doing this, except out of loyalty to Doran and the fact that you are his only living relative. I know he loved you, even though you two didn't always get on well together. I am taking a considerable risk in sending this to you and, despite the position you hold, I hope you will understand that."

The figure on the screen retreated slightly from the vid recorder and Gisele could see the man was in a small communications room. It looked rather primitive, compared to Inner Rim technology and Gisele guessed that it was probably on some remote settlement planet. The figure perched on the edge of a table and looked at the vid recorder again.

"You and I didn't get on too well together either, but from what I've read of your Council biography, I'd think we'd have a lot more in common to talk about now. No doubt, Doran would have found that quite ironic. He's dead of course, but you would have figured that out already by the tone of my voice. I'm sorry there's no easy way to say it, but Doran would have understood. He didn't die well, but he died among friends. On Willa. Eventually, you may get to hear stories of how he died, and what he caused to happen. Believe what you wish, but as someone who was there, I just want to tell you that I am still proud to call Doran my friend. And so are the Shutaka."

The message ended abruptly and the screen went blank.

"No reply address," informed the computer. "Archive?"

Gisele said nothing. Taking her silence for acknowledgment, the computer filed the message and went back to standby mode.

"Computer, delete message, archive, and all record of receipt."


"And I mean all record of receipt. Delete from Nova Earth ComNet log file."

"This unit does not have that authority."

"I know that. Link to ComNet Central."


"This is Ambassador Gisele Mar. Security Committee proxy. All log records for ComNet file..."

"AJK-908-GH-900876," supplied her computer.

" be deleted. Authorisation code: blue-stone-rising."

"Confirmed voice print. Confirmed authorisation code. Confirmed wrist-com ID link. File unprotected. Request executed."

"Thank you. Off."

Gisele looked out of the cab window again. "One favour deserves another, Leith Birro,' she murmured. "Maybe you're not dead just yet, and if you're that concerned about someone tracking you down, I'm not about to make it any easier for them."

There was a clawing sadness deep inside Gisele and she knew that she would mourn Doran properly when the time was right. But for now, there were other matters to address. She hadn't become an ambassador without learning how to exert considerable control over her personal feelings and emotions.

The hovercab glided to a halt outside the Floiran Embassy. Luellan's assistant, Shoon, was there to meet her and she was escorted directly to the Ambassador's office. Luellan was waiting for her and he waved her towards one of the overstuffed armchairs beside the empty fireplace.

"We may as well be comfortable. Would you like a drink?" he asked.

"I had a couple of carafes of wine this evening, thanks," she replied. "I'd rather have some coffee. And a stim-tab; it's been a long day."

"Of course. I must apologize for dragging you down here at his hour of the night - or should I say morning?" Luellan nodded to his assistant, who disappeared to arrange for coffee to be sent up from the kitchen.

"That's alright. If you can take it, so can I."

Anam Luellan was a devout Rakkit, one of the few religions that prohibited organ replacements, or even cosmetic surgery. He was only sixty seasons old but his stressful occupation made him look twice that. He had already survived three mild cardiac arrests and Luellan knew that it was only a matter of time before his weak heart finally succumbed.

"I don't really seem to have much choice," said the old man wearily. "By the way, just before you got here, I was notified that you had used your Security Committee authority to delete a ComNet log entry. Personal or business?"


Luellan screwed up his face and squinted at Gisele, a mannerism she always found slightly amusing. He nodded. "I'll leave it at that, then. You've got authority because I know you won't abuse it. It must have been very important."

"It was, Anam."

"Very well; to business, then. I don't see any reason to beat around the bush; the Security Committee wants you to go on a little trip."

"Let me guess; to Outer Rim?"

Luellan nodded his head. "To Outer Rim. The quarterly reports have just come in from OREF Command and it contains some rather disturbing information. We'd like you to investigate the situation."

"Why me? I'm an ambassador, not a Security Committee operative. Isn't this something the military can handle?"

"I hope so. Don't get me wrong; this is no secret mission. You will be on an official Inner Rim Council visit. And as befitting your ambassador status, we're sending a full battle phalanx; thirty squadrons plus support. You have, of course, heard about the unqualified success of the new jump-drive. It has now been installed in all of the Inner Rim fleet. And OREF ships should be refitted within two seasons. In theory, the accuracy of the new drive should allow the entire fleet to enter and exit null-space while they are in planetary orbit."

"In theory," agreed Gisele. "But I'll believe it when I see it. As far as I'm concerned, the biggest improvement will be exiting null-space without throwing up in zero-gee"

"That is not such a small consideration, Gisele. The time it takes for a crew to orientate themselves after a jump can be critical in a battle situation. With the new drive and the latest enhancements to our ship's weapon systems, we should have the upper hand in any engagement."

Luellan's assistant returned with their coffee and the ambassador waited until the man had once more left the room before continuing.

"At the risk of repeating myself; why me? Am I just an excuse for sending that much Federation muscle, then?"

Ambassador Luellan didn't answer immediately. Instead, he reached inside his coat pocket and fished out a databall. He passed it to Gisele.

"That contains all of the restricted OREF reports to date on the situation. A couple of them you may already know about. I'll let you read them at your leisure." He sat back in his chair and picked up his coffee cup. "The reason I am sending you is that the Security Committee needs a true account of what's happening out there. We don't want some garbled OREF reports or some political half-truths. I know that you'll come back with best assessment of the situation. And, what's more, if any Security Committee directives have to be enforced out there, I have full confidence that you will ensure the Committee instructions are carried out properly." Luellan placed emphasis on the word 'properly'.

"That's quite a responsibility. Are you really certain I'm up to it?" remarked Gisele.

Luellan took a long sip of his coffee. "Gisele, I like to think we are comrades; let's not play politicians. You are not particularly modest, nor are you overconfident in your abilities. Both of these are invaluable traits. You know as well as I that the Inner Rim Council has only a handful of competent Ambassadors, among which you are one of the best. You will do."

He drained his coffee and placed the empty cup on the table beside him.

"Now, back to business. You are familiar with the Willa incident last season?"

"I read the report, yes."

"Well, then you know about as much as we all do. OREF has conducted an analysis of the planet's surface residue and are convinced that the Tun effect was employed."

"How? I can't imagine that the Shutaka would have stood by while Tun seed-ships dropped from orbit. Weren't their planetary defences up to it?"

"We'll never know for sure, but OREF thinks the Shutaka were betrayed from inside. If, in fact, the Tun effect was used, then something, or someone, convinced them to drop the defence shields long enough for seeding to take place."

Gisele thought about the message from Leith Birro. This is what he must have meant. Poor Doran, what had he done? Whatever it was, Leith's message indicated that he had made his peace with the Shutaka. A part of Gisele's mind felt relief; at least she would not have to watch out for avenging Shutaka for the rest of her life. It was enough that, as an Ambassador, she had to be concerned with normal political assassination attempts without worrying about a Shutaka vendetta.

"Whatever the reason," continued Luellan, "it seems that the Shutaka have been obliterated from existence - although once having met a group of them in the flesh, I personally find that hard to believe."

Gisele looked at the pile of ashes lying in the fireplace, trying to gather her thoughts. She raised her coffee cup to he lips and swallowed the strong black liquid in one long gulp. It was hot enough in the back of her throat to distract her personal thoughts. She pushed her feelings aside again and looked at Luellan.

"Genocide is never pleasant, but why should the Inner Rim be too upset? The Shutaka were beginning to be quite troublesome. Eventually, we were going to have to order OREF to take them head on, anyway."

"No doubt, although having witnessed them in action, it is not something to which I was looking forward. However, sometimes it's better the devil you know, than the one you don't" replied Luellan. "As savage as the Shutaka were, at least they were reasonably predictable. And - although I hesitate to use the word without sounding hypocritical - they fought fairly. What has the Security Committee worried is their successors."


"Two things. First, a new cult has formed on Unaran, in the Crispardian System. You may have heard of Finagan's Delta, Britchen II or Basra, which are all in the same system. We haven't been able to find out much about the cult yet except it is supposedly nonviolent and centred about the worship of a living child deity. It has become phenomenally popular in a very short time - always a worry. Unaran is being flooded with disciples at an ever increasing rate. In less than one season, branches of the cult have already formed on neighbouring planets."

"Haven't OREF's operatives been able to find out anything else?"

"There have been two class-one operatives sent in and none have returned."

"You mean they've been killed?"

Luellan drained his coffee cup and placed it on a table beside his chair.

"On the contrary; they've been converted. All of them sent messages back to their commanders resigning from OREF and claiming citizenship of Unaran. If only Rakkit could inspire such devotion."

"What about using the Guild of Black?" suggested Gisele.

Luellan grunted. The Guild was not a topic he enjoyed. The Rakkit religion had not enjoyed a good relationship with the Guild over their history. Luellan would only use them as a very last resort.

"So you think this cult may have had something to do with Willa?" continued Gisele, recognising discussion on her suggestion was closed.

"We don't know. It's possible. Especially in light of the second issue, which knowing your own personal interests and expertise, you will find most interesting."

Gisele frowned. "And that issue is?"

Luellan paused and screwed his face up again. "There have been two confirmed sightings of operating Alien craft."

Gisele was startled. As Luellan had said, this was one of her areas of expertise. The last confirmed contact with the Aliens had been before she had been born and despite all the considerable resources of the Federation, the Aliens remained frustratingly out of reach. Occasionally, evidence of Alien habitation would be discovered on one of the Outer Rim planets and a number of cryptic transmissions attributed to the Aliens had been intercepted over ComNet, but not much more. It was generally accepted that they existed, but their reason for avoiding humans was unknown.

Maybe, thought Gisele, they just don't like us.

"Confirmed sightings?" she asked.

"Yes. The first was contained in a fragment of a memory chip salvaged from the wreckage around Willa. The other was from an obscure little mining planet in the Outer Rim - AHS900 something - and is more comprehensive. It describes the appearance of an Alien ship from null-space and it's subsequent engagement with two human ships. All three appear to have been destroyed in the resulting battle."

"Why, by the Great Architect, would an Alien ship attack two of ours?" wondered Gisele, knowing that it was a pointless question. The Aliens were, by definition, totally different from humans. Their motivations and actions were not understood in the least.

"Indeed," said Luellan. "The inhabitants on the mining planet were pretty tightlipped, but it seems the passengers of the human ships were a pretty strange lot."

"And the Security Committee has made a link between this and the cult on Unaran?"

"Over the past half-season, we have had seven Federation AI's analysing every scrap of data that could be possible gathered about all this. They eventually came up with a tenuous correlation between jump-drive radiation patterns found at Willa, this mining planet, and a logged incident between an OREF squadron and a mercenary ship around Plican IV. The ship around Plican IV was bound for Unaran. There is a chance the radiation patterns were all from the same ship."

"How big a chance?"

"Gisele, the Shutaka have been annihilated, possibly by the Aliens or someone allied with them; if that's what they do for practice, I don't hold out much hope for OREF if they're next on the agenda. The Security Committee thinks it's a chance worth investigating. I only hope a Federation battle phalanx will be enough."

Very well. When do I leave?"

Luellan looked at his chrono. "There was a launch window today, but it has just closed. That was the reason for my initial urgency in trying to contact you. The next one is in seventy s.u.'s, so you will have a bit of time to make preparations. The battle phalanx is at jump readiness and only you remain to boost up."

"Who is in command of the phalanx?"

"High-Admiral Elissa Crando. Do you know her?"

"Not personally. But I've heard her name before."

"I'm not surprised. She has had plenty of battle experience. She's an Inner Rim Academy graduate, but most of her early days were spent in OREF. Along the way she picked up a Nova Cluster for Bravery."

"I thought they were only awarded posthumously."

"That's only because most recipients are killed earning it. She came close - she was the only one of her task force to come back from one of the Hellbringer containment missions, which, incidentally, is where I last saw the Shutaka in action. I'm certain Crando will be able to cope with whatever you find in the Crispardian System."

"No doubt."

Luellan folded his hands in his lap and sighed.

"One more thing, Gisele. I don't need to remind you how unstable things are in the Outer Rim at the moment. I'm sending a phalanx primarily for your protection; you need to be very careful to make sure that this is not seen as a provocative action on the Council's part. The Security Committee has no intention of starting anything out there just yet."

"Ambassador, you don't need to convince me - you know my feelings on this matter. I don't believe that we will win over the Outer Rim by force - not in the long run. I don't want to be the one responsible for sparking off a very costly war." Gisele heaved herself wearily out of her chair. "Well, I guess I'd better head home to pack." She motioned Luellan to remain seated. "Don't get up. I'll have Shoon let me out. I'll talk to you before I boost. Good bye, Anam."

Luellan's assistant was waiting for her outside the office and he accompanied her to the main door of the embassy. A hovercab was idling in the street outside the decorative embassy gates.

"I took the liberty of requesting a cab, ambassador. Safe journey and health."

"Thank you, Shoon. And good health to you, as well."

Gisele climbed into the cab and settled back into the seat. She pressed a stud on her wrist-com and the mimic screen in the back of the seat flickered to life.

"Link to main," she instructed.

"Link opened," replied the wristcom as the connection was made to Gisele's main residential computer. There was a slight pause as her voice pattern was analysed and her retinas scanned via the tiny sensors on the wristcom. The main computer was satisfied and beeped acknowledgment.

"Reschedule my appointments for the next half-season," instructed Gisele. "Notify the External Affairs Minister on Jedmon that I will be traveling to Outer Rim on Council business. No issues of importance are planned to be discussed before the Council so a replacement ambassador will not be required unless my absence is longer than planned."


"Put out a broadcast message on the ComNet to locate Shimar Elfin. Tell him I want him to be at my residence first light tomorrow, packed and ready for a trip."


Shimar Elfin was an longtime companion of Gisele. He had been born in the same city as her and his family was one of the most wealthy on Jedmon. He had spent many seasons in the Federation military - of his own choosing - before finally settling on Nova Earth. In ancient times he would have been called a freeman-adventurer, and Gisele knew he was a good person to have around in a tight situation. She knew she could count on him.

And he was always punctual. As the first rays of the dawning sun lit the horizon, he entered the lobby of Gisele's apartment complex, carrying a lightweight space pack over one shoulder. Gisele was waiting for him, having just completed cramming her own pack. She had taken a few more stim-tabs as soon as she had returned from Ambassador Luellan, even though she knew she was probably over the recommended limit. There would be plenty of time to catch up on her sleep once they had boosted.

"Good morning, Shimar," she said into the Com-Term. "I'll be straight down." Picking up her pack she made her way out of the apartment, instructing the computer to order a hover-cab and secure the residence until her return. As she stepped into the elevator, her wrist-com chirped.

"Communications from High-Admiral Crando."


Elissa Crando's voice sounded distorted through the small speaker of the wrist-com. She obviously had a loud, strong voice and was used to being heard.

"Greetings, Ambassador Mar. Ambassador Luellan has briefed you, I take it?"

"Yes, admiral. I'm on my way to the 'port now. I'll be traveling with a companion. I take it that won't be a problem?"

"The last time I had an Ambassador aboard, his secretarial pool was almost as large as my crew. I think we'll be able to accommodate your guest in reasonable comfort."

"That won't be absolutely necessary. Mr Elfin is used to traveling with the minimum of fuss."

"Shimar Elfin?"

"You know him?"

Crando didn't reply. "Is he a business companion or a personal companion, Ambassador?"

Gisele smiled. Crando's reputation for bluntness was well deserved.

"I don't really see what business it is of yours, Admiral, but he is both. What you do need to know is that he is also my personal bodyguard so I should not have to trouble you to assign any of your security personnel to me."

"No offence intended, ambassador," said Crando, but her tone of voice indicated she was used to making everything her business. "I'll expect you shortly, then." The comlink went dead as Crando broke the connection.

"This trip is going to be a heap of fun," Gisele muttered to herself as she left the lift and strode across the lobby to meet Shimar.

He was standing casually by the entry door, with his neatly bundled pack at his feet. He was naturally a large man - something he had never altered through body sculpture - with muscle tone maintained by exercise rather than surgery. His handsome face was unlined, although Gisele knew he was sufficiently vain for this to be the result of medicine rather than nature, with deeply set emerald eyes that were always scanning his surroundings.

They embraced warmly and Gisele kissed him firmly on the lips. They had been lovers many seasons ago, and while they were now just good friends, they both still enjoyed the physical presence of each other.

"Thanks for coming a such short notice," Gisele said. "Especially as I didn't give much of an explanation."

"I guessed you had your reasons. It's not important; you asked, I came. Haven't I always?"

"Yes you have, Shimar. And you know I value that."

"Where to now?"

The spaceport. We boost as soon as we get there. We're off to the Crispardian System. By the way, do you know High Admiral Elissa Crando?"

"I served under her when I was in FedFleet. That was a long time ago, 'though. I don't imagine she remembers me."

"Oh, she remembers you, I think. You must have made some kind of impression."

"Good or bad, I wonder?"

"Well, lets find out."

The hovercab journey to Nova Earth spaceport was uneventful. They glided past the main passenger terminal to the military departure area where a small detachment of FedFleet crew were waiting for them. Gisele and Shimar climbed out with their packs. A young lieutenant walked up to them and saluted smartly.

"Lieutenant Marin, Ambassador. High-Admiral Crando sends her regards."

Gisele smiled to herself. This fellow was a young as he looked. "There's no need to salute me, Lieutenant," she reminded him. "I'm not in the military." She indicated Shimar beside her. "Nor is Mr Elfin."

"Of course not, Ambassador," the young FedFleet officer apologised nervously. "Forgive me."

"You're forgiven, lieutenant," Gisele assured him. "Now, which way?"

Marin turned and indicated a set of clearsteel doors behind him. "This way please, Ambassador."

A short time later, Gisele and Shimar were strapped into the cabin of a FedFleet lander watching the crew finalise their preflight checks. The pilot swiveled around in his acceleration couch and looked at his civilian passengers.

"All set, Ambassador? It should be a fairly gentle boost."

"Ready when you are, captain. Don't worry about us."

The pilot nodded and turned to Lieutenant Marin.

"All your personnel aboard?


The pilot nodded again and turned to his copilot.

"Initiate launch."

The pilot was right; the boost was relatively smooth. As the acceleration eased, Gisele felt her body grow lighter until she was almost floating against the restraining straps. She watched on a viewscreen as the surface of Nova Earth fell away and the blue morning sky faded to the blackness of space. The view point changed suddenly and the Federation fleet was before them.

Gisele heard a sharp intake of breath from Shimar, lying on his acceleration couch beside her. She had to agree. A full battle phalanx made an impressive sight, especially if you weren't expecting it. And this phalanx consisted of the largest and newest vessels the Federation had. The Security Committee obviously wasn't taking any chances.

"You didn't say we were going to fight a war, Gisele," Elfin said.

"I didn't say anything," she reminded him. "But you're right, it would be hard to pretend that this lot doesn't mean business."

"Coming up on Dragonlacht now, ambassador," the pilot informed her. "That's the High-Admiral's flagship. Ahead and to your right."

Gisele looked at the viewscreen. It showed a massive vessel almost twice the size of anything Gisele had seen before.

"Is she one of the new Galaxy-class battlewagons?" asked Shimar.

The pilot looked at him carefully. "That's correct, sir. I'm impressed; I only found out about her when I was assigned this tour of duty."

"Mr Elfin is ex-FedFleet, captain. He still has his contacts, it seems," said Gisele.

"So it seems." The pilot turned back to his console. "We're on the beam. We'll be docking shortly."

The lander joined up with Dragonlacht smoothly. Gisele and Elfin transferred quickly through the airlock to the battlewagon.

"High-Admiral Crando requested that you be brought to the bridge as soon as you were aboard," Lieutenant Marin said. One of my men will take your packs to your quarters."

"Lead the way, Lieutenant," replied Gisele.

They started up the main core of the ship towards the bridge. At one point, they passed an orange hatch with a thick glass window set into it.

"That's the jump room," said Marin. The new field gives out a lot more radiation than the old ones. It's not really safe to be in the same room when its operating. The jump technicians have their own shielded control chamber inside there."

They continued on until they reached the hatchway leading to the bridge. Marin spoke into the Com-Term beside the hatch.

"Lieutenant Marin, with Ambassador Mar."

The hatch cycled open and Marin gestured them in. Gisele went first, followed by Shimar. The first thing Gisele noticed was the huge holographic viewscreen that dominated one end of the cabin. It was showing a view of the entire phalanx, with the star-pricked blackness of space beyond. In front of this picture was High-Admiral Elissa Crando, holding herself against one of the handrails that snaked around the bridge. If she had chosen her position to make a awesome first impression, she had succeeded.

Elissa Crando was the most muscular woman Gisele had ever seen. She was wearing a close-fitting dark green shipsuit that showed every taught bulge of her body. A scarlet triangle on the shoulder of the suit was the only insignia denoting her rank. Her blonde hair was cropped neatly about an attractive face with strongly defined features.

The admiral greeted them with a tight smile.

"Welcome aboard, Ambassador Mar - and Mr Elfin. I hope your boost was satisfactory. The fleet will be jumping almost immediately, so I thought you would be most comfortable on the bridge for this first jump. Our destination is, as you know, the Crispardian System. It will take us almost twenty sleep-cycles to get there with a fleet this size and we will be jumping as quickly as calculations can be made each time."

"How many jumps will there be?" asked Gisele.

"Unfortunately, the new drive has not increased the maximum jump distance. It still takes about fifteen jumps to get from the inner rim to the outer rim. I've scheduled a two-cycle layover around Orson II after the fourth jump because the calcs from there are a bit tricky. We'll be able to have a proper briefing session then."

"That sounds fine to me," said Gisele amicably.

"With respect," said Crando evenly, "Your opinion means little to me. You are an Ambassador of the Full Council. Your position on the Security Committee is a proxy only, and as such you have no authority over this fleet. Unless it concerns a matter of politics, I am in command of this fleet, only taking direction specifically from the Chairperson of the Security Committee. A battle phalanx is not a toy, ambassador; don't annoy me or get in my way."

Mustering every ounce of her diplomacy, Gisele smiled and said nothing. Elfin, however couldn't hold his tongue.

"Admiral Crando," he said quietly, "it's good to see you've mellowed with age."

Chapter 12 -->