The tide of the war swept first one way then another. The rebellion would score some significant strikes, and then the Dynasty would strike back ruthlessly, laying waste to settlements even suspected of harbouring rebel sympathisers. The system of small, near-autonomous cells of rebels acting independently and mostly in ignorance of each other worked well, but even when there were victories to celebrate, Bannon knew, and those around him suspected, that in reality they were nipping at the heels of the enemy, no more. What was needed was a blow against the very heart of the Dynasty. And that meant Aurangzhebb.
They were into the second year of the rebellion when the opportunity presented itself, and it was an opportunity not to be missed.
Bannon summoned his council of war to one of the briefing rooms on the Heisenberg. He watched them as they trooped in and settled into their seats, wondering if he was doing the right thing. But, he told himself, they would be the first to say that it was something they could not afford not to do.
He raised his hand and the banter died down. He looked in their eyes. There was an expectancy there. They knew something big was afoot.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have some important news,” he announced. “As you are no doubt aware, we have for some time now been monitoring Aurangzhebb’s movements closely, in the hope of finding some means of comprehensively putting him out of business. Well, our spies have reported that the best chance in ages of doing that is now at hand.”
He paused. His eyes fell repeatedly on Tristan, for he knew that the news he had to convey would touch him most closely, and he was keen to gauge the young man’s reaction.
“We are obviously quite a thorn in Aurangzhebb’s side, and he is calling a conference to discuss a strategy to get rid of us once and for all. The venue for this meeting is Shajah Ha’an’s Palace of the Winds on Auverna.” He heard Tristan’s gasp. “As you are all aware, Shajah Ha’an is being held prisoner on a station in geosynchronous orbit directly above the palace. Aurangzhebb can never resist rubbing his father’s nose in it that he, Aurangzhebb, is in command, legitimately or not.”
“There’s nothing legitimate about that bastard,” Tristan put in.
“Tristan,” said Bannon, “you know Auverna. Maybe you’d like to run us through what it is that’s interesting about the site of the palace?”
“Sure,” said Tristan, rising. “I think you’re all aware that Auverna is my home world?” He found himself looking into Arianne’s intense blue eyes as he spoke. She exuded warmth and encouragement as he delved into the painful memories of his enforced exile. “Suffice to say that the building of the Palace of the Winds was the reason I was forced to leave the place I knew and loved, and the reason why I hate the Nasty.” He drew a breath. “The interesting something that Bannon mentioned is a vast network of limestone caves and passages running underneath the entire site of the palace and beyond.”
“You’re kidding!” Ellen gasped. “Surely Shajah Ha’an’s people would have known about that?”
“Of course they did,” said Tristan. “Building on top of the caves was an act of monumental hubris. Even with them there, the Hadd think they’re invulnerable. They probably think they’ve sealed off every possible access route. But they don’t know those caves as well as I do. No one does.”
“So if we institute a ground assault as a diversionary measure,” said Bannon, “you think you could get a demolition team in right underneath the palace?”
Tristan spotted the potential. “So we blow out the support structure that’s holding everything up. The palace collapses into the caves, with Aurangzhebb and everyone else inside, and then when the building tries to self repair, everything’s so chaotic, they’re all bound to be permanently sealed in?”
Bannon smiled. “You’ve been reading my notes. We set course immediately for the rendezvous with the main assault formation.”
As Bannon was about to leave, Tristan approached and touched him deferentially on the elbow. Arianne watched from a distance. Intuition told her something was afoot. Tristan glanced furtively in her direction, and the glance told her that whatever it was, she was not to be a part of it.
“Tristan?” said Bannon, looking round.
“I want to try a little experiment,” Tristan said. “And this operation would seem to be the ideal time to do it.”
Sensing that Tristan wanted to discuss something in private, Bannon ushered him in the direction of his quarters. “What is it?” he asked.
“Well,” said Tristan, “it’s an idea I got from talking to a learned old man on Arianne’s homeworld of Thelema...”
Arianne strained to catch what was being said, but they were already out of range of even her nano-augmented hearing. She racked her brains trying to figure out which of the sages at the abbey Tristan might have talked to, what pearl of information he had gleaned and how it could be relevant at this juncture. It was a puzzle.
Tristan was leaning on one elbow, gazing down at Arianne and idly caressing her breasts with his free hand. “Oh no,” he said softly, “oh no.”
She reached up to him, her arms closing around his neck. Her look was imploring. “Tris. We’ve been through so much together.” She gave her most seductive wriggle, forcing him to look at her body, trying everything she could to break his will.
“But not this,” he said firmly. “You know as well as I do how central we both are to the whole rebellion. It would be madness for us both to go. And besides...” His hand moved down over her stomach. “...You’re far too precious to lose in something so dangerous.”
“And you’re not? Tris, we’re a team. We do everything together.”
His fingers were probing through her pubic hair. “No, Ari,” he declared with all the firmness he could muster. “Not this time. The risk is too great.” He began to massage. He felt her resistance crumbling. “Besides, we’ll be in and out in a flash. You won’t even know we’re gone.”
She drew him closer. He had been mysteriously absent for an entire day, and she was certain it had something to do with the idea he had discussed with Bannon: she was desperate to ask him about it, for they had never had secrets before, but she sensed that if she did he would clam up utterly. She would have to be patient, she decided. “Unless you don’t come back.” Her chest was heaving with repressed emotion. She pulled him down on top of her and began kissing him passionately.
The ground assault on Auverna had already begun. Waves of rebel ships were diving in from all directions, and the fighting both in the air and on the ground was bitter. The palace itself had been hit innumerable times, and each time the capillary-like matrices within its fabric would reach out across the gaps, and assemblers would reconstruct the walls with atomic scale precision, so that, perversely, after hours of fighting, the structures remained pristine.
Inside the belly of a large rebel transport ship, ten smaller landers were waiting for the word to go, each filled with a platoon of battle-hardened men and women eager to get to grips with the Dynasty’s high command. One lander had a separate mission, however. At the height of the melee, and hopefully unnoticed, it would break away and slip in to one of the narrow hidden gorges crisscrossing the limestone plateau some kilometres distant from the perimeter of the palace. From there, Tristan would lead them into the labyrinth.
He sat nervously, waiting to go and wondering what was keeping them so long. Close by him, the access port was still open, although everyone on his team appeared to be on board. He thought back to that last delicious lovemaking with Ari. If he was captured by the Dynasty he would be tortured to extract information. He knew that. If he could hold that precious memory in his head, he could, he felt sure, hold out so much longer. He wondered how it was all going to pan out.
“All right, everybody!” Bannon’s voice boomed over the public address system. “This is it! Good luck!”
The lander shifted slightly and rose off the deck of the transport. Tristan stared. The port was still open, the access ramp still extended. “Wait!” he shouted.
As the lander slid slowly forward towards its launching position, the sound of boots clanging on the deck could be heard outside. With a clatter, a figure leapt onto the access ramp of the moving lander and appeared in the doorway. It was Arianne, armed and in full battledress. She appeared out of breath, but she smiled at Tristan.
She grabbed a rail by the open hatch and spun around. She waved to someone outside. “Thanks, fellers!” she yelled. “I owe you!”
She stepped across the centre aisle of the lander and sat down on the bench next to Tristan. As she strapped herself in, the access ramp slid away into the underbelly of the ship and the hatch closed with a sigh. The lander began to accelerate.
“Hi!” she said with a smile. “You didn’t really think I was going to let you go without me, did you?”
Tristan shook his head with exasperation.
Orbiting high above the Palace of the Winds, Shajah Ha’an looked down like a god contemplating his creation. He was watching the progress of the battle Another assault vessel swept past in the foreground, carrying more of his prison guards down to join in the fighting.
“There must be almost no one left on this station,” he remarked.
“Exactly,” said Jahann’ara from where she waited by the door. “This is our chance.” A few moments later, she hissed to her father: “This is it. Someone’s coming!”
The door opened and a guard entered with the prisoners’ dinner tray. Jahann’ara snatched it out of his hands and drove it edge first into his solar plexus. As he bent double, she smashed it upwards into his face, sending him reeling. As he went down, she snatched his Pulse-Propelling Gun from its holster and blasted him from close range.
She ushered her father out into the corridor. “We must hurry,” she declared, stepping over the supine guard. “His self-repair systems will not take long to bring him around, and we must be a long way away by then.”
Along the way, they encountered two more guards, both of whom Jahann’ara dispatched with the PPG. Otherwise, the station appeared to be deserted.
In the control room, Jahann’ara took a few minutes to locate the tracking systems master panel, and thoroughly obliterated it with electromagnetic pulses. She then freed the holding clamps on the one remaining prisoner transport in the cargo bay.
They hastened to the bay. As they swept along the passage, Shajah Ha’an reflected on how lovely his daughter looked in her billowing turquoise robes, and what a very fine fighter she was.
In minutes they were aboard the clunky armoured prisoner transport with its spartan fittings. Jahann’ara’s hands flitted lightly over the controls. She breathed a soft sigh of relief when the cargo bay doors swung aside in front of her, revealing the star-studded blackness of space beyond. She gunned the engine and the station spat the transport out like a seed from a fruit. They were free!