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The Friendly Ambassador: The Beginning Of The End

By

D. G. Richards

Copyright © D. G. Richards 2002


PROLOGUE

THE SWEET DELIGHT

She opened her eyes. The world was very stark, cold and silent. Grey and brown smoke swirled in delicate patterns all around her in the darkness of the transport. Her breath came in white clouds that mixed briefly with the smoke and dust in the air before it dissipated quickly. Flames flickered nearby, giving the scene an orange glow. She felt the heat from the flames on her skin, but they gave her no warmth. Her bones ached and her skin was sore, but she was alive. That couldn’t be said for most of her sisters. From the moment the blast from the maser cannon had caught the transport; their mission was doomed.

The crash had been hard and violent. The transport was a twisted wreck filled with bodies. Some moaned and moved feebly, while others just lay still, their legs and arms at crazy angles. But there were other movements in the shadows now. Dark shapes, ungainly and misshapen, had begun moving through the wreck with relentless purpose. They were the Keruh, the aliens they had come here to destroy. They wielded axes, despatching those that still survived. One came closer to her. She felt the glimmer of its heat and instantly switched to infrared. Now she could see it more clearly, a large bipedal form, bigger on one side than the other. It held a double bladed axe in its larger hand. Her tactical systems locked on to it even as it saw her, her head-up display framed it in green as it strode towards her, its axe raised. Information spilled across her field of vision; giving her distance, elevation, speed, mass. Even as the data became apparent in her mind, her weapon was already changing….

-o-

The city had once been beautiful. Even in the darkness it’s elegant and almost delicate form and construction was quite clear. Every building had a different decorative style, with different materials and shapes used in the construction, giving each building a distinctive look. Windows, balconies, steel, concrete, glass, stone, and all the colours available were to be seen. But one aspect was common to all. The buildings were far too tall and far too thin for their apparent weight. Sometimes they were wide, but then above or below they would narrow, and the overhanging structures and bridges were almost flimsy. But appearances were deceiving. The city had been over a thousand years old. Now it burned.

As the snow fell and swirled in the wind, the tall and elegant buildings toppled. One by one they had been hit by the maser blasts fired from below and they came crashing down in a grinding of metal and a burst of glass and masonry. Some struck other buildings as they fell, causing them to shake and crumble, until they, too, gave way, dropping in a shroud of black smoke and debris. Many of the buildings that still stood were burning and fire spread throughout the city, the black smoke billowed up overhead, mixing with the white snow and turning it grey.

Into this scene of sadness and despair had come the transport. It had been one of many to swoop down from out of the clouds over the burning city. They had come in the night, the snow swirling in their wake, but the darkness had given them no protection. The maser beams had begun to pick them out even before they descended between the tall buildings. Many burst apart in balls of red and yellow fire, while others dropped in a trail of smoke. Some hit the upper stories of the buildings, the explosions adding to the smoke and fire.

The transport had been one of the last to be hit. It was already very low, weaving between the tall and spindly towers of the burning city. Twice it had evaded the maser beams that had sought to bring it down, but the third penetrated the hull at the rear, silencing its engines. The transport had dropped and spun, hitting the base of one of the elegant and far too tall buildings, and embedding itself into the structure. Now the metal of the twisted hull was split open, fire licked at the ruptured interior and smoke billowed upwards in the night sky. The wreck was heaved over on to one side, and all around smashed and dead figures lay scattered in the snow. The Keruh Warriors ran among the dead and dying, alien, asymmetrical forms clad in black armour, like giant insects from a child’s nightmare. They wielded axes, despatching without mercy any of the occupants of the transport they found alive.

Then the first beam of orange light pinpointed one of the large Warriors as it raised its axe, and the Keruh burst into fragments. Another orange beam quickly followed and another Keruh was blown to a fiery death.

In an instant all the Keruh had unshouldered their rifles and began to return fire. They ran among the wreckage, jumping over twisted metal and burning debris. They fired at anything that moved, but always the orange beams picked them out, bursting them and splashing the metal with their blood.

Black blood.

In the darkness and the smoke of the confines of the wrecked transport confusion reigned supreme. Beams of light criss-crossed the twisted compartments as each side fired at the other. Axes were wielded and frail bodies were smashed, the blood of the victims making the footing treacherous.

Red blood.

At such close quarters, axes proved more efficient than rifles, but at their moment of victory the Keruh found themselves facing a new weapon. Trapped in the interior of the wrecked transport flashing blades, like rotating circular saws, sliced through limbs. Nimble forms jumped from the dark and sliced at backs. The Keruh were cut down, sliced in half, mutilated. They heaved their axes, killing those of their enemies that were too close. But even more jumped from the shadows until the Keruh staggered to and fro, several agile forms clinging to their backs, slicing at them, cutting into them until they fell….

The blood mixed and splashed as the warriors of two different races fought amid the wreckage of the transport, each side uncaring of their own survival, each bent only on the other’s destruction. Until finally, it was over.

-o-

She stood in the darkness of the transport, bathed in the blood of her enemies and her compatriots. Her chest heaved with the exertion of the battle, and in each hand she held a large curved blade. Each was bright silver, and both blades reached out in front of her before then curving back to her elbows. The razor edges of the blades seemed to be moving, as if rotating. She looked down at the dismembered bodies that lay piled on the ground all around her. She could smell the death; she could taste the blood and the smoke.

Her heart pumped and blood surged within her, the adrenalin still feeding her muscles and her brain. She breathed deeply, her skin tingled, her muscles ached, and her mind felt such contentment. But it was the brutality of the battle, and not the victory that had brought on such an overwhelming feeling of complete and utter exhilaration.

She felt absolutely marvellous.

She wasn’t alone in her feelings. Many of them still lived. They stood scattered among the corpses, bathed in blood, gasping, panting, their faces filled with the sweet delight of their experiences. But the moment didn’t last.

There were movements outside, more Keruh Warriors clambering over the broken and twisted metal, twice as many as before. They entered the bloody confines of the transport, walking over the dead, uncaring, and unseeing.

She turned to face the new threat with a look of disdain on her face. The same expression was mirrored on all their faces. This time there would be no escape, no survival, but it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter to any of them. The only thing that mattered was the chance to kill more of the enemy, to rent and mutilate their bodies, to smash them and tread their carcases underfoot, to feel once more that moment of sweet delight brought on by the spilling of black blood.

Without hesitation she ran forward with her sisters, their blades whirling, and they clashed once more in the dark with their chosen enemy.


CHAPTER ONE

DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS

The Embassy was in a quiet residential part of the city, not far from the Edenite Ring Network Portal. It was built on a slight hill, and the best view of the distant and busy centre of the city could be seen from the window of the Ambassador’s office.

Jutlam City was a beautiful city, a modern city built in a time of understanding, when ecology and economy strode hand in hand. The streets were wide and straight. A grand square seemed to mark each intersection, and the trees and grassed areas that filled the squares spilled down the edges of each street. Fountains and statues abounded, and on either side of the wide streets were elegant and decorative buildings in light brown stone.

None of the buildings were very high. At the outset had been the decision to build wide and large. The nature of the world with its higher gravity reinforced the plan, and the city was grand and imposing. Everything was built in the brown stone of the Brok Ridge Mountains to the north. Office and apartment buildings were no more than ten or twelve stories high, and each block was no more than four buildings wide. The city was built on a radiating plan, with Government Square at the centre. Here was the Senate. It was an impressive building, with large columns and a high vaulted ceiling.

It was the middle of the day, bright and warm as usual, and even with the news reports at their most bleak, people were still rushing about their everyday business as normal. The wide pavements and squares were crammed with people, and the streets were busy with noisy traffic. There were private vehicles and buses, delivery vans and taxis. And in the blue skies above were air transports, buzzing back and forth, or hovering over the landing pads in one of the squares. Even at this distance, the clean fresh air was filled with noise.

Li-Sen-Tot sighed and shook his head. The ignorance of the Edenites was amazing. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they still carried on as if nothing had happened and nothing was going to happen. But, of course, they didn’t know what he knew.

A noise behind him caused him to turn. Gusta, his personal secretary had entered quietly and coughed politely.

Li-Sen-Tot closed the window and went back to his desk. “Yes, Gusta,” he said in a high-pitched and very female voice.

Gusta closed the door and came forward. That she and Li-Sen-Tot were of different races was instantly apparent. He was small in stature, barely five-foot in height, his body willowy and light boned. His skin was yellow and his head bald. In fact there appeared to be no hair on his body at all. He wore a long gown of gold that was sparsely decorated with delicate stitching. His appearance was ambiguous and deceptive. Despite the baldhead, his delicate facial features and blue eyes looked female. Even his voice sounded female. But he was most definitely male.

The contrast with Gusta was complete as she stood before his desk. She was over two feet taller than Li-Sen-Tot, and her body was muscular, square and heavy boned. Her head was large and her features well pronounced. She had a wide mouth set in a square jaw. Her nose was large, but well shaped and regular, her eyes were green, and her skin was light brown from her days in the sun. Her light brown hair was bleached blonde in places for the same reason. Although her voice was deeper than his, her appearance proclaimed her female sexuality. She was dressed in clothes that were fashionable for a female Edenite with a career in the city, neat jacket and skirt, white blouse and comfortable shoes. Her make-up was delicately applied, highlighting the beauty of her soulful eyes and sensual mouth.

Gusta smiled. It was pleasant and attractive. “I’m sorry to disturb you, Ambassador, but Deputy Leader Alther has arrived and he would like to see you.”

As she finished her sentence, Gusta’s expression took on an apologetic look. Li-Sen-Tot understood why. He had been the Tun-Sho-Lok Ambassador to Eden for twenty-nine years. He had lived here all that time, and he was sad that it was now going to end. But he wasn’t sad for himself, he was sad for the Edenites.

“Then you had better show him in, Gusta,” he said as he sat down at his desk.

Gusta nodded and went out.

Li-Sen-Tot rearranged some of the papers on his desk and pulled his slim desktop computer towards him. He cleared the most recent and sensitive correspondence with his government from the display, retrieving an old and unimportant message in its place. He picked up the earpiece and put it in his ear. Then he gazed at the screen intently. He was in this position when Gusta returned and knocked on the door.

Without looking up, Li-Sen-Tot called out, “Enter!”

Gusta opened the door wide. “The Deputy Leader, Sir.”

Prili Alther hurried into the room. He was even larger than Gusta, nearly eight feet in height. His body was proportionately broader, too. If the doors and the whole building hadn’t been designed to Edenite standards, he would probably have gone through the floor. Big boned and big limbed, his hands were immense and his features were strong and stern. He had short fair hair and he wore a dark suit with a high collar. He nodded curtly.

“Ambassador. Glad you could see me at such short notice.” His voice was deep and loud. He seemed to fill the entire room.

Li-Sen-Tot removed the earpiece and pushed his desktop computer aside. He indicated the large chair in front of his desk. “You know my door is always open.”

As Prili Alther sat down, Li-Sen-Tot spoke quickly to Gusta.

“Coffee, Gusta. And those sugared cakes you know Prili likes.”

She nodded and couldn’t help smiling as she left.

Prili made himself comfortable in the chair. A giant facing an elf with only a desk separating them. “You are always gracious and understanding, Ambassador. Some people may think your attention to our needs to be trifling, but I know they have a deeper reason. I wish we could all be the same in the circumstances.”

Li-Sen-Tot nodded in acceptance of the praise. “I have lived here for a generation. It would have been difficult not to become familiar with your customs, and ignorant to ignore them. Besides, eating while talking is far more civilised. Some might say it even takes away the need for war.”

“I wish that were so, but the events on Klysanthia would indicate that the talking has ended.”

Li-Sen-Tot sat back in his chair. There was genuine surprise in his eyes. “You are aware that Klysanthia has fallen?”

Prili nodded. “The news came to us this morning. The Keruh have taken the capital city of Realamabad. All resistance has ceased.”

Li-Sen-Tot remained silent. In the pause that followed, Gusta returned with coffee and the sugared cakes. Prili quickly ate one of the cakes and thanked her while she poured his coffee.

Li-Sen-Tot waited for her to leave before he finally spoke.

“And what does this news mean for your government?”

Prili sipped his coffee. “You know what it means. We cannot delay any longer.”

“It seems that you have been delaying for an eternity. Why the hurry now?”

Prili spoke bluntly. “With the fall of Klysanthia only the Atlantians stand at your side! You cannot hope to defeat the Keruh now!”

Li-Sen-Tot held his fingertips together as he replied. “There was a time when things could have been easier. When I, on behalf of my government, asked you to ally yourselves with us against the Keruh, to combine our forces in a joint venture.”

Prili dismissively waved away his remarks. “I know, I know! You asked us many times and we refused. We valued our neutrality. Our position in the quadrant is not strategic, and the technology of our civilisation poses no threat. There was no need to ally ourselves with either side. That cannot be said of many others who also refused your approach for an alliance.”

“True. But their neutrality was not honoured. Each was attacked and perished in isolation when combined they could have survived.”

Prili hesitated. It was true, of course.

The Tun-Sho-Lok were the oldest race in the Ring, but they were far from the most advanced. Even the Keruh would not have been considered to be the strongest race. But their society was bred around the concept that war was a glorious and honourable purpose, that life had no meaning unless it was laid down for the good of the Host. Everything they did, their customs, their beliefs, their whole way of life, was based on the need for war and conquest. The Ring gave them quick and open access to all. They had been victorious when many had dismissed them as primitive.

“I cannot argue with you, Ambassador. Maybe you are right. Maybe we should have allied ourselves with you and sent a force to fight alongside those from Atlantis and Klysanthia. But many others made the same mistake. That time has now passed. We must do what is best now.”

“And what is best for Eden now that Klysanthia has fallen?”

Prili sighed. “We have always heeded your advice and held off from signing a treaty with the Keruh even when they pressed us many times. Now they demand that we sign the treaty or accept that we are at war. They have opened a Ring Network Portal at Elengrad and their Host is waiting to enter. Already far too many in the Ring have perished. We have to sign the treaty. We have no choice now!”

“Those who signed treaties with the Keruh have faired no better than those who sought to be neutral. Their worlds are subjugated and enslaved by the Keruh, their people killed in vast numbers. Is this what you wish for Eden?”

Prili smacked the arm of his chair, rattling his cup. “The Keruh are going to win this war!”

Li-Sen-Tot smiled. He remained calm as he answered. “They will not. And if you ally yourselves with them, even at this late stage, you will perish as they will.”

Prili stared at Li-Sen-Tot. He couldn’t believe how calm and sincere the Ambassador appeared. Either he knew something that Prili himself was unaware of, or he was a fool. Prili decided it was the latter.

“We have to do what’s best for Eden. I’m sorry.”

Li-Sen-Tot nodded. “So am I. Your allegiance with the Keruh is a declaration of war against the Tun-Sho-Lok and her allies.”

It was a final statement, a statement of intent on both sides. They were now no longer friends. Li-Sen-Tot had already returned to reading his papers. Prili didn’t outstay his welcome. He popped one last cake into his mouth before getting to his feet, and then he left.

Li-Sen-Tot looked up as the door closed. He felt very sad but not too surprised at the outcome of the discussion. He pulled his desktop computer towards him again and cleared the unimportant message from the screen. He quickly retrieved the message he had cleared before. He put his earpiece back in and ran the message again. It was the sixth time he would view it. It hadn’t changed.

The first thing that came up on screen was a silent worded message:

GRADE:

MOST SECRET

(DE-SCRAMBLE IN ISOLATION)

FROM:

GOVERNMENT IN EXILE, METROPOLIS

TO:

AMBASSADOR TO EDEN, JUTLAM CITY

The words stayed on the screen for a few seconds, and then faded. They were replaced by a dark image that suddenly sprang into life. It was a close up view of a woman’s head and shoulders, a woman that appeared more like a nymph from a children’s fantasy. Her face was angelic, with high cheekbones and almond shaped eyes. Every tiny feature was delicate and beautiful. She was wearing a black uniform and a battered dark grey helmet that was fitted with headphones. A microphone that came out of the side of the helmet was suspended in front of her small mouth. It all seemed too brutal for her exquisite and childlike features. She seemed to be inside some sort of cramped vehicle that moved constantly causing her to shake about. In fact she moved about so much that she often left the field of view. It was as if the vehicle she was in was pitching up and down and from side to side. The picture constantly sparked with static and blurred with movement. Behind the woman was a high angled view of a burning city, a city with tall and elegant spires that seemed to reach all the way up to the distant clouds. It was night, or it was as dark as night. Only the fires that burned in the distance gave any light.

It quickly became obvious from the wheeling and moving view of the city behind the woman that she was in some sort of air transport, one that was constantly buffeting and shaking. But it wasn’t only the image that was dynamic and confusing. Through the earpiece Li-Sen-Tot heard the sound of screaming engines and the constant thumps of maser blasts. And always there was a violent clattering that accompanied every shake and stagger of the picture.

The woman grabbed hold of part of the metalwork nearby to steady herself, gritting her teeth. She shouted above the din, her light and delicate voice breaking as she tried to make herself heard. She spoke hurriedly in a language Li-Sen-Tot knew so well.

“First offensives with Androktones have been successful! Keruh ground forces in Sectors nine, seven and fourteen have been destroyed! The advance of fleets in Sectors four, twelve and fifteen are presently halted! Fighting on captured worlds in Sector twelve is most heavy! Keruh ground forces are most susceptible to Androktone attack! Fleet engagements have again proved inconclusive -ugh!”

There was another loud thump and clatter, and the image shook violently. The woman banged her helmet against the metalwork and almost fell from view. Behind her a bright orange explosion marked the base of one of the tall spires. It quickly began to topple, its final crashing impact lost from sight as the air transport wheeled around. The woman again grabbed on to something to steady herself, the long fingers on her tiny hand curling around a stanchion. She resumed her report.

“Despite success, we have been unable to prevent loss of Klysanthia due to all RNP’s being offline! Attempts to land Androktones by conventional means have been unsuccessful! Atlantian forces on Klysanthia have evacuated to Atlantis with all known -arrgh!”

There was a bright flash and flames flew across the screen. The woman was swallowed up and the picture vibrated violently. Li-Sen-Tot heard the woman scream at the same time as he heard the explosion. The image went dark and the static faded in his ears. All became silent and still. A few seconds passed before a final worded message appeared on the screen.

ANDROKTONE FORCES ARE EXPECTED IN YOUR AREA IMMINENTLY. THEY HAVE BEEN ADVISED THAT EDEN GOVERNMENT MAY CAPITULATE PRIOR TO KERUH INVASION. EDENITE FORCES WILL BE CONSIDERED HOSTILE IN SUCH AN EVENT. SUGGEST YOU RETURN HERE SOONEST.

Li-Sen-Tot sighed and pulled the earpiece from his ear. He switched off his desktop computer and sat back in his chair. He told himself that nothing had changed; that the only surprise was that Prili Alther had been aware of the loss of Klysanthia.

But there had been a change.

Li-Sen-Tot could not remember a time when the Ring was not completely controlled by his people. They gave access to all, but they had kept the intricacies of the technology behind the Ring Network a closely guarded secret. And part of that technology was the encryption codes that allowed access. Each Ring Network Portal had it’s own code, like an address, and only the Tun-Sho-Lok knew how to program them.

Until now.

The Keruh had learned how to by-pass the encryption system. It was the only way that they could open a separate portal on Eden so easily. That it might eventually happen had never been in doubt. It had only been a matter of time. The Keruh had rudimentary skills, but they were organised, logical and determined. And where one portal could be opened, others would soon follow. But the Keruh had gone beyond even that. By adding a genetic descriptor to the ring protocols they had denied access to Klysanthia as easily as they denied access to their own home world.

And no one had noticed.

The fact that the Tun-Sho-Lok and their allies had themselves been able to block access to all the worlds involved in the war for so long was neither a surprise nor was it questioned. Who would want instant access to armies and refugees in flight from war? Who would wish the fighting to spill through the portals into their peaceful worlds? When the Tun-Sho-Lok had stated that access was denied to prevent the spread of the conflict, none had questioned it. Li-Sen-Tot knew why. No one wished to become involved. They wanted to carry on as normal, ignoring the deaths of so many. They wanted to distance themselves from the agonies that existed just beyond the threshold of the next portal.

Selfish.

Now that had all changed. Now the Keruh would be able to proclaim themselves victorious, to tell all of the fall of Lokana and Klysanthia. It should have been a dangerous time, a time when all would have learned just how badly the war had gone.

But there had been a change.

Prili Alther had known about Klysanthia but not about Lokana. There could only be one reason for that.

When the Keruh Dominant had made his demands that morning, he must have only told the Edenites about Klysanthia. His reasoning would be simple. If the Edenites had known the truth about Lokana, they would have been shocked. They may even have resisted. But the fall of Klysanthia was just another piece of bad news in a long line of bad news. It was just enough to get them to acquiesce.

The Keruh Dominant was cunning. He must know that they were losing. He must know that the tide had turned. Now he would drag the Edenites into the final conflict at the very moment when they could have escaped.

If the Androktones considered the Edenites to be hostile, as they most surely would, they would kill them without thought.

And Li-Sen-Tot could have avoided it.

He should have argued more strongly. He should have tried his best to convince Prili not to give in, even now, at this late stage. He should have told him the truth. He should have revealed what he knew about the Androktones. Prili was an honest man, he would have believed him, and there was no other man on Eden who could have convinced the Eden Government to defy the Keruh.

So why did he keep silent?

Ever since the fall of Lokana, Li-Sen-Tot had felt a growing bitterness. The reason was simple. None of the civilisations that had thrived on their link with the Ring had come to their aid when it mattered. The Tun-Sho-Lok had given them everything, and had received nothing.

The Keruh had seen the Tun-Sho-Lok for what they were, the bringers of civilisation, the controllers of the Ring. They had wanted that control. They had attacked Lokana and their colony worlds without warning, pouring through the portals and bringing war and destruction to each in turn. Lokana was reduced to a cinder; it’s once beautiful cities and landscape just fields of ash. And one by one their colonies fell, their populations slaughtered. The Tun-Sho-Lok had hid the truth and pleaded for support. They had lost the heart for war, and there were many more races more skilled and prepared for this industry than they. Surely they would help?

None answered their call, none save the Klysanthians and Atlantians. And they were less prepared for war than the Tun-Sho-Lok. The Atlantians were loyal, eager and warlike. They offered to help without hesitation, but they lacked technology. In return for giving their blood, the Tun-Sho-Lok armed them and gave them all they needed.

The Klysanthians were such an elegant and delicate race. They were technologically advanced but committed to higher morals. They fought and had died for the simple and pure reason that it was right to do so and wrong to stand aside.

Li-Sen-Tot had spent many years of his childhood on Klysanthia when his mother worked at the Embassy there. And it was while he was there that he had decided to become male, simply because he enjoyed the sexual experience he shared with Klysanthian females. They were so delicate, so slender, and so sensual. How he mourned their loss. They were such beautiful creatures.

It was the fall of Klysanthia even more than the fall of his own home world of Lokana that hurt Li-Sen-Tot. At the moment he learned of it, his heart had snapped.

Li-Sen-Tot got to his feet and went back over to the window. He stared out at the busy streets once more. He imagined the teaming streets to be still and silent. He imagined all the busy people lying still, dead, butchered. He imagined the fire and the smoke and the grotesquely swollen forms moving among the dead and dying. So it must have been in Realamabad. So it must have been all over Klysanthia.

As it was on Lokana.

Li-Sen-Tot turned away. He felt no remorse.


CHAPTER TWO

THE AMBASSADOR’S STAFF

Gusta went down to the kitchen where her husband was busy preparing the evening meal. Didi Albatus looked up when he saw her. Like all Edenite males, he was much taller and broader than the female, and his features were more pronounced. His eyes were brown and set under heavy brows, his nose large and his jaw line square. Short red hair was just visible under his white hat. Even for an Edenite male, Didi was unusually tall. But despite his immense size, he was an exquisite cook.

“What now?” he said; cleaning his hands on a white towel he took from the large square kitchen table. He saw the look on his wife’s face and quickly added, “What’s the matter?”

Gusta looked distraught. She held a hand to her mouth and could barely get her words out.

“He’s asked me to close the Embassy, to dismiss all the staff. You know what that means, don’t you?”

Didi put down the towel and leaned his weight on the table using both hands. “Oh, God,” he sighed. “Then it’s happened.”

In reply, the tears welled up in Gusta’s eyes. Didi quickly went to her. He grabbed her in his arms and hugged her.

“Don’t cry, my sweet. It’ll be alright, you’ll see.”

In response to his comforting, Gusta began to sob. Didi dragged a couple of chairs out from under the table.

“Come on, sit down,” he said, and quickly sat down next to her when she complied. “It might not be as bad as we think,” he added, squeezing her hand.

“It is, Didi!” Gusta burst out between sobs. “You know Li-Sen. He wouldn’t close the Embassy for anything less than war!”

“But it can be re-opened!”

“He’s asked me to dismiss the staff!” Gusta repeated. “Not just send them home! It’s permanent! It’s the end!”

Gusta finished by bursting into complete tears. She collapsed on the table, cradling her head in her arms. The only thing Didi could do was rub her back and give her a handkerchief that he pulled from his back pocket. She took it gratefully.

Didi looked around at his kitchen as Gusta cried. He was going to miss it. He had enjoyed working here.

When Didi came to the Embassy he had imagined he was going to enter a world of interstellar politics, where Embassy officials would be continually coming and going through the portal, where Ambassadors and Trade Representatives from far off worlds would arrive eagerly to attend meetings with the Edenite Government. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

The Tun-Sho-Lok had a very casual approach to politics. They never seemed to be bothered by the same sort of political intrigue that dogged other Embassies and Consulates that grew up around the site of the portal. There was never any spying or manoeuvring in order to gain important trading agreements or the latest technologies, no one came or went with secret documents, and meetings with the Leaders of the Edenite Government seemed more to do with how many Lece Cakes Prili Alther could eat during the discussion.

It was all a bit of a let down, but Didi had got used to the casual approach and had quickly learned to like it. That had been seven years ago, when Gusta was already on staff as a secretary to one of the Tun-Sho-Lok officials. Even then there were very few Tun-Sho-Lok nationals at the Embassy. And as the years passed, their numbers slowly dwindled until Li-Sen-Tot was the only one left. And now even he was going.

Didi looked around his kitchen once more. Yes, he was going to miss it.

“We’ll sell up and take the children into the country,” he announced.

Gusta raised her head. She looked at Didi through tear filled eyes, dabbing at her cheeks with the handkerchief. She had stopped crying but didn’t say anything, so Didi shrugged.

“It’s what we always said we’d do,” he added.

Gusta sniffed and continued drying her face. “Do you think we’ll be safe?”

“You should know that better than me. You handle his disks. That courier who comes through the portal always brings the Diplomatic Bags straight to you. It’s always the same man, he’s been doing it for years.” Didi suddenly paused and wracked his brains. “What’s his name? I’ve forgotten his name.”

Gusta smiled wryly as she handed Didi back his handkerchief. “Ro-An-Lee.”

“That was it! Ro-An! I don’t think I’ve ever heard him string more than three words together -oh yes! Once! And that was when we had to give him a sample for genetic coding when the war started!” He folded up his handkerchief and stuffed it back in his pocket. “No wonder I couldn’t remember his name.”

Gusta’s smile grew wider. “He’s a she.”

Didi raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Well, that just goes to show you how little he -she- and I ever spoke!”

“Never mind about Ro-An. She’s a courier, she’s not supposed to gossip. Li-Sen is different. He may play the innocent but he’s no fool. Most of the correspondence I see wouldn’t interest the news media. He knows that, that’s why he allows me to open the Diplomatic Bags. If there’s anything sensitive on those disks, they must be hidden or scrambled in some way. Either that, or he has an alternative route to receive sensitive information. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had his own portal. It’s probably in the drawing room. Jutlam City is over a hundred miles from the coast and yet I’ve been in that drawing room on more than one occasion and been sure that I could smell the sea.”

“Have you asked him about it?”

“He wouldn’t tell me. But he must have a personal portal, because if he didn’t, they would never have allowed him to stay here on his own.”

“Maybe there isn’t any of them left,” Didi suggested.

Now it was Gusta’s turn to look wide-eyed in surprise. “That’s silly!”

In contrast, Didi began to look more serious as he leaned forward and tapped out his points on the table.

“Is it? The newscasts have been full of the war for months. It’s always the same. The Keruh go from victory to victory without anyone being able to stop them. The Atlantians are too backward, the Klysanthians too weak, and the Tun-Sho-Lok themselves -well, where are they?” He sat back and held out his hands. “We’re in their Embassy and except for Li-Sen and that courier we never see any.”

“I see his correspondence. He talks with his government on Lokana all the time.”

Didi leaned forward again. “You see what he lets you see -you just said that!” he pointed out.

“Yes, but he wouldn’t exchange messages with a government that didn’t exist, would he, even if it was trivial information? I mean, there’s no point, is there? Nobody cares, I told you.”

“They’d care if Li-Sen stopped talking to his government.”

“And where does Ro-An come from and go back to if it isn’t Lokana?”

“She could come and go from absolutely anywhere. How would we know any different?”

Gusta looked at Didi in surprise. “But how could they keep the fall of Lokana a secret? It’s too big, too terrible to contemplate!”

“They invented the Ring, Gusta! How do we know what they can and can’t do?”

Gusta let her arms rest on the table and stared at her husband. She suddenly felt quite cold.

As the Secretary to the Ambassador, Gusta had always been conscious that security in the Embassy was of a low priority. But that was the philosophy of the Tun-Sho-Lok. They shared their knowledge, their technology, access to the Ring, everything. They were just happy to visit these new worlds, to mix with the people, to see and experience the art and culture of other civilisations.

Gusta had heard it said on many occasions that there were more Tun-Sho-Lok living on other worlds than there were on their own home world of Lokana. They came to look and to open the portals of the Ring to all. They took nothing in return. Nothing was hidden or denied. It was why all the civilisations connected to the Ring had flourished. It was also why reporters had no need to gather outside the Embassy gates pestering the Ambassador and his staff for information about the war. It was all freely available on the computer net at the Embassy news site. Good or bad, it was all there. All you had to do was go and get it.

But even a society with such a laid back philosophy as the Tun-Sho-Lok had to have a modicum of security. There must have been some correspondence that Li-Sen and his government exchanged that they didn’t want others to see, especially now. The strategy of war, the planning and preparation, this she could understand they would wish to hide. But she had never considered that they might be able to hide much more. News of the war, the battles and the losses, none of this was restricted. And news like this was always corroborated by news from other sources. That it might all be false, that the Tun-Sho-Lok could be that devious, that they could achieve the sort of control and manipulation that allowed them to hide the fall of their own world so easily shook her confidence and trust in Li-Sen-Tot more than would his open murder of a child in front of her.

“You think Lokana has fallen to the Keruh and they’re all dead,” she said simply.

Didi sat back in his chair. “All I know is that the stuff that’s important is the stuff that you and everybody else doesn’t get to see. But I bet that courier, Ro-An, knows the truth. Each time she comes here she sits in this kitchen waiting for the Diplomatic Bag to be filled before she goes back through the portal. It’s been the same ever since she took over the courier service. She’s never been talkative, but at least she used to smile and nod when she drank her coffee. At least she acknowledged me. But not anymore. Now she has the look on her face of a woman already dead. There’s no emotion in her, none at all. Why is that? Hmm? Why is that?”

Gusta nodded in a combination of resignation and acceptance. She was suddenly very calm. “We should go tonight. We’ll tell the children as soon as we go home.”

-o-

Bedi was excited and breathless as he ran into the refectory. He burst through the door and slithered to a halt on the polished floor.

“They’re here!” he shouted, and then promptly ran straight back out again.

There was a roar as every student in the refectory jumped to their feet, knocking back their chairs as they ran for the exit. But not everyone was eager to follow Bedi.

Tipi Albatus got up slowly and was almost knocked aside by the rush. He ran a hand through his red hair and looked around as everyone ran passed him. He made no move to follow them. He wasn’t sure what to do.

Everyone knew that the government had signed a treaty with the Keruh, it had been all over the lunch time news broadcasts. And anyone with a personal communicator had had it stuck to their ear ever since as they waited for the first sighting of the Keruh Host. Everyone wanted to see them; they were so alien, so strange, not like people at all. Tipi also felt curious, but he knew that this wasn’t right.

Bibi Timoner, his best friend since he came to the College, suddenly grabbed him by the arm and pulled him forward.

“Come on, Tipi, or we’ll miss the view!”

Tipi found himself being dragged along. He didn’t put up much resistance, but he felt nervous without knowing exactly why.

“We shouldn’t be doing this! Mum says that they’re wicked, that wherever they go they kill everyone.”

“Oh, never mind what your mum says! She works at the Tunnies Embassy! She’s bound to say that sort of thing!”

“But what if she’s right?”

Bibi looked back at him and smiled. “Then we’ll run even faster the other way!”

They were now running down the corridor after the rest of the students. More came out of the classrooms. Through the open doors, the teachers could be seen gathering with more students by the windows. They were all staring out at the road.

Tipi suddenly dug his heels in and brought his friend to a sudden halt. Bibi looked back at him in annoyance.

“What now?”

Tipi pointed to the open door of another classroom. “How about we take a look first before we get too close? There’ll be a crowd by the road anyway.”

Bibi nodded. “Okay!”

The two of them ran into the classroom and headed for the windows. There they joined a teacher and several other students. Tipi stood next to a girl, wedging himself between her and one of the tables. She glanced around at him in annoyance, pushing him slightly. Although she was probably older than him, Tipi was already bigger than her, and her shove hardly moved him. Bibi jumped on the table and stuck his tongue out at her. She turned away in disgust.

The College of Learning was in the residential part of Jutlam City, near to the parks where sporting facilities were available. The refectory was on the ground floor of a building that was set back from the road on a slight hill. Standing at the windows, they had a good view of the road and the parkland beyond.

Tipi looked down the road that led to Elengrad. He could see students pouring out of the main entrance. They all ran to the edge of the road and gathered there. Beyond them in the distance, something came.

Figures clad in black appeared, tiny at first, but then growing larger and larger as they ran up the road towards them. The light traffic on the road came to a sudden halt, cars swerving to the side to avoid the ungainly figures that rushed towards them. There was wave after wave of them, like a black tide rippling along the road, filling it from edge to edge. They soon enveloped the stopped cars, swallowing them up as they ran around them. Some even ran over the cars, denting the roofs. The ungainly figures ran on, the reason for their almost clumsy movements becoming clear when the first of them reached the College. They ran sideways with a strange gait, their bodies all misshapen, with a large hump on one side that bobbed up and down. Or was it their heads?

Tipi tried to remember what his mother had told him.

“They have small heads because their brains are in a bony hump on their backs. It makes them hard to kill. They have three toes on each foot and three fingers on each hand. They are asymmetrical, that is their left side is bigger than their right. I don’t know why. They have an exoskeleton and they breathe through holes in different parts of their bodies. They live in a hive like society split into family clans or tribes, each ruled by a dominant male. The males fight while the females do everything else. In fact the females never come out of the hive, only the males.”

It wasn’t much, but it was right.

A horde of black armoured creatures poured down the road. They were bigger than a man, but they were not men. Their heads were small and held only their eyes and large mandibles. They had no faces. The shiny black armoured uniform they wore blended in with the dull brown of their armoured skin, it’s joints as exaggerated as the joints in their legs and arms. And in their three fingered hands they each gripped a laser rifle and a double bladed axe. The smaller arm and hand held the rifle while the larger arm and hand held the great axe.

The sight was not what anyone expected.

The girl next to Tipi gasped. “They look ghastly!”

Bibi pointed out the window. “Look at the cowards!”

The students by the side of the road had hastily moved back, some of them were even running back into the building. There was an element of panic as the Keruh Host drew level with the College and began to stamp passed. One or two of the black clad figures ran on to the pavement, and some of the students fell over in their haste to retreat. One was almost run over by a Keruh as he scampered out of the way. The Keruh who almost trod on him swung his axe over the heads of the others nearby. There were screams and more of the students fell over. Most of them were now in headlong flight back into the building. And those that couldn’t get in just ran away, trying to get as much distance between them and the Keruh.

Tipi was glad he was on the inside. Even from this distance the Keruh looked evil. There was no brightness in them, no hint of warmth or tenderness. They frightened him.

The Keruh Host filled the road. Some of the ones running by now held heavier weapons instead of the smaller rifle and great axe. But the rifle and axe were still to be seen in abundance. Warrior after Warrior ran by, a massed column of black clad and misshapen forms that stretched into the distance as they trudged on towards the centre of Jutlam City. But for all their awkwardness, they ran without tiring, a relentless heaving mass.

The teacher shook her head sadly. “Keruh Warriors on Eden. I never thought I’d see this day.”

-o-

The office building was in the business centre of Jutlam City. The atmosphere in the office suite on the fifth floor was the same as in all the offices in the building that day. It was busy and loud. One of the women sitting at a cluttered desk was talking heatedly into a phone. She was young and pretty, her light brown hair flowing over her shoulders. Her green eyes flashed as she spoke into the phone.

“Look, Kiki, I know my mother! The news is all over the office. If the Embassy is closed, mum and dad will head for the hills, and they won’t like the idea of my staying behind!”

Kiki’s voice sounded anxious. “But you can’t just go!”

Breda Albatus held on tightly to the phone receiver. “It’s no use telling me what I can and can’t do! They’ll already be packing!”

“Then don’t go home!”

Breda saw her supervisor pointing at her watch in an obvious gesture. She looked away and her voice took on a sarcastic tone. “Oh? And where am I supposed to stay? Your apartment I suppose?”

“And why not? We’re engaged aren’t we? We’re adults aren’t we? Why can’t you stay at my apartment?

“Because dad will flatten you!”

Kiki paused while he contemplated that fate, and Breda saw the annoyed look on her supervisor’s face. She had been on this call for far too long already.

“Look, Kiki, I’ll have to go. I’ll ring you later.” She could still hear Kiki’s protests as she put the phone down.

Breda turned back to her work. There was enough documentation and paperwork piling up on her desk to keep two people occupied for days. She began to work through it all, doing things automatically while her mind whizzed with the news of the day.

The Eden Government had signed a treaty with the Keruh. The Keruh Host had landed at Elengrad. They were now at war with the Tun-Sho-Lok.

Breda didn’t know what to think. It was the most gigantic event of her whole young life, and she was right in the middle of it. Should she stay in Jutlam City with Kiki? Or should she run for the hills with her brother and parents?

She knew what her mother and father would want. She knew what they would say when she told them she wanted to stay. But it wasn’t that they didn’t trust Kiki. Her parents knew him and liked him; it was just that they were always over-protective with her. They would want her to go with them, Breda was sure of it.

But Breda liked the idea of staying. Of course there might be an element of danger, but Kiki would look after her. This was history in the making, how could she think of running away? No, she had to stay. But how was she going to convince her mother and father of the idea?

-o-

Kiki Nomanta stared at the receiver of his telephone. She had done it again. Why was it she always put the phone down before he had finished the conversation? It was a habit that was beginning to drive him crazy. He almost thought about phoning her up again, just to tell her how he felt. But he didn’t. Instead he sighed and put the phone down softly.

Two years.

Yes, it would be two years this autumn since he first met Breda Albatus. It had been a very different two years compared to all the others of his life. Until then his mind had been filled with the urgency of finding a female companion. It wasn’t that he was unpleasing to the eye, he had good features, with blue eyes and fair hair, and his body was lean and strong. Like all Edenites, he was tall and large, and his brow heavy. At seven foot eight he was about average for a man of his age. Visually, he should have had no problems with women. It was just that he could never get it right when he spoke to them.

Was it shyness or pride? It was true that he feared being put down, but that wasn’t the reason that often stopped him making an approach. And it wasn’t as if he didn’t have the courage to just go up to a girl he liked and start talking. It was just that he never knew what to say, and if he did say anything, it always came out wrong. Kiki had learned through bitter experience that the best he could hope for was to make a girl laugh. But that wasn’t enough, was it?

And then came Breda. It was typical that she should turn up when he was least expecting it. He was so busy worrying about his argument with his father and the meeting with the senior partners of his law firm, that thoughts of women had gone completely from his mind. That in itself was a remarkable event, but what was to follow was even more so.

He was hurrying across the square at lunchtime. He remembered it clearly. It was a sunny day -weren’t all the days sunny that year- and he had eaten his lunch at his father’s restaurant like he always did. And like always, his father had gone on at him about not following in the family business. What was wrong with being a cook? Why did he never take an interest? Kiki tried to explain that he didn’t like cooking, but his father never understood. And like usual one habitual topic led to the other more annoying one. Why wasn’t he married yet, and when was he going to start a family? Kiki never wanted to admit that he was trying like mad and just getting it wrong, so it always sounded like he was dragging his feet on purpose. And Titi Nomanta was beginning to think that his son had some sort of sexual problem. And on this day he decided to say something about it. Kiki was both angry and embarrassed. They ended up having an argument for absolutely the wrong reasons, until Kiki gave up and left. And as he hurried across the square he was fuming with the idea that his thoughts about his argument with his father would distract him in the meeting that afternoon. It was such an important meeting; his promotion probably depended on it. He didn’t see Breda at all.

Breda was about to have her lunch in the square. She was heading for her favourite spot with sandwiches and coffee. She was one of many people who did the same. Kiki often stared wistfully at the young women sitting on the benches eating their lunches in the sun. He would watch them talking and laughing, and would think of what might be. Today he didn’t see any of them.

Breda was nine years younger than Kiki. She was bright, beautiful and vivacious. She was also a foot shorter and much more lightly built, and the impact knocked her flying in an explosion of sandwiches and coffee.

Kiki was horribly apologetic, while Breda was horribly angry. She had a fiery temperament that matched her flashing green eyes, and being doused in hot coffee and having the contents of her lunch smeared all over her didn’t result in a restrained response. Breda screamed, shouted, kicked and punched Kiki, and despite her much smaller size, the ferocity of her attack got the better of him, and the two of them ended up on the ground. Kiki was never a one for violence, he was generally good natured and quiet. Some would even call him soft, so it wasn’t surprising that he ended up underneath her as she was trying to beat him to death.

They both got arrested.

By the time they appeared in front of the judge, they both looked like they had been in a car crash. Breda’s smart dress was torn and stained, she had lost a shoe and her hair was all matted with the dried coffee. She was a mess. Kiki’s neat business suit was also torn down one sleeve and his collar had been pulled loose from his shirt. He had a black eye and a split lip and he looked dirty and dishevelled. He was also very subdued and dismayed. In contrast, Breda kept looking at him with flashing eyes that told him the war was not yet over.

Before the judge could say anything, Kiki had taken all the blame. He had said how it was all totally his fault, how Breda was the innocent party, and that he took full and complete responsibility for what had happened. He even offered to pay for the damages to Breda’s clothes. Despite his pleas the judge fined them both and dismissed them with a warning that next time would result in a night in jail.

Kiki paid both their fines, and it was then, when Breda was staring at him with those flashing green eyes, that she had asked the question.

“Are you Titi Nomanta’s son?”

Kiki had been totally surprised and confused. He hadn’t even noticed their names being said in the court. “Yes. How do you know my dad?”

“My dad is Didi Albatus. He used to work for your dad.”

“Didi?” Kiki remembered the pastry cook and his skinny little daughter. He stared with wide eyes at the grown up young woman she had become. “You mean you were the little- ”

Breda had smiled broadly. “That’s right! And you were the pain in the arse son who didn’t like the kitchen!”

It was the first time Kiki had seen Breda smile, and it blew his head off. The rest, as they usually say, was history.

Breda had asked him out. No, actually, she had demanded that he take her out in payment for her spilled lunch. And while he had listened and been content to just look at her, marvelling at her shapely body and beautiful face, she had talked endlessly. She was lively, loud and animated, and she filled his world with light. From then on his life revolved around her, and it seemed that he only lived while he was with her.

Kiki always accepted how lucky he was, despite the fact that he had missed his promotion that year. But Breda was hard work. She made demands on him and expected things that he often found it difficult to provide. And in return she often treated him almost casually. Most times he would just let things she did that annoyed him pass, but occasionally he would not. Then they would argue, and their arguments were often fiery. Breda would lash out, and he would sometimes hit back, although he had slowly learned to restrain his anger. But whether he hit back or just took her blows, there would still be screams, tears and tantrums. And afterwards they would both be sorry, and they would make up with a softness that made a mockery of what went before. He would look into those bright, tearful green eyes and feel his heart melting. Was that love? Kiki only knew one thing. The idea that Breda might have to leave Jutlam City with her parents tore at his heart. If she left, he would die without her.


CHAPTER THREE

THE AMBASSADOR’S RETREAT

Li-Sen-Tot stood before the control console at the Embassy Ring Network Portal. It was a large circular room panelled in the rich red woods of Klysanthia. The figures of sylph-like women clad in wisps of silk and with hair that blew in a wooden wind were carved on each of the panels. The decoration of the room had been of his choosing. It had brought him much pleasure, now it only made him sad.

The existence of the Embassy RNP was known to very few. The room doubled as Li-Sen-Tot’s drawing room, and he was often found relaxing here. Indeed he did find it relaxing to sit surrounded by the wooden figures that represented happier times. He often ate here, and the room was furnished with comfortable and well-worn armchairs and low tables. Books, ancient and modern, were stacked on the tables. Many were from Eden, many more from distant worlds, their alien scripts eligible. Li-Sen-Tot could read them all.

Near the centre of the room was a globe of Eden. Li-Sen-Tot stood next to it. He turned the globe, as if studying the low relief continents and mountains. He suddenly stopped the globe and unhinged a quadrant, revealing a hidden control panel inside.

His fingers flew over the controls, and above him, the portal projectors glowed into life. Colours filled the centre circle of the ceiling, and directly below it a grey sea of mist began to swirl. In a few seconds the grey mist rose up to the ceiling and became a cylinder. Slowly the cylinder became opaque, and then a beam of bright sunshine appeared. The cylinder of grey vanished. In its place was a circular pad of polished white stone. And above it was an intense light that filled the whole room. There was the sound of the sea, and a breeze blew the scent of salt on the warm air.

Sunshine, warmth, white stone, and a man.

Li-Sen-Tot stepped away from the globe and stared at the man. “General Ares, you are not the man I expected to see.”

Ares smiled and stepped off the white stone. Now he was in the room proper. “And I did not expect to see you still here, either,” he replied.

They stood face to face. Ares was taller than Li-Sen-Tot. He had fair hair and piercing blue eyes. His features were strong, and although stern, were not unpleasing to the eye. He was also strongly built, his body bronzed under the white gown, leather tunic and white cloak he wore. The tunic was armoured at the chest and was studded as it reached down over his short skirt. His arms and legs were bare and he wore sandals on his feet. In contrast to his style of dress, his belt supported a laser pistol and night-sight as well as the more correct short sword, and the helmet he held in one hand was a plastic composite. There was also a Geo-Sat locator strapped to his wrist.

Li-Sen-Tot smiled and embraced his old friend. “It is good to see you, Ares, but I know why you are here, and it won’t work.”

Ares lifted Li-Sen-Tot off the floor; such was the strength and emotion of his embrace. But despite the warmth of their greeting, it was cut short by angry words.

“Your stubbornness is growing tiresome!” Ares exclaimed as he released Li-Sen-Tot and stepped back. “You were commanded to leave Eden! I sent you this command myself before I left for Ephesus! Why do you stay? Are you mad?”

“There is no reason for me to leave.”

“Have the Edenites signed a treaty with the Keruh?”

Li-Sen-Tot nodded. “This morning.”

“Have you closed the Embassy?”

“Yes. And dismissed all the staff. Some of them cried.”

“Then your job here is done. Come back with me through the portal.”

Ares stepped closer to the portal. He held out his hand, inviting Li-Sen-Tot to follow him. The Ambassador stood his ground.

“I am not leaving. Ever.”

Ares sighed and lowered his hand. “There are many with greater reason to grieve than you. Even my own blessed Atlantis is not safe from the Keruh Host. Why this melancholy?”

“I have no place I would rather be, and no reason to wish to be else where. In my life I have travelled the Ring extensively, but even I have seen barely a quarter of the worlds open to it. I am content with this. I have no wish to travel anymore. It is time to stop.”

Ares tried a different approach. “Otrera is in Metropolis.”

It was a simple statement that caused Li-Sen-Tot to pause thoughtfully. He stood and stared at Ares, his eyes unseeing.

Otrera.

The name conjured up the memories of the past like a meeting in the flesh. He could suddenly see her in his mind. The long sinuous body, her elegant almost spindly limbs, that beautiful elfin face. She had hair like golden silk and skin like, like….

Otrera, the Queen of the Klysanthians.

Li-Sen-Tot had met her many times. He knew her well. His liaisons with her were the climax of his life. Nothing had meant anything after that.

“Is she well?” he asked, his eyes still vague.

“She moans about the thickness of the air and the weight of her limbs, but she is alive. She and the Royal House came with us when we evacuated Klysanthia. Many others also survived. So you see, Li-Sen, there is a reason for you to leave here. Come back with me, see her once more, embrace her tiny form.”

Li-Sen-Tot’s eyes re-focussed. “It is a powerful lure, but one I can deny. Send her my love, but tell her I must stay.”

Ares greeted his words by raising his eyes to the ceiling. “May the Gods give me strength!” he shouted out, turning his back on the subject of his anger. “This man is beginning to annoy me!”

His exasperated outburst was met by angelic laughter. The sound filled the room with beauty and stirred the soul.

Li-Sen-Tot looked towards the circle of white stone bathed in sunlight, his eyes round and unbelieving. A tiny foot in an elegant shoe appeared. It stepped on to the far edge of the white stone circle as if emerging from behind a veil. It was followed by a long and supple leg. A hip and tiny waist then appeared; clad in a delicate fabric of silver that was so fine it almost wasn’t there. More of her body came into view as she climbed slowly and elegantly on to the portal, her shoulders being her broadest feature. Finally, upon a long and graceful neck, came a regal head with the most exquisite of features.

At last she stood in all her glory at the centre of the stone circle, the breeze rippling her wispy blonde hair. The silver dress she wore floated in the air around her like tissue, revealing far too much of her amazing body. She was very tall, her shape a tantalisingly long and lithesome form. Her hips were slim and her waist was hardly thicker than a man’s arm. Like her body, her limbs were long and fine. The sylph-like figures that decorated the wooden panels around the room suddenly appeared heavy and clumsy.

A delicate blonde haired nymph nearly seven feet tall.

She held out her long arms and bent slightly forward. Her hands were small and elegant, but with fingers that were twice as long as the hand itself. Her fingers uncurled in a graceful movement that made them almost tentacle like in appearance and she beckoned to Li-Sen-Tot.

“Come to me, Li-Sen.”

It was the voice of an angel.

Li-Sen-Tot walked forward, took her tiny hands in his, and stepped onto the stone pad. They stood together in the centre of the circle, bathed in the sunlight, her slim form towering over his. He looked up at her exquisite face, uncaring.

Ares laughed out loud. “Ha! The lure of a Goddess can never be denied!”

He stepped onto the stone circle next to them, and an instant later the scene vanished.

The room was suddenly empty and cold, as if the life had gone out of the place.

-o-

It was well into the afternoon but the sun was still high in the sky. It bathed the city of Metropolis in brightness and warmth as it lay in the sea at the edge of the island of Atlantis. It was a city built in an age of simplicity and understanding, where wealth, power and technology was reflected in art and architecture. The city was filled with temples and palaces, villas and gardens. All the buildings were rich and white, decorated with columns of marble. Carvings covered each grand building depicting heroes in battle, and gods in their might. And everywhere there were squares filled with statues and fountains. People came and went about their business, chariots pulled by teams of horses vied with carts for supremacy on the stone roads. And traders and merchants filled each square, rubbing shoulders with young women who chatted coyly in the sun with equally young men dressed for war.

Metropolis was surrounded by a ring of water, like a moat around a castle. But the ring of water was much larger than a moat. In fact it was a wide circular canal large enough to allow the passage of ships. And beyond the canal was a further ring of land filled with more buildings. These buildings were less grand than those in the centre, but they were no less imposing, nor were they any the less decorative. But they were more spread out, and the areas in between were filled with squares dotted with trees and olive groves. Here was the beginning of suburbia. Another wide circular canal surrounded this outer ring of land, and five times more a ring of water encircled a ring of land, until finally the open sea was reached. And through it all a much wider and straight canal was cut, allowing the ships with their large sails and multiple rows of oars to pass through to the open sea. There they sailed to far off lands to ply their trade.

On the opposite side of Metropolis to the canal was the causeway that led to the island of Atlantis. Like the rest of the city the foundations of the causeway were built from large square blocks of white, black, and red coloured stone. And the sides and parapets were richly decorated with carvings repeated in sequence. Upon this causeway ran a wide stone road that began at the square before the Senate. The road was wide enough to allow chariots and merchant’s carts to pass one another with ease, and it continued once the mainland was reached, passing through the large fertile plain that stretched to the mountains.

The fertile plain was divided into separate square plots or fields, each owned and cultivated by a different family or co-operative. There were many villas dotted throughout the plain, and the road split into smaller roads that edged each square plot. Finally, the road disappeared into the foothills of the forest-clad mountains beyond.

At the other end of the road, at the centre of Metropolis, was the Senate building. Large and architecturally beautiful, it resembled a large pyramid with the symbol of Atlantis at its peak, but this was in fact only the upper part of the building and roof. Here there were offices and meeting rooms. But beneath was the Senate proper. A large open amphitheatre laid in marble; the Senate was open on all sides to the outside, the pyramid above supported on great columns. It made it very airy and cool, even when full. Around the Senate were the palace apartments for the President and Senators, and other government buildings such as the power centre and the great hall of the council war room. This latter building housed the main Atlantian Ring Network Portal and the galactic map, a three-dimensional image of the heavens.

Many of the palace apartments around the Senate had terraces. Li-Sen-Tot stood on one such terrace and looked out at the scene. His eyes squinted in the bright sun. He had always found the star here to be too bright, too bright and too hot. He could have avoided the sun by going with Ares to the Senate, or he could have gone inside, but something kept him out here on the terrace.

Otrera stood a little distance away from him. She had her back to him. She was standing on her toes at full height, her arms out-stretched and her head tilted back, her face raised to the sun. Her fine golden hair cascaded from her head. It reached beyond her waist. And the fine silver dress she wore almost disappeared in the bright sunlight.

The sight of her transfixed Li-Sen-Tot. She had such a delicately shaped and slight form that he could almost imagine the sea breeze carrying her off. He wanted so much to run his fingers through that fine hair, to embrace her tall but slim form.

Otrera flexed her long fingers and then dropped her arms to her side and sank down from her toes.

“It’s too hot here,” she said a little petulantly in her delicate voice. “And the air is too thick, and the gravity too strong.”

Li-Sen-Tot nodded. “Ares told me that you found it uncomfortable here.”

“Better to be uncomfortable than dead.”

Li-Sen-Tot could resist no longer. He stepped forward and encircled her waist with his hands. His fingers met and overlapped on her stomach. “I am sorry, Otrera. Klysanthia should never have entered the war. I should have argued against it-”

She turned in his grip, facing him and stopping him by placing her long fingers gently over his mouth. “Shh, now. The decision was correct, even if taken in haste. But the outcome would have been the same had we stood aside.” She removed her fingers from his mouth and stared into the distance as she continued. “The Keruh would have come to Klysanthia whether we stood against them or not. They enjoyed killing us. Alone we would have fallen to their axes much earlier. At least this way we put up more resistance, and with the Androktones to fight on in our place we will have the victory and the revenge that we crave.”

When she had turned, Li-Sen-Tot had let his hands move down over hips on to her bottom. Now he slowly moved his hands back up her long and sinuous body, moving them around to the front until they had reached her chest. Once there, he gently cupped her delicate breasts and looked up at her with the eagerness of a child.

She looked down at him. “You wish to taste my flesh once again?”

“How can I stand so close to you and not feel the power of your body?”

“Yes, the power of my body,” she repeated almost sadly. “The pheromones we produce were necessary in the rarefied air of Klysanthia, or our males would have failed to find us in the night. It is an inheritance of our past made redundant by modern technology and civilised society. None-the-less it produces remarkable results in the males of other races. Ares, too, is overcome by my power.”

Li-Sen-Tot looked surprised. “You have lain with Ares?”

“We both gave seed for the generation of the Androktones. You knew of this. That we should spend time together was inevitable. Are you jealous?”

Li-Sen-Tot nodded. “Bitterly so. Even though Ares is my friend, I could kill him at the thought of you and he together.”

She laughed and stroked his baldhead. “Then take me to your bed, Li-Sen, before I make a murderer of you. Re-acquaint yourself with the taste of my flesh. Make me quiver with delight and gasp breathlessly in this thick air. For a short time let us both forget the horror we have faced and live for a few seconds in the arms of our dreams.”

-o-

Men and women, gracefully attired and normally well mannered, argued like children on a street corner. They shouted and pushed at one another, their faces filled with anger.

Ares stood amid the noise of the marbled amphitheatre of the Atlantian Senate and shouted above the raised voices.

“Enough! What behaviour is this? Do I come to a tavern?”

Aetolus, the Leader of the Senate, turned to him angrily. “Not a tavern, Ares! A cauldron! A cauldron of dissent and fear!”

Ares was suddenly surrounded by his white robed countrymen, their anger clear on their faces as they gathered around him. Ares stood firm.

“What fear? What dissent?” he demanded.

There were more angry voices, all shouting at the same time. They blended into a blur of sound, the words lost to comprehension.

Until this moment, a regal woman had sat silently at the edge of the amphitheatre. Now she rose to her feet and stepped forward. Aegina was the President of Atlantis. She had listened patiently as her Senators had argued and shouted. Now she would speak. As she stepped forward, the angry voices died around her. Elected for this purpose, and with the support of all in the Senate, there was none who would raise their voice above hers.

Aegina stood before Ares. She spoke calmly, her voice soothing the nerves of those gathered around them in the Senate.

“You spend far too much time away from Metropolis, Ares. You concentrate on the war, a war fought against enemies far from our shores. A war fought in favour of allies who have brought us great knowledge. But this knowledge now brings with it a great debt. The crop of our young men now die in the blackness of the night sky, their bodies lost forever to those who would mourn for them. And for what gain? Will our territories be increased? Will we receive greater trade and merchandise than already fills our ports? No. So why should we let our warriors die for this cause? Why send our ships so far from home? Why fight this war and risk the punishment the Gods will send to us if we should lose?”

Again voices were raised as the questions Aegina had asked were redoubled and reinforced. But of all the Senators in the amphitheatre it was Aetolus who was the most angered. His was the main voice against the war, and his emotion showed as he spoke again.

“While we look to the heavens our enemies here begin to flex their muscles. In the East, Attica, Laconia and Thrace grow in stature, and the Persians increase their empire. And in the West, the Incas hinder our trade with surcharges and taxes that alter with the wind. Everyday our ships return with more stories of discontent and insolence!”

The other Senators voiced their agreement once more. But it was Aetolus’s final words that turned their voices to a roar.

Crashing his fist into his hand he shouted, “The Kraken should be here! Our enemies should quake in fear of its power!”

Ares looked around at the shouting Senators, their fists raised and their faces angry. Finally he turned to Aegina.

“Would you have me end this war?”

His question caused the voices to fade and silence fell.

Aegina turned away from Ares, her expression thoughtful. And when she finally spoke, it was with calmness and serenity.

“We entered this war with noble sentiments. The Tun-Sho-Lok brought us connection to the Ring, and with that connection came great riches. They sought no favour or payment for this boon, only free access. This access we granted, and they came into our world and taught us about the heavens. In a short time we had entered through the portals, going boldly to other worlds like children leaving the farm for the great city for the first time. Since then we have prospered. Much of our empire is due to the knowledge we have learned. Our enemies fear us as they fear the Gods. They have little understanding of the technology we have accepted, and they look on the alien visitors who travel from our shores in fear and trepidation.”

She turned to face him once more.

“I understand the fear of our people, Ares. The anger of my Senators is a reflection of that fear. Like them they understand and have accepted what has happened. But like the people beyond our shores, they are also filled with trepidation. In all honesty, we could continue to prosper through our access to the Ring, or disconnect it with little effect. We are now so high above those on our world that we could conquer them all and remain in complete power over them for thousands of years. But to what end? Could we be any more prosperous than we are now? Would the enslavement of others bring us greater happiness? So far we have been wise enough to show restraint. But this war is different.

“If we should fail, if the Keruh Host should enter through the portal and Atlantis fall, then all of the world will fall too. Those who are innocent, those who have gained nothing, all will suffer the fate we would bring to them. Is this price worth our commitment to our allies? Aetolus is right. While the Kraken leads our mighty fleet to a distant war, those enemies much nearer to us would nibble at our empire. They act in ignorance of the fate that could overtake them. We could crush them in an instant. We can still crush them in an instant. But this is not the question. A war with the Persians means nothing to us. A war with the Keruh Host means everything. It is a war we must win. Will we win it, Ares?”

Ares looked around at the expectant and worried faces of the Senators. It was no surprise to him that he should be faced with dissent on his return from Ephesus. It had been a hard war, a war fought in distant silence. How could he be angered by the fear of those whose loved ones never returned? But it was the fear of the unknown that was greatest among his countrymen. The reputation of the Keruh Host had reached here far sooner than the plea for help from the Tun-Sho-Lok. And yet they had still voted to give their support.

Ares took a deep breath and stared into the eyes of Aegina. “This war is already won. The Androktones go from success to success, and the Keruh retreat before them-”

Aetolus interrupted him. “If they are successful, why has Klysanthia fallen?”

Ares turned to him. “The distances are too great to travel by ship. The Androktones must be landed through the portals. The Keruh closed the portal to Klysanthia before this could be done.”

“The Keruh are not hindered by this problem. They have landed on Eden this very day.”

“And the Androktones will soon follow!”

Ares had raised his voice as his argument with Aetolus had grown more heated. As they stood face to face, Aegina spoke again.

“If we close the portal, neither friend nor foe can reach us by this route. Does the Kraken still lead our fleet to Eden?”

Ares nodded, sensing what was to come. “It does, President.”

“If she were to be recalled, how soon could she return to guard and protect our skies?”

“Eight days. But if she were to return, the war will most certainly be lost.”

Aetolus sensed victory. “But to whose loss?” he quickly added.

Aegina paused. And while she considered her decision, another figure moved across the marble floor to take centre stage. It was Diomedes, the Centaur who stepped forward. His head and features were almost human, but it was as if they had melted and flowed in the heat. His rich brown eyes were more on each side of his lengthened head, his mouth and nose wider. And the thick and curly brown hair that crowned his head was like that of a lion. But if his head was strange, his body was even more so. He had a thick, sinuous body that was muscular and filled with strength. It was also very long. And the most remarkable thing about him was that he had six limbs. Although the front four limbs were actually all arms and hands, hands that were dexterous and sensual, the middle pair were much broader and tougher. Out in the open, or in buildings that suited his stature, Diomedes would stand on his hind legs stretched to his full height. But inside, like now, he would drop down onto all fours, his broad middle hands acting like extra feet. Even so, he still towered above them all. About the main part of his body he wore a heavy gown, and a rich jacket about his torso supplemented it. He came to stand before Aegina, his front two arms folded. His voice was deep and base, but his words were brief.

“My government argued against entering this war. They, too, thought that they could continue their attachment to the Ring without commitment. Now my world burns and my people are scattered. Soon we shall be extinct, and only the memories of those on your world who once saw us will give evidence that we ever existed at all. Think wisely, Senators of Atlantis, or your people will follow mine into nought but legend.”

The silence that followed was painful. All eyes were now on Aegina. She nodded at last and turned once again to Ares.

“I made you God of this war, Ares, I and the Senate. The reason was simple, there is no other in our army who has commanded with such power, loyalty and success. No other has won so many victories over our enemies. Some have even called you the Stamping Horse of Atlantis; such is your reputation and prowess in battle. And it was because of your reputation that none opposed your appointment. But this war is different, Ares. For many months the people have lived with the losses. Ships have left never to return, taking with them fine young sons, loving husbands, and caring fathers. And while we mourned, the Tun-Sho-Lok built their fortress at Ephesus. Here they bred their demons and nurtured them. Now the time has come for the mourning and the waiting to cease. If the Androktones are unsuccessful on Eden, if the Keruh Host are undefeated, then I will command our ships to return and the portals here and at Ephesus will be closed.”

With her decision made, Aegina turned and swept out of the Senate. Her departure was accompanied by murmurs of agreement and even Aetolus bowed gracefully as she passed him.

-o-

When he returned to the terrace, Ares was neither surprised nor jealous to find that Li-Sen-Tot and Otrera had retired together. In fact he would have been worried if they hadn’t. Rather than risk disturbing them, he stayed on the terrace, throwing himself on to one of the sofas. He pulled grapes from the bowl on the low table next to him and popped them one by one into his mouth. Here, lounging and eating, he watched the afternoon sun go down. And when it was low over the horizon, the lovers finally emerged.

Ares laughed lasciviously as he lay full stretch on the sofa. “Ah! At last you are sated! I had wondered if you had killed one another in your ecstasy, that Li-Sen may have snapped you in his eagerness and was too embarrassed to show his face!”

Otrera replied before Li-Sen-Tot could speak. “It is you than runs the risk of damaging me!” she accused Ares haughtily. “Li-Sen is far more gentle and caring, while you treat my body as you do the horses you ride!”

Ares merely laughed louder. “Women, horses and Goddesses! They must all be treated the same or the rider may end up being ridden!”

Otrera made a show of turning her back on him. She sat herself down on another sofa. Li-Sen-Tot sat next to her. He looked across at Ares.

“How many times have you ridden this Goddess?”

His serious expression caused Ares’s laughter to subside. Ares sat up. “Not as many times as I would wish, nor as many times as you. Do our liaisons anger you?”

“They do.”

“Then we will speak of it no more.”

“And your liaisons will stop?”

There was a pause. Finally Ares nodded his head gracefully.

Otrera sighed. “Why are the males of other races so aggressive?” she declared with annoyance, her tone aloof and petulant. “Normally civilised men degenerate in an instant, and none seem concerned with my feelings or needs. I am no mere chattel, I will take the pleasure I need from whom I need and when I need. And if you should dispute this, then I will deny you both and seek my pleasure elsewhere.” She looked around at the descending sun. She held up her hands, her long fingers curling and flexing as if feeling the radiated heat. “It’s still too hot here!” she cried. And with that final statement, Otrera got to her feet and swept off the terrace, her silver dress flowing behind her like her hair.

Ares and Li-Sen-Tot watched her go in equal amounts of surprise and dismay. Ares turned to Li-Sen-Tot.

“For an Ambassador, you are not very diplomatic.”

Li-Sen-Tot shook his head. “It is impossible to be diplomatic where Otrera is concerned.”

Ares lounged back on the sofa. “And so it is with all the Klysanthians. They are not coy about their bodies, nor are they restrained in their liaisons. They burn with a fire that can only be experienced. Much mischief has been caused by her Royal House since their arrival, and I think Otrera herself has not been lax in joining in.”

Li-Sen-Tot’s eyes widened with surprise. “She has lain with others?”

“Let me just say that many of my men are tired and that their expressions are whimsical.”

Li-Sen-Tot sighed. He suddenly felt foolish. He couldn’t understand why he had spoken so rashly. He could almost have come to blows with Ares, a man who was his closest friend. How could he behave like that? Like a child? It was as if his mind had been filled with fog, as if his only concern was the need to possess Otrera and deny the involvement of others. Now his mind felt so clear. He knew why, of course. It was because Otrera had left and the power of her body had gone with her.

“It is as it should be,” he said with resignation. “I know from my life on Klysanthia that sexual restraint is a rare commodity there. Klysanthian males are non-sentient, so the idea of being faithful to one at the exclusion of others is meaningless.”

“It is as impossible to harness a Klysanthian as it is to harness the wind,” Ares pointed out.

Li-Sen-Tot nodded in understanding.

“I am sorry for the way I spoke to you. Will you forgive me?”

Ares smiled. “Your words are forgiven and forgotten -but be warned!” He sat up and held up his finger to emphasize his point. “If Otrera should seek her pleasure from me once again, I will be as unable to deny her as you would be in the same position. So if you challenge me again, I will split your head!”

-o-

It was night. Li-Sen-Tot lay awake in his bed in the palace. He couldn’t sleep. All he could think about was what he had learned about the progress of the war.

After Otrera had left, Ares had taken Li-Sen-Tot to the great hall of the council war room. Here Ares and his captains had showed him the galactic map, a huge metal frame in the shape of a globe that was sat on the back of a statue of a kneeling god. This was Atlas, once the patron god of Atlantis but now more of a figurehead than a deity. Projectors in the frame created a three-dimensional image of the galaxy that could be contracted to show the whole spiral, or expanded to show a single star system or planet. With the view contracted, different areas in the galaxy were coloured red, yellow and green. The green areas represented the territory under the control of the Tun-Sho-Lok and their allies, the red areas were those controlled by the Keruh, and the yellow were those territories so far unaffected by the war. The majority of the galaxy was coloured yellow. Red was the next largest area. The green area was shamefully too small.

But the coloured areas didn’t tell the true picture. The Keruh had lost all of the most recent battles, their forces on the ground wiped out by the Androktones. Only their space fleets still held sway. They ruled space, but less and less of the planets that occupied that space now belonged to them. They were reduced to bombardment, destroying worlds that had previously been fought over so viciously. The Atlantian and surviving Klysanthian fleets strove to defend what they could, but it took time for ships to be moved from star system to star system. The distances were vast, and entire worlds could be reduced to a cinder before a ship had crossed half the distance to reach them.

It was a problem faced equally by the Keruh as it was by the Tun-Sho-Lok. The Androktones could invade any occupied world at random through the Ring Network Portals, kill everything on the ground, and escape back through the portal before any Keruh ships could be brought up in time to give support.

To alleviate the problem, ships were being transferred through network portals to speed up the journey times. But even when fleets finally faced one another, neither side was now confident of the outcome of a space battle unless their numbers were great enough to guarantee a victory. It meant that the progress of the war was dictated by the accessibility of worlds through the network portals and not by the speed and might of ships.

The war was now becoming a race. The Keruh sought to replace what they had lost by conquering new worlds connected to the Ring while the Androktones swept through each occupied planet one after another, killing everything they found. The race would only be over when one advancing tide overtook the other on some distant world.

Eden was such a world.

Ares had laid his plans well. The arrival of the Keruh Host on Eden had been anticipated and even the treaty with the Edenite Government had been allowed for.

Ares had used a light stick to pick out the sector in the galaxy. The view in the globe had instantly expanded until the Edenite system was displayed. Numbered markers in the three different colours identified the positions of ships and fleets in the area. Ares pointed them out with his light stick.

“The Klysanthian Second and Ninth Fleets are already in the Edenite star system. They will eliminate the Edenite fleets before the Keruh can acquire them. The Keruh have four battle fleets on the way: The Telen’Gal, Mysan’Taf, Orly’Ank and Belol’Fan. They are still over a day’s journey away at maximum speed. By the time they get here it will be too late. They will be at the end of a long haul, and with the support of the Atlantian Fleet that pursues them, they will be in a well-prepared trap. Even if we don’t destroy them, we will break them as a force in this sector.”

Li-Sen-Tot had been unimpressed. “Ships mean nothing without ports.”

“And they shall have none here.”

“The Keruh Host had already arrived when I left. Their invasion was unopposed. They may already control the landing fields at Kalahar and Nemen. That means they will have control of the Eden Defence Net.”

“Good!” Ares had replied. “We want them to feel safe! We want them to complete their bridgehead. We want them down on the ground in their thousands, because that’s where they are at their weakest. On the ground. Man to man. Sword to sword.”

“Tell that to the Klysanthians,” Li-Sen-Tot had said, imagining the smashed bodies of their female soldiers. The image still hurt his mind. “Tell that to your own men.”

“The Androktones are more hardy,” Ares had replied with venom. “I have seen them fight. I have seen the hatred in their eyes. They possess the worst of us, in bodies spawned from the best of us. Your genetic scientists have created the perfect warrior, Li-Sen, pure of form and spirit, and unsullied by thoughts of remorse or self worth. They fight to the death, even when dismembered. They are a true punishment from the Gods.”

A true punishment from the Gods.

Li-Sen-Tot contemplated those words as he lay awake in the night. The Androktones had no remorse; they had no care for themselves or for others. They killed everything and everyone they considered to be an enemy, and for most of the occupied worlds where a treaty had been made with the Keruh, even under duress, that meant the indigenes population too. The Klysanthians might as well let the Keruh destroy each relieved planet, the result would be the same in any case: A dead world. His mind drifted back to the last correspondence he had received from Ares:

…THEY HAVE BEEN ADVISED THAT EDEN GOVERNMENT MAY CAPITULATE PRIOR TO KERUH INVASION. EDENITE FORCES WILL BE CONSIDERED HOSTILE…

When the last of the Keruh Warriors on Eden fell, the Edenites would follow. But, of course, Li-Sen-Tot had always known that. That was why he had to be there.

-o-

Ares walked boldly into Otrera’s bedroom. He hadn’t been invited, nor had he been announced. He scattered her Royal Guards about him as they attempted to restrain him. Despite their stern expressions and almost stark black uniforms, their combined strength was no match for him. He bellowed at them as they hung on to him, while their voices tinkled angelically in response. He was like a broad dwarf ploughing through a field of spindly nymphs.

Otrera heard the commotion but didn’t look up. Her guards called out a warning to her and in response she raised her arm and waved her long fingers at them in an obviously dismissive gesture. One by one her Royal Guards bowed and melted away.

Ares stood over her with his hands on his hips. He could never get used to the way Klysanthians slept, nor could he get used to their beds. Otrera lay naked on her back, floating in a shallow, oblong bath of water. Her arms were outstretched on either side of her and her hair fanned out around her head. She floated effortlessly on the surface, relaxed and content to have the water support her body and limbs in this heavy world. She appeared to be totally dry.

Li-Sen-Tot once told him that it was something to do with a chemical that they excreted through their skin. It meant that they never broke the surface tension of the water, and that, and their tiny weight, allowed them to float on water without effort and to remain totally dry. What was also very noticeable as Otrera lay stretched out on the water was that, like all Klysanthians, she had absolutely no body hair.

“Why do you disturb me at this early hour?” Otrera asked in a sleepy voice as she rolled over on to her side. Her shoulders and hips sank into the water, bending the surface to her shape as she bobbed gracefully up and down until the movement subsided. Her cheek was now resting on the water, her delicate nose and lips pushed against the surface, indenting it and curving it. Despite the pressure it remained intact, never threatening to stifle her breath.

“Have you seen Li-Sen this morning?” Ares demanded.

“No. Why should I? You were with him last.”

“He is not in his quarters and no one has seen him. I fear for him, Otrera.”

His final words were said with emotion and caused Otrera to awake fully at last. She turned on her back once more and then propped herself up on her hands, her long fingers spread out on the water. Her hair tumbled down behind her, the ends resting on the surface, still perfectly dry.

“Is he aware of the plan?” she asked.

“In essence he always was. It was only the details I explained to him last night. I fear he has returned to Eden. He was adamant that he wished to stay.”

Otrera nodded slowly. “Yes, he will have returned as you surmise.”

Ares grew angry, and he paced back and forth in her bedroom with obvious anxiety.

“But why? For what reason could he wish to be there when the Androktones attack? It is a folly, a waste!”

Otrera suggested the obvious answer. “Li-Sen has been the Ambassador there for many years, the Edenites are his friends as he is theirs, and it is often said that it is best to be killed by a friend than by an enemy.”

“Noble sentiments, Otrera. But you and I both know Li-Sen far too well. The world he loved was your own. The memories of his life there, his frequent visits over the years, they are no secret to either of us.”

Otrera smiled briefly. “The controls on his private RNP must be well worn. Yes, his trips to Klysanthia have been frequent, but the war stifled them. It is the first time I have seen him in many months. His mood is sombre; there is no joy in him. Even when we made love I could taste the melancholy in his body.”

Ares had no reply. Otrera watched him pace back and forth. But the question she now asked him threw a tangent into his mind.

“Where is Ro-An?”

Ares stopped pacing and turned to face her. “Ro-An?” he repeated. “She returned to Cyclopia. Why ask about Ro-An?”

“Because she and Li-Sen are the last of the Tun-Sho-Lok.”

“Your words make it sound like no others of their race exist. This is untrue. Every world attached to the ring has an Embassy, and every Embassy has its Ambassador.”

Otrera nodded. “Yes, an Ambassador on every world. And on some of those worlds other Tun-Sho-Lok may live among the aliens whose civilisation and life style they have adopted. Grouped together their numbers may be high, but scattered across the galaxy they are insignificant. Each lives isolated on a world far from their home. This has been the life of their choosing for many years. In the past it posed no threat. But now that their home world is lost, and the bulk of their race has perished, this way of life may prove to be their undoing.”

Ares grew angry again. “But they choose to be apart!” he exclaimed. “Even at Ephesus only their genetic scientists remain in number. Kel-Cid-An is the only member of the Humeric Council who remains, and he takes no more interest in the running of the war! If truth be known, it is only we Atlantians who fight this war now!”

Otrera smiled. “Do our ships not wait at Eden?”

Ares turned away, deflated by her gentle reminder. “Yes, they wait,” he said more softly. “But there are times when I feel very much alone. This war was their war, and now, when victory seems close at last, they seem uninterested.”

“You must forgive them, Ares. Much has been lost, and it is difficult to imagine the pain in their minds. Even my suffering cannot match it. My beautiful Klysanthia is lost, but my people survive together in enough numbers to make a future possible, and the fact that we can interbreed with those of your own race is an added bonus. For Li-Sen, Ro-An and the others of the Tun-Sho-Lok who survive, there are no such possibilities. In each case their behaviour will be the same. Each will return to the planet that was their home for many years. Li-Sen and Ro-An have already gone, and Kel-Cid-An and the others at Ephesus will do the same in time. Each will depart and fade away. Each will seek the future of their choosing.”

There was an uncomfortable pause while Ares considered what that choosing might be. Otrera stepped from her sleeping bath, her feet bending the surface of the water so deeply as she stood up that they reached the bottom. She began to dress, selecting each item with a curling and flexing of her long and sinuous fingers. It was as if she were selecting sweets from a platter. First came her underwear, an item of tiny proportions that only revealed its shape when it was about her hips. Next came a simple gown of delicate gold that left her shoulders and arms bare. The gown was also very short, leaving much of her long legs equally exposed. The tiny shoes she put on her feet were a dainty framework with little strength or covering. Everything she wore was designed to cover as little of her body as was possible. Ares watched her dress in fascination, keeping silent until she had finished.

“You think they will throw their lives away, at the moment of our victory?” he finally asked her.

She turned to him, now towering over him by at least a foot. “The victory you speak of is hollow when the price is as great as theirs.”

Ares sighed. “Now my worry is increased. I will speak with Kel-Cid this day, and I will contact Cyclopia and have them check on Ro-An. Contacting Li-Sen is more problematical. His private portal on Eden is offline and our technicians are unable to open it, and the main portal is about to be otherwise engaged.”

“And that may be another reason for Li-Sen’s behaviour,” Otrera pointed out.

“Another reason?” Ares was suddenly suspicious, and what Otrera told him didn’t ease his mind.

“The blood that flows through their veins may belong to you and I, Ares, but the Androktones belong to the Tun-Sho-Lok. The instincts that have been programmed into their minds were done so at the very moment that Lokana was falling. The Tun-Sho-Lok were aware of their imminent extinction. It was a powerful moment. We can only imagine what other purposes the Androktones may have been programmed with. It is more than likely that Li-Sen will be fully aware of these purposes. As you said, it is their war not ours, we are merely their allies. And it may well be that his presence on Eden when the vanguard of the Keruh Host are finally trapped on one world with the Androktones may not be by his own choosing.”


CHAPTER FOUR

THE BEGINNING OF THE END

Prili Alther and members of the Edenite Ruling Council waited on the steps of the Senate building in the centre of Jutlam City. It was a bright sunny day and the square in front of the building was lined with soldiers in dress uniform standing to attention. The wide steps up to the Senate building had been covered in a red carpet and the whole square was filled with crowds gathered for the impending spectacle. Police kept the crowds back, standing guard over the temporary barriers used to restrain them, and putting them back in place as soon as they were pushed forward. It was a constant battle. Even the sky above the square was filled with air transports that hovered in one place or buzzed back and forth. Everyone wanted to see the aliens.

The roads that led to the square were filled with more people. Traffic had been diverted and roads closed to enable the Keruh Host to reach the Senate building unopposed. And here, on the steps, Prili Alther and the Leader of the Council would welcome the Keruh Dominant.

But for every person who filled the square or lined the roads, there were ten times more who couldn’t be there.

When the news came that the Keruh Host had reached the city, each person fortunate enough to have a desk by a window that overlooked their route would stare out from time to time, eager to catch their first glimpse of the alien visitors. And those that were not near a window would still look up, anxious not to miss the first indication that the aliens had been sighted.

Breda Albatus was no different. Not since the arrival of the Tun-Sho-Lok nearly thirty years before had there been such excitement. It was difficult to work, even her supervisor would pause by a window from time to time, craning her neck in her attempt to see further down the road. Their anticipation was well rewarded.

As soon as the Keruh Host appeared, everyone forgot completely about work and ran to the windows. Breda ran with the rest. She managed to get to a window first, squeezing in and pressing her hands against the glass as others crushed up behind and all around her. And what she saw filled her with a mixture of horror and fascination.

It was like no other sight that Breda could have imagined. Yes, she had seen pictures of them on the news broadcasts, but that wasn’t the same. Seeing them for real, even at this distance, made her skin crawl.

From the safety of the fifth floor window of her office building, Breda watched as the Keruh Warriors ran along the street below. They ran with a shambling gait, bobbing up and down rhythmically. It was also quite clear from above that they ran sideways, their large and bulkier left sides to the front, their smaller right sides trailing behind. It took an age for them pass, Warrior after Warrior, hundreds, thousands of them. Like a black tide, they ran along the wide city street that led to the square and the steps of the Senate building. And as they ran passed, all the people who had lined the streets and waited so eagerly for their arrival now fell back. The look of fear in their body language was clear even from five floors up. Many of them were already running into the buildings to get away.

Such was Breda’s amazement at what she saw, that it was a few moments before she became aware of the babble of excited voices around her.

“They look dreadful!” one woman said.

“Did you see the Dominant?” a man asked.

Breda’s supervisor turned away with a hand over her mouth. “I feel sick,” she mumbled, and ran away, her place at the window instantly taken by another.

By now the leading Warriors had entered the square, and yet still more continued to run passed on the street below. The people in the square reacted to the sight of the aliens in the same way as those in the street had done: They all moved back, leaving the barriers placed there to restrain them suddenly isolated.

Breda looked at the long column stretching all the way to the square. There were so many of them. Why so many? And where was the Dominant? Had there been anything different at the front of the column? Breda was sure that there wasn’t, just Warrior after Warrior, a double bladed axe in one hand and a rifle in the other.

Her personal communicator began to warble. It broke into her thoughts. Oh, damn it! Why had she left it on her desk? She didn’t answer it. She didn’t want to give up her place at the window. The warbling continued. Finally she could resist it no longer. She turned away from the window, squeezed her way through the people around her, and rushed back to her desk.

She picked up the communicator. “Can’t we talk about this later, mum?” she said in annoyance.

“Who are you calling ‘mum’?” Kiki replied.

Breda’s annoyance was quickly deflated. “Oh, it’s you -I thought it was mum. She called me before. I told you they would run for the hills!”

“What did you say?”

“I told her I wanted to stay with you. The usual argument happened: You’re too young, you’re not married yet, your father will be upset -you know the story!”

“You didn’t fight, did you?”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. Mum and me are always having crossed words. She’ll get over it. Anyway, what do you want?”

“Did you see them?”

“Of course I saw them!” she replied with annoyance again, being reminded of what she was missing. “I’d still be looking now if you hadn’t rang me!” She tried to move back to the window as she spoke, taking the communicator with her, but there was now no place for her at the window, and she couldn’t even reach it. “Oh, Kiki!” she exclaimed, stamping her foot.

Kiki laughed at the other end of the line. “Don’t they look evil?”

“I don’t know! I can’t see them any more!” she snapped in irritation. “I suppose you can see everything?”

“I can, actually. They’re in the square. The front lot are near the Senate. They seem to have stopped.”

Breda stood on her tiptoes, trying to see over the heads and shoulders of those who blocked her view. It was no good. She went back and sat down at her desk in despair.

“Why did you have to call me, Kiki? Now I’ve lost my place at the window and I can’t see anything! What’s happening?”

“I told you, the front lot have stopped in the square.” His tone changed. “That’s funny.”

“What is?”

“Some of them seem to be going passed the square, just running straight on -oh, hang on- those in the square are moving again. Yes, I think -oh God- ”

The line began to buzz with what sounded like static. At the same time there was a gasp of amazement from those gathered at the windows. Breda looked up.

Someone said, “Oh, no!” and then there was a bright flash followed almost instantly by a loud explosion that blew the windows in and swallowed up everyone who stood before them.

-o-

Prili Alther fell down the steps of the Senate building. He was covered in dust and dirt and he was deafened by the noise of another explosion as the doors of the Senate building blew apart. He cowered on the ground with the burning debris raining down on him as all around the square people ran about in panic, screaming and dying.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

The Keruh Warriors at the front of the column had begun firing without warning. They shot at the air transports that flew above them, at the buildings that overlooked the square, at the Senate building itself, and at the members of the Ruling Council gathered on the steps to greet them. The Leader had died instantly, as had many others. The Senate building was now on fire; chunks of masonry blown from its walls as the Keruh Warriors fired their laser rifles almost constantly. Some of the Warriors rushed up the steps and through the archway, kicking aside the burning shards of the doors and shooting and hacking at anything in their path.

Shock gave way to anger, and the soldiers who had expected to suffer nothing more than aching limbs from standing to attention, quickly began to fight. A battle developed in the square as the soldiers and the police fought to resist the Keruh, fighting with them at close quarters while the civilians fled. The sound of automatic weapons quickly joined the zing and whistle of the laser rifles, and bullets peppered and punctured the black armour and carapaces of the Keruh, bursting them apart. But with both sides mixed so closely together in the square, it was the axe that was more effective than the gun. One by one the Edenites fell to the great axes of the Keruh, and the sound of automatic fire slowly faded. But it wasn’t all one sided. The Edenites were big, and many wrestled with the Keruh, wrenching the great axes from them and turning them against them. It was a valiant but vain effort. The Edenites were out in the open, grossly outnumbered, with no heavy armour to back them up, and despite their bravery and their anger, many were hacked to pieces. The same fate overcame the people who had waited so eagerly in the square. The Keruh killed everyone they caught, they showed no mercy for women or children, all were shot or hacked to death, the bodies smashed and mutilated.

A stricken air transport dropped out of the sky and crashed in the middle of the square in a ball of flame. The flames engulfed those who fought as well as those who fled. It didn’t seem to matter.

Prili Alther cried as the screams of panic and of the dying filled the square all around him. Another air transport fell in a plume of fire nearby. It hit the ground in a violent explosion that threw more debris into the air. Prili raised his arm to shield himself from the heat and the blast. Then the shadow of a great form fell over him, and he looked up in time to see the axe fall.

-o-

Breda climbed to her feet in the office. She looked around in stunned amazement. Everything was wrecked and broken. There was dust and debris covering everything and everywhere there was broken glass. The windows had all blown in and part of the wall, floor and ceiling on that side of the office was gone. Light fittings and bits of broken ceiling tiles hung at crazy angles. But the damage to the building wasn’t the worst thing that Breda was faced with.

Scattered over the floor were dozens of bodies. They were heaped up near to the gaping hole where the windows had once been. Most of them lay still, bits of glass embedded in them, and blood covering them. Breda couldn’t even recognise who they were anymore. Others moaned and moved feebly. One woman just sat among the dead, blood covering her chest and hands, screaming her head off. Somewhere, someone else cried.

There was another explosion. Breda saw it this time as well as hearing it. It was the building across the street. Something shot at it and the wall blew out. Bits of masonry tumbled down, and among the broken debris, Breda saw three people fall. The blast hit her like a warm wind, and the smell it brought to her suddenly woke her up.

Breda ran. It was a sudden urgency that overcame all thoughts in her mind. She had to get out; she had to get away from this nightmare, unreal world. She ran, stumbling and staggering over the broken furniture like a frightened child. She headed for the stairwell, and when she got there she found others rushing down in wild panic, their faces filed with terror. Some of them were screaming and shouting in their haste and their hurry. She ran to join them, pushing and shoving, and thinking only of escape as she ran down the stairs with the rest.

-o-

The world seemed to have ended for Kiki Nomanta. There was fire and smoke and the sound of someone screaming. Kiki wiped the blood from his eyes and climbed painfully to his feet. Glass shards were embedded in his head and chest. He began pulling them out with trembling hands, dropping them on the floor one by one. He was in shock, and everything around him seemed to be blurred and distant.

What was once a busy office full of lawyers with busy schedules was now a burning and collapsed wreck. The wall of the building had been blown in and the floor had given way. Everything was at an angle, and desks, filing cabinets and even office partitions had tumbled down the slope. A good part of the first floor office was now collapsed onto the ground floor, and Kiki was at the bottom standing amid the jumbled wreckage now at street level. All around him people were screaming and crying, while others climbed to their feet in a daze. Kiki didn’t notice any of them. He was looking up, wondering where his desk had once been. He hadn’t even felt the impact of his fall. He couldn’t remember what had happened at all. He had been on the phone to Breda, looking out at the square, when one of the Keruh Warriors had pointed his rifle up at the building. There had been a flash and then….

A voice finally broke through his shattered mind.

“Kiki! Kiki! Get out! Run!”

Kiki turned to see one of his colleagues trapped under a desk. It was Susu Antipo, senior partner and one of the lawyers in the firm that Kiki had known the longest. Without hesitation, Kiki went over to him and began to help him up from under the desk. He wasn’t the only one doing that. All around survivors of the blast were throwing broken furniture about and pulling injured people from underneath. Some of those they found were past helping, while others reached out with bloodstained hands.

Susu Antipo looked around anxiously as Kiki heaved the desk aside. “Don’t waste time doing that!” he shouted. “My leg’s broken! Get out, Kiki! Get away!”

Kiki began to help Susu up. “It’s alright, Susu. I don’t think the building will collapse.”

Susu pushed him away and promptly fell down on the desk. “I don’t mean the building! I mean them!” He pointed and Kiki looked out through the smoke and dust at the scene across the street.

In the square in front of the burning Senate building a bloody massacre was taking place. Men, women and children were being cut down without mercy while soldiers and police fought to keep the Keruh Warriors at bay. The battle was vicious and one sided. The screams and shouts floated across and began to filter into Kiki’s mind. He saw a child smashed by a great axe, the blood splashing in the air. He saw the mother throw herself screaming on the Keruh only to be pulled aside and thrown to the ground by two more Warriors who then axed her to death. Soldiers fired at Warriors at close quarters, or even struck at them with their rifles. Some had stolen the axes and smashed them into the Keruh, their black blood splashing like those of the child. But the soldiers and police were outnumbered and surrounded, and one by one they fell. Everywhere there was death and agony. An air transport fell out of the sky, flames and smoke trailing after it. And while those in the square fought and died, others ran in panic. Many escaped, but some only ran so far before they were caught in a laser blast that threw them to the ground in a knot of arms and legs.

Kiki stared as if in a trance, hardly noticing that those who were running across the square were running directly towards his building. And behind them, some of the Keruh Warriors chased them, pausing in their ungainly pursuit only to raise their rifles and fire. At the front of those who ran was a man. He ran directly towards Kiki, his face filled with fear and pain. He had crossed the street and almost reached the building when a laser blast burned through his back and burst in flame from his chest. His face twisted in agony and he was thrown forward, landing almost at Kiki’s feet.

-o-

The Dominant of the Belol’Fan stood amid his bodyguard in the square. He was no taller or larger than any of the Host, and his armour bore no insignia to mark his rank. Like the rest of the Host, he was lopsided, his left side and limbs enormous compared to his right. Even his hands were grossly ill matched. The one that carried the axe was large, the three fingers bulky and short, while his right hand was almost delicate, the spindly fingers gripping the rifle tightly. His triangular head was dominated by the large mandibles he used to eat with, and could only be described as a head because of the two facetted eyes that were set high up on either side. At one time, in the dim and distant past, the mandibles were used to fight for dominance in the Hive. That was when times were simpler. Not anymore. Now a Dominant had to prove his worth in more than just single combat.

But that was how it should be. How could any member of the Host follow a leader that didn’t share the glory of the fight? A Dominant could only be dominant if he had the respect of the Host, and that meant sharing their losses as well as their victories. The presence of the bodyguards that surrounded the Dominant may have seemed to contradict this, but they were there to protect him from the challenges of the First and Second of the Host, not from the enemy.

The First and Second were the next in rank of the Host, and it was from here that the future Dominant of the Belol’Fan would eventually come. But to take his place, they first had to announce their challenge to him openly and fairly, because if they didn’t, the challenge would be considered illegal, and the Dominant’s bodyguards would cut them down without hesitation. But although the Dominant’s bodyguards would willingly give their lives to defend him from an illegal challenge, they stood aside in war. Here the Dominant was expected to fight his own battles. He had to stand with his Host and fight as they fought; he had to prove his strength and bravery. At one time this would have been enough. But now a Dominant had to prove that he could lead with wisdom as well as strength.

The Dominant looked at the burning Senate building and turned away. It had never been strategically important, but the fires that would engulf it would make the war here easier. The battle had been brisk, but now it was nearly over. Blood stained the black armour he wore, and there was a dent in the front where an Edenite soldier had struck him so hard that his carapace within was sore. He had enjoyed the battle more for his wound. In fact the wound was worth more to him than the burning of the Senate building. His fight and victory before the eyes of his Host around him reinforced and consolidated his position. He had proved that he could lead with strength. Now he had to prove his wisdom.

A discrete distance away from the bodyguards that surrounded the Dominant stood the First of the Belol’Fan. Also present were the Seconds of the Mysan’Taf, Telen’Gal and Orly’Ank. All the Hives of the Keruh were represented, and it was to the Second of the Mysan’Taf that the Dominant now turned. His mandibles parted and he uttered a series of clicks and hissing noises. To an outsider, it was merely a random sequence of low whistles and clicks, but to the other Keruh in the square it was a deep and commanding voice.

“The Dominant of the Belol’Fan seeks an ally in war.”

“It is a noble request.” The Second of the Mysan’Taf replied, and swept his smaller hand diagonally before him. “Speak, and your request will be granted.”

“Take command here with the Host of the Mysan’Taf. The Edenites will defend their city. It has no value to us but it has great value to them. Level it, burn it, and take no prisoners. The spirit of the Edenites will die as their city dies.”

The Second swept his smaller hand diagonally before him. “It will be made so.”

He hurried away, his unequal form causing him to bob up and down.

The Dominant now turned to the Second of the Telen’Gal. “Contact the Dominant of the Telen’Gal. The attack on Kalahar and Nemen is to proceed with haste. The landing fields must be taken before the Host can enter.”

As before, the Second of the Telen’Gal swept his smaller hand diagonally before him. “It will be made so.”

Finally, the Dominant gave his last orders to the First of the Belol’Fan. But before doing so, he shouldered his rifle and made the same sweeping gesture with his smaller hand. “Rouse the Hosts of the Belol’Fan and Orly’Ank. Our work here is done. We go to join with the Host of the Telen’Gal at Nemen. The Defence Net is our goal.”

The First of the Belol’Fan bowed his head and repeated the gesture. “It will be made so.”

Without radios or other artificial means of communication, the orders given by the Dominant were passed throughout the Host. It wasn’t that the Keruh were incapable of using such devices, or that they frowned upon them, it was just that they weren’t necessary. Communication within the Host was often achieved by scent and sound or the slightest of gestures. Each Warrior would know instantly what was required and what was intended. And all would obey without question.

Almost in unison, the Keruh Warriors in the square abandoned their pursuit of any surviving Edenites and rejoined the column of Warriors that had continued to trudge by unperturbed as the fighting had taken place. By now those Warriors at the front of the long column would already be nearing the city limits and the highway that stretched out towards Nemen. It was on this highway that the Keruh would face the greatest of danger. Exposed on the flat and featureless land, they would be open to attack from the air. For them, speed was imperative, and they continued to hurry on without interest in the citizens or buildings of Jutlam City. It was those at the back of the column that the Edenites had to fear, those who had not yet even reached the square and the burning Senate building. These Warriors now broke from the column as if on some unheard and unseen command. They quickly fanned out, hacking down any people they found in the street without warning. Some of the Warriors held larger rifles in their great hands instead of axes, and these they used to shoot up at any air transports that still flew overhead, bringing several down in flames that exploded in the streets or ploughed into buildings. But the Warriors also continued to fire at the buildings themselves, blowing great holes in the walls and causing floors to collapse. Other Warriors ran inside the buildings, killing those they found inside.

-o-

Breda was on the first floor when the Keruh Warrior burst through into the stairwell below. With one slice of its axe a dozen people fell, blood splashing the walls and the faces of those near by. The mad panic doubled.

The tide turned on the stairs as people down near the bottom suddenly tried to run back upwards. But those further up were unaware of the danger, and people clashed and fought on the narrow confines of the stairs, both eager to go the way of their choosing without regard for those who wanted to go the other way. People climbed over one another, causing others to fall, and the screaming and shouting increased.

Down below, the Keruh Warrior climbed over the people on the stairs, smashing its great axe down on them without mercy. It moved relentlessly upwards, killing again and again, splitting skulls and bodies. It seemed that it would go on without end, but the terror of the people finally overcame their panic.

Breda was being crushed by the mass of heaving people, she could see the evil form of the Keruh advancing and there was nothing she could do to escape. Then someone jumped at the Keruh. Either in an attempt to get passed it, or to actually stop it, no one could say. The Warrior just threw the man aside, but then two more landed on it, then a third, and then a moment later half a dozen terrified men and women jumped on it from the steps above. The Edenites were large, and despite the Keruh Warrior’s own size, it soon lost it’s footing. With the axe flailing in the air, and several people hanging on to it, the Keruh tumbled down the steps.

There was sudden relief on the stairs. Breda could breathe again. With a sudden rush, those near the bottom of the stairs ran over the bodies of those that had been killed and fled from the stairwell. Breda ran with them. As she ran out the door she saw the Keruh wedged in a corner. Men and women were kicking, punching and stamping on it in a wild frenzy. Its carapace had broken under the onslaught, and black blood stained the walls and mixed with the red. It still struggled, but then someone wrestled the axe from its hand and heaved it down. There was a splat, and it moved no more.

The foyer of the building was wrecked. There was broken glass everywhere and bodies scattered about. There were also another Keruh Warrior inside and four more waiting on the pavement outside. Breda ducked and screamed as the Warriors shot at those who ran from the stairwell. A man next to her was hit and his blood splashed her as he fell. More died as they ran for the imagined safety of the streets.

There was another explosion outside. Two of the Keruh Warriors were smashed by the blast, their dismembered limbs blown inside the foyer. The remaining Keruh turned their attention to their new enemy. An armoured vehicle had appeared at the end of the street. It fired again, blowing another Warrior to pieces and damaging the side of the building.

The Keruh fired back, and in the ensuing battle, Breda and those who could run fast enough fled from the building and poured down a side street.

-o-

“This is madness!” Susu shouted and kicked his good leg as Kiki carried him down the street. “Put me down, Kiki! Think of yourself! Think of your father! You can run faster without me!”

“Shut up, will you!” Kiki replied, struggling under the weight of his friend as they ran from the square.

Kiki and Susu were among hundreds who ran down the wide street, and Kiki wasn’t the only one carrying someone either. But with the extra weight, those with their burdens were falling behind the others. It didn’t matter, the Keruh weren’t chasing them. Kiki couldn’t understand it, he couldn’t understand why the Keruh had turned away at the last moment. A Keruh Warrior was actually in the building standing among them when it had turned it’s back on them and ran away. It was almost an insult, as if they didn’t matter any more.

Susu craned his neck and looked up. He couldn’t see the square or the Keruh anymore. And he couldn’t raise his head high enough to see anything much else. He lowered his head and gave up.

“You should be looking for Titi,” he said, resigned to the fact that he was being carried to safety whether he liked it or not. “And there’s that pretty girlfriend of yours. You should be looking for them, not wasting your time with me.”

“I’ll look for Breda and dad once I know you’re in safe hands. There has to be other parts of Jutlam City that are unaffected yet. There’ll be people there who can help.”

Kiki had spoken with confidence but he didn’t feel that way. His life had fallen apart, everything had changed. Everything he had thought was important that morning was now meaningless and forgotten. Work, his plans for the future, everything was now blank. All he could think about was Breda. He had to find her. As soon as Susu was safe, he would head for her office building. And once he had Breda safe in his arms once more, they could go and look for dad.

The survivors ran on, more in silence now, their breath reserved for the task of running. There seemed to be more of them now than ever. But Kiki was right. They reached an intersection, when suddenly there was the noise of traffic and there were more people. The buildings here were undamaged, and the people were coming and going on their usual business, or were just passers-by. It was a part of the city that the Keruh had not yet reached. Cars swerved and screeched to a halt, and people looked up in shock at the bedraggled and bloodstained survivors from the square. In an instant anxious people were running towards them, grabbing them and pulling them aside. Most of the survivors fell into their arms gratefully, although some ran on in their panic and had to be chased and pulled back, screaming. But there were others who didn’t want help. They stood in the street and ranted and raved. They wanted everyone to know what had happened in the square, they wanted everyone to know what they had suffered, and what the Keruh had done.


CHAPTER FIVE

FURNACE OF CHARITY

When news of the unprovoked attack on Jutlam City reached the landing fields at Kalahar and Nemen, more than fifteen ships of the Edenite Fleet took off. Ten left Kalahar almost straight away, the other five leaving Nemen a short time later. Twelve more ships at Nemen and another eight at Kalahar began take-off preparations. There were more ships in the service areas, and work to make them ready for flight was redoubled.

In orbit around Eden were several ships on servicing duties. These ships now abandoned the satellites and space station they were working on and headed back to the surface. And a short distance from Eden, several more Edenite ships were recalled from patrol and surveying duties.

Of all the surveying ships, the ES Saladaz was the most distant. She had been in orbit around Gannia, the nearest planet to Eden, where her crew had been engaged in taking seismograph readings and mineral samples. When the news from Eden reached them, the previous importance of their scientific work quickly evaporated, and men and women hurried to pack up and leave as soon as possible. The whole ship was filled with turmoil as anger at what had happened began to mix with anxiety for the loved ones that they had left behind. Suddenly, the only important thing in their lives was to get home.

As men and women rushed about the bridge of the ES Saladaz, Captain Hemunus shouted his commands to his crew, recalling teams from the surface and urging speed at all costs.

“I want everyone back on board now! We’re leaving!” he shouted.

“What about the equipment on the surface?” Niki Falker, the First Officer, called back as he ran across the bridge to another one of the control consoles. “And there’s the habitation units. It’ll take us the best part of an hour to get it all back on board!”

Hemunus was adamant. “We’re breaking orbit in fifteen minutes!”

“Fifteen minutes?” Falker exclaimed. “We’ll never do it!”

Hemunus smacked the back of his command chair. “Then leave it! Leave it all!”

When the ES Saladaz left orbit fifteen minutes later, it did so leaving a large amount of expensive surveying and habitation equipment behind on Gannia. No one on board really cared.

They travelled at maximum speed, and now that the panic and haste of leaving Gannia was finally behind them, there was nothing else to do but wait. With nothing to occupy their minds, everyone on board began to think about home and what they might find there. No one spoke, and an eerie silence quickly overcame the ship.

Similar thoughts filled the mind of Captain Hemunus as he sat in his command chair on the bridge. He couldn’t stop thinking about his wife and daughter. They were both in Jutlam City. His wife would probably have been at home when it happened, or out shopping, and his daughter would have been at the College of Learning. He prayed that they were both safe; that they hadn’t gone to the square to watch. It was just the sort of thing his wife might do. She would have gone to see the spectacle, taken pictures, and then bored him to death about it on his return. Kelandra would have been kept in College, of that he was pretty sure. But Lyona, oh sweet Lyona, she wouldn’t have been able to resist. The more he thought about it, the more it hurt his mind.

Falker eventually broke the silence on the bridge, his soft words like a bombshell.

“Captain. We’ve got company.”

Captain Hemunus looked across at him in surprise. “Another ship?”

Falker nodded as he looked down at his astrogator screen. “More than one. Coming up fast behind us.”

“Put them on screen.”

Falker nodded again, and the viewing screen at the front of the bridge was suddenly filled with a vast number of ships in tight formation. There were at least five columns of them, trailing off into the distance. It was clear from their movement on the screen that they were gaining on them. Some of the bridge crew gasped when they saw them.

Hemunus looked at the mass of ships. “Oh, God in Heaven! That’s an entire fleet! And by the look of that tri-marine structure they must be Klysanthian. Open a channel to them. Quickly!”

“They’ve beaten us to it,” Falker replied.

Almost at the instant he finished speaking, the image on the viewing screen changed. The mass of ships vanished and were replaced by the head and shoulders of a woman wearing a simple black uniform. The uniform had a high collar and would have been considered austere if it hadn’t been for the decorative panel at the front. The panel covered her chest and reached down beyond her narrow waist, the fabric ruffled and gathered, giving it a delicate appearance. It was in stark contrast to the rest of her uniform that was so thin and so tight it almost looked painted on, and showed every contour of her body. She was sat on the bridge of another ship, and behind her other women in the same black uniform moved from one control console to another. The lower part of the uniform was revealed to be trousers that clung as tightly to the women’s legs and hips as the jacket clung to their chests. All of the women were elfin featured; their figures lithe and their limbs delicately long and slim. It was almost as if the image on the screen was incorrect, as if it had been squeezed sideways and pulled upwards. The woman who faced them was also too slight of form, too tall and too delicate to be real. She had long blonde hair that cascaded over her shoulders, a tiny mouth, high cheekbones and bright green eyes that seemed to fill her face. She was exquisitely beautiful, but her expression and manner was cold. And when she spoke, the delicate sound of her voice clashed with the bluntness of her words.

“I am Bremusa, Captain of the Light Of The World, Flagship of the Klysanthian Second Fleet. Identify yourselves.”

Hemunus stood up. “I am Captain Hemunus of the Edenite Ship Saladaz. We are returning home to help repel an attack by the Keruh Host. I have no idea what should bring you and your fleet to our star system at this time, but your assistance will be invaluable.”

Bremusa ignored both the implied question and the request. Her voice continued to sound delicate and gentle, but again the words were harsh. “Are you not in league with the Keruh? Did you not sign a treaty with them this very day?”

“They attacked us without warning!” Hemunus replied forcefully. “They’ve killed our Ruling Council! Massacred our people! Burned our city! We may have agreed to their treaty under duress, but now we are enemies!”

Bremusa smiled, but it was lifeless and without warmth. “Yes. They are now your enemy as they have always been ours. But your alliance with them, no matter how brief, is a signal of your true intent. You turned your back on those who fought for freedom and independent life, on those whose sacrifice for this noble cause is far too great. You sought to live safely in the bosom of the serpent while all around you others fell to the venom of its fangs. Now this choice brings on your own fate.”

Hemunus stepped forward, knowing what was coming next. “Wait! You must listen!”

It was no use. The image of Bremusa vanished and only the on-rushing ships now filled the screen.

Hemunus turned to Falker. “Get her back!” he demanded.

“I’m trying!” Falker replied as he worked frantically at his controls.

At another control console, a woman turned, tears in her eyes. “Captain! They’re arming weapons!”

Hemunus shouted his last commands in a final and last desperate effort to avoid the inevitable.

“Helm! Hard to port!”

The ES Saladaz turned and tried to move aside from the onrushing fleet, but she only succeeded in exposing her side to the Klysanthian gunners. A fusillade of maser blasts tore into her hull, splitting it open and blowing it apart. The metal fragments spun away, the white gas that bathed them lit briefly in orange.

Bremusa turned away from the viewing screen, the death of Captain Hemunus and his crew already fading from her mind. She headed towards the doorway, giving commands in quick succession as she walked among her officers, her voice tinkling delicately.

“Derinoe, advise the fleet: Increase speed and prepare to break up into attack formation. Pass this command to Telepyleia on the Shrine Of The Spirit. The Ninth Fleet will form the lower wing as planned. Ainia, contact Dione on the Bread Of Angels: She is to proceed with the bombardment of Eden. We must act before the Defence Net is closed. Iphito, open the portal to the Furnace Of Charity. I will speak with Anaxilea immediately.”

Bremusa left the bridge without a further word. And by the time she reached the portal, another tall woman in a black uniform stood waiting for her. The woman was a typical Klysanthian, her features were delicate and her figure waiflike, the tight black uniform revealing every subtle curve of her sinuous body. She matched Bremusa for beauty at every point, but they were far from mirror images. The woman on the portal had the same delicate features; high cheekbones, small mouth and large almond shaped eyes. But the differences made her appearance even more striking. Her eyes were a rich brown, she had very long, thick and wavy brown hair, and her skin held a darker hue, as if bronzed by a distant sun. It gave her a feeling of warmth that seemed to magnify her beauty.

Bremusa wasted no time on introductions. “Why did you not fire on the Edenite ship?”

Anaxilea remained impassive. “It seemed unnecessary to add the power of our weapons to those of so many.”

Her voice was slightly husky, as if the delicate vocal sounds of her race had been cracked and roughened. Bremusa didn’t accept her feeble excuse.

“And your decision was based on nothing more than the conservation of power?”

Anaxilea’s expression showed a hint of irritation. “Why this interrogation?”

“Because it is not the first time that the Furnace Of Charity has failed to fire on Edenite ships! Why do your guns stay silent?”

There was a brief pause as both women stared at one another. Finally, Anaxilea answered, her voice subdued and her features filled with sadness.

“The Edenites are not our enemy.”

In contrast, Bremusa grew angry, her delicate features almost unable to complete the expression. “They signed a treaty with the Keruh! That makes them our enemy! They must die as the Keruh must die!”

Anaxilea stepped forward on the portal and spoke in haste. “Must all the races in the galaxy pay for what we have lost?”

Bremusa’s manner became distinctly cold. “If you will not follow my commands I will find another who will.”

There was another short eye battle, and then Anaxilea lowered her head. “I will obey your commands.”

“Then go with the Bread Of Angels, fly beneath the Defence Net. Bombard the Edenite cities, shoot down their ships, and make them feel our wrath.”

Anaxilea looked shocked, her eyes growing wide. “But Dione and the others who go with her have volunteered for this task!”

“So, now, have you,” Bremusa replied pointedly. “Do not fail me in this, Anaxilea, for I will not pardon you again.”

Bremusa turned away and the portal was closed.

Anaxilea was left standing before the now closed portal on the Furnace Of Charity. She turned slowly. Behind her in the portal room were Melousa and Cassiopea. Melousa worked in Engineering while Cassiopea was Anaxilea’s First Officer on the Furnace Of Charity. Melousa had green eyes and dark hair that reached to her waist. Cassiopea had equally long blonde hair and blue eyes. She was slightly older than Anaxilea, she was taller, too, and the curves of her body were more pronounced than either those of Melousa or Anaxilea.

Cassiopea shrugged and smiled wryly. “I suppose that went better than expected.” Like Bremusa, her voice was high-pitched and delicately tinkled in the air.

Her attempt at humour didn’t lighten Anaxilea’s mood. She sighed, reaching up to pull at her tunic under her right arm. The ruffled front panel broke away at the side and she pulled it down. She then reached up to rub her exposed neck, upper chest and shoulder, her long fingers massaging the skin. “I’m sorry, Pea,” she said turning her head and rubbing the back of her neck. “My stupid ideas about justice and fairness have condemned us all to an ignominious and useless death.”

“They weren’t stupid, Lea, and no one on board challenged your decisions.”

Melousa backed her up, her voice equally delicate. “We all know why you have failed to give the order to our gunners when all around us other ships fired. To kill the Edenites is unfair, but fate has never been fair to the unlucky. And the Edenites are unlucky. With or without a treaty, the Keruh would have attacked them at the same hour.”

Anaxilea looked at them both. “I have been granted a fine crew, but I am a foolish Captain. I have put my ideals above your needs. It is you that are unlucky.”

Cassiopea reached out and pulled on Anaxilea’s hair. “We are not unlucky. You have led us through many battles and we have been victorious on many occasions. We have survived long and well while many others have perished. The Furnace Of Charity is steeped in the glories of war; she has bitten the enemy and made them fear us. There is not one woman aboard her who would swap places with another.”

Anaxilea glanced at Melousa. “There maybe one,” she remarked, causing Melousa to blush and look away. It was a moment’s distraction, and then Anaxilea’s mind returned to the injustice of the situation, and her voice was raised in her annoyance and frustration.

“Oh, if only they had waited a little longer! If only they hadn’t signed that treaty, then we could have come here as their saviours, and not as their assassins!”

“It’s not your fault that they signed a treaty,” Cassiopea told her. “Not ours, nor Bremusa’s.”

“But it shouldn’t mean their death,” Anaxilea pointed out. “We entered this war with noble intentions, and now we’re finishing it with nothing but spite. It shouldn’t be like this. Bremusa doesn’t have to kill them all. It’s not right.”

Cassiopea moved her hand under Anaxilea’s hair and stroked the back of her neck. She spoke softly and comfortingly, and Anaxilea closed her eyes at the gentle touch of her friend, letting her caress and her words calm her.

“You can’t put the universe to rights, Anaxilea. There are always going to be injustices and evil. But for everything that’s bad, there are always going to be things that are good. Like friendship, love and the touch of another. I know you feel bad about this, but don’t blame Bremusa. She lost everything she cherished on Klysanthia. And she isn’t the only one who suffers that loss with bitterness in her veins.”

Anaxilea opened her eyes and looked sadly at Cassiopea.

“I hear you and understand you, Pea, but I have no heart in this. Our ship was named for one purpose but now we have been given another. We have to kill Edenites; we have to kill those who are like us, the victims of the Keruh. I can’t do it, Pea. I can’t condemn you all to die for nothing. To die fighting the Keruh, our true enemy, is one thing, but to end our lives as the murderers of innocents, no, I won’t do it. Give the order to break formation. Set course for-”

Cassiopea pulled Anaxilea close to her, wrapping an arm around her waist and placing a hand over her mouth, snuffing out her final words.

“Enough talk of treason!” she whispered harshly. “We all know the plan! We all know why we are here! If we are to be successful the Keruh Host must establish their bridgehead on Eden, we all know this! That is why Dione and those with her have volunteered for this task! And it is not a dishonourable death, but a truly honourable one, one that many others do not have the spirit or courage to face! We of the House of Charity have that courage! We have that spirit! And so we will go with the Bread Of Angels, and we will shoot as they shoot! But if we should miss an Edenite ship and instead hit the Host, who will care for the mistake?”

There was a pause after Cassiopea had finished. Then Anaxilea slowly reached up and pulled Cassiopea’s hand from over her mouth. She held onto it and squeezed it, her eyes already wet. And when she spoke it was with a final sadness. “I thank you for your advice, Pea. You have always known how to guide me and lead me to the truth, but my heart cries out for you and the rest of the crew. Now even the glory of final victory has been taken from us.”

“Then nothing has changed,” Cassiopea replied with equal sadness. “Our future is as set as the past, and the path we now take leads to the same destiny. There is no other whom we would choose to lead us down that path. We trust in you, Anaxilea. With you at our head, we know that there is nothing to fear. And for this battle, the last battle, to choose how to die is to win.”

Anaxilea looked at Cassiopea and Melousa. Their faces were filled with such concern, such love. It hurt her to look at them. “Alright,” she said firmly. “We will follow Bremusa’s orders. Its either that or step through an open air-lock.”

Cassiopea now tugged hard on Anaxilea’s brown hair, causing her to squeak. What they would have done next neither of them found out, because Dione appeared on the portal behind them, her hands on her hips. She spoke in irritation.

“Where are you? Why haven’t you followed me out of the main column?” She saw Anaxilea and Cassiopea standing together and folded her arms. “Oh, I see!” she said knowingly. “Petting one another again, are we? Well stop it! Bremusa is losing her patience and if you don’t hurry up and get moving soon she will order the fleet to fire upon you!”

Anaxilea and Cassiopea stepped apart. Anaxilea held up her hands. “Alright! Alright! We’re coming!”

Dione nodded. “Good!” She caught sight of Melousa and blew a kiss at her. A moment later and she was reaching forward to break the connection. Melousa stopped her.

“Wait!” she called out, stepping forward. Dione paused and looked up.

Melousa turned to Anaxilea. Her expression was filled with such yearning that Anaxilea couldn’t deny her. She nodded, and Melousa bounded onto the portal and embraced Dione. Their faces shone with delight as the image faded.

Cassiopea looked at Anaxilea. “Was that wise?”

Anaxilea nodded. “Melousa has chosen as we have chosen. If we are to die, it is best that we die with those we love.” She reached out and delicately brushed Cassiopea’s lips with her fingers as she spoke. It was a brief touch. They smiled at one another, but there was sadness in their eyes. And when Anaxilea spoke again, it was with finality.

“Tell Phoebe to follow the Bread Of Angels. Have the crew prepare for battle.”

-o-

A short time later, and the Furnace Of Charity joined the Bread Of Angels and four other vessels at the front of the combined Klysanthian fleets. They flew in two wings, three upon three. Behind them came the Light Of The World and the Shrine Of The Spirit. These two vessels also flew one above the other, each leading a wave of ships in a wide curving line close behind them. Ship upon ship flew side by side, with more moving up from the columns behind them, until finally, the two wings of ships were complete, the Second Fleet above, the Ninth Fleet below. It was the battle formation that had proved to be the most effective.

The Klysanthian fleet was a colourful spectacle. Each vessel differed slightly from all the others, as if different engineers had made them all at different times. They were also painted and embellished differently. Each vessel was an individual, named and painted to reflect the personality of the family group who commanded it. But although they each differed in detail, colour, size and style, they were all built to a similar design. A double hull, joined by a wide wing with a serrated front edge. Above and to the front of the wing was a third hull, built in the shape of a sweeping dorsal fin. It was wider at the base where it joined the wing and reached out on either side to each of the other two hulls. At the top it narrowed until it swept back to a final point. The whole of this third hull was ribbed and the fin had a saw-tooth front edge.

The two great wings of ships flew on, a colourful flock against the darkness of space. And ahead of them, Eden was growing visibly larger.


CHAPTER SIX

FRIENDLY FIRE

“We’re at war!” Bibi exclaimed.

Tipi couldn’t believe it when their teachers had announced it. The lecture they were in had been interrupted and they had been asked to go to the main hall. Once there they found that the whole campus was gathered inside. Everyone was excited and anxious, and rumours abounded. The truth was a shock. The Dean of the Faculty had stood on the stage with the rest of her staff and told them what she knew. It wasn’t much. The Keruh had broken the treaty and attacked them without warning. They were now at war with the Keruh.

Everyone wanted to ask questions, and some of the students cried. But Bibi was as excited as ever.

“Are you sending us home, Miss?” he called out.

“No, we are not sending you home,” the Dean answered firmly. “You are to remain in this building at all times, and under no circumstances are you to leave or to try and go home. When we know that it is safe we will tell you. Until then you will have to be patient.”

There could have been a panic, but such was the shock of the news that the students just sat, numbed.

The sight of the Keruh Host stamping passed the College had frightened them. And the idea that their armed forces were now battling with these evil looking creatures in the centre of Jutlam City was enough to keep them exactly where they were. But there wasn’t one among them who didn’t yearn for the safety of their own home and the arms of their parents.

A long period of waiting followed the announcement, and with nothing to do in the main hall but wait, boredom and imagination soon took over the minds of the students. Every sound outside caught their attention, causing the odd embarrassed scream. And every teacher who came and went was scrutinized for any hint of more news. But there wasn’t any more news, and nothing seemed to happen, so for a while, the passing vehicles on the road outside became the focus of their attention.

At first, the traffic on the road comprised of military vehicles. There were Armoured Personnel Carriers, tanks and other forms of mobile guns. They all rushed towards the city in never ending numbers. Those vehicles coming out of the city tended to be cars, vans and buses. There were few at first, their drivers looking surprised and bemused by the military vehicles coming towards them. They pulled off the road and watched them go by with anxious faces. But as time passed, the military vehicles disappeared, and the number of civilian vehicles coming from the city increased. This time the drivers were in a hurry, and their expressions were desperate. They hurtled down the road, trying to overtake one another in a flurry of horn blowing. But as time passed even these vehicles slowly diminished in number until no more came. The road outside became silent and empty.

With nothing else to distract them, a morbid atmosphere soon filled the hall. Some of the students began to cry softly, but most just sat silently, their heads down. Even Bibi had lost his enthusiasm as the hours had passed.

“Oh, why can’t they let us go home?” he asked Tipi after what seemed like an age. “We’ve been here for hours!”

Tipi shrugged. “They have to be sure its safe. They’re responsible for us, so they can’t just kick us out.”

Bibi sighed. “I’m fed up! I want to go home!”

Tipi made no reply. He also wanted to go home. He wanted to see Breda and his mother and father all safe and well. But all the students in the hall had the same thoughts. Tipi could see the girl from the classroom when he and Bibi had watched the Keruh go by. She was crying, and one of the teachers was comforting her.

Another hour had passed when military trucks appeared on the road. But instead of driving passed on the way to the city, they stopped outside. All the students in the hall stared through the windows as soldiers in dull green battle armour jumped out and ran into the College building. A few minutes later the Dean returned. She looked ashen, crestfallen. And she wasn’t alone. There was a soldier with her. His battle armour was dirty and pockmarked with blackened laser impacts. He looked stern. The Dean spoke in whispers to the other teachers. One of them clapped her hands to her face in shock, while another sank down to her knees and cried. And one of the male teachers kicked at the wall in frustration.

The news was not good. Tipi stared in amazement as the Dean told them what had happened. She told them about the unprovoked attack in the square, and the battle in the streets that had followed. It was a battle that was still going on. But worse news was to follow. The Dean now introduced the soldier. His name was Falamunus, he was a Colonel in the army, and he had been placed in charge of the evacuation of Jutlam City. He spoke gravely, but without emotion.

“At four-fifteen pm today, Jutlam City fell to the Keruh. The whole of the Ruling Council were lost. Eden is now under military law. You are all to be evacuated to Hilbrok immediately. Transports are waiting outside. Please follow your teachers instructions and move calmly and quickly to the exits.”

There were gasps of amazement and cries that it couldn’t be true. And amid them all were stronger protests.

One of the students stood up. “What about my mum and dad?” he shouted.

Another girl also stood up. “I’m not going anywhere without daddy! He’ll be coming for me! He will! I know he will!”

There were more protests and tears, but Colonel Falamunus was firm. “No one is coming for you here! All civilian methods of transportation have ceased, both in the air and on the ground. All survivors from Jutlam City are being taken to Hilbrok by military transport. Your parents and families will already be on their way. That’s why we have to hurry. Now let’s get moving!”

-o-

The ships that had taken off from Nemen and Kalahar headed towards Elengrad and Jutlam City, but their captains were in a quandary. Of all the military hardware at the Edenite’s disposal, it was their ships that were the most advanced and powerful. But to use the ship’s weapons against the Keruh Host would require pinpoint accuracy if they were to avoid destroying their own cities and killing their own people. The only solution was to fly low, bringing them in range of the heavy weapons carried by some of the Keruh Warriors. But there was another problem to contend with.

At Elengrad, the Keruh had positioned heavy ground batteries around the portal. They were so large that moving them any further away from the portal would have taken days. But as they were only required to protect the portal itself, that had been unnecessary. The Edenite ships that approached Elengrad met heavy and accurate fire. Flying so low and so close together over the city, they got in each other’s way, and made the task of the Keruh gunners easy. Many were hit and two were shot down before the others finally gave up the attack. Even then, another was brought down as it accelerated away. But the short time the Edenite ships spent flying low over the city gave their crews a good view of what had befallen the citizens and the buildings. All was fire and smoke, and dead littered the streets and the squares. It was a scene that caused all restraint to leave them.

The Edenite ships moved to the safety of greater height, and slugged it out with the Keruh ground batteries. It was a protracted and devastating offensive. And with the accuracy of the Edenite gunners no longer an issue, more of the city succumbed to the heavy blasts.

At Jutlam City the battle between air and ground was more one-sided. Slow moving ships flew low over the buildings to avoid being a target for the nearby batteries at Elengrad, and a cat and mouse game quickly developed with the Keruh Host on the ground. The Keruh Warriors shot at anything in the city, their purpose seemingly to destroy everything. They would even fire up at the ships that attacked them, using the same heavy weapons that brought down the buildings around them. Each bright beam left a blackened pockmark in the metal hulls of the ships. But the firepower from the large vessels floating above the city was much more effective. In one blast a dozen Warriors would be blown to fiery fragments. And the ships fired down at the packed streets constantly.

To escape the onslaught the Warriors would hide in the ruined buildings, or race down the entrances of the underground rapid transit system. The underground tunnels were perfect for them. Here they could move about the city unobserved, safe from aerial attack, until they emerged again to shoot at other buildings. But as soon as they reappeared the ships would float towards them again, firing down at any Warriors in the street, or who were exposed when a building was hit. And many buildings were hit. At first the gunners were reluctant to fire down at the grand buildings in the city, but when the first of their ships finally succumbed to the constant barrage of laser blasts from below, and it fell into a suburb engulfing the houses in a ball of fire and smoke, their reluctance ended. From then on, the city was doomed.

As each building burned and fell, more of the Keruh Warriors would rush for other cover. A frenzy of shooting from the ships above would result. The once fine streets and boulevards were peppered with craters, the abandoned cars that littered them burnt out, and the trees that lined them left cracked and burning. And amidst all the fire and smoke, the Edenite military fought to evacuate the civilians from the city while fighting a rearguard action with the Keruh.

Armoured vehicles moved hesitantly from corner to corner. Soldiers in full battle armour ran from street to street, pointing at distant objectives and enemies, and marshalling stunned and bedraggled survivors. Down other streets, the Keruh advanced whenever the skies were clear, their Warriors searching each building and shooting through doorways. The large weapons some of them carried had a devastating effect, and many more buildings fell in clouds of dust. The dust combined with the smoke, enveloping the city in thick smog. And every so often, friend and foe would come abruptly face-to-face, and death would swiftly follow.

The Host of the Mysan’Taf used every technique of war at their disposal, from guerrilla tactics to out and out charges down the street. And they cared little for their own survival. Just at the moment the Edenites thought they were safe, death would rush at them with an axe in one hand and a rifle in the other. Hand to hand combat was commonplace, with many an Edenite soldier proving his bravery and strength. But it was to no avail. As a full evacuation began, and people fled the city anyway they could, Jutlam City, the capital of Eden, slowly burned, the sky above it filled with smoke.

-o-

Out in space, the Klysanthian Second and Ninth Fleets swept passed Eden without slowing. Only the Bread Of Angels and her tiny flotilla broke formation. They flew down, entering the outer layers of atmosphere. On the way they found the half built space station in orbit. They quickly shot at it, sending it spinning and plummeting to earth. They followed it down, another appointment ahead of them.

At Nemen, the demise of the space station was the first hint that the attack on Eden wasn’t just coming from the portal at Elengrad. But by the time the technicians manning the Defence Net had switched it on; it was already too late. The tiny Klysanthian flotilla was already under the Net and heading for the landing fields at Kalahar and Nemen.

-o-

Above Elengrad, the Defence Net briefly interrupted the bombardment of the city. Now at a much greater height, most of the Edenite ships hovered just below the level of the Net, but the sudden arrival of the invisible barrier caught one vessel that was too high. Huge sparks of lightening enveloped it, and it exploded brightly. It dropped into the atmosphere like a blazing comet, the other ships scattering beneath it.

-o-

On the highway to Nemen, the Keruh Host ran at their relentless pace along both carriageways: Untiring, unstoppable. What had once been a busy artery with fast flowing traffic was now a scene of carnage. At first the cars and vehicles had swerved to avoid the onrushing army, but the Keruh fired at everything and everyone. Vehicles that had come to a halt were blasted from the roadway, their drivers shot or axed to death where they sat. More vehicles ploughed into others or into the Keruh Warriors themselves. It didn’t seem to matter. The Keruh just clambered over the wrecked cars and transports, their weight denting the metal. They fought their way along the highway as the traffic backed up before them. Any vehicles in their path were blasted aside, their occupants butchered. Soon the highway in front of them was jam-packed with abandoned vehicles, their occupants fleeing across the open land. With no buildings or other cover to protect them, many of the people were shot down as they ran. But the lack of cover along the length of the highway worked both ways, and it wasn’t long before the first military jets appeared.

The jets had twin engines with swept back delta wings. The tail-planes were an extension of the wings, joined together in a double row at the back. The cockpit housed two seats in tandem; the one at the front was for the pilot, at the back, navigator and weapons. They were painted earth and green above, sky blue below.

Ziti Harktus sat in the front seat of the leading jet. He flew low along the length of the highway. Behind him, to the left and right, were two more jets. And a short distance behind them came several more wings of three, each in the same tight delta formation. Harktus stared at the highway as it rushed rapidly beneath him. It was a constant unending jam of vehicles nose to tail. Some of the cars had spilled off the road, while many more were turning around and driving back. Some even drove along the edge of the highway on both sides, bouncing over the soft ground. And people were running everywhere. They fled from the jammed vehicles, running across the land or back up the highway. It was a complete panic, the images flashing beneath him in a constant stream.

“Sabatus! Demantha!” Harktus shouted into his face microphone. “Keep it tight! Fire on my mark!” He turned his head slightly. “Belomonor! Make sure you get this right!”

In the seat behind him, Belomonor concentrated on his bombsights. “Just keep her level and I’ll put a couple of rockets down their throats!”

Harktus gritted his teeth. He had faith in his bombardier, and in the crews of the two jets in his wing, but it was the civilians on the highway he feared for. He kept his jet level and dropped down even lower. The long column of Warriors surged towards him, and just at the instant that the leaders shot by underneath him, the two rockets slung underneath his jet blasted away. A moment later and the jets of Sabatus and Demantha also fired.

The tight group of twin explosions engulfed the head of the column of Warriors from one side of the highway to the other. It was an eruption of burning vehicles, fire, concrete and earth that spread out in a huge ball of grey and black. And amongst the flying debris were the dismembered corpses of the Keruh, hurled high into the air.

Belomonor looked back at the carnage. “It’s like squashing bugs on a table top!”

A moment later and a bright beam of white light transfixed an engine on one of the jets flying alongside them. The engine burst apart and the jet immediately banked and dropped, a trail of fire and smoke trailing after it. It hit the ground a short distance away from the side of the highway, a bright orange blossom marking the impact.

Harktus pulled his jet into a steep climb. “Yeah! Bugs with laser rifles! Sabatus! Pull up! Let’s get out of here!”

As the first two jets flew back towards their base at Delmatra, those that followed them continued the attack. The jets came in wave after wave, their rockets causing multiple explosions among the packed column of Warriors that smashed and burned everything. Hundreds of the Keruh died in the attacks, but ten times more fired up at the low flying jets. Several more jets were hit, and each time a trail of smoke would follow the stricken craft as it spiralled slowly to ground, the explosion a distant thump. But the jets didn’t continue the strikes for long, and when the last of them finally flew away, it was to herald a far more deadly form of attack.

One by one, the large tubular shaped vessels of the Edenite Fleet began to appear in the distance, their great dorsal fins like a sail above them. Here their captains would face no dilemma, here there were no city buildings to consider, no civilians or ground forces that they could harm. One after another of the large vessels came floating towards the highway. They began firing as soon as they came within range, the Keruh Warriors firing back at them. But most of the Host on the highway carried only the smaller laser rifles. Those who carried the larger and heavier weapons had been left behind to wreak havoc and destruction at Jutlam City. It had been a tactical decision, a decision that now brought unimaginable suffering.

The Edenite ships weathered the fusillade of laser blasts that peppered their hulls as they approached. In exchange, their maser cannons blew vast craters in and around the highway, throwing up earth and fractured concrete. The Keruh Warriors caught in each blast were smashed and hurled into the air. Closer and closer the ships came, until finally, they hovered over the highway, firing down again and again at the long column of Warriors that trudged along beneath them.

Hundreds, thousands, of the Keruh Host were blown to pieces, their dismembered bodies and limbs scattered over the land. But still more ran on, the survivors firing up at the ships above them even before the smoke and debris had settled from the last explosion. They clambered through each crater that blocked their way, stepping over the mutilated corpses of their fallen comrades, stumbling and bathed in their black blood. But even this one-sided slaughter was not to last.

-o-

Anaxilea looked at the viewing screen. It would be so simple, so easy. The Edenite ships were hovering low over the ground, shooting down at the black column that filled the highway beneath them. They were too close together; they would have no room to manoeuvre, and no time to react.

“I don’t want to do this,” she muttered.

Cassiopea looked across at her. “We have to. We have to allow the Keruh to secure their bridgehead. You know that, Anaxilea.”

Anaxilea stared at the pockmarked highway, at the ships above it that were already turning and climbing. She sat immobile in her command chair, only her long fingers curling and flexing as she remained silent, the commands that they all expected left unsaid.

At the helm sat another brown haired and brown eyed Klysanthian, her bronzed skin only slightly lighter than that of Anaxilea. Phoebe pointed at the screen excitedly, and when she spoke it was with the same roughened tones as Anaxilea.

“They’ve seen us! Bread Of Angels has opened fire!”

One of the Edenite vessels was struck by several maser blasts and suddenly burst apart. It fell the short distance to the ground in a ball of flame.

Anaxilea closed her eyes. Her heart was beating so hard in her chest that she felt it was about to burst. She almost wished that it would burst, but there was no avoiding what she had to do. Her fingers curled around the arms of her command chair, gripping them tightly, and she gave in at last.

“Open fire.”

-o-

The six Klysanthian vessels flew in a wing formation, side by side. They swept down in a shallow arc over the surface of Eden, flying over a rich green countryside that was dotted with trees in colourful bloom. They rushed towards the highway, its concrete surface an artificial scar across the natural land, firing down at the ships below them. Several of the blasts missed their targets and hit the long column of Warriors on the highway, but many more found their mark. It was a devastating attack. Each and every one of the Edenite ships was caught in the barrage of fire and blown from the air. Two of them collided and fell to ground in a tangle of grinding metal and fire. Another of the stricken vessels fell across the highway, enveloping it in flame. More of the Host perished in a fiery death. But now the air above them was empty and the highway to Nemen was clear.

-o-

In the middle of the long column that stretched along the highway, splashed in the blood of his Warriors, surrounded by smoke and fire, the Dominant of the Belol’Fan looked up at the disappearing ships.

“They were Klysanthian,” he hissed and clicked.

“They have accepted the treaty,” the First of the Belol’Fan replied. “They have fired at the Edenites as you surmised. Should I give the command for the rest of the Host to enter?”

The Dominant looked around at the burning wrecks of the Edenite ships. He felt the heat on his carapace and the acrid smoke made breathing difficult. All around him were the dismembered bodies of the dead, some of them still burning. But the majority of his Warriors still trudged on.

“No. I have yet to be convinced of our enemy’s purposes here. They have attacked the Edenites but they did not dwell to continue the attack on our forces.”

“Maybe it is the Edenite ships at Kalahar and Nemen that are their goal? They could attack the landing fields and return before we have completed that same journey.”

“Then time will give us the answer. Urge the Host to more speed. We must leave this exposed terrain as soon as possible.”

-o-

Dione sat in her command chair on the bridge of the Bread Of Angels. The first attack had gone well, but the element of surprise had given them the advantage. She hoped that same advantage would be with them at Kalahar and Nemen. She turned to her First Officer.

“It is time to split our forces, Lybia. Contact Scyleia on the Gate Of Heaven. Tell her to make directly for Kalahar. We head for Nemen as planned.”

Lybia nodded and opened a communications channel to the Gate Of Heaven. Behind her, Melousa sat at the Engineering station. She smiled when Dione caught her eye. Dione smiled back. She was glad that Melousa was here with her. It made her happy but sad. Just one more day, that was all she craved for. Just one more day to feel the beauty and warmth of another’s love.

-o-

The six Klysanthian vessels now separated. Two went with the Gate Of Heaven towards Kalahar, while the Bread Of Angels, Furnace Of Charity and Star Of Hope continued on to Nemen.

Anaxilea watched the three vessels bank away on her screen, the distance opening out quickly between them as they headed for their new destination. She wished them good fortune, the same good fortune she sought for herself and her crew. Attacking the landing fields would not be easy, both were heavily defended by maser batteries, and there could be vessels already in flight above them. Their only advantage was speed and surprise, and the latter was rapidly running out.

In only a few seconds they reached the city of Nemen. It swept beneath them as they flew on, a vision of elegant buildings in brown stone, and beyond the city the sprawling landing fields came into view. Mile upon mile of concrete landing pads, service docks and buildings were spread out before them. And everywhere there were ships. Some of them were in the service docks; while others were out on the field, apparently ready to take off. Above the landing field two more ships climbed slowly upward. It was all just a fleeting image that lasted a moment before the maser batteries opened fire.

Anaxilea saw the multitude of orange beams flash towards her and felt the ship rock with the first hit. The whole ship began to vibrate and the din of the impacts was unbearable. Anaxilea shouted her orders, her roughened voice sounding even more cracked and harsh.

“Pea! Open fire on those ships on the ground! And don’t miss any of those arrays! Phoebe! When we get closer, aim for the highest of those two ships!”

Cassiopea looked up in surprise. “We’re supposed to concentrate on the ships and installations on the ground, not go looking for individual battles!” she shouted across the bridge, her voice still musical and delicate despite being raised.

“And leave those ships to shoot down at us from above?” Anaxilea shouted back hoarsely. “Not while my skin is whole! Phoebe! As soon as we reach that ship, give me ramming speed!”

In arrow formation, the three Klysanthian vessels flew over the landing field at Nemen firing down at the parked ships. Their maser cannons scored hit after hit, causing the ships on the ground to burst into flame. Many buildings and service docks, warehouses, communication arrays and refuelling facilities were also hit. They also burst into flame, the buildings collapsing. But the accuracy of the gunners wasn’t limited to just those on the attack.

Leading the arrow formation, the Bread Of Angels took the brunt of the fire from the maser batteries. She continued to fire back as hit after hit rocked her, until finally her tortured hull could take it no more. A maser blast penetrated the wall of the main hull and tore through the bridge. Dione threw up her hands and screamed as the flames engulfed her. The resulting explosion burst the hull apart and the ship twisted in the air, dove down, and hit the concrete with a crunching impact. The speed of the crash caused the ship to flip over, and in a ball of flame and trailing smashed metal it began to cartwheel, end over end along the concrete, ploughing into other ships and smashing them apart until it finally came to rest in a cloud of black smoke.

Cassiopea watched the crash and gasped in horror. “Melousa…”

Anaxilea shouted at her even louder. “Concentrate! Keep firing! Phoebe! I want that ship!”

The Furnace Of Charity and Star Of Hope continued their flight across the landing field. They fired down at the ships on the ground while the maser batteries continued to score hit after hit against their hulls. The two Edenite vessels that had already taken off now turned towards them and also opened fire. They were now very close, and it seemed as though the Klysanthian ships would fly beneath them, but at the last instant, the Furnace Of Charity rose up and accelerated. She flew between the two Edenite vessels, and the large serrated fin above her third hull ploughed through the underside of the uppermost ship in an explosion of orange flame. It was a mortal blow and the ship shuddered under the impact, and then fell, nose first to the concrete below. It hit the ground with an enormous explosion.

Seconds later and the Furnace Of Charity and Star Of Hope flew beyond the limits of the landing field. Instantly there was silence as all firing stopped.

Anaxilea didn’t stop shouting her orders.

“Good! Phoebe! Bring us about! We go again! Pea! Contact the Star Of Hope! Tell Eurybe that other ship is hers!”

The two ships swept around in a long arc, ascending as they turned. When the turn was completed, and they were heading back towards the landing field, they dove down once more, and the orange beams of the maser batteries flashed out to greet them.

War brings out the best for the worst of reasons. Above the burning concrete of the landing fields at Nemen, two colourful tri-marine ships flew through a barrage of maser blasts, the impacts blowing fiery holes in the metal of their hulls. They fired down relentlessly at the ships stranded on the concrete below them, causing more of them to blossom with flame and others previously hit to explode brightly. They came again upon the lone surviving Edenite vessel in flight. This time it flew towards them, firing all the time. The Star Of Hope rose to meet it, and in the turmoil of the criss-crossing beams of the maser batteries, both vessels collided head on in an enormous explosion.

The Furnace Of Charity flew the rest of the length of the landing field alone, all the maser batteries fixed on her hull. The ship rocked and twisted under the impacts, still firing even though smoke now poured from the right hand hull. An explosion in the main hull signalled the end of her resistance and the ship shuddered violently, flying lower and lower, her maser cannons finally silenced and smoke trailing behind her.

The maser batteries continued to fire at their tortured victim, scoring more hits, and causing fiery explosions within the ship’s hull that added to the black smoke that trailed behind her. But still the burning ship wouldn’t fall. Finally, the ship flew beyond the limits of the landing field, beyond the reach of the now silent maser batteries. But their deadly work had already been done.

Anaxilea coughed and spluttered. She had been thrown from her command chair and somewhere on the bridge there was a fire. Smoke stung her eyes and obscured her vision. Alarms were going off and she could hear Cassiopea and other members of her crew shouting to one another as they fought the fire nearby. She climbed to her feet and stumbled towards the helm. The floor seemed to be tilted beneath her.

“Phoebe!” she called hoarsely, coughing again. “Keep us in the air! We have to clear the city!”

When Anaxilea reached Phoebe, it was to find her fighting furiously with the helm controls, a look of desperation in her eyes.

“The Charity’s going down, Lea! I can’t stop her!”

Anaxilea grabbed the controls with her. “We can’t drop on the city! We can’t! I won’t allow it!”

-o-

An evacuation was underway in the city of Nemen, and in full view of it’s shocked citizens, a burning comet flew overhead. It flew dangerously low over the buildings, a huge trail of black smoke behind it. It flew so low that it passed between two of the taller buildings in the city without touching either. It got lower and lower as it went, until finally, just beyond the city limits, it disappeared from view.

-o-

The Dominant of the Belol’Fan watched the smoke trail cross the highway ahead of them. He continued to watch it as he ran. It was very low, and it seemed to travel so slowly, getting lower and lower all the time. Finally the trail of smoke came to an abrupt end, and a large black blossom rose into the sky above the point of impact.

The Dominant signalled the First to approach.

“Your wisdom has been proved correct. The Klysanthians have attacked the landing fields.”

The First swept his hand before him. “Your praise is appreciated, but the destruction of the Edenite Fleet was the more strategic target.”

“It is also evidence of their true intent. The battle for Eden will be fought in space. Signal the Host to enter. Begin the Gathering.”

-o-

The sound of heavy artillery rent the afternoon air above Jutlam City. Laser weapons answered in reply. Smoke filled the air as fires burned unchecked all over the city.

At the Tun-Sho-Lok Embassy, Didi Albatus stood by a broken window and stared out at the Keruh Warriors that were in the street. A sound in the air distracted him from the scene and he looked up. There was a tubular shaped vessel hovering low over the city. It had stubby little wings at the tail and a glass front. Above it was a long serrated fin. It came slowly into view over the Embassy.

“What is it, Didi?” Gusta called out from behind him.

“It’s a ship! One of ours!” Didi replied.

As he spoke, the Keruh Warriors fired up at the ship, the blasts from their rifles leaving pockmarks on the underneath of the hull. The ship fired down, the blast from its maser cannons far more powerful. The Keruh Warriors disappeared in the large explosion, and when the dust settled only a crater in the street where they had stood was visible.

Didi made a fist. “Got ‘em!” he exclaimed. “Go on, lads! Give ‘em Hell!”

The ship moved on, firing down at other targets. Didi could only see the smoke and fire from the resulting explosions. He leaned through the window for a better view, but Gusta quickly pulled him back in and away from the window.

“What are you doing?” she almost shouted at him in her fear. “Do you want to get killed?”

Didi put his arms around her and hugged her. “It’s alright, my sweet. That ship blew the Keruh to pieces. We should go now, before anymore come to investigate.”

Gusta knew that he was right. The Tun-Sho-Lok Embassy would not be a good place to hide from the Keruh. And they had already stayed too long. At first it was to listen to the shocked newscasters and see the ghastly pictures of what happened in the square. And then it was to gather provisions in a mad panic, trying to think what would be important and what wouldn’t be in this situation. And then the Keruh had appeared outside. And during all of this, Gusta was feeling guilty. Guilty because she was here, safe, while all those others were dying. And guilty because all she really cared about while her world was collapsing around her was finding her children.

Even before the fighting had started that afternoon, Gusta had been worried about Breda and Tipi. She always worried about them, even at the best of times. But this wasn’t the best of times. And as soon as she and Didi had made their decision to leave the city that evening, she had called Breda to tell her. Breda hadn’t been surprised by the idea, it was almost as if she had expected it. But she had been reluctant to leave without Kiki. That didn’t surprise Gusta. Breda and Kiki had been seeing each other for two years now, and Gusta hoped it was the real thing for her daughter. But that didn’t stop them arguing. Why did they always argue? It seemed like every decision turned into a debate these days, and every debate into an argument. They had finished the call on angry words. And then the slaughter had begun in the square and Breda’s communicator didn’t respond anymore.

Gusta buried her head in Didi’s shoulder. She was scared, and she didn’t mind admitting it.

“I know we have to go. I want to find Tipi and Breda. I’m worried to death about them, but I’m frightened, Didi. I’m frightened that we will bump into the Keruh in the street. The newscasts were terrible. You heard what they said before they were cut off. They said the Keruh were killing everybody.” She looked up at him tearfully, but her words were angry. “I wish we had gone earlier! I wish we were all together and safe! We should have known this was going to happen! We work in the Tun-Sho-Lok Embassy and even we were too stupid to see the signs! I was too stupid!” She clenched her fists and struck at no one in particular. “Oh, I hate myself!”

Didi squeezed her tightly. “Now, now! There’s no use fretting over what we should have done! What we have to do now is find our children. I know you’re scared, and quite rightly, too. But Breda and Tipi must be even more scared, and the sooner we find them both, the better.”

Gusta nodded, stepping back from him. “Yes,” she said, wiping away her tears. “Breda was in the City. We’ll go that way first, and then head out towards the College.”

“Good girl! Have you got the medical kit, clothes and the blankets?”

She nodded again, holding up the packed holdall. “And the torches, matches and candles.”

Didi shouldered his bag. “Good! And I’ve got enough food in my bag to feed us for a week! Come on!”

They held hands and stepped through the broken window, running low and swiftly through the gardens. In a moment they had disappeared.

All was silence in the Embassy, but not for long.

In the drawing room, the portal projectors glowed into life. Colours filled the centre circle of the ceiling, and the grey mist began to swirl. In a few seconds the scene changed and the circular pad of polished white stone appeared once more. Intense sunlight filled the room.

Sunshine, warmth, white stone, and a man.

Li-Sen-Tot stepped off the stone pad and the scene behind him vanished. He walked swiftly from the drawing room and found the windows broken in the hallway outside. He paused and looked down at the broken glass on the carpet, crushing a piece under his shoe. It seemed that he had come home just in time.


CHAPTER SEVEN

DEVASTATION

With the command given, the beleaguered and surviving citizens of Elengrad were the first to suffer the Gathering. Pouring forth from the Keruh Portal now came the true and complete Host. What had passed through before, what had trudged the road to Jutlam City and beyond, had been only the advanced guard; the Warriors. They had come to establish their hold on Eden, to bring the first attack and to clear the way. With their job done the Host proper could now enter unopposed.

What had been thousands were now millions. In a relentless torrent, the Keruh Host emerged from the portal and spread out over the land in a black tide. They were like insects rushing angrily from their underground nest. Elengrad was engulfed and swallowed. Every thing in their path fell to their rifles or their axes. But amidst the Host were now figures that were not Warriors. They carried no weapons but their sight was just as fearsome.

The first of these figures were more symmetrical than their Warrior brothers. They were also a lot larger. Both their arms and hands were the same immense size. Their legs were also equally sized, large and powerful. And above their large torsos their heads were larger too. But here there was no extended cranial cavity, no larger size to their eyes. As with all their race, their brains were housed deep within the hump in their large bodies. Their heads were larger for one purpose only; to support their massive and immensely powerful jaws.

These were the Gatherers. They rushed forth, fleet of foot and more nimble in their movements, and seized all in their path. People, animals, grass, bushes, even trees, anything biological that could be consumed and broken down, all were snatched from the ground by the huge fists and passed to the great jaws. Here, crushed and mangled together, their bloody prizes would be held aloft as each Gatherer hurried away. The bodies that had littered the ruined buildings and streets of Elengrad vanished in their path; swept clean. But it wasn’t only the dead that they took.

Sometimes their jaws were filled with those who still lived. Even the large Edenites were no match for the Gatherers. They were snapped up, their bones crunching between the great jaws. They screamed in pain and terror, kicking and struggling as they were carried away.

Alive, their fate was worse than any other.

What the Gatherers took in their great jaws they brought to another member of the Host. These new arrivals were massively larger than any other, so grotesquely swollen that they were forced to walk on all fours. Their hands and arms had evolved over time to this retrograde use, and were now so distorted and deformed that they could no longer grip with their hands; no more could they even stand upright. So massively swollen were there bodies that even down on all fours they were unable to support their own weight, and other members of the Host had to push them along. But even though they were so large, their jaws were tiny and there was a look of deflation about them. It was as if they could no longer feed themselves, that their once massive bodies had collapsed downward, sagging behind them in folds, forcing each one to drag it across the ground behind them. And all the time the other Gatherers pushed them along, heaving at the grotesque folds. But if they emerged from the portal resembling deflated armour-plated balloons, they didn’t stay that way for long. They had indeed lost the ability to feed themselves, but it was an ability that they no longer required. Between each pair of tiny jaws waited a gaping mouth, and one by one the Gatherers took their struggling victims and stuffed them screaming inside, where they were swallowed whole.

These were the Receivers; the mobile storage jars who would return through the portal to the Hive when full. And they soon began to fill. Again and again the Gatherers would run to them, stuffing their booty into the gaping mouths. Soon the great bodies were swelled to their full balloon shape. But still their mouths gaped wide and still more was stuffed inside. Only when the plates on their carapaces had split apart revealing a thin, tautly stretched membrane beneath holding them together, would the Receivers return to the portal, lumbering along with their entourage of Gatherers in support. But for every filled one that returned, ten times more emerged empty, their mouths already gaping.

As more of the Keruh Host emerged from the portal, Elengrad was finally engulfed. But even then, the portal never stopped in its constant, continuous disgorging. And slowly, relentlessly, the black tide spilled beyond the limits of the city, spreading out over the land, and moving nearer and nearer to Jutlam City and the road to Hilbrok.

-o-

Kiki Nomanta was desperate. He carried Susu Antipo from one street to another, until he finally reached one of the city’s main hospitals. Here he found a military field hospital had been set up in a square outside it. It was obvious that the huge numbers of injured people had soon overrun the hospital and its staff, and the soldiers had set up large green tents with extra beds in the square to try and make up for the vast overflow. Even these tents were now full, and people were laid out on the grass in long lines around them. Medics ran about among the doctors and nurses trying to tend to all the wounded, and there was a long line of streamlined trucks parked along the streets around the far side of the square. They were green army trucks, each with a large number on the side. Kiki just stopped and stared at the scene before him. It was so unfamiliar, so shocking. Even the sight of the trucks shocked him. He had never seen army trucks in the city before.

The trucks all had six wheels, and at the front the cab and bonnet were gently curved. The same curving bodywork swept back along each side, flowing over the large wheels and fat tyres and giving the vehicles a modern and pleasing appearance. It was only at the back that they became more utilitarian. Here the flowing metalwork gave way to a simple wooden platform with short sides and a tailgate. Covering the back was a green canvass cover supported on a metal frame. Even though the bodywork attempted to flow into the shape of the squarer platform and canvass cover, it still seemed an incongruous blend of old and modern.

A full evacuation was under way. People who could stand on their own were being bundled into the back of the trucks, while those on stretchers were passed carefully to those already inside. Some of the nurses went with them. And every few minutes one of the trucks roared away only for another empty one to move forward in its place. People were everywhere. They filled the entrance and foyer of the hospital, they sat on the pavement, slumped against the wall, they lay in the street outside and in the square, sat in the tents waiting for attention, or lined up in the hundreds waiting for their turn in the trucks. Many were crying while others just stood, sat, or lay in silence, their faces devoid of any expression. Some of them were bandaged and bloodstained. All of them were dirty.

Kiki ran forward and joined the rest, disappearing among all those people. He just vanished into the sea. And the last time he saw Susu was when he was being bundled into one of the trucks with other wounded survivors. The wounded were being evacuated first. In fact everyone was being evacuated, wounded or not, and the military weren’t interested in any stories about lost loved ones or relatives. You either climbed onto a truck willingly, or you got thrown on. Everything was done in a rush, and Kiki used the confusion and turmoil of the situation to slip away. There were so many crying and wounded people, so many others who demanded the attention of the doctors and the medics that no one even noticed or cared when he left.

He ran among the streets he knew so well. He knew where he was going, knew the way without thinking. But in the past he would have driven this distance across the city. Now he was on foot, and distances that he remembered as being short, suddenly took an age to complete. Each road was agonisingly long, each junction so far apart. He began to tire, but he wouldn’t give up.

At the next intersection, Kiki turned the corner and found himself staring at more than a dozen Keruh Warriors. They were pouring out of one of the underground subway entrances, an ungainly bobbing rush hour. Warrior after Warrior ran up the steps onto the street, all of them facing the other way. Kiki hastily jumped back. He pressed himself against the wall of the building, his whole body tense with fright. When he heard the explosion, he almost jumped out of his skin.

The Keruh were firing at one of the buildings, bringing it down in a cloud of smoke and debris. Kiki didn’t know if there was anyone still inside. He wasn’t thinking, he just ran, using the cover of the smoke and dust to shield him as he ran across the intersection as fast as he could. He didn’t stop running either. He didn’t even know where his strength came from. He ran and ran, terrified that at any moment a Keruh Warrior would shoot him down. On and on he went, not even conscious of where he was going or what he was seeing, until he fell full length in the middle of the street. He hadn’t tripped or anything, it was just that his body had been travelling too fast for his tired legs to keep up anymore. His momentum caused him to stagger a step or two and then dive forward, hitting the ground and sliding along. When he finally came to a halt he just laid there, his lungs heaving, gasping for air.

Slowly, as his mind cleared and his breathing eased, he became conscious of the sound. It was a rhythmic thump, a continuous repetitive monologue. Crump, crump, crump. It seemed to be coming from the very ground beneath his ears. He opened his eyes and froze when he saw them, his breathing stopped in his shock.

Trudging down the street was a column of Keruh Warriors. One after another they came, their great axes and rifles in their hands. They were walking almost right above him. One of them ran alongside the column and paused to look up at the skyline. He stood so close that Kiki feared that he would actually stand on him.

How could they not see him?

The Warrior moved on and the end of the column appeared. As the last Warrior disappeared from view, Kiki began to breathe again. But he dare not move. He lay there for ages, until the sound of their feet faded and all was silent. But even when only the distant explosions and roar of collapsing buildings filled his ears, he still remained immobile on the road. It was a smell rather than the noise that finally stirred him. At first it was only a faint trace, but gradually it began to grow stronger, stronger and more unpleasant. Slowly, he sat up.

It was only now, when he sat up, that he noticed all the bodies. They were scattered all around him. Some sprawled out of the open doors of crashed cars. Some had been shot to death, while more bore the deep and vicious wounds of axes. Some of the bodies were so mutilated by the blows that they were almost dismembered. There was blood everywhere. It had dried and stained the road. Kiki was right in the middle of them all, just another body among the corpses.

Kiki climbed to his feet. He was shaking, his whole body trembling. He couldn’t stop it. He had never felt like this, he had never felt so-

Kiki staggered to the side of an abandoned car and threw up. He retched and retched. Finally he just lay crumpled over the bonnet, exhausted. He stayed there for some time. Finally, he moved away, staggering forward and breaking into a jog.

He had to find Breda; he had to. He ran on and on, down street after street. Always there were bodies, always the buildings were damaged, some were even still burning. Kiki ignored it all. He just ran and ran. It couldn’t be far now. He knew where he was, knew that her office building was just around the next corner. As he got closer to the intersection he began to run faster and faster, until finally, at last, he was there.

What Kiki found drained all the spirit from him. The building was gone. In fact the whole street here was gone. There was just rubble with the remains of walls pointing up at the sky like blackened fingers.

Kiki collapsed to his knees and stared at the rubble.

“Breda!”

-o-

Breda sat in the back of a truck, a blanket over her shoulders. She stared at the other women sitting opposite her and on either side of her. They all looked the same; their clothes were torn, blackened, and dirty, their faces were smeared with sweat and dirt, and they all looked desperately forlorn. They were all dead inside, that was it. Dead but not yet cold.

Did she look like that?

Breda raised a hand to her face. Her hand was already dirty, but she knew from the feel of her skin on her cheek that her face was dirty too.

Yes, she was like them. Just the same; a survivor in body but not in mind. What they had lived through a person wasn’t supposed to live through. The very act of surviving had relied on all those others dying. And they all knew it. They all knew what they had done to escape. They were all sitting there remembering how they had fought and scrambled with all those others to survive, how they had thought of nothing else except themselves. How their very selfishness had brought them life and condemned the others to a violent death. For every one at the front there had to be one at the back, to be first meant that someone else had to be last. Only the winners had survived.

But was it worth it?

Breda sat in misery, listening to the sound of the truck’s engine. It was harsh and unfamiliar. All the cars and buses in the city were electric, like the underground rail system. It was cleaner, cheaper, and ecologically friendly. The truck’s engine wasn’t electric. She could even smell the difference.

Someone at the back of the truck sneezed. Without thinking, Breda said, “Bless you.”

There was a pause, and then a timid voice replied, “Thank you.”

It was a sudden spark of humanity, a hint of kindness and civilised behaviour all had thought had gone forever. It brought a glimmer of hope to those in the back of the truck as it rushed along the road to Hilbrok.

-o-

The Eden Ring Network Portal was housed in a large square building that seemed to comprise mainly of large stone columns. Above the columns was a decorative pitched roof also in stone and with statues carved at each gable end. It was an impressive and majestic building set in a walled garden with fountains and statues. Wide roads led up to the front of the building and the entrance was wide enough for quite large vehicles to be driven inside and through the portal. But the building wasn’t just an elaborate roof over the portal. Within the double row of columns were offices and waiting rooms, a restaurant, and the main hall where the portal itself was installed. It was an enormous hall, with a high vaulted roof. Like the main entrance, access to the hall was through two immense and decorative doors. The whole building was constructed in light brown stone and was paved with marble. All the rooms were large and bright. It was the first impression of Eden any visitors would see, and it had been designed accordingly. Normally the building and the gardens around it would be teeming with life, but not today.

Gusta crouched behind the garden wall with Didi. He was peeping over the wall at the portal building while she waited nervously. Her heart was beating so fast it felt like it was trying to burst out of her chest. She felt so scared, and with good reason.

When they had left the Tun-Sho-Lok Embassy, there had been no sign of any Keruh Warriors. But here, near to the Eden Ring Network Portal, there were hundreds of them. They seemed to fill the garden area, with many of them coming and going from the entrance to the building. Some of them even ran back up the road towards the city centre. And if that wasn’t bad enough, what made it much worse were the bodies scattered around. Men and women who had been travelling through the portal, aliens from other worlds who had just arrived, police and customs officials who had been on duty, they all lay dead. The garden was full of them, and even the statues had been shot at and many lay broken.

For Gusta, the sight of the bodies in the gardens and by the entrance to the building was the first true indication that war and disaster had come to Eden. Until then, it had been too remote. She had heard it and seen it on the news broadcasts, she had heard the explosions, seen a ship fly overhead, and even seen Keruh Warriors in the street. She had thought then that she knew what was going on, knew what it all meant. But seeing the bodies and the blood for the first time, smelling the death in the air, changed all that. For the first time in her life, Gusta knew the real meaning of fear and of what it meant to live in the shadow of death.

Didi crouched down lower and turned to Gusta. “There’s too many of them,” he whispered. “We’ll have to try and go around them.”

Gusta kept her lips pressed tight and nodded briskly. She couldn’t talk, she couldn’t even think of opening her mouth, because if she did, she would have let out such a moan of fear, such a scream, that every Keruh in hearing distance would have come rushing towards them.

Didi smiled encouragingly. He reached out his hand to hold her arm. “Come on,” he whispered. “And keep low.”

She nodded again, trying to smile back. It didn’t quite come off. They ran away, skirting around the gardens and using the wall to hide them. Darting into a side street, they headed deeper into the city, and soon Gusta and Didi were travelling down once familiar and friendly streets that were now bleak and foreboding.

At first the streets and the buildings were empty, and only the distant sounds of gunfire and the roar of collapsing buildings gave away any hint of life. Cars were abandoned in the streets, shops were deserted, and the doors and windows on many of the buildings were open. But worse was to come.

They began to see more bodies.

Sometimes it was just the odd one, lying in the road as if it were a doll abandoned by a giant child. Other times they found groups of bodies, either all together or scattered about. One scene caused Gusta to cry silently. It was a half burned car, it’s occupants obviously a family. They were all dead and burned where they sat.

The further they went, the worse it got. There were more burned out cars, they began to fill the streets, as if they had all been in a rush hour jam. And among the cars were buses, now just skeletons of metal. Gusta knew there were people inside, but she tried not to look. But what she couldn’t see she could smell.

Then, as they ran up another street, a Keruh Warrior appeared at the far end. Didi pulled Gusta to the ground. They watched with their hearts in their mouths as the Warrior continued his bobbing path across the street and then disappeared around the corner. From that moment on they hid in the shadows, creeping forward carefully, watching and listening for any signs of movement.

As they moved further towards the centre of the city more of the Keruh began to appear. Sometimes, as before, a lone Warrior would run from one street to another, or from one building to another. But more often now, it was several Warriors that would appear. They ran along the streets in short columns, their axes and bodies stained red, or they emerged en masse from the entrances of the underground rapid transit system, fanning out across the street until they jumped through broken windows or doorways into the buildings nearby.

Every time they appeared, Didi would pull Gusta to the ground and they would hide around a corner or underneath an abandoned car. The constant fear began to have an affect on Gusta, and soon the slightest sound, the mere sight of a Keruh Warrior in the distance sent her into fits of trembling. But a far greater fear drove Gusta and Didi on.

They had to find Breda. They had to find Tipi.

They came nearer to the more damaged part of the city, nearer to where Breda’s office building was. The bodies were everywhere here. And they weren’t only civilians. Neither were they all Edenites.

Scattered over the streets and pavements and littered among the ruins of the buildings were the bodies of soldiers and Keruh Warriors. They lay in separate piles at different ends of the street, or all intermixed in one place as if they had all died together. The wounds were brutal, and the smell as offensive to the nose as the sight was to the eyes.

Among the burned cars and buses were now military vehicles. They were also burned and broken open, smashed bodies hanging from the twisted metal. The signs of battle were everywhere. Large craters pockmarked the streets, and dismembered and burned parts of Keruh Warriors were scattered among the debris.

Street after street, block after block, the more devastation and death they found and the more hopeless their quest seemed. The air began to fill with smoke; they could smell the fires and feel the heat. Soon they could see the flames rising in the air and hear the fires burning. The streets began to be filled with the debris of collapsed buildings and it was difficult to keep going. Amid the smoke and the heat they had to clamber over concrete and masonry, twisted steel and fallen beams.

Finally, battered, bruised and dirty, they reached a section of the city where no buildings remained standing at all. After all their efforts, Gusta and Didi Albatus found themselves standing in front of a sea of ruins, smoke all around them.

As Didi rubbed the smoke and sweat from his eyes and looked around, Gusta collapsed to her knees next to him and burst into tears.

“It’s gone!” she wailed. “The whole building! The whole street! Breda’s dead, Didi! We’ve lost her!”

Didi continued to look around at the devastation. “She can’t be dead!” he insisted, his voice raised and almost angry. “She can’t be! It must be the wrong place! Everything is smashed, it would be easy to make a mistake and end up in the wrong street or the wrong block! That’s it! It’s the wrong street!”

Behind them both, a despairing voice spoke up.

“It’s the right street. You aren’t lost. Her building’s gone. I know. I’ve searched everywhere.”

Didi and Gusta turned in surprise and saw Kiki Nomanta slumped against the rubble under a fallen beam. He must have been there all the time. He was dirty and grimy, his clothes were torn, and his fingers bloody.

Gusta screamed out and scrambled towards him. “Kiki! Have you seen Breda? Were you with her? What happened?”

Didi was more practical. As Gusta fussed over the forlorn Kiki, demanding to know everything, Didi opened one of their bags and took out a bottle of water. He gave it to Kiki.

“Tell us what happened,” he asked him.

Kiki drank gratefully. He hadn’t even realised how thirsty he was. He wiped his mouth after taking another big gulp and stared up at their expectant faces. There was nothing he could tell them that could ease their pain.

As they sat among the ruins of the once fine buildings, Kiki told Didi and Gusta of his own experiences since the first shots were fired in the square. He told them about the battles, about his flight through the streets, about the evacuation, and, finally, about his search through the ruins for first Breda, and then his father.

“Everything’s gone. Breda’s office building, Titi’s restaurant, everything.”

By now, Gusta was crying again, all hope drained from her body. Only Didi had any spirit left in him.

“You said the military were evacuating all the survivors. Could Breda and your father be among them?”

Kiki shook his head. “I don’t know.” He paused. “I didn’t see them.” He shook his head again. “I don’t know.”

Didi grabbed Kiki’s shoulders and shook him. “Where were they taking them?”

“North…Hilbrok, I think…Yes, Hilbrok.”

Didi let go of Kiki and stared at Gusta. “They would have to go passed the College of Learning before turning on to the road to Hilbrok. Tipi could already be on his way.”

Gusta looked up at him, the tiniest glimmer of hope cutting off her sobs. “And Breda?”

“We have to hope that she’s on the road, too. It’s our only hope. Come on!”

He began helping Gusta to her feet. Kiki looked at them both. “What are you going to do?”

Didi looked down at him. “We’re going to find our children, Kiki. That’s the only thing that matters to us. Are you coming with us? Your father could be on one of those trucks too you know.”

Kiki hesitated and then began to climb to his feet. “Of course I’m coming. I want to find Breda as much as you do. And my father. And Tipi. It’s just that-”

Gusta stopped him by putting her fingers over his mouth. The tears were still in her eyes, but she had stopped crying.

“Don’t say anymore, Kiki. Don’t break the little hope I have by telling me what’s so plainly obvious that it takes me all my effort to block it out of my mind as it is. We have to keep hoping. If we don’t, we might as well sit here and let the Keruh find us.”

Kiki took Gusta’s hand in hers. He nodded sadly. “It’s alright, Gusta. I understand. We live in hope. It’s the only thing we have left, I know. But I wasn’t going to say what you think. What I was going to say was that, if we’re going to find them, we’ve first got to find one of the evacuation points the military set up. We have to get on one of those trucks.”

Didi wasn’t so sure. “What, and let the soldiers send us somewhere else? No. We’ll steal a car. We saw lots of them on our way here. And there are even more left undamaged in the suburbs around the Embassy.”

“The Keruh shoot at everything that moves,” Kiki pointed out. “Only the military will know the safe routes out of the city. I heard them say they were providing air cover. We won’t last five minutes in a car on our own. The only way out of Jutlam City is on one of those trucks.”

Gusta remembered the burned out car with the bodies inside. “Listen to him, Didi. He’s right. The Keruh will soon hear or see us driving down one of those empty streets. We have to do as he says.”

Didi sighed. “Alright then. But where do we go? Where are these evacuation points?”

“I know where there’s one,” Kiki told them. “Come on.”

-o-

By the time Kiki had led Gusta and Didi back to the hospital, the square was almost deserted. All the people, doctors, nurses and medics had gone. The square and streets were littered with used dressings, bandages and other medical tools and equipment, even belongings that had been dropped or cast aside lay abandoned. They were the only trace of all those people who had passed through before. The hospital itself was silent and empty; it’s occupants evacuated. In the square outside, the tents had already come down and the few soldiers that were left were packing up. There was only one streamlined truck left in the square, the number fifty-seven painted on the side of it. Soldiers were rushing about throwing the last of their equipment into the back of it. Everything got slung aboard: Radios, medical equipment, chairs, camp beds, the last of the tents, anything that was useful. A Corporal was overseeing it all. When he saw the late arrivals he quickly ran over to them. His green battle armour was stained red in places and there was a dent in his helmet. His face was burned red by the sun and he seemed annoyed to see them, but his voice was filled with urgency rather than anger.

“Where the Hell have you come from? Are there any more of you?”

Kiki tried to explain. “I was here before. I brought someone with me from my office building near Government Square-”

“Didn’t you get in a truck with the others?”

“No. I went back for someone else-”

The Corporal looked horrified. “You did what?!”

“I’ve been searching for someone-”

Now the Corporal was angry. He put his hands on his hips and told him off. “What did we tell you about searching? Didn’t we tell you not to go wandering about in the city on your own? Didn’t we tell you it wasn’t safe? Are you deaf or just suicidal?”

Didi finally pointed out the obvious. “If Kiki hadn’t done what he did, we’d still be out there.”

The Corporal looked at Didi and Gusta and gave in. He sighed and took a deep breath. “Alright. At least you’re here now. Five minutes later and you’d have had it.” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Get in the truck. Now!”

The Corporal didn’t wait to see if they complied. He ran back to the truck and jumped into the cab next to the driver. The engine immediately roared into life, blue smoke coming from the twin exhausts above the cab roof. It was quite clear that when the Corporal had said ‘now’ he meant ‘now’. Even the other soldiers were rushing to climb aboard. Kiki started to run straight away, and Didi grabbed Gusta’s hand and pulled her forward. They ran to the back of the truck and quickly began to climb aboard with the last of the soldiers. Two of them helped Kiki and Gusta as Didi threw in their holdalls and climbed up behind them. The last soldier clambered aboard and pulled up the tailgate. As soon as it was latched in place, he thumped the side of the truck. With a sudden lurch, the truck surged forward.

Didi and Gusta ended up sitting next to one another among the packed supplies and equipment, their holdalls at their feet. Kiki sat opposite them. The other soldiers sat where they could, one even on the floor. The truck was moving fast and everything heaved from side to side as the driver took a corner at speed, the tyres squealing.

Didi looked across at one of the soldiers. “Your driver’s in a hurry!” he called out.

The soldier nodded. “Has to be! The last radio report said the Keruh were heading this way!”

Gusta didn’t like the implications of that. She tried to keep calm, and having Didi hold and squeeze her hand helped. But her fears kept growing. She kept thinking about the dead family in the car. She couldn’t get the image out of her head.

“We’re going to be alright, aren’t we?” she asked anxiously.

The soldier sitting on the floor pushed back the rim of his helmet. “Only with a good bit of luck!” he replied.

Gusta looked even more worried, and Kiki quickly said, “I thought you had safe routes out of the city all prepared, with air cover and everything.”

“We did,” another soldier replied. “And most of the trucks have got out that way. But we’re the last, and we’re late. Air cover is all gone and the armoured divisions are moving back. It’s going to be tight. So if you believe, prey!”

Didi turned to Gusta. He wanted to say something comforting to her, to put her mind at rest, but he couldn’t think of anything. It didn’t matter. To his surprise she just smiled back at him and rested her head against his shoulder. She had looped her arm through his, and now she gripped it tightly with both hands. Didi put his arm around her. He held her tightly, kissing her on the head. There was nothing they could do now but wait.

The truck hurtled down the street, swerving to avoid the craters, wrecks and rubble that lay in its path. At the end of each city block, the driver threw the wheel over and the truck skidded around the corner. The Corporal had a city map on his lap with a complicated red route marked out on it, and he pointed the direction at each turn. He was taking no chances. Despite the deserted nature of the streets they travelled, he never stayed on any of them beyond the first intersection. It was a wise precaution.

They drove down street after street. Always it was the same: Silence, debris, smashed vehicles, bodies, burning buildings. Everywhere there was damage and desolation. But the city wasn’t empty.

The truck roared up another street. It had just gone passed a damaged building when a Keruh Warrior emerged from inside. He just climbed out through a broken window and instantly raised his rifle. He fired just as the truck skidded around the next corner and the laser blast hit the wall of the building opposite.

The laser blast didn’t go unnoticed inside the truck. Didi felt Gusta jump in his arms, and the soldiers grabbed their rifles and knelt by the tailgate. One of them lifted the canvass flap and hitched it up. Now they could all see out. Didi could see too. The street was empty behind them, the last corner they had turned falling rapidly behind. The soldiers kept looking out, their rifles resting on the tailgate. They were all anxious, nervous, staring back down the street expectantly. The engine raced and the truck weaved from side to side. It seemed to take an awful long time to reach the next intersection. Still the street behind them was empty. The driver began to drop down the gears for the next turn. Three Keruh Warriors rushed out from the corner at the far end of the street behind them. The soldiers all started firing, and then the truck lurched and skidded around the next corner.

Didi didn’t see if any of the Keruh were hit, but two laser beams whistled passed the back of the truck and blew masonry from a building near them. The blasts were so close that some of the dust and debris actually landed in the back of the truck. Gusta almost screamed, but she was so frightened that it came out more like a wail. Didi squeezed her even tighter. She squeezed back, her eyes clamped shut.

Gusta was hiding in the dark, keeping the noise and the sight of the world out of her mind. It wasn’t working. She heard every gunshot, felt every lurch and shake of the truck, and felt the warm breath of the dust blow over her. She was terrified, terrified of what might happen at the very next moment. She didn’t want to be like them, she didn’t want to end up a charred corpse in a burned out vehicle. She wanted to see Tipi and Breda again. She wanted them all to be together, alive, safe, and happy.

She wanted it to be yesterday.

The driver accelerated, going back up the gears. One of the soldiers clambered forward, staggering from side to side as the truck weaved back and forth across the street. He banged on the wall of the truck behind the cab. Each impact made Gusta jump in Didi’s arms.

“Get a move on!” the soldier shouted to those in the cab. “They’re on to us!”

Didi was fixing his eyes on the view out of the back of the truck. He was waiting to see if the Warriors would appear as before, or if they would give up the chase. They couldn’t outrun the truck, could they?

In answer, several Keruh Warriors jumped out of another ruined building halfway down the street behind them. They jumped out of the holes in the walls and slithered over the rubble. Kiki shouted a warning almost at the same time as the soldiers kneeling by the tailgate opened fire. This time Didi saw one of the Keruh fall, his axe knocked from his large hand. But the others had raised their rifles, and as another Warrior fell to the soldiers fire, Didi saw the bright light of the laser beams surge towards them.

It all happened in an instant. The beams lashed out, shooting across the distance in no time at all. They came straight at the truck. One hit the canvass cover. It shot right along the length of the side of the truck like lightening, burning a line in the fabric that parted and smoked. The second beam came through the open back of the truck. It went over the heads of the soldiers kneeling at the tailgate, passed between Kiki and Didi, and hit the front wall behind the cab with a bang and a flash. Or it would have done if something hadn’t been in the way. The soldier who had banged on the wall before was hit full in the chest by the blast. The impact took him off his feet. The laser penetrated his armour and came out the other side. Blood splashed on the wall of the truck as he tumbled to the floor.

This time Gusta did scream.

One of the soldiers shouted, “Get down!”

Didi pulled Gusta to the floor and lay on top of her; Kiki was also on the floor. The truck weaved from side to side more violently, and another laser shot through the back of the truck and hit one of the camp beds piled up on one side. It must have burned through the webbing that had kept the camp beds and tents tied down, because they all suddenly tumbled free. Kiki, Didi, and Gusta were suddenly buried.

The truck weaved and swerved down the street towards the next intersection. The soldiers at the back kept up a barrage of fire that peppered the street behind them. It wasn’t an accurate fire, but the force of it was enough to send two more Warriors tumbling. Those that were not hit ran forward, firing their rifles. The truck was hit again, a beam going through the tailgate. One of the soldiers screamed out and fell back, clutching at his leg.

The next corner came up; the driver changed down the gears and threw the wheel over. Another beam hit the truck low down at the back as it went round the corner. There was a loud bang as the tyre burst. The truck shuddered, careered across the street, and then ploughed into the foyer of a building in an explosion of glass and debris. But still it didn’t stop.

The building the truck went into was a hotel, and the foyer was ornately decorated and the furnishings were plush. The truck destroyed it all in a few seconds of mayhem. Chairs were crumpled under its wheels, the reception desk was shattered into fragments of red wood, and the rich red carpet was ripped up and shredded. Glass flew everywhere. With a dull and heavy thump, the truck finally came to rest embedded in the wall behind what was left of the reception desk. It rocked on its suspension and the engine died.

It seemed to take forever for all the glass and fragments to come to rest, but finally silence returned and all was still. But not for long.

The cab door flew open and the Corporal fell out. He landed on his back and rolled over.

“Everybody out!” he shouted. “Head for the stairwell! Move it!”

Didi looked up from underneath a tent. One of the soldiers kicked down the tailgate and jumped out. Another began to throw the tents and camp beds out of the truck as he helped to uncover everyone underneath.

“Come on!” he shouted to Didi. “If you’re in this truck in two minutes time, you’ll be in it forever! Come on!”

Didi grabbed Gusta and pulled her up. Kiki threw another tent aside and grabbed for the holdalls. One of the soldiers shouted to him.

“Leave everything! Come on!”

For a moment, Kiki stopped. Then Didi shouted out, “There’s food and medicine in there! We might need them!”

The soldier nodded. “Okay! But hurry up!”

Kiki took both holdalls and jumped out of the truck. Didi had managed to bring Gusta to the back. Kiki dropped the holdalls and helped her down. Another soldier was helping the man with the wounded leg. He could only hop hurriedly as he was helped towards the stairwell. They were all out and running around the truck when the first laser blast hit it. The impact blew bits of wood and metal flying. Didi kept his hand over Gusta’s head as they ran, the fragments showering over them. She was screaming again. It was just one continuous scream as they ran. One of the soldiers turned and fired into the street passed the truck. In reply a laser blast knocked him off his feet. He hit the floor and lay still, a hole burned through his green armour.

The Corporal was waiting by the stairwell as they all ran through.

“Come on! Come on!”

As the last of them went by, the Corporal pulled the pin from a grenade and tossed it under the truck. Then he turned and ran up the stairs.

Four Keruh Warriors ran into the foyer. One jumped into the back of the truck while the other three moved around it. The grenade went off, taking the fuel tank with it. The truck and the whole of the foyer erupted in a ball of flame that blew out across the street. The blast also blew in the door to the stairwell, and fire and smoke billowed in and rose up the stairs.

Didi heard the blast and felt the building shake. He looked down as he ran up the stairs with Gusta. All he could see was a dense cloud of black smoke billowing up towards him. Somewhere under the smoke there was fire. He could see the flickering of the yellow flames. But the smoke hid everything.

The Corporal was shouting at everyone. “You civilians! Keep going! Get as high as you can! Pedomoner! How’s that leg?”

The soldier with the wounded leg shouted back, “Bloody killing me!”

“Good! That means it’s not so bad! Move faster!”

They kept on going, passing floor after floor, gasping and sweating. The Corporal wouldn’t let them stop for a second. He kept looking back down the stairwell all the time, another grenade ready in his hand. And always he urged them on.

“Keep going! Keep going! Pedomoner, keep up!”

Gusta had stopped screaming. She had no breath for anything else other than climbing the stairs. It was such a long climb, taken at such speed, that all the previous terror was driven from her mind. Now all she felt was exhaustion. Her lungs were aching, her heart pounding, and the muscles of her legs felt that they were going to snap at any second. By the time they reached the top, she couldn’t run, she couldn’t walk, she couldn’t even stand.

The Corporal pointed to the nearest rooms. “In there! All of you! Pedomoner! Watch the street! And keep your head down! Altus, Eastomoner! Take station by the stairwell! If anything moves, drop a grenade on it! The rest of you, get inside!”

Two of the soldiers took station by the door of the stairwell, and one of them crawled forward and lay on his stomach peeping over the edge. Pedomoner and the remaining two soldiers went into the room with Kiki, Didi and Gusta. They were all breathing hard, and Didi and Gusta dropped onto a sofa in complete exhaustion. Kiki wasn’t much better. He dropped the holdalls he had been carrying all this time and just collapsed on the floor. The two soldiers and the Corporal did the same. Pedomoner hopped over to the window and dropped down in front of it. He pulled a small pair of binoculars from his tunic, and placing them to his eyes, he peeped over the sill and looked down.

The Corporal called over to him, his voice now lower. “What do you see, Pedomoner?” he gasped.

“There’s a couple…of Warriors in the street,” Pedomoner whispered back in between pants. “They don’t seem to be…doing anything…”

“Keep out of view…they have good eyesight.”

Kiki raised his head. “What do you think…they’re doing?”

“Watching…waiting. They’re smart, but with a bit of luck…they might think we all bought it…in the truck.”

Pedomoner said, “They’re moving away. They’re going up the street, about six of them now…Yes, they’re definitely giving up. They’re going in a line, a column, all walking in step.”

“Okay! We get the picture. Keep a look out. I’ll go and tell Altus and Eastomoner.”

The Corporal got to his feet and went out the door. Pedomoner lowered the binoculars and looked over his shoulder.

“Did I hear one of you say you had medical supplies?” he asked Didi.

Didi nodded. “Yes,” he said tiredly. He leaned forward and pointed. “In that bag.”

Kiki reached out and got it. He sat up and opened it. As he began to search inside, Gusta now came to life.

“Here, I’ll do it,” she said. Didi looked at her with a mixture of surprise and worry. She squeezed his arm. “I’ll be alright now. I’m okay.” She smiled at him and Didi reluctantly let go of her. She crawled off the sofa, and Didi watched her as she took the first aid kit from the holdall and went over to the wounded soldier.

Gusta looked at the singed hole in the armour covering the soldier’s thigh. “You’ll have to take that off,” she told him.

Pedomoner nodded, took another quick glance out of the window with his binoculars, and then reached down to unclip the armour from his leg. The laser beam had gone straight through, the heat cauterising the wound. As a result there wasn’t much blood. Gusta cleaned the wound and bound it with bandages from the kit. Finally she took a syringe from a sealed plastic bag and stabbed him in the leg with it.

“That should stop you getting anything nasty,” she told him.

“Thanks,” he said. “It feels better already.”

One of the other soldiers said, “That’s because you’re sitting down!”

Pedomoner smiled. He raised the binoculars to his eyes once more and looked out the window.

Gusta went back to Didi on the sofa. The Corporal had come back in the room and was sitting on the floor with the other holdall on his lap. He had pulled out one of the bottles of water and was looking further inside.

“You pack a mean take-away,” he was saying to Didi.

“That’s because I’m a cook by trade,” Didi told him.

The Corporal looked up. “How much food have you got in here?”

Gusta looked at Didi. “Enough to share?” she suggested.

Didi nodded. “Of course.”

The soldiers took turns on watch at the window and at the stairs so that everyone had the chance to eat. For some reason, Gusta was actually hungry. She didn’t expect to be, but when Didi offered her one of his special triple sandwiches, she couldn’t resist. Maybe it was the familiarity, maybe it was just hunger. She didn’t really know. But she ate and drank, and she felt better for it.

There turned out to be more than enough food to go round. Didi had never been shy when it came to food; it wasn’t in his nature. For him, a packed lunch put a sit down meal at an expensive restaurant in the shade. It wasn’t just the quantity either. Didi took pride in his work, and the soldiers ate better that day than they had ever done. There wasn’t just sandwiches in the holdall. There were cold meats, cooked meats, pies, flans, cakes, bread, sweets, everything. And all of it fresh and home made.

Kiki had smiled tearfully. “You always were an excellent cook. I remember how dad moaned so when you left.”

It was a remark that left Gusta in equal tears. She thought about Tipi and Breda, and about Titi Nomanta. Were they all gone? She had to hope that they weren’t. But what were they going to do now?

It was a question that Didi asked.

The Corporal chewed on a leg of roasted meat. “We’ll do the only thing we can do. We’ll wait until it’s dark, and then creep out on foot.”

Didi, Gusta and Kiki all looked worried. And Kiki said, “Is that wise?”

Pedomoner answered him. “It’ll be okay, don’t worry. The Corp’s right. It’ll be safer than using a truck. And we’ll have a much better chance on foot in the dark than during the day.”

The Corporal nodded. “It’ll take longer, but we can move quietly and carefully.” He waved the leg of meat at them. “I promise you, you stick with us, do as we do, and you can still get out of here.”

-o-

Evacuating the students from the College of Learning took far longer than Colonel Falamunus had planned for. By the time the last of the trucks were being filled it was getting dark, and the sound of distant artillery fire had grown alarmingly loud.

“Get these children moving!” he called out to his men.

Tipi and Bibi were among the last of the students to be bundled into one of the trucks. Already inside were two teachers and another thirty students. The soldiers latched up the tailgate and lowered the canvas flaps. One of them then smacked the side of the truck. Immediately, the truck lurched forward.

Teachers and students stared at one another in the dim light. None of them spoke.

Tipi was sat next to the tailgate right at the back of the truck with Bibi sat next to him on the same side. Sitting opposite him was the same girl he had seen crying before, the girl from the classroom. She was sitting right in front of him, and he had a really good view of her face, body and legs. Fortunately she had her eyes closed, and Tipi used the opportunity to look at her for quite a while. She was definitely pretty, with a nice body and nice legs. He could see her knees pressed together under her dress as she sat squashed against the tailgate. Yes, she was nice to look at, but she always seemed to be angry or upset. At the moment she just seemed upset, as if she might cry again. It was a shame. Tipi had always liked girls with fair hair. He would have liked to speak to her, to get to know her more, although he imagined he would have had little success. He didn’t have a girlfriend at the College, and after what had happened today, he probably wouldn’t get the chance now. No, it wasn’t the right time to be thinking about girlfriends.

Bibi broke into his thoughts. He leaned across Tipi, raised the canvas flap and looked out. Tipi looked out with him. All they could see was the front of another truck following behind them, the number ninety-five on its bonnet. Bibi lowered the flap.

“Oh, well,” he said, sitting up straight again. “I’ve never been to Hilbrok.”

The girl sitting opposite to Tipi had opened her eyes, and now her expression was as angry and as upset as ever.

“Is that all you can say?” she said to Bibi. “Our world is coming to an end, we might never see our parents again, and all you can say is ‘I’ve never been to Hilbrok?’”

“Shush, Kelandra!” one of the teachers said. “Quiet now! This is no time to argue!”

The girl continued to scowl at Bibi, the tears welling up in her eyes, but she kept quiet and silence returned.

Tipi now couldn’t keep his eyes off her. So that was her name, Kelandra. She caught him looking at her, and her return stare froze him out. He sighed and looked at Bibi. Bibi just shrugged.

The truck roared on in the growing darkness, its occupants slowly drifting into sleep, tears, or just boredom as the uneventful journey continued.

The truck that carried the students and teachers from the College of Learning was one of many trucks that now sped north along the road to Hilbrok. There the survivors would be safe, as Hilbrok was far away from Elengrad in the west, Jutlam City to the south and the other scenes of battle at Kalahar and Nemen, which were to the east. Hilbrok nestled quietly and safely in the foothills of the Brok Ridge Mountains, but to reach it the trucks would first pass close to the ever-spreading line of the Keruh Host…


CHAPTER EIGHT

THE HUNTERS AND THE HUNTED

The Atlantian Fleet was now only four hours away from Eden. They had entered the Edenite star system that morning. A vast array of disc shaped vessels of various sizes, all of them flying in a square formation of six columns, three upon three. At their lead was the flagship, Kraken. Disc shaped like the rest, the Kraken was one of the larger vessels, and like the others of this size, she possessed a large, heavily armoured and serrated fin beneath her hull. The fin was pitted and worn, the teeth of the serrated edge broken away in places. There were other signs of battle on the dented and patched hull, but the eyes and teeth of the face painted on the front were freshly applied in red, white and yellow.

Memnon sat in the command chair on the bridge of the Kraken staring out of the viewing ports before him. He seemed to be watching the stars. All around him men busied themselves at several control stations while others came and went with anxious faces. None of them bothered him as he sat in silence in the centre of it all. He was an imposing figure: Stern of countenance, his body well built, with the powerful limbs and muscles of a warrior. His skin was bronzed, his brown hair curled in tight knots in the same style as his beard. His brown eyes were soulful, but hid a mind of amazing prowess.

Memnon had been the Captain of the Kraken for over a year, and before that he had served on other ships. He still wasn’t used to it. He missed the sun on his back, the wind in his hair, and the taste of salt on his lips. Even the sounds were different. There was no creaking of strong wood, no lap of the waves, nor the sound of the sail flapping in the wind. Here there was only the drone of engines and the harsh feel and smell of steel.

Despite the unusual setting, Memnon and his Atlantian crew still wore the dress of their own sun filled but long distant world. They wore sandals on their feet, but the white cloaks had been dispensed with, and as always, the acquired technology of other more advanced races now supplemented the leather tunic and armour they wore over their white gowns. Memnon had come to be used to the intricate devices and weapons that a short time before he would have considered to be magical. Personal locators and communicators, laser rifles, maser cannons, oh, how he longed for a simple fight with sword against shield. But that was not to be.

The Kraken had been built on Centaurous at the request of the Atlantian Senate. It was a large and powerful ship, a true battleship. Inside the ship was airy and bright, the cabins large and the corridors wide, the décor mimicking the villas of home. The Atlantians had requested the building of many ships on Centaurous, although the Centaurs themselves had refused to enter the war. It had proved to be a costly mistake. Centaurous was now a burned and cracked world, spinning from pole to pole, the magma of its core spilling out in a red spiral.

Memnon had visited Centaurous at the time of the Kraken’s construction. It had been a strange place and a strange visit. He had found it most difficult discussing the elements of the ships design with the Centaurs without constantly being aware of their physique. The arrival of the Tun-Sho-Lok on Atlantis had certainly widened his horizons.

For several days now, Memnon had led the Atlantian Fleet in pursuit of the Keruh battle fleets. During that time it would have been possible to overtake their prey more than once, but that was not the intention. They sailed with stealth, not urgency, keeping station two hours behind the Keruh battle fleet at all times. The knowledge that their enemy was so close before them was bound to cause tension in the crew, and the nearer it came to the point of conflict, the more that tension would grow. Memnon’s calm presence on the bridge eased that tension. It was why he stayed there for so many hours of the day, so that his men could see him and know from his body language that all was well. This day was like any other, and as usual, it wasn’t long before someone disturbed Memnon from his thoughts.

“Captain?”

Memnon looked up to find Telephus, his First Officer on the Kraken, standing next to him.

Telephus was younger than Memnon, his body less weighty. He was wiry and tall, his features softer, and his blonde hair left long to his shoulders. None could deny that he was fair of face, and his blue eyes had been the undoing of many a woman’s resolve.

“Hephaestus is at the portal. He wishes to speak with you.”

Memnon climbed from his command chair. “Take my place. Make sure that we keep our distance from the Keruh ships. Advise me immediately of any changes in their course or direction.”

Telephus nodded as he replaced Memnon in the chair.

Memnon left the bridge and entered the communications room. Here he found the ship’s network portal already activated with a tall man standing on a stone circle at the centre of it. The man wore a short robe with a cloak thrown over one shoulder. He was old, but his back was still straight. Bright sun bathed him.

Memnon bowed his head to the man. “Hephaestus, what news do you bring me?”

“None that will please you. Ares has advised me that the Keruh Host has established its bridgehead on Eden. They have attacked the landing fields at Kalahar and Nemen.”

“Do they control the Defence Net?”

“Not yet, but any delay will be temporary. The Host attacked the Edenites as soon as they reached the government buildings in Jutlam City. Evidence suggests that the Edenite defence forces gave little resistance.”

Memnon laughed. “Ha! So another treaty is broken! This one must hold the record as the shortest lived!”

Hephaestus didn’t share his brief humour. “The Keruh Dominant is aware of the shrinking timescales. They will need to strip Eden quickly of its resources if they are to feed the Host and return food to their hives. They have their own portal for this purpose, but with the Edenite portal offline it will be inadequate.”

Memnon became alarmed. “If the Edenite portal is closed, how will the Androktones gain access?”

“It is closed only because we allow it. Even now, technicians on both sides fight a duel for its control. Those on our side fight with less enthusiasm lest their success should cause alarm. The Androktones will have access at the allotted time.”

That eased Memnon’s mind, but the closure of the Defence Net still worried him.

“How many of the Edenite ships are on the landing fields?”

“At least sixty percent. The Klysanthians had begun bombardment before the Net was closed. Many of the Edenite ships were destroyed on the ground or shot down when trying to take off.”

“Have any of them come over to our side?”

“None. Those that were caught by the Klysanthians have been destroyed.”

The waste annoyed Memnon. “Was that wise?”

“It was the agreed plan. And the Klysanthians would have acted the same in any case.”

Memnon looked down at the metal floor. He took a deep breath and sighed. The need for vengeance was too high in the minds of those who fought this war. The Edenites didn’t deserve the wrath of those who had suffered at the hands of the Keruh, but they were in the centre of the storm, and it would be difficult to save them.

He looked up at Hephaestus again. “Are the Keruh aware of our presence?”

“Nothing suggests that their intelligence has altered. Has there been any indication that your pursuit has been identified?”

Memnon shook his head. “None also, so our task remains the same. Your news is welcome but changes nothing. We proceed as before.”

The discussion was at an end, but before he cut the link, Hephaestus asked one more question.

“Is there anything you would request?”

Memnon thought for a moment. “Yes. Two things. Tell Semele, my wife that I will see her soon and that I love her dearly. Tell Ares to ensure that the Net remains shut.”

Hephaestus nodded in understanding at Memnon’s first request, but looked aghast at his second.

“You wish the Net to remain closed?”

“Yes, I want the Keruh ships on the outside. I want there to be no haven for them. If they should seek that haven, I would see them crash on their own rocks.”

Hephaestus nodded again. “I understand. I will tell Ares of your request and I will visit your wife this day. May the Gods grant you a glorious victory, and may the ships of your enemy burn in the dark sky.”

Hephaestus turned and the image dimmed and faded as the portal closed.

As Memnon returned to the bridge of the Kraken, his mind was filled with mixed feelings. Despite the presence of four fleets in their enemy’s formation, the numbers were only slightly unequal. Even with the Klysanthian fleets in support, the Keruh ships would still outnumber them, they were also very powerful and their crews were skilful fighters. It would not be an easy victory for either side, and the outcome itself was not predictable. The only thing that was sure was that many would die.

-o-

Ares stared at Hephaestus in surprise and anger as they stood together before the globe in the great hall of the council war room.

“He wants the Net closed? But the first objective of the Androktones was to open the Defence Net! How else can the Klysanthians begin bombardment in their support?”

“Memnon was very clear,” Hephaestus explained. “And his reasoning is sound. With the Net closed, the Keruh ships will be unable to land or give support to their ground forces. The Net will also destroy any that venture too low, a likely event in battle at close quarters and with so many ships vying for space.”

Ares wasn’t convinced. He strode back and forth before the galactic globe in his annoyance. “It is our ships I worry about! The Net is blind! It will not care which ship falls into its grasp!”

“Memnon knows this. He is no fool. He commands at your insistence, Ares, your confidence in him should not be shaken at this time.”

Ares looked back at Hephaestus. He grew calmer. “Why is wisdom only gained with age?”

Hephaestus smiled and bowed. “Because experience takes time.”

Ares laughed. “Ha! I have no time! And neither will the Androktones! The Edenite ships that still survive on the ground will be a scourge to their backs!” He suddenly turned and bellowed out to another of his Captains in the great hall. “Menelaus! Open the portal to Ephesus! Give the Androktones their new objective! The Edenite ships are to be taken or destroyed, and the Net kept closed!”

No sooner had his instructions been given when Ares found another man hurrying towards him. It was a man whose errand he knew, and his sad expression gave Ares a bad feeling.

The man held out a scroll. “News from Cyclopia. Ro-An-Lee is dead. She was found in her villa this morning when the Cyclopians called at your request.”

Ares took the scroll with trembling hands. Opening it, he read the contents quickly.

Hephaestus quietly dismissed the bringer of the sad news. Then he asked the question whose answer his wisdom had already told him.

“Did she take her own life?”

Ares nodded. “A potion with wine.” His eyes filled with tears as he crushed the scroll in his hand. Then he turned his face to the heavens and cried out in despair.

“Li-Sen!”

Hephaestus reached out and placed his hands on the shoulders of Ares. “Go to Ephesus, Ares. Take these new instructions to the Androktones yourself. And when there, speak with Kel-Cid-An.”

Ares lowered his head and nodded sadly. “I had vowed to another that I would speak with him this day. Your reminder is well timed, Hephaestus. I will go at once. Contact me there if news should come, good or bad. I will return in time for the Senate briefing.”

Hephaestus watched as Ares strode from the great hall. His thoughts turned to Memnon’s first request, reminding himself that he had also vowed to make a personal visit that day. He would not break that vow. But first there were other tasks he had to perform. Beckoning to the Captains around him, Hephaestus returned once more to the strategy of war.

-o-

The massed fleet of the Keruh Host sped through the blackness of space. Nearby was the large gas giant, Belarus, one of the outer planets in the Edenite system. The Keruh vessels flew in a long column of three upon two more formations of three. Although many differed in size, each vessel was heavily armoured and triangular shaped, with a pointed end to both front and rear. Another triangular fin was mounted on the top, giving each vessel a symmetrical appearance. The fins had scarred edges with heavy ribbing. The insignia on each vessel, gentle curved shapes in gold and silver, identified only the Hive and number.

In the command centre of the Keruh Flagship, the First of the Mysan’Taf leaned his bulk over the astrogator screen. Another of the Mysan’Taf Host sat at the console, the smaller of his three-fingered hands flitting delicately over the controls.

The large mandibles in the tiny head of the First of the Mysan’Taf parted, and his voice hissed and clicked.

“Is the echo still clear?”

“It is, most Gracious First,” the Host member replied, his voice a slightly higher pitched hiss. “It never various in position and never fades.”

“Could we be pursued?”

“It is difficult to ascertain.”

“Difficult? Why?”

“Our combined fleet is vast, the disturbance of our engines great. An echo such as this in our wake is to be expected.”

The First of the Mysan’Taf straightened up to his full height. “Keep me informed. If any changes occur, if for any reason you suspect the echo to be other than what it purports to be, tell me.”

The Host member turned his facetted eyes back to the astrogator screen. He didn’t need to answer; the fact that he would obey the command of the First was a foregone conclusion. He was a member of the Host; he would always obey.

The First of the Mysan’Taf made his way towards the quarters of the Dominant. He walked sideways, with his larger, left side leading. The different size of his legs caused him to bob up and down as if with an exaggerated limp, but he still moved swiftly. The corridors of the ship were dark and claustrophobic, and the First almost filled them as he bobbed along.

Access to the quarters of the Dominant were blocked by an irregular and oddly shaped door. When the First reached the door, he merely waited outside, making no attempt to enter, nor even announcing his presence.

There was a pause and then a gruff, hissing voice filled the corridor.

“Who disturbs the Dominant of the Mysan’Taf?” it hissed and clicked.

“The First,” came the reply.

“Will he who waits within feel your friendship or your wrath?”

“He will feel my friendship.”

“Then enter.”

The door opened inwards, revealing it to be not a door at all, but the large armoured forearm and shoulder of another Keruh Warrior. With the way open, the First stepped inside the quarters of the Dominant. As soon as he had entered, the Dominant’s bodyguard moved swiftly to fill the door once more, blocking it completely. There were two more bodyguards inside the room, one in each diagonally opposite corner.

The Dominant of the Mysan’Taf looked up as the First entered. He was lounging on a low divan, his larger side beneath him. His raised and smaller limbs made him look almost like an insect lying on it’s back. He took the feeding pipe from his mouth and spoke.

“What news?”

“The echo remains the same.”

“You are convinced it is a pursuing fleet?”

The First collapsed onto another divan. “I am convinced but without proof.”

“Do you come here with a request to halt the fleet? To turn and face this imagined enemy?”

“Is it a request you would grant?”

“No. To halt and turn the fleet would waste hours, hours we can ill afford. If it is an enemy that pursues us we can fight just as easily at our destination as here.”

“And what if other forces at our destination should combine with my imagined enemy?”

The Dominant’s mandibles moved in agitation. There was a slight pause before he spoke, as if he were considering his options.

“Resistance on Eden is all but broken. The Gathering has already begun, and the Dominant of the Belol’Fan will soon have control of the Defence Net. There are two Klysanthian fleets in the vicinity of Eden. Even if your imagined enemy is large, with the addition of the few Edenite ships we have captured at our disposal, they will soon be brushed aside. That will leave the whole of this sector open to us. But I understand your fear, and you are not First by mere succession. Your counsel is important to me, but I cannot delay the fleet. Give me an alternative.”

The First seized on the words. “Five ships; swift ships! If my enemy is real, I will know it!”

The Dominant swept his smaller hand diagonally before him. “Make it so.”

The First repeated the gesture, and rising to his feet he stepped towards the Dominant’s bodyguard who still blocked the door.

“The First asks to leave.”

“Then leave with life, and return with friendship,” the bodyguard replied, and unblocked the door.

When the First had left, the Dominant replaced the feeding tube in his mouth.

-o-

“Who calls the First of the Orly’Ank?”

“The First of the Mysan’Taf.”

“And what does he seek?”

“An ally in war.”

“It is a noble request.” The First of the Orly’Ank swept his smaller hand diagonally before him. “Speak, and your request will be granted.”

The First of the Mysan’Taf repeated the hand gesture and then spoke hurriedly. “Take five of our swiftest ships, two from your own Host, and one each from the Mysan’Taf, Telen’Gal and Belol’Fan. Fly to our rear, make sure that none follow our path.”

The First of the Orly’Ank swept his hand before him once again. “It shall be so.” The portal faded and his image vanished.

The First of the Mysan’Taf turned back to the astrogator screen. Soon he would know the truth.

-o-

The room was silent and in darkness.

Ares walked into the main genetics laboratory in Ephesus and turned on the lights. Brightness flickered and grew, emphasised by the white walls of the room. In fact everything was white, even the row upon row of benches that filled the laboratory from end to end were white. And on every bench were glass bottles and beakers, tubes and instruments. Some of the instruments were quite large, some so large that they stood on the floor on their own. Computers supplemented many of the instruments. They were everywhere. But despite the cluttered and busy appearance of the room, it felt abandoned.

Ares knew little about the purpose of the devices that filled the room, and even less about the techniques that had been used to create the Androktones. And although he had been heavily involved in the process, all he knew was what he had been told and what he had seen. And of everything that he knew, it was the reason behind the creation of the Androktones that was the most simple to understand.

The success of the Keruh in war was based not on their acquisition of technology, either by their own means or through conquest, but in the ability of the Host to fight with a single will. No Keruh Warrior thought of himself above the need of the Host. For them, the whole was the king and the individual was nothing. They fought and died for the greater good, their lack of self worth making them formidable foes. No army could stand before the Keruh; all were soon overcome and overwhelmed.

To win the war, to stop the Keruh Host in battle, required a warrior with the same lack of self worth as their enemy, a warrior with a single purpose above all, above everything. But apart from the Keruh themselves, no other life form of this type existed anywhere else. Until now.

In response to their need, the Tun-Sho-Lok had harvested genetic material from several sources. They didn’t just search for the best, but also the most hardy. What they wanted was a life form that could survive in the worst of conditions; that could fight on tirelessly no matter what injuries they might sustain. They wanted a life form that was aggressive, tireless and remorseless.

The fruits of their labour they called the Androktones. It had been Ares’s idea. The Keruh Host were all male, so it seemed both logical and poetic that they should call their creation the “killer of males”. But the success of their new warrior could only be measured in battle. The results had been astounding.

The Androktones killed with a hatred that could be physically felt in the air. They threw themselves at their enemy with a ferocity unmatched by any sentient being. And even when mortally wounded they would fight on, clinging to their enemy so that their sheer weight alone would bring them down. Only a killing blow would stop them.

This selfless style of fighting meant that losses were high, but even this had been anticipated and designed for. The Androktones could reproduce themselves in large numbers quickly and efficiently, and their offspring were born with all the essential instincts pre-programmed into their brains, including who the enemy was. But all of this would have been useless if the Androktones aggressive nature had been limited to just their own strength. To kill their enemy in greater numbers than themselves required a special weapon, and the Tun-Sho-Lok had given them one that was equal to their task.

Added to their genetic structure were several biological agents whose purpose was more specific. They altered and improved the senses, allowed the conversion and storage of large amounts of energy, and allowed the physical structure and anatomy of the Androktones to actually flow and change at will. Their spinal column and part of the cerebral cortex of their brains could also be changed in this way, and even become detached. And it was by this method that the Androktones were able to form a weapon of immeasurable power.

Ares had seen the Androktones at close quarters for the first time in this laboratory. It had been an experience he would never forget. Their presence in the room, the sight of them, the mere smell of them, had been overpowering. Seeing them perform had been frightening. And all of this was tempered with an exquisite thought.

The Androktones were his daughters, his and Otrera’s.

He often thought of them in this way, as his children. But it wasn’t true, not in the physical sense. But in essence, it was true. The majority of the genetic material that formed the basis of the Androktones was his and Otrera’s, Atlantian and Klysanthian, blended and perfected. It gave the Androktones their strength and undeniable beauty. But beneath that beauty was hidden a cruel and unforgiving mind.

If the Androktones suspected that one of their own kind had mutated or drifted from the path chosen for them, then they would turn on them in an instant.

Ares had seen it happen, and it had upset him. One of them had shown signs of childish curiosity, of interest in things other than war. The others had seen this behaviour as an indication of deviancy, and they had quickly turned on their sister with the same aggression reserved for their enemy. It had been bloody and swift, but it had also been a lesson well learned. Ares was never again deceived by their beauty. And he had commanded that they should never be allowed to enter Metropolis.

Ares looked around the room sadly. Only a few months before it had been filled with Tun-Sho-Lok technicians. Then the urgency of their task had been immense. Now the task was done and the room was abandoned and empty.

On the far side of the laboratory was a door that led to an office. Ares walked across the laboratory and entered the office. Inside was a cluttered desk with filing cabinets, more computers and another workbench. More glassware and instruments cluttered the bench. The office showed signs of being occupied more recently than the larger laboratory outside. It wasn’t just the discarded notebooks on the desk, nor the coffee pot bubbling on one of the benches that gave this impression. What did it was the presence of a rather cosy but unmade bed in one corner. Neatly folded nightclothes were thrown across it. Behind the cluttered desk was an archway that led to a balcony perched high in the wall. And it was here that Ares found Kel-Cid-An seated on a sofa staring out at the distant view of the sea across the city. Beside him was a low table upon which sat a small coffee cup, its contents drained. He was watching the sun go down, his face bathed in the same orange glow that painted the city and the giant columns on either side of the balcony.

Kel-Cid-An was the oldest Tun-Sho-Lok Ares had ever seen. Bald and yellow-skinned like Li-Sen-Tot, he was bent, and his skin was wrinkled and stiffened. He had chosen to become male very late in life, and because of this, he had never bred by his own physical means. He had chosen instead to pursue genetics. It had been the love of his life, and he had striven to create and manipulate a progeny that others often left to chance. The success of his endeavours, and of those who had worked with him at Ephesus, would soon battle the Keruh for final domination of a galaxy. But despite his dreams, not a trace of his own blood flowed through them.

Ares paused behind Kel-Cid-An and waited. The sun dipped below the sea and finally disappeared, and with its departure, the orange glow faded to darkness. It was only then that Kel-Cid-An switched on the balcony lights and turned.

“My purpose is fulfilled and I am content. Why do you return to molest me?”

His voice sounded hoarse and cracked, but he spoke quickly and with irritation.

Ares got just as quickly to the point. “Are you anxious to die?”

Kel-Cid-An grunted and smiled wryly. “Are you more intuitive than I have given you credit for, or has another counselled you?”

“For spite I wish I could answer that it was the former, but I graciously admit that it is the latter.”

Kel-Cid-An laughed. It was a brief cackle. “Ha! An honest warrior! Save me!”

Ares walked around Kel-Cid-An and leaned against the balcony wall. His relationship with Kel-Cid-An had never been calm or easy. The geneticist had treated him as nothing more than a laboratory specimen and they had argued often. Ares may have governed the progress of the war, but Kel-Cid-An was ruled by no one.

“Yes, I am an honest warrior, and I would save you if I can.”

“You? You who most wished to wrench my head from my scrawny neck?” Kel-Cid-An said in exaggerated surprise.

“I wished no such thing!” Ares lied.

“You did! And I remember you proclaiming your wish loudly and clearly to all who could listen in my laboratory!”

“Those were times of stress and anxiety. My words were said in haste and anger. They meant nothing, and you know it!”

“Haste and anger often reveal the truth that calmness and control can conceal,” Kel-Cid-An pointed out far too smugly.

“And decisions taken when suffering from melancholy and self recrimination are always the wrong decisions!” Ares countered.

“Ha! Now the warrior is a philosopher!”

“And the geneticist is a liar! You try to divert me with anger, but I have a purpose and I will not be swayed from it.”

Kel-Cid-An now stared at him. He grew calmer and his eyes filled with sadness. “It is too late to save me,” he said dismissively. “I am old and beyond my time.”

“There are others more youthful.”

“Like Li-Sen?”

The change in Ares’s expression gave him away. Kel-Cid-An nodded knowingly.

“Yes, it is for his sake you molest me, not my own. It is for his purpose that you are here. I have known for many months of your friendship. You have shared much, even the Klysanthian Queen. I am not surprised. Our work forced you together. You were a fine match. The Androktones owe you much. It is your blood that flows within them, your genes that will live on long after we have all perished. I am envious of you for this, and I despise you, too. But thankfully, I am old, both in mind and in body.”

“Li-Sen isn’t old. And neither was Ro-An-Lee.” Ares stepped away from the balcony wall, standing over Kel-Cid-An, and he spoke with emotion. “She took her life for nothing! Why? You still live in number! You may be scattered across many worlds and star systems, but you can be gathered together! You can build again, as the Klysanthians can build, and indeed, intend to do so with great zeal! To throw away your future like this is madness!”

Kel-Cid-An shook his head. “We are not Klysanthians, Ares. For you and for them, the answer is simple. You can breed anywhere; the biological agents and enzymes that can only be found on your world are not necessary for your reproduction. For us, the reality is harsher. You think Li-Sen is young. In body, he may be. But in mind, he is old. We are all old, Ares, old because we have lived beyond the time of our choosing.

“The loss of Lokana, our home world, the place of our origin, is a great blow to us all. It is an event so damning that none of us will have wished to live long enough to see it. For many generations we turned our back on her, choosing to live on far distant worlds. But all of us, every one of us, was born on Lokana. It is the home we must return to to breed. We may choose to live on other worlds, but we must be born on Lokana. Now she is gone, and our future has gone with her.”

Ares stared at him, unbelieving. “But you have bred on other worlds! I know this to be true!”

Kel-Cid-An shook his head. “When we breed with other races, only those who have chosen to be male are successful. But even then our seed is lost among theirs. What is produced is not Tun-Sho-Lok.”

“How can you be sure?”

The stupidity of asking Kel-Cid-An this question dawned on Ares and his shoulders fell. In the end he could only state the obvious.

“To throw your lives away is wasteful.”

Kel-Cid-An smiled weakly. “Not wasteful, Ares, just polite. Our future is empty and our race is doomed. It is time for us to take our leave, and in all honesty, you would be far more understanding if you were to let us do so by our own choosing rather than to argue for delay.”

“You do not wish to see the victory gained over your enemies?”

“The victory is already assured. With the development of the body-plate our task here is complete.”

“You speak confidently now, but only a few days ago you worried about the accuracy of your work. You feared that some of the Androktones were flawed. You were most agitated.”

Kel-Cid-An laughed. “Ha! You try to stimulate me by such talk! Do you think I am so foolish? Do you think I am so easily led?”

You said the Androktones were flawed,” Ares repeated forcefully. “If there is a doubt in their ability to fight this war, I must know.”

Kel-Cid-An stared back at him. Finally he took a deep breath, sighed and nodded.

“Yes, there were doubts in my mind over the integrity of some of the breeding groups. But only the Quan group displayed a higher rate of behavioural anomalies than expected. You are correct, for a while I was concerned that the neural paths in their brains had not become fixed in the foetal stage as intended. In times of stability and calm they have a tendency to lose focus, to become distracted by other thoughts. However, field results have shown that this does not occur in battle. When faced with their enemy, they are as aggressive as the rest.”

Ares didn’t give up on the point. “There are many periods of calm and stability in between battles, even the biggest battles.”

“True. But the Androktones are self-regulating. The instincts they possess for this purpose, like those for their reproduction, have been much more strictly imposed. You have seen the effect for yourself. Any deviancy will be noticed and the effected genetic line trimmed.”

“You mean they will kill each other.”

“Only those that are defective will be killed.”

“It is a waste.”

“You must learn to be objective, Ares. They are soldiers, nothing more. They have all been bred to kill and eventually, be killed.”

“Do you have no love for the creatures you created? They have life; they have intelligence, should they not have your respect? You speak as if you despise them.”

“I do not despise them, but I do not approve of them, either. While you philosophise and speak of love and respect, I see them as they are. They are not of the nature of things. They are an insult to the laws of evolution and natural selection. They are monsters that belong in the primordial swamps of young worlds. I have done what I have had to do, and if the results are harsh, then it is because I have been guilty of succumbing to the equally harsh reality of the events that surround me. But my guilt is eased by the knowledge that they will only be a temporary aberration. Like the Tun-Sho-Lok, they will walk the stage of life for a time, glow brightly, and then fade from even distant memory.”

Ares had listened in silence to Kel-Cid-An’s description of his unnatural progeny. His attitude to them hadn’t surprised him, but his acceptance of his responsibility for their creation had. The geneticist had been more open and frank than ever before, and it was apparent that the weight of his endeavours was upon him. When he had finished speaking, Ares had no reply, and no more arguments with which to distract him.

With the discussion now over, Kel-Cid-An settled back on his sofa and closed his eyes.

“Now you must leave me, Ares. I have made my decision and my preparations. My time is nearly upon me, and I wish to rest and contemplate in solitude on the beauty of the material world before entering the spiritual one.”

Ares looked down at the empty coffee cup. In sudden realisation and anger, he seized up the cup and hurled it at the distant sea.


CHAPTER NINE

RUNNING HARD

Unknown to the Edenite military, the Gatherers had already reached the road to Hilbrok and would have crossed it if they hadn’t found something more interesting blocking their path.

The wreck of the Furnace Of Charity lay to the west of the road to Hilbrok, the debris it had thrown up in the crash littered the road itself. With Anaxilea’s help and even more determination, Phoebe had managed to keep the ship in the air for as long as she could, narrowly missing the road more by chance than intent as the Furnace Of Charity finally came to earth. It was a jarring impact that saw the smashed ship bounce in the air and go over the road before it finally came to rest. By then many of the crew were already dead, but those who had survived the crash, like Phoebe who sat in a crumpled heap in Medical with a hand clutching her broken ribs, a worse fate now awaited.

The Gatherers of the Keruh Host had found the smouldering wreck in their path and had quickly swarmed around it. For a while, the last maser cannon that was operable on the ship kept the black tide at bay. Tens and hundreds of the Gatherers were blown to pieces, but more kept coming. Soon they enveloped the ship, clambering over it at all sides, jumping through the holes torn in the hull. Not long after, the maser cannon fell silent, it’s crew taken by the Gatherers.

A vicious and selfish fight for survival now took place inside the wrecked hull. Those who were trapped in the wreckage or too weak to move were abandoned by those who could still get away. The Gatherers snapped up those left behind without remorse, their wounded, lithe forms smashed and crumpled in the powerful jaws. Most died as they were taken, the life squeezed out of them. Screams and shouts filled the darkened corridors as the Klysanthian survivors fought with the Gatherers in the broken confines of the ship. The Gatherers carried no weapons while the Klysanthians had armed themselves with laser rifles and pistols. They shot relentlessly at the advancing Gatherers, but as each one fell in the barrage of fire, another would clamber over it, it’s jaws snapping and it’s great three-fingered hands reaching out. They cared nothing for their lives; they only cared about taking the Klysanthians and crushing them in their great jaws.

Anaxilea shouted hoarsely at anyone who would listen. “Pea! Eumache! Keep firing! Keep them back as long as you can! The rest of you! Come on! Help me! We have to close this bulkhead door!”

While Cassiopea and several others fired at the ever-advancing Gatherers in the corridor ahead of them, Anaxilea and the rest of the survivors struggled to force the bulkhead door across their path. Another of the crew was taken before the door was finally pushed in place. She was grabbed around the waist and snatched through the gap even as it closed, her screams ending with the metallic clang as the bulkhead door sealed. It immediately rang with the impacts of the Gatherers as they head butted it, causing dents to appear in the steel.

Anaxilea looked around at the blood-spattered survivors as they all leaned against the bulkhead door breathing heavily. Even Cassiopea’s blonde hair was stained red and black.

“Come on!” she urged them. “We have to keep moving! It won’t take them long to get around this door! They’ll just break through the hull somewhere else! Lets get back to Medical!”

They moved away, the sound of the impacts on the steel door dying away behind them as they ran. Only the sound of their heavy breathing filled the darkened corridor. There were no more than a dozen of them left.

When they reached Medical, Phoebe was on her feet. There were five others sitting about who were wounded and two more who tended them. Everyone collapsed in exhaustion as soon as they got there, dropping down on the beds or even on the floor. Anaxilea shouted at them straight away.

“Celaneo! Get everyone a com-unit! Deianeira! See that all those who are wounded are paired with another! We’re going to have to make a run for it!”

Cassiopea looked at her in shock. “We’ll never survive out there in the open!”

“The Charity’s lost!” Anaxilea snapped back at her. “If we stay here we’ll be taken one by one!”

Cassiopea was equally forceful. “But out in the open, surrounded by them, in Edenite gravity, what chance have we? It’s getting dark outside, Lea! It’s suicide!”

“Staying here is suicide. They know where we are and they love this kind of terrain. It’s just like the hive to them. They think in three dimensions, they’re used to tunnels and confined spaces. They’ll come up through the floors, drop down on us from above, burst through the weakest walls. The Charity’s dead, and we’ll be trapped in the dark inside her. We have to get out. We have to get out and make a run for it now, before it’s too late.”

Cassiopea was used to the way Anaxilea thought during battle. It was as if she could cut off the human side of her mind and just concentrate on the tactical problems that faced her. But the decisions she made were often as frightening as they were logical. To go outside, to try to run through the Host was madness. But no one faulted her assessment of their current position. Cassiopea, like those around her, was already looking at the ceiling and the floor when the lights went out.

Phoebe looked up at the extinguished lights. “They’ve reached Engineering. That’s two decks below us.”

There was a sudden jolt and everyone gasped. Some of them fell to the floor. Phoebe was one of them. She tried to get up straight away, but she found it so difficult, as if she had lost all her strength. She wasn’t the only one struggling. Even those who had kept to their feet had grabbed on to something for support. Many leaned on the wall or slumped over monitoring consoles. They all knew the reason for their sudden weakness, but Anaxilea didn’t waste time drumming it in to them.

“They’ve cut off the main power. We’re on Edenite gravity. So much for being better off in here!”

Cassiopea shook her head. “We can’t do it, Anaxilea.”

“We can!” Anaxilea stressed.

Still no one moved. Anaxilea went to stand in the middle of them all. “There’ll be on their way here! Now! Right now! Do you want to wait for them? Come on!”

Slowly, sluggishly, they all started moving. Celaneo gave out the com-units and Deianeira made sure each of the wounded was supported by another. Taking the wounded along with them would slow them down. It was bound to be a risk, but there was too few of them left now to think about leaving anyone behind. They staggered from Medical, jogging, trotting, and gasping for breath in a suddenly heavier world.

Phoebe was able to walk on her own. The pain in her midriff was intense, and her breathing came in short gasps. She could taste blood in her mouth. Deianeira had told her that her lung was punctured when she had bound her broken ribs. If it wasn’t for the others who were weaker than her, she probably wouldn’t have been able to keep up. Especially now, in this stronger gravity. She felt so heavy, her legs and arms leaden. It was so hard running.

Running near to Phoebe was Eumache. Phoebe looked at her thoughtfully.

“Do you think we’ll make it?” she asked in a pained and breathless voice as they hurried along in the dark.

“I’ve never known Lea make a wrong decision in battle,” Eumache replied in delicate tones. “If any of us survive, it will be because we followed her.”

“I won’t be able to keep up once we get outside. Maybe I should stay behind and try to hide?”

“I will help you. Don’t worry, Phoebe. Once we get outside, we’ll live or die together. I don’t think any of us would want it any other way now.”

-o-

As darkness began to spread over the land, a nightmare run began, a race with the devil in the dark. From one of the many holes torn in the broken and blackened hull that had once been the brightly colourful Furnace Of Charity came a stream of tiny figures. They ran for the distant road, away from the horde of dark and ugly shapes gathered around the wreck. But they didn’t run unnoticed for long. One by one, the ugly shapes bounded from the wreck and gave chase. Soon the entire Host spread over the smashed hull in a wave and rushed on. It was a scene filled with sadness. Sadness brought on by the simple fact that the wreck of the Furnace Of Charity had been of interest to only part of the Host.

Unknown to Anaxilea as she led her surviving crew in a desperate race for life, a vast wave of Gatherers had already swept by the wreck on one side and reached the road ahead of them, their progress hidden by the fading light and rolling countryside. Escape was now a forlorn hope. Many of the Gatherers were already running along the road across their path. And many more had spilled across the road and continued on in their search for fresh food. And where the Gatherers led, the Receivers soon followed.

-o-

It was a sickening impact. Everyone in the back of the truck was thrown forward in a jumble of arms and legs. But it could have been much worse. Rather than hitting a brick wall or some other solid object, it was as if the truck had hit a huge jelly. There was a squeal of tyres on the road as the driver hit the brakes, a thump, and then the truck decelerated in a very, very short distance. Right at the very end, when every one inside was in a jumbled heap at the front, the truck tipped over.

Breda was underneath everyone. Someone’s foot was on her face, and she could feel other feet, elbows and knees digging into her body as they all began to scramble out. There were shouts and screams, but then the screams rose to a sudden crescendo. Just when Breda was getting to her knees, the scramble in the back of the over-turned truck became a mad panic. Everyone suddenly changed direction and began to fight their way back across the truck. A knee hit Breda under the chin and she was knocked over. Someone stood heavily on her stomach, winding her, and a moment later several feet stamped and trampled over her. Breda felt the fingers on her left hand being stood on. She tried to cry out, but then someone actually stood on her head, ramming it down against the wood of the truck.

Silence. Nothing.

Breda raised her sore head and looked around. Everything seemed distant and remote. She was alone in the back of the truck. It was on its side and the canvass tarpaulin that had covered it at the back was now torn loose and hung over the broken frames. It was dark outside, and behind the crashed truck Breda could see the headlights of other trucks in the distance that had been following them on the road. The headlight beams waved about as the trucks swerved to avoid each other as they came to a screeching halt. Several trucks collided with those in front. Breda could see the jarring impacts and hear each sickening crunch. The truck right behind them must have managed to stop in time. It was stopped on the road only a short distance away. Across the path of its headlights she could see the fleeting shadows of people running about. But there were other shadows too. Big, oddly shaped shadows.

As Breda stared at the shadows and the lights, the shadow of a single person suddenly appeared transfixed in the headlights. At that instant, another shadow encroached on the first, and the person was raised in the air, legs and arms flailing.

Screams. Shouting. Gunshots.

The world suddenly came to life in a barrage of sound. Everywhere there was shooting and screaming, and people shouting. And among the obvious screams of terror were the even more obvious screams of pain.

Breda climbed to her feet, her whole body shaking. They were here. The Keruh. They had caught them. As these thoughts filtered across her mind, the canvass tarpaulin was suddenly ripped away from the truck. She looked up as the tarpaulin waved about in the air above her. It was only then that she saw it. It was so clear, so distinct in the lights of the parked trucks on the road.

Enmeshed in the crushed cab of the overturned truck was an enormous black creature. It heaved at the truck, staggering forward, it’s legs straining under the weight. The truck scraped forward with it, lurched, and then rolled back. At that instant, a gush of black fluid spurted from the side of the creature.

Breda had fallen over as the truck had rocked beneath her, and now the black fluid spilled and splashed over her. The fluid was hot, and it stung her skin and stank of decay. But it wasn’t just liquid, there were things in it, unspeakable things that landed on her or fell to the wood of the truck with a splat. Soon the whole of the truck was bathed in the evil, steaming fluid, and Breda rolled about in the putrid mess, screaming and crying. But then she heard something that instantly froze her and silenced her screams. Or she thought she heard something. It was like a deep, resonant, almost whistling voice, a voice that demanded attention, a voice that terrified her.

FREE ME!” hissed the voice in a demanding bellow. “FREEEE MEEE!”

It was almost as if the words had formed inside her own head. They were so powerful, so demanding, and so urgent, that Breda almost felt the urge to get up and run to the creature’s aid herself. But while she lay there frozen in terror, others quickly fulfilled the insistent demand.

As the creature twisted and turned, shaking the truck, other figures began to appear, more of the Keruh Host. They were bigger than those Breda had seen in the city, and they all rushed to help the creature that was trapped. One appeared above Breda. It was standing on the raised side of the truck. In a moment it had jumped down, landing with a heavy thud right beside her. More of the black, steaming fluid splashed her. She cowered beneath the figure, staring up at it in terror. It turned towards her, stepped on her, and walked on. It went to help the others, totally ignoring her.

Staggering and stumbling, shaking all over, and with her eyes round and staring, Breda ran from the truck and disappeared in the night. She ran without thinking, and without any direction. Again and again the enormous shape of one of the Keruh would appear out of the dark, and again and again, they ignored her. One even ran into her knocking her to the ground. It didn’t even stop. Breda climbed to her feet and ran on. She didn’t stop to think why she was being so lucky, to try to understand why she was being ignored. She just prayed for it to continue. Unfortunately, it didn’t. And the next time she ran into a shadow, she wasn’t ignored.

-o-

The Gatherers swarmed over the trapped and wounded Receiver. They pulled and pushed at it, smashing and punching at the broken metal of the truck that refused to let go of it. Finally they freed it, dragging and pushing it away, until it faded from the light.

-o-

Jutlam City burned, the night sky above it bathed in an orange glow. A single ship hovered over the centre of the city. It fired down at something below it and a bright yellow flower blossomed and then faded slowly. The thump of artillery sounded like distant thunder, and sporadic gunfire chattered briefly among the darkened streets. All the streetlights were out. There were no lights in the buildings either. Only the fires that burned in the city gave any light. One of the fires engulfed a hotel. The fire that had started in the foyer had gradually taken hold, spreading to other floors. Soon the smoke began to rise up the stairwell, and the soldiers had to give up their vigil and close the fire doors. Even so, Gusta had smelt the smoke. She had become frightened, but the soldiers had seemed calm.

“It’ll take time for the fire to reach us,” the Corporal had said. “By then it will be dark and we’ll be off across the roof and down the next building. Don’t worry. So long as that fire burns, the Keruh will leave this block alone.”

Waiting for the darkness to fall with the smell of smoke beginning to catch at their throats was not a happy experience for Gusta. When they finally left, she was grateful to be on the move. Even climbing across the roof in the dark was better than sitting in a burning building waiting for the flames to reach them.

The next building was a department store. Like the hotel, everything was in darkness and nothing worked. They walked down the stairs slowly, the Corporal leading the way. It was difficult in the dark. Gusta couldn’t see anything. She hung on to the handrail with one hand and Didi with the other. Even so, she stumbled more than once. But she wasn’t the only one. Even the Corporal stumbled in the dark and slipped down several steps. They all had to be careful. A twisted or broken ankle was not something any of them wanted now.

They were all relieved when they finally got to the ground floor. It was still dark, but it didn’t take them long to realise that they were in the food hall. Didi looked sadly at the food laid out on the dark freezer shelves and cold counters.

“It’s all going to go to waste,” he whispered as he paused by one of the counters.

Altus, who was helping Pedomoner limp along, stopped next to Didi. He also kept his voice low. “The main power to the city must be cut. Why don’t you take some? Replenish that holdall of yours.”

Didi looked at him in surprise. “That would be stealing, looting.”

The Corporal looked back at them. “It’s only food. Don’t worry about it. Anyway, I’m in charge here, and I hereby commandeer all food in this store that we might need. All of you; grab what you need. But don’t overdo it.”

The soldiers didn’t need any more encouragement, and Didi quickly moved around the counters taking the best of what was available. While the soldiers stuffed things in their mouths or in their pockets, Didi wrapped each piece carefully and put it inside his holdall. Gusta helped him, and Kiki found some more bottled water.

The Corporal soon grew impatient with his loitering charges. “Come on!” he said in a loud whisper. “We haven’t got all day!”

Didi shouldered his holdall and they hurried on, the last of the soldiers leaving almost reluctantly.

Crossing the floor, the Corporal led them to the back of the building. Away from the public areas, in the warehouse section at the back, they found a service entrance that led to an access road behind the building. This was where the Corporal signalled them to wait while he opened the door carefully. He only opened the door a crack but they could all immediately hear the sound of the fire burning fiercely in the hotel next door. The Corporal peered out along the road. It was deserted. The only things that moved were glowing embers that slowly fell to ground from the fire. Light cast by the flames flickered against the wall of the building opposite giving the whole scene an orange glow. He opened the door wider and looked around it. The road was equally deserted in the other direction. But that way the flames from the hotel spilled across it blocking the road with a wall of fire. The Corporal felt the heat on his face.

The Corporal pulled the door gently closed again and turned back to face them all.

“Now comes the hard bit,” he whispered. “The fire next door is lighting up the road a bit. We’ll have to move fast and head for the shadows as soon as we can. I’ll take the lead. Stay close to me and do as I do. And watch for my signals. When I wave you down, get down. When I wave you on, you follow. No hesitation. Understand?”

Didi, Gusta and Kiki all nodded. And Altus said, “Yes, Sir, Corp!”

“Good! Eastomoner, you take point at the back. Altus, keep Pedomoner on the move.” He pointed at Didi, Gusta and Kiki. “You three keep in the middle! Now no talking and no hanging back!”

The Corporal turned and opened the door again. After another look outside, he suddenly threw the door wide open and darted forward. The soldiers followed him one after another, with Didi, Gusta and Kiki coming next. Altus, who came last, paused long enough to shut the door behind them.

Gusta felt strange to be outside, exposed somehow. It was warm and it seemed to be raining glowing snowflakes, and the sound of the fire was quite loud. She ran behind Didi, her hand clutched in his. They all kept low, sticking close to the wall as they ran along the road away from the fire. One of the embers landed on Didi’s head. He quickly brushed at it, and it sparked as it died under his hand.

They ran on, across the road and then to the main street. Here the Corporal waved them down and they all stopped and dropped to their knees. It was a brief pause, and then the Corporal waved to them again and darted round the corner. One by one they all followed.

Gusta felt her heart beating faster than when they had climbed the stairs. It was silly really, they were hardly moving very quickly at all. But she knew why she was feeling that way of course. When she and Didi had stood among the ruins of Breda’s office building, Gusta had felt nothing but despair. What Kiki had told them about the evacuation filled her with hope. She had to believe that their children were safe, that they were each in an army truck somewhere on the road to Hilbrok. She wanted so much to be with them, but their inability to escape in what was probably the very last truck left her in despair again. They were trapped in the city while their children were safe. Now she was terrified, excited, anxious and happy all at the same time. They were out of the building, on the move, and looking for escape and safety at last. It didn’t matter that they were on foot. What mattered was that they were on their way. And somewhere on the way they would find Breda and Tipi, she was sure of it now.

-o-

On the road to Hilbrok, the Gatherers attacked and surrounded the suddenly stranded trucks at the front of the long convoy. With only a few armed soldiers to guard them, hundreds of the evacuees from Jutlam City were snatched away in the dark in only a few minutes. There was complete and absolute panic. People jumped from the trucks and ran in opposite directions, some even ran in circles, many ran right towards the waiting arms and jaws of the Gatherers. Some couldn’t run. They just sat and waited for the inevitable.

Further back in the convoy, desperate drivers swerved off the road trying to avoid the stopped trucks in front of them. There were several, multiple collisions, the occupants of the stricken trucks easy victims for the rapidly approaching Gatherers. Many of the drivers started to turn back, some even heading across country in an attempt to escape. They radioed back for help as they drove along, wrenching at the steering wheels as the Gatherers appeared in the dark before them.

The driver of one truck that drove across country actually ran over two Gatherers, smashing a third aside. He kept on going as fast as he could, even though he could no longer see with both his headlights smashed. The truck careered on, bouncing over the uneven land and rocking from side to side. The jarring and jolting was so violent, that several people were bounced out of the back of the truck.

Tipi landed heavily on his back and rolled several times. By the time he came to rest in the long grass all he could see of the speeding truck were its red taillights. As he watched, there was a bright, orange flash and then a loud bang. The truck had hit something and exploded. In the glare of the sudden fire, Tipi could see the metal side of a crashed spaceship. Thinking only of Bibi and his College friends, he jumped to his feet and ran towards the burning truck.

It seemed to take ages to cover any distance. The burning truck couldn’t have been very far away, but no matter how fast he ran, it never seemed to get any closer. He ran faster, hardly able to see anything in the dark. Then he tripped over something that screamed. Tipi fell in a heap for the second time. Sitting up in the grass and squinting in the dark, he looked back and saw the blonde haired girl from the College of Learning. She didn’t look happy.

“You stupid idiot!” Kelandra shouted at him as she rolled over, brushing at her leg. “You stood on me!”

“I didn’t see you,” Tipi replied tamely.

“You should be looking where you’re going!”

Tipi paused and then began to get up. “I haven’t got time for this. I have to find Bibi.”

Kelandra watched him get up and turn away. “Where are you going?”

Her voice now sounded more frightened than angry. Tipi looked over his shoulder as he jogged away.

“The trucks burning! Come on!”

Kelandra looked passed him at the fire, clambered to her feet, and chased after him.

“Wait for me!”

Tipi didn’t, and she was forced to chase hard to catch him up. When she finally managed it they were a lot closer to the burning truck, and Tipi began to see shadows moving about in front of the flames.

“They’re still alive!” he said. “Come on!”

“Wait!” Kelandra suddenly grabbed his arm, digging her heels into the grass and bringing him to a halt.

Tipi turned to her in surprise. “What’s the matter with you? We have to save them! Come on!”

“They aren’t people!” Kelandra ground out in a powerful but hoarse whisper.

Tipi saw the terror in her eyes and turned to look. He saw the shadows flash passed in front of the fire. He couldn’t make them out. And then something jumped onto the back of the truck and the silhouette was quite clear.

Tipi and Kelandra both dropped to the ground. Tipi stared at the moving shape on the back of the truck. It was pulling something out.

“They must be trying to rescue them,” he said more than hopefully.

Other shadows moved in front of the flames, and what they carried in their jaws quickly gave away their true intent.

“Oh, no they’re not,” Kelandra said.

Tipi went cold. What he felt he had never felt before, and it was clear that Kelandra shared the feeling. Without a further word to one another, they both got up and ran away as fast as they could, all other thoughts driven from their minds.

-o-

A huge column of trucks was parked up on the road end to end. All that could be seen was the back of each truck where it was illuminated by the lights of the truck behind. By the side of the long line of trucks was an Armoured Personnel Carrier. Colonel Falamunus was standing by the open doors at the back screaming down the radio at his central command.

“We need more than two armoured units! We’re dying here!”

The crackling voice that replied wasn’t too helpful. “They’re the only two we can spare- ”

“Damn the armoured units! We need air support! I don’t care what you’ve got left; get it up here!”

“We haven’t got enough planes to-”

Falamunus shouted his interruption. “Get me General Orbanta! Get him on the line now!”

“Yes, Sir.”

Falamunus hardly listened to the weak reply; he was already shouting orders to the men around him.

“Captain! Have all the armoured vehicles take station on the west side of the road! Lieutenant! Keep our forces between the trucks and the Keruh!”

Finally, another voice came over the radio. The voice was deeper, older, but it was also sad.

“Falamunus? Orbanta here. I have your message.”

Falamunus instantly raised the microphone. “It’s bad here, General! We only have two armoured units to defend the entire column! We need air support!”

“I’m sorry, Colonel. All of our air forces are committed to the defence of the landing fields at Nemen and Kalahar. And most of our armoured divisions are bogged down out there. I don’t need to tell you that the situation is desperate.”

Falamunus knew all about desperate. “But the Keruh are swarming all over the place, General! The road to Hilbok is cut! We drove straight into them! All I’ve got is a handful of men -and they’re spread out all along the road! Who knows how many truckloads the Keruh have taken already! I don’t even know if any of the trucks got passed them! We need air support now! We’re dying here, I tell you!”

“I understand, Colonel,” General Orbanta said almost apologetically. “But I won’t lie to you. What planes we have left are refuelling and rearming now. Even at the best estimations, we can’t get them to you for at least another thirty minutes.”

Thirty minutes!”

“Twenty, twenty-five, tops.”

Falamunus threw down the microphone and ran along the side of the road, waving at his men.

“Turn the trucks around! Head back to Jutlam City! Move it!”

-o-

General Orbanta handed the microphone back to the worried radio operator.

“Contact the C-in-C of Air Power at Delmatra. Tell him to get some air cover out there as soon as he can.”

The operator nodded. “Yes, Sir.”

The radio operator set eagerly to his task. He was one of dozens of radio operators in the Communications Room who was busy sending and receiving messages. Orbanta turned away and walked back towards the Operations Room. It was only a short distance from the Communications Room, but he seemed to fight against a torrent of moving figures all the way, and it made the distance feel longer. The corridor was filled with a constant stream of people with anxious faces running back and forth, all of them clutching reports and messages. Some hurried to send them, while others were rushing back with the answers.

The Edenite Emergency Command Centre was housed in a very deep bunker in the Brok Ridge Mountains near Hilbrok. It was at the same location as their nuclear arsenal. As that was stored in the safest place they could find, it seemed logical that the Command Centre should also be built there. It was a large installation, with several levels and many rooms, offices and living quarters. There was even a decent sized Council Chamber, although the Ruling Council never expected to use it. Many of the Council had even been against the construction of the Command Centre, and some had vowed that they would never set foot in it. They were unfortunately proved to be correct.

General Orbanta felt no joy at the final use of the installation he had insisted be built. If anything, the current emergency proved how poorly prepared they were for an extra-terrestrial attack. Their armed forces were doing their best. But it wasn’t going to be enough.

Back in the Operations Room at last, Orbanta looked down at the relief map of Eden spread out on a raised stage in the middle of the floor. Elengrad was like a volcano from which poured forth a black tide of death that spread over the land. Jutlam City, Nemen and Kalahar and the highways between them were equally bathed in black. Around the raised map, Officers from all the military services jostled, argued, leaned over and pointed at the map, and then gave instructions to the constant stream of uniformed men and women who then hurried to the Communications Room.

Orbanta saw Air Marshal Addi Joventa on the other side of the map. Joventa looked up and saw him. Orbanta instantly raised his hand and pointed at one of the offices that were built around the room. Joventa nodded in understanding and then began making his way around the map towards the office.

Orbanta paused by the open door to his office while Joventa came in. As soon as he was inside, Orbanta closed the door and leaned against it.

“What’s happened while I’ve been away?”

“It’s all going down the toilet as you well know!” Joventa replied in an angry tone, and slumped down into one of the chairs. “We’ve had no contact with the Control Centre at Kalahar for over thirty minutes, and Brigadier Lemanta’s last report was that the Keruh had broken through -and we all know what that means!”

“What about Nemen?” Orbanta asked calmly.

“Just as bad! Two of our armoured divisions on the western perimeter have been overrun. The last reports indicate that the Keruh probably control between thirty and forty percent of the base. The only good news from Nemen and Kalahar is that the Klysanthians destroyed most of our ships on the ground in the bombardment. But the fact that the Keruh can’t use any of them against us probably means virtually nothing!”

“And the Defence Net?”

“Still closed, but with the speed that the Keruh ground forces are moving at Nemen, they’re bound to control it soon. And God help us when their main fleet gets here!”

“How many ships do we actually have left?”

Joventa shrugged. “About a dozen. Two are on the ground at Delmatra. Another one is down somewhere on the outskirts of Jutlam City. The rest are airborne between Jutlam City and Elengrad. They’re shooting at everything that moves, but they can’t see much in the dark. The Keruh don’t use any vehicles, so there’s nothing to track. What we really need to do is plug that portal at Elengrad.”

Orbanta nodded. He moved away from the door at last and went to sit on the corner of his desk. “We don’t have much choice, do we?”

Joventa replied by asking his own question. “What did the Council say?”

“The junior clerks and assistant secretaries that have survived are not the Council, and they are in no way able to rule. They have accepted Marshal Law. They don’t want to make this decision. They can’t make it. And we can’t ask them to make it.”

Joventa looked up at him and sighed. He shook his head. “The spread from a nuclear explosion will take out most of the major cities and inhabited areas in the lowlands between Hilbrok and the coast. All the calculations show that even a low yield device will render the area uninhabitable for years. And most of our armed forces and nearly all of the civilian population are still trapped down there. We can’t do it, General.”

Orbanta leaned forward. “Addi, if we don’t do this soon, we could lose the whole planet. With every minute that goes by, the Keruh Host are spreading out. Soon we will need not one device, but two. Then it will be three, and then we will be too late. If we’re going to do this, we have to do it now.”

Joventa was still unhappy with the idea. “What about our people? What about Falamunus and the rest? They will be right under the blast. We’ll kill them all, for sure.”

“Falamunus hasn’t got a chance in Hell. None of them have. If he didn’t know that before, he does now.”

Joventa scowled at him. “Isn’t that being defeatist?”

“No, just realistic,” Orbanta replied calmly. He had been calm from the start. He was still calm. His decision was made, and his own conscience had already accepted the consequences. “From the moment the Host established itself at Elengrad, there was already no alternative. We just weren’t strong enough to make the decision then. Now we have to be. Get one of our ships up here. Have them pull two devices from the stockpile.”

Joventa now looked shocked. “It’s two already? Isn’t one enough?”

“By the time we’re ready to deploy the device, no, maybe it won’t be enough.”

-o-

Anaxilea knew now that she had made one too many mistakes. Attempting to run from the Gatherers had been suicide as Cassiopea had foretold. In the increased gravity of Eden, even the fittest of the Klysanthians could only run sluggishly. For them even the air around them felt thick and heavy. For those that were wounded, the run through the dark towards the road was impossible. No matter how many times they fired back, no matter how many of the Gatherers fell in pursuit, the chase never slowed or paused.

Constantly firing back, staggering under the weight of those who could no longer run, the Klysanthians suddenly found more Gatherers ahead of them. In an instant they were surrounded and a screaming shouting fight for survival now took place, as the former crew of the Furnace Of Charity were forced together, back-to-back, firing on all sides. The Gatherers fell in a mounting pile of bodies and tangled limbs around them, but still they came rushing forward. But it wasn’t only the Klysanthians who they reached for. Even the Gatherers that had been shot were dragged away. Nothing would be wasted. Nothing that could feed the Hives would be left behind.

Again and again the Gatherers would come forward, reaching out, snatching and snapping. And one by one, the Klysanthians were taken. One was grabbed by her hair and dragged along the ground only to be seized by two more Gatherers. Her screams and struggles ended as they pulled her slender body apart. Another was seized about the waist. She made no noise as she was snatched away. Dead already, her organs crushed and her bones pulverised in the vice like grip. But for every one of the Klysanthians who were taken, nearly four, five, six Gatherers were shot down.

Anaxilea shot one Gatherer as it tried to carry away another one of her crew. As it fell, another Gatherer seized both its dead comrade and the crumpled figure that hung from its jaws. Anaxilea could see that they were both dead even before she shot the third Gatherer.

It didn’t matter. Standing back to back with Cassiopea, Anaxilea knew that all was lost. And then the truck burst out of the night, swerved, rolled, and exploded in flame as fuel spilled over the hot engine. People jumped from the burning truck and ran about in the dark screaming, and flames leapt into the air. Another truck bounced and careered by, it’s driver’s face filled with panic and terror.

It was a sudden period of complete pandemonium that confused both Klysanthian and Keruh alike. The Gatherers turned and looked around as if baffled by the sudden arrival of so much fresh meat, and even Anaxilea and those with her had stopped firing. Then, as if on instinct, all the Gatherers began to run about in different directions, changing directions, snatching and snapping at the large Edenites who were now running about everywhere.

Anaxilea didn’t waste anymore time either.

“Come on!” she screamed. “Run!”

The surviving Klysanthians ran for the road once more, moving away from the fire as all around them trucks careered by and Edenites ran about screaming, the Gatherers chasing after them. But the Gatherers didn’t ignore the Klysanthians either. As they ran, Anaxilea kept looking around, her eyes darting everywhere. And always she kept shouting, her hoarse, cracked voice penetrating the din around them.

“Deianeira! Keep shooting!”

“Celaneo! Watch your back!”

“Phoebe! Keep up!”

Running in the dark, with people being chased by Gatherers milling about all around them, there was never a second that could be spent without concentration. One Edenite male ran passed very close to them, a look of terror in his eyes. Behind him the Gatherer that chased him suddenly snapped out with it’s jaws and took one of the Klysanthians as it ran by. It just lifted her clean off her feet, the rifle thrown from her hands.

“Keep shooting!” Anaxilea roared at them, and then a large Edenite female ran into Deianeira, knocking her flying. She then ran into Cassiopea, tripping over her legs and stumbling as she tried to run passed her. She finally fell right in front of Celaneo.

Celaneo looked down at the large woman at her feet bathed in a black, sticky mess. She was looking up in fright, a hand raised over her face. Celaneo wrinkled up her tiny nose.

“Ooh, my…. What’s that disgusting smell?”

Anaxilea reached down and wiped her hand through the thick goo in the woman’s hair. She sniffed at it and then looked up, her hair flying back and forth as her head darted first one way and then the other. Gatherers still ran all around them, but none of them came close. Now, at the best possible moment, when their concentration had been broken, the Gatherers stayed away. Anaxilea began to rub the black goo hurriedly into her face.

“Quick! All of you! Smear this stuff on you! Quickly!”

They all hurried forward and did as she said. Even Deianeira got shakily to her feet, rubbing her chest, and came forward. Soon they were all covered in the thick black sticky fluid.

Cassiopea rubbed the black muck over her uniform. “Is this stuff what I think it is? Is that why the Gatherers are ignoring us?”

Anaxilea nodded. “The digestive fluid from a Receiver’s stomach, the only biological substance a Gatherer isn’t programmed by instinct to grab.” She looked down at the frightened woman. “She’s been our only luck today. Grab her, Celaneo. We’re taking her with us. Come on, everyone! Let’s get moving!”

Breda let them pull her to her feet; she let them take her along. She gave no resistance although their hands were tiny and their hold on her minuscule. She could have shrugged them off at any time, but she didn’t care. She didn’t care about anything anymore. She had felt so guilty in the truck, guilty because she had fought to escape, fought to be first. Now she had been last, now all the others had escaped and she was the one left behind. But again she had survived and they had all died. What was she to do? What choices should she make? Why did she always survive?

From that moment onwards, not a single Gatherer approached them, and not one more Klysanthian was taken.

They ran through the dark, among the screams and gunshots, fire flickering from crashed trucks throwing wild shadows everywhere. All around them the Gatherers picked off the fleeing Edenites. The few soldiers with them fired back until they were also taken. The Klysanthians also still fired at the Gatherers, despite their sudden invisibility. But there were so many Gatherers around them it didn’t seem to matter.

One soldier by a parked truck was fighting with a Gatherer while two Edenite women cowered on the ground behind him. He struck at the Gatherer with a large iron bar or something he must have got from the truck. Even though he was large, the Gatherer was larger. It looked like he was going to lose the fight when another soldier appeared on the roof of the truck. He shot the Gatherer and it dropped. The first soldier beat it to death with the iron bar. In a few seconds, several more Gatherers rushed forward.

As they had ran passed, Anaxilea had seen the fight and saw the Gatherers rushing towards the truck. She twisted round as she ran, and she and Deianeira both fired at the same time. Most of the Gatherers dropped, and the soldiers dealt with the rest. The soldier on the roof of the truck looked towards them as they ran away. He raised his hand in a wave. Then he jumped down from the truck, grabbed his comrade and the two women, and led them away at the trot.

It was a futile gesture. Anaxilea didn’t rate their chances among the Gatherers for very long.

They kept on running, never pausing or slowing. They reached the road and began to run along it. There were trucks everywhere. Some were crashed and damaged, while others just sat with the doors open, abandoned. There were less Edenites running around here, and in their absence the Gatherers had stripped the trucks. None of them had any tyres on the wheels. And inside the cabs the seats were stripped leaving the bare metal skeleton behind. The wooden floors were also gone at the back, and even the tarpaulin covers were missing. A Gatherer ran by in the opposite direction, dragging one of the tarpaulins behind it.

Anaxilea and her survivors kept to the side of the road, keeping out of the way. And gradually, even the numbers of Gatherers began to diminish. Soon they were alone, the panic of the chase and the fire falling behind them. The road became empty. There were no trucks, no Edenites, and no Keruh. Finally, their muscles aching, their lungs bursting, the Klysanthians staggered to a halt, gasping for breath. They all dropped their rifles and collapsed down on the concrete of the road, even Anaxilea. Only Breda remained standing. She hardly looked tired. She just stood there, staring into the night, as if unseeing and uncaring.

Anaxilea lay on her back on the road, gasping for air, her chest heaving. The gravity here was awful, and the air so thick she could hardly get any of it into her lungs fast enough. What had been a complete disaster had suddenly been turned around by mere chance. She thanked God, but wished that more of her crew had been saved. As she thought of them all, the tears began to run from her eyes and her body convulsed in sobs.

Cassiopea crawled over to her and placed a hand on her abdomen. “Stop it, now, Lea. You did what you could. You were right to bring us out here. All right, not all of us have made it, but we have. There’s Celaneo, Aello, Deianeira and Thermodosa, Philippis and Clyemne, Phoebe-”

As she had spoken each name, those sprawled over the road in the dark had gasped or murmured in response. But the last name had brought no sound.

Anaxilea immediately sat up, her tears forgotten, and called out with sudden urgency.

“Phoebe?”

The black smeared Klysanthians all looked around at one another, but there was no answer.

-o-

Phoebe had known that she wouldn’t be able to keep up. Only with Eumache to help her had she been able to keep going at all, but then that Gatherer had snatched her away. It had been so sudden; Eumache had been torn from her very grip. Phoebe had fallen over, coughing blood from her punctured and tortured lung. Her broken ribs were so painful she could hardly expand her lungs to breathe anymore. She couldn’t even see properly.

They had left her behind.

It wasn’t their fault. They hadn’t seen her fall, she was already at the back, and she had no strength to call out, even if they could have heard her. Anaxilea had kept telling her to keep up, but she couldn’t. And now Eumache was dead because of her. Eumache could have run faster, she could have been looking around instead of keeping an eye on her. She would have seen that Gatherer coming. Phoebe tore and beat at the grass. Oh, why hadn’t she been taken instead of Eumache? She was going to die anyway. It was such a waste, such a cruel trick of fate.

Sobbing, crying, Phoebe began dragging herself across the ground, trying to reach an abandoned truck while all around her people ran screaming and fire lit the sky. She could see the Gatherers; see them seizing the terrified people one after another. Sometimes more than one would run at a single person, hemming them in, snatching at them, grabbing them with their great hands and then snapping them up in their huge jaws. Outnumbered, surrounded and confused by panic, the large Edenites were no match for the even larger Gatherers.

Phoebe wanted to hide under the truck. She wanted to cower in the false security of its shadow. It was the only semblance of safety as all around her a terrifying and horrific scene was unfolding as one by one the fleeing people were ran down, surrounded and finally taken. At every instant, Phoebe expected the huge hands to come for her, she expected to be grabbed, to be raised into the air and taken to the huge jaws. She only hoped that the life would be squeezed out of her quickly.

She was nearer to the truck now. She could see the open doors and the empty cab inside. She could see the quiet haven of its shadow underneath.

A large hand clamped itself over her face, grabbing her whole head. She began to kick and struggle as she felt another large hand grab her body at the hips. She was lifted into the air, all four limbs flailing, her tortured body wriggling. It made no difference. Unable even to scream, Phoebe was carried along in the air towards the abandoned truck. It came closer and closer, and then, suddenly, there was blackness.

Phoebe was conscious of a great weight. It seemed to be bearing down on her, crushing her against a wall, or the ground. She didn’t know what was up or what was down. All she knew was that she was being crushed, that the life was being squeezed out of her. She couldn’t even struggle anymore. She couldn’t even move a single limb, not a part of her body. Only her toes wriggled. And everything was dark. She also couldn’t breathe. The great hand was still clamped over half her face. She could feel its fingers pressing into her temples. She hadn’t been able to breathe since she had been taken, and now everything was getting distant and fuzzy. The agony in her lungs, the pain in her ribs, the deadly, constant compression, it all began to fade. Finally, even her toes stopped wriggling.

-o-

There was a full retreat in progress on the road to Hilbrok with truck after truck hurtling back in the darkness towards Jutlam City. By the time the jets flew low over the road and the wreck of the Furnace Of Charity the battle was already almost over. It was a useless, pointless exercise. The soldiers and the few armoured vehicles they had to back them up shot and blew the Gatherers to pieces, and the low flying jets pounded them again, and again. For a while their combined forces seemed to keep the Gatherers at bay. But it wasn’t to last.

Ziti Harktus brought his jet around for another attack. They had used up all their rockets on their first pass, and could now only fire their heavy machine cannons. It didn’t matter. Belomonor had scored a perfect hit with the rockets, but the fire from the resulting explosion had illuminated the scene long enough for them to see how useless their task was.

The Gatherers were a great, heaving mass, thousands, millions of them. And in their path stood the jammed column of trucks trapped on the road, the survivors they had once carried running around in panic while the soldiers tried to protect them. People were snatched away even as they watched. It was a close quarters battle, with the soldiers, survivors and Gatherers all mixed in around the stricken trucks. And the armoured vehicles alongside the road fired at the constantly advancing Gatherers with seemingly little effect.

It was all just a quick, fleeting image, and then the flames died down and darkness shrouded the scene once more.

With tears of anger and despair in his eyes, Harktus dived low over the darkened and shadowy land. He opened fire without even seeing his targets, the bright stream of tracer fire stretching out before him. The short, bright flashes of the impacts revealed the effects of the heavy cannon shells as they smashed through the Gatherers carapaces, popping them like ruptured fruit, turning them to pulp. But for every Gatherer that fell in mutilated ruin, a hundred others ran on, uncaring, unstoppable.

Once across the road, Harktus pulled his jet up into a banked turn and then dived back down at the Host for another strafing run. It would be the seventh time. But this time he was halfway through his run when the guns on his jet fell silent.

“Damn it, Belomonor!” he shouted into his radio. “We’ve run out of ammunition!”

“It doesn’t matter,” Belomonor said in a quieter voice as he leaned against the side of the cockpit canopy. He was trying to see in the dark, to pick out any shapes and forms on the ground, to try and distinguish people from Keruh. It was impossible.

Harktus seemed to ignore him. “Sabatus!” he bellowed. “Keep at them! We’re going back to refuel and rearm!”

Harktus had already jerked his jet round into a tight turn before Sabatus could reply.

“We’ll be right behind you!” his electronic voice said over the radio. “We’re out, too!”

Harktus swore and pulled the mask from his face. “Damn it!” he told Belomonor angrily. “Delmatra is too far away! We’ll never get back here in time!”

“It doesn’t matter,” Belomonor repeated.

This time Harktus did hear him. “What do you mean, it doesn’t matter? They need our help! They’re dying down there!”

Belomonor turned to him, pulling off his own facemask. “You said it yourself, we’ll never get back in time. Even before we touch down at Delmatra it will all be over. It’s nearly over now.”

“But we can’t just give up!” Harktus shouted in despair.

Belomonor reached over the seat and squeezed Harktus’s shoulder “Forget it, Ziti. They’ve already had it.”

Harktus slumped in his seat, the tears running down his face, and they flew on in silence.

-o-

From the portal at Elengrad, hidden in darkness, more of the Host continued to emerge in a constant torrent. And the first thought of those who emerged was to get further away from the centre of the Host than their brethren, to find a fresh source of food. It meant that the area the Host covered expanded at an exponential rate that was proportional to their numbers. The more of them there were, the faster they spread out. And with more Receivers arriving all the time, the distance the Gatherers had to travel to return with their prizes was cut ever shorter.

What Colonel Falamunus and the soldiers with him didn’t know was that they were now at the edge of the rapidly expanding Host, and that the numbers they now faced were colossal. No amount of heroics or firepower on the fringes was going to stop the progress of the Host now.

The battle was lost before it was even begun.

Colonel Falamunus screamed at his men as he fired at the tide of Gatherers rushing towards them.

“Fall back! Get behind the APC!”

The previously constant gunfire quickly faded away as Falamunus and his men were forced to use their rifles as clubs in a vicious but short hand-to-hand conflict. It was the last desperate moments as a handful of men fought for their lives, and lost. Even while the remaining jets pounded them, the Gatherers enveloped and swallowed up the Edenites, the armoured vehicles, everything. They poured across the road and moved on, the area they covered increasing and expanding all the time. And behind them they left nothing. They stripped the vehicles of anything edible, and even the grass was torn from the ground leaving behind only the bare, dark earth.


CHAPTER TEN

CASTING THE DIE

Memnon stared at the astrogator screen. The five blips were clear and strong.

“They are wise to our presence,” he said to Telephus.

“Then why send only five ships?” Telephus asked.

“Because they only wish to confirm what they already suspect. They have no time to turn and face us, so instead they send five minnows. I wager that these minnows will stare us in the face and then flee.”

“What should we do?”

“Take advantage. Call the Prometheus, Olympus and Hydra. Have them intercept and devour the minnows.”

Telephus nodded and hurried away.

-o-

Aeolus smiled broadly when he saw the image of Telephus appear in the portal.

“Why this visit, brother? Have you brought me good news?”

Telephus also smiled. “I bring you good hunting.”

Aeolus laughed. “Ha! You speak of the five ships on my screen! Are they mine for the taking?”

“Yes, brother. But take the Olympus and Hydra with you. Make sure that none of the ships escape to warn the enemy of our presence.”

Aeolus’s expression hardened. “It shall be done. We will burn them and sink them. Our enemy will have only silence to warn them.”

Telephus looked wistful. “I wish I could be with you.”

“Then step off the portal. Memnon will hardly miss you.”

Telephus shook his head. “My place is here.” He smiled again, but this time it was with more sadness. “Take care, brother.”

“You, also.”

The image faded.

Aeolus went back to the bridge of the Prometheus. He was older than his brother Telephus, but he had the same build, blonde hair and blue eyes. The only true difference between them was in character. Aeolus was more loud and brash than his younger brother, but he was far less lascivious. He had been married to Penelope for five years and had looked at no other woman since his wedding day. Even now he thought of his wife and children as he took his place in the command chair and barked out his orders.

“Peleus! Contact the Hydra and the Olympus! Have them follow us in delta formation! Glaucus! Increase speed by eight points and steer for the five ships that approach us! Tyro! Signal battle stations! We go to war!”

Men rushed about on the bridge as Aeolus sat back in his chair. He stared out at the star scene visible through the viewing ports ahead of him. Soon he would see the enemy. Soon he would test their mettle against that of his ship and crew. Soon he would wake the Gods and ask them to cast the die that would pass judgement on his fate.

-o-

The Prometheus surged forward from the line of ships. Like the Kraken, she was large and battle scarred, with a huge fin beneath her hull. Behind her came the Olympus and the Hydra. All three ships were the same; only the mouth, teeth and eyes painted on their metal hulls were different. For the Prometheus, the expression was angry. The Hydra had more teeth, and the Olympus held her mouth open, waiting….

Memnon watched the three ships slide silently forward, the glow from their engines turning from red to orange as the thrust increased. And as he watched, he murmured softly.

“Kill them, Aeolus. Smash them and bleed them. Make them feel our wrath.”

Telephus stood at his side. “Did you speak, Captain?”

Memnon looked up. “Make to all ships. Increase speed. Our enemy expects to see her returning minnows. These minnows will be larger than they think.”

-o-

The Twenty-Third of the Orly’Ank stared at the astrogator screen. “Three ships,” he hissed. “The First of the Mysan’Taf was correct, we are pursued.” He turned to the helmsman behind him. “Reverse our course! Quickly! Warn the fleet!”

The five Keruh ships turned in space, their course taking them in tight arcs that brought them around and then back on to their original path. Now behind them, the three much larger ships of the Atlantian fleet bore down on them.

The chase was on.

-o-

Aeolus could now see the Keruh ships with his own eyes. The close proximity of his enemy caused his emotions to rise as he barked out more orders.

“Increase speed a further five points! Jam all portal transmissions! Close all bulkheads!”

-o-

The chase lasted a mere few minutes before the Twenty-Third of the Orly’Ank accepted the inevitability of the battle.

“They are fast,” he hissed to one of the Host members in the command centre. “They will overhaul us. And contact with the main fleet is broken.”

“What do you command?”

“Contact the ship of the Telen’Gal. Tell them to proceed with all speed to the fleet. They must warn the Host. The remaining ships will turn with us to face the enemy. We will delay them as long as we can.”

The Host member bowed his head and swept his smaller hand diagonally before him. “It is a noble deed.”

The Twenty-Third repeated the hand gesture. “And a glorious fate. Arm all weapons!”

-o-

The Keruh ships turned once more, but this time, one of them kept to its course, speeding on while the others fell behind.

Aeolus saw them turn. He saw also the ship that continued on. You will not escape me, he thought to himself, and then he smiled grimly as the first white lines of maser beams reached out towards him.

“Peleus! Return fire! Glaucus! Give me ramming speed!”

-o-

War in space was a simple matter. Break your opponent’s shell and let the vacuum of space do the rest. And do it any way you can.

The four triangular finned vessels of the Keruh sped towards the three much larger disc shaped vessels of the Atlantians in a head on collision. White maser beams criss-crossed the blackness of space between them. Where they struck the metal hull of a ship, a brief white flower blossomed and died, leaving behind a blackened hole.

The Prometheus rocked as the maser blasts peppered her hull. Aeolus now bellowed his orders above the clang of each impact as his command chair vibrated beneath him.

“Peleus! Tell the Hydra and Olympus to concentrate fire on that lead ship! Tyro! Close the viewing ports!”

Steel shutters descended over the viewing ports. A moment later and a screen slid up from the floor. A picture flashed into life, and the maser beams and hurtling ships reappeared.

Aeolus kept his eyes on the screen but turned his head to the left. “Glaucus! Steer for the ship to the right! Peleus! Tell the Hydra to take the one on the far right, and the Olympus to take the one to the left!”

The seven vessels converged amid a frenzy of maser blasts. While the Keruh fired equally at all three ships that faced them, the Atlantians focused their fire on the lead ship of the Keruh. The effect was almost instantaneous. For a moment the vessel glowed brightly as its hull blossomed with a dozen hits, then it blew, its triangular fins flying apart in a gaseous cloud. For a few seconds after, a comet flew among the other vessels, the metal fragments glowing briefly before dying in the vacuum of space. But the comet lasted only as long as the atmosphere that spilled from the broken hull. Once it was exhausted, the comet faded, and all that remained of the vessel was a dark and spinning hulk.

The Twenty-Third of the Orly’Ank died knowing only that his death was glorious and that his honour was intact. For those others of the Keruh Host that followed him there was still the chance of a small victory.

It was now three against three, but the time for shooting was over. With the vessels now about to collide, it was brute strength and fate that would decide the winner.

Aeolus watched the triangular fins of the second Keruh ship rush towards him. At the last instant she rose up in an arc and began to turn, the ribbed fins spiralling. Aeolus roared his commands.

“Rotate! Rotate!”

The Prometheus turned her disc hull, the serrated fin beneath rotating upward as the spiralling fins of the Keruh vessel rushed towards her. There was a jarring collision as the serrated fin on the Prometheus tore into one of the ribbed fins of the Keruh vessel, tearing part of it away. The Prometheus flew on, her mass and larger inertia far too great to be disturbed. The smaller Keruh vessel was knocked aside and began to tumble end over end.

Aeolus struck the arm of his command chair as the distance between his ship and that of his enemy increased.

“Damn the Gods! Missed her!” He turned to his helmsman. “Bring us about, Glaucus!”

The Keruh vessel that faced the Olympus was less fortunate. Her helmsman kept to the same course and failed to avoid the huge serrated fin that rushed towards them. A deep gash was torn along the whole length of the triangular ship. It still flew on after the collision, but it’s course was now it’s own. It flew downwards in a shallow arc, fiery fragments spilling from the ruptured hull along with a white cloud of condensed air and water. It left a grey trail that soon faded and became dark and silent.

The Hydra’s victim made the same manoeuvre as the vessel that faced the Prometheus, but in this case both vessels missed each other cleanly. As soon as the distance between them opened up, the maser cannons began firing once more.

Aeolus barked his commands to his crew. “Peleus! Tell the Olympus to give chase to the fleeing ship! We will finish the job here!”

The Olympus increased speed, rushing on in pursuit of the rapidly disappearing Keruh ship. The Hydra and the Prometheus turned to do battle once more, but only one of the remaining Keruh ships now faced them. This ship flew straight for the Hydra. Again there was the same upward manoeuvre, again the Hydra rotated. This time the heavily armoured fins met in a metal crunching impact that tore the triangular fin from the smaller Keruh vessel. It flew on, spinning and tumbling, out of control and heading straight for the Prometheus.

Aeolus saw it at the last moment.

“Hard to port!” he yelled. “Rotate!”

The Prometheus turned and rotated, her disc hull tilting as the tumbling Keruh vessel rushed towards her. They almost missed, but then one of the spinning fins of the Keruh vessel dug into the underside of the Prometheus’s hull. The impact jerked the Keruh vessel around, throwing it straight into the path of the serrated fin. It was smashed in half and exploded brightly, the gaseous cloud of escaping atmosphere enveloping the Prometheus.

-o-

Memnon looked at the scarred and blackened hull of the Prometheus. He turned to Telephus.

“Contact your brother. Tell him his ship has a blacked eye. Ask him if he can maintain speed.”

“Yes, Captain.” Telephus hurried away anxious to speak with his brother and grateful that Memnon was wise enough to know it.

When the portal to the Prometheus was opened, Telephus found his brother in an angry mood. Memnon’s jibe didn’t improve Aeolus’s temper.

“Aye! Black and dented! What irks me the most is that I speared her more by fortune than intent. She blew underneath us. Now our starboard engine ails and our speed is reduced as Memnon surmises. But have no fear, brother. We live to fight another day. We make repairs and we can maintain station at this speed. What became of the ship I struck first? We saw it no more.”

Telephus smiled weakly, content to see his brother alive and well in whatever mood.

“It flew among us, it’s helm unmanned. It made good but brief target practise for our gunners.”

Aeolus laughed without humour. “Ha! We do all the work and you shoot it to bits! Even the Olympus comes back in glory! Two clean kills! Zeus will be unbearable!”

The reference to the youngest captain in the Atlantian Fleet brought a genuine smile to Telephus’s lips.

“Yes, he will be unbearable. But he did make two clean kills.”

“Agghh! Even my own brother baits me! Enough of this conversation! I have repairs to make!”

Aeolus reached forward and the connection was broken. Telephus watched the image of his brother fade before returning to the bridge of the Kraken. As soon as he entered the bridge, Memnon looked up and threw his questions at him.

“What news from your brother, Telephus? Can they keep station?”

“One engine is damaged, but Aeolus is confident that they can keep station at our current speed. He is more irked by Zeus than he is by the damage to the Prometheus.”

Memnon dismissed his comments. “Zeus is young and arrogant, but he is an able captain, no more. I hold Aeolus in higher esteem, as I do many other captains in the fleet.” He paused to rub his chin thoughtfully. “Aeolus may be confident of keeping this speed, but I am not. The moment of our destiny approaches, and I would not be late for the appointment. The first intersection is always vital, and I would wish confusion on our enemy at that moment. The Keruh wait for their five minnows. I would give them five sharks. I would have sent the Prometheus as one of them, but her lack of speed rules her out.”

“Then send the Olympus in her place.”

Memnon looked up in surprise. “And irk your brother more?”

“It will help speed his repairs.”

Memnon laughed. “Ha! You are right! Make it so! Give the command to the Olympus, Hydra, Pegasus, Medusa and Titan! They are to keep station twenty leagues ahead of us! Let the Keruh see their five ships returning unscathed. Let them believe they are alone. When they look again it will be too late!”

-o-

Over a million miles away, on the bridge the Light Of The World, Bremusa stared at the rotating globe of the Galactic map.

“Expand,” she commanded.

Instantly the image in the three-dimensional map surged forward until the Edenite star system was displayed. The position, size and proximity of the opposing fleets became starkly clear.

At the helm, Derinoe gasped at the size of the Keruh fleet.

“Their numbers are vast. We cannot hope to win. They will destroy us.”

Bremusa was unmoved. “And the wounds we inflict will allow the Atlantians to destroy them.” She turned away from the image. “Ainia, advise the fleet: Increase speed and prepare for battle. Tell them also that all Matriarchs are released from Royal Service and that their destinies are their own to choose.”

Ainia seemed surprised. “Is that wise?”

“Wise and fair. Like all of us here, they have all suffered the loss of loved ones, they have seen our beautiful Klysanthia burned and consumed, and have fought on when many would have fallen by the wayside. I trust my sisters not to desert our cause at this last moment, but they deserve the right to choose their own fate. Send the signal.”

Bremusa turned away from Ainia, the discussion over. “Iphito, close all bulkheads and viewing ports. Arm weapons. Derinoe- ”

Derinoe turned to face Bremusa, expecting the usual commands. Instead Bremusa had paused. Her long fingers flexed and curled as she considered her next words. Finally she laid her hands calmly in her lap and continued.

“Fear not our loss, Derinoe. For we have nothing more of worth to lose.”

-o-

The Dominant of the Mysan’Taf stood in the command centre of the Keruh Flagship, his three bodyguards standing in a triangle around him. The First stood the permitted distance away at his side. The Dominant looked down at the mass of blips on the astrogator screen.

“Are all our ships in position?”

“They are,” the First replied.

“And the Klysanthian Fleets?”

“They stand between us and Eden. Our intelligence was correct. Their ships are fewer in number than ours. They have combined their fleets into a standard Klysanthian attack formation and are approaching at point seven of nominal ramming speed. Their strategy in attack is unchanged.”

“Then the battle is ours to win. So why do I sense dismay in your words?”

“Our five ships return.”

“Is your dismay due to your error? Are your fears of a hidden pursuit over?”

The First of the Mysan’Taf indicated the five blips on the screen. “Look at the engine signatures.”

The Dominant lowered his bulk over the screen. There was a brief pause before he straightened up.

“The signatures are far too large.” The Dominant swept his hand diagonally before his body. “Your fears are proven, and your wisdom as First enhanced.”

The First bowed gracefully at his victory. “What do you command?”

“Answer me this question first: What does your wisdom tell you of the identity of those who pursue us?”

The First hissed out one word. “Atlantians.”

“Then divide the fleet into unequal portions. The First of the Telen’Gal will lead the ships of his own Host to engage the Klysanthians, while we will turn with the ships of the Mysan’Taf, Orly’Ank and Belol’Fan to engage our Atlantian pursuers.”

The First swept his smaller hand diagonally before him. “It shall be made so.”

-o-

The massed fleet of the Keruh Host split into two smaller fleets. By far the larger portion banked away, each vessel making a graceful turn that took them diagonally upward and to the right. As they made the turn, each vessel also moved to take up a new position in the reduced fleet. And when the turn was finally completed, the fleet was now in a new formation. Four vertical banks of vessels, each bank over twenty vessels high and two deep. They increased speed, travelling back over their original path.

The smaller portion of the divided fleet kept to the same course, continuing on towards Eden. But even they did not remain static. One by one, the long columns of three upon three broke up as each vessel moved into attack position. When the manoeuvre was finally completed, the smaller fleet sped towards the rapidly approaching Klysanthians in another wing formation. They were now in a mirror image, two banks of vessels, one upon the other.

Now the battle for Eden would be more equal, now the numbers were fairer and the outcome unsure. But for the second battle, for the battle that would decide the course of the war, the outcome was now fixed.

-o-

Zeus gazed at his viewing screen as he sat on the bridge of the Olympus. His blue eyes flashed as he saw the mass of vessels approaching in four vertical banks. It was an attack formation the Keruh had used against them before. He smiled and rubbed at his curly blonde hair. Then turning in his command chair he began to shout orders at the officers around him.

“Salmoneus! Contact Memnon: Tell him our fish have sensed they are in the net! Then advise the Titan, Hydra, Pegasus and Medusa to follow our lead! Nestor! Increase speed! Jason! Close all bulkhead doors! Arm weapons!”

As his men rushed around the bridge at his commands, Zeus twisted around in his command chair once more. Now he faced forward again he raised his head and laughed out loud.

“Ha! Now I will have some glory! Now I will have a victory that befits a true hero! Let battle commence! And the Gods be damned!”


CHAPTER ELEVEN

TRAVELLING COMPANIONS

“You are a numb-head!” Kelandra told Tipi as they cowered under an empty truck.

The truck had the number eighty-eight painted on the side of it. All around it people screamed and Gatherers ran in pursuit. There were distant gunshots and the flickering light of flames. But under the truck, in the even darker shadow, there was a brief peace.

“I thought it was a child!” Tipi said back to her in irritation.

He felt embarrassed and he couldn’t help it. It had been a spur of the moment thing. He had seen the figure crawling on the ground, picked it up, and then the kicking and flailing had begun. He was so surprised, so terrified of the attention that the sudden movements might bring, that he had almost thrown the slender body aside. Instead he had ran on to the truck, hidden underneath it, and flung himself on top of the writhing body. He was sure he had heard a bone crack.

“A child?” Kelandra exclaimed. “Since when have you seen a child with legs as long as that?”

“Alright! So it’s not a child! But it isn’t one of them!”

“And it’s not one of us, either! Our world is being invaded, and you’re picking up stray aliens!”

“I thought it was a child!” Tipi repeated.

“Well, it isn’t! So what are you going to do with it?”

“Oh, I don’t know! And its not an ‘it’. It’s a girl. And she’s not moving anymore.”

“You’ve probably squashed her!” Kelandra said almost hopefully. “I can’t even see her!”

She reached out and pulled at his shoulder, peered underneath, and then made a face at him.

“Alien child or not, she probably does need to breathe you know,” she said rather sarcastically.

Tipi raised himself up and took his hand from the face hidden underneath him. The head just lolled forward on the ground, blood on the delicate nose and tiny mouth.

“I think I’ve killed her,” he said sadly, remembering how hard she had struggled before.

“Typical! Numb-head!” Kelandra shoved at him. “Get off her!”

Tipi rolled off, leaving a very slim and long body embedded in the grass.

Kelandra shook her head. “Oh, look at that! It’s a brain on a stick!”

The truck rocked above them, filling them both with sudden fear. They both flattened themselves lower to the ground. The air was suddenly filled with very loud gunshots and shouting. Next thing the engine of the truck had roared into life.

Kelandra pulled at Tipi’s arm. “It must be people trying to get away! Come on! Before it goes!”

Without waiting to see if Tipi followed her, Kelandra rolled out from under the truck and began to climb on board. She pulled up the canvass cover and dragged herself over the wooden side. She was just in time, her legs still dangling as the wheels spun in the grass and the truck darted forward.

Kelandra landed on her head on the floor of the truck, her body and legs going over the top of her as the truck lurched and rocked violently. She had just managed to get the right way up when the truck bounced and she ended up on her face again. It didn’t get any better. The truck kept changing direction, weaving back and forth as well as bouncing up and down. Kelandra was aware that she wasn’t alone in the dark in the back of the truck only because she heard other people grunt and cry as they were all bounced and knocked about constantly. Occasionally she would bump into someone, getting a foot in the ribs or an elbow in the back of the head. But who they were she didn’t know. She didn’t even know if the numb-head boy from College was one of them. It was difficult to tell as the truck hurtled over the undulating and uneven countryside bouncing everyone around inside.

-o-

Further north, on the far side of the ever-expanding area occupied by the Keruh Host, Anaxilea knelt among the other survivors of her crew on a quiet and deserted stretch of the road. She held her com-unit in one hand and was pressing the controls with a mixture of irritation and urgency.

“Are you sure you gave everyone one of these com-units, Celaneo?”

Celaneo nodded in the dark. She was sitting on the ground supported on her arms, her legs stretched out. “Everyone had one. Even Phoebe. And they were all fully charged.”

“Deianeira, who was with Phoebe?”

“I think it was Eumache,” Deianeira replied. She was sitting behind Aello and Thermodosa, both of whom were laying full length on the ground. They were still exhausted.

Anaxilea looked up at her. “You only think?”

Cassiopea put a hand on Anaxilea’s shoulder. “It was Eumache. Don’t be angry with Deianeira. It isn’t her fault.”

“I know whose fault it is,” Anaxilea told her, her expression giving away the identity of the guilty party.

Anaxilea held the com-unit up to her mouth. “This is Anaxilea to any crew of the Furnace Of Charity. If you’re alive, come in.”

The com-unit crackled with static but nothing else. Anaxilea tried again.

“Anaxilea to any survivors from the Furnace Of Charity. Phoebe, answer me!”

There was more static, and then the sudden sound of a voice. Despite the distortion, its origins were unmistakeable.

“Where are you?” it hissed. “Tell us and we will fetch you.”

Anaxilea stared at the com-unit in horror. And then another voice rang out. This time the voice was stronger, female, and far more urgent.

“Are you mad, Lea? What are you thinking? Head north, and break those com-units before the Keruh triangulate on your positions! Break them now!”

Anaxilea dropped the com-unit instantly. She smacked it with her fist, but it didn’t break. She picked it up again and began banging it on the ground. It still wouldn’t break. She dropped it again, her fingers flexing and curling as she looked around for a stone or something with which to break the com-unit. Then a large foot stepped on it and the com-unit was crushed flat. Anaxilea looked up to see Breda standing over her.

Cassiopea threw her com-unit to the ground, Celaneo doing the same. Breda crushed them both. As all the other Klysanthians crawled forward and threw their com-units onto the pile, Breda crushed them all.

With the last com-unit broken, there was a brief moment of relief. Then Anaxilea slumped to the ground and beat her fists on the concrete.

“I am such a fool! It was the most basic, childish mistake!”

Cassiopea went to her side. “You had to try. We all know that. We all understand.”

Anaxilea looked up at her with tears in her eyes. “It could get us all killed! You heard the voice! The Keruh don’t take prisoners! They must have taken the com-unit off one of the bodies! They could have taken it off Phoebe’s-”

Anaxilea couldn’t finish the sentence. She just collapsed on the ground, sobbing. Cassiopea tried to pull her up.

“Stop it, Lea! Enough! You had to try. Now we know. Now come on. We have to get moving again. You heard Scyleia. We go north, quickly, before the Keruh come this way looking for us.”

It was no use. It was like trying to lift up a dead weight. Anaxilea just lay slumped on the ground, the spirit gone from her. It was up to Cassiopea to get them all moving again.

“All of you, back on your feet! Clyemne! Look after the Edenite! See if she knows where there is any water to wash this muck off before it begins to corrode our skin! Philippis, help me with Anaxilea! Deianeira, Aello, pick up those rifles! Celaneo, wake up Thermodosa! Get up, the lot of you!”

Reluctantly, they all began to get back on their feet. It seemed as if they had hardly rested at all. Anaxilea was the last to be lifted from the ground, and Cassiopea needed every bit of help she got from Philippis to do it. It seemed that Anaxilea just didn’t want to move.

“Come on, Lea!” Cassiopea begged her. “Don’t fall apart now! We need you!”

Philippis also pleaded with her. “Listen to Pea, Anaxilea. We do need you. We believe in you. We would have all died in the Charity. You told us to run from the ship, and you were right. After all we went through, it would be a shame to give up now and just lie here and wait for the Keruh to find us.”

Anaxilea nodded slowly. “All right,” she said in a tired voice. “It’s alright. I know. I’m Captain. I’m Matriarch. I’m responsible, for me and for you. I’m alright now. You can let me go now.”

Philippis and Cassiopea let go of her and she stood on her own at last. She wiped the tears from her face with her hand and noticed the black muck on her skin. She turned quickly and called out with more strength, “Clyemne? Where’s that water?”

Clyemne was already standing next to Breda. “Give me a chance!” she called back.

“We haven’t got time!” Anaxilea told her. “Because of my stupidity several Keruh Warriors could already be on their way here! We have to move quickly! Find us some water to drink and wash in.”

While everyone waited and listened, Clyemne took Breda gently by the hand.

“Water. Is there? Somewhere?” she asked hopefully in Edenite.

Breda’s eyes slowly focussed on her. It had taken a moment for the delicate sound of Clyemne’s voice to register. Until then, the Klysanthians conversations had sounded like a musical symphony to Breda.

“You can speak Edenite?” she said in a timid voice.

Clyemne nodded. “Many languages speak most of us can. But practise need.”

The Edenite words were very clear, but the tones were far too delicate and musical. It was almost as if Clyemne was singing to her. But there was something else not quite right.

“You get some of the words the wrong way round.”

Clyemne smiled. “Need more practise.” She reached out with her hand, only to hesitate for a moment, her long fingers flexing. Then she pulled some of the black muck from Breda’s hair. “Must wash this off. It will damage the skin. Cause pain. Is there any water near here? Or to the north?”

Breda thought for a moment, trying to remember the geography of the area she was now in. Finally she nodded.

“Yes. I’ll show you. This way.”

“Is it towards the north?”

“Does it matter?”

Impatiently, Anaxilea called out in Edenite, “Only if live! You want to!”

Breda paused to think again, and then she nodded. “Yes, it’s to the north. But we’ll have to leave the road.”

Anaxilea didn’t need to be told a second time. “Good!” she said in Klysanthian. “It’s probably best that we keep off the road for a bit. Tell her to lead the way, Clyemne!”

Clyemne smiled at Breda again. “Show us. Please?”

-o-

Bouncing around in the back of the truck, Kelandra didn’t know which way was up or which way was forward. At any moment she thought her arms and legs would come off. The violent bouncing and rocking seemed to go on forever, but with another final and enormous bounce and a screech of tyres, it suddenly stopped. The truck now accelerated evenly. It was going in a straight line and everything was suddenly stable and firm.

Kelandra rolled over and sat up, gasping. Her eyes began to focus in the dim light and she could finally see who her travelling companions were. There was a soldier, two women, and a man. They all looked battered and dirty. The man had a bandaged arm, his sleeve cut away, and there were cuts and grazes on his head. One of the women also had a bandage around her head. They were all scattered around on the floor in different positions of disarray after being tossed about and thoroughly shaken. The boy from College was also there, lying on the floor of the truck. He hadn’t come empty handed, and as everyone stared around at one another in the dark, all eyes gradually became fixed on the slender body sprawled on the floor in the middle of them all.

“It’s a Klysanthian,” said the woman with the bandaged head. “Where did she come from?”

The soldier scrambled forward and grabbed Phoebe by the scruff of the neck. He held her up like a rag doll, her arms hanging limply by her sides. “They’re in league with the Keruh!” he snarled angrily, shaking her. “We should kill her!”

He clamped a hand around her tiny neck and it looked like he was going to carry out his threat there and then, but the others in the truck quickly gathered around him, their protests causing him to hesitate.

“Stop that!” one woman said.

“Don’t be so cruel!” the other woman added. “She’s obviously hurt! Leave her alone!”

As the two women wrestled the limp and slender body away from the disheartened soldier, the other man in the truck added his weight to the argument.

“You can’t just kill someone out of hand like that! We have to hear her story first!”

The soldier turned on him, his anger renewed, happy to have a man to argue with instead of the fussing women. “They attacked the landing fields at Nemen and Kalahar! They’re the enemy!”

“And we signed a treaty with the Keruh. That makes us their enemy, not the other way round. It’s us that have changed sides. It’s us that have been damn stupid. The Klysanthians have been at war with the Keruh from the beginning. Everyone knows that. Now calm down.”

The soldier slumped down in a corner, rubbing his head with his hands. His green armour was all grubby and dirty, and he suddenly looked very tired.

The man now turned to Kelandra and Tipi. “Where did you two come from? Were you hiding in here?”

Kelandra shook her head. “We were hiding underneath. We climbed in when we heard it going.”

“Are your parents with you?”

“No. We were both at the College Of Learning. Our truck crashed and we were the only ones who survived.”

Kelandra had answered quickly, hardly thinking about what she was saying. The tears only welled up in her eyes afterwards. The man nodded sadly and stroked her hair comfortingly.

“We’ve all had a bad time. Don’t think about it. Just be thankful that you’re alive. And keep in your mind the hope that those you love are alive too. Alright?”

Kelandra nodded, wiping the tears from her eyes. The man smiled encouragingly and let go of her.

There were other sniffs and more tears from the two women as they laid Phoebe out on the floor of the truck and began gently straightening and feeling her body. They also had loved ones to worry about and experiences that were best forgotten. Now that the carnage and fear was over, they needed to be able to do something almost normal. Looking after Phoebe gave them that chance, and they seized it gratefully.

Tipi watched the women as they tended to Phoebe.

“I brought the Klysanthian,” he admitted. “I did it without thinking. I just saw her and picked her up. She was alive when I found her. Is she alright?”

The woman with the bandaged head looked up when she heard Tipi’s question. She sniffed and wiped the tears from her eyes, and then she nodded and smiled weakly.

“She’s alive, but she has some broken bones. Klysanthians are so tiny, you have to be careful or you can hurt them more.”

As if to emphasis the point, Phoebe moved and moaned as the other woman found her damaged ribcage. The woman nodded.

“That must be where the blood’s coming from. I bet her lung’s punctured. We need some bandages.”

Without saying anything, the soldier unclipped a first aid kit from under one of the benches and handed it to one of the women. The woman smiled at him.

“Thank you.”

Things settled down in the truck after that. Kelandra, being curious, asked everyone their names, finding out a little bit about them all. She even found out Tipi’s name for the first time. And unlike Tipi and Kelandra, their new travelling companions hadn’t all started out in the same truck; they had all ended up together by chance in the dark and confusion.

The soldier’s name was Bede. There were two other soldiers in the cab. They were in the same unit under Colonel Falamunus. The man with the bandaged arm was called Lupili. Like the two women he was a survivor from Jutlam City. The woman with the bandaged head was called Rualda. She had worked in linguistics and alien studies for a news station. The other woman was called Jeddra. She was a housewife who had simply been out shopping.

With the introductions over, there wasn’t much more to talk about that wouldn’t bring on depression, so Kelandra quickly gave up. She sat back on the bench next to Tipi. Tipi looked across at her.

“Your nose is bleeding,” he said, reaching out to her nose.

It was the slightest touch, but Kelandra moved her head away, wiping at the thin trickle of blood and sniffing. “It must have been when I was bouncing around. It’s nothing.” She looked back at him. “You don’t look too good either.”

Tipi nodded, but didn’t reply.

No one spoke for a while. The two men sat in silence facing each other at the back of the truck, their thoughts their own, while the two women looked after Phoebe on the floor near the front of the truck. Tipi and Kelandra were sitting on the bench near to them and watched as the women opened Phoebe’s jacket. Kelandra winced at the sight of Phoebe’s damaged ribs.

“One of the bones is poking out -can I help?”

“Of course you can,” Jeddra said, and handed her a roll of bandages from the first aid kit. “Here, take this while we put her bones back in place.”

Kelandra instantly got off the bench and went to help. Tipi was left on his own, watching as his charge was now tended to by three women.

Tipi suddenly felt sort of jealous. For some reason, he had liked holding the slender body in his arms. Now as he saw her exposed chest and stomach he realised how she was totally the wrong shape. She was tiny, her breasts round and full but somehow far too small. And her waist was probably smaller than his arm. When he seriously thought about it, nothing about her should have stirred his interest. But he had liked holding her none-the-less. Now others held her and fussed over her. But at least she was alive. For a while, Tipi had been sure that he had crushed her to death. Some of her broken bones were probably down to him. He suddenly felt depressed.

Phoebe cried out like a child and her legs kicked as her ribs were pushed back into position by powerful fingers. It was obviously painful, but probably beneficial. A dressing was put over the wound in her side, and the bandages were wrapped tightly around her. Soon they enveloped her from chest to hip.

The women had only just finished their ministrations, and Rualda was still pulling Phoebe’s jacket back into place, when the truck suddenly screeched to a halt.

Everyone looked around, startled, but the soldier came instantly to life. Bede jumped up, threw back the canvass cover and looked out. There was nothing to be seen except empty road. Hanging out over the tailgate, he looked towards the front of the truck and began to shout towards the cab.

“Alpi! Vutu! What’s up?”

A head poked out of the cab window and looked back. “Keep everyone inside, Bede! The radios’ on! The column has been ordered back to Jutlam City!”

Bede couldn’t believe his ears. “Jutlam City? That’s crazy!”

“Shut up! We’re trying to listen!”

The head disappeared back into the cab. Bede gave up. He levered himself back inside the truck, dropped the canvass flap, and sat down on the bench. He looked around at everyone. They were all staring back at him. He shook his head in confusion.

“I can’t understand it. They can’t order us back to Jutlam City. The place is crawling with Keruh Warriors. It doesn’t make sense.”

“Maybe we should wait until we hear the whole story,” Lupili suggested.

Bede nodded, and then there was a crackle of static and another voice rang out. The voice was slightly hoarse, but it was still angelic compared to the average voice of an Edenite; it almost tinkled with beauty and musicality.

“This is Anaxilea to any crew of the Furnace Of Charity. If you’re alive, come in.”

Everyone jumped and began to look around, expecting to see someone hiding in the shadows.

Bede said what they were all thinking. “Who the Hell was that?”

Rualda looked more surprised than anyone. “It was somebody called Anaxilea,” she told them all. “She was calling any survivors from her ship. She spoke in Klysanthian. I can understand it.”

Bede wasn’t interested. “Never mind what she said, where’s it coming from?”

Rualda looked down at Phoebe. “Maybe it’s that square thing attached to her belt?”

Lupili leaned forward and unclipped it. As he held it up, it burst into life again.

“Anaxilea to any survivors from the Furnace Of Charity. Phoebe, answer me!”

Lupili hastily thrust it towards the soldier. As soon as Bede had it in his hands, a much more menacing voice was heard.

“Where are you?” it hissed. “Tell us and we will fetch you.”

Almost instantly, another female voice rang out. It was even more angelic and tone perfect than the first voice.

“Are you mad, Lea? What are you thinking? Head north, and break those com-units before the Keruh triangulate on your positions! Break them now!”

Bede stared at the small com-unit in his hands. He seemed to freeze. In contrast, Rualda was now manic. She dived forward grabbing for the com-unit.

“Break it! Break it!” she almost screamed.

Bede snatched it out of her reach. “Why?” he said. “This could be useful.”

“Because the Klysanthian said that the Keruh can track it! She said something about triangling on it! She said to break it!”

Jeddra didn’t believe her. “Are you sure? Your Klysanthian might not be that good.”

“She said to break it!” Rualda insisted.

And Lupili added, “You could be mistaken.”

Bede stared at the com-unit in his hand while the others argued about whether to break it or not to break it. What the Klysanthian might or might not have said he was unsure of. But there was one thing he was sure of. That had been a Keruh Warrior he heard talking, and if the Keruh could intercept signals on this radio, they could do it on others.

In a sudden motion, Bede threw the com-unit to the floor and stamped on it.

Everyone looked down at the crushed mechanism and there was sudden silence.

The canvass flap was thrown up and the figure of a soldier appeared, startling everyone and causing Kelandra and one of the women to scream.

“What’s the racket?” the soldier asked.

Bede instantly grabbed him. “Never mind about that, Alpi! Did you use the radio?”

Alpi looked surprised. “Of course we did. Vutu’s still talking to HQ. That’s what I’m here to- ”

Bede interrupted him. “Break the radio! Now! The Keruh can track it!”

Alpi was now confused as well as surprised. “How do you know that?”

Bede looked towards the others in the truck for some support. Lupili supplied it. He spoke very calmly.

“We have a wounded Klysanthian in here. She had a radio, and someone from her ship was advising any survivors to break their radios because the Keruh can track them.”

Alpi still looked confused, but Bede drove the point home. “If they can track signals from one radio they can track them from another!”

Alpi stared at him as the thought finally penetrated his mind. He quickly dropped down from the tailgate and ran back towards the front of the truck.

“Vutu!” he shouted urgently. “The Keruh can track radio signals! Advise HQ then trash the rig!”

Bede dropped the tailgate down and chased after Alpi. Everyone else began to climb out of the truck and follow him. Soon they were all gathered around the open door of the cab listening to the same confused discussion. It followed the same pattern, finally reaching the same conclusion after which there was a hasty exchange over the radio before it was clubbed to death with a rifle butt.

With the deed done, there was relief among them all. But it didn’t last long. They all stood about in the dark next to the truck, thinking the same thing.

Vutu leaned out of the cab and looked down at everyone. “Now what do we do?”

Lupili turned to Bede. “You said something about going back to Jutlam City.”

Bede shook his head. “I can’t understand that at all. It’s crazy.”

Alpi said, “Forget that. It doesn’t matter.”

Bede looked at him. “What do you mean?”

“That’s what I was coming to tell you before. We’re on the wrong side of the Keruh Host. To get back to Jutlam City we would have to drive right through the middle of them. And I don’t fancy that, do you?”

-o-

Elengrad was silent and still. The broken and burned out buildings were just empty skeletons of stone and steel. The streets were deserted, and the wide pavements and squares were devoid of any flora. Everything was gone, grass, trees, everything. The earth was black and bare. The vehicles that lay scattered and abandoned in the streets were stripped to the metal. Anything edible was gone, even the tyres and seat covers.

There were no bodies.

At the Keruh portal nothing moved. The scene was as silent and still as the rest of the city. All around were the deep craters left by the bombardment from the Edenite ships and aircraft. Debris lay everywhere. One of the maser batteries had been hit; its large steel reinforced casing blown open. It now lay at an angle, the metal ruptured and twisted. The other maser batteries lay still, dormant, waiting.

It was an alien scene, the land broken and barren, the darkness adding to the uneasy feeling of foreboding.

Occasionally a single maser blast would hit the ground, throwing up the earth and rock. One or more of the maser batteries would reply, sending a bright pulse of energy hurtling back into the night sky. The exchanges were more token then effective. In general, nothing moved. There was silence and stillness everywhere. The vast Host that had spread out over the land were nowhere to be seen. But they were still there, heaving and swarming in great numbers.

Soon after the portal had been established, the Keruh had brought through another form of their kind. Unlike the Warriors, Gatherers or Receivers who made their presence felt almost immediately, the presence of this creature on Eden was still unknown. But it was equally effective. Although its purpose in life wasn’t for foraging or for war, it was built just as strongly as those that were. It possessed heavily armoured and massive upper body parts, with huge jaws and tremendous arms and hands. Each heavy hand had armoured plates and long wide fingers with great claws on the end. Its lower body was miniscule in comparison, and it walked with more weight on its great arms and hands than on its wide, clawed feet. Totally blind, the purpose of this creature was simple. Here was the builder of the Hive, the engineer and tunneller.

The Diggers.

Spreading out from the very edge of the portal, the Diggers had begun to tunnel deep under the land as soon as they had arrived. While the Gatherers and Receivers toiled overhead, they busied themselves underneath creating a complex and large tunnel system. It was an instinct bred over millions of years since the very first beginnings of life. But here no Hive would be built; here there were no great caverns and storage areas. Only swift passage back to the portal was required, swift and safe from attack.

As the Host spread out over the land, the Diggers pursued them underneath it. Soon they had moved far enough away from the portal to break out from the ground for the first time. Now the Gatherers and Receivers returning with their bounty climbed down into the new tunnels and returned to the portal underground, while those coming forth from the portal fresh and empty traversed other tunnels before climbing up into the starlight.

But with the Host spreading outwards all the time, and with the Diggers keeping up their relentless toil beneath them, these first entrances and exits were soon overtaken and replaced by others further up the line. And as the area covered by the Host increased, so did the tunnel system underneath them. More tunnels grew out from the first, until a complex system of tunnels criss-crossed the land. And soon the only surface movements of the Host were at the fringes where the food was still plentiful. Behind them, where the land was barren and swept clean, all was stillness and silent. But beneath the surface the constant comings and goings from the portal increased even more.

The Edenite ships may have heavily bombarded the area around the portal, but the Host now moved about their business deep underground, oblivious to the impacts and the attacks. They were just distant rumbles.

Eden was now part of the combined Hives, joined by the portal across the vast distances of space. And slowly, relentlessly, everything consumable, even the soil dug from the ground itself, was being stripped away.


CHAPTER TWELVE

THE UNDIPLOMATIC PRESIDENT

Ares strode into the great hall of the council war room. It was filled with people, most of them gathered about the great globe. The majority of them were Senators. Ares could pick out Aetolus and President Aegina among them. Also present was Otrera, surrounded by three of her Royal Guards. Even with so many Atlantians in the great hall, the Klysanthians were easily seen. They towered above everyone like spindly giants. Otrera was standing right before the great globe, staring up at the coloured lights within. In contrast to her black clad guards, she wore a cloak that was made from a thick and shiny red material. It covered her from neck to ankle. As she stood staring up at the globe, she clutched the edges of the cloak together at her neck, as if cold.

Hephaestus was also in the council war room. He was busy with the other Atlantians who monitored the many control consoles that were positioned around the room. The stark appearance of the consoles clashed with the decorative columns and marbled interior of the great hall. When Hephaestus saw Ares enter, he quickly stepped forward to greet him, his expression dour.

“I have heard the news, Ares. Kel-Cid-An’s death is a great loss. But it was of his own choosing.”

Ares paused before his friend. Talk of the geneticist’s death made him angry and he replied in haste, his voice raised. “His own choosing or not, it is a waste! A crime!”

Hephaestus bowed his head.

Ares looked at Hephaestus in silence and his anger slowly subsided. “Forgive me, Hephaestus. My anger is due to my own lack of speed and guile, and not at your opinion. If I had been more attentive, or even an hour earlier, his life might have yet been spared. Now he is gone, and the Androktones will answer to no one.”

“They will answer to you,” Hephaestus replied, raising his head once more.

“You have more confidence than I.”

“It is well placed. Your handling of the war has been efficient and controlled.”

“There are others who think differently,” Ares replied, looking towards the Senators gathered in the hall. They were all looking towards him expectantly, some with less favour in their eyes than others.

Hephaestus allowed himself a brief smile. “You are proficient in judging the mood of your peers. There has been much discontent among those who have waited for your return. Otrera and President Aegina have had crossed words, and Aetolus has voiced his displeasure in the war with his usual vigour.”

“They all have reasons for their point of view, Hephaestus. But they have not seen the war and it’s progress as you and I have seen it.”

“Then maybe now is the time for their eyes to be opened.”

Ares nodded in acceptance. “Yes, maybe now is the time.” He sighed and moved passed Hephaestus, walking purposefully towards the gathered audience that awaited him.

For many months now, Ares had worked long and hard on a strategy that had born little fruit at great cost according to many of his opponents in the Senate. But to be fair to even them, the results were intended to be hidden. It had been necessary. If Senators who knew more about wheat harvests and the bartering of spice could see so clearly his intentions, then the Keruh would have done so long ago.

Ares walked directly towards Aegina, and he was soon swallowed up in the crowd of Senators gathered by the great globe. Many of them heckled him with questions. The questions were the same as always. They were about the progress of the war, the skirmishes on the borders with Persia, his lateness for this briefing, the absence of the Kraken and the Fleet, or the cost of the war in monetary terms and in terms of loss of life. As in the Senate the day before, there was anger and fear in their voices. Ares ignored them, even when he was jostled and pushed, and continued on his path towards President Aegina.

His route to the President brought him close to Otrera, and as he approached her, her three Royal Guards looked down on him with disdain, his intrusion that morning still not forgotten, but they also moved aside. When Ares drew next to Otrera herself, she turned to face him, bowing her head gracefully, her delicate, long fingered hands allowing the edges of her cloak to part briefly. Revealed underneath was an outfit that resembled the type of clothes worn by an Atlantian soldier. The resemblance was fair, but the style was definitely Klysanthian. She wore a leather tunic that revealed far more than it hid, a white silk skirt that was worn too low but was still infinitely too short, and thigh length boots to complete it all. The boots could have been the most conservative items in her outfit, but with her long legs all they did was emphasis the exquisite shape of her exposed thighs. The whole outfit was completely unsuitable for the occasion and was only saved by the red cloak that enshrouded her. Ares bowed in return, not allowing the tantalisingly brief glimpse of Otrera’s generally exposed body to faze him.

Ares continued on to Aegina. Aetolus was standing beside her, his delight in Ares’s reception clear on his face. Finally, Ares faced his President and bowed gracefully. Almost instantly, the jeering voices died down and the Senators became still.

Aegina tipped her head in acknowledgement. “We have waited for you, Ares,” she said softly but with a hint of irritation. “Your absence at this time is confusing. I would have thought that you would be eager for this moment. For what reason have we been made to wait?”

Aetolus was quick to add his prompting. “Yes, tell us what kept the God of War from his most urgent appointment?”

Several other voices were raised in discontent at his late arrival. Ares ignored them as before. He also ignored Aetolus and spoke directly to Aegina.

“Pardon me, President. I was at Ephesus to give the Androktones their final instructions. My lateness is due to the death of Kel-Cid-An.”

Aegina’s reply was both chastising and dismissive. “That Kel-Cid-An should take his own life is not unexpected. That you should be late is unexpected and unwarranted.”

Ares was surprised by her bluntness while Aetolus glowed at the verbal punishment. Other Senators also murmured in surprise, although many more did so in agreement. But in contrast to before, there was now a much more subdued atmosphere in the great hall. It was left to Otrera to voice any defence for Ares. She spoke haughtily, her tinkling voice raised above the murmuring voices of the Senators.

“I find it callous that the President of Atlantis should be so indifferent to the passing of an ancient and powerful race.”

The murmuring voices stopped.

Aegina hardly glanced at Otrera. “My concern is for my own race, and for the millions of people who live on my world. They are ignorant of the doom that may overtake them. We are their only protection and Ares is their only saviour. His thoughts should be for them, and not for the colleague whose work is now done.”

Otrera dropped any pretence at diplomacy. “If my concern had been merely for my own race, my world would still be free while you and your millions would already be dead.”

“It is a lesson I have learned well,” Aegina replied pointedly.

The unpleasant silence grew intolerably long as Aegina avoided looking at Otrera, and the Klysanthian stared down at the very un-diplomatic President. Otrera broke the mood by sweeping her cloak about her and striding from the great hall, her Royal Guards hurrying after her. They scattered the shocked Senators as they left, the sound of their heels on the marble floor fading long after they had disappeared from view.

The Senators now looked at one another in bewilderment, their voices filled with confusion and dismay. It seemed to have no effect on Aegina. With the Klysanthians gone, she turned once more to Ares. “What are the positions of the fleets?”

Ares stared at his President angrily, and his answer reflected that anger. “Do you speak of our fleet, or the fleets belonging to the Klysanthians whose blood we still need to be spilled in our favour?”

His reply caused another hush in the great hall and even Aetolus looked on in surprise.

Aegina raised her head and looked Ares squarely in the eyes. “You think I was wrong to chastise Queen Otrera?”

“I think you were both wrong and selfish. Your insult was based on personal dislike, and not on the predicament we face. It was harsh and thoughtless.”

His strong words caused more than one Senator to gasp. But Aegina was unrepentant.

“And is your attitude to Otrera totally unbiased?” she countered.

“No,” Ares admitted. “But I would never let that interfere with my judgement, or with my control of the war. There is too much at stake.”

His final words were gravely spoken and Aegina had no answer. They stared at one another, surrounded in silence. They were servant and master, but in the end, it was the master that gave way.

Aegina bowed her head. “Then I am condemned by my ineptitude. I am guilty of being a simple woman. I am the President of Atlantis with the lives of millions on my conscience, but I am a woman none-the-less. It is little surprise then that I should allow the unbearable beauty and height of these visitors to our world to disrupt my thinking. But I find their very presence undermines my position, they undermine the position of every woman in Atlantis. I find them as distasteful as the men of Atlantis find them attractive. I will only be content when they leave Metropolis for a distant land.”

Aegina had briefly dropped the mantle of her Presidency. She had spoken honestly and with dignity, and like all those gathered in the great hall, Ares knew well the feelings that she described.

The Klysanthians alien beauty and low morals had been the cause of a growing tide of discontent among the female population in Atlantis. And at the heart of it was an increasing number of broken promises between erstwhile loved ones. The damage to these relationships was often permanent, and some had even come to blows. The Klysanthians had distanced themselves from such arguments, even when personally attacked. They just faded away and smiled invitingly at another.

Otrera herself had been dismissive.

“It is our way. What we offer, you are not forced to take.”

But who could refuse such an offer? To refrain required the strongest of wills or the deepest love. Not many were blessed with either of these commodities.

Ares bowed his head. “Forgive me, President. I forget my place and your humanity. The discord here is caused by the Klysanthians themselves, I admit. But their lack of self-control in love is balanced more than equally by their commitment and loyalty to their allies in war. Many of them have already died in brutal battles for which they are sadly unequipped. But they have never shied from such battles. Now their world is lost to them, and their remaining population is almost insignificant. But still they fight, committing forces and numbers they can ill afford to lose. Yes, they are unbearably beautiful, their height gives me a stiff neck whenever I have to deal with them, they wear elevated heels that make it worse, their clothes are filmsy, they have the attitude of Goddesses, the restraint of a spoiled child, and they walk on water. They are intolerable. But we need them. To insult Otrera so blatantly was unforgivable.”

Aegina closed her eyes, her thoughts her own. When she opened them again they were filled with sadness.

“Was my insult and resentment that clear?”

She had looked towards Ares for an answer, but it was Aetolus who spoke. And his words and tone surprised Ares.

“It was, President. As Ares has said, many of the Klysanthians have died for our cause. And even though I oppose this war, even I admit their commitment has been complete and unyielding. Ares spoke well, and you would be wise to heed his words.”

Aegina nodded. “Then I must go and apologise.”

Aetolus placed his hand on her arm. “I am Leader of the Senate. I will go to Queen Otrera and convey your apologies. I will return with her shortly.”

“Thank you, Aetolus. You are most kind. Tell Otrera that I will personally apologise when she returns to the great hall.”

Aetolus bowed and walked out of the great hall. Ares watched him leave, his attitude to his greatest critic subtly changed. He had always been convinced that Aetolus had opposed the war merely because of personal resentment. Aetolus had worked hard and long to become Leader of the Senate. It was common knowledge that becoming Leader of the Senate was a precursor to the appointment of the Presidency. Aegina herself had been the Leader of the Senate prior to her appointment. But since Ares had been made God of War, his stature in the Senate had grown considerably. It was now also common knowledge that if Aetolus did not become the next President of Atlantis when Aegina stood down, Ares most surely would. It was a situation that had pleased Ares far more for the resentment it caused in Aetolus than for his own ambition to become President. That Aetolus would speak in his favour was both a surprise and a revelation. From that moment on, Ares was convinced that Aetolus was the only true and rightful choice for the next President.

Aegina broke into his thoughts.

“Ares, while we wait for Otrera to return, reprise the progress of the war. We have wasted too much time already.”

Ares nodded. With a quick glance to the waiting Senators, he moved before the great globe.

“Hephaestus,” he called out. “Light the points as I speak.”

Hephaestus raised his hand in acknowledgement and then waved his technicians to their consoles.

The great globe already contained a three-dimensional view of the Edenite star system. Inside could be seen many dots that identified fleets and individual ships in movement. But until now, there were no colours identifying their allegiance.

Ares pointed up at the great globe. “The battle begins,” he began. “The Keruh have split their fleet into two. The larger part faces Memnon in open space. While nearer to Eden, the smaller part faces the Klysanthians.”

In the globe above and behind him, the tiny dots that made up the mighty fleets glowed into colourful life as he spoke. The colours gave away the true picture, and there were gasps at the size of the Keruh fleet.

“As you can see,” Ares continued. “The Keruh fleet is vast. All four Hives have combined their forces in the same star system for the first time. Their reasons for this are due to nothing less than hunger.” He turned to Hephaestus. “Give me the galactic map!”

The great globe swirled as the Edenite star system rapidly shrank and disappeared. The view continued to contract and move away at great speed until the entire spiral form of the galaxy was revealed. The view now stopped and more coloured lights appeared revealing the occupied territories of each opposing side. Also identified were the so far unaffected or neutral areas. There was a pattern to the coloured lights, a pattern hidden in three dimensions across vast distances, but it was a pattern Ares knew well.

“The success of the Androktones over the Keruh in land battles has drastically reduced the number of harvest worlds in their possession. Slowly but surely, their lines of supply have been cut. Now they are forced to seek out more food on distant worlds.”

One of the Senators spoke up. “Is this form of attack wise?” she asked. “The reports we have seen indicate that each world that is freed from their control they then attack with their fleets, reducing them to ashes.”

Ares held up his fist. “Exactly! We have concentrated on each world in turn, wiping out the Keruh on the surface and escaping through the portals even as the Keruh fleets arrive and begin their bombardment. It leaves the affected planets barren, or at worse, destroyed.”

Another Senator asked a question. “Would we not have been more wise to use the Androktones to protect our home worlds?”

Other voices were quickly raised in support of the question, and the debate grew heated.

“Yes! This approach is madness!”

“Recall the fleet!” another shouted. “Protect Atlantis, not some distant world we care nothing for!”

“Lokana and Klysanthia fell while you fought over lesser worlds!” a third Senator accused Ares, pointing his finger at him. “And like those lesser worlds they are now barren! Destroyed, you said! Is this the future for Atlantis?”

Ares was forced to raise his voice to be heard.

“The loss of Klysanthia was unfortunate!” he shouted. “But I have followed this strategy ever since the Androktones became available! I am convinced of its success!”

“But Klysanthia fell! We will be next!”

One of the angry Senators turned to their President. “Aegina! Command the Kraken to return! Order Memnon to bring the fleet home!”

Aegina was staring up at the lights in the globe. She didn’t answer. She didn’t answer because she was beginning to understand. She was beginning to see the pattern. As the rowdy Senators jostled around her, she spoke clearly above their voices.

“You have laid siege to them from afar. And now you offer them a carrot.”

The great hall fell silent as the Senators began to take in her remarks.

Ares smiled. He was able to speak more calmly again in the silence. “It is a carrot placed a long way from their home world, but it is a carrot they can ill refuse. Their Hives will soon be facing starvation, and if they cannot find another ripe harvest world the alliances between the four Hives will begin to crack. Once they begin to attack one another, their ability to fight this war will be over.”

“Is this what you wait for?” Aegina asked.

“No. My strategy is far more pro-active, but its final objective is shielded by this more obvious result.”

“Then explain.”

Ares glanced briefly at Hephaestus before he bowed gracefully to the President.

“As you command, President.”

Straightening up again, Ares began to address the gathered Senators as if lecturing to an audience in the amphitheatre.

“We all know that the success of the Keruh in this war has been due in part to their power in space. On land they were invincible. But the creation of the Androktones has now ended that dominance. Only in space do they still hold sway. Until now it has been impossible to engage their entire fleet in a full-scale battle. The fleets belonging to each of the four Hives have been spread throughout their shared territories, each preoccupied with protecting and securing their harvest worlds. The benefits of attacking them individually have always been doubtful. We may have lost too many ships, or left ourselves exposed elsewhere, a situation not lost on many of you gathered here today, and the subject of many debates in the Senate. So I have been content with minor skirmishes and hit and run missions. We have only attacked their ships in smaller numbers and at strategic points. Some of the engagements have been large, but none have been as large as what will take place at Eden.

“With their harvest worlds dwindling, and the attacks of the Androktones growing more effective, the Keruh need to harvest another world quickly. Finding one that is suitable we have made both difficult and easy for them. Eden is a young and isolated world, rich in life but with little significance or strategic value. Even its population is small. Before the arrival of the Tun-Sho-Lok, the Edenites lived in a feudal society scattered over the southern peninsula of one continent. They still live in this area, but now in four major centres of population. Kalahar and Nemen in the east, Jutlam City in the south and Elengrad in the centre. There are other smaller cities to the north and west, but beyond, nothing. They are the only sentient species on the planet, and the remainder of their world is nought but a natural garden where animals graze in peace.

“Eden has few allies and little presence on the galactic stage. But its physical isolation is what makes Eden perfect. There are no powerful worlds nearby to provide defence, and its fall would worry few of those still unaffected by the war. But to harvest Eden effectively, the Keruh must first ensure that the Host is free from attack.

“The Keruh may be primitive and their society cruel and harsh, but they are far from simple minded. They are also wise to the obvious outcome of our strategy; they know that starvation will lead them into civil war. But they also know that as soon as the Host lands on Eden the Androktones will follow. They have responded in the only way they could. They will surround Eden with their fleets; they will bombard the surface heavily as soon as the Androktones land. They have to do this, it is the only way they can protect the Host. All four Hives need Eden. All four Hives are present there. Their entire fleet gathers there. To protect the Host, to harvest Eden effectively, they have to restrict the attacks of the Androktones. And the only way they can do that is by heavy bombardment from space. The Androktones have the advantage on the ground, but the Keruh have the advantage in space. If all goes well, Memnon will take that advantage from them this day.”

As Ares had finished, he noticed the heads of the Senators turn. He looked as they looked. Otrera and her Royal Guards had returned to the great hall with Aetolus. Ares watched her walk towards Aegina, her expression haughty and filled with disdain. Everything about her demeanour, her expression, the way she walked with her head held high, it all made her intentions very clear. Ares quickly made up his mind. If Otrera was going to punish Aegina for her remarks, he wouldn’t keep silent. As Otrera came to stand before the President, Ares stepped forward.

“Otrera. Now is not the time to let vanity rule your mind.”

Otrera looked at Ares, anger in her eyes and harsh words on her lips. But before she could reply, she was stopped by Aegina, who quickly moved closer to her and took her tiny hands in hers. Otrera was surprised by the warmth and strength of her grip, and she looked down at the sincere expression on Aegina’s face. Aegina had to crane her neck to look back up at Otrera, but her voice never wavered or hesitated.

“Ares is right, Queen Otrera. I spoke badly to you earlier, and I apologise. My resentment is due to the differences in our two races, and not in your attitude to the war or your loyalty to the Tun-Sho-Lok. Like them, you have been a strong and constant ally to the people of Atlantis, and my words were unacceptable. The loss of the Tun-Sho-Lok is a tragedy. Forgive me for my insensitivity.”

All the anger left Otrera, and to the surprise of everyone present, she suddenly dropped down onto her knees. Now Aegina looked down on her and it was Otrera’s turn to look up.

“President Aegina, Senators of Atlantis. I am your guest. My people and I have come here to seek your support and the sanctity of your world. That there are differences in our physique and in our societies is not unexpected. But we are both wise and civilised. I will command my sisters to curb their appetites. In return I beg only for greater understanding. I have no wish to cause strife among your people. In honesty, if you cast us out, there is no other place that we can go.”

Aegina embraced Otrera, both women becoming tearful, and the Senators gathered around and clapped in their support.

Ares watched in relief as Otrera climbed back to her feet. It had been a worrying moment, but both women had seized the opportunity to increase their standing and make amends.

The brief interlude of joy didn’t last. One of the other Senators had quickly explained Ares plan to Aetolus, and now the Leader of the Senate came to stand before him.

“You will risk our entire fleet in this one battle?” he asked in a loud voice.

Ares nodded. “It is the goal I have sought with my strategy. Now we have their fleet massed together in one place we have the chance to eliminate them as a fighting force. It is a chance we cannot afford to let slip by.”

“And this is the final object of your strategy?”

“Part of it only, but an essential part of it.”

Before Aetolus could question him further, Ares turned and called out to Hephaestus. “Hephaestus! Light up the carrot!”

As before, the great globe swirled with movement. This time the stars rushed towards them as the galaxy expanded and the image focussed on a distant dot. The dot swept forward, became a star system and then a planet with continents and oceans surrounded with swirling clouds. Abruptly, the movement ceased, and Eden filled the great globe. It looked serene and calm. But there was a blemish. On the southern peninsular of one of the continents was a dark, round spot.

Hephaestus came to stand beside Ares and handed him a light stick. Ares took the light stick and pointed at the dark, round spot on the surface of Eden. He spoke in a raised voice, lecturing to the gathered Senators once more. He did it to command their attention, but also to prevent Aetolus from thinking about heckling him.

“This is the Keruh Host. They have been pouring through their portal at Elengrad for several hours now. It is the perfect point of entry, in the centre of the populated area. Their intention is to strip the planet as quickly as they can before we can land a force to oppose them. In a few more hours the entire Keruh Host will be on Eden. It is the time and the moment we have waited for. Spread out on the ground, the Host will be exposed and vulnerable. The Keruh know this, they expect an attack. We will not disappoint them.”

Ares pointed his light stick at Elengrad in the centre of the dark spot.

“Once the battle in space begins, we will jam the Keruh portal at Elengrad and reopen the Edenite RNP at Jutlam City.”

The light stick now pointed to a tiny irregular shape to the south.

“Here a force of the Androktones will enter, a large force, large enough for the Keruh to believe that the Host is at risk. The Keruh know that if they lose the Host on Eden, then they lose everything. They cannot afford to let this happen. With their portal offline, and the Androktones in attack, it will be the scenario that the Keruh fear most. Their ships must give support to the Host; they must break through our forces, they cannot shy away from the battle. To lose is to lose everything. The battle will be fierce, the losses on both sides heavy, but that is to our advantage. By the time the Keruh realise that the Androktones in attack are too few to overcome the Host, it will be too late. Their fleets will be smashed and their dominance in space broken.”

Ares lowered his light stick and turned to face Aetolus, speaking directly to him.

“As I said before, Eden is the perfect carrot. But it’s isolated position takes the Keruh fleets far away from their home world. Even if some of their ships survive, they will be too far away to make a difference.”

There was sudden silence when Ares finished; even Aetolus just stared back at him as if uncomprehending. It was left to Aegina to state the idea that was now forming in everyone’s minds. She moved away from Otrera and spoke up clearly.

“You will send the majority of the Androktones to attack the Keruh home world.”

Ares nodded.

Aetolus now turned a worried face to Aegina and there were subdued murmurings among the Senators. But no one raised their voice in dissent, not even Aetolus himself as he waited for her final judgement.

Aegina sighed, the weight of the moment upon her. She could stop it now if she wished. She could halt what was to happen and turn their path another way. A weaker person would have done so. The President of Atlantis did not.

“Proceed with your plan, Ares. You have my blessing and the approval of the Senate. We all pray that the Gods are with you, with Memnon, and all who fight for our cause this day.”

Ares bowed. “I thank you for your wisdom and your approval.”

When Ares straightened up, it was to find Aegina staring at him with far less than approval in her eyes.

“Be warned, Ares. What you envisage this day may bring victory over the Keruh, but it could also bring destruction to us all. If their fleet is not destroyed, if their control of the Ring is not broken, then their wrath will be turned on Atlantis. We will have no ships to guard our skies, no Androktones to fight our battles. Like the Keruh home world you intend to attack, Atlantis will be exposed and vulnerable.”

There were murmurs of agreement from the other Senators, and Ares could sense their rising fear. Aetolus sensed it too, and he seized his moment.

“If just one of the Keruh ships survives and seeks us out, all could be lost! How will the victory feel then when our city burns and our people lay dead?”

The other Senators jeered in support, the fear now clear in their voices and their expressions. Aetolus stirred them some more.

“We should make every effort to protect Atlantis! We should recall some of our ships now!”

Ares became alarmed. “That would weaken our fleet!”

“Atlantis is important!”

Aegina suddenly said, “Atlantis is not important.”

Aetolus and the other Senators looked at her aghast, and Aetolus said in awe, “You would dismiss our world, our civilization, our home, with such ease?”

“Our nation is not Atlantis. We are Atlantis. And wheresoever we dwell, that place is Atlantis. My decision is made. Order the evacuation of Metropolis. Pass the word to the people; Atlantis is to be abandoned and the portal to the outside world closed. If the Keruh should come here with vengeance in their hearts, it will only be our architecture that will feel their wrath.”

“But they will destroy everything!” a Senator cried in dismay.

“There is nothing to destroy but stone,” was the calm reply.

Aetolus was more insistent. “They will search us out!” he said, clenching his raised fist.

“And what will they find on our world?” Aegina said to him. “A disparate group of nations vying for supremacy with swords and shields. There is no technology beyond these shores. The Keruh will find nothing except the obvious; that we have fled our world. No, Aetolus, our security lies in the simplicity of our world. What we will lose we can afford to do with out. What we have learned we will take with us. The debate is over; I will not be swayed from this, Aetolus. Contact our allies in the east, at Troy and Ephesus. Pass the word, begin the evacuation.”

There was a lengthy pause as Aetolus and Aegina stared into one another’s eyes. Finally, Aetolus closed his eyes and bowed gracefully before his President. Backing away slowly, he turned, opened his eyes, and rose to his full height. With calm dignity, Aetolus now beckoned his aides to approach him and gave them the instructions that would bring to an end the most advanced and civilised nation the world would ever see.


CHAPTER THIRTEEN

ALIVE AGAIN

The reservoir was two miles northeast of the road. The countryside was undulating and hilly, but the ground was reasonably firm. Within a short distance the road was completely hidden from view, and in the darkness the Klysanthians were instantly lost, but Breda seemed to know where she was going. Trotting along together with Breda leading the way it took them nearly an hour. Breda could have run faster, but the Klysanthians couldn’t, and by the time they had reached the edge of the reservoir, they were all exhausted again.

The Klysanthians drank heavily before they started to wash. They were so tired, so weak, some of them could hardly move. They just lay on the edge of the bank in a line, their heads down on the surface of the water, sipping and slurping thirstily. Breda also drank from the reservoir. Before today she would never have dreamed that she would do such a thing. Now, after all that had happened, she drank without hesitation. And the huge gulps she drank dwarfed the quick and tiny sips of the Klysanthians.

Having drunk and briefly rested, Anaxilea urged them all to wash.

For the Klysanthians, washing was an unusual process. They all took off their boots and climbed onto the water, bobbing about on the indented surface. Then they knelt down, diving their heads through the surface tension and sweeping the water over their bodies. None of them sank. The water ran over them in great globules, their uniforms became wet, but their skin did not. They took turns helping one another. While one dipped and splashed the water over themselves, another would rub at the black muck furiously, diluting it with the water and then sitting back while it was rinsed away with another quick dip. They did it over and over again like little birds, the water flying and splashing. Only when the black stuff was all finally washed away did they reverse roles and repeat the whole process.

Breda watched them in the darkness as she stood in the shallow water near the bank trying to scrape all the black stuff off her own skin and clothes. She was sure they were sitting on top of the water rather than in it. Maybe it was just a trick of the light? She threw some more water at the muck on her arm. It was so thick and sticky that she finally gave up and sat down in the water. Like the Klysanthians, she splashed the water all over herself, rubbing it into her skin and her clothes. The worse part was getting it out of her long hair. She was still trying to wash it out when she felt other hands helping her. She looked up to see Clyemne bending over her.

With out doubt, Clyemne was standing barefoot on the water and not in it.

“You’re standing on the water,” Breda said simply.

Clyemne straightened up and nodded. “It is because a substance in our skin prevents the surface tension of the water from being broken. Many of our clothes and the uniform we wear quickly become permeated with this same substance. If you had soap, we would sink and become wet.”

Breda stared at her for a moment. The sound of Clyemne’s voice was so angelic, so delicately and musically perfect, that it almost mesmerised her. Clyemne could have spoken about anything and Breda would have been content to just listen to her.

Breda held out the matted strands of her hair. “If I had soap I might be able to get this stuff out.”

“Here, I will help you.”

Clyemne flexed and curled her long fingers and sat down on the water behind Breda, her very long and slender legs stretched out on either side of her. She placed her hands gently on Breda’s shoulders, her long fingers fanning out, and slowly pulled her backwards into her lap. Then she poked her hands into the water, scooped some up in her palms, and began gently massaging it into Breda’s hair, mixing it with the black sticky substance, gradually diluting it and washing it away. She was gentle, rhythmic and patient. Again and again she scooped up the water and massaged and washed Breda’s hair.

It felt strangely relaxing for Breda, having her hair washed that way. The gentle movements of Clyemne’s fingers against her scalp were soothing. It made her feel alive again.

“Thank you,” she said.

“There is nothing to thank. We wash one another. I am clean, you are not.”

“But I’m not one of you, I’m not Klysanthian.”

“You are alive as we are. We all deserve some comfort and love.”

There was silence as Clyemne continued to wash Breda’s hair. When it was nearly clean, Clyemne asked her a question.

“You understood the need to break the com-units even though you do not speak our language. How was this?”

Breda glanced up at her. “It was the sound of that voice. I just knew it was them.”

Clyemne nodded. “Ah, yes. It is easy to fear them.”

“I’ve been scared all day,” Breda admitted. “Until now. You saved my life. You and the others.”

“And we owe you a lot also. We would all be dead without you.”

Breda’s hair was finally clean. Now Clyemne began to help Breda wash her clothes and her body. She moved her position, kneeling beside Breda on the water. As the water splashed over her, Breda smiled at the sight of Clyemne bobbing up and down on the agitated surface.

“You seem light as a feather, and you’re so tiny, even though you’re the same height as me.”

Clyemne nodded. “Our build and height stems from the gravity and atmosphere on our world, as your physique is based on your own world. On Klysanthia, the gravity is less and the air pressure lower. This allows us to grow tall and slender. Here on your world everything is heavier and the air pressure is higher, so you have grown sturdy and strong. On my world you would find yourself light as a feather and stronger than all. But the air would be too thin for you. On your world I feel heavy and weak, and the air is too thick.”

“What are you doing here?” Breda suddenly asked her. “What happened to you?”

“We came to fight the Keruh and we were shot down,” Clyemne answered. It was best to keep things simple.

“Were you on your own?”

“No. There are other ships in your star system. They gather together to fight the ships of the Keruh. There will be a big battle.” Clyemne looked up at the stars in the night sky. “Now we will miss it.”

She spoke wistfully, but it was lost on Breda.

“It’s strange how things are, isn’t it? You get shot down and end up here and I was just running about without thinking. I was probably going around in circles. All those people dying, the fire and smoke, it was very confusing. Very frightening.”

Clyemne felt Breda’s body grow tense. “Don’t think about it. It was a bad time. And not just for you. There were ninety-eight of us on board the Furnace Of Charity. Now only those you see here are left. Don’t think about it.”

Breda gradually relaxed again. But her curiosity about her new friends was growing.

“If you are all that’s left, who was that voice I heard? The woman’s voice?”

“That was Scyleia. She is Captain of the Gate Of Heaven, another ship of the Klysanthian Second Fleet. Her ship must be down somewhere to the north. That was why Scyleia told us to travel that way. It could be that the Gate Of Heaven is still able to fly. If it is we can escape.”

Breda had a twinge of fear. “What about me?”

“Do not worry. If you wish, you can come with us.” Clyemne sat back on her knees and looked at Breda in the dark. “You look much better now that you are clean. Come. We are finished and it is cold here for you in the water. You should sit on the bank and rest until you are dry. We all should rest while we can. Anaxilea will want us to move on soon.”

Clyemne stood up on the water and waited while Breda also got up.

Breda shook the water from her body, hair, and clothes. When she was done, she looked up at Clyemne. The Klysanthian was a foot taller with the support of the water under her bare feet.

“Is Anaxilea your Captain? Like Scyleia?” Breda asked her.

Clyemne nodded. “Yes.” She held out her hand and Breda took it.

They began to walk towards the others who now sat or lay on the water near the bank resting. Breda still had another question to ask.

“Who was that other one she was worrying about? Phoebe, was it?”

Clyemne pulled Breda to a halt, bent down, and placed her fingers on Breda’s lips. “Do not speak of her near to Anaxilea,” she whispered delicately but harshly.

Breda was surprised by the anxious tone in Clyemne’s voice. “Why ever not?” she whispered back when the fingers were removed.

“Because she is probably dead, and because she was Anaxilea’s daughter.”

-o-

On the abandoned and deserted road to Hilbrok, over thirty Warriors of the Keruh Host milled about. Some moved around on the edges of the road, searching the ground, while others wandered around a short distance away, almost lost from view. Still more stood grouped together in the middle of the road itself.

The Seventy-Ninth of the Telen’Gal stood amid a circle of Warriors in the middle of the road. He held a fragment of one of the crushed com-units in his delicate fingers. His other, much larger hand, gripped his double bladed axe.

“They were here,” he hissed and clicked. “They were at least eight in number.”

“There may have been more than the number of com-units would suggest,” another Warrior of the Host pointed out.

The Seventy-Ninth agreed. “Their absolute numbers are difficult to ascertain, noble Eighty-Fifth, as is the exact route they took.”

“They left the road here, that is certain.”

“Yes. But in which direction?”

The Eighty-Fifth looked around in the darkness. “They cannot travel fast in this gravity, the Host will soon overtake them.”

“That must not happen. They must be questioned before they are consumed. Their strategy here is unknown to us. That is our priority. The Klysanthians also communicated with a grounded ship. It must be eliminated. Find a Gatherer. We must track them.”

The Eighty-Fifth bowed. “It shall be made so.” He swept his smaller hand diagonally before him and then trotted away into the darkness.

As soon as the Eighty-Fifth had gone, the Seventy-Ninth turned to the other Warriors who still waited patiently.

“The words spoken from the second radio source confirm that it came from a vehicle. Only those that have been abandoned have we passed on our journey here, so it must still lie ahead of us.” The Seventy-Ninth moved his bulk before another Warrior. “Take ten Warriors and retrieve one of the abandoned vehicles we passed. Return it to functionality and pilot it north along this road. Find the vehicle that contained that radio source. Detain the occupants until I can question them.”

The Warrior bowed and swept his smaller hand before him.

“It shall be made so,” he hissed, and turned away. Without another word being spoken, ten Warriors followed him as he ran back along the road, their large bobbing forms disappearing quickly into the darkness.

No sooner had these Warriors disappeared when the Eighty-Fifth returned with a Gatherer.

The Seventy-Ninth looked up at the larger figure of the Gatherer who now waited patiently.

“Follow the scent that leaves the road here. Lead us to the Klysanthians before your brothers overtake them.”

The Gatherer bowed its head low over the road. It hissed loudly, moving its large jaws over the road surface, as if tasting the concrete itself. Saliva dripped from its mouth and it left a trail on the road as it moved slowly towards the verge. Suddenly it straightened up and ran from the road at a swift pace, all the Warriors chasing after it.

-o-

On another part of the road to Hilbrok complete panic reigned. The Host spread out across the road in a wide arc, a thick dense mass of Gatherers and their entourage of Receivers. The trucks they overtook in their advance were quickly stripped and consumed, and the Edenite survivors were hunted down and snatched away. What had once been a peaceful and beautiful landscape was now a dreadful scene of horror with gross, nightmare images stalking the land. The Receivers were now large and fat, the Gatherers that served them still running back to stuff even more booty into their gaping mouths.

Edenites ran everywhere, screaming and howling, men and women alike, pursued by the voracious Gatherers. By now all sense of goodness had been cast off by the Edenites. The wounded were abandoned, children cast aside, as all sought one goal: Escape, at any cost.

They all failed.

As the advancing arc of the Host moved across the land, nothing living was left behind. It was an all-encompassing scythe that cleared everything in its path. Only the metal skeletons of the stripped trucks were left behind, a sad and pitiful sight. But a more pitiful sight was what lay ahead of the Host.

All along the road was a snarling, horn blowing, jam of trucks, nose to tail. The soldiers and drivers that still survived did their best, but there was no resistance in them now, no ordered chain of command. Even the jets had stopped coming. Each driver and truck with its group of survivors with their lone soldier was now an individual and isolated unit lost in the mass. They all did the same thing at the same time, they all began to turn their trucks around and head back to Jutlam City, but only succeeded in jamming up the road even more as each one got in the others way. Soon the road was filled with trucks all pointing in different directions, and those that did manage to turn around and accelerate away very quickly hit others attempting to turn around behind them. And all the time the Host moved closer and closer.

The survivors in the trucks quickly panicked. They jumped out and ran into the darkness. Some of the soldiers tried to stop them; they tried to call them back. It was no use. Fear was now a physical presence in the air. It was also a visible one in the distance that jumped and sprang from truck to truck.

In desperation, trucks ran across country, bouncing over the undulating land. But many soon got bogged down, their wheels sinking into the soft earth under their weight. The drivers kept trying to free them as the Gatherers approached, but the people in the back of the trucks soon lost their nerve and jumped out. And once on foot, in the dark, their fate was sealed.

Despite the losses, some trucks did get away, either across the countryside, or back along the road. And further back, nearer to the outskirts of Jutlam City, where the urban sprawl replaced the open countryside, trucks poured along every road and street. Here, for now at least, was a brief respite. But it would be short-lived. Jutlam City was not a safe haven, and what was yet to come would be even worse than what emerged from the portal at Elengrad.

-o-

Gusta had never been in this part of the city. The darkness even made the streets she knew unfamiliar, but here among the warehouses and industrial buildings, she was completely lost. All she knew was that they had been heading north. It had been a nerve-wracking experience.

The Corporal had been cautious and incisive. He had led them down side streets, across intersections at a trot, keeping always to the edges of the buildings. It was when they crossed the squares that Gusta had felt her heart in her mouth. Even keeping to the low walls around the gardens left her feeling horribly exposed. She was happier in the shadows of the buildings, hiding in the nooks and crannies like a small and frightened animal. Her fear was well founded.

They had seen several Keruh Warriors on their journey. Many of them hid in the ruins of the buildings they had brought down. It was difficult to see them. But then one or two of them would dart across the street in front of them with that familiar bobbing gait, running from one building to another. In contrast, others marched purposefully and openly in columns from one street to the next. And always there were bodies. They were everywhere, soldiers, civilians, Keruh Warriors; the streets were littered with them. Many of them were horribly mutilated.

None of it was new to Gusta; she had seen it all before when she and Didi had left the Embassy that afternoon. It had all happened over such a short space of time and yet it was already familiar. The fact that it was familiar made it all the more horrible. It made the journey even more unpleasant.

Gusta tried to ignore the bodies, tried not to see them. The darkness helped. But the Keruh couldn’t be ignored. Whenever they appeared, the Corporal would stop them all in their tracks. Sometimes he would signal them to retreat, to turn and head in another direction. Other times they would just lie low in the shadows and wait for the Warriors to go passed, their rifles held ready. But it wasn’t just the Keruh they had to fear.

Twice an Edenite ship had appeared in the dark skies above them. Gusta had wondered if they could signal to it. But in answer it fired down at a street nearby, causing an explosion that brought down a building and nearly buried them in falling masonry.

Gusta knew that the ship wasn’t firing at them. It was obviously the reason why the Keruh hid in the buildings. But it meant that they had to stop and change direction whenever a ship appeared.

They were now hiding from their friends as well as from their enemies.

It seemed to take an age to travel across the city. Most of it was silent and empty. But none of the city blocks had survived untouched. They were always passing ruined buildings. Some were merely damaged, their windows broken, or walls pockmarked with holes. Others burned furiously, lighting up the night sky, while still more lay in silent ruin, just empty walls like blackened and crooked fingers poking up at the sky with nothing but rubble in between. Even the trees that lined the streets were blackened and dead.

It was so sad to see the city like this. It made Gusta cry. For most of their journey, Gusta had ran with silent tears in her eyes. She cried for the people, for the city, for herself, and for the whole of their world.

When they finally reached the northern outskirts of the city, Gusta was completely lost. She was also very tired, and her back ached from running most of the way bent double. She wasn’t the only one who was tired. Pedomoner had found it difficult to keep up with his wounded leg. Even with the other soldier, Eastomoner, to help him, he had begun to fall back. Even now they all waited for him as they crouched down in the shadow of a large warehouse. The Corporal was annoyed at the delay, but Kiki said what they were all thinking.

“We need to rest!” he called out in a loud whisper. “We’ve come a long way!”

“Not far enough!” The Corporal hissed back at him.

Didi said, “I don’t know about the rest of you, but we aren’t used to this. We’re tired, and Pedomoner isn’t going to get much further with that leg.”

One of the other soldiers joined in. “He’s right, Corp. We could all do with a break.”

The Corporal looked annoyed, but he gave in. “Alright, Klemunus! Check inside this warehouse! See if it’s clear!”

The soldier who had spoken now jumped up and ran around the building to one of the windows. He peered inside and then went further along to the door. By the time he came back, Pedomoner, Eastomoner and Altus had caught up. Pedomoner didn’t look too well. He collapsed down, his face filled with pain as he straightened his leg.

The Corporal turned to Klemunus. “Well?”

“It looks clear, but the door’s locked.”

“Ganatus! Go with Klemunus and get that door open! And do it quietly!”

“Yes, Corp!”

After a lot of scraping and creaking, the door was prized open and they all filed in. The warehouse was stacked high with electrical goods, all in white boxes emblazoned with colourful brand names that Gusta knew so well. They all seemed so unimportant now.

The Corporal bossed them all as usual. “This way, all of you! Away from the windows! Altus! Take the first watch! Eastomoner! Check the office! Someone help Pedomoner!”

The telephones in the office didn’t work. None of them had expected them to. It was the same as in the hotel and department store. All the power was off and the warehouse was in darkness. It was eerie and silent, the shadows hiding everything from discarded packing cases to large lifting trucks. Even a clipboard with transit documents lay on the floor. Everything had just been left where it was.

They eventually came to rest in an aisle in the middle of the stacked boxes. It kept them out of view from any of the windows. It felt sort of safe. They all collapsed down gratefully. Didi opened his holdall and the extra bottles of water were passed round. They all drank and gasped.

“We’re going to need some more of these,” Didi told the Corporal.

“What about the food?”

“That we have enough of for now. But after another day, day and a half, we’ll need more.”

“Okay.” The Corporal looked at his men. “Whatever you lads have stuck in your pockets, eat that first.”

With a lot of fidgeting and shuffling in the dark, all the food that had been crammed into pockets was retrieved and eaten. Most of it was fruit, but some had stuffed cooked meats into their pockets and spent time brushing off the fluff before eating.

Didi smiled to himself in the dark and handed Gusta and Kiki some of the meat he had taken from the store and wrapped carefully. He also gave some to Pedomoner. The wounded soldier looked exhausted.

“Are you alright?” Didi asked him.

“Yeah, it just hurts that’s all,” Pedomoner replied as he took a bite. “And I’m fed up of being in the dark.”

Gusta said, “We’ve got torches and candles in one of the bags.”

Eastomoner sat up. “Which one?”

Gusta pointed and the holdall was hastily opened. When a torch came out and flashed into life, the Corporal quickly spoke up.

“Put that out!”

“But, Corp?”

“No! The beam will carry! Use the candles! Save the torches for emergencies outside.”

They did as he said, and soon several candles lit the circle of people as they ate.

Kiki said, “All we need now is a fire and this would be quite cosy.”

There were smiles all round, and one or two of the soldiers laughed. The Corporal spoiled it.

“I think there are enough fires in the city tonight. Eastomoner! Go and relieve Altus on watch! He needs to party, too!”

“Yes, Corp,” Eastomoner said rather forlornly. He dragged himself to his feet and disappeared into the shadows.

Didi watched the Corporal sitting opposite to him. He seemed older than the other soldiers, and it was obvious they all respected him. And so far, he had done everything right.

“How long have you been a Corporal?” he asked him.

“Too long. I was a Sergeant once. But I got into a fight in a bar.” He shrugged. “Put it down to experience.”

“Have you been in a battle before?”

The Corporal laughed, but there was no humour in it. “Have any of us? We’re an army that has never fought any wars! It’s a joke, really! We’re all show and bravado, but when it comes to killing, we’re no more experienced than you!”

Gusta suddenly said, “I’m glad! I’m glad you aren’t seasoned killers! I’m glad you never fought in a war!”

“You wouldn’t be saying that if you knew how badly we were doing!” the Corporal told her. “They’re killing us, lady! We’re losing this war, and losing it fast!”

“But that’s not the point!”

The Corporal laughed again. “Not the point? Of course it’s the bloody point!”

“No it’s not!” Gusta said forcefully, leaning forward. “We’re not like them! We’ve never enslaved anyone, never burned cities or killed innocents! Our hands are clean! Your hands are clean! That’s what’s important!”

There was a brief silence after Gusta had spoken as they all sat and contemplated what she had said. Even the Corporal seemed to mellow.

“Well, I hope so, lady,” he said with a sigh. “Because when this is all over a clean conscience is about the only thing we’re going to have left.”

Altus came to join them after that. The Corporal immediately questioned him.

“Anything to report?”

Altus shook his head and sat down. “It’s as quiet as the grave out there.”

Klemunus handed him a bottle of water and Kiki gave him something to eat. Altus nodded in thanks.

Didi squeezed Gusta’s hand. He was proud of her. She looked up at him in the flickering candlelight.

“Am I a fool for thinking like that?”

“No, of course not!” he told her. “You’re right. At heart we are a good people. Maybe we should have chosen sides earlier, but the Ruling Council knew our weakness. War is not our best industry; even the Corporal here knows that. They tried to keep us out of the war, but we all know now that that was probably a hopeless task. The Keruh were going to come here sooner or later. We just have to suffer it and hope that we can survive.”

“But can we survive?”

He squeezed her hand again. “We have to hope so.”

She moved closer and Didi put his arm around her. Kiki watched them. He was quietly jealous. It was amazing how Breda looked so much like her mother. He missed her terribly.

“Where do we go from here?” he suddenly asked.

The Corporal took a deep breath and sighed. “Well, we’ll never get to Hilbrok on foot, that’s for sure.”

“Are there any air transports?”

“None that will fly. The Keruh took out all the landing pads and the airport right at the beginning. Only a couple of passenger transports got out before they started shooting them down. Now anything in the air is going to get shot at by both sides.”

An idea suddenly came to Gusta. “Can’t we use the rapid transit system?”

The Corporal shook his head and Klemunus said, “All the power is off, remember?”

The Corporal quickly added, “Forget that. A few thousand people were trapped down there when all this happened. They thought they could get out that way as well. Most of them are still down there. Or they were. The Keruh love the tunnels, it’s like home to them. They’ve been using the system to move around the city all day.”

Gusta felt stupid. It was a sudden thought that she just blurted out. Thinking about it for just a second longer should have made her realise what a stupid idea it was. But she didn’t think. That she wasn’t the only one to make that mistake didn’t console her. Neither did the hug Didi gave her. Instead the visions of what it must have been like for the people trapped in the underground tunnels and on the stranded trains flitted through her mind. It made her feel even more depressed.

The Corporal pulled his map from a pocket inside his armour. “We still have to find another means of transport,” he said as he unfolded it. “Most of the people who got out of the city in their own vehicles did so early on. After that the jams and the panic started. The only routes clear were the ones we kept open. But even they’ll be risky now, as you’ve seen.”

He laid out the map on the floor between them. Everyone leaned forward as he pointed to a northern section of the city. It was close to the red route that eventually led to Hilbrok.

“This is where we are now,” he went on. “We’ll stay here a bit longer, then head further north.” He traced the route with his finger. “We have to get clear of the Keruh while we’re still on foot. Once we get out in the suburbs we can start looking for a vehicle, something big enough to take us all. Then we can move faster.”

Gusta thought about Tipi and Breda. Didi must have been doing the same, because he quickly pointed to a part of the map. “Can we pass the College of Learning?”

The Corporal thought about it. “I don’t see why not. It’s not too far off our route.” He looked up at them both. “You two got a kid there?”

Didi nodded. “Our boy.”

“He’s probably been evacuated by now, you know.”

Gusta said, “Yes, but if we go passed, then we’ll know for sure.”

“Okay.”

It was quickly settled. Didi and Gusta hugged in celebration.

Ganatus pointed at another section of the map near to their route. “The bus depot is here. If we can find one of those small electric city buses, that would be much better than anything we might find in a suburb.”

Altus agreed with him. “Yeah! They’re pretty quick, and quiet too!”

The Corporal wasn’t so enthusiastic. “And what makes you think any of them will be fully charged?”

Ganatus said, “You forget, Corp, I used to work for the bus company before I started my public service. They always keep the buses on charge when they’re in the depot. If we can find one, it’ll be charged. And I can drive it.”

The Corporal nodded. “Okay.” He began to fold up his map. “Klemunus! You’re on watch in ten minutes! Get some rest, all of you! We move in half an hour!”


CHAPTER FOURTEEN

THE PERFECT KISS

With the approval of the Senate now obtained, Ares turned and nodded to Hephaestus. Hephaestus bowed gracefully and signalled to his anxious technicians. In truth, there was more relief in their minds than worry. If the Senate had not agreed to proceed, it would have been far harder to withdraw their forces. Memnon already had his orders, the Atlantian Fleet was already poised for attack and the Klysanthians had already begun the bombardment of Eden. Everything was going as planned. All they needed to do now was to wait for the right moment to release the Androktones.

The great hall was hushed as President Aegina, Queen Otrera and the gathered Senators watched the great globe in anticipation. All they could see were the tiny dots slowly coming together. The calmness in the great hall was mirrored within the great globe, where, in the blackness of space, two equal forces rushed upon one another in relentless silence. But the silence and serenity of space was about to be broken, and a prelude to the anarchy that would unfold was being played out inside each tiny insignificant dot.

-o-

Aboard the Kraken, Memnon was shouting at Telephus.

“Contact the Olympus! The time for deception is over! Have Zeus reduce speed or he will reach our foe ahead of us!”

“I’m trying, Captain!” Telephus called back, his fingers dancing over the console in front of him. “He approaches them like a battering ram!”

“It is the Titan, Hydra, Pegasus and Medusa who will be battered!”

Telephus looked up in dismay. “The Olympus doesn’t respond!”

Memnon smacked the arm of his command chair. “Damn him! Contact the four ships who follow him, signal them to reduce speed and await the main fleet!”

“Sending the signals now, Captain!” There was a brief pause, and then Telephus looked up. “The Hydra has acknowledged the signal; the Pegasus too.”

“And the Titan and the Medusa?”

Telephus shook his head.

Memnon roared his anger then shouted more commands. “Make to all ships! Increase speed by a further ten points!” He twisted in his chair. “Antilochus! Make it so for the Kraken! We must overhaul the Olympus before the first intersection!”

-o-

Aboard the Keruh Flagship there was a contrasting air of calmness, but there was little serenity in the mind of the First of the Mysan’Taf as he looked down at the mass of blips rushing towards one another on the astrogator screen.

“Their numbers are far greater than we anticipated,” he hissed and clicked, his movements and agitation clearly indicating his anxiety.

Standing among his bodyguard, the Dominant showed no such doubts as to the outcome of the battle.

“Their numbers are immaterial. Several times in the past they have outnumbered our forces but have failed to take advantage.”

“Maybe that has been their intent. Never before have our combined fleets opposed one another on this scale. They may have sought our overconfidence in order to obtain this engagement.”

“As usual, you are suspicious and hint at caution. This is a valuable trait in the decision making process, and it is for this reason that you are First. I respect your views, but on this occasion you give the Atlantians far more credit for subterfuge than they possess. The reason for this engagement is ours, not theirs. We must protect the Host on Eden. The only threat is from the Assassin-Drones, but even they are vulnerable to attack from the air. They seek to eliminate that vulnerability. Their strategy is commendable, but their technique is lacking cohesion. Even now their eagerness for battle disrupts their formation.” The Dominant swept his smaller hand diagonally before him. “Proceed to the first intersection.”

The First repeated the gesture and then bowed. “It shall be made so.”

-o-

On the Prometheus, Aeolus bounded onto the bridge. He looked dishevelled and dirty. He had been in Engineering helping with the repairs. Now he threw himself into his command chair.

“Peleus! Sound battle-stations! Tyro! Close all bulkhead doors! Glaucus! Give me all the speed you can muster! I will not have the Prometheus left behind!”

The Prometheus surged forward, the glow from one of it’s engines lesser than that of the others, the battered and scarred hull giving testament to the internal damage. At the front, her blacked and dented eye gave the expression of anger on her painted face an added menace. It was an expression mirrored by Aeolus as he sat on the bridge. This was not how he had intended to go into battle. The Prometheus was now the very last of the Atlantian vessels, her wounded engine vibrating and filling the ship with an agonising rattle as she tried to match their speed. Aeolus wanted desperately to catch up before the Keruh were engaged. If they were left behind, they would have no covering fire from their own fleet. But despite their efforts, the Prometheus continued to slip back as the Atlantian Fleet increased their speed even further, accelerating towards the fast approaching Keruh Fleet.

-o-

Ahead of the Atlantian Fleet, the Hydra and Pegasus slowed, while further ahead the Olympus, Titan and Medusa forged ahead on their own like an arrow.

Aboard the Olympus, Zeus stared at the mass of ships bearing down on him in the viewing screen. His eyes shone with excitement, and his face was filled with anticipation. He raised his hand, paused, and then flung it down.

“Now, Jason! Now!”

A bright, white beam of light suddenly pierced the blackness of space as the Olympus opened fire. In response, all the ships of the Keruh Fleet began firing back at the same instant, the maser beams criss-crossing the shortening distance between them. The Titan and Medusa also opened fire, but the combined offensive power of all three vessels was dwarfed by the might of the approaching Keruh Fleet. It was an intense, brief exchange. The Medusa glowed bright red, then exploded, fragments flying and spinning away.

-o-

The Dominant of the Mysan’Taf watched the blip fade from the screen.

“A worthless sacrifice.” He sounded almost smug. “Do you still fear the Atlantians?”

“They died with honour,” The First countered. “The Host would expect nothing less.”

“Honour without purpose is worthless. They caused no delay and gave no diversion. Increase to ramming speed.”

-o-

Memnon also saw the Medusa burst apart. His face was rigid and his expression grim.

“Telephus! Contact all ships! Open fire! Select targets and proceed to ramming speed! And may the Gods be with us!”

Now it was the Atlantian ships that lit up the darkness as their maser beams reached towards the Keruh vessels. The exchange was more equal, and this time two of the leading Keruh vessels glowed brightly before blossoming into torn fragments. Another of the Atlantian vessels also met the same fate. But the concentrated fire on the Olympus and Titan was broken, and a moment later the two Atlantian ships disappeared among the Keruh vessels.

-o-

The Keruh Flagship vibrated under the hits from the Atlantian maser cannons. But in the command centre all was still calm. Several blips faded on the astrogator screen, but two stood out as they rushed before all the others.

The First of the Mysan’Taf stated the obvious with clear impudence. “Their fire power matches our own. Their formation is unbroken. There is danger here.”

The Dominant stared at the two onrushing blips that led the Atlantian attack. “Without danger there is little honour and no glorious victory.” He dismissed the worries of the First with a sweep of his hand. “Engage their leading vessel. If we punish their courage we will break their spirit.”

-o-

Zeus roared his commands as the Olympus rocked and vibrated under the constant hits from the Keruh maser cannons.

“Nestor! Give me ramming speed! Make for the nearest and biggest ship!”

The Keruh ships that now rushed towards him on the viewing screen were immense. They were so close, on collision course, that contact could not be avoided. One ship grew larger and larger. It began to spin; it’s huge ribbed fins spiralling into view.

Zeus stared at the image in exhilaration. “Now, Nestor! Rotate! Rotate!”

-o-

Memnon saw the Keruh Fleet swallow up the Olympus and Titan; at the last instant he saw the Olympus change course and begin to spin. After that they passed from his mind. What became of them no longer mattered. Now it was each captain and each ship to their own. Like every captain aboard every vessel in the fleet, Memnon roared his commands at his bridge crew. Now was the time to pick your enemy, to select the one ship from the mass that approached, to aim for it and deliver the perfect kiss.

-o-

The first intersection.

It was a simple description for an event that caused such immense agony and destruction. The number of vessels lost in the first intersection had been the subject of countless calculations for many years. Strategists had finally concluded that, on average, sixty percent of vessels involved in an engagement would be lost at this first pass, irrelevant to the size of the fleets concerned. This meant that the same rate of loss could be expected in the second intersection, and the third, and the fourth…

In a frenzy of criss-crossing maser beams, tons of steel and iron rushed upon one another and then collided. Each heavy impact was delivered in silence, and only the mass and inertia of each ship gave any hint of the destruction and agony that resulted. Metal was torn like paper, hulls unzipping and spilling air and debris into space in clouds of white spray. Great fins and even engines were torn free, explosions rocking each tortured vessel. The fragments spun away, burning brightly and briefly. Inside, compartments and corridors were breached, and Atlantians and Keruh alike were smashed and crushed, their bodies spilling into the darkness of space along with the rest of the debris. For those that still lived, death came in the sudden expansion of explosive decompression.

It happened quickly, it happened slowly, and then each ship sped apart. Only the glowing fragments that trailed behind one of them giving any hint of victor and vanquished.

-o-

For Zeus and the Olympus, the kiss they delivered to the Keruh Flagship was little more than a brushing of cheeks. Both ships spun and turned, trying to bring their killing fins to bear, both failed. But although the collision was slight, it was far from ineffective. The impact was hull to hull, with plates torn loose and structural members broken and crushed beneath as the two vessels scraped passed one another in a violent and agonising grinding of metal. It was over in seconds, and both ships flew apart with fragments of metal and evaporating gas trailing behind them.

Zeus smacked the arms of his command chair with both fists. He almost stamped his feet in annoyance.

“Damn you, Nestor! She was as big as an ox! How could you miss her?”

There was no more time to think of the missed opportunity. Maser blasts continued to pepper the hull, and the screens ahead of the Olympus were filled with more Keruh vessels, all of them spinning and turning. Zeus just picked another.

“Nestor! Port! Rotate! Now, man! Now! And don’t miss this time! Or I’ll have you strapped to our fin!”

Nestor heeded Zeus’s threat, never doubting that it wouldn’t be carried out, and the second collision was much more effective. This time the Keruh vessel was caught squarely by the Olympus’s great fin. It tore deep into her hull, ripping out several decks and causing a bright explosion inside. The impact caused both vessels to shudder, but the inertia carried them forward as if the metal were merely paper. And suddenly, the viewing screen was empty.

Zeus now smacked the arms of his chair in delight, his face as excited as that of a child with a new toy.

“Brilliant! Brilliant! You have won my faith again, Nestor!” Zeus twisted in his chair. “Jason! Fire at anything that moves! Salmoneus! Remember that ox! I want to finish her next time!” He turned to face forward again, staring excitedly into the viewing screen. “Nestor! Begin the turn! Maintain current speed! I want to be at the head of our fleet on the next intersection!”

For Zeus, one victory was never enough; but fortunately, there were still many more ships to choose from.

-o-

The Keruh Flagship failed to hit another vessel after it’s collision with the Olympus. It went straight through the mass of Atlantian vessels unscathed. It was chance more than anything. The impact had sent her tumbling, and by the time the Warrior at the helm had regained control, the moment was gone. That they had not been struck a killing blow by another Atlantian vessel was also fortunate, but the trail of gas and debris could have caused many to think that she was already dead.

The Dominant of the Mysan’Taf was far from dead and far from happy. The collision had thrown them all around the command centre, and he had ended up on the floor in a corner. While the First hissed out hurried commands, sending Warriors to assess and repair the damage while urging others to regain control of the ship, the Dominant heaved his bulk back to his feet and returned to the astrogator screen. Ignoring the din of the maser blasts that continued to rain against the hull, he bent over the screen, staring at the interlocked paths of each blip, searching out for one in particular. Finally he straightened up, and for the first time he showed physical signs of raised emotion. His body quivered as he stood between his three bodyguards, and his mandibles moved in agitation.

“He has escaped us!” he hissed in anger to the First. “His lead carries their fleet behind him! Turn! Find him again!”

“It is their whole fleet we must kill, not just one ship!” the First pointed out.

“If we kill one ship, we kill them all!” the Dominant countered. “The Atlantians are like all the other races we have faced! They are mentally distinct, detached! They cannot fight without their dominant at their head to lead them! He is their dominant! While he continues to pierce our ranks, they will follow him! Kill him and their spirit is broken! Kill him and they will become individual vessels, and not a fleet!”

The First bowed, accepting the truth, because it was a truth.

Every Warrior of the Keruh knew their task and knew their goal. They required little leadership and no example. If the Keruh Flagship had been destroyed, it would have had little effect. With the Second of the Mysan’Taf on Eden, the Third would have automatically become the Dominant of the combined fleet and the battle would have continued unaffected. For other races the First knew that this wasn’t true. Although it sounded like a personal vendetta, the Dominant was correct in his thinking. But the First still felt uneasy. Something wasn’t right about this battle; he just didn’t know what it was yet.

-o-

Memnon knew exactly what was wrong. Zeus, one of his minor but over eager captains, was now leading the whole Atlantian Fleet as if he commanded it. And there was nothing he could do about it. The Kraken had made two clean kills, condemning her victims to the cold blackness of space. But several Atlantian ships, including the Hydra, had met a similar fate. Now the survivors began the turn that would lead to the second intersection, and as before, the Olympus forged ahead. Behind her, Memnon could see the Titan, fragments trailing in her wake. But she also began the turn.

“Telephus!” Memnon shouted over the impacts of the maser blasts that rocked the ship. “Any reply from the Olympus?”

Telephus shook his head. “No, Captain!” he called back. “She maintains speed and her turn is more acute!”

“The rogue means to stay ahead of us! Ha! Let him have his glory! If the Keruh don’t kill him, I will! In the meantime we will use his ego as a standard! Antilochus! Match the turn of the Olympus! Telephus! Signal the fleet to maintain speed and follow the Olympus!”

Telephus worked quickly and efficiently, sending out the signals Memnon had requested and marshalling the repair teams who were already busy throughout the ship. He seemed calm and focused, but in his mind were other thoughts, thoughts of his brother whose ship lagged dangerously behind the main fleet.

-o-

As the Prometheus rushed after the Atlantian Fleet, Aeolus saw the full effects of the first intersection. It was like a wall of blossoming flowers. Dying ships burst into yellow and orange all across his viewing screen. And then they were upon him. The whole of the surviving Keruh Fleet rushed straight at him. There was no time to pick out one adversary, no time to make any strategic decisions. Aeolus screamed out his orders on impulse.

“Pull up! Bank to port! Rotate! Rotate!”

In two swift and sickening impacts, the Prometheus rammed and clashed with two Keruh ships. The first was unscathed, the second already spilling fire and gas. Both were killed by the Prometheus’s great saw-toothed fin.

“Down! Bank to starboard! Keep her level!”

The Prometheus flew diagonally upwards and to the left, right across the path of the Keruh Fleet as it began it’s turn for the next intersection. Her isolated presence behind the Atlantian Fleet was unplanned for and unexpected by both sides, and that fact was the only advantage Aeolus possessed as he tried to steer his stricken vessel through a sea of hurtling Keruh ships. There was no logic to the path he chose, the course picked from one moment to the next as the Prometheus cannoned into one vessel after another, maser blasts peppering her hull as she flew through the almost constant crossfire.

“Watch that ship! Port hard over! Rotate! Rotate!”

One Keruh vessel was hit from underneath, her crew unaware of the danger until the killing blow had been delivered. Another saw the Prometheus at the last instant and changed course suddenly, the change causing her fins to mesh with those of another Keruh vessel nearby. They clashed and spun apart, one fin torn away and other debris trailing behind them. The Prometheus flew right between them, the debris bouncing off her hull.

There was total mayhem on the bridge as Aeolus screamed and bellowed his orders, the deck heaving beneath him with each shuddering impact, and the hull echoing constantly with the multitude of hits from maser cannons and flying debris. It was like living inside a drum that was being dragged up a rocky slope with men outside constantly hitting it with heavy hammers. And always Aeolus was shouting.

“Bank to starboard! Pull up! Keep those cannons firing, Tyro! Glaucus! Watch your screen! Starboard, I said, damn it!”

Peleus tried to defend the overworked and almost panicking crew.

“The men are doing the best they can, Aeolus!”

Aeolus was as unforgiving as he was determined. “If we are to live, they must do better- ” he broke off suddenly as another vessel loomed up. “Rotate! Faster! Faster!”

Another impact, another ship killed.

It went on and on, each ship followed by another. But it wasn’t only the surviving Keruh vessels that Aeolus and his crew faced. Huge fragments of smashed ships also hurtled towards the Prometheus, spinning and tumbling. Her gunners fired at these fragments almost as often as they fired at the Keruh vessels around them. Some of them burst into smaller pieces when hit, but many were too large to be broken up.

“Bank to port! Down! Down! Watch that wreck! Keep firing! Rotate! Now, not next week!”

Despite Aeolus’s angry demands, and the intent of his crew to oblige, there was too much hardware in too small an area. Space was cluttered with flying ships, spinning wrecks and tumbling fragments. The Prometheus hit one such fragment with her great fin, another smashed into her side and cannoned off, leaving a great tear in her hull that spilled fire and debris. Then one of the Keruh vessels hit a tumbling hulk almost right in front of them, and both exploded brightly, showering fire and debris over the Prometheus that enveloped her totally. She emerged from the other side suddenly alone, the sea of ships left behind and below her. The scars of her journey covered her hull. The whole ship was battered and dented, the metal torn away in places and streams of white gas and debris trailing behind her. But still she was not safe.

“Glaucus! Maintain speed! Tyro! Concentrate all fire to our rear! Peleus! Get me a report from the damage teams!”

It was now that the maser cannons of the Keruh gunners picked out the isolated Prometheus in real earnest. Blast after blast hit her hull in a constant onslaught, puncturing the metal and causing internal explosions. Several hit the ailing starboard engine, causing another explosion, after which fiery fragments began spilling from the exhaust ports.

And then, suddenly, there was silence. No more maser blasts peppered her hull, and no more ships crossed her path; not even the drifting fragments of dead ships. The Prometheus was alone in space, her course taking her away from the continuing battle. But that was not where Aeolus wanted to be.

“Glaucus! Bring us about! Peleus! Where’s that damage report?”

Peleus answered almost instantly. “We’ve lost the starboard engine! And there are hull breaches on decks five and six, starboard side!”

Aeolus twisted in his chair. “Tyro! Take over command of those repair teams! Shore up as many of the bulkheads as you can! Do what you can to hold this cracked urn together!”

Tyro jumped from his console and ran from the bridge without a word. Aeolus turned back to his screen and then yelled in sudden irritation. “I said to turn, Glaucus! Why are we still on the same course?”

“She won’t turn, Captain!” was the agonised reply. “I can’t feather the port engine and none of the thrusters are responding!”

Aeolus stared at him for a moment as if he hadn’t understood. Then he turned to glare at Peleus.

Peleus answered his unspoken questions as he viewed the ship’s telemetry on his console. “An explosion in the starboard engine has taken out the control lines! We’ve lost control of all the thrusters and the port engine is locked on ramming speed!”

Aeolus hit the arm on his command chair. “Damn the Gods! What’s our course?”

“We’re banking slightly to starboard, but we’ll hit Eden in about seventy minutes!”

-o-

Memnon watched the Prometheus’s darting run on his viewing screen. It was the same view that all the captains in the Atlantian Fleet saw. It was a sight that brought on mixed emotions. Memnon mentally urged Aeolus to make each turn, wished that he could give support, and prayed that the next collision wouldn’t be the last. When the Prometheus finally broke through and arced away, the triumphant cheer could be heard throughout the ship. Memnon slapped his thigh and laughed.

“Ha! Your brother is a genius, Telephus!” he said, turning to his First Officer. “No other captain in the fleet could have steered his ship through such a path and won out! No one else could have given us such a boon to spur us on!”

Telephus wiped the tears from his eyes. He tried to smile, but his sad expression wouldn’t leave him. It caused the smile on Memnon’s lips to fade.

“Is there any word from Aeolus?” he asked more solemnly.

Telephus shook his head. “No, Captain,” he said sadly. “The Prometheus is silent.”

“She may be silent, but her engine still races. Take heart, Telephus. Your brother has a tenacious lust for life. Pray that the Gods are with him, and I am sure he will be safe.”

It was then that Antilochus pointed at the screen. “Captain, the Keruh are dispersing.”

Memnon turned quickly. He stared at the viewing screen in rising amazement. It was true. The Keruh Fleet had broken up in the turn; they were now spread out and confused, with ships flying in different directions. The sight caused Memnon to speak with both delight and urgency.

“Their formation is broken, their advantage in numbers lost!” He turned quickly in his chair. “Telephus! Your brother has given us a far greater boon than I thought! Signal to all ships! Maintain formation! Increase speed a further five points! Proceed to the second intersection! We must try to punch a hole through their centre before they can regroup!”

-o-

The passage of the Prometheus did indeed cause havoc in the turning Keruh Fleet. With the tumbling wrecks of their own ships to avoid, the zigzagging course of this last enemy vessel ripped apart the previous tight formation of triangular ships. It was a sudden and expanding pattern of disaster. Unprepared for this new and suicidal tactic, several vessels were killed in quick succession. But that was just the beginning. It was the ships that weren’t struck that suddenly changed course to avoid those that were that caused the spreading carnage. With so many vessels in close proximity, when one ship changed direction it inevitably brought it into the path of another. This in turn caused another ship to change course, adding to the confusion. It was an expanding wave of chaos and collision that left part of the fleet spread out and exposed.

The Dominant and First of the Mysan’Taf saw the precise turn of their fleet become a ragged shamble of scattered vessels. It was a shock to both, and for the first time the Dominant no longer sounded as if he was so sure of the outcome of the battle.

“Regroup!” he hissed urgently. “The fleet must be back in formation for the second intersection!”

“The commands are already given!” the First clicked in irritation. “You said that the Atlantians lacked the talent for subterfuge! Was the presence of this final ship not subterfuge?”

“And you urged caution due to the size of the opposing fleets! But could you have anticipated this tactic?”

The First admitted defeat. “No.”

“Then we both learn from our error, and we will both be prepared for unexpected manoeuvres following the next intersection! Now regroup! Complete the turn!”

The First bowed and swept his smaller hand before him. “It shall be made so.”

-o-

In the great hall of the council war room, many of the Senators stared in shock at the vanishing dots in the great globe. Many gasped, clutching a hand to their mouths in horror. Some even cried and left the hall, unable to watch anymore. President Aegina put their agony into words.

“All fine men, Atlantis’s best. They leave the stage of life in silence before us, never to return. Even if this war is won, the cost will be too high. There will be many tears tonight.”

Aetolus turned to her. “Give the command and it could still be stopped.”

Aegina took a slow and deep breath and then sighed. She shook her head. “To stop it now would be to condemn those who have died to a fruitless death.”

Ares noticed more of the Senators leaving the great hall. He understood why. He too, wished that he could leave, that it could all be over. But he knew many of the captains in their fleet. Even now he could remember their faces as he briefed them in this very hall many days before. How many would return?

“Maybe you should retire?” he suggested to Aegina. “I will send word when it is over.”

“No. I will stay.” She had spoken determinedly, and raised her voice as she continued. “They gave their blood willingly in our name. In return we must stand fast. If we cannot be with them in body, then we will be with them in spirit.”

Other Senators who had thought of leaving now stood their ground doggedly. And some of those who had left now returned as news of Aegina’s words reached them. They watched in painful silence as the dots wheeled around in the great globe and approached one another once more. Ares was suddenly proud of them. It was a gesture only, but it would mean much.

Hephaestus broke into Ares thoughts. “The Keruh formation has been broken.”

Ares looked up at the globe and nodded. “It will be a brief success. Their formation will be complete before the next intersection.”

Aegina looked across at him in sadness. “Will you give us no respite?”

Ares bowed his head. “The victory must be won with the pain it demands. To suggest otherwise would be a lie.”

-o-

Ares confidence in the Keruh’s ability was well placed. Any other race but them would have failed to recover their formation prior to the next intersection. But the advantage of a hive mentality and a society that was forged on the needs of the many at the expense of the individual meant that the Keruh could respond far more quickly. As on the battlefields of many worlds, each individual worked as one, and each vessel returned to it’s allotted position in one fluid manoeuvre. It was as if an explosion had been filmed and then played back in reverse. The last triangular shaped vessel slipped back into place just as the maser canons sprang into bright life once more.

It was just as Zeus would have wanted. There was no glory in a scattered enemy, no triumph in victory over danger. As the maser beams flashed towards them, he shouted his commands in his usual excitement, staring at the rapidly approaching ships.

“Jason! Improve that accuracy this time! Nestor! Pull up! Now, man now! Rotate!”

The Olympus scored another perfect hit, killing a Keruh vessel cleanly. Behind her, the already heavily damaged Titan rotated, spiralling debris trailing in her wake. She flew straight at another Keruh vessel and they collided head on, both ships erupting in a bright flash.

Zeus hardly noticed. “Nestor! Hard to Starboard! Salmoneus! Where is that ox?”

-o-

The Keruh Flagship also scored a perfect hit. But the kill far from pleased the First as he stared at the blips on the astrogator screen.

“Our numbers are reduced!” he said in agitation. “Our losses are greater than theirs! There is danger here!” he repeated.

“The Host must be protected!” the Dominant insisted.

“We are not at Eden! We waste time in this battle!”

“This was a battle you sought!” the Dominant suddenly accused him. “It was you that feared the Atlantians at our back! Do you now change that view? Would you have our ships turn and let the Atlantians pursue us to Eden? Is this your counsel? Speak!”

The First bowed his head. “I spoke impetuously because I fear for the Fleet, Most Gracious One. I cannot give you counsel, only my fear.”

“And what is your fear?”

“My fear is that the Atlantians possess a far greater talent for subterfuge than either of us could anticipate. They fight more fiercely in this battle than any other. Even when damaged, their ships turn and fly at us once more. They sacrifice themselves in their efforts to kill us. This style of battle is unusual for them. I am suspicious of their intent without substance.”

“Like the echo?”

The First bowed even lower. “Yes, the echo that was a fleet.”

“What can we fear from a fleet of equal size and skill?”

The First raised his head. “Delay.”

There was a brief pause as the Dominant considered. Finally he spoke.

“Contact the First of the Telen’Gal. Warn him to expect subterfuge. It is certain that the Klysanthians and Atlantians will have planned this strategy together. He is to avoid a protracted battle. He must break through the Klysanthian Fleets and reach Eden. It is clear that the Assassin-Drones will be landed soon. Our ships must be there to protect the Host.”

-o-

For the second time the two mighty fleets intersected one another and flew on, bright bursts of yellow and orange marking the instantaneous deaths of more ships burst apart by maser cannon or collision. Many of the ships banked and turned for the next onslaught, but many more did not. For these ships the battle was over, their hulls breached and their crews victims of the silent death that was the vacuum of space. They tumbled end over end, their course erratic, and white clouds leaving a spiralling trail behind them. Some of them would fly on forever in silence, but others added to the destruction once more, getting in the way of ships that banked and turned with more intent, tumbling directly into their path. And as before, Atlantians and Keruh alike shouted and screamed orders, helmsman fought at their controls, and more bright bursts of yellow and orange peppered the scene.

Already a far distance away, one ship flew on in isolation; a trail of bright sparks in its wake. The painted face at its front was almost scraped away, and everywhere the metal of the disc shaped hull was battered and pitted. Above the hull, the great fin was equally battered. Many of the serrations were missing and the end had been ripped away. The ship flew in a long shallow curve, the bright blue disc of Eden its distant target. Aboard this ship there was life, life and anger. For Aeolus and his crew, there would be no further part in the battle that had been their goal. For them another fate awaited, and they could only look on impotently at the carnage on their screens.

-o-

Many of the Senators were in tears. Even Aetolus had tears running down his cheeks. But none had left since Aegina had spoken. Only she stood dry-eyed, her pain and tears kept inside. She was the only man among them. Ares vowed at that moment that he would die for her. In the same instant he suddenly realised that Memnon and those with him had already made that vow, and that many of them had honoured it. It made him feel suddenly hollow.

The number of dots whirling around in the great globe had been horribly reduced, but still it wasn’t over. Even now the tiny dots turned in diminished formation once more.

It was at this moment that Otrera could stand it no longer. She suddenly turned, bent over, and took Aegina’s hand.

“Forgive me,” she said tearfully, her delicate voice trembling. “But you are far more stronger than I. What you have watched I cannot face. I have to go. I have to hide and think of good things.” She straightened up, releasing the surprised Aegina, and turned to Ares.

“Tell me when it is over,” she said to him, and then she fled from the great hall, her Royal Guards chasing after her.

Aegina watched her go. She seemed surprised. “Why leave now, when it is nearly over?”

Ares answered her question by indicating the two massed fleets bearing down on one another closer to Eden. “For us, the battle may soon be over, but for the Klysanthian Second and Ninth Fleets it is only just beginning.”

-o-

On the bridge the Light Of The World, Bremusa sat in her command chair staring at the viewing screen. On the screen, the Keruh vessels rushed towards her, their maser cannons lashing out white beams. It was a moment of urgency, and yet Bremusa spoke calmly and pointedly, her tones angelic and delicate.

“Ainia, signal the fleet: Return fire. Increase to ramming speed and select targets.” She turned her head slightly. “Iphito, concentrate our cannons on the two centre ships. Derinoe, steer for the ship on the left. All I ask of you is that you make the contact count.”

As her Bridge Officers set to work, Bremusa sat back in her command chair, her long fingers delicately curling and flexing. She continued to stare at the screen, watching the Keruh ships rush towards her. She smiled, but it was without any hint of warmth.

At the helm, Derinoe stared at the viewing screen with tears in her eyes. She was concentrating on one particular Keruh vessel, watching it rush towards them; it’s fins spiralling. At the last moment she steadied herself, steering the ship as if it were part of herself.

Make it count.

-o-

A vast and colourful flock of tri-marine ships flew towards an equal number of dark and triangular ships. Between them bright beams lashed out. One colourful ship shuddered, fell out of formation, and erupted, the multiple hulls flying apart. In reply a triangular ship in the Keruh fleet burst apart, it’s fins spinning away. Another vessel met a similar fate, and then the gap was closed.

What now took place was as big a surprise to the watching Atlantians in the great hall as it was to the Keruh.

The first intersection was also the last.

It was as if many of the Klysanthian captains and crews had resigned themselves to their fate. Their world was gone, their future bleak, and the pain and the sadness for their loss was too great. But if the pain was great, so was the bitterness and the hatred for their enemy. Many had decided to end their agony in bouts of fire, aiming their vessels at the Keruh head on. The carnage was devastating. In a tremendous clash of grinding metal, practically all of the vessels in each fleet perished in a wall of fire and tumbling debris.

-o-

Hephaestus was the first to signal his surprise.

“Something’s wrong, Ares.”

They were gentle words, words that paled in comparison to the event that they had all just witnessed. Aetolus described it more bluntly. He spoke in awe.

“They hurled themselves at the Keruh. They threw away their lives. Such bravery, such waste.”

Ares felt the anger rising in him. He felt the pain and the outrage and could stand it no longer.

“Hephaestus!” he bellowed. “Jam the Keruh portal at Elengrad! Open the Edenite portal in Jutlam City! Send the word to Ephesus! Release the Androktones!”

They were his final words. Spinning on his heel, he strode purposefully from the great hall, ignoring the stares of the Senators, and heading for the apartments that Otrera had made her own.


This is the end of the free chapters.

Copyright © D. G. Richards 2002

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