Kimmini persisted. "I see the Outsiders. They are stranded in the middle of a desert. Despite great hardship they have persevered and now approach the edge of the desert."
Kronos looked at her. "It is the Trial of Fire as told in the legends of old. Perhaps these will be the ones we need after all. Kimmini, go to them and tell them of the Redeemed research base that was abandoned when its reactor overloaded."
I suddenly realised that all four of us had faced the Trial of Fire, not just me. Indeed we had all faced all of the trials. Perhaps some of us had had greater roles than others, but we had stood or crawled or suffered the trials together. I could never have believed a year ago that I would be in such a position. It wasn't just my worthiness that had been on trial, but our worthiness.
Kimmini spoke again. "I see the Outsiders. One of them is gravely ill and will shortly die. They are surrounded by agents of the Beast, but still attempt to out-trick their fate."
"It is the Trial of Water as told in the legends of old. Perhaps these will be the ones we need after all. Kimmini, go to them and tell them of the last Markab in his first life."
"I see the Outsiders. They are far away, in the depths of space and face great hardship. They have escaped the Beast, but their ship is wounded and cannot bring them home."
"It is the Trial of Air. Perhaps these will be the ones we need after all. Kimmini, go to them and tell them of the Redeemed technology floating in space."
As they spoke, the Seers somehow appeared to become more substantial. More real. Some had turned to Kronos, others looked to Kimmini.
"I see the Outsiders. They are surrounded by agents of the Beast. They have suffered great loss and great hardship." Her voice quavered. "The forces of darkness gather around them."
"It is the Trial of Earth, the last and greatest test. Perhaps these will be the ones we need after all. Kimmini, go to them and tell them what they face."
Kronos turned to us and looked full upon us. "Now we, the Seers of Markab, can see you. And we know that you are worhty of the task that we must set before you."
Hadn't we endured enough? Must there be more? Were we not worthy of being allowed simply to go Home by the simple virtue of being alive? A little part of me-me was screaming to be released, for all this to be a dream, for me to wake up with So'Kath and our daughter by my side. But it wasn't a dream. It was a nightmare, and one I could not awaken from.
The next words of Kronos struck even greater fear into me.
"Soon the Shadows will return and the galaxy will again be thrown into turmoil. This time the Markab will not be able to stand in the fight and the war will be left to those that remain. The great ships that the Markab paid with their first life to build have fallen into the hands of the Beast and will not be used to ease the burden of those who remain.
"Whether the War is won or lost we cannot see. But what is certain is that whatever the outcome the other races will be weakened by the conflict and tears will be left in the fabric of galactic society. Through these fractures the Beast will be able to move and implement its terrible revenge.
"It is your task to find the Beast and bring about his downfall."
Our task? We, just the four of us, were to destroy this Beast who had remained hidden from the Markab and their Seers?
"This you must do as the Beast hides himself from us and we cannot touch him. This you must do, not for the Markab who are now beyond its reach, but for the people of your own races, upon whom it will now turn its attention."
They had to be joking. Us?
"To help you in this task and as compensation for what you have suffered, we shall grant each of you a gift."
Kronos turned to me. "To Na'Tiel - in the great cavern at the centre of this base lies a ship. This is the same ship you met before your capture. This ship represents the pinnacle of Markab/Redeemed technology. It is a prototype, one of a kind and no ship in the possession of the Beast is its equal. The design specifications of this ship were carefully locked by the leaders of the Markab before their first death. The ship itself is commanded by an Artificial Intelligence that refuses to let the Dilgar take control of the ship. We give this ship to you, Na'Tiel. The password for the security system is AX342999-032."
They had given me a ship. The ship that Bob was part of. I was to own a ship the likes of which I hardly dared dream. My heart grew full and heavy in my chest. My poor Na'Ka'Ri'Tal....I would hardly miss it, but I would miss Na'Tal. This ship would more than replace the Na'Ka'Ri'Tal. A ship that would be a joy to pilot rather than a bucket of bolts held together by faith
Kronos turned to Russell. "In a nearby sector is the base from which you were originally brought to Markab. This base was claimed by the Markab government under section 326 of the Galactic treaty, and was renamed Markab outpost 491. After its capture from the Raiders, it was towed to a new location in deep space to prevent capture by other raiders and shut down to await a salvage team. As it does not have a Markab command protocol installed, it will not be subject to surveillance or infiltration by the Dilgar unless they have already boarded it. We do not believe this to be case since its location was kept secret and there are many more far more important bases that would have received their attention first. We give this base to you. The base is located in sector 324 at coordinates 230.674 by 732.549 by 442.342."
Did I truly have some chance to retrieve my mother's Book of G'Quan? I had prayed that somehow I might be able to find the base again, that I would be able to retrieve my Book of G'Quan. That book was my most treasured possession, and its loss had affected me deeply.
Nar'Bon was the next receiver of bounty. "One of the results of the Markab/Redeemed research was advanced computers. The Intelligence that control the ship given to Na'Tiel was the result of this research. Similar research led to advances in robotics. Although banned under the Galactic Treaty, the Redeemed developed a squad of experimental military robots. These robots are now housed in a nearby armoury along with a selection of advanced Markab light arms and personal armour."
Armour? Weapons? But we still had to reach them, and we were in no shape to fight our way out of this cell.
Kronos gestured to Nar'Bon. "We give these robots to you. The password "ABC override command clearance override MHCO10-1" will gain access to the armoury and allow you to gain command access to the robots.
"And to Djikiden, we grant you the Soul Matrix. When one of our people in their first life needed to leave the homeworld, they took one of these last inventions of our past ingenuity with them. If they were to die far from home in the deeps of space, the Matrix would send their soul back to us, to join us in the second life. The technology will also work for you and your people - should your body perish alone, a Matrix can send your soul to us, and we can send it back to Pak'ma, so that you will continue, that you can join your own Branch back to the Tree of Life of your friends and relatives. Aboard the ship we have granted to Na'Tiel are a number of Soul Matrices, and the details of their manufacture are stored in the ship's computers. We give this to you and your People that they may be freed of the tyranny of dying alone, that they may walk among the stars without fear."
The Elders were generous. To each of us they had given a great gift. The Human had the Raider base that I would have forgotten about had not my mother's Book of G'Quan been lost there. Nar'Bon would command a squadron of robots obedient to his word and mighty beyond belief. He would enjoy that if...if what? Something niggled at me.
I could fly again. But their gift to Djikiden was possibly the greatest and most personal of those bestowed upon any of us. I had started to suspect that Pak'ma'ra are different from many of the younger races, and not just in their smell and appearance. Finding a lone Pak'ma'ra is unusual - they tend to cling to their homeworld or travel in groups as they scavenge and hawk their supplies of Quantium-40. Rumour had it that they were cannibalistic. Our Pak'ma'ra, though brave, detested death and often took unusual measures to avoid death. If the Pak'ma'ra soul did not flee to some other existence upon death, if it stayed with the body after death...
This Soul Matrix could return the Pak'ma'ra to the Markab in their second life and then the essence of his being could be returned to Pak'ma. Perhaps some of the rumours about Pak'ma'ra were true. Perhaps they didn't eat their dead as some sort of crude symbolism of the dead living on within the living. Perhaps the dead did live in the living.
The Pak'ma'ra consumed the body and received a part of what that Pak'ma'ra had been. My loopy thoughts extrapolated this to all those that came before. Pak'ma'ra walked around with all these souls in their minds - not just those they had known in their own lives, but all those who were long dead as well? No wonder they were strange. Dealing with Na'Tal was enough for me.
The voice of Kronos broke into my thoughts. Did we have further questions. Further questions? Had there been previous questions? I had so many questions that I could not articulate even just one of them. I could not remember what had been asked already - I must have been thinking about the Pak'ma'ra instead. I collected myself and asked one of the questions that currently most concerned me.
"Djikiden requires medication to fight off the effects of Drafa. If we are to take on this great task, how can we keep him alive?"
"We will take care of that. We can ensure Djikiden will stay alive. Once you are on board the ship you can synthesise more of the serum."
Nar'Bon asked where we could find the armoury. He was given specific instructions.
Most relevant of all was how were we to escape?
The Seers could not help us. We would have to do that ourselves.
I was the only one with the energy to walk and even I did not have reserves left with which to fight. How could we escape if we could did not have the energy to walk, let alone fight?
"We will give you a gift of our life force to energise and sustain you. It should be sufficient to allow your escape. It is our last gift to you."
There were so many other things we needed to know. Like where was the datacrystal? That information was needed for our quest. What was on the datacrystal? The Seers could not tell us. They could not see the datacrystal lost somewhere in the sea, and they only knew that the information on it was vital in proving what the Redeemed were.
We were to return with allies to fight the Dilgar and destroy the Beast. Maybe the information on the datacrystal could help. Maybe it wouldn't. The Seers did not know. They could not See which of the futures before us was the one that would be. If we managed to achieve this task, or if we needed to contact the Markab, we had to return to this room. Only here could they touch us. I did not know if I would have the strength or the courage to come back here. I certainly did not have the strength to leave this place. These Markab had set a mighty task upon beings resigned to death.
There was time for no more question, no more instructions. The Seers said that we were worthy, but I had never felt less worthy in my life. The fate of all races rested upon us. I bent my head and accepted the load placed upon me. I had no other choice.
I heard footsteps approaching and Kimmini's small voice, now bereft of the power of ritual. "I wish we did not have to do this to you, but there is no-one else. I am sorry." She stood before me. Even on my bended knee I was still taller than her. It was not her fault that all this had come to pass. I reached out to her and she flung herself into my arms. I had known her but a few days and had suffered much as a consequence, but for the moment she was only a motherless pouchling and she had touched me as few others had. For a shade, she was quite substantial and the strength of her hug was reassuring. For her and for my own pouchling I would do this. I would find this Beast and destroy it.
I felt another touch and then my other selves all hugged the child in my arms. Kimmini giggled, but then grew solemn. "We must go. We have to leave." She placed her cheek against mine, then pulled away from us and rejoined the circle.
Kronos spoke again. "We can give you only this last gift and bestow upon you our gratitude and thanks." He stepped back and the Seers began to glow. Soon they shone as bright as stars. They blurred into one another. The light congealed and formed a ball. A spinning globe of light slowly spiralled in towards us. It swung over our heads and exploded into us.
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