Two blaster shots, separated by a distinct interval, about a second, rang out in the night, clearly audible above the local din of gunfire. Platoon Sergeant Jakita Debra of Wolf swore to herself. She had trained exclusively under conditions of perfect communications — anything else was totally inconceivable on the contemporary battlefield — and to be hampered, by the rules of engagement that Jeanne had insisted on, was to be operating under a restriction akin to blindfolding.

Something, heaven knew what, was happening, just out of spitting distance, and she could not get reports from other locations, or any sort of overview. It was enough to irritate one to an extent that might be unwise in active duty.

A perfunctory burst of fire, perhaps three rounds in all, scattered from the stairway-top behind which she sheltered. She ignored it. if she did so strenuously enough, they might think she had gone, and stop it.

But the frustration was more than she could reasonably bear. She looked at the radio at her belt. One brief breach of radio silence — that couldn't bring more hassle than it brought useful information. She unclipped it, and thumbed it on.

Aware that she bad irrevocably broken security protocol, she spoke.

“Communications. Hey — Nicky — wake up there.”


“Get me orbital survey of the area.”

“We haven't got any eyes operable yet. The last one's too low now for a picture, and the one rising is behind that cloud bank. Two — three minutes yet for the pictures. Where'd you want to see?”

“Over east, where those blaster shots came from. Anything out there — alive, dead or halfway, and anywhere in the general area, I want a report on it. Get the cars ready to load. If we have to evacuate in a hurry, I want us to make it. Then call me when you get pictures. OK.”

“Acknowledge — ready to load, call on view.”

“And out.”

The time crawled slowly past on the open roof. To relieve the boredom, Jakita leaned out from her refuge, and sprayed fire in the general direction of a place where she had seen some matts take cover. When she stopped, and retreated behind the concrete wall, the compliment was returned. That at least relieved her of the responsibility of doing anything more for the next few minutes, and leave her to worry about military matters.

Without mobility, her troops afoot, she was bound hand and foot. She would have preferred to have the cars loaded up and ready — or even better, every one of them to have cybersoldier equipment. So what if it would be a trifle overkill at such close ranges. And if she was going to play this weird game by the rules, reinforcements would be just as nice. All the troops she had were tied down, tying the matts down, but to get reinforcements would mean waiting twenty minutes even if they were accepted by the Guild into a suborbital manoeuvre. It was unlikely that such a mission would be accepted — only a purblind moron would pass it, and there was a noted lack of such types in the Guild.

“How much longer, Nicky?”

“Not much. I can see nearby landmarks now. As soon as I get acquisition, I'll scream at you. Hell — hang on, and I'll give you commentary.”

“Damn the commentary, I just want essentials. Get a car loading. I'll want some troops mobile, so get one of them ready ASAP. Do it so we still keep the bastards pinned. Something's going to break any instant, I can tell.”

“OK — I'll relay those orders.”

Jakita listened to the relaying, as Nicky spoke into another microphone, before the conversation was rejoined.

“OK — I've got the picture now. I'll start from the museum and work out eastish.” She mumbled to herself as she guided the satellite optics across the screen, damning the fraction of a second radio lag.

“Ah — bodies — five of them,” there was triumph in that announcement. “Seeing is turbulent — only resolving to a foot or so — too much damned thermal!”

“Cut the primadonna act. Whose bodies?”

“Not human, still warm on IR so they're fresh dead or alive, I'll track out beyond. That place was as much east of here as north”.

“Was that forced, or do you think she got directions confused?”

“No — There are perfectly good roofs to the north, and no-one can get confused with the rings giving east-west. I think we screwed up her plans by barging in early, and diving into the thick of things. What night for a bloody snafu.”

There was a pause, while Jakita shot at something that moved and didn't wear clan uniform.

“Anything yet,” she asked, that irksome business completed, “and how's the loading?”

“Cars — one is picking up every fourth person along the line, the rest are standing by for a scramble evacuation. You only have to give the word.

“Nothing on video yet…see her now! She's down on the ground now, moving south, just inside the complex. Word just came in from HQ — Pete Brady's office is down that way — he keeps a route open for escapees.”

“Any sign of the enemy?”

“None under the sky, either inside the complex or out of it. All they can do is ambush her while she's out of our sight. I've alerted the car loading to go if you give the say so.”

“Hold them, gently now. Tell me when they've gotten a full load of girls, and tell them to hurry it up a bit.”

“Will do…I can see Nancy out again now. She's out and running like mad for the trees. Three hundred yards or so — and then we can relax. They'll never find her in that terrain…

“Oh — that ain't fair — they've got an aircar after her — she's dumped her guns — they exploded — they're firing at her — stunner rays — they're hitting her and she's still going. Come on girl, just another few yards…”

“Get that sodding car airborne, damn you.”

Nancy was being loaded aboard the car, as the Clan vehicle rose from its task, but they would have to wait for the matts to commit themselves to a route. The two cars lifted simultaneously, each waiting for the other to move.

The matts moved first, at the highest acceleration their car could attain, away from its pursuers. The Clan vehicle swung round, its pilot throwing the throttle wide open.

At that instant, the laws of physics packed up and went on holiday. The rings were gone, and the world was enclosed in mist. All light was extinguished, except a vague phosphorescence inherent to all material objects, a glow with little power to penetrate the mist. Jakita lost sight of the aircar, hoped that it had escaped.

Sounds boomed and rolled like thunder, and the radio in her hand squealed as if alive. Existence swirled and went dark.

Jakita dreamed, feverishly, of deific figures of misty light, without substance of their own, that belonged completely to this world of insanity. There was little plot to the dream, except that she was being transported somewhere, being drawn along by the empty air tugging at her, as they, the nameless beings, willed it.

“She's waking up now.” The voice was female/human by its timbre. Jakita noticed that she was seated on a chair designed more for utility that comfort — which latter was minimal at best. There was red anger in her mind as she pieced together what had happened during her last moments of consciousness.

She opened her eyes, and looked around. The room was painted off-white, and was starkly functional. There was a door in each wall to left and right, and a pinboard by the right hand one. The furnishings were limited to one desk, three chairs and a tablelamp. The desk was small and bare. Behind it, woman sat, with the air of age upon her. She wore a Linker badge, pinned to the breast of a tunic. The third occupant of the room was another, younger girl, in medic's uniform, leaning over her with hypo-gun in hand. It was she, Jakita guessed, who had spoken.

Having paused long enough to collect her thoughts of outrage into some semblance of coherence, she began her tirade.

“Okay — what in Hell's name do you call this. This is a disgrace. Why did you wait to drop the Qbedel field just after the bloody matts had. gotten away, and before we could get after them. Who's on the take? and who's footing the bills? Shammarra? Kingarra?

“Or did they get away? If they did, then we'd have surrendered peaceful like. No need for force. Tell me what did happen?”

“We closed down the field just too late to get the first car — didn't have quite the strength to spread it out enough. How do you think we feel — letting someone go after a blatant violation of neutrality. Hell and goddamn, we've got a reputation to keep, more than some people.”

“Reputation — there's no call to be so bloody touchy. You've just about lost credibility now. I suppose you know what you did. They got away with one of our number, and just because of your highmindedness, we never got the chance to help her. Nice human interest story it ought to make in the right circles. If anything happens to our girl after this, we'll fight you in any court, everyone responsible for the decision. So what if your official policy doesn't let you favour anyone, but couldn't you have shown a little common this time and left well enough alone? Or at least made sure of a complete catch? If there's any good press out of this snarl-up it'll only be for the matts, and they're the ones you should be fighting. They'll take you as well as us.”

Jakita felt slightly sickened at the situation, emotionally stressed.

“What's going to happen to us?” she asked.

“We'll hold you as prisoners of war for the duration of the conflict. Clan troops will be interned in the Snowflake, and matts in the port embassy, to be released when the castles have all lifted and are ready to spin out.”

“Great — just great.”

“Is she still sleeping?” Janice Morgan, black haired, brown eyed, five eight, didn't look up from the gun she was stripping down, while she asked the question.

Her companion, short, broad, leonine, and not at all human, looked over his shoulder at the back seat of the aircar. Nancy lay there, wrapped in a plaid blanket. Her eyes were closed, but the motion under them showed that she dreamed. The tangline that had ensnared her was gone, and she was sprawled inelegantly on the seat.

“Like a lamb. Don't worry about her — I gave her enough sedative to quieten a dinosaur — and besides, it's during her natural sleep time now, anyway.”

“It's all very well to say that,” Janice commented, more matter-of-factly than cynically. She continued to slot pieces back, and check the action.

“But,” she continued, “your little lamb caught enough stunner fire to stop the selfsame dinosaur, and was still up and running. Without the tangline, I'll bet she'd still be running now. It was only tying her up that made any impression on her.

“Whatever else they may be, they certainly build the little minxes well… I wouldn't mind too strenuously if I could stand up to stunner fire that well…”

She snapped the final cover plate into its place, and loaded a clip of cartridges. With the first round cycled into the breech, she slid the gun under the dashboard, where spring-clips received it. She checked the controls, and then out of the screen, lights on the horizon showed the location of their destination, the city of High Prospect. Cold wind blew into the car through the hole Nancy had shot into it, despite the blanket taped across it, and Janice would be glad to get into the warm.

Assured that their descent path was clear, Janice okayed the approach, and turned around to examine her passenger.

“Cute looking kid,” she decided, “How old do you reckon she is? Can't be all that much over seventeen, can she?”

Her partner mumbled assent, and Janice continued. “She'd look quite nice, if only their bitch of a mother hadn't made them that ghastly grey. She's lucky we got her while she was young. It shouldn't be too difficult to get her integrated into normal society.

“I wonder if it'll ever be possible to get the old ones into real life — a thousand years like that must warp them terribly. Year after year in the same castle, never leaving it… I'd go crazy…”

The car landed in the vehicle pool at the base of a residence block. It was still incomplete, and looked skeletal still. Only a handful of lights showed the location of occupied modules. A mile and a half it towered up into the night, and the sky was clear. At the summit of the monstrosity, a warning beacon flashed, cutting a wide double cone of hazy light to each horizon, circling every five seconds.

The air was still chilly, but at least there was only the lightest of breezes. After the car, the silence seemed suffocating. She shivered, without the warmth of her chair to buffer her against heat loss. Nancy struggled in Janice's arms, snuggling up against her for warmth, as she carried her across the open concrete.

She paused a the main doors, and with one forearm free of her burden, waved farewell to the departing aircar. It disappeared rapidly into the dark, and Janice turned, and pushed through into the warm.

Vors k'Shammarra was not human. Of reptilian descent, his skin was scaly, and snakelike. He was mainly bright green in colour, but between his eyes, and running down his back, a broad stripe of scales was yellow, as bright as the green, and down the centre of that, a narrower strip of red. Each scale of his skin was monochrome, and the irregular bordering of the markings was a line drawn around the edges of the plates.

His throat was heavily guarded by leathery wattles, of a darker green than the rest of him, and his eyes were bright yellow, and horizontally slit, with the irises filling the whole of the visible globe. They were grained in structure, with a predominantly vertical alignment, except at the edge of the slits.

He was humanoid in general outline, and close enough to human in his psychology that he could be annoyed by events that went against his wishes. He had followed on the newscasts the progress of the aircar that had set off from Castle Wolf, and the aircars that had followed it, and was planning an operation to intercept them together on their return journey, or flight to the Guild haven, when to his consternation, he saw that something had happened at the university, where the pursuing cars had been seen to dive below the cloud deck.

Someone had beaten him to that little coup, and he was determined to find out who. He hauled a numeric pad from the equipment on his desk, knocking a paperback book onto the floor as the connecting cable tautened. He ignored it, and tapped out a dialcode, with short sharp impatient jabs. He swung around on his chair, to face the large screen on the far wall. It belled, a discrete warbling tone, with a symbol of a bell in outline, in pale blue appearing. and fading.

He counted the seconds as they passed. At a count of fifteen, a synthesized voice replaced the ringing.

“Milord Kingarra is busy and wishes not to be disturbed at the moment. If you wish, you may leave a message with me.”

“Very well, tell him that Vors k'Shammarra desires to speak with him on matters of mutual concern. He knows my dialcode — tell him to ring me back as soon as is feasible. Remind him of, ah, certain financial matters involving our mutual subsidiary, Confederated Securities. I'll buy him out if he takes longer than five minutes to respond from now. That will be all.”

“Thank you. I will relay the message immediately.”

Jakita Debra of Wolf, noble of degrees up to and including earldom, was now formally a prisoner of war. She had been led out from the room where she had woken, to join the other members of the family. Together, under armed escort, they were taken through deserted corridors, and out into the open. There had been nothing to say, nothing at all. The anonymous Linker who had interviewed her had been entirely correct, in so far as she toed her Guild's line exactly. It was inevitable that she would be the type chosen for such work.

Against a fanatical grasp on the principle of total non-involvement, elevated to the level of an article of faith, all Jakita's arguments had availed her naught. She tried arguments based on reason, from the nearly sound, to the totally ludicrous, or based on emotion, or on expediency. But the girl was too intelligent to be conned, and too concerned with various reputations for integrity requiring salvage or maintenance to be swayed by anything less than an order from the higher echelons.

If only it were possible to represent Nancy as a noncombatant. That she had called to her family for aid might well have been considered to be done under mitigating circumstances, but that she had killed and maimed — four dead and one heavily injured, she had been told — could not be forgiven.

Jakita sympathized with Nancy's actions — under those circumstances, only the would-be suicide would refuse to fight. She herself would have done the same and worse, and thought no shame of it, and to hell with politics. There could be no thought of politics in the heat of the moment — it could only be a matter of animal survival. Him or you; the choice was never difficult to make, though worlds might tumble as a consequence. And if, as she had heard, Nancy had been acting under some form of psychic stress, any hope of coldly reasoned, politically motivated actions went out the window. Tricia, whose advice Jeanne had considered worthy of attention, had told of something that had acted across the thousands of miles, to drag Nancy, precipitately, recklessly, to it, despite an innate caution and drive to forethought typical of the family. Something that powerful could have made her do anything, and the Guild had let her be captured. Jakita could only find hope in the thought that, while Nancy alone would not have given any trouble, Nancy-plus-whatever might turn out to be more than they could handle.

Had anyone been with her in the museum? There had been no indications either way in the information she had received, but she had not thought to ask. If she could get access to a suitably ranking officer, something several grades up on the neutral servicemen escorting her, she'd have to ask.

They were now being brought out into the open. Jakita did not recognize the location, but by the sky, she judged that they were still inside the university. They had emerged from an austere cluster of low concrete blockhouses, masking an extensive underground development. Behind, on three sides, trees were a dark grey, almost green, even under the rings, but ahead was the grass. At her feet, it seemed dark, but as it went into the distance, the swaying stalks took on the hues of silver and grey.

Halfway to the horizon, a squat finned shape was a ground-to-orbit tug, marked with the emblem of the Linkers' Guild — a golden circle, at its uppermost point marked by an asterisk of the same colour, as if set as decoration. In the centre of the design, on a field otherwise of black, an annulus of red, like the iris of an eye. It symbolized the opening of a Link in a LinkGate, and was instantly recognized throughout the Partnership of Worlds.

Into the open loading ramp, a vast mouth to the ship, the women of Clan Wolf were marched, to be accommodated in the hold, with enough security locks and bulkheads to keep them away from the crew locations before they arrived at the Snowflake. It was not going to be a comfortable trip.

Esseval Kingarra, regional director of StarLine, was descended from an ancestor very similar to a starfish. Although his body was in the rough humanoid configuration of head and limbs, his descent was obvious. His skin appeared to be furry, and coloured a pale fawn, but the hairs were modified spines. For hands, he had great bunches of tentacular tube feet, and he had no face, only a crown of very human eyes. His mouth was in the centre of his body, and served him both for eating and breathing.

His main vice was gambling, primarily card games of the sort typified by poker, and his stakes were always high, but he won often enough for this not to worry. He was involved in a very low-stake game with a few Trader captains, and had already won one ship, when k'Shammarra's phone call was relayed to him. He listened very intently to the last sentences, and folded. He had only staked a fraction of his night's winnings, so there was no reason to sit the hand out before calling back.

He made the call from the comparative privacy of his hotel rooms, rather than remain in the saloon.

“Well?” he asked, as soon as k'Shammarra answered

“Was it you who snatched the Clan Wolf girl?”

“What girl? I've been playing cards all evening.”

“Are you levelling with me?”

“Yes. I don't want to get wiped out, a piece at a time. Now tell me what is going on.”

“A Clan Wolf girl left the castle, with some of their troops in hot pursuit. They headed to the Guild University, and were intercepted by some of our troops. I didn't order that — I was going to wait to get them on the way back.”

“Now if you didn't send them, who did?”

“I can vouch for five of the ship-captains, all of whom have been losing their profit margins to me since dinner-time. That leaves us three ship-captains and any other number of locals who might be responsible. What do we do?”

“Sit tight a while — wait for developments, I think. Wait for the people who did it to show their hand, then neatly take over their efforts. We could get a lasting propaganda weapon out of this if no-one bungles.”

“Indubitably, Vors, indubitably. But do we need one?”

“I don't see we can lose out by having one. As long as the Combine survives, someone will pay for something to smear the Clan with. We can handle all the distribution each time — no sweat.”

“Right, then. Meantime, I'll make discreet enquiries to see if I can find anyone who might be responsible.”

Within a mile of either end of that conversation, in the selfsame city of High Prospect, and but a few minutes previously, the centre of their interest had arrived.

At the hundred and fifth level of the apartment block, Janice stepped out of the gravity lift, and as weight resumed, switched her burden into a carry again. Nancy was definitely waking in her arms now, and Janice expected any instant that she would begin to struggle, as the sensory signals she would be receiving would be interpreted and acted upon.

The last forty feet, taken of necessity at a slow walk, so as not to further aggravate the situation, seemed to stretch into eternity. As she took each step, she was certain that Nancy would realize unconsciously, that she was being held and would try to break free, but at each step, she did not. Even as she manoeuvred to set her palm flat against the locking-plate, the fatal awakening failed to occur.

The door slid open. and as it did, she called in a loud unvoiced whisper, “Guy! Quickly! She's waking up!”

Guy, young, lightly bearded, fair-haired, came running from the main room.

“Hey — Janice — what's up? Oh. I see. Didn't you dope her up in flight?”

“Would you believe two hundred fifty units of sleepy, about half an hour ago? That's what Ghan said he gave her when we got her on board.”

“Two hundred fifty — that keeps a horse down for an all night session.”

“It doesn't seem to affect her, but nothing much seems to. She took enough stunner fire to stop an army and was still up and running when we took her. Tangline and then drugged her up. Satisfied?”

“Well… tough little bitch. OK, I'll get her another shot.”

Guy held the door open while Janice dragged Nancy into the main room, then pulled open a sideboard cupboard, and took out a hypo gun, and loaded it with a capsule the size of his thumb. He fired the whole load into Nancy's neck, and it hissed as it sprayed. The girl quietened as the chemicals were taken up into her brain.

Together, taking arms and legs, they carried her through into a bedroom, and dropped her onto the bed. Guy strapped a life-signs monitor onto her torso, and connected it to an alarm system. They would get adequate warning of any crisis or imminent awakening.

“We should be ready by the time she wakes up from that little lot. Now we've got to identify her, ready to get all our little games together. Now where did I put my files…?”

He returned to the main room, with Janice following him, and began to search through the almost identical manila folders, about a dozen in number, that were strewn about the room in various places. The third one he retrieved, from under a cassette player, was the correct one for his present needs. The title page bore the legend Clan Wolf. Post-Toehold era births.

Together, he and Janice sorted through the wad of hard-copy personal files, for the name to put to the face they had captured. One matched.

Nancy Elanor of Wolf — various titles, born 4th September 3244, terrestrial standard reckoning, daughter to Kathy Jane, who is herself the first daughter of the first daughter and so on back to Jeanne. interests, notes, curriculum vitae — he mumbled the main headings half out loud — “ah, here we are, file code.”

He quoted a string of digits and characters, and Janice typed it into a small keyboard, repeating it as a check of her accuracy. Here, even the slightest of errors would ruin what hey intended to do. With the number verified, she set the program in motion that had already been prepared to accept the file number.

“You know who she reminds me of?” Guy asked rhetorically.

“No, I don't.” Janice dutifully.

“Her great” — he paused to count up the list of generations of the family — “to the 8th grandmother — Trixy Wolfe's mother's father's paternal grandmother. That was the artistic side of the family — Gr8th was a singer — more commercial than great art — her grandson was a ballet dancer, and his daughter, Trixy's mother, was a painter of note, like Trixy herself was, before what happened to her.

“Just think — if just half a dozen dropouts from inner city Perth hadn't gotten out into Fremantle, and killed her parents, and raped her, none of this would have happened. A young girl, lucky to survive at all — no wonder she went mad in the end. I can almost feel sorry for her.”

“For the old grey bitch herself?”

“Sure — at least she had an excuse for what she did — the world hadn't been kind to her, so she was just showing that she could be just as nasty in return, it's Milady Jeanne who's the deliberately evil one — played the arrogant scion-of-nobility bit to T. Let's get to work.”

The whine of the drives, a sound that lodged itself inside the eardrum and stayed there buzzing, finally faded out, leaving a heavy silence. In the hold of the tug, where only compensator fields acted, and not artificial gravity, it left the Clan troops suddenly weightless. One of the girls went rather pale after the sudden transition, but in general they took the abrupt transition well. The casualties, who had been loaded up-front in the passenger compartments, were carefully insulated from this annoyance.

There were slight noises from the loose stuff in the hold as small reaction jets fired, and produced brief episodes of acceleration, and a perceptible jolt as the tug docked against the Snowflake station.

“Platoon, by threes, form column!”

Psychological move this, show that we aren't dominated by the Guild, that any action between us is as a partnership. There has to be some political mileage in this; or if not, I'll make some, Jakita thought.

Nancy was lost in drugged slumber. Dislocated from her body, her mind was free to move along the pathways that had been opened for it. She was almost conscious as she saw things that had never happened to her, places she had never been — yet remembering them, rather than dreaming them. They were alien, and yet familiar, and if true, they were adequate confirmation of 'hvors' hypotheses about the origin and purpose of the necklet and blivit he had found.

She was — had been? — Linna priestess of the Earth mother, saw through her eyes, heard with her ears.

The body she lived in was slim, agile, possibly taller than the one she had always known. There were six double-jointed digits on each hand, and the skin of her body was copper-coloured, she was a female.

The memory was of some great ceremony, played out in her memory, without any flash-forwards of explanation. Like a loose viewpoint, she was guided towards the focus of the place she was in. The setting was clear, unlike the only vaguely seen people populating it.

Two shadowy handmaids accompanied her, one on either side of her, as she walked a path marked out by two rows of vaguely Grecian columns, towards an altarstone. A fire burned there, and about it a cluster of people were gathered. The sky was dark, and there were stars, like a plague of frosting on a sky more ebon-dark that she was comfortable with. Some of the stars, she knew, bright points of magnitude –6 or brighter, to be novae or possible supernovae — they couldn't merely be close and bright — the astrophysics would all be wrong.

Nancy of Wolf, knowing that Lincoln had been nova-burned, she knew what she was seeing — the war in heaven, where gods fought gods for reasons that might not be comprehensible to her, and in the middle of it, this simple, ignorant folk worshipped their world and their skies. This identity, this Linna, saw them only as blessings, a sign of good favour from the Skyfather. Trapped within the predestined events, Nancy could have screamed with impotent anger a at the stupidity. Where they saw favour, there was only death and destruction beyond their imagining it.

The altar was closer now, and she saw the retinue about it, kneeling priestesses, in raiment less spectacular than the gold-embroidered gown she wore. One male was there, old and patriarchal, with a heavy mane of black fur, and she recognized him to be the High Priest of the Skyfather, the only uncastrated male allowed within the holy places of the Earth. The flame came from a large bronze chalice, standing on the altar, fed with heavy oils and scents and alcohol, its fire red, and smoky.

On the red and gold altar cloth, behind the chalice of fire, a corpse lay. Nancy watched it, fascinated morbidly by the idea of death as a commonplace thing. It was old, maybe not by count of years, but by the ravages of time that marked it. It was naked, and it too was female. The necklet of the blue gem hung around its neck, lay inert on the withered and frail chest. The eyes of the corpse were open, staring blankly at the sky.

She was at the altar, and the patriarch looked at her, his eyes wise and sad.

He spoke, and the words were in the tongue he had always spoken, and only by memory did Nancy understand what he said.

“Kneel, my daughter, and understand what it is you are chosen to do.”

The polished area around the altar was cold to her knees, and the old man's touch on her forehead, quite repellent.

“Linna, will you succeed to the High Priestesshood of the Earth Mother?”

“I will, my father.”

“Then take the chalice in your hands, and do not let it fall from you.”

The stem, and base of the bowl was cool, buffered by the evaporation of the fuel, but the walls of the cup were searingly hot. In the memory, the pain was thankfully dulled, but even so, it was more than Nancy would have cared to bear.

“Receive your rank, High Priestess.”

The patriarchal figure drew a blivit from his gown, and struck it against the chalice, which nearly dropped from Nancy's desperate grasp. He placed the stem against the bare stone of the altarblock, which sounded the note loud and clear, it fitted precisely into the context, neither hellish, nor crystal-pure as she had in reality experienced it. But what it caused attacked Nancy's sanity.

The unseeing corpse upon the slab stirred, and sat up. It turned around to fix its blindly staring eyes at Nancy, and dropped onto its feet before her. The gem it wore blazed brightly, on a level with her eyes as she knelt. Its light cast shadows, showing that a structure akin to a sow's udder, two rows of nipples down the whole torso, were what had been female about it.

Dead hands lifted up the necklet, high to the sky, and decaying throat screamed out something wild, something that woke responses in the Nancy persona: not the Linna one, and then the cadaver leaned forwards, and placed the relic around her neck. The flame from the chalice caught in the hair of the zombie, and it burned brightly, as if it had been soaked in petrol, and spread to the whole body.

It burned, ghastly, with sickening stenches, and hot as a furnace, for what seemed an age, before collapsing as a calcined skeleton before her. Nancy set the chalice down, and looked at her hands. They were unmarked.

Jakita Debra, prisoner of war, gazed moodily through the window of her ‘cell᾿; a large and luxurious hotel room in the Snowflake. Beyond the glass, twenty two thousand miles away, hung a fat turquoise and white crescent, twenty degrees and a bit from pole to pole. It was a world — more than that, it was her world, one that she had nurtured from untouched Eden, to this. And then, without so much as a by your leave, johnny-come-lately politicos, latecomers on the scene, but with powerful friends, had just taken a fancy to it, and would take it, for such was the whim that took them.

The rings, beautiful discs of gossamer, were invisible by contrast, and acute angle of view.

Somewhere beneath those rings, down on the dirt of that globe, Nancy Elanor of her clan was being held and she knew not where and could do nothing about it.

The doorbell sounded, and without waiting to be invited in, a Linker with the uniform of the Guild's security arm entered. She introduced herself as the officer concerned with prisoners' welfare, arid asked if there was anything she needed.

“I shan't bother you with extravagances — but I would like to phone Professor asKorran at the University. He's the last person we know who might have seen Nancy before she was kidnapped.”

“I'm afraid that will have to wait Chan asKorran was picked up along with your troops, and is being held pending a procedural enquiry, along with the Guild telepath who was with him. I can't promise anything, but you might be able to get in contact with him tomorrow afternoon. Besides, I'm no legal expert — can't tell whether that would count as aid to external factions or not. I can bring you an expert if you wish, or allow you access to legal texts.”

“Oh, hell with it. I'll wait. Damn hassle for a simple phone call that just might save a girl's life. But I don't suppose that could influence you in the slightest. Leave me alone please.”

“No, I'm sorry, I'll see you tomorrow then.”

Nancy woke from her dreaming, without full recollection of what had passed through her mind. She wriggled about to snuggle up closer to Julie, but she was alone on the bed. Nancy curled up again for warmth, and tried to get back to sleep, to pass the time until her girlfriend returned. She thought about her dreams, confused things, feverish pictures, events, too solid to really be dreams, memories perhaps?

In one thread, she had hurried out from the perfect sanctuary of the castle that was her home, and fled across the University, pursued by armed matts; but in another, she had been the alien Linna, priestess, ascending to the position of leadership in her faith, back in the age of the Q'l-hrui wars, Leader of the Song of life. She remembered nostalgically that wild and proper rite — it had been so long ago, so long since anyone had danced it.

“She's awake now — just not bothering to open her eyes for us. How are you feeling now, Nancy?”

Nancy summoned up her will, and rolled onto her back, glad of a break in that chain of thought which seemed to lead only to darkness, nightmare and insanity. She had rejected gods, yet they seemed to reach out now to claim her as their own, and she dare not contemplate that long.

“Terrible,” she announced, “my mouth tastes like it was stuffed with cotton wool, my head feels like it was used as a football when I wasn't looking, and my back aches. Do you care for a more detailed… Oh my…”

She raised herself up on one elbow, and looked at the room she was in. There were curtains drawn across two windows of the room, and it was these archaic furnishings that caught her eye first, but the rest of it was an unremarkable modern dwelling.

There were two people, total strangers, standing by the bed — one a youngish man, with a beard just the respectable side of looking unshaven, and the other a black haired girl, plain, but, Nancy felt, vivacious enough to be attractive. Both looked concerned.

“What happened to me?” Nancy asked them.

“Don't you remember? What's the last thing you can remember?”

“My consecration, taking the chalice, watching the corpse give me… what am I talking about — I was going to say that a corpse ordained me a high priestess, then burned up in the fire I was carrying, I think I dreamed that. Last thing I can be sure of is that I went to bed with a cousin of mine, but I have some vague memories of going back to the University, and being chased over the rooftops. I got out of the buildings, but the matts chased me with an aircar. I can't remember all that much else — I just had the impression I'd been captured, but all of that was lost in the dreaming.”

“Weird dreams from the sound of things, I think your mind needs scrubbing out. But that's beside the point. My name's Janice Morgan, and this here is Guy Naylor.”

'This here' smiled, and took up the explanation.

“We found you wandering through the vehicle park at Cedars — thought you were drunk at first. We could hardly believe our eyes, seeing a Clan Wolf girl out and about in public after the Bill went through.

“Luckily there was no one else around to see, so we bundled you into our car and brought you home, where you'd be safer.”

“Thanks. If you hadn't happened along I don't know what could have happened. Any chance of phoning home?”

“I don't think that would be advisable — there'll be official monitoring of calls to the Castle, and that'll bring the cops down on us. You're Nancy Elanor, aren't you?”

“Yes — why? How did you know?”

“It was on the news while we were flying back here — following the mystery flight from the Castle earlier, you were top billing. They said there'd been a ruckus somewhere in the University, and some of the people involved had escaped before the Linkers could close the place up.

“They named you directly, and offered a reward of fifty thousand plaques for you, on charges of violating. neutrality, and incitement to same.”

“Bloody hell — famous at last. Are you sure you're not going to cash me in?”

“Of course not!” Janice interrupted, aggrievedly.

“We're traditionalists at heart — we don't feel you as a group affect us personally in any way, and the sense of splendour — sheer nostalgia — of the Clans appeals to us; on the other hand, the Traders and whoever are simply excruciatingly tedious. So when the chance came, we felt we had to do something in support of our principles.

“So we're going to try to smuggle you back to your castle tomorrow night — get up close as if we were with the nuts going to protest, and then dive for cover at the last minute.”

“You could be quite mad. As long as you've got some sort of transport that is very fast — that last approach is going to be a sprint to the wire, with any sort of mayhem following us. Any chance of something to drink — tea, coffee, fruit-juice — I'm a hell of a thirsty.”

“Sure — come on into the living room and we'll get us something. We were going to have supper as well — You care for something to eat?”

“Mm-hmm. What's the time here? — I'm all out of synch after this.”

Guy picked up Nancy's watch from the bedside table.

“04:15 by this watch.”

“22:15 here — we haven't crossed time zones have we?”

“No — this is High Prospect.”

“22:15 it is. No wonder I'm hungry.”

Six thousand miles away, the castle was not so tranquil. The siege was quiet, but the action, however intermittent, served to remind the inhabitants of its existence.

Tricia was still in the control room, she had not been told to go, and the idea hadn't occurred to her. She was still in reaction shock at the sudden climax of events.

Nancy was captured.

She didn't, couldn't believe that. Yet life seemed to go on as before, although, in effect, one of its players had been removed. Would she ever see Nancy again?

She hoped so but feared not — she didn't have enough data on the matts' motivation to sketch a realistic scenario, but what she could guess gave her little cheer. To live her life without one who had been a sister and a lover to her seemed impossible to do now, as it had seemed impossible that such would be required of her.

If only… worlds of probabilities that might have been played out in her head as she sought for some way by which she might have prevented the tragedy.

If she had advised Nancy to turn back when she had been wounded, and gone on alone — possible, but would she have risked it — or would Nancy have wished to be alone? If she had hurried to the rendezvous — but would she have been able to drag Nancy along at that pace, knowing her reluctance to place herself in positions of risk. If only she herself had trodden Nancy's path to self destruction instead — but she was not inquisitive enough to have done so — and if there was something worse than the present situation, changing roles with Nancy could well be that.

She sat, dazed, at her position, face cradled in her arms, staring down in the shadow. As far as it entered her mind, the conflict displayed above and about her was a stupid and totally pointless waste of time and effort.

Another of the castle's inhabitants was awake in this early morning, with Nancy's disappearance and capture uppermost in her mind.

Julie had woken abruptly in the night, to find herself alone, and for a long time lay there in the darkness awaiting her return But there was no sign of her no sound of movement in the rest of the apartment. There was only the intermittent explosions of mortar shells, more frequent now — every ten seconds, not every ten minutes, and the crackling of energy weapon discharges.

Through the window, despite the limited view her position afforded her, she could see occasional lines, points and bursts of harsh white light, where cybersoldiers and static defences probed at each other, within the restrictions imposed by the defence screens.

She watched the fireworks for an indefinite time, ten minutes she would have guessed, before deciding that she was thirsty enough to get herself a cup of water. To move was strange after so long lying motionless and an effort of will was required to break the stasis. She wriggled back to sit on the pillow before rolling about, landing on her feet beside the bed.

Silently, she strode into the main room, where she saw a string of text burning quietly on the terminal screen. She looked at it curiously.

Retrieve file sapphire, and please act upon it.

Help me. Nancy.

Bewildered, Julie accessed the file from store. The first line, obviously added at a later date, surprised her further. Acted upon, it read, Signed Jeanne.

That alone was enough to intrigue her to read the enigmatic message beneath. The tale it told was incredible, but written with authenticity — and if it was enough to convince Lady Jeanne to act…

The picture of Nancy it painted was detailed enough to provide explanation to the strange sense of detachment she had noticed, both that afternoon and that evening. The girl who had been an elder sister to her, if always a little remote across he gap of a couple of years age had been even further removed, but had somehow been straining for closeness.

The last item, after a gap, was the real sting in the tail. Added by Genevieve, at Jeanne's behest, the satellite pictures of Nancy's final dash for safety, her fall and her capture, with caption commentary.

The pictures had a morbid fascination for her, and she played them over and over, but each time, the story was the same, and Nancy was taken by the enemy. Julie was sad, with a deep, regretful, resigned sadness. There was no anger, no shock, for she was fortunate not to be that close to Nancy, but she could sympathize enough for some response.

There was no wonder any more that she had waited in vain for Nancy to come back to bed. If she had only woken at Nancy's departure, to plead with her… but that would not have worked. It was going to be hard to write someone that close out of her life completely, but she would have to do it now, like it or not. There had been so many things to say to Nancy, and to hear from her, and now, she would never have the opportunity.

She sat at the terminal, while in the slowly lightening sky, minor dogfights raged. Only when the early morning chill had made her skin icy and clammy did she return to bed.

The dinner was over. The dirty dishes had been cleared from the tabletop, and now Nancy and her rescuers sat in the living room drinking coffee, and talking inconsequential nothings, primarily famous, and usually third-hand anecdotes about university life.

Halfway through the second cup, Nancy felt her eyes burn, and the lids become incredibly heavy. To hold her eyes open was becoming almost impossible, she yawned wide and long, almost straining her jaw, and when she had finished, she wiped tears from her eyes.

“My god,” she said, “I think my last term of debauched living has used up my reserves, I'm about to fell asleep here.”

She yawned again, interrupting the flow of her speech.

“You see.” she resumed, “Now what am I going to do for a bed tonight?”

“Lie down on the settee — I'm afraid we haven't got a spare bed — never thought we'd need one.”

Nancy gulped down the last of her coffee, between yawns, letting a trickle spill down her front in her haste. She set the cup down, and wiped mouth and chin.

“That's a damn' good idea, Guy. Thanks.”

“That's all right. Just pretend we're your relatives. If you wake up during the night, you know where everything is kept, and Janice and I will be in bed if you need us. I'll get you some sheets and a blanket.”

Nancy watched him go. Bleary-eyed, she walked over to the settee, and reclined there, staring at Janice. A thoroughly nice-looking girl, all things considered, she decided, She had to stop herself smiling leeringly at the poor girl; from what she had deduced, Janice was unlikely to appreciate the sentiment. She decided to settle down to sleep, using a scatter-cushion for a pillow.

It was luxurious just to lie there with eyes closed, mind loose to wander as the fancy took along chains of distorted logic. Guy returned with the bedclothes to see her lying there as if asleep, and gently laid the over her and tucked them in. He tousled her hair.

“Goodnight, Nancy.”

“Goodnight, Guy,” Nancy replied, without bothering to look up. Instead, she pressed her hand against Guy's for an instant, just to show her appreciation.

He departed, and then all that she could sense from the outside world were the sounds of movement as he and Janice tidied up the cups, and readied themselves for bed. As the darkness claimed her mind, Nancy wondered, was this what parents were like : she had never had what might be called a family life, and this was all totally new to her. It might be fun…

Guy returned to stand over her for a few minutes, watching, waiting. At last he was satisfied.

“She's out,” he stated, flatly.

“But will it be all right?”

“Sure. Hell, there were so many chemicals in her meal she'd've almost been able to taste them. If she'd been looking for them I'd swear she would have. You saw the dregs of her coffee; half that sugar wasn't. Okay — let's get the equipment set up.”

Janice rose from the chair where she had been waiting, and went over to the sideboard. From one of the cupboards she fetched a metal framework, which trailed a length of power cable. She plugged the flex into a wall socket, and brought the device itself over to where Nancy lay.

Gently, Guy lifted Nancy's head from the pillow, while Janice fitted the helmet, setting the contact brushes against the skin of the scalp.


Guy picked a pale blue crystal from an elaborate stand bearing about a dozen others, and handed it over. Janice opened a flap in the main body of the helm, fist-sized box against the back of Nancy's skull, and slotted the crystal into the space within. Light glowed bright green when she pressed the test switch.

“Okay then. Here's to sanity.” Janice threw a switch marked 'play', and replaced the cover.

Patterns of electrons had been frozen into that crystal, distorting the crystal lattice, patterns inscribed by the program that Janice had run before Nancy's awakening. Now those electrons danced on her command, and passed their messages down the interface links into Nancy's brain, where already chemicals were acting to erase habitual patterns of cultural behaviour and assumptions.

“And in the morning, she'll be halfway sane. One down now, but there are thirty thousand still left on Wyvern — and how many other such survive elsewhere. But it's a start, anyway.”

“A start. We can leave her now — there's nothing to do until morning now.”

A knock came at her door.

“Come in!” called Jakita. The girl who entered wore the uniform of a corporal in the Clan forces. “Bad news,” she explained.

“How bad?”

“Quite bad. I was hanging around in the lounge, just, having a drink, and watching the Link. There was a liner that came through with it, with some passengers for here.”


“I thought it was a bit strange — the situation here isn't exactly being hushed up — but I thought I'd take a look at them. They didn't want to mix with me — that in itself isn't too surprising, but when you have forty people who all seem to know each other well arriving at a place, you wonder what they are. So I peeked at the cargo manifest for the stuff being unloaded.

“Loads of crates of gravitic-powered equipment, purpose unspecified. Are you thinking what I'm thinking?”

“Mercenaries — with their own suits.”

“The same.”

“Forty of them you say — that's a lot of firepower — together they could do some serious damage to a Castle if it doesn't have its screens tight. We've got to get out of here, tell the castle, it's about time we started what little we can do. Have you told the Linkers?”

“And just get told that it's none of their business? Not likely.”

“Okay. Call the girls together, I remember seeing in a film that it's a soldier's duty to try to escape from a POW camp, so I can't not live up to the tradition.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“That'd be telling — wait until the last minute, then I'll say — we don't want too many brains knowing the secret open to picking. When do the mercs leave?”

“About an hour, after a meal.”


There was an anxious gathering in the apartments of Vors k'Shammarra, consisting of Kingarra and a number of persons not officially known to be their associates.

Each of them had a small hand-phone unit that was receiving almost continual use — punch a number, wait a frustrating while for an answer, usually annoyed, but almost at once to become servile, then a few questions, mostly answered in the negative, a few orders, and then the whole cycle began again.

Every so often, one of the intent figures would place the phone down, stand up, and pace around, or fetch another drink.

Shammarra broke the huddle after about an hour of this. If he could have sweated profusely, he would have done so. Instead, his tongue merely darted rapidly in and out of his mouth.

“That may not be everyone that we've seen so far, but we're getting down to fairly minor command levels now. If we don't find who it is soon…”

“Meaning that you're worried about who might be financing this.”

“Of course, I can't be certain, but I have some ideas, though I can't believe any of them. I can't see anyone with enough spare cash around to try buying in here at this stage in the game. And if they're not trying to buy in here, then that must mean they're playing very clever, using our activities as a smoke-screen, to cover themselves as they build up some advantage. But what? I can't see the clan's moving again for another two hundred years after they next get settled down.”

“And you're afraid of people who might be planning on that sort of timescale.”

“Who wouldn't be? But all the corporations who do that sort of thing regularly are back in the Cygnus arm, and all the League businesses that might do that thing at a pinch are operating to heartward of here.”

“But that's exactly where the Combine is likely to move out to.”

“But here isn't their territory, I'll phone up a few directors — threaten to buy them out. When's the next Link due?”

“Three or four hours from now.”

“Damn. Still, that means the mercenaries must be here. When they get down, I'm almost tempted to set them searching for the Clan girl, rather than deploy them in the field. That way we can claim responsibility for them, and say we're employing them to act where the local police won't, to try and find a non-combatant girl who's been kidnapped by ruthless thugs, that would discourage those responsible for this little caper, and get us the favour of the Guild.

“Let's hear points for and against that.”

Twenty thousand miles overhead, Jakita Debra of Wolf looked down at the world that had eclipsed the sun. There was a pale point of light just south of its centre. This was the city of High Prospect, where corporation bosses conspired, only a mile from where Nancy slept.

Jakita; Nancy; Shammarra; each effectively close to the others, but none of them knowing. One watched and waited, one acted, one slept.

© Steve Gilham 2000