Tricia watched from the doorway as Nancy crossed the small courtyard, and shuddered. Whatever the truth of the story might be, something had definitely happened to change Nancy. The changes might be slight, and indefinable, like the change that had come over her bearing as she had walked away, but to Tricia, who had known her as a sister and as a lover, they stood forth by contrast.

The air held a heaviness, suggestive of ancient and forgotten evils, a half imagined scent of musk or incense that seemed to have clung to Nancy. On the edges of her consciousness, a feeling of recognition fluttered, faint enough to be an unconsciously recorded memory from the recent past, or equally a false memory, fuelled by her present imaginings. She shut the door against the night, and walked away from the place.

The castle had taken on the silence of the midnight hour, and as Tricia hurried through it, her footfalls sounded out, loud and hollow in the empty passages and deserted halls. Everywhere, the night lurked, seeming to drink in all the warmth and the light, pouring in through the windows, and spreading quietly out. The fear of it that Nancy had showed was contagious, making what had otherwise been quite a natural absence of light into something malevolent that had deliberately enveloped the castle, to seep in through unguarded ways, to feast slowly off its helpless prey. It was everywhere, for everywhere, in every hall and passage, there seemed to be windows, and with it, that atmosphere of mindless threat.

She did not actually panic, to physically break and run, but her apprehension speeded her steps, as she hurried to her rooms, where she would find sanctuary, where she could turn and defeat her foolish fears, and once more gain her integrity.

She climbed one last stairway, a stairway spiralling down beyond sight, into the bedrock keel of the castle, and up to a dome where the inky black of the night looked in at her, and leaving that, followed a last deserted corridor to an unmarked door that opened to her touch, then softly snicked shut again behind her. Here was her territory, enough to make her secure from danger, real or imagined, that might currently threaten her.

She retrieved her chair from the bedroom, and drew it to her desk. On the screen, a bridge problem was being displayed, left over from the time before Nancy's sudden arrival. Unsolved as yet, she cleared it to store and typed out the codes for file retrieval, in orange letters against the black.

Her commands brightened once, to show that they had been accepted, and then faded. Gray lettering replaced them, filling the screen, and Tricia began to read it.

And when she had finished the complete text, she blanked out the message. It had frightened her, a cold and intellectual fear. Cold and impersonal, as if some third party were the subject Nancy's confession to the computer was more terrifying than the halting and gasped live version. The haste that had prevented a stylistically perfect sentence structure, leaving what there was in grave danger of breakdown, did not impede the clinical style of delivery, maintained to, and throughout the final list of possible explanations, insanity listed among them.

Nancy had, she realized, been living uncomplaining with something alien wearing away at her mind for — she checked in her memory over the recent rush of events — forty-some hours. Phrased like that, it didn't seem at all long, but with the threat of insanity, or worse, hanging over her, it was a time longer than Tricia would care to bear. Death came close to her on dark cold wings — that was what Nancy faced now. Tricia recoiled in horror from the edge of annihilation, not caring to think long about it, for death was a stranger to her world, a creature of myth, like the gods of old.

She felt her task clear. The time now was 00:51, and Nancy was twenty minutes on the way, and a thousand miles, heading to a rendezvous with what might be her nemesis, to return, if at all, an empty husk, puppeted by something external, alien to her. Mindful of the promise she had made to alert Castle Security a quarter of an hour after Nancy's departure, she switched on the internal phone system and tapped out a number. Singular. The dial code for the Lady Jeanne Marygay of Wolf was .the single digit, 2

A feeling as of stage-fright struck her as she committed herself to the call. That code, although generally known, was not lightly used except by those of the first and second generations. She awaited the reply with mounting anxiety.

While Nancy and Tricia had been leaving Tricia's room, two miles away, the Lady Jeanne was being woken from sleep. She woke quickly, regretting that the time had come now for the final ordeal, that she would not sleep again for a hundred and twenty hours or more. The time was 00:20, and a breakfast rested on the table beside her bed.

She drank deeply of the tea, and took a few mouthfuls of cereal, before discarding it. Gathering a gown about herself, she rose, and strode over to her dresser. Her clothes had been laid out ready for her. Now she must get ready for them.

She stood in front of the mirror, and brushed her long silver hair. Casually observed, she would seem a girl of maybe twenty years, yet her very movements betrayed her age, more than eleven hundred years. Firstborn, she was as old as the castle she defended. She splashed her face with cold water, and dried herself delicately. With her eye on the time, she stood, to sigh and yawn, and stretch, taking this last opportunity for indulgence.

She let her gown fall from her nakedness, and tore a bite of hot buttered toast, now grown cold and greasy, setting the slice down beside her clothes, her full ceremonial regalia as Supreme Military Commander of the Five Castles Combine, one chosen for its firm declaration of intent, from among the other robes of ceremony that were hers by right.

The crisp white shirt was cool against her skin, but she knew from her past experience that it would be grey and sweat-soaked by the time she took it off. Her tie of white silk, she folded one-handed into an impeccable, if ostentatious knot. Trousers and jacket were black, a lightweight cloth designed for throw-away applications as this. She smiled a little at the jacket, encrusted as it was with silver and diamond insignia. At her breast was the wolf's head emblem that signified her clan, and the five-pointed star of the Combine. Two broad bands at cuff and epaulette, and a six-star shoulder-patch marked her rank, without subtlety or guile, as simply above everyone else.

Half past the hour. She gathered up her hair, so that when she put on her cap, it would be held there. The cap matched the emblem on the jacket, its blackness only broken by that, and the silver encrustation of the peak. She examined the result in the mirror. Apart from her bare feet, which would not be relevant, it was a perfect display. She wiped butter and toast crumbs from the corner of her mouth with the hem of her discarded gown, and walked into the next room.

A small studio had been built there, ready for the conversation about to unfold. The serving of the notice of outlawry would be televised around the planet, as it happened, for the vicarious pleasure of the masses.

Two minutes. she was advised as she sat at the desk, ready to take the call. There were papers on the desk, placed there for show, some pens, and a couple of books. She shuffled through the papers, which were mostly blank, to occupy the time.

The phone rang, the fluting tone marking the call as being of external origin.

“Well, girls,” she said to the monitor crew, “this is what we've been waiting for.” Casually, Jeanne accepted the call.

The face that appeared on her screen was vulpine, covered in golden fur, and with dark button eyes set deep in its mask. For the television audience, a subtitle had been superimposed on the screen: The Hon. Erish Kahsarr, Leader of the Council of Wyvern. Jeanne looked up briefly at the monitor to see herself billed simply as Managing Directrix of the Combine.

She knew Kahsarr, and both parties held a mutual dislike, born of divergence of their politics, and derived a wry sense of amusement to know that tonight, he would be bound by convention, the party line and the wording of the Bill not to speak what he truly felt, whereas she would be under no such compulsion.

“Good evening, Councillor,” she greeted him, curtly. He ignored the greeting, and finished tidying a wad of papers on his desk. In anticipation of Jeanne's ostentatious display of rank, he was playing the part of the government official to the hilt, even to wearing an unusually conservative robe. He took his time over tidying the desk, and only when he was finished, did he look at the camera.

“My Lady of Wolf,” he began, bowing his head the minimum that custom demanded. His voice was soft, but arrogant. As Jeanne traded from the power base of her family, so he would, if it became necessary, trade on the position of his species, for he was a Kintor, and his people had been the first race of the Partnership to achieve space flight, nearly two thousand years before.

“You are aware of the business before us now?” he asked.

“Yes. And I should guess from your expression that this is more pleasure for you than business. Hurry up, let's hear it.”

“Very well. First I must inform you of the results of your appeal to the populace. There were, from an electorate of 14,387,244 currently in-system, a total of 3,140,615 affirmations of our position, 1,932,452 calls to reverse, and 2,110,374 votes of concern. You failed by 152,526 votes to gain effective sympathy. The vote was quorate, being in excess of one third of the electorate, and each voting position achieved sufficient support for it to be recorded in the proceedings of the debate.

“To put it simply, my Lady, not enough people care enough for you.”

“That is, not enough to put their well being on the line, in case you won. I can sympathize with that. I wouldn't want to tangle with any of the corporations you're dealing with if I didn't have a Castle.”

“My Lady, that is not germane to the business at hand which is to serve upon you, as a representative of the Combine, a notice of outlawry.”

“I suppose you're right. After all, the corporations were only responsible for the idea in the first place, and buying sufficient support, and intimidating enough of the unwilling. Get on with it.”

“Very well. Here comes the formal bit…” he paused, and took a deep breath, and began.

“My Lady Jeanne Marygay of Wolf, Lady Surveyor of Danestar, Dukin of Kell and Obernal, Baronne of Cormane, and of Tensala, Contine of the Far Isles, Margravin of Angarvale, Marquesa of Haverland, Protector of Enfors and Shayhammer, Mother to the Clan Wolf, Managing Directrix of the Five Councils Combine, Marshal of Combine Security Forces, Mistress of Arts, Mistress of Science, Doctor of Science, Senator-in-Council of Wyvern, I, in my position as Leader of the House of Representatives of the Council of Wyvern, Erish Kahsarr, by the powers vested in me by assent of the Council advise you of our decision.

“We are resolved by fair and open ballot, with votes cast — I shan't bother with detailing them; they are a matter of public record, and you, yourself were there present — with votes cast so as to give a majority assent to these measures, to pronounce outlawry within the jurisdiction of this council for those persons who claim membership or allegiance to the Clan Wolf, the Clan Brady, Clan Connors, the Tegrith Shan, the Tegrith Tsia, and Lyia Min-Koë, and that the possessions and holdings of such persons are made forfeit to the Council.”

“Is that all, Councillor?”

“Officially, yes. Do you have any further statement to make concerning this matter?”

“Only to wonder how you might enforce it. But don't worry, we'll be gone in five days from now.”

“Let me give you a little advice, My Lady — you could, be gone almost within the hour if you apply to the Linkers for asylum. They, I'm sure, will lift you off-world, if you can get to them.”

“Thank you for that advice, but I shall decline the offer. I've run this Castle a thousand years and more, and I shan't abandon it just for the asking. If you intend to enforce that decree, you will have to take us by storm, and I submit that it will go little good to your public image.”

“Action on our part, I fear, will not be necessary. It is now quite legal for the people to take these matters into their own hands. I can not stop them exercising their full legal rights, and I shall not try. If you must flout the popular will in these matters, it is you, and not I, that shall be responsible for the outcome.”

“The popular will — or the will of k'Shamarra and Kingarra and whoever else has been buying it. While we're still on air, I would like to take the opportunity to announce that, pursuant to the conditions laid down in the Commercial Military Organization Manoeuvres Regulations of year 4 after Founding, warning notices and beacons have been placed around our territories, as the next week will be devoted to readiness manoeuvres, seeing as it'll be the last chance we have for some while.”

“And you accuse me of trying to save my image?”

“This is something different. I am continuing to act within the law, taking on voluntarily the burden of responsibility that you have just lifted from me, as a demonstration of our continuing honour and fidelity. One party to this conversation still has some credibility, and wishes to retain it.”

“I think I shall leave that undebated. There is no need to discuss self-evident fact. I hope that that proposition rather than what is the fact, is something we can agree on.”

“As you wish. I feel we have reached a stalemate now, and after all, all the formalities have been concluded.”

“Agreed. Good night, My Lady.”

“Good night, Councillor.”

Jeanne broke the contact first, and wiped her brow. That at least was over, The war had now, begun, and she would be needed on the bridge.

As she stood up to go, the first shots of the war were fired, by a sniper in the nearby hills, who began methodically, to put a bullet into the centre of each lighted window. Armoured glass, they did not break but they did rattle, enough to wake those who slept. They were nuisance value, but signified enough.

The situation remained quiet. As yet, no armed or heavily equipped forces had been brought in, and for the first quarter of an hour of her vigil, Jeanne had nothing to do but listen to status reports that were unanimously ones of top efficiency or readiness.

Then, surprisingly, a phone call came for her from inside the castle.

“Yes?” she asked of the young girl who had called her. The girl bowed her head, and muttered “My Lady…”

“There's no need for formalities. What do you want that's so important?”

“Nancy Elanor, sixth generation, has left the Castle. She wants you to send a couple of squads of guards after her.”

“Does she, now? Why?”

“The details are on file in her personal space under keyword sapphire. She said that something had infiltrated her mind, and was calling her back to the University. If you do send guards, they mustn't use any powered equipment that uses gravitics, otherwise the Linkers would notice, and you must maintain radio silence 'cause of the security patrols. That's how we were fighting this term.”

“Hell and goddamn. This is all we need. Something to make us really popular with the Linkers. OK, I'll send them out, read the file and call them back if I think it's not worth it. You her bedmate, or something?”

“Yes. Tricia Kathrine, fifth.”

“Okay. Come up to the bridge. You'll probably be able to help us in this, second guess what she'd do, right?”

Jeanne cut the call off. The girl was hardly likely not to obey, and before she arrived, it would be better to have read the relevant document.

She ordered two squads of guards to follow Nancy's flight, relaying, the conditions of battle that Tricia had put forwards. It would disappoint these who were looking forwards to using their combat support units for real, but that was tough.

Jeanne waited until finishing Nancy's message before she began swearing, availing herself of the chance to assemble and polish suitable epithets while she was reading. She cursed, in as wide a vocabulary as she had accumulated, in particular, but in no special order teenage girls with a taste for participation melodrama, politicians of each and every flavour, ancient alien artifacts, alliteration, and most especially, her own lack of foresight in not properly debriefing the girls on their return to the Castle. If she had done so, she would at least have found out about the conventions of war that they had used, and possibly detected Nancy's trouble in enough time to get her to the Linkers for a full examination.

She checked the time. 00:59. A few seconds before oh-one hours. It would be a long five days if it kept on going, at this rate.

She thought back. No-one had entered without her noticing, so where, had Tricia gotten to? Even from the edge of the castle, the transit ways took less than five minutes to get to the bridge. She would allow a few minutes more for climbing the stairs, then find out where she was.

Tricia sat back in her chair as the screen went dark in front of her. Called to the bridge… well if that was what Jeanne wanted her to do, she was no one to dispute her decision. She grabbed a small snack, against what could well be a long night, and changed into a slightly more comfortable outfit, and one that might be seen to be a little more formal.

It was that which delayed her, for as Jeanne was wondering where she had gotten to, she stood at the first security point of the inner sanctum. The great doors opened to her palmprints, without need of any word of command, and she passed into what was, if not the heart and brain of the Castle, something closely akin.

The last doors were before her, and they parted, and she stepped into the main control centre of the castle. Its domed roof was a display system, showing the view, built up from monitors scattered around the castle, which would be that from the bridge, were the castle not there. The rings arched above, notched in the south by the cone of the planet's shadow, and beneath that arch, trees and grass were without colour. Many coloured lights showed in the sky, marking air traffic by range, vector and function. Save for the myriad indicator lights at the control panels, there was no other source of light.

In that night darkness, that quicksilver dusk, there was a feeling of the surreal, at the sight of the women sitting at their posts, waist deep in support machinery, any interface blurred. One of them turned around to face her, and she shrank back from it.

“Oh, it's you,” the woman said. “Find a place and plug yourself in. Genevieve will show you how.”

The perspective changed, and a more normal reality imposed itself, as Tricia stumbled across to an empty post, half way across the smoky dark room. Even so, the sense of presence she had felt as soon as she entered remained. Close at hand, and not just through the intermedium of a telephone screen, the great age of these immortal women hung like a mantle, soft as the dust of ages. Jeanne was eleven hundred and thirty one years old, and Tricia guessed that few, if any, of the other present were less than nine hundred. The picture of Jeanne turning to speak to her seemed burned into her mind, that view of a woman, older than had been claimed for the patriarchs of Israel, yet clad in the flesh of a girl barely adult. It may have been a trick of the uncertain light, or something deliberately encouraged by skilful make-up, but that dread visage seemed to shift, and take on many aspects; an aged crone, more ancient than the stars and worlds of this newborn universe, painted in the semblance of youth, a silver wig on the bare bone, and corpse lights in the empty eye sockets; a proud queen beautiful and terrible, and all of moonlight; a young girl, delighting in a world that was still new to her. She cast the memory from her mind, before the last and most terrible face could appear — her own, as worn by her great great great grandmother.

While she went through the less than comfortable procedure of attaching the support equipment, Tricia reflected that one day, barring accident, she too would attain the state of demi-godhood that her ancestors had now achieved — and still find them as far beyond her as she found them now. She looked up from securing the last set of monitor electrodes, to find on a screen before her, a request for an objective evaluation of Nancy's altered personality profile. Sighing, she began to check off the items on the multiple choice questionnaire, and follow through simulation runs to compare the old and the new.

She failed, however, to guess the phone conversations that Nancy was at that moment making, but that went unnoticed. She did, however, mange to mark out a series of likely approach routes to the museum; time would be their test.

Just over an hour and a half later, at 02:45 castle time, 20:45 local, Nancy saw the first lights of the University ahead and below her. She cut her speed to practically a crawl, only a few tens of miles per hour, and drifted lower. She glanced uneasily up at the sky, checking that the light, but reasonably opaque, overcast was still continuous.

She had flown subsonic as soon as she had achieved cover, so as not to leave a noticeable trace as she flew beneath it and so to leave almost no trail that would reveal her to orbital spy-eyes. It had added a quarter of an hour to her travel time, and the corresponding anxiety, but she was intellectually sure that she was safer for it.

It was beyond the last of twilight, even here, and the only light beneath the cloud was whatever fraction of the ring-glow that seeped through. There was a feeling of strangeness in the light, a call akin to that which rode her now, which woke something that was almost a memory in her, but a memory beyond the reach of recall, and it left an unsatisfied ache.

Chan's house, her immediate destination, was built after the traditional style of his forefathers, a series of single level courts, interlocking squares all of a standard size, and all the doors and windows facing inwards. Each court was given over to one of his wives, and their children, and was thus differently styled. There were lights in many of the windows where life obviously went on undisturbed, end there were no signs of intruders waiting for Nancy's arrival.

Hoping this to be true, Nancy let the car descend gently into Chan's court, her hand ready on the throttle, to lift the car away at the least sign of trouble, even after it had settled almost noiselessly on the central grassy area. She listened, intent for the hurried noises of an ambush being sprung.

There was, however hard she listened, no sound but the wind, and no movement, save that which it woke in the tendrils of the vines that grew around the courtyard. Nancy relaxed, but only slightly. She opened the door, the sound of it almost explosively loud, and waited a while more. Only then did she dismount, gun in hand.

The gravel border crunched underfoot as she crossed it, waking rustling echoes on the edge of hearing while she covered the empty yards to the veranda. Pale flowers, like bells, hung from the serpentine mass of vines that engulfed the wooden beams, but they had no scent. Even when she put her nose close to one there was only the rank smell of vegetation from the mass of the plant.

She climbed the slight step to the wooden platform which was set perhaps nine inches above the ground and the beams boomed under her feet as she trod on them. The door she sought was in one corner of the square to the left of the steps she had taken.

It opened noiselessly as she slid it open on its track. The darkness within was heavy and scented with smoke. To her left, light flowed under one of the doors that opened onto the vestibule. She knocked, and entered.

Chan was sitting at his desk, in one of the far corners of the room. The vast black work surface was comparatively bare — an ornament of crystal and spun metal, a pen holder, with three pens of varied colours, a few papers neatly piled up, and a hunting rifle that looked large and powerful enough to be a cybersoldier's weapon. He made a brief notation on one of the papers before him, and then set the pen down.

In the right hand corner of the room, another sat in front of the redly glowing log fire that occupied the middle of the room. It provided the exotic smoke, and cast a radiant heat that Nancy could feel from the doorway.

This other was, she guessed, the telepath that she had requested. Human, or so he seemed, he was so dark of skin that his black had almost a bluish sheen to it. An open book rested on his lap, and he looked up at her, with an expression of mild interest on his face.

Nancy holstered her weapon, and clipped the holster shut.

Evening, she said, walking over to Chan's desk. She perched herself on the corner of it, moving aside the rifle and ornament.

“The telepath?” she asked, motioning towards the stranger.

“Yah. Nancy, meet Mike Kimberley, — one of my graduate students. You, I suppose, are too notorious to need any introduction. Now, what's all the mystery?”

Nancy outlined the events of the previous forty eight hours, with gaps in the narrative to explain points of procedure and answer questions. Chan was mostly responsible for these, and he concerned himself mainly with the events in the museum.

When she finished, Chan opened one of his desk drawers, and typed a few characters on the keyboard installed there. Across the room, a screen brightened, to show two pictures in split screen.

“Are these the ones?” he asked her. In the left frame was the blivit, unmistakable, in the second, something that agreed in its location code with Nancy's necklet, but which seemed somehow totally dead, even more than it had been when she had fought it and won. The metal was grey as iron, and the gem no more than a piece of bottle glass, worn by the wind and wave.

“They are,” she agreed.

“That's interesting. As you can see, they're from the same planet, a really third rate burn-off called Lincoln. Asaan 'hvors found them on an expedition about two years ago, in what he thinks was a temple site on a world with basically a pre-industrial — let alone pre-starflight culture possibly with some relics of interference by the Q'l-hrui…” Q'l-hrui; the word was Kintor in origin. Literally translated, it meant something like the those who blazed our trail or those whose footsteps we follow ; but colloquially, it was rendered Ancient Gods. The Kintori had given the name to the civilization or civilizations that has risen all over the known galaxy, and probably further thirty two million years before even the Kintori had achieved starflight, a civilization that had fallen in great and incomprehensible wars that had left their scars to that day. Worlds had been burned into cinders, and suns turned nova in that spasm of destruction, from which nothing had seemed to survive save for scattered troves of artifacts, incomprehensible, mostly seeming purposeless, or if they served some useful purpose to work by physical principles yet unknown.

“The star had been novaed, quite spectacularly. The nebula was gone, but from the brightness of the remnant star, and the orbit of the planet, we worked out that it had lost something like fifty percent of its original mass. We found remains of the inhabitants, which made us certain it was a native preflight culture, and they seemed to have been almost human in appearance. He was quite surprised to find the blivit, was Asaan, 'cause he knew that the only other one that had been found was in a derelict from the Q'l-hrui days found in orbit halfway across the Partnership. What he didn't report were any active psychic effects from it, even after examination by Guild psychometrics.

“You, my little lady, seem to have woken something up, and I don't think I really like that idea, knowing what has happened when mysterious Q'l-hrui devices have been woken up.”

“Most of them have proven to be simple hand tools or perhaps small-arms,” Mike entered the conversation for the first time, “but you're talking about what happened on Chisholm, aren't you, Prof?” At Chan's nod of assent, he explained

“Chisholm was — with emphasis on the past tense — an H-type world in the Cygnus-Carina axis, seven, eight thousand lites away from here. A team at the Guild University there managed to activate a dark blue crystalline pyramid — not unlike the material of that gem — that the first wave colonists had unearthed. This was about five hundred years ago, to give it context, and close by the Ggapp Veil — so when the star novaed it nearly started another and more serious war.”

“So you mean we need to be careful before opening another can of worms?” Nancy asked.

“Indeed,” Mike agreed, “and I suppose part of the reason for my presence here is to look inside before we open it.”

“Yes. Could you have a look to see what it is that's gotten into my mind. If you want permission for anything, well, you've got it. Just do what you think — you can't do any worse to me than I'm afraid is already being done.”

“Very well then. Just forget what I'm doing, and relax until I tell you. OK?”


Mike seemed to stare intently into the distance, wrapt as he was in Nancy's thoughts. In her turn, Nancy stared into the fire, watching the pale flames of carbon monoxide, their blue coloured into apricot against the yellow glow of the inner depths, Logs crackled occasionally as they dried and settled slightly in the ashes.

Chan resumed his work, and the minutes passed with only the scratch of his pen, and the noises of the fire, to break the stillness. Occasionally, he rustled papers, as he finished one page of script and began on another. Nancy was lost in a trance that ignored time.

“Nancy?” Mike spoke to break the silence.

Woken from her self-preoccupation, Nancy looked up at him, and asked, “Well?”

“I can read fear, because you're being forced against your will by something you don't really understand, and I can read a sense of incredible age, something like what a psychometric gets when he tries to read Q'l-hrui relics. Those are the loudest thoughts, and they pretty much drown out everything but the geas it put on you. I can't get to grips with it — the style's wrong, different race, different culture or something.

“Apart from that, and personal memories that I'll not discuss,” Nancy blushed, as she reviewed to herself some of what he might mean, “not only that, which you're, thinking, about now, but…, oh back to the point, beside the memories of whatever sort, there seem to be tenuous patterns of some sort of secondary personality, pre-dating this latest set of events, and too weak to really probe. Do you write with your wrong hand?”

“I think I might. I seem to use my left hand a lot for manual work, but I've always used my right hand.”

“That might be the cause, but I'm not sure. I know people who might be interested in it, though. If you want, I'll put you in touch with them when the, uh, present crisis is over.”

“OK, but what can you do?” Nancy felt it was now time to delve to the heart of the matter.

“I'm not sure. I could try to operate on the geas, but I'm really only a telepath on the side. History's my subject and I've not really encountered anything like this before. The trouble is, I can't think of anyone actually on-planet at the moment who's likely to be better placed than I am. I don't suppose you could wait a week until we got someone here.”

“Couldn't you just put up an interstellar Link?”

“Not for delicate work like this. Whatever goes on in a Link is too messy for anything but shouting through, not surgery, I'm afraid. There's your option.”

“I can't wait for help. It's now or never.”

“I shan't do anything, Nancy. I don't dare.”

“Then we can only carry this thing through to the end. I'm going to get that necklet : I can't control it much longer. Come with me, and if…if anything happens to me, do what you have to do, both of you. Are you ready?”

The air in the museum seemed hot and still after the chill of the night air. Nancy fancied that there was almost a taste of menace in its silkiness. The glow of the rings fell in hazy puddles along the gallery, lighting one half to stark still life, and intensifying the ebon obscurity holding the other half.

Close to her objective, the resolution close, Nancy felt her fear break through its suppression, a sickening fear of her own termination or possession, stronger than any emotion she had ever known. She walked on, automatically, enwrapt in her own self, under the glamour that had been lain on her; a passenger in her own skull.

The gem was already woken to glow in the dark, a single speck of blueness in the black, when she first entered within sight of it, before she woke the conjure-sound in her mind. The metal of the key to its case was warm in her hand, its angular shape insistent in her mind, as she struck off the last yards, driven by a force not of her volition.

At last, the waiting was over. Would she but will it, and the final act of this macabre puppet show would commence. She was alone, without any way to delegate that awful responsibility. Chan's form was silhouetted against the light behind her. His gun was trained unwaveringly on her.

The lock was stiff, and shrieked slightly as it turned, and the click of the bolt sounded as a punctuation mark in the silence. She lifted the lid of the display case fractionally from its resting place and paused momentarily. For the second time this night, the occasion for brave words was upon her but she could think of none. Heart pounding with anticipation, she lifted the lid, and took the necklet. It was warm in her hand, and strangely heavy, and strangely natural as she lifted it high above her head, before putting it on.

Warmth suffused her, radiating from the stone at her breast. Its glow had increased as she held it, and now it was almost blinding, lighting, the gallery to ghastly daylight. And in her mind, it was the same. Something exploded behind her consciousness, seeming to pour nova-coloured light through her, before fading to afterimage blue and deep indigos. In the pain and ecstasy of that assault, she could feel uncomfortable things happening to her. Incoherently, inconsistently, she remembered strands of memory, none that she could claim as her own, memories that burned brightly and then were gone beyond her retrieving of them, leaving not even a memory of themselves. In the background, lines of fire, like firework rockets in flight, burning channels into her mind, clearing paths overgrown before and setting patterns new in the fabric of her brain. They exploded, and died, their jobs complete.

Finally, when only an afterglow persisted, she was once again opened to the outside world beyond her skin.

“The attack is dying down now. There are trauma patterns, and a few relict structures without any power to maintain them, but the core of it, the age, is gone, burned out. Whatever had been bound in the gem is dissipated now. She's going to be all right. Her personality may change a little — less than one expects from normal maturation — but it's still her, no discontinuity at all.”

Chan lowered his rifle. Nancy pushed the hair from about her face and mopped the sweat from her brow. She sighed deeply. Weak with reaction, she had no energy for words.

Mike spoke first.

“If that's that, I move we go home — or to a bar. Between alien things, and student politics, this doesn't seem to be a totally salubrious place to spend the night.”

“Seconded. Throw me my guns.”

Nancy caught the gun belt left handed and buckled it around her waist. She turned to lead the way out.

From the outside came a loud, flat report, leaving long rolling, echoes like thunder.

“The car!” Or so Nancy guessed — the explosion had been very near and below them.

“Okay, we know you're in there.” The voice was amplified and greatly distorted, possibly synthesized. “You give up the girl, and we'll let the rest of you go. We just blew up your car, so there's no sense, in trying anything heroic. There's no chance of getting out of there and we can stay here all night.” The voice ceased; all was again still.

“He's bluffing,” decided Chan.

“Not the way you think. He can't wait more than twenty minutes. I asked for a platoon of guards to be sent out after me, and they'll be here by then. Possibly before. I saw them setting out by patching into one of our orbital eyes. I can't see them outside leaving us up here — they'll be hoping we stay put while they send up people. Let's try sneaking away, and see what they do to stop us.”

They had not gone more than ten feet before a single high velocity round slammed against one of the window panes, starring it, and breaking off a cone of scab. A few splinters struck Nancy's face.

“Tsk. Tsk.” the voice reproved, “If you want to get down out of the building, just use the fire escape, and I would thank you to throw your guns out first. You saw what happened to the window. The gun is now on full automatic, in case you were interested. Be sensible about it now.”

“Mike, can you do anything? Reach their minds, put them out of commission while I escape?”

“Don't you think I'm trying that. I'm no Tree-V superman. I don't even know what anyone out there looks like to get hold of. Just wait until something happens out there and then run like hell!”

“I shan't need telling. Adrenaline works wonders, and I've been OD'ing on it all evening.”

Nancy edged slowly along the gallery, searching out the way she would take, walking away from the other two, and then back again, so as not to telegraph her intent. She walked past them, and this time did not stop.

“Girl!” she was warned, “the fire escape, if you please, or we take out your friends.”

Nancy gestured rudely at her unseen watcher, who declined to comment, and returned, slowly, ready to run. She felt a primeval thrill at the idea of the chase, and her skin crawled with excitement.

A burst of fire tore the night, and an agonized scream announced that someone had died in it. Nancy felt that death as if she herself had lived it, the death that might well be hers, later that night. She sprinted away, her body working independently of her mind, her footfalls crisp on the carpeting.

She did not try for the stairs — they were far too obvious a place for there to be no guard to prevent flight. Instead she would seek one of the covered aerial ways to lead her from the museum, and one of the minor stairways would be enough to lead her to an appropriate level. She would not be caught on the route she had used two nights before, with its open crossing of Gallery Bridge. Instead she would strike north, away from there to the more populous regions around the computer labs, and probably on ground level, just to confuse pursuit. A Clan Wolf girl choosing not to go by the rooftops, that was unthinkable.

She crossed the aerial way on all fours, glad that it was not guarded to force her to another route. Now, she would probably need actively to be sought, now she might have gained some measure of initiative.

With nothing much to lose, Nancy located the stairs, and as silently as she might, crept down the levels to the ground, always expecting to see a guard over the bannisters. Guard there was, a heavily armed Hrulgani, sitting with his gun fixed along the bottom-most flight.

Heart pounding, and with trembling hands, she drew back from the penultimate landing, retracing her steps with agonizing slowness, to ensure the most complete silence. Each time one of her joints creaked or popped slightly, she was afraid she would have been heard, but there was never any answering sound of movement, of a gun being grabbed up, or a call to halt.

Three levels up, she dared to sprint, away and up. If the ground was being guarded, then they would force her to the rooftops after all, there to make her escape.

When she had reached halfway up the building, high enough for some transitory measure of safety, she halted, to recover her breath and her composure, and to consider the route her escape would have to take.

Reverse the problem first, she decided. What were the other side doing? Clearly, they didn't have strength to fully and rapidly sweep the building; so how would they have disposed sentinels at choke points? And where were those choke points? Knowing the layout as she did, the question, simply posed, was simple to answer.

In this area, where there were comparatively many small and free-standing buildings, that would be particularly easy. Bottlenecks and walkways, needing at most two to cover would be better than trying to hold a dozen or more corridors.

The main museum was in the middle of three especially isolated buildings, the one she had come to the northern partner, and there was but one walkway across to the rest of the site. The direct way, and all the others such, would certainly be guarded. Anything else would indicate incompetence. But how much would they have done about climbing? And how much time had they had to plan this? Probably no more than she had spent in the museum, as before then they would have had no idea where to set ambush. Someone at a window would be easiest — but on which side of the gap?

To guard both would use an excessive amount of force — with almost a dozen places needing guarding, and probably no more than about thirty matts. There would have to be several awaiting their possible surrender, and more covering them, so that would mean perhaps some places would be guarded both ends. She wished she had asked Mike for some assessment of troop strengths and locations. At least they too would be operating under radio silence to avoid unwelcome attention, so would need to keep runners available for communication; so perhaps the worst she might have to face would be a booby trap — perhaps a mounted gun with a motion sensor laid to cover a corridor, with a live guard disposed, if possible to watch more than one such.

Her only consolation, in the face of an assessment of what she might have organized was that whatever they did would be calculated not to be immediately and permanently lethal; if they had wanted her dead, they could have just fired some high explosives in without the warning. Now her main fear was of running into an unpredicted, unpredictable, mobile party.

She busied her mind with setting hypothetical anti-personnel traps, and then breaking them with what gear she had to hand, and her senses with detecting lurkers in the shadows. By the time she had reached the next walkway, she felt that she was as prepared as she could plausibly be.

There was a dog-leg in the corridor, turning right for a short way before launching out over the empty space. Nancy slid her way along the left hand wall, out of the cone of possible fire along the way. Reaching the corner, she sank slowly to her knees, and checked the floor. It was, as she had hoped, but could not distinctly remember, covered by carpet tiles. One of them thrown into the span would determine if it were safe for her to take a look.

She was trying to peel one up quietly, when on a sudden impulse, she turned to look up, out of the window above her head. There was a brief, bright flare of light, just for an instant as she looked, in one of the offices in the building opposite. By turning her glance to one side, away from the patch of after-image, she spotted a tiny red glow in that same window. Now, despite the early hour of the night, there would be very few people on legitimate business hanging around in an unlit office, standing by the window, and smoking to pass the time.

She crawled back, carefully, quietly, staying out of the spill of light on the carpet from the rings above, until she had reached a better vantage point. Now would come the crucial part, as she attempted to shoot the probable sniper — though a civilian manqué with such poor discipline scarcely merited the title — through a closed window. It had never been done, to the best of her memory, on any of the Tree-V shows she had watched, but so far as the theory went, she couldn't see any objection to the effective use of the stunner, even with something dielectric in the way of the beam — especially if it were on full power. The guy across the way had the window slid open wide, but that, she judged, was as likely to be to give a better cone of fire.

Nancy aimed. She fiddled with the divergence of the beam, compromising between power density and accuracy required, and aimed again, checked that she had indeed set the power to full, and fired. This would have to be the shot that worked; her gun was likely to have less charge than the other's.

The pale purple beam leapt out into the night, and though the glass seemed to be absorbing some of it, enough of the radiation passed. Something shifted in the window, the muzzle of a gun she hadn't noticed before, and the cigarette glow fell from sight. Regardless of the splashing of the beam that was beginning to make her dizzy, she held it on for a few more seconds. Safe was far better than sorry, or captured, or dead.

She ceased fire when she could take the back wash no longer, and waited a minute or so for her head to clear. It was like coming out from a smoke-filled room into the cool of the night, and the wind under the sky. There was no return of fire, or any sign that a third party had noticed that none to brief exchange. Cautiously, she slid open her window.

If now anyone, was left, waiting to shoot her, that would mean a level of manning that had been certain to capture; so she would risk being on the losing end of a near certainty.

No one fired as she was climbing out, and when she was firm on the sill, with the window slid shut again, and only her heels resting on solid support, she reckoned she was safe anyway. If she was shot and fell, with the fire escape turned off with the closing of the window, it would be a tricky job putting her back together. Thirty meters at ten and a smidgen per second squared all the way would make a comparison with Humpty Dumpty apt. Alas, the Queen's women were not yet to hand, albeit they were on their way. If only they would make it soon…

Slowly, without ever completely lifting her feet from the security of the sill, she shuffled to her right. She took her time — she could afford to: she was as yet apparently undetected, and the fall was more than she dared to chance without reason. It took but seconds to move the few feet required, but it was a long awaited relief to feel her right elbow contact the wall of the walkway.

Careful of her balance, she reached up, until she had a firm hold on the roof top. Now secure, she looked down. The fall held a macabre lure, and for an instant she entertained the impulse to dive into the dove grey dark below her, but it could not compel her.

She pivoted on her right heel, and reached for a hold with her other hand.

“Around…and…up, ha!” she muttered in anticipation, thinking aloud what she would have to do, and gasping out a faint rush of breath when she took up the tension. She lifted herself slowly, for the moment her breath restricted with her belly muscles taut.

Without any chance to leap upwards, and the poor purchase and angle, it was only with that effort that she raised herself to stand on her hands, arms locked straight, head over the roof, but legs dangling unsupported. She gasped, gulping air as she allowed herself a brief rest before continuing, keeping herself from falling backwards only by sheer force of will, and grinding torques from her palms. There was a tautness about her heart, and an uncomfortable feeling of suffocation. The bile rose in her stomach, leaving a faint acidity in her throat, and a bitter taste.

She unclenched one hand from its safe hold, and slid it forwards across the roof, as far as the locking of her muscles permitted. The change was enough to alter her balance, and she collapsed the last few inches to the wet, gritty roof.

For a few moments, she lay there, enjoying her ability to breathe the air freely, before wriggling finally, entirely on to the firm support. Catlike, she gathered herself up into a crouch, and looked once more about her.

She wondered how the borderline between reasonable caution and paranoia could be defined. Each window could conceal a lurking figure, waiting to shoot her when the moment was ripe. In the everyday world, such a thought would be born only of paranoia, but now, it seemed the only reasonable worst-case estimate of the situation.

No window had opened, no figures moved forth into the light, but that did not guarantee that none watched the lone figure on the rooftop. She looked up. It was probable that she was being watched from orbit, that her position was being monitored, and relayed to her pursuers. The rings arched disinterestedly above. She felt an irrational urge to sing out her defiance to the watching eyes but she fought it down. Her scalp crawled, and a shiver ran down her spine, and she gathered up her shuddering, and flung it from her.

Stunner in hand, and standing tall, not crouched, she walked casually along the rooftop. A window, closed, immediately overlooked it, and a couple of kicks served to inflict enough damage for her to open it, and thence to slip into the welcoming dark. It shut again, but unfortunately served as a fine clue to the path she had taken, but it was done now, and was the only path open to her, anyway.

As her eyes adjusted, she caught sight of the pale glow of an activated display screen. She sat herself before it, and more by feel than sight, typed out her system password. It took the three allowed attempts, and the delay was beginning to make her jumpy, clumsy, and impatient.

When at last the mechanism condescended to acknowledge her attempts, she cared less about errors. She composed a brief message, mainly in the archaic and formal language of the clan, filling in gaps with words of any other language she knew that fit. Mistakes would only help delay translation by observers. Only the despatching required accuracy, and she set up an indirect routing, back to the castle, whence, if it was noticed in time, it could be relayed securely to the troops, directing them to where she would be found. And if they were in time, that would save a great deal of heart-ache, especially her own.

As an afterthought, merely, did she complete the housekeeping operations that still remained undone. A few codes transferred her files to public records, a few more, and she had deleted all operational programs. With nothing more to do, she logged off. It was 03:05, probably only a few minutes before her rescue would come, but even that short time would serve to place a reasonable amount of distance between herself and the scene of the potential action.

She tried the door. Unlocked. From the window, and the glazed wall panels, she could see that the corridor was empty of life. The door handle turned silently, and stopped at the end of its travel with the quietest of clicks. The door opened without noise, swinging slowly, freely, as Nancy launched herself through the opening, spraying stunner fire first one way, and then the other, just to make sure that she went unseen. Even if bodies would be a sure trail to her, it would at least take down foe as readily as neutral.

The far wall, against which she had flung herself, looked out onto an open space, grassed over, and planted with trees. Lights still burned in windows on the far side, and closer, to her right, along the corridor.

In the distance, there seemed to be a faint noise, above the noises of the building. It grew louder, and resolved into the sound of car engines, and their lights soared suddenly over the rooftops.

Four aircars, and fairly large, and, as they passed overhead, she saw that they bore Clan Wolf markings.

Discarding stealth or guile she hurried back into the office. The cars had slowed, and as she had anticipated, drawn to a hover over the building opposite. Troops debarked, climbing ladders from the cars, and they were already attracting fairly heavy fire.

Above the sounds of warfare, a woman's voice, amplified, spoke to her.

“We're here, Nancy, we're here!”

If they were fakes, they were doing their job well, speaking in clan formal

If they were real, as she believed, they had spent no time in guile, stealthily skulking below cloud. That arrogance might at other times have annoyed her but at that moment, it could not.

© Steve Gilham 2000