Azur 2

Azur was one of the first discovered extrasolar planets with a liquid water ocean.


Soon after Leone and Aristark had informed Ketar about their planned space trip in search of Kalid, Ketar began to prepare for their eventual arrival on Azur. If Leone and Aristark did manage to talk Kalid into cooperating then Ketar wanted to have a plan ready that would allow him to get every bit of useful information out of Kalid and the Haldus Order.

When Ketar learned from Aristark and Leone that their destination was the h.1263522 star system, he quickly found information about the planet Flammis in the archives of the Spaceship Guild. As head of the Galactic Antiquist Party, Ketar had nearly complete access to even the most ancient and secret records of the Spaceship Guild. The Antiquist Party was the political wing of the Spaceship Guild and the Spaceship Guild had originally created planetary branches of the Antiquist Party as a way of exercising influence over the political processes on various worlds so as to assure that the economic interests of the Spaceship Guild were protected. After the last galactic war, a larger organization, the Galactic Antiquist Party, was created as a centralized political machine that could represent all of the local planetary Antiquist Parties. Now, a hundred years later, the Galactic Antiquist Party had grown powerful enough to dominate over the Spaceship Guild. In fact, Ketar now controlled most of the wealth of the Spaceship Guild and he directed that wealth towards his goal of returning Azur to the level of power and influence it had exercised before the galactic wars.

By exploring the archives of the Spaceship Guild, Ketar had learned that starting about 250 years previously there had been a feud between the Spaceship Guild and some renegade members of the Haldus Order. An early feature of that conflict was destruction of the Haldus Order Temple at Shackleton Base on Earth's Moon. That struggle had stretched over 67 years during which it had grown increasingly violent. Finally the Spaceship Guild had penetrated some of the mystery of the Haldus Order. In particular, the Spaceship Guild first found and then destroyed the Haldus Order colony on Flammis and warned that if the feud did not end then the entire Haldus Order would be exterminated. That strategy and warning had worked, and the Haldus Order finally restrained its own renegade faction.

Ketar now had a spy who had infiltrated one of the cover organizations of the Hadus Order. It was the information from that spy that had led Ketar to realize that Set had come into armed conflict with the Haldus Order. Ketar had suspected that Sybil was a member of the Haldus Order and so he had ordered Leone to press her for information...and Kalid's name had spilled out effortlessly, as did his idenity as a leader of the Haldus Order.

Ketar decided that it all made sense. Sybil, as a member of the Haldus order, was trying to protect the secrets of the Order. She had tried to hide the location of the Haldus Order base on Flammis from Leone. Ketar concluded that Flammis must still be very important to the Haldus Order. Sybil had tried to keep Flammis secret and had not used the name "Flammis", but her effort in subterfuge was wasted.

The Haldus Order was barely mentioned in Spaceship Guild records from the past century. However, Ketar knew from personal experience that even large and important organizations could exist and operate effectively and yet escape the attention of the Spaceship Guild's intelligence agents....his own family's operations on Azur proved that! Thus, it was easy for Ketar to imagine that after the Spaceship Guild had turned Flammis into a Green planet, Haldus Order forces had eventually returned to Flammis and they probably now had a secret base on that world...a base where Kalid might have been hiding from Set. Yes, Ketar felt sure that Leone and Aristark would find Kalid on Flammis and so he made preparations to give them a warm welcome upon their arrival at Azur.

Ketar's major remaining question was if there was any truth to the rumors about both Haldus Order members and Set having telepathic powers. Yes, there were many questions Ketar wanted to ask of Kalid.

Ketar had estimated how long it would take for Leone to go from Sakkara to Flammis and then on to Azure. Now Ketar was worried because news from Leone was overdue. Ketar's calculations suggested that Leone should have reported on events at Flammis no later than the previous day. Ketar tried to imagine that maybe Leone and Aristark were very busy at Flammis and had no time to communicate. Maybe Kalid did not trust Leone and Aristark. Maybe it would have been best if Sybil had gone along to Flammis in order to talk things over with Kalid and help smooth the way towards his cooperation. Of course, there might have been some other kind of unexpected trouble. Communications over interstellar distances was not a trivial matter. Hyperspatial communications equipment was notoriously fragile, and it was possible that Leone had not been able to communicate with Azur after meeting with Kalid because his Thot spaceship's hyperspatial signal encoding systems had been damaged by the atmosphere of Flammis. However, Ketar respected Aristark's competency and expected that Aristark should have been able to protect Leone's spaceship from being damaged by the nanite cloud of Flammis.

The difficulty of communication with and between spaceships was one of Ketar's greatest frustrations. Ketar was trying to build up a fleet of spaceships which could be used to return Azur to its former glory, but coordinating and keeping secret such a fleet was not easy. Hyperspatial communication depended on large stationary receiver arrays that collected and decoded arriving messages. Every inhabited star system had such an array, but that did nothing to solve the problem of getting signals successfully transmitted to isolated spaceships that were moving freely through interstellar space.

Ketar had not been able to determine if there was a functioning communications station in space near Flammis. Records in the archives of the Spaceship Guild indicated that after Flammis was turned into a Green planet an effort had been made to monitor spaceship traffic in the h.1263522 star system, but none was ever reported and the monitoring and communications equipment in that system was probably forgotten about and not maintained during the galactic wars. According to the public astrogation records the h.1263522 star system was not inhabited and there was not even any mention there of the fact that the second planet of that system had once been colonized. It was likely that the communications array near Flammis was no longer functioning correctly, so Ketar did not even think about trying to send a message to Leone's ship. Ketar assured himself, "Soon they will be here."

Ketar made an effort to stop worrying about unseen events at Flammis and he tried to stay focused on what he could control. For Ketar, sitting on the Throne of Azur as Planetary Governor meant the privilege of operating at the center of the vast and sophisticated planetary data web. He was able to coordinate all plans and preparations for Kalid's welcome through his computerized command center and his special shell access to every node of the global data network. From the command center, Ketar sent orders to his servants and watched, using all available means, including 3D remote cameras, and made sure that everything was proceeding according to his desires. Ketar commanded a personal army of nanite-powered robots that could quickly install microcameras anywhere on Azur that was of interest to him. More than anything else, it was Ketar's absolute monopoly on the use of surveillance nanobots on Azur that assured him continuing control of the planet.

Of course, none of his servants knew they were being watched, so it was an interesting way to supervise operations. On several occasions the monitoring system had proved useful and had allowed Ketar to stop growing rebellions before they had a chance to build strength. Traitors had been quickly identified and executed and they never even knew who the "rat" was. Usually there was none; it was just that Ketar had exposed their plans by monitoring the huge network of interconnected data nodes and cameras. Ketar personally watched people from his inner circle very closely, but most of the outer levels of the government had to be monitored with the aid of automation and scans for key words that might signal disloyalty. The other segment of the population that received extra monitoring was the major "opposition party", the Rugo. Most political trouble makers naturally collected within the ranks of the Rugo, so it was often possible to identify and crush new political movements simply by occasionally checking on the activities of the leaders of the Rugo.

Spying on the entire planet was a big job. Unfortunately, Ketar could not risk telling anyone about his use of this surveillance technology. If people knew about his spying system they would try to abolish it as an illegal anti-privacy system. The people of Azur, a world famous for "freedom", would only tolerate a limited amount of government control over their lives...that was a powerful social reality of Azur that even Ketar had not been able to change. Of course, in the many decades since Ketar's family had taken control of Azur, freedom was nothing more than a motto; in reality, privacy and freedom had not been respected by any of the Planetary Governors from Ketar's family. The secret to being able to keep on using the spy network technology was being discrete, not over-using it and hiding it from public attention...a formula that had worked for centuries, going back to the times before the galactic wars. However, his family's power had been greatly reduced during those wars, so Ketar's concern was finding ways to return the influence of his family and Azur to the grand levels that had existed before the devastating galactic wars.

Now the task at hand was for Ketar to get as much as possible for Azur out of the secretive Haldus Order. Ketar's trick of feeding false intelligence to Sakkara had efficiently revealed the identity of a leader of the Haldus Order. By making it appear that Set was more dangerous than he actually was, Sybil had gone looking for help and protection from the Sakkaran government...and out had popped Kalid's name!

Now it was just a matter of revealing Kalid's secrets. Ketar suspected that this could be accomplished by flattering an old fool: Kalid. Ketar's spy within the Haldus Order had reported that Kalid had ruled the Haldus Order for more than 60 years. Ketar's plan was that Kalid would be made a friend and at the same time it should be possible to keep playing Set and Kalid off against each other.

Yes, his strategy would be flattery of the "Wise One". Ketar chuckled; it seemed a safe bet that any leader who let his followers call him the "Wise One" could be tricked by false praise and flattery. Ketar did not personally have much to do in order to prepare for the arrival of the "Wise One". Ketar possessed hundreds of servants who would efficiently handle most of this job for him. As Planetary Governor, Ketar had an entire well-staffed department that was devoted to the logistics and organization of staged celebratory events, usually for the glorification of the Governor, but that apparatus could easily be used to turn the visit of Kalid to Azur into a great show of friendship and hero worship. Still, Ketar enjoyed planning the details of such events, like ordering food, renting dancers, hiring orchestras, among others. Ketar really liked that kind of thing, and now he even dreamed that he would live to see the grandest of celebrations on Azur: the day when Ketar himself would be celebrated as the Governor of Azur who finally returned Azur to the level of influence it had attained in the old days before the wars. For a moment, Ketar imagined himself in the future, making a triumphal march... Nevertheless, now was not a good time to enter the daydream realm, he should plan the next step, a necessary step on the road to ultimate glory.

Ketar had been born to reign. He came from an important family whose members had long been involved in Azur politics. However, nobody outside the family knew this. Ketar's family had long practiced polygyny. The family patriarchs had many wives kept in secret and most of their children had different last names so that nobody outside of the family would know their real identity. For a moment Ketar reflected on his own wives and he brought up their images on his display screen.

From the time of the earliest settlements on Azur it was forbidden for more than one member of a family to enter politics, a rule that extended up to the forth grade of consanguinity. This law had been created in order to prevent familial oligarchies and the possible establishment of hereditary monarchies. But Ketar's family had been responsible for that law and for Ketar and others who secretly shared his blood line, that law was something to be ignored since its purpose was really just to keep other families from gaining political power. In this way, Ketar's family had controlled Azur's government for over two hundred years and nobody outside the family knew that a dynasty secretly reigned.

Of course, during the chaos of the galactic wars the situation had gotten slightly more complex, but after a couple of assassinations control of Azur had been successfully returned to Ketar's family. However, during those wars Azur had suffered the loss of millions of residents and had never recovered its former power on the galactic stage. For the past hundred years Ketar's family had planned and organized and built towards a future day when it would be possible once more for Azur to be recognized as one of the most important worlds in the galaxy...if not the most important! Azur had recovered its population, but the rest of the galaxy had also moved ahead. But now, Ketar knew it was time to take another step towards that long-sought goal; that was why he needed Kalid.

Yes, everything was falling into place! Ketar had spent most of his life thinking that another generation would have to pass before Azur could finally rise again to glory, but all had changed in just the past year. Seemingly from nowhere the Futurist Party of Sakkara had risen in power and become a security concern. Suddenly, to counter Set's Futurist Party forces, modern war ships were needed to replace the old hulks that remained as the out-of-date remnants of the fleets that had fought in the old galactic wars. Who better to supply those ships than Ketar? Now elements of Ketar's fleet could operate openly under guise of countering the threat posed by Set, but Ketar had additional plans for his fleet.

And then, there was the utter surprise of telepathy! At first, Ketar had dismissed the rumors and reports from his spies...really, it was absurd...telepathic powers? But the rumors did not go away. Finally, as crazy as it seemed, telepathic ability became the only way to account for Set's sudden rise in power. At first Ketar had imagined that Set was some kind of mutant, a one-of-a-kind freak with telepathic powers. But it had not been that simple. Ketar had feared that Set would use his mental powers to trace back to the root cause of the destruction of the space elevators on Sakkara. If Set actually had telepathic ability, what could possibly stop him from learning the truth? However, at that point, Set's forces had gone crazy: they went off in strange directions rather than go directly after those who were responsible for the space elevators disaster. At first Ketar had been baffled by Set, but eventually Ketar's extended spy network had resolved the mystery.

Ketar tried to remember how he had become conscious of the Haldus Order. He had long known of its existence, but its supposed knowledge of god-like powers that had first been mastered long ago in ancient Egypt and then secretly passed down to modern times seemed like just another folk tale, something like the "crystal powers" of Atlantis. Still, the question had to be asked: why was Set suddenly at war with the Haldus Order? And the specific claim reported by Ketar's spies was that Set was killing telepaths of the Haldus Order. At first Ketar had been surprised to learn that his intelligence service included a spy who had penetrated the Haldus Order. It was a stroke of luck for Ketar. His spy within the Haldus Order had only gradually become aware of the Haldus Order. Ketar now knew that members of the Haldus Order hid their true affiliation behind "front organizations" and cover stories. Only after years of membership in one such front organization had Ketar's spy even heard the name "Haldus".

Ketar's intelligence service had grown tired of reports from that spy about rumored telepathic powers...such stories were ignored for many years...until Set stormed onto the scene.

So, finally, Ketar had been forced to contemplate the idea that there was a war of telepaths being fought between forces of the Futurist Party and the Haldus Order. Ketar's first impulse had been to support that war and hope that the two parties would destroy each other while also providing a useful distraction for other worlds of the galaxy...a destraction that could "justify" the construction of a new fleet of combat spaceships by Azur. Ketar had imagined that the Haldus Order was just a group of mystics that nurtured and trained telepaths, probably telepaths who were of not of much more importance than readers of tea leaves an goat entrails. Seriously, if they had truly useful telepathic powers why would they remain quietly hidden away rather than seize power?

But then the landscape had shifted one more time! The more Ketar learned about the Haldus Order the more it became clear that they also had some kind of secret technology. At that point, Ketar knew he could no longer afford to assume that the members of the Haldus Order were just some superstitious practitioners of a mystical, it would be an error to just hope that Set would exterminate them. Eventually Ketar had realized that it was imperative to learn what kinds of technology the Haldus Order had. The idea of telepathy-amplifying technology still seemed fantastic, but Ketar could not afford to ignore those rumors. What better way was there to learn these secrets than to befriend the leader of the Order, Kalid?

Of course, Ketar had a few qualms about dealing personally with Kalid. What if Kalid had fantastic powers and could read Ketar's mind or even take control of his mind? But, no, that could not be. If the Haldus Order had that kind of power they would not meekly hide in odd corners of the galaxy. Ketar felt quite confident that telepathy was just an alternative mode of communication....potentially a very useful mode, one that Ketar would be happy to use for the benefit of Azur! Ketar told himself: taking advantage of such unexpected opportunities was what made great men.

Ketar's plan was to form an alliance with Kalid and establish a working collaboration against Set. Through that collaborative relationship Ketar would have access to Neurocom technology: that was a term Ketar had invented to refer to communication by neuronal means, telepathically. What if Kalid did not want to cooperate? Well, there were other options...the Haldus Order had been frightened into revealing the location of their secret base on the planet Flammis. It would be interesting to learn exactly what importance that world had for the Haldus Order. If the Haldus Order really did have secret technology then somewhere there had to be research and development centers for advancing the science of telepathy. On Flammis, on Sakkara? Yes, if Kalid would not cooperate, Ketar had the power to take what he needed from the Haldus Order, by force. Now that Ketar knew of the existence of secret Haldus Order technology nothing could keep him from possessing it, one way or the other.

Still, things would go quicker and easier if Kalid could be made to cooperate. A major challenge facing Ketar was that the science of telepathy seemed to be obscured by a camouflage, a dressing of esoteric characteristics that had been built up over time within the secretive Haldus Order. Ketar, as leader of another centuries old secret organization, had a good idea of how misdirection could be used to protect important secrets. Ketar's spy in the Haldus Order had reported that within the Haldus Order it was rumored that Kalid had been born with natural gifts for telepathic communication. One possibility was that secret Haldus Order Neurocom technology was only an amplifier for innate abilities, a way for artificially extending an existing capacity of individuals for telepathic communication. If so, it became an important question: did everyone have telepathic ability or just a special few? Obviously, the answer to this question was a secret, but it seemed like the members of the Haldus Order believed that only a select few had telepathic abilities. Was that belief based on fact or was it misdirection? Working from outside the Order, Ketar's spy tentacles had probed this important question. Ketar's intelligence cells had found some evidence to suggest that there were natural variations in telepathic ability, some people naturally had more "mental power", but it seemed to be the case that a basic level of telepathic ability existed in the brains of animals and all humans. The important conclusion was: the Haldus Order tools for amplifying telepathy could be used by anyone, even Ketar! Although this was not completely sure, Ketar had already bet 100 to 1 that it was. It had to be! It was the only hope for him to complete, in his life time, his plans for building Azur back up to its previous level of power in the galaxy....yes, he would proceed upon that assumption.

So, it was no longer enough for Ketar that the Haldus Order use its secret technology in order to defeat Set. Set was of minor importance on the grand scale, the scale of events beyond Sakkara. Ketar needed Kalid for a nobler purpose, returning Azur to its position of dominance among the worlds of the galaxy. Ketar wanted to make a favorable impression on Kalid's mind and trick him into sharing Haldus Order secrets. Kalid and the entire Haldus Order existed with a web of mysticism, therefore, Ketar had invited the best esoteric masters, wizards, occult science priests and mystics of Azur to welcome Kalid. Ketar's goal was to make Kalid feel comfortable, then after that first meeting, just Kalid and Ketar would have a private interview in which Ketar would outline plans for cooperation against Set. Defeating Set would appear to be the heart of his plans, but that was not really Ketar's true goal. If everything was done correctly, Kalid would not guess his real thinking. Ketar's plan for defeating Set would succeed thanks to a "surprise effect": the unexpected combination of Ketar's fleet of spaceships guided against Set's forces by Kalid and other telepaths of the Haldus Order. At that moment, as Ketar saw it, his plan to deal with Set could not fail. And most importantly, while Set was being defeated, Ketar would learn the secrets of the Haldus Order...that was his real interest in collaboration with Kalid. Once Set was eliminated, the usefulness of the Haldus Order would come to an end and Ketar alone would remain standing, ready to turn the force of telepathy to his goal of returning Azur to grandeur.



Akara as seen from Thot spaceship

After some hours, Thot and its occupants completed the process of re-entering the known universe from hyperspace. The two Counselors were released from their restraining chairs. Aristark stood up and went to the observation deck. Through the windows of the spaceship he could see the main star of the Akara system.

Leone remained seated and used a tridimensional viewer to see a first glimpse of the Akara system. Of course, Azur, the planet where Ketar and his people lived, was still quite distant and not yet visible.

Akara was a well-known star system, but Leone had never visited it. Most of Leone's travels had been to relatively young worlds that were eager to trade for the advanced technologies of Sakkara. The Akara star system had been one of the first targets for colonization when humans spread outward from Earth and Azur had always been ranked among the most important planets where humans had settled, although, in Leone's estimation, Azur had never fully recovered to the level of influence it had before the galactic wars.

Leone had a desire to view Akara with his own eyes. He got up from his flight chair and walked to the observation deck. Aristark was there and for a few minutes they silently observed the beauty of space. Aristark finally broke the silence. "Did you send warning to Ketar that we failed to find Kalid?"

Leone turned away from the window and replied, "No, I have not, but I should...I will do so. I've been trying to think of something positive to say. I still hope that he will be willing to channel some support from the Galactic Antiquist Party to Sakkara."

Aristark nodded. "Have no fear, I've kept him informed about our troubles on Sakkara and he is not ignoring the disruption caused by Set. Just send him a short message...he hates surprises."

Leone took one last look out the window and then returned to the main control room. Taking Aristark's advice, Leone sent a short radio transmission to Ketar. At first, all Leone got from Thot was an error message, "Hassium array under repair; hyperspatial communications system is down. ETR = 3 minutes." Leone called up the list of on-going repairs and saw that the hyperspatial communications system was at the top of the list of repairs that had been delayed until after the hyperspatial jump. He got himself a cup of tea and then he was able to send the message to Ketar. The spaceship was still several light-hours from Azur, but the message would reach Ketar well before Leone and Aristark did.

Leone then used the Thot neural connection to observed the details of a 3D model of the Akara system. Akara A was a red giant star that had probably absorbed the inner planets of the system when it had built up a helium core and swelled from its original size to the larger volume that it now occupied. Leone thought that Akara was a very beautiful star; his favorite color was red... Anyway, as usual, this red giant's color was distinctly orange. Due to the relatively low surface temperature of the expanded star its radiation was strongly shifted towards the red, but the real color was orange. Leone thought that yellow or white for a star was something very regular and boring, maybe a little old-fashioned. He knew he thought that way because planets with human settlements in orbit around red stars were relatively rare; he liked the variety of the universe and unusual star systems.

The main star of this system was called Akara A and Azur was its sixth planet. Originally, Azur had been very cold, but now that Akara A was in the red giant phase of its life cycle and had increased its energy output, Azur was at just the right distance for the new habitable zone...the key distance from a star at which liquid water could exist on a planet. Akara B was a distant companion star, so technically Akara was a binary system, but space travelers found it easy to ignore that small companion since it lacked an inhabited planet.

The planet Azur had been almost completely terraformed; it was one of the first planets to pass through that difficult process. It had not possessed any native life so colonization was not troublesome at forms from Earth had easily adapted to Azur. Still, Azur was a relatively small planet and it had a smaller population than some larger worlds such as Sakkara.

Leone noted that Thot had already activated the antimatter-powered propulsion system and they were heading, at standard acceleration, towards Azur. It was paradoxical that this phase of space travel was the longest. Hyperspatial travel through 1200 parsecs was a matter of a few hours spent de-materializing and re-materializing, but the much shorter remaining distance to Azur would take much longer to cross.

Leone reflected on the "universal computer" working like a "modem" to allow interstellar travel, but that mode of travel just was not practical near massive objects like Akara A. Travel inside a star system by hyperspatial jump just was not possible....if you tried it you would either be thrown deep into interstellar space, if you were lucky, or you would find yourself inside a star, if your luck ran out. This close to a star they had to rely on antimatterical engines and conventional propulsion. Early in the space age this technology had received the name of Antimatterics, an overcomplicated or at least clumsy name, according to Leone. The word was offensively non-musical. Still, their jump had gotten them close enough to Azur so that after two days at Standard Acceleration they would reach Azur.

Leone planned to spend his time during the approach to Azur studying data about the Akara system. During his many long years as a trade representative, Leone had come to enjoy the periods of entry into new star systems. It was a relaxed interval during which he could learn about the interesting and unusual features of the world he was approaching, in this case, he had two free days to learn about Azur.

The other major passtime for space travelers was star gazing. Each world had its own constellations and accompanying folklore. Some worlds had nearby nebulae or star clusters that made for spectacular viewing. Although Leone had many fond memories of watching the stars, he could not deny that after many decades of opportunities for seeing interesting stellar patterns, viewing simply ordinary star patterns was rather boring. His brain needed interesting data and in most cases, the local human culture of a star system was more interesting than the local star patterns.

At this time he needed to distract himself from the mystery of what had happened at Flammis; it had spoiled his spirit. Leone worried constantly about what atrocities Set might be committing on Sakkara, but there was little Leone could do about Set now. Leone was committed to a course of action that might bring aid to Sakkara from the Galactic Antiquist Party. His failure to find Kalid at Plato was disappointing and the attack upon his ship was alarming and baffling...but it did little good to fret about the disappointing start of this mission. If "spun" in the right way, the mysterious attack at Plato might provide extra motivation for Ketar to lend some armed spaceships and battle-trained crews to Sakkara, help that could be decisive in dealing with Set.

The available starting point for information about Akara was the standard catalogs of star systems, but here, within the Akara system, he could also now tune to the local navigation broadcasts. Leone noted that particular emphasis was given in this star system to the stellar wind and tracking any surges in energy output from the large and powerful Akara A. Leone knew that in general, due to the large diameter of red giants it was relatively easy for matter to be ejected from them.

Leone read all the key information about Akara A including the best estimate of when it had become a red giant. The culture of Azur had produced a large speculative literature about previously existing planets that had been eaten by the star. Leone skimmed a vast literature, generated mostly by amateurs, built up around purported fragments of the lost inner planets of Akara that had been blasted into wide orbits by ancient asteroid impacts. By analyzing those planetary fragments, it had been possible for scientists to reconstruct the physical properties and atomic compositions of the planets that had once orbited inside the current radius of Akara A. He even read about mystical (and weird) stories which were depicted as taking place millions of years before on those now destroyed planets. The most popular speculative literature of Azur concerned imaginary alien species that had once lived on those worlds. After some time, he got to the non-fiction inhabited planets section of the database, where he found information about Azur.


The Cotedazur ocean of Azur.

Azur was originally an icy world orbiting far from Akara A. There was some speculation that primitive native life might have once existed under the icy surface, made possible by gravitational and nuclear energy sources within the planet itself. After Akara became a red giant, millions of years ago, the world had warmed and when found by humans it seemed devoid of life, at least on the surface. If it had any native life, it remained locked in deep underground locations that people had never discovered. But most importantly, Azur had water and carbon dioxide, so a great terraforming program had been carried out to produce oxygen. Actually, that process continued, since Azur's ocean was still equilibrating and adjusting to the changes introduced by humans. Technically, the surface of the planet was now habitable, but Azur occasionally received doses of deadly radiations from Akara A. When those periods of heightened stellar radiation arrived, they altered the atmosphere and made life impossible on the surface. The main problem was ozone depletion caused by protons from Akara A. There was a nomadic population of surface dwellers who alternated between living on the surface and periodically taking refuge underground, but most of the population of Azur remained in their underground cities all the time. Robotic farmers and the nomads provided much of the food for the people of Azur, but a significant fraction was now produced in underground facilities.

The first inhabitants of the underground cities, who had come to Azur from other star systems (and mostly from Earth), constructed a huge main city called Azur, taking the same name as the planet. With time, they also built many small surrounding cities, connected to Azur by means of underground highways. Now, centuries later, the underground spaces had grown to remarkable size. From certain points of view, life under the surface of the planet was not much changed for its inhabitants from what one might expect for life on the surface. The engineers and scientists of Azur had even designed a new system to simulate weather in the huge underground chambers where most people resided. Thus, they even occasionally generated some surface-like chaotic artificial weather that produced rain or snow, just to clean their underground cities or give the residents some variation and excitement at holiday times. However, they never simulated the harsh variations of their own star, and most people in Azur never traveled to the surface.

Beyond the remarkable stories of Akara A as a red giant (including the fictional accounts of aliens living on its "lost planets"), the terraforming of Azur and the astounding construction of the underground cities, most of the available literature concerned the social and political history of the underground civilization of Azur. Azur had always been a planet with several contradictory political factions. Leone was amused to learn that one of the great conflicts for the people of this world involved struggle between those people who were in favor of simulating artificial weather and those who were against it. There had finally even been a ruthless war and after many years of fighting the minority group was granted independence. The result of the armistice was that two distinct underground populations were established, each in its own network of underground chambers, with little contact between the two. There was not even the slightest commerce between the populations of the two factions. Some electronic contact remained in the global information network, but the two populations might just as well have been located on two sister planets. Thus, the underground civilization of Azur was divided between two economic and politic blocks or parties. These two worlds in the underground, which tended to depict themselves as opposite political systems, were called Azur and Rugo. Each year a significant number of people, mostly young adults, decided that they did not like their native culture and so they migrated and joined the "other side".


The anticipated day for Kalid's arrival had come. Ketar had calculated that this should be the day for Leone's arrival in the Akara system, assuming a short stay at Flammis, just long enough to pick up Kalid. Ketar had arranged for a dramatic welcoming ceremony and everything had been prepared...he expected that all would go well and his plans for an alliance with Kalid would succeed.

As the day wore on, Ketar completed all of his routine duties. Not wanting to get involved with any other major project, he once again reviewed the program for Kalid's welcome. He satisfied himself again that all the preparations were in place then he called a relative of his (secretly a half brother, with a different last name), who had a key role in the government....mainly Ketar just wanted to have someone to talk to and distract him from waiting to hear that Leone's spaceship had arrived. But nothing had prepared him for what he was about to hear.

Ketar asked, "Any last minute problems for the welcoming ceremony?"

Orchard, the personal secretary of his majesty, Ketar, replied, "Not that I, uh, have heard..."

Ketar immediately became annoyed. It sounded like Orchard was distracted, maybe even hiding something.

Ketar began to drum his fingers on his desk. "Are you sure? You sound upset." The data stream indicated that Orchard was not in his office...he was in one of the conference rooms of the Palace. Ketar identified the exact location and secretly activated two microcameras. Ketar noticed that Orchard was in conference with the Chief of Palace Security and several of their staff members. Ketar looked at Orchard's face for clues to what might be going on.

There was a pause during which Orchard and the Chief of Security exchanged glances, then Orchard said, "Sir, I ask permission to speak freely."

"You may speak," Ketar said, using an impatient tone. His most casual gestures and voice indicated that he had been giving orders during his entire life.

Orchard hesitated before speaking, as if trying to select just the right words. "Sir, we have a problem. There are enemies in our system."

Ketar was always worried that some of his subordinates might discover that he was spying on them. Well, it happened, and it usually just meant that Ketar had to do a little cleaning operation after plugging any forming leak... "System? Inside the network? Explain yourself."

"Nnn.. No, inside Ak... Akara system." Orchard said, but anxiety and anguish did not let him express himself correctly. He knew he was dealing with a delicate situation and that the fleet had probably already destroyed the enemy ship....nevertheless, he was worried that the fleet had failed to respond correctly to the perceived such matters, "correctly" always meant what Ketar wanted.

"Thanks for informing me. You know what you must do." Ketar could tell that Orchard was trembling. He tried to sound calm so that his subordinate would likewise relax. Internally, he wanted to shout: what is going on?

"We are already doing that, sir. When I first found out about this, the fleet was already closing on the pirate ship. I gave specific orders to neutralize them and, if possible, to destroy them..."

Ketar felt his heart sink. Never in his lifetime had pirates dared operate in the Akara system. Ever since the end of the galactic wars, pirates almost exclusively operated at the fringes of known space. How was it possible that pirates would appear in the Akara star system on this important day, exactly the day of Kalid's expected arrival in system? "Good job. But, how do you know they are enemies?"

"Our sensors indicated that the spaceship (it is only one) emitted signals of a type in the Index. It is a signal of a type that the Fleet detected before. You might recall the incident near Polastis III, that unidentified ship with special capabilities and a navigation beacon different from everything we know about...."

"Oh, yes. I certainly recall that incident. That beacon type is now in the Index of Pirate Spaceships, designated: 'attack target and destroy' as soon as that beacon is detected... I remember now, I remember quite well. But, do not destroy the ship! Remember, today is a special day! Leone's spaceship is due to arrive in system today...we can afford no mistakes."

Orchard muttered in misery, "Yes, sir...I thought the same as soon as I got some important data from Fleet Command..."

A tragic scenario ran through Ketar's mind. Leone had mentioned that Sybil was having special navigation equipment installed in his spaceship. Ketar had become certain that the Haldus Order had a secret technology development program. What if this particular "pirate beacon" was actually a type of signal used by Haldus Order spaceships? What if this "pirate ship" that had been detected in the Akara system was actually Leone's spaceship using Haldus Order technology?

Ketar spoke again and his voice was like doom, "I have always told you to ask me before acting in such delicate matters, at least..." Ketar stopped himself. This was no time for lectures. "So, send a counter-order. I want my troops to only neutralize these "enemies", not to destroy them. It is completely necessary to capture that spaceship in order to replicate their technology, do I make myself clear.? Now go! Do not fail me."

Orchard feared that it was already too late, but he replied, "All right, sir."

Ketar ended the call, but briefly monitored Orchard and the Chief of Security as they sprang into action, trying to make sure that the Fleet would not mistakenly use deadly force against Leone's ship. It was an emergency situation, Ketar thought, and he almost contacted the fleet commanders personally, but he decided he would only interfere and upset their operations if he stepped in to micromanage the affair. Ketar was content to access the data that the fleet commanders were receiving....

Ketar quickly found the pertinent data channel at the Fleet Headquarters and saw three spaceships of his Fleet making attacking maneuvers towards the enemy...this was all shown in a computer-enhanced display that was based on ship sensor readings. The tactical weapons report indicated that Ketar's forces were using long range particle beam blasts to keep the enemy ship off balance. Such long range fire could not do serious damage, but it could seriously disrupt pirate ship communications and also prevent a ship from entering into hyperspace. While Ketar watched, the display changed and indicated that the three ships from Ketar's Fleet had launched rocket-powered projectiles armed with antimatter warheads. The tracks of the projectiles inched slowly across the display where a few inches represented thousands of kilometers.

While the projectiles closed on their target, Ketar had time to look back in time at earlier data. The data clearly indicated that the "enemy" ship had entered into the Akara system several hours earlier, almost certainly after completing a hyperspatial jump into the star system. The newly arrived spaceship had transmitted an identification code using a standard navigation beacon..stated destination: Azur. However, it was also clear that the ship had been emitting another signal, one that was listed in the Index. Ships of the Fleet on routine training patrol had responded to that outlawed signal and changed course to intercept the "pirate ship". The Fleet had also initiated communications jamming procedures designed to prevent multiple pirate ships from coordinating their activities. Ketar's heart sank...had he been informed immediately disaster might have been avoided...


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