Chapter One of The Search for KalidEdit
...exactly the same technology can be used for good and for evil.
It is as if there were a God who said to us
"I set before you two ways:
you could use your technology to destroy yourselves
or to carry on to the planets and the stars. It's up to you."
Carl Sagan. Last words from Cosmos update, chapter 13.
“Is this the planet we are looking for?” asked Leone, his voice indicated disbelief and disappointment.
“Yes, it is. At last we have reached the planet of Kalid, the Wise One,” Aristark answered.
Leone smiled at Aristark's choice of words. They had both taken to using Sybil's colorful language to refer to Kalid...it helped relieve the tension they were feeling on this mysterious journey through space. Leone wondered yet again: what had Sybil hoped to achieve by trying to hide their destination? It had not been at all hard to figure it out...
Leone and Aristark were two Counselors on their home planet, Sakkara. They were desperately looking for the great man called Kalid and were now moving close enough to the planet to be able to watch it through the windows of their “Thot” spaceship. Leone had been placed on this course by what Sybil had told him about Kalid.
Leone began remembering the scene of his recent meeting with Sybil, at the usual place, her home on Sakkara. Upon arriving at Sybil's large country estate, Leone had found that the landing platform beside her house was already full. However, the navigation system of Leone's flitter showed that Sybil's robot, Glen, was in the field behind the house signaling with a portable navbeacon that Leone should land out there.
Leone had come to know Glen during previous visits to Sybil's estate. His great bulk and brutish silence were disturbing at first, but Leone had developed a feeling that the robot's silence was misleading. With time Leone had realized that inside his rather clunky frame there was a dynamic intellect and a storehouse of wisdom about gardening and all the details required to keep Sybil's large estate neat and functional.
After landing, Leone climbed out of his flitter and followed Glen across the field and up towards the house. Rather than proceed to the main house they stopped at an annex or wing of modern design that Leone had not previously noticed. The annex was nestled among the trees immediately behind the main house. Peering through the thick growth of trees, Leone could see that the annex was connected to the main house by a glass-walled hallway that ran down the slope at the back of the house. Glen led Leone up a shaded walk way and thorough a side door of the annex. Glen left Leone there, waiting for Sybil to come down from the main house.
At first, Leone had waited impatiently for Sybil in a small closed room with only one small window. As a Planetary Counselor, Leone did not often have to wait for others. Leone was particularly anxious and impatient because he was acting on orders from the head of the Galactic Antiquist Party, orders that had come as a surprise to Leone. Orders that were an urgent response to crisis. While waiting for Sybil, Leone contacted his office where he served as Planetary Counselor for Transportation. He received an update on the investigation into the space elevators disaster and authorized a few requests from his subordinates. Having caught up on urgent matters, Leone broke the connection to his office and wondered if he should have remained there and sent one of his staff members on this mission. No...this was what Ketar had insisted on. Leone was still puzzled...how had Ketar even come to be aware of Sybil?
Leone was tired of waiting in the ridiculously tiny room. He wondered if Glen had known what he was doing by bringing him here. When it became clear that Glen intended to leave him in the waiting room, Leone had objected loudly even while knowing that Glen was an ancient model of robot without the ability to speak and explain itself. Really, it was absurd for anyone to still be using a robot that could not speak! The waiting room was not much larger than a closet, but it did have a window. However, the window was completely over-grown with a shrub and there was nothing to see but foliage.
After waiting in the room for a while longer, Leone's paranoia got the better of him and he checked the door in order to see if he was locked inside. It was not locked: the door opened upon an utterly silent hallway. The opposite side of the hallway was made of curved plastiglass panels that arched above to form half of the ceiling. Through the glass only trees and bushes could be seen, densely surrounding the annex building. He shrugged, closed the door and resigned himself to waiting there for Sybil. It was clear from all the flitters parked at her landing platform that Sybil was entertaining guests...he had been silly to think he could command her undivided attention on short notice.
Finally, Sybil's female assistant, Portia, opened the door and said, "Oh, here you are! What could Glen have been thinking to stick you in here? Hello, Counselor. I'm sorry to keep you waiting out here, but this is a busy day. I'm running around like a lunatic trying to keep everyone happy. Please follow me. I'll take you to a much nicer room...where you should have been all along!"
Portia, who was very pretty, released Leone from the small waiting room and led him down the hall. Leone said, "I was presumptuous to assume that I could drop in without an appointment."
Portia shook her head, "No, do not say that! You are welcome here at any time. Sybil will be with you soon. I've been terribly busy attending to the other guests, or I would have been here sooner." Portia led Leone into Sybil's meeting room, which was more comfortable than the tiny waiting room. Portia chuckled and flashed her impish smile at Leone, "Sometimes Glen plays little tricks on humans when he is annoyed! Glen knew you were to wait in here...rest assured, I'll chastise that silly bot!"
Leone was amused to see that Portia could be irked by the machine. He chuckled and said, "Thank you for defending me against that robotic trickster, but no harm was done. I had to check in with my office, anyhow. I imagined I was in ancient times, using a phone booth!"
Portia had never heard of a "phone booth", but she knew Leone, like Sybil, was a student of ancient history. Portia tittered and said, "On a less busy day you can explain to me what a phone booth is, but today I must run," and she left him there, once again waiting, alone. After Portia closed the door and silence enveloped Leone he had the feeling that he had just been visited by a forest nymph. Portia moved like a wild animal, maybe a cat, silently moving with great efficiency. Leone thought: yes, a visit to Sybil's estate always brought a sense of unreality and magic.
Leone tried to get comfortable, but his chair was not designed for comfort. It was all wood, in the ancient style of Earth, with mysterious symbols from ancient times carved into the arms and back of the chair. Leone was wondering how Sybil had come to believe so much obscure spiritual stuff... although she would say it was not obscure at all. Leone knew he had a tendency to drift towards fear of what seemed to be irrational beliefs, but Sybil was an eloquent defender of her spiritual beliefs and she insisted that there was certainly nothing dark or evil about them.
Sybil had seemed to be a very skeptical woman when Leone had attended university with her. Her disciplined and scientific approach to history was something that Leone had admired. Leone tried to look back across the years and he now felt it was doubtful that he would have ever gotten involved with a mystic. Leone looked around the room and shook his head in disbelief...had she changed over the years or had she always been the same and just hidden her odd beliefs back in the days when they were in school together?
The room was lit by candles of several colors and there were many small statues (shabtis) from Ancient Egypt. All the surfaces and shelves of the room held relics, amulets and what seemed to be Tarot cards. The walls were decorated with dozens of paintings that seemed to have been inspired by images used on Tarot cards. It seemed that Sybil had a special interest in divination and maybe that unusual erudition was useful for her work. When she met with people in this room and gave them counseling maybe she included divination arts in her practices. However, in parallel to all the cartomancy images, the room also contained a perfectly modern virtual reality computer interface. Leone was amazed to see such a weird combination of spirituality and technology.
Except for the irritation caused by the uncushioned chair, Leone felt very comfortable in the room. He tried to decide if the positive feelings were just from being near to Sybil, but he thought it was really the room itself. It was very small and warm. The way it was illuminated showed that Sybil was an artist. There was a large window behind Sybil's desk (the inside could not be seen from the outside, for security reasons) and Leone could now see the oddly tinted glow of twilight produced by Memphis light shining through more of the Sakkaran atmosphere. He always felt a sense of vacuum or something mystical when near Sybil, like longing for something that could not be. Maybe it was that his unconscious mind could not understand everything around Sybil, all that spirituality made him experience a sense of magic... Or maybe Sybil indeed had some aura around her, something that could linger in her wake like a scent... it seemed like some essence of Sybil had impregnated this room and then somehow took on a life of its own. But no, he would not believe such things.
These thoughts of Sybil tricked his mind and he imagined he could hear her saying, "You're a silly boy." Leone wondered: was that the first thing she had ever said to me, back when we were in school? At last, Sybil arrived and he could then actually smell her soft scent and it triggered many pleasant memories for him, sweet memories of old times.
Sybil rushed into the room and spoke even before she was fully through the door, "Hi, Leone. I'm sorry I kept you waiting." She moved quickly past Leone and around to the other side of her desk. "It is nice to see you again," said Sybil, a white witch for many, although she called herself "Priestess of Iris".
Leone was disappointed that Sybil had her hair covered by some kind of scarf and the hood of her robe, but he forced himself to smile. "Yes, I am glad to see you, too. How are you?"
Sybil sat down, but she seemed to barely touch her chair as if expecting to soon jump up again. She replied, "Fine. I was promptly notified that you needed to see me, but this is a very busy day." She glanced around the room and seemed to smile at her private thoughts. "I'm sorry I had to exile you over here in this wing, but the house is nearly full of out of town visitors today....I'm hosting a retreat." All of the top ranking members of Silver Tulipan had gathered in order to confer about Set and the dangers he posed. In recent days the Sakkaran government had been amplifying the public's fears by openly calling Set an "evil terrorist". Of particular concern was new intelligence indicating that Set had learned that "Silver Tulipan" was just a front organization designed to hide their true affiliation with the secretive Haldus Order. The Executive Circle had reached a decision about their course of action just minutes earlier. Within the Order there was a prophecy about a terrible abuser of mental power who would come from outside the Order. Sybil had argued before the Executive Circle that Set was that Evil One.
Sybil locked her eyes on Leone's and asked, "So this is about Set again?"
Leone assumed that Sybil was hosting a retreat for members of the "Silver Tulipan Order". The Sakkaran government's intelligence service had carefully investigated Sybil when she had first involved herself with the on-going investigation of the space elevators disaster. The intelligence service reported that Sybil was a high-ranking member of the Silver Tulipan. Leone nodded in response to her question. He was uncertain what he should say and wondered briefly if he should remind her of their past conversations about Set. While he had waited, Leone had felt some guilt for taking Sybil away from her guests, but now he was put at ease by the warmth and concern in her voice. It was clear to him that even if this was a bad day for him to visit, her thoughts were now totally here and focused on Leone.
Leone was pleased and sensed that they could seamlessly continue the subject of conversation from their previous meeting....although the situation on Sakkara had gone completely out of control during the intervening weeks. Two high ranking Department of Justice officials involved in the investigation of the space elevators disaster had been found dead. It was suspected that they had been tortured before they died in order to obtain secrets. The bodies had been found in Aristark's family grave plot with a message demanding action in the investigation. A terrorist organization called "Towering Justice" took responsibility for the deaths. The "Towering Justice" group had previously been linked to the Futurist Party and Set. But those events had not been made public and Leone reminded himself to not say too much to Sybil about government secrets.
Those thoughts passed quickly through Leone's mind before he replied, "Yes. Our spies have informed us that Set is planning to significantly extend his operations. We have learned that as a prelude to spreading his evil campaign beyond this world, he plans an invasion of this planet... very soon. Our latest intelligence suggests that he intends to take Sakkara by force and then use this world as his base of operations from which he will launch attacks on other planets."
Sybil seemed to effortlessly adjust her thinking to this new reality that was as yet known to only a select few, a reality that should have been a shock to any Sakkaran who had lived for decades in peace and calm. Sybil nodded, showing no surprise, and Leone wondered if Set's plans were already known to her. Sybil spoke without hesitation, "Then we need to act faster than him. Our only hope is that you contact Kalid... he is the Great Master of the Haldus Order. If you work with Kalid then it might be possible to defend Sakkara against Set.”
“The Haldus Order?” Leone asked in disbelief. "I thought it was extinct many years ago." When he had been ordered to go to Sybil for help, he had been doubtful that Sybil could be of any real use, but she seemed confident that there was a way to respond to the threat posed by Set. However, could her judgment be trusted?
“Yes, for outsiders it seemed to have vanished, but that was an illusion created for security reasons,” Sybil answered. “The Order has been hidden all this time. Kalid is now the Great Master of the Haldus Order, so we must seek his counsel immediately. You must contact Kalid and get him to help us with our mission to defeat Set, but the main problem we have is that we are not sure of his whereabouts. Nobody on Sakkara knows for certain. As you may know, Set has erroneously assumed that our Order was involved in the destruction of the Elevators and he has murdered some of our members. Kalid and others in our Order have retreated from Sakkara and are in hiding. I think I know the location of the planet where Kalid is hiding, but now we have little time, and there is great danger if Set becomes aware of our plans.”
Leone forced himself to keep a straight face..."Silver Tulipan Order" and "Haldus Order", it was all the same, Leone thought: foolish play acting and mysticism engaged in by adults who should grow up and return to reality. However, Leone bit his tongue and kept his scornful thoughts to himself. “Which planet is that?” asked Leone.
The name of the planet was ‘Veritas Flammis’. It was called just Flammis by most who knew of its existence, but Sybil did not want to mention that word. She replied, "I don't think the planet has a name. It is just a place to hide."
“Well, how will I find this nameless planet?” asked Leone. He doubted if Sybil had ever left Sakkara to go traveling among the stars. She probably had no idea of the wealth of information that existed in the astrogation databases...facts and information about every star system and planet that had ever been visited. “In all my years as an interstellar pilot I have traveled to half the known planets." Of course, those were all populated and well-known planets. There were far more planets with no life and little importance to human settlers. "Maybe this hiding place has a name in the planetary records, or at least a navigation entry such as 'h.7463.1'.”
Sybil shook her head. “No. Even if it has a name or a number we cannot use it. It is a secret planet and I do not want to risk anyone but you knowing anything about it.”
Leone noticed that Sybil was no longer looking into his eyes. Was she hiding something? Leone asked, “Secret planet?" Sometimes Sybil seemed to exist in a fantasy world. "Nothing about a planet can be secret. Do you mean that nobody has bothered to colonize this planet?” As far as Leone knew, the hundreds of worlds with human populations were all cataloged and part of a single galactic culture....of course, new worlds were constantly being found and colonized. Some of those newly colonized planets were used by space pirates and other barbarians, but eventually the traders pushed outward and brought every inhabited planet into the network of human civilization.
Sybil tried to invent a story that would satisfy Leone's curiosity. “Long ago our Order tried to colonize this secret world, but that little colony did not last long. Still, it is a world known to us and in emergencies, and for special purposes, our people still sometimes visit there. Our most advanced Masters sometimes go there just to meditate. Think of this world as our sacred mountain top, if you like, a hidden sanctuary. It is a planet well within the boundaries of the explored region of the galaxy, so I suppose it does exist in some databases, but we want to draw no attention to it. Our people there always hide when explorers and traders happen to visit that star system, so everyone outside of our Order thinks it is an abandoned world, of no importance.”
“That is completely absurd. Are you saying that they hid themselves or that they hid the planet? Either is quite impossible. Nobody can hide from the scanners of exploration ships, not even with quantum shields operating on each of the 11-dimensions..."
“What you speak of are limitations of material science, but nothing is impossible by spiritual means. Nevertheless, they did not hide it fully. When the Masters detected spaceships that were close, they simply sent false data to those ships. The crews of those ships had indeed seen a planet there, but their instruments did not show anything interesting; just void and rock. They could not see any signs of life in that planet because the Masters created a powerful illusion. The Masters used their mental powers to confound the sophisticated detectors of those ships, and so nobody outside of our Order ever knew about the continuing use of our little sanctuary world... all the visitors to that star system just moved on.”
“An optical illusion the size of a planet? You are full of amusing gossip! I don't believe in that... "mental powers"... it is nonsense. I feel that you believe it, you think you are telling the truth, but maybe someone invented that story and has tricked you into believing it. Sybil, I remember that in the past you were skeptical and sensible, but this Priesthood stuff seems to have changed you. Someone MUST know about this "secret" planet. Believe me. Nothing and no one escapes the attention of the stellar cartographers, ever. Even the smallest worthless asteroid goes into a database, even if only listed as a navigation hazard.”
“No, it is not the way you think. I am still a skeptical thinker, but I have seen strong evidence for mental powers... Unfortunately I cannot show you the evidence I have seen because it is protected by my vows and I will always protect the sanctity of the spiritual knowledge of the Haldus Order. It is not for me to decide, but Kalid may show you some of his skills, if he trusts you. Anyway, the scanners and other technologies that you trust are not infallible. There are stronger forces than physical force in this universe. Particularly, the Masters use Mental Powers which are superior to all the science we could ever have. As long as the Masters remain undetected, they will be able to... Oh, I am saying too much. The point is that Kalid is probably there, on our secret sanctuary world, hidden from the hands of Set...and his mental probing.”
Leone was astonished to hear Sybil extending her "Mental Powers" fantasy to include Set. What did she mean by "his mental probing?" Leone sighed and scratched his head. “And how will I find this 'secret' planet where these 'Masters' are hidden? Will my navigation devices detect this secret sanctuary, will my scanners lead me to the Masters?”
“You will need to have a special device installed on your spaceship. That way the Masters will think that you are from our Order and thus they will not hide from you. You are not actually from our Order, but you will help us on this mission, so you can carry it for a while. My servants will install the identification beacon on your ship. Also, the machinery we install in your ship will control the hyperspace jump so that you will not need to know the coordinates of your destination. As soon as my technicians install the needed equipment in your ship you must be ready to depart at once...we are short of time. I fear that Set will soon attack Sakkara and destroy the Haldus Order. Kalid can no longer hide, he must act to defend the Order.”
Leone thought Sybil was silly if she believed in "mental powers", but he was starting to wonder if she might actually know some useful secrets about Set. If what she had told him today was correct then the Haldus Order was engaged in some kind of war with Set. If so, then Leone could begin to understand why Ketar had sent him to visit Sybil. Yes, it might make sense that the "solution" to the "problem of Set" might be to form a coalition that could combine what Kalid knew about Set with the power of the Antiquist Party. Yes, that just might work, but Leone was still struggling to believe the idea that Set and Sybil's friends had "mental powers". He asked sarcastically, “A special device? Wow, I am amazed... If the Masters have those superb 'mental powers', they should detect my mind and know you had sent me. Even right now they..."
Sybil smiled at Leone's attempt to make fun of the Order. She said calmly, "The powers do not work that way".
Leone was annoyed by her appearance of smug confidence. "Because they don't work at all! I'm sorry, but everything you say about these 'mental powers' is too strange. It just makes me want to laugh, but I have to trust you, for the moment, and have faith in your claims about these 'Masters' being able to help us." Leone shook his head in wonder at this predicament. How had it come to this, a man of science being forced to listen to "mental powers" nonsense from a "Priestess"?
Of course, Leone knew how this odd state of affairs had come about. Ketar, the head of the Galactic Antiquist Party, had ordered Leone to visit Sybil. Leone had been specifically tasked by Ketar to act on the advice of Sybil. If Leone wanted to remain in good standing with the Party he had to trust Sybil. What helped Leone to have faith in Sybil was the fact that he had known her when they were young. For a few years in their youth they had been close friends.
For Leone it was hard enough to trust anyone since the recent gruesome murders of several Antiquist Party members, but it was particularly difficult to swallow this story about a "powerful illusion" that could not be penetrated by the scanners used by space explorers and survey teams... "I will go in a search of Kalid because I have no other option, so far. I can only hope that these "Masters" you speak of will help us against the Evil One...”
When Leone left her, Sybil felt a sensation like cold vacuum inside. That empty sensation revived old memories; it was the same sensation of loss she had always felt after being with Leone. She knew it was not about love...or was it? After their time together at university they had gone their own ways in life and she had forgotten him, but now, with all of Sakkara dealing with Set's madness, they had been thrown together again and the feelings came back stronger than ever.
No, it was not love, it was another feeling, as if they were "connected" in some way. Fate, perhaps? Sometimes it seemed like she could read his mind, for instance, saying the same sentence Leone was about to say... Of course using different words, but maintaining the same message. Now she examined her feelings carefully and Sybil realized she was a little worried about Leone's safety; this was something new that she could not explain. It was obvious that Leone would find Kalid, no? And Set knew nothing about Flammis or Kalid, so why was she worried and why had she mentioned the idea that Set might become aware of their plans?
Now that the Executive Circle had come to a decision, it should be simple to contact Kalid...really, where would he hide except on Flammis? However, somehow, try as she might, she could not picture Leone meeting Kalid in Flammis, or any where... her mind seemed to reject the very idea. Maybe she was paying too much attention to her intuition. Intuition can be misleading sometimes, but this time it seemed that her feelings were particularly strong.
The only way to actually know Leone's future would be to use divination, but she was trying to avoid that practice. Master Kalid had warned her about not abusing the gods' counseling. Sybil thought: in this universe we have to use our mind and exercise our free will in order to live and survive. Divination of the future and asking the counsel of higher entities is not the only way to solve a problem. Kalid had emphasized the idea that sometimes divination can cause more trouble than it is worth... it can be better just to muddle through a challenge by thinking about challenges and tasks, each in their own time as they came to one. And maybe he was right.
Long ago, Sybil had once paid too much attention to her insights and made a wrong decision, thinking her intuition was about the future... and apparently it was not. So, she had stopped using divination. So now she firmly decided that she would not try to find out about Leone's destiny. It was more than just prudence... in the depth of her mind, she was a little superstitious about trying to foretell the future again. Her uneasiness arose from an idea that had come to her from outside of Teaching... she had read somewhere the idea that divination can actually create the future. As the universe was based on quantum mechanics, by watching the future she could become an observer and create particles that would fix her fate. If true, that meant what she saw in a vision or through cards could make the people involved choose some path just because she had already seen it. Of course, we can observe alternate futures... but she was very afraid of the possibility of causing an unwanted future ever since she had found out about her father's death prior to it actually happening.
Her father... how much she missed him. People said that everything changed with time and that time can make people forget their losses or eventually push one out of a depressive state after the death of a relative. But it was not true, at least for her. Every month and year that passed made her remember her father more and more. No spiritual method, Vichido or Ankhido technique had ever helped her. She was even thinking of going to a psychiatrist in order to get some relief from her grief, but she knew she had to try to live with it and not try to avoid it. Death is the other side of life, the aspect that gives meaning to life itself. However, repeating such rationalistic mantras did not work because her rational mind could not accommodate her feelings about the interplay between life and death. When she thought down this path she always started remembering that it was her father who had decided her destiny. She had only reluctantly agreed to be what she was, a Priestess. Anyway, her father had never seen her enter the Haldus Order because his injuries rushed him to his death before she could complete her training. That theft by death was just too painful so she forced herself not to think about her father and by force of will she replaced those painful thoughts with a memory of how she had met Kalid for the first time.....
After remembering the conversation with Sybil, Leone’s mind came back to the present and he began to look for visible surface features on the planet they were approaching. They were now near enough so that the world could be seen up close and it filled most of the window, blocking out the star field beyond. The ship's long-range scan had indicated that it was a small terrestrial planet, so theoretically people could survive there, but it was completely green. A Green planet! The planet was not "green" in the sense of "full of life" or endowed with a rich ecosystem and green plants... no, this was a Green planet due to an exotic chemical process in the atmosphere. As an experienced space traveler, Leone was familiar with the idea that this kind of strange color on planets was due to the fact that such worlds had their atmosphere contaminated by a green goo, a type of destructive and uncontrolled nanite. Such green planets were generally assumed to be uninhabitable.
So Leone was shocked and disappointed. What kind of crazy mission was this to a dead planet? Well, at least the planet existed, but there was nothing in his ship's navigation database about an inhabited planet at these coordinates. The whole trip now seemed like a stupid joke.
As soon as they had completed the jump to this star system from Sakkara, Aristark and Leone had ordered Thot to determine their location. By identifying the positions of certain features of the galaxy such as pulsars, it was easy to determine one's position. They quickly learned that this star system was listed in the general astrogation catalog as star system h.1263522. Then, as soon as they knew that they were in the h.1263522 system, Aristark had transmitted their location to Ketar....so much for Sybil's great secrecy about their destination.
However, Sybil was right, in part. It seemed that the stellar cartographers did not know about this world's importance to the Haldus Order. If this planet had ever been colonized, as claimed by Sybil, then apparently the cartographers felt that fact was simply too unimportant to note in the standard astrogation catalog. Still, it was odd that the fact of this world being a Green planet was not mentioned in the catalog of planets. If nothing else, Green planets were notable as something to be avoided. Had this planet become "green" recently, since the time when this star system had last been visited by anyone from outside the Haldus Order? That seemed unlikely. Leone thought: maybe the Haldus Order did have some special technology for hiding bases from the sensors of spaceships. If Sybil was to be believed, the "Masters" could hide things by using their "mental powers", but, more likely, they just had enough money to bribe officials and keep mention of human habitation on this planet out of the databases. Leone shrugged....possibly this was just a minor world that had "gone green" before ever becoming heavily populated and famous, so its history was not described in the planetary catalog.
Leone turned his back on the window and made use of a data display on the opposite wall. He had never previously visited a Green planet and it was hard to guess what conditions might be like on the surface, but the ship's instruments were reporting a thick and solid green cloud cover that would seem to mean this world was dead. The surface of the planet appeared to be suffocated under a destructive nanite cloud, contrary to Sybil's belief that it was a sanctuary for Masters of "mental powers". Leone wondered, why hadn't Sybil mentioned that she was sending him to a Green planet? Was it some "minor detail" that slipped her mind? Leone thought: this bunch of mental psychos (psychos not psychics, according to Leone) would not stand a chance against the Set's ruthless methods. Leone cursed himself for being so naive in trusting and following the advice of Sybil. Maybe the destiny of all members of the Antiquist Party was to die from betrayal and misplaced trust! But... would Sybil betray him? Leone did not want to think such a thing, but maybe she was just a blind believer in the Order and her fanaticism could lead to trouble.
At the start of this journey Leone had been very suspicious and doubtful of "mental powers", but he had trusted that Kalid could be found. However, it now looked like their journey to this planet was a complete waste of time! The Thot spaceship was now very close to the green clouds, but they had not received any message from the planet. Leone imagined that if the Masters were actually here and if they were so "advanced", they should have sent a warning message or something, by means of either a conventional signal or, if Sybil was correct, by some sort of telepathic impulse. Maybe they were afraid of being detected by someone else, though. Maybe the Masters were making sure that this first ship, marked by Sybil's beacon as a ship of the Haldus Order, had not been followed.
Leone wondered, was Sybil's beacon even switched on? Aristark had made a study of the energy used by the equipment Sybil had installed in Leone's spaceship. Its energy use had spiked when it took control of the ship and guided their jump through hyperspace. Upon arrival in the h.1263522 star system the power use had dropped, but not quite to baseline. It had been easy for Leone to decide which planet to navigate to: there were only two in this star system and h.1263522.1 was too close to the star and too hot, its surface just rivers of melting rock. While they had approached h.1263522.2, Aristark had carefully scanned the electromagnetic spectrum and found that Leone's ship was emitting a strange signal at an unusual wavelength, apparently that was Sybil's identification beacon.
Leone turned and spoke to Aristark who was working at an adjacent section of the wall display, "Is that Haldus Order beacon still being transmitted?"
Aristark brought into view the relevant data. "Yes, that odd signal I detected is still there."
So where was Kalid...why didn't he reveal himself? Leone's little spaceship was not really equipped for searching a planet like this, but the navigation radar penetrated the green clouds. Each radar reflection that Leone looked at seemed empty of any sign of human activity...there was nothing down there but dunes and rocks. Leone's hopes of finding Kalid were now quickly evaporating. He had never believed a word of what Sybil had said to him about mental powers, but he had imagined the possibility that by meeting Kalid, the Master might share what he knew about Set's weaknesses... if there were any. How could Leone, a man of science, trust any of these claims about "mental powers"... and if Sybil believed such nonsense, why trust anything she might say?
Leone examined incoming data from the ship's automated scanning routines. Leone wondered if maybe they had already been detected by the Masters and were being allowed to scan the planet. If so, it might be possible from this low altitude orbit to detect bases on the surface that were used by human residents. Nevertheless, he was not too sure what to expect about their “Powers”...who knew what might or might not be possible? If what Sybil had said was true, maybe all the instrument readings were false and being altered by the Masters.
Leone was trained in a skeptical manner and relied on the scientific method, therefore he did not believe anything about "psychic powers". Where was the evidence for such things? Leone was an engineer with strong scientific background: mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology... "mental powers" was something beyond the domain of science. However, Leone was willing to admit that science had not discovered everything yet, so such "Powers" could exist.
Someone with scientific skepticism could never be sure that something was impossible... there was really no way to prove the nonexistence of something. Leone did not believe in clairvoyance, remote vision or the divination of the future... there was no evidence for such things. However, humanity was still haunted by inequality and a resulting mixture of decadence and poverty; that, along with suffering resulting from past wars, were the reasons why most people turned to belief in those strange arts, Leone thought. "Spiritual hunger" at difficult times.
There had also been a renaissance of belief in Ancient Egypt, Hermeticism and magic in general. Haldus Order. Priestess of Iris. "What is the popular appeal of Ancient Egypt?" Leone asked himself. Egypt was not even a common history subject in schools. Concerning one's self with Egypt was like talking about Australopithecus, something from too far in the human past to be of any practical importance.
Aristark had heard Leone's muttered question about Egypt. He was also analyzing the incoming data from the planet. "Not looking too promising down there, is it? If the Haldus Order needed a holiday resort, surely they could find a more hospitable world!"
Leone looked out the window at the green clouds and chuckled at the idea of this being a "holiday resort". Leone was more than a little embarrassed at having led Aristark on this crazy journey to a dead world. Since Sybil was an old friend, Leone had given her the benefit of the doubt, but Aristark must be greatly amused by all this silliness....a priestess sending two Planetary Counselors across the galaxy chasing after masters of mental powers.
"Well, a Green planet might be a sensible hiding place, I guess." Briefly, Leone's attention was brought back to the scan results, but they continued to show no signs of any human presence on the planet. His thoughts kept drifting towards what little he knew about mysticism and "ancient Orders". After his recent meeting with Sybil, Leone had done some reading about Egyptian legends. Maybe the fabled Egyptian civilization had never even existed. His reading on the topic had exposed Leone to the work of some historians who claimed the whole idea of Egypt was only a myth, an invented civilization, like ancient Atlantis, a myth that was only used to revive magic and useless mysticism. In Leone's opinion, the greatest part of the Egypt story was the pyramids... but Earth had been carefully searched and the pyramids could not be found.
Of course, Earth was not easy to search! Earth was also a Green planet, lost to the scourge of uncontrolled nanites. So even if evidence for Egypt did remain on Earth, it would never be easy to find that evidence. Still, something as large as the mythical Egyptian pyramids should be easily detectable from orbit using conventional scanners.
Leone believed it was possible that Egypt had indeed existed in ancient times. For Leone, "ancient" meant from before the 20th century, a time before the Space Age. Leone knew that he lived in the 25th century, as time and years had once been counted on Earth. The length of Earth's year had been replaced as the "standard year" by the orbital period of Parsa, the current galactic Capitol. Now, everything from more than 200 years before the present was considered "Classical" or "Ancient" by most people, due to scientific advances and social changes.
The years were not numbered that way (25th century) anymore, but Leone knew how to convert from the current calendar to the classical Earth numbering system. Now the years were numbered since the rise in importance of the Wadden Charter, and it was now the year 108 ANE (After New Elections, the first galaxy-wide elections after the last galactic war).
On approach to the planet along the course Leone had specified, the ship had been gradually reducing its acceleration and now Leone felt the complete departure of all gravity and force. As an experienced space traveler, he almost did not consciously think about it, but in the back of his mind he knew that they were now drifting in an orbit around the planet. He felt a cloud of nanite-guided threads being pulled into place to keep him from drifting across the room, but his thoughts were not really interrupted by that gentle touch.
Leone was still thinking about ancient history. Something he had learned and found amusing was the origin of "Set", the name. Leone had learned that in Egyptian mythology "Set" was thought to be some evil god. Leone and Set had long been political rivals, so Leone had thought he knew Set quite well, but if "Set" believed in myths from ancient Egypt then maybe that could be one of his weaknesses, believing in false and exotic things. Leone could imagine that there had been an Egypt on Earth, but he did not doubt that belief in esotericism and secret knowledge handed down from Ancient Egypt was a complete fantasy. Leone had no reason to suspect that Set was murderous and evil in anything other than a perfectly conventional way. However, a strange thought came to mind....
“Do you believe in mental powers?” Leone asked Aristark, without any introduction.
“What?” asked Aristark. Aristark was busy making calculations for how much light might penetrate the green clouds of the planet below and was not thinking about the same topics as was Leone.
“Do you believe in mental powers?” Leone asked again.
“Not at all,” answered Aristark. “Why do you ask?”
“Because we are searching for a Master of 'mental powers' and Sybil claimed that this Green world is inhabited by a group of people who practice mind control,” Leone said.
“I don’t know what to believe about that, yet. My position is skeptical, but I could believe some of it if there were enough proof to support these claims. Maybe if these 'Masters' can read my thoughts or damage my laser gun with their mind, maybe then I will start to believe in 'mental powers'. If they don't prove it I will not believe a single word of Sybil's nonsense. It's the same as for any wild claim, they will have to show me evidence that supports their claims.”
“Yes, that's the point, but some mystics claim that the existence of 'mental powers' cannot be proved to skeptics. According to them, you must first 'have faith" in the Powers. That is what I read about this 'Haldus Order' and the idea that they have an ancient tradition of 'mind powers'. They never show their powers to skeptical people, that is, to people outside their 'Hermetic' Order. Of course, a skeptic would say that their refusal to demonstrate their powers might be because they have no powers at all. Maybe their 'powers' are just something like a prestidigitation trick,” Leone said.
“Prestidigitation? What is that?”
“A practice from Earth's history in which a performer tricked other people by making illusions. Common tricks were pretending to make objects disappear and making them appear somewhere else or making it look like the trickster could magically escape from death traps.”
“Oh, my Graviton! Those ancient people actually payed for the 'pleasure' of being tricked, right? Weird!”
“Yes, through human history that type of showmanship has gone in and out of favor. Magic shows are out of favor now and people these days can not be entertained in that way, but maybe Sybil and Kalid and others in this 'Haldus Order' are tricking people and will try to trick us too,” said Leone.
“You are right. Maybe they know nothing about 'mental power' other than how to confuse and trick weak-minded people, thus creating an appearance of 'mind control power'. But if this 'Haldus Order' has been able to hide here, then one thing they could do was to hide from the rest of galactic civilization. And that is no easy task,” Aristark said.
“Maybe Sybil's whole story about hidden Masters escaping detection is just self-deception. It might be that the population of this planet is too tiny to be of interest to the traders and galactic cartographers. See," Leone pointed out the window, "It is a dead planet and according to our scans it does not even have any significant amounts of rare or useful metals, either. I believe that 'mind powers' garbage is a fairy story invented to frighten or entertain kids...” Leone said.
“Fairies? Oh, I remember, some little mythical female creatures. Yes, that could be. But maybe there is more to this 'Haldus Order' than we know. Maybe these people like Sybil and Kalid are really hiding and conspiring... maybe they are few in number, but still a force that we should be concerned about...”
“Do you really think that is likely?” Leone asked, surprised.
“I trust Ketar. Ketar would not tell you to take Sybil seriously unless there was something true in her story. I've been thinking I had heard something like her story long ago, anyway. There is a legend, a 'story invented to frighten or entertain kids' that I heard from my mother when I was very young... something about a mighty hermetic order that will some day rule the galaxy.”
Leone shook his head. Both of his parents were rationalists and had never burdened Leone with such fantasy stories. “A legend is a legend, it gives false hopes to miserable people. Predictions of future events... that is just another invention of story tellers. Many people have dreams about a better galaxy, but they do not pretend to see the future. Anyhow, we are in the closest possible orbit now and the scanner results are all coming in. We will find out soon if a base for the 'Haldus Order' exists here and if these Masters are as mighty as Sybil claims...”
After that conversation, the two counselors resumed their work. Leone went to the main control room and prepared to take the ship off autopilot. He had ordered Thot to scan all the radar reflection data and make a list of possible landing locations that included the coordinates on the surface of the planet near anything that seemed like a possible human base. Aristark went to the main engineering room where he could continue to study the scanner results and also prepare equipment for landing. By the looks of things, they would need special protective decontamination nanites in case they actually landed under the green nanite cloud that shrouded this planet.
In preparation for taking manual control, Leone connected himself to the spaceship. He took command of the ship by plugging in some electrodes that he attached to his head with a small cap. Now, to command the ship he did not need to touch any buttons; he could just use his mind and the associated electrical brain activity. He leaned back into the command alcove and let a powerful magnetic projector rest against the back of his head, directly over his visual cortex. By way of the projector, he saw the appearance of a virtual control panel for the spaceship right in his mind.
A second magnetic projector now moved against the left side of Leone's head. “Thot welcomes you. I am prepared to land on the spot you choose,” Thot, the main computer, said, in a neutral voice with a slight male tone.
“Show me a 3D model of the planetary scans you have done so I can choose the landing point.”
The computer showed him the 3D model of the planet it had built. Since the computer was connected to him through the neuro-computer connection there was no need for anything as primitive as a display screen. Thot now projected images into the visual area of Leone’s brain and "talked" directly to his brain's language processing areas. This neuro-computer interface was a new invention that only a few spaceships had and few planets could afford to buy. But Sakkara was a planet where science was a leading force and technology was at its peak.