The Friendly Ambassador: The Beginning of the End by David George Richards by David George Richards - Read Online

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Summary

As private secretary to Li-Sen-Tot, the Tun-Sho-Lok Ambassador on Eden, Gusta knew how badly the war was going. But when the treaty her government had signed with the Keruh was broken, even she was unprepared for the unimaginable savagery that followed. And with her children lost in the city, escape seems impossible.

As two mighty fleets gather for the coming battle in space, Anaxilea begins the bombardment of Eden with a heavy heart. She feels no anger towards the Edenites, but the Keruh Host was now on Eden, and the Edenites would not escape from the fate that awaited them.

The Atlantian Senate feared that a similar fate would overtake their world. But Ares knew differently. What the Tun-Sho-Lok scientist, Kel-Cid-An had created at Ephesus was a genetic masterpiece, the perfect warrior. But could these fighting clones be produced in enough numbers to defeat the Keruh?

“The Friendly Ambassador: The Beginning of the End” is the first part of a four part galactic epic that mixes Science-Fiction with Greek Mythology and the legend of Atlantis.

Published: David George Richards on
ISBN: 9781466000179
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    Page 1 of 1

    dreams

    Prologue

    The Sweet Delight

    She opened her eyes. The world was very stark, cold and silent. Grey and brown smoke swirled in delicate patterns all around her in the darkness of the transport. Her breath came in white clouds that mixed briefly with the smoke and dust in the air before it dissipated quickly. Flames flickered nearby, giving the scene an orange glow. She felt the heat from the flames on her skin, but they gave her no warmth. Her bones ached and her skin was sore, but she was alive. That couldn’t be said for most of her sisters. From the moment the blast from the maser cannon had caught the transport, their mission was doomed.

    The crash had been hard and violent. The transport was a twisted wreck filled with bodies. Some moaned and moved feebly, while others just lay still, their legs and arms at crazy angles. But there were other movements in the shadows now. Dark shapes, ungainly and misshapen, had begun moving through the wreck with relentless purpose. They were the Keruh, the aliens they had come here to destroy. They wielded axes, despatching those that still survived. One came closer to her. She felt the glimmer of its heat and instantly switched to infrared. Now she could see it more clearly, a large bipedal form, bigger on one side than the other. It held a double bladed axe in its larger hand. Her tactical systems locked onto it even as it saw her, her head-up display framed it in green as it strode toward her, its axe raised. Information spilled across her field of vision, giving her distance, elevation, speed, mass. Even as the data became apparent in her mind, her weapon was already changing...

    The city had once been beautiful. Even in the darkness it’s elegant and almost delicate form and construction was quite clear. Every building had a different decorative style, with different materials and shapes used in the construction, giving each building a distinctive look. Windows, balconies, steel, concrete, glass, stone, and all the colours available were to be seen. But one aspect was common to all. The buildings were far too tall and far too thin for their apparent weight. Sometimes they were wide, but then above or below they would narrow, and the overhanging structures and bridges were almost flimsy. But appearances were deceiving. The city had been over a thousand years old. Now it burned.

    As the snow fell and swirled in the wind, the tall and elegant buildings toppled. One by one they had been hit by the maser blasts fired from below and they came crashing down in a grinding of metal and a burst of glass and masonry. Some struck other buildings as they fell, causing them to shake and crumble, until they, too, gave way, dropping in a shroud of black smoke and debris. Many of the buildings that still stood were burning and fire spread throughout the city, the black smoke billowed up overhead, mixing with the white snow and turning it grey.

    Into this scene of sadness and despair had come the transport. It had been one of many to swoop down from out of the clouds over the burning city. They had come in the night, the snow swirling in their wake, but the darkness had given them no protection. The maser beams had begun to pick them out even before they descended between the tall buildings. Many burst apart in balls of red and yellow fire, while others dropped in a trail of smoke. Some hit the upper stories of the buildings, the explosions adding to the smoke and fire.

    The transport had been one of the last to be hit. It was already very low, weaving between the tall and spindly towers of the burning city. Twice it had evaded the maser beams that had sought to bring it down, but the third penetrated the hull at the rear, silencing its engines. The transport had dropped and spun, hitting the base of one of the elegant and far too tall buildings, and embedding itself into the structure. Now the metal of the twisted hull was split open, fire licked at the ruptured interior and smoke billowed upward in the night sky. The wreck was heaved over on to one side, and all around smashed and dead figures lay scattered in the snow. The Keruh Warriors ran among the dead and dying, alien, asymmetrical forms clad in black armour, like giant insects from a child’s nightmare. They wielded axes, despatching without mercy any of the occupants of the transport they found alive.

    Then the first beam of orange light pinpointed one of the large Warriors as it raised its axe, and the Keruh burst into fragments. Another orange beam quickly followed and another Keruh was blown to a fiery death.

    In an instant all the Keruh had un-shouldered their rifles and began to return fire. They ran among the wreckage, jumping over twisted metal and burning debris. They fired at anything that moved, but always the orange beams picked them out, bursting them and splashing the metal with their blood.

    Black blood.

    In the darkness and the smoke of the confines of the wrecked transport, confusion reigned supreme. Beams of light criss-crossed the twisted compartments as each side fired at the other. Axes were wielded and frail bodies were smashed, the blood of the victims making the footing treacherous.

    Red blood.

    At such close quarters, axes proved more efficient than rifles, but at their moment of victory the Keruh found themselves facing a new weapon. Trapped in the interior of the wrecked transport, flashing blades, like rotating circular saws, sliced through limbs. Nimble forms jumped from the dark and sliced at backs. The Keruh were cut down, sliced in half, mutilated. They heaved their axes, killing those of their enemies that were too close. But even more jumped from the shadows until the Keruh staggered to and fro, several agile forms clinging to their backs, slicing at them, cutting into them until they fell...

    The blood mixed and splashed as the warriors of two different races fought amid the wreckage of the transport, each side uncaring of their own survival, each bent only on the other’s destruction, until finally, it was over.

    She stood in the darkness of the transport, bathed in the blood of her enemies and her compatriots. Her chest heaved with the exertion of the battle, and in each hand she held a large curved blade. Each was bright silver, and both blades reached out in front of her before then curving back to her elbows. The razor edges of the blades seemed to be moving, as if rotating. She looked down at the dismembered bodies that lay piled on the ground all around her. She could smell the death; she could taste the blood and the smoke. Her heart pumped and blood surged within her, the adrenalin still feeding her muscles and her brain. She breathed deeply, her skin tingled, her muscles ached, and her mind felt such contentment. But it was the brutality of the battle, and not the victory, that had brought on such an overwhelming feeling of complete and utter exhilaration.

    She felt absolutely marvellous.

    She wasn’t alone in her feelings. Many of them still lived. They stood scattered among the corpses, bathed in blood, gasping, panting, their faces filled with the sweet delight of their experiences. But the moment didn’t last.

    There were movements outside, more Keruh Warriors clambering over the broken and twisted metal, twice as many as before. They entered the bloody confines of the transport, walking over the dead, uncaring and unseeing.

    She turned to face the new threat with a look of disdain on her face. The same expression was mirrored on all their faces. This time there would be no escape, no survival, but it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter to any of them. The only thing that mattered was the chance to kill more of the enemy, to rent and mutilate their bodies, to smash them and tread their carcases underfoot, to feel, once more, that moment of sweet delight brought on by the spilling of black blood.

    Without hesitation she ran forward with her sisters, their blades whirling, and they clashed once more in the dark with their chosen enemy.

    Chapter One

    Diplomatic Relations

    The Embassy was in a quiet, residential part of the city, not far from the Edenite Ring Network Portal. It was built on a slight hill, and the best view of the distant and busy centre of the city could be seen from the window of the Ambassador’s office.

    Jutlam City was a beautiful city, a modern city built in a time of understanding, when ecology and economy strode hand in hand. The streets were wide and straight. A grand square seemed to mark each intersection and the trees and grassed areas that filled the squares spilled down the edges of each street. Fountains and statues abounded, and on either side of the wide streets were elegant and decorative buildings in light brown stone.

    None of the buildings were very high. At the outset the decision had been to build wide and large. The nature of the world with its higher gravity reinforced the plan, and the city was grand and imposing. Everything was built in the brown stone of the Brok Ridge Mountains to the north. Office and apartment buildings were no more than ten or twelve stories high, and each block was no more than four buildings wide. The city was built on a radiating plan, with Government Square at the centre. Here was the Senate. It was an impressive building, with large columns and a high, vaulted ceiling.

    It was the middle of the day, bright and warm as usual, and even with the news reports at their most bleak, people were still rushing about their everyday business as normal. The wide pavements and squares were crammed with people, and the streets were busy with noisy traffic. There were private vehicles and buses, delivery vans and taxis. And in the blue skies above were air transports, buzzing back and forth, or hovering over the landing pads in one of the squares. Even at this distance, the clean, fresh air was filled with noise.

    Li-Sen-Tot sighed and shook his head. The ignorance of the Edenites was amazing. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they still carried on as if nothing had happened and nothing was going to happen. But, of course, they didn’t know what he knew.

    A noise behind him caused him to turn. Gusta, his personal secretary, had entered quietly and coughed politely.

    Li-Sen-Tot closed the window and went back to his desk. Yes, Gusta, he said in a high-pitched and very female voice.

    Gusta closed the door and came forward. That she and Li-Sen-Tot were of different races was instantly apparent. He was small in stature, barely five-foot in height, his body willowy and light boned. His skin was yellow and his head bald. In fact there appeared to be no hair on his body at all. He wore a long gown of gold that was sparsely decorated with delicate stitching. His appearance was ambiguous and deceptive. Despite the bald head, his delicate facial features and blue eyes looked female. Even his voice sounded female. But he was most definitely male.

    The contrast with Gusta was complete as she stood before his desk. She was over two feet taller than Li-Sen-Tot, and her body was muscular, square and heavy boned. Her head was large and her features well pronounced. She had a wide mouth set in a square jaw. Her nose was large, but well shaped and regular; her eyes were green, and her skin was light brown from her days in the sun. Her light brown hair was bleached blonde in places for the same reason. Although her voice was deeper than his, her appearance proclaimed her female sexuality. She was dressed in clothes that were fashionable for a female Edenite with a career in the city: neat jacket and skirt, white blouse and comfortable shoes. Her make-up was delicately applied, highlighting the beauty of her soulful eyes and sensual mouth.

    Gusta smiled. It was pleasant and attractive. I’m sorry to disturb you, Ambassador, but Deputy Leader Alther has arrived and he would like to see you.

    As she finished her sentence, Gusta’s expression took on an apologetic look. Li-Sen-Tot understood why. He had been the Tun-Sho-Lok Ambassador to Eden for twenty-nine years. He had lived here all that time, and he was sad that it was now going to end. But he wasn’t sad for himself, he was sad for the Edenites.

    Then you had better show him in, Gusta, he said as he sat down at his desk.

    Gusta nodded and went out.

    Li-Sen-Tot rearranged some of the papers on his desk and pulled his slim desktop computer toward him. He cleared the most recent and sensitive correspondence with his government from the display, retrieving an old and unimportant message in its place. He picked up the earpiece and put it in his ear. Then he gazed at the screen intently. He was in this position when Gusta returned and knocked on the door.

    Without looking up, Li-Sen-Tot called out, Enter!

    Gusta opened the door wide. The Deputy Leader, sir.

    Prili Alther hurried into the room. He was even larger than Gusta, nearly eight feet in height. His body was proportionately broader, too. If the doors and the whole building hadn’t been designed to Edenite standards, he would probably have gone through the floor. Big boned and big limbed, his hands were immense and his features were strong and stern. He had short, fair hair and he wore a dark suit with a high collar. He nodded curtly.

    Ambassador. Glad you could see me at such short notice. His voice was deep and loud. He seemed to fill the entire room.

    Li-Sen-Tot removed the earpiece and pushed his desktop computer aside. He indicated the large chair in front of his desk. You know my door is always open.

    As Prili Alther sat down, Li-Sen-Tot spoke quickly to Gusta.

    Coffee, Gusta. And those sugared cakes you know Prili likes.

    She nodded and couldn’t help smiling as she left.

    Prili made himself comfortable in the chair. He was a giant facing an elf with only a desk separating them. You are always gracious and understanding, Ambassador. Some people may think your attention to our needs to be trifling, but I know they have a deeper reason. I wish we could all be the same in the circumstances.

    Li-Sen-Tot nodded in acceptance of the praise. I have lived here for a generation. It would have been difficult not to become familiar with your customs, and ignorant to ignore them. Besides, eating while talking is far more civilised. Some might say it even takes away the need for war.

    I wish that were so, but the events on Klysanthia would indicate that the talking has ended.

    Li-Sen-Tot sat back in his chair. There was genuine surprise in his eyes. You are aware that Klysanthia has fallen?

    Prili nodded. The news came to us this morning. The Keruh have taken the capital city of Realamabad. All resistance has ceased.

    Li-Sen-Tot remained silent. In the pause that followed, Gusta returned with coffee and the sugared cakes. Prili quickly ate one of the cakes and thanked her while she poured his coffee.

    Li-Sen-Tot waited for her to leave before he finally spoke.

    And what does this news mean for your government?

    Prili sipped his coffee. You know what it means. We cannot delay any longer.

    It seems that you have been delaying for an eternity. Why the hurry now?

    Prili spoke bluntly. With the fall of Klysanthia only the Atlantians stand at your side! You cannot hope to defeat the Keruh now!

    Li-Sen-Tot held his fingertips together as he replied, There was a time when things could have been easier. When I, on behalf of my government, asked you to ally yourselves with us against the Keruh, to combine our forces in a joint venture.

    Prili dismissively waved away his remarks. I know, I know! You asked us many times and we refused. We valued our neutrality. Our position in the quadrant is not strategic, and the technology of our civilisation poses no threat. There was no need to ally ourselves with either side. That cannot be said of many others who also refused your approach for an alliance.

    True. But their neutrality was not honoured. Each was attacked and perished in isolation when combined they could have survived.

    Prili hesitated. It was true, of course.

    The Tun-Sho-Lok were the oldest race in the Ring, but they were far from the most advanced. Even the Keruh would not have been considered to be the strongest race. But their society was bred around the concept that war was a glorious and honourable purpose, that life had no meaning unless it was laid down for the good of the Host. Everything they did, their customs, their beliefs, their whole way of life, was based on the need for war and conquest. The Ring gave them quick and open access to all. They had been victorious when many had dismissed them as primitive.

    I cannot argue with you, Ambassador. Maybe you are right. Perhaps we should have allied ourselves with you and sent a force to fight alongside those from Atlantis and Klysanthia. But many others made the same mistake. That time has now passed. We must do what is best now.

    And what is best for Eden now that Klysanthia has fallen?

    Prili sighed. We have always heeded your advice and held off from signing a treaty with the Keruh even when they pressed us many times. Now they demand that we sign the treaty or accept that we are at war. They have opened a Ring Network Portal at Elengrad and their Host is waiting to enter. Already far too many in the Ring have perished. We have to sign the treaty. We have no choice now!

    Those who signed treaties with the Keruh have faired no better than those who sought to be neutral. Their worlds are subjugated and enslaved by the Keruh, their people killed in vast numbers. Is this what you wish for Eden?

    Prili smacked the arm of his chair, rattling his cup. The Keruh are going to win this war!

    Li-Sen-Tot smiled. He remained calm as he answered, They will not. And if you ally yourselves with them, even at this late stage, you will perish as they will.

    Prili stared at Li-Sen-Tot. He couldn’t believe how calm and sincere the Ambassador appeared. Either he knew something that Prili himself was unaware of, or he was a fool. Prili decided it was the latter.

    We have to do what’s best for Eden. I’m sorry.

    Li-Sen-Tot nodded. So am I. Your allegiance with the Keruh is a declaration of war against the Tun-Sho-Lok and her allies.

    It was a final statement, a statement of intent on both sides. They were now no longer friends. Li-Sen-Tot had already returned to reading his papers. Prili didn’t outstay his welcome. He popped one last cake into his mouth before getting to his feet, and then he left.

    Li-Sen-Tot looked up as the door closed. He felt very sad but not too surprised at the outcome of the discussion. He pulled his desktop computer toward him again and cleared the unimportant message from the screen. He quickly retrieved the message he had cleared before. He put his earpiece back in and ran the message again. It was the sixth time he would view it. It hadn’t changed.

    The first thing that came up on screen was a silent worded message:

    GRADE: MOST SECRET

    (DE-SCRAMBLE IN ISOLATION)

    FROM: GOVERNMENT IN EXILE, METROPOLIS

    TO: AMBASSADOR TO EDEN, JUTLAM CITY

    The words stayed on the screen for a few seconds, and then faded. They were replaced by a dark image that suddenly sprang into life. It was a close up view of a woman’s head and shoulders, a woman that appeared more like a nymph from a children’s fantasy. Her face was angelic, with high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes. Every tiny feature was delicate and beautiful. She was wearing a black uniform and a battered dark grey helmet that was fitted with headphones. A microphone that came out of the side of the helmet was suspended in front of her small mouth. It all seemed too brutal for her exquisite and childlike features. She seemed to be inside some sort of cramped vehicle that moved constantly, causing her to shake about. In fact she moved about so much that she often left the field of view. It was as if the vehicle she was in was pitching up and down and from side to side. The picture constantly sparked with static and blurred with movement. Behind the woman was a high angled view of a burning city, a city with tall and elegant spires that seemed to reach all the way up to the distant clouds. It was night, or it was as dark as night. Only the fires that burned in the distance gave any light.

    It quickly became obvious from the wheeling and moving view of the city behind the woman that she was in some sort of air transport, one that was constantly buffeting and shaking. But it wasn’t only the image that was dynamic and confusing. Through the earpiece Li-Sen-Tot heard the sound of screaming engines and the constant thumps of maser blasts. And always there was a violent clattering that accompanied every shake and stagger of the picture.

    The woman grabbed hold of part of the metalwork nearby to steady herself, gritting her teeth. She shouted above the din, her light and delicate voice breaking as she tried to make herself heard. She spoke hurriedly in a language Li-Sen-Tot knew so well.

    First offensives with Androktones have been successful! Keruh ground forces in Sectors Nine, Seven and Fourteen have been destroyed! The advance of fleets in Sectors Four, Twelve and Fifteen are presently halted! Fighting on captured worlds in Sector Twelve is most heavy! Keruh ground forces are most susceptible to Androktone attack! Fleet engagements have again proved inconclusive—Ugh!

    There was another loud thump and clatter, and the image shook violently. The woman banged her helmet against the metalwork and almost fell from view. Behind her a bright orange explosion marked the base of one of the tall spires. It quickly began to topple, its final crashing impact lost from sight as the air transport wheeled around. The woman again grabbed on to something to steady herself, the long fingers on her tiny hand curling around a stanchion. She resumed her report.

    Despite success, we have been unable to prevent loss of Klysanthia due to all RNPs being offline! Attempts to land Androktones by conventional means have been unsuccessful! Atlantian forces on Klysanthia have evacuated to Atlantis with all known—Arrgh!

    There was a bright flash and flames flew across the screen. The woman was swallowed up and the picture vibrated violently. Li-Sen-Tot heard the woman scream at the same time as he heard the explosion. The image went dark and the static faded in his ears. All became silent and still. A few seconds passed before a final worded message appeared on the screen.

    ANDROKTONE FORCES ARE EXPECTED IN YOUR AREA IMMINENTLY. THEY HAVE BEEN ADVISED THAT EDEN GOVERNMENT MAY CAPITULATE PRIOR TO KERUH INVASION. EDENITE FORCES WILL BE CONSIDERED HOSTILE IN SUCH AN EVENT. SUGGEST YOU RETURN HERE SOONEST.

    Li-Sen-Tot sighed and pulled the earpiece from his ear. He switched off his desktop computer and sat back in his chair. He told himself that nothing had changed, that the only surprise was that Prili Alther had been aware of the loss of Klysanthia.

    But there had been a change.

    Li-Sen-Tot could not remember a time when the Ring was not completely controlled by his people. They gave access to all, but they had kept the intricacies of the technology behind the Ring Network a closely guarded secret. And part of that technology was the encryption codes that allowed access. Each Ring Network Portal had its own code, like an address, and only the Tun-Sho-Lok knew how to program them.

    Until now.

    The Keruh had learned how to by-pass the encryption system. It was the only way that they could open a separate portal on Eden so easily. That it might eventually happen had never been in doubt. It had only been a matter of time. The Keruh had rudimentary skills, but they were organised, logical and determined. And where one portal could be opened, others would soon follow. But the Keruh had gone beyond even that. By adding a genetic descriptor to the ring network protocols they had denied access to Klysanthia as easily as they denied access to their own home world.

    And no one had noticed.

    The fact that the Tun-Sho-Lok and their allies had themselves been able to block access to all the worlds involved in the war for so long was neither a surprise nor was it questioned. Who would want instant access to armies and refugees in flight from war? Who would wish the fighting to spill through the portals into their peaceful worlds? When the Tun-Sho-Lok had stated that access was denied to prevent the spread of the conflict, none had questioned it. Li-Sen-Tot knew why. No one wished to become involved. They wanted to carry on as normal, ignoring the deaths of so many. They wanted to distance themselves from the agonies that existed just beyond the threshold of the next portal.

    Selfish.

    Now that had all changed. Now the Keruh would be able to proclaim themselves victorious, to tell all of the fall of Lokana and Klysanthia. It should have been a dangerous time, a time when all would have learned just how badly the war had gone.

    But there had been a change.

    Prili Alther had known about Klysanthia but not about Lokana. There could only be one reason for that.

    When the Keruh Dominant had made his demands that morning, he must have only told the Edenites about Klysanthia. His reasoning would be simple. If the Edenites had known the truth about Lokana, they would have been shocked. They may even have resisted. But the fall of Klysanthia was just another piece of bad news in a long line of bad news. It was just enough to get them to acquiesce.

    The Keruh Dominant was cunning. He must know that they were losing. He must know that the tide had turned. Now he would drag the Edenites into the final conflict at the very moment when they could have escaped.

    If the Androktones considered the Edenites to be hostile, as they most surely would, they would kill them without thought.

    And Li-Sen-Tot could have avoided it.

    He should have argued more strongly. He should have tried his best to convince Prili not to give in, even now, at this late stage. He should have told him the truth. He should have revealed what he knew about the Androktones. Prili was an honest man, he would have believed him, and there was no other man on Eden who could have convinced the Eden Government to defy the Keruh.

    So why did he keep silent?

    Ever since the fall of Lokana, Li-Sen-Tot had felt a growing bitterness. The reason was simple. None of the civilisations that had thrived on their link with the Ring had come to their aid when it mattered. The Tun-Sho-Lok had given them everything, and had received nothing.

    The Keruh had seen the Tun-Sho-Lok for what they were, the bringers of civilisation and the controllers of the Ring. They had wanted that control. They had attacked Lokana and their colony worlds without warning, pouring through the portals and bringing war and destruction to each in turn. Lokana was reduced to a cinder, its once beautiful cities and landscape just fields of ash. And one by one their colonies fell, their populations slaughtered. The Tun-Sho-Lok had hid the truth and pleaded for support. They had lost the heart for war, and there were many more races more skilled and prepared for this industry than they. Surely they would help?

    None answered their call, none save the Klysanthians and Atlantians. And they were less prepared for war than the Tun-Sho-Lok. The Atlantians were loyal, eager and warlike. They offered to help without hesitation, but they lacked technology. In return for giving their blood, the Tun-Sho-Lok armed them and gave them all they needed.

    The Klysanthians were such an elegant and delicate race. They were technologically advanced but committed to higher morals. They fought and had died for the simple and pure reason that it was right to do so and wrong to stand aside.

    Li-Sen-Tot had spent many years of his childhood on Klysanthia when his mother worked at the Embassy there. And it was while he was there that he had decided to become male, simply because he enjoyed the sexual experience he shared with Klysanthian females. They were so delicate, so slender, and so sensual. How he mourned their loss. They were such beautiful creatures.

    It was the fall of Klysanthia even more than the fall of his own home world of Lokana that hurt Li-Sen-Tot. At the moment he learned of it, his heart had snapped.

    Li-Sen-Tot got to his feet and went back over to the window. He stared out at the busy streets once more. He imagined the teaming streets to be still and silent. He imagined all the busy people lying still, dead, butchered. He imagined the fire and the smoke and the grotesquely swollen forms moving among the dead and dying. So it must have been in Realamabad. So it must have been all over Klysanthia.

    As it was on Lokana.

    Li-Sen-Tot turned away. He felt no remorse.

    Chapter Two

    The Ambassador’s Staff

    Gusta went down to the kitchen where her husband was busy preparing the evening meal. Didi Albatus looked up when he saw her. Like all Edenite males, he was much taller and broader than the female, and his features were more pronounced. His eyes were brown and set under heavy brows, his nose large and his jaw line square. Short red hair was just visible under his white hat. Even for an Edenite male, Didi was unusually tall. But despite his immense size, he was an exquisite cook.

    What now? he said, cleaning his hands on a white towel he took from the large square kitchen table. He saw the look on his wife’s face and quickly added, What’s the matter?

    Gusta looked distraught. She held a hand to her mouth and could barely get her words out.

    He’s asked me to close the Embassy, to dismiss all the staff. You know what that means, don’t you?

    Didi put down the towel and leaned his weight on the table using both hands. Oh, I see, he sighed. Then it’s happened.

    In reply, the tears welled up in Gusta’s eyes. Didi quickly went to her. He grabbed her in his arms and hugged her.

    Don’t cry, my sweet. It’ll be alright, I’m sure it will.

    In response to his comforting, Gusta began to sob. Didi dragged a couple of chairs out from under the table.

    Come on, sit down, he said, and quickly sat down next to her when she complied. It might not be as bad as we think, he added, squeezing her hand.

    It is, Didi! Gusta burst out between sobs. You know Li-Sen. He wouldn’t close the Embassy for anything less than war!

    But it can be re-opened!

    He’s asked me to dismiss the staff! Gusta repeated. Not just send them home! It’s permanent! It’s the end!

    Gusta finished by bursting into complete tears. She collapsed on the table, cradling her head in her arms. The only thing Didi could do was rub her back and give her a handkerchief that he pulled from his back pocket. She took it gratefully.

    Didi looked around at his kitchen as Gusta cried. He was going to miss it. He had enjoyed working here.

    When Didi came to the Embassy he had imagined he was going to enter a world of interstellar politics, where Embassy officials would be continually coming and going through the portal, where Ambassadors and Trade Representatives from far off worlds would arrive eagerly to attend meetings with the Edenite Government. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

    The Tun-Sho-Lok had a very casual approach to politics. They never seemed to be bothered by the same sort of political intrigue that dogged other Embassies and Consulates that grew up around the site of the portal. There was never any spying or manoeuvring in order to gain important trading agreements or the latest technologies, no one came or went with secret documents, and meetings with the Leaders of the Edenite Government seemed more to do with how many Lece Cakes Prili Alther could eat during the discussion.

    It was all a bit of a letdown, but Didi had got used to the casual approach and had quickly learned to like it. That had been seven years ago, when Gusta was already on staff as a secretary to one of the Tun-Sho-Lok officials. Even then there were very few Tun-Sho-Lok nationals at the Embassy. And as the years passed, their numbers slowly dwindled until Li-Sen-Tot was the only one left. And now even he was going.

    Didi looked around his kitchen once more. Yes, he was going to miss it.

    We’ll sell up and take the children into the country, he announced.

    Gusta raised her head. She looked at Didi through tear filled eyes, dabbing at her cheeks with the handkerchief. She had stopped crying but didn’t say anything, so Didi shrugged.

    It’s what we always said we’d do, he added.

    Gusta sniffed and continued drying her face. Do you think we’ll be safe?

    You should know that better than me. You handle his disks. That courier who comes through the portal always brings the Diplomatic Bags straight to you. It’s always the same man, he’s been doing it for years. Didi suddenly paused and wracked his brains. What’s his name? I’ve forgotten his name.

    Gusta smiled wryly as she handed Didi back his handkerchief. Ro-An-Lee.

    That was it! Ro-An! I don’t think I’ve ever heard him string more than three words together—oh yes! Once! And that was when we had to give him a sample for genetic coding when the war started! He folded up his handkerchief and stuffed it back in his pocket. No wonder I couldn’t remember his name.

    Gusta’s smile grew wider. He’s a she.

    Didi raised his eyebrows in surprise. Well, that just goes to show you how little he—she—and I ever spoke!

    Never mind about Ro-An. She’s a courier, she’s not supposed to gossip. Li-Sen is different. He may play the innocent but he’s no fool. Most of the correspondence I see wouldn’t interest the news media. He knows that, that’s why he allows me to open the Diplomatic Bags. If there’s anything sensitive on those disks, they must be hidden or scrambled in some way. Either that, or he has an alternative route to receive sensitive information. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had his own portal. It’s probably in the drawing room. Jutlam City is over a hundred miles from the coast and yet I’ve been in that drawing room on more than one occasion and been sure that I could smell the sea.

    Have you asked him about it?

    He wouldn’t tell me. But he must have a personal portal, because if he didn’t, they would never have allowed him to stay here on his own.

    Maybe there isn’t any of them left, Didi suggested.

    Now it was Gusta’s turn to look wide-eyed in surprise. That’s silly!

    In contrast, Didi began to look more serious as he leaned forward and tapped out his points on the table.

    Is it? The newscasts have been full of the war for months. It’s always the same. The Keruh go from victory to victory without anyone being able to stop them. The Atlantians are too backward, the Klysanthians too weak, and the Tun-Sho-Lok themselves—well, where are they? He sat back and held out his hands. We’re in their Embassy and except for Li-Sen and that courier we never see any.

    I see his correspondence. He talks with his government on Lokana all the time.

    Didi leaned forward again. You see what he lets you see—you just said that! he pointed out.

    Yes, but he wouldn’t exchange messages with a government that didn’t exist, would he, even if it was trivial information? I mean, there’s no point, is there? Nobody cares, I told you.

    They’d care if Li-Sen stopped talking to his government.

    And where does Ro-An come from and go back to if it isn’t Lokana?

    She could come and go from absolutely anywhere. How would we know any different?

    Gusta looked at Didi in surprise. But how could they keep the fall of Lokana a secret? It’s too big, too terrible to contemplate!

    They invented the Ring, Gusta! How do we know what they can and can’t do?

    Gusta let her arms rest on the table and stared at her husband. She suddenly felt quite cold.

    As the Secretary to the Ambassador, Gusta had always been conscious that security in the Embassy was of a low priority. But that was the philosophy of the Tun-Sho-Lok. They shared their knowledge, their technology, access to the Ring, everything. They were just happy to visit these new worlds, to mix with the people, to see and experience the art and culture of other civilisations.

    Gusta had heard it said on many occasions that there were more Tun-Sho-Lok living on other worlds than there were on their own home world of Lokana. They came to look and to open the portals of the Ring to all. They took nothing in return. Nothing was hidden or denied. It was why all the civilisations connected to the Ring had flourished. It was also why reporters had no need to gather outside the Embassy gates pestering the Ambassador and his staff for information about the war. It was all freely available on the computer net at the Embassy news site. Good or bad, it was all there. All you had to do was go and get it.

    But even a society with such a laid back philosophy as the Tun-Sho-Lok had to have a modicum of security. There must have been some correspondence that Li-Sen and his government exchanged that they didn’t want others to see, especially now. The strategy of war, the planning and preparation, this she could understand they would wish to hide. But she had never considered that they might be able to hide much more. News of the war, the battles and the losses, none of this was restricted. And news like