The Tushuu, Zhal-Arema, Month of Love 2nd day (March)
A warning tone, followed by a burst of complex trilling speech through the conference suite’s comm, took Kaid’s attention away from the scaled holo image of the City of Light they were studying.
Toueesut, leader of the Touibans quartered on Kusac’s estate, frowned, his mobile eyebrows meeting over his deep set eyes in a single bushy line. He replied in what for him was a terse, and short, burst of the same sing-song language before looking around them, his expression grim.
“We must go. The Prime Prince and the children are causing a serious incident on the emergency bridge.”
The Sholan’s ears flicked back into invisibility. “What?” Kaid asked incredulously as he got hurriedly to his feet. “There must be some mistake.”
“None. We must go there instantly and resolve it.”
“What’s he doing there in the first place?” demanded Carrie, the only Human present, as she followed them out into the corridor. “And why has he taken the cubs with him? How did he even know where it was?”
“We will have to be asking him, Carrie,” said the small alien, looking up at her. “It seems they have been using their mental powers on our soldiers to gain access, and to guard themselves from interference.”
“I’ll be tanning some hides tonight,” said Garras grimly, pacing along beside them as the other Sholans followed. “A warship is no place for childish pranks; Prince Zsurtul should know this. And where’s youngling, Valden? And Tanjo? He’s their tutor, they should be with him!”
“I sent Tanjo to rest. He was up half the night with the cubs because they ate too many cookies,” said Carrie. “I should have known better than to leave Valden in charge of them!”
Toueesut stopped at an elevator. “This is no prank. Prince Zsurtul has routed communications there from the main bridge and is transmitting a message even as we speak.”
Kaid could feel every hair across his shoulders and down his spine start to prickle in dread as his ears, which had raised themselves to their usual upright position, sank again.
“I can’t reach any of them mentally,” said Carrie as the elevator door slid open. “They’ve totally blanked the area. It’s as if there were psi dampers there.”
“Once a Valtegan, always a Valtegan,” muttered Rezac as they piled in. “He’s reverting to type now he’s their Emperor elect.”
“No!” said Carrie sharply. “He’s a Prime, you know that. There has to be a rational explanation for this.”
“By Vartra’s bones, there had better be,” swore Kaid as they surged downward into the bowels of the Touiban battleship. His blood ran cold at the thought that they’d been harboring a snake in their midst all these months.
He hasn’t turned on us, Tallinu, you know he hasn’t, Carrie sent to Kaid as she rested her hand reassuringly on his arm.
I hope you’re right, because if he and they combined can bring the Tooshu to her knees like this, the Gods alone know how we’re going to stop them!
Armed and armored Touibans, their mustaches bristling, waited to escort them past the obviously hastily erected force field bunkers at every corridor junction and iris. As they walked, Toueesut conversed rapidly in his trilling voice with their escort. They rounded a corner and came face to face with a group of four unarmored Touibans standing with weapons drawn. Their escort halted.
“They’ll let no one pass beyond here,” said Toueesut.
“This is ridiculous,” said Garras angrily. “How dare that young krolla involve our cubs like this!” As he started forward, Carrie grabbed his arm and held him back.
“There has to be a good reason for this because he’s involved the cubs,” she said, looking at them all one by one. “Before anyone gets hurt, we have to think this through.”
“You may enter,” said a voice from behind her in very badly pronounced Sholan.
Swinging round, she faced the four impassive Touibans. “Just me?” They’re being mentally controlled, she sent to the others.
“Let these people go immediately,” said Kaid, tail lashing from side to side in a show of anger. “What you’re doing is wrong.”
“Soon. We must finish this first,” said the Touiban, his face blank and emotionless. “No harm is intended to anyone.”
With a low rumble of anger, Kaid, followed by Carrie, approached them. “The rest of you stay where you are,” he said over his shoulder. “That’s an order.”
Walking like a broken toy, the small alien turned and lurched alongside them until they came to a reinforced airlock. They stepped through it into an area unlike any they’d been in so far. Gone were the bright colors on walls and flooring so loved by their hosts; instead everything was a dull uniform gray. Manual fire extinguishers, as well as those in the upper walls and ceilings, were set every few feet. The place was psychically dead as a morgue, and he didn’t like it.
“They’re here,” they heard the cub Gaylla’s voice say as their escort suddenly stopped in front of a doorway and barred their way. “Are you finished yet?”
“In a minute,” Zsurtul said quietly before lapsing into a torrent of Valtegan.
Straining his ears forward, Kaid tried to make out what the Prince was saying.
Carrie shook her head helplessly when he looked at her. “It’s a different dialect, and he’s speaking too fast,” she whispered.
“I’m finished, you can release our guards and let the Lieges in now,” said Zsurtul. “Thank you for your help.”
Suddenly, the psychic null zone vanished and the guard beside them dropped his firearm and staggered against the wall.
Automatically Kaid reached out to catch him, murmuring a few comforting phrases before ordering him to rejoin his people. As he did, he sensed Zsurtul coming out of the bridge a few feet away, followed by Valden and all five of the young Sholan cubs.
“This had better be good,” Kaid snarled, letting his canines show, even as he watched the way the cubs formed a defensive circle around the young Prime, and that Zsurtul had aged almost overnight.
Valden was left facing them, his jaw set in a firm line of determination. “It’s not what you think,” he began.
“How the hell could you know what I’m thinking?” demanded Kaid.
“I asked to see the recording General Kezule sent of the usurper K’hedduk’s broadcast,” said Zsurtul. His eyes closed briefly before he continued. “When I saw the head of my father, and the others from the royal court that he’d killed, I remembered that before I left for Shola, he gave me the access codes for the Palace and the Fleet, in case . . .” He ground to a halt, his large green eyes blinking rapidly.
Against his side, Gaylla pressed herself closer to him, slipping her small furred hand into his where it hung loosely by his side.
“I had to act immediately,” he continued, his voice firming again. “Before K’hedduk got into the system and changed the codes. I salvaged enough to contact the M’zullians and tell them there had been delays in K’hedduk’s plan and not to send reinforcements for another six weeks.” His brow creased as he looked from Kaid to Carrie and back. “Six weeks will be long enough for us to retake the Palace, won’t it? Maybe I should have said two months.”
“Six weeks will be fine,” said Kaid weakly, feeling the bottom drop out of his world in shock.
“You didn’t tell them . . .” began Carrie.
Zsurtul gave her a pained look. “Carrie, I’m not a fool. I didn’t let them know who I was.”
Dhyshac wormed his way to the front of their little group. “You can see why we had to help him, Father. There was no time to argue with everyone about it. As it was, Zsurtul was just in time.”
Gathering his scattered wits, Kaid scowled at them all. “That doesn’t excuse the liberties you took. Manipulating another person’s mind is a criminal offense,” he said, deciding not to mince his words. “Valden, you know that, you should have stopped them. Our Psychic Talent gives us power, but it also gives us the need to use it responsibly, or face the consequences, and believe me, you will all face the consequences!”
“It was my idea,” said Gaylla, moving even closer to the Prince, if it were possible. “They won’t take my Talent away, will they?” Her eyes began to fill with tears. “I was very careful of my soldier. I only did it ‘cos I know it’s important to stop people being hurt.”
“Gaylla’s not to blame,” said Dhyshac, lifting his chin. “It was me who organized it. If anyone’s to be punished, it should be me.”
Kaid was hard pressed to keep his face straight as he watched the unconscious signs of his son’s anxiety — the ears lying flat against his head, and the nervous twitching of his tail — vying with his obvious attempts at bravery.
“I take full responsibility . . .” began Valden.
“Mine is the responsibility,” insisted Zsurtul, speaking over the top of the young male.
“I’ll take all that into consideration,” Kaid said roughly. “No one is going to have their Talent removed, but you all have some apologizing to do, and amends to make to the Touiban soldiers, not to mention to Toueesut and the Captain of the Tooshu!”
“A week helping out preparing vegetables in the kitchens is definitely in order,” said Carrie sternly, pointing in the direction they’d come. “Go there right now, after you’ve apologized!”
“Yes, Liegena,” the cubs mumbled, beginning to sidle abjectly past her.
Kaid kept his eyes on Zsurtul, gauging him carefully with his mind as well as his other senses, waiting to see what he’d do next, but the Prince remained silent, standing with his back straight, offering no excuses, and no more explanations. He met Kaid’s eyes, even though his normally sand-tinted green skin was paler than usual.
“Apart from buying us some much-needed time, what else were you able to achieve?” he asked quietly.
“I changed the main offworld comm frequency,” Zsurtul said. “The M’zullians and K’hedduk will be unable to reach each other on the old one. Their messages will come directly here for us to intercept.”
“Does that includes the fleet orbiting round K’oish’ik?”
Zsurtul shook his head. “No, I left that alone so as not to arouse suspicion, but I changed the codes so even if K’hedduk discovers them, he can’t access them. I could do nothing about the City or Palace defenses, he’d already changed those codes, but we do have control over the internal systems like power, water, and communications within the Palace.”
“We have?” Kaid began to smile. “Won’t K’hedduk suspect someone’s been tampering?”
“No. He’ll assume my father changed the codes before . . .” His voice broke on his final word.
“He’ll assume your father forgot to pass on the new codes,” Kaid finished for him.
“I should go and apologize now,” he said quietly. “It isn’t fair that the cubs should face the Touibans’ anger alone.”
Kaid stood aside for him to pass, calling out to him just before he rounded the corner.
“Next time, Prince Zsurtul, please have the courtesy to let us know what you plan to do beforehand. When you’re finished, I’ll expect you to join us in the conference room for a full debriefing. It’s time you became part of the planning team.”
“He did good, even if he went about it the wrong way,” said Carrie, putting her arm through Kaid’s as they began to walk back to Toueesut. “Six weeks! I can’t believe he managed to talk both sides into that!”
“He did do good,” Kaid agreed. “He’s not a child anymore. I have a feeling his mother has more Warrior caste ancestry in her than anyone reckoned for.”
“I think his father knew that. Why else would he want his son trained by us? If we can know our genetic match and form a Leska Link with them, who’s to know the Primes can’t tell theirs?”
“The Primes aren’t telepathic, Carrie.”
When she replied with a small grunt, he said again, “They aren’t telepathic.”
Toueesut came forward. “I think perhaps you may be wrong about the Prince. Sensing what was going on I was through the harmonics we use and to me it is obvious that he has sensitivity, perhaps even he is empathic like many of your Brothers and Sisters. Long have I been thinking this and now I feel I am right.”
“Empathic?” echoed Carrie. “That’s not possible . . . is it?”
“Who knows?” said Toueesut, spreading his calloused hands. “These Primes are the Intellectual caste, more intelligent than others, it is possible it may have developed over time. I will make peace with my Captain over this. A feeling I have the young Prince felt compelled to act now. Among us are a very few who have sensings of future events . . .” Toueesut shrugged expressively and left the rest unsaid.
“He’s lived with us, worked with us. If he had any psi abilities, surely we’d have sensed them by now,” said Carrie, her tone now doubtful
“Perhaps you’re right,” said Kaid. “We didn’t even guess about Toueesut and his people. Maybe whatever he has doesn’t work the same way our abilities do, perhaps it’s more like the Touiban’s. He did say he’d a bad feeling about returning home when he asked to stay on with us.”
“Well, there’s one way to find out. Test him,” said Carrie.
“No. He’s going through enough right now.”
“We need to know,” Carrie insisted.
“Ask the little ones,” suggested Toueesut as they all began to move down the corridor again. “If anyone knows, they will.”
Kij’ik, Command level Briefing room
“Is he purposely keeping me waiting?”
Kezule glanced away from the Brotherhood logo on his comm screen toward the black-pelted Sholan sprawled uncomfortably on the sofa on the other side of his office.
“No,” said Kusac, wincing visibly as he sat up. “Master Rhyaz doesn’t stay in his office all day, he’s usually out and about with the students. He is the leader of the Warrior side of our Order. They’ll have to page him for you. You do realize he was in charge of interrogating you when you were on Shola, don’t you?”
“I haven’t a problem with that. Maybe he’ll be conveniently unavailable,” grunted the Valtegan, checking the screen yet again. Already he wasn’t enjoying this novel experience of asking for help, but he intended to retain the initiative.
“He’ll answer you personally. Whatever else he is, Rhyaz is no moral coward.”
Something in the other’s tone made Kezule look back at him. There was obviously unfinished business between Kusac and this Brotherhood Leader.
“You should still be in the sick bay, or at least resting in your quarters,” he said abruptly, the skin around his eyes creasing as he frowned. “My wife Zayshul said Dzaou had sliced up your side and arms pretty well, and I know your injured leg took a pounding in that fight.”
“I’m fine,” Kusac replied, his mobile upright ears flicking in what Kezule recognized as mild annoyance. “Just beginning to stiffen up, that’s all. You know Dzaou was bucking my authority from the get go. Out fight was long overdue.”
Kezule grunted his disbelief and turned back to the comm just as the warning tone sounded for his incoming call. The screen changed to show a brown-pelted Sholan male dressed in a purple edged gray robe.
“General Kezule, I’m Commander Rhyaz, Guild Master of the Warriors in the Brotherhood of Vartra. My colleague L’Seuli, Leader of our Haven Outpost, said you’d be contacting me.”
“We’ve met,” said Kezule shortly, eyes narrowing as he remembered the male who’d been one of his more aggressive interrogators when he’d been a prisoner on Shola.
“So we have. You have a hard head, as I remember. I broke one of my fingers on it.”
“Did you now?” The corners of Kezule’s wide mouth twitched slightly in an involuntary smile. Kusac was right, Rhyaz was meeting him head-on, with no apologies. “Maybe there’s some justice in the universe after all,” he murmured sotto voce.
“I’m told this new emperor is K’hedduk, leader of the Directorate,” said Rhyaz, ignoring the comment.
“He’s also the younger brother of the M’zullian Emperor. It’s imperative he’s removed from the Throne of Light as soon as possible,” said Kezule, “before reinforcements arrive.”
“Surely he’s preempting his own ruler? Won’t that destabilize M’zull — and be to our advantage?” said Rhyaz blandly.
“I’m aware of his intercepted messages to his generals, Commander,” said Kezule. “We both know that by now there’s likely been a coup on M’zull. By taking the throne, K’hedduk has reunified two of the remaining three worlds — and he believes Ch’almuth is a ripe fruit waiting for him to pluck at his leisure. We must take back the Palace, and put Prince — Emperor Zsurtul,” he corrected himself, “on his rightful throne.”
Rhyaz glanced at some print-outs beside him. “That shouldn’t be too difficult, Kezule, looking at the data you sent us on the Palace. It isn’t that large, only about the size of Ranz, if you include the City around it. If we can get our destroyer in close enough . . .”
“The Palace cannot be destroyed,” Kezule interrupted. “Both it and the throne have a deeply religious significance to us. Unless he’s crowned on it, Zsurtul will never be accepted by the Primes as Emperor. Then there’s the civilian population . . . I want as little collateral damage as possible.”
He watched Rhyaz raise an eyeridge, but the Sholan Commander said nothing.
“We’re looking at a combined air and land assault, Rhyaz,” he continued, using the Brotherhood Warrior Leader’s name for the first time.
“That complicate matters. We need to get past the craft guarding your world, K’oish’ik. When we do, our ship does have drop capabilities, and ancillary fighters. I’ll contact Commander L’Seuli and we’ll draft a battle plan. You can liaise with him when he rendezvouses with you.”
“I think you misunderstand me, Commander.” Kezule forced himself to keep his voice soft. “While I’m willing to consider your suggestions, I’ll be leading this mission jointly with Captain Aldatan. Your warriors will be assisting us.”
Again Rhyaz raised his eye ridge. “Able though the Captain is, he’s hardly an appropriate choice. He lacks . . .”
“He knows my Primes,” interrupted Kezule. “He’s worked with them here for these past five months — they trust each other. With respect, they don’t know any other Sholans apart from him and his crew.”
The Sholan pursued his point. “Captain Aldatan lacks the necessary experience and seniority . . .”
“It’s not negotiable — if your Brotherhood wants first choice of more Prime technology,” he interrupted bluntly. “Frankly, I didn’t expect you to be so hypocritical, considering the circumstances surrounding Kusac’s departure for here.”
Rhyaz regarded him silently, but Kezule could see the traces of the other’s anger by the slight narrowing of his eyes, and in the way his ears flared fractionally. He hadn’t liked that — or expected it. Good, he might need the help Rhyaz could provide, but he’d be damned if he’d let him think he was taking over this mission.
“Very well,” Rhyaz agreed, his tone icy. “However, I can only speak for the Brotherhood, not for Shola, or the Alliance.”
“Understood. I need our Emperor elect brought here to my outpost, Kij’ik. He’ll be safe here with my family until we’ve retaken K’oish’ik.”
“That’s beyond my ability to do. We don’t have access to the Prince . . . Emperor Zsurtul.”
“Then I suggest you get it,” said Kezule sharply, leaning forward. “His place is with his people. He cannot be crowned anywhere but on K’oish’ik, I thought I made that clear.”
“It’s out of my hands, General,” said Rhyaz, his slight smile ironic. “The last I heard about him, your Emperor was staying on Captain Aldatan’s estate. It’s likely Governor Nesul has requested that he be relocated in secure quarters at the Palace.”
“If you believe I’ll tolerate him being held to ransom,” began Kezule, his crest rising in anger. . . .
“I don’t, and neither would we,” interrupted Rhyaz coldly. “In that unlikely event, I assure you, he’ll be liberated by our personnel.”
Kezule searched the Sholan face on the comm screen, then took a deep breath. “I hope you understand that Zsurtul is all that stands between me and a job I swore not to take. I left K’oish’ik for that reason,” he said softly. “Zsurtul is in no danger from me. I’ll only stay long enough to see him crowned and surrounded by trustworthy advisors, then I plan to return here to Kij’ik.”
“I believe you,” said Rhyaz, surprising him. “However, it may be necessary for you to remain with the young Emperor during the inevitable M’zullian crisis. As you no doubt know, all Primes are too light in color to be able to negotiate with the M’zullians. Only you have the same skin tones as them and can therefore be seen as an equal.”
Kezule frowned. He didn’t want to remain tied to the Court for a moment longer that it took to get Zsurtul onto the throne. “We’ll see,” he said abruptly. “If we didn’t need their bloodlines, I’d advise the Alliance to destroy M’zull and everyone on it.”
“Genocide isn’t an option, General,” said Rhyaz. “No matter how tempting, even if we had the means.”
Kezule grunted — he’d expected no other answer from the Sholan. They didn’t have the stomach for such drastic solutions.
“Tell him to send the MUTAC,” said Kusac suddenly, keeping his voice low enough so only Kezule could hear him.
Without batting an eye, Kezule said, “Send the MUTAC, Rhyaz. It’s essential to our plan.”
Rhyaz’ expression froze momentarily. “So Captain Aldatan is beside you,” he said softly. “Then he should have told you we considered it a failed experiment.”
“Nevertheless, send it,” repeated Kezule, keeping his eyes fixed on the Commander.
Rhyaz shrugged. “If you wish, though it will do you little good.”
“How long until your people arrive here?”
“Kaid Tallinu and his team should be with you in three days, Commander L’Seuli and our destroyer in six, since they have to come from out Haven outpost. As I said, as well as thirty fighters, it carries five hundred drop pods for our armored Brothers and Sisters acting as ground forces.”
“That should be more than enough. The Palace isn’t that large, and by our reckoning, K’hedduk has just under three hundred and fifty people capable of fighting. The City and the rest of K’oish’ik can be discounted — it’s in an advanced state of urban decay.”
Rhyaz gave him a measured look, and choosing his words with obvious care, said, “It would be a tragedy if the Intellectual caste was lost to your species’ gene pool, Kezule.”
“What do you think I’ve been doing on Kij’ik, with Captain Aldatan’s help,” said Kezule shortly, reaching out to disconnect the call. “I’ll see your Commander L’Seuli in six days.”
Kusac waited until Kezule leaned back in his chair before speaking. “The MUTAC is a multi-terrain attack carrier. It carries only a pilot, but has a very basic cargo area that would hold one injured person.”
“Rhyaz said it was a failed experiment.”
He spread his hands expressively, wondering what had prompted him to ask for it. “Depends on your point of view. It will look terrifying when it bounds into a battle.”
“It’s shaped like us, but walks — or runs — on all fours. It has jets on each leg and can be used in a HALO drop. Armaments are explosive and guided missiles, and a top mounted beam weapon. It’s capable of standing upright and using its clawed feet to pull down structures. All in all, it’s a useful piece of hardware, designed more for back up and inspiring terror than heavy fighting.”
“How many of these have you?” asked Kezule, obviously intensely interested.
“Only the one, it’s a Brotherhood prototype made when I was staying at Stronghold. It proved to be somewhat difficult to control with the levers and gears used to operate it.”
“Then why . . .”
“For the look of it, Kezule, and the thought that maybe, since we know Kaid is with the Touibans, they may be able to find a way to adapt it for us. Forget that for the moment, we can’t wait six days for Rhyaz to get here. K’hedduk’s been in power now for nearly two weeks. Every day that passes he’s digging himself in deeper.”
“I know, but we have no choice. We don’t have nearly enough people to mount an assault ourselves.”
“We can, with the right plan.”
“I’m calling a briefing in an hour, in the room across the corridor. We’ll discuss plans then,” said Kezule tiredly.
“You’ve met L’Seuli too,” said Kusac, getting stiffly to his feet.
Kezule glanced over at him again.
“During your captivity, he acted out the reasonable soldier routine when they thought you were cooperating,” Kusac elaborated. “And head of the Sholan Forces is General Raiban — she took you into custody at the edges of the desert when we brought you forward in time.”
A hiss of anger greeted his disclosure.
“You were an extremely high level captive then, Kezule,” he said with an almost feral grin of amusement.
“Stop trying to manipulate me, Kusac, you’ve made your point,” the Valtegan said. “I have no option but to ask for Sholan help.”
“The Brotherhood’s, yes. Shola’s — no. Don’t ask for military help. Call Shola, but ask for aid from the Alliance in rebuilding K’oish’ik. You’ll need it when you realize your social engineering program can only be realistically continued on your homeworld.”
“K’oish’ik isn’t my homeworld,” Kezule snapped. “I was hatched on an outpost world. Stop reading my mind, Kusac!”
“I’m not,” he said mildly, leaning against the sofa for support. His body ached now the analgesics Zayshul had given him after his fight with Dzaou were beginning to wear off. “It’s obvious Zsurtul needs more than just a city, no matter how holy, to sustain him and his people. That world needs rebuilding, and you have an excellent beginning here. You’ve known all along that at some point you’d have to leave here for a planet.”
“One day,” Kezule admitted grudgingly.
“Dare to be truly different from the rest of your caste, Kezule, and give your people a positive legacy,” said Kusac softly.
Kezule stared unblinkingly at him for the space of several heart beats before looking away. “Will I have to speak to this Raiban female when I call Shola?” he asked instead.
“No, you’ll be put through to one of the Governor’s aides, then to Nesul himself. General Raiban takes her orders from the ruling council of Shola and of the Alliance. We’re not ruled by the military, thank Vartra! I need to speak to my son now, Kezule. I’ll see you at the briefing in an hour,” he said, pushing himself upright and limping toward the door.
“Bring Lieutenant Banner with you,” Kezule called out after him as he stepped out into the corridor.
“We need to have a serious talk, Shaidan,” Kusac said, shivering slightly as he ushered his son into the lounge area of his quarters. He checked the thermostat, surprised to find it at the usual temperature: he hoped he wasn’t developing a fever. “Would you like a drink? A fruit juice or something hot?” he asked, before heading for the dispensing unit by the meal bar.
“A keffa, please,” the cub said, trotting over to the sofa and easy chairs. “Is something wrong, Father? I can’t sense your mind at all.”
“I’m just marshaling my thoughts,” he said, grabbing two mugs and sticking one on the dispenser pad. He programmed in a coffee for himself and a keffa for his son.
Behind his strong mental shielding, as he was now, he could only just sense Shaidan’s mind. “It’s not been easy for you, I know. From the beginning, you were thrust into the midst of an adult world. Just how much you’ve been aware of, I’m not completely sure, but it’s time you learned some of the truths and reasons behind what’s been happening around you.”
He found his son’s silence unnerving. Picking up the two mugs, he went over to join him.
Shaidan was sitting curled up in one of the easy chairs, his posture one of confusion and self protection. Kusac sighed. As usual, he wasn’t handling this well, he realized as he placed the mugs on the low table and took a seat on the sofa opposite him. He lowered his shielding slightly in an effort to get closer to his son.
Head now bowed, Shaidan seemed to shrink even further into the chair, his tail tip twitching erratically in obvious distress.
“You’re going to send me away as soon as they arrive, aren’t you?” the cub said finally, looking up, his eyes glinting with unshed tears.
“Absolutely not!” he said firmly, holding his hand out in invitation to the cub. “You’re my son, you’ll stay with me until I can take you home myself.”
Shaidan blinked furiously, obviously determined not to cry. “You promise you won’t make me go with strangers?”
“I swear it. Come here,” he urged, reaching his hand out further toward him, remembering that though his son was physically ten years old, he’d been ‘born’ less than a year ago as a result of the Directorate’s illegal genetic experiments. “I swear that while I still draw breath, you will never be sent to strangers.”
Shaidan slid off his chair and taking his father’s hand, allowed himself to be pulled up beside him on the sofa. “Then why are you so worried?” he asked.
“I’ve some difficult things to tell you,” Kusac said, bracing himself mentally as he tucked his arm around his son. “You’ve been told about how the Directorate created you, but they didn’t just steal genetic material from myself and . . . Carrie,” he began, wishing it wasn’t still so difficult to talk about her. “They also stole from Doctor Zayshul and combined it with ours to make you. As well as being a Human/Sholan hybrid like your sisters, you’re also a very little part Prime.”
“Why?” Shaidan asked after a small silence. “Why would they want me to be part Prime?”
“I don’t know,” he said, raising his hand to gently stroke his son’s head. “Don’t worry,” he reassured him. “It won’t make you look any different from how you do now. But like your hybrid genes, the Prime ones will be passed on to your own cubs one day. Doctor Zayshul is working on finding out how else it may affect you, and as soon as she knows, she’ll tell us.” He hesitated. “There’s something else you should know . . .”
“About you and the Doctor?” asked Shaidan, burrowing closer to his side. “The other Sholan told me, but I could smell the scent marker anyway.”
“The Sholan in gray?” Kusac asked, trying to keep the sharpness out of his voice. “Do you know his name? Was it Vartra?” He’d long suspected it was Him, the Sholan Warrior Entity of Peace.
Shaidan nodded, snuggling even closer to him and wrapping an arm across his lap. “That’s what he said he was called. He said he couldn’t come to you any more, so he came to me instead.”
He filed the information away for later. Now he had to finish telling Shaidan about him and Zayshul. Within days, Kaid and Carrie would arrive and expect explanations he wasn’t yet ready to give. The only thing that could protect his son from all the gossip and allegations that would shortly be flying around, was the truth.
“What you don’t know is that the Doctor was forced, against her will, by the Directorate, to put the marker on me, and that it was impossible for either of us to ignore it.”
“Is that why you and she quarreled a lot?” Shaidan asked in a muffled voice. “Why did the General make you return when he knew about the marker?”
“He needed my help, Shaidan, that was more important to him than anything else.”
“He shouldn’t have made you come back by keeping me. That was wrong.”
“It was, but sometimes desperate people have to do desperate things when they need help,” he said, responding to the underlying anger in his son’s voice by gently touching the edges of his mind. “As for you being here, I wouldn’t have been able to send you home with the other cubs anyway, I’d have kept you with me so as we could get to know each other better. I want you to know that matters between the General and myself are now resolved, peacefully. We’re not exactly friends, but we are allies, on the same side now.”
He sensed the small growl of disagreement just before Shaidan uttered it.
“Pay close attention to me on this, Shaidan,” he said, putting his hand under his cub’s chin and lifting it so they were face to face. “You will be polite to him at all times, is that understood?”
“But he punished you — let you die!” the cub exclaimed, outraged, as he struggled to sit up.
“Shaidan! That’s enough,” he said firmly, tightening his arm round him. “You’ve no idea how sorry I am that because of your telepathic abilities, you’ve been exposed to adult matters, but it happened, and it’s over now. Trust me, you haven’t the experience yet to judge the rights and wrongs of the situation.”
The cub muttered something so low he couldn’t catch the words.
“Do understand me, Shaidan?” he demanded, taking hold of his son’s mutinous chin again.
“I understand you, Father,” the cub mumbled, giving up trying to pull away from him.
“It must end now, Shaidan. Kezule and I have learned to respect each other.” He smiled briefly, letting him go to ruffle the hair between his ears. “It may be a grudging respect, but it’s real. More, we trust each other now.”
“Then why did he let you die?” the cub blurted out.
Kusac sighed, and held Shaidan close again, pulling him onto his lap this time, wincing as the claw wounds down his side pulled. “He didn’t know that would happen. It was part of my healing process. No one realized how weak I actually was. I know you saved me, but Kezule did have the Doctor nearby on purpose. No one was expecting me to go into such a deep trance that I slipped into death.” He fell silent, resting his head on Shaidan’s.
“What was it like?”
“Unpleasant,” he said, wincing at the memory. “Full of regrets, not at all what I expected. When you reached for me, your fear triggered a response called a gestalt. That’s a special mental bond that exists only between Humans and Sholans who are mind linked. And because you and I were mentally linked, your cry for help was answered automatically by Carrie . . . and by your Triad father, Kaid. Ours is a special relationship,” he said, forcing the words out. “It only exists among the Humans and Sholans of our Clan. You’ll meet them soon . . . in three days to be exact.”
“Carrie — is she the Human?”
“Yes. She’s the one you saw in your memories, the hairless one like, but unlike, the Doctor.”
Shaidan pulled away from him and sat up, regarding him thoughtfully. “What about the Doctor?”
“That’s my private concern,” he said firmly, trying to meet his gaze steadily. “You will not to worry about that.”
The cub nodded slowly. “Can you show Carrie to me?” he asked, eyes lighting up with enthusiasm.
Opening his mouth to say no, he found himself saying, “Why not?” Leaning down, he touched his forehead to Shaidan’s and as he reached through his mental shields, began constructing the image of Carrie to project to him.
She was small, reaching barely to his shoulders — he could rest his chin on top of her head when he held her. Her long hair, the color of sunshine, was softer than any hair he’d ever touched before or since. Her fringe usually covered her eyebrows, and below them were dark brown eyes, ringed with amber — eyes that suddenly narrowed to the slitted pupils of a Sholan.
Sholan eyes, he heard his son think.
Yes. The night she defied her father to be with me, she changed herself briefly into a Sholan. When she changed back, her eyes remained like ours. Gods, remembering her consciously for the first time since he’d arrived here — what they’d shared, and lost together — hurt so much! And Kaid . . . It all came flooding back. Her scent, the feel of her skin, the sound of her voice, and his. Abruptly he pulled back from his son, shutting down the Link in fear the cub would pick that up too.
“You love them very much.”
“Yes,” he said, his voice low with emotion. “Yes, I do.”
He closed his eyes briefly, realizing he should have known they were so inextricably bound into his life that he’d be unable to separate them for his son. It was several minutes before he was able to continue.
“So among special people, Shaidan, you’re even more special. At the moment only the Doctor and we know about this. For now, I don’t want you to mention this to anyone. I intend to tell the others myself, in person.”
“Do we have to? I’d sooner no one else knew,” Shaidan said very quietly.
“Yes, we do. There’s nothing shameful about your heritage. Doctor Zayshul is a brave female — she’s saved my life several times, and at great risk to herself. Be proud of what as well as who you are. I am.”
“Are you?” Shaidan searched his father’s face, his voice as troubled as his expression.
“Of course I am! When I think of how you fought against the Directorate programming, and had the courage to Link to me when I had died . . . It was a shock when I first found out about you, but no more than it was for you, I’m sure,” he said, leaning forward to touch the tip of his tongue to his son’s nose in an intimate, loving gesture. “You are my son, I love you, and you belong with me and your family.”
He watched the tension drop away from Shaidan as the cub relaxed, finally, against him.
“I wasn’t brave at all, I was so scared of losing you, that’s why I did what Vartra told me to do.”
“True bravery is being scared and doing it anyway,” he said. “And I’m sorry but it’s going to be a bit longer before we can leave here and go home. Do you know about the new Emperor on the Prime world?”
“It’s all they’re talking and thinking about now.”
“Not all Valtegans are like the Primes. There are those called the M’zullians, who look like Kezule, but are extremely aggressive and warlike. The new Emperor is from their world, and Kezule and I have to lead his people, with help from the Sholan Brotherhood that my crew and I belong to, to retake the throne for the rightful Emperor, Prince Zsurtul. Don’t worry too much,” he said quickly, feeling Shaidan stiffen again. “It won’t be a long mission and you’ll be in no danger. You’ll stay here with Doctor Zayshul and the General’s daughter.”
“What if something happens to you?”
“You don’t know that.”
“No, I don’t, but it’s my job, Shaidan. It’s what we all do in the Brotherhood. Banner and I have to go to a briefing, so M’kou will be coming for you shortly. If it goes on too late, Jayza will collect you from the nursery and wait here with you until I return.”
“Have we time for a game of squares first?”
He checked his wrist comm. “Just about. Go fetch the pieces.”
They’d almost finished when M’kou, chief among Kezule’s many laboratory bred sons and daughters, arrived to take Shaidan down to join the other children.
M’kou picked his moment carefully, waiting until he and Shaidan were alone in the elevator before asking the question that had puzzled him for days.
“Shaidan, the day after your father was shot, when you and I were alone in the medic’s room, what happened?”
Startled, the cub looked up at him. “Excuse me?”
“I saw something . . . a dark shape, like a shadow, pick you up.”
Shaidan looked down at the floor. “I was scared for my father,” he mumbled. “I don’t remember.”
“Something, or someone, picked you up, I’m sure of it. You even spoke to it,” M’kou insisted gently.
“I don’t remember.” The words were more distinct this time.
“There must be something you remember,” said M’kou persuasively.
The cub looked up again. “I felt my father dying. I followed his mind, and helped him come back, all right? It scared me a lot, and I don’t want to remember it.” The childish voice cracked, betraying that fear only too audibly. “You’ll have to ask my father about the Sholan — he knows him.”
M’kou was instantly contrite, reaching out to put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Shaidan. You can understand I had problems believing what I’d seen,” he said as the elevator drew to a halt.
“I don’t know what you saw, my mind was Linked with my father’s,” said Shaidan stubbornly.
As the door began to open, the cub wriggled out from under his grasp and darting through the gap, ran on ahead of him to the nursery.
M’kou followed more slowly, wondering if what he’d seen had been a manifestation of the mental link between the child and his father, or something very different. It seemed that he’d now have to ask Kusac.
M’kou had just finished his presentation of up to date Intel from the Prime system when suddenly, Kusac was aware of Kaid’s presence at the edges of his mental shielding — extremely distant, to be sure, but unmistakably him. He rose to his feet so abruptly that the chair fell over behind him, drawing everyone’s eyes to him.
“Is something wrong, Captain?” asked Kezule.
“No,” he said, ignoring the fallen chair and limping toward the exit. “I need some air, that’s all.” His hand was on the opening plate just as the buzz indicating an incoming transmission sounded. As the door slid shut behind him, he heard Shezhul telling the General it was Kaid Tallinu.
Giving Kusac’s retreating back a curious glance, Kezule said, “Route it through to here, please.” Had Kusac known the call was coming, he wondered, and if so, why had he left so abruptly? He’d no more time for speculation as he turned round to face the large comm screen behind him.
After carefully polite greetings had been exchanged, Kezule introduced him to those present, pausing briefly when he came to Banner. The tan colored Sholan on the screen merely nodded his recognition.
“I’m glad you called,” Kezule said. “We have another matter that will shortly need our attention. Ch’almuth, the remaining Valtegan world, has been raided by the M’zullians every five years for breeding stock. This time, they asked for our help. Since there is no way I have the resources needed to take on M’zull, I was reluctant to do anything that would result in further action against the peaceful Ch’almuthians. We ambushed their craft when it landed, overpowered the M’zullians on board, and rigging it to look like some natural catastrophe had affected them in jump space, sent the ship back.”
Kaid raised an appreciative eye ridge. “Very resourceful,” he murmured. “However, they will return.”
“Yes. By my reckoning we have four to five weeks before they do. By then, we need to either have found a more permanent solution, or send them back knowing that the cost of returning will be too great.”
“Has Ch’almuth no defenses of its own? It seems unlikely that even the Valtegan agricultural world wouldn’t be protected.”
“They have an orbital, and it was capable of defending them, but it’s no longer in working order. It’s beyond the ability of my engineers to repair, I’m afraid. We were able to patch up their weather control system so the ground control center could communicate with it again. They also now have access to two cruisers which we found berthed there. They are operational but badly needed repairs to the weapons’ systems. They’re lending them to us for the time being.”
While he’d been speaking, Kezule noticed Kaid glance off to the side, one ear swiveling in that direction before it flicked in agreement.
“We may be able to help you,” said Kaid as a hirsute, garish being joined him in the comm screen. “This is Toueesut, of the Touibans. We’re on one of their ships right now, the Couana. As you may know, they are the Alliance tech specialists.”
“Greetings, General Kezule. A pleasure it is to be meeting with you,” the small alien trilled in his sing song voice.
Fascinated, Kezule studied him. He’d never had the opportunity to see a Touiban before. Humanoid in appearance, they had only a passing likeness to the Human males he’d seen. Dark, almost unkempt hair sprouted from the being’s head above the deeply socketed eyes, and grew beneath the flanged nose. The mustache, for such it was, resembled a hairy caterpillar it was so mobile. What he could see of his jacket was an intense blue, but it was almost completely covered in gold braid and intricate swirls of embroidery. Round his neck he wore dozens of gold chains, and his hands, when they came into view, were equally laden with rings in the same metal. This was the species Kusac had mentioned. How had he known Kaid was with them?
He realized that the Touiban had been speaking again and tore his attention back to what the small alien was saying.
“I do apologize,” he began, feeling the blood rushing to his face in embarrassment before he could stop it.
“No matter, General, I was merely saying that we can be dispatching a small team to your Ch’almuth world to work on both the orbital and the ships,” said Toueesut with a large smile. “Hoping I am that my people are far more closely linked to yourself and the Prime world in the future.”
“Thank you,” he said. “The ships, however, arrived here a few hours ago.”
“Then we will be working on them here, it’s no matter to us. I will leave you now to continue your discussion with friend Kaid. When we arrive, we will be needing one or two of your people to come with us to Ch’almuth as we would not wish to earn their distrust by arriving without faces they are recognizing.”
Taken aback by the continuous flow of words, Kezule blinked and managed a weak “Thank you,” before Toueesut disappeared.
Kaid’s grin of amusement at his discomfort over the Touiban was almost feral in its enjoyment, but he ignored it.
“I wouldn’t worry, they affect everyone that way the first time,” the Sholan said, with a purr of amusement the whole room could hear.
“Their aid will be very welcome,” said Kezule stiffly. “The Ch’almuthians, if you can get their orbital working, are capable of defending themselves with it and the two cruisers. Their early warning system is working so they do have at least one week’s notice of any ships arriving in their system.”
“You got my message on what young Zsurtul has done, didn’t you?” Kaid asked abruptly, changing the topic.
“Yes. This six weeks grace will be extremely useful — though we can’t afford to wait that long before striking. Our new Emperor is more resourceful than I expected.” Kezule emphasized the word Emperor.
“Agreed. Have you any Intel on the City of Light defenses? Plans of the system would be extremely useful.”
“I’ll have them transmitted immediately,” said Kezule. “The mission will be led by myself and Captain Aldatan jointly. I suggest that you hold your own briefing, then call me tomorrow at the same time and we can have a joint discussion.”
“I don’t think . . .”
Kezule held up his hand. “I’ve already been through this with Commander Rhyaz. He’s agreed his people will work under myself and Captain Aldatan.”
Kaid hesitated briefly. “Talking of Kusac, I don’t see him there. I’d like to talk to him.”
“The Captain stepped out of the room just before you called,” said Kezule blandly. “He’s not available right now, but I will pass on your message and ask him to contact you as soon as he can.” Seeing the other’s frown, he added, “Lieutenant Banner is here and can pass the message on to your . . .” Here he hesitated, unsure of the complex relationships between Kusac, Kaid, and Carrie. “. . . partner,” he said finally.
“I’ll tell the Captain,” Banner confirmed. “You just missed him, sir, as the General said.”
Kaid gave a brief nod of acceptance. “I’d also like the opportunity to speak to the Lieutenant privately when we’re finished here.”
“Of course. M’kou will show him to our comms room when we’re done. Meanwhile, Commander Rhyaz informed me that our Prince has been staying on your estate. I need to talk to him.”
“That’s not possible, I’m afraid,” said Kaid regretfully. “We’re unable to contact our home from the Couana.”
“I need to talk to him,” insisted Kezule. “He is the Emperor elect, he must be crowned on the Throne of Light or his ascension is meaningless to the Primes. For that, he’ll have to leave Shola and come here. Whatever you think of me, I’m probably the only advisor to his late father who’s still alive. Burn it, Kaid, if I wanted the Throne, I could have let that first coup go ahead, or just taken the damned Throne for myself now! I have more of a claim to it than either of them!”
Kaid’s eyes narrowed slightly, then he nodded once. “I’ll see what can be done,” he said.
“You Sholans were born suspicious,” Kezule muttered, sitting back in his chair. “I’m done for now, Kaid. M’kou will take the Lieutenant to the comm room, we’ll talk again at this time tomorrow. Transfer the call there, Shezhul,” he said to his daughter.
Kusac, meanwhile, had gone across the corridor to the lab beyond the sick bay to see Zayshul.
“There’s nothing wrong, is there?” she asked anxiously, turning round as he came in.
“No, I needed a break, that’s all. Kezule’s taking a call from Kaid and I’m not ready to speak to him yet,” he said, leaning against her bench.
The rainbow hued skin around her eye sockets creased. “Why?”
“Many reasons, not least that when I left, I made sure matters between us were less than friendly so he wouldn’t be tempted to follow me.”
“Surely now he’ll understand why,” she said.
He shrugged his shoulders. “We need to talk properly tonight. Can you get away?”
“Of course.” She hesitated, looking away from him, the light reflecting off her slightly textured pale green scalp. “Tell me about the knife wound you got from Dzaou during your Challenge fight,” she said, lowering her voice.
“I told you at the time, it was shallow, just a slice,” he said evasively.
“You know it wasn’t. It was a stab wound, up near your armpit. I got a better look at it than you did, because of the angle. Yet when I came to stitch it, it had almost healed. We need to talk about that.”
He gave a slight shiver, as if cold fingers were trailing down his spine, like a premonition, and suddenly knew he had to leave. “Later, then. In my suite. I’ll ask Jayza or Banner to take Shaidan for an hour or so.”
She nodded. “We should take the time together anyway because of the scent marker. I want to find out why it hasn’t been affecting you the way it did when you were away on the trip to Ch’almuth.”
Inwardly, he cursed, but reached out to touch her cheek with gentle fingertips.
“It’s still there, I’ve just gotten better at controlling it,” he said. If what he’d come to suspect in the last few hours since his fight to the death with Dzaou was true, there was no way he could tell her right now that he’d actually turned off the effects of her scent marker. One person who might know what had been done to him, and why, was K’hedduk, and now he was within reach.
The shiver swept through him again, diverting his attention. “Is it just me, or is it a little colder in here than usual?” he asked.
“I noticed it too,” she agreed, leaning forward for her comm unit. “This is Doctor Zayshul in the Command level lab. Would you check the heating in here, please? I think it may be faulty — it’s getting cold.”
“Will do, Doctor,” came Zhalmo’s voice.
“I hope everything is all right,” she said, frowning.
“I’m sure it is,” Kusac said, reaching out to smooth the skin on the top of her nose. That was where the first hint of the blues and purples that surrounded her eyes began, he found himself noticing. With a start, he drew back, mentally shaking himself. He shouldn’t be thinking like this about her! He’d damped down his response to her scent, so what was making him behave like this?
“Nothing wrong with the temperature,” Zhalmo’s voice said from the hand comm. “I’m having the engineers check it out, though, just in case.”
“Thanks,” Zayshul said, switching the palm sized unit off and putting it back on her bench.
“I have to go,” he said abruptly, shivering again as vague memories of the nightmares of frozen wastes that he’d had the last few nights returned to him. “The meeting is about to start again. I’ll be in my quarters after third meal.”
“See you then,” she agreed as he turned to leave.
Banner followed M’kou into the comm office with mixed feelings. Kaid was one of the very few people who’d earned more than his respect, he’d earned his allegiance. When he’d been asked, all those months ago, to keep an eye on Kusac during his recuperation after the ill-fated Jalna mission, his loyalties had been clear cut. Now, six months down the line serving as Kusac’s Second, they weren’t.
“Strange how easy it is to slip into habits, isn’t it, Lieutenant?” M’kou said, going over to the desk and keying the inset controls to bring the comm screen mounted on the right hand wall to life. “So many of those we follow today, both on the military and civilian side, are due to Captain Aldatan.”
Banner grunted non-committally, waiting for the General’s son to finish.
“Our people, all of them, even the Ch’almuthians, trust and respect him, you know. They like continuity. I believe continuity, especially in command, is vital.”
Now M’kou had his full attention.
“Considering what we’ve all been through,” continued the young Prime, “I believe it would be — unfortunate — if anything was said that might cast doubt on the Captain’s ability to lead the mission to retake the Palace of Light with the General.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Banner demanded, a low rumble of anger underscoring his words. “Are you threatening me?”
M’kou looked genuinely shocked. “Far from it! I’m only trying to tell you how much faith and trust we have in you and your Captain.”
“Trust! That’s an alien concept to some of you.” Banner bared his teeth in an almost silent snarl, taking a step closer to him. “I haven’t forgotten the part you played in drugging our Captain and procuring a female . . .”
“Lieutenant,” M’kou interrupted, coming out from behind the desk. “Doctor Zayshul has said more about this than you ever could. And when she was done yelling at the General and myself, she exacted a revenge on us I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.” He shuddered, obviously at the memory. “I have also apologized to your Captain and we’ve made our peace with each other.”
Taken aback at this outpouring, Banner looked skeptically at the younger male.
“What did she do?”
“That needn’t concern you,” M’kou replied, his pale green skin darkening in obvious embarrassment. “The whole incident, from start to finish, was contained. Only those directly involved — and yourselves — are aware anything happened, and none of them will ever discuss it. It’s obvious you’re about to give your report on your time here to the Captain’s family, and that it will, most likely, affect whether or not there is Sholan resistance to Captain Aldatan’s leadership. I’m only asking that he not be deprived of the position he’s earned because of his recent actions. Especially because our people trust him.”
“That’s Kezule talking.”
“No, it isn’t. I admire your Captain, Banner, and hope that one day I’ll possess the skills and self restraint he’s shown.” M’kou moved past him, indicating the desk and comm. “I’ll leave you to make your call. Please at least consider what I’ve said.”
Banner watched him leave before taking his seat. He was thinking through what M’kou had said — and what he hadn’t.
Kaid flicked an ear at him in greeting, his seemingly random slight finger movements enquiring if Banner was alone or being monitored.
“You look well,” he said.
“We’re all well, ” Banner replied, signaling he was alone, and the call wasn’t being monitored as far as he knew. “We’ve been treated like members of the crew.”
Briefing room, later
Kusac sat playing idly with his stylus, ignoring the flicking images of K’hedduk’s ascension to the Throne of Light playing once more on the large screen behind Kezule, just as he’d automatically filtered out the sounds of the voices around him for the past hour. Back and forth the same arguments had gone among the same few people, principally Banner, Security head M’zynal, Captain Zhookoh, lately escaped with his crew from K’hedduk’s take-over of K’oish’ik, and Kezule.
He was still aware of Kaid — and through him, of Carrie — holding their own briefing and planning session on the Tooshu. Unlike his present company, they’d come up with a couple of good ideas, but nothing yet that made a complete plan. He let his mind drift, adding their own pool of knowledge, taking Kaid’s ideas and expanding on them, playing with various scenarios in his mind’s eye.
Just as his eyelids began to droop, Banner dug him in the ribs with his elbow.
“Kusac!” he hissed.
With a jerk, he sat up to find all eyes on him.
“If you’re not up to this meeting, Kusac,” said Kezule, his tone one of concern, “then go back to your quarters and rest. I’m sure Banner can brief you later. It’s only been a few hours since your fight with Dzaou.”
“I’m fine,” he said shortly, deciding he’d had enough and it was time for him to speak out. He leaned forward, searching among the sheets of briefing documents they’d all been issued. “I’m just tired of sitting here listening to the same arguments. We can’t wait for the Couana to get here, we need to act now, not sit on our butts talking!”
“They’ll be here in two days,” said Banner.
“And it takes another three to reach the Prime world! Plus none of you,” he glared round the small group of Primes and Banner, “have gotten even the germ of a workable plan yet!” Grasping hold of a couple of sheets, he eased himself to his feet. “Well I have.”
Pushing his chair back, he limped round the conference table to where Kezule sat watching him intently.
“Here’s a plan, one that will work if we act now, before K’hedduk digs himself deep into the Palace and gets its antiquated defenses up and running.” He tossed the first sheet in front of the General. “That’s a schedule of shipping expected at the Prime Orbital platform in the next few days. There’s only one, the U’Churian Rryuk family merchanter due in three days. They’re Warriors, and Clan allies of ours. I can contact them and arrange a rendezvous. If I take a small team with me, once we’re on board and we’ve docked, they’ll join us in taking the Orbital. You said there’s only a small crew there, all Prime pacifists. Even if K’hedduk has sent any of his implanted guards, or the genetically modified warrior types up to supervise them, he’s only got a total of three hundred and twenty. He can’t spare more than about five, maximum. The U’Churians have a crew of seven, plus their four Cabbarans, and if I take another four with me, we can easily handle them.”
“What does that achieve?” demanded M’zynal. “What about the Kz’adul, berthed there?”
“What about her?” he asked, rounding on the young male, staggering slightly as he did so. “They’re on alert, so K’hedduk’s few warriors won’t leave her, and you know the six thousand odd crew members will run for cover if they hear a raised voice!”
“They’re not quite that bad,” murmured Kezule, hiding the ghost of a smile behind his already raised hand.
“Captain, take my seat,” said M’kou, getting to his feet and touching Kusac briefly on the arm.
Gratefully, he accepted it. “No one will be expecting us, M’zynal,” he said. “If you’ve got soporific gas canisters, we can use them. In our battle suits, we’ll be well protected.”
“Battle suits?” echoed Banner. “What battle suits? We don’t have any with us.”
“We’ve eight,” said Kusac, glancing across at him. “But they’re in my cabin, on the Venture. The Primes installed a concealed armory there with the suits and a selection of munitions. As for what taking the orbital will achieve, their weather is controlled from there, isn’t it? If I can take a couple of civilian engineers from here, they can create havoc on the world below. Meanwhile, we can contact the Kz’adul on one of the channels all ships use for unofficial ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore chat and get some of the friendlies to let us on board and point us in the direction of K’hedduk’s people.”
“Be a helluva lot easier if we had the shutdown codes,” muttered Zhookoh.
“Shutdown codes?” asked Kezule, looking across at him.
“The Emperor had codes he could use to shut down each ship in case of a coup. Leave ’em dead in the water,” explained Zhookoh. “It’s new. Ironically, we had it brought in because of K’hedduk.”
“We’d still have to deal with his genetically enhancedwarriors at some point,” said Kezule, thoughtfully stroking his chin. “The idea has good points, Kusac, but if we start tampering with the weather, K’hedduk will know something is wrong on the Orbital, even if the crew keep in regular touch.”
Kusac pushed his second sheet in front of Kezule. “That’s where the asteroid belt round one of your outer planets comes in,” he said. “I assume that like the Kz’adul, you have traction beams on your modern ships?”
“Yes, but you’re not seriously suggesting what I think, are you?” asked Kezule, sitting up to study the photograph, suddenly all attention.
“I am. Send the N’zishok and Mazzu out to collect a few thousand of them, including some larger ones. Single out those ones, put them at the front and attach remote detonation charges on them in case we need to blow them, then tow them close to K’oish’ik and let ’em go so they start heading toward it. If that doesn’t get the other three ships heading out to stop them, I don’t know what will. Meanwhile . . .”
“Meanwhile,” continued Kezule, “the small ones can’t be stopped, and as they hit the atmosphere and burn up, it gives us the cover to launch our drop pod assault! If we get the angle right, they’ll even think the Orbital has been hit, which would account for the weather fluctuations. I like it, Kusac, but if K’hedduk’s got the Palace gun turrets working, to say nothing of the force field, it could turn into bloodbath for us.”
“The HALO drop isn’t the main plan,” said Kusac, sitting back and carefully easing his injured leg out in front of him. The healing wound was beginning to ache – and itch – again. He’d taken more of a beating from the late and unlamented Dzaou than he wanted to admit, even to himself.
Kezule looked at him over the top of the photo, one eye ridge raised questioningly.
“My team is,” he said. This was where his plan differed substantially from Kaid’s. “We go down on the shuttle and infiltrate the tunnel systems, making our way along them to the main control room under the Palace. Once there, we can work from inside to turn the defenses off, or use them against K’hedduk. All your people have to do is create enough of a diversion to pull all K’hedduk’s warriors to the defense perimeter, by the force field relay towers. You’re the General, Kezule, you do what you do best — blend us all into one attack force.”
“If we fail, then the HALO team will be the main plan,” said Banner thoughtfully.
“HALO?” queried M’kou.
“High Altitude, Low Orbit insertion of troops or craft,” said Kusac.
Kezule studied the maps thoughtfully, then turned on the holo display. Instantly a 3-D image of the City and the Palace, showing every level, coalesced about six inches above the conference table.
Tapping a series of buttons set into the keypad in front of him, he rotated the image, then stilled it, decreasing the amount of details until the bare minimum of the tunnels, the underground control complex, and Palace above it remained.
“To go in without more Intel, especially now we have six weeks, would be foolish,” said M’zynal.
“We don’t have . . .” began Kusac and Kezule in unison, both stopping when they realized the other was also speaking.
As Kusac deferred to him, with the ghost of a smile, Kezule continued. “We don’t have six weeks, and we don’t need more Intel. What our young Emperor is managing to get for us is enough.” He glanced back to Kusac. “You realize that the City is built on a hill comprised of sand and limestone?”
“It’s porous, I know. How else could the tunnels have originated, or been so easily expanded to your ancestors’ purpose?”
“It also means if we create the electrical storms we need to disrupt communications between the Orbital and the ships, that those tunnels will be flooded.”
“Our battle suits can handle that,” he said confidently.
“We set traps in the tunnels,” said Zhookoh. “Some of them will still be active despite flooding.”
“Then I’ll take a couple of you with me to deactivate them,” Kusac said more calmly than he felt. He sensed Zayshul bringing analgesics for him and under his breath, began to swear, knowing she’d picked up his discomfort. Drawing attention to the pain he was still suffering was not something he wanted done right now.
“With respect, Captain,” said M’zynal, as the General’s wife entered and went over to him, wordlessly handing him a charged hypo. “I don’t think you’re yet fit to go on such a mission, let alone lead it.”
With little grace, he accepted the hypo, but stuffed it into one of his belt retainers. “I’m fit. The armor is powered anyway. It takes very little effort to move in it.” He shot the Doctor a glance that dared her to say anything, but she left without a word. “Besides, we should meet very little resistance.”
“Your plan is good,” said Kezule, turning the holo image round slowly to study it again from every angle. “I can see only one major flaw. Only Zsurtul can turn off the Orbital’s safety devices, and operate the command center. It needs to take a retinal scan from him.”
“I planned on including him with my team. He’s with Kaid, on the Touiban’s ship.”
Exclamations of disbelief, ignored by both Kezule and Kusac, rippled round the table.
“Yet you don’t want to wait for the Couana to arrive,” said Kezule.
“The Couana’s on their battleship, the Tooshu, right now. They plan to leave it at the outer limits of the Prime system. We tell them to include Prince Zsurtul, then make for K’oish’ik, not here,” he said. “They wait out of scanner range, possibly masked by one of your ships using its chameleon shielding, for a signal from us saying we’ve taken the Orbital. Meanwhile, the rest of the Prime fleet will be picking up the asteroids on their sensors, and hopefully, they’ll be moving away from the planet to intercept them.”
“That should draw at least the two smaller cruisers away from K’oish’ik,” said M’kou thoughtfully.
“Then Zsurtul contacts the Kz’adul on the private frequency I mentioned, and finds out for us what the situation there is like. It may be that the crew can isolate any of K’hedduk’s people they have on board without violence, and take back control of the ship,” said Kusac. “If not, we do it. I’m sure they can manage to conceal us docking with them. Finally, the Couana joins us on the Orbital and Zsurtul deactivates the safety features. The regular crew can then take over from him, creating massive electrical storms, and leaving him free to go downside with me.”
“If those on the Orbital or the Kz’adul are members of the implanted Palace Guard, then they can be rendered unconscious without a shot being fired,” M’kou reminded. “All we need is a remote tuned to their frequency, and we know that.”
“That’s true,” agreed Kezule. “If you have fifteen people when you land on K’oish’ik . . .”
“Too many,” interrupted Kusac. “Ten, maximum, including the Prince. Surely six of your commandos can ensure Zsurtul’s safety in a battle suit?”
“Six?” Banner asked sharply. “That means no other Sholans.”
“I want you to stay with Kezule and lead one of the HALO units with the rest of our crew,” Kusac said, shifting slightly in his seat in an effort to ease the still increasing pain.
“No,” his Second said flatly. “I’m coming with you.”
Kusac locked eyes with him until the other looked away. “I’ll take Khadui with me,” he compromised. “You and Jayza will be with Kezule and our people from the Couana.”
Kezule switched off the holo image and pushing his chair back, stood up. “We’re going with this idea. It’s time for the evening meal. Take a break, discuss it amongst yourselves, and be back here in two hours to thrash out the finer details.”
As everyone began to get to their feet, Kezule held Kusac back. “Stay,” he said. “We need to talk privately. M’kou, have meals brought here for the two of us.”
“Take the damned analgesic,” said Kezule when they were alone. “I’d be as bad as you in the same circumstances, but that doesn’t make you right.”
Kusac gave a low rumble of annoyance, but followed Kezule’s advice, pushing his tunic aside and pressing the hypo against his thigh more vigorously than he intended.
“You’re avoiding your family.”
“I’m trying to get this job done as quickly as possible,” he said, wincing. He concentrated on stowing away the empty hypo. Already he could feel the drug coursing through his system, dulling the pain from the still healing blaster wound in his upper thigh, and the cut in his side where Dzaou’s knife had stabbed him clear up to the hilt yet somehow left virtually no wound.
“The young Emperor is our only hope, Kusac,” said Kezule, changing the topic abruptly. “I won’t have him put needlessly at risk.”
“Then we’ve little chance on our own of retaking the Palace. You might as well destroy it and start again.” He heard the bite in his tone and, ears tilting slightly, opened his mouth to apologize.
“Forget it,” said Kezule, with a gesture of dismissal. “Has the analgesic cut in yet? Fighting Dzaou like that in your condition was foolish.”
“I know it was, but I had no choice,” he said, frowning as a wave of dizziness swept over him and he realized he was having to force his eyes to focus on the General.
“Destroying the Palace isn’t an option, neither is losing Zsurtul. I have no intention of ruling. I’ll stay and help him, if he wants my help, but that’s all.”
“You’ll leave Kij’ik and all you fought so hard to build?” he asked, realizing, as a false sense of warmth and well-being began to steal through him that Zayshul had laced the drug with a sedative. He sat up, trying to fight off the effects.
“Of course not!” said Kezule, offended. “I intended to convince Zsurtul to continue my plan, but on K’oish’ik. We have more than enough land to accommodate as many Ch’almuthians as want to leave their world to escape the M’zullian raids. As for Kij’ik, I’ll have it towed into the Prime system and manned as a defensive outpost.”
Kezule stopped, and leaned closer to him. “What’s wrong?” he demanded.
“Your wife put a sedative in the hypo as well as an analgesic,” he said, blinking owlishly as he grasped the arm of his chair.
Kezule swore, and reached for a drinking bowl and the jug of water nearby. “I can’t have you falling asleep on me,” he said, pouring Kusac a drink. “We need to refine that plan of yours!” He held the bowl out, helping him to hold it steady. “This is important, Kusac. What did you do when you went into that healing trance? I don’t mean your own mental disciplines, did you do anything else?”
“Like what?” he asked, taking a couple of mouthfuls then pushing the bowl aside. “That won’t help, the drug’s in my blood, not my gut!”
“You used bio-feed back, didn’t you? You obviously know about our Warrior glands because of the drug your people developed. Have you got the same kind of glands?”
“We’re not Valtegans,” he muttered, slumping back in his seat. He knew he needed to rest, but dammit, not now!
Kezule spun his chair round, and taking him by the shoulders, shook him several times.
“Concentrate, Kusac! You’ve been changed, made partly Valtegan, how I don’t know, maybe by that damned scent marker! Have you got those glands? If you have, I can tell you how to use them.”
“Yes,” he said, forcing his eyes open when his head finally stopped moving. “Yes, I have them . . .”
“Then reach inside for them, tell yourself you need to be alert, trigger the gland which produces adrenaline and . . .”
“All right,” he mumbled, reaching mentally inside himself. “I know what to do. It took me by surprise, that’s all.”
“You can’t afford to be taken by surprise,” said Kezule grimly. “You have to remember, and practice, until it becomes second nature — just as using your mental powers is.”
A surge of energy flowed through his limbs, chasing the lethargy before it, then it hit his brain. He shuddered, grasping tightly to the arms of the chair as his senses reeled. When it stopped, he found all traces of the sedative were gone. Startled, he stared at Kezule.
“That was fast even by my standards,” said Kezule dryly. “One of us should have a word with Zayshul about this incident, both about her using the sedative, and how you overcame it.”
“She’s your . . .”
“Don’t — go there,” said Kezule coldly, sitting back in his chair. “For now, we’ re all in a situation we didn’t choose — we’ll make the best of it. I would have thought you’d have sensed what she was planning.”
“She hid it, I was distracted by the pain, and I shouldn’t have been,” Kusac said, equally coldly, more annoyed with himself than her. “I won’t let it happen again.”
“Are you sure you’re fit enough to handle a mission like this?” asked Kezule, his voice returning to normal. “It’s no disgrace if you aren’t, considering your injuries.”
“They’re healing,” he said shortly. They were, and still far faster than was normal.
“I’m aware of that.”
“I have three days. By then, I’ll be more than fit to handle it. As I said, our battle suits are powered.”
He turned his mind inward, looking where his and Kaid’s shared memories were stored. A moment later he had the information. “They make use of servomotors and gravity dampers to assist movement, giving us the ability to hit a top speed of thirty miles an hour for short bursts, and the ability to jump 2-3 times higher than normal. Weapons are an energy rifle and pistol, and an OC — oscillating — sword. There’s a refractive paint on the suits that renders them all but invisible in low light.”
“Sword?” Kezule looked faintly incredulous.
Kusac grinned widely, showing off the white canines against the black of his pelt. “Useful for close quarters, or when the energy packs run out. The MUTAC is similarly equipped on its jointed tail.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” he murmured. “And they’ll stand immersion in flooded tunnels?”
Kusac nodded as he got to his feet. “They come with their own air supply. One that lasts three hours. I should join the others for third meal now. Jayza will have brought Shaidan up to the mess.”
“I ordered meals to be brought here for us. You can call Jayza and get him to bring your son here, if you like.”
Kusac hesitated for a moment, then shook his head. “I appreciate the thought, but I’ve been separated from my crew for too long. They need to spend time with me. Plus I have to call the Rryuk ship now. And Kezule, I’d prefer it if you didn’t tell Kaid about this mission until after I’ve left to meet up with them.”
Kezule nodded, giving Kusac a curious glance, but said nothing.
When he’d left, Kezule called his son and cancelled the meal arrangements.
“I’ll eat with you, if you like,” M’kou offered. “I’d like a word in private with you.”
“Very well,” he said.
M’kou put his tray down on the table and lifting his father’s plate, set it in front of him.
“Thank you,” said Kezule, picking up his fork. “What was it you wanted to talk about?”
M’kou sat down in his chair and gripped the arms to move himself closer to the table. “What the . . .” he began, lifting his left hand to look at the chair arm.
Kezule glanced over, and froze, fork halfway to his mouth.
“How did that happen?” his son asked, tentatively putting his finger into one of the depressions. “They’re his fingerprints. It looks as if they’re melted into the arm.”
“I can see that,” said Kezule acerbically, putting his fork back on his plate and leaning closer. “Move your hand out of the way.”
M’kou did as he was asked and turned to examine the other chair arm, but it was unmarked. “How did that happen?”
“I have no idea,” said Kezule, probing the marks with his claw tip. “There’s been nothing hot enough to cause that in here.” The marks were deep, each one with the imprint of a claw tip just above it, as if caused by a hand gripping the arm tightly when the surface had been hot and plastic.
“Only Kusac and I have used this chair,” said M’kou, “and those don’t fit any Prime hand.”
“They’re Kusac’s, no doubt of that,” said Kezule with a sigh, sitting up. “More damned anomalies. You’ve read up on their psi abilities – have they any that could have caused this?”
“Not to my knowledge,” said M’kou, cautiously taking hold of the arm again and pulling his chair closer to the table. “But they haven’t been very forthcoming on their psi capabilities with us. And Kusac is different anyway, because he lost his original abilities. Banner told me they only returned after a surgical procedure was performed on him to restore them. Actually, it was about the Captain I wanted to talk.”
“What’s concerning you now?” Kezule asked, beginning to eat.
“Is he fit to lead a team through the tunnels?”
“Not yet, but I believe he will be in three days time.”
“I’d better accompany him to make sure.”
Kezule glared at his son. “You’ll stay here, looking after Kij’ik and the children,” he said forcefully. “Your warrior glands have been destroyed, you no longer have the ability to use bio-feed back. I’ll not have you putting yourself in danger.”
“I’m not staying here,” said M’kou stubbornly.
“It’s an order,” interrupted Kezule. “It’s not open to discussion. And have that chair stowed in my office after you’ve finished eating.”