..Sybil had been told that this was an ordinary Silver Tulipan Order Temple where initiates gathered for study and meditation. It was called "Kalid's Temple" because during his time as Grand Master, Kalid had gotten into the habit of using it as the place for meeting with all new initiates. Sybil wondered why Kalid would select this particular location as his favorite place on Sakkara. Sybil had to admit that the rural setting was calm and well suited for meditation, but the facilities, at least by outside appearances, seemed absolutely primitive. There was nothing but a dusty path leading from the landing field to the Temple.
A temple resident approached the landing field and greeted Dorothy. They embraced each other and Dorothy introduced the man to Sybil as Matthew. He nodded politely to Sybil and led them towards the shelter of the Temple. Dorothy and Matthew knew each other from old times, back when Dorothy had just entered the Order. Matthew commented that Sybil had the same facial features as had her mother at that age and that they shared a common manner of walking that reminded Mathew of a light-footed cat. He made a joke about Kalid being an old dog and wondered if Sybil had any new tricks to teach Kalid...they all laughed and Sybil started to relax. Matthew spoke mostly to Dorothy but most of what he said was intended to diminish Sybil's visible tension; still, she could not stop biting her nails. The way along the path was a bit long and up hill. When they finally got to the old wooden building that was the Temple, Sybil was not so nervous.
They entered the building and another Temple resident informed them, "Master Kalid will receive the girl as soon as he finishes his current appointment...it should not be long."
Sybil knew that all the new initiates were brought here for Kalid's attention and she wondered if this might be a day during which several people like herself would be interviewed by the Master. Matthew went off and about his Temple duties, leaving Dorothy and Sybil sitting on wooden chairs and waiting for the time of Sybil's appointment to arrive. Dorothy noticed her daughter was a bit calmer now. Matthew had that gift; he was able to make people calm or happy. He was very kind and interesting man and Dorothy had known him before meeting her husband. Dorothy thought fondly of her affair with Matthew back when they had been students in the unnamed fifth circle. She had always remembered him with tenderness and maybe he had similar thoughts too, it seemed.
Sybil observed the room; it was barely lit by a few candles perched on top of some high shelves. She was aware of a subtle scent that reminded her of medicinal herbs. Kalid was rumored to be some kind of shaman, and Sybil wondered if Kalid might have some appointments not for new initiates, but rather for the purpose of curing people of an illness with his own hands and his knowledge of medicine.
Now that Sybil was relaxed she was impatient to meet someone as smart and wise as she had been told Kalid was. If even half the rumors were true....that he spoke more than four different languages, was a Grand Master, shaman, physical and spiritual yogi practitioner, Vichido master and who knows what else... then he was someone worth meeting, even if she was not going to be a priestess.
Sybil yawned. If she could only have slept the night before things would be a bit easier now. Sybil had calmed down and now she felt a little weary. The conversation with Matthew had been very amusing, but now silence and boredom were draining her enthusiasm and strength.
Sybil noticed that her mother seemed lost in thought. It was a shame her mother had lost every form of contact with people from the Order like Matthew, but that was the price she had paid to be allowed to exit the Order, marry Jeremy and have a child. If she did enter the Order, Sybil thought that it would be nice to talk to Matthew from time to time. Would she be able to see him again in the future if she was accepted? Just how many members of the Order were there anyhow? She had no idea. If she was accepted. All her thoughts came back to that one conditional. She told herself firmly that she should not worry more about that. Time would tell her destiny and besides, she would have her opportunity to meet Kalid the sage, no matter what the decision was. She would try to remember everything she saw during the meeting. She tried to escape from the swirl of her worries and come back to the peaceful reality of the here and now.
She looked all around the room again and decided it was like a doctor's waiting room. Maybe patients from this district, possibly local residents like those farm workers she had seen always waited in this room before meeting with a Temple shaman. Maybe the low candle light of the room was meant to ease the thoughts and calm the spirit of patients and initiates alike.
Now she was feeling as if she was going to sleep, entering a dozing state. Her lack of sleep was making her lose control of her body now. She told herself that she had to remain alert and she tried to think about what she would say to Kalid. However, she did not have a clue what to say; maybe she would just do as instructed by her mother....answer Kalid's questions while trying not to say anything silly. Suddenly a touch of her panic returned and she regained full alertness again, sensing a danger. What if Kalid tried to enter her mind? She was not prepared for that kind of invasion. But if that did happen, would she even notice it? Her head automatically turned to the right, a door was being opened.
An old man was there in the doorway, thanking Kalid with many bows. Maybe he was a sick person who was receiving help with either a physical illness or even some tricky mental problem; the knowledge of a shaman was useful to help people handle stress, anxiety and other trouble caused by imbalance of the energy inside and outside the body. Some people thought that a shaman could re-open a way for the free circulation of energy, resulting in relief from illness. Sybil could hear Kalid's voice for the first time, calling out from the next room and asking who was next. It was her!
Sybil entered the room where Kalid waited. She was unable to hide the fact that she was a bit scared....her hands were trembling. With one last glance at her mother, she closed the door. Now this was her time with Kalid and nobody else would hear their conversation. As instructed by Kalid she sat on a chair.
"Welcome, young lady. I am Kalid and you are...?"
"I am Sybil. I am here for you to choose my destiny."
"Hehehe. No, my dear. I will not choose, I will just try to find out if it is good for you to follow the path of becoming a priestess in our Order. In the female part of our Order, I mean. As you know, the Silver Tulipan Order includes the Neofinetia Falcata Order, for females. I remember inviting your mother into the Circle. In the same way you would be a Priestess of Iris if we discover that it is your destiny to do that."
"Oh. Well, I hope I receive that invitation."
"I see you are very worried about that, and your mom too, eh? It seems you have been dreading this moment for quite some time. Did you sleep last night, young lady?"
"How...? No, I could not. My mind was too busy thinking about this meeting."
"You should not be afraid. Nothing wrong will happen. Just try to relax. Enough talk. Now, to help you relax, move over to that sofa and breathe thoroughly. Do one of the breathing exercises you learned in school."
At first Sybil doubted that she would be able to relax, but then she thought, what could happen? She obeyed and went to the sofa. As soon as she started a controlled breathing technique the lights went off and she was left in the dark wondering why she had not even noticed how Kalid's room had been illuminated. Her eyes adapted to the dark and then she could see some faint colored lights moving towards her. Kalid explained that those were to activate her energy centers and open a way to see if her fate was inside the Order or not. Sybil worried that the lights would open her mind to him and she still did not like the idea of someone snooping in her memories. Kalid mentioned she should not be afraid, there would be no invasion of any kind and that she should concentrate on breathing. Slowly, she began relaxing. He told her that he would make a full system exploration of her energy, to see if it was flowing as it should be. He ordered her to close her eyes and imagine nothing, just put her mind in blank state, watching the blackness. With her eyelids closed, the dim lights did not reach her eyes, so it was not that hard to do. Sybil finally relaxed and Kalid approached her. She was very beautiful and similar to her mother, Kalid noticed. Trying not to lose concentration, he touched his talisman and then her forehead.
"Do not be afraid, my dear. Trust me."
Sybil thought that she should not trust anyone asking for trust. But Kalid's voice convinced her. Now Kalid tried to visualize her aura and all the energies around her. It seemed Sybil's mind was hypnotized now. He tried to focus and noticed that part of her mind did not like darkness and was trying to open her eyes. He told her not to do so because she would suffer a headache later and resumed his job. He could see the colors of her aura and tried to make sense of them. He could see her past and future illnesses and the weakness of the body in those places where the energy was not circulating efficiently. Now he entered a conscious REM state, in order to find out more. He would try to have remote access to her central nervous system. This was the part that required more concentration and skills. Kalid took a deep breath, prayed briefly and tried to enter her mind, in order to find out about her future.
Kalid imagined a far place where he could study her mind like the terrain of a world. He saw himself there after entering the dream stage in a conscious way and remember what he was trying to achieve. He could see Sybil from far; she was running... away from him, apparently. Kalid tried to go after her but she always escaped. He had to find a way to attract her.
Nothing he tried really seemed to work except for sheer persistence, as if she was getting tired of running. Now, finally he was nearer to her and was thinking whether to take the external appearance of her father, to gain her trust, but Kalid decided it would not be fair. That would just remind her of her suffering and sadness and would bring her mind back to a conscious state. So, he showed himself as he was, and some white and green glow could be seen around him. The green part was the healing energy he possessed at all times, ready to heal someone nearby. As soon as she saw him, she tried to walk away, but Kalid extended his hand and tried to calm her down.
She decided she would stay there, maybe that was part of the meeting and maybe this was some test that had to be passed before entering the Order. She calmed down and said to herself that nothing evil could happen, Kalid was protecting her....although Kalid knew there could be trouble, in case some evil entity was near them and had noticed their sudden appearance. But all the Temple was shielded against those beings and there was no such problem right then. Kalid looked at Sybil's eyes, focusing on their green color, trying to mix his own color with hers. He looked right there, at the black center of her eyes and tried to enter her nervous system.
At that moment, Sybil felt a strong headache and a sense of panic. Kalid immediately walked away and soon he was running. He felt as if some kind of force had struck him; he was still not sure if this had anything to do with Sybil or with another conscious entity in the dream realm, but he had felt this kind of mental assault before. He remembered he was in a created dream and that he could get out using a door he invented for that. He went there but remembered Sybil's mind was trapped in his dream. He could not abandon her that way, maybe her mind would never get to the real world again. That was a real danger in this kind of session.
So, he went back again, recovering from his pain and looked at her again. He should have talked to her first, telling the way out, but he preferred to look at those eyes. When he did it, he felt instantly hypnotized by them, they filled his entire mind and pulled him in until the blackness in the center of her eyes was the only thing he could see. His mind told him that he was losing himself while trying to get inside Sybil's mind but then a small flicker of will allowed him remember why he was there and what he was trying to do, again. He decided they both had to flee, so he tried to send a telepathic message to Sybil; in that realm he could not talk anymore, for unknown reasons and he felt as if a door was closing on him.
It was impossible! He did not know if Sybil received the message and now he felt repentance. He felt a sudden sadness that took control of his entire body, from his energy point up to his brain. He repented for what he had made... He immediately remembered his family which was no more. He had no family at all now, he was alone in this vast universe and did not know why. His family had been killed and now he remembered it all. He did not know how he could have forgotten that fact before. He forgot about Sybil and entered his own mind in order to explore his own suffering. He felt a sense of void, he did not want to keep on living anymore. It was a tragedy that could never be cured. His mind... he was losing it. His hope, all those things he ever cared for, even the Order... were not important at all at that moment. He could not save his relatives and now he would not even try to save his own mind. He thought of the possibility of losing his mind in a place like this, during a telepathy session. And he was not afraid of the possibility... Was he? Oh, no, he could really become mad if he did not come back fast. But why would he want to come back? Meanwhile, Sybil was escaping through the portal he had opened and her mind was trying to recover control of her body, outside. Kalid's mind was still trapped in there, crying over the death of the people he loved more... Nothing was worth it, he could just let himself sink in there and nobody would ever know or care. And now the thoughts about going mad came back again, this time making that fact true. His mind submerged itself in a kaleidoscope of weird thoughts and contradictory thinking that made him dizzy. He did not feel his imagined body now and his created dream had become a nightmare. Finally, he lost consciousness and entered the dream in a normal unconscious state.
After some time, he could finally wake up and he found himself in his office. Sybil was there, also trying to wake up and they both struggled to recover from that dead-end dream experience he had placed their minds in. He concluded that when his mind entered the unconscious mode, his long years of mental training had made it possible for the unconscious foundations of his mind to order his body to wake up and then the soma had led the shattered fragments of his conscious to abandon the weird ideas from the dream. But now, he examined the path he had taken out of the dream state and remembered having a chain of interconnected dreams; in most of them Kalid had suffered many false awakenings. Now he confirmed this was reality. Somehow he had been able to save his own mind, but he could not feel any pride because all of the important work had been accomplished unconsciously. All his years of training had ingrained his unconscious mind with an advanced sense of self-preservation, apparently. Now he focused on Sybil. He called in two of the temple's monks who injected her with a special substance to help her mind come back more easily and finally she woke up, too.
"What happened?" Sybil asked, when she regained consciousness. "I tried to escape, but you were there and you did not want to get out. You told me the way to get out of that dream of yours, but after some time your image got darker and darker. I called to you, but you never listened to me. I did not know what happened, the only thing I remember is some strong pain I felt in my head and then I was trying to escape. It was horrible! And you wanted to stay in there!"
"Yes. It seems I imagined a powerful illusion that I believed afterward. I believed that my f... It does not matter now. The important thing is that you are safe now and I will make my decision."
"Oh, no. I know what you will say to me."
"What will I say to you?"
"That I do not deserve to enter the Order." Sybil commented with sadness.
"No! I already made my decision. Your destiny is to become a Priestess of Iris inside the Silver Tulipan Order."
"What? You must be kidding."
Kalid thought that that young lady was treating him as if they both were old friends. A little weird for that situation. Maybe because both of them were in danger, inside the dream...
"Yes. You are now accepted inside the Silver Tulipan Order and will be able to enter the Fourth Circle as soon as your age permits. That is all."
"Wow." Sybil literally jumped on the floor and then tried to embrace Kalid. Kalid hugged her and she felt very happy.
"I never thought this would end up this way." Sybil thought. "Oh, and I apologize for being so emotive, it is just that this..."
"Yes, it is very important for you and has been important for every member before entering. Congratulations. Now rest a few minutes while you recharge your energies in here, then you will be composed and able to exit and tell your mother about this."
Sybil relaxed and fell asleep again for a few minutes. Kalid went outside and tried to relax. He decided not to tell anything to Dorothy yet, it should be her daughter who would share with her the important fact. Dorothy was waiting outside and tried to catch Kalid, but he went past her and directly to another room, to order his own thoughts.
Soon Sybil was awake again. She could remember mostly everything that had happened and went towards Dorothy.
"Mom... I was accepted inside the Order!"
"What? Oh, my dear, just as I had thought! I am so proud of you."
They hugged each other and Matthew appeared again and asked about Sybil's fate. He congratulated her.
Sybil rose from her chair and stretched. It was now quite late and she was ready for bed. She left the study and walked down the hallway to her bedroom. The memory of that strange dream experience she had shared with Kalid and thinking of those old times made her feel stronger now, ready for this new time of uncertainty about the future. Somehow she sensed that Kalid's dream was linked to this current crisis with Set, but how?
Leone and Aristark rested in their chairs, trying to endure as best they could the heavy force of maximum acceleration. Their decoy was still drawing the enemy ships off in another direction. Leone and Thot calculated a short jump through hyperspace that would put them outside of the Akara star system. Finally Leone said, "Okay, we are now well beyond the range of Harpoon Class rockets. I'm going to make a microjump of about half a lightyear into interstellar space to a safe location where we can do damage assessment."
Thot eased the ship's acceleration back down to standard and initiated the jump sequence. However, the field generators snapped off as soon as they started to power up.
Leone and Aristark and Thot all examined the damage assessments and the hyperspatial systems diagnostics. Maintenance nanites were at work all around the ship repairing disrupter-induced damage, but none of the identified damage seemed major. Finally Thot said, "I suspect that the radiation pulse from those antimatter bombs threw the field generators out of alignment and then the disrupter blasts knocked the self-diagnostics off line. There might also be problems due to that power conduit break and damage to the computing cores."
Leone nodded. "Yes, there could be many subtle faults in our critical systems." Leone was particularly worried about the Thot artificial intelligence since its mind was generated by the computational cores. "This is not a war ship, the systems in this spaceship were never hardened to protect them from battle conditions."
Aristark asked, "Can the problem be fixed? Will we be able to make a jump?"
Thot suggested, "We should make repair of the hyperspace field generator self-diagnostics the highest priority for now. We'll know more once we can run the diagnostics."
Leone reprogrammed the priorities of the nanites then said, "We better make a contingency plan in case the field generators are beyond repair." Of course, "beyond repair" really meant "beyond repair within a reasonable amount of time".
Aristark said, "If we could trust the Invocator to keep hiding us, then it might be possible to just cruise right to Azur."
Leone was amused by that idea and the thought of showing up on right on Ketar's door step as if dropping in from hyperspace. Leone was rather awe struck by the idea that the Haldus Order had such a technological capability yet kept it secret. And apparently never even made use of it. He'd never even heard rumors of cloaked ships.
Still, there were too many unknowns. First, it was not at all certain that they could control the Invocator...it literally had a mind of its own. Second, Leone still could not understand why his spaceship has been attacked here in the Akara system. He was no coward, but it did not make sense to invite danger by just turning around and heading back towards Azur.
Leone scanned the communications channels. "Hmm, it looks like communications are no longer being jammed. If we could speak to Ketar and find out why we were attacked-"
Thot said, "I found the problem...it was just a safety over-ride that had been tripped. I hate to admit it, but some of my own internal systems are not working correctly. Hyperspace jump sequence initiated. Should I abort?"
Leone said, "No, make the microjump."
The jump was completed without further incident. After a few hours, the spaceship was rematerialized at a safe distance from Akara.
Leone finally took the time to examine Aristark's multiple wounds. The plasma burns were now black skin, a dead cover on top of a mesh of medical nanites and regenerating cells, below. Leone was rather amazed Aristark did not complain about his pain. Aristark's eyes looked sunken and Leone supposed that he was dehydrated. Leone ordered Aristark to his cabin. After making sure that the medical nanites had sedated Aristark and started replenishing his fluids, Leone retired to his own room. Leone did not doubt that Aristark could benefit from the attention of trained medical personal, but for now he had to trust the emergency medical nanites. Leone reclined on his bunk and was soon asleep.
The next day Leone awoke hungry and sore and he did not feel rested. For a moment he tried to recall a dream that had disturbed his sleep, but it slipped away from his conscious recall. He went to the kitchen and was surprised to find Aristark already there, pushing food around on a plate with his fork. Leone said, "How do you feel?"
Aristark shrugged. "The pain killers work well. It actually hurts most if I lie down."
Aristark had not bothered to put on a shirt. A thick crust of medical nanites swarmed on his shoulder. Leone felt his appetite fade. He sat down across the table from Aristark.
"The current situation is an outrage." Leone tried to put aside his feelings about being attacked at Akara, apparently by Ketar's forces. "We have to decide what our next destination will be. I would suggest that we call Ketar and make plans for going to Azur, but I want to know why we were attacked in the Akara system. Those were almost certainly spaceships of Ketar's own defense fleet that attacked us. Why?"
"Well, by now they know that there is something very unusual about this ship." Aristark said. He thought: knowing Ketar, he's itching to get his hands on the Invocator.
Leone commented, "I wonder just what the basis of this Haldus Order technology is. What are its limitations, if any? According to what Sybil told me, this is "spiritual technology", if two such words can ever be used next to each other. I was worried before, heading into Azur without Kalid, with nothing to show to Ketar...just showing up to beg for help against Set. But now we have this secret Haldus Order technology in our hands. Clearly it was a similar device Sybil was alluding to when she proclaimed that Haldus Order Masters had been able to hide from scanners on Plato. For me, I do not trust that device...I want nothing coming from Kalid or Sybil. For all I know, that device could go into SELF DESTRUCT MODE and kills us, but I'd like to try to trade it to Ketar for promise of his help to defeat Set."
"Self destruct, like in some space opera?" Aristark asked. "That is nonsense paranoia. I'm more worried that it could be inactivated remotely. If the Haldus Order decides we are not living up to our agreement they might just inactivate that device...melt its circuits into a lump. But if I am allowed to speak freely, I still trust Kalid and Sybil. I've seen no evidence that they have been involved in these attacks against us. Even with all that has happened to us, we still must continue our mission. I know the best alternative is to go to Azur and meet Ketar...he will know what to do next-"
Leone interrupted Aristark. "You still trust them?" Leone asked, visibly agitated. "After what they did to us? That cannot be! Sybil led us to the trap at Plato and Kalid tried to kill us. It is pretty clear to me, a declaration of war!"
"War? Have you lost your mind? What evidence do you have related to Kalid?" Aristark asked, in an insolent manner. Speaking bluntly was one of the important privileges of being a personal friend of the Captain.
Leone, was not at all sure, but he felt a need to find someone to blame for what they had been through. He was distrustful of mystics and claims of magic...it was too easy for him to blame everything bad on Kalid who Leone only new from Sybil's claims about him being a master of mental powers. Leone was glad to have a personal friend along who did not fear to object and say when Leone was moving beyond the evidence, but if Kalid could not be blamed for their woes, then who could?
Leone thought about war. Leone concluded, due to his historical research, that most worlds of the galaxy were in decline militarily and would continue in that direction unless a powerful leader appeared and set a world on another path. Leone knew that Azur was at the top of a long list of planets which could conceivably return to the militarism that triggered the galactic wars of the past. Leone thought that a planet having the technology of the Haldus Order Invocator could overthrow the peace that now existed in the entire galaxy. All you needed was a devious and evil mind to make such a nightmare come true... that, and the Haldus Order cloaking technology. And there were Evil beings, with capital E. Leone knew some of them, and now that he thought about it, did he want to take the responsibility for deciding who should have this technology? Could he really trade such powerful technology for a promise of help for Sakkara in its struggle against Set?
"I am not certain of his guilt, but Kalid is still my prime suspect." Leone answered, a bit sorry that he had spoken with such vehemence. "Don't you agree?".
Aristark shook his head. "I do not think so. If I am allowed to say, sometimes you do not think things through with a cool head. I know saying this is insubordination, but at this moment, I am talking as your long-time friend. Even you should be able to admit to yourself that there are moments in which you are driven completely by your emotions and cannot think clearly."
"Think about it rationally: on Sakkara, Sybil could have murdered you in the blink of an eye, had she wanted to do so, or had Kalid given the order. And the proof of their innocence lies in that fact: she did not move against you when you were in her house. Maybe you imagine I am their target, not you, but the Invocator could have been, in reality, a bomb, or it could have made your spaceship jump into Memphis, killing us both instantly. But none of those events actually happened. On the contrary, the Invocator saved our lives. Because I have never met Kalid I can say nothing about him. I am trained in the law and I know not to jump to conclusions when making accusations."
"I know your argument sounds rational, but, I do not know...there was something about my last meeting with Sybil that I did not like."
"The fact that she did not ask to come with you on this quest," Aristark thought. "That was what I was trying to talk about when I mentioned emotions," Aristark commented. "I also feel them, I think I trust Sybil because she, indirectly, saved our lives. Maybe she does not even know the Invocator can hide a ship; all she wanted was for you to meet with Kalid. If the Haldus Order knows how to keep its secrets then its members work on a "need to know" basis. Because of our journey, we may now know more about the Invocator than Sybil does."
"The Invocator is a puzzle." Aristark rubbed his chin and shrugged. "I suspect that in a spaceship of the Haldus Order it would be fully integrated with the command and control system. However, in the way it was installed on this ship it has no external controls...we cannot order it to do anything. But it seems to protect itself and it can enter 'ghost mode' when it is being attacked and is in danger of being destroyed. So I guess my conclusion is that Sybil never betrayed us, but maybe she did not really save us, either. No, she may be almost totally in the dark. Whatever it was that attacked us from Plato was not premeditated by Sybil. Beyond that, we can continue to wonder and discuss about Kalid, who is another person and another situation...one that we have no evidence about."
"But the point is that Kalid is everything that matters right now..." Leone said, bitterly.
"Well, not really. We have the possibility of visiting Sybil and asking if there might be another place to look for Kalid. But Kalid might be irrelevant. If we visit or speak to Ketar he might tell us to return to Sybil or he might decide to wash his hands of both Sybil and Kalid. After that battle in the Akara system Ketar must have some idea about the "Ghost mode" capability of this spaceship, that might be of more interest to a man like Ketar than sending Counselors chasing around the galaxy in search of Kalid."
"Yes, you are making me think about the importance of this Invocator. You seem to feel some kind of attraction to that weird equipment, but all I can do is think of revenge against those who have attacked us."
"I think you should be thankful for that "weird equipment". It protected us and allowed us to escape from certain death. Conclusion: my vote is to visit Sybil before going to Ketar, although I think we should visit Ketar first."
"What do you mean? Is it yes or no?"
"It is what I said, nothing more. We should first visit Ketar, but I vote for going back to Sakkara and asking Sybil for her advice. Obviously, we are Ketar's subordinates and we must follow his orders..."
"Right. In the same way you follow mine."
"That is correct. I sometimes disobeyed or twist the rules while trying to save my life...and maybe yours...and now we both can alter our original plan to go from Plato to Azur to meet Ketar, because our lives are in danger. That is the point: we tried to visit Ketar, but we were attacked. Sakkara is our home; if we return home and visit Sybil, we risk nothing and maybe we can find out what really happened at Plato, or at least learn of another direction in which to search for Kalid, after all, that is the mission Ketar assigned to us."
"Then... is that your last word?"
"Yes. Moreover, I am tired of discussing this; I have never been good at promoting ideas. Decide what you want, you are the Captain. If you still want to commit suicide by visiting Ketar, go ahead, you have the right to kill yourself. But do not count on me for help with that, I have a family and I like life."
Leone felt hurt. Aristark not only treated him as paranoid, delusional and obstinate, but he also now underlined the fact that Leone was not married and had no family. If Aristark were not his long-time friend Leone would already have pushed him out the airlock into space or, at the very least, they would be fighting hand to hand by now. Fortunately, it was not that way.
Now Leone had to make a decision, as Aristark said, with a cool head. But it was not easy. If he went towards Azur, he would be returning to the star system where they had almost been obliterated by antimatter bombs and Leone would completely lose Aristark's already weak support. If he headed towards Sakkara and Sybil, that would be "obeying" Aristark again! Nevertheless, that was the only safe option left. Well, there was another one! Not visiting anyone and first contacting Ketar. Really, that was what they had already tried to do, but there was another way...by using hyperspace communications.
The problem was, if Leone contacted Ketar by means of hyperspatial communication then Ketar might give them an order that they would not like...down that path was open disobedience, he could be kicked out of the Party, along with Aristark, for the crime of rebellion, or at least, failure to execute his mission. Yes, that was a real danger since Leone was not at all sure he wanted to hand the Haldus Order technology over to Ketar...and as Aristark had said, Ketar probably now thought Leone had important Haldus Order technology on his ship and a man like Ketar would want to take control of such a powerful tool.
Leone made the decision: they would visit Sybil, armed to teeth and yes, she would have to confess everything about Plato and Kalid. He would accept no excuses. She would have to show absolute submission or he would abandon this crazy mission in search of Kalid. But would he really be able to act that way against Sybil? Well, he would have to stop being a school boy and treat her as a possible antagonist. Anyway, it was not even his own idea to visit Sybil... it had been Ketar's idea to go visit her in the first place and now it was Aristark who suggested it. Leone felt he was powerless, driven by the threads of destiny that always went against his will. He saw himself as a leaf on the surface of a big sea, traveling at random, without any final destination. He never before believed in such weird concepts as fate, but now he was reconsidering the whole matter. Nevertheless, he was not defeated... yet. He told himself that at some critical moment he would be able to decide if Sybil were friend or foe... in a way it seemed as if his whole life had been designed to answer that question.
"We will go to visit Sybil" Leone said, solemnly.
"I am glad to hear that," Aristark said. "And glad to have you back as my rational friend, Leone. But, I have a little question... if she did send us into a trap, will we murder her?"
This was the side of Aristark that Leone despised. Yes, as head of the Department of Justice, Aristark dealt in life and death decisions, but why express this delicate situation in such harsh terms? Leone tried to control himself. "We could have the opportunity to do so, if she is found guilty of betrayal. But, after all, we are not murderers. It is one thing to fight against an attacking spaceship in self defense and quite another to murder a woman."
Aristark put his plate into the kitchen's recycling system. "So, let's go. I am happy we finally agree. I will go prepare the jump."
"Yes, we agree, but there is one condition. I want my spaceship repaired before we go. I'm not jumping into any more star systems without recharged shields, not even the Sakkaran system."
Aristark shook his head. "Self immolation... sacrifice. The suicide solution," Aristark finished. "You know there is a serious risk if we do a forced regeneration of the shields. We took that risk when we were under attack at Akara, but now we are safe. Why do you insist on putting us at risk again? It is perfectly safe to return to Sakkara."
After those scornful comments from Aristark, Leone could not keep on talking. He went directly to the main control room and adjusted priorities on the various repairs to the ship. Leone wanted the ability to make hyperspatial communications: he was tired of jumping blind into star systems where unknown dangers waited. It would take about a day to repair all systems and regenerate the shields. He locked in an order to the effect that the ship could not enter hyperspace, to which Thot responded: "Hyperspatial jump cannot be made until repairs are complete."
Aristark had noticed Thot's response. He used the intercom system to ask Leone, "Why not jump now? Why delay for needless repairs?"
"We spoke and I will do as I said." Leone replied. "The safest route we can choose is to return to our planet, but I am sick of Sybils, Kalids and Ketars. From now on I trust nobody." His nerves were twisted. "It seems the entire universe goes against me!"
Aristark chuckled, "Well, sure, you are wise to be cautious. Just do not take everything personally. This reminds me of animism towards the forces of the universe we cannot understand. We are sometimes wrong, after all, we are humans..."
"And I have no options left. So I will move towards this one option with care."
Aristark was amused to see the bold Leone now hesitating to take a step. "Well, far be it from me to suggest that we act impulsively now...an error could mean certain death for both of us. You are Captain, do what you feel you must do." He cut the communications channel.
Leone wondered if he was cruel to delay their return to Sakkara. Aristark had shed his blood and his wounds were ghastly and painful. Blood, like the giant red star of Akara. Leone did not like that color now, it was the color of defeat. The universe going against him...
Leone was bored and frustrated. He sat in the main control room, attached to the virtual reality generator that constituted the control system of the spaceship. The spaceship was deep into automated self-repair routines and Leone casually, if impatiently, monitored the progress of those repairs. The sooner the spaceship was repaired the sooner he could return to his mission and the search for ways to deal with Set.
For now, the spaceship just drifted in interstellar space and Leone had nothing to do. His thoughts kept turning to Sybil and her mysticism, so he spent some time reading more about the Haldus Order. Back on Sakkara, in the day before departing in search of Kalid, Leone had learned that there were many mentions of the Haldus Order in works of fiction, but the last flurry of non-fictional accounts had been in the time period from about 200 to 300 years ago. Leone again accessed what seemed to have been regarded as a provocative, if not authoritative, expose from that period called "Haldus Mind" by Lence Raldun...
Leone was shocked out of his reading by an activity signal reported by the long-range scanning system. Another spaceship? Had they been followed through hyperspace from the Akara star system? Leone examined the available data: the scanners had detected a transient signal at extreme range and just above the threshold of detectability. Leone had previously seen such scanner transients while waiting in deep space between hyperspace jumps. Almost certainly the cause was some chunk of stellar debris blown out of an exploding star billions of years ago. Leone sank back into the dull routine of waiting for the ship to repair itself.
A page from "Haldus Mind" now floated in front of Leone unseen. He was bored from reading about absurd stories of Haldus Order "masters" and their amazing powers....Lence Raldun had no concept of skepticism and objective evidence. Leone wondered why "Haldus Mind" deserved to be listed as "nonfiction".
Leone could not prevent his mind from echoing the discussions with Aristark from earlier in the day. Should they now return to Sakkara? Should they keep trying to reach Azur? Had Sybil sent them into a deadly trap? No, that made no sense. It was clear that the equipment installed in the spaceship by Sybil had protected the them from destruction. Nobody would send a spaceship into danger and at the same time protect the spaceship from danger. Or would they?
Was Sybil trying to prove her point? Leone recalled that he had mocked her for claiming that Kalid had "mental powers". Leone had known Sybil for years and they had a long history of close friendship. Many years previously, Leone had tried to move their relationship past simple friendship, but Sybil had always deflected any drift in their relationship towards sexual intimacy. At first, Leone had been deeply shocked to learn that Sybil was a member of the Haldus Order...as shocked as if she had claimed to be from Atlantis. But now, upon reflection, her membership in the Haldus Order might explain much that had long seemed mysterious. Leone's reading about the Haldus Order suggested that Priestesses of that Order were celibate. If Sybil was fanatically devoted to the Haldus Order, maybe she harbored resentment over his past sexual advances and maybe she had also taken offense when Leone had expressed doubt about the existence of mental powers and the ability of the Haldus Order to hide from scanners. Would Sybil send Leone into danger just to demonstrate to that Haldus Order technology really could hide a spaceship?
No, that was not it. Leone felt confident that Sybil fully expected Leone to make contact with Kalid at Plato and to bring Kalid to Azur for a meeting with Ketar. Still, something tugged at his mind...hadn't Sybil said something about Set? He could not remember exactly, but it had implied danger. What had she known that she had not shared with Leone?
But Kalid was even more of a mystery. Had Kalid misjudged what was going on and mistakenly attacked Leone's spaceship at Plato? Was Kalid simply taking no chances and ordering attacks on any unknown spaceships approaching Plato? No, that made no sense either. Leone now had evidence of the power of the equipment Sybil had installed on his spaceship. Since that equipment could hide the spaceship, there was no reason to suspect that it could not also perform the much simpler task of signaling to Kalid that Leone's spaceship was friendly.
The further mystery was why they had been attacked upon entering the Akara star system. Clearly that attack had nothing to do with Kalid and possible Haldus Order paranoia. Briefly, Leone considered the possibility that a trade war had broken out. Leone knew that the population of Azur had been decimated a hundred years ago during the last galactic war. Had the Akara star system now started reasserting its power in an attempt at returning Azur to a position of galactic dominance similar to what it had in the old days before the galactic wars? Leone monitored spaceship building statistics for the entire galaxy and knew that Azur was aggressively building ships and had been trying to monopolize all cargo and passenger transport to and from the Akara system. Maybe Azur had declared that trade restrictions were in effect...maybe Akaran forces were now repelling from the Akaran system all unwelcome spaceships. Leone was an advocate of open trade and free movement of spacecraft from all worlds. If Ketar was now trying to enforce travel restrictions and non-Akaran spaceships within the Akara system that would be a step backwards towards the tensions and conflicts that had existed during the galactic wars.
Leone quickly reviewed his ship's deep scanner records from their time in the Akara star system. From the scan data, it was clear that there had been many spaceships moving through the system on routine business....most had been broadcasting the standard navigation beacon used by trade ships of the galaxy and some of the other ships were not of Akaran registry. It appeared that only Leone's ship had been targeted for destruction. The only thing unique about Leone's spaceship was the equipment that had been installed by Sybil. The only thing Leone knew for sure about that equipment was that when the spaceship was on the brink of destruction, the "Invocator" had made the spaceship invisible and projected a decoy. But how had it done that? Sybil had spoken of "spiritual means", but what did that mean?
Leone noticed Aristark disconnect from the Thot user interface in the engineering room. Aristark had been using nanite probes to study the equipment that had been installed by Sybil. The door to the main control room opened and Aristark entered. Leone disconnected from the Thot interface and asked, "What did you learn?"
Aristark sank down wearily into the seat next to Leone and replied, "Not much. There is a strange pattern of energy use by Sybil's equipment that corresponds to the time when our spaceship became invisible to the spaceships that were attacking us. There is no doubt that this equipment saved us from destruction."
Leone grunted. When he had first heard Sybil's claim that it was possible to hide from scanners he had mocked her for holding such a wild belief. Now the evidence in support of her claim seemed irrefutable. "The question is, how can you hide a spaceship?"
"Indeed. I probed far enough into Sybil's equipment to see that it is protected by an auto-destruct mechanism. I cannot learn how it works without first triggering its destruction."
Leone suggested, "Maybe we could remove the energy feed to Sybil's equipment. Would that disable the auto-destruct mechanism?"
Aristark shook his head. "Sybil's equipment is protected by self-powered nanite defenses. I'm sure that if those nanites are ever in danger of running out of power, they will use their last energies to trigger the auto-destruct mechanism. It is clear that the Haldus Order has secret technology that they do not wish to share with the rest of mankind."
Leone could not suppress a sense of outrage over the idea that important new technology would be kept secret. Leone was part of a scientific culture which valued openness and sharing of scientific and technical advances. "Who are these 'masters' of the Haldus Order that they keep such technology secret?"
Aristark shrugged. "I suppose they feel that this kind of "invisibility technology" could be misused. Think of space prates who might use it to shield their spaceships during attacks on cargo ships."
Leone was willing to admit that many technologies can be misused. In general, society bands together to put limits on the use of dangerous technologies. "What bothers me is that I know nothing about the goals and activities of the Haldus Order. How do we know that they do not misuse this technology?"
Aristark was willing to live according to available evidence and he tried to put a throttle on Leone's penchant for wild speculation. "I am not aware of any reported attacks by space prates using invisibility shields for their spaceships. Is there any evidence that the Haldus Order has misused this technology?"
Leone replied, "We do not know fully what their technology can do. Many unexplained events might be due to the use of powerful and hidden technologies. How can we even know what evidence of misuse to look for when we do not know what technologies they have?"
"Such doubts and fears can be applied to anyone. I'm tired." Aristark rose from his seat and headed for the door. He turned back towards Leone and asked, "Any guess for when the spaceship will complete its repairs?"
"The hyperspace communications system is being rebuilt, I made that a priority, so those repairs should take about another ten hours. By tomorrow we might also be in good enough shape to make another hyperspace jump."
"Okay. I thought we had decide on our destination, but now I agree that it is wise to call Ketar and ask for his advice. I suppose we should since he is the one who sent us on this mission. Good night."
Leone realized that he was also very tired. There was nothing to be done until their spaceship was repaired enough to jump again. Almost certainly the best course of action was to return to Sakkara where the spaceship could be fully repaired, but it was worth trying to contact Ketar. Leone really wanted to ask Sybil what was going on and how the Haldus Order had developed technology that can hide spaceships. And what their plans were for that technology. And...his mind swirled with questions...