Alien Items - Drew Wagar

Alien Items - Drew Wagar

Alien Items - Drew Wagar


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<strong>Alien</strong> <strong>Items</strong><br />

An Oolite Anthology<br />

Copyright (Contributors) 2006-2012

<strong>Alien</strong> <strong>Items</strong> – Cargo Manifest<br />

Introduction to ‘<strong>Alien</strong> <strong>Items</strong>’ ............................................................................................................... 4<br />

The Virtuous Misfortune - Dylan Smith .............................................................................................. 6<br />

Carver’s Anarchy - Ganelon .............................................................................................................. 34<br />

Nine - <strong>Drew</strong> <strong>Wagar</strong> ............................................................................................................................ 44<br />

Calliope - By Blaze O' Glory ............................................................................................................. 53<br />

Coyote - El Viejo ................................................................................................................................ 93<br />

Ascension - <strong>Drew</strong> <strong>Wagar</strong> ................................................................................................................. 137<br />

Local Midnight at the Vacuum Bar - Blaze O' Glory ....................................................................... 148<br />

Snake Charming - DaddyHoggy ...................................................................................................... 153<br />

Schism - <strong>Drew</strong> <strong>Wagar</strong> ...................................................................................................................... 160<br />

Vakume Danserz - Ganelon .............................................................................................................. 177<br />

Negotiations of Failure - Commander Wyvern ................................................................................ 179<br />

Lazarus - DaddyHoggy .................................................................................................................... 183<br />

Replay - <strong>Drew</strong> <strong>Wagar</strong> ....................................................................................................................... 224<br />

Appendix .......................................................................................................................................... 231

Introduction to ‘<strong>Alien</strong> <strong>Items</strong>’<br />

In pulling this anthology together there has been a fair bit of frustration aimed at recalcitrant<br />

word processors, formatting glitches and the occasional conversion problem. I'm pleased to report<br />

that, much like the game, this collection was pulled together with 100% open-source software.<br />

More importantly though, I got to re-read all the stories that have collected around this game in<br />

the last few years. When I first encountered Oolite back in 2006, there was a single story (the first<br />

in this collection). Then the floodgates opened, more stories came, we created a fiction section on<br />

the forum. Now there is a strong 'sub-community' of fan-fic writers. This anthology is only a<br />

selection of the talented writing available. Far more can be found on the Elite Wiki and the fiction<br />

section of the Oolite Bulletin Board.<br />

Many Elite projects, in the form of remakes, re-imaginings and new games that give homage to<br />

the original, have come and gone in the last few years. Oolite is by far the most successful modern<br />

Elite interpretation. That's down to the enthusiastic community that surrounds it, a lot of hard work<br />

and in part, I strongly believe, down to some of the fan-fic that has acted as a 'glue' around the game<br />

itself.<br />

The stories reflect the universe of Oolite, the 'Ooniverse' as we've come to call it. The core of the<br />

original game was concerned with fighting and trading; Oolite has continued this, enhanced it, yet<br />

stayed true to the premise; it's a big, dangerous galaxy out there.<br />

As you play Oolite, you can't help but lose yourself in the game. You start to wonder what might<br />

be going on around you. Why is that Cobra just ahead of you in the docking queue tagged as an<br />

'Offender'? Where is that Boa and its escorts going in such a hurry? Why do the Thargoids attack on<br />

sight? What is it like inside that station?<br />

With the canvas of Elite already sketched out by the late great Robert Holdstock in The Dark<br />

Wheel, what these authors have done is colour in a little more, added some pencilled drawings,<br />

thrown in a bit more detail here and there.<br />

In these stories you'll see life aboard ship, life planet-bound. You'll see fearsome fire-fights, and<br />

the cerebral musings of intellectuals. You'll meet rogues, villains, heroes and those just trying to get<br />

by; the naïve youth and the seasoned veteran. You'll enjoy comedy, be moved at tragedy, be<br />

frustrated by politics and religion, perhaps even a little alarmed at the darker side of life in the<br />

Ooniverse. It's quite a mix.<br />

No introduction would be complete without thanking the contributors; Dylan Smith, Blaze O'

Glory, El Viejo, DaddyHoggy, Commander Wyvern and Ganelon. These guys have enormous talent,<br />

and you, dear reader, should be grateful that they have made these stories available to you for free.<br />

Blaze O’ Glory also provided the winning entry for the cover, the two other worthy entries by<br />

Killer Wolf and Goran are included at the end in the Appendix.<br />

Write on, commanders!<br />

<strong>Drew</strong>. (February 2012)<br />


The Virtuous Misfortune - Dylan Smith<br />

Nothing good ever comes out contracts worked out in a bar. Nothing ever good. I had ample time<br />

to reflect this in the police cell, of course. The first time in the cells in at least a year, I mused.<br />

It had all started innocently enough. Well, innocent by our standards. We’d docked our battered<br />

Python-class cruiser, ‘Virtuous’ (named with no hint of irony, I swear) a few days ago. It hadn’t<br />

been a particularly easy run, we had been harassed by bounty hunters who had left some nice new<br />

scorch marks in the paintwork. I decided that we should all have a day off, and dismissed the crew.<br />

The crew. A motley one if I’d ever seen one. Crewing a ship like mine, nibbling at the edges of<br />

legality, wasn’t exactly most people’s idea of fine work, especially since as a direct result all of us<br />

had frequently seen the inside of police cells. We had a reputation. Some people even used that<br />

unfortunate word ‘pirate’ to describe us. We weren’t pirates – honestly (well, not much, we hadn’t<br />

shot at a trader in at least a month and anyway he had started it). But let’s say, the words ‘finders<br />

keepers’ didn’t exactly wash well with GalCop. The crew was of course the quality you’d expect<br />

from a low-rent operation like ours.<br />

We had at least become fond of each other. It made my job a lot easier if I wasn’t having to<br />

arbitrate their arguments, too.<br />

The crew. Just five of us rattling around on a Python class cruiser. There was Jamie, hopelessly<br />

vain – when not supervising the various droids that ran errands around our ship, he could be found<br />

staring at a mirror, trying to look pretty. Why bother, I thought – The Virtuous couldn’t care less<br />

about how its crew looked. Then the engineer, Kim, a middle aged woman who probably could<br />

have done with a bit of vanity. On an old crate like ours, she was normally up to her elbows in<br />

various lubricants, or with coils of fibre optic cables over her shoulders. She was strangely<br />

attractive despite being just a tad overweight and having layers of grime caked under her<br />

fingernails. Mike on the other hand was an intense young man, built like a whippet. His fine skills<br />

as a weapons officer had kept us alive for the past two years. Then Aaron. It had been Aaron who<br />

had talked me into buying The Virtuous. I’d met him five years ago when I’d originally arrived in<br />

this galaxy. I could swear he had some feline in his ancestry, he seemed to have so many feline<br />

traits. They had kept us out of trouble (mostly) so I was glad of it. We had quickly become friends<br />

after meeting in some forgotten Anarchy, and eventually bought our first two-crew ship together to<br />

try to start a business that’d make a reasonable profit . . . and somehow had slid into the murky<br />

boundaries of pushing the edges of the law without really realising it. He was a much better pilot<br />

than me, so he always took the helm.

Then myself. Commander Damon Winston. Nobody would ever believe my story if I told it so<br />

I’m not going to. I tried to tell them about mis-jumps when I had arrived. They didn’t believe me.<br />

Instead they fined me for having a ship with illegal modifications, and then confiscated my ship –<br />

which I discovered was one of a kind in this region of space. I found paying the fine rather difficult<br />

with no records of my own existence, nor a credit rating to my name. They fined me again for not<br />

having a proper identity when I complained. It left me a bit bitter about GalCop. Well, it could have<br />

been worse. Local folklore has it that hyperspace problems often end up turning you inside out.<br />

Our most recent dubious task had started out in Sorezaqu, a desperate system even by our<br />

standards. The bar was grimy – that was a given – and the space station filled with disrepute. The<br />

quality of the beer wasn’t up to much either. I wasn’t expecting we’d find work here, I was just<br />

expecting to leave after the crew had recovered from their hang-overs, and head over to the wealthy<br />

system Texeare with a cargo of anything cheap that was likely to fetch a good price on a wealthy<br />

planet. I was only half way through my fourth beer when Aaron began tugging at my sleeve.<br />

‘Hey, we’ve got a job!’ he yelled over the racket of the bar.<br />

‘A job? Here?’ I yelled back.<br />

‘Yes, a good one!’<br />

I reluctantly disengaged myself from the good looking woman I was trying to make some<br />

headway with. I made some vague apology, but right now with the state of the ship, money for once<br />

took precedence over lust. I followed Aaron into another dark corner of the bar. Three human<br />

strangers were seated around a table, along with the rest of my crew. They struck me as being very<br />

well dressed for this corner of Sorezaqu – their clothing had no tears at all, and hardly any grease.<br />

The three men watched me poker-faced as I arrived.<br />

‘Captain Winston!’ yelled the first man over the din.<br />

‘Can we go somewhere a bit quieter?’ I shouted back.<br />

Two minutes later, we found ourselves in what passed for the gents toilets.<br />

Quieter it may have been, well, if the occasional sound of vomiting in one of the stalls didn’t<br />

distract you. The burliest man of the three kicked the door open, and dragged a woebegone creature<br />

from within, ejecting it out back into the bar. He then blocked the door with his considerable bulk.<br />

‘Captain, we have a job we can’t do ourselves. It’s an easy one, but it needs a big ship like<br />

yours,’ the first man started.<br />

‘Wait – I don’t even know who you are,’ I stated.

‘Oh sorry, I’m Clare Clark, boss of Clark Trading,’ he said, ‘and these are my two associates,<br />

Rafe and Henry,’ he said indicating the other two. They just grunted. I took that as a friendly<br />

greeting, especially from Rafe. I’m not small but he had to be twice my size.<br />

‘Isn’t Clare a ...’ I began.<br />

‘Damon...’ hissed Kim, giving me dagger eyes, having anticipated my usual deal breaking<br />

saying-the-wrong-thing-at-the-wrong-time move I’m so famous for.<br />

‘Sorry. Your proposition.’<br />

‘Well, last week, we lost a Python in Texeare, and regrettably one of the ship’s crew as well. The<br />

cargo is rather valuable and we’d like someone with the right equipment to unload it. Kim was<br />

explaining you have all the ship to ship transfer droids needed, as well as an extended cargo bay,<br />

and that makes you the best candidate we’ve seen to do this for us. We’ll of course make it worth<br />

your while.’<br />

‘What sort of shape is the ship in?’<br />

‘According to the crew it’s still intact. I’m afraid we have no idea whether the hull is like a<br />

colander or whether it’ll hold in air, let alone whether you can hook power up to it and get gravity<br />

back.’<br />

‘How worthwhile?’<br />

‘How about six thousand?’<br />

‘Only six? We could make that on a trading run if we filled our holds without any risky ship to<br />

ship transfers from some wreck,’ I counted. ‘No less than ten’.<br />

Clare winced.<br />

‘Nine’<br />

‘Ten’<br />

‘Nine and a half?’<br />

‘Ten’<br />

Clare sucked in the breath through his teeth. My crew watched me standing there with my usual<br />

arms folded I’m not gonna budge attitude.<br />

‘We have to make a profit too,’ Clare complained.

‘If you don’t get your cargo back you make a big loss. Even if my price makes it a small loss, it’s<br />

still better than a big one. It’s a risky job especially if the hull is so compromised we can’t turn the<br />

grav back on. Then we’re sitting ducks for any bounty hunter, pirate or cop to come and pick off’. I<br />

realised I’d made a mistake by adding the word ‘cop’ to that sentence.<br />

‘Cop?’ Clare exclaimed. ‘You know if you’re wanted, you can hardly bargain the price up,<br />

because - '<br />

‘Perish the thought,’ I responded quickly. I didn’t want to explore that avenue of conversation.<br />

‘But the Police in Texeare often shoot first and ask questions later, and it will look an awful lot like<br />

we’re looting the wreck, because I’m sure this cargo is a little bit dodgy and you won’t be able to<br />

tell the Police that we’re legitimately recovering it,’ I said with a wry smile.<br />

Clare paused for twenty seconds or so.<br />

‘OK, I’ll give you ten.’<br />

‘Half now,’ I said triumphantly.<br />

‘What kind of a sucker do you think I am? Ten when you bring the cargo to the station at Texeare<br />

and not before.’<br />

I sighed.<br />

‘OK, deal.’<br />

I held out my hand. Clare looked at it as if it was a fish.<br />

‘Shake on it?’<br />

‘What?’<br />

Aaron chimed in. ‘It’s a human custom, apparently.’ ‘Never mind,’ I said.<br />

With some relief, we left the gents. The smell was getting to us all.<br />

I briefly scanned the room for the woman I’d been making conversation with, but predictably,<br />

she was gone.<br />

‘OK!’ I yelled over the racket, ‘we leave in six hours sharp. Be back on the ship within the hour,<br />

I want us all recovered in good time to leave’ The rest of the crew nodded their assent. I decided to<br />

go and find somewhere quieter to finish my rather sour beer. I pushed my way through the sweaty<br />

crowds until I came to the back of the bar, and then found myself in a small dimly-lit room with<br />

only two others. Some relief at last. I flopped in one of the deep seats and set my beer on the table,

and let out a long sigh. However, I didn’t even get thirty seconds to myself. Aaron arrived and<br />

looked at me through narrow eyes.<br />

‘That was a bit easy, don’t you think?’ he asked, seemingly to no one in particular.<br />

I just grunted.<br />

‘Usually it takes half a day of haggling spread over four days for a haul of that size’, he added by<br />

means of explanation.<br />

‘And when it does it’s hardly ever worth it,’ I said with a shrug.<br />

‘Who was she?’<br />

‘Who?’<br />

‘That woman earlier’<br />

‘Didn’t catch her name’<br />

‘Oh.’<br />

We lapsed into silence, and I tried to drink a bit more of the awful beer. It seemed somewhat less<br />

awful without the bass thump of music in my left ear.<br />

‘We need this job to go smoothly,’ I said at last. ‘Business has been pretty awful recently. We<br />

only just covered our wage bill last month’ ‘We did?’<br />

‘Yeah, after we had to repair the ECM, there was barely enough left over to pay everyone.’ ‘Why<br />

didn’t you tell me?’ he asked.<br />

‘You’ve enough to worry about without dealing with the financial minutiae’ ‘We are partners you<br />

know, you’ve gotta tell me’<br />

I sighed. ‘I just did’<br />

‘No, but earlier,’ he said, more concerned than angry. ‘I’ve got my life savings sunk into this<br />

operation, too’<br />

‘Yeah yeah, I know,’ I said with an air of resignation.<br />

‘Sorry,’ he added. ‘But please, just tell me?’<br />

‘Yeah yeah.’<br />

Silence again. We hadn’t even started on this new job and I was already feeling drained. Perhaps

ten minutes passed, but in that darkened room it might well have been an hour. My comm beeped. I<br />

pulled it out.<br />

‘Instructions,’ I said, flicking through the information. ‘Seems our target ship is a bit out of the<br />

way.’ I turned the comm towards Aaron who examined the images critically.<br />

‘Quite a bit off the corridor. They had to be smuggling.’ ‘Yeah, and I’m kicking myself. They<br />

settled with our supposed good haggling so quickly because we’re suckers, I suspect. Bet we could<br />

have gotten at least 20 for this job.’<br />

‘Still, ten’s not to be sniffed at.’<br />

‘You’re right, it’ll at least get the generator sets overhauled.’ I had noted Kim’s look of almost<br />

pleading as we had named our price. ‘I can guess who’s going to be head of the queue when we get<br />

paid’<br />

‘How long are they overdue?’<br />

‘Five hundred hours on the one’<br />

Aaron frowned.<br />

‘Could be worse,’ I added. ‘The other’s twelve hundred over’ His frown changed to a look of<br />

shock which he rapidly tried to conceal.<br />

‘Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps you oughtn’t to reveal these minutiae. Gaacck, I ran that thing to<br />

110% the other week when we had that rather unfortunate incident.’<br />

‘I know. I was sweating bullets,’ I said deadpan. ‘I was just listening for the thing exploding, but<br />

well, Faulcon deLacy build ‘em tough I suppose’<br />

Six hours later, I was back on the ship. I couldn’t stand hanging around the bar any longer, and to<br />

be honest I wanted to get away from the crew for a while and brood by myself about the appalling<br />

state of our finances. Kim had gone back to the ship to do some PM, and had given me a laundry<br />

list of spares we needed. A quick trip to the scrap yard, or ‘recycling centre’ as the sign on the wall<br />

euphemistically said, had me now equipped with a heavy box full of small parts, all of which turned<br />

out to be surprisingly expensive.<br />

It was time for the roll-call. Everyone but Kim was around.<br />

‘She wants to see you,’ Jamie informed me.<br />

‘Well, she can come up here,’

‘Now. She had that look on her face’<br />

‘But I’m the captain,’ I said, my voice trailing off.<br />

I traipsed on towards the generator section. I just knew that’s where she’d be.<br />

There was this sort of atmosphere around the place if anyone said ‘generator’ in Kim’s presence.<br />

She never said anything, but I could feel the waves of disapproval beating upon me. As I neared the<br />

entrance to the generator section, I could feel that reassuring thrum through the metalwork of the<br />

ship that told me everything was powered up and ready to go.<br />

I grabbed a pair of ear defenders off the wall. Out here, there was nothing more than a faint<br />

background hum. On opening the door to the prime mover and generator room, that all changed to a<br />

deafening roar which was somehow made all the more unpleasant by the high pitched scream of a<br />

few dozen megawatts of generating capacity. The door closed behind me, I put my ear defenders on.<br />

Kim’s voice sounded in my ears.<br />

‘You know why it’s so noisy in here?’ said her disembodied voice.<br />

‘It’s always noisy in here!’ I replied, testily.<br />

I walked out onto the narrow gantry, a latticework foot-way high above the bowels of the engine<br />

room. The gantry ran between the two electrical generators. Below, I could see two more walkways,<br />

and finally, deep in the bowels of the Python Class Cruiser, the main reactor. Consuming a<br />

trademarked fuel called Quirium, the main reactor provided power for everything on the ship –<br />

including the raw energy to turn the two generators which provided the ship with the prodigious<br />

amount of electrical power that it consumed with a voracious appetite. The generators themselves<br />

were a marvel of engineering – filled with high-temperature superconductors, they only had to be<br />

kept a little below the freezing temperature of water to work at maximum efficiency. Four large<br />

refrigeration units provided not only temperature control for the life support systems, but cooling<br />

for the generators. Up above me was another two levels of latticework walkways, and finally a set<br />

of power transformers and power controllers. All controlled by a computer, power was routed from<br />

here to the rest of the ship’s systems.<br />

Down a level, I could see Kim. I swung down the nearest gravity well, and up the level 2 gantry.<br />

She was at a workbench at the nose of one of the generators.<br />

‘See this?’ she said, holding up a large ring shaped piece of metal.<br />

‘Very nice. It looks, umm, polished,’ I said.

‘It looks fucked, more like,’ she replied in a slightly hostile tone. ‘It’s the nose end main bearing<br />

of this generator,’ she said, stabbing a finger towards the offending piece of machinery. ‘This is<br />

what happens when things are let to go twelve hundred hours over their overhaul periods’ ‘Ah’, I<br />

said, looking at it. It looked nice and shiny to me.<br />

‘It’s spalled, look,’ she said, pointing out some tiny black pits that had developed.<br />

‘Ah. Spalled,’ I said. I must have looked awfully blank.<br />

‘Do you really have no clue, or are you just trying to play dumb?’ she asked.<br />

‘Hey...’<br />

‘Captain, this is deadly serious. The CSD keeps that thing spinning at thirty thousand RPM. Do<br />

you know what happens when a bearing collapses when the thing that’s inside it is rotating at thirty<br />

thou?’<br />

‘It blows up?’ I hazarded.<br />

‘You’re damned right it blows up. There’s almost no clearance between the armature and the<br />

generator housing. If the bearing goes, the armature hits the generator casing. That energy all has to<br />

go somewhere,’ she gestured expansively, ‘Make a real nice mess of this lovely engine room’ ‘Well,<br />

we’ve got another one? This ship’s quite happy on one generator.<br />

Reassemble that one, and we only use it if we have to’ ‘That’s what I’m doing,’ she replied. ‘But<br />

you know all this noise?’ ‘Well, it’s always noisy in here.’<br />

‘Not THAT particular noise. THAT noise is of the nose bearing on the other generator. It’s just as<br />

bad. I only got done inspecting that one an hour ago. I could have sworn someone’s been running<br />

those generators at 110%, but then I realise it’s good ‘ol Captain Winston’s shoestring maintenance<br />

budget at work again’<br />

I started turning slightly red. ‘Well, there may have been a little bit of hard running, you know,<br />

we needed to keep the shields charged in a little incident last week,’ I stammered.<br />

‘Ahhhh,’ she said, mirthlessly. ‘So you’re coming clean now?’ ‘Hey, I’m the captain!’ I retorted.<br />

‘I’m your engineer, and I’m telling you that if you treat ol’ Virtuous like this, bad stuff happens’ I<br />

sighed. There was no winning today.<br />

‘Look, a little secret about our finances. They aren’t good. In fact, they are very very bad.’<br />

‘They’ll be a lot worse if one of these generators let go’ ‘Yeah, I know, that’s why when we collect<br />

payment, all the profit goes to the maintenance budget immediately’.

Kim’s creased face softened for a moment.<br />

‘Well, if you give me half an hour, I’ll have this bearing back together and we can go’.<br />

So, half an hour later we were indeed ready to go. The Virtuous slid from her berth like a seal<br />

slipping into the ocean. Her huge shark’s teeth visage emerged from the station in a satisfyingly<br />

predatory fashion. I sank into the decadent leather captain’s seat, and watched the planet below on<br />

the giant viewscreen which wrapped all around us. Traffic control buzzed with activity, and Aaron<br />

steered us off the arrival path, pointing the nose at the planetary horizon. I watched with mild<br />

interest as the imposing bulk of an Anaconda emerged slowly from the Coriolis, navigation lights<br />

winking in the harsh shadows. Two police Vipers cruised on by – it was obvious they were checking<br />

us out. I gestured subtly at the nearest status display and surreptitiously checked our legal status.<br />

Only ‘Offender’ today. Perhaps the Vipers had bigger fish to fry.<br />

But they continued to lurk.<br />

‘Aaron, are you watching who I’m watching’<br />

‘You mean those Vipers?’<br />

‘Yes’<br />

‘This time we don’t shoot. If they shoot, run’<br />

‘We’re nearing FarAway anyhow. We can let them beat on our shields for a bit if they want’, he<br />

replied in a disturbingly absent-minded manner. I glanced over at Mike. As usual, his face gave<br />

nothing away. It was an expression that served him well during the weekly poker game.<br />

The Vipers suddenly darted away. I started breathing again.<br />

It always seemed like the time between leaving the station and getting to the FarAway safety<br />

zone took forever. It was always about now that some random snippet of nervous conversation<br />

would show up if we were going anywhere remotely dangerous. Today was no exception.<br />

‘Thargoid sightings are up,’ Mike said, unprovoked.<br />

‘Thargoids are overrated,’ I retorted. Mike looked at me. In the darkness of the flight deck I<br />

could make out a slight look of astonishment.<br />

‘Well they are,’ I continued in an impatient voice. ‘Look at the stats. The typical Thargoid<br />

encounter with a trader reveals that a Thargoid isn’t really any worse than the bounty hunters we<br />

sometimes have to deal with. Well, except they don’t run away’

‘They come in multiples’<br />

‘Probably in cereal packs too. That’s what energy bombs are for’ ‘Cereal packs?’ ‘No, blowing<br />

up multiple Thargoids. Or multiple anything really. You’re the weapons guy’.<br />

‘I heard they couldn’t be destroyed by an energy bomb’ ‘That’s a myth. You’ve been hanging<br />

around in seedy spacer bars for too long.<br />

You wouldn’t have much trouble seeing them off.’ ‘Well, the day we’re ambushed in witch<br />

space .... ‘ ‘You believe that rot?’<br />

‘Rot?’<br />

‘Yeah, that Thargoids can interrupt witch space. Yet another spacer legend.’ ‘You’re the Captain,’<br />

Mike said, finally. He always said that when he wasn’t convinced.<br />

A Cobra Mk.3 vanished into a blue, pulsating sphere. Ripples formed on the surface of the<br />

sphere. It glowed intensely as the following Sidewinder Scout Ship disappeared into its surface.<br />

‘FarAway,’ commented Aaron, and the hyperspace countdown began.<br />

‘At bloody last,’ I commented acidly.<br />

The stars spread out.<br />

The ship shuddered slightly.<br />

Reality winked out.<br />

Stories about the terrible perils of witch space persisted. Stories about misjumps, about the perils<br />

of departing with a badly maintained drive, about arriving turned inside out or in some prehistoric<br />

time. Of course, in these enlightened days, nobody believes a word of these stories. Drive failure or<br />

a misjump just dumps you in interstellar space. Of course, the fact that you weren’t turned inside<br />

out by a misjump is cold comfort if the nearest star is 3 light years distant and you only have two<br />

light years worth of fuel. A drive could go really wrong, or as mechanics say ‘undergo violent<br />

discorporation’, or possibly ‘dynamic disassembly’. But there is nothing mysterious or supernatural<br />

about the energy from several tonnes of exploding Quirium destroying the ship and everyone on<br />

board.<br />

Somewhere in the aft end of The Virtuous, several tonnes of Quirium had been annihilated and<br />

turned into a colossal blast of pure energy. This pure energy, focused into a tiny point, punched a<br />

short-cut through space-time. A tunnel through which a ship could pass. This short cut is what’s<br />

better known as witchspace.

It was only seconds, yet the better part of 24 hours had gone by in the world outside. Once the<br />

witch space tunnel transit was complete, the Virtuous was spat out of the tunnel and back into real<br />

space. Real space several light years distant from the starting point.<br />

Reality winked back on again.<br />

‘Texeare’, the ship’s computer said in a monotonous tone.<br />

‘The world Texeare is a dull place’, Aaron added.<br />

‘Well, let’s make sure it stays dull,’ I said, quickly thumbing through the information on the<br />

captain’s astrogation console.<br />

‘Long range scan indicates nothing powered between us and the coordinates we have. The target<br />

ship is in quite a dense asteroid field,’ Mike said.<br />

‘ETA?’<br />

‘It’s only 25 minutes away at hyperspeed.’<br />

‘Set a course for the target. I’m going to get some food, Aaron, you’ve got the bridge’ I got out<br />

of the decadent comfort of the captain’s seat. There was a mild vibration as the short-range<br />

hyperspeed kicked in and we rode the warp wave. I left the bridge and went into the deserted<br />

common area. I rifled through the fridge for anything appetizing. The selection could have been<br />

better; one of those disgusting drinks that Mike insists on, a half-eaten sandwich of unknown<br />

ownership, something unidentifiable that should have been thrown out weeks ago that inevitably<br />

belonged to Jamie. His vanity didn’t extend to house keeping skills. I pushed past something with<br />

‘SlimFast’ on the side. Finally, I discovered something edible – a small packet of ‘ready to eat hot<br />

chicken wings’. I complimented it with a mug of tea from the drinks dispenser, and sat down at the<br />

table by the observation window. I gestured at the room in general and the lights dimmed. In the far<br />

distance, I could make out what looked like the flashes of battle. Who knows who was fighting for<br />

their life out there – hopefully that bounty hunter who shot at us last week and caused us to have to<br />

run the generators so hot. But probably not. People that good are usually on the giving end. The rest<br />

of us are fleeing with our witchdrive fuel injectors.<br />

Space travel gave you a lot of time to think. It was eerily quiet – the ship’s power systems had<br />

good sound insulation, and all I could hear was a very faint hum from somewhere deep in the<br />

bowels of the ship. I mused back to the first time I had been attacked in space. It had been very<br />

bizarre, almost surreal – swinging around in silence, with the occasional jarring blow accompanied<br />

by ever such a slight noise. The ship’s computer had to generate sounds to alert you that bad things

were happening. Of course, when the ship finally began to disintegrate or get seriously holed, then<br />

it’d get noisy and rather more frightening. There was nothing like the sound of air rushing out into<br />

the cold, hard vacuum of space to get the heart pumping.<br />

But there was no one nearby. We were just hurtling through space on the silent, inertialess wave<br />

of the hyperspeed system.<br />

A reflection off the inside of the observation window caught my attention. I turned. In the dim<br />

light, Jamie was sitting down by the observation window opposite me.<br />

a bit.’<br />

‘What’s our ETA?’ he asked casually.<br />

‘Only 20 minutes or so. How’s it holding up in engineering?’ ‘Well, at least Kim’s calmed down<br />

‘Oh?’<br />

Jamie hesitated.<br />

‘Well, perhaps I...never mind.’<br />

I sighed. ‘Look, if there’s a problem, let me know, I’m not going to throw you out of the airlock’.<br />

Jamie drew a deep breath.<br />

‘Well, you’re not exactly popular with Kim.’<br />

‘Oh?’<br />

‘Put it this way, the language she was using about you when checking those generator bearing<br />

stripped the paint off the engine room walls.’ I smiled wryly in the dim light. I might have been<br />

Captain by title, but I think we were all subordinate to Kim. We were infesting her beautiful ship.<br />

We were responsible for getting the beautiful ship dented, and failing to allocate a sufficient budget<br />

for maintaining said beautiful ship.<br />

‘Her usual I-didn’t-go-to-engineering-school-for-this rant?’ ‘Well...’ ‘That’s alright, she ranted at<br />

me at some length earlier. This job should give her some budget’ ‘I hope for your sake it goes OK<br />

then.’<br />

‘Changing the subject completely, that thing that’s got all the fur on in the fridge, and is even<br />

now evolving to such an advanced state that it will soon have its own nuclear deterrent – it isn’t<br />

yours, is it?’<br />


Guilty as charged.<br />

‘Well, if you don’t mind doing something with it, I risked annihilation when trying to get my<br />

chicken pieces,’ I said, holding up a half-eaten drumstick.<br />

Jamie got up guiltily and headed fridgewards, leaving me alone with my thoughts. Another<br />

succession of distant flashes. There must have been quite some battle going on. I was quite glad we<br />

were somewhere else.<br />

‘So what’s the plan?’ Jamie asked from across the room.<br />

‘Survey the target ship, see what state it’s in, dock with it and take a couple of caddies across and<br />

pull the cargo out. Should be pretty simple so long as the hull is still holding air. If it’s not, then you<br />

can go with Kim in EVA suits and manually eject the cargo, we’ll hang back and suck it up with the<br />

scoops’ I tried to avert my eyes from whatever it was Jamie had started to eat. I was sure it wasn’t<br />

too good.<br />

‘Why not just eject it anyway?’ he asked between mouthfuls of whatever vile substance he had<br />

found in the fridge. I just hoped my eyes had deceived me when I saw him apparently scrape the<br />

mould off something.<br />

‘We want to be careful with the cargo – it could be damaged or fragile, so I’d prefer to caddy it<br />

off if we can. Besides, if we can board the ship we can check it out and find if there are any bonus<br />

items.’<br />

‘OK’<br />

I paused.<br />

‘That’s not that mouldy thing?’<br />

‘Don’t worry, I scraped it off’<br />

‘That’s what I was worried about.’<br />

Well, at least it wouldn’t be in the fridge any longer.<br />

I sat and stared out of the window for what seemed like forever. More distant flashes, then a<br />

really bright one which briefly lit the room with an eerie blue light. That just had to be a Q-bomb<br />

detonation.<br />

Suddenly there was a shout from the bridge.<br />

‘Silent running!’

I got to my feet ran up to the bridge. I quickly jumped into my seat and fastened my seat belt and<br />

shoulder harness.<br />

‘What’s going on?’ I asked whilst clicking the belts into place.<br />

The ship dropped out of hyperspeed – mass locked by another ship’s drive.<br />

‘Several ships just launched from a rock hermit at the edge of this field. I think we might just<br />

have blundered into a pirate base,’ Mike said quickly.<br />

‘OK, all emissive systems off. Brige to engineering, silent running!’ What slight hum there had<br />

been died away. We were now drifting slowly through space.<br />

‘How close are we to our salvage target?’<br />

‘Not far. It’s probably only about 100 k’s off now. We can just drift there if necessary.’ I watched<br />

the tiny dots in the distance, glinting in the light of the light of the sun.<br />

‘Mike, what do you reckon?’<br />

‘It ain’t looking good,’ he replied. ‘At least five targets, a Fer de Lance, a couple of Asps, a<br />

Mamba and a Python.’<br />

‘Well let’s hope they don’t see us. What are our options?’ ‘At this stage, hope they haven’t seen<br />

us – we should easily be lost amongst the clutter with the drive powered down. If they do, I suggest<br />

launch all four missiles, target on the Asps, the Mamba and the Fer de Lance, take the Python out<br />

with the front laser’.<br />

‘That sounds like a good plan.’<br />

We sat in silence, watching for signs of activity from the distant specs. I could swear one of them<br />

was getting larger. The scanner was off for silent running, so I couldn’t really tell. Not yet, anyway.<br />

Agonising moments passed. One of the glints was now definitely closer – it had resolved itself<br />

into the shape of an oncoming Python. I realised I was hardly breathing, as if breathing ultra-quietly<br />

made a difference.<br />

Silent running was an exercise in risk trade-offs. To run silently meant you might be able to<br />

sneak on by, but it also meant if you could be seen – you were a bit of a sitting duck. The energy<br />

banks stayed charged of course – and within about two or three seconds of ordering the power back<br />

on, things like the ECM would operate and missiles could be targeted and fired, and the lasers<br />

would shoot. But it took about 15 seconds before you could maneuver. All those heavy machines in<br />

the engine room had to crank up before you could get any thrust.

Or, for that matter, keep charge in the shields and energy banks which would quickly deplete<br />

under fire.<br />

We all intently watched the Python silently approach, and now we could clearly see the shape of<br />

its escorts. It started to pass over our ship.<br />

Something detached from the Python.<br />

‘Missile!’ shouted Mike.<br />

I hit the comm. ‘Full power NOW!’ I shouted with unnecessary loudness at engineering. That<br />

unconvincing hum started up again. Aaron jabbed at the ECM which had so far refused to power up.<br />

A thin whisker of blue plasma fired from the back of the object that had detached from the<br />

Python. Then another. Then another. The object turned from a thin line into just a tiny dot as it<br />

pointed head-on towards us.<br />

The scanner came alive.<br />

Five red lollipops. Three blue ones. Lots of white ones.<br />

‘It’s gonna be close!’ shouted Mike, his voice about an octave higher than normal.<br />

‘Get those damned missiles targeted!’ I shouted back, watching the three missiles speeding our<br />

way in a spiral path. They were approaching frighteningly fast.<br />

Suddenly the ECM kicked in.<br />

‘Brace for impact!’<br />

I turned away from the inevitable. There was suddenly a deafening crash as the first missile<br />

smashed into our shields! The bridge lit up with a blinding light as the ECM finally destroyed the<br />

other two. The impact of the first jarred our drifting ship. I heard things in the common area<br />

smashing against the walls.<br />

‘AaaarrggHH!’ came a shout. I couldn’t immediately tell who it was from.<br />

‘I can’t see!’ Mike shouted. ‘I’m flashblinded!’<br />

He released himself from his seat and staggered around the bridge. ‘Aaron, get those missiles off<br />

now!’ I shouted, and bodily heaved Mike across the bridge. I strapped him in the captain’s seat.<br />

‘Aaron?’<br />

He hadn’t been quite strapped in properly, and his head had hit the console.

Blood ran freely from a gash in his forehead.<br />

‘Jamie, Kim, one of you get up here fast. Mike’s flash blinded and I think Aaron’s badly hurt’.<br />

The comm acknowledged with a click.<br />

I strapped into Mike’s seat, noting all four missiles had a target lock. I fired them all off in quick<br />

succession. Fourteen hundred credits worth of hardhead missiles streaked off into the darkness.<br />

Enemy ECMs fired uselessly.<br />

I grabbed the controls but they still weren’t responding. In the background, I heard Mike<br />

groaning. I quickly checked the damage report. The escape capsule was glowing red – we had to<br />

make this count or we were toast. Jamie arrived on the bridge.<br />

‘What’s going on in engineering?’ I asked.<br />

‘No damage, well, none that we saw anyway. The reactor start sequence was progressing. Kim<br />

was almost brained by a flying wrench,’ he replied. I could detect a tremor in his voice. My own<br />

hands were sweating.<br />

There was a flash somewhere ahead, and the Mamba simply disappeared. The ship started to<br />

finally respond to my control inputs. Jamie was heaving Aaron’s body from the pilot’s seat. I<br />

watched the IFF scanner; the Fer de Lance and two Asps were completely occupied by the missiles<br />

following them. The lumbering Python was lining up to rake us with his front laser.<br />

But we were there first.<br />

Fire licked from the nose of The Virtuous, and spread across the Python’s front shields. Our<br />

military laser tore into his energy banks, then overheated. The Python still came on.<br />

‘What’s he doing?’ I hissed.<br />

‘I dunno.’<br />

More missiles. Jamie hit the ECM. There was a series of white flashes as they disintegrated.<br />

There was a more distant flash as one of our hardheads caught an Asp. The Asp didn’t explode, but I<br />

could tell by the flickering of its engine and the plasma spilling into the void that it wouldn’t be<br />

joining in. I turned The Virtuous around to have a go at the Python with my aft laser.<br />

A red beam shone from the nose of the Python. Its laser started cutting into our depleted aft<br />

shields.<br />

There was that awful groaning noise of duralium being sliced away. I noted more red appear on<br />

the status display – I tried to ignore it as I lined up the Python in our rear gunsights, and let forth a

volley of laser fire. Eventually it stopped as both our laser and our adversary’s lasers both<br />

overheated. I turned the ship around again to pound at him with our front laser. I could see the<br />

Python doing the same.<br />

‘This is ridiculous,’ I muttered. ‘We’ll be at it all day’ Jamie didn’t respond. He was busy with<br />

something on the engineering panel, hopefully directing the hull repair system to fix the new holes<br />

we had.<br />

I started pounding at the Python again. Abruptly, the Python stopped responding. Its lollipop<br />

turned white, and another white lollipop appeared on the scanner and started to drift away.<br />

‘He’s abandoned ship!’<br />

I lined up for the coup de grace. A quick volley of laser fire and the Python exploded, spilling<br />

cargo into the void.<br />

‘How’s the scoop?’ I asked.<br />

‘It still works – just,’ Jamie responded.<br />

I nudged the ship towards the wreckage, and watched the cargo vanish into our holds. Two<br />

tonnes of narcotics, 50 grams of Platinum, and five tonnes of Luxuries. It wouldn’t pay for the<br />

repairs, but it might help. I checked the scanner. The remainder of our attackers had left. I still<br />

didn’t want to hang around, and so gunned the power up to full and pointed the nose back towards<br />

our destination.<br />

‘Jamie, look after the helm for me,’ I said, getting out of my seat.<br />

Aaron was laid out on the floor in a pool of blood. I was fearing the worst, and was just about to<br />

check he was still alive when he started moaning.<br />

‘The missile...’ he groaned.<br />

‘The attack’s over. Mike, how are you doing?’<br />

‘I can almost see again,’ he said wearily. ‘I was looking right at that damned missile when it went<br />

off’ Aaron tried to stand and promptly fell down again.<br />

‘I’ve got to get him to sick bay, Jamie, you hold the fort.’ I supported Aaron, and we staggered<br />

off the bridge. Sick bay was only just behind the common room, and I deposited my friend on one<br />

of the couches.<br />

‘I think you headbutted the console pretty hard,’ I said, as I fired up one of the auto-meds.

‘Tell me about it,’ he said unsteadily, pawing at his head.<br />

The auto-med whirred over to him. It beeped like all machines do.<br />

‘Wounds superficial, concussion. I recommend rest...’ ‘And plenty of fluids,’ I finished in unison<br />

with the auto-med.<br />

‘I’m going to have to leave you in Doctor ... umm ... Doctor Silicon’s careful hands, I’m afraid,<br />

since it looks like you’re going to live,’ I said.<br />

He just groaned in reply.<br />

‘So much for Texean being dull,’ I muttered, and headed off back to the bridge.<br />

‘...is down,’ I heard from the comm, as I arrived on the bridge.<br />

‘Well, the captain’s here now, you can tell him,’ Jamie said.<br />

Kim’s disembodied voice came over the bridge comm speakers.<br />

‘One of the generators is down, the refrigeration unit got hit by laser fire and the generator<br />

burned up before the thermal cut-out could shut it down’ That’s all we needed. ‘What about the<br />

other?’<br />

‘Well, if you can ignore the loud screeching noise from the worn out nose bearing, it’s fine. I can<br />

swap the bearing out with the one from the dead generator, I mean the other bearing isn’t great, but<br />

at least it doesn’t sound like it’s on the verge of collapsing.’<br />

‘Hull repairs?’<br />

‘They are at least proceeding nominally, the bots have already got to most of the holes’ I looked<br />

back at the scanner.<br />

‘How many survived?’ Mike asked.<br />

‘We got the Python and the Mamba for sure, dunno about the Fer de Lance, and I saw one of the<br />

Asps limping away heavily damaged. In theory, if the Fer de Lance was hit by our hardhead, it<br />

wouldn’t have stood a chance’.<br />

‘So probably two damaged Asps and maybe a Fer de Lance to contend with.’ Mike swung the<br />

captain’s chair around and peered at the astrogation console.<br />

‘How’s the vision?’<br />

‘I think it’s going to be alright,’ he said, ordering up a long range sweep. The results started to

appear.<br />

A debris field.<br />

Something unpowered, drifting away.<br />

Another debris field drifting away. In the distance, a flight of four ships headed roughly in our<br />

direction – tagged as ‘GalCop’. I moved the cursor over the targets. ETA was thirty five minutes. I<br />

winced.<br />

‘More problems, we need to be fast with this job. All this fighting has attracted more unwelcome<br />

attention.’<br />

‘You mean the Police won’t help us?’ Mike responded, ironically.<br />

‘Depends whether you mean help by taking us off our damaged spaceship and bringing us safely<br />

to the station and housing us in a nice guest house with bars on it for the next month. And not the<br />

type that serves drinks’ ‘That’s our target,’ Jamie said, as the derelict Python started to expand in<br />

our forward view.<br />

I watched for a few seconds as we drew closer. The Python wasn’t even scratched. I had<br />

expected a wreck with chunks missing.<br />

‘That’s funny,’ I remarked.<br />

The bulk of the silent craft drifted over our ship. It completely filled the front view. We made a<br />

brief survey. Externally, at least, there was nothing wrong with the ship.<br />

‘I’m going to the astrodome, I’ll guide you in,’ I said, and left the bridge. It was only a short way<br />

to the astrodome – through the common area, past the crew quarters, and then a gravity well. I<br />

ascended this, and reached a small room of which almost half was a transparent bubble. I settled<br />

into the small seat there, and looked at the bulk of the Python only a few metres above us.<br />

‘OK,’ I said into the comm. ‘The cargo loading hatch looks OK to me, extend the docking tube<br />

halfway’<br />

‘Halfway,’ replied Mike’s voice. A door on the top of our ship opened – above the cargo bay, and<br />

a flexible tunnel began to emerge.<br />

‘Ahead, slow, about fifty metres,’ I said.<br />

I looked up as the belly of the Python slid past above me. Its lower docking port passed.<br />

‘Full stop there. Now up, ever so gently. Extend the tube fully.’ Our ship drifted slowly upwards,

then connected to the Python with a slight judder.<br />

‘Lock!’<br />

I saw the docking tube wriggled as it tried to locate the mating connectors on the bottom of the<br />

Python. After five seconds or so, it abruptly stopped moving.<br />

The umbilical snaked out of the top of our ship, and probed the Python until it found the correct<br />

socket.<br />

‘We’re docked. Set the autopilot for station keeping’.<br />

‘The computer reports that the ship’s atmo seems good,’ Mike remarked back.<br />

I climbed down from the astrodome. The others met me in the common room.<br />

All apart from Aaron, who was getting plenty of rest and fluids care of the medbot whether he<br />

liked it or not, it seemed.<br />

I sighed.<br />

‘Right, we’re one down, so we’re going to have to trust the autopilot. Mike, you come with me –<br />

we’ll check this ship out and try and find out why it’s apparently drifting undamaged. Jamie and<br />

Kim, check out the cargo bay and get the cargo set up so we can pull it off with the caddies.’<br />

The four of us marched off to the aft cargo bay airlock.<br />

‘Why did they abandon it?’ I wondered out loud. ‘It makes no sense. No signs of battle, no signs<br />

of damage – but they abandoned it’ ‘Who knows, let’s just get the cargo off and get out of here<br />

before the Police show up,’ Kim suggested.<br />

We entered the darkness of the airlock. Pressure equalised. The doors opened, and we drifted<br />

weightless through the docking tunnel. I tried not to think of how many tonnes of air pressure the<br />

flexible tunnel was holding back from the hard vacuum of space – the ship we were boarding was<br />

disquieting enough.<br />

We were through the Python’s airlock. It was extremely dark.<br />

‘Can we get any lights on in here?’<br />

‘Hold on,’ Kim said, opening a panel. ‘If we just throw this aux power selector here’ (click) ‘for<br />

the umbilical, The Virtuous will supply us with what we need’ As if to respond, the lights flickered<br />

on. It was extremely cold in the Python. Our breath froze on the icy air.

‘Heat?’<br />

‘The life support should come on automatically,’ Kim said.<br />

‘It better hurry up before we freeze to death,’ I said, rubbing my hands vigorously and hugging<br />

my jacket around me. ‘Right, you know what you need to do, we’re off to poke around the bridge,’ I<br />

said.<br />

Mike followed me. Our footsteps clanked on the frigid metal footway that lead up into the living<br />

quarters. The interior of the Python was all dark grey, and it added an air of doom to the icy ship. I<br />

tried to keep the word ‘tomb’ out of my mind.<br />

‘I really don’t like this,’ Mike remarked.<br />

‘Neither do I, but there’s ten grand at stake, and maybe Captain Creeps left some valuables<br />

behind in the safe’<br />

‘That’s why we’re going to the bridge?’<br />

‘It’s the only reason. I don’t care why this ship was abandoned, just so long as we can make a<br />

profit out of the salvage’<br />

‘What was that?’<br />

‘What?’<br />

Mike had stopped dead. He was shining his light down through the walkway. I peered through<br />

the lattice work.<br />

‘Probably your imagination.’<br />

‘No, it was round and fast-moving,’ he muttered.<br />

We both peered down through the levels. There was a brief, but unmistakable flash of two bright<br />

eyes in Mike’s torchlight. It vanished before I could make it out.<br />

‘Probably the ship’s cat got left behind,’ I said.<br />

‘Poor thing. We ought to take it with us’<br />

‘Well, if you can catch it, but we can’t waste any time here you know?’ ‘Wonder how it survived<br />

so long’<br />

‘Thick fur coat, and it’s not like there’s not plenty to eat around here assuming the crew<br />

abandoned their normal supplies. Let’s go’ We reached the deserted living quarters. Something had

obviously got at the supplies – boxes, bags, cartons and pieces of food were scattered all about.<br />

‘Looks like Jamie lives here,’ Mike remarked, as we passed on by.<br />

The flight deck was utterly silent, and all the instruments were utterly dark. I went over to the<br />

astrogation console and tried to power it up. Nothing happened. I tried to power up various<br />

instruments, but nothing was live.<br />

‘Forget this?’ asked Mike from somewhere behind. I turned around. He opened up a breaker<br />

panel. ‘Hmm,’ he added, staring at a mass of shredded cables.<br />

There was some control cabling leading up the back wall of the flight deck.<br />

Something had gnawed through it.<br />

‘That doesn’t look like cat’s gnawings to me,’ I said, ‘but I doubt that happened when anyone<br />

was on board’.<br />

‘I don’t know,’ Mike said. I could hear a tinge of horror in his voice. I shone my light over by<br />

where he was standing.<br />

Wedged in the rear of the Python’s ample flight deck was the body of a dead crew member, his<br />

neck obviously broken.<br />

‘I think you found the dead one our customer was talking about.’ I knelt down. The dead man’s<br />

hand had been burned by something. It wasn’t hard to find the problem. Above him, a control panel<br />

was opened, and a bunch of charred cabling branched out. The un-charred pieces of insulation had<br />

definite teeth marks.<br />

‘I think I found the culprit,’ Mike suddenly exclaimed. He was holding something furry. It was<br />

about the size of a large cat, and roughly spherical with odd little suckers on what I presumed was<br />

its underside. It too was partially burned, but it was easy to see from the remains of its mouth that it<br />

had nasty, sharp teeth. The skin under the fur was extremely tough and leathery. It was a strange<br />

gingery-yellow colour.<br />

‘What the hell is that?’ I asked<br />

‘I have no idea. It’s like nothing I’ve seen’<br />

‘I can’t imagine this little bugger forced them to abandon ship – it’d be relatively easy to repair<br />

the control box up there, and it seems like the rest of the ship’s systems are working alright off our<br />

umbilical’ ‘Well, there was another one. Perhaps its friend gnawed through enough other things’

‘Maybe’.<br />

I started poking in the back of the cabin.<br />

‘Aaah, paydirt’<br />

The ship’s safe. I unclipped the little plasma torch from my belt, and set it to full power. It only<br />

took a moment to cut through the safe door – the standard safes that came with most ships were<br />

almost useless at keeping someone out. I reached in. Inside was a small box. Inside the box was a<br />

velvet bag.<br />

‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend,’ I said.<br />

‘Only if they are genuine natural ones,’ Mike said.<br />

‘Why else would they be in the safe? Has to be a few hundred credits worth in here at least’. I<br />

pocketed the bag and tossed the box aside. Suddenly, my comm crackled to life.<br />

‘Damon, I think we have a problem,’ came Kim’s breathless voice at the other end.<br />

We arrived out of breath at the Python’s cargo bay.<br />

‘Don’t open the door wide,’ Kim warned.<br />

I opened it just a crack. Immediately, what seemed like a hailstorm of small furry bodies hurled<br />

themselves against the door. I quickly slammed it closed again.<br />

‘Holy mother of the worlds,’ I whispered.<br />

I opened the door a couple of centimeters and looked carefully inside. In between the frantic<br />

bodies of ... of... small furry creatures, I could see the ship’s cargo. One of the containers had been<br />

gnawed wide open, and food had spilled out all over the cargo bay.<br />

‘What are they?’ Jamie asked, sucking a bloodied finger.<br />

‘Your finger?’ I asked. I didn’t like to admit I had no clue.<br />

‘One of the vicious little bastards bit me,’ Jamie responded.<br />

‘I don’t know what they are. We found a dead one on the bridge, it had gnawed through some<br />

power cables and had been electrocuted, along with an unfortunate crew member. They must have<br />

teeth like tungsten carbide. I think we also spotted a live one on our way to the bridge, but we only<br />

saw its eyes so we can’t be sure’<br />

‘Anyone bring a datapad?’

‘Don’t think so. We’ll look them up when we get back on board. This ship seems infested’<br />

‘What’s the plan?’<br />

I thought for a few moments.<br />

‘OK, we have to risk damaging the cargo, but you and Kim suit up and then shut down this ship<br />

and let all the air out. That should kill them all off. Then just manually eject the cargo and we’ll<br />

scoop it up with our tractor beam scoop.<br />

Then you can jet back in through the top airlock and we’ll be away from here.<br />

Get a picture of one of those things, and we’ll run a search and find out what they are’ We wasted<br />

no time getting back to The Virtuous. Kim and Jamie donned EVA suits and jetpacks, and re-<br />

boarded the Python via the docking tube. Once they had left, we disconnected. We watched the<br />

Python from the astrodome. A jet of condensing water vapour showed that Kim and Jamie were<br />

venting the ship’s atmo. It went on for a surprising length of time. I was certain I saw a couple of<br />

spherical furry objects being ejected out at the same time.<br />

‘We’re ready’. It was Kim’s voice on the comm. Mike and I made our way to the flight deck.<br />

Mike settled into the pilot’s seat, and began turning The Virtuous. I opened the cargo scoop.<br />

Mike rolled the ship over so our cargo scoop was facing the Python’s cargo jettison door.<br />

I keyed up the comm. ‘We’re in position, start unloading’. I turned to Mike.<br />

‘What’s happening with the police?’<br />

‘They are only about ten minutes away, we’re going to have to hustle’ ‘Kim, how much more<br />

left? The Police are almost on top of us!’ ‘This is the last lot,’ came her voice.<br />

A burst of cargo flew from the belly of the Python and into our gaping cargo scoop.<br />

‘That’s it, we’re off.’<br />

The wait was agonizing. The blips on the long range showed the Police drawing closer on<br />

hyperspeed. But the jet packs were awkward to use, and you had to be careful to avoid thrusting<br />

yourself off into deep space.<br />

‘We’re on,’ came Jamie’s voice.<br />

‘Mike, full witch space injector speed’<br />

The Virtuous shuddered into life, and we began accelerating away from the asteroid field. A<br />

couple of minutes later, Jamie and Kim arrived, panting and sweating, still in their EVA suits. They

hung up their helmets.<br />

‘The Police, are they reacting?’<br />

‘Dunno, long range hasn’t yet updated,’ Mike replied.<br />

‘Shit!’ Jamie exclaimed.<br />

‘What?’<br />

As if to answer my question, there was a very odd noise.<br />

‘Prrrooot’<br />

‘Oh no,’ I said, knowing the inevitable.<br />

A yellow furry spherical creature was crawling over the astrogation console. I reached for it. It<br />

tried to bite me.<br />

‘There’s more,’ said Kim, panic in her voice, looking back down into the common area. I left the<br />

bridge, and stood in astonishment.<br />

‘There must be twenty’ - crash – as the fridge fell off the table - ‘of the little bastards in here!<br />

How did they get here?’<br />

‘Quick, find out what they are!’ Mike shouted. Jamie was already on the ship’s computer.<br />

‘What does the computer say?’<br />

‘It’s still searching.’<br />

‘How the hell did they survive hard vacuum?’<br />

‘Trumbles!’ Jamie shouted.<br />

‘What the hell are trumbles?’ I asked, turning to the nearest display. The computer began to read<br />

out the inevitable bad news in a quiet, measured voice.<br />

It was a surreal experience. Amongst the pandemoneum as more trumbles arrived – knocking<br />

things over and devouring anything even remotely edible, I could hear snippets of the computer’s<br />

calm voice..<br />

‘...metabolism almost entirely dedicated to asexual reproduction...’ ‘I can’t get the little bastard<br />

off the scanner!’<br />

‘Do anything you can’

‘It bit me!’<br />

‘...can devour a tonne cargo pod of food and produce dozens of offspring within hours...’ I heard<br />

the sound of Kim frantically trying to beat them off the instrument panels with the fire extinguisher.<br />

I grabbed the other extinguisher and followed Kim’s lead. They were tenacious buggers and<br />

wouldn’t let go. Suddenly, the trumble I was attacking lunged, and bit into the plastic base of the<br />

fire extinguisher. Foam started spraying out all over the bridge, adding to the general disorder and<br />

panic.<br />

‘...leathery skin, and can survive hard vacuum for up to half an hour. Thick eyelids and a strong<br />

muscular mouth ensures that no air escapes...’ ‘We’ve only got three EVA suits!’ I yelled, as a<br />

trumble began gnawing at one of the space helmets.<br />

‘...evolutionary drawback is that they have much less tolerance to heat than a typical human, and<br />

will die if exposed to temperatures above 60 celcius for more than half an hour...’<br />

‘More problems! We’re under attack!’ Mike shouted above the din of trumble induced mayhem.<br />

‘Yes, by trumbles!’<br />

‘No, other spacecraft.’<br />

‘Who?’<br />

‘I dunno, I can’t get this bastard off the scanner to tell!’ ‘Just shoot him!’ I yelled.<br />

Almost immediately, I realised that was the wrong order to give. Mike lined up whatever it was<br />

in the sights and began to shoot.<br />

‘This is the Police! Shut your engines down and do not attempt to dodge our lasers, brigand!’<br />

‘Witch fuel injectors!’ I yelled.<br />

‘No fuel,’ Mike replied.<br />

Finally, someone saw sense to slam the door shut to the bridge. At least that meant that we were<br />

only having to fight the eight trumbles that had decided to join us.<br />

‘Prrroooot’<br />

‘Oh shut up!’ I yelled at the vile creature. The trumble responded by shuddering a little and<br />

batting its eyelids.<br />

There was a sudden flashbang and the bridge went dark.

‘It’s eaten through the cabling! Just like on the Python!’ ‘I think it’s time to go!’ shouted Jamie.<br />

There was a smell of burning. I could see the silhouette of Kim at the power routing panel. The<br />

lights came back on.<br />

‘The escape pod was damaged when we were attacked, we can’t leave!’ ‘What now?’ Mike<br />

asked, looking at me.<br />

‘Prrrooooot!’<br />

‘We surrender. Comm the Police. Tell them that we are coming quietly,’ I said quickly.<br />

‘Aye, Captain,’ Mike said. Despite the turmoil on the bridge, I could tell it was an option he<br />

really didn’t like.<br />

‘Virtuous to Police vessels, we fired on you in error. We surrender.’ The comm was quiet. The<br />

trumble that had made itself at home on the scanner decided to scuttle off elsewhere. Finally, we<br />

could see that there were four police interceptors.<br />

So there we were in the police cell. The small shutter slid open on the door, and a pair of human<br />

eyes peered through the gap. The door opened. The police officer who opened it didn’t look entirely<br />

satisfied.<br />

‘You’re the captain of the Virtuous?’<br />

‘That’s correct.’<br />

‘Well, the magistrate has decided that we aren’t able to prove you were performing illegal<br />

salvage, so count yourself lucky, you’re off that hook.’ I gave the officer a poker face.<br />

‘But you know what you were doing. I know you’re a pirate even if I can’t prove it just yet. We<br />

will be watching you very very carefully wherever you go.’ I said nothing. The officer continued.<br />

‘You have a five hundred credit fine to pay for firing on a police vessel.’ ‘Five hundred,’ I<br />

grumbled. It was hardly our fault.<br />

‘Count yourself lucky that we didn’t blast you out the sky’ I met up with the rest of the crew. We<br />

duly received payment for the cargo, but our ship remained infested.<br />

‘What do we do?’ Aaron asked, scratching the fresh scab on his forehead.<br />

‘Well, I had plenty of time to think in that cell. You know, I think we can turn those trumbles to<br />

our advantage.’<br />

‘How?’ Aaron asked. He looked skeptical.

‘Well, they look quite cute when they are sleeping. Sedate the buggers, box them up nicely, fly a<br />

couple of systems away and flog ‘em as pets to bounty hunters’<br />

Aaron began to smile at my diabolical plan.<br />

‘How much?’ he asked.<br />

‘Well, we need to sell ‘em such that they are an impulse buy.’ ‘Thirty credits each?’<br />

‘Thirty credits each.’

Carver’s Anarchy - Ganelon<br />

'Aye. Come in, Mr. Sharp.' commodore Carver said almost as soon as the first knock sounded on<br />

his door. He put down his tablet for a moment and strode across his office to shake hands. 'Good of<br />

you to come, Mr. Sharp, and right on time you are too, for I'm hearing seven bells striking just now.'<br />

Mr. Sharp nodded as he looked around the commodore's office. 'Well, I like to try and be<br />

punctual, sir. It's not every day you schedule an appointment to see me in your office. As a matter of<br />

fact, I don't think I've ever been in here before.' His eyes wandered over the small office, pausing to<br />

frown in puzzlement for a moment as he noted the motivational posters before his gaze drifted to<br />

the wet bar on the sideboard.<br />

The commodore waved toward the bar. 'Make yourself a drink, Mr Sharp. And make free with<br />

the smokes and eats as well, if'n yer in the mood for such. I'm just finishing up with some charts, I<br />

won't be but a minute. Look around, if ye like.' The commodore returned to his chair, making a<br />

pretence of sorting some charts and notes as he noted the repair tech pouring himself a glass of a<br />

good brandy. He nodded to himself approvingly as he watched Mr. Sharp select a cigar from the<br />

humidor and fill a tiny cup with a small portion of real tree nuts coated in chocolate. The<br />

commodore preferred to rely on people who liked the finer things in life when they could get them.<br />

It made crew loyalty a much more stable factor.<br />

He noted that Mr. Sharp was studying both of the motivational posters on the wall again. He<br />

shelved the charts and got himself a drink before joining the older man. 'Ah, you like me posters, do<br />

ye?'<br />

Mr. Sharp shrugged. 'Well, they're interesting. Not quite what I expected for decor here.'<br />

The commodore nodded. 'This one was a gift from my 2nd year teacher when I was just a boy,<br />

since I always admired it so.' He gestured at the poster showing several men arranged to make one<br />

giant figure, one man for each leg and arm, three for the torso with the middle man of the three also<br />

being the figure's head. 'None of us is as strong as all of us.' He read aloud. 'Words to live by right<br />

there, Mr. Sharp. Words to live by. You can lay to that, sir.'<br />

Mr Sharp nodded and pointed to the second poster. 'I don't think I get this one.'<br />

Commodore Carver nodded and chuckled. 'Well, let's mayhap come back to that one in a bit. It<br />

may have some bearing in the course of our meeting. But for now, sit thee doon and make yourself<br />

comfortable, mister. We have at least one matter of some importance to discuss.'<br />

Mr. Sharp sat down in the comfortable chair opposite the commodore's at the desk. He took a sip

of his drink and a few puffs from the cigar, obviously a bit nervous.<br />

The commodore took a token sip of his own drink and picked up his vapour hose from the holder<br />

on the desk. Adjusting the dial up to medium nicotine content, he took a long drag and exhaled it<br />

slowly. The vapour disappeared in a matter of seconds, unlike the smoke from the cigar. The<br />

commodore had no objections to smoking, but reserved it for very special occasions, making do<br />

most of the time with the nicotine laced water vapour that was allowed on shipboard, even though<br />

the air scrubbers here in the safehold were more than adequate to allow for actual smoking.<br />

'It's been nigh unto eleven years that you and your daughter have been with us here, am I right<br />

Mr Sharp?'<br />

Sharp nodded. 'It will be twelve years this year, commodore.'<br />

The commodore considered his words carefully as he studied his drink. 'I feel I have always tried<br />

to do right by both of ye, and I hope that you are in accord with me on that point? Well, as much as<br />

can be, all things considered.'<br />

'Considering that this is a pirate safehold in an anarchy system and we are your captives,<br />

commodore.. I would still say that we have always been well treated.' Mr Sharp continued, 'I would<br />

say comfortable, even. Far better than I expected at first.'<br />

Carver affected a stricken look. 'Mr. Sharp.. 'Captive' is such a harsh word to be usin' now. I have<br />

always thought of you and your daughter as our guests.' The commodore took another puff before<br />

adding 'Albeit, maybe not willing guests in a standard sort of way. But ye've hardly been kept in<br />

chains, sir. You've both had the run of the place in exchange for your good behaviour, and have been<br />

provided for in comfort as fair exchange for your participation in our work here. Or at least that's<br />

how I be seein' it.'<br />

Mr. Sharp simply nodded, beginning to wonder what was up.<br />

'There's a problem with your daughter, Mr. Sharp.' the commodore said bluntly, having noted the<br />

older man beginning to look either impatient or uncomfortable.<br />

Sharp sighed. 'What has Felicity done now, commodore?'<br />

The commodore raised both hands as if to fend off a wave of parental exasperation. 'Now, now,<br />

Mr. Sharp. It's not as if she'd been particularly misbehavin' or any such. But it's been almost twelve<br />

years, and she's not a little girl anymore. She's eighteen, which is above and beyond legal age in this<br />

system, and in all but one neighboring system.'<br />

Mr. Sharp's eyes narrowed and his lips drew tight as he responded 'And what of it?'

'Well' the commodore said, spreading his hands as if that would lay the whole matter out, 'you<br />

know that she has done well aboard my ship as a crew member for the past couple of years. She's a<br />

good engineer. Takes after you in that regard, if I might say so. But also she's a good gunner and is<br />

shaping up to be one of our best pilots.'<br />

Sharp began to interrupt, but the commodore held up his hand..<br />

'Bear with me and hear me out, Mr. Sharp. And then we'll discuss how to handle matters man to<br />

man. But hear me out first.'<br />

Mr Sharp nodded, though his reluctance was obvious.<br />

'Miss Felicity has.. 'Filled out', shall we say. And that being so, and also accounting that she has<br />

respectable skills, it is natural that the male crewmembers have been.. Shall we say, noticing?' The<br />

commodore continued, 'It is no help at all that she kids around with them and has gone out drinking<br />

with them a time or two, and it is not being a benefit to discipline onboard my own ship, Mr. Sharp.'<br />

Mr. Sharp interrupted, his voice cold and formal, 'Commodore. Twelve years ago, you promised<br />

to drop us off on the world of our choice within this region when Felicity reached legal age. You<br />

gave me your word on that, and I demand that you honour your word now.'<br />

The commodore held up a hand. 'My word is my bond, sir, and if that is what you want after you<br />

hear me out, then I will hold to it, you can lay to that!'<br />

The commodore tossed down the rest of his drink and took another pull on his vapour hose. 'But<br />

consider this.. Your daughter grew up here in the Anarchies. She might have been a little girl of the<br />

Corporate Worlds all those years ago, but she has grown up to be a young lady of the Anarchies.<br />

Strong. Capable. Proud. She might not want to go back to a 'nice' life in the Corporate worlds.'<br />

The commodore set down his glass and put both hands on the desk, leaning closer. 'Mr Sharp.<br />

You and I are both men. What's more, we're men with some experience of the world. I think we<br />

both know what it is your daughter needs.'<br />

Sharp growled, looking at the commodore with a scowl as he puffed on the cigar furiously.<br />

'What that girl needs..' the commodore said with a sigh, 'Is a ship of her own.'<br />

The commodore kept a straight face while letting himself enjoy the sight of Sharp choking on<br />

smoke and going into a coughing fit as he fumbled around picking the cigar up off the floor where<br />

he'd dropped it.<br />

The commodore laughed, 'Throw that one away and let's get another, matey. And another drink

to go with it. The look on your face was worth celebrating a bit. Gile's blood, man.. What did you<br />

think I was going to say?'<br />

Mr Sharp stuttered, tears still in his eyes as he accepted a fresh cigar and a refill of his drink, 'I..<br />

uh.. that is.. I..'<br />

The commodore set down the bottle and facepalmed before breaking down into laughter again.<br />

'What.. Did you think I was going to suggest we marry her off to one of the boys?'<br />

Sharp replied in a still strangled voice, 'Err... something like that, I suppose..'<br />

The commodore pointed at Sharp, still chortling, 'Oh! Or maybe that we'd raffle her off to one of<br />

the boys as a doxie? Be serious, matey. She'd cut both our throats if we were to so much as try that.<br />

She's earned her respect here, and so her own command in the fleet is the obvious answer to the<br />

problem. '<br />

The commodore opened a small case and took out one of the spiced cigarettes he favoured,<br />

lighting it and smoking contemplatively for a moment before continuing. 'So we are in accord as to<br />

the lass needing her own ship, Mr Sharp?'<br />

Sharp nodded and looked a bit uncomfortable. 'Well, if any of the hacker kids can access it, I had<br />

a bit of money in my bank account back on Reveabe.'<br />

The commodore pulled a sour face. 'Belay that thought! Good Giles, man. I wasn't suggesting<br />

that you buy a ship for her. A ship is a sizable investment. I mean that we provide her with a ship<br />

and she can work off what it's worth, and then she'd own it free and clear.'<br />

Sharp nodded, thoughtful. 'I think we have enough spare parts that I could at least build her<br />

something like a Krait within a few months. There are a few items we'd need to get, but I'd have<br />

enough to start on it right away.'<br />

The commodore snorted derisively. 'A Krait? She's a good pilot, Mr Sharp, and I won't hold to<br />

risking her neck in less than a good ship.' He blew a series of small smoke rings and looked<br />

thoughtful for a moment. 'I'm thinking more like we can take my second backup ship out of the<br />

back docks. The one she took such a shine to when we first brought it in, that old police Viper ship.'<br />

Mr Sharp almost dropped his drink. 'Your Viper, commodore? That's an awful lot of ship right<br />

there!'<br />

The commodore shrugged. 'And I haven't flown her in nigh unto three turns either, now have I,<br />

Mr Sharp? It makes no sense to have a good ship collecting dust when we have a good pilot in need<br />

of a ship, now does it? Besides, when she was a young'un she was always trying to sneak aboard

that one to sit in the cockpit and play pilot.' He chuckled. 'I think she even had a name for it, though<br />

I can't recall it now.. Cimmeree? Something like that?'<br />

'Chimera or something, I think', Mr Sharp replied. 'But Commodore, that ship..'<br />

'I know, I know, Mr Sharp.' Carver waved a hand dismissively. 'It's several years old and would<br />

need some updating. So what might we be needin' to iron her ass out to the max? Start with the<br />

engines. What is the fastest powerplant we can outfit that old girl with? This is for your daughter<br />

we're talking, so sparing no expense, what would be the ultimate choice for speed and handling?'<br />

Mr Sharp shook his head. 'I'm not even sure, commodore. I never looked at the ship with an eye<br />

to tricking it out like that. Usually a Viper is already considered a fast and powerful ship that can<br />

mount some serious weaponry..'<br />

'Exactly so, Mr Sharp, exactly to my way of thinking. We want to rev it up so it can outrun<br />

anything in space, because this is your daughter we're talking about here. If she has to run, I want<br />

her to be able to run, and if she were to have to fight, I want that ship to have some serious bite to it.<br />

Exactly right!' He paused, noting with satisfaction the growing gleam in Mr, Sharp's eyes as he was<br />

considering the possibilities. 'You are just the man for the job, I can feel it in me bones, Mr Sharp.<br />

Now what could be done to that old Viper to make it faster and hotter than anything in the<br />

spacelanes? What tricks might we pull that Galcop never would even have dreamed of?'<br />

'Well', Sharp grinned as he warmed to the topic, 'what some of the chop shops are doing with<br />

racers is to cut out part of the steel of the frame and replace it with duranium rods to take down the<br />

weight. We also might be able to rework the superstructure a bit to accommodate a bigger reactor<br />

and maybe even bigger engines than anyone has done before. We could cut back the hull in some<br />

areas to mount some of the newer fin arrays they use on warships for faster cooling. It would<br />

drastically change the energy profiles, but she sure would be a surprise to any stock patrol ship in<br />

the spacelanes.'<br />

'Ah, now you're talking good sense, Mr Sharp!' The commodore beamed. 'We can make it the<br />

best ship in space for Miss Felicity to pilot.' His face darkened for a moment. 'But I see a problem.'<br />

Sharp raised an eyebrow. 'What do you mean, commodore? I'm sure it can be done. We have the<br />

facilities right here.'<br />

'Cost, Mr Sharp.' Carver shook his head. 'If we mod the Viper out like that, the costs will be so<br />

high she'd be longer payin' it off than I think is healthy for a young girl with a new ship.' He paused<br />

for a moment before continuing. 'I wouldn't like to see her in debt longer than at most one turn over<br />


Both men were silent for a moment before the commodore spoke again. 'Well, damn the cost, Mr<br />

Sharp! As you tally up the pricess for what you need to make the upgrades, bring them to me and I'll<br />

authorize them out of my personal account. Call it a gift. We will only let her pay as much as the<br />

ship would have been worth at base cost.'<br />

Mr Sharp was stunned. 'Are you sure, commodore? This will end up running probably as much<br />

as the ship is worth!'<br />

'Aye. Sure'n I'm sure, Mr Sharp.' The commodore refilled both their drinks as he continued. 'Your<br />

Felicity did most of her growin' up right here in the safehold, mate. She's a brilliant girl, and I've<br />

never seen a finer young pilot. She loves to fly? Then we should kit her out with the best ship we<br />

can, and make no bones over a bit of cost.'<br />

The commodore took another cigar out of the humidor and handed it to Sharp, then lit another<br />

cigarette before continuing. 'You see that poster there, Mr Sharp? The one such as you didn't quite<br />

ken the meaning of earlier?' He gestured at the poster as he spoke, a simple white poster with a<br />

picture of a crown in a red circle with a diagonal slash across it.<br />

Mr Sharp nodded. 'I still can't say as I get it, commodore.'<br />

'What is means, Mr Sharp, is 'No Kings'.' Commodore Carver paused before continuing. 'These<br />

are the Anarchies we live in, mister. This is the Lasoce system, right deep in the heart of the<br />

Citadels of Chaos. And the essence of anarchy is that it has no kings. Fact of the matter is that is<br />

what the word 'anarchy' literally means. No rulers. It doesn't mean we don't have our rules or<br />

leaders, mind you. But any man who leads in the anarchies leads because he sets an example that<br />

others will willingly follow.'<br />

Mr Sharp nodded, obviously struggling to see how this philosophical point bore on their current<br />

discussion.<br />

'It also means that if we want life to be good or fair to ourselves and our families, we have to<br />

make it so.' Carver continued. 'Whether that takes fighting or spending some money or whatever<br />

else it may be.. We do it, and we let nobody nor nothing stand in our way!' He calmed himself for a<br />

moment before continuing. 'As I was sayin'. we have to make life good or fair if that is how we're<br />

wanting it. No king or president is going to come and do it for us with just his 'make it so'.'<br />

The commodore took another sip of his drink and then continued. 'Now, Felicity is your<br />

daughter. But onboard my ship, I am her captain. Even after she owns her own ship, I will still be<br />

her commodore. Understand something, Mr Sharp. I may not be able to be as proud of her as her<br />

own father, no sir. But I am proud of her and I watched her grow up from but a wee thing. If she

was to get hurt because I was playin' skinflint and didn't deck her ship as well as possible, well who<br />

would be to blame? Me, sir, that's who. I'd never forgive myself if that was to happen because of me<br />

bein' too tightfisted when I had the means to do things proper for her, and you can lay to that, Mr<br />

Sharp.'<br />

Sharp nodded, stunned for a moment. Finally he found his voice. 'Still, it's going to be an awful<br />

lot of ship for a young girl, commodore.'<br />

The commodore nodded, conceding that point. 'Aye, I can see yer point on that, Mr Sharp. It<br />

surely will be.' He paused, thinking for a moment. 'It will take a bit of time to get the parts, though.<br />

She could fly it stock in the meantime and get used to it a bit.'<br />

Mr Sharp nodded, obviously relieved. 'I think that would be an excellent idea, commodore.'<br />

Carver, getting into the spirit of the idea. 'I think I can maybe even do one better, Mr Sharp. Now,<br />

a Viper can be crewed by either one or two. While we know Felicity is not going to want to share<br />

the ship with anyone, I'll tell ye what I can do. We don't have any pressing business scheduled for<br />

the next couple of months, so while you get the parts together, I can co-pilot for her. I'll keep her to<br />

safer routes and easy money trips for the next few weeks. Sort of back her up as she eases into<br />

getting to know the ship. Keep her out of trouble, like. What say ye to that, eh?'<br />

Mr Sharp nodded enthusiastically. 'Oh, thank you commodore! You have no idea how much that<br />

eases my mind.'<br />

The commodore nodded. 'An honour, Mr Sharp, and it'll be my pleasure. So if we have an accord<br />

that this is a deal that you can advise your daughter is a fair one, shall we call in Felicity and shake<br />

on the matter? Papers can be drawn up on the morrow, after ye've had a chance to give the ship a<br />

quick goin' over to make sure there's no major problems we haven't noticed before.'<br />

Mr Sharp nodded, and commodore Carver touched the communication stud on his collar. 'Page<br />

Miss Felicity Sharp to the commodore's office please. Thank you.'<br />

The two men enthusiastically discussed possibilities for the Viper's modification for a few<br />

minutes until there was a knock on the door.<br />

'Enter.' The commodore said, and Felicity came into the office.<br />

She was a tall young lady, lithe of form, with blonde hair cropped short on the left and left a bit<br />

longer on the right, after the fashion of some of the younger pirates in the Bebege system. Her<br />

crimson permadyed lips were pierced with a few small gold rings, as was her thin aqualine nose.<br />

She wore knee-high heeled boots of black patent leather to match her panties and tight bodice. A

dagger was strapped to her left thigh, and she was still wearing a cyberlink covering her left eye. her<br />

right eye was a natural bright green with small gold rings piercing her brow.<br />

'You wanted to see me, sir?' She began, but then noticing her father also sitting in the room her<br />

tone changed. 'Oh frak! What have I done now?'<br />

'Nothing bad, my dear, nothing bad.' The commodore chuckled. 'Well, leastways not so far as we<br />

know yet.' He added in an amused tone.<br />

'The commodore and I have just been discussing your future.' Mr Sharp said, his speech slightly<br />

slurred since another drink had been poured while they had waited for her.<br />

'Oh?' She arched an eyebrow.<br />

The commodore chuckled. 'Nothing like that really, dearie. I was just discussing with your father<br />

here, who is technically still your legal guardian at least back in the Reveabe system, the possibility<br />

of you signing on as a full crew member to work off the purchase of a ship of your own.'<br />

She grinned, the bright silver fangs she'd had installed on her birthday last year glinting prettily.<br />

'Really?' Then she immediately put on a poker face. 'And what ship might we be discussin' here?<br />

Whether I'd be interested would depend on the ship, of course. I'm not up for buying just any old<br />

piece of junk.'<br />

'Your father and I were thinking perhaps ye might find my old Viper acceptable, with a bit of<br />

updating and modification to make her faster and meaner.' The commodore turned to Mr Sharp. 'If<br />

ye would be so kind, Mr Sharp, pour a drink for yer daughter here and she can perhaps find a seat.'<br />

'Wait.. Let me get this straight.. ' Felicity held up a hand. 'By your 'old Viper', you mean your<br />

backup ship?'<br />

The commodore nodded.<br />

She turned to her father, 'I don't know, daddy. Do you think it's a good deal?'<br />

Mr Sharp beamed. 'I can assure you, daughter, the commodore and I have been discussing it, and<br />

the terms are more than generous. As your father, I can wholeheartedly advise you to take the deal.'<br />

Felicity nodded and smiled. 'Ok, daddy. If you think it's best.' She turned to the commodore and<br />

they shook hands.<br />

Commodore Carver beamed. 'Ye'll be needin' to think on what ye want to use as a callsign, girl.<br />

Pilot of her own ship needs one.'

'My call will be 'Fell Kitty'.' She replied immediately with no hesitation.<br />

Her father rolled his eyes, but Carver looked thoughtful for a moment and then nodded. 'It suits.<br />

Register it before you fly again.' Then he took his key ring off his belt and removed a small chip. he<br />

tossed it to the older man. 'Here you go, Mr Sharp. The key to my private dock where the Shimaree<br />

has been kept. You may go and give her a quick inspection at your leisure.'<br />

Sharp was on his feet immediately. 'I'll get right on it tonight, commodore! Right this second.' He<br />

headed for the door. 'Are you coming, Felicity?'<br />

'I'll be along shortly, daddy, I want to go over a few details with the commodore first.' She<br />

smiled, watching her father hasten out the door. Then she turned to the commodore, her eyes locked<br />

on his for a long second. Suddenly she launched herself at him like a wildcat, nearly knocking him<br />

off his feet as she wrapped her arms and legs around him, smothering him with kisses.<br />

'Easy now, lass! Don't go breaking my ribs, I may need them later!' The commodore laughed, his<br />

actions betraying belying his words as he returned the tight embrace and paid back her kisses.<br />

'The Shimaree? I get the Shimaree?' She bubbled excitedly. 'You dear man! I've dreamed of that<br />

ship since I was a little girl!'<br />

The commodore chuckled. 'Well, I didn't think you were the sort of girl to be impressed with a<br />

trinket or shiny gem. You already have enough of those yourself, from being out looting with me<br />

and the crew the past five years.'<br />

She looked worried. 'You didn't tell daddy about that?'<br />

'No, no.. A girl has a right to a few secrets, now doesn't she?' He reassured her, chuckling.<br />

'Damn straight on that, lover!' She laughed, delighted. Then she looked worried again for a<br />

moment. 'Daddy doesn't suspect, does he? About us?'<br />

'Oh, I think it's safe to say that he doesn't, hotness.' The commodore winked. 'In fact, he was all<br />

for the idea of my taking a couple weeks to chaperone you, as your copilot as it were.'<br />

'How in the seven Hells did you manage that?' She asked, astounded. 'But... Mmmmm!' she<br />

gloated. 'A few weeks with just the two of us alone in space on the ship I always wanted. My ship!<br />

And it bein' a two seater with a berth barely big enough to sleep one? Neither of us will walk for a<br />

week after we get back!' She laughed and unwrapped herself from the commodore and ran over to<br />

the bar, pouring herself a glass of Vicious Juice and lighting a megaweed cigar. 'This calls for a<br />


The commodore took the drink from her hand and stubbed out the cigar. 'Belay that. You don't<br />

want those on your breath right now. We need to get down to the dock and see to your father who is<br />

going over your Viper.'<br />

She pouted. 'Are ye sure, commodore?' She preened for a moment, showing off her breasts,<br />

barely covered by the shiny black leather.<br />

Carver nodded. 'We make sure he's well and into the business of going over your Viper and<br />

running tests on her engines and such.. And then you and I can come back to my quarters for some<br />

private celebration.' He grinned and ran his eyes down the length of her body. 'I'm in more than the<br />

mood for celebratin' and tyin' on more than a bit of a drunk, myself... As soon as we're sure your<br />

father is sure'n busy enough for the night.'<br />

She giggled. 'You old shark, you.'<br />

'Damned straight, girl. And you can lay to that.'

Nine - <strong>Drew</strong> <strong>Wagar</strong><br />

The great debating hall of the Rexebe Institute of Technology was the locus of galactic scientific<br />

achievement. Here, the foremost minds of science defined and mapped the boundaries of<br />

knowledge, pushed back the edges of the unknown and defied any mystery to elude their<br />

investigations. Here it was that fusion power had its origin, witchspace had been first postulated and<br />

Quirium had been tamed. The list of achievements was matched only by the pride that the Fellows<br />

of the Institute took in their combined achievements.<br />

Today the hall fairly crackled with emotion. A man was postulating at the centre of the floor, his<br />

voice echoing back in sympathy from the perfectly tuned acoustic, yet delicately vaulted,<br />

architecture, and reverberating as he slammed his hand down on the famous Leesti-pine raised dais<br />

to counterpoint the end of his speech.<br />

‘I say it can be done!’ the speaker exclaimed, fixing his audience with a fierce and baleful eye, ‘I<br />

say it will be done!’<br />

A ripple of mutterings and the subversive sounds of discord ran through the audience. Sunlight<br />

choose that moment to shine brightly through the enormous plexiglass dome that formed the roof,<br />

focusing attention back onto the speaker.<br />

‘Is it not clear from our calculations?’ the speaker continued, his wild grey hair falling across his<br />

eyes, ‘The basic theories of witchspace? Travel through a fourth spacial dimension demands a<br />

progression!’<br />

‘Rubbish!’ a voice called from the left.<br />

‘Long we have debated this, long we have heard that it’s not possible. Gentlemen! I have<br />

mathematical proof of its very existence!’<br />

‘Charlatan!’ this time the heckle came from the right.<br />

‘Our world-side ancestors marked the edges of their maps with the words ‘Here Be Dragons!’<br />

They thought they might sail off the edge of the world! We used to believe our planets were the<br />

centre of the universe...’<br />

Laughter greeted this remark and a wag called out, ‘Some still think they are the centre of the<br />

universe...!’<br />

The speaker continued, ‘Our forefathers took a century to determine the true nature of dark<br />

matter and I just ye not – we continue to make the same mistakes today!’

Boos followed this and a few of the assembled worthies decided they had had enough and began<br />

to leave.<br />

‘We think we have the answers, we think we know everything, but I assure you we do not! We<br />

know witchspace travel time follows the square of the distance, we know we drive through four<br />

dimensional space. Witchspace drives have operated on this principle for decades! But there are<br />

anomalies, gentlemen! Anomalies!’<br />

A further mumble of dissent gathered volume. The speaker pulled himself up straight and glared<br />

them back into silence.<br />

‘Stellar cartography from the eight charts shows plotting errors which can only be reconciled<br />

using modified gravitation theories and untenable galactic constants! Inconsistent spiral tracer<br />

measurements, conflicting pulsar directional indicators!’<br />

‘Which can be dealt with...’ mumbled a crusty old dissenter on the front row, who happened to<br />

be one of those who had provided the galactic constant theory of witchspace, ‘We can explain it<br />

with closed witchspace curves! There’s no need for anything else.’<br />

The speaker ploughed on regardless.<br />

‘The Galactic Navy constantly informs us that the Thargoids occasionally evade them, leaving<br />

behind a witchspace wormhole that has no effect on our ships. We have no idea where they hide<br />

between attacks! We lose more traders to witchspace drive malfunctions than can be statistically<br />

accounted for. The power consumption for witchspace drives is always, I repeat always, three point<br />

one four two percent more than our theoretical calculations allow! A number some of you may<br />

recognise! We call it ‘witchspace drag’, let us be honest Gentlemen – here be dragons!’<br />

That was a cheap shot. Many of the assembled were mathematicians with multiple honours. They<br />

took a dim view of such high-handed treatment.<br />

‘How can we account for these things? The explanation is simple, gentlemen! Our understand of<br />

witchspace is flawed, we have an oversight, an irregularity! Let me spell it out! We have made a<br />

mistake!’<br />

The hall erupted, many were on their feet, waving slips of paper and demanding to be heard.<br />

‘Where’s your data?’<br />

‘Irrelevant, totally irrelevant!’<br />

‘Get him out of here!’

‘How dare he!’<br />

‘The very thought!’<br />

Courtiers in attendance brought the situation under control after a minute or so and the room<br />

settled down.<br />

‘He’s halfway to Raxxla!’ someone shouted from the rear.<br />

Tumultuous applause greeted this funny. For a speaker to be associated with Raxxla – social<br />

death! As if anyone took that idea seriously!<br />

The speaker raised his voice a final time, ‘The explanation is before you gentlemen! I put to you<br />

the following hypothesis. We have failed to model witchspace correctly. We have been limited by<br />

our perceptions. Witchspace is not a flat structure as we suppose, it too has its own topology!’<br />

Many eminent members were on their feet again, angrily gesturing.<br />

‘Refuted by Braben, 2822!’<br />

‘Proved false by Sinclair in 2844!’<br />

‘Denied by Giles in 2893!’<br />

‘Dismissed by Ahruman in 2994!’<br />

The speaker held up a hand and spoke softly, ‘I am well aware of the contributions of our past<br />

masters. I offer you this test of my theory, a prediction if you will...’<br />

The hall fell silent. Here was the pride of the speaker finally showing itself. Here was the<br />

moment he might be held accountable to. Here might mark the beginning of his downfall.<br />

Collectively the assembled ranks leaned forward so as to better hear.<br />

The crusty old dissenter shook his head sadly. ‘Fool, you damned fool...’ The speaker enjoyed his<br />

moment. He looked methodically around the hall, fixing his gaze upon eyes both hostile and<br />

curious. He slowly swept the room, making sure he had the attention of every single member of the<br />

Institute.<br />

‘My prediction is simple,’ he snapped, once he was satisfied. ‘With the correct topology mapped<br />

into a suitably modified witchspace drive, I shall be able to travel to a further location in the galaxy,<br />

a new galactic destination. Gentlemen, if I may!’<br />

He turned, waving a hand at a coding device on the dais in front of him. A huge holo-screen<br />

illuminated behind him with a complex graphical representation of the galaxy. The familiar view of

the local systems appeared; Lave, Leesti, Tionisla all the way across to Tianve bounded in a<br />

rectangle, a tiny section of the galaxy’s spiral arm.<br />

‘Chart One!’<br />

This was nothing new. The audience held their breath.<br />

A second rectangle appeared a little way away from the first, separate and in the same plane as<br />

the first. Further rectangles appeared in sequence.<br />

‘The eight charts, long supposed to lie in the same spiral arm of the galaxy, separated by<br />

thousands of light years. But...’<br />

The speaker waved his hand and the rectangles moved, distorted and flowed towards each other.<br />

‘My theory states our familiar charts are not so divergent as we currently believe. They interlock<br />

in a three dimensional structure, as indicated! These positions allow us to rationalise all the contrary<br />

indicators I mentioned previously and provide the following prediction...’<br />

The hush continued. Many were staring at the topological map on the screen with bafflement and<br />

confusion. The charts had come together into a three dimension shape, a nine sided roughly<br />

spherical arrangement. One side was empty.<br />

‘...Gentlemen! I give you the ninth chart!’<br />

'You shouldn't have insulted the mathematicians with that cheap joke about pi.' his daughter<br />

***<br />

reprimanded him, 'You might have convinced some of them.'<br />

‘Fools the lot of them.’<br />

Raan Nenino was Professor of the Rexebe University for Astrometric Studies. He idly ran his<br />

hand through his thick and untidy grey hair before fixing her with his trademark glare, so vividly<br />

recalled by all of his former students.<br />

Unlike those students she returned the glare without flinching.<br />

‘Father you can’t keeping railing against them, you’ve already been overlooked for the<br />

chairmanship of the university, you’ll never get a fellowship if you carry on like this!’<br />

‘I care little to be a fellow of an organisation that can’t follow the scientific method!’<br />

‘You don’t really mean that.’ Sassia looked alarmed, ‘What else are you going to do after your

semesters are up?’<br />

‘I’ll find some research grant...’<br />

‘No you won’t!’ she replied, ‘Father, you keep turning down all the decent jobs and offers you<br />

get! They won’t keep rolling in!’<br />

‘What offers?’<br />

Sassia rolled her eyes in frustration. ‘You had that direct invite from Jim McKenna from Onrira.<br />

He was interested in your work. He had some advanced theories about witchspace...’<br />

‘Jim McKenna? He was only interested in how it might be turned into a weapon!’<br />

‘That’s not fair!’ Sassis refuted his opinion. ‘He was cleared of association with that Q-Bomb<br />

business. He was completely exonerated! You’re just making excuses.’<br />

‘No smoke without fire, my dear.’ Raan replied, ‘Besides, I intensely disliked that woman he<br />

brought with him. Arrogant and cocksure she was.’<br />

to...’<br />

Sassia tried a different tack, ‘Nevertheless, you’ve had plenty of opportunities to apply yourself<br />

Raan snapped around to look at her, ‘What? Worthwhile research? Is that what you were going to<br />

say? You don’t believe in the ninth chart either, do you?’<br />

‘It’s not that...’<br />

‘It’s exactly that!’<br />

‘Father, it’s just that you spend all your time on it. It’s an obsession, people are beginning to talk!<br />

It makes life very difficult...’<br />

Raan sighed deeply, ‘My dear, I understand. I really do. But the truth matters. What have I taught<br />

you from your earliest years?’<br />

‘Science is about discovering the truth, not pandering to our own vanities – I know father! But<br />

we have to be practical too! Stop fighting Fitzroy and the others. If you’re not careful this is going<br />

to destroy your career! Is it worth losing that over this theory of yours?’<br />

‘The evidence demands a verdict. The theory is sound, Sassia! What’s more I think I can prove<br />

it! Wait until I return from the ninth chart with evidence! I will be the first to see the other side and<br />

come back!’

The door chime sounded, indicating that they had a visitor. Sassia went to the front room and<br />

brought in a man. Raan recognised him at once. It was Fitzroy, he of the galactic constant theory of<br />

witchspace.<br />

Fitzroy was old, slightly bent, but carried an air of authority. Today it seemed doubly so. Sassia<br />

actually respected him enormously. He had helped her with assignments and placements in the past.<br />

Sassia escorted him into the Nenino’s study.<br />

‘What can I do you for you, Fitzroy?’ Raan said coolly, not looking up from his notes, ‘A strange<br />

hour for a visit.’<br />

‘Timeo danaos et dona ferentes, ‘Fitzroy began, by way of introduction. ‘Though I can’t claim to<br />

be a Greek of course.’<br />

‘And what gift do you bring?’ Raan snapped back impatiently.<br />

‘News. Your execrable conduct in the hall this afternoon raised rather a lot of eyebrows, my dear<br />

friend. I’m afraid I was unable to assuage the effects of it all on our current chairman. He has come<br />

to an unfortunate conclusion.’<br />

Sassia looked pale.’What are you talking about?’<br />

‘Only that your father’s precipitate actions have determined that various confidential meetings<br />

have occurred, resulting in the gestation of various documents whose provenance is now established<br />

and whose effects are to create an immediate vacancy within the department of Astrometric<br />

Studies.’<br />

‘What?’ Sassia queried, unable to follow Fitzroy’s obtuse language.<br />

‘Your father has been fired, effective immediately. ‘ Fitzroy said grimly, ‘For bringing the<br />

university into disrepute.’<br />

‘This is all your doing, Fitzroy!’ Raan snapped, stalking forwards angrily.<br />

‘Father, that’s not fair!’ Sassia said, ‘Stop attacking your colleagues, he’s only trying to help!’<br />

Raan paused, breathing heavily to calm himself, ‘I apologise, Fitzroy. I’m somewhat<br />

overwrought. Forgive my bad manners.’<br />

‘Your daughter is right though, Raan.’ Fitzroy said directly, ‘This obsession with the ninth chart,<br />

it’s – well, unseemly! You need a break, why not take a vacation? We can find a role for you upon<br />

your return, leave it with me. I’ll figure something out.’

‘Gardening leave? And sweep my work under the carpet so you can further promulgate your<br />

theory!’<br />

‘Father! Stop it!’ Sassia snapped, angrily, ‘Listen to him!’<br />

‘Merely let it rest for a while.’ Fitzroy replied, trying to mollify him, ‘Gather evidence, refine the<br />

theory. Rome wasn’t built in...<br />

‘Rome might not have been built in a day,’ Raan fumed, ‘But it was built! Remember that! I<br />

intend to go there – and return!’<br />

Fitzroy sighed. ‘And if you’re wrong, if there is no ninth chart, nothing on the other side of these<br />

errant wormholes? If my theory of closed curves is right? What if the technology fails and you<br />

suffer a mis-jump? Or land up in a Thargoid war zone? What then?’<br />

Raan favoured Fitzroy with a fierce glare.<br />

‘Then you can live in peace and toast my efforts in proving you right, Fitzroy! Your wretched<br />

constant theory will be all we have left!’<br />

It was too late to turn back now. He'd sold his house, all his possessions and traded his family<br />

fortune to finance the research, the equipment, the hire of a long range freighter and escorts for this<br />

field trip. It had become a hugely expensive undertaking. If this didn't provide the answer he<br />

desired, he would be effectively destitute.<br />

Now here he was, in chart eight, ready to jump.<br />

***<br />

There had been a number of discoveries en-route, which had helped with support and assistance<br />

from a few quarters. The construction of a stable static wormhole between localised points had been<br />

one. It had been hugely satisfying to see a small ship move across a few kilometres of space in the<br />

blink of an eye between two artificially sustained wormhole entrances, and even more compelling<br />

to see the ship sit stationary in the double gate, half of it facing in one direction, and the other half<br />

of it ten kilometres away facing the other way – yet still whole and undamaged!<br />

Another highpoint was storing not only enough energy for a single galactic hyperspace jump, but<br />

two. He had to have a means of returning after all!<br />

Raan held a letter in his hand, and idly glanced at it. It was a letter from his daughter,<br />

handwritten, on parchment.<br />

Sassia refused to be a party to his quest. They had undergone blazing rows and finally stopped

talking. Her last communication had been brief.<br />

Father, If you insist on doing this damn silly thing, please don’t do it in this damn silly way. It’s<br />

not too late. Come back home. I love you. S x.<br />

He crumpled the letter and threw it aside. It was the only other object on board the paired down<br />

freighter. He was alone.<br />

Through the vision port he could see the four Wolf Mk2 escorts awaiting their signal. He<br />

thumbed the narrow-band comms.<br />

‘Gentlemen, all systems show green. I am ready to make the jump. Proceed directly via galactic<br />

hyperspace to Rexebe following the collapse of my exit wormhole. If all goes well, I will see you<br />

there once I have jumped back from the ninth chart!’<br />

Raan glared at the ships as they lazily turned around. ‘Move it! Faster! Get away now!’<br />

Simple words of acknowledgement followed from the escorts, and they peeled away from the<br />

freighter to give him a clear zone to jump from. Truth be told the pilots were more than glad to put<br />

some distance between themselves and the erratic professor.<br />

Raan checked the power monitors, witchspace drift correctors and drive units for a final time.<br />

Everything looked as he expected. The jump should take him to the calculated co-ordinates of the<br />

ninth chart with enough charge to conduct a second jump back to chart one.<br />

He flicked the wide-band comms open and started the countdown, he’d deliberately programmed<br />

the computer to start from a different position.<br />

‘Commencing witchspace countdown. Nine.... eight.... seven....’ the on-board computer began to<br />

chant.<br />

He sat in the pilot’s chair awaiting the disorientation of the witchspace jump, familiar now after<br />

the long hard trudge across the charts... almost there...<br />

This is it, the culmination of my life’s work. To see the ninth chart, to prove to all and sundry<br />

that there is somewhere beyond the eighth chart, to arrive there and return with photographic<br />

evidence! To see the other side of the ninth wormhole! Soon, oh so soon! Nine!<br />

‘Three... two.... one. Witchspace drive engaged.’<br />

The stars faded away as the reassuring witchspace tunnel appeared. The iridescent coloured rings<br />

of non-light surged past the ship. Raan breathed a sigh of relief.

It worked! It worked!!! Ha! No witchspace drive malfunction as I was warned, no interstellar<br />

space drop-out or Thargoid invasion fleet, no anomalies, finally! No anomalies...<br />

He paused. Surely the witchspace transfer should have completed by now? He checked the time<br />

indicator. Ten seconds, fifteen, twenty. Still the rings sped past.<br />

He checked the drive units. The wormhole had been created exactly as planned. It was as<br />

predicted.<br />

A half remembered thought came back to him, a snatch of conversation. Fitzroy!<br />

‘And if you’re wrong, if there is no ninth chart, nothing on the other side of these errant<br />

wormholes? If my theory of closed curves is right?’<br />

Closed curves! The rings continued; nine, eighteen, twenty seven, thirty six...<br />

It can’t be! My theory was perfect! Dimensions in harmony, the cube of the first three numbers!<br />

One, three, nine! Perfect! NINE!<br />

More rings; forty five, fifty four, sixty three, seventy two, eighty one.<br />

An eternity of damnable rings!<br />

Raan perceived the nature of his predicament with absolutely clarity and heart-shocking despair.<br />

He broke down, thrashing around the bridge in fury, smashing consoles and instrumentation as he<br />

finally surrendered to the madness that had driven him here.<br />

‘Nine! Nine! NINE!’ he raged, foaming at the mouth.<br />

The rings continued to float past, as they would for eternity.<br />

For the ninth wormhole had no other side.

Calliope - By Blaze O' Glory<br />

Captain Hesperus, a grey furry feline from Orrira, wiped goat soup from his eyes and sighed. A<br />

torsion wave, burped out from the badly maintained engines of the Dubious Profit, had slid through<br />

the ship’s mess just as he and his crew were sitting down to dine. Local spacetime in the cramped<br />

little room had briefly bulged and twisted, gravity pulling six ways at once. A nauseous sensation at<br />

the best of times, and possibly at its most inconvenient when one was seated in front of a large bowl<br />

of hot and oily soup.<br />

‘Hesperus!’ A deep, full-throated bellow from across the table caused the captain’s ears to flick<br />

back. ‘How much longer must we endure this creaking wreck you call a ship?’ Rus, the Dubious<br />

Profit’s engineer, was a six-foot-four mound of reptile muscle, with a stubby little horn on the tip of<br />

his flaring snout. Just above a jaw full of razor-sharp teeth. Right now the muscles of that jaw were<br />

working furiously, as thin rivulets of goat soup trickled around the iridescent blue scales of Rus’s<br />

thick neck.<br />

Hesperus slowly unfolded his ears. Soup dripped on to the messroom floor: one, two, three. ‘Mr<br />

Rus,’ he said, ‘as chief engineer your duties encompass the material wellbeing of the ship, in<br />

particular of the engines?’<br />

‘Ha!’ Rus’s roar cut across his captain’s argument. He pounded his chest, soup spraying from his<br />

sodden vest with each impassioned beat. ‘I’m an engineer, not a miracle-worker! Six months! Six<br />

months ago I told you we needed new torsion baffles. Would you pay for the refit? No. Even after –<br />

wonder of wonders! – we made some decent money on the Teraed–Rigeti run, when we had half-a-<br />

dozen well-equipped, competent dockyards just a wormhole away, did you think to spend even a<br />

little bit of it on basic maintenance? No. No you did not.’<br />

‘There were…overheads,’ said Hesperus. ‘Running costs, fuel …wages,’ he added. Cooling goat<br />

grease had gathered at the tips of his whiskers, drawing them downwards and lending him a<br />

mournful appearance. ‘And the constant ebb and flow of commercial opportunity. You have to<br />

spend money to make money. What goes around…’ Hesperus abandoned his explanation, suddenly<br />

aware of Rus’s huge hands clenching and unclenching. ‘But, ah…I take your point. Remind me,<br />

ah…how much to replace the baffles?’<br />

‘Six months ago? Around ten thousand credits. Now? Who knows? The whole drive manifold<br />

will have been thrown out of kilter by that wave. Nine, maybe ten times that. If we’re lucky.<br />

Listen!’ he said, cocking his slablike head. ‘Listen to my poor engines!’<br />

There was, indeed, an extra note to the background grumbling of the Dubious Profit’s drive, a

plaintive whine which to Hesperus sounded needlessly judgemental. Now that Rus had pointed it<br />

out, he doubted he’d be able to stop hearing it. He screwed up his face, feeling the gluey soup<br />

matted in his fur. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘All efforts will be directed to raising capital sufficient for a<br />

full maintenance overhaul for the Profit. As soon as the requisite funds are in place we shall set<br />

course for the shipyards of Ceesxe, and we shall not stint! In fact,’ he continued, seeing Rus glaring<br />

at him from under knotted brows, ‘I have secured a most profitable cargo contract. I expect the<br />

income will easily cover all your – our – requirements.’ Hesperus carefully wiped his whiskers and<br />

smiled winningly at the engineer.<br />

‘Oh, gods, I don’t want to know,’ Rus groaned, holding his head and rocking from side to side.<br />

‘Don’t tell me, Hesperus, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know. Just get it done. I don’t suppose<br />

you’ve got enough for some running repairs in the meantime? Most ships, you know, most well-run<br />

ships, would have something more in the maintenance locker than a bull-hammer and a stack of<br />

deckplate.’<br />

Hesperus stood and walked slowly to the door. He looked over towards Gasazck, the ship’s cook,<br />

a skeletally thin avian with stringy green feathers, who had spent the last few minutes silently<br />

squeezing soup from his bedraggled plumage. Hesperus, not for the first time, found himself<br />

thinking that painful emaciation was not the most encouraging attribute a cook could possess.<br />

‘Measures, of course, will be taken to prevent further inconveniences to my crew. Gasazck, the next<br />

time soup is served: perhaps some sort of lidded cup…?’<br />

A spoon smacked against the bulkhead, right next to his nose. Tutting, and with a shake of his<br />

head, Hesperus departed the mess, the sound of the Dubious Profit’s engine still complaining in his<br />

ears.<br />

Hesperus shivered in the shower as lukewarm water teased congealing soup from his fur. The<br />

Dubious Profit was, admittedly, a little run-down. The Python-class freighter had not been in prime<br />

condition when he had purchased her, and – despite the Python’s near-legendary ability to take<br />

punishment and keep on running – she was definitely the worse for wear. Rus was always nagging<br />

him: This is worn out, Hesperus; that needs replaced, Hesperus; these definitely shouldn’t be<br />

leaking plasma, Hesperus. Maybe Rus was right. Maybe he had squandered the profits from the<br />

Teraed-Rigeti run, chasing after a bigger score when it might have been more sensible, in the long<br />

run, to have overhauled the ship.<br />

No! No. No, this was sheer negativity, and nothing more. What did Rus know about the dance of<br />

commerce, the glorious, intricate weaving patterns of profit and loss that flowed across the<br />

spacelanes? The dance where – if you listened to the secret music, if you timed your moves just so –

instead of the humdrum dribble of a steady income, the true artiste could spring in one great leap<br />

into the Perfect Deal, and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice! Although secretly Hesperus had at<br />

least one doubt about this theory: his own dreams of avarice ran at such dizzying heights he found it<br />

hard to comprehend how any deal could come near to them. Still though: boldness! Confidence! He<br />

stepped from the shower, shaking water from his fur, his natural poise fully restored, and allowed<br />

warm air-currents to dry him down. The inevitable post-shower puffiness of his tail-fur could not<br />

dampen his optimistic mood. Even the undignified necessity of folding that appendage into the<br />

baggy seat of his (cheap, and non-species-specific) trousers failed to take the edge off it. Booted,<br />

suited and free from soup, he bounced off down the corridor from his cabin to the cockpit.<br />

Stepan, the large, hairy Erbitian navigator, was on watch, lounging in the co-pilot’s chair and<br />

scratching at his unkempt mane. He looked round incuriously as Hesperus entered.<br />

‘Stepan, set a course – no, on second thoughts, I’ll do it. You are relieved. Get yourself down to<br />

the mess: if you’re quick there might still be some soup, ah, on the table.’ Stepan yawned, stretched<br />

and shambled off, humming to himself. Hesperus slid into the command couch and called up the<br />

charts.<br />

Inines. A rich industrial world; a high-technology planet whose teeming human population<br />

enjoyed enforced contentment. Inines used advanced memetic engineering to ensure strict social<br />

conformity: only three basic personality types were permitted, each one fiercely loyal to the<br />

Communist principles of the Ininish Peoples’ Party. The system was also home to the Lucky<br />

Thirteenth: Sector Command Thirteen of the Co-operative Navy hung there, and the local volume<br />

swarmed with Navy frigates, scouts, couriers and battle-wagons. It was the sort of system Hesperus<br />

would usually avoid: crammed with unyielding Authority, and unsympathetic to the individual<br />

entrepreneur. But Inines was the rendezvous specified by his contact. And Hesperus smelt<br />

possibilities with this deal. Definite possibilities.<br />

The Dubious Profit made an uneventful run in to the Inines main station. Three times their<br />

course had been interrupted as Navy ships hurried by, sharp and edgy; and twice they were buzzed<br />

by the Ininish Thought Police, battering at the comms with propaganda. But Hesperus kept the<br />

Profit steady on the regulation course from the witchpoint, and finally the station’s docking port<br />

yawned in front of them, swallowing them up.<br />

Hesperus heard the clamps thudding home against the outer hull, and flicked the ship’s internal<br />

communicator. ‘Docked and locked, everyone. This is a quick turnaround, so no shore leave. I want<br />

us fuelled and ready to go within the hour. Rus, you might want to take a look round the<br />

maintenance yard; see if there’s anything worth picking up. You know, that’s not, ah, bolted down.

Hesperus out.’ He cut the comms as Rus began to growl profanities, and made his way to the<br />

airlock.<br />

His contact – his business partner – was waiting on the observation deck; Hedred Tulka, a tall,<br />

thin human, sitting with some discomfort in a suspensor chair.<br />

‘Captain Hesperus, a pleasure. Forgive me if I do not rise; I find the local gee a little trying.<br />

Would you like something to drink?’<br />

Hesperus did, but if Tulka bought him a drink, he would have to buy one for Tulka in return, and<br />

the bar on the observation deck was far from cheap. ‘No, thank you, Mr Tulka: clear heads make for<br />

clear dealing, I find! But I have no objection if you wish to have something yourself.’<br />

‘I won’t, thank you; I find there’s little point. This barbaric gravity drags everything into my feet,<br />

and gives me no benefit at all. But I’m pleased to find you so admirably abstemious. So many<br />

commanders these days tend towards excess.’<br />

‘Indeed yes,’ said Hesperus through gritted teeth, sitting down.<br />

‘So: the contract. Your holds are clear? Can you load? The goods are ready, if you are. Eighty<br />

tons of machine parts, for transport; the port of call is Qudira.’<br />

‘Qudira? I thought the destination was Teen.’<br />

Tulka drew up the corners of his mouth with some effort. ‘Te’en, yes…’ He pronounced it like a<br />

native. ‘Well, markets fluctuate, as you know. I would like you to take the shipment to Qudira – to<br />

explore the possibilities there. It’s a poor planet; unsophisticated, one might say. The potential for<br />

profit should not be ignored.’<br />

‘Unsophisticated, indeed. One might also say dangerous,’ replied Hesperus. Qudira was a known<br />

pirate nest, classed as an Anarchy on the register. Although it lay only one jump from Inines, it was<br />

seldom visited. They would undoubtedly pay a premium for high-grade machinery, but getting it<br />

there would mean a run through one of the most hazardous systems in the sector. There was a<br />

reason why few ships made the voyage to Qudira.<br />

‘Fortune favours the bold, Captain,’ said Tulka smoothly. ‘But perhaps…an extra three per cent<br />

on top?’<br />

Hesperus hesitated. The Dubious Profit, despite her numerous failings, was a robust ship, and her<br />

armaments were more than merely functional. But if the engines should fail…he imagined the<br />

Profit adrift somewhere in the Qudira system, prey to any brigand, freebooter or pirate. He<br />

imagined fighting with the rest of the crew for access to the Profit’s solitary escape capsule. He

imagined Rus would probably win that fight. But he could taste money. Maybe Rus would find<br />

something to patch up the drive. The odds were good; a high-tech place like Inines, all sorts of<br />

serviceable parts were dumped, being cheaper to replace than to repair. The transportation fee on<br />

offer was already temptingly high, and Tulka sounded very keen to get his machinery to Qudira.<br />

‘Another ten per cent,’ he said. ‘Danger money. I have my crew to think about.’ Rus would<br />

definitely win that fight.<br />

‘Five,’ said Tulka.<br />

‘Eight.’<br />

‘Six.’<br />

‘Seven, no less.’ Hesperus crossed his arms and sat back, looking Tulka in the eye.<br />

Tulka pursed his lips, and tutted. ‘Very well, seven. You are a shrewd bargainer, Captain<br />

Hesperus!’ A flicker of suspicion crossed Hesperus’s mind. ‘This machinery…Qudira is a tech-one<br />

world, is it not?’ Tulka laughed. ‘Have no fear, Captain! I have no wish to contravene the Co-op’s<br />

technology transfer statutes! No, everything is open-source and freely transportable. Ploughs,<br />

harrows, seed drills and threshers. Nothing which could cause the slightest economic or cultural<br />

upset. Here,’ he handed Hesperus an ident pad. ‘The bill of lading. All containers inspected, sealed<br />

and authorised by the meticulous bureaucracy of Inines Main Station. In triplicate.’ The Galactic<br />

Co-operative had strict laws protecting low-end planets from the potentially devastating impact of<br />

high-end technologies. Not that Hesperus cared. There was a lot of money to be made, bringing the<br />

glittering machineries of sophisticated worlds to the more benighted areas of the galaxy; and if<br />

social devastation was the result, well, that wasn’t his problem. But it was a tricky business,<br />

circumventing Co-op statutes: in an advanced and tightly organised system like Inines it was<br />

practically impossible. Hesperus thumbed the pad, scrutinising the columns of registration codes<br />

and serial numbers that flowed across it. All was in perfect order. The Dubious Profit’s holds would,<br />

unquestionably, be filled with ploughs, harrows, seed drills and threshers.<br />

‘Of course, of course,’ said Hesperus. ‘Forgive me. One meets so many rogues; it is a rare<br />

pleasure to do business with an honest man.’<br />

Tulka flapped his hand weakly, then let it fall back onto the arm of his suspensor chair. ‘Think<br />

nothing of it, Captain. You are scrupulous, as is only right and proper. So, if you will mark the<br />

bill…there, there and there…and again there…we are done. I can leave you and your crew to<br />

supervise the loading. My agent will meet you on your arrival at Qudira station, and will arrange for<br />

payment. Now, if you will excuse me, I will move deeper into the station, where a more civilised

level of gravity pertains. A good voyage to you, and a swift one!’<br />

Hesperus stood as Tulka’s chair glided off towards the exit. He weighed the ident pad in his<br />

hands, then slipped it into a jacket pocket and hurried to the docking bay to make arrangements for<br />

taking on the cargo.<br />

The Dubious Profit thudded into Qudira space in a burst of actinic light, emerging from her<br />

wormhole a few kilometres from the witchpoint beacon. Hesperus rattled through the checklist. The<br />

scanner was clear of shipping; he prepped the IFF system and primed a missile, then flicked the<br />

compass to bear on the main station’s navigation buoy. Nothing. He swore, and banged the compass<br />

with his fist: there. Now he had his heading. A twist of the control yoke and the Dubious Profit<br />

rolled her ponderous bulk around; Hesperus eased her nose up and pointed her square on course to<br />

the station, still invisible in its slow orbit above the planet’s mottled surface.<br />

He’d chosen the direct route. Sometimes it was safer to take the ship off-lane, to arc out on a<br />

long parabola from witchpoint to planet, avoiding the straight track in to the station where pirates<br />

could waylay inbound traffic. But in Qudira there was practically no inward trade to intercept; the<br />

whole system was more a pirate lair than a cruising ground. The direct approach was probably no<br />

more dangerous than any other path, and if nothing else it was shorter and faster. Hesperus<br />

swivelled round and kicked Stepan, who was sitting idly in the co-pilot’s chair probing one ear with<br />

the tines of a fork. He closed his eyes, muttered a brief prayer to Mandingo, the three-eyed Goddess<br />

of Luck, and punched the Profit’s torus drive.<br />

The ship lurched, heaved and flung herself forward, skimming at the brink of lightspeed towards<br />

the distant station. Space rippled past her; although the burbling of her engines was far from normal,<br />

at least whatever Rus had salvaged from Inines had eliminated their previous sick whine.<br />

The Dubious Profit tore across spacetime, drawing Qudira ever closer. The planet slowly<br />

swelled, and Hesperus picked out the gleam of the orbiting station. Stepan grunted, and pointed<br />

with his fork at the distant dot. Hesperus eased the Profit on to a more exact bearing, scanning the<br />

surrounding blackness for any sign of trouble.<br />

The torus drive cut out; the Profit slowed instantly. Hesperus’s heart leapt. The masslock alarm<br />

blinked on the console, and two blips showed on the scanner, almost dead ahead. Well, at least the<br />

engines hadn’t failed: no torus system could operate if local spacetime wasn’t smooth and flat. Too<br />

much distortion and it would power down, leaving the witchdrive engines to push the ship at a mere<br />

fraction of c. Close enough in, stars, planets, even stations would bend space sufficiently to shut off<br />

a torus drive. And so, of course, would the engines of other craft.

Two ships hung at extreme scanner range, interrupting the Profit’s run. Hesperus slowed the<br />

drive, bringing her to a halt, and swung her nose around to sweep the unidentified craft with the<br />

IFF.<br />

Class: Mamba. Offender. Class: Moray Starboat. Offender. There were offenders, and offenders,<br />

Hesperus knew. Smuggling was an offence; violating docking protocols was an offence. Attacking<br />

merchant ships, blasting open their hulls to steal their cargo and sending their crews to a choking<br />

death in the blackness of space was an offence. In a system like Qudira one did not have to be an<br />

expert in Co-op law to know what kind of offender to expect.<br />

‘Stepan! Stand by. We have company.’ Stepan pulled the fork from his ear and readied the ECM.<br />

Hesperus bled power back into the engines. The Moray and the Mamba were already swinging<br />

round towards them. The Dubious Profit’s alarm yelped as her scanners detected hostile targeting.<br />

Two ships. The Moray was tougher, and could pack a missile or two: but the Mamba was faster,<br />

an agile fighter which Hesperus badly wanted out of the way. He hauled on the yoke and the Profit<br />

swung around.<br />

Fire flicked out from the Mamba, skittering across the Profit’s forward shield. Hesperus<br />

grimaced, giving the controls a rapid twist-and-pull. The Profit rolled away, then with a shrug<br />

jerked sharply back. The Mamba wavered in the centre of Hesperus’s sights. Snarling, he thumbed<br />

the trigger; the Profit’s military-grade Ingrams laser gave a manic whoop and blazed a livid streak<br />

across the Mamba’s hull. The fighter bucked, spinning, but Hesperus drove the Profit round after it,<br />

easing down the drive to boost his turn. The Mamba’s engines filled his sights: he jammed the<br />

trigger down again and the pirate ship exploded in a white-hot ball of plasma.<br />

The Profit’s shields screeched as a laser played across her stern. Hesperus blipped his injectors,<br />

rushing some of his precious fuel reserve through the drive, sending the Profit surging forwards. He<br />

glanced at the scanner; the Moray Starboat had swung around behind him. The Profit’s sudden<br />

acceleration had broken its target lock, and it was on a tight curve to bring its gun to bear again.<br />

Hesperus heaved on the controls, pulling back hard and sending the Profit into a lurching spiral.<br />

He cut the engines completely, rolling the ship through a vertical loop. Confused, the Moray shot<br />

past on the port side. Hesperus grinned, and ramped up the drive again. The Moray dodged,<br />

weaving from side to side, but Hesperus hung the Profit on his opponent’s tail, splashing fire across<br />

its rear.<br />

The alarm warbled: a missile uncoupled from the belly of the Moray, arcing round towards them.<br />

‘Stepan! Hit it!’

Stepan slapped his paw down, activating the Profit’s countermeasures and sending an<br />

electromagnetic storm spraying out around the ship. The cockpit lights dimmed and the controls<br />

went briefly mushy in Hesperus’s hands as the Profit’s engines laboured under the sudden power<br />

drain.<br />

Nothing happened. The Moray’s missile lanced towards them, riding a hot blue spike of flame.<br />

‘Death and derision! Hardhead!’ Hesperus yanked the controls again, and squeezed the injectors.<br />

The Profit sprang forwards, shooting past the missile. Behind him, Hesperus knew, the<br />

electronically-shielded projectile was beginning a wide loop back around towards them.<br />

The Moray. There. Rolling still, trying to turn up and over to face the Dubious Profit. Worry<br />

about the missile later; ten seconds or so. Engines at full throttle, Hesperus swung the Profit’s nose<br />

dead on to the Moray and let rip. The pirate spun as if in agony, sparks blazing as its shields<br />

collapsed. The Moray’s tortured hull loomed up and filled the screen. In a fraction of a second<br />

Hesperus took in its scored and pitted surface, saw the cherry glow of its superheated laser,<br />

glimpsed the warning decals dotted round the fuel intake; then it vanished, wiped out in a searing<br />

explosion which washed the Profit’s cockpit with incandescent light.<br />

The missile. It burned across space behind them, gaining rapidly. Hesperus pumped more fuel<br />

from his dwindling reserve into the drive, stretching out the distance between the Profit and her tiny,<br />

deadly pursuer.<br />

‘Hesperus…’ Rus’s voice rumbled from the comms, over the rising howl of the overworked<br />

engines.<br />

‘Just hold her together, Rus!’ Hesperus yelled. ‘Use your teeth if you have to!’ The ship’s alarm<br />

squawked again. Four blips, burning hostile red, swam onto the long-range scanner, above and in<br />

front. ‘Mandingo, you bitch!’ shrieked Hesperus. He cut the injectors, slamming the Profit’s nose<br />

down, driving her away from this new threat. Pointing her nose straight back towards the onrushing<br />

missile. ‘Stepan!’ Stepan slammed the ECM again. Sometimes you got lucky. The hardhead tore<br />

onwards, unaffected. Eyes screwed shut, Hesperus jerked the controls. The Profit kicked and spun.<br />

The missile stabbed sideways, trying to match the turn, then erupted in a ball of radiation bare<br />

metres behind the ship. The shields buckled and redlined; the engines moaned as they poured out<br />

energy to hold them up.<br />

‘Are we still alive?’ Stepan sounded more curious than frightened.<br />

‘For the moment, yes,’ snapped Hesperus. ‘Although I’m sure those four ships closing on our tail<br />

will want to add their contributions to the question.’

Could he witch out? The nearest system – the only system he might hope to reach – was<br />

Malama. But to plot a course, to spool up the drive, to fly the long and level trajectory required for a<br />

safe wormhole jump…no. And after burning his injectors Hesperus doubted he had enough fuel left,<br />

anyway. Could he burn the rest? Run in to the station? Or at least outdistance these ships, get out of<br />

masslock so he could punch up the torus drive? He glanced at the compass. The station was almost<br />

dead astern. He’d have to fly a vast loop, and hope to slip past his pursuers. Hope not to meet<br />

anyone else, either.<br />

That was when three more blips slithered on to the scanner, dead ahead. Hesperus let loose an<br />

oath so vile that Stepan gasped and dropped his fork. Hesperus yanked the cover from the cargo-bay<br />

controls: maybe if he ejected the cargo, spewed the precious machinery out into space, the pirates<br />

would be satisfied and let the Dubious Profit escape intact. It was better to be alive than dead. Alive<br />

and poor. Alive and ruined.<br />

His left hand hovered over the release. On the scanner, the latest arrivals continued onwards –<br />

but they still showed yellow. They hadn’t targeted the Profit. And their course looked set to<br />

intercept the pursuing hostiles. Left hand still outstretched, Hesperus gently teased the Profit’s nose<br />

up and waved the IFF across the three unknown ships.<br />

Asp Mark II. Asp Mark II. Cobra Rapier. Clean, every one. There was, of course, clean: innocent<br />

of any crime – and clean: as yet unconvicted. But maybe, just maybe…bounty hunters? The Asps<br />

were heavy fighters; the Rapier a light trader, modified for speed and combat. Hope surged through<br />

Hesperus again, and he laid a course to put these three new ships squarely between him and the<br />

pirates closing in behind.<br />

As one, the two Asps and the Rapier rushed past, injectors flaring. Hesperus flicked his console<br />

to the rear view. Through the corona of the Profit’s engines he saw the three ships plunge into a<br />

raging firefight. Lasers danced and sparkled against shields; on the scanner the four hostile blips<br />

rapidly turned a neutral yellow as their weapons systems switched away to target the newcomers.<br />

Hesperus slowed the Profit, watching the contest. Two blasts in quick succession, to the left and<br />

right of the pirate group: small ships, he judged; fighter escorts, probably. The ECM chirped as it<br />

detected countermeasures in use. One big explosion; well, several big explosions in quick<br />

succession, one on top of the other. A large craft, perhaps a Python, that one. Then another, not so<br />

big: a Fer-de-Lance, Hesperus fancied, judging by the golden tinge of the plasma ball.<br />

The Dubious Profit’s shields were coming back up. Still using the rear view, the tip of his tongue<br />

poking from one corner of his mouth, Hesperus wiggled the Profit’s stern to sweep the three<br />

remaining ships. An Asp. A Cobra Rapier. Another Asp. And an expanding cloud of debris. The

Rapier began to slide among the mute white dots that marked the wreckage of the pirates, gathering<br />

them up into its cargo bay.<br />

Ship-to-ship comms lit up. ‘Ahoy Python – do you require assistance?’ It was one of the Asps.<br />

Carefully, Hesperus closed the cover of the cargo release mechanism, locking it back into place.<br />

He picked up the communicator instead. ‘Thank you, no, no, no thank you, we’re fine here, we’re<br />

all better than fine actually…’ He was gabbling, and he forced himself to speak more slowly. He<br />

realised his ears were lying flat against his skull; with a conscious effort he lifted them forwards,<br />

one, two. Travelling together, these three ships would be mutually masslocked. One more ship in<br />

their group wouldn’t make much difference.<br />

‘Ah, Asp, a heartfelt thank-you to you all, all three of you, on behalf of myself and my crew. And<br />

their families.’ Hesperus didn’t know if any of his crew had families; he supposed they did,<br />

although he had always suspected that Stepan had been found under a rock somewhere. Still, no<br />

harm in laying it on. ‘Are you inbound to Qudira station?’<br />

‘We are now. That’s us full up. Have to shift this salvage somewhere. You want to tag along?’<br />

Hesperus wrinkled his nose, and hitched on a smile. ‘If it would not trouble you, we would be in<br />

your debt.’ He swore, silently. Bad choice of words! ‘No trouble, commander. You can buy us a beer<br />

when we’re home and dry.’ Well…a beer. Probably means a beer each, thought Hesperus sourly.<br />

Still, though: alive and rich, in return for three beers, was a good deal. ‘It would be my pleasure.’<br />

He rolled the Dubious Profit around and laid her on course again for the station. The Cobra Rapier<br />

took point, and the two Asps sailed out to guard the flanks. The Profit had been battered, but not<br />

broken, and the old lady was slowly healing. Together, the little convoy headed in-system for<br />

Qudira.<br />

In the end, it cost Hesperus four beers: the Cobra Rapier carried a co-pilot. All four of his<br />

rescuers were tall, thin humans, and they joined Hesperus in one of the low-gee bars near Qudira<br />

station’s core.<br />

Hesperus did his best to be civil when he met them, but he was in a foul mood. Tulka’s agent –<br />

yet another human, a long bony female with a nose like the blade of an axe – had met the Profit in<br />

the docking bay, with bad news.<br />

‘Mr Tulka’s standing instructions are quite clear, Captain,’ she had said. ‘The market here in<br />

Qudira has dropped from its peak; I cannot authorise you to unload the cargo in this system. The<br />

margins are unsuitable. No, you will have to return to the previous schedule. The goods must be<br />

taken onwards, to Te’en, as per Mr Tulka’s original intentions.’

‘What? What? Have you any idea what we’ve been through, to get those triple-damned bloody<br />

dirt-scratchers here? We fought our way past legions of the worst kinds of vermin! We cast our lives<br />

upon the board and won through only by the very tips of our tails! Just look at my ship!’ Hesperus<br />

jabbed his finger up towards the hull of the Dubious Profit looming above them. As ever, she looked<br />

as if she was on the brink of falling to pieces.<br />

The agent didn’t even turn her head. ‘No doubt it is an inconvenience, Captain, but this shipment<br />

is bound for Te’en. If you wish to be paid you must carry it there. I am, however, permitted to offer<br />

you a small supp-lement to your fee. An additional two per cent, for your trouble.’<br />

‘Ten,’ snapped Hesperus.<br />

‘Two.’<br />

‘Eight.’<br />

‘Two.’<br />

‘Er…five?’<br />

‘Two, Captain. Precisely two.’<br />

‘Two on top of the original deal, made with Mr Tulka personally? Including all bonuses,<br />

premiums and emoluments hitherto agreed?’<br />

‘An additional two per cent, Captain, that is the limit of my auth-ority. Mr Tulka, however, is a<br />

respectable businessman, and I have no doubt that he will honour all previous arrangements.’<br />

Hesperus tugged at his whiskers in exasperation. What were the options? With an Ininish seal on<br />

the goods he couldn’t sell them to anyone but a mandated recipient: not legally, anyway, which<br />

meant not for anywhere near full price. Teen was almost halfway across the sector, a dozen jumps<br />

or more. Infuriating! He yanked his whiskers again. Not impossible, though. And the money was<br />

still good. A little better than before, in fact, if this hatchet-faced agent was telling the truth and<br />

Tulka didn’t try to weasel out of the extras on the deal. He closed his eyes, and fought down his<br />

bitter resentment.<br />

‘Very well. For a further additional two per cent, the Dubious Profit will carry Mr Tulka’s cargo<br />

on to Teen.’ He let go of his whiskers before he pulled any of them out.<br />

She sniffed. ‘I am glad to hear it. Also, I will need to inspect the merchandise, to ensure all is in<br />

order. The bill of lading, please.’<br />

‘Inspect the…we took on this cargo at Inines, you – madam,’ said Hesperus through clenched

teeth. ‘Is the work of an Ininish dock crew not up to your exacting standards?’<br />

‘The bill, please, Captain,’ replied the agent, holding out a long and bony hand.<br />

Hesperus tore the ident pad from his pocket and slammed it onto her palm. ‘There! I trust you<br />

will find everything is to your satisfaction!’ He stepped to one side, and gave the tiniest nod of his<br />

head. ‘Now, if you will excuse me: I have other duties to attend to.’ He turned his back on her and<br />

stalked across the docking bay towards the station’s internal transport system.<br />

So the fourth beer which Hesperus was obliged to supply barely registered as an imposition.<br />

When a man finds himself adrift in a boundless ocean of inconvenience, why complain when<br />

another teaspoonful is tipped over his head? Besides, the Asp pilots and the Rapier’s two crewmen<br />

were proving to be decent company, and seemed to hold Hesperus in some regard.<br />

‘Well, Hesperus, the Dubious Profit might not be the prettiest ship I’ve ever seen, but you handle<br />

her well. I’m just glad you left us enough pirates to make our trip worthwhile!’ Ander, captain of the<br />

Olympus – the Rapier’s callsign: the two Asps were named Pavonis and Ascraeus – raised his glass<br />

to Hesperus before taking a long appreciative swallow.<br />

‘Yes, indeed! You get some good action out of that old boat,’ added Perren, pilot of the Ascraeus,<br />

and the other two humans nodded, smiling.<br />

Ander drew a pack of slim Rizalan cheroots from his breast pocket, and offered one to Hesperus.<br />

‘Oh…ah…thank you,’ said Hesperus, taking one and savouring its delicate scent. He licked the<br />

tip and shook it, and it flared into life. He settled back into his chair, sipped his beer, and pulled cool<br />

spicy smoke into his lungs. He could feel his fur smoothing out, losing the electric bristling it had<br />

acquired during his conversation with Tulka’s agent.<br />

Quedly, the Olympus’s co-pilot, leaned forwards. ‘So, where do you think might be your next<br />

port of call?’<br />

Hesperus was beginning to enjoy himself. The cheroot was excellent, and the beer was adequate<br />

and pleasingly inexpensive. How nice it was to be appreciated, he thought. Here were compliments,<br />

and a genuine interest in his plans, instead of acerbic comments and carking complaints.<br />

‘Now? Now the Profit is bound for Teen, once we have cleared a few formalities with our cargo.’<br />

Quedly whistled. ‘That was pretty fast! We haven’t even got a buyer for our junk yet. You waste no<br />

time, Captain!’ ‘Time is money, gentlemen. Fortune favours the…swift.’ ‘Will you be fully laden,<br />

Captain?’ said Ander.<br />

Hesperus twitched an ear. ‘Why do you ask?’

‘Well, we’re a bit low on cargo space. Pavonis and Ascraeus, they don’t have cargo bays at all,<br />

and the Olympus can only stow twenty-seven tons at a stretch. We often have to leave perfectly<br />

good salvage unclaimed. It’s a problem.’ Ander frowned. ‘But maybe, well, if you’re interested, we<br />

could tag along with you – at least as far as Te’en? Any extra space you have inside the Profit, you<br />

could take on board anything we couldn’t fit. And when we sell it we’ll split the proceeds fifty-fifty.<br />

Half for the four of us, and half for you and your crew.’<br />

Hesperus took a long pull on his cheroot: too long. He coughed and spluttered, his eyes watering.<br />

He gulped at his beer, sucked in a wheezing gasp of air.<br />

‘Ah, do excuse me…that’s an, ah, an interesting suggestion.’ Very interesting. With Tulka’s<br />

eighty tons of machinery on board the Dubious Profit still had thirty-five tons empty. The route to<br />

Teen was a mixed bag, to say the least, but with a squadron of bounty hunters accompanying him it<br />

shouldn’t pose any great difficulty. At worst, he was getting a powerful escort for free. At<br />

best…Hesperus’s mind ran through the calculations. In a dozen jumps he might reasonably hope to<br />

fill those spare thirty-five tons at least twice over. Fill them with salvage, every gram of it clear<br />

profit. This was a moment to make a leap.<br />

‘Well, ah, Mr Ander, I think I might be able to accommodate you,’ he said. ‘The Profit currently<br />

has some thirty-five tons available. Would that be suitable?’<br />

Ander grinned. ‘It’s more than double what we can stow just now,’ he said, sticking out a hand.<br />

‘Captain Hesperus, we have a deal.’<br />

'Huh,' grunted Rus, when Hesperus told him of his shrewd bargaining. 'You trust them? You<br />

don’t think they’re just waiting for us to witch in to some desolate burg and blow us apart?'<br />

‘Really, Rus, you have a distressingly suspicious mind,’ said Hesperus, frowning. ‘It does you<br />

little credit. Think about it. What could they gain from a double-cross? Twenty-seven tons of farm<br />

machinery? When there are pirate ships out there, legal targets, their bellies full of looted luxuries<br />

and precious metals…’ He wiped his mouth. ‘Besides, they are already aware that the Dubious<br />

Profit would make a formidable opponent.’<br />

Rus jerked his head, stabbing the air with his horned snout. ‘Formidable, right. So they’re giving<br />

us an escort all the way to Teen because they admire your combat capabilities. No, that’s not<br />

suspicious at all.’<br />

Hesperus pursed his lips. ‘We offer them additional cargo space, as well as providing a powerful<br />

reserve of force,’ he said. ‘All parties gain. It is the very essence of good business. Now: we are due<br />

to launch in five minutes. The Olympus is leaving first, and will be followed by the two Asps. We

ing up the rear. And I need you down in the engine room, not crowding out the cockpit.’<br />

Rus rolled his eyes, and turned to go. ‘Oh, here,’ he said, turning back, holding out a flimsy. ‘The<br />

bill of lading. That agent told me to give it to you.’<br />

‘The bill…but what happened to the ident pad?’ asked Hesperus.<br />

‘Wasn’t compatible with Qudiran systems, apparently. This is what they use. Bunch of hick<br />

farmers. She had the dock crew drag everything out the cargo bay; shunted it all around, she did, up<br />

and down, all over the place. When it was reloaded she gave me this.’ He pushed the flimsy into<br />

Hesperus’s hand, and lumbered off down the corridor.<br />

Hesperus looked at the pale green sheet, made from some sort of thin-pressed vegetable matter. It<br />

was covered in blurry markings, barely legible. A faded ‘dira Dock Aut’ had been casually stamped<br />

across the bottom corner. A wiggly line of what must have been chemical ink was scrawled in the<br />

box labelled ‘For Official Use Only’, and a gritty black substance was leaching out of the material<br />

onto Hesperus’s fingers. It stated that the Dubious Profit contained eighty tons of ploughs, harrows,<br />

seed drills and threshers, with Inines as the port of origin. Oh well, he thought, Tulka’s agent,<br />

Tulka’s cargo, Tulka’s problem. He folded the flimsy, trying not to get any more of the black stuff<br />

on his hands, and slipped it into his jacket pocket.<br />

The voyage, although not without incident, passed without undue difficulty. The Dubious Profit<br />

managed to take on and sell a fair amount of salvage, pulled from the wreckage of shattered pirate<br />

vessels, but the proceeds had not lived up to Hesperus’s expectation. There was the odd canister of<br />

premium goods – two tons of computers scooped in the Anlere system, and three of rare Riantian<br />

spices taken in Veis – but all too often the pickings were meagre: cheap fabrics, dull carbonaceous<br />

ores, and scraps and shards of twisted hull plates.<br />

Particularly irksome was his escorts’ habit of stopping at each and every station on the way, to<br />

sell whatever they had gathered regardless of the local market conditions. This not only failed to<br />

wring the maximum value from the salvaged commodities, but often meant that the Dubious<br />

Profit’s extra cargo space was not called upon at all.<br />

When Hesperus raised the issue with Ander, the human was apologetic. ‘I realise your<br />

frustration, Captain,’ he had said, ‘but you must understand, prizes acquired from the destruction of<br />

criminals are goods without provenance. To tally cargo taken against bounties collected in the same<br />

system is a small matter, but to trans-ship those same canisters to other worlds is to invite all<br />

manner of tedious inspections from customs clerks, and endless questioning from officious<br />

policemen. Now, I do not fear Co-operative law, but I have no stomach whatsoever for their

ureaucracy!’<br />

Hesperus knew that Ander had a point. In fact, compared with his usual experiences in Co-op<br />

stations, this journey was remarkably smooth and easy. Successful bounty hunters were always<br />

welcome in any system, and even his primitive Qudiran document, bearing as it did the magic word<br />

‘Inines’ as the port of origin for the eighty tons of machinery, had attracted no extra scrutiny. He<br />

conceded that Ander knew his business: after all, every piece of salvage was pure profit, whatever it<br />

was sold for, and in any case the humans were convivial, and generous companions in the various<br />

stations’ bars.<br />

It was only when the little convoy arrived in the Teen system that things began to go awry. As<br />

they cruised in from the witchpoint Hesperus could see that something was up: dozens of little<br />

points of light glinted around the distant station. It looked like a cloud of vessels, hanging in orbit,<br />

and not at all the usual to-and-fro of traffic he expected.<br />

The comms lit up, and a bored voice droned from the speakers. ‘Inbound shipping, inbound<br />

shipping, this is Te’en Main Station. We are experiencing problems with our schedule, be advised<br />

that delays are likely.’ The message repeated, then cut off.<br />

‘Bloody agitators.’ Ander’s voice, on ship-to-ship.<br />

Hesperus’s shoulders sagged. Now what? ‘Ah, say again, Olympus?’ ‘Oh, it’s probably another<br />

labour dispute,’ said Ander. ‘Shuttle pilots from the planet blockading the docking bay. Really, the<br />

Te’en government goes too easy on them.’ Hesperus was vaguely aware of political problems on<br />

Te'en. The register made mention of a civil war, but it was practically unheard of for planetary<br />

disputes to spill out above the atmosphere and interrupt the larger life of the Co-operative. ‘Is it the<br />

war?’ he asked, trying to keep his voice neutral and incurious.<br />

‘War?’ said Ander. ‘No, no, I wouldn’t think so. The so-called Te’en ‘civil war’ is just a tiny<br />

bunch of anarchists and terrorists, making trouble and frightening honest citizens. No, this is the<br />

Shuttlers’ Union, trying it on. Working hours, or launch-window rates, or some damn thing. The<br />

Te’en Dictatorat should just get in there and crack some heads, but they’ve always been too liberal<br />

for their own good. They govern with a gentle touch.’<br />

‘You are very well-informed, Ander,’ said Hesperus. Like most spacers, Hesperus was supremely<br />

disinterested in the tedious scrabblings that went on beneath the clouds of the Co-operative worlds.<br />

He saw planets as mere obstacles, at best as convenient places around which to suspend the trading<br />

ports and shipyards where real life ebbed and flowed. Ander’s knowledge was atypical, to say the<br />


‘Oh, I’m a local boy,’ said Ander. ‘Te’en born and bred.’ ‘Ah,’ Hesperus replied, losing interest.<br />

The four ships continued on, towards the halo of idling craft.<br />

The station slowly drew nearer. The Dubious Profit’s comms clicked into life again. A private<br />

message, this time, from somewhere in-system.<br />

‘Captain Hesperus, I am glad to see your ship. This is Tulka.’ Hesperus thumbed the<br />

communicator. ‘Mr Tulka, a pleasure. We have your cargo, safe and sound.’ ‘Excellent, excellent. I<br />

see though that there is some issue with Te’en Main Station. Have you managed to obtain a docking<br />

window?’ ‘Ah, not at present, Mr Tulka. I am afraid that at the moment we must sit and wait.’ ‘That<br />

is most unfortunate, Captain. As you are no doubt aware, if the goods are not received by my agent<br />

within four hours, all bonuses are forfeit. And, of course, the penalty clauses begin to activate.’<br />

Hesperus jerked upright in the command couch. ‘What? Forfeit? And I recall no penalty clauses!’<br />

‘They are clearly stipulated on the bill of lading, Captain. You still have it, of course?’ Hesperus<br />

thought about the Ininish ident pad, and its endless scrolling legalese. He did not remember seeing<br />

any specified delivery time, but it could have said anything. A long, low stream of curses rolled<br />

from his mouth, heaping imprecations on the Qudiran agent’s head.<br />

‘Pardon, Captain?’<br />

‘Ah, excuse me, I was clearing my throat,’ Hesperus replied. He thought rapidly. Ander. Ander<br />

and his local knowledge. ‘Give me a moment, Mr Tulka, while I try to resolve our mutual problem.’<br />

He put Tulka’s call on hold, and raised the Olympus. ‘Ander? Ah, Hesperus here. I wonder if you<br />

could tell me: is this shuttle dispute likely to be resolved any time soon? Say, within the next couple<br />

of hours?’<br />

Ander laughed. ‘I wouldn’t think so. There’s only about forty ships backed up around the station:<br />

usually the Shuttlers wait until it hits three figures before they feel they’ve made their point.’<br />

Hesperus felt that he might weep. To be so close! The universe was conspiring against him. All<br />

his hoped-for returns would go glimmering. Rus would sneer, and probably take a berth in another<br />

ship. The Profit’s engines would collapse and weld themselves into a solid, inert lump, and he<br />

would drift here forever above this vile ball of dirt with its ineffectual government and fractious,<br />

inconsiderate shuttle pilots.<br />

‘You know, there might be another option, if you’re in a hurry,’ Ander said.<br />

Hesperus nearly fell out of his chair. ‘Say again? Another option? What other option?’ ‘Well…’<br />

Ander paused.

‘Ander, Mr Ander, please! Time is of the essence!’<br />

‘It’s not strictly legal, you know? Breach of regulations, all that.’ Hesperus fought to control his<br />

breathing. ‘Tell me anyway, Mr Ander. Please.’ ‘You could – and I’m not suggesting this, mind –<br />

you could make planetfall.’ Hesperus’s heart sank. That was possibly the stupidest suggestion he<br />

could have heard. The hard harbours on a planet’s surface were heavily policed, and any unlicensed<br />

craft touching down would be immediately impounded. No planetary authority could risk exposing<br />

itself to the unregulated flow of ships, cargoes, lifeforms and pathogens from the thousands of<br />

wildly various worlds that formed the Co-operative.<br />

‘I know what you’re thinking,’ Ander continued. ‘But, well…I know a spot, see? Unofficial.<br />

Away from over-anxious scrutiny.’ He chuckled. ‘My past life, Captain! I wasn’t always a straight-<br />

arrow bounty hunter! But you’re a decent guy. I like you. And you run a tight ship, and anyway<br />

you’ve been through, what, twelve separate quarantine protocols, all in the last few days. You’re<br />

clean. And it’s a damned shame to see you inconvenienced like this. You know, I feel responsible:<br />

this is my homeworld, and it’s my people who are causing you this unnecessary trouble. And with<br />

the police, and the pickets, and the traffic all round the station, there’s not a chance in hell of you<br />

being picked up. So if you’re interested…’<br />

Hesperus felt lightheaded. ‘Mr Ander, I am very interested. And if this works, I will buy you<br />

several beers.’<br />

Ander laughed again. ‘Look forward to it, Captain. I’ll send you the co-ordinates now.’ Hesperus<br />

slammed Ander’s information into his navigation console, calling up the planetary display. A<br />

cheerful green spark glowed at the head of a long valley, nestled in a range of tall mountains. They<br />

could make it there before the deadline. Just. He clicked the comms back to Tulka’s signal. ‘Mr<br />

Tulka? My apologies for keeping you waiting. I, ah, may have a solution to our problem.’ He fed<br />

Tulka the location of Ander’s secret landing site, and held his breath.<br />

‘Captain Hesperus…’<br />

Hesperus screwed his eyes shut, and gritted his teeth. ‘Yes?’ ‘I admire your boldness, and cannot<br />

fault your commitment to customer satisfaction! As it happens I am eager to get this equipment to<br />

the planet’s surface with all despatch, and by good fortune this…place…is convenient for my<br />

primary market. If you can make this delivery then I will even throw in the shuttler’s fee on top of<br />

the rest of the deal. That will fling mud in the eye of those bothersome shuttle pilots who have so<br />

little consideration for the necessities of trade!’ Limp with relief, Hesperus acknowledged, and<br />

signed off. When he called Ander to thank him, and to say goodbye, the Rapier pilot replied, ‘We’ll<br />

escort you down. Show you the best way in, yes? And we’ll see you in the station, after. I haven’t

forgotten – you owe me some beers!’ The universe was running sweetly again. Hesperus turned the<br />

Dubious Profit away from the shipping lane and sent her slipping down towards the night side of<br />

the planet, heading for the mountain valley where he could at last unload his goods and claim his<br />

just rewards.<br />

The ships crawled across the dark face of the planet, their drives scrabbling for traction against<br />

the steepening sides of Teen’s gravity well. Shuttles, equipped for atmospheric flight and coated in<br />

ablative armour, could batter their way down through the last few hundred klicks from orbit to the<br />

surface in mere minutes. The Dubious Profit and her companions, though, were creatures of the<br />

void; their engines gripped the fabric of the universe, and here, so close to a planetary mass – even<br />

one as small as Teen – that fabric was sorely bent and stretched. With the Profit’s drive in such poor<br />

shape it would take almost all of Hesperus’s spare four hours to slither down a distance that, in pure<br />

and empty space, they could have leapt in the blinking of an eye.<br />

Still, thought Hesperus, they would make their landfall with some minutes to spare; and,<br />

whispering downwards at such a stately speed, there would be little to attract the attention of any<br />

observers on the ground. Unless the engines failed, of course: then the Dubious Profit would fall<br />

like a stone, blaze like a meteor across the night sky…but in that case detection from below would<br />

be the least of his concerns, and then only for the short interval before the ship and all its crew were<br />

annihilated. With that thought in mind, and with his ears twitching to every labouring groan of the<br />

Profit’s engine, Hesperus steered a long curving arc over a black ocean, watching the valley creep<br />

closer on his console display.<br />

Flanked by Pavonis and Ascraeus and following the Olympus, the Dubious Profit slid over the<br />

pinnacles of some vertiginous low-gee mountains and glided down towards the valley floor. Ahead<br />

on the display, Hesperus could see a tiny green beacon winking in the blackness. The deck pulsed<br />

beneath his feet; the ship’s engines surged and faded, surged and faded, but the Profit held her<br />

course and came at last to a wallowing hover some tens of metres above a scoured and flattened<br />

patch of rock, marked out with sparking flares. Figures and ground vehicles moved in the<br />

surrounding darkness.<br />

The comms crackled. ‘Python, Python, you’re clear. Come on in.’ His tongue between his teeth,<br />

Hesperus nursed the controls, twitching and tweaking, until finally he let Teen’s weak gravity take<br />

her grip. The Dubious Profit gave one last lurch, then settled with a series of crunching jolts to lie<br />

gracelessly on the ground. The Rapier circled once overhead, waggling a farewell, before it and the<br />

two Asps turned and rose smoothly back towards the safety of open space.<br />

Hesperus flipped himself out from the command couch and ran in long, loping bounds towards

the airlock. Rus strode towards him from the engine room.<br />

‘Hesperus, you cross-witted dolt! Those engines are barely fit to fly flat! What the hell are we<br />

doing down the bottom of a well?’<br />

‘Business, Rus, we’re doing business. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a client waiting outside.’<br />

He slapped the airlock, beginning its cycle.<br />

Rus grunted. ‘Well, I’m going to have to take a look at the engine manifold. If your harebrained<br />

flight down here didn’t pop it out of true then your shoddy landing surely did.’ He held a bull-<br />

hammer and a duct reamer in one huge paw; they looked like ancient, primitive weapons. Hesperus<br />

suddenly remembered his Sepp & Blübach laser pistol, hidden underneath the Profit’s console. A<br />

smuggler’s den on a barbaric planet: perhaps it would be best if?<br />

The internal airlock gasped open, and Rus stepped forwards, pressing Hesperus into the narrow<br />

chamber and squashing him against the outer door.<br />

‘Uff…Rus, I…’ The inner lock heaved itself shut, and the outer door began to open. Too late,<br />

thought Hesperus. He couldn’t go back in again, only to return carrying a weapon. That would be a<br />

worse idea than not being armed in the first place. Oh well: if things turned ugly one laser pistol<br />

more or less probably wouldn’t make much difference. Anyway, Mandingo had smiled on him so<br />

far. He’d just have to ride his luck that little bit further.<br />

The outer lock clanked to one side. Hesperus grabbed the doorframe to prevent himself popping<br />

out into the darkness, and scrabbled for the access ladder with his foot. Rus prodded him. ‘Come<br />

on, come on. I need to see what this bloody little rockball is doing to my manifolds.’<br />

Hesperus slipped and slithered down the ladder, trying to compensate for Teen’s weak gravity.<br />

His boots crunched against powdered rock and a tall figure, human, with a dull cloth stretched over<br />

its nose and mouth, loomed out of the night.<br />

‘Captain Hesperus? Welcome to Te’en.’<br />

‘Thank you, ah…ow!’ Rus’s descending boot kicked him in the ear. Hesperus and the human<br />

moved to one side as the Profit’s engineer forged off towards the Python’s stern. Hesperus glowered<br />

at Rus’s retreating back, his eyes adapting quickly to the dark.<br />

‘As I was saying, thank you. Now, where is Mr Tulka’s agent? I take it your ground staff can<br />

assist us to discharge the cargo?’<br />

The human reached up and twitched aside the cloth covering its face. It was Tulka. ‘I thought it<br />

best to supervise the unloading personally, Captain,’ he said. ‘Once everything is squared away I

will make arrangements for the transfer of funds to your account. Now, if you would open the cargo<br />

bay…?’<br />

Under the sprawling belly of the Dubious Profit, Hesperus tapped in the access codes,<br />

simultaneously cancelling the regulation warning hooter as the massive bay door descended. Tulka<br />

certainly ran a well-drilled organisation: dozens of men marched into the bay with truckles and<br />

lifters. Soon the cargo was moving in a steady stream out of the ship, off towards the ground<br />

vehicles that grumbled among the expiring flicker of the marker flares.<br />

The last few canisters were leaving the ship when one of Tulka’s men jogged up, shouldering a<br />

rifle and coming to attention beside them. ‘That’s the bulk of the shipment away now, sir. I’ve sent<br />

it off to get unpacked. We’ll follow on down with the rest of the stuff as soon as it’s on the flatbeds.’<br />

Hesperus keyed the bay again. The huge door groaned ponderously up into the body of the ship,<br />

and Hesperus and Tulka strolled down to oversee the final loading. A clutch of cargo canisters were<br />

stacked together neatly beside him, and he felt the warm glow of money well earned. This was how<br />

business should be done, he thought: briskly, efficiently and with no tedious quibbling over the fee.<br />

Suddenly a wave of searing light erupted among the waiting vehicles, and a shattering explosion<br />

boomed around the surrounding cliffs. Broken figures were flung skywards, briefly silhouetted<br />

against the scarlet glare. White streams of tracer fire lanced from the darkness, hosing from three<br />

sides of the landing site. Screams and shouts rang out, and sporadic gunshots stabbed back from<br />

around the transports, seeking targets.<br />

Bristling like a bottle-brush, Hesperus dived behind a stack of canisters and flattened himself to<br />

the earth. Engines were roaring and dopplering away; bullets hummed and whined overhead; a<br />

series of high, shrieking whistles sounded and the ground shook as a chain of crashing impacts burst<br />

around him.<br />

The thunderous din went on and on, cut through with crying voices and criss-crossed by the<br />

vicious hiss and ping of flying chips of rock and red-hot metal. Finally the cacophony ceased. A few<br />

last warped echoes rolled across the valley as if trying to get out. Sharp pops and snaps leaked from<br />

the burning ground-cars, and an ugly gasping whimper rose from somewhere beyond.<br />

Hesperus clung to the dusty ground, eyes screwed shut. He could hear a scatter of footsteps;<br />

there was a hard crack and the whimpering cut off. The footsteps crunched closer. Low voices<br />

muttered: ‘Clear.’ ‘Clear.’ ‘He’s down now.’ ‘Clear.’<br />

‘Get those containers in. Looks like we missed the main load but let’s see what they left behind.’<br />

A firm determined voice, used to authority.

Play dead, Hesperus thought. Play dead and maybe stay alive. He could hear the canisters being<br />

dragged away, one by one.<br />

Something hard prodded him in the back. He didn’t move. A thick voice from above him called<br />

out. ‘Looks like there was an offworlder, chief.’<br />

‘Check it for ID.’<br />

Hesperus was rolled over in a cloud of dust and grit. He sneezed. His eyes jerked open as the<br />

barrel of a rifle rammed hard against his nose.<br />

‘Still breathing, chief! I pop it?’<br />

There was a ghastly pause.<br />

‘No. No. Bring it. It might know what slipped out.’ A dirty hand shot down, grabbing Hesperus<br />

by the throat and hauling him to his feet. He gasped, choking, struggling for air. The blunt stock of<br />

the rifle whipped round; there was a moment of blinding pain, and Hesperus rushed down into a<br />

sick and soundless dark.<br />

Someone tugged at the scruff of his neck. And again, harder, pulling him up to a sitting position.<br />

Hesperus groaned. His head ached; his mouth tasted of stone and iron and roasted hydrocarbons.<br />

Something was crusted in his fur behind his ear. What, what, for love and death, what had he been<br />

drinking? He cracked open his eyes. A filthy face swam into view. A man, a human. There had been<br />

a lot of humans lately, thought Hesperus.<br />

Memory slid down through him like a spear of ice. His eyelids shot up and he let out a wild yell,<br />

which was muffled by some disgusting rag that jammed his mouth.<br />

The grip on his neck tightened, and the human spoke. ‘It’s awake, chief.’ Hesperus was sitting on<br />

the cold damp floor of a rock-lined tunnel, his tail trapped painfully underneath his buttocks. His<br />

ankles were bound together and his arms were tied tight behind his back. The air was ripe with the<br />

odour of old vegetables and unwashed bodies. Clangs and curses sounded a little way off down the<br />

passage.<br />

Blinking through a film of tears, Hesperus saw another human loom into view. ‘Oh good. I<br />

thought you’d killed it.’ The same commanding voice that had ordered him kept alive.<br />

The newcomer crouched in front of him. A female, dressed in something dark and militaristic:<br />

tall, with short iron-grey hair cropped close to her skull. A flat, broken nose, the face a map of<br />

wrinkled skin. She slid a long, thin knife from a forearm sheath and drew little circles with its tip in<br />

front of Hesperus’s eye.

She glanced up at the figure who was clutching Hesperus’s neck. ‘Think it knows anything<br />

useful?’ she asked, conversationally.<br />

‘Doubt it, chief,’ came the reply. ‘Let’s just stick it now, and see how long it bleeds for.’ The tip<br />

of the knife continued to circle round and round. Hesperus moaned through the gag.<br />

‘I dunno,’ said the woman. ‘Sounded there like it was trying to say something.’ ‘Well, then,’ the<br />

other one said, ‘take an eye out. It can talk with one eye.’ Circle, circle.<br />

Hesperus moaned again, louder, desperately trying to sound communicative and helpful through<br />

a mouthful of stinking material.<br />

The woman frowned, chewing her lower lip. ‘Tell you what,’ she said, as the knifepoint slowly<br />

cruised around, ‘we’ll see what it has to say now. Then, if we don’t like it, we’ll?’ the knife jerked,<br />

then circled again, ‘?cut one out and start again. Hmm?’<br />

The human holding Hesperus grunted, sounding disappointed. The woman reached up and<br />

tugged the cloth from Hesperus’s mouth.<br />

‘Watch them teeth, chief. Nasty. Maybe I should break ’em for you first?’ There was a scraping<br />

noise of heavy metal on stone.<br />

Hesperus coughed, retching, then began to babble. ‘Oh, I’ll tell you anything you want give you<br />

anything you want money? I’m rich, very rich I can pay you might like some service I can provide a<br />

mine of information bill of lading right here with all present…’ The knife-tip touched his nose,<br />

gently, sliding under its own slight weight perhaps a millimetre into the tender flesh. Hesperus<br />

yipped and snapped into silence.<br />

The woman touched a finger to her lips, and the knife withdrew, just. ‘Speak when you’re<br />

spoken to,’ she said, staring into his eyes. ‘First things first: you are an agent of the Dictatorat, a<br />

collaborator and a war criminal. I am Griva Geird, cadre commander of the Farmers’ Army in the<br />

Vennel Highlands. I can have you strangled, right here, right now. The only reason you are still<br />

breathing is because I think you know what is in that shipment. If you don’t tell me, I’m going to<br />

cut off your rancid hide and use it as a rug. Do you understand?’<br />

Hesperus gave a minuscule nod, cringing back from the razor-edged blade.<br />

‘Good. Now. What is in that shipment?’<br />

‘Farm equipment. Ploughs, harrows, seed drills and threshers. I would be delighted if you took<br />

them, with my compliments.’ His voice got higher and higher, ending in a squeak.

Geird punched him in the gut, forcing the air from his lungs. Only the hard grip at his nape<br />

prevented him from doubling over and impaling his head on the knife. ‘Try again.’<br />

‘It’s farm equipment!’ gasped Hesperus. ‘Farm equipment! We were making a delivery for Mr<br />

Tulka!’<br />

fast.<br />

The knife came closer to Hesperus’s eye. Very, very close. He tried to draw away but was held<br />

‘Now we’re getting something, at least,’ Geird said. ‘Tulka. You were making a delivery for<br />

Colonel Tulka of the Silent Service. Colonel Tulka is not known for his interest in farm machinery.<br />

What were you delivering?’<br />

Hesperus clamped his eyes shut, horribly aware of that evil point tickling at his eyelashes. ‘I<br />

don’t know any Colonel Tulka! I was delivering farm machinery to Mr Tulka, Hedred Tulka. He’s a<br />

businessman, a merchant, like me! Please, you have to believe me! Open the bloody cans and see<br />

for yourself! I’m just making a delivery!’<br />

‘He’s making fun of you, chief,’ growled the man, squeezing even tighter. ‘Slit him and see what<br />

falls out.’<br />

‘Farm equipment! Open the cans!’ Hesperus shrieked. ‘You can check the bill of lading! It’s right<br />

here! Top pocket, there, there, just look, can’t you?’<br />

Geird teased open Hesperus’s pocket, extracting the flimsy and scanning its contents. Her lips<br />

drew back in what could not possibly be called a smile. ‘Right enough, farm machinery,’ she said.<br />

‘How could we have doubted you? This here is all the proof I need that you were delivering – let’s<br />

see – ploughs, harrows, seed drills and threshers. To Colonel Hedred Tulka, at a secret rendezvous<br />

in the Vennel Highlands, escorted in by half the Dictatorat’s Star Fleet.’<br />

‘No, no!’ Hesperus whimpered. ‘What ‘Star Fleet’? Those three ships were just some bounty<br />

hunters we fell in with…a business deal…mutually beneficial…’ He trailed away into silence under<br />

the woman’s cold stare.<br />

‘C’mon, chief,’ said the man. ‘This is a waste of time. I’ll just throttle it now, eh?’ He hauled at<br />

Hesperus’s neck, dragging him upright and ramming him face-first against the wall of the cave. The<br />

shallow cut on his nose stung furiously.<br />

‘Wait.’<br />

‘Yes, yes, wait, wait!’ Hesperus yelled out the corner of his mouth, as his nose grated on the<br />

unyielding rock.

‘Aw, chief…’<br />

‘Shut it, Fez,’ Geird said. ‘I’m thinking.’<br />

Hesperus panted for breath, each one more precious than the last. Finally, the woman spoke<br />

again.<br />

‘Either this offworlder is a dedicated agent of the Dictatorat, or it’s the greatest fool since Filmer.<br />

Now, I’m not ruling out the former, but right now I’m not ruling out the latter, either.’<br />

‘Either way, chief, it’s no use to us.’ The man – Fez – leaned his weight towards the wall.<br />

Hesperus felt as if his spine was about to snap.<br />

‘We still haven’t been able to open the canisters,’ Geird replied. ‘May-be the alien can tell us<br />

how.’ She stood up, and walked off. ‘Bring it.’<br />

Fez, tutting, gave one last shove on Hesperus’s neck before hauling him away from the wall and<br />

dragging him down the passage.<br />

One of the hulking cargo containers occupied the middle of the chamber. Four others stood<br />

against the far wall. Next to them Hesperus could see the mouth of the cave, a few stars still<br />

gleaming in the paling sky. He stared out at them, hungrily. Another man, dressed in ragged fatigues<br />

and holding a crude-looking kinetic rifle, crouched at one side. Beyond him lay a narrow ledge: the<br />

cave must sit at the very lip of a precipice.<br />

Strange assemblies of thin struts, harnesses and fabric hung from metal hooks driven into the<br />

wall near the entrance. Another human, some sort of technician, clutching an array of tools, was<br />

peering at the access panel of the nearest container.<br />

Geird pointed at the single canister. ‘How do we open this?’ she snapped.<br />

Hesperus struggled to get his bound feet under him, to take the weight off the scruff of his neck.<br />

‘The codes…access codes are on the bill of lading.’<br />

Geird passed the flimsy to the tech. Peering at the crumpled sheet, he dabbed at the panel.<br />

Nothing happened. ‘No good, chief.’<br />

‘No good,’ Geird said, evenly. ‘How do we open it?’ Oh, gods, thought Hesperus. Either the tech<br />

monkey couldn’t work a keypad or…or this hideous woman was right, and his shipment was<br />

something very far from farm machinery, and Tulka was most definitely not a simple merchant.<br />

‘Well, ah, well, that’s most unorthodox, ah…Oh! There’s the Co-op override.’ He glanced<br />

around. ‘If you return me to my ship I can open it there.’ Geird narrowed her eyes, glancing towards

Fez. ‘Or I can open it here!’ said Hesperus quickly. ‘I can open it. Just untie my hands and give me<br />

a, a Fourier analyser and a crystal pick.’<br />

Geird turned to the tech. ‘You got those?’<br />

‘Uh…no, chief,’ he replied.<br />

She turned back to Hesperus. ‘Try again.’<br />

Hesperus felt tears welling up behind his eyes. This wasn’t fair! It just wasn’t fair. ‘Well, what<br />

have you got then?’ he yelled. ‘I’m doing my best here! It’s not my fault you’re a bunch of<br />

backwards bloody dirtscrapers, living in a hole! Maybe you could hit the canister, shout at it, torture<br />

and threaten it, maybe, have you tried that yet?’<br />

There was a rising rumble from Fez and Hesperus was lifted into the air.<br />

‘Put it down, Fez,’ Geird said, absently, and Hesperus’s feet were set back on the earthen floor.<br />

She turned to the technician. ‘Show the alien what you’ve got.’<br />

Scowling, the tech scooped up his meagre equipment and thrust it under Hesperus’s nose. An<br />

assorted collection of odds and ends: bits of bent metal, mostly. A penlight. Some sort of insulated<br />

gripper. A little box with wires and a meter on the front.<br />

‘Well?’ Geird sounded bored.<br />

Hesperus shut his eyes, and took a deep breath. ‘I – it might serve.’ ‘It better,’ she replied. ‘I’ll<br />

give you one hour. Untie it,’ this to Fez, ‘and watch it closely. Anything funny happens…’ She drew<br />

her forefinger across her throat.<br />

Geird strode away, deeper into the cave. Fez tugged an ugly serrated blade from his belt and<br />

sawed through Hesperus’s bonds. Hesperus clenched his hands, trying to squeeze some feeling back<br />

into his numbed fingers. He peered at the access panel, and quickly tapped in the code from the bill<br />

of lading, just to be sure. Nothing. In his heart he laid a thousand curses on Tulka’s head. There was<br />

no way that Tulka could have bypassed Ininish dockyard protocols, so how…?<br />

The agent in Qudira. The agent who had unloaded all the cargo for inspection. And who had then<br />

reloaded the Dubious Profit with eighty tons of something else, under a Qudiran docket. You fool,<br />

Hesperus, you fool! Tulka couldn’t have loaded a false cargo at Inines, but suborning the Qudiran<br />

officials – persuading them to look the other way while one consignment was switched for another<br />

– that would have been easy. A gift of eighty tons of Ininish farm machinery would have been more<br />

than enough. And the three bounty hunters, who just happened by, and who then gave the Dubious<br />

Profit a free escort to Teen? Ha! The Shuttlers’ strike? Ha! The smugglers’ landing site that Ander

so conveniently knew about? Ha, again! He had been played, all down the line. He had been<br />

dazzled by the deal, by the money on offer. It had seemed too good to be true, and it was. Fool, fool,<br />

fool.<br />

Would Tulka have even paid? Or would he have just taken the cargo and put a bolt between<br />

Hesperus’s eyes? Hesperus fancied that, probably, Tulka would have paid. Why not? The contract<br />

was paying a little over the odds for a delivery of farm machinery, true, but it was decidedly cheap<br />

for a long-range smuggling run. Hesperus swore, horribly.<br />

‘What’s up? You can’t open it?’ said Fez. He was grinning.<br />

Hesperus snapped back to the here and now. He snarled up at Fez, baring his long teeth. ‘Shut<br />

your mouth. Shut your mouth and stand over there. You’re in my light.’<br />

Fez curled his upper lip, but took one small step to the side.<br />

Hesperus peered at the panel, chewing on his thumb. Canister technology was pretty basic,<br />

wherever it came from; even the Dubious Profit’s onboard systems would tumble the lock in<br />

nanoseconds. But to open one manually, with rudimentary tools? Frowning, he probed at the edge<br />

of the access panel with a short metal rod, its tip splayed out into a small thin blade. With a little<br />

prying and poking he managed to slide the edge of the tool between the panel and the canister.<br />

Carefully, he levered up the panel’s frame, working along all four sides until he could pop it out<br />

entirely.<br />

He flicked on the penlight and squinted into the narrow gap between the panel and the canister<br />

body, counting the active circuits. Pressure control: check; temperature control: check. So whatever<br />

was inside, it was environmentally sensitive. Hesperus scowled: that would make it harder to open.<br />

He leaned against the canister, drumming his fingers on the scratched alloy surface. Think, think!<br />

Whatever it contained, it had to be illegal – otherwise why would Tulka perpetrate this ridiculous<br />

charade?<br />

Illegal, and environmentally sensitive. That usually meant narcotics. Was Tulka shipping drugs to<br />

Teen? Possibly, but if he was Colonel Tulka, a military man…firearms. Gun-running. But it would<br />

be unusual to pack any sort of munitions in pressurised containers, unless they were appallingly<br />

delicate and dangerous. Hesperus shivered, imagining nerve-gas shells and multi-spectrum virus<br />

bombs. He snatched his hands away as if the canister had burned them.<br />

He swallowed hard, forcing back the rush of panic. Tulka and his crew had taken no special<br />

precautions, and Tulka seemed to be a cautious man. Slaves, then? It hardly seemed likely. A<br />

backwards agricultural planet like Teen usually produced plenty of slaves on its own account. He

leaned forward and shone the penlight into the crevice again. Life support: check.<br />

Slaves! Finally, a stroke of luck! All he needed to do was break the life support circuit and the<br />

canister would open automatically. He was just about to jab the blade into the gap when a bubble of<br />

doubt floated up in the back of his mind. Maybe, just maybe he should think, first.<br />

He had met Tulka on Inines. Then he went to Qudira, where Tulka’s agent had secretly<br />

exchanged the cargo. This was an elaborate scheme, well-planned and ably executed. Now, Tulka<br />

might have many reasons to import slaves – Hesperus could think of several – but this operation<br />

had been backed by the resources of the Teen state. There was something particularly important<br />

about these slaves. Inines had been chosen as a perfect place to pick up a consignment that no-one<br />

could question. Qudira had been chosen because it was a low-technology, lawless system, away<br />

from the prying eyes of the Co-operative, where the switch could take place. But why those two<br />

systems, specifically? Dozens of similar planets could be found throughout the sector; there were<br />

several suitable candidates closer to Teen than Inines and Qudira. How deep did this plan run?<br />

The sharp little instrument hovered above the life support circuit, as Hesperus rolled the facts<br />

around in his mind. An illicit cargo; Qudira; Inines; the war on Teen. A cold finger of dread<br />

slithered down his spine. Oh. Oh, no. Not that, surely…but it fitted; it all added up.<br />

Slowly, Hesperus stood and backed away from the pod.<br />

‘That it? You got it open?’ said Fez.<br />

‘I don’t think that would be a good idea,’ said Hesperus quietly. ‘I really don’t think you want me<br />

to open this.’<br />

‘The chief told you to get it open. Are you telling me you can’t? Or you won’t? Either way, I’ll<br />

stick you and fling you off the cliff.’ He pointed his knife towards the mouth of the cave.<br />

‘I…look, I think I know what’s in here. It’s – it’s dangerous.’ ‘‘Dangerous’, huh? More<br />

dangerous than me?’ Fez stepped forwards, the knife weaving back and forth, level with Hesperus’s<br />

midriff.<br />

If I’m right, thought Hesperus, then yes: what’s in this pod would eat you alive, would run<br />

through this sorry little warren like wildfire. But he couldn’t risk provoking the human.<br />

‘Your chief wanted to know what’s inside the canisters,’ he said, struggling to sound calm and<br />

reasonable. ‘Well, I think I can tell her now. I’ll tell her, and then she can decide whether or not she<br />

wants them opened. How about that?’ And I just hope and pray she keeps them shut, he thought.<br />

Roll them into a pit and bury them under a rockslide, or seal them in steel and drop them in the

ocean.<br />

Fez narrowed his eyes. ‘Why don’t you tell me?’<br />

Because I think you’re perilously stupid, thought Hesperus. Because you’re exactly the kind of<br />

idiot who would insist on opening the pod when I tell you what’s inside. Because you’re a big,<br />

tough alpha-male who’s been struggling for some time taking orders from a female, and your little<br />

pack-animal primate brain keeps trying to kick you into a dominance display. He was trying to<br />

formulate some expression to communicate all this in a diplomatic manner when the sentry at the<br />

cave mouth called softly back into the tunnel.<br />

‘Lookout’s coming in.’<br />

Fez turned away from Hesperus, towards the entrance. The sentry pressed himself against the<br />

wall. A shadow swept across the cave mouth, and Hesperus could hear a heavy flapping. Dust<br />

kicked up in spiral eddies, sparkling in the dawn light. A tall, thin avian thudded onto the ledge<br />

outside the cave and loped inside, raising its wings clumsily above its head as it skidded to a halt.<br />

‘Movement in the canyons,’ it gasped. ‘Looks like ten, twelve scouting parties.’ The avian gave a<br />

shrug and its wings slid off in a heap on the floor. Blinking, Hesperus realised that this was no bird.<br />

It was a human: the wings were webs of plastic sheeting, stretched between long, thin rods. Each<br />

wing was twice the length of the human’s arm, and the whole assemblage could be strapped on like<br />

a backpack. A kite-like structure hung down behind, probably some sort of stabilising tail. Those<br />

were other bird-suits hanging on hooks along the wall. Teen was a small planet: its combination of<br />

low gravity and a thick atmosphere meant that human beings – even the tall, gracile natives – were<br />

capable of flying under their own power.<br />

A desperate notion began to form in Hesperus’s mind. A lunatic idea; one so hideously risky it<br />

made his stomach lurch. But maybe…he took a deep breath and turned to Fez.<br />

‘Guns,’ he said.<br />

Fez’s head snapped back round towards him. ‘What?’ ‘Guns. Weapons. Dangerous,’ said<br />

Hesperus, pointing at the canister. ‘Almost certainly high-tech. Horribly dangerous. And illegal.<br />

You should turn them in to the Co-operative embassy. Plasma carbines, I shouldn’t wonder.<br />

Frightful things, they are. You could take out a target on the horizon with one of those. If you were a<br />

good shot. Terribly, terribly dangerous. It would be irresponsible of me to open these pods. Five<br />

whole tons of plasma carbines, oh my, no.’ Fez grinned, savagely. ‘So that’s Tulka’s game, is it?<br />

We’ve been holding off his entire army for years here in the mountains. Now he gives his boys<br />

some shiny alien playthings and thinks he can force us out with superior firepower. Oh, will we

have a surprise in store for him!’ He pointed his knife at Hesperus’s throat. ‘Open them. Open all of<br />

them. Open them or I’ll open you.’ Hesperus clasped his hands together in front of his chest. ‘Is<br />

there nothing I can say to dissuade you? No? Well, then, I must comply. I wish to make it known<br />

though that I do this under protest.’ ‘Noted,’ said Fez. ‘Now open them. You,’ he said, turning to the<br />

panting lookout, ‘you know the drill. Get back down the tunnel and alert the cadres. Holben,’ this to<br />

the sentry, ‘get your eyes out there.’ The lookout jogged off down the passageway. The sentry got<br />

down on his belly and wormed his way to the lip of the ledge, scanning down the cliff-face with his<br />

rifle.<br />

Hesperus moved around the five canisters, exposing the access panel circuitry on each one. It<br />

would be best, he thought, if they all opened more or less at once. At least that way, if his plan<br />

failed, death would come more quickly. No! No. Boldness and confidence! Do or die…<br />

With a sharp jab he cracked the life support circuit on the first canister, then worked his way<br />

along the other four. His task complete, he stood with his back against the wall, in front of one of<br />

the dangling bird-suits.<br />

The canisters were emitting tinny cheeping noises as their failsafes kicked in. There was a series<br />

of low, powerful thuds as internal locks disengaged. Fez tucked his knife back into his belt and<br />

stood beside the central canister, staring at it greedily.<br />

Hesperus reached up behind him and nudged a pair of wings from their fastening. They settled<br />

down onto his shoulders. Fez seemed to have forgotten him. With shaking hands he buckled the<br />

straps across his chest. The hand-loops of the wings, though, were beyond his grasp: they were<br />

designed for the long arms of Teen humans. Fighting down a whimper, Hesperus extended his claws<br />

and poked his fingers through the plastic sheeting to grip the main struts. Just…about…now!<br />

There was a final, definitive clang from the first canister, and it unfolded with a crash. Fez<br />

yelled, jumping back as a tide of liquefied shock-gel rolled out. The other canisters shook and burst<br />

open, and Hesperus, eyes bulging in terror, took two springing steps and leapt high over the turning<br />

sentry’s head, out into the clear cold nothingness beyond.<br />

The bottom of the cliff was still in shadow, far below. There was a shout behind him and a bang,<br />

appallingly near, then hideous whooping snarls and a burbling shriek. Teen’s feeble gravity began to<br />

tug on him, softly but insistently. Sobbing, he dragged his arms down in one desperate flap and<br />

rose, just in time to see the human sentry sprint from the cave, flinging himself from the ledge and<br />

curving slowly downwards. The human screamed until his lungs were empty; then dragged in<br />

another breath and screamed again, and again, and again, the fading sound echoing back from the<br />

grey stone walls as his world pulled him down, faster and faster into the darkness.

Hesperus flapped frantically, almost wrenching his shoulders from their sockets. He pushed<br />

himself up through the chill air by main force, the flimsy wings bowing with each stroke. From the<br />

cave below him he could hear the chatter of rifles and the hissing pulse of energy weapons, laced<br />

through with anguished cries and high, weird chanting.<br />

He lurched higher and higher, but try as he might he couldn’t seem to generate any forward<br />

momentum. He thrust at the air again, straining for breath. The wind, snaking around the cliffs,<br />

plucked at him, shoving him sideways, until one spiteful gust flipped him over and sent him<br />

tumbling. Swearing and thrashing, he managed to roll himself upright again just in time to see a<br />

slanted face of loose, shattered stones looming up in front. Rowing desperately with his wings,<br />

Hesperus thudded against the scree, cracking his knees on the jagged rocks. One wingtip snagged<br />

and he was flung face-first onto the slope. He bounced, once, then fell again, slithering dozens of<br />

metres in a river of dust and gravel to lodge at last in the bottom of a dry, grit-choked gully.<br />

Rocks and pebbles rolled after him, pinging off the plastic wings, clattering down the gully and<br />

plunging out into the void beyond. Battered, bruised, his chest heaving, his nose and mouth clogged<br />

with dust, Hesperus clung for dear life to the framework of his wings, now splayed out above his<br />

head against the mountainside.<br />

Some time passed. The rattling stream of stones slowed to a dribble and finally expired.<br />

Hesperus’s heart stopped leaping and kicking inside his chest, gradually easing back down to a<br />

regular, if panicky, rhythm. He scraped his boots around, making sure they were firmly planted,<br />

terrified of following the chips of rock out the mouth of the gully and off the edge of the cliff. He<br />

dug his knees into the ground and eased himself upright, shaking debris from the wings. They<br />

looked undamaged. He propped the wings back over his shoulders, unhooked his hands and ran<br />

them tentatively over his face and torso.<br />

His fur was caked with dirt. His nose was crusted with blood and filth, and his jacket was torn<br />

down the front, but apart from that he seemed to be intact. He dusted his face, flicking grit from his<br />

ears and spitting flakes of stone from his mouth. He could hear a few distant, muffled cries; then<br />

silence.<br />

He scanned all around him. He was kneeling at the bottom of a short V-shaped crevice, rock and<br />

gravel in front, blank stone walls behind and to the left, and to the right the gully sloping down off<br />

into empty space. He couldn’t see very far in any direction. Still, at least that meant nothing could<br />

see him, either.<br />

Now what? He was lost in some mountain range he’d never heard of, on a world at the back end<br />

of nowhere, in the middle of a civil war. Somewhere out there lay the Dubious Profit, stuck like a

ug to the planet’s rotten hide. Unless Rus somehow managed to override the Profit’s command<br />

protocols, which were locked to Hesperus’s own wetprints. Maybe he would, although doing so<br />

would be a tricky operation. Maybe he had, and was already sweeping through the skies on a<br />

search-and-rescue mission! Unless he’d been killed in the attack.<br />

A tiny particle of concern flicked through Hesperus’s mind. Rus was at best difficult, at worst<br />

violent, and most of the time simply surly and insubordinate. Right at this moment though Hesperus<br />

felt he would give anything just to see his angry blue face, and hear his shouted insults. He sniffled<br />

a bit, then his mood grew bleaker. Even if Rus was still alive, thought Hesperus sourly, and had<br />

managed to override the protocols, he wouldn’t take the Dubious Profit out to look for his missing<br />

captain. He’d just hightail it off out into space and never look back.<br />

A shattering boom jerked him out of his melancholy reverie. The ground pulsed, sending grit and<br />

gravel flying and threatening to pitch him off the edge into the canyon below. He clawed at the<br />

ground, fighting for grip. A slow rain of rocks thudded into the scree, crashing and smashing in<br />

terrifying sequence. Above him, over the lip of the slope, a mushrooming column of smoke and dust<br />

ballooned upwards.<br />

The biggest boulders crunched down into craters of their own making, slipping and sliding.<br />

Smaller rocks curved overhead. Hesperus tugged the wings into a tent around him and crouched<br />

instinctively. The fragile membranes wouldn’t save him, but at least he didn’t have to see death<br />

coming.<br />

The cataract of rubble tailed off; he was still alive. Something heavy had slid into the gully, just<br />

above him, but seemed to have lodged there. The dust cleared, and Hesperus peeked out from<br />

beneath the wings. Half-buried in the rockfall was a body. It choked, and groaned, and levered itself<br />

up into a sitting position. It was Geird.<br />

She coughed, pawing at her face, moaning. A ghastly smell of burnt meat washed off her.<br />

Through the grime Hesperus could see that one side of her head was hideously scarred, cooked into<br />

a livid scarlet. Her hair was seared off down to raw flesh, one eye melted shut. The other swivelled<br />

crazily, and locked on to him.<br />

‘You!’ she spat. ‘You. Kill you. I’ll. Kill you.’ Her hand dredged a blunt pistol from the gravel. It<br />

wobbled in her grip but she was very close. She steadied the weapon. Hesperus could see down its<br />

cold black snout.<br />

‘Those things – things you brought. What? What are they?’ Hesperus stared, open-mouthed.<br />

‘Answer me, filth!’ she said. ‘Tell me what they are, and how I stop them! Tell me and I’ll kill

you clean.’ The gun jerked down, aiming at his body. ‘Or I’ll shoot you in the gut and you’ll be<br />

hours in dying.’<br />

You don’t look like you’ve many hours left yourself, thought Hesperus. If I keep talking maybe<br />

she’ll die before she shoots me. So he told her.<br />

‘They’re Poets,’ he replied.<br />

‘Poets?’ Geird hacked, and the gun wavered, then steadied. ‘What? What do you mean?’<br />

‘Celabiler Poets. Mercenaries.’<br />

‘Tell me.’<br />

‘Celabile is a planet in the north-east quadrant of the sector,’ he said. ‘It’s a corporate world,<br />

quite high-tech. Quite civilised, really. Only…well, they have this problem. It’s a social problem.<br />

You know poetry? Human poetry? Verses, metaphors, imagery, all that?’<br />

‘Stop…stop wasting my time. Tell me what they are.’ ‘I told you. They’re Celabiler Poets. The<br />

inhabitants of Celabile, they’re smart, cultured. Pretty much self-sufficient. Massive planetary<br />

investment in hydroponics, vat-grown meat products. They’re, ah, Rodentia, you know? Very good<br />

with their hands, very technical. Very literal-minded. The problem is, they can’t handle poetry.<br />

Human poetry, in particular. It’s very rich, so I understand, in layered meanings. The, the rhythm,<br />

the metre and rhyme, all the symbolism, the oblique implications. Anyway, Celabilers can’t handle<br />

it. It sends them…well, not insane, but into a very different mental state. Altered, I suppose you<br />

could call it.’ Geird slipped sideways, the gun drooping. Her remaining eye looked glassy,<br />

unfocused. With a groan she waved the pistol back in Hesperus’s direction.<br />

‘It turns out it’s an excellent frame of mind for a mercenary,’ he continued. ‘There’s unblinking<br />

ferocity, a kind of, of berserk battle-joy…a single-minded lust for victory. So the Celabile<br />

government – did I mention the planet’s a corporate state? The Celabile government does the<br />

sensible thing. It exports them. Any Celabiler citizen who falls victim to this affliction, they suit<br />

them up in combat armour, kit them out with superior weapons, and trade them away to whoever<br />

needs a remorseless, utterly obedient warrior with no pity and no fear of death. It’s perfectly legal<br />

on Celabile, and of course if they’re bought by a planetary government, it’s legal to deploy them.<br />

It’s just not legal to transport them, is all.’<br />

Geird was lying now, her ruined face resting on a boulder. Her eye closed, then flicked open<br />

again. Her voice was barely a whisper. ‘Control?’<br />

‘Ah, yes, well, that’s the tricky part. See, they only really respond to instructions in verse. And

doggerel won’t do: it has to be real poetry. Emotion, vivid mental pictures, the lot. Usually they’re<br />

pre-programmed; there’s a rather profitable black market in tactical poetry to order.’<br />

‘Huh,’ grunted Geird. ‘I controlled ’em. Brought the mountain down on top of ’em, I did.’ Good,<br />

thought Hesperus. That might actually do the trick. The fewer Celabiler Poets there were roaming<br />

around on this rock, the happier he would be. Of course, there was the other seventy-five tons he’d<br />

brought in…he decided not to mention that.<br />

Geird propped one arm underneath her, and raised her head again. Thin trickles of blood seeped<br />

from her mouth and nose. ‘Why?’ she said. ‘Why’d you do it? What did we ever do to you?’<br />

‘Ah,’ said Hesperus, ‘well, I did try to tell you. I didn’t know I was transporting Celabiler Poets.<br />

I really did think I was shipping farm machinery.’ He wondered if that was true. Hadn’t he known<br />

the deal was screwy, right from the start? Maybe he’d just ignored the warning signs, because he<br />

wanted the money. But then again, he thought, we’ve all got to eat. I have to keep the Profit flying.<br />

‘Not just these monsters,’ said Geird, quietly. ‘Not just these Poets. All you aliens. All the<br />

damned Co-operative, why do you hate us?’<br />

‘Um…I’m not sure what you mean.’<br />

‘You side with the Dictatorat. You all float up there,’ she waved the pistol towards the sky, ‘up<br />

there in your palaces and temples and shining stars. You see our suffering and you do nothing. You<br />

bring in guns, and supplies, and, and beasts for scum like Tulka. Why d’you hate us?’<br />

‘We – I – we don’t hate you. I don’t even think there’s a ‘we’. The galaxy, it’s vast: thousands of<br />

planets, of species. Millions of ships and trillions of people, all on their own tracks. The Co-<br />

operative is really just a convention, just a way of keeping everybody going along.’<br />

Geird was weeping, now, tears leaking from her single eye, the barrel of the pistol dipping down<br />

to point at the dirt. ‘Don’t you care?’ she pleaded. ‘Don’t you care?’<br />

‘Care? I…I don’t – there’s nothing out there to care.’ The gun jerked up again, pointing directly<br />

into Hesperus’s eyes. ‘I’ll make you care!’ she hissed, tears and blood streaming down her face.<br />

‘No! No! Of course I care!’ yelled Hesperus.<br />

The hammer came down with a dry click. Nothing. Geird pulled the trigger again, and again.<br />

Click, click, click.<br />

‘Damn you!’ she wailed, trying to drag herself forwards. ‘Damn you!’ She hurled the pistol at<br />

Hesperus. It struck the rock above his head, bouncing and rattling down the gully before

disappearing over the edge.<br />

Geird clutched at the loose rock, coughing. Her body arched and heaved, then slumped down and<br />

lay still.<br />

An icy breeze blew up the gully, bringing fat, slow drops of cold rain. Shivering, Hesperus drew<br />

his wings around him, pulling them into a crude shelter. The rain thumped and thudded against the<br />

plastic, as he huddled there next to Geird’s stiffening corpse. The chill wind that whined and<br />

snapped about them was no more cruel than the rest of the universe.<br />

The bitter rain and treacherous winds lasted all through the rest of the day and into the long<br />

night. Hesperus lapped at the rain feverishly, easing his thirst. He was hungry, too, but the<br />

occasional whiff of charred flesh that leaked from Geird’s body made him retch, and helped keep<br />

the pangs at bay. He heard no further sounds of conflict, just the lonely whistle of the wind as it<br />

battered at the rocks.<br />

The morning dawned clear and cold, and Hesperus took stock of his situation. Shuddering, he<br />

searched Geird for anything useful, but she had nothing. He scanned around the gully, seeking some<br />

way out, but it was useless. He’d have to take to the air again.<br />

Carefully, he examined the wings. On close inspection they were rather more sophisticated than<br />

he had first thought. The wing-straps could be pulled to curve and shape the wings themselves, and<br />

Hesperus began to see how an operator might generate forward thrust. He also spotted a mechanism<br />

which, with a quick, deft twist, would lock the two wings outspread, without the need for the pilot<br />

to hold them there.<br />

The gully offered little room for experimentation. He cinched every buckle he could find,<br />

lengthened the arm-straps so he could reach them without too much of a stretch, and practiced<br />

flicking the wings in and out of lock until he was confident he could repeat the manoeuvre in flight.<br />

Then, screwing up his courage, and with one last desperate entreaty to Mandingo, he shuffled to the<br />

lip of the cliff, swallowed hard, spread his arms, and jumped off.<br />

Immediately a surge of rising air, running up the cliff-face, pushed him skywards. He flapped<br />

and floundered, trying to concentrate. Leaning into the wind and trusting to the wings’ construction,<br />

he managed to gain some forward motion. One flap; two; three; glide; one; two; three; glide.<br />

Hesperus worked into a rhythm and didn’t seem to be falling. He learned to watch the ground<br />

beneath him, discovering upward thermals above patches of vegetation and areas of bare, sun-<br />

heated rock. He learned that crags and pinnacles were patrolled by invisible currents which could<br />

swirl him sideways, threatening to send him tumbling from the air.

Hours passed, and Hesperus came to realise that, although Teen might be a tiny world – he could<br />

see the curvature of the planet – to a lonely individual crawling over its surface, it was vast. Each<br />

mountain looked like every other, each canyon and valley seemed both strange and familiar. He was<br />

lost.<br />

A sparkle at the horizon caught his attention. Could it be the ocean? They had flown in over the<br />

ocean. Was it even the same one? How far had Geird’s forces brought him? He swore, scrabbling at<br />

his memory for some idea of the planet’s geography. Well, one direction was better than none at all.<br />

Hesperus raised his aching arms again and pushed off towards the distant sea.<br />

He crept forwards, the jumbled terrain rolling slowly beneath him. Suddenly a flash of<br />

movement caught Hesperus’s eye. There, in the canyon below, four tiny running figures. Behind<br />

them, leaping, bounding, came twenty or thirty more, gleaming like dots of silver in laser-reflective<br />

battle armour. Glittering bolts of energy spat from them. Rocks shattered, bushes and scrub grass<br />

smoked and burned, and two of the fleeing shapes burst into tumbling broken balls of flame.<br />

Hesperus couldn’t hear anything: the noise of gunfire, the screams, none of that reached up to him.<br />

With a frantic burst of speed the remaining two runners dived against the canyon walls and<br />

vanished. Their pursuers loped onwards, fanning out into a crescent and closing in remorselessly.<br />

The cliff twitched, bulged, then bellied outwards. A huge slab of rock detached itself and fell<br />

inexorably downward. The enormous block slid into the canyon, raising a gigantic plume of dust.<br />

The boom of the explosion, and the grinding rumble of the collapsing cliff, thudded into Hesperus<br />

with almost physical force. The dust-cloud soared higher, threatening to engulf him. Desperately,<br />

Hesperus thrashed the air, hauling himself away from the ruin and fury.<br />

Dear life, he thought. Even with his Poets, Tulka’s going to find it hard to break the Farmers’<br />

Army. These mountains must be riddled with tunnels, traps and mines. Geird’s horribly mutilated<br />

face swam up in his memory: the way she clung on to her life, the way she clung on to her rage.<br />

And riddled with this planet’s own brand of demented warriors, too, he thought. Still, those battle-<br />

armoured Poets must have come from somewhere down the canyon. Tulka had sent most of the<br />

cargo canisters away from the mountains, away from the Dubious Profit. Maybe, somewhere<br />

between here and where the Poets came from, was the valley and the landing site. And maybe, just<br />

maybe, the Dubious Profit would still be there.<br />

Hesperus curved through the air, following the canyon, scanning the horizon and watching for<br />

movement on the ground. If anything down there saw him…<br />

There! The fractured rock gave way to a broad bowl-shaped depression. Surely, surely this was<br />

the right one. Yes! Over there, near the valley side: in all her decrepit glory, looking like an

immense, exhausted sow, lay the Dubious Profit?.<br />

Hesperus cried when he saw her, tears streaming from his eyes. The best, the finest ship in all the<br />

eight sectors, she was there still, waiting for him.<br />

Unfortunately she was not alone. Vehicles, tents and huts were scattered across the valley<br />

bottom. Groups of men jogged here and there, and dotted amongst them Hesperus could see the<br />

gleaming blobs of Poets, ominously still.<br />

Quickly, Hesperus pulled in his arms and dropped, gliding down on wingtips only, sideslipping<br />

through the air towards the edge of the valley where the Dubious Profit lay. He skimmed behind a<br />

clutch of tall trees, then cupped his wings to slow his progress. His forward speed was too great,<br />

though, and he couldn’t keep his arms held out: the force of the air rushing past thrust them<br />

painfully behind his back. The ground ran up towards him. Desperately, he stuck out his feet,<br />

skidded once, twice, then flipped over, bounced, rolled, and came to rest upside-down in a thorny<br />

and unyielding bush.<br />

Groaning, he fumbled with the straps, freeing first his legs and then his chest, finally sliding out<br />

of his wings and folding into a heap on the ground. He lay, panting, gingerly wiggling his toes, his<br />

fingers, his ears, and carefully flexing his legs and arms. Despite the pain everything seemed to be<br />

in working order. He ached all over, and the muscles across his back and shoulders burned<br />

ferociously. One knee throbbed where he had banged it in the landing; his mouth was dry, he was<br />

ravenously hungry, and his nose still itched and stung. But he was alive, he was breathing, and he<br />

was only a few hundred metres from his ship. There was a small army camped around it, true, but<br />

on the plus side only some of the alien berserkers he had brought to this planet seemed to be in<br />

residence.<br />

Hesperus sat up stiffly, wincing and rocking his head from side to side. Maybe he could just walk<br />

out there: after all, he was the captain of the Dubious Profit, and had – with no little inconvenience<br />

to himself – delivered a very valuable cargo for Colonel Tulka. Tulka might be happy to see him; he<br />

might even pay him.<br />

H’m. How likely was that? If the delivery had gone smoothly, then Tulka probably would have<br />

paid. It would have been easier, more…professional. Hesperus had committed a breach of Co-<br />

operative law, landing without authorisation on the planet, so he would have kept his mouth shut –<br />

and after all, he’d only been delivering farming equipment.<br />

Now, though, Hesperus knew the cargo’s true nature. Transporting Celabiler Poets was a<br />

catastrophically serious crime, and Tulka was just as guilty – even more so, in fact – as Hesperus.

Tulka had obviously built up a chain of offworld connections to pull this off, to ship the Poets from<br />

Celabile to Qudira where the switch took place. He’d used his real name, too: maybe to get some<br />

diplomatic immunity, maybe just because the Teen government couldn’t afford a false identity good<br />

enough to get past Co-operative scrutiny. Either way, what Hesperus knew put Tulka and his entire<br />

operation in jeopardy. Walking out to the ship would be to walk out to his death.<br />

Hesperus rolled over and crawled through the undergrowth to peer through the trees. The<br />

Dubious Profit, hideous and beautiful, squatted near a low cliff. There were soldiers around her, and<br />

a pile of what looked like engine parts. Had they stripped her? No: her engine manifolds still bulged<br />

from her broad stern. To pull out the engine they would have to dismantle the manifolds, too.<br />

He scanned around the valley, searching for options. Well, he thought, it’s as good an idea as any<br />

other, and not as crazy as some. What choice do I have? He wriggled back through the bushes to<br />

rescue his wings.<br />

Night fell. The noises from the camp diminished. Around him Hesperus could hear the chirp and<br />

hum of insects, and the high sweet piping of some nocturnal bird.<br />

His wings had been badly damaged in the landing, but he had managed to strap them together to<br />

make a rudimentary glider. It wasn’t very aerodynamic but with Teen’s low gravity, all he was<br />

hoping for was some kind of controlled fall. He wormed around the edge of the valley to the top of<br />

the low cliff-face, freezing to stillness at every unexpected sound.<br />

He stared down into the valley, his cat’s eyes wide. A few campfires sparked and flickered; here<br />

and there some powered lights burned, and sentries walked the perimeter. Nobody seemed to be<br />

paying much attention to the Dubious Profit. He slid off his boots and hefted his contraption.<br />

Hesperus crouched, gripping the crude glider in both hands above his head. He rocked forward,<br />

once, twice, then pushed with all his might off the cliff and into the dark. He slid through the air in a<br />

flat trajectory, and the broad back of the Profit swelled up in front of him. Teeth clenched, he<br />

bumped down on top of her in a padding run, killing his speed. He stopped, just before the hull<br />

curved away towards the ground, and flattened himself against the pitted metal.<br />

Nothing: no shouts, no alarms, no gunfire. He slid out from under his wings and caught his<br />

bearings. There, a few metres below him along the hull, was the Profit’s airlock. He inched over<br />

until the lock was directly beneath him then slid down, catching the ladder with his feet.<br />

The lock was open, and he slipped inside, flattening himself against the interior. The inner lock<br />

was open, too, but the corridor was in darkness. He strained his ears, alert for any sound, but all he<br />

could hear was his pounding heart.

Now: dive for the bridge. Emergency lift. If the engines worked the airlock would close<br />

automatically. If there were any of Tulka’s henchmen on board, it would be easier to deal with them<br />

isolated inside the ship. Maybe even get into space, to the station, throw himself onto the protection<br />

of the Co-operative. If the ship didn’t lift, well, there was the communicator, and as a last resort the<br />

laser pistol hidden under the console. And it was home; it was where he belonged. Just a few more<br />

metres…<br />

He dashed down the corridor, slammed open the door and burst into the cockpit. There was Rus.<br />

Rus! Hunched over the console. His stained vest marked with broad, round scorchmarks and burnt<br />

holes.<br />

‘Quick!’ Hesperus yelled. ‘We’re going! We’ve got to go! Now now now!’ Rus straightened,<br />

turning, eyes wide. Hesperus pushed at him, heaving him frantically out of the way. A cold voice<br />

from behind him spoke.<br />

‘Ah, Captain Hesperus. I must say that I am both surprised and delighted.’ Hesperus froze. He<br />

turned, slowly, unbelievingly. Hedred Tulka, Colonel Tulka of the Silent Service, stood with his<br />

back to the bulkhead, the needle of a lightning gun held firmly in his hand.<br />

Tulka smiled, and twitched the gun. ‘Surrender, please.’ Hesperus’s hands flew to his belt, and he<br />

immediately dropped his trousers.<br />

Tulka’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Captain?’<br />

‘It’s a widely recognised gesture of surrender,’ said Hesperus hotly, trousers round his ankles,<br />

‘accepted by numerous cultures across the galaxy.’<br />

‘Ha. Nevertheless, I would prefer the more traditional hands-up,’ said Tulka. ‘Up and open.<br />

Thank you.’<br />

Hesperus wiggled his fingers. His hands were empty. ‘What are you doing on my ship?’ he said,<br />

shifting his weight from one foot to the other. ‘And, may I remind you, I have yet to be paid.’<br />

‘This is in fact my ship,’ said Tulka. ‘Welcome on board the Ares, the latest addition to the forces<br />

of the Te’en Dictatorat. She may be ugly but she will belong entirely to the Silent Service, and that<br />

will be sour milk to those supercilious Star Fleet buffoons. At present we are having some difficulty<br />

with the command protocols, which your erstwhile crewman here was attempting, under my<br />

instruction, to rectify.’<br />

Rus curled his lips in a silent snarl. Electrical burns were dotted across his scaly blue hide.<br />

‘Now you are here,’ continued Tulka, ‘the transfer of ownership should proceed smoothly.’

Hesperus screwed one eye shut, and grimaced. ‘Ah…yes…um, the thing is…’ Tulka’s skull<br />

exploded, and a great burning gash tore down across his neck and chest. Rus bellowed in surprise,<br />

jumping sideways and crashing into the wall. A grey furry tentacle sidled up over Hesperus’s<br />

shoulder, curled around a Sepp & Blübach laser pistol.<br />

Hesperus took the pistol in one hand, and the tentacle slid back down behind him. He bent down<br />

to retrieve his trousers. He glanced up at Rus. ‘Prehensile tail,’ he said.<br />

‘Oh,’ said Rus.<br />

There was a furious hiss from the doorway, and the rising whine of a plasma carbine charging. A<br />

Celabiler Poet, wrapped in mirrored battle armour, slavered at them as it raised its weapon.<br />

Rus stepped forward, sweeping out his right hand to point at Hesperus and tapping his own broad<br />

chest with his left.<br />

‘They say the Lion and the Lizard keep The Courts where Jamshýd gloried and drank deep,’ he<br />

said. He pointed down at Tulka’s headless corpse.<br />

‘And Bahrám, that great Hunter?the Wild Ass Stamps o’er his Head, and he lies fast asleep.’<br />

The Poet moaned, shuddering. It brought the carbine up in a smart salute, clicked its heels,<br />

swivelled and strode from the room. Hesperus watched as it marched down the corridor and exited<br />

through the airlock. He turned to Rus, his jaw hanging open.<br />

‘Liberal education,’ said Rus.<br />

‘Oh,’ said Hesperus.<br />

He shook himself. ‘Are there any more on board? What about the engines?’ ‘No,’ said Rus,<br />

‘there was only one. The human locked the rest of the crew in the meatsafe in the galley. I’m fine,<br />

thank you, by the way. Despite my wounds, I think I’ll live.’ ‘Yes, yes!’ said Hesperus. ‘But the<br />

engines?’<br />

‘Oh, the engines are fine,’ said Rus. ‘Better than fine.’ He nodded at Tulka’s body lying sprawled<br />

against the bulkhead. ‘He brought in a load of spare parts. Baffle plates, warp alternators, the lot.<br />

Fuel, too. Made me overhaul the whole thing while his monkeys guddled about trying to crack the<br />

command protocols.’<br />

‘So we’re good to go?’ said Hesperus, desperately.<br />

‘H’m? Oh, yes, of course,’ said Rus. ‘Frankly I was wondering why you were hanging about.’<br />

Hesperus shot him an evil glare, then ran through the cold startup procedures, hands flying over the

console. Rus tutted.<br />

‘I’ll go and let the crew out of the meatsafe, shall I? Ow!’ This last came as he slammed onto the<br />

floor. The Dubious Profit’s engines burst into joyful life, and the ship’s ambient gravity flicked from<br />

Teen’s feeble tug to Hesperus’s preferred point-eight standard.<br />

The viewscreen snapped on. Thick dustclouds boiled around the ship as she rose like a breaching<br />

whale, surging up towards the indigo sky.<br />

Rus stood, rubbing his behind. ‘I don’t suppose we’ll get paid for this,’ he said.<br />

‘Generally, when one kills the client, one cannot expect much in the way of recompense,’ said<br />

Hesperus. ‘But I must compliment you on your engines. And we have Colonel Tulka to thank for<br />

that, at least.’ Outside, the sky was darkening to black, and the stars were shining down. Hesperus<br />

grinned at them. The planet shrank astern. He pointed the Dubious Profit’s nose at the brightest<br />

gleam, and she sped off into the void.

Coyote - El Viejo<br />

Prelude<br />

The starship hung motionless in the far deep space of Laquused system. No running lights were<br />

showing… it was just a dark shape silhouetted against the starry backdrop, barely visible even up<br />

close. The once spaceblack hull was pitted and scarred, furrowed by countless laser strikes. It might<br />

have been a relic of some long-forgotten combat, a shot-up wreck hurriedly abandoned by its pilot<br />

sometime in the distant past. Just a derelict hulk that the scavengers had missed due to its remote<br />

location, perhaps… a vintage Cowell and MgRath Cobra Mark Three, built long before Faulcon<br />

DeLacy started to mass produce them.<br />

Yet the ship was alive… slouched comfortably in the left-hand seat, wearing a faded black<br />

shipsuit and a beaten-up sombrero, a man was laying-in a cross-chart route. The interior of the old<br />

starship belied its battered outward appearance. The bridge fittings were of the highest quality…<br />

luxury command seats with Walch control sticks, an Ahruman AI shipcomp, custom KEV<br />

instrument panel, AC screens and a DH hypercomm array. The Magellan navcomp was loaded with<br />

charts by Clym and Angus, astrocartographers of renown. The two staterooms, galley and mess<br />

were opulent and stylish, and much more spacious than on a standard Cobra… the result of<br />

extensive re-fitting that had reduced the cargo capacity to ten tons. The wetroom was a spacer’s<br />

fantasy, straight off of some rich playboy’s luxury yacht.<br />

Like many since the diaspora, when mankind had migrated to the stars from Terra, the man was<br />

of mixed heritage and it showed in his features… a blend of Hispanic and Anglo with a touch of<br />

Chinese. Lean and wiry, of medium height and sporting a mane of thick black hair with full beard to<br />

match, he could have been aged anywhere between fifty and two hundred and fifty. For those who<br />

could afford it, Rejuv treatment had made the ages of many people over forty hard to determine. His<br />

gray eyes were old though… eyes that had seen many things, both good and bad… eyes that had the<br />

‘eight lights gaze’ as veteran spacers called it. He was a spacer to the core and being utterly alone as<br />

he was now, several million kilometres from the nearest life, was just fine with him. He loved<br />

space… especially deep space, and often went EVA just to float at the end of a tether and drink in<br />

the universe, only his space armour between him and hard vacuum… and the stars.<br />

Hitting enter on the keypad, he saved his chosen route… time was of no consequence, he had no<br />

deadline to meet, so he had favoured a meandering path across the chart, avoiding troublesome<br />

systems where ever possible. Not that ‘troublesome systems’ worried him all that much… he was a<br />

veteran combateer and a vastly experienced contrabandista who had done countless eights. He was

just in the mood for a leisurely cruise, and Laquused to Lazaso, away up in the Steel Halo, was a<br />

long run… and there would most likely be trouble enough in the Halo. Two jumps would bring him<br />

to Zaquesso, where he planned to go dirtside for a few tendays and visit a couple of old friends… he<br />

hadn’t been home for a long time. He was thinking about Zaquesso when the shipcomp chimed.<br />

[contact bearing zero seven two – extreme range – fugitive]<br />

‘What the fuck… way out here… zafado!’<br />

The trace appeared on the scanner… it was a solitary Python. Fingers curling lightly around the<br />

stick, he brought his ship onto the bearing and watched the trace as it moved slowly across the rim<br />

of the scanner. His curiosity piqued, he decided to follow it and see what transpired. Throwing his<br />

sombrero across the bridge, he quickly donned his space armour, resumed his seat and eased the<br />

Cobra into motion. So began a slow, covert chase using the millennia-old method… sneak up, take<br />

a quick bearing, drop back and follow… after a while repeat. Getting the timing right needed a lot<br />

of experience… and a bit of luck. Coyote was on the hunt… sensing prey.<br />

He had been following the Python for a while and had just crept a little closer when the<br />

shipcomp chimed again.<br />

[contact bearing three four three – extreme range – fugitive]<br />

It was a Fer-de-Lance… he watched the trace on the scanner as it took up position just astern of<br />

the Python.<br />

‘Curiouser and curiouser… come Watson, the game’s afoot!’ Trusting his instincts, he upped the<br />

speed a little and began to close the range. Behind his helmet’s visor a wicked grin spread across his<br />

face… he was in his element and he savoured the prospect of the chase.<br />

[wormhole initiation – analysing]<br />

As the analysis displayed on the screen he maxed the speed and aligned on the blue cloud, then<br />

engaged the injectors. The combat starship Dark Star hurtled towards the wormhole… and a free<br />

ride to Ririqu.<br />

As usual he was in full space armour for emergence, an old habit that had saved his cojones<br />

several times over the decades. The screen flared blue and they were out… and taking heavy hits.<br />

Shields dropping fast, he wrenched the Dark Star into a tight corkscrew and launched a missile at<br />

the Fer-de-Lance, which was forced to break off and evade on injectors. Meanwhile the Python had<br />

been making best speed in-system, so he engaged the injectors briefly and began to snipe at it. As<br />

the range closed the Python turned to take him on, launching two missiles, but they were

unhardened and the ECM snuffed them.<br />

Grinning, he checked the scanner for the Fer-de-Lance… it was off-scan but he knew that it<br />

would be back. Several long raking laser bursts convinced the Python to turn and try to run<br />

instead… it was far too late for that. He hammered it hard and as gobs of plasma began to fly off the<br />

Python’s hull, its captain lost his nerve and ejected. He ceased firing immediately and hardly<br />

slowing he scooped the escape capsule, then brought his ship around onto the last bearing of the<br />

Fer-de-Lance, knowing it would have outrun his missile by now.<br />

Sure enough it came screaming back in on injectors, launching a hardhead and hitting hard with<br />

its mil laser. He zeroed the speed, flipped the ship and took the hit on the aft shields, then flipped<br />

again and red-lined the fore laser. Still it came on, so he spun ninety and scored with a long burst<br />

from the port laser. The Fer-de-Lance disintegrated in a cloud of debris which clattered across the<br />

Cobra’s already battered hull.<br />

He turned back towards the abandoned Python and bringing the Dark Star alongside, he went<br />

EVA to tag it with a phony Naval beacon which declared it a ‘plague ship’… with luck that would<br />

keep any scavengers away. Having had a free ride from Laquused there was more than enough<br />

quirium fuel for the jump to Zaquesso and there was a Navy base in that system that was the perfect<br />

place to drop-off his captured fugitive. After that it would be dirtside for a little rest and<br />

recuperation.<br />

He needed it… the contract run that he had just completed had taken him clear across the fourth<br />

chart and on into the fifth. Exchanging his helmet for his sombrero, he took a colita out of an<br />

antique iridium cigar case, lit it and called up some ancient pre-diaspora rock music on the JBL<br />

sixty-four point sound system… Cobra by Quicksilver Messenger Service. As the bridge filled with<br />

thunderous chords and sweet smoke he initiated hyperspace, and fifteen seconds later the Dark Star<br />

plunged into that little understood realm of hyper-dimensional no-space known as a wormhole… or<br />

for some strange reason…Witchspace.<br />

Local space in Zaquesso system was empty so he engaged the torus drive and set course out-<br />

sytem. The Navy base was on a small moon orbiting the second gas giant, and as he neared the<br />

jovian he slowed.<br />

[beacon bearing zero three five]<br />

Veering onto the bearing he approached the moon and commed an ident. Having receiving<br />

***<br />

clearance, he docked and handed his captive over to the local NavSec official … a Captain Zhi-Ata.

Once the fugitive had been locked in the brig he followed the Captain to his office, where he gave<br />

him an account of the chase from Laquused and the engagement in Ririqu system. He added the co-<br />

ords for the abandoned Python, which he somehow suspected would be carrying a very dubious<br />

cargo. It was only a feeling he had, based on the strange behaviour… two hard-assed fugitives<br />

making an ultra deep space rendevous in an Anarchy system… it just didn’t fit.<br />

‘Good work Commander, we’ll have a prize crew on that Python in no time. As for that fugitive<br />

you brought in, let’s just say that we look forward to asking him a few gentle questions. I am sure<br />

that he will have an interesting tale to tell us… I doubt that he was expecting to find himself in<br />

Naval custody. May I offer you some coffee?’<br />

mold.<br />

Captain Zhi-Ata, a red feline resplendent in spaceblack uniform, was right out of the NavSec<br />

‘Coffee would be very welcome, thank you.’<br />

The NavSec cat issued orders via his deskcom, then sat looking at his screen for a while. An aide<br />

entered the office bearing freshly brewed coffee. NavSec always seemed to have the best coffee…<br />

there were rumours that it was shipped secretly from Terra in Sol system, from an island called<br />

Jamaica. Coyote sipped his cup with relish.<br />

‘I see that your reserve status goes back a long way, Commander. Your mission record is<br />

excellent, I might add.’<br />

‘Over the years I have done a few favours for NavSec. How is my old friend Admiral Carruthers<br />

these days?’<br />

‘The Admiral is very well, but I believe he is now flying a desk, as they say, and it doesn’t sit too<br />

well with him.’<br />

‘A desk job… no, I suspect he hates that. Not his style at all… or mine for that matter.’<br />

‘It comes to us all eventually, Commander. I was a young fighter jock once… never thought that<br />

I would end up behind a desk. But as you see… anyway, apart from fuel and ordnance is there<br />

anything else that you may need?’<br />

‘Nothing thank you, Captain… apart from a kilo of that delicious coffee perhaps.’<br />

‘It is rather good isn’t it… I’ll have it sent to your ship at once. Thank you again, Commander…<br />

good hunting.’<br />

Coyote took his leave and made his way to the ship bays. Sure enough a young Ensign was

already waiting there with the promised coffee, which would find a very good home in the Dark<br />

Star’s galley… trust Naval efficiency. He boarded his ship, launched immediately and boosted in-<br />

system for Zaquesso station… and a holiday.<br />

***<br />

Once he had docked at the station, he took the next shuttle down to the surface and made his way<br />

to a small, dimly lit dive in Spacetown called The Final Eight. It was early morning local time, and<br />

the joint was empty. The manager was busy doing admin on a compad and didn’t notice him as he<br />

strolled up to the counter.<br />

‘Dos zumos malvado por favor, posadero.’<br />

The manager, a huge bear of a man, looked up and a massive grin split his ancient, space-<br />

ravaged face.<br />

‘Coyote you old rascal. It’s been a long time… como estas mi amigo viejo?’<br />

‘I am well Esteban, very well… how are things with you?’<br />

‘Life is good ’mano, very good… are you here for a while? Our spare room is yours for as long<br />

as you need it.’ As he spoke he selected a bottle from a shelf, eased out the cork and filled two shot<br />

glasses with a purple liquid.<br />

‘A few tendays, then I’m away to the Halo… the Dark Star needs a hull job and there is only one<br />

place for that.’<br />

‘Too right amigo, those Griff shipyard fitters are wizards with hull plating… Salut!’ They clinked<br />

glasses and downed the fiery liquor… then both gasped. Zaquessoian evil juice is fearsome stuff.<br />

‘Hades that was good… dos mas por favor.’<br />

As Esteban re-filled the glasses he called through a hatch behind him.<br />

‘Jessica mi querida, come see what the damned cat dragged in.’ A woman’s face appeared in the<br />

hatch, old and lined but still beautiful… her smile was like a sunrise on Zaonesdi.<br />

‘So the trickster returns… welcome home, Coyote. Esteban, pour a shot for me as well please,<br />

I’ll be right there.’ Esteban filled a third glass as Jessica came out from the backroom… it was the<br />

start of a very long session.<br />

He lodged with Esteban and Jessica at the villa they owned, up in the rolling, wooded hills<br />

around Spacetown. He actually owned an adjacent plot of land, but had never got around to building

his dream home on it, the allure of space keeping him away for years at a stretch. He spent his time<br />

either fishing for salmon or walking the hills, only occasionally propping up the bar at The Final<br />

Eight. Even hardened spacers needed downtime, and his homeworld of Zaquesso was a very<br />

beautiful place.<br />

He and the two ex-spacers were very old friends and the time passed easy, recalling past<br />

escapades along the spacelanes, remembering old friends. The couple had been very astute traders<br />

in their time, amassing considerable wealth, and now had a very comfortable life, only running the<br />

bar as a ‘hobby’ as Jessica liked to put it. Coyote knew there was more to it than that, much more…<br />

old spacers themselves, they loved spacers and spacer banter. The bar was a haven for any spacer,<br />

grounded or not… and Esteban was always generous with his credit. Three tendays passed.<br />

It was high summer in this part of Zaquesso and the evenings were long and warm. They had<br />

eaten a delicious meal of pan-seared salmon served with wild rice and a fierce chilli sauce, and were<br />

sitting out on the terrace, sharing a vintage bottle of local Zinfandel and a few colitas. The sun had<br />

slipped slowly beneath the horizon and the high wispy clouds were turning from gold to pink… two<br />

full moons were rising in the darkening eastern sky.<br />

[comms for commander coyote – eyes only]<br />

‘Now who could possibly know you’re here, trickster… one of your old NavSec friends maybe?’<br />

Jessica raised an eyebrow inquisitively as she spoke… Esteban laughed heartily, then quaffed his<br />

wine.<br />

He shrugged as he got up and went inside the villa to read the comm, which was brief.<br />

‘Admiral Carruthers would be pleased to meet with the Commander on Zaquesso station in<br />

thirty-six hours.’<br />

A wide smile creased Coyote’s face as he went back out onto the terrace to tell his hosts…<br />

vacation time was over. He would be sad to leave but he could feel a mission in the offing… and he<br />

never could resist taking on a mission.<br />

Arriving on the station, he found Carruthers awaiting him. The old NavSec officer had hardly<br />

changed… tall and cadaverous in his spaceblack uniform, with those piercing blue eyes and that<br />

same old feral smile.<br />

‘I trust that you are well, old bean… have you had a peaceful sojourn on Zaquesso?’<br />

***<br />

‘I am very well, your grace, and Zaquesso was very restful. It’s a beautiful planet and the fishing

was excellent, not to mention the local wine… and the evil juice of course.’ The two veteran spacers<br />

shook hands warmly… they went back a very long way.<br />

‘Fishing and wine are a good combination… I’ll pass on the evil juice though. Come, we can talk<br />

on my ship.’<br />

They rode the transit system to one of the many ship bays and boarded a heavily modified Viper<br />

Interceptor.<br />

‘This is a very tasty boat your grace… a NavSec special for officers of flag rank only, I<br />

presume?’ Like the Cheshire Cat with all the cream, Carruthers just grinned hugely and offered no<br />

reply. They sat at the galley table in companionable silence while the coffee maker did its thing.<br />

‘It’s been a long time, Coyote… are you still up to your same old tricks… still the wandering<br />

contrabandista?’<br />

The Admiral’s eyes twinkled mischievously as he poured the coffee… NavSec coffee of course.<br />

‘Somebody’s got to do it Carruthers, so it might as well be me… it’s a vocation. The art of the<br />

contrabandista is an ancient and honourable one and I am proud to continue that tradition.<br />

Anyway… I wonder what brings you to this system, old friend… would it have anything to do with<br />

an abandoned Python, by any chance?’<br />

‘Zhi-Ata commed me, ostensibly to double check your security clearance… but I think that your<br />

long mission record intrigued him somewhat. When he mentioned the Python I became interested…<br />

the cargo that the Navy prize crew found on board was heinous enough to warrant a full mindsweep<br />

for that fugitive. The results were intriguing, and one little snippet of unrelated intel caused a minor<br />

flap at Central… enough to get me out of the office for a while, thankfully. There is a small favour<br />

that we would like you to do for us, old bean.’<br />

Coyote looked at his old friend. The steely blue eyes gave nothing away, but a ‘small favour’, as<br />

NavSec liked to put it, was never small… nor easy for that matter. Very often lucrative and<br />

interesting, always highly dangerous.<br />

‘I’m always happy to help NavSec out, as you know… go right ahead your grace, I’m all ears.’<br />

He took a colita out of his cigar case, lit it and sat back to listen.<br />

***<br />

Sometime later he sat on the bridge of his own ship, thinking it through… it would certainly be<br />

an ‘interesting’ mission. It wasn’t time critical as yet and he would need to visit Lazaso system for a<br />

certain piece of specialist kit… which was serendipitous as he had been on his way there anyway. It

was time to head on out.<br />

‘Station Control this is Dark Star, bay forty-three… request launch sequence.’<br />

‘Copy that Dark Star, wait one… okay, you’ll be in the slot in twenty. Good hunting<br />

Commander. Control out.’<br />

Intervention<br />

Twelve jumps out from Zaquesso found him sitting in the spacer bar on Bizaar station. Not a<br />

very wholesome place… or system for that matter. Apart from a ferocious firefight in Anisat<br />

system, the run so far had been fairly uneventful, but he had been expecting some hassle here. This<br />

was a gateway system… if you wanted to get from Spaceway Five to the Extrinsic Reach, you had<br />

to pass through here.<br />

Most anarchy systems were dangerous but Bizaar was doubly so. However, the local bandits had<br />

stayed well clear of the Dark Star. They were an experienced lot around here, and with that<br />

experience came a sixth sense about when not to pick on a lone ship. He was well into his fourth<br />

beer and thinking of leaving the joint and boosting, when a fuss at the next table caught his<br />

attention. Three young redneck spacers, drunk and boisterous, were getting too fresh with a girl…<br />

and she wasn’t having any of it. Some heads were starting to turn. He was about to look away and<br />

finish his beer when one of the young rednecks spotted him watching and challenged him loudly…<br />

the bar quietened a little.<br />

‘What yer lookin’ at, yer old codger?’<br />

‘A pajero, by the looks of it.’<br />

The old spanish insult enraged the youth. He was up off his chair and going for him, a knife<br />

glinting in his hand. Deceptively slowly, Coyote stood… swivelling at the last moment, he caught<br />

his knife arm in an iron grip and using the youth’s own momentum pulled him on past, delivering a<br />

sharp blow to the side of the head with his other hand in passing… the poor schmuck dropped like a<br />

stone, out cold. Coyote kicked the knife away and turned to the other two rednecks, who were stood<br />

rooted to the spot, not sure whether to try their luck or not.<br />

‘Scrape that piece of mierda up and take it to a medbay… now.’ The authority in his voice made<br />

up their minds for them. As they dragged their unconscious mate out the door the normal hubbub of<br />

the bar returned, as if nothing had happened. He turned to the girl and smiled at her.<br />

‘Would you care to join me, señorita?’

She was still a bit shaken and didn’t reply… but she shuffled over and took a seat across the<br />

table from him. He looked at her… despite the dirty tangled hair, drawn white face and filthy<br />

beaten-up clothes, he could tell that she was beautiful. She met his gaze unflinchingly. There was<br />

sorrow in her sea green eyes, and fear… and defiance. That impressed him… she had obviously<br />

been through some troubled times recently, but remained uncowed by the experience. If he were<br />

only a couple of centuries younger… the thought made him laugh out loud.<br />

‘What the hell… you think this is funny? I’m out of here.’<br />

‘I do apologise… really. I wasn’t laughing at you… please… stay.’ She hesitated for a moment,<br />

standing there not sure what to do… then she sat again, looking at him warily.<br />

‘They call me Coyote, most places. I can see that you’ve had some hassles lately… maybe I can<br />

help. How long is it since you had a long bath and a full meal… way too long, right?’<br />

She shrugged and nodded… then looked down at the floor. He could see that it hurt her pride to<br />

admit it.<br />

‘Yeah, way too long.’<br />

‘Okay, we’ll fix that first. You can tell me your tale later… know this… you’re safe now, you can<br />

relax a bit.’<br />

There was doubt in her eyes… she was still wary, not sure whether to trust him… but she plainly<br />

needed his help.<br />

‘Come on, let’s get out of this dive… I confess to being rather hungry myself.’<br />

He led her over to the counter to have a quick word with the manager, who had a broad smile on<br />

his face.<br />

‘Sorry about that little fracas Hari, these kids have no respect any more… and no idea how to use<br />

a knife either.’<br />

‘Too right Coyote, too right. Your tab’s on the house… worth it just to see those moves. Take<br />

care ’mano.’ Outside the bar he looked her up and down… she was a sorry sight… but she still had<br />

that defiance in her eyes.<br />

‘You haven’t got any kit… have you? Come on, we can get what you need in the mall.’ She<br />

didn’t say a word… the poor girl was close to tears. They strolled slowly along to the mall, found<br />

the StarKit Spacer Emporium and went in. There was a StarKit franchise on just about every station<br />

in the eight.

‘Fill a kitbag with essentials… shipsuits, clothes, toothbrush… whatever you need… I’ll pay.’<br />

When she was done, he settled the bill and they rode the transit system in silence to the best hotel<br />

on the station, where he booked a suite for two hours. That got him a look… as she was about to<br />

protest he gave her the keycard. ‘Go take a long shower, then have an even longer bath… spoil<br />

yourself for a while. I’ll be in the lounge.’ He turned away before she could reply, and left her to it.<br />

She drew some admiring glances when she walked into the lounge ninety minutes later. A<br />

turquoise shipsuit that emphasised her tall lithe figure, wavy chestnut hair loose on her shoulders,<br />

confident stride, face bright and clear… it was a complete transformation. He had been right… she<br />

was beautiful. He stood to meet her.<br />

***<br />

‘Encantado señorita… shall we dine… or have you lost your appetite?’ For the first time since<br />

they had met, she smiled… it was a joy to behold.<br />

‘I never lose my appetite señor… and right now I’m hungry enough to eat a hold full of<br />

trumbles.’ An hour or so later they were sipping sweet green tea, having demolished a gargantuan<br />

meal in near silence… she really could put the food away. It was late and the restaurant was quiet,<br />

nearly empty… sitting back he lit a cigar.<br />

‘Ahh… that was delicious… and badly needed.’<br />

‘Yes it was, as was the bath… thank you Coyote. Life doesn’t seem quite so bad now.’<br />

‘You’re very welcome… so then señorita… time to tell me your tale of woe.’<br />

‘My name is Sahana… Sahana Katik. I worked on the family ship, an old Anaconda, with my<br />

parents and two brothers, ploughing The Great Wheel and the Spaceways. We got ambushed<br />

inbound to Xebees from Ingeisdi, blown apart. The pirates fragged all the escape capsules but<br />

somehow missed me. The capsule was damaged… no thrusters and no comms… I was in it for<br />

hours. Those scumbags in the bar… they were outbound from Xebees when they scooped me.<br />

When we got here, I found out that my father had carried no insurance, no nothing. I was stranded,<br />

penniless. They promised me a ride to Leteisan, up in the Steel Halo. I’ve got distant family there…<br />

all that’s left now. It turned out they wanted payment for the ride… you can guess what they were<br />

after… bastards!’ She slumped back in her chair, eyes vacant. She was succinct, he’d give her<br />

that… it was a quality he appreciated.<br />

‘These kin you have, away up in the Halo… will they be willing to help you?’<br />

‘I can’t be sure… I’ve never had any contact with them… but they’re kin, and it’s about my only

option now.’ He sat watching her, thinking… there was something about the name Katik, but he<br />

couldn’t pin it down. He was inclined to help her, even though he never carried passengers… and it<br />

was on his route anyway.<br />

‘Leteisan… only a dozen or so jumps and I happen to be heading for the Halo… would you like<br />

a lift?’<br />

The light leapt back into her beautiful eyes.<br />

‘Are you serious? I can work my passage… I’m a damned good cook.’<br />

‘That’s settled then, I like good food, especially when it’s cooked by someone else. Can you pilot<br />

a ship, Sahana?’<br />

‘I don’t have a license… but yes, I can. My brother Oskar taught me on the quiet, when father<br />

was off-watch.’ For a few moments she was lost in memories, a haunted look in her eyes… then she<br />

shook it off and smiled. He was increasingly impressed by this young woman… she had something<br />

about her, something that he recognised. ‘Well then señorita… shall we be on our way?’<br />

***<br />

They left the hotel, rode the transit system to the ship bays and boarded the Dark Star, where he<br />

showed her to the second stateroom. She was surprised by the luxury interior of the ship, but asked<br />

no questions… he liked that. ‘You’ll have to make the bed up, all the stuff should be in the lockers<br />

somewhere. We boost in about thirty minutes. I’ll be on the bridge… join me there when you’re<br />

done.’<br />

Within ten minutes she joined him, slipping into the right-hand seat, looking around in awe at the<br />

bridge fittings.<br />

‘Station Control, this is Dark Star, bay tweny-three, requesting launch sequence.’ ‘Copy that<br />

Dark Star, minimal queue, you’ll be in the slot in ten. Good hunting Commander. Control out.’ As<br />

the ship was being ported to the launch slot, he turned to her.<br />

‘Sahana, bear this in mind… this is a combat ship, regardless of the luxury furnishings, and there<br />

may well be combat… hard vicious combat, with no quarter asked or given. You do understand<br />

what that may involve… what the consequences may be, don’t you? If you have any doubts at all, it<br />

would be better to say so now.’<br />

She met his gaze squarely and shook her head.<br />

‘No, no doubts at all… I’ll take what ever the three fates throw at me, damn them.’ The minutes

passed… then they were in the slot and barrelling out into space. Boosting hard, he pulled a ninety,<br />

eyeing the scanner. Not much traffic, no threats… he initiated hyperspace and fifteen seconds later<br />

the Dark Star plunged into the wormhole. They sat in silence for a while… she seemed suddenly<br />

exhausted, drained.<br />

‘We’ve got about nineteen hours in the tube. Go get some sleep… lots of it… you look like you<br />

need it.’<br />

***<br />

Sitting in the command seat, the Dark Star enveloped in Witchspace, the old tales and legends<br />

ran through his mind… tales of ghost ships, stranded spacers, ancient generation ships… here be<br />

dragons.<br />

Sahana shuffled on to the bridge. She was still half asleep, dressed in loose purple pyjamas, her<br />

hair tousled.<br />

‘Is it day or night?’<br />

‘That is a very good question… it’s fourteen thirty-two shiptime so I guess you could call it day.<br />

You’ve been asleep for over seventeen hours… are you feeling any better?’<br />

‘Much better thank you, and very very hungry. Can I make free with the galley?’<br />

‘Yeah whatever you want, it’s well stocked. I’ll join you as it happens, it’s been quite a long<br />

while since dinner.’ ‘I’ll take a quick shower and be about it… be ready in about thirty minutes,<br />

okay?’<br />

‘Thirty minutes will be fine, Sahana.’<br />

‘Coyote… the way you dealt with that scumbag in the bar… could I learn how to do that… could<br />

you teach me?’<br />

‘It’s a variant of Tai Chi… and yes I can teach you the basics… enough to be able to defend<br />

yourself anyway.’<br />

Ninety minutes later they were seated on the bridge, both in full space armour… the screen<br />

flared blue.<br />

[two contacts – hostiles]<br />

They were right on top of him and he was taking hits, lots of hits… the shields were dropping<br />

fast. Maxing the speed and pulling the Dark Star around he launched a missile at the first bandit, a

Mamba, then rolled out aligning and firing on the second, a Fer-de-Lance. The Mamba bugged-out<br />

but the Fer-de-Lance came on, its mil laser scoring heavy hits… the fore shields failed and the<br />

energy banks started to drop fast.<br />

[missile launch]<br />

He spun the ship just in time to take the hit aft, took a long pot shot with the aft laser, then<br />

launched a missile. The bandit was forced to break off and he swooped round and hammered it<br />

relentlessly, red-lining the fore laser. When the missile hit, the Fer-de-Lance exploded, showering<br />

the Dark Star with debris. Coyote smiled grimly and checked the scan for the Mamba … it was<br />

gone and local space was empty.<br />

Aligning on the sun, he engaged the Torus drive and relaxed a little. He looked over at Sahana…<br />

behind the visor she had a rictus-like grimace on her face. At first glance he thought that she had<br />

lost it, had frozen with fear… then he saw her eyes… they were glowing, vibrant… she had actually<br />

enjoyed it. Maybe, just maybe, she had what it takes… he would have to think about that. They<br />

removed their helmets and Coyote reclined his seat, lit a colita and called up some of the ancient<br />

rock music that he loved so much. Some time later the Torus drive mass-locked as they neared the<br />

sun.<br />

‘You have the con Sahana, and the Dark Star needs a full skim… make it so, number one.’<br />

Without hesitating she took the stick on the right-hand seat and confidently began to pilot the Dark<br />

Star. After only a few minutes he had decided that she was a ‘natural’… she had that innate feel for<br />

the stick that so few had.<br />

Seven jumps, sun-skimming all the way, and they were in Bizalein system. He set course out-<br />

system, boosting hard for the Naval base. Having received clearance and docked, he left Sahana on<br />

the Dark Star and sought out the local NavSec office, where he met Lieutenant Trent, a tall rangy<br />

young man who seemed to be in awe of him.<br />

‘We have comms for you, Commander… eyes only, from Admiral Carruthers. You may use my<br />

terminal here.’ He stepped away from his desk and Coyote sat down, idented and read the comm.<br />

An idea popped into his head. ‘Thank you Trent… I wonder if you would run a SecTrace on a trader<br />

family operating out of Leteisan for me?’ He gave him the name of Sahana’s kin. Trent re-took his<br />

seat and started tapping at keys. An aide brought coffee which was excellent, as usual. He sipped<br />

the coffee appreciatively while Trent tapped away at his terminal.<br />

‘Ah yes, they’re an old criminal clan from way back, mostly smuggling… some other murkier<br />

activities. GalCop have a large file on them… they have pirate connections. They are a major player

up in the Halo apparently, close to being untouchable… tentacles everywhere. Bloody unsavoury<br />

bunch that’s for sure… are they on your radar?’<br />

‘I rather think that they might be… thank you for your assistance Trent, most informative.’<br />

***<br />

With the Dark Star motionless in space, he sat on the bridge, thinking. Sahana was in the galley<br />

cooking more exquisite food… she loved her food and enjoyed cooking it. He appreciated her<br />

reticence, the lack of questions and he admired her spirit… a can-do competent young spacer, born<br />

and bred. She had taken some heavy knocks recently that was clear, and had put it quickly behind<br />

her. She was a competent pilot and learnt fast, was already completely at home on the bridge of the<br />

Dark star. But her tale about being part of a normal trader family running the Wheel and the<br />

Spaceways just didn’t square with what he now knew about her kin. She wasn’t lying to him, of that<br />

he was sure… he came to a decision.<br />

***<br />

Ergeso system… local space was empty. He set a course between sun and planet, engaging the<br />

Torus drive. It was a clear run until a cluster of asteroids appeared on the scanner. He cut the Torus<br />

drive and veered towards them.<br />

[beacon bearing three three eight]<br />

Coming onto the bearing he slowed and cautiously approached an asteroid, circled it and located<br />

the slot. He commed an ident, received clearance and docked. Sahana glanced over at him.<br />

‘Stay on the bridge and be ready to boost, number one… I’ll not be too long.’ He found his way<br />

to the living quarters and entered a very expensively furnished office. The owner of the asteroid was<br />

sitting at a desk reading. She looked up at him… she was ancient, but her eyes were clear and sharp.<br />

‘Coyote… it’s been a long time.’<br />

‘A very long time Li Yan… too long, maybe. I hope that you are well, querida.’<br />

‘I am very well, thank you, but age is slowly catching up with me, as it does with all of us…<br />

please… sit.’ She filled two small bowls with tea from a samovar, which they sipped in silence<br />

gazing at each other… there was old history between them, very old. They left it unspoken, as they<br />

always had… it was better that way. But it was there in their eyes. The rare white tea was exquisite,<br />

redolent of ancient times and far off places.<br />

Somewhat reluctantly, Li Yan broke the spell.

‘What brings you to my asteroid, amigo viejo… que quieres?’<br />

‘Information… there’s a clan based on Leteisan up in the Halo, name of Katik… what can you<br />

tell me of them?’ Li Yan ran an intelligence network in this sector that surpassed even NavSec.<br />

Information was her life blood, and she somehow kept it all in her head, never trusting comps. She<br />

bowed her head and sat thinking for a while.<br />

‘Are you entangled with them, Coyote? If so, then perhaps you should re-evaluate… they are<br />

evil…’<br />

She carried on for well over thirty minutes. When she had finished, he laid a small pouch of<br />

gemstones on the desk. She didn’t bother to check the contents, there was no need… she trusted<br />

him of all people. Besides, anyone who crossed Li Yan usually ended up paying dearly… she had<br />

powerful friends, and a very long memory.<br />

He watched her carefully as he stood up to leave… he needed her help.<br />

‘As usual Li Yan your information is thorough, your advice valued… and your tea heavenly.’<br />

‘You have that old flame in your eyes, Coyote… might clan Katik be about to take a hit, by any<br />

chance?’ He held her gaze, knowing that such fore-knowledge, carefully used, could be worth a<br />

small mint to her.<br />

‘That is a distinct possibility, Li Yan. If it were to happen, it would be a rather large hit, with a<br />

slow-burning fuse… the squadron may well play a part. Would you be interested in providing intel<br />

and contacts, querida?’<br />

She nodded slowly saying nothing… they understood each other well. They clasped hands, her<br />

grip like cold steel. ‘You can comm me through Ergeso station… take very good care of yourself…<br />

Jaguar.’<br />

Sahana threw him an inquisitive look as he returned to the bridge but said nothing… he could<br />

sense questions building though. They would need to have a long talk about her kin on Leteisan<br />

sometime soon. It seemed that he may have to get involved. Settling into his seat, he gestured for<br />

Sahana to take the ship on out.<br />

***<br />

‘Time for some serious relax, I think… and Bizalein has a nice climate. How long since you’ve<br />

been dirtside?’<br />

‘Oh, a few tenths at least, I can’t remember the last time.’

That was not at all unusual amongst spacers… with many it was years since they had been<br />

dirtside. Once clear of the asteroid he initiated hyperspace, absently thinking about Zaquesso… the<br />

salmon fishing.… the wooded hills and The Final Eight… perhaps he might enjoy retirement. He<br />

chuckled quietly… not bloody likely. The Dark Star dropped into that indefinable realm of ghosts<br />

and legends… Witchspace.<br />

Back in Bizalein system he commed Trent, requesting a couple of favours. Once docked at the<br />

station, they took the shuttle down to the surface and outside the terminal they found a private aircar<br />

waiting for them in a VIP slot. The driver, a young woman in Navy uniform, stowed their kitbags<br />

and eased the aircar smoothly away from the spaceport. It was raining hard from low, dark clouds,<br />

and lightning flickered eerily away to the south.<br />

‘Didn’t you tell me that Bizalein has a nice climate.’<br />

‘Sometimes Coyote speak with forked tongue, number one.’<br />

‘An hour or so ma’am, and we’ll be out of it. Then it’s sunshine all the way… have you been<br />

here before sir?’<br />

‘On occasion, and it’s always been raining on Spacetown. It’s different on North Island… always<br />

sunny there.’<br />

‘It’ll take about six hours to get to Port Tana, sir… unless you’d prefer to go sub-orbital, of<br />

course?’<br />

‘Sub-orbital sounds just fine to me.’<br />

A broad smile creased the driver’s face as she pulled the nose of the aircar up and lit the<br />

afterburners.<br />

***<br />

Eighty minutes later their driver landed the aircar on the pad beside a small chalet, set right by<br />

the dark red beach and the sparkling green ocean. Sahana was entranced… she had never seen an<br />

ocean up close before, only from orbit.<br />

The driver dropped their kitbags and departed, having agreed to pick them up in five days.<br />

Coyote stood for a few moments just staring at the horizon… then throwing his sombrero down on<br />

the sand, he kicked off his boots, stripped off his shipsuit and went running full-tilt into the surf,<br />

whooping wildly. For a minute or so she stood watching him swim… then she did exactly the same.<br />

The emerald green water was warm and crystal clear.

Late in the evening they walked along the cliff path to the small fishing village of Port Tana and<br />

found a cantina down by the harbour. The setting was picturesque… timeless… they could have<br />

been back on old Terra millenia ago. They lingered over a splendid meal of local seafood washed<br />

down with a bottle of red wine, soaking up the atmosphere and relaxing, chatting about Terra and<br />

ancient history… one of Sahana’s favourite subjects.<br />

Much later they strolled slowly back to the chalet. The night was warm and fragrant, and he sat<br />

out on the porch smoking a colita, watching the three small moons drift slowly across the star-filled<br />

sky… a quite beautiful place. Sahana came out onto the porch and sat across from him. In the<br />

flickering lantern light, her eyes were serious.<br />

‘You have something that you need to tell me… something about my family… am I right?’<br />

Coyote was a good poker player and his face was hard to read, but she had managed it… or was it<br />

just intuition.<br />

‘I was going to leave it for a few days, but as you’re asking… what do you know about your kin<br />

on Leteisan?’<br />

‘Not very much really. Dad talked of them sometimes, but only in general terms. We had no<br />

contact with them as far as I know. Mum never talked of them and we never went to the Halo. An<br />

old family falling-out, I imagine.’<br />

‘Much more than a family falling-out, Sahana… more like a blood vendetta. Your kin have a real<br />

bad history… ’<br />

He didn’t hold back, telling her all that he had learned about clan Katik… it was brutal but she<br />

had to know it all. He didn’t mention his certainty that the clan had arranged to have her father’s<br />

Anaconda atomised, leaving no survivors… she was smart, she’d work that out for herself. When he<br />

had finished they sat in silence for a while, just watching the ocean. One of the moons was setting…<br />

and away on the eastern horizon the sky was lightening.<br />

‘That kinda makes the Halo a no-go place for me, doesn’t it? How can such a beautiful universe<br />

be so terrible?’ The heartache in her soft smoky voice made his mind up… he was definitely going<br />

to get involved… and how.<br />

‘As for the Halo, we’ll be there within a tenday or so… as for your second question, think of it<br />

this way… how can such a terrible universe be so beautiful? Just look at that sunrise… come on…<br />

let’s go swim for a while.’<br />


Ortema… first system in the Steel Halo… another gateway system, a choke point. All traffic to<br />

and from the Halo had to pass through here. When the Dark Star emerged local space was busy,<br />

very busy with lots of Vipers about.<br />

[multiple contacts – no hostiles]<br />

He aligned for the cruise in and glanced at Sahana. Back in Port Tana she had been subdued,<br />

distant for a couple of days. She had hardly spoken, had just sat watching the ocean. He had left her<br />

to her thoughts and worked on his suntan. Then she had somehow shaken it off, come to terms with<br />

it and become her old self again.<br />

He had got the diving gear out, taught her the basics and they had gone spear-fishing, cooking<br />

the catch on a beach fire. The next day they had borrowed a small boat and gone sailing on the<br />

green ocean… she had adored it. On the last afternoon, waiting for the aircar to return, she had<br />

asked him what he had in mind. He had told her most of it, had clearly outlined the very real risks.<br />

The feral grin that had lit her face would have made Carruthers proud.<br />

Docked at Ortema station, he spent some time sending comms to several systems. When he had<br />

finished they made their way to the spacer bar, which was as busy as the spacelanes. He bought two<br />

beers and looked around for the manager, who was perched on a stool across the room, doing admin<br />

on a compad by the look of it. They weaved their way through the crowd.<br />

‘Como estas… Zorra… long time no see.’<br />

The manager looked up from her compad, surprised to hear her old call sign… and smiled when<br />

she saw him.<br />

‘Estoy muy bien, Coyote… it’s a real pleasure to see you… and your beautiful companion.’<br />

‘It’s really good to see you, Veronika … this is my number one, Sahana. What of Lobo… how is<br />

the old wolf?’<br />

‘Tomaz is fine and he will be very pleased to see you… look, I’m a bit pressed at the moment but<br />

we’ll both be clear in a couple of hours or so. Join us for a meal later… let’s say three hours… at<br />

Zarquon’s restaurant, okay.’<br />

‘Ah Zarquon’s… I remember it well… we will look forward to that. See you later, amiga.’ The<br />

restaurant was one of the best in the sector, and Sahana was in heaven. The food was varied and<br />

beautifully cooked, the service adroit and unobtrusive. The wine had Coyote sighing contentedly.<br />

When they had finished he lit a cigar and looked at his two old friends. Conversation over dinner<br />

had ranged widely, from old times and shared experiences, to which Sahana had listened in rapt

silence, to the current state of the sectors and the possibilities in an uncertain future. Now though, it<br />

was time to get serious… and his friends knew it.<br />

‘Coyote amigo viejo, you sure didn’t come all this way just for a meal. What mischief have you<br />

got in mind?’<br />

‘Hardly mischief, Veronika… more of a covert guerilla action, really… a thoroughly despicable<br />

‘black’ operation.’<br />

Veronika and Tomaz glanced briefly at each other, then turned back to Coyote, both of them<br />

grinning fiendishly. ‘You have our undivided attention, ’mano… would you care to enlighten us as<br />

to your… intentions.’<br />

Coyote gave them a detailed history of clan Katik… told them how a vendetta had led to Sahana<br />

being stranded on Bizaar station. He embarassed Sahana, describing her as the most promising<br />

young pilot he had seen in many years. He told them why he had decided to become involved,<br />

mainly citing the clan’s heinous record, what his objectives were and exactly how he proposed to<br />

achieve them. When he had finished there was a short silence.<br />

‘Delightfully sinister… and as you say, thoroughly despicable… well worthy of you, Jaguar…<br />

count us in.’<br />

‘As Tomaz says, we are with you. You have no doubt visited La Bruja… her intel will be vital…<br />

is she onboard?’<br />

‘Li Yan is certainly with us… in a tenday or so, I will speak with Cuervo… he would hate to be<br />

left out.’<br />

Sahana was awed to be among such experienced spacers, who she now suspected were<br />

something more than just veteran combateers. She was sure that the nicknames they used among<br />

themselves had to be old call signs.<br />

Four jumps round the Halo they emerged into Lazaso system… a dangerous place, even by<br />

Anarchy ‘standards’.<br />

[four contacts – no hostiles]<br />

***<br />

He pulled the Dark Star around and headed out-system, towards a gas giant. As they left other<br />

traffic behind he engaged the Torus drive. The ship was long due for an overhaul and they’d get that<br />

here… and a few other things.

[beacon bearing zero seven six]<br />

He cut the Torus drive and brought the ship onto the bearing… as they neared an orbital he<br />

commed an ident.<br />

‘Copy that Dark Star… wait one… okay, you have clearance… please dock on auto. Welcome to<br />

Avernus.’<br />

‘So very nice to see you Coyote, does the universe treat you well?’ They were in the office of<br />

Xan Tsen. He was of pure chinese stock and Buddha-like in appearance… completely bald with a<br />

round jovial face. Aside from being a veteran combateer and master pilot, he was a wizard in the<br />

black art of ‘covert stowage’, a highly valued skill. He was also an expert in upgrading ship<br />

systems.<br />

***<br />

‘The universe is my friend at this time Xan Tsen, tomorrow… we’ll see. This is my number one,<br />

Sahana Katik.’<br />

‘I am delighted to meet you Sahana. The name Katik is not unknown in the Steel Halo… you are<br />

related, yes?’<br />

Sahana told her tale, and her kin’s history to the old man, who listened attentively, asking<br />

searching questions. ‘Coyote my old friend, you are aware of the possible consequences of what I<br />

deduce you are intending… you will need my help, and the help of others. I presume that you have<br />

talked to La Bruja, yes… how is the old sorceress?’<br />

‘La Bruja is very well… as are Lobo and Zorra. A flight of four, Cuervo… the squadron will fly<br />

once again.’<br />

Both men were laughing as an aide brought tea in to the office. They lit up two of Xan Tsen’s<br />

expensive Gran Corona cigars, content to sit in silence for a while, sipping the fragrant tea and<br />

smoking… and remembering.<br />

yes?’<br />

‘You also need some modification to the Dark Star I expect… something unrelated to clan Katik,<br />

‘Indeed we do amigo… a small internal job.’<br />

He explained exactly what he required. Sahana listened intently, intrigued by this development.<br />

‘Also, we want two custom fitted suits of that new KAKS space armour, the Dark Star needs a<br />

complete hull job… the Griff EV Special, I think, a full overhaul… and any other upgrades that you

think may be necessary.’<br />

Xan Tsen sat thinking for a while, sipping his tea. He started tapping at keys on his comp… then<br />

he sat back. ‘There is no real problem with any of that… an interesting challenge though. It will<br />

take four… maybe five days.’<br />

‘Time is not really a factor… six days will be acceptable… how much will that little lot cost me,<br />

zhu rén?’<br />

The ‘master’ named an astronomical fee. Sahana gasped but Coyote didn’t even blink as he made<br />

the payment.<br />

***<br />

Avernus offered five star guest suites for clients and there they stayed. There was little to do on<br />

the orbital except eat, sleep and make plans… and talk… which they did, covering many subjects.<br />

He told her outrageous tales of the spacelanes that shocked even her, a born spacer. She<br />

responded with stories of life on the family Anaconda, the good days and the bad. He related the<br />

history of Avernus, how the collected hackers, boffins, engineers and medics who lived on the<br />

orbital had carved out an exclusive niche market for themselves in high spec, discreet, and very<br />

expensive customisation and upgrade of ships and ship systems, amongst other things.<br />

Status, of any type, meant nothing here… if you knew the right people, had received an ‘invite’,<br />

had enough credits, and had the combat skills to stay alive in Lazaso system, you were a ‘client’.<br />

There would have been many a raised eyebrow at GalCop and NavSec if they had known half of<br />

what went on here… but Avernus was careful to remain covert.<br />

Zaenza system… they had been in deep space for thirty-two days, only docking at the station a<br />

couple of times for supplies. He had been on the comms constantly… collecting intel, putting the<br />

pieces in place, calling in old favours. At his behest, Sahana spent her time on the Aegidian combat<br />

simulator that Xan Tsen had installed. He was thinking ahead, now completely confident that she<br />

had the ability to become a very good combateer.<br />

Ever since Usinribe he had been letting her take the controls regularly. She had learnt so fast and<br />

could now dock the Dark Star at full speed on manual, no problem. She was superb at long range<br />

sniping and her spatial awareness was excellent. In theory she had to do the academy course to<br />

obtain a pilot’s license, but there were ways around that. He would probably have a quiet word with<br />

Carruthers, get her Naval rated and licensed. The comm chimed again and as he read the message,<br />

he lit one of the Gran Coronas that he had pirated from the master on Avernus.

‘I love it when a plan comes together.’<br />

***<br />

Over the next few tendays, ships started to disappear along the spacelanes of the Steel Halo. One<br />

here, a couple there at first, then more, and more frequently. No type of ship was immune… trader,<br />

hunter or pirate… alone or with escorts. Even the odd GalCop Viper or two. Not the usual losses<br />

that happen along most spacelanes. There were no distress calls picked up, no wreckage or escape<br />

capsules or cargo pods were found. Just ships long overdue… gone missing… disappeared. As the<br />

losses continued to mount the traders around the Halo, legal and illegal, became nervous and<br />

spacelane traffic dropped. Wild rumours flew… picked off by some mysterious ghost ship was a<br />

popular one, spontaneous implosion, even ‘chrono-synclastic infundibula’ were mentioned.<br />

There were other, much darker theories… in some spacer bars, veterans spoke in low voices of a<br />

rogue Naval squadron. To astute analysts however, a pattern slowly began to emerge… the missing<br />

ships were all either owned by, managed by or had connections with, however convoluted, clan<br />

Katik. As this information slowly leaked out, the rumours took on a cutting edge… someone, or<br />

something, was taking the clan down ship by ship, and the clan seemed to be powerless, unable to<br />

do anything to stop it.<br />

The effects snowballed… other crime families, in the Halo and beyond, began to distance<br />

themselves, no longer co-operative, some openly hostile. Their bankers took the same stance, as did<br />

their insurance companies. Then their dirtside operations started taking hits… police raids, lost<br />

consignments, betrayals… the sharks were sensing blood, beginning to circle. The clan elders and<br />

their families held yet another crisis meeting at the family estate on Leteisan, and tempers were<br />

fraying. Whoever was responsible obviously had access to the clan’s inner secrets, and they were<br />

beginning to suspect each other.<br />

***<br />

Leteisan system… in deep space. On the bridge Coyote read the comm and howled. Engaging<br />

the Torus drive, he sent the Dark Star screaming in-system. Sahana came on to the bridge and<br />

settled into the right hand seat.<br />

‘What will happen now? You never quite told me how this would end, did you?’<br />

‘The heart of the clan is gathered on their isolated, heavily guarded estate, arguing… an easy<br />

target… fools!’<br />

‘We can’t take them out from orbit surely… can we?’

‘Would you take the shot if we could?’<br />

She thought about it… but not for very long.<br />

‘Yes… yes I would.’<br />

The ship was sliding in to orbit above Leteisan, approaching the nightside… and certain co-<br />

ordinates.<br />

‘Good… very good, because any time soon the estate reactor is going to suffer an inexplicable<br />

catastrophic failure and an old house, along with it’s nefarious family and their cohorts, will cease<br />

to exist… any second thoughts?’<br />

‘None at all… I hope that doesn’t shock you?’<br />

‘It takes a lot to shock me, Sahana.’<br />

The comm chimed and he gestured at the port screen.<br />

‘Let there be light…’<br />

Far below on the planet’s surface, a tiny bloom of light appeared… then slowly faded away to<br />

nothing.<br />

Mission<br />

Bizalein system again…<br />

[multiple contacts – three hostiles]<br />

They had emerged into the midst of a firefight involving a flight of GalCop Vipers and three<br />

hard-assed bandits. He didn’t hesitate, plunging the Dark Star straight into the melee. He lined up<br />

on a Fer-de-Lance which had just fragged a Viper. It turned to take them on, raking the Dark Star<br />

with its mil laser. He returned fire and launched a missile. The bandit took the hit full on and kept<br />

coming… it was going to ram them, he could feel it.<br />

He red-lined the fore laser as the range closed, both ships taking heavy hits, then zeroed the<br />

speed, spun the ship and managed to score with a long burst from the starboard laser. The FDL blew<br />

apart, debris peppering the hull. He checked the scanner… saw that the other two bandits were<br />

space dust, the three remaining Vipers re-grouping.<br />

‘Bizalein system police thank you for your assistance.’<br />

‘You’re welcome… did your wingman eject?’

‘No. Thanks for getting the bastard… Viper out.’<br />

‘You have the con number one… take us out-system, to the Naval base.’ He took off his helmet,<br />

lit a colita and relaxed.<br />

Having docked at the base, he wasn’t entirely surprised to find Carruthers in Trent’s office,<br />

sitting on a couch working on a compad. He looked up as he and Sahana entered.<br />

‘Commander, so kind of you to drop in… and who might this young lady be?’<br />

***<br />

‘Trent, Carruthers, may I introduce my co-pilot and XO, Sahana Katik.’ The two NavSec men<br />

exchanged a long look.<br />

‘Ahh… I see. Recent mysterious happenings in the Halo become somewhat clearer. I’ll want a<br />

detailed briefing from you, Coyote. A co-pilot and XO, that must be a first… you are singularly<br />

honoured, young lady.’<br />

The Admiral smiled, but his eyes were hard. As for Trent, he could hardly take his eyes off<br />

Sahana. Coyote knew that look all too well… the young officer was smitten. Carruthers knew it as<br />

well.<br />

‘Lieutenant… perhaps you’d care to escort the ‘last’ Katik to the mess. The Commander and I<br />

have certain important and highly classified matters to discuss. Oh, and send some coffee in as you<br />

go.’<br />

After the two young people had left, the two old men looked at each other and burst out<br />

laughing.<br />

An aide brought the coffee in almost immediately… he had obviously anticipated the order.<br />

Coyote gave Carruthers a very thorough, only slightly edited account of the fall of clan Katik,<br />

and his part in it. The Admiral sat silently for a while, sipping his coffee and glaring at him with<br />

angry eyes. Coyote returned the look evenly. Something unspoken passed between them… the<br />

slight tension in the room eased.<br />

‘I need a small favour, Admiral. Sahana is already a competent pilot, but she needs to have a<br />

license… and soon. The academy won’t be able to teach her anything, it’d be a waste of time… but<br />

a Naval license would suit nicely.’<br />

‘You must rate her highly or you wouldn’t ask. If she had a Naval license, she would have to be<br />

on the reserve list. Do you think that she is really ready for that… she can’t be any more than

twenty.’<br />

‘She will be an elite combateer one day soon, no doubt of that. She has it all Carruthers, all the<br />

skills… one of the best I have seen. She only lacks the experience, that’s all. As you know, we can<br />

be useful people to have on call.’<br />

‘Point taken, old bean… she’s really that good, is she?’<br />

‘Oh yes, your grace… very good indeed.’<br />

‘Very well, I’ll arrange that… perhaps I can persuade Trent to do the rating and qualification<br />

flights.’<br />

‘I’m sure that Trent will need little persuasion, the poor boy’s hooked. How do you rate him<br />

Carruthers?’<br />

‘He’s a rising star in NavSec… has an excellent record, including combat and covert actions…<br />

he is top notch.’<br />

‘A new generation Carruthers… we’re getting old, I’m afraid. Shall we join them in the mess…<br />

I’m hungry.’<br />

For the next eight days they stayed on the base, while Trent and a Navy instructor put Sahana<br />

through a crash exams program, and various qualifying flights, first on the Dark Star, then on the<br />

Admiral’s Interceptor. She passed them all, easily. Trent was impressed… and definitely smitten,<br />

***<br />

and if Coyote was any judge, Sahana felt exactly the same way.<br />

When she was issued with her pilot’s license, he encouraged her to take the Dark Star out solo<br />

for the first time. She was gone more than a day, and came back with some damaged kit and two<br />

kills to her name… and she had scooped both escape pods. The shipcomp log made interesting<br />

viewing… jumped by two Asps and taking damage, she had sped away on injectors, drawing them<br />

into a stern chase. At extreme range, she had come to a halt, spun the ship and picked them off<br />

clinically with her superior sniping. She had even managed to pick off a missile, one of the hardest<br />

skills. Coyote howled with joy… she had what it takes all right.<br />

The forlorn, stranded girl he had first met on Bizaar station was now a confident, capable young<br />

woman… and a combateer in her own right. Carruthers was also impressed… he took Sahana out in<br />

his Interceptor to make his own assessment, and while she showed off her piloting skills, he took<br />

the opportunity to give her a lecture on the pros and cons of being on the reserve list… what would<br />

be expected of her. He warned her that she would be taking part in covert, highly perilous, and often

questionable actions. He also gave her a lecture on the dangers of her involvement with Coyote and<br />

his friends in the squadron… and of what the possible consequences might be.<br />

With rock music filling the bridge, and Coyote singing along with gusto, they boosted away from<br />

the base.<br />

‘The Free Mexican Air Force is flyin’ tonight… flyin’ so high-igh-igh.’ Sahana laughed, though<br />

the lyrics were mostly a mystery to her. They would be heading for Tirizaan system next… twelve,<br />

maybe thirteen jumps and from there it would be on to the Gates of Damocles, a dangerous sector.<br />

His boots up on the dashboard and his seat reclined, Coyote pulled his sombrero low over his eyes<br />

and lit a colita.<br />

‘Take us into the tube, number one… warp factor eight.’ Looking at him quizzically, she initiated<br />

hyperspace.<br />

‘Contrabandistas… Banditos of light… We’re the Free Mexican Air Force and we’re flyin’<br />

tonight!’<br />

***<br />

Qulecele system… lots of traffic, none of it hostile. Sahana set course in-system. Qulecele was a<br />

major trade nexus on the Zalexe loop, and a very good place to provision the ship for the long run to<br />

Tirizaan. A well stocked galley was essential on long, sun-skimming runs across the chart. When<br />

the ship eventually docked at the station they headed for the stores. Coyote was a good cook, but<br />

Sahana was better, and knew exactly what she wanted for the galley on the Dark Star. After that it<br />

was off to the bar where, surprisingly, Coyote didn’t know the manager. ‘Two Zaquessoian evil<br />

juices, amigo… and a large caraffe of water, if you please.’<br />

The red bony lobster running the bar delved around under the counter and came up with a dusty,<br />

still-sealed bottle, the label faded… a vintage bottle. He deftly split the seal, eased out the cork and<br />

poured two shots.<br />

‘Not much call for this poison around here, sir.’<br />

‘There is today amigo, oh there is today. I think it’s about time I got seriously rat-assed.’ Which<br />

he proceeded to do in high style, buying rounds, entertaining the other drinkers. Sahana made no<br />

attempt to keep up with him, switching to beer after that first shot. She never once left his side<br />

though, taking it all in, listening to the banter he exchanged with the other spacers, learning all the<br />

time about real spacer ways, how to mix easily with the various species.<br />

She was serenely impervious to the leery comments she got from some of the younger drinkers,

and Coyote’s presence somehow prevented any hassle. She thought about Trent, of where that<br />

might go one day… she liked him a lot, but the three fates were leading her elsewhere. She thought<br />

over what little she knew about the squadron. She sensed that Coyote was close to revealing many<br />

things to her, about the squadron and other matters, things she badly wanted to know… but she<br />

would let him choose the time.<br />

When she eventually got him back to the ship, he started on the coffee, using his carefully<br />

rationed NavSec blend. It really was very good coffee. As he smoked a colita, he wondered if the<br />

rumours might be true, if it might actually be the legendary Blue Mountain coffee from Jamaica…<br />

with NavSec anything was possible. Sahana had gone to her bed, so he sat on the bridge smoking<br />

and listening to the celestial mathematics of Bach’s piano music.<br />

***<br />

Xele system… they had raced non-stop across the Andiso Arch and there had been firefights in<br />

every system, even when skimming, which was odd. It seemed that skimming was no longer a<br />

relatively safe option in this sector. Coyote didn’t like it… something felt wrong. He needed to see<br />

Carruthers in Tirizaan system… he had a few things to sort out… and he also needed to see an old<br />

friend who had made Xele his base of operations.<br />

‘Take us in-system, number one, we’ll dock here. We need ordnance and there is someone here I<br />

want to talk to.’<br />

‘By your command.’<br />

Ignoring the odd look he gave her, she set course for the cruise in… local space was busy, with<br />

plenty of Vipers.<br />

In the spacer bar on Xele station, he bought a couple of beers and they sat at a table supping<br />

them and watching the other drinkers. Half an hour later a blue feline entered the bar, spotted<br />

Coyote and came over to join them.<br />

‘Coyote… it has been a very long time… who is this gorgeous creature you have with you?’<br />

‘Good to see you, Qa Ghi… this ‘gorgeous creature’ as you put it, is my number one, Sahana<br />

Katik.’<br />

***<br />

‘I am enchanted, Sahana Katik… you must be a remarkable young lady, to hold such an exalted<br />


‘I am a lucky young lady, Qa Ghi… I’m not so sure about the ‘remarkable’ bit.’ ‘<br />

Luck, or fate if you like, plays a part in our lifepaths… but how one responds, how one weaves<br />

the threads, that is the key. Coyote old friend, it is auspicious that you are here at this time… there<br />

is much for us to talk over.’<br />

‘Indeed amigo… come along to the ship, I am sure that Sahana could further impress you with<br />

her cooking.’<br />

‘XO on the Dark Star, therefore highly talented, strikingly beautiful, modest… and a chef as<br />

well… I love you.’ Sahana couldn’t help herself… she burst out laughing… as did Qa Ghi. Coyote<br />

shook his head in mock despair.<br />

Sitting in the mess on the Dark Star, the two old friends chatted while Sahana cooked. The food<br />

that she prepared had Qa Ghi purring… he was a gourmet and his waistline showed it. He flirted<br />

outrageously with Sahana, offering her lucrative inducements to come and work for him… all in<br />

jest of course. Coyote could tell that he was impressed by his first officer, and Sahana was<br />

thoroughly charmed by the cat. Hearing her throaty laughter was joyous.<br />

He had uncorked his last remaining bottle of vintage Zaquessoian Zinfandel, and Qa Ghi was<br />

even more impressed by that… the men lit cigars and the conversation became more serious.<br />

Sahana settled in to listen and learn, something she did often and well… one of the many things that<br />

Coyote loved about her. They talked for several hours, fuelled by the NavSec coffee which Qa Ghi<br />

declared ‘divine’, and it became clear that all was not well in this sector… pirate activity was rising<br />

fast, spreading from the Gates of Damocles where the situation was far from good… a couple of<br />

systems had gone ‘rogue’ there, kicking GalCop out and taking over the stations… a very serious<br />

development. This particular fact had a direct bearing on Coyote’s ‘small favour’ for Carruthers.<br />

When they boosted away from Xele station, Coyote wasted no time in initiating hyperspace,<br />

bound for Tirizaan. Once in the tube they went to the mess for a late breakfast. He was pensive as<br />

Sahana cooked his favourite, heuvos rancheros, and they ate in silence. When the coffee maker was<br />

done, he poured two cups and lit a colita.<br />

***<br />

‘There are things that we need to talk about, Sahana… well mostly I have to talk and you have to<br />

listen. Things are starting to unravel in these parts and I have a bad feeling… this will be a very<br />

dangerous task indeed. First of all though, you have to decide whether you want to stay onboard for<br />

this mission… or jump ship at Tirizaan.’

‘Jump ship!… how dare you, Coyote! If you think I’m bailing out now, just when it gets fucking<br />

interesting…’<br />

She stopped herself… she was furious, green eyes blazing. It was just the response that he had<br />

expected, wanted. ‘Good, that’s what I needed to hear… but I had to give you the option. The term<br />

‘interesting’ bears a double-edged sword and we will feel both edges before this is over. Now… it’s<br />

lecture time… questions later, okay?’<br />

‘The XO of the combat starship Dark Star forgives her esteemed Commander, and promises to<br />

not interrupt.’<br />

She smiled sweetly at him and sat back in her seat, sipping her coffee.<br />

‘I left my home when I was fifteen… didn’t fancy a life on the family farm. For the next few<br />

years I travelled around Zaquesso, making an uncertain living playing poker in gin joints… an<br />

interesting lifestyle and I learnt how to survive on the under side of society… I learnt how to fight.<br />

One night I found myself in a high stakes game in Spacetown… it was going well until I took a<br />

particularly large pot… and got accused of cheating. I was good at poker and had no need to<br />

cheat… but there I was, looking down the barrel of a gun for the first time. I was about to make a<br />

desperate and probably final move when an old man at the next table intervened, saying that any<br />

fool could see that I hadn’t been cheating, emphasising his point with a gun of his own. Something<br />

in his eyes made my accuser back off, and the old man escorted me out of the dive, leaving my<br />

winnings laying there on the table.’ He paused and re-lit his colita, smiling dreamily.<br />

***<br />

‘I owe almost everything to that old man… he took me up to the station, on to his ship… and on<br />

out to the stars.’<br />

He talked for a long time, pausing only for more coffee and to light another colita. Sahana was<br />

fascinated by his life history and she was bursting with questions… but she dared not break the<br />

mood. He talked of how he had first become a combateer, the thrill of his first kill, how he had been<br />

a ‘natural’ as the old man had put it, and of how he had eventually inherited the old man’s ship…<br />

and his wealth. As the old man himself had done from his own benefactor, many years before. He<br />

told of when a young Captain Carruthers had first made contact with him, offering him a mission to<br />

hunt down an experimental ship… the Constrictor… and of the many other missions that had<br />

followed, how they had become friends. Then he related the history of the Naval Reserve Privateer<br />

Squadron… how he had been invited to join at the time of the Aquti incident, had become involved<br />

in the dirty war in the Tetiri Conclave that had resulted, of his own part in some of the worst

actions… and the consequences.<br />

‘But that was more than two hundred years ago… surely you aren’t that old… are you?’ She<br />

knew her galactic history. Coyote lit yet another colita, blew a smoke ring and smiled at her<br />

enigmatically.<br />

‘There is a highly advanced Rejuv clinic on Avernus that is way ahead of the rest… they keep it<br />

very quiet, select clients only. When it’s time for your first treatment, in about ten years or so, you<br />

will go there… you’re already on their list, Xan Tsen has seen to that. The cost is awesome by most<br />

standards, but that will not be a problem as I have a fiendish plan, if you’re agreeable. I have<br />

decided that I wish to adopt you as my legal heir… I have already instructed my solicitors to draw<br />

up the necessary papers. It can all be finalised at their local office on Tirizaan.’<br />

She didn’t say anything for a while… she just sat looking at him coolly with those beautiful sea<br />

green eyes.<br />

‘And so the baton is passed on… again… a weighty baton, at that. Thank you dear Coyote, and<br />

of course I am agreeable… how could I not be. One question… do I inherit a position in the<br />

squadron… or do I need an invite?’<br />

He was certain that she had grasped it… the reference to a ‘weighty’ baton spoke volumes… had<br />

understood the responsibility that would come with the wealth… had glimpsed the chain going back<br />

centuries, maybe millennia. She had matured so quickly, had listened and learnt so fast. He had no<br />

doubts at all… she had ‘the right stuff’.<br />

‘I believe that the squadron already count you among their number. You took full part in the<br />

actions up in the Steel Halo… assisted in many kills and greatly impressed the flight. You are a<br />

‘natural’ pilot and combateer. You may consider yourself invited if you wish but you are already one<br />

of us by default… and in spirit, I think.’<br />

‘Do I get to pick my own call sign… as a member of the squadron. If so, then it has to be<br />

Aguila.’<br />

on.’<br />

‘You have been thinking on this already, I see… that is good… and Aguila is a worthy call sign.’<br />

‘Yes, I have been thinking on this… and other matters… and I do understand what I am taking<br />

‘Buenno… if you ever need help… or just a friend, Tomaz and Veronika and Xan Tsen will be<br />

more than pleased to see you, as will Li Yan. As for your new feline friend… Nimitz… he will<br />

welcome you with open arms.’

‘Nimitz… Qa Ghi is one of the squadron? I would never have guessed it… but now that I think<br />

back…’<br />

‘Do not be taken in by Qa Ghi… he likes to act the playboy, but he is as good a pilot as the<br />

master.’<br />

‘It was in there in his eyes… I just didn’t see it at the time. How many of you are there… do you<br />

know?’<br />

‘A couple of flights here, a few there, spread across the eight charts… maybe two hundred. We<br />

are content to stay mostly unknown, going about our own affairs, but as you have seen we will take<br />

action if we think it is called for. A final thing, Sahana… when I am gone you will need to visit my<br />

bankers on Zaquesso. You can trust them completely… they can advise you and oversee your assets,<br />

as they have done for me. Also, if the circumstance allows, I want you to take this cigar case to a<br />

bar in Spacetown on Zaquesso called The Final Eight. Give it to the manager, Esteban… he will<br />

understand. He can offer you guidance and contacts… and a couple of other things.’ He held the<br />

iridium cigar case in his hand… it was always with him, even his space armour had an external<br />

pocket for it. Sahana nodded slowly, not questioning him at all on the matter… she would do as he<br />

asked, simple as that. She saw that he was done… that he had nothing more to say. There was a very<br />

distant look in his eyes.<br />

***<br />

Tirizaan system… a major trade nexus on the Serenic Arc with busy spacelanes, well policed by<br />

plenty of GalCop Vipers. That didn’t stop a lone bandit from jumping them as they emerged.<br />

Sahana splashed it with ease, then set course out-system for the Navy base and engaged the Torus<br />

drive. Coyote sat slouched in his seat, feet up on the instrument panel smoking the usual colita. As<br />

they approached the base Sahana commed an ident, received clearance and docked the Dark Star<br />

with panache at max speed, causing Coyote to laugh gleefully.<br />

‘There are times when it is righteous to be flash, number one, and docking at a Naval base is<br />

most definitely one of them… it gives the Navy jocks something to think about. I cannot imagine<br />

where you might have learnt that.’ ‘I must have picked it up somewhere… from some old man of<br />

the spacelanes, probably.’<br />

They were still laughing as they left the ship… and found Trent waiting by the lock in his<br />

spaceblack uniform. Sahana and the Lieutenant exchanged a very long look.<br />

‘The Admiral is in the NavSec office… if you would care to follow me Commander, Sahana.’<br />

Turning, he led the way down the corridor. When they came to the NavSec office, Coyote made a

suggestion.<br />

‘Why don’t the pair of you go off for a chat, while I have a long talk with the Admiral.’ He<br />

entered the office, leaving the the two of them outside. Carruthers was sitting at the desk, reading<br />

comms.<br />

‘Good to see you Coyote… and on your own, I see… good. How was the run across from<br />

Bizalein?’<br />

‘Not as smooth as it would normally be, Admiral… a lot of hassle in fact. The Andiso Arch is<br />

very unsettled.’ Carruthers poured the coffees and Coyote lit a colita.<br />

He told him of the trouble they had seen along the route and of the things he had learned from<br />

Qa Ghi at Xele. Carruthers knew about the two rogue systems in the Gates, saying that the Navy<br />

were very concerned and had already moved some units into the area in case they were needed.<br />

They talked for a long while, first about the general situation in the sector, then about the<br />

possible effect on the mission. It had to go ahead… the Navy badly needed the ‘passenger’ picked<br />

up and delivered to a research orbital in Zaeredre system. Carruthers told him that the passenger, the<br />

subject of a manhunt in the Gates, was still holed up on Biceri station and would be expecting them.<br />

He would make contact with Coyote and Sahana, of whom he had been given good descriptions,<br />

in the spacer bar and the rest would be up to them. Coyote didn’t want to know who or why… he<br />

trusted Carruthers. But extracting someone who was the subject of a sector-wide manhunt covertly<br />

from a system that didn’t wish to let him go was made much harder when that system had gone<br />

rogue, and the whole sector was in turmoil. Unpredictability is the enemy of the contrabandista, and<br />

even one as experienced as Coyote would find this a challenge.<br />

The more serious stuff done with, he mentioned his intention to adopt Sahana as his legal heir…<br />

the Admiral had taken a liking to Sahana and approved wholeheartedly. They finished their coffees<br />

and strolled along to the mess, where Sahana and Trent were deep in conversation.<br />

An hour later they boarded the Dark Star and boosted in-system for Tirizaan station. They would<br />

need to go dirtside to see his solicitors and Metropolis was the ideal place to buy a few items that<br />

they would need. On the cruise in, Coyote briefed Sahana on his plans and how they would go<br />

about it. Life was about to get ‘interesting’.<br />

The Gates of Damocles… an isolated sector, well off the trade routes and historically always<br />

troublesome. They had blasted their way into Atrare system, then on through Edceon to Atbiarxe<br />


system, fighting running battles all the way. Sahana added quite a few kills to her record. The<br />

spacelanes were chaotic and dangerous, with many pirates and what few traders they saw had large<br />

escort squads. The local GalCop Vipers were staying close in-system, and as they approached<br />

Atbiarxe station, four of them formed up around them.<br />

‘Dark Star, please heave-to for boarding and inspection.’ They had little choice but to comply.<br />

Coyote and Sahana were dressed in expensive designer shipsuits and dripping with jewelry which<br />

they had bought in Metropolis, playing the roles of rich old man and his much younger trophy<br />

wife… as they had been since leaving Tirizaan.<br />

The plush, playboy-style interior furnishings of the Dark Star and the Griff EV paint job on the<br />

hull fitted perfectly with their cover. Sahana was heavily made-up, her hair piled high on her head,<br />

the fitted velvet shipsuit showing off her tall body… she looked absolutely stunning, and was<br />

playing the part of an air-headed young wife brilliantly. The inspection was polite but thorough…<br />

very thorough, including electronic scans. The fiendishly well concealed, custom fitted cryo-pod<br />

that Xan Tsen had installed on Avernus passed its first test. The long-ago installed safe in Coyote’s<br />

stateroom also passed… it always had. Eventually they were allowed to proceed to the station and<br />

dock.<br />

It was to his safe that Coyote now went, returning with two antique hand guns… ancient<br />

projectile weapons, but just as deadly as any beam weapon. They had two major advantages over<br />

hand blasters… they could not be jammed electronically… jammers were common on a lot of<br />

stations now… and they were small and compact, making them much easier to conceal. He passed<br />

one to Sahana, showed her the workings and watched as she weighed it in her hand, got the feel of<br />

it… saw the light in her eyes.<br />

He had no doubts that she would be able to use it if needed. He had been so right about her… she<br />

was a first class pilot and a very good combateer who took to weapons and combat instinctively…<br />

probably it was in the Katik genes. Ever since she had asked him back at Usinribe, he had been<br />

teaching her a combat variant of the ancient chinese art of Tai Chi. He had been amazed at how<br />

rapidly she had learnt… had become competent… even dangerous.<br />

He showed her how to fit the soft leather ankle holster, how to draw the gun smoothly. Tarted-up<br />

like a vidstar and waving a gun around, she made quite a picture… so much so, that he just had to<br />

take a snapshot of her on the cam, saying that he would send it to Trent. From the look on her face,<br />

it seemed that she rather liked that idea.<br />

‘They’re reproductions of an old Terran gun called a Walther PPK… I inherited them from the<br />

‘old man’. From now until we reach Zaeredre system, you don’t leave the ship without one. They

have a six shot magazine plus one in the barrel. Accurate to twenty metres or so, and quite deadly. If<br />

you have to use it, fire two quick shots at the torso… the ‘double tap’, as it is known. Do not aim<br />

for the head… that’s only for snipers.’<br />

They remained docked at Atbiarxe station for a couple of days, spending a lot of time in the<br />

spacer bar, where Coyote listened to the local gossip and picked up what little information there was<br />

on the situation in Biceri system. Dressed up as she was, Sahana got a lot of attention but Coyote’s<br />

presence prevented any hassle, as usual. It was late on the second day when two men walked over<br />

and sat down at their table.<br />

‘Tumblin’ pods, if it ain’t Coyote… how’re they hangin’ amigo?’<br />

‘And who is this enchanting young woman that you have with you, begging your pardon,<br />

ma’am?’<br />

‘My cojones are copacetic. Sahana, let me introduce Greer and Cameron, very old friends.<br />

Sahana is my XO.’<br />

‘Exec on the combat ship Dark Star, yet made-up and dressed like a Voogue model… this is a<br />

front, am I right?’<br />

‘That’s for sure, Cameron… you think I enjoy wearing all this bling… old playboy and young<br />

wife is the story.’<br />

‘Lady, you sure got the looks… but that don’t get you XO on Coyote’s ol’ tub. You gotta be one<br />

hell of a pilot.’<br />

‘She is the best young pilot I have seen for many years, Greer. Sahana, these gothic cowboys are<br />

two of the finest hunters in the eight… and they look hungry. Come along to the ship amigos, we<br />

can eat and talk in peace there.’ In the mess on the Dark Star the talk ranged far and wide… from<br />

the ‘good old days’ to the current events in this sector. Cameron quizzed Sahana on how she came<br />

to be Coyote’s Exec… she gave him a brief account of her life, and a full account of the demise of<br />

clan Katik.<br />

Greer listened with great interest, saying that he had had serious trouble with that clan many<br />

years before, and was very pleased to hear of their downfall. It was clear to Coyote that the two<br />

hunters had taken a liking to Sahana. Her self-deprecating account of her own part in the action<br />

didn’t fool them for a second, they were far too experienced for that. They knew a combateer when<br />

they saw one.<br />

They were eating judias refritos with tortillas while they chatted, washing it down with red wine.

When the food was finished, all three men lit colitas and the conversation turned to the immediate<br />

future. Coyote had a plan.<br />

‘Would you two gentlemen be interested in a little contract… a bit of escort work.’<br />

‘You wantin’ an escort… that’s gotta be a first… what’re you needin’, amigo?’<br />

‘Cover on the way out of Biceri system… and then on through to Zaeredre. It might get a little<br />

difficult at times.’<br />

‘What might this little contract be worth, Coyote old friend? You are talking about an Anarchy<br />

system gone rogue, and I suspect that you will be carrying someone or something that the locals do<br />

not wish to leave.’ Cameron was very sharp… as was his long-time partner… but Greer just<br />

enjoyed playing the yokel.<br />

‘Right on the mark as usual, Cameron… two hundred thousand… paid up front.’ Greer and<br />

Cameron looked at each other for a long moment… then they turned back to Coyote, grinning.<br />

‘That done get you the best escort in town, amigo. You wantin’ to split soon?’ Coyote nodded<br />

and they got down to the details. It was agreed that Greer and Cameron would enter Biceri system<br />

an hour behind the Dark Star, skim and jump straightaway to Biarra where they would refuel, and<br />

then loiter near the witchpoint.<br />

Meanwhile, the Dark Star would cruise in-system to Biceri station and dock, make contact with<br />

the passenger and hopefully extract him, jumping to Biarra as soon as they had launched from the<br />

station. If they were pursued through the tube then Greer and Cameron would be waiting to lend a<br />

hand. In Biarra system, the three ships would stay in close formation while the Dark Star skimmed,<br />

then jump to Teesbi and from there on to Zaeredre system. Once the Dark Star had docked at the<br />

research orbital there, the contract would be done. It was a good plan, and Coyote quietly thanked<br />

the three fates for meeting the two hunters.<br />

***<br />

Biceri system was strangely quiet… they had a clear run in, but as they approached the station<br />

they were again boxed in by Vipers… rogue Vipers. Once again they were ordered to heave-to for<br />

inspection, which they did. This time the inspection was even more thorough, but not at all polite…<br />

it was downright rude in fact, and Sahana had to endure a lot of leery comments. She played her<br />

part well, even to the point of flirting with one of the inspectors. Eventually they were allowed to<br />

proceed to the station and dock. So far it was Xan Tsen two… inspectors nil.<br />

All dressed up, Sahana and Coyote went straight to the spacer bar. He appeared to get very drunk

very quickly, blatantly ignoring Sahana, who started flirting outrageously, causing a bit of mayhem.<br />

After an hour or so, with all the attention on Sahana, their passenger was easily able to make contact<br />

with him. Coyote whispered a bay number and strolled unnoticed out of the bar, leaving Sahana to<br />

look after herself… he was fully confident in her ability to do that. Thirty minutes later, she slipped<br />

away from her many admirers in the bar and took the transit to the shipbay, only to find a large<br />

brute of a man standing by the lock. He had ‘enforcer’ written all over him.<br />

him.’<br />

‘Where’s that drunken sugar daddy of yours got to, puta? Someone wants a serious word with<br />

‘Who the fuck are you, arsehole?’<br />

The cold contempt in her reply made him blink… he had thought he was dealing with a bimbo.<br />

He attempted to slap her, but Sahana deftly caught his arm and threw him to the floor with ease.<br />

Before he could recover, she had her PPK out, it’s muzzle pressed to the side of his head. There was<br />

steel in her soft smoky voice.<br />

‘Stay very still and very quiet, and you might just live to see another day… not that I care.’ The<br />

goon had enough sense to obey, and a minute or so later Coyote came along the corridor… just as<br />

another goon appeared further up the corridor behind Sahana, aiming a flechette gun at her back…<br />

Coyote shouted at her.<br />

‘Down Sahana!’<br />

As she dropped flat he appeared to stumble, came up with his PPK and fired two rapid shots at<br />

the second goon, who crumpled to the floor. The first goon had seen his chance and made a break<br />

for it. Firing from the floor, Sahana killed him with one shot to the head at ten metres. She had that<br />

rare skill… starships and laser beams and bullets tended to go exactly where she wanted them to go.<br />

She picked herself up and smiled at Coyote, who was speechless for once… in awe of her. With<br />

excellent timing their passenger chose that moment to appear.<br />

‘To the bridge Sahana and request launch sequence… now!’ She quickly cycled through the two-<br />

man lock. As soon as they could he and the passenger followed her. On board Coyote led him to the<br />

concealed cryo-pod, getting him settled in and chilled down. So far so good, if you didn’t count two<br />

dead goons. He joined Sahana on the bridge and settled into his seat as the Dark Star was being<br />

ported to the slot. She was subdued, coming to terms with her first kill ‘up close and personal’… it<br />

was different up close.<br />

As soon as they had launched Coyote pulled a ninety, boosting hard, and initiated hyperspace…<br />

as the count hit four, he saw five traces appear on the scanner… an Interceptor and four Vipers had

launched from the station and had locked-on to the Dark Star. They were not GalCop… they were<br />

rogue, and they were hot on his tail. They would analyse his cloud, would know his destination.<br />

With the jump-capable Interceptor to open a wormhole, they would soon be pursuing him through<br />

to Biarra.<br />

Endgame<br />

cold.<br />

The screen flared blue… as soon as they were out, Coyote opened the comm… his voice was<br />

‘One Interceptor and four Vipers on my six… all rogue. Take out the Vipers… and any escape<br />

capsules.’<br />

‘Copy that Dark Star… consider it done, old boy.’ Cameron’s laconic response was very<br />

welcome… as was Greer’s more down-to-earth reply.<br />

‘I kinda dig fraggin’ rogue Vipers.’<br />

The five rogue ships emerged just thirty seconds after the Dark Star, expecting to chase down<br />

and kill a lone Cobra and its playboy pilot. Instead they found themselves in a vicious firefight with<br />

three Cobras… iron-assed Cobras piloted by veteran combateers. Greer and Cameron were<br />

perfectly positioned, ready to kick ass… which they did.<br />

Coyote took on the Interceptor, confident that the two hunters would deal with the Vipers. It<br />

became a nasty furball and all the Cobras took damage but the Viper pilots were not GalCop’s<br />

finest, they were rogue… and they died. It got a bit hectic while the Dark Star was skimming… four<br />

bandits tried their luck but Greer and Cameron took them out in short order.<br />

Coyote had the con and boosting away from the sun, the three Cobras slipped into a tight<br />

arrowhead formation, with Greer on point. Sahana had seen GalCop Viper pilots fly close<br />

formation, but hadn’t thought that it could be done with Cobras and was about to comment on it<br />

when the three ships moved even closer together, all without a word on the comms. She knew she<br />

that was a very good pilot but this… this was surely beyond her. Greer opened the wormhole and<br />

the three ships slipped into the tube.<br />

Teesbi system was one long running battle all the way from the witchpoint to the sun. By the<br />

time Greer had fueled up, all three ships were very low on ordnance and over the comms they<br />

agreed that they would have to detour to Anbedi system and dock there. The three veteran<br />

combateers were not prepared to emerge in Zaeredre system without any missiles and with lots of<br />


damaged kit… especially as anyone on their track would expect them to jump straight to<br />

Zaeredre… and could get there ahead of them by making two shorter jumps. They fully expected<br />

that there would be an ambush waiting for them in Zaeredre system.<br />

***<br />

Anbedi system… local space was busy. Maintaining the tight arrowhead formation they boosted<br />

in-system. A few bandits took a look at them, but then thought better of it and turned away. The aura<br />

of menace that the three Cobras seemed to exude was almost palpable. As they approached the<br />

station, five GalCop Vipers came out to meet them and somewhat nervously boxed them in,<br />

ordering all three to heave-to for inspection… they obliged.<br />

There seemed to be less tension in this system and the search was polite… very thorough, but<br />

polite. Coyote and Sahana had dropped their act now that they had left the Gates… the designer<br />

shipsuits and the bling were gone. Once again they passed the inspection and were allowed to<br />

proceed and dock. Xan Tsen three… inspectors nil. It was a fairly slow turnaround… they<br />

replenished their fuel and ordnance, and while a few repairs were being made, they gathered in the<br />

spacer bar for a beer and a discussion of tactics for the expected ambush at Zaeredre.<br />

‘We emerge in line astern, with Greer on point, you third. We take on the bandits, while you<br />

boost in-system to the orbital on injectors.’<br />

‘No way, amigo… we fight as a trio… and all three of us make it to the orbital… more certain<br />

that way.’<br />

be.’<br />

‘I go with Coyote on that… job’s not done ’til I see you dock.’ ‘I agree… that’s the way it has to<br />

‘Okay gentlemen, ma’am… then that is how we will play it. Shall we be about it?’<br />

‘One question guys… just how do you pull that close formation trick?’<br />

‘Automagically of course, Sahana.’<br />

‘They call it ‘mojo’, lady.’<br />

‘Sorcery number one… just wait till we barrel-roll the arrowhead.’ Sahana’s jaw dropped as<br />

Greer and Cameron chuckled.<br />

‘You are serious aren’t you… you can actually do that?’ All three men just smiled enigmatically.<br />

They left the bar and returned to the ship bays, launching as soon as they could. The three Cobras<br />

formed-up outside the station and boosting hard, proceeded to demonstrate the tight arrowhead

arrel-roll… all the way into the tube. For the first time since she had boarded the Dark Star, way<br />

back on Bizaar station, Sahana found herself gripping her seat nervously. The fucking flash<br />

bastards, she thought to herself… Coyote turned and grinned at her, as if he had just read her mind.<br />

A newsbot happened to catch it all on vid… it became an instant hit on the feeds.<br />

***<br />

The screen flared blue… and they were out. There was an ambush in Zaeredre system alright…<br />

three FDLs and four Asps were awaiting them. Whoever was after them had resources… plenty of<br />

resources. It was a very nasty firefight and a close run thing. Greer was on point and got bracketed<br />

immediately by two Asps … he took one out and crippled the second before an FDL slipped in and<br />

finished him.<br />

He ejected just in time, and Sahana’s jaw dropped again as Cameron somehow managed to scoop<br />

his escape capsule in the middle of a dogfight with the other two Asps, then splashed one of the<br />

bandits in spite of taking heavy damage. Coyote engaged two of the FDLs with missiles, then went<br />

for the one that had fragged Greer, red-lining the fore laser then spinning to finish the job with the<br />

aft.<br />

One of the FDLs survived his missiles and Coyote took that on next, taking a missile hit full on<br />

whilst hammering it into space dust. Though badly damaged, Cameron was able to kill the other<br />

Asp with his port laser. Coyote picked off the Asp that Greer had crippled and fragged the escape<br />

capsule. Two heavily damaged ships headed in-system on Torus drives, then on injectors when the<br />

drives mass-locked. They veered off towards the research orbital, commed idents and docked at<br />

max speed, contract fulfilled… mission completed.<br />

They said goodbye to Greer and Cameron on Zaeredre station, after a refit and a long session in<br />

the spacer bar, where they all got rat-assed, even Sahana. She had come to really respect the two<br />

hunters and they had made it clear that it was mutual. After they had launched and hyperspaced for<br />

Inmaarxe, she retired to her stateroom to recover, leaving him alone on the bridge of the Dark Star,<br />

drinking coffee. They would be meeting the Admiral on the Navy base in Inmaarxe system and after<br />

that Coyote had a yen to return to Zaquesso for a break. He knew that Esteban and Jessica would<br />

take Sahana to their hearts… and he really needed to go fishing again.<br />

***<br />

‘First class operation, Coyote… you even made the feeds with that barrel-roll stunt. It’s all over<br />

the sector.’<br />

‘It was very nearly a shambles, your grace… without our two escorts we would most probably be

space dust.’<br />

‘Who were they, by the way… members of the squadron, by any chance?’ ‘Admiral, if I were to<br />

tell you that I would be forced to shoot you.’ Carruthers burst out laughing and Coyote howled.<br />

Sahana and Trent just looked at each other in despair. As an aide served the coffees, Coyote lit a<br />

colita… what he said next surprised Sahana.<br />

‘Okay number one, perhaps you would care to give the Admiral and the Lieutenant a thorough<br />

mission de-brief.’<br />

He slouched back in his chair and blew a smoke ring. She gathered her thoughts… and obeyed<br />

her commander. When she had finished, Trent took her along to the mess for a chat, leaving the two<br />

old men in the office. ‘NavSec are pleased… payment has been credited to the usual account.<br />

Where are you headed next, Coyote?’<br />

me.’<br />

‘I think we need a little vacation… on Zaquesso. Sahana will love it, and the samlon are calling<br />

‘I am outbound as well… I’ll come as far as Cemaaran with you, then I’m away to Xevera. Trent<br />

will be off to Tirizaan… his new base of operations. He and Sahana are going to miss each other, I<br />

think.’<br />

The next day the Dark Star and the Admiral’s Interceptor boosted away from the base, and in<br />

close formation the two ships slipped into the tube, bound for Cemaaran. Sahana was subdued for a<br />

while… thinking about Trent. Coyote made no comment… it was clear that the two young people<br />

had something going, but they would have to work it out in their own way. Trent had a career and so<br />

did Sahana now, in a way. During his long life he had had many relationships, none of them long-<br />

lasting, and on this subject he didn’t feel qualified to offer any advice.<br />

***<br />

The screen flared blue… and they were out… and taking multiple hits.<br />

There were many many ships… all hostile and they were focused on the two recently emerged<br />

ships. Coyote wrenched the Dark Star into a vicious triple, hit the injectors briefly, then rolled out<br />

and took on the nearest bandit, a Krait, vapourising it with one long burst. As he aligned his ship on<br />

a Mamba, he opened the comms.<br />

‘Hades, this is one fucking mother of an ambush… see you on the other side, Carruthers.’<br />

‘Where’s the damn Navy when you really need them… or the bloody squadron… Tally-ho!’<br />

Sahana had been calmly concentrating on the scanner and fiddling with the overloaded multiple

targetting array.<br />

‘Twenty… make that nineteen bandits… four Pythons, six Mambas, two FDLs, four Cobras…<br />

and three Vipers.’<br />

‘Mierda… take missile control Sahana, go for the Pythons and FDLs, but keep one back… the<br />

Admiral will take on the Vipers… we’ll take the Mambas first… then we shall see. I fear that<br />

Atropos is poised with her shears.’<br />

The next ten minutes flew by in a chaotic tangle of laser beams, missiles and frantically<br />

maneuvering ships. The Admiral, his ship already badly damaged, had taken out one of the Cobras<br />

and two of the Vipers, but was taking heavy fire from two Cobras as the third Viper sped in on his<br />

six to finish him… instead of ejecting, he spun the Interceptor and rammed the Viper, both ships<br />

disintegrating in an instant.<br />

The Dark Star was also badly damaged by now… the fore and aft shields had failed, they had<br />

several hull breaches and red lights were coming on across the board. Coyote had splashed two of<br />

the Mambas and one FDL. The three missiles that Sahana selectively launched had accounted for<br />

the other FDL and one Python. In an amazing feat of space combat, Coyote splashed two more<br />

Mambas and a Cobra, but the odds were overwhelming… and the energy banks were dropping fast.<br />

Gobs of plasma were flying off the hull, as a Mamba and a Python closed in for the kill… the<br />

Mamba opened fire.<br />

With all the shields down, the mil laser punched clean through the already weakened hull and<br />

deflected across the bridge, showering Sahana’s space armour with plasma. It vaporised Coyote’s<br />

seat, throwing him violently against a broken bulkhead with sickening force… he lay there<br />

motionless. Sahana took control and hit the injectors briefly, then spun the ship and took out the<br />

Mamba with the port laser.<br />

That just left three Pythons, one Mamba and two Cobras. With a feral snarl on her face, Sahana<br />

fought for her life… firing her last missile at the nearest Python, she twisted the Dark Star into a<br />

sickening triple, then rolled out perfectly aligned on the last Mamba. She red-lined the fore laser,<br />

spun and fragged it with the aft laser.<br />

One of the Cobras was coming in fast on her six so she did the unexpected… she zeroed the<br />

speed, spun ninety and took it out with two long bursts from the starboard laser. Again she surprised<br />

them… instead of trying to evade, she engaged one of the two remaining Pythons… it broke off and<br />

she swooped around to align on the other, red-lining the fore laser again, then spinning the ship and<br />

vaporising it with the aft.

As the last Cobra closed in, she was spinning again, red-lining the port and then the starboard<br />

laser in turn. Another debris cloud resulted and she was at the last Python, which was right on her<br />

bow, shredding the hull with its mil laser. She waited as long as she dared for the fore laser to cool,<br />

while the Python’s fire wrecked the Dark Star around her.<br />

At point blank range, she red-lined the laser one last time… the Python exploded and debris<br />

came hurtling through the shattered bridge, thudding into her already battered space armour. Apart<br />

from rapidly dispersing clouds of debris and tumbling cargo pods, local space was suddenly empty.<br />

She half fell out of her seat, and crawled shakily over to Coyote. He still hadn’t moved, but<br />

behind the helmet visor, his eyes were open and alert. There was blood trickling from his mouth and<br />

his voice was faint.<br />

‘Right on Commander… yours now, number one… find Trent… tell him about this… this trap.’<br />

His suit’s life monitors were turning red. The advanced KAKS space armour had withstood the<br />

laser strike, but it had thrown him across the bridge with such force that he had been impaled on a<br />

sheared metal beam. The ‘smart’ armour had sealed itself around the breach in his back, saving him<br />

from decompression, but the internal injuries were killing him.<br />

The drastic manoeuvring of the last few minutes must have been agony… and she could do<br />

nothing to help him, nothing at all. Somehow he managed to fumble his cigar case out and push it<br />

into her hand… then his eyes closed and he was gone.<br />

Kneeling beside him Sahana howled in anguish, not moving for what seemed like ages. At last<br />

she crawled back to her seat to check the scanner… local space was still empty, mercifully… one<br />

hit from a pulse laser would have finished the Dark Star. She brought the severely damaged ship<br />

around with difficulty… attitude control was minimal and the thrust was erratic… and headed in-<br />

system for the station, engaging the Torus drive… about the only kit that still functioned.<br />

In her spacegloved hand she still held his cigar case and for the first time she noticed the<br />

beautifully engraved script on one side. She read it with tears rolling down her face.<br />

Dark Star crashes, pouring its light into ashes<br />

Reason tatters, the forces tear loose from the axis<br />

Searchlight casting for faults in the clouds of delusion<br />

Shall we go, you and I while we can?<br />

Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds<br />

Mirror shatters in formless reflections of matter<br />

Glass hand dissolving, in ice petal flowers revolving

Lady in velvet recedes in the nights of good-bye<br />

Shall we go, you and I while we can?<br />

Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds<br />

~The Grateful Dead<br />

‘Station Control, this is Dark Star, requesting emergency clearance. We are badly shot-up, red<br />

lights across the board, multiple hull breaches, minimal attitude control and thrusters jammed on<br />

max… no eject available.’<br />

‘Copy that, Dark Star, got the full set there, don’t you ma’am… wait one… okay you’re cleared,<br />

bring it on in.’<br />

‘Thank you, Control… one casualty onboard… coming in hot and fast… Dark Star out.’<br />

Even the extreme sims didn’t throw this at you, thought Sahana as she fought with the stiff,<br />

unresponsive controls on what was left of the bridge. Somehow she got the ship aligned on the slot,<br />

***<br />

after three passes of the station at max speed. If she could just coax a bit more roll out of the stick…<br />

she’d only get one shot at it. Side-swiping the rim the ship bounced and scraped up the slot, trailing<br />

long streamers of sparks and debris. She had made it… just. The vintage Cowell and MgRath Cobra<br />

Mark Three Dark Star had docked for the last time.<br />

The thoroughly wrecked ship was ported to an emergency bay in quick time. When she cycled<br />

through the lock, still in her battered, plasma-scarred space armour, the shipyard boss and a medic<br />

were waiting. The grizzled old shipyard boss was examining what was left of the Dark Star using a<br />

cambot in the bay, slowly shaking his head in wonder. She removed her helmet and took a deep<br />

breath of station air.<br />

‘I have never seen a more shot up Cobra in all my many years, Commander. That was a<br />

masterful piece of piloting, quite remarkable considering the state of that ship. I think that I would<br />

like to buy you a beer, ma’am.’<br />

‘I’ll have to take a rain check on that beer, Jefe. As for the piloting… I had a very good teacher…<br />

the best.’<br />

Through tear-filled eyes she looked at the vac-suited medic who was about to enter the lock.<br />

‘Too late I’m afraid, amigo… far too late.’<br />

Exhausted and overwhelmed with grief, she took a colita from Coyote’s cigar case and lit it.

Filling her lungs with the sweet smoke for the first time in her life, she felt a soothing calmness and<br />

clarity enfold her… then she fainted.<br />

Epilogue<br />

The planet Zaquesso…<br />

It was mid-morning in Spacetown and The Final Eight was quiet… just three punters stood at the<br />

counter. When the young woman strolled into the joint, all three heads turned. Spaceblack shipsuit,<br />

tall lithe body, wavy chestnut hair cascading past her shoulders, the face of a fashion model.<br />

At first glance, she seemed to be totally out of place in this dive… until you saw her eyes…<br />

fathomless sea green eyes… the ‘eight lights gaze’ that only veteran spacers had, very unusual in<br />

one so young. She walked confidently up to the counter, disdainfully ignoring the admiring stares<br />

and comments from the drinkers standing there. The huge bear of a man behind the counter smiled<br />

at her.<br />

‘Good morning… would you happen to be Esteban, by any chance?’ ‘That is indeed my name…<br />

Commander.’<br />

A veteran spacer, he knew a combateer when he saw one… and he knew that look in her eyes.<br />

‘My name is Sahana Katik… a very dear friend asked me to bring this to you.’ She laid a<br />

battered iridium cigar case gently on the counter. Esteban stared at it for a long long moment, then<br />

he looked up at her… his eyes were moist and shining… as were Sahana’s.<br />

‘Gentlemen, I am sorry but this bar is now closed… your tabs are all on the house. Jessica…<br />

come here please.’<br />

His tone brooked no argument… as the three grumbling patrons shuffled out the door, Jessica<br />

came out from the backroom. She took one look at her husband’s face, looked down at the cigar<br />

case laying on the counter and burst into tears… that set Sahana off and all her bottled-up grief<br />

came tumbling out. Jessica opened her arms to her and the two women hugged each other, sobbing.<br />

His eyes stinging, Esteban filled four shot glasses with vintage evil juice. They each took one,<br />

leaving the fourth standing alone on the counter.<br />

After a moment’s pause they raised their glasses and downed the fiery purple liquor.

Ascension - <strong>Drew</strong> <strong>Wagar</strong><br />

Miri smiled at Meru’s clumsy attempts to control his herg. To be fair it was newly broken in and<br />

still a young beast, yet Meru was not the best of riders and the herg seemed to be aware of this. Miri<br />

watched, amused, as the beast circled on its hind legs, bucking and rearing as Meru coaxed it into<br />

reaching the crest of the hill.<br />

Miri watched as the herg caught sight of the endless ocean, the bright red glare of the setting sun<br />

forcing it to squint before a nictitating membrane flashed across its eyes. The beast snorted and<br />

fidgeted. Meru almost slipped off, grabbing the exposed third vertebra just in time to steady<br />

himself, but losing his shoulder bag in the process.<br />

‘Flares and droughts!’ Meru cursed, struggling to reach the bag and retain his precarious balance.<br />

Miri stifled a laugh with her hand, ‘You should become a jester!’<br />

‘You could... help!’ he snapped.<br />

Miri dismounted her herg and walked quietly across to Meru. A touch and a soft whisper and the<br />

herg was calm a moment later.<br />

‘How do you do that?’ Meru demanded.<br />

Miri shrugged, she’d always been good with animals. She understood them better than people.<br />

Animals never lied and deceived, unlike people.<br />

‘Why have you brought me all the way up here anyway?’ Meru demanded, stretching out his<br />

back and rubbing his posterior. It had been a long ride. ‘What was so important that you...’<br />

Miri silenced him with a wave and put a finger to her lips. She was like that, she spoke more<br />

with her hands than her voice. Meru knew better than to hurry her; she could never be rushed.<br />

She was looking up into the heavens, her gaze fixated on the winking star.<br />

Meru counted himself as her friend, one of very few, but in truth he didn’t know her well. She<br />

was one of those people who could be around for a long time, yet if someone had asked you some<br />

basic questions about her, you would find it difficult to answer them. Meru knew little of her<br />

background, her family or even her ambitions. She was small, neat and aloof, methodical in<br />

everything she did. She had come to the Cathedral to study, and that was that.<br />

‘What do you think it is?’ she asked, suddenly turning around and gazing directly at him with her<br />

large brown eyes.

Meru looked up. The winking star, so called because it occasionally disappeared for a few hours<br />

at a time, shone gently in the sky, its brilliant white light in sharp contrast to the huge orb of their<br />

familiar red sun. Already it was brighter than when they had arrived at the hilltop, its intensity<br />

growing as dusk proceeded.<br />

Unlike most other stars it never twinkled and it moved around the sky in a curious retrograde<br />

way. Occasionally it was possible to make out other fainter stars around it that seemed to come and<br />

go with a flash of blue. Many people claimed to have seen a ‘blue flash’, but few had. You need to<br />

be far away from the cities and the lights, and the sky had to be dark and clear.<br />

‘The Words tell us...’<br />

‘I’m not interested in the Words,’ Miri snapped, almost angrily, her hands clenching and<br />

unclenching, ‘What do you think it is?’<br />

Meru frowned. He knew Miri had been reprimanded by one of the Masters for speaking out of<br />

turn in recital recently. Her direct manner often caused friction. She obviously had something on her<br />

mind. He sighed.<br />

face.<br />

‘I remember my children’s tales.’ he said. She looked at him expectantly, a half-smile on her<br />

‘Go on.’ She nodded. With slight embarrassment, he mumbled the doggerel from his childhood.<br />

‘Light above<br />

Light beyond,<br />

Flash of blue<br />

Come and gone.<br />

Holy night<br />

Star so fair,<br />

Shining bright<br />

Take me there.’<br />

‘An ancient rhyme.’ Miri acknowledged. ‘But not your thoughts.’<br />

‘It’s a beacon, a guide,’ Meru replied. ‘Reminding us that what we have isn’t permanent and we<br />

should make best use of the time we have...’<br />

Miri threw her hands up in frustration. ‘Oh! Have an original thought, Meru!’<br />

‘Like I said, it’s mentioned in the Words.’ Meru complained, ‘That’s all I know.’

‘The Words!’ Miri scoffed, ‘The canticle of the high priestess I assume? I’ve heard it before! Go<br />

on then, if you must.’<br />

‘I looked, and I saw a wind-storm coming out from the winking star – an immense cloud with<br />

flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The centre of the fire looked like glowing<br />

metal, and in the fire was what looked like a woman. She ascended to the right hand of the Gods,<br />

there to become the glory of their likeness.’<br />

She scowled at him, ‘Well recited.’ she said, her tone indicating disapproval and disappointment,<br />

‘You’ll make an excellent intermediary!’ It was plainly not a compliment.<br />

‘Elucidate your thoughts.’ he said, biting back a rebuttal.<br />

She walked forward to the very summit of the hill, raising her arms and spinning around on the<br />

spot. Her herg shuffled away, confused by her movements and then went back to munching on the<br />

soft red Soofla bushes around them.<br />

‘I think it is... a place.’ she said, eyeing him warily, her long black hair streaming away from her<br />

in a sudden gust of wind.<br />

‘A place?’ Meru replied, ‘What sort of place?’<br />

‘A meeting place, a place of commerce, a place of stories from across the heavens, like a forum,<br />

but amongst the stars.’ Miri was gazing up with an almost rapturous expression on her face.<br />

‘A forum.’ Meru said cautiously. Clearly Miri’s imagination had run away with her this time. If<br />

she had been spouting such nonsense during recital it was no wonder the Master had been<br />

aggrieved!<br />

‘And no doubt there are people there too?’<br />

He’d said it as a friendly joke, but she nodded enthusiastically.<br />

‘Oh yes, those fainter stars that come and go, they are the messengers, travellers from far, traders<br />

of rare and precious gems made from dreams and visions.’<br />

Meru frowned, but decided to pursue her ridiculous train of thought until she tired of it. ‘Poetic,<br />

but not realistic. How does one live on a point of light?’<br />

Miri gestured back at the faint lights of the city, ‘You might ask how we live inside those lights,<br />

perhaps the star is very far away.’<br />

Meru conceded the point and then gently presented his definitive argument, ‘Yet these people

never visit us. In all the years the star has shone, never once have these people come here. Surely<br />

they know we’re here, why do they stand aside?’<br />

Miri looked longingly up at the star.<br />

‘Perhaps they know we aren’t worthy of a visit.’ she said bitterly, ‘Perhaps they know how we<br />

suppress new ideas and ridicule those who think them!’<br />

So that was it, Meru decided. Miri had been caught postulating her ideas by a Master. She said<br />

little, but when she did decide to talk she frequently timed it inappropriately.<br />

‘What did you say?’ Meru prompted quietly.<br />

Miri placed her head in her hands and took a deep breath, ‘Why ask for ideas if you’re not<br />

prepared to hear them?’<br />

Meru favoured her with a look of sympathy. ‘You’re supposed to answer according to the Words,<br />

not to dream up...’<br />

‘The Cathedral is a centre of learning, no?’ she exclaimed, waving her arms around and<br />

becoming unusually vocal. ‘What is the point of rote learning? Recycling the thoughts of scholars<br />

from years eternal? Preparing pat answers to set questions? All they do is teach to the test, there’s<br />

no room for any original thinking...’<br />

Meru actually agreed with her sentiments, but he was far more practical. Original thinking could<br />

wait until one had earned a position. To do that, you needed to tread a well trodden path, and hold<br />

your tongue when appropriate, perhaps even say one thing and mean another. This little detail<br />

seemed to have eluded Miri.<br />

Something caught his attention. He looked up, frowning.<br />

‘....the whole system is wrong.’ She concluded, fuming. Then she glared, ‘Are you listening to<br />

me?’ Meru didn’t respond. This time it was he who gestured. He pointed, his hand trembling as it<br />

rose, to indicate something behind her.<br />

Miri turned and gasped.<br />

Near the winking star was another star, slowly moving away from its neighbour in the heavens.<br />

As they watched it grew brighter and took on a slightly greenish hue, a garish unpleasant colour,<br />

much unlike the soft reds and oranges that characterised their planet.<br />

It continued to grow in intensity. Miri began to fancy that it had a faint tail behind it. Soon it was<br />

obvious, the tail becoming distinctly yellow, floating in the sky like the wake of a ship.

‘What is it?’ Meru breathed in fear.<br />

Miri’s face reflected the strange glare of the falling star. She turned and smiled, her eyes wide.<br />

‘They’re coming! They’re coming! I knew it!’<br />

The star had now become a glowing sphere. Miri fancied she could see flames trailing behind it.<br />

Was this some kind of chariot? A conveyance of some kind?<br />

They heard two dull claps of thunder, far off in the distance, but there were no storm clouds. The<br />

evening was otherwise quiet, the sun sinking quickly into the ocean. The hergs looked up nervously<br />

at the sound, stamping their clawed feet and cringing, their shoulders raised in alarm.<br />

‘It’s coming this way!’ Meru gasped, turning about and preparing to flee, ‘Miri! We must leave!<br />

Miri!’<br />

Miri was frozen to the spot in awe. The sphere was now a blazing ball of fire growing larger with<br />

deadly speed.<br />

In a brief instant a terrifying noise rose about them; an echoing torment of ripping and shrieking.<br />

The volume was astonishing, reverberating from the hills around them, doubling and re-doubling<br />

into a cacophony of overpowering mayhem. The hergs panicked and fled, shrieking. Miri and Meru<br />

instinctively threw themselves to the ground as the conflagration passed above them. A wave of heat<br />

singed them as it raced past, the noise dropping in pitch dramatically.<br />

Seconds passed and the noise faded abruptly away.<br />

Miri raised her head in the direction the fireball had been travelling. She gasped as a huge<br />

eruption of smoke, dust and flame appeared not two miles further on down towards the valley. A<br />

moment later the ground shook beneath them and a dull roar assaulted her ears.<br />

The flame faded abruptly and the smoke and dust began to drift away. A huge furrow had been<br />

ploughed in the soft ground of the valley. Something lay at the end of the furrow. Something dark,<br />

something metallic.<br />

Meru scrambled on his hands and knees alongside her, shaking with fear. There was no sign of<br />

the hergs.<br />

Miri slowly raised her hands and placed them on either side of her head, her mouth wide with<br />

astonishment.<br />

They weren't the first to reach it, as it had fallen closer to the city than the range of hills in which<br />

they had been riding. Without the hergs they had been forced to walk back through the boggy fens

and it took far longer than it had to travel up. In the near darkness they had to be doubly cautious to<br />

avoid a dangerous fall.<br />

‘Hurry!’ Miri called out from ahead, gesturing to Meru.<br />

Meru was tired, and struggled to keep up with her. Her lithe athletic form seemed to have little<br />

trouble with the difficult terrain, and she clearly had reserves of strength he did not enjoy.<br />

‘I’m coming.’ he muttered.<br />

As they left the side of the hill the ground firmed up. Water was now running in a stream<br />

alongside a broken path. The stream was reassuring, easy to follow and its flickering surface<br />

reflected the light of the stars, guiding them downwards.<br />

Meru caught up with Miri when she reached a small natural dam that overlooked the lower part<br />

of the valley.<br />

‘Look!’ she breathed in excitement.<br />

Meru could see the huge furrow close up now. It was littered with broken bits of debris, twisted<br />

and unrecognisable. Right at the tip lay a large dark mass. Meru’s first impression was that it was a<br />

solid slab of burnished metal. It was largely composed of interlocking geometric shapes, with<br />

virtually no curves in evidence. From his perspective there were two large circular orifices showing<br />

in the rear, from which clouds of steam and smoke were curling upwards into the night air.<br />

He could also see the glittering yellow flicker of torch lights around the object, and more of them<br />

slowly moving up from the general direction of the city. Faint sounds of voices reached them across<br />

the cool evening air.<br />

‘We need to see.’ Miri announced, and vaulted over the dam, skipping lightly on down the path.<br />

Meru caught his breath and wearily followed her.<br />

By the time Meru caught up again Miri had reached the crowd of people that had gathered<br />

around the object. She had already forced her way through to the front and was staring at the object<br />

with intense fascination.<br />

Up close the metallic nature of the object was obvious, but it was not as smoothly panelled as<br />

initial inspection had suggested. Every so often there were odd protrusions, small rectangular<br />

hatches, some big enough to carry the suggestion of doors or entrances. Steam and smoke continued<br />

to drift from the rear, with a soft hissing sound.<br />

The crowd seemed wary. All had pushed forward to within about ten metres of the object and

were standing around the rim of the piles of crushed and turned earth that surrounded it. There<br />

seemed to be an unspoken agreement that no one should go closer.<br />

Meru could overhear snatches of broken conversations.<br />

‘A fallen star, did you see it land?’<br />

‘I heard it overhead! Crashing down! Almost took my head off!’ ‘It should be destroyed! Burnt!<br />

Buried!’<br />

‘Lucky it fell short of the city!’<br />

‘It’s a piece of sky, not of this world!’<br />

Some teenagers, evidently bored with the inaction, started flinging stones at the object. They<br />

bounced off with a dull metallic clang. One stone hit one of the smaller rectangular hatches.<br />

There was a series of clanks from within the object, as if some strange machinery was stirring<br />

into life. The crowd held its breath.<br />

With a jolt, a loud bang and a huge ejection of steam the foremost part of the ship lifted up<br />

abruptly. The crowd gasped in fear and, as one, sprang backwards. Some ran in terror.<br />

Meru managed to get to Miri’s side<br />

‘We should leave!’<br />

Miri shook her head, ‘No. I must see this.’<br />

The steam dissipated slowly, revealing a gaping aperture on top of the object. Miri could see a<br />

hood of sorts, hinged at the back and raised up by two metal pillars as thick as a man’s arm. The<br />

hood itself was similar to the rest of the object, but appeared to have glass sides, as she could see<br />

through it all the way to the other side.<br />

With a final hiss the hood stopped moving and silence descended once again.<br />

For a while no one moved. There were cautious mumblings, and some of those who had fled<br />

slowly came back.<br />

Miri looked around the the people.<br />

‘Isn’t anyone going to investigate?’ she demanded, showing the palms of her hands.<br />

She was met by blank stares and tutted, ‘Cowards.’ Meru grabbed her arm, ‘What are you going<br />

to do?’ ‘I’m going to have a look.’

‘What? Are you mad?’<br />

‘No, I’m curious. This is a visit from the heavens, I must see them!’ She pulled away from Meru,<br />

and walked over to the object. She gingerly raised a hand and touched the object’s flank. She was<br />

surprised to find it cool to the touch. The crowd watched her with trepidation.<br />

‘Miri, get back here!’ Meru called.<br />

‘It’s all right.’ she replied. The crowd gasped as she vaulted up on top of the object and walked<br />

over to the hood.<br />

Miri was confused by what she saw. Underneath the hood was something like a small room.<br />

There was a chair surrounded by a series of tables in which lights and buttons were placed. Many of<br />

them were a familiar and reassuring red colour, some were even flashing. In front of the chair was a<br />

green circular dish divided into four quadrants. It was glowing faintly.<br />

‘Come and see!’ Miri called. ‘It’s safe!’<br />

Meru and a few of the more intrepid youngsters joined her on top of the object, peering down<br />

into the small room. Miri could make out a small circular tube behind the chair which appeared to<br />

lead down inside.<br />

Quickly she jumped down despite Meru’s continued protestations. The tube contained a series of<br />

recessed foot and hand holds, allowing her to easily descend. Inside she found what she took to be<br />

curiously mundane sleeping and cooking arrangements, simple beds and a collection of trays and<br />

utensils. The room was dimly lit by little red lights. Miri stared at one for a moment, wondering<br />

how it could work. It didn’t flicker like fire.<br />

Another tube led from the rear of this room to one much larger. On entering she realised that she<br />

was nearing the rear of the object, as she recognised what could only be the insides of the two large<br />

orifices they had seen on the outside. The room was virtually empty, with the only decoration being<br />

a series of arrows and bays marked out on the floor.<br />

Meru and the others joined her as she looked around.<br />

‘What do you think it is?’ Meru whispered to her.<br />

Miri ignored him, raising her hands and placing them top of her head, spinning around and<br />

looking about her.<br />

Her face was a mask of disappointment.<br />

‘But there is no one here! Where are they?’ she said, disconsolately.

The object, or 'Fallen Star' as it had been dubbed, had been declared off-limits from the moment<br />

the Masters had arrived. Miri had claimed it was because they had no idea what to do about it and<br />

that their laws and words had no explanation. Unfortunately she had said this out loud and landed<br />

herself another period of hard labour aimed at taming her wayward spirit.<br />

Meru found her gazing at it from the tallest parapet of the Cathedral the next morning.<br />

‘Still waiting for ‘them’?’ he asked.<br />

‘No need to tease.’ she snapped back. ‘They should have been in there. Why come down here<br />

and then vanish? It makes no sense!’<br />

‘Perhaps they were never there. It could just be a broken thing, thrown away the same way we<br />

would discard a worn out shoe or knife.’<br />

Miri seemed unconvinced. She rested her chin on her hands and stared out across the fields<br />

towards the end of the valley where the gouge in the ground was clearly visible.<br />

She shook her head. ‘No. That’s not it. But the Masters know something.’ ‘What makes you<br />

think that?’<br />

‘You saw how quickly they stopped people looking at it. You saw how they censured me!’ ‘That<br />

was because you shot your mouth off as usual!’ ‘An excuse, that’s all!’<br />

Meru sighed. ‘But why? We saw the inside. It was nothing special, a few empty rooms, some<br />

clever lights....’<br />

‘Exactly.’ Miri said, turning and fixing him with a look. ‘Nothing special was there and no<br />

visitors either.... so what is it for...’<br />

She frowned, and then her eyes grew wide and darted from one side to another. She was clearly<br />

thinking something through.<br />

‘Miri?’ Meru growled in warning, knowing the look on her face.<br />

‘Oh, nothing.’ she said, leaning back against the stone wall. She idly walked past Meru,<br />

humming to herself.<br />

‘Maybe.’ she muttered, ‘Just maybe! The Canticle!’ Meru reached for her, but she danced out of<br />

reach and fled down the spiral staircase that had led them up to the parapet.<br />

‘Don’t do something stupid! Miri! Come back! Miri!’ Meru chased after her.<br />

Miri had run all the way to the Fallen Star and had clambered aboard it before Meru arrived. He

was surprised to see no sign of any guards, but the Masters had clearly indicated that any caught<br />

near it would be censured. He could only assume they were watching from afar. Doubtless Miri and<br />

he would receive a severe punishment as a result. Damn the girl!<br />

‘Miri! Come back down, if we’re spotted...’<br />

She didn’t respond. He was forced to clamber up on top of the Fallen Star.<br />

Miri was sitting in the chair, looking around at the lights and buttons, as if trying to work<br />

something out.<br />

‘What are you doing?’ Meru demanded.<br />

Miri waved him to silence, looked about her for a few more moments and then looked up at him.<br />

‘What if this is supposed to be empty?’ she said, her eyes flashing with excitement.<br />

Meru shook his head in bewilderment and Miri continued.<br />

‘Perhaps they never were here, they didn’t intend to come down. What if this is a means to go to<br />

them? This could be an invitation, and it would be rude to refuse.’<br />

‘An invitation? To go where?’<br />

Miri pointed at the winking star, just visible above the horizon in the glow of dawn.<br />

‘There.’<br />

Meru stared at her, ‘You don’t really think this thing could take to the skies do you? It has<br />

crashed, it is damaged, that much is obvious!’<br />

‘If I can find a way...’<br />

She randomly pressed one of the buttons. There was a soft musical tone and a voice from<br />

nowhere spoke in a curiously feminine voice.<br />

‘Ident Computer Activated.’<br />

Miri frowned and pressed the button again.<br />

‘Ident Computer Deactivated.’<br />

‘Miri stop messing around with things you don’t understand! Come out of there now before<br />

you...’ Miri had pressed another button.<br />

‘Escape pod sequence initiated, please standby. Ejection commencing in ten...’ The hood

suddenly began to lower into place. Miri glanced up, fear etched on her face for a moment, before a<br />

look of resolution replaced it.<br />

‘Eight, seven, six...’<br />

‘Miri!’ Meru demanded, trying to hold the hood open. It was no use, the mechanism was robust<br />

and far stronger than he was, ‘Get out of there, please! Now! Miri!’<br />

Miri sat with her hands folded, ‘Meru go! I want to do this! You know I don’t fit in at the<br />

Cathedral. This is why I’m here! This is my purpose! Meru...’<br />

The hood closed with a solid thunk, there was a hiss of pressurised air. Meru could see Miri<br />

speaking, but he could no longer hear her.<br />

Meru pounded on the hood, ‘Miri! No! Stop it! Make it stop!’ Steam issued from the area<br />

immediately around the hood and sections of the metal exterior began to fold away in sequence.<br />

Meru could see Miri gesturing for him to get out of the way.<br />

He jumped back with a last desperate look. She smiled and waved, her face composed and<br />

almost serene.<br />

There was a loud roar and he jumped, falling into the soft ground beside the Fallen Star. By the<br />

time he rolled over and looked up, all he could make out was a vapour trail, shooting up from the<br />

Fallen Star and rising into the sky. Meru could just make out a small dark dot towing a sheet of blue<br />

flame. Within minutes it had disappeared from view and the vapour trail slowly drifted aside in the<br />

morning breeze.<br />

The whole forward section of the Fallen Star appeared to have detached itself and lifted off into<br />

the sky, carrying Miri with it.<br />

The Words came to Meru’s mind. They had spoken of them only the night before.<br />

‘The Canticle...’ he mouthed silently.<br />

‘I looked, and I saw a wind-storm coming out from the winking star – an immense cloud with<br />

flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The centre of the fire looked like glowing metal,<br />

and in the fire was what looked like a woman. She ascended to the right hand of the Gods, there to<br />

become the glory of their likeness.’<br />

Meru wondered. The High Priestess? Was it possible? He staggered slightly and then drew<br />

himself up and adopted an attitude of prayer.<br />

‘Bless you Miri, and bless us too.’

Local Midnight at the Vacuum Bar - Blaze O' Glory<br />

A vacuum bar is where you’ll find the loners and the losers, the weirdos and the misfits. That’s<br />

why we’re here, anyway: the crew of the Shockeye, tying one on in memory of our dear departed<br />

Keya. Absent friends, all that.<br />

Shockeye’s berthed, safe inside this battered old trading station, orbiting some dusty little world,<br />

on the tail end of a run through half a dozen fringe systems. It’s not a busy place. Traffic’s light;<br />

maybe once every few hours a ship comes sliding in from out the deep, or launches out to crack a<br />

wormhole to some other star.<br />

We glide up out the airlock, into the domed cage of the vacuum bar. The station’s hull spreads<br />

out, silver in the starlight, turning slow beneath our feet. Gives us a horizon we can all agree on, if<br />

we feel the need. We’ve got the place to ourselves almost: a few drifters here and there, suited and<br />

anonymous, but it’s the Shockeye’s crew making all the noise on the common band.<br />

The planet and the system’s sun are out of sight, hidden down below the station’s bulk. All I can<br />

see are stars, stars, stars, and us just hanging here among them. We hook ourselves in, mating suit<br />

umbilicals to nozzles sprouting from the bar’s fretwork structure, dialling up a choice of poison,<br />

metered by the millilitre. Having one for her, shouting out her name on an open channel. We toast<br />

the life and mourn the death of Keya, spacer to her tiger soul.<br />

Captain Malaco emerges last, clamping his feet onto the bar’s struts and stanchions. He’s the<br />

only one here not suited up; that silver carapace, that’s all him. Had his exoskeleton replaced.<br />

Started off with getting his kneejoints made airtight, apparently, after an accident in an airlock, oh,<br />

years and years ago. Then his foreclaws and dorsal plating, so I’m told, and it just went on from<br />

there. When your species strolls around inside a shell anyway, I suppose it makes a kind of sense.<br />

The attack comes swiftly, raiders sharking in with engines flaring. Captain Malaco hisses, and<br />

snaps a curt command. On the scanner the blip that marks the Nix darts forward.<br />

The Nix was Keya’s, Krait-class, a small singleship fighter. It was outdated, pushing obsolete<br />

maybe, but it was her own: she held it free and clear, she kept it running sweet, and she could throw<br />

that thing around to tie you up in knots. The Shockeye’s crew are either wholly owned, or – like me<br />

– slowly paying off their indentures (Keya said Malaco only bought mine, from my father back on<br />

Ara, because I looked like I’d be cheap to feed). Keya, though, she was an independent, paid an<br />

escort fee to fly outrider on the Shockeye, and the bonus rates she’d prised from old Malaco’s claws<br />

made her a hero to those of us who have to hand him back most everything we earn.<br />

The Shockeye’s bridge is small, cramped, almost entirely filled by Captain Malaco, an armoured

silver hulk squatting over the command console. Wedged into one corner, almost as an afterthought,<br />

sits his copilot: a skinny, undersized youth, not much more than a boy.<br />

I’d like to think that the Captain put me in the copilot’s chair because he recognised my<br />

potential, my coolness under pressure. More likely though he agreed to it because I’m kind of small<br />

for my age: Malaco takes up a lot of room, and he just keeps on getting bigger, year on year. Every<br />

now and then he’ll take the Shockeye somewhere skilled, get himself some new tweak: an O2<br />

rebreather, magnetic feet, a micro-fusion plant, all kinds of stuff. Keya said one day he’d get<br />

himself a witchdrive fitted, and punch out his own wormholes, and then she’d take the Shockeye off<br />

his hands as surplus to requirements.<br />

Captain Malaco rolls the Shockeye round, twisting the fat Boa-class merchant ship to present the<br />

smallest target profile to her onrushing enemies. His copilot preps the Shockeye’s defences,<br />

spinning up her anti-missile systems, and locks the three pirate vessels into the targeting computer.<br />

Keya was good to have around. The first time I found that out was five years back almost, when<br />

I had just been bought in to Shockeye’s crew and still had Ara’s dirt between my toes. We were<br />

unloading, all hands, and I was so green I didn’t know the difference between weight and mass.<br />

Working in the microgravity of the docking bay, manoeuvring the huge containers, I missed a catch<br />

with my gee grab and thought I could stop the canister smacking into the bulkhead if I just stepped<br />

in there and stuck my arms out.<br />

It was moving so slowly … Lucky for me that Keya moved fast, darting in above me, long legs<br />

absorbing the energy as she landed feet first on the bay wall. She grabbed me by the hair and threw<br />

me clear, just as the rogue container crunched home right where I’d been standing. I finished up,<br />

more or less unhurt, upside down in some cargo netting, while the crew whooped and clapped and<br />

Keya turned a slow and elegant somersault to land gracefully on the bay floor. After the job was<br />

over she swung by again, and presented me with a concoction of meat and spices all bundled up in<br />

chewy flatbread, saying maybe I should gain some mass of my own before I tried arguing with<br />

cargo canisters.<br />

The raiders fan out. One ship – an Asp, a heavy fighter – targets the Nix. The other two – a<br />

scarred and pitted Python freighter, and an ageing Fer-de-lance, long past its prime but still sleek,<br />

and built for combat – close in on the Shockeye.<br />

Once we were riding this wormhole, and Captain Malaco got sick. Well, not sick; something<br />

wrong with his power grid, I think. Anyhow, he seized up on us, had problems breathing, too. There<br />

was a bit of panic by the time we burst back into real space: who was going to take the Shockeye<br />

in? No-one else on board had a pilot’s ticket; in any case, the controls were custom-built for a three-

ton cyborg lobster with claws that could cut sheet steel.<br />

The Shockeye didn’t even have a copilot’s chair back then; I was still on scutwork. Keya came<br />

on the blower, though, and she drummed up a plan. Lug the Captain off the bridge, she said, get him<br />

down to the engine room, and try to stabilise his systems; meanwhile open up the cargo bay and<br />

she’d park the Nix in there, come aboard, and fly us in. So there I was, down in the hold inside a<br />

suit two sizes too big, trying to see out over the neck ring and guiding Keya in to a bay that was two<br />

sizes too small.<br />

The Shockeye’s engines hung over the bay doors, still running hot, but she nudged and teased the<br />

Nix on in there. She wedged her ship’s nose right in the doorway, cracked the canopy, threw me a<br />

grin and a wave and dived off to the bridge. I spent the rest of that trip using every cargo tie and gee<br />

grab we had to lash the Nix in place, the blue glare from Shockeye’s drive pulsing through the open<br />

doors. I was running pretty low on air by the end but somehow Keya flew us in, got us docked and<br />

locked, brought us all home safe.<br />

Captain Malaco squats low over the Shockeye’s controls, teasing the ship’s nose around in a<br />

delicate spiral as the Fer-de-lance and Python open fire. Shockeye’s shields spark and spit, her<br />

reactor thumping deep down inside her. Malaco cocks his head and twists the yoke, one spare leg<br />

stamping down hard on the fuel injectors. On the viewscreen the stars blur and spin: the tail end of<br />

the Asp fills Shockeye’s gunsights as the Nix pirouettes away to drop onto the Python’s stern.<br />

Malaco grunts and squeezes the triggers: Shockeye’s huge laser lashes out, collapsing the Asp’s rear<br />

shield in a white-hot flare of radiation.<br />

Then there was the time in Terea Station, when two identical, drunken Ceedrans tried to call her<br />

out. She was on the habitation deck, dickering with a technician and looking to get some new gizmo<br />

for the Nix, I guess, and I was just passing on my way from delivering the Shockeye’s papers to the<br />

dockmaster. Suddenly these two lizards blunder up, there was a push or a shove or a collision and<br />

the tech was slamming down his shutter and the Ceedrans – never backward when coming forward,<br />

as they say – they were hauling out these wicked-looking blades.<br />

Keya’s eyes were wide but she set her feet and had started to smile, or show her teeth, anyway,<br />

when I came running up from behind and kicked one of the Ceedrans, by sheer good luck, right in<br />

the cloaca. He let out a high-pitched whistle through his nose and dropped like he’d been shot. His<br />

twin spun round, bug-eyes swivelling in two different directions, waving his machete above his<br />

head – and Keya kicked him in the back of his knee, grabbed his wrist, twisted, and had him<br />

disarmed and flat on the floor when the station cops ran up and splatted all four of us with capsicum<br />


My eyes were streaming but I could hear Keya coughing and laughing as they dragged us off to<br />

the Merchants’ court. I thought I was dead meat for sure – the fine for brawling was more than<br />

Captain Malaco had paid for my entire fifteen-year indenture – but not only did he pay the score,<br />

when I got back to the Shockeye I found myself in training for the newly fitted copilot’s chair, with<br />

a microscopic increase in personal allowance on top. Keya said that I had a knack for it, that I knew<br />

the importance of getting on your opponent’s tail and plugging him in his weak spot.<br />

The Asp lights up its drive and slams away from the fight, venting plasma from a ruptured coil.<br />

Captain Malaco drums four of his feet on the floor, closes down the throttle and flips the Shockeye<br />

up and over. She rolls towards the two remaining pirate ships. The Nix is stitching fire all down the<br />

Python’s belly. The copilot punches up the Fer-de-lance as the priority target, and Malaco clicks his<br />

jaws and brings the daggerlike craft spinning into his crosshairs.<br />

There are still a few calls going out on the common band, but mostly now the crew have<br />

switched to closed channels. One or two are opting for more private conversation yet, turning off<br />

their comms and leaning in together, touching visors.<br />

The Shockeye’s laser stabs out again, a muffled roar rising from within the ship as exchanger<br />

pumps fight against the weapon’s soaring temperature. The Fer-de-lance spins away, its shield<br />

flickering. The Nix smashes down the Python’s shields and carves a glowing gash along its flank.<br />

An alarm warbles as the Python, desperate, launches a missile. Captain Malaco drives the Shockeye<br />

on a tight arc, feathering the engines, dragging the Fer-de-lance back into his sights. The copilot<br />

punches the Shockeye’s countermeasures, sending a massive electromagnetic wave surging out into<br />

surrounding space. The pulse catches the Python’s missile; it ruptures in a spray of sparking<br />

fragments, disintegrating harmlessly. The Shockeye’s engines groan as they labour to recharge the<br />

ECM.<br />

I remember the twist of her mouth when she smiled, the tilt of her jaw when she laughed. There<br />

is nothing left of her, now. I’ll never see her again.<br />

A titanic flash marks the Python’s destruction. The Shockeye pounds at the Fer-de-lance. The<br />

Nix is swinging round. The Fer-de-lance rolls again, a long missile sliding out obscenely from its<br />

belly.<br />

The copilot slams the ECM.<br />

The alarm warbles.<br />

Shockeye’s laser burns a terrible hole in the pirate’s hull.<br />

The ECM hisses, not yet fully charged.<br />

The missile’s engine fires, its tiny pinprick mind seeking death.

The Fer-de-lance explodes.<br />

The boy reaches out to slam the ECM again.<br />

Out of the explosion the missile surges upwards.<br />

And the Nix, darting back, takes it in her gut.<br />

Nothing and never. The alcohol burns a hot track down through my chest, sliding around the void<br />

I feel inside me.<br />

The crew are mostly quiet, now. Some have even unclipped their umbilicals; doesn’t do to drink<br />

too much inside a vacuum bar. Captain Malaco, over to one side, is talking with a Sidewinder pilot.<br />

Looks like he’s bargaining for a replacement escort; I see two of his forelegs flick the signal money.<br />

His dorsal plates fan out, dumping a little waste heat. The starlight slides across his silver skin.<br />

Nothing touches him inside that shell.<br />

I wonder how long it takes to get that way.

Snake Charming - DaddyHoggy<br />

Against the star pricked blackness of space, three sleek ships hung like pin badges on a cloak of<br />

black velvet. Three racing mambas, the technological pinnacle of their class, on the exterior, the<br />

shell of the hull matched the traditional wedge shape familiar to all space-goers, but underneath this<br />

thin veneer all resemblance to the standard forecourt model ended. Engines, barely legal and barely<br />

contained were squeezed into frames that were engineered and braced to hold onto the awesome<br />

power that would be unleashed at time zero, but only just, not one ounce more of duralium alloy<br />

was used that wasn’t absolutely necessary...<br />

...there was no safety margin built into a Ring Racer ship, win, or tear the ship apart trying to<br />

win, there was nothing else.<br />

Diso was not on the racing calendar but it would seem the galaxy is full of puppets if you knew<br />

which strings to pull and Daddyhoggy had pulled them all. After all, one of his ships had made it to<br />

the final, he zoomed in the Holo-Vid feed that filled one wall of his quarters, marvelling at the<br />

living, bubbling lava pattern that adorned ship number 72, of the Magma Racing team, the custom<br />

paint job was one of his finest creations. He loved it so much that he had, secretly, bought the team.<br />

In the cockpit of number 72, a gum-chewing Chad Stormbowl was going through his pre-race<br />

check and paused briefly when the light indicating the secondary impulse manifold was out of<br />

tolerance refused to go out. It didn’t go out on a second initialisation despite a reboot and it didn’t<br />

go out when he thumped the plexi-glass console where the warning light was. After a moments<br />

consideration Chad spat his gum onto the console and squished it over the light. No more light, no<br />

more problem –damn crappy secondary system anyway, don’t need it, shouldn’t even be there, if<br />

the primary goes, goddam race over anyways. Mandatory requirement my ass, don’t need no<br />

freakin’ Health and Safety rules for comin’ in second.<br />

The rest of the checks were finished in glowering, gum free, silence.<br />

All done, he switched his cockpit camera to his left viewer to check on race rival number one,<br />

the number 11 ship from the Cosmorossi team. Chad was convinced the team spent longer waxing<br />

the red dart then they did fixing it to fly, but it was here, in the final, he had to give them that, but<br />

they were already beaten, Chad had mentally crushed the ship’s pilot, Havok Flasheart (dick weed<br />

of a dumbass name if ever there was one) in the pre-race interviews. Sorted.<br />

Chad flipped to the right viewer and glared at the Quasar Sports ship. It did not explode, nor did<br />

its pilot, Screelow, suddenly emit a blood curdling scream over the comms as he was suddenly<br />

consumed by an infestation of Trumbles. Wishful thinking, but Chad had wished real hard, just in

case.<br />

Chad scrunched up an eye, there was something odd about that QS ship, something not quite<br />

right with the line of its underbelly compared to the last race, the race Chad had won, and taken a<br />

one point lead in the championship and pole in the grand final. The Thirty second klaxon sounded<br />

in the cockpit and Chad snapped back into race mode, killing the side view camera, all lenses and<br />

sensors to the front.<br />

What the hell, thought Chad,if his engineers have screwed him over all well and good, a little<br />

bulge like that, well hell, that’ll add maybe point five to the time skimming Diso’s atmosphere to<br />

take that tight racing line down through Ring Six.<br />

Confidence renewed, at the twenty second klaxon, Chad punched up the light show. On Holo-vid<br />

feeds all over the system money men, gamblers, and lovers of Ring Racing cast an appreciative eye<br />

over the three ships as they bucked and rocked and twisted on the invisible start line. Computers<br />

carefully, but not too carefully, balancing the surge in power from the engines against magnetic<br />

dampening fields as the ships pumped excess fuel from deliberately overfilled fuel tanks directly<br />

into the power manifolds of their engines, sending out explosive showers of visible light and sub-<br />

atomic particles that twisted like dragon’s tails from the exhaust port of the engine’s vent system.<br />

In these final few seconds before the race started millions of extra credits from the bars and clubs<br />

in the Diso Constore and main orbital stations flooded into the electronic virtual vaults of the<br />

Galcop authorised bookmakers covering the race as punters convinced themselves that, from this<br />

display of extravagance, they’d nailed the winner and bagged themselves a dead-cert with odds too<br />

good to pass up.<br />

As the computer display in the cockpit of Chad's ship reached the two second point, he<br />

scrunched up his eyes, gritted his teeth, took a deep breath and then tensioned all the muscles in his<br />

arms, legs and abdomen, in theory this would keep him together should the inertial dampers fail to<br />

keep up with the acceleration provided by his race tuned engine when the counter reached zero. In<br />

practice all the drivers knew that this was a pointless exercise, you just had to ask One-eye<br />

MacGraw of the Festus Flyers, whose monocular status and need of an eye-patch hadn't occurred<br />

until point two seconds into the start of Race Three of this season.<br />

The rules of the Ring Racers categorically state that the pilot of the ship must fire the injector<br />

burn of the engine manually, this is supposed to be a test of reactions and skill not of cleverly<br />

written software. But rules were meant for bending which is why, the nanosecond the official race<br />

timer reached zero, the flight computer of Chad’s ship electrocuted him, clamping his right hand<br />

tightly around the launch control of the engine in a horribly painful, but effective, spasm.

Number 72 instantly tore away from the invisible line leaving the Cosmorossi ship twisting in its<br />

wake as Chad took an aggressive line ready for Ring One and through the tears of pain as the<br />

acceleration tore at his internal organs Chad could see that he was already point oh five behind the<br />

Quasar Sports ship.<br />

Nooooooo – freeeeeakin’ – waaaaaaay!! screamed Chad in his head, unable to vocalise his<br />

incredulity through the pain of the initial acceleration.<br />

The Quasar Sports ship took the perfect line through Ring One, tight on the inner left hand edge<br />

of the structure, Chad took as tight a line as he dared, just outside the disruptive wake zone of the<br />

ship in front, but it wasn’t optimal and as they headed for Ring Two, he was point six five behind<br />

his nemesis. On the relative straight run to Ring Two he had chance to flick back to the rear viewer.<br />

The Cosmorossi ship was already a distant red dot surrounded by a halo of purple. He waited for the<br />

auto-tracker to lock on. The green read out displayed ‘+0.82’, in Ring Racing, it was never about<br />

the distance, it was all about the time. He flicked back to the forward scanner, to note visually that<br />

the Quasar Sports ship was even further ahead, the auto-tracker confirmed what he already knew: ‘-<br />

0.7’ as they screamed through Ring Two. A gum free Chad chewed on his tongue.<br />

How? How? How?<br />

Chad mentally ran through the course as they banked steadily left to line up for Ring Three, the<br />

Quasar ship precisely following the optimal racing line, Chad as close to it as he dared without<br />

falling into the invisible but particle rich wake of the lead Mamba’s engine discharge.<br />

Straight through three, hard right and climb to Ring Four, dive but straight to Five and then the<br />

tricky line through to Six.Too tight and the rarefied upper atmosphere would cling to the ship, drag<br />

it back, leech away the power reserves, use up the precious fuel being pumped into the injectors;<br />

Not tight enough and the curve would add precious clicks to the distance flown, diminish the effect<br />

of the gravitational slingshot.Hard right to seven, hard left to eight and then that long, long straight<br />

down to nine, round the star to ten, straight to eleven, loop back to twelve, the wiggle at thirteen to<br />

fourteen, tight right to fifteen and then straight through to sixteen and the finish line outside the<br />

Constore.<br />

Chad had already calculated as they blasted through Ring Three and hauled hard right over to<br />

align with Ring Four that, given the Quasar’s clear top speed and acceleration advantage, the<br />

atmospheric turn to Ring Six or the star loop to Ring Ten were the only places he had any chance of<br />

retaking the lead. He’d done it before, at Leesti, in race seven, slingshot effect compensating for<br />

drag on the non-optimal but shorter line, but he’d cooked quite badly and only some very expensive<br />

Reel-Skin had restored his holo-vid hero good looks.

Decision made Chad made minute adjustments to his flight path for Ring Four, he ignored the ‘-<br />

0.72’ from the autotracker and the delta reading -0.01, up from -0.007, losing point zero one of a<br />

second per second now was irrelevant, this was all about Ring Six now and his newly optimised<br />

path to his audacious undertake on the far side of Diso.<br />

As they punched through Ring Four and nosed down to Ring Five, Chad was still drifting away<br />

from the original racing line and the Quasar Sports ship hadn’t covered the new line.<br />

Good, goodthought Chad,You just fly like you’ve got me beat, because I’ve sussed you out now<br />

boy, you ain’t got no heat shielding on that theresnakeof yours, that’s why you’re so freakin’ quick,<br />

so try and block me and you’re gonna burn up like... like a meteorite!<br />

At Ring Five Chad was almost exactly a full second behind and although the ship was smooth as<br />

silk now he was away from even peripheral wake effects his non-optimal line between the rings was<br />

costing him valuable time.<br />

On the run down to Ring Six though Chad’s flight computer indicated that, for the first time, the<br />

Quasar Sports ship was off the optimal race line on a vector that would clearly take it high and wide<br />

of the planet and its clingy atmosphere.<br />

Chad allowed himself a cautious smile, perhaps this was a test, a double bluff by Screelow, to see<br />

if Chad would move back on to the ideal race line for the turn to Ring Six, abandon his plans to<br />

undertake...<br />

Screelow was a sneaky, vile rodent, he must know Chad’s plan’s now, because Chad hadn’t<br />

slotted back to the optimal line when it was gifted to him. Chad wondered what Screelow’s race<br />

computer was telling him in the Quasar Sports ship, because Chad’s computer was telling him that<br />

the twitchy rodent wasn’t far enough ahead on its current vector to stay ahead of Chad as he ripped<br />

through the upper atmosphere of Diso and on to unstoppable victory. But knowing the other pilot’s<br />

plans and actually being able to do anything about them were two separate issues.<br />

Chad would not be drawn, let the Cosmorossi ship have the perfect line that both the lead ships<br />

had now bequeathed, he had his plan, Screelow had had his but Chad’s was going to be better, more<br />

stylish, and most importantly, a race winner.<br />

Diso loomed large in the forward scanner.<br />

Still on full burners the first wisps of atmosphere began to tug at the Magma Racing ship, the<br />

tiniest of slides was quickly and flawlessly corrected for by Chad’s expert hands on the controls, the<br />

temperature gauge ticked over by a single extra point in the positive direction.

The purple dot with a purple streak of tail behind it was high on Chad’s viewer as he finally<br />

began to bank over, digging still further into the thickening atmosphere.<br />

...but not as high as he would have expected for a ship with no shielding...<br />

...no...<br />

It was obvious to Chad now that Screelow’s ship was also turning in.<br />

...he’ll burn up!<br />

If Screelow knew this his flight vector didn’t indicate it to be so, not at least, according to Chad’s<br />

own computer which was rapidly recalculating where it expected the two ships to be relative to each<br />

as they reached Ring Six. If Screelow’s ship survived the dive through the atmosphere it would still<br />

be in the lead at Ring Six.<br />

NO. FREAKIN’. WAY!<br />

Chad had to hold his nerve and his line and just pray that the Quasar Sports ship cooked its flight<br />

controls in its suicidal new flight path that would cut across Chad's own, or indeed that the festering<br />

rodent would cook in his own juices in the shield free cockpit.<br />

Chad could feel beads of sweat prickle on his forehead and trickle down his cheeks as the cabin<br />

heated up, on the edge of his forward viewer he could see the glow of atmospheric heating and<br />

through that, the particle trail coming from the Quasar Sports ship as the leading edges of the ship<br />

were stripped away by Diso’s atmosphere.<br />

Cook you freakin’ whisker-twitcher, cook...<br />

The inevitable happened, the flight path of the Quasar Sports ship intercepted that of the Magma<br />

Racing one and then it did the strangest thing (as far as Chad was concerned), it adjusted its course<br />

very slightly to match that of Chad, it was now punching a hole through the atmosphere that Chad’s<br />

ship now slipped through smooth as silk, he was suddenly catching up at an almost alarming rate,<br />

he could slip-stream the Quasar Sports ship and...<br />

...a little warning bell went off in Chad’s head, something was wrong with this situation, he was<br />

accelerating into Diso’s atmosphere and the Quasar Sports ship was modifying that angle, if the<br />

Quasar Sports ship suddenly pulled up and survived the manoeuvre, Chad’s greater velocity would<br />

mean he wouldn’t be able to, he would suddenly find himself in thickening atmosphere, he would<br />

simply burn up...<br />

Almost the instant he had that thought he cut the injectors, the ship, unbalanced by the loss of

power, lurched and bounced around inside the tunnel cut into the atmosphere by the lead ship, a<br />

ship which was rapidly moving away...<br />

...something tumbled away from the underside of the Quasar sports craft, that plating perhaps<br />

that Chad had noticed on the start line?Ha! Your ship’s coming apart you freakin’ twitchy-nosed,<br />

flea-infested, garbage-eating, parasitic rat!<br />

The plating, as indeed it was, superheated, glowing white, spun and bounced around in the<br />

engine wake of the ship which had lost it and for a moment Chad thought it might hit him but drag<br />

and gravity pulled it downwards and, like a man-made shooting star, it fell towards its doom in Diso<br />

below, a trail of orange sparks marking its passage.<br />

Ahead it appeared that the Quasar Sports ship and its pilot had bitten off more than they could<br />

chew and Chad whooped with delight as some of the ships internals (no doubt exposed by the<br />

missing plate) came loose from the underside of the leading ship.<br />

But this object did not tumble, or spin, it seemed to move with purpose, with stability, it stayed<br />

directly in the path of Chad’s ship and even without injectors the gap between him and it closed<br />

rapidly, Chad was certain it was going to hit him.<br />

A mine? A freakin’ mine!Chad spat into open Comms. But Chad was wrong, it wasn’t a mine, it<br />

was much more stylish than that... Suddenly, Chad’s universe was filled with a pale blue light.<br />

NOOOOOO-he screamed over the comms and then the signal was gone. Millions of Ring Racing<br />

fans watching the live holo-vid feeds stared opened mouthed at their displays. They stared at the flat<br />

two-dimensional event horizon of an entrance to a witchspace tunnel, locked in space as Diso<br />

turned slowly underneath. A pair of Vipers, close and on routine patrol cut through the atmosphere<br />

and fired up their Wormhole scanners as they approached the Disc, which rippled oddly in the upper<br />

atmosphere of the Diso, gases tumbling in and coming out... ...Riedquat, the lead viper pilot read off<br />

his display. ‘The exit point is in the Riedquat system,’ the pilot announced over open comms.<br />

‘Standby.’ Cut to narrow band the general public did not hear the discussion between the lead Viper<br />

pilot, a life-long Chad Stormbowl fan, and his Wingman, who didn’t follow Ring Racing and was a<br />

Zero-G hockey man through and through. Which is why they didn’t know why only one of the<br />

Vipers plunged through the entrance to the Witchspace tunnel before it had an opportunity to<br />

collapse, sustaining it further, indeed, enlarging it. This heroic act on behalf of the Viper pilot gave<br />

Daddyhoggy time to scan Diso space and find an Anaconda and its escorts making final approach to<br />

one of Diso’s main stations, an Anaconda whose captain had a liking for Leesti Hold’em and a long<br />

line in credit that was wholly owned by Daddyhoggy (or at least one of his many privately financed<br />


Extract from the article 'Ring Racing – will it ever be the same again?' published by the Tionisla<br />

Chronicle<br />

...Chad never raced again after that, which is understandable, all things considered, nor has he<br />

ever been interviewed on the matter. Screelow was jailed of course, not for trying to kill Chad,<br />

because, as his defence council pointed out, such an act isn’t actually banned in the Rules of Ring<br />

Racing, but for endangering the population of Diso by creating a wormhole within the atmospheric<br />

boundary of a planetary body and that was definitely not allowed.<br />

He was released in time for the start of the next season and viewing figures for Ring Racing did<br />

almost double for the rest of that season, and advertising revenues correspondingly increased four-<br />

fold, most of this attributed directly to sponsorship of Screelow himself. ‘To win at any cost’ - is an<br />

oft quoted soundbite from a considerably longer interview with the rodent flyer on his early release<br />

from a Galcop penal colony . Reports by Snoopers that, while serving out his sentence, Screelow<br />

was actually working for the Galactic Navy refining the design of his hand-built micro wormhole<br />

generator technology was always denied by official sources and images published by us, of said<br />

work, labelled as fakes by all the authorities concerned.<br />

Two new charity events, both held at Diso, have been added to the calendar. The first, the<br />

Jackson Cup, in memory of the Galcop Viper pilot who defended Chad’s battered Mamba in the<br />

Riedquat system until help arrived, but who sadly died before he too could be rescued. The second,<br />

the Herclic Trophy named after the (alleged) brave Anaconda captain who (allegedly) selflessly<br />

threw his ship and escorts through the wormhole before it closed so it could open up another<br />

wormhole in the Riedquat system back to Diso for Chad to escape his seemingly inevitable fate.<br />

Insinuations by Rooters that Daddyhoggy somehow forced Herclic into this act have always been<br />

strongly denied by both parties and no evidence that Daddyhoggy actually owns Herclic’s ship has<br />

ever been satisfactorily presented to the public.<br />

The Truth is, we just don’t know.

Schism - <strong>Drew</strong> <strong>Wagar</strong><br />

Miriam strode forward into the Tabernacle, through the massed ranks of acolytes, her eyes never<br />

wavering to the left or right. She kept her gaze focussed on the golden curtain. It was to be her day<br />

of enlightenment. She was one of the few of her generation to be privileged to see the holy of<br />

holies, the destination, the purpose, Nirvana. Today marked the official start of the 31st generation.<br />

It had been over nine hundred cycles since ‘The Beginning’. Only on this day each cycle could<br />

junior acolytes approach the holy of holies.<br />

It was a rare honour. To even be allowed into the Tabernacle, the most holy forward compartment<br />

of the world, was a privilege few acolytes could ever dream of, never mind the massed ranks of<br />

menials that drudged away in the dark recesses of the interior.<br />

Ahead of her stood the Cardinal, Navigator of Paths, the Supreme Representative of the ‘Way’.<br />

He alone held the secrets of truth, divined meaning in the future, and had access to the holy relics<br />

contained within the Tabernacle; the K`Trols. Relics that were said to burn and maim those that<br />

were deemed unworthy.<br />

She was dressed in a ceremonial gown, dyed a deep red, symbolising the blood that had been<br />

spilt during the darkness that preceded the great undertaking to Nirvana. Gold embroidered<br />

wristbands and collar markings symbolised the richness of the truth. She also wore the mark of the<br />

chosen; a heavy jewel encrusted shape. The shape of perfection, the ultimate shape, the shape from<br />

which all beauty issued forth; the Cylinder. The scriptures told that it was the shape of the world<br />

itself.<br />

Joran flanked Miriam on her right side, likewise he was another acolyte, though slightly senior to<br />

her. It was he who had recommended that she be blessed to the rank of enlightened, for her service<br />

to the Way. To her right was another acolyte she had never seen before, flanked by his own senior.<br />

Two of them had been chosen.<br />

They were both present for their initiation to enlightenment. A test of their character and<br />

worthiness. Miriam had spent the last cycle rehearsing the symbolic moves required and felt she<br />

was proficient; however, she knew nothing of the test itself. It was shrouded in secrecy; involiate.<br />

On cue, both junior acolytes bowed. Miriam adopted the pose appropriate for a female, kneeling<br />

and bowing her head, whilst her neighbour bowed straight from the waist as was correct for a man.<br />

‘Approach.’ The Cardinal entoned. Miriam quivered in anticipation. His voice was enhanced in a<br />

most amazing way, it seemed amplified, resonant as if it was issuing from all around the room. A<br />

holy man indeed!

Joran and the other senior acolyte walked beside them as they approached the Cardinal. Behind<br />

him a shimmering golden curtain blocked the view of the holy of holies, a vista forbidden to the<br />

unenlightened on pain of death. Today, if successful, she would see!<br />

The Cardinal dismissed the senior acolytes with a symbolic wave of his hand. He paused,<br />

looking closely at Miriam and her companion. Miriam fought the urge to turn to Joran for a look of<br />

support. It would have been a serious breach of protocol, and not worthy of his training.<br />

‘Janus, Miriam. We welcome you in the presence of your seniors, I the Cardinal, the mighty<br />

Oracle and the burning gaze of the Almighty, thusly to test and remonstrate with your souls. Do not<br />

undertake this test lightly. Enlightenment awaits, but failure means banishment to the class of<br />

menials. Do you understand?’<br />

Janus answered with an immediately positive response, confident, head held high and eyes level.<br />

Miriam cast her mind back through all the purification rites and rituals she had endured. She had<br />

searched her soul for any impure thoughts, fasted for weeks and days to bring her closer to an<br />

enlightened state. She had been ceremoniously washed this morning. Had it been enough? She was<br />

beset by sudden doubt. Failure was a fate worse than death, to be banished to the outer reaches, to<br />

work on the bottom of the world, maybe to be sent to the lowest reaches - ‘Hull’ itself – the thought<br />

terrified her. Todays test was going to be a life changing event regardless.<br />

She had come this far, there was no turning back.<br />

‘I humbly submit.’ she replied, using the correct response and gesture.<br />

‘For your delay,’ The Cardinal replied,’You shall be second. Janus, step forward.’ Miriam<br />

acknowledged the rebuke with a small bow. Knowing she had lost some favour in the Cardinal’s<br />

eyes. Concentrate! The Cardinal stepped back as Janus stepped forward. At some unspoken<br />

command, a section of the floor rose silently out of the ground. It stopped at table height. Various<br />

coloured panels decorated its surface, covered in words. Symbols and pictures Miriam couldn’t read<br />

or understand, yet somehow she knew they were the holy language of the enlightened. Would she<br />

be taught them? Might there be more she could learn? She could see some of the pictures actually<br />

moved on their own. How could that be? Suddenly one of the panels glowed brighter and tilted<br />

forward, its display resembling a humans right hand.<br />

The Cardinal stepped aside,’The Oracle will now speak.’ he said,’You will obey him, Janus.’<br />

Janus acknowledged the command with a curt nod.<br />

Another voice filled the room, deeper, stronger, strangely metallic. It seemed almost<br />

inflectionless yet it was imperious, a voice that demanded, required and expected attention; the

voice of the Oracle itself!<br />

‘Access request acknowledged, palm print identification please. Place your hand on the reader.’<br />

Janus slowly placed his hand on the display, splaying his figures to match the diagram. A line of<br />

green flickered down, illuminating his hand from behind.<br />

‘Access denied. Subject not recognised. Security measures implemented.’ Miriam was unsure of<br />

the import of the words to start with, but the tones of the Oracle were aggressive, confrontational.<br />

The Oracle was not impressed! She felt fear course through her.<br />

Miriam involuntarily stepped back as Janus let out a scream of pain. She saw his hand begin to<br />

smoke. He jerked it back, terrified, his palm burnt. He held his right wrist in his left hand, moaning.<br />

‘You have been found wanting.’ The Cardinal intoned gravely,’You are hereby stripped of all<br />

rank and title. You begin your new life as a menial on the lower levels, there to consider the error of<br />

your ways.’<br />

Miriam was too numb to react as Janus was roughly led away by his senior. To be found<br />

wanting! Janus’ life was over, she knew as far as the enlightened were concerned, he no longer even<br />

existed. It was as if he’d never been born. To even associate with him now would mean banishment.<br />

She averted her eyes.<br />

She heard the door close behind them. She was alone now with Joran standing mute behind her,<br />

the Cardinal infront. The strange device she now knew to be a holy relic, one of the K’Trols.<br />

This is terrifying! Will I fail as Janus has?<br />

‘Step forward Miriam.’ The Cardinal instructed. She did so. Once again the Oracle spoke.<br />

‘Access request acknowledged, palm print identification please. Place your hand on the reader.’<br />

Miriam reached forward with trembling fingers, praying that she would be found worthy. The panel<br />

felt surprisingly cold to the touch. She opened her eyes to see the green luminous line tracing<br />

around the outside of her fingers. She had never studied her hand so closely, she saw all the lines,<br />

fine hairs and marks as if for the first time. Was she soon to be maimed? The urge to pull her hand<br />

away was almost overpowering.<br />

‘Authentication successful. Access granted. Welcome Miriam.’ Miriam almost fainted with relief<br />

and then her eyes widened in amazement.<br />

The Oracle knows my name! How can such wonders be? She looked up at the Cardinal in awe.<br />

He was beaming.

‘I pronounce you a senior acolyte.’ He announced,’You have been found worthy by the Oracle.<br />

You may thus be blessed with enlightenment. Touch this relic.’<br />

The Cardinal motioned with his fingers to a small circular device on the display. Miriam touched<br />

it gingerly. Another holy relic she was permitted to touch!<br />

As she did so, the strange golden curtains seemed to flicker. Miriam stared as they miraculously<br />

disappeared. She staggered back.<br />

She was totally disoriented by what she saw. Behind the golden curtain there was not a vision of<br />

the future, or the glowing light of the Almighty. It appeared to be a glass sphere, suspended in...<br />

nothing. It was an inky blackness behind. She could see nothing at all.<br />

She turned in surprise.<br />

‘Enter.’ The Cardinal instructed with a slight nod.<br />

Miriam slowly walked forward into the darkness. Her eyes slowly adjusting from the brighter<br />

lights of the Tabernacle.<br />

She saw a point of light ahead of her, then another, and another. She began to realise there were<br />

tens, no hundreds, no! Thousands! Tiny pinpricks of lights glowing fiercely in the darkness. In other<br />

places there were glowing colours, swirls and strands dancing and enveloping the tiny points in<br />

radiant patterns. She turned to see more and then fell backwards, landing unceremoniously on her<br />

behind as the vista behind staggered her mind, her robes and gown falling loosely around her.<br />

The sphere she found herself in seemed to be attached to a terrifying, immense wall which<br />

stretched upwards, downwards and to both sides as far as she could see. She felt dizzy, scared and<br />

utterly small. She was outside the world, looking back on it! The world was suspended in a void,<br />

peopled with brilliant points of light!<br />

She tried to recall what the scriptures had said about the enlightenment. She recalled nothing<br />

about going beyond the world. There was nothing beyond the world, that was the truth she had been<br />

taught! Everything that had ever been created was here, contained within, and yet...<br />

She slowly stood up and pressed her hands up against he inside of the sphere. The surface was<br />

freezing cold. Those points of light and swirls of colour were far beyond the boundary. What was<br />

out there? What were those points of light? Souls of the saints perhaps? Light shining in from the<br />

blessed afterlife? Would she be able to find out? A thousand questions.<br />

At the front of the sphere was an odd protrusion, another panel, similar to the one that had been<br />

used to test her. It was transparent, she could see through it. When she looked through she could see

a set of concentric green circles suspended in the air, apparently between the panel and the edge of<br />

the sphere. Startled, she looked up and behind the panel, there was nothing there. A day of miracles.<br />

She looked back into the panel, noticing one of the points of light she’d seen earlier appeared to<br />

be framed in the centre, as if the panel had been set to look straight at it. At the bottom was a small<br />

section of text, most of which meant nothing to her, except the final few lines. She gasped as she<br />

read it. It was a prophecy, the holiest word in the lexicon of the Way.<br />

Tianve.<br />

A word everyone knew, from menial to acolyte. It meant destination; deliverance. Was that tiny<br />

point of light where all souls were bound? In smaller text below were more words.<br />

Arrival 423 Years, 6 Days, 22 Hours, 56 Minutes.<br />

She swooned. Joran and the Cardinal had to retrieve her from the sphere and reinstate the golden<br />

curtain.’<br />

She lasted longer than most.’ Joran said.<br />

‘Thus was ever the enlightment.’ The Cardinal responded with a faint smile. ‘She will do well.’<br />

***<br />

In the next few months Miriam learnt many things. Her duties included surveying the primary<br />

rituals, strict religious observances carried out by the menials and orchestrated by the acolytes. Any<br />

deviations from the scriptures had to be harshly dealt with. These rituals were described in detail in<br />

one of the holy books known as the Op-Orai-Shan-Mai-Nuelle.<br />

Within the holy book the rituals were laid out in painstaking detail. Miriam had had to learn the<br />

holy text, the symbols and meanings. She discovered numeracy and algebra, calculus and<br />

trigonometry. Holy tools for divining mystic paths.<br />

Her primary responsibility was for forty menials assigned to a particularly complex ritual known<br />

as the Rai-Ak-Tor-Mai-T’-Nence. It dealt with the handling of many complex relics. Both acolytes<br />

and menials a-like had to don special coverings during parts of the ritual. Many of the relics were<br />

hidden, brought out, checked for various ailments and then restored to their respective places. At<br />

one time a menial omitted to don his covering during a key component. He was cursed with a<br />

terrifying wasting disease that stripped the flesh from his bones within days. He died in agony.<br />

Miriam had to orchestrate a retribution. It was clear to her that the Almighty required strict<br />

obedience in these matters.

Miriam was summoned to the Tabernacle on regular occasions, there to learn the use of the<br />

holiest relics, the strange and wonderful K’Trols. Many things she learnt in the Tabernacle amazed<br />

and bewildered her. She had learnt that their world was not a permanent abode, it was a V’sel, a<br />

miraculous means of movement through the void she had seen in the sphere.<br />

Their V’sel was on a journey, transporting them from the Time of Apocalypse to the Time of<br />

Nirvana. She had learnt much about the folly from which they had fled; from the ‘Earth’ that had<br />

been cursed with pestilence that only the anointed and their servants had escaped. The destination,<br />

the holy oasis of Tianve, was an extraordinairy distance away. Such distances could not be<br />

measured in anything less than a remarkable unit, and Miriam had had to understand the concept of<br />

‘Ly’tch’eers’. Even the points of light she had seen required detailed explanation; they were ‘Ztars’,<br />

places throughout the void where abodes resided. Remarkably, after all the generations that had<br />

passed, their journey was only just over two thirds complete.<br />

Each K’trol had a purpose. Some seemed to be able to check how well the rituals had been<br />

performed. She was gratified to see that the rituals she conducted were rated amongst the best. Each<br />

ritual was given a P’Cent, a numeric which approached the perfection of one hundred; apparently a<br />

holy number. Other K’trols provided visions; images of places both past and present; some even of<br />

events as they were happening; they were known as V’Deo; the seeings.<br />

Miriam was tending to one of these when suddenly the illumination in the Tabernacle changed<br />

from its accustomed soft warm yellow to an intense and vivid red. A strange call echoed around the<br />

walls, putting Miriam in mind of some of the birds and reptiles housed down in the mid decks. It<br />

was a strange wailing noise, repeating at regular intervals. She looked up in concern. Joran, who<br />

was nearby, shrugged to indicate his uncertainty.<br />

‘The Oracle! It prepares to speak on a matter of import!’ The Cardinal announced, stepping<br />

forward towards them and raising his arms. Silence fell, and for a moment everyone was utterly<br />

still. Then, without spoken command, they all bowed and knelt down, facing the golden curtain as<br />

tradition demanded. It was the voice of the journey, the disembodied one. The Oracle.<br />

What the Oracle truly was, no one short of the Cardinal knew. It was considered as a guardian,<br />

perhaps an angel sent to guard their progress. It spoke in riddles, using words few understood. The<br />

Oracle rarely spoke and most never heard it at all. Miriam considered herself to have been<br />

especially blessed to have heard it once at her initiation. It was clear from the looks of surprise on<br />

the other acolytes, even the most seniors ones, that this was something most unusual.<br />

The golden curtain began to fade away.

Miriam’s mind was awhirl, why now? Was a prophecy about to be given? She kept her eyes<br />

firmly closed, terrified she might catch a glimpse of glory again. She wasn’t prepared! Surely<br />

certain death would greet her if she looked!<br />

The Oracle spoke.<br />

‘Trajectory violation. Foreign object detected. Corrective action required.’ The words were<br />

spoken once again by a strong authoritative male voice, with that strange, gritty, metal tone. It was<br />

not what she had expected at all. She had hoped for enlightenment, for explanation, for definition.<br />

She words meant nothing to her.<br />

What does it mean?<br />

The red light around her faded back to normal, the soft yellow comforting glow returning to the<br />

Tabernacle.<br />

The Acolytes raised their heads and looked up to the Cardinal for guidance and explanation.<br />

The Cardinal stood still for long moments, before looking back around at the acolytes.<br />

‘Something approaches in the void.’ The Cardinal said simply. Then he dismissed all the acolytes<br />

besides Miriam and Joran.<br />

Miriam felt chills run down her body. She shivered involuntarily. Something out there in the<br />

void? What could possibly be out there in the darkness between the distant Ztars? Her imagination<br />

began to conjure up visions of dark and sinister creatures, spirits between abodes, stalking their<br />

V’sel, keeping just out of their vision. Surely the void was the void?<br />

The Tabernacle became silent as the other acolytes left quickly.<br />

‘Miriam, Joran! V’Deo K’Trol. Conduct the ritual Lonn-Raanes-Kanne.’ Miriam and Joran<br />

jumped at the imperious command from the Cardinal. With practiced reverent moves and gestures<br />

they completed the manipulation of the ritual. They were rewarded with one of the panels before<br />

them lighting up with a vista of lights. Suddenly the lights seemed to zoom out from the centre of<br />

the panel, as if they were moving impossibly fast through the void. In the exact centre of the panel a<br />

faint grey object appeared and slowly grew larger, taking on form and definition.<br />

‘Pray, what is it?’ Miriam whispered as the object continued to grow. It was not a uniform grey,<br />

but appeared to be made of regular shapes; rectangles, triangles all connected together to make a<br />

vaguely wedge-like semi-circular creation. It was slowly spinning in the void. From certain angles<br />

Miriam fancied it resembled the disembodied head of a snake. Faint light occasionally caught the<br />

edges of the object, flickering brightly in the darkness. It looked like metal.

Joran shook his head,’It is like nothing I have ever seen before.’ The Cardinal looked at their<br />

panel for a long time without saying anything. He performed rituals of his own and then gestured to<br />

the K’Trol that Miriam knew summoned the Oracle.<br />

‘Oracle.’ He entoned,’Analysis.’<br />

Ann-Eley-Sis?<br />

The words meant nothing to Miriam. Was it a name? She was humbled by the realisation of how<br />

much she still didn’t know about the holy words.<br />

The Oracle responded in kind, with words that came so fast and complex that Miriam was<br />

bewildered in moments.<br />

‘Dimensions, sixty five, thirty, one hundred thirty, mass one hundred metric. Hull<br />

composition…’ Hull? How could it be from Hull?<br />

‘…unknown alloy. Power source, unknown. Trajectory intercept in thirteen hours, twenty two<br />

minutes. Oxygen Nitrogen atmosphere detected. Control mechanism unknown…’<br />

Unknown K’Trols? Relics from elsewhere? This makes no sense! ‘… Origin, unknown.’<br />

The Oracle became silent once again. Miriam and Joran looked up at the Cardinal, seeing their<br />

own fears and concerns mirrored on his face.<br />

‘Your eminence?’ Joran asked, keeping his voice as humble as possible, ‘Do you know what<br />

transpires?’<br />

The Cardinal looked up, his expression heavy, as if a great weight had dropped upon him. He<br />

starred out into the void, his countenance weary and strained.<br />

It was a long while before he spoke.<br />

‘It is another V’sel.’<br />

Miriam and Joran had quickly been instructed by the Cardinal in a new ritual. It was named<br />

'Eire-loq'. They we dispatched to venture down into the far end of the world, into the realms<br />

***<br />

peopled by the En-Jinn menials. Neither had ever been there before.<br />

The way led them through the heartland of the world where the mighty shrines of past prophets<br />

and saints were arrayed around a central piazza. This was the absolute centre of the world. A huge<br />

space devoted to those who had given their lives to further the cause. Many of the shrines carried

inscriptions that were not decipherable; others were written in glowing letters that could no longer<br />

be copied. All were venerated and many rituals and processions were held through the cycles to<br />

mark significant events. Miriam always felt inspired by them, wondering what act of valour she<br />

might do to play her part in their glorious voyage.<br />

The way became tedious after this, as they were forced to clamber forward in an ungainly<br />

fashion, through the sections of the V’sel inhabited by the menials. Gone were the glowing<br />

walkways and elegant craftsmanship of the forward levels; now it was metal walkways, dark and<br />

gloomy, stained and grimy from time immemorial. The menials, the unwashed, the sub-caste lived<br />

and worked here. Miriam averted her eyes, not wishing to be defiled. The shadowy bodies of the<br />

menials darted out of her way, scattering in fear.<br />

Ahead was a large door. Joran and Miriam immediately set to work with their ritual.<br />

The Oracle spoke again<br />

‘Foreign object now approaching airlock. Docking in ten seconds. Cycle complete in thirty<br />

seconds.’ How does the Oracle move through the world so fast? It’s taken us almost a day to make<br />

this trip! Within a few short moments the door hissed open, revealing the room beyond. It was a<br />

large empty bay, with austere vertical walls, and bright illumination. Miriam and Joran had little<br />

time to take in the vista before their eyes were drawn to the object in the middle of the bay.<br />

Sitting in the midst of the enormous room, tilted slightly to one side, lay the unknown V’Sel. It<br />

was mostly a dark grey colour, metallic, assembled out of regular panels as they had seen on the<br />

screen in the Tabernacle. In some places the hull was darkened to black, and they could see holes in<br />

the metal as if something had burnt through the outer parts. Dominating the forward part was a large<br />

clear panel. It was just possible to make out a room visible beyond. Jutting out from the front of the<br />

V’sel was a large protuberance, a long elongated cylinder. It looked aggressive and sinister, almost<br />

as if it might be a weapon of some kind.<br />

Joran and Miriam cautiously moved forward, walking around the circumference of the V’Sel.<br />

‘Can it truly be a V’Sel?’ Miriam asked, ‘It is so small!’ ‘There has always been heretical<br />

thinking that other life might exist out in the void, ‘ Joran admitted uncomfortably, ‘And that it<br />

might take on other forms.’ ‘Devils, imps and so on?’<br />

Joran motioned for her to be quiet, ‘The correct term is ‘Ai-Ly-En’. We must prepare. If the<br />

forces of darkness are present, we must be ready.’<br />

They both donned their holy coverings and conducted a ritual of cleansing.

Protocol satisfied, they moved close to the V’sel, walking around it. Miriam stood close to it,<br />

listening for any sound at all; there was none. The V’Sel was as silent as a tomb.<br />

As they both approached the far side Joran signalled her across. Miriam joined him quickly.<br />

‘Cast your gaze upon this.’<br />

Miriam looked closely. There appeared to be a rectangular mark on the rear of the V’sel, with a<br />

panel next to it. It looked vaguely similar to the K’Trols in the Tabernacle.<br />

They exchanged a look.<br />

‘We are tasked to investigate.’ Miriam said.<br />

Joran sighed, ‘I feel this might be best left alone.’<br />

‘The Cardinal gave us strict instructions.’<br />

Joran nodded thoughtfully. Miriam looked closely at the K’Trol, and touched it gently.<br />

There was a hiss, and the rectangular panel sank away, and then folded aside into the interior of<br />

the V’Sel. A blast of musty air drifted out. Beyond a short dark passageway led inside. The smell<br />

reminded Miriam of the danker parts of the levels of the menials.<br />

Miriam took a ‘glow’ from her robes and stepped inside, leading the nervous Joran behind her.<br />

The interior of the V’Sel was surprisingly ordinary. There were lockers, access panels and more<br />

K’Trols. All of these seemed to be unresponsive. Above they could see what appeared to be lighting<br />

of some kind, but once again it was defunct. They found what appeared to be a kitchen, equipped<br />

with utensils that looked completely familiar, with recognisable forks and knifes.<br />

Further on they found the room behind the glass panel they had seen from the bay. The room was<br />

filled with K’Trols, all dark and silent. Two large chairs were positioned in front of them, affording<br />

a clear view out of the panel; a window looking forward out of the V’Sel. In front of both of the<br />

chairs was a protruding rod, which split into two parts near the top. It was clearly designed to be<br />

grasped in two hands, though what its purpose might be they could not tell.<br />

The other K’Trols were arranged around a large oval panel divided into four quadrants. What<br />

purpose it might serve neither Miriam nor Joran could define. Right at the bottom of this oval a<br />

small panel was dimly lit. Miriam moved closer to it. There were words there, but written in a script<br />

she could not read or even recognise.<br />

‘There are words here! Look!’ Miriam said, pointing. Joran joined her, but then shook his head.

‘Not a language we can read. I wonder what it says.’ ‘Perhaps a prayer, or a blessing of some<br />

kind. Its form is reminiscent of a poem or lyric.’ ‘Or a curse.’<br />

Cobra Mk3.<br />

Hull Integrity 24%. (Maintenance Overdue!)<br />

Power Levels: 8%. (Maintenance Overdue!)<br />

Hyperspace: Damaged<br />

ECM: Damaged<br />

Forward Beam Laser: Damaged<br />

Shields: Offline<br />

Lifesupport: Minimal / Nominal<br />

Status : Standby<br />

Nothing else appeared to be functional. In the middle of the room was a hole, a tube-like passage<br />

way leading directly downwards, with a thin ladder connected to one side.<br />

‘We proceed?’ Miriam asked.<br />

‘We must, if we are to discern the secrets of this V’Sel.’ They cautiously clambered down the<br />

ladder and emerged into a larger room. The musty smell was stronger here. Miriam wrinkled her<br />

nose in response. As Joran joined her she shone her ‘glow’ around the enclosed space.<br />

It seemed to be a sleeping chamber, immediately in front of her was a bed of sorts, with a<br />

mattress covered with restraining straps. She turned and found the other side of the room was<br />

identical…<br />

There is something there…<br />

Miriam staggered back with a short scream of fear.<br />

There was another bed on the far side of the room. Upon it lay the desiccated body of a man,<br />

staring back at her from empty eye sockets. A gaze that must have been immovable since before she<br />

was born.<br />

***<br />

Miriam and a team of four menials had been directed to discover all they could about the strange<br />

V’Sel. Miriam had found the task distasteful, yet strangely compelling. The menials had been<br />

tasked and organised into working through the V’Sel and defining its purpose. Miriam had<br />

supervised and written up their discoveries. After many intervals Joran checked with her to see how

the investigation was proceeding.<br />

‘So, what news on the derelict V’Sel?’ Joran asked, ‘Have the menials discovered its purpose?’<br />

Miriam sighed heavily. ‘It’s not a derelict. Not precisely.’ ‘Pray, what do you mean?’<br />

‘It’s still operational.’<br />

Joran looked surprised. ‘I was led to believe it was ancient, a century or more. A V’Sel that small<br />

could not still be powered. Or have I been misled?’<br />

‘No deception was intended. The V’sel is old, the remains of the unfortunate occupant have been<br />

interred. The ritual of Ann-Eley-Sis indicated he was indeed a human. This was no ay-li-en V’sel. It<br />

has been adrift for a long time, at least seventy or eighty cycles.’<br />

‘Yet…’<br />

‘The V’sel still functions. We discovered a K’Trol which re-animated it, several more K’Trols<br />

within became active as a result.’<br />

‘No power source could still be thus blessed after such an interval without rituals!’ ‘None that we<br />

know of.’<br />

‘There is more that you have yet to tell me.’<br />

Miriam walked slowly over to the window, looking out at the flickering distant Ztars. ‘It is most<br />

assuredly a human V’sel, the language and scripting is unknown, but we do not expect it will take<br />

long to decipher.’<br />

‘What is it that concerns you?’<br />

‘The technology aboard is far more advanced than our own, that much is clear from our cursory<br />

examination. There is little provision for victuals aboard, a few quarter cycles at best. Such a V’sel<br />

could not get so deep into the void by any means we can postulate. Thus it represents a serious<br />

anomaly being found here, almost six ly’tch’eers from the nearest abode.’<br />

Joran stared at her. ‘A human civilisation able to traverse ly’tch’eers of space in only quarter<br />

cycles? Impossible surely. You have made a mistake, surely it must be some ancient space traveller<br />

from a previous millennia.’<br />

‘The dating is conclusive. Old, but not ancient. Oh, the menials have theories of course; all futile<br />

speculation. Our scriptures tell us that our magnificent V’Sel and those like it remain the pinnacle<br />

of human endeavour, and yet…’

‘A satisfactory explanation eludes you.’<br />

‘Indeed.’ Miriam felt uncomfortable, ‘I have found some references in the derelict to what<br />

appears to be a mechanism for this amazing travel…’<br />

‘Yes?’<br />

‘I feel I cannot tell you. I must take this to the Cardinal alone, it is my responsibility.’ ‘If you<br />

believe this in your heart.’<br />

‘And yet, if this V’Sel really was from another civilisation…’ ‘All humanity was destroyed in the<br />

apocalypse, according to scripture. ‘Joran instructed, ‘Why else were we few blessed to seek<br />

Nirvana?’ ‘Perhaps others survived the wrath and ventured into the void at another time? Yet the<br />

Cardinal has always claimed this not to be the case.’ ‘You would doubt the Cardinal?’ Joran looked<br />

alarmed.<br />

‘I find myself confused.’ Miriam admitted.<br />

‘Perhaps it would be better to eject this V’Sel back into the void from whence it came.’ Joran<br />

replied. ‘Our purpose remains. Perhaps this is a test, thrown in our path by the powers of darkness<br />

to examine our faith.’<br />

Miriam shook his head. ‘The V’Sel is real enough. I do not believe it is a fake, constructed by<br />

man or God for such a purpose. I must discover everything about it.’<br />

Joran looked concerned, ‘Is that wise? You might be led to question the Cardinal! Even question<br />

your faith? Take heed that such a path will not lead to ruin, Miriam.’<br />

‘I understand.’<br />

***<br />

Miriam took her time to understand the import of what she found. She wrote her findings with<br />

care and diligence. What she had found was astonishing and terrifying. She did not know how it<br />

would be received by the Cardinal. She recalled all she had been taught about integrity and value<br />

and felt comforted. The truth was what was important. The Cardinal would be pleased with her<br />

efforts. She sought an audience and it was granted immediately.<br />

She bowed appropriately and handed him the report. The cardinal acknowledged it, placing it<br />

beside him.<br />

‘Tell me in your own words, my child.’

‘What I have discovered is unsettling, father. I claim abrogation for any heresies you might<br />

perceive me as uttering.’<br />

‘Rest assured.’<br />

Miriam took a deep breath.<br />

‘The V’sel had a name; the ‘Kobayashi Maru’. The man aboard was known by the name of<br />

‘Gregory Malenchenko’. Names which appear to have significance, but we have no idea what they<br />

might represent. The V’Sel itself had been attacked, by weapons beyond our understanding.’<br />

‘Unorthodox indeed.’<br />

‘We discovered the mechanism by which it travelled through the void.’ Miriam said hesitantly,<br />

‘It was propelled by something they called a ‘Witch Drive’, which allowed them to move at will<br />

between the Ztars in a twinkle of an eye if the account can be believed.’<br />

‘Evidence of the occult then?’ The Cardinal mused, and then said with a smile, ‘A V’Sel imbued<br />

with the Devil’s own magic?’<br />

‘I do not think…’<br />

‘I meant that only in jest. I am sure the Devil has better things to do than inhabit the en-jinns of<br />

V’sels!’<br />

‘We have deciphered the V’Sel’s log.’ Miriam whispered, ‘The V’sel appears to have been<br />

launched from an abode known as ‘Sotiqu’. Aboard the V’Sel is a store of dates and locations, Ztars<br />

and abodes. There is a map contained within. A map of every Ztar between our origin and Tianve,<br />

complete with exquisite detail.<br />

The cardinal returned her gaze, ‘Details?’<br />

Miriam shook her head miserably. ‘Indeed, your eminence. All the systems are mapped, with<br />

detailed planetary descriptions; vegetation, climate, resources… and indigenous life. Tianve is listed<br />

as a having a huge population…’<br />

The Cardinal looked at her askance, ‘Of?’<br />

‘…Cats.’ Miriam said miserably.<br />

‘Cats.’ The Cardinal said impassively, ‘Most interesting. What do you conclude?’ Miriam looked<br />

desperately at him, ‘There is only one conclusion! Mankind survived the holocaust we fled! They<br />

continued to advance, invented new technology, managed the leap to the Ztars and over the millenia

formed a sophisticated society that reaches to the furthest Ztars! Our purpose circumvented;<br />

obsoleted; bypassed; nullified!’ ‘Our destination?’<br />

‘Our Nirvana, Tianve, already colonised, and for many centuries.’ Tears sprung to her eyes.<br />

The Cardinal rose to his feet, walking around his desk, apparently deep in thought, ‘Then our<br />

scriptures are wrong, or at least, incomplete.’<br />

‘What do we do?’ Miriam said, bereft.<br />

He took a decanter from a small cupboard on the wall and then slowly, deliberately poured two<br />

drinks into a pair of crystal glasses.<br />

‘A drink my dear? Such a moment of revelation requires savouring. Much needs to be done.’<br />

Miriam was too astonished to answer. The Cardinal was not angry with her. He had assimilated her<br />

findings much more stoically than she had expected. She took the proffered glass and sipped it.<br />

Miriam felt the liquid course down her throat. It felt warm and comforting. It was accompanied<br />

by a strong, heady feeling. Alcohol! She gasped involuntarily. It was such a privilege to consume<br />

such a rare anointment. It was usually only used to bless the shrines of saints.<br />

‘Father? This is unlooked for.’<br />

‘You have earned it my child. What do you believe we should do now?’ ‘We must be careful. An<br />

uncontrolled disclosure of the truth could cause confusion, panic, perhaps even riots.’ ‘You believe<br />

we should reveal these facts to the populace?’ Miriam frowned, ‘It is the truth is it not? Our<br />

purpose, if it meant anything, was to search for truth, away from the lies, deceit and destruction of<br />

the apocalypse.’ The Cardinal nodded, ‘I thought you would believe. I’m glad I made the right<br />

choice in you.’ Miriam felt slightly hot, slightly dizzy. She put out her hand to steady herself. The<br />

alcohol must be strong stuff.<br />

‘Father. I’m sorry, I don’t feel…’<br />

‘Of course, the stress of your activities of late will have been detrimental.’ The Cardinal said,<br />

‘Tell me, do you know what uses alcohol is put too?’<br />

‘Of course.’ Miriam replied, feeling dizzy, ‘It is used to bless shrines and to mark those with<br />

established gifts of prophecy…’<br />

‘…And to anoint the dead.’<br />

Miriam’s eyes widened. A strange lethargy was growing from the pit of her stomach, spreading<br />

slowly into her limbs. She tried to move back from the desk, but found she couldn’t move. Worse,

her legs began to tremble and buckle.<br />

She fell to her knees.<br />

‘Father?’<br />

‘You see my child.’ The Cardinal said heavily, ‘I have suspected this … this revelation for many<br />

years. There have been other…. incidents of a similar nature throughout our voyage. Our people are<br />

not ready for this truth, not yet.’<br />

‘But the truth…’ Her voice slurred, her vision tunnelling in around her.<br />

‘For now, the truth must be what it was supposed to be.’ The Cardinal declared, ‘I cannot allow<br />

you to have this knowledge and promulgate it.’<br />

Miriam collapsed, the Cardinal catching her as she fell. He held her gently by the shoulders,<br />

kissing her on the forehead; her look of trust betrayed cut him to his very soul. He held her close,<br />

tears streaming down his face.<br />

‘Father! I only wanted to serve…’<br />

‘And you shall always be remembered for it. God speed, my child.’<br />

Joran watched as Miriam’s body was lowered into the shrine reverently by a team of acolytes. He<br />

had organised the ceremony with a mixture of joy and grief. Joy that she would be venerated<br />

forever, and grief that he would never speak with her again.<br />

She was lying on a gloriously embroidered and brightly lit plinth, the story of her brave<br />

endeavours chiselled into the sides of the plinth for all to read. The Cardinal himself had read her<br />

eulogy. It was a remarkable story; how she’d uncovered the Devil’s work and defeated his schemes<br />

to defile their world.<br />

She was dressed in a pure white smock, her eyes closed and her arms folded across her chest, her<br />

face serene. She radiated peace and tranquility. Joran envyed her. She had achieved everything and<br />

was now in Nirvana.<br />

She was the latest martyr, her tomb a shrine to the truth. The Way would continue, the sacrifice<br />

had been made. Her death would give faith, meaning and secure obedience from thousands. She had<br />

become what all the acolytes desired, a testament of faith, truth and hope. For a thousand cycles<br />

they would tell stories of how her sacrifice had prevented the terrible ingress of the Devil’s work<br />

contaminating their world.<br />

Joran recalled the Cardinals testimony of how the derelict V’Sel was possessed by witchcraft. He

emembered how Miriam had not told him about her discovery. How she had protected him from<br />

danger before he’d even been aware of it. The Cardinal had told the populace how Miriam had<br />

insisted on facing the danger herself. She had defeated the darkness of the witch invested V’Sel,<br />

sacrificing herself to save them all!<br />

Joran swore he would visit her shrine to pray and thank her every day until he died. Truly she<br />

was a holy saint.<br />

The Cardinal turned and sat behind his desk, pressing a concealed button. A small display unit<br />

popped up. He typed in an access code to the touch sensitive display.<br />

‘Optimum Reliance Automatic Computer Logical Engine; ORACLE online.’ A metallic voice<br />

entoned,’Please state your request.’<br />

‘Ship status?’<br />

‘All onboard indicators are green. Deuterium replenishment has been successful. Fusion reactors<br />

are stable. Coriolis stability and centrifuge within safety parameters.’<br />

‘Excellent. Status of cargo bay four?’<br />

‘Occupied. Unidentified vessel type. Four crew members aboard. Rank, menial.’ ‘Vent cargo bay<br />

four to space.’<br />

‘Please confirm. Bay is occupied.’<br />

‘Confirm.’ The Cardinal said in a whisper, ‘Priority override.’ The generation ship continued on<br />

its almost eternal course. Far behind it tumbled the battered remains of a wanted pirate’s Mk3<br />

Cobra, shot to scrap in a police attack years ago, hull panels blown, a true derelict now. It’s pilot<br />

had attempted an ill advised mis-jump into interstellar space. Marooned.<br />

The Cobra was closely followed by four undernourished corpses dressed in dirty rags. They had<br />

attended to it in obedience to their master’s wishes. Now they would attend it forever in the empty<br />


Vakume Danserz - Ganelon<br />

Dang station brats! Ok, so I stop at the main station in Soorte. I was only in Starbugs for maybe<br />

5 minutes to pick up a quick refill for the caffeine cylinder for my ship’s galley. There had been<br />

some station brats hanging out in front of Starbugs. You know the type, where they try to get you to<br />

buy them some caffeine even though they’re obviously under-aged? I just ignored them and brushed<br />

on past and didn’t think anything of it.<br />

But when I came out, I found out the little blighters had tagged my ship!<br />

I went in and complained to Starbugs management, but of course I got no joy from that.<br />

‘Happened in a public docking zone sir, not actually on Starbugs premises’, yadda yadda.. So I went<br />

to the station security office, and they had one of their boys come and look at it. He said that<br />

‘Vakume Danserz’ was not the name of any gang he knew of, but that he had made a note of it. I<br />

asked what we were going to do about it, and he told me that maybe they can remove the paint at<br />

the station maintenance bay.<br />

So I pay the fee to have my ship moved over to maintenance dock and they look at it and tell me<br />

that they can’t remove it, because apparently these kids have managed to get hold of some of the<br />

molecular bonding paint that is used to put on the ID numbers that are being required in some<br />

places now. He could paint over it, but it would come off as soon as I made a planetfall or got hit<br />

with some laser fire. He said the only way to actually fix it will to be to get all the affected hull<br />

plates replaced. I asked him how much for that, and he tells me he doesn’t have the parts in stock.<br />

Come on, what sort of station repair bay doesn’t stock parts for a Cobra MKIII???<br />

He also ‘just happened to notice’ that the umbilical for my front laser had some signs of damage<br />

and of course he saw the one emergency hull patch from a furball a couple weeks ago that I hadn’t<br />

gotten repaired yet. So I had to get those fixed before he’d issue me a new safety inspection number.<br />

When I argued against the bill for all that, the station security officer showed up and gave me a<br />

little talk about how the fees from the safety inspections support the station and etc. While he was<br />

talking, I saw one of the kids who had been outside Starbugs dart past. I pointed him out, but the<br />

officer said he hadn’t seen anyone. They’re probably all in it together as a scam to fleece spacers,<br />

anyway.<br />

I still wasn’t real happy about the whole situation, so he suggested maybe I’d like to go down to<br />

dirtside and take it up with an official of the planetary government. On Soorte? No way! I have no<br />

desire to get labelled as a ‘dissident’ and end up mining wood with the rats in a labour camp. Not<br />

that dirtsiders give a trumble’s indeterminate orifice about what happens in the up-and-out anyway,

ut you really don’t want to try and stir up any trouble in star-systems like Soorte.<br />

So if you’re ever at Soorte station and you see some kids hanging around, don’t take your eyes<br />

off your ship, my friend, not even for a minute!<br />

Now, I grew up on a station too, but kids were different in my day. We wouldn’t have dreamed of<br />

vandalising a spaceship or trying to harass people into buying us caffeine. The whole Ooniverse is<br />

just going to crap these days, that’s what it is. Giles only knows what it’s going to cost when I find a<br />

place to get those hull plates replaced.

Negotiations of Failure - Commander Wyvern<br />

In my career, I’ve seen many strange and wonderful customs. Successful negotiations depends<br />

on who, or what, you’re dealing with.- Embassador Ge Xach<br />

Slowly, Derik woke, and like any accomplished warrior, assessed his situation. He found himself<br />

in a dimly lit room, and judging by the vibrations in the metal floor, he was on a freighter, Python<br />

class or larger. Secondly, he was seated on a hard bunk, with his wrists in shackles, bound by heavy<br />

chains to the wall. Not only that, he was as naked as the day he hatched. Derik sensed the scent and<br />

heat signature of another in the room. Switching his electronic eye to night vision mode, he<br />

determined that the other was a human female. ‘Alright, lady,’ he addressed the stranger, ‘If this is<br />

some kind of unusual mating tradition, then I can’t say I’m impressed.’<br />

‘And what makes you say that?’<br />

The dracolid snorted in bemusement. ‘I don’t see the ol’ lovespike comin’ out, do you? I’m sorry<br />

miss, it doesn’t work that way. I think I’d notice if getting konked, disrobed, and chained up in a<br />

brig was a turnon. Heh, if that’s your game then you got the wrong guy. Besides, my paet’a would<br />

so not approve.’<br />

The woman snickered, stood, and stepped into the light. A petite frame did its best to fill the<br />

coveralls she wore. And she struggled to hold a shock-rifle pointed at her prisoner. ‘I’ve been<br />

warned about your wit, mon Capitan Roh’i. Ahh yes, very funny... Tell me,’ and she gestured<br />

slightly with the rifle at his chest, ‘Are you still amused?’<br />

‘It must be tiring to lug that old slugthrower around. It looks about as heavy as you are.’ Derik<br />

yanked on one of the chains, ‘It’s not like I’m going anywhere. Why don’t you put that thing down,<br />

hmm? Oh, and to answer your question, yup, very amused.’<br />

The woman said nothing, just rolled her eyes.<br />

‘So this isn’t some kind of sex game?’<br />

She merely shook her head. ‘Riiight,’ the saurian continued. ‘Pardon my bluntness madam, then<br />

what the frak is this about? Money? Revenge, perhaps?’<br />

‘A little bit of both, Capitan. I wish to hire you to dispose of Governor Thral of Inines.’<br />

‘Oh, I see. Let me guess: You got tired of the bastard’s evil ways, and now you’re staging an<br />

open rebellion.’<br />

She nodded, ‘Correct.’

The big Lizard laughed, a loud, deep bark that made her wince. Then he stared her right in the<br />

eyes, ‘Miss, there’s not a single merc anywhere in the Great Eight that would take that contract, not<br />

after being treated like this. If you went through the slight inconvenience of the proper channels,<br />

well yeah, they’d line up to exterminate Thral for you. But kidnapping a combateer like myself, and<br />

expecting your victim to willingly go to war on your behalf? Are you on drugs, or just moonbat<br />

crazy? All you’re getting for this is a hold full of bad magic.’<br />

The woman frowned, jabbing the muzzle of the gun under his jaw, ‘I could kill you, sunbasker...’<br />

The great reptile was unfazed, grinning and showing his sharp teeth, ‘And there we are, the<br />

customary death threat. Yeah, like that’s getting you what you want. Maybe you didn’t notice as you<br />

were peeling my duds off, but I’m a Warmblood; with all due respect, kindly stuff that ‘sunbasker’<br />

comment up your pretty little arse. After that, go ahead, pull that trigger, and make your situation<br />

worse. Look at me! It should be obvious that I consider myself expendable, but my family and<br />

friends strongly disagree with me. If I know my wife and crewmates – and I do – your vessel is<br />

being tracked. You can’t fart without somebody knowing exactly where you are. That means if I die,<br />

then Thral will be the least of your troubles; you’d have a slightly better chance going it alone<br />

through a Bugfest of epic proportions. Count on that.’<br />

She sighed, letting her weapon droop as his words sank in. ‘How do I know you’re not trying to<br />

deceive me in order to save your tail?’<br />

The dracolid was quick to answer, ‘I don’t lie, madam; it’s hardly worth the effort. I’m not very<br />

good at it anyway. Listen, I feel for your plight, and wish you the best with your rebellion. But<br />

going about like this is a mix of certain doom.’<br />

‘But you’re not going to help us, mon Capitan?’<br />

‘What, with your uprising?’ He chuckled, ‘Oh no, absolutely not. But, I’ll try to save -your-<br />

tailend. In fact, why don’t you go check with your crew, ask if there’s any iron-assed combat craft<br />

closing in on your ship right now.’ Derik watched her grow pale under her tan, and leaned back<br />

against the wall with a grin. ‘Go on miss, I’ll wait.’<br />

Aya made her way towards the bridge as fast as she could. The legendary Lizard she had bound<br />

in the cell, despite being in a position that would distress most men into compliance, remained cool,<br />

jovial, and, apart from some light profanity, eerily polite, not at all what most said about him. She<br />

expected a rage-driven, murderous irrational savage, and instead got a noble gentlebeing! At least<br />

the part about his sense of humour and fearlessness was true.<br />

Aya wasn’t doubting his warning of dire consequences, either; he was biding his time, knowing

his mates were out there, tracking Aya’s Boa, and calling in reinforcements. This gave her all the<br />

more reason to sprint onto the bridge.<br />

‘Tony! Check the scans, now!’<br />

‘There’s over a dozen blips, closing fast!’<br />

Streaks of green and cyan laserfire cut across the forward view, some of the bursts striking the<br />

shields. 'Caduceus decloaking...and another! Dragons grouping for a torpedo run! Oh Giles, we're<br />

screwed!'<br />

Aya reached over and slapped the tacman, ‘Get a grip, Tony! They would’ve killed us already if<br />

they wanted. That’s a warning shot.’<br />

She turned to the com man, ‘Hail them, Fred. Tell them the Capitan is our honored guest.’ Fred<br />

called back, ‘Sent. Got an incoming transmission.’ ‘Main screen, Fred.’<br />

The screen showed an angry blue-scaled face. ‘You will return him at once! Alive and unharmed,<br />

then we may let you go. You have one minute to comply.’ The screen went blank.<br />

‘A tad snappish, isn’t she?’ asked Mick from the nav station. ‘I don’t blame her,’ Aya said. ‘She<br />

only wants to be with her hubby again.’ ‘Ok, so what now?’<br />

‘So we put him in an escape pod, and eject him into her care. Or we can refuse and eat nukes.<br />

He’s not going to help us with Thral anyway, he said so. I believe him.’<br />

‘Your call, Aya. I’m voting for letting him go.’<br />

‘Ditto.’<br />

‘Thirded.’<br />

'Ahh, my jailor returns, and so soon, too! Esei's in a bit of a mood, hmm? She promised to shoot<br />

you to Hell, and brought enough firepower to do it thrice over?'<br />

‘Yes, something like that.’ Aya sighed, ‘She convinced us to let you go.’<br />

‘Well, imagine that. Let’s not enrage her further.’ The dracolid held out his arms, rattling the<br />

chains, ‘Make with the key already, lady. I’m hungry, and want to go home for a good meal and a<br />

beer. And you want to stay in one piece, right?’<br />

Aya couldn’t help but smirk as she fussed with the locks. ‘I think I’m going to miss your humour,<br />

mon Capitan.’ To her surprise, she felt his tail coil about her waist. She looked into his face, to be<br />

greeted with a disturbingly fangy, but kindly smile.

‘I’ll forget this little incident, and convince my wife to let you go in peace,’ he rumbled,<br />

‘Dungeon play aside, it was a pleasant stay...Not that I’d want to do it again.’ Then he rose and<br />

stretched, seven feet of rippling muscle under scale-armored, fight scarred hide. ‘Would you be so<br />

kind as to show me the egress, miss?’<br />

Derik gently nudged the cumbersome little craft out of its slow tumble, and towards the waiting<br />

Persistence of Memory. Once the course was set, he struggled to get his jeans on, a feat that proved<br />

impossible in the cramped pod.<br />

'Crap,' he snorted, setting the jeans aside. 'Oh well, no worries... Perci, please open the doors. I'm<br />

coming home.'<br />

He guided the pod into the ship’s scoop, waited until the droid set the pod on the deck, then<br />

stepped out, to be nearly bowled over by his all too enthused mate.<br />

Derik hugged the centarid warmly, pressing his snout in her feathered mane. ‘Why hello, paet’a.<br />

Missed me?’<br />

‘Yes, love,’ Esei answered. ‘I’ve been so worried! The nerve of those fraking terrorists!’<br />

‘Not terrorists, Esei. Freedom fighters. They’re desperate for help with an out of control dictator.<br />

Although their recruitment method needs a rethink.’<br />

Esei looked him up and down, ‘What did they do, nude beach you into signing up?’<br />

Derik burst out in laughter, ‘Oh, good one! It’s an interesting tale, to be sure. Let me tell you<br />

about it over something edible. I’m hungry enough to eat the energy bomb!’<br />

Esei raised an eyeridge, ‘That doesn’t sound appetizing, paet’a. How about a goat steak instead?’<br />

‘Deal! And dearest, call off the warhounds. They did me no real harm... A bruised dignity,<br />

maybe, but I’ll survive that. By the way, good show!’<br />

‘Hmm, not overly dramatic? My goal was to...’ Esei landed a playful swat to Derik’s rump,<br />

‘...scare the pants off them!’<br />

Derik jumped, then let out a barking laugh. ‘That you did, dear paet’a, that you did.’

Lazarus - DaddyHoggy<br />

Janus picked himself off the hard metallic floor of the Cobra Mark III and cursed all the Gods he<br />

could think of as climbed gingerly into the battered pilot’s seat. He glared down at the two bolts<br />

sticking out of the decking where, at some point, the optional co-pilot’s seat had been fitted and<br />

then removed. How it had been removed Janus wasn’t sure, but an investigation shortly after<br />

purchase revealed some stains that were probably blood and something sticky that may or may not<br />

have been organic matter. That was pretty much the end of the investigation and may have<br />

explained why the previous owner had sold the ship to him at such a bargain price. Then again, the<br />

previous owner may have just got sick of tripping over the aforementioned bolts. Removing them<br />

had been at the top of Janus’ list of things to do since he had tripped over them the first time, just<br />

ten minutes after he started running his hand over the console and controls of his new purchase.<br />

However, since then, something major had failed or broken on pretty much every trip and while the<br />

bolts remained an annoyance they weren’t likely to cause his lungs to explode due to a<br />

depressurisation or his skin to fall off because of a radiation leak.<br />

He wiggled to get comfortable in the pilot’s seat while he rubbed his knee. He should have noted<br />

the rather large girth of the previous owner and perhaps contemplated the effect this might have had<br />

on the ergonomic design of the seat. The auto-mould function didn’t work and Janus slopped<br />

around like a one-credit piece in an empty spirit glass during heavy manoeuvring. Fixing the pilot’s<br />

chair was second on the list of things to do. He rested his hand on the console and then began to<br />

flick the switches required to bring the slumbering ship to life. The first thing to burst into life was<br />

the Bibean Lethal Brandy dispenser that had been fitted in replacement of, Janus was fairly certain,<br />

the secondary oxygen generator. It was the only faultlessly operating piece of equipment in the<br />

whole ship.<br />

Janus had learned to listen carefully to the ship as it booted up. It had become clear to Janus<br />

early on that the ship had many safety features and all of them to some degree had been bypassed.<br />

When this ship’s failsafes failed, it was never on safe. So far he’d been burnt, electrocuted, gassed<br />

and crushed as various systems had gone haywire either spontaneously or persuaded to misbehave<br />

under even a glancing strike from a pea-shooter pulse laser. So Janus sat patiently, hands on the<br />

console, feeling the vibrations emerging from deep within and listening to electronic life as it<br />

pushed out to the extremities of the vessel.<br />

Port Thruster up, Starboard Thruster up… no, Starboard Thruster down, no, wait a second, its<br />

back up, oh joy. Shield Matrix initialised, or is that the fuel scoop secondary manifold? Ah, there’s<br />

the manifold, good, I might actually get to scoop something this trip rather than nudging it around

the cosmos, before it blows up inside my shields. Here comes the Astrogation panel…<br />

Janus’ face was lit by the soft reddish glow of the Astrogation console as the scanner fully<br />

powered up, his hairs stood on end, it wasn’t excitement or expectation it was an untraceable<br />

electrostatic build-up –<br />

‘Ow!’<br />

- which had now found its way to ground.<br />

Every bloody time!<br />

Here come the main engines. Full power. Well, ninety-seven, ninety-eight percent maybe. Not<br />

bad. Not bad.<br />

‘OK Lazarus,’ he said out loud to the ship, ‘shall we go?’ As by way of response the main cabin<br />

lights failed briefly, although there was a perfectly poured Lethal Brandy sat in the dispenser when<br />

they came back up. ‘Going to be like that is it?’<br />

This time the ship gave no additional clue to its mood and so Janus made a request to the Galcop<br />

Port Authority for permission to launch. In a squeal of static from the ship’s Comm system the<br />

voice of the GPA could just be heard giving an affirmative. The platform’s lights went out<br />

indicating that Janus’ and Lazarus’ presence was no longer required within the Coriolis Station.<br />

Delicately Janus tugged on the controls and the ship lifted off and headed towards the central<br />

axis of the station where, under Station control and a good pulse of magnetic flux he and Lazarus<br />

would be ejected into space above Diso.<br />

Lazarus had a small wobble as it was roughed up in the exhaust flux of an impatient Racer who<br />

skipped ahead of Janus as he climbed cautiously towards the central axis point. Janus ignored the<br />

barbed open comms comment from the Racer as it screamed past. He was, after all, fairly certain his<br />

parents were married when he was born.<br />

A single dull tone sounded, indicating that Janus had successfully manoeuvred the ship into a<br />

position where it could exit the station. He hated this bit. Slowly the ship began to rotate, gathering<br />

speed with each passing moment, until, after what felt like an eternity, but was, according to the<br />

ship’s chronometer, only a few seconds, Lazarus was rotating at a rate that matched that of the huge<br />

doors barring the route to open space and planetary orbit beyond. Janus felt sick.<br />

The GPA computers, detecting that Lazarus was ready to go, sent a HOLD signal.That bloody<br />

boy racer, he’s shagged the launch sequence. Probably by-passed the launch protocols, forced the<br />

GPA to open the bay doors out of sequence. They’ll have his Ident but what the hell, Daddy will pay

the fine. Hurry up! I’m gonna hurl.<br />

Bleep.<br />

Bleep-bleep.<br />

The ‘Go’ code.Praise be!<br />

A thin line of black appeared ahead as the seal broke on the massive bay doors. It always amazed<br />

Janus how rapidly these huge doors opened but suddenly there was a letterbox shaped snapshot of a<br />

piece of Diso directly ahead. The tiniest nudge of the main engines pushed the ship towards the exit<br />

and then he felt the huge magnetic steering pulses of the station’s launch control system take over to<br />

hurl Lazarus towards space.<br />

Janus knew instantly that something was not right. Lazarus was reacting badly, and unevenly, to<br />

the magnetic steering. One or more of the ship’s own magnetic compensators had clearly gone awry<br />

and it was affecting the evenness of the steering. Lazarus began to slew as it rushed towards the exit<br />

and an alarming amount of the interior of the station’s wall was appearing on the Forward Viewer<br />

where, only a second earlier, there had been smooth coastline and deep blue ocean.<br />

Janus scrunched up his eyes and waited for the impact. Then he waited a bit longer just in case.<br />

He opened his eyes. There was no bright lights of a medi-centre emergency room, no cracked view<br />

screen, or blood and brain splattered extreme close-up of the interior of the station, just a very<br />

rapidly changing view out of the main forward view screen.<br />

Planet, space, station, planet, space, station.<br />

Lazarus had emerged from the station, not like a sleek bullet from a rifle, but like a snot from a<br />

badly contained sneeze.<br />

Today was not going well.<br />

Janus wrestled with the controls, initially his frantic stick waggling only enforcing the already<br />

frenetic pace of the tumbling. However, eventually, his blasts on the thrusters cancelled out the<br />

rotation in one plane and then another and finally, almost gracefully, Lazarus came to a steady<br />

bearing, nose down towards the planet.<br />

Janus waited for his eyes, ears and stomach to come to an agreement about which way was up<br />

and then he gently lifted the nose up and away from the first tenuous clutches of Diso’s upper<br />

atmosphere. Calm and collected now, Lazarus swept a gentle arc under one third power to pass back<br />

over the station which he had exited so badly a few moments before. Janus was just about to unclip<br />

his restraining harnesses when Lazarus bucked violently and then, a instant later, his viewer filled

with hot tail exhaust of his nemesis for today, that damnable boy racer. Janus cursed but remained<br />

calm enough to lock on his target scanner as the racer rapidly became a receding dot on both the<br />

nav display and the forward viewer. The scanner confirmed his suspicions about the launch<br />

violations, the pilot of the ship was both offensive and now, legally, and offender. Janus transferred<br />

the target lock to his missile’s launch computer. On the scanner the yellow blip immediately turned<br />

red and was turning back towards Lazarus at a rather sedate pace.<br />

Janus laughed, straight-line dragster punk, all forward thrust with a turning circle worse than an<br />

fully loaded Annie. He had loads of time, relatively speaking. There was a blare of static on the<br />

wide-band comms, so Janus missed the racer’s opening line, but he caught the gist well enough.<br />

‘...me! Do you know who my father is? You’re going to get your ass kicked over this! You f-’<br />

Janus cut the volume and waited for the additional commentary on his parentage to subside. The<br />

ship had finally almost made its turn and would soon be heading back towards Lazarus. Satisfied<br />

that the pilot of the racer had exhausted his entire repertoire of expletives Janus opened up a<br />

channel of his own. ‘Check your status. Your stunt inside the station just earned you a twenty-five<br />

credit bounty. You’ve been burning injectors since you left the station and I don’t reckon that<br />

you’ve got enough fuel left to outrun my missile. You’ll be dust and shrapnel before your father has<br />

time to pay your fine. So, how about you leave those injectors on full and head dark side and keep<br />

going until you’re off my scanner?’ There was silence over the comms. Janus kept the racer dead<br />

centre as it tore across the gap between them. Janus’ fingers rested lightly on the trigger for both<br />

missile release and his Ingram Beam laser. At the first hint of laser fire from the racer he’d have one<br />

clean shot at least. Then, with just a kilometre or so to go the racer banked away as rapidly as it’s<br />

feeble directional thrusters would allow and shot over and to the left of Lazarus.<br />

Janus took his finger off the laser trigger and instead moved it to his own injectors, which, after a<br />

fractional splutter, burst into life in response to his finger’s depression of the button. It was a rather<br />

frivolous use of fuel but Janus didn’t want the racer coming back, he’d leave a missile lock on until<br />

the scanner gave up and then he’d change direction as an additional security measure. Normally of<br />

course, he’d just witch-out, but today his destination was in-system, the lights and the razzmatazz of<br />

the witchpoint beacon constore beckoned.<br />

The computer bleeped, indicating that the missile had lost lock. Janus relaxed, fixing the missile<br />

launcher was next on his list of things that he must do as a priority....<br />

On the sound of the 'target lost' indicator, Janus pulled a hard left and then, after a few seconds,<br />

cut the injectors.<br />

Hmmm… that didn’t feel or sound quite right,Janus thought to himself. As confirmation he

gently squeezed the injector button again. There was the briefest of surges and then nothing,<br />

Lazarus slipped through space with its velocity unchanged. Janus released the button and, already<br />

knowing the result, squeezed one final time. Not even the tiniest of responses this time.<br />

Janus squeezed really hard, just in case. Still nothing. OK. OK. Don’t panic. It’s probably just a<br />

localised failure. It will not, absolutely not be the secondary injector inversion module again. I will<br />

not, under any circumstances spend another week with my arms up to my elbows in coolant residue<br />

because some brain-dead wrench monkey tells me he’s fixed the cross-coupler on the fusion<br />

manifold when I knew that wasn’t the fricking problem in the first place. Janus pushed a palm into<br />

either temple and muttered the leerara mantra in the hope of staving off his inevitable stress<br />

headache. ‘I hate you!’ he shouted at the interior of the cockpit, lashing out at the front of the<br />

console with a kick. A second or so later all the lights in the cabin failed and while Janus fumed in<br />

the darkness he heard the main oxygen system shutdown. Almost immediately the brandy dispenser<br />

poured another lethal concoction. Definitely where the secondary oxygen unit used to be<br />

then,mused Janus, quickly calculating how long his air supply would last given the dimensions of<br />

cockpit. Seven hours, give or take.<br />

In the utter darkness a red light came on and then it started flash. Janus knew exactly what the<br />

light meant. It meant the wrench monkey hadn’t repaired the hull breach properly either.<br />

Light on.Six hours fifty-five.<br />

Light off.<br />

Light on.Six hours fifty.<br />

There was only one thing for it…<br />

‘I’m sooooo sorry!’ he shouted into the alternating red gloom and utter darkness. Nothing. Only<br />

the red blinking light responded to his plea. ‘No, no, I really mean it.’<br />

Still nothing.<br />

‘Oh come on! If I die you drift out here in space all alone until some dredger finds you and cuts<br />

you up for scrap!’ He lashed out with a boot and connected, in the darkness, unexpectedly hard with<br />

the main console.<br />

The cabin lights and, more importantly, the oxygen processor burst back into life. That,Janus told<br />

himself,was purely coincidental. Something’s loose in the console and I just knocked it back into<br />

place. That’s what happened. That’s all that happened. However, just in case, he gently patted the<br />

console. ‘Get me to the station OK and I guarantee you a no expense spared full and proper service

at the nearest Tech 12 system. I promise.’ Lazarus remained non-committal. The red light, less<br />

foreboding in the proper cabin lighting, continued to indicate that quite a lot of what was inside the<br />

ship was doing its best to exit stage left. With a heavy heart Janus punched up the rear screen view.<br />

Sure enough there was a bread crumb trail of frozen air and water vapour streaming away from the<br />

badly repaired and now re-fractured hull plate. It was like blood in the water. He was shark-bait.<br />

Suddenly the Constore seemed a galaxy away.<br />

Ok, so you've got no injectors, so I can't get there any faster, nor can you run away at the first<br />

sign of trouble. But we've got power, lights and oxygen processor is at least working slightly faster<br />

than the rate of exit, so I should be alright for air too. I just need to remain calm...<br />

Without injectors Janus was going to have leave the safety of the space lane and rely on the<br />

Torus drive to get him to his destination. A lot of pilots he’d met of course did this all the time, but<br />

Janus didn’t like the idea much. He liked the shoal of fish concept – the pirates might know where<br />

the shoal was but he was just one of tens or hundreds, sometimes even thousands of ships, so the<br />

chances of him being the actual target of an attack? Slim. And Janus liked those kind of odds. Out<br />

of the space lanes, even in a safe system like Diso, there was that chance that you’d meet something<br />

dark and sinster, away from the patrolling vipers, away from help of any kind...<br />

Janus knew the limitations of himself and his ship – in a real fight – he was just a piggy bank full<br />

of loose change waiting to be cracked open. However, right now, he was was on a very tight<br />

schedule and he had to be at the Constore at the Witchpoint Beacon soon. He glanced at the ship’s<br />

chronometer – really very soon and with that he pulled the nose of Lazarus up about twenty degrees<br />

and began to drift away from his comfort zone.<br />

He didn’t pull right out, ‘doing a 90’ as they called it in the Station Bars, like those who did this<br />

as regularly as taking their daily constitutional. Janus had heard stories that some pirates waited,<br />

just off the normal routes, near the beacons or the stations, but just within maximum scanner range<br />

waiting for theclimbersto identify themselves with their non-herd like mentality and actions. Then,<br />

they’d be tracked and once well away from potential help...<br />

Janus shuddered, looking down at the scanner the last of the long stalks of a Python and its three<br />

escorts clung briefly to existence and then vanished. He was on his own. With a tembling finger he<br />

pushed the button which engaged the Torus drive.<br />

The drive engaged perfectly and Lazarus smoothly accelerated away from the space lane, the<br />

throng, the safety of the shoal. On his forward viewport his shields vaporised small particles of<br />

detritus: micro-meteorites, dust clouds, fragments of other ships...

The Torus Drive cut out.<br />


The scanner was devoid of ships. Something cloaked? Oh by all the gods let that not be the<br />

case!Then, right on the very edge of the scanner there was a yellow flicker and then it was gone.<br />

Oh, another ship, just a regular pirate then...<br />

Knowing it was too late already Janus eased the nose of Lazarus down again, back towards the<br />

safety of the shoal and tried the Torus drive again. To his surprise it burst back into life and Lazarus<br />

surged away, heading back towards the main space lane. Of course back in the main lane meant no<br />

Torus Drive and without Injectors he’d be late, but at least he wouldn’t be late.<br />

The Torus Drive cut out again.<br />


And there on the very edge of the scanner was a yellow blip.<br />

The yellow blip crept ever closer on the scanner, Janus calculating it was doing 0.4 based on the<br />

rate of closure. The secondary torque manifold began to oscillate as Janus held full power and then<br />

some for much longer than the ageing engines were used to and this had induced some strange<br />

harmony from deep inside the ship. Gonna die. Gonna die. Gonna die, it sang. Janus scowled at the<br />

interior of Lazarus.<br />

Now he was trying to orientate Lazarus in such a way to get a bead and ID on the chasing ship in<br />

the rear viewer while trying to maintain the optimum angle to the safety of the space lane. Lazarus<br />

responded sluggishly but the chasing craft remained straight and true and it was easy to centre even<br />

at 20K plus.<br />

ASP MK.II noted the ID computer.<br />

But not a navy ship and if it’s a pirate then he won’t be alone, he’s just the chaser... The range<br />

crept down to just eighteen clicks. Well, I’ll be in Mil laser range soon, so I guess we’ll know soon,<br />

eh, Lazarus? The comms system began to squeal horribly making Janus jump. Yeh, that’s right, jam<br />

my comms so I can’t even beg for mercy or call for help. At fifteen clicks range the comms system<br />

suddenly cut out and Janus gave a little yelp of surprise – expecting instead a deadly beam of<br />

coherent light to rip through his shields.<br />

‘Can you hear me now?’ asked a tinny and distant voice.<br />

‘Erm, yes,’ offered Janus in response scanning the cabin for the source of this mysterious

vocalisation.<br />

‘Good. Your comms system seems to be in some odd state of repair, you’re on system wide<br />

transmit. I’ve had to bypass remotely and switch you to our emergency system.’<br />

‘Ouremergency system?’ inquired Janus.<br />

‘Oh sorry, yes, Commander Tanaka of the Oolite Ordnance, I’m responding to your automatic<br />

distress signal Commander-’ there was a pause, as if the speaker was preparing himself - ‘D-dd-aa-<br />

aa-dd-dd-ee-ee-hooooooooo-keeeeeeeeeeeee. Now do you want to cut the engines so we can see if<br />

we can do something about your fuel injectors and then we can discuss your membership renewal?’<br />

Janus cut his engines – even if this was a trick he was dead anyway – he’d take it on face value<br />

and pray, lots.<br />

The name D-dd-aa-aa-dd-dd-ee-ee-hooooooooo-keeeeeeeeeeeeewas vaguely familiar, it had<br />

something to do with Lazarus’s previous owner, but Janus couldn’t think what.<br />

He mulled it over while a sleek yellow Asp filled his rear viewer. So far, so good thought Janus,<br />

relaxing a bit as the Asp came to a dead stop just a click or so away, which is why, to be fair, that<br />

the missile launch really did come as a complete surprise.<br />

Janus didn’t have chance to scream, his hand frozen half way to the ECM button when the<br />

missile tore, unhindered, through his shields and impacted with a... THUNK<br />

What the?!<br />

***<br />

‘You’re shooting at me!!!’ screamed Janus, glad that he had the breath and mechanism to do so.<br />

‘Please, please, stay calm. We’ve tried explaining what we’re about to do and pilots invariably<br />

ECM the missile the moment we launch it,’ replied the tinny voice of Commander Tanaka. The<br />

reverberation from the impact died away and had been replaced by a strange, gurgling, slurping<br />

noise.<br />

‘There’s a funny noise,’ Janus offered to the tinny voice.<br />

‘That’s good. That’s the nano-bots in the missile eating through your hull plating-’<br />

‘What!?’<br />

‘-but they’re sealing as it goes,’ continued Tanaka ignoring the interruption. ‘Your hull integrity<br />

will not be compromised. What ever happens next, try not to panic.’

The slurping, gurgling noise suddenly ceased. The silence was ominous and disconcerting.<br />

‘What do you mean ‘What ever happens next’?’<br />

For the second time that day Janus was plunged into utter darkness, even the O2 leak indicator<br />

and the brandy dispenser’s internal lighting had failed. Janus’s eyes strained in the gloom for the<br />

tiniest sliver of light to latch onto, but there was nothing.<br />

Suddenly the Astronavigation console burst briefly into life, five may be ten times brighter than<br />

normal, in the darkness it was like a sudden super nova and when it went out again Janus was left<br />

with a lurid yellow and purple afterglow etched into his retina.<br />

He was wailing and clutching his eyes when the cabin lights came back on. He heard the brandy<br />

dispenser issue another drink.<br />

‘Are you all right?’ asked the tinny voice.<br />

‘I’ve gone blind!’<br />

‘Pardon?’<br />

‘It went dark and then the Astro-console lit up like a q-mine going off in an orbital scrapyard.<br />

Now I’m blind!’<br />

There was a strange noise from the hidden speaker, it might have been a sigh. ‘It sounds like the<br />

nano-bots had to do a full system reboot as they took over your ship systems, but that’s good, a<br />

system wide repair is much quicker after a full reboot.’<br />

From all around the cabin subtle sounds of activity drifted in. With the purple blotches fading,<br />

Janus collected his thoughts.<br />

‘Just what precisely are you doing to my ship?’<br />

‘Basically, I, or more precisely the nano-bots are repairing all your failed systems by<br />

reconfiguring themselves to become the defunct components. Let’s see, erm, Comms system, fixed,<br />

ah, missile launcher, fixed, hmmm, no wait, there we go, Witchfuel Injection system is coming back<br />

online in three, two, one, now.’<br />

‘And all this is part of my Oolite Ordnance membership?’<br />

‘Providing you have regularly servicing, which your logs indicate you have, then yes, all part of<br />

the service.’ Even the tinny voice had stopped as Commander Tanaka’s voice was now routed<br />

through Lazarus’s proper Comms system.

‘Now,’ said Commander Tanaka, ‘while the ‘bots finish up, let’s just talk about the eight<br />

thousand credits required to renew your annual membership.’ Janus almost wished the comms was<br />

still playing up.<br />

‘How much?’ he asked in a strangled, credit-account hurting tone.<br />

Janus tore up and away from the spacelane on full and glorious injectors. Lazarus seemed to<br />

slide through the aether with renewed vigour and as Commander Tanaka's Asp peeled away with a<br />

final wing dip flourish and Janus was left alone he killed the injectors and punched in the Torus<br />

drive.<br />

***<br />

He was going to make it. Already, there was a hint that one of the distant dots was slightly more<br />

gaudy and neon-like than the rest. He patted the console in front of him affectionately.<br />

Eight Thousand Credits was a lot. Eight Thousand and fifty, the extra fifty required for the<br />

transfer of membership seemed to be annoyingly excessive but Janus had paid it. The insinuation<br />

that the nano-bots could be shutdown remotely was enough to get Janus to sign on the electronic<br />

dotted line. Janus’ Standard Trader’s Account looked decidedly empty and even though he knew he<br />

had funds transferred to his new accounts with the RBB and Alliances it was uncomfortable to see a<br />

four digit rather than a five digit credit balance on his ship manifest.<br />

The advanced space compass indicated that the ever-growing gaudy dot was indeed the system’s<br />

Constore, indeed the shift of colour towards the orange indicated that the Sainsboory’s logo of the<br />

massive structure would soon be filling his forward viewer.<br />

The witchpoint Ad-X board swept past off Lazarus’s port side – Janus didn’t even change<br />

viewers to get a view. Wonder how much it costs to advertise on one? He mused as moved into his<br />

rear quadrant. Wasted on me whatever it is. The Torus drive cut out as a yellow blip appeared on the<br />

Astronavigation console, quickly followed by four more. Something big and with escorts noted<br />

Janus to himself as his hand moved to the injectors button. The countdown on his chronometer<br />

indicated he still had a little under an hour to meet his deadline.<br />

Just before he engaged the injectors his newly repaired Comms system filled with the skin<br />

crawling sound of a Remlok distress signal. He jabbed the viewer to the rear screen. There was a<br />

dying fireball and it was clear that Ad-X sign was rotating at an odd angle and the screen was<br />

flickering. One of the small yellow blips was missing on the Scanner.<br />

‘Help. Help. Help,’ screamed a voice over the wideband channel.

‘My brother, my brother, his ship, it dead. We have not working fuel-scoops. Please, please be<br />

helping! Somebody!’ The accent and dialect were strange but the plea unmistakeable. The ‘Store<br />

would dispatch sidewinders for sure but without ‘scoops they’d be no help until something slower<br />

with a scoop could be mobilised and then it would be too late.<br />

With a scream of frustration and with one eye on his ever approaching deadline Janus hauled<br />

Lazarus about face and punched up the injectors, the wail of the Remlok reverberating around the<br />

cabin.<br />

Janus raced at full speed towards the ever diminishing cloud of debris and vented atmosphere,<br />

tracking how the cloud had deformed, guessing the potential trajectory of a tiny, helpless body,<br />

protected by the absolute last line in defence against the harshness of space. Janus could feel his<br />

heart racing as he cut the engines and scanned the viewer, desperately scanning every enhanced<br />

pixel of the ever changing image in the hope of spotting the otherwise doomed pilot.<br />

Pieces of the destroyed ship pinged and ricocheted off the hull of Lazarus as Janus nudged the<br />

ship around on minimal thruster power. Come on. Come on. Where are you? Janus focussed on the<br />

noise coming from his newly repaired comms system listening to the doppler shift of the Remlok<br />

distress signal as the nose of the ship bobbed and weaved under Janus' control hunting for that rock<br />

steady signal on the comms, the blinking light of the Remlok on the forward viewer.<br />

There?<br />

Yes? No? Yes? Yes! Got you!<br />

Janus gave Lazarus a small push on main engines and as the ship moved forward he waited<br />

patiently for the speck of life to slowly fill the forward viewer. Get this wrong Janus and you won’t<br />

be rescuing the pilot you’ll just be using him as a thin veneer to coat the front of the ship.<br />

He wondered how long it was since he’d taken a breath. In the bottom half of the viewer there<br />

was a brief distortion in the normally invisible forward shields, a shimmer of blue, a background to<br />

briefly highlight the silhouette of a still and lifeless body. By the Gods, please just let that be the<br />

tranquillisers, I really don’t want to be rescuing a corpse. The paperwork is a joke for that!<br />

There was a hum from deep within the ship, the fuel scoop had automatically detected that it had<br />

been presented with something other than star gas and was adjusting its intake manifold<br />

appropriately. Well, Janus hoped it was appropriately, otherwise... Janus failed to get the image of<br />

Jelly being pushed through a sieve out of his mind as the ‘scoop suddenly wound up to full power<br />

and then cut off. The cargo manifest display seemed to be having some trouble judging by the<br />

stream of random characters scrolling up the screen. Eventually it settled on a single, incorrect

word.<br />

SLAVES<br />

This was good, this implied the cargo computer had detected lifesigns otherwise it may have<br />

flashed up simply food and that would have been, at the very least, embarrassing.<br />

Janus hauled Lazarus back over and on full injectors blasted back towards the station going to<br />

wide band comms as he waited for Lazarus to climb to top speed.<br />

‘I have your brother and he is alive. Follow me.’<br />

He cut the comms, he didn’t have time to hear the thanks, that could wait for later. He glanced at<br />

the countdown portion of the chronometer, he wasn’t going to make.<br />

But then again...<br />

‘Diso Station ‘Light’s Fantastic’, this is Commander Janus of the Cobra Mark three designated<br />

Lazarus, I have a Remlok stasis pilot in a near death state, have Medivac crews ready on the<br />

docking bay, clear the pattern, I am coming in hot and I am coming in now.’<br />

On full injectors Janus blasted past the 'Stores dispatched Sidewinders, which suddenly began to<br />

loop about in confusion... should they go to the impact point or escort Janus in? Either option was<br />

nugatory effort, Janus was faster so didn't need escorting and what was the point of going to impact<br />

site when he had the pilot?<br />

Buoyed by his success Janus opened a tight signal to the two Sidewinders. ‘You could guide the<br />

freighter and its escorts in,’ he suggested casually.<br />

Seemingly pleased with some authoritative direction the Sidewinders moved off and swung<br />

round behind the big ship that Janus could now see, in his rear viewer, was an Anaconda.<br />

Switching to the Port viewer Janus waited for the bright lights of the station to become the<br />

blackness of space once more as it rushed past on his left hand side. His eyes flicked down to the<br />

Astronav’ console, the Annie and its additional escorts seemed to be sorting themselves out. That’s<br />

what you get when you pay eight creds an hour for your pilots.<br />

Suddenly the brightness of the station was gone from his viewer and his eyes jumped back to the<br />

job at hand, cutting the throttle to near zero he pulled Lazarus over ninety degrees and gave the<br />

engines a quick blast of full power. Janus had considered, briefly, doing this on the docking<br />

computer, but having brashly claimed he was coming in hot it would be an embarrassment for<br />

Lazarus to start pirouetting around like some demented ballerina at 0.1LM just a few clicks from

the docking entrance.<br />

No. He’d said hot and he meant it – besides, the ship Chronometer was still counting down and<br />

even with this reckless behaviour, by the time the ship was static and the inventory computer was<br />

talking nicely with the ‘Stores Sales, Shipments and Billing computer he’d be down to seconds on<br />

the clock...<br />

In the Port view the station came into sight again, Janus needed to get this just right, he was<br />

going to pull round without slowing down, taking into account the forward motion relative to the<br />

‘Store’s entrance to be perfectly aligned as he straightened up...<br />

...it worked in the training sims...<br />

...most of the time...<br />

Suddenly there was the station entrance, looming, nav lights on, some enticing, some flashing<br />

warnings about his unorthodox approach vector. He was aligned but completely out of sync with the<br />

station’s rotation and he had to heave Lazarus around in a twisting spin as he breached the magnetic<br />

field and was suddenly captured by the station’s auto controls and overwhelmingly powerful<br />

steering commands which cut the ship’s engines and cancelled out, with a jolt, his crazy spin<br />

manoeuvre.<br />

Janus rubbed a whiplashed neck and only then gave some consideration to the body that was<br />

loose, and possibly now slightly more mushy, on the floor of his cargo bay.<br />

Oops.<br />

Station authorities had cleared a docking pad near the station entrance and the flashes of blue and<br />

green indicated that the medivac team was already waiting. Janus programmed the hold doors to<br />

open automatically on touch down – this was a breach of normal station rules but given the<br />

circumstances he’d get away with it and besides, it was exactly what he needed to do to offload the<br />

contents of his hold before the glaring, red timer on the Chronometer reached 00:00:00.<br />

As Lazarus’ landing computer chatted to that of the station’s Landing System Janus fired up his<br />

manifest and sales interface and kept hitting refresh in the vague hope that somehow it would make<br />

a connection before he was actually down on the deck. It clearly wasn’t going to happen but he kept<br />

doing it anyway.<br />

A ping from the main comms terminal indicating an incoming message distracted him briefly –<br />

he hit accept and a divine young lady whose clothes had not survived the pixelation process danced<br />

in the air in front of him and invited The Hero to a free pass to the Level 23 Club.

He hit accept just as Lazarus touched down, the hold doors opened, the medivac teams rushed<br />

forward and the manifest and sales interface finally established a connection.<br />

It was possibly the busiest single second of Janus’ nineteen standard years so far...<br />

Janus frantically scrolled through the standard sales interface.No. No. No. No. Oh come on! No.<br />

No. No.<br />

Top level category sales were for those who were happy to take what they could get for their<br />

cargo. Turn up at a High Tech, Rich Industrial world whose only green patches are for Zero-G<br />

cricket pitches and you’ll get 7Cr per TC for your food irrespective of whether its Freeze-dried<br />

Qubeian Sprouts or Spiced Laveian Tree Grubs. But spend a little time, dig a little deeper and take a<br />

little more risk and profits could be doubled, tripled on occasion, if only you can match what you’re<br />

selling to what somebody else wants to buy.<br />

Janus was still scrolling and cursing when he took a chance and ordered a cargo bot to empty his<br />

hold and put it on the dock side, this stuff really needed to be ready to go. As soon as he sent the<br />

request he got a Comms blip, this was to be expected, even here at a Constore certain procedures<br />

needed to be followed and Janus had just skipped about nineteen of them.<br />

He opened a channel. ‘Yes?’ he enquired as lightly and as nonplussed as possible.<br />

‘You are not yet authorised to unload your cargo,’ came a curt response over the Comms. ‘Cancel<br />

your request immediately.’<br />

‘Unload my cargo? No. No. You misunderstand, I just want the stuff out of the hold so that the<br />

Medivac team can work on the pilot I rescued,’ replied Janus innocently. There was a hiss on the<br />

Comms which meant the channel was still open, a hint of whispered conversation between minnow<br />

and superior. Janus allowed himself the tiniest of smiles.<br />

‘Erm, yes, well, erm, of course, that’s completely acceptable. Fine. Erm, carry on. Well done.’<br />

More hissing and then the Comms fell silent. As the Cargo bot moved into position, hampering, if<br />

anything the work of the Medivac team, Janus finally scrolled over the name he’d been looking for<br />

and let out a little whoop of delight, and punched in High Priority call to the number supplied on the<br />

databanks screen. The face of an extremely rotund little man appeared in the viewer. He looked<br />

desperately harangued.<br />

‘This better be good!’<br />

‘I have thirty-four Tcs of Socelageian Exotic Goat Meat on the dock side looking for a buyer,'<br />

replied Janus cutting to the chase. The man’s face brightened and then his brows furrowed in deep

suspicion.<br />

'How do I know-'<br />

'Transmitting my full manifest now,' interrupted Janus, cutting the man’s obvious question off<br />

mid-sentence. The man looked down, probably at a data screen of his own. Janus watched the relief<br />

come over his face.<br />

'Thirty-four TCs of Socelageian Exotic Goat Meat is confirmed,' he said without looking up, 'and<br />

1 TC of slaves?' he added.<br />

'A misunderstanding, but there’s no heading for ‘Rescued Pilot’,' Janus replied somewhat curtly,<br />

one eye still on the Chronometer. 'The Socelagian Ambassador arrives very soon I’m lead to<br />

believe,' noted Janus by way of encouragement.<br />

'Yes. Yes. OK, I can give you eighty Credits per TC. I’m sending my ‘bots now.'<br />

'WHAT!' Janus blurted out. He’d bought the meat for 2.3Cr per TC at Diso’s main station and<br />

planned on jumping out with it just like everybody else carrying food did. But then he’d overheard<br />

two separate conversations in the Station’s Zero-G Bar. The first about the Socelageians visiting the<br />

system and the Navy was on high alert for some reason because of it. The second about a friend of a<br />

friend of an acquaintance who knew a guy who had agreed to host a banquet for the Socelageians<br />

and then discovered he couldn’t source any goat meat. Janus had put two and two together and<br />

come up with pure profit.<br />

'Ok! Ninety Credits not one decimal more,' stammered the man, desperation creeping in to his<br />

voice.<br />

'You have got to be kidding me!' cried Janus. Is this guy nuts? I thought may be I’d ask for 30, let<br />

him talk me down to 20. What’s going on?<br />

'OK! OK! Please! One Hundred Credits, that’s it, I really can’t afford anymore, but they’ll kill<br />

me if I don’t have Socelageian Exotic Goat Meat on the menu.' Here, ‘kill me’ didn’t sound like,<br />

‘I’ll be in big trouble’, it sounded like a brief tour of the outside of the station without the benefit of<br />

an enviro-suit.<br />

'Deal,' replied Janus.<br />

On the screen the man all but collapsed with relief. 'Thank-you,' he said and then the screen went<br />

blank. Immediately a ‘Transfer of Goods Authorisation’ document came up on the data screen along<br />

with an agreement to pay Janus 3400 Credits for the shipment. Janus put his left thumb on, and his<br />

left eye in front of the data screen and hit the ‘scan and accept’ option from the menu.

end!<br />

The Chronometer stopped its countdown. Nine minutes to spare. A comparative breeze in the<br />

Time to relax I think that visit to Level 23 is well deserved now. Which reminds me, I wonder<br />

how that pilot is actually doing?<br />

Janus spun round in his pilot’s chair and made a start to rise from his seat. This gave him time to<br />

see the huge snarling Tiger as it launched itself in his direction but not many options to do anything<br />

about it, other than to briefly start to scream.<br />

***<br />

Janus’ scream was muffled as he was enveloped by the great bulk of the animal and huge clawed<br />

front legs wrapped around him in a crushing embrace. Crushed back into the pilot’s seat Janus just<br />

had time to see the gaping maw and fiery blood-shot eyes of his attacker before he scrunched up his<br />

own and waited for the killer bite. What a very odd end to what seemed like quite a good day he<br />

found himself thinking in his final moment.<br />

However, the final, killer bite never came and the grip lessened and the snarling seemed to take<br />

on a more ‘sobbing’ nature and finally, deep, guttural, but muffled words penetrated down to Janus’<br />

fur encased head and ears.<br />

'My brother, my brother, his life is saved. Friend you are and brother now. Life debt I have given<br />

you, I can never repay, but will try, my brother.'<br />

Ahhhhh…<br />

Would this perchance be the pilot of the Anaconda? Janus pushed back from the still near<br />

crushing, but less deadly, embrace. Immediately the pressure was released and the great cat backed<br />

away. Janus wasn’t sure why, now he had chance to look more closely, his panicked brain had<br />

screamed ‘TIGER’ in his head. Sure, there were stripes, but they were more subtle than the tigers in<br />

the holo-vids of the Old Earth species, nor, save a few childhood story books, did tigers wandered<br />

around fully dressed, and even in those tales the subjects never wore a good blaster at their side or<br />

carried a linguistic enhancer around their neck.<br />

The not-a-tiger-feline stood to its full seven feet height and thumped a front paw to its chest.<br />

'Treee’ggaar of Erbiti System I am,' roared the Erbitian before it took on a somewhat expectant<br />

stance.<br />

Hmmm… He’s clearly waiting for something… Ah-ha!'And I am Janus of, erm, well, nowhere in<br />

particular!' replied Janus raising one hand and waving it vaguely in the air.

The Erbitian seemed satisfied with this. 'I go now with brother, friend Janus. Return I will, please<br />

to not be leaving before I do.' It was probably said in a friendly way, but from that snarling maw,<br />

despite the enhancer, it sounded like an instruction bordering on a threat.<br />

With that the big cat spun on its back legs and part strode, part bounded from the cabin and Janus<br />

found himself stumbling along behind.<br />

They reached the hold just as the Medivac team prepared to load Treee’ggaar’s brother into the<br />

back of a small medical shuttle, a converted Worm. It was likely, given the facilities available at the<br />

Constore that the Medivac crew would have stabilised the Remloked pilot ready to make the trip to<br />

one of the main stations where much better medical facilities existed. Janus stared down at the<br />

prone pilot, still encased in the nano-fibres which had emerged from the Remlok mask to cocoon it<br />

against the worst of a deep-space vacuum, although the nano-fibres had been parted in several<br />

places to allow the penetration of various tubes and wiring.<br />

As the Medivac crew pushed past Janus and the door of the Worm shut, hiding the pilot and his<br />

new found friend from view a deep sense of foreboding crept over Janus. In his head something<br />

unravelled, the hint of a hidden memory revealed. Janus stood there unmoved as he was buffeted by<br />

the manoeuvring thrusters of the medical shuttle as it climbed away from the dock.<br />

I’ve been hexed! Somebody has been fiddling with my brain and my memories.Then a name<br />

came to him, he’d heard it already today, it had, perhaps, been the catalyst.D-dd-aa-aa-dd-dd-ee-ee-<br />

hooooooooo-keeeeeeeeeeeee<br />

Janus returned to Lazarus’ cabin. He was still going to the Level 23 club, but he had a hunch and<br />

needed to check out a few things first. Today was proving to be a very strange day indeed.<br />

It took Janus a long time to get to the Level 23 club. As he sat in the pilot’s chair of Lazarus,<br />

searching for, finding and reading dozen’s of news articles from the Galactic News Network, Diso<br />

Digest, Snoopes.gal and several other minor newsfeeds the ship’s Chronometer was the only<br />

reliable indicator that he kept blanking out. After each Huh? What? Where am I? moment another<br />

***<br />

fragment of memory had been pushed back into place, another thread rewoven. Finally, he was sure<br />

he had enough to go on and he headed for the Level 23 club, which confusingly was to be found on<br />

Level 16 of the station.<br />

Although there was a queue to get in as he moved to the back of the line two scantily clad young<br />

ladies appeared, seemingly from nowhere, and guided him to a different door which opened as they<br />

approached and whooshed shut once they’d stepped over the threshold. The entrance to this side of

the club was palatial, this was clearly the mythical VIP area visitors to an L23 claimed existed but<br />

none he had spoken to had ever seen.<br />

'I’m Tina and I’m your hostess for today,' said the brunette to his left-hand side, whose tones<br />

were so seductive Janus had no choice but to stop staring around the room and instead give his<br />

undivided attention to her, which he promptly did. 'So, Janus, hero of the Constore and friend of<br />

Level 23, whatever you desire, it’s yours,' she purred and then wrapped herself around him and<br />

kissed him in a way that indicated that what ever really did mean just that.<br />

'I really need to see one of your resident gamblers, a bird who goes by the name of Daddyhoggy,'<br />

blurted out Janus.<br />

'Really?' said Tina in a somewhat surprised tone. 'I’m pretty sure the big bird doesn’t swing that<br />

way and you don’t strike me as his type, but I can put in a good word for you.'<br />

'What? Er, ah, no. I have a business proposition for him and as I believe he’s here and now I’m<br />

here I was just hoping to put my case to him in these… rather beautiful surroundings.'<br />

Tina nodded knowingly. 'I see. Good. We thought we’d got you completely wrong there! Come<br />

with me, I’m pretty sure he’s in Chamber Eight, I’ll introduce you.'<br />

As they set off the blonde who had until now been silent pushed a little fob into his hand. 'Just<br />

push the button and I’ll know you’re ready to play,' she said in a voice as equally alluring as Tina’s<br />

and then she was gone, slinking away in a different direction to that which Tina was guiding him.<br />

He was still hot and flushed when they arrived at Chamber Eight.<br />

Only one question had come to mind on their journey from the VIP entrance to Chamber Eight<br />

and he voiced it cautiously. 'What did you mean by ‘we’d got you completely wrong’?'<br />

Tina smiled a knowing smile as she wafted along. 'You’re very candid when you fill in your<br />

applications for your L23 free-day passes,' was all she would say on the matter.<br />

Outside Chamber Eight Tina indicated Janus should wait outside while she checked the status of<br />

the room and indeed its potential occupant. 'Of course, if the room is empty, we could always put it<br />

to good use,' said Tina as she disappeared inside. Janus nodded dumbly, now he was as nervous that<br />

the room might be empty as he was if it wasn’t.<br />

Tina returned a few seconds later. 'Apparently the big bird says ‘He knew this day would come<br />

eventually’. You’ve got thirty minutes.' She pressed another fob into his hand. 'If you haven’t<br />

pressed my buttons by then, I’m coming back to collect you anyway.'<br />

Then she was gone. Janus watched her slink away, before his mind allowed him to return to the

job at hand. He stepped up to the chamber door which opened as he approached. Inside the well lit<br />

chamber, across a gambling table, big, black eyes peered at him from the head of a big, blue-black<br />

bird.<br />

'Daddyhoggy?' enquired Janus.<br />

The bird gave what Janus surmised was the avian equivalent of a shrug. 'As near as now makes<br />

no difference,' replied the bird.<br />

Another linguistic enhancer, oh how Janus hated how the mouth, or in this case, beak movement<br />

didn’t match the words he could hear. If this turned into a long conversation Janus would have to<br />

listen with his eyes shut.<br />

'Now sit down my child we have a lot to talk about.'<br />

Janus did as he was instructed.<br />

'Let’s get this over with then,' said the bird out of sync already from its beak movements. Janus<br />

closed his eyes. 'Let’s talk about the Orisis.'<br />

Click<br />

The hex was broken. The last thread stitched back into place, all he needed now from the bird<br />

were confirmations not explanations but he listened nevertheless.<br />

***<br />

As the bird spoke images coalesced in Janus’ mind. Sounds joined them; screams mainly. Then<br />

smells filled in the cracks, sickly smells of charred power conduits and burning flesh.<br />

'The Orisis was an immense ship. Constructed in separate GASEC shipyards all over the chart<br />

and assembled in secret. Your parents, both top-line engineers on the project, lived and breathed that<br />

ship. Your mother didn’t even leave to give birth to you. Legend has it that she came up with the<br />

ship’s innovative ventilation system while panting her way through labour. So you grew up<br />

wandering the ship’s ever growing interiors, hopping on shuttles with your parents who moved<br />

between systems and sections implementing ever more complex designs into the fabric of the ship,<br />

each one overcoming what other designers claimed were insurmountable technological barriers on a<br />

ship of those proportions.'<br />

Janus was glad he’d shut his eyes, there was no way all those words and that beak were going to<br />

match up, it might have given him the giggles, which would have been, at best, inappropriate. This<br />

seemed to be a natural lull in the bird’s monologue so he dived right in. 'So what was your role on

the Orisis?' he asked, fairly certain he knew already.<br />

The bird clucked, perhaps a sign of irritation or simply something the Linguistic Enhancer had<br />

completely failed to interpret into Standard Galactic. 'I was but a simple designer,' replied the bird,<br />

seemingly trying to both play up his role while not comparing his own achievements to that of<br />

Janus’ parents. The Linguistic Enhancer tried and failed to impart the words with a suitable tone and<br />

so they sounded whiny and slightly condescending at the same time. 'I specialised in lighting and<br />

colouring mainly, but I have a knack for the shaping and placement of gravimetric field generators,<br />

so I ended up working quite closely with your parents and therefore saw quite a lot of you.'<br />

Janus nodded his affirmation. 'Tell me about the final test flight, the official maiden voyage.'<br />

There was that clucking sound again; it was definitely the sound of irritation this time. 'Very<br />

well,' replied the bird, 'if I must be rushed into recalling that tragic event so be it.'<br />

Janus opened his eyes again briefly and watched the bird, flutter and twitter and give itself a<br />

subconscious quick preen. It looked as uncomfortable as any creature could.<br />

'Please continue,' urged Janus.<br />

The bird ceased its preening. If it was possible for a bird to look sullen, then Daddyhoggy had<br />

captured that expression perfectly.<br />

The bird began. 'Through a series of short hops to iron out the kinks they had brought the ship, in<br />

secret to Leesti. The plan was then to jump to Diso, this very system, to much awe and whooping<br />

and back-slapping from the assembled dignitaries and press. The jumps to Leesti had gone<br />

faultlessly, better than anybody could have dared hope, so at the agreed time, with a system full of<br />

expectant eyes waiting a safe distance from the witchpoint beacon at Diso, the Orisis made its final,<br />

fateful jump.'<br />

Janus could feel the tears and anger welling up from deep inside. 'Please continue,' he managed<br />

to croak out.<br />

'The jump went perfectly but, as your parents predicted, a ship of this immensity would leave<br />

open a witch-hole for a duration never seen before and as we emerged from the witch-hole exit at<br />

Diso an asteroid, which had entered the hole at high speed at the Leesti end before it had time to<br />

collapse, exited with us.'<br />

The bird made a noise that the the Linguistic Enhancer completely failed to translate but Janus<br />

fully understood the enormity of the emotion it captured and this time he did not press for a<br />

continuance but waited, holding back the tears.

'The ship was ripped in two,' said the bird flatly and suddenly. 'The section you, your parents and<br />

I were in was extremely close to the impact point and it quickly vented its atmosphere to space. My<br />

species may no longer be genetically capable of flight but we retain the ability to function at high<br />

altitude where the air is extremely thin. I was therefore able to fit emergency Remlok masks to all<br />

four of us before I too lost consciousness. However, it was not the exposure to vacuum that killed<br />

your parents it was the explosion that occurred shortly after I fitted our masks that flung us all out<br />

into the void. We were lucky, your parents were not.'<br />

Both sat in silence until Janus began to sob and he felt soft warm feathers wrap themselves,<br />

almost shroud like, almost Remlok like, around him.<br />

'We Soreisbeians are not very good at human emotions so while you were recovering from your<br />

injuries at a GASEC funded medical facility I slipped away. I paid for the hexing that you have now<br />

so infuriatingly broken and I have done my best to watch and guide you without betraying my<br />

presence. Finally, when it was clear you would abandon your cushy design job at Ingram and would<br />

hurl yourself into the adventure that is interstellar trading I called in my old co-pilot's gambling<br />

debts and forced him to sell you Lazari at a bargain basement price. Clearly that was my undoing.<br />

How is the old girl by the way?'<br />

The final question was delivered in such a conversational manner that it caught Janus completely<br />

by surprise and he found his tears curtailed and he answered the question.<br />

'It would seem that the Lazari has been redesignated Lazarus I suspect because somehow she<br />

keeps rising from the dead. She is, erm, temperamental.'<br />

The bird made a strange noise, which puzzled Janus until it became clear the bird was laughing.<br />

'I recall she was a high maintenance moody bitch of a ship,' clucked the bird.<br />

'I couldn't comment, she might hear.' Janus smiled briefly at the thought but then felt the weight<br />

of the recent revelations come crushing back and the tears came again.<br />

The comforting hold of the bird tightened. 'GASEC paid me a lot of money to keep my beak<br />

shut. I knew your parents had warned them about the potential threat of uncontrolled objects<br />

passing across the extended witch-hole. I hear they've redesigned the ship, going to release a whole<br />

fleet of them, with special procedures for jumping out of systems with asteroid fields. I think it's<br />

doomed to failure but what do I know? I'm just a dumb bird who likes to play cards.'<br />

Then the bird fell still and silent too.<br />


Janus' sobbing subsided, he was empty but somehow whole again. This strange black feathered<br />

bird still held him gently while in his mind he replayed his newly discovered childhood memories<br />

over and over again, with ever increasing clarity. Daddyhoggy had saved his life and, it would<br />

seem, watched and helped him from afar ever since. He had often wondered why, as an orphan with<br />

no childhood memories, he still felt oddly lucky. The job at Ingram, the bargain price for a<br />

recalcitrant Cobra Mark 3 to name but the most two recent lucky breaks. He wasn't sure how long<br />

they both sat in silence before he became aware of a distant bleeping noise and the change in<br />

Daddyhoggy. Was the bird nervous? Fidgety?<br />

'I am extremely embarrassed to announce this at such a moving time, but I have another<br />

appointment...'<br />

If the bird had hands to wring the Linguistic Enhancer's tone implied that is precisely what the<br />

Soreisbeian would be doing right now. His thirty minutes were up, the bird clearly had other matters<br />

to attend to and it was equally clear that the bird now believed it was relieved of whatever sense of<br />

duty it had taken upon itself. Fair enough thought Janus. Unsure of what to do with himself he<br />

realised he’d been nervously rolling the little fobs, given to him earlier, around in his hands.<br />

Breaking away from the ever slackening grip of the bird, he held them up, a thumb poised over<br />

each. Oh why the hell not!<br />

As he pressed them all hell broke loose. Sirens and alarms went off all over the station. All<br />

comms in the club switched to the Navy Emergency Frequency, all the bird's bright, but carefully<br />

selected, mood lighting shut down to be replaced with the alternate flashing red and green warning<br />

signal that meant only one thing…<br />

Janus looked dumbfounded at his two thumbs and the fobs upon which they rested.<br />

'I’m pretty sure that was purely coincidental,' stammered the bird, the Linguistic Enhancer fully<br />

capturing the terror in his voice.<br />

'This is Commander Tanaka of the Galactic Navy,' boomed a voice over the Emergency Channel.<br />

'All pilots rated Average or above who have an armed ship are to launch immediately and be<br />

prepared to fight. Thargoids have entered the system. I repeat Thargoids have entered the system.'<br />

Thargoids here? Diso? It can’t be!thought Janus and yet he was already up and moving towards<br />

the exit.<br />

He cast a glance in the direction of Daddyhoggy who held up his wings. 'A harmless coward with<br />

no ship,' came the strangely well-practised sounding response.

Janus met Tina at the exit, she had obviously decided to return before he’d pressed the fob. She<br />

looked terrified. 'W-What’s your rating?' she stuttered, no sign of that sultry purr now.<br />

'Despite my best efforts? Above Average I’m afraid.'<br />

She grabbed him and kissed him firmly on the lips as he tried to squeeze by. 'Come back safe, I<br />

haven’t finished with you yet!'<br />

As Janus dashed back towards the docking bay, joining many others heading in the same<br />

direction, he couldn’t help but smile to himself. He didn’t really want to die but now he really<br />

wanted to stay alive, the difference was subtle but important.<br />

Somewhat in a trance he raced up the open cargo bay ramp and Lazarus was already off the pad<br />

and headed for the exit when it finally snapped shut behind him.<br />

He weaved amongst the other ships headed for the station exit. Launch protocols at a Constore<br />

were always somewhat more lax than at a main station but this was bordering on chaos. Launch<br />

Control had clearly given up and had just left the inner doors of the docking bay permanently open,<br />

relying on the forcefields alone to stop the station from explosively venting its vast atmosphere into<br />

space. Not that it really mattered, if the station's defenders failed to repel the attack, formidable<br />

though it was, the Constore would be quickly torn apart by the Thargoids. Daddyhoggy would die,<br />

Tina would die, even the Goat Meat man would die. Ok, Lazarus, I need you to be on your best<br />

behaviour for the next few minutes. Let's put on a good show eh? He tapped the astronavigation<br />

panel by way of encouragement but Lazarus gave no clue as to her current mood.<br />

Janus squeezed Lazarus past the same gaudily painted station Sidewinders that had launched<br />

earlier when he'd rescued the Remloked pilot, they seemed reluctant to join the line of ships waiting<br />

at the exit. Janus shook his head sadly. This isn't about eight Creds an hour boys, this is about<br />

whether you die outside the station fighting or inside the station trapped and helpless.<br />

He glared at them until he lost sight of them and had to concentrate his attention on the very busy<br />

exit, suddenly, right behind what appeared to be a beautifully equipped Boa Class Cruiser which<br />

breached the forcefield and disappeared, it was his turn.<br />

He hit full power and Lazarus tore through the inner forcefield and a brief instant later exited<br />

into a Maelstrom of utter Hell.<br />

The BCC was gone! A sea of tumbling fragments and a rapidly fading cloud of burning<br />

atmosphere was all that remained.<br />


Noooooo! Up! Up! Up! Tight right! Tight Right! Come On!!! Down! Left!And still the<br />

menacing, pulsing, putrid purples and greens of a Thargoid ship all but filled his rear viewer. Sickly<br />

pulses of laser fire splashing across his quickly depleting rear shield, while his own accurately<br />

targeted rear Ingram Beam laser seemed to have no affect on the chasing octagonal menace.<br />

He hit the injectors to try and break the attack but such was the density of swirling ships and<br />

tumbling debris that a glancing blow to his forward shield from an unidentified chunk of burning<br />

hull plating depleted them by almost half. He was forced to kill the injectors fearing that he would<br />

fly himself to his own doom and in an instant the Thargoid was back on his tail.<br />

He pulled hard around the huge bulk of a Military Anaconda which was venting burning<br />

atmosphere from several hull breaches, its plasma turrets firing in seemingly random directions at<br />

the swirl of small Thargon fighters that surrounded it. A momentary respite, a few scant seconds for<br />

the extra energy unit to pour power back into his depleted shields, a few seconds for the boiling<br />

coolant to bleed away some of the heat from the blistered tip of his Beam laser, a few seconds to<br />

lick away the sweat from his top lip and to take a breath.<br />

The hateful, spinning and pulsating octagon emerged from behind the Anaconda and Janus noted<br />

that a couple of the Navy ship's plasma cannons pummelled it as it passed while he weaved and<br />

dodged the immediate bristle of laser fire emerging seemingly from every facet of the chasing<br />

ship.Come on Lazarus, come on!<br />

He put a couple of squeezes of Beam dead centre, before the overheat protection system denied<br />

him and the whine of the straining cooling system indicated that he would not get another chance<br />

for several seconds yet. If he lived that long, of course.<br />

Suddenly and surprisingly the Thargoid ship exploded, two Kraits emerging through the<br />

blindingly bright cloud of vapour. Janus thought he recognised the decals on at least one of them<br />

and a brief tight-band comms message confirmed his suspicions.<br />

'The boss say we keep you safe, difficult to have life debt with a dead man. Complicated. Not<br />

good for his Chi-cra.'<br />

At least two of the remaining three of Treee'ggaar's escort fighters had come to his aid. Janus<br />

took another breath. I wonder what Chi-cra is? Sounds like a medical condition.<br />

The reprieve did not last long, more Thargoid ships and fighters appeared to pour into area<br />

around the station in a seemingly never ending stream and Janus, found himself ducking and<br />

weaving and cursing and firing and screaming at a pace he knew neither Lazarus nor he could keep<br />

up for very long. Janus had no idea if Treee'ggaar's escorts had his six or if he had theirs for he lost

sight of them both almost immediately.<br />

Smoke began to fill the cabin and the lights flickered while a steady stream of new warning<br />

lights illuminated on the main console as time and again his shields were depleted and another<br />

stroke of deadly Thargoid fire etched a scar in the hull of his ship. Lazarus had never behaved more<br />

beautifully, he had never flown so well, but he knew that he and his ship were outclassed and out<br />

gunned and at any moment he was going to die. The inevitability of it, the certainty of it brought<br />

about a strange sense of calm.<br />

The silhouette of a Navy Behemoth against the Diso sun gave him a brief flush of hope and a<br />

flash across his viewer of newly arrived and undamaged Galcop Vipers from the main stations. I<br />

guess a few seconds later as he pulled a tight reactionary turn away from the needles of fire<br />

peppering his port side, might have given his heart a chance to beat one more time had the turn not<br />

been completed with the Constore station filling his forward viewer.<br />

The station was burning, fires flaring from several blackened hull breaches along its entire<br />

length, its rooftop avatar torn away, ad-ring shattered and non-functional. Briefly flailing human<br />

detritus tumbling from shattered viewports.<br />

Oh by all the Gods. What a mess. What a-<br />

Lazarus suddenly lurched and began to roll violently. He hadn't seen or reacted in time to his<br />

assailant and in the blink of an eye it was all over. Something deep within the heart of Lazarus<br />

exploded and then fell silent, the engines cut out, every warning light on the console turned<br />

instantly red and Janus was hurled to the deck as his pilot's chair was torn from the floor plate. He<br />

fumbled with his straps but after a brief moment of panic was free and in the flickering lights and<br />

smoke filled cabin it took a second for him to orientate himself and identify the hatch to the escape<br />

pod and he made a dash towards it.<br />

Then he found himself crashing back to the decking, his left boot catching on two bolts<br />

protruding from the deck plate.<br />

Noooooooo!<br />

As he scrabbled to his feet he was flung backwards as the hatch and the escape pod beyond were<br />

vaporised by another Thargoid laser blast. The noise was utterly deafening but in a moment all was<br />

silent as the sound carrying atmosphere vented almost instantly through the breach. Janus<br />

instinctively clung to a support beam as the gaseous contents of the cabin rushed past him to<br />


Saved by those fricking bolts. Who could have imagined it? he thought as he watched the Brandy<br />

dispenser pour its final drink, the contents boiling almost instantly away in the vacuum as both the<br />

glass and he were pushed towards the breach by Lazarus' dying breath.<br />

He watched, detached from events, as his free arm reached up and snatched something dark and<br />

familiar from the detritus that rushed through the shattered cabin towards infinite space.<br />

He pulled the Remlok mask over his head, or was this just the memory of a three year old Janus<br />

watching a big dark bird doing this very thing for him almost fifteen years earlier?<br />

Deprived of oxygen Janus felt rather euphoric and gaped in awe through the transparent face<br />

mask at the two figures stood in front of the breach smiling serenely down on him. It had been such<br />

a very long time! Mummy! Papa!<br />

He released his anchoring grip and stretched out his arms towards them. He was lifted up and<br />

carried forward, ready and wanting to embrace them and then, there was only darkness.<br />

Coda – Part I<br />

Inside a newly equipped medical centre on-board the Sainsboory's Constore which floats a little<br />

distance from Diso's Witchpoint Marker there is the stirring of life where many thought there should<br />

be none.<br />

Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain.<br />

Oh? Pain?<br />

Can you be dead and feel pain? That seems a little unfair...<br />

Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain...<br />

A medical computer detects the change in brain wave activity and releases tiny amounts of drugs<br />

directly into the blood stream that feeds the brain. This time however, there will be no enforcement<br />

of a coma, these drugs are to ease the transition from near death back to life. Whir-whir-click go<br />

tiny pumps, the sound picked up by fragile ears.<br />

...What's that? Oh the pain. The P- Oh. Actually, no. No, pain. Am I inside the Remlok still? You<br />

hear about the hallucinations, the dying brain, the final few seconds dragged out to seemingly last a<br />

life time. But if this is it, then I am clearly lacking in the imagination department.<br />

There are two other occupants in the room, one of them, from its vantage point, stood near the<br />

doorway, speaks. 'I think the slumbering hero stirs my dear.'

I recognise those avian tones. Daddyhoggy? How unexpectedly dull.<br />

The third and final occupant lifts her sleepy head from the chair that has refused to make itself<br />

comfortable in the four days she has occupied it. 'Really? Should I call for a medic?'<br />

Tina? Well that's more like it!<br />

'No. Let me do that. You are much easier on the eye than I am. I think perhaps the first thing he<br />

should see is you. After all it is your name, not mine, that he has mumbled over and over again for<br />

the last twenty-four hours is it not?'<br />

The door slides open and the bird slips away. He does not need to make the medical team aware<br />

of their patient's change of condition, the computer did that even before Daddyhoggy noticed the<br />

less subtle, outwards signs. Daddyhoggy knows this, but he leaves nonetheless. Three is a crowd<br />

after all.<br />

Tina rises from the chair and sits on the edge of the bed, carefully avoiding a multitude of tiny<br />

tubes and wires, going to and coming from the figure lying in the bed. She strokes his brow above a<br />

battered and swollen eye then leans down to place a gentle kiss upon dry and still bloodied lips. She<br />

has read childhood fairy-tales from Old Earth and the irony of the situation is not lost on her and<br />

despite her emotions a smile briefly touches her own lips.<br />

'Wake up my Prince,' she whispers into an ear that has not been fully repaired, some of it will<br />

still be missing for the next few days at least, while tiny 'bots coursing around his system rebuild<br />

him from the inside.<br />

Damaged and ultra-sensitive lips tingle at the touch of the others. Eyes slowly open. Light pours<br />

onto retinas that have not seen activity for four days and there is briefly a searing pain and sea of<br />

swirling colour before brain and eye settle on a happy equilibrium and the medical computer detects<br />

the distress of its patient and dims the lights of the room accordingly.<br />

Wow.<br />

This is not the glamorous, beautifully presented hostess that Janus met a lifetime ago, but a tired<br />

and dishevelled young lady without make-up or any of the normal trappings of her profession.<br />

Despite this, she is the most beautiful sight Janus has ever seen and his face breaks out into a huge<br />

grin. This action unfortunately breaks many of the new bindings that are holding his partially<br />

reconstructed face together. The intense pain causes the grin to be replaced by a wince but as<br />

automatically supplied pain-killers kick in the smile, albeit slightly more restrained, returns to the<br />

young man's feature.

Even as the medical team rush in and quickly fuss around him and fix his artificial skin he<br />

cannot take his eyes off her, he cannot even bring himself to blink lest he miss even instant of her.<br />

If I wasn't in so much pain, I'd say this was a dream.<br />

The medical team, satisfied with their work, finally leave the pair alone again.<br />

Tina returns to the edge of the bed and speaks again. 'The hero returns from the dead. Praise be.'<br />

Janus is confused, he would have wrinkled a brow but the medical team have ensured that<br />

enough drugs have been pumped into his face to prevent such a movement, he will not be allowed<br />

to break the artificial skin again.<br />

'Hero?' he croaks out. Licking his sore lips and swallowing a few times for lubrication he tries<br />

again. 'I'm not a hero,' he rasps, although the embarrassing croak has gone. 'I got my arse kicked.<br />

Poor Lazarus, didn't have a prayer against those Thargs.'<br />

Tina is smiling, but Janus doesn't know why. 'Then let me show you,' she says. 'If you're up to it<br />

of course?' she adds.<br />

He nods dumbly. He has no idea what she's talking about, but if it looks like she might hang<br />

around for a bit if he agrees, then agree he does.<br />

Seemingly of their own volition three holo-3D projectors drop down from the ceiling of the<br />

medical centre and between them they form an image that floats above the bed where Janus lays. He<br />

cannot move all he can do is watch. Watch and be amazed.<br />

Coda – Part II<br />

Janus does not recognise the opening scenes of the holo-vid although the emergence of those<br />

terrifying pulsing octagonal discs from wherever they hide away in Witchspace sends an<br />

involuntary shudder through his body. He is relieved to have a momentary distraction as Tina,<br />

gently and skilfully avoiding his tubes and cables, climbs on to the medi-bed and settles down<br />

beside him.<br />

The sound of the Thargoid Attack warning alarm makes him jump even though he realises in an<br />

instant that the sound is from the holo-vid. Tina's arm stretches reassuringly across his chest and<br />

perhaps is there to anchor him to the bed, to prevent an instinctive bolt for the exit.<br />

As the camera tracks the first wave of Thargoids the Constore slips into view. This must be the<br />

view from one of the Navy ships. Lucky they were here. What did those guys in the bar say about<br />

the Socelageians again?

The bright flash of light from the first silent explosion lit the room as the nearest Thargoid to the<br />

camera vanished in a volley of off-screen plasma fire.This must be shot from one of the Navy<br />

Anaconda's then.<br />

Now the view began to swirl as the ship began to manoeuvre heavily as it suddenly became the<br />

focus of the Thargoids aggression. Other ships appeared in the shot, it was hard to tell but they<br />

appeared to be Navy Asps and Sidewinders charging in to blunt and bloody the nose of the Thargoid<br />

thrust towards the Light's Fantastic. Janus was amazed how quickly so many of them fell to the<br />

green streaks of death emerging at all angles from the spinning Thargoid ships. It was obvious that<br />

even a Navy spec Sidewinder was no match for them at all. Janus found he was counting how many<br />

ships vanished in a cloud of vented atmosphere and burning plasma but couldn't continue after<br />

twenty, it was just too awful.Why? Why such a futile, ill-organised counter-attack? It was suicide!<br />

The view-point of the camera suddenly changed to something mounted on the Constore itself<br />

and Janus had his answer as tens and then scores of ships poured from the docking port of the<br />

Constore in haphazard succession. Time. To give us time. Time to get out, to have a chance. Thank-<br />

you.<br />

Tina snuggled closer, the pressure of her arm across his chest increasing fractionally. Huh?A ship<br />

emerged from the docking port, a sleek and beautifully equipped Boa Class Cruiser. In a moment it<br />

was gone, caught between three beams of green light, the pilot didn't even have time to react,<br />

probably still disorientated by the break pattern over the shields as the ship emerged from the<br />

docking port. Oh.Janus felt himself shy away from the viewer and for a moment his heart seemed to<br />

stop as the holo-vid showed the familiar shape and paint job of a much loved, and suddenly deeply<br />

missed, Cobra Mark III.<br />

'Hello old girl,' he heard himself whisper to the image being projected into the room. Tina<br />

hugged him a little tighter in response.<br />

The next few minutes were all too familiar, although, seeing them from a multitude of angles and<br />

cut-aways and panning shots was almost too surreal to cope with. This footage had clearly been put<br />

together by some-one and Janus had no idea why. It was deeply disturbing that his life and the life<br />

of his ship was somehow entertainment for the masses.Why is Tina showing me this? Perhaps I<br />

wasn't up to it after all.<br />

As Janus watched, familiar events, such as having his arse saved by Treee'ggaar's two escorts,<br />

gave way to ones he had no recollection of. Even if this footage had been put together from all the<br />

Galcop cameras available it was clear that with each passing moment the number of twisting,<br />

weaving, firing and dying ships in the background of the shots focussed on Lazarus was dwindling

apidly. There was almost nobody left in the battle fighting the Thargoids. Janus watched as<br />

Thargoid after Thargoid fell to Lazarus' deadly strikes, while all the time bucking and twisting<br />

through a web of green death from the overwhelming number of humankind's deadliest of foes. I<br />

don't understand. I don't remember any of this. I just remember trying to stay alive.<br />

Did I do this? Did I really fight and kill so many Thargoid ships? He was trembling, he knew<br />

what was coming and he didn't think he could face it. In the projection the final moment of Lazarus'<br />

existence was caught on camera. Her shields gone she was skewered by a beam of green. She<br />

seemed to swell around the point of impact, splitting open like a metallic flower bud, along hull<br />

plates and sub-surface conduits. An engine blew out, streaming fiery plasma into the void. Janus<br />

held his breath, somewhere in the distance, in another world now, an alarm began to sound in<br />

response to his lack of respiration. In the projection the cockpit area of Lazarus was vaporised in a<br />

flash of green and then it was gone. The image frozen for a moment and then faded away as the<br />

projectors shut down. Janus took a deep sobbing breath and, despite the weight of Tina's arm and a<br />

broken and drugged system, sat up in the bed. Tina rose with him, her eyes locked onto his.<br />

'There's more?' he asked angrily. 'You see me... You see me... fall?' The words choking him.<br />

Tina nods silently, tears are streaming down her face.<br />

'You've watched Lazarus die?' There is venom behind those words. He is angry, distraught. He<br />

thought that somewhere, somehow, this dream he had, of him and this girl. This girl that he cannot<br />

love because he has known her only for a few minutes, and yet knows that he does, might somehow<br />

feel the same for him. But it cannot be true and that hurts. It hurts more than the battered face and<br />

broken body because that pain can be held at bay by drugs.<br />

Tina shakes her head, she is speaking too, but there seems to be a buzzing in Janus' ears and the<br />

room is filled with new and more urgent sounding alarms. She places a hand on each of his cheeks,<br />

she is all but shouting at him now but as the tiny pumps fill his blood stream with a concoction of<br />

pain-killers and suppressants he finally hears her. 'Lazarus did not die! Do you understand? Lazarus<br />

did not die! I wanted to show you why you are a hero. Why everybody on this station loves you,<br />

why I love you! You were the last civilian ship, you helped save us all. Janus, something amazing<br />

has happened, something nobody can explain. You will see. I promise!'<br />

She guides his head down gently to the pillow as the drugs take control and he is lost to her<br />

again. She allows herself to be pushed away by the medical team who have rushed back in to tend<br />

to their charge. She ignores the glare from the chief doctor and looks across to Daddyhoggy who is<br />

stood in the doorway.

'It will be a shame,' notes the bird, 'if, in your excitement to share with him the gift he has<br />

apparently brought to us all, you kill him off. For what I suspect you have planned for the two of<br />

you I can think of only two systems where it is still legal if one of the party is a corpse.'<br />

Tina flushes red but the bird only shrugs and waddles away, his suspicions confirmed.<br />

On the bed, cocooned by the carefully selected cocktail of drugs and medications Janus is<br />

vaguely aware of being prodded and poked and manipulated. He doesn't care, he is busy replaying<br />

what Tina said, although he cannot recall anything after Why I love you too.<br />

Coda – Part III<br />

Janus awoke from a dream, a dream where he was a hero, where an astonishingly beautiful girl<br />

loved him and where his ship sat expectantly in its docking bay waiting to travel amongst the stars.<br />

It was a good dream.<br />

He opened his eyes.<br />

Oh.<br />

The disappointment was all but soul-destroying. The lights of the medical centre brightened<br />

automatically in response to his change of state. The harshness of his confinement, his reality,<br />

illuminated with depressing clarity.<br />

He was alone. He'd always been alone, but for the first time he cared, for the first time he didn't<br />

want to be. He'd even been abandoned by the medical equipment. He appeared to have the same<br />

number of tubes and cables but now they plugged into a small plain grey box sat by the side of the<br />

bed.<br />

Stiffly he leaned across to where he was plugged in and tested the weight of the grey box. It<br />

wasn't that heavy, he could probably carry it, work out how to remove the tubes later. He paused<br />

briefly and looked down where he suspected his feet where hidden beneath the crisp white sheets.<br />

He wiggled his toes. Good start, perhaps he could walk right out.<br />

'Thinking of leaving us?'<br />

Janus jumped, like a guilty schoolboy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He glared at the big<br />

black bird stood in the entrance to the medical centre.<br />

And then she was there too, sliding elegantly into the room, slipping around Daddyhoggy,<br />

dressed comfortably but smartly in something fashionable and expensive looking. Excitement<br />

crackled from her like electricity, she was positively buzzing as she bounded to the side of his bed

and placed a lingering kiss on his lips.<br />

She stepped back and placed a delicate hand beneath his chin and gently closed his mouth as he<br />

stared at her somewhat dumb-founded. 'Not a good look,' she said with a laugh. 'Do you think you<br />

can walk as far as the grav' car?' she asked pointing out through the window of the medical centre to<br />

the corridor beyond where a small four man intra-station transport waited.<br />

What the hell is going on?<br />

Her brow wrinkled at his lack of response but the smile hardly diminished. She grasped his hand<br />

and tugged him away from the bed. 'Come on, it's not far.'<br />

And in a moment he was up. He needn't have worried about carrying the small grey box, it lifted<br />

into the air as he moved and bobbed along side as he took his first tentative steps towards the car.<br />

Tina pressed to his side, one arm wrapped around around his waist.<br />

'Don't forget,' said the doctor as they passed, 'the med-pack is supposed to be for emergency use<br />

only. Eight hours. No more!'<br />

Janus has no idea where they are going as he settles back into the unexpectedly comfortable seat<br />

of the grav' car. It moves at a rather sedate pace, sharing the corridors with the rest of the populace<br />

of the station, most of whom are on foot. He notices as they pass that there are people pulling on the<br />

sleeves of other pedestrians, pointing as the car passes. They are pointing at him. Beside him Tina is<br />

buzzing, he can feel her trembling with... what? Excitement? Expectation?<br />

As they travel it as if word has got out, people are waiting, pointing, occasionally they wave, or<br />

nod or tip a hat, or flap a wing, or flick a tail in acknowledgement.<br />

Janus sinks back into his chair, but the chair resists, there is no crevice into which he can crawl,<br />

so instead he looks out of the view-ports that line the corridor sections and into the blackness of<br />

space beyond. He catches his own reflection and recoils, it is swollen and blackened. And she has<br />

kissed this face, twice at least! I wouldn't touch it with a plasma destabiliser!<br />

But beyond his reflection in the blackness he sees a ship and is amazed and confused and<br />

envious in equal measure. It carries the Sainsboory's logo, it's the same size and approximate shape<br />

as one of the station's Sidewinder fleet, but it is utterly gorgeous. He almost falls out of the car<br />

trying to keep the ship in sight as he passes beyond the view-port. Tina grips his arm and if he<br />

thought she was excited before now she is a cup of bubbling Aonaian lethal brandy by comparison.<br />

People are clapping. They have stopped what they are doing and they are clapping as the grav'<br />

car trundles past. By the gods can this thing not go any faster!There is nowhere to go, no way to

un, he watches as his arm rises into the air and waves back at their applause. Traitor!<br />

Finally the car exits the main corridor section and leaves behind the clapping masses and Janus<br />

realises where he is. This is the top deck overlooking the enormity that is the central cavern of the<br />

station's docking bay, and it is full. Completely and utterly stuffed with ships. Janus has never seen<br />

so many ships in one place.<br />

It takes a moment or two but once Janus is over the enormous quantity of ships he notices that<br />

amongst the ship designs he recognises there are a large number of more beautiful ships, curved and<br />

sleek and wondrous. But these are not alien ships, each has some fundamental characteristic that<br />

makes it it easy to identify. Sidewinder, Asp, Boa, Python, Anaconda, Cobra Mark One, Viper... His<br />

eyes dance around the docking bay, settling on, identifying and then picking out the next until they<br />

settle and lock onto one ship in particular. This ship is clearly their destination. His throat has gone<br />

dry, his heart is pounding in his chest. He ignores the grey box beside him as it bleeps out a series of<br />

what he presumes are warnings about his health.<br />

'Lazarus?' he whispers. 'Lazarus?'<br />

Tina has buried her head in his chest and is hugging him more tightly than ever. Even<br />

Daddyhoggy, who has remained still and silent until this moment nods his head in affirmation of<br />

Janus' whispered hope and replies 'Apparently yes.'<br />

But this is not his Lazarus, that much is obvious. While the paint job and insignia are identical,<br />

the ship they adorn is a marvel of sublime engineering. This isn't a ship it's a sculpture and yet<br />

despite the change Janus cannot help but know somehow that this is indeed his Lazarus. He is off<br />

the grav' car even before it comes completely to a stop and cables pull briefly tight as the med-pack<br />

struggles to respond to his new found exuberance.<br />

He is in the cockpit of the ship in a moment, the flow of corridors between the cargo ramp and<br />

this place seemingly the most logical of routes. When Tina runs into the room behind him he is<br />

doubled up with laughter, an outstretched hand and extended finger are pointing at something on the<br />

floor.<br />

'What is it!' she demands.<br />

'They... left... behind... the bolts...' he responds between great bouts of laughter. 'It is Lazarus!<br />

Have you missed me old girl?'<br />

In response there is a whirring from beneath the Astronavigation console and the brandy<br />

dispenser drops two perfectly poured drinks into the collection port. At this, Janus collapses to the

floor overcome by his own emotions and laughter.<br />

Tina has to wait quite some time before Janus is ready to talk. This wasn't exactly how she'd<br />