THE CLUSTER

The cluster grew – one insubstantial tail of dust wrapping in a cloak around the nearby star, stripping it of Hydrogen atoms to fuel its continual expansion. Internal reactions burned the sun-fed fuel, creating an aura of pale undulating orange around the deeper clusters blue-purple. Amid this mist-like place a shard of metal drifted, the suns light glinting off it, making it a spot of light in blue-purple tinged darkness.

The shard of metal grew too, as it approached the Cluster its details presenting themselves in the roughly triangular shaped object; however no detail on it gave away its possible size. Engines like flattened spheres trembled as the space around the ship warped and twisted as if being stretched by an unseen force; which was almost the truth. Space was being un-twisted, un-warped as the ship slipped from its gravity drive and threw a gravity through out behind it to slow it multi-light speed to a crawl.

Inside the ship its owner peered over the expanse of the cloud-like Cluster, its star half hidden in tentacles of cool blue, while planets could be almost seen shrouded within the deeper purple of its core. The Cluster was an unknown in the Galaxy, and it would forever be. The man leaned over the smooth half-moon shaped console and brushed fingertips gently over the slightly raised dimples of buttons there.

Outside the ship turned like a dancer, presenting its dorsal view to the half-hidden planets. In a ballet of movement arms uncurled from its hull that appeared not unlike the miss-tentacles of the Cluster itself, both in appearance and use.

The con board glowed brighter as the monitor built into it showed its owner a sketchy outline of the Cluster parameters the dotted line of a course sweeping around the uneven mist in a roughly elliptical orbit. Beneath the elaborate graphic flashed the words FOURTEEN HOURS REQUIRED FOR COMPLETE MAPPING.

The man signed and dropped into the huge seat before the console, the only seat apparent in the room. Around him monitors glowed in the darkness, the bridge of his craft lit solely by the lights blinking away on the computer.

Ballin Two-Swords sat back and allowed the computer to do the work for which it was designed patiently waiting until his work would present itself. His ship – The Vanitas – would circle the Cluster until it had gained enough information through its ETT sensors to formulate a Virtual Cluster within its own bio-relays. From this Ballin could compose his own approach to the clouded system, on that could hopefully bypass any security the inhabitants had thought up.

While travelling under the Gravity Drive the Vanitas would pass the absolute speed of light, but still it had taken Ballin almost three months to reach this remote island of inhospitality; one of the many facts that would keep this sight from most eyes, through nowhere near the most important. Somewhere, hidden within that purple shroud of uncertainty was a man Ballins Family wanted; and when one of the Twelve Families wanted a man, he didn’t stay on the wanted list for long. If he was lucky he was killed long before one of the Families “Operatives” got their hands on him. The Twelve Families thought little of those who dishonoured their Lords.

Lords the Families were, Lords and Knights all.

Ballin pushed to his feet and wandered through the short corridor that sloped down to the upper level of his living quarters aboard the ship. Hung in secure brackets along the cream coloured walls were weapons from every part of the known Galaxy, and some that came from further a field. Glaives hung proudly beside newer versions that could more properly be called “Swords”, the Glaives of old not matching he swords technology enhanced edge, but more than making up for it in their antiquity. The collection ran from the bridges corridor to he airlock access door, almost half the length of the ship, and it was Ballin’s pride. No other had such a collection, it was true, but what warmed Ballin’s heart the greatest was that each weapon had been taken from a foe in battle.

Ballin Two-Swords was a Knight Errant, a wayward man who dealt out his Lords punishments at his Family saw fit, and somewhere in the dust cloud call The Cluster was a man deserving such a punishment.

It would be dealt.

The Vanitas tumbled lazily through space as its owner entered his private chambers and prepared to lay his head for a spell, resting up while he still had the chance. He pulled off his waistcoat, so as the sheaths that criss-crossed its back would not press into his spine, and then sprawled out across the repulsorlift bed. It sank halfway to the floor with his broad shouldered weight.

Within moments, with unconscious training of the mind, he was asleep, though not a dreamless one.

Battles always raged within the man, as every creature that knew him understood. Ballin was of the Family DuLac but, though this admission would shame him, the only member of his Family that he truly valued was his sister Nenive. This was a woman who was sister by blood as well as Honour, a fact that supposed to make little difference within the Families culture, though it still made much difference to Ballin.

In his dreams he always saw her suffering some force – be it shield or foe – separating her from his aid. Fearlessly he would throw himself against it, shatter the shield and slay the foe, but always more would rise up to take their place. Rage would consume him and he would tirelessly fight battle after battle, never gaining ground – but never losing any either. No foe was his equal, but still he felt buried by his own inadequacy, unable to aid his beloved sister.

In his dreams Ballin was not the man he was in life.

In life he would have no such troubles.

The Vanitas shook, making the menagerie of weapons chime through the steel of the ship. Trembling again, the Vanitas lurched sideways as if sliding on ice, driving the sleeping man from his bed, his heavy boots clanging on the hard floor like a gong.

Instantly he was awake, flying to his feet with such speed he appeared to float for a moment only to feel the ship slide violently once more driving him to the floor again as if struck. Ballin stayed low this time as he scampered through the door and – his fingertips brushing the floor – ran for the bridge. Around him the hull groaned in complaint to some external force as Ballin slammed his palm into the large stud that released the airtight hatch that led to the bridge.

Blue-purple light flooded into the short corridor, bathing the man in a sickly glow.

He stumbled to a halt in the open hatchway, a hand against the jam to steady him-self as he stared through the bubble like canopy. His eyes widened in unaccustomed surprise as undulating shadows swept slowly across him from the leviathan that twisted closer to the ship. The Vanitas shuddered again as the stars swirled, the monitor readout flashing the words MAPPING INTERUPED, VANITAS OFF-COURSE.

The undulating shadows thickened, as the attacker grew closer, wrapping the Vanitas in its impossibly thick snakelike tail, dragging Ballin’s ship closer. The blue-purple light narrowed to pin stripes across his face as he shook his momentary shock and dove for the con board, feverishly ordering the ship to evade its capture.

On the very edge of The Cluster something huge enveloped something small, both objects dwarfed by the fog-like expanse. The two dots of reflected light moved into the dust-cloud, The Clusters blue-purple swallowing the objects as if they were ships sinking in the sea.

Once again The Cluster grew – one insubstantial tail of dust wrapping in a cloak around the nearby star, stripping it of Hydrogen atoms to fuel it continual expansion. Internal reactions burned the sun-fed fuel, creating an aura of pale undulating orange around the deeper clusters blue-purple. Amid this mist-like place a shard of metal drifted, unseen, in the blue-purple tinged darkness.

From within the forests that covered the planet Rimbaud the Great Spires of the Northern Needle rose up through the clouds like a ladder to Heaven. Through the clouds shards of the Upper Levels could be seen, their reflective coated ventral decks pushing the sunlight back to the surface. Beside me the Great Needle was like a gigantic funnel that collected the sunlight from far above the clouds and re-routed it down along its many mirrors to the lenses that spread the light over the land around me. It was thanks – in park – to these huge lenses that air travel was forbidden on the planet’s surface. For if any vehicle inadvertently crossed the beams of intense light they would instantly burst into an unimaginably hot inferno, only to crash down amongst the flawless lands to burn them to ashes.

This was the reason why my journey to the Needle took the time that it did, my own home being too far to the South of the Oak River – which carried the lions share of the traffic in this part of our world – for me to take a boat. Instead I travelled by Bioka the entire distance, a journey that had taken me a great amount of weeks, but – a long journey or not – when the Council requested a person’s presence, it was never wise to refuse.

Not even for someone of my standing with them.

I was born Nenive Naria DuLac in the Year of Our Lord 4532, which made me of marrying age nearly four years since; a situation that – so far – I had managed to fend off with much difficulty. Even my brother’s legendary wit with a sword did little to dissuade my avid admirers. Marriage was, however, a thing that I neither sought or harboured; rather I lay low and hoped that it would pass me by without a fight.

I began to make my way up the winding staircase that would take me to the place far above where the elevators were allowed to stop, the use of such things on the planets surface strictly forbidden as most technology was. Around me the treetops slipped away, leaving me with an unobstructed view of what was arguably the most beautiful planet in the entire Outer Rim. I allowed my eyes to play over the vision as my feet carried me higher.

The Home-world of the DuLac Family was the most densely packed collection in life in the Outer Rim. A fact that I could be witness to as I made my way through the packed Mid Levels towards the lower elevators. People moved unhurriedly down the metal grillwork of the streets, passing friendly comments to their companions as they did so. I pitied them as they busied themselves with their chores; I could not help it. These were people who were out of favour with the life around them; they could not brave the dangerous life below. Nor could they fit in with the infinite reaches of space-bound life above. Even though they lived wrapped around the planets life’s-blood, the Needle, these people were their planets Outcasts; but at least they were Outcasts with a home.

I showed my Identification Card to the Port Control Officer at the gate to the elevator and stepped through the sensor that scanned for the electrical residue that came with all forms of technology. The man, a handsome creature with piercing blue eyes, stared at the holograph of me pressed into the card, them up into my face. He held my gaze for a time and I felt my heart skip for a moment as if guilty of something. It was not guilt that affected me so, but the certainty that this man knew who I was, that any moment he would fall to his knee and pledge allegiance to me ass a loyal DuLac. Then he smiled and the spell was broken, the card pressed into my palm as his index finger stroked the sensitive flesh of my inner wrist.

It had been nothing but a shard of harmless flirtation.

The Upper Platform was something akin to an orbiting platform but this platform was not orbiting, it was anchored to the planet by a million gigantic pillars like the one I was climbing and it covered the planets like a blanket that kept out the night of space. So down through the pillars, the needles, light had to be routed in order to keep the planet alive. Through the primitive technology of lenses and mirrors the light and heat of any given section of Rimbaud could be carefully altered and refined. This gave the plant-life as much advantage as the planet population could arrange, not only did the population do everything in their power to create the finest environment for their planets continued existence, but the people of Rimbaud rarely set foot on its surface. Not only was Rimbaud one of the most densely populated planets in the Outer Rim, it was also one of the few that could easily support its population without outside help, because a hundred percent of its land could produce more than enough food and oxygen for the people above. Dwelling on the surface of Rimbaud took more bravery and strength than most was capable of producing.

The planet Rimbaud was a world – quite literally – gone wild.

The elevator door rumbled closed and the car, all sixty-foot diameter of it, rose up the transparent tube that ran the entire height to the Platform so may miles above. Here and there ridges ran around the outside of the tube, fixing twenty foot sections of it together for easier replacement, and as the car gained speed the ridges began to blur into a gauzelike image that covered the rapidly descending view.

I walked to the inner circle of the car and sat, pulling the thick skirts that I wore tightly around my legs to keep me warm, my long hair moving slightly, wavelike, under the influence of the rapidly changing air pressure. With modern technological methods I could’ve been on the platform within minutes, but such spped within a gravitational field was dangerous. The resultant rapid change in pressure between the surface and the Platform causing hydrogen bubbles to get caught in the brain, causing fits and death. For this reason it was decided many years before my birth that, sometimes, the older methods were the best.

I leaned back in the large seat and looked over the car inhabitants. Three others occupied the elevator with me, none of which I knew. An old woman dressed in the noble uniform of a Caretaker sat half asleep a few seats from me, obviously shattered from what was a difficult job helping tend the planet below. A small distance from her another woman stood with a child of about three years in her arms, probably returning from a pilgrimage to the surface below – a common practice with children. It was hoped that seeing Rimbaud’s beauty at such a young age would forever imprint it in their memory, enforcing the child’s respect for it as the child grew. The woman smiled and the little girl in her arms giggled at something that I was not privy too before the woman placed the girl in the seat next to hers. For a moment my eyes locked with the child’s and she smiled again – this time at me.

Being abhorrent to marriage had its down side – never any children.

Slowly I settled back into the large seat and let the rumble of the elevator lull me into a sleep that would hopefully last the hour-long trip to the Platform.

I was seconds later when my eyes were shook open by the sudden stop of the car – or that, at least, was how it seemed. When I looked about me however I saw that we had arrived at out destination, the highest point on a Needle that a civilian could climb, even though I was not a civilian.

Around me tarnished towers of ebony pierced the sky until only the barest shards of light were visible between the city-sized buildings. From space the world appeared a gigantic sphere of metal and glass that was almost a quarter again the planets true size.

Within the coating of these cities the earth beneath flourished to the degree of a miracle. Dotted about the planets surface the curved towers of the Needles reached into the vacuum of space, collecting the suns light and bending it down along their mirror-like sides to the flora and fauna beneath the man made mantle.

The DuLac family was a testament.

A family that grew, but never at the environments expense.

Rimbaud would outlive its Lords; that was the DuLac promise to it.

I stretched myself awake and followed the other women from the car and onto the true middle of civilisation on the planet Rimbaud. For a time, I walked without true direction, just taking in the sights that I had grown to be accustomed without. It was like walking on a planet-sized spider-web on which buildings had somehow become stuck. Under my feet everything trembled slightly, the Upper Platform always did, as the Great Spires of the planet expanded the contracted as they swept in and in and out of the suns influence. I peered over the walkways side to the sheer drop below, a pit that contained – not darkness – but light. The planet sized megalopolis that was Rimbaud was unique in many ways; it was the only planet in existence where the bulk of the sunlight came not from above, but below. Buried somewhere down there beneath the clouds was the base of the Great Northern Needle, and somewhere to its southeast was the little farm that I had called home for so many years.

Around me things were not too dissimilar to the activity on the Lower Platform. People moved this way and that, urgent business with which to attend, while others chatted quietly as they leaned on the rail. I moved from the high-chromed barrier that protected the inhabitants from the drop to the planet below, a distance so great that a person could easily be rescued before they’d even reached the cloud cover. Nestled under the Coliseum a short distance away was the flower-shaped hangers of the Squadron Elite, the men inside waiting every minute of every day for such an incident. The Elite flew their modified skimmers with a skill that surpassed the finest battle pilots of almost any world, their co-pilots angling Reverse Gravity Nets with equal skill. The victim of a fall could be caught without their hair being mussed or their shopping being split, the Elite would often claim, and would even more often prove.

The Coliseum was the heart of what the DuLac’s called the Northern Continent. It served as its centre of Government, Education and Enlighten; and around it was the only place in the Northern Continent that a visitor could catch a glimpse of the planets true surface below through the web-like network of walkways.

My eyes adjusted to the light below, sunlight reflecting from the North Ocean between the thick clouds. The coast stood out in deep green beside the healthy blue of the ocean. Around me others stared in awe, chatting in hushed tones that could easily be heard on the almost silent streets around the Coliseum.

My heavy skirts fluttered slightly as I repositioned the pack I habitually carried on my one shoulder, then turned and continued my trek to the awe-inspiring gates of the Continents centre of centres.

The Coliseum was a dome-like building that was easily two mile’s and a half across and about half that width high. So deep was it into the outer atmosphere that its apex stood in the vacuum of space, a tether leading from it to an orbiting platform halfway between Rimbaud and its main moon, Carrion. A similar, though smaller, dome on Carrion also carried with it a tether to its own orbiting satellite. A traveller could travel up the tether from Rimbaud; travel across to the Carrion satellite in a shuttle, then down to the moon’s surface within the space of an hour. This was made possible because of the Carrion moons geo-stationary orbit, an orbit that gave the Northern Continent a daily eclipse.

I entered the huge hall that served as the Coliseums reception area and walked over to the semi-circular desk that dominated the large room. Behind it sat a young woman a few years younger than myself. Her hair was honey blonde and tied into an intricate design of plaits and slides.

“May I serve you Madam?” She asked in the High Language, the formal tongue of our people. I smiled and leaned slightly closer as to not be overheard by those closest.

“Ye shall Damosel.” I answered in the correct fashion. “I have been called to the Lord High Council, and that they should e aggrieved at my absence.”

“Fear ye not Madam.” The young lady answered me and touched a screen before her that lit, showing the digitised face of a man who was a hundred if he were a day. The young ladies language dropped to the common tongue, the one used in everyday speech. “A Lady for the High Council Dr. Maerlyn, you asked to be informed?”

The man’s face lit up and I smiled involuntary at his recognition. He squinted past her, obviously trying to make me out over the low-resolution screen.

“Nenive?” He near cackled. “Is that you Nenive?”

“It is Doctor. You look well.”

“I look as I feel young lady.” He replied, with no formality at all. “A man too long in years to be dealing comfortably with all these young women around.”

My smile broadened and the seated girl turned her head away to hide a smile that would be considered improper for her station.

“I shall be seeing you after the meeting…” I began, but the old man cut off my words.

“You’ll be seeing me sooner than that Nenive.” He shifted in his seat, struggling to his feet causing his head to leave the frame of the monitor. “I shall meet you by the Chamber Doors.” He concluded and the monitor crackled off with a sound like static.

Around me the few people in the large room had grown silent, eyes regarding me with an awed suspicion. Dr Maerlyn was all but a legend himself, a man who had allegedly travelled past the furthest stars of the Outer Rim and into the Void beyond. Then had turned and headed into the Core itself, the intense radiation apparently having little effect on him if the modern legend was to be believed. No one knew if this was a truth, half-truth, or nothing like the truth. No one had ever asked the man.

I turned and weaved through the small gaggle of onlookers, making my way to through the Coliseum with nary a missed turn.

I knew this place well.

People needed their legends it seemed. Dr. Maerlyn had never produced a scrap of evidence for his mythical adventure, nor had he ever bragged about it. The whole tale was told by word of mouth, elaborated and added to with every telling until no one knew the truth anymore, my brother Ballin was treated the same, though I knew the tales told of him were true. One day I expect such tales will be told of me too.

It is our lot in life to be our people’s legends.

I am a Mistress of the Family DuLac, born of the High Blood and considered nothing less than my planets princess. In times gone past being Royalty was an easy thing, they were nothing but figureheads, but in these times of corruption and hatred our job was one of true worth. I had been blessed by a life almost completely devoid of shelter, with no servant to do my bidding nor guard to protect my life. I was placed on my planet to fight and survive as best I could. My people loved me too much to make me weak.

My heels clattered on the marble lined floors, the corridors hewn in it, pillars carved like whalebones curving up to the ceilings high above. Along the concave walls intricate sculptures depicted the Family Line, from our birth on the Mythic planet of Earth, and though the Time of Settling when our people split from those who continued the people who now populated the Inner Core. The illustration’s were part reality and part legend, the two interwoven ‘till one couldn’t tell truth from fiction, if, indeed, there was any fiction in there at all.

Ahead a small figure hobbled slightly as he approached and I quickened by step to meet him. He seemed smaller than I remembered – his back bent like one of the whalebone carvings over our heads, but that was not the reason why his stature was so diminished. The last time I saw the old man I had yet to reach the age of betrothal so I had been little more than a child, not even attaining the title of Mistress of the DuLac until the age had been reached.

“How has it been Sweetness?” Maerlyn asked, his eyes shining the same piercing blue as the elevator guards had earlier – his age showing everywhere but there. “I do well Maerlyn. I trust the High Council has been keeping you well?” I answered.

“Forsooth they have your Highness.” His smile softened the official tone of his words and I saw, from the corner of my eye, movement approaching from our left. “It would be my honour to accompany you the Council Chambers?”

I nodded and half turned, the old man taking my arm and leading me toward the huge double doors of the Council Chambers as the figure I had spotted pushed the one heavy door open before me. The newcomer was also older than I remembered him, his hair a salt and pepper grey, and his skin the deeply scarred leathery mess of a long-time warrior for the Family. Over his broad chest he wore the beaten steel of battle armour, not the ceremonial armour that most wore more for fashions sake than honours.

“Lady Nenive,” the man croaked like the detestable toad he was, “it is an honour to serve”.

He moved on ahead and walked around the circular table that sat the High Council about it. He took his seat and I marvelled at how, on a table round, he could still appear to be sat in a corner. I took the opposite route around to my seat at its head, signified by the only backed chair in the room, and seated also, Maerlyn standing like an obedient servant a little behind my angle of sight. The High Council numbered ninety-nine, a hundred with my presence, so there was no seat in the room for the ancient man.

To my right sat the representatives of the other Seven Families, all royalty by honour rather than blood, and to my left sat my own Council, those who had ruled in my absence after my parent’s deaths.

“Now advise ye me.” I began, my voice carrying without flaw over the hall. “For I have come of true noble blood to you’re calling, and yet I know of no reason or complaint at my actions.”

A murmur ran through the people assembled, the tone of my words carefully thought through to evoke such a response. The High-Speech, a useful tool to those who knew how to use it. Without rudeness or confrontation I had demanded a reason for my being called so abruptly from my Pilgrimage to the planet below.

The murmur subsided and to my left the High Advisor – he who had counselled my father for so many years – rose to answer me.

“Be not displeased Highness. Came today a message of evil tidings that should shame us if we were not to call you back from your Pilgrimage.”

I sat in silence for a moment, all High-Speech fluttering from my mind.

“What’s happened?” I blurted out, formality forgotten.

“It’s your brother Highness.” The High Advisor spoke sadly.

My eyes wandered around the room, taking in the downcast eyes of ninety-eight of the surrounding souls, Maerlyn hidden sill behind me. Only one showed no remorse at what this news must imply – the man who had caused my skin to crawl as I had entered the room.

Sir Tremayne of the Court of Mynlar smiled a smile that I was surely meant to see, though none of the others – with the possible exception of Maerlyn – would, I was sure. He leaned back in his seat, the low back supporting his spine just under the ridge of his back-plate, as it was designed to, the satisfied snarl never leaving his lips.

“What about my brother?” I asked The High Advisor bluntly.

Another murmur flowed through the assembly, presumably at my Low-Speech.

“Ballin Two-Swords was sent to the outer reaches of our influence Highness,” the man continued, “he was sent in pursuit of a man responsible for the deaths of many within…”

“Is he dead?” I cut in. “Did this beast kill him?”

The question had to be asked, even though the idea seemed ludicrous to my ears. Ballin was one of the four finest warriors of Rimbaud birth, making him easily in the running for one of the finest in the Outer Rim worlds, in no way could he have been thwarted by a mere murderer of Low-Birth. I paused and peered around me at the downcast faces and silent mouths.

It was obvious what they thought.

Even a knight-errant would die eventually.

“We know not whether he be dead.” The High Advisor answered.

“So I must go.” The words seemed to emanate from somewhere else in the room; though I knew the voice to me mine I could not remember formulating such a phrase. I could not disagree with it however. “I must go to this place, to this…” I faltered, realising I had no idea where my brother had disappeared.

“The Cluster.” I heard from behind me, a whisper that was meant for me alone. I half turned my head and saw Maerlyn fixing me with his pale azure eyes.

The tether that ran from the top of the Coliseum was also useful for other things, the satellite above housing a multitude of hangers for the High Councilmen’s ships. Amid this egg shaped mass of metal was hidden almost a thousand hanger bays, and in one of these was a ship I had owned since I had turned sixteen. Before me it had been my mothers, and it had been old when she was young. Over the years it had suffered many a scrape and adventure, some of them still emblazing their scars upon it. As a Mistress of the Family DuLac I was entitled to the finest my planet could offer, but I could not bear to put aside my ship – the only thing that truly belonged to me – for my people to work for a new one. My mother had trusted the machine, it had served her well, and I was convinced that it would me too.

My scruples didn’t however, extend to my not allowing upgrades to the forty-year-old star ship, I have always been a sentimental woman, but I was never a foolish one.

Each of its stubby wings was like horizontal forests of weapons and sensor, the collection of which constituted almost every conceivable type. The engine had been completely replaced over the years too, the new one no more than a forth the size of the original, leaving even more space that could be filled by the power cells needed to drive the over abundance of weaponry.

It was a ship designed for use by one, a fact that caused great difficulty when the Council insisted on sending one of the Royal Guards along with me on my adventures. My arguments to the contrary fell on the ears of the deaf, so eventually I succumbed to their wishes; hoping that that would be the end of it; it wasn’t.

I waited for my passengers at the open lock to the hanger designated as Gold four, the one that housed my trusted old ship – The Star Dancer. Royal Guards flanked the doorway, stonily looking at the wall before them; eyes unblinking like something mechanical.

Maerlyn was coming too.

Another fact that I could not change, no matter how I argued. It seemed to me that the Royal lack of responsibility of old wasn’t the only thing that differed now. In the dark times in which I lived Royalty could never seem to get its own way.

My ship sat in the semi darkness; the lights around its extended ramp like stars. Its windows glowed with the deep blue of the reflected monitors inside, giving me the impression that The Star Dancer was looking down on me. It was the look of concern that perhaps my mother would’ve gave me, a silent, kindly gaze that said, “be careful” in soft words that only I could hear. Perhaps that was the reason why I steadfastly refused the gift of a newer ship from my people; maybe I could feel my mother’s presence somewhere within its steel walls.

For four years I had been planet-side, sharing my small farm with two others that served as my helpers. I had tended the animals and crops as any farmer would, learning the most basic of trades, and the most important. A leader could only appreciate life when such a leader had to strive for it; a life given too easily was no one worth having. While I was there I had buried myself in books and globe recordings from all over the known galaxy, researching other cultures for pleasure as well as duty. In many of the holographic globe recordings I saw that many cultures as well as our own believed in spirits and energies from other, intangible, places. It seemed that everyone, even the techno-barbarians from the Inner Core, had some need to believe in something more than what we could see and taste in the air around us.

It was such a thing that I sensed now as I stared up at the eerily lit windows to my ship. Inside I could almost feel my mother moving around the empty quarters and deserted bridge, checking everything for my departure.

A soft whisper of fabric startled me out of my reverie and I turned to see a man, he wore the long over-cloak of a Royal Guard and his eyes were cast down at the ships grating beneath my feet. I stood to greet him and was instantly surprised that he was easily three inches shorter than I was, his bowed head making him seem even shorter.

In the Royal Guards stature was not a required element.

While still a child my brother Ballin had wanted to be a Royal Guard, an irony that had made our parents smile every time Ballin’s eyes had lit with the childish dream. As he had grown everyone had assumed he would leave such fanciful ideas behind him in childhood; but he had not. The dream had grown with him and, the irony of a Royal Prince wanting to be a Guard to his own kind had not deterred him from it the slightest bit.

The DuLac Royal Family had granted their permission and Ballin DuLac had entered into the Southern Academy.

As I stood looking over the small soldier that was to be my High Council appointed protector I thought of my brothers scars and bruises, many of which he had obtained from his time at the Academy. I had often wondered if the roomers I had heard at the time were true, or whether my little girl’s mind had misinterpreted them. Roomers of the sometimes fatal hazing of younger enrolees and “torture management” sessions that taught the trainees to deal with physical abuse that would drive most people insane within minutes.

If all what I had heard were true, the Royal Guards were the most frightening of men.

Through the man before me seemed more frightened of me!

“What is your name of right young Sir?” I asked him using the High Speech.

“And of where are ye born?”

“Sir Tem of Meleng your Highness.” He murmured in little more than a whisper.

“It is by the faith of my body that I should preserve thine.”

“I do not wish to rebuke such a noble Knight, but I should ask you to fall to the Low-speech for our journey.” I stated, taking a step towards the man. “Also that you should call me by my given name of Nenive.”

“But…” Sir Tem stammered, his eyes darted up to greet my own and I saw the angled almond shape of an oriental.

“I should insist,” I interrupted him sternly; “suffer me not to make it an order of Honour, Sir Knight.”

“But Highness, I …”

“Low-speech,” I cut in once again.

“I will do as you ask…” He muttered, obviously disturbed by the idea. “Nenive.”

It was then; with his preternatural sense of timing that Maerlyn appeared, and appeared was the right word. Without a sound I saw something just in my field of vision move and I turned my head to catch what it was.

Maerlyn smiled up at us, his head twisted slightly to one side. He carried along staff that seemed half again his height that was topped by a gnarled root. Caught in its vine-like twists a globe of crystal was held fast.

Without a word he walked over to the lowered ramp and made his ay inside The Star Dancer, leaving me to stare after him like an idiot. Sir Tem waited patiently for me to speak again, his eyes lowered to the deck-plates beneath us. I retrieved my small bag from the floor and followed the mysterious old Maerlyn into my ship.

The Star Dancer was a ship designed for my sole use, no other had ever flown it but for my mother. The landing ramp led to the small airlock, four pressure suits lining the wall, before another door led the way into the corridor that connected bridge to living area. It was in the living area that I found Maerlyn, as he fretted over a squat, circular chest that he had sent to my ship previous to our arrival. The box stood a third of the man’s bow-backed height, but it was his height in radius. Across the top was an etched pattern of lines that radiated out from its centre like a relief sculpture of an explosion.

I walked around the Doctor as he ran his fingertips around the bevelled edges, brushing over raised sections that looked like carvings at first glance. As he touched them they changed in hue, brightening like gem until Maerlyn had done a complete circle of the chest and the relief explosion of lines on its top began to move.

“Highness!” I heard from behind me and I peered over my shoulder at a shocked Sir Tem. He stepped forward for a better view of Maerlyn at his work.

“Doctor Maerlyn should be treated as I should be treated Sir Tem,” I said and the young guard relaxed slightly, his stance dropping from the defensive one in which he’d automatically struck, “and my name is Nenive. “I finished under my breath.

Maerlyn’s chest opened, the wedges on its top opening like a flower, creating a circle of spires, each tipped with a small sphere. The spires slowed to a halt and the silent machinery that drove them ceased.

I moved closer, inside a circular seat – or perhaps a small bed – which was upholstered in deep red velvet. Around this, a running around the base of the spires was a narrow control panel that ran in a complete circle around the contraption.

I had never seen the like before, as – I suspected – no one else had.

It was Maerlyn’s medication chamber, a thing that served him in place of a whole home. In it he would rest, sleep and – using the inbuilt holo-globe projector – he would research and learn even more about the universe around him. None other of its type existed as its owner used technology and theory that no one else understood to design it specifically for its purpose.

It never surprised me that many thought that Maerlyn was a Magician.

“What are you gawking at child?” Maerlyn grumbled and the momentary spell of the strange machine was broken. “Shouldn’t you be calculating a course for our adventure?”

Feeling like a chastised little girl I turned and made my way past Sir Tem and into the corridor to the bridge.

The cool, mirror-like surface of the control board felt good under the pads of my fingers as my nails – painted their dark red – danced over them, occasionally scraping over the panel with almost inaudible screeches. Around me the large boards were lit as bright and as copious as the star-field outside, though in many more colours.

The Tether Dock slipped away into the far distance, nothing more than a speck that orbited the view of Rimbaud that was no bigger than a child’s marble. This too slipped away as the Star Dancer sped up to the minimal speed where the Gravitation Drive could take over. On the far left of the con board the red digital measurement of our distance from the planet blurred upward. Nine hundred thousand was passed and the digits turned green, signalling it was safe to initiate the Gravity Drive.

Another monitor presented me with what looked like a computer flow chart, the route map that would tell the autopilot where to go and how to get there. Under the readout lay the initiation controls, a row of covered, touch sensitive buttons that would drive the unimaginable power field out before the ship.

I let my fingers move over them, and the ship vibrations beneath me seemed to change as the Gravity Drive kicked in.

Outside my ship space seemed to fold in an undulating motion that reminded me of water, as though space were the wellspring of life. The stars became instant blurred line of kaleidoscopic colours, running in an ink smear from the deepest blues to the palest reds.

We slipped into the gravity drive, and in an instant we were out of the solar system.

Ballin woke.

The place in which he woke danced around him as if behind a gossamer mesh held by some cosmic – and unsteady – hand. Slowly the world settled, and Ballin found that he was exactly where that word suggested; he found himself on a world.

The sky was the almost purple of the Great Northern Sea of his home world, decorated with the clouds through which the sunlight shimmered with a brilliance that suggested summer on this unknown planet. Under his outstretched hands Ballin felt the cool dew in the faintly warm grass, the thin blades sweating the moisture out in the warmth of the sun.

It must be morning then, Ballin surmised, wherever I am I must be far from the Cluster, for no planet in the Cluster could have mornings like this with it’s omnipresent purple-blue cloud.

He pushed to a sitting position and stared around him, his breath catching momentarily, for the second time in as many subjective minutes he was shocked to silent awe.

The landscape was an equal to any that the man had ever beheld, an equal to Rimbaud and its carefully unrestrained wilderness. Hills rolled away into the distance, the clear air allowing the man to see to the very limits of possible vision until a curve could be seen to the horizon. Plants covered the earth in a blanket that looked as if tended by a dedicated army of caretakers. Here and there the glittering of water could be seen in the distance, bright sparks that could bring fire with their brilliance.

In a careful circle the errant knight turned, peering over the land in search of something to lead his baffled mind. The Vanitas was nowhere to be seen, neither was any clue to the whereabouts. Ballin picked a direction and began to walk, his light armour making hardly a sound while sheathes of the crossed swords on his back whispered against each other.

Ballin thanks his Lord for that small mercy; at least he awoke armed.

His strong legs carried him over the smooth rolling terrain as the sun – a ball of light closer to blue than orange – began its slow ascent over his head.

Sure footed, he picked his way down the hill, slowing as he noted the double wedges cut out of the earth before him in long track. A carriage of some sort travelled this route, and often, he would guess. The tracks met in the far distance, an inverted “V” that carried nothing at its apex in either direction. The stretch of land adjacent to him had the look of cultivation evidence of slight furrows from where seed had been planted recently.

He turned to his left and began to walk, choosing the direction for no other reason than it was his left that was his dominant hand.

The Star Dancer rode the gravity wave through space as we rode the boredom that inevitably came with deep space travel. I stared out over the warped expanse of stars, my guard standing a little to the side of my field of vision. I leaned back in the worn seat that served as the captain’s chair and crossed my ankles, my heels resting on the edge of the control board. The breeze from the air duct under the terminal tugged at my skirts like a natural breeze would have on my home world.

Already I missed the place, its green pastures and dense forests almost a dream, even after such a small measure of time. It was the bizarre streaks of colour around us that did it, the immense speed at which we travelled distorting the light from the multitude of stars, twisting them into shapes that some minds could not comprehend. When I looked out over the beautiful, frightening visage of eternity I understood why, in the early days of space flight, some would return home gibbering lunatics. The immensity of space could do that; it could squash and ego flat, driving a creature’s mind to infinite distraction and – resultantly – ultimate distress. Deep space was not the place for everyone.

“Where is Maerlyn?” I asked absently, the streaks of light leaving trails on the back of my eyes. I blinked them closed and leaned back further in the chair.

“I believe he sleeps, Highness.” Sir Tem replied my admonishment of earlier apparently forgotten for the moment. “Should I wake him?”

“No.” I near whispered, for the moment not bothering to correct the guard’s use of the honorific. He would have to be ordered silent around others; we could not take a chance that he would accidentally allow others to know who we were.

The con board glittered like a mass of jewel as one portion of it silently communicated with another, telling the propulsion system to slow and the navigational system to alter its course subtly. To anyone else the change in the ship would’ve been imperceptible, but not to its current inhabitants. With a short intake of expectant breath Sir Tem stepped closer to the seat in which I sat, staring out through the thick plastic-steel view shield in search of whatever the ships sensors had foreseen.

“There!” Tem muttered, pointing across my field of vision.

It was a speck, like an ant seen from a distance, and I peered at the oriental man beside me. He had seen something in all that light and movement within moments, as if he already knew when and where it would reveal itself. The Royal Guard was something other than what I’d expected. Sir Tem wasn’t the mere lump of muscle that’s only use was to parry a sword or deflect a blaster bolt; he was a man of supreme sensitivity and poise.

The speck grew, taking on the roughly triangular shape of a ship. I leaned closer to the view shield as if the few extra inches could bring the thing into sudden sharp focus, my heart beating faster with sudden irrational hope. My brother’s ship was called The Vanitas, and – at a distance – it looked very like the ship before us.

As the ship grew my hope faded.

It was a Colonial Marshall’s scout-ship.

Another section of the con board lit, the waves of a spectrum analyser built into the communications array flaring to life.

“Unidentified ship to our stern.” The voice from the communication’s array seemed to come from nowhere, an expressive male voice that was used to command.

“Unidentified ship to our stern, drop from multi-light drive for boarding. Please have papers and identification ready for our inspection. Thank you.”

I smiled; the “thank you” at the end of the address was unexpected, though welcome. It filled me with a certain amount of gratification that good manors were still considered a blessing by this unseen man. Beside me Tem watched me avidly, I could feel his gaze on the side of my face like the heat of the sun.

“You are to let them board us Sir Tem.” I said simply. “You’re not to interfere.”

“Yes, Highness.” He readily agreed, not through fear of the Marshall’s but through fear of me.

“Nenive, Sir Tem, my name is Nenive.” I remembered him and turned to drop the ship from its Gravity Drive.

It was almost dark and Ballin estimated that he had walked about twenty-five miles or more without seeing anything but the evidence of life. No one had passed him on the road, neither had he seen any kind of vehicle or animal. Despite the planets natural beauty Ballin felt the place oozed of desolation, as if the population had been wiped out by some mythic plague from the Old Book that had been carried from the planet called Earth far in their pre-history. The idea was not as ridiculous as it first sounded, for many years races had worked to produce such a toxin, some mistakenly believing their cause was just. Some foolish races even used their plague, believing it to be tailored only to their enemies, only to find the plague mutating to wipe out its creators.

The DuLac Family had learned from such occurrences. All things had their price.

In the waning light from the red sun Ballin thought he saw movement in the distance. Careful not to change pace or expression the Errant Knight continued closer, allowing his eyes to move over the area in natural sweeps. Again movement caught his eye and Ballin felt himself tense slightly. He had walked too long on his desolate world to feel comforted by company now.

It was a figure, a mass of robes surrounding it in mystery. Ballin strolled closer, his hand casually moving near the hidden blade under the padded waistcoat over his chest armour.

“Sir, I would be fain to be counselled.” Ballin said in the High Speech.

The mass of robes shifted in the breeze that swept the foliage around them into little tempest, Ballin took a step closer.

“Sir?” His hand slipped around the hilt of the small dagger. “Are you injured?”

The wind gushed again, lifting the hem of the robes hood, the worn dark brown material dancing in the air for a moment before the winds subsided and it fell again to a rest.

A moment was all it took.

Ballin moved beside the figure and knelt, pressing the dagger back into its sheath, and he lifted the hood from its head.

The man had been dead for a long time; the skin of his cheeks had turned a leathery brown, caked hard by the sun. His eyes were open; strangely moist as if they were the sole reservoir of moisture within the otherwise desiccated body. The eyes looked live, Ballin could imagine them blinking any moment from the sun glare.

Ballin’s eyes moved over the mummified man, to the hands that were cupped together as if in prayer, pointing eastward towards the blackened pit of a blacksmiths forge.

The forge had not been the man’s Ballin surmised the small creature not the beefy presence that normally tended such a fire. Though the Errant Knight could not fathom why a man should be paying some kind of penance in a place such as this. Ballin couldn’t even make a guess at why a forge was here at all, nothing else was apparent within sight of the place, and a Blacksmith was normally at the centre of town, not so far away the town was invisible.

Ballin pulled the hood back over the corpses head and stood again.

There was nothing else to be seen.

Frustration began to boil in him – there was nowhere to go, and nothing to do.

What could have been a clue was nothing but confusing, a leathery monk – long dead – with folded hands before the wind swept ashes of an ancient blacksmith’s forge.

The Knight-errant turned his attention to the forge.

It was of the same type traditionally used back on Rimbaud, a low wall that contained a pit fire almost six feet in diameter. Around its circumference were six smaller stone crucibles, the water in them long since evaporated dry. The pit contained ashes that half filled the foot and a half depth; otherwise it was empty. Using the tip of his one sword Ballin stirred the ashes, checking beneath them for some clue. The brown-black crust broke lumps of it lifting like section of ice from a frozen lake. The tip scraped over the stone base of the pit, vibration as it hit the slim spaces between the stone slabs. There was a sound of metal on metal, a “chink” and rattle as the blade of Ballin’s sword hooked a steel hoop and dragged it from the ashes like a phoenix.

Ballin climbed into the pit, wading through the ashes, the thick flakes clinging to the heavy boots he wore. His movement disturbed the caked rain hardened ashes breaking the lumps into dust. Under his feet was a grating through which the ashes fell like a sooty rain. The hoop of steel wrapped between the inch thick metal of the grating.

He grabbed the thing with both hands, his sword-re-sheathed, and pulled.

With a screech and grind the grating rose, exposing the top of a long dark tunnel into the depths.

Maerlyn lay curled in the sphere of his medication chamber, hidden from the view of the others onboard, the curved bubble of solitude acting like a mirror to those outside. The meditation chamber was a mirror in many ways, acting on the thoughts and feelings of its inhabitant and bringing up images on its distorted surface that held meaning. In a very real way Maerlyn could travel beyond the limits of his own imagination, and Maerlyn’s imagination was second to none in the know universe. He understood the importance of this fact; he understood it and was mortified that so many others didn’t. Imagination fuelled the creative urge and what was creativity but the desire to change and improve on that which you were given?

Maerlyn was forever improving on his nature. As the planet Rimbaud was improved by the imagination of its people. As the people of Rimbaud was attempting to improve the universe.

He heard it all, listening as Nenive dropped the ship from the Gravity Drive and into normal space. The bridge was far too far away for him to hear it with his natural senses, but Maerlyn had more senses that the five natures provided him with.

He remembered things.

Things that had happened and things that had yet to.

He remembered Nenive dropping from multi-light and he remembered the Captain of the other ship boarding with two of his people. Maerlyn couldn’t tell if this had happened yet: or whether it was yet to be, but he remembered it never the less.

The man allowed his mind to swim away from the sounds of the ship, knowing with all his preternatural senses that there was no danger from the other ship and its crew. Maerlyn’s mind slipped from the fleshy encasement of his body and drifted through the spherical shield of the meditation chamber. The Star Dancer trembled around Maerlyn’s invisible essence, lulling him, as would a child’s lullaby. The vision of his essence was subtly different from that of his body’s it was… broader somehow. Around Sir Tem Maerlyn saw a faint image, a dusting of purple light that poured from the noble mans pores like sweat. Around Nenive Maerlyn saw something he knew was rare. Nenive shone, her skin barely holding back the fierce light of her soul as it fought as if for release. Nenive was not unique, others sometimes shared this property, but in Maerlyn’s long existence he could only number perhaps a hundred of them.

A hundred may sound a great amount, to one who didn’t know Maerlyn’s true age.

He felt his insubstantial back touch the cool metal of the ducts and pipes that littered the ceiling and stopped his ascent, looking down on his Princes as they paused at the inner door to the airlock. They waited as the small airtight chamber cycled vacuum for air and the three people inside had hit the stud to request entry. The guard reached out and paused with his finger hovering over the “release” stud that would allow access into the ship. His Princess nodded a short, curt nod and the large round button was pressed.

Before he laid his spirit eyes on them Maerlyn knew what to expect, his memory told him that these people would be allies beyond measure to the young Princess. They would be among her most trusted and worshipful of knights.

Two men and a woman moved through the lock with the grace of ghosts. The man’s name was Tristram, Maerlyn knew, and he harboured a secret love for the woman who followed him. She was a tall beauty with hair that would fall almost to her heels if she allowed I to escape from the circle of satin that held it. Maerlyn could not remember her name; it sat just outside his field of mental vision. He knew that he should know it; that this woman was the reason for Tristram’s loyalty to Nenive, but the name would not present itself.

The third member of the boarding party was the youngest of their crew. She was little more than a child that went by the name of Mida, but Maerlyn found he instantly filled with pleasure at the sight of her. He remembered her as a guiding light to him through the unfortunate, unhappy days of the Omega War. Her humour and curiosity buoyed him as it did many others, giving even the darkest days a spark of light.

The newcomers each moved within their own aura of ethereal light. Tristram had a bathing of maroon that was not unlike the dried blood that he would eventually spill in Nenive’s name. The woman he would have as his lover, the unnamed one, had a pale blue that collected around her head and hands. From this Maerlyn instantly knew the woman had healing gifts, powerful one’s that she had yet to learn of. The remaining woman – Mida – was a conundrum, he remembered her with an obvious, potent affection, but the girl’s aura spoke of other things. Muddy swirls hovered around her temples, collecting in fiery streaks of red in pools of black, like fire in a cave. Maerlyn remembered her future presence and could detect no corruption at the memory, but her aura spoke of great capacity within her tiny form. A capacity that was untested as either God sent, or Evil; the only thing that was obvious to Maerlyn’s flawed future sight was that Mida’s spirit carried with it great darkness, and even greater pains.

Nenive greeted her guests, as a Princess should, leading them to a curved seat that ran the length of one – equally curved – wall. They sat, their eyes observant – though never rude – showing their commanders wisdom in this stretch of space where honour meant so much.

As they sat the group noticed Maerlyn’s medication chamber in the middle of the living quarters ample communal area. Its arms extended with the glowing globe of Maerlyn’s meditation sphere caught in their grasp. A frown flowed through the three, the same thought’s occurring to them simultaneously, but their duty prevailed and they seated themselves without question.

Maerlyn moved his mind closer to the group, settling himself down on the oval table between the newcomers and Nenive’s seat opposite, seeing them all in a bizarre three-hundred-and-sixty-degree vision. Sir Tem took up his position slightly behind the young Princess, looking every bit the Royal Guard and – consequently – making Nenive look even more of a Princess.

“My name is Tristram of the Marshall Border Patrol.” The man said and all present recognised his voice from the comm. system of earlier. “You are the owner of the ship?”

“I am.” Nenive nodded her head in an unconscious regal act of affirmation.

“Are you aware that you are leaving the Outer Rim on route for the Badlands of Pergamos?” His voice carried not a hint of recrimination; instead Maerlyn heard a clear and undisguised concern for Nenive’s safety.

“Yes, I am.” Nenive repeated serenely.

Mida peered past Nenive at the silent man behind her, his eyes never leaving a spot on the grating of the wall over their heads. His face held a chiselled look of calm that Mida found quite arresting, reminding her of her father when she last saw him, as the truncheon of a lance had descended. She had become an orphan that day, living under the rule of the man who’d slain her father. He was a good man, his quarrel with her father an act of honour that could not be denied, and he had treated and trained her well.

Perhaps she saw a little of that man in this silent knight too.

Maerlyn knew all this about her as he watched her eyes move from Sir Tem to the Princess before him. Mida probed into the older woman’s eyes, trying to wrestle something from the windows of the soul. Maerlyn remembered more, Mida’s thoughtful expression sparking another memory of the future.

Mida’s father had died in a joust with a full noble knight of the Family of Ghamima, his only daughter falling into the Ghanima Family as a spoil of war. For many moons’ she had lived in fear, her eight-year old mind not able to fully understand the sorrow her new father felt at his actions. Sorrow he felt, such sorrow that it threatened to overpower him and cause him to doubt his very purpose with his Families structure. Years had moved on, and her new fathers sorrow had not abated, but Mida’s mind had grown to a point where she could feel the pain in the man. It was then that she grew to love him, seeing her biological father through her new father’s eyes.

Mida’s birth father had been a child of the DeGaun Family, and consequentially, so was Mida. The DeGaun were a Family that stood apart from the Seven Families of the Outer Rim, the DeGaun Family stood apart from everyone, and such tales were told of them that – if even half were true – they were not a Family that knew what Honour meant.

“Would it be that I could ask your purpose in such a journey?” Tristram asked, in the High Speech. Nenive recoiled slightly, his switch to the formal tongue of her people showing both knowledge and suspicion in the Marshall’s mind. She thought a moment, honour dictated that she should answer the question with truth, but common sense told her to temper the truth with caution.

“We travel to a place called the Cluster in order to locate a missing member of our Family.” She said. “He was sent there to locate a traitor to the Royal House, but we have not heard word of him.”

“I see, and who travels with you?” Tristram’s eyes moved to the small man, who watched over the woman with the obvious air of a professional soldier, perhaps even a Knight of a Realm.

“My companions Tem and Maer…” She paused halfway through his name, suddenly aware that everyone knew the name of Maerlyn, quickly, with ease taught from many a council meeting, she continued. “DeGall. I think you may have heard of him, he’s a famous man where we come from.”

She waited a moment, a carefully constructed look of anticipation on her face. She knew that Maer DeGall was one of Maerlyn’s; many pseudonyms, and it softened her feelings of sham of her near lie.

“I have not.” Tristram said back kindly, and Nenive allowed her face to fall in a semblance of disappointment. “Have you your papers please?”

Nenive reached into her gown’s pocket and passed them across the oval table. Tristram took them and read quickly through the unrippable plastic sheets without comment. They were made out to a private citizen of the planet Rimbaud, a young woman called Nenive DuLac, not the Princess Nenive DuLac. It was hoped that an offworlder would not suspect a lady of High Birth to be travelling in such a craft with no escort or entourage.

“It all seems to be in order Damsel DuLac.” He said, again using the High Speech. “Whom do you seek in this unhappy place?”

It was a question Nenive would rather he’d not asked.

“A noble Errant-Knight of our Family who is named Ballin of the Two Swords.”

Instantly the attention of the three was directed at her, the elder woman – who’s name Maerlyn could not remember – leaned forward and prepared to speak for the first time.

“Ballin DuLac of the Two Swords?” She seemed to sigh.

Nenive had heard Ballin’s name mentioned with the same tone many times. It was a name uttered with mingled awe and a species of careful disbelief, as if the speaker wanted to believe but couldn’t bring themselves to do it.

“Ballin DuLac had disappeared out in the Cluster?” Tristram clarified.

“Yes, and we have been entrusted to discover him.” Nenive replied slowly.

The young girl sat silently beside her two crewmates, her jaw slightly ajar with the possibility of it – to meet a Hero in the flesh! She looked up at Tristram and unspoken communication flowed between them, but before either could voice their thoughts their remaining cremate did it for them.

My name is Isodé Kérian,” the woman said, “and we are travelling to the Cluster on an errand of our own. We offer our services in your quest.”

Above them Maerlyn laughed a silent laugh, Isodé! Isodé Kérian, that was the woman’s name! He could only wonder why it hadn’t occurred to him, she was an important piece of the puzzle, one of the focal points around which many others circled. The woman’s name bared another memory for review, a sudden rush of images that cascaded across Maerlyn’s consciousness like an icy waterfall.

Isodé screaming, a hand raised to ward off some terrible blow, a shadow moving across her with an ebony arm raised, a sword that was twisted like a grown thing clenched in one armoured fist. The vision shifting as if Maerlyn’s vision was mounted on an arm that swung in an arc around the frightened woman. Suddenly the vision was in her, viewing through her eyes as her attacker approached.

It was not a man, it was shaped like a man, but that was where the similarity ended.

It was a gargoyle come to life.

Maerlyn’s ancient heart shuddered to a stop, his disembodied mind dragged back to his head with speed that would make Gravity Drive pale by comparison. Inside the meditation sphere Maerlyn’s silent body lay, half curled in a foetal ball. As his mind hit it the tendon’s tensed, his small feet slamming against the impervious wall of the sphere.

He was whole again, a man once more.

When the grating had opened Ballin had found the steel ladder that disappeared into the depths. Darkness reigned down there, but it was not entirely a complete darkness, here and there shone shards of mysterious origin, glinting up to him like watching eyes in the ebony blanket.

Ballin hung on the rust roughened rungs of the ladder, his feet inches over the shadow of the pits rim, the feeble setting sun unable to light his way any further. He stared at the oddly sharp outline for a time, an innocent natural meridian between shadow and light that filled the Knight with a sense of foreboding. Ballin shook the thought away and climbed.

The darkness swallowed him like an animal of enormous size.

The Knight averted his eyes from the light above him, staring fixedly into the dark; already he could feel his well-trained eyes adjusting to their new task, bringing hazy shadow-images from the velvety blanket of black.

The pit was – in fact – a shaft that ran beyond his vision into the depths of the unknown world. Its walls were expertly hewn stone that sat together without need of mortar, sitting in such harmony that the very tip of Ballin’s dagger could not find purchase in the hair-line cracks between them. As his vision adjusted Ballin saw that the stones grew gradually in size the deeper into the shaft they had been placed, presumably to counter the extreme weight they must resist of the cumulative stones above them.

How could such a construction be built to such exacting standards?

It was a marvel to him.

Ballin’s eyes adjusted quickly, but not quickly enough to counter the extreme drop in light as he descended into the depths.

Movement whisked through the tunnel. He never felt the movement, neither did he exactly see it; but he knew that it was there. A slightly lighter shadow was momentarily obscured by a darker one and Ballin froze in response to it. He released the rung of the ladder and grasped his daggers hilt.

Ballin remembered the shards of light that he had briefly seen from above and again, within moments, Ballin knew that this strange word had made a fool out of him.

It wasn’t a shadow, I was a reflection.

The Errant Knight hooked his arm around a rung on the ladder and hung there, stripping off one thin, strong glove. He stroked his bare hand carefully over the wall of the shaft. It was smooth. Ballin ran his hand up the sheer, curved surface as far as his arm would allow. Some two feet above the smooth surface gave away to the roughness of stone.

Ballin searched the small pockets that were sown under the armour of his waistcoat and found the tiny shape of a fusion light. He twisted the safety and hit the stud that would activate the low intensity beam.

The light from the small device flickered, and around him the abyssal pit blazed into the white light of a cold inferno. Ballin closed his eyes reflexively, seeing the veins that weaved through his lids in the blood red glow through the flesh.

Again, he allowed his eyes to adjust.

He opened them.

As he had thought, the movement was merely a reflection from the curved mirror that was embedded like its many brothers in the wall of the shaft. Like the stones above, each mirror was crafted to an exacting standard, fitting with a precision that baffled Ballin’s mind. The feeble beam of the fusion light bounced from mirror to mirror, weaving its way down into the abyss.

It was obvious what this pit was now, nothing less than a tiny predecessor to the huge towers that dotted Ballin’s home world. The mirrors could be moved almost imperceptibly in order to catch the light from the world above and angle it down. One thing bothered him however; it was twenty feet of sheer rock that topped this mirror tube. Atop of which had been built the forge that would effectively cut off any light to the construction. The only possible reason he could surmise for the eccentricity of construction was a camouflage, but camouflage from what?

I had met many Marshall’s in my role as a realm Princess, mostly while playing the part of Hostess after my mother’s death, but never had I encountered such an odd assortment of people who worked within that culture. Marshall’s were normally people of the Inner Gore who felt that working in the Rim was like working in some savage frontier. In the Outer Rim Marshall’s were often hated, and sometimes they met harsh fates on some of our worlds. On Rimbaud they were always accepted as guests, though their presence was never a course for celebration.

These were different though.

This man and his two crewmates were different from any that I’d met at the social gatherings in my Court. Tristram was obviously of Family blood, his use of the high speech could mean nothing else – no one else would dare use it in the presence of someone from the Outer Rim. Honour would dictate a quick and terrible response to any Inner Core lout that tried to dishonour us so.

My instincts were proven right when I heard the previously silent woman utter the words of allegiance in our cause, another thing that I had never heard a Marshall do.

“My name is Isodé Kérian,” the woman had said, “and we are travelling to the Cluster on an errand of our own. We offer our services in your quest.”

For a time I did not answer, feeling Sir Tem’s high-strung anticipation loitering at my back. Beside Isodé her companion’s stared at her in a way that would’ve been comical under any other – more predictable – circumstances. Tristram’s eyes were filled with a bright longing that I recognized instantly as that peculiar breed of love that approached obsession.

“You honour me,” I heard myself say, “my quest would hold much weight with such as you at my side.”

I leaned over the table before me and folded my hands in a semblance of concentration, my steepled index fingers resting against my lower lip in a way I had seen Maerlyn’s many times. For a moment I wondered of the ways each touches another’s life as we pass through our own, sometimes in small ways – as many of Maerlyn’s habits had infected me – and sometimes in ways without measure.

A spark hit me, running through my head like a stiletto blade, and for a moment I knew that these people would affect our future in ways that were phenomenal. It all hung on Isodé, on her and Tristram’s love of her, it would…

It went as rapidly as it had appeared, I had experienced a moment Maerlyn referred to as “Breathing The Breath Of The Dragon”; a moment of clarity where all things could make sense: if one had the ability to see the vision out to its end.

The people around me peered at me without an inkling of what had transpired and I opened my mouth to accept them into my quest, and then it happened again.

Ballin was under the glamour of some spell, he was travelling without travelling and seeing without seeing, but where he travelled and what he saw was connected to our destiny and as real as those around me now. He wondered without sense of immediate danger, though I knew that’s exactly what he was in; and we were rapidly running out of time.

“Yes, my quest would hold an urgency that could not be ignored with you at my side,” I said with more vigour, “you indeed honour me. With whom should we speak in order to bring our quest to a happy conclusion?”

Tristram smiled and for a moment I wondered how Isodé could not fall in love with this man in an instant.

“With that, My Lady, we can help plentifully.”

And I could not help but answer his smile with my own.

Ballin could feel the rim of the pit beneath him, the last rung of the ladder flush with it, and for the longest time he was undecided what he should do. Cool air moved past him, pulled up the pit by convection and so Ballin surmised that either there was a heat source somewhere below, or the room was large enough for such breezes to appear naturally.

The Knight plucked a coin from one of his many pockets and ran it once over the backs of his fingers dextrously, thoughtfully, before dropping it into the darkness below. Almost instantly he heard the clatter of metal across metal and Ballin found his mind made up for him.

He pushed himself away from the ladder and dropped silently into the darkness below, the heels of his boots slamming into the unyielding floor and his body automatically dropping to a crouch, his hand clutching the hilt of his glaive – battle ready. The small cylinder of his fusion light was already pressed into his palm, his sub-conscious mind a step ahead of his conscious, and a twist of the safety and a press of its stud was all that was needed to bring this portion of the mystery into the light.

The room was indeed large, as Ballin found himself on a wide walkway high enough up one wall so that the floor couldn’t be seen through the grill underfoot. Here and there stood ancient metal monoliths that could be nothing less than computer terminals from pre-history, some of the controls seized solid with age. Ballin moved along the edge of the walkway, against the barrier that shielded him from the uncertain drop, and strained to see anything outside the feeble arc of the fusion light.

Further searching led to another ladder well, leading even lower into the depths. The errant knight took it, this time leaving the light on and clipping it to his armour. Within minutes he was at the floor proper of the large room, each footfall echoing resplendently like a staccato opera down the rungs until his feet hit another surface. The floor was made of some kind of plastic, Ballin fancied he could feel it give slightly, almost imperceptibly, but he knew it could not be the case; at least he hoped as such. He leaned closer and saw that, whatever material it was, it was transparent and a contraption something like a shutter could be seen through it, light emanating slightly from between the shutters blades.

Curiosity bade him to look further. It seemed purely mechanical; the shutter blades connected to arms that were connected to a tensioned cable than ran from section to section – the whole floor seemingly covered. Logically all he needed to do was find the cables end and discover a way to tighten it and the shutters would open.

Faint lines of light carpeted the floor of the room and Ballin found that if he moved with the angle of the blades below he could see the faint light reflected on the surfaces of the room. Ballin dulled his fusion light and allowed his eyes to adjust, shadows creeping out of the darkness, the lines of light illuminating huge hulking figures standing silent and still.

It was a hanger, and it wasn’t empty; and it was enormous.

Ballin moved deeper still, passing small ships that looked like single man fighters, and others that appeared to be designed for local transportation. Coils of cable sat beside consoles – diagnostic perhaps? While here and there were dotted grounded anti-grav sleds laden with cargo, some half emptied into open holds.

Ballin paused at the sight of this.

It had been obvious from the beginning that something monumental had happened to him, and to this world he had been abandoned on, but the sight of the half finished work around him made it obvious that whatever had transpired here had been quick beyond measure. Furthermore the only body he had encountered had been the robed figure above, so far nothing had been found below. A list of reasons slid through Ballin’s mind, but nothing seemed to truly fit.

Unless the robed corpse had nothing to do with this below, unless these ancient scientific monuments pre-dated the world that had appeared on the surface, perhaps even hidden from it.

It was an enigma.

It was time for Ballin to go.

He scanned the ships closest.

There was a chance, however small, that one of the ships could be repaired; and even if it was beyond his abilities, Ballin DuLac of the Two Swords knew he could not allow himself to give up.

The Cluster was not entirely uninhabited, as Ballin DuLac’s mission to the system would testify, though no populace of any amount lived within the blue-purple cloud itself. The most significant population existed on the planet Pergamos, one of half dozen planets that orbited the sun that nestled within the dust cloud itself, and the only one that could support human life without significant aid.

If those who lived on Pergamos could be truly considered alive, or human.

The Family DeGaun liked to believe they existed outside the tenuous alliance of the Seven Families by choice; and that may be the truth: but it was also true to say that the Seven Families would never have accepted council with the DeGaun. They were considered a soiled family – even contaminated – by the society they had spurned, and Rais DeGaun – the Families self-appointed father – had only reached his pinnacle of power by out corrupting the corrupt.

Of this the man was aware and, though many would feel a twinge of guilt at many of the things he had done, Rais felt nothing but a dull longing for more. More of what he didn’t really know, more power surely, more wealth most definitely; but when he thought the word “more” there was something else that moved near the edge of his mind.

He heard movement behind him and turned his attention to Tarquin’s reflection in the window before him. Its ghostly image moving to the centre of the room and waiting, through it Rais’s city rolled out into the distance, following the uneven curve of the grey sea to Rais’s left.

It seemed that nearly all of Pergamos was beachfront. The low, dwarf like buildings spreading out across the land like a growth, each sore separated from its neighbour by a plot of land that, in some cases, attempted to be gardens; but mostly just managed overgrown wastelands.

“What do you want Tarquin?” Rais finally groaned to the waiting figure.

“The ship sir, the DuLac ship, is approaching.” The boy replied in his irritatingly even tone. “Though it isn’t as alone as our contact had suggested.”

Rais turned and walked casually around the narrow path that surrounded the sunken area in the room’s centre in which Tarquin stood. Rais’s seat sat up on this platform, a low curve of desk either side of it that was cluttered with the gadgetry that the DeGaun naturally loved.

“Meaning?” Rais said as he sat, activating the huge holographic monitor high on the wall over the room’s sunken doorway.

“The other ship appears to be a Marshall Cruiser.” The slight timbre of irritation in Tarquin’s voice would normally entice a smile from Rais, but not today.

“Surely the DuLac’s would not attempt to use the Inner Core patrols against us?” The idea was incredulous. “The other families would not stand for that, not even against us. When they contact the Docks for an entry lane and harbour have them allocated one of mine. The Grand Palace Harbour would do admirably, and let us afford them every pomp and ceremony, let’s make this the Royal visit we know it to be.”

“Are we certain that is wise Honour? Would they not know then that we have a contact within their council?” Tarquin’s even tone had returned fully, making this a statement rather than the question it pretended to be.

“They will know this soon enough Tarquin.” Rais replied evenly. “Besides, everyone has spies in everyone’s court now… Now get on with it.”

As Tarquin mercifully disappeared down the short stairwell that leads through the control centre downstairs Rais turned the Holographic Monitor to the Shipping Overview Satellite Network.

There was nothing he couldn’t view on this monitor, it would have been as easy to turn to a monitor showing Tarquin’s heart rate and voice stress analysis, Rais’s mastery of his planet was complete.

It took Rais less than a moment to find the tiny speck that was the DuLac ship, and it was being accompanied by another vessel, one bearing the unmistakable insignia of the Colonial Marshall.

That was the real danger.

Nenive DuLac was nothing for the DeGaun to trouble themselves over; her family was fragmented, almost non-existent since the death of her mother and baby brother. The true strength of the family existed in Ballin of the Two Swords, but his exile had succeeded in doing nothing but ripping the fangs from a family that was once a beast.

There was no danger there; the DuLac’s were domesticated now.

The entrance of the Colonial Marshall’s did worry him however, it signalled that perhaps the Inner Core were becoming aware of his presence within their midst, and that would signal doom for his plans. Without their unwitting compliance it would take the DeGaun a great deal longer to achieve their aim.

The Star Dancer groaned as it entered the planet’s atmosphere, metal creaking like the stairs of an old building, the clouds beneath it closing rapidly.

They look like the cotton you would take from a festered wound, I caught myself thinking and I moved my attention back to the bank of controls before me. Piloting a ship became second nature so quickly, even after such a long spell planet-side away from such technology, that once I got behind the console I no longer had to consciously think about any of it; my hands seemed to know how to solve complex equations without the need of my mind.

Comforting thought, I thought, even if I had a major trauma to the head I could still pilot, I simply wouldn’t want to go anywhere.

“Patching the co-ordinates through to navigation.” Sir Tem spoke quietly.

My left hand reached over and instructed the computer to extrapolate the entry data for that co-ordinate. Immediately I saw the graphical representation of the route and angle I needed to take pop up on the screen in front of me. I settled back into my seat and eased the controls into the required descent.

The computer could do it all of course, in real terms a pilot was no longer needed, the computer could plot the course, pilot it and land without human assistance. However what would it say of us if we allowed it to? It was essential to pull ones weight in the universe: Honour demanded it.

Once the clouds cleared I was dismayed to find the cityscape under us to be the very wound the cotton was covering. No attempt had been taken to conserve space, the land had been eaten into, there was vegetation, but it was the sickly yellow of dead things. As we descended the picture became clearer, and I fought the desire to close my eyes against it.

The port allocated to us was situated over the edge of the ocean, suspended over it on a pier. It was a private port, just to its south was another pier that harboured a collection of sea faring vessels, and to the east were three huge constructions that looked something like museums or temples of some description.

As the Star Dancer settled on the platform I saw figures approaching from the covered walkway that led in the direction of the trio of buildings, a dozen people, most dressed in ceremonial garb.

“That’s a Royal Welcome.” Tem spoke once more.

“How would they know?”

“Nothing is secret anymore Highness.”

The Star Dancer’s main drive dropped to a hum, and then shut off entirely. For a moment I watched as the figures approached, pondering the new development. We had not stopped anywhere on route so the only place the information could have leaked was the very Council meeting in which the decision was made. Suddenly I was very pleased that we’d encountered the Marshall’s ship, even those with the reputation of the DeGaun’s would not attempt anything too drastic with representatives of the Colonial Marshall’s near.

“Let us meet with our host’s then.” I sighed, and readied myself.

The thin flexible body armour that I wore beneath my outer clothing would afford me much protection and to this I added two items; the inside of my left thigh was home to a small personal shield while on my right was strapped the small blade that Maerlyn had given my before my time planet side. It was carved like the root of a tree with many gems encrusted into its guard and, though it had never been sharpened, it could easily cut through quite thick metal with little effort from me.

“Are we to accompany you Highness?”

Sir Tem paused at the airlock as he asked, Maerlyn moving past him without a word and pressing the stud to cycle the lock to the outside.

I smiled and nodded toward the small, oddly young, old man.

“I believe your question has been answered Sir Tem.”

Moments later the outside lock opened and we instantly realised we were on an industrialised world when the smell assaulted us.

Some distance away the Marshall’s ship had already settled, its ramp lowered and a small collection of people at its base. I waved and one of them waved back, I have no idea who, then – taking it as a signal – the group collected themselves and moved towards us.

“They hold the aura of heroes don’t they?”

Maerlyn looked past me, watching the Marshall’s approach for a long moment before he spoke again.

“There was a time once when such as they held much power and respect amongst all people.” He continued with the same far off tone. “Now all they symbolize are the corruptions and decadences off the inner core.”

I waited patiently, Maerlyn’s tangents of thinking rarely made complete sense, but they never lacked any sense.

“It could be said…” He paused and a slow smile pulled at his lips. “It could be said that the true measure of a hero is their ability and desire to strive against their own shortcomings, or the shortcomings forced upon them.”

“And what of villains Maerlyn?” I asked.

The old man laughed, sounding something like a new born hunting hound with a trio of high pitched barks.

“I speak but words Nenive; one should never give too much weight to mere words.”

“Highness.” Tem spoke in a whisper, and I looked up just in time.

Our welcoming party was upon us.

“Welcome Mistress DuLac.” The lead called while still many paces from our position, he pressed his fingertips to his chest. “I am Chancellor Delaborne of the Pergamos Council and I have been entrusted with the honour of being your guide to our world.”

“I am Nenive DuLac, born high of the DuLac, and I find myself honoured by the fine attention of your council Chancellor.” I replied to him coolly. “This s Sir Tem and this is Maer DeGall, my travelling companions. I trust our unheralded arrival does not displease?”

“Certainly not Mistress.” The Chancellor led me forward, four ceremonial guards flanking us as the remainder of the reception headed toward the Marshall’s.

“Father Rais is awaiting your council Mistress” He concluded and our group were led towards the large buildings in the near distance, my new entourage lending me the feeling of captivity rather than protection.

Suddenly I was not so certain of the Marshall’s influence over this rogue house of Pergamos and then I caught something so unexpected from the corner of my eye I almost stumbled to a halt.

Maerlyn was grinning with maniacal intensity, the kind of startling madness that often comes with sudden pleasant surprise.

This, I realised, scared me more than anything.

Maerlyn often knew what shouldn’t be known, and often it was knowledge that would bring nightmares to weaker minds.

Minds like mine, I feared.

Ballin levered the steel further back with the edge of his glaive and, this time, found that his fingers could maintain their purchase on the slippery metal. One more sustained and careful tug pulled the casing free and the knight peered inside.

The steel cables that ran the length of the hanger’s transparent floor could all be traced, most indirectly, to this point. The many threads of steel winding into cables that grew thicker as they approached this wide threaded band of metal that had been hidden by the panel. Ballin studied it carefully. A motorized bolt would tighten and pull the band, which would tighten the cables and open the shutters below his feel.

The simplest of contraptions that, without power to turn the thread, meant that Ballin would have to spend much time turning it by hand.

Reluctantly Ballin had to admit this was an impasse. The cables had been already tightened to the point of breaking and Ballin could do little to budge them further, even if he had the time to do so, and without more light it was difficult to examine the crafts that were stored in the chamber; much less make any of them operable.

Heavily he sat on the smooth transparent floor, his back against the wall beside the torn panel, and surveyed the patches of darkness between the misshapen vehicular hulks around him.

Beside him lay his swords; actually one was a glaive of modern use and the other was what old-timers called a sword. It was a twisted, grown, thing that held its own beauty: and though Ballin never used it the sword always hung across his back with its sister blade.

It was hard to know why he carried it, why after many years of travelling he hadn’t pitched into some forgotten corner of the universe and forgotten about it, Ballin supposed that some of the reason was that he felt he deserved to own the sword, and the calamity that fate said it would bring.

Many years had passed, but the memory of the day could not. The orbiting palace of the DuLac had not been an abandoned thing then, it had been their home and Ballin had, as the head of the guard, secured it against all trespassers.

That was, of course, not the truth; he had merely believed it to be the truth.

The Crystal Castle – as many had unofficially called it – had been infiltrated.

The question that haunted Ballin was, by whom?

There was nothing out of ordinary on that day, nothing that would signal the later day’s tragedy. Ballin had waked, exercised, trained and allotted the day’s activities to his men; then he had busied himself checking the Palaces defences. All this while somewhere within the millions of tons of steel and transparent metal scurried the traitor that would change Ballin’s and Nenive’s lives forever.

The fire had been the first anyone had known.

A fire in space is perhaps the ultimate terror, like some malicious living thing it would eat its way through the construction, packing the inhabitants into smaller and smaller spaces as it deprived them of air they needed to survive. Once cut off from the escape capsules there was nothing the victims could do but slowly cook, lungs burned faces flayed by heat, and no way to save themselves.

Ballin carried the image of his mother as she bolted through the corridors, his brother in her arms, as the fire hunted her like a predator. She would not be screaming, Ballin knew, her terror could be complete – probably was complete – but she would not scream; instead she moved further from the flames and waited for her rescue. He knew that she would be certain of this; that Ballin would at any moment rush through the very flames themselves to her aide.

But this didn’t happen.

The Lady Queen DuLac, Ballin’s brother Ballan in her arms, stood the heat until her very clothes began to spontaneously ignite, until – Ballin was sure – the flames began to lick at her skin like the beast it was. Then she would have pulled the lever on the door she huddled against and the emergency airlock spat her out into space, extinguishing the flame and granting her a quicker, though not entirely painless death.

The bodies were never retrieved.

The traitor himself was cornered; he had secured a small craft down in the access corridors to the thermal reactor under the main section of the Palace. A hole had been roughly hewn for the crafts launch, a shield protecting the hulls integrity covering it. This had been the fools’ mistake, the thermal reactor over head acted like a remote power point, recharging the shield spontaneously. Ballin had found the man frantically trying to disable the shield long enough to escape, only to have the ambient power in the corridor causing the shield to power up once more.

He had begged, swore allegiance, repented and renounced what evil he had done; but Ballin had none of it, when the other Royal Guards had arrived Ballin was already elbow deep in the traitors blood, and the screams were still echoing around the lower depths of the Palace.

The real perpetrator could not be found now, the DuLac’s only link now gone.

Ballin was a member of the Royal House, but – as the rule of the Royal Guard dictated – his family had become second to his duty, and Ballin had brought dishonour on his duty.

No more than half a day later he found himself at the centre of the conference chamber, his fate being decided.

Providence provides, the old saying goes, and this day it did.

The Sword arrived in the hands of a maiden requesting a knight to aide her on a quest, and the Council saw this as the hand of Fate making their decision for them.

Banishment as an Errant Knight would save all it seemed.

Ballin had left with the woman and that adventure had been the first of many.

Adventure that would not end in this sorry place, Ballin thought as he looked around the darkened hanger decorated with ship carcasses.

He stood, resheathing his swords across his back.

Across the expanse of hanger the sliver of light from a door presented itself and Ballin made for it, there was much more in this place to be discovered before Ballin DuLac of the Two Swords could rest.

I saw Nenive’s look of horror from the corner of my eye but still could not suppress the maniacal grin that had settled across my face. Suddenly I had remembered Rais DeGaun and the sudden inspirational flash had reminded me of the other player in our opera that we had not yet encountered.

Pelleas was his name and he was – will be – the most interesting of men. Not that he was a man yet, little more than a child really, but still… I would re-meet him soon… Or perhaps a little later… It would not be too long.

The entourage led our group into a large oddly pyramid like building through high triangular doors. Inside rows of low wooden pews hooked round the centre of the huge room in semicircles. The place was an obvious temple made almost solely of stone and wood, with the only metal being an elevator cylinder that led from the middle of the chamber through the ceiling high above.

It was to this that we were led.

Nenive strolled with seeming confidence a little ahead of me though I could almost feel the waves of nervousness emanating from under her skin. Sir Tem dropped behind a small distance and without looking I could tell he was sizing up the surroundings in case a quick exit was in order.

The elevator doors opened and we stepped into the circle of steel.

Moments later we arrived on the floor high above the temple, a circular room of monitors and computer terminals that swept around in almost a complete circle around the elevator shaft. The only gap was a corridor down which we were led; the group of Colonial Marshall’s the shortest distance behind.

The end of this corridor we came to a stop in a much smaller room, another circle – this time of couches upholstered in deep red leather – and a grandiose door set in a surround of heavy wood flecked with shards of silver and gold.

Rais was a posturing lunatic of a man, but he had taste.

“If you would wait one moment Mistress DuLac”, Chancellor Delaborne simpered, “I shall inform Father Rais of your arrival.”

The door opened for him and shut behind him like a cheap illusionists trick.

Tristram brushed past Sir Tem and me.

“Lady DuLac.” Nenive turned to him as he spoke. “I should ask to be at your side when you speak with him. These are people that do not hold much faith in truth, holding council with those of us who have had dealings with them may be wise.”

“Indeed it may Highness.” I added quickly, as the door to the inner chambers reopened and the Chancellor returned.

“Father Rais DeGaun will see you now Mistress.”

Slowly the group filed in before me.

I saw the room before my eyes beheld it, it was high domed and elliptical – like an egg bisected long ways – and at one end held a huge monitor screen and at the other the rooms only chair.

I looked above the door as I entered, seeing the huge screen I had seen in my minds eye. Either side of it, hugging the curved windows in the curved walls, was a high walkway that travelled the circumference of the chamber. Sitting on it at the far end was the throne, Rais DeGaun sitting in it in a careful posture of nonchalance.

“Mistress DuLac, I find myself pleasantly surprised by this visit.” His voice boomed through the chamber. “Would it be that I could help you, and I shall as far as our Law should allow.”

“I need but very little Master DeGaun.” Nenive voice was smaller, but no less commanding for its size. “I merely require your assistance in finding my brother, who has been missing many long months. I would request your kind permission to search the planets in this system for any sign.”

Rais sighed melodramatically, his hands raised in a gesture of magnanimous supplication.

“I’m afraid such a thing is not possible Mistress, we are bound by our codes as are you. It is forbidden for any not of our family to travel in the mists of the Cluster, and so if your brother has done so aiding him would be treason.”

“Treason to the Family DeGaun or not, I intend to find my brother Master DeGaun, very little matters to me more.”

“Such words are treasonous; you are a guest on my home world Mistress, please endeavour to act as such.” His voice deepened, his façade of high-minded generosity falling for a moment. He paused, and a smile split his duplicitous face. “Your harsh words are no doubt driven by your fear for you siblings safety, and as such are forgiven.”

“My words are my bond,” Nenive replied evenly, “be they harsh or tender.”

“Do you mean that you would willingly transgress our laws?”

“I mean I would shatter them to shards rather than betray my brother’s safety.”

The walkway on which the throne sat was Nenive’s head height, so when Rais rose to his feet it was like being stared down by an angry giant.

“Take care child; I am not a man to bait with such foolish remarks.”

“Neither is she a child DeGaun, take heed.” Sir Tem bellowed.

Rais DeGaun bared his teeth in an unconscious show of hatred.

“Master Rais DeGaun,” a new voice spoke up; it was Tristram, he moved forward, drawing DeGaun’s attention from Sir Tem, “I beg your clemency for my insolence, but I – Tristram of the Colonial Marshall’s – am in dire need of your council.”

For a long moment there was silence, the room half an instant away from anarchy, and then Rais slowly sank back into his seat.

“Please Tristram,” an altogether unpleasant smile covered his face, “of the Colonial Marshall’s, continue.”

“It has come to the border crossing of the Inner Core that ships registered to the DeGaun Family has been entering the Core without proper documentation. I have been sent with a detailed synopsis of the accounts for your inspection.” It seemed the documentation appeared in his hands from the very air. “We trust that such a distinguished Family as the DeGaun would wish to know that they have transgressors within their fleet.”

“Indeed we would young sir,” Rais leaned low to take the papers, but not low enough so that Tristram would not have to struggle to pass it to him. “Indeed we would.”

I had seen this man many times before in my minds eye, in dreams and visions both I had learned the man he was… And would soon be…

He did not even look at the documents, his eyes remained on Nenive.

“I shall see to it that these are dealt with…”

But before he could continue we were interrupted as the large doors behind us crashed open.

“Master Rais… Father, please…”

Without a thought to us the newcomer pushed each of us aside as he passed, then threw himself to the floor before the throne.

“It tumbles through the skies toward us,” the man’s voice wavered on the edge of panic, “it is sure to crush the temple to dust…”

Ballin’s hand tightened around the hilt of his glaive, his back to the wall, as he strained to hear the noise again. He fought to control his breathing, concentrating on it as he had learned, it shallowed, quietened; and he heard it again.

The patter of feet, the scratching of nails on the metal of the floor; the sound paused, then continued in the opposite direction, like a sentry doing his rounds.

Ballin waited until he gauged who ever it was would be looking away from his position and peered around the corner.

Somewhere a power unit was still functioning, and some of the emergency lighting had not burned itself out with long misuse so – for a moment – Ballin could not make sense of what his eyes were seeing.

It moved on all fours like a Bioka from his home planet, but it looked like a deformed beast that was a long lost cousin to man. Its back was broad, easily twice any of the largest men Ballin had ever seen, and its arms were the size of Ballin’s legs, the whole creature covered in a thick, long fur the colour of charcoal dust.

As he watched it turned and walked back the other way past a sealed door that was painted black with a wide band of red across its middle. Back and forth the creature walked and Ballin realised that his previous impression was correct, whatever it was it was a sentry of sorts, so whatever was behind that door was something Ballin wished to see.

He stepped out into the middle of the corridor and – glaive grasped firmly in both hands – moved toward the beast.

Immediately it stopped and turned toward him and Ballin had the impression that the creature knew he was there all along. It turned to face him and its bulk filled the entire corridor and Ballin had an image of the beast dead, blocking the corridor completely against him.

“Come then creature,” Ballin said quietly, “taste my steel.”

As if it understood the creature bounded forward.

Ballin’s glaive flashed in the red light of the emergency lighting, the beasts’ claws moving with equal speed. It parried like a master swordsman, bellowing within the confinement with such ferocity that Ballin’s ears began to ring with the sound.

He draw backward, leading the beast away from the door and towards the direction of the hanger. If Ballin could lead it into the larger space then it was possible to attack it from the side or back, away from the fast, powerful defence of its front legs. The claws struck out, and Ballin drop to a crouch, the shards of death scooping up the air above his head. The glaive flew after the powerful claw and Ballin was the first to draw blood.

The beast howled and for a shocking moment Ballin thought he was going to freeze on the spot.

It was as if the creature had spoken.

As if it had bellowed “no”.

He recovered, raising the weapon to ward off a strike from the bloodied forearm of the beast, and again the blade struck deep; the second wound near parallel to the first.

Again the howl sounded like an outraged voice, but this time the beast threw itself forward, slamming into Ballin. He was driven to the cold steel of the floor and for a moment he could feel the rumbling of the generators deep inside the complex before the beast stepped forward again and it felt like an earthquake.

Ballin tried to get to his feet, but the creatures paw came down on the side of his glaive, pinning it to the ground. Ballin let it go, and rolled backward, turned and ran for the opening to the hanger, the beast snapping at his heels. Unconsciously his hand went to his remaining weapon, the twisted hilt of the sword he never used, the weapon passed onto him from a long ago adventure, and he drew it.

He broke out into the huge hanger and stumbled instantly to a halt.

In the near darkness around him, hovering in the darkness like will-o’-the-wisps, were uncountable sets of red rimmed eyes; the eyes of the other beasts that Ballin now understood were protectors to the ancient complex.

Ballin held his equally ancient weapon out, steadying himself for the onslaught that would soon come; the one that he knew would end his life. Behind him the creature he had wounded growled, its hot breath bathing the back of his neck.

The Errant Knight turned to face the attacker, the beast no more than two paces away, and held the sword to parry its assault.

“So,” Ballin breathed between his gasps for air, “it is you to die first.”

The beast lowered its huge head, its long broad snout an explosion of toothy shards and its eyes centred on Ballin’s weapon. Its eyes half closed and then…

It frowned a very human frown.

“What?” Ballin knew suddenly that the beast had spoken earlier; it had not been a trick of acoustics as he had believed.

The beast grunted, a sharp short noise, and the hovering lights of the beasts’ eyes around him seemed to extinguish one by one like candles in a breeze, until only the wounded beast remained.

The Knight lowered the sword, and the beast dropped to the floor, lying on its belly on the cool steel.

It was the sword, it had seen the sword and it had reacted to it; it knew it, remembered it from sometime long before. Ballin knew this without any doubt. He did not know how he knew it, but he did.

Ballin moved slowly in a circle around the beast, making his way back to the door that led back into the depths of the complex. The beast raised its head and watched him carefully, thoughtfully, then turned its attention to the two wounds Ballin had inflicted on its front leg.

It seemed to Ballin that the wounds were not as severe as they had been moments before, and as the beast lapped at the double lines of blood they shrank as he watched. Seconds later they were gone and the creature looked up at him with a direct gaze that seemed to say; “See, you were never a real threat.”

Ballin believed it; he turned and made his way back down to the door that had interested him, retrieving his glaive – thankfully unbroken – as he passed.

Now that he could examine the door properly it was obvious that it led somewhere special. The corridor to it was probably twice his height and three times as wide, and it broadened out three times more at the end where the door stood. Beside it was a simple pressure pad, Ballin pressed his palm against it and nothing happened, he waited then raised his hand to do it again…

Before he could the pad lit up a pale green, pulsed twice and then went blank.

Bolts could be heard drawing back with long unused shrieks and the door opened a crack, the air inside popping with contact with the outside.

It opened like a star, or a flower, each petal folding away into a pocket flush against the short cylindrical corridor on the other side of the door.

He stepped through and inside the lights – sensitive to his presence – began to glow brighter, illuminating the double curves of computer terminals that hooked around to meet either side of a tunnel of darkness the far right of the large room. The tunnel reached two thirds of the way to the ceiling fifty feet above and was as wide.

Ballin had never seen the like of this.

At first it seemed like the entrance to a mine, thin tracks led from the door he had walked through – and a similar door opposite – down the blackened tunnel, but closer examination disputed this. It was too clean, and there was too much instrumentation evident for it to be something so basic. The curves of terminals resembled those of a large star ships navigation consoles, complex three dimensional star charts dominated the monitors and two small holo-chambers stood in two corners of the room.

Directly opposite the opening to the tunnel was another, smaller, set of computer terminals. Behind this terminal was a display case that slanted down from the wall at a fifty degree angle, various empty slots – presumably where weapons once were stored – littered the grey steel.

A bizarre thing to have in a bizarre room, Ballin thought, no doubt it was emergency weapons in case of some mischief…

That didn’t make sense, and Ballin knew at as the thought entered his head.

He turned and moved closer to the display rack.

There were six pockets on the angled steel, two medallion shaped, two for short swords or daggers and the final two for long swords. As he got closer he saw a seventh spot just beneath the display stand, an indentation in the floor that would suggest there was supposed to be a pot of some kind resting there.

Even though he had been looking directly at it, the obvious had not struck him until he was about to turn away and examine the tunnel itself in more depth.

He stopped, turned and moved closer to the display stand.

The one sword pocket looked too familiar.

Ballin drew his ancient sword, the sword that the woman had called the Unhappy Sword, the Cursed One, and held it over the empty pocket.

It was no wonder the creatures outside had recognised this weapon, after so many years it had come back home.

The Unhappy Sword slid into the pocket that was surely designed for it, the only section not fitting its form perfectly being an indentation for his hand on the hilt.

With a click it nestled home and Ballin withdrew his hand, immediately he heard a change in the acoustics of the room; as if suddenly it was much bigger his every movement a shuffling echo.

The Unhappy Sword gleamed in the light, the twisted living thing that decorated the hilt looking more alive than ever; as if any moment it would uncurl and leap at him. The swords surroundings glowed the same green as the palm pad that opened the door. Around each of the unoccupied pockets a much duller green emanated as they awaited their own keys.

That was it, it was no mere sword; it was a key of sorts, a key to activate…

Ballin turned and stared down the once black tunnel opposite the intricate lock that controlled it.

The tunnel glowed in circles of blue that diminished down its length, it was hypnotic and Ballin found his feet carrying him forward.

Then the shockwave hit.

Ballin was flung to the floor, the tunnel glowed brighter and the hum of the far off generators grew. Ballin fancied he could hear the creatures outside howling their disapproval but it was unlikely to be true, he knew, as he could hear nothing over the sound of the machine itself.

Other sounds assaulted him, sounds unreal that seemed to fade in and out from the master sound of the machine; half words in languages he couldn’t understand.

Then the ground leaped from under him again and he went sprawling.

What have I done? He wondered as he battled his way back to the Unhappy Sword in its cradle.

“Master Rais… Father, please…”

Without a thought to us the newcomer pushed each of us aside as he passed, then threw himself to the floor before the throne.

“It tumbles through the skies toward us,” the man’s voice wavered on the edge of panic, “it is sure to crush the temple to dust…”

“Be quiet fool.” Rais boomed. “Speak coherently.”

The man continued to rant, but nothing intelligible came from his lips.

Rais rose to his feet, a look of rage filling his face looking as though he would devour the man alive…

And then, through the large windows that surrounded his throne room he saw it.

Through the septic clouds a fireball raged, tumbling toward the ocean with terrifying speed. The sky seemed to shrink away from it, its heat burning it away perhaps.

Everyone watched without a sound, without a movement, it was impossible to believe this was happening, here, now, without any preamble or precognition.

Seconds later the burning thing collided with the ocean, its trajectory shallow enough so it skipped across it like an impossibly large stone; sending up waves that would wash away all that were viewing it with ease. The thing bounced and skipped and already the first huge waves were slamming against the temple, an onslaught of water that everyone knew would rip the building apart.

“We should not be here.” Maerlyn mumbled to himself, and Tristram half turned towards him, but it was Nenive who voiced what he was thinking.

“What?” She blurted, her colour was high and she was out of breath.

Maerlyn thought she’d never looked so beautiful.

“We should not be here,” he smiled at her as he spoke, “we should already be dead. There are forces at work here Princess.”

The ground shook and Nenive almost fell.

Outside the thing had reached the shore, a curtain of sand and sea water flying out before it as it came to a rest. It rolled almost to the point of tipping, then rolled back and settled.

No one wanted to move, and when someone finally did it was with exaggerated care; as if they believe any sudden movement would set the thing rolling once more.

It took less than a minute for the throne room to empty and for the inhabitants to force open the temple doors. Sand weighed down against them and it took the combined strength of everyone to shift it. Outside everything was covered in a thick layer of sand and sediment from the ocean floor and even Rais DeGaun was temporarily shocked into silence at what they saw.

What had tumbled from space was not a meteor, nor was it some piece of space debris or a broken down satellite.

The creature’s ancestors once had wings that could hold flight between the furthest poles of a planet, but now it was so very different. The wings were burned now, the fine tenebrous sails melted away by the entry of the planets atmosphere, but once they would have caught the solar winds and carried the impossibly large beast between the stars themselves.

It’s tail uncoiled from its blackened bulk, thrashing in its agony, the gigantic tendril slamming into the water hard enough for it to rain down on the onlookers a hundred and fifty yards away.

Everyone moved forward as one, an unspoken desire to remain together as if it would do any good if this impossibly large creature should awake and deem to do them harm. No one though this though, curiosity and amazement had driven any thought of danger from their minds.

This was a Paean Rahab, an enormous space going serpent that the old spacers called an Old Man of the Stars. It was a creature of legend, an impossibility that mothers told to children at bedtime, not something that people saw in daylight with their own eyes.

The tail uncoiled more from its entwined position as the creatures body relaxed, its bulk flattening against the seashore.

Without warning Nenive bolted, running for the creature with all she was worth.

Tristram screamed at her to stop, Sir Tem – without a word – sprinted after her as everyone else looked on in confusion.

All except Maerlyn, he had seen what the young Princess had seen; as the Paean Rahab unwound it revealed the glistening of a star ship caught in its grip, a star ship with flattened spheres for engines and a roughly triangular shape.

Nenive slid as she leaped on the lower folds of the creature’s body, falling in a heap on the warm flesh; she scrambled over one stunted leg and heaved her way up the burned flesh. Some of its skin had been flayed away by the heat, leaving behind a weeping raw wound that Nenive avoided the best she could. She was not afraid of the ravaged flesh, but she was afraid of hurting the creature any more than it already was.

She could still feel the pulse of the creatures life under her grasping hands, a strong thump of its heart somewhere deep in its huge body.

She fought her way to the airlock in the ships side and tapped in the code to cycle it, half a second later it opened and she disappeared inside.

Maerlyn leaned heavily on his staff, staring into the carved dragon that made up its crest. Paean Rahab had brought Ballin back safe, the old man didn’t need to see the Errant Knight to know this, he could feel Nenive’s joy as she found her brother heaped over the command console on the ships bridge.

The ship slid sideways out of the creatures grasp, its edge hit the sand and left a gouge as its weight forced it clear.

Inside Nenive and Ballin were thrown against the wall, the internal dampeners cushioning the impact enough for them to get away with any serious injuries. The ship rocked back and forth under them as Nenive grasped her unconscious brother tightly against her until the worst abated.

Maerlyn watched as Sir Tem scrambled to get away as the Vanitas slammed into the sand, the creature under it sliding further into the sea. The old man moved forward, straining to see around the silver ship that sat incongruously on the beach, as behind it the Paean Rahab slid itself back into the sea.

It was badly injured, perhaps even dying, but – for now – it was still alive.

A few hours from now, no more than a day, and all evidence that the creature was here would be washed away. The Paean Rahab had delivered Ballin back to his sister, it had controlled the descent into the planets atmosphere and had protected Ballin’s landing with its own body and now it would nurse its wounds in the depths of the Pergamos ocean.

As the sun set Rais sat in his throne room with his eyes firmly fixed on the stretch of sand where the monster had come to rest. The silver ship had gone along with its troublesome passengers, taking the DuLac girl and the Marshall’s with it.

They were all gone and good riddance to them all.

Rais could not rest.

Not while something lurked somewhere in the ocean that covered a third of his planet. Not while that DuLac girl had the temerity to disregard his word, his law, on his own world. Not while Colonial Marshall’s threatened to close down his operations in the Galactic Core; and not while his neat plans were so easily complicated by a small group of foolish weaklings.

If the plans failed then he would not be held responsible.

They would know.

DeGaun knew that… They… would know.

They seemed to know everything.

We know everything, Rais almost screamed as the words slipped through his mind, a wormlike thing that slithered and pulsed between his ears.

We listen to it all Rais; we see you are incapable of completing the arrangement. We see you may have to be replaced.

“No.” Rais moaned, his breath caught in his throat and his legs trembled beneath him. “No, I… I can complete the arrangement.”

You can? You can! Of course, we know you have no wish to fail us Rais. We know your love for us is complete. Is it not?

“I love you.” Rais’ legs quivered then slid out from under him, he landed in a heap at the foot of the throne.

You do?

“Yes. I do.”

But… How do we know? It is so troublesome to know who are true to us.

“But I do.” Rais could hear the tone of his voice dripping subservience and he hated it, but it was true. He was their servant, and he loved his masters.

“I do,” he repeated, “I love my masters.”

We think… A test, a small test of your true feelings for us.

“Yes that would be perfect; a Test, thank you.”

The beast that brought the Knight…

“The Paean Rahab?”

The Paean Rahab, we wish for you to find it, and to keep it… for our arrival.

“Arrival?” Rais heart thumped in his chest and for a moment he thought it would stop. “You’re coming here?”

Oh yes we are; and we so dearly miss the taste of flesh, but you – our love – will provide, won’t you? We will feast on the flesh of the Paean Rahab, the Old Man of the Stars, and then we will set about with our business.

“I… I…” Rais’ mind reeled.

Has our plaything been arranged as of yet? Please tell us it has, we grow so weary and bored without it.

“Yes.” Rais nearly howled, thanking his maker he could give them something positive. “Yes, he is almost ready. He will be magnificent.”

We trust he will Rais DeGaun, our love; we trust he will.

The cluster grew – one insubstantial tail of dust wrapping in a cloak around the nearby star, stripping it of Hydrogen atoms to fuel its continual expansion. Internal reactions burned the sun-fed fuel, creating an aura of pale undulating orange around the deeper clusters blue-purple. Amid this mist-like place a trio of metal shards drifted, the suns light glinting off them, creating spots of light in blue-purple tinged darkness.

The shards of metal grew too, as they sped away from the Cluster their details presented themselves. Engines trembled as the space around the star ships warped and twisted as if being stretched by an unseen force; which was the truth. Space was being twisted, warped as the star ships slipped from normal space into their gravity drives.

Within a blink they were gone, leaving The Cluster alone in its own corner of the galaxy, the purple-blue gas cloud hiding its secrets within its hydrogen fed mists.

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