There was a rare moment of peace in the normally violent Star Metal City. Each mercenary group, government faction, and alien expeditionary force seemed to pause and draw breath, ready for the next violent episode, as the galaxy's competing races strove to gain the upper hand in the struggle to exploit the fabulous natural wealth of Star Metal Planet. In this peaceful interlude, Captain StarNak and Captain StarMix were still arguing. Not violently, but persistently.
'You really have to get rid of some of your equipment. You're weighed down.'
Captain StarNak disagreed. 'I need it all.'
'No you don't. You're carrying two laser pistols, two laser rifles, two plasma pistols and two plasma rifles. And a plasma canon and a rocket launcher. It's excessive. Soon you won't even be able to run. What'll happen when mercenaries attack us?'
'I need all of it.'
'Why do you need two plasma rifles?'
'In case one breaks.'
'If it breaks you can repair it.'
'That takes time.'
Nakishdan's hoarding of equipment and supplies in the game was a source of some frustration to Mixt. She believed in travelling light. StarMix's inventory contained only one laser pistol, one laser rifle and a rocket launcher. She wore light armour, unlike StarNak, who wore the strongest and heaviest armour available, and carried an extra set as well, just in case.
'You could sell all that extra stuff. We need the money.'
'I don't want to,' said Captain Starnak, stubbornly.
After recently completing several dangerous mission on the planet, StarMix and StarNak had finally earned enough money to buy a house. This was a great advantage in the game, and much better than living outdoors, or staying in hotel rooms, but it had cost them everything they had. There were no funds left to upgrade their weapons, something they should do if they wanted to make progress against the tougher opponents they were likely to face in future.
'I think you just like carrying extra weapons in case you need to bribe alien barmaids into sleeping with you.' StarMix paused. 'Why are standing there doing nothing? Can't you move? I told you you were carrying too much.'
On-screen, Captain Starnak appeared to have frozen. Sitting in front of the couch in their living room, Nakishdan slumped forwards.
'What's the matter?'
Nakishdan shook his head, and looked confused. His face was pale. Mixt wasn't sure if he was suffering from an attack of the intrusive, anxious thoughts that sometimes overwhelmed him, or something else.
'That was odd.' Some colour returned to Nakishdan's face. 'I just had a premonition. It felt weird.'
'What was it? Was it bad?'
'I saw us living in the game. In Star Metal City.'
'What do you mean?'
'We were actually living there, for real. Not just playing the game. As if we'd moved there.'
'That's impossible. Star Metal City doesn't even exist. It's just a game.'
Nakishdan was troubled. 'I know. But that's what I thought happened. We were really living in the game.'
Mixt pressed the pause button on her controller. 'Maybe we've been playing too much.'
Noutan had been engaged in private work for the Elvish Council for some time. This work, secret in nature, and dangerous at times, had kept him fully occupied for more than a year. Now his task was completed, he was free to pursue his private affairs. The Elvish Council had wanted to engage him again, because Noutan was a valuable asset, but the Elf had other things on his mind. He had business of his own to take care of, business he'd have attended to earlier had matters of state not got in the way.
In his house between the ash tree and the riverbank, Noutan examined his sword. The blade was strong and sharp, like all Elvish blades. Noutan was a master swordsman.
'As was my brother,' he thought, grimly. 'Before the fairy killed him.'
The Elf scowled. The Elvish Council may have made peace with the Fairy Realm of Mercia over the unfortunate death of the Elvish Fencing Master, but that didn't satisfy Noutan. His brother was dead, and family honour had been besmirched. He intended to seek revenge.
Noutan put his sword in it's scabbard. He had a small bag full of supplies for the journey. He'd never been in London before, and didn't look forward to visiting the human city, but that was his destination. That was where his brother's killer now resided, so he'd learned from the fairy trader who'd brought goods to the riverbank last month. Her name was Rainith. Rainith the Red. A violent fairy by all accounts. And a treacherous one too, killing her fencing master, taking him by surprise while he was engaged in instructing her. With some Elvish beer inside him, the fairy trader had been quite expansive on the subject of Rainith. She'd had a bad reputation, even before the incident with the fencing master. She was violent, hostile and deceitful. The Fairy King had been glad to get rid of her, and only regretted he hadn't exiled her earlier.
Noutan scowled. It infuriated him that the killer had been allowed to go free.
'She murdered my brother and nothing was done about it. I'll put that right.'
Noutan had already talked to the Oak Tree Elf. She'd travelled extensively in her youth, and told him the way to London. He put on his black Elvish coat, muttered a spell to keep his dwelling secure while he was gone, and set off on his journey.
Mixt answered the door to Fourteen Trees. She looked suspiciously at the small visitor.
'Is Nineteen Stars with you?'
Fourteen Trees shook her head. 'Why?'
'I'm nervous about the number nineteen. You can only come in if you promise she's not going to appear.'
Fourteen Trees was wearing a tall, yellow hat. It was a colourful item, though not especially extravagant by her standards.
'Nineteen Stars is really very nice.'
'Nonetheless, she can't visit. My decision is final. I like your hat.'
'Do the girls in 47 Jeng wear colourful hats all the time?'
'Not during school hours.' Fourteen Trees followed Mixt along the hallway. 'We're not allowed. But we can wear them after, in our club room.'
Nakishdan, recovering from his uncomfortable premonition by drinking beer from a can, greeted their visitor quite genially. He was always impressed by her hats. She had an interesting coat too, covered in unusual geometric patterns.
'Have you come about Geeda and Rainith? Are they in danger again?'
Fourteen Trees looked around. Mixt's downstairs living room was very large, and quite untidy. 'Do you have any chocolate?'
Mixt shook her head. Fourteen Trees appeared disappointed. She was a small girl, and when she sat on the large sofa, her feet only just touched the ground.
'Geeda Lala made some money. I mean manufactured it, not earned it. It was silly, I told her not to do that. Now Mathematician Girsin will be able to find her again, he'll pick up the disturbance in time. We've worked out that Geeda is going to a festival but Girsin will work that out too. So yes, they're in danger again.'
Geeda looked around. She didn't appear entirely comfortable. 'Are you sure you don't have any chocolate?'
'I thought you ate chocolate.'
'We do.' Mixt smiled. 'But not that much. 'We buy a bar at the supermarket and eat it on the way home. We don't keep a supply.'
Fourteen Trees frowned.
'What festival - ' began Nakishdan.
'I was really hoping you'd have chocolate.'
Mixt and Nakishdan looked at each other, puzzled.
'Is it important?'
'I just really want some!' said Fourteen Trees.
'Don't you have any at home?'
'It doesn't exist there. Anyway, school doesn't allow sweet things. They're bad for you.'
'About this festival - ' began Nakishdan.
'Could we go out and buy chocolate? I ate some last time we here and now I keep thinking about it.'
'I suppose we could walk to the corner shop,' said Mixt. 'As long as there aren't too many leaves on the pavement.'
Fourteen Trees leapt to her feet. 'Let's do that!'
Nakishdan caused his kimono, currently pink, to change to black as they left the house. Fourteen Trees hurried on ahead.
'She's really keen on chocolate.'
'It's like she developed a sudden addiction,' said Mixt. 'Seems more important to her than rescuing Rainith and Geeda.'
Nakishdan shrugged. 'We're always rescuing Geeda and Rainith. I don't care about them that much anyway.'
Noutan was unfamiliar with human cities and it took him a long time to find the headquarters of the intelligence service at Vauxhall. He walked down many streets, invisible in his black Elvish coat, taking many wrong turnings and becoming frustrated in the process. He didn't like the crowds, or the cars, or the pollution. These things were not entirely unfamiliar to the Elf; he'd passed through small human towns on his travels. London, however, was far larger, and far more unpleasant. He was not discouraged. Noutan was a single-minded Elf, and he'd made up his mind to find Rainith the Red and kill her. He would not be put off by any amount of inconvenience.
Finally he located the building. Here, he knew, were people who had talked to Rainith. Someone who'd even employed Rainith, as far as he understood. Noutan paused for a moment, then walked up the steps and into the building, still invisible. He wondered if an alarm might give him away. If the intelligence services were familiar with fairies, they might have some defences against Elves. No alarm sounded as he entered the building. He paused in the hallway, and looked around. There was a chance that he might pick up a trace of Rainith if he encountered anyone who'd talked to her recently.
The Elf observed his surroundings. He saw people waiting outside a door, and entering, while others emerged. Some sort of mechanism for lifting people to higher floors, he realised. He stood silently behind two employees, waiting for the lift to return. When it did, he entered, and ascended to the next floor. Once again he paused. A woman walked by, deep in conversation with a younger man. Noutan sensed something. These people had talked to Rainith. Particles of her fairy aura still hovered around them. Tiny particles, but Noutan was extremely observant. He followed them along the corridor, his hand on the pommel of his sword, in case they might lead him to Rainith, and he could kill her immediately.
They entered one of the many offices. The woman sat at the desk while the man remained standing. Noutan listened to their conversation.
'Mixt and Nakishdan are obviously lying to us. They didn't tell us everything that happened at the Beatles Store. Agent Glade is quite certain that Mixt was holding something back.'
'I don't think we should send them back again.'
'How can we avoid it? Geeda Lala and Rainith are planning to attend this festival on the Isle of Wight. That's bound to attract 102 Woo. Not to mention this character Girsin.'
'Why did he take Mixt to Venice?'
'Who knows? But if they all turn up in 1970 at a festival something bad will happen. They already attracted flying snakes to the Beatles Store.'
Ms Darben frowned. 'We can't keep letting Geeda Lala and Rainith interfere with the past. It's too dangerous. If we can't bring Geeda back, and Rainith insists on staying there, perhaps it's time to think about eliminating them.'
Noutan remained silently and invisibly in the room, learning what he could about Rainith and her activities. He was satisfied that he'd made a good start, and already felt much closer to avenging his brother.