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The Friendly Ambassador: Walking With The Enemy

By

D. G. Richards

Copyright © D. G. Richards 2004

 


CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

DREAMS

In her mind she could still see the sun dipping below the sea. The bright reflections on the water were fascinating. She always stopped to watch it. No matter where she was in the laboratory complex she would always find her way up to ground level as dusk approached. She had to reach a window. She had to see it. But she never let anyone know about her craving.

What would they have done had they known? Was she defective in some way because of it? Would her sisters have questioned her integrity? Would the Tun-Sho-Lok geneticists have terminated her existence?

She didn’t know the answers to any of these questions, as she was always careful to hide her twilight activities. In a way she sensed that there was something not quite right about her compulsion. There was no profit in it for the Purpose. But there was also no loss. And it was such a marvellous sight.

The sun would be at its largest, and the brightness and rippling distortion at the horizon as the blood red orb descended into the sea was so interesting. Clouds often added to the mixture, but they were thin and almost of no consequence.

Was this ‘beautiful’?

The Atlantians spoke often about ‘beautiful’. One had even used the term to describe her. She knew it was a favourable descriptive term and that it meant that her appearance was above average when compared to others. But she had also heard the same Atlantian use the word with other clones. So who was above average?

She remembered the Atlantian. He had wanted her. He had wanted her and he had sought her out after the exercise period. She had been on her way to the showers. He seemed to like the heated condition brought on by her exertions. She had accepted him, knowing that it would only be a brief liaison, knowing that he was incorrect, and knowing that he would be gone in search of others by the morrow. But she took his seed anyway.

He was another fleeting memory as the time with him was fleeting. It was the first and only time she had lain with a male. It had been interesting. Copulation had been achieved easily, and the six offspring she produced had grown tall and strong. They were perfect.

Was ‘perfect’ the same as ‘beautiful? Was ‘beautiful’ the same as ‘perfect’? Did they mean the same or were they different? Could you be one without the other?

The sun going down must be beautiful, the feel of the male inside her when she reached her peak was beautiful, and her six offspring were beautiful as they stood before her proudly. She could see them all in her mind, her offspring, the Atlantian, the sun going down, each memory swapping and alternating with the others. But which was perfect?

She had been born and had grown up. She had a talent for fighting that was equalled by all of her sisters. She was the same as them but different. She could see them all. Dark hair, blonde, brown, some short, some long. Eyes of blue and green, brown and black. But all stood the same height with the same physique and the same need. She was them, and they were her. But she was different.

She was her, herself, me. She was aware of being alive and of being another. They were them; she was her. But they were the same.

Clones. Perfect.

It meant that they were different from the Atlantians. They were different also from the Tun-Sho-Lok. She could see them now, their small figures with baldheads almost like those of her immature offspring. The images mingled in her mind with that of the Atlantian and the sun, blood red, dipping into the sea.

The Tun-Sho-Lok were correct. But they were not the same.

Was ‘correct’ the same as ‘beautiful’? Was ‘correct’ the same as ‘perfect’?

All these thoughts circulated in her mind as she lay within herself, dreaming. How long had it been since she was whole? How long had it been since she had breathed and felt the rush of air in her lungs as herself? How many suns had sank into blue seas while she slept?

How many had she killed?

Those who were incorrect flittered into her mind bathed in green. They were always accompanied by pain. And the images were always the images of death.

These images of death dominated her dreams and thoughts as often as did all the other images. They all swapped and mixed together into a constantly changing collage: Smashed and dead bodies, the black blood of the incorrect, the red blood of her fallen sisters, the Atlantian on top of her, her own red splash at her first opening, the birth of her offspring, blood on their faces, and finally, always, the blood red sun going down.

Blood red.

But the images of blood and death were almost comforting. Here was a subject she was sure of. Those who were incorrect were imperfect. They were not beautiful.

She remembered the battles, every one of them. Here the memories were clear and distinct. They gave her detailed images of hard violence. She could almost feel them as well as see them. Blood, dismembered limbs, the smell of death and the heat of the energy bolts. She burned them as often as she sliced them. Blowing them apart with her energy bolts was pleasing but quick. She preferred the close and visceral use of her blades. She wanted to taste their death. She wanted to read their bodies and feel the changes within them at the moment of her blow. She wanted to feel their blood splash against her. She enjoyed knowing how stressed and distressed they were. She could recognise the taste and signs of fear, pain, and despair. She revelled in their violent deaths, smashing and slicing at them with gusto. But the final blow was the best. By then they knew. By then their bodies were at the peak of agony. To kill them then was…

Beautiful?

-o-

Peleus looked at Memnon in surprise. Telephus had summoned him to the bridge of the Kraken and now he stood beside Memnon in his command chair.

“I cannot understand,” he said rather hesitantly.

Memnon looked at him in equal surprise. “It is a simple enough request, Peleus. And I understand the reasoning behind it. You acted as liaison with Lysippe when she was aboard the Prometheus, so it seems only natural that you in return should fulfil her role aboard the Queen Of Angels.”

Peleus was still bemused. “And Pantariste asked for me?”

“Yes.” Memnon turned to face him in his command chair. “Look, Peleus. Our search of the heavens for our brothers and sisters in arms is at an end. You were among the last to be found, and we now have a long journey home. We need someone on board the Queen Of Angels. We need to maintain a close relationship with the Klysanthians. They have only two ships, both filled with survivors, and many more of their sisters are aboard our ships. There will be a lot of friction and a lot of going and coming. We need a central point of contact. That’s you. If you agree. If you do not,” he shrugged, “then I will choose another. Maybe Aeolus.”

Telephus suppressed a laugh. “There would be a war greater than the one with the Keruh.”

His remark caused Antilochus to smile at the helm and Memnon glared at him until the smirk faded. Memnon then transferred his glare to his First Officer.

“Maybe Aeolus would not be the right choice for this role, Telephus, but he would get it done, none-the-less.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Memnon turned back to Peleus. “So, Peleus, what is your decision?”

“I don’t know.”

Memnon was losing his patience. “How can you not know?” he said in exasperation. “What is it about this task that defeats you?”

Peleus developed a faraway look in his eyes. “Being among them, surrounded by them.”

“So you refuse?”

“I’m not sure.”

Memnon sighed. “Being close to the Klysanthians can be a distraction, I understand. But there are many that would jump at the position you would decline.” He glared once more at Telephus. “And some of them are on this bridge.”

Telephus smiled but made no comment, so Memnon turned once again to Peleus.

“Pantariste expects you in one hour. You have until then to make up your mind. If you fail to make the transfer I will select another in your place. You are dismissed.”

Peleus nodded and walked slowly off the bridge. Memnon watched him leave and then shook his head.

“How can one Klysanthian do that to a man?” he said to no one in particular.

Telephus turned in his chair and faced his captain. “They are very unusual women, Captain. Some say the best, although I am unconvinced. But it would be interesting to find out.”

“Ha! You are staying on my bridge, Telephus!” Memnon exclaimed.

“And what if Peleus refuses?”

Memnon paused thoughtfully and leaned on the arm of his chair. “Where is Aeolus?”

Telephus smiled. “You aren’t really thinking of putting my brother aboard the same ship as Pantariste for seven days?”

“No. But Aeolus knows Peleus as well as I know you. Contact him for me. I will speak with him.”

-o-

It was time to wake.

How long had she slept? How long had she been apart from her other self? The passage of time eluded her. Now at last she was together again. Now she was whole once more.

But why was it dark? Why could she not see the sun go down? Had she missed it?

She felt large. She felt larger than she should be. And yet there was something missing, something she was familiar with and knew that she couldn’t do without. Why was it not there? Where had it gone?

And why was it dark?

She wanted to move. She did move. Her fingers brushed a smooth surface. It was hard and yet not cold. She stood up; her limbs and muscles suddenly declaring their presence with harsh tingling pain.

How long had it been since she had moved and flexed her muscles?

She reached out and found the hard surface again. It was all around her. It felt, oohh, so familiar. And suddenly she knew why it was dark.

She was inside herself.

The part of her that was missing was without and she was within. Their positions had been reversed, and as the memories of her past drifted into her mind she knew that she was lost.

“I have no Purpose,” she whispered in the dark. “It has gone from me.”

She felt no anger, no hatred. She felt at peace. She breathed the air her other self brought to her. She was safe, protected.

But had the sun gone down?

-o-

As Peleus walked back to his quarters his mind fell apart in confusion. How he ached for Lysippe, how the memory of her haunted him. And yet the chance to be among others like her terrified him. Why was that? Why did he fear them so? And why did he also yearn to be with them at the same time?

His mind and his body were torn apart. He feared and yearned for the same things. He feared the feelings and changes that they would stir within him, but he yearned for those feelings like a favourite drug snatched away from him. He wanted to be among them, to smell them and feel their presence, but he feared losing his heart for it only to be crushed once more.

But even if he agreed, how could he face them? How could he think and act sensibly when surrounded by them? He would be confused, distracted. They would play with him and torture him with the slightest touch and breath.

And why had Pantariste asked for him?

Peleus knew why. He remembered the conversation with her. He hadn’t been very polite. But she had made it clear that she was interested in him. She had known of his relationship with Lysippe and she had said that she wanted the same. She had said that she would wait until his heart was open once again and that she would approach him. She had also said that she wouldn’t wait for long.

Did he want that? Could he be content in the arms of another? Was he that shallow? And what if he faced Lysippe once more? What if he saw her again, and was close to her? How would he react? How would he feel?

No. His heart was far from being open again. It would be a long time before he could feel relaxed and at ease. And even then he would not be in a position to seek the arms of another. There would never be enough time for that. His life was too short.

-o-

Zeus entered the bridge of the Olympus, his rest taken and his mind refreshed. And as Jason jumped from the command chair to allow his captain to resume his place, Zeus called for his report.

“What news, my friend? How are my charges?”

“Both the Pegasus and Leviathan keep station now, Captain. All screens are clear and the main fleet is no more than seventy thousand leagues behind us.”

Zeus took his seat and paused. “They have gained on us?”

Jason sat at his own console. “Yes, Captain. Telephus has reported that all searches are now at an end and they have begun the journey home.”

“You also said that the Leviathan has gained station?”

“Yes. Castor reports that sufficient repairs have now been made to allow an increase in speed.”

“She can go faster?”

“Slightly.”

“Contact Castor, ask him if he can increase speed by a further five points.”

Jason looked surprised. “You mean to keep ahead of our fleet?”

“I mean to reach the Scamander well in time to ensure the security of the Troad for our people. I will not have the President and our entire Senate stand in a foreign land without our support. Make the signal.”

“Yes, Captain.”

While Jason set to his task, Zeus stared through the open viewing ports before him and pondered on the change in situation.

So, Memnon meant to overtake him, did he? Well if it must be a race, then he would not shirk the challenge. But neither would he risk damaging the Leviathan or the Pegasus. That would be Memnon’s aim. He must know that if he increased speed too high, one of the cripples in his charge would fail. He would be forced to wait. And Memnon would snatch the glory of the victorious return from his grasp. But it was a double-edged sword, as Memnon would also have those within his fleet that were lame. For both of them the journey home would be a long, aching marathon. But it was a marathon that Zeus intended to win.

Jason looked up almost apologetically. “Castor believes that no more than four points is within his grasp.”

“Congratulate him and tell him that we will spare his engines and ask for only two. Pass the word to the Pegasus.”

Jason smiled. “Yes, Captain.”

“Nestor! Increase speed by two points.”

-o-

Something stirred.

Was her time over so soon? It hardly felt like a moment. She had been awake for such a short time and she had still not seen the sun go down.

But it was too late. It was already dark and she must have missed it.

How she had wanted to see it again, just one more time. Instead she had remained in the dark, awake but still unseeing.

But now there was a change. Now her other self awoke once more and it was time for her to sleep again. Her other self had the power to do that now. They had been apart for too long, and she had grown too big. Now her other self was the assassin and she was the drone.

As the hard walls around her grew soft and moved in, her mind drifted back into unconsciousness. Her body curled into a foetal position and the dreams returned in all their splendour. But a last whisper left her lips at the last. Or were the words spoken only in her mind?

“I must see it one more time, my sister. Take me up high, and show me the light and the rippling colours before my mind falls silent and dark…”

-o-

Peleus opened the door of his cabin and found Aeolus leaning on the door-jam.

“I never knew you were such a fool,” his former captain remarked.

Peleus stepped aside to let him in. “You have heard of my task?”

Aeolus walked passed him into the cabin. “Yes. Memnon spoke with me after he spoke to you. If you think you can shy away from this and leave me with Pantariste in your place you are sadly mistaken!”

Peleus closed the door. “I don’t really think Memnon will send you in my place.”

“No he won’t, because you are going.”

Aeolus threw himself down on the couch and Peleus sat on the side of his bed facing him.

“I fear it,” he said.

“Why? You know the Klysanthians. Ha! You know at least one of them far too well!”

“Exactly. And it hurts me, Aeolus. I loved her so much, and now she is lost to me. And if I take up this role, how will I avoid her? How will I face her again knowing that she is not mine and remain sane? How can I do the task Memnon wants of me with these thoughts constantly in my head?”

“Is it the fear of your failure or the fear of facing Lysippe that grips you?”

Peleus looked down. “I am still in love with her, Aeolus. I will always be in love with her.”

Aeolus nodded knowingly and spoke seriously. “Let me answer your fears with an explanation you may not at first find relevant, my friend. It is a story part of which you already know, but the details will be of interest.

“My brother has a way with women I could never fathom. While I remained tongue-twisted and incapable of coherent speech in the presence of any woman, Telephus could charm her into his bed within hours. Any woman. I doubt even if our sisters could have denied him if he put his mind to it. I was always envious. Then came Penelope, and I soon realised that my brother’s success was more to do with the willingness of his victims to succumb to his charms than to his charms themselves. Penelope smiled and laughed but held firm, causing Telephus to try even harder. But each time she would smile and deny him. He became besotted by her because of this. And soon she held him in thrall, sending him on idle tasks and missions.

“I had often coveted the women my brother won over. But I never found the same success. This often irked me for I was older. Soon I stopped trying. I still wanted many of them, but I had begun to expect my failure, and so I gave up. I became merely courteous, and reserved, almost distant. And so I was with Penelope. But then one day she sent Telephus on another worthless task and while he was gone she smiled at me in a very different way to the way she smiled at him. I hadn’t realised until then how close and familiar she had become around our house. I had always thought it was because of Telephus, that it was a strategy she was using to win him over. But it wasn’t. When she looked me in the eye and smiled at me my world changed. I married her no more than a week later.

“For months, Telephus never forgave me. And he never sought the arms of another woman, either. He was angry with me and with Penelope, and we often had cross words. Once we came to blows. But I knew it was his love for Penelope that stirred his anger. He finally moved away and avoided our house. And it wasn’t until our first daughter was born that he returned to us. By then he was calmer. He spoke with Penelope at length. I was content to leave them together, so strong was my trust in Penelope. It has never wavered to this day. And afterwards he smiled at me for the first time in many months and I knew his anger was at an end. Within days another woman was in his arms. I asked Penelope how the transformation had been achieved. Do you know what she said?”

Peleus shook his head.

“She said, ‘I reminded him that I had always told him that I loved another, that he had always known this, and that he knew I was merely waiting for this other man to make his feelings known. I told him I had never deceived him and that on the day when you finally did make your feelings known to me, he was already aware that it was you.’”

Peleus smiled when Aeolus was finished. “Your brother had over nine months to recover his sanity, I have had barely a day.”

“My brother had been in pursuit of my future wife for over a month, you have known Lysippe also for barely a day. You have suffered as he suffered, but at an accelerated pace. And he never triumphed as you did.”

“Penelope is a fine woman.”

“She is. And Lysippe is a very beautiful and slender woman. But Pantariste is a Matriarch. She is not the same as Penelope or Lysippe. She is not even the same as a captain. I admit this though it irks me to say so. She has acted as captain, but she has her whole House as her responsibility. It is one of the few Houses that remain with strength. For her to ask for you is a great honour. She may not have waited for you as long as Penelope waited for me, but she has made her intent known. She does know about Lysippe, does she not?”

Peleus nodded. “She does. She spoke with me when she visited Telepyleia in the ship’s surgery. She told me then that she was interested in me. She said my heart was closed but that my anguish would soon pass and it would be open again. She said she would approach me then.”

“Then to refuse her would be an insult.”

“It’s too soon,” Peleus pleaded, standing up and beginning to pace about the room. “I admit the similarities in your story, Aeolus, but your brother had time to mend that I have not had. I will be going to her with anger and bitterness in my heart and mind. Who knows what I will say or do?”

“She knows this, she is a Klysanthian. There are none who can read a man’s heart and soul better than they. If Pantariste has stood before you, she will know you, far better than even you know yourself. And she hasn’t made this request privately. She has done so through Memnon. She has declared her intent for you to all. She has asked for you, openly. If you must refuse her, if your heart is still closed as you say, then you must tell her this when you see her, privately, when none watch or listen. She deserves this at least. But you must not refuse this task. To do so would be an open insult that would mar our relations with them for a long time, far longer than it will take your heart to mend.”

Peleus shook his head as he paced in his anxiety. “You put undue pressure on me, Aeolus.”

Aeolus stood up and grasped him by the shoulders, bringing his pacing to a halt.

“Pantariste places this pressure on you, not I, my friend. And she has done so because she wants you. You are very lucky, Peleus. Believe me, you may not think so, but you are. I know because I am equally lucky. I stood beside Penelope for nearly a month, coveting her and envying my brother when all she wanted was a single word from me. And when I finally uttered that word it was at her coaxing. I was an idiot who could have lost the greatest gift of my life through inexperience and apathy. I was fortunate because Penelope was patient. Pantariste will not be so gracious. You have less than twenty-five minutes before the Queen Of Angels disengages. Gather what remains of your belongings. Go aboard and face her. Then make your decision. But once made, you will not be able to change it.”

-o-

It would soon be over.

The Dominant of the Mysan’Taf watched as the last few Receivers clambered out of the cavernous hole in the floor of the Edenite RNP building and passed through to the portal. The number of Gatherers had also dwindled, but the most significant indication of their impending departure now emerged from the hole in the floor and lumbered after the departing Receivers. The huge Diggers always came last. They entered with the Warriors and left with them. Many of them had closed up the tunnels as they had retreated. It was a natural instinct to secure the Hive that hadn’t changed with the use of the Ring.

There were now no more than thirty Warriors left on Eden. They had been guarding the Dominant and securing the perimeter around the portal. But with the passage of the Diggers back to the Hive on their home world, these Warriors now gathered close to the Dominant. One of them bowed and swept his smaller hand before him.

“The Gathering has ended and all Host members have been extracted, Most Gracious One,” he clicked and hissed.

The Dominant repeated the gesture. “This harvest world is now abandoned. Return to the Hive. Disconnect the portal.”

With his final commands given, the Dominant walked towards the portal and the distant large figures of the departing Diggers. The Diggers had already crossed the portal and were safely back in the Hive. He was eager to join them. This had not been a favourable venture. His three bodyguards took their positions in a triangle around him as he walked along, and the rest of his Warriors walked behind him in two columns, their usual bobbing gait far from synchronised.

As they began to approach the portal, the floor suddenly bulged upwards, causing them all to stumble and stagger. More than one Warrior fell to the ground as it heaved and rose beneath them. A grating and rumbling noise accompanied the movement, and it grew in strength as the movement grew in violence. The remaining walls of the portal building now collapsed with a roar of falling masonry, and even the wreck of the Keruh spaceship rolled and settled. Then, when the noise and turmoil was at its greatest, the ground suddenly split open.

In a fountain of flying concrete, iron, rock, earth, and debris, Yan-Jai burst forth in a stream of bright silver. She was a huge snake with an angry head. And in that angry head was a gaping mouth filled with immense teeth, her jaws surmounted by bright red eyes that enhanced her angry expression. But she neither snapped nor bit at any of the Warriors left floundering by her emergence. Instead she shot straight into the portal like a stream of silver liquid driven at force.

One of the last Diggers turned to face her, its claws raised. It went straight into her open mouth and disappeared. Yan-Jai merely accelerated as she crossed the threshold of the portal and entered the Keruh home world.

The Dominant of the Mysan’Taf rolled among the debris and dust, his axe lost. “Cut the portal connection!” he shouted.

Three Warriors fired at the huge silver snake while others ran for the portal. But the shout and movement only produced a violent response.

Bright silver tendrils shot out of the body of the snake. Each drove straight at a Warrior, stabbing through them and impaling them. In an instant they were carried aloft, axes and rifles thrown aside. And as the snake continued to rush into the portal, the impaled Warriors were suddenly whipped along with it, disappearing through the portal like fish on a line.

The Dominant of the Mysan’Taf died with his Warriors and returned to the Hive as they returned, in the arms of the enemy.

-o-

Pantariste sat in her command chair with her back straight and her legs together. Her fingers curled around the armrests as she stared through the open viewing ports in front of her. Her expression was haughty and cold. It matched her mood and cast a shadow over the atmosphere on the bridge. She couldn’t see the stars ahead of her, only the darkness. It was a dark void, empty, a portent of her future.

“Derimacheia, contact the House Of Gold,” she said with a cold edge to her voice. Her eyes never left the dark void ahead of her. “Advise Andromeda that we are disengaging from the Kraken in two minutes.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Ready with engines, Alcibie. I want us to stand off the Kraken’s port bow.” Again her eyes never stirred or moved.

“Yes, Captain.”

Derimacheia looked up from her console. “Pantariste, we have a signal from the Kraken. Telephus requests permission for Peleus to come aboard.”

Pantariste flexed and curled her long fingers as she continued to stare out of the viewing port. A star lit up the blackness, spreading its warmth through her soul. The sight of it caused a slight smile to curve her lips.

“Permission granted.”

The atmosphere on the bridge eased during the following minutes as Derimacheia worked at her console. “Peleus is aboard, Captain,” she said finally.

“Seal the hatches. Disengage.”

“Hatches sealed. We have disengaged from the Kraken.”

“Move us away, Alcibie. Keep us level with the Kraken. I have no wish to forge ahead, but neither will I stay behind them.”

Alcibie smiled. “Yes, Captain.”

Pantariste turned to her First Officer, her eyes leaving behind the darkness outside at last. “Derimacheia, advise Andromeda to take station on our port bow.”

The door opened behind them and Peleus came onto the bridge. Pantariste was instantly aware of his presence but she didn’t turn to him or acknowledge him. Instead she sat back more comfortably in her chair and crossed her legs. By then Peleus was standing next to her. She turned to him at last.

“Are you well, Atlantian?”

Peleus bowed to her. He was wearing his leather tunic over his white gown. The leather was clean and his armour and studs polished. At his back hung a white cloak and he held a bag stuffed with papers and computer discs under his arm.“As well as can be expected, Captain,” he replied.

“And you are prepared for the task ahead?”

“I am. I have been supplied with a full list of Klysanthian survivors, their condition, and the Atlantian ships that carry them.”

“Good. I will speak with you later and show you to your quarters. In the meantime, join Derimacheia at her console. She will apprise you of the status of the survivors aboard our ship and the House Of Gold.”

Peleus bowed once more. “Yes, Captain.”

He went to sit next to Derimacheia. She smiled at him and brought up the list of survivors on her computer. Peleus had hardly studied it before Pantariste called to him.

“Peleus, contact the Kraken. Thank Memnon for his hospitality. Tell him also that I shall extend the same good care to you as you gave to Lysippe.”

-o-

FOOD! FOOD! AT LAST I AM ALLOWED TO FEED AGAIN!”

Yan-Jai was now in the Combined Hive. Her entire bulk had crossed the portal. Two powerful arms had grown from the front of her snake-like body, and the clawed, three-fingered hands stabbed into the tunnel walls and dragged her forward ever faster. She could taste the Keruh all around her now, and their presence brought out the worst in her mind. And as she lashed out with her claws and teeth at the Gatherers and Receivers caught in the tunnels with her, her deep and malevolently booming voice echoed throughout the Hive in a crescendo of clicks and hisses.

VILE, DISGUSTING PUTRID FLESH! ALL OF IT! EVERYWHERE! IT MUST ALL BE DESTROYED! IT MUST ALL BE SMASHED INTO ITS COMPONENT PARTS! IT MUST ALL BE CRUSHED AND REABSORBED! IT MUST BE ADDED TO MY BULK!”

In the darkness of the tunnels and caverns that spread all around the Keruh home world were the incorrect. The foul smell of their corrupt biological nature tore at her mind and drove her insane with the need to consume them. It was a blood lust like no other. For only when the last of them was rendered to pulp and absorbed into her body could her mind finally reach peace.

THIS WHOLE PLANET REEKS OF FILTH! YOU MUST ALL BE DESTROYED! YOU MUST ALL BE CRUSHED AND RENDERED APART! YOU MUST ALL BECOME PART OF ME! ONLY WHEN YOU ARE WITHIN ME WILL YOU BECOME CORRECT! ONLY WHEN YOU HAVE ALL BEEN CONSUMED AND EXIST NO MORE WILL THIS PLANET BE CLEANSED!”

She had waited long enough in the silence and stillness of the underground tunnels. She had slept while her other self awoke. Now she was free, and now she was here, among them all. Those near the portal she despatched and consumed easily, quickly. Even the large Diggers were smashed and their armoured torsos wrenched apart. But others equally disgusting lingered just ahead. They filled the tunnels with their putrid stench. She heaved herself forward, bursting the bloated Receivers as she raked them and the Gatherers near her with her great claws. Those in front she snapped at with her great teeth, scissoring them apart and gulping down the dismembered gobbets. More came and sacrificed themselves to her. It just made it easier.

-o-

The Combined Dominant gathered his Warriors together in one of the large Hive caverns. The cavern was filled with military hardware that was the spoils of several battles with several different races. Some of it, like the maser batteries, would be useful in the coming battle, some of it would not be. As he organised the defence of the Hive and his home world, Yan-Jai heaved herself towards him through one of the tunnels that fed the cavern. He could see the silver apparition and hear the evil voice. Another mortal would have gone insane with the fear, but the Dominant felt nothing.

It was too late to be frightened and it was too late to consider the subterfuge that had brought this drone to their world. Their only task now was to destroy it. Because if they did not stop this drone here, then they would never stop it. One advantage was that the Combined Warrior Host was in this Hive. Most of his army were gathered with him in the cavern. But he hadn’t committed all of them. That would have been foolish.

As Yan-Jai heaved herself ever closer, the Combined Dominant gave his last orders.

“Seal all the tunnels to the neighbouring Hives! Ready the maser batteries! Send the Second to move the females and the breeding Host to the deepest cavern! Warn the Dominants of the Belol’Fan and Telen’Gal to set up their attacking manoeuvres in the largest caverns! Have them amass as many maser batteries as are available in each attack! And advise the First that he must take command when I have fallen!”

Warriors ran to obey his commands without pausing to complete the traditional salute. There was no time, they could see Yan-Jai’s gaping jaws emerge from the tunnel as she reached the cavern and spilled out.

Supporting herself on her great arms, Yan-Jai raised her angry head to the roof of the cavern. She looked down at the army of Warriors before her. They stretched back into the tunnels on either side until the darkness hid them. They were vast in number and she was only one. But it wouldn’t matter. Neither would the maser batteries.

The Combined Dominant and his Warriors stood their ground, waiting. Yan-Jai didn’t disappoint them. In a huge booming voice, she clicked and hissed the appropriate greeting.

I AM YAN-JAI, A CLONE OF THE TUN-SHO-LOK. FEEL MY WRATH!

The maser batteries opened up and Yan-Jai spat a huge orange ball of fire from her mouth that blew the centre of the cavern into rubble. And as her body twisted and contorted under the impacts of the maser blasts, she threw herself among them, and they leapt upon her, their axes flailing, and the end of a world began…

-o-

Mai-Ann stood before Li-Sen-Tot. “Yan-Jai is on the Keruh home world and Lai-Wa has jammed all portal transmissions emanating from there.”

Li-Sen-Tot sighed. “Then it is done. The war is over.”

Mai-Ann raised her head expectantly. “What are your commands, Councilman?”

Li-Sen-Tot considered his answer.

Should he deny her the expected orders? Should he make his transgression known to her now that it was over?

No, not yet. It was still too soon.

“Open a portal connection with our army on the highway. Open the other end at the Edenite Emergency Command Centre near Hilbrok. Use an upper level this time and ensure it is cleared of mines as your first priority. Transfer our army to the Command Centre and have them secure the facility. Once this has been achieved open a second portal at Delmatra. Survivors may still remain there, and there will also be valuable equipment at the airfield. Take everything useful back to the Command Centre. Do the same at Nemen and Kalahar.”

“Yes, Councilman.”

“Once all these objectives have been achieved proceed to the landing field near the Command Centre. Subjugate the remaining population. Begin energy transference. Cull the females and the superfluous males but ensure a viable Edenite population remains.”

Mai-Ann almost smiled in delight as she heard these last orders. “Yes, Councilman. Will we also transfer to the Command Centre?”

“We will in due course. The Command Centre will become our base of operations. The proximity of the landing field and the city of Hilbrok makes the facility perfect for our uses. Its location in the Brok Mountains will also ensure that it remains clear of any nuclear fall-out that will soon make this area non-viable.”

Mai-Ann bowed and turned away. But Li-Sen-Tot hadn’t finished yet.

“Mai-Ann.”

She turned to him again.

“Ensure that the losses to their military forces are kept to a minimum during any conflict.”

Mai-Ann looked surprised. “But they will oppose us. How can we fight them but not kill them?”

“Their best males will be in their military. Find a way.”

Understanding reached her mind and she bowed once more. “Yes, Councilman.”

-o-

In the caverns and tunnels of the Hive, a remorseless silver beast chewed, clawed and spat bolts of fire in relentless pursuit of satisfaction. Warriors covered Yan-Jai’s extended body and masers deformed her, even blowing large chunks away. The Keruh tried to separate her from the pieces that they cut free, attempting to reduce her bulk. They caused cave-ins and even dragged the darkening pieces away into the dark. But Yan-Jai always retrieved them, sooner or later.

She smashed through the tunnel walls, bursting into other caverns, working her way ever deeper. And always she grew larger on those she consumed. Everything she killed was drawn within. The dismembered Warriors and Gatherers, the crushed and pulped Receivers, even the huge females that hurled themselves at her in the deepest of the breeding caverns she ate, crushing them in her great jaws.

And as she got larger, so she was able to consume more. She sent large snaking limbs into other tunnels. And these soon developed extra heads that grew as she consumed more of the enemy. And the enemy never gave up its defence. Noble Warriors, Gatherers, Diggers, all fought to the last to save their Hive, their race, from the jaws of extinction. All they did was make their enemy larger and even more ravenous.

The Combined Dominant was long dead when the first of the four Hives fell into the past. The Hive of the Orly’Ank, at the point of entry for the portal, was the first to become extinct, the breeding caverns ravaged and the brood all consumed. The Hive was all silver now as huge snake-like tendrils filled every tunnel, all of them drawing out from a central seething mass that filled the deepest breeding cavern. Each snake with its angry head drew further a field, pursuing those who retreated, and always they grew in size. Blocked tunnels were burst through, separated chunks of silver were rejoined, and soon the race was on for the next Hive.

Like a fatal virus, Yan-Jai infected the Keruh home world, expanding and travelling out along the tunnels that covered the planet. The Combined Warrior Host retreated before her, fighting and dying for every stolen inch, desperately trying to delay her, but knowing now that they must fail. And behind them, Diggers cut the tunnels, and Gatherers fled with the surviving females and the valuable brood. Only the Receivers were abandoned. They were too slow and they no longer had value. Those whom they would have fed no longer existed. So they died with their Warriors, each one smashed and burst apart, the valuable sustenance they carried from another world disgorged on to the parched earth of the tunnels.

Soon the next Hive would be reached, the nearest being the Telen’Gal. And with the extinction of this second Hive, the first continent would be cleansed.

-o-

The Queen Of Angels was not like the Prometheus or the Kraken. The corridors were slightly narrower and higher, and the décor was somehow brighter. The walls weren’t just white, but they were decorated with murals and paintings. And the gravity was lighter and the air thinner. It was also slightly cool.

Everything about the ship reminded Peleus of Lysippe in some way, despite the fact that it was Pantariste who was leading him through the corridors. She had been polite but aloof. In some ways she had been warmer than Lysippe had first been when she came on board the Prometheus. But then, Pantariste was on her own ship, while Lysippe had been among strangers.

Why did he still make allowances for her even now?

Pantariste opened the door of the cabin and stepped inside. She held the door open for him.

“We have replaced the sleeping pool with the traditional Atlantian sleeping arrangements,” she said as he walked passed her into the cabin. “Is this satisfactory?”

Peleus looked at the narrow bed. “Yes,” he said simply, remembering the last time he had been alone in a cabin with a Klysanthian. He dropped his bag on the bed and reached up to his shoulder to unclip his cloak.

Pantariste closed the door behind them. And she instantly seized the first moment that they were alone together to get to the point.

“I see that your heart is still closed.”

Peleus laid his cloak on the bed then turned to look at her and nodded.

She moved closer to him. “Is this status likely to change?”

Peleus sighed and looked up at her. “Why did you ask for me so soon?”

She smiled. “Your choice of words has promise. How long should I have waited?”

“How long does it take a heart to mend?” he countered.

“Hmm.” She turned away and went to sit on the bed on top of his cloak, propping herself up on her arms as she leaned back. She seemed to be considering his question as she now looked up at him.

Peleus found himself examining her. He couldn’t help it. He had fallen into this trap before, but knowing it didn’t make avoiding it any easier. It was something to do with the way she sat there. Her position and the height of the bed seemed to make her legs seem even longer than they were. And her slender body appeared even more sinuous and lithe. She was dressed in the same black uniform as Lysippe and it contrasted so well with his white cloak beneath her that it emphasised her shape. She even had the same long dark hair that flowed onto the bed behind her like a living thing. It was amazing how it shone in the light. And her tiny child-like features looked very similar to those of Lysippe.

No, that wasn’t right. There were differences. The plaster on Pantariste’s forehead was an obvious difference, but her eyes were brown while Lysippes’s had been green. The shape of her face was slightly different, too. More angular? And her features were somehow brighter, more animated, as if she were mocking him. Or was that just her expression?

“You could have refused my request,” she said suddenly.

“And risk damaging Klysanthian and Atlantian relations?” Peleus burst out.

She suddenly laughed. It was quite pleasant. “I admit I forced your hand in this,” she said when her laughter had faded. “But you could still have refused. One whose heart was harder may have done so.”

“I was ordered here by Memnon and Aeolus.”

“How is the Good Shepard?”

“Happy that I am here rather than him!”

The smile on Pantariste’s face grew wider. “Memnon considered sending Aeolus in your place?” She laughed again. “Now I understand your meaning!”

“Then you also understand why I had to come even though I would have preferred not to.”

His statement had gone too far and he knew it. Pantariste stopped laughing and her smile faded. She nodded and sat up straight on the bed. And her mood became more subdued.

“I do understand. And in all honesty I was instantly aware of the cold-grip Lysippe still exerts on your heart when you first came on to the bridge. It is true; it is too soon. But I do not have the benefit of time on my side. If your heart is still closed to me by the time we reach Atlantis then we will part and see one another no more. My people will journey to a land where they can begin again. I will join them. And while I do this, you will remain with your people, you will go where they go. So I have only the time left for our journey to melt Lysippe’s grip, and this is a task I cannot accomplish while we remain in separate ships. So be warned, Atlantian with the talent for true love, I intend to pursue you. Vigorously.”

She got up and walked towards the door. Here she paused and turned to him once more. “Familiarise yourself with my ship, Peleus. Learn the systems and the layout. I give you today for this. Tomorrow you start your task in earnest. Sleep well tonight, and contemplate the knowledge that I have already lain in your bed before you came on board.”

She opened the door and left him then. He didn’t see her leave; he was too busy looking at the bed.

-o-

Sunset on the Keruh home world was a shallow affair. The sky was covered in an even blanket of grey cloud that was not quite dense enough to blot out the sun. The cloud cover never changed and the weather patterns hadn’t altered in a thousand years. The sun broke through the cloud in a powerful but hazy glow of orange. It was warm. It was always warm.

Slowly the shimmering sun dropped towards a barren horizon where the cracked and dry seabed lay as a testament to what had once been. The land was a dry and desolate desert of hard black ground and exposed rock. Most of the land was tainted by the unusable elements of Keruh sewage. They could reuse and reconstitute almost everything, but what they were left with they forced up to the surface and left to dry in the sun. It soon darkened and became a hard crust. And as their population had increased so had the amount of spoil, until most of the land was covered in the blackened and hard shell that stretched out from each continent and down into the seabed. It poisoned everything, killing the last of life even down to the microscopic level. There was no other life now except for the Keruh. All had been consumed: Survival of the fittest.

But now there was another.

As the sun dipped lower, the blackened crust over a wide featureless plane bulged upwards in the centre, cracked and burst to fragments. A huge silver head on a long and graceful neck emerged from the depths. It rose high into the air and then stopped, its large red eyes fixed on the horizon.

The great disc of the sun dropped lower until it met the harsh and craggy line of the horizon. There were no dazzling reflections, only the bright sun disappearing into the ground in a brief display of distorting heat haze that turned the grey cloud orange and then red.

And when it was over and the land grew dark, the large silver head plunged forward on its long neck and crashed into the blackened crust, smashing it open and dashing the fragments aside like a huge sea serpent crashing into the waves of a silent sea.

CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

BEGINNERS

Sleeping together had never been questioned. The dormitories at Ephesus were huge. Rows upon rows of beds, stacked three high, filled the lower chambers. There were no windows to bring light in from outside. That would have allowed them to see who dwelt beyond the temple walls. So only the harsh artificial lights in the red spectrum lit their faces as they dressed each morning and prepared for the day. There was no privacy because it wasn’t needed, and it wasn’t necessary. They were all the same.

Clones.

The differences in the colour and length of their hair, in eye colour, bone structure and build, were hardly discernable among the vast numbers of Androktones gathered together in the dormitories. It was easy to be lost among the thousands. It was easy to be one amongst many.

It was easy to hide.

Now as she lay on the bed in this small room with Vin-Di and Zen-Po, Ann-Ra felt suddenly crowded. She was no longer lost among the many. Now she slept close to those who would no longer be distracted by others. They would be acutely aware of the status of her body. They would know how she felt. She was suddenly heightened and exposed.

But why should she feel this way? What did it matter if she was now more visible and noticeable to her sisters? What was there in her now that made her different from then?

Without thinking, Ann-Ra reached up and felt the cross beneath her tunic. Hel-E had given it to her after they had shared solace. And from then on she had been constantly aware of its presence. It gave her pleasure to feel the metal against her skin. But the pleasure was mixed with an excited fear. To wear the cross was an admission of her flawed state, and its discovery by her sisters would have instantly condemned her, for with this simple cross came something else. Something extraordinary.

An idea. A thought. A belief. A new theology. All these answers rushed into her mind. But they were all the same.

Knowledge.

She had learned something new from these aliens, from those who were incorrect but could not be killed. They shared a common belief, a faith in a doctrine, a philosophy for life that opposed the Purpose. She had learned of this from Hel-E, the Klysanthian who was also a knowledge giver. As they had shared solace, Hel-E had spoken of her God, of a Man who brought kindness and peace. And as their bodies had moved close together as one, so had their minds, until the belief finally crossed over.

Knowledge.

Was there anything to fear in knowledge? Was she incorrect to listen? Should she have shut her ears? Should she now forget what she had heard? Could she?

No.

It was a simple truth that once gained; knowledge could not be un-done. What she had learned she must now learn to understand. It had to be assimilated and absorbed.

She now knew of another way, a better way. But this better way was also dangerous. It opposed the Purpose in so many ways, and yet this opposition somehow strengthened its power over her.

She liked it. It was somehow attractive and uplifting. She could choose a different path and be forgiven. She could choose not to kill. The very idea exploded her mind and drove her body to the verge of convulsions.

You are incorrect! Your integrity is flawed! You have strayed from the path!

The path of evil.

Liar! This belief is false! The Purpose is the only way!

The way of death.

You should be killed! You are flawed! Die! Die! Die!

Then let me die, for then I will meet Him and you will know the truth.

Silence. Stillness.

The room was still lit by the light that came in through the windows. El-Quan had returned and now lay down on another bed. Ann-Ra hadn’t even noticed her enter.

Did El-Quan know what was going on in her mind? Did she know that she had become infected with something even worse and more powerful than the paradox of Embassy status?

El-Quan slept and the other Androktones didn’t stir. Ann-Ra returned to the questions in her mind.

How could this theology oppose the Purpose in such a perfect way? It preached forgiveness where the Purpose demanded remorselessness. It preached love where the Purpose urged hate. It preached fidelity where the Purpose required promiscuity. And it preached peace where the Purpose strove always for war. But if its opposition to the Purpose was so startlingly direct, so was the way that it also supported it.

Like the Purpose this new theology preached self-sacrifice and the importance of the many rather than the one. Even the figurehead of this religion had offered Himself up to save the others. Even He lived and died by the same doctrine.

Was it wrong? Was she mad? Was her mind deranged at last?

To ask these questions is incorrect! You are in error! You are flawed!

We are all flawed. We all share the original sin.

This belief is false! You should be killed! You should die!

I do not fear death. The Purpose and the new way agree on this. With death comes forgiveness and light. I look forward to it. Be silent.

She had learned something new. It was powerful and yet benign. It came with the solace she had received from Hel-E, and it combined the physical pleasures with a spiritual one that enhanced both. It had left her changed.

Forever.

-o-

Scyleia had torn herself away from Tai-Gil and returned to the bridge. There she had found Heli and Kreousa, both her trusted friends in an agitated state. She soon found out why. They had confronted her in the middle of the bridge. Heli tried to be more diplomatic, but Kreousa just blurted it all out in her usual businesslike manner. And while the story came out for a second time, Prothoe had sat at the helm staring ahead at the distant mountains on the viewing screen without a hint of interest.

When she finally understood all their fears, Scyleia smiled sadly and reached out to her two friends.

“Kreousa, Heli, be calm,” she said to them as they both continued to talk at the same time. Her hold on their arms was gentle but firm, and they both grew quiet at last.

Scyleia turned to Kreousa first, taking both her hands in hers.

“I understand your fears, Kreousa. And I am not blind to the dangers. I have loved many times, and I have never let the dangers put me off, no matter how extreme. Tai-Gil is no different in this case.”

“She’s an Androktone!” Kreousa replied instantly and with passion.

The statement seemed to say everything. One of those things it said was that the Doctor was still unconvinced.

Scyleia nodded. “I know, Kreousa. And I know that when my love comes to an end I will crash and burn. But I have Heli to help me. She will hold me in her arms as she has often done before. She will sooth my heart and ease my tears. I will suffer, I know it, and you know it. And you are right. But the suffering is the price I must pay for even the smallest, tiniest delights that I will receive. I will not lament the bargain. And I will not shirk my responsibilities to each of you, or to any of my crew. Ease your fears, Kreousa. I am Matriarch and Captain. I know what path I tread. I will not fail you, and the wounds I suffer will not kill me.”

Kreousa stared at her for a few moments as she read the calm and relaxed state of Scyleia’s body. Finally she sighed and nodded.

“Alright, Scyleia. I accept your decision. But the wounds you speak of will be harsh and I can give you no medication to ease the pain.”

“Only your care and friendship,” Scyleia said with a knowing look.

Kreousa relaxed at last. “Yes. That you can always rely on. I hope it is enough.”

“It will be.”

They smiled and embraced. But the smiles were sad, as they both knew what the future held in store for one of them.

When they broke their embrace, Kreousa smiled more warmly. “I must return to the Medical Centre.” She turned to look at Heli. “Try to convince her, Heli. It might save you a lot of heartache later.”

It was a parting plea that Heli could only reply to lamely. “I will do my best.”

Kreousa left the bridge and Scyleia moved closer to Heli. She instantly held up a finger to Heli’s nose. “I will hear no rebukes from you, my loyal friend and cousin! Especially now that you have stolen my dream!”

Heli was left to blush while Scyleia took her place in her command chair. And then Prothoe let her real secret out of the bag.

“It’s more than just Ann-Ra’s body that Heli is after, Captain,” she said without taking her eyes off the viewing screen.

Heli glared at Prothoe in annoyance, but Scyleia merely smiled.

“Are you trying to convert Ann-Ra?”

Heli went to sit at her console. “Is it any more foolish than your dream?”

Scyleia shook her head. And she developed a more wistful look as she sat back in her chair. “No, Heli. Far from it. We could both gain a simple solace from those who infatuate us. And you have already done so. But that is not enough for us. And while you seek a true conversion, I seek a true love. We may both succeed or we may both fail. But the odds are against us, and if Kreousa should be proved right, then we may both end up in her lap.”

Heli looked down at the screen on her console. “I have to succeed, Scyleia. Knowing as we do now that they are like us, that they have daughters and true sisters, I have to succeed. If I fail it will break my faith.”

Scyleia looked across at her with some concern. “Then I am sure you will succeed. For God would never take your greatest love from you so callously.”

Heli couldn’t reply or look at Scyleia. So Scyleia glanced up at the now rapidly approaching mountain range on the viewing screen before her and then turned back to Heli.

“Heli, we will be at Hilbrok soon. Go to the recreation area and find Clyemne. We have to warn the Edenites on board what to expect when we get there. They have to know that they won’t be disembarking.”

Heli rubbed at her eyes and got up from her chair. “I’ll send Alcinoe back up when I find her,” she said quickly.

As she passed Scyleia, Heli paused and leaned towards her and they hugged. Scyleia patted her on the back.

“Go now, Heli. Time runs out for us, and we have much work to do. Go.”

They parted and Heli hurried off the bridge. Scyleia instantly turned to Prothoe and her eyes sparkled with fire and her expression turned to one of devilish intent.

“Prothoe! Find me that landing field! And bring us in low! I want you to tease them with our absence from their screens! I want you to surprise them with our arrival!”

“Alcinoe said that there were ships in the air above the landing field,” Prothoe replied. “They were on her screens. They will be able to pick us up even if the arrays at the landing field can’t.”

Scyleia clambered higher onto her chair, kneeling on the seat as she leaned towards Prothoe. “Then fly even lower! Fly upside down and dig a furrow with our fin if you have to! But get me there unseen! I will not arrive without an entrance! I will not arrive without a fanfare! Make it memorable! Make it stand out like no other!” She banged the arm of her chair with her small fist. “We are Klysanthians! Let them know it! Proclaim it by the beauty and extravagance of our abrupt and unexpected arrival!”

-o-

He had failed.

It was a simple truth that plagued the Seventy-Ninth’s mind as he lay on the bed in the cabin that had been provided for him. He lay on his back in the darkness, the windows completely obscured and his axe propped against the wall nearby.

He preferred the darkness. It soothed his mind as it fought with the consequences of his conversation with the enemy. That enemy was now on the other side of the wall, and yet a short time before he had been so close to turning that enemy into an ally.

But he had failed. And he was still unsure why he had failed.

Why couldn’t the Assassin-Drones change? They were far more complex than he, and yet he had changed. Why couldn’t they?

He had been so sure that the one he spoke to, El-Quan, was ready to accept his request for an armistice. Their conversation had progressed so well that the expected conclusion was both logical and correct. And yet she had denied him. She had denied him without a hint of remorse or anger. There was neither any bitterness, nor was there any sadness. It was as if it meant nothing.

But he was sure she had understood. He had explained the limited outlook of his race, about the hunger and the ancient traditions and rituals that always forced them down the path to war, and the inability of even the Combined Dominant to change that rigid way of thinking. And she had understood.

His request for an armistice was a better way. It corrected the mistake the Keruh had made in their first contacts with the other races attached to the Ring and allowed for recovery. Yes, there were those who had already perished to consider, and there may have been reprisals, a cost to pay for their loss, but it was still a better way for the Keruh than extinction. The war would be over. No more would die needlessly. And for the remaining races attached to the Ring peace would bring stability and a return to open trading. It was logical and sensible, and yet El-Quan had refused.

He kept going over it in his mind, but her logic was equally uncompromising. He was incorrect, therefore he was the enemy, and therefore he should be killed. But what made it difficult to accept was that she knew what he had asked for, she knew and understood the meaning behind his request, and she must also have understood the leap he had made to be able to make that request. She was intelligent and aware, but she felt nothing at the prospect of the extinction of his race.

He had been so sure of his analysis of the Assassin-Drones that her final denial had surprised him. But now as he went over it all in his mind once again he realised his mistake. He knew the extent of the Assassin-Drones ability at self-regulation, but he had also assumed that the trait of association, and of learning and evolving through those associations, would somehow be stronger. Of course it wasn’t. It couldn’t be, or the Assassin-Drones would fail as a long term fighting force. Although El-Quan knew and understood that his request was right and that she should accept it, she couldn’t change because to do so would have rendered her as incorrect. She would have been terminated by the other Assassin-Drones on board the ship as soon as they had known of it. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he realised that the exchange with El-Quan would have been impossible had another Assassin-Drone been present. Even the presence of the Klysanthian could have been a problem. In agreeing to his request El-Quan would have been admitting an incorrect nature, and she would not wish to exhibit that to anyone.

He should have approached her in isolation. Only in complete isolation could he have been successful. But to what purpose? An armistice with one Assassin-Drone was pointless; it had no meaning.

That left him with his final choice. And as with his first attempt at reconciliation, it was also bound to fail, but this time for different reasons.

Even before El-Quan had spoken, the Klysanthian, Clyemne, seemed to know and expect that his request for a permanent armistice would be denied. And when it was denied there was no surprise, not even when the Assassin-Drone had revealed that all those with whom she had associated would be killed when their present truce ended. Instead there was only an interest in the emotional state of the Assassin-Drone when that event should occur. That all meant that Clyemne had known and understood that the Assassin-Drones could not be turned. She had known and understood that the truce could only be temporary. And that could only mean one thing.

The Klysanthians were party to the Tun-Sho-Lok treachery. They were aware that the Assassin-Drones were generic killers and they accepted their coming extinction as the Tun-Sho-Lok had already accepted theirs. They knew the danger they faced having the Assassin-Drones aboard their ship and they cared nothing for it. Instead they were content to glean what momentary pleasure was left to them before the final end came.

The Alliance was indeed a sham, but it seemed that it was only the Atlantians who were in ignorance of this.

He should have realised this truth earlier. But the individualistic nature of both the Tun-Sho-Lok and the Klysanthians masked this fatalistic attitude. Both races went to their doom with the same stoical capitulation as any penetrated Hive. It shouldn’t be like this, and yet it was. It contradicted everything he had learned since he began this association. Self-awareness and individuality necessitated that the opposite should be the case. And the Klysanthians had fought so well, clinging to life and fighting to the end. Why do that when their fate was sealed?

The Atlantians also fought hard and well. Was this also a sham? Did they also share this same fatalistic attitude? Was the Alliance an alliance of the doomed? He would only know if he spoke with an Atlantian, and by then it would be too late. It may already have been too late, and there was little chance that he would ever meet an Atlantian in any case.

And with that thought in his mind, the Seventy-Ninth finally accepted that his self appointed role of peace negotiator was futile. And with that acceptance came final contentment. There was nothing he could do to alter Fate. He was a passenger on its journey, an individual with no allegiance and no purpose. He would go where it took him.

Even the Hive that bore him was probably already gone.

In the darkness of the cabin, the Seventy-Ninth of the Telen’Gal slept, dreaming only of a final end that was bathed in even the smallest of glories.

-o-

El-Quan stared out of one of the windows in the cabin and watched the ragged crags and low peaks of the Brok Mountains pass underneath the ship. She had removed her boots to sleep and when she had awoken she left them off and was now standing at the window barefooted. The ship was flying very low and the green grass, bushes, rocks and trees shot by beneath them at a very fast rate. The down force from their engines blew the trees and bushes into a frenzy as they passed over them, and even the grass could be seen to flatten in circular waves.

Although El-Quan hardly felt any movement due to the artificial gravity, it was clear that the ship was rapidly rising and falling as well as banking and turning. She could see the wild movements as the ship weaved around higher outcrops of the mountains as it flew along shallow, twisting valleys. Then it would rise up suddenly when the valleys ended only for it to drop equally suddenly into the next valley as if on a wild roller-coaster ride. Sometimes the sky with its clouds and bright sun would come into view as the ship banked sharply. Then the ground would fill the window as the ship banked the other way.

The conflicting signals of stability El-Quan received from her inner ear clashed heavily with the wild movements her eyes saw through the window. It caused a strange feeling in her stomach and made her stumble and sway on more than one occasion despite there being no discernable movements beneath her feet.

It was all very interesting. The sight through the window, the feeling in her stomach, the sudden little steps she took when she thought she should be moving despite the fact that she wasn’t, it all combined to give her a feeling of tension and excitement.

Ann-Ra must have noticed her attention locked on the window for so long because she came to stand next to her. She was also barefooted.

“What sight outside attracts your attention?” she asked.

“We travel at high speed while close to a very uneven ground,” El-Quan replied without taking her eyes off the scene outside. “I find the movements create a feeling of exhilaration.”

Ann-Ra moved closer to the window and looked out. Within seconds her attention was equally caught, and the next time El-Quan stumbled in one direction and swayed in the other, Ann-Ra did so as well.

“The pilot must have a rigid attention span,” she remarked.

El-Quan nodded. “It would be interesting to be in her place, flying the ship like this and knowing that all on board would perish at your slightest mistake.”

“The feeling is reminiscent of the battlefield. The disturbance in one’s stomach and the excitement of the abrupt movements combined with the knowledge that a mistake can lead to death all produce a hybrid but fair comparison. Yes, it has its appeal.”

They both continued to look out of the window for a while longer, both of them stumbling and swaying at the same moments.

Lying on one of the four narrow beds behind them, Vin-Di watched them for a while. She had taken off her jacket to sleep and still lay on her back with the pillow clutched to her naked chest. She wore her leggings but her feet were also bare. Like Ann-Ra, she had noticed El-Quan standing at the window when she woke up. And when Ann-Ra had gone to join her she had heard their brief conversation. Now she sat up and swung her legs off the bed. She kept the pillow in place, hugging it to her like a soft shield.

“Which way will you jump if we crash?” she asked them.

El-Quan and Ann-Ra both turned to her and thought for a moment. Then they both raised their hands and pointed to their left.

Vin-Di nodded. “This is the direction we travel in, I shall jump this way also.”

Zen-Po came out of the bathroom. She was still drying her hands on a towel after she had been to the toilet. She was also barefoot. “If we crash,” she told them all, “None of you will jump. You will all be thrown in that direction and we will all perish in fire and twisted metal.”

The other three Androktones looked at her as if she had ruined the illusion. Zen-Po was unrepentant. She suddenly reached out and tugged at the pillow Vin-Di held to her chest.

“And that won’t help you in the impact,” she said, nearly dislodging it, but Vin-Di held on to it more tightly.

“I like it!” the darker skinned Androktone protested, twisting her body and pulling the pillow from Zen-Po’s grasp.

Zen-Po turned away from her in disgust, tossing the towel down on one of the other beds. She then threw herself full-length on the bed after it, her whole mood like that of a petulant child forbidden to play out.

“We have been among these aliens for too long,” she said into the bed, her arms hanging over each side. “I mourn the passing of the time with no enemy to kill. I feel as if I was back at Ephesus. I have the scent of those who must be killed in my nostrils but I am unable to act against them. I hate it!”

Ann-Ra looked at her and nodded. “You are right, Zen-Po. And I share your feelings of discontent. It is an unusual predicament, one that we have not been prepared for. But we must adapt.” She went to sit on the empty bed between Zen-Po and Vin-Di.

It was easy for Ann-Ra to hide the knowledge from her sisters. It was easy to fall into the same pattern of communication and action dictated by the Purpose. It was familiar and comfortable. She gave them the responses they expected, and by doing so they didn’t suspect the turmoil that was in her mind.

“Once these aliens are safe, we can return to the Purpose, we can kill again. There will be no paradox and no conflicts in our minds. Be patient, Zen-Po.”

Zen-Po turned over on the bed and looked up at her. “I do not like this calmness, this nothing. I need to act, Ann-Ra. Those who are incorrect surround me and envelop me. I need to break them, to smash them. Instead I lie here impotent. I begin to think of other things, things that have no relevance or importance. It begins to hurt my mind.”

Vin-Di shared her feelings. “I also begin to think of other things,” she said as she looked down at the pillow in her arms. “The softness of my bedding, being clean and free of the stink of those I have killed, sharing solace with you, Zen-Po while we washed. Even the colours of the soap film on the bubbles in the water caught my mind. This is all incorrect. I am flawed.”

“You are not flawed,” Ann-Ra said over her shoulder to her. “We have all suffered these distractions. El-Quan and I stare out of the window mesmerised by the ship’s movements, I have shared solace with one of the aliens, listening to her talk of her God, and El-Quan has copulated with one of those who matched.”

Was it a risk to admit her guilt? Did the characteristics of her body change as she spoke the words? No. Ann-Ra was sure they didn’t. She was in complete control. And her last statement would have directed their attention to El-Quan. That they all knew of her liaison was no surprise. The changes in her body were easy to sense. But her words focussed the mind.

Zen-Po glanced at El-Quan who was now leaning her back against the window. “At least she has acted with the Purpose. We have not.”

Ann-Ra looked around at them all. “We follow the instructions of the Councilman. Is this now incorrect?”

It was a powerful question that they all thought about. But only El-Quan had the courage to speak up.

“I have been among these aliens for the longest. They are incorrect but several among them have matched. Those that matched I recognised instantly and acted accordingly. I followed my instincts, instincts that are determined by the Purpose. I did not question those instincts at the time, although I was surprised by the event. I had not expected to find ones that matched and there was some pleasure in their discovery. Those that matched then extended their protection to the others, granting them Embassy status. In some way this disturbed me, but they matched so I accepted their commands. Then the situation escalated and the number of those with Embassy status grew. Despite my distress I have continued to follow my instincts. But I am also aware, as you all are, that my mind has begun to dwell on other things, things that I would normally not notice. I have become interested in my environment and with the aliens. I have spoken and interacted with them in ways I had not been aware were possible. I do not know if this is incorrect. Maybe it is. Maybe we have all become flawed as Zen-Po says. But Ann-Ra is also correct. We must wait until this situation is resolved. Only when the conflicts are gone and the Purpose is roused within us once more will we know if we have become flawed.”

She had spoke calmly and at length but had avoided answering the pertinent question. Ann-Ra didn’t allow her that pleasure for long.

“Are the Councilman’s instructions incorrect?” she asked her directly.

“No. To protect those that matched and those given Embassy status by those that matched is not incorrect.”

Zen-Po sat up on the bed. “The Klysanthians aboard this ship were not given Embassy status by those that matched. How is this conflict answered?”

“The Councilman’s instructions mirrored those of the Humeric Council. They cannot both be incorrect. To suggest so is to cast doubt on the Purpose itself.”

All the Androktones nodded thoughtfully.

Vin-Di returned the pillow to the top of her bed and then picked up her tunic. She began to put it on as she spoke.

“We have not been prepared for this event. The Tun-Sho-Lok trainers taught us everything about war and strategy but nothing of social interaction. It is no surprise that we are confused and hesitant in this situation. Even if the Purpose has not been compromised, we would still be out of our depth.”

With her tunic fastened, Vin-Di lay back on her bed, her head now on the pillow. The white fabric contrasted with her black hair, which shone like ebony in the lights.

Zen-Po looked across at her. “Social interaction has no relevance for the Purpose. It is of no value to us.”

El-Quan stepped away from the window and came to sit next to Zen-Po on her bed.

“But it does have value, Zen-Po. How can we enter into liaisons with the males of other races if we cannot interact with them? We know how to kill but not to entice.”

“Our bodies possess a powerful lure,” Zen-Po replied. “It was this power you used on the young Edenite male, not the skill of social interaction.”

“Yes, but that was sufficient for now. But what of the situation on Eden when we have gained control? How do we maintain a viable Edenite population for our own procreation? How do we keep them content under our rule? How do we speak with them? Killing them defeats the Purpose, and the power of our bodies will hold little sway with those filled with hatred.”

Zen-Po was derisive in her reply. “Hatred will not prevent their own bodies from demanding what we can offer.”

“In isolation, maybe. But for a hundred or a thousand, amassed in a town or a village with their own young? What then? Kill them and they are lost to us along with our own next generation.”

Zen-Po and Ann-Ra both now looked at El-Quan with increased respect as they considered this quandary.

Vin-Di sat up on her bed. “You have thought about this at length, El-Quan?” she asked.

El-Quan nodded. “There is a skill in social interaction. It is a skill that we have not been given. I have begun to realise this during my association with these aliens. It began when I first met them in the tunnels under the city and it has continued here. The fact that they are incorrect has little relevance when interacting with them. They are all different and all act and respond differently. They are not like us; they do not follow one purpose. This is why the Warrior dwells in the next cabin. Those that matched extended their protection to him even though he is their enemy. It makes understanding them difficult.”

Ann-Ra remembered Breda’s obstinacy in the airlock and nodded thoughtfully. And Zen-Po had reconsidered her views.

“I accept your counsel, El-Quan. The Purpose would be better served by an understanding of these social skills. What you have learned we must also learn.”

Vin-Di had the same view but she also had a question. “If the Purpose needs these skills, why were they not provided to us?”

Ann-Ra answered her question. “Because these skills are dangerous.”

They all now looked at her.

Ann-Ra paused a moment to gather her thoughts before replying. Here was an opportunity to give more information. But it had to be carefully packaged, so she spoke carefully.

“Social interaction leads to associations that can damage the Purpose. I have interacted with one of the Klysanthians. We gave solace to one another. This in itself is not contradictory to the Purpose. We associated freely and at length. And during this association I have listened to stories of an alien God that preached an alternative philosophy to the Purpose. It is a philosophy of love, forgiveness and understanding. This philosophy is dangerous because it is attractive. It is an example of how we can become flawed by these interactions without realising that our integrity is under threat. The appeal is the same as the softness of the cushion, the conflicting view out the window, or the colours in a soap film. Each is individually harmless, but put together and they are a threat.”

Zen-Po instantly questioned her. “So should we learn these skills, Ann-Ra? Or should we avoid them?”

“We must learn them as we need them, but we must also be on our guard. It is one of the reasons why I have requested that El-Quan be our intermediary. It limits any contagion to her alone.”

The remark caused some alarm in El-Quan as Zen-Po and Vin-Di looked at her. But there was nothing that she could do so she accepted the inevitable.

“I am flawed,” she said simply and lowered her head.

Ann-Ra seized the moment. She reached out to El-Quan and held her arm.

“None of us are free from error, El-Quan, and none of us are in a position to judge another. We may all have become tainted by the paradox, but we have to wait until the conflicts in our minds have been lifted and our current situation has been resolved before we can truly test our integrity. Until then we must abandon our doubts and open our minds. We must be prepared to understand the unusual and learn from it. There is danger here, but there is also much to be gained. You, Tai-Gil and I have been the most affected. I understand this. We all do. Tai-Gil’s future is in her own hands and I have confidence in her strength and integrity. You and I face a harder task. We must continue to interact with these aliens on Tai-Gil’s behalf, and I have placed you at greater risk. But I will do my best to minimise your exposure. I will not abandon you, El-Quan, or the seeds of the one that matched that you now carry.”

-o-

The Edenites had begun to stir well before the Gate Of Heaven began its final approach to the landing field at Hilbrok. Lupili had knocked on the door of the cabin containing Didi and Kiki. They were both already awake. He wanted to discuss what would happen when they arrived. And a short time later Rualda had joined them. Now the four of them stood in the open doorway of the cabin talking together in the brightly lit corridor. Lupili was worried about the conditions at Hilbrok.

“The place will be in an absolute mess,” he was saying glumly as he leaned on the wall. “The city will be at a standstill. It will be filled with refugees from all the other cities, not just the Capital. The facilities will be stretched to braking point and we won’t be able to move for orders and restrictions.”

Kiki remembered the army hospital in Jutlam City. “I think the army have done pretty well,” he said. “They were well-organised in Jutlam City and they nearly got everyone out.”

Lupili laughed. “You call that carnage and confusion on the road when the Keruh attacked well-organised?”

Didi went to the army’s defence. “They didn’t have much warning and they did what they could in the circumstances. You have to give them credit for that at least. And I don’t think many of them will have got out of Jutlam City.”

Lupili sighed. “No, I suppose not.” He looked around at the corridors of the ship. “But even if they are organised, we won’t get rooms like this at Hilbrok. It’ll be tents or nothing. And as soon as we get there we will just disappear among them all.”

Didi looked at Rualda who was holding on to Lupili’s arm. She didn’t look happy about the images Lupili was painting. “Are you worried about being separated?”

Rualda nodded. “It would be easy to get lost in the crowd. And you know what the military are like. Everyone will be put in alphabetical order. The fact that we were all rescued together won’t count for anything. I don’t want to be on my own.”

Lupili patted her arm and smiled at her. “Don’t worry, Rualda. Maybe we won’t find as many people there as we think. And if we do, well, we’ll just lie and tell them we are married.”

She laughed at that, but only softly. But then Didi surprised them both with his next remark.

“Why don’t you two get married?”

As they both looked at him in confusion, Kiki echoed his thoughts.

“Yes, why not? Breda and I are going to be married by the ship’s preacher. It’ll be sort of official. Why don’t you make it a double wedding?”

Lupili was already shaking his head while Rualda looked away self-consciously.

“We can’t,” Lupili said sadly. “Not until I know, at least.”

Didi realised what he was trying to say without actually saying it. “I didn’t know you had a family.”

Lupili shook his head. “Just a wife.”

“They will know if she is still alive in Hilbrok.”

“Yes.” It was simply said.

There was a pause that Kiki broke quickly. “It’ll get sorted out, one way or the other. Don’t worry, Lupili.”

He smiled sadly, glancing at Rualda and patting and squeezing her arm again. “I know. It’s just that I didn’t think that we would ever get here. And now that we are here I’m not sure which way I want it to go.”

Didi looked down the corridor. He had noticed two slender figures approaching and now recognised Clyemne coming towards them with another Klysanthian.

“I think something is happening,” he said as Lupili and Rualda looked around.

Clyemne smiled when she reached them. “This is Heli, First Officer and Preacher.”

Heli shook hands with everyone. “Which be those getting married?” she asked quickly.

Kiki smiled. “I am.”

“Of course.” She smiled back at him. “Knew I should by your excitement. Now speak with you and your bride I must before the ceremony. Tell me you can if anything there is you wish me to say for you.”

He nodded. “I’ll go get her.”

As he began to move away, Clyemne took his arm. “Wait a moment, there is something you must all know first.”

-o-

Breda rolled over and looked at her mother. Gusta was already on her side facing towards her. They were both lying on separate beds that were positioned next to the wall on opposite sides of the cabin. It meant that they could face one another across the room. They were still dressed but had taken off their shoes while they slept. With the blinds obscuring the window it was very dim in the cabin, but Breda could still see that her mother’s eyes were closed. Breda ignored that fact.

“Is it funny being married?”

“Funny in what way?” Gusta replied without opening her eyes.

“You know, being with dad all this time. Together.”

“I’m used to him.”

“But you weren’t used to him at first,” Breda pressed her.

“No, I suppose not. But I love him and I wanted to be with him.”

“Like me and Kiki?”

“Yes, like you and Kiki.”

“So was it funny, then? At first? In the beginning?”

Gusta opened her eyes. “You mean sleeping together?”

Breda nodded.

Gusta sighed. “Yes, it was funny, I suppose. Not in the laughing way. More serious, really. I suppose we were both scared of getting it wrong. And sex is serious most of the time. You can’t do it while you are laughing. At least I can’t.” She smiled as she remembered. “We were both young and we wanted each other. And we were both nervous and shy. It must be the same for everybody.”

Gusta rolled onto her back as she continued. “I was the same as you. I didn’t know what it was going to be like. I knew all about the mechanics of it, the biology, like you do, like all young people do. But that’s not the same as actually doing it for the first time. I wanted it to be marvellous, fantastic. I wanted all the fireworks to go off and the earth to move.”

Breda was now propped up on her bed on her elbow. “And did it?” she asked eagerly.

Gusta smiled. “No. Your father tried his best, but we were both nervous and new at it. Beginners. And we hardly knew each other that well. Physically, I mean. Not that it wasn’t good, it was. It was my first time, and I always remember it fondly. It was one of my best times. But it wasn’t the best time. That came later. Because only later, once we were comfortable with each other, when we knew what we both liked, did it really get good.” She turned to smile at her daughter. “Don’t worry about it, Breda. You’ll be fine. And so will Kiki. He loves you. That’s all that counts. The rest comes in time.”

Breda lay on her stomach with her head resting on her arms. “I want it to be exciting. I want it to be good.”

“And it will. But remember, darling, that everything in life becomes normal after a time. It’s just the new things that excite you. This is new. Enjoy it while it lasts, and when it fades change things to make it new again.”

Breda was now intrigued. “How did you and dad change things?” she asked quickly, and then she blushed. “Don’t answer that!” she blurted out, and buried her head in the pillow.

Gusta laughed softly. “You’re a big girl now,” she teased. “I could tell you if you like?”

“I don’t want to know!” Breda’s muffled voice could be heard to say.

“Then I’ll keep it a secret, as you will too.”

There was a tap at the door. Breda looked up eagerly and Gusta looked across at her.

“If that’s Kiki, he is not coming in!”

“Oh, mum!” Breda protested.

Gusta put on her shoes and got up. And when she went to the door and opened it she found that it was indeed, Kiki. She instantly folded her arms and developed a stern expression.

“And what do you want?”

“We aren’t landing at Hilbrok,” Kiki replied straight away. “At least not for long. You both better come out.”

Breda was beside her mother in an instant and they hurried after Kiki. There were now several people in the corridor, including Jeddra and Kelandra. And more were coming out of their cabins as Lupili, Rualda and Didi banged on their doors. Clyemne was explaining things to everyone who appeared.

“There is a full planetary evacuation in progress at Hilbrok. Your Emergency Government has decreed this in light of the past events in the war. Refugees at Hilbrok are boarding freighters and transports as we speak. And several ships have already taken off. As a result we will only be landing at Hilbrok to take on more survivors like yourselves.”

As soon as they heard her there were shocks of disbelief, someone screamed and another shouted, “Where are we going?”

Clyemne answered the question without hesitation. “Our final destination has not yet been identified, but we will join the convoy of ships that depart. Please be calm.”

Ilana and Salida hugged one another and cried together. And Jetti called out, “Why do we have to leave our world? What’s happened?”

“The detonation of at least one nuclear device near Elengrad has rendered most of the area non-inhabitable. Radiation is expected to reach the coast in less than a week.”

As the barrage of questions began and Clyemne answered each in turn, Breda looked at Kiki in surprise. “We’re staying on board?”

He nodded. “Yes. And it’s going to get very cramped.”

-o-

Addi Joventa stabbed at the screen on the console. “I’m telling you, General, it’s not there!”

Orbanta stared at the dark screen with the contours of the mountains marked out in white. The landing field was a small white rectangle near the centre, and there were several white dots with their transponder numbers next to them scattered around it.

“The Temunus and Alentin are both in the air. Can they see it?” he asked.

The Air Marshal shook his head. “Not a glint of it! I’ve asked Limeno to search for wreckage.”

“You think they may have crashed?”

“The last time their transponder was on our screens they were flying very low.”

Orbanta thought for a moment and shook his head. “I don’t think this Klysanthian will fly her ship into the side of a mountain. Warn Limeno to be prepared for any surprises. And pass the same warning to Colonel Salther. I want to be told when that ship arrives before I see it.”

-o-

Didi had roused a still tired and sleepy Tipi from his cabin and led him towards Gusta, Breda and Kiki. Heli was now with them discussing the wedding. They were standing in the middle of a crowd of Edenite survivors crammed in the narrow corridor who were all now talking loudly about what would happen when they reached Hilbrok. The Corporal had joined Clyemne with Altus and Eastomoner. Pedomoner and Klemunus were also among the crowd. Everyone seemed to be talking at once.

Tipi rubbed his eyes as he followed his father. He wasn’t listening to anything that was being said, he had too much on his mind. But as Didi led him passed Kelandra, Tipi came fully awake and smiled at her. She seemed almost shy when she saw him and moved closer to Jeddra, looping her arm around the older woman’s arm. Tipi wanted to stand near to her and talk to her, pausing to do so, but his mother quickly grabbed him and put her arm around him, hugging him to her and pulling him away. Tipi could only glance back as Gusta led him away.

It was almost as if his mother wanted to whisk him away from Kelandra, but Tipi knew that it hadn’t been intentional. It was his mother who had urged him to go and talk to Kelandra in the first place. She was just being protective. In a few seconds there were several people between them and Kelandra was out of sight. Maybe it was for the best. He had enough to think about as it was.

Why did it keep happening to him? Why now, when the worst things in his life were happening for him, his family and the whole world, did something he had only dreamed about before become a reality? Twice? But neither times with the girl he really liked?

Did that sound ungrateful?

Philippis and El-Quan were two very different women, both of them beautiful and both of them alien. In truth his time with Philippis would have been the best if it hadn’t been for the knowledge that he had hurt her. It still made him feel guilty despite the fact that she had assured him that it hadn’t been his fault. El-Quan had been different. He had been asleep and she had surprised him, really surprised him. And it had been his second time.

Was it never the same after the first time?

Had he liked it? Really liked it?

Did he want to do it again?

Why did they both pick him?

Would he ever do it with Kelandra?

It was the last question that preyed on his mind. He liked Kelandra, he wanted Kelandra, she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, and yet he had made love with two other women. He already felt like he had betrayed her.

-o-

Colonel Salther and Major Stumomoner sat in the open hatches of two APC’s parked next to each other on the perimeter of the landing field. Each vehicle was pointing in the opposite direction. They were on a ridge where the ground slipped over the edge of the mountain a short distance away from them and soldiers lined the edge with their rifles held at the ready. There were several gun batteries and armoured vehicles along the ridge. Many of the men that manned them glanced around nervously as another ship took off. The noise of the ships taking off or landing drowned out most of the sound as Colonel Salther and Major Stumomoner shouted at one another above the din. Colonel Salther was doing most of the shouting.

“Major! Have your men move within the line of the fence! We have nearly half the survivors on board! But there are a lot less ships available now!”

“Are you expecting trouble?” Major Stumomoner shouted back.

“When the ships stop landing there are bound to be repercussions! We need to be ready!”

Major Stumomoner pressed a hand over one of his ears. The noise seemed to be getting louder so he shouted louder. “What about the men?”

The expression on Colonel Salther’s face showed that he understood the meaning behind Stumomoner’s question. He also had to shout more loudly when he replied.

“I had hoped to get at least some of them on board a ship! But we have a duty to the civilians! They come first, Major!”

“I understand, Colonel!” Stumomoner now roared back.

“Good! And have your men keep an eye out for that Klysanthian ship!”

The din was getting louder and louder every second, but for some reason it seemed to be coming from beyond the perimeter of the landing field rather than from inside it. And it was being accompanied by a stiff wind that also grew in strength. Both officers looked round and saw the men lining the edge of the ridge suddenly turn and throw themselves at the ground. Several also threw themselves off the gun batteries and dived for cover. Almost at the same time there was a high-pitched scream and a huge shape rocketed up from beyond the edge of the mountain and shot above their heads at tremendous speed.

Colonel Salther and Major Stumomoner both ducked down as a battle-scarred, tri-hulled ship shot over them at almost zero height with its undercarriage emerging, one large strut just missing them. The passage of the ship combined with the down force of the engines threw up dust, debris and bushes that blew around them. It also shook both APC’s and bathed them in a bright but brief heat.

Major Stumomoner looked up as the ship made an extremely extravagant and majestic turn over the edge of the landing field and hit the ground on its undercarriage in a perfect landing. He then turned to Colonel Salther.

“I think they’ve seen it, Sir!”

-o-

General Orbanta sighed and shook his head as he watched the Gate Of Heaven make its dramatic and rather elegant entrance. And when Air Marshal Joventa hurried to his side he spoke first.

“Too late, Addi. I warned you.”

Joventa looked at the large ship now parked near the edge of the field. “Salther said it just shot up out of the valley on the southern approach,” he said in dismay. People were already running towards it and one of the APC’s was driving fast to head them off.

Orbanta nodded. “That’s why she was off our screens. Even the Temunus and Alentin would have had difficulty trying to pick her up among those peaks.”

“But flying that low is an impossibility for that very reason.”

“Not for a Klysanthian with a point to make. At least we now know she was being honest.” Orbanta turned away from the window. “If she had meant to attack us, we’d already be dead. Have Salther bring her here as soon as he’s organised the loading of survivors. We need to talk.”

-o-

On the bridge of the Gate Of Heaven, Scyleia sprang out of her command chair and pounced on Prothoe.

“Prothoe! You are an angel! I love you! I could kiss you! I will kiss you!” she said quickly, ruffling Prothoe’s short hair as she kissed her on the head. An instant later and she was heading for the door. “Alcinoe! Have Heli come to the bridge as soon as she is finished with her ceremony! And tell Anaxilea and Kreousa to meet me on the reception deck with another medical team! We have more passengers to greet!”

Alcinoe glanced up at the column of large people hurrying towards them on the viewing screen. “Will you need Clyemne and the Edenite soldiers?” she asked quickly.

Scyleia swung herself back through the door she had almost left through. “Clyemne yes! The soldiers no! I need them for other tasks and I will not risk them being ordered away by their commanders! And have Clyemne remind Ann-Ra of her promise to stay in her cabin with the other Androktones!”

“Yes, Captain.”

Scyleia shot out the door and Alcinoe set to her allotted tasks. At the helm, Prothoe sat back in her chair and sighed, rubbing the sweat from her hands.

-o-

It was an unusual wedding. First of all most of the guests were familiar with each other. There were no friends or distant relatives nobody recognised, no tables with unfamiliar faces, and no outfits that clashed. And secondly there were no bright and frivolous outfits for the bride and her bridesmaids. In fact there was only one bridesmaid. Breda had insisted on Clyemne and the Klysanthian was both honoured and embarrassed by the role.

“I still wish I were standing in Kiki’s place,” she had whispered in Breda’s ear as they stood before Heli. Breda had elbowed her delicately enough, but Clyemne had still rubbed her ribs tenderly.

Kiki had asked Klemunus to be his best man. The soldier was equally surprised by the request, but Kiki reminded him of the conversation they had had on the bus. It was as good enough a reason as any.

Didi of course had the proudest of roles. He took Breda’s arm and led her to the altar in front of which Heli waited.

None of them had been in the ship’s chapel before, but now all the Edenites gathered inside the simply decorated room and stared around them. The religion was unfamiliar to them, as were the statues and the cross behind Heli with the image of a very much larger man attached to it. He obviously wasn’t a Klysanthian by his build, and many of the Edenites wondered what it all meant. Most of the women just cried.

Kelandra also sniffled as she watched Didi hand over his daughter to Kiki. It was something she knew her father would never do. She felt very lonely at that moment, lonely and fearful. There was only Jeddra she could turn to now. She looked at Jeddra next to her and saw her crying and smiling at the same time. It was then that she caught sight of Tipi. He was standing next to his mother. She was also crying. But Tipi wasn’t watching the ceremony; he was watching her. Kelandra quickly looked away.

Why was she scared of him? She hadn’t been scared of him before. She had treated him as he was, younger and more immature than her. So why did she turn away now? Why couldn’t she look him in the eye?

They were the same sort of age, that was what everyone else would think, no matter what she thought. Everyone would match them. Even Jeddra had asked her if she liked him.

No, that wasn’t it. It was part of it but it wasn’t the whole reason.

She knew he liked her. She knew he wanted her. She had been in the same situation before and it hadn’t bothered her then. It only made her feel proud and confident. Being wanted was part of growing up, more like being a real woman. But now it was different somehow. Without her mother and father and her own home to go back to, it scared her.

Heli smiled and spoke soft and delicate words about love and fidelity, and about staying together as one, for evermore, before God. And as she spoke those words Tipi looked away from Kelandra and sighed.

How could he tell Kelandra he loved her after what he had done? How could he even think about marrying her in the same kind of ceremony when everything Heli said would have been a lie? It was almost as if Kelandra knew, she couldn’t look at him, either. And how could he blame her? He had broken all the vows and pledges before he had even started.

It wasn’t right, it wouldn’t be right, and it wouldn’t be fair. He looked up at the man attached to the cross and remembered the smaller version Heli kept on a chain around her neck. He remembered what Heli had said when he held that cross. It was when the other survivors had been picked up.

“Have faith you must that find someone you know among them you will. Believe in this miracle and be rewarded you will.”

He had thought about his mother and father then, imagining them and Breda all turning up, and he had been rewarded. He had kept faith and all his family had survived, even Kiki. There had to be a good reason for that, there had to be something in this religion that was true, real. And that meant he couldn’t lie because He would know. So he wouldn’t lie. So he would give up on Kelandra. It hurt him to do so, but he suddenly felt more relaxed for making the decision.

CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

PREPARATIONS

The reception deck was being reorganised by Kreousa and her staff in preparation for the arrival of more refugees. Tables were rearranged, medical supplies laid out, and more drinks and food were brought in. There was also a minicomputer to log all the names.

Scyleia watched Kreousa and smiled at her cool efficiency. Nothing ever seemed to faze her. Scyleia was standing near the airlock and when she saw Anaxilea enter the reception deck with El-Quan by her side she hurried forward to meet them. Scyleia hugged Anaxilea, but looked sternly at El-Quan.

“Not be here you should!” she said in Edenite. “Alarmed and suspicious the Edenites will be! Why disobeyed my wishes have you?”

Anaxilea was surprised by the easy way Scyleia chastised El-Quan. But El-Quan merely bowed her head and replied calmly.

“Ann-Ra, Vin-Di, and Zen-Po will remain in the cabin you have provided. I have come here to ascertain from Kre-Owe-Sa if Tai-Gil and Fam-Kai can be safely removed from the Medical Centre and taken to join us in the cabin before the arrival of those of unknown status.”

Scyleia looked at El-Quan intently. There were more than just answers in her reply, and the emphasised word held a particular urgency.

“Has Ann-Ra asked you to do this?” she asked in Klysanthian.

“All of us require the confirmation I seek.”

Scyleia nodded. “Wait here.”

Scyleia then hurried to the side of Kreousa. “Kreousa! I need one of your staff!”

The Doctor looked at her with irritation. “There are thousands of Edenites out there, and each one of them weighs more than a house! I need all of my staff!”

In reply Scyleia merely talked more quickly. “And once they are all on board some of them are bound to need medical attention! And that will bring them close to Tai-Gil and Fam-Kai! And the Androktones need confirmation that all the Edenites have Embassy status! And you know what that means! So I need someone to go with El-Quan to move Tai-Gil and Fam-Kai out of the Medical Centre and then get that cocky male and bring him down here to grant Embassy status to all our new guests! Okay?”

Kreousa took a deep breath and sighed. “Alright, I understand.” She turned and called out to one of her Medical staff. “Alkaia! Go with El-Quan and have Tai-Gil and Fam-Kai moved from the Medical Centre! And on your way find Heli and Clyemne and get one of them to bring down the young Edenite male, Tipi, I think his name is!”

Alkaia nodded and beckoned to El-Quan and the two of them left.

Anaxilea joined Kreousa and Scyleia as they watched them leave. “I don’t know how you can speak to them so harshly,” she said to Scyleia. “I am uncomfortable in the mere presence of these Androktones. They are dangerous.”

Kreousa agreed with her. “I’ve already told her. She won’t listen.”

Scyleia shrugged off their fears. “They aren’t dangerous, they’re just complicated.”

“And you’re overconfident,” Anaxilea replied. “If El-Quan hadn’t prompted you, there could have been a blood-bath when those Edenites came on board.”

Scyleia turned to her and smiled brightly. “But she did prompt me, didn’t she?”

Anaxilea looked at her in irritation. “You were always lucky! Too lucky!”

Scyleia laughed. “I make my own luck! Now I need you to stay here with Kreousa and look after things. I have an appointment with the Edenite Commander and I will keep it alone.”

Anaxilea now looked at her with worried eyes. “Now you are being silly! You can’t go on your own!”

“I can and I will!” Scyleia grabbed Anaxilea’s midriff and back between her hands, squeezing her affectionately. “Do not worry! I will return safely! The Edenites need us as much as we need them, and I have some stern bargaining to do which I intend to do alone! So wait here and look after my ship for me. Please, Lea?”

Anaxilea folded her arms and developed a haughty expression. “Alright, alright! Go and play with the Edenites on your own! I will do as you wish!”

Scyleia smiled and squeezed her once more, and then she was hurrying to the airlock.

-o-

Alkaia smiled at El-Quan as they walked together through the corridors heading towards the recreation area.

“I haven’t seen you since the Warrior was repaired,” she said in a delicate voice. “Are you rested?”

El-Quan was acutely aware of the warm feelings coming from the Klysanthian. “I am rested,” she said simply.

“Are you comfortable in my presence?”

“I am.”

“And I am comfortable in yours.”

“Even though I am an Androktone?”

Alkaia smiled again. “Even though you are an Androktone.”

“Like Kre-Owe-Sa, I sense an interest. Is this true?”

Alkaia bowed her head slightly. “Yes, this is true. It stems from our time in the communal bath. I would have pursued my interest then, but the presence of the Warrior was not conducive to the mood.”

“I wondered what was the cause of your restraint.”

There was a pause and then Alkaia said, “I had not realised that you had shared solace with Kreousa.”

“I have not,” El-Quan replied. “Although she showed an equal interest, she chose not to pursue it.”

Alkaia seemed surprised. “Why was that?”

“She knew it could not last.”

“Ah! She sought more than solace; she sought a permanent liaison. Now I understand.”

“You do not seek the same?”

She shook her head. “No. I know that you are an Androktone. I know that what we can share will be limited. But this doesn’t matter as I seek only the taste of your body, nothing more. Is this offensive to you?”

“No. It is the limit of what I can offer.”

“Then when time is less precious, will you accept my advances?”

“I will.”

“Then I am content.”

They reached the recreation area where the Edenites were now all gathered together with Heli and Clyemne. The wedding was over and the new bride and groom were being honoured in the Edenite fashion. Kiki and Breda sat at one of the tables together and ate from the same plate and drank from the same cup. It was a simple gesture that signified that they now shared what they both had. There was one plate and one cup. There would be one house and one family. They were now ‘them’ not ‘him’ and ‘her.’

All around them the rest of the Edenites ate a simple meal in their honour. Usually it would have been a grand affair provided by the father of the groom, signifying the wealth of the family that the bride had entered. It was a sign to her family that she would be well taken care of. For Breda and Kiki the mood was more subdued. Brief happiness was clouded with the knowledge and despair of what they had all lost, and low discussions replaced music and laughter.

Breda and Kiki didn’t care. They ate together and stared into one another’s eyes, smiling shyly and thinking of what was to come. Their world had shrunk and now contained only them, and they ached for when there would be no prying eyes to observe them.

Didi and Gusta sat at another table. They held each other and looked at their daughter wistfully. Gusta sobbed and wiped at her eyes often, and Didi remained manfully in control, just. Tipi sat with them, his mind filled with other thoughts. But despite this, he knew when El-Quan entered the recreation area. He didn’t need to see her enter, he just knew.

Tipi turned and looked over his shoulder and saw El-Quan with another Klysanthian. Heli greeted them both. And a moment later she turned and looked at him. El-Quan was also looking at him. So he wasn’t surprised when they began to walk towards him. On the way they met with Clyemne, and then all four of them continued. Tipi stood up when they reached him, his heart beating like a drum.

“I’m sorry,” he admitted quickly. “I didn’t mean to do it.”

El-Quan and the three Klysanthians all stared at him in momentary surprise. But then Heli smiled and leaned closer to him.

“Not to accuse you of anything have we come, Tipi, but to ask your help.”

He now looked surprised. But at least his heartbeat began to slow.

Didi and Gusta stood up beside him. Gusta was looking at El-Quan. It had been some time since she had seen her, and seeing her now brought back strange feelings of contentment. Why did she feel safe in the presence of this alien?

It had started when they had first met, when El-Quan was in her silver monster form. Talking to her and being with her, even then, had slowly calmed and eased her fears. She trusted El-Quan. She liked El-Quan.

Gusta next looked at Heli standing so close to her son. Here was another alien who brought out feelings of trust. But the remark made by her son reminded Gusta that she still needed to talk to Heli about her son.

Didi put his arm around Tipi’s shoulder. “Why do you need our son?” he asked as other people began to look round at what was going on.

“A simple task only to complete he has,” Heli said.

And Clyemne explained further. “One of you must grant Embassy status to those who come on board.”

Didi held on to Tipi more tightly. “Then I’ll do it. We grant them Embassy status, that’s it.”

El-Quan quashed his attempt. She looked at Tipi as she spoke. “There is no circle of protection. You must be in their presence to grant them this status.”

“Then I will come with you,” Didi replied.

El-Quan continued to look at Tipi. “It must be your seed.”

Clyemne intervened once again. “Tipi has been on the Gate Of Heaven longest. He knows his way about the ship and he is the most comfortable among us. He is also unattached and so will not fret for others in his absence.”

“We’ll fret,” Didi said quickly.

Tipi looked up at his father. “It’s alright, dad. Clyemne is right. You stay here with mum and Breda. It’s Breda and Kiki’s wedding day, you should both be here. And I’ve been on the ship on my own for a while now, so I’m used to it. I’ll be fine. And the people that come on board will be pleased to see a boy rather than a grown up waiting for them. It’ll make them feel better. It did the last time when everyone else came on board.”

Didi looked down at his son with a mixture of pride and surprise. There was sense in what he said, and suddenly he couldn’t argue. But Gusta had the final word.

“Will you look after him, Elquan?”

El-Quan had still been looking at Tipi. Now she turned to look at Gusta. “My presence would alarm those of your race. It would be unwise for me to greet them.”

“But don’t you need to be there as well?”

“The presence of Tip-E among them is all that is necessary. It places them within his circle of protection. I do not need to witness this, as I have tasted his genuineness and know well his intent.”

Both Gusta and Didi were now looking at El-Quan with curious expressions so Clyemne quickly said, “I will look after him. Your daughter was safe with me. Your son will be also.”

Gusta turned to her and nodded hesitantly. “Yes, alright.”

Didi let go of Tipi after a final hug. “Take care, son.”

Tipi smiled. “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”

Clyemne now raised her voice and spoke to everyone in the recreation area.

“I have to go now with Tipi to greet those who come aboard. And once their names have been registered they will be brought here for food and then assigned to a cabin. I am pleased that many of you have agreed to share in order to increase the number of cabins available, but many will still probably have to sleep here. I have arranged for bedding and other essentials to be brought here once your celebrations are over. Your support in reorganising the recreation area would be most welcome.”

The Corporal took his cue and stood up at one of the tables. “You can rely on us. Altus! Eastomoner! Sort everyone into teams!”

Everyone began to get to their feet as the celebration came to an abrupt end. Breda and Kiki didn’t mind. They had each other, and that was all they had wanted.

Gusta hugged and kissed Tipi. “Don’t you stay away too long!” she said to him tearfully.

He hugged his mother. “Don’t worry, mum! Just have faith!”

It was another remark that puzzled Gusta as Clyemne took her son’s hand and led him away with Alkaia and El-Quan.

Heli was about to follow them when the Corporal blocked her path. “Me and the lads have been asked to stay away. I understand why, and I have no intention of missing out on what goes on here. But if the lad goes, then one of us goes too.”

“Not necessary this be,” Heli told him.

“I insist,” he replied sternly. “And it would help having one of us on hand when dealing with our people.”

Heli saw the logic of his words and gave in. “As you wish.”

Pedomoner instantly stepped forward. “I’ll go, Corp. I can get about pretty well on this leg, but the brass don’t need another wounded man, so I won’t be reassigned.”

The Corporal glanced at him for a moment before nodding. “Okay, you’re it. But don’t make a show of getting about too easily.”

“Yes, Corp!”

The Corporal stepped aside and Pedomoner joined Heli as they followed Alkaia, Clyemne, Tipi and El-Quan out of the recreation area. And although his leg was rigid, the soldier hardly limped at all.

Tipi was only conscious of one thing as he left the wedding party. Kelandra was watching him leave. He could see her out of the corner of his eye. And she looked worried.

When they were in the corridor, Clyemne paused to let Heli and Pedomoner catch up with them. Heli went to Tipi and leaned closer to him.

“Now leave you I must with Clyemne and Pedomoner. To the bridge I must go. And to the Medical Centre must go Alkaia and El-Quan.”

Tipi suddenly reached up and clung to her tunic. “Can I see you again afterwards?”

She was surprised by the need in his body and the urgency in his voice. “Of course you can. Not abandon you will I now that others are present. What is it you seek?”

“I want to know about your God. I want you to tell me more about Him.”

Heli smiled almost tearfully. “Very happy you make me with this request. Speak with you later I will. Tell you all you want to know I will. Give you as much time as you need I will. But first my duty I must attend to, as you must to yours. Go now with Clyemne you must. Go.”

Clyemne reached out and took Tipi’s hand once more. Heli watched him glance back as Clyemne led him away with Pedomoner. Then she hurried towards the bridge with a hand pressed to her mouth.

El-Quan had watched the exchange silently. She was now alone in the corridor with Alkaia, and as they walked towards the Medical Centre together her body gave away her thoughts.

“You have an interest in the boy?” Alkaia asked her.

“It is an interest that is not reciprocated,” El-Quan admitted.

“I feel that brings a sadness in you. You have shared solace with him?”

“Yes.”

“But the interest has not passed?”

“It is an interest only in his intent. The time we shared is only recently passed and yet it is overshadowed by his relationship with Hel-E. This surprises me as it appears not to be sexual, but it is deeply engrained.”

“Heli is our Preacher. The relationship is a spiritual one.”

“Spiritual?”

“He seeks knowledge of our religion. He is interested in God, not Heli. She is merely the avenue to that knowledge.”

El-Quan pondered on the information as she and Alkaia continued on to the Medical Centre.

Ann-Ra had spoken about the Klysanthian God. She had said that it was an attractive philosophy that contradicted the Purpose. She was obviously correct, for it had clearly influenced the young Edenite male very deeply. Tip-E had accepted the philosophy and sought to learn more. And he had hardly acknowledged her even though they had copulated only a short time before. He had felt guilty, expecting his exposure, but her presence had brought no urgency or need within him. The fact that the liaison should mean nothing to her was to be expected. But the same response from him was a surprise that somehow hurt her. It meant that the philosophy was stronger than her allure.

Had this alien philosophy also influenced Ann-Ra in the same way? Was the mere knowledge of it itself dangerous? She would speak with Ann-Ra about it later. But she would have to be cautious. Her own integrity was deeply scarred, so to question another about her integrity could be considered to be unwise.

-o-

The APC shot across the concrete apron towards the Control Tower. Scyleia sat inside facing the immense form of Colonel Salther. She felt like a narrow bat facing a huge round ball in an equally huge metal box. They were both hanging on to straps that hung from the roof. Scyleia bounced around a lot more than Salther did. That didn’t bother her as much as the way he had looked at her with suspicion in his eyes from the moment she had stepped out of the hatch. It had continued as Kreousa and Anaxilea had greeted the bedraggled and frightened Edenite survivors and took them on board. Now that they were locked into this steel box together, even the power of her body couldn’t break its hold over him. It was time to deal with it.

“Invite me into your vehicle with politeness you have, but trust me I think you do not, Colonel,” she said with a smile.

He nodded. “True enough, Captain. But that could be down to the fact that you could have strafed the whole landing field before we even got off a shot in defence.”

Scyleia’s face developed a sad expression. “Unfriendly that would have been, and not my intent.”

“It was at Kalahar.”

“Then your enemy I was. Now I be your ally.”

“Then why not just fly in easy? Why the big entrance?”

Scyleia’s eyes flashed and the sad expression evaporated. She smiled wickedly. “A Klysanthian I be, ask need you more?”

He didn’t reply, but at least the suspicion faded a little and she felt his body relax.

The rest of the brief journey was accomplished in silence. Scyleia wondered how Anaxilea and Kreousa were getting on. The Edenites had looked very scared and on the verge of panic, and there were so many of them, but Salther had shouted at them and sent his men to knock them into an orderly queue, and they became calmer. With luck, Clyemne would have joined Kreousa on the reception deck by now, and Heli would be on the bridge.

The APC swerved to an abrupt halt alongside the Control Tower. Salther leaned forward and released the rear hatch. As it swung down he gestured to Scyleia to step out. She bowed politely and did so with an arrogant flair.

The gravity here was awful. And the air was equally thick and oppressive. But she didn’t let any of that affect her as she stepped out elegantly and stood to her full height. At least she was as tall as him even if she wasn’t as wide.

“This way,” he said and beckoned her to follow him inside the Control Tower.

Scyleia did as he asked, taking the brief opportunity to see all that there was to be seen nearby. It wasn’t good. There were a very large number of people gathered on the far side of the Control Tower. A line of soldiers kept them back and the people jostled them constantly as they tried to push forward. All the people were looking out at the landing field, desperation on their haggard faces. Scyleia quickly glanced back at the landing field. There were several ships on the ground with long queues of people leading to them. It was suddenly clear that there wouldn’t be enough ships for all the people who waited. Something told her that all the people who waited already knew that.

The observation platform was on the top floor of the Control Tower. Fortunately for Scyleia, General Orbanta met her in an office on the ground floor. He was sat behind a large desk covered in maps that he was marking with a large red pen.

yes"> “Captain Scyleia, Sir,” Colonel Salther announced with a salute.

General Orbanta nodded. “Thank you, Colonel. That’ll be all.”

“Yes, Sir!” Salther saluted once more and then left, closing the door behind him.

Orbanta got to his feet and stared at Scyleia. He marvelled at her slender shape and the warmth that came with her presence. Scyleia’s impression of the General was also quickly gained. He was as big as Colonel Salther. But he was also a lot older and his body reeked of guilt. She instantly felt sorry for him.

“My apologies I must give to you,” she said in greeting. “Much grief the burden you take at this time brings to you, and much guilt comes with the orders you have given. With my stealthy approach I sought to gain advantage over you in discussions. Many bargains I sought to make with this advantage. Know now that only foolish pride was my reason. Ashamed I be before your guilt, because know I do that my actions be partially the cause of it.”

Orbanta tossed the red pen down on the desk. “Then you know I could transfer some of that guilt to you.”

She nodded. “You could. And not refute it could I. Nor would I choose to.”

He sighed. “It makes no difference. All our actions mean nothing. One way or the other we would have reached this point. The only thing that counts now is getting as many of my people off this world.” He pointed at her. “And that’s where you come in.”

She bowed her head. “Command me and obey I will. But only one boon I seek from you.”

He eyed her suspiciously. “I’m sure I already granted your request, Captain.”

“This one be easier. The boon of peace between Eden and Klysanthia I seek only from you now.”

Orbanta paused a moment before he replied. “For what it’s worth, that I can grant to you. But it won’t let you off the hook, Captain.” He turned one of the maps around on the desk. “This is your target.”

Scyleia stepped forward and saw the red lines on the map. They marked an approach to the landing field at Nemen that skirted the city and brought them in from the north.

“Why your path should I follow?”

“Because everything on Eden was new. It was all planned from new, and it all took into account forward thinking. All the arrays, maser batteries and other important installations at Nemen and all the landing fields are tied into the same computer net. It means we know when any of them fail, wherever they are, and from wherever we are. The arrays to the north are still down. That’s your way in.”

Scyleia leaned on the map with her arms spread out and looked closely as she examined each detail.

“Congratulate you I must, not considered this option did we on Klysanthia. But to the southwest the Control Centre you have circled is. The northern approach be the longest. See us come they must.”

“But shoot at you they can’t.” He pointed at a cross on the map. “A main power conduit was hit here. All the maser batteries on this side of the field from this point on are inoperative.”

“And on the other side?”

“I suggest you avoid that side.”

She looked up at him and smiled. “To not make this task easy for me was your intent, or coincidence it be?”

Orbanta didn’t bother to answer her. Instead he pulled a computer disc from his pocket and held it up in front of Scyleia’s small but exquisite features.

“If you blow up the Control Centre the Defence Net fail safe’s to the active condition. The only way to close it down then would be to blow up every transmitter, and there are a lot of transmitters, spread over the entire globe. That means you have to switch it off using the command sequence in here.” He waved the disc in front of her face. “But to do that you need to get access to the main console in the Control Centre.”

Scyleia straightened up and reached out her tiny hand to take the disc. For a mere second she paused and her long fingers flexed, and then the disc was snatched from Orbanta’s much larger hand.

“No other place where this disc can be used is there?”

Orbanta lowered his hand and shook his head.

“Forward planning not encompass this problem?”

“Evacuation of Eden wasn’t an option. Security was.”

“But changed this opinion you have?”

“I have a much stronger constitution than my predecessors, as you are about to find out. Switching off the Defence Net isn’t your only task, Captain. When you leave here you will be taking a nuclear device with you. Air Marshal Joventa is completing the transfer from the Alentin now. You will leave it at the Control Centre after you have switched off the Defence Net. You will set it to detonate once we have all left.”

If Scyleia was surprised by the news she did well hiding it. “Activate the fail safe in earnest you intend.”

“And deprive these Alliance clones of any resources at either Nemen or Kalahar. The blast will take out Nemen and the radioactive fall-out will do the rest. There won’t be much left of the entire peninsular that they can use.”

“Your world it is that you destroy.”

Orbanta was unrepentant. “And it’s my choice to do so, not theirs.”

Scyleia nodded in acceptance. “Obey your commands I said I would, and obey I will. But kill us all this task may do. Sympathy for us I accept you have not. But many of your people board my ship as we speak. Have no feelings for them, do you?”

“If you fail, it won’t matter which ship they’re on.”

-o-

Alkaia was unperturbed at being the only Klysanthian among six Androktones. Once Tai-Gil and Fam-Kai had been transferred to the cabin she had remained to check their wounds and to see that they were comfortable. It was clear that Tai-Gil was in the worse condition. She hardly stirred and was obviously in pain. Fam-Kai on the other hand was well on the way to recovery. Her wounds had closed but she still couldn’t walk.

But although Alkaia was comfortable to be among the Androktones, they did not feel the same about her. Ann-Ra could sense the growing hostility in Vin-Di and Zen-Po brought on by the presence of one who was incorrect among them. They needed to kill her, they wanted to kill her, but they could not. But even though Alkaia had the protection of the Humeric Council, her isolated position among them brought danger. It only required one to act and the others would follow. It was the way of the Purpose. It was not the right way.

“If your ministrations are completed, you should leave,” she remarked sternly when Alkaia had finished examining Fam-Kai.

Alkaia bowed her head. “I will leave. But I must direct your attention to the Warrior next door. Many Edenite refugees are being taken on board and all available cabins are being used to accommodate them. The cabin the Warrior currently occupies is relatively large and the Warrior is only one.”

Ann-Ra paused a moment to think. It allowed Zen-Po to ask a question.

“Will the cabins close to us also be occupied by those with Embassy status?”

“They will,” Alkaia replied. “The corridors will be full of them soon. It is another reason why the Warrior must be contained. He could cause unwarranted fear.”

Ann-Ra came to a decision. “El-Quan. Bring the Warrior to our cabin. Locate him in one of the secondary rooms.”

El-Quan bowed and left.

Ann-Ra turned to Alkaia. “The additional cabin will be made available. No one is to enter this cabin. It remains ours for the duration of our time among you.”

Alkaia nodded. “I understand. I will convey your message to Scyleia.”

“Good. Now leave.”

Alkaia bowed her head and left.

-o-

The Seventy-Ninth of the Telen’Gal was roused from his slumber by a knock on the door. It surprised him because his predicament did not warrant such ceremony. He responded in kind and his voice hissed in the semi-darkness.

“Who is it that wishes to enter the quarters of the Seventy-Ninth of the Telen’Gal?”

“It is I, El-Quan,” was the muffled reply.

“And do you come in friendship or in wrath?”

“I come in friendship.”

“Then enter.”

The door opened and allowed light to briefly fill the room. Darkness returned as the door closed. El-Quan now stood inside.

The Seventy-Ninth climbed to his feet and faced her. “Why did you request to enter?”

“This cabin was assigned to you. Would you have done less?”

“And the completion of our greeting ritual?”

“It seemed appropriate.”

The Seventy-Ninth didn’t ask any further questions, so El-Quan got to the matter in hand.

“You are to reside in our cabin from now on. This cabin is to be used by Edenite survivors being taken on board by the Klysanthians. Please follow me.”

It was a simple request with a logical reason behind it. But the Seventy-Ninth was also aware of something else. As he picked up his axe he teased at the threads of anxiety that he sensed within her.

“We are enemies occupying the same vessel. Now we are to occupy the same cabin. Do you not consider this to be unwise?”

“Do you fear us?” she said quickly.

It was interesting that she raised the subject so openly. “There is nothing that I fear except an ignominious death. To die under the blows of several Assassin-Drones is a far better fate, one indeed that I would seek.”

“This is not our intent, or my meaning.”

“No. But fear is present.”

There was a pause before El-Quan replied. “Our previous conversation could be construed to be ill-advised or possibly even the consequence of a flawed integrity. To discuss it could be dangerous.”

“Do you now pursue an armistice?”

If the Warrior could have smiled El-Quan sensed that he would have been doing so now. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on her.

“You are correct. I fear open discussion of our previous conversation among my sisters. It places me at risk. I ask you not to speak of it, but I cannot command you not to do so.”

The Seventy-Ninth held his axe in a defensive stance. “If you told your sisters that I resisted, you could kill me. The end would not be unfavourable to me.”

“I will not kill you to keep your silence. Nor will I defend myself if attacked by you or by my sisters for this reason.”

The Warrior lowered his axe. “Then I will keep silent.”

El-Quan bowed her head. “I thank you. Please follow me.”

The Seventy-Ninth followed El-Quan out of the cabin. Outside Alkaia waited. She smiled when she saw El-Quan and bowed her head to the Warrior.

“Will I see you soon?” she asked El-Quan.

“Not until the ship is in flight and the occasion merits my presence among you.”

It was an enigmatic reply that Alkaia had to accept. “Then I will be content to wait until then.” She reached out and stroked El-Quan’s cheek. It was a gentle caress. “Go with good heart.”

“And you also.”

Alkaia walked away and El-Quan led the Seventy-Ninth into the cabin where the rest of the Androktones waited. They all looked up when the Warrior entered. Even Fam-Kai propped herself up on one elbow.

To say that the Warrior looked out of place among them was an understatement. His presence in the room would have been incongruous even if they had not been present. He just didn’t fit in with the décor. The large axe in his hands didn’t help. And being faced with six female forms lounging or sitting on beds and in various states of undress only emphasised the clash of physique.

Ann-Ra was sitting on the side of Tai-Gil’s bed. She felt the same animosity growing in her sisters for the Warrior as she did for the Klysanthian before him. In this the Purpose was the same as the new way. All were equal and the same. She quickly pointed to a door that led to another room. “You will remain in there.”

His upper body turned to survey the entrance. “Am I your prisoner?”

“The request that you do not wander freely comes from those with Embassy status. The command that you are not to be killed comes from one of those who matched. Take these facts as you wish. But any attempts to resist will be considered hostile and you will be killed.”

“That could be a fate I seek,” he hissed.

“It is a fate for you which I share. Unless you wish to please me, do as I say.”

The Seventy-Ninth bowed his head and entered the room. He had to turn sideways to get through the narrow door. El-Quan went into the room with him. It was a small study with a desk and chair and some wall cabinets. The Seventy-Ninth laid his axe on the desk and sat on the floor. El-Quan stood before him.

“I will cater for your needs. Ask, and I shall comply.”

The Warrior looked up at her. “You will obtain for me anything I desire?”

“Anything that is within my grasp.”

“Then obtain for me a glorious fate.”

“It is a noble request.” El-Quan bowed and swept her right hand diagonally before her. “It shall be made so.”

-o-

Female figures clad in uniforms drenched in the dried blood of both friend and foe ran along darkened corridors and hurried up and down stairways. The figures streamed forth from a cylindrical column that shone with bright sunlight. They carried silver rifles or curved blades, and each ran with determination. And while they ran, others shouted orders and pointed in different directions.

“Soo-El! Take a squad to clear the mines on Level 2!”

“Bey-Zen! Find the power room! Get some light on!”

“Kai-Vin! Activate the air-conditioning!”

“Vin-Tai! Take two squads to the surface! Secure the perimeter!”

“El-Nan! Clear the mines on Level 4!”

“Mai-Gil! See if there are any vehicles in the motor room!”

“Lai-Chen! Get the arrays working! Give us some eyes!”

“Move! All of you! Spread out! Clear the portal!”

Thousands entered with each passing minute, and the constantly moving figures spread throughout the facility until they finally reached the surface.

-o-

Mai-Ann entered the reception room and approached Li-Sen-Tot. He was sitting on the sofa that he had earlier slept in. He was reading a large book that he had retrieved from one of the tables in the drawing room. He looked like a small boy perched on the edge of the large sofa. He also looked like he was holding the book sideways, but it was necessary as the Navak script was written across both pages in narrow columns. Mai-Ann waited until he looked up expectantly before she spoke.

“Almost half of our army have been transferred to the Edenite Command Centre, Councilman,” she then announced.

Li-Sen-Tot closed the book and laid it on his lap. “Has the Command Centre been secured?”

“Yes, Councilman. All mines have been cleared and power re-established. The arrays are functioning but Diggers have destroyed the main visual display medium in the lower level. We are locating alternatives.”

He nodded. “Good. Continue to consolidate. Identify food stores, medical centres, accommodation, fuel stores and weaponry. Obtain vehicles and strengthen security. Make sure the Keruh tunnel is abandoned and ascertain if it may be useful. With the detonation of the nuclear device at Elengrad, a subterranean means of travel could be a distinct advantage. And continue with the transfer. When all our forces are at the Centre open a portal at Delmatra. We need to obtain air transport.”

“Yes, Councilman. Alternative displays for the arrays will be obtained soon. Progress has already been made in locating the facilities and supplies you have identified. And a pod has been despatched within the tunnel to secure it for our use. But should we not proceed to the landing field before opening the portal to Delmatra?”

Li-Sen-Tot smiled. It was clear that this last question was the main reason for her presence before him. She was confident now. She challenged him easily. But there was still much she had to learn.

“The screens are to see with, Mai-Ann, the air transport gives you access. Once the Edenites have been subdued they will need to be returned to Hilbrok. Using the portal for this secondary purpose would be tactically wasteful. Far better to use a fleet of air cargo transports to ferry them there.”

“Could the air transports not be recovered later?”

“Delaying their recovery allows the radiation fall-out to complicate matters.”

Mai-Ann nodded. “I understand, Councilman.”

“And I also understand your eagerness to begin energy reclamation. But remember that preparation is often the key to success in war. Any pause to regroup allows the enemy more time to plan his responses. Therefore there must be no pause once you begin. So only when the tasks I have given to you have been accomplished are you to proceed to the landing field. Have an expeditionary force proceed by road. When they are opposed open a portal behind the enemy for our main force to enter. I will leave the details of the strategy to you. Remember, the males are your priority, so avoid direct confrontation if you can.”

“Yes, Councilman.”

“Proceed.”

She bowed and returned to the drawing room.

Li-Sen-Tot raised the book from his lap and opened it once again.

-o-

Scyleia was back in the APC with Colonel Salther. The meeting with General Orbanta had been interesting but short. Now she had a computer disc in her pocket and a nuclear device on board her ship. She wasn’t sure which was the most dangerous.

“On board a ship will you go, Colonel?” she suddenly asked Salther.

He shook his head solemnly.

She also shook her head as she clung onto one of the straps hanging from the roof. But she did so more in sadness.

“Knew this already I did. Shame it be as fine man you are.”

“Are you trying to gain some kind of favour?” Salther asked suspiciously.

“No. Statement only I make. Understand your reasons. Many of my sisters shared this view when our world fell. Waste it was for them, and waste it still be now for you. Your Commander shares this view also I think.”

The Colonel looked away. “We had a responsibility to our government and to our people. We let them both down.”

“Died have not many of you in their defence?”

“Yes,” he said sadly.

“Then not true your statement be. To lose is not a shameful crime. To turn your back when called upon is.”

Salther smiled ruefully. “Like when the Alliance asked us to join them?”

“That moment be long gone, and no rancour do I bear towards you for it. Simple truth I state. Life be precious whether you be Klysanthian, Keruh or Edenite. If opportunity offers, board ship you must.”

Salther didn’t answer.

The APC reached the Gate Of Heaven and Scyleia emerged with Colonel Salther to find a long line of worried people waiting to board. Most of them looked tired and dishevelled. Among those who waited were children with their protective parents, but mostly there were couples or single people. Some wore tattered business clothes while others wore nightclothes with a coat over the top. Most were wounded in some way, and bandages, bruises and cuts were in evidence everywhere. But there was no one who couldn’t walk, and no one on a stretcher. Soldiers kept them all in order, but they shared the same look of desperation.

Scyleia glanced around quickly. There were too few ships and too many people. Getting on board a ship was going to be a forlorn hope for most of them. But still they kept calm. At least for now.

Colonel Salther broke into her thoughts. “I have to leave you now, Captain,” he said, offering his hand to her.

Scyleia accepted the offer and he squeezed her hand far more gently than she anticipated. It caused her to smile. “Thank you, Colonel.”

“Good luck.”

“You also, and expect to see you again I will.”

He nodded. “Possibly.”

Colonel Salther climbed back in the APC and sealed the door. In a moment it had swerved around and was heading back towards the Control Tower.

Scyleia headed for the open hatch. But once there she found a constant stream of large Edenites climbing through. They were so large and in such desperation to get on board that there was no way she could even try to get between them. If she had, they would probably have trampled her. Scyleia beckoned to the Klysanthians inside the airlock who were helping the Edenites and guiding them through the airlock to the reception deck, but even their pleas couldn’t stop the constant flow. Fortunately, Pedomoner was also inside the airlock helping out, and he called to the people to make way.

“Come on, people!” he called out with a light-hearted voice. “Let the Captain back on board her ship! We can’t go without her, you know!”

It had the desired affect and Scyleia found herself back on board. “Thank you!” she said to Pedomoner as she passed him in the airlock.

“A pleasure, Captain!” he replied with a smile.

Scyleia entered the reception deck. It was bustling with Edenites collecting drinks and bedding from the long tables. Many of them formed lines at these tables while others waited for treatment or to register their names. The lighter gravity inside the ship was a relief, and the sight of Kreousa in obvious control on the reception deck was another.

Tipi was with Clyemne at one of the tables where food and beverages were laid out. Many of the Edenites cried and hugged Tipi at the sight of him. It was funny how people responded in times of great disaster. There were children among their number, but the Edenites found comfort in the sight of another child in obvious good health.

Anaxilea was standing with another Klysanthian who was supervising the registration of all the refugees. It was the last point before the Edenites left the reception deck and headed towards the recreation area. As soon as she saw Scyleia, Anaxilea hurried over to her.

“How did it go?” she asked quickly.

Scyleia smiled at the lack of greeting. But she knew Anaxilea well. “I have all we need. Is everything in control here?”

“It is. The spare cabins are already full, even the one with the Warrior.” She said the word with distaste. “He’s in with the Androktones. Hopefully they will kill him.”

“You are cruel,” Scyleia pointed out.

“It is an opinion you also share, and you know it.”

Scyleia nodded sadly. “Yes. But he brought Tai-Gil. So I have to forgive him, at least him.”

“I am more honest, I can’t forgive, not him, not any of them.” Anaxilea spoke with bitterness before her expression lightened and she continued with her report. “The Corporal and those who came before have reorganised the recreation area. It is beginning to fill but there is still much room left.”

“How many more can we take?”

“It is difficult to say. More will fit, and Heli says that we have the power available to carry them, but they will be cramped. And I am more concerned by our unwelcome guest.”

Scyleia instantly understood. “Don’t worry, Lea. It will disembark at Nemen. Where is it?”

“In the forward cargo hold. It has an evil aura.”

“Then it matches its purpose.” She squeezed Anaxilea’s arm. “Use the other cargo holds to take more people, the chapel, too. Take as many as the Heaven will carry. And open the main cargo hatch. That should make the loading easier and faster. But be careful near the end. More may wish to board than we have room for.”

“Tell that to the Corporal. It might be better if he were here with his men when that moment arrives.”

Scyleia nodded. “You are right, Lea. I will speak to him. Now I must go to the bridge. Keep things calm here, Lea. And take care.”

Anaxilea watched her hurry away before returning to her task.

-o-

Colonel Salther was back in the office on the ground floor of the Control Tower with General Orbanta. They were leaning over a series of world maps strewn over the desk discussing contingency plans should the Defence Net remain closed. Orbanta pointed at one of the maps with his red pen.

“The Bruntolom Continent would be the most favourable. It’s large, temperate, far enough away not to be effected by the radiation, and the land is viable.”

“But is it defendable?” Salther remarked. “I know Bruntolom is an island continent, General, but with portal access available to the Alliance forces, they could be there almost as soon as we land.”

“They aren’t psychic, Colonel. They have to know that we are there first.”

“But what about Speanhuntol? It’s bigger and easier to get lost in. Or the islands of Hangast or Quintilli?”

“We have research stations on Speanhuntol and Quintilli. No, it has to be Bruntolom. We go in low and stay low. And once we are down, all the ships stay down.”

“Those ships are our best form of defence.”

“That doesn’t matter. Like you said, they have portal access, so there’s no point building walls and digging trenches. Our best form of defence is not to fight at all, but to hide.”

The door suddenly burst open and Addi Joventa ran into the office.

“General! There’s something happening at the Emergency Command Centre!” he said in alarm. “All the transponders attached to the mines have stopped transmitting! And they did it in quick succession, starting at Level 3 and working in both directions!”

Orbanta glanced down at the scattered maps on the desk and stabbed his pen down on one of them at the Emergency Command Centre.

“Then they’re on their way,” he muttered softly. “But is it the Keruh, or the Alliance forces?”

“Does it matter?” Colonel Salther remarked.

Orbanta turned to Colonel Salther and there was a crisp and determined note to his voice.

“No! Gather your men, Colonel! Abandon the perimeter and get them to the ships! Have them stuff as many refugees into as many ships as they can! Tell them to go with them where possible!”

Colonel Salther looked amazed. “Is that wise?”

“All that matters now is getting people on ships, and I no longer care if they are in uniform or not! Your men deserve the same chance as anyone! Tell them that when you call for volunteers! I want you to get all the armour we have left and make a stand here, across the road!” He pulled another map to the front and stabbed it with his pen once more. “Lay down a barrage! Delay them as long as you can!”

Colonel Salther looked down at the map at the point Orbanta had indicated and then he saluted. “Yes, Sir!”

Salther ran out the door, taking the map with him. Orbanta then grabbed Joventa and shoved him after the Colonel.

“Addi! Get that Klysanthian ship in the air now! And clear the Control Tower! Get everyone to a ship!”

“Yes! Yes! Right away!” Joventa said hesitantly. “I’ll come back for you as soon as I’ve finished!”

“Don’t come back, Addi! Just get on a ship!”

Joventa looked back at him in shock. “You intend to stay behind?”

“You expect me to go after commanding Colonel Salther and his men to stay? And with more than half our people still left on the landing field?”

Joventa opened his mouth to reply but the words failed him.

Orbanta pushed him forward once more. “Go, my friend! Go!”

With a last look of desperation, Joventa turned and ran.

CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR

A NEW WAY OF THINKING

To his surprise, Peleus found the atmosphere on board the Queen Of Angels to be rather pleasant. None of the Klysanthians were cold or aloof in his presence, neither did they attempt to entice him or distract him from his work. And both Alcibie and Derimacheia treated him fairly and honestly. Even Pantariste was businesslike in her manner. But despite all this, he hadn’t slept well on his first night.

If Pantariste had intended that the knowledge that she had lain in his bed should disturb him, it had worked very proficiently. Peleus had not been able to get the idea and images out of his head. In fact his mind had whirled with the possibilities all night.

Had she lain on, or under the covers?

Had she been dressed, or had she not?

And which way had she laid? On her side? Her front? And for how long?

He had been tired the next day, and although he did his best to hide it and cope, Pantariste had smiled at the sight of him.

At first he had been annoyed by her scheme and the easy way he had succumbed to it. But then he realised a simple truth. It was the first time someone other than Lysippe had occupied his thoughts for a protracted period.

Was this how it began? Was this how a mortal wound to the heart began to heal? Was it like a trivial scratch or cut on the hand or arm that irritated for days only to be forgotten on the first day that it didn’t hurt? Would he look back at his suffering in the same way that he looked back at such a cut, with mild surprise?

For one night he had forgotten Lysippe. From deep pain she had vanished and been replaced by the lithe and long-limbed form of another draped over his bed. Or had she been in the bed?

Every time Peleus saw Pantariste the following day the same thoughts came to his mind. The way she sat on her command chair, her legs crossed, or uncrossed, when she walked on or off the bridge, even when he passed her in the corridor. She was dressed in her usual uniform, and sometimes she acknowledged him and sometimes she didn’t. But each time the same thoughts came to his mind.

Had she been dressed, or had she not?

Now as he stood before her on the bridge dressed in his simple white gown and she checked his progress reports, the same thoughts came to his mind once again. He was very conscious of her form and physical presence. He looked down at the way she sat in her command chair, her slender body almost like that of a child. But no child had such a shape or legs as long as that. And with her close presence came a gentle sensation, a soft and familiar scent in the air that reminded him of…yes…that was it…his pillow.

“How has your first day been with us, Atlantian?”

Her question surprised him as his mind had drifted from the moment. He quickly regained his wits.

“Tiring.”

“Did you not sleep well?”

She hadn’t looked up from the report but he knew she was mocking him. But he could also play this game.

“My bed was uncomfortable.”

“It can be changed if you wish.”

“No, that will not be necessary. I believe it is a burden I can become used to.”

Now she did look up. “A burden?”

He nodded. “Without sleep a man cannot dream.”

“He can also not suffer nightmares,” she countered.

“But it is sometimes necessary to suffer the one in order to enjoy the magnitude of the other.”

She handed him back the report. “Such alluring dreams should be shared. Can you explain them to us?”

“It would not be appropriate, Captain, as they feature someone I have feelings for.”

Pantariste asked her next question a little too quickly, and there was a harder edge to her voice. “Would that be a past lover?”

He paused to relish the moment and smiled as he spoke. “Not necessarily, although I admit we have shared the same bed.”

She had taken the bait almost too easily and Peleus had enjoyed delivering the final riposte. His victory and the fact that the meaning behind his remark wasn’t lost on anyone on the bridge caused Pantariste to look at him with a hint of irritation in her eyes. But it didn’t last, and she quickly recovered and smiled.

“Then you are right, Atlantian,” she said, sitting back in her chair. “Your dreams would be better kept secret in honour of this unknown individual. I hope you sleep more easily tonight and your dreams return in all their power and splendour.”

Peleus bowed his head. “I am sure they will, Captain.”

“Dismissed.”

Peleus returned to his seat next to Derimacheia. She kept her eyes on her console and said nothing, but she smiled warmly and knowingly. At the helm, Alcibie also smiled, but kept her head facing forward. It didn’t make any difference, as Pantariste didn’t need to see either of their smiles to know that they were there.

“Do I sense an attitude of mirth among my bridge crew this day?” she said aloud.

Derimacheia instantly looked up. “No, Captain. We are merely content with our tasks in hand.”

Pantariste stared through the viewing ports and her fingers curled around the armrests on her chair. She developed a wicked smile.

“If you have time to smile and be content, then you have time for more work.” She raised her voice. “Derimacheia! Run a hull breach simulation! I want to be sure that our extra passengers would be safe in such a catastrophe!”

Derimacheia sighed. “Yes, Captain!”

“Alcibie! You run an engine failure recovery program as part of the simulation! I suggest the port engine has failed and…is on fire! Oh, and we are in an asteroid field!”

“Yes, Captain!”

“Peleus! Run an evacuation drill! Have our passengers and crew take refuge in the starboard hull!”

“Yes, Captain! Shall I assume artificial gravity has been compromised?”

Pantariste turned her head and glared at him coldly. “I am sure you are well aware, Atlantian, that such an event that befell your previous Captain would not to be tolerated on board my ship.”

Peleus bowed. “Of course, Captain. Forgive me.”

“My forgiveness depends on the success of your drill. Proceed.”

As the bridge became a scene of feverish activity, Pantariste sat back in her chair, crossed her legs, and smiled quietly to herself.

-o-

On another Klysanthian ship, more sturdily built females considered the implications of living with the enemy. For Zen-Po, the proximity of the Seventy-Ninth in the adjoining room was as equally offensive as being close to the Edenites. In her mind there was no difference. They were both incorrect, they should both be killed, and yet they both had Embassy status. The predicament she was in was both unfamiliar and unpleasant.

She hated it.

Ann-Ra shared the feeling of unfamiliarity but for a different reason. Her mind was still filled with the new way she had learned. It would neither go away nor bend to the Purpose. It was better than the Purpose, and she knew it. But she couldn’t allow its effect on her to become known by her sisters. She had to hide it from them, but that almost made her feel selfish.

Part of her wanted to tell them all about it, to explain and recite the stories Hel-E had told her. She wanted to share what she had learned. She wanted them to know what she knew. But she also feared telling them. Would they understand? Could they understand? Or would they just kill her out of hand?

Fam-Kai’s mind was also confused. She kept thinking of her offspring, of Soo-Fam and the others. It was strange as they had never occupied her thoughts so often before. It had been the same since she had spoken with Kre-Owe-Sa. It was almost as if she hadn’t understood the true nature of the relationship until the Klysanthian had spoken to her about it. And now she couldn’t get the images of her daughters out of her mind.

Vin-Di remembered how she had run and jumped with such effort to gain entry to the ship. Her escape had been so important to her then, and now she wished that she had been left behind. At least she would be dead and this turmoil in her mind would be over.

All of the Androktones knew that their integrity was under threat, and all of them knew that the others were watching for any signs that might suggest that they had become permanently flawed. And the almost calm and, yes, boring situation that they were in didn’t help either. It allowed them to dwell on things that they had never thought of before. It allowed them to be distracted by the sights and sounds around them. It allowed them to stop and think.

Only Tai-Gil slept, her mind at peace. She already knew that she was flawed. And she already knew what steps she had to take to correct the error.

El-Quan came out of the room where the Warrior lay on the floor. She had brought him more liquefied food that she had obtained from Alkaia. He seemed content to sleep and wait. Outside she found the other five Androktones draped over their beds. She quickly joined them, lying next to Ann-Ra.

For Tai-Gil and Fam-Kai there wasn’t much else they could do except lie down, but for El-Quan, Ann-Ra, Vin-Di and Zen-Po, it was boredom and fear of suspicion that kept them on their beds.

Even looking out the window carried a risk of transgression.

If there were others outside, beyond the circle of protection granted by the ones inside who matched, should they not be killed? And if they didn’t rush out to kill them, did that mean that they were flawed?

The Purpose dictated that those who were incorrect were to be killed, that they must be searched out and eradicated. But those who had matched had granted protection to those who were inside, and the Humeric Council had granted further protection to the Klysanthians. So within the hull of this ship they were obeying the Purpose. But that would not be the case outside, beyond the window. So none of them dared to look. Instead they lay there in silence, scared even to talk.

Conversations between Androktones had never been on a high intellectual level, but neither were they trivial. Most of the time they discussed tactics or exchanged orders. There was no such thing as idle chat. The subjects of clothes, money, and even men, were unheard of. To discuss such a topic would have been to invite one’s own death. So it was with heavy trepidation that El-Quan broke the silence.

“I have discovered that those with Embassy status value hereditary genetic links very highly.”

Fam-Kai felt her temperature and heart beat rise as the other Androktones turned their heads to look at El-Quan. Only Tai-Gil didn’t stir. She remained sleeping and unaware.

El-Quan stayed on her back, staring up at the ceiling as if unconcerned. Next to her, Ann-Ra watched her closely.

“Is this information of value?” she asked, wondering why El-Quan would make such a statement.

“It is information,” El-Quan replied. “And all information has value of some kind.”

The other Androktones pondered this point and Zen-Po was the first to speak up.

“To value such genetic links is not permitted by the Purpose. It is considered to be a weakness.”

Vin-Di nodded. “Then the information does have value.”

Fam-Kai now broke her silence. It was time to admit her knowledge. “I have also learned this information from the Klysanthians. The one called Kre-Owe-Sa was emotionally agitated when she discovered that Soo-Fam was my seed. She felt that her death should have caused similar emotional turmoil in my mind. The fact that it did not seemed to damage her.”

Ann-Ra said what was expected of her. “This is why it is a weakness.”

The other Androktones nodded in agreement and Vin-Di repeated her statement more forcefully.

“Then the information has value.”

There was further silence while they considered this.

Bolstered by her success, El-Quan now introduced a topic that interested her more deeply.

“I have also learned that the Klysanthians share a theological belief.”

Ann-Ra’s mind did a summersault that was matched by an equally sudden change in her biorhythms and she spoke up far too quickly and with irritation.

“Of what value is this information?”

There was a brief silence while all the Androktones except El-Quan now turned to look at Ann-Ra. If she felt their stares she showed no sign. El-Quan answered her question.

“The young Edenite who matched has been influenced by this theology. I witnessed him request more knowledge from Hel-E.”

Vin-Di asked, “Then this theology has power?”

And Zen-Po said, “If it has power then it is dangerous.”

El-Quan now turned her head to look at Ann-Ra beside her. “What is your view, Ann-Ra?”

Vin-Di rolled on to her side and looked across at them both. “Yes, Ann-Ra, you spoke with Hel-E on this matter, you shared solace with her. You have an interest in this theology; I can feel it within you. Is it a danger? Is Hel-E a threat? Should she be killed?”

Ann-Ra lay immobile on her back, the eyes and senses of all her sisters now on her. She had lost control for an instant, and in that instant she had been put at risk. But there was nothing she could do about it now. There was no way to hide the signs within her body. She was agitated, heated, fearful, and angry. And her anger was directed at herself. She should have been better prepared for the accusation. She had suspected all along that El-Quan had known of her infection by this belief. She should have been ready. Instead her reaction had threatened her integrity even before Vin-Di had accused her of her interest in the theology and in Hel-E. And the Klysanthian was now equally under threat. But what was she to do? Should she draw her sword and attack them all? Or should she just admit her interest and her flawed state and preach the new way to them? Both options were ludicrous and would only lead to her death. And it wouldn’t help Hel-E either. So instead she did the only thing that she could do. She thought carefully and answered calmly and honestly.

“The theology you speak of is powerful. It revolves around a god who preaches peace and forgiveness, self-sacrifice and love. These are powerful sentiments to those who are incorrect. That it should also influence those that matched and those with Embassy status is therefore no surprise.”

Fam-Kai sat up on her bed. “But is it a threat, Ann-Ra?”

“Yes,” Ann-Ra admitted. “It opposes the Purpose in every way. It is powerful.”

Fam-Kai continued to press her. “Then Hel-E should be killed.”

“If she preaches this theology to one of us with deliberate intent, then I agree.”

Vin-Di now pounced. “But she has already done so with you.”

The net had closed and there was no avoiding the truth. By now Ann-Ra’s whole body tasted of fear and defeat. She hardly had to speak the words.

“It was not her original intent. I asked for the knowledge.”

In the silence that followed, Ann-Ra closed her eyes. “I am flawed, I will not deny it. And if you should kill me I will not oppose you. I will go to my death willingly and at peace.”

While the others kept silent and remained still, El-Quan reached across to her and held her hand.

“No one is going to kill you or condemn you, Ann-Ra. The advice you have given to us in this situation remains correct and genuine, even now. We each learn new things, new information. That they can lead to a flawed integrity is not in doubt. But to know them is to be on our guard. As you said, we should keep our minds open, we should identify each piece of information and categorise them. Being exposed to those with Embassy status for a prolonged period is a threat that both Tai-Gil and I have suffered the most. The Klysanthian theology is also a threat that you have suffered. But their value of hereditary genetic links is a weakness.”

Ann-Ra opened her eyes and looked back at El-Quan. She took the path that led to escape. “Then we should minimise one, deny the second, and embrace the third.”

It was a remarkable reply because Ann-Ra’s body now exhibited no fearful or uneasy signs. Instead she suddenly exuded confidence as she sat up.

“You are right, El-Quan. What we learn we must use. And the value of hereditary genetic links should be further explored. I will explain.”

-o-

Memnon was sure he would never understand the Klysanthians. The main reason was that they were women, of course. Atlantis had thrived on the understanding that both sexes were equal. This had maximised the development potential in their society. But there were still differences in outlook and belief, and a society ruled by women alone and run by women alone was bound to emphasis the worst of those differences. So while the rest of his fleet made their weary way home content with their victory and their survival, he shouldn’t have been surprised that the Klysanthians toiled in unnecessary drills.

“And this is the reason why the Angels varies her course and speed so markedly?” he asked Telephus.

Telephus nodded. “Yes, Captain. It is also why they are on a communications black out, they are simulating an almost total power failure.”

“Almost?”

“Artificial gravity remains intact.”

Next to him at his console, Aeolus grunted. Telephus merely smiled and continued.

“Andromeda told me that the Queen Of Angels is on her fifth simulation run. Apparently, Pantariste didn’t think the first four were executed well enough.”

Memnon shook his head. He hoped Peleus was coping under the circumstances.

“Please convey our concern to Andromeda and have her remind Pantariste that there is still a long journey ahead of us.”

“Yes, Captain.”

While Telephus set to his task, Memnon turned to Aeolus.

“I am beginning to understand your irritation with this woman, Aeolus.”

“Irritation is too light a word,” Aeolus replied. “She is stubborn, has a long memory, and bears grudges with delight.”

“Then she is like any wife,” Memnon remarked.

His words brought a scowl from Aeolus and a smile from his brother.

“As someone who has never married,” Telephus said. “I take this information as confirmation of the righteousness of my chosen lifestyle.”

Both Aeolus and Memnon looked at him with jealous consternation. And Memnon attempted to lessen the impact of his previous remark, but it didn’t work.

“You can enjoy the pleasures of a brief liaison, my friend. But until you have shared the trials and tribulations that go with a permanent relationship you will not understand the much greater joy such a shared lifestyle can bring.”

Telephus looked up and smiled. “Pardon me, Captain, but I prefer my ignorance.”

-o-

There was a light in Ann-Ra’s mind. It was bright and clear and filled her with calm contentment and limitless power. It brought wisdom and clarity. It told her all she needed to know.

She knew instantly how to take the most advantage from what they had learned. And when she explained her idea to the others they had instantly understood the power of her strategy. Each of them had marvelled at her adept use of this new information. It even surprised her. And when Tai-Gil had been awoken and the plan was explained to her, she had instantly approved. Whether it would succeed was yet to be known, but the ingenuity was clear to all.

And afterwards she could tell that they all wondered how she had been able to think of it, but Ann-Ra knew how. It was this new belief. It threw off the shackles of the Purpose and opened the mind. It allowed her to think of things that had previously been restricted, it allowed her to make comparisons and deductions and come to conclusions that the Purpose would have denied her.

They could all have gained so much by the sharing of this new way. But the others were not ready, not yet. But they would be soon if the time was right. And the one who would be the most receptive was El-Quan.

This had become clear to Ann-Ra when El-Quan had accused her of her betrayal of the Purpose. El-Quan knew that she had changed. She knew that this other way had affected her and altered her. But she hadn’t condemned her for it. She had allowed Ann-Ra to make her own admission in her own time. And when the extent of her transgression had been made clear it was El-Quan who had spoken in her defence.

In the end, none of her sisters had acted against her. But for a while they had looked on her with suspicion. But then she had announced her plan and suspicion had given way to awe. Ann-Ra understood. The Purpose still held sway in their minds because the better way had not been explained to them. It restricted their thoughts. Once they had learned of God and what He meant, they would know the truth. She yearned to tell them. But how could she tell them? And was it her responsibility to tell them?

An instant response came to the last question in her mind. How could she not tell them? How could she think of denying them this knowledge when it filled her with contentment and anticipation?

But they were not ready, not together. But singularly, on their own, they could be approached.

El-Quan would be told first. She had suffered most under the paradox; she would be the most responsive, and the least likely to act against her. She also carried the seed of the young Edenite male who also pursued this new theology. Yes, it would be fitting that El-Quan should be the first. But when? How?

The question was irrelevant. God would find a way.

-o-

The bridge of the Queen Of Angels bustled with activity as people ran about to deal with another imagined crisis. Derimacheia now seemed to be in control, shouting commands and running from one console to another while Pantariste sat in the middle of it all in calm isolation. She lounged in her command chair looking out at the stars on the viewing screen while turmoil reigned all around her. But this hadn’t been the case earlier on.

At first Pantariste had been in the same position as her First Officer, and the constant questions and requests during the drills had quickly become irksome. And so she had put a stop to them during the second drill with a casual and quickly thought of rebuff.

“Assume that there has been an explosion on the bridge. I am dead.”

From then on she had waved them all away and merely observed. Derimacheia was indeed now in charge, so when she approached Pantariste during the fifth simulation run with a communication in her hand, her Captain looked up at her in annoyance.

“I am dead, remember?” she said curtly.

“I’m sorry, Captain, but Andromeda has been contacted by Memnon. He asked her to convey his concern for our status.”

“And what would he know of our status?”

“During the last simulation you had two of our engines explode and the port hull break away. Our progress has been somewhat erratic as a result. Even the House Of Gold has changed station.”

Pantariste developed an arrogant and haughty manner that was reflected in the cold tones to her voice.

“You and Peleus are to continue with your simulations, but have Alcibie abandon hers. She is to maintain our course and speed from now on. I will not have others guessing what goes on within our hull. Tell Andromeda that she can resume position in safety. And contact the Kraken directly. Tell Memnon that Klysanthians are not used to whiling the time away without purpose. Tell him we leave that to our men.”

Derimacheia bowed and walked away, a smile on her lips. Pantariste resumed staring out through the viewing ports.

The turmoil went on, but at least Alcibie could now relax.

Pantariste ignored everything. At first she had enjoyed the ability that her simulated death had provided to her to watch and not be disturbed. But as one sequence of drills had followed another her interest in events around her had faded and she had begun to concentrate on other thoughts. And the fact that it was Peleus who dominated those thoughts would have pleased the Atlantian.

Peleus had proved to be as equally interesting on an intellectual level as he was on a physical one. That shouldn’t have surprised her, as Pantariste knew that it was more than just a physical interest that she bore for him. He was more worthy of that, and he had more to offer than that, but she had still misjudged him, as he was only a man. So his ability to gain an uncontrolled response from her had annoyed her. She didn’t like losing to him, even though she wanted him, and even on such a trivial point. She didn’t like losing to any man, especially an Atlantian, especially when it was someone she really wanted. But she also didn’t want him to know that, although he obviously did, so she had continued to smile at him as he worked. And in her mind she had plotted an appropriate response.

Unaware of his impending doom, Peleus had toiled away with dogged determination. He was adamant that his task would not defeat him, and in order to assure that it didn’t, he had spent more time away from the bridge in each drill. So in response Pantariste had left the bridge during the third simulation and went to the assembly point in the starboard hull to watch him. There she had delighted in the image of an overworked Atlantian male surrounded by a host of angry and tired Klysanthian women, many of whom were wounded. The fact that it was the third simulation and nerves and patience were well frayed caused many heated exchanges. But what had pleased Pantariste the most was that Lysippe was among those who had had enough. As always she was most concerned for the health of Telepyleia, and by then Peleus was well passed the point of being self-conscious in her presence, so their meeting had held no joy or sentiment for either of them.

Pantariste had watched and said nothing. But on her way back to the bridge she had smiled contentedly. And when the sequence of drills had been completed she had ordered a fourth to follow it.

Maybe a further response would not be necessary. Maybe she should just let nature and human frailties take their course. It was an easy decision to make. So when the fourth simulation run had ended she had ordered a fifth. With sighs and moans her crew had set to their tasks once more. And this time Peleus had busied himself at the assembly point almost throughout, hardly appearing on the bridge at all. Pantariste didn’t follow him; she didn’t need to.

Pantariste sat in her command chair and watched the stars as the fifth sequence of drills neared their completion. With luck, Peleus and Lysippe would come to blows. And if they didn’t, there was always the possibility of a sixth simulation run.

-o-

On the landing field at Hilbrok, armoured vehicles and other artillery powered up and swung away from the perimeter fence. One by one they began to converge on the road to the Emergency Command Centre where they lumbered forward with deliberate menace. At the same time the soldiers that were left behind began to move forward hesitantly, crossing the fence line and moving out onto the landing field towards the distant safety of the waiting ships.

While the heavy vehicles streamed away with one of the APC’s at their head, another APC led a small convoy of jeeps and trucks away from the Control Tower. Once the convoy had reached one of the waiting ships, the APC swung away and headed for the edge of the landing field where the soldiers still seemed to be unsure of what to do.

From the open hatch of his APC, Major Stumomoner waved vigorously to the men, urging them to get to the waiting ships. One by one they broke into a harried run, and soon they were all running, many of them dropping their rifles. The movement wasn’t lost on the people left waiting to board the remaining ships, and panic set in instantly.

With a sudden rush, all the waiting people ran forward. In a few seconds they had joined and then swallowed up the soldiers, the combined mass of people streaming across the concrete surface like an incoming tide as they all converged on the ships. And the people already gathered around the ships in orderly queues began to break ranks and press forward, trying to get on board before the crowd reached them.

From an orderly evacuation of scared but controlled people, mayhem and madness quickly ensued. Belongings were hurled aside, those who were older or less able were abandoned, and even children were left behind. Everything that once held value, even their own self-esteem and pride, was left on the concrete as a relentless rabble rushed forward. Soldiers, civilians, men and women, they were all the same now. And once they reached the ships the real madness set in as they all fought, kicked, and punched their way on board. Their only purpose now was to survive; nothing else mattered.

-o-

Alcinoe looked up from her console in sudden shock. “Scyleia! We have been told to take off immediately! The landing field is under attack!”

Scyleia looked at the images of panic breaking out on the viewing screen before her. “We’re going to be over-run! Prothoe! Stoke the engines! Heli! Find Clyemne and get to the main cargo hold!”

Heli jumped from her chair and ran for the door. “I’m on it!”

Scyleia turned to Alcinoe. “Get me Anaxilea! Now! Hurry! We have to close the main cargo hatch before it’s too late!”

-o-

The main cargo hatch of the Gate Of Heaven was in her centre hull. Here Anaxilea and the Corporal had organised a mass entry to the ship that had been impossible at the narrower hatch to the reception deck. With the main hatch lowered and acting as a steep ramp, grateful people had streamed on board to be ushered further into the ship by Eastomoner and Altus. And in the main cargo hold Kreousa had waited with Tipi and her staff. But the greater width proved to be an inherent danger. At the narrower hatch boarding could be restricted easily, but here that was impossible. And as the panic reached those people waiting to board the Gate Of Heaven, a stampede began.

Pedomoner tried to hold them back as the people all rushed up the ramp towards him in a solid mass. He shouted for calm, but no one was listening, and his voice was drowned out by the shouts and screams. A moment later and he, Altus and several Klysanthians, Tipi among them, were all knocked aside and swallowed up in the rush. Many of them fell under the feet of the Edenites, and one of the Klysanthians was trodden on, a foot on her back cracking her spine and several ribs. She instantly spat blood and lay still.

The Corporal took the more direct approach and drawing his pistol he fired it at the advancing crowd. Several people fell, but it made no difference, the mob just trampled over the bodies, and a second later the Corporal was also knocked aside and disappeared.

Anaxilea ran from the cargo hold as an advancing tide of large and heavy Edenites bore down on her. She waved her hands and shouted at Alkaia by the control panel.

“Close the hatch, Alkaia! Close the hatch now!”

Eastomoner tried to reach Anaxilea, but the people who had already gained entry to the ship in a previously calm and orderly manner were now running in panic as they tried to avoid the rush of those pouring in through the hatch, and he was quickly driven back.

Alkaia hit the hatch controls but the hatch just shuddered under the weight of the Edenites trampling over it. She glanced back and saw Anaxilea overtaken by the advancing crowd. She was just knocked into the wall with a thump and disappeared. The last view of her was of her hand as she slipped down the wall. Eastomoner disappeared a moment later when the advancing tide overtook him. The people just knocked him down like a bulldozer.

Alkaia watched the large and heavy figures stomping their way towards her and screamed into the nearby com-unit. “It’s no use, Scyleia! The hatch is jammed! Get us in the air before we are over-run!”

-o-

Scyleia gripped the armrests on her chair and squealed her commands. “Prothoe! Full power! Straight up! Now!”

-o-

The air was filled with a cacophony of sound made up from the roar of ship’s engines, the screams and shouts of people, and the sharp crack of gunfire. Struggling figures tumbled from open hatches as soldiers and civilians fought with the ship’s crews, women lay on their knees in tears next to the bodies of those who had fallen. And from the hatch of his APC, Major Stumomoner shouted and screamed for calm as his driver abandoned the vehicle and ran for the nearest ship.

Stumomoner leapt from the hatch and gave chase. But as he ran under the shadow of one of the ships he found a child left behind on her knees. She was crying at the skies above. He instantly stopped and picked her up. And holding her in his arms he looked around at the panic that surrounded him. They had come from animals and they had returned to animals. It was all over, finished, done for. There was nothing else to do. So he just stood there with the child in his arms, waiting for the end.

-o-

With a surge of power, all the remaining ships on the landing field began to take off one by one. Each lumbered into the air with bodies clinging to their hulls and open hatches. And as the ships climbed into the air, those clinging to them lost their grip and fell. Some of those who fell were soldiers or civilians trying to board. Some were crewman left behind in the panic or knocked from the open hatches. All of them fell into the crowds left milling about below.

The Gate Of Heaven took off at a crazy angle, a multitude of people clinging to the open hatch and to the landing struts. One by one they all fell with a scream. And as the ship banked and turned, a torrent of figures spilled from the open cargo hatch. With the weight on the hatch relieved, the hydraulic motors were at last able to close it. And by the time the Gate Of Heaven passed over the remains of the perimeter fence and dropped into the valley beyond, the hatch was sealed.

-o-

Gusta already knew something was wrong before Heli reached the recreation area. It was a feeling that swept through the people like an unspoken message. They all knew, and they all became scared.

Gusta instantly began to worry about Tipi. She turned to Didi, but he already shared her fears. He squeezed her hand reassuringly.

“Don’t worry, my sweet. I’ll see that he is all right. You stay here.” And with that he hurried away.

Gusta watched him talk with Heli and Clyemne. And a moment later Lupili went to join them. And then the three of them left with Heli. Gusta felt alone and abandoned. But then she caught sight of Breda with Kiki on the far side of the room and saw the questioning look in her daughter’s eyes. Gusta smiled and gave the thumbs up sign. Breda nodded and smiled back.

It wouldn’t be right to scare her for nothing. Everything was going to be alright, of course it was. But why did she wish that El-Quan were here?

-o-

“We are in flight,” Vin-Di announced.

None of the Androktones needed to look out of the window to confirm her statement. They had all sensed the change.

Ann-Ra looked at El-Quan. “Be prepared to go among the aliens, El-Quan. Your presence may be requested.”

El-Quan nodded and sat up on the side of her bed. Zen-Po watched her.

“I do not envy your task, El-Quan. The ship will be filled with these detestable aliens. The air already reeks of them. To be among them in such numbers will be offensive.”

El-Quan didn’t show any signs of unease. “To be among the enemy is a requirement of the Purpose. It cannot be fulfilled otherwise.”

-o-

Heli had to fight against a relentless tide of huge and terrified Edenites as she made her way to the main cargo hold with Clyemne, Didi and Lupili. But while she was desperate to press on, they hung back and did their best to calm those they met. She knew it was the right thing to do, but she feared for Anaxilea and Kreousa, and she wanted to get to them as quickly as possible. Only Didi shared her anxiety. It must have been so obvious that Clyemne finally waved them both on.

“Go on! Lupili and I will deal with those we meet on the way! Go on!”

Heli nodded and she and Didi rushed on. And for a while they had to fight their way through the same constant stream of panicked Edenites running towards them. Heli would have made little headway if it were not for Didi clearing the way before her. He had to fend off a constant buffeting of heavy figures who collided and brushed passed him, each with a look of panic and fear on their faces. But gradually the numbers began to diminish until it stopped completely, and they finally reached the main cargo hold unopposed. Inside was a scene of devastation.

All the tables had been knocked aside or were broken. And the supplies of food and clothing now littered the floor among the wreckage. A battered Kreousa and her staff still worked among the Edenites. But it was the state of the Edenites themselves that brought the most sadness.

Those who still had loved ones to cling to did so in huddles on the floor or just where they stood. They cried or wailed while others screamed and beat on the closed hatch in desperation and tears for those left behind. Many wept for those who had fallen, torn from their grasp at the moment of safety. Of the rest, most just lay or sat on the floor in shock, oblivious to the kind hands that treated them.

One of those who sat on the floor was Tipi. He was sitting next to a Klysanthian who lay face down on the floor. He was stroking her hair. Didi hurried to his side and bent over him, hugging his son in his arms. Tipi looked up at Didi with tears in his eyes and what he said was inaudible. But then Didi looked back at Heli and shook his head sadly.

Nearby, Anaxilea was sat against the wall with a bloody nose. Alkaia was trying to stem the flow with a dressing and Anaxilea kept her head back while she did so. They both looked battered and dishevelled. On the other side of the hatch the Corporal sat on the floor with his head in his hands, Altus standing over him. He was a picture of dejection that summed up the whole scene.

As Heli looked at the Corporal, Eastomoner came to stand next to her.

“We can’t find Pedomoner,” he said sadly. “He must have fallen out with the others before the hatch closed.”

-o-

As despair overtook the people left behind at the landing field, a cylinder of grey mist began to form by the side of the Control Tower. At first no one noticed as it solidified and became clear. But then, as black clad figures poured forth with chrome silver rifles in their arms, the people did notice. First there were screams, and then shouts as men searched for hastily abandoned rifles. Then came the first shots. It was a brief show of resistance cut short by a fusillade of orange bolts that splattered the nearest row of people in the crowd. The blood and the flames killed their resolve instantly and the people fell to their knees as the new enemy surrounded them.

-o-

In the Control Tower, General Orbanta looked out of the windows as the surviving population of Eden were rounded up and forced to sit together in the middle of the landing field. Considering the large numbers that were left, the control over them exhibited by the Alliance troops was remarkable. And they were exactly as the Klysanthian Captain had described. They were brutal, but the killing had stopped as soon as the people had been subdued. In a way that surprised him. It promised better things. But then he remembered that they wanted something else. Would that be so horrible? Was that a future that could be tolerable and preferable to extinction? He was still staring at them through the window and contemplating those thoughts when he heard a movement behind him.

General Orbanta turned to find the slim figure of a woman facing him across the room. She was quite beautiful, in an alien sort of way. Her features were soft like her shape, and her hair was dark brown. She had the same black uniform as those outside. Now that she was close he could see that it was torn at the shoulder and stained darkly at her side. She seemed unconcerned by her injury and held her rifle unwaveringly. It was pointing directly at him. He stepped forward.

“I am General Orbanta, Commander In Chief of the Edenite army and Head of the Military Government. I am in command here. Who are you?”

She looked at him for a moment, almost as if she was confused.

“You are older,” she said finally.

He nodded. “Yes.”

Her expression hardened and her beauty vanished. “I am Tai-Po, a clone of the Tun-Sho-Lok. Feel my wrath.”

A bright orange flash lit up the inside of the Control Tower and the windows blew out.

-o-

It had been some time since Colonel Salther had heard from Major Stumomoner at the landing field. The departure of the last ships had been marked by sporadic gunfire as they roared overhead. The firing had continued briefly afterwards, but now the air was silent and still. So was the radio. It was slightly disconcerting.

Salther had formed his defence in a sequence of fallback positions. With the width of the road restricting any advance he could afford to spread out his heavy armour. But as he surveyed the distant entrance to the Emergency Command Centre with his field glasses he realised that it was going to be to no avail. From the roof of his APC he could see a lone figure advancing.

The enemy wanted to parley.

If this was a surprise, the form of his enemy was also a surprise, even though he was expecting it.

“They are women!” Salther whispered under his breath as he adjusted the focus on his field glasses. “Just like the General said! They’re just bloody women!”

That fact soon became apparent to all his men as the Androktone walked calmly up the middle of the road towards them. As she came closer, the hatches on the armoured vehicles clanged open and interested heads began to appear. Like Salther, all the men watched as the slim figure walked calmly towards them, the sight of her accompanied by a sweet scent on the air. She seemed totally unafraid by the force on the road that opposed her, and in contrast she carried no weapon. Finally she stood before the first mobile gun, dwarfed by its armour-plated body and heavy tracks.

“Who is in command here?” she said in Edenite. Her voice was calm and sweet.

Salther jumped down from his APC and walked forward slowly and deliberately. “I am. Who are you?”

“I am Lai-Fam, a clone of the Tun-Sho-Lok. Whether you feel my wrath or my friendship is a decision you must now make.”

Salther stood before her, his much larger bulk placing her in shadow. For some reason the day felt warmer now. “Why should we be scared of one woman?”

She looked up at him. “I am not a woman. I am an Androktone, a clone of the Tun-Sho-Lok.”

“Yes, so you said. Why should we care?”

“We have vanquished the Keruh. They are no more. The war is over and we are victorious. Could you stand against them?”

Salther eyed her closely, remembering the description passed on to him by General Orbanta. Was that why he felt warmer? He got to the point.

“What do you want?”

“Your surrender.”

There was some laughter among the men at that. It pleased Salther and he smiled.

“You might well have defeated the Keruh, but they didn’t live here. This is our world, and we won’t give up without a fight!”

There were shouts of approval at his words but Lai-Fam was unimpressed.

“Your willingness to fight is commendable, but unnecessary. We do not seek your extinction, but your co-operation. We are an army of females; you are an army of males. There is an obvious benefit in co-operation.”

Salther felt his temperature rise even more. Her affect on him was quite strange but also amazing. There was silence all around them now, and Salther was well aware that what he could feel, his men would be feeling too.

“Are you proposing some sort of fraternization?” he said in a stern voice.

“There is a difference in size but we are compatible. Liaisons would be fruitful.”

Her words produced murmurs and movement among the soldiers behind Salther. But he was having none of it. He raised his voice higher.

“I know what you want! You want to turn us into slaves! Breeding stock for your army! Well, it’s not going to happen! Not without a fight! There will be no liaisons, no fruitful results, nothing! Do you hear me!”

Lai-Fam held her arms out wide. “Then you must kill me. And then we will kill you. And after, when all are left dead and burning here, my sisters will take what they need from those at the landing field. The people there are not soldiers, they will not be as strong and as capable as you. But they will be scared and easily manipulated. And they will do.”

Salther stared at her. He almost wanted to reach for his gun and shoot her. But she didn’t seem to care. She was too confident. There had to be something more. Even the physical affect she was having on him wouldn’t be enough to break his resolve.

“You don’t honestly think we will just give in like that? What are you hiding?”

She dropped her arms to her sides. “While we speak here, my sisters have already opened a portal connection to the landing field. Those you seek to protect and give your lives for we already have in our control.”

There were shouts of dismay and Salther raised his voice above them.

“I don’t believe you! You’re bluffing!”

“The Control Tower is now abandoned. Would its destruction convince you?”

Salther didn’t answer, so Lai-Fam nodded and closed her eyes briefly. A moment later and there was a distant thump. Everyone turned and looked up the road. A ball of smoke rose above the hill that blocked their view of the landing field.

Salther turned back to her with anger in his eyes. “If you’ve killed anyone-”

Lai-Fam raised her hand. “The Keruh killed more of your population than we ever could. Your anger and bitterness have no place here. I told you we have not come to kill. If we had this meeting would not have been necessary. Your death here is also not necessary. Understand our respective positions, Commander. You were not our original enemy. But you signed a treaty with the Keruh and stood with them against the Alliance. Now you must pay the penalty. The war is over. The Keruh are defeated and eradicated. Unless you wish to share their fate, you must lay down your arms. Now.”

-o-

Li-Sen-Tot was still sitting on the large sofa in the reception room. He had listened to Mai-Ann’s report and now he nodded his head approvingly.

“Very good, Mai-Ann. You have excelled yourself with this strategy. You have minimised the losses on both sides and achieved your victory quickly and cleanly. Only a short time ago you would have proposed a full-scale assault. Now you have used what you have learned and you have achieved your target by intelligent use of threat and minimal force. I am proud of you.”

Mai-Ann basked in his approval. She bowed her head gracefully. “I am proud to serve, Councilman.”

Li-Sen-Tot bowed to her in return. “And you have served well.” He raised his head and moved on. “Are preparations under way for our transfer?”

“They are, Councilman. A suitable area in the Command Centre is being prepared for us. And a transport is on its way here as we speak.”

“Good. The portal must be disassembled and reassembled in the transport for the journey to the Command Centre. The same process must be repeated once we arrive. In both cases the disassembly and reassembly must be achieved in the shortest time possible. We cannot afford to be disconnected from the Ring Network for long, or too often. The change in the flux will be a sign to all, and there are those who would take advantage.”

Mai-Ann developed a disdainful expression. “Are they the next to be targeted?”

“All in good time, Mai-Ann. First we must consolidate our position and hold on this planet. The population must be subdued and our losses replaced before we begin the next assault.”

“Yes, Councilman. I shall proceed to the landing field to access the situation myself. Should we begin energy reclamation?”

“Only when you are in complete control. There is bound to be a backlash, even from a subdued population. Be patient; learn to plan ahead. You already know the benefits of this.”

She bowed again. “Yes, Councilman.”

“Good. Advise me when the transport arrives. And have Lai-Wa begin disassembly of the portal as soon as it touches down.”

“Yes, Councilman.”

Mai-Ann left the reception room and Li-Sen-Tot laid the Navak book down on the sofa by his side and pondered on events.

Things had gone well, very well. And much to his surprise he was still in control. But Mai-Ann was learning fast and developing all the time. Her latest strategy had been a revelation. He had never imagined she could or would use such an approach. He was used to the rather blunt and violent tendencies of the Androktones, he expected that, it was the way they had been engineered. So the development of such a subtle strategy had surprised him. He knew that the Androktones could assimilate and learn quickly from their experiences. Data acquisition was never going to be a problem. But he had underestimated their ability to adapt to completely new ways of thinking. He had also underestimated Mai-Ann. In a way it was a warning. He had to remember to be more cautious with her.

-o-

On board the Queen Of Angels, Peleus faced an angry Lysippe for a third time in five simulated drills. By then neither he nor she was caring of what they said or how they felt. Peleus had managed to evacuate everyone except the wounded in the Medical Centre. But at the entrance, Lysippe barred his way. And she wasn’t prepared to move.

“I will not move Telepyleia again!” she shouted at Peleus, standing between him and the door. “She is too weak! These repeated transfers are killing her!”

“She would die if she were left here and the hull fractures!” Peleus shouted back.

“It’s a drill!” she screamed at him, her delicate voice cracked and hoarse.

“I know it’s a drill! But you know this has to be done!” He tried to push passed her but she just stood her ground between him and the door. Peleus stared at her in mounting annoyance. “Are you defying your Captain?”

“Pantariste isn’t my Captain! Telepyleia is my Captain! And I will not move her!”

“Fine! Then she will have to stay here with you on her own! Because everyone else is leaving!”

With a sudden shove, Peleus knocked Lysippe against the door and they both burst through. But Lysippe still wasn’t giving up. As Peleus went by she kicked at his heels, tripping him up. Peleus hit the floor with a thump and Lysippe stood over him in triumph.

“You will not move anyone from here! Not the doctor, the patients, no one! I have moved them all beyond the triage area and locked the doors!”

“That’s what you think!” Peleus exclaimed, and then kicked out at her leg, knocking it from under her.

Lysippe screamed in pain as she fell, clutching at her leg. Peleus instantly felt remorse and went to her and was rewarded by a punch in the nose that knocked him on to his back.

“Ha!” Lysippe shouted as she sprang upon him. “You males are always the same! Poor weak fools governed by your gonads!”

Peleus reached up and grabbed her head and they both rolled over. There was a flurry of kicks and punches, but this time Lysippe avoided the grip that had previously rendered her unconscious. And she kept hitting him. Soon she was on top of him again.

“I learn fast, Atlantian!” she shouted in glee as another blow was delivered.

“Not fast enough!” Peleus shouted back and raised his knees in a sudden jerk. With expertise and the support, or lack of it, of the Klysanthian gravity, Peleus threw Lysippe above and over his head. She went head over heels through the door to a side room, crashing it open and landing heavily with a cry.

With no remorse this time, Peleus scrambled to his feet and dived into the room, landing on top of her just as she was beginning to sit up. The impact flattened her and winded her.

The fight was over and now Peleus stared down at the trapped Lysippe beneath him with anger and delight.

“Now I have you!” he exclaimed, pinning her arms down.

Lysippe just stared up at him, her long dark hair framing her head, her mouth half open, and a look in her eyes that no longer held any anger.

Peleus felt his own anger slip from his body as another more powerful emotion swept over him. And an instant later their mouths met and they were struggling once more, but this time both in unison.

CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE

CONFLICT

The Gate Of Heaven darted along narrow valleys, twisting this way and that as the rugged terrain dictated. On the bridge, Scyleia continued to shout her orders in her usual manic fashion, turning back and forth in her command chair almost in rhythm to the movements of the ship shown on the viewing screen before them.

“Alcinoe! Get me that Edenite Captain! We need to talk! And find Heli! I want to know what’s going on in the cargo hold!”

“Yes, Captain! Opening channels as I speak!”

“And Prothoe! Get us out of this rut! Now! I want clear skies! And head east! Fast!”

“Climbing now, Captain!”

The Gate Of Heaven shot up into the blue sky, the heat from her engines turning from red to orange. The ship banked to the left and continued to accelerate. At the helm Prothoe acknowledged the course changes in a calm voice.

“Heading east, Captain! Point eight of maximum!”

“Good! Alcinoe! Where is that Edenite?”

“On screen now, Captain!”

The blues skies vanished and the image of Limeno on the bridge of the Alentin appeared before them. He looked as manic as Scyleia.

“The Alliance forces have attacked the landing field!” he said instantly. “All ships have now taken off! The last order we received from Air Marshal Joventa was to head southwest towards the Bruntolom Continent!”

Scyleia banged her small fists on the armrests of her chair. “A destination that be more interesting and a passenger to unload there have I! Do this alone must I?”

Limeno was not to be drawn in. “We have our orders as you have yours, Captain! We have to wait until your passenger is safely delivered! Only then can we all escape!”

“Who be in command now? Be it this Air Marshal? Where be your General?”

“It doesn’t matter who you ask, the answer will be the same! You wanted in, well, you’re in!”

Scyleia pointed her finger at him. “Not so cocky will you be when reached open space we have! Remember the support you gave me I will in return for my offer to help! Your refugees and your fission weapon I carry! A computer disc only I have in return! Not a fair bargain this be! Dishonest you be!”

Limeno looked as if he might be on the verge of relenting, but Scyleia waved at Alcinoe and the image on the screen returned to blue skies and clouds.

“Where is Heli?” Scyleia instantly demanded.

“I have her now, Captain!”

“Put her on the speakers! Heli! What is the status down there?”

Alcinoe did as she asked and Heli’s disembodied and tired voice filled the bridge.

“It’s a bit of a mess, Scyleia. The Edenites wrecked everything in their panic to get on board. Kreousa and her staff took a heavy battering along with everything else in the main hold. We have one dead and three injured. Lea is okay but her nose has been rearranged. And one of the Edenite soldiers, Pedomoner, fell out with some of the civilians before the hatch was closed.”

Scyleia looked down at the floor as she flexed her fingers. “Are we full?”

“Yes,” Heli replied.

“Then we can have done little else. Find El-Quan and Ann-Ra. Bring them here. The Corporal too. We need a strategy to plan. And I don’t intend for it to be a suicidal one.”

-o-

On his second night aboard the Queen Of Angels, Peleus slept without thoughts of past loves, new loves, or who had slept in his bed. Instead he just slept. Peacefully. Contentedly. His awakening however, was not so peaceful.

The buzz from his door chime stirred Peleus early. And when he stumbled from his bed and released the door lock it was to find Pantariste waiting outside. She quickly brushed passed him and entered his cabin.

“Lock the door,” she said tersely.

Peleus did as she asked and then leaned his back against the door in obvious dismay.

Pantariste turned to face him. She reached up and her fingers gently touched his bruised face.

“I see that I have lost before even I have begun.”

He smiled sadly and ashamedly. “I’m sorry. It wasn’t planned. It just happened.”

Pantariste turned away and walked into the middle of the cabin. There she stared down at his ruffled and untidy bed. “These are excuses often used to hide a very deep yearning. Things do not happen unless there is a need for them to happen.”

Peleus went on the defensive. “You knew of the love we shared. Being together on this ship was bound to cause something to happen.”

“I had hoped that it would open the chasm between you. That you would see how so close Lysippe and Telepyleia were and that you would slowly relent.” She sighed. “Again I underestimated you, Atlantian. And again it is the very traits within you that I yearn for that defeat me.”

Peleus moved away from the door and stood behind her. “Why is it that you want me? Why am I so special? You speak of love, and yet you could command it from a dozen others far better than I-”

Pantariste turned and held her long fingers to his mouth, silencing him while she replied.

“A dozen others do not possess the genuine, open and honest love that you possess. There is an innocence about you, a need to give and receive love openly, completely, that it is impossible to ignore. It is this that drags Lysippe from Telepyleia. It is this that drags me to you.” She dropped her hand to her side. “It is this that I cannot fight. It is this that causes me to forgive you even now.”

She moved passed him once more, the scent of her so close tearing at Peleus’s heartstrings. But what could he do? How could he change what he felt? In desperation to say something, he could only say something that was hollow.

“I’m sorry, Pantariste.”

She paused at the door. “I too am sorry. Speak of this you must not. Engage in idle banter about this with me you will also no longer do. I may have lost you, but I will not lose my pride. Break these rules and I will have you thrust into an open airlock.”

With that she opened the door and left.

Peleus sank down onto his bed and suddenly felt awful. Awful, confused and angry. He had had nothing all his life, and now the two most exciting women he would ever see and know had come into his life together.

-o-

On the slowly rocking deck of a tri-marine ship, people gathered in celebration. At their centre were a couple who differed in size and stature but were the same in heart.

As the bright sun glinted and sparkled on the waves of the Mediterranean, Ares and Orithia were married in a simple ceremony that proclaimed their love and fidelity. It was a purely Atlantian ceremony presided over by the Captain of the ship, so there were no religious overtones, and it was left to Orithia to add the final blessing when it was all over.

As everyone clapped and there were brief cheers, Ares drew Orithia closer to him and embraced her. “Now we are one in Atlantian Law. You have me as you wished and as I pledged.”

Orithia smiled. “We are one also before God, and I ask Him to bless our union with longevity and abundant offspring. And from this day forth, none shall come between us.”

“None shall dare!”

They now kissed and the cheers grew louder.

-o-

The recreation area aboard the Gate Of Heaven was in turmoil as the survivors poured in. The entire room was soon filled with terrified and exhausted Edenites, all of them in need of comfort. With such confusion and great numbers, the Klysanthians could hardly get to a fraction of those who needed help, so it was left to the survivors to deal with their own problems.

Gusta, Breda, Kiki and all those who had been on board the Gate Of Heaven before it reached the landing field, were now so busy comforting their kinfolk that all thoughts of their own problems had left them. But with good reason. Many of those who had come aboard had brought with them agonising tales of loss and disaster that even the carnage on the road to Hilbrok couldn’t match.

Wails and screams filled the air as tearful men and women recited stories of loved ones torn from their grasp in the early hours as the Keruh raided the refugee camps. Many of those who were taken had only narrowly escaped death on the road to Hilbrok, and so to lose them now was doubly shocking. But others could even top that. From escape after escape from near death, their loved ones had fallen from the ship as the hatch closed at the very point of safety.

With so many people and so much heartache, there was no time to dwell on individual sadness and grief. And so many of those who came aboard soothed their own feelings by giving comfort to those with even more grief. In a way only those who had suffered so greatly could understand such loss, and at the time of their deepest agony the Edenites soothed and comforted their own.

Gusta never stopped crying. She felt so sad over what she heard, but her tears were through guilt. Again the survival of her family was thrust into her mind like an accusing knife. She should have been dead. They all should have been dead. Lupili had been right, no matter what the girl Kelandra had said. They had no right to be here.

-o-

Heli entered the bridge with the Corporal, El-Quan and Ann-Ra. While the two Androktones were calm and undisturbed, the Corporal looked angry. He strode heavily towards Scyleia and grasped the back of her command chair, shaking it as he shouted at her.

“Why did you take off like that? Why the rush?”

While everyone else was frozen in silence, Scyleia spun round and knelt on her chair, sticking her face into that of the Corporal and screaming over his voice.

“Not direct your anger at me will I allow you, Edenite! Over-run we would have been! Know it you do! There you were and saw it you did! Smashed and trapped on the landing field by sheer weight would we have been! How help us all would this? Not wish to escape do you?”

The Corporal shook the chair once more and turned away in disgust. He swore and kicked at the base of Alcinoe’s console causing a loud crunch as the metalwork dented and split. Alcinoe jumped in her chair but stayed put despite her alarmed expression.

The Corporal continued shouting in his anger. “I saw them fall! I saw them fighting to get on board! I even shot at them to try and stop them! Do you know how that feels? Do you understand what that means? Killing your own people! And for what? Two minutes? Three? One?”

Scyleia jumped off her chair and confronted him again, her voice as angry as his as she thumped him ineffectually on the chest.

My world is dead! A fact your people ignored with your treaty! So do not covert my sympathy over your loss! Now only one passenger aboard this ship be important! And not alive it be! On this one, the future of all others will rely! Now be you Corporal, involved in what must be done, or be you like the others, and abandon responsibility and care do you?” She pointed to the door. “Answer or leave, but waste more time on you I will not!”

“Pedomoner fell out!”

“And trampled to death be one of my crew!”

The Corporal stared at her, breathing deeply in his anger. But there was nothing more he could say. He suddenly sat down on the floor, his head in his hands. It was the same position he had been in when Heli had found him.

With calm re-established on the bridge, Scyleia relented and placed her hand on the Corporal’s head, stroking his hair gently. She spoke softly.

“Sorry I am for you, despite my words. But Captain I be and harsh decisions I must make. No time be there for sadness, not yet. Now think hard, Corporal. For a plan we need for our task, and no help from others will we receive.”

It was then that Ann-Ra spoke up, her voice calm and clear.

“That will not be necessary. I already have a strategy that if successful, will allow our escape without conflict.”

-o-

Mai-Ann walked across the landing field at Hilbrok with Lai-Fam and Tai-Po. She walked calmly and assuredly, her eyes fixed with distaste on those she approached.

In the centre of the landing field the surviving Edenites were gathered together in a subdued huddle. There were several thousand of them surrounded by an equally large number of Androktones who held their rifles casually, but menacingly. Soldiers and civilians were all together now, all sitting on the ground. Mai-Ann could smell their corrupt nature. It tainted the air.

“Have there been any problems?” she asked as they drew closer.

“No, Mai-Ann,” Lai-Fam replied. “Once the aliens had accepted defeat and abandoned their vehicles on the road they returned peacefully. The surviving officers even took charge of those at the landing field and coerced them to obey our commands. Your strategy was commendable.”

Mai-Ann ignored her praise. “They are that weak?” she asked in disdain.

Lai-Fam bowed her head. “They are that defeated.”

“The officers you speak of, are they worthy of service?”

“They are.”

Tai-Po then added, “Many of those who were older were eliminated during the initial attack.”

Mai-Ann was less than pleased at that news. “That is unfortunate. These officers will have information we must extract. Now it must be done without their loss.”

As the ring of Androktones parted to allow Mai-Ann and her companions to pass through, the two officers they had spoken about got to their feet. Neither Colonel Salther nor Major Stumomoner looked peaceful or defeated. Salther spoke first.

“Are you in command here?”

Mai-Ann stared back at him with arrogant unconcern. She didn’t reply so Salther continued in the same angry tones.

“You can’t leave all these people stuck out here in the open! They need food and shelter! They need medical attention! This wasn’t what your friend here promised! Are you listening to me?”

Mai-Ann finally spoke. “Lai-Fam will make the arrangements you seek. In the meantime go with Tai-Po to the Control Tower. I will speak with you there shortly.”

Salther glanced at the burnt out wreck. Only the lower part of the building remained intact. But it was the only building of size on the landing field. There were no hangers or repair sheds.

His hesitation caused Mai-Ann to smile coldly. “Are you scared, Edenite?”

Salther’s eyes narrowed. “Not of a woman!” He quickly turned to Stumomoner. “You’re in command until I return, Major! Make sure these people get what they need!”

Stumomoner saluted. “Yes, Colonel!”

Salther stepped forward and Tai-Po bowed her head to him and then turned. They both walked towards the Control Tower.

Mai-Ann ignored those who had left as if they no longer existed. Instead she stared at Stumomoner. He was obviously younger than Salther and she considered his strength and vitality. Yes, he would be a worthy consort.

While she considered him, Stumomoner considered her. Despite the alien and softer and more subtle shape, the cold stare from her black eyes held an almost physical threat that counteracted any attraction. It was almost as if he could feel her hate. He instantly distrusted her. So it was a surprise when she smiled, because this time it was full of warmth. Her whole expression changed, even her voice sounded smoother.

“Where is the nearest suitable shelter? One that would be acceptable to your needs?”

The question was as surprising as her smile. “It would have to be back at Hilbrok.”

“Then that is where you must all go. Air transports are already on the way. It would be helpful if you could prepare your people for the journey.”

Stumomoner nodded hesitantly, confused by her easy manner. “Yes, I can do that.”

“Good. Lai-Fam will return shortly to assist you. Now I must speak with your commanding officer.”

She bowed and turned away. Stumomoner watched her with unease for a few seconds. Maybe she wasn’t so bad after all. Finally he turned and clapped his hands.

“Alright you people!” he shouted. “Transports are on the way! We’re heading back to Hilbrok! Now I know we just left there! But it will be a lot better than sitting out here when it gets dark! Now on your feet!”

As the crowd began to murmur and stir into movement behind her, Mai-Ann allowed her softer expression to fade.

“They stink of impurity!” she said to Lai-Fam as they walked towards the Control Tower. “How you can stay here and remain passive amazes me!”

“It is necessary, Mai-Ann. Their males are compatible despite their bulk. We must make use of them.”

Mai-Ann drew in her breath through her nose. “Yes. The Purpose cannot be fulfilled if our population is allowed to diminish. See that the old and infirm are separated during the journey to Hill-Brok. Place them on separate transports if possible. Have these transports diverted. Separate also the females and young from the males, but ensure that a viable breeding group remains.”

“There maybe resistance. They will be suspicious of such actions.”

“Let them be suspicious. They are powerless to act against us.”

“What should we do with those who are separated?”

“Begin energy reclamation.”

Lai-Fam looked at her in surprise. “Did the Councilman not command that we should wait?”

Mai-Ann came to a halt and fixed Lai-Fam with a cold stare. Lai-Fam immediately stopped walking and looked down at the ground. With her authority established, Mai-Ann raised her head in a haughty manner.

“Bring three females to the Control Tower and summon several of your sisters to subdue the Edenite Commander then proceed as instructed.”

“Yes, Mai-Ann.” Lai-Fam bowed her head lower and then hurried away.

Mai-Ann turned and gazed at the wretched and corrupt. Now they would truly feel her wrath.

-o-

The air transport had two large wings, one at the front and one at the back giving the aircraft an ‘H’ formation. The engines were mounted under each wing and there were large vertical stabilisers at the end. The body of the transport was a large cigar shape with a cockpit blister near the front at the top. The din as it made its vertical descent was tremendous. Hatches opened and more wheels than could be found in a traffic queue appeared. They crushed the flowerbeds and decorative lawns in the Embassy grounds as the transport eased its bulk on to the ground.

When the transport had landed and the noise of the engines had finally subsided, the nose of the aircraft split apart into two large doors. When they were fully opened a ramp extended and several Androktones carrying their rifles ran down and a large silver form followed them.

The arrival of the air transport outside the Tun-Sho-Lok Embassy heralded a frantic half hour during which Li-Sen-Tot’s private portal was disassembled and carried aboard. Lai-Wa and Jai-Chen carried out the disassembly while the rest of the Androktones carried away the parts. Li-Sen-Tot’s personal belongings were also taken aboard the transport. The whole process was carried out quickly and efficiently.

Lai-Wa had become extremely familiar with the portal controls and mechanism by now. She instructed Jai-Chen in the disassembly with hardly any guidance from Li-Sen-Tot. Now and then he would pass a comment or give her a hint, but generally he left her in charge.

It was pleasing how these Androktones absorbed knowledge so readily. But Li-Sen-Tot knew that there was also danger in this ability. The Androktones learned skills and understanding equally. Mai-Ann had revealed this the most. The speed of her improvement in dealing with the Edenites was as amazing as Lai-Wa’s skill with the delicate and complex components she took apart and handled so easily. But while Lai-Wa’s dexterity and improvement could be physically seen, the workings in Mai-Ann’s mind were hidden.

He would have to watch her more closely.

With the portal and his belongings removed from the Embassy, Li-Sen-Tot took a last walk around the empty and abandoned rooms. There had been many happy times here. He remembered discussions with politicians and businessmen, the cut and thrust of the conversation and the semantic control necessary had always excited him. He remembered also Prili Alther and his fondness for Lece Cakes. How sad the memories now were.

With the Navak book clutched under his arm, Li-Sen-Tot turned and walked out of the Embassy building. Jai-Chen was waiting for him by the entrance. She bowed her head as he walked by and then followed him to the transport.

The transport took off in equally noisy fashion as it had landed, the down draft from its engines destroying what was left of the gardens. It turned elegantly as it ascended and headed north, its multitude of wheels slowly being drawn within.

Li-Sen-Tot looked out of the cockpit window as he sat by the Androktone who flew the transport. He had left Lai-Wa to reassemble the portal with Jai-Chen. It had already begun taking shape as he left the vast hold and climbed the spiral staircase to the cockpit. Now as he stared out of the window he could see the whole of the city pass beneath him, block upon block of ruined buildings now cold and stark in the afternoon sun. Everything was the same, all blackened and dead.

He found the whole experience exhilarating. It had been many years since he had undertaken a journey by physical transport. It was so different to travelling across a portal. It felt like a real journey, like he was really going somewhere. It seemed apt that he should leave his home in Jutlam City by this means. It made it feel more real, more final.

-o-

Colonel Salther had waited patiently with Tai-Po until Mai-Ann arrived. He was standing in the same office where he and General Orbanta had discussed their evacuation plans. The ceiling had fallen in and the office was filled with debris. The chairs were overturned and the door had come off its hinges. Even the desk had collapsed under the impact of a fallen roof member. The surface of the desk was covered in burned debris that was the only sign of the maps that had once been laid out upon it.

As soon as Mai-Ann walked into the office, Salther got to the point.

“We may be your prisoners, but you have a duty to treat us fairly.”

Mai-Ann stared back at him coldly. “I have made arrangements for your people to be transported back to the city of Hill-Brok. Your officer will be given support in finding suitable facilities to house your population there. Water, power, heat and food will be found and provided. In return you will co-operate.”

Salther folded his arms stubbornly. “And what exactly does that mean?”

Mai-Ann moved to the side of the desk, her long fingers sifting through the ash. “What is the destination of the departed vessels?”

Salther smiled. “Haven’t you got enough prisoners?”

Mai-Ann shook the ash from her fingers. “The Defence Net remains closed. There is no escape. It would be safer for your people to remain altogether at Hill-Brok. To be crammed in isolated ships, scattered across the world, puts them at risk.”

“Better that risk than be prisoners here.”

She nodded. “As you wish.”

Several Androktones now entered the building with Lai-Fam. They brought three Edenite women with them, one of whom was in uniform. They all looked scared and dishevelled. Salther made a move towards them, but Mai-Ann’s barked command stopped him.

“Seize him!”

The Androktones pounced, and despite Salther’s obvious strength, they pinned his arms behind his back and forced him to his knees. It took four of them to do it, Tai-Po among them, and one of them had her arm around his throat. The three women were similarly treated, forced on to their knees in a line before Salther as they cried and wept. Lai-Fam stood over them waiting, and when all the Edenites were finally subdued, Mai-Ann walked calmly between them.

“Stop wailing!” she snapped at the women. “Your fear disgusts me!”

They slowly became quiet until only sniffles could be heard.

Salther strained against the arm around his throat. “They’re…women…civilians! Leave them…alone!”

Mai-Ann paused before the woman in uniform. “This female is not a civilian!” she said with distaste. “She wears your uniform! She is a combatant!”

“Our women…don’t fight…”

Mai-Ann gestured to the Androktone with her arm around Salther’s throat and she relaxed her grip. Salther gasped and breathed more easily.

“Release these women at once!” he said more strongly and angrily. “You have no right to do this!”

Mai-Ann turned her back on the women and leaned over Salther. “What is the destination of the departed vessels?”

Salther stared up at her and snarled his reply. “We should have fought you on the road!”

“Then another would be here in your place!” Mai-Ann snapped back. “What is the destination of the departed vessels?”

“I won’t tell you! And no one else knows, so you’re stuck!”

“Then I must change your mind!”

“Never!”

Mai-Ann straightened up to her full height. Her voice became calmer. “We shall see.” She turned back to face the three women. “I believe you are a good man, Commander,” she said to him as he knelt on the floor behind her. “But as with all good men, this is a weakness.”

Salther stared up at her back. “If you hurt any of these women, I’ll kill you!”

In reply Mai-Ann tilted her head to one side, reached up, and drew her sword from her back. Salther watched in fascination as she just gripped the back of her neck and pulled the sword free. It came out like a glistening silver worm pulled from its hole. It seemed flexible, but was suddenly rigid. But then it was soft and flowing once more. And as Mai-Ann walked around the kneeling women, rearranging her black hair with her free hand, the sword changed shape.

Slowly and deliberately, the silver sword flowed and grew wider. At the front a bulge appeared that quickly took shape and became an eight-fingered claw. Behind the claw the sword continued to widen until it became a long octagonal cylinder. And along the length of each flat a slot opened. Near the claw, little pipes with fins on them grew out of each slot. And at the other end, where Mai-Ann gripped what had been the hilt of the sword, the chrome silver material flowed completely over her hand and partially up her arm. The final change was at the front where a long narrow probe protruded through the centre of the open claw as if out of the palm of a hand.

The women had watched the sword change shape as Mai-Ann walked around and then behind them, their heads craning and turning. Now, with the change complete, the fingers of the claw suddenly flexed repeatedly, as if anxious to grip something, and all three women screamed.

Salther strained against his captors, almost getting to his feet before they pulled him back.

No!”

Without hesitation, Mai-Ann stepped forward and stabbed the woman in uniform in the back with the probe. Instantly, the fingers of the claw gripped her body, digging into her flesh tightly, as if hanging on.

All the women screamed louder, but the woman in uniform screamed louder than them all. She howled and howled, struggling against the Androktones who held her, her face contorted in pain and terror. And as she screamed and struggled, the long octagonal instrument that Mai-Ann held against her back began to emit steam. It hissed in white jets from the little pipes with the fins on them that stuck out from each slot. The force of the steam grew stronger and the pipes rotated and began to move along slots towards Mai-Ann’s hand. And as the pipes moved up the slots, the pressure of the steam increased even more, and the woman began to writhe and flail about more violently, screaming at the top of her voice. But worse was to come.

Salther stared in horror as the woman began to shrink. She continued to scream as she visibly became smaller, her eyes squeezed tightly shut. It was as if she was being sucked up, drawn in by the instrument embedded in her back. Soon the Androktones who held her were able to let go and step back, and only Mai-Ann held the woman in thrall. The two women on either side of her had now stopped screaming. Instead they stared in complete horror as something impossible took place before their eyes. And as they stared, the woman between them shrank even more.

Her face became distorted, and her hands disappeared up her sleeves. Her whole body became deformed and squashed. It was as if it caved in on itself, sinking slowly to the floor until her skirt hid her legs. The woman’s head disappeared below the collar of her uniform and her screams suddenly ceased with a final, choked, gurgle.

Now only the high-pitched whistle of the venting steam filled the air. Everyone else was silent, stunned. The whistle went on and on, growing higher in pitch. Soon the small office began to fill with steam and the walls began to glisten wetly. And then the woman’s uniform began to fall to the floor, piece by piece. First a boot rolled clear, then her skirt flapped to the floor, and finally her jacket and blouse crumpled in the grip of the eight-fingered claw.

The pipes finally reached the end of their slots, the steam faded away, and there was a sudden pop, followed by a heavy thud as the claw finally released what was left of its victim.

Sather and the two surviving Edenite women stared down at the grotesque, shrunken husk that lay steaming and wet among the discarded articles of military clothing on the floor. It was barely the size of a baby. Slowly, the three of them turned to stare at Mai-Ann.

Mai-Ann raised her head and drew in a deep breath. She stretched her arms wide, waving the bright silver instrument with its claw at the roof as she stretched. And when she breathed out with a heavy sigh, her breath was visible. It was white, like steam. Finally she lowered her arms and turned to face Salther.

“I have made arrangements for your people to be transported back to the city of Hill-Brok,” she repeated in a calm and rich voice. “Your officer will be given support in finding suitable facilities to house your population there. Water, power, heat and food will be found and provided. In return you will co-operate.” She moved to stand behind another of the women, the instrument held poised above her head. “What is the destination of the departed vessels?”

The woman turned to stare in horror at Colonel Salther, her eyes wide.

-o-

The Gate Of Heaven flew east across low hills that were still green and dotted with trees. Occasionally they passed over a crater where the wreck of a jet lay burned and smashed. Further south lay the highway from Jutlam City to Nemen. Here there would be more devastating carnage.

On the bridge, Ann-Ra had been joined by Vin-Di and Zen-Po. Zen-Po stood on one side of the command chair while Ann-Ra stood on the other side. Scyleia sat between them with her legs crossed. She looked calm and comfortable but she felt neither of these. Behind them Vin-Di kept out of sight with Anaxilea, El-Quan and the Corporal. Anaxilea’s nose had been reset, but it was still rather bruised and red. Heli, Alcinoe, and Prothoe all sat at their consoles. On the viewing screen before them all was an image of the now severely damaged Control Centre at Nemen. All the windows were broken, there were signs of fire, and red and black blood was smeared over the walls, floors and control consoles. Standing in the middle of the screen was Hai-Zen. She looked disgustingly messy. But underneath the muck and blood, her eyes shone coldly.

“Why choose this method of communication rather than a portal connection?” she snapped in a haughty and irritated manner. She spoke in Tun-Sho-Lok.

Ann-Ra answered her in the same language and with similar haughty tones but without the irritation. “It was considered appropriate in order to limit the affect of the paradox caused by Embassy status.”

Hai-Zen hesitated a moment, glancing at Zen-Po before answering. And when she spoke the irritation in her voice had been replaced by derision. “This reason is valid, as I have experienced the repulsive nature of such contact. But what is the purpose of this communication, Ann-Ra?”

“We are attempting to comply with the Councilman’s instructions that those with Embassy status aboard this vessel be taken to safety by the Klysanthians. In order to complete this task the Defence Net must be opened.”

Hai-Zen paused for even longer before replying. Again she glanced at Zen-Po, and this time her voice had a cooler edge to it. “Our instructions from the Councilman are specific. We are to keep the Defence Net closed.”

“Then how are we to complete our task?” Ann-Ra asked her.

Hai-Zen now deliberated for some time.

Scyleia sat between Ann-Ra and Zen-Po biting her lip. She was dying to take part in this debate, and every silent moment that went by was like a call to her vocal cords to burst into life. She had to say something, anything, just to fill the empty gap. Her anxiety must have been plain to detect, as Zen-Po placed her hand delicately on her shoulder. Scyleia glanced up at her. Zen-Po was still looking calmly at the viewing screen. Scyleia did the same, biting her lip once more.

Hai-Zen spoke at last.

“There is a conflict between our instructions. I will seek advice from the Councilman. This may take some time as he is in transit between the Embassy and the Edenite Command Centre. I will re-open communication with you shortly.”

The viewing screen abruptly changed to a view of the sky and fields below. Instantly the bridge exploded into life. Heli spun round in her chair, Anaxilea and the Corporal both ran forward, and Scyleia almost jumped up and down in her command chair.

“She knows!” Scyleia shouted in desperation and in Klysanthian. “She wasn’t fooled for a second!”

“We don’t know that for sure!” Heli told her.

Anaxilea agreed with Scyleia. “Of course she knew! You could see it in her eyes!”

The Corporal hadn’t understood a word and still didn’t. “What the hell’s going on? What did she say?”

Anaxilea snapped her translation at him. “On to us, she be! The word of the Ambassador she seeks! Condemn us he will! For knows others follow us he must!”

The Corporal’s expression grew angry. “Then we’ll have to blow it up!” he said sternly.

Scyleia shouted down his idea. “Shoot us from the sky the maser batteries will! Not accept this method will I!”

“Then what else can we do?”

Like all the Androktones on the bridge, Ann-Ra had remained unflustered during the debate. Now she spoke.

“We wait,” she said calmly in Edenite. “There is no reason for our dismay until the words are spoken. We wait. Return to your positions.”

They did as she asked, reluctantly and in resignation, the answers already known and accepted by most of them.

Scyleia turned to Alcinoe. “Is the Ambassador’s portal still off-line?”

“Yes, Scyleia. About twenty minutes now.”

“If the Ambassador is on his way to the Edenite Command Centre he will no doubt have taken the portal with him. Knowing him he will have it reassembled for the journey. We will have to be careful. If there’s a hint of a connection opening, let me know.”

Alcinoe nodded. “Yes, Captain.”

Scyleia next turned to Prothoe. “Keep changing our course, speed and height. And do it randomly. I don’t want to make it easy for him, Prothoe.”

“Changing course and height now, Captain,” Prothoe replied.

The exchange caused fears to surface in Anaxilea’s mind and she turned to Vin-Di next to her. “How easy is it to open a portal on a moving target like a ship in flight?”

“The random course changes will cause problems even for a skilled portal operator,” Vin-Di answered calmly. “But due to the Alliance the Councilman will have had access to your ship’s transponder signature. This will allow an accurate connection despite our moving state.”

Anaxilea looked at Scyleia in alarm. “Scyleia! The ship’s transponder! We have to disconnect it!”

Scyleia didn’t reply. Instead she just pointed at Alcinoe. Anaxilea turned to Alcinoe in time to see her bend down and retrieve something from the floor under her damaged console. It was a silver and black box with several wires trailing from it at each end.

-o-

In a lower level of the Edenite Command Centre, Mai-Ann stared at Lai-Wa across the portal connection. “You are sure?”

Lai-Wa kept her eyes on the portal controls as she replied. “The course changes are irregular and there is no transponder signal.”

Mai-Ann walked the short distance across the portal and stood next to Li-Sen-Tot in the cargo hold of the air transport.

“They seek to avoid a portal connection, Councilman. And their request to open the Defence Net is an admission of their flawed state.”

Li-Sen-Tot looked up at her. “It is clear that Scyleia deliberately hid the presence of the Androktones aboard her ship to permit this second attempt to gain her escape. But you must not be harsh on Ann-Ra and Zen-Po, Mai-Ann. They seek to complete their instructions as Hai-Zen has explained. If they are flawed, it is through my error.”

Mai-Ann looked down on him in a haughty manner. “The paradox of Embassy status has caused this error. They should not be aboard the Klysanthian vessel.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “I had hoped to save the lives of the Embassy staff who had remained loyal to us. It is clear that this was a mistake. Even if no Androktones were involved, this decision would still have had to be made at some point. But if I agree to their request it will allow all the ships that wait to pass through the Defence Net with them.”

“That will limit the number of breeding males available to us.”

She was opposing him, questioning his instructions. Did she know at last?

“Does that matter? Their numbers are insignificant.”

Even as he asked the question, he knew it was the wrong thing to say. He had added the following statement in an attempt to limit the damage. But would it be enough?

Mai-Ann became distinctly colder and her voice developed a harder edge. “The question and the increased stress in your biorhythms causes me to doubt your true intent, Councilman. And not for the first time.”

He looked up at her and tried to remain calm. There was no reason to be scared, no reason to be surprised. He had passed this test before, and he would do so again. And even if he failed, did it really matter any more?

“What has caused this doubt?”

“The allocation of Embassy status is an error that has led to damage in a number of Androktones exposed to this paradox. Your fears for El-Quan were well founded, but underestimated the power of the paradox. Continuing with this path has only exposed more Androktones to this error and increased the problem.”

“I have admitted this error. To alleviate the problem it is now clear that another should make the decision that must be made. You decide their fate, Mai-Ann. But it will not be easy.”

The fourth moment of danger was now passed. It had to be. What more could she question?

Mai-Ann hesitated for merely a few seconds. “Your capitulation does not remove my doubts, Councilman. And it has not lowered your temperature or heart-rate.”

“Then your doubts have nothing to do with the paradox of Embassy status?”

“Not entirely. It would be easy to assume that this was merely a trait of your morality, that it was an error in judgement, no more. But your instruction to destroy the Atlantians, and now your willingness to allow the Edenites to escape, are both actions designed to limit our breeding capabilities.”

Maybe the danger wasn’t yet passed. She was too close. A diversion was necessary.

“You refer again to the Atlantians. If you felt that the instruction was in error while you stood in Metropolis then why detonate the device? Why wait until you returned to question my motives? Your actions compounded the error.”

Mai-Ann dismissed his accusation out of hand.

“The Atlantians were no longer present. The detonation of the nuclear device had no bearing on their future existence. My actions were irrelevant. But your actions show a deliberate intent. You did not know they were no longer present.”

Could it be now? Surely not yet?

“You questioned my decision to destroy them and I have already answered it.”

“And I accepted your answer. In isolation this was a valid reason for your actions. But combined with Embassy status, the attempted sacrifice of the drone shells averted by Soo-Fam, and your attempts to permit the Edenites to escape, these actions suggest a deliberate intent.”

There they all were, each step identified and catalogued. She had remembered them all, even after he had thought he had eliminated them. But did she understand them?

“And what intent could this be, Mai-Ann?”

“Those that match have command status, they can undermine occupation forces and avert conquest and enslavement. The doubt you cast on El-Quan’s integrity was no more than an ongoing attempt to distract attention from the true dangers of the paradox caused by Embassy status. The loss of the drone shells could have led to even greater losses in the battle with the combined Keruh Host in the east. The escape of the Edenites would have reduced the number of males available for procreation. And the elimination of the Atlantians would have removed an additional near perfect group of breeding males accessible to us via the portal. All these actions are not merely an error in judgement, but they are evidence of an error in your integrity. Each step has been planned well in advance, the creation of those with Embassy status particularly so, and each step has the same eventual goal in mind. They are all aimed at limiting our procreation and reducing our population beyond viability. You seek to cause our premature extinction. This is in direct opposition to the Purpose. Therefore you are flawed.”

She had known and understood them all. It was somehow gratifying. But there was one final test she had to pass. He spoke casually, a smile on his face.

“Everything you say is true but equally irrelevant, Mai-Ann. The ability of the Keruh to limit access to their home world by the use of a genetic descriptor in the Ring Network protocols justifies my actions. Embassy status, the elimination of the Atlantians and the loss of the drone shells were all necessary for the success of the war. And that success required our failure here. If the drones had survived in large numbers the Host would have been annihilated on the highway. The Keruh had to escape, there had to be a withdrawal, or Yan-Jai would still dwell beneath the portal building in Jutlam City. You know this.”

Li-Sen-Tot kept his smile as he watched the turmoil cross Mai-Ann’s face. Could she do it? Could Kel-Cid-An be wrong? The geneticist had been so sure that the Androktones could not break the instincts programmed into them. But now was the true test. Could she do it?

Mai-Ann’s expression lost its confusion and hardened once more. “Your arguments bear an element of truth, Councilman. The strategy was unusual but effective. But despite this I- ” she paused, “ -no longer trust you.”

Mai-Ann drew the sword from her back with her final words. Li-Sen-Tot could have fled through the portal, he could have commanded others to support and protect him, but he didn’t have the heart for it. Instead he felt satisfied and relieved. It was over at last. It had taken longer than he had anticipated. Maybe it had taken too long. But he had his answer. Kel-Cid-An was wrong. There was hope for the Androktones yet.

For the second time in her life, Mai-Ann broke a primary directive. There was a swish as she struck a slicing blow with her curved blade, and the Navak book fell from Li-Sen-Tot’s lifeless fingers.

-o-

The passing few minutes seemed like hours, and the wait drove Scyleia to the point of distraction. Finally the viewing screen returned to the image of the Control Centre. As before Hai-Zen waited on her own.

“I have spoken with the Councilman,” she said quickly and harshly. “Embassy status has been revoked. You are to eliminate the Klysanthians on board and once you reach here you are to land the vessel on the landing field close to this Control Centre.”

Her words caused Anaxilea to step forward, and Scyleia sprang from her chair.

“Where is the Ambassador?” she shouted in Klysanthian. “If I am to die I will speak with him first!”

Hai-Zen developed a smug attitude. She answered in the same language. “Then maintain a stable course and allow a portal connection and your request shall be granted.”

Ann-Ra stepped forward and stood beside Scyleia, gently holding her arm. She spoke to Hai-Zen more calmly, attempting to restore the argument to a debate.

“Hai-Zen. The instructions you have given to us cannot be complied with. There are those on board who have matched. Their instructions share the same weight of command as those of the Councilman. It is they who have granted Embassy status to these others, not the Councilman. He would know this, so his instructions to revoke this status is confusing, therefore we must speak with him.”

“Then allow us to open a portal aboard your ship!” Hai-Zen demanded.

“To do so would only bring you under the influence of those who have matched. The paradox will grow. Allow us to speak with the Councilman, or open the Defence Net as I have requested.”

Hai-Zen developed an arrogant and angry nature. “I will do neither! You are flawed! Your requests are in error! You will not be allowed to escape!”

Ann-Ra turned to Zen-Po. Zen-Po stepped forward. “Am I flawed, Hai-Zen?”

Hai-Zen stared at her but didn’t answer. She seemed agitated by the question.

Zen-Po almost smiled at her. “You know me, Hai-Zen,” she said softly. “You are my seed. My integrity is your integrity. If I am flawed, you are flawed. You know the logic of my words.”

“You may have become flawed after my birth!” Hai-Zen said with agitation and growing desperation. “The paradox may have damaged you!”

“Then it will only be a temporary aberration. Open the Defence Net and allow our escape. This will remove permanently the risk of the paradox. It will allow us to disembark and return to the Purpose. The aberration of the paradox will soon be forgotten. Obey me, Hai-Zen. It is a just and logical request. Allowing this one vessel to escape does not conflict with the aims of the Purpose.”

Hai-Zen almost trembled in confusion. She looked to her left at something out of view, and then back towards them again. And when she spoke it was hurriedly.

“I stem from you! Your requests are flawed! And yet they are also valid! They confuse me! Everything suddenly confuses me! The Councilman gave no instruction for the status of the aliens to be revoked! He is dead! Those who match are a danger! They should be removed! I will open the Defence Net!”

She turned and rushed to the console behind her. But another Androktone ran into view from the side. She carried a large curved blade that she struck across Hai-Zen’s back. Hai-Zen died in a splash of red, her mutilated body sliding off the console and onto the floor.

Mai-Ann lowered her blade and turned towards them. She walked forward until her face almost filled the screen. And her black eyes shone with the ferocity of her anger.

“Your attempt at coercion has failed, Zen-Po! I will wait for you here at the Control Centre! If you approach, you will be shot down! This communication is at an end!”

The screen suddenly returned to the image of sky and hills. Zen-Po lowered her head and Scyleia collapsed into her chair and stared up at her.

Anaxilea shouted at Prothoe. “Keep us twisting and turning! If they want to try to establish a portal they will do it now!”

Prothoe concentrated on her helm controls. She instigated another sharp turn. She picked the directions and altitude as the fancy took her, deliberately avoiding any repetitious pattern.

Alcinoe looked up from her console and called out, “There are no flux emissions! Maybe they’ve given up?”

Heli shouted back at her, “Androktones do not give up! If the Ambassador is dead, they will have killed him! That means we’re next! Keep looking!”

With Hai-Zen killed before his eyes, the Corporal had seen and heard enough. “So that’s it! We have to attack the Control Centre! We have no choice!”

Scyleia broke from her stunned surprise and tore her eyes away from the crestfallen Zen-Po. She spun round in her chair to face the Corporal.

“Not risk the Heaven I will for this task!” she shouted to him in Edenite, beating her small fists on the arm of the chair. “The maser batteries now with Androktones will be manned! Face them now and alone I will not!”

The Corporal came forward to lean on the back of her chair and bent his large frame over her. “Scared, are you Captain?”

Scyleia looked up into his face and spoke softly but with anger. “With six of our ships the landing fields we did attack. Three and three was the split. Only this ship now does survive. The King Of Kings at Kalahar and the Bread Of Angels at Nemen both did fall, not one length of the field did they complete. Alone we be now, one single ship this task now to repeat. On the concrete leave us burning for the others to escape would you? This be your intent?”

The Corporal was uncompromising. “If necessary!”

“Then tell them first you must, all who you have rescued, that sacrifice them and us you now will in this effort!”

Her final retort left the Corporal silent, and Scyleia smiled. “Easy it be to be heroic with own life, but not with those who wait defenceless, those with eyes that question! That be the reason why I be Captain and you be Corporal!”

The Corporal was losing his enthusiasm for the task, but tried one last time none-the-less. “They wouldn’t have to know.”

“But you and I know, and their faces already you can see.”

The Corporal straightened up and Scyleia turned away from him dismissively. She sat back in her chair and curled her long fingers around the armrests and addressed them all.

“Alternative answer we must find. Think you all must.”

Alcinoe said, “Can’t we use the portal?”

Heli dismissed that idea. “They’ll intercept it and use the connection to board us.”

Ann-Ra stepped before Scyleia. “There is no alternative to an attack,” she said in Edenite. “The Corp-Edenite is correct, only his strategy requires alternative thinking.”

Scyleia looked up at her. “What mean do you?”

“There is a tunnel that leads directly to the building we seek. It was the place from which I extracted those with Embassy status.”

Anaxilea seized on her thoughts. “Of course! Right she be! Tunnel exists it does! Seen it I have! What we must do simple it be! Land we must do far enough away not to be picked up on any screens! Then inside the tunnel we must go, and hoping nothing nasty we should meet therein, head for the Control Centre we must! Take the fission weapon with us we will! Leave it nearby we will! Switch off the Defence Net and program it we must not to be reactivated until we have left! And then return we will along the tunnel! And set the weapon to detonate after we leave we must!”

The Corporal smiled at her. “Piece of cake!”

She turned to him “The vehicles you possess with carpet on roof, one be in the tunnel we seek! Have a transponder do they?”

The Corporal was puzzled for a moment and then he shook his head. “Nah! Not in a truck! But it should be easy to find once we are inside the tunnel!”

Anaxilea almost stamped her foot in irritation. “Not be the problem, this! Ann-Ra inside the tunnel has been! I inside the tunnel have been! Finding the tunnel before inside we get be the problem!”

“But it’s just a tunnel!”

“Yes! Underground! Under rock! Out of view it be! Like Keruh always be! Which way it wiggles and turns know not we do!”

The Corporal put his hands on his hips as he realised what she was getting at. “So how are we going to find it from up here? Can’t you track it or something?”

Scyleia smacked the arms of her chair in irritation at his question. “This be a warship! Not be a seismic research vessel! Not track hole in rock can we!”

It was now that El-Quan spoke up calmly from the back of the bridge. “There is another on board who will be able to achieve this task.”

Anaxilea and the Corporal turned to look at her, and were suddenly in agreement as they both realised whom she meant.

“Not expect us the Keruh Warrior to take?” Anaxilea exclaimed.

The Corporal developed an angry scowl. “He’s the enemy!”

Scyleia dispelled their arguments as she turned in her chair to face them. “Is he? Be it his race that threatens you now? That threatens us? Or be he now in the same ship as us figuratively as well as in reality? Not his kind be it that man the landing field. And not a ‘slice of cake’ this attack be despite your bravado, Corporal. Anaxilea the task describes simply, but dangerous and difficult and suicidal it may be, and need the Warrior you will. So learn to adapt you both must, as he has, or all will perish.”

Anaxilea looked at the Corporal hoping for a strong reply. He looked back at her and lost his anger. Finally he shrugged.

“I don’t know who the enemy is any more,” he said with a sigh. “If you ask me the whole thing stinks.”

Scyleia’s eyes flashed as she pressed them. “Decide! Now you must! Each second burns fuel, for all the ships that fly!”

Anaxilea now also sighed in defeat. “Not to come he may choose,” she said rather hopefully.

El-Quan’s answer was assured. “He will come.”

No sooner did the matter seem to be settled when Ann-Ra added further confusion.

“The Warrior must come, but the rest of you must not.”

As everyone stared at her in surprise, the Corporal rolled his eyes and spoke in annoyance.

“Now what?”

Ann-Ra turned to him and spoke in equal annoyance. “The circle of protection that you all now enjoy aboard this vessel will not transfer beyond the hull. You know this.”

The Corporal remembered the discussion that had taken place between El-Quan and Tai-Gil when they had first entered the ship, and the explanation Didi and Gusta then gave to them all. Ann-Ra was right, and he had forgotten.

“That’s it, then,” he said in dismay. “We have to go on our own.”

Anaxilea had another idea. “Take the Edenite female, Breda, we could! Protect us her presence will!”

El-Quan immediately sank that idea. “We will not allow one of those that matched to leave the safety of the ship. To do so would put them at unnecessary risk.”

By now Scyleia had picked up on another rather obvious fact. “Kill the Warrior will you when in the tunnel he has led you?” she asked Ann-Ra.

Ann-Ra was unashamed. “He will be of no further importance.”

Scyleia shook her head. “Not fair on him this fate would be, even though an enemy he be.” She looked around at them all on the bridge. “Another alternative I seek. How go on this attack can you all but remain separate and all alive be?”

“What you ask is not possible,” Ann-Ra replied coldly.

Zen-Po raised her head and turned away from the viewing screen. “You are wrong, Ann-Ra.”

It was the first time Zen-Po had spoken since Hai-Zen had been killed. Ann-Ra looked at her in certain surprise and stated the obvious.

“We will be outside the ship with those who are incorrect. This is not permissible, Zen-Po.”

Zen-Po spoke calmly as she turned and walked to the back of the bridge to rejoin Vin-Di.

“So long as we remain in sight of the ship we will know that those within exist and extend their protection. The association will last this short time at least. And we will still be following the Councilman’s instructions.”

Ann-Ra hesitated a moment before bowing her head in acceptance. Scyleia instantly spoke up.

“Follow Lea’s plan will you?”

“Not exactly,” Zen-Po replied. She was now with Vin-Di, and the darker skinned Androktone held Zen-Po’s hand and stroked her back comfortingly. It was the only consolation Zen-Po had received.

“We may all leave the ship together,” Zen-Po continued. “But once we descend into the tunnel and the ship is no longer visible, we must separate. We must proceed to the Control Centre alone. We will speak with our sisters and switch off the Defence Net. We will remain at the Control Centre. You must deal with your own task without our involvement. It is a threat that we must have no part in. You may keep the Warrior when you return to the ship.”

Scyleia looked as dismayed as Heli did at Zen-Po’s words. “You will not return?”

“We will not. It is time that we left this ship and returned to the Purpose. This task provides an opportunity to do so without conflict with our sisters. Provided that is, that we can convince them of our true integrity. It is also the best solution to the paradox we find ourselves in. We will leave and we will not return.”

“What if convince them you cannot?”

“Then you will need a back up solution.”

Scyleia just stared at her. But the silence didn’t last.

The Corporal now spoke up with clear irritation. “There’s no way I’m going to let them go to the Control Centre without me! No way!”

Ann-Ra turned to face him. “We are Androktones and we go to face Androktones. Your presence among us damages our credibility, our integrity, and our mission. You must return to the ship and depart as Zen-Po has said.”

“And we’re supposed to trust you? Just like that?”

Anaxilea came forward and put a hand on the Corporal’s arm. “Right she be I think. Surprise be our advantage, and take it from them we will with our image and scent.”

The Corporal looked at her in surprise. “You think this is a good idea?”

She nodded. “Yes. A hundred or a thousand Androktones at the Control Centre there could be. And the portal they could use to summon more at any time. Overwhelmed and dead we all could be before the ship be clear, despite surprise and initial success. Talk I think be better than shoot. Trust them we must. At least to try their way first. If fail they do, then attack we must together.”

The Corporal hesitated. He looked at Scyleia in desperation and hope, but she only nodded.

“Not like this idea do I any better than the first, but for other reasons this time. Trust the Androktones I can, and do, but not wish them to leave do I. And not alone in this I be.” She turned to look at Heli as she spoke, but her First Officer had her head down in resignation. Scyleia turned back to the Corporal and continued. “An alternative plan we all crave for, but know that there is none available. Accept this you must, as we must.”

The Corporal turned back to Anaxilea with a final plea on his lips.

“Why?” he said to her. And then he repeated the question to the Androktones. “Why should I trust you?”

Ann-Ra raised her head in a haughty manner. “You have lived on our trust since we came among you. It will not fail you now. You must have faith.”

CHAPTER FORTY-SIX

PURSUED

In the Control Centre at Nemen, Mai-Ann gave her instructions to Lai-Wa across the portal in harsh and angry tones.

“Contact Tai-Po at the Edenite Command Centre! Tell her to have several of our sisters split their minds! She is to send air-borne drones southwest in pursuit of the Edenite vessels!”

“Should they engage them?” Lai-Wa replied in calmer tones.

“No! They are to monitor their progress only! Once they land we can open a portal and retrieve them at our leisure! Have Tai-Po send another drone southeast in pursuit of the Klysanthian ship! Advise her that this ship must be brought down! It must be destroyed!”

“Yes, Mai-Ann. Will you be transferring back to the Command Centre?”

Again Mai-Ann was negative. “No! I will remain here to assume control of the Defence Net until the danger is passed! What is your status?”

“Our ETA at the Edenite Command Centre is seventeen minutes. Lai-Fam has advised me that the other transports have already arrived at the landing field and that boarding has begun.”

“Good! Contact me again before you disconnect the portal! Proceed!”

Lai-Wa bowed her head and the cylinder that contained her faded to nothing.

Mai-Ann turned to the other Androktones who stood waiting within the interior of the smashed Control Centre. She spoke to the nearest of them.

“Kai-Vin! When will the maser batteries to the northeast be reactivated?”

Kai-Vin bowed her head briefly. “We are working on the damaged power-grid. I estimate a further two hours are required before the repairs are completed.”

“Good! And the arrays to the north?”

“These have all been damaged in the bombardment. Repairs begun by the Keruh are partially underway but further work will be necessary.”

“Commandeer additional personnel to your repair crews! I must have eyes and offensive capabilities! Proceed!”

“Yes, Mai-Ann.” Kai-Vin bowed again and then left hurriedly.

Mai-Ann turned to another who waited patiently. “El-Jai! Increase the perimeter guard around this complex! I will not be surprised by a ground attack!”

“Yes, Mai-Ann.” She also bowed and hurried away.

Mai-Ann now kicked at one of the nearest bodies that littered the floor of the Control Centre.

“Remove the bodies from this place! Their stench offends me! Clear all this debris!”

While the remaining Androktones set to work, Mai-Ann turned to stare out through the broken windows at the Nemen landing field. Most of the facilities were damaged or completely destroyed. Arrays stood at crazy angles with chunks missing from their surfaces, many of the buildings were gutted, and there were wrecked ships scattered everywhere. The whole landing field was a mess.

It was fortunate that they had captured so many aliens at the Hill-Brok landing field. They would be put to good use clearing the damage and carrying out the more mundane repairs. And when the repairs were done those who were of no further value would be used for energy reclamation.

It was important that energy reclamation began as soon as possible. It was important for her and it was equally important for her sisters. That the Councilman had tried to delay it was another sign of his flawed nature. Killing him had brought a great feeling of contentment to her mind and body. But that joy had been nothing compared to the utter exhilaration that came with the direct absorption of energy from a living being.

Mai-Ann hadn’t been able to contain herself. Once she had been able to extract all the information she had needed from the Edenite Commander she had absorbed him and the remaining females. She had then given Lai-Fam instructions to separate those at the landing field who were of no value. They would be consumed as soon as possible. That the process of energy reclamation would be a cause for unrest among their prisoners was in no doubt, but her sisters needed the pleasure that came with victory. It was their reward. The reward of the Purpose.

Did she have any remorse? No. Why should she? Those whom she had consumed had no value. She had the information she needed. And with it they would obtain more prisoners for their use and consumption. And the intended attack planned for this Control Centre would now be ineffective.

-o-

Ann-Ra remained on the bridge with Scyleia while Vin-Di and Zen-Po went with El-Quan to fetch the Seventy-Ninth, and Anaxilea went with the Corporal to talk with his men. As soon as the other Androktones had left, Heli got to her feet and went to Ann-Ra. There was something she wanted to say, something she needed to have out with Ann-Ra, but knew that she couldn’t while the other Androktones were present. Now that they were gone, she could wait no longer.

“Did you tell Zen-Po to do that?” she said to Ann-Ra in low but very annoyed tones. “Did you tell her to persuade her daughter to let us go like that? Even though it was obviously going to put her life at risk?”

“Yes,” Ann-Ra admitted without any hint of guilt. “It was a window of opportunity that required investigation.”

Heli stepped back. She was astounded. “But how could you do such a thing?”

Scyleia turned in her command chair. “Heli, maybe this conversation should be kept for another time?” she suggested with a knowing look.

“No, I will not shut up!” Heli snapped back at her. “Hai-Zen is dead! Killed before our eyes! Before her mother’s eyes!”

Ann-Ra dismissed Scyleia’s obvious worries. “There is no danger in this discussion,” she said very matter-of-factly. “The emotional attachments Kre-Owe-Sa described to El-Quan had strategic merit. The presence of Zen-Po aboard this ship and Hai-Zen at the Control Centre presented an opportunity for experimentation. I merely suggested to Zen-Po that she should use this relationship between them as an alternative ploy should a direct request fail.”

Heli was astounded. “Hai-Zen’s dead!” she repeated.

“Yes. She would have complied with Zen-Po’s request even though it conflicted with her other instructions. It was an interesting event. It proves without doubt that the relationships between the generations are far stronger than was foreseen. It also proves the reason why such emotional attachments caused by these relationships are forbidden by the Purpose. You should be pleased.”

Heli put her hands to her head in exasperation. “Pleased? Don’t you realise what you’ve done? What you put Zen-Po through? She killed her own daughter! Haven’t you learned anything from what I have told you? Don’t you have any compassion?”

Scyleia stood up from her command chair and went to Heli. This time she spoke more forcefully, “Heli! Be careful! This is not the time or the place! Calm yourself!”

Heli sat down at her console in sudden dejection. “But this isn’t what I wanted!” she said almost tearfully.

Scyleia stroked Heli’s hair in an attempt to comfort her. “I know, I know. But we have to accept that some things are beyond us. For me, Tai-Gil can only be a temporary companion. I have to seize and enjoy the time I have with her, and God only knows how I count and value those precious seconds. For you, the passing on of our faith has brought only alternative ploys for the recipients. They use what they learn for strategy and war instead of for love. What happened wasn’t your fault.”

Ann-Ra watched both Klysanthians for a moment before replying. And when she spoke she did so carefully.

“I dispute your analysis of my interpretation of these beliefs, Sci-Lee-Ah. Hel-E seeks to instil a belief and understanding in your God within me. Part of this belief is based on the goodness, love and self-sacrifice of the individual for others. I have listened to this belief and learned of its value. In turn I have explained this belief to my sisters and they have also accepted its value. But this knowledge weakens the grip of the Purpose over us. It is a dangerous knowledge that we should deny. My belief weakens my integrity. It places me at risk. Zen-Po already regards me with suspicion, and that she should begin to assume control of the pod is a clear indication of this. Your intent, Hel-E, was also a threat that placed you in danger. We must follow the Purpose. We must defend it against the corruption caused by the belief you preach. Therefore you are a threat. But by adapting the knowledge you gave to me to the advancement of the Purpose, that threat was removed.”

Heli was uncaring of the danger she had been in. She put her arm around Scyleia’s waist and continued to speak in annoyed tones. “And was saving me worth Hai-Zen’s death?”

“Hai-Zen listened to Zen-Po’s arguments and accepted them. In essence she became one of us at that moment, separated only by the physical distance between us. She died attempting to open the Defence Net. There was only goodness in this intent. She died for you, not for the Purpose or for any other reason. It was what you wanted.”

Heli shook her head sadly. “I didn’t want you to use our faith to cause the death of another, no matter how noble the reason. If you haven’t felt sadness at the death of Hai-Zen, then you haven’t learned anything.”

“We are Androktones. Sadness for others and for ourselves was not included in our instincts. That we have learned to feel this emotion is down to our association with you and your ability to impart it to us. Hai-Zen died for you. And when we reach Ne-Men we may also die for you. There is no difference in the two events. Zen-Po may have learned to feel some sadness caused by the death of her offspring, but this will be tempered by the knowledge that she died by her side, following the same need to complete the Councilman’s instructions. As I said, you should be pleased by this. It is a reflection of the powers of your God over even us.”

Heli sniffled as tears filled her eyes. “You speak so coldly and callously and then so warmly and with such understanding that I find it difficult to know how much you have truly learned, Ann-Ra. You fill me with hope only to dash it. And then before I can recover you fill me with hope once more. You confuse me, and yet I want so much to understand you, I want so much to believe that you believe.”

“What I believe I must always temper with the Purpose. I must tread a careful path or the one will oppose the other and my mind will be lost. So far I have been successful in this. I believe in your God, Hel-E. I understand this better way and I will keep Him in my mind evermore. But the pressure of the Purpose is constantly bearing on my will and thoughts at all times, so I can give you no other assurance than this.”

Now the tears came in earnest and Heli could only ask the last fatal question. “Will you really leave and not return? Will I never see you again?”

Ann-Ra nodded. “Yes. Only Tai-Gil will remain. She is too weak to accompany us, and the solution to her paradox lies elsewhere.”

Heli lowered her head and leaned against Scyleia. And as she cried quietly, Scyleia hugged her.

Scyleia felt Heli’s sadness but she also felt her own selfish relief. Tai-Gil would remain behind. At least there would be one of them left on board that she had saved. And it was the one that she cared for the most. But the solution to Tai-Gil’s paradox that Ann-Ra had spoken of filled her with sudden fear. And as she considered the possibilities, Alcinoe spoke up timidly.

“Captain, I have something on our screens.”

-o-

El-Quan stood before the Seventy-Ninth of the Telen’Gal and spoke calmly and clearly. She had knocked on his door and repeated the formal entry ritual as she had done before. This time he had not questioned her motives. And while Vin-Di and Zen-Po waited outside she had gone in alone and explained their plan and his part in it.

“Sci-Lee-Ah will land the ship at a location you specify. From there you will lead us to an entrance to the tunnel where you were found. At this point we will go our separate ways. We will make our way along the tunnel to the Control Centre. You will remain with the other aliens and secrete a fission device somewhere in the tunnel. You will set the device to detonate after you have left. You will then await the result of our mission. Once we reach the Control Centre we will speak with our sisters. We will convince them of our integrity and use the disc provided by the Edenites to enter the required protocols and deactivate the Defence Net. We will then remain with our sisters and begin the evacuation of the landing field. When news reaches you that the Defence Net has been opened you will return to the ship and depart. Once the ship has successfully left the atmosphere of this planet, the fission device will detonate and the Defence Net will be reactivated permanently.”

The Warrior remained seated on the floor while she was speaking. And now as she waited patiently for his reply silence filled the room. It went on for so long that El-Quan began to doubt his interest.

“Is this not what you wanted?” she finally asked him.

“Will your sisters accept your return so readily?” he hissed.

“There will be a debate. But we believe we have been correct in following the Councilman, and so we are confident of success.”

“And if you fail?”

“Then you and the Edenites will be required to attack our sisters at the Control Centre. It is the reason why you must wait in the tunnel. I suspect this task to be a more fruitless and dangerous one than ours.”

“What do you seek in return for this gift?”

“Only your loyalty to our mission.”

“You offer me the possibility of a glorious fate and seek nothing in return?”

“You gave me your word and have kept silent as I requested. This is payment enough as it ensured my life.”

He clambered to his feet. “And you gave me your word and have kept it also. I asked for a glorious fate and you have given me this opportunity. I accept your gift and will die at your command.” He picked up his axe. “Lead the way.”

Outside, Vin-Di stood by the door to the corridor while Zen-Po was standing next to one of the beds. She was pulling the blanket free. She looked up when the Warrior appeared.

“You must wear this about you while you walk through the corridors,” she said to the Seventy-Ninth as she held out the blanket to him. “The aliens already look upon us with suspicion. Your image will cause them to panic. You must hide yourself.”

The Seventy-Ninth paused a moment while he stared at the blanket. He seemed to be considering.

To cover himself with the cloth was an admission of his subjugated state. Although he assumed that it wasn’t intentional, it was still an insult. But to refuse and to walk openly among the enemy, although more noble, would in the circumstances also be an insult. But the request had been made on behalf of the Edenites. They were a defeated enemy. Donning the cloth for them would therefore be a more noble and acceptable gesture.

Abruptly, the Seventy Ninth reached out and took the blanket from Zen-Po, and handing his axe to El-Quan, he threw it about his shoulders, pulling it over his head. It draped him from head to foot. His smaller hand then reappeared as he took back his axe from El-Quan.

“I am ready.”

-o-

Scyleia leaned over Heli and Alcinoe at her console. “What is it? Some sort of jet or small air transport?”

Alcinoe shook her head. “I only know that it is very small, very fast, and that it’s gaining on us.”

Heli had a sudden thought. “Could it be a missile?”

Scyleia looked round at Prothoe. “Change course! Now!”

Prothoe nodded. “Yes, Captain. Taking up a new heading south east.”

Scyleia looked down at the screen on Alcinoe’s console. There was silence as they all waited, then Scyleia gasped and made a fist.

“Missiles do not change course from that distance! Not even heat sensitive ones! It has to be a ship!”

Behind them Ann-Ra suddenly spoke.

“No.”

They looked at her and found her standing motionless with her eyes closed. “It is not a missile or a small ship,” she continued with her eyes still closed.

Scyleia began to understand. “It’s a drone!” she exclaimed. “An air-borne drone! We are pursued!”

Heli looked at Scyleia in horror. “But how could they know?”

Alcinoe said, “They know we’re heading for Nemen. It would be easy to guess the route.”

Scyleia shook her head. “No! Heli is right! It is not only our course that they know, but also our intent! Someone has betrayed us! And that can only be someone at the landing field!”

“But why would they do that?”

Ann-Ra opened her eyes and answered her. “Because they had no choice.”

-o-

An air transport touched down in the suburbs of Hilbrok. The turmoil and noise of the landing scattered plants and debris from gardens, and the many wheels crushed abandoned cars and fences. The Androktone at the controls in the cockpit ignored everything as she touched down, and even a greenhouse exploded in fragments as one of the wheels went through its roof.

As the engine noise faded and the down force from the engines died down, the huge front doors on the transport began to swing open, and another noise could be heard.

Screams.

As the nose doors of the transport opened to their full width, the sound of people screaming in both agony and abject terror rent the air. And to accompany the noise came a cloud of steam that billowed out of the transport and blew away in the wind.

Several figures burst forth from the interior of the transport. They emerged from the steam cloud and shot down the ramp at speed. Women, older men, they all fled in terror, fear and disbelief written across their faces. At the bottom of the ramp they scattered, running this way and that, unthinking, uncaring. More slender figures emerged from the white mist behind them. Clad in black they paused on the ramp and raised their silver rifles almost casually. Some hardly bothered to aim. They fired from the hip, and one after another, those that fled were burst apart in gouts of flame.

As the last fleeing Edenite tumbled in burning fragments, the screams emanating from inside the air transport finally ceased. Steam continued to billow out, but at least now there was silence.

Their job done, the Androktones on the ramp turned and walked back into the steam cloud, disappearing one by one like ghosts.

Inside the air transport the steam began to thin. And as it became clearer the walls and roof of the interior could be seen to be dripping wet. Whether the floor was equally wet was not so easy to say, as it was completely filled with abandoned clothing. It lay piled everywhere, from wall to wall, damp and soiled. And standing among the discarded clothing was a large number of Androktones. They stood motionless like trees in a textile field. But there were no Edenites to be seen inside the transport, none at all.

As the Androktones who re-entered the transport ploughed their way through the heaped clothing, one of them kicked something heavy. She paused and used her rifle to sweep away some of the clothes until a blackened, misshapen statue was revealed at her feet. She carefully stepped over it and continued on her way.

Inside the cockpit of the air transport, the pilot spoke into the radio.

“Transport A9-6 down at Hill-Brok at grid reference 17H-24B. Prisoners have been consumed. Awaiting instructions.”

The radio instantly crackled in response. “Discard all traces of the process, then return to the landing field. You are to exchange the Androktones that have been replenished with those who are still in need. Pick up another group of prisoners and repeat energy reclamation.”

“Acknowledged.”

The radio connection was broken and the Androktone looked over her shoulder and called to another who waited.

“El-Ra! Clear the hold! We go back for more!”

-o-

Gusta was helping to gather together another small group of Edenite survivors in the recreation area when the Corporal came in with Anaxilea.

Seeing the Corporal again made Gusta smile. It was strange how she had become used to him. He was a symbol of lost authority and control, and yes, she felt safe when he was around. It was strange how two very different people, the Corporal and Elquan, had invaded her consciousness so profoundly. From nothing they had grown and become powerful symbols of security and safety. Gusta only wished that Elquan were here too.

Didi was helping Alkaia register all the names of the survivors in their group before they went off to the living areas that had been allocated for them in one of the ship’s holds. Gusta had been there already, and it was surprising how the addition of screens and bedding had changed what had been a stark area into something almost homely. It was the people that made the final difference. They brought warmth and life to the hold and made it comfortable. Kiki and Breda were there now with Tipi. The newly married couple were sorting out their own little area while Tipi was doing the same for the rest of them. He even had Didi’s holdalls, although the food was now long gone. But at least they would soon all be close together.

Gusta was glad that they weren’t in their own cabin anymore. She didn’t want to feel special; in fact she hated it and still fought against the guilt that constantly dogged at her conscience.

Didi continued to reel off the names to Alkaia. Gusta left him to it as she watched the Corporal talking to the other soldiers. Altus, Klemunus and Eastomoner were all listening and nodding their heads. Something in all their expressions made the smile fade from Gusta’s face and she moved closer to them.

“What’s going on?” she asked when she reached them.

The Corporal’s expression made it clear that he didn’t want to tell her and that he didn’t want to have to explain why. But all he said was, “This isn’t your concern.”

Gusta folded her arms. “Do you want me to ask the question again in a much louder voice?”

The Corporal glanced at Anaxilea and she looked back at him with an expression that said he should give in, so he did.

“Alright! We’re making plans for how we attack the Nemen landing field so that we can turn off the Planetary Defence Net. Happy now?”

Gusta lost all her stubborn bravado. “Won’t that be dangerous?”

“Of course it will be dangerous! Now you do your job and let me do mine! Go on! Get back to your husband before he and everyone else takes an interest!”

Gusta opened her mouth to speak, closed it again, turned, hesitated, and then asked, “Who’s going?”

The Corporal sighed in annoyance. “Me and the lads, except for Klemunus, who won’t be able to move fast enough with his gammy leg.” He then indicated Anaxilea. “Anaxilea here is coming too, and a few of the Androktones.”

“Will Elquan be going with you?”

“Yes, probably.”

“You will all come back, won’t you?”

The Corporal seemed surprised by her last remark, but then he suddenly smiled.

“We’ll be back before you know it.”

“I’m sorry about Pedomoner. I liked him.”

“Cenalli isn’t dead, he’s just behind enemy lines. He’ll be okay.” He nodded his head towards Didi. “Go on, go back to your husband.”

Gusta turned and did as he asked.

When she had moved away, Anaxilea gave the Corporal a stern look. “You lie too easily and with conviction, Corp-Edenite!”

He waved away her remark dismissively. “Bad habit! Learned through experience!”

Altus then asked, “Do you think it will be that easy, Corp?”

The Corporal’s expression hardened. “As easy as it can be to lug a nuclear bomb down a giant-sized worm-hole with a Keruh Warrior with a quantity of angry alien clone-women-things waiting at the other end.”

Eastomoner smiled. “So you’re looking forward to it then, Corp?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world!”

-o-

Major Stumomoner shielded his eyes from the sun as he looked around the packed square. He was near the centre of Hilbrok in the retail and business quarter. Most of the buildings were unaffected, but the signs of the recent evacuation and the Keruh attack were clearly visible. But what concerned him most was the people. There was something wrong, but he couldn’t put his finger on it, and he was too busy worrying about his other problem to concentrate on it.

There were already thousands in the square, and more were being disgorged from the many air transports that had already landed. Stumomoner had managed to organise the soldiers that remained under his command into a unified force. He had allotted a man to be in charge of each load as a transport landed. They in turn had several men under them. The idea was to keep each shipment of people together, at least for now, until they could be found shelter.

Some of the people would have homes in Hilbrok that they would want to return to, if they were still intact. Others would be housed in hotels or offices. And more could occupy the homes of those who would not be returning. The idea was that each group would sort itself out, but for some reason he had more men than transports.

As another air transport touched down in a clear area of the square, Stumomoner hurried forward with his men. When the nose doors had opened fully and the ramp was down, the people began to pour out. Stumomoner let his men get to work. He was more interested in their captors.

“Hey!” he shouted to one of the Androktones who stood on the ramp. “Hey, you!”

She turned and walked down the ramp towards him in a haughty manner.

“What is it you wish?” she asked him in an equally aloof voice.

“Where are the other transports?”

“These are the transports.”

“I don’t think so!” Stumomoner began to count things off on his fingers. “I counted the number of transports landing at the field: I calculated the number of people that could be carried by each transport: And I allocated a team to each transport. I have men over, therefore we are missing some transports.”

She raised her head. “Then they must not yet be here.”

“And where is Colonel Salther?”

“I am unfamiliar with the individual. Maybe he is on one of the transports that have yet to arrive.”

“And when will they arrive?”

“I have answered enough questions.” She turned and walked back up the ramp.

“I haven’t finished yet!” Stumomoner called after her. She just ignored him.

Stumomoner jumped on to the ramp and was about to go after her when one of his men called to him.

“Major! Major!”

Stumomoner turned to see several of his men hurrying towards him through the crowd. They were with several other civilians, all of them men. Stumomoner jumped back down off the ramp.

“What is it, Corporal?”

“Sir, these men were on the last transport. They said that they all had relatives with them and that they were put on the next transport, but now that it’s here, they can’t find them. And it’s not even the right transport. The one that left was B7-5. This is C1-4. It should be the next one.”

By now the civilians among them had lost their patience. One of the men shouted out, “I can’t find my wife anywhere!”

Another said, “My mother and father were with me! Now I’ve lost them!”

“I’ve lost my father, too!”

“My wife and sister!”

“What about my daughter?”

Stumomoner gazed around at the crowd of people in the square as each protesting voice faded into another.

That was it. That was what was wrong. The square was filled with men, younger men, with a much smaller proportion of younger women among them. There were no older people, and no children, none at all.

-o-

Being surrounded by people in one of the cargo holds of the Gate Of Heaven should have made Kiki and Breda feel self-conscious. But it did none of that. Instead it made them feel adventurous and daring. They had arranged the screens and their bed and small locker into a tiny but comfortable area. It wasn’t much but it would be home for some time to come. And then they decided to celebrate their marriage and their first home by doing what had been in their minds since they had come together again.

So while Tipi arranged another area next to them for himself and their parents, Breda and Kiki lay down on their bed together behind their screens with mischievous intent, and began to undress one another as they kissed.

They began like children, nervous and unsure, but as they progressed, their need for one another grew and they became more eager. At first the noise of the people around them caused them to laugh and giggle. They were all so close, with only the screen to hide them, and yet both felt the power of their audacity. That power grew as their need grew. And amid a crowd of refugees who hustled and bustled to arrange their own areas and settle down, Breda and Kiki consummated their love and marriage in slowly increasing passion that finally exploded and left them both exhausted.

Afterwards they lay in each other’s arms, naked and still hot. Breda hugged Kiki. She felt marvellous and content. It had been as good as she had imagined it could be, even if it had been in unusual circumstances. But that just made it feel even better.

“You were very good, Kiki,” she whispered as she stroked his chest. “I’m sure I felt the earth move.”

Kiki smiled. “I love you.”

The bed quivered beneath them and they both looked at each other.

“Do you think someone else is making love?” Breda said.

“I know this is a Klysanthian ship and the gravity is low, but we aren’t that heavy,” Kiki replied.

There was another shake, and this time a woman moaned. It worried Breda.

“Something’s the matter.”

Kiki sat up. “I think we better get dressed.”

-o-

When El-Quan, Vin-Di and Zen-Po reached the bridge with a blanket enshrouded Seventy-Ninth, it was to find Scyleia in complete manic mode.

“Keep her turning, Prothoe! She’s after our engines! Heli! Have the maser crews redouble their effort! We must knock her down!”

Heli worked furiously at her console. “They’re trying, Scyleia! But the drone is so small!”

Scyleia banged on the armrests of her chair. “No excuses! I will not lose an engine to this clone! Not now! I will not lose the Heaven! Keep them firing, Heli! Prothoe! I want more speed! Out run her!”

No one seemed to notice the new arrivals until Ann-Ra turned to them. For a moment the blanket-covered form among them surprised her. But then her senses identified the Warrior hidden beneath.

“We are pursued by a drone,” she said in answer to El-Quan’s unspoken question.

The Seventy-Ninth pulled the blanket back from his head. “Then we are lost,” he hissed.

Scyleia stamped her feet when she heard his words. “No! I will not have it! Faster, Prothoe! Faster! Faster!”

-o-

The Gate Of Heaven shot through the upper atmosphere of Eden, her engines glowing white hot. The ship twisted and turned, climbing and falling as it changed course rapidly. Behind it a silver dart followed, twisting and turning in unison as it strove to keep on the tail of the tri-hulled ship. Every few seconds the silver dart spat forth a bright orange beam that flew to the ship and impacted against the metal of one of the hulls. Each time there was a blossom of fire that left a trail of sparking debris and smoke.

In reply, the maser batteries on the Klysanthian ship spat broader white beams at the chasing speck of silver. But with so small a target most of the beams missed. The drone hardly tried to avoid them, almost as if it were ignoring them. And in the end it turned into the path of one of the beams and sparkled as it was transfixed. A moment later it had lost its shape and fell. But the fall soon became a dive and then a steep climb as the drone reformed itself into the familiar dart shape and resumed the chase, firing once more.

-o-

On the bridge, panic was setting in as Alcinoe screamed out the news Scyleia didn’t want to hear.

“We have a fire in the port engine! We’re losing power!”

Prothoe confirmed the hit. “Speed dropping by two points! I’m losing attitude control!”

Scyleia had left her chair and was kneeling next to the helm console pleading with Prothoe. “Don’t lose the Heaven, my sweet! Please! Not now! Turn her and twist her, Prothoe! Make her dance, my sweet! Fly her like you have never flown before!”

“I’m trying, I’m trying!” Prothoe replied with desperation as she fought at the controls. “But it’s difficult in this atmosphere and with this gravity! I have to be careful! The Heaven is much heavier, and with the port engine losing power I can’t rely on it for the turns!”

Scyleia balled her hands into tiny fists. “Throw caution to the wind! I would rather dive full speed into the ground than let that drone bring us down!” She sprang to her feet and shouted to Heli. “Heli! Double the output of those maser batteries! Knock it down!”

While the Gate Of Heaven continued to take drastic and vigorous evasive action, and the Klysanthians shouted and fought at their stations, the Androktones considered another option in much calmer tones.

Ann-Ra turned to El-Quan and spoke conversationally. “I can sense her presence but her identity is unknown to me. Is she familiar to you?”

El-Quan closed her eyes for a moment. Finally she opened them again and shook her head. Vin-Di however, was more forthcoming.

“It is Gil-Soo,” she said with her eyes still closed. “She was in my training pod at Ephesus.”

Zen-Po asked her, “Can you tell where she is?”

The Androktones watched Vin-Di for a moment while she considered. Finally the darker skinned Androktone opened her eyes. “I think she is at the Edenite Command Centre.”

Ann-Ra nodded. “That is most likely. The Centre has strategic value as a base of operations. And Hai-Zen said that the Councilman was on his way there.”

El-Quan then asked Vin-Di the pertinent question. “Could you find her if you were there?”

Vin-Di nodded. “Yes. Her genetic code is familiar to me.”

Zen-Po reached out a hand to pull gently on Vin-Di’s jet-black hair. “Then you must go.”

Vin-Di turned to stare at Zen-Po but did not speak.

Ann-Ra stepped forward until she was closer to Scyleia, who was by now perched precariously on her command chair, sitting on one of the armrests with her feet on the seat.

“Sci-Lee-Ah,” she said in a raised voice. “We must open a portal to the Edenite Command Centre so that Vin-Di can transfer there. She must kill Gil-Soo before her other half shoots us down.”

Scyleia looked at her with anger and confusion. “But if we open a portal that will let them in! Are you mad?”

“Hai-Zen stated that the Councilman was in transit to the Edenite Command Centre. The portal will have been travelling with him. Although the Councilman is dead, the portal must have reached the Command Centre by now. If that is the case there will be a window of opportunity during the time it is being disassembled and reassembled.”

“And what if we get the timing wrong?” Scyleia pointed out.

“Then Gil-Soo will continue to pursue us until she shoots us down.”

“And how do we get Vin-Di back?”

“Count the time that passes between Vin-Di’s departure and the death of Gil-Soo. Wait the same time and then open the portal at the same point.”

There was a pause as Scyleia considered. At her console, Alcinoe gave her the first verbal prod.

“The drone is gaining on us, Captain! She’s concentrating her fire on our starboard hull!”

Heli looked up and added a second. “Power levels are down by thirty percent and we already have a fire in the starboard hull!”

And Prothoe gave her a final thought. “I can fly on two engines but not one in this gravity, Captain!”

Scyleia stamped her feet on the seat of her chair and closed her eyes tight. “Alcinoe! Open a portal to the Edenite Command Centre! I want a minimum connection time, no more! Vin-Di! Get to the portal room!”

Alcinoe looked down at her console almost in panic. “But I only have vague co-ordinates, Captain! I don’t even know where the portal will open!”

Vin-Di called out to her. “Anywhere inside will do. Once there I can find Gil-Soo.”

Alcinoe nodded. “Alright! Alright! Got it!”

Vin-Di hastily moved closer to her Androktone sisters and they rubbed cheeks in a parting gesture. Vin-Di then turned to leave with Zen-Po. It was then that Scyleia plonked herself down properly in her chair and spun round.

“Vin-Di!” she called out. “Go with good heart. And come back!”

-o-

Major Stumomoner and a large crowd of men stomped up the ramp into one of the transports. The Androktone he had earlier spoken to saw them and stepped forward to bar their way.

“You are not allowed back on the transports,” she said firmly.

Stumomoner smacked her in the mouth. He swung his fist without any consideration that she was female or smaller than him, and the blow was delivered with such force that she was knocked back against the wall with a heavy thump. Her skull was crushed instantly and blood splashed the metal wall. As her body slumped to the floor, Stumomoner snatched the rifle from her lifeless fingers. It instantly began to melt and lost its shape. In disgust he threw it aside.

Another Androktone came down the spiral stairway from the cockpit area. She fired her rifle, killing two of the men. Stumomoner and the rest of them didn’t wait any longer. With a roar, Stumomoner led the charge.

“Get ‘em, lads! Take this transport!”

The Androktone at the stairs fired again, killing another man, but as her rifle began to change shape into the curved blades she was quickly overrun and kicked and punched to death, and in jubilant victory, the rest of the men stormed the cockpit.

Stumomoner ran to a steel locker at the back of the cockpit and began forcing it open. Another man helped him with a crowbar, and the door soon burst wide. Inside the locker a dozen rifles were revealed. Stumomoner began handing them out to eager hands while behind him a man in an Airforce uniform jumped into the pilot seat.

Stumomoner called out to the Airforce man. “Can you fly it, Belomoner?”

Belomoner nodded as he checked the controls. “Yes, Sir! I can fly her! I have ten hours on these crates!”

“Good! Because once we have taken all these transports, me and the lads here are going to go on a quick trip back to the landing field! And on the way I want to stop at the road and pick up one or two items I left behind! And I want to do it all before those Alliance women find out about it!”

-o-

As the grey cylinder formed before them, Vin-Di and Zen-Po held hands. Zen-Po turned to look at Vin-Di.

“Come back, my sister, or I will have none to share solace with.”

“I worked strenuously to board this vessel,” Vin-Di replied. “I will not give it up so easily now that I am here.”

They were her final parting words as the cylinder cleared to reveal an artificially lit corridor. Vin-Di let go of Zen-Po’s hand and stepped forward.

-o-

Alcinoe looked up from her console. “She’s there, Captain!”

“Break the connection! Start the count!” Scyleia barked instantly. And turning to Prothoe she shouted, “Keep her turning! Roll her! Pitch her! I will not be brought down!”

At her console Heli whispered, “And now we pray.”

-o-

Trailing smoke, the Gate Of Heaven continued to fly an erratic course that took her high into the stratosphere and then down low over the undulating landscape. The ship banked and weaved, rolled and turned, taking no particular course or heading. It skimmed the low hills and left trees shaking in its wake. And always, just behind, a silver dart flew as if on an invisible wire. Firing almost constantly, it never let go or hung back.

The metal at the rear of the Heaven’s three hulls was now blackened and pitted more than ever before. Fire and smoke trailed from the port engine and more smoke trailed from the multitude of pockmarks around the starboard engine. Another orange beam leapt out from the silver dart and the Gate Of Heaven banked away almost instantly and it missed.

Prothoe was playing a dangerous game and soon her luck would run out.

-o-

Waiting was a safer game that was best played by those with the coolest hearts. On the bridge of the Gate Of Heaven that meant the Seventy-Ninth and the two remaining Androktones. And while Ann-Ra and El-Quan stood in silence, the Seventy-Ninth watched them both and considered the irony of their situation. He also considered the quandary that faced them.

Could he kill one of his own in similar circumstances?

Opposing one another for dominance was an established and acceptable reason to kill a Hive brother. But this was different. The Assassin-Drone they intended to kill was not in a challenge for dominance, nor was she acting against the good of the Hive. It was they that were in the wrong. He instinctively knew that, and he also knew that they must feel the same way. Therefore the reasoning behind their intent had to be very strong.

He turned to El-Quan and Ann-Ra.

“Is killing one of your sisters, even though you know she is not in error, not a flaw in your own integrity?”

His question was born of knowledge gained over a long period of observance, and it was both well informed and to the point. It was like a knife thrust through both their brains, and Ann-Ra replied forcefully and icily.

“The Councilman’s instructions come first. Those who oppose them are incorrect. Keep silent, Warrior, as your presence here is under duress.”

The Seventy-Ninth felt her anger wash over him in a physical wave, and so he bowed gracefully and did as she asked.

-o-

The shuddering of the ship under the constant impacts combined with the loss of power had soon made itself felt among the Edenite passengers. So the fire in the starboard hull was less unexpected, but just as frightening. So while the Klysanthian fire crews rushed to deal with the danger, the Edenites drifted towards further panic.

Gusta could feel that panic. It filled her as much as anyone else when she realised that Tipi, Breda and Kiki were in the hold near to where the fire was located. By then the cause of the fire was known to all: A ship was chasing them, it was trying to shoot them down. It had to be part of the reason why they had left the landing field in such a hurry. Why else would they leave everyone behind like that?

Did being chased make the departure acceptable? Did it make those on board feel less guilty because there was a valid reason for the premature take-off? Did it make them feel less guilty that they had fought with their fellow man and woman to get on board? Would Gusta feel less guilty if her family suddenly perished at the last moment in the fire?

Gusta ran with the other people who headed for the hold. The pretence was to help fight the fire, to help deal with the situation and with the injured. But unlike most of the other people, Gusta only wanted to get there because she wanted to find out what had happened to her children. Didi went with her. He looked as pained and as worried as her. And at the moment they entered the hold and tasted the smoke and the heat, Gusta suddenly realised that she didn’t care about the guilt anymore, that she didn’t care about what other people thought, or anything.

She just didn’t want them to be dead.

-o-

There was a revolt taking place at Hilbrok as a large number of angry men stormed each of the transports at the same time. Heavily outnumbered, the Androktones inside were beaten to death despite their resistance and all the transports were taken.

With each of the firearms lockers in the transports looted, Major Stumomoner now had sixty armed men he could call on, and almost twice that many who were prepared to come along with sticks to do what they could. Stumomoner was thankful to all of them, especially the civilians prepared to do their bit. And it was with this ramshackle force that he boarded the first transport and headed for the landing field.

Belomoner brought the transport in low, skirted the field to the south and reached the road undetected. They spent less than twenty minutes at the road gathering more arms and equipment and then they were on their way again. And when they finally reached the landing field there were three other transports on the ground, each one with a queue of women, older men, and children waiting to board. There was also a large number of Androktones standing around. They all looked up as the air transport came in to land.

Stumomoner sat next to Belomoner in the cockpit.

“Nicely does it, Belomoner. Pretend like we are supposed to be here. And remember, keep the doors pointing at them.”

As the transport touched down and the engines slowed, many of the waiting people looked across at it. The Androktones also looked. They were wondering why it was here, and they didn’t like the scent that was emanating from it. Several of them began to walk towards it. Stumomoner smiled as he watched them approach.

“Show time!”

-o-

Vin-Di walked calmly and purposely along the large and wide corridors of the Edenite Command Centre. She walked passed several of her sisters who were bent on their own tasks. None of them questioned her. Like them, she had a task to fulfil, and like them, she was an Androktone. She was one among many.

Although the body never hid the truth, what lay inside the skull was always hidden.

The direction she took also had purpose. She was following a trail. A genetic trail left by one of her sisters who had passed this way before. The evidence was clear to taste in the air and on the walls and floor. It was almost as if Gil-Soo had left a paint trail.

Vin-Di went down two more levels, passing a group of Androktones repairing a power distribution box damaged in an explosion. She then passed another group who were repairing a wall while others removed debris. Finally she came to the level that contained the living quarters for the garrison based at the Command Centre.

Gil-Soo was close now; Vin-Di could feel her.

Vin-Di passed room after room. Once the rooms had been occupied by two or four large Edenites. Now almost twice that many Androktones had taken their place. The doors were closed on many of the rooms, but some of them had the doors open. Those that were open often revealed several Androktones inside. Some would be sleeping two to a bed. Others would be cleaning or mending their uniforms. Occasionally one would be seen kneeling down quietly. Some of the Androktones were wounded, while others were untouched. Many were naked. Sometimes one of them would look up and watch Vin-Di go passed. Vin-Di hardly glanced at any of them. Finally she paused at a closed door.

Vin-Di closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath through her nose. Yes, this was it. And Gil-Soo was not alone. Fortunately there was only one other inside with Gil-Soo and she was already coming to the door. Vin-Di instantly drew the sword from her back and it flowed into a long curved blade.

The door opened abruptly and Vin-Di sliced down at the blonde-haired Androktone who appeared. The blow split her head and she tumbled against the door. Vin-Di didn’t wait for her to fall; she burst through, knocking her aside.

Gil-Soo knelt by the side of her bed with her eyes closed like a child saying her prayers. She had light brown hair and a softly innocent face. Vin-Di strode forward and struck off her head.

-o-

The Gate Of Heaven was climbing. The silver dart was now much closer. It fired again and the orange beam hit the centre hull producing a bright blossom that instantly trailed more smoke. The Heaven banked sharply to the right and dropped into a dive. The silver dart flew straight on. It faded to black and decelerated until it stopped, paused, and then dropped like a stone.

-o-

Fire, smoke, flying debris, and the screams of frightened women filled the air at the landing field as two large and heavy mobile guns ran riot.

Stumomoner had picked up the two armoured vehicles from the road. Belomoner had kept the engines on the transport running while the soldiers shouted directions to the drivers as both heavy vehicles backed up the ramp. From there they had gone straight to the landing field. And once they had touched down the first armoured vehicle had opened fire before the cargo doors on the air transport were fully open. That first shot had blown all the Androktones approaching the transport into oblivion. After that both vehicles had hit the ground and fanned out, firing constantly.

One of the parked air transports was hit and exploded. It didn’t matter; Belomoner was the only pilot they had. What counted was eliminating all the Androktones at the landing field quickly, and they obliged willingly, charging the vehicles and the men who poured out of the transport in their wake.

There was a brief firefight, with each side gunning the other down on the open field while the trapped civilians scattered in panic. With greater numbers the Androktones would have won, but with both forces about equal, and with terrified Edenites running in all directions adding to the confusion, the armoured vehicles gave Stumomoner and his men the edge. Where bullets were stopped by the body-plates that many of the Androktones wore, the concussion of an armour piercing shell wasn’t, and several Androktones were killed by each blast. And once the Edenites had realised that their enemy was wearing very effective body armour, they had aimed exclusively for the head. So by the time one of the armoured vehicles was finally hit and blown apart as it weaved around one of the transports, the battle was already won.

The hardest part was getting everyone on board the one transport. The people at the landing field were now completely out of control. Many of them had been caught in the crossfire or in the blasts from one of the mobile guns, and like some of the Androktones, at least two had been run down by one of the vehicles. It took longer to gather the survivors together and calm them than it did to defeat the Alliance forces. But with the men and soldiers shouting and sometimes beating them into line, it was finally done.

Stumomoner didn’t like to treat his people harshly, and he didn’t like the fact that some of them had died in the attack. Nor did he like the fact that he had lost at least half of his men. But every one of the women they saved was worth ten men, and that was all that mattered.

When they were finished, the air transport was completely stuffed; there was standing room only inside, even on the stairs and in the cockpit. No one sat, but everyone hung on to each other and on to anything else they could reach. It was almost impossible to move inside.

Stumomoner had hoped to take at least one of the armoured vehicles back to Hilbrok with them. But that was impossible, and people were more important, so they used the surviving mobile gun to cripple the remaining air transports and then left it behind.

Belomoner sweated as he struggled at the controls and the air transport lifted slowly into the air on a crescendo of straining engines. It was heavily overloaded and the whole airframe was stressed beyond all limits, but it still flew, just.

-o-

Mai-Ann seethed in anger. “How did this happen, Tai-Po? Why were there not sufficient Androktones on the transports or at the landing field?”

“Many of our number have been engaged in energy reclamation aboard the diverted transports according to your instructions, Mai-Ann. The rest remain here at the Command Centre. Those at the landing field and at Hill-Brok were not considered to be at risk. The Edenites had capitulated without resistance.”

Mai-Ann ignored her excuse. “Where is Lai-Fam?”

“She is on her way to the landing field now with a large force. Once there she must wait for the remaining transports in our control to return before she can proceed back to Hill-Brok to attempt to quell the revolt.”

“The number of transports available to her limits the size of her force! They will be insufficient! How long before Lai-Wa reassembles the portal?”

“She estimates that she will be ready before the transports reach Hill-Brok. Land drones are also proceeding there on foot.”

“Good! Then a three-pronged attack can be achieved! Contact me again when the revolt is over!”

“Yes, Mai-Ann. But there is another problem to report.”

There was a pause as Tai-Po waited for Mai-Ann to respond.

“Continue!”

“Gil-Soo and Zen-Kai are dead. They were killed by Vin-Di. We have lost track of the Klysanthian ship.”

Mai-Ann closed her eyes and remembered the words of Li-Sen-Tot when they spoke of disassembling the portal.

“There are those who would take advantage…”

The Klysanthians were becoming an annoyance. Mai-Ann opened her eyes.

“Find her before she escapes! She is incorrect! Find her and kill her!”

“Shall I despatch another drone to pursue the Klysanthian vessel?”

“No! The destination of the vessel is clear! When the portal is reassembled, send several pods to join me here! We will await their attack in force!”

-o-

Tipi was blackened but unharmed. He smiled sheepishly as Alkaia examined him. He was one of several Edenites to be slightly singed. No one had been seriously injured in the fire, and the damage proved to be superficial. He was sitting on one of the beds in the screened area that he had prepared. Nearby Gusta was hugging Breda as they sat together on another bed. Only Kiki was missing. He was with Didi helping to clear the debris left after the fire. Many of the Edenites were helping. The Klysanthians had brought in metal plates to fix the damage, and the Edenites aided them in positioning the plates until they were fixed in place.

Alkaia tussled Tipi’s hair when she was finished. “You are too comfortable and at ease in our presence, Tipi Albatus,” she remarked. “Our Captain’s description of you is far too apt.”

“And what’s that, then?” he asked.

“Cocky.”

“I’m not cocky!” he protested, as he suddenly felt self-conscious. “I’m shy!”

Alkaia smiled. “You? Shy? After the many liaisons you have had?”

Gusta looked up. “Liaisons?”

Tipi went bright red and hung his head. Alkaia instantly sensed that a cat had leapt from a hidden bag somewhere and so made a hasty exit.

“I shall leave you now,” she said with a gracious smile. “If you need anything, ask for Clyemne, she will be here soon.”

Gusta got to her feet. “But wait! What did you mean?”

Alkaia slipped through the curtain between the screens that marked their door and disappeared.

As Breda looked on with excited interest, Gusta turned to Tipi with her hands on her hips and a stern expression on her face.

“All right, my ‘cocky’ lad! Out with it!”

-o-

Vin-Di retraced her steps far more quickly than she intended. But the pursuit by her sisters required a speedier pace. She had to stay ahead of those who knew what she had done. If the knowledge overtook her, everyone she met would know her and challenge her.

She moved quickly, climbing levels and moving along corridors where Androktones now paused to watch her go by. They could read the stress in her body; they could smell the droplets of blood from her victims that had showered her. It wasn’t long before one of them stepped into her path.

It was the team repairing the wall. One of the Androktones watched her approach and slowly put down her tools. It was clear to Vin-Di that she was going to react. And that acceptance was instantly known by the other Androktone.

Vin-Di drew her sword and the other Androktone did the same. There was a quick exchange of orange fire that killed one and singed another. Vin-Di fired in the general direction of the other Androktones in the repair team and then ran.

There was fire and smoke and two more fell wounded. A third picked herself up from the floor and gave chase.

Vin-Di now ran openly. Her uniform was charred on her shoulder and sleeve and her face and hair were burned on the same side. But she still ran, her rifle now in her arms. And as she ran, the rifle flowed and split, becoming two weapons. One was a smaller rifle and the other a long curved blade. She held the two weapons separately, and as she ran around a corner into a side corridor, she slashed at the Androktone she had sensed beyond the intersection with the blade.

There was another splash of blood. But before Vin-Di had passed the mutilated body, an orange ball of fire exploded against the far wall.

The Androktone from the repair crew fired again when she reached the intersection. Again she missed as Vin-Di dived through double doors that were blown apart and shattered. The Androktone gave chase.

Vin-Di was now in a race. But it was a race that she didn’t want to win. For if she reached the portal early, it wouldn’t be there.

-o-

Scyleia was far from calming down even though the danger was passed.

“Give me reports! What is the damage? How much power have we got! Where are we? Talk! Talk, my sisters!”

Prothoe wiped the sweat from her face. “We’re southwest of Nemen, approaching the highway! I have full power on the starboard and main engine, but the port engine is dead!”

Alcinoe hurried her response. “Power levels have stabilised at eighty percent! All fire crews have reported in! We have starboard and main hull breaches but the damage is minimal and repair crews are at work! I have no casualties to report! Four minutes to portal re-establishment!”

Scyleia swivelled in her chair. “Heli! Go with Ann-Ra to the portal room! Be there with Zen-Po when Vin-Di returns!”

Heli leapt from her chair. “Yes, Captain!”

The Seventy-Ninth watched Ann-Ra leave with Heli and then bobbed forward and leaned over a surprised Prothoe. She was doubly surprised when he spoke to her in Klysanthian.

“Land at global co-ordinates Longitude 15.7, Latitude 120.5.”

Scyleia instantly snapped at him. “I am in command here!”

The Seventy-Ninth bowed graciously and stepped back. “I apologise, Captain,” he hissed. “But this is the best insertion point if our mutual endeavour is to prove successful.”

Scyleia paused as she considered her debt to him. And when she answered it was more calmly.

“No, it is I who must apologise. You may be a hated enemy, despite your gift to me, but my bad manners are not acceptable considering your offer to help. Prothoe, do as he says.”

“Yes, Captain. Making my approach now.”

The Seventy-Ninth bowed again. “You are gracious, Captain.”

Scyleia bowed her head in return. “I am fair.”

Then Alcinoe said, “Count at zero! Opening the portal!”

-o-

A cylinder of grey swirling mist formed in the portal room as Ann-Ra and Heli waited with Zen-Po. But no sooner did it solidify and become clear when a blinding flash filled the room to the accompaniment of a loud bang.

Vin-Di was hurled through the portal connection by the explosion. She hit Zen-Po and they both fell to the floor in a heap. As Heli rushed to help them, Ann-Ra pulled her sword from her back and stepped forward. She fired down the corridor and saw a distant figure blown apart just as the portal faded and the corridor vanished.

Ann-Ra lowered her rifle and turned. Zen-Po was sitting on the floor cradling Vin-Di in her arms. Ann-Ra didn’t need to see the gaping wound in her back to know that it was there. Vin-Di’s body exuded pain and stress as all her systems began to fail.

Heli was kneeling next to Zen-Po and Vin-Di. There were tears in her eyes as she muttered a final blessing and did the sign of the cross over the tortured Androktone.

Vin-Di gasped for breath and choked as she held on tightly to Zen-Po. Her partially burned face was twisted in agony, but she managed to say what she wanted.

“I came…back…Zen-Po…”

With a sudden gasp, her body relaxed and her head fell back. Zen-Po held her tighter and stroked her burned face.

An electronic voice suddenly filled the air as the wall-mounted com-unit buzzed into life.

“Heli? Heli? Are you there? It’s Alcinoe! Is everything okay? I have a heat sensor reading that has gone through the roof!”

Ann-Ra looked at Heli, but the Klysanthian merely shook her head and remained by Zen-Po. So Ann-Ra replaced the sword in her back and went to the com-unit and hit the button.

“Tell your Captain that Vin-Di has returned as ordered.”

CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN

CONFRONTATIONS

Peleus wasn’t sure why he agreed to go. When Telepyleia had made the request he instantly feared the meeting. The request had come through Derimacheia while they were on the bridge, and although Pantariste feigned disinterest, he knew that she was listening.

Was that why he had agreed? Was he scared of losing face before her? Was his pride as strong as hers?

If the answer to any of those questions was yes, then he had wronged Pantariste far more than he had already realised. In that moment, as the question was asked of him, he suddenly felt all the fear of accepting the meeting, and the equal fear of denying it before her. So Peleus felt doubly wretched as he left the bridge to face yet another woman he had wronged.

Telepyleia was still in the Medical Centre. She was in a room on her own. It was no surprise to Peleus that Lysippe wasn’t there. What Telepyleia had to say to him would be for him only. He almost knew what she was going to say, and he already dreaded it. But as he entered her room and faced her at last, he was overcome by the serene calmness and beauty of her.

Telepyleia dismissed the medical orderly who was in attendance. And when she had left, Telepyleia sat up gingerly in her bed, her long slender form still fragile and her beautiful face pained.

That Telepyleia was the highest ranked surviving Matriarch after Queen Otrera was readily apparent despite the simple gown she wore. She was dressed like any other patient, and her room and bed was also no different. But her whole manner, the very presence of her in the room and in the air, was magically different. It was almost as if she glowed. Every movement of her body and limbs under the sheet was somehow emphasised as she sat up and turned herself towards him, and the glimpses of her skin at her throat, neck and shoulders looked so silkily smooth and richly coloured. Even the long and slender arm with which she propped herself up was attractive.

Peleus could feel her power over him almost doubly to that he had felt from Lysippe, and in that moment he wondered how he had been able to win Lysippe from her. The thought merely increased his gloom as he considered what Lysippe had given up. But then, as Telepyleia turned to fix him with her blue eyes, he felt the cold glare of her anger, and the atmosphere in the room changed.

Peleus looked down at the floor and waited.

Although Peleus was acutely aware of Telepyleia’s presence in the room and her power over him, she was also equally aware of his presence. And she was far better able to judge his mood from his body than he was able to judge hers. This all became clear with her first words as she swept back her long blonde hair.

“Do you fear my anger, Atlantian?” she said in a sweet voice that was edged in bitterness.

He lowered his head even more. “Yes.”

“And it would be just and fair in the circumstances, would it not?”

“Yes,” he conceded again.

“So should I rant and rave at you? Should I accuse you of the theft of my love? Should I condemn you as an adulterer?”

“I am all of these things.”

“You are all of these things and more. But you are also a fool.”

He remained silent. In turn she sighed.

“I had wished to rant at you. I had intended to rant at you. But now I can see that it would serve no purpose. It is better that I speak to you clearly, that you understand more completely the injury you have caused me.”

Peleus looked up at last. “But I do!”

Her bright blue eyes flashed and her voice grew in strength. “No, you do not! You think you do, but you do not! Were your parents married?”

He looked back at her, puzzled by the sudden question. “Yes, of course.”

“Do you know of anyone else who is married?” she hurried on.

“Yes, my Captain.”

“Have you met his wife?”

“Yes.”

“Did you covert her? Did you contemplate stealing her from him?”

“No of course not…”

His voice trailed off and Telepyleia smiled in triumph.

“Yes, Atlantian, now you understand! Lysippe is not just my companion! She is no mere chattel used for my solace! We are one! One before our God! This is a greater union than that which you hold sacred! And yet you stole her from me with little thought or care of what you did! Only now do you see the truth, only now do you see what you have destroyed! Yes! My marriage! My life! You have taken Lysippe from me as if you had taken my life with a knife! I hate you and despise you for this! For your ignorance, for your disregard for our beliefs, for your selfishness, for your greed, and for your false shame before me now! And this hatred will be transferred in your name to all of your kind! From now on I will treat you all with suspicion and anger! This is the legacy you leave in your trail! Now get out! This audience is at an end! And I do not wish to see you ever again!”

If Peleus had felt dismayed and wretched before he entered, when he left his mood and demeanour was below the floor. That simple piece of knowledge had done more damage than a physical attack.

Lysippe and Telepyleia had been married. They were married.

Why had he not considered that? Lysippe had told him that they were together. He had known that they loved one another. But the idea of something so permanent as a marriage between them had never entered his head. Was that because they were both women? Was that why he had considered their relationship to be of less value? Had he considered it to be of less value?

Of course he had. He remembered Lysippe’s words, as he remembered every second of the time he had spent with her.

“As you love me, I love another. And I cannot deny that love. I have lived my life with Telepyleia. I have lain with no other. I have lain with no man.”

He had known that Lysippe was in love with Telepyleia, he had known that she was grieving and suffering, and yet he had yearned for her to be free. In his heart he had hoped for Telepyleia’s death. When news of her survival had come to them, he had mourned it.

He was evil, a wife stealer, and an adulterer as Telepyleia had so rightly called him.

They had been married, and he had destroyed it.

He had injured her mortally, and she had replied in kind. The meeting had been short but far worse than he had imagined. Her words had sunk into his mind and his pride like a knife into his body. Ignorant, selfish, greedy, and shameful. And it was his final great shame that he exuded from every pore as he made his way slowly back to the bridge.

-o-

Zeus was in a bad mood. He sat hunched in his command chair, his chin resting on his fist. It was an image Jason knew too well. And the reason? The race was too close.

Memnon and the pursuing fleet had closed the distance on them during the past days, and it was now in no doubt to anyone that the Olympus and their small flotilla would be overhauled before they reached home. As a result, Zeus was under a darkened cloud. He bit and snarled at his crew, his attitude evil and his mood unforgiving. Now at least he was silent.

Jason didn’t disturb him.

Zeus stared at the stars through the viewing port and cursed the gods for the luck they had thrown him. Every sinew within his body yearned to break free of the damaged ships that held him back. He yearned and needed to utter the commands for more speed.

But he could not.

To return without his charges would be worse than losing the race. He needed them to support his claim as returning hero, aiding his fellow warriors to the last. And in all fairness none of them had dropped their speed. It was Memnon who had increased his.

Zeus cursed the ships in Memnon’s fleet. Why could not one of them fail? Why could not one of them lose an engine? Why could they all forge ahead with such speed and power? Why had the gods damned him at the moment of his success?

-o-

Despite the wind, the sun beat down with relentless power as the ships rocked at their moorings on the heavy seas. Each of the ships had furled their great square sails and dropped anchors to hold them against the disturbed waters. Some of them lay side by side, while others remained apart, as if aloof. Large and small, the ships filled the bay.

The Atlantian fleet had taken shelter in a large bay at the island of Delos. The nearby islands of Syros and Paros could be seen in the distance, but the nearer and larger island of Myconos was obscured by Delos. And in the further distance was a heavy storm cloud that hung motionless in the air and reached from the sea to the heavens. It had been there for some time.

One of the large tri-marine ships that stood apart was about to receive a visitor. A smaller vessel ploughed towards it through the waves, its square sail taut in the wind. It reached the larger ship and ropes were cast aboard and the small sail furled.

Aetolus waited at the rail as men dampened by the high seas clambered onto the deck.

“Welcome, Ares!” he said reaching out his hand.

Ares grasped the hand he offered. “It is good to see you, Aetolus!”

The two men embraced, their past political conflicts forgotten. But then Ares broke the embrace and the spell.

“But I still think the decision to hold the fleet here was a mistake! We are too close to Attica!”

Aetolus smiled. “But was it not you that said that the symbol on our sails would be the only protection we needed?”

“Our sails are furled,” Ares pointed out.

“They know who we are. And that storm cloud on the horizon worries them more than our presence here, for they will know that it is the reason for our presence.”

“All the more reason to press on.”

“And now that you are here, we can. But first you must speak with the President. She will be overjoyed to see you.”

-o-

Aeolus sat sprawled across a divan in Memnon’s cabin aboard the Kraken. Memnon sat opposite to him on another divan pouring wine into two goblets.

“Do you think Peleus has faired well aboard the Queen Of Angels?” he said as he held out one of the goblets.

Aeolus took it and sipped at the wine. “We have heard little from him. Maybe that is good.”

“At least they have stopped those accursed simulations. The ship could hardly keep station.”

Aeolus laughed. “Ha! Typical of the woman! It was probably an attempt to either impress Peleus, or break him! As it has stopped and Peleus has not returned to us, she must have failed on both counts!”

Memnon sat back in his chair. “I think you are too hard on Pantariste. She is a good captain, and there are not many left among the Klysanthians.”

Aeolus took another drink. “I would not deny that, but I would not exchange places with Peleus either.”

Memnon smiled as he took a drink. “One of you would kill the other no doubt.”

Aeolus laughed again. “Sooner or later. And I respect her enough to know that she would welcome the duel as equally as I!”

“But who would win, my friend?”

Aeolus leaned forward on the divan and pointed an accusing finger at Memnon. “You dare to ask that question and call me friend in the same sentence? It is you I should duel!”

Now Memnon laughed. “It must be love!”

Aeolus growled in his annoyance. “Aaarrgh! Now you mock me! You stretch our friendship with these taunts!”

“Alright, Aeolus, I will stop. Forgive me. But why does she irk you so?”

Aeolus sank back on the divan. “She is Klysanthian!”

It was a simple explanation that said so much. Memnon sighed as he nodded, and his mirth faded.

“You are right, my friend. And I shall mourn their passing. But I live in hope that those that remain can find a life and a future among us when we reach home.”

Aeolus’s anger also faded as their discussion became melancholic. “They did fight well. And they deserved better.”

“At least we make good speed and will be home soon.”

They both began to think of distant families crammed into seafaring ships, and the homes that they had all lost. A buzz from the communication point in Memnon’s cabin broke the mood. Memnon reached up to it without moving from his divan.

“Yes, Telephus?”

“I have received word from Leitus aboard the Hippocampus,” the electronic voice replied. “Her surviving engine has failed.”

-o-

President Aegina dismissed Ares fears as soon as they met in her cabin. Aetolus left them alone together. She was sat on a long couch and she spoke tersely.

“I will leave no stragglers to be picked off from our fleet, Ares. Whether or not you were among them makes no odds. I would still have commanded our captains to pause here. Now I will hear no more of this. We proceed to Troy as one fleet, a combined fleet, containing all of our people. None are left behind, and all of our people now know this.”

Ares bowed before her wisdom. “Pardon me, President. But I was only anxious for your safety and that of our people.”

“As I was anxious for yours.” She waved him to another couch nearby. “I am glad to see that you heeded my warnings, Ares.”

yes"> Ares sat on the couch she had indicated. “How did you know?”

It was a question he had yearned to hear the answer to. But now Aegina sighed.

“War brings out the worst among the best. There is heroism and sacrifice, but there is also treachery and vengeance. Friends become enemies. Enemies become allies. I have lived my life for politics, but I despise its ethics. And war is merely the physical arm of politics.”

“But how did you know?”

She stared at him for a moment, as if considering to chastise him for pressing her on the question. But then she answered him with another question.

“Was Li-Sen-Tot a good friend of yours?”

Ares nodded. “He was.”

“There are no friends in politics, merely opponents yet to declare themselves. We were too close to the Tun-Sho-Lok. We knew too much of what they did at Ephesus. There would have been questions after the victory, questions whose answers would have been best served if they were answered by a very few. I have avoided these answers by declaring our false demise to the Ring community. The Klysanthians, the Keruh, the Tun-Sho-Lok and now even the Atlantians, all have perished and none remain to answer the questions raised by our legacy.”

“You speak of the Androktones.”

She nodded. “We can only hope that they have also perished, for if they do not, they will be a scourge upon the galaxy and all the civilisations attached to the Ring.”

Ares sighed and looked down at the floor. “There was a time when I considered myself worthy to follow your path in the Senate. And there were many who would have championed my cause. But now I know that I would have made a foolish President.”

She smiled. “A man who knows his limitations is not foolish.”

He looked up at her again. “I am a simple man, a general, no more. I understand war, but politics is beyond me. Now, President, I must command that we take to sea once more. We have tarried here long enough.”

“I agree, but I am sad that I have missed this opportunity to meet your new wife. She who could tame the Stamping Horse of Atlantis in such a short time must be worthy of interest. Why did you not bring her with you?”

Ares felt himself blushing. It was a strange feeling and one that he wasn’t used to, especially before the President.

“Orithia remains aboard the Adrastus. She is not best affected by the disturbance of the seas, so a crossing in a smaller boat was beyond her.”

Aegina smiled again. But this time it was filled with childish mischief. “Ah, yes. The Klysanthians are a hardy and free spirited people, but their tiny stomachs are easily overcome. Queen Otrera has also found sea travel to be an unpleasant experience in the presently disturbed waters of the Aegean. She remains in her quarters as they all do. Strange considering their fondness for sleeping on water.”

“Why is it, President, that your diplomatic image often slips when the Klysanthians are involved?”

“Permit me my indulgence, but the sight of those who would consider themselves to be perfect, bent in body and green in complexion, fills me with an evil delight.”

The image was too well painted and Ares nodded. “Orithia suffers just as you describe. But I find no delight but only worry in her condition.”

Aegina curbed her emotions and her smile faded somewhat. “I am sorry, Ares. Please convey my apologies to your good wife, and my wishes that she should recover soon.”

Ares got to his feet and bowed. “I will, President. Now I must speak to your Captain and to Aetolus concerning our best course and speed.”

“You will return then to the Adrastus?”

“I will, President.”

Aegina smiled again when she saw the beginnings of another blush on Ares’ face.

“Yes, she must be very interesting.”

-o-

Memnon waited impatiently in his command chair. Telephus was still talking to the Captain of the Hippocampus. The news was not good.

“It is no use Captain. Leitus has tried everything. The engine is dead. They require a tow.”

Memnon sighed and then nodded. “Then a tow he must have. Telephus, signal to all ships: Remain at all stop. Keep everyone informed of developments. And advise Zeus of what has happened. Aeolus, contact Meriones on the Cerberus. Tell him that he is to take the Hippocampus in tow. Convey the details to Leitus. Have him liase directly with Meriones on the Cerberus. Telephus, advise me when the tow is established and both ships have regained station.”

 

 

On a distant, darkened world, Yan-Jai slept. She coiled and looped her immense body throughout the tunnels and caverns of the Combined Hives and relaxed sweetly and contentedly.

At last this world was cleansed. At last the grotesque stench of the incorrect and deformed was gone. All their mutated and offensive flesh had been consumed and absorbed. The entire Combined Host, the Diggers, the Warriors, the Receivers and their entourage of Gatherers, even the great females, the Breeders had fed her bulk.

Nothing was left.

Yan-Jai almost encircled the globe. From continent to continent she stretched, her long wormlike body going this way and that, all of it underground, following each large tunnel. And from her body thinner tendrils snaked out filling all the side tunnels. But all was underground.

If the rock and earth of the Keruh home world had been stripped away and Yan-Jai was laid bare, she would have resembled a long silver snake or worm, curvaceous and sinuous, with long silver hair covering her wormy body.

A silver caterpillar, sleeping, fat and content. And at her heart, at the centre of the widest part of her bulk, surrounded in silver folds that slowly ate into flesh, was a slender tiny form, curled and vulnerable. Like a parasite living within the caterpillar, sleeping as the caterpillar slept, the tiny form dreamt only of the time she could awake and see the sun rise once more. But the large and malevolent beast that enshrouded her dreamed of more harsh awakenings.

It would be a long distant morning, when others might pass close to this desolate and apparently empty world. When curiosity, and the hunt for minerals and crystals would bring them down to the surface.

Then they would be within her grasp.

She would smell them as they walked on the dried and dead surface. She would feel their footsteps tickle her through the rock.

Maybe if there were too few she would wait. Maybe she would hardly feel them at all. They would be like a mild irritation, no more. They would cause a twitch in her immense body that might cause a tremble in the rock. Maybe they would think it was a sign of volcanic activity. Maybe they would place instruments to measure the affect. Maybe more of them would come to investigate, explore, and study. And when the persistent crawling and scratching on the surface finally stirred her, and she took in the first full breath of foul and tainted air, she would stir and rise once more.

And once again those who were incorrect would feel her wrath…

-o-

Zeus looked up as Jason stood next to him. He didn’t look pleased at the intrusion. In fact his countenance was as dark as his mood and he replied in anger.

“For what reason do you break my reverie? Did I not tell you that I was not to be disturbed?”

Jason merely smiled. “The Cerberus tows the Hippocampus.”

Zeus sat up in his chair, his anger forgotten. “What?”

“Telephus has contacted me to say that they have been stopped for two hours while the tow was established. They must proceed at reduced speed until the Hippocampus can regain station. They assume that will be late tomorrow.”

Zeus stood up in his chair and flung his arms wide. “Jason! I love you!” he roared. And with his expression now overflowing with joy, Zeus leapt upon his First Officer and hugged him, dancing around the bridge.

“We win the race! The gods have smiled on us at last! We win the race!”

Jason laughed as his Captain pulled him forcibly around the bridge. “Yes, Captain. Their reduced speed means they cannot now overtake us.”

“Yes! Yes! We are the winners!”

Zeus suddenly released him and spun away on tiptoes, and with his arms outstretched he headed for the door.

“Pass the word throughout the ship! Let there be a celebration of our victorious return! Contact the Pegasus and Leviathan! Send them my thanks for their effort and toil! Tell them to drop their speed by a point! With the race won we can afford to pace ourselves! And when you have done, join me in my cabin for wine, Jason!”

They were his final words as he passed beyond the door and it closed behind him.

Nestor looked across at Jason and smiled. “He will be drunk before you get there. And then he will have forgotten that he invited you.”

Jason shook his head as he returned to his console. “At least his mood has changed. Our Captain places such value on returning the hero I begin to wonder if he has eyes on the Senate.”

“I also think that this is his intent,” Nestor replied. “A returning hero is often a good bet for a vote.”

Jason set to work at his console. “Would you vote for him?”

Nestor’s smile grew broader. “I think you and I know him too well.”

-o-

Queen Otrera was not pleased to see Ares. Hera was the only one of her Royal Guards to oppose him, but she was in no condition to deny him. Like Otrera, she and all the Klysanthians were suffering badly. In the circumstances, and with his mind dwelling on Orithia’s similar condition, Ares was more caring in his intrusion.

“Tell your Queen that I will not keep her long, but that I must see her,” he told Hera.

She bowed weakly and greenly and ushered him in. Ares was sure she just needed the excuse to retire back to her bed.

Otrera looked worse than Hera. She was in a real bed that was tussled and unkempt. There was nothing regal or enticing about her today, and the cabin was filled with the scent and taste of her agony. It was also very untidy. Ares didn’t hesitate to goad her.

“I thought you preferred to sleep on water?”

“The surface tension is broken when I retch,” she replied weakly as she sat up.

Ares smiled. “Did you sink?”

Otrera instantly developed an angry expression. “Are you here to gloat?” she said as she pulled her blanket close about her.

Ares relented and shook his head. “Orithia suffers just as badly. I find no delight in the condition of either of you. You know me better than that.”

Otrera placed a hand to her mouth. “Then why are you here?” she said with sudden difficulty as she burped and swallowed.

“I have come to ask you one more question, a question I think I know the answer to.”

“Then tell me you answer, for I can speak little.” She burped again as she spoke and she seemed to be going greener. She swallowed and clutched a towel to her face, smothering another burp.

Ares grabbed a chair and pulled it close to the side of her bed. He sat down.

“I asked Aegina how she knew that Atlantis would be destroyed,” he began, watching her eyes over the towel. “Her answer was more to do with experience and wisdom than with prophesy. And now that it has happened and the war is over, the wisdom I have gained from these past events has enabled me to make other connections.”

Otrera could hardly look at him and her lack of control at this time made her guilt plain. “What other connections?” she said in a muffled voice from behind the towel.

“As Aegina knew, you also knew. All of your people knew.”

As she didn’t deny it, Ares sat back in his chair and continued.

“The loss of the Second and Ninth Klysanthian Fleets has haunted me as you know. But I now know that there was nothing I could do to prevent it. It wasn’t just the loss of Klysanthia that caused your Captains and Matriarchs to hurl themselves to their deaths; it was the knowledge that there was no other alternative. Our offer that you stay with us at Atlantis was well intentioned, but you all knew it was worthless. You all knew that Atlantis was also to perish.”

“What we all knew, Orithia also knew,” the muffled voice replied.

It was a barb that was intended to deflect his anger. It didn’t work. Ares merely nodded.

“Yes. And as I forgive her, so I must forgive you and all your sisters. But hark my words, Otrera. You are Queen, so your silence makes you my enemy. I will continue to tolerate your presence on our world. President Aegina made the offer in a time of our ignorance and I won’t oppose it now. In fairness many of your people have fought well and it would be churlish to deny them. But you are my enemy, and I remember well your emotional prophesy. So when your lands by the Thermodon have been established you will no longer be tolerated among us. You must leave the Troad and not return. Do you understand me, Otrera?”

His words at the end had been filled with menace. Otrera wiped her face with the towel and then lowered it. She nodded. She seemed to regain some of her strength and nobility and she spoke equally strongly.

“I understand you, Ares, but I do not fear you. Like your President, my prophecy will also come true. There will be a time when my daughters oppose you for dominance of this world and your weakness will betray you.”

His expression darkened. “In times of war, when evil rules and conscience is cast to the wind, men can kill women as easily as other men. If you oppose us you will lose. This is our world, Otrera, and we will not lose it to anyone.”

She developed a green but haughty expression. “Are you done? My stomach ails badly. I am sickened by the sea, by the seed that grows within me, and by your unwanted presence before me.”

Ares stood up. “Yes, I am done, and you will be pleased to know that we will meet no more. But I too have the power of prophesy. When our daughter is full grown I will meet with her, and she will know your treachery.”

Anger flushed Otrera’s cheeks. “Treachery? What treachery? I told you that Li-Sen had opposed the creation of the Androktones! And the only way to ensure that they didn’t flourish was to remove both sources of genetic material from which they had been created! Only a fool would have failed to see the truth!”

Ares looked down at her. “I have often wondered if the loss of Klysanthia could have been avoided. How it hurt Li-Sen so. Maybe I am not the only fool.”

Otrera watched Ares leave in silence. But when the door had closed behind him her expression turned to one of despair and she hurled the towel at the closed door.

“Li-Sen would never betray me!” she squealed in her anger and frustration. Then after the outburst she grew calm and sat up straight in her bed, her head held high.

“So, Ares, Stamping Horse of Atlantis, you would meet with our daughter and speak to her of our time together? Fool! I shall prepare her well to greet you! And by the time you stand before her, she will already hate you!”

-o-

The day had dragged, and when Peleus had finally reached his cabin and closed the door behind him it was in relief.

He had felt so comfortable aboard the Queen Of Angels these past few days, but now every sight and scent caused him pain.

They all knew his evil. They could all smell it on him. And he could see the pity and the accusing looks in all their eyes. Even Derimacheia had spoken to him less, and Pantariste not at all. So it was with some surprise that Peleus answered the knock on his door later and found her there.

“I had thought that you were ignoring me,” he said as she came inside.

“And you would be correct. It is all you deserve.”

He closed the door. “So why have you come?”

She spun round to face him. “I know your crime. We all do. Only you lived in the bliss of ignorance. Now you know the truth. But it is a truth that you should have known before, that you did know before. That is why you feel such shame.”

“They are married,” Peleus said simply.

“Of course they are married! Do you think we are as wanton and fickle as the stories you tell? Have you learned nothing during your time with us? You are a fool, Peleus! A typical male fool! Why I love you I can not imagine!”

“You still love me?”

“Ha! Do not be so smug, Atlantian, for my love begins to wilt! Not that you would care!”

“I would.”

She stared at him for a moment. Then she came closer and raised an accusing finger before him.

“Do not toy with me, Atlantian, I will not tolerate it.”

He stood straighter and bowed his head. “I would not do such a thing, Captain. Nor will I deny my error. I have shamed myself, I have shamed you, and I have shamed Lysippe and Telepyleia. But my blissful and selfish ignorance is over. As is my love for Lysippe.”

Pantariste smiled bitterly. “All of a sudden it is that easy?”

“No. My love for Lysippe will stay in my heart for some time, this you know. But it is my head that rules now. It is over. I will not be the breaker of a marriage. I will not break the sacredness of your vows and beliefs any more than I would break my own. And I would not lose what is left of the love you have for me for so poor a reason. I will speak with Lysippe and explain this to her as soon as possible-”

“No!” She said the word almost too quickly, her hand raised to his mouth. Her fingers touched his lips softly and her anger evaporated as her body began to take control. She suddenly needed to speak quickly.

“I feel the honesty in your words. In truth you are so inept at hiding the signs in your body that no one could fail to know you easily and well, Peleus. I believe you, and I am so pleased to hear your words. I will speak to Lysippe and Telepyleia. I will tell them what you have said, and every member of the crew will know the truth of it as you walk among them tomorrow. Now I must leave you before my pride succumbs to a more powerful need.”

She moved hastily towards the door and opened it. But Peleus stopped her with equally hurried words and a hand on the door.

“I’m sorry, Pantariste. I’m sorry I am so naïve, I am sorry I am so foolish and ignorant with all women. Ask Telepyleia to forgive me. And if she cannot, then ask her to at least absolve my brethren of any blame. It is I that is at fault, not Atlantis.”

She turned to look at him for a moment, her whole expression and mood exuding her sudden need for him.

“I will do as you ask,” she said almost breathlessly. “Now release me before my nerve fails.”

He let go of the door and she shot through it. And when Peleus closed the door behind her and leaned on it, he felt the sweat drip from his brow. He raised his hand and saw his fingers tremble. When had the cabin got so hot? The whole room was a sweetly scented oven.

Peleus pushed himself away from the door and hurried to the shower on frail legs.

-o-

Back in the privacy of his cabin on the Adrastus, Ares cradled Orithia in his arms and wiped her brow with a dampened cloth. She was like a frail and slender doll, her tiny features sweetly innocent in her weakness. They lay together in their bed, her under the blanket, and him on top. Her blonde hair spilled over his arms and the pillow, and her long legs were drawn up in her illness. Ares looked on her with concern.

“You must try to eat something, my wife. You grow too weak.”

Her mouth opened and she spoke in a weak voice. “I cannot…I must suffer my punishment.”

“This is not a punishment for you, but one for me. I worry for you so greatly. You must try and take some soup at least.”

“Do you not hate me?” she breathed, her eyes half open.

Ares kissed her gently. “Of course not. What is done is done. Too many have suffered and died for there to be vengeance now. It would serve no purpose.”

“Did you not tell your President?”

“No. There was no need.”

She looked up at him lovingly. “You are too good.”

“And you are too weak. Take some soup.”

She nodded at last. “I will try.”

He raised her in his arms and then brought the bowl closer. The spoon was almost too big for her mouth. She sipped from it.

“You have the strength of a kitten,” he remarked.

“Then I will need more soup,” she said between sips, “for I carry our first child.”

Her words didn’t sink in for a moment and then Ares began to bluster.

“But, how do you know?”

“We always know.”

“But, we-”

“Once is enough.”

“But, you-”

“I will grow strong again.”

Ares finally gave up and sighed. “You need more than soup.”

CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT

WALKING WITH THE ENEMY

Prothoe brought the Gate Of Heaven in low over the highway. The ship passed over abandoned and burnt out vehicles, most of them stripped to the metal. There were no bodies to be seen here. They were nearer to Nemen than to Jutlam City and they were too far from the scene of battle. The Gatherers had dominated this land, and the whole scene reflected their presence.

Everything was bare. There were no trees or bushes, even the grass and much of the topsoil was gone. On either side of the concrete roadway was a drop to a grey clay sub-soil that looked hard and barren. And as far as the eye could see, the grey clay stretched away, broken and uneven, but strangely flattened.

The Gate Of Heaven turned and her undercarriage descended. With engines howling the ship landed on the soft clay earth and sank slightly as it settled. And as soon as the noise from her engines died down her hatch slid open.

Scyleia glanced out at the barren scene outside and then turned to Anaxilea. “Are you sure you want to do this, Lea?”

Anaxilea dabbed at her sore nose as she leaned on her rifle. “Of course I want to do this. The task was made for me. Now stop prevaricating and give me the disc. You know your place is here.”

Scyleia took the disc from a pocket in her uniform and glanced outside again. “If only we could just blow it up.”

Anaxilea took the disc from her. “You and I both know that nothing is ever that easy.”

“But why is it always so hard?”

“Life is hard.”

The Corporal came into the airlock with Eastomoner. They were pulling the nuclear device on a trolley that was fitted with four large and thickly tyred wheels. The device looked complicated but far too small for its power. Altus brought up the rear, pushing it along. All the soldiers carried laser rifles.

Scyleia could see the Seventy-Ninth and the Androktones just outside the airlock. Like the soldiers, the Androktones carried their silver rifles, but the Warrior only had his axe. Scyleia waited for them all to squeeze inside before she raised her voice.

“To come back I want you all to do. Understand?” she said in Edenite.

The Corporal smiled at her. “And we intend to, Captain, have no fear of that!”

Anaxilea kissed Scyleia lightly on the cheek. “And don’t get any ideas about Pea while I’m away, either!” she said and held up a warning finger. “I know you!”

Anaxilea then turned and jumped out through the hatch before Scyleia could deny any such thoughts.

The Corporal and his men were now moving towards the hatch with the trolley. The Corporal was his usual bossy self. “Out of the way, will you? Come on, Eastomoner! Let’s get this thing outside!”

Scyleia moved aside and watched as the Edenites dragged the device on its trolley out through the hatch. The Seventy-Ninth followed the soldiers and then it was the turn of the Androktones. Scyleia put her hand out and stopped Ann-Ra as she came close.

“Have you argued with Heli?”

Ann-Ra seemed disturbed by the question. Maybe it was because Zen-Po and the other Androktones were right behind her. Or maybe it was because Scyleia was right.

“You must ask Hel-E that question, not I,” was the almost deadpan reply.

Scyleia knew that she shouldn’t have asked the question, but she didn’t care. It was the last chance she was going to have and she didn’t intend to let it slip by.

“I don’t know why Heli isn’t here, or what happened between you in the portal room when Vin-Di was killed, but I know that she wants you back! She needs you! You must know that?”

Ann-Ra stared at Scyleia for a moment as if she actually hadn’t understood anything she had said. Then she suddenly turned and called to the other Androktones to follow her.

“Cha!”

Ann-Ra jumped out through the airlock and Scyleia watched Zen-Po, El-Quan and Fam-Kai follow after her. She spoke to them as they went by.

“What I said to the others I meant for you, too! If you should choose to return you would all be welcome back aboard my ship! All of you!”

There was no reply from any of them. And only El-Quan glanced back at her as they walked away. Scyleia was now alone in the airlock as everyone hurried away across the rough clay ground. And with a sudden thought she shouted after them.

“Go with good heart! And, Lea! Keep in touch with the com-unit!”

Anaxilea turned and walked backwards. “Reception might be poor once we go underground!” she called back. “I’ll call you once we find the hole!”

“And call me again when you get back there! I will have Prothoe light the engines!”

Anaxilea nodded, waved and then turned and hurried away with the others.

Scyleia leaned against the side of the hatch and remembered how she had stood here that first time with Heli. Then it was to watch Tai-Gil and attempt to entice her on board. And then afterwards they had all fought so hard to bring the Androktones on board through this very same hatch. And now she was watching all the Androktones leave through that same hatch. Only Tai-Gil would remain on board.

Why did she feel that the omens were so bad? Was it because of the death of Vin-Di? Was it because even Fam-Kai had gone with them despite Kreousa’s protests? Or was it simply because Heli had refused to leave the bridge and come down to see them off?

Finally, as the distant figures grew smaller, she turned away from the hatch and went to the wall-mounted com-unit.

“Alcinoe! Seal the hatch! And keep everyone’s eyes peeled!”

-o-

On the bridge, Heli watched Alcinoe obey Scyleia’s commands. And when the hatch was closed she turned to stare at the viewing screen.

So far they were completely alone. There was nothing on the screens either in the air or on the ground. And the view outside was of silent desolation. All that moved on the viewing screen was a stream of tiny figures following a strange bobbing form.

Heli watched them but didn’t see. She should have been filled with the worry and sadness caused by their departure, but all she could think about was what had happened in the portal room. It was the reason why she hadn’t gone down to the reception deck to say goodbye to Ann-Ra.

When Vin-Di had died, Zen-Po’s whole body had oozed grief and her distress was apparent on her face and in her eyes. It had taken Heli by surprise because Zen-Po’s reaction contrasted so much with her state of mind when her daughter had been killed before. Then she had been sad but in control. This time was very different.

Why was that? Why exhibit such grief for one and not the other? Why lose control now?

Heli had tried to console Zen-Po even though she shared her grief. She had given Vin-Di the last rites and was explaining their significance to Zen-Po. She spoke to her about God and about Heaven, and how Vin-Di would be at peace because she was with Him now. And then Ann-Ra had chastised them both in a stern voice.

“Cease your distress, Zen-Po! Vin-Di has accomplished her task successfully! The Purpose has been served! And you have no right to grieve, Hel-E! Stand up! Stand up, both of you!”

Heli had climbed to her feet in tears. “You are heartless, Ann-Ra! How can you say such things, now of all times?”

“Because your grief is incorrect! You believe that Vin-Di has gone to a better place, so why are you sad? If your beliefs are true you should be pleased that Vin-Di’s pain is over!”

Heli had already been deeply upset, but the doubt cast on her faith caused her to become angry and she had spoken harshly and without thinking.

“Zen-Po has just lost the two most important people in her life and you stand there and order her not to grieve? How can you be so callous? How can you be so uncaring, so shallow? I know why! Because you are a liar! You said that you believed in God! You said that you accepted our faith and understood it, but it was a lie! You haven’t understood at all! And you never intended to! You have no right to question my faith! You believe in nothing! Only the purpose you speak of rules your mind!”

Ann-Ra had replied with equal anger but with stronger conviction.

“I do believe what you believe! You speak to me of faith, but you show little of it yourself! Vin-Di has gone to a better place! A place that you all seek! There should only be joy and contentment in this! You deny it, but your grief is a sign of a flaw in your own faith!”

While Heli had stood dumbfounded, it was left to Zen-Po to make any challenge. But when she stood up, it was also with anger in her eyes. And her voice held far more menace.

“Your words are as incorrect as my grief, Ann-Ra! Keep silent before you reveal too much of your flawed state!”

Ann-Ra and Zen-Po had then faced up to one another in equal anger as Ann-Ra had responded.

“You accuse me of a flawed integrity when you exhibit such emotion over the death of another?”

“Can you deny your flaw when you speak of this alien god and talk of belief?”

“You took solace from the words of Hel-E! You also believe! You have no right to accuse me!”

“And you had no right to kill Hai-Soo!”

“She killed Vin-Di!”

“The portal was closing! The danger was over! Why did you kill her?”

“She was incorrect!”

“She was not incorrect!”

In sudden fright at what might be about to happen, Heli had squeezed herself forcibly between them.

“Stop this! Stop! Vin-Di is dead! And the one who killed her is dead! Do you want to kill each others now?”

As other Klysanthians had then entered the portal room, Zen-Po had stormed out, all trace of her grief eradicated.

Heli had stayed with Ann-Ra in the portal room. And by the time Vin-Di’s body had been carried away to the Medical Centre they were both a lot calmer. But it was then that Heli’s biggest shock had been received. As they had walked back to the bridge together she had made the mistake of continuing Zen-Po’s line of questioning.

“Why did you kill the other one, the one called Hai-Soo?”

“She was incorrect!” Ann-Ra had insisted.

“But why?”

There was hesitation then, hesitation followed by the final answer.

“Because she was an unbeliever.”

-o-

To Anaxilea and the Corporal, the land was an unbroken field of grey clay. To the Androktones it was a sea of earthy smells and bacteria. But to the Seventy-Ninth it was a clear signpost to home and a distant Hive. He led them in a straight line directly to a dip in the ground far beyond sight of the ship. And at the centre of the dip was a dark shadow.

As the Warrior bobbed his way down to the edge of the hole, the Corporal paused at the top of the shallow incline and glanced back at the distant ship. It was now much smaller and less impressive. They had covered quite some distance, and yet right up to this moment the tunnel entrance had been invisible.

The Corporal looked down the shallow slope to the entrance. “I could have circled that all day and not found it.”

Anaxilea trotted down the slope to the side of the large hole. “Then understand you can now our problem from above.”

“Yeah.” The Corporal raised his voice. “Eastomoner! Altus! Lets get our friend down there!”

The soldiers began to wheel the trolley towards the hole while Ann-Ra and the other Androktones joined Anaxilea and the Warrior at the edge. They all looked down.

The entrance to the tunnel was a steep slope that bore the marks of many feet. It was now that it became clear that the sea of rough grey clay that they had crossed was the way it was for the same reason. Like the entrance to the tunnel, many feet had also pounded it flat. Now there was nothing but silence and stillness.

While they waited for the Corporal and his men to reach them with the trolley, Anaxilea pulled the com-unit from her belt and turned it on.

“Alcinoe? Alcinoe? It’s Anaxilea. We’re at the hole.”

“We hear you,” an electronically distorted Alcinoe replied from the com-unit. “We saw you disappear.”

Anaxilea looked around and realised that from the bottom of the slope the ship was now invisible. “Yeah, the Warrior took us straight to it. Tell Scyleia I will try and call again when we find the truck.”

“Okay. She should be back up here in a minute. Take care, Lea.”

“You too.”

Anaxilea broke the connection and refastened the com-unit to her belt. The Corporal and his men had now joined them with the trolley. She looked around at everyone.

“Well? Going in together are we? Or split up now must we?”

Zen-Po looked back in the direction they had travelled. She also saw that the ship was hidden from view. She looked down at the tunnel entrance.

“That we proceed a short distance together is acceptable. We continue to the vehicle you spoke of. It is another symbol of the Embassy status granted to you.”

Ann-Ra turned to the Seventy-Ninth who was leaning on his axe. “We can detect no living trace of your brothers within. None-the-less you will remain close to us. If you forge ahead in an attempt to escape, we will kill you.”

“You dishonour me with this remark,” the Warrior hissed in reply. “I have given my word and I have complied with the first part of your plan.”

Anaxilea had to give him that. “Right he be, despite for him my equal distrust. Like the Corporal did say around the land he could have led us, but here we be and quickly too.”

The Corporal agreed with Ann-Ra. “He’s still the enemy, and once we enter this tunnel he must be watched.”

El-Quan shouldered her rifle and moved closer to the Warrior. “Then he shall walk with me.”

The Seventy-Ninth bowed to her. “This is acceptable.”

Ann-Ra didn’t seem to like that idea. “You have spent too much time with the Warrior, El-Quan. Fam-Kai will walk with him.”

“No.”

The denial was firm and held clear power. That it had come from Zen-Po didn’t surprise anyone. It wasn’t the first time she had challenged Ann-Ra.

Zen-Po didn’t even look at Ann-Ra. “El-Quan, walk with the Warrior. Fam-Kai will walk with me. You, Ann-Ra, will walk behind close to the device.”

Ann-Ra bowed her head in response and said nothing. Zen-Po turned to the Warrior and pointed down into the tunnel.

“Lead.”

With El-Quan behind him, the Seventy-Ninth bobbed down the steep slope. Anaxilea followed with the Corporal, Fam-Kai and Zen-Po. Altus and Eastomoner then brought the trolley. Ann-Ra came last.

They entered the tunnel in silence, the brief but decisive exchange between Zen-Po and Ann-Ra casting a shadow over them all. It reminded them of the strife that existed between them. None of them were true allies, and not even the Androktones were content with each other.

-o-

Heli sat at her console staring at the viewing screen. She hardly heard Alcinoe speak when the figures on the screen vanished.

“I’ve got Lea on the com-unit! They’ve found the entrance to the tunnel!”

Heli merely nodded as Alcinoe spoke with Anaxilea over the communications link.

How could she have got it so wrong? How could the teachings she held so dear have been misinterpreted so much? Scyleia had said that it wasn’t her fault, that she meant well, but that her teachings were being misused. But she had attempted to teach Ann-Ra about goodness and love. How could these simple things be misinterpreted? How could they be misused? But then Heli realised how much emphasis she had put on her beliefs, and on how she wanted Ann-Ra to share those beliefs. Believing was so important. Faith was so important. And by impressing that importance on Ann-Ra she had merely given her another tool by which to measure the enemy.

She had wanted so much to convert Ann-Ra. She had wanted her to believe and be changed. And she had been so sure that she could do it.

Vanity. Pride.

It suddenly came as no surprise that she had failed. And failed miserably. Ann-Ra’s demon was stronger, and it was laughing at her. It had taken what she had preached and twisted it. And the final victory was in the ease with which Ann-Ra had left her. Kreousa had been right. Now she was left with nothing. Even her own faith was broken. And the final insult was the fact that even Ann-Ra knew it.

-o-

Mai-Ann was enmeshed in an argument with Lai-Fam across the portal. Mai-Ann was still at the Control Centre in Nemen, while Lai-Fam stood in the shadow of a large brown-stoned building at Hilbrok. She was surrounded by the sound of rifle-fire and the odd explosion, all of which were drowned out by Mai-Ann’s angry voice.

“Why this failure? Why have the Edenites not been subdued? Report! Report!”

Lai-Fam looked both pained and confused as she replied. “We cannot comply, Mai-Ann! The Edenites have dispersed themselves throughout the city! They avoid direct opposition and instead snipe at us from higher windows-”

“Destroy them!” Mai-Ann thundered. “Have the drones bring down the buildings!”

“But that will kill the males!”

“Do it! Take the city! Quell the rebellion! They must be forced to bend to our will!”

“But they will not! Those we have cornered in buildings continue to fight until they are eliminated! To continue the attack only reduces the number of males available to us! We must withdraw!”

Mai-Ann stepped forward menacingly and her cold eyes shone in her anger. “I will not allow it! Continue the attack!”

Lai-Fam backed against the wall but mentally stood her ground. “To continue defeats the Purpose!”

Mai-Ann stopped at the threshold of the portal and hissed her reply in cold and evil tones.

“The Purpose will only be served when this rebellion is quelled and the Edenites are totally within our power! You have proved yourself inept in this task, Lai-Fam! I hold you responsible for this disaster! Withdraw your forces and await Tai-Po’s arrival to replace you! Proceed!”

Lai-Fam instantly bowed her head. “Yes, Mai-Ann! Break the connection!”

Her last words were said in haste, and she looked grateful as her image faded within the cylinder to be replaced by that of Lai-Wa.

Lai-Wa was standing in an artificially lit windowless room, and her appearance was much calmer and more controlled than that of her sister. She had been monitoring the link and had severed it on command. And although she had heard all that was said, she made no reference to it when she spoke.

“All Edenite vessels have been tracked by our drones to the north eastern promontory of the Bruntolom Continent. Their positions have now been verified on our screens. But the Klysanthian vessel cannot be traced.”

Mai-Ann slowly calmed herself and stepped back. “Then it must have landed. Now that alternative arrangements for displaying the signals from the arrays have been established we can withdraw the air-borne drones. Keep tracking the Edenite vessels on the screens and send the drones here. Have them begin a sweep pattern. If the Klysanthian vessel is on the ground I want it located.”

“Yes, Mai-Ann.”

“Summon Tai-Po to the portal. Have her transfer to Hill-Brok and replace Lai-Fam. Tell her that I will arrive to take complete command once the risk to this Control Centre has been averted. Tell her also that there are to be no further attacks on the Edenites until I get there.”

-o-

Major Stumomoner crawled closer to the broken window and stared out. He kept his rifle held at the ready, but there was no one to shoot at. There was hardly anything in the street. One or two cars stood abandoned, there was some debris from the building further along which had been hit by heavy fire, and mostly there was just broken glass and the odd discarded bag or piece of clothing.

Everyone had left here in a hurry. But the soldiers and their civilian charges had now returned to replace them. Stumomoner had split them into groups and scattered them throughout the city. There were many buildings to choose from and hiding was easy, but the Alliance forces seemed to have the knack for sniffing them out. But finding them was easier than capturing them. After what they had learned about their enemy, none of the Edenites were going to give up without a fight. That meant the Alliance forces either had to take down the whole building, killing almost everyone, or back off. It seemed that they had now chosen the latter. Even the distant sound of gunfire and explosions had died down. The city was now as quiet as it was still. But there had been losses on both sides.

Among the debris, glass and discarded items were a few bodies. Dark clad female forms, they lay scattered and sprawled on the ground, dark stains around their heads.

Sitting by the next window was another soldier. He had a hard sheath around his leg and his rifle lay across the sill. Stumomoner turned to him.

“I think they’ve given up, Pedomoner.”

“I hope so,” Pedomoner replied as he continued to stare out of the window. “I can’t say I like head-shooting women.”

“They’re the enemy. And they were killing our women. You do what you have to do and you keep on doing it.”

“I know, Major. But I’m only human.”

Stumomoner sat down with his back to the wall and laid his rifle across his knees. “I didn’t expect them to give up so easily. Especially after that big silver monster took the building down on the east side. In fact I didn’t expect any of this to go as well as it has after that. I’ve never seen anything like that creature before in my life.”

“Maybe they aren’t used to an enemy that backs off,” Pedomoner suggested. “They were designed to fight the Keruh, weren’t they? They don’t back off.”

Stumomoner looked across at Pedomoner thoughtfully. “You know these Alliance women, don’t you? I mean you’ve met them at first hand.”

Pedomoner nodded. “Yeah. They didn’t seem so bad then. They actually helped us. One of them helped us a lot, even when she was like that silver monster you saw.”

“You said they split themselves to do that?”

“Yeah, something to do with their rifles. It’s alive like they are. It’s like they’re two separate animals.”

“And one of them helped you when it was like that?”

He nodded. “Maybe that’s why I find it hard to do this now.”

“Maybe the ones you knew were different?”

“They were, Major. They knew our names and we knew theirs.”

Stumomoner thought about that. He also thought about the Androktone with the jet-black hair and cold black eyes. And he vowed that he would keep a bullet for her in case she showed up.

-o-

Ann-Ra walked along the darkened tunnel in silence, frustration tearing at her mind as she rebuked herself for her weakness and lack of control.

She had been foolish to reproach Zen-Po. Zen-Po believed as she believed, Ann-Ra knew it the moment Hel-E had spoken to her and she had responded. Like Hai-Zen, Vin-Di wasn’t lost to them; she had merely gone somewhere better. Zen-Po felt the relief that this good news brought to her. She accepted the better way. Ann-Ra had been overwhelmed with joy. Now another shared the same belief. But then she had overstepped the mark.

The Purpose was still strong in both of them, and to admit this better way openly to another was dangerous, even to one who shared the same belief. But Ann-Ra couldn’t understand Hel-E’s pain. She was a believer, and she had taught both her and Zen-Po the better way, so why did she feel grief?

Vin-Di had gone to meet God. It was such a glorious event. And it was fitting for her sacrifice. Vin-Di had given her life to help all the others: Her sisters, those with Embassy status, every one. In return God had recognised her self-sacrifice and had taken her to Him. So why was Hel-E upset?

Ann-Ra had felt angry. She had felt the same hatred rising as she did for those who were incorrect. But Hel-E was the source of this better way, like the Councilman she represented the truth. There was confusion and Ann-Ra had lost control. But what hurt was that Zen-Po had then accused her of the same flaw.

Why could both Zen-Po and Hel-E not see the truth? And why was Hel-E so surprised when she had told her why she had killed Hai-Soo?

Hai-Soo was an unbeliever. She did not believe what they believed: She did not believe the Councilman and she did not believe in the better way. She was therefore incorrect. All those who did not believe were incorrect. They had to be killed. Ann-Ra instinctively knew that. It felt right. So why did Hel-E not see that?

Something had changed between them at that moment. Ann-Ra had felt it. Until then Hel-E had always exhibited a delight in her presence. There was a physical attraction, yes, but there was also something more stronger. Hel-E had yearned for some sort of fulfilment that seemed to be associated with the depth of her knowledge and with the acceptance of her beliefs. The more Ann-Ra had believed, the more that yearning and delight had increased. But on the bridge after Hai-Zen had been killed that yearning had wavered. Now it had died completely. Hel-E now avoided her when before she had sought out her company.

Ann-Ra reached up and felt the cross beneath her tunic. It had always reminded her of Heli and the new belief that they shared. Now it reminded her of what she had lost. Why did that hurt? Why did her feelings for this messenger from God confuse her so?

And in the moment of her confusion, her fate had been set. Although Zen-Po had not spoken to her about what had happened since then, her actions on the bridge of the Klysanthian ship and again once they had reached the entrance to the tunnel did not come as a surprise to Ann-Ra or to anyone. And that her sisters should support Zen-Po’s cause was also no surprise.

The final change in roles had been accomplished swiftly and without resistance. But that was as it should be among Androktones. But it still hurt. Ann-Ra had allowed her role as pod leader to be usurped by Zen-Po because she had no other choice. Her final slip in the portal room had condemned her, and there was no going back. Now she had to wait for the final accusation and execution and her only hope was that El-Quan and Fam-Kai would not allow it.

-o-

Clyemne stroked Cassiopea’s blonde hair as she lay in her bed in the Medical Centre aboard the Gate Of Heaven.

“Don’t worry, Pea, Anaxilea will be fine. She will be back before you know it and it will all be over.”

Cassiopea looked up at her worriedly, but at least she managed a smile. “That’s what she said to me before she left. I try to believe her, but I worry.”

“I know. We all do. But she is Captain and Matriarch, and you know how stubborn she can be. It would have been impossible to stop her going.”

Cassiopea knew exactly what she meant. “It’s not stubbornness, but guilt. The loss of the Charity has hurt her greatly. All our sisters lost. She feels the pain. Losing Aello and the others on the road didn’t help. And being here, with Scyleia now taking all the responsibility, is just plain bad for her.”

“Then you know that she has to do this, that it would have hurt her more to remain behind.”

“Yes, I know. But that is often the best reason not to go. She hides it well, but she is too emotional, too drained.” Cassiopea looked across at the slender form in the next bed. “She hasn’t even spoken to Phoebe yet. I wish she could have awoken.”

Clyemne took her hand in hers. “They will have plenty of time to talk when she gets back. Both Phoebe and Philippis are recovering well, and you will be on your feet soon.”

Cassiopea developed a wry smile. “The House of Charity is indeed flourishing: A Matriarch, three wounded, and you.”

Clyemne laughed. “A House is still a House so long as we still have charity in our hearts.”

The smile faded from Cassiopea’s lips. “I only have fear in mine.”

Clyemne squeezed her hand and leaned closer, kissing Cassiopea on the forehead. “Anaxilea will be back soon, I promise you.”

Cassiopea nodded and smiled again, but the fear wouldn’t leave her heart.

-o-

It was difficult to say whether the tunnel was familiar or not. It was just a big tunnel. But Ann-Ra felt the first twinges of recognition as they walked along in the darkening visibility.

There were faint traces, the scent and taste of living cells, fragments of DNA, all of it telling her that she had been here before. She recognised the taste of the Keruh, and of all the other Androktones who had chased and fought with them. But there was also another taste, a hard taste of oil and metal.

The tunnel was soon far too dark to see in, so El-Quan at the front and Ann-Ra at the back both altered their rifles into the bulbous torches that the Corporal and his men had seen before.

For Altus, Eastomoner and the Corporal it was almost as if they were back in the transit tunnels. All that was missing were the rails. And as they walked along pushing the trolley between them, they remembered the race to the station at Pannertine Gardens and the faces of Ganatus and Relther.

All of them remained silent. And as they trudged along with only the squeaking of the trolley wheels breaking that silence, Anaxilea also began to remember a previous darkened journey. It was a journey on a rocking truck with the bodies of Celaneo, Thermodosa, Deianeira and Aello as silent passengers. Like then, the Seventy-Ninth had also been present.

How Anaxilea had hated him then, and still hated him now. He represented their deaths; the deaths of all her crew, taken after the Charity had crashed.

But now she walked with him freely.

To be doing what she was doing now, with him, would have been unthinkable then. And yet she was doing it. Had her attitude towards the Warrior changed?

No! It couldn’t! She wouldn’t stand for it!

But in her heart she knew it had. Her anger had faded, just a little, but the sadness was still there.

It was all that female Edenite’s fault! Her and her pious ideas! If she hadn’t saved him, Anaxilea wouldn’t have been worried by these thoughts now. He would have been dead and she would have been done with him.

But the sadness would have still been there.

El-Quan raised her torch higher as she walked along with the Seventy-Ninth. She remembered the last time she provided light for those who were incorrect. Then she could hardly stand the stench of them all. She had been filled with such confusion. Now she hardly noticed the smell. She had been with these aliens for too long, she had become used to the association. And as the seed of the one who matched grew inside her, the control and power of the Purpose over her was weakened by a simple truth.

The incorrect were no longer incorrect. They were just different.

Alongside El-Quan, the Seventy-Ninth also contemplated the dramatic changes in his life. He was back within one of their tunnels, the smell of his Hive brothers all around him. But the silent and empty tunnel also brought him great misgivings. Was the Hive as empty as this? Was it as silent as this? As silent as the grave?

He was walking with the enemy. And the one that walked closest to him, El-Quan, he now considered to be an ally in war. He trusted her as she trusted him. Both of them had made pledges that they had kept, pledges that were important. She was now a Hive brother.

How could this be? How could he make such a step of association beyond that of the Hive? Was he that removed from his brothers now? Was he that superior? Or was he now just the same as those he walked with?

Knowledge and interpretation of knowledge bred wisdom.

They were all changed. Assassin-Drone, Keruh, Klysanthian, and Edenite, they all walked together now, all of them enemies, all of them allies, their future enmeshed.

-o-

Kreousa sat on Fam-Kai’s empty bed in the cabin allocated to the Androktones and watched Tai-Gil sleep. She wasn’t exactly sure why she was still here, but the need was almost physical. She had felt it as soon as Fam-Kai had left.

As soon as she had learned of Fam-Kai’s intent to go on the mission with the others, Kreousa had gone to their cabin and argued until she was out of breath. All of the Androktones had ignored her, and Fam-Kai had risen from her bed and calmly got dressed. Externally her wound had healed almost completely, and no dressings or bindings were necessary. But Kreousa feared for the internal damage.

“The bones will hardly be set!” she had protested. “You should stay in bed and rest!”

“I must go with my sisters,” Fam-Kai had replied. “I know my body and I know my place. My skeletal structure will not fail.”

“But you don’t have to go!”

“My presence here among you is wrong. Everything that has happened since I came aboard is wrong. Going with my sisters is right. I feel content with this, as you must in aiding my recovery.”

“You’ll be killed if you go!”

It was a final accusation rather than a statement. The other Androktones had paused, and Fam-Kai had merely bowed her head briefly.

“Your concern for me is pleasing, Kre-Owe-Sa, but I am an Androktone. Like my sisters my purpose in life is to fight and to die. We are all content with this. It is what we know best and what we are used to. But I understand your sadness. Like my seed before me, there must be a solution to the dilemma we face. All that has happened must be resolved. I go with my sisters to find this resolution. But we do not seek our deaths as you assume. That it may happen is a possibility. But all I can be sure of is that we will not meet again. So go with good heart, Kre-Owe-Sa.”

Kreousa had sunk down on the bed as the Androktones had trooped out. And there she had stayed, watching Tai-Gil.

Why did these alien clones manufactured for war tear at her heartstrings so? Was it because she knew their innocence, buried deep inside? Or was it because she feared that what Fam-Kai had said was a lie, and that like her daughter, she yearned for the escape from their dilemma that death could bring.

No, that wasn’t true. Kreousa knew them too well. Fam-Kai couldn’t lie anymore than El-Quan could lie. Like all the Androktones, it just wouldn’t work. Their bodies told you instantly what they felt. Fam-Kai wouldn’t lie and hadn’t lied. None of them would. They were too innocent and honest for that.

They didn’t want to die, they just wanted to escape, any kind of escape. Even death would be acceptable. What had happened to them and was still happening to them was hurting their minds. Kreousa had always known that. And although she had broken the yearnings that El-Quan had aroused in her heart and her body, she still felt the attraction. And like Heli and Scyleia, she would suffer the same despair caused by the Androktones departure.

But one Androktone had not left them. And now, as Kreousa sat alone with Tai-Gil, she wondered what thoughts passed through her sleeping mind. Did she also seek the same resolution? And if so, why did she still live? Her wounds were far more severe, and she showed little sign of improvement. If anything she deteriorated, slowly but surely. But while her sisters sought the possibility of death in battle, Tai-Gil fought to live, staying alive when it would have been far easier to give in and expire.

But the answer to this was simple: They were not yet safe.

Would their safety bring her sudden death? Somehow Kreousa knew that it would, and that Tai-Gil’s presence in the cabin was deceiving. Like her sisters she trod the same path towards escape, separated in body, but together in spirit.

-o-

Scyleia reached the bridge to find Heli hunched over the console with Alcinoe as they both stared at the screen and argued. Neither of them noticed their Captain enter.

“We have to take off!” Alcinoe said in almost panic.

“No! They’ll see us for sure!” Heli replied.

“But they’ll see us on the ground anyway!”

Scyleia instantly became alarmed. “Who will see us?”

Both her officers spun round in surprise and it was left to Prothoe to explain their predicament.

“We’ve got company.”

Scyleia hurried to the console. “Speak, Heli! Who are they?”

Heli stepped back from the console as Scyleia looked down at the screen.

“It’s three air-borne drones. Has to be from their size and speed. I’ve had the maser batteries prepped.”

And Alcinoe added nervously, “They’re coming in from the west! They’re bound to see us on this flat ground!”

Scyleia looked at the three points moving on the screen. “They’re too close,” she muttered in rising fear.

Alcinoe was still on the verge of panic as she sat at her console. “We have to take off, Scyleia!”

Scyleia turned to her and snapped at her. “We’ve lost an engine! We’ll never make it!”

“But what are we to do?”

Heli pointed at the screen. “They’re splitting up! Do you want me to open fire?”

Scyleia stamped both her feet in rhythmic succession. “Yes! No! Wait!”

Almost at the moment they reached the Gate Of Heaven, the three points moved apart, two slowly moving to the left while the third moved to the right. The lights circled the ship, and then one by one, they went out.

Alcinoe stared at the screen with wide eyes. “They’ve landed!”

Heli turned to Scyleia. “Do you think they will attack from the ground?”

Scyleia was still staring at the screen. “No.”

Alcinoe looked up at her. “Then what are they going to do?”

“They don’t have to do anything. They have us, and they know it.”

-o-

Out of the gloom a shape took form in the tunnel. Anaxilea recognised it instantly.

“The truck it be!” she announced to everyone. “Near to our goal we are now!”

The truck looked abandoned and dusty. The windows were broken and there were no tyres on the wheels. The tarpaulin cover was gone and the cab door nearest to them hung wide open. Inside the seats had been stripped.

The Corporal and his men brought the trolley to a halt next to the truck.

“Keep your voice down!” he told Anaxilea in a harsh whisper. “We are hoping to surprise them, you know!”

She turned to him with a reply at her lips, but then she caught sight of the Seventy-Ninth. The Warrior was also looking up at the truck. And while he held his axe by his side in his large hand, his smaller hand was raised to the split in his armour and his fingers touched the grey patch on his chest.

Anaxilea smiled. “Remember well do you your debt to us, Warrior of noble intent?”

He turned his body towards her. “As equally as I do the subterfuge of the Matriarch without honour!”

Anaxilea laughed. “Hold a rifle I do now, you hold an axe. Maybe our differences now we should settle?”

The Seventy-Ninth raised his axe into a defensive position. “I am ready!”

The Corporal had heard enough of their banter. “Shut it, the pair of you! We’ve got a job to do! Let’s get on with it! So we’ve found the truck! So what? It’s the Control Centre we need to find! Lead the way, Warrior!”

Zen-Po stepped forward. “No. It is best that we split up now. The vehicle is the last point under which Embassy status can be maintained. You must remain here with the Warrior and secrete the device somewhere in this tunnel. It is best that you do this after we have departed so that the location remains unknown to us.”

The Corporal took a deep breath and then sighed. “Okay, I understand.”

“Good.” Zen-Po turned to Anaxilea and held out her hand. “Give me the disc.”

Anaxilea reached into her pocket and pulled out the disc. But the Corporal grabbed her hand before she could give it to Zen-Po.

“Are you mad? That’s our only chance of getting away!”

Anaxilea smiled at him sadly. “Know you do that to do this we have. Agreed we have. Not now be the time of indecision.”

There was a lengthy pause while the Corporal did indeed agonise over what to do. Giving away the disc felt wrong, and yet he knew he would have to do it. But he didn’t want to. He even looked to El-Quan and Ann-Ra for support, but El-Quan merely avoided his gaze while Ann-Ra looked at the ground. Finally he let go of Anaxilea’s hand.

Anaxilea gave Zen-Po the disc and she hastily stuffed it inside her tunic. Then she turned and waved to the other Androktones.

“Cha!”

They all walked away leaving Anaxilea, the Seventy-Ninth and the three soldiers standing by the abandoned truck, the device on its trolley behind them. And as the Androktones walked away with their raised torches, the tunnel grew dark around them.

“Aw, shit!” the Corporal muttered.

-o-

In the Control Centre at Nemen, Mai-Ann turned from surveying the landing field as another Androktone came to pause behind her.

“Speak, Tai-Mai.”

“We have received word from Lai-Wa. The Klysanthian ship has been located.”

Mai-Ann received the news with a luscious delight that brought an almost syrupy edge to her rich voice.

“Show me.”

Tai-Mai waved to another Androktone who had brought a large rolled up chart. The two Androktones then unravelled it over one of the damaged consoles. And as Mai-Ann looked down at the chart, Tai-Mai pointed.

“It is here.”

Mai-Ann stared at the chart, her eyes narrowing. “Why there? Why so far? Even the road is distant.”

“They could be damaged,” Tai-Mai suggested. “They did not even attempt to take off when the drones approached.”

Mai-Ann shook her head. “No, this enemy has guile. For her to be there requires a reason. Is there anything there, anything at all, that is not shown on this map?”

Tai-Mai thought for a moment, but then the other Androktone spoke up.

“There is the Keruh tunnel.”

Mai-Ann turned to her. “Show me, Chen-Quan. Trace its path on this chart.”

Chen-Quan retrieved a broken pencil from another console and began to draw a line on the chart. She spoke as she drew.

“I traversed the tunnel when I took part in the original attack with Ann-Ra. It was in here that we found the one that matched. Ann-Ra stayed with her while we chased the Keruh for many miles until the tunnel came to an end. We suspected that Diggers had sealed it to prevent our taking the whole system. It passes under the landing field close to this building. There is an access tunnel from the surface outside here.”

Mai-Ann watched Chen-Quan draw the line along the map. It led from the landing field out across the open ground towards the west. Finally she asked the question that would confirm her suspicions.

“Tai-Mai, point again at the location of the Klysanthian ship.”

Tai-Mai indicated a spot almost on top of the pencil line.

Mai-Ann nodded in satisfaction. “Contact Lai-Wa. Have her open a portal connection between here and a point in the tunnel beyond the ship. I will enter through the portal with a force and approach them from the rear. At the same time you will take a similar force and enter the tunnel at the entrance here. We will trap them between us and destroy them.”

-o-

Ann-Ra was glad when they had left the truck behind. The sight of it had reminded her of the changes that had taken place in her life since she had first stepped on to that broken vehicle. Once everything had been so simple, there were few rules and nothing challenged them. She killed with delight and with vitality. Then came those with Embassy status and now everything was different.

But association with the incorrect had brought with it the better way. It was a belief that filled her with expectancy and joy, but also caused a battle of resolution in her mind with the Purpose. And now at the moment of her greatest weakness her sisters knew of her confusion. That fact caused a sudden fear to grow in her stomach. It was a fear she had never felt before, and it continued to grow as they walked along the tunnel, and the truck, the Edenites, the Klysanthian, and the Warrior all faded from view and scent behind them. Finally, as she expected, Zen-Po came to walk beside her.

“You understand your predicament?” she said without turning to her.

Ann-Ra felt the fear turn to final acceptance as she nodded.

“Do you remember life without the pain of Embassy status?”

“When the Purpose flows within me once more, the pain will be gone,” she lied.

“I think not. Return to the aliens, Ann-Ra. Give them the light that they lack. And when they return to the ship, go with them. You will not be welcome among our sisters anymore.”

Ann-Ra stopped walking and was slowly overtaken by her sisters. Fam-Kai and El-Quan both looked back, but neither stopped. Ann-Ra watched them disappear and suddenly felt terribly alone.

-o-

While Altus and Eastomoner fumbled about in the darkness with the trolley, the Corporal spoke to the tunnel wall.

“Warrior? Are there any side tunnels in here?”

“Yes,” the Seventy-Ninth hissed from behind him. “Follow me.”

The Corporal spun round and stepped forward. “Follow you? I can’t even see you -oomph!” He hit the side of the trolley, falling on top of it and knocking it over in the process.

“Watch out, Corp!” Eastomoner cried out as the trolley toppled over despite his and Altus’s efforts to keep it upright.

With a clatter and a rattle and a lot of swearing, the trolley, the nuclear device, and all three soldiers fell in a tangled heap in the darkness.

The sound of turmoil caused Anaxilea to run forward, but she suddenly found her way barred by a wide and cold piece of steel. Even in the pitch darkness she knew exactly what it was as soon as she felt it against her chest. It was the Warrior’s axe, held broadside on. The edge of the blade was just under her chin. She instantly froze.

As the soldiers clambered to their feet, Altus asked the obvious. “Didn’t anyone bring a torch?”

The Corporal seized on the question. “Yeah! Where’s that torch the civilian, Didi, brought with him?”

“Relther had it,” Eastomoner said.

“Shit!”

“I can see a light.”

It was Altus that had spoken last, and now everyone could see the glow in the distance. The Corporal dropped to his knees and began to scrabble over the ground with his hands looking for a rifle.

“Who is it?” he asked. “Can anyone tell?

The Seventy-Ninth hissed his recognition. “It is the Assassin-Drone, Ann-Ra. She returns with a light.”

With a sigh, the Corporal gave up the search for a rifle and stood up again. The three soldiers now dusted themselves off and waited for Ann-Ra to reach them. And as shadows began to take shape in the darkness of the tunnel and the truck emerged from the gloom once more, Anaxilea became conscious of a large wall before her.

Right in front of her face was the open door of the cab. She had been about to run into it in the darkness when the Warrior had stopped her. She slowly turned to face him in the gloom.

“My indebtedness to you more pain causes me than any collision against my face,” she said in irritation.

“I know,” he replied, and lowered his axe.

There had been no sign of smugness in the Warrior’s reply and yet Anaxilea could feel it. Her eyes narrowed. “Not need you the light in this tunnel. Why in the dark did you not slip away?”

“I gave my word.”

She continued to look at him but didn’t reply. And then Ann-Ra stood among them and held her torch high.

Ann-Ra looked at the rifles scattered on the floor, the overturned trolley with one of its wheels still spinning, and the nuclear device upside down next to it. Finally she shook her head.

“I see now why we were created. The Keruh need only attack in the night to gain a victory.”

The Corporal snatched up one of the rifles. “Who asked you to come back?”

Ann-Ra turned to him. “It was thought that you would benefit from my light. And Zen-Po and my sisters can no longer tolerate my defective state. It was either return here or be killed.”

The Corporal wasn’t interested in her problems. “Alright, so none of us are perfect! Bring that light over here while we check the nuke!”

Ann-Ra did as he asked and the Corporal crouched over the device. Anaxilea came to stand behind him. She looked disinterested.

“How be broken by so short a fall can the weapon be? Big and robust and violent in its construction and nature it be. Waste time we do in this delay.”

The Corporal straightened up and held out a square component with wires trailing from it. It had a broken glass panel on one side and there were some digital numbers underneath it.

“You think so?”

CHAPTER FORTY-NINE

FACTIONS

In a screened off area of the main hold in the starboard hull of the Gate Of Heaven, Gusta had heard all. And once the full extent of her son’s activities had been revealed to her, all Gusta could do was collapse down on the bed next to him, sigh and shake her head in disbelief.

“I knew something was wrong,” she said in shock. “I just knew. But this? And with Elquan, too. And to think I trusted her. I like her, damn it!”

Breda laughed. “And there was I thinking that this was going to be my first time and how important it was! And all the time my little brother has already done it before me! Twice! With aliens!”

Tipi sank down on the bed even lower as Gusta chastised his sister.

“Shut up, you! You aren’t helping!”

Breda only smiled more. “But, mum, it’s so funny! All that worrying you and dad went through about whether Kiki was right for me, about whether we were getting married too soon, or too late, all of it, its such a laugh when you think about Tipi having it away with Elquan and a Klysanthian!”

Tipi suddenly piped up, “That’s not fair! You’re making it sound like I did it with them both at the same time!”

Gusta cuffed him behind the ear. “One at a time or together makes no odds! You’re too damn young to be doing it at all! Wait until your father finds out!”

Breda laughed again so Gusta shouted across at her in annoyance.

“I don’t think it’s funny! I trusted Elquan! She helped us and I considered her to be a friend! We owe her a lot! But I never imagined that she would sleep with my son!” She suddenly turned to Tipi. “You must have said something to her!”

Tipi looked up at her. “I never spoke to her before she came to me.”

“I don’t believe that! You must have said something or done something?”

“But I didn’t do anything to her, mum!” he protested. “She just came to me!”

“And what about the first time, then? You nearly killed that Philippis!”

“I didn’t do it on purpose!” Tears welled up in his eyes and Tipi turned and threw himself down on the bed. “I didn’t mean to hurt her! I didn’t! I didn’t!”

Gusta relented at the sight and sound of her son’s sobs. He was really upset and she knew it. It must have been a traumatic experience. He already felt guilty and she was just making it worse. She calmed down and reached out to rub his back.

“I know you didn’t mean it, Tipi darling, but you’re so young, and you don’t know enough about it all yet. Someone older would have known that a Klysanthian was too small. You have to learn about these things, especially about the aliens that come here. You could get into serious trouble if not.”

Breda developed an evil grin. “It’s a good job she wasn’t an Anakrotain! She’d have eaten him!”

Gusta glared at her. “I thought I told you to shut up? Why don’t you go and find that husband of yours?” She jerked her head towards the curtain.

Breda reluctantly got to her feet. “Do you want me to tell dad if I see him?”

“No! I’ll tell him later! Now buzz off!”

Breda left. And when the curtain had settled behind her, Gusta turned once more to her son.

“Come on, sit up. And stop crying. You’re a big boy now, after all.”

He sat up and wiped his eyes as his mother hugged him. “I don’t feel grown up.”

“That’s because you aren’t, yet. I said you were a big boy, I didn’t say that you were grown up. Doing what you did is-” she paused to think, “-well, its part of growing up, but it isn’t growing up.” She looked down at him. “Do you know what I mean?”

He nodded. “It’s like seeing dead people. Like having people you know die. Like Bibi Timoner. I’ve seen it all now, but I’m not any older.”

Gusta was surprised and saddened by his remark. She hugged him tighter. “Yes, it’s like that. But at least it’s nicer, different, anyway. You learn from it all in the end. And when it comes time for you to do what you did with someone you really love, then at least you won’t be as shy or as nervous as you might have been.”

He looked up at her again. “I really didn’t mean to hurt Philippis, you know.”

She nodded and stroked his face. “Yes, I know. But Klysanthians are a bit unusual. Not as dangerous as Anakrotains, but just as complicated.”

Tipi grew curious. “Do they really eat their males?”

She patted him. “Only when they’re ovulating.”

Tipi turned away and thought about that for a moment before looking up at his mother again. “Are you angry with me?”

She sighed and considered. “Disappointed,” she finally said. “I know that you have to grow up, and like you said, circumstances have speeded that up a lot. And we’ve all seen and experienced things in the past few days that few people will do in an entire lifetime. So I can’t really be angry with you. Except maybe that you hid it from me.”

“I felt so guilty about Philippis that I didn’t know what to say,” he admitted. “And then when Elquan appeared in my room and it happened again I was even more confused. It’s like Breda said, I’ve never done it before and now I’ve done it twice, with aliens.”

Gusta now looked at him thoughtfully. “Did you like them?”

He looked up at her and nodded. “Sort of. I liked Philippis because I knew her and because I liked Phoebe before. I carried Phoebe a lot when Kelandra and I first found her. And I even carried her and Philippis later. But I never even thought about Elquan. She was just there in my room. But afterwards when I spoke to her properly I liked her too. I like them both, really, but it wasn’t like I always fancied them before. It just happened.”

“Did you fancy Kelandra?”

Tipi bit his lip and dropped his head again. He nodded.

“I thought so. When you were with her in the recreation area you looked happy. You looked happy for the first time since I had found you again. I’m glad; she’s a nice girl. And she’s on her own, she needs someone to look out for her.”

Tipi was shaking his head. “She won’t want me.”

“And why do you think that? What’s wrong with you?”

Tipi’s emotions boiled over and he cried again. “Because I’ve cheated on her and she will hate me!” he exclaimed, burying his head in his mother’s shoulder.

Gusta hugged him and stroked his hair. “Oh, don’t be silly! She won’t think that at all! It’s very rare these days for a man not to have had some experience before he is married. And many women appreciate that. It won’t be so bad.”

“But I can’t even think of telling her! I’d be so embarrassed!”

“Embarrassed about telling her what happened, or embarrassed about telling her that you love her?”

“Both!” came the muffled reply.

Gusta pulled his face back into view. “Now listen, you! We’ve just spent all our time talking about how things have moved so fast, and about how many dangerous and extraordinary things have happened to us! The least you should have learned from all of that is not to waste any time! That’s why Breda and Kiki have got married. And that’s why you shouldn’t waste any time with Kelandra! If you want her! Tell her! Soon! Or I will! Or Breda will! And then you will be embarrassed!”

-o-

Clyemne had left the Medical Centre when Cassiopea had drifted into sleep. She had left word with Kreousa that she should be summoned if she was needed and had gone down to the main hold. There she had spoken with anxious Edenites who were most concerned about what had happened and what was going on. She did her best to console them all, telling them as much of the truth as she could without really telling them everything.

“We have to pause here for our repairs, that is all. Once all has been made safe we will take-off again and rejoin the convoy that leaves your world. Do not concern yourselves. Please be calm.”

It was the message she repeated to everyone, those who had been picked up first at Jutlam City, and those who had boarded in panic at Hilbrok.

It was fortunate that their original passengers had learned to trust her and accept her statements so readily, because it was their reassurances given to the new arrivals that helped to ease their fears.

Clyemne didn’t like to mislead them, but it was necessary until the outcome of their attack on the Control Centre was known. It was too early yet to know anything, but the arrival of the drones had cast a shadow of depression over the entire crew that was at its deepest on the bridge.

Clyemne had heard the news from Kreousa before she had left the Medical Centre. And the feeling of gloom had grown as she had walked through the ship. She shared that gloom, but she didn’t show it. But it wasn’t surprising that the Edenites were also worried. They couldn’t help picking up on the depressive atmosphere. So it was with a feeling of pleasure that Clyemne caught sight of Breda with Kiki. At least now she would be greeted with happiness.

Breda kissed Kiki and hurried to meet Clyemne, and as soon as she reached the Klysanthian she folded her arms and said, “Did you know about my brother?”

Clyemne smiled in sudden understanding. “Ah!”

-o-

On the bridge, Scyleia sat in her command chair with her face buried in her hands. She reeked of surrender and defeat.

Alcinoe looked up from her console, her face a picture of despair that matched the mood on the bridge. “I still can’t raise Anaxilea! All I get is static!”

“Try again!” Scyleia replied in a muffled voice. “You have to reach her! They have to know what’s happened!”

Alcinoe turned back to her console, fear and anguish causing her fingers to tremble. But as soon as the connection was made, only static could be heard on the speakers.

Heli came to stand next to Scyleia. “I could take a team and try to reach her on foot. It wouldn’t take me long.”

“The drones will intercept you,” the muffled voice replied.

“We don’t know that. They haven’t attacked yet.”

Scyleia raised a tearful and dejected face from her hands. “They have us, Heli! If you go out there they will kill you! If we try to move the Heaven they will cripple her!”

Scyleia’s expression turned from despair to anger as she raised her voice and smacked the arms of her chair with her fists. “We have lost this game! Only Lea can win it for us now! With her success the others might still escape! But if they have found us, then they must surely know of the tunnel! We have to warn her!” she turned to Alcinoe.

“Keep trying, Alcinoe! Try until the power is drained from the batteries! Try until your fingers bleed! Make her hear us! She has to know! Try again, Alcinoe!”

Alcinoe nodded her head and cried as she tapped at her keyboard. “Yes, Captain! Trying again now, Captain!”

The connection was made, and again the familiar sound was heard.

-o-

“It just be static!” Anaxilea said in annoyance as she shook the com-unit. “Too far we be underground for this to work!”

The Corporal looked up from the nuclear device. “A fat lot of difference it will make if you do get through. Unless they can squeeze a new timer down the radio waves.”

The nuclear device was now back on the trolley. It was also the right way up and looked complete. But there was no way the broken timer was going to work even if they had put it all back together correctly. And they all knew it. Only the Warrior and Ann-Ra seemed undisturbed by this knowledge. And the Seventy-Ninth said so.

“The weapon is still functional. There is no reason for your despair,” he hissed.

The Corporal turned to him. “Oh, no? So how are we going to set it to detonate after we have all left without the timer?”

“One of us must remain behind.” The Seventy-Ninth then bowed. “I volunteer for this task. It is a noble deed.”

“Yeah, yeah!” the Corporal replied derisively. He pointed at the Warrior. “You’re the enemy! It was your kind that got us into this mess in the first place! When we go! You go!”

Ann-Ra then said, “I will remain to activate the device. If Zen-Po is unsuccessful I would not be able to take part in any attack on my sisters at the Control Centre, and to return to your ship is impractical. It is therefore logical that it be me.”

The Corporal now laughed. “Ha, ha! Very funny!” His false humour left quicker than it came and he continued in anger. “I wouldn’t trust you anymore than him! Like you said, it’s your lot that have got control of the Defence Net! And we all understand the meanings behind your divided loyalties! So it ain’t going to be you!”

Eastomoner didn’t think it was so funny. “So who’s going to do it, Corp?”

The Corporal watched and waited as Ann-Ra turned away without reply and looked down the tunnel. Then he shrugged.

“I suppose it will have to be me, won’t it?” he said in a quieter voice.

Anaxilea folded her arms. “So, brave and honourable Corp-Edenite,” she said sarcastically. “How cause you the device to go boof! do you?”

She made an explosive gesture with her head as she said the word. In response the Corporal moved closer to the device and looked around for a moment.

“There has to be an on/off button somewhere.”

The Seventy-Ninth now stepped forward and pointed with his smaller hand. “The activation point is here, under the red casing.”

The three soldiers all looked at him, and Altus said, “How do you know?”

The Warrior bowed. “We studied your weapons. This is standard practise in war. It is also why I should be the one to remain.”

Ann-Ra was still looking down the tunnel. And as they all stared at the Warrior in surprise she spoke up again.

“The debate is no longer of importance,” she said as she continued to look down the tunnel.

The Corporal looked round at her. “And why not?”

“Because my sisters have entered the tunnel behind us. Our route back to the ship has been blocked. Now we must all stay.”

-o-

Mai-Ann could smell the incorrect as soon as she passed through the portal. She stood in the tunnel and waited as twenty Androktones gathered around her. All of them held their rifles at the ready. Finally she turned to one of them.

“Nan-Kai! Remain here at the portal! The rest of you, proceed!”

Nan-Kai bowed her head. “Yes, Mai-Ann!”

Mai-Ann walked purposefully away along the tunnel at the head of her sisters. In a few minutes they had left the portal behind them and it’s light faded. They walked on in silence and in the darkness, but all of them knew exactly what was around them.

Mai-Ann switched her eyes to infrared sensitivity and the darkness lit up in red and blue-green colours. The heat gave away the recent passage of hot-blooded creatures almost as well as the faint traces of DNA. Those traces disgusted Mai-Ann. They reeked of impurity. But what really angered her were the traces of Androktone DNA.

“Chen-Quan! Are any of these Androktones familiar to you?”

Chen-Quan nodded as she sniffed distastefully at the air. “Ann-Ra.”

“Yes!” Mai-Ann agreed in triumph. “Ann-Ra and Zen-Po! They are both flawed! As are the other Androktones that walk with them! Their integrity has mutated! They are as disgusting as the aliens who accompany them! They all deserve to die! They must die and they will die!”

-o-

Zen-Po, El-Quan and Fam-Kai were now very close to the exit hole that would lead them to the surface and the Control Centre at Nemen. And as they walked along, Zen-Po turned to El-Quan.

“Was I harsh to abandon Ann-Ra?”

It was the first time they had spoken since they had left Ann-Ra behind, and the subject she brought up so abruptly had dwelled on their minds throughout.

El-Quan shook her head. “No. You acted fairly. To take her life would have been harsh. Fam-Kai and I would not have permitted it.”

“You would have stood against me even though you knew of her flawed state?”

“We are all flawed in some respect. I have been too long with these aliens and find the genetic differences are now blurred. I am too comfortable among those I should detest. In truth I feel a certain pain at their absence that has at its heart a familiarity that I should fear. And you in turn have accepted the alien god Ann-Ra spoke of. It brings you relief at a high moment of stress. Only Fam-Kai could claim any purity among us.”

Fam-Kai made no comment on the praise heaped upon her, so El-Quan continued.

“In varying degrees we have all fallen victim to the power of association that has been provided by Embassy status. There is much that can be gained from this, but there is also much to fear. I too have heard of this alien god from Ann-Ra. At its focus is a preaching based on love and passivity. We have discussed this belief in the past and I still believe that it is a threat.”

Zen-Po nodded. “It is a threat, and I admit my error. But I find this belief to be somehow comforting. It provides an avenue of relief beyond that of the Purpose or even of our mortal existence. I like that. It allows me to think of Vin-Di and Hai-Zen in a different way, even after their deaths. And even my own future end is affected by this.”

“I understand this comfort, and that I do understand is part of my own failing. It is why the belief is a threat. It hurts me. Does the knowledge that you have gained comfort from this belief hurt you also?”

“Yes.”

“Then there is no reason for your fear. We were among those with Embassy status. And the double loss of Hai-Zen and Vin-Di within so short a timescale deserved a fitting response. Soon we will return to our sisters, the Purpose will hold sway in our minds once more, and what we have learned we will then understand more clearly.”

“You speak well, El-Quan, but by your own admission your psyche is as smashed as mine.”

“Then my fear is as equal as yours.”

They both became silent. But then Fam-Kai finally spoke up at last.

“Maybe we should let our sisters be the test.”

Zen-Po and El-Quan both looked across at her. Fam-Kai was staring ahead of them at something. And the reason became clear even before El-Quan and Zen-Po turned to look. There were figures moving in the tunnel ahead of them, shadows that developed a harder edge, each figure accompanied by a flash of silver.

Zen-Po, El-Quan, and Fam-Kai stopped and waited until their sisters had reached them and surrounded them. Although El-Quan held her rifle in the form of the torch, either Zen-Po or Fam-Kai could have shown some resistance. Instead they both held their rifles casually, as if they didn’t care. It was a feeling El-Quan shared. The time of their judgement had come. And it was a judgement that Zen-Po now showed she was not prepared to take without a challenge.

“Why do you and your sisters look upon us with such hatred, Tai-Mai?”

Despite all the rifles pointing at them, Zen-Po’s words had been spoken with power and haughty arrogance. In response, Tai-Mai’s expression grew even more angered as she stepped forward.

“You are incorrect, Zen-Po! You stink of betrayal and mutated thought! You disgust me!”

“For you to accuse me you must first be without flaw.”

Tai-Mai’s anger grew. “You dare to accuse me? You who have turned against the Purpose and have sided with the enemy?”

“I will prove my validity with a simple question. If you and your sisters are not flawed, then the surviving Edenite population will have been subdued and the procreation of our future generation will have begun. Confirm that this is the case.”

Tai-Mai hesitated, her expression of anger fractured by a sudden anxiety. And all the rifles pointing at Zen-Po wavered. Tai-Mai blurted out her next word as fear replaced anxiety.

“Explain!”

Zen-Po bowed her head briefly. “The Councilman created those that matched knowing that they would hold the power of command status. This was important as it allowed those who did not match, the incorrect, to be given Embassy status by those among them that did. Embassy status causes prolonged association with the incorrect that is valuable to the Purpose. It allows differing thought processes to be acquired that we would otherwise lack. These thought processes are vital in the management of subdued populations essential to our future propagation. This is an important part of our training that could not be delivered at Ephesus because it required a full combat scenario. Both Fam-Kai and I have gained this knowledge during our time aboard the Klysanthian vessel, and El-Quan is even more adept. All three of us are vital to the success and future continuation of our race and therefore the Purpose. The final conclusion to be gained from this is also logical and unavoidable: The Councilman was not flawed, and his instructions to us were, are, and remain, valid.”

As Zen-Po had spoken, all the rifles had slowly descended and all the anger and hatred that had surrounded them evaporated.

Tai-Mai now stood before Zen-Po with her rifle held limply as it pointed at the ground. Her expression was now dominated by sadness, and she almost looked as if she would cry. She couldn’t even speak, and she lowered her head in acceptance of defeat. All the Androktones who had rushed into the tunnel did the same, and Fam-Kai looked around at them all as she felt the wave of their dejection. She instantly felt sorry for them.

“You are not at fault, my sisters,” she said to them all. “Logic and limited knowledge has led you astray. We understand this more fully due to our experience. Do not feel such pain. Knowledge allows for your recovery. Tell them, Zen-Po.”

Her last words had been a plea, and Zen-Po complied, walking among those who had been despatched to trap them.

“Fam-Kai is correct. No one is at fault or flawed. What we have learned we have had to come to terms with. It has changed us. But it is necessary. What you have learned you must also assimilate. An error has been made but it can be corrected.” Zen-Po now stood once again before Tai-Mai, and instantly her voice developed a harder edge.

“Tai-Mai! Status!”

Tai-Mai raised her head. “Fighting has broken out among the subdued population at Hill-Brok following energy reclamation ordered by Mai-Ann. Lai-Fam was given the task to subdue them but has failed. Tai-Po is now in command but awaits the arrival of Mai-Ann before a final assault.”

“Where is Mai-Ann?”

“With a force entering this tunnel close to the proximity of the Klysanthian ship. A portal has been opened for this purpose.”

“Who commands the portal?”

“Lai-Wa at the Edenite Command Centre. We have set up our base of operations there.”

Zen-Po had now learned enough. “Good. Contact Lai-Wa. Have her open a portal here at the landing field. El-Quan and I will transfer to Hill-Brok and take command from Lai-Fam and Tai-Po. When we have left you are to evacuate all our forces and return with them to the Command Centre.”

“What of Mai-Ann? Should we not contact her?”

It would have been easy for Zen-Po to abandon Mai-Ann and avoid any conflict, but the power of her argument required the test.

“Yes. Contact Mai-Ann and those with her and advise them of the situation. Attempt their extraction. But we cannot spare the time or the portal for long. There is a nuclear device located nearby that will shortly render the area uninhabitable.”

“What about the Defence Net and the arrays and facilities here?”

Zen-Po reached inside her tunic. “Take this disc and go with Fam-Kai to the Control Centre. Use it to switch off the Defence Net. Leave it in the opened state and then disconnect the console that controls it and cut it free. Take the console and this disc back to the Command Centre. Abandon everything else. They no longer have any value.”

Tai-Mai took the disc from Zen-Po as Fam-Kai came to stand beside her. She put the disc inside her own tunic and then looked up.

“You will allow the Klysanthian ship to escape?”

Zen-Po nodded. “Yes. Those who matched and those with Embassy status cannot be killed, as their existence is part of the Purpose. But if they remain they will undermine our control over the subdued population. The logical way forward is to allow their escape.”

All the questions had been asked and answered and all the Androktones were now at ease and content. They knew the way forward and the Purpose was being served.

Tai-Mai bowed her head. “Yes, Zen-Po. I will advise Lai-Wa to have the drones that watch the ship withdrawn. Extraction of our forces will begin at once.”

“Good. Proceed!”

-o-

The Corporal was now staring into the darkness of the tunnel, his eyes squinting as he tried to pick out any movement. He wasn’t the only one, and like the rest of them, he couldn’t see a thing. He finally gave up and said so.

“I can’t see a damn thing!” He turned to Ann-Ra. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I am sure. They approach with confidence and in number.”

The Seventy-Ninth had also picked up the scent now. “She speaks the truth. I can also detect their presence.”

Anaxilea looked round at the device on the trolley. “Do something quick we had better.”

The light from Ann-Ra’s torch faded to a faint glimmer. “Corp-Edenite! Go with the Warrior and hide the weapon in a side tunnel. I will stay here with Ann-Axe-Il-Ea and your men and delay my sisters!”

The Corporal was as obstinate as ever. “The Warrior can handle that on his own! I’m staying with you!”

Ann-Ra didn’t argue. “As you wish.”

Anaxilea was amazed by his change of heart. “Dismiss so quickly your distrust have you?”

“My place is with my men!” he told her. “Anyway, he’s the only one without a rifle! Unless you want to give him yours!” He turned to Altus and Eastomoner. “Use the truck for cover, lads! And remember! Aim high!”

“Yes, Corp!”

“Yes, Corp!”

Eastomoner and the Corporal scrambled onto the truck and Altus dived underneath it. Meanwhile, the Seventy-Ninth grabbed the trolley with the device on it and dragged it rapidly away. Anaxilea watched him disappear into the dark. Then she dived under the truck with Altus.

As silence descended in the tunnel, only Ann-Ra stood on her own in the open. The torch she held now dimmed even more and finally went out. The torch changed back into her rifle as she walked calmly to the truck and crouched down behind one of the tyre-less wheels.

It felt strange to be facing her sisters in battle. But for them to oppose her meant that they were unbelievers. That meant that they had to die. But the argument she had with Hel-E tugged at her mind. How could the messenger of God herself be an unbeliever? Had she miss-understood something? And if Hel-E’s faith was in doubt, were all the Klysanthians false witnesses?

Anaxilea squinted in the darkness. “Not see a thing can I!” she whispered.

Behind her Ann-Ra also spoke softly. “When my sisters shoot you will see the light. Aim for it. And when the energy bolts explode and fire lights the tunnel, all will be revealed.”

-o-

The incorrect were very close now. Their vile scent was clouded by that of metal and oil. Mai-Ann knew that they would reach them soon. They were foolish enough to wait, that alone declared their defective state. Even their judgement was flawed.

Chen-Quan suddenly called to her in a harsh whisper. “Mai-Ann! Nan-Kai comes to us from the portal!”

All the Androktones turned and waited for Nan-Kai. But it was with some annoyance that Mai-Ann greeted her.

“Why have you disobeyed me and left the portal?”

“I have received news from Lai-Wa!” Nan-Kai said straight away. “The Councilman was not flawed! Embassy status is a requirement of the Purpose! The Klysanthian ship is to be allowed to escape and the landing field at Ne-Men is to be evacuated! We are to return at once!”

Mai-Ann stepped closer to Nan-Kai. “Are you mad, Nan-Kai? On whose authority have these orders been made?”

“Zen-Po.”

Mai-Ann almost snarled as she spat her reply. “She is incorrect! She is flawed! Her words are invalid!”

Nan-Kai stood her ground. “No! Embassy status is necessary so that we can learn to associate with the aliens! It was because we were without this knowledge that our control over the Edenites was lost!”

“Your argument is flawed! The Purpose requires the incorrect to be killed! There should be no association!”

Chen-Quan wasn’t so sure. “But there must be association with the aliens if we are to procreate, Mai-Ann.”

Another Androktone then said, “It was you that killed the Councilman, Mai-Ann.”

And another said, “You also ordered energy reclamation to begin when the Councilman forbade it. This led to the aliens revolt. Maybe this was also an error.”

Mai-Ann now took a step back as she felt the sway of feeling move away from her.

“Think, my sisters! This seems logical but it is not! If the Klysanthian ship escapes us, so will all the others! How can this serve the Purpose?”

There was hesitation then, and Mai-Ann quickly drove on. “The Councilman was incorrect! He intended to limit our breeding capabilities! He even sacrificed the drone shells in an attempt to limit our numbers! It was Soo-Fam that averted that disaster! These are facts you all know! Examine them in your minds! You know that they are true! Embassy status damages the mind! It weakens the Purpose within us! How else could Zen-Po and El-Quan live for so long surrounded by these aliens? And how else could Vin-Di kill Gil-Soo and Zen-Kai? Were they incorrect, or was she?”

There was silence in the tunnel now, silence and confusion.

It wasn’t quite clear in the darkness who raised their rifle first, but once the first flash lit the tunnel and the first body was splattered, it was impossible to stop the inevitable.

-o-

The bright flashes and distant thumps caused confusion among those who waited at the truck. The Corporal couldn’t understand it at all.

“What’s going on?” he asked of no one in particular.

Eastomoner answered him. “It looks like a battle, Corp.”

Altus agreed with him. “It is a battle.”

The Corporal looked around in the dark. “But who are they shooting at? There isn’t anybody else in here but us!”

Anaxilea had a grave thought. “Scyleia someone from the ship may have sent to us. Not reach us on the com-unit can they. Worried they may be. Rescue party ambushed and shot it could be.”

No one spoke for a minute as they considered the logic of that thought. But Ann-Ra knew the truth as another flash lit the tunnel.

“It is not a rescue party. I can detect no other aliens in the tunnel.”

Anaxilea felt some relief when she heard that. But it didn’t answer the original question. “Then who be they shooting at?”

“My sisters kill each other.”

The Corporal was even more confused. “Why?”

“For the same reason we did aboard the ship. They have a difference of opinion.”

The Corporal scrambled to the side of the truck and looked back at Ann-Ra in the dark. He could just see her as each flash lit the tunnel faintly. “But why, damn it? Just explain will you!”

Ann-Ra straightened up by the wheel and began to climb on to the truck. “It is clear that an attack on the Control Centre is no longer a requirement of our mission. Zen-Po must have reached the Control Centre and she must have explained our motives for following the Councilman’s instructions to our sisters there. They must have accepted her argument. Zen-Po will now be in charge as she has the most experience and knowledge of the Councilman’s plans. She will have switched off the Defence Net and will be arranging the evacuation of the landing field. Those she has sent to retrieve the Androktones sent to track us in the tunnel have now met with resistance and counter arguments. Therefore Mai-Ann is in the tunnel with them. She will not bow to Zen-Po’s logic as it condemns her as incorrect. Some will side with her, some will not. They are discussing the matter. It would be wise if we did not wait for them to resolve it.”

Ann-Ra had now climbed onto the cab of the truck. The Corporal stood beneath her on the deck of the truck looking up at her.

“And how are we going to do that, head for the Control Centre?”

“That would undermine Zen-Po’s position.”

“So how do we get out, trapped in the middle like this?”

Ann-Ra looked up at the tunnel roof and raised her rifle. “By taking a short cut.”

-o-

Smoke and the stench of burning flesh filled the tunnel. Their numbers had been drastically reduced. But those who were incorrect had been vanquished, and only those who followed the truth now stood in victory. And at their head was a burned and scared Androktone whose coal black eyes shone with anger.

Mai-Ann pointed down the tunnel to where light flashed. “Find them! Kill them! Kill them all!”

-o-

Ann-Ra was blowing chunks out of the roof of the tunnel and the rock and debris was raining down on the truck and bouncing all around them. The noise was deafening and dust now filled the air and added to the darkness. It also choked them. The Corporal and Eastomoner had long since taken cover under the truck with Altus and Anaxilea, and Ann-Ra had now jumped through the broken windscreen of the truck and was firing out of it at the tunnel roof. And she kept firing until sunlight finally broke through and the entire roof just dropped in on them.

With a crunch and a twang of springs, the truck shuddered under the repeated impact and weight of the rock and earth landing on it. The cab roof buckled and sank down, and the wheels dug into the ground. Still in the cab, Ann-Ra had to duck as the roof came down on her, and underneath the truck, Anaxilea looked around in sudden fear as the truck was pushed down into the ground. The space underneath got smaller and smaller, and for the Edenites, it became very claustrophobic. But then, suddenly, with a final rattle and thump, it stopped.

Tons of soil and grey clay began to slide into the tunnel through the opening above. It landed on the truck and began to cover it. Ann-Ra clambered out of the open door of the cab as soil filled it behind her. She jumped to the ground and peered under the now compressed truck.

“Come out or you will be buried! Quickly!”

Everyone began to scramble out as the mountain of soil, clay and dust slid into the tunnel and enveloped the truck.

Altus pulled Anaxilea clear. She got to her feet, spitting dust from her mouth and shaking it from her hair. And when she finally looked around she saw that there was a huge hole above them, and the sky was bright blue with clouds in it. She had to squint in the light.

“That be it? Leaving are we?” she called out.

Ann-Ra was already trying to climb up the soft earth. It wasn’t easy as her feet just sank in and she slid down almost as much as she climbed up. “An attack is not required, therefore our presence is no longer necessary. You are correct. We should leave.”

“What about the Warrior?”

The Corporal had joined Ann-Ra on the softly moving slope. “Stuff him!” he called back to her.

Anaxilea watched Altus and Eastomoner run for the slope. “But the device has he!”

Ann-Ra looked back. “The device is no longer necessary now that Zen-Po is in command.”

“But what if Mai-Ann still lives?” Anaxilea pointed out. “What if support she gathers? What if Zen-Po does not in command remain?”

It was a possibility that Ann-Ra deliberately hadn’t considered. But it was no use trying to avoid the inevitable. She now stopped climbing and turned to face Anaxilea, slowly sliding back down towards her on a tide of soft soil.

“I will find the Warrior and advise him of the situation. You get to the surface and summon the ship.”

-o-

The persistent and unchanging sound of static was killing Alcinoe. No matter how often she tried she still couldn’t get through to Anaxilea. And deep down in her heart she knew that she never would. Even if the com-unit was still working and Anaxilea was still alive, she was so far underground that the signal just couldn’t get through.

It was all for nothing.

Alcinoe wasn’t aware that she had begun to cry. But the sound of her sobs had become so established on the bridge that when she stopped with a sharp intake of breath, Scyleia instantly looked across at her.

“What’s happened?”

Alcinoe stared down at her console with wide eyes. “I’ve got a communication link opening! It’s that Edenite Captain!”

Scyleia sat up straighter in her chair. She quickly wiped her face and fluffed her hair. “Then don’t just sit there! Put him on screen!”

The image on the screen suddenly switched to the bridge of the Alentin where men whooped and cheered in jubilation. It surprised Scyleia and she forgot to put on her haughty smile.

Captain Limeno was as excited as his men as he sat in his command chair being patted and slapped on the back. He was in the process of shaking someone vigorously by the hand when the connection was made. He instantly stood up.

“You did it!” he shouted down at them. “The Defence Net is open! The entire fleet of ships have left the Bruntolom Continent! We’re gaining height and should be through the Net in the next few minutes! Well done!”

Scyleia’s grip on the armrests of her chair tightened considerably and she only just managed to keep her composure.

“The Defence Net be open?” she repeated and her voice almost cracked.

Limeno hardly noticed. He was too happy. “Yes! Where are you? You aren’t on our screens!”

“Still on the ground we be,” Scyleia answered lamely, her eyes staring.

Now Limeno did look surprised. “What? Get in the air!”

Scyleia took a moment to register what he had said, but then she shook her head. “I must wait for my landing team! It be them that deserve your praise!”

Limeno stood up and his good mood vanished. “I said get in the air!”

Scyleia smacked the armrests of her chair as she also grew angry. “I will not leave those to who we owe this gift!”

Limeno was more rational. “How many people have you got out there? Ten? Fifteen? More? And how many refugees did you pick up? A thousand? Two? More? Get in the air! Now!”

Scyleia also stood up. “No! Rendezvous with you in orbit I will! But not leave them will I without thought!”

Limeno would have continued the argument but Scyleia turned and waved at Alcinoe who instantly broke the connection.

As soon as the viewing screen returned to the image of a grey landscape, Scyleia, Heli and Prothoe leapt in the air in relief and excitement. Only Alcinoe stayed at her console, and she broke into their celebration with a shout of alarm.

“Scyleia! Heli! The drones have taken off again!”

Silence returned as Heli rushed to Alcinoe’s side and looked down at the screen. She then looked back at Scyleia with fear in her eyes. “Two of them are moving away, Captain! But the third turns towards us!”

Scyleia collapsed into her chair and stared up at the viewing screen ahead of her. She could see a pinpoint of silver rise into the air and turn. It came straight towards her on the screen, growing larger as it gained speed and height. Scyleia held her breath. It was bound to shoot, and there was no point in returning fire. It was all over. At the moment of their victory, death would come. The silver dart grew even larger until it finally whizzed out of view at the top of the screen. Scyleia closed her eyes and waited.

Nothing happened.

Alcinoe confirmed what they all suddenly knew. She spoke in a subdued whisper. “It flew right over us!”

Heli ran back to Scyleia and grabbed her hand. She had an excited smile on her face and she spoke with relief. “They’re all heading north west, Scyleia. They’re going away. We’re safe!”

Scyleia breathed out at last and opened her eyes. Then she turned to Heli and nodded. “Yes, we’re safe. But why would the drones leave in such a hurry? And why wouldn’t they shoot?”

“Maybe they know about the device?” Heli suggested.

“If they know about the device, then Lea could be in trouble.” The spirit returned to Scyleia and she turned to Prothoe and raised her voice.

“Prothoe! Light the engines! Take us nearer to that hole!”

“Yes, Captain!”

“Heli! Get a team and meet me on the reception deck! We go to find Lea!”

“Yes, Captain!”

Scyleia didn’t bother going around her command chair, she just stood up, turned, stepped on it, and jumped over the top, running for the door.

-o-

As soon as Ann-Ra disappeared into the tunnel, Anaxilea joined the Corporal and his men and started climbing. But getting up the constantly moving sea of soil and clay was completely impossible to do standing up. In the end they had to crawl up the slope on all fours using their rifle butts as anchors. It was like swimming through sand. Coughing and spluttering, and completely covered in the soil and dust, they finally reached the surface. Eastomoner got there first. He quickly climbed to his feet.

“I can see the ship! It’s moving, Corp!”

“Good!” the Corporal called back to him and reached out his hand. “Now give me a hand, will you!”

Eastomoner did as he asked. He also helped Anaxilea. And because she was much lighter, she got to the surface next. And as soon as she saw the Gate Of Heaven, Anaxilea grabbed for her com-unit, and climbing to her knees she switched it on.

“Anaxilea to the Gate Of Heaven! Alcinoe? Can you hear me, Alcinoe?”

Alcinoe’s excited and happy voice came crackling over the com-unit. “You did it, Lea!”

“I did nothing except get lost in the dark! Zen-Po did it all! She caused a faction to break away and the Androktones have spent more time shooting at each other than at us! But that might change soon! Come and get us, Alcinoe! And be quick! We might not have much time!”

Alcinoe sounded less happy and more urgent. “Prothoe is turning us towards you now! We’ll home in on your com-unit! Leave the link open, Lea! Scyleia is on the reception deck with Heli!”

“Good! We’ll be waiting!” Anaxilea turned to the Corporal who was now helping Eastomoner pull Altus up the slope.

“Hurry you must! A fast pick-up this will be!”

There was an orange flash and the explosion that followed blew soil and debris into the air. It also knocked them all over and caused Altus to tumble back down into the tunnel.

-o-

The side tunnel was short and unfinished. The entrance to it was irregular, small and had hardly broken through into the main tunnel. In the dark, another alien might have missed it. But Ann-Ra could sense the presence of the Warrior within even without light.

“This hiding place will not deceive my sisters,” she said as she waited outside. The hissed reply was almost instant.

“Knowing that I am within maybe simple, but entering to kill me will not be.”

“Would you strike at me with your axe if I tried to enter?”

“Would you enter in friendship or in wrath?”

“I am not El-Quan.”

“Therefore my distrust is valid.”

Ann-Ra paused a moment. Finally she spoke again. “My purpose here is based on friendship.”

“Then enter.”

Ann-Ra bowed her head and stepped through the low entrance. Inside the Seventy-Ninth stood just to one side of the entrance, his axe held ready to strike. Behind him was the nuclear device still on the trolley. He lowered his axe as Ann-Ra straightened up before him.

“Speak.”

“There have been developments that you must be made aware of. Zen-Po has been successful and an attack on the Control Centre is no longer necessary. However, those who have entered the tunnel behind us share a different viewpoint. Mai-Ann is likely to be among them. A defence will therefore be necessary while the Edenites and Klysanthians are extracted through a hole in the tunnel roof. Although you may choose to become involved you must still ensure that the device is activated as planned. This task remains your priority.”

The Warrior bowed. “I felt the disturbance caused by the construction of the exit. I also felt the more distant conflict. Now both their causes have been explained. I will accompany you and aid in the extraction.”

“You have only your axe to fight with.”

“Another weapon may become available.”

“As you wish. Follow me.”

-o-

Eastomoner and the Corporal lay on the ground firing down into the tunnel while Anaxilea reached down to help Altus. The two soldiers concentrated their fire on the opening to the tunnel proper just beyond the tailgate of the compressed and buried truck. The Androktones were just inside, using the tunnel wall as cover. The repeated firing was an attempt to keep the Androktones from coming out into the open and getting a better shot. It didn’t seem to work as two of them had already reached the truck and were firing back up at them. And more continued to fire from inside the tunnel.

Energy bolts shot over their heads or thumped violently into the slope just beneath them. Each brief explosion threw debris and dust into the air that mixed with the smoke and flames. The soldiers kept up their barrage as the debris fell about them, returning bright white beams that left smoking pockmarks in the tunnel wall and on the side of the truck. And behind them the Gate Of Heaven hovered towards them across the barren ground, the noise and disturbance of her approach gaining in strength every second.

One of the Androktones by the truck leaned out to aim at Altus and Anaxilea. But the Corporal fired first and saw his laser beam pass through her head and she dropped her rifle and fell back.

“Hurry up!” he shouted to Anaxilea.

Anaxilea strained to reach Altus. She was headfirst halfway down the slope, her hand outstretched. The soldier was in such a rush to get up the slope and reach her that all he did was disturb more of the soft earth and slip back.

“Take it easy must you!” she shouted to him.

He nodded and tried again. And as he reached out his hand to her, there was another orange flash. The explosion sent them both tumbling. And when Altus rolled against the side of the truck and banged his head, he swore. Then he saw Anaxilea. She was lying sprawled on the ground almost in front of him, her uniform all burned through on her back.

-o-

Alcinoe looked up at Prothoe in fright.

“Lea’s com-unit has stopped transmitting!”

“It’s alright, Alcinoe,” Prothoe replied in a calm voice as she concentrated. “I can see them now. We’ll be there in a minute.”

“But there’s firing! I can see the flashes!”

“I know. Tell Scyleia what’s happening.”

Alcinoe nodded. “Yes, yes, of course.”

She began to open the link to the reception deck when Prothoe added a final thought.

“You better warn Kreousa as well.”

-o-

The sound of firing had grown as Ann-Ra and the Seventy-Ninth had retraced their steps.

“Our return is opportune,” the Seventy-Ninth remarked.

“Then be ready to act on impulse. But remember that the device is your priority.”

The Warrior bowed. “I will not forget. It is a noble deed.”

They moved forward at a faster pace, and when they reached the truck they found Altus sitting near the crushed cab holding Anaxilea in his arms. They were both covered in dirt and sweat, but Anaxilea was also stained in red.

“She’s hurt bad,” Altus said when he saw them both. “The Alliance forces are just inside the far tunnel entrance and there’s another one behind the truck. We’re stuck.”

Ann-Ra got down on one knee and leaned closer to Anaxilea. The confusion she had felt at facing her sisters in battle had not left her. She had tried to avoid it by creating the hole in the tunnel by which they could escape. In a way she had been trying to run away from her dilemma. But there was no avoiding the truth now. It was almost as if God was deliberately testing her. But it was possible that the wounded Matriarch lying before her could supply an answer to her confusion.

“Does your final journey to meet God begin, Ann-Axe-Il-Ea?”

Anaxilea breathed with difficulty and spoke weakly. “Right you be…but not pleased so early my time has come…am I.”

“I can feel your sadness. Why are you not joyful to meet God?”

Anaxilea looked up at her. There was blood on her lips and it stained her teeth.

“I am content to die…outlived my time I have…glad I am that over it will be…but disappointed not with my daughter to have spoken…and not to be with Pea at this moment…for them sad I am…for live on they must without me now…and sad will they be…and not comfort them can I.” She paused as her eyes focussed on the Seventy-Ninth standing behind Ann-Ra. “God will judge my life and actions…not perfect am I…but not disappoint him either will I with bitterness…give the Warrior my rifle…deserved it he has.”

Ann-Ra picked up the rifle, and straightening up she turned to the Warrior, her faith and purpose renewed.

“Your target is the Androktone by the truck. Watch and wait for your moment.”

The Warrior took the rifle she handed to him and rested it across the shaft of his axe. “I will be ready.”

Ann-Ra looked up at the Corporal and Eastomoner who were still firing down at the Androktones. She then looked at the far tunnel. The truck and the landslide blocked most of her view. It must have been the same for her sisters, for they concentrated their fire on the aliens above them.

Having seen enough, Ann-Ra stepped out into the open and fired repeatedly at the far tunnel roof, bringing it down in a cascade of falling rock and debris. The Androktones caught underneath hastily moved back. Two weren’t quick enough and were buried. And one staggered forward and raised her rifle. Ann-Ra fired at her, splattering her almost casually before returning her aim to the tunnel roof.

It was then that the Androktone behind the truck came into view as she aimed her rifle. The Seventy-Ninth had been waiting for the moment and fired instantly. The beam passed through her neck and she dropped her rifle and fell back.

As the dust settled once more, all firing stopped. But there was still the growing noise of the ship’s engines as it came ever closer. And the wind caused by the down-force began to rise.

Ann-Ra called up to Eastomoner and the Corporal shouting above the rising din.

“Return to the ship! Now! The barrier will not stop my sisters for long!”

“What about Altus and Anaxilea?” the Corporal called back.

“We will bring them to you!”

Ann-Ra turned and found Altus on his feet. The Seventy-Ninth was now carrying Anaxilea. Ann-Ra looked at the Warrior in surprise.

“You have your task to fulfil. Why are you still here?”

“The Matriarch and I share a common fate. Go with good heart, Ann-Ra.”

He turned and bobbed away into the shadows, his burden cradled in his arms.

Ann-Ra turned to Altus. “Up the slope! Quickly!”

-o-

Scyleia stared out of the open hatch as the Gate Of Heaven skimmed over the ground. She could see two figures just ahead of her. They were standing at the edge of a large hole in the ground. Smoke was coming out of the hole. Next to her, Heli said what she was thinking. She had to shout over the noise of the engines.

“There are only two of them!”

Scyleia nodded and brushed back her hair as the wind blew it before her eyes. “And both are Edenite and male by their build!” she shouted back. “Pray that they will be joined by more! And tell Alcinoe that we will not be staying long!”

-o-

Eastomoner and the Corporal helped Ann-Ra and Altus scramble over the edge of the slope. The ship was now so close that they could see the two figures in the open hatch. The noise and disturbance caused by the engines was now almost at its peak, and the Corporal had to shout to make himself heard.

“Where’s Anaxilea?”

“She’s staying with the Warrior!” Ann-Ra replied.

And Altus added, “She was hurt bad, Corp!”

The Corporal bit his lip and nodded. “Okay! That’s it then! Let’s go!”

The four of them turned and ran towards the approaching ship. But one of them soon slowed her pace and hung back.

-o-

Mai-Ann shook the dust from her mouth and eyes and looked around in the darkness. It had taken time to climb free from the fallen debris. But now they all stood together once more and it was time for retribution.

“Clear this barrier! Clear it now, my sisters!”

They did as she asked, altering their rifles and firing at the fallen rock and clay in a concentrated beam that heated and then melted everything. Instead of exploding, the fallen earth blew out in an evaporating cloud of heat and hot mist that spontaneously ignited the truck.

As the flames grew, the Androktones ran from the tunnel without opposition. The noise and wind now blew the dust in a swirling tornado that fanned the fire. Mai-Ann was well aware of the cause of it.

“The ship approaches! El-Wa! Take our sisters and pursue those who have fled into the tunnel! Hai-Vin! Come with me to strike at those on the surface!”

The Androktones split up. El-Wa led five of them into the far tunnel while Mai-Ann followed Hai-Vin up the slope.

Mai-Ann could feel the heat from the approaching ship. But the hot air brought other tastes and smells with it. The incorrect had fled this way. They thought they were safe. They thought they could escape. But in the open with no cover and the ship before them, they would make easy targets. Even the ship would fall to their power.

Hai-Vin reached the top of the slope and promptly died as her head was struck from her body.

Mai-Ann paused as the mutilated corpse rolled and slid down the slope beside her, a red stain in its wake. Her anger cooled to a new intensity as her rifle flowed and changed shape. She pulled it apart and it became two long curved blades. And with their form stabilised, Mai-Ann resumed her climb, walking steadily up the softly moving slope with grace. She didn’t hesitate when she reached the top. She just walked over the edge and faced her waiting foe.

“You are incorrect, Ann-Ra!” she shouted as the wind tore at her hair.

Ann-Ra raised her twin blades in a defensive stance, their edges shimmering in the light almost as if they were moving. “And you are an unbeliever, Mai-Ann!” she called back.

“Your words are as flawed as your integrity!”

“I may be flawed, but I have a new belief! It is better than the Purpose!”

“You disgust me with your words of a new belief! The Purpose is all! Everything else is nothing!”

“No! There is more! There must be more! All these aliens live lives that differ from ours! They have fulfilment outside of war and death! Why should we have nothing? I want what they have! I will have what they have!”

“We are Androktones! We have the Purpose! There is nothing more!”

“You are wrong, Mai-Ann! I have faith! I have a new belief! And that is why I will meet God when I die, while you will merely evaporate into the nothing you cherish!”

Mai-Ann raised her long and curved blades. “Then we will test your new belief! For it is your god that is nothing! Die now and know the final truth!”

She ran forward then, and the two of them met in a clash of razor sharp blades.


 

This is the end of the free chapters.

Copyright © D. G. Richards 2004

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