Sir Jeffus nodded at the camera. "I am very well, my friend; but I have some sad news for you. Our dear colleague Jacon Torm died twenty minutes ago; his injuries were too severe for even your revolutionary methods to save him. Naturally his son is distraught and I have to keep him foremost in my thoughts. Unless there is something of great importance that you wish to speak to be about, I would rather this conversation be postponed to a later time. I'm sure you understand, I must return to Ajek as soon as possible."
Otrall's face creased with concern. "Jacon is dead? Of course, Sir Jeffus, how is the boy?"
"Not well, as you can imagine. The surgery on his legs went as well as we expected but it took a lot out of him, and worrying about his father just added to the stress; so much so that I am calling Boushank in to take over while I stay with Ajek."
"Boushank? That is a bit drastic, isn't it?"
"Yes, but necessary under the circumstances. I know he was once our most dangerous adversary, but now we know he was on our side all along, I couldn't place the security of our galaxy in safer hands."D'vork watched Sir Jeffus frown into the camera. "I take it the person beside you is Captain D'vork and that something has happened?"
"You are correct, Jeffus. Allow me to introduce our secret weapon, Captain D'vork, son of D'bactu, prince of Gpuchk."
Sir Jeffus nodded. "I salute you, Prince of Gpuchk; please convey my greetings to your dear parents. I hope you realise you are about to enter the most serious of situations."
"My greetings to you also, Sir Jeffus; I've gathered some of it, from my android."
"Ah, yes; Inmahn. Then I take it the first code has been activated. I have been in communication with Sir Rayle Close regarding Tadik's unfortunate experience at the hands of his stepfather and his sister. I can assure you Tadik's family are quite safe now and are here with me at my country home. The only one missing is Tadik's sister Braidi; Boushank is throwing every resource possible into finding her, but I confess we may be too late. Now to begin the next phase of this operation you will need to bring Inmahn to the consul so that I can activate the next code."
Otrall looked up at D'vork with questioning eyes. "Would you mind releasing the android from his duties, Captain? I wouldn't ask if it were not crucial to our mission."
D'vork addressed Sir Jeffus. "Only if I am told everything about this "mission"as you call it. I am not entirely convinced this is not just another wild project the Galactic Authorities have dreamed up to cover some fault of their own. I have my own program to follow, and my destination is my home on Gpuchk."
Sir Jeffus nodded. "Very well, Captain. At this point what I say is for your ears only. Further out from your own galaxy there is a threat so vast, no one can measure it. A huge invasion fleet is heading our way containing not hundreds but thousands of ships. They are roughly an earth year's travel away and travelling faster than any ship known to our galaxies. According to reports from our outmost observers they have an arsenal of weapons such as we have never seen, and have already decimated several hundred planets in their path. Where they came from is not known but they are heading straight for Gpuchk. We informed D'bactu as soon as we decided the thread was positive. One of our observer ships watched a planet destroyed by some kind of electrical field and sent the data back D'bactu before they too were destroyed."
"Which means they know they are being watched?"
"Yes, Captain. And we have no weapons of any description capable of defending ourselves with, except one."
"Yes, Captain; our only weapon of any size is Tadik and his brother. Imagine how much more of a threat these raiders will be if they find the other twin before we do."
"But how can they know about the twins?"
"Because we believe Quelina and her friends were in contact with something or someone on the outer reaches of space, and Tadik's twin and their father, wherever he is, are in grave danger."
D'vork shivered despite the warmth of the state cabin. "I'll fetch Inmahn."
As soon as the android arrived, Otrall's guard left the suite and D'vork locked the door. At the ambassador's request, the suite had been swept for any possible listening devices despite D'vork's assurance that the royal suite was the most secure place in the ship after the bridge. Nevertheless he obliged the ambassador without question. Otrall asked Inmahn to sit at the console and plug his communications cable into it. Sir Jeffus smiled at Inmahn. "Hello my friend, it is time for code Versont to be activated."
Inmahn nodded at the screen. "Hello Sir Jeffus. I will activate Versont as soon as you input the correct codes."
"Are you ready, Inmahn?"
"Ready when you are, sir."
"Here is the first code. 45/VST/3092849"
"First code correct and accepted."
"Second code. Aba-sec-alpha-397T3087"
D'vork noticed a change in Inmahn's composure; his body stiffening and his eyes glazing over. The android had gone into a state of deep communication with the console and was now under the complete control of Sir Jeffus. The Terran lord proceeded to enter further series of three codes, the last two by the use of the console at his end so that even Otrall and D'vork had no idea what the codes were. Inmahn was now a part of the console; a machine designed to digest the codes that had specific instructions. While Inmahn continued to process the codes, Sir Jeffus nodded at the screen. "It will take about twenty earth minutes for Inmahn to process the codes and be ready for the next part of the program. Meanwhile, Captain, I suggest you plot a course which will take you to the place where Versont's ship was attacked. If we are correct in our knowledge of Tadik's abilities, he should be able to gather such information from there which will give him a direction towards Versont's whereabouts and the people who took him."
"You seem very sure Captain Versont is alive."
"Oh yes, Captain. As Inmahn will explain, we have firm evidence of that. Tadik will also lead you to his brother."
The elders of the P'gourish tribe stood round the death bed of their dying leader and offered their silent prayer that their dear friend would not suffer for much longer. They offered their silent entreaties to the great god of Gpuchk that his journey into the arms of his ancestors would be a triumphant one. P'gark was old, older than any leaders before him. Only his belief, that the prophecies of old were about to be fulfilled, had kept him alive this long. Now he was only waiting for his adopted son to arrive from his long hunt for desperately needed meat and pelts for the slowly dwindling tribe. They lived in the coldest region of Gpuchk, their ancestors being outcasts from the warmer places when life was a lot harsher. The great D'bactu had long since given up trying to persuade the elders that they were no longer unwelcome. The younger members of the tribe had accepted the invitation to return to civilisation; and of the fifty original clans, only five remained, and most of the members were old and would remain till the last of them died.
There was movement at the entrance to the cave and P'gark's eldest son came lumbering in. "He's coming. What are we going to do?"
"We do nothing,"one of the elders replied. "We must let P'gark choose."
"But he is dying. What if he does not choose before he dies? We much choose now. I am the eldest of his sons; the leadership should be mine. It is my right."
"Silence!"a weak voice came from among them. P'gark's eyes were open and flashing with anger. "What kind of son have you been to me these last few years, P'chak? You have only been a son of P'gark when it suited you; while the dark one stayed here by my side and helped the tribe with no thought of his own well-being. He has been out there for four days, in the wild weather, looking for meat to sustain us and pelts to keep us warm; a job that was yours while you chose to stay by the comfort of your own hearth with your woman and your consorts. If I choose you, what kind of leader will you be?"
P'chak dropped down beside his father and snarled in his face. "That midget you call a friend is not one of us. No one here likes or understands the strange powers he has to heal us and read our minds; they are afraid of him. Look at the way he talks to the beasts; it is not natural. We cannot have an alien rule the tribe; you must name me as your successor before you die. Not doing so will cause us a lot of trouble when you go."
The ghost of a laugh rattled in P'gark's throat. "Trouble for you, you mean?"
Leaning over his father, P'chak knew no one could see his hands slide inside P'gark's furs. Suddenly P'gark's eyes and mouth opened wide as P'chak's fingers sought the nerves of his neck. His body stiffened for a moment before relaxing with a sigh, his head rolling to one side.
P'chak stood up and faced the elders. "P'gark is no more. Let the new leader be chosen."The look he gave each elder implied what would happen to anyone not voting for him. The leaders, in turn, lowered their gaze. They were old now, and knew they were in a minority compared with the younger members of the tribe who followed P'chak. They knew that anyone opposing P'chak would end up in bed one night with their throats cut. They turned to shuffle out of the cave. One by one, each of the camp-fires would be put out as a sign to the rest of the camp that their leader had died.
The dark one reached the top of the snow-covered hill and dropped the ropes of the heavy sled he had dragged more than three miles. Thankfully the blizzard had abated but he was still exhausted. Hunting on his own, for four days and nights, for fresh meat and pelts, had been no joke; and he wondered what kind of excuse P'chak would have this time for not accompanying him. He dropped to his knees in the snow and gazed down at the village below while he flexed stiffened muscles. Their homes were mostly caves dug deep into the frozen wasteland of Gpuchk's northern region, with tiny pinpoints of light giving away the camp fires. He glanced up at the darkening sky and checked the positions of the two moons; in one hour they would disappear and only the luminescence of the snow would shed any light on his homeward path; if he could call the place, he had lived in for as long as he could remember a home. He knew he was not a native of Gpuchk; one only had to compare him to the rest of the tribe. Where they were huge and very hairy, he was short and smooth skinned, but P'gark was the only father figure he had ever known. Before that had been the Rogoch, the native bears of Gpuchk. If they hadn't found him in the wreckage of the ship that crashed near their hide, he would have died in minutes.
Trapped inside his tiny safety pod, he had tried screaming to get someone's attention. When that failed he had tried hammering with his baby fists on the sides of the pod. When that failed as well, he had sent out thoughts to anyone out there. Then he had heard grunting and scratching. The pod had been literally torn open and claws had picked him up and snuggled him deep in a thick furry felt. All round him, huge beasts roared at his savour who had roared back in a higher voice. In time he had got to know that the beast who saved him was himself an orphan; taken in his kin when his own mother died. His savour had argued with his foster kin and they had agreed to take the new arrival to the nearest Gpuchk tribe. His savour had crept into the camp and left him outside a cave, moved back a few yards and roared his message to the tribe who had come out of their caves ready to chase the intruder from their camp. Then they had found him, wrapped in a warm pelt and crying of hunger. P'gark had taken him into his cave and, despite the rumblings of his children and the rest of the tribe, the old Gpuchkian had reared him as one of his own. Over the years they had grown close, even when the dark one had shown strange talents for healing and sensing danger, often saving the tribe from attacks from predators. Ah well; time to get moving boy; two more miles to go.
He rose to his feet, adjusted the cowl of his cloak to keep the icy blasts from his face, and grasped the ropes with hands already frozen inside his gloves. Inching the shed forward, he eased it over the top and made ready to jump on as it gathered momentum down the home slope, and wondered why it wouldn't budge. Looking over his shoulder he leapt back, startled as what he thought was a huge snow drift rose up with a roar. As he fell backwards in the snow, the animal pounced, mouth wide open and claws ready to rip him to shreds then stopped a few inches above him, his bellow changing to a friendly growl of greeting as the dark one found himself lifted into the air and shook till his teeth rattled. "Hey, put me down you stupid Rogoch. Aaaagh! No, that tickles; let me down."Laughing and helpless, the dark one tried to wriggle free of the claws that dug through his cloak. So much for teaching this mountain of fur that tickling was fun. The polar white Rogoch gathered the dark one into a friendly hug, his growl turning into a deep purr. "Eeeww! You've been eating Borbag again. Pheeewww! Borbag breath!"Suddenly the dark one found himself dumped into a mound of soft snow and showered with more as the Rogoch churned up more into a blizzard of his own making.
"Okay, okay, I know you're excited to see me back but can we get home with this load before -."The dark one's mouth filled with snow and he sputtered as he tried to dig his way out, spitting the snow from his mouth. "Just you wait, you overgrown rug, I'll get you for this. In fact you can pull the sled home."The Rogoch rumbled his protest. "Yes, you heard me. Come on Baka, huphup!"The Rogoch lumbered forward till he was within the harness, lifted it up to chest height then grabbed the dark one and tossed him onto his back. Once he was safe and settled behind the Rogoch's great head, the dark one gave him a dig with the heels of his boots and urged the huge beast forward. They were half way down the slope when the dark one noticed the camp-fires going out one by one. Something was wrong in the village. A chill ran through his body as he urged Baka into a faster gait.
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