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The Friendly Ambassador: A Gathering Of Angels

By

D. G. Richards

Copyright © D. G. Richards 2003

 


CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

A GATHERING OF ANGELS

The darkness was rent by a blinding flash. From space it was like a bright spot of intense white light that glowed and swirled. And at the instant that the spot burst into bright life, an expanding ring of light spread out from the centre across the planet’s surface. The expanding ring lasted less than a second, its passage across the darkened landscape a fleeting, almost magical ring of brightness. What followed in its path was much more physical.

Almost at the same time as the bright spot burst into life, the atmosphere of Eden above it jerked violently outwards. And following the same process as the expanding ring of light before it, the wave of disturbance spread out from the centre. It was slower, almost sedate, but the image was deceiving. The blast wave moved outwards across the land like a tempest, the clouds high in the atmosphere breaking and evaporating as if the air they were flying in was being rolled up. And on the ground itself, everything was torn free, incinerated, and hurled to the heavens in a violent and horrific storm.

From space, it was a gentle, almost beautiful sight as the mushroom cloud billowed silently upwards like a black blossom. On the ground it was a howling, evil monster that threw up the trees and tossed buildings at the sky. Everything was smashed and hurled to dust.

On the road to Hilbrok, people, Keruh, soldiers, trucks, buildings, armoured vehicles, even the wreck of the Furnace Of Charity, all were instantly incinerated and their ashes thrown before the onrushing tide of hot air and dust. Everything was smashed and hurled together, the fragments rolling bouncing, flying. Even the fires were blown away, the flames robbed of the oxygen that fed them. In a whirlwind that lasted mere seconds, the expanding ring of the Keruh Host disappeared, swept clean of the land.

Then the blast wave hit the outskirts of Jutlam City, where previously undamaged buildings exploded and blew away. It was like a cloth wiping across a blackboard, sweeping everything away and leaving only fire and dust. It went further and further into the city, smashing and burning all in its path. But even this howling monster had a limit. The further it went, the more its strength ebbed.

At the College of Learning, the blast wave spent its final powers, blowing every window from the buildings in one single, violent thrust. It seemed that everything inside the building was flung out of the exploding windows. Desks, chairs, cupboards, everything just disappeared. The buildings burst into flame, the fires starting spontaneously on all floors at the same instant. But from here onwards, the sweeping wave of fire and wind left more buildings standing, left more wreckage that was distinguishable, until only the wind itself blew across the darkened city.

-o-

In the Operations Room the nuclear detonation was marked on the relief map by an expanding ring of blood red that spread out over the plane between the sea and the mountains. At the fringes the red began to turn pink, when it reached Jutlam City it faded even more, and when it finally swept over the highway to Nemen it was hardly visible.

Many in the Operations Room cried. Some broke down and had to be led away, both men and women. For them it had been the end of everything. For General Orbanta it was an even greater agony, one of his own doing, and one that he could not afford to waste time dwelling on. As the room fell almost silent around him, Orbanta raised his voice and shouted at his staff, rousing them from their grief.

“Reports! Get me reports! How many of the enemy were caught in the blast? Is the portal still on line? Where are their ships? Get me those reports!”

His staff responded quickly, and the bustle and urgent atmosphere in the Operations Room quickly returned to almost normal as men and women rushed back and forth to the Communications Room.

Orbanta turned back to the relief map and the red stain at its centre. A moment later and a young woman in uniform appeared next to him and held out the first report. There were tears in her eyes but her hand was steady. Orbanta took the report and nodded and she quickly moved away.

It was better this way. Better to keep them all busy and not let them stop and think about it for too long, because if he did, he might loose them forever.

-o-

The Gate Of Heaven roared into the upper atmosphere, a tempest chasing after her. On the viewing screen on the bridge was a rear view image of the expanding cloud of the nuclear detonation. It was very large and very close.

Scyleia jumped up and down in her chair like an agitated child. “Faster, Prothoe! Faster! We must outrun this blast wave!”

Prothoe strained at the helm controls, her teeth clenched as she spat out the words. “I’m at full power now, Scyleia! It’s no use! I can feel her twisting in the turbulence!”

Heli glanced down at her console. “Air pressure’s dropping!” she called out urgently.

Scyleia spun round and screamed at Heli. “Divert more power to the engines! Cut power on decks one to five! Cut all artificial gravity throughout the ship! Cut the lights! Cut anything you can! I need more power, Heli!”

Heli snapped at levers and typed furiously on the various keyboards on her console. There was a sudden jolt and everyone on the bridge moaned as they felt the heavier pull of Eden. Then the lights went out. Then even as Scyleia stared at the viewing screen, it suddenly went dark.

Prothoe pulled back on the helm controls. “Yes! She’s accelerating!”

Scyleia jumped off her command chair and sprang at the helm console. She knelt in front of it, her long fingers curling and then gripping the top edge. She rested her chin on the top and fixed her eyes on Prothoe.

“Faster! Faster! We must have more speed!”

Heli looked up in alarm. “We’re closing on the Defence Net!”

Scyleia ignored her. She kept her eyes fixed on Prothoe. They sparkled with fire. “Level out! Now, Prothoe! We have reached the roof of our cage! We can climb no further! Now we must out run this devil on the flat! Now we must race the race of our lives! Ride her like an Atlantian horse across the open planes before Ephesus! Give her everything you have! Beat her! Whip her! Faster, Prothoe! Faster than the wind! Faster than an angel with the devil on her heels!”

The engines of the Gate Of Heaven turned from red, to orange to incandescent white as she surged through the stratosphere. All her lights were extinguished, all other secondary systems starved as the power was diverted to the hungry engines. And as the energy of the pursuing blast wave began to ebb, the Gate Of Heaven drew further ahead, and then finally shot away, heading for Jutlam City.

-o-

Tipi was in a different world.

There are times in life when the unexpected, even when it is expected, is so different, so unusual, that it turns the mind and becomes a defining moment. From then on, life is divided into before it happened, and after it happened. For Tipi, it happened as the Gate Of Heaven surged away from the crater that was once Elengrad. And like the nuclear explosion, the expanding sensory explosion that overcame his body and his senses blew everything else away.

Philippis kept her promise. The reward she gave Tipi was priceless and unforgettable. She was like a demon and an angel rolled into one, a sensual and hungry animal whose only purpose was the release of the deepest and most carnal of sensations in her victim. Throwing her clothes off she worked Tipi to the limit, squeezing every ounce of energy and life from him, taking everything he had and then taking the rest. She undressed him, licking and kissing him, biting him and caressing him. And when he was naked she rubbed herself against him, moving her body and her limbs all over him until she finally impaled herself on his enormous penis and rode him like a horse, again and again, and again. And from the scared and unsure child, the man slowly emerged. What Philippis gave him Tipi yearned for even more, and as she sat astride him, his immense power driving her to ecstasy, his own desire, his own need, grew.

Tipi didn’t know what he was doing, he didn’t know what he was supposed to do, all he knew was that it was a dream, a fantasy come true. He was making love, for the first time, and it was with a Klysanthian female. At first he was unsure, frightened and embarrassed. But Philippis worked all of that out of him. She showed him the way, extinguishing all his fears and all his inhibitions. And suddenly, she wasn’t a Klysanthian, she was every female, every girl he had ever seen and yearned for, even Kelandra. The desire burst within him obliterating all other thoughts and fears. He hugged her and kissed her, pulled her and tore at her, their mouths pressed tightly together. He was much bigger than her, his muscles and arms stronger. He pulled her closer, grasping her to him, crushing her against him, and before she could stop him, they rolled over.

Philippis wanted more of what she knew he could give, but she also knew that being beneath him gave control over to him. There was danger here. But the Klysanthian gravity made his weight bearable, and her fear slowly faded. They continued, kissing, searching and exploring, their hunger for one another unabated. Tipi now thrust down into her, causing Philippis to moan with every deep impact. It drove her to another explosion of ecstasy. And then the gravity in the ship suddenly altered with a jerk that drove the air out of Philippis’s lungs. She now felt Tipi’s full weight pressing down on her slender body in the Eden gravity, and every thrust became deeper, distorted, and immensely painful.

Philippis moaned and cried, her slender limbs flung out. He was too big for her. She had known it when she had first seen him, known it when she had sank down on him and felt the first rush of his ejaculation inside her. Then it didn’t matter, then she could control it. She had wanted him, needed him, the pain just adding to her ecstasy. But now as Tipi lay on top of her, thrusting deeply into her, that pain and ecstasy grew both unbearable and undeniable.

Tipi had lost his mind. There was nothing other than the need to be sated. He bore down on Philippis, seeing the tortured and enraptured expression on her face as she twisted and turned beneath him. It seemed that she was trying to wriggle free, but then she wrapped her long arms and legs about him, gripping him tightly. And raising her head she kissed him hungrily, her mouth and lips needing his as if her life depended on it. Everything she did, even the sight of her face, drove his need higher. He thrust harder, and she cried out, her arms flung wide once more.

As Tipi strove for his final satisfaction, Philippis reached a peak that she had never known, a peak that was born out of her fear and her lack of control. She couldn’t stop him, didn’t want to even if she could. He was killing her, her insides tearing with every thrust. But she didn’t care. She craved and needed every thrust, devoured each lunge, revelled in every violent tear deep within her abdomen until finally, it was over…

-o-

Captain Limeno looked at the viewing screen. The mushroom cloud rolled and surged angrily as it climbed into the upper atmosphere. It was like an animal, twisting and turning, growing and expanding. Above it another bright comet descended, dropping slowly into the edge of the black and grey cloud, where it was instantly swallowed up, even its white tail twisting in the suddenly turbulent air.

“It is done, Keltus,” Limeno remarked sadly to his First Lieutenant. “Our home, our families, the fairest part of our world. We have rendered it to ash along with our enemy.”

Keltus stared at the screen impassively. “So long as they are all dead, Captain.”

“Then we had better be sure. Contact the Kouvila and Temunus. Begin scanning the surface as soon as the EM storm has cleared. We won’t have enough time as it is, but we have to know if anything at all survived down there before we get to our next target.”

“Yes, Captain. I’ll get right on it.”

Keltus hurried away. Limeno seemed not to notice. He had kept his eyes on the screen all the while they had talked. Even now he continued to stare at it. He couldn’t look away. As his crew busied themselves with their tasks, distracted for the moment from their recent violent act, he stared at the screen in silence, his expression torn with growing anguish until his eyes finally became wet.

Elengrad, the city of his birth.

“Forgive me, Pelora, for this final gift,” he whispered under his breath.

-o-

The Edenite Ships Alentin, Kouvila and Temunus sped away from the radioactive cloud and headed for the highway between Jutlam City and Nemen. Here another appointment awaited them. But this time the air above their target would not be empty.

The highway from Jutlam City to Nemen was the shortest and most direct route between the two cities. It was obvious that the Keruh at Nemen would take this route with the captured Edenite vessels at their disposal. They had no time to waste and they outnumbered the ships remaining in Edenite hands by nearly two to one. Seven of them now flew low over the highway in a long line. They were the only ships that could be seen in the night sky, but they were not alone. Behind them and to the east, ten more ships came from the landing field at Kalahar, too distant yet to be seen. In front of them, moving in to intercept them from the north and west were the nine Edenite ships. These were also still too distant to be seen. And below them, along the highway itself, the massed Warriors of the Keruh Host marched in a bobbing gait, unopposed.

Like the ships above them, the Warriors were returning to Jutlam City. But their return along the highway was very different from their departure earlier that day. This time the highway was bathed in darkness and devoid of life. Only the wrecks of crushed and burned out vehicles blocked their path, and everywhere were the craters filled with the decaying corpses of the dead. The Warriors ignored their fallen brothers as they ignored the corpses of the Edenites. They cared more for those that still lived and fought in the city. It was for them that they hurried, for them and the Host that would be at risk if they arrived too late.

The blast wave from the nuclear explosion at Elengrad was only a hot wind that blew over the Warriors. From this they had nothing to fear. But with the passing of the electro-magnetic spike caused by the detonation, the arrival of the first jets was bound to follow. They didn’t have to wait long. But it wasn’t the Warriors on the road that would be their targets this time.

The jets flew in low over the darkened land. There was over a dozen of them, their twin engines glowing in the dark with an orange heat that whitened as the jets rose up gaining height. In front of them the seven captured Edenite ships flew in a long line on the far side of the highway, their great fins like sails above them. The jets spread out, flying towards the line of ships in a single wave.

Ziti Harktus checked his instruments. This wouldn’t be the same as attacking targets on the ground. This was what the jets had been designed for, what he had been trained for: Aerial combat, one to one. But it wouldn’t be an even fight. On a small screen he could see the leading ships in a light intensified image. He switched the image to his head up display, superimposing it on the true, but dark view through his canopy. Now the images highlighted the shadows on his horizon. Large space faring vessels with heavy maser cannons for armaments. They were coming up fast, but a couple of well-placed rockets would still bring them down. Satisfied, he turned his head slightly. He could see the first of the other jets almost on his wing.

“Sabatus!” he said into his face microphone. “Concentrate when we get close! It’s going to get hairy with all those maser cannons firing! We have to make our rockets count! We have to fire at the last possible moment or they’ll just knock them down! I’ll try for the lead ship, you go for the one right behind it!”

“Acknowledged, Harktus! And good luck!”

Harktus glanced over his shoulder. “Belomonor! Don’t miss! I don’t want to come back for this fish with only tracer shells for ammo!”

Belomonor smiled in his mask. “You get me close, Ziti and I’ll spike her good!”

An instant later and the white beams of the maser cannons lit up the night sky. A jet was hit and exploded brightly. All the other jets began to bob and weave, twisting and turning as the white beams flashed towards them. They fired their tracer cannons in return, the heavy shells thudding into the hulls of the slow moving ships.

It was an uneven battle. The tubular ships with their great fins were heavy and ponderous in the gravity and atmosphere of Eden. This was not their environment, and they quickly began to gain height to evade their attackers. But the ships were stable platforms for the Keruh Warriors who now manned their maser cannons. The jets that flew at them were fast and manoeuvrable, but the cannon shells they fired were not effective. Only the rockets slung under each wing had the payload to give a killing blow, and there would only be one chance.

A second jet was hit and exploded, then another had one wing blown away and it dropped, spinning end over end until it hit the ground in a bright flash.

Harktus flung his jet into a tight roll as the maser beams flashed towards him. “Sabatus!” he bellowed into his radio. “Keep it tight! Belomonor! Get ready!”

Belomonor concentrated on his sights as the jet buffeted him, the cross-wires fixed on the leading ship. “Nearly there!”

The jets flew over the highway and the Warriors below them fired up with their laser rifles, bringing down one jet and causing another to sprout a darkened trail.

Harktus saw the smoke and debris spitting from one of the engines on Sabatus’s jet. He gritted his teeth and followed his own orders. Concentrate. A white beam flew straight at them. Harktus jerked the jet into another roll and the beam flashed under their wing. “Now!” he called to Belomonor.

Another jet burst into fragments, a direct hit ending its flight.

Belomonor jerked his hand. “Rockets away!”

Harktus pulled the jet into a steep climb and turn, the rockets streaming away on fiery plumes. Other jets in the wave also fired, all the rockets flying straight towards the broad hulls of the fast approaching line of ships. One by one the jets banked away, but even then one of them was hit and spiralled down to crash in flames.

The distance between the rockets and the ships narrowed. It seemed that all of the rockets would hit their targets, it seemed that they couldn’t miss. Then one of them was hit by a maser beam and exploded brightly, and then another was hit, and another. The explosions caught other rockets in the blasts and they also exploded. One flew out of control at a crazy angle and hit the ground in another bright blossom that scattered earth and debris over the land. It all happened in a few split seconds, and then the surviving rockets reached their targets.

Ziti Harktus watched the lone surviving rocket they had fired hit the side of the leading ship, embedding itself deep into the hull. There was a brief pause, and then the metal of the hull blew out in a massive orange ball of flames and debris. The explosion broke the ship’s back, and it dropped to the ground where it crunched into the dirt in a grinding of metal, the flames licking up around it. It sat there for a few seconds, and then the first of a multitude of explosions rent it apart.

Five other ships were also hit, two of them dropping in flames. A seventh was hit by one of the jets. Instead of banking away, it had flown straight at the side of the ship, a smoke trail behind it, and rammed it at full speed. The impact was so heavy that the smashed engines of the jet blew out of the far side, and the resulting explosion caused the stricken ship to totally disintegrate in midair, scattering burning fragments over the land.

Four of the captured vessels from Nemen had now been brought down, but those still in the air continued to fire at the jets that banked away, bursting another into fiery fragments. Both sides had suffered heavy losses, but the battle wasn’t over yet.

Harktus banked his jet into another tight turn. “I’m going back in!”

Belomonor looked over Harktus’s shoulder at the fast approaching ships, the maser beams already flashing towards them. “But we’re out of rockets! We have to go back to base to re-arm!”

“No! Sabatus had the right idea! By the time we get back from Delmatra these three fish will be over Jutto! We have to stop them now!”

“But, Ziti!”

Harktus reached back and pulled a red lever by Belomonor’s chair. There was a loud thud and the canopy blew off. Belomonor tried to grab Harktus but it was too late.

“Noooo!”

With blast of hot air Belomonor and his chair shot upwards out of the jet and rapidly disappeared.

Harktus fought with the controls, the air stream now buffeting him and tearing at his facemask. The jet pitched and rolled, his lack of control now adding to his luck as the maser beams missed him one after another. He kept his thumb down on the firing button of his tracer cannons, the heavy shells flashing away in the darkness as he shot towards the middle of the three surviving ships. It grew bigger and bigger, closer and closer, until all he could see before him was the broad grey hull…

-o-

General Orbanta watched the lights wink out on the relief map. He was stood at the rail staring down at the map with Addi Joventa. They had watched the battle in silence, noting each light go out, both yellow and black. When it was over, Orbanta sighed.

“Five.”

Joventa nodded. “It’s better than we expected. And the other two are damaged, one of them crippled by the looks of it.”

He was right. The two remaining black lights near the highway moved a lot slower than before, and one of them lagged behind and was already beginning to stray off course. Joventa pointed at it.

“Without altitude that ship will never make it to Jutlam City for a start. And I’ll wager the other one is no better.”

“Do you have any jets left?” Orbanta suddenly asked him.

The Air Marshal lowered his arm and turned to him. “A few,” he said after a pause.

“Good. They did well. Save them, Addi. We’ll go with your wager and gamble on your being right. Tell our captains to forget these two and concentrate on the ten coming from Kalahar. If we can break them, then we will have done all we can.”

Joventa nodded but didn’t move away. “We’ve had a signal from the Alentin. Nothing’s moving on the surface and Limeno is on his way to the second target. I’ve had the photographs back from the two reconnaissance flights over the area. They confirm his report. Is it still a go for the deployment of the second device?”

Orbanta leaned on the rail and stared down at the map. He didn’t answer. Next to him, Joventa waited patiently while the General pondered on his decision.

The relief map told its story in coloured lights. The Keruh were now more than halfway back on their journey to Jutlam City and the yellow expanse at the capital was bigger than ever. It was also now apparent that the Alliance force was moving with purpose. The shape of the yellow area they covered stretched and bulged towards the east and the approaching black of the Keruh. Soon the one would meet the other. The outcome of such a battle would be interesting, but for it to take place, the battlefield had to remain intact.

With a deep breath Orbanta said, “Belay the order. Tell Limeno that the Kouvila and Temunus are to join up with our other ships and intercept the Keruh flotilla coming from Kalahar. That should tip the engagement in our favour. He is to continue on to Jutlam City to give support to the Alliance force. Have him contact our surveillance people still on the ground there. If any of the Keruh ships should break through he is to engage them. Oh, and tell him well done.”

Joventa smiled brightly. “I like this part of the war! I like being proactive! I like the idea of taking the initiative away from the Keruh at last! Now it’s their turn to have a few surprises sprung on them!”

Orbanta’s smile was less enthusiastic. “Let’s hope they are surprises.”

-o-

Aeolus watched the wreck of the Keruh ship spin away, gas spiralling in its wake. It had been a clean kill.

“Well done, Glaucus! Now bring us back on course! Tyro! Spot me another victim! Peleus! Where are my sheep? How do they fair?”

Peleus suppressed a smile. The Klysanthians wouldn’t have been impressed by the description.

“The Queen Of Angels and House Of Gold have both confirmed kills, Captain. They approach from starboard with the Cause Of Our Joy and Friend Of The Sick. But there is no response from the rest.”

Aeolus thumped the arm of his command chair in frustration. “Why can my flock not keep together? Try and contact them, Peleus, ascertain their status! We must finish the enemy before they can re-group!”

Since the Queen Of Angels had been stirred out of her slumber, eight Klysanthian vessels had joined their small fleet. Most of the ships were damaged, some more than others, the Mirror Of Holiness in particular ailed badly. But all had rallied to the call once Pantariste had given her permission. It seemed that Pantariste was higher ranked than many of the other captains, although the aloof disdain with which she looked on Aeolus was not uncommon. But not all of the Klysanthians were in fatalistic mood.

The crew of the Cause Of Our Joy were still eager pursuers of the enemy, and the Prometheus had discovered her exchanging maser fire with two Keruh vessels. Melanippe, her captain, was less disdainful and more animated. Pantariste dismissed her eagerness, attributing it to her youth.

“She is a child, propelled to Matriarchy by the death of her mother on Klysanthia.”

Aeolus warmed to the flame haired child almost instantly, finding her to be an able captain with an equally able crew. The arriving support quickly swung the tide of the brief battle. But like the Klysanthians, many of the Keruh had also survived, and one small battle followed another, until eleven Keruh vessels were seen approaching in attack formation.

A frantic period followed during which Aeolus gathered the Klysanthians into a winged formation with the Prometheus at the centre. The nuclear detonation on Eden was noted and promptly forgotten as the two tiny fleets bore down on one another. The intersection that followed left both sides diminished and scattered. Now a hunt for the survivors was taking place, and the Prometheus had found and despatched one Keruh vessel only to find that many of the Klysanthians had disappeared in pursuit of their own targets.

“Try and contact them, Peleus! It is important that we keep together!”

“I’m trying, Captain! But it’s difficult to find them on my screen, they are lost among all these wrecks!”

It was true. Even on the main screen it was difficult to pick out one intact ship that flew among the broken wrecks. And the state of the surviving ships made it more difficult. In truth, many of the ships, like the Prometheus herself, were so damaged and battered that a more perfect camouflage could not have been envisaged.

Aeolus thought he spotted one of his flock among the wrecks. He pointed at the screen.

“Glaucus! Take us among those hulks!”

“Wait!” Peleus flicked more switches and leaned closer to his console. “I’m getting a signal from Areto on the Mirror Of Holiness! It’s very weak and distorted!” Peleus looked up, his expression grave. “She is far below us, Captain!”

“Show me!” Aeolus demanded. “Put them on screen!”

The image on the screen changed. Now a tri-hulled ship pursued a triangular one down towards Eden. The Klysanthian ship was heavily damaged, gas and debris trailed from deep ruptures in her main hull, and fires burned within, but she continued firing at the Keruh vessel she chased, preventing it from changing course. The Keruh ship was also damaged, one of its fins had been torn free and gas trailed from the gaping wound. Both ships were deep in the atmosphere, the great blue ocean clear beneath them. They were dropping fast.

Aeolus stood up from his command chair. “Call her, Peleus! Quickly! They both dive at the Defence Net!”

“I’m trying! But the signal is too week!”

“Get her on screen!”

The screen flickered and changed. There was fire and smoke, and sparks flashed in the dim light. The bridge of the Mirror Of Holiness was a shambles. Control consoles were smashed and burning, and structural members had collapsed down from the roof. Shadows moved among the smoke and fire, lithe figures supporting one another. And scattered on the floor were bodies, still and motionless.

Areto sat at the helm. She looked desperate, manic. Her uniform was torn and she was badly burned, with blood on her face and on her neck. At her side the body of another Klysanthian was slumped across the console.

The image on the screen shook and broke up with distortion, but Areto’s voice came through clearly.

“We scored a hit!” she screamed, her voice a cracked rasp. “But our enemy still lives! Our tactical systems are down and we have lost the starboard engine!”

“Break off!” Aeolus yelled at her. “You approach the Defence Net!”

“No! They will not escape!”

“Damn them! Break off! Now!”

“Why, to continue this agony? We are finished, Atlantian! Tell Pantariste- aaarghh!”

It was too late. Fire erupted across the screen. Areto screamed and was engulfed in the flames. The screen flashed and the image returned to the view above Eden where huge sparks now engulfed both ships. There was a bright, orange blossom, and two blazing comets plummeted to the ocean below.

Aeolus raised his fists to the air. “Why!” he screamed.

As if in reply, the screen before him changed once again. The dark haired image of Pantariste reappeared, her expression cold and calm.

“Do not mourn us, Aeolus of Atlantis. My sisters died in fire, bringing that same fire to our enemies. It is an end we all pursue.”

“I cannot allow it!” Aeolus shouted at her.

Pantariste’s voice remained calm and angelic. “You cannot stop it.”

Aeolus stepped closer to the screen, his voice now filled with anger. “To Hell with your pursuit of suicide! For every ship that takes that path, a potential Keruh vessel escapes us! I will not have it! Do you hear me? I will not have it! Instruct your sisters, it must stop!”

Peleus raised his hand in interruption. “Captain, I have a signal from the Friend Of The Sick.”

On screen, Pantariste turned her head at the same time. “We have it too. Thraso has found the Shrine Of The Spirit.”

-o-

The Dominant of the Belol’Fan leaned his bulk on one of the control consoles and stared out of the large window before him. Behind him the Sixteenth of the Belol’Fan waited impassively with several other Warriors, his three bodyguards among them.

The news had not been good.

The loss of the portals at Elengrad was irrelevant. They no longer functioned in any case. But for the Gathering to continue, and for the Host to escape, the acquisition of the Edenite portal in the capital now became imperative. The Diggers were already working their way towards the city, and behind them the bloated Receivers waited for their return to the Hives in a growing traffic queue.

The loss of the seven captured ships that had been shot down above the highway was more distressing.

The combined Hosts would soon reach Jutlam City. They heavily outnumbered the Assassin-Drones and even without the support from their captured vessels victory should be theirs. But the Dominant knew well his foe. Victory could not be assumed, and the air support was added insurance. That insurance had now been cut in half. If the ships from Kalahar were also lost, the Host would be endangered.

He had a choice to make.

The repair of the tracking arrays was nearly complete. He already had several low level antennas that told him of the enemy’s ships that approached theirs on an interception course. The Keruh captains had been advised and all ten ships now climbed for the oncoming battle. Prudence would suggest that evading battle and proceeding on to Jutlam City was the best course of action. But that was not the Keruh way.

But was glorious defeat better than ignominious victory?

He could wait. With the arrays repaired the outcome of the battle in space would soon be known to him. But if they lost the captured vessels at their disposal while they waited, only to learn that the battle in space had also been lost, then the situation could be irretrievable. And with the Diggers, Receivers and their entourage of Gatherers approaching the city underground, and the combined Host approaching on the highway, was delay a viable option?

The captured Klysanthians may hold the answers to some of his questions, but he couldn’t wait until they could be questioned.

No, in war, wisdom was sometimes greater than courage.

The Dominant turned to face his Warriors. He addressed the Sixteenth with deliberate purpose.

“Advise the Diggers to increase their progress. We must have access to the surface beyond the radiation zone. Suspend the Gathering until this is achieved. Contact our ships. Have them break formation, scatter, and head for Jutlam City by any route. They are to avoid engagement until absolutely necessary. Advise the Dominant of the Telen’Gal, the First of the Belol’Fan and the Second of the Orly’Ank that they are to increase their speed. They must reach the Capital before the Assassin-Drones reach the highway. Advise also the Second of the Mysan’Taf that he is to allow the Assassin-Drones to break out and then proceed with his plan immediately. He is not to wait for the combined Host to reach the city. The Edenite portal must be taken.”

The Sixteenth of the Belol’Fan swept his smaller hand before him.

“It shall be made so.”

-o-

The Shrine Of The Spirit was badly damaged but not yet dead. The Friend Of The Sick was almost alongside her when Peleus put the image up on screen. But that was as much as Aeolus saw before Pantariste reappeared.

“You are not wanted here, Atlantian!” she said in a haughty manner. “This rescue does not concern you!”

Aeolus was about to argue with her once more, but the image changed again. Now another Klysanthian appeared. She was fair-haired with blue eyes, her uniform was tattered and she had a bloodstained bandage around her exposed waist, one hand pressed against it. A second Klysanthian supported her, dark haired this time, with green eyes, her face filled with fear and worry. There was good reason. Her burden leaned heavily against her, and she also staggered and swayed more than once. She looked to be in pain, and her eyes held a deep sadness, but when she spoke, it was with the voice of an angel.

“I am Telepyleia, Captain of the Shrine Of The Spirit, Flagship of the Klysanthian Ninth Fleet. I speak openly to you, Aeolus, Captain of the Prometheus. Thraso has told me of your attempts to rally the ships that survive, and to bend their captains to your will. I am also advised of the reluctant support my sisters have given you. That will now change.”

Her last words were said with finality, and she now stared upwards and passed Aeolus, as if seeing others behind him, and her expression grew haughty and regal.

“Listen to me, all of you who still have blood in your veins. You are not freed from Royal Service until this task is done. I, Telepyleia, last Matriarch of the House Of Spirit, order this. You will follow this Atlantian and obey his commands, for he carries the will of Ares on his lips. You will only be freed from this service once the enemy is smashed and burned. Let none survive.”

When she had finished, Aeolus bowed before her. “I am grateful for your support, Telepyleia. But there is much to do and little time to do it in. Can we give you any assistance?”

“No, Aeolus. My ship is lost and my crew will transfer to the Friend Of The Sick. Here we will find the help we need. I, like my ship, am unwell, and my time may also be short. I will not speak with you again. Command my sisters well, Atlantian, I place them in your care. They are all that remains.”

Her image disappeared, to be replaced by the two Klysanthian ships now side by side among the wrecks.

Aeolus rubbed his face with both hands, and then he turned to Peleus. “Make to all ships. We will pause here until the transfer is complete. Then we must search this sea of wrecks and be sure that no other Klysanthian vessels are left unfound. We need every ship. And whenever we come upon a Keruh vessel that still lives, it must be destroyed, every last one. These are my orders. Only when this task is done can we break orbit and seek our enemy elsewhere.”

Peleus did as he asked, and slowly all the missing Klysanthian ships began to turn up, flying gracefully among the wrecks. There were losses, however, and even after such a small intersection many ships would never return. But as if by magic, other ships previously never seen now appeared in their place. Aeolus grunted and nodded knowingly when he saw them on the screen. Sitting in his command chair waiting patiently, he couldn’t help showing his annoyance.

“See how they emerge from their slumber. Where were they while their sisters fought at our side? Skulking among the wrecks no doubt, waiting for the Defence Net to take them. Now the speech by Telepyleia brings them forth, chastised and embarrassed.” He pointed at the screen. “See that one? She even tries to hide herself in the shadow of another!”

While others on the bridge watched the screen, Peleus watched his console. The indications surprised him.

“We have a portal connection opening with the Friend Of The Sick.”

Aeolus turned to look at him. “Well, don’t just sit there! Go and see who it is!”

Peleus nodded and got to his feet. He walked to the communications room with his mind in a whirl. A portal link with a Klysanthian ship could mean only one thing: A Klysanthian standing an arms length away from him. That thought filled him with equal amounts of anticipation and fear. Anticipation because he knew of their reputation for power over men, and fear because he was sure he would act foolishly under such power. He tried to tell himself that there was no reason for either emotion, that he had seen them from afar on screen. But he knew that was different. He could see their beauty on screen, but he couldn’t feel their presence. It was said that they could light up a room with their joy, or darken it with their sadness. Soon he would be standing next to one of them, in the flesh, for the first time in his life, and he would know if that were true.

He felt like a child. Why did women always do that to him?

He was always embarrassed in the presence of women. He wanted so much to succeed that he always failed. And each time made it worse. Strangely enough he hadn’t thought about women for ages, the war and isolation aboard the Prometheus had swept them from his mind. But now that was about to change. He would keep calm; that was it. He would be businesslike and to the point. It would be easy. How long could the portal connection last?

Peleus reached the communications room and paused at the doorway. There was something in the air, something different. A scent? A perfume? Why did he suddenly feel so warm? He shook his head and took a deep breath. It seemed to make things worse. Rubbing his eyes, he went inside.

Peleus removed his hand from his eyes to find the portal already open with two Klysanthians looking down on him. They were on the bridge of the Friend Of The Sick, and behind them other Klysanthians could be seen moving from console to console. The portal connection made him feel he was aboard their ship and surrounded by them. That scent he had smelt, it was even greater now, a powerful, heady sweet perfume that seemed to tug at his most basic urges. He tried to ignore it, tried to stop the reactions in his body that stirred in response. He concentrated, staring up at the two figures standing before him on the portal.

His first impression was that they were immensely tall. On screen their height had been hidden, but now it was very clear. His second impression was their slender build. They were slender but exquisitely shaped. And finally he recognised them. One was Thraso, the Captain of the Friend Of The Sick. Peleus had seen her on screen several times before. She looked very different now, but he wasn’t sure why. The other Klysanthian was also familiar to him. She had been the one supporting the wounded Telepyleia. He remembered her anxious expression. He remembered her dark hair and vivid green eyes. He stared up at the two Klysanthians, trying hard not to become aroused, and wondering why they made him feel so alive, why they seemed so remarkably different in the flesh, and why he was so physically conscious of their presence.

While Peleus stared up at them, Thraso turned to her companion and leaned forward. They rubbed cheeks and embraced affectionately, then, to Peleus’s surprise, the second Klysanthian stepped off the portal and Thraso broke the connection. Her image on the portal faded and Peleus was now alone in the communications room with his unexpected guest.

Silence.

Peleus continued to stare at the Klysanthian. After the portal had closed the warmth in the room had abated slightly. He had felt it get cooler, he was sure. Or was it just his own body temperature that was changing? As he stared at her, lost in his own confusion, she stepped closer to him. It was then that Peleus knew the truth. It was his body temperature that was changing and not that in the room, because it had changed again. As she came closer it increased. And now that she stood before him, towering over him, he felt hotter than ever, hotter and sexually aroused.

She spoke. She had an angelic voice he was almost used to and expected now.

“I am Lysippe, First Officer on the Shrine Of The Spirit. Thraso suggested to Telepyleia that I should transfer to your vessel. My Captain agreed. It was felt that my presence next to your Captain would reinforce his orders.”

Peleus nodded. “I see.” He was still staring up at her as if in a trance, his surprise and confusion quite clear. It was her eyes that were doing it, bright green and almond shaped. They sparkled so brightly.

Lysippe looked down at him, her head leaning to one side slightly. “Is there a problem?”

Peleus snapped out of his reverie at last. “No! Of course not!” He stepped aside and held out his arm, indicating the doorway. “I’m sorry, this way. You should meet my Captain straight away.”

She nodded and stepped forward. Peleus followed her, marvelling at the way she turned a simple act of perambulation into a sexually erotic art form. He was aroused, confused, excited and embarrassed.

Nothing had changed, then.


CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

THE REMORSELESS ENEMY

The Dominant of the Mysan’Taf leaned heavily against the astrogator screen, his three bodyguards standing close by. Another Warrior stood beside him, spreading a green paste over the puncture in one of his large faceted eyes. More green paste covered his body and the premature end of his smaller right limb. And the missing mandible gave his head a lopsided and even more asymmetrical look.

He was a mess, but he was Dominant. His limbs would re-grow and his wounds heal. But his victory and recovery would mean nothing if the war was lost. The astrogator screen told the pitiful truth.

“We are too few,” the Dominant, hissed and clicked sadly, his voice cracked and weak. He turned his bulk towards one of the other Warriors at another console. “Why are we not at maximum speed?”

“There are many damaged ships among our fleet, Most Gracious One,” the Warrior clicked in reply. “Our speed is dictated by the slowest.”

The Dominant paused before continuing. “How soon before we reach Eden?”

“Three and one half units.”

“And the Atlantians?”

“They are less than one full unit behind us.”

“Do they match our speed?”

“They do, Most Gracious One.”

“If they maintain their speed while we increase to maximum, what benefit will we gain?”

“One and one half units.”

“Then increase our speed, abandon those ships unable to keep station. Advise them to turn and face the enemy. Theirs is a noble deed and a glorious fate.”

The Warrior bowed and swept his smaller hand before him. “It shall be made so.”

The Dominant turned back to the astrogator screen. He hated the sacrifice, but it had to be done. If another enemy lay in wait in the skies above Eden, he had no wish to engage them with the Atlantians at his back. Although callous, the time advantages given by his decision were clear. The Atlantians would also have ships in their fleet that were damaged and slow. They would not have the courage to abandon them. Another battle, however brief, would also delay them. That delay and their own increase in speed would get them to Eden well ahead of their enemy. Time enough for another battle.

But there was further news that worried him. At some point while he fought in the main hold for dominance of the Hive, their portals at Elengrad had gone off line. Attempts to reopen them by their technicians on the Hive world had proved fruitless but informing. Although someone was jamming their portal transmissions, the portals themselves also no longer existed. The answers were clear. A nuclear response by the Edenites had finally come as expected. And as expected, they had been too long deliberating to make it effective. With most of the Host now underground, only the Gatherers on the surface would have been lost, and they could be replaced. What concerned the Dominant most was their inability to reopen a fresh portal on Eden. Without a portal, the Gathering would be stifled. Logical progression gave him the answers he feared.

Subterfuge. The reason? Delay.

Only the Tun-Sho-Lok would have the knowledge to challenge their control of the Ring. That meant one of the Humeric Council was still alive and involved in the battle. He must be on Eden, most probably at the main portal building. Only from there could he interfere with the Ring access protocols. And that meant only one thing: The Assassin-Drones were on Eden. He was sure of it. Had to be. Only the Assassin-Drones could clear the way at the main portal building to allow access to a member of the Humeric Council. The battle was joined, the Host under threat as he had feared.

They had to get to Eden quickly. They had to break through and make contact with their forces on the surface. They had to destroy the main portal building, destroy the Edenite RNP and break the connection with the Ring, only then could they reopen a fresh portal. But most of all they had to reach Eden in time to defeat the Assassin-Drones.

For the first time, probably the only time, the entire Host would meet the full army of the Assassin-Drones on the field of battle. It was a noble deed and a glorious fate that could not be avoided. Even now, the first skirmishes of the battle true would have begun. Both armies were in the field, manoeuvring for position. He could not afford to be late.

Time ticked by like a remorseless enemy eating at his soft internal organs.

-o-

The surviving ships of the once mighty Keruh Fleet accelerated to maximum speed. Behind them, falling back rapidly, were the damaged and broken ships that trailed gas and debris. They would soon be overtaken by the pursuing ships of the Atlantian Fleet. There would be a brief, bright glory, and then perpetual darkness.

On the bridge of the Kraken, Memnon surveyed his forthcoming victims on the viewing screen and grunted.

“Ha! They know our strategy! But too late!”

“Do we match their speed, Captain?” Telephus asked.

Memnon paused to rub his chin. “And leave our wounded behind as they do? They taunt us to do the same, knowing all the while that we cannot. I would like to prove them wrong, but I won’t leave good men to die in the dark. But if the Keruh reach Eden before us, your brother must face them alone. If you were Captain, Telephus, what would your decision be?”

Telephus looked up at the viewing screen. “My love for my brother would urge me on. But if my brother was in a ship that trailed behind, then I would wish to tarry.”

“Ha! And this is why you are not Captain! We are all brothers, Telephus, those ahead and those behind.”

“Then what should we do?”

“What we must. Ascertain the best speed of each of our ships. We must split the fleet in equal portions. One half will travel at the speed of the slowest. They will engage the damaged Keruh vessels that fall towards us. None must escape. With that task accomplished they can then make best speed for Eden. In the meantime the Krakan will lead the other half of our fleet in pursuit of our foe. We must travel at maximum speed, avoid any battle, fly passed the maimed ones that stray in our path. We must reach Eden when the Keruh reach there. We must be behind them when your brother is before them. Send the signals.”

-o-

The ground trembled and soil and stones fell from the roof of the tunnel. Breda looked up, shielding her eyes, and nearby Lupili covered his head as the debris showered down on him. The Gatherers and Receivers in the tunnel ignored the vibrations and the tumbling dirt. They marched on, uncaring of the debris that peppered them. But the vibrations at last caused a change in Anaxilea. She raised her head; looking around more purposefully, fire in her eyes once more.

“The Edenites have struck at the Keruh portal,” she whispered to Cassiopea.

Cassiopea looked up at the roof of the tunnel, blinking and squinting as some of the falling soil spilled on her face. She quickly wiped it away. “How can you be sure? It could be a maser blast.”

“Yeah, a direct hit right over the tunnel,” Anaxilea added without conviction. “I don’t think so.”

Cassiopea continued to stare up at the roof as if she expected it to fall in at any moment. “But the blast would kill their own people. How could they do such a thing?”

“They’re desperate.”

Cassiopea turned to look at her. She paused in thought, watching Anaxilea also staring up at the roof. Finally she spoke. “We always knew it was a possibility, but I never thought they would actually do it, and so soon.”

“It wasn’t soon enough.”

“Some of the Host must have been caught in the blast.”

Anaxilea climbed to her knees and leaned out over the side of the truck as it heaved and rocked its way along the tunnel. She looked back and forth, eyeing the long procession of fat and grotesque Receivers and their entourage of Gatherers. They quickly disappeared into the darkness both before and behind them. Having seen enough she settled back down next to Cassiopea again. “I’ll bet there are more down here than there are up there,” she said, and shook her head before adding, “No, it wasn’t soon enough. Once they established the tunnels it was already too late.”

“They wouldn’t know that,” Cassiopea pointed out.

“No.”

There was a pause. It was a pause of guilt. What the Edenites didn’t know they could have been told. Cassiopea glanced at Clyemne. She was looking back at her, the Edenite female in her arms. Cassiopea shook her head. Clyemne blinked and nodded in understanding. Knowing what had happened above their heads wouldn’t help them. It could only bring more sadness. Cassiopea turned back to Anaxilea.

“What are we going to do?”

It was a question that surprised Anaxilea. She stared into Cassiopea’s eyes. There was sadness there, and hope too. It scared Anaxilea. Scared her because she had no uplifting answer. She drew her hands through her long hair, feeling the dirt and dust, trying to comb it out with her long fingers. Finally she gave up and sighed.

“I don’t know.”

“Are we to die, then?”

“Maybe. Only time will tell.”

Cassiopea reached out and laid her hand on Anaxilea’s breast. “Then we should make the time pass more quickly.”

It was a desperate plea, a need that Anaxilea suddenly also felt. She turned and got to her knees again, straddling Cassiopea and facing her on all fours. Cassiopea fell back on her elbows, staring up at Anaxilea above her, waiting. Anaxilea moved closer, her eyes fixed on those of Cassiopea. Their lips met, a gentle brush, and then Anaxilea dropped down on Cassiopea and they kissed and embraced hungrily.

Breda watched them in the dark as she sat in Clyemne’s arms. She watched them kissing and hugging, their hands and mouths exploring. The slight noise of their movements as they undressed one another in an urgent frenzy of twisting limbs had caused her to open her eyes. At first she was surprised, curious, and yes, embarrassed. But then she became jealous. Jealous because they didn’t care about where they were, surrounded by such horror. They didn’t care about who might be watching. They cared only about what was important: Their love for one another, and possibly the last chance to share it.

As Anaxilea kissed her way slowly down Cassiopea’s body, Breda closed her eyes on the shadowy forms and tightened her grip on Clyemne. The Klysanthian must have felt it, because she caressed Breda’s hair and whispered in her ear.

“What they share, we can also share.”

“I can’t,” Breda whispered back.

“Why?” Clyemne asked, stroking Breda’s neck.

“Because I’m scared.”

“Scared? Of me? I will not hurt you.” Clyemne kissed her on the head and on the cheek, her hand moving down Breda’s back.

“No. I’m scared because I’ve never done it, not even with Kiki. And it wouldn’t be right. I love Kiki. He should be the first.”

Clyemne stopped kissing her. She raised her head and smiled wistfully. She patted Breda on the back with her hand. “I understand. I do not try and take the place of your loved one, I only offer solace in a time of great sadness.”

“I know. And I love you for it. But I have to be true to my feelings. It wouldn’t be right. I might enjoy it, I don’t know. But I don’t want to feel bad about it later. Do you understand?”

Clyemne stared into the darkness of the tunnel. “Yes. And I am jealous of Kiki. He is a man I have never met; yet he fills me with anger. He holds in thrall from afar the woman I love. And they say Klysanthians have the greatest power in love. He must be an unusual man. I hate him.”

Her final remark made Breda smile. “He’s quite ordinary.”

“Then I hate him even more.”

Breda laughed, and reaching up she pulled on Clyemne’s long fine hair. “It’s funny. Next to Kiki, and my mum and dad, and my brother of course, I don’t think I’ve loved someone as much as I love you.”

Clyemne looked down at her. “There is still time,” she suggested hopefully.

Breda looked into her eyes. “Just hold me, please?”

Clyemne nodded. They embraced once more, sitting together on the floor of the truck as it heaved and swayed on its journey through the dark.

Only Lupili was left to watch. It was strange, almost comical. Here he was, surrounded by women, and half of them were unconscious in shock, while the other half cavorted with one another. He felt sad, depressed and angry. He also felt terribly lonely. What he didn’t feel was fear. He wasn’t sure when, but it had left him. At that moment, Lupili suddenly realised that all he loved, all that he once was, was gone, that there was nothing left.

Lupili stood up and leapt from the heaving truck.

For a moment it seemed that the Gatherers and Receivers in the tunnel hadn’t noticed him. He stood in the centre of the tunnel, watching the truck moving away from him. It was moving quite fast, the multitude of Gatherers underneath it heaving it along. Then he turned and saw the Receivers and other Gatherers coming up the tunnel out of the gloom behind him. The Receiver at the front of the queue must have seen him, because he instantly heard the demanding voice in his mind.

WAIT FOR ME, LITTLE ONE! WAIT AND I WILL COME FOR YOU!”

“To hell with you!” Lupili bellowed, and turned and ran.

The effect was amazing. Until his raised voice rent the air of the tunnel, there had been almost silence. The Keruh moved about their business without need for shouted commands or the babble of gossiping voices. For them there was only the task and the unity of their toil. Now Lupili broke that silence and their unity. As he ran passed the truck, the Gatherers underneath it suddenly became aware of him. By instinct, those at the edge broke away and gave chase, while those more in the centre became trapped by the extra weight of the truck as it tipped. With a lurch, the truck heaved over, dug into the soft ground and stopped moving. Slowly it settled down, pinning the remaining Gatherers underneath it.

Everyone on the truck who was conscious felt the sudden impact of the fall. Anaxilea fell off Cassiopea and banged her head. And Clyemne and Breda both fell over with a cry. They all looked up as the truck began to rock beneath them as the Gatherers trapped underneath tried to free themselves.

Anaxilea pulled at her clothes hurriedly. “Something’s happened! Clyemne! Take a look!”

Clyemne rushed to the side of the truck and leaned out. Breda joined her.

“It’s Lupili!” Breda shouted, pointing down the tunnel. She could hardly see him in the darkness.

Clyemne turned to Anaxilea. “The Edenite male is trying to escape!”

Anaxilea and Cassiopea joined them at the side of the truck and stared along the tunnel as they finished dressing. In the dark they could just about see Lupili in front of a distant Receiver. It had turned halfway around in the tunnel, getting stuck in the process, a multitude of Gatherers trying to turn it back the right way round again. It ignored them, its mouth gaping open. It kept trying to eat Lupili, twisting itself further around as he ducked and weaved out of the way. There were several more Gatherers around Lupili. They kept trying to force him back towards the waiting Receiver, but he seemed to be able to keep them at bay with a large root he had found. It was almost comical. They darted forward, he hit them, they moved back. One even fell over. Then Lupili ducked as the Receiver lunged forward and tried to bite at him again. It bit the ground instead.

Cassiopea stared in wonder. “Why don’t they take him?”

Anaxilea knew the answer. It came to her suddenly, clear as a bell. “They can’t! The Seventy-Ninth gave his word we wouldn’t be killed! The Gatherers know that! They want to catch him, its instinct! But once they have him cornered they don’t know what they’re supposed to do with him!”

“That Receiver does!” Cassiopea pointed out.

“Receivers don’t care about anything other than stuffing their bellies! They’ll take their own Gatherers and Warriors if they’re wounded!”

Breda listened as she watched. Without removing her gaze from Lupili she pulled on Clyemne’s arm. “What are they saying?”

“Lupili has caused confusion,” Clyemne replied quickly. “The Keruh Warrior in charge has vowed that we will be kept safe. Lupili challenges the strength of that vow.”

Warriors ran passed the truck. They ran to help the Gatherers that continued to be beaten away by the heavy blows Lupili was dishing out. He kept shouting with each blow.

“You want some? Here! Have it!”

Thump. The heavy root came down on another Gatherer with such force that it was knocked over.

The Receiver lunged forward once more. Breda could hear its voice in her mind.

STAY STILL, LITTLE ONE!

Lupili didn’t stay still. He jumped aside and the Gatherer climbing back on its feet ended up in the Receiver’s mouth. It didn’t spit him out.

Breda’s eyes grew wide. “It eating one of it’s own!” she exclaimed.

“It’s all sustenance for the hive,” Clyemne told her in cold tones as the Gatherer was gulped down.

The Warriors now took control, one of them clicking and hissing orders while the others surrounded Lupili. The Gatherers fell back. Lupili now swung his root at Warriors who parried his blows with their axes. His root became noticeably shorter.

Anaxilea suddenly jumped down from the truck and ran along the tunnel. Cassiopea watched her in amazement. “What are you doing?” she called after her.

“Going to help him! Come on!”

Cassiopea started to follow her, but Clyemne suddenly grabbed her and dragged her back. Cassiopea struggled and they fell on the floor of the truck

“Clyemne! Let go!”

“No!” Clyemne was adamant. “In confusion death comes swiftly! Let their numbers swing the odds!”

“But she’s on her own!”

“Then less chance of a Klysanthian being struck!”

Breda glanced at the two of them on the floor of the truck behind her. She didn’t know what they were saying but she believed Clyemne was doing the right thing. It wasn’t safe outside the truck. She looked back out at the scene in the tunnel. The Warriors were forcing Lupili back towards the tunnel wall. His root got shorter with each parried blow. The Receiver had also been pushed back, its large body fading into the gloom. Anaxilea was running up behind the Warriors. They seemed not to have noticed her. She was running really fast, her long legs covering the ground quickly. It must have been hard for her in this gravity but she didn’t slow down, if anything she speeded up. And at the last moment she leapt and hurled herself at the back of one of the Warriors. The impact knocked him forward and he dropped his axe.

Lupili looked down in surprise as the axe slithered towards him on the ground. He tossed his root aside, bent and snatched it up. And while the other Warriors were briefly distracted by Anaxilea’s sudden arrival among them, he struck.

-o-

They were incorrect. The station tunnels reeked of their imperfection. She had to kill them, and she had to kill them quickly. She had bounded up the stairs in their pursuit. The incorrectness of their bodies, the smell, the taste of them in the air, it all attacked her mind like an enshrouding, compressing girdle that squeezed and crushed every other thought from her. The pain was physical, hurtful: A dull compressive weight that ached and ached. And the lights made it worse.

Green lights.

She had switched to infrared almost as soon as she had entered the underground system, and now the station concourse she entered was filled with bright red and yellow figures, many of them already with green edges. The green edges were added by her tactical systems. It was a process that was always the same, she was used to it by now, almost expecting it before it happened. Everything she met, every sentient creature she found, resulted in the same methodical process. She was going through that process now.

First the creatures would be pinpointed by yellow triangles that surrounded them. They were little yellow darts that flashed on and off as the symbols representing their genetic composition flew across the bottom of her vision. Below the fast moving stream would be a second stream of symbols. This was the genetic standard locked into her brain, the standard they had to match. There were several such standards, some hardly different to the others, some starkly different. All would stream across offering their chance of success.

It was easy to identify the genealogy of the creatures she met. As soon as she smelt them, as soon as the tiny fragments of their skin came to her in the air, it would be done. To smell them, to taste them in the air, was to know them. The analysis was almost instant.

Each genetic string was compared to the standards locked into her brain. Both sets of symbols would flash red when a match was made, green when it failed. Any slight deviation, any discrepancy, and the comparison would be abandoned. So it would be for each of the standards in her mind. And when the last comparison had failed the yellow triangles would be replaced by a solid edge of green. Green lights would then appear at the bottom of her vision in place of the failed symbols.

The green lights hurt. They hurt more than the compressive dull pain that went before. They hurt like knives pushed through her eyes into the very centre of her brain. To deny them was to feel them twist.

It was always the same.

It was depressing in a way. It marked another failure, another chance lost. And the consequences were always fatal.

As each creature developed it’s green glow, the range, weight and elevation lit up in a green box next to them. What she saw in her enhanced vision, she knew in her mind. The appropriate weapon formed almost instantly, one that allowed for the minimum expense of energy required for a confirmed kill. She altered the shape and form with ease, the micro-biotic technology built into her genetic structure allowing the very molecules to stretch and mutate. From flesh and bone came strength and energy, the weapon forming like steel in her grip.

The green lights confirming the target was acquired and locked for a kill were always undeniable. She would kill them then. It was what she did. It was what she always did.

At first there was a feeling of sadness. When she knew they must die she felt their failure as if it were her own. But then came exhilaration. To kill them was to cleanse the air, to free her mind of the pressure that squeezed it, to remove the knives from her eyes and feel the pain no more. But there was more. Her whole body revelled in their destruction. Glands opened and exuded agents that swelled her veins and airways; they enhanced her feelings and fed her body and brain with stimulants.

To kill those that were incorrect, to cleanse the world of their mutated disgusting flesh brought a feeling of ecstasy that could not be matched. That ecstasy soon overwhelmed any feeling of sadness. She would begin again more eagerly, hunting for those that were incorrect. She knew their failure would sadden her, but she yearned for the ecstasy their death would bring.

In time she began to hate them all, their incorrectness disgusting her, she wanted to kill them, to remove them all. But deep down in the depths of her mind she also knew she needed them, for every kill brought intense pleasure.

Splitting her mind made everything better and everything worse. Now her body sat serene while her mind fed on everything. The anger, the joy, all of it was in her mind now, twisting it, growing it. Her body was dwarfed by her own grotesquely swollen weapon, her need for physical stimulus cut off while her mind bounded and slashed at disgusting flesh, rending them apart and consuming them. She felt the separation, knew that somehow it hurt her, that part of her was fading while another part was growing.

The sadness in her was dying. Soon only the anger would remain.

Inside the tunnel of the underground rapid transit system were creatures other than the Keruh. The Edenites were equally defective. She killed them with the same drive that she killed the Keruh Warriors. All filled her with hatred, with distaste for their very smell and existence. Their deaths brought the same joy and relief as did those of the Keruh. That they didn’t fight made no difference. She smashed and sliced at those she found in the wrecked trains, male, female, children. Some were trapped or wounded, while many others just cowered in the dark. All were added to her bulk.

They were all defective. Incorrect.

These others she had found were just the same. They all disgusted her. They all needed to be killed. One after the other they were tinged in green, the urge to kill them overpowering her. Then something happened.

Two of them matched.

-o-

A silver monster. A silver monster that spoke in Edenite and knew their name.

From nightmare, stunned reality slowly emerged.

With the screams and murmurings slowly subsiding, the Corporal flashed the torch around the concourse until it picked out Didi and Gusta. They were both huddled together, their eyes wide.

“Say something!” he shouted at them.

Didi began climbing shakily to his feet. Gusta held onto his legs. She was staring into the dark with wide eyes, as if she could still see the monster.

“I…I am Didi Albatus,” he began, his voice quaking. He placed his hand on Gusta’s head. “This is my…my wife, Gusta. How do you know us? Who…who are you?”

His timid voice was dwarfed by the monster’s reply. Even in the darkness, they could all hear it’s latent power and malevolence, and it caused another bout of screams and wailing.

“I am El-Quan, a clone of the Tun-Sho-Lok. Your code is known to me. Answer, or the moment of recovery is lost.”

Gusta looked up at Didi, pulling on his trousers. “It means our DNA! We registered our DNA! All the Embassy staff did! Remember?”

Didi remembered, but the Corporal wasn’t going to give him time to think about it.

“Tell it what it wants to know, God damn it!” he shouted, the torch beam wavering.

Didi took his cue. He waved his hand at everyone in the concourse. “These people are with us. The soldiers have helped and guarded us, the other people travel in our care.”

The malevolent voice boomed out again. “Do you grant Embassy status to these creatures?”

Didi nodded. “Yes. They have sanctuary with us as if they were within the Embassy grounds.”

There was a snap, and instant light filled the concourse. Everyone blinked and squinted, rubbing their eyes. The silver monster had moved once again. It had abandoned Altus and was now closer to the stairway that led down to the platforms and the track. It held its tail high behind it. The end had turned into a bulbous cylinder with three transparent panels. A bright, white light burst forth from these panels illuminating the whole concourse. As they all stared at it, still squinting, it raised one of its front legs and pointed at them with a huge claw.

“I have advised the Ambassador of your recovery. You will be taken to the portal and from there to a place of safety. You will obey me without question. Now follow.”

It turned and padded down the steps, the light retreating with it. Straight away the Corporal jumped to his feet and started to shout commands.

“Get after it! Move! Altus! Get up! Eastomoner! Grab Pedomoner! All of you get moving! Grab a stretcher, pick up the bags, help each other!”

For a moment there was no response. The Corporal just shouted louder.

“Do you want to be left in the dark? MOVE!”

With a scramble, everyone broke from their terror-induced stupor. Screaming and shouting, they all grabbed and helped one another and hurried after the light. Didi heaved a holdall over his shoulder and pulled Gusta along with him. Behind them, Kiki carried another holdall, and Klemunus and Ganatus were urging the rest of the party to hurry forward.

Raggedly and wildly, with the stretchers carried aloft, they stumbled down the steps to the platform. There they found El-Quan, the silver monster, waiting for them, her bright tail held aloft. As soon as everyone was down the stairs she jumped down onto the tracks.

“Follow!” she commanded them. “The way above is filled with danger. The way we take is not much safer. Stay close to me and take the path I take. To fall behind is to die.”

As soon as they had all clambered down onto the track, El-Quan padded forward in a fluid motion of silver limbs. They ran after the silver creature, but it moved faster than them and would have soon left them behind if it hadn’t paused every so often to look back with its bright red eyes and wait for them. Satisfied that they were still following it would then move on. It was a pattern that was often repeated as they quickly left the station far behind them.

They ran along the track in the darkened tunnel, the illuminated circle of light shining from El-Quan’s tail flowing along with them. They were all scared, confused and exhausted. They wanted to be somewhere else, but they couldn’t be. They wanted to run away, but there was nowhere else to run to. They had no other choice other than to follow the silver creature. And so they ran, trying to keep in the circle of light, trying desperately not to fall behind and be lost in the shadow. For in the shadow, in the dark, there was -what?

Fear? Monsters? But they followed a monster.

Men and women, bandaged, bloody, dirty, some in uniform, many not, ran along, panting and gasping. Some of them ran in each other’s arms, some ran alone, while others ran hand in hand. The soldiers were mixed in among them, the same but different only in their dress. They all shared the same expressions. Fear, stress, tiredness and pain, they were all present. Only those on the stretchers lacked the same variation. For them the expression was merely of pain. The girl still held the drip for one of the men on the stretchers. It was empty and no longer attached, but still she carried it. She was a young girl, unmarked and uninjured, but she shared the same expression as the rest.

The underground tunnels went on for miles, and it seemed like they were running for miles. And as they ran, gasping and stumbling, the scenes in the tunnel came and went with the circle of light. It was always the same. Dark walls covered with pipes and cables, the ever-constant track, the grey dirt that covered everything. And all was silent.

Silent as the grave.

Somewhere there would be trains. Stopped, still. And where the trains were there would be bodies.

Gusta held onto Didi as they ran after the silver monster that they had all first seen with such fear. Why was it that everything that happened to them, no matter how strange, how unusual, how down right impossible, they all took for granted? They were following a silver monster that spoke, a silver monster that had a light bulb for a tail. And they were chasing after it as if it were their saviour, with hardly a question.

Chasing a tail.

Kiki voiced her thoughts, speaking breathlessly as they trotted along. “Are we doing the…right thing?”

His question opened a floodgate as other voices, men and women, all quickly joined in.

“Where did it come from?”

“What is it?”

“Is it the enemy?”

“How did it get here?”

“We should run away before it eats us!”

The last remark, more of a wail, caused the Corporal to shout out. “Quiet! Shut it, the lot of you!”

As silence returned, Gusta took a deep breath and repeated Kiki’s question. “Are we doing the right thing?”

“You got a better idea?” the Corporal snapped at her.

Didi was also breathing hard. “It knew our name…It’s helping us…It looks strange, but it must be friendly.”

The Corporal stared ahead at the silver form. “That thing isn’t friendly!”

Another man with a bandaged arm and shoulder shouted, “Then why is it helping us?”

A woman further back called out, “Yes! What’s going on? Why is it doing this?”

The Corporal couldn’t answer, and no one else could either. Only El-Quan knew the truth, and she wasn’t talking. Altus finally gave them his thoughts on the matter.

“I was scared shitless back there…I could feel its anger…But as soon as you said we were okay…it took its foot off me…And I’m telling you…the fear went out of me right away…like I knew it wasn’t angry anymore…I’ll tell you one thing…it likes you two…and if you weren’t here…we’d all be dead now…I’m sure of it.”

Gusta suddenly said what came into her head. “The Ambassador is still here…The creature said it had advised him…he must be at the portal building …that must be why we’re going there…It said it was a clone of the Tun-Sho-Lok.”

The Corporal continued to stare at the creature as it loped along the tunnel ahead of them. “This war hasn’t been fair from the start…What army has that as its soldiers?”

“One that can beat the Keruh,” Gusta gasped in reply.

Klemunus suddenly shouted to them from right at the back. “Corp…we’ve got to slow down! We can’t keep up this pace with these stretchers! The people on them are getting bounced around…and we’re already beat!”

Relther added to his argument. “If we don’t slow down…someone’s going to get dropped!”

Other tired voices were raised in support, the terror of their situation now gone in the face of exhaustion.

The Corporal shouted back at them all. “Okay! Okay!” Looking forward again, he shouted at the silver form ahead of them.

“Hey! Silver animal, clone, Elquan, slow down! This pace is killing us!”

There was no response, and no slowing of pace. Didi tried next.

“Slow down! We can’t run as fast as you! We’re tired!”

El-Quan stopped running. She stood in the tunnel and looked back, her red eyes fixed on them. She waited as they all trotted to a halt behind her, several of them doubling over.

“What pace shall I set?” her deep voice boomed in the tunnel.

Didi paused to think, but Gusta beat him to it.

“Edenite walking pace!” she burst out.

The creature turned and began to walk forward slowly. There was sudden relief among her Edenite followers. They all panted and gasped as they walked along, but at least now their hearts weren’t going to explode in their chests.

The Corporal turned to Didi and Gusta. “It seems we don’t exist, but you do. Get in front.”

-o-

Rualda sat up with a moan. She had been in a nightmare world where monsters urged her to throw herself into their gaping jaws. It was a world of darkness and stench that turned the stomach and broke the mind. She awoke to a similar world of darkness and looked around anxiously, the fear rising in her once more, and then was startled to see a Keruh Warrior sitting against the side of the truck almost right in front of her. She was startled because it had an axe embedded in its chest. Even in the poor light it was quite clear. It was at an angle, the shaft of the axe almost resting on the floor of the truck. She glanced around again, seeing Lupili nearby. Kelandra and Jeddra were also awake and sat in each other’s arms next to him. And Breda was sitting with one of the Klysanthians, the other two sitting next to one another. They all seemed content with the Warrior’s presence among them.

“Is it dead?” she said, shuffling back on her hands and bottom.

Breda said, “No, just wounded.”

Anaxilea smiled. “But not well he be either!”

She laughed. It was a tinkling sound that warmed the heart.

The Warrior hissed his words in Edenite. “My predicament amuses you?”

Rualda stared at the Warrior with even larger eyes and moved quickly to join Kelandra and Jeddra. They all hugged one another.

Anaxilea stopped laughing. She answered his question with another, again speaking in Edenite. “Believe in fate do you?”

The Seventy-Ninth of the Telen’Gal hissed loudly before answering. “Fate is the future we all rush to meet. Our destiny, our end, is of our own choosing. But the events of our lives often force our decisions. Situations dictate the paths available. Often the future you intend to avoid proves unavoidable.”

“Mean yes do you?” Anaxilea pressed him.

“The irony of my presence among you with the axe of one of my brothers in my chest is apparent to me. That it was my fate I also accept. It was foolish to rely on the word of a Matriarch without honour.”

Anaxilea laughed again. “Hit you with the axe I did not!”

“You caused the axe to fall. The Edenite was merely your tool.”

Lupili looked up. “I’m no tool! And I didn’t give my word to you or anyone.”

The Seventy-Ninth turned his facetted eyes towards him. “I granted you all protection- ”

“You invaded my world!” Lupili interrupted angrily. “You killed everyone I love! Massacred a whole population! Don’t talk about honour and fate! You’re all murderers!”

He was getting to his feet, his anger almost out of control. Anaxilea scrambled forward and pulled him down. It didn’t seem to take much effort even though he was much larger than her.

“Be calm! Not good now anger be!” She stroked his face with her long fingers. “Sit! Mischief enough you have done today! Sit!”

Lupili looked at her and slowly sat down again. He continued to look at her as she moved away from him.

Anaxilea sat down next to Cassiopea and smiled once more. She spoke again to the Seventy-Ninth. “Underground in their world we be, both aliens unwanted, neither invited. Expect violent response you should. Advantage I took, and admit it I do. But safety you grant not for our benefit be. As Matriarch and enemy my honour intact remains. Raised no weapons have I, only axe caused to fall.”

“And what have you gained other than my pain?” The Seventy-Ninth asked her.

Anaxilea turned her gaze to the bodies at the front of the truck. The poor light didn’t do enough to hide them. “Pursued us you did. The lives of my sisters you did take when escape nearly we had. Forgive you not for this I will. In the truck now you are, your future with us shared. When questions are asked determined by our answers our fate will be. But your usefulness at an end then will be. Waste nothing the Keruh do, and inside of a Receiver your last view will be. Think of this we will when answers we give.”

There was silence after she had finished. The Seventy-Ninth watched Anaxilea snuggle closely with Cassiopea. He had no reply because what she had said was true. It was strange how complex humans could be. That she could gain such comfort from the knowledge that his fate was now set. But it was set.

From the moment the axe had pierced his carapace, the Seventy-Ninth had known it was a killing blow. To remove the axe would have precipitated his death, spilling the fluid that gave life to his internal organs floating within. His Warriors had placed him aboard the truck with his captives. Even in their eyes he was one of them now. But his word still held sway. Lupili had been recaptured easily, his actions stunning him into compliance. The truck was raised aloft once more and their journey recommenced.

But the event had caused a subtle difference. The journey and the fate that awaited them at its end was now his as well as theirs. And the knowledge altered his state of mind more than the axe did his body. When the Klysanthians were delivered to the Dominant his task would have been over. He had assumed that he would return to the battlefront. Now that was lost to him. For him there would be no noble deed, and no glorious fate, only final absorption for the good of the Host. It was a fate he understood and accepted. So why did it hurt so?

-o-

In the grand hall of the council war room, Ares stood apart from the President and the remaining Senators. The celebrations and cheers of only a short time before were now all forgotten. The atmosphere was calm, but tinged with sadness. With victory now all but assured, many of the Senators had left to join the process of evacuation. The grand hall seemed empty with their departure. Aetolus still remained by the side of President Aegina among the small group of Senators. He had asked her many times to leave, but she had stayed. She wanted to stay until the very end. By now the returning dots of the Olympus, Pegasus and Leviathan were quite plain. The sight of them had brought much joy. But the joy had slowly faded. Their returning ships would take several days to get home, and by then Metropolis and the whole of Atlantis would be empty.

Aetolus spent most of his time in the grand hall dealing with the mechanics of the evacuation. Aides came and went in a constant procession. One matter he was discussing caught the attention of his President.

“How many foreign nationals are unaccounted for?” she asked him suddenly.

Aetolus sighed as he turned to her. “Eight. Six of them are part of the geological research parties from Centaurous and Klysanthia. They are travelling along the river Thermodon seeking a viable area for their combined colonisation. They are equipped with communicators. Diomedes has made contact with them. He has taken ship with the remaining survivors from his world and is on his way to Thermodon. The two people from Tau-Ceti were on a trade mission to Minos in the quest of ivory. They are going to be much harder to contact. And with the portal soon to be deactivated, urgency is required.”

“If they cannot be located in time, then there is nothing we can do.”

“They will be trapped here with us.”

“Is that so bad a fate?”

“They will attract attention.”

“The Taurans will be safe at Knossos. The Minoans have always been friendly people, if a little energetic in their behaviour. And the island lies on the path we must take for our evacuation, so we may yet be able to pick them up on our way. As for the Centaurs and Klysanthians, advise Diomedes to return with them to Troy when he has caught up with them.”

Aetolus bowed and spoke quickly to his aides.

Ares had listened to the exchange. But now he was distracted as Hephaestus approached him with Menelaus. His advisor looked alarmed.

“Ares,” he whispered. “Menelaus brings strange news from Ephesus. All the Androktones have now left through the portal.”

Ares looked as surprised as Hephaestus was alarmed. “But I gave no command that the attack on the Keruh home world should begin. The battle in space maybe won, but their departure is premature. Contact the Androktones on Eden. Find out what’s going on.”

“I have tried, Ares. But the link with the portal on Eden is now encrypted.”

Ares paused in thought, his head lowered. Finally he took a deep breath and looked up. He spoke first to Menelaus. “Reopen the portal to Ephesus, return there at once. Check the portal logs and try and find out all you can of their intent and destination.”

As Menelaus hurried away, Ares turned to Hephaestus. “We must continue as if nothing has changed. Advise me of any developments on my return.”

Ares turned and began to walk away. Hephaestus watched him in some puzzlement. “But where do you go?”

“To find out from Otrera what Li-Sen and the Humeric Council had planned for the end of this war. I shall not be long.”

-o-

Fire swept through Jutlam City. The night skies glowed red as building after building fell to the flames. What the fighting and running battles had caused in the centre, the blast wave from the nuclear detonation doubled and trebled in the suburbs. With the growing heat, the air above the city rose in powerful thermals, sucking in the colder air from the land around. The cool wind fanned the flames and fed them, adding to the cycle. Soon the wind became a tornado that blew the flames further into the city, a firestorm that devoured every building that still stood intact.

Among the streets and wide boulevards, the Keruh and Androktones still fought a gruesome and relentless battle. They fought on amid the inferno of smoke and heat that leapt from building to building, oblivious and uncaring. Many died in the flames. Some were caught by the speed and ferocity of the fire, the outcome of their battles undecided, while others hurled themselves at the enemy only to fall through a window or doorway where the flames burst out to devour them all. Victor and vanquished died together.

It was a battle in silhouette as different shaped black figures maimed and mutilated one another against a background of yellow.

The city had become a place of death where an unrelenting battle of attrition spread throughout the wide streets and squares in a tidal wave of blood and fire. But even below ground the living were not safe.

The Second of the Mysan’Taf had seen his worst fears realised. With the silver beasts now in the underground tunnel system his hidden forces had quickly been discovered. The battles that took place down there, in the confined darkness where none could escape, were indescribable.

For thousands of years the Keruh had lived in a subterranean culture where darkness and confinement were familiar friends. In fact, the wide spaces of the world above ground still held a subconscious fear. At one time it was filled with bigger, hungrier predators who limited the numbers of Keruh. But with the development of their mental abilities, the Keruh learned how to outwit and then eliminate these predators, and the dominance of the surface world quickly followed. Now a predator had emerged who was equally at home underground as above. It had intelligence and purpose, and for the first time the darkness of the tunnels would not bring a feeling of safety or sanctuary.

In the darkness and silence, amid the wrecked and burned out trains, fire, black blood and the flash of tooth and claw saw the end of many brave Warriors. It was stand and fight or fall back and be pursued; there was no way to avoid the conflict. The silver creatures worked their way along the tunnels over the mangled and disembodied corpses of the dead. These had been the lucky ones, blown or sliced to death in quick succession. Many more were bitten in half, seized up, gulped back and devoured. The creatures grew in size, impervious, relentless.

It was no longer possible to use the tunnels to reinforce all fronts. The Second of the Mysan’Taf abandoned this strategy doing his best to try and save the Warriors he had kept back from the battle for another purpose. Soon after the Assassin-Drones had broken through his beleaguered forces in the east. It was just as well that he had then received instructions to allow them to do so. Both above and below ground his circler line of defence was broken. It was now impossible to stop the Assassin-Drones from reaching the highway.

The Androktones poured along the wide boulevard that led east to the outskirts of the city. They were a lake of swift limbs and bright weaponry that spurted in a torrent from the ruptured dam set to contain them. The Warriors on either side tried to cut them off and stop them, but it was impossible. The Androktones now outnumbered them more than ten to one. The fighting was bloody but cursory. Warriors axed down the Androktones hurrying by on the fringes, while others jumped into the rushing column itself, flailing with their axes and shooting point blank at the surrounding soft flesh. It did nothing to stop the Androktones. The Warriors in the centre were soon sliced into ribbons and trodden under foot. They disappeared in an instant, swallowed up as if by a fast flowing river. Those at the edge fared no better. The Androktones that ran by would turn and shoot to the side, exploding those Warriors close by, and such was their hatred for their enemy that many more broke from the flow and hurled themselves at the Keruh, slicing and stabbing into them. Heavily outnumbered and quickly overwhelmed, the Warriors began to fall back on either side. And soon the rushing torrent spread wider, and the burning buildings that lined the boulevards became bright islands in a sea of black as the Androktones swept beyond them to the next street and the next wide boulevard.

For the second time that day, the city was lost.

With his defence all but broken and swept aside, all that was left for the Second of the Mysan’Taf was the final assault on the Edenite RNP building. And for it to be effective he would have to time his attack perfectly. But with the rapid transit tunnels now penetrated by the enemy, getting his forces there in numbers, at the right time, and without detection, was not going to be easy.

-o-

At the Edenite RNP building, what had been thousands were now millions. The portal spewed forth a heaving mass in a never-ending column. All hurried forth, pushing and shoving in their eagerness to reach the front, their progress hindered not by the enemy now, but by their own vast numbers. Eagerly, slowly, silently, they moved forward, making way for those arriving behind them. And those that had died before them were crushed under their feet, forgotten. Far more came to take their places.

Soon they passed beyond the doors of the main hall and trudged along the corridor towards the building entrance. And when they emerged from the great doors and ran down the steps into Welcome Square, they found other Androktones guiding the way. They shouted orders and pointed at streets, breaking the massed column into groups that then hurried in different directions. It was a traffic jam of people in tremendous proportions. But even among all the activity there was still a place of calm.

Inside the building, to the side of the main hall and out of the path of the hurrying column of black clad slender figures, others knelt in silence and serenity. Nearly a thousand Androktones now knelt with their eyes closed, their faces relaxed, while others passed between them, watching, their rifles held ready. Among the female figures in black, one stood out.

Li-Sen-Tot walked along the line of softly breathing figures, another Androktone following at his heels. He was clean and unsullied, his form and stature miniscule. She was quite different. Her uniform was torn and marked with dried blood, and on her head was a deep gash that had already begun to close. She had jet-black hair that was cut short and eyes that were as dark as coal. She was as tall as a Klysanthian, but her form was strong and sturdy, her shape more pronounced like that of an Atlantian female. She walked like a queen, her head held high. She was strikingly beautiful, but her expression was arrogant and cold. She carried no weapon.

One by one they passed the kneeling figures. Each one was different but the same. Blonde hair, brown, wounded, or untouched, they all knelt with the same calmness and silence. They came at last to one where they paused.

Li-Sen-Tot looked down at the calm figure kneeling before him.

“Is this her, Mai-Ann?” he spoke in the language of his race, and the Androktone with him replied in the same language.

“Yes, Councilman.” Her voice was rich and mellow, a female voice, but with a background strength that oozed latent power.

Li-Sen-Tot squatted down before the relaxed figure. He looked at her closely. There was such beauty, such innocence in her dirty face. He reached out and stoked her cheek. Her skin was warm and silky smooth, the high cheekbones and delicate mouth and nose reminiscent of the Klysanthians he missed so dearly. He ran his fingers through her light brown hair. It was long and slightly curly, it was also dirty and bloodstained. Lowering his eyes he saw the dark patch and the tear in her uniform. He reached down and unfastened her tunic, sliding his hand inside. Her breathing altered as he found the wound in her right side. It was just above the waist. He withdrew his hand, examining the slight trace of blood on his fingers. He looked up at Mai-Ann waiting patiently beside him.

“Is the injury life threatening?”

“No, she has restricted the blood loss and there is no foreign body to be removed from the wound, and no vital organs have been pierced.”

He looked back at her relaxed features. “She is a Quan?”

“Yes, Councilman. She is the fifth to be born of the first generation. El of Quan.”

Li-Sen-Tot nodded, and staring into her face he said softly, “El-Quan, where are you?”

El-Quan took a longer breath and her lips parted. “I am in the dark. I am not alone.” Her voice was angelic and sweet, a young girl’s voice that spoke softly and calmly.

“Where exactly?”

“The underground tunnels of the rapid transit system. Tunnel 32B, Level 2, south bound. There are Edenites in my care. They have Embassy status.”

Li-Sen-Tot looked up at Mai-Ann. “Where is Gil-Bey?”

“Tunnel 19A, Level 1 west bound. A thousand lengths, no more.”

“When can they intersect?”

Mai-Ann hardly paused. “Tunnel 24B, beyond the station at Bel-Hat Park. But that would bring them close to Yan-Jai.”

Li-Sen-Tot glanced along a distant rank of kneeling figures towards another who knelt calmly. She had long blonde hair; she was unwounded, and untouched. Her outward calm hid an evil ferocity. Li-Sen-Tot turned back to El-Quan.

“Proceed to the station at Belat Park. Meet with Gil-Bey at Tunnel 24B. Give over your charges to her. Gil-Bey will escort them back here. You are to head east. Return to the surface when you reach the highway. Let the Keruh feel your wrath.”

El-Quan bowed her head slightly. “I obey.”

Li-Sen-Tot got to his feet and moved away, walking carefully among the calm and silent figures. Mai-Ann followed him. His actions had aroused a doubt in her.

“Are the Quans imperfect, Councilman?”

“Why do you ask this question?”

“You removed the Embassy staff members from her care. You would not do this unless you doubted her ability.”

“The Quans are perfectly capable, have no doubt, Mai-Ann. But it is wise to keep them in a combat environment. To leave El-Quan in possession of several Edenites for a prolonged period without the ability to dispatch them would not be prudent.”

“Then it is not her abilities, but her intent that you doubt.”

Li-Sen-Tot stopped and turned to her. “Have any of the Quans failed in a combat situation?”

“No, Councilman.”

“Have any shown a tendency to shy away from battle?”

“No.”

“Have any given you any cause to doubt them?”

“No, Councilman.”

“El-Quan will be no different.”

The brief debate over, he continued on his way, Mai-Ann following as before.

“Pass my instructions to Gil-Bey. Have her discard those Edenites whose DNA is not registered. Tell Yan-Jai to follow Gil-Bey back here. Tell her to keep out of sight. Tell her that I will have need of her services once the portal to Nemen has been opened. Tell her also that any Edenites that are left behind are to be hers.”


CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

A GOOD SERVANT

Heli entered the crowded Medical Centre aboard the Gate Of Heaven. It was filled with wounded, many of them burned from maser blasts. Others had suffered only broken bones and limbs. Those that could walk or were not considered to be at risk had been quickly treated and sent back to their own quarters. Some of them needed prolonged rest while others went straight back on duty. Some even stayed to help, which was just as well, as the medical staff themselves had not gone unscathed. Many were bandaged about the head or limbs, some even looking worse than the wounded they were treating. Kreousa was no different. She had her arm in a sling and her head was bruised.

Kreousa was the Senior Doctor on the Gate Of Heaven, and she had broken her arm on the first pass over the landing fields at Kalahar. The ship had taken a heavy hit, lurched, and she had hit the wall. The ignominy of it all was that she was the first one of the crew to be injured. As Heli walked towards her, she worked on with two orderlies, tending another patient who moaned as the orderlies turned her on her side and exposed a large burn in her back.

Heli carefully made her way between the beds trying not to get into anyone’s way. When she reached Kreousa she paused and waited while the Doctor tended to the wound. After a few moments she seemed to become aware of her audience.

“What can I do for you, Heli?” she asked with hardly a glance, never pausing in her ministrations.

“Philippis?” Heli asked simply.

Kreousa pointed with a raised swab. “Over there with Phoebe. Idiot.”

Her insult could have been aimed at her, but Heli knew that it wasn’t. She nodded in reply and slowly made her way in the direction indicated.

Heli soon found herself in a quieter corner. Even before she reached the two narrow beds she recognised Phoebe. She was sleeping peacefully, her breathing strong and even. Next to her, Philippis looked very different. There were tubes that fed into her arms from three drips, and she looked heated and fitful as she moved restlessly under her blanket. Klysanthians were not used to beds, at least not for sleeping in, preferring the warmth and comfort of water. Unfortunately this would not have been conducive to the healing process or to the dressings being used. But even in her wounded state, the irritation Philippis felt was clear in her fidgeting movements.

“You did a foolish thing,” Heli said to her in greeting.

Philippis looked up and half smiled. “Not foolish…beautiful…”

“And suicidal,” Heli added.

Philippis tried to laugh. It hurt and she grimaced, placing a hand quickly on her abdomen. She swallowed noisily. Finally she could only smile weakly and say, “You…weren’t…there…”

“Was the pain worth it?”

Her eyes flashed. “Yes!”

Heli shook her head in disapproval. “If you die from this, and you very well might, it will be your own fault.”

“Is there a better…way to die?”

Heli sighed and stroked Philippis’s short hair. “Maybe not. But even in this you have failed. You are alive, but the report Kreousa filed said that you would be barren. It is the next generation you have killed. And for what, for a short time with an Edenite? You knew he was too large, what were you thinking?”

“He was young…smaller…I liked him.”

Heli leaned closer to her and her voice was raised in reply. “They are all too big, you know that!”

“Don’t shout at me,” Philippis pleaded. “I maybe a fool…but what else is there for me? The House of Charity…is dead…the ship overrun…my sisters taken…the life crushed from them…in the dark. Those of us…who escaped…lived little longer…All dead…chased…caught…killed. There is only Phoebe now. Phoebe and…me…”

She seemed to be getting weaker, as if the strain of talking was too much for her. Her hand was still pressed to her abdomen, there were beads of sweat on her brow and her face was filled with pain. She seemed to have trouble breathing. Heli knew that she should leave her alone and let her rest, but she wasn’t finished yet.

“Did you do this on purpose?”

Philippis smiled again. “My way…is my choice…you have no right…to chastise me…”

Heli straightened up. “Your choice has condemned the Edenite.”

For the first time Philippis looked concerned. She reached up and grabbed Heli’s arm, her words hurried. “It was not his fault!”

“Then be thankful that you are not dead. If you were, Scyleia would have had him killed.”

Philippis tightened her grip on Heli’s arm, raising herself up. There was genuine fear in her eyes now and she spoke anxiously and quickly. “Don’t let Scyleia hurt him! He saved our lives! It wasn’t his fault! Please, Heli!”

Heli put her arm around Philippis, hugging her and lowering her down gently. “It’s alright, Philippis. Don’t worry; I’ll see that the Edenite is kept safe. But remember, the torment in his own mind will be a greater punishment than one Scyleia could inflict. You should have thought of this before you took your pleasure.”

Philippis lay back and stared at the ceiling lights. She grew calmer, her breathing still laboured. “Is he…upset?”

“He thinks he killed you. Of course he’s upset.”

Philippis turned to her again. “Speak to him for me…explain…please, Heli…”

Heli nodded. “You rest. Think about how silly you are. I’ll talk to you again later, when you’re stronger.”

Philippis smiled weakly in reply. Her eyes closed and she moved less fitfully.

Heli left her, pausing by Phoebe to see that she was still sleeping. She moved away, crossing the busy Medical Centre, nodding to Kreousa who was tending to another patient. In a few seconds she was outside. As she walked along the bright corridor her mind dwelled on what Philippis had said.

What must it have been like?

The Gate Of Heaven had sustained much damage, there were signs of it everywhere, even in the corridor she walked along, and they had lost many of their sisters in the attack. But to be shot down, to be overrun by the Keruh, to face their Gatherers in the dark, to see the ones you love crushed and torn screaming from your grasp…

What must it have been like?

-o-

A ship exploded in the night sky, the blast scattering fragments that fell to ground with heavy impacts. One great lump of twisted metal demolished a house in the suburbs of Jutlam City, fire and debris raining down all around it. It was the end of one of several running battles.

On the relief map in the Operations Room, another light went out. Air Marshal Joventa smacked the handrail he had been leaning on in his annoyance.

“Damn it! We’ve lost four ships to their three! We have to do better than this!”

General Orbanta reached out and laid his hand on his shoulder. “Calm yourself, Addi. It isn’t over yet. Our people are doing the best they can.”

Joventa moaned and muttered but grew calmer. The reason for his agitation was simple. When the Keruh ships coming from Kalahar had scattered, the chance of a conclusive battle had disappeared. Instead it was a cat and mouse chase as the Keruh ships tried to evade contact and reach Jutlam City while the Edenite ships tried to intercept and engage them. So far the honours had been almost even.

“We can’t afford to lose any more ships,” Joventa finally said glumly.

“Neither can they,” Orbanta replied. “But we have the advantage. Look at the map. Our ships are between theirs and the city. If they fly around out there all night and all day tomorrow, then we’ve won. If they want to get through they have to come to us sooner or later.”

It was true of course. Two more Edenite ships were already moving in to intercept the Keruh ship that had won the last engagement. It changed course trying to evade them. It wasn’t successful. A red ring lit up, encircling the three lights on the map: One black, two yellow. Tense minutes followed, then the red ring disappeared and the black light winked out.

Instantly there was a cheer, and Joventa straightened up and made a fist. “Got him!”

Orbanta shared his joy, but his eyes picked out a pattern that worried him. The two ships that had won the last battle had been drawn south in the engagement. Now another black light moved in behind them.

“Addi! Addi!” He pulled on the Air Marshal’s sleeve. “Instruct the Temunus to head north! There’s a hole in our lines! We have to close it! Fast!”

Joventa spotted the light, nodded and rushed to his nearest aid.

Orbanta stared at the map anxiously. It was a simple move. Sacrificial, but effective. And if that one ship got through they would have a devil of a time catching it without letting more through in the process.

-o-

Tipi sat hunched up on the floor in a corner of the room. It was a small room and he looked too big for it even though the ceiling was high. The detention cell was designed for Klysanthians, the sunken bed with gently warmed water meant to sleep on. He ignored it. He was still dressed in the remains of his college uniform and he looked a mess. His clothes were torn and dirty, with a large bloodstain on his trousers. His hair was all untidy and matted and he seemed to have lost a shoe somewhere. He had been crying and his face was still wet, the dirt all smudged on his cheek and around his eyes.

This was the image that Heli found when the door opened and she stepped inside. The door closed behind her, and her first thought was to wonder what Philippis had seen in him. Yes, he was young, but there was nothing remarkable about him. He looked a mess. She sighed and stepped forward.

Tipi shied away from her, trying to squeeze himself further into the wall. Heli knelt down on one leg before him.

“Edenite I speak to you. Understand do you?”

He looked up at her. “Is she dead?”

His voice was shallow and quaking. It was as if he already knew the answer. It must have been very confusing for him, confusing and frightening. And nobody had bothered to tell him. Heli smiled comfortingly.

“No. Hurt badly but lives still she does. Told me to tell you fault not with you lies. Knew she did that you were too big. Took chance did she. Mistake it was. Angry with self not be. Not know you did what injury you do.”

Tipi shook his head in despair. “I should have known it was hurting her. I should have stopped.”

“What Philippis wanted had to give you did. Fault not yours. Understand me, Edenite?”

Her assurances didn’t make any difference. “But I hurt her,” he replied quickly and with more force. “I didn’t mean to. I liked her. I liked Phoebe, too.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know why. You’re all the wrong shape, too tall and too thin. But I liked her, and I liked what we were doing. And then there was all that blood, and she was just lying there, and…”

Heli put both her hands on his shoulders. “Fault not yours,” she said firmly, shaking him. It was like trying to shake a rock.

Tipi wiped his eyes. “You get the words the wrong way round,” he said weakly. “Philippis did too.”

“Not yours fault?” Heli tried again.

“Your. Not your fault.”

Heli nodded and smiled at him encouragingly. “Learn from you I will try. What name is yours?”

“Tipi.”

“I am Heli, First Officer aboard the Gate Of Heaven. Look after you I will. But first you should be clean and changed. Not right for you to be in here like criminal. Not your fault.” She stood up. “Come with me. Wash and find clothes for you we will. Then I will take you to Philippis. Okay?”

She was bending over him, holding out her hands to him. Tipi stared at her for a moment. She was like all the others, far too thin and spindly. But like the others there was a compulsive beauty about her. The way she smiled at him with her whole face, her eyes giving him the same encouragement, was hugely attractive. The tunic of her uniform was unfastened at her neck, and as she bent over him he caught a flash of gold in the light. The glint caught his eye and he stared at the tiny chain that appeared from inside her tunic. It rolled out link-by-link, almost falling all the way out, but then it stopped abruptly. There must have been something at the end of it, something that was caught inside her tunic. Tipi stared at it for a moment. It seemed to be a surprise. He hadn’t noticed any of them wearing jewellery before.

Heli spoke up again, her voice filled with the same encouragement as her expression.

“Come, Tipi.” She moved her hands closer to him. “Take my hands, come with me.”

Tipi reached out and took one of her hands. It was such a small hand, the fingers so long and delicate. He turned it over in his own large hand, examining every feature.

“You’re all so small, so fragile.” He looked up at her, his eyes pleading. “I don’t know what came over me. I’ve never done it before, didn’t even know how to. I can’t even remember it much; it’s all such a blur. It’s as if it wasn’t really me.” He paused and looked away, adding finally, “I’m sorry.”

Her fingers curled around his hand. “Stand up, Tipi. Come with me. Come.”

She pulled on his hand, her strength insufficient to raise him, but he got to his feet at last, clambering up from the floor. Finally he was stood before her. He was quite tall, very broad, and with powerful legs. She remembered when she had first seen him with Philippis when they had rescued her and Phoebe. The light had been poorer and she had hardly paid much attention to him. Now, in better light, right in front of her, he looked far more interesting. She kept hold of his hand and led him to the door, banging on it with her free hand. As they waited she turned to him again.

“What age are you?”

“Fourteen.”

She thought for a moment. “Edenite years are one-point-two Klysanthian years, over sixteen and a half years that makes you. Are you adult yet?”

“No. How old are you?”

“I am eight, but still older than you I be.”

The door opened and Heli spoke to the Klysanthian outside. The words were quick and the exchange short, the sound a melody of light tones. Then the door was thrown wide and Heli pulled a very confused Tipi through with her. He had to turn sideways to fit through the door.

“But you’re half my age!” he finally exclaimed as she led him down a bright corridor that still showed signs of damage.

“Grow faster we do. Lifespan different also.” She smiled at him. “Alien races are confusing, are they not?”

Tipi followed after her without resistance. “I don’t know anything about anything anymore.”

Behind them, the Klysanthian who had let them out of the detention cell shook her head disapprovingly as she watched them walk away. As soon as they were out of sight she moved towards a communications point on the corridor wall and switched it on.

-o-

General Orbanta leaned on the rail overlooking the relief map. His whole form and expression was glum, and his mood matched his image. On the relief map two yellow lights were pursuing one black light. All three were already well over the outskirts of Jutlam City. The outcome of the race was a foregone conclusion.

The ship had got through.

It had been a simple sacrificial manoeuvre, and it had paid off brilliantly. He should have seen it coming, that was what annoyed him most. Elsewhere their ships had been more than a match for those in the hands of the Keruh. Two more enemy ships had been brought down without loss. But it didn’t matter. That one ship was all the enemy needed, and there was nothing they could do to stop it now. There were no other ships to head it off, and no ground forces to shoot it down. Its course was clear to all who paused to watch for more than a few seconds. It was heading directly for the forward section of the yellow area that marked the Alliance forces. Once there it would begin bombardment, pulverising the troops on the ground, halting their advance, driving them back, and allowing the main Host to reach the city.

There was only one chance to stop the ship, and Addi Joventa had gone to see if any of their remaining air force jets could be got off the ground in time to intercept it. And when the Air Marshal returned, it was with mixed news.

“We can only get three jets in the air,” he said hurriedly. “But by the time they reach that ship it will already be over the city.”

Orbanta became even more depressed. “Then they’ve had it,” he exclaimed.

“Not necessarily!” Joventa said quickly and thrust two reports into Orbanta’s hand. “Do you remember that ship Limeno reported?”

Orbanta looked at the first report. “The Klysanthian one?”

“Yes! Well, we’ve had two reports from our surveillance groups saying that they’ve seen it.”

“According to this it’s flying very low.”

“That’s why we’ve been unable to track it. The position is true, but the heading is only approximate, as she could have changed course as soon as she went out of view. The second report confirms the heading.”

Orbanta was already reading the second report. He always read the reports, every last one of them. He felt that he had a duty to. The Observation Corp as a whole deserved every honour they could have been given. From Nemen and Kalahar in the east to Elengrad in the north they had worked hand in hand with their armed forces, many of them paying the same ultimate sacrifice. Many more had stayed and died in Jutlam City, right in the middle of the war zone. None of those that were still there had any chance of getting out alive, but still they watched and transmitted.

Orbanta handed the reports back to Joventa. “Where’s the Alentin?”

Joventa pointed to the lone yellow light moving towards the city from the northeast. “Limeno will never get there in time. It has to be the Klysanthian ship or nothing.”

“Light it up.”

Joventa signalled to one of his aides across the room and a yellow light appeared on the relief map above Jutlam City. It was right in the path of the black light and its two yellow pursuers.

-o-

The Gate Of Heaven flew at roof height through the fire and smoke of Jutlam City, her tri-hulled shape leaving a trail of spinning vortices in the smoke. Even the flames broke and swirled in the turbulence of her passing. The ship weaved and banked to avoid a taller building. The building was completely on fire, flames bursting from every window. The Gate Of Heaven flew passed it even as part of the building began to collapse, the steel and stone breaking apart. The ship flew on unscathed, and if anything it descended even lower; the previous escape forgotten as if it had never happened. The Gate Of Heaven was like a bird at sea flying close to the waves, the spray splashing over her. But it was a sea of fire and the spray was deadly. The scarred and pitted metal of the hull glowed, and the once brightly coloured ship had become blackened and dark.

On the bridge, the image of the burning city on the viewing screen did indeed resemble a sea of fire. Everything seemed to be burning, even the grass and trees in some of the squares, and everywhere buildings tumbled in flames, crashing down with even greater gouts of flame.

Scyleia couldn’t take her eyes off the image. It was an image she had seen before, an image that meant so much. The buildings may have been shorter and wider, but it was still the same. It was a civilisation, a whole world coming to an end in fire and smoke.

Alcinoe was sitting at Heli’s control console. The message she received from the guard at the Detention Centre surprised her. It surprised Scyleia even more, finally breaking into her concentration and causing her to spin round in her chair.

“Heli did what?” she snapped in reply.

“Heli let the Edenite out,” Alcinoe repeated.

Scyleia sprang from her command chair. “I know what you said! Prothoe! Keep us as low as you can! We have to stay below tracking level! I don’t want anyone to know where we are when we set down! Alcinoe! You have control until I have spoken to my mad cousin!”

She ran from the bridge, leaving Alcinoe to shrug at Prothoe. Prothoe didn’t respond. She was too busy to even notice. Her eyes constantly flicked from her control console to the viewing screen and then back again as she steered the ship through the fire and smoke. Although the heat could not be felt on the bridge, the sweat still beaded on her brow.

-o-

By the time Scyleia reached Heli’s quarters on the deck below, it was to find Tipi sitting on a large table with a towel over his lap. Apart from this he appeared to be naked. But at least he was now clean. Heli and another Klysanthian were in the room with him. They were both busy drying his red hair with another towel. They both stopped and looked up when Scyleia entered. Even Tipi looked up.

Scyleia stopped in the doorway with her mouth open. She was about to shout something but then the image that faced her seemed to distract her. In reply Heli just smiled.

Scyleia put her hands on her hips. “He’s too big!” she finally exclaimed.

“I know,” Heli replied. “I’m not stupid.”

“Well, I hope so! The medical staff has enough problems without you adding to it! Why did you let him out?”

“He didn’t deserve to be in the Detention Centre.”

“He nearly killed Philippis!”

“It wasn’t his fault!”

They were going up a gear with each exchange until they were shouting at one another. Heli stepped forward with the towel in her hands and Scyleia came further in the room until she was face to face with Heli. Tipi watched them shout at one another in their delightful voices. They sounded like little bells being shook vigorously. He couldn’t understand a word they were saying, but watching them was fascinating. They were both the same, both with the same features, almost identical, but where Heli had long blonde hair and blue eyes, Scyleia’s hair was jet black and her eyes were bright green. It made her the more striking, and the fact that she seemed the more volatile just added to it.

“Wasn’t his fault?” Scyleia almost laughed. “He practically crushed her to death! Crushed her and disembowelled her!”

“It was her choice! Her family clan are all dead! It was her way out!”

Scyleia paused for a moment, the anger swept from her. “Is that what she told you?”

Heli also calmed down. “Yes.”

“Does he know?”

“Yes.”

“So you just thought you’d give him a bit of pampering while we were in the middle of a war?”

“I haven’t been that long!”

“You’ve been long enough!” She snatched the towel out of her hands. “Out of my way!”

Scyleia stepped in front of Tipi. Straight away he looked up at her and smiled.

“Hello.”

Scyleia took a step back. She turned to Heli and continued speaking in Klysanthian. “Forward, isn’t he?”

Heli nodded. “I think he’s getting over the shock. Being in here with all of us probably doesn’t help.”

“And if you keep pampering him he’s going to get more cocky. And that’s all I need, a cocky male on my ship.” She turned to look at him again. He smiled at her. She ignored him. “Look how big he is,” she said to Heli. “Where are you going to get any clothes for him?”

“I’m having his original clothes cleaned and repaired. It seemed the best idea.”

“And what are you going to do in the meantime? You can’t leave him like that.”

“We thought about getting some of the sheets from the Medical Centre.”

“Throw the wounded off the beds will you?”

Heli opened her mouth and then just smiled in mild embarrassment.

Scyleia sighed. “Half an hour. No more. If you have not returned by the time I have finished speaking with the Ambassador, I will send Alcinoe to shoot you all.” She thrust the towel into Heli’s arms, turned and left.

As soon as she was gone, Tipi pointed after her and said, “I like her. Who is she?”

-o-

How had this happened?

They were not Tun-Sho-Lok, and yet one of the standards lodged in her mind had been matched. Then a second had been matched.

Two matches in almost as many seconds. They had been the first since leaving Ephesus. She had almost forgotten the experience.

She remembered Ephesus. She remembered the heat and sand and the hot air that blew in the fragments of DNA from the creatures outside. They had not been allowed outside.

Ephesus had been on a world filled with the incorrect, a world filled with creatures that disgusted the senses and brought anger to her mind. But the Tun-Sho-Lok there had commanded them to remain inside the fortress. They had been told to disregard the creatures outside. It hurt them to do so, but the instructions of the Tun-Sho-Lok had to be obeyed. To be close to them was to feel a gentle euphoria, a calming sensation that dulled the anger.

They had all obeyed.

Now she obeyed again. But this time it was different.

There were no Tun-Sho-Lok here in the tunnels or in the station concourse. She had been forced to relate with these creatures, these Edenites, without guidance.

She had spoken to them.

Her mind was confused. It cried in the dark.

They were incorrect, defective, disgusting, and their smell and taste evil. Their presence in the tunnels with her, alive, breathing, nauseated her. She wanted to turn and slash at them, to bite and devour them, to render their flesh to a bloody pulp that she could absorb and adapt to her own correct genetic structure.

Instead she had spoken with them. And then the rest of the green lights had gone out.

How could this be? How could the Purpose, the need to kill those that were incorrect, be subservient to these two? And because of them, the others also lived. They had not matched and yet they still lived. And she let them. Even now they all followed her, the evil smell of them like a cloud that enveloped her.

She wanted to run away, to bound along the tunnel at a fast pace, to leave far behind these disgusting creatures she lacked the power to kill. Instead she had slowed her pace, answering the commands of these creatures as if they were Tun-Sho-Lok.

How could this be? Why didn’t the green lights stay on? Why didn’t the need to kill them burst from her? Why was she held back? Why was this happening?

And while the detached part of her mind was consumed by the paradox, her other self, once so calm and peaceful, knelt with raised heartbeat, the sweat beading on her brow.

Finally, guidance came.

-o-

The underground tunnels of the rapid transit system criss-crossed the city on several levels. The system had been built as the city had built, growing with it, often being installed even before the buildings and roads had spread out above it. The result was a well-integrated and streamlined set of lines that allowed quick and easy access to all parts of the capital.

Without trains and power, walking along the tunnels made the journey times between stations a lot longer. But for people who had lived all their lives in Jutlam City, each station came along with predictable assurance. The result was both calming and confidence boosting. They all knew where they were going.

The line, the stations, they all pointed in the same direction. They were heading for Welcome Square, the station nearest to the Edenite RNP building. It was where the creature had told them it was going to take them. The fact that it was obviously doing so eased all their minds. But it didn’t stop them from being scared, especially when El-Quan suddenly paused ahead of them. The silver creature just stood motionless in the underground tunnel, her illuminated tail held up behind her. The shadows cast by the bright light could have concealed a thousand Keruh Warriors. If it did, they were all holding their breath.

The Corporal prodded Gusta and Didi in the back.

“Ask it what’s the matter! Go on!”

Urged onward by the Corporal, Didi and Gusta moved forward almost timidly. Soon they were standing next to the huge silver creature. It was taller than them even at the shoulder. Didi marvelled at the shape and form of it. It had such huge limbs, the claws long and curved with the sharpest of points. Walking obviously didn’t wear them down. And its body was immense, thick and muscular. The tail was longer than the body. It curved up and forward, the bright bulbous light almost over the creature’s massive head. And all of it was bright chrome silver. It was like a statue that might be found in the centre of a square. Yes, a statue, one of a pair, four maybe, all the same.

It was strange being so close to it. Talking about it with the Corporal and the others, seeing it run before them, even talking to it at a distance, none of it was so bad. But being close like this, they could almost feel its power. It made their skin tingle.

Gusta remembered what Altus had said. Suddenly she felt the same. Didi must have shared the feeling, because instinctively they both reached out and held each other’s hand.

Gusta cleared her throat, and her voice sounded as worried as they both looked.

“Err, Elquan,” swallow, “Why have you stopped?”

The huge head turned towards them, and Gusta and Didi found themselves face to face with a mouth full of teeth that were bigger than Didi’s arm. They both stepped back instinctively. El-Quan didn’t seem to notice their fear.

“I must leave you with another,” her voice boomed in the tunnel. “She waits beyond the next station. She will take you to the portal where you will be safe. Follow.”

She immediately turned away and started walking again. Didi hesitated but Gusta trotted after her.

“Why the change? Why are you leaving us?”

“I am ordered east, where the fighting is more intense.”

Gusta slowed her pace until Didi and the Corporal had caught up with her. El-Quan moved slightly ahead. Soon they were all moving again, men, women, soldiers, stretchers, all heading for the distant station and the change of guide.

Didi took Gusta’s hand and squeezed it. “You are braver than I,” he said as they walked along.

She smiled in embarrassment. “No, not really. She scares me to death. It’s just that I don’t feel happy about the change. It doesn’t feel right somehow. I don’t know why. It’s a feeling, that’s all. I can’t explain it.”

From further behind, Kiki said, “What difference can there be between the one and the other?”

Gusta shrugged. “I don’t know.”

The Corporal shared Gusta’s suspicions. “Then why swap in the first place?”

A woman next to them with a bandaged leg said, “Yes, why swap, and why now?”

Didi could only shake his head. “We are not soldiers.” He looked to the Corporal. “Why would you change?”

The Corporal shrugged. “If one monster is very much like another, like one soldier is like another, then I don’t know. But there must be a reason, some sort of difference, maybe: A skill, a speciality, something. But whatever it is, I bet it wasn’t planned. I think your wife’s onto something. I bet this thing has received other orders somehow. It stopped for a while back there. It must have been talking to someone, someone who has altered its instructions.”

“But what for?” the woman with the bandaged leg pressed him.

“We’ll soon find out,” the Corporal said to her, and then he turned to his men and raised his voice. “All of you back there, keep your eyes peeled! We’re in enemy territory and the Keruh or just about anything could be round the next bend!”

Gusta was looking at the silver creature ahead of them, and when the Corporal shouted out his orders, El-Quan continued walking as if she hadn’t heard him, as if she hadn’t heard anything they had said. But she must have heard; she couldn’t have failed to hear.

Why didn’t she care?

Gusta kept trying to isolate the feeling of doom that was welling up inside her. Why was she worried? Why was their change of guide so threatening? Why would the Ambassador do such a thing? But what was it he was doing?

They continued walking, the circle of light passing along the tunnel, illuminating the dirty walls and then moving on. Everything was still and silent. And every step they took brought them closer to another silver creature.

Gusta tried to focus on what the Corporal had said. Didi was right, he was a soldier, he would know. There had to be a reason for the change. What was it he said? A change of skill, that was it, a speciality, like demolition, communications, being a doctor, or something. That could be the reason. But did Elquan have the speciality or was it the creature that was coming that had it?

They reached the station, the deserted platforms appearing out of the gloom. They could even read the signs as they walked by. Belat Park. They were approaching the darkness of the far tunnel when Gusta could stand it no longer.

“Elquan! Stop!”

Everyone looked at her in surprise, even Didi and the Corporal. And before any of them could stop her, she had broken away from Didi and ran forward.

El-Quan had stopped the instant she had been commanded, and now she turned her head almost lazily towards Gusta and her voice boomed out.

“Do not ask what I cannot answer.”

Gusta was more surprised than scared. She stared back at the angry red eyes that faced her.

“How do you know what I’m going to ask?”

El-Quan moved closer. “You are…intelligent. Suspicious. I hear your words.”

“Are we right to be suspicious?”

“I will not harm you.”

“Will the other one harm us?”

“She will not harm you.”

Gusta seized on the emphasised last word. “She won’t harm me? What about the others? Not just Didi, but all the others?” She glanced back at this point, and for the first time she realised that El-Quan had lowered her tail, cutting her off from all the others she spoke of. She could see them all looking anxiously over the thick silver barrier, Didi and Kiki among them, and the Corporal and some of the soldiers held their rifles raised, pointing them at the huge head hovering so close to her. Gusta looked back at El-Quan; suddenly conscious of her exposed and isolated position. El-Quan’s voice boomed out once again.

“Do not ask what I cannot answer.”

Gusta took a deep breath. “We don’t want to go with the other one! We want to stay with you!”

Instantly she spoke, there was a snap, and another bright light burst the darkness ahead of them. Gusta flinched and then saw the other creature.

It was standing at the junction of two tunnels. One curved away to the left, the other to the right. Out of which one it had came couldn’t be told. It was like their guide, monstrous and huge, all teeth and claws, its long and thick tail raised high with the bulbous light at the end. Chrome silver as before, it padded forward, its flaming red eyes exuding hate.

The arrival of Gil-Bey caused the rest of the people in the tunnel to do more than flinch. There were several screams, many moans, and half the soldiers nearly started firing. The Corporal had to calm everyone.

“Quiet! All of you! Hold your nerve! I don’t want a fire-fight in this tunnel unless we have to!”

It was one instruction everyone agreed on, and the murmurings quickly died down. What didn’t die down was the staccato exchange that was now taking place between the two monsters. It was almost as if they were snarling and barking at one another. And right between them, Gusta cowered.

Didi was desperate. He wanted to run forward and join Gusta, but the silver tail that blocked his way was shoulder high, as hard as steel, and so smooth that there was no way of climbing it. He tried twice, only to slither down the curved and featureless surface. It was almost as if it softened under his grip, deliberately sliding him off.

Gusta continued to cower before the two silver monsters; their teeth filled mouths just a bite away from her. She was suddenly so scared, so witlessly scared, that she didn’t know what to do. She was just rooted to the spot. It took a few seconds to realise that the barks and snarls were actually familiar to her. And a moment later she knew what they were saying.

Pointing up at Gil-Bey, Gusta suddenly shouted, “Se mat kay na tak!” She repeated the words in Edenite. “I know what you say!”

Both silver creatures stopped barking and snarling and turned to her. For a moment there was silence, as if both creatures had been shocked by the words spoken in the Tun-Sho-Lok language. But then they both realised that what Gusta had said had been neither an instruction nor a question. Instantly they resumed their argument, El-Quan being the first to speak. She spoke in Tun-Sho-Lok as before.

“She was personal secretary to the Ambassador.”

Gil-Bey wasn’t impressed. “She is incorrect.”

“She has Embassy status.”

“The others do not.”

“She grants it to them.”

“She has no right.”

“She was personal secretary to the Ambassador.”

It was a circular argument that they had been around once before, and Gil-Bey acknowledged that there was still no way out of it by her silence. It was just as well, as at that moment Gusta balled her hands into fists and struck at the air.

“This is Eden! Speak Edenite!”

Gil-Bey turned her large head towards her. This time she spoke in Edenite, her voice booming in the tunnel. “You have been placed in my care. You must follow me.”

Gusta looked up at the angry red eyes. She wasn’t going to give in, not now. “Why?”

“You have no right to question the instructions of the Ambassador.”

“If these are Li-Sen’s instructions, then let me talk to him.”

“You cannot.”

“Then we won’t go with you!”

Gil-Bey’s voice grew harsh and menacing. “There are Keruh filth in these tunnels! They must be cleansed! All those who are incorrect must be cleansed! If you stay here, you will be cleansed!”

Gusta didn’t like the sound of that. “How will the Keruh be cleansed?”

Gil-Bey leaned closer to her. “By eating them! Only when their genetic structure is rent apart and their biological material has been absorbed into my bulk will they be cleansed! Stay here and you will face this same fate!”

Someone screamed, but Gusta stood her ground. There was a flaw in Gil-Bey’s argument and Gusta knew what it was. “You can’t eat me, I have Embassy status.”

Gil-Bey twisted around in the tunnel and snarled and roared at the darkness, her tail flailing about causing the light to cast crazy shadows. Her actions caused palpitations in her audience, but the way both Gusta and El-Quan remained impassive did a lot to calm them.

Finally Gil-Bey gave up her roaring and turned to El-Quan. “You take them! Their smell offends me!”

Instantly the light in her tail went out with a snap and she turned and bounded away.

As soon as Gil-Bey had gone, El-Quan raised her tail. “Return to your charges. We will resume our journey.”

Gusta still didn’t move. “You will take us? All of us?”

“Yes.”

Didi had ran forward straight away, and now reached her side. He pulled Gusta into his arms and looked up at El-Quan. He was suddenly angry.

“You were going to abandon us!” he accused her. “You were going to hand us over to that other one and just walk away!”

“These were my instructions,” El-Quan confirmed in a loud but calm voice.

The Corporal had also come forward, and he quickly gestured to the men who followed him, waving them on. Altus, Eastomoner, Relther and Ganatus ran further along the tunnel, two of them on each side, their rifles pointing towards the dark. Gusta didn’t doubt their intent, but she doubted their ability to keep Gil-Bey away if she really wanted to return.

The Corporal looked up at El-Quan. “That other one was going to kill us!” he shouted at her, his fear of her also suppressed by his anger.

El-Quan raised her head and looked towards the hidden tunnels ahead of them. “It is…possible.”

“Possible? Down right certain!”

The Corporal now turned to Gusta. “You did real well, lady! I reckon that quick thinking saved our lives! I hope I can think that fast when the time comes! Well done!”

Kiki added his praise, as did several others of the survivors who were brave enough to venture closer.

Gusta could have seized the moment to bask in the attention she was getting from everyone and particularly from the hugs she was getting from Didi. But her mind was racing.

A speciality, a skill.

It was suddenly clear to Gusta that it was Elquan that possessed the secret something. She was going to protect them all, while the other one was going to protect just them. That had to be it. It had to. Why else make the change? But that meant Li-Sen was only interested in his own staff.

Something in her stomach fell. It was daft but obvious. Li-Sen was only interested in his own staff, that was why he had arranged for them all to register their DNA. That meant that he knew that all this was going to happen, even then. It was suddenly clear. There was something cold and calculating about the way he had prepared for the end of their world. Just save the Embassy staff, only them, the rest could all die. She was beginning to dislike her former employer, her mind filling with what she was going to say to him when they met.

El-Quan brought the moment of joy and relief to an abrupt end.

“We must move away from here quickly,” her voice boomed out. “Yan-Jai is very close.”

The Corporal looked up at her in suspicion. “Who’s Yanjai?”

El-Quan leaned closer to them. “She is bigger than us. She is angry. And she is very hungry.”

The way she emphasised her words left them all in no doubt. They all stared at Gusta. Gusta stared back at them and then snapped out of her thoughts.

“Lead the way!” she burst out.

El-Quan walked forward. “We must take the left tunnel. Follow. Keep close. Do not fall far behind. Those who enter the shadows beyond my light will not linger there for long.”

No one needed to be told a second time. Everyone hurried after her as she led them towards the junction that now appeared in the light. She passed Altus, Eastomoner, Relther and Ganatus on the way. When they reached the junction the four soldiers waited by the entrance of the right hand tunnel, their rifles pointed into the dark. And when the rest of their party had caught up and passed safely into the left tunnel, they followed Klemunus and Pedomoner at the back, the two stretchers being carried just in front of them. The girl ran between the two stretchers, the empty drip at last discarded. The soldiers kept looking behind them as they walked along, their footsteps and the circle of light slowly fading until both had disappeared.

A short way down the right hand tunnel Gil-Bey remained standing motionless in the dark. Only her bright red eyes could be seen. Suddenly, two more enormous bright red eyes burst into life in the darkness of the tunnel behind her. They were huge and almond shaped, each one bigger than Gil-Bey’s head. They were both high up in the tunnel on either side of her and they exuded fire and menace. A voice followed their appearance. It was deep and sibilant, causing the dust on the ground to vibrate.

WHY HAVE THE COMMANDS OF THE COUNCILMAN BEEN CHANGED? WHY AM I ROBBED OF THE SUSTENANCE I CRAVE?

Gil-Bey’s eyes remained motionless in the dark. Only her voice could be heard. “The female Edenite with Embassy status was too clever. She understood the paradox. She would not comply.”

The more powerful voice boomed out. “SHE IS INCORRECT! THEY ARE ALL INCORRECT! THE VERY SMELL AND TASTE OF THEM IN THE AIR DISGUSTS ME! THEY MUST BE DESTROYED! THEIR FLESH GROUND TO PULP! WHY AM I NOT UNLEASHED? WHY MUST I WAIT?

Gil-Bey started walking. “The answers you seek lie with the Councilman. I return to battle, where the Purpose is unclouded by the paradox of Embassy status.”

Gil-Bey left the right hand tunnel and padded silently and swiftly passed the deserted platforms of Belat Station. Behind her, silence had returned to Tunnel 24B. But not for long.

The enormous eyes began to move forward. A grinding and crunching noise accompanied the movement as pipe work, stanchions and tracks were dislodged as something immensely huge and heavy dragged itself along the tunnel…

-o-

The main hall of the portal building was quiet. There was less hurry and bustle, and no more Androktones ran from the portal. Most of the remaining Androktones were now outside in the large corridor, slowly working their way out of the building and down the steps into Welcome Square. But the portal was not idle. Almost in the very centre one small section was still active, and above it a thin cylinder of swirling mist was slowly taking form.

Li-Sen-Tot stood at the edge of the portal. He was staring intently at the cylinder that slowly cleared and became a solid bright column. As soon as it had been established the sweet scent that floated across the main hall had summoned him to the portal’s edge. That sweet scent was even stronger now, and the image revealed in the column of light stirred his emotions and brought fond memories flooding back to him.

Li-Sen-Tot stepped onto the portal and walked calmly towards the bright column at the centre. When he reached it he stopped and smiled. And when he spoke, it was in Klysanthian.

“Welcome, Scyleia, Matriarch of the House of Heaven. It is good to see you alive.”

“And you also, Ambassador,” Scyleia replied in her native language. “I had feared that access to this portal might have been restricted.”

“It is. But my window is always open to those whose origins lie in the fairest world ever attached to the Ring.”

“Your admiration is most opportune as I come seeking a boon.”

“Then it is a boon I will grant before the asking.”

Scyleia bowed. “You are most generous as always, Ambassador. But the boon I ask for is a trifle one.”

“A secure landing place?” Li-Sen-Tot guessed.

Scyleia smiled and nodded. “We must wait out the battle and lick our wounds. The Gate Of Heaven is damaged but sound. When the Defence Net is opened we can make our escape. You will be welcome among us at that time, Ambassador.”

“I thank you for your offer, but another destination awaits me. However, there may be others who you could take in my place.”

“Those who have your protection will have ours, Ambassador.”

Li-Sen-Tot smiled. “Thank you. But I must ask for your patience a moment.” He turned and snapped his finger. His summons brought a blonde haired Androktone to his side. He spoke to her in Tun-Sho-Lok.

“Tai-Gil, find me a landing area close to this building that can accommodate a Klysanthian battle-cruiser.”

“There is only one square of sufficient size, Councilman,” Tai-Gil replied instantly.

“Where?”

“Pan-Tine Gardens. Grid reference 39D-12F.”

Li-Sen-Tot nodded. “Yes, of course.” He turned to Scyleia and spoke again in Klysanthian. “Proceed to grid reference 39D-12F. The area will be secured for your arrival. It would be wise if you did not disembark.”

“I understand, Ambassador. Go with kind heart.”

Li-Sen-Tot bowed. “And you also.”

Scyleia leaned forward and the connection was broken. It was as if a warm light had gone out in his heart.

Li-Sen-Tot turned away and walked back to the edge of the portal with Tai-Gil at his side.

“What is your analysis of the Klysanthian?” he asked her.

“She was not correct. But the taste of her was familiar. I had the same feelings on Klysanthia.”

“Good. That is as it should be. See to it personally that the vessel is protected and that the area is secured.”

“Yes, Councilman.”

When he reached the edge of the portal it was to find Mai-Ann waiting for him.

“There is a problem,” she said softly as Tai-Gil walked away.

“Speak.”

“The female Edenite has refused to comply with your instructions. Gil-Bey has informed me that she sensed the intent to abandon the others and refused to proceed. She used her Embassy status as a paradox against the Purpose.”

Li-Sen-Tot smiled. He couldn’t help it. “Gusta always was a clever girl. The rest of my staff fled the city the day I dismissed them, but not Gusta. I’m sure she knew far more than she admitted. She was a good secretary. Where are they?”

“On their way here with El-Quan.”

The smile left Li-Sen-Tot’s lips. It didn’t go un-noticed by Mai-Ann.

“Again you cast doubt on El-Quan. Just say the word and she will feel my wrath.” She turned her gaze to the rows of kneeling figures as if she could pinpoint the figure of El-Quan among them.

He only had to say the word and it would have been done. Li-Sen-Tot considered it. But then he thought of Gusta and Didi Albatus. If El-Quan were killed they would be lost in the rapid transit system. For a moment he wondered why he should care, and then he pictured the faces of his smiling secretary and talented cook in his mind. It would be an unkindness. It would also escalate the problem of Embassy status, and that would not do. He sighed.

“No, Mai-Ann, that will not be necessary, not yet at least. I fear for El-Quan, not doubt her. She may be more easily damaged by the paradox that she faces, and the risk is greater while her mind is split. This is why I wished to remove the Edenites from her care. Have her proceed here with speed and send Gil-Bey east in her place. Once El-Quan has handed over her charges to me, she can return to the conflict and the problem is solved.”

“You intend to keep the Edenites here?”

“It would have been awkward, I admit. But the arrival of the Klysanthian vessel has alleviated that problem. Have Soo-Fam escort the Edenites to the Gate Of Heaven as soon as it lands. The less time my good secretary has to exploit the paradox of Embassy status the better.”

“And what of Yan-Jai?”

“Her instructions are unchanged. She must return here. Now, to the business in hand. Summon one thousand Androktones and twenty drones to the portal. We are ready to begin.”

-o-

What was happening to her? Why did thinking about it hurt so?

Gil-Bey had been right, they should have killed them as she suggested. She could see that it was wrong to deny the Purpose. But even Gil-Bey must have sensed the match. The paradox was clear even to her. In the end she had ran away, happy to leave the paradox and the stench of the creatures with her.

They were not Tun-Sho-Lok, but they had matched. The match gave them Embassy status, equal to Tun-Sho-Lok nationals. They had to be obeyed as Tun-Sho-Lok had to be obeyed. But they were not Tun-Sho-Lok.

Her intelligence told her that they were not correct, but the match caused her to treat them as if they were. And the protection they had granted to the others had made it worse.

Her guidance had failed. But it had been the best option; it would have relieved the pain and the confusion. Keep the two that had matched and abandon the rest. Gil-Bey had been given this task but had failed at the first test. They had both failed. The female Edenite had known and understood the paradox and used it against them effectively.

But El-Quan had also understood the power of the paradox. As soon as Gil-Bey had arrived she had voiced her concern.

“How can we abandon those given protection by the Tun-Sho-Lok?”

“They are not Tun-Sho-Lok!”

“They match.”

“These others do not!”

“They have been given protection by those that do.”

“That protection has been counter-commanded by a Councilman!”

“But he is also the Ambassador who granted them this protection in the first place.”

“He gave them no such protection! These others did!”

“But he gave it to those that in turn gave it to them. Why would he do this?”

“We cannot question the Tun-Sho-Lok!”

“Then we must obey.”

“Then obey!”

“But which one? The Councilman, the Ambassador, or these two?”

“The Councilman takes precedence!”

“The Ambassador is the Councilman.”

It was an argument that had no end. It was still unresolved when the Edenite female had interrupted them. Gil-Bey had spoken to the female, as she herself had done, and the female’s answers had proved the paradox. What hurt El-Quan more was the equal paradox of her own behaviour.

Why had she argued with Gil-Bey? Was she defective? Was their something wrong in her head? It would have been so simple to hand them over and leave quickly, to head east through the tunnels as she had been commanded and return to the more familiar repetition of hunting and killing. She could have left the stench and the problem behind her. She could have let Gil-Bey deal with it.

But it wouldn’t have solved the pain.

Even in isolation she would have known what had happened and what might be about to happen. That knowledge would have still twisted her mind. She had to resolve the paradox; she had to un-knit the rope that was knotted in her mind. There must be a beginning and an end, there had to be a clear and logical solution.

They were not Tun-Sho-Lok, and yet they had matched. That meant that they were acceptable to the Tun-Sho-Lok, which meant that they were at least equal to the Tun-Sho-Lok. That meant that they had to be obeyed. The guidance she had received was not in open opposition to this. Gil-Bey had not been commanded to kill any of the Edenites, only to abandon those that did not match to Yan-Jai who followed. But both she and Gil-Bey knew the consequences of this.

Yan-Jai had been one of the first to split her mind. She had fought long and well and had added much bulk to her body, swelling to enormous size in the process. The extended separation she had endured along with the massive growth meant that any chance of the two halves of her mind being rejoined had been lost. By now, Yan-Jai’s other self would be a dormant, sleeping shell.

There would be no paradox in what was left of Yan-Jai’s mind. There was no room for it. There would be only anger and hatred and the need to kill. She would not hesitate in consuming those that fell to her. Even those of her own kind would be at risk with her.

Gil-Bey would have known this. In a way her abrupt departure led El-Quan to believe that Gil-Bey had shared her unease. She had been with them for a short time, and yet her anger and confusion were clear. She had left almost gratefully.

That eased one worry. If Gil-Bey shared her unease, then she was no more defective than her.

But if they were not defective, someone was. The Councilman would have been aware of Yan-Jai’s condition. His instructions to Gil-Bey to abandon the Edenites in the tunnels so close to Yan-Jai meant that he intended for her to consume them. His following acquiescence to the Edenite female’s demands that they continue as before showed his intent: He wanted the two that matched, not the rest. But it was impossible to have the two without the others. They were linked by a chain of granted Tun-Sho-Lok status, from the Councilman to the two, and from the two to the rest. But once they arrived at the main portal building El-Quan knew that it must finally be resolved.

She had to be there to hear and see what happened. She had to be there to end the confusion in her mind. She walked with those she detested, giving them her protection and her light. She had spoken in their defence and could possibly be forced to fight in their defence. They had spoken to her, questioned her, and she had answered. It was an experience that was new to her. She had spoken to no others but Tun-Sho-Lok in her life. Now she walked and talked with those that she must normally kill.

It hurt her mind. But it was also…interesting. Yes, strangely interesting and compulsive.

So far her life had always been the same, there was nothing to break the repetition. She lived, hunted, and killed. All she had found in this world were now dead. Even many of the clones she had passed through the portal with were dead. Even her own birth sisters, Ann-Quan and the rest, may all have been dead by now. She didn’t even know.

She thought of them for a moment as she walked along the tunnel with her unwanted charges. They had all been the same, like her. There had been some comfort in that, the knowledge that they were identical, correct, and uniform.

That was another reason for wanting to return to the portal building. There, safe inside, was her other self. She wanted to be whole again. The thought had begun to grow within her as she walked along with these creatures. Maybe it was the knowledge of what Yan-Jai had become, or maybe it was the knowledge that the paradox in her mind, like the memory of her sisters, would soon disappear if she were to remain apart. It should have been an end that she sought, a final blank that would leave her calm again.

She suddenly hated the very idea of it.

She wanted to remember her sisters, and she wanted to see the paradox resolved. She wanted the pain to end and she wanted to be whole again even if it did mean shedding energy and bulk. And above all, she wanted to see how those who had matched would react when face to face with the Councilman. She didn’t want to be a blank, empty shell. She wanted to be herself, to be El-Quan, to see, hear and remember everything.


CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

AN HONEST PROPHECY

When Ares entered Otrera’s apartments there were no Royal Guards to bar his way. He threw open the doors and burst in with angry words on his lips but there was no one there. The silence and stillness that greeted him deflated his anger, and for a moment he thought that Otrera might have already joined the evacuation. A glance around at the bags and cases piled in the centre of the room proved him to be wrong. And a moment later Otrera emerged from her bedroom with one of her missing guards. They were both carrying large fabric bags and they seemed surprised to see him. Otrera clutched the bag she held to her body and just stared at him. She had changed and now a long and elegant gown of blue silk draped her from head to foot.

For a moment they all stood facing one another in silence. Otrera’s expression of genuine surprise turned quickly to one of disdain. She turned to her Royal Guard and dismissed her with a flutter of her hand.

“Leave us, Hera.”

Hera bowed, added the bag she carried to the mounting pile, and then retreated into another room.

As soon as she was gone, Otrera turned back to Ares. At that moment the surprised and calm nature of their meeting could have led the conversation to start well, but as is the case when people with shared emotional interests meet, it wasn’t to be. Otrera spoiled it instantly.

“For what reason have you returned? To seek solace with another of my Royal Guards?”

The barb was well aimed, and Ares didn’t bother to waste time on how she knew. He stepped closer to her.

“My purpose here is pertinent to the war, not my personal needs.”

“I have no interest in a war already won and lost.” She threw the bag down among the rest. “I prepare to leave this place, as all prepare to leave. It is a process I have become well accustomed to. But why it must be done in this barbaric way, on ships of wood, I can not understand.”

“Aegina is a wise President. Her decision to limit the capacity of the portal here at Metropolis may be inconvenient, but it eliminates it as a means of invasion.”

The mention of Aegina added a sarcastic edge to Otrera’s reply. “And because of this I, Otrera, Matriarch of the House of Our Saviour, Queen of the Klysanthians, must travel over the sea with my sisters in tiny boats.”

“You like water.”

“To sleep on, not travel over. Enough of this, I have to pack what I have barely unpacked.”

She turned as if she was going to go back into her bedroom. Ares reached out and grabbed her arm. She looked back and stared down at him. Her voice became acidly cold.

“For what purpose do you need me now?”

“Where is Li-Sen?”

She threw back her head and laughed. It was a tinkling, bright and angelic sound that caused Ares to release her. She quickly stepped away from him.

“And to think, for an instant, I thought you might have returned for other reasons!”

“This war goes on!” Ares stated with passion. “It does not end with your disinterest!”

“Am I dead?” Otrera replied with equal passion. “Are you so cold to me that my needs mean nothing to you?”

Their voices were already raised and they quickly reached the hub of their conflict.

“I am in command of this war!”

“I carry your child!”

“Aaaghh!” Ares grabbed at his face, turned his back on her and then flung his hands to the heavens in exasperation. “Damn the Gods!” No sooner had he uttered the words than he spun round to face her once again, and advancing on her, he pointed his finger at her. “I will not be distracted from this task! Not by you or by anyone! Where is Li-Sen? Why have the Androktones left Ephesus prematurely? Why have you lied to me? Answer!”

He stepped forward with each harsh demand, driving her back against the wall with his urgency and his outstretched finger. It was like a sword pointing at her throat. When she finally bumped against the wall she at last managed to get in a reply.

“I have never lied to you,” she said with a calm but haughty voice.

“No, but you have often kept from me what you have known!” was his angry reply.

“It seems your liaison with Orithia may have gone further than I thought. I must chastise her.”

While Otrera kept her outward signs of composure, Ares grew more angered. “It is you that will be chastised!”

Otrera looked down on him in disdain. “And what can you do that I would fear?”

Ares stepped closer to her, his pointing hand now clenched into a fist before her face. “You are in our world, in our power! If I condemn you, if the end of the war goes badly for us, you will be punished for your silence!”

“And what will you do? Kill me?” she said without fear.

Ares shook his head knowingly. “No, I am aware of a much better punishment than that! Imprisonment, forever, alone, with nought to satisfy your real hunger! That will be your fate! I will see to it that you are starved of the one thing you Klysanthians cannot live without! There will be no physical contact, no friendly touch, and no gentle caress! But there will be a window in your prison, a small window through which you will hear the laughter and delight of others, where you can smell their sweet scent and catch a glimpse of their forms as they pass by! It will be there to remind you of what you must do without! Forever! Until you are dead!”

When he had finished, Otrera was so stunned that she slid down the wall into a sitting position. She stared up at him with shock and genuine sadness.

“You must really hate me,” she said softly in her tiny voice.

Ares lowered his hand and took a deep breath. It had been easy to be angry with her. It was like an old established habit that he just fell into. It had never been like that. For many months he had adored her. But now she filled him with mistrust. When had it changed? Was he still angry with her about the loss of the Klysanthian Fleet? Or was he just being selfish? She had discussed things with Li-Sen that she had kept from him. He had always known that they had shared a bed together. Was he jealous?

Ares slumped down and sat cross-legged in front of her. “Of course I don’t hate you,” he managed at last.

“You don’t love me, either. How else could you hurt me so? How could you be so cruel? You know I need you more than ever now. I carry your child, my whole body ferments with your seed; this is why your presence enraptures me and why I need to be with you. Is it so difficult? Would a few minutes, an hour, be so much? Would the world end while we lay with one another?”

She reached out and grasped his legs. Ares instantly knocked her hands aside, his annoyance clear.

“I have not the time for this!”

She responded equally. “You had the time to seek solace with another!” she accused him quickly.

“Orithia and I only spoke together!”

“You made promises!”

Ares leaned closer to her. “Are we to be married?”

Otrera looked at him in surprise. His question stifled the anger in both of them, it was too direct, too crucial to avoid, and its asking left them both calmer.

“Of course not. This is the way we are when we are pregnant. You know that. There is an inbuilt attachment to the male. It wears thin after birth. But until then we need his support, his touch. Is this so different from your females?”

“No. But we marry -usually- before the child is sired. And we aim to stay together.”

“And you think Orithia can keep such a promise?”

Ares paused and sat back. He eyed her for a moment and then asked, “How do you know so much of what passed between us?”

“Hera followed her.”

Ares remembered how nervous Orithia had been. Maybe she had sensed that they were being observed. But it wasn’t their promises or the knowledge that Otrera knew them that intrigued him now. “Then you also know that your secret discussions with Li-Sen are known to me.”

“Not the content. Orithia was at least loyal in that.”

“She was,” he agreed. “But what she kept from me I will hear from you now.”

“The answers I give will not help you.”

Ares leaned forward and spoke very firmly. “Be warned, Otrera, from this moment you become the enemy.”

Otrera looked at him closely. He was deadly serious; she could taste it within him. His whole body was gearing up for conflict. He was ready to lash out, restrain her, and hurt her. Part of her wished for it, but another part of her feared it.

“Would you really lock me away forever? A Queen in a cell?”

He nodded. “A small cell, where you would forever have to stoop.”

Otrera drew up her legs and hugged them. She rested her head on her knees. “You have a very cruel streak, Ares. I believe you, and I yield to you. But I will have my revenge.”

Ares ignored her threat. “Where have the Androktones gone to?”

“Eden.”

Ares cast his eyes to the heavens and sat back. He held out his hands to her. “Why Eden?” he exclaimed. “The plan was to attack the Keruh home world! The entire Host, the entire Warrior cast, they are all on Eden! Their home world is defenceless!”

“The Androktones are to fight the Host on Eden. Li-Sen will deal with the Keruh home world.”

Ares lowered his arms to the floor and stared at her. It was incomprehensible.

“Why? How?”

Otrera sighed. “The Androktones are flawed. It is a deliberate flaw. Kel-Cid-An armed them with an instinct to destroy all sentient life forms with an incorrect genealogy. As a reference he gave them the genetic structure of the Tun-Sho-Lok. They are to kill all others except those with this genetic structure. It was the subject of a final debate by the Humeric Council. Li-Sen voted against it, but the motion was carried. You do know what this means, Ares?”

The vacant expression on Ares face had prompted her last question. His eyes snapped back into focus and he looked at her. “They will kill everyone,” he said softly.

She nodded. “Everyone except you and I. Each of them, all of them, shares our genetic structure in some part. Because of this, we will be acceptable to them. But only us. That is why they had to leave for Eden. That is why Li-Sen ordered them there. It is the only way. They must fight the Host on Eden because they must die on Eden. If they survive they will be a greater scourge to the galaxy than the Keruh.”

Ares lowered his head into his hands and shook it slowly. “This is madness, all madness,” he moaned.

Otrera reached out and stroked his head with her hand. “Not madness, anger and bitterness. I understand it, and because of this I can forgive it. You still have your world, Ares. For you it is difficult to understand. But I understand.”

Ares looked up at her and spoke quickly. “Li-Sen is still on Eden?”

“Yes.”

“He tries to undo this madness?”

“He does.”

“At what cost?”

“His loss means nothing to him. He seeks this fate, Ares. He wants to be the one to bring the Keruh and this war to an end.”

Ares climbed to his feet. He had a sudden need to be active, to be doing something. He had to get back in control. He headed for the door. “I must speak with him.”

Otrera also got to her feet. She followed him. “He won’t listen.”

“I’ll make him!”

“How? He will not allow access to Eden!”

Ares stopped and turned to face her. He was suddenly left without any ideas. “The portal is encrypted.” It was a final statement.

Otrera nodded. “He has complete control. What happens on Eden and on the Keruh home world is down to him now. With the destruction of the Keruh Fleet, your task is almost done. Think of your people, Ares. Think of the men who die for you. Think also of my sisters who remain to toil at their side. When the last of the Keruh ships are destroyed, bring them all home. It’s over, Ares.”

Ares didn’t have a reply. He just stood staring at her. She could feel his confusion, his utter dejection. It must be hard for him, she thought, to have been so much in control only to lose all of it. She stepped closer to him and smiled sadly.

“I told you the answers would not help you.”

“You should have told me sooner,” was all he could say.

She moved closer to him. “It would have made no difference. Li-Sen has been on Eden since the very beginning, only my presence here lured him away. But even then he returned quickly. His mind is made up. Access to the Ring through the Edenite Portal will give him complete control. He has the codes and the knowledge. If you try to interfere he will cut you off from your own ships. Don’t fight him, Ares. Let him do this. Let him choose his own fate. Like Kel-Cid-An, like Ro-An-Lee, like all of them. Give him this boon, it is all that is left to him now.”

“I cannot abandon him.”

She took his hand in hers, curling her long fingers around it. “He is not abandoned, the Androktones are with him. And next to us, there could be no other race he would choose to be with. Forget the war, Ares. Think of yourself, think of us.” She placed his hand on her abdomen as she had done before. “Think of our child.”

Ares looked up at her. She was so beautiful, her face glorious, each tiny feature exquisite. Her expression matched her beauty. Her desire, her need for him, it brimmed over with acquiescence. All he needed to do was reach out and take what she offered, to take her in his arms, to pull her to the floor and squeeze her yielding flesh. Instead he shook his head.

“You still seek to manipulate me. In the past I would have been content, eager, to allow it. But I know you better now. You have no love, only physical need. Your words are false. In a short time you will abandon me. You said it yourself; once the child is born you will look elsewhere. And I remember the words you spoke to me and to Li-Sen on the palace terrace. ‘I am no mere chattel, I will take the pleasure I need from whom I need and when I need.’ They were honest words, Otrera. I want more than this.”

She stepped away from him, defeated at last. “You think you can get this from Orithia?”

It was the question she had asked before. This time he answered it. He nodded. “She has made her vow and I believe her.”

“And what of me?”

“You are Queen, and there will be many eager to yield to you.”

“And our child?”

“I will not deny her, and I will love her as I will love all my children. She will be my firstborn. None shall take that from her.”

There was a prolonged silence after the exchange during which Otrera turned her back on him. Ares assumed the meeting was over. He was about to leave when Otrera finally spoke. She spoke at length, explaining something to him that she wanted him to know.

“My sisters have found a place on the banks of the Thermodon, near the estuary, a place called Thermiskyra. Here we will make our fortress. Here we will make our resting place, safe from the prying eyes of others. In the centre will be my palace. Here our daughter will be born. You will be welcome there. But the fortress will not be our prison. From time to time we will come forth and interbreed with your people, the need we have guarantees this. If we are opposed, then we will wage war to gain what we need. We will not dwell here as a defeated nation. We rank higher than those around us, higher even than you, Atlantian. We will look down on all of you.

“And as those of us who trod our beloved Klysanthia pass away, our daughters will live on. They will take the best of us and the best of you. Like the Androktones they will be tall and strong, but unlike them they will inherit our spirit. It will live within them, the spirit of the Klysanthians, the spirit of the Matriarchy. They will continue what we begin, they will live to hunt and be free, they will take what they need and fight those who oppose them, they will be beautiful, honourable and courageous. What they will not be is servile.”

She paused at last and turned to face him. She sighed sadly. “My words are grand and boastful and I thank you for not challenging them. But I know our time on your world will be short. Soon our genealogy will fade and we will be lost among you. It is a fate that I have spoken of before, a fate that I have had to accept. We are too few. And maybe the fault for that does lie with me. But it would have made no difference. Yes, we will be opposed, and yes, there will be bloodshed, and maybe our time here will be cut short, but we will leave behind our mark. Even after a thousand years our genetic heritage will still be here. In each generation a few of us will be born. Women, true women, glorious, beautiful, to see them will be to know them. They will be taller, headstrong, their spirit and need for adventure much greater. They will stand out in their glory. They will shine among you and cast you in their shadow, and you will know your inferiority.”

Ares had listened to her in silence, now he spoke. “It is an honest prophecy, and I am glad that I will not live to see it. I would not wish to see you defeated, neither would I wish to wage war on you. In truth I would fight at your side with little provocation. But I prey that our lifetimes will be free of such conflict. I have had enough of wars.”

He paused to stare at her. She stared back, her eyes sad, with more than a hint of yearning still evident in them. It was a delicate and sad moment. Sad because it marked the end of something, something that should never have been, and delicate because both of them knew that the outcome wasn’t what they had wished.

Ares finally broke the silence. “It is time I left. There are those in the grand hall who would grow anxious at my prolonged absence. I have men, and women to bring home.”

Ares bowed gracefully before her and Otrera nodded in return.

With the air cleared between them, Ares turned to leave. But it was Otrera who would have the last word.

“There is something else you must know, Ares,” she said softly. “When Diomedes left for Thermodon with his people, I sent Orithia with him.”

Ares stopped in mid-step and Otrera smiled at his sudden change of expression. “We will see how long she keeps to her vow with the miles opening between you. I told you I would have my revenge.”

As Ares stood in shock, Otrera walked calmly to her bedroom. “Hera, escort Ares to the door,” she called out. “This audience is over.”

With Otrera gone, Hera quickly appeared, her arrival suggesting that she had been loitering beyond the door. Ares looked upon her with open suspicion. Hera ignored his glare and with a smile she raised her hand towards the doorway. Ares nodded and took the hint.

“Everyone detests a spy,” he said as he walked passed her. “Even those that employ them.”

It was his parting insult, a weak shot, but he had hardly taken a step beyond the door before Hera’s angelic voice came to him in reply.

“Contrary to my Queen’s words, Metis has gone with Diomedes. Orithia remains in the city. She will keep her promise with you. Do not disappoint her, Atlantian.”

Ares turned quickly, remorse in his mind and on his lips, but Hera had already gone, the doors closing behind her.

-o-

Peleus couldn’t take his eyes off Lysippe. As they walked back to the bridge of the Prometheus he was conscious of every step and movement she made. It was hypnotic, magic, witchcraft, very physical, and somehow heavily sexual.

But all she did was walk.

But it was so graceful, so delightfully exciting. The movement of her legs, the sway of her hips, the way her back and shoulders moved, the swish of her hair. It was like a dance, a fluid movement that roused the blood. Her uniform didn’t help. Well, it did help in actual fact, but in the wrong way. It was so tightly fitting and so thin that it allowed every movement of her muscles and body beneath to be seen. And the way she held her head high like a goddess was so attractive.

Did she know what she was doing to him? If she did she never said a word. And neither did she glance at him. She just walked along with her head held high. But how could she not know? He was acting like such a fool, such a child, that she must know. He looked at her again as she walked slightly in front of him. It was almost as if she was allowing him the opportunity to look sideways at her.

Did she do it on purpose? He took full advantage if she did. His eyes hardly ever left her. She must have noticed. He tried not to look, but he couldn’t help it. Even when he wasn’t looking at her he could feel her presence next to him, so tall and slender.

He wanted to touch her. It was her slender shape with those gentle curves, and the way she moved. He just wanted to reach out and hold her waist. He wanted to put his hands on her hips as they swayed to and fro. He wanted to hold her bottom-

“Are we there yet?”

Peleus was startled by her voice. It wasn’t the gentle and delicate tone that surprised him, just that she had spoken.

“Yes,” he said hesitantly, cursing his own weakness as he blushed. “Just along here.”

“Your vessel is large, but there is much damage,” she said as they continued.

“We have been through many battles.”

“Yes. We all have.”

Peleus swallowed and looked up at her. “Is there anything you will need? While you are here, I mean.”

For the first time as they had walked along together she turned her head to face him.

“No. As your ceilings are high enough, I need not stoop. But your gravity is slightly harsh and the atmosphere too warm. These I can bear.”

Why did her green eyes flash in the light like that? Why was her face so amazingly beautiful? She had such small features, almost like a child or a young girl. But her eyes were large and almond shaped. Beautiful.

“I believe it was colder on Klysanthia?”

“Yes. It snowed most of the year. The image of my home will always be virginal white.”

Peleus coughed. “Will you need any arrangements for food?”

She smiled then, and it was wondrous. “No, Atlantian. I can eat what you eat.”

“My name is Peleus.”

She nodded. “You are First Officer here?”

“Yes.”

“Then we may work together if your Captain agrees.”

“I hope so -I mean yes, if he agrees.” Why was he such a child? “We’re here now,” he said quickly pointing to another doorway in the corridor. A moment later and they entered the bridge. Peleus led her to the side of Aeolus.

Aeolus looked up. And up. Then he grunted. “Ha! I had forgotten how tall you were!” He stood up from his command chair and turned to face Lysippe as she stood next to Peleus. She was still taller than him. “Introduce our guest, Peleus!”

Peleus bowed. “This is Lysippe, First Officer on the Shrine Of The Spirit. She is here to act as your intermediary with the Klysanthian ships.”

Aeolus smiled. “Do I need an intermediary, slender one?”

Lysippe raised her head and replied haughtily. “Telepyleia thought it wise, and I have never doubted her judgement.”

The smile faded from Aeolus’s lips. He looked at Lysippe a moment and then asked in a more subdued voice, “How is your Captain?”

“Her wound is deep and fatal. She fades slowly.”

“Me thinks you would rather be there by her side than here?”

“Without doubt.”

“But you are here at her bidding none the less?”

“Yes.”

“Then we will both accept her decision.” Aeolus took her arm. “Come, slender one, meet my bridge crew. You know Peleus already. He covers Communications as well as being my First Officer. Over there is Glaucus. He is helmsman. He can steer the Prometheus up a God’s arse and out it’s ear if I command him. Boreas over there commands the maser crews, and this is Tyro. He is Senior Engineer. He knows his job well, but not as well as I, eh Tyro?”

Tyro smiled. “No, Captain!”

Lysippe bowed her head gracefully to each man as he was introduced. In turn they also bowed to her. But as her eyes and attention moved swiftly on, theirs remained fixed on her. They had been fixed on her ever since she had entered.

With the brief introductions over, Aeolus returned to his command chair, dropping down in it both casually and with assuredness.

“The others you will meet as they come and go,” he said to Lysippe. “This time of inactivity while your crew transfers to the Friend Of The Sick has led many of my own crew to seek their quarters for rest or the kitchens for sustenance.” He turned to his First Officer. “You should take similar advantage, Peleus. And take Lysippe with you. Give her a quick tour of the ship and find her suitable quarters.” He turned once more to Lysippe. “And when you return you can take station by the side of Peleus at the communications console.”

“It may be pertinent if I stand at your side during discussions with our ships,” Lysippe replied coolly.

Aeolus leaned his head on his hand and looked up at her. “Do you think my sheep will defy their new shepherd?”

His choice of words seemed not to affect her. “I think my presence by your side will ease the chain of command.”

“Then when the time comes you will take up such a position. In the meantime go with Peleus as I suggest. Become familiar with the layout of the ship. You may need to know where the lifeboats are located.”

Lysippe nodded. “As you wish, Captain.” She turned to Peleus and waited.

Peleus smiled and held out his hand towards the door. “This way!”

As they left the bridge together once more, Peleus was overjoyed. Overjoyed because of the envious looks the other men gave him as they left, and overjoyed because he was going to spend more time with this gorgeous and lithesome beauty. But what the hell was he going to say to her?

-o-

The Dominant of the Mysan’Taf lay on his back in his quarters aboard the Flagship, a feeding tube in his mouth. His three bodyguards stood impassively, one of them blocking the doorway with his own body. The Dominant wished that he could be on the bridge, but he needed the sustenance and the rest. But while his body rested his mind still raced.

The Atlantian Fleet had also split in two. Those with power and strength had surged forward in their pursuit, leaving behind the wounded and stricken who travelled more slowly. The ailing Keruh vessels they had left behind had been quickly overtaken. There had been no battle to speak of. The Atlantian commander had led his ships at speed in a gentle arc beyond the reach of the damaged and slower Keruh ships. Maser blasts were exchanged but no fatal blows were delivered.

That act, more than any other proved his fears. It was all clear now. This was not just another attack on one of their harvest worlds. Eden had been the bait, a lure they had succumbed to. Their enemy had known them too well. They had been steered here, by all the previous attacks. Even the failure of the Atlantians to engage in any protracted battles in space now became suspect. The humans had nurtured and increased their feeling of superiority. His predecessor had not been alone in falling victim to this fallacy.

Subterfuge.

Now the cloak of that lie was cast aside. Now the true intent of the Atlantians was clear. They fought with power and hunger, sacrificing their lives for the task in hand like any good Warrior. They had saved themselves for this one campaign, knowing that it was the only one that would count. And the reason was clear.

The battle for Eden was the battle for Keruh. From a promising victory would come a final defeat from which they would not recover. If the combined Host were lost on Eden, the end would come slowly and agonisingly. Hive would be turned against Hive, the remaining Gatherers and Receivers forced to raid the breeding caverns of their nearest neighbours to obtain the sustenance required by their voracious females. And when this source of food was gone, the females would quickly turn on their own Gatherers and Receivers in their need. Then they would begin consuming their own young. Soon they would begin to consume one another.

He had to stop it. He had to make the decisions that would alter the course of the war. But there was little he could do that he hadn’t already done. Even as his surviving ships rushed towards Eden, he had conveyed his actions and his fears to the combined Hive Dominant on Keruh. The Dominant had listened gravely, his own news no better. They had been unable to bypass the encryption protocols that blocked access to the Ring at Eden. They could neither reopen their original portal nor open a new one. His instructions had been plain: Proceed to Eden, break through, give support to the combined Host, and defeat the Assassin-Drones.

They were the tasks he already knew he faced. Having received them as orders didn’t make them sound any easier. He already doubted his success. The trap had been too well set. At Eden he knew another fleet waited. The First of the Telen’Gal had been their victim, now it would be his turn. He would not enter the battle so blindly. But with the Atlantians in pursuit he would have to fight against a foe both in front and behind him. His own talent for subterfuge would be called upon if he were to prove victorious. There had to be something he could use to his advantage. But what? Contact with their forces on Eden was still blocked. The Defence Net probably-

The Dominant of the Mysan’Taf removed the feeding tube from his mouth with his larger, left hand. It had been a sudden thought. With contact with the fleet broken, what would he do if he were the Dominant on Eden? The answer came to him easily.

Keep the Defence Net closed and wait. There would be no other choice. To open the Net could lead to a bombardment that could break the Host. It was what he would do; it will have been what the Dominant of the Belol’Fan was doing.

It was the wrong answer.

With sudden clarity he saw that it was the one flaw in the Atlantian subterfuge. They were relying on their enemy to keep the Net closed on Eden. And like fools, trapped by their own logic, they had done so.

He suddenly knew what he needed to do, the steps he would take to make it happen forming in his brain like a chain. His end goal was simple. They only needed one ship to get through, destroy the Edenite RNP, and the trap would be broken. They could reopen a portal, bring home the Host with what sustenance they had gathered and leave Eden to the Assassin-Drones. Losing this battle would not lose them the war. It would be neither noble, nor glorious.

It would be survival.

-o-

As the flagship of the Keruh Fleet led the race towards Eden, the slower and weaker ships left behind by both sides gathered in ragged formation for one more intersection. It was a sad and untidy affair. Ships missed one another entirely, others clashed head on, while still more were burst apart by maser fire even before any collision was made. Each end was a sorrowful sight, as the tortured hulls of damaged and weakened ships finally broke apart in a gentle sigh of escaping atmosphere. Those that survived would take no further part in war. One by one, their course erratic, gas and debris trailing behind them, they each turned for home.

In the great hall of the council war room, it was the final scene that President Aegina witnessed. She wept as the lights winked out, and the tiny number of survivors were left scattered. With gentle persuasion she at last accepted Aetolus’s demands that she leave and join the evacuation. With the remaining Senators around her she made her way slowly out of the great hall. Ares was returning as she left. He waited by the entrance as she went by, bowing gracefully. She nodded in acknowledgement and paused briefly.

“Do not tarry long, Ares. The evacuation will be complete in two days and I will have the power centre shut down before we leave. At that point the portals will cease to function. End it quickly, bring home our men and ships.”

“I will do my best, President.”

Ares bowed again and she moved on. Behind her, Aetolus seized Ares by the arm.

“Should they not be destroyed?” he demanded in a whisper, pointing at the tiny dots of the surviving Keruh ships in the great globe. “They are a risk to our safety!”

Ares paused long enough to read the reports Hephaestus quickly handed to him. He was still looking down at them as he began his reply. “They are no threat, Aetolus. Their course is away from us, and in all honesty they have little chance of reaching Eden, let alone here. They attempt to reach their own home world. It is not a boon we should deny them after such a battle.”

Aetolus seemed to accept his reply. He nodded and quickly rejoined the President and other Senators on their way out. Each would go to their own homes to make their final arrangements. Victory was tinged with sadness, but with good reason.

Ares watched them leave and then turned to Hephaestus. “Was my answer correct?”

Hephaestus nodded.

“And what of our own ships? Can they reach home?”

“Their chances are very slim, Ares. Both combatants will have a long journey ahead of them.”

Ares paused briefly before replying. “Contact Zeus. Have the Olympus, Pegasus and Leviathan wait for them. He is to use the portals to transfer their crews if necessary. Warn him that his task has not changed. He is not to rejoin the battle at Eden. His is a much harder task. He is to bring home all he can.”

Hephaestus nodded again. But then he waited. Ares sighed in understanding. His explanation of what Otrera had told him was short and to the point. It left Hephaestus no wiser.

“The portal logs at Ephesus confirm this news. What should I tell Menelaus?”

“He is to destroy the clone manufacturing laboratories, eradicate all evidence of the technology used, the hardware, records, biological material, all of it. When he has finished this task he is to return here and join the evacuation. The portal at Ephesus is then to be disconnected from the Ring. It must remain closed forever.”

“What of the main portal here?”

“Keep it open only as a means of contact with our ships. Once the power centre is shut down it will be useless. By then we must be done with it. We have one last battle to manage in this war, Hephaestus, after that our job here is done.”

-o-

On the bridge of the Olympus, Zeus received his latest orders in dour mood. He was sitting in his command chair with his head leaning on his hand, his elbow propped up on the chair arm. He looked a picture of disconsolation.

“So this is to be our glorious task!” he grumbled. “Instead of fighting and sinking the enemy, we lounge out here with those who are crippled and spent. And now we must become a hospital ship, filled to the gunnels with the weak and wounded.”

Jason, his First Officer, looked up from his control console. “There is no dishonour in the saving of good men, Captain,” he said. “And the celebrations on our return will be the greater for it.”

Zeus raised his head and looked at Jason. “A hero’s welcome?” he repeated. Then he paused to think for a moment. “And why not?” he said suddenly. “Have we not all earned such a title and a welcome? Have we not fought and smashed the enemy? How many others have counted as many intersections as us? Not many that will return, I’ll wager.” His countenance brightened. “Yes! A hero’s welcome for those who have fought well and returned as saviours to their brothers in arms!” He sat up straight in his chair. “Contact the Pegasus and Leviathan. Tell them to reduce speed and expect survivors from our fleet. We will turn about and search for our brothers in need.”

“We were told not to return to the battle,” Jason pointed out.

“And we will not. We will return only a sufficient distance to be able to make contact. Then we will use our portal as a feed to the Pegasus and Leviathan.”

“We are more capable of carrying survivors than they.”

“And we will! The more the better! But we will leave none behind that can be saved! Send the signal!”

As Jason set to work on his task, Zeus turned in his command chair.

“Nestor! Bring us about and increase to ramming speed! When we have traversed a thousand leagues begin a sweep pattern! If there are any ships out there, friend or foe, we must find them!”

-o-

Breda kept staring at the wounded Keruh Warrior. It was so strange to see him sitting there with an axe in his chest. She was still in Clyemne’s arms, but the two of them sat more relaxed now. Time passed slowly and without measurement in the darkness of the tunnel. Breda didn’t know if it was morning or evening, night or day. It was just all the same, one long moment. But there were differences.

They came to an intersection. Here most of the Gatherers and Receivers continued down the original tunnel, but the truck heaved aside and approached the large gaping hole that had appeared in the tunnel wall. With several hesitant steps, the Gatherers carrying the truck manoeuvred it through the entrance, and in a few moments they had left the traffic queue of bloated Receivers and their entourage of Gatherers in the main tunnel far behind them. The view of their forms passing the arched entrance quickly disappeared in the gloom as the new tunnel curved away.

The new tunnel they had entered was at right angles to the main tunnel and was a lot narrower, causing the few Gatherers running back and forth to squeeze passed the truck on either side of it. The tunnel was also darker and more claustrophobic, the roof within touching distance above their heads. In fact the cab roof on the truck scraped against the tunnel roof more than once, causing dirt to spill over them. Lupili and Anaxilea both voiced their irritation in their native languages, but the Seventy-Ninth hissed his reply in Edenite with disinterest.

“The cross tunnel we have entered will be only short. It leads to another tunnel like the one we have left. It will bring us closer to our final destination.”

While the Edenites on the truck stared at him with more than a little apprehension, Anaxilea couldn’t resist a retort.

“More final for you than us this destination is I think.”

The Seventy-Ninth failed to respond. He just sat there with the axe in his chest, silent and still. He could have been dead already.

Breda looked up at the tunnel roof so close overhead. The surface seemed so smooth and featureless.

“How could they build all this so soon?” she whispered to Clyemne next to her.

“They have lived underground all their lives. They are accomplished tunnellers.”

“But there’s so much of it.”

Clyemne nodded. “Yes, this is why their invasion is so aggressive. I warned you that their grip could not be shaken off lightly. As the network of tunnels grow even the ground beneath your feet becomes the enemy. In time your world becomes their world, an extension to the Hive joined across space by the portals.”

Jeddra had been listening to them both. Now she asked, “Where did all the soil go?”

Anaxilea answered her question. “On Keruh it be already,” she said quickly. “The nest it feathers, food and warmth for wriggling babies.”

Her words conjured up unpleasant thoughts in the darkness of the tunnel that curved away in the distance before them. Fortunately the only image that reared up out of the gloom was another intersection. A few moments later and the truck emerged into another, larger tunnel. The Gatherers underneath the truck heaved it aside and joined the throng of Gatherers and Receivers that hurried along this new thoroughfare.

There were more Gatherers in this tunnel, but the Receivers that trudged along with them were smaller, their bodies deflated and sagging as if the air had been let out of them. Many of the Gatherers had to help them along, carrying aloft the folds of skin. Apart from this rather unsettling sight there was no difference to the original tunnel they had left.

Rualda looked around in confusion. “Are we going in the same direction?”

Lupili shrugged. “Who knows?”

He was the last one to speak for a while and their journey returned to the monotony and silence that had become the norm. The repetitive and constant sameness of the tunnels and the scenes around them seemed to dull the senses. The walls went by in unbroken blandness and the rocking of the truck beneath them as the Gatherers carried them along was almost soothing. In fact the horror of sharing the tunnel with the Gatherers and Receivers seemed to have faded and they had even got used to the smell.

Like Lupili’s attempt at escape, the change of tunnels had been an unexpected break, a time when something different was to be seen, however briefly. But as before, it was quickly over, and after the passing of merely a few minutes it seemed like it had been yesterday, or last year, or that it had never happened at all. And as before, time passed without measurement in the near darkness of the tunnel. Even the different but equally unpleasant appearance of the Receivers soon became familiar.

It was strange how everything horrible could become normal with time.

With the absence of terror, boredom set in. And as everyone sat silently, many of them gaining comfort from the feel of another close by, Breda began to relax and to stare. And as before, it was the Seventy-Ninth of the Telen’Gal that became the subject of her gaze.

Why the Warrior should intrigue her so Breda couldn’t tell. Maybe it was idle curiosity, maybe it was a need to understand a creature, an alien that could carry out such violent acts. She had seen them before of course, but she had been filled with such terror then that it had been difficult to be objective. And before that, when she hadn’t been so scared, they had been too far away. Close to they were different, bigger somehow. This one was the first one she had been able to study at close quarters, and at length, without the terror that usually accompanied their presence.

She couldn’t help herself. Sat in Clyemne’s arms, she stared and stared.

He was like an insect, but not. His black armour, facetted eyes and great jaws made the comparison easy. But his general shape was wrong. Unlike an insect he had only four limbs, and his asymmetric shape was most confusing. One side of him was big, the other small. One leg was huge and squat, the other almost lithe and nimble. The same was to be seen in his arms. The joints looked powerful, and where his armour left his natural skin bare, she could see tiny hairs covering the brown surface.

She continued to stare, watching him, trying to see if his chest swelled and fell as he breathed. It didn’t.

When he spoke, she almost had a heart attack.

“What have you learned, Edenite, by your examination of me?”

Kelandra was equally startled, her moan only subsiding when Jeddra hugged her more tightly.

Breda hadn’t even noticed that he was watching her. It was difficult to tell, the facetted eyes never moving or changing. But she wasn’t to be put off. There were things she wanted to know, and things she wanted to say.

“Not enough,” she replied, and letting go of Clyemne she began to crawl forward.

Clyemne instantly grabbed her. “Wait! It maybe dangerous to approach him!”

And Lupili added, “Be careful, girl. They’re not to be trusted.”

Breda looked back at their anxious faces. “I don’t think he will hurt me. It would be going against his word, wouldn’t it?”

Anaxilea confirmed her view. “Right she is. Too noble he be. Prefer axe in chest to broken word.”

Clyemne didn’t look convinced. “Is this necessary?”

Breda reached back to pat her hand. “I’m curious, that’s all. I’ll be alright.”

Clyemne let go of her and Breda moved next to the wounded Warrior. She knelt down beside him, sitting back on her heels. He hadn’t moved or said another word.

“Hold out your hand,” she said to him “The big one first.”

There was silence on the truck again as everyone watched and waited. Slowly, the Seventy-Ninth of the Telen’Gal raised his larger hand before her. He held it palm upwards.

Breda reached out and felt the three large fingers. They were hard, the brown skin like metal or plastic. Each finger was jointed twice, like hers. The joints were bulbous and heavy. She bent the fingers back and forth in turn. One of the ones on the end could be folded across the others like a thumb. She turned the hand over. The back of the hand was heavier and shiny. There were scars deeply engrained in the thick skin. She turned the hand back over again. Yes, the skin was definitely lighter on the palm. There were also the same tiny hairs she had seen before. On the tips of the fingers the hairs were clumped together in more dense patches. She stroked one of them with her finger.

“Is this how you feel?”

“The compression or deflection of the hairs indicates pressure or grip,” he replied.

“Hold out the other one.”

The smaller hand was raised. Breda repeated her examination. It was identical, but finer, the fingers almost delicate. Breda stared at the two hands before her.

“Why the difference?”

“One is for war, the other, a tool,” the Seventy-Ninth hissed.

“But how did it get like that?”

“Over many generations. The form is successful, the success leading to enhanced breeding iterations.”

“Successful of the fittest,” Breda said and looked up at him. “Why did you attack us? We signed a treaty with you, we let you land unopposed, and you attacked us. Why did you do it? Why?”

It was a blunt question that needed to be asked. The Seventy-Ninth gave her the answer with the honesty it deserved.

“The allies of the Tun-Sho-Lok, the Atlantians, have repeatedly sacked our harvest worlds. We came here for food.”

“You could have asked,” Breda replied quickly, although his answer had surprised her.

“There was no time for discussion. We are starving.”

Anaxilea suddenly sat bolt upright next to Cassiopea. “Losing this war the Keruh are?” she asked quickly.

The Seventy-Ninth turned his head towards her. “Yes.”

Lupili whistled, and Rualda shook her head. “And after all that negative reporting, too,” she whispered.

Anaxilea was triumphant. “Lies it be! Propaganda to deceive the innocent! Truth now be told! But stop there not, Warrior of noble intent! Tell the Edenites of the food you seek! Tell them!”

Lupili looked at Anaxilea and answered the question for her. He spoke glumly, the depression clear in his voice.

“It’s us, isn’t it? It’s so obvious. They can eat everything else, the trees and grass, our staple harvests. But there are no large heard animals on Eden, only small game. So it has to be us; there’d be no other reason for coming here. The treaty was just an excuse. And we were too stupid to see it…”

He finally lowered his head into his hands and Rualda rubbed his back.

Breda wanted to hear it from the Seventy-Ninth.

“Is that true? You were planning to eat us all along?”

“This was our intent.”

Despite the foreknowledge provided by Lupili, there were still gasps from Jeddra and Rualda on hearing it so calmly admitted. Kelandra still hid herself in Jeddra’s arms, but even she peeped out with wide eyes at the Seventy-Ninth in morbid fascination.

Breda felt the anger welling up within her. All that pain, all that suffering, and here was the culprit, personified at last in one armour-clad body.

“How could you be so selfish?” she shouted at him. “We’re thinking intelligent people, how could you think of us as mere animals? As food?”

“I am sorry, but our- ”

“Sorry?” Breda repeated, rising up on her knees. “You killed us! You slaughtered us! I was there, in Jutlam City! I was in one of the buildings when you attacked! I saw the panic and the killing! I ran with the rest, desperate to get away, terrified, petrified!”

Before she knew it she had made a fist and had begun smacking him on the side. He made no response, and she continued smacking him again after each remark.

“You did that to me! You and all the others! And you did it on purpose! You planned it! How can you say sorry now? How can you even think of being forgiven?”

“We were eating one another!” the Seventy-Ninth hissed when the moment came.

Breda shut up, suddenly deflated in mid-smack, her fist raised. She sank down again, sitting on her heels as before. She lowered her fist and began rubbing the knuckles with her other hand. The armour had been hard.

Anaxilea laughed. It was that tinkling laugh that was so attractive and out of place in their present environment.

“Explain your predicament,” she said at length. “Much joy it will bring us to hear it.”

The Seventy-Ninth of the Telen’Gal lowered his hands. It was only now that Breda realised that he had still been holding them out to her. He could have stopped her smacking him any time he wanted. But he had just sat there motionless and taken it. If he was looking at her, she couldn’t tell, but when he spoke she knew it was to her.

“You have not known starvation until you have eaten your brother. Our culture is different from yours, Edenite, harsher and yes, unforgiving. Our planet is barren. For one Hive to thrive, another must be devoured. For countless generations we preyed upon one another, eating those who resembled ourselves, living always on the edge of oblivion. In times that were most harsh, when the countless wars went badly, the females would be forced to eat their own young, eliminating a whole generation.”

There were more gasps, but this time in horror rather than surprise. The Seventy-Ninth ignored them as he continued.

“Now those times have passed. Now we look to the heavens for sustenance. There are many planets teeming with life. How can we look on the races of these other worlds more highly than those from the Hives on our own world? And why should we do so? We have always looked upon those who are defeated in war as the goal of that war. We take neither money, technology, nor art as our trophy. We fight for the basic need of sustenance: We kill to eat. There is a purity in this. Purity and honour.

“Edenite, I did not seek your forgiveness earlier, and nor do I now. I seek merely your understanding. We have no hatred for you, no plan for conquest and empire that requires your world as a step to victory. For this purpose you must look to the Atlantians. It is they that have plundered our harvest worlds, they that have brought starvation once more to the Hives. Again food is short and the strong must consume the weak to be sustained. And so it is for food and nothing else that we have come to your world.”

“That doesn’t make it right,” Breda quickly added.

“No. But it is our way. Brutal, but clean. There are none in our society who cheat or steal from others, none who place themselves higher than the rest. All live, eat and die together, for the good of the Host, for the good of the Hive. It is a way of life I know and accept. When your journey is over, I will be carried to a Receiver, my life ending in its stomach. I will share the fate your people have endured. And I will do so in complete contentment that I have served well the Hive that bore me.”

Anaxilea clapped her hands when he had finished. “Words for my ears these last are I think. But fail to hear them I will. You speak of purity and honour, but there is none for a Warrior of your rank outside of battle. Your end is ignominious. Delighted I be, and sad for it you are, though admit it you don’t.”

Breda looked over her shoulder at Anaxilea. She seemed smug in her answer. She turned back to look at the Seventy-Ninth. His expression was the same as always. There wasn’t one.

“Is she right, would you prefer to die in battle?”

“If I had the choice, yes,” he hissed in final admission.

She looked at his enormous facetted eyes. “Can you cry?”

“Tear ducts are not part of my optical anatomy.”

Breda nodded and began moving back to Clyemne. “No, somehow I didn’t think they would be.”


CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

NEGOTIATIONS

Philippis opened her eyes. What she saw was slightly confusing. It looked like a very large male with bright red hair wearing an even larger shift that seemed to have been sown together from white sheets. Standing behind the immense form were Heli and Kreousa. Philippis smiled.

“You look like a giant Atlantian Senator,” she whispered weakly.

Tipi smiled and then cried. The tears just burst forth from his eyes and he collapsed over her in an embrace that threatened to put an end to her fragile life. Heli and Kreousa began to pull on him, urging him to let go as he babbled away.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Philippis! I didn’t mean to hurt you! I don’t know what came over me! I didn’t know what I was doing! I didn’t mean it! I didn’t! Honest! I’m sorry!”

As he kept going, blubbering all over a half crushed Philippis beneath him, Heli and Kreousa pulled, smacked and kicked at his great form. Finally the blows and their cries began to sink in. He released Philippis and straightened up, protesting all the way.

“I’m not hurting her! I’m being careful!”

The fact that Philippis emerged from beneath him intact seemed to prove this, although Kreousa did a quick examination to confirm that no further damage had been done.

The commotion in the Medical Centre doubled the attention Tipi was getting from the Klysanthians. Many of the wounded were too weak to notice him when he entered, now all who were conscious craned their heads for a better view.

Kreousa was now berating Heli in Klysanthian. “You shouldn’t have brought him in here! He could have killed her!”

“You’re over-reacting!” Heli replied. “Philippis is alright! He didn’t hurt her at all!”

“But he shouldn’t be in here! You know what we’re like when we’re wounded! And he’s right in the thick of it!”

“He needed to see Philippis! Now let him talk to her properly!”

“He should leave!”

“When he’s spoken to her!”

Kreousa looked annoyed, her delicate features still angry, but she made the mistake of looking at Tipi. He was just standing there with his head down, wiping away a tear with one hand. She gave in.

“Oh, alright! Five minutes! No more!”

She walked quickly away, checking her patients as she weaved a path between the narrow beds towards her office. Heli watched her go; knowing that Kreousa would call Scyleia almost instantly the door was closed. She turned to Tipi and found him already holding hands with Philippis. She sighed.

“Five minutes, no more,” she told him in Edenite and then moved quietly away. It was best to let them get on with it.

Tipi looked down at Philippis. He felt so bad. “I hurt you a lot didn’t I?”

She smiled weakly. “You were…marvellous…”

“But I hurt you. You should have stopped me.”

“I could not…I liked it…too much.” She reached up with her other hand and held his arm. It seemed to be a strain, but she did it anyway. “Angry…with self…you must not be…Older am I…Know what I…was doing did I…Not your fault…Mistake…was mine…but liked what we did…Even now…do I…not wish to change anything…Be content, Tipi…as I am content.”

Tipi bent over her again and stroked her short hair with his large hand. “I hear what you say, but I can’t help feeling bad. If you had died, it would have been my fault.”

“I will not die,” Philippis said more strongly. Then she smiled again. “Enjoy it did you?”

Tipi nodded his head and blushed. “I’ve never done that before.”

“Then remember me…remember what we did…learn this new skill…not talk now with females…act…Take what you want…to wait is to die forlorn…Do it well you can…know this I do…like it they will…as I did…remember you I will…”

She grew more tired, her eyes slowly closing. Tipi was conscious of Heli standing next to him again. It seemed so soon, too soon, but he knew it was for the best. Philippis was already sleeping. He laid her hands down carefully, straightening out her arms. Then bending closer he kissed Philippis gently on the cheek. Finally he straightened up and turned to Heli.

“Thank you.”

Heli smiled and nodded. “Come.”

She led him slowly away. They came close to Phoebe who was sleeping on another bed nearby. Tipi paused and looked down at her.

“Is Phoebe going to be alright too?”

Heli glanced back at him. “Yes. Only resting now she be. Recover completely soon she will.”

They moved on, Tipi glancing back at the two figures on the narrow beds. They were soon lost among the other wounded Klysanthians that filled the Medical Centre. Many of them moved fitfully, raising and pulling at their blankets, allowing him brief glimpses of their long limbs and slight forms beneath. But it was their faces that disturbed him most. They were so beautiful and childlike that to see their expressions of pain hurt him somehow.

When they came close to the entrance they found Kreousa waiting for them by the door of her office.

“You’re wanted on the bridge,” she said to Heli in Klysanthian.

Heli nodded in acknowledgement. “Alright. Tell Scyleia I’ll only be a few minutes more.”

“You have to go now.”

Heli sensed the urgency in the Doctor’s voice. It gave her reply an edge of worry. “What’s wrong?”

“Alcinoe said we’re being hailed by an Edenite ship.”

-o-

There were others in the tunnel. They were beyond the next junction, too far away to see or hear. But she could smell them. They were an evil taste in the air, a stench that ripped the anger from her mind and made it a physical presence in the darkness.

Keruh.

When she had first entered the tunnels she had fought and killed many of them in the dark. At first the battle had been toe to toe as both forces opposed one another in the restricted space of the tunnels, neither side giving way. It had been violent and bloody, and immensely rewarding. But gradually the Keruh had been forced back, their numbers diminished, until they were finally broken. She had chased them for miles in the tunnels after that, her, Gil-Bey, Yan-Jai and several others, hunting and stalking them. But it had been Yan-Jai at their head. She had pursued them further than any other, consuming all she could catch. The constant pursuit prevented the Keruh from regrouping, and the tunnels were soon lost to them. They had fought well but had died in vast numbers.

Did she feel sorry for them? Crushed and torn apart, eaten?

No.

The Keruh were a good enemy, but she hated them like she hated all creatures that did not match. They were incorrect. It was just that the Keruh seemed to understand this. They never stopped to run or beg for mercy. They fought as the Androktones themselves fought, blindly, for a common purpose. There was respect in this, but no more.

But for the Keruh that common purpose had changed.

Instead of meeting the Androktones head on, the Keruh now avoided battle, and the underground tunnels seemed almost empty of them. They were still here, she knew they were, she could sense them, taste them in the air, moving around at a distance, keeping just out of reach. Their strategy had a purpose, but it wasn’t always successful. She had caught and killed many in a large group she had stalked for some time, and had been searching for the rest, following their trail, when she had found the Edenites. And in this lay her dilemma.

The Keruh were only a junction away, closer than at any other time. She should attack them now, run among them shooting, slashing and biting. It was what she wanted to do, what she needed to do. But she could not. She had others to care for, others she could not abandon nor risk in the battle.

Holding back hurt her. She could see the green lights already. They stabbed like two long needles jammed into her brain through her eyes.

She needed guidance.

-o-

Li-Sen-Tot was standing among a crowd of Androktones at the controls of the portal. He was talking and working the controls at the same time, demonstrating the various protocols and access codes. His was the only voice that could be heard in the main hall as the Androktones gathered around him listening and watching intently. He spoke calmly and clearly, as if he had no other care in the world.

Once they had been given their instructions it had taken only a few minutes for the thousand Androktones and twenty silver drones he had summoned to the portal to be despatched on their way. As soon as they were gone and the portal link had been disconnected, Li-Sen-Tot had summoned a further one hundred Androktones to the portal. His lecture had begun immediately.

Apart from the crowd around the portal, the main hall had almost emptied. Only the quietly kneeling figures in row upon row of silent vigil remained. And walking among them other Androktones patrolled, their silver rifles held ready. One of the patrolling figures had shoulder length brown hair that was quite rich and curly. Her eyes were also brown and her complexion had a darker hue that gave her beauty added warmth. She paused by one of the figures on her knees and bowed closer. A few seconds passed before the Androktone straightened up and walked away more purposefully. She left the rows of silent figures and approached those gathered at the portal.

Mai-Ann stood among the crowd at the portal, listening and watching with the rest as Li-Sen-Tot continued with his demonstrations. It took a few seconds for the brown haired Androktone who appeared at her side to break her concentration. They spoke briefly and then Mai-Ann approached Li-Sen-Tot. He was not pleased by the interruption.

“What is it, Mai-Ann?”

“Soo-Fam has spoken with El-Quan. El-Quan told her that Keruh are in the rapid transit tunnels between here and the station at Pan-Tine Gardens.”

Li-Sen-Tot paused a moment. The close proximity of the Keruh was a surprise if not unexpected. They needed to regain control of the Ring, and they could only do that here, at the main Edenite portal. It was an obvious strategy, one that he was expecting and had planned for. But that they could have reached this far undetected was still a surprise. That they were close to the landing site chosen for the Gate Of Heaven was also a worry.

“Despatch a thousand Androktones from those who wait outside into the station at Welcome Square. They are to engage the Keruh and destroy them. Send a dozen drones with them. Tell them to expect fierce resistance. And have Tai-Gil strengthen the security around Pannertine Gardens.”

Mai-Ann nodded, but paused. “What of El-Quan?”

“Can she avoid them in the tunnels?”

“No, Councilman. The Keruh are ahead of her at the junction between tunnels 48A and 39A. There are no other junctions and the next station is here at Well-Com Square. They will be caught in the middle of the battle.”

“Where is Yan-Jai?”

“Beyond the station at Pan-Tine Gardens.”

Li-Sen-Tot nodded. “Then we must alter our plans. Tell El-Quan she is to return to Pannertine Gardens and await the arrival of the Klysanthian vessel. Tell her to take her charges safely aboard the vessel before she joins in the attack on the Keruh in the tunnels. Advise Tai-Gil of this change in plan. Tell her to watch out for the arrival of El-Quan and her charges at the station. And tell Yan-Jai to advance her pace as food awaits her in the tunnel ahead.”

“Yan-Jai’s eagerness to consume the Keruh may cause her to reach the station before El-Quan.”

“Then advise El-Quan to move faster.”

Mai-Ann bowed her head and moved quickly away with Soo-Fam. Li-Sen-Tot watched them for a moment.

It was unfortunate really. It would have been interesting to see Gusta and Didi Albatus once again. They were faces from a more pleasant time. But in truth he was not sure what he would have said to them. Maybe it was for the best. With a sigh he turned to the waiting Androktones gathered by the portal controls and resumed his lecture.

-o-

People, wounded in both mind and body, trudged along the track behind a silver creature with a bright light for a tail. They were different somehow. Where before their expressions were filled with doom and pain, now they were calm. The girl now walked with the woman with the bandaged leg. They held hands.

They were nearly there.

In the darkness and silence of the tunnels their progress had been marked only by the junctions and stations they had passed on their slow journey. And with each abandoned and silent station or dark shadowy tunnel entrance they passed without incident, their fear had faded and their confidence had blossomed. As before, they knew which station followed next, and when they passed Pannertine Gardens all of them knew that the next station was Welcome Square. From there they would climb at last to the surface, run to the main portal building and final safety. They all knew it now; they could feel it in their bones. They were tired, exhausted, hungry and weary, but they would soon be safe.

El-Quan suddenly stopped in the tunnel and her voice boomed out in the darkness.

“We must pause.”

Everyone came to a slow halt and gathered around her. Although only a short time had passed since they had first looked on El-Quan with terror in the station concourse, all of the Edenites now seemed totally at ease following along in the light cast by her bulbous tail. They followed her by choice; in a direction they recognised and to a destination they all knew. A destination that was only a short distance away. Her request for them to halt therefore did not fill them with any fear.

Gusta looked up at her. “What’s the matter, Elquan?”

El-Quan continued to stare into the darkness ahead. “We are not alone in the tunnel. We must wait here until the way ahead is cleared.”

There was the first hint of alarm as Didi looked up at her and asked, “There are others ahead of us?”

The Corporal was more specific. “Who is in the tunnel ahead of us?”

El-Quan answered his more specific question. “Keruh.”

The name brought a physical presence to a fear they all thought they had escaped. It was strange how a silver monster paled in comparison to the images of the Keruh forever etched into their minds. But the experiences of this day would not easily be forgotten.

Expressions changed on every face, fear quickly chased away the calm, and people began to back hesitantly away. Almost the instant the name had been uttered there was almost a panic, but the determined voice of the Corporal barking out commands and the purposeful movement of the soldiers who obeyed him did much to quell it. Altus and Ganatus quickly moved ahead of everyone, their rifles held ready. And Ganatus called back in a loud whisper to El-Quan.

“How many?”

El-Quan remained immobile. “Between one and two thousand.”

Everyone gasped and the Corporal exclaimed, “One or two thousand?”

El-Quan answered his suggested question. “It is difficult to be specific with the partial fragments of DNA that come to me in the air. It could be the higher number.”

“Where are they?” he asked her.

“Beyond the next junction.”

The Corporal was already looking around in the dark for an escape route. “We need to get out of here!”

El-Quan still hadn’t moved. “We must pause.”

“Pause? Pause for what? So they can catch us here in the dark? Not likely! You can stay if you like, Silver, but we’re going!”

The Corporal turned and began to wave his arms at everyone. “Turn around! All of you! We’re going back to that station we passed a few minutes ago! Get moving! Klemunus! Eastomoner! You’re in the lead now! Altus! Ganatus! You watch the rear!”

They didn’t need to be told twice. Everyone turned and hurried back the way they had came. Some even ran. The stretchers were turned around with several shouts, and more than one of those that carried them stumbled over the tracks in their haste only for others to quickly grab them and help them along. The girl joined in to help, as did everyone else. Bandaged, wounded, or just dirty, they all moved as a single unit, with a greater urgency, and with all thought of fatigue having left them. The reason was simple: Something they all feared was in the tunnel ahead of them, and they were all eager to get as far away from it as possible, even if it meant being lost in the tunnels and the dark.

Gusta and Didi trotted along, holding hands tightly. Didi said nothing, and Gusta couldn’t speak either. They had been so close.

As everyone hurried along the track, the Corporal looked back at El-Quan. She still stood immobile, her tail held aloft. Soon the light it cast would be left behind. It would be harder running in the dark with only a hand torch to guide them. He tried to change her mind one more time, shouting back to her.

“We’re heading back to that station! Are you coming or staying?”

To his surprise, El-Quan turned and ran swiftly towards him. “I will go with you. But we must move quickly as Yan-Jai approaches the station from the other side. Her pace is slow, but when she picks up the scent of the Keruh she will move with greater haste. We must not allow her to reach the station before us. Move faster.”

-o-

Food…

Oooohhh…how foul but interesting it tasted in the air…so corrupt, so offensive and disgusting and yet…mmmmhhh… to seize it, smash it and lap it up…to feel it inside, changed at last, the corruption gone, was so beautiful, so pleasing, so exquisite and satisfying. And…oooohhhh…the feeling of magnificent contentment that followed their absorption, the wave of sensual beauty and tingling perfection that overwhelmed the body and drowned the mind…it could not be denied…

Alien biological material, its genetic structure corrupt, waited somewhere ahead. She could smell it already. It was a pungent, offensive smell, a completely disgusting and yet compelling taste in the air. She knew she had to devour it, to render it down to its basic form. Only then could she absorb it into her own mass. Only then would the stench of it be removed from the air. Only then would her body feel the sweet delight of physical perfection.

She knew what she had to do even before the instructions were passed to her other self. It didn’t seem to matter what they told her anymore. She knew what she had to do now. It was what she always had to do. What she found was always the same. It was always wrong, incorrect, and defective. Her actions were also always the same. She destroyed them, burned them, and consumed them. All of them. Everything. They all added to her mass, allowing her to grow bigger and bigger.

And with each mutilated, pulp-rendered corpse she consumed came the ever reliable and gratifying burst of pleasure. A physical and mental sensation that overwhelmed her body and mind. At first it had been new. A sudden wave of sweet tingling through her body that reached her mind and bathed it in joyous pleasure. It grew in power with the number of dead. The more she killed the more overwhelming it became, and the more violent the deaths the greater the intensity of that surge of sweet pleasure. Her need for it was now incredible. It ruled everything.

Those she found in the tunnel would meet the same fate as all she had found. Even now some of them hurried towards her, trying to get to the station and escape. She recognised them. They would not escape her this time. This time she would not be cheated. This time they would all add to her bulk. And with their death would come immense pleasure…

With a heave that cracked concrete and left a bulge in the road above, Yan-Jai dragged her tremendous body through the tunnel with increased speed, and moved closer to the station at Pannertine Gardens.

-o-

When Heli reached the bridge it was to find the image of an Edenite male on the viewing screen. She paused in the doorway and stared at him. He was sat on the bridge of another ship. Other large and broad figures moved about behind him. It was strange to see such large forms moving so elegantly. They were all much bigger than Tipi, their features and heads more angular and tougher looking. It was suddenly apparent that he was a child. She had left Tipi in her cabin. She hoped the furniture and fittings could cope with him.

Scyleia sat back in her command chair; her whole body and expression oozing calm indifference as she spoke up at the viewing screen in Edenite.

“And help you why should we? You are enemies to the Alliance, your treaty with the Keruh freshly signed.”

Limeno leaned forward in his command chair. His demeanour was completely the opposite. Even his voice was hurried and emotional. “Let’s not waste time with political semantics, shall we? Our world is being destroyed by the Keruh, and I will do anything I can to save it! You care nothing for it! Only victory concerns you! The fact is there is a Keruh vessel approaching you from your port side! It will fly right above you! If it gets to Jutlam City it will bombard the Alliance forces there! It could affect the outcome of the battle, even the war! Will you intercept it or not?”

Scyleia smiled cruelly. “My answer you will get when our paths cross, not before.”

She turned to Alcinoe and made a cutting gesture with her hand across her throat. Alcinoe clicked a switch and a sea of fire instantly replaced the image of Captain Limeno on the viewing screen.

The change of atmosphere on the bridge was also instant. From calm indifference sudden activity burst forth. Alcinoe jumped from her seat and ran to another console while Heli ran forward and took her place at her own console. And Scyleia leapt from her command chair and chased after Alcinoe. She was shouting even before Alcinoe could begin typing on the console keypad.

“Where is it, Alcinoe? Where is it? Find it! Find it!”

“I’m checking! I’m checking!”

Heli glanced back at them both. “How can these ships be so close?”

Alcinoe was typing frantically on the console keypad. “We’re too low! The buildings interfere with the tracking arrays! And the flames don’t help, either!”

“Don’t give me excuses!” Scyleia snapped at her. “Where is it?”

“There!”

Scyleia smacked her delicate hands on the console. “Get it on the screen!”

The image of fire on the viewing screen flickered, the scene hardly changing at all. But in the distance a small yellow shape could now be seen high above, picked out by the reflection of the flames beneath it. Two more similar shapes could be seen further behind it, again their forms only made visible by the bright flames reflecting against their hulls. A white beam suddenly flashed from one of the pursuing ships narrowly missing the one in front.

Heli stared at the screen. “They’re too far behind! They’ll never catch it!”

Scyleia ran back to her command chair and pounced upon it. “Heli! What’s our status?”

Heli looked down at her console. “Hull integrity is down to eighty-five percent! Energy levels not much better!”

Scyleia’s eyes flashed as she stared at the tiny yellow shape on the screen. “That’s all I need to know! Heli! Close all bulkhead doors! Prothoe! Alter course two points to port and increase to ramming speed!” She suddenly spun round in her chair, kneeling on it and leaning on the back as she fixed her green eyes on Prothoe behind her.

“Keep her low until the very last moment! Surprise them, Prothoe! Shock them with our arrival! Make it flamboyant! Make it stunning! Make it count! Bring them down into the fire! We have an audience for our act, my sweet! Let us not disappoint them!”

-o-

Captain Limeno slumped in his chair, his head in his hands.

“They won’t help us, Keltus, I’ve failed.”

Keltus didn’t reply. He kept staring at the astrogator screen as Limeno continued his lament.

“When that ship reaches the front the Alliance attack will be broken and our world will be lost. It is a cruel twist. Our capital burns beneath us, the fertile heartlands a nuclear wilderness, and yet from defeat we still could have snatched victory. But now we can only watch helpless as the final blows are delivered.”

At last Keltus looked up. “She’s altered course two points to port. She’s going for it, Captain!”

Limeno looked up at the viewing screen, sudden hope in his eyes. “Show me!”

-o-

Above a sea of fire, two ships pursued a third. All three fired their maser cannons, each knowing that the exchange would be ineffective. It was a race that was already won. All three ships were of the same class and power, and those in the lead knew that those chasing them had no hidden reserves of speed. But now came a sudden twist, a flamboyant turn of fate that dashed the winner at the point of victory.

Keeping below tracking level until it was almost alongside the leading vessel, the Gate Of Heaven suddenly rose up out of the waves of fire in a gentle arc and banked to the left. Her passage through the air sucked in the flames behind her as she began a slow and majestic spiral.

Those who were the intended targets quickly became aware of the fourth ship now approaching them so close from the side. The tubular vessel began to rotate, bringing its large fin to bear. It also began to climb, hoping to avoid the impending collision.

It was too late.

Prothoe had timed her manoeuvre to perfection. It had left the Keruh helmsman with no time to recover. Almost as soon as the Edenite ship had started to climb and rotate, the Gate Of Heaven was flying upside down at the highest point of the arc, her large and ribbed centre hull bearing down on the tubular vessel. The collision was unavoidable.

Hit broadside on by the greater mass of the Klysanthian ribbed hull, the large fin of the Edenite vessel was snapped in half, tearing itself free. The violence of the impact sent the ship spinning, out of control, and it began a shallow descent that quickly turned into a dive, its broken fin leaving a helical trail of vortices in the smoke. At the last moment the spin was halted, control regained, but then it disappeared into the fire, and a moment later a great mushroom of black and yellow swelled up, burst, and scattered a multitude of fragments in every direction in a fiery fountain.

In contrast, the course of the Gate Of Heaven was far more majestic. With hardly more than a shudder during the impact, the ship continued on its arched spiral, slowly descending back to the sea of fire. The ship was right way up again when it levelled out above the flames and continued on its original course.

-o-

There was a roar of delight on the bridge of the Alentin. Keltus made a fist and punched at the air, and Limeno sat back in his command chair and shook his head in amazement.

“Trust the Klysanthians to turn a simple ramming manoeuvre into a ballet!”

Keltus grabbed his shoulders. “But they did it, Captain! They downed it!”

Limeno turned and grabbed his First Lieutenant’s hand. “Yes! We live to fight on! Contact them! Quickly! We need to talk! And tell General Orbanta that we have opened negotiations with the Alliance!”

-o-

The darkness of the tunnel was rent apart by a violent explosion. Dismembered limbs, unrecognisable in their mutilated state, flew and bounced off the tunnel walls. Metal rails were left raised and twisted by the blast, and concrete fell from the roof.

As the roar of the explosion died down, the splat and thud of blade and axe became more audible. The dust cleared and a bright silver dart flew through the tunnel spitting fire. Dark forms, ungainly and large, burst apart in orange gouts of flame, their black blood splashing the wall. Other large and ungainly shapes ran forward in the smoke-filled darkness, bobbing along, their axes raised, their rifles firing. More nimble and lithe forms quickly jumped upon the ungainly shapes, their shadows combined as they staggered to and fro until they fell. More and more rushed forward from both sides, clashing together at the point of blade and axe. Others were shot down as they ran only to be trodden on by those who came after.

Tunnel 39A was soon a compressed pipe of death as two large forces came together in the narrow battlefield. There were only so many that could fight at once, and those that ran forward could do so only over the corpses of those that had fallen. Both sides rushed forward regardless, and the battle quickly became a tightly enmeshed knot of flailing, chopping and slicing.

A Warrior swung his axe, decapitating one Androktone. Another he cut in half at the waste. Then two Androktones sliced at him with their blades at the same time. One cut off his larger arm, the other took off his hip and leg. As he fell, other Androktones stabbed down at him until he was trampled under foot, his smashed corpse alongside those of the Androktones he had killed.

Red and black blood splashed the walls and floor of the tunnel as the bodies began to pile. Those that fought used the dead as a hill to fight on, their own corpses soon adding to the mound until the roof came close. At the very last a Warrior stood upon the backs of those who fought below him, raising up an Androktone in his great fist and throwing her against the wall. A silver dart then flew between his legs, spat fire, and burst him apart.

The tunnel should have been filled with screams and shouts, instead it was filled only with anger and hatred and the need to fight for a common purpose. That need drove those at the back to push ever harder to reach their enemy, compressing even more the area of combat for those at the front. In the end those doing the fighting had no room to move, no room even to avoid a blow, until, finally, bodies, alive and dead, were pushed and smashed together, their limbs twisted and wrapped around one another, their bodies impaled on axe and blade.

It was an embrace of death as enemies were pushed together, face to face, until ribs cracked and carapaces crumpled as the hatred and need of those at the back pushed relentlessly forward. The battle became a show of strength as two primeval forces fought to push one another back in a darkened tunnel deep beneath the ground. They heaved and struggled like blind insects, their path determined by instinct. And among them all the trapped silver shapes flowed and changed. From silver darts they became great worms with curved teeth that burrowed and ate their way through the living and the dead, through friend and foe alike.

-o-

There was a train parked in the northbound tunnel outside the station at Pannertine Gardens. It was sleek and brightly coloured, modern and energy efficient. It was also empty, the people who had been travelling on it had abandoned it long before. They had all escaped along the track to the station and from there to the surface. A trail of their abandoned belongings could still be seen. Shopping bags, briefcases, hats and coats and even some shoes lay scattered. For a while there had been panic and noise. Now there was only silence and stillness.

Slowly, gradually, noise and light began to filter through from the southbound tunnel. There were shouts and the sound of feet on concrete. Shadows flickered in the light. The noise grew louder and the light stronger.

Gusta ran with Didi. He was holding hands with her, his grip almost painful. She could see the station ahead of her, the light from El-Quan’s tail already reaching the platforms. They were almost there. She couldn’t understand why she felt so scared. It was stupid. But the closer they had come to the station the more scared she became. She should have been scared of what was behind her, not in front. And now that she was almost here, she was absolutely terrified.

The journey back through the tunnel to the station had become a nightmare of mixed emotions for all of them. At first the knowledge that the Keruh were behind them had spurred them on. Here was a terror they had all seen and feared. Here was a terror they all understood.

The sounds of the battle that soon began were muffled and indistinct. They heard the odd explosion, and the distant flashes brought only a glimmer of light to the darkness that chased them. It made them run faster. But soon another fear had slowly overtaken them. It was a fear that grew within them as they got nearer to the station, a fear that slowly became a physical pressure that dragged at their feet and thickened the air. It was a fear that El-Quan had fed with each rising demand.

“Move faster! Yan-Jai approaches! Move faster!”

The Corporal had added to her demands, his shouts rising above the panting and gasping that filled the tunnel.

“Run faster! Keep together! Help one another! We have to get to the station before that monster!”

Gradually, almost unknowingly, the fear of what lay ahead overwhelmed and blanked out the fear of what lay behind. They were suddenly in a race for their lives, with death in front of them and not behind. It was a sudden reversal that could have caused them to falter. Instead they ran faster than ever before, as fast as they could, even as the fear urged them to slow down, to turn back, and face even the Keruh. And they were still running when they finally emerged from the tunnel, all strung out, a look of terror in their eyes.

In ones and twos, then threes and fours, and then all of them, they ran into the station and began clambering onto the platform, their only motivation to escape from the unseen horror that was stalking them, a horror that they hadn’t seen but could only imagine.

Didi threw his holdalls onto the platform and climbed up beside them. A man with a bloodstained shirt and a cut on his face helped him up. As soon as he was on the platform Didi grabbed Gusta’s hand and began pulling her up on to the platform next to him. She could feel the panic in him. It was in her to, she felt so desperate to join him when she saw him on the platform above her. It seemed so high and to take so long. When she was finally next to him she felt her heart in her mouth. She turned to help those behind her. Kiki reached out his hands and they both helped him up. As soon as he was next to them they reached down to help the next person. They were all helping one another onto the platform, still working together, even as the panic tore at them.

El-Quan ran passed them all, her illuminated tail held aloft. She stood on the tracks in the middle of the station, staring into the darkness of the northbound tunnel beyond the abandoned train.

“Move faster!” she urged them in her booming voice. “There is little time left!”

The Corporal stopped to help the woman with the bandaged leg as she scrambled on to the platform and the girl pulled her up. Then he turned and waved everybody on. He was already shouting again.

“Come on, the rest of you! Stop dawdling back there! Keep moving! And you lot on the platform! Give us a hand with these stretchers! Klemunus! You get up to the entrance! See what’s going on up top! Eastomoner! Go with him! Make sure the concourse is clear! Altus! You, Relther and Ganatus secure the stairs! Move, everyone! Help one another, damn you!”

The urgency of his voice spurred on even the slowest among them, and one after another they reached the platform and began to clamber upon it. Those who had carried the stretchers thrust them onto the platform and jumped up beside them. Other eager hands quickly hoisted the stretchers aloft again and soon they were all running along the platform towards the stairs.

On the track, El-Quan took a step backwards and her voice boomed out. “Move faster! Hurry!”

The Corporal glanced at her. “We’re going as fast as we can, Silver! Just you keep your eyes peeled for that large friend of yours!”

“She is close! She comes for us! Hurry!”

It wasn’t the encouragement they needed.

Klemunus and Eastomoner had reached the stairs and bounded up the steps. Altus and Relther had also reached the bottom of the stairs and were helping the others who followed them. Ganatus threw himself against the wall, going down on one knee and aiming his rifle at the northbound tunnel. One by one they all reached the staircase, crowding at the bottom as they all tried to rush up together, the stretchers wedged among them. Kiki lunged forward, pulling on one man who looked set to overturn one of the stretchers.

“Give them room!” he shouted.

The Corporal shouted even louder. “Take it easy! Work together!”

On the track, El-Quan took another step backwards, her voice booming out once again.

“The time for calm has passed! Run! Run quickly! RUN!”

Panic set in at last. People screamed and ran up the steps in terror. They pushed and shoved, and Gusta and Didi were pulled apart and separated. Didi was swept up the stairs in the rush, while Gusta was left behind, trapped by one of the stretchers. They called out to one another, but their voices were drowned in the screams and shouts of terror.

The Corporal tried to keep control, fighting his way up the stairs, pulling people apart, but it was no good. “Keep calm! Keep calm!”

Behind him, Pedomoner had fallen over and Kiki was helping the soldier up. They were all strung out on the stairs now, only the soldiers and the two stretchers left at the bottom. Altus and Relther had joined Ganatus by the wall, their rifles raised. They were aiming at nothing, but that soon changed.

There was a rumble followed by a noticeable vibration. They all felt it. It caused debris and dust to fall from the roof of the station. A cool breeze blew out of the northbound tunnel. In an instant everyone froze and silence returned to the station at Pannertine Gardens.

As one, all of them looked towards the northbound tunnel and the train that blocked it.

The train moved. It rolled forward with a squeaking of wheels and then stopped. They all saw it quite clearly in the light from El-Quan’s tail. A moment later and all the windows on the train erupted in a shower of glass shards as the body of the train collapsed and twisted. The back end in the tunnel went down while the front end rose up off the tracks. Then the front end went down as well, crushed flat by a tremendous surge of silver that erupted into the station like water from a pipe. But it wasn’t water.

The silver fluid had a face. It was a tremendously angry and hideously evil face with large and malevolent red eyes and a huge gaping mouth full of long curved teeth that were bigger and broader than the tallest Edenite. The face was set on a huge head on an equally huge neck, an enormous worm that exuded from the tunnel as if under great pressure. And it went straight for them.

Altus, Ganatus and Relther all opened fire at the same time, their bullets peppering Yan-Jai’s face with tiny craters that quickly filled and vanished. In reply Yan-Jai stuck out her tongue as she surged forward. It was a large cylinder that spat an enormous orange ball of fire. Altus, Ganatus and Relther jumped in three different directions as the ball of fire flew towards them. It hit the wall where they had been crouched and the ensuing blast blew concrete and twisted steel in all directions, the three soldiers vanishing under the huge cloud of dust and debris. The explosion was deafening and so powerful that everyone fell over on the stairs. A moment later and the cloud of dust and debris swallowed them too, stifling their screams and shouts.

Gusta ended up underneath one of the stretchers. Someone pulled it clear and she looked up to see that it was Kiki. At least she thought it was Kiki. He was completely covered in the grey dust. He was pulling on the stretcher with one hand while holding on to the man that lay upon it with the other. Both the man and the stretcher were covered in the dust. Instinctively she reached out to hold the bottom end of the stretcher. She looked around for Didi but she couldn’t see him. It was difficult to recognise anyone. All the people on the stairs were covered with the grey dust of the concrete. It covered everything. Even she felt it, rubbing at the dust in her eyes and in her mouth.

There was a gunshot. It was loud and close. At that moment Gusta suddenly became aware of the screaming and shouting. It was as if her ears had just been turned on. Everyone was crawling forward now, everyone except the Corporal who was jumping down the steps, his gun firing. He was firing at something behind her. Gusta turned her head and looked.

Yan-Jai was over the platform and at the stairs, coming closer and closer, her huge mouth open, and her eyes full of anger. Gusta could feel that anger, she could sense it throughout her body. She could even feel what the creature was thinking. It was such disgust, such sickening, violent hatred, that Gusta knew that Yan-Jai was going to eat her. She was going to eat them all, right then, right now.

At the last moment, El-Quan sprang onto the platform in front of Yan-Jai. She grew two turrets out of the side of her head. Gusta saw them just flow into shape and fire twin beams of orange light up at the huge head above her. Both beams hit Yan-Jai in the middle of her face and the double blast caved in her head and gained her attention.

As Yan-Jai reformed her face and mouth, El-Quan jumped off the platform in time to avoid an orange ball of fire that blew a hole in the concrete where she was standing.

The roar of the explosion in the tunnel, the sight of the platform erupting in huge concrete fragments, and the wave of heat and grey dust that blew toward her, it all felt detached to Gusta. It was as if she was watching it from some point of safety rather than actually being there. She was more fascinated than scared.

Two more bright orange beams hit Yan-Jai on the side of her jaw, caving it in as before. It reformed as Yan-Jai turned away from the platform and fired again. Again El-Quan sprang out of the way, leaping high up on to the wall of the tunnel, the light from her tail casting weird shadows. The blast from the orange ball of fire blew a hole in the track and sent twisted rails spinning into the air.

Gusta watched the rails hit the walls and roof and bounce off, and almost before they had landed on the ground, El-Quan had fired again. But this time she shouted as she fired.

“Your other self is in danger!”

The language was hard and staccato, but Gusta recognised it as she had recognised it earlier. She spoke little Tun-Sho-Lok, but she could understand the simple words that El-Quan shouted. As the Corporal seized his chance to pull people up the stairs, she sat mesmerised, staring at the two silver monsters fighting their unequal battle.

Several orange balls of fire spat from Yan-Jai’s mouth in quick succession, blowing huge craters in the tunnel wall and chasing El-Quan along the wall and up over the roof, her path traced by her illuminated tail. The noise was terrific and fragments blew everywhere, but still El-Quan escaped, and still she fired back and shouted.

“Your other self is in danger!”

Yan-Jai tried a different tactic. She grew two long and sinuous arms from out of her body. They just flowed out of her. Each arm grew a great three-fingered hand at the end. Each finger had a long and curved claw. With these hands she began to beat at El-Quan, trying to swat her like a fly as she sprang and darted out of the way. But like a fast moving firefly, El-Quan continued to evade her, and still she fired back with the twin turrets on her head. And with each shot she scored a direct hit, it was impossible to miss, the impacts altering Yan-Jai’s features for only a second before they reformed. And each time she shouted the same thing.

“Your other self is in danger!”

Yan-Jai fired and beat at her, but El-Quan was smaller and agile. She ran up and down the walls, back along the track, she zig-zagged and changed direction, she jumped and leaped, and all the while the light from her tail danced and cast wild shadows. And always she shouted and fired back.

“Your other self is in danger! Think of your other self!”

Her words didn’t seem to have any effect, and the swatting and firing continued. But finally a much louder voice filled the station, a voice that was so base, so deep and powerful that it caused every fragment of debris to shake and vibrate. Gusta even felt it vibrate deep within her ribcage so powerful was it. It was an indescribable voice, a voice from nightmare, a voice from the very depths of hell.

YOU STRIKE AT ME IN THEIR DEFENCE? YOU ARE DEFECTIVE, EL-QUAN!”

“I am not defective! They have Embassy status!”

THEY HAVE NO SUCH STATUS! NOW YOU WILL FEEL MY WRATH AS THEY SHALL!”

El-Quan jumped up at the wall of the station as another orange ball blew a hole in the platform where she had been standing. She fired back straight away, shouting again.

“And while you waste time here your other self is in danger!”

Yan-Jai swatted at her, her claws raking the concrete and tearing loose the steel pipe work and stanchions. “WHY IS MY OTHER SELF THREATENED? DO YOU THREATEN HER?”

“No! I seek to protect her!”

El-Quan fired back, and in reply three more orange balls of fire chased her up the wall in a darting run.

FROM WHO?”

“From the Keruh!”

The running battle ended abruptly. The last fragments fell to ground and the dust billowed as silence finally returned to the now totally wrecked station at Pannertine Gardens. Yan-Jai withdrew her hands, her arms growing shorter and fatter. She placed them on the mangled track beneath her, resting on them so heavily that her claws sank into the concrete. El-Quan dropped from the pockmarked wall of the station and landed on the rubble of the platform, her feet apart, facing Yan-Jai above her. Yan-Jai leaned over her.

EXPLAIN!”

“They seek to destroy the portal, where your other self waits blind and defenceless! Spare my charges and I will fetch her here for you! You can take her within, protect her from harm!”

Yan-Jai walked forward on her two clawed hands, her worm-like body exuding further out of the northbound tunnel. She stepped onto the platform, crumpling it beneath her. “I CAN DO THIS WITHOUT YOUR HELP!”

El-Quan backed away. “Can you? The Purpose burns too brightly within you now! Far greater than in I! You cannot reach the portal without avoiding battle! Many of the Keruh wait along the tunnel! Consuming them will delay you! Even now your other self sleeps as my other self sleeps! Both are blind and defenceless! Can you wait, Yan-Jai? Can you?”

The great head swung back and forth, a tremendous grumbling issuing from deep within. The sound caused the fragments of concrete on the platform to vibrate and dance.

YOU WILL BRING MY OTHER SELF TO ME, HERE?”

“Yes! There are many Keruh in the tunnel ahead of us! Let them feel your wrath! Spare my charges! They have Embassy status granted by the Councilman! Let us pass and I will return here with your other self!”

Yan-Jai swung her head and grumbled some more. Finally she spoke again.

AGREED!”

The two arms retracted into her body, the clawed feet loosing shape as the huge head swung away from the platform and with a surge it dived into the southbound tunnel.

Gusta watched as the huge worm-like body plummeted through the station. It went on and on, apparently never ending. El-Quan didn’t wait for it to end. She turned and bounded along the platform. She began to claw and dig at the large fragments of concrete that lay piled and strewn around. Then she pulled out something that had been trapped underneath.

The Corporal was at the bottom of the stairs. He pulled Pedomoner to his feet, shaking the grey dust from him. It fell in clouds from his hair, face, and uniform.

“Get up the stairs, as fast as you can!”

Pedomoner coughed and spat. “What about Altus and Ganatus?”

“I’ll find them! Now move, man! I’ll meet you on the concourse!”

The Corporal left Pedomoner to crawl and hop up the stairs. He ran down the platform to where El-Quan was raising a grey form in her clawed hand. She shook it, scattering dust, and then dropped it. The Corporal reached the grey form as it began to cough and retch. He pulled him into a sitting position. And when he spoke it was with urgency and alarm.

“Altus! Are you alright, Altus?”

Altus coughed and wiped his eyes. “I think so, Corp,” he said hoarsely.

The Corporal looked up as El-Quan dropped another man onto the wrecked platform. It was Relther. He just lay on his stomach, gasping and coughing. El-Quan stood above him.

“We must go! There is more danger to face and there is little time!”

The Corporal stood up in front of her. “We’re not going anywhere without Ganatus!” he shouted.

“There is no other life to be saved in this area. We must go!”

The Corporal stood his ground. “Show me!” he bellowed. “Now!”

El-Quan turned and raised another large section of broken concrete. The Corporal quickly stepped forward and crouched down. He took one look at the still form beneath, at the dust caked blood and the staring eyes, and his shoulders slumped.

“Okay,” he said sadly and standing up he turned away.

El-Quan lowered the heavy fragment.

“Aw, shit!” Altus exclaimed.

The Corporal pulled him and Relther to their feet. He spoke more calmly now. “Come on, you two, let’s move. There’s nothing we can do for Ganatus now. Come on.”

By the time the three soldiers had reached the stairs, Klemunus and Didi had come racing down with two other men. The two men stopped to help Kiki and Pedomoner with the last stretcher while Klemunus hurried on to the bottom of the stairs. Didi’s only concern was for Gusta, and as soon as he reached her he grabbed her in his arms and began hugging and kissing her.

“Oh, my love! I thought I had lost you!”

Gusta tore her eyes away from the southbound tunnel where Yan-Jai’s tail had finally disappeared. “It’s alright, Didi darling,” she said quite calmly as Didi began to brush the grey dust from her face and hair. “Kiki and I are fine. It’s alright. Elquan saved us. She made a bargain with Yanjai. I heard her.”

Didi didn’t care about any bargain, he was just happy to be with Gusta again, both of them safe and sound.

Kiki, Pedomoner and the two other men were now carrying the last stretcher up the stairs. Further down, Klemunus had reached the Corporal, Altus and Relther.

“Are you guys okay? What happened?” he asked them.

“We’re fine,” the Corporal told him. He hooked a thumb at El-Quan behind him. “Silver here seems to have chased it off somehow.”

“Where’s Ganatus?”

“He’s not coming.”

Klemunus looked at them all and didn’t press the matter. They all made their way up the stairs, catching up with Gusta and Didi who were only now climbing to their feet. Together they followed behind the stretcher. None of them felt like talking.

El-Quan waited at the bottom of the stairs, watching them. When she saw them reach the top she quickly bounded up the stairs after them.

When Gusta and Didi reached the concourse it was to find it in darkness. Only when El-Quan joined them with her illuminated tail could they see everyone strewn about the floor like so many grey bodies. They just lay there coughing and gasping. Some of them wept, their tears and sobs unrestrained. They were like ghosts, the final vestiges of the people they once were chased away by what they had seen in the station below. And they were all exhausted.

Gusta and Didi collapsed down with the rest. Kiki was already lying on the floor and Altus and Relther quickly joined Pedomoner by the two stretchers.

As El-Quan moved passed her, Gusta reached out and grabbed at her silver body. For an instant it felt as if the hard flesh would melt and flow out of her grasp, but then it hardened and El-Quan stopped.

Gusta looked up as the large head swung towards her, the twin turrets gone now.

“Thank you, Elquan,” she said gratefully.

“You have Embassy status,” El-Quan replied as if justification for her actions were required.

“You still saved our lives. Thank you.”

Gusta let go of El-Quan and the silver creature moved forward. She padded silently towards the stairs that led to the exit. The Corporal followed her as she climbed to the surface, her tail lengthening so that the light stayed behind in the middle of the concourse.

Didi looked at the bright bulbous tail standing upright among them all. Then he turned to Gusta in surprise. “How could your grip stop such a creature?”

“Because she let me, because she’s on our side,” Gusta said calmly. “I can feel it, Didi. I could feel it when she was fighting with that other one downstairs. That’s why they wanted to change her.”

“You mean that’s why Li-Sen wanted to change her.”

Gusta looked up at her husband. Slowly she nodded. Didi grunted.

“Huh! That’s the last Lece cake I’ll bake for him!”

The Corporal had climbed halfway up the stairs to the station entrance. Eastomoner was crouching near the top, the large form of El-Quan next to him. It was dark outside but an orange glow lit the skies. It cast them in a strange shadow. It felt hotter, and there was smoke in the air, the Corporal could feel it catch his throat. He called up to Eastomoner in a whisper.

“What can you see?”

Eastomoner glanced back briefly. “It looks like the whole of Jutto is on fire, Corp. All the buildings I can see are burning, and there’s a heck of a lot of bodies around here. It must have been an absolute massacre. It pongs a bit too.”

“Are they Keruh?”

“Yeah. But they ain’t alone. It looks like the other bodies are Klysanthian, but I’m not sure.”

“Not sure? How can you not be sure what a Klysanthian looks like?”

“They’re too big. At least what’s left of them is too big.” He leaned forward, looking down at something nearby. “But they definitely look female.”

El-Quan spoke without turning around. “The bodies you see are those of my sisters. We are clones of the Tun-Sho-Lok.”

Eastomoner looked up at her. “They don’t look like Tun-Sho-Lok.”

“This is because we are bred from a mixture of DNA taken from the Tun-Sho-Lok and their allies, the Klysanthians and the Atlantians. It is their larger forms which dictate our size and strength.”

“But you look different to them.”

“I am only the weapon. My other self dwells elsewhere. This is why I must leave you.”

Eastomoner looked back at the Corporal and shrugged. The Corporal climbed the rest of the stairs and stood next to El-Quan.

“You’re going nowhere without us!” he said sternly.

El-Quan turned her head towards him. “You cannot dictate my actions.”

“No! But I know a couple that can!” He turned quickly to Eastomoner. “Go and get that Embassy couple! Now!”

Eastomoner nodded and hurried back down the stairs.

El-Quan seemed unmoved. “I will be gone before they can interfere.”

“What? And leave them in the dark with the rest of us?”

El-Quan’s tail detached itself from her body and flowed down the steps like a snake. The Corporal stared at it in shock. El-Quan turned away from him.

“Wait here until I return for you.”

In a second she had bounded away. The Corporal couldn’t do anything to stop her, and by the time Eastomoner returned with a worried looking Gusta and Didi it was too late. Klemunus had come too, he stood further down the stairs, and while Gusta and Didi stared in shock at the scene of carnage outside, Klemunus called up to the Corporal.

“Hey, Corp! What’s happening? That light bulb of a tail is sittin’ on it’s own in the middle of the concourse as bright as ever!”

The Corporal called back to him angrily. “Our guard dog has gone! That’s what’s happened! It’s left its light but abandoned us only a couple of blocks away from the portal building!” He turned and grabbed a startled Gusta. “We have to go after it and get it back! A couple of us could do it! You and me! It’ll listen to you!”

Gusta looked at the Corporal in shock. “But she’ll come back! I know she will!”

“Yeah! Sure! That’s what it said! But we can’t wait until then! Anything could come along! Keruh, more of those creatures! Anything! We have to keep moving! We have to get that thing back!”

Didi was still staring at the scene outside. “You actually want to take my wife, alone, through that?”

The Corporal turned and looked outside. It was as if he saw it all for the first time, only now understanding what he was seeing.

Pannertine Gardens was one of the largest open squares in the city. It had been designed as a recreational area and nearly half of it was landscaped and made over to trees and grass through which there were winding paths. Fountains, statues and benches were everywhere and several fast food stalls and some larger restaurants were dotted around. The rest of the square was filled by a number of sports pitches. Some were gathered together on one side of the square while others were isolated on their own amid the trees and grass. Each one was provided with spectator seating and buildings for changing, and all were neatly fenced.

That was how it used to look.

All the buildings were burnt out and the fountains and statues were smashed. Many of the trees had been hit by laser blasts, the splintered stumps left blackened and dead. Others were just burnt. All the sports pitches were wrecked, the fences flattened. And everywhere there were bodies. Mutilated, dismembered, partially burnt, they were piled everywhere. They were draped over the fountains and trees, hanging from the windows of the burned out buildings, piled high over the grass and pathways. In fact there was no grass to be seen at all, no concrete, no other flat surface visible. Only bodies: A thick, constant, heavy carpet of corpses that went on as far as could be seen. And beyond the gardens the distant buildings that lined the square were all burning. The whole city seemed to be burning. The flames gave the scene an eerie orange glow, and the smoke drifting around enhanced the feeling of nightmare.

The Corporal looked down. The bodies spilled over the entrance to the underground rapid transit system, the blood a sticky mess that darkened the steps under their feet. Eastomoner had been right. Some of the bodies were female, or at least they had been. The rest were Keruh. And beyond the bodies, on the lower steps, dismembered limbs lay scattered about. Eastomoner was standing on one. The Corporal looked up. Above them the mangled remains of several bodies hung over the sidewall. One lifeless hand still held an axe.

The Corporal looked back at Gusta, at her shocked and terrified face. Abruptly he let go of her.

“Alright! If you don’t want to go alone, then we’ll all go together!”

Eastomoner hooked his thumb at the scene outside. “You’ll never get those people down there through that, Corp! Half of them will just faint!”

The Corporal’s voice was desperate. “But we can’t just stay here!”

Didi turned to him. “We don’t have any choice. We’re all exhausted anyway. We need a rest.”

The Corporal stared at them all. He could see the same answer in all their eyes. He suddenly leaned back against the wall and sighed.

“Are you sure it will come back?” he asked Gusta more calmly.

Gusta nodded. “It’s a she. And she will come back. She won’t abandon us. I know she won’t.”

“You know an awful lot.”

“I know we can trust her.”

The Corporal rubbed the dust and sweat from his eyes. “Maybe a rest would do us good.” He looked at Didi. “Have you got any food left?”

“Some.”

“Then let’s dish it out.” He raised his voice. “Klemunus! Get up here! You take the first watch! Eastomoner! Go and see if any of those sweet machines are worth looting! You two! Come with me! I want some explanations!”


This is the end of the free chapters.

Copyright © D. G. Richards 2003

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