1

. Guardians

Deborah Kean

She looked out from the shuttle, as it fell towards the planet. Trapped, she

turned to Max Eilerson and smiled weakly.

"Another day, another dollar."

"Sorry?" He returned her smile, purely on reflex. He was a charmer, all

right.

"Does anyone think going to this ruin, is a good idea? It can only lead to

trouble."

"'Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards'," Trace Miller quoted.

Dureena poked her tongue at him.

"I'm not a man."

"I meant man as in human…"

"Even so, I am still not a man. How long?"

"We need to be cautious, so take your time." Eilerson encouraged.

When they reached the planet, Dureena saw that it was as unlovely a place

as Galen had warned.

Miller had landed the shuttle near a city, and just 100 metres away, they

could see ruins. Even in the early dawn, they could make out the tower where

they would find, if Gideon's information was correct, information that might be

vital to understanding the Drakh plague.

"Well, let's move." Trace Miller said, standing, and taking his scanner

and weapon from under the console where he sat. Max Eilerson stood, and Dureena

leaned back to grab her coat. They all had their comm. systems on their wrists,

and Miller, for one, was armed.

As they left the shuttle, Dureena gasped as the cold dry air of the planet

hit the back of her throat. Stale fumes and a fog rose around the landing area.

In the lights of the shuttle, it glowed a sickly yellow. This city had died only

recently, when the last of its inhabitants had fled, (as far as they knew.)

Some might still be here, which was just one of the reasons Dureena was

uneasy.

They walked together, bunched, as if security lay in how close they could

stay together. Eilerson passed comment on every building they went past, and

fell to whistling cheerfully and tunelessly, as they found the street that led

to the tower.

The building was easily 20 storeys high, nothing much, by earth terms, but

the tallest building in this city. According to their information, it had been

the hub of society here, a combination of government and scientific

headquarters.

"The front door." Eilerson said, as they stood on the street outside their

goal. He had ceased his annoying whistling, and now craned his neck to look up

at the sky.

The sunrise was hidden by a dark thunderhead, grey and blue. It hung over

the city, though the sky elsewhere was clear. Like the fog, it was a mystery.

"So how do we get in?" She asked no one in particular.

"We knock." Miller said, pushing a bell on the pillar by the door. Dureena

drew in a breath, waiting.

"Just who do you expect to answer?" She challenged, pushing the door. "If

anyone does…" She gasped as the door silently slid open, but summoned her cool,

and walked in, relishing the sound of Miller calling her back. Of course, after

a moment, he followed.

"Don't they believe in elevators?" He complained a moment later, as he and

Eilerson followed her up a winding staircase. The door had opened straight on to

it. "Don't expect every civilisation to be just like yours, humans!" She

laughed. The staircase had windows on every landing, and a skylight showed

through from the very top - breathtakingly high.

The sun was rising now, and they could see the shuttle clearly - but so

could anyone, or anything else.

"How do we know what we're looking for?" Miller asked.

"We are looking for a laboratory, near the top of the building, that's all

the information we have. Let's try here… Dureena opened a door, as they reached

another landing.

She slammed the door hastily, and walked on quickly.

"Bodies. Recent ones." She answered Miller's unspoken query. He lifted his

eyebrows, and hurried to catch up with her as she walked on.

They were in a hall way, lined with windows, and the sun was coming in,

shining brightly through the dissipating fog.

Eilerson opened another door, and walked in, forcing the others to follow.

He stood in the centre of the room, turning, as he looked around.

"Brothers and sisters, I think we're on to something, don't you agree?"

Data storage media are recognisable everywhere, and this was a computer

room. There were seven machines, each with a chair in front of it, built for

comfort as well as practicality. The inhabitants of the city had been built on

the human model, Dureena decided, as she sat at the nearest console. She looked

around for the usual controls amd keyboard, and started a little, as Eilerson

handed her a headset. Miller stood back, as Eilerson sat at the machine nearest

the window, several metres from Dureena. He was always suspicious.

Dureena turned the headset over in her hands. It was light only a few

grams, plastic and light grey. She put it on, yelping a little, as probes came

from the earpieces, and nestled in her long hair. Within seconds, the small

screen on the front of the machine lit up, displaying a cityscape, overlaid with

a grid.

"Is this cool or what?" came Eilerson's voice in her head.

"It's creepy."

"Thought controlled. That's excellent, we don't have to worry about

translation. What do you want to tell it to do?"

"Give us medical information." She said, amazed to see the screen change.

A schematic of a body came into view, rotating through 360 degrees as she

watched. The body was of the city's inhabitants no doubt, and had neither hair

nor genitalia. A line of text scrolled down the side of the picture, and she

discovered that she was able to read it.

"Miller? What does that say?" She pointed to a block of words.

He shook his head.

"Sorry, Dureena, it could be Chinese for all I know."

She smirked, and selected the block. Just a thought was all it took.

"What are you looking at?" She asked Eilerson.

"Things, that's all, never you mind."

Things, indeed. Any opportunity for profit, no doubt. The aliens here

could not have been more accommodating if they had been here to help. In a few

minutes, she had as good an idea of their physiology as many of them would have

had themselves. She ordered Miller to take notes, and began reeling off some of

the specifications to him. As he scribbled, and Eilerson resumed his tuneless

whistling, Galen's warnings receded entirely. This was surely going to be it -

the information they had long sought!

They worked for what their watches showed later, to have been 35 minutes.

(She had known it was too good to be true, - judging by the success rate of

Excalibur up to now, she said later.) The building was quiet, but for the

humming of the machines, and what must have been air conditioning. That the

power was on, and the aircon, well, it should have been a dead give-away.

Stupid, and 1000 times over, stupid.

At first no one noticed, when the alien entered the room. It stood for a

moment or two, studying them. Eilerson saw it first, and nudged her mind with

his.

"I think we have company."

She looked up, towards the door.

"Drat!"

"Drat doesn't begin to cover it." Miller muttered.

The alien was tall, nearly two metres, and her skin was a pearlescent,

very pale blue. She wore a gown of a metallic grey, and silver hair was piled

up, to show delicately curled ears. She was a lady out of a fantasy story, but

her eyes were solid colour, a dark blue that looked as if they held the depths

of the sky.

She glided to one of the terminals and picked up a headset. Dureena

watched, fascinated as the contacts came sliding out, and penetrated the Lady's

temples.

"Ah, now, that's better" she said in perfect English. "What are you doing

here in the city?"

"What… Are you doing here?"

Trust Eilerson to go on the attack…

"I asked first!" There was a feeling of good humour, and Dureena began to

relax.

"We thought there was no one here" she excused herself. "This city is

supposed to be deserted."

"Mostly, it is, but not always, as you can see." The Lady sat, looking at

them quizzically. "Are you stealing knowledge?"

"Stealing? By no means" Eilerson spluttered indignantly.

"It's not physical, but that doesn't mean it is of no value" the Lady

rebuked.

"We know that." Dureena said. "We're borrowing it."

"Will you give it back when you're finished with it? No, I didn't think

so. Why do you require data about the physiology of the Children?"

"It's a long story, but what harm can we do?"

"What harm? They left here for their own protection. Their enemy might

make good use of such data, were they to come across it. "

"Then you shouldn't leave it lying around unprotected for anyone to

stumble over!" Eilerson was on the attack again.

The Lady laughed.

"It's not unprotected. That's why I am here. I am one of the Guardians."

"These people are your children?"

"In a way of metaphor, yes, they are."

Miller stepped forward, dropping the note pad, and confronting the Lady.

"What is going on? Why isn't she explaining her presence? Is she a

threat?"

"It's all right", Dureena assured him. "We're talking. Take a head set,

and join the circuit."

"After I call Excalibur. She will allow that, won't she?"

"Should I?" The Lady asked wickedly. "Will he send for troops?"

"No" Eilerson assured. "You can let him make the call."

Dureena privately thought that Miller should call for reinforcements, but

she didn't say so. Unlike Eilerson, she had encountered telepathy before, and

knew how to have a private thought.

While Miller called Excalibur (his back turned, and voice low) Dureena

spoke to the Lady.

She explained where they had come from, and that their aim was research.

She felt Eilerson itching to speak and felt at the same time, the Lady's

amusement when she thought of him…

The Lady spoke, words that were soft and melodious and strangely accented.

"I want to include you all" she said, gesturing at Miller. "Please, stay

connected" she told Dureena. "I can access your language that way, and have no

need of a translator."

"Neat trick!" said Eilerson admiringly. "Do you have a name?"

She was silent a moment, then:

"Call me Guinevere. Yes, I did get it from your mind, but so what? You're

Max, and Dureena? You?"

"Trace Miller. I am a pilot."

"Pleased to meet you. Now will one of you explain why you are here, making

free of our records building? You" she indicated Dureena. "You may be

spokeswoman."

Thanks, she thought privately, but then she spoke, telling 'Guinevere'

about Excalibur, the Drakh plague - why they were there. The Lady listened,

noting everything. She heard Eilerson's indrawn breath, laughed silently at his

desire to join the narrative.

"Who directed you here?"

"We're looking everywhere…"

"But you came here."

"Do you know of the Technomages?"

Guinevere flinched. Yes, she knew of them.

"Ah. Technomages. Yes, I know of them. You know one, who directed you

here?"

"That's how it went, yes."

"Kind of him. He told you that there was an answer to the Drakh plague

here?"

"That there might be." Eilerson interrupted. "No guarantees. When we came

here, well, we thought that no one would mind if we had a look! So, what are you

going to do about our intrusion?"

"Do? Have you found what you wanted to find?"

"You say we won't"... Dureena said challengingly.

"No!" Guinevere seemed angry, now. "I don't say you won't. I just find it

unlikely that you will; I know the Genome of the children. I also know why they

are not here, and why we keep them hidden."

"We can find no remedy. We don't know enough, we need to know what you

know, that's why we came!"

"Calm, little one. I don't criticise you. I'll tell you." It was as if

she had made a decision.

"Come with me," as she stood.

Dureena disconnected and after a moment, Eilerson did likewise. They

followed Guinevere along one of the corridors to a lift on the south wall.

Windows showed the deserted city outside - although it seemed that but an hour

had passed, the sun showed that it was past midday. Trace Miller walked behind

them, and his every movement showed his distrust.

When they reached the lift, Guinevere put one long finger on to a pale

turquoise square by the door, and it silently opened. Once in, she touched

unmarked coloured squares - Dureena carefully noted the sequence.

The lift ascended, the palpable acceleration making Dureena a little sick.

Its silence was uncanny. Guinevere was as calm as if she felt nothing at all,

yet Dureena knew from their contact, that the Lady was a cauldron of feeling

beneath that serenity.

They ascended to the roof, and Dureena walked to the edge. This was an

aerie, so high the air was chill. They seemed to be much higher than the

building they had entered had been. A mile beneath them, the shuttle sat in the

street where they had landed, unconcerned.

"Where are we?"

"Further on the journey." She touched a stud on the silver belt she wore,

and as if she had called, a ship, like to one of Excalibur's shuttles, landed on

the rooftop in front of them. It was as silent as the lift. Guinevere gestured,

and a door folded down from the side. She handed Dureena in, a gesture of

courtesy that seemed wildly out of place. Eilerson and Miler followed. The

shuttle's air was fresh, perfumed and slightly chill. There were six chairs, and

Guinevere sat in the pilot's, inviting Miler, with a gesture, to take second

seat. The shuttle rose into the planet's skies, flying over a land mass which

looked as it had from Excalibur, as if it had taken some serious hits some time

before. Guinevere gestured as they passed over, and they all got her meaning.

They left the planet, and passed Excalibur. Guinevere flew her shuttle in

the form of an insouciant wave, and they all heard the squawk from Miller's

communicator.

'Later' Dureena told Gideon silently.

They were under way for an hour, by her watch, Dureena noted later, when

they saw a planet coming up on the screens. Its albedo was high, and she

realised that it was one of the outermost in the system, ice-covered and as far

as they knew, lifeless. Guinevere's shuttle flew in over the planet's North

pole, and along to the equator.

"The Children are here?"

"Hid in plain sight." Guinevere said triumphantly.

At the equator, there was a hole in the ice, which grew from a small dark

patch, to an area that would comfortably take the shuttle. Guinevere flew

expertly down into the gap, and along, under the ice. The humans began to feel a

little claustrophobic, just as the shuttle landed on the top of a metal 'whale'.

Guinevere touched one of the controls on the pad in front of her, and the

'whale' opened to reveal a platform, which sank beneath its surface. There was a

reassuring clank of machinery, which revealed the presence of an atmosphere.

Overhead, a panel shut with the screech of metal, and the shuttle was in

darkness.

Guinevere led them from the shuttle, and out on to a catwalk. Bright

lights came on, as their presence was detected.

"We are expected?"

"We are now."

They walked in silence for a few minutes, and then went down in a lift, to

a deck lit by blue light, and carpeted in something that looked and felt like

grass.

"This is - artificial?" Dureena asked after a moment.

"We do what we have to." Guinevere snapped. "You'll understand when you

hear the full story. It's a punishment, in a way."

They were silent again, until they reached a door, which opened onto a

foyer, pot plants, wood panelling and all. It looked like nothing so much as the

entrance to a luxury hotel.

"What is this?" Eilerson was indignant.

"Our destination."

"You have got to be kidding! This is a refuge? You're messing with our

heads."

"The Children have not travelled the Universe. We have. We designed this

entrance to look welcoming to all species. Come into the Conference room."

"An alien place should look alien."

"Max. Let it go." Dureena muttered.

Guinevere went over to a reception desk, and rang a bell. After a moment,

a man came from behind a red curtain, and smiled at her. They chatted a moment,

and Guinevere walked over to the Excalibur's people, where they stood by the

entrance.

"Kersder will lead you to the audio-visual room he's chosen for the

meeting. I will return in a moment, I need to change my clothes and refresh

myself."

Kersder emerged from behind the reception desk. He wore a dark brown

tunic, trousers, and a gold trefoil badge on his lapel. He signed for them to

follow, and Dureena wondered at Guinevere's linguistic ability. Even

disconnected from her headset, she continued to talk perfect English.

The audio-visual room looked like a boardroom, with a screen set up at one

end of it. Kersder showed them to seats around the large rectangular table, and

brought them goblets of water. Eilerson eyed his with distaste, but Dureena and

Miller drank greedily.

"It's all right" Dureena whispered, but Eilerson shook his head. She

wanted to kick him. His usual spirit of mischief seemed to have deserted him.

She straightened, as Guinevere came in, wearing a tunic and tight trousers

in a silver fabric like plastic.

"Relax, it's cool" she said. "Do you want something to eat? I can ask

Kersder to bring something. It will be harmless to you, and possibly even

nutritious. I don't suppose any of you would like to submit to medical scanning?

No, I thought not."

"I'll tell you what. We'll satisfy your curiosity, when you satisfy ours."

"That's what we're here to do. Oh for goodness' sake, do stop worrying, Mr

Eilerson. We didn't give you the chance to contact your ship, but so what? We

mean you no harm."

"That's easy for you to say".

"Yes, isn't it. Yes, I can read your minds without the headset, but don't

worry, I read only your surface thoughts. Mrs Dureena is aware of this."

"Mrs Dureena is accustomed to things that we aren't." growled Trace

Miller.

"You're keeping us here whilst you do something" Dureena said suddenly.

Then to Guinevere, "it works both ways, doesn't it? What are you doing while

keeping us distracted?"

"Ah, that would be telling. Now let's have a history lesson."

She pushed at the table in front of her, and a panel opened, one decorated

with little lights. She tapped one of them, and with an audible click, the

screen at the end of the table came on, emitting a blue glow. Gradually, a

sickening rainbow of colours spread across it, and Dureena watched Guinevere tap

out a sequence of the lights. She memorised it, as was her habit in such

situations, and had to heed Trace Miller's prod to her ribs, to start watching.

War.

This one was a particularly nasty specimen, judging by what they saw.

Bombs and guns, severed limbs and screaming, crying, mourning people, clearly of

the same type they had seen in the archives that morning.

"So that's what they look like with skin on" Eilerson muttered.

The bombs came from planes, not spaceships, so the war must have been

local - confined to the planet.

"Two thirds of the population of the world died." Guinevere said, without

expression. "Then it got worse."

People cried in terror, as a beam of fire came from space, and

obliterated a city. Soldiers strode the boulevards, sweeping screaming people

into tanks, herding them into trucks. The soldiers were masked or helmeted,

there was no way to tell their species. They were humanoid, that was it.

"Your friends the Drakh" Guinevere answered the unspoken question. Dureena

turned to her in amazement.

"You're sure?"

"Absolutely. Hence my interest in your story. That's also why I know we

can't help you."

"So what became of your planet?"

"Oh. It's not our planet! Not any more. When the Drakh took as many slaves

as they seemed to want, we came and took as many survivors as we could, and

moved them. There are a few hundred people left on that world, hidden where the

Drakh will never look, though they haven't been back in 150 years."

"But who are you, and where did you come from?" Eilerson asked, annoyed.

"We came from that world once." Guinevere seemed to relax. "We left 800

years before the war you've seen, and we had all but forgotten. We had left

behind a civilisation that was just barely technological, living on one

continent. They spread out, and developed after we left. After a while, we

stopped exploring and came back for a look - we were just weeks behind the Drakh

invasion. You'll understand why we didn't want to reveal ourselves to them!"

"Nor to your own people?"

"What could we have done to help? This is the world we had colonised while

we were away, but it's marginal now. We keep most of the Children here, some

back on the Homeworld, but we're not gods or super beings..."

"Why are we here and what have you planned?" Dureena stood, suddenly

nervous.

"What ever we need to do to save the Children." Guinevere stood. "We left

them, and so we owe them that much."

Low rumbling rose from inaudibility, to fill Dureena's mind. Almost

unbearable vibration reached a pitch, she was filled with nausea, then it

abruptly ceased.

"You'll never find them now!" Guinevere's voice was triumphant.

"What did you do?" Eilerson shouted. "Did you harm them?"

"No. Not as you would have harmed them!"

"What did you do?"

"What I had to do. Don't worry..." Guinevere crumpled, boundless sorrow

coming from her in waves. It was all Dureena could stand.

"You killed them?"

"Not all of them. But where the survivors are hid, you will never find

them! You cannot use them to help your people, whatever you would have done to

them, imprisoned, tortured and experimented with them, you cannot do, and that's

all that matters. Somewhere on the home world, they will rebuild their

population, somewhere safer than here. It will take a century or more, and we

will never enter heaven, because of what you forced us to do, but you will not

add to what the Drakh did to them. Never!"

"We wouldn't, we couldn't... You don't understand!"

Eilerson took Dureena by the shoulders, and led her from the room, Trace

Miller following. Behind them, Guinevere sobbed helplessly, and in the lobby,

Kersder's face was shuttered.

"She didn't understand' Dureena sobbed brokenly. "What do we do now?"

"Go back to Excalibur."

"How?"

Eilerson led, and they walked back out to the surface, no one opposing

them. They reached the lift, and Dureena hesitated. Trace Miller held her arm,

and spoke into his communicator.

"Galen?'

"I am here, how do I get in?"

Dureena reached out and touched coloured lights, and the platform started

to rise.

"Galen followed us? You knew he was here?"

"I don't know who is with him, I knew they sent a shuttle after us."

They flew back to Excalibur in silence. Dureena did not know what to do

with the hurt she felt, the hurt they had inflicted. If Miller had not sent a

coded SOS to Excalibur, if Gideon had had enough faith in them not to follow, if

Guinevere had not detected their escort - would anything have been any

different?

She let go a shuddering sigh.

"All to do again."