"A Simple Question"
Copyright (c) 1999 by Low Ee Mien
All references to Hercs and the Starsiege Universe (c) 1999 Dynamix Corporation

The Search for the Truth - How it Began
An Episode in the History of the Stormkeepers

my notes

The Sixth Hall of Learning
Darkstorm Headquarters
Kunlun Mountains, China
October 2836 IST

The children sat in neat rows, despite the lack of seating arrangements in the form of chairs and tables. Some of them seemed glued to the datapads they held in their hands as they scrutinised the tiny print on the screens. Others, unmindful perhaps of the resultant power drain on their xenium-hydrate batteries, projected their screens into the air from the miniature lens assemblies built into their datapads. They scrolled through the holographic panes absently, browsing the sparse set of pre-lesson notes they had been given. The rest simply sat as they were, gazing intently upon the legendary figure that would be giving them their history lesson today.

The notes had said something about a battle on the planet Mars. That had caught the children's curiosity. It was considered an honor to be told the story first-hand, or so the Elders had said. They sat and waited for the teacher to begin.

In front of the assembled pupils, at the center of a gently curving platform raised slightly above floor level, [SK] Vociferous stood alone, tall and resplendent in the red ceremonial robes befitting someone with a level of Fire Rage. Grasping the remote in his hand, he turned it over, and yet again. It seemed to satiate an inner need to do something - anything - at all times. A habit that others might have called fidgeting - though no-one had accused him of that after having witnessed him explode into action from what seemed like a standing start. That was yet another habit of his - one that had kept him alive more than once on the battle fields. It had seemed like such a long time ago..

Vociferous glanced at his eager audience. The Cluster Mentor had informed him earlier that they were all between 12 and 13 years of age. Which meant that they were no more than 6 or 7 when the Starsiege had begun. And this was the reason that he had been invited to teach this class. The next generation had to be taught the lessons of the past. Lest they forget, and repeat the same mistakes that had brought the entire Human race to the brink of extinction in the first three Tests of Mankind. They had managed to pull through these - but only barely. With the Fourth Test prophecised to arrive an unknown number of generations down the road, it was imperative that the survivors of the Third Test pass down the lessons learnt - and prepare their successors for the rigors ahead.

Clearing his throat, Vociferous began.

Vociferous started with an account of the Cybrid landings on the Planet Mars in the time period beginning at 2830.1302, Imperial Standard Time. With an extremely fast pace and his trademark attention to technical detail, he regaled the students with stories of how the defenders of the Stormkeepers' Shadowstorm and Stormkeep Bases, together with their allies from the combined Human Alliance, had fought off the Cybrids long enough to evacuate most of the people who had sought refuge there.

Clicking on the remote, Vociferous listened to the children's ooh's and aah's as he brought up holographic imagery of the recorded footage onto giant virtual screens to his immediate left and right. There were scenes of furious, desperate battles as entire squads of Human HERCs faced off against the overwhelming numbers of the alien Cybrid hordes. The children cheered upon seeing [SK] Zeke take down a two-legged, walking monster of destruction that was a 90-ton Executioner in his anti-gravity Predator tank. At the scene where Vociferous himself blew both legs off a fierce-looking Cybrid Adjudicator with linked particle beams, they clapped heartily. They cheered again, even louder this time, when Vociferous showed them the gunsight sequences from [SK] Hanuman's Talon which showed Hanuman calmly lining up a Cybrid Nexus in his targeting reticule and then calling for orbital bombardment from the skies. They winced when they saw the subsequent zoom-in top-down view from the orbitplat that showed Hanuman and his wingman [SK] Kitsura running for their lives, energy beams and missiles from the pursuing Cybrid forces reaching out for their vehicles.

The footnotes at the bottom of the screens shifted rapidly as Vociferous called up video sequences from a multitude of locations. As scene after scene was flashed across the screens, the pupils began to grasp the meaning behind the numbers scrolling across the footnote area. One of these showed : "Battle ID #2830.1303-Z26B. Cybrid Forces: HERCs-66, tanks-68, flyers-38. Human Forces: HERCs-27, tanks-23, flyers-5. Total vehicle ratio: 3.127-to-1." Some of the children started to cry when the glowing numbers showed that there were no human survivors left over from many of the battles.

Vociferous found himself blinking rapidly too, as he remembered his fallen comrades in some of the battles shown. He recalled that most of these video sequences had been selected by Eidolon. Darkstar bless her, she had understood the need to include some of the more pivotal points in the campaign to defend Mars, although that meant dredging up all those memories of his friends, and brothers-in-arms, screaming into the radio-nets as their vehicles broke up into a thousand pieces that scattered over the surface of the dusty-red planet. His right stick hand twitched involuntarily as he remembered how he had sat in his HERC, pulling on the trigger, firing away fixedly on the Cybrids charging madly toward him, all the while listening to the screams that would give him recurring nightmares for the next few months.

Yes, the memories were painful, Vociferous thought as he looked at the gathered pupils staring with rapt attention at the chilling imagery. But - the children - they had to know. They needed to know.

Drawing himself to his full height, Vociferous continued his speech.

"As you know by now, despite our... very best efforts, we were unable to evacuate everyone off the planet. When the Cybrids overwhelmed our last defenses and swarmed into our spaceports..." his voice trailed off as he recalled what had happened next. He had dismounted from his mortally-wounded Apocalypse and had suited up in the StormTrooper powered armor he had stowed away behind his cockpit. He had intended to go hand to hand with the Cybrids if it came to that - when the world around him turned a crazily uniform white as the orbital bombardments ordered as a last-ditch measure began trying to pick off the Cybrids one by one. It was akin to attempting to smite ants with a sledgehammer - clumsy, inelegant, carrying with it a risk of killing off as many friendlies as it did enemies - but there was, at the time, no other choice.

Blown some tens of meters away, he had somehow been flung next to [SK] Venom. Vociferous recalled that he had noted with some shock that the Stormkeep Base Commander had seemed possessed, yelling incoherently as he struggled to handle a heavy StormTrooper-scale blaster cannon without the benefit of the powered armor. He had even succeeded somewhat, managing to drop the shields of a nearby Goad before a particle beam from the M-1 orbitplat speared the Cybrid menace neatly in the head.

Vociferous had himself gone rather insane at the moment, and had bodily lifted Venom despite the latter's curses and threats into the nearest waiting transport. The [SSK] Alacrity had been the last ship to lift off ShadowStorm Base - and was the last vessel accounted for before the Stormkeepers Fleet had pulled out of the orbit of Mars altogether.

Vociferous shook his head. There was no need to go into that much detail today. Furthermore, he disliked hero worship and had always sought to discourage it whenever he could. Perhaps, someday, somebody else might yet tell his tale.

As he clicked on the remote, he took his narrative in a new direction.

"Those of whom were left behind on Mars were quickly hunted down by the Cybrids. The sacrifice of the brave crew on board the Mars Orbital Defense Platform M-1 bought our combined fleets the time to cloak and slip past the Cybrid warfleet. It also confused the Cybrid ground forces long enough for our StormTrooper infantry to lead many of the refugees into the underground bases and tunnels and seal themselves off from the outside world."

Vociferous went on to tell the pupils how conditions were like in the sealed-off passages, as the refugees struggled to cope with the critical shortages in medical supplies, food, water, and sometimes air itself. He told the children how the Cybrids had tried to follow the fleeing humans into the tunnels, pitting their alien soldierforms against the humans' power-armored infantry and, at least initially, the formidable internal defenses of the fortress-like underground bases. He spoke of the panic that ensued when the refugees discovered Trojan-Horse Cybrid humanforms hidden among them. Riots and internal fighting had broken out, and more lives had been lost when some crazed militant groups decided to take it upon themselves to shoot their own people at random. It had taken a massive effort, including the use of hidden brain-wave scanners and the imposition of strict martial law by the military forces, to clamp down on the riots and, from there, to impose order and slowly weed out the dangerous Cybrid humanforms, who were often so well-disguised that it took many months to flush them out - and even then, the Remnants, as some of the refugees had taken to calling themselves, lived under a dark cloud of fear as no-one could be sure that the Trojan Horses had all been discovered.

"In the two long years that these people were trapped in there, surviving on supplies meant to last less than a year, they had only one hope - that the Human race would eventually win the war, that they would be remembered, and that the Fleet would return to rescue them."

Vociferous continued, "The Remnants - they knew that it was one slim hope, one that faded with the passing of time, but Hope was all they had left. With the exception, perhaps, of Faith..."

"Teacher, what is Faith?" a red-haired, white-robed girl asked as she put up her hand.

Vociferous paused for a while as he tried to put the meaning into words simple enough for the children to understand.

"Faith is... what you believe in. Actually, it is something that is a little more than that - it is what you know in your heart to be true. Faith is like knowing that the Sun will set in the west today evening, and knowing that, when you wake up the next morning, it will rise again, in the east. You have faith in the Sun, because you know it will always be there. It is easy - you can see it for yourself, right?"

Most of the pupils nodded their heads vigorously. This much was obvious enough.

Vociferous continued, "For us in the Stormkeepers, Faith is knowing, in our hearts, that the Darkstar is always there, watching over us, even though it may not be as easy, because we do not see it every day like we see the Sun. Faith, also, is knowing that the words passed down by our Aldur, Xacalon, ring true to this very day. As you very well know, Xacalon was so very right about the first Three Tests of Mankind. We have Faith in Xacalon. We know that the rest of what he has said - what he has prophecised - will be true in time to come. We have faith in the words of Aldur Xacalon. As we have faith in the Darkstar."

The children pondered over Vociferous's words. Some of them frowned, concentrating intently as they thought deep thoughts about the Sun and the Darkstar. Others merely mouthed the word "Xacalon" slowly, for they had been taught about the Aldur's Three Warnings from a very early age, repeated by their parents over and over again, sometimes before they had the language skills needed to even begin to understand the meanings in the ominous prophecies.

A small hand rose in the dimly-lit hall.

"Teacher, may I ask another question?" the brown-robed boy four rows down from the front whispered hesitantly in an almost inaudible voice.

Vociferous looked at the boy, and nodded in a way that he hoped looked encouraging enough. "Yes, go ahead please."

The boy looked around the hall a few times before he drew in a small breath, letting it out slowly as if in a sigh.

"What is the Darkstar?"

As the children drew in a collective gasp, the boy sat down quickly, gathering his arms and legs together. His hands started to reach for the hood of his robe and made as if to draw it over his head, but they stopped short as he remembered the rules he had been taught. His face betrayed the sudden fright that had seemed to take over his small frame. From where he was standing, Vociferous could not be very sure, but he thought he saw the boy shuddering.

It was a simple question. Simple enough to ask, but, on the other hand, attempting to answer it was another thing altogether.

Vociferous thought for a while, reflecting on what the Darkstar meant personally to him. A year ago, just after his promotion to Fire Rage, [SK] Sabbath had brought him to the Temple of Xacalon which was located in a hidden subterranean level within the Stormkeepers' Darkstorm Headquarters. It was a place that was shown only to "those who could handle it" - as Sabbath had put it.

Standing in front of the jet-black Darkstar Orb floating in the exact center of the temple, Vociferous had experienced a brief, ephemeral moment of perfect peace as his fingers brushed lightly against the strange, constantly-shifting surface of the alien artifact. It was as if time itself had stood still at that moment. In a sudden clarity of vision that had somehow became all-encompassing, Vociferous had seen himself, the temple, and then the entire Kunlun mountain range, zooming out to enclose the Planet Earth, the Solar System, and expanding rapidly beyond. He had been quite sure that if he had strained the vision just a little further, he might have gone to the very edge of space and caught a glimpse of the Darkstar itself.

In that one instant, he saw himself as who he really was, and came to an understanding of his place in the Universe.

It was a humbling thought.

And yet Sabbath had told him that the Orb was but a simplified representation of what the Darkstar represented - something that weaved in and out of this plane of existence, something that was there, and yet somehow not there at the same time. Something that was alive, and yet not alive, watching over the Galaxy with its mystical senses...

Now, that would be a little difficult to explain to a bunch of 12- and 13-year olds, Vociferous thought. He had to try something a little easier. Simplify, simplify...

"Well. The Darkstar is... what we might sometimes call the Omni-Factor. Now, that is one word that you probably will not find in any online dictionary." Vociferous paused for a while. Oops. Now he had to explain the word Omni-Factor, as he looked at the quizzical expressions on the children's faces.

"The Omni-Factor means... well, I mean, it sounds a little bit like the Omni-Web, doesn't it? Just like the Omni-Web, well, actually, much more than that, the Omni-Factor is everywhere, and uhh... it includes.. aah.. many things. The word 'Factor', as you might have found out from your datapads, can be said to mean 'something that is a part of' - so, you can say that the Darkstar, as the Omni-Factor, is not only everywhere, it is also a part of... everything there is."

At this point, Vociferous was starting to get a little irritated with himself. His explanation did not seem to be bringing the desired meaning across. It made scant sense even to himself, as he was saying it. He cast his eyes down at the synth-marble floor, found it uninspiring, and switched his view to the darkness beyond the soft circle of light shining upon the children's heads.

Looking down at the expectant faces of the children, Vociferous tried again.

"Let's just say that the Darkstar is... something that watches over us, and has been doing so for much longer than we can imagine. The Darkstar watches us, from wherever it is, and it knows what we do. From time to time, it may appear to a few selected people, and these people bring words back to us, its Acolytes. Sometimes these words are warnings, like what Aldur Xacalon has passed down to us. And sometimes, these are what we call Latent Prophecies - words that we.. may not even understand, until a certain point in time when it will all be suddenly clear to everyone."

More hands flew into the air as the pupils, emboldened perhaps by the initiative taken by the brown-robed boy, started to ask a flurry of questions.

"Is the Darkstar an alien?"

"What does the Darkstar look like?"

"Has anyone gone to visit the Darkstar before? Can we go too?"

After about half a minute, Vociferous put up his hands in a placating gesture. "Whoa, hold it children. Look, I don't know all that much about the Darkstar myself. It's... just not really been clearly explained so far."

"Why not?" one of the children called out.

"Hmmm." Vociferous started to pace back and forth on the stage. "Actually, I do not know why not. Perhaps.. we should leave this to our religious teachers."

Vociferous looked at his watch. He sighed. So much for the planned history lesson.

"Well, I'd like to stay and chat with you a little bit more about the Darkstar, but your maths lecturer will be coming in in about three minutes. As for the rest of this lesson about what happened on Mars after the Combined Human Fleet left.. I'll upload the notes into darkstorm.stormkeepers.org - you can find it under my user directory."

"So... if you have any further questions..." Vociferous took a last look around. Of course they had. He could almost see the question marks hovering above their heads. "... you can send them to my e-mail address, vociferous@stormkeepers.org."

"I shall leave you now, for the next lesson."

As the lecturer of the class, Vociferous initiated the first phase of the ritualistic mantra.

"For Salvation. For Xacalon..."

The children replied in the only way they had been taught since they started schooling.

"For the Darkstar."

With that, Vociferous left the hall, doors closing soundlessly behind him. A high-speed lift, one of many in the massive mountain base, took him the 24 floors up from the school zone directly to the level where the quarters of the more senior Stormkeepers were to be found. With his characteristic long strides, he moved rapidly to his room.

Standing in front of his door, Vociferous ran his fingers over the inscription carved into the pseudowood surface, below the card holder which announced his name, handle, and rank. The inscription, which was unique to every single door on this level, read: "The Darkstar watches this door, as it does every other."

Hmm. Vociferous realised that he had not really paid much attention to that small line of text before. But, now, the question nagged at him.

What is the Darkstar?

Logging on to StormNet, Vociferous browsed through the various search engines and online databases, looking for an answer.

On the first try, he simply blurted out "Darkstar" as the search term, to get a feel for the task ahead. The search engine spewed out an initial list of fifty entries, displayed in glowing holographic letters in front of him, along with a note at the top of the screen that announced the discovery of twenty-five million references related to the keyword. A side window appeared, calmly informing Vociferous to "please be more specific" with his search. A hyperlink at the bottom offered help on advanced search techniques.

"Twenty-five million hits. Nice..." Vociferous muttered under his breath. He watched the voice input cursor as it blinked, placidly awaiting his next command. He leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes as he pondered on his next move.

The reason why he had not done something like this before eluded him. Perhaps he had simply trusted the wisdom of the Elders. Or perhaps it was because, within the entire Stormkeepers organisation, it had seemed like such a commonly-accepted idea that he had not even thought to ask. Vociferous wondered if he, like the brown-robed boy, would have been afraid to ask. No. He shook his head. It was not fear. He had seen Fear itself often enough, charging at him in Cybrid warforms too numerous to count. It had to be something else...

Lack of curiosity, maybe, an inner voice told him. It was funny how children seemed to be brimming over with it when they were young, and yet somehow, somewhere along the way, lost their ability to be curious about the world around them as they grew up.

It was also fascinating to note that how a single question posed by a curious child would actually drive him to look for a suitable answer.

"Twenty-five million." Vociferous muttered again, as if it were a curse. It was far too much to deal with. Being a warrior first, and a scholar a distant second, he did not have all that much experience with advanced database searches. But Eidolon had been helping out at one of the libraries as a part-time hobby, and she had taught him a few things or so.

"Refine search : use Markovian-Schellian NLP filter. Begin boolean, Darkstar AND, begin group, origins OR beginning, end group..."

He paused for a short while. "... end boolean. Use NLP query, non-exclusive mode: 'What is the Darkstar?'. Execute now."

The improvement was considerable, but the result was still far from expectations. Vociferous swore. Six million!! But it was not an unreasonable number. There must have been much interest in the Darkstar's origins since ages past. Why, entire generations of religious scholars must have been writing about the subject, producing conjectures and hypotheses, all faithfully recorded and kept for long-term posterity within the archival servers on StormNet.

Vociferous continued to probe, applying more exclusions and filters as he attempted to narrow down the search scope. He wished Eidolon were there beside him to make this easier, but she had been on attachment to the SK Education Department for the past week or so to help compile some writings by some early SK writer almost a thousand years ago. She would probably be knee-deep in paper books and stacks of paper documents in some library vault in Germany right now.

Time passed quickly. After half an hour, the list had been whittled down to four hundred thousand entries. There was not much else that Vociferous knew that could be used to reduce the result set. He scrolled through some of the more likely documents appearing at the top of the list.

The answers were not forthcoming. With some of the best search technology around, Vociferous could find only the vaguest hints. Most of the references repeated things that he already knew about. The Darkstar is the Omni-Factor. The Darkstar watches over us. The Darkstar listens, the Darkstar provides. There were also many references to Aldur Xacalon, his Three Warnings, and very short passages on what he had been supposed to have said about the Darkstar.

Terrific. Just terrific. Vociferous stood up, turning off the multi-million-pixel holo-display with a wave of his hand as he did so. He paced the room in agitation.

Did no-one really know what the Darkstar was? Has everyone, including the theologian types, been really doing nothing but grasping at straws, guessing at the answer?

The doorbell sounded, a three-tone chime that seemed to resonate throughout the room - a trick accomplished with hidden speakers and a few age-old acoustic techniques. A holographic projection to the right of the door frame showed a visitor standing outside.

"Ah. [SK] Lmsc," said Vociferous as he opened the door. "How have you been, my friend? Do please come in."

"Thank you, Vociferous. And you?"

"I'm doing fine - I suppose. Eidolon's away on attachment with Edu-Dept, so it's just me in here," said Vociferous as he placed his right hand over his heart, and then clapped it on Lmsc's well-built shoulder in ritual greeting. Lmsc repeated the gesture on Vociferous. Once that was done, Vociferous motioned for his visitor to sit on the only couch in the place.

"I heard you just came back from the North Pole - how is it like over there?" Vociferous asked.

"Oh? Cold, but, of course!" Lmsc grinned. "I'm not sure if you've heard about this one - but we're actually building a floating base there. Once it's completed, ArcticStorm should be the first in a series of our mobile floating bases. Way cool, isn't it? It'll look for all the world like a massive iceberg, or something - we'd probably have our very own polar bears to come along with it, eh?"

Vociferous observed that Lmsc seemed to be positively brimming with excitement over this particular project. For the next few minutes, they talked about it at length, discussing the difficulties of constructing a Stormkeepers base far away from most of civilisation, though it was not exactly unheard of, as the Darkstorm Headquarters was also located in some of the most desolate terrain known on the planet.

The conversation presently shifted to Vociferous's current teaching assignment. "So they're going around asking semi-retired heroes like you to teach our children about The Starsiege, eh?" Lmsc asked.

"Ouch, that hurt," Vociferous grinned ruefully. References to age always had that effect on him - and he was not growing any younger, either. "I'm not exactly retiring, you know. And, hey-hey, look who's talking here - you've had your fair share of decorations yourself, Lmsc. The SK Platinum Medal for Courage and all that."

Vociferous continued, "Well, they've figured out that I had about two weeks before the [SSK] Allusion lifts off back to Mars. So, in the meantime, they've sent Eidolon away to Germany on some research mission, and me, I'm stuck here at Darkstorm Headquarters giving these... history lessons. Then it's off again to ShadowStorm Base, to pick up the pieces, get on top of the reconstruction program."

"Hmm... sounds like a busy schedule. Well, how is the teaching life so far? Those children back at Hall 6-L been making life difficult for you?" Lmsc asked.

"Well, they're okay I guess - except that... hey, how did you know it was over at 6-L?" Vociferous noted that the location of that lesson wasn't exactly classified information, but, on the other hand, it did seem a little unusual for Lmsc to have an interest in classroom timetables all of a sudden.

Lmsc chuckled. "It's my niece, Jareen - she's been using up full bit-rate bandwidth, asking me all these... questions when she came back after school just now. I guess she's the one who started it when she asked you what Faith is. And then my other nephew, Jordane, is the one who asked you what the Darkstar is."

"You can blame my brothers and myself for that - our family members have always been the curious type." Lmsc was grinning broadly now. He seemed thoroughly bemused by the whole situation.

Vociferous made a face. "I suppose that it's a little late to do that ancient 'Oh I see' cliche, isn't it? Else, it would have been so much easier to ask them to go and ask Uncle Lmsc, huh?"

Lmsc put up his hands in a gesture of ignorance. "Hey, I wouldn't know much more about it than you would, seeing that you're a senior StormKeeper now yourself, right?"

"Perhaps, but then, you're a Tempestkeeper after all. And the last time I checked, that's one step higher than Fire Rage," Vociferous countered. "And that probably means that, going by your status alone, you'd be sure to have access to a lot more stuff than I do."

The grin on Lmsc's widened as he broke into a full-throttled guffaw. "Tempestkeeper, you say. Ha. Power? Status? Nah. A StormKeeper seeks not such things - or so they say." Lmsc piped down and regarded Vociferous somberly. "Which, incidentally, is quite true, by the way."

Vociferous pressed on. "So tell me, whatever you do know thus far. What is it?"

Lmsc lifted an eyebrow. "What is... what?"

"Come on, you know, what Jordane's been asking. What is the Darkstar?"

At that, Lmsc stood up and paced the room, his mood shifted noticeably. He seemed all at once serious and introspective, as he contemplated the question.

"Hmm. What is the Darkstar? Just four words," Lmsc said as he counted the number off the fingers of his left hand, held up in the diffused glow of the ambient room-wide illumination. "What, really, the glitchin' question is, as it has been all along. What, really, is the Darkstar?"

"Well? I'm all ears." Vociferous sat up on the couch.

"It's not quite... that straightforward as it sounds. You know, one of the greatest challenges facing a StormKeeper is to search for the truth, no matter how difficult the question seems, right?"

"Yes, of course. It's right up there, along with the most revered of our founding principles."

"And the question seems simple enough, right?" Lmsc sighed. "That, it may be so, but only on the surface."

Vociferous was getting mystified by now. "Okay, okay, you've just about lost me back there. Four words, "What is the Darkstar", simple question, yet not quite so straightforward, and now, searching for the truth?"

Lmsc nodded. "Yes."

"So, in effect, what is the linkage here? Don't tell me - somebody's been searching for the existence of the Darkstar?"

Lmsc nodded again. "Very good, Vociferous. Close, but that's not quite it." He looked at Vociferous, seemed to pause for a brief moment, and said, "Okay. Ramrod might have one or two things to say about this, but, as of this moment onwards, let me give you a warm welcome to the Fact-Finding Committee."

Vociferous's heart skipped a beat or two. Being a long-time SK member, he knew, deep down, that a lot of meaning was hidden in the simplest of terminology used. "Errm... Fact-Finding Committee?" he asked.

"Fact-Finding Committee, or, if you prefer a more colorful term, Searchers of the Truth. We are a group of Stormkeepers who believe that the Darkstar is, in fact, somewhere out there, and we have been discussing the possibility that it is something that actually exists. As opposed to being merely a concept, or a... theoretical construct. An idea which is advocated by the... other side."

Vociferous was intrigued. Despite all his years of service in the Stormkeepers, this was something literally unheard of. "The other side?"

"Yes, the other side. In contrast to our so-called committee, they only have the colorful name part. They call themselves Keepers of the Faith. In short, their stand is that the Darkstar is something we just believe in, and that, is that."

"So... this debate is not a new one."

Lmsc sat down again. "No, it is not. This question of the Darkstar has occupied the best minds of the Stormkeepers as long as the Stormkeepers have existed as an organisation, as far back as over a thousand years ago, even long before we were named... Stormkeepers."

Vociferous glanced at the black Tempestkeeper robe that Lmsc had hung up at the door. "And the reason why no-one knows about all this is that only a small, select group, or rather, two groups, of the highest-ranking Stormkeepers are involved?"

Lmsc frowned. "Not quite. Officially, if you really were to ask, the top SK leadership will not take sides. That is because we fear a disastrous split in the organisation over this very fundamental issue. In private, of course, we have certain inclinations, either way."

He continued, "So, there are actually three sides. The Searchers of the Truth, on one hand, the Keepers of the Faith, on the other. And the rest, who either do not care or are too young to understand."

Lmsc stood up. "I have to go now. The Committee has a meeting scheduled. I would like to take you along, but, this time round, let me just get them used to the idea that you're on our side now. You are, of course, aren't you?"

Vociferous stood up as well and looked Lmsc in the eye. "Yes, I must say I am very honored to be invited to this.. committee."

"Very well. By your leave, then. For the Darkstar." With that, Lmsc pulled on his robe and was out of the door.

All alone in the room now, Vociferous laid down on his bed. He looked up at the ceiling - and wondered. Beyond the next few levels of Darkstorm, above [SK] Tsoron's personal temple, outside the grand mountain complex that was the Stormkeepers headquarters, was a mystery waiting to be solved.

A high-priority message window popped up, its holographic pane aligned with Vociferous's prone position such that he could read it without having to move his head. It was from Lmsc.

Vociferous read the title out loud. "First Direct Deliberation Between the Keepers and the Searchers." The rest of the short, terse message ended with a date, a time and a place.

So, this was it.

Vociferous got up, and moved over to the mini-bar to pour himself a small cup of 2825-vintage wine.

He raised his cup to the message window from Lmsc, still positioned as it was, floating half a meter above his bed.

"Here's to the Search for the Truth. For the Darkstar!"

For more stories, head over to the SK Chronicles at louie.stormkeepers.org