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The Tale of Batharok

By ajwfft All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Scifi

The Dream Merchant

Faraday

He had always dreamed that one day he would explore deep space and its infinite possibilities, it had inspired him since he was a boy, but right at that moment Captain Faraday was tired of sitting and staring at the view screen out into black nothingness.  Maybe his dreams had been too romantic.  There was certainly less waiting around.  He hated waiting.  But at that moment he was being forced to, whilst enduring the never-ending preparations for interstellar travel.  His ship was a Saturn Class monster.  Equipped to the teeth.  Tasked with being an interstellar bus and finding potential mining sites.  They were about eight months from Earth; which was about as far as a ship that size had ever come.  And they had even further to go.  Another month would see them arrive at a new colony where nine hundred of his passengers would disembark for a new life, creating another footprint of humanity amongst the stars.  Then it was back to Earth, along a different route for another twelve months, merrily conducting geological reconnaissance along the way.  It was a dull life for the most part, but that was about to change.

“Captain-sir, Doctor Ackerley here, can you come down to the science deck?  There's something you need to see,” said a voice over the comm.

“Be right with you doctor,” replied Captain Faraday as he jumped out of his chair and headed for the exit leading out of the bridge. At last, something to do! He thought, as he marched down long winding corridors towards the science deck.

The science deck was a large room that sparkled with cutting-edge technology.  Huge monitors lined the walls, and different types of scientific stations - biological, geological, astrological and other words ending in 'ological - were set up in a circle in the centre of the room.  There was one station for each scientist.  And apart from the colour on the computer screens, everything was white. 

As he arrived he saw a group of about eight or nine people, dressed in white, huddled around one of the monitors.  Each of them was staring at it intensely and muttering to each other.  They didn't notice him as he approached.  Captain Faraday stood behind them, and coughed loudly.

The group of scientists jumped.

“Captain-sir, thank you sir,” said a woman in a white coat, who pushed her way through the group of other scientists to address the Captain. “I'm Doctor Harris sir, apologies to bring you down here, but as my colleague said on the comm, we have something you need to see.”  Dr Harris beamed a wide smile at Captain Faraday, and she pushed a few of her colleagues out of the way to provide him with enough room to see the monitor they had all been staring at.

Captain Faraday looked at the bright colourful splotches on the screen in front of him. “So what am I looking at?”

“Ah... yes sir,” replied Dr Harris, who from the look on her face seemed to expect Captain Faraday to know exactly what it was. “This is a thermal image of TN6754.”

Captain Faraday looked at the screen again.

“You mean the planet we passed this morning?  I thought our scans found nothing?” he said frowning.

“They did,” said one of the other scientists, who suddenly appeared at Captain Faraday's shoulder. “Find nothing I mean.  But this scan looks for the presence of heat,” he chirped.

“I know what thermal means!” rebuked Captain Faraday, who suddenly didn't at all like the way this eager white-coat-wearing geeky-looking boy was smiling up at him. He looked around at the other scientists who also had beaming smiles on their faces. Why are all these people so friggin' happy? he thought to himself.

“Apologies sir,” interrupted Dr Harris.  “This is Dr McKinley, he was the one whose idea it was to take the scan,” she frowned in the direction of the young doctor, obviously sensing the Captain's displeasure.  “He's one of our bright sparks sir,” she continued reassuringly.

“Is he now!” said Captain Faraday, exhibiting a tone of uncertainty. He turned to the young doctor.  “Well, Doctor McKinley, what gave you the idea to run this scan?”

Dr McKinley shrugged his shoulders. “A hunch, I guess.”

Captain Faraday stared at Dr McKinley for a moment before turning again to the monitor.  “So, why don't you tell me what your hunch has found us?”

“Of course sir,” said the young doctor as he shuffled towards the monitor.  “Basically, what this picture is showing us, in this area right here…” He drew an imaginary circle around an intensely bright spot in the middle of the screen.  The other scientists huddled in excitedly. “…Is some sort of power source.”  He paused for a moment, allowing the words to grab Captain Faraday's attention by the throat. 

“What?” replied Captain Faraday, with an astonished look on his face.

“Now, what is odd about this,” continued Dr McKinley, “is there is no way such a thing should exist on this planet.”

“Why not?” asked Captain Faraday, whose interest in what he was hearing was now growing.

“Because, there are no raw materials in any great quantities on this planet to run such a thing.  Which means either there is something we're missing about what's down there, or this is a self-generating power system, or SGPS as it's known.” He stepped back from the screen and looked at the captain for a reaction.

“When you say self-generating,” Captain Faraday asked, “you mean... something man-made?”

“No sir, that's not what I mean,” smiled Dr McKinley.

“But...” started the Captain, a little confused.

“Sir, if I may,” interrupted the young doctor.  “What I mean, is that this is alien-made!” the young doctor confirmed matter-of-factly.

Faraday looked the young man up and down again.  He had straight, perfectly combed hair and a straight, perfectly un-creased white coat.  His shoes were shining and he wore mismatched socks.  His face was a contradiction of wisdom and innocence, but it was his bright sky-blue eyes that stood out, and they seemed to pierce anything he looked at.

“How do you know that?” asked Faraday.

“Well sir, we haven't told you everything yet,” said Dr Harris jumping in.

“No?”

“That's correct sir.  After we saw the thermal image we conducted additional scans sir.”

“And...?”

“And we found buildings!”

“Buildings? What sort of buildings?” Faraday’s mind was racing.

“Ruins, sir.  This is a dead planet, no doubt about that, but whoever used to live here, seems to have left something behind.”

“I see,” Faraday nodded. “Well, it seems you have found something interesting. Is it safe to go down there?”

“There is very little atmosphere on this planet,” replied Dr Harris.  “Although gravity seems to be at a reasonable level.  This is a very unusual planet sir; I'm unsure why we didn't pick it up before.”

“Yes, well, we'll have to look into that later, but right now we have more pressing matters.  Of course, none of this must go any further than this room, at least until we've had a chance to verify what it is that’s down there.”

“Yes, of course sir,” said Dr Harris, and the rest of the scientists nodded their heads in eager agreement.

“Good, because if I hear of any rumours spreading around the ship, I'll know where to come.  Now, I'm sure you all have work to do.  Let me know if you find anything else.”

“Yes sir,” said Dr Harris, as Faraday turned and headed for the door.

There were a thousand protocols he should be following now, and Captain Faraday's head was buzzing with them, trying to find their correct order.  But he knew what he had to do first, and that was to assess the danger.  Whatever else this may be, he had to make sure that it wasn't something deadly.  Send down a small crew, see if they live, and then report in.  As blunt as that sounded, that was what exploration was all about in this day and age.  The ship had already taken all the scientific scans it needed to; they knew the planet was safe enough for humans.  Of course every precaution would be taken.  He would send down his best men, ones that could be trusted, and needed to be trusted.  Something like this would spread like wildfire on board a ship of a thousand people; and with the funny knack that news had of being warped out of shape as it spread from mouth to mouth, the result would be some poor wretch believing that brain sucking aliens are coming to get them; and that’s never good for one's digestion.

As Faraday reached the captain's quarters he already knew the right man for the job.  He sat down at his chair and tapped at the screen built into his desk, activating the comm.

“Commander Jack Webster,” he said.

“Captain Faraday, good evening to you sir,” replied a deep voice from the comm.

“And a good evening to you to, Jack.  Would you mind coming over to my quarters, there's something I need to speak to you about.”


Jack

“Sergeant, is my scouter ready?” shouted Commander Jack Webster at the retreating back of the duty hanger sergeant, who was just at that moment retiring from his shift.  The hanger sergeant swung around to check the origin of the voice.  Before him stood a well-built man with broad shoulders and short brown hair, whose wry smile portrayed an air of confidence, and whose rough space-travel-worn face spoke of a quiet cynicism towards their relentless penetration into the blackness of the galaxy.  He was also armed to the teeth. The sergeant removed the grimace off his face when he recognised the man standing before him.

“Um... yes, I think so sir,” was his mumbled reply.  “I believe your crew has already arrived.”

Jack peered into the hanger, surveying the vast open space, littered with different types of spacecraft; there must have been about fifty in total. All of them looked dusty and worn from constant service. 

The hanger itself was grimy, and smelled of oil and fuel and sweat. Spotlights placed above each craft illuminated the grey walls and grey floor, but the ceiling of the hanger was in darkness.  Jack spotted a group of figures about half way up, standing underneath one of the spotlights; that must be them, he thought.

“Thank you Sergeant, do carry on,” Jack smiled at the hanger sergeant, who without reaction, turned, and continued to make his way down the grey metal corridor, which would lead to a hundred other corridors on this labyrinth of a space vessel. 

Those who had served on this beast-of-a-ship for years knew their way around easily.  And the sergeant was one of those.  He would be back in his bunk in no time, or maybe drinking in the mess; but Jack had a job to do, and it was a job no one else was allowed to know about.

Jack entered the hanger and walked towards the group of figures.  The sound of his shoes echoed off the curved hanger walls and the group turned and watched him approach.

“Tally-ho Hope,” said Jack from a distance, to a tall woman dressed in grey battle armour.  She had three different blasters strapped to each side of her body, and her black hair cascaded down her back like a waterfall.  She had fine chiselled features, pencil thin eyebrows, and an elegant look about her that was alluring to the extreme.  She was a woman who enjoyed using all the weapons she possessed, and she did so without mercy.

With her stood Octavian and Farrell, two of her lackeys she had brought along for the job.  Sergeant Hope had a power over the men she worked with; and these two standing next to her, both with shaved heads and rigid looks on their faces, were no exception.  She had promised him her best men, and at first glance these two looked to suit the job nicely.

“‘Ten’tion!” she shouted as Jack finally arrived in front of them.  The two troopers stood erect, not moving, arms held stiffly by their sides.

“At ease gentlemen,” Jack relieved them.  “Very good Sergeant, very good,” he muttered looking the men up and down.  He turned towards Sergeant Hope, “I trust the men have already been briefed?”

“Yessir.  As far as I could brief them sir,” she nodded.

“Good, I also understand one of you can fly one of these things?” he said to the two troopers, gesturing vaguely with his arm towards the ships scattered about the hanger bay.

“Yessir!” Octavian stepped forward.  “Journeyman Octavian sir, fully licensed scouter pilot sir, at your command.”

“Thank you, very good,” replied Jack.  “Then you must be the explosives chap?” he said looking towards the other man, who suddenly stepped forward, in line with his colleague.

“Fusilier Companyman Farrell sir, at your command sir.”

“Very good, then please gentleman, lead us to the ship.”

“Yessir!” both men barked, before turning and marching towards the other side of the hanger bay.

Jack and Hope followed behind, leaving a little distance between them and the two men marching in synchronised fashion in front.

“So what's this all about Jack?” said Hope, looking suspiciously at her superior officer.

“My dear, as usual we are being sent on a mission of mystery, one that will undoubtedly challenge our minds and sharpen our senses.”

“Very funny, now seriously... why are we going out off-shift? Why all the sneaking about? I had to use up too many favours to get these men here.  It's just not usual that I have to force the men to take a vow of secrecy before a job - come on, what's going on?”

“As usual Sergeant Hope you are overstepping the boundaries of familiarity between us, you will find out all the details in due course... on a need to know basis,” Jack smiled teasingly.

“You are making fun of me,” Hope said dryly.  “My familiarity comes from years of service at your side, as well you know; I am your most trusted companion and it is your unwillingness to share the details of this mission that makes me suspicious most of all?”

“Yes I thought it might,” smiled Jack.  “But this time I'm having to follow strict orders, and under the circumstances I am obliged not to sway from their path.” 

Jack noticed that the two troopers had arrived at what must be their assigned scouter ship; they were in the process of opening the main hatch.  He stopped and turned to Hope, taking her arm.

“As soon as we're in the black, I'll discuss the job with you all, and you'll understand, I promise,” he said, reassuring her.

She smiled a warm smile back at him, “Okay.  I just like to know where I’m going before I get there, that's all.  But most of all, I don't like there being secrets between us.”

“I know, but it can't be helped,” said Jack, turning towards the ship. “Shall we?”

Commander Jack Webster and Sergeant Hope O'Connor walked towards the small scout vessel, where Journeyman Octavian and Fusilier Companyman Farrell were standing to attention on either side of the entrance hatch.  Jack offered his hand to Hope to help her through the hatch, which she took and stepped into the vessel.  Jack followed.

“You'd think they'd make these things easier to get into,” muttered Jack to himself, as the two troopers clambered through the hatch after him. “Right,” he said louder, “Journeyman Octavian, your seat is up front.  Now let’s get this show on the road.”

The scout vessel only allowed for six people, so Jack and Hope took two of the available four passenger seats in the back, whilst Companyman Farrell sat in the co-pilot's seat next to Journeyman Octavian.  Jack remembered his first ride in one of these things, whilst scouting a planet that lay in a system poetically known as HD10180.  That must have been twenty years ago, one of his first assignments.  They had found nothing of course - except minerals, rocks, and faint traces of water from a million years ago.  As they had done on thousands of planets before and since.  Unfortunately, the dreams that inspired the exploration of space, hoped for more than what the reality actually delivered; which naturally led to criticism about the intrinsic value of a global space exploration programme, considering the cost of it all; criticism which the powers-that-be usually sweep under the carpet.  The truth of the matter was that everyone knew space exploration was the stuff dreams are made of; even if the only thing it ever turned up was new mining opportunities.  But the slim possibility alone that one day they would find something different was what people dreamed about.  And that's what helps win elections, and more money for space exploration.

It took ten minutes to complete the pre-checks, then the system checks, and then finally the post-system-check checks, and then they were away.  Journeyman Octavian pushed the throttle up to maximum as the black-coloured craft pushed its way effortlessly through the containment field covering the mouth of the hanger, and was spat out into the blackness beyond.  The ship snaked its way past the end of the massive Saturn class deep space vessel, and its small anti-matter engines roared as it disappeared into the dark.

“I'm going to need a destination sir,” requested Octavian, breaking the silence on board.

“Yes, of course,” replied Jack, sitting up and straightening his jacket.  He then took a small data stick from his upper left pocket and handed it to Journeyman Octavian. “Before you plug that device into the ship's navigation, let me start by telling you all what the hell it is we're doing here.”

Three attentive faces suddenly turned and looked directly back at him.  The ship shuddered.  Without looking, Journeyman Octavian switched on the autopilot on the dashboard behind him, not taking his attention away from Jack for a moment. A small embarrassed smile appeared on his face. “Autopilot is now on.  Ready for your command sir.”

“Thank you, Journeyman,” said Jack, quietly impressed by the quickness of the pilot's reaction.  “Now, to business, and I'll keep it to the point.  We have identified something that could turn out to be quite remarkable, on a planet we passed yesterday.  Our initial scan at the time didn't trace anything of geological value, but then one of the remote reconnaissance team thought to run a thermal scan, and it turned up something rather interesting: a live power source of some kind, generating who-knows-what.  Not only that, but it seems there’s the remains of a civilisation down there.  There are cities.  Completely destroyed unfortunately, but enough to make it obvious someone used to live there.”

“Sir, if there are cities, why didn't we find them before? Don't we conduct long range scans for things like that?” asked Fusilier Companyman Farrell.

“A good question...” replied Jack who started to continue.

“If I may, Commander?” interrupted Sergeant Hope.

“Of course,” said Jack sitting back into his seat.

Sergeant Hope smiled obligingly at Jack.  “Our deep space scans are designed to identify mineral deposits, I assume on this occasion it didn't pick up any.  Which begs the question: how could a people create cities without mineral resources to build with?”

“Very good Sergeant, I'm impressed,” said Jack, smiling.

“It was the only possible explanation,” she said smartly.  “We scan for minerals because a mineral rich planet is essential for advanced civilisation, and because we want any unclaimed raw material lying around.”

“Very good.  So, back to the matter-at-hand,” started Jack.  “We need to find and identify this energy source, we are not there for sight-seeing; that comes later.  This is the first evidence of intelligent life humankind has found, so we want to tread very carefully and check everything is safe first; you all know the protocols.”

“Yessir!” replied the two troopers.

“Good.  Now let's put those co-ordinates to use.”

Journeyman Octavian slid the data stick into the on-board computer and then turned to Jack.  “Ready to go Commander,” he said looking for Jack's command.

“Then let's go!” Jack replied.

Journeyman Octavian hit a button on the dashboard and the scout ship surged forward towards its destination.

It took about an hour of looking at nothingness through the portholes and engaging in meaningless conversation before they arrived.

At first sight the planet looked more like a moon: it was pocketed and was a grey-brown colour.  There was no sign of vegetation, but as they drew closer they could see signs of structures, or to be more precise, flat-topped pyramids, hundreds of them, littering the landscape.  They looked broken and worn.

“Will you look at that!” said Hope in wonder, as the scout ship arrived just a few hundred metres above the surface of the dead planet, just at the level of the highest pyramids.

“Quite... amazing...” said Jack slowly, trying to take it all in.

Out of the portholes they saw a sea of structures, of varying sizes.  The pyramids - or what was left of them - dominated the landscape, but there were also signs of smaller buildings, that could have been houses or apartment blocks, shops or markets.  They were all half or mostly destroyed, devoid of life and colour.

As they levelled out, Jack could see that the pyramids were all connected by walkways.  Most of them were destroyed, as were the pyramids; eroded over time, from the harsh elements that existed on the surface.  What happened to the atmosphere? Jack wondered to himself, there was no way a civilisation could live in this; it was barren and cold.

“Commander-sir, we're coming up on the co-ordinates.”

“Thank you Journeyman.  Find a nice place to land,” said Jack calmly.  “As close to X as possible if you please.”

“X, sir?”

“X marks the spot, doesn't it?” explained Jack in his best captain's voice.

“Right you are, sir.”  Journeyman Octavian didn't like wordplay, he liked directness, but he turned back to the controls and found a spot suitably close and safe enough to land.

“Right then, everyone suit up.  And bring explosives Fusilier, that's what you're here for.  This thing is underground, so we're going to need a bit of oomph to get to it,” ordered Jack before turning back to Octavian.  “Journeyman, you carry the tech box,” he added.  The tech box was officially known as the Scanning and Life Support Module, but Jack called it the tech box, because it was technical, and SaLSM wasn’t an easy acronym to pronounce.

Once everyone was suited-up the hatch was opened.  The gravity on the planet was very similar to earth, which made walking around in the suits heavy work.  However, not much light managed to get through the thick clouds that covered the planet, making it difficult to see too far ahead.

Hope held out her scanner in front of her.  “According to the readings there’s a structure just ahead, and it's right above our target.  It's just a bit further over that ridge,” she said, pointing and checking the readings at the same time.  “Maybe it houses the power source we’re looking for?”

“Very good Sergeant, off we go then,” replied Jack, who turned and started to lumber off towards the ridge that Hope had pointed to.

The rest of the crew followed, lumbering as well, heavy in their suits.  The dust from the planet floor billowed up in clouds as each foot impacted on the surface, causing a small sandstorm in the wake of the human crew.  They reached the top of the ridge and made their way down over the other side.  There in front of them, rising about one metre out of the ground, was a platform.  It was about the size of a tennis court, with the ruins of a small building in the middle; the building was about twice the height of Jack, and definitely not big enough for someone to live in.

“That's a bit small,” said Journeyman Octavian.

“Well,” said Jack kicking at the sides of the platform.  “Excuse the metaphor, but I think this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

“How do you mean?” asked Hope, a little confused.

“Well, look at the other pyramids we saw.  They all had flat tops.  And now look at this here?” said Jack pointing where the building stood.

“You mean this is the top of a pyramid?” said Hope.

“Looks like it,” said Jack strolling around the edges of the platform in front of them, he leaned over and knocked on the structure: it sounded solid enough.  “Well, let’s hope we don’t have too much trouble getting though that,” he said smiling.  “Right, Fusilier, I want just enough to blow a small hole on the top of the platform, what have you got for me?”

“Wait a second!” interrupted Hope.  “These are ancient ruins, you can’t just start blowing things up!  Don’t you realise how valuable this all is?”

“Sergeant, our mission is clear: investigate the power source.  That requires us getting inside of this structure.  Your objection is noted, but there are plenty of other ruins for the archaeologists to explore.  Now, please, Fusilier.”

Fusilier Companyman Farrell stepped forward, taking his pack off.  “Sir, four photonic mines attached to the sides of the building should do the trick.”

“Okay then, let's go, attach-away,” encouraged Jack.

Fusilier Farrell handed two of the mines to Journeyman Octavian and they climbed onto the platform and approached the building, then attached the charges to the sides.

“Here is the detonator sir, I suggest we stand back a bit,” said Fusilier Farrell as he jumped back off the platform and handed a small grey device to Jack.

“Okay, everyone back behind those rocks over there,” said Jack, pointing to a tall pile of rocks about fifty metres away.  Once they were there, Jack put the detonator into the palm of his hand.  “Is everyone ready?” he asked, and he looked around to see three nodding helmets.

Jack pushed the button.

There was a loud explosion, followed by the sound of air whooshing, and then the rocks they were standing behind started to shake.  Jack looked out from their hiding place and noticed the building was gone.  The next thing he noticed was that the area immediately around it was falling away, creating an ever-expanding hole. 

“Quick, behind the ridge!” Jack shouted, “This whole area's collapsing!” 

The crew all hurried as quickly as they could in the direction of the ridge.  Jack could hear the heavy breathing of the others through the comm, as they scrambled up the sandy banks.  As Jack reached the top he looked around. The hole had stopped growing, leaving a chasm about sixty metres across.  The sides of the chasm sloped down towards a dark hole that had replaced the top of the pyramid. 

“Okay, everyone, I think we're safe enough here,” he said, out of breath.

“What the hell happened?” asked Hope.

“I'm guessing that our pyramid is a bit more fragile than we realised,” he said looking at the Fusilier. “However, we're still here, and we definitely have a hole.”  Jack pointed down to where the top of the pyramid had been. 

The explosion had not only blown the house away, it had caused the top of the pyramid to collapse inwards.  The crew looked into the huge hole that had been left; they could see nothing but black where the top of the pyramid used to be, as the opening stretched down towards a bottom they couldn't see.

“How are we going to get down there?” said Fusilier Farrell.

They all looked down towards the hole, thinking.  Hope looked towards Jack, and saw a familiar smile on his face.  It was the type of smile that usually meant he just had an idea that she would think was stupid.  And she had an inkling what it was as well.

“No!” she said without hesitation.

“Oh, come on,” replied Jack smiling, “it'll easily fit.”

“What'll easily fit sir?” asked Fusilier Farrell.

“He wants us to fly the scout ship down there,” said Hope pointing at the hole.  “Come on Commander, we've seen how unstable it is!”

Journeyman Octavian looked down, studying the dimensions of the opening. “I could do that,” he said confidently.

“Good man,” said Jack triumphantly, “Come on then, let's go.”  And off he lumbered towards the ship, ignoring the disapproving look on Hope's face.  The rest of the team followed behind.  Hope took a last look at the hole before she followed, “You better be right about this, Jack,” she said.

“Of course I am, I'm always right,” came the cheery reply over the comm.

Once they were back in the scout ship, unsuited and in their seats, and after Hope had exchanged uncertain glances with Fusilier Farrell, Journeyman Octavian started the engines and moved the craft forwards towards the opening. 

As they hovered above it, Fusilier Farrell looked out of the viewport.  “It looks like a huge mouth, waiting to swallow us all up,” he remarked, with a hint of sinister drama in his voice.

Journeyman Octavian laughed nervously.

“That's enough metaphor for the time being, thank you Fusilier,” said Hope sternly.

Jack said nothing.  He wasn't sure if it was excitement, or fear, but as the scout ship slowly lowered into the pyramid, there was something in the pit of his stomach that made him feel uneasy.  But he wasn't going to let the crew know that.

“Journeyman, how many metres to the bottom?” asked Jack abruptly.

“Two hundred and fifty, sir.”

“Okay, then.  Take us down slowly.  And let's have some lights on shall we?”

“Yes sir,” replied Journeyman Octavian, as he flicked a switch on the dashboard.  An array of lights came on and banished the darkness around them.

“That's better,” said Jack, as he rushed between the portholes on both sides of the cabin, eagerly trying to get a better look at what they were lowering themselves into.  As they descended, the walls grew further apart, until they could see a square floor at the bottom. 

“Ten metres,” announced Journeyman Octavian.

“Take her in slowly, Journeyman; we don't know how firm that ground is,” said Hope betraying a hint of worry in her voice.  It was her ability to worry and see dangers where Jack could not that had saved their lives so many times before.

“Five metres.”

Yet no matter how many crazy ideas he got into his head, she always seemed to be the first to follow at his heels; racing off into the unknown after him...

“Two metres.”

...battling space pirates...

“One metre.”

...navigating asteroid storms...

“And we've landed.”

... And now this, whatever this was.

It was cold outside.  According to the scout ship's on-board computer it was minus eighteen degrees celsius.  Up above, the hole they came through appeared like a large skylight.  It was bright compared to the blackness that shrouded the depths of the pyramid.

When the hatch opened and the suited-up crew stepped out, Jack organised the team: Journeyman Octavian set up ground lights in a circle around the scout ship; Fusilier Companyman Farrell turned on the tech box and initiated a scan of the area; and Hope helped Jack set up a containment field around the ship, just in case anything should go wrong.  The idea being, that in the event that the pyramid collapsed in on top of them, they would be protected.  As long as they were actually in the containment field at the time of collapse.  Something that Hope had repeatedly pointed out whilst they were programming the specs into the containment-wave generator.

“Commander-sir, I think I've found something,” called out Fusilier Farrell suddenly.  Jack and Hope ran over to where he was reading the monitor on top of the tech box.

“What is it?” said Jack hastily.

“There is some sort of metal object at the far side of this pyramid.  I'm reading an energy signature coming from the same area.”

“That must be our object!” said Jack, looking over into the darkness.

The area at the base of the pyramid was huge, too large for their lights to cover completely.  In fact only about half of the area was visible at all.  Jack turned on the light attached to the sleeve of his suit and headed off in the direction of the metal object.  The team followed behind, in single file, each of them wary of the darkness around them, each of them expecting some alien creature to come lolloping out of the black towards them at any second.

Jack was focused on what was ahead.  He wasn't worried about the darkness encroaching in on them.  He knew to keep his mind on the job; and what a wonderful job it was too!

After a minute of walking through the black open space, Jack's light found something.

“That looks like a ship?” said Hope excitedly.

“It certainly does,” replied Jack. “Troopers, set up some lights,” he ordered.

Whilst Journeyman Octavian and Fusilier Companyman Farrell were placing small ground lights in a circle around the ship, Jack and Hope examined what they could see.  It was about three times bigger than the scout ship, wide as well as long.  It had slender wings and a set of five small thrusters on each side of the craft under each wing.  It was coloured white and gold, with three symbols written on the sides in red. The technology was definitely alien:  the thrusters were obviously thrusters, but they didn't resemble anything that Jack had ever seen in his adventure-laced life.

“Nice looking filly,” said Jack appreciatively.

“And remarkably well preserved,” said Hope.

“It’s the low oxygen levels, not much to eat away at her,” Jack replied.

“How long do you think she's been down here?”

“No idea,” replied Jack shrugging his shoulders.  “The state of the planet tells a different story from the state of this vessel,” he said gesturing towards the ship.

“The power source is definitely coming from inside, sir,” confirmed Fusilier Farrell checking the tech box again.

“Right, let's find a way in then shall we?”

“Sir,” said Fusilier Farrell suddenly, “according to these readings, there are normal oxygen levels inside the vessel.”

“Well that's good news, means stale air for everyone,” said Jack. “But then it does complicate the matter of us getting in there in the first place,” he continued.  “After all, we don't want to let all that air out, working without these suits on would make life a lot easier once we're inside.”  He looked at the area around the ship, studying it.  “There has to be a way in somehow,” he mused to himself. “Right, everyone spread out, look for a door of some kind,” he ordered his crew.

It was Hope that eventually found the handprint on the side of the vessel.  It was the shape of a humanoid hand.  Not that much different from her own or Jack's.  She reached out and placed her hand over the imprint on the side of the ship.  There was a low rumbling sound.

“Who did what?” shouted Jack from the other side of the ship.

“That was me,” shouted Hope.  The rumbling continued for a second, and then a small section on the side slid opened, leaving an open entrance into the ship.

It took Jack and the two troopers less than a few second to arrive at Hope's side.

“What did you do?” asked Jack quickly.

“There was a picture of a hand, so I placed my hand over it.  I'm not sure why,” she said with a look on her face as if she was trying to figure out what had just happened.

“Well, at least we found the door,” said Jack, “But let's try not to touch too much else.  That goes for everyone.  Especially me,” he ordered.

Jack walked forwards.  His crew were close at his shoulder. He arrived at the door and peered through the open space to the inside of the ship.

“Fusilier, are you sure there's air inside?” asked Jack uncertainly.

“Yes sir.  There seems to be some sort of containment field around that opening that's keeping it in.”

“That's very handy,” said Jack, and he very carefully reached out a hand and put it through the opening; a blue field crackled around the hand as he submerged it into the ship.  Jack looked at Hope, and then stepped all the way through.  His crew watched as Jack turned around and faced them from the inside of the ship, and then carefully took his helmet off.  After a moment when everyone held their breath, whilst watching Jack face certain death if Fusilier Farrell was wrong, Jack took a deep lung-full of air.  “It's fine,” he declared, breathing out.  “Come on in; all of you.” 

The crew slowly moved through the opening and into the darkness inside the ship.  Journeyman Octavian brought up the rear, and as he climbed through the opening there was another rumbling sound, and the section of door slid back across the opening and the entrance disappeared. 

Then lights started coming on.

“Well... seems we've found our power source!” said Jack.  “Right, everyone on your toes, let's have a look around.” 

The entrance they had come through led into a corridor, which they now followed.  The corridor had obviously been white once, but was now a faded grey.  There were symbols on the walls which none of them understood. 

“Look at this,” said Journeyman Octavian, as he waved the others over.  “Looks like some sort of terminal, it still has power, look, the lights are on!”

“Don't touch it!” said Jack as he appeared at the Journeyman's side.  “We have no idea what any of these buttons do. Pushing buttons is what scientists do: finding the main control room, taking a few readings and then getting the hell out of here, that's what we do, okay?” 

Journeyman Octavian nodded obediently.

They moved carefully further down the corridor until they came to another door.  It slid open automatically as they approached, revealing a room which looked like the control centre of the ship.  The room contained a large computer terminal at its centre, with two smaller terminals on either side.  There were four seats around each terminal, and blue, green and white lights blinked and flickered all around them.

“I'm guessing this is the bridge,” said Jack.  “Fusilier Farrell, let's get that tech box on and start running those scans.  Faraday will definitely want a look at this ship.”

“But sir, according to the readings, this ship is not the power source that was identified,” said Fusilier Farrell.

“What do you mean?” asked Jack surprised.

“Well, according to these readings,” the trooper continued.  “The power source we're looking for is not the ship itself, but something on the other side of that door over there,” he said pointing to the far side of the room.

Jack looked over to where the Fusilier was pointing.

“You mean there is something on the other side of that door that is giving off a stronger energy signature that the ship itself?” said Hope, her voice heavy with doubt.

“That's what the readings say, Sergeant,” confirmed Fusilier Farrell.

Suddenly there was a loud bang from the top of the ship.  Everyone looked up, wide-eyed.

“What was that?” said Journeyman Octavian, more than a little startled.

Jack looked at Hope. “Fusilier, just checking, but you have scanned for life readings haven't you?” he said.

“Of course, sir,” said Fusilier Farrell.  “But then technically this device only scans for human life readings.  Not sure if alien would come up, sir.”

“Okay, that doesn’t make me feel any better.  But it was probably part of the pyramid falling down,” sighed Jack looking upwards.  “Let's hope it holds.” He then looked over to Hope and smiled invitingly.  “Shall we go and try this door then?”

“Age before beauty, sir,” said Hope gesturing towards the door.  Jack raised his eyebrows, but then decided not to argue. He looked towards Farrell and Octavian.  “You two stay here and finish the scans on the ship.  Whether the ship is the power source or not, this is still the first vessel of alien origin that mankind has ever encountered - well, officially anyway - so I intend to run as many scans as possible.”

The two troopers nodded. 

Jack moved towards the door, close enough to trigger the automatic opening mechanism, and the door slid open.  Inside was a room a little bit smaller than the bridge.  It was dimly lit.  There were consoles arranged in a circle, and inside the circle a large bulb-shaped device hanging down from the ceiling, glowing blue.

“Well, that looks interesting!” said Jack looking at the device.  “I wonder what it does?”  He started walking around the room, studying the bulb shape closely.

“There are more hand prints over here, on these consoles,” said Hope, as she looked down at the screen in front of her.

Jack looked at the consoles in front of where he was standing.  Right enough, there they were; one hand print on each console.

“Is this one for the scientists? Or can I try it and see what it does?” humoured Hope, looking over to where Jack was studying the console in front of him.

“Maybe I should be the one to try this time,” he said looking down at the red outline of a hand that was imprinted on the screen.  There was something about the hand print that was... well... he felt like it was reaching out to him.

“Um, but I thought we weren't to touch anything,” said Hope.  “I was only kidding around.”  She then noticed the glazed look on Jack's face.

“Are you okay Jack?” 

Jack continued staring at the screen.

“Commander, are you okay?” she said louder. 

Jack slowly lifted his arm and started to place his hand on the console.

“Commander, what are you doing?” shouted Hope with a touch of panic in her voice, and she started towards him.

Jack placed his hand firmly on the console.  There was a whirring sound and suddenly a green beam of light shone out from the bulb-like device in the middle of the room and onto his forehead.

Jack's body stiffened.  He felt like he was sinking, or maybe falling, he wasn't sure which; and he only very faintly heard Hope shouting his name before the sound faded to a whisper, and then he saw a light rushing rushing rushing towards him.


Pilo

“Goodwin, get out of bed, breakfast is on the table!” shouted Pilo up the stairs to where his son was sleeping. “You've got school today!”

“Already up Papa,” said Goodwin as he bounced down the stairs to the main living room in their flat.

The flat was brightly coloured in yellows, oranges and browns.  Sunshine shone through the window, bathing the living area in warmth, and there was the smell of fresh baked bread in the air.  There was a table on one side of the room laid with two plates and two sets of cutlery, there were two chairs at the table and two glasses on top of it, filled with fresh red limba juice.

“What are you doing up so early?” said Pilo, surprised at the already-dressed appearance of his son.

“We have a field trip today, remember? We’re going to the Dandian falls!”

“Oh yes, sorry, I completely forgot,” said Pilo smiling.  He remembered his first school field trip to the Dandian falls: the largest waterfall on Batharok, it was higher than the highest pyramid.  He remembered getting in terrible trouble after throwing Merenith Ocsley's backpack into the falls.  He and his friends - who had egged him on - had all counted out loud, watching the bag descend, until they saw the splash at the bottom.  It took seven seconds; seven seconds whilst Merenith Ocsley stood there crying. They were only eight at the time, but all the same it made Pilo feel bad thinking back on it now.  Kids could be really mean.  He had however been punished quite harshly by his father: grounded for one whole month.  Not even allowed to see his friends after school.  Thinking about it, parents could be pretty mean too.

“You behave yourself,” said Pilo to his son warmly.

“I always behave myself,” beamed Goodwin at his father.

“Do you now?” replied Pilo poking his son playfully.  “I'm not so sure about that.”

“Very funny Papa,” said Goodwin wriggling away and sitting down at the table.

“I'm only joking; you're a good boy Goodwin,” smiled Pilo ruffling his son's hair, to the annoyance of the recipient. “Now do you want Ofrah berry jam or cheese on your bread?” Pilo asked.

“What sort of cheese?”

“Soft cheese, from Soth milk.”

“Has it got bits in?”

“No it hasn't got bits in!” replied Pilo, studying the cheese.

“Okay then, I'll have the berries.”

“Good, in which case so will I.”

Pilo took the warm bread out of the oven and split it in half.  He spread the Ofrah berry jam over the bread and placed the halves on the two plates at the table.  He sat down and turned to look at his son.

“Did we say good morning?” he said smiling.

Goodwin chuckled.  “Silly Papa,” he said as and he took a large bite out of his bread, leaving evidence of blue Ofrah berry jam all around his mouth.

Once they had finished their breakfast and Goodwin had washed the jam off his face.  Pilo picked up his son's bag and handed it to him.

“You have everything you need?” he asked.

“I think so, apart from....” Goodwin looked at his father and winced.

“You want some money I assume?” said Pilo, with a look of mock seriousness on his face.  He took a card from out of his pocket and handed it to his son.

“I transferred some credits onto this card for you, now have a good day.”

“So you did remember I was going today?” smiled Goodwin at his father, as he took the payment card and slipped it into his bag.

“Well, I am your father; I am supposed to remember these things.”

“Thanks Papa.”  Goodwin gave his father a big hug and then headed towards the door.  In less than a second the door was open and Goodwin was stepping through into the sunshine.

“Whatever you do don't throw anyone's backpack into the falls,” shouted his father after him.

“Silly Papa,” smiled Goodwin back at his father as the door closed behind him.

Pilo sighed, and thought warmly about his six-year-old son.  It had been two years since the boy's mother had died in the accident; the accident that had changed their lives.  She had been coming home on a transport shuttle from Gesch.  She had friends there that she had been visiting, the Golfons: Feath and Krisk.  It was something she did every now and again.  After they had been joined, and then opened a shop in Aluzarah, she didn't get to see her friends as much as she did when they were at college in Gesch.  In any case the journey took only a few hours.  However on that occasion, the pilot had been drinking; apparently he had his own personal problems and shouldn't have been flying that particular night anyway - at least that's what they said at the inquest.  They were so nearly home as well.  Only ten minutes away; and then the ship crashed into the side of the Pyramid of Gotha.  Twenty-three people dead.  And she was one of them.

Pilo snapped himself out of it.  He had promised himself he wouldn't dwell on the past.  It was the future that mattered.  His son's future most of all.  He was such a good boy.  Always trying to do his best.  Even though deep down he was as much of a dreamer as Pilo had been when he was that age.

Pilo looked at the clock and realised he was short on time.  The shop had to be open in a few minutes and he hadn't cleaned the breakfast things away.  He quickly tidied up and then headed next door, where his shop was located.

Pilo Jerritor was a dream merchant.  It was a family business his great grandfather had started, once thought-technology had been developed.  The biggest technological breakthrough for generations, the media had called it.  Essentially they had discovered how to record thought, just like previous generations had discovered how to record sound.  Pilo wasn't too much up on the science, but it was discovered that thought could be transmitted via thought-waves, just like sound is transmitted via sound-waves; the only difference being that the Batharokians didn't have the organs required to read such waves, not like they had ears to hear sound.  So they invented one.  In two generation the technology had become an essential part of Batharokian life.  It was used to control every mechanical device: using a small wavelength transmitter that clipped comfortably onto the ear, and a thought-wave receiver on the device, the Batharokians could operate anything mechanical just by thinking about it.  And not only that!  A person's experiences could be recorded and played back through another person's cortical structures on an instrument called an Electrochemical Signal Capture Device, or Mind-Readers as they were more commonly known.  A whole industry had built up around the production of readings, as the recordings had come to be called.  It was big business.  Anything from actors playing parts in a play, to stunt men riding Gretjak bikes over the Gruffko sand waves, could be recorded and then replayed in the mind of another person.  And that person would feel those moments exactly as if they had lived them themselves; and what's more, they would learn from the experience.  In fact there were people who had learned to become pilots, just by experiencing a reading of flying an aircraft over a period of a few hours.

Of course, something so potent could easily get out of hand.  And it had done.  Which resulted in regulations, and plenty of them.  Only licensed merchants could trade, and even fewer were allowed to own a mind-reader recording device.  But Pilo was allowed to do both. 

Pilo specialized in selling dreams.  Which proved to be a challenge for his great-grandfather when he first started the business.  Not everyone liked the abstract nature of dream readings.  It was more to a connoisseur’s taste; hence they fetched a higher price than most other genres of reading.  But that wasn’t Pilo's only trade: he was also able to record dreams as well.  It was almost unheard of for a private individual to own a mind-reader recording device; it required jumping through fiery hoops and fighting vicious animals to get the proper permissions and licenses - metaphorically speaking of course.  But Pilo's great-grandfather had pioneered the first dream readings, and the mind-reader he had built to record those first dreams had eventually passed onto Pilo.  Each Jerritor male that had possessed the device had added to it, and improved the device.  In fact the mind-reader that now belonged to Pilo, that had passed through his family for three generations, was just as cutting edge as anything that the big studios owned.

Pilo's shop was cluttered with shelves and bookcases, which he used to display the dream-readings he had on sale.  He kept his shop clean, and there was a fresh smell in the air and a homely feel to the place.  However the place was never crowded; the general public preferred linear based readings, ones that would give them a burst of adrenalin, rather than a reading that would make them think too much.  It was nice to re-live an old memory as well, or play the part of the hero or lover in a staged reading.  And Pilo was all for apprentices learning their trade from mind-readings of experienced professionals doing the job; it helped them learn quicker and more thoroughly than they did in the old days; that much was clear.  But when you experienced dreams you learned about people: you learned what drives them, what makes them happy, and what makes them sad.  It could be both beautiful in its simplicity, and at the same time heavy in complexity and meaning.  For Pilo it was the highest form of its medium.

Pilo cleaned the shop as he did every day, making sure all the monitors were clear as new glass.  He even had time to check his accounts before his first customer arrived in the store. Pilo spent a lot of time talking to his customers.  Generally speaking, those that came into the shop liked to discuss the readings they had purchased.  And so Pilo made sure he reviewed every piece of merchandise before it went on sale.  Not only to ensure the material wasn't too disturbing, but also so he could engage his customers in discussing their analysis of certain dreams.  Pilo always thought it was what kept his shop popular.

Pilo had eight other customers that morning.  All of them bought something, which made that a very good morning.  He had felt he had earned his midday meal.  He locked the shop up and made his way back into the flat.  It was going to be the usual routine.  A quick bite to eat, and then he'd relax for a moment with a reading.  It was always a memory of his lost wife that he used as an escape.  He had spent time recording all that he could suck out of his brain after she had gone.  Their honeymoon night was his favourite, but he really only reserved that for special occasions.  The night they first met at the Aritor family summer ball in Gesch was also a special one; or that afternoon when they just lay in each other’s arms and watched the leaves fall from the tall Valder trees in the summer forests of Tor.  Yes that would do nicely.  Tor it would be, he thought, but first something to eat.

Pilo made himself a roast Quirl sandwich, which he ate sitting on his balcony watching the world go by.  The sky was a clear green and there was a light breeze in the air.  It had only been yesterday that Goodwin had asked him why the sky was green.  He had laughed.  It was one of those cliché questions parents always expected to get from their children.  In fact Pilo had even looked it up, years ago, just to be prepared for that moment.  Then when the moment came, he was proudly able to explain it was due to a particular particle in the atmosphere that made the other atmospheric gases appear green, and that on most planets the sky was blue, or yellow.  It was also because of the green sky that vegetation on Batharok turned red during photosynthesis.  However, he had cursed himself, because he had forgotten the name of the particle, and he had especially looked it up beforehand.  But Goodwin was still impressed at what he did remember.

As he finished his sandwich, Pilo watched transport shuttles carrying people high above the tree-lined street where he lived, humming as they floated through the sky.  Shops and apartment blocks lined each side of the street, and the bustle of a hundred people, each finding their own unique way in the world, brought the street to life. 

And the pyramids towered above them all. 

The pyramids were reserved for the nobles.  Pilo was always amazed at the thought that they were mostly hollow inside; except the few originals that had survived the Great AI War.  Those were filled with chambers and different levels, but were mostly used as political buildings now: Pilo had always thought they'd make better museums.  The newer pyramids were held together by force-field technology, and the nobles lived in mansions on their flat tops.  Pilo remembered being a boy and looking up, wondering if he would ever live at the top of one of the pyramids.  Although it was a life of luxury, he knew the nobles had their troubles just like everyone who lived in their shadow.  Pilo knew this, as some of his customers were nobles.  Anyway, Pilo didn't need a pyramid; he had everything he needed to be happy. Well - everything except her.  And with that thought he headed towards the room where he kept his mind-reader.  He took out the reading with The Forests of Tor written on it, set up the device in front of him, then placed his hand on the activation control, and waited for the green light.

When reality seeped back into his brain he realised there was a loud knocking sound coming from the shop.  Someone was banging on the door.

Pilo quickly got up.  “Alright! I'm coming!” he shouted, as he tried to find where he had put the keys to the shop.  Once he realized they were still in his pocket he headed next door to see what all the banging was about.

The shop was connected to the flat though a side door, and as Pilo came through it, he saw two men standing at the entrance to the shop.  The bigger one was banging with his fist on the doorframe.

“Alright! Hold you're ippos, no need to break it down,” said Pilo rushing to the door.  As he fumbled with his keys he glanced at the two men, who were now watching him intensely.  He didn't like the look of them; they both wore black and red, and didn't smile.  His customers usually smiled.

“I am sorry, I was just closed for lunch,” said Pilo trying to seem as welcoming as possible.  It was always good to be nice to strangers, especially ones bigger than yourself.

The two men stepped into the shop, looking around at the shelves and monitors that edged the room.  They didn't look at Pilo, and they didn't speak; they just kept looking around.

“Is there anything particular I can help you with?” asked Pilo humbly.

“Actually there is,” announced the larger of the men in a booming voice. 

Both men advanced on Pilo and stood in front of him.

“We're to understand that you have a mind-reading recorder on the premises,” said the smaller man.  His eyes scanned Pilo up and down.  They were dark and were fringed with unkempt black eyebrows.  He had chiselled features and a scar along one side of his face.  He didn't look the sort of chap one would want to bump into on a dark night in Velderes.  And Pilo didn't like that he was asking about his mind-reader.

“Well - yes I have,” he replied.  “But it's fully licensed! I have the papers over here if you want to see them.” Pilo hoped that they were here just checking he had a license.

“We are not here about your license,” the smaller man said as Pilo's expression sagged slightly.  “We are here representing the interests of Rubius Bannepal.”

Pilo knew that name.  He had seen it in the news, he was sure, but for the life of him he couldn't remember exactly why. “And how can I be of assistance to Mr Bannepal?” asked Pilo politely.

“He wants to know about your mind-reading recorder,” boomed the bigger man.

“Or to be more precise he wants to know if he can use it,” finished his smaller companion.

“Use it?” Pilo cried, moving his glance from one man to the other.  No one was allowed to use his great-grandfather's mind-reader apart from him.  “Can I ask what he wants to use it for?” he asked, trying to calm the little person inside his head that was screaming No!

“That would be private,” replied the smaller man firmly. “However you will be handsomely compensated for your discretion in this matter,” he added.

Pilo looked at both men for a second, and then in an apologetic voice said, “I am very sorry gentleman, but I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to hire out the device.  Maybe Mr Bannepal is not aware that there are quite strict regulations concerning its usage.”

The larger man looked at Pilo threateningly.

“Mr Bannepal is quite aware of the regulations,” said the smaller man, appearing a little irritated.  “However, he is of the opinion that the regulations are rather unfair.  In as much as they do not allow him to own one.”

“Ah, well, there are reasons for that, as I'm sure Mr Bannepal would already know,” said Pilo.

“Yes, of course,” the smile that appeared on the smaller man's face worried Pilo. “However, Mr Bannepal is willing to offer very agreeable terms, in the region of a hundred thousand credits?” the smaller man said quizzically, looking for any change in the expression on Pilo's face.

“A hundred thousand credits?”  Pilo was astounded.  “He must want it really badly if he's willing to pay that much!”

“He does!” boomed the bigger man sternly. Pilo suddenly wished he hadn't said his last sentence.

The smaller man then quite unexpectedly looked at his watch, then looked at the bigger man, and signalled towards the door with a nod.  The bigger man walked over to the door and stood by it. 

“Mr Jerritor,” the smaller man turned his attention back to Pilo. “Mr Bannepal is willing to show his generosity by allowing you to mull over his proposal for an evening.  He would also like to apologise for the imposing manner he has chosen to deliver this proposal, but would like to make it clear that this is just a reflection of how seriously he would like you to consider his offer.  We must now be going,” he said turning to leave.  “But I do hope I have made myself clear, Mr Jerritor.”

“Um, yes, thank you.  I'll think it over,” Pilo stuttered as he held the door for them.

“Thank you for your custom!” he shouted after them, trying to feign the departure of two genuine customers for the benefit of his nosey neighbours.  “Come again anytime,” he waved, a little over-dramatically.  Maybe I'm laying it on a bit thick now, he thought, and he stopped.  He ducked back into his shop before he attracted any suspicion from his ham-acting display, and closed the door behind him.

Once he had pulled himself together he sat down in the chair behind his desk and poured himself a glass of Grondy - the one he reserved for his preferred customers - and took a large swig.  The blue liquid burned his throat and warmed his soul at the same time, and he felt a bit better.  But they would be back tomorrow, and Pilo was worried about refusing them.  On the other hand, if he accepted, people would wonder where all the money had come from.  But then, it wasn't as if he and Goodwin didn't deserve it, after everything they had been through over the last few years.  He wasn't even sure who Rubius Bannepal was anyway.  He could be an honest man for all Pilo knew.  The sinister manner of his approach didn't necessarily mean he had sinister intentions did it?  Pilo wondered.  What would happen if he said no?  He dreaded to think.  He doubted the men would just take it calmly, say thank you for your time Mr Jerritor, and then disappear out of his life forever.  Anyway, he had the rest of the evening to think about it, and he still had a few hours before the shop was due to close.  And no sooner had he opened up the shop again than a customer walked in, inquiring about Golanthian night dreams.


Triniffer

She promised herself this would be the last time.  But she had said that the time before as well.  What the hell, she thought to herself.  If there was one thing she found hard to resist it was this: a Hathrod pastry.  It was basically honey and red berries wrapped in a butter pastry.  To have one for breakfast was simply sublime: it set her up, mentally and physically, for the entire day.  She needed plenty of energy doing what she did, and the sugar in the pastry provided just what her body needed; at least that's what she told herself.  Her doctor wouldn’t agree of course, but then he was a grumpy old so-and-so sometimes.

Triniffer worked as an administrator for the Planetary Network Service, or PNS.  The Great Pyramid of Aluzarah was her place of work.  It was one of the oldest pyramids on the planet, but looked just as well maintained as some of the more modern structures; and even more magnificent, so Triniffer thought.  It had been restored remarkably well after the Great AI War.  The old royal chambers had been refurbished and converted into more office-like spaces, and the whole structure had been reinforced with carbon nano-fibres.  Its function now was to house one of the three largest computer cores on the planet: THUSS - The Holographic Urban Support System; each of the three great nations of Batharok had one. 

THUSS was built to provide society with what it needed to thrive: it kept the city lit when it was dark, ran hospitals and emergency services, monitored the streets for illegal behaviour, and dispatched the security services when it found any.  It could predict the weather months in advance, which it did with pinpoint accuracy - not that the weather systems changed that much, due to the unchanging seasons on Batharok – but it was very good at it all the same.  THUSS was also one of the three data warehouses for the Planetary Information Pool, or Network, as it was commonly called - Batharok's own global computer web - which held every piece of information anyone had ever entered into a computer.  It was a powerful tool.  And one that brought a great deal of responsibility for its guardians.  Triniffer was one of those guardians.

Mostly her days were spent listening to requests from scientists wanting to use the central core interface to help them with their own pet projects.  This would give them access to the most powerful data processors on the planet.  But the problem was that everyone wanted to use it, the military most of all, and they didn't always ask beforehand.

In the past it was a lot easier to get THUSS-time, there was no real control over what people used it for.  But after The Black-out - when one poor soul managed to corrupt the THUSS network with their own malignant programme - it was decided that certain controls were required.  It was then that the guardians where set up, to review proposals and grant permissions.  Of course, there were powerful computers elsewhere, but nothing like THUSS.  THUSS already had so much information stored in her data warehouse, that what would take weeks of experiments and calculations in a normal lab would take THUSS a minute to complete.  It therefore had certain advantages with regards to efficiency; scientists needn't slave away for years anymore in cluttered laboratories, instead they could focus their efforts on trying to get THUSS-time. 

Triniffer always thought the holographic interface was the most impressive part.  She was the nearest thing to artificial intelligence that was allowed.  After the Great AI War, artificial intelligence had been banned.  It became accepted that true artificial intelligence contradicted the universally acknowledged three laws of robotics.  In fact the end of the Great AI War was almost entirely a robotic war, fought between the mega-computers of the three great nations of Batharok.  The conflict became a stalemate, and then the network started taking human hostages; that was when everyone realised it had to be stopped.  It had not been easy to do, and three billion people lost their lives.  But they did succeed.  And after it was over, each of the three great nations signed a universal accord to ensure it never happened again.  However certain restrictions were relaxed for the THUSS systems, due to the vital part they played in sustaining Batharokian society.  And this is where the guardians came in, they not only enforced access restrictions, they also maintained the systems: cleaning up corrupted data fragments and keeping the morality nodes aligned.  It was a tough job, but with a Hathrod Pastry in her hand, Triniffer felt she could take on anything.

The Great Pyramid of Aluzarah was about five hundred metres high.  Triniffer could see JubJub birds perched on the top, in their usual place, sitting at the edge of where the roof met the slope.  The sun lit up the side of the pyramid, making it look golden, and there was the smell of morning in the air.  The clear green sky looked calm, and promised a warm day to come.  Triniffer looked up to the picture in front of her and smiled: the way the sun-bathed pyramid contrasted against the emerald hue of the sky was quite beautiful to behold, she thought.  Although the JubJub birds did look a bit restless, she hoped they hadn't spotted her pastry.

Triniffer entered the Great Pyramid, just like she did every day, and made her way through ornately decorated corridors to her chambers.  Her chambers had once been the bedrooms of Iku-Hateh the third; who had been the emperor of Aluzarah a thousand years ago.  They were large, with high ceilings.  One half of the main room was raised half a metre higher than the other half.  Triniffer had always liked this, and she had placed her desk on the higher section deliberately.  It made her look very imposing to anyone who entered the guardian's chambers from the door at the far end; and imposing was always a good quality for a guardian to possess.

As she sat down at her desk, her assistant Kroll appeared.  She had already prepared that morning's briefs and had loaded them onto a think-pad, which she now handed to Triniffer.

“Thank you Kroll, and good morning,” said Triniffer cheerfully, as she took the think-pad from her outstretched hand.

“Good morning Guardian, I trust you rested well,” answered Kroll.

“Well as can be expected,” Triniffer nonchalantly answered, whilst she scanned that day's agenda. “Oh not him again,” she said suddenly.  “I thought we had got rid of him?”

“Beg your pardon, Guardian?” inquired Kroll politely.

“This Astro fellow.  He was here last week I'm sure.”

“That is correct.  And I believe you asked him to come back when he had a better argument for the value of his research to society,” said Kroll raising her eyebrows.

“And that's what he's here for is it?” asked Triniffer glumly. 

“I'm afraid so, Guardian.”

Triniffer sighed.  It had promised to be such a nice day as well. “Just because he's the son of an Aritor, he thinks he can do what he wants,” she betrayed a slight hint of annoyance.

“He's not like that Guardian, he's just young.  And maybe a bit too keen to make a difference,” said Kroll calmly.

Triniffer looked up from the agenda at Kroll.  Kroll was from the planet Dreken, which lay a mere twenty light years away.  She had the pale blue skin and black hair that was synonymous of the Dreken people; a people who were known throughout the civilised galaxy to have highly developed organisational skills, and the most amazing attribute of being able to recall everything they had ever seen-heard-touched-smelled-tasted.  Kroll's bright green eyes looked back at Triniffer.

“Maybe you're right,” said Triniffer blankly. 

Kroll never forgot a word she said.  Which had both its benefits and disadvantages; as Triniffer discovered on a daily basis.

Triniffer dressed into her robes of office.  The guardians’ robes were red, trimmed with white.  They had the Planetary Network Service symbol on the front, which was a sun in the centre of two larger crescent-moons.  The same symbol was on the front of the cap she wore, which was a long affair, the tail of which reached halfway down her back.

Once she was ready, Kroll accompanied her out of the chambers and towards the Circle Chamber.

“Did you manage to find the ruins you were looking for?” asked Triniffer as they walked.

“Yes Guardian,” replied Kroll.

“And?”

“And it was very interesting,” replied Kroll, giving away nothing.

“I see.  Is that all you're going to tell me?” said Triniffer trying to prize more out of the Dreken woman.

“Yes Guardian.”

“Ha!” cried Triniffer.  “So you're more than happy to accept my help in finding the location of this lost Dreken settlement, but you're not going to tell me what you found?  That's gratitude!” she joked.

“Yes Guardian,” replied Kroll blankly.  “You are more than welcome to read about my findings once they are published.”

“Which I will do with glee,” smiled Triniffer as they came to the door of the Circle Chamber.  The door slid open and they stepped in.

The Circle Chamber was huge.  As its name suggested it was a circular room, decorated with a mural that ran along the walls.  The mural told the story of the first interplanetary war, which ended with the treaty of Korthash and the establishment of the Galactic court on Planet Legat; that was three hundred years ago.  The ceiling of the chamber was about a hundred metres from the ground, and protruding from the centre was a huge stone sword with a black blade, reaching down almost fifty metres.  It gave those standing in the centre of the room a certain uneasy feeling.  In the days of the old kings, the room had been used as a court of law.  There were terrible stories of the sort of justice that was practiced between these walls.  Triniffer preferred not to think about it. 

She watched as the herald banged his staff on the floor, and announced the entrance of the first petitioner for the day.  It was a biologist representing the University of Gesch, who were currently working on a terraforming project for the Planetary Council.  As far as Triniffer was concerned terraforming was the way for the future.  It alleviated social problems such as overcrowding and the burden on the food supply. 

To date terraforming had been successful on-world.  They had turned the deserts of Urhesh into lush pastures.  In fact the berries Triniffer had eaten that morning had been grown there.  However the technology was only about a decade old and it had never been tried on a planetary scale.  But the Batharokians had the fortune of living in a solar system where an ideal candidate orbited only half a million kilometres further away from the sun - Batharok's sister in space, Vuhla; and Vuhla had an atmosphere.  In fact there were already settlements there.  But it was a dry desolate place, the air was thin, and it was hard to grow anything in the botanical tents they used; or so Triniffer was led to understand.  She had never been there herself of course. 

She didn't like space travel. 

Too many injections.

It was a worthy cause in any case, and Triniffer and her fellow guardians wasted no time in approving the request.  The biologist was then led away to another room where he would be provided with a notice of appointment, which would give him the date and time when he could return and begin his work.

Next in was the personal secretary of Wing-Commander Russ, Flight lieutenant Ofcar.  He was a tall man with short brown hair and symmetrical features.  His mouth was a straight line across his face, which made him look like he was always smiling.  He wore a green dress uniform with a blue sash, and under his arm he held his dress cap.  His blue knee-length boots matched the sash and they shined with regimental pride. 

Triniffer didn't like him. Despite his good looks and charm.

“Guardians of Thuss,” the military man started.  “I bring warm regards on this sunny Batharokian morning from Wing Commander Russ,” he creeped.

“Do you intend on petitioning for THUSS-time today Flight Lieutenant or are you here to inform us of when your men will be arriving?” said Olikar Zurb, one of Triniffer's fellow guardians.

Ofcar smiled to himself.  “My dear guardians.  As you well know, the projects that we are working on are classified.  As much as Wing Commander Russ would like to indulge your interests in our work, he simple cannot.  His hands are tied.”

“As are ours Flight Lieutenant.  We are required to review purpose, and authorise the individual use of THUSS for all non PNS personnel,” replied Triniffer.  “And to put your mind at ease, we are bound by law not to divulge any information that is spoken of in this Circle Chamber.”

“I understand that Guardian, and we have had this conversation before, if you remember,” said Ofcar sternly, before stating his ultimatum: “You know the Wing-Commander would take no pleasure from making a personal request to the ruling council, but if that is what he must do?”

“Yes yes, we've been through this before,” said Olikar waving his hand dismissively.  “But we will always stand opposed to the decision the council have taken,” he finished seriously.

“That as may be, oh true and honest guardians,” Ofcar said with a smile.  “But really, there is very little you can do about it.” 

He paused before finishing.

“I'll hand our notice of appointment to the booking secretary shall I?”  And with that he turned and walked out the same door that the biologist was led through, whilst each of the three guardians glared at him as he left.

“I really hate that man,” said Triniffer once they were alone again.

“Hatred will get you nowhere Triniffer,” said the third guardian, Kraytor Vark.

“Yes, but the man is an idiot.  You know it as well as I do.”

“Maybe.  But at the moment he has Russ and the council on his side.  Now, who’s next?” said Olikar looking down at the screen in front of him.  “Oh no, not him again, wasn't he here last week?”

Triniffer nodded her head in mock despair at Olikar and chuckled.

The thud of the herald's staff turned Triniffer's attention back towards the proceedings.  The three guardians watched closely as the door opened and a figure skipped though the entrance and towards the centre of the chamber.  He was of average height, but very skinny, which meant unless he was standing next to someone he looked tall.  His hair was a ruffled mess, but his eyes sparkled.  He was excited and fascinated about everything that was going on around him, and he always had something in his hands that he was studying.

“Ah, Mr Aritor. So nice to see you again,” said Kraytor mockingly.

“Yes, it's a wonderful day outside isn't it,” Astro answered. “Sun shining, birds singing, etcetera etcetera.”  He pointed a cylindrical blue object towards the sky and aimed a wide smile towards Triniffer and her companions.

Triniffer and Olikar stared at him blankly.  Ahh, the eccentric son of Aritor, thought Triniffer, only twenty-one and very nearly mad.  Most of the Aritor spawn had gone into the family business: mining, manufacture and technology research.  And mighty rich and powerful it made them too.  But not young Astro: he had a desire to save the world; he just wasn't sure how to go about it or which bit of it he wanted to save first. 

Triniffer had heard that his family allowed his eccentricities in the hope that he would develop a technique for successful inter-planetary mining.  They had even obtained the services of the polymath, Theshkar Havel, to be his mentor.  She couldn't deny Astro was brilliant, despite the crazy ideas he sometimes presented before them.  But he was a bit tiring.

“So, what gives us the pleasure of your presence here today,” asked Kraytor.

“Ice cream!” replied Astro.

“Ah,” said Kraytor lowering his head. “And I suppose you're back to tell us why this ice cream research is so valuable to society that it warrants half a day THUSS-time?”

“That's correct,” said Astro shuffling his feet and nodding vigorously.

The three guardians waited. 

Astro stared back at them.

Then after one of those moments that felt like a lifetime, he jumped up excitedly.  “Oh, you want me to begin?”

“Yes please,” said Triniffer blankly.

Astro straightened himself out as if getting ready for a long thought out speech, “So,” he sighed dramatically, “I can understand how you don't see the benefits, but you can’t deny that the proposal itself is fascinating,” he laughed nervously. “If I am correct, then the data that THUSS holds can validate my theory,” Astro looked up to the guardians, who were looking down seriously at him.

“Which is?” asked Triniffer.

“Which is,” hesitated Astro, “that people have a natural intuition towards changes in weather.  What I need to do is to correlate the exact times people have ordered or searched for ice cream on the Network, with meteorological data that I have collected.  I expect to see that people have been thinking about eating ice cream before the sun actually started to shine.  And further,” he continued, “the application of this technology can be stretched to so many other things,” he smiled desperately.

“Like what?” demanded Triniffer.

“Well, for example...”

...”Commander, can you hear me?” a voice shouted.

A sudden rush of blinding light thundered and Jack returned to reality.  He was being shaken.  It was Hope.


Jack

“Commander, can you hear me?” Hope shouted.

“Yes yes, I can hear you! Now, will you please stop shaking me,” Jack tried to wriggle free from her grasp.  What the hell just happened?  The names Pilo and Triniffer, and Astro and Batharok whirled around his head.  He didn't understand.  Hope let him go and helped him up.

“How long was I gone?” asked Jack as he started to feel like himself again.

“Gone? What do you mean gone?” answered Hope.  “You stupidly turned the device on, some sort of green light beamed onto your head and then I made a dive for you.  You didn't go anywhere!”

Jack shook his head.  “That can't be.  I've just seen...” he didn't know how to finish his sentence. 

Hope had a concerned look on her face.

Jack looked down at the screen in front of him. “That's odd,” he said.

“What?” replied Hope, looking at the alien symbols on the screen that Jake was tracing with his finger.

“I can understand these markings?” replied Jack blankly.

“Err.... how?” exclaimed Hope in surprise.

Jack didn't answer, but instead tapped at the screen in front of him. 

Hope suddenly grabbed his hands away from the screen. “What do you think you're doing?” she said anxiously.

“It's okay, don't worry. I know exactly what I'm doing!” Jack said trying to calm her.  He removed his hands from Hope's grasp and returned to tapping away at the screen.

Suddenly he laughed and grabbed Hope by the shoulders.

“This is wonderful,” he said, smiling.

“What is?” asked Hope, becoming even more confused.

“What we have here is a mind-reader.  In fact, one that used to belong to a certain Pilo Jerritor,” he laughed again, hardly believing it.

“Who?”

“Hope.  Please don't think I've gone mad, but what I'm about to tell you... well.... you won't believe it, but it's completely true.”

Hope's eyes widened.  She had never seen Jack like this.

“I feel like I have been away for nearly a day.  I've been living the memories of the people who used to live here.”

“But how...” Hope started.

“Let me finish before you bombard me with questions,” Jack smiled. 

He proceeded to describe every detail of what he had just experienced to Hope.  She was all wide-eyed attentiveness, and only once did they have to stop because Journeyman Octavian thought they were being a bit quiet and wondered if anything was wrong.  But Jack wasn't ready to tell anyone but Hope just yet, and then after that perhaps Faraday.

“How long until the scans are finished, Fusilier?” asked Jack, poking his head round the door and looking into the bridge.

“About half an hour, sir,” came the reply.

“We have half an hour,” said Jack to Hope, his voice full of excitement.  “I'm going back in.”

“You're what?” cried Hope, making to grab him.

“And I want you to come too!”

Hope shook her head. “No way mister,” she said definitely. “You won't get me in that thing, who knows what it does to your brain!”

It took about five minutes of convincing before Jack had Hope standing in front of one of the monitors.

“Now, remember what I said.  We both put our hands on the imprint at the same time.  On the count of three, okay?” said Jack excitedly.

“You better be right about this Jack,” said Hope anxiously.

“Of course I'm right, I'm always right, remember?” he smiled at Hope reassuringly. “Okay. Ready. One, Two, Three.”

Jack and Hope both saw a green light shoot out at them and their bodies stiffened.  They felt like they were sinking, or maybe falling, neither of them was sure which; and then they saw a light rushing rushing rushing towards them.


 Triniffer

“... insect repellent!” exclaimed Astro.

“Oh don't be ridiculous.” retorted Olikar, “We do not have any more time to play these games of yours, Mr Aritor.”

“Okay, it's somewhat zany I know, but please hear me out,” begged Astro.

“Go on then,” conceded Triniffer impatiently.

“Using the same theory, if I monitor Network searches for information about, or where to buy, insect repellent, we can tell when we're going to get a plague of those annoying little midge-flies that get everywhere!” he said triumphantly.

No one spoke for a moment. 

Triniffer was thinking of what to say without being too discouraging.

“I agree it is an interesting notion,” said Triniffer.  “But there is no obvious benefit in the validation or negation of your theory.”

Astro suddenly looked disappointed.

Triniffer continued. “Researching things that have no intrinsic benefit is of no real value to society.  Of course, discovery for the sake of discovery is fine, but the use of THUSS is reserved for those projects which, at the very least, have the potential to add to our society in a positive manner.”

“But I have many worth-while projects on the go, and I really don’t need much time,” pleaded Astro.  “I have been coming here trying to get a notice of appointment for a while now, and I did hope my determination would be rewarded by your generosity, even if nothing else did.”

“But you have yet to bring one petition before us that even comes close to the minimum requirements we seek before granting time with THUSS,” answered Triniffer.  “We can see that you are determined, and you have the potential to be a great benefit to the science community; but we need to see something less whimsical and more useful.  I trust you understand, Mr Aritor.”

Astro hung his head and shuffled his feet a bit more.  “Yes, I understand,” he said softly.  And then all of sudden brightening up, “But I'll be back though.  You can be sure of that,” he said smiling at them eagerly.

“And we will be glad to receive you.  As long as you remember what I have said,” warned Triniffer.

“Yes of course,” replied Astro humbly.  “I'll be going then,” he said pointing towards the door with the blue object in his hand.

“Just out of interest, what is that in your hand?” asked Kraytor, as Astro was halfway to the door.

Astro stopped and turned the blue object over, studying it.  “To be honest, I'm not entirely sure.  I think it is some kind of matter to energy converter.”

The three guardians nearly jumped out of the seats in astonishment.

“You're not being serious?” said Kraytor quickly.

“Actually, no, I'm not being serious,” smiled Astro. 

The guardians slumped back in their chairs.

“I've no idea what it is.” He turned it over in his hand. “I picked it up from a Dreken merchant at the bazaar.  Would you like a closer look?” he offered up the blue object towards the guardians.

“That's quite alright.  I was only curious,” said Kraytor dismissing Astro's outstretched hand.  “Please do not let us keep you any longer, Mr Aritor.  I'm sure you have much to do.”

“Yes, of course,” said Astro retracting his outstretched arm.  “I'll be off then.”  He turned his attention back to the blue object and walked out of the door.

“He'll be back in a week,” said Olikar gruffly.

“No doubt.  But we are obliged to listen to everyone who wishes to petition.  And I've got a feeling one day that boy will surprise us,” answered Triniffer thoughtfully.

Olikar laughed.  “Then your intuition is better than mine.  I see a bumbling buffoon.  Shall we move onto the next bit of business?”

Just as Olikar had finished speaking the chamber door opened and a council messenger burst into the room.

“Guardians, I have an urgent message from the ruling council.”

“Yes, what is it?” said Triniffer, concerned at the urgency of the man's tone.

“You are asked to attend an urgent meeting at the Pyramid of Sunsets,” said the man, out of breath.

“What has happened?” asked Kraytor, adding his concern to Triniffer's.

“I am afraid I am the bearer of bad news,” the messenger started.  “The ambassador for Dovakai has been assassinated.”


Astro

Astro didn't really notice the armed guards rushing around and issuing orders to each other as he left the Great Pyramid of Aluzarah.  He was studying a blue object that he was slowly turning around in his hands.  It was about twelve centre metres long, a bit thicker than a person's thumb, and had four different coloured buttons running up the length of the shaft.  At the end were three short prongs protruding from a coil of wire.  So far all Astro had managed to make it do was to produce a thin blue vein of electricity that shot from prong to prong, which he did often by pressing the red and yellow button simultaneously.  But the green and black buttons didn't seem to do anything.  Astro kept playing with it as he descended the steps of the pyramid.  Suddenly there was a hand on his shoulder.

“And how did it go?” asked Theshkar Havel.  He had accompanied his charge to see the guardians that morning, and had been waiting outside the pyramid.

“No joy, as usual,” replied Astro looking a little disappointed.

“And what reason did they give you this time?” asked Theshkar.

“Something about discovery for the sake of society and not just for the sake of itself.”

“What poppycock!  Science is about the search for truth, the expansion of knowledge.  What value that knowledge has is the realm of the philosopher,” Theshkar said bluntly.

“I believe they mean within the context of using THUSS rather than in general,” Astro corrected.  “And I can see their point really, but unfortunately that doesn't help us much.”

“No it doesn't.”

Astro and Theshkar arrived at the transport terminal and stepped on the next available transport shuttle that would take them back to Astro's laboratory in the Pyramid of Aritor.

The Aritor family were seventh generation miners and industrialists.  They were the major producers of the raw materials required to build Quantum Gravity drives, which were vital for interstellar travel.  Astro’s grandfather had expanded the family business to include defence systems manufacture and technological research.  They had commercial interest spread across the quadrant.  They could afford a pyramid.

“So - do you wish to continue with the Network research?” asked Theshkar, as the transport shuttle fired its anti-grav engines and lifted them off the ground.

“No,” Astro replied, as he looked at the other passengers on the shuttle, scanning them. “I think the guardians were right actually.  There is no real value in the predictive qualities of Network searches, other than for commercial use.  In any case it's not what we want to use THUSS for anyway, you know that.”

“Yes, but what you want to use THUSS for is illegal and very dangerous.”

“Can we talk about this later,” said Astro nervously as he noticed a few of their fellow passengers' ears prick up at the mention of the words illegal and dangerous.

“I wouldn't worry about these plebeians here,” said Theshkar arrogantly, gesturing to the other passengers on the transport.  “They wouldn't understand even if they did hear what we were talking about!”

A few of the passengers did not look too impressed with Theshkar's comments, which were not spoken in the quietest of tones.

“I'll tell you what Theshkar, this is the last time I'm coming with you on a public transport, that's for certain.  Now, why don't you tell me what you did whilst you were waiting outside the pyramid for me?  That's a reasonable subject for polite chit-chat.  Now begin,” ordered Astro.

Theshkar looked at him in bewilderment. 

“Since when did you have the temerity to speak to me in such a fashion, young man?  Chit-chat indeed!” said Theshkar angrily.

“Alright, calm down,” said Astro trying to placate his mentor, “I only meant it may be better if we change the topic of conversation.  I don't feel particularly comfortable talking about you-know-what in public,” he explained.

“Oh very well, if we must employ discretion.  I spent my time watching the unintelligent trying to squeeze as much out of existence as their tiny minds would allow.”

Astro shook his head in incredulity.

“There was even one fellow I observed,” remembered Theshkar suddenly, “who had lost the key to his grav-bike.  He couldn't even identify which one was his, idiot!”

“And?” said Astro.

“And I helped him find his bike and then I started it for him.”

“What do you mean you started it for him?”

“Well, I reprogrammed the ignition sub-routine into bypassing the security codes of the starter key,” Theshkar said casually.

“You mean you hot-wired it?”

“Yes, hot-wired, I suppose that is the parlour term for it,” said Theshkar thoughtfully.

“How do you even know it was his bike?”

“Hmmm,” said Theshkar thoughtfully. “That didn't occur to me to be honest, he seemed like an sincere sort though.  I even showed him how I did it, in case he lost his keys again.”

“You just said he was an idiot?”

“He was.  Doesn't mean he's crooked!”

“I can't believe you sometimes,” exclaimed Astro. “Look, we're here,” he said moving towards the door.

Astro and Theshkar both jumped off the transport shuttle and walked through the Shades of Night - as that part of the city was called - towards the towering Pyramid of Aritor that lay before them.

It was midday and the sun was getting hot.  The streets were busy with people pushing and shoving their way from one shop to the next; some politely, some not so.  Anti-grav vehicles moved above them like trains of ants through the air.  Eateries, Cafés and bars were filling up with eager and hungry customers.  The air was filled with the smell of spices and cooked meats from stalls at the side of the street.  Shops were displaying their latest wares on huge holoscreens.  One of the sale sensors picked up Theshkar, scanned him, and displayed a holographic image of him wearing the latest in designer suit-wear.  Only three hundred credits, said a metallic voice.  Theshkar walked straight through the holo-imagine with a disapproving grunt.

“To think this is what the majority of our species spend their time thinking about,” he said shaking his head.

Astro was eager to get back to the lab, especially with Theshkar being in the mood he was, when suddenly he heard someone shouting.  He turned around to look at what it was.

“Hey boy, you there! Where did you get that thing in your hand?”

To Astro's surprise the shouting was being directed at him. He watched as a burly Thaskian quick-stepped in their direction.  The Thaskian's ridges on his forehead were blushing a deep purple colour: a sign of anger, if Astro remembered his alien physiology correctly.  The Thaskian was larger than Astro.  His brown leather coat flapped behind him as he approached.  His long braided hair contained a hundred beads of different colours, and jutting out from behind his back Astro could see the grip of a photonic shield-sword - those were pretty rare, he thought.

Astro looked around for Theshkar, who reassuringly had also heard the shouting and was also watching the man approach.

“Where did you get that device?” he shouted again as he got closer.

The crowds of people drifting down the street were now starting to realise that something was happening, Astro could see a hundred eyes now trained on the blue-skinned Thaskian who was marching towards him.

“Where did you get that device?” said the Thaskian, now face to face with a wilting Astro, and pointing at the blue device he was still holding.

“Um... I bought it from the bazaar this morning,” he blurted.

“You lie,” stamped the Thaskian, ridges still blushing purple.

“Honestly! You can see the receipt if you like?”

“This device was stolen from me yesterday.  If you did not steal it then who did?”

“I don't know.  Really.  I'm not even sure what it does?” admitted Astro.

The Thaskian laughed, a big booming laugh that made the beads in his hair knock together with a tic-tac sound.  He looked around at the crowd who were looking on.

“This fool has stolen from me, and he doesn't even know what it is he's taken?” he exclaimed, somewhat amused.

“Now, look here,” said Theshkar jumping in. “This is the son of Blane Aritor, be warned, if you falsely call him a thief, you will be made to pay for your libellous claims.”

“I don't care whose son he is,” replied the Thaskian angrily.  “But he is a thief.  Now give me back my device.”

“Do you have any proof of ownership?” asked Theshkar stepping in between Astro and the Thaskian.  The Thaskian stared at him for a moment, mulling over the question in his brain.  Obviously, what Theshkar asked for the Thaskian lacked, as he suddenly lurched forward and tried to grab the blue device from Astro's hands.

Theshkar was quicker.  And he knew how to make it look like an accident so the THUSS city monitor system didn't alert the law-keepers.  No technology was perfect.

In an instant the Thaskian was on his back, with Theshkar's foot on his chest.  Theshkar twisted the blue arm he had hold of.  “I said to you, be warned.  It was foolish of you to attack without knowing your opponent.”

The crowd of people were humming with whispers; they had been impressed with the swiftness of Theshkar's movements.

The Thaskian squirmed.  “Let go of me, this instant!” he cried.

“If you promised to withdraw, and leave us in peace, I shall release you.”

“But that device belongs to me!” he insisted.

“Not anymore it doesn't,” Theshkar twisted the Thaskian's arm a little tighter.

“I yield,” screamed the Thaskian.  “I will leave you in peace.”

Theshkar released the grip he had on the blue arm and let the Thaskian get up.

The Thaskian rubbed his arm, trying to soothe the burning sensation in his twisted muscles.  He stared at Astro and Theshkar intently, before turning his back to walk away.

“I will not forget this, son of Aritor,” he shouted as he retreated into the crowd, not taking his eyes off them for a moment, not until the drift of the crown swept him away and out of sight.

The crowd in front of Astro and Theshkar returned to meandering down the street.  No one was paying any attention to them any longer; it was as if the scuffled had never happened.

“Well that was exciting!” exclaimed Astro.

“Exciting? Rather odd is what I would call it.  What is that blue thing he was after anyway?” asked Theshkar, as they continued walking down the street.

“I have no idea actually.  I should have asked him.” Replied Astro thoughtfully looking at the object in his hand.

“Well it was obviously something of value, by the way that Thaskian reacted, how much did you pay for it?”

“A pittance,” replied Astro, “I picked it up from some Dreken merchant at the Bazaar.  It drew my attention as I was passing, and I felt I had to have it.  It's fascinating don't you think?”

“Very,” said Theshkar dispassionately.  Trinkets didn't really concern Theshkar.  In fact Theshkar was not concerned with material pleasures.  He was spartan in his attitude towards life.  He only concerned himself with what he thought was important towards the pursuit of knowledge.  And right at that moment, getting back to the laboratory and working was what was important.

The two men arrived at the Pyramid of Aritor.  They nodded to the guards posted on the great door, who let them through respectfully nodding in return.

Astro's lab was in basement of the pyramid.  It was the perfect place not to be bothered.  And Astro felt safe there.  It was a very large room, as big as most people's homes; it was brightly lit, cluttered with different pieces of computer hardware and state-of-the-art scientific equipment, and it smelled sterile and clean.  In one corner of the laboratory there was another smaller room.  This room was locked.  And only Astro and Theshkar knew what lay within.  This was the project that Astro had really wanted THUSS-time for.

“So, what's next?” asked Theshkar.

“We still need to find a way to get some THUSS-time; the success of the project depends on it.  But in the meantime, I can continue with the engineering of the main body.”

Astro walked over to the locked room in the corner of the lab, and opened it with a key that hung on a chain around his neck.  Around the edges of the room stood a plethora of various monitors and holographic image projectors, which beamed out holographic replicas of different body-parts. In the centre of the room lay a long table, and on the table lay the body of a woman, half covered in skin, half covered in a metallic-looking material.

Theshkar looked down onto the table.  “I still say this is folly.”

“Yes, you've said.  Countless times!” replied Astro, who was now busying himself checking various monitors, and turning on the thought receivers that allowed him to operate the computers just by thinking.

“You understand why artificial intelligence is banned on this planet don't you?”

“Yes, but this is different.”

“So you keep saying.”

“Look, surely you can see, of all people!  If I can extract a lifetime of memories from a mind-reader and combine them with the AI programming, the android will understand the universe as well as you or me.  There would be no more need to fear it than there is to fear any other person.”

“Exactly, but this person will have incredible strength, won't eat, or sleep, or love.”

“That's where I hope you're wrong,” rebuked Astro.  “And this is exactly what I need THUSS for.  I need to be able to predict how a lifetime of memories will interact with the brain that we've built.  Indeed I hope to confirm that this android may be able to love; if the right memories are implanted.”

“But that's the danger isn't it, what if the right memories aren't implanted?”

“Well - that's what we need THUSS for, isn't it?  And of course, we'd be in control of what is input into the brain.”

Theshkar grunted.

“And tell me again why you have chosen a young woman as the form for this android?”

Astro smiled and looked at her.  “Underestimation,” he said simply.  “If I can make her sweet and innocent enough, people won't believe for a second she is anything other than a normal young Batharokian girl.”

“Hmmm.  That much is clever I suppose,” admitted Theshkar, admiring Astro's half completed handy-work.

Suddenly there was a bang from the lab outside.  Theshkar and Astro rushed out of the room to see what it was.

One of his father's guards appeared to have stumbled as he entered the lab and had knocked over a piece of equipment.  Astro locked the door to the room and approached the guard.

“Terribly sorry, sir,” the guard said, standing to attention.  “Hope I haven't broken anything.”

“No, it's fine,” said Astro, inspecting the fallen instrument.

“Sir,” the guard continued, “apologies for the intrusion, but I have been sent to bring you to your father.”

“My father?” Astro exclaimed in surprise.  “What does he want?”

“I have only been asked to escort you to his rooms, sir,” responded the guard dutifully.

Astro looked over at Theshkar and raised his eyebrows.  Odd, he thought, something must be up.  “Righty-ho then,” he said.  “Let's go.  You coming Theshkar?”

Theshkar nodded, and then followed the guard and Astro out of the lab and towards Blane Aritor’s chambers.

The chambers were busy with people when the guard entered with Astro and Theshkar.  At the end of the main room Blane Aritor sat inside a raised covered platform; it was circular, and had column-like supports holding up a small roof.  The columns formed a series of arches around the structure, and between them different holoscreens projected information.  Advisors and guards bustled around the room waiting for orders and instructions.  This was Blane Aritor’s court.  Only he had power here.  Lining the walls were pictures of the Aritor men and women who had come before the present incumbents of the name.  They looked down threateningly at everything going on beneath them.  Astro looked up at the ceiling, which had a holo-projection of the outer-galaxy beamed onto it, making it appear as if the room's ceiling stretched out to infinity; he had always liked that about this room.  It spoke of endless possibilities.

Suddenly there was a hand on Astro's arm.

“Thank you guard, I'll escort them the rest of the way,” said Fhinn Pallden.

“Fhinn, how nice to see you!” exclaimed Astro, smiling.

“Like-wise young master,” replied Fhinn.

Fhinn Pallden was Blane Aritor’s bodyguard, tactical advisor and general go-to-guy.  He had once been a soldier, and a very good one.  No one knew why he had left the service, he told people it was because he didn't like the uniform anymore, wherever that meant; but whatever the reason, it had been for the benefit of the Aritor family, for whom he had worked for the past ten years.  He looked battle-worn, but he wore it well; although that was probably more to do with the tasks he had to fulfil for Blane Aritor than due to his time in the service.  He was a good-looking man; he didn't wear his hair short like a soldier anymore, it was instead scruffy and unkempt, with long triangular shaped sideburns framing his features.  The weaponry encased on his side betrayed the fact that he was more than just an advisor, indeed, Blane trusted him implicitly with all he held dear, and that included his family.

“So, what's going on?” asked Astro, looking at Fhinn.  “Who are all these people?”

“I'll let your father explain,” Fhinn replied seriously.

As they approached the platform, Blane Aritor looked up.  His facial expression told Astro something was wrong.

“Thank you Fhinn,” Blane said, as Fhinn showed Astro and Theshkar up the steps of the platform.

“So - what's going on?” said Astro sitting down and getting straight to the point.

“Hmm, bad business,” replied Blane ponderously.  “Do you not watch the news boy?”

“Why, what's happened?”

“The ambassador for Dovakai has been assassinated,” he said seriously.

This took both Astro and Theshkar by surprise.

“Do they know who did it?” asked Theshkar leaning forward

“No, but the ruling council has its suspects,” replied Blane.

There was a pause before Astro said, “And they are?”

“Well - one of them is me,” Blane replied bowing his head slightly.

“You? Why you?” ask Astro anxiously.

“I've been doing some business with the Dovakai whilst they've been here; I'm just one of a number of suspects, all of whom met with the Ambassador.  Officially I am helping the authorities with their inquiries.”

“Right,” said Astro in disbelief.

Theshkar was silent.

“So, what can I do? Why did you send for me?” Astro asked.

“I need you to get off the planet.  You're going to stay on the yacht for a while.”

“What? You can't, I have work to do!”

“Look, the yacht is currently in orbit and has been prepared for your every need.  Your mother, brothers and sisters are boarding a transport shuttle right now.  I mean for you to follow them.  No arguments.”

Astro slumped back into his chair.  This was disastrous.  How was he going to continue with his AI research without his lab?  “I don't understand, why do we have to go away?” he said sitting up right again.

“Astro.  I need to know you’re safe, just for the time being, until all this has blown over at least.  To be honest there's something out-of-place about this whole thing, but I can't quite place my finger on it.  A man in my position has rivals, blood-thirsty rivals, so I must be cautious, do you understand?”

“Yes Father,” replied Astro reluctantly.  “However, I'd like to take some of my equipment with me, if that is permitted?” he added with a hopeful glance.

Theshkar's head spun around to look at Astro; he knew exactly what equipment Astro was referring to.

“Well, there is a fully equipped lab on board the ship, but it should be fine if you take a few things with you.”

“Thank you Father.”

Blane Aritor signalled over to Fhinn to approach the platform.

“Is the transport for my son ready?”

“Yes, Mr Aritor,” replied Fhinn.

“Right, go and prepare your things, you need to be on that ship in twenty minutes,” Blane said, turning back to Astro.

Astro nodded to his father and then he and Theshkar got up and followed Fhinn off the platform. As they were walking away Theshkar leaned close to Astro and whispered quietly, “You don't mean to bring...”

“Yes I do, absolutely I do!” interrupted Astro.  “The yacht has most of the equipment we need.  I just need a few things - and her of course.”

“This is madness!” Theshkar exclaimed, still whispering.

“Well - my father thinks I'm a mad scientist anyway, so what the hell.  Come on, I'm going to need your help packing the equipment.”


Fhinn

After Fhinn had dropped Astro and Theshkar off at their lab he headed back to Blane Aritor’s chambers.  As soon as he arrived he was summoned onto the platform.

Blane Aritor was a man in his seventies; he was powerfully fit and conducted his affairs with the same venom as he did when he was a younger man.  His grey hair was neat and well trimmed.  He wore a blue tunic, with red trimming: the colours of house Aritor.  He sat before Fhinn as proudly as he ever did, except now he had a glint of uncertainty in his eyes.

“My faithful Fhinn,” he started.  “I fear a plot.  This assassination is not all it seems to be.  I cannot refuse the summons of the Supreme Court, but I fear treachery.”

“What can I do Mr Aritor?” asked Fhinn.

“I need you to find the killer.  I don't trust the law-keepers for a second.  I need my own people looking into this,” said Blane fixing his eyes on Fhinn.  “Can you do that for me?”

“Without a second thought Mr Aritor.  I trust I am allowed to use my own crew?”

“Use whoever you want, just get the job done, by any means necessary.  I need to know who is behind this.”

“Absolutely, Mr Aritor,” said Fhinn getting up.  “I'll start with the security footage and see where that leads us.  Am I permitted to use the new device that has been developed?”

Blane looked at Fhinn thoughtfully.  “I'm impressed you even know about that,” he said.  “Yes, you can use them.  They're in the science block.  Don't get caught with them.”

“We won't.”

“Good,” replied Blane.  “And Fhinn...”

Fhinn turned and looked back up the platform steps.

“Remember that time is against us.”

“Yes, Mr Aritor,” Fhinn nodded and walked down the steps.  This was going to be a tricky job; with the law-keepers blundering about the place, not to mention all the media coverage it would be extra hard to get to the required information, or informants, whichever the case may be.  However, nothing to worry about, thought Fhinn as he walked down the length of Blane Aritor’s chambers, I'll just have to be extra careful.

Fhinn found Rohad and Ristik in the guards' training room, which was located in its own building on top of the pyramid.  The brother and sister were sparring, honing their skills; as they spent most of their time doing.  Fhinn had recruited them from their home world - Daratoor - he had been there on some business for Blane Aritor and had caught them stealing from him.  They very nearly got away with it as well, and all because Rohad and Ristik had a very special power.  Whether it was to do with the fact that they were twins, Fhinn wasn't quite sure - although he strongly suspected that had something to do with it - but Rohad and Ristik could communicate with each other telepathically.  Witnessing them having an argument was the most unexciting event.  They would just stare at each other angrily, whilst all the shouting was going on inside their heads; or so Fhinn assumed anyway.  Daratoorians were natural warriors, who preferred hand-to-hand combat.  They had pale skin and black eyes and moved with a lithesome and graceful motion.  To a Batharokian they were a beautiful people, although they were often scarred from battle, something that each Daratoorian wore with pride as a reminder of past glories.

“Hey boss,” said Ristik, as she and her brother lowered their guard. “We heard the commotion, anything serious?”

Fhinn stood before the twins and looked from one to the other.

“We're up,” he said simply.

“Excellent!” replied Rohad, a smile appearing on his face.

“What's the job?” asked Ristik excitedly.

“I'll let you two dress first, and then let's meet out in front in ten minutes.”

“Where are we going?”

“I'll explain on the way,” replied Fhinn as he turned and marched out of the room.

Ten minutes later Rohad and Ristik joined Fhinn outside the Pyramid of Aritor.  They had photonic shieldswords strapped across their backs, and they wore thin sheaths of blue coloured body armour protecting their vital organs, apart from that they were naked.

“We're going on the bikes,” said Fhinn as he led the twins over to the bike park that stood on one side of the pyramid.

The three climbed onto their grav-bikes and shot upwards towards the line of traffic that flowed steadily about a hundred metres above the ground. Grav-bikes were the fastest way to get around on Batharok.  They had an altitude limit of about three hundred metres.  They weren't safe and they weren’t cheap.  But they were lots of fun.

“So, you going tell us where we're going now?” asked Ristik over the comm.

“We're going over to the Great Pyramid.  We need access to THUSS.  I was hoping you two could help with that.”

“That depends,” said Rohad.  “Are we going to ask nicely?”

“We’re not going to ask at all!” replied Fhinn.

“Excellent, then I'm pretty sure we're the right people for the job,” said Rohad merrily.

“You haven't said why we're going?” asked Ristik.

“No I haven't.  There's been an assassination: the ambassador of Dovakai.  Mr Aritor has been implicated, along with some others.  We are going to use THUSS to try and find the truth of the matter.”  Fhinn glanced across to Rohad and Ristik from his bike before continuing. “And we've ben authorised to use any means necessary.”

“Excellent!” said Rohad again.

“What do we want to learn from THUSS?” asked Ristik turning sharply to avoid an oncoming passenger transport.

“I'm hoping to get a look at the security camera recordings.  I'd like to see who was strolling about before the attack.  I also have a contact on the security force who is digging up some information for me.  Hopefully we'll get a lead.  If not we'll need to think again.”

“Sounds good.  Any idea how we're going to get into the THUSS chamber without being noticed?”

“This is an old pyramid, built by Iku-Hateh the third, who - if you know your history - was somewhat of a suspicious fellow.  Anyway, he had it built with a few secrets, one of which is a secret entrance that leads to what used to be his bedroom.”

“And what's it used for now?” asked Rohad.

“Not sure to be honest.  Which is why you two are here.”

“So, where is the entrance?” asked Ristik.

“I'm not sure about that either,” stated Fhinn firmly.  “But I know a man who does.  And lucky for us he lives quite close to the Great Pyramid.”

It was over an hours walk to the Great Pyramid, but the grav-bikes made it in a few minutes, and soon they could see the towering form of the Great Pyramid just ahead of them.  Rohad and Ristik followed Fhinn as he left the stream of traffic and dived down towards the ground.  They parked the grav-bikes a few hundred metres from the pyramid, locked their helmets in the back compartment, and joined Fhinn as he walked towards a row of shops selling Great Pyramid souvenirs and trinkets.

Toy holographic images of the THUSS hologram flickered as Fhinn, followed by Rohad and Ristik, entered one of the shops.

“What are we doing in here?” whispered Ristik to Fhinn.

“Trying to find the greatest pyramid expert alive,” replied Fhinn softly.

A holographic shop assistant flickered on and spoke.  “Good morning dear customers, and how may I be of assistance today?”

“We're trying to find the owner of this shop, is he in?” asked Fhinn politely.

The holographic shop assistant paused before speaking again.  “I'm afraid I am unable to assist you with that inquiry.  Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“Do you know when he'll be back?” tried Fhinn again.

It took a moment before the holographic shop assistant repeated, “I'm afraid I am unable to assist you with that inquiry.  Is there anything else I can help you with?”

These holograms could be damn difficult to communicate with, that much Fhinn knew.  He looked around the shop, and then suddenly noticed a shadow being cast from behind a door at the back.  He gave Rohad and Ristik a wink and gestured towards the back of the shop with a nod.

“Oh dear, that is a shame that you cannot help us,” said Fhinn, practising his stagecraft as he slowly moved towards the back of the shop.  “Maybe we'll come back another time,” he was now only a couple of metres from the door. “You see Ogdar and I are old friends,” Fhinn grabbed the handle of the door from where the shadow was being cast.  “Aren’t we Ogdar?” he finished by pulling the door back, and then thrusting it forward again, smashing into whatever was hiding on the other side.

“Ow!” someone scream.

Fhinn nodded to Rohad, who dived behind the door and came out dragging a scrawny man who was trying to wriggle free from the Daratoorian's vice-like grip.

“Get off!” he said, still struggling.

“Okay, let him go,” said Fhinn nodding again to Rohad, who let the man drop to the floor.

Ogdar looked up at his assailants.  “And what the hell do you want, Fhinn Pallden?” he exclaimed angrily. “You've got one hell of a nerve coming into my shop.  The last time I saw you, you were riding off into the sunset on that grav-bike of yours, whilst I was left to deal with the law-keepers.”

“You got what you wanted didn't you?” reproached Fhinn.

“Yes, but you still left me in a pile of trouble that I didn't need.”

“As far as I'm concerned you deserved it, you didn't have to double-cross that antique dealer!”

“Ah - you knew about that did you?” frowned Ogdar.

“Of course I knew about that, I'm me, and you're you.  You're a slimy, crooked, pitiful excuse of a man.”

“If that's so then what are you doing here?”

“I need you.  You may be scum, but you still know more about that pyramid lying outside than anyone else I know.  And I know a lot of people!”

“Right,” said Ogdar slowly, as a sly smile crept across his face.  “So, you need me do you? How interesting.  I hope you have plenty of credits on you?”

As quick as a flash Ristik leaped onto the man and knocked him back down to the ground, her knees landed on his chest, pushing the air out of his lungs.  Before the man had time to think, Ristik was holding a curved dagger to his neck, she then moved her face close to his and said in a soft whisper, “what would we need credits for?”

After Ogdar had promised to give them any information they wanted, without the need for any payment - after all what are friends for if not to help each other out - they helped him lock the front door of the shop, turn on the closed sign, and escorted him to his office in the back.

Ogdar offered them seats whilst he scrambled around, turning over various bits of parchment that were strewn across his desk, on the floor, and pinned to the walls. Eventually he found the one he was looking for, cleared his desk with one sweep of his arm, and then spread out a map before Fhinn and his companions.

“What are we looking at?” asked Rohad.

“So, this is the brains of the operation is it?” Ogdar said sarcastically, looking at Rohad.  “It's a map of the Great Pyramid of Batharok, the one you want to get into.”

“Alright, enough of that.  You don't want to make his little sister angry again,” said Fhinn.

Ogdar gulped and quickly glanced at Ristik, before turning his full attention back to the map.

“So, this is a map of the Great Pyramid.  You see this out-building here?” he said pointing to a dot on the map a little way out from the pyramid.  “This is part of the old plumbing network.  Not used anymore of course, which is better for you I suppose.  Anyway, within is a stone trap door, open it and you'll find a corridor, which will lead you straight to another trap door hidden beneath the old kings’ bedchamber.”

“Any idea what the bedchamber is used for now?” asked Fhinn.

“It’s now one of the guardians' chambers, Triniffer Heb I think.  Although the guardians and most of their guards are all at the Pyramid of Sunsets, the ruling council summoned them a few hours ago.”

“Okay, that's good.  Should be easier to move around once we're in.”

Fhinn looked at Ogdar.  “Thank you,” he said. “You've been a great help, I will not forget this.”

“Alright, be off with you,” replied Ogdar.  “Seems like you've got a busy night planned.”  He then followed Fhinn, Rohad and Ristik out of the shop and then pointed them in the direction of the out-building.

A few minutes later, Fhinn and the two Daratoorians were outside the out-building, they opened the door and then slipping inside unnoticed.  It seemed quieter than usual outside the pyramid.  Which was not a bad thing, thought Fhinn; he just hoped it would be the same inside.

“Right you, two.  I have a little surprise before we go any further.”

The twins looked at Fhinn; they hadn't been expecting any surprises, not just yet anyway.

“This is the latest gadget from Mr Aritor’s ever creative technicians,” he said pulling out three small devices that fit into the palm of his hand; he gave one each to Rohad and Ristik. “You clip the device onto your belt, like this.  And then press the button in the middle.”  Fhinn pressed the button.

Rohad and Ristik laughed when they saw the result.  Fhinn had completely disappeared into thin air in front of their eyes.

“Excellent!” said Rohad, as Fhinn pressed his button again and re-appeared.

“I thought you'd be more surprised than that!” he admitted.

“Surprised yes, but we're not ones to jump about scared like little pushika,” said Ristik smiling.

“And quite rightly too,” said Fhinn, wondering what a pushika was. “So, these are light refraction devices, they basically bend light around you, as if you're in a bubble of invisibility.  As long as they are clipped onto you, no one will be able to see you, as I just demonstrated.  I find it better if they are clipped on the belt.”

Rohad and Ristik both followed his advice and clipped the devices onto an area of armour in about the same area as Fhinn's belt.

“Now.  These devices are brand new.  We cannot lose one, under any circumstances, understood?”

“One question,” said Rohad.  “If we're invisible, how will we know where each of us are?”

“Hmmm, very good question,” said Fhinn thoughtfully.  “We'll just have to be disciplined.  You two will follow me, which means I will open all the doors, and you follow after.  If anyone attacks I assume you can communicate effectively enough for invisibility not to be an issue?”

The twins both nodded.  Fhinn nodded back approvingly before the three of them spread out and started searching for the trap door Ogdar had told them about.  The inside of the out-building was quite large, and was split into three rooms.  They took one room each.

It didn't take long before Ristik ran though the room Fhinn was searching, shouting that Rohad had found something.  Fhinn wondered if Rohad had told her telepathically or if she had known he had found it the moment he did.  In any case he followed Ristik without hesitation.

“What have you got?” said Fhinn as he entered the room Rohad had been searching.

“This is definitely it,” reported Rohad.  “Although I think it'll need two of us to pull up this door.”  Ristik jumped at the chance to help her brother.

The twins made quick work of the door, and soon all three of them had lowered themselves into the trap door and found themselves standing in a dark corridor, just as Ogdar had said.

Fhinn looked at the twins and spoke in a hushed tone.  “At the end of this corridor, we should find another trap door, once we're through, we need to go one floor down to the THUSS chamber.  I'll need you two to guard outside whilst I try to get the camera footage.  Is that clear?”

“What if we get disturbed?” asked Ristik.

“Well, remember no one will be able to see us.  So don't attack unless it's really necessary, however, if it is necessary, try not to kill anyone.”

The twins nodded.

“Okay then, let's go.”

Fhinn led the way down the dark corridor, using only a small light-emitter to illuminate the path ahead.  After a few minutes of walking, they came to a dead-end.

“Now what?” asked Rohad.

Fhinn turned the light-emitter upwards to reveal the underneath of a trap door, and then put his finger to his lips signalling absolute silence.  He listened for a while, straining his ear upwards.  When he decided there was nothing to hear, he signalled to the twins to turn their light-refraction devices on, and then help him with the trap door.

As quietly as they could, they did as Fhinn said, and then pulled themselves up into the room above.

Thankfully it was empty.

Silently and invisibly, they crept towards the door at the far end of the room.  Just as Fhinn was about to reach for the door-handle, it started to turn by itself.  There's someone on the other side, he thought as he flung himself against the wall, hoping that the twins had the good sense to do the same.

The door opened, and in crept a man wearing a military uniform.  Fhinn recognised the uniform as that of a junior officer, but what was he doing in a guardian’s chambers? He wondered.

The junior officer closed the door quietly; checking no one had seen him come in as he did so.  Once the door was closed he approached the desk at the far end of the room, as suspiciously quiet as he could be, and turned on the computer screen on the desk.  Fhinn hoped that the twins were also watching silently and not about to lay the soldier out cold.  The soldier pulled a data stick out of his pocket and plugged it into an input hole in the front of the desk.

This is very odd, thought Fhinn.  He wondered if he should turn off his device and confront the man; but that would only put their present mission at risk.  Whatever this officer was doing was not worth risking being discovered, so Fhinn stayed silent as the soldier watched the screen for a few minutes longer.  Suddenly he pulled the data stick out of the input hole and walked back towards the door.  Very slowly he opened the door a few centimetres and peeked through the gap to see if anyone was in sight.  It seemed there wasn't.  He then opened the door as wide as he needed and slipped through the gap, quietly closing the door behind him.

As soon as the door was closed Ristik reappeared, which prompted Fhinn and Rohad to do the same.

“What the hell was that?” she asked in a loud whisper.

“None of our business is what it was,” replied Fhinn in a louder whisper.  “Now, on!” he grunted, pointing at the button on her refraction device.

Ristik rolled her eyes.  “Alright then, you lead the way,” she whispered.

All three of them disappeared again.

This time Fhinn was able to get a grip on the door handle, turn it and open the door wide enough to slip outside.  He sidled along the wall outside the room in the direction of the THUSS chamber.  The sound of a softly closing door told him that Rohad and Ristik were just behind him.  Only once did someone walk straight past them before they found the way down to the next level.  They crept along various empty corridors until they came to the room that housed THUSS.

Fhinn approached the door, and tried to listen for any noise coming from inside, there was nothing.  He moved to where a hand-imprint lay on a waist-high plinth next to the door.  He pulled a glove out of his pocket; the palm was covered with a thin film of synthetic skin.  Fhinn pressed his gloved hand against the hand-imprint and the door slowly grinded opened.

Once inside, Fhinn closed the door again before he took the chance to look around.  It was quite dimly lit inside, but the room wasn't big enough for that to matter so much.  The walls were bare brick and undecorated and there was an aroma of old books in the air.  The chamber was a spherical shape, and there was a platform in the middle of the room.  Towers of computer hardware surrounded the platform, except for one small gap that allowed a person to pass through.  Fhinn used that gap now.

As he stood on the platform he looked for the interface.  He knew THUSS was holographic, but he wasn't sure exactly how to turn it on.

“Hello Fhinn Pallden,” said a voice suddenly.

“Who was that?” blurted our Fhinn without thinking.

There was a crackle in the air, and directly before him appeared the blue holographic figure known as the THUSS interface.

“Hello Fhinn Pallden, I am THUSS, how can I help you today?” the figure said.

From what Fhinn could tell the figure was neither male nor female.  At least, there were no genitals programmed onto the image; which would be kind of weird if there was, he pondered as an after-thought.

“How do you know who I am?” Fhinn asked, puzzled; he still had the refraction device on.

“I know everything about everyone that has ever existed in the system; and everyone is in the system,” THUSS replied.

“No, what I mean is, how can you see me?”

“My sensors are able to see more than the normal spectrum of light that your device is designed to refract.”

“So you can see me in infra-red?”

“Correct,” answered THUSS.  “Is that what you came here to ask me Fhinn Pallden?”

“No, that's actually not why I am here.  I need to see the city security tapes from this morning.”

“Any particular time and place, Fhinn Pallden?”

“Yes, I need to see the tapes from the Old Royal plaza, for the hour leading up to the assassination, which was at about three hours past sunrise.”

“Two hours, fifty four minutes to be precise,” corrected THUSS.

“Well, I wasn't far out,” Fhinn smiled to himself.

“If you are trying to identify the killer of the Dovakian ambassador, I can show you that.  I have already isolated the incident,” announced THUSS plainly.

Fhinn jumped in surprise.  “Well, I didn't expect you to be that intuitive, but yes please, that's exactly what I need to see.”

THUSS pointed to a screen that lay just behind Fhinn.  Fhinn turned to watch as THUSS played the security tapes showing the Old Royal square from that morning.  The square was busy enough at the time, Fhinn thought; it must have caused plenty of confusion.

The image on the screen scanned the crowd for a few minutes before it focused on a man unknown to Fhinn. The camera then panned towards the Pyramid of Swords, where the Dovakian ambassador and his entourage appeared from out of the pyramid and started to walk across the square.  The camera focused again on the man as he approached the entourage.  It took about thirty seconds for the man to get close, and then suddenly he pulled something out of his pocket and flung it into the middle of the entourage.  Smoke billowed out of the middle of the group, which then started to engulf the whole section of the square where the entourage stood.  The camera changed lenses to accommodate for the poor visibility.  The new lens was able to see through the smoke well enough to see what was happening.  Although Fhinn could not see their faces, he could clearly see the man who had thrown the smoke-bomb run into the smoke.  He made his way to the ambassador, grabbed him from behind and slit his throat.  He then let the limp figure drop to the ground before starting to run, his escape concealed by the continuing spread of the smoke across the square.

“That's it!” exclaimed Fhinn.  “Is there any chance I could have a copy of this?” he asked hopefully.

“Of course,” replied THUSS.  Suddenly there was a whirring sound.  A second later a data stick popped out from a small hole in the desk in front of Fhinn.  He took it and smiled.

“Thank you very much, that's very helpful,” he said.

“That is my prime directive,” answered THUSS.

“Just one more question if I may,” asked Fhinn.  “Has anyone else seen this footage?”

“Not yet,” replied THUSS.  “Although considering the events, it won't be long before they are here.” THUSS then blinked a few times before looking back at Fhinn.  “In fact, they have just arrived.”

“What do you mean?” asked Fhinn, feeling a slight sense of panic.

“The law-keepers, they are about to enter the pyramid. Look,” said THUSS pointing to a holoscreen that had just appeared out of thin air.

Fhinn watched.  There were about twenty armed men marching up the steps of the Great Pyramid.

“Right, I have to go.  Don't tell anyone I was here,” said Fhinn as he backed out of the room.

“Not if they don't ask,” replied THUSS.

As Fhinn exited the room, he whispered for the twins, who responded in the same manner.

“There are twenty soldiers on the way, we need to be careful,” said Fhinn softly.

“Did you get what we came for?” asked Ristik.

“We certainly did, in fact that THUSS is a very helpful hologram.  Now let's get moving,” Fhinn ordered, and he headed towards the guardian's chambers where the trap door lay.

As Fhinn quietly crept along the walls, he could hear the sounds of men marching and orders being issued.  He turned a corner, which led to a long corridor - the stairs to the upper level were located at the far end - and he crept forward.  As he was half way along the dimly lit passageway, the sound of marching got suddenly louder.  Then to his horror a group of soldiers turned into the passageway from an adjacent corridor in front of him.  There were ten of them, and they were marching four abreast.  Fhinn suddenly realised he had to get out of the way before one of the soldiers walked straight into him.  He retreated backwards, trying to be as silent as possible, looking for a doorway or even a depression in the walls in which he could conceal himself.  But it was too late; the men were marching forwards quicker than he could retreat.

His first instinct was to punch his way through, after all, he was invisible; they wouldn't know what had hit them.  However it seems Rohad and Ristik had a similar idea, as suddenly, without a sound, one of the soldiers at the back of the group hit the ground.  Fhinn wondered how the hell Rohad or Ristik - whichever one it was - had got behind them.  He watched as two more bodies fell unconscious, and then a third was suddenly struggling with something at his throat.  The rest of the soldiers were of course alarmed at the sudden mysterious demise of their colleagues, but before they had realised what was happening two more from the front of the group also collapsed.  Fhinn decided that he couldn't let the twins have all the fun, and he piled into the group, taking down two more soldiers.  One of them was unconscious with Fhinn's first punch, the other struggled a bit more, but Fhinn had him in a neck-brace, and with the right amount of pressure applied in the right place, he too was out cold.  By the time the man’s body went limp the last few men had also fallen around him, leaving a pile of unconscious bodies lying in the corridor.

“We need to get out of here, now!” whispered Fhinn.

“Right behind you, Boss,” came an exhilarated sounding whisper, which sounded a lot like Rohad.

Fhinn stepped over the fallen soldiers and headed off down the corridor.

They saw no more soldiers on their way to the trap door, but Fhinn knew the alarm would be sounding any second.  He crept his way into the guardian's chambers and up to where the trap door was concealed.  A moment later he heard breathing, which told him Rohad and Ristik were with him.

“Help me with this,” he whispered.

Again the twins made quick work of removing the stone covering the secret entrance, and the three of them soon found themselves back in the underground passageway that led to the out-building.

They kept their light-refraction devices switched on until they were well clear of the out-building, making sure they hid their tracks as they went.

It was just past midday, and there were people milling about in the square as usual.  Fhinn found a discrete place to switch off his device and he re-appeared.  Rohad and Ristik were not far behind, and then the three of them - without a word - made their way back to the grav-bike park.

Ristik was the first to speak. “So, where to now?”

“Back to Mr Aritor, he needs to see what’s on this recording,” said Fhinn, looking behind him, as a group of about twenty more soldiers arrived in the square and ran into the Great Pyramid.  Fhinn knew the law-keepers would be just starting to organise themselves; they were slow, but it wouldn't be long before they were trawling through security recordings and questioning the bruised guards.  They wouldn't find anything though.  Not unless they thought to ask THUSS directly; which only worried him a little.

They arrived at the grav-bike park, and walked towards where they had left the bikes. 

Fhinn and the twins stood there with thoughtful frowns on their faces as they observed the empty spaces where they had parked.

“Where have the grav-bikes gone?” said Rohad.


Skyla

“These bikes are great!” shouted Skyla into the comm on her wrist device.

“I know!” came the heavy accented reply of Otha in her earpiece.  “They 450 bikes, fastest grav-bikes in sky - plus got built in kinetic damp'ners, make ride nice and smoov.”

“I'll say!” replied Skyla.  “Where did you learn how to hot-wire one of these things anyway?  I thought it was meant to be impossible.”

“Yeah, me too; was by Great Pyramid this morning lookin' to nab '280 bike, when fella walks up, all p'lite and everyfing, and offers me 'is assistance.”

“What? Was he daft or something?”

“Who knows?  But I never turn down opportunity, I play cool, and before me knows it, I got me new 450 grav bike.  And nice blokey show me what 'e did, In case you lose keys again, he said.”

“That's a stroke of luck.  You'll show me how to do it, yeah?” exclaimed Skyla.

“If you want learn,” replied Otha smiling.

“Absolutely,” Skyla replied enthusiastically.  “So, where are we taking them?  And where's Trott? I thought he had the third bike?”

“He make own way back.  Better we split up.  We meet him at garage.”

“And then what?” asked Skyla.

“Then we go see Mr Bannepal.”

“At last!” smiled Skyla to herself.

She had met Otha a few months before.  She had caught him stealing a grav-bike from behind a restaurant where she had been employed as a general dogsbody.  But rather than risk her raising the alarm he had offered to take her with him. 

Skyla was twenty-two years old and from Dovakai.  She had fled to Batharokian because of the war.  Dovakai had been at civil war for five years, and there was no sign of it stopping soon.  She had already lost one brother in the conflict, but had managed to escape with the rest of her family to Vuhla, Batharok's moon.  There wasn't much of a life to be had on Vuhla; it was full of Batharokian settlers and refugees.  There were plans to try and terraform the moon, but Skyla had no hope that would happen anytime soon.  And anyway, if they turned it into prime real estate, her family would no doubt be evicted.  This was because Skyla and her family were not only refugees; they were also Citizens of the great Nomar Empire, which spread across a third of the far side of the galaxy. 

The Nomar were expansionists.  They required huge resources to feed the ever-growing size of their empire, and the voracious appetites of their nobles.  Skyla's father had fled the empire and brought his young family to Dovakai, on the other side of the galaxy.  It had taken him half a lifetime to get there.  She had been born on Dovakai when her father was an old man; it was all she ever knew.  However that didn't matter, her family were from a planet that had been swallowed by the empire.  They were marked as Citizens; no one wanted anything to do with them.  In small groups they were tolerated, but in larger numbers they were shunned.  No one wanted marauding Nomar battle troopers on their doorstep looking for strays.

Her father used to tell her tales of those he had left behind.  He would describe the time when the Nomar came and chained his family together, whilst he hid, unseen.  He told stories about other Citizens that were taken to the mines of Thoshgor, a huge planet deep inside the Nomar Empire; except there were no mines there anymore; there was something much worse.  Thoshgor was home to the Cumulat, the central core computer that ran the Nomar Empire.  The Nomar used the cerebral functions of their citizens as a network of data warehouses for the Cumulat to feed off.  Even those Citizens that weren't taken to Thoshgor still faced a similar fate: they were connected up to the computer systems that operated the Nomar fleet.  Skyla remembered her father describing the process of being hooked-up: a citizen would be drugged until they fell into a trance, tubes would be inserted into every orifice to keep them alive, and then the top of their head was removed so the brain could be wired directly into the system.  These were just stories though, her father had never been to Thoshgor, or on board a Nomar spacecraft, he had never actually seen what the Nomar did to their Citizens.  He had fled his home in his early twenties and never looked back.  He was dead now though, he died way before the war started.  And so her family had ended up on the desolate moon that was Vuhla, and she was sent to Batharok to try and earn some credits.  They were desperate, and Batharok's immigration laws did not allow Skyla to bring her whole family onto the planet with her.  Only one of them was allowed to come.  And she was the most able.

Skyla wore loose fitting dark green trousers and a dark blue jacket that fastened right up to her neck and kept her warm on cold nights.  Her long dark hair whipped about furiously behind her as she turned the grav-bike through the traffic, trying to follow Otha as best she could.  He had spent most of his life stealing vehicles of one sort or another.  He wasn't the brightest star in the galaxy, but he knew his job well enough to keep Rubius Bannepal happy.

Batharok itself was split into three states: Velderes, Ulandy, and Aluzarah.  But the underground world only had one king, and that was Rubius Bannepal.  Skyla had wanted to meet him since she had heard the name. 

She had tried living within society, tried everything she could think of; but she kept getting knocked back.  No one wanted a refugee, let alone a Citizen.  There was no hiding from it either.  Any employer could find her whole story by checking her ID with THUSS, which they always did.  The only jobs anyone was willing to offer were menial labour, the sort of jobs no one else wanted to do.  And so she and her family were left living off scraps, but then she met Otha, and she saw an opportunity she simply had to take.  She was determined to make a success of it as well.  She threw herself whole-heartedly into her new vocation, much to the delight of her new mentor.  He had been promising her for a while that he would take her to meet Rubius Bannepal; her fierce reputation had been growing and Otha figured the boss would want to meet her anyway.

They arrived at the garage and dismounted the grav-bikes.  It was a large warehouse-type building located in a darker area of the city.  There was a myriad of different vehicles inside, some being taken apart, some re-sprayed, and some just having extra parts added: the garage did have a legitimate side to its business as well.

Skyla patted her grav-bike affectionately. “Can't I keep it?” She said hopefully.

“Better not,” Otha said.  “But there always spare bike here, if need one, ask Chartley.”  He nodded to the mechanic who had appeared from out of the garage, and who was now standing beside them.

Chartley nodded back.  “Anytime you want miss,” he said to Skyla.

“That's good to know, thanks!” she replied.

“So, what have you got for me?” said Chartley turning to Otha.

“Three 450's, ask not how I got 'em, you no believe.”

“I never ask anyway.  Where's the other one?” asked Chartley.

“Trott ride other bike.  Be here soon. We got'a go.”

“Okay, no problem.  Got another job?”

“No,” replied Otha as he put his arm around Skyla proudly.  “Me take young Skyla see misser Bannepal.”

Skyla smiled shyly.

“Oh I see, off to see the big boss!  Have you met him before?”

Skyla shook her head.

“Well,” said Chartley moving closer, “be careful of his eye, it can see right into your soul. It can tell a lie in a heartbeat.”

Skyla didn't know that about Rubius Bannepal.  Seemed there was a lot she didn't know.  But she would learn.

“Come then,” Otha signalled at her to follow, and then walked out of the garage and towards the nearest transport terminal.  Skyla hurried along beside him.

“We're going on public transport?” she said, sounding confused.

“We are.  When we go see Mr Bannepal we no take stolen bikes.  He like no suspicion on 'im, see?” answered Otha.

“Makes sense I suppose.  So what's going to happen? You're going to introduce me and then what?” she asked eagerly.

“Then see if he like you.  If like, then never know what happens, it could mean new job!”

“What? You didn't tell me that! But I like working with you, I don't want a new job.  I haven't learnt everything about this one yet!”

They were just before the entrance to the transport terminal.  In this part of town there weren't too many people about.  The stream of traffic a hundred metres above them in the sky created a humming, it was always in the background wherever you went in the city, but here it felt particularly loud.

Otha grabbed Skyla by the shoulders and looked her in the eyes, “Listen now girl, you want no life like me.  If Misser Bannepal like Skyla, take what he offer.  Skyla can do better than stealing bike forever. Now,” said Otha, straightening the sides of Skyla's jacket where his grasp had creased the fabric, “Otha teach you how fight, where get food, how to steal bike.  That all I have.  You need new teacher.  I be sure tonight you get one.”

Skyla forced the tears back.  She would show no sign of weakness to Otha; he had been good to her.  She hadn't realised this could mean good-bye.  She wasn't quite so excited now, in fact she was so full of uncertainty she felt almost afraid.  She didn't like the unknown; she had too many people depending on her.

A transport shuttle swooped into the terminal where Skyla and Otha were waiting.  They got on with five other passengers: all looking like they were going off-shift from the garage.  They all had dirty overalls and tired eyes, and three of them sat together chatting.  The men were sharing a bottle of what Skyla assumed was something quite potent; even though it was only mid-afternoon.

She and Otha sat in silence.  Skyla decided to pass the time watching people getting on and off the transport, wondering what their lives were like; then she thought she'd just close her eyes for five minutes. 

An hour had gone when Otha tugged her jacket and stood up.  Skyla opened her eyes, got up, and followed, sleepily.  She had always been the type of person who took every chance they could to sleep.  She rubbed her eyes.

“Nice sleep?” asked Otha as they walked towards the terminal exit.

“Sorry, I didn’t really mean to fall asleep,” said Skyla yawning.

“You amazing girl.  Go sleep anywhere.”

“It's a talent, I guess,” said Skyla trying to take in her surroundings.

She suddenly realised she was at a spaceport.  Although this one looked like it was just for cargo: there were no passengers about, just huge crates of who-knows-what being lifted out of the back of cargo carriers.  Skyla and her family had escaped Dovakai on a Galaxy class cargo ship.  They would be parked in orbit; these ones here were just being used to unload whatever was being delivered to Batharok, and then the Galaxy class ship would carry on to its next destination.

The spaceport was full of noise and movement.  Cargo being unloaded, moved around, organised, re-organised, labelled, stamped, checked, re-checked, all by hundreds of people with their own little notch in life, their own purpose.

Skyla watched the bustle as she followed Otha towards a vehicle that seemed to be waiting for them.

“Are we expected?” asked Skyla, gesturing to the vehicle.

“Well, kinda.  But this always here.  Come, get in,” said Otha as he opened the side door and helped Skyla up.

It was one of those small anti-grav vehicles that they often have at spaceports; they travelled half a metre above ground level and were usually used to carry the old and infirm to their transport shuttles.  However this one seemed to have been customized somewhat: after Otha had sat down and advised Skyla to strap herself in, it shot forward faster than Skyla would have thought possible for such a small vehicle. 

Suddenly they were racing towards a series of hangers; in fact as they got closer Skyla thought it looked more like a herd.  There must have been fifty, sixty of them: huge spacecraft hangers in two rows with a wide runway down the middle.

“They not for spacecraft no more, just cargo,” explained Otha. “And Misser Bannepal,” he added with a wide grin.

The vehicle slowed down next to one of the hangers, about a third of the way up one of the rows.  Pretty clever, Skyla thought, if anyone wanted to find Mr Bannepal, they have an awful lot of identical buildings to check in order to find him.

There were a few dark looking men milling around a door just ahead of where the vehicle had stopped.  Otha got out and headed towards the door.  Skyla followed close behind.

“Hey Otha,” said one of the men.  “Is this her?” he asked.

“Yep,” replied Otha, as another man opened the door to let them into the hanger.

Skyla was starting to feel that this had all been set up.  Why did the man at the door know she was coming?  Was there something Otha wasn't telling her?

Her questions were soon put to one side as she emerged into the hanger, where she was confronted with the largest spacecraft she had ever seen on the ground.  It almost completely filled the hanger.

“It the Bannepal battle cruiser, only one built.  Misser Bannepal design himself,” smiled Otha.

Skyla was in awe at the make-up of the craft: its shape, weaponry, colour and markings; everything just seemed to fit perfectly.

Skyla walked with Otha towards a gangway leading up into the belly of the vessel.  There were more men standing around the gangway, although these ones didn't speak to either of them, they just looked them up and down menacingly.  She stayed close to Otha as they entered the craft, where more men just seemed to be lingering about, looking tough.  There was certainly plenty of muscle about, Skyla thought; but then, she had expected it.

The inside of the craft was shiny metallic silver, everywhere.  It made everything look brand new and gave the walls a mirrored effect.  As they walked she noticed every workstation was manned with a different looking being: people from other worlds, as well as from all over Batharok.  Skyla could see Ulandyians and Velderians amongst the crew.

After following corridors and taking lifts to higher levels, they finally came to a solid looking door.

“Here it is,” said Otha looking at her.  “Just be self, okay?”

Skyla nodded.  Otha pressed his hand into the hand-imprint at the side of the door and the door slid open.

It was crowded inside.  The room was long, and most people mingled along the walls.  In fact the only people not huddled at the sides of the room were at the far end, where a group stood in a circle.  The room was also mirrored like the rest of the ship, but here there were no monitors, no holoscreens, no sign of technology at all, apart from what people had on their person.  In fact as far as she could tell Skyla couldn't see any chairs either; just a couple of tables against the wall at the far end, with what appeared to be refreshments on them.  She followed Otha as he walked up the centre of the room towards the circle of people at the far end.

As she got closer it was not hard to notice that one figure towered above the others.

“That him,” confirmed Otha.

“But...” started Skyla

“Yes I know,” said Otha.

Skyla looked towards the figure of Rubius Bannepal.  What she didn't expect, but what stood before her, was an android.  He was nearly two and half metres tall and his metallic body matched the mirrored effect of the battlecruiser.  At the back of his head was a clear cylindrical container, within which floated a brain in some sort of fluid.

“That 'im, that brain,” said Otha quietly to Skyla as they halted just before the circle, and stood waiting to be noticed.

“What do you mean?” she whispered back.

“Brain is only bit of 'im left.  Was like you and me, once.  But now only brain,” he explained.

“And why are there no chairs?” asked Skyla - it had been bothering her.

“Misser Bannepal like no chairs. Like everyone equal.  That why they stand in circle.  He a wise man.”

Skyla liked the idea of that: everyone being equal, although she expected it was just a show.  It was quite clear who was really in charge.  She looked at the circle a few metres in front of her; it was made up of eight people - men and women.  There were two men on the opposite side of the circle to Rubius Bannepal who seemed to be doing most of the talking.  She strained to hear what was being said.

“He seemed a little reluctant to accept your kind offer Mr Bannepal, worried about rules and regulations,” said the smaller of the two.

“That's to be expected,” replied Rubius Bannepal in a booming metallic voice.  “He has a son you say?”

“Yes Mr Bannepal.”

“It is of vital importance that we get that mind-reader.  If he shows reluctance when you return tomorrow, then threaten to take his son; and if he tries anything stupid - bring the boy to me.”

“Yes Mr Bannepal,” said the two men together, and the circle suddenly broke up.

Skyla felt nerves jumping in the pit of her stomach. Otha looked at her and winked, before walking forwards to where Rubius Bannepal was now standing, speaking with four of the remaining group.

Skyla watched as Otha spoke to him, but she couldn't hear what was said.  All of a sudden they all turned to look at her, and then formed a circle with Skyla on one side facing Rubius Bannepal.

“So you are the young Citizen?” he boomed.

Skyla didn't like that question, but she had to answer. “That's correct Mr Bannepal.”

“Otha has been telling us of your incredible skill and determination, he is quite impressed.”

“Otha is a good teacher Mr Bannepal,” she replied looking and smiling at Otha.

“Are you fucking him?” Rubius Bannepal asked, noticing the affectionate look.

Skyla was stunned.

“Err, no,” she blurted.  “No I'm not.  I just think he's a good teacher.”  She blushed.

“Good, then there won't be any tearful farewells when we split you two up!”

Skyla looked up; she noticed the eye that Chartley had warned her about.  It was red and seemed to be scanning her.  Rubius Bannepal's android face had no synthetic skin.  He was just metal and fibre.  Skyla studied his features as he stared back at her.  The stare between them lingered, and Skyla could see out the corner of her eye Otha looking around at the other members of the circle, with a concerned look on his face.

Suddenly Rubius Bannepal shouted. “Everybody out, I want to speak with her alone!” 

His voice filled the room and caused everyone to suddenly turn and look.  Skyla could tell from the confused looks on the faces turned in their direction that the command was out-of-the-ordinary, however a follow up shout of, “Now!” soon had everyone quickly moving for the exit.

As Otha brushed past her he whispered, “Methinks he like Skyla.”  And then he turned and winked before following the others out of the door.

Then there were two.  Just Skyla and Rubius Bannepal.

“Come with me,” he said.  And then he turned, walked to the back of the room and slid a metal finger down the side of the wall. A section of the wall slid silently upwards revealing a small room inside, with chairs.

Skyla followed Rubius Bannepal into the adjoining room.

“Please sit,” he said offering her a chair.  “This is where I come when I need to think.”

The small room was circular, and it had holoscreens arranged all around the room.  There were old tapestries and pictures of people hung randomly above them.  And there were three chairs.  She could tell Rubius Bannepal was not accustomed to bringing many people there.

“Thank you for bringing me here, sir,” she said nervously.

“Please don't call me sir, Rubius will do.”

Skyla didn't reply.  She had heard terrible tales from Otha of the ruthlessness of Rubius Bannepal, but the person-android in front of her was exhibiting a familiarity with her that she didn't expect.

“So Citizen.  How do you find yourself on this side of the galaxy?”

“Is that important?” she asked defensively.

“It is!” he replied.

“Why?”

“You're very touchy about the subject aren't you?” remarked Rubius.

“I have spent my life being plagued with the name Citizen.  It has caused my family hardship wherever we go.  I don't like to talk about it.”

“But you're very young.  You can't know anything of the Nomar Empire; it is on the other side of the galaxy!”

“My father fled before I was born.  I was actually brought up on Dovakai, but we had to leave there as well.”

“Because you were Citizens?”

“Yes,” she said lowering her head.

There was a few seconds pause before Rubius said the most unexpected thing.

“Would it surprise you to learn that I too am a Citizen?”

Skyla looked up as quick as a flash.  “You?” she said surprised.

“Yes.  I too fled from the Empire over three hundred and fifty years ago.”

“Three-hundred and fifty! How can that be?”

“Why do you think I live in this metal body?  You don't want to know how old I am: my body withered from old age a long time ago.  But I had the opportunity to live on.  And so I took it.”

Skyla looked at him not knowing quite what to say.  She had rarely met other Citizens.  There were a few families on Dovakai, but no one they were friendly with.  Citizens tended to stay away from other Citizens as much as everyone else did.

“We are both marked,” said Rubius.  “Which is why you're going to work directly for me from now on.  Just odd jobs at first, whilst I teach you a few lessons.”

“Thank you, Mr Bannepal,” Skyla beamed.

“Rubius,” he corrected.

“Rubius,” she repeated.

“My identity as a Citizen is a closely guarded secret amongst a rare few.  You are now one of those trusted few.”

“Thank you.  But why would you trust me?” asked Skyla curiously.

“I can see your soul with my eye Skyla.  I can see who you are inside.  I know I can trust you, as much as you believe I'll kill you should you ever betray that trust.  But I know you won't,” he said, with what seemed to be a metallic smile on his face.

“Now, the first thing I want you to do for me, is to go with a couple of friends of mine, the ones I was talking with when you arrived.  I want you with them to add a touch of warmth to their manner.  Forca and Kost can be quite cold, so you'll help just by being there.  They're going to hire something for me, just follow their instructions and you'll be fine, clear?”

Skyla nodded her head excitedly.  So, this was to be her first assignment for Rubius Bannepal.  And then she remembered hearing something about a boy.

“You said something about taking a boy?” she asked.

Rubius hesitated for a second.  “You have good ears!  It is only a precaution.  I only harm people if it's absolutely necessary, and that won't be the case here.  Although I trust you're not squeamish, that's not befitting for our line of work.”

“I'm not a fan of unnecessary pain and suffering, if that's what you mean, I've seen too much of it in my life,” she said plainly.

“I understand.  And I feel the same way as well.  Believe me, I haven't got where I am today by killing, maiming and torturing; one has to be cleverer than that.”

“That's not what I've heard!” said Skyla looking up at him.

“Exactly!” he said. “You don't need to kill for people to believe you're capable of it.  Look at me:  I'm a killing machine.  But I'm clever enough to know I don't have to kill.  People are always more useful alive than dead.  And if they think I'm on their tail, they can be very useful indeed.”

Skyla smiled, she liked the way Rubius thought.

“That is lesson number one,” he said putting his metallic hand on her shoulder.  “Belief is stronger than truth.”


Kosh

“You will never believe who I had in the back of my cab last week,” said Kosh to his passenger.

“Who?” said the passenger, shrugging his shoulders.

“Rad Tulla Pannedor!” announced Kosh, smiling widely into his rear view mirror.

“Who?” said the passenger, again.

“Rad Tulla Pannedor! Midfield player for the Gotha kickers!”

“Who?” repeated the passenger for a third time, looking confused.

“By the gods! Don't you like football?”

“Oh, sorry, no,” replied the passenger sitting back in his seat.

Kosh looked suspiciously at the man in the back.  Who didn't know Rad Tulla Pannedor? He wondered in amazement.  He played in the Aluzarah national team!  His face was everywhere.

“Do you mean the fellow with the beard?” asked the passenger sitting forward again after a few minutes.

“That's him!” cried Kosh.

The passenger smiled at Kosh, looking proud of himself.  “My son likes football, especially the Gotha kickers.  I just remembered he has a picture of him on his wall at home.”

“Oh?” said Kosh, sounding not overly pleased. “Gotha Kickers fan is he?”

“Err - yes.  Is that not good?” asked the passenger; sounding nervous discussing a topic he knew almost nothing about.

“Well, each to their own I suppose.  Are you from Gotha?”

“No, Aluzarah central.”

“Well, why does he support Gotha kickers then?” said Kosh sounding a tad more incensed than he would have liked.

“Um... not sure really.  He is only six,” blurted out the man.

“Oh,” said Kosh smiling again.  “That'll explain it.”

There was a moment’s silence in the cab, as neither man knew who should pick up the conversation next.  Kosh turned the wheel, as the path of the traffic took a turn in the air.

“Of course, I'm an Aluzarah central boy, born and bred.  Been a fan all my life,” Kosh said breaking the moment's silence.

“Of who?” the passenger inquired politely.

This guy really knows nothing, thought Kosh. “Of the Aluzarah Arsenal of course!”

“Of course,” said the passenger.  “Now, I have heard of them!”

“Well, you do live in Aluzarah, as you said squire.  I'd be surprised if you hadn't.”

“I am sorry,” said the passenger looking a little exasperated.  “I'm really not that much up on football.  I try to follow it as much as I can, for my son you see, but the names just slip me by.”

“I understand,” said Kosh sincerely, looking at the passenger in his rear-view mirror.  “Some people just aren’t that much into it, got other things going on in their lives!”

“Exactly!” said the passenger, who suddenly looked relieved.

“Don't understand how people can live like that of course, but as I said before, each to their own.  Right, here we go gov'ner,” said Kosh, as the cab descended from the stream of traffic and landed outside a school.

“Your son goes here does he?” asked Kosh, as he put the cab in park and turned to face the man.

“Yes he does.  Would you mind waiting?  I am just going to pick him up, and then I want you to take us onto the main transport terminal.  Is that okay?”

“Fine with me squire.  The meter is going to keep ticking.”

The man smiled at Kosh as he got out of the cab and ran into the school.

Kosh had been working in a cab for four years now, before that he worked as a botanical specialist.  He had been trained to know what plants could grow where, what would feed you and what would kill you, what would heal you and even which leaves were best used in the absence of other, more modern sanitary products.  He had travelled the sector advising settlement colonies on how to build effective gardens, which they needed to sustain themselves whilst they started out on new planets and in new places.  But the development of terraforming had put a stop to all that.  Kosh suddenly found himself out of a job, and all he knew was gardening.  He had applied to the National Biology institute for a position, but they had said his skills weren't transferable to the direction that modern biology was now to follow.  Plantology - as it came to be known - moved into the sphere of agricultural studies, which was entirely automated.  Computer science was now the required skill-set for Kosh's old job, and Kosh only knew about gardening.  However he was happy enough, he still kept a garden at home that he was proud of, and he earned enough money to buy him his season ticket for the football.  He didn't mind driving a cab about all day either: he had always been a cheerful sort, and he liked the variety of people he met on the job; although he did find he was starting to use words like ‘squire’ with increasing regularity.

The passenger he was now waiting for was a curious sort though.  He had filled the whole trunk of the cab with some strange contraption; and it was big trunk, designed to convert into space for two extra people if need be.  In fact there was no more space in the trunk for anything else now: the passenger's suitcases were piled up on one of the back seats.

Kosh looked over to the school and saw the reappearance of his passenger, with a young boy in tow.  This must the son, he thought.  The back door of the cab opened and the father pushed the boy in and then jumped in himself.

“So, to the main transport terminal now please,” said the father, sounding a bit exasperated again.

“But I don't understand, why do we have to go?” said the boy looking up to his father with a desperate look in his eye.

“I'll explain when we get there,” said the father glancing at Kosh in the rear-view mirror, obviously not wanting to discuss it further in unfamiliar company.

“But all my friends are here, and your shop?” pleaded the boy.

“Enough!” said the father.

“And what about all my stuff?” The boy was looking for any excuse to stop them going, wherever it was they were going.

“I've packed all your stuff.”

As Kosh watched in the rear-view mirror he could see that the boy looked as exasperated as his father was.

“But...” the boy started again.

“Look...” interrupted the father, turning to his son who now had tears forming in his eyes.  “We just have to go away for a little while.  Not forever.”

“How long?”

“I'm not sure, let's say weeks, for starters.  We're going to visit Mummy's friends, in Gesch.  You like them!” the father said softly.

“Will Tokki be there?” asked the boy wiping the tears from his eyes.

“Yes! Tokki will be there, I'd forgotten about him! Of course he'll be there,” said the father giving his son a hug.  “Everything will be just fine,” he said hugging the boy tighter - although Kosh wondered if he'd said that more to himself than to the boy.  Kosh had seen the look in the man's eyes before; he was scared of something, anxious.  It was the same as the look on the faces of some settlers - the ones who were forced to go - scared of their surroundings, not knowing what the future has to hold.

“So you're the Gotha Kickers fan?” said Kosh suddenly, in an attempt to brighten the mood in the cab.

The boy released himself from his father grasp, and looked up at Kosh looking back at him in the rear-view mirror.

“I'm sorry?” he said looking a little dazed.

“Gotha Kickers? Your father tells me you're a fan?”

“Oh yes! Absolutely,” enthused the boy.  “They're brilliant.  I especially like Rad Tulla Pannedor, he's my favourite.”

“Yes, you're father mentioned that,” said Kosh smiling at the father.  “But one thing I don't understand,” he continued.  “You live in Aluzarah Central, why don't you support the Arsenal?”

“Well... they always come fourth!” the boy exclaimed.  “They've only recently got their goalkeeper crisis sorted out, and their defence is nearly as inconsistent as the midfield.  They've got good players, don't get me wrong, but at least one of them gets injured every year, and always for the whole season.  They don't attract the big names anymore, so they develop their young players, which is all well and good, but as soon as any of them get really good another club comes in and buys them. I just think they lack stability and cohesion.”

The rest of the journey passed pretty quietly after that.  At least Kosh didn't speak.  The truth always hurts. 

When they arrived at the main transport terminal, he helped them get the huge bit of equipment and the suitcases onto an anti-grav trolley, and he bid them farewell.

As he got back into his cab, he watched them go, and wondered about the scared look in the father's eyes. Kosh hoped that whatever he was scared of didn't catch up with them, even though the boy supported the wrong football team.


Pilo

Pilo looked up at the huge transport terminal building wondering how long it would be before he was walking in the other direction, back towards home.

He had decided they needed to leave town earlier that afternoon, after learning who Rubius Bannepal really was from one of his customers.  “You don't want to cross the likes of him Mr Jerritor, I can assure you!” he remembered Mrs Duntian telling him.  “Between you and me, my husband tells me he is a most terrible man!”  And so he had quickly packed everything he could carry, including his great grandfather's mind-reader, and took a cab to pick up Goodwin.  Luckily Goodwin's class had already returned from their field trip, so Pilo had taken him out of class, hurried him into the cab, and they had headed straight for the main transport terminal.  He reckoned staying with his wife's old friends until Rubius Bannepal had either found another mind-reader, or lost interest in him altogether, was the best thing to do.  There was no way he was going to loan out his mind-reader to a known crime boss, he couldn't risk breaking the law any more than he could risk his son, so leaving for somewhere obscure was the only way.  He had not seen his wife's friends in a few months, but he was in no doubt that they would welcome them.

The doors of the transport terminal slid back with a whoosh and Pilo and his son walked in.  There were holoscreens everywhere; flashing up departure and arrival information, advertising the latest offers in the food court, and playing seductive films advertising special offers at paradise-esque destinations for seventy-five per cent of the normal asking price.

Pilo looked to see where they needed to go to buy a ticket to Gesch.  There were literally hundreds of people hurrying about in all directions, it looked like chaos.  The terminal building itself was actually larger - in terms of floor space - than any of the pyramids, so it took Pilo a few moments before he saw a sign with Ticket Sales written on it.

“Come on,” he said to Goodwin, as he started pushing the anti-grav trolley in the direction of the sign.

“Can we get something to eat? I'm hungry!” said Goodwin trying to keep up with his father.

“Yes, we'll see about that after we've got our tickets, okay?”

“Okay,” Goodwin replied.

There was a queue of ten people at the ticket desk and only one person was manning it.  There were self-service ticket machines, but Pilo wanted to make sure that extra special care was taken for his mind-reader, and the queues were bigger at the machines anyway.

He looked down at his son, who was staring ahead blankly watching the man at the checkout desk processing the papers of the woman in front of him.  All this must be hard on him, Pilo though.  No wonder Goodwin had been so alarmed when he came and picked him up.  After everything that the boy had been through, what with his mother dying, the counselling sessions, the nightmares, the fact that he had a working father who - try as he might - could never fill the gap left by an absent mother; he had become a sensitive young man.  He was bright, no doubt about that, and he had lots of friends; but sometimes life just got too much for his poor soul, and all he could do was bow his head and cry.  Pilo did as much as he could to be there for Goodwin whenever he needed it, and he had re-arranged his life to make it possible that he was.  He loved his son deeply.  But he wasn't just a son; he was also the only part of his wife that he had left: her flesh and blood.  Whenever he looked at Goodwin he saw her, it made him happy and sad at the same time.  He looked at Goodwin again, hopeful for the sake of his son this would all work out fine.

There were only a couple of people ahead of them now, as two couples realised they were in the wrong queue and had hurried off.

“How long will it take us to get there?” asked Goodwin.

“Just a few hours, four I think, there are a lot of stops on the way.”

“Bor-ing,” Goodwin harrumphed.  “What am I going to do for four hours?”

“They have readings you can watch, and games as well I think,” replied Pilo as he watched the woman in front of him have trouble finding her ID card. 

Come on, you should have your ID ready before you get to the desk, he thought to himself, whilst he tapped his feet impatiently on the ground.

“What readings do they have?”

“What?” said Pilo, whose attention was still on the woman who was trying to find her ID.

“What readings do they have? Do they have Totto and Gringa?”

“I have no idea, we'll have to wait until we're on the shuttle and then we'll find out.” 

Totto and Gringa were two superheroes who travelled through time fighting bad guys; Goodwin loved them.  He had most of their readings at home. Pilo would admit that readings were a fantastic way for children to feel closer to their heroes; although the way they produced them now, you experienced the story from the viewpoint of an onlooker.  When Pilo was a boy, you could actually take the role of the hero, which Pilo had found most exhilarating.  But then there was that incident when a boy jumped off a roof thinking he could fly, after being a super-hero in a reading.  It had caused public outcry, and forced more regulations into the industry.  But in this case Pilo guessed it was better that way.

Suddenly Pilo realised the man at the sales desk was calling for him, and he pushed the anti-grav trolley forward and approached the desk with Goodwin at his side.

The man wore a bright orange jump suit, with the logo for this particular transport firm imprinted on the breast, just above the crest of the guardians:  the transport terminal was operated by THUSS.  On the other side of his chest was a large badge with Jojor written on it.

“Hello Jojor,” said Pilo, smiling at the man.  “We need two tickets for Gesch please.  Next available shuttle.”

“Next shuttle to Gesch is tomorrow morning I'm afraid sir,” replied Jojor blankly.

“But there's one that leaves in a couple of hours isn't there?” said Pilo looking perplexed.

“Fully booked I'm afraid.  Next available shuttle to Gesch is at six o'clock tomorrow morning.”

“Six? Isn’t there any that fly through the night?”

“Not anymore sir, the ruling council put a stop to it, pollution concerns.”

“Pollution concerns? I thought modern shuttles didn't cause any pollution.”

“Noise pollution sir.”

Pilo tried to think what was best to do.  He didn't want to go back home now.

“Is there anywhere we can stay overnight?” he asked.

“There's a hotel on the other side of the terminal.  You can get a room for the night there.”

“Okay then, I'll take two tickets for the shuttle at six.”

“ID's?” said Jojor with a vacuous expression on his face, no doubt a result of having the same conversation hundreds of times a day.  Pilo handed over his and Goodwin's ID's, and waited.

It took a couple of minutes to process the tickets and pay.  And then they were away again.

“Can we get something to eat now?” asked Goodwin.

“We sure can, we just need to check into this hotel for the night and then we can relax until tomorrow morning,” said Pilo, smiling at his son reassuringly.

They checked into the hotel, which was all plush red fabric with gold lining and tassels.  Pilo could see a few businessmen sitting in the hotel bar, which was located at the end of the restaurant area.  It was getting towards evening now, and the drinks had already started flowing.  They were laughing loudly.  Pilo decided he'd prefer to have room service deliver something to the room for their evening meal, probably the safest thing to do anyway considering the circumstances.

The room was big enough for two.  It had two beds, one bathroom with a nanobot-shower, and a bath, and it had a storage area big enough for all their bags and the mind-reader as well.  It also had thought-wave receivers on all the appliances; Goodwin had already found the transmitter, had clipped it onto his ear and was now sitting on the small sofa in front of the holoscreen happily flicking through the channels.

Pilo started to unpack the bags from the anti-grav trolley and stacked them in the storage area.  He left one suitcase to the side, it had a change of clothes and wash things in which they'd need for the night and next morning.

Goodwin had found the room-service menu on the holoscreen and ordered them both Soth steak and vegetable chips.

As they waited for their food, Pilo started unpacking.  Just as he found Goodwin's nightclothes, and was about to throw them at his son, the intercom in the room buzzed loudly.

“Is that the food already? That was quick!” said Pilo reaching over and pressing his finger against the clear touchscreen of the intercom.

“Hello?” he said looking at Goodwin and pulling a face.

“Mr Jerritor?” came a voice from the intercom.

“Yes, this is he.”

“There is someone in the reception area asking for you, sir?”

Pilo froze.

“Shall we send him up to your room, or will you come down?” the voice from the intercom asked politely.

Who could be asking for him?  No one knew he was here, he thought. “I'll come down.  Be there in a minute,” answered Pilo, who then turned the intercom off.

“Who is it, Papa?” asked Goodwin, taking his attention away from the holoscreen for one second.

“Not sure, I guess I'm going to go and find out,” said Pilo, who suddenly had a sinking feeling in his stomach.

“Okay,” replied Goodwin, not looking away from the screen.

“Look, when the food comes, just let them in; they should be here soon.  Other than that, don't open the door to anyone, is that understood?”

Goodwin didn't react; he had become engrossed in some programme he was watching.

“Hey, did you hear me?” Pilo said a little louder.

This time Goodwin turned around.  “Yeah sure, don't open the door unless it's the food, I heard you!” he said turning his attention back to the holoscreen again.

“Okay, good!” said Pilo looking around for the room key card.  He eventually found lying on one of the beds. “Right, I'll be back in a minute.” He said as he closed the door behind him.

Pilo made his way back down to the reception area; all the while trying to guess who else could know they was there.  Maybe Rubius Bannepal's men had tracked them down, but then, they can't have known they had made a run for it yet.

As Pilo entered the reception area he scanned the faces mingling around, looking for whoever had asked to see him.  However there was no one that particularly stood out, or looked familiar.  Then, suddenly, from the corner of his eye, he noticed a man glaring at him from the other side of the reception.  The man was sitting down, he had very pale skinned, and wore a grey suit with grey shoes.  Pilo didn't recognise him, and the man wasn't getting up or doing anything but staring at him, so he decided to walk over.  The man's gaze didn’t waver, as Pilo walked around the seated area of the reception towards where he was sitting.

Suddenly Pilo heard his name being called.

“Mr Jerritor!  Hello!  Mr Jerritor!”

Pilo looked over to the reception desk where a woman appeared to be waving at him.  With her stood the man who had sold them their shuttle tickets, Jojor.

“Mr Jerritor, you left your son's ID on the sales desk,” said Jojor.

“Oh, thank you!” blurted Pilo as he approached them. “I didn't even realise I'd left it behind!”

“Happens all the time Mr Jerritor, believe me, I was just telling Dethir exactly that.”

The girl behind the reception desk nodded in agreement.

“Well, thanks for bringing it over,” said Pilo taking the ID from Jojor's outstretched hand.

“No problem, I was just coming off-shift anyway.”

Pilo smiled at the man, said thanks one more time, and then started back to the room.  As he was leaving the reception he remembered the man in the grey suit, and looked over to where he had been sitting, but there was no one there.

When Pilo got back to the room Goodwin was already half way through his food, and Pilo was sure he had stolen some vegetable chips from off his plate as well.

In a few hours they would be boarding the transport and then they would be away.  Pilo would have to keep his shop closed for the while.  He was fine for money, so that wasn't a concern, but he did worry about Goodwin.  He couldn't keep him out of school for long.  If they were to stay in Gesch for months then he would have to find some alternative for his son's education.  He would figure it all out once he got there, he decided.  It wasn't worth worrying about now, on top of everything else.

“So are there any good programmes on?” Pilo asked Goodwin.

“There's one that's just started actually, I was going to watch it!” Goodwin said looking over at his father.

“Can I watch it with you?” Pilo asked sitting down on the small sofa with his plate of food.

“As long as I can have a bit of your steak?” said Goodwin putting down his empty plate.

“Okay, go on then, you are a growing boy after all!” Pilo answered, as he started to cut off a piece from the juicy steak.


Triniffer

It had been years since the guardians were summoned to the Pyramid of Sunsets. It only happened when the ruling council needed to make a special request to the guardians themselves.  Triniffer didn't like the idea of special requests so much.  THUSS was meant to be available to anyone who had a worthy cause.  Whereas these special requests usually involved the ruling council revoking that right.

The ruling council guards had already arrived, and the three guardians had been accompanied into a transport, which took them to the Pyramid of Sunsets.  Kroll and the other assistants had followed in a separate vehicle.

“So, what do you think this is all about?” asked Kraytor to his two companions.

“Someone wanted the ambassador dead,” said Olikar, stating the obvious.

“I think we know that much, but the question is who?” remarked Kraytor.  “The ambassador was only here to request access to Vuhla for some of the refugees from that damn awful war of theirs.  It was hardly any reason to have him killed.  And I can't imagine that he was able to make enemies in the short time he was here.  I just don't see any obvious motive.”

“He has plenty of enemies on Dovakai - let's not forget - they are at war after all!” added Olikar.

“That's true, but I'm pretty sure THUSS would have identified any Dovakians in Aluzarah who were hostile to the ambassador.”

“Maybe it was an inside job, one of his own party?” offered Triniffer.

“I doubt that as well,” answered Kraytor.  “I can't believe the Dovakai would be that sloppy!”

“It's not for us to worry about who did it anyway.  That is for the ruling council to investigate.  They are the ones who will have to deal with the Dovakai on this matter.  We will just be asked to approve the cessation of public usage of THUSS and the take-over of the system by the council,” reasoned Olikar.  “In fact I'm not even sure why we have to come all this way, it's not as if we have much of a choice in the matter, and I was looking forward to some lunch.”

“Always thinking of your stomach,” laughed Triniffer.

“Not always, only when I'm hungry,” said Olikar defensively.  Olikar Zurb was a large man who was hungry most of the time; although he was a good and just man as well.  He was the longest serving of the three guardians, the most experienced, and the most cranky.  Kraytor Vark, on the other hand, was the most recent of the three to become a guardian.  He had served most of his career as a high court judge, and was typically righteous about everything; but he was also a curious man, interested in the world around him, its events, people and places.  Triniffer got on well with both of them.  After working together for the past seven years she felt the three of them had learned to complement each other.  They were a good team: Olikar with his experience and wisdom, Kraytor with his determination and righteousness, and Triniffer with her reason and ability to read people.  They made a good vetting system for the most powerful computer in the state of Aluzarah.

As the shuttle approached its destination, Triniffer could see the Pyramid of Sunsets out of the window she was sitting next to.  It was called the Pyramid of Sunsets because it lay on the west side of the city, where the sun set.  On top of the pyramid was a giant crescent shape with its two points facing upwards; and if you were east of the pyramid at dusk, the sun would set between the two points of the crescent and make it appear ablaze with flame.  It was quite breath-takingly beautiful on the right evening.  Batharok had no noticeable seasons; the rotation of the planet was fairly parallel with its sun, which meant that the sun set right over the Pyramid of Sunsets every day of the year.  Triniffer had once been to a planet that had seasons - Forthar it was called.  In certain places on the globe, it was extremely hot at one time of the year, and then freezing cold at another.  It had even snowed when she was there!  She understood the phenomenon was quite common, but then she didn't travel much.  Batharok only had snow in the south of Velderes, and on the mountain peaks of Ulandy, but it was always there.  Of course, Batharok did have seasons, they were just unnoticeable: the temperature would only shift by a few degrees; and never enough to require a major change of attire.  Triniffer liked the fact she didn't have to endure seasons; she couldn't stand the cold, another reason why she didn't travel much.

Once the shuttle had landed, the three guardians climbed out of the vehicle and were immediately greeted by officers of the council. 

The officers escorted them into the pyramid, but stopped them once they were in the long entrance hall.  They bid the guardians wait whilst they prepared the council for their entrance.  Long banners, decorated with the insignia of the noble families of Aluzarah, hung in the long entrance area of the Pyramid of Sunsets.  As she stood there waiting to be escorted into the main council chamber, Triniffer tried to remember which ones belonged to which families.

“Why have we been left just standing here?” exclaimed Olikar impatiently.

“No idea,” said Triniffer paying more attention to the banners.  “Which one is that?” she said pointing to a sky green coloured banner with the insignia of a soth standing on a red field.

“That's Hethvit,” replied Kraytor quickly.

“Ah, they were the farmers, correct?” said Triniffer, remembering.

“A long time ago, yes,” replied Kraytor.

“But a Soth?” exclaimed Triniffer.  “I mean, look at the other insignia, they're all weapons or wild beasts!”  She gestured to the banners adorning the walls on either side of them. “An insignia is meant to instil fear, or respect or something-or-other; a soth doesn't really do that for me.  I mean really! What soldier would be happy wearing a soth on their coat of arms?”

Kraytor laughed.  “I see what you mean,” he said looking up.

“Look at Aritor,” Triniffer continued.  “A sword thrust towards a rising star, you see the difference?”

“Eyes front,” said Olikar suddenly.  “Here they come.”

The officers returned with unconvincing smiles on their faces.

“If it please you, they are ready for you now in the main chamber,” one of the officers said.  They were wearing purple robes with black belts, black shoes and black gloves, and as they led the way, they crept in front of the guardians, holding their hands together in front of their chests, occasionally looking back and firing phoney smiles.

When they finally entered the council chamber, it was just as Triniffer had remembered it.  The ancient throne of the old Kings stood empty at the end of the room.  In the centre stood two long podiums facing each other, where the two sides of the ruling council sat, and between the podiums was a circle on the ground emblazoned with the flag of Aluzarah.  There were rows of chairs leading away from the entrance, where observers and those who had been summoned waited.  It was towards these seats that the guardians were now directed.

The members of the ruling council were elected every five years.  There were no parties as such - one of the original founders of the Aluzaran political system had famously said, Right and wrong doesn't have a political persuasion.  Anyone had a chance to be elected to the councillor; they just had to get the required numbers of votes.  Campaigning was not allowed, but rather a series of debates was arranged.  Starting at the lowest political strata, candidates would go through rounds of debates, with each win meaning progression to the next level.  The lowest level was Town Hall, which moved up to Borough, then up to District, and then finally up to Village, of which there were six in Aluzarah.  The five winning candidates from each of the six Villages of Aluzarah became the next members of the ruling council.  It was quiet strenuous on the councillors: the debates were broadcast live to every screen in the state of Aluzarah, which meant the percentage of people voting was always very high; especially as the Network facilitated the collection of the votes.

There was suddenly the bang of a hammer, and the herald called the names of the guardians, announcing them to the congregation of the ruling council.  Triniffer, Kraytor and Olikar stood up and moved to the centre of the room, where the flag of Aluzarah coloured the stones beneath their feet.  Each member of the council wore a different coloured cloak according to the village he or she represented, and the array of colours gave a vibrant feel to the chamber.

“Guardians of THUSS,” started one of the councillors as the three of them took their positions.  “You are no doubt aware of the grave circumstances under which you have been summoned before us today.”

The three guardians all nodded.

“Given the situation we are confronted with, and as stated in the Protocols of Government, section eighteen, paragraph three, we - the ruling council of the state of Aluzarah - hereby request you to release control of THUSS, until such a time as we choose for it to be returned to the control of the guardians.”

Olikar, as the longest serving guardian and spokesperson, answered, “We hereby approve your request - ruling council of the state of Aluzarah - and wait until such a time as you choose to return control to the Great Pyramid and its guardians.”

Triniffer listened to the Official Narratives that were required to transfer control, and waited patiently until they were finished.

Finally the member of the ruling council who had been conducting the Official Narratives sat down and another stood up.  He was wearing a light blue cloak with dark blue trimmings, under which was a suit which identified him as a member of the Flentor family - one of the noble families of Aluzarah.  His name was Grig Flentor.

“Guardians of THUSS.  Anticipating your response, we have already sent members of the law-keepers to the Great Pyramid, to retrieve security tapes of the incident from earlier today.”

“So am I to assume that the assassin has not yet been captured?” Triniffer asked authoritatively.

“You assume correct Guardian Triniffer,” replied Grig Flentor.  “We hope you’ll consent to wait here whilst the recording is being brought?  We understand that it should be here within the hour.”

Triniffer looked at her fellow guardians and frowned.  What a strange request, she thought.

“Is there any reason why you wish us to view the recordings?” she asked suspiciously.

“You are the guardians.  We trust you to act as Witnesses in this affair.”

And there it was: the real reason why they had been called.  Every major investigation that the ruling council conducted required a body of independent witnesses to follow the course of the inquiry.  It had been years since the guardians were last called to fill the post.  But Triniffer reflected that it made sense, seeing as they were being put out of a job until the investigation was over anyway.

Triniffer looked at her two companions and nodded to them, it seemed they had nothing against the proposal.

“We agree to act as the Official Witnesses in this investigation,” she announced.

“We are glad,” replied Frig Flentor.  “I will ask one of the officers to take you somewhere comfortable where you can wait.  If you are in need of refreshments or nourishment, then you need only ask the officer assigned to you.”

And so it was. One of the officers escorted them into an anti-chamber just off the main council chamber, where they were allowed to wait.  Olikar immediately dived into the food that had been laid out on tables at the end of the room; they were just appetizers, but Olikar had no problem turning it into a whole meal.

An hour went by and no one came to collect them.

Just as Kraytor was exclaiming how ridiculous the wait was becoming, they heard footsteps in the corridor on the other side of the door.  The door opened and a different officer presented himself.

“The council awaits your return, Guardians,” he said, holding open the door for them to walk through.

The council chamber was fuller than it had been when they had left.  Triniffer noticed members of the noble families of Aluzarah present - Darentor, Garentak, Hethvit, Duntian, Flentor - as well as more observers and guards.  There didn't seem to be anyone from family Aritor though, not that she could see.  The three guardians were shown to the best seats in the chamber; as official witnesses they had three seats reserved that were placed ahead of the others, to give them a clear view of everything going on.

The herald banged his staff for order, as Grig Flentor got up and addressed the chamber again.

“We are here today to investigate the assassination of the Ambassador of Dovakai, which occurred earlier today in the Old Royal Square,” he said officially. “We have obtained the security recording of the square from this morning - which has already been analysed by the law-keepers - and I can confirm that it does reveal who is responsible for this most heinous crime.”

“I must say, the law-keepers must have worked quickly, they've only had an hour!” said Kraytor leaning over to Triniffer, keeping his voice to a low whisper.

“Secretary, would you please show the recording,” said Grig Flentor to another man, who was seated at a desk surrounded by monitors and holoscreens on the right side of the room.  The man didn't seem to acknowledge the councillor, but just tapped a few times on the screen in front of him, activating a large holoscreen that appeared above the Old King's Throne; it was big enough for everyone in the room to see clearly.  Triniffer concentrated as the recording started to play.  It showed the Old Royal Square from that morning, and it was alive with people.

The image on the large holoscreen scanned the crowd for a few minutes before it focused on a man unknown to Triniffer, but who was clearly wearing the blue tunic and red trimming of house Aritor. The camera then panned to reveal the Dovakian Ambassador's entourage walking across the square. The camera then focused again on the man as he approached the entourage.  It took thirty seconds or so for the man to get close, and then suddenly he pulled something out of his pocket and threw it.  Smoke billowed out of the middle of the Ambassador's party, and then started to spread across the square.  The picture then changed to a different colour, but it showed the figures in the smoke a lot clearer.  Triniffer watched as the man wearing Aritor colours ran into the smoke, made his way to the ambassador, then grabbed him from behind and made an action as if he was slitting the Ambassador’s throat.  He then let the limp body of the Ambassador drop to the ground before escaping.

A gasp echoed around the chamber, and Triniffer could hear people whispering the name Aritor all around her.  She found it hard to believe, she had always found the Aritor family one of the more reasonably minded of the noble families of Aluzarah; this was the family that young Astro belonged to as well.

Grig Flentor stood up again. “As we all here have witnessed, it is quite clear to see in the recording the assassination taking place, along with the identity of the culprit. Our law-keepers have already been able to identify the man as Fhinn Pallden.  He is the right hand man of Blane Aritor himself.  We have issued a warrant for his arrest, and as the head of the family, for the arrest of Blane Aritor as well.”


Astro

It had been a smooth ride up to the yacht, and Astro had busied himself on the journey by making sure his cargo was safe, secure, and undisturbed.

The Aritor family yacht was a goldclass starship, with a slipstream stardrive, light-refraction technology, and a full array of the best Batharokian defence systems money could buy.  She had teeth, but she was mainly built for stealth and speed.  Blane Aritor appreciated the opportunity to be able to travel undetected, an attribute that would come in handy in the present situation.  It was the perfect place to hide and be safe.

Astro had his own quarters, to which his father had naturally had a built-in lab added.  Blane was very proud of his son's scientific aptitudes, he already had eight sons join the family business, he was quite happy to have one that chose a different path in life, and so he encouraged it.

The lab was a fifth of the size of his lab back in the Pyramid of Aritor.  It had green walls, and a white ceiling; and the room smelled sterile and new.  There were three computer terminals up against the back wall, and a metal table stood in the centre of the room.  Along the near-side wall were shelves, on which stood bottles of coloured liquids, lumps of various compounds in glass jars, and other technological trinkets that Astro had picked up in one place or another.

Astro persuaded Theshkar to help him unpack, and the two of them successfully moved all of Astro's equipment into the lab before Mrs Aritor made an appearance to welcome her son.

“Darling!” she said rushing into the room and grabbing Astro dramatically.  “I am so glad you are safe!”

Astro was used to having a histrionic mother.  He indulged her behaviour most of the time.  It was easier that way.

“You have heard the news no doubt?  Are you very upset?” she said grabbing her son's face and squeezing it between her hands.

“Well, not really.  I did assume Father was innocent,” said Astro calmly through his squashed face.

“Of course he is darling, of course he is.  Now look, we're all having dinner at eight, in the officers' mess.  Please put something presentable on.  You'll make sure he looks presentable, won't you Theshkar?” she said, looking over to where Theshkar was standing.

“Yes Mrs Aritor, I'll do that,” replied Theshkar, who appeared totally amused by the situation.

“Now, don't be late!” she said, and she departed the room as ostentatiously as she had entered it.

Astro looked at Theshkar and frowned.  “That sounds like fun!” he said sarcastically.  “Can we get some work done now?”

Theshkar followed Astro into the lab where they had laid out the android.

“So how much is left to do?” asked Theshkar.

“Not that much really,” replied Astro with a smile.  “But I still need that THUSS-time.”

“The chances of that happening now are somewhat limited,” exclaimed Theshkar.

“How do you mean?” said Astro.

“Well, no doubt the ruling council will require THUSS for the on-going investigation.  I expect they'll revoke public usage of the machine forthwith,” Theshkar said knowingly.

Astro stood there and bowed his head in despair.

“What am I going to do?” he said to Theshkar.  “It's as if the whole world is against me!”

“The whole world would be against you if they knew what you were doing!” the polymath replied.

Astro looked at Theshkar with a serious look on his face.

“You know, if there was a little more understanding on your part, it would make this a whole lot easier?”  Astro's voice was dark with disappointment.

Theshkar's expression suddenly changed from one of disapproval to one of sympathy.  “Astro,” he started, “of course I understand your frustration, but I’m worried about you.  This is a dangerous journey you have embarked on, and really I should be alerting your father to what you are doing.”

“Why haven't you then?” Astro asked, a hint of belligerence in his voice.

“Because I have faith in you Astro.  Yours is the brightest young mind that I have seen in a generation.  Your ability to make connections where others can't is, quite simply, genius.  But you have to be careful.  If this obsession of yours goes wrong, you could bring down the whole family.”

“Well, the family seems to be doing a good job of that for itself at the moment!” Astro exclaimed, looking up to Theshkar with a smirk on his face.

“That as may be, but I am sure that will also come to a satisfactory conclusion.  Your father would never have anyone assassinated.  I know that as well as you do.”

Astro nodded in agreement, and then his focus returned to his work.  “So, we have an hour before dinner.  I'm going to augment the neural pathways, it would be great if you could finish growing the skin for her left leg.”

Theshkar nodded and went to work.

The hour went quickly.  And soon Theshkar was dragging Astro out of the lab and into his quarters to change.  He made sure that Astro wore something decent - as his mother asked - and dressed him in a blue Aluzaran suit, with polished brown shoes.  Although when Theshkar suggested he wear a tie as well, Astro started to get quite aggressive, so Theshkar allowed for the smart casual look.

“Are you not coming?” asked Astro.

“I think this is meant to be a family affair, due to the circumstances,” Theshkar answered, humility in his tone.

“Nonsense, go and get dressed, you're coming.  I’ll die of boredom without you there to correct me all of the time!” Astro ordered.

Theshkar smiled and did as asked.  Sometimes Astro could tell that Theshkar enjoyed the near invisible boundary between their mentor and pupil relationship.  It was obvious to most that their relationship wasn't as clear-cut as it was intended to be.  Theshkar had started off trying to fulfil the role of teacher, and of guide, but it didn't take long for him to realise that this approach didn't work with Astro.  Astro had always been a bit eccentric, but he had reacted to the introduction of Theshkar into his life as if someone was threatening him.  And so Theshkar had become more of a companion and fellow scientist than a proper mentor.  It made Astro happy, and it made him productive.  He still hadn't come up with a solution for inter-planetary mining, but his Father had other things on his mind right now, so that wasn't really a concern.  If he could just find a way to access the THUSS system, his problems would be solved.  It was just one equation he needed, the one vital equation that would provide him with the key to combining mind-reader recordings with artificial intelligence technology.  Without this key, the automaton lying in his lab right now was just that, merely a shell: full of processors, wires, levers and pulleys, and nothing more.  Of course, he needed a mind-reader as well - if indeed his theory was correct that he needed carefully structured mind-readings to interact with his AI code - but he reckoned that would be easy compared to getting the information from THUSS.  THUSS would be difficult.  He knew he'd need to be very careful once he was in the system, one mention of AI and alarms would buzz and ring all around the planet.  He would have to find a subtle way of getting the information out of THUSS; either that or try and wipe the system's memory when he’d finished, but Astro had no idea if that was even possible, or for that matter safe.

Theshkar had finally finished getting changed and the two of them made their way to the officers' mess.  There were no actual officers of any kind on board, but his father had kept the traditional military room names when he designed the ship.

As they entered the mess, Astro immediately saw and greeted his brothers.  They were all older than he was, and all they talked about were their factories and mines.  His sisters weren't there; he expected they were assisting his mother.

He had two sisters - Haylar and Nilba - and together with his mother the three of them made quite a formidable force.  It took a brave man to cross them when they were all together; which is probably part of the reason why they spent so much time together.  Haylar and Nilba did have husbands, but it was their mother they still did everything with and told everything to.  Their husbands had been transformed into plus ones; additions to the Aritor family through marriage; they were the men usually found at the back of the room saying nothing and watching for their wives' next command.

The table set in the middle of the mess looked splendid.  Even without the food it made Astro's mouth water.  It was a pity his father wasn't here; it was not often that the whole family ate together, and despite Astro's initial reluctance, once he was there he thoroughly enjoyed himself.  It was nice having the family together; it was loud and chaotic, with laughter, and a healthy dose of arguing.  In fact they were just waiting for Astro's mother to arrive - who was always the last to appear, without fail - and then they could start eating.

Suddenly Astro heard loud crying and screaming.  From the noise he realised it was his mother before she came rushing into the room.  Haylar and Nilba were close behind; both were also in the same distraught mess as their mother.  They immediately crowded around the sobbing woman, as she steadied herself on one of her older sons.

“I have terrible news,” she said trying to contain her sobbing, but she was crying too much to get the words out.  Haylar put her hand on her mother's shoulder, and although she was sobbing too, she wasn't in the hysterical state her mother was in.

“It's father,” said Haylar, the words stuttering as she sobbed.  “The ruling council have issued a warrant for his arrest.  And for Fhinn as well!”

“What! Why?” exclaimed Astro, sounding almost angry.

“The ruling council claim to have a security camera recording showing Fhinn carrying out the assassination,” replied his sister.

There were lots of cries of ridiculous, and impossible, from the Aritor men as they reacted to the news.

Suddenly there was a buzz from the intercom on the other side of the room, which made everyone turn their heads at the same time.

“Mrs Aritor, I have Mr Aritor on the holo-transmitter, shall I put him through?” announced a voice.

“Yes immediately!” she shouted as she got up and hurried over to the intercom, the rest of the family following her.  They crowded around the intercom holoscreen and the image of Blane Aritor appeared.

“Ah! You’re all there, good!” he said.

“Are you alright?” said his wife, in a concerned tone.

“Yes, yes, we're fine for the moment.  We just need to sort out this mess.  Someone is trying to frame me, I know this now.  The recording that the ruling council have been shown has been tampered with; it shows Fhinn carrying out the assassination.  We are lucky enough to have the original recording though, after Fhinn was able to break into THUSS and take a copy before the law-keepers got to it.”

“And what does the original show?” asked one of Astro's older brothers.

“Well, it doesn't show Fhinn that's for sure.  However we don't know who the assassin is.”

“What are you going to do?” asked Astro's mother, her sobbing having subsided a fraction.

“We're going to accompany the nice guards that the council will send, and we'll present the truth to them.  Clear our names, and hopefully be back in time to watch the game tonight,” Blane said smiling.

“Aren't the council going to ask how you happen to have a copy of the original recording?” asked Astro from the back of the crowd.

“Ah! Astro, good to see you made it up safely; and good point!  But in this case, the ends justify the means as far as I'm concerned.  We'll be truthful about how we got the recording, transparency is the best policy here I feel.  We will fight to clear the good name of Fhinn Pallden and of this family,” he finished with a loud stamp of his fist on the table in front of him, which made the image on the holoscreen wobble for a moment.

“Well, that sounds wonderful,” said Astro's mother starting to smile again.  She looked around to her grown-up children and took hold of Nilba's hand, which had been placed on her shoulder for comfort.

“Everyone just needs to stay where they are for the moment.  I'll send word once it's all over,” said Blane, then the transmission ended.

“Everything's going to be alright,” Mrs Aritor said to her family, in an attempt to be reassuring, although it was obvious she was trying to reassure herself more than anyone else.

Astro, however, was left feeling puzzled.  How had Fhinn been able to break into THUSS?  And more importantly, would he tell Astro how he did it.

 
Fhinn

“Are you sure this is what you want to do?” Fhinn asked Blane Aritor.

“I can't see that we have any other choice.  We’ve made precautions should things not go as planned, but we can't reject a summons from the ruling council.  It was my forefathers that helped set up the whole fucking system!” he said angrily.

Fhinn could tell that Blane Aritor didn't like being in this situation: not knowing who his enemy was.  Fhinn had found himself speechless and angry when the news reached them that he had been identified as the assassin.  It had been all over the Network since the news broke yesterday.  Ironically he and Blane had been watching the actual recording when the message had come through.  Although whoever was framing him couldn’t know that they had a copy of the real recording.  Blane had run through the names of those he thought had the motive and the resources to carry out such a subterfuge, but the list contained too many names for it to be of any use.  Although Blane had a suspicion that it was one of the noble families, either Flentor or Duntian: they had the most to gain.

“Sir, an escort from the ruling council has arrived,” announced a voice over the intercom.

“Tell them we'll be right down,” Blane Aritor answered.

Fhinn watched Blane as he took the data stick with the true recording on it out of his desk computer.  He then looked at Fhinn.

“Are you ready for this?” he said.

“As ready as you are, Mr Aritor,” replied Fhinn, and they got up to leave.

“Look, I know I don't need to say this,” said Blane, hesitating on his way to the door.  “But I'm going to do everything to clear your name.  We will fight to find out who is framing you and this family, and we will crush them together - is that understood?” he gave Fhinn a look of solidarity.

“Understood, Mr Aritor,” replied Fhinn, with a determined smile on his face.

The purple uniforms and black trimmings of the ruling council guards greeted them as they walked down the steps of the Pyramid of Aritor.  There were four vehicles outside: the escort vehicle, two grav-bikes to escort the escort vehicle, and a troop transport, which was full to the brim with menacing looking troops.  The troops were all armed, it was as if someone had told them to expect trouble.  Blane and Fhinn were both put in restraints, they climbed into the escort vehicle, and one of the council guards closed the door behind them.  Then there was a lot of rushing about as the guards clambered back into the two vehicles.  Before they set off, Fhinn saw Rohad and Ristik standing halfway up the steps of the Pyramid of Aritor.  They both nodded to him, and he returned the gesture, and then the escort vehicle moved away and shot up into the sky.

It took thirty minutes for them to get to the Pyramid of Sunsets.  The whole journey was spent in silence.  It was still morning and the sun looked to be resting on the Pyramid of Gotha as they sped past.  Fhinn thought back to the break-in from the day before and wondered why there had been no news of that on the Network yet.  Maybe the law-keepers weren't quite sure what to report, he wondered.

As the escort vehicle came to a halt, Blane Aritor looked around at Fhinn and gave him a nod.  Then the door was opened by one of the council guards, and the two of them got out.

Fhinn was surprised at the number of troops standing to attention outside of the Pyramid of Sunsets, it seemed like a whole battalion was there to greet them.  None of them looked at Fhinn or Blane Aritor as they were escorted into the pyramid.  However all of them would have known who the two men were.  They would all of been aware of Fhinn's reputation as well, from when he was in the armed forces.  He had a reputation of being hard but fair, and his troops had respected him for it.  They followed him into battle willingly.  He had always believed that a feeling of camaraderie between the troops and their commander made a more effective fighting unit, and he had encouraged the same philosophy in his junior officers.  It was just a shame that his superior officers didn't appreciate this approach.  He had been lectured on the responsibilities of command; and was told in no uncertain terms that someone who has to order other soldiers to their deaths cannot be overly familiar them.  He had been ordered to maintain a strict separation of rank within his battalion.  That was when Fhinn had decided that the military was no longer the life he wanted anymore.  If the military no longer had any place for camaraderie and fraternity, then Fhinn no longer had any place for the military.

By this time, they had been escorted into the bowels of the pyramid, and were now standing before the door to the ruling council chamber.  On the way, Blane Aritor had made the escort stop underneath the family Banner of Aritor that hung in the entrance area.  He had bowed his head in respect and said a few words to himself before he had agreed to continue.

Fhinn then heard the bang of the Herald's staff on the stone floor inside the council chamber.

“Blane Aritor and Fhinn Pallden.” the Herald announced.

Then the door opened.

Fhinn could see that the chamber was crowded.  There were members of all the noble families there, as well as high ranking officials and other observers.  He noticed the guardians were also present.  He had heard they had been appointed as the Official Witnesses.

As he was pushed towards the centre of the room, Fhinn looked towards the old Kings’ throne that stood at the far end.  It stood there as a reminder of more brutal times.  But now it was empty, and nothing more than a chair; it had lost its power. 

“All rise,” shouted the Herald, and the ruling council entered the room.

Blane and Fhinn were already standing, and the rest of the congregation joined them as the council members filed into the chamber.

It took a few minutes for everyone to get to their seats.  Fhinn watched each member of the council, trying to catch any glances that would provide him with a hint of who were his enemies and who were his friends.

Then a member of the council - who Fhinn recognised as Grig Flentor - stood up and prepared to address the chamber.

“This session of the council has been called to review the evidence in the case of the assassination of the Ambassador of Dovakai, which occurred yesterday in the Old Royal Square.”

Fhinn could see Blane Aritor staring at the members of the noble families seated in the observation area.  His eyes were cold with resentment, and his posture stiff with indignation.  Fhinn feared for the person who had tried to frame them if Blane Aritor ever got his hands on them.

“Fhinn Pallden, you stand here accused of murder, and Blane Aritor, you stand here accused of ordering that murder; the evidence of which we will review in a few moments.  But first, do either of you wish to say anything at this point in the proceedings?”

Blane turned to the council.  “All that I would say is that we are innocent of the crime of which we are accused, but I wish to reserve further comment until we have seen this... evidence of yours.”

“As you wish,” replied Grig Flentor, turning to the secretary of the ruling council.  “Secretary, play the recording if you please.”

The secretary tapped a few times on one of the holoscreens in front of him and another holoscreen appeared above the old kings’ throne.

Fhinn watched as he saw an almost identical recording from the one he had retrieved - except for one major discrepancy.  The recording he was watching had him in it!  Someone very clever had worked on this recording and done it very quickly too.  It had been viewed only a few hours after the actual incident, and by most of the people in this chamber.  THUSS had even told him he was the first to take a copy, which meant that whoever was trying to frame him had an extremely small window of opportunity to doctor the original recording, and then plant it for the law-keepers to find.  In fact Fhinn couldn't see how it could have been possible, seeing as the law-keepers were there when he left.  Unless THUSS had been lying and someone had taken a copy before he got there - did THUSS lie?  He didn't think so.

As the recording ended Grig Flentor got up.

“We have seen the evidence.  I think it speaks for itself,” he said, addressing the other members of the council.

“This evidence is a lie,” Blane Aritor said loudly.

All heads in the chambers spun around to look at him.

“I have the original recording of the incident, and it shows the true assassin: not the good man who stands next to me now.”

“An original recording?” said Grig Flentor looking rather uncomfortable.  “And where did you obtain this recording from?”

“That does not matter,” replied Blane.  “All that matters is the fact that a fraud is being perpetrated here.”

“A fraud?” rebuked Grig Flentor.  “Remember where you are.  We are the highest authority in the land.  Be careful who you accuse.”

“I am not accusing anyone, if you would care to listen.  I said a fraud has been perpetrated, I did not say by whom,” reacted Blane angrily.

“Well, would you care to enlighten us then?” arrogantly replied Grig Flentor.

“This I do not know.  All I know is what I have seen with my own two eyes.  And on the original recording, which I have here in my hand, it is clear to see that Fhinn Pallden is not the assassin”

“So your explanation for the recording we have just seen is that someone has manipulated it?”

“That's correct,” confirmed Blane.

Grig Flentor looked at the other council member and then back at Blane.  He then descended from the council podium and approached the centre of the room where Fhinn and Blane were standing.

“Could I have the recording?” he asked blankly.

Blane just stared at Grig Flentor, with a look of distrust on his face.

Grig Flentor moved closer to them.  “If you want your recording to be viewed, you’ll have to give it to me,” he said softly, so only Blane and Fhinn could hear.

Blane Aritor hesitated for a moment more, and then handed over the recording into the outstretched hand.

“This evidence is inadmissible,” Grig Flentor announced loudly to the chamber as he stepped back.  “It has questionable origin and has not been reviewed by the law-keepers.  It shall not be allowed.”

Then, to the shock of everyone in the room, Grig Flentor dropped the data stick onto the stone floor and crushed it with the heel of his shoe.

“You bastard,” shouted Blane, making a grab for the councillor.  Fhinn didn't try to stop him.  Guards rushed to the scene, just as Blane had Grig Flentor by the collar and was shaking him violently. 

This was the eventuality that Fhinn had made preparations for.

He turned over the palm of his hand, where an ultra-thin micro-transmitter was attached, and he pressed it, hard.

He had given the receiver to Rohad and Ristik, who at the very moment they received the signal from Fhinn would spring into action.  If they had done as Fhinn ordered, they had already taken the light-refraction devices and followed the escort vehicle to the Pyramid of Sunsets.  Once they received the signal, they would activate the devices and enter the pyramid.  And from the sound coming from outside the door of the chamber this is exactly what they had done.

Just at the same moment that the guards pulled Blane away from Grig Flentor, the door of the council chamber flung open with a loud bang.  Everyone in the chamber watched as a council guard fell through the open door, and then Rohad and Ristik appeared.  Fhinn noticed they hadn't activated the light-refraction devices, and they were wearing full Daratoorian battle armour, which in Batharokian terms, was nearly naked.

Half a dozen guards ran towards the twins, but were soon regretting their decision as Rohad and Ristik reduced them to a pile of broken bones and bruises within a few moments.

As Grig Flentor realised what was happening he suddenly shouted,

“This is treason, guards arrest them,” and he pointed towards the twins who were now moving menacingly towards the centre of the room, dispatching assailants as they went.

There was confusion everywhere, council members and observers were not sure whether to run for it or stay where they were, whilst the ten or so guards that were in the chamber tried in vain to stop the twins.

“You two!” Grig Flentor shouted at two of the guards who were now holding Blane.  “Take these two into the anti-chamber and lock the door.”  But before the two guards could obey; and despite the restraints; Fhinn had disarmed one and was now pointing his blaster at the head of the other.  The other guard dropped his weapon.  It was then that Rohad and Ristik appeared behind them.  Ristik obligingly knocked both the remaining guards out cold, whilst Rohad removed the restraints from Blane and Fhinn's wrists.

Blane then grabbed Grig Flentor by the collar and pulled him close.

“If you’re the one responsible for this I will have your blood,” he said angrily, spittle spraying as he spoke.  He then pushed the man with such force that he fell onto the ground; his head hit the floor as he fell and after that he didn't move.

The room was now empty of guards, except for the ones lying on the floor.  Shocked and scared faces of the remaining councillors stared back at them, as they and assembled observers tried to flee from the council chamber.  Fhinn could hear orders being shouted, as troops were mobilized outside.

“We have to be quick,” he said.  “Did you bring the light-refractors?  I noticed you haven't used them?” he looked up at Rohad.

“We like to face our enemy in battle.  Better we save them for you and Mr Aritor,” he said handing over the two devices.

Fhinn took them and handed one to Blane.  They both attached them to their belts.

“Right, let's get out of here!” said Blane.  “I don't suppose you brought any weapons with you?” he added, looking at Rohad and Ristik.

“We don't need weapons,” Ristik said.

“We have these!” finished Rohad, and they both unsheathed the shieldswords from the harnesses on their backs and switched them on with a flick of their wrists.  There was a low humming sound as the sword shaped devices emitted a pulse of charged photonic particles, which encased them in a shimmering clear blue ball.  The force fields would be vital if they were to get past the blaster fire that would no doubt be coming their way, Fhinn thought.

“Okay, good - then you two go first, we'll follow, demobilizing any stragglers which you miss.  I trust we have a transport?” asked Blane.

“We do, as soon as they see us coming out of the pyramid, it'll land.” replied Rohad.

“You do remember the battalion of troops outside don't you? They’re bound to be waiting for us?” reminded Fhinn.

“These shieldswords will keep the blaster fire at bay, we'll fight our way through hand-to-hand.”  Rohad and Ristik both smiled.  They were way outnumbered and they had no weapons, which were the exact conditions the twins preferred.

The party left the council chamber and headed carefully up the corridor.  Blane and Fhinn had switched on the light-refractors, and the four of them moved towards the entrance area of the pyramid, with the photonic shield humming around them.  Rohad and Ristik had positioned themselves a few metres apart so their shields overlapped in the right place to give them a wider area of protection.  Suddenly Fhinn could see troops positioning themselves at the mouth of the pyramid entrance.

“Give yourselves up, there is nowhere for you to go!” shouted one of the troopers, obviously the sergeant.

“Not whilst there is corruption on the council!” shouted Blane in return, and they continued moving forward.

When they were about ten metres away from the soldiers, who were now pointing blaster rifles at them, the sergeant shouted again. “Stop where you are or we will shoot!”

Blane Aritor made no sign of slowing his pace, and so neither did Fhinn or the twins.

“Fire!” shouted the sergeant.

The rifles fired, but the blaster rounds were just absorbed by the photonic shield.  The four moved forward until the shield also covered the troopers.  Ristik seemed to move quicker than Fhinn had ever seen, and Rohad was easily able to take down multiple opponents at once.  They were soon continuing out of the pyramid leaving a groaning pile of troopers behind them.

As they appeared from the pyramid entrance, they were welcomed by the sight of a few hundred troops who were obviously waiting for them, with a few hundred blaster rifles pointing in their direction.

“Fire!” someone shouted, and a few hundred blaster rounds impacted into the photonic shield.

Fhinn could smell the burning of the ionized-air glow, as the shieldswords deposited the energy of the blasters into the surrounding air.

As the blaster rounds continued to be absorbed by the shields, Fhinn looked up and saw a craft hovering above them.  The four made their way to the centre of the square, fighting their way through, hand-to-hand, with the whoomping sound of blaster fire dispersing on the shield, as the craft started to descend.

It really said a lot about the law-keepers that they just stood there pummelling the force-field with blaster fire, Fhinn thought, especially when it obviously was getting them no-where.  But then, the few men that were brave enough to run into the shimmering blue globe of the photonic shield were soon lying on the ground broken and bloody.

Maybe the troopers were afraid? after all, no-one could see Blane or Fhinn, all they saw were their fellow soldiers dropping to the ground without any visible blow being laid on them. The more superstitious may have thought Rohad and Ristik were wizards of some sort; after all, none of them would have seen shieldsword technology before.

As the craft landed it enveloped the four in its force field.  The troopers were still firing, their commanding officers lacking the imagination to come up with an effective alternative.  However their inability to act worked in the favour of Blane, Fhinn and the twins, as the door of the craft opened and the four of them slipped inside.

It was done.  Unless the military were going to bring out some big guns - which even they wouldn't have brought to a session of the council - they were away.

“Well done!” said Blane proudly. “Your service today will not be forgotten,” he was particularly looking at Ristik and Rohad, who had been as good as any weapon he could wish to have had.

“Sir, back to the pyramid?” asked the pilot.

“No, they will come for us there, and although we could hold them, we could do little else.  Do we have any alternatives?” he said looking around.

“The yacht?” said Fhinn.

“No.  I wish to stay on Batharok, if we are to uncover who is behind this, we need to be here.”

“We have a shack in the summer forest of Tor; we could go there,” said Rohad.  “No one knows about it, we use it when we go hunting.”

“That sounds ideal,” replied Blane.  “Fhinn what do you think?”

“It is ideal, I've been there,” replied Fhinn.

“Okay then, Rohad, give the directions to our good pilot here, and we'll be on our way.”

The troopers on the ground had stopped firing as soon the craft had lifted off.  They knew there was no point in wasting any more ammunition.

“What the hell just happened, and who the hell were those two naked people!” barked one officer, who was now watching the craft disappearing into the green sky.

“Not sure who they were, sir.  But I didn't see Aritor or his man with them, maybe that was just a diversion,” replied a sergeant standing at his side.

“Search the pyramid, I want Aritor and Pallden found alive, and make sure that craft is tracked.”

“It will be, sir,” replied the sergeant.


Skyla

One of the things she could never understand about those involved in organised crime is why they always started work so early.  However Skyla had reported to Forca and Kost at dawn that morning as instructed.  They were going to a shop, to hire something for Rubius, although Skyla was very curious to find out what it was that took three of them to collect.  Forca and Kost wanted to be there as soon as the shop opened, and until then they wanted to sit in the cafe opposite and watch.  In fact, they were very particular about what they wanted

The street where the shop was located was a busy market street.  On both sides, the street was lined with shops selling the latest in home administration networks, entertainment systems, and personal gadgets, as well as high quality clothing and speciality foods.  It was one of those market streets where you needed serious money to buy anything. 

The cafe had only just opened when they arrived, and so they were able to pick a place to sit right by the window.  This gave them a perfect view of the readings shop opposite.  The shop was called Jerritor and Son - Dream Merchants.  It didn't have all the cutting-edge sales equipment that the other shops in the street had: the holo projectors and automated sales assistants.  It was, by comparison to the shops around it, quite retro.  But then it was a high-art establishment: dream-readings were not to most people’s tastes, and especially not Skyla's.  She had only experienced one once, and that had been enough.  The weird mixture of imagery and sound, jumping randomly from thought to thought, had made her head hurt.  She liked the big production readings; the ones that made you scream with joy and laugh with fear.

“So what are you going to have?” asked Forca looking down at the menu screen on the table.

“I'm going to have a cup of hot Jutka,” replied Kost.  “Are you going to have something to eat?” he asked, looking back to Forca.

“I certainly am, we've got time.  The shop won't be open for another hour!”

“Okay, then I am too.  What about you Skyla?” Kost said looking at her.

Skyla had already made her choice, and had tapped it into the menu screen.  “I'm done,” she said.

The two men looked down at the screen on the table to inspect what she had chosen.

“Good choice,” said Forca.

These men obviously spent a lot of time waiting around.  They had made an art out of lingering, taking care of every tiny detail in their interaction with the world around them; be that ordering food, or looking in shop windows at the latest designer wear, or how they spoke with certain people, everything was done meticulously and with great deliberation; unless - so Skyla came to realise - you worked with them.

“So Mr Bannepal's taken a shine to you?” said Forca after they had finished their food and were sipping their hot drinks.

“I work hard,” was Skyla's reply.  She wasn't going to tell them a word of her conversation with Rubius.

“We all work hard sweetheart.  Some maybe harder than others,” said Kost suggestively.

Skyla was taken aback by his comment. “What do you mean by that?” she said.  “You're not suggesting that I....”

“I don't know, did you?”

“Don't be foul,” she said slapping Kost on the arm, “He's a robot for starters! And metal men have never been my type.”

Forca smiled at Skyla's reply, and slapped Kost on the arm as well. “Idiot!” he said laughing.

Kost grabbed both his arms as if stung.

“Well, she’s only been with us a few months; it's a bit soon to get promoted.”

“She works hard.  Didn't you hear her?  Now lay off!” said Forca light-heartedly rebuking his partner.

“Did I get promoted?” Skyla said suddenly.

“Didn't you realise?  You’re not stealing grav-bikes anymore young lady,” grinned Forca.  “And don't worry about this lump, he's just cranky in the mornings, no one thinks you did anything with the boss,” he added reassuringly.

“I don't understand,” frowned Skyla.  “The boss is an android, surely he's not capable of...” she hesitated trying to find the right word.

“Fucking?” said Kost, who had suddenly brightened up at the new topic of conversation.  “You'd be surprised what technology can do these days,” he said.  And then he winked.

“That was really creepy,” said Skyla with a scrunched up look on her face.

“What?” replied Kost, defensively.

“That wink!  You should probably not do that.”

“Why not?”

“Well - it makes you look like some sort of creepy rapist.”

Forca and Kost both looked at each other.

“He is a rapist,” said Forca calmly, looking back at Skyla.  “Not habitually, but he has been known to when the job requires it.”

“Oh - well that's okay then,” replied Skyla, as it suddenly dawned on her that these people were the worst kind of criminals.  And she suddenly hated them both.

“There's no movement in that shop!” said Kost, who had been watching the place for the past few minutes.

“It's not due to be open yet,” said Forca.

“I know, but there's no movement upstairs in the flat either.  The blinds are still shut, look.”

Skyla looked up, Kost was right.  Not that it was very unusual to have closed blinds during day time, but Kost and Forca were very suspicious men, it was a hazard of their profession.

“We should go and check it out,” said Kost.

Forca looked out of the window thoughtfully for a moment.  Then he drained his cup and stood up. “Okay, let's go!” he said.

Within a few minutes they were at the door of the shop and Kost was banging on the doorframe.

“We had to do this for ten minutes yesterday,” explained Forca.  But this time there was no reply.  Kost and Forca looked concerned.

“What are we going to do?” asked Kost.

“Not sure,” replied Forca, who definitely appeared to be the thinker out of the two of them.

“Why don't we ask one of the neighbours?” suggested Skyla.

“Simple, I like it,” smiled Forca at her.

Next door was a shop selling speciality wine.  Kost's eyes widened when he saw the sampling table full of bottles waiting to be tested by potential customers.

“Don't even think about it,” said Forca, putting his arm in front of Kost.

Suddenly a brightly dressed wide-smiling man appeared from behind a curtain at the back of the shop.

“Good morning sirs, and madam,” he said approaching them with a half-skip in his step, walking around crates of wine that had been piled on top of each other in an attempt to create an aesthetic appeal to the shop.

“We're not here to buy wine,” explained Forca immediately.  “We just wondered if you knew why the shop next door isn't open?”

“You mean the Dream Merchant?” the shopkeeper asked.

“Yes, we did expect it to be open by now.”

“Actually, I think Mr Jerritor has gone away.”

Despite maintaining their cool perfectly, Skyla could see this comment had an irritating effect on both men.

“What makes you say that?” asked Forca, smiling politely.

“Well, I saw him get into a cab yesterday afternoon, about an hour before I shut, and I haven't seen him come back.  He had suitcases and equipment with him as well.”

Forca and Kost both looked at each other as if communicating silently.  Although they probably knew each other so well, that they could tell what the other was going to say anyway.  Skyla stood behind them both, watching, as Rubius had told her to.

“If I may trouble you with one last question?” said Forca.

“Of course,” replied the shopkeeper brightly.

“You don't know where he might have gone, do you?”

“No idea, I'm afraid.  He just sort of rushed off, without saying a word.”

“Thank you,” replied Forca, before giving Kost and Skyla a nod that meant time to leave.

“Do we know anyone in the cab company?” asked Forca once they were outside.

“I think we do, yes, old Thretson manages one of the call centres.”

“Of course, good old Thretson,” sighed Forca reminiscing.  “He owes us a few,” he smiled at Kost.

“He certainly does,” replied Kost, laughing.

“What?” asked Skyla, wanting to be in on the joke.

“Come on,” said Forca. “We'll tell you on the way.”

It took half an hour to reach the cab company call centre.  Kost had already called ahead and arranged to meet the contact somewhere outside the building.

The call centre was located in a business park, where large cheaply built office blocks were used to house battery workers: those poor bastards who spent most of their lives cooped up in small desk units stacked one on top of the other.

They arrived at the cab company call centre and parked on the next street over.

The buildings were dark and loomed high above the streets below.  They cut out the sun, casting cold shadows on the surrounding locality.  Skyla shivered; it was a cold that seeped through to her bones, more than just a change in temperature: the shadows of the buildings seemed to freeze her soul.

“Over here!” said Kost suddenly, pointing to a dark figure that was lurking on the other side of the street.

Skyla followed Kost and Forca as they approached the figure.

“Thretson?” Kost called out as they got closer.

“Kost, good to see you.  I see you've brought your girlfriend with you?” he said looking over at Forca.

“Very funny,” replied Forca.

“And who is this pretty little thing?” said Thretson looking Skyla up and down.

“This little thing will remove your cock and shove it down your throat if you speak to her like that again,” said Forca.

Skyla smiled at Thretson menacingly.

“Okay, message received.  Onto business, shall we?” said Thretson quickly changing the topic of conversation.

“So, what have you got for us?” asked Kost.

“I've got a cabbie that picked up from outside the location you gave me, late yesterday afternoon.  He went to a school where he waited a few minutes and then drove onto the main transport terminal.”

“Any idea where the passenger was going?” asked Forca.

“You could ask the cabbie that, he might know; this particular fella is a chatty sort.  Other than that I can't help you; you'd have to ask at the transport terminal.”

“Okay, good enough.  Any idea where this cabbie is now?” asked Forca.

“No idea, but I could put a call out for him, tell him to pick you up from here.”

“Sounds good, do that,” replied Forca.  “And if he doesn't know anything, he can drive us onto the transport terminal.”

After that Forca thanked Thretson for the information and Thretson left, disappearing into the gloom of the shadows.

“That was easy,” remarked Skyla.

“That's because the hard work was done years ago: getting Thretson into our pocket.  That one knows to do what he's told, unless he wants his wife to receive a few choice pictures of him at one of Mr Bannepal's parties a few years back.”

“I see,” said Skyla.  She was starting to see a pattern in the way Forca and Kost operated.  It wasn't about charging in with power at maximum, it was about subtlety, and using other people’s mistakes against them.  And everybody made mistakes.

It took about ten minutes of waiting around in the shadows of the huge office blocks before a blue cab landed alongside them, and a good-looking face popped out of the window.

“Are you the folks Mr Thretson asked me to pick up?”

“That's right,” replied Forca, opening the back door of the cab and ushering Skyla and Kost into the back seats.

After they had got in, the cab took off and joined the stream of anti-gravity vehicles steadily meandering their way through the sky.

“So, where to folks?” asked the cab driver, looking in his rear-view mirror and giving Skyla a smile.

“That depends on you,” said Forca, leaning forward and looking for the name of the driver on the ID tag that was attached to the back of his chair, “...Kosh,” he added.

“Sorry, I don't understand,” replied the driver.

“You picked up someone yesterday from a shop called Jerritor and Sons?” asked Forca.

“I might have done,” replied Kosh suspiciously.  “Who wants to know?”

“As you are already aware, we are friends of Mr Thretson's.”

“Right!” replied Kosh, in a tone that suggested he wasn't quite sure where the conversation was going.

“We understand that you took this passenger to the transport terminal.  We want to know where he was going,” said Forca firmly.

“Well, to be honest I was so busy yesterday I can't really remember all the fares I took,” replied Kosh, looking directly ahead at the traffic in front.

Skyla could hear Forca inhaling deeply with frustration.

“Okay, Kosh, if that's the way it's going to be, you can take us to the transport terminal and we'll find out there,” said Forca eventually.  “I just thought you could save us a trip by telling us yourself.”

“And rob myself of a fare?” Kosh laughed nervously.

There was something about this man, Skyla thought to herself.  He definitely wasn't telling the truth, but there was also something deeply honest about him.  She also knew that despite what Forca said, it would be difficult getting any information from the transport terminal.  She was quite sure he wouldn't have a contact like he did at the cab company, the terminal was operated by THUSS: security of information was a lot tighter.  The driver really was their best chance.

“I think you do know where he went,” she said suddenly.  

Forca and Kost immediately spun their heads to look at her.

“In fact I think you picked up his son from school and took them to the transport terminal, but you're not the sort of man to help track down a poor young boy and his father.  Maybe the boy was an Arsenal fan like you?” she said, noticing the Aluzarah Arsenal flag hung in the back of the cab.  “Or maybe the father filled you with pity, telling stories of bad men chasing him, or maybe you have a son yourself; whatever the reason it's not going to help them.  We will find them eventually.  You'll be doing them a favour by telling us where they went.”

The driver, Kosh, looked at her in the rear-view mirror, he seemed to be thinking about his reply.

“I'm sorry,” he said after a few moments.  “I'm not at liberty to share information about my passengers; with anyone!”

“That's rubbish, you do know more than you're saying,” said Kost taking a blaster from out under his suit and pressing it to the back of the driver's head.  “Now follow these directions, and don't try anything stupid.”


Kosh

“Where are we going?” asked Kosh to the man in the back of his cab holding a blaster to the back of his head.

“You'll see when we get there,” replied the man.  “Now put these co-ordinates into the nav computer.”

Kosh did as he was asked; he wasn't about to risk his life for a Gotha Kickers fan, even if he had tried to protect him and his father.

“Look, I really don't know where they went,” he said.

“So, you do remember them now?” said the smaller man.

Damn it, thought Kosh.  “Yes, I do remember them,” he admitted.  “The father seemed to be scared of something: I assume you three; but they didn't say where they were flying to.”

“Well, we'll see about that,” replied the smaller man.

Kosh wasn't quite sure what he meant.  He wondered what would happen if he took the cab into a nosedive.  Would he survive and be able to escape the wreckage?  It wasn't worth the risk quite honestly.  He might as well wait and see where they were going, and take his chances as they came.

Kosh didn't recognise the co-ordinates he'd been given, but it was some way out of the city.  It took an hour to get there.  He could hear the men whispering in the back, but he could not hear what they were saying.  The woman just sat there, listening and watching.  Kosh wondered about her: what was she doing with these two men.  They seemed to be gangsters of some sort, but she seemed different.  She had a look of hard determination in her face, and her long dark hair and green eyes accentuated her beauty. Kosh would definitely have considered asking her out under different circumstances.

“Okay, we're nearly here,” said the man with the blaster.  “See those large hangers over there?” he pointed.  “Park at the end of the nearest row.”

Again Kosh did as he was instructed.  He parked the cab and then got out.  The man with the blaster was out just as quick as he was, and placed the muzzle of the blaster in the small of Kosh's back.

“Walk,” the man said.

Kosh walked in the direction he was being pushed.  They walked about forty metres to a hanger a third of the way up the row, and then through a door at the side.  The hanger was empty.

“Where is it?” Kosh heard the girl exclaim in surprise.

“He's out of town, should be back tomorrow,” replied the smaller man.

Kosh wondered who they were talking about, but wasn't about to ask.

The hanger was huge: about three times the size of the cab company garage.  He was pushed to the far corner of the hanger where a small building had been built up against the walls.

“In there,” said the man with the blaster.

Kosh didn't like the look of this.  He started to panic.

“What are we doing here?” he protested, stopping at the door.

“We're here to find out everything that you know,” said the man with the blaster, who suddenly jabbed him with the muzzle.  “Now get in!”

Kosh felt he had no choice.  Were they going to torture him? He wasn't sure he could stand that.  But then he realised, whatever these men were willing to do to him, they could also do to that young boy and his father, and he wasn’t sure if he could stand that either.

The small building was made up of two rooms.  The one they had entered was bare except for a table and chair in the centre of the room.  There was a smell of damp wood in the air.

“Sit down,” said the man with the blaster, as he pushed Kosh forwards to the chair.

“Come with me,” said the smaller man to the woman, and they both went into the other room.

The man with the blaster stood in front of Kosh and smiled.

“Why don't you tell us what you know and we won't have to go through this.”

“Go through what?” said Kosh anxiously.

“Oh, you'll see!” said the man smiling again.

Kosh sat on the chair in the middle of the room waiting for what would happen next.  How the hell had he got here? He thought to himself.  He was a gardener.  How was it possible that he was sitting there with a blaster pointed at him, on the verge of possibly being tortured.

The smaller man and the woman then came back into the room.

“What's that?” said Kosh nervously, noticing an old-style syringe in the smaller man's hand.

“This is going to help you open up to us, dear Kosh,” he said, approaching with a grin on his face.

“Come here and hold him,” the man said to the other two.

Kosh started to panic again and tried to struggle free, but he soon felt the muzzle of the blaster pressed against the side of his head and he sat back down again.

“Now, don't move, or this will hurt,” said the smaller man.  He tore open Kosh's sleeve and pressed the tip of the syringe needle firmly against the skin of his arm, until there was a soft pop sound and the needle slid into Kosh's flesh.

The next thing Kosh knew he was lying on the floor, and he could only guess how he got there because he didn't remember.

The two men then helped him back onto the chair.

“Maybe the dose was a bit strong,” said the smaller man.  He stood in front of Kosh, stroking his chin thoughtfully.

“Well, I've never seen anyone collapse before, maybe he'll be extra truthful,” laughed the man with the blaster.

The girl just looked on, silently watching.

“Kosh?” said the smaller man, waving his hand in front of Kosh's face.  “How are you feeling?”

“A bit dizzy actually,” replied Kosh, who was wondering why the room was spinning.

“Okay, maybe the dose was a bit high,” admitted the man.  “It just may last for a bit longer.  So, do you want to do the checks?” he said turning to the man with the blaster.

“Sure!” the man replied enthusiastically.  He then looked down at Kosh. “What's your name?” he said.

“Kosh Ridel,” Kosh replied without thinking.

“And what is it you do?”

“I drive a cab,” he answered, again without thinking.

“And what do you think of Skyla?” said the man with the blaster, pointing to the girl.

“She's hot!” replied Kosh, not quite believing what he just said.

“Okay, it's working,” said the man with the blaster, chuckling to himself.

The girl was blushing.  Kosh was feeling very odd.  He hadn't meant to say what he did; he just felt the words come tumbling out of his mouth.

The smaller man now took position in front of Kosh.

“Now, tell us Kosh, where did you take the passenger who you picked up from outside Jerritor and Sons yesterday?”

“I took him to the Aluzarah first High school, and then onto the main transport terminal.”  What did I just say? Kosh thought to himself.

“How are you doing this?” he said, feeling anxious.

“Just a little truth serum, shall we continue?” the smaller man smiled.  “Now, where was your passenger going to, after you dropping him off at the transport terminal?”

“He was going to Gesch, to visit some friends of his wife.”  Damn Damn Damn, Kosh swore to himself.

“Very good,” said the smaller man smiling.  He then turned to the man with the blaster.  “Tie him up,” he said.

After he had been tied up, the three of them stood there looking down at Kosh.

“So who's going to stay here with him, you or me?” said one of the men to the other.

“I'll stay with him,” said the girl quickly.

Both men suddenly looked around at her.

“You?  Are you sure?” the smaller man said.  “Think you can handle him?”

“Not a problem,” replied the girl.  “And as you said, the boss gets back tomorrow.  I don't mind watching him until then.”

“All night?” exclaimed the man with the blaster.

“Well, someone's got to! And anyway, I don't want to go to Gesch.  I have some old friends there I wouldn't want to bump into.”

“Lucky bastard is all that I can say!” exclaimed the man with the blaster, looking at Kosh.

“So be it,” added the smaller man.  “Tell the boss we've gone to Gesch to find the mind-reader.  We'll send news tomorrow.”

“Okay, will do,” she replied.  “But before you go.  How long will this truth serum last?”

“With the dose I gave? Probably another six or seven hours,” the smaller man replied, smiling.

The two men then both warned Kosh that if he tried anything they'd hunt him down and kill him, several times over, and then they left.

As the door closed, Kosh looked over to the girl, who was leaning against the back wall looking back at him.

“So, it's just you and me,” she said.


Pilo

Their arrival in Gesch couldn't have been better.  Pilo had called his late wife's friends from the transport terminal the evening before, and told them he and Goodwin were coming.  After a moment of initial surprise they loved the idea, and told Pilo they'd send a cab to come and pick them up when they arrived.

Gesch was a university town.  Pilo and his wife had both studied there, and met there.  It was at Gesch University that Pilo had received his qualification to allow him ownership of the mind-reader.  It was not an uncommon qualification to have, it could be used to get a job at any of the reading production companies; but a new mind-reader itself cost hundreds of thousands of credits, so they were quite rare; Pilo was just lucky enough that he had his great grand-father's hand-me-down.

Gesch was a typical university town.  It was full of bars and cafes that crowded around the central university buildings.  It was very red as well, with avenues full of trees and large gardens for the students to relax in and feel at one with nature.  Pilo had fallen in love with his wife in some of the wide-open parks of Gesch.

After the cab had dropped off Pilo and Goodwin, they were allowed to freshen up and unpack their things.  Dinner would be in an hour.  Dinner would give Pilo a chance to explain what had happened.  Although he wasn't quite sure how much of the truth he should reveal.

His wife's friends were the Golfons - Krisk and her husband Feath.  They had been joined before university and had shared digs with his wife.  It was the Golfons that his wife - Francha - had been visiting on the day she died.  They were her closest friends and the ones Pilo kept in touch with the most.  They also had a son about the same age as Goodwin: his name was Tokki and he and Goodwin got on as if they were brothers.  Neither of them had a biological brother, which may be part of the reason why they were so close.  Pilo tried to visit them a few times a year, more for Goodwin than for himself.  But he never talked about their trips, or told his customers where he was going.  Only because coming here reminded him of his wife, and he didn't like talking about her to anyone.

Their hour was nearly up, so Pilo and Goodwin made their way down the stairs of the Golfon's house to join them for dinner.  The house was large.  Feath and Krisk had started their own business after university, selling clothing made from high-quality synthetic materials.  It was very successful.  Feath designed the clothes himself and Krisk ran the money side of the business.  They now even delivered to Velderes and Ulandy.  And the success had allowed them a nice place to live: the rooms were decorated with warm colours and had plush furniture, they always had the finest food, and there was always plenty of space for Pilo and Goodwin to stay.

The Golfons had put on a large dinner of roast Quirl with buttered Fappees and Grintops, and served it with a wine from the Summer Forests.

“So, we were a bit surprised to get your call yesterday,” said Feath.  “Not bad surprised though, good surprised,” he added clarifying himself.

“Well, it was a bit of a spur-of-the-moment decision to come really,” Pilo started to explain.  “I've got a bit of business to do in Gesch, it was one of those opportunities that suddenly came up, and so we had to rush over.”

“That's great,” said Krisk smiling.  “What'll you be doing?”

What will I be doing? thought Pilo, good question!  Pilo didn't want to hesitate too long, for fear they'd realise he was hiding something.  “I've been hired to record someone's dreams actually,” he lied.  “And it's quite a long job as well, could take weeks,” he looked up at Krisk and Feath hopefully.

“Of course you can stay here as long as you like,” said Krisk smiling.

“We can get a hotel if it's too much bother.”

“We wouldn't hear of it, you'll stay with us,” she said definitively.

“Many thanks,” said Pilo, bowing his head towards them and smiling gratefully.

Goodwin and Tokki weren't listening to the grown-ups talk.  They were both holding hand-held computers and seemed to be engaged in some sort of dual shoot-'em-up game.

“You really shouldn't be playing that at the table,” said Krisk to her son.

“But Goodwin's playing with his?” whined Tokki.

“But he's only playing it because you are,” she reasoned.

“Krisk is right,” said Pilo backing her up.  “Goodwin, put that down and eat your dinner.  Look at the lovely feast Krisk and Feath have prepared for us!”

Goodwin looked up from his game and at his father, then he put it down.  “Yes Papa,” he said reluctantly.

Tokki followed suit and they both started eating; or rather, playing with their food and giggling at each other would be a more accurate description.  Pilo and Krisk looked at each other and shrugged.

“Boys will be boys,” she said.

“Absolutely,” replied Pilo smiling.

“So, how is the dream reading business going?” said Feath suddenly.

“Not bad,” replied Pilo, glad with the change of conversation.  “I have my regular customers, and I even have a few nobles come in as well!  Although I'm never sure if they really appreciate the readings, or if they buy them just because they think it makes them feel intellectual.”

“So, you have to be intellectual to enjoy dream-readings?” said Feath.  “I always wondered why I never understood them.”

Krisk laughed.

“Not at all!” replied Pilo, laughing as well.  “I have all sorts of different people coming into my shop, it's just that it's developed a certain status of high-art over the past decade.  I'm not complaining, it does wonders for business!”

“It's become high-art thanks to you Pilo, and you know it!” said Krisk. “But I never see your name in the Art journals anymore, you don't promote your work like you used to, not since…” Krisk looked across at Pilo with a warm look in her eyes, “…well, you know,” she finished.

Pilo paused for moment, thinking of Francha.  “She was my muse Krisk,” he said solemnly.  “I just don't have the passion for it that I once had.  It all seems empty.”

Krisk reached across and held Pilo's hand, offering comfort.

“Oh come on you two, we can't do this every time!” said Feath trying to brightened up the mood.  “Let’s stop thinking about the past and go and have a drink.”

“Like that will help!” said Krisk.

“It always helps!” replied her husband.

The three of them then got up and moved into the living room.  It was larger than the dining room and had cushioned chairs around the walls.  At one end was a holo-fire that crackled blue and yellow, and actually gave off warmth as well.

The two boys had been sent to get ready for bed, and Pilo was making himself comfortable with a glass of Ulandyan brandy.

“Feath, can you take this rubbish out to the energy converter?” shouted Krisk from the kitchen.

“In a minute, I'm just trying to get Tokki to clean his teeth,” shouted a voice from upstairs.

“Okay,” she shouted back.

Pilo liked being in a family atmosphere again.  Not that he and Goodwin weren't a family, but it was different than when Francha was there:  when mother and father worked together to bring up a child.  That was what he liked about being at the Golfon's: he liked hearing them argue about Tikko's future, or about who would be taking him to school, or even just listening to them reading him a bed-time story, making their son laugh by putting on funny voices for the characters.  It was the little things he missed the most about Francha not being there.  Goodwin loved his father telling him stories of course, but it wasn't as much fun as when he and Francha had done it together; like he hears Krisk and Feath reading stories to Tikko.

Suddenly Pilo was dragged away from his thoughts by the sound of Feath bounding down the stairs, whose head then appeared through doorway.

“You alright in here?” he asked, smiling.

“Just fine, thanks,” replied Pilo raising his glass.

“Great, just taking the rubbish out and then I'll join you.”  Then his head disappeared from the doorway again.

It was a few minutes before Feath returned.  He walked into the room slowly, and Pilo noticed he had a concerned look on his face.

“There's a man standing outside.  Just staring at the house,” he said.

Pilo suddenly had a sinking feeling.  They can't have found us, he thought.  “A man?” he asked.  “What did he look like?”

“Grey suit, grey shoes, and really pale skin.  I called out to him but he didn't move.  Come and have a look!”

Pilo recognised the description, it was the man from the hotel the evening before.  How odd! He thought to himself, before standing up and following Feath to the front door.

Feath pulled back the blinds on the window next to the door, and pointed.  “Look, by those trees, over there!”

Pilo peered through the window.  The other side of the street had a line of trees separating it from the side of the street they were on.  And just as Feath had said, there was the man he'd seen at the transport terminal, lurking.

“Let's go out and ask what he wants,” said Pilo, suddenly feeling brave.

“You're kidding me?” replied Feath taken aback.  “I'm not going out there!”

“Why not?” asked Pilo.

“Well, look at him!” Feath stared through the window again.  “He looks a bit creepy, I wouldn't want to go and ask him anything!”

“Oh, come on!” said Pilo, opening the front door.  Feath reluctantly followed.

Pilo led as they strolled down the path leading from the house to the street.  However, as Pilo looked over to the other side of the road, the man in grey took one look at him and starting to walk off in the other direction.

“Hey!” Pilo shouted, quickening his step.

The man in grey carried on walking.

“Hey! You there!” shouted Pilo again.

The man in grey turned the corner at the end of the street.  Pilo started to run.  He reached the corner, but the street on the other side was empty: no man in grey, no anybody.

That’s odd, Pilo thought to himself, looking around.

“Where did he go?” asked Feath, who suddenly appeared at Pilo's shoulder.

“No idea, just seems to have disappeared,” he replied, looking perplexed.


Triniffer

Triniffer didn't really know what to make of it all, and neither did Kraytor and Olikar.  They had been kept under close watch since Blane Aritor and Fhinn Pallden had escaped from the Pyramid of Sunsets.  It had been quite an escape from what she saw.  The two Daratoorians who came charging into the council chamber - naked, except for skin-tight body amour in all the right places - were very effective to say the least.  The shieldswords they used enabled them to walk straight through a battalion of four hundred troops, unscathed.  She had heard Wing-commander Russ was so furious he'd punched Flight Lieutenant Ofcar in the face, which she enjoyed picturing immensely.  The Daratoorians hadn't even harmed anyone, except for a few broken bones; no one died, that was the main thing.  No one seemed sure what happened to Blane Aritor and Fhinn Pallden either; they just seemed to have disappeared.  She had been told the craft that picked up the two Daratoorians was being tracked, but apart from that the law-keepers weren't sure where they were.  Grig Flentor had been furious at that.  Triniffer didn't like him; there was something about him that was so very wrong.  He shouldn't have crushed the data-stick that Blane Aritor had brought to the session; he should have had it investigated immediately.  It made Triniffer suspicious, and Triniffer wasn’t the only one.

“If you ask me that Flentor is behind this!  He willingly destroyed evidence that could have exonerated poor Fhinn Pallden,” said Olikar.

Poor Fhinn Pallden?” mocked Kraytor.  “Don't make me laugh, we have no idea what was on that other data-stick.  We only have Blane Aritor's word for that.”

“But there was no motive mentioned, and no proper defence!”

“That's because Aritor decided to run off before the session ended!” argued Kraytor.

“Nonsense!” replied Olikar.  “He had no choice.  That Flentor was clearly against him; he should never have been allowed to be spokesperson for the council, everyone knows relations between the Aritor and Flentor families have not been affable of late.”

“That doesn't make Flentor responsible!” cried Kraytor.

“Well, why did he crush the data-stick then?”

“I'm not sure.  He shouldn't have done it.  But I'm sure the reason isn't because Flentor had faked the recording we had all just viewed.  He's a member of the council! Have you forgotten that?”

“Don't be so naive to think that the council are beyond corruption Kraytor.  It has happened before.”

“A long time ago, under completely different circumstances,” said Kraytor.  “The truth of the matter is that the only recording we have seen shows Fhinn Pallden assassinating the Dovakian Ambassador, and as the case stands that is the true and verified version.”

“I doubt it,” growled Olikar.  “I just hope Aritor had the good sense to make a copy of his version; which I believe to be the true one.  In any case they'll want THUSS to verify which is which, and I'll want to be there when they do.”

“Why don't we just ask THUSS for the real recording again?  That will sort all of this out!” said Triniffer, who had up to this time been enjoying listening to the boys fight.

“I'm not sure why I didn't think of that,” said Olikar.

“We need to get out of this damn room first,” said Kraytor.

“Leave that to me, I'm tired of sitting around here anyway,” Triniffer smiled at them.

She walked over to the door and knocked.  The door opened and a guard stood there.

“Yes Guardian?” he said.

“We need to see Grig Flentor,” she said firmly.

“I'm sorry Guardian, I was told not to let you leave the room.”

“I'm don't care what you have been told, we are the guardians of THUSS, do you presume that you have power over us?” she said angrily, taking a step towards him.

The guard took a step back, nearly tumbling as he did so.

“Well...” he said.

“We have the power over your life, do you know that?”

“What?” exclaimed the guard, suddenly looking nervous.

“We can wipe out all trace of your existence, we run the system, remember?  We can delete all of your money, your school certificates - if you have any - your whole identity, unless you let us out of this room this instant!” she took another step forwards until she was face to face with him.  “Or, we could be nice to you,” she said calmly.

The guard tried to splutter a word, but nothing came out.

“Now, if anyone asks, just say you were answering the call of nature, and when you came back we were gone, okay?”

Triniffer didn't wait for an answer; she just strolled confidently passed the guard with her head held high in the air.  Kraytor and Olikar followed briskly at her heels.

“Well done old girl!” exclaimed Olikar as he caught up.  “But we can't actually do that you know.”

“Do what?” frowned Triniffer.

“Delete someone’s identity from the system.”

“Yes, I know that, but that guard didn't,” she smiled.

“Oh, very good!” laughed Olikar.

“So, where do we find this Flentor fellow?” asked Kraytor, who was walking on the other side of Triniffer.

“I believe his chambers are at the other end of the pyramid,” said Triniffer.

“We’ll likely have to walk passed a few more guards!” asked Olikar, looking a little worried.

“If we do, just walk confidently and don't look at them, we'll be fine.”

“You're very good at this,” said Kraytor, smiling at Triniffer.

“I know people,” she replied.

It was just as Triniffer said as well, whenever they saw a guard, they just ignored him and confidently carried on with purpose, and the guards said nothing.

After ten minutes of walking through corridor after corridor, they finally came to where they thought Flentor's chambers were situated.  They came to a crossroads and stopped.

“What do you think?” asked Olikar.

“Wait a second, isn't that him down there?” said Kraytor, pointing down one of the corridors leading off from where they were standing.

“It certainly looks like him,” said Olikar squinting, trying to force his eyes to see more clearly.

The man they were looking at was about fifty metres away at the end of the corridor.  The corridors of the pyramid all looked the same: stone walls and stone floors, ceiling about twice the height of a man; they were also dingy, making it difficult to see if it really was Flentor.

“Come on, let's go and see!” said Olikar, leading the way.

“Who's that he's speaking to?” Kraytor remarked.

“Not sure,” replied Triniffer.

All three of them could see two men speaking with Flentor.  Both of them were wearing the exact same grey suit, with grey shoes.  However as they got closer, Flentor and his companions noticed the approaching guardians, and the two men in grey suits started walking in the other direction whilst Flentor turned to meet them.

“Guardians, what are you doing wandering about the corridors?” said Flentor, looking nervously behind him at the two men that were now departing.

“We got bored sitting around and doing nothing,” replied Olikar.

“You can't just wander around, we still don't know the whereabouts of Blane Aritor and Fhinn Pallden; these corridors could still be dangerous.”

Olikar gave an unlikely cough.

“Well, if they are, I doubt Mr Aritor and his man would attack us!  It's you they seem to have a problem with.”

“Me?” cried Flentor, “It's not me, it's all of us!  They're the ones who have threatened our society with the murder of an off-world dignitary.”

“Their guilt in that matter remains to be seen,” replied Triniffer.  “As far as I can tell the session was never concluded.”

“I think their actions alone speaks for their guilt!” said Flentor seriously.

“I disagree.  Until the session is concluded in the presence of the accused and the council, then no official verdict can be reached.  I believe that is one of the tenets of our legal system.”

She had him, he couldn't argue with that.

“Well, we'll see all about that later.  We have called a closed session of the council; you are - of course - all expected to be there.  We shall decide then on the most prudent course of action.”

“And when is this to be?” asked Triniffer.

“In three hours.  Would you like me to escort you back to your chamber now?”

“If you must,” answered Triniffer with a stern look on her face.  “But whilst we're walking, tell me, who were those two men you were talking to?”

“Just some friends that are helping us with our investigations,” he replied quickly.

“What friends?” she asked.

“No one you need to concern yourself with, all will be discussed at the session later.  Now let's not speak so openly in the corridors, you never know who's listening,” he replied.

The guardians waited impatiently in the chamber they had been assigned.  It was a large and comfortable room.  Used for visiting dignitaries, Triniffer expected.  It contained all the modern conveniences they could have required:  holoscreens where they could order food or beverages, or access the Network; there were comm systems in case they needed to call anyone; and even a bathroom with nanobot-shower.  Olikar had - of course - already indulged himself in the fine foods that the holo-menu had to offer.  Kraytor had eaten something small, just to keep the hunger away; as had Triniffer.

She could tell both men were as nervous as she was.  They were nervous about what was to come.  They all knew that Blane Aritor could raise an army if he wanted to.  He had the men loyal to him to be able to do it.  And if he had any more troops like the two Daratoorians that helped him escape the pyramid, then Aluzarah might be in danger of all chaos breaking loose.  The ruling council must have realised all this too, she thought.  She had no doubt Flentor did. 

The two grey men that Flentor was speaking to earlier seemed suspicious; she had the feeling that he was up to something.  She still couldn't ignore the feeling in her gut that Fhinn Pallden was innocent.  There was something about the stunned look on his face as he watched the recording of the assassination, like the look of someone who didn't expect to see himself there.

It was another hour before someone came and checked on them, and told them the session would be starting in ten minutes.  Triniffer would be glad to get this over with.

Eventually a guard arrived to escort them to the council chamber.

“About bloody time!” exclaimed Olikar, who had become decidedly grumpier in the last hour.

It was nearly evening and the pyramid seemed quiet.  Especially considering the events that had occurred here in the last forty-eight hours.  There were still various officials and admin staff rushing about, but there was a noticeable lack of security.  This told Triniffer all she needed to know about Flentor’s claim that Blane Aritor and Fhinn Pallden were still possibly in the building.

They arrived at the council chamber.  The ruling council had not yet taken their seats, but the representatives from the noble families had returned, and to Triniffer's consternation Wing-Commander Russ was also present.  It wasn't that she genuinely disliked the man, but he always seemed to ruffle her feathers.

The three guardians took the official witness seats in front of those reserved for other observers, and waited for the proceedings to begin.

When the council arrived, they quickly took their seats, except Grig Flentor who again acted as spokesperson.

“This session has been called to decide on a course of action, following the escape of Blane Aritor and Fhinn Pallden.  We have asked Wing-Commander Russ here today to present possible scenarios, Wing-commander Russ, over to you.”

“Thank you Councillor Flentor,” he said in his booming military voice.  “Ruling Council of Aluzarah, we have devised three scenarios for your consideration - Mr Secretary, if you could?” he looked over to the council secretary who tapped a few times on one of the screens in front of him.  Suddenly a large holoscreen above the old kings’ throne blinked on.

“Scenario one…” started Wing-Commander Russ loudly “…assumes that Blane Aritor and Fhinn Pallden are hiding out in the Pyramid of Aritor.  We would propose to use a force of a thousand battle-troops to engage the suspect and his men.  We would deploy air support in the form of anti-grav attack craft, and on the ground another company of armoured vehicles.” He paused, looking around at the congregation in the chamber.

“Scenario two…” he boomed again, “…assumes that Blane Aritor and Fhinn Pallden are positioned on-planet in an unknown location.  In this case we would propose full use of THUSS's monitoring capabilities to locate the suspects should they still be in an urban environment, or failing that, we would conduct a full search of the outlying rural areas of Aluzarah with the use of our satellite reconnaissance system.”

“Very good,” said Grig Flentor, smiling.  Triniffer was watching the screen, which displayed detailed information on collateral damage limitation and other logistics, as well as an animation showing approach vectors and offensive positions for each scenario.

“Scenario three…” Wing Commander Russ continued, “…assumes that Blane Aritor and Fhinn Pallden have escaped off-world.  Here the jurisdiction of the Aluzarah law-keepers ends; we would have no choice but to refer the matter to the Galactic court on Legat.”

“Thank you Wing Commander,” said Grig Flentor standing up again.  “Were you able to find the craft that escaped the Old Royal Square yesterday?” he asked immediately.

“We were not.  They employed some form of interference which hindered our ability to track them, Councillor.”

“And have we ascertained if the accused is concealing himself within the Pyramid of Aritor?”

“No, we have not, sir,” replied the Wing Commander.  “Guards loyal to the accused have so far refused us entry.  We request the council issue us with a formal warrant to enter the premises and carry out a full search, using full force if necessary.”

“That will, of course, be granted,” replied Grig Flentor.  “However would it not be prudent to initiate the satellite reconnaissance system now, as well as have THUSS on alert, in order to cover every eventuality, so to speak?”

“If that is what the council commands,” barked Wing-Commander Russ dutifully.

Triniffer had been listening to all of this and watching with some dismay.  What they were proposing was a manhunt on a huge scale, using a massive amount of resources; and yet there was still the question of which recording was genuine.

“Excuse me, Councillor Flentor,” said Triniffer standing up.  Grig Flentor's head spun at the unexpected interruption.  “My fellow witnesses and I have been discussing this matter, and we feel that it would be beneficial - for the sake of clarity - to order a full investigation into the appearance of a second recording of the assassination; I refer of course to the copy that you destroyed yesterday.”

Grig Flentor aimed a stony look in Triniffer's direction.  His temples were pulsating.

“Further,” she continued, “we request we reconvene this session in the Great Temple of Aluzarah, where we can all view for ourselves the original recording as preserved within the THUSS system.”

“I'm afraid the THUSS system is off limits at this moment in time, as you well know, you having provided the approval,” answered Grig Flentor, who was clearly agitated.

“That is true, but it is clear to us, as witnesses, that the investigation into the matter of the assassination of the Dovakian ambassador cannot move forward until we have validated the authenticity of the evidence.”

“I validated the authenticity of the evidence!” Grig Flentor shouted, “How dare you question the authority of this council!”

The force of his outburst took Triniffer aback.

“What you are suggesting is treason!” he pointed an accusing finger at her.

“Treason? Rubbish!” Olikar Zurb rose abruptly.  “We are trying to ensure that due process is followed.”

“It is not in your remit as official witnesses to ensure due process is followed.  You are merely observers to the on-going investigation of Fhinn Pallden and Blane Aritor's guilt.  An investigation - which come to think of it - has been halted due to their disappearance.  I therefore do not believe your services are required here any longer.  Guards, escort the guardians back to the Great Pyramid of Aluzarah, and ensure they are restricted access to THUSS.”

Triniffer could hardly believe what she was hearing.

“This isn't how we practise justice in Aluzarah!” shouted Kraytor as he was being dragged to his feet by two rather burly guards.  Triniffer looked at the other observers, who just sat there saying nothing.  She wasn't sure if they were complicit in this injustice or if they were just scared.

The council guards roughly ushered the guardians out of the council chamber to loud complaints from Olikar, who was screaming injustice and malpractice.  Triniffer knew it wasn't helping matters, but then she wasn't sure what would.


Fhinn

The transport shuttle sailed over the tops of the tall forest trees, meandering between the tips of the very tallest as it went.  The sun was just setting, and the orange light reflecting on the craft made it look like a firefly skipping from tree to tree.  Eventually the craft descended into an open glade and landed softly on the forest floor.  The dark red trees added a vibrant, energetic feel to the place, and Fhinn took a deep breath of the forest air as he disembarked from the craft.

The shack that Rohad and Ristik had spoken of was a bit more than just a shack.  In fact there was nothing shack-ish about it.  It was a two storey wooden lodge, with bedrooms, bathrooms, and a kitchen.  It covered an area of a few hundred square metres. 

The Daratoorians were in ingenious people.  The air on the planet Daratoor contained a particle that acted as a natural resistor to electricity; the Daratoorian civilisation had therefore been forced to evolve along different lines than other sentient species.  None of their technology utilised electricity, it was entirely handcrafted from wood, stone, and other natural materials; including a very rare energy producing compound called Antonite; it was used in the majority of Daratoorian technology, including the shieldswords.  This is why the twins had particularly well-hones skills when it came to building things with their hands: it was second nature to them.

The Daratoorians hadn't developed any flight technology to speak of.  In fact they had only joined the galactic society because Daratoor had been the victim of interstellar invasion - a long time ago.  They had defeated a technologically superior foe, had earned respect from their victory, and with it the help of space-faring civilisations; who happily loaned out technology to help the Daratoorians explore the galaxy, in exchange for the use of battle-hardened Daratoorian mercenaries.

Blane entered the shack and turned his head right and left, looking around.

“It's not what I expected,” he said looking at the array of holoscreens in the corner.  “But it'll definitely do!”

“We have enough bedrooms upstairs for everyone, and there is fresh running water from the stream if you need it,” said Ristik, acting the host.

“How did you do all of this?” said Blane in amazement.

“With our hands,” replied Rohad plainly.  “We will now go hunting,” he announced, and he and his sister then left the shack leaving Blane and Fhinn to settle themselves in.

As soon as they were gone Fhinn made a fire in the fireplace and Blane found some Daratoorian firewater.  They sat down with two wooden cups they'd found in the kitchen and slowly sipped at the strong tasting spirit.

“So, do you think Flentor is behind this?” said Fhinn, looking into the flames in the fireplace thoughtfully.

“It would be my best guess,” answered Blane.  “But what I can't figure out, is why?” he looked at Fhinn with an uncertainty in his eyes.  “I admit that our families haven’t got on of late, but I wouldn't have expected this! This is just so far out of the ordinary; I can't help but think there is more to it than what we’re seeing.”

“I would agree,” replied Fhinn.  “Grig Flentor used to be a good man; it was out of character for him to destroy that data-stick.”

“You did make a copy I assume?  I meant to ask,” said Blane sitting up, suddenly remembering the destroyed recording.

“I did, I gave it to the pilot who took Astro to the yacht, with orders to hand it to Theshkar upon arrival.  I figured he was the best man to trust in the situation.”

“You did right Fhinn,” replied Blane.  “In that case, the first thing we must do is retrieve that recording.  We then need to find the man who assassinated the ambassador.  I fear that the recording alone will not convince good Councillor Flentor of our innocence.”

Fhinn realised that Blane needed him to do all of this.  Blane Aritor was too high profile to be chasing around after an assassin; this was much more in tune with Fhinn's particular skill-set anyway.

“I'll do it,” Fhinn said suddenly.  “I'll get to the yacht and then break into THUSS again.  It's the quickest way to identify the man in the recordings.”

“If you’re caught, they will string you up from the highest pyramid,” said Blane seriously.

“I won't get caught.  I'll have Rohad and Ristik with me.”

“We also need anyone still loyal to me out here, we need to be able to protect ourselves.  How many do you think we've got Fhinn?” Blane said anxiously.  “How many have gone home thinking I am lost?” 

For a split-second Fhinn thought he saw a hint of sadness in Blane's face.

“None of them sir.  Your men love you; you know that better than I do.  I will arrange for your forces to secretly relocate themselves here.  We also have the barracks out at the testing facility, we have a few thousand personnel there, shall I also send for them?”

“I think that would be a good idea; I expect Flentor to come with as many troops as he can muster, so we'll need all the help we can get.  Flentor will have trouble finding us out here, but they will find us eventually, it is only a matter of time.”

“Agreed,” replied Fhinn.  He knew that they were up against the clock; but neither man knew how long they had.  The summer forests of Tor were thick with Valder Trees, which produced a resin that was luminescent and made the trees glow a soft yellow colour at night; the resin also interfered with electromagnetic fields, and therefore scanning devices were useless: it would take the council a while to find them.  But would it be enough time for Fhinn to find the real killer?  Fhinn had to hope it would be.  In any case, it was best not to waste any more time, he knew he had to leave tonight.

It was another hour before Rohad and Ristik returned with some game that they'd caught.  They ate well that evening, and after they were full, Fhinn briefed Rohad and Ristik on the plan.  They were happy to be going back into action.  As much as they liked their shack, there was trouble in the world, and they were chomping at the bit to dive straight into it.

Blane had made arrangements to contact his troops at the pyramid through a third party.  He wanted everything done carefully and quietly.  It was imperative that he remain hidden for as long as possible, to give Fhinn the time to find the real assassin.  Blane Aritor was a cautious man; he had arranged the construction of several hidden passageways leading out of the Pyramid of Aritor.  These paths were known to his troops, so he knew they would have no trouble finding their way to his location without alerting the law-keepers.  Firstly, the law-keepers weren't that good, they would be keeping a close watch on the pyramid, and his troops would be exiting half a league away.  And secondly, his troops were that good, Blane Aritor only choose the best, and he made a point of getting to know every one of them.  Fhinn was confident they would be here in a few hours, leaving behind an empty pyramid and a few hundred law-keepers who were none the wiser.

Fhinn, Rohad and Ristik had prepared their things, and were ready to go.  Blane had insisted they leave immediately; there was no need to wait until his troops arrived.  If he did have any trouble he would contact them.

As they lifted off, Blane stood outside the shack and watched them go.  They would have to fly low for a while, keeping within the interference zone of the Valder trees.  Then they could make their way up to the yacht.  It would still be in orbit, with the whole Aritor family on-board.  Anything outside the atmosphere of Batharok was no longer the jurisdiction of the ruling council, essentially they couldn't be touched: galactic law was useful like that!

The craft had got far enough along the line of trees, and the pilot tapped on the screen in front of him, sending them shooting upwards towards the planet's troposphere.

They were soon looking at a billion stars in front of them as they entered the expanse of space.  The pilot sent out an encrypted message, and almost immediately got a reply back from the yacht.  All good and going to plan, thought Fhinn.  They would soon be safely on the yacht, where they would stay for the night before heading back down to Aluzarah, and to THUSS, to try and identify the real assassin from the recording.  Fhinn was starting to feel confident that they would make it through this.

Mrs Aritor started firing questions the second Fhinn had stepped aboard the yacht.  First she didn't understand why Blane wasn't there with them, then she was asking about the council session, and then about the shack.  It had been all over the Network, apparently, and she had been terribly worried.  Blane's daughters - Haylar and Nilba - were doing a grand job of comforting their mother; Fhinn had no doubt it had become a full time occupation over the last few days.

Fhinn arranged quarters for him and the twins, and then went to see Theshkar.  He learned that he was helping Astro in the lab.

Fhinn pressed the buzzer on the outside of the door and waited.  After a couple of minutes a head poked round the door; it was Astro.

“Oh, hello Fhinn, how are you?” Astro said nervously.

“I'm fine,” Fhinn replied, noticing the anxious look on Astro's face. “I was looking for Theshkar, is he in there with you?”

“Err... yes,” Astro looked into the room for a moment pondering something.  “Wait here one second,” he said as his head disappeared from sight, and then the door closed.

Odd, thought Fhinn

A moment later the door opened again.

“Come in Fhinn, come in,” said Astro holding the door open. “How's my father by the way? I heard about the Pyramid of Sunsets, it all sounded rather exciting.”

“Exciting isn't really the word I would use,” said Fhinn walking into Astro's chambers.

“This way,” said Astro as he rushed around Fhinn and led him to a door at the far side of the room.  “We've been working,” he added as he opened the door.

When Fhinn entered the door he saw Theshkar standing behind a metal table, with his hands behind his back, watching them come in.  He didn't look like he had been working.  Fhinn was a bit suspicious.

“Is something going on here?” he asked looking from one man to the other.

“Nope, just working,” said Astro quickly.  “Usual boring science stuff, you wouldn’t be interested!”

“Okay,” said Fhinn slowly, wondering if he should pry any further.  Another time perhaps. “Theshkar, have you still got that data-stick I sent to you?”

“Of course, it's in my quarters; shall I go and get it?”

“Please,” replied Fhinn.  “I leave in the morning, and I want to have everything prepared, if you don't mind that is?”

“Not at all, I'll go and get it now,” he said.  He paused and looked at Astro for a moment, they exchanged a glance, and then Theshkar was closing the door behind him on his way out.

“So,” said Astro looking at Fhinn.

Fhinn looked back at him and raised his eyebrows. “So,” he said back.

Astro was nervously playing with some sort of blue device in his hands, and looking like he was planning to say something.

“So,” he said again.

“Yes? What is it?” asked Fhinn, wondering what the so-so'ing was all about.

Astro looked at him seriously.  “I understand you broke into THUSS?” he said quickly.

“Yes, that's right,” Fhinn answered. “That's how I got the real recording of the assassination.”  He wondered where this was going.

“How did you do it?” asked Astro curiously.

“Well, it wasn't as difficult as you'd think actually.”

“I'm glad you said that.”

“Why are you asking?” said Fhinn, starting to get curious himself.

“Well - to be honest, I need to use THUSS myself; for a project I'm working on.  It's quite important actually,” Astro looked up with a sincere look on his face.

“Absolutely not,” said Fhinn, as he suddenly realised exactly where the conversation was going.

“I just need half an hour, if you could help me get in then....”

“I said no!” replied Fhinn firmly.  “Your father would put me in restraints and send me off to the council himself if he found out I helped you break into THUSS.  You're meant to be staying here with the rest of your family.”

“Of course, you're right, far too dangerous and all that,” Astro said dismissively.  “But Fhinn, you would be helping me make a break-through that could change the galaxy.”

“Don't you realise what's happening to your family?” Fhinn suddenly shouted.  “Someone’s trying to frame us?  Your father is hiding in the summer forests of Tor, and he and I are both hunted men.  And you're concerned with your petty projects?”  Fhinn was angry.

“It's not petty,” replied Astro defensively. “And I completely understand the trouble you and my father are in, but there's hardly a lot I can do about it, is there!”

“You could start by staying here, and not thinking about gallivanting off to Aluzarah,” reprimanded Fhinn.

“How come you're going back to the planet tomorrow anyway?” asked Astro, ignoring Fhinn's previous comment.

“We need to identify the man in the original recording I retrieved.  I gave a copy to Theshkar, in case something like Grig Flentor happened.”

“Who's Grig Flentor?”

“He could be the man responsible for setting us up, but we have no firm proof of that yet,” replied Fhinn.

“So, I assume you'll be breaking into the Great Pyramid of Aluzarah again, to use THUSS?” said Astro probing for information again.

“What makes you think that?” replied Fhinn trying to be allusive.

“Well, it's the quickest way to identify your man.  And seeing as that's what you're going back to Aluzarah to do, you must be trying to use THUSS again.”

“Okay!” Fhinn gave in.  “But don't think about asking to come with us.  It'll be very dangerous, and only three can go anyway, and Rohad and Ristik are already coming with me.”  Fhinn couldn't afford to have Astro coming along.  Not only would he probably get himself killed, and not only would Fhinn have serious trouble with Blane, but they only had three light-refractors, and Fhinn wasn't risking any of them walking in there without one.

“Why can only three go?” asked Astro.

“Never mind that, you aren't coming, end of story!”

At that moment Theshkar came in with the data-stick.  Astro glanced at Fhinn a few times, looking like a disappointed child, whilst Fhinn thanked Theshkar and announced that he must be on his way.

“Goodbye Astro,” said Fhinn at the door.  “Good luck with your project,” he added, trying to sound encouraging.

“Yeah thanks, see you around,” replied Astro, not looking best pleased.


Skyla

Skyla had thoroughly enjoyed herself over the last twelve hours.  She has made Kosh tell her his whole life story, every tiny juicy detail.  The truth serum had worked superbly.  It had been quite touching at times as well: he had loved his life working as a botanical specialist; it was such a shame that he had been forced to give it all up.  Skyla had heard about his loves, the amount of times a woman had broken his heart, about his older brother who had died when he was only four, and how his parents had become over-protective of him after that.  He was such a gentleman as well. He loved his football.  And he loved to laugh.  She felt almost sorry that she had to keep him captive. 

It was morning, Skyla wasn't sure when Rubius would be returning, but she didn't mind keeping an eye on Kosh too much.  There were worse things to look at.  She wondered how Forca and Kost were getting along, and if they had reached Gesch yet.  They said they would be getting in touch at some point today, she must remember to tell Rubius that when he arrived.

“So, what happens today?” said Kosh.

“Oh, good morning!” said Skyla, noticing Kosh had finally woken up.  “Did you sleep well?”

“Actually no, as you can see I've been tied to a chair all night.”

“Yes, sorry about that, but you wouldn't want me to get in trouble, would you?” she smiled.

Kosh smiled back.  “So what happens today?” he asked again, nervously.

“Today my boss gets back; he'll then decide what to do with you.”

“Any chance you could just let me go now?” he asked hopefully.

“Now? But I thought we were getting on so well?” Skyla replied playfully.

“For a gangster, you're really weird, do you know that?” Kosh seemed a little frustrated.

“Well, I'm unique, I'll admit that,” she smiled. “But as much as I like you Kosh, I can be ruthless when I need to be, so you be a good boy, and don't think about escaping.”

“How can I not think about escaping? I'm a friggin' cab driver, I haven't done nothing wrong!”

“It's not what you've done Kosh, you just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, sometimes that's the way of it.”  Skyla knew all about being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but she had it worse, she was usually the wrong person as well.

“So what do you think will happen to me?”

“Nothing's going to happen to you.  I'm sure the boss will just let you go.  You have served your purpose after all.  And to be honest, he and I get on like that,” Skyla crossed her fingers together tightly.  “I'll put in a good word for you.”

Skyla was sure Rubius wouldn't want to harm Kosh; after all, he hadn't done anything.  They had the information they needed, and Forca and Kost were on their way to Gesch now.  Whatever it was that Rubius wanted from the dream merchant had nothing to do with Kosh; she doubted if he even knew what it was they were after!  She checked her wrist gadget again and tapped the clock tab.  She wondered how long they would have to wait. 

Hours passed whilst she and Kosh talked more about their lives; the truth serum had run out a long time ago, forcing Skyla to tell stories from her life in exchange for more stories from Kosh.  It was funny, she thought, how many stories she was able to remember.  She didn't think about her past life much; she tended to focus solely on the future.  And yet when prompted, she was able to recall story upon story, like water flowing from a burst dam.  Kosh was a good listener as well.  In fact if it wasn't for her fear of Rubius landing any second, she might have untied him.  But her fears guided her well; because suddenly she felt the building start to shake so furiously she thought it would fall apart.

“What the hell is that?” shouted Kosh through the noise.

“That'll be the boss,” replied Skyla.

She peered out of one of the windows and saw the huge Bannepal battle cruise gently lower itself into the hanger.  The noise was deafening, and she was actually surprised that the building they were in remained intact.

She then watched as the gangway of the ship lowered and a few crewmembers came rushing out.  It didn't take long for one of them to notice her standing outside the building Kosh was being held in.

“So, you have yourself a prisoner?” said Rubius to Skyla, after she was led to his cabin.

“This is the cab driver who took the dream merchant to the transport terminal; he also told us that the dream merchant had gone to Gesch.  Forca and Kost have gone after him, they said they would be in contact sometime today.”

Skyla didn't mention about the truth serum, she wasn't sure why, maybe she wanted Rubius to believe that Kosh had willingly helped them.

“So why was this cab driver taken prisoner?” asked Rubius.

Skyla desperately tried to think of an answer that wouldn't make Kosh look bad.

“It was Forca's decision; he wanted to bring him back here to be questioned.”  It was the best she could do.

“I see,” said Rubius pondering over some document on the screen in front of him.  “Well, it was a bad decision, we'll have to kill him now.”

Skyla's body stiffened.

“No, you can't do that!” she blurted without thinking.

Rubius looked up at her. “Oh yes?  And why can't I,” he said seriously.

“What I mean is, he's innocent, he helped us out willingly; and I kind of told him we would be letting him go,” she said, embarrassed.

“Well, that is a mark of your inexperience in these matters.  However it matters not.  He has seen my ship, and where we have chosen to conceal ourselves, it is for these reason he has to die,” he said plainly.

Skyla was panicking inside.  He can't kill Kosh, he simply can't, she must do something.

“What was all that you said about people being more useful alive than dead?  That you didn't need to kill people, that fear alone kept them in check?”

“All that is true, but in this case the cab driver is of no use to me, and as I said, he has seen where we are, you cannot begin to understand how dangerous that is for me.”

“I'll take responsibility for him!  I feel I’ve got to know him in the last twelve hours, I know we can trust him.”

“Trust is not an issue, he is a risk, and that risk has to be mitigated,” Rubius was starting to look angry, his metal head twitched as if agitated.  “I also do not like what I am hearing; you cannot get to know a prisoner!  What were you thinking?  Of course you're going to start to feel pity for him, but you have to move above that. I am sorry Skyla, but there is only one way forward from here.”

“What is that?”  Skyla looked at him anxiously.

You're going to have to kill him.  Think of it as lesson number two.”

“No, I won't,” she said desperately.

“Yes, you will” he ordered, rising abruptly to his full height as he said it, he handed a blaster to her.  “Take this weapon, and then take the prisoner down to the last hanger and kill him.  You can set the blaster to incinerate, there won't be any trace of him, now do it!” he shouted.

Skyla felt she had little choice but to take the blaster from Rubius and walk out of the room.  Which is exactly what she did.  However, she hoped for an opportunity at redemption, there was no way she would be able to kill Kosh.

Skyla left the battle cruiser and walked towards the building where Kosh was being kept.  There was one of Rubius' men guarding him now, but when the guard saw Skyla holding the blaster he gave her a knowing nod and then left.

“What's going on now?” asked Kosh nervously.

Skyla didn't speak.  She dragged Kosh to his feet.

“Hey Skyla, speak to me, what's going on?”  Kosh sounded more desperate now.

Skyla still said nothing.  She instead led Kosh out of the hanger and walked him to the end of the row.  It took them a few minutes to walk that far, but when they were eventually there she pushed Kosh down onto his knees.

“No Skyla, please don't!” Kosh said, reading the signs perfectly.

“I have to, Kosh.  If I don't, then my life isn't worth living, and neither will yours be.”

“Skyla please! Come on, we can try and save the dream merchant together.  I met him and his son; they were innocent people.  And now they have two killers on their trail, we can save the boy!” Kosh looked up at her with a longing in his eyes.

Skyla stared at him, thinking, could she betray Rubius so soon after meeting him? A fellow citizen?  Could she pull the trigger and erase all evidence that Kosh had been here.  She would remember him though.

Skyla made her decision; she closed her eyes and held the blaster tight in her hand, and then it was over.


Astro

“Did you tell him about the project?” said Theshkar, looking alarmed.

“No!” replied Astro grumpily. “I just mentioned I was working on one, that's all.”

“Oh, that's alright then.  I'm not sure if Fhinn would understand to be honest.”

“I would agree with you there,” replied Astro.

“Are you alright?” asked Theshkar, sensing Astro's mood had declined since Fhinn had left.

“Yes, fine,” he sulked.

Theshkar stared at Astro for a moment, wondering.  “You don't seem fine,” he answered eventually.  “You seem a bit sullen to me.”

Astro looked over to Theshkar, he knew it was no use hiding anything from him.  “Fhinn is going to break into THUSS, I asked him to take me with him.  He wouldn't.”

“Does that surprise you?  You do realise what's going on in the world outside your lab don't you?”

“Of course I do!  But I am also very aware of what is going on inside my lab.  Without THUSS what we're trying to do here is meaningless, and I can't let that happen.”

“Astro, you have to take stock of the situation we find ourselves in.  We're up in this yacht because your father ordered us here.  Fhinn is never going to go against him.”

“I know you're right.  It's just extremely frustrating, that's all.”  Astro was determined to find a way to get to THUSS even without Theshkar's help.  Of course he understood it was a reckless thing to do, but he felt he had no choice: unless he was prepared to take risks, she would never be complete.

“As soon as this is all over,” said Theshkar, putting his hands on Astro's shoulders.  “I will personally speak to the guardians to get you time with THUSS, even if it means risking my reputation.”

“That's very good of you Theshkar,” replied Astro.  “But I wouldn't want you to do that.  You have already helped me so much.  I can't repay you by getting you caught up in my folly.”  Astro would easily be able to sneak on board Fhinn's craft, he thought, he'd just have to wait for the right opportunity, and that would mean getting rid of Theshkar.

“Look, why don't we call it a night?” said Astro. “It's been a strenuous few days.”  He looked up sincerely at Theshkar.

“Maybe you're right,” replied Theshkar. “I must admit I could do with some rest.”

“Then let's start again bright and early tomorrow morning.”

“Very good Astro, I'll see you here tomorrow then.”

Astro nodded and thanked Theshkar again, his mentor then returned to his own quarters.  He would just need to wait a few hours, until he was sure everything was quiet, and then he would slip into the hanger bay and hide in Fhinn's craft ready for tomorrow.

When Astro awoke, he could hear the hum of engines.  We must have already left the yacht, he thought, as he attempted to free himself from a collection of boxes that must have fallen on him when they took off.

Astro had hidden himself in a utility compartment.  It was small, there was only just enough room to sit, he had slept leaning up against the wall.  He checked his bag, making sure that he hadn't crushed anything during his slumber.  He had packed the AI implants that he had developed, and the preliminary data on memory transfer into an android brain, which he needed THUSS to complete for him.  If he was successful he would also need to find a way to get back to the yacht, although he expected Fhinn would obligingly send him back as soon as the first opportunity arose anyway.  Astro just had to make sure that wasn't before he was able to use THUSS.  He decided the best thing to do was lie.  It had worked for him before.

Filled with determination Astro stood up and stepped out of the utility cupboard.  He hadn't heard any voices, so he assumed Fhinn and the twins were at the other end of the craft.  However, he had not taken more than a few steps when he found himself knocked onto his back, and then suddenly there was a knife at his throat.

It took a moment for Ristik to recognise him, “Astro!” she said jumping up.  “What you are doing here? I thought we had an intruder.”

Astro let Ristik help him to his feet.  Then he rubbed his head and looked around.

“Why are the engines on?” he said, trying to sound genuinely confused.

“We're on our way to Aluzarah,” replied Ristik.  “How did you get onto the ship?”

“I thought I was on the craft that brought me to the yacht, I had a few items left in there.  Something must have fallen on my head, I just woke up, and then you jump on me!”

“Sorry about that,” apologised Ristik.  “I better take you to the boss then.  Come on!” she gestured to the front of the ship.

Astro followed, still rubbing his head.  He was not quite sure Fhinn would believe his story, but it was the best he could come up with on the spur of the moment, he just had to try and stick to it now.

“Hey boss, look who I found?” said Ristik, as she and Astro entered the cockpit.

Fhinn looked around and his head dropped.

“I don't friggin' believe it!” he said.  “I thought I told you…?” he started.

Astro thought this would be an ideal moment for him to interrupt.

“Fhinn, honestly, I didn't mean to stow away.  I meant to go into the craft that brought me to the yacht, but I must have walked into the wrong vessel.  And then I must have hit my head when I got here, because next thing I know....”

“What? You expect me to believe that?” shouted Fhinn angrily.

“It's the truth!” pleaded Astro.  “I couldn't believe it myself when I saw Ristik?”

“Your father is going to explode when he hears about this!”

“There’s no need to tell him, is there?”

Fhinn stared at Astro threateningly.  “I've a good mind to take you back to the yacht right now!  But it would waste too much time.  We're already in Batharok’s atmosphere.”

Astro looked out of the view-screen at the front of the craft.  Oh yes! We’re nearly there! He thought, and he smiled to himself.

“I am sorry Fhinn, I really am!” Astro tried to sound his most sincere.

“Well, you're here now, so you might as well make yourself useful.  Go and help Ristik put our stuff together, once we've landed we don't have much time to get in and out of the pyramid, so it's important we don't waste time trying to find things.”

Astro followed Ristik out of the cockpit.

It didn't take long for Astro and Ristik to get everything together in a satisfactory state.  Each of them had their own survival pack containing basic provisions, various gadgets of one sort or another, and some flares and dry clothes; each of them, that is, apart from Astro.  He had to convince Fhinn to let him come along.  Surely Fhinn wouldn't just leave him on the ship.  But then, Fhinn did say it was a three person job, not that Astro understood why that was, but he knew he needed to be one of those three people.

Astro looked out of the window as the craft followed a low approach into the city.  They needed to blend in as much as possible, and soon they were part of the steady moving flow of traffic that was a permanent fixture above the streets of Aluzarah.

“Where did you get that?” said Ristik to Astro.

“What? This?” replied Astro holding up the blue device he seemed to be carrying everywhere with him lately.

“Yes, do you know what it is?”

“No, do you?”

“It comes from a planet familiar to me.  I believe it is some sort of tracking device, can I see?”

Astro handed the device to Ristik.

“Yes, look,” she showed Astro a groove in the top of the device.  “It comes apart like so.”  Ristik took the top of the device off, revealing two small needles, one with a red top and one with a yellow top.

“These needles are pinned onto whatever it is that you want tracked, and then if you press the corresponding coloured button on the device, it should light the prongs at the end if you're facing in the right direction, like so,” Ristik pinned the yellow headed needle onto Astro and then stood back and pressed the yellow button.  Just as she said, the end of the device glowed yellow.

“Funny thing is though,” Ristik continued.  “The blue needle is missing.  Let's see if it's still active.”  Ristik took the needle back from Astro and fitted it back into the device, she then pressed the blue button and turned around three hundred and sixty degrees, and then suddenly, the end of the device glowed blue.

“There's something out there waiting to be found,” said Ristik smiling, “in that direction.”  She pointed in the direction the device indicated.

“It could just be lying in a forest, or desert though, right?”

“It could be, until you find it you'll never know,” she replied.

The craft landed amongst some trees a few miles away from the Great Pyramid of Aluzarah.  Fhinn turned off the engines and he and Rohad came into the back where Ristik and Astro were waiting.

“I'm sure I'm going to regret this,” said Fhinn, sighing deeply.  “But I'm not sure I can trust you not to follow us anyway.  So you're coming with us; Ristik and me that is.  Rohad is going to stay here and guard the ship.”

Yes! Thought Astro.

“We'll be using light-refection devices so we aren't detected.”

“But how will I be able to find you if I can't see you?” asked Astro.

“It's a common question with these devices, but not one that we have a really good answer for, other than to use your instincts,” replied Fhinn.

“Why don't you use your tracker?” said Ristik suddenly.

“What tracker?” asked Fhinn, curiously.

“Some device that I bought from a market a few days ago and have been carrying around ever since,” smiled Astro.  “I didn't even know what it was until Ristik told me.”

“Okay, how does it work?”

Ristik took the device from Astro and opened the top, pinned one of the needles onto herself and then one onto Fhinn.

“Right, I'm yellow, and Fhinn is red, okay?”

“Okay, great, thanks,” said Astro trying out the buttons and watching the end of the device light up.

A few moments later Fhinn, Ristik and Astro were running in and out and through a forest of trees as they made their way towards the pyramid.  The park that the pyramid was located in gave them sufficient cover to make it to the out-building, and then into the tunnel that took them underneath the pyramid. 

Before Fhinn opened the trap door leading to the guardian's office he turned to face Astro.  “We can switch on the devices now, but remember, stay close to me.  None of the guards will be able to see us, so don't get spooked if any walk right passed us, okay?”

Astro nodded his head to confirm he understood.

It was actually easier than Astro would have thought; they only saw one patrol of guards and to Astro's delight they just walked right passed.  It only took five to ten minutes, although Astro was so tense walking down the corridors and trying to follow Fhinn using his tracking device that it seemed like a lot longer than it actually was.

Eventually they got to THUSS.  When Fhinn opened the door they were confronted by two guards who were guarding the door from the inside.  The guards peered through the open door wondering why there was no one there, when suddenly they both hit the floor, the door closed behind them and Ristik appeared standing over the two limp bodies.

Astro turned his device off as well, just as Fhinn reappeared by the door.

“We have no idea how long we have, so let's get moving,” ordered Fhinn.

Astro had never seen THUSS before.  It was more than he expected.  The huge towers of hardware that stood around the room were a marvel.  He watched as Fhinn moved into the platform in the centre of the room, and then she appeared. Astro stared in awe as he watched the blue shimmering hologram speak to Fhinn.

“Fhinn Pallden, how nice to see you again.  And how may I be of assistance this time?”

“I'm here about the recording of the assassination; I need to identify the man who carried out the assassination.”

THUSS stared at him for a moment and then cocked her head to the side.

“Searching,” she said staring blankly ahead.  “Searching,” she repeated again.

“Does she normally do that?” asked Astro.  “I thought she was meant to be the fastest computer on the planet?”

“I'm not an expert, I wouldn't know,” replied Fhinn.

They all watched THUSS as she repeated the word searching a few times, and then suddenly she straightened her head again.

“The identity of the man who carried out the assassination is Fhinn Pallden.”

“No!” said Fhinn, frustrated.  “The recording you gave me yesterday, the one I have right here in my hand?”

A beam suddenly shot out of the hologram's eyes that seemed to scan the device.

“This recording is not recognised,” she said after a few moments.

Fhinn was starting to look angry.

“Do you mind if I have a look?” asked Astro suddenly.

“A look at what?” replied Fhinn, agitated.

“At THUSS, I mean, maybe someone has been playing around with her memory?” suggested Astro, moving towards a keypad that was at the base of one of the hardware towers.

“Are you sure you know what you're doing?” Fhinn looked concerned.

“No, but I have a way with computers,” Astro was already tapping away.  “Yep, here's the problem; someone has - very crudely - deleted a part of her memory.”

“Can you fix it?” Fhinn asked.

Astro tapped a few more times at the keyboard.  “Already done,” he said, standing up straight and smiling to himself.  “Go on, ask her again?”

Fhinn turned to look at THUSS.

“THUSS, can you tell me the identity of the man who assassinated the ambassador of Dovakai.”

“The identity of the assassin is Hoft Sethwach, who is a resident of Gotha fields, co-ordinates 58-61-48,” she replied, this time without hesitation.

“That's more like it,” said Fhinn jubilantly, as he recorded the information into his wrist device.

Astro looked at the keyboard in front of him and realised this was his chance.  He quickly stepped forwards again and starting inputting the scenario parameters for his query.

“And what do you think you're doing?” said Fhinn.  “We have to go!”

“Just a few minutes, please, that's all I need,” pleaded Astro.  Knowing he was short on time he didn't stop what he was doing whilst Fhinn argued with him.  He pulled the AI implants, and the preliminary data on memory transfers out of his bag, and started feeding the data into the system.

He was amazed how quickly THUSS worked.  This sort of research would normally take him years.  Trying to predict the long-term effects of certain memories on the AI programming he had designed was a vital test that his theory would work.  The danger if he was wrong was that when he switched on his android it would go insane, and then the real trouble would start.

THUSS made a bing sound and the screen in front of Astro filled with data.

“Interesting, very interesting,” he said studying the screen.

“So, have you got what you want?” said Fhinn, impatiently.

“It's going to take me a while to analyse this much data, but yes, I think I have,” Astro beamed a smile at Fhinn.

“So, can we go now?”

“Of course, let me just get this information onto a data-stick.”  Astro worked quickly, and much to Fhinn's relief they were soon walking away from THUSS, unnoticed.

Apart from the guards Ristik had taken care of, and the odd patrol that had walked right past them, Astro was surprised how little security there was.  Probably all out searching for his father no doubt.

They were nearly at the door of the office where the trap door was located.  Once there Astro watched the door open carefully in front of him.  He then waited a second until Ristik had time to get through and then he moved through the door himself.

As he closed the door behind him and turned around, a voice said, “Who's there?”

Astro spun around and saw the guardian Triniffer seated at her desk, looking right through him.

“Is anyone there?” she said again.

Suddenly, inches before his eyes, Fhinn appeared.  Astro wasn't totally surprised by this, the guardian had inadvertently positioned her chair directly on top of the trap door, they didn't have much choice.

The guardian Triniffer didn't scream.  She just stared at Fhinn for a moment.

“I can hardly believe my eyes,” she said.

“Okay, turn the devices off,” said Fhinn.  Astro did as commanded.  Guardian Triniffer couldn't help but look dumbfounded.

“Okay, now I know I'm dreaming,” she said looking directly at Astro.  “You know there are guards outside don't you?  I could scream and they'd be here in a second.”

“I'm taking a gamble here, but I’m betting you won't do that,” said Fhinn confidently.  “You were at the session yesterday.  I saw you.  I’m sure you had your doubts about what was going on?” Fhinn raised his eyebrows questioningly.

Triniffer didn't say anything; she just stared at Fhinn, looking like she was trying to see into his soul.

“What are you doing here, Fhinn Pallden?” the guardian said eventually.

“Trying to get out,” he replied.

“Hmm?” Triniffer looked confused.

“There's a secret passageway that leads out of the pyramid.  You're sitting on the trap-door that leads to it.”

“Aha,” said Triniffer looking down.  “You know, I always thought there was an uncomfortable breeze in here!”

“Guardian, I don't know whose side you're on, but if I'm right, and you do believe that Blane Aritor and myself are innocent, then I can take you with us.”

“And why would I go with you?” she asked curiously.

“Because I have the real recording in my hand, and I would very much like for you to see it.”

Astro could tell that had caught her interest.

“Not only that,” continued Fhinn.  “I also know the identity of the real assassin.  We are planning to go after him.”

Triniffer looked at all three of them standing there, considering her situation for a moment.

“Okay, I'll come with you,” she agreed. Pilo

“Come on Goodwin, you're coming with me today,” said Pilo, smiling at his son.  Pilo needed to keep up the pretence that he had business in Gesch.  In fact, he realised it was a pretence that he'd have to keep up for a few weeks, or at least until it safe enough to go back to Aluzarah.  He hoped his acting skills were up to it.  He also realised he had no real way of knowing when it was safe to go back?  He had even considered selling up and moving to Gesch altogether?  No, that would be silly, he thought.  Goodwin had his friends, he had his customers; he just needed to wait until all of this blew over.

The incident with the man in the grey suit had all but been forgotten in the Golfon household.  However Pilo still had it fresh in his mind.  It bothered him.  Was the grey man one of Mr Bannepal's crew?  If so, then why did he run away?  Considering the possibilities, it had been quite stupid of Pilo to run out after the man like he did.  He had Goodwin to think about; he needed to be more careful.

It was a warm sunny day in Gesch; the green sky welcome the world to a brand new day, and Pilo and Goodwin walked to the end of the road where they could take a transport into Gesch.  Pilo hadn't taken any serious equipment with him; just enough for the Golfons to believe he was really working.  He intended to keep the mind-reader locked up in its box, which he was currently keeping under his bed.  It would be safe there.

The transport was full when they climbed on board, in fact there were no longer any seats left.  Pilo and Goodwin were forced to stand in the gangway, holding onto each other tightly whenever the transport took a sharp turn.  At one point, the inertia of the transport coming to a stop sent Pilo crashing down onto the lap of an elderly woman.  Goodwin laughed hysterically as his father apologised profusely.

“Don't worry young man, it happens all the time,” the elderly woman smiled at Pilo graciously.

“Thank you, and sorry again,” Pilo replied.

Pilo was joking with Goodwin about his tumble, as the transport started moving again and pulled away from the small transport terminal.  As they picked up speed Pilo happened to glance out the window.  What he saw made his sense freeze.  Standing on the platform of the terminal was a man dressed grey.  Pilo could feel the dark eyes staring at him as the transport pulled away.

“What's wrong, Papa?” asked Goodwin who could sense something was amiss.

“It's nothing,” replied Pilo, not wanting to worry his son.  “Just thought I saw someone I knew on the platform, that's all.”

“Someone you used to be at university with?” asked Goodwin.

“That's right.”  Pilo ruffled his son's hair, and Goodwin smiled proudly at his accurate guesswork.

Pilo didn't see any more grey men on the way into town, but it was at the forefront of his mind as they arrived in Gesch and disembarked the craft.

“So, where have we got to go, Papa?” Goodwin was obviously excited about joining his father on a business appointment.  He had been taught the history of the dream reading business since he was very young.  He had leaned how his great-great-grand-father had started it all, had been the important pioneer in the recording of dreams.  And he had been told that one day the business would come to him.  But Pilo would have to disappoint him today.  He didn't like lying to his son, but in the circumstances it was for the best.

“Well, we have some time before my meeting, so we can walk around the shops if you like?”

“Can we? Brilliant!” exclaimed Goodwin.  Pilo knew that no matter how interested his son wanted to be in the dream merchant business, it would never compare to the excitement of buying new toys and games.  However, if he was going to pretend to be in Gesch on business, he would need to think of something else for them to do.  He couldn't take Goodwin shopping every day for the next few weeks, or months, or however long it would be.

They found the indoor shopping centre easily enough; the advertising screens seem to come right out at them telling them which way to go.  Pilo had always thought holo-advertising was intrusive.  He never considered employing such crass technology for his shop.  He didn't like the way the holo-images just jumped out at you; it gave him quite a start most the time.  Of course, Goodwin loved it.

The indoor shopping centre was busy with people.  It was a hive of pure unadulterated consumerism.  Every shop and outlet fought for customers, equipped with the latest hi-tech advertising techniques.  Some places used olfactory magnetism; others used holographic cartoon characters that would beckon people into a particular shop.  There were people dressed in bright colours with welcoming smiles and over-friendly demeanours, and there were those not dressed in very much at all: every one of them trying their utmost to redirect as many pairs of feet into their shop as possible.  And once they were in, it was difficult to get out; these shops were a sensory jungle, so skilled in consumer enchantment and customer charm that made it impossible to escape without having purchased more items than one needed, and subscribed to their mailing list as well.

The building which the shopping centre was housed in was a gigantic structure.  It had forty different levels, thirty of them underground.  Each level was about a kilometre long and wide enough to have thirty people walking abreast; which, to Pilo, certainly seemed to be the case in some parts of the shopping centre.  The ceiling in each level was about ten metres high.  Along the centre of the ceiling was a crowded line of holo-projectors, beaming advertising, directions, and information on special offers.  Different holographic images swooped and fluttered above the steady moving flow of customers like birds of prey circling their victims.

Pilo looked up and saw an advert for a computer games shop hovering above him.  It was on this level; just a few shops ahead.

“Come on Goodwin!” he said, dragging the boy forwards.

“Where are we going?” said the boy, who was mesmerised by all the lights-sounds-smells around him.

“You'll see,” Pilo smiled at his son.

He pushed his way through the slow moving river of people, apologising as he went, until they arrived at the games shop.

“Wow!” exclaimed Goodwin as he saw where his father had brought him.  He stood in front of the window, hands pressed up against the synthetic glass.  “Can we go in?” he said, looking up with excitement burning in his eyes.

“Of course!” Pilo took his son's hand and led him into the shop.  However as soon as they crossed the threshold, Goodwin was off.  His hand slipped out of Pilo's and he was running to the far end of the outlet, where something had obviously caught his eye.

“Hey! Slow down!” shouted Pilo after him, laughing.  He walked towards where his son was now standing, holding a small device in his hands, and what looked like a woman's hairgrip.

“This is the latest GXF-50!” said Goodwin, eyes wide in wonder.

“And what's that thing?” asked Pilo, pointing to the thing that looked like a hairgrip.

“It's an artificial reality machine, and this is the eyepiece; it goes on like this,” Goodwin put the hairgrip on his head so he was wearing it like a pair of glasses.  He pressed a button on the small device and two beams of light shot out of the hairgrip, directly into his eyes.

“Wow! This is great Papa!  It's like being in another world.”  Goodwin turned his head, as if looking around; he was tapping on the device in front of him as well.

“So, what game are you playing?” asked Pilo, trying to appear enthusiastic.

“This is just a demo programme.  I’m just walking around Gesch at the moment; but there are loads of other games you can get!  Toorey Blask from school has one.”  The beams coming out of the device suddenly stopped and Goodwin took the hairgrip shaped thing off his head.

“Can I have one? Please?” he said looking up, pleading to his father.

With all he was putting the boy through at the moment, he felt he had to make it up to him, Pilo thought.

“Okay, you can have one,” he said.

“Thank you father,” Goodwin hugged Pilo, arms wrapped as far as they would reach around his waist, which was about as far up as he came.

“But what about Tikko?” asked Pilo.  “Won't he feel left out?”

“He can have a go on mine,” offered Goodwin.  “When I'm not using it,” he added.

“I think I better buy him one too.  After all, the Golfons are being very good to let us stay with them.”

“You're the best Papa! Tikko will be so pleased,” said Goodwin hugging his father again.

“Okay, now why don't you pick out two of them, and a couple of games each and we'll go and pay.”

Goodwin didn't need to be asked twice.  He quickly picked up two GXF-50 machines, and then not so quickly picked out four games; or rather two copies of two games, so he and Tikko could play against each other; which, so Goodwin explained, was very important.

Pilo felt good to have made Goodwin so happy.  It was blatant emotional bribery, but Goodwin deserved it as well.

After Goodwin had changed his mind four or five times about which games he was going to buy, they finally made it to the checkout to pay. Pilo didn't have enough cash on him so he handed over his bankcard.  The cashier swiped the card, held out the ID pad for Pilo to press his thumbprint onto, and then the machine in front of her beeped as it processed the payment.  Goodwin had already put the games and the devices into a bag and was bouncing with excitement whilst Pilo finished off with the cashier.

As they walked out of the shop, about forty metres in front of them, buried deep in the crowd, was a man dressed in a grey suit staring directly at Pilo.  It made Pilo's heart jump when he saw him.  This is getting ridiculous, he thought, who the hell are these men?  Goodwin had let go of his father’s hand and was proceeding to pull one of the games out of the bag.

“What are you doing?” said Pilo, slightly impatiently.

“I just wanted to read the back,” answered Goodwin.

“There's plenty of time for that later.  Now there are a lot of people in here, don't let go of my hand, I don't want to lose you.”

Pilo looked up again, but the man in grey was no longer there.  He looked down again at Goodwin who was putting the game back into the bag.  Something's not right, he thought:  Maybe they should make their way back to the Golfons' and hide out there?  But then, they hadn't been gone very long, how would he explain their early return?  Pilo concluded it didn’t really matter, the men in grey knew where they were staying anyway.  And he still didn’t know who they really were.  He couldn't believe they were anything to do with Rubius Bannepal.  They were very different from the men who had come into his shop.  And if they did work for Mr Bannepal then why didn't they just grab him.  Why were they always watching him from a distance?

“Shall we go and get some lunch?” said Pilo to Goodwin.

“Okay,” replied the boy. “Can we have vegetable chips with egg sauce?” he added excitedly.

“If you like,” replied Pilo, distracted by thoughts of the grey men.

They found a place to eat on level twenty-eight of the shopping centre.  It was a brightly lit establishment, with uncomfortably hard seats and unhealthy looking staff; not the sort of place Pilo himself would come to eat - given the choice - but Goodwin was already picking out what he wanted.

The food arrived quickly; delivered by a youth with bad skin, bad teeth, but immaculately combed and shiny hair.  He smiled insanely and wished them an enjoyable meal before scampering off for his next order.  The food wasn't too bad actually, Pilo thought, as he dipped a vegetable chip into the egg sauce.  Goodwin was busy reading the back of the packet of one of his new games, blindly feeding chips into his mouth at the same time.

Pilo looked around at the other customers in the shop; mostly young people.  The only other customers the same age as him were there with their children.  He was just watching a woman seated by the window, who was trying to clean egg sauce from her son's mouth, when he saw him again.

It was the same grey man as earlier, standing on the other side of the passage from the restaurant they were in.  He was looking directly at Pilo.  Pilo tried looking away, and then back again, but the man remained there, staring at him with his cold dark eyes.  He couldn’t bear this anymore, Pilo had to know who he was.

“I'll be back in a second,” said Pilo to his son.  Goodwin nodded without looking up from what he was reading.

Pilo got up and moved across the room towards the grey man, keeping his eyes on him at all times.  However, as soon as the grey man saw Pilo approaching he was off, walking back down the passageway, away from the restaurant.  Pilo wasn't going to just leave Goodwin sitting alone, he had no choice but to go back into the restaurant, and watch the grey man disappear into the crowd.

It happened three more times whilst they were out in town.  At the bank when Pilo needed some credits, at the food market, and in the university library - which Pilo literally had to drag Goodwin into.  It was starting to bother Pilo.  He had his son with him, and his primary thought was to keep him safe.  He decided they had to get back to the Golfons' house.  He promised Goodwin they would be making many more visits into town over the next few weeks, and they headed back towards the local transport terminal.

On the way back to the Golfons’, at every terminal they stopped at, Pilo saw a grey man on the platform just standing there and staring at him.  Goodwin was too busy reading the instructions for his game to notice any strange behaviour from his father, but Pilo was becoming increasingly anxious.

When they reached their stop, Pilo extended his head through the open door of the transport and looked around the platform.  There were no grey men to be seen.  He dragged Goodwin off the transport, and then started to walk quickly back to the Golfons' house, with Goodwin half-running alongside him, trying to keep up.

“Slow down Papa, you're walking too fast,” whined Goodwin, pulling back on his father's hand.

“Sorry,” said Pilo suddenly realising his son couldn't keep up. “We're nearly there anyway,” he said, as they turned the corner onto the street where the Golfons’ house was located.

As they approached the house, Pilo noticed that Feath's anti-grav vehicle was still parked in the vehicle bay.  That's odd, he thought, he could have sworn Feath was getting ready to go to work when he left.  Maybe the vehicle had broken down?

When they got to the front door of the house Pilo noticed it was ajar.  Now, why would they leave the door open? He thought suspiciously.

Suddenly the door was pulled back and there standing in front of him were the two men who worked for Rubius Bannepal, the ones who had come into his shop.  The larger one was standing behind the door, and the smaller one was standing further in.

“Mr Jerritor, how nice to see you!” he said smiling.  “Please, come in.”

Pilo hesitated.

“We'll chase you down and cut your son’s throat out if you don't,” he added with a smile, sensing Pilo's reluctance.

“Who are these men Papa?” said Goodwin standing close to his father.

“Don't worry Goodwin, it'll all be fine,” he lied.  “We should go inside the house, as the man asked, okay?”  He nudged Goodwin forwards through the door, keeping himself between his son and the men at all times.  They moved into the living room, where the two men positioned themselves between Pilo and the door.

“So, Mr Jerritor,” the smaller man started.  “We were so very disappointed, as was Mr Bannepal, when we discovered you had made a spontaneous decision to go on holiday, instead of keeping our appointment.”

“Look, you can't have it, it's not for hire, go and tell your Mr Bannepal that!” Pilo blurted.

“Mr Jerritor, we would hate to go back empty handed after having come all this way.”

“I'm very sorry about that, but I didn't ask you to come after me.”  Pilo’s heart was racing.  He suddenly wondered about Feath, and Krisk, and Tikko.

“Where are the Golfons?” he asked in a panicked voice.

“You mean the people who lived here?” said the larger man, smiling.

“No need to worry about them, they're asleep,” said the smaller man.  “Would you like to see?” he gestured towards the downstairs bedroom at the back of the living room.

“Stay here Goodwin,” Pilo said, undoing this son's grasp from his leg, and then following the smaller man.  He was worried about what he might find.  If they were hurt in anyway, he didn't want Goodwin to see.

The smaller man opened the door slightly, enough so Pilo could see inside the room.  On the bed facing the door lay Feath and Krisk, with Tokki lying in between them, exactly in the positions they would be in every morning when Tokki climbed into the bed.  Except the pillows were stained with blood, and each of them had their throats cut.  Pilo felt sick.

“Maybe now you can understand now how serious we are about obtaining use of the mind-reader!” said the smaller man.

“What is it Papa?” shouted Goodwin across the room, seeing that something was up.

“It's nothing,” said Pilo, trying to protect his son.  “They're just asleep, that's all, just as the man said.”

Goodwin had tears in his eyes; he may be young, but he wasn’t stupid, he could tell his father was lying to him.

Pilo returned to his son and held him.  There were tears swelling in Pilo's eyes as well.  If he had known what these men were capable of, he would never have come here.  But he didn't think, and now Krisk, Feath and poor little Tokki had been murdered, because of him.  He had to give these men what they wanted; it wasn't worth risking any more lives.

“You can have the mind-reader, take it!” said Pilo suddenly, fearing for his life, and his son's.  “But please just leave us alone.  We are good people, we never asked for any of this.”  He started to cry, and he felt Goodwin grip his hand tighter.

“That's more like it,” said the smaller man.  “I hope you realise that none of this would have happened if you had just stayed in Aluzarah.  Now where is it?”

“It's upstairs, second bedroom on the left, under the bed in a metal box.”

“Go get it,” said the smaller man to his companion.

All of a sudden there was a knock on the door, everyone's heads spun towards the noise.  Rubius Bannepal's men both looked at each other anxiously.

“I'll watch them, go see who it is,” said the smaller man, pulling out a blaster from his jacket and pointing it at Pilo and his son.

The larger man moved out of the room, and disappeared from view as he walked towards the door.  Pilo heard the front door open, and then straight after he heard a ztapp sound, followed by a heavy thud.

“Kost?” said the smaller man.  “You okay?”  There was no answer.  He moved towards the door of the living room that led to the front door, keeping the blaster on Pilo and Goodwin the whole time.

As he looked through the living room door and towards the entrance, a startled expression appeared on his face.  “Who are you?” he suddenly said, and he swivelled his blaster towards whoever was approaching from the front door.

Pilo froze as he saw one of the grey men walk into the room.  The smaller man fired his blaster at him, but the blaster fire seemed to fizzle out as it got within centre metres of the man's grey suit.  The grey man held out an arm, with his palm facing the smaller man.  Pilo then watched as a beam of light shot out of the grey man's hand and hit the smaller man directly in the chest, making a ztapp sound on impact.  He immediately dropped to the ground.  Pilo looked down at the smaller man's prone body, now lying at his feet.  His eyes looked like they’d been burst, and veins were popping out all over his face.

Pilo then turned to the grey man, keeping Goodwin behind him.

“Who are you? And what do you want with us?” he said desperately.

The grey man just stared back at him, and then after a few moments he started to speak.  “Do not let Rubius Bannepal have the mind reader Mr Jerritor, it will be very bad for everyone if you did.”  He then turned and marched out of the room.  Pilo moved forwards to see where he was going, but the grey man was quick, and was out through the open front door before Pilo could call out again.

Keeping Goodwin close behind him, they slowly moved out of the living room and towards the front door.  Pilo needed to check if he had really gone.  When they got to the front door he looked up and down the street for the grey man, but he wasn't there.

What were they going to do now? He thought.  He had to call the police, but what would he say?  There was a dead family and two dead gangsters in the house.  The poor Golfons! Pilo could hardly believe what had just happened.  He needed to think about his next move.  In fact he was just about to drag Goodwin back into the house when he felt a tug on his sleeve.

“Papa, isn't that the cab driver from the other day?” he said, pointing to a cab that had just parked on the other side of the street.

Pilo looked over, Goodwin was right: running across the street was the cab driver that drove them to the transport terminal in Aluzarah; and with him a girl that Pilo didn't recognise.  They ran all the way across the street and up the path of the house until they were in front of Pilo.  Pilo looked at them without saying anything.

“Are you the Dream Merchant?” asked the girl.

“Ye, that's correct,” said Pilo looking confused.

“Good, we're here to save you,” she replied.


Kosh

So far, it had been a strange day.  First, Kosh had woken up in the back of his cab, after the crazy girl had knocked him out with the butt of a blaster pistol, and then dragged his body into his own vehicle before escaping from her gangster friends.  Next, they had driven to Gesch, whilst he called every cab driver he knew in the city in an attempt to discover information about a man with a large metal case and his six-year-old son. And now this! It was brutal what those two gangsters had done to that poor family.  And the dream merchant’s story about a man in a grey suit charging in to their rescue, killing the gangsters, and then leaving again without saying a word, just seemed odd. 

After a considerable amount of persuasion they convinced Pilo to come with them, and Kosh finally found himself back at the wheel of his cab.  The poor young boy was in a state.  His father had not let him see the bodies, but he was smart enough to know what had happened.  Apparently he and the young boy had been like brothers.  And Kosh had just learned from the father that they had lost the boy's mother two years previously as well.  It was tragic.  He was only six, and he had already lost two people that were dear to him.  Kosh had tried to get his mind off things by talking about football, but the boy’s heart wasn't really in it.  He just kept holding a bag to his chest.  It had two game devices in it, one for the boy and one for his friend, so his father had said, and now the boy didn't want to let go of them.

It made Kosh feel sad, and angry; but at the very least the men had died for their crime.

On the advice of Skyla, Pilo - as the dream merchant was called - made an anonymous call to the Gesch law enforcement and told them to visit the address they had just left.  Kosh was sure that the law-keepers would believe it was a gang related crime.  Unless they were willing to do a complete DNA sweep of the place, they would never even know that Pilo and his son had been there.

“So, where are we going?” Pilo asked suddenly.  He had his arm around his son, who was holding the bag to his chest and staring out of the window at the traffic flowing around them.

“I figured we'd go somewhere quiet, plan our next move,” said Skyla.  “There's a park I know where we can park the cab in the trees, it's over on the south side of the city.”

Skyla gave Kosh directions and they made their way, as unobtrusively as possible, to the location she had chosen.

It was a beautiful park, lush with long red grass and low hanging trees that shaded them from the sun.  There weren't many people around, just a few walking their pets, and so it had been easy to park the cab without drawing too much attention.

“I still don't really understand what you're doing here,” said Pilo to Kosh and Skyla.

They sat down whilst Goodwin played nearby.  Skyla then explained the whole story to Pilo, starting with when she first met the men that had been chasing him, and then how she learned what sort of men Forca and Kost really were.  And then, she told of when she met Kosh, and how he convinced her to help him warn Pilo and his son.  Kosh added bits of the story where he could, but Pilo still seemed concerned.

“So, you work for the bastard that killed the Golfons do you?” he said angrily, looking at Skyla.

“I did, but not anymore.  You have to understand, I have my own problems which drove me to work for them, but I would never have anything to do with killing an innocent family.”

Kosh could tell Pilo didn't care what problems Skyla had, no matter what they were.

“So, you've saved us, now what?” said Pilo, apparently very ungrateful that they had arrived at all.

“Well, that's up to you.  We only want to help.  Whatever it is that Rubius Bannepal wants from you, he's not going to give up.  We're willing to help you get away if that's what you want.  We can find a place where he won't find you.  I wouldn't suggest setting up a dream reading shop in the near future, but you'll be able to lead a good life, taking care of your son, and watching him grow.”

Pilo looked at her scornfully. “None of this would have happened at all if it wasn't for your kind!” he said.

“And what is that supposed to mean?” answered Skyla angrily.

“You criminals!” he answered.  “Working for this Mr Bannepal, ruining people’s lives for your own material gain.”

“Material gain?” Skyla shouted.  “Do I look particularly wealthy to you Mr Jerritor? I'm a citizen, shunned by the society that you hold so dear, and I have a family depending on me to put food in their stomachs, a family that have to live in the most desolate and barren of locations because people like you won't let them come onto this planet, for fear that we'll steal from you or something equally ridiculous!”

“Well, you are stealing from us!” replied Pilo, just as angry.

Suddenly the three of them realised Pilo's son was standing behind them, listening; he had tears streaming down his cheek.

“Stop arguing, I can't bear it any longer!” he sobbed uncontrollably.

Pilo immediately got up and ran to his son, taking him into his arms.

“I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry,” he said kissing his son's head.  “We’re all just tired, and angry at what has happened.  We’ll make it all right, don't you worry.  I'll make it all better.”  Pilo held his son, comforting him, and then he turned to Kosh and Skyla.

“I have to take the mind-reader to this Mr Bannepal; it's the only way I can think of to stop all of this.  It really isn't worth risking any more lives over.”  There was a tear in his eye as he said it, and he kissed his son's head again.

“If that's what you want us to do?” said Kosh.

“It is,” replied Pilo, absolutely.

“Then we'll ask for all our freedoms in return for the mind-reader,” said Kosh.  “We’re not really on friendly terms with him at the moment either.”

“For all our freedoms then,” said Pilo, still holding his son.

Without knowing how long it would take for Rubius Bannepal to find out two of his men were dead, they headed back to Aluzarah immediately.  It took three hours in Kosh's cab, and all three of his passengers slept all the way.

As Kosh saw the jagged outline of hundreds of pyramids in the distance, he woke his sleeping cargo and told them they were about to arrive.

“Are you okay about doing this?” he said to Skyla who was rubbing sleep from her eyes.

“Absolutely, we can't let Pilo go in alone after all,” she said, smiling bravely.

“But Rubius Bannepal might just kill all of us,” said Kosh, feeling a little worried.

“Don't worry, I'll keep my blaster at the ready, I'm pretty handy with it if you must know, I'll keep us safe.”

Kosh let his hand fall casually onto Skyla’s.  She looked up at him as he held it affectionately.

“I hope you do,” he said.  “Because after this is over, you and I are going out for dinner.”

Skyla shot up in her chair, smiling.  “Are we? I don't remember agreeing to go to dinner with you?” she joked.

“Well, I'm asking now, aren't I?”

“Okay then, well I accept.  Do I get to try some home grown food?” she asked.

“Oh, you want a home cooked meal do you?”

“That would be nice.”

Kosh smiled at her warmly. “That won't be a problem at all,” he said.  “As long as you manage to get us out of this in one piece.”

“Well, I have an added incentive now, don't I?” Skyla laughed.

It took another ten minutes for them to reach Rubius Bannepal's Aluzaran base.  It was dark by the time they arrived, but they could see lights on in a few of the hangers.

“So, we're just going to walk right in there with the mind-reader?  All casual-like?” asked Kosh.

“Well, why don't we leave the mind-reader here for the moment,” said Pilo, “as collateral.”

“Good idea,” said Skyla.  “Then let's go.  And let me do the talking.”

The four of them marched off, Pilo keeping Goodwin as close to him as possible, and soon they were outside the hanger that they had escaped from the day before.  They followed Skyla to an entrance at the side of the building, where three men were standing, guarding the door.

As soon as they saw Skyla approaching, the men at the door went for their blasters, but Skyla was quicker - Kosh was impressed.  She fired a blaster bolt at the ground where they were standing and they froze.

“Just let us in to see Mr Bannepal and no one will get hurt,” she said menacingly.  Kosh admired her temerity; they were after all, in Gangster HQ.

Skyla held the blaster out in front of her, keeping it pointed at the three men, as Pilo, Goodwin, and Kosh, went through the door before she followed herself.

“How nice to see you again my dear!” boomed a metallic voice as they entered the hanger.  “I had wondered where you had got to.” 

Kosh looked up, and there, standing at the top of the gangway that led down from the battleship, was Rubius Bannepal.  Kosh was surprised to see that he was an android.  Skyla hadn't mentioned that.

“Well, I realised I forgot to say goodbye,” Skyla replied.

Rubius Bannepal laughed in a big booming sonic wave.

“I don't suppose you know where our friends Forca and Kost are do you?”

“They’re dead I'm afraid,” she replied blankly.

Kosh looked up at Rubius Bannepal, who seemed to be studying each of them with a red eye that moved independently to his other eye.  It looked pretty creepy to Kosh.

“Dead by your hand?” Rubius Bannepal asked, with a serious tone in his voice.

“Dead by the hand of a man wearing a grey suit,” said Pilo suddenly.

“A grey suit? Interesting, then we don't have much time,” he said thoughtfully.  “And who is this?” he said, pointing at Pilo.

“I am the Dream Merchant.  I have the mind-reader with me.”

“Even better,” said Rubius Bannepal, who was now starting to walk towards them.

He looked tall at the top of the gangway, but now he was closer he was huge.  For a gangster boss, this must be about as good as it gets, thought Kosh, who would want to cross him?

“And this must be your son,” said Rubius, as he placed a metal hand on the boys head.

Pilo pulled his son back.  Goodwin was just staring in awe at the huge metallic man in front of him.

“Don't worry, I won't harm him,” said Rubius Bannepal softly.  “Or you, I never meant to harm either of you.  Come on, please, let's go into the ship, there's something all of you need to hear.”

“About what?” asked Skyla, who still had her blaster ready to fire.

“About the grey men and what they're doing here,” Rubius Bannepal replied.


Triniffer

It had taken her all of two seconds to decide to go with Fhinn Pallden.  Considering her choices consisted of being kept under constant watch by order of Grig Flentor, or finding out for herself what was really going on, it wasn’t a hard decision to make.  Her first revelation - courtesy of Fhinn - was that for her entire career as a guardian, she had been sitting right on top of a secret trap door, that lead to an underground corridor, and out to a building a few hundred metres away from the pyramid.  Amazing!

Fhinn had a craft hidden in the small forest at the back of the pyramid, which they made their way towards, boarded, and took off without being noticed.

“So, the recording?” said Triniffer, once they had joined the stream of traffic.

“I thought we would go somewhere safe first,” replied Fhinn.  “We have a secure location in the summer forests of Tor, it’s where Blane Aritor is hiding.  If you're going to be an ally, then best you speak with him first.”

Triniffer looked over to Astro who was staring at her with a wide grin on his face.

“Astro, anything the matter?” she asked.

“I got in to see THUSS!” he said, obviously very pleased with himself.

“So I understand,” Triniffer replied.  “Although hardly under legitimate circumstances, I think you'd admit.”

“That would be accurate, yes,” Astro was still grinning.

“So, did you get what you wanted?” she asked, toying with him.

“I did thanks.  I still have some work to do, but it has considerably shorted the time until my project is complete.”

“That's what THUSS tends to do,” she said plainly.  “And if I may ask, what is the project you're working on this week?”

Astro laughed.  “It's a secret,” he replied, lowing his voice to a whisper.  “But once it's finished it's going to change the world.”

“That's nice,” she answered, smiling politely.

His undying determination to change things for the better was one of the things Triniffer had always liked about Astro.  Although she doubted if this project was any more useful than the Network research he had been working on.  But his heart was clearly in the right place.  In fact, she had always been a little bit fond of him, even though she was strict with him in the Circle Chamber, but then that was her job. 

She wondered if the law-keepers had realised she was gone yet.  If they had, they would search her apartment first, and then her favourite places; that was the standard procedure.  They wouldn't consider for a second she had escaped through a secret passage with Fhinn Pallden, and was now flying off to see Blane Aritor.  And the more she thought about it, the more she realised she had made the right decision.  Grig Flentor was undoubtedly crooked, there were too many secrets surrounding him: the mysterious men in grey she'd seen him speaking with, and his continued irrational behaviour.  He was dangerous to be around, and she was glad that she was flying in the opposite direction to him.

It took them a few hours to reach the summer forests of Tor: the largest forest on the planet.  Triniffer remembered the times she came here in her youth.  She and her friends would run through the forest collecting wild flowers and other pretty things, which they would proudly take home to their mothers.  Life had been simpler back then: she had no responsibilities to speak of.  Now an adult, she felt she had the weight of the world on her shoulders.  She doubted it felt any different for Fhinn, probably worse actually, and for Blane Aritor.  She didn't have hundreds of people that depending on her like Blane did.  And now she was really starting to believe that he was being framed.  But framed by whom?  Was Grig Flentor really behind the whole torrid affair?  Was this really nothing more than a family feud?  These were all questions that had to be answered, and she was determined to find those answers.  Triniffer knew that as this matter progressed, each of the players would need to show their hands, and it was the hand of the ruling council that she was most interested in seeing.

Triniffer was impressed when she saw the shack that Rohad and Ristik had built deep in the forest.  She had heard of the prowess of the Daratoorian people when it came to building things out of wood, but this was truly magnificent.

Fhinn took her into the shack, Astro followed.

When she saw Blane Aritor, he sat up, with an expression of surprise on his face.

“This is unexpected?” he said getting up out of his chair.

“We bumped into Guardian Triniffer as we exited the temple.  She had been locked up by Grig Flentor and put under guard, so I offered her the opportunity to come with us,” reported Fhinn.

Blane looked at Triniffer, searching her face.  “So, are you with us?” he asked.

“Well, I had hoped to see the recording first; but I must admit, my feelings of loyalty towards the ruling council are wavering of late, following Grig Flentor’s recent behaviour.”

“That's good to hear,” Blane smiled at Triniffer.  “We’re going to need all the good people we can get.”

“That I believe!  But perhaps now you’d oblige me by allowing me to see the recording?”

Blane ushered Triniffer into a side room of the shack.  Fhinn and Astro followed behind her.  She sat down in the chair Blane offered to her, and watched as he took a data-stick from Fhinn and slid it into a computer set up on a table made from a half-sawn tree trunk.

The recording was exactly the same as the one she had viewed in the council chamber, except in this recording there was no Fhinn Pallden.  She didn't recognise the man who carried out the killing instead, but she was satisfied that this was the real recording.

“You said to me before that you had identified the real killer?” said Triniffer.

“We have, with the help of THUSS.  We have a name and an address, and I intend to go after him as soon as possible,” replied Fhinn.

“That's great news,” said Blane. “I would suggest you leave immediately.”  He then turned to Triniffer.  “And what to do with you?”

“I'm of no use to you here,” she said. “Take me back to my chambers in the Great Pyramid and I’ll happily act as your eyes and ears.”

“That will be dangerous, are you sure you want to do that?” asked Fhinn.

“Absolutely, there is corruption in the ruling council, you need me there!  And I am determined to play a part in routing it out.”

“Then I am glad to have you with us,” said Blane.  “We’ll give you a comm device which you can use to contact us.  It'll send encrypted messages, so be assured that any message will reach us safely.  And if something happens and you need us to come and get you out, we'll be there.  Is that okay?”

“That will be fine,” she answered with a determined smile.

Triniffer was pleased she was finally able to do something useful.  She had hated just sitting around in her chambers, wondering when she would next be summoned to listen to Grig Flentor blaze on about the treasonous Aritor family.  Now she felt she had the support to get to the bottom of what was happening in the Pyramid of Sunsets.  She had to get access to the other members of the ruling council, ask them what was going on.  She wondered if she should recruit the help of Kraytor and Olikar, she was sure they too felt as she did; they too had been dragged out of the council chamber by the council guards.  She would think on it; if the opportunity arose for them to help, she would decide then.  The very last thing she wanted to do was put them at risk as well.  If she was caught, Flentor would accuse her of treason, of conspiring with assassins.  She would only risk the same fate for Olikar and Kraytor if she absolutely had to.

It was decided that she would return to Aluzarah with Fhinn and the two Daratoorians, who would be going in that direction to find the assassin.  Blane was to remain in the summer forests of Tor, organising his men who had been arriving in small groups for the past twenty-four hours.  Astro was being sent back to the yacht, which he seemed less than thrilled about.

“So, back to the Great Pyramid then?  Give my regards to your fellow guardians for me,” said Astro, as he came and stood beside Triniffer, who was standing on the porch of the wooden shack, watching the Aritor guards build defences around the perimeter.

“I certainly will do, although I’m unsure at this point whether to ask for their help in this matter.”  Triniffer wasn't quite sure why she was sharing this with Astro, maybe she was getting caught up in feelings of solidarity, but right then she felt like he was a friend.

“Why?” asked Astro plainly.

“Well, for starters, the risk of three getting caught is greater than one.  Then, I'm not sure if I should put them at that level of risk either: if we do get caught, I couldn’t forgive myself if I saw them suffer.”

“You should let them make that decision,” Astro spoke confidently.  “And from what I have observed of your esteemed colleagues, they would make you suffer if they found out you were spying on Flentor for us and hadn't asked for their help.  They are both good men, are they not?”

Triniffer was quite surprised at Astro's directness. “You're quite right actually, they probably would.”  She laughed.  “So what are you going to do when you get back to the yacht?”

“The one thing I know best…” he said with a smile, “…work.  Father won't let me do much else anyway.  So I'm going to analyse the data I got from THUSS and see if I can't complete my project.  As I said before, it'll change the world,” he boasted jovially.

“Yes, I remember,” stated Triniffer, laughing slightly.  “And what is it that's going to change the world?  I'm not sure I remember you saying?”

“All will be unveiled when the time is right,” said Astro dramatically, accompanied by a big wave of his arms.

Triniffer wasn't sure whether to take him seriously or not.  She had always thought him to be a bright lad, even though his ideas were at times a bit flim-flam; but he can't seriously have developed something that was going to change the world.  She guessed she would just have to wait for the grand unveiling, as he put it.  She would look forward to that.  It was part of her job to encourage young scientists anyway, no matter how zany their ideas.

“Ready to go?” asked the voice of Fhinn suddenly, as he approached from inside the house.

“Of course,” Triniffer replied.  “It's not as if I brought anything with me.”

“That's true,” Fhinn smiled. “But you have the comm device, yes?”

“I do.”  She took the comm device out of a pocket in her gown and showed him.

Triniffer watched the tops of the Valder trees, as the craft skimmed along the crest of the forest towards Aluzarah.  She had only been gone five hours, but it was already starting to get dark.  The stars were starting to appear, and the moon of Batharok was climbing slowly into the sky.  On a night like this, when the sky was clear, the light of the moon brightened up the night-time so it didn't seem like night-time at all.  Which meant they would have to be careful approaching the pyramid.  If they were seen all would be lost.  But Fhinn was an outstanding pilot, and Rohad and Ristik were pretty handy defending themselves - from what she had witnessed when they burst into the ruling council chamber - and so she felt quite safe.

They landed in roughly the same spot as they had taken off from a few hours earlier, and Fhinn took Triniffer into the out-building and through the underground passage.  They waited when they got to the trap door, listening for any voices or movement in the chamber above.  They heard nothing.

“Now, be safe,” Fhinn said to her.  “Use the comm device regularly so we know you're okay.”

Triniffer nodded. 

Fhinn then slowly lifted up the trap door and stuck his head through the gap, double-checking if anyone was there.  There was no one.  He then helped Triniffer up into the chamber and smiled warmly before closing the trap door and disappearing.

Triniffer sat down at her desk and drew a deep breath.  What a day, she thought to herself.  But now she had plenty to do.  Her only worry was where to start.  Should she speak with Olikar and Kraytor first? She was sure her fellow guardians would help, especially now that she had seen the original recording.  She also had to find out what Flentor was really up to.  Was it just the Aritors he was after?  And who were the men in grey she had seen him with.  They had looked like off-worlders, although she hadn't recognised their species.  Could they be from Dovakai?  Were they something to do with the ambassador’s murder? 

She had plenty of questions to answer, and she sat there for a moment mulling them over.  Then suddenly the door to her chambers banged open, and Grig Flentor came charging through the door followed by two guards.  But then when he saw Triniffer he stopped, and a look of surprise appeared on his face.

“Guardian Triniffer, I received reports you had gone missing! Where have you been?” he asked, with a hint of suspicion in his voice.

“Been?” Triniffer replied, lowering her eyebrows in order to appear confused.  “I've been here, you locked me in my chambers remember?”

“This guard has just reported to me that he checked your chambers half an hour ago and that you were missing,” Grig Flentor looked agitated.

“Well, maybe your guard checked the wrong room, they are all quite similar,” she suggested.  “After all, where am I to go?  There is only one door, and you have a man guarding it.”

“Indeed.”  Grig Flentor then turned and gave one of the guards a stony look, and then headed out the door.

“Before you go…” shouted Triniffer after him. 

Grig Flentor turned.  “Yes?” he said impatiently.

“Why am I being kept here?” she asked bluntly.

“For your own safety, Guardian.”

“Do you believe any Aritor men to be in this building?”

“Not any longer.”

“Then I ask you to allow me leave of the pyramid.  I can understand your reluctance to let me leave for my own residence, especially considering my position as Official Witness - which I do hope you allow me to retain - but being kept in here is simply not satisfactory.”  Triniffer did her best to sound authoritative and persuasive, after all Grig Flentor had no legitimate reason to keep her locked up in her chambers.  As far as Grig Flentor knew, she was just trying to do her job, hardly much for him to worry about when he had Blane Aritor and Fhinn Pallden on the loose.

Grig Flentor watched Triniffer for a moment, considering.

“You are right; there is no reason to keep you locked up.  And I do apologise for the rough treatment towards you and your fellow guardians. I would appreciate it if you remained as Official Witnesses, despite my earlier outburst.  You may have the freedom you ask.  Except for THUSS of course, which remains out of bounds.”

Triniffer nodded graciously.

“Then I bid you a good evening, Guardian,” Grig Flentor said, as he turned and walked out of the door followed by the two guards.

As the door closed, the corners of Triniffer's mouth crept up into a smile.  Sucker, she thought.


Astro

Everyone was asleep when he arrived back on the yacht. He had been gone a whole day.  His father had, of course, told his mother about him mistakenly getting on the wrong space transport, and then accidently getting himself knocked out.  Astro wasn't stupid enough to think that they really believed his story, but no one had challenged him about it yet, so he was happy to carry on with his pretence.  He was happy to be back on board though, for no other reason than he was safe, and with his work.  He had come directly to his lab when he arrived.  There was much to do.  The data from THUSS was extensive, but he would work through the night and hopefully by morning he would have the answers he needed.

Astro set about to work, feeding data into computer terminals and watching as scenarios unfolded on the memory transfer module he had built.  The data from THUSS seemed to be working beautifully with his code, better than he had expected.  He watched as positive results poured onto the screen in front of him, and he smiled. 

Of course he understood the reservations that Theshkar had, but Astro was determined to show everyone what he could build: a true AI, able to make its own decisions, and importantly not one that would go insane and try to kill everything that moved.  Astro wasn't worried about any silly laws of robotics, rules were only there to be broken as far as he was concerned, he was able to take his own precautions; he was about to break the laws of nature after all!  And it excited him.  He knew he would have to be careful though.  If they were found out, he would likely be brought to trial, locked up, and the key thrown down the throat of a savage Bethagrog from the dark misty swamps of Velderes.  He decided he would have to hide her, or better yet pretend she was from Batharok; in fact if he worked quickly then he could say he brought her back with him.  His pilot hadn't checked if he was alone or not: too worried about being shot down.  But then he had to work quickly.  And then the breakthrough came.

As Astro watched the monitor in front of him he could hardly believe what he was seeing.  His theory about memory transfer into an AI programme seemed to be spot on.  It would work.  And not only that, the data was telling him he could use any mind-readings.  In fact the way in which the mind-reading hardware was programmed was directly compatible with his code.  Astro jumped into the air and whooped.  He had struck gold.  All he had to do now was find some readings he could use.  He had originally thought he'd need a mind-reader to record stable memories, to ensure the AI programming could take the information, but it was even better than he thought.  He could use the big production readings they had in the library as a base memory platform for the AI programming to build from.

Astro quickly ran to the yacht library, being as quiet as he could.  His family and the other passengers would be asleep, but some of the crew would be on shift, and he didn't want to alert anyone to his presence just yet.  He reached the library and pulled out a selection of blockbuster readings: a couple of love stories, some morality tales, crime-fighting epics, even some old classics; all good stuff where right and wrong was clearly defined, with a touch of adventure and romance thrown in for good measure.  He rushed back to his lab and started loading the readings into the AI system.  He was amazed how simple this was turning out to be; maybe it was fate that made it easy, he wondered to himself.

After all the data had been loaded into the AI programme, he ran a final scenario.  It was beautiful.  Before him on the screen he witnessed the harmony of his AI code working with the mind-reader programming, forming singular threads of consciousness that swam on the screen in front of him.  It was going to work; all he had to do now was upload the programme into the android brain.  This was work he had completed some time ago. He had been waiting for the final piece of the puzzle for over a year, but now he had it.  He hooked up the cellular cables to the android brain and initiated the transfer.  It would take some time, and Astro was hungry, so he decided to get himself a bite to eat from the kitchens.

The kitchens were empty, so he was able to steal some food undetected, and then he made his way back to his lab.  He had thought he'd not been gone that long, but when he entered the lab, to his horror, he heard a clattering sound. Someone's found her! Was his first thought as he rushed through the door, but to his astounded surprise it was the android that had made the noise.  The cellular cable was still connecting its head to the computer, but it was sitting up and its eyes were moving furiously from side to side around the room.

Astro immediately ran over, dropping the food he had brought with him, and checked the computer:  To his surprise the transfer had finished, he had expected it to take much longer, maybe the android brain he'd built was more efficient than he realised.  He unplugged the cellular cable from the android’s head and took both her hands in his.

“Hello,” he said softly, looking into her eyes.

The android looked from side to side, as if trying to understand where the noise was coming from.

“It's okay,” Astro continued.  “It’ll probably take a few minutes for all the right neurotransmissions to start flowing properly.”

“Who am I?” said the Android in a soft female voice.

Damn, Astro hadn't thought of a name, he looked out of the window into space beyond, trying desperately to think of a name. That was it, he suddenly thought.

“Your name is Star,” he said smiling.  He liked it.

“I am Star,” she repeated. “Where am I?” she asked next.

“You're on board the Aritor family yacht.”

“You are Astro Aritor, son of Blane Aritor, you are my creator,” she said looking at him blankly.

Good, everything is starting to kick in, he thought.  “Yes I am,” he replied.  “Although it’s probably best not to refer to me as your creator.  I think for the time being you can call me your friend.”

“Astro Aritor is my friend,” she repeated.

It was still a few hours until everyone would be getting up, so Astro spent the time working on Star's speech patterns, and explaining to her who she was and why he had made her.  He explained that if the ruling council found her they would destroy her, because of what she was.  He had already programmed Batharok's history into Star's programming, so she had no trouble understanding the previous problems they'd experienced with artificial intelligence.  He was alarmed at how quickly she progressed and understood things; after a couple of hours he would have himself been fooled had he not known she was an android.  The synthetic skin gave it away a bit though; she just looked too pale to be Batharokian.  Astro had used blond hair to try and make the paleness of the skin look natural but it still didn't really work.  He could say she was from off-world perhaps, maybe Arbiloa; they were quite a pale-skinned people.

“So are you ready to go and get something to eat?” he asked.

“I believe so,” Star answered, her speech patterns now sounding quite natural.

“Now, I have designed you to be able to eat anything you like, there's a little engine of sorts inside your chest that will turn anything you eat into energy.  It's a work of genius if I may say so myself.”

“Thank you Astro.  You've done a wonderful job.  Can I ask who you modelled me after?  Or am I unique?”  She was becoming more perceptive by the second, Astro could tell.

“I used a variety of templates to be honest, a few models and actresses, it was easier to get their full body measurements you see - the wonder of the Network - I wanted to give you a certain look that would work to your advantage.  I hope you approve?” he was feeling almost paternal.

“I do approve.  From what I can understand of the Batharokian definition of beauty stored in my databanks, you have provided me with a most pleasing exterior.”

“Thank you.  But please try to remember not to refer to your databanks, or any other internal workings of your system.  We're going to try and make people think you're from Arbiloa, remember?”

“Of course Astro, I will adjust my programming immediately.”

“And don't mention programming either.”

“Programming adjusted,” Star replied.

Oh dear, thought Astro, let's hope this works.

They made it to the breakfast room without bumping into anyone.  Astro showed Star how to work all the various gadgets that they used to dispense, prepare, and beautify food, although her intuitive programming allowed her to figure out most things for herself.  Then they sat down and Star had her first meal. 

It didn't last long, because five minutes after they had started, Haylar and Nilba burst into the room with their usual degree of drama; but they both stopped dead in their tracks when they saw their brother sitting with a girl, and a pretty one at that.

“Who's this?” said Nilba curiously.

“This is Star,” replied Astro casually.  “We met yesterday whilst I was leaving Batharok, she's from Arbiloa, and needed help, so here she is!”

“What help could she possible need from you?” answered Haylar, with a hint of mock scorn in her voice.

“Ha ha, very funny.  Star these are my sisters, Haylar and Nilba,” he said standing up and making introductions.

This is her first big test, he thought, if she can get passed these two, then she can fool anyone.

“What's wrong with your skin?” asked Nilba suddenly.

“Don't be rude,” said Haylar, slapping her sister lightly on the arm.  “She's from Arbiloa.  They all have pale skin there, don't you know anything?”

“Sorry,” said Nilba, looking at Star.

“That's quite alright,” replied Star.  “It’s nice to meet you.”

Perfect, thought Astro, just perfect.

The rest of breakfast went well, his mother was delighted to meet Star.  It seemed that Nilba had whispered to her that Astro had brought a new girlfriend on board as she entered the breakfast room.  Astro had never had a girlfriend.  Not one that he'd brought home anyway, which explained why his mother was so pleased to see Star sitting demurely at his side.  But of course Star wasn't his girlfriend; she was an android capable of so much more.

And then Theshkar walked in.  He immediately froze when he recognised the face of the android he had last seen lying prone on a metal table in Astro's lab.

Astro immediately got up, and ran over to Theshkar before he said anything that would give the game away.

“Come and meet Star,” he said, pushing Theshkar towards the table where they were sitting.  “I met her on Batharok yesterday.  The poor girl had just landed from Arbiloa with nowhere to stay, and no money, so I decided to help her.”

“That's very charitable of you Astro,” replied Theshkar staring at him with a bemused look on his face.  “What are you doing?” he then whispered quietly enough so no one could hear.

“I'll explain later,” Astro whispered back.

“You'll explain now!” said Theshkar, grabbing Astro's arm.

“All right, all right,” said Astro defensively, pulling his arm free and looking around; but everyone was too busy with their breakfast.

“Come on Star, Theshkar has offered to join us on a tour of the ship,” Astro said loudly, as he walked over to Star and helped her out of her seat.  She had been speaking with one of Astro's brothers, who remarked to Astro how charming she was as they left.  After the initial exchange with his sisters, he felt comfortable leaving her alone; he just didn't want to leave her alone for too long.

Theshkar marched ahead, leading the way back to Astro's lab.  Once they had arrived and closed the door, Theshkar turned on Astro.

“What have you done?  Why have you gone ahead without consulting with me first?” he shouted angrily.

“I don't need to consult with you!” replied Astro indignantly.  “Anyway I know what you would have said!”

“This is illegal Astro! And at such a time as well.”

“But look at her, she's perfect! Speak to her, test her, do want you want to prove to yourself that this wasn't a mistake, but don't just blindly throw rules at me, I thought you were better than that!”

“This isn't just any rule.  The laws against artificial intelligence are there for a very good reason.”

“But no one needs to know.  You saw her with my family just now; they all think she's from Arbiloa.  She's that good!”

Theshkar took a moment to take a real look at Star, something he hadn't really done yet. “I must admit, she appears very real.”

“See!”  Astro knew he could win over Theshkar; he had spent nearly as much time working on her as Astro had.  Once he got over his initial anger he'd be fine.

“I heard you got into THUSS, I assume you got the answers you needed, may I be permitted to review the material?”

“Be my guest,” said Astro. “I intend to take her back down to Batharok as soon as possible,” he added.

“Oh yes please,” said Star suddenly.  “I would very much like to see the planet below, it looks so beautiful out of the window.”

“That would be folly.  But she speaks very well,” said Theshkar, impressed, looking at Astro.

“You should get used to speaking to her Theshkar.”

“Yes, sorry,” Theshkar looked at Star and smiled.  She smiled back.  “You speak very well, for an android that is,” he said to Star, with a slight hint of discomfort.

“Thank you,” she replied.  “You speak very well yourself, for a Batharokian.”

Theshkar laughed loudly.  “Well I never!” he exclaimed. “Humour!  Now there's a thing.”  Astro was pleased to see he was smiling now; he had been taken by the scientific wonder of what they had created, and was no longer dwelling on the illegal nature of her existence.

“So what do you intend on doing with her?  We have to do lots more tests; you can't take her to Batharok yet.  Especially with the turmoil going on down there.”

“I intend to do field tests,” said Astro.  “You should come with us.  Don't worry; we'll be quite safe.  I've programmed Star with a variety of useful skills.”

“You haven't taught her to fight?” exclaimed Theshkar.

“Like a Daratoorian warrior,” replied Astro, smiling.


Skyla

Every time she thought Rubius was one of the really bad guys, he did something that made her stop and think.  Skyla had been ready to blast him for the deaths of that poor family.  But the rage he flew into when he heard what Forca and Kost had done was a storm full of anger and remorse.  She had not known whether to believe him when he had told her that he tried to avoid killing people; but the display she saw after Pilo explained - through watery eyes - how a seven-year-old boy and his parents had been brutally murdered by the hands of Forca and Kost, convinced her that he was sincere.

“Why did you ask me to kill Kosh?” she asked Rubius as they entered his Battleship.

“A little test my dear, after what I had said to you, I wondered if you would blindly follow my orders, or if you would do something different.”

“And did I pass your little test?” Skyla replied, unimpressed.

“Well, you're not one for blindly following orders, I know that now!  And I'm glad you're not.  I have people who blindly follow orders, and some who even exceed those orders, like Forca and Kost, what I need is someone a little bit smarter for what lies ahead.”

“And what does lie ahead?” she asked.

“You'll see.  Now gather your companions, we have a lot to speak about.”

Rubius marched off down the corridor to the conference room where she had first met him.  She found Pilo and his son, and Kosh, and then she took them to the empty room that Rubius liked to use to discuss important matters.

When they entered the room, Rubius was standing at the far end waiting for them.

Pilo told Goodwin to wait at the back of the room for them.

“Let the boy approach too,” boomed Rubius.  “This affects him as much as it does the rest of us.”

Pilo nodded in agreement and brought Goodwin up the length of the room with him.

“We form a circle,” Rubius said to them all as they approached.  “No one here is a master, no one here is a slave, what we discuss in this circle stays in the circle.  This is our oath.  Is that understood?”

Everyone nodded his or her head at the giant metallic man.

A hush descended on the circle as they waited for Rubius to speak.

“This planet is on the verge of destruction,” he said calmly.

Skyla, Kosh and Pilo exchanged confused glances with each other, as Goodwin grabbed the sleeve of his father's jacket for comfort.

“Unless we take action,” Rubius continued, “everyone on this planet will be harvested, and the planet stripped of all its mineral value.  And all of this will start in approximately one week.”

“What do you mean?  Who would do this?” asked Skyla, shocked.

“The Nomar Empire,” Rubius replied.

Skyla froze. 

“The empire is here? That can't be, they're on the other side of the galaxy?”

“But they have technology far in advance of our own, their scout ships can travel vast distances almost instantaneously, their harvesters take a little longer, which is why we have a small window of opportunity to work against them.”

“How do you know all of this?” asked Pilo.

Rubius paused for a moment, looking at Pilo and Kosh and Goodwin.

“What you see before you may look like a metal monster, but I was once a flesh and blood person like yourselves.  I am a citizen, like Skyla.  My planet was harvested centuries ago, but I escaped.  Since then I have travelled the galaxy looking for a weapon against them.  And then I found you, Dream Merchant.”

“Me?” exclaimed Pilo, looking surprised.

“Yes you.  Your mind-reader device and the dreams you produce are the weapon I have been looking for.  This technology doesn't exist anywhere else, apart from on Nomar.  They use it to subjugate their citizens, but we can use it to set them free.”

“I don't understand,” said Skyla.

“We can give them dreams, don’t you see?  The Nomar take citizens and make them part of their system.  They hardwire them up to their computers; tubes going into their brains and mouths, they are kept in amniotic fluid to keep them alive and preserve them.  These drones are people, but they're essentially dead, they're brains are being overrun with computer code; they are trapped inside their own minds.  If we can transmit dream-readings into their brains, then I believe it will disrupt the system and cause it to shut down.”

“Like suddenly reducing the memory and processing speed on a computer!” said Goodwin.

Pilo looked down at his son in surprise.

“Very good!” boomed Rubius. “Exactly like that!”

“And how do you propose to do this?” asked Kosh, who was looking a bit overwhelmed.

“This is why I needed the mind-reader from Mr Jerritor: my own scientists have developed a method of transmitting the dream-readings to the Nomar computer systems, but we need to fit the mind-reader into a craft.  It’ll only work if we transmit the signal from within a kilometre range of the Nomar ship.  The signal is not strong enough otherwise.”

“And if we don't do this?” asked Kosh.

“Then the scout ship that is currently orbiting Batharok, will continue to destabilize the government until it has control of Batharok's own defences, and then the harvester ship will arrive; after that there is no hope.”

“So, the grey men I have seen are these Nomar you speak of?” asked Pilo.

“Correct.  They are here to take control of the ruling council.  However the grey men you have seen Pilo, have been trying to find me, they have been following you hoping you would lead them to me.  Which I believe you have now done.”

There was an immediate look of panic on the faces of Skyla, Kosh, Pilo and Goodwin.  But Rubius still looked calm.

“But not to worry, I have able men posted all around the perimeter, we'll know well in advance if they try anything; although I suspect they're waiting.”

“For what?” asked Skyla.

“For what we're going to do next.  None of what I have told you is a secret to them.  It's why they're here.  They have sensed the mind-reader technology through quantum ripples in space-time; they know it can be used against them.  And they know that I'm here as well.  Believe me, the Nomar are not stupid.”

“So, let me get this straight,” said Kosh trying to understand everything.  “We've got brain-sucking aliens getting ready to invade the planet, and no one knows about it apart from us?”

“Correct,” replied Rubius.

“How do we know you're telling us the truth?” he asked.

“You don't.  But you have a choice to help me, or just wait and see what happens.”

“You have my help as and when you need it,” said Pilo bravely.

“And mine,” added Goodwin.

Rubius let off a metal laugh. “Very good.  It is your help I shall need most of all, Dream Merchant.”

“And what can we do?” asked Skyla, on behalf of herself and Kosh.

“Look around me,” said Rubius.  “I have surrounded myself with criminals; they have been my cover, and a fine job they have done; but for something like this they cannot be trusted.  I am part of a wider resistance movement, but we are small, I am the only member here on Batharok.  It was better like for a while, but I have realised of late that the time has come to expand my numbers.  I hope I have now found some willing members?”

Each member of the group nodded in agreement.

“We shall try to grow our forces with good people as we meet them.  But we have a greater concern at hand.  We need to repel the Nomar scout ship and ensure that Aluzarah remains in control of its defences.  This is our immediate goal.”

“But if they're such a superior race, then why are they worried about our defences at all?” asked Kosh.

“Interplanetary invasion has been proven time and time again to be virtually impossible.  Especially when we're speaking of a race such as the Batharokians, who have teeth.  In order to succeed with the harvest, they first have to take control of the government.  They will have operatives in Velderes and Ulandy, but Aluzarah is the real power on this planet, it has been since the end of the AI war, if the Nomar are able to control Aluzarah then it will allow them to attack.”

Skyla looked across at Pilo, who had a worried look on his face.  She could see Goodwin holding onto his father's jacket sleeve tightly.  The boy must be terrified, she thought.  She felt afraid herself.  All her life she had lived with the fear of being a citizen, of being shunned and told to move on, but she had never really feared the Nomar themselves.  She had never thought she would ever come across them.  She had always believed her father had done all the running her family would ever have to do.  And then she remembered her family.

“What about Vuhla?” asked Skyla, suddenly concerned.

“Vuhla, I would guess, is safe for the time being.  The people there aren't going anywhere; I expect the Nomar are happy to leave it be until they have taken Aluzarah.  If they did attack Vuhla everyone on Batharok would know they were here.”

“You guess it's safe?” she replied unconvinced.

“I am not one of them, I can only assume what actions they will take based on three hundred years of experience, and that is a lot more than anyone on this planet has.  Whether they attack Vuhla or not, our goal remains the same.”

Skyla was afraid for her family.  Vuhla was desolate; they would not know what was happening until it actually happened.  But Rubius was right; the best way to help them was to stop the Nomar attacking Batharok.

“So what do we do first?” asked Kosh.

“First we need to build our weapon.  We have designed a ship that can house the mind-reader: we need to incorporate the device into the ships systems, and then we need Mr Jerritor to provide us with some suitable dream-readings.”

Pilo nodded.

“So where is this ship?” asked Kosh.

“It's in one of the other hangers.  Come on, we'll go and see it.”

Rubius led the way out of his conference room.  They exited the battleship and walked to an empty hanger opposite.

“How are you handling all of this?” said Kosh to Skyla, as they walked.

“Okay, I guess,” Skyla replied.  “How about you?”

“A bit shocked.  I never really knew much about the Nomar until I met you, and now it seems I’m going to war against them.  Well, not just me, there's five if us including little Goodwin, so we should be fine!” he said with a hint of sarcasm.

“I trust Rubius,” said Skyla.  “My brain tells me I shouldn't, but my heart tells me I should.”

“And what does your heart tell you about me,” asked Kosh looking at her seriously.

“It tells me that you're going to be trouble Kosh Ridel,” she jested, and then took his hand.

Kosh laughed.  “Trouble eh? Funny, that's what I was thinking about you.”

Skyla slapped Kosh on the arm playfully.

“Ouch!  See! I told you so,” Kosh joked, as they arrived at the hanger.

“You two are in a surprisingly good mood, considering,” said Pilo who had a serious look on his face.

“Just trying to keep positive,” remarked Kosh.

Rubius had already opened the door to the hanger and they all filed in.  There were already a number of men in the hanger working on the ship that stood proudly in front of them.  It was coloured white and gold, and shaped like a bird of prey.  There were no edges to be seen anywhere: it was smooth all over.  And on the side in red letters was written the words Victory.

“Is that the name of the ship?” asked Goodwin.

“It is, and I hope it will also be its destiny,” said Rubius looking at the ship proudly. “It has taken half a lifetime to develop the systems in the Victory.  She's unique, specifically designed to fight the Nomar.  She has stealth technology, a full complement of weapons banks, warp-speed capability, unique tracking systems designed to seek out Nomar scouts and Harvesters.”

“And who's going to fly her?” asked Kosh.

“I was hoping you would do that Kosh,” replied Rubius, looking at him.

“I'd be glad to!” he replied.

Skyla didn't like that idea.  “I'll go too,” she offered, not wanting to leave Kosh's side.

“And we will need Pilo to go, of course,” said Rubius.

Pilo nodded in acceptance, and then looked down at his son.

“Before you ask, you can't come with me,” he said to Goodwin.  “I'm going to take you home and get someone to look after you until this is all over.”

“But father...” Goodwin started.

“I know, I know,” he said holding his son to his chest.  “But I can't risk you being out there with us.  I need you to stay here.”

Goodwin sobbed, looking up to his father.  Skyla could tell it was all too much for the boy.

“I suggest we start making our arrangements,” Rubius broke in.  “Pilo, you obviously have matters to attend to, but if you could leave the mind-reader here with us we can start incorporating it into the ships systems.  Kosh and Skyla, you need to learn everything about this ship, I suggest you make a start.”


Fhinn

Fhinn had not been back in the craft long, after dropping off Triniffer, when the call came in from Blane.

“Fhinn, we have a problem,” started Blane's voice over the comm.  “The council forces are getting close, I need you to find the assassin and then bring him here as soon as possible.”

“Understood, Mr Aritor,” he replied.

“We also have a second problem.”

“Which is?”

“Which is my damn disobedient son has gone missing again, and with Theshkar this time, of all people.  His mother has just been in touch; she's in hysterics, naturally.  I can only assume he has gone to Aluzarah.  Find him and get him to safety.”

After Blane had broken the transmission Fhinn swore at an absent Astro.  Damn him, when would he start acting responsibly, he thought, why he chose to wander off at such a time was just astounding.

He immediately tried calling Astro on his comm device, but either he wasn't wearing it or he had turned it off.

Fhinn wondered what would be the easiest way to find him in a city of thirty million people; then he wondered if there even was an easiest way to find someone in a city of thirty million people.

They had joined the flow of traffic meandering through the sky above Aluzarah, when suddenly Rohad pointed out a vehicle that seemed to be having trouble keeping a straight course.

All three of them held their breath as they watched.  Suddenly the vehicle dived, a small explosion went off inside and then it crashed into a square below.

“Get down there, we must help,” shouted Ristik.

Fhinn's wasn't the only craft to suddenly descend from the sky towards the burning wreck that had just crashed.  The emergency services were surprisingly quick as well.

Fhinn landed the craft and he, Rohad and Ristik quickly disembarked.

It was immediately clear though that there was not much they could do.  No one from the craft could have survived; it was a furnace.  Luckily the square seemed to have been reasonably empty, what injuries there were to people on the ground seemed minimal from what Fhinn could see around him.

It was then that Fhinn saw Astro, sitting with a girl he didn't recognise, helping an elderly man who was on the ground.

He ran over immediately. “Astro!” he shouted.  Astro's head turned, but he didn't smile, his face was grimy with soot from the burning wreckage, and he had a desperate look in his eyes and tears streaming down his cheeks smudging the black soot.

“We were in the square when it came down,” he choked.  “Star saved me, but Theshkar didn't make it!”

Shock hit Fhinn like a brick in the face.  He wasn't quite sure what to say; he knew Astro and Theshkar were close.  He put his hand on Astro's shoulder. “Come on, we need to get you out of here, Grig Flentor will implicate your father for this if they find you here,” he said helping Astro up.  The girl Astro was with stood up as well.

“This is Star,” said Astro.  “She's with me.”

Fhinn nodded a greeting, and Star returned the nod.  They both helped Astro back to the craft.

“I can't believe it!” Astro kept saying.  “How meaningless!”

Fhinn looked at the burning craft again, there was something about it that seemed familiar; he just wasn't sure what that was.  Then, as soon as he'd taken off again, now with Astro and Star on board, he realised why the ship had seemed familiar.

“Look!” said Ristik, she had turned on the Network holoscreen and was watching a live feed of the crash site they had just left.

Fhinn and the rest of the passengers on board watched in horror, as the news reporter announced that the crashed ship was carrying the members of the ruling council.  Fhinn's head dropped in disbelief.  Then the worse news came: every member of the ruling council had been killed except Grig Flentor, who had not been on board the craft due to his presence being required for the on-going investigation and capture of the criminals Fhinn Pallden and Blane Aritor.  Ristik and Rohad carried on watching the screen as Fhinn turned his attention back to piloting the craft.  They still had to find the assassin, but Fhinn was pretty sure everyone on board was thinking the same as he was: Grig Flentor had something to do with this.

Astro was still inconsolable as Fhinn landed the craft into a vehicle bay.  They were near the co-ordinates THUSS had given him for the residence of the assassin.  Despite what had just happened, he still had a job to do.  He left Astro on board with the girl, whoever she was.

“Astro,” he said before he left.  “I understand your pain right now, but you need to understand that more lives could be lost unless we act quickly.  I need you to put your grief aside for the time being, at least until all this is over, and then we can grieve for everyone that’s been lost in the manner in which they deserve.”

Astro sniffed and nodded.

Fhinn needed everyone on board to be alert, he was a wanted man, and Grig Flentor had just become a one-man ruling council.  He needed to be careful.

The twins followed Fhinn as they exited the craft.  The three of them then set off.  Fhinn had insisted the twins wear normal clothes this time.  The half-naked look they normally went for was not going to help them being inconspicuous.  However, the residential area they were in appeared to be a quiet place at night.  Fhinn only saw a few people who passed them on the street, and none of them looked in their direction.  Apart from one odd looking man dressed in a grey suit, who seemed to be watching them from a distance, but he soon disappeared after Rohad stared back at him.

They eventually found the address, and the three of them found a place to watch the building from the other side of the street.  It was one of those single residency spaces, cheap accommodation for people who live alone and don't care what their home looks like.  The lights were on, and they could see movement.  Someone was definitely there.

They watched for another half an hour, until suddenly the door of the apartment opened and a man walked out.  Fhinn recognised the man from the recordings of the assassination.

“That's him, definitely,” he said to the twins in a whisper.  Rohad made ready to rush the man, but Fhinn stopped him. “We need to be clever about this: let's see where he's going first, he's bound to be working for someone.”

Rohad relaxed, and the three of them stayed hidden until the man turned the corner at the end of the street.  They then followed him - staying in the shadows as much as they could - to a vehicle bay next to where they had parked.  The man got into a vehicle and took off.

“Quick!” shouted Fhinn, as he raced back to the craft.  Rohad and Ristik were there before him - Daratoorians are very quick runners.  Fhinn jumped into the cockpit and started the engines.  He still had sight of the lights of the man's vehicle, and after a hasty take-off was soon able to catch up, staying a reasonable distance behind him so not to be seen.

They followed in silence.  Only once did a much-better-looking Astro poke his head through the cockpit door, and ask where they were going, and Fhinn quickly brought him up to speed on developments.

They drove for another half an hour through the moonlit night of the Aluzaran sky, until they noticed the vehicle they were following descend, into what looked like some sort of old airfield next to the cargo spaceport.  Fhinn could see two very long rows of hangers stretched out.  There didn't seem to be any lights on, so when he saw the vehicle park, he found a spot a bit further away amongst a clutch of trees, and lowered the craft to the ground as quietly as possible.  They then got out to find which hanger the man had gone into.  Fhinn again told Astro to stay behind with Star.  Astro was all too happy to oblige considering the hour, and consigned himself to getting some sleep.

Fhinn, Rohad, and Ristik crept into the darkness.  Fhinn could just see the shadows of the twins and the points of their shieldswords over their shoulders, as they proceeded in front of him to where they had seen the assassin's vehicle land.  As they got closer all three turned on their light-refraction devices and moved slowly to the side of the hanger where they saw a group of men standing by a door.

Within seconds the men were lying on the ground, unconscious.  Rohad slowly opened the door and slid in, Ristik and Fhinn followed.

It was dark inside the hanger; Fhinn could see that something large was there, but he could only make out a huge shadow looming before him, it must be a ship, he thought.

Suddenly lights turned on, blinding them. 

“Whatever it is you're using to hide yourselves turn it off now, or we'll open fire, we have blasters everywhere, at least one of them is going to hit you,” boomed a voice from beyond the lights.

Fhinn knew that Rohad and Ristik would not make a move without him doing so first.  They still had the shieldswords, so Fhinn decided better to face their enemy, and he turned off the light-refractor.  As soon as he appeared, Rohad and Ristik did as well.

“Good,” said the voice, and the lights dimmed to reveal a huge battleship and twenty blasters trained on them.  “Take them!” the voice ordered and the people behind the blasters moved forward.

Rohad and Ristik looked to Fhinn for a sign, Fhinn glanced over and nodded.

The twins both unsheathed their shieldswords and drove them into the ground, turning them on as they did so.  Two blue shimmering balls spread-out instantly, encapsulating Fhinn and the twins.

“Stop!” shouted the voice, and the approaching blasters stopped in their tracks, muzzles still trained on the three. “I see you came prepared,” boomed the voice.

Fhinn then watched, as from behind the lights a huge figure approached.  He watched as the figure turned into a giant android, which walked through the blue force field being generated by the shieldswords, and stood in front of Fhinn.

“I am Rubius Bannepal, what is your business here? And who are you?”

It was clear to Fhinn that the android had nothing to fear from him or the twins; and he knew if he wanted to get out of here alive he better start doing some talking; he really didn't want to get into a fight with the metallic giant standing before him.  He knew the name Rubius Bannepal from reputation alone, and it was a reputation to be feared.

“I am Fhinn Pallden, I work for the Aritor family...” he started, but Rubius interrupted.

“Then you are here because of the assassination of the Dovakian Ambassador,”

“Correct,” Fhinn replied.  “What can you tell me about it?”

“Please come into the ship, then we can discuss this in a less aggressive atmosphere.  Lower your weapons,” he then added to his people, who immediately did as he asked.

Fhinn turned and nodded to Rohad and Ristik, who disarmed the shieldswords, and the three of them followed Rubius Bannepal into the battleship.

They were led into a chamber that had no furniture; it was just a long empty room.

“Here we make a circle to discuss matters,” started Rubius, as he pointed to where each of the three should stand.  “No one here is a master, no one here is a slave, what we discuss in this circle stays in the circle.  Is that understood?”

“What was that?” said Fhinn.

“It is our oath,” Rubius said solemnly.

“Okay.  Understood.  Now what can you tell me about the assassination.”  Fhinn was starting to get impatient. “The Aritor family has been outlawed from society; we have the law-keepers closing in on us and...”

“It was one of my men that carried out the assassination,” admitted Rubius.  “It is the nature of my work to act as a go between for such matters.”

“Who ordered it to be done?”

“A member of the ruling council,” Rubius admitted without hesitation.

“Let me guess, Grig Flentor?” said Fhinn.

“That is the name of the man, correct.  But it is not really him behind it.”

“What do you mean?” asked Fhinn, confused.

“Grig Flentor is just a puppet for a greater power.” 

Fhinn noticed one of the android’s eyes scanning each of them. “What greater power is that?” he asked, wondering what the hell this was about.

It was then that Rubius Bannepal said something that Fhinn found very hard to believe, and so he had to ask him to say it again.

“This planet is under the threat of invasion by the Nomar Empire,” the android repeated.

“Yes, that's what I thought you said.  Do you have any proof of that?”

“The proof is orbiting the planet right now.  It's a Nomar scouter ship.  They have already started trying to take control of the government through Grig Flentor, and once they have full control of Aluzaran defences, they'll invade.”

“And why is it no one seems to know about this?” said Fhinn, still not sure whether to believe it or not, although the bit about Grig Flentor wasn’t a total surprise.

“The Nomar are very good at hiding themselves.  However, I am very good at finding them,” Rubius replied.  “Please believe me; I just passed on a contract; and when I did I was not aware who was really behind it.  I did not mean any harm to the Aritor family; however, it does seem that we find ourselves on the same side in this war.”

“How do you mean?”

“You are fighting Grig Flentor, whilst I am fighting the Nomar.  Our goals are one.”

“I suppose you're right,” said Fhinn thinking about it.  “Would you willing testify, if needed, that you arranged the ambassador’s assassination, and that we had nothing to do with it?”

“No,” replied Rubius bluntly.  “But if you agree to join me against the Nomar, then I'll deliver you the man who carried out the job.”


Pilo

Pilo had already called his sister - Gwentle - and told her he was bringing over Goodwin.  His sister lived not too far from the spaceport where Rubius Bannepal had his hideout, so it wasn't a long journey.  It was quite common that Pilo had work to do at night; after all, night is the realm of dreams; and so Goodwin was quite used to staying with his aunt.  It was a good place for him to stay, because he had his own bedroom stacked with plenty of his own toys; he would have things to comfort him.  Pilo knew that the last forty-eighty hours had been hard on Goodwin.  He had lost his boyhood friend, and heard that the planet was about to be invaded.  But he could see Goodwin trying his best to be strong, and it made his heart ache to see such strength in one so young; even if at times it did falter.

“Are you scared Papa?” asked Goodwin, looking up at his father who was sitting next to him on the transport shuttle.

“Scared, of what?” asked Pilo smiling down at his son.

“You know, going up there?  Trying to destroy the scout ship?”

“No, I'm not scared.  You saw the people that Papa was going with.  They were good people.  Plus we've got an extra special ship haven't we, you saw it?”  Pilo was doing his best to reassure his son, even if he didn't feel so reassured himself.

“Yes, but....” Goodwin started, “…what if they have a better spaceship?”

“Goodwin, try not to worry so much.  It'll all be fine.  That Rubius Bannepal knows what he is doing; and you saw how he reacted when he heard about Tokki, we cannot blame him for what happened.  The men that killed Tokki and his Mama and Papa were evil, bad people; the same sort of people that we're going to stop in the Victory.  And you know how these things end, the good guys always win!”

Goodwin tried to smile, but still looked anxious.

“Did you know that Rubius Bannepal is hundreds of years old?” Pilo said, trying to brighten the conversation up.

“Really?” said Goodwin, eyes lighting up a little.  “Hundreds?”

“Yes, hundreds, so there's no need for you to worry.  When we get to auntie Gwentle's you can have a sleep, and then by the time you wake it'll all be over, and I'll be back with you.”

Goodwin looked up with loving eyes, which suddenly formed tears, and then the boy grabbed his father.  “I don't want you to go, I want you to stay with me,” he pleaded, now sobbing.

Curious people on the transport shuttle were starting to look on.

“Goodwin, I need you to be a big boy right now, I have to go, you know that.”

“Why? Why can't someone else do it?”

Pilo took his son in his arms and held the boy's head to his chest. “Hey, stop this; you know why I have to go.”

The boy continued sobbing.  It was unfair on him, Pilo knew, he had already lost his mother, he must be so scared of losing his father as well.  But Pilo realised that unless he did what he could to help defeat the Nomar, then all would be lost anyway.

The transport shuttle reached their stop and they got off.  Goodwin had calmed down a bit, but was still clinging to his father's arm tightly.

Pilo waved down a cab outside the transport terminal and they were soon on their way to Gwentle's.  He checked his wrist device; he still had a few hours until the agreed take off time.

Gwentle was as brilliant as ever.  Pilo hadn't told her everything, but had told her enough to be able to prepare her for the state that Goodwin was in - and when she opened the door, it was big hugs and smiles for her favourite nephew.  Soon, the familiar surroundings and company of father and aunt had Goodwin reasonably calm again.  Pilo stayed a while and shared a meal with them before it was time for him to leave.  It was just starting to get dark.

“Good luck,” Goodwin said, looking up to his father as he gave him one last hug.

Pilo kissed his son's forehead and then left. 

He would see Goodwin again, this would all go to plan and they would all be fine, or so Pilo kept repeating to himself on the way back to Rubius Bannepal's hanger.  He had been keeping a look out for men in grey, his biggest worry was that they would follow him to Gwentle's, but Pilo had not seen any sign of them.

It took Pilo another hour to get back to the hanger via his shop, where he stopped to pick up some dream-readings.  He chose the most powerful dreams in his collection, the ones with strong images, smells and sounds. 

On his way back he was surprised that, again, he didn't see any grey men.  Even after he had arrived at the transport terminal and had started walking towards the hangers.  Rubius Bannepal had said they would be closing in after Pilo had led them there.  Then all of a sudden he saw something grey moving in the darkness ahead of him.

The next thing Pilo knew he had a hand over his mouth and a familiar voice was whispering, “Shhhh” in his ear quietly.  He turned his head and saw Skyla.  She took away her hand from his mouth and then held a forefinger up to her own mouth and said, “Shhhh” again.

Skyla then started to creep off towards the hangers, signalling for Pilo to follow her.  They moved silently in the darkness; Pilo doing his best to keep his eyes forward, and not on the grey shapes that his paranoia was telling him were moving all around them.  Then, as they got closer to the hanger, he relaxed as he saw Rubius Bannepal's men, holding large weapons, watching the darkness.  He had never been so pleased to see criminals holding guns before.

They were soon back in the hanger, Pilo felt safe again.

“That was close!” said Skyla as she welcomed Pilo with a hug.  “We were worried, we've had lots of sightings of grey men out there, although it's only been sightings so far.  So when we saw you get off the transport shuttle on the monitor, I thought I'd come out and get you.”

“Where's everyone else?”

“Briefing, in the empty room, come on, we've been waiting for you.”

Skyla led Pilo into the ship and into the empty room.  The circle seemed to have grown since Pilo was last there that morning.

“Pilo, good to have you here,” boomed Rubius as Pilo joined the circle.  “We have a few new members since this morning,” he gestured to the five new faces.  “This is Fhinn Pallden, who works for Blane Aritor, along with his associates, the twins, Rohad and Ristik. This is Astro Aritor, son of Blane Aritor, and this is his friend, Star.  All of them have agreed to help us fight the Nomar.”

Pilo nodded politely to each of them in turn.

“We do have one other member, who is not in the circle with us.  Fhinn had suggested her inclusion due to the undercover work she is already doing.  That person is the Triniffer Heb, the guardian.  So now you're up to speed Dream Merchant, are you ready?”

Pilo looked at the eight faces that were now looking back at him.

“I am ready as I'll ever be,” he replied.  “I have the dream-readings,” he patted the bag he had around his shoulders.

“Good, then we shall begin,” Rubius announced.  “Skyla, Kosh and Pilo, you are on the Victory.  Fhinn and the twins, Astro and Star are returning to the forests of Tor to fight at the side of Astro's father.”

“Actually, Astro and Star will remain here,” interrupted Fhinn.  “Mr Aritor wanted them safe, and right now this is a safer place than the forests of Tor.”

“Okay, then they can join me monitoring our progress from here,” consented Rubius.

It was another hour before they were ready, Fhinn and the twins had already gone, and Blane Aritor's son, Astro, had been extremely helpful with setting up the mind-reader in the Victory.  His level of knowledge impressed Pilo.  He had a genuine interest in the technology, and Pilo was happy to have someone that knew just as much about the technical workings of the machine as he did.

Once everything had been hooked up and plugged in, and checked and double-checked, Kosh started the engines.

“Will you listen to her hum; beautiful!” Kosh exclaimed with a smile on his face.  “I'm going to enjoy driving this.”

Skyla was sitting next to him in the co-pilot's seat; she smiled at Kosh as he stroked the controls lovingly.

“So, we all know what to do!” boomed a voice over the comm. “Keep focused, and this will all be over soon.  Check-in for final instructions when you get close, understood?”

“Understood!” replied Skyla into the comm.

Kosh initiated the stealth drive and the noise from the craft suddenly quietened to a whisper.  He turned the light-refractor on and then started moving the craft upwards. 

“No one can see us, right?” said Pilo looking into the cockpit.

“That's right, my friend,” replied Kosh with a hint of joviality in his voice.  “We are on silent and invisible mode.”

“So, tell me again why we can’t just fly up there and blow a hole in their ship?” asked Pilo.

“Something to do with their shields.  According to Rubius the Nomar are virtually invincible in space, that is, invincible from everyone apart from you and your machine,” said Skyla as she kept her eyes fixed on the controls in front of her.

“And you trust Rubius Bannepal, do you?” Pilo asked curiously.  Kosh looked around at Skyla, interested in what her answer would be.

“Not completely,” replied Skyla.  “I'd be a fool to.  But we're about to find out if he was telling the truth or not, aren't we?”

“We certainly are,” said Kosh, as he pushed forward the throttle and the craft shot upwards towards the troposphere.

A few minutes later and the stars suddenly appeared in their billions, as they entered space and begun orbiting the planet.  Pilo had returned to the room where the mind-reader had been built into the ship, he was looking out of the window at the stars and thinking how much Goodwin would love to see all this.  He had never taken him off-planet; it had taken him long enough to get Goodwin into a transport shuttle again after his mother's death; he didn't want to push things by introducing spacecraft into the equation.  However, maybe he was old enough now.  Pilo decided that if he got through this he would ask Pilo if he wanted a trip into space.  He was always playing games with spaceship in them anyway.  And it would be a good first step in making things up to Goodwin.  He'll need a few nice things to happen to him after all this.

Suddenly the intercom crackled.

“Pilo, come up here, we can see it!”

Pilo rushed back towards the cockpit.  As he entered, he looked out of the front view screen, and there it was.

When Rubius had said it was a scout ship, Pilo hadn't expected it to be so big; but it was huge.  It was twenty or thirty times the size of Rubius Bannepal's battle cruiser, and with ten times the weapons.  It was shaped exactly like a gigantic egg lying on its side.  Pilo wasn't surprised to see it was grey in colour.  Lights from a thousand rooms and cabins speckled its body, but it had no other marking that he could see.  Just a smooth sideways speckled egg floating in space - with guns.

“And no-one on Batharok knows that it's here?” he checked.

“No-one.  Amazing isn't it, that something that large can be hidden so well?” answered Skyla.

“But then, we're hidden from it!” Kosh reminded them.  “And thank the stars that we are, I doubt we'd stand much of a chance against that!”

“Too right!” agreed Skyla.  “So, how close are we now?”

“Two kilometres,” said Kosh checking the screen in front of him.  “Time to check-in.”

Pilo watched as Skyla opened an encrypted comm-link with Rubius Bannepal.

“Okay, you know what do to,” said the metal voice over the comm.  “When you get to one kilometre, start transmitting those dream-readings.  We'll monitor the transmission from here.”

“How do we know if it's worked,” asked Kosh.

“The ship will die.  The neural links with the drones will be disrupted, all power will shut down, life support, shields, weapons, everything!”

“So, everyone will die, even the drones?” asked Skyla solemnly.

“Yes, they will.”

There was silence over the comm for a few seconds.

“It's either them or us Skyla,” added Rubius.

“Yes, I know,” she replied.

Pilo could understand the uncomfortable feeling that Skyla was having; they were about to kill a lot of people.  However, those feelings were misguided as far as he was concerned.  Goodwin was his sole concern, and it was clear to him now that Rubius had been right; there was the proof in front of them.  This big egg shaped object confirmed what Rubius had said about the grey men as well.  Of course one of them had saved Pilo from Rubius' men, but Pilo had no doubts the same man that saved them would take Goodwin from him when the time came, and he had it in his power to stop them.

“Okay, we're there, Pilo, are you ready?” shouted Kosh from the Cockpit.

“Initiating transmission now,” shouted Pilo back to them, as he inserted the first dream-reading, and pressed the button that would send the signal towards the Nomar scout ship.


Astro

“This isn't going to work!” said Astro, looking over the data on the screen in front of him.  He had been interested to see what it was that Rubius had developed to fight these Nomar people, but from what he could tell the strength of the transmission was nowhere near strong enough.

“What do you mean?” barked Rubius, as he watched the screen in front of him, monitoring the power readings from the scout ship.

“Well, look! The transmission isn't strong enough.  As far as I see it, the problem is with the dream-reading itself; you need something stronger, something with more structure to it.  The cortex won't know what to make of what we're transmitting, won't be able to process the patterns, if you understand my meaning.”

“But my scientists tell me that dream-readings are the strongest readings you can get.”

“That's correct, but you still need something stronger,” shrugged Astro.  “I'd get those people out of there if I was you, that scout ship is going to be picking up that transmission any second now,” he added, pointing at the screen in front of Rubius, which showed that the scout ship was showing no signs of losing power.


Pilo

“Is anything happening?” said Pilo running back to the cockpit.

“I can't see anything happening,” Kosh said, searching the craft on the view screen for any changes. “Wait a second, what's that?” he pointed as an opening on the side of the scout ship started to appear.

Suddenly the comm crackled into life.

“Get out of there, now!” shouted Rubius’ voice.  “It's not going to work, they've uncovered you, get out now, do you understand?”

Pilo's senses panicked.  He looked out of the view screen and watched as the opening in the side of the scout ship got bigger and bigger.  Then suddenly a swarm of small fighter ships were catapulted from the opening, and out into space, and towards the Victory.

Kosh had fired the engines as soon as the warning came through.  He pushed the thrusters to maximum, the engines screamed and the stars spun past the view screen as they shot forwards, sending Pilo falling backwards onto the floor.  As he got up, the craft shuddered.

“Are they firing at us?” he said nervously.

“Yep, but worse than that - they're hitting us too!”

The comm crackled again.  “Turn the mind-reader off, they're only able to see you by tracking the transmission!”

Pilo didn't need to be told twice.  He ran back into the room that housed the mind-reader and dived onto the off switch.  The mind-reader suddenly died and lost power.  And then the shuddering of the craft stopped.

“Good work Pilo, they're backing off!” shouted Kosh from the cockpit.

Pilo took a deep breath and exhaled quickly; that was close!


Triniffer

Triniffer had maintained comm silence since Fhinn had dropped her off.  After a tragic event like the crash, the law-keepers were always on high alert, so she didn't want to risk sending encrypted messages that might raise suspicion.

Everyone was in shock at the Great Pyramid of Aluzarah.  The news had come through during the night, so most people had not heard until the next day.  That was yesterday.  Today people were wondering what was going to happen next.  Were there going to hold immediate elections? Would they wait until after the funeral of the ruling council members?  No one knew.  There only seemed to be one man left in charge.  But he couldn't remain in charge, it wasn't allowed by the constitution of Aluzarah.

The fact that Grig Flentor had been the sole ruling council member not on board that fated craft had not passed Triniffer by without suspicion; although the idea of him killing off the other members was a bit extreme.  What would he hope to accomplish by it anyway? There had to be more elections now, and that would threaten his seat as well!  With all the disruption, she had taken the chance to meet with Olikar and Kraytor and solicit their help, which to her delight they were more than happy to give.

“I'm already convinced that young hooligan is crooked, who does he think he is? He had me escorted out of the council chamber!” Olikar had remonstrated.  Kraytor had been just as vocal in his objection at being handled by the council guards, but was more cautious on the exact nature of Grig Flentor's involvement in the assassination.  He had been a judge after all, and only worked with cold hard facts, of which they currently had none.

Grig Flentor had called a session of the council; all senior members of governmental bodies, as well as the noble families of Aluzarah, had been invited.  As THUSS was essentially a state owned programme, the invitation extended to the guardians as well. 

Triniffer was taking a transport shuttle over to the Pyramid of Sunsets with Olikar and Kraytor.  They had exchanged knowing looks when they met outside the Great Pyramid of Aluzarah, but had stayed silent until they were in the shuttle.  She had wanted Kroll to make the transport arrangements, but Grig Flentor had assigned them an escort personally, so they had to be cautious in case of prying ears.

“What do you think this is about?” said Olikar, once they were alone in the back of the shuttle.

“It has to be about the date of the elections,” said Kraytor confidently.  “That is the most pressing matter of state at the moment.”

“That's going to take a while to organise though, months of preparation, he can't represent the council by himself until then,” replied Olikar.

“Maybe he'll appoint interim council members from other government department until the elections can be held,” Kraytor wondered, as he looked out the window of the shuttle at the colourful blurred stream of traffic that was speeding passed.

“Like us you mean?” Olikar laughed.

Triniffer laughed with him.

“Do you think he'd let me wear Aritor family robes?” said Kraytor, joining in.

Triniffer was happy that she had spoken to Olikar and Kraytor about her meeting with Fhinn and Blane.  They were worthy allies and fine companions.  She felt a lot better having them at her side.  They were both prepared to take her word about the authenticity of the assassination recording she had seen, and were both keen to uncover the truth behind the matter.

“Remember, we should keep a look out for any of the grey men,” she said as the transport shuttle started its descent to the front of the Pyramid of Sunsets.  “We need to find out what they're doing here.  I might even head down towards Flentor's chambers once we get in, see if I can't find anything.”

“Are you crazy?” Kraytor sat up in his seat abruptly.  “The place will be teeming with guards!”

“Exactly!  They'll be so much confusion, especially with all the noble families coming, they'll never notice me.”

“Okay, if you think it's worth it,” said Olikar.  “But look to us for help if you need it.”

“I will.  We have an hour until the session starts,” she said checking her wrist-device.  “Wait for me outside the council chamber once we get in the pyramid, if I'm not back within thirty minutes, come looking for me.”

She received nods of agreement from both of them, and the shuttle landed with a bump.

The square in front of the Pyramid of Sunsets was busy with people.  Word of the council session had spread, and there was plenty of media personnel as well as members of the public, milling around waiting to hear news of when elections would be held.

Once they got inside the pyramid, Triniffer soon realised that she had been correct:  there were so many people about, that she had no trouble slipping away unnoticed.

She headed carefully towards Grig Flentor's chamber, keeping her eyes straight ahead of her and walking with confidence whenever she passed a guard coming the other way.  It was true, if you held your head high and walked with an air of confidence, people were never suspicious of you.  But there were times for stealth as well, which Triniffer put into practise as she heard loud voices coming from a room further up on her right.  She followed the voices down a corridor and found a shadow in a dark corner next to the door where the voices were coming from.  It was definitely Grig Flentor's voice she could hear.

“But you said you would help?” she heard him say.

“We will help, but first we must find out who attacked our scout ship,” growled a second voice she didn't recognise.

“Blane Aritor is a more pressing matter; he has almost an army at his side now, over five thousand strong!  The stars only know how he managed to recruit so many!”

“We will identify who attacked our craft first,” the second voice demanded, with a hint of definite irritation.

“Of course,” surrendered Flentor.  “But after today, I'll be able to do anything I want.  I'll order whatever searches you need to be done, or restrict all off-world flights, whatever you need; but give me what I need.  With your weapons we can wipe out Aritor's forces in minutes; and then my position will be secured!  I already have guarantees from the other noble families that they won't oppose me, but I know Aritor will always fight against us.”

“The other noble families will not oppose you, because we have shown them with the deaths of your fellow council members what will happen to them if they do; and Aritor can wait, he is going nowhere, you will not have our weapons.  If you attack him now, then you'll do so on your own.” 

Triniffer was quite enjoying hearing Flentor squirm, but that didn't mean she liked what she was hearing.  She tried to peek through a crack in the side of the door, but could only see Flentor and not who he was speaking to.

“If I must do it alone, then I will, I have enough troops.  And from what I hear, Aritor's defences are made of wood anyway.  They'll be no match for our blasters, despite their numbers,” he said confidently

“So be it.  I believe it is now time for you to prepare yourself, we shall depart,” growled the second voice.

Triniffer heard footsteps coming towards her, and she pushed herself back into the corner, trying to make herself as small as possible. 

The door opened and out walked one of the grey men.  Triniffer wasn't surprised.  She held her breath as he walked down the corridor, trying not to make a single sound, and then to her relief the grey man turned the corner at the end of the corridor without noticing her.

“You weren't long!” said Olikar, as she reappeared beside them.

“I've got something to tell both of you,” she whispered.  “Come on, let's go outside.”

Triniffer led them outside the pyramid and into the thick of the throngs that were crowding the square.  Everyone was busy watching the noble families arriving for the council session, and didn't take much notice of the three guardians as they slipped through the crowds to a lonely spot in the gardens, which lay next to the square.  No one was in the gardens and Triniffer soon found a secluded spot for them to talk.

“Why have you dragged us all the way out here?” Olikar said puffing, trying to catch his breath.

“I heard Flentor with one of the grey men.  He's planning something.”  Triniffer then proceeded to recant word-for-word the conversation she had heard.

“What does he mean, after today he can do what he wants?” said Kraytor, astounded.

“No idea, but I guess we're about to find out.”

“And who the hell are these grey men?”

“No idea, but they've murdered the council, and now seem to be using Flentor as a puppet,” Triniffer suddenly realised as she said it.

“Are you going to warn Aritor?” asked Olikar.

“As soon as I get the chance.  Now, we better be getting back, it all starts in a minute.”

The three guardians then made their way out of the gardens and back through the crowds towards the pyramid.  After getting stopped by two lots of security guards, who thought they were journalists disguised as the guardians, they eventually found their way back to their seats.

As she looked around, Triniffer noticed the row of Network cameras at the back of the room.  It wasn't usual that they were allowed in.  Flentor obviously planned to screen this to the world.

It was another ten minutes before a herald banged his staff on the floor and announced the entrance of Councillor Grig Flentor.  Councillor Grig Flentor did not, however, come in alone.  He walked in at the head of a line of twelve guards, all dressed in full battle gear.

“Is he expecting trouble?” Olikar leaned over to Triniffer and whispered.

Triniffer watched as Grig Flentor positioned himself in the centre of the floor, in front of the Old Kings' Throne.

“We have all heard of the tragic loss of my fellow councillors, who perished two days ago, and we all mourn their loss,” he started.

Triniffer was surprised to see that he looked genuinely aggrieved as he said it; either that or he was a very good actor.

“But none more so than I.  This council session today was meant to have another purpose, my brothers and sisters should be here, now, right there,” Flentor pointed to the empty podiums usually filled with council members.

Triniffer thought he was laying on the dramatics a bit thick.

“And I will not let their deaths get in the way of the great work they cared so much for.  They knew the state of Aluzarah needed change, and they were brave enough to implement it.  Unfortunately, it seems they died for their bravery: I have just learnt from our very own law-keepers, that agents working for Blane Aritor murdered the council, in an attempt to scupper the changes which we were planning to implement here today.  This is why I have ordered Wing-Commander Russ to launch an all-out strike against Blane Aritor and his forces, which we have located hiding in the Forests of Tor.”

“You have to warn Aritor, now!” whispered Olikar to her.

Triniffer looked back at him nervously and pointed to the cameras behind them.  She expected Blane would be watching.  But she had the comm device on her as well.  As soon as she had the chance she would send a message.  Blane had to know everything she had learned.  Triniffer looked to where Grig Flentor was starting to speak again.

“Despite the intimidations of the terrorist, Blane Aritor, I will be putting into effect the changes that my dear departed brothers and sisters worked so hard for.  This,” he said holding up a parchment and waving it in the air, “is a ruling, unanimously signed by each member of the ruling council - the very last thing they did before their tragic journey - decreeing that under circumstances of war, or civil strife, such as we have at present, the power of the ruling council shall be held by one Supreme Council member, in order to better facilitate and expedite decision making.  This document names me, Grig Flentor, as the first Supreme Councillor; and I hereby, with immediate effect take full control of the state of Aluzarah, by the powers provided to me in this document.”

There was a hushed murmur that rose from the assembled people.  Triniffer could hardly speak.

“Did he just make himself king?” whispered Olikar.

Triniffer looked over to where the noble families were sitting.  They just stared, stony-faced, straight ahead.  The grey men had got to them, she knew.

She suddenly felt a surge of anger towards Grig Flentor.  She whispered to Olikar and Kraytor.  “If anything happens to me, stay quiet, I need you to remain clear of suspicion.”  And then she stood up.

“You cannot do this!” she shouted.

Grig Flentor stared at her, his eyes fiery with rage at her sudden outburst.

“As it was written in our constitution, by the founding fathers of this society, no one man should have absolute power over the state.  You are not permitted to do this Grig Flentor!”

“Society changes, Guardian Triniffer, we need to change with it,” he replied calmly.  “Anyway, you have no power to oppose me.”

“I am a guardian of THUSS; I am trusted for my judgement and....”

“You are a traitor and a spy,” shouted Grig Flentor interrupting her.  “I know you are working for Blane Aritor, don't deny it, guards take her away,” he ordered.

Triniffer didn't expect that, and initially found herself speechless. “Blane Aritor is a good man and innocent of the crimes you accuse him of,” she heard herself shouting as the guards dragged her out.

“Take her back to her chambers in the Great Pyramid and keep her under guard, I shall deal with her later,” Grig Flentor ordered.

She hoped Blane and Fhinn were watching the Network and had heard him say that, she thought to herself as two guards escorted her out of the council chamber, gripping hold of her arms tighter than they really needed to.


Kosh

They were back on the ground, much to Kosh's relief.  He turned off the engines of the Victory and turned to Skyla.  “That was intense!” he said.  “When those little fighter ships just came streaming out of the scout ship must have been one of the scariest moments of my life.  And believe me; being a cab driver, I've had a few!”

“It was a disaster!” said Pilo who was standing in the door to the cockpit.  “What went wrong?”

“I don't know, although I expect Rubius will tell us,” replied Skyla who was in the process of getting out of her seat.

“Did we get hit badly?” asked Pilo.

“Not too bad, only a few scratches, nothing Rubius is going make us pay for I’m sure!” Kosh joked.

They were back in the main hanger and on board Rubius Bannepal's battleship a few minutes later, where they found Rubius hunched over a holoscreen with Astro Aritor pointing at something.  Astro's friend, Star, was standing behind him.  She was very quiet that one, thought Kosh, easy on the eyes as well.

“Hey, fellow resistance movement members,” said Kosh loudly to get their attention.  “We very nearly got fried up there!  What happened?”

Rubius Bannepal turned around and stood up to his full height.  “It was an error on the part of my scientists,” he admitted.  “But Mr Aritor has been very helpful in showing me the error of their ways,” he looked at Astro.

“So, you've fixed the problem?” asked Skyla.

“Not entirely, but we know what the problems is, and how to fix it.  However in finding the solution we have uncovered another problem.”

“Which is?” asked Skyla.

“Which is,” started Astro, “that we're not sure if it can be fixed before the harvester ship arrives.”

It was clear from the looks on their faces that this news was not welcome.

“So what will we do?” asked Kosh.

“We have one small hope.  We can manually disconnect the drones from the scout ship,” answered Rubius.

“Manually?” said Skyla.  “You mean board their ship, and then disconnect the drones with our own bare hands?”

“That is what we must do.” Replied Rubius.

“That's suicide!” said Kosh, who was suddenly remembering how deadly the Nomar fighters that had fired on the Victory were.

“Not if we do it right it isn't.  Inside their ship everything is automated, they don’t have the crew numbers that you find on Batharokian vessels.  We can make it to the processor bays without being noticed.  We then disconnect the drones and get out before they know what's happened.”

“And you're sure this will work?” asked Pilo.

“I'm sure it will work if we don't get killed whilst we're doing it,” clarified Rubius.  “Believe me, I'm not saying this is going to be easy, in fact it'll probably be the most dangerous thing any of us has ever done, but it is our only chance.  If we can stop the scout ship and cut off all Nomar support to any operatives on the planet, then Aluzarah will be able to defend itself when the Harvester ship arrives.  It’ll also give us time to perfect the mind-reader, and hopefully shut them down for good.”

Each member of the group looked around at each other nervously, but they all knew they had no choice.  Kosh grabbed Skyla's hand and squeezed it; she looked worried.  He tried to give her an assuring smile, but she just looked back at him, with an expression that said she feared the worse.

“I know this is hard, so I am not going to force anyone to go,” said Rubius.  “But I for one will be on board that ship, is there anyone that will join me?”  He looked around the group.

Kosh nodded his head.  “You can count me in.”  He knew there was little hope of survival, but he also knew that out of the group assembled in front of him only Rubius was more suitable for this mission than he was; and he wanted Skyla to think he was brave as well as handsome.

“Me too!” said Skyla who then turned to Kosh.  “You're going to need a co-pilot,” she said, and smiled.

The next person to step forward was Star, who was immediately pulled back by Astro.  She then stepped forward again, and Astro pulled her back again, and whispered something to her.

“These people need help, and I can provide that help, you know that better than anyone,” said Star loud enough so the others could hear.  She stepped forward again.  This time Astro did not stop her; instead he looked around bashfully at the other members of the group and then stepped forwards himself.

“If you don't mind I'm going to sit this one out,” said Pilo.  “And by the looks of it, you'll need someone on the ground anyway, to monitor systems and what-not.”

“Indeed,” said Rubius eyeing him.  “We will need you safe for when we have perfected the mind-reader anyway.”  He then looked around the assembled group, and smiled one of his metallic smiles.

“We will do well,” he said.  “Pick out a weapon, you have two hours to prepare yourselves, then meet me by the Victory.”

Kosh and Skyla sat outside the main hanger, watching the guards patrol the hanger perimeter, looking for signs of grey men watching from the shadows.  Apparently there hadn't been a sighting for a few hours.  No one was sure why, they just seemed to have disappeared for the time being.  One of the patrols that had stopped to talk to them thought it was just temporary, and they'd be back; another thought they were still out there, not moving, waiting for a sign to attack.  Kosh felt a shiver shoot up his spine as he looked out into the darkness and imagined a pair of grey eyes looking right back at him.  This whole thing gave him the creeps, sometimes he wished he had just stayed in his cab and not got caught up in all of this; but then he wouldn’t have met Skyla.

“We put a lot of trust in Rubius,” said Kosh.

“Well, he is the expert in all of this,” replied Skyla.

“I know, but it just feels odd, him being this huge crime boss.  You have to admit it's a bit of an odd cover.”

“I guess it provides him with plenty of protection, and a reason to stay hidden from sight.  But remember he is a Citizen, just like me.  He has been running all his life, and that's hundreds of years.  Unless we stop them, the Nomar will overrun this planet, we need Rubius!”

“I guess you're right,” he conceded. “So what about us, we still going to have that dinner?”

“Definitely, if you still want to cook for me?”  Skyla looked into Kosh's eyes.

“If we get out of this alive, I'll cook for you as often as you like,” he said, smiling.

Skyla then placed her hands on either side of Kosh's face, and kissed him passionately. 

Kosh liked the feel of her soft lips against his, and she obviously felt the same.  It was a few moments before he could come up for air, not that he minded.  “Is that motivation for me to stay alive?” he said, laughing slightly.

Skyla put her hand on the front of Kosh's trousers and squeezed.  “From what I can tell, you seem pretty motivated already,” she smiled back at him, and then kissed him again. 


Fhinn

The base in the forests of Tor, once Rohad and Ristik’s hunting lodge, had now been transformed into an effective defensive position.  There were now a few thousand men busy preparing and taking position in a huge trench that had been dug to provide them with cover.  The trench stretched a few hundred metres in front of the former hunting lodge, and trees had been cut down to provide a fifty-metre-deep clearing in front of the trench along its whole length.  The spare wood had been used to build other defences and booby traps in the forest for the pleasure of the unsuspecting law-keepers.  The forests of Tor gave the Aritor forces a tactical advantage: they had been allowed time to prepare, and they also had time to familiarise themselves with the terrain; which as any battle hardened veteran will tell you, plays a vital factor in the outcome of any battle.  And there was going to be a battle. 

Fhinn and Blane had watched live, via the Network, as Grig Flentor declared them terrorists and at the same time himself as Supreme Councillor.  Blane had been enraged; he claimed Flentor had done nothing more than make himself king.  The last king of Aluzarah had been an Aritor, and although Blane had no appetite for such a position himself, he wasn't going to let Grig Flentor re-establish the monarchy.

They were now in the lodge, Fhinn was telling Blane every detail of his conversation with Rubius Bannepal.  Blane wasn't pleased that he had made a pact with a known gangster, but once he found out about the Nomar and their connection to Grig Flentor, he soon changed his mind about having Rubius Bannepal on their side.  Fhinn told him of the plan to destroy the scout ship, but Blane was more concerned with what possible assistance the Nomar could offer Grig Flentor.

It was then that Guardian Triniffer arrived. 

As soon as they had seen her carried out of the council chamber - live on the Network - Fhinn had sent Rohad and Ristik to go and get her.  They had been lucky that Flentor had decided to keep her locked up in her chambers.  It was the one place that was easy for them to get to. 

As soon as they had heard what Triniffer had to say - about the grey men refusing to help Flentor, and murdering the ruling council members, which they did not only to facilitate Flentor's rise to power, but also to intimidate the other noble families - the puzzle in Fhinn's head seemed to be complete. 

It was then Triniffer's turn to be shocked when they told her that the grey men were actually operatives for the Nomar Empire, and that what they wanted was control over Aluzarah's military defences.  However, they all agreed that their course of action should remain: they had to defeat Grig Flentor and re-take control of the Aluzaran Government.

“Sir, there's a call for you on the comm-link,” said a guard, as he entered the room where Triniffer, Fhinn and Blane were seated around a desk, watching replays of Grig Flentor's speech on the Network.

“Who is it?” asked Blane.

“It's Supreme Councillor Flentor, sir,” he replied.

Triniffer raised her eyebrows at Fhinn in surprise.

“Put him through,” ordered Blane.

There was a crackle on the comm-link, and then a voice spoke.

“Blane Aritor,” said the voice of Grig Flentor.  “I trust the Summer Forests of Tor are providing suitable comfort for your traitorous hide?”

“It is you who are the traitor Flentor, we know what you are up to with your friends, the Nomar,” Blane replied casually.

There was silence from the other side of the comm-link.

“You know nothing,” came the eventual reply.  “What you think you know of the Nomar is based on myth and rumour.  They will help me bring about a new age to Aluzarah.”

“I'm afraid it's you who are misguided.  You are their puppet, they are using you; you must see that!  Why do you think they had you arrange the assassination of the Dovakian ambassador? And then the murder of the other council members?”

Fhinn could tell Blane was trying to catch Flentor out.  Another moment's silence from the other side of the comm suggested that Flentor was thinking about his reply.

“You are wrong; those crimes were committed by your hand.  I have the proof.”

“Fabricated proof maybe, you know perfectly well that I didn't do any of this, and yet you carry on with this masquerade, why? What is it you want from me?” shouted Blane at the comm.

“I want your weapons factories, and your technology labs, and I want you bent on one knee in front of me.”

“Never!”

“Then I’m happy to inform you that my law-keepers will be there within the hour to take you by force.  You will be tried for your crimes, and I will take what I want from you.  There's nothing you can do about it.”

The comm-link then went dead.

“Bastard!” shouted Blane as he hit the table.  He then remembered he was in company. “I'm sorry,” he said immediately to Triniffer as he tried to compose himself.

“Don't worry, you're quite right, he is a bastard.  And I hope when his forces get here you’ll crush them.”

“We will,” replied Blane.  “We most certainly will.”

As soon as his conversation with Grig Flentor was finished, Blane called all his senior officers together into one of the rooms in the wooden shack.

“We have learned that the law-keepers are eight thousand strong, greatly outnumbering us,” he started.  “However, their commanders are stupid and I hope to catch them out.”  He turned on the holoscreen in front of him; it showed a topographical map of the surrounding area. “We need to spread out our forces along the line of the trench, as far as they can reach.  Rohad and Ristik have set up a large number of booby traps, which should help funnel the law-keepers along these lines, meaning that we should be able to outflank them.”

“But they have many more men than us,” said one of the officers.

“True, but they will be much more compact.  And once they are close enough, we will begin to move our flanks around, like so.”  Blane pointed on the holoscreen to where the flanking positions would move to.

“You mean to try and surround them?” suggested Fhinn.

“I do,” replied Blane. “I know it sounds crazy; and I know you all think that a smaller force cannot surround a larger one, but this will work.  We have the terrain.  There is higher ground on either side, here, and here,” he pointed on the map.  “They will not see our flanks moving until it is too late.  Then once we surround them, we just keep firing and moving forward.”

“If this works, it'll be a massacre,” said one of the other officers.

“It will,” replied Blane coldly.  “But these men have sworn allegiance to Grig Flentor.  These men will be shooting to kill, remember that.”

There was silence in the room as every man mulled over his words.

“Now, everyone report back to their posts.  I will take command of the gunners in the rear, we need to make sure the vanguard has adequate cover from the enemy air support,” Blane said suddenly.  “And make sure each of your officers knows what he has to do.  If this plan fails, all will be lost.”

“Yes sir,” came the reply from a dozen senior officers, as they trooped out of the room.

“It's an audacious plan; I'll give you that,” said Triniffer, who had been listening with interest.

“He's known for his audacious plans, you should see him in a business meeting,” joked Fhinn.

“Very funny,” said Blane.  “But I am confident this will work; if everyone does their part.  Now, Guardian Triniffer, I suggest you stay with me at the rear; it will be safer there.  Fhinn, you help out in the centre, and Rohad and Ristik can take the flanks; if they use those shieldswords of theirs it just might help box the enemy in a bit more.”

Historians are often heard to say that most battles are decided by one turn of fate: the loss of one small patch on the battlefield which snowballs until the whole battlefield is lost, or the death of a brave commanding officer in the midst of the vanguard; but Fhinn knew that you made your own luck in warfare.  At first it had been quiet; a quiet occasionally broken the scream of an enemy soldier who had found one of the booby traps laid out by the twins. 

Then the drums started. 

The ancient drums of war used on Batharok since times forgotten.  Both sides fought for rhythmic supremacy, the pounding echoing through the vast forest around them, creating a cacophony of noise as the opposing lines approached to within range of each other.  Then the air-support arrived, and then the firing started.

Blane's plan was daring, no doubt about it; and amidst the rain of blaster fire that constantly shot past them, and the sounds of screaming-dying-soldiers and shouts of Aritor! and the smell of burning and blood, Fhinn watched Blane's plan unfold. 

The law-keepers were up on the Aritor forces quicker than expected, but Fhinn was ready for them.  His soldiers unleashed a deadly volley of blaster fire into the oncoming law-keepers that took out half of the charging soldiers, and initiated a period of heavy fighting in the centre of the vanguard.  Whilst this was going on, the flanks of the Aritor forces started moving to surround the enemy, like the pincers of a claw closing on its prey.

It was then that Fhinn received word that the enemy's right flank was sustaining heavy losses, and he immediately sent for news of Rohad.  A message came back ten minutes later reporting that the right flank had already been neutralised after Rohad charged into the fray waving his buzzing shieldsword around his head.  He had broken through the enemy lines and decimated a battalion of law-keepers before the rest of his command had caught up with him.  Fhinn smiled.

The plan was working very-nearly-perfectly.  The law-keepers air support had quickly been overcome by the Aritor heavy guns, and had either been shot down or had fled.  The Aritor forces on the ground were holding their position in the centre, whilst the flanks had succeeded in finding position on the high ground on either side of the enemy.

The pinchers of the claw closed tighter and tighter.

After an hour of fighting, the law-keepers had been reduced to a quarter of their original size.  Most of them had fled; a lot had died.  An Aritor victory seemed certain, but it wasn't until Blane received word that Wing-Commander Russ was on the comm, that he knew that the battle was finally won.

He called Fhinn into the command centre after taking the call.  “Well fought Fhinn Pallden!” said Blane proudly.

“Well fought yourself sir!  You did a fine job of getting rid of their air support, we wouldn't have stood a chance if they had stayed around much longer.”

“It was the infantry on the ground that did the real work.  How many did we lose?”

“Between four and five hundred,” replied Fhinn.

“Better than expected but still too much,” Blane sighed mournfully.

“What shall we do with the law-keepers who surrendered?”

“Ask them if they want to join us, and if they don't, lock them up.”

Fhinn looked at Blane, who looked back at him with a thoughtful look on his face.

“Is there something else, Mr Aritor?” he asked.

“Yes, get Rohad and Ristik, find a craft and then meet me here in half an hour.”

“A craft? Are we going somewhere?”

“Yes,” replied Blane.  “We’re going after Grig Flentor.” 


Astro

They had met by the Victory at the allotted time.  Everyone had serious expressions on their faces, mixed with nerves and worry; natural emotions for such a mission, so Astro thought.

He was only there because of Star.  He had made her a little bit too perfect.  She had this overwhelming desire to go to tremendous lengths to help people.  Astro was still grieving Theshkar: his loyal companion for the past few years.  Theshkar had been a great man, and he had died by accident, his death had meant nothing.  His achievements in life cut short, by chance, he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it was futile.  Astro would have died himself if it hadn't of been for Star, she had acted so quickly he had just seen a blur when she grabbed him and ran.  But she hadn't been quick enough for Theshkar; he had just been too far away for her to get to him.  It was done now though, Theshkar was gone, and Astro knew he needed to put his thoughts of grief to one side, and focus on the mission that lay before him.

Rubius had been kind to him and given him responsibility for the ship’s systems: engines, shields, weapons and such.  It was pretty basic stuff for Astro; he didn't think he'd have a problem.  It was Star he was more worried about.  She was going on the scout ship with Rubius, Kosh and Skyla; she had insisted.  Astro had suggested taking as much help as possible, but Rubius believed a small group would have a better chance of success.  They would have a greater chance of not being detected.

From the last mission, they knew that the Nomar couldn't track the Victory unless it was emitting some kind of transmission.  That would make it easy to get to the Nomar scout craft, and probably easy to get in; but once inside, every step they made would be dangerous.

Astro looked across at Star who was attentively listening to Rubius’ plan of attack, again.  They were in the hanger where the Victory was located.  The last few details were just being confirmed and the last few checks were being completed and then they would set off.

“Once we get on the ship, everyone stay close to me.  We will have to keep comm silence, there's no use in us splitting up.  If we stay together we have a much better chance, is that clear?” Rubius said.

Everyone nodded, even Astro who was only half listening anyway.  As they boarded the Victory, Astro wondered whether he would ever set foot on home soil again.  It was a strange feeling not knowing if you were going to be alive an hour from now.  It gave Astro a sense of uncertainty about what he should be doing: should he be writing a last will and testament? Or is that just tempting fate?  Maybe one last letter to mother, apologising for all the times he let her down, and how he would remain her loving son, forever?  Or should he just leave the old hag wondering what the hell he was doing on a spacecraft with the king of all gangster bosses?  Astro wasn't one for writing letters anyway, and he didn't have time now either.

He took his seat at the back of the cockpit, in front of a number of holoscreens that it was his job to monitor.  He looked at each of them in turn, and checked each one off on his list.  All good, he thought, at least the Victory was in fine working order.

It was another half an hour before they were shooting through the green sky and up towards the layers of atmosphere that encircled the planet like a protective shield.  Astro always loved the moment when they penetrated through the envelope of gases that surrounded Batharok, and all the stars in the universe just seemed to jump out at you all at once.

He checked the holoscreens again; everything still looked good.

“We're about to enter orbit, we should catch-up with the scout ship in a few minutes,” reported Kosh from the pilot's seat.

“Good,” replied Rubius.  “Tell me when you see it,” and he walked into the back of Victory to double-check the weapons, again.

Is it possible for an android to be nervous? Astro thought.  He looked over at Star, who was sitting by one of the side view screens, watching the blackness of space with a look of wonder in her eyes.  She was just a child, Astro thought to himself; she may not look it, but everything was so new to her.  She had an innocence about the universe, and about people, that you only have when you're a child.  It was endearing, of course, but Astro was afraid it was going to be her undoing.

“We're approaching the scout ship now!” said Kosh suddenly.

Rubius re-appeared quickly from the back of the craft and stared out the view screen.  “That’s her alright!” he boomed.  “Now, pull up alongside her and extend the airlock, we're going to need to cut through the hull.”

“Won't they notice that?” said Astro.

“Not if we do it properly,” replied Rubius, who then turned back to face the rest of the group. “Once we're through the hull, everyone needs to be ready to follow me through; that means suits and blasters.  Astro, if you see any sign that they know we're here, sound the alarm; but until then, we just keep comm silence.  You'll be able to watch our progress on the monitor, each of us has a camera attached to their suit; apart from me that is: I don't need a spacesuit.”

It took Kosh a few minutes of careful manoeuvring to get the Victory into position, but once he was done, the cutting commenced.

Astro was surprised how quiet it actually was.  He could only hear a faint hum from his position inside the craft.

It wasn't long before the hum stopped.  The rest of the crew then put their suits on and climbed through the gap cut through the hull, and into the Nomar scout ship.  Astro watched nervous but focused faces disappear into the darkness of the ship's interior, each of them gripping onto their blaster rifles tightly.  He then ran back to his console, and watched the monitor that showed the view from each of the three cameras attached to Kosh, Skyla and Star.

At first everything seemed quiet, all Astro could see from his screen was the back of each person's head, but soon they arrived in areas that had a bit more lighting.

Rubius had been right; it was nothing like any ship they had ever seen.  There was no crew around.  Everything seemed to be running itself.  According to Rubius the majority of the crew would be on Aluzarah, leaving only a skeleton crew in its place.  Even so, he had warned that there would be more than enough Nomar to overpower their small bunch of crusaders should they be found; they would just have to hope good fortunate was on their side.

Astro watched as the four crept through corridors, where walls spewed cables and wires onto the floor, and small monitors blinked occasionally in reds and greens and blues.  Then they entered a huge circular chamber, which seemed to stretch upwards through the entire ship like a hollow cylinder.  Astro could see on the monitors that there were fifteen to twenty levels extending upwards, and at the very highest level he could see figures moving, but there was no sign they were aware of the ship’s intruders.

Astro watched as Rubius signalled for the rest to follow him.  They then crept slowly to the other side of the chamber, standing as close to the walls as they could.  Once they reached the other side they walked into a connecting corridor that sloped downwards, which they followed until they came to a door at the end.

Astro checked the monitors in front of him, but there seemed to be no change from the Nomar, no sign that they knew what was happening.  He let out a deep breath, which surprised him a little, because he hadn't consciously realised he was holding his breath in the first place.

He watched as the door opened, revealing a long room, filled with coffin-sized vats.  As the four moved into the room Astro realised this was where they kept the drones.  He watched as Kosh looked into one of the vats and Astro got a good view of its contents on the screen in front of him.  Inside was a person, from an alien race Astro had never seen before; the top of their head was missing and the brain was exposed.  Various devices were plugged into the brain tissue, and wires came out of the nape of the neck and fed out onto the floor.  The wires then connected with the wires from other vats, and all of them led to a section of wall where they disappeared into input sockets, which were as thick as a man's wrist.  There must have been nearly fifty input sockets in that particular section of wall; and as the crew explored the room they found five other sections of wall, all alike.  From what Astro could tell by looking at the silent pictures on the monitor, Rubius was directing each person to a different section, where they would need to disconnect all the wires from the sockets.  He assumed that as soon as they started cutting the Nomar would know something was wrong.

Astro held his breath again as he watched the camera feeds from Star, Skyla and Kosh.  They each took their positions, each of them holding out a small laser-cutter.  Then at the same time, they all started cutting.

Astro kept a close look on the monitors in front of him, looking for a first sign that the Nomar knew something was amiss.  Unfortunately it didn't take long.

“Rubius, they're onto you!” shouted Astro into the comm.  “They know there’s something wrong with the drones!”  Astro stared at the monitor that displayed life-signs on the scout ship.  He could see a blurred group of dots moving quickly to where the crew of the Victory were located.  He then looked back to the crew, and realised with a growing sense of dread that they weren't even half way through cutting the wires in their four sections yet.  And they still had one more section that was currently unmanned.

The dots on the monitor got closer.

“How long have we got?” said Rubius into the comm.

“A minute at most,” replied Astro, quickly.

He watched on the camera feed monitor, as Star and Kosh burned through their last remaining wires.  Kosh immediately ran over to where Skyla was struggling with hers, and with his help the two of them soon had that section finished as well.

“Quickly!  They're right on top of you!” screamed Astro.

Rubius and Star had just started on the last section when the Nomar burst into the room.

Astro immediately noticed that these weren't the grey men that had been spotted on Aluzarah.  These Nomar were much bigger, and about ten of them that had just entered.  To Astro they looked like arachnids of some sort: they had four spindly arms, and from their insect-like heads two antennas extended, which twitched disturbingly as they moved.

“Run!” Rubius shouted.

Astro watched as Skyla and Kosh headed for the door that they had come through; it was at the other end of the chamber from where the Nomar were entering.

Star was still trying to get through the final section of sockets, but she was on her own.  Rubius was trying to give her time by firing his blaster at the oncoming Nomar.  He already had three of them down.

It was hard for Astro to see what was happening now; people were panicking, which caused the camera feeds to shake.  Skyla and Kosh had stopped on the far side of the room and had joined in the firefight.  Some of the Nomar had taken cover behind the vats at the far end and were firing back furiously, others were steadily moving forwards.  Ten more then ran into the room; Astro realised there were now more than the crew could handle.

“Come on Star! Get out of there!” Astro shouted into the comm.

Then suddenly, Star's monitor went blank and hissed with electronic snow.  Astro immediately looked at Kosh and Skyla's camera feeds.  He sighed in relief as he saw Star getting up, but she and Rubius were in a very dangerous position, and the Nomar were advancing more quickly now.

Within a minute Star finally got through the last socket, just as more Nomar streamed into the room.  Astro looked down at his monitor and watched as the scout ship's systems started to slowly loose power. “It's working!” he screamed over the comm.  But the crew weren't really listening.

“Go! Go!” Rubius shouted at Star, as he began to run towards the exit. Skyla and Kosh covered their retreat, their guns spitting blaster fire at the advancing Nomar.

Astro could see from the two remaining camera feeds that Star was right behind Rubius.  Blaster fire whizzed over their heads, as they kept low, running for the exit.  Once they were within ten metres, Skyla and Kosh turned and ran through the door.

Astro watched on the monitor as the crew ran back the way they came.  He heard the continuing blaster fire from the Nomar as they gave chase, and then there was a bang.

“That's the doors closing, it's a shut-down!  Standard procedure when a Nomar ship loses neural function, we need to be quick!” shouted Rubius.

Then there was another bang, this time closer, as another door closed behind them.

They started running.

After a few minutes they realised they had been cut off from the Nomar, but the doors continued to close behind them.  The crew struggled to run properly in their suits, and Rubius wasn’t built for running at speed.  It was then that Astro realized the closing doors were starting to catch them up.

“Quicker!  You need to be quicker!” he shouted.

Skyla and Kosh were still about twenty metres ahead of Rubius and Star, but the final door was just ahead.  As they ran around the last corner, to their horror, they saw it was already starting to close.  Skyla and Kosh ran for their lives.  Kosh was at the door first, holding out his hand for Skyla; he caught her and pulled her through just in time. 

Then the door banged shut. 

Rubius and Star were trapped.

Astro could hear the blaster fire from the on-coming Nomar, who were trying to get through the doors.  And he could see the dots on the life-sign monitor getting closer to their position.

“Star and Rubius are still in there!” Screamed Skyla.  “Do something! Can't you blast your way through?”

“It's no use Skyla!” said Rubius from the other side of the door.  “Power is draining out of the ship.  Go now, before it's too late for you too!”

There was no sound from Star.

“Get out of here Astro, now!” was the last thing that Astro heard Rubius Bannepal say before his comm went dead.

Half a minute later Skyla and Kosh came crashing into the craft.

Kosh jumped into the pilot's seat, his suit still half on, and started the engines.  He had already closed the airlock.  Star and Rubius were now truly gone.  

“Damn! Damn! Damn!” Kosh shouted.  “We shouldn't have let them get so far behind!” 

Astro could see Skyla was breathing heavily from the exertion.  “You would only have risked been trapped in there yourselves,” Astro pointed out.

“But this thing has weapons, and their ship's losing power!  Why can't we shoot them out?” said Kosh looking desperately at the controls in front of him.

And then suddenly, Astro saw the egg-shaped ship disappear from the side view screen, as it shot forwards, and left the planet's orbit.

“Where are they going? I thought they were losing power?” panicked Skyla.  Kosh pushed the throttle forward and tried to follow, but the scout ship was already too far away.

“We destroyed all of the connections!  How are they still getting away?” Skyla cried.

“According to these readings their ship's engines are still at ten per cent operational capacity, they're gone!” said Astro mournfully.

“Can you see where they went?” asked Kosh.

Astro looked at one of the monitors in front of him.  “They seem to be heading for that dot just there,” he said pointing to a dot on the screen.

Skyla turned around and looked.  “That must be the harvester ship.  How far away are they?”

Astro studied the monitor for a moment.  “At their present speed they'll get to Batharok in a month.”

“Well, at least that gives us a bit of time; and we have forced the scout ship out of orbit, that should cut off any support to the grey men left on Batharok.”

“Which is what we set out to do,” said Kosh.

It didn't feel like a victory, but Kosh was right, they had succeeded.  But the loss of Star and Rubius was a high price to pay.

When they were back on the ground, they learned that the grey men had tried to storm the hanger whilst they were gone; but Rubius Bannepal's men had cut them down with blaster fire before they got close.  Without support from their scout ship the grey men had lost their power, and they had been easily overcome.

Pilo called Astro, Skyla and Kosh together and they put a call through to Fhinn Pallden.  With Rubius Bannepal gone, they would need his leadership.

“We're on our way back from the Pyramid of Sunsets now, except Flentor has disappeared, along with the grey men,” reported Fhinn over the comm.

“The scout ship has gone too, maybe they were on board when it went?” said Pilo.

“Well, the important thing is that he's gone.  If he comes back, then we'll be waiting for him.”

“If Rubius was right, the scout ship will be back.  According to our readings the Nomar Harvester ship was only a month away,” said Skyla.

“That gives us a month to be ready for them then!” said Fhinn.  “So, do you think they're both dead?” he added.

“Rubius and Star you mean?” asked Skyla sadly.

“Well, what chance did they have?” asked Kosh.  “Rubius may have given them a good fight, but that poor girl...” he trailed off, glancing at Astro.

Astro looked at them all.  “Actually there's something I haven't told you about Star....”

A sudden rush-rush-rush of blinding light thundered and Jack and Hope came back to reality. 


Jack

“What happened?” said Jack shaking his head, trying to rattle his senses back into his reality.  “Why did it stop?”

“I don't know,” said Hope, with a far-away look on her face.

Jack's head was spinning with what he had just seen.  It had been as real to him as Hope was real to him now.  At times he was sure he had even forgotten who he was.

“There has to be another reading around here somewhere,” he said looking around the room.

“So, do you think this is the Victory?” asked Hope studying the room.

Jack stopped what he was doing and took another look around him.

“Yep, this is the Victory,” he said recognising the seats where Astro and Skyla and Kosh had sat.

“Look, what's that?” said Hope pointing.

“Ha-ha!  It's another reading!” said Jack joyfully, and he picked it up.

Hope was looking deeply pensive, trying to take in everything from the reading she had just experienced.

“So, what happened to Batharok? I mean look at this place?” she said.

“That's what I hope to find out on this?” replied Jack shaking the second reading in the air.

Suddenly there was a shout from the other room.  It was Journeyman Octavian.

“Commander sir, Captain Faraday is asking for you?”

Damn, not now! Thought Jack, as he walked into the other room where the two troopers were still carrying out their scans.  As he looked at them, he felt like he hadn't seen them in weeks.  It was amazing that he had just experienced all that, in just a few minutes.

“Yes, Captain Faraday?” reported Jack as he pressed the button on the radio.

“Jack, you have to get back up here now!” replied a panicked voice.  “We have just detected a ship on long range scanners approaching our position at high velocity.”

“Can you identify what ship it is?” Jack asked.

“It is definitely not a human vessel,” Captain Faraday replied.  “It appears to be egg-shaped.”

Jack froze.  He spun round to where Hope was standing behind him

“It's the Nomar!” he said.  “They're here!”


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