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The Friendly Ambassador: Changes

By

D. G. Richards

Copyright © D. G. Richards 2003

 


CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

A SHARED FLAW

Her head hurt. It was a deep pain, an ache that throbbed in her skull. It was even worse than before.

When Tai-Gil had first seen the Gate Of Heaven standing in Pannertine Gardens her thoughts had never drifted towards the question of whether she could enter it. And when Scyleia had asked her she had refused. This was as it should be. But when she had then scented the Edenite that matched, and Scyleia hinted that he might be at risk, her impulse was to enter. That simple impulse set off a chain of thought and reaction in her brain like a wild tornado. It had caused her to freeze on the edge of the airlock.

I must enter to secure the safety of the one that matched! He is in danger!

No! You cannot enter!

But I must! I must enter to ensure the safety of the one that matched!

Lies! Deceit! You wish to enter to be among these aliens! You seek false excuses!

I do not! The Councilman did not order me to stay outside! There is no harm in this!

To enter is to break the orders of the Humeric Council! This is a higher order!

That order was issued for the relief of Klysanthia!

There was no time limit!

But this is not Klysanthia!

And your arguments are a sign of your own defective nature! You wish to go aboard their ship because you are curious! You wish to be among them! They have invited you to coerce your acceptance of their incorrect form! They seek to usurp the Purpose from your mind! Being among them is disgusting, degrading, damaging! To wish this is to proclaim your defectiveness! You are incorrect!

No! I am not incorrect! I am ordered to protect them! My instructions are clear! They must be protected! They must not be harmed! The Edenite matched! He must not be harmed! My integrity is sound! The Councilman did not instruct me not to enter! His order revokes the order given by the Humeric Council!

False! To wish to enter is incorrect!

But I have to!

You want to!

Silence. Defeat.

She had stepped back. Twice she had tried, and twice she had failed. The argument against her was too strong because it was true, she was curious. She did want to know what made these familiar aliens so special. She wanted to know why they had been ordered to fight and die for them twice, once by the Humeric Council, and again by the Councilman. She wanted to go inside their ship, she wanted to walk among them, and she also wanted to be closer to Scyleia. There was an unmistakable attraction, an allure from her body, a feeling that Tai-Gil had only previously known from her own kind. Did they inherit this function from these aliens? What did Scyleia seek from her? And was it wrong to wonder…

This train of thought is tainted! You are false! Incorrect! Defective!

The meeting with El-Quan had been a relief. She had defied the accusations of her own mind when she faced her. El-Quan was the defective one. Yes, her instructions to take those that matched aboard the Klysanthian ship had come from the Councilman, but she also protected aliens whose Embassy status had been provided by those that matched. Tai-Gil had stood among those aliens. They disgusted her. They were not correct. El-Quan’s actions in protecting them when they could have been eliminated were questionable. Her integrity needed to be tested.

But El-Quan had been equally defiant. In the end they had both failed and they both knew it.

She is defective! Disgusting! Mutated! Incorrect! Kill her! Kill her! Kill her!

Tai-Gil stood in the shadow of the Gate Of Heaven with her hands clamped to her head. The pain was terrible. It felt like something was growing in the centre of her skull and trying to push her brain out her ears. But it wasn’t her aborted attempts to enter the ship that had caused this escalation in the pain. It wasn’t even the knowledge that her integrity was flawed. Even her inability to kill El-Quan wasn’t a cause. No, it had been Scyleia’s action in stepping outside the ship that had doubled and trebled the intensity of the pain. It had been so sudden and so unexpected. And again Tai-Gil had been paralysed into inaction.

She is outside! She will be killed!

You must kill her! She has broken the orders of the Councilman!

But I am ordered to protect them!

Only while they remain inside! Kill her!

But the orders of the Humeric Council gave them protection outside!

Not here! You seek to use these arguments as you wish to further your own defective purpose! Kill her!

The orders of the Humeric Council take precedence! I cannot enter! But equally I must protect them!

She must be killed!

She must be taken inside! For her own protection!

You cannot go inside! Kill her!

I cannot kill her! I must take her inside!

You cannot go inside! Kill her!

The argument went round and round and round and round. It seemed like it would never end. Then El-Quan had removed Scyleia and taken her aboard the ship. And the female Edenite had also entered and the door had been sealed.

The other Androktones who were coming closer stopped, hesitated, and then moved away. They had seen and known the dangers. They didn’t want to share the pain of paradox with her. It was over. Only the pain and the questions were left.

Why did Scyleia do what she did? Why feign unconsciousness and frailty? She knew the instructions given by the Councilman. Did she deliberately attempt to use these instructions against her, to force her to enter when it was impossible? Did she realise what it did to her head? The confusion and contradictions it caused? But did her action reveal more answers than it asked?

Scyleia had stepped outside and placed her life in danger. Tai-Gil knew that she should have killed her, instantly, straight away. Her failure to do so was a reflection of her flawed integrity. But she clung onto the belief that she still followed the Purpose, and that the Humeric Council’s instructions ruled over all. This belief was important to her; it was the only thing that gave her hope. With it she remained pure. Without it her integrity was irrevocably mutated. If the latter was true she may as well be dead, and she probably would be soon. No, she was not defective, the thought processes in her mind were clear. The instructions given by the Humeric Council gave her a true direction uncluttered by contradictions and paradox. She had obeyed and still obeyed. Even the order given by the Councilman was subordinate.

The train of thought was clear, calming, soothing. It reaffirmed her integrity and self-belief.

I must protect them, inside and outside. But I cannot go aboard their ship.

As the pain eased other questions were answered in Tai-Gil’s mind. Scyleia’s motives for stepping outside were clear. She had done so when she had thought that she was going to be killed. She had known the dangers and still she had done it. She had sought to protect her from death. And once outside she had strived to manipulate her to enter. Did these actions reveal an attachment? Why did that interest her?

And El-Quan’s actions were also interesting. She had failed as she had failed. Tai-Gil knew that El-Quan could have killed her but did not. Her weapon was drawn, ready. She also could have killed Scyleia but did not. There had been no instruction for her not to do so from the Councilman. Instead El-Quan had rescued her from her dilemma. She had taken Scyleia inside the ship. She had done what she could not do. She must have understood the conflict in her mind. Was there a similar but different conflict in her mind?

What did it mean? Why couldn’t she understand? Why did thinking about it hurt?

-o-

Soo-Fam stared at her through the portal connection. “Are you well, Tai-Gil?”

Tai-Gil stood in the shadow of the port side hull of the Gate Of Heaven. It was getting lighter in Jutlam City, but the smoke that hung so thickly in clouds above the capital meant that only a twilight haze broke through at ground level. She removed her hands from her head, abandoning the attempt to rub and squeeze the pain out of her temples. She sighed and spoke in a tired voice.

“Close contact with those who have Embassy status is not recommended.”

Soo-Fam nodded. “I understand. I had the misfortune to be questioned by one of them across the portal. It was- ” she paused, “-distasteful. Try your best to minimise contact.”

Tai-Gil bowed. “I will, Soo-Fam.”

“Good. Now I bring you bad news. More alien creatures with Embassy status have been located near Ne-Men. They will be escorted here by Ann-Ra. One among them, a female, matches a registered DNA code. They should arrive shortly.”

Tai-Gil looked uncomfortable at the prospect. Then another thought occurred to her and she glanced at the ship behind her. “The Klysanthians have sealed the hatch. I cannot contact them and neither can I gain access.”

“Then I will speak with Sci-Lee-Ah aboard the Klysanthian ship and ask that the outer hatch be reopened. The same procedure will be followed as before.” Soo-Fam fixed her eyes more strongly on Tai-Gil. “Leave them to Ann-Ra and El-Quan, Tai-Gil. Do not damage yourself any further.”

“Yes, Soo-Fam. Will these be the last?”

Soo-Fam paused thoughtfully. Finally she nodded. “The Councilman has given me unusual but specific instructions concerning the defence of this building. I believe these instructions should apply to you and your force in Pan-Tine Gardens. I will advise Sci-Lee-Ah that her presence in this area is no longer to be tolerated. You are to give support only until the ship takes off. The Klysanthians are to be given safe passage in their escape but you are not to die in their cause unless it is absolutely unavoidable. Once they have left you and all the Androktones in the area must head east. Do you understand, Tai-Gil?”

Tai-Gil bowed once more. She answered more strongly. “I understand, Soo-Fam.”

“Good. Proceed.”

The connection was broken only to be re-established a moment later. Tai-Gil didn’t like the smell this new connection brought to her.

-o-

I am whole.

It was a glorious feeling. Strange that she should delight in it. She had been whole all of her life but it had never felt like this. She could feel everything. She could feel her toes. She could wriggle them and feel the resistance of her boots. She could feel the air against her exposed skin. She could feel her hair being ruffled against her back as she moved her head. She felt the air she breathed passing through her mouth and nose, into her airways and her lungs. She could feel the probing fingers of this Klysanthian as she tended the wound in her side. She could feel the warmth of the atmosphere, the feel of her uniform, the pressure of the chair she sat on, and the trickle of blood on her back.

Being a drone was exciting but silent. She had been a mind only. Her whole form had been a blank that obeyed every whim and command. It changed, flowed, stretched and grew at an instant. It was everything and nothing.

Now she could feel tired and hungry. Now she could feel pain. Now she could feel the real effect of the paradox in her mind.

It hurt. It hurt her mind and caused a dull ache that constantly distracted her. It made her movements sluggish. The wound didn’t help either, nor did the prolonged period of kneeling in one position in the portal building. Her legs ached, her muscles were strained and tight, her side hurt and breathing and moving made it all worse. But none of that mattered compared to the ache and torment in her head.

She had thought she had mastered the paradox, but the confrontation with Tai-Gil had proved her wrong. No, that wasn’t true. It wasn’t Tai-Gil. Tai-Gil had seen and recognised her error, but El-Quan knew it was an error even before Tai-Gil had accused her.

Why had she done it? Why deliberately ensure that the others who didn’t match would remain safe? They were incorrect, and they needed to be killed. And it had been the most appropriate moment to kill them. She had known it and deliberately avoided it.

Your integrity is flawed! You have mutated! You are no longer correct! Your mind is diseased! You are impure! Defective! Incorrect! You are a mockery to the Purpose! You should die!

Despair! Agony!

She had no argument. She was defective. She accepted it now. The paradox had poisoned her and finally killed her. She had gone from perfection to drone shell to flawed Androktone in less than a day, and all with hardly a battle. Her mind had almost sought the change. It opened too many interesting avenues. Even Tai-Gil’s own flawed state hadn’t roused her.

She is defective! Disgusting! Mutated! Incorrect! Kill her! Kill her! Kill her!

El-Quan had recognised Tai-Gil’s tormented state. She had tasted the fear in her caused by the conflict in her mind. It was a similar conflict of contradiction but yet Tai-Gil was still almost intact. El-Quan knew that she fought to hold on to one last element that would keep her integrity pure. She envied her ability to do that. She envied her chance at survival. She craved that same chance but knew it was lost to her. But for Tai-Gil to win the Klysanthian that caused the conflict had first to be removed. El-Quan could have stood by and watched Tai-Gil’s last hope evaporate. Instead she had removed Scyleia and carried her inside.

Even that was an error.

And now she was among them all. Imperfect, mutated, incorrect, all together in one ship. What further change could that bring?

-o-

From agony and despair to ecstasy and joy. It happened in a second. And it was so unexpected that neither Gusta nor Didi even recognised Tipi for several seconds. That they knew him was undeniable, but who he actually was, why that face was familiar, and why they couldn’t instantly, immediately remember him was a mystery. And for Tipi the response was almost the same. He knew them both but almost didn’t.

In strange times the mind does strange things. It had been little over a day since they had all been together. But even then it had been a fragmented breakfast before they all went their separate ways. It was the same as any morning of any day.

Didi cooked, ate and was gone before they awoke. What he had cooked they then ate in rushed and noisy anarchy. Breda had run about with her blouse on but no skirt, her personal communicator and a slice of toast in one hand, and coffee in the other. She had left a trail of spilled coffee and dropped crumbs everywhere. Tipi ate last with his uniform on because he had woken last as usual. His excuse was that Breda was in the bathroom for too long as usual. Gusta had been a loud and bad mannered conductor of events, hurrying them, chiding them, and all while eating her own hurried breakfast. She had tried to tell them things that she thought were important, but as usual none of her children listened to her.

What Didi had cooked so lovingly was demolished in absent care. Breda had shot out the door with her communicator clutched in her hand, and Tipi had smiled at Gusta as she went shortly after. Tipi always put the dishes away and locked up before he left. It was the last time Gusta had seen either of them.

That morning was a lifetime ago. Each hour that had passed felt like a year. In fact the time that had passed before this day paled into virtual nothingness. Gusta had been born and lived her whole life with nothing but a memory of children that never were. Her mind had made it like that, it was the only way it could handle the agony. For her and for Didi, their previous life had slowly evaporated. And then suddenly there it was again, smiling embarrassingly before them in the form of an almost forgotten face.

The reception deck had been large and cold. The hot drinks and blankets were a welcome sign of hospitality and care. The Klysanthians oozed comfort and calm, and the Edenites who had come through it all suddenly felt a relief, a lifting of a heavy load. They were safe, truly safe at last. And then it had happened. As they reached the tables a new face was introduced to them by the Klysanthians, another Edenite like them, saved and washed and clean. Only a mere boy, he met them as they arrived, and moved among them, smiling and shaking hands. They smiled back, nodded and felt better, made more relaxed and comfortable by his presence. Finally the last to enter reached the tables and met the face in stunned surprise.

Tipi? Oh, my God, it’s Tipi!

Everything became a blur of tears and screams and hugs and smiles. Gusta couldn’t remember what she said or did, and Didi was no better. Tipi only remembered that he cried, constantly, and without pause.

Only Kiki remembered everything clearly. He remembered how cold and thin the air was and how light in weight he felt. He remembered how the Klysanthians looked, so slender that it seemed he could snap them with a whim. He remembered how one of them clapped her hands in joy at the reunion. And he remembered the one in the long white coat leading El-Quan away quietly by the hand. He remembered the people too, crying and smiling, sharing the joy and emotions with Didi, Gusta and Tipi. He remembered Salida crying as Gusta cried, thinking of her lost husband and daughter as she slid to her knees. He remembered Ilana looking on as if mesmerised. And most of all he remembered how sad he felt that it was Tipi and not Breda who was there.

-o-

Scyleia hurried to the communications room with Heli chasing after her. She wasn’t happy.

“That cocky male always has to be at the heart of everything!” she snapped angrily as she walked in long strides. “I die inside because I have lost Tai-Gil not for a second time, but for a third time! Because she was on Klysanthia! Because she is actually one of those I had thought was dead! And before even that pain can settle he finds his parents! They just drop in to his lap! I hate him! Everything goes well for him! He gains solace from one of us even though it nearly kills her, he gets rescued by us, you mother him, and now he has his whole family with him! I hate him!”

“It is not his whole family,” Heli replied as she hurried after her. “His sister is still missing.”

“Only his sister?” Scyleia exclaimed sarcastically. “Are you sure the rest of them aren’t his uncles, cousins and aunts! He’s cocky, he’s lucky, and I still hate him!”

Heli smiled. “It is not luck. His faith has brought this miracle. I told him it could be possible if he believed. It was very pleasing.”

Scyleia glanced back at her in mild surprise. “Have you been preaching to him?”

Heli quickly suppressed her smile. “He was curious so I answered his questions and urged him to have faith.”

“That makes it your fault! I hate you too!”

Scyleia burst into the communications room and saw Soo-Fam bow before her on the portal. It had been an unexpected connection and Alcinoe had summoned her from the reception deck at the height of the tearful reunion. Scyleia had been pleased with the excuse to leave. The joy of these Edenites left her cold in the circumstances. She felt hollow, as if her guts and sexual organs had all been ripped out and trampled under foot by a physical manifestation of Fate smiling evilly before her. She was conscious of the agitated state her mind was in as a result, and quickly regained her composure. She paused, swept back her hair, took a deep breath and stepped forward.

Heli remained by the door and watched as Scyleia walked up to the portal and bowed to Soo-Fam.

“You honour us with your presence,” Scyleia said in calm angelic tones as she raised her head. “Is the Councilman well?”

Soo-Fam also raised her head. She had kept it bowed until Scyleia had responded. Her expression was haughty and she replied in an equally aloof manner in a voice that was slightly deeper in tone. “The Councilman is safe and well, Sci-Lee-Ah, Matriarch of the House of Heaven. I am Soo-Fam. I have been placed in charge of the portal building in his absence.”

Her remark caused instant interest in Scyleia. “He is elsewhere?”

Soo-Fam was dismissive. “His location is not your concern. What is your concern is that others with Embassy status have been found. One of us called Ann-Ra will bring them to you for safekeeping. Another with them has matched. You will repeat the same procedure as before when taking them on board.”

Scyleia’s heart missed a beat. “Will Tai-Gil be present?”

It was a question she shouldn’t have asked, and the look in Soo-Fam’s eyes proved it. There was a slight pause before she answered.

“Her presence is not required.”

“But she must know they’re coming?” Scyleia pressed recklessly.

Soo-Fam’s demeanour became slightly colder. “Tai-Gil has been informed of their arrival. Her presence will be minimal. I sense an interest for her in your body that is matched by your questions. This interest is not acceptable.”

“I apologise, Soo-Fam,” Scyleia jumped in quickly, bowing her head. “The error is wholly mine. My interest is due to my knowledge that she was on Klysanthia on the day it fell. It was an emotional response caused by a powerful association. Forgive me.”

Soo-Fam also bowed. “You are forgiven, but your presence in this area is no longer acceptable. You must leave once the second group with Embassy status have been taken on board.”

Scyleia was surprised by the demand and looked up quickly. “But the Defence Net remains closed, we cannot escape. And to remain airborne in this gravity is to waste fuel.”

Soo-Fam raised her head slowly. “Then go elsewhere,” was the indifferent reply.

There was no point arguing. Scyleia took a deep breath and sighed. “As you wish.”

Soo-Fam bowed again. “Go with good heart.”

Scyleia also bowed. “And you also.” When she looked up the connection was broken.

Heli instantly stepped forward. She spoke loudly and in astonishment. “Are you stupid or what? After all that talk of fearing the Androktones and being cautious you practically invite an attack! I couldn’t believe my ears! What are you thinking, Scyleia? Where is your mind? Do you want to kill us all?”

Scyleia put her hands over her face in her anguish. “Do not rebuke me, cousin, for you know my weakness! I need her!”

Heli looked at her in shock. “You actually seek a liaison with this Androktone?”

Scyleia took her hands away from her face and looked back at Heli in confusion. “A liaison?” she repeated softly. “I had not considered it. My mind is filled with only the need to have her on board, now more than ever. With El-Quan among us at least my failure is ended. But Tai-Gil was there. She was one of them. I have to take her with me. I have to.”

“And is that all it is?” Heli pressed her. “A debt to be paid? Nothing more?”

Scyleia lowered her head. “The debt is large, too large. But if she comes aboard, if there is a possibility, then why should I not pursue it? Why should I not seek my own miracle?”

Heli shook her head in dismay at the admission. “Oh, Scyleia!” she exclaimed. “You drive me crazy!Having any Androktones on board is bad enough but to actually seek a liaison with one is madness! They’re killers! And you know they are!”

Scyleia looked up at her with a sudden look of desperation. “Yes! They are! All of them! I know it! I knew it! But El-Quan is not dangerous! She’s not a killer! She behaves civilly! I can feel it! You can feel it! And when Kreousa came back down from the Medical Centre looking for more wounded you were happy to let her take El-Quan with her for treatment! Don’t deny it, Heli! Kreousa asked you when she found El-Quan’s wound and you looked to me for confirmation but you didn’t oppose my agreement! Even Kreousa felt comfortable with her! And she’s more cautious than anyone!”

Heli was already shaking her head. “El-Quan isn’t Tai-Gil!” she pointed out as soon as she could speak. “I admit she surprised me with her even temperament, but that maybe because she is injured! And there might be something else wrong with her! In any case Tai-Gil is not the same as her!”

“She is the same!” Scyleia stepped forward and placed her hands on Heli’s shoulders. “I was close to her, Heli! I lay in her arms! I could feel the interest in her almost as equal as my own! Why can I not have this miracle?”

Heli looked at her in amazement. “You are mad to even entertain this!” She stepped back and wagged her finger at her. “No! You are not mad! You are heartless and fickle! You will kill us all to satisfy an urge in your belly!”

Scyleia raised her head in a haughty manner. “And you are merely jealous!”

Heli did the same and folded her arms. “And your head is far too easily turned by blonde tresses!”

“And you- ” Scyleia paused to think. Finally she smiled. “ -are probably right.”

-o-

El-Quan raised her hands and curled and flexed her fingers. And as she looked at them as if seeing them for the first time, a delicate voice close to her responded in Klysanthian.

“They are all there.”

El-Quan turned her head slowly and looked at Kreousa. She sensed an injury of some kind but there was only a bruise on Kreousa’s forehead. Apart from that she seemed to be unharmed. El-Quan remained silent.

Kreousa secured the bandage around El-Quan’s waist and straightened up. She looked at El-Quan and frowned. “What are you thinking?”

“You are incorrect.”

Kreousa nodded. “I suppose that will have to do instead of thank you. You can put your tunic and waistcoat back on.” She moved to a worktable on the other side of the small room and began to put away the used instruments and left over swabs. “You should get cleaned up,” she remarked. “Wash you hair. Take the chance you have to feel more relaxed.”

El-Quan watched Kreousa as she moved about. It had been strange walking through the ship with her. Each corridor had brought with it a fresh smell and a new alien form. They were all incorrect, but they all had that same familiar taste. That familiar taste caused an ache in her head. They were so familiar, so similar, but still they were incorrect. She needed to know why. She wanted to taste them even more, to smell and touch them, to investigate that remarkable code that matched so closely her own but yet failed at the last instance. Even the lure of the three that matched and those they gave their protection to was pushed into second place. They were safe now, she new that, she had fulfilled her instructions. She could speak with them later, now she had to know why these Klysanthians intrigued her so.

When Kreousa turned El-Quan still hadn’t moved. Kreousa stared at her.

El-Quan was sitting on a narrow bed in one of the treatment rooms in the Medical Centre. She still had her trousers and boots on but her waistcoat and tunic were on the bed next to her. Only the bandage around her waist clothed her upper body. It didn’t cover much. Her skin was a golden colour, she was streaked in dirt and there were several bruises. Her face and hair were also dirty. She looked tired.

Kreousa leaned on the worktable and sighed. “Do you want to wash?”

No answer.

“Just say yes or no.”

No answer.

Kreousa came closer again and looked down at El-Quan. El-Quan tilted her head and looked back up at her.

“You do know how to wash, don’t you?”

El-Quan’s lips parted. “There were showers at Ephesus. We walked through them.”

“Do you want me to wash you?”

“Would it have significance?”

“Only if you wish it to.”

El-Quan seemed to think for a moment. “I am unsure.”

“Do you want me to fetch someone else? The Edenite female, Gusta?”

“No.”

“Scyleia?”

“No!”

Kreousa noticed the stronger reply but didn’t remark on it. “It looks like it’s me then.” She took El-Quan’s tunic and draped it over her shoulders. Then she picked up the waistcoat and held her other hand out to her. “Come, El-Quan. Learn the difference between a walk-through shower and being washed by a Klysanthian. It will not take long, but it might be of interest to you.”

Kreousa took El-Quan to a large room with an equally large sunken bath situated in the centre. It was already filled with heated water. Around the bath were cubicles with lockers and benches to sit on. Kreousa took El-Quan to one of these cubicles where she undressed her and passed her soiled uniform to another Klysanthian who waited in attendance outside. Like the other Klysanthians they had passed in the corridors on their way here, she looked at El-Quan but said nothing.

“This is a communal bath,” Kreousa explained as she removed the bandages she had wrapped around El-Quan’s waist only a short time before. “It is one of several on the Heaven. We all use them from time to time and the water is constantly refreshed and heated.”

El-Quan looked around the cubicle. Like the room outside it was brightly lit and decorated. “Is there not a danger from gravity corruption?” she asked.

“We drain and secure the rooms before going into combat situations or in other times of danger.”

Kreousa also undressed as she explained. And as she did so El-Quan noticed the hard white sheath that covered her forearm. The source of the injury was now identified.

When they were both naked Kreousa led El-Quan into the water and sat her down. The water reached up to El-Quan’s waist, and it was very warm and comfortable. But it also felt different. El-Quan looked up at Kreousa standing over her.

“Are there chemical agents in this water?”

“No. They are natural ingredients necessary to break the surface tension required to allow us to submerse. Without them I would stand on the surface.”

El-Quan immediately picked up one of the bottles that lined the edge of the bath and placed it very close to her nose. With a loud snort she sniffed at the contents. Then she held it up to Kreousa.

“Can I eat this?”

“No.” Kreousa took it off her and poured some of the contents into her hand. She used it to wash El-Quan’s hair.

El-Quan sat in the water patiently while Kreousa stood over her and massaged the soap into her hair and washed it away. It was extremely relaxing and her questions ceased until the water rinsed away the last of the suds. Kreousa caused them to return by picking up a coloured bar of soap from the assortments of variously scented bars among the bottles. As she dipped it in the water and worked up a lather, El-Quan picked up another one and sniffed at it as she had done before.

“Can I eat this?”

“No.”

She put it down and chose another. Again she sniffed at it loudly. “This?”

“Are you hungry?”

El-Quan paused in thought for a moment before putting down the bar of soap. “Yes.”

“Then I will arrange food for you once we have finished.”

El-Quan nodded and Kreousa began to wash her body.

The feel of Kreousa’s hands on her skin together with the soap and water was very strange. It had been the same when Kreousa had washed her hair but it felt magnified against her skin alone. Kreousa added the contents of one of the bottles to her hands and rubbed it over El-Quan’s back and chest. It felt soothing and yet arousing.

Why did the water feel so different like this?

At Ephesus the showers had spat the water at them under pressure. The impacts had tingled against the skin and the heat and steam had cleansed them of the sand and sweat. Here the water was equally warm but Kreousa bathed and doused her with it almost gently. It flowed over her skin mixed in with the lotions she had added to it until it felt almost oily. The process cleansed her skin just as well, but the feeling was more sensual. Kreousa caressed her with the water, scooping it up and pouring it over her, rubbing it in with her long fingers. It began to make El-Quan feel very relaxed and almost sleepy. And when Kreousa paused in the process to wash herself, soaping and rinsing herself off in more hurried motions than she took with El-Quan, El-Quan sat motionless in the water beside her, her eyes closed and her head tilted back.

When it came to the wound in El-Quan’s side, Kreousa was doubly gentle. And when she asked El-Quan to move and change position in the water the Androktone obeyed without question. Soon they were both sitting in the water together, surrounded in soapsuds that clung to the surface of the water and to their bodies. Kreousa pulled El-Quan slowly back into her lap until her head rested against her chest. Only El-Quan’s head was visible now above the water. They were both clean, but Kreousa continued to gently rub El-Quan’s body under the surface. El-Quan didn’t seem to mind; she just lay back in Kreousa’s arms surrounded in soapsuds. She scooped up some of the soapsuds in her hands and stared closely at one of the large bubbles, marvelling at the rapidly changing sequence of colours. And when it was finally over and El-Quan was sat in the cubicle wrapped in a large white bathrobe it was somehow sad.

Kreousa rubbed El-Quan’s hair dry. She was wearing another white bathrobe.

“I will arrange for your food in a moment. First you must be dry. Then I will replace your dressings. Your uniform will be returned to you when we have finished and you can go to eat.”

And that was how it went. When El-Quan was dry and Kreousa was replacing her bandage the attendant returned with her uniform. As promised it had been cleaned and was dry. It was also folded and looked quite neat. Kreousa had already got dressed by then and was wearing her white coat over her uniform as before. She helped El-Quan to dress. And when they were finished another quick journey through the ship brought them to another large room.

As before the Klysanthians who saw them on the way often glanced at El-Quan but said nothing. It didn’t matter to her. She knew what they were thinking. Each one spoke with their bodies. At first the signs had indicated surprise and confusion, then fear, and finally they had grown calmer when they had sensed the same calm in Kreousa. Another thing El-Quan noticed on her journeys through the ship was the damage that could be seen in places. Some of the corridors were unmarked and clean, while others bore the signs of fire and some structural damage. The large room they were now sat in was relatively unmarked. It was filled with tables and chairs and several Klysanthians sat together or alone eating. Growing foliage in large containers seemed to be used as decoration.

Kreousa had brought El-Quan to the ship’s mess, or restaurant. She obtained food and a hot drink for her and sat down with her at one of the tables. El-Quan ate and drank in silence.

Kreousa watched her as she also took sips from a hot drink. The Androktone looked a lot cleaner and healthier, and her light brown hair was all fluffed and flyaway. But as before she remained somewhat aloof. Finally Kreousa had to ask.

“What are you thinking?”

El-Quan looked up at her across the table. “You are incorrect.”

Kreousa smiled. “Is that all?”

El-Quan paused to think for a moment before replying. “You are very much like us. You are nearly correct, but not correct. The interaction with you is interesting and I have enjoyed the washing process and your kindness in tending to me and feeding me. But you are not a male and so there is no significance in the completion of these activities other than in my clean appearance and improved condition.”

It was a longer answer than Kreousa expected, but she still pressed El-Quan for something more. “And what does this mean?”

“My thoughts and understandings remain the same. I am a clone of the Tun-Sho-Lok, an Androktone, and my thought processes are limited by the need to follow the Purpose.”

“And what is the Purpose?”

“To destroy all those who are incorrect.”

“But I am incorrect.”

“Yes. And I am powerless to act against you. As with the Edenites under my care this is strange to me.”

“And what has this taught you?”

“It has taught me that nothing is quite as clearly defined as I once thought it was.”

-o-

Kelandra looked around with wide eyes as she passed through the portal. “It’s Pannertine Gardens!” she exclaimed.

And Jeddra said, “We’re back in Jutlam City!”

And then the smell and the horror of the scene penetrated. Kelandra doubled over and was sick. And when she saw what was beneath her she tried to turn and go back through the portal in her panic. Only the large form of the Seventy-Ninth blocking her way stopped her. But she wasn’t the only one who was overcome. Rualda swayed and rolled her eyes in horror as she looked around, and Breda almost dropped Celaneo’s body such was her shock. And the Klysanthians were equally stunned. They all could have lost control, but Tai-Gil stopped them.

She had been standing there waiting for them as they emerged from the portal. At first her expression had been angry and filled with distaste. But then when Breda had left the portal her expression had softened. Here was the one that matched. Here was the one that gave protection to the others. And when she sensed Breda’s distress she quickly stepped forward and took Celaneo’s body from her and Clyemne. Her action stunned the Klysanthians as equally as it surprised Breda. And she quickly followed up her action by shouting at them.

“Be calm!” she said in Edenite in a loud and commanding voice that caused them all to jump. “Block out the scenes around you! There is nothing to fear! You will not be harmed! You are to be taken to the waiting ship and put aboard! You will be safe there!”

With their attention focussed on her Tai-Gil then spoke more calmly to Clyemne in Klysanthian. “I was not informed of the dead you carry with you. I will arrange for their transportation to the ship.”

While everyone now looked on in surprise Tai-Gil turned, shifted Celaneo’s body in her grip, and waved forward two other Androktones who stood some distance away. They both trotted forward. Tai-Gil then turned to Ann-Ra.

“Ann-Ra, take one of the other bodies.”

Ann-Ra’s face twisted in anger. “You usurp my role in this process! I will not- ”

Take. One. Of. The. Bodies,” Tai-Gil repeated in extremely firm tones and with an air of menace that was so powerful it tingled against the skin.

Ann-Ra bowed her head. “Yes, Tai-Gil.” The blades she carried swiftly flowed and changed. She lumped them together and they stretched out into the shape of a long sword. In a quick motion she raised the sword to the back of her neck, tilted her head to one side, and drove it in. It just sank out of sight. Then she stepped forward and took Aello’s body from Anaxilea and Cassiopea. The two Klysanthians stared at her. They weren’t the only ones to stare. The process had been both swift and remarkable.

But if the demonstration had gone by too swiftly they were now rewarded with a double repeat. The two Androktones Tai-Gil had summoned now arrived. Tai-Gil nodded them towards Lupili, Jeddra and Rualda, and what Ann-Ra had done with her blades they both repeated with their silver rifles. And in a few seconds Deianeira and Thermodosa were being carried gingerly in their arms.

Tai-Gil turned to Breda. “You are Al-Ba-Tus. I recognise the match. I will take you to the ship with these others who share your protection. Another called El-Quan waits to receive you inside. She will see that you remain safe. The walk is only short. Stay close to me.”

Breda looked at her in surprise and nodded. She and Clyemne were clutched in each others arms and Breda had enough wits about her to blurt out, “The Warrior comes too!”

Rualda sighed and shook her head, and Anaxilea remarked, “Inside Scyleia’s ship you will not get him.”

Tai-Gil ignored them all and spoke only to Breda. “I had assumed that Ann-Ra had allowed his continuance at your bidding. He will be taken to the ship. Entry will be down to your wishes.”

Anaxilea repeated her words in Klysanthian. “Scyleia won’t let a Keruh go aboard her ship. To tell her different is a lie.”

Tai-Gil turned her head slowly to face Anaxilea. “You are Ann-Axe-Il-Ea, Matriarch of the House of Charity. We stand before you carrying the dead of your House. Honour them with your silence.”

Anaxilea’s lips parted and she stared at Tai-Gil in surprise and shame. Tears came to her eyes and she looked down. Cassiopea put her arm around her and pulled her close.

Tai-Gil now looked around at them all. “Keep close together. Follow.”

They all moved forward. Clyemne walked hand in hand with Breda just behind Tai-Gil. Rualda and Lupili came next, with Jeddra and Kelandra behind them. Cassiopea and a downcast Anaxilea were the next pair. And behind them came Ann-Ra and the two other Androktones with their sad burdens. The Seventy-Ninth was last. Tai-Gil led them under the port hull towards the larger main hull.

As they walked along, Rualda asked out loud, “How come she’s boss?”

And Jeddra responded, “I thought that other one, Suefam, was boss?”

Lupili agreed with Rualda. “No, this one’s definitely in charge. I think we can all tell that. There’s an air of command about her. And she’s not worried by our presence, either. That other one, Suefam couldn’t get off line quickly enough when Breda spoke to her. And Anra hardly speaks at all.”

From behind them Anaxilea said in a subdued voice, “On Klysanthia she must have been.”

Rualda glanced back at her “How do you know?”

“Agree with Lupili I do. Too at ease she be in our presence. And not awed she is by Breda’s power. Talks with us all she does. Treats us all the same she does. Extreme strength in mind and body she has. Exudes this strength and command she does. From heavy battle experience this comes. No other place but on my home world could this experience be gained. Know this the others do. Bow to her they do. And knows well our ways she does. Admonished me for my ill-timed anger she did. And carry our dead no other Androktone would.”

They all watched Tai-Gil as they followed behind her, absorbing Anaxilea’s evaluation of her. It conjured up other images that kept their minds from the scenes of carnage around them. And the Seventy-Ninth watched Tai-Gil just as eagerly. But he didn’t blot out the unpleasant scenery in Pannertine Gardens. Instead he absorbed it all, as he absorbed everything he saw.

All around him lay the evidence of battle. The Warrior Host of the Mysan’Taf had put up a brave and stiff resistance to the Assassin-Drones. They had delayed them for as long as was possible. That the Assassin-Drones had also fought well was equally obvious. The Seventy-Ninth honoured both forces in his mind. It had been a noble deed and a glorious fate.

He wished for a similar fate as those that lay scattered and dismembered across the ground. And yet by being captive he had seen something that no other Keruh had seen. The drones lived within themselves; both Assassin and Drone were one. It was a remarkable discovery.

Breda had listened to the discussions behind her. She looked at Tai-Gil carrying Celaneo so tenderly as she walked along. She hadn’t said a thing. It was as if she hadn’t heard them. In that at least she was similar to Ann-Ra, but in everything else her whole manner was different. There was no menace, no brooding anger. She was almost normal. She had to ask her.

“Are they right, Tygil? Have you been on Klysanthia?”

“Yes, Al-Ba-Tus. Our transport was shot down near the centre of the capital city of Realamabad. Most of my sisters died in the crash or were killed by Warriors soon after. I survived only because I managed to fight and kill my way to the landing field at Dealanjue. There I aided in the safe departure of thirty-nine vessels before the Keruh overran our forces.”

“You mean they were all killed?”

“Not all. A few of us survived.”

Clyemne asked, “How did you escape?”

“In a damaged freighter,” Tai-Gil answered her.

Breda then asked, “Do you mind us talking about you?”

“It has no consequence.”

As they came closer to the main hull of the Gate Of Heaven a hatch at ground level slid open to reveal a bright light inside. Tai-Gil led them straight towards it. Almost as they reached it a figure appeared in silhouette in the opening. Tai-Gil had known who it was well before she and her charges had reached the doorway.

“You smell differently, El-Quan,” she said in greeting. She spoke in Tun-Sho-Lok.

“I am clean, Tai-Gil,” El-Quan responded in the same language.

“You are also alone.”

“The one you speak of waits in agitation beyond the inner door. She has developed a fixation for you that I sense is reciprocated.”

“And I sense that it is a fixation matched by your own for those with Embassy status,” Tai-Gil countered. Then she paused and eyed El-Quan more closely. “Although I also detect an additional fascination for these slender aliens that was not present earlier.”

El-Quan raised her head in an aloof manner. “Are you in a position to judge my error?”

Tai-Gil shook her head slowly. “No more than you are of mine, El-Quan,” she admitted sadly. “Both of us are in error, and it is possible that our prolonged presence among these aliens may lead to further damage. It maybe prudent therefore that we complete this process with the minimum of delay.”

El-Quan bowed her head and answered in a more subdued voice. “Yes, Tai-Gil.”

“Good. Advise Sci-Lee-Ah that I have given permission for them to leave their ship for a short period in order to recover their dead.”

El-Quan bowed once more and went back inside the airlock to operate the wall-mounted com-unit. Tai-Gil turned to the others who were now waiting in growing impatience. The same thought was in all their heads. They were at the door, they were there, why couldn’t they go in? Now? Tai-Gil spoke to them in Edenite.

“We must pause while protocol is followed. The Klysanthians and their dead will be taken on board first. You will then follow.”

While she repeated her statement in Klysanthian, her Edenite charges began to voice their impatience.

Kelandra had her hands over her nose. “I don’t like it out here,” she said in a muffled voice. “I want to go inside.”

Jeddra agreed with her. “I do too. Why do we have to wait?”

Lupili had his arm around Rualda. “Yes, why wait for them?” he added, referring to the bodies the Androktones carried. “Surely the living should take precedence?”

Breda turned to him. “They died fighting for us. Or had you forgotten?”

Lupili looked away in embarrassment and no one complained about waiting after that.

Clyemne hugged Breda more tightly. “Thank you,” she whispered in her ear.

The Androktones laid the bodies down carefully near the doorway. Two of them instantly drew their swords from their backs and walked purposefully away. In seconds they were both holding silver rifles. The third Androktone remained by the bodies. Ann-Ra didn’t look happy. Tai-Gil walked over to her.

“The instructions given to me by the Humeric Council concerning the disposition of the Klysanthians takes precedence over all others,” she said in way of explanation of her actions.

Ann-Ra’s expression softened slightly. She bowed her head. “I understand, Tai-Gil.”

“Good. What were Soo-Fam’s instructions to you?”

“I was ordered to see these aliens taken safely aboard and into El-Quan’s care. I was then to follow your instructions.”

“Did Soo-Fam’s instructions allow for entry into the Klysanthian ship?”

“No.”

“Then wait with me outside. Once the Klysanthians are all on board you are to proceed with your instructions. Take those with Embassy status to El-Quan and see them all taken safely into the ship.”

“Yes, Tai-Gil.”

By now the inner hatch had been opened and Scyleia and Heli had joined El-Quan in the airlock. Kreousa and two other Klysanthians quickly followed. While El-Quan remained inside the airlock all the Klysanthians rushed forward to the outer door and jumped down. Their joy at seeing Anaxilea and the others with her was swiftly tempered by the sight of the four bodies on the ground. Kreousa went straight to the bodies, examining each. Then she sent one of the other Klysanthians back into the ship to fetch some stretchers. While she considered the dead, Scyleia and Heli had rushed forward to greet the living. Scyleia went to Anaxilea and they embraced tearfully and rubbed cheeks and kissed. Anaxilea was overcome, and she almost collapsed in Scyleia’s arms.

“I never dreamt I would see you again!” she exclaimed.

Scyleia held her at arms length. “Nor I you! But I have an even greater delight for you, Lea! Philippis and Phoebe are on board! They are both injured but will recover!”

Anaxilea just stared at her as if she hadn’t understood. Cassiopea broke from an equally tearful embrace with Heli and turned to grab her shocked Captain.

“Philippis made it!” she exclaimed. “She rescued Phoebe and they made it!”

Anaxilea still looked shell-shocked. “I must see them!” she begged finally.

Scyleia nodded. “Go with Heli! She will take you to them! We will bring those of your House who have fallen!”

Heli reached out a hand to Anaxilea, but Anaxilea could only turn to look at the four bodies. Kreousa was already organising their carriage into the ship. Klysanthians with stretchers had emerged from the airlock and Celaneo and Thermodosa were already being lifted up. Anaxilea was torn with the selfish need to see her daughter and the responsibility she still had for her crew, especially those who had fallen at her command. Clyemne did a little to relieve her pain.

“I will wait with Breda and the others. Go, Lea.”

And Scyleia pressed her further. “Go! I will oversee what happens here! They are my responsibility now! Go!”

Anaxilea nodded, seized Heli’s outstretched hand and hurried through the door with Cassiopea. As soon as they had gone Scyleia’s expression hardened. She turned to Clyemne.

“Why is there a Keruh with you!” she snapped in an angry rush.

Clyemne glanced at the forgotten Warrior before replying. “We were under his protection while we were held captive. He ensured we were kept from harm. Now Breda won’t allow the Androktones to kill him.”

Clyemne hugged Breda when she had finished. Scyleia looked at her. There was something oddly familiar about her overly large features.

“The one that matched are you?” she snapped again.

“I am,” Breda replied almost hesitantly. “We can’t- ”

“Have him on my ship I will not!” Scyleia interrupted harshly.

“But they’ll kill him!” Breda blurted out.

And Rualda chipped in, “And about time, too!”

Scyleia ignored them both, but what Clyemne said to her she couldn’t ignore.

“Be careful, Scyleia. Breda has matched. And what she orders the Androktones will obey.”

Scyleia glanced at Breda and then turned and stomped off in the direction of Tai-Gil.

Tai-Gil was watching the last of the stretchers being carried aboard when Scyleia reached her.

“I will not have that Keruh Warrior enter my ship!” Scyleia blurted out.

Tai-Gil only looked at her briefly before turning to Ann-Ra.

“Proceed with your instructions, Ann-Ra.”

Ann-Ra bowed and then moved away.

Tai-Gil watched her walk towards the Edenites and beckon them forward. When she saw El-Quan take Breda and Clyemne inside the airlock and the others begin to follow she turned her attention back to the waiting Scyleia.

By now Scyleia had folded her arms and was stomping her foot in agitation. “Did you hear me?” she snapped.

“I am pleased to see that the gravity of this world no longer incapacitates you,” Tai-Gil said evenly.

It was a reply that knocked the concentration from Scyleia, but she quickly regained it.

“How can you even consider forcing me to take him on board when I have to leave you outside when we take-off?”

“I was aware that Soo-Fam would request that you should leave. It was a request that you should have anticipated.”

“It wasn’t a request. She insisted,” Scyleia confirmed, almost blurting out the reason why.

Tai-Gil nodded. “Then you should leave.”

“Not with him. And especially not if you stay behind.”

“The two events are not linked.”

“They are in my mind.”

Tai-Gil paused a moment while she looked at Scyleia. She still had her arms folded and there was an attractive air to her almost stubborn attitude. But the firm resolve presented by her expression and posture was not matched by her temperature and heartbeat.

While Scyleia and Tai-Gil stood some distance away, Ann-Ra was finding the management of those with Embassy status to be extremely irritating. Even though Breda was inside the airlock she could still be heard arguing with El-Quan. Ann-Ra watched Clyemne help Kelandra climb through the door and contemplated the ease of war without such distractions.

“I will not go without the Warrior!” Breda was saying as Jeddra joined Kelandra inside the airlock.

“The final decision is not mine,” El-Quan replied as she ushered Kelandra and Jeddra towards the inner door where Kreousa waited. Kelandra glanced back at them both over her shoulder as she went through the inner door to the reception deck. Breda just wouldn’t give up.

“Then whose decision is it?”

“You must wait until Sci-Lee-Ah returns. It is she you must persuade.”

Clyemne had helped both Rualda and Lupili into the ship but Breda still wouldn’t move.

“I don’t care what she says! I will not go without the Warrior!”

As Rualda reached the inner door she turned and shouted back, “Well stay outside with him then!”

Lupili hastily pushed her forward and they disappeared into the reception deck. Kreousa paused at the inner doorway.

“Are you coming through, Clyemne?” she called out.

Clyemne turned a questioning look to Breda that the Edenite instantly understood.

“Not without the Warrior!” she repeated.

Clyemne shook her head at Kreousa in dismay. Kreousa went inside with a sigh.

Ann-Ra now stuck her head through the outer door. “Only the Warrior is left, El-Quan. What shall I do?”

“Go and speak with Tai-Gil.”

Ann-Ra nodded and left quickly. With Breda refusing to move and Clyemne waiting anxiously with her, El-Quan wished that she could have gone too.

Tai-Gil had completed her analysis of Scyleia’s present state in only a few seconds. Now she nodded.

“Why do you persist in these false attempts to force my entry into your ship?”

“This is about the Warrior!” Scyleia insisted.

“No it is not. Please explain your need truthfully, and I will reply equally truthfully.”

Now it was Scyleia’s turn to watch Tai-Gil. There was a different air about her now. She wasn’t as cold as before, she was more open and at ease. Even her request had been unusual for an Androktone. It was all very promising but Scyleia sensed that it was all to be dashed. She still had to try.

“Alright. You were on Klysanthia. I was there too. I was at the landing field during the evacuation- ”

“I know,” Tai-Gil interrupted. “Your attempt to force us to enter at that time also failed.”

Scyleia almost broke down then. She unfolded her arms and just stood there like a child. “Do, do you remember me?” she said in faltering words.

Tai-Gil nodded. “I was among those who escorted you to your ship. You were very vocal.”

Scyleia stepped closer to Tai-Gil and grasped her hands. Tai-Gil didn’t resist or pull away. It made Scyleia all the more hopeful. “Come aboard. You must come aboard. I will not leave you behind this time.”

“Finish your explanation.”

Scyleia took a deep breath and it all came out in a rush. “I want you. After what happened on Klysanthia, after what I saw there, leaving you all behind, finding you again, here, alive, talking to you, knowing you, I want you. I need you. I have to have you with me. Do you understand me?”

“I understand you, Sci-Lee-Ah. But what you seek I can only accept from a male. There is no provision for a null relationship in my psyche.”

Scyleia looked puzzled. “A null relationship?”

“One without issue. Although I can give solace to others- ”

“Yes! Solace!” Scyleia had almost pounced on the term. “That’s what I want! That’s what I want to give you! It’s all I ask of- ”

“Wait!” Tai-Gil said firmly. “Let me finish!”

Scyleia shut up and Tai-Gil continued.

“I can share solace with others of my kind in times of stress or during a lull in conflict, but I can only accept a liaison to which you refer to with a male to produce offspring, to procreate.”

“But a liaison isn’t just about children!” Scyleia said emotionally as she searched desperately for the words to explain her feelings. “It can be about solace like you said, about the comfort and joy of another’s gentle caress! But it is also about love! It’s about finding one’s soul mate! About the glories of exploring and knowing one another! And of growing together and feeling safe and content! Don’t you want that? Don’t you feel a need for it among all the death and disaster around you?”

“I am an Androktone,” Tai-Gil said simply.

Scyleia let go of Tai-Gil’s hands and stepped back. She was suddenly deflated. “You said your answer would be equally truthful.”

Tai-Gil nodded. “The situation we find ourselves in his wholly due to my instructions from the Humeric Council. They allow for my interaction with you but prevent my entry into your ships. This was necessary to ensure your protection and safe removal. But it also ensured that the relationship was not prolonged. I cannot break the one instruction anymore than I can break the other. I cannot kill you, Sci-Lee-Ah, even if I wanted to. But equally, even if I wished to enter, I cannot enter. To attempt such a thing would seize my mind. You have already seen evidence of this so you know it to be true.”

From deflation, Scyleia was now filled with the possibilities hinted at by Tai-Gil’s final statements.

“Do you mean when you tried to enter before, and when you held me in your arms? Your mind was seized then?”

“Yes,” Tai-Gil confirmed.

Scyleia moved closer to her again. “Why would it be seized?” she asked quickly. “Why would there be any dilemma in your mind if you had no care to enter, or no care for my life?”

“I have to protect you and those who matched,” Tai-Gil replied calmly.

“And is that all?”

“What are you asking me?”

Scyleia now stared intently into Tai-Gil’s eyes. “Do you, possibly, maybe, for no other reason other than for mild curiosity, actually want to come aboard with me?”

“Yes.”

With that simple word, Tai-Gil finally broke Scyleia’s heart. The realisation and enormity of what was going on inside Tai-Gil’s mind, about how she felt, defeated Scyleia totally. She couldn’t respond, she couldn’t even think. She just stood there as Ann-Ra appeared and spoke to Tai-Gil.

“Tai-Gil, the one that matched waits in the airlock with El-Quan and the Klysanthian called Clem-En-E. She will not leave the Warrior. And the Klysanthians beyond the inner door will not allow him to enter. What is your decision?”

Tai-Gil spoke to her as if nothing had happened. “Have all the others entered?”

“Yes, Tai-Gil. They are inside and have joined the others with Embassy status.”

A bright light lit the sky. It broke through the thick black smoke clouds and shot over the city like a streak of lightning. It shot over their heads from the east and ended in a violent explosion of fire and spinning debris to the west. Its passage briefly broke up the smoke clouds and allowed glimpses of hazy blue in the dawn sky. It was followed by a scream of sound that ended in a loud bang.

Everyone outside the Gate Of Heaven stared at the bright mushroom of flame that rose majestically into the smoke filled air.

Scyleia swallowed as she stood next to Tai-Gil. “I think that hit the portal building,” she whispered.

“I believe you are correct,” Tai-Gil replied. Then she turned to Ann-Ra. “Ann-Ra, summon the others. Split them in two. Keep half here under your command. Send the drones in your force east to aid in the main battle. Maintain the security of this ship until I return. I will take the others to aid those at the portal building. I will bring back those that survive. Keep all the aliens inside the ship. Leave only the Keruh Warrior outside. If he makes any offensive movements, kill him.”

“Yes, Tai-Gil.”

With a nod Ann-Ra ran off shouting at the other Androktones nearby. Tai-Gil turned back to Scyleia. For a second she just stared at her. But then she hurriedly began to undress. Or that’s what it seemed.

Scyleia looked on in surprise as Tai-Gil unfastened and opened her tunic and then tugged at what looked like a black waistcoat or corset underneath. It unfastened down the front and Tai-Gil pulled it from around her body. In a few seconds she had refastened her tunic and was advancing on Scyleia with the waistcoat in her hand.

Scyleia took a step back. “Wait! What are you doing?”

“I want you to wear this,” Tai-Gil explained as she now began to unfasten the front panel on Scyleia’s uniform. “It is called a body-plate. All the Androktones above the sixteenth generation possess one.”

Scyleia kept backing away and protesting while Tai-Gil continued to advance and unfasten her uniform.

“But it won’t fit me! I don’t need a gift! You aboard my ship is the only gift I want! Tai-Gil?”

Tai-Gil ignored her protests, finally pulling wide the front panel of Scyleia’s uniform and thrusting the waistcoat inside. As soon as Scyleia felt Tai-Gil’s hands on her skin she instantly stopped backing away and protesting. For a few seconds they were very close together as Tai-Gil formed the body-plate around her and pulled it tight, and all Scyleia became conscious of was the smell and feel of Tai-Gil as she continued to pull and form the body-plate into shape.

“It’s still warm,” she whispered into Tai-Gil’s ear.

“It aids in the retention of body heat.”

“It’s too big. And stiff.”

Tai-Gil stepped back and began refastening Scyleia’s uniform. “The longer you wear it, the better it will mould itself to your shape.”

“But don’t you need it?” Scyleia asked, wriggling slightly as she spoke.

“I am more robust than you.”

Both their uniforms were now refastened and Tai-Gil turned to leave. Scyleia reached out and grabbed her arm.

“Where are you going?”

“I go to the aid of Soo-Fam and those with her at the portal building. Now return to your ship. Prepare for take off but try not to leave until I return. You must stay here for as long as you can. If I am successful there will be those I bring who can enter your ship willingly. It maybe their only chance of escape.”

“But what if you’re not successful?”

“The answer to this question will only be revealed if you and your ship remain here.”

“I won’t leave here without you!” Scyleia insisted. She let go of Tai-Gil and stood before her with her arms folded in full stubborn mode. “I won’t! Not now that I know the truth!”

“I believe you. And I will not fail to return. Now do as I ask and go aboard your ship.”

Tai-Gil suddenly turned and ran. Scyleia took a hesitant step forward but then she stopped. Tai-Gil was already too far out of reach and Scyleia could only stand and stare after her as she ran across the square. Other Androktones ran to join her. And in a second Tai-Gil had drawn the sword from her back and it took shape as she ran.


CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

A GLORIOUS FATE

On the bridge of the Prometheus the air pressure stabilised and the howling wind that had threatened to suck them all out of the door slowly began to die down. Aeolus was still hanging on to his command chair, and he was about to shout out his latest orders when artificial gravity returned with a thump and everyone fell to the floor. Aeolus landed upside-down on his chair and Peleus landed on Lysippe. Lysippe wasn’t pleased by the coincidence.

“Do you enjoy crushing me?” she gasped trying to push him off.

“I didn’t do it on purpose!” he replied as he climbed off her and got to his feet.

Lysippe quickly got to her knees. “You were too clumsy to avoid me!” she accused him.

He reached out his hands and she took them. “And you were not agile enough to get out of the way!” he said as he pulled her up.

Aeolus clambered the right way round on his chair and suddenly shouted, “Peleus! Stop bickering!” He pointed his finger at Lysippe. “And as for you, embarrass me again and that engine compartment will indeed be yours!”

Lysippe’s reply was filled with innocence. “I am sorry, Captain,” she said rearranging her hair. “But Pantariste was merely concerned with our status.”

“And I am a pregnant nymph!” He smacked the arm of his chair. “Peleus! Contact all ships! Advise them of our status!” His final word dripped sarcasm, and his expression mirrored his feelings as he turned away. “Boreas! Go and find Tyro! Get me some damage reports! I will not have that woman take my place as shepherd! Glaucus! What course are we on? Where in Hades are we?”

Peleus went to his console and Boreas ran for the door. He didn’t get very far. Tyro was rushing in and the two collided. Tyro hung on to a startled Boreas and shouted to Aeolus. He looked extremely worried and distressed. He was also battered and dirty.

“Captain! Captain! We have to evacuate! The hull on deck nine has split from port to starboard beyond the main fin! Three of the bulkheads have collapsed on deck eight and the floor is coming apart! We’re losing pressure at an alarming rate and I can’t guarantee that the remaining bulkheads will hold for much longer!”

Aeolus had twisted around in his chair. He looked shocked. “But you’ve returned power and gravity- ” he began.

“Its only temporary!” Tyro shouted desperately. “And I don’t know for how long! There’s a fire in Engineering and both the engines are out! We only have back up generators on! They’re feeding life-support on decks one to six only! We have to get out, Captain! The hull’s going to blow at any minute!”

Peleus looked up from his console. “He’s right, Captain. All my instruments are dead.”

“Mine too,” Glaucus added.

Tyro let go of Boreas and ran forward and leaned on the command chair next to Aeolus. “We have to go, Captain!” he almost begged.

Aeolus looked at him, his face crestfallen. “The Prometheus,” he whispered. “My ship…” He looked around at them all, seeing them watching him, all of them waiting. He slowly stood up from his chair. His expression of determination returned and he raised his voice and bellowed at them with sudden urgency.

“Peleus! Sound the alarm! Have everyone get to the lifeboats! Contact each deck officer! Make sure everyone gets out! Lysippe! Work with him! Tyro! Keep those generators going for as long as you can! Boreas! Glaucus! You’re with me! We have some bulkheads to shore up! Move everyone!”

-o-

The Keruh Flagship shot through the rarefied upper atmosphere of Eden, the glow from her engines a bright yellow. Nearby a bright orange ball descended slowly trailing a long white tail that stretched all the way up to the blue-black void where distant stars twinkled. Other similar comets dropped towards Eden in the distance.

In the command centre one of the Host approached the Dominant of the Mysan’Taf, bowed his head at the bodyguards that blocked his path, and waited. The Dominant waved aside his bodyguards.

“Speak,” he hissed.

The bodyguards moved aside like a curtain and the Warrior raised his head.

“Most Gracious One, we have made contact with the Dominant of the Telen’Gal. He has been advised of our plans. He believes it to be a noble deed and a glorious fate.”

All those in the command centre bowed solemnly in silence and then raised their heads. The Warrior instantly continued.

“The Dominant of the Telen’Gal, the Dominant of the Belol’Fan and the First of the Orly’Ank lead our combined Warrior Host into the final battle. They outnumber the Assassin-Drones but doubt that victory will be possible. Prudence would therefore suggest that transmission of the Host be completed before the battle is ended. If they should prove to be victorious then those that survive will attempt to follow through the portal.”

The Dominant of the Mysan’Taf now bowed his head and swept his cropped smaller arm diagonally before him. “Theirs is a noble deed,” he clicked and hissed.

All the Warriors in the command centre repeated the gesture. “And a glorious fate.”

Again the Warrior resumed without pause.

“We have received word from the First in the capital. All his attempts to retake the portal building have been repelled by the Assassin-Drones in and around the building. Their numbers have now diminished greatly, although there is still a large Assassin-Drone in the transportation tunnels. He has a limited number of Warriors available for a further attack, but with support from the Gatherer class he has advised us that he will comply at the designated time.”

“Good. What news of the Gathering?”

“A sufficient number of Hive tunnels and caverns have now been established under the city. Gathering has been most successful in outlying areas and other centres of population. It has now begun in large areas of the capital and contented Receivers from other areas have now arrived to swell those awaiting transmission.”

“Will all the Host be ready for transmission at the allotted time?”

“No, Most Gracious One. Many of the Host remain on the north and east sides of the tainted areas around Elengrad. Fortunately this central area was gathered earlier and was abandoned before the nuclear blast. By far the greater number are in the north. They are in the process of gathering sustenance from another Edenite population centre in the mountains. It would take them many hours to reach the capital. The lesser number are in the east. They return from the population centres at Kalahar and Nemen. Those coming from Nemen are under attack from Assassin-Drones entering the tunnel system at the landing field. Their route back to the capital takes them under the battle zone between the two cities.”

“What is their status?” the Dominant clicked quickly.

“They are moving steadily, but the Assassin-Drones that pursue them are moving faster, and their drones are growing in size.”

“And those from Kalahar?”

“Less than half are already under the city limits of the capital, with still more following.”

The Dominant took little time making his decision.

“Advise the First that connection with the eastern tunnels to Nemen are to be severed beyond the city limits as soon as possible. If the Assassin-Drones are defeated then the tunnels can be reopened. Tell him also that a second portal must be opened to retrieve those in the north. He must request this from the combined Dominant as soon as the first portal is opened in the capital. If our plan is successful our portal should be established immediately the Edenite portal goes off line. Remind him that evacuation of the Host is imperative.”

The Warrior bowed. “It shall be made so, Most Gracious One.”

The Warrior hurried away leaving a second Warrior to take his place. The Dominant turned to him.

“Speak.”

“Most Gracious One, the engines are overheating, they are being damaged by the excessive heat, and we cannot maintain this speed for much longer.”

“Can we reach our destination before the engines fail?”

“No, Gracious One, we will fall short.”

“And if we reduce speed?”

“The life of the engines will extend exponentially in relation to our speed. We have calculated that a reduction of nine points now will guarantee our reaching the target. If we delay the required reduction in speed will become twelve points.”

“How much time will be lost?”

“Two-fifths of one unit.”

The Dominant contemplated this second decision a little longer. He was standing over the astrogator screen once more. It was a habit he could not cast off from his time as First. Even now his eyes reverted to it. Rather than a view of space it now showed an outline contour map of the continents and features of Eden that they were passing over. The outlines moved constantly, but they were still too far away. And if they failed to reach their target the whole exercise would have been fruitless. And worse, the war would most definitely be lost. But what would the time cost them?

“Reduce speed by nine points. And advise the First in the capital of our revised time of arrival.”

The Warrior bowed, hesitated, and then hurried away.

It was not easy to cast aside ceremony, even at this time. The gestures and words were based on respect and knowledge of one’s place in the Host. And to abandon it completely would be to bring on anarchy. But those aboard the Flagship all shared a common rank now. They were neither First nor Dominant. They were just Warriors with a last battle to fight.

It would indeed be a noble deed and a glorious fate.

-o-

The highway Between Jutlam City and Nemen was built predominantly across a wide-open plain. On one side in the far distance were low hills. On the other side the plain stretched unbroken to the distant sea. There had been several small population centres along the highway, most of them hardly big enough to call villages. Many were just stopping points for fuel and rest. These were all burned out and swept clean of life. The highway like these small outposts of civilisation was littered with the remains of the day’s battles and skirmishes. Crushed and burned out vehicles, dismembered bodies, craters, downed jets, scattered parachutes, even the large metal skeleton of a spaceship, it’s great fin like a twisted sail above it, lay in silent vigil. Darkness had hid them all, but now that would change.

In the east, above the distant and abandoned city of Nemen, the sun slowly rose at last, casting its first bright rays across the land. The dark skies slowly turned to blue, and the light swept along the highway revealing in detail what had been hidden in darkness. The scattered remains and blackened debris came into sharp focus, but so did a dark wide blanket that covered the land. And the blanket was moving.

As the dawn skies turned a lighter blue, two vast armies clad in black hurried across the plain towards one another. From the east came the Keruh, their Warriors bobbing ungainly as they ran. A huge sea of movement from north to south stretched for miles along the highway. Not thousands, but millions. Not an army, but a population.

These were the combined Warriors of the Keruh Host, assembled in one place for one battle for the first time. Only the Warriors of the Mysan’Taf were absent. They had been sacrificed to the street warfare in Jutlam City that had brought the capital to ruin.

The Keruh had abandoned the highway itself and formed up in huge squares, each a thousand strong. The column was ten squares wide and countless squares long: Ten, fifteen, twenty, more. Each Warrior ran with ease, each ran with determination and purpose. Axes swung in time to ungainly steps, rifles swept the ground and facetted eyes scanned the horizons. Their enemy was easy to see.

From the west came another army in black. From the ravaged capital, the smoke above it a thick black smudge, came the Androktones. Again they spread beyond the edges of the highway. Again there were millions not thousands. But instead of squares the Androktones ran in wide rows, each row a thousand deep and ten thousand wide. Their column matched the width of the Keruh, and they matched them also for length. Again there was row upon row as the Androktones ran eagerly towards their foe. But the movements of the Androktones were more graceful. They ran with fluency and ease, their silver rifles moving in rhythm to their bodies. But there was another more stark difference to their army.

Dotted among the wide rows were large silver forms. They moved at walking pace, their long strides allowing them to keep up with the Androktones around them with ease. They walked among the Androktones but never stepped on any of them. They were like grotesque giant caricatures of imaginary beasts. Depending on their size, which differed randomly, the creatures either had four legs or six. All had several large protuberances along their sides from which extended snake like tendrils. And at the end of each tendril were double-barrelled cannons that dwarfed the rifles carried by the Androktones around them. At the front the creatures appeared to have two heads, each carried forward on a long and thick neck. Each head had bright red eyes and was large enough only to support the enormous mouth at the front. And each mouth was filled with long curved teeth.

But these large and menacing forms were not the only difference. Above the army of Androktones was a multitude of silver darts. They also flew in rows, over a hundred above each row of Androktones. They flew at the same pace, all at the same height.

Now as daylight brightened the scene, each army could see the other, and both quickened their pace. Androktones and Warriors alike suddenly ran faster, the large silver creatures broke into a trot, and the air was filled not with cries and shouts, but with the loud throb of millions of feet crashing to ground in a constant beat. It was the sound of an earthquake. It was an earthquake. Debris on the road between the two onrushing armies trembled and vibrated, and the great fin of the wrecked spaceship slowly toppled over with a grinding crash.

The distance between the two armies grew smaller and smaller. Each side ran even faster, the drumming beat of their footfalls quickening and growing louder. And then it started.

From the front of the leading Keruh squares narrow white beams of light shot across the gap. Where they hit the rows of Androktones ahead of them figures tumbled and fell. Instantly there was a response. Orange bolts of energy flew across from the row of Androktones and struck the front edges of the Keruh squares. Bright flashes and splatters of black fragments marked the deadly impacts. But as the dying fell, those that rushed on trampled them underfoot.

More white lasers flashed across the ever-narrowing gap, more figures tumbled, and more orange bolts were returned to explode carapace and scatter dismembered limbs. But now the silver darts surged forward, dropped in height, and opened fire. They peppered the leading squares of the Keruh with orange beams that caused more bright, black, splattering explosions. And then the silver creatures in the leading row of Androktones snarled and opened their mouths wide. From within emerged not tongues, but large cannons that belted forth high-powered maser beams. The impact blasts blew Warriors and concrete from the very centre of the leading squares in a cascade of smoking debris, scattered limbs and fragmented torsos.

The exchanges of lasers, masers and orange bolts of energy grew more violent and intense, the air above the leading edges of both armies slowly filling with smoke. And those that died in the exchanges perished without notice, they simply disappeared under those that rushed on ever faster until the drumming beat of millions of feet grew into a thunder that caused the fragments on the road to bounce and dance. Closer and closer they came, the distance between the armies shrinking ever smaller until finally, in a loud thump that dwarfed even the tremendous sound of the drumming beat, both armies clashed together with axe and blades.

-o-

The Prometheus flew through space on a gentle spiral. Only the white gaseous plume that trailed behind it revealed the slow revolving turn. The white gas was pouring from a jagged line that stretched across the pockmarked and cratered hull almost from one side to the other. It was just behind the large serrated fin and it was wide enough at the middle for the inner compartments to be visible beneath. A darker plume trailed from one of the engines. But apart from this both engines were silent and still. Most of the windows on the lower decks still shone with lights, while those on the upper decks glowed red or were dark. The illuminated windows were not the only sign of life. All around the ship tiny yellow cylinders shot away on red tails.

The Prometheus was in the final stages of its death. While Tyro kept the generators going with nothing more than spit and will power, Aeolus, Boreas and Glaucus fought bravely with their teams to keep the bulkheads together. They toiled hard but it was a lost cause. Although there had been no single deathblow, the multitude of craters and ruptures in the outer hull caused by the constant bombardment of maser cannons had finally taken its toll. And with the hull integrity broken, and without artificial gravity to hold it all together, the different velocities and vectors within the ship’s dynamic were causing it to tear itself apart. The vast armoured fin was a heavy inertial load on the outer hull, and the tear behind it was caused by the equally heavy load of the engines towards the rear of the ship. The two halves were coming apart and each deck was slowly beginning to unzip across the ship.

Peleus and Lysippe had worked separately to organise the evacuation of the ship’s crew. Peleus dealt with everything from deck four upwards and Lysippe had covered decks one to three. It was a split Peleus had insisted on, as the upper decks nearest to the tear in the hull were the most at risk. Lysippe had protested but soon given up. Time didn’t allow for a long argument and Peleus had been quick to point out her limited knowledge of the ship and the poor conditions she would face on the upper decks. But despite the fact that Lysippe had been on the Prometheus for so short a time her brief tour had been well absorbed. And by the time they met up again on deck six over eighty percent of the crew had already taken to the lifeboats. Peleus was surprised to see her as she emerged from a stairwell.

“Why aren’t you in a lifeboat?” he called out to her.

She ran towards him and leaned on the wall. She looked heated and out of breath. “I came to inform your Captain that the evacuation is complete on the lower three decks.”

Peleus didn’t believe a word of it, but he was pleased to see her. “You shouldn’t be here. But now you are you better come with me. The upper decks are all clear too. I came to find Boreas. He’s down here somewhere with his team. Come on!”

She nodded and they ran down the corridor together. Although she was obviously tired, Peleus was surprised by her outward calm in the circumstances.

“Have you done this before?” he asked her as they ran. All around them on the floor were abandoned tools and scattered clothing and papers.

“Twice,” she replied. She was running as fast as him but her breathing was more laboured. “And once in a simulation pool, but that doesn’t count.”

“I’ve known people drown in a simulation pool!” Peleus remarked.

“It still doesn’t count!”

When they reached Boreas they found him with seven men attempting to weld an assortment of metal joists and plates to a sealed bulkhead. They all looked sweaty, dirty and manic. Many of them had abandoned their leather tunics, and their white gowns were now stained and dirty. As soon as he saw them, Boreas pulled the welding glasses from his face and waved them back.

“Don’t come any closer! That’s the forth bulkhead we’ve shored up, but I fear there’s only stars on the other side!”

“Give it up, Boreas!” Peleus told him. “There’s no one on any of the decks above us! And I’ve cleared everyone out of the decks below us as far down as deck four!”

Lysippe had doubled up and was leaning her hands on her thighs. “And I have cleared all the decks below that! Everyone has left! The ship is abandoned! It is time to go!”

Boreas nodded and turned to his men, slapping two of them on the back. “Alright, my friends! Drop everything and get to a lifeboat!”

There was a clatter as everything was indeed dropped. The men all turned and ran, all of them conscious of what was about to happen and eager to be gone before it actually did happen. Boreas, Peleus and Lysippe ran behind them. When they reached an intersection, Boreas drew the two of them to a halt.

“Peleus! You and Lysippe go and warn Glaucus and the Captain! I’ll go and get Tyro!”

Peleus grabbed his hand. “Be quick!”

“You also!”

They split up. Boreas went one way and Peleus and Lysippe climbed to an upper deck and ran down another deserted corridor. It felt much lighter on deck seven, but it was also darker and bathed in a red glow. Only the red emergency lights were on here and the air was tainted with smoke and gaseous fumes. It was easy to run, their steps taking them further, but it was harder to breathe. Peleus had found it even worse on deck eight, and on deck nine there was hardly any breathable air when he had left. The ship wasn’t going to last much longer. But if Peleus found it harder to breathe here, Lysippe found it almost impossible. She gasped at the air, a hand to her chest, but never complained nor reduced her pace. Peleus fought back the urge to take her hand. He wanted to but knew somehow that it would be an insult to her. Fortunately they didn’t have to run far.

A short distance along the corridor and they found a similar sweaty team of men welding up another bulkhead. One of the dirty men turned as they approached and only then did it become clear that it was Aeolus. He quickly stood up and thrust his welding torch into the hands of another man and shouted at them both.

“What are you doing here? You should be in a lifeboat!”

“Everyone has left, Captain!” Peleus shouted back as he and Lysippe drew up to him. “There’s only you and Glaucus left! We came to get you! And Boreas has gone to get Tyro! His team have already left!”

Lysippe didn’t say anything this time; she just leaned on the corridor wall, her head down, her chest heaving.

Aeolus glanced at her but didn’t remark on her condition. Instead he turned to his men. “Alright! That’s it! We’ve done all we can here! Get to a lifeboat! Save yourselves! I want none of you missing at the next roll call!”

Everyone dropped their torches and tools and rushed away. They were scared but relieved. The lifeboat station was at the end of the corridor. Once there they would be safe. All they had to trust in now was their speed of foot.

As soon as they were gone Aeolus pulled Lysippe from the wall and thrust her into Peleus’s arms.

“Get to a lifeboat! Now!”

Lysippe looked surprised but didn’t resist. And Peleus was more worried than surprised. “But, Captain- ” he began, but Aeolus cut him off.

“That’s an order! I’ll get Glaucus! Now go! Both of you!”

Aeolus pushed Peleus and Lysippe away and reluctantly they ran. They went back the way they had came, heading this time for the same lifeboat station as the men who had preceded them. Aeolus watched them for a moment before glancing back briefly at the bulkhead he and his men had shored up with plates and girders. It wouldn’t last long. Turning away he ran down the corridor in the same direction as Peleus, Lysippe and his men. But he didn’t follow their path for long. At the stairwell he darted inside and climbed to deck nine, heading for Glaucus and his team. He wouldn’t leave without them.

Peleus and Lysippe ran down the corridor chasing after Aeolus’s team. The men had already disappeared ahead of them. As before Lysippe was breathing hard and suffering badly in the heat and poor air, but she was managing to keep up with Peleus in the lighter gravity. Peleus was eager to get to the lifeboats but he had set a slightly slower pace this time. If Lysippe had noticed the gesture she didn’t say anything. She was running as fast as she could in any case. And it wouldn’t have mattered to Peleus if she ran even slower or stopped altogether, for he had no intention of leaving the Prometheus without her.

“You know,” he called across to her as they ran. “I had feared that I would not see you again after we split up!”

“Did you think…I would get lost?” she replied breathlessly.

He smiled. “Do you remember where the lifeboats are on deck seven?”

“Down this corridor and to the left- ”

There was a vibration and their next step never touched the floor. Instead they were flying along the corridor. Peleus struck the wall as he tumbled in the air. The impact caused him to bounce off and he went diagonally across the corridor and hit the other wall. He would have repeated the whole process if he hadn’t managed to grab hold of the edge of a doorframe. His grip nearly broke, but with his hand as a pivot he swung back against the wall and stayed there. Lysippe wasn’t so lucky. She went right to the end of the corridor as if she was falling down the centre of a lift shaft and hit the far wall. She landed on her back, bounced off and began to drift back up the corridor. She floated limply, her long hair floating about her head.

Peleus launched himself in her direction and a few anxious seconds passed before he caught her in his arms. She moved as soon as he grabbed her but she looked stunned as he swept her hair from her face.

“Are you alright, Lysippe?” he asked worriedly.

“I am unlucky,” she gasped with a slur. “My love is taken from me, you strangle and crush me. Then you fall on me from height. And now I am hurled against a wall. This ship is unsafe for Klysanthians.”

Peleus smiled. “Come on! There’s a lifeboat down here! We’ll be safe soon!”

Peleus kept his arms around her waist and midriff and kicked against the wall. He drove them both along a side corridor. Lysippe looked around as they glided along and her eyes quickly became focussed.

“You are going the wrong way, Peleus!” she exclaimed looking behind them. “The lifeboats were the other way!”

“They’re too far now,” he replied as he kicked against another open door pushing them forward a little faster.

“Too far?” Lysippe repeated in exasperation and pointed behind them. “They were just around the corner! Aeolus’s men will have reached them by now!”

Papers, clothing and tools drifted about in the air in front of them and Peleus ducked under one that flew over his head.

“They were running, we aren’t,” he pointed out. “Boreas must have got to Tyro. And with the gravity gone it will take too long getting to the main lifeboat station now that we can’t run. There are two more lifeboats on this side that are nearer.”

Lysippe brushed aside several papers that fluttered towards her face. “Why are there two lifeboats here?” she said, kicking her legs in irritation. “I was not told this! You never showed me! Are you sure you are not taking us a longer way?”

“They’re for the maser cannon crews on this side. The cannons are mounted too far away from the main lifeboat station, so they added two more here. And they were both unused when I last saw them.”

Almost as he spoke the red and yellow striped outline of the lifeboat access hatches came into view. There were two of them on their own, just as Peleus had said. Both had green ready signs next to them. Lysippe wasn’t impressed. She kicked her long legs in even more annoyance.

“These are almost as far away as the main lifeboats! Are you trying to kill us?”

Peleus pulled them up at the first hatch. “We’re here, aren’t we? Stop complaining!”

He let go of her as he opened the hatch and prepped the lifeboat for launch. Lysippe hung on to the hatch and glared at him.

“Have you brought me here on purpose, Atlantian?” she said in haughty tones.

Peleus continued to prep the lifeboat. “Of course I have! You want to get away, don’t you?”

“You know what I mean! If we had gone the other way as I said we would be in a lifeboat with the others by now!”

“Or they could have left without us,” Peleus pointed out. “They weren’t expecting us to follow them, you know.”

“I know your true intent! In this lifeboat we will be alone together!” She folded her arms and raised her head in a proud manner, her hair drifting behind her in the zero gravity. “Your plans will come to nought with me, Atlantian!” she said sternly.

The emergency lights went out in the corridor. For a brief instant there was nothing but pitch black. And then the lights inside the lifeboat flickered into life. The light shining through the open hatch revealed Peleus and Lysippe hugging one another in a tight embrace. Their faces were pressed together, and both displayed startled and fearful expressions. It took a moment for them to realise that they weren’t dead and then Peleus shoved Lysippe into the hatch and she wriggled through in an instant. Peleus dived in behind her. A second or two later and the hatch swung shut. Another couple of seconds passed and there was a distant thump and the green ready sign switched to a red empty.

-o-

In complete silence and apparent slow motion, the Prometheus split apart in a bright white blossom. At the centre of the blossom, grinding metal ignited oxygen, gas and fuel in a brief red and yellow light show. It didn’t last long, and when it was over the white trail ended at the slowly expanding and fading blossom while the now dark and empty fragments drifted on in different directions. There were three large fragments and dozens of smaller pieces of debris drifting forward in an ever-widening arc. The large fin with part of the hull and decks below it tumbled to the left while the rear of the ship with the engines exposed tumbled to the right. The front half of the ship continued directly onwards, slowly cartwheeling end over end, the angry expression painted on her prow no longer menacing.

-o-

On the highway to Nemen a prehistoric battle of the insect world raged in the larger, real world. The two vast armies were now crushed together at their leading edges, and a fighting front ten thousand strong struck, chopped and sliced at each other, toe to toe. And those right behind the leading edges who were just out of reach of the enemy hurled themselves over those who fought, landing on backs, and bringing down others under their weight. Androktone and Keruh Warrior alike were both eager for the fight, and death, brutal and without remorse, was delivered in a torrent of blows. And while those near enough to wield axe or blade did so with great vigour, those too far back fired their rifles instead. But many of those who fought never stopped firing their rifles until they were dead. Some fired at almost point blank range, some even fired while they fought, striking with blade or axe in their other hand at the same time. They all fought as they chose, as the moment dictated.

There were no rules to the engagement, and no special protocols or traditions to be adhered to. It was fought under a simple maxim: Kill or be killed, anyway, anyhow.

Androktones were chopped or hacked down, their bodies split apart by a single blow, heads were caved in or struck cleanly off, and others were crushed beneath Warriors who leapt upon them. Many were shot down by white beams that transfixed them, while others staggered on as if unaffected. But the Warriors met a similarly brutal end. Large limbs were sliced through, carapaces punctured by stabbing blows, eyes and complete heads were sliced off, and torsos were blown to splattered fragments. Many Warriors staggered to and fro wielding their axes with several Androktones piled on their backs until they were eventually brought to ground. Here they were sliced and stabbed to death. And those that lay dying or wounded all mixed together, Warrior and Androktone, struck at one another where they lay, or at the feet or backs of those fighting above them. Only the crush of those eager to fight closed the gap that finally trampled those that fell into oblivion. And while those on the ground strove to annihilate one another, those in the air added to the slaughter.

The silver shapes darting back and forth over the fighting hordes fired down relentlessly at the Warriors deeper within the squares. They concentrated their fire behind the fighting line for a purpose. This was an attempt to soften the squares and break them for the Androktones to push through, and it was supported by a monstrous and evil force.

The large silver beasts now strode purposefully forward among the dark figures that wriggled and fought in a long line on either side of them. With their mouths wide open, each creature fired their maser cannons repeatedly into the squares of Warriors in front of them. And within a few strides they had crossed the fighting line and were among the enemy. Now the snake-like tendrils that emerged from their sides waved and whipped in the air, and the double-barrelled cannons spat orange bolts of energy into the heaving mass of Warriors. Each blast was deliberately aimed, the tendril moving snake-like as it sought a target. Once found it would pause briefly to fire before moving on. Each tendril with its double-barrelled cannon worked independently of the others, and explosion after explosion smashed the Warriors on either side, throwing their splattered and mutilated remnants high into the air.

With such firepower a single giant could soon decimate a square of Warriors. And in an attempt to stop them from doing so, many Warriors leapt onto the silver giants and chopped through the tendrils with their axes. In reply other protuberances would bulge out of the sides of the creatures, split open and the Warriors would be seized in great jaws that either sliced them in half, or crushed them and drew them inside even as their axes flailed. Even the tendrils that had been sliced free would be recovered. Another tendril would bow down, touch it, and the two would flow together. And from the side of the giant a new tendril would snake out. Soon it would be firing again. But the process caused a delay, a delay that saved other Warriors from a speedy death. And soon all the silver creatures that waded through the squares had Warriors crawling all over them in a wriggling mass of chopping axes. Even laser blasts were used to briefly deform the giants in a relentless barrage that tried to limit the impact of their presence.

But it only was a limitation. Slowly, as each second and minute passed, each of the creatures grew larger from the Warriors it seized and drew within. And as they grew larger, the number of tendrils increased. Many of them continued to support the double-barrelled cannons that spat energy bolts, but others just had gaping jaws that shot out and seized more of the Warriors. And all the while the silver darts flew back and forth above them all, firing down repeatedly.

At either side of the wide column the fighting was as hard as it was at the centre. There was more room to fight out here, and more were able to take part. Each side tried to out-flank the other and each manoeuvre was met by a counter-manoeuvre causing the line to widen and widen. Soon those further back were rushing to the side, and the Keruh slowly added complete squares to the fighting line. The Androktones matched their width and instead of ten thousand wide, the fighting line became twelve thousand, then thirteen thousand, and fourteen thousand wide. Both armies spread out wider and wider, the vast bulge behind and in the centre flattening as they pushed together. All it succeeded in doing was to increase the enormity of the carnage.

The Dominant of the Telen’Gal fell in the vanguard of the Keruh squares. He died a noble death, at the front, before and in view of his Warrior brothers. He fell under the combined weight of several Androktones who brought him down and hacked and sliced him into no more than bloody shrapnel. His axe lay abandoned where it fell, his hand still gripping the shaft. His death brought honour to his Hive and to the combined Host, and it caused his Warrior brothers to fight on with increased vigour. It caused no other change in the battle. For with his death the leadership of the Warrior Host was taken on by the newly promoted Dominant of the Belol’Fan.

The sun was now clear of the horizon and was shining brightly. The battle had raged for nearly an hour, and the leading squares of the Keruh had been cut down to half their strength by the silver giants that walked among them like a growing cancer. Above the battle smoke swirled and the air was filled with the stench of burned and eviscerated bodies. And on the ground both the road and the earth was stained and seeped in the blood of those who had perished. But at last, one side gave way.

The front line of the Keruh collapsed in the centre and fell back under the weight of the Androktones, the weakened squares giving way until the next square behind them. The Androktones pushed forward in an ever-widening torrent, until the whole fighting line had moved up. There was another frenzied exchange of laser beams and energy bolts before the new line was formed, but it was quickly over. Now there were fresh squares of Warriors facing the Androktones, and the silver giants walked purposefully towards them. They were much bigger now. Some of them had three or four heads, and their bodies were carried forward on ten or twelve legs. Many of them had twice that number of tendrils snaking out. And above them the silver darts swooped forward. Soon it had started all over again.

-o-

“Most Gracious One! We approach the target!”

The Dominant of the Mysan’Taf kept his gaze on the astrogator screen. It showed an outline map of the outskirts of Jutlam City. The Keruh Flagship was over the capital. Now was the moment of truth. Now his actions in challenging for dominance of the Hive and his strategy since then would reach a final culmination. And the outcome would prove his wisdom to be true or shatter it as false. He looked up at the Warrior.

“Engine status?”

“They are intact and can maintain this speed until impact, Most Gracious One.”

“Can we increase speed?”

“Only for a short period at the end of our flight.”

“Then continue at this speed until my command.”

The Warrior bowed and swept his smaller hand diagonally before him. “It shall be made so.” He hurried back to the helm console.

The Dominant now turned to his bodyguards, the astrogator screen forgotten at last. “Hand me my axe!”

One of them obliged and the Dominant took it in his larger hand. He raised it with difficulty.

“Let all Warriors take up their axes!”

The Warriors in the command centre quickly retrieved their axes from the cupboards where they were stowed. In a few seconds they were all stood together and had raised them aloft.

The Dominant looked at them all proudly. “We go to battle in support of our Hive brothers! We go to strike a blow that will turn the war! The blow will not be delivered by axe or fist, but by the vessel that contains us! Like a mighty hammer we will smite at the enemy! Our target is within reach! Soon we will strike it! And we must strike it well! We must strike it deep! Let our enemy feel our wrath, my brothers! Let our willing sacrifice not be in vain! It is a noble deed!”

“And a glorious fate!” they all hissed and clicked in reply.

The Dominant bowed before them. “In your honour, and in the honour of the Combined Hives, it shall be made so! Proceed to ramming speed!”

-o-

The morning sunlight was beginning to break through the black smoke clouds that covered Jutlam City. For the most part the city at ground level was still shrouded in smoke filled darkness. The many fires had left the entire capital a gutted burned out skeleton of ruined buildings. Street after street, block after block, all was gone. And the smoke clouds covered all in a thick smothering blanket. But here and there the sunrays had begun to break through, and the scene of devastation slowly became more colourful. It only added to the visual impact.

Above the city a large dark triangular shape flew. It came out of the higher clouds and dropped down. It came lower and lower, until it swept through the smoke clouds leaving spinning vortexes in its path. It shot low over the city at great speed, its triangular fins rotating as it slowly spun. It flew over Government Square, dropped lower and then dived down in a scream of sound. In a heavy explosion of spinning fragments and scattered masonry, the ship hit the Edenite Portal building broadside on in Welcome Square. An enormous mushroom of fire and smoke completely engulfed the building, and part of the wrecked ship careered on and came to rest amidst the ruined buildings on the far side of the square. More flames shot into the sky and the whole square seemed to be burning.

-o-

Under the morning sun, a second row of squares in the Keruh army collapsed. The Androktones pushed forward again, confident now of victory. Behind them they left a carpet of dead. Androktones and Warriors lay side by side, all mangled and trampled almost flat by the feet of those that had fought and then rushed on. There was nothing large that was recognisable anymore. In general the bodies of the Androktones were just dismembered lumps of flesh with exposed bone, while those of the Keruh were just fragments of carapace. Only the scattered limbs were more easily identifiable. They lay everywhere. Great forearms with three-fingered hands poked up at the sky, complete legs or just a foot lay abandoned, and everywhere there were crushed heads, the bone of the skulls visible underneath the scraped off skin. What made it worse was that everything was covered in a mixture of the blood and the disgusting mess that had once been internal organs. It covered the land like a black and red mud peppered with bones and carapace.

It was an evil, inhuman scene, made more distasteful by the smell that lingered in the air along with the smoke caused by the continuing explosions. Each bright flash burst another carapace apart and threw up more limbs. But the losses did nothing to quell the tempo or ferocity of the battle.

As the second row of Keruh squares collapsed, another running battle was fought as the Warriors that had survived sought to withdraw to the next row of squares before they were sliced or shot down. The Androktones chased after them, and those they caught turned to fight heroically. But isolated and outnumbered, the Warriors were soon despatched in a frenzy of slicing and stabbing. And as the numbers of isolated Warriors dwindled, many of the Androktones paused in their pursuit to stand and raise their rifles, firing a barrage against the leading Warriors of the next square who already hurried towards them. The orange energy bolts splattered many of those at the front of the squares. But the Warriors behind and among those who fell would immediately return fire in kind, resting their rifles on the shafts of their axes while they ran and fired. The white beams caused many of the Androktones to drop before them. Most of those hit low in the body shrugged off the impacts, climbed to their feet, and fired back. But those hit higher in the chest, throat or head, lay still after they fell.

As before, this change in format of the battle was brief, and it lasted only as long as it took the Androktones and the Warriors in the next squares to rush forward and clash together once again. And soon the bloodletting was renewed in earnest. Blades sliced and axes chopped, lasers picked out slender forms and energy bolts blew apart ungainly ones. As before both sides fought with courage and strength, and both sides died in droves. But it was the silver giants who were turning the tide.

As the fighting line was formed up, the silver giants again advanced on the Keruh squares ahead of them. They were now bigger than ever, their bulk increased by the large numbers of Warriors they had absorbed. Many of them were now so large that they dwarfed an entire square. With hundreds of tendrils each firing or snapping at the Warriors around them, and with several heads at each end of their long bodies, they walked purposefully forward on an army of legs until they stood at the very centre of the squares. Here they fired and snapped incessantly at the Warriors around them, devouring many and blowing apart the rest. In response the Warriors clambered and scrambled all over them in a wriggling and chopping mass. Tendrils were chopped free and silver heads lopped off, but each decapitation was followed by the snapping of immense jaws, and the crumpled carapace of another Warrior would be drawn inside.

And those in the air were contributing to the heavy losses in the massed Host of the Keruh. They flew back and forth relentlessly, tirelessly, without pause or respite. They fired down at the Warriors below them at a frequency of almost once every second, and each blast blew the body and life of another Warrior to fragments. It was a war of attrition that the Keruh were losing.

Never before had a land army opposed and defeated the Keruh. Never before had another force been able to withstand the animalistic ferocity of the Keruh Warriors in combat. Only now had they met their match. Only the Androktones, the Assassin-Drones, could match their vicious determination and complete lack of self will. Only they could oppose them with equal brutality and pitiless cruelty.

The Dominant of the Belol’Fan fought with his Warriors against the masses of Assassin-Drones ranked against them. He already knew that victory was lost. They could only fight to delay the inevitable now. His progression to Dominant meant nothing to him with final defeat drawing inexorably closer with each passing second. His only hope had been that the plan of the Dominant of the Mysan’Taf would succeed. But there had been no further word from the Flagship since the original contact was made. And as time dragged on, more of the Combined Warrior Host perished on the battlefield. Soon it wouldn’t matter. And then at last there was a change.

As the third row of squares began to falter under the onslaught, one of the large silver giants suddenly reared up and uttered a low, baleful groan. Almost at once it began to turn from bright chrome silver to dull black. And as it changed colour it became still, each tendril coming to an abrupt halt as it waved to and fro, as if suddenly frozen in place. Finally it swayed and slowly toppled over like a tremendous and monstrous statue, scattering Warriors and crumpling the concrete of the highway beneath it as it fell with a rumble.

A dozen more of the silver giants went through the same process. Many of them fell with the sound of thunder, others remained standing like grotesque and nightmarish statues, and in the air a flock of silver darts dropped to the ground in mid flight like black stones.

Relieved of the burden of these monstrous attacks, the Warriors surged forward with renewed confidence and vigour. The fighting intensified and the advance of the Androktones was halted. Now the fighting was left in the main to those on the ground who faced one another with axe and blade. And while both sides redoubled their efforts to annihilate the other, many of the surviving silver darts dropped to the ground amid the carnage and began to change shape.

-o-

Soo-Fam lay in the rubble of what had once been a glorious and impressive building. Her face was scratched and her uniform was torn and bloody. Blood also ran from the corner of her mouth. There were large fragments of masonry and marble on her legs and lower body, and she was covered in dust and smaller debris. Only her head, shoulders and left arm were exposed above it all. The air swirled with dust, dust and smoke and the smell of hot iron. Someone moved close by.

Chen-Po staggered towards Soo-Fam and knelt by her side. She was equally covered in dust and blood and her uniform was torn. She was also blackened by fire and her left arm was broken. She held it gingerly against her midriff as she wiped the dust from Soo-Fam’s face.

“Soo-Fam, we are attacked, the portal has gone. Can you hear me?”

Soo-Fam moved her head and coughed and spat. Chen-Po pushed aside the debris and heavier fragments from her body and cradled her head in her hand, raising it up slightly. In response Soo-Fam opened her eyes.

“Do not…die for this…building,” she gasped weakly.

“I have not. What do you wish me to do?”

“Find…others that…live. Take them…to…Tai-Gil…”

“I will do as you ask. I will return shortly.” Chen-Po lowered Soo-Fam’s head to the ground. Her eyes were already closed.

Chen-Po stood up and looked around. The scene around her was a shambles.

The portal and the controls that operated it were gone. The entire main hall was gone. Even the ceiling and the walls were gone. Only the front of the building with three columns still stood, the doors completely blown out by the impact and explosion. All the other walls and internal rooms were completely destroyed. There was just rubble, some of it large and still recognisable, the rest of it just a sea of blackened fragments. She could see across Welcome Square. She could see sky above. And on what had once been the far side of the building the broken and twisted hulk of half of a Keruh warship lay embedded deeply in the ground. One of the large triangular fins still lay sticking up at an angle. Smoke billowed from the wreck and fires burned everywhere. They were scattered about in pockets. Hot metal fragments caused some of them. They glowed brightly in the dim and dust filled smoky air. Some of the fragments were small while others were quite large. None of them were recognisable. The brighter fires were caused by smashed furniture, wooden window frames, roof beams and other parts of the building that were combustible. Everything that could burn was burning.

As Chen-Po picked her way shakily among the rubble and debris, more details slowly became clear.

Among the rubble and dust were bodies. They were scattered around where the rows of calm figures had once knelt in silence. Although many had returned to claim their other selves, still more had been too far away. The drone shells that had remained now lay dead and buried. There were very few complete bodies that she could see. Occasionally there was an arm or leg sticking out from under the dust and masonry. Sometimes a whole body was visible, or just a foot, or a dismembered limb.

And then a single figure appeared on her knees from behind a large and irregular piece of fallen masonry. It had been part of the roof and the elaborate decorations still showed on one side. It was deeply embedded in the marble floor. She was right next to it, completely unscathed, with only the dust caking her body.

Chen-Po staggered towards her and stared at her. She was the only other Androktone in the building that still lived. Now that she had found her what was she to do?

The sound of feet caused her to look up. Three Androktones ran towards her across the rubble, picking their way over the stones and marble shards. One of them was Vin-Di, her jet-black hair and darker skin marking her out.

“Chen-Po! Where is Soo-Fam? Does she still live?”

“Yes.” Chen-Po turned and pointed. “By the remains of the portal controls.”

Vin-Di and one of the other Androktones ran on to Soo-Fam. The third Androktone stopped next to Chen-Po.

“Is this the only drone shell?” she asked.

“Yes, Bey-Nan.”

Bey-Nan nodded and then ran on to join Vin-Di who was already helping the other Androktone to lift Soo-Fam from the floor. Chen-Po turned to call after them.

“Soo-Fam said not to die for this building.”

A white beam transfixed the figure kneeling quietly behind Chen-Po and she was knocked against the fallen roof member with a sigh and a thump. She slid to the floor leaving behind a smear of red on the stone.

Chen-Po threw herself down and reached for the sword in her back. Vin-Di and the other two Androktones had already done so and were now firing back across the square where ungainly figures could be seen in the dim and hazy light. One of the advancing Warriors burst apart. More white beams shot across the square and struck masonry and rubble around the Androktones. Vin-Di fired back again before shouting across to the isolated Chen-Po.

“Chen-Po! Get over here!”

Chen-Po instantly began to crawl forward. Another beam flashed over her head.

Vin-Di looked back at Soo-Fam. She just lay where they had dropped her when the firing started. She had a hand clamped to her middle. Vin-Di turned to one of the other Androktones.

“Fam-Kai! Rouse Soo-Fam while Bey-Nan and I keep them back!”

Fam-Kai nodded and lowered her rifle. She tried to pull Soo-Fam to her feet as the white beams flashed by, but Soo-Fam just hung limply in her grasp. All she did was repeat the same feeble words.

“Do not…die for this…building.”

Fam-Kai grabbed Soo-Fam’s head and shook her until her eyes opened wider and her hand reached up to stop the jarring motion. With her attention gained, Fam-Kai then spoke angrily and with determination.

“From whom does this instruction stem?”

Soo-Fam stared up at her. “From…the Councilman,” she said painfully. The blood from her mouth was now smeared over her cheek.

“And are you exempt?” was the stern response.

“No…the command was…specific to me…”

“Then as we obey, you must too! Get up!”

It was a deliberate and firm command, backed up by the orders of the Councilman. Soo-Fam had to obey, and even as her insides tore and the pain became intense, she stood up with Fam-Kai’s help. Fam-Kai instantly turned to Vin-Di.

“Vin-Di! We are ready!”

Vin-Di glanced back and pointed across the building towards the wrecked spaceship behind them. “Get over to the other side! We have to put that ship between them and us! Move!”

They all began to back across the rubble, firing their rifles intermittently as they went. Vin-Di paused to wave at Chen-Po.

“Back! Move back!”

Chen-Po nodded and scrambled over the rubble towards the wreck. She paused by a hot engine fragment and raised her rifle to fire at those who ran across the square. There were now many more of them. But they were not all Warriors. A Gatherer with outstretched arms was burst apart almost as he crossed the invisible threshold of the building.

Soo-Fam was the only one among them who didn’t hold her rifle. She had no energy or ability to waste drawing the weapon from her back. She needed it all to coax her ruptured body to respond. With one hand clasped to her middle and the other on her abdomen, she staggered forward across the rubble and debris. She spat blood that seeped up her throat and the pain inside was terrible. Only her instincts and need to obey kept her limbs and muscles moving. But it hurt. The pain in her abdomen was worse. Each movement felt like a knife inside, each pull and stretch tearing and slicing at her flesh. But her instructions were clear.

Do not die for this building.

She ran as they ran, her head down.

They reached the wreck of the ship and Chen-Po caught up with them. Bey-Nan grabbed her arm and pulled her behind the remains of the armoured fin as another white beam struck the metal. It was the last shot to be fired and it left a glowing crater that slowly faded.

Vin-Di didn’t give them time to rest. “Come on! Move! We have to get away from here and find better cover!”

Soo-Fam leaned on Fam-Kai. She looked out of breath. She also looked to be in agony. “Find Tai-Gil…board the Klysanthian ship…it is the only way…to comply with the Councilman’s orders.”

Vin-Di nodded. “We head for Pan-Tine Gardens! Run!”

With Soo-Fam supported between them, the five Androktones ran from the ruins and picked their way across the square. Soon they were lost among the smoke and burning buildings.

-o-

The Warriors that entered the abandoned ruin that had once been the Edenite RNP building paused to stare at the wrecked Keruh Flagship ahead of them. The Gatherers that had ran with them now scurried about in search of the fallen. They upturned pieces of masonry with their large hands and dug at the rubble and debris, quickly seizing up the bodies they found beneath and carrying them away. Others ran on across the building to pursue the fleeing Assassin-Drones. No one opposed them now.

The First of the Mysan’Taf considered the change in fortune. Nearly all the Assassin-Drones on both the inside and outside of the building had perished in the impact. And those that hadn’t perished had been killed shortly after. Only a handful had escaped. That they had withdrawn was unusual, but the enormity of the defeat was equally unusual. There was nothing left here to defend. Even the tremendously large drone in the underground tunnels was now a black and lifeless obstacle. They would have to dig through it. The Diggers had already begun the task.

The Dominant’s wisdom had been proved. Defeat could still be brushed aside. And now he was Dominant.

As the Warriors stared at the wreck and contemplated the glorious deed of their dead brothers, a narrow column of light appeared in the centre of the ruined building. And one by one all the Warriors slowly turned to watch it as it widened and became a long cylinder of swirling mist. The cylinder continued to grow wider until it became a huge drum of grey. And finally it cleared to reveal several hundred Warriors in what looked like a large underground cavern. They hurried forward with bobbing gait, their axes and rifles held ready.

The Dominant waited as the Warriors hurried towards him. Most of them fanned out to secure the building, but one of the Warriors approached him directly. There were three other Warriors flanking him. The Dominant bowed when they all stood before him. And sweeping his smaller hand diagonally before him he raised his voice.

“Dominant of the Orly’Ank, Dominant of the Combined Hives, I, Dominant of the Mysan’Taf, greet you!”

The Combined Dominant also bowed and repeated the hand gesture. “I congratulate you on your progression,” he clicked deeply in reply.

“It was a noble deed.”

“And a glorious fate.”

They both bowed and swept their hands before them once more. With tradition and ritual satisfied, the Combined Dominant turned directly to the matter in hand.

“What is our status?”

The Dominant of the Mysan’Taf bowed again and hurriedly clicked his answer. “It is surprisingly good, Most Gracious One! The majority of the Host are within the city limits of the capital, the rest are in a population centre to the North!”

“And what of our Warrior brothers?”

“They have engaged the Assassin-Drones in the east! The battle is underway!”

With the situation clarified, the Combined Dominant uttered his first commands.

“Begin the evacuation of the Host immediately! Prepare the access tunnels! Open a second portal in the north! Bring forth the Receivers! And continue the Gathering in the city during the evacuation! All available sustenance must be retrieved before this harvest world is abandoned! Open a third portal in the east! Begin the extraction of the Warrior Host! None must be left behind!”


CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

A DISTANT MORNING

Hilbrok was a nightmare. Most of the people had gone to sleep in the knowledge that their world was ending. Some had already fled the city by their own means, the scenes of devastation and destruction brought to them on the dwindling newscasts sufficient to get them moving. They already knew that the end was near. They had watched as one by one all their major cities had been attacked and then destroyed, and now the most fertile lands were a nuclear wasteland. It was time to go. Beyond the mountains to the north were hostile lands; places where the civilisation brought by the Ring had never reached. Life would be harsh and difficult, but at least they would be alive. So in the dark they packed their goods and left in tears.

Those that stayed also cried. Some of them planned to go the next morning, or to see what the military government would do next before they left. Most of them knew that they should go, now, straight away. But unlike the others who headed north in the darkness, they chose to stay one more night. They clung to the vestiges of normality and civilisation, to the familiar material things that gave them comfort. And those in the refugee centre had been through it all before. They were tired of running, and they were still suffering the trauma of the nightmare of their escape. They did not cling onto the material things, but onto hope, hope that it would soon be over. And for many of them it was.

The nightmare returned with the dawn, when the Gatherers had emerged from several tunnels and seized many of the refugees as they slept or huddled together. The refugee centre was the easiest of targets. There were so many people all packed together in an immense, sprawling sea of tents that covered the southern approaches to the city, that communication was impossible. And the military tents gave the people no protection. Some of the tents just dropped into the tunnels that opened beneath them. And in an orgy of screaming confusion and panic, hundreds were snatched before the soldiers could respond. After that it became a firefight of increasing intensity and proportions.

By the time Major Stumomoner got there with a battalion of men and armour it was to find the place in utter turmoil. Only a concerted effort by his men got any of the people out. It was a fight all the way, but the lessons of the short engagement at the Emergency Centre had been well learned, and heavy calibre machine guns of various types and sizes had been bolted or welded onto anything that could move. Jeeps, cars, trucks, even the armoured vehicles carried extra guns. And by the time the Major and his men withdrew with the surviving refugees all the guns were sporting glowing barrels.

Colonel Salther had an equally difficult job in Hilbrok itself. But he had also come prepared. He had an entire division at his disposal, but most of the resident population resisted his efforts to get them to leave. And by the time it became clear that they had to leave it was already too late for a lot of them. Unlike at the refugee centre, where only a few tunnels were opened, the Diggers had burst through from underground all across the city. And from each cavernous tunnel the Gatherers spilled out. Soon there were thousands of them. They worked in large packs, descending on a single block and breaking through windows and doors. In the residential areas it was worse. The open areas between the houses masked events and the isolated people in their homes were picked off easily. Many were still in their beds when they were taken. And children were killed as they slept. It was a nightmare of horror made worse by the knowledge that it was all real.

Colonel Salther soon had to abandon the eastern side of the city, leaving an entire residential area to the Gatherers. There was nothing he could do. Instead he concentrated the evacuation to the centre and north and west of the city. But it still took time to convince the people to leave. They wanted to pack, to take things they needed, or loved and cherished. Colonel Salther soon gave up on diplomacy and began shooting and ordering instead. People were bullied and scared out of their homes, the soldiers treating them like criminals. There were tears as well as screams, and angry shouts filled the air. But all the anger dissipated when the Gatherers began to appear. Fear drove everyone out.

As in the refugee centre a concentrated effort was required to keep the Gatherers at bay. And after only minutes many of the people who fled through the city streets were deaf from the constant chattering of heavy automatic weapons. But with a limited number of bullets available Colonel Salther had to make sure that his men made every one of them count. So instead of killing the Gatherers he ordered his men to shot the legs out from under them. Once down they no longer mattered, and soon the streets were filled with maimed Gatherers that staggered or crawled along.

By the time Major Stumomoner and his battalion joined them with the surviving refugees, nearly half the population of Hilbrok were on foot or in the back of trucks on their way out of the city. Colonel Salther was as good as his word. He brought the people out firing all the way, and in the cold morning sun the mountain roads were filled with a sprawling column of trucks and people hurrying along. Amid the trucks were cars and vans piled high with people and belongings. There were ambulances and buses too, some filled with the injured or sick from the hospitals. And all around the vehicles, in front of them, behind them and to the side, people trudged along on foot. Men and women, children clutched in their arms, their faces filled with defeat and sadness. And behind them all came the armoured vehicles that blew the road and the Gatherers that pursued them to pieces.

It had been a relentless chase. As the soldiers and the civilian population withdrew along the mountain road to the Emergency Centre and the nearby landing field, the Gatherers in the city had all drawn together in their pursuit. Like a massed army of suicidal foot soldiers they had charged along the road in the teeth of a barrage laid down by the heavy artillery and automatic weapons. Many of them had been blown to pieces, while even more had their legs shot from under them in a splatter of heavy calibre impacts. But they didn’t give up. For every step of the way the soldiers and armoured vehicles had kept up the barrage of fire, sweeping the road behind them, splattering the Gatherers and smashing everything on the road to scrap and splinters. The Gatherers still kept coming, as if they stemmed from a never-ending supply. And they kept getting nearer and nearer.

Colonel Salther knew that there would be no rest and no respite. He urged his men not to fall behind, he screamed at the people to move faster. But despite his demands some of his men were taken. Some of them ran out of ammunition, straggled behind, or tripped as they backed along. And in an instant the Gatherers would be on them. Hand to hand fighting was not what the Colonel wanted. He would rather his men turned and ran than fight. He needed every one of them, and he screamed at them to disengage and break off. And always he shouted for more speed and heavier fire. They had to keep moving, they had to stay ahead of the Gatherers that pursued them. But the Colonel had a greater fear than being overtaken. For where one tunnel could be dug, so could another. He kept his column moving all the time, the heavy artillery blasting away at everything behind them. But they never seemed to be moving fast enough.

The Gatherers chased the Edenites along the road in vast numbers. They were drawn eagerly to the fresh meat. But many of their brothers had stayed in the city to clear the area of anything that could be broken down and consumed. And as the morning sun chased away the last vestiges of the night, the Receivers emerged from the darkness to be exposed in all their grotesque splendour. They stood in the corners of buildings or down narrower streets, clinging to the shadows as the Gatherers ran to them with their booty. In the residential areas some of them had moved inside the houses to avoid the light. They filled entire rooms with their immense bulk until the ceilings and floors above them curved up and cracked open. Soon even the walls collapsed under the pressure of their swelling size and the roof tumbled around them. The Gatherers continued to bring everything they could find to them. Edenites, grass, trees, shrubs, pets, wooden panelling, roof timbres, floor joists, curtains, coats, clothes, tyres, hoses, even their fallen and maimed brothers were shoved into the gaping jaws. Nothing was to be wasted in this last chance to gather sustenance for the Hives.

And then suddenly it stopped. Suddenly the bloated shapes were gone from the shadows and the broken houses. Suddenly the streets were empty of those who ran and seized everything. Suddenly everything in Hilbrok was quiet and abandoned. And on the road, too, the Gatherers melted away and vanished.

Colonel Salther scanned the road behind him for any movement as the guns of his men at last fell silent. There was nothing to be seen on the road except the blackened craters and burning trees and bushes. The Gatherers they had hit in the last rush lay crumpled where they had fallen. Behind them the ground was empty, as if all the bodies had been spirited away. Nothing moved. He lowered his field glasses and glanced up at the morning sun. He was standing in the open hatch on top of an Armoured Personnel Carrier. It was moving forward at a slow pace near the back of the column. Behind it were several mobile guns on heavily armoured and tracked vehicles. All of them had their heavy turrets pointing at various angles behind them as they crunched over the grass and rocks by the side of the road. Some of the long barrels still smoked. Soldiers walked alongside the large armoured vehicles, their rifles also aimed at the road or at the bushes and trees beside them. They all looked nervous.

Colonel Salther turned and shouted to a man standing in the open hatch of another APC ahead of him. His voice was cracked and hoarse.

“They seem to have given up!”

“Then they’re up to something!” Major Stumomoner shouted back.

“Get up ahead! Have the men keep a look out on the flanks! And get those people moving faster!”

Major Stumomoner saluted in reply before he ducked down and shouted into the hatch, banging on the armour plate at the same time. The APC swerved out of the column and surged forward along the side of the road.

Colonel Salther watched him go. With more than half the people and soldiers on foot it was going to take two to three hours to get to the landing fields. And if the Keruh cut the road ahead of them they would be finished.

-o-

The smoke clouds over Jutlam City were beginning to break up. It had started with the passage of the Keruh Flagship in its final descent. Now the fires from the crash caused fresh thermals to stir and move the air. Light from the morning sun broke through everywhere. And from a smoke filled hazy twilight, the city slowly emerged into day.

The capital was a brown stone ruin littered with blackened shells that had once been large and fine buildings. Block after block stretched out, each and every one lacking roofs and floors. The windows were just regular holes amid the irregular ones. And the fallen walls and masonry had spilled across the wide boulevards, blocking them completely in places. Even the squares were broken ruins of fountains and statues. But the city wasn’t still.

With the light came the Gatherers. They scurried about the ruins and rubble-strewn boulevards, digging, searching. Every so often one would pause and then spring away with its booty seized high in its jaws. There was much sustenance available for those willing to look. And in the body littered streets and squares that had marked the battle for the city during the night, a new army now toiled away. Street-by-street, square-by-square, block-by-block, the dismembered remains of Androktones and Warriors were slowly cleared away. Even the drying red and black paste of their combined blood was licked clean from the hard ground. And everything that was gathered was taken to the Receivers that waited among the gutted and burned out ruins. There were thousands of them in the city now. They stood at every corner and in every square, and some were even grouped together in large and grotesque herds. The Gatherers rushed back and forth to them, while others fussed around them, kneading their stretched flesh and moving them into the shade.

But the Gatherers hadn’t reached every part of the city yet. And in one of the squares a large tri-hulled ship sat in almost stillness. A small number of symmetrical and agile figures hurried around it, and among them were several large silver forms. Nearer to the ship only two figures stood alone. One was tall and slender, the other large and asymmetrical.

Scyleia was hurrying back to the airlock when she saw the Warrior. She had almost forgotten about him. She had also forgotten about the stubborn Edenite female who she could see still inside the airlock arguing with Clyemne. Scyleia stopped by the doorway and stared at the Warrior. He just stood there impassively, his axe in his chest. His appearance was almost a joke, but his true nature was far from funny. He seemed to be equally unaffected by the arguments on his behalf as he did by the axe.

“Your brothers still fight for this world,” she said to him in Klysanthian. “Why do you stand and wait here? Why not run to them? Join them?”

The Seventy-Ninth of the Telen’Gal slowly turned to her. “My departure would please you,” he hissed to her in Edenite. “As would my death once the Assassin-Drones became aware of my movements.”

Breda immediately moved closer to the doorway and stuck her head out of the airlock. “What are you talking about? Who said you were going anywhere?”

Scyleia ignored her and continued talking to the Warrior in her own language. “I could ask them to grant you safe passage.”

The Seventy-Ninth also ignored Breda. “They will not obey you, as you well know,” he replied in Edenite once again.

Breda now pulled on Clyemne’s arm. “What’s she saying to him? What’s happening? What was that big bang? And where did Tygil run off to?”

Clyemne cast a pleading glance at Scyleia before beginning an explanation of events to Breda. And while this happened Scyleia just stared at the Warrior. She knew that he was speaking in Edenite to annoy her, because he knew that she was deliberately speaking in Klysanthian to hide her discussions from Breda. But there was nothing she could do about it now. She waited as Clyemne continued her explanation, and her progress was marked at the appropriate points by Breda’s voice. When she learned of the destruction of the RNP building and Tai-Gil’s rescue mission she uttered gasps of dismay. But when the final truth was out her voice returned to one of anger.

“She wants him to do what?” Breda suddenly exclaimed.

Scyleia gave up and spoke in Edenite, gesturing towards Breda.

“Safe passage grant you she could, allow you to go free and solve problem it will!”

Breda reacted instantly. “We can’t just send him away! They’ll kill him as soon as we’ve gone! He has to come with us!”

Scyleia turned on Breda angrily. “Not have him on my ship will I!” she snapped. “Never! Do you understand me, Edenite? Hate him I do! Murderers his kind be! Destroyed our world they did! Killed my sisters they have! Destroy your world now they do! The same this one be! The same they all be! Killed he should be!”

“But he helped us!” Breda replied tearfully. “Clyemne and the others would have been killed if it wasn’t for him! We would all have been killed! It’s not fair to kill him now!”

Scyleia climbed onto the doorway next to Breda, hanging on with her long fingers. It brought her very close to Breda, her small features face to face with Breda’s much larger features. And this time when she spoke it was more softly but somehow more menacingly.

“Your obligation is misplaced, Edenite! Kill him we should, or let him go free! But with us he will not come! Not allow it I will!”

And with that she forced her way passed Breda and Clyemne into the airlock. El-Quan was also still in the airlock. She was standing by the inner hatch. Scyleia ignored her and went straight to the wall-mounted com-unit. She clicked it on and spoke into it angrily.

“Scyleia to the Bridge! Alcinoe? Why didn’t you warn me about that ship?”

“It came in too low, Captain,” Alcinoe replied apologetically in electronic tones. It was almost possible to hear her bracing herself. “Being on the ground surrounded by all these buildings is blocking the long range sensors,” she added quickly. “I missed it. Sorry.”

“Sorry? We would all have been sorry if we had been the target instead of the portal!”

Alcinoe’s voice swapped its repentant air for an excited one. “So it was the portal building?”

“Yes it was the portal building!” Scyleia snapped in a higher and even angrier voice. “Of course it was the portal building! Miss another ship and I’ll have you mounted on all three hulls as a mascot! Now put the maser crews on alert! And have Prothoe light the engines! I want the ship readied for immediate take-off! And get Heli down here with an armed squad! I’ll meet her in the reception deck!”

“Yes, Captain!”

Scyleia turned away without a further word and walked through to the reception deck leaving Breda, Clyemne and El-Quan behind her in the airlock.

Breda burst into tears straight away. “I’m not leaving without the Warrior!” she sobbed. “I don’t care what she says! I am not going without him!”

Clyemne put her arms around her and spoke softly. “I know how you feel, Breda. I understand you. You feared that you would lose me, and I love you greatly for this. But Scyleia is right. The obligation you feel towards him is misplaced. He acted for his own purposes, not for our benefit.”

Breda looked up at her. “But you’re alive, aren’t you? We’re here, aren’t we? It would never have happened if it wasn’t for him!”

Clyemne clasped her hands on each side of Breda’s face. “I am alive, we are alive, because of you, not him. It is to you that we owe this debt, it is because of your actions that we were saved.”

“He could still have killed us.”

“We can’t take him with us, you have to let him go. Tell El-Quan to grant him safe passage as Scyleia suggested. It is the best way.”

Breda turned to look at El-Quan. The Androktone had stood as equally impassively in the airlock as the Warrior did outside. She looked different to Ann-Ra, she was a lot cleaner and her expression was somehow softer.

“She could make you take him,” Breda said to Clyemne as she looked at El-Quan. “I know she could.”

It was a request that had dangerous implications and it worried Clyemne. But El-Quan eased her fears when she spoke.

“Yes, we must obey you, Al-Ba-Tus. But conflict may ensue if we are opposed. You must think carefully before making this command. And you must know also that we cannot take any action against the Klysanthians until Tai-Gil returns. She has their protection as her command from the Humeric Council and because of this we cannot act against them without her agreement.”

Clyemne quickly asked, “What happens if Tai-Gil doesn’t agree?”

“Then further conflict will ensue.”

Breda was already shaking her head. “I don’t want you to fight with each others, I don’t want you to hurt Clyemne’s people either. I like them. I just don’t want to leave the Warrior.” She suddenly grabbed Clyemne in a stronger grip. “Why can’t you forgive him? Why can’t you look at him as an individual? As one of them that isn’t bad?”

Clyemne stared back at her. “Is that how you see him? Is that how you separate him from the rest?”

“Yes, I suppose so. I hate them too, you know. How could I not hate them? I was there in the city when they attacked. They smashed the building I was in. I ran down the stairs with hundreds of people with the Warriors trying to kill us. And then in the trucks, in the dark, they chased us like animals. You know how I felt just thinking about it. You know how it affected me. They destroyed everything. But they’re just soldiers aren’t they? They all fight and kill and get killed, and it doesn’t mean anything to him. You heard him: ‘Tear ducts aren’t part of my anatomy.’ They don’t know how to cry, they can’t cry. So how can you then expect them to understand emotions that bring you and I to cry? They don’t understand the pain they cause.”

Clyemne’s blunt reply was borne from her own deep feelings. “They came here to eat you. It’s what they did to us.”

Breda looked at the Warrior standing outside and remembered the terror and loathing the sight of them had brought to her. Now she felt nothing at all. She shook her head.

“I know. It’s horrible, and it should make me hate them even more. But you heard what he said. They have to consider eating each other to survive because they’re starving, and they’re starving because you and the Atlantians are trying to starve them. Because that’s what war is about. You want to kill them all, don’t you? You want to wipe them out, don’t you, to exterminate them? So what makes you any better than them? I love you, Clyemne, but it’s easy to love you. The Keruh are unpleasant because they are different, but they aren’t worse than you. In fact they are more like us than you are. Like us they have power and technology too early. Like us they have been advanced quickly. For us it didn’t matter too much, but for them it did. The Warrior doesn’t know any better. He just has his nobility as Anaxilea calls it. He fights because it is in his nature, it is all he knows, and hatred doesn’t even come into it. You fight them and hate them because you choose to. And I hate them because I fear them. But it isn’t right.”

Clyemne stared at her when she had finished. There were tears in her eyes. She reached out and stroked Breda’s hair and said, “Why didn’t you say such things to Scyleia?”

Breda shrugged. “She didn’t want to listen.”

“But you speak so well, your understanding is so great, I know she would be swayed by you. You are so young, and yet your perceptions are far greater than mine, and your depths for forgiveness shames me. You should tell her what you have told me when she returns.”

Breda looked up at her rather sheepishly. “Can’t you tell her?”

Clyemne hugged her tighter. “No, it must be you.”

And El-Quan agreed. “Clem-En-E is correct. You must negotiate his passage. You have matched, and your support of the Warrior will gain the obedience of the other Androktones who may come aboard.”

Breda gave in and nodded. “Alright, I’ll try. But she doesn’t like me. She shouts as soon as we meet.”

Clyemne smiled. “That’s just her nature. She is Captain and Matriarch, like Anaxilea. It is a heavy responsibility, especially now. I will take you to her.”

El-Quan said, “That will not be necessary. She waits outside.”

Clyemne and Breda looked at her in surprise.

Just outside the airlock by the door, Scyleia sighed and pushed herself away from the wall where she had been leaning. She went back inside the airlock and looked at the surprised faces of Clyemne and Breda. Then she glanced at El-Quan who had given her away. Only then did she speak.

“Yes, heard it all I did,” she admitted softly. “And truth be your view has merit. But anger fills us all and forgiveness be easy to bury. I will consider your words, Breda, but answer I give will be final. No argument will there be, and no tears after. And decision be mine only, not in committee or debate will it be made, but alone. Now to the others you must go.”

Scyleia moved aside from the door and gestured Breda to go through. Breda hesitated and looked back at the Seventy-Ninth standing immobile outside. “Do as they say,” she told him.

The Warrior burst into motion. He bowed his head and swept his smaller hand before him. “It shall be made so.”

Breda moved further inside the airlock and came close to Scyleia. “Don’t kill him,” she pleaded finally. “Let him go if you must, but don’t kill him.”

Scyleia nodded. “Do what is best I will. Now go inside you must the others to join. Be clean and rested. Safe you are with us. Clyemne with you will go.”

Breda glanced back again at the Warrior and finally allowed Clyemne to take her through into the reception deck.

Scyleia was left in the airlock with El-Quan. She walked forward to the outer door and looked down at the Warrior. El-Quan came to stand beside her.

“I will abide by your decision,” she said in Klysanthian. “The one who matched has allowed you to choose in her name. It resolves the conflict.”

Scyleia turned away from the Warrior and looked across the square where distant figures clad in black patrolled with silver rifles.

“For you, maybe,” she remarked.

-o-

Anaxilea was in torment. Her heart was broken. And it was broken through guilt. Here she was, alive when nearly all her crew, her House sisters, were dead. And yet this one person, alive and sleeping so peacefully before her blew away all her sadness as if it were nothing.

Phoebe was alive. Her daughter, lost and thought dead, was alive and right here. It brought such joy to her, such incredible happiness, that the guilt for all those she left behind in the ship, and those that had died in the run or on the road afterwards, tore at her heart.

How could she be so callous? How could she be so unfeeling? They were all her responsibility, she was their Captain, their Matriarch and now they were all dead and she was here, happy.

Anaxilea lay across Phoebe hugging her gently. Her head was resting on the pillow next to that of her daughter, their faces together. Anaxilea delighted in feeling her warmth and breath. She was so beautiful, and the smell and feel of her was such a delight. She was alive and Anaxilea was so happy.

Why couldn’t she separate being a mother from being Matriarch? Why couldn’t she accept that she had a right to be happy for herself at the same time as being sad for those who had not survived? But she was Matriarch; she was mother to all of them.

Had Phoebe’s presence among them affected her decisions? No. Had she made decisions that she would change? Yes, many, all of them, some of them, none of them. Why did she torture herself?

It was because it was her responsibility. If she didn’t cry for them who would? She had tried to keep them alive, she had tried to do what was best, but in the end it had been hopeless. Only the Edenite, Breda had saved them. And even then Anaxilea had almost thrown the gift away. But too many had already died, and there was so few of them left it had hardly seemed worth it.

No. The thought in her mind that Phoebe was dead was what had made it worthless. Because Phoebe was dead she was prepared to throw away the tiny chance they had on an angry word. Cassiopea had stopped her. It was always Cassiopea. In a way the fact that she had also survived made her feel even guiltier.

She needed Eumache. She had entrusted Phoebe to Eumache. And now Eumache was gone.

Heli left Cassiopea with Philippis and moved back to where Anaxilea lay draped across Phoebe. She had left them together for a little while when she spoke with Cassiopea. There had been much to tell and much to hear. Now she thought the time was right to go back to them. Anaxilea was still crying. Heli announced her presence by gently stroking Anaxilea’s head, running her long fingers through her thick dark hair.

“Don’t cry, Lea. You are together now, safe at last. There is no need for tears except in relief.”

Anaxilea’s face contorted in even more pain. “I let them all down, Heli,” she sobbed hoarsely. “The Charity was lost, I didn’t know what else to do, and it was all my fault!”

Heli leaned closer to her, hugging her gently. “You made the decisions you had to, no one can reproach you for this.”

“But it was my fault that we were there! We didn’t volunteer for the task to attack the landing fields! I had planned to engage the Keruh in space, to fight and die with honour, not kill Edenites! Bremusa punished me; she punished my House! And I was the cause of it! It’s my fault they’re dead! I killed them with my stupidity!”

Heli squeezed her tighter. “Are you better than the House of Heaven? Was it wrong for Scyleia to volunteer as you did not?”

Anaxilea raised herself and turned to her. “No, of course not, I didn’t mean that.”

“I know you didn’t. So why be angry with yourself? Would it have been better to ram a Keruh warship and die instantly in fire? Yes, maybe. We all think like this. But to command Phoebe to aim at the heart of the enemy while you all live with vigour and vitality requires a much harder temperament. And that is something you and Scyleia do not possess. She will do all she can to avoid the end, and you would do the same. Yes, your challenge to Bremusa prompted your inclusion in our force, and Melanippe was most annoyed at her exclusion due to this. But the task we have done here was no less important than that done by our sisters in space. We have limited the number of ships available to the Keruh, and because of this the Androktones thrive. There is no shame on your House or on mine. There is no shame in your loss or in the loss of the others who died in the attack. I have spoken to Philippis and Cassiopea. They have told me how hard you fought to keep alive those that survived. There is no need for this recrimination.”

Anaxilea was now resting her head against Heli’s midriff. She was sat leaning against her with her arms clasped tightly around her. Heli was embracing her in turn, stroking her hair with one hand. Anaxilea had listened in silence, and now she could only say what came into her head.

“Melousa went with Dione on the Bread Of Angels.”

Heli continued to stroke her hair. “Then they are at peace together, like Deianeira and Thermodosa. I have blessed them all.”

The names caused Anaxilea to tighten her grip on Heli and she closed her eyes tightly.

-o-

Gusta wouldn’t let go of Tipi. Now she had him in her arms there was nothing that would separate them again. She was still crying as she tried to squeeze the life out of him. Crying because she had found him, and crying because Breda was still lost. Didi also cried. He was sat slumped in one of the chairs as Gusta and Tipi sat on the floor in front of him. He kept reaching out to pat and caress his son’s red hair as he sobbed. The chair looked too flimsy to support him, and the image was somehow comical.

The other Edenites were bolstered by the discovery of more survivors. Rualda, Lupili and Jeddra hugged everyone. And as Kelandra looked down at Tipi all her memories of the College of Learning and the truck ride came flooding back to her. She also sank to the floor in tears.

Kiki couldn’t cry. He felt dead inside, dead and somehow angry. Why was it him and not Breda? Was it some form of joke played on him by the Fates? Was he that bad, that undeserving that his hopes should be dashed in this way? And then he heard the voice.

It was a softly spoken but very worried voice. The fact that it was so low and worried made it harder to recognise. But recognise it he did, with every additional word. He turned unbelieving as another Klysanthian walked out of the airlock and into the reception deck. She was not alone. She walked with another, with her arms around her. The person with her was a large and ultimately beautiful sight, a sight he had abandoned hope of ever seeing again. It caused him to stagger forward.

“I hope I’ve done the right thing,” Breda was saying to Clyemne. “Do you think she will let him in? Oh, I’m sure I shouldn’t have left him!”

Clyemne hugged her tighter. “You must leave Scyleia to make up her own mind. She heard your argument, now she must decide. You must trust her.”

“But what if she decides to let him go?”

“Then this will be for the best. He will be better off among his own than with us.”

Breda was so wrapped up worrying about the Warrior that she didn’t notice the man come hurrying towards them. And even when he finally blocked her and Clyemne’s way, she didn’t instantly recognise him. She didn’t have the time to, because before Breda could react Clyemne was knocked aside and she was bowled over and landed on her back on the floor with the other Edenite embracing her.

El-Quan heard the commotion and came out of the airlock with Scyleia. They both looked down in surprise at the Edenite male who was apparently wrestling with Breda on the floor and babbling at the same time. El-Quan would have intervened, but Clyemne had already realised who the attacker was. She held onto El-Quan’s arm and spoke to her in Klysanthian.

“This is her love, her bond, lost and now found once more. There is no threat, only joy.”

El-Quan instantly relaxed, and she, Clyemne and a bemused Scyleia all watched as Kiki continued to hug and babble at Breda in tears.

“Breda! Breda! My love! I’ve found you! You’re alive! I’m so happy! Let me kiss you! Let me see you! Oh, Breda! Breda!”

Breda was stunned and startled. But then she finally realised who it was, she finally accepted the dream to be real, and she responded in the same ridiculous way.

“Kiki? Kiki! Oh, my God! Kiki! Where did you come from? Oh, I don’t care! Kiss me, Kiki! Kiss me now! And again! Oh, Kiki!”

They sat up together on the floor and kissed and hugged, their hands and lips searching every available square inch. There were tears and screams and then Kiki told her the marvellous news.

“Your mother and father are here! And Tipi, too! They’re all safe!”

“What? They are? Here?”

Kiki held her at arms length and nodded. He was deliriously happy.

Breda stared at him in shock. And then her expression hardened and she suddenly broke away from Kiki and smacked him hard in the chest. “And where have you been?” she demanded angrily. “I’ve been worried to death wondering what happened to you! Your line goes dead, there’s a big bang, and I don’t hear a word from you for a whole day! Call yourself a fiancé!”

-o-

Li-Sen-Tot opened his eyes and looked up at Mai-Ann.

“Is it morning so soon?” he asked.

“Yes, Councilman. It is the time you allotted for your awakening.”

Li-Sen-Tot threw back the sheet and swung his legs out from the sofa. He was in one of the four large reception rooms of the Embassy, and like all the rest it was furnished with large Edenite sized comfortable armchairs and sofas that were grouped around low tables. In the past the rooms had always been filled with emissaries, diplomats and businessmen. They were used as waiting areas, for relaxation, or for low-key meetings where coffee and Lecce cakes would be consumed in large quantities. But that was long ago. Yesterday, in fact. This room was no different than any of the others except that it was just next door to the drawing room. Light spilled through the windows and the room looked undisturbed. Only the movement of some of the curtains in the breeze and the shards of glass on the carpet gave away the change in circumstances. Li-Sen-Tot had needed the short rest and now it was time to work once more. He got up.

“Is the Embassy compound still secure?” he asked as he retrieved his distinctive long gown from an armchair.

Mai-Ann waited patiently as he dressed. “It is, Councilman. Although Gatherers have been spotted in neighbouring residential areas since the destruction of the portal building.”

Li-Sen-Tot paused in his dressing to look up at Mai-Ann. “The portal is off line?”

“It is.”

“Did Soo-Fam survive?”

“We have no information other than the visual and audio evidence of the explosion and the change in the flux emissions within the Ring.”

Li-Sen-Tot resumed his dressing. “Have the enemy opened their own portal in the capital?”

“They have. And the co-ordinates match those of the original Edenite portal. But two more have also opened, one at Hill-Brok and the other to the east of the capital near the highway to Ne-Men.”

Now dressed, Li-Sen-Tot walked over to a table where water had been placed in a bowl. He dipped his hands in the water and bathed his face. Finally he dried his face with the towel nearby. And when he had finished he folded it and dropped it back on the table.

“Are they aware of our presence?” he asked Mai-Ann as he gestured towards the drawing room. Mai-Ann bowed her head and led him forward.

“No, Councilman. They are unable to detect our monitoring operations and Lai-Wa has succeeded in concealing our transmissions by constantly altering the frequency of the original carrier wave.”

They were now in the drawing room. Several Androktones stood around the room by the walls, their positions blocking out the views of the slender figures carved in the wooden panelling behind them. And in the centre of the room the portal shimmered and swirled. Lai-Wa stood by the open globe of Eden by the portal, her fingers constantly on the controls. Li-Sen-Tot paused in the doorway with Mai-Ann and bowed to her.

“You have done well, Lai-Wa.”

She bowed in return. “I am reassured by your pleasure, Councilman.”

Li-Sen-Tot walked up to the portal and stared into the swirling mists. “Is Hai-Zen still in control of the Defence Net?”

Mai-Ann came to stand behind him. “She is, Councilman.”

“Then we are ready.” He turned to face her. “And with time to spare.” He beckoned to an Androktone standing by the wall and she stepped forward. “Nan-Chen, go to the kitchens and find food and beverage, if you please. It wouldn’t do to allow it to go to waste, and there are strenuous times ahead for all of us.”

Nan-Chen bowed her head and left the room with two other Androktones.

Li-Sen-Tot turned his attention back to Mai-Ann. “Once we have eaten you will select ten Androktones to accompany you on your mission. Are you clear on your instructions?”

“Yes, Councilman. When we have retrieved the device Lai-Wa will reopen the portal at the location of the main reactor. We will place it as close to the core as possible. But I am confused, Councilman. A primary directive issued at Ephesus strictly forbids our presence in the city. How can we comply?”

Li-Sen-Tot looked her in the eye. “I am counter-commanding that directive. You will enter the city and complete your task as instructed. Do you understand?”

Mai-Ann paused and then nodded. “Yes, Councilman.”

“Good. Now all we have to do is wait.”

-o-

The news that the Edenite portal building had been destroyed was a surprise, but when Heli received her instructions from Alcinoe to proceed to the reception deck with an armed squad she was even more alarmed. She was in Kreousa’s office in the Medical Centre and the Doctor was waiting nearby as Heli sat in her chair and spoke on her desk com-unit.

“What’s it about?” she asked Alcinoe.

“She didn’t say, but she told me to put the engines on standby and the maser crews on alert, so we must be leaving soon and she must think someone could try stopping us.”

Heli remembered Soo-Fam’s instructions to them. But with the portal building now gone, none of that probably mattered anymore. It had to be the Keruh Scyleia was worrying about. “What about the Androktones? Are they still around?”

“Not as many. Some of them went off in the direction of the portal building. Do you think that’s the problem?”

“Could be. With the Androktones busy elsewhere now would be the perfect time to hit us. Have the maser crews keep their eyes peeled. I’m on my way.”

The connection was broken and Heli looked up at Kreousa. “Don’t say anything to Anaxilea or Cassiopea. They’ll only want to come down there with me.”

Kreousa nodded. “That’s what I thought. That’s why I didn’t say anything about it when I called you over. There’s a few Edenites in here too, one of them that soldier. They all look completely exhausted. I don’t want them getting stressed again and that’s probably what will happen if they hear what’s going on. And Anaxilea needs to be with Phoebe, and Philippis will talk more openly and calmly with Cassiopea than she will with anyone else. No, you go. I’ll tell them you had something else to do, something boring and tedious. Then I’ll follow you down and see if any of our latest arrivals need any attention.”

Heli got up and walked around the desk to Kreousa. “You always were too soft hearted.”

“That’s why I’m a Doctor.”

Heli leaned forward and gave Kreousa a kiss on the cheek. It was a surprise and Kreousa became embarrassed and instantly raised a hand to her cheek and waved Heli away dismissively.

“Oh, get out of here and leave me in peace!”

Heli smiled and moved towards the door. But then she stopped as another thought occurred to her. “Kreousa, what did you think of El-Quan?”

The question was somewhat unexpected and it killed the light-hearted air they had been in. Kreousa paused to go around her desk and sit down. She replied evasively.

“She was wounded and tired, but basically she is well.”

Heli got to the point. “You bathed her didn’t you?”

Kreousa nodded.

“Well?”

Kreousa sat back in her chair. In a way the question was a good excuse to put the disarrayed thoughts in her mind into some sort of order. It was just that she hadn’t expected to have to do it so openly with another. But who better to talk to about it than Heli?

“I found her- ” she began and then paused and seemed to change her mind as she found a better description. “She’s a child, a beautiful, soft and innocent child. She’s very inquisitive, too. She would be easy to fall in love with, but I sense a -how can I put it- a power? No, it’s not that simple. It is a power of some kind, but there is an evil spirit to it, more like a -yes, that’s it- a demon! She has a demon. She calls it her Purpose, and it lurks within her as a very clear and palpable entity. I could feel it as I could feel her. They are two in one: One the innocent child, the other the evil demon. For some reason the demon is dormant now, it is something to do with the orders she has been given, but I sense that it sits and waits and knows that its time will come again.”

“Could you love her?”

Kreousa had come too far to deny it. “I found her very attractive and arousing, I enjoyed touching her and washing her. Even tending her wound had a stimulating effect. Yes, I could love her. I could love her very greatly. But I fear it would be a mistake.”

Heli tapped on the doorframe. “That’s what I thought,” she said sadly. And then she turned and was gone.

-o-

Soo-Fam was slowly dying inside. Running over the rubble and broken masonry that filled the street was treacherous and difficult in itself. But it was made worse by the dismembered bodies that lay everywhere. She slipped on rubble, stone, bones and fragments of carapace and slithered on the mess of soft tissues and blood. Each step and slip jarred the damaged organs in her body. But she kept running. She had to if she wanted to keep up with the others.

When the portal building was destroyed it was difficult to tell which individual piece of masonry that had landed on her had done the most damage. Soo-Fam remembered each one. She remembered each impact. But after the third or fourth it had been difficult to assess the precise location of the pain. That she could survive the injuries was very possible. Or it had been as she lay in the ruins of the portal building.

Running was a mistake. But it had to be done. The Councilman’s orders had been precise: Do not die for this building. She had to get away. She had to die somewhere else or for some other reason. It was the same driving force that spurred them all on. To remain immobile in the building had not been an option. But how far had she to go before she could die? For how long would she have to keep her smashed body alive before she could finally let go?

The body-plate she was wearing helped to keep her body together as she ran. It was not what it was designed for. Genetically engineered it was made from a tough but flexible material that could stop nearly any kind of weapon from penetrating. Even laser impacts were blocked and the heat dissipated. It merely deflected slightly at the point of impact. But a crushing impact caused a much greater deflection, and several heavy impacts all together had caused a very deep deflection. At one point she was sure she felt the body-plate deform so much that it touched her spine. The result was that her skin was intact. Apart from the abrasions on her head, legs, arms and hands, she was unmarked. But inside it was a different matter, and the blood that leaked from the ruptured organs and blood vessels in her body would have drained the life from an ordinary being. But Soo-Fam wasn’t ordinary. She was an Androktone.

As she ran the control Soo-Fam exercised over her nerves, muscles and limbs was paralleled by an equally precise control over her blood vessels and internal organs. She controlled her breathing and heart rate, matching the needs of her muscles for fresh oxygen. In this at least there was nothing unusual, but her control over her damaged tissues was just as efficient. Where there were ruptures or tears in muscles, organs and blood vessels, Soo-Fam tightened them, squeezing the openings together. She even closed off some blood vessels completely, starving the ruptured areas of blood. This was damaging as the starved areas could die. But it limited the blood she was losing, and it stopped the swelling in her abdomen. But she couldn’t do it forever. To prevent the excessively damaged areas from perishing she had to let the blood get to them with fresh oxygen. She did this periodically. And it showed.

Soo-Fam ran with Fam-Kai’s arm around her waist. She couldn’t even have tried to run without her help. Soo-Fam’s head was down and she staggered as she ran. The blood soaked her trousers. It ran from her navel and from between her legs. And she coughed it up and spat nearly every step of the way. Her tunic was torn and hung open and the blood that spilled from her mouth ran down her neck and onto her chest. From there it seeped down between her breasts and under her body-plate.

For Soo-Fam the pain had got so bad that it no longer mattered. All that possessed her was the fear that she would fail. And if the Gatherers that pursued them finally caught them, the knowledge of that failure would twist her mind far more harshly than their jaws ever could.

The five Androktones came to an intersection and turned right. They ran down another wide street where the dead still lay piled together after the previous battle. The smell of the dead around them in the morning air was probably what was luring the Gatherers to them, that and the knowledge that they were still alive and fresh. Some of the Gatherers had pursued them since they had left the portal building. Others had emerged from the ruins or from side streets. Many of them stopped in their pursuit to pick up the bodies of the dead that lay littered and piled everywhere. Others bent to lick at the dried blood. But some ran on, and for a while the Androktones had kept them at bay easily. They were far enough ahead and the energy bolts they fired blew apart the Gatherers in gouts of flame. Those that came behind ran through the raining debris of dismembered limbs and fragmented torsos. It delayed them but it didn’t deter them.

The Androktones continued to run, they were all splattered with the blood and mess of what they ran through, and with every step Soo-Fam grew weaker and more tired. The Gatherers who chased them felt no fatigue, and as more came to claim the dead that lay littered in the street, the lure of fresh meat grew. Soon just as many Gatherers were chasing the Androktones as those that lingered in the street to pick up the dead.

Vin-Di turned as she ran and fired her rifle at another Gatherer behind her. “Fam-Kai! Get Soo-Fam moving faster! They’re catching up! Bey-Nan! Watch that side street on the left! Chen-Po! Take those on the right!”

Bey-Nan and Chen-Po did as she asked, firing their rifles with deadly accuracy. But it didn’t make much difference. Vin-Di paused in her firing and her rifle flowed and changed shape. It grew a longer barrel and became fatter in the middle. Vin-Di swept it across the street behind her as she fired it. A bright orange laser decapitated several Gatherers and they dropped in their tracks. It was more effective, but other Gatherers just took the place of those that fell.

Fam-Kai looked ahead as she helped Soo-Fam stagger along. At the end of this street lay the large square that was Pannertine Gardens. She could see it. They were almost there. Fam-Kai then looked over her shoulder at the tide of advancing Gatherers who were chasing them. They were very close now. Bey-Nan and Chen-Po had changed their rifles to match that of Vin-Di. All three of them fired, sweeping the street clean behind them. But as the leading Gatherers fell, more were revealed behind them.

It didn’t matter how many of the Gatherers they killed. Each Gatherer knew that their only purpose in life was to feed the Hive. They did this with what they found, and with their own bodies when they died. Those that fell were snatched up by the living as eagerly as anything else was taken. Nothing was wasted.

Killing Gatherers was a waste of time. It was also a waste of energy, and all four Androktones were rapidly growing short of it.

Fam-Kai lowered her rifle and it flowed in her hand and became the sword. She replaced it in her back and grasped Soo-Fam with both arms, lifting her higher as she ran faster. She left the shooting to Bey-Nan, Chen-Po and Vin-Di. There was nothing else she could do. She had to practically carry Soo-Fam along to get her to move faster.

As Fam-Kai ran with her burden the other three Androktones kept up a constant barrage that cut down the Gatherers that chased them. But with every one that fell, more seemed to appear. The only break in the firing was caused when Vin-Di shouted at them.

“Fam-Kai! Faster! Or they’ll cut us off! Chen-Po! Keep up!”

They were halfway down the street when more Gatherers emerged from the buildings alongside them. Some were even ahead of them and the Androktones were forced to a halt in the middle of the street, each one shouting at the other.

“Bey-Nan! Watch your flank!”

“Vin-Di! Behind you!”

“Keep together!”

There was a flurry of quick and precise firing from the three Androktones to keep the Gatherers at bay. Vin-Di kept Soo-Fam and Fam-Kai in the centre while she and Chen-Po and Bey-Nan stood around them in a triangle. They tried to move forward but they had hardly taken more than a dozen steps before it became hopeless. The Gatherers were now in front of them.

Fam-Kai lowered Soo-Fam to the ground and retrieved her sword. As it flowed into the shape of her rifle she paused to gently stroke the hair from Soo-Fam’s face. She smiled sadly as she looked down at Soo-Fam. And then her expression hardened once more and she stood up and quickly joined in the shooting.

The four Androktones fired in all directions, but the Gatherers kept coming. Soon they would have to switch to their blades

Soo-Fam looked around in dismay. She should have anticipated an aerial attack, but it had been so sudden. The building was gone in an instant, and those who died did so without knowing. They could not be blamed for their failure. The responsibility had been hers. And now she was going to fail, and there was nothing she could do to avoid it. But at least the pain would soon be over.

-o-

When Heli entered the reception deck with her squad of armed Klysanthians it was to find the Edenites in the middle of another joyous and tearful reunion. Breda, Gusta and Didi were all in a huddle together while Kiki and Tipi stood by watching them. Kiki had his arm around Tipi. They both had stupid grins on their faces and everyone was standing around them smiling or crying, or both. Heli glanced at them as she hurried by. She couldn’t help smiling. None of the Edenites seemed to have noticed them, so she continued across the reception deck to where Scyleia was waiting by the airlock with Clyemne.

But not everyone was overcome by the joyous occasion. The Corporal and some of his men looked round as the armed Klysanthians went by. The Corporal immediately followed them. He had seen enough tears and joy. Klemunus went with him while the others watched and waited.

Scyleia was in her almost usual angry mood when Heli reached her.

“This is all your fault!” she snapped at Heli. “You and your miracles! I hate that cocky male! Not only has he now found his sister, but her boyfriend has turned up as well! I hate him!”

Clyemne smiled but Heli went straight into the attack. “You only hate him because his miracle is more realistic than yours.”

Scyleia became defensive and she looked down at the floor. “Don’t start on me again, Heli! Not now! Tai-Gil has gone to the portal building on a rescue mission and my heart is breaking through worry for her!”

Clyemne picked up on her admission. “Ah, that is why you spent so much time with her outside! You seek a liaison with her!”

Scyleia looked up at her in annoyance. “Oh, don’t you chastise me as well!”

“I do not.” Clyemne turned to gaze at the happy Edenites. She spoke softly, almost wistfully. “I, too, have an interest for an alien. She is intelligent and loving, and I feel the love I have for her is reciprocated. But I share your anxiety for I know it is not to be. But I am not angry at the outcome, I am happy for Breda. I am happy for all of the Edenites, even the young male you say you despise. Do they not deserve some respite after their torment?”

Scyleia didn’t reply. Like Clyemne she was looking passed Heli at the Edenites. But then Heli noticed both their expressions change and she turned to see the Corporal and Klemunus standing behind her.

“It won’t last,” the Corporal said, guessing that the joyful state of his civilian charges had been the subject of their conversation. “Once it sinks in that our Embassy staff members have survived as a complete family unit while they have all lost loved ones there’s going to be a lot of jealousy and anger. There might even be violence. But what do you care? You’ve obviously got other things in mind. What’s going on? Why the rifles? Is it something that we should know about?”

His attitude was harsh and impolite and Heli wasn’t sure how to reply, but Scyleia quickly stepped forward.

“What rank are you?” she asked calmly in Edenite.

The Corporal folded his arms defiantly as he stood before her. “Corporal.”

“Senior Officer here you be?”

“As senior as it gets.”

“Good enough for me that be. Allies we are now, and truth and trust between us there must be. Know one another we do. Met we have but introductions not made. Abrupt I was with you when thanks you sought to give for your rescue. Turbulent my mind was then, and pardon I must now seek from you for this impolite behaviour.”

“Granted,” was the curt reply.

Scyleia held out her tiny hand. “Scyleia be my name, Captain of this ship I be. The Gate Of Heaven be her name. What be your name?”

The Corporal took her hand in his enormous one. His expression softened slightly and he shook her hand very gently. “You call me Corporal and I’ll call you Captain and we’ll get along just fine.”

Despite his care Scyleia flexed and curled her fingers when their hands parted, rubbing them with her other hand. She didn’t complain. Instead she got to the point.

“Take you to safety we will, but where that be not clear the answer yet be. Help from you we will need, for leave here soon we must. City be abandoned by Alliance forces, all to the east they fight. Keruh now be in charge here. Portal building destroyed now has been. Androktones stand around us for security to bring. Others to retrieve survivors have gone. On their return all aboard will come and take-off we will. Until then wait we must. Keruh attempt to take the ship they may. Defend it we must if attack they do. For this we prepare. Help us will you? Or inside with civilians will you stay and police them in their anger will you? The choice be yours and no reproaches be given.”

It had been a strange but concise explanation of the situation, and the Corporal smiled evilly when she had finished.

“Your crew can handle the passengers. They won’t get that worked up anyway; they’re too tired and scared. But me and the lads have still got a bone to pick with the Keruh, so we’ll be honoured to go with you, Captain!”

“The honour be equal now, the same ship we be in. Summon your men, Corporal.”

The Corporal turned to Klemunus. “Get the rest of the lads!”

“Yes, Corp!”

Klemunus hurried away.

Scyleia now turned to Clyemne. She spoke in Klysanthian.

“Clyemne, the Edenites are yours. You have spent most time with them, they know you, and they will listen to you. And you are best at their language. Take them all to the recreation area. Find Kreousa and work with her.”

Clyemne nodded. “I am content with this duty.”

“Good. Go, Clyemne.”

Scyleia and Heli each brushed cheeks with Clyemne and Heli said, “Kreousa’s on her way down. She’ll be here soon.”

Clyemne nodded again and they parted. She walked away towards the Edenites.

By now Klemunus had returned with Altus, Relther and Eastomoner. Scyleia took one look at their rifles and turned to Heli. She spoke in Edenite once more.

“Heli, better weapons fetch them.”

Heli nodded and sent one of the other Klysanthians off for more rifles.

Scyleia turned back to the Corporal once more. “A question I must ask you, Corporal.”

“Fire away.”

“The Defence Net above us be closed. Trapped we are within. Where to can we fly to and land where safe we may all yet be?”

It didn’t take the Corporal a second to respond. “Hilbrok!”

-o-

Tai-Gil could smell the presence of the Keruh in the air. It was very strong as she led a dozen Androktones along a wide street littered with bodies and debris. All the other Androktones could also detect the presence of the Keruh. It was made easier by the bright orange flashes further down the street.

Someone was shooting. Androktones were shooting. Androktones grouped together in the middle of the street were shooting. With the smoke clearing and the sun high in the sky it was now light enough to see them in the distance. It wasn’t a very great distance. Tai-Gil shouted her orders as she ran.

“Jai-Lai! Take four Androktones and secure the route back to the ship! Everyone else form up in a line! Switch to sniper mode! Give covering fire!”

Jai-Lai dropped back with four other Androktones. They spread themselves out along the street with their rifles held ready as the rest of the Androktones ran on. Tai-Gil now ran in the centre of a line of Androktones that stretched from one side of the street to the other. They all raised their rifles as they raced along. Each rifle now sported a very long barrel, and they all fired narrow orange beams.

-o-

Vin-Di, Bey-Nan, Chen-Po and Fam-Kai stood in the middle of the street almost back to back. Only the form of Soo-Fam sat slumped on the ground in between them kept them apart. They fired constantly, aiming at each Gatherer that came forward with outstretched hands. They had killed so many that they now formed a pile around them, a ring of corpses over which more Gatherers stumbled and fell as they were shot. The smoke from those they had killed lingered in the air along with the smell of the burnt flesh. All the Androktones were now so splashed in the fresh black blood that they all looked the same. They never paused in their firing. They couldn’t afford to. Only one Gatherer needed to get through and it would be over.

Chen-Po noticed several Gatherers drop before she had fired at them. She quickly selected alternative targets, glancing briefly along the street in the direction of Pannertine Gardens as she did so. In the distance she could see several Androktones running towards them. They fired again. Chen-Po shouted to those next to her.

“Vin-Di! Help arrives! We must run to them!”

“Stand your ground! Keep firing!” Vin-Di bellowed back, doing exactly that.

They were surrounded, and any pause in their firing allowed the Gatherers to get that little bit closer.

Bey-Nan shared Chen-Po’s eagerness to run. “We must do something, Vin-Di! Or they will take us soon!”

Vin-Di glanced along the street as more Gatherers were hit by the shots fired by the distant figures. “Try to move towards them! Fam-Kai! Pick up Soo-Fam! Bey-Nan! Break a hole in our wall!”

-o-

Tai-Gil led their rescuers at a fast pace. They jumped and leapt over the rubble and bodies, firing their rifles in a regular barrage as if by some unspoken command. They came nearer and nearer. Tai-Gil could see Fam-Kai picking up Soo-Fam. She could see Bey-Nan kicking at the pile of dead Gatherers as she fired her rifle. She could see Chen-Po with Vin-Di just behind her. They were also firing at almost point blank range at the Gatherers around them.

“Hurry!” Tai-Gil shouted as she raced forward.

They came to a side street and a huge form loomed up from beyond the corner of the last building. In a quick lunge the Receiver took the Androktone on the end of the line nearest to it in its jaws. Her rifle was thrown from her hand and she was lifted in the air with her legs kicking. She was swallowed in a single gulp. The sudden attack broke the run of the Androktones and they stopped to turn and fire at the swarm of Gatherers that came at them from out of the street. Even the Receiver lumbered forward eagerly.

The Androktones shot down the Gatherers in a fusillade of energy bolts, but the Receiver waded through the blasts that left a dark soup spilling from the puncture wounds in its swollen body. It came closer and closer. Then one of the Androktones altered her rifle. It grew a shorter and fatter barrel. And when she fired it, it spat a far larger energy bolt at the grotesque form of the Receiver. The much bigger explosion blew the distended body into splattered fragments that splashed the walls of the ruins on either side of the street in huge gobbets of flesh.

Tai-Gil wiped the muck from her face and eyes. She could see a large hole in the middle of the side street from which the Receiver had emerged. There was fresh rubble and concrete around it. Tai-Gil instantly shouted new orders.

“Mai-Ra! Go back to Jai-Lai! Advise her that Diggers are in the area! Have her secure this junction! And tell her to summon others from Pan-Tine Gardens!”

As Mai-Ra ran back towards the square, Tai-Gil turned to the others. “Tai-Chen! Regroup! Continue on to Soo-Fam and the others! Hurry! Hurry!”

-o-

Bey-Nan had broken through the ring of bodies only for a new one to form quickly afterwards. And they had hardly moved a few steps. There were just too many Gatherers to physically break through. And they were now so close that Vin-Di and Chen-Po had resorted to their blades. They sliced and hacked down the Gatherers, sweeping their arms back and forth, keeping the Gatherers at bay through constant effort. Fam-Kai had dropped Soo-Fam once more and was doing the same. Bey-Nan switched to the same pair of curved blades as another Gatherer moved towards her. She cut him in half with a single sweeping blow.

The Gatherers now couldn’t reach them simply because they were sliced and cut open as they pressed forward. And those behind pushed those before them into the blades. It was like rushing into a mincing machine. But the constant input of flesh to be sliced began to gum up the machine. As the mutilated bodies fell onto and among the Androktones the pressure of their mass began to limit the swing of their blades. Soon they wouldn’t be able to swing them at all. They would be pressed back under the sheer weight of the Gatherers around them until they crumpled to the ground and disappeared.

The event was close to happening when a heavy and repeated barrage of energy bolts broke through the Gatherers surrounding them on one side. Unfortunately they were all so closely packed together that Bey-Nan was hit by one of the orange bolts and died with the Gatherer next to her. They both fell together. Soo-Fam was splashed in their blood. She blinked and wiped her eyes, and when she looked up it was to see Tai-Gil almost standing over her. There were several other Androktones with her. They all continued firing as Tai-Gil shouted at Vin-Di.

“Vin-Di! Withdraw! Now! Hurry!”

Vin-Di pushed Chen-Po forward as more Androktones ran to their side. “Get Soo-Fam!” she shouted, turned and sliced down another Gatherer who came close to her.

Chen-Po and Fam-Kai pulled Soo-Fam to her feet and dragged her forward as other Androktones stood around them firing at the Gatherers. Vin-Di followed them and stopped when she reached Tai-Gil.

“We have received orders from the Councilman instructing us not to die for the portal building,” she said quickly. “We have tried to comply. You must also.”

Tai-Gil replied equally as quickly. “I am aware of these instructions. Soo-Fam gave me similar orders with regard to the Klysanthians. I believe the Councilman’s intent is that we minimise our losses. As the Klysanthian ship is the only mode of escape we must reach it if we are not to disobey him.”

It was the end of the discussion as all around them the Gatherers were shot and sliced down as the Androktones fought their way back down the street, moving slowly but surely. Mai-Ra joined them with two more Androktones a short time later, and they soon came close to the side street where the body of the Receiver still lay. Here Jai-Lai herself waited with more Androktones. They immediately opened fire, dropping scores of Gatherers in the street around the retreating Androktones. They kept up the barrage, and at last those backing slowly down the street could turn and run to join them.

Jai-Lai waited until Tai-Gil reached her. “El-Wa has arrived with reinforcements sent by Ann-Ra. We will hold back the enemy while you withdraw.”

Tai-Gil nodded. “Do not loiter here, Jai-Lai. The Councilman has ordered that we are not to die for the portal building, so keep your pod moving.”

Jai-Lai almost looked puzzled. “But we do not fight for the portal building.”

“But those we rescue have. The logic is clear. We must not die in their support now that they are among us. Get back to the ship.”

Tai-Gil instantly hurried away and Jai-Lai turned to shout at the Androktones under her control.

“Fall back! Move at pace! Keep firing! And watch your flanks! You are not to die in this engagement!”

Two other Androktones were now dragging Soo-Fam along between them while Fam-Kai and Chen-Po stayed close to them. They continued to stop and fire at the Gatherers behind them as they ran. They no longer thought about Soo-Fam, she was no longer their burden. But the only thing that occupied Soo-Fam’s mind was the fact that Bey-Nan had died. Had she broken the Councilman’s instructions? Had she died for the portal building? The only comforting thought was that an energy bolt fired by another Androktone had struck Bey-Nan. She had died in error, not for the portal building. Yes, she was safe, the error was not her own, and the one who had killed her would have had no knowledge of the Councilman’s instructions. With that thought in her mind Soo-Fam instantly envied her.


CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

ADRIFT

President Aegina stood on a wooden deck that remained still while the bright blue sea on the horizon behind her slowly swayed from side to side. Other ships could be seen nearby, many ships, all with a single square sail and rows of oars at their side. All had eyes painted on their prow. Aetolus was standing next to Aegina. They were bathed in bright sunshine. The main mast of the ship was behind them, and men could be seen toiling at their oars while others hurried about the deck. There was a strong smell of the sea and the air was filled with the sound of the waves, birds crying and sails flapping.

Aegina smiled as she shielded her eyes from the sun. “I see by your expression that you have slept little since I last saw you, General Ares.”

Ares bowed before the portal. Hephaestus stood next to him. “You are unfortunately correct, President. But the pressures of the war outweighs that for my rest.”

The smile left Aegina’s lips and her expression became more sombre. “It is a pressure I share with you. How goes the war, Ares? Is your plan near to fruition?”

“It is, President. All the Androktones have now left Ephesus and have engaged the combined Hosts of the Keruh. Battle is joined in earnest and without their ships or access to the ring the Host is trapped and unable to avoid the final outcome. It will be over soon.”

“Good. And I am glad it is a battle that I will not see. It is a battle that no intelligent mortal should see. And if we are fortunate neither side will survive the carnage. You may think me cruel for uttering such a statement, but although I mourn the loss of so much blood spilled in our name I have always feared the presence of the Androktones on our world. They are a most unpleasant creation. Beautifully wrapped, I admit, but unpleasant none the less. Their departure is a weight lifted from my mind.” She paused a moment to change track. “Another weight will be lifted when the recovery of our Fleet is completed. How many of our sons have been returned to us by your endeavours?”

Hephaestus took his turn to answer her. He also bowed. “The crews of seventeen ships have been saved, President. Many of them have been transferred directly here and are boarding the final vessels at the quay as I speak. Others will follow. Our technicians have worked tirelessly in this task, and continue to do so while power remains.”

“I am glad to hear this, Hephaestus,” Aegina replied. “Have you made alternative arrangements for the retrieval of our people once the portal goes off line?”

“Yes, President. Memnon continues to search for lifeboats in the Eden System, and those who are recovered will be returned aboard our ships. None will be left behind. Zeus already returns with three heavily laden vessels. He should arrive at the mouth of the Scamander at the same time as you.”

Ares then continued, “The Pegasus and Leviathan will stand off shore while the Olympus will move into the estuary to secure your bridgehead.”

Aegina changed hands to shield her eyes. Although the sun cast her in brightness, her mood remained grave despite her reply. “You continue to bring me glad tidings. I am well pleased, Hephaestus. Give my thanks to your technicians. But our journey is also fraught with danger. Our armada is very large and spread out, and the number of fighting vessels far too inadequate to contain the flock from the attack of wolves who may sense our passing. Can you allay my fears, Ares?”

Ares was quick to take his cue. “Those wolves will know who you are, President,” he replied with confidence. “The symbol of Atlantis on your sails and the size of the armada itself will be ample deterrents. None will challenge you while you are at sea. And once you reach the mouth of the Scamander the Olympus will be waiting for you. And Memnon and the Kraken are no more than a day behind with the rest of the Fleet.”

Aegina nodded but she looked only partially relieved. “I hope you are right, General. The journey will be long and filled with sadness. And journeys end will bring little joy to our people. They know that there is a long and hard period of rebuilding ahead of them. There is much that we have lost. At least the victorious and powerful return of our Fleet will be a lift for them. The return of sons and fathers will bring great joy. Greater even than the return of more material things.” She turned to look briefly at Aetolus. “We must seize this chance for celebration. We must begin preparations at once. All must be ready for when we reach shore.”

Aetolus bowed and instantly took the opportunity to change the subject. “I am more concerned by the response of our allies in the east, President. Our arrival among them by conventional means is bound to cause speculation. That and our evacuation of our home may lead many to consider us as a spent force.”

Aegina turned to Ares once more. “Have you considered this problem, General?”

“I have, President. Only a short time ago I opened portal connections at Troy and Ephesus and spoke with our illustrious allies. I told them that you would be arriving with the Kraken at the mouth of the Scamander. I opened the portal at Troy a day before you are due to arrive, and the one at Ephesus four days before. I suggested that it would be diplomatic that they arranged a formal reception for you at the harbour. Both have agreed, and those journeying from Ephesus should be there in time to meet you. I have asked Diomedes to take part in the reception as your Envoy. He is already journeying back from the Thermodon and will arrive well before you. He will make any final arrangements that are necessary. Zeus should also arrive at Troy with his force at the same time as you. I know the Olympus is not the Kraken, but her visual impact off shore should provide a sufficient example of our continuing power until the Kraken does arrive with the rest of the Fleet a day later.”

At last the smile returned to Aegina’s lips. “Your choice of Envoy is inspired, Ares. Diomedes presence among them alone will be enough to maintain our reputation of power even without the Olympus. And once all of our ships have returned all talk of our demise will quickly cease. But did those at Ephesus show any dismay that we would pass them by?”

“Far from it, President. They have always feared the fortress in their midst where the clone laboratories were established. If anything, they appeared relieved that you had already passed them by.”

Talk of the clone manufacturing laboratories raised other dark thoughts in Aegina’s mind. “Has the fortress been cleared?”

Ares bowed. “It is an empty shell. No one will ever know that it was anything other than a temple to Artemis.”

She smiled again. “You have done well, Ares. Our allies will continue to quake in fear of our presence for a little longer. But I will not go to Troy as a tyrant. Although most of our people will finally dwell in the Troad, many will also make the journey south to Smyrna and Ephesus. Those who worked at the clone laboratories with the Tun-Sho-Lok during that time considered Ephesus to be their home. They will wish to return.”

She paused a moment to think and draw breath. “I have spoken at great length with Queen Otrera. The Klysanthians remain below in shelter from the sun. We now share a common position. We each go homeless into the arms of others. We need their acceptance, and we have to learn to live among them as equals. In time we will become them. The transition must be seamless and without fear.”

Those on either side of the portal bowed in response to her wisdom.

With their silent praise received, Aegina’s expression became grave once more and she added a final word of caution. “Your time in Metropolis is limited, General. Be prepared to leave as soon as power fails you. When the sun is at its highest the life-force of Metropolis, of Atlantis, will fade, so this will be the last time we will speak until we face one another at Troy. There is something I must tell you, something that I have kept close to my heart. For many nights during this war I have had a vision. I have not spoken of it until this day, for it has plagued me both with its clarity of image and with the elusiveness of its of meaning. It is a bright light that engulfs all of Atlantis. The fear of this light has determined many of my decisions. So I tell you for the final time, Ares, do not outstay your welcome.”

-o-

Lysippe looked around at the cramped lifeboat. The fittings were sparse and it held little privacy. It was basically a large cylinder with bunks attached to the walls. Metal compartments housed food and water, medical supplies, blankets and other items that might be required in an emergency. The power unit was housed at the far end while at the other was a control panel with monitors and a communications set. There was a small window above it. Lysippe wondered what it would be like inside when all the bunks were occupied. That they weren’t seemed sad in the circumstances, but she would have felt extremely uncomfortable if the lifeboat had been full. That it wasn’t also seemed to suite Peleus. He seemed almost happy. His happiness stirred doubts in her mind.

Was this the nearest lifeboat?

Lysippe folded her arms as she floated in the middle of the lifeboat. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” she accused him.

Peleus looked back at her as he fiddled with the controls at the front of the lifeboat. And when he saw her with her long dark hair floating in the air behind her head the image caused him to hesitate for a moment. How marvellous she looked.

“How could I enjoy being cast adrift?” he said. “We could die here.”

“I mean being in here with me. On your own.”

Peleus smiled. “You’ll be accusing me of sabotaging the Prometheus next.”

“We could have shared a lifeboat with the others.”

“This one was nearer.”

“So you said.”

“I took you on a tour of the ship. I pointed out the location of the lifeboats. Is your memory shorter than your height?”

In confirmation she developed a sulky expression with a pout as its main component but didn’t reply.

Peleus turned his attention back to the controls. “We need to conserve energy. The batteries have a limited life and if we are to prolong their life then we should turn down the light and warmth.”

“I like the cold,” Lysippe replied.

“Then we are agreed. I will turn the heating down and we will share our body heat.”

“My body heat is my own to keep.”

“But it could get cold in here.”

Lysippe gave him a haughty stare. “Don’t think you can get away with this easily, Atlantian! I know your plans! But you also have a short memory. My world is colder than yours, and the air more rare. I will be comfortable while you suffer. We will see how long it is before you turn the heating back up.”

-o-

The great hall of the council war room was bustling with men who streamed forth from a portal connection with the Olympus. Many of the men were wounded and were carried or supported by others. Most of them were weary, battered and dishevelled. But all of them were joyful. They were alive, safe, and most of all, they were under the blue skies of home. The cold and darkness of space was behind them now. While the men streamed out of the portal, other men inside the portal on the Olympus shouted and pulled other survivors forward. The Olympus was a distant transition point as portal connections from the Kraken and other ships fed survivors to her whenever they were found. And those that were sent to the Olympus were immediately sent back through the portal to Atlantis. In the great hall, more men waited to greet those that came through and ushered them outside where medical attention and transport to the quayside was available. For the lucky few, wives and families would still be waiting for them at the quay. They could board the last ships together.

Around the great globe and beyond the bustle of the men hurrying by, technicians continued to work at their consoles. This was the scene that greeted Hephaestus and Ares as they re-entered the great hall together and walked towards the great globe.

Ares seemed to be deep in thought, so it was left to Hephaestus to comment on their meeting with President Aegina.

“You have surpassed me in your oratory skills, Ares. You lied too well.”

Ares took no joy in his success. “The lie was tempered with the truth. The battle is joined and the outcome is unavoidable.”

“But on the wrong planet,” Hephaestus pointed out.

They reached the great globe. Ares nodded as they paused before it, and then he stared up at the many dots scattered within it.

“Yes,” he replied thoughtfully. “And under the direction of the Tun-Sho-Lok Ambassador to Eden. All our fates are in his hands now.”

Hephaestus picked up instantly on the hidden inference in his words. “Do you trust him?”

It was a question that had already formed and been answered in Ares’ own mind. He took a deep breath and sighed as he continued to stare up into the globe. “No. Not anymore.”

“Do you think he will act against us in some way?”

“Indirectly, it may be possible, yes.”

“Then maybe the President shares your fears.”

Ares turned to look down at Hephaestus at last. He still seemed thoughtful. “I have never known her worried by dreams or the vagaries of fate. Even the Gods have never troubled her.”

“Do they trouble you, my friend?”

Ares looked at him more intently. “What do you mean?”

“I noticed your pistol and locator in the portal chamber. To discard them so casually would suggest that you doubt that they will ever be found again. In this act you exhibit the same fatalistic attitude voiced by President Aegina. It is clear that both of you see a future without Metropolis, without Atlantis.”

Ares turned to look up at the great globe again. He stared at the few lights that moved close to Eden, and at the three others more distant. Finally he turned to Hephaestus once more. His expression suggested that he had come to a decision, one that would not now be changed.

“Listen to me, my friend. Li-Sen is not an evil man, but the loss of Klysanthia weighs heavily on his heart. He now steers the war to a conclusion of his own choosing. It maybe a conclusion with far reaching and damaging effects. We must guard against these effects as best we can. The President has precluded any catastrophe that may befall our people by ordering the evacuation. We must heed her warnings. Prepare for the final evacuation, Hephaestus. Advise Memnon and Zeus of the substance of our meeting with the President. Give them my instructions and then break the connections with our Fleet. But leave the Metropolis RNP on line.”

Hephaestus glanced at the constant stream of men pouring through the great hall before looking back at Ares in alarm. “But there are yet some hours to go before the portal goes off line. Should we not use every second in our possession?”

“It could be a false saving. When the portal goes off line the disturbance in the flux will signal its closure to all who have the intelligence and ability to notice. Li-Sen fits that description. It will be a defining moment. We must be well away from here when that moment occurs. Summon your technicians. Summon everyone. Tell them what I tell you. Do as I ask, but remember to leave the Metropolis RNP on line. There must be no indication that we have left here.”

“But, Ares- ”

Ares placed his hands on Hephaestus’s shoulders and spoke calmly and firmly. “Do as I ask, my friend. Do it to save our souls and our future in this world. Do it now.”

Hephaestus sighed and slowly nodded.

-o-

Sharing a lifeboat with another person who was happy living in the depths of a snowy winter was not a good idea for someone who grew up on the shores of the sun-blessed Mediterranean. Peleus was finding both the lifeboat and Lysippe to be very cold. He was strapped into one of the bunks wrapped in two blankets shivering while Lysippe floated near the control panel eating one of the emergency ration bars. She seemed quite happy. It was annoying Peleus.

“Are you totally oblivious to my distress?” he blurted out angrily between chattering teeth. Chilled air marked his breath.

She looked round at him and smiled. “Cold, are you, Atlantian?”

“My name is Peleus! Have you forgotten it already? And yes, I am cold! Very cold! Uncomfortably cold!”

“It serves you right for wearing a dress on a spaceship. Should I turn the heating back up?”

Despite her barbed reply his annoyance subsided. “We need to conserve energy.”

She pushed herself away from the control panel, kicked her long legs, and swam gracefully towards him.

“This lifeboat is designed to carry twelve men,” she said as she floated along. “There should be enough power for just the two of us. I have been studying the controls. You didn’t just turn the heating down; you turned it off. Why so, Atlantian called Peleus who is so anxious to share body heat with me that he is likely to freeze to death?”

Peleus looked back at her in resignation. “Maybe I was a fool with both hopeful and shameful intent, but there was reason for my deception.”

She reached the bunk and hooked her arm around one of the supports to anchor herself. She took a delicate bite out of the ration bar. “Please do explain.”

He shrugged in his blankets. It was difficult to tell because he was shivering so much.

“Alright. Twelve men cramped in here together would provide six times the body heat we have and the batteries would supply sufficient power for a long wait. But with only us two in here -and with you so cold- it will last a lot less. That’s why I turned it off. There were few ships to survive the battle and it may be some time before we are found -if we are found. So if we want light, and if we should need power for the thrusters, then the heating has to be sacrificed. It burns the most power.”

Lysippe stared at him for a while and then shook her head sadly. It made her hair do gentle waves behind her head.

“Why didn’t you just tell me that? Why smile and pretend? Why let your rather predictable male hormones take you down that path instead of saying outright that we had a problem here?”

“I didn’t want to worry you.”

Lysippe closed her eyes, leaned her head on the bunk next to him, and sighed. “Oh, Peleus. We worked so well together on the Prometheus, you were so comfortable in my presence, why this attitude towards me now? I am a Klysanthian, not a maiden from your own world. I have fought in battles before, my ship is already destroyed and now I have survived a second wreck. I am used to this more than you and I understand the predicament we are in. You should have advised me of the design deficiencies of your lifeboats, not lied to me.”

As she was speaking, Peleus drew his hand from under the blankets and reached up to her face. He almost stroked her cheek when her eyes opened. He withdrew his hand and she raised her head. She looked slightly annoyed.

“I thought we resolved all this when we fought in the cabin?”

“I fear that was only the start of it.”

“Then the fault is mine. I should never have opened myself to you. I should have kept aloof, kept you as confused as the others.”

“I’ve always been confused.”

“Were you confused when you brought me to this lifeboat?”

“It was the nearest. I think.”

“You are a fool.”

“I can’t help it, Lysippe. You make me that way.”

“Then I should be even more cold with you.”

“I’ll freeze.”

She shook her head again and pushed herself back towards the control panel. “I will turn the heating on to the lowest level and turn down the lighting to compensate.”

“Is that the only respite you will give me?”

“You deserve less.”

The light in the lifeboat dimmed as she spoke. He watched her push herself towards one of the storage compartments and pull out two more ration bars. Then she pushed herself back towards him. When she reached him she grabbed hold of the bunk and thrust one of the ration bars into his mouth.

“At least we will not starve. Move over, cold one.”

-o-

Zeus sat silently in his command chair, his head held high. Around him his officers hurried about their tasks without bothering him. There was no need to. They were on their way home, the Pegasus and Leviathan on either side of them. All three ships had taken on as many survivors as were possible. And twice as many men had been transferred directly to Atlantis before the portals had been closed. For a while Zeus had shouted his orders in manic form as the search had continued and men poured through his ship like a waterfall. But now there were no more wrecks in their path and no more lifeboats to be found. And no men came to them through the portal. Only the long journey home beckoned.

Zeus allowed his mind to dwell on other things as his crew managed his ship. The three-way meeting with Hephaestus and Memnon had been curious. Memnon had been angry and Hephaestus almost confused. The instructions Ares had given them would add a great burden to the ships that returned. Food and water would have to be rationed, space would be limited, and even the air they breathed would become precious. But the arguments for the change in plan were even more curious than the change itself.

It was clear that both the President and Ares feared treachery of some kind. But where the President had no substance to this enemy, Ares did. He feared that a friend and ally would strike against them. He feared that the President’s vision was an all too real possibility.

What would life be like without Atlantis? Could there be life without Atlantis? Or would the loss of the power available to all just make the power that remained to the few all the more important?

The final orders he had received from Ares were also uppermost in his mind. The Olympus would be the first ship home. It would be the only ship to approach shore. It would be the first ship their allies saw. Diomedes may have been the official Envoy, but he was Atlantian, and it would be him, Zeus, who would stand before the Trojans as a victorious Captain returning from the wars over a defeated enemy in the heavens.

A victory over the very Gods themselves.

The victory would be tainted by a painful loss, but it would be a victory none the less. A victory he would make the most of.

It would be Zeus who stood at the side of the President during her meeting with their allies. And it would be him who the people and the President would welcome home in victory and as the saviour of his shipwrecked brothers. The Olympus would be at the heart of the celebrations, and by the time Memnon arrived with the Kraken no one would notice. He would make sure of that.

He would make his arrival a memorable one. His ship, the Olympus not the Kraken, would represent the might of Atlantis. Their allies would all be waiting on shore. There would be royal guards and an army of envoys and noblemen, all with gifts and tributes. They would all be made to quake in fear by his arrival.

At last the glory would be his. At last he would be the hero of the hour. At last his future would be assured. With the fall of Atlantis the whole of the world would be his. From Troy to Persepolis, it would be his name they feared.

Zeus.

-o-

Peleus and Lysippe lay in one another’s arms, strapped into one of the bunks. They were wrapped in a blanket and Peleus hugged Lysippe tightly. She had her back to him and she was sleeping. Peleus was awake. He couldn’t sleep.

He felt so marvellous, so comfortable, and yet so frightened. He wanted this time to last forever, but he also wanted them to be rescued. He wished that he could see the future; he wished that he could know that they would be saved and that he could enjoy the time they had together. Not just now, but forever.

He squeezed her tighter, and moved his hands to more interesting positions. One hand found its way under her tunic and lay clamped to her abdomen. She was so slim that his hand covered her from hip to hip. She felt so warm and delicate, and her skin was smooth like the finest silk. He squeezed her again and she murmured, her legs moving feebly. She awoke and turned her head towards him.

“You take advantage,” she said sleepily.

“I’m just keeping warm,” he replied.

“Liar.”

“I can’t help it,” he admitted. “I’m not normally as forward as this, but I’ve never known anyone like you, and I’d hate to miss this chance as it could be my last.”

She laughed then. It was a delicate chuckle and he felt the muscles in her abdomen move against the palm of his hand. It was delightfully sensual.

“I suppose,” she began, “that this is better than fighting?”

He smiled and nodded. “Definitely.”

“And arguing?”

“That too.”

She turned her head away from him and closed her eyes again. “Then I will allow your indiscretion.”

“Thank you.” He hugged her tighter and snuggled against her.

There was a short pause while they rested with only their even breathing breaking the silence. Then Peleus spoke again.

“I love you, Lysippe.”

For a moment nothing happened, but then Lysippe remarked, “You merely lust after our bodies like all males. You call it love to hide your need.”

“No, I really mean it,” Peleus insisted. “I love you.”

She opened her eyes and turned her head towards him again. “You just think you love me. I know the truth, and I know our power. Even when we sleep our bodies call to you.”

“Maybe that was true, once. When you first came on board the Prometheus I think that was the way I felt about you. Part of me thought I loved you but then the way you behaved made me think that I didn’t.”

“Then you understand?”

“Yes, but I feel differently now. I’ve got to know you more, we’ve been together for longer, and I know now that I do love you.”

Lysippe broke his grip on her and turned her body in his arms to face him. “It is not love. We resemble what your bodies and your instincts want most. We have the form and features of a child in your world, and it is this that you lust after.”

Peleus looked at her in surprise. “You think I lust after young girls?”

She shook her head in irritation. “No, not exactly. I don’t speak of the instincts of the modern man, but of the primeval one, the one that lurks in your heart and in your soul. Think back, Peleus, understand yourself, nothing I tell you is knew. You are the sum of your past, and in that past life was short. To be as old as you are today was to be lucky. Most of your kind died of injury, starvation or disease far earlier. And so it is on any world at the beginning when life is harsh and violent.”

“You’re giving me a history lesson now?”

“Shut up and listen!” she snapped at him. “In those times to breed successfully you needed to breed early, before it was too late. So as soon as a girl was ready she was pregnant. The most desirable girls were those that were young but not yet weakened by excessive childbirth. I resemble that girl. I have the features of a child, the shape of a child, the skin and the innocence of a child. Only my height breaks the image. But even in this the image is complete. My height exaggerates my slender appearance. It all makes me resemble a girl on the cusp of womanhood. This image drags at the depths of your soul. It pulls the primeval instincts out and above those of the modern man. You want me because I represent what used to be the best chance for your successful procreation.”

“And that’s it? I think I’m in love with you because a long distant ancestor of mine once chased adolescent young girls before he was trodden on by a large beast?”

“Exactly!”

“That’s just silly!”

“It’s the truth!”

“I love you!” Peleus said firmly.

“You love my body!” she replied just as firmly.

He suddenly grabbed her head, his fingers on her temples and in her hair, his thumbs on her cheeks. “I love what’s in here! I love you, the thing that is you! I didn’t just fall for any Klysanthian; I’m not chasing them all from one end of the ship to the other! I love you, just you! Why can’t you understand that?”

“That is easy to say when I am the only one here!”

“That doesn’t matter!”

“Yes it does!” she insisted. “Only I can be seen and touched! Only I fill the air around you! There are no others that you could choose before me!”

“I don’t want any others! I just want you!”

“But you can’t have me!”

“Why? What’s so wrong with me wanting you? Why can’t I love you?”

“Because I don’t love you!” she blurted out. “And love that isn’t reciprocated is just lust, nothing more!”

He let go of her and just stared at her. He was deeply shocked and it showed on his face. Lysippe was conscious of the effect it had on his body and she shook her head sadly.

“Why do you do this, Peleus? You know I love another! You saw me cry for her! You held me in your arms while I fretted and grieved over her! You know I dream only of the moment Telepyleia and I can be reunited! You know how I fear and dread the awful truth that may await me! Why do you do this? Why torture yourself?”

He shrugged. “Because I love you,” he answered weakly.

“Oh, Peleus!” she exclaimed in annoyance. And in a fit of petulance she tried to struggle out of the bunk and escape him. But he just grabbed her and held on while she kicked with her legs and pulled at the straps of the next bunk. And while he held on to her he spoke to her, his voice calm and without emotion.

“Yes, I know you love another. I’ve always known. But somehow I dreamed that you might still be mine. I dreamed that we might stay together. It was hopeless, stupid, and childish. I dreamed the dream without thought of the consequences. I knew that for you to be mine would require Telepyleia to be dead. And I knew that if she were dead your grief would probably destroy you. So I didn’t think about her. I didn’t think about what it would really mean. I just wrapped myself up in pleasant thoughts of being close to you. I am a fool. But I am a fool in love. I do love you, Lysippe. And if, when the time comes, I have to watch you leave me in the arms of your Captain, then I will be pleased for you. I will hate Telepyleia, but I will be happy for you. And I will let you go. And that is why it is not lust, but love, true love, that I feel for you.”

Lysippe slowly stopped struggling as he spoke. It was a waste of energy in any case because she wasn’t strong enough to break his hold on her. When he had finished she was already still.

“I am the fool,” she whispered sadly. “A fool because I thought you were different, a fool because I feel the hurt in you and the need you have, and a fool because I would give you what you want because I also need it. I need it because I also dream. I dream that Telepyleia has recovered, that the Friend Of The Sick survived the battle, and that in a short time we will be rescued and I will see my love again. I dream of the joy of reunion and the ecstasy of sharing our love once more. My dream is as fickle and shallow as yours. More so, for yours has a better chance of seeing reality.”

Peleus pulled her back down into the bunk with him once more, wrapping his arms around her. She didn’t resist.

“I am more unlucky than you,” he told her as he ran his hand through her hair.

She smiled but there were tears in her eyes. “We are the same, you and I. Each holding on to hopes that will soon be dashed.”

“She may still live.”

Lysippe rested her head on his chest. “In my heart she still lives. But in my mind she is already dead.”

“Then trust in your heart.”

She looked up at him. “And what do you trust in, Atlantian?”

Her eyes burned so brightly that he couldn’t look back at her. Instead he looked down and became thoughtful as he considered his answer, and he spoke as he thought.

“I trust in fate, in destiny. I believe what brings us together here cannot be just chance. We are too close, too comfortable. I am too comfortable. I am never like this with women, I am too naïve, too inexperienced, I am always uncomfortable, so for me to be like this with you is impossible, impossible unless there is a reason. Once before we stood at a moment when a decision had to be made. Then we chose the safe route. We chose it because to do otherwise would have been to act too early, too soon. It would have been wrong, both for you and for me, I believe that. But it was the wrong decision. If the hull of the Prometheus had failed earlier, we would not be here now. Our chance would have come and gone. We would have been the losers. You think I engineered this, that I intended that we be alone together. Maybe in my heart I did. But I was not conscious of this. And how could I plan that you would be with me then, at that moment? It was chance, fate. No, destiny has brought us back to the same decision, it cannot be denied, and it won’t be denied. And yet it must be denied, for if you don’t love me, there is no future in it.”

Lysippe smiled tenderly at him when he had finished. And reaching up she caressed his cheek, causing him to look at her once more.

“How can you say that you are naïve?” she told him. “You speak so well, each sentence you utter tears at my heart and my resolve.”

“I only speak like this with you. It is love that drives me, and the fear of its loss that haunts me. I am desperate.”

“It is not desperation that you feel, but a need. A need that is stirred and roused by every pore in my body.” She slipped her arms around him, her hands on his back. “And what you need, I also need. My body burns for solace, for the feel of another in loving embrace. I know you need this too. In the cabin, after we fought, we felt the same, but it was too early. But now time has passed, we know and understand each other better, and if love cannot be ours, why should we not enjoy what we can have? I know you feel the same way as I do. Even if you don’t say it your body screams it.”

“You speak of lust again.”

“No.” She shook her head. “Not lust, relief. What you said before is the truth. We are too close, too comfortable. I feel it too. As soon as I stepped off the portal on the Prometheus I knew that you would be my companion. The change in your body, your temperature, even the way your mind drifted in my presence, it spoke volumes to me. And as I walked with you throughout your ship nothing I sensed changed that opinion.”

“And why me? Why was I different from the others?”

“Because you loved me.”

She said it so simply and yet it hurt him so much. Peleus looked away and sighed. There were tears in his eyes now, tears of defeat and anger.

“Now you admit it,” he said, his voice faltering. “Now when you have torn the heart out of me you finally accept my word as the truth.”

She reached up and turned his face back toward her. “As you love me, I love another. And I cannot deny that love. If I did you would not love me. We are both trapped by who we are. I have lived my life with Telepyleia. I have lain with no other. I have lain with no man. You will be the first. I knew this when we fought. I knew this when we lay on the floor together and I felt your need matched by my own. You believe in fate, and you are right to do so. It is destiny that brings us together, I am sure of it now, and to deny it a second time would be foolhardy. So if Telepyleia does still live, and if I leave in her arms, then I believe that you will hate her as you confessed. But a short time later she will know what passed between us, and she will hate you with equal vigour. This is the only gift I can give you, Atlantian. I offer myself now, willingly, because we are trapped here together, because our dreams may soon be smashed into fragments, and because we may die here in silence and solitude. So will you live your dream for a short while, or will you take the safe path once again?”

Peleus looked into her eyes, seeing only the honesty of her words and intent. But he replied cautiously. “And what dream will you live? When we make love and you feel my arms about you will you dream of Telepyleia? Will it be her you see or me?”

“That depends on you.”

They remained staring into each other’s eyes a moment longer. Then Peleus reached up and placed his hand on the back of her head. He pulled her closer and their lips met in a hungry kiss that sent them spinning and wriggling in the suspended bunk as they tore at their clothes and grasped at flesh.

-o-

On the bridge of the Queen Of Angels, Pantariste smiled and bowed her head in greeting to the face on her viewing screen.

“Welcome, Memnon, Great Commander and Vanquisher of the Keruh Battle Fleets.”

Memnon also bowed his head. If he sensed any mockery in her voice he didn’t show it. “The title is unjust, Pantariste. The final outcome owes much to the sacrifices made by you and your sisters as it does to the bravery of my men. I am glad to see you alive and well.”

Pantariste bowed her head once again. “I thank you for that generous appraisal of our contribution. Many in your place would not have been so magnanimous.”

There was an air of contempt in her voice. Again Memnon ignored it. “The battle is over, Pantariste, but there is still work to be done. The field of battle is littered with sinking wrecks and scattered lifeboats, many of which contain survivors whose only hope of life lies with a rescue from a friendly ship. I do not intend to desert them. The search has already begun, Telephus has worked out a sweep pattern and success has already been achieved.”

Pantariste stared at the screen in surprise as Memnon suddenly left his chair and moved out of view. When he returned he was carrying a tall and slender figure. He lowered the figure gently into his chair and then moved back and stood behind the chair. His last action was to gently stroke the hair out of the eyes of a very familiar woman.

Pantariste got up from her command chair and breathed, “Telepyleia…”

Telepyleia sat stiffly in Memnon’s command chair. She was dressed in a white shapeless gown and she still clutched at her side. She seemed in pain, and her softly spoken voice was breathless.

“Sit, Pantariste. I am sorry to surprise you with my presence, but I am overjoyed to see you. I yearn to see the faces of the Matriarchs who once stood before me so proud. In truth if I could reach you I would kiss you.”

Pantariste sank down into her chair, all indifference and contempt wiped from her mind and her expression. Even her voice was sweeter. “Are you well, Telepyleia?” she asked in concern. “You look so weak.”

Telepyleia attempted a smile that was half successful. “I am weak, very weak. I am also in pain and somewhat light-headed. But the surgeons on the Friend Of The Sick have stitched my wound both inside and out, set my bones, fed me with drugs, and I am alive, just. And I have been similarly tended to by the Atlantians here on my arrival, so I am fortunate twice over. But breathing still hurts, so I will not detain you for long.”

“Did Thraso survive with you?”

It was a quickly asked question and Telepyleia slowed the pace by taking a deeper breath before she nodded.

“She did, as did most of the crew and survivors on board the Friend Of The Sick. And we are not alone among the Atlantians. The crew of the Cause Of Our Joy are also rescued, they fill another ship, and many lifeboats have been found and those within have been plucked to safety. They must not be the last.”

Telepyleia leaned forward, her hand still tightly pressed to her side. She spoke more strongly and with greater effort to control her breathing. “Listen to me, Pantariste. I know well your dislike for male dominance. It irks you to work with them as equals and so to serve them in subordination angers you greatly. I understand this because I am Klysanthian. But you must serve these men. Too many of our sisters have died already, some chose to do so while others fought strenuously to live. Now only the House Of Gold and your own ship survive intact. Heed the words of Memnon; we must search for those that are left crying in the dark, we must find them, all of them, men and women. They have earned that duty from us.”

Pantariste nodded. “I will do as you ask, Telepyleia.”

Telepyleia sat back in the chair and her expression changed to one of apprehension rather than physical pain.

“One last thing, Pantariste. We have tried to contact the Prometheus; I wished to speak with Lysippe. They have failed to answer. Do you know what became of them?”

Pantariste nodded and she told Telepyleia and those on the Kraken what they didn’t want to hear.

-o-

Deep down in the darkness, a violent explosion broke the stillness and smashed the senses. Fragments of concrete and steel flew and bounced off the walls. Among the debris were the dismembered limbs of those who had lacked sufficient caution. Their punishment had been swift. But others had been more fortunate.

Mai-Ann coughed and spat the dust from her mouth as she climbed to her feet. She had been standing in a side corridor near the portal when the explosion had occurred. She hurried back to the main corridor and looked towards the entrance. The darkness and silence had returned to the underground complex after the explosion. Her vision was still in the infrared and she could see the extent of the damage at the far end of the corridor. Those who had been despatched to guard the entrance would not be returning. Others had gone to investigate and now one returned to announce the news.

“The entrance to this part of the complex was mined, Mai-Ann. Access is blocked and Di-Soo and Tai-Quan are dead.”

Mai-Ann’s thoughts reached the logical conclusion almost instantly. “The Edenites must have abandoned the complex. Why else mine the entrance? At least we now know that we will not be disturbed. Warn the others to be aware of further traps. We proceed as planned. Contact me as soon as you locate one of the devices. I will remain by the portal to advise the Councilman of our progress.”

“Yes, Mai-Ann.”

The Androktone raced away. Others quickly followed her. Mai-Ann turned and walked slowly back along the silent and dark corridor towards a distant swirling grey cylinder. Only a short time before they had emerged from the portal. Now two of them were dead, but it mattered little. The concrete walls and deep location of the underground complex did nothing to restrict access through a portal connection. Even the mines were nothing other than a distraction. And with no opposition they could move faster and more easily than previously anticipated. In a very short time they would possess what they came for. And with one of the devices relocated and activated would come a brief but violent fulfilment of the Purpose. It would be an end, but also a beginning.

She would break a primary directive. The Councilman had given her a direct order and she had to comply. He had seniority in command, even over the Atlantians. He was a Councilman, and she had to obey.

She wanted to obey.

Being commanded to break a primary directive was somehow incorrect. It suggested a flawed integrity. Thinking about it caused turmoil in her mind. But when she finally stood in the city, knowing that she accepted that flaw, and knowing that she was also following the Purpose, her confusion would be at an end and she would feel doubly elated.

-o-

Above the Brok Mountains several large ships began to appear in the morning sun. There were already two ships down on the ground on the small landing field. Several aircraft were also scattered over the concrete apron. People ran about everywhere, and military vehicles raced across the open spaces. Placed around the landing field in strategic locations were armoured vehicles and heavy artillery. Those that manned them gazed down the mountain slopes and roads with clear anxiety. There was an air of panic and urgency about everyone. No one seemed to like standing still for a second, and those forced to do so all moved or shuffled nervously.

In the Control Tower General Orbanta took a cup of coffee offered to him by a soldier and stared out the window as the Alentin landed. The ship looked like a huge sea creature with the great fin above it. He felt the tremor through the floor of the tower as she touched down. As soon as the Alentin had landed the Temunus began her approach.

Orbanta drank some of his coffee. He was surrounded by men who spoke frantically to the ships that were rapidly gathering around the small landing field. They were all busy juggling ships and aircraft until each could be landed safely. But before the ships could come down, others would have to take off. The process wasn’t going smoothly.

Orbanta turned to Air Marshal Joventa who was standing on the far side of the room.

“Addi! How soon before that tanker lifts off?”

Joventa looked up from the console where he had been relaying instructions to the operator and shouted back to Orbanta.

“Five minutes! Her engines are running up now!”

“What about that freighter?”

“Still loading!”

“Get those people aboard as soon as you can and get her off the ground!”

“They’re working as fast as they can!”

“It’s not fast enough! Contact Colonel Salther! Have him move those aircraft out of the way!”

Joventa looked confused. “How?”

“Any way he can! We don’t need them anymore and they’re taking up valuable landing space! Get rid of them!”

Joventa nodded and turned away.

Orbanta felt the tremor as the Temunus touched down. He looked out the window again. The landing field was now full. A column of people began hurrying across the field towards the Alentin. Another column was already beginning to make its way to the Temunus. It would take nearly an hour to load both ships. It was an hour they couldn’t afford to wait until the next ships came down.

As Orbanta watched, Major Stumomoner led a flotilla of armoured vehicles and tow trucks from the perimeter fence back inside and out over the landing field. Orbanta could clearly see him sitting in the open hatch of an APC pointing at the abandoned aircraft scattered around. Instantly the vehicles split up and each headed for a specific target. And by the time the tanker finally took off, several aircraft had been dragged unceremoniously from the landing field and pushed through the fence. Three of them broke up in the process, causing another scramble of vehicles before the fragments were dragged away.

It was so frustrating. Orbanta knew that everyone was doing their best, but he was acutely aware that the fates were now against them. Colonel Salther had insisted on taking command of the rearguard action that was sure to be required. But so far their enemy was occupied elsewhere. The only reports of activity were at the abandoned Emergency Command Centre where one of the mines had gone off. They only knew that because the transponder it had been fitted with had ceased transmitting. But with so many people now at the landing field it wouldn’t be long before the Keruh would come calling. They would have to be finished here well before then. And getting in the air with everyone on board wouldn’t be the end of it, because that was when General Orbanta knew they would face their most difficult problem.

Who was going to switch off the Defence Net?

-o-

Peleus and Lysippe were asleep once again. And once again they were wrapped in one another’s arms, strapped into one of the bunks. Two blankets now enshrouded them. Neither of them stirred. Neither of them wished to. And neither of them noticed the sequence of lights flashing on the control panel. In the window above the panel a large battle-scarred ship blotted out the stars as it came close, and with a gentle jarring of the lifeboat, it locked on.


This is the end of the free chapters.

Copyright © D. G. Richards 2003

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