In a burst of scintillation the ship emerged from subspace.
It was high above the planetary plane, beyond the gravity well of the small yellow star. The ship's secondary shield grid flared in violet discharge, then stabilized. It paused, oriented itself and moved deliberately down into the inner system toward the bright points of a double world. It slowed as the twin horns began to resolve out of blackness--one gray the other brilliant blue-white. The ship made one terminator orbit around the moon before it moved toward the dark side to hang above a narrow valley of the north pole where it waited. Below, twisted masts reached up amid the radial pattern of the base. Shrouded in shadow the base was dark and silent, cold like the cliffs that surrounded it. After a time the ship rose and slowly moved away.
It climbed above the terminator and was greeted by a blue crescent of a sleeping world. The northern ice cap was enveloped under untidy cloud that stretched its angry whorls into night. In a burst of speed the ship vanished into the black shadow of the waiting world. It moved into a polar orbit as the planet shifted ponderously beneath it. It made a single circuit, looking for the sentinel cruiser, noting the scanning sensor probes from the ground. It found the cruiser hanging above the equator. The ship maneuvered until both flew silently side by side in a locked orbit.
* * * *
"Status?" Kukll-nn demanded with an impatient growl.
Oryana lifted her head gracefully and looked where he stood before the high window, hands clasped tightly behind his back.
"They're sending down a landing boat," she said, her voice soft and musical, now slightly breathless. Her black eyebrows were arched and traced a thin line above large brown eyes. She pulled at her small pointed chin with a slim delicate hand and turned back to the main display plate positioned above the sloping consoles. The tactical grid dissolved and the image reformed into a wide-angle pattern. She glanced absently at the small repeater plates and sighed dreamily.
"A ship from home! I wonder how much things have changed," she mused, eyes misty, lost in memory. Absently, she fondled the long, white tresses that spilled across her shoulders. Down the middle of her head the hair was streaked with twin bands of dark gray of a mature Deklan female.
Kukll-nn stood silently beside the window, his eyes far in another reality. The observatory gave him an excellent view of the city below. The lake, its black waters lapping softly against the massive stone walls, stretched north and west as far as the eye could see. Shrouded in blue haze the mountains arched toward a violet sky. Ice and snow capped the peaks, shouldering the lower slopes. How fragile, he thought, almost brittle in their stark and serene beauty. So much like his native Kaplan. He shook his head, surprised at the nostalgia that had overcome him.
"All continental stations reported in two minutes ago," he heard Oryana say behind him. "The intruder has matched with our ship and is maintaining neutral status."
The Center was quiet, waiting, the stillness interrupted by the whisper of computer reports and an occasional shuffling of feet from the watchstanders.
For a few seconds there was silence. Oryana stared at Kukll's back, then climbed out of her seat and walked slowly to the window to stand beside him. Following his gaze, she watched the natives busy at their work. He was lord of this world and now it was all ended. They had been expecting this and some of them probably even welcomed it. But as the years marched the waiting had not grown easier.
She looked at his reflection in the window and the face she saw was hard. It was a rough face full of slabs, chiseled with deep lines of power and determination. A face used to command. His hair was rusty, shot through with patches of white. It had lost some of the gloss that used to make her breath catch. But the years had been kind to all of them, she thought, as she gazed at him with deep affection. And there have been so many years. Too many perhaps to face what they had left behind.
"Do you really think that is necessary?" she asked gently and reached up with her hand, hesitating before touching his shoulder.
He tensed at her touch and turned to look at her, faintly amused. "Don't you? Yes...I can see it in your face. All the years we have spent here has not removed the longing. You still yearn for the worlds of Deklan. And me..." The fire in his black eyes waned and his jaw lifted with resolve. "Those worlds are no longer ours," he grated, each word a blow and she flinched. Slowly, he raised his hand and pointed a stubby finger at the ceiling. "That ship up there hasn't come to help us, remember that. You ask if Sachmm-nn is necessary. We shall see. Now, order it to power up and stand by."
Hurt, she turned to the operator behind one of the consoles. When he nodded to her, she looked at Kukll-nn.
"They have acknowledged," she said stiffly, torn with warring emotions.
They watched the city in silence. After a while, he turned to stare into the deep pools of her eyes and gently brushed her cheek.
"I'm sorry, Oryana. I shouldn't have spoken to you like that. It's only?"
"Don't." She clasped his hand and held it. "I understand. But..." She left it unsaid. What was there to say when the yesterdays suddenly came crowding.
"We better go and meet them," he said at length and managed a faint smile that did not touch his eyes.
* * * *
The voice from the temple boomed and the people stopped their work and stood silent in the streets, markets, homes and farms. The gods were speaking. Leoichan, High Priest of Tiahunn-cc, heard the voice and listened. As he listened, his excitement grew. When the voice stopped, he ordered the priests to send a message to the king and gather the people to send them to the star nest. The gods were coming!
Slowly, then with hurried fervor, chanting, the people moved down the broad avenues toward the star nest where the gods would come. The King, the High Priest, the Oracle and the multitude of peasantry waited at the gates of Tiahunn-cc. Black marble doors rumbled as they slid open. Clad in tight red coveralls, Kukll-nn emerged. Oryana was at his side dressed in blue. The people held their arms high and sang the names of the two gods. With slow dignity the gods mounted an air chariot and began to move. The populace shouted and danced and walked with them toward the star nest.
The valley walls fell away and the baked plain opened before them. Leoichan began the sixth chant of observance as he stared in awe at the two metal birds perched on their stone pads, surrounded by spidery towers. The minions of the gods moved about on flat air chariots and Leoichan watched it all and chanted.
Assembled, they murmured and waited, eyes fixed on the heavens from where the gods would come. A deep rumble shook the air and the ground trembled. The heavenly bird glittered in white light high above them. Leoichan began the eleventh chant and the priests around him held their arms high.
Clad with fire and light, it was like a star descending. With thunder that shook the heavens, white smoke billowing, the heavenly bird fell quickly. It slowed and hovered for an instant, screaming in tortured anger, then it touched the pad. The fires stopped and thunder echoed around the hills. The smoke drifted slowly down the valley. In the sudden silence only the chanting could be heard.
The bird sat there breathing hot air, shimmering in the haze and everyone waited for the gods to emerge. Leoichan turned shyly and smiled at Kukll-nn and Oryana, proud to be near them. They smiled back and he felt warmed in his soul.
A hush fell over the crowd when one of the towers began to slowly move toward the bird. Kukll and Oryana mounted their air chariot and sped quickly down toward the baked plain.
Leoichan watched the chariot stop at the base of the tower. The gods climbed down and stood before the bird, waiting. A box descended within the tower. When it stopped, doors opened and he stood there, tall, his hair bright red and his clothing was silver. When Kukll-nn saluted, Leoichan gaped, his surprise complete. The other stared back a long time before returning the salute.
* * * *
Kukll allowed his hand to fall to his side as his eyes raked over the thin form of his visitor. The man's long hands swayed and his fingers twitched in characteristic agitation. His small yellow eyes darted restlessly as they moved over everything. Hidden behind bushy orange eyebrows, they glinted with cold fire. The face was pale white and pinched, fixed with a thin nose. There was arrogance and hidden cruelty in that face. The twin bands of thick red hair were rich and prominent. Kukll decided that they were not going to get along.
"Master Scout Kukll-nn, and my executive officer, First Scout Oryana," Kukll said evenly, trying to keep the distaste out of his voice. The man was a political busybody and the quicker he dealt with him the better. "I see Prima Scout, that the Serrll Combine has not forgotten us after all."
"No, they have not forgotten, Master Scout," the other grated heavily and looked about him pointedly. "I am Virrchaa, on a special Executive Council Mission to look you over."
"Look me over or take me over? I suppose I should be flattered, but after nineteen years, taking into account four time dilation jumps, you will have to forgive me if the excitement has kind of warn off."
"I should imagine." Virrchaa snorted and swept his hand before him. "Holy Master of Sin, man! What have you done to this world?"
Kukll glanced at the assembled multitude. "I have brought it life."
"I'm not in any mood for your worm shit!" Virr growled and lead the way to the sled-pad. "Let's talk."
* * * *
"Is that all?" Virr said with icy politeness as his fingers drummed impatiently against the desk.
Kukll nodded and took a sip from a frosted tumbler. "I guess that's about the size of it, Prima Scout."
Virr glared at Oryana, but she was suddenly busy studying her nails. He pushed back his chair and started pacing. Kukll sat back and a faint smile creased his chiseled face. Whatever Virr expected, he certainly didn't like what he found.
With a growl of exasperation, Virr stopped before the wide window. The city below was spread before him in neat patterns. It looked simple, belaying the sophistication of its design.
"You were sent here on a follow-up survey mission," he hissed impatiently and turned to glare at Kukll. "And that was all!"
"That sounded okay nineteen years ago," Kukll pointed out.
Virr pursed his lips. "Look at it from my point of view. I break out of subspace and I think that maybe I'm in the wrong system. There is no SC&C, no patrols, nothing. And the moon base? Abandoned. You were sent here to watch them, not mold them!"
Kukll shrugged and reached for the decanter. He filled the tumbler, stared at it for a moment, then looked up, his mouth hard.
"The bases on this world were set up for one reason and one reason only, genetic engineering experiments. And don't tell me that you didn't know. So let's drop this indignant posturing nonsense, shall we? We don't need to pretend here."
Virr exhaled and bared his teeth. "I expect a measure of respect from you, Master Scout!"
Kukll laughed. "What are you going to do? Send me home?"
Virr glared, pursed his lips and turned to stare out the window. "They look happy down there. How much do they know?"
Kukll glanced at Oryana. "They know that I teach and heal. When necessary, I punish. I leave it at that."
"How many other bases?"
"Two. One farther north and one on the western land mass across the ocean. We had a base on the southern island continent, but there was a reactor accident and we had to abandon it."
"They are developing. Not as fast as predicted, though. That's being looked into. The western continent is dry and getting worse. Here, we have a chance and the polar ice is receding."
Virr turned and looked directly at Kukll. "You will shut down all bases and terminate the experiments."
"Does that mean the natives as well?" Kukll asked calmly.
"This doesn't come from me."
"Tell me one thing. If the Executive Council intended to close us down, why the regular resupply ships? In all my years here there has never been even a hint of abandoning the project."
"I don't know?"
"Don't give me that! Not after coming all this way. What happened to make everyone suddenly want to salve their conscience? Look at them!" Kukll swept a hand at the window and stood up. "That's an indigenous population and this planet is a protectorate. You are sworn to defend what is here."
Virr smiled grimly. "You are right. The natives will be left alone. They can struggle on as best they can. But this," he said and looked about him, "this has to go and you will return to Captal for a well deserved rest."
Kukll glanced at Oryana and chuckled. It was a mirthless laugh full of irony.
"What do you think of that, my dear?" He looked at Virr and shook his head. "No, Prima Scout. It won't be that easy. Our work here is not finished yet. Too many things still need to be done to ensure the native's survival."
"You like being a god, Kukll?" Virr studied the other man, past the mask of a Serrll officer at the mantle of power that radiated from him.
"A god?" Kukll lifted his head in genuine surprise. "You are a fool to think that, Virr. This, for what we have left back home? I am prepared to return. We all are. Holy Master of Sin, who wouldn't be? But only if the Mission Plan is maintained and we are replaced. Only if the Mission Plan is maintained," he repeated, his voice flat and uncompromising.
Virr shook his head. "I cannot do that. You know that. My orders are clear."
"And you don't have the guts to do the right thing."
"Even if I sent a message to the Executive Council pleading your case, my orders will not be rescinded. They don't have any reason to."
"Who the hell cares? By the time you get back, how many months will have gone?"
"Seventy-three days. We can do two hundred times the speed of light now."
"At max boost perhaps, but you can't push max for that long. Anyway, that's long enough for the Council to change its mind. Think, man! This goes beyond mere political expediency or this experiment would never have been allowed to continue."
"There is nothing I can do," Virr said flatly. "You will begin preparation for immediate evacuation, Master Scout."
"I have a ship up there and this place is defended," Kukll said softly.
Virr stared. "You mean that?"
Kukll's eyes were cold with resolve.