Book: Death to the Imperium

Death to the Imperium

Death to the Imperium (Imperium Cicernus Book 2)

James McGovern

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Cover Blurb

In the far future, the galaxy is dominated by the Imperium, a galactic empire that encompasses a million planets. The Imperium has enjoyed relative peace for centuries, but now war is looming.

A massive, unidentified ship is orbiting a mysterious planet called Chaos in the outer reaches of the Paradonian Sector. Its purpose is unknown, but its actions can only be seen as hostile. The Imperial Navy fears the possibility of a rebellion.

Harlan Glitz, a convicted smuggler, is offered the chance of a full pardon. To earn his pardon, he must travel to the planet Chaos and find out the intentions of the alien ship. He is accompanied by his fellow convicts Tekka and Doland, as well as the beautiful but imperious Captain Alyce Wickham.

The unlikely crew travel to the Paradonian Sector in a ship salvaged from a scrapyard planet, seeking to discover the truth about the planet Chaos. But even a tough criminal like Harlan Glitz is unprepared for the terrible secret that the planet holds...

[This is a standalone novel in the Imperium Cicernus shared universe. Death to the Imperium is set approximately 300 years prior to On The Imperium’s Secret Service. Like all my books, it is DRM-Free.]

Author’s Note

As I am an author from the UK, what appear to be spelling or grammar errors may actually be British variations. If you enjoyed the book, feel free to join my Facebook page. Also, all reviews on Amazon are greatly appreciated.

I am indebted to Christopher Nuttall both for allowing me to write a novel in his Imperium Cicernus series, and for carefully editing the text to improve continuity.

If you aren’t already familiar with the idea, the Imperium Cicernus universe was originated in Chris’s book On The Imperium’s Secret Service, and authors are invited to submit proposals for further books in the series. These books are not collaborations; rather, they are simply set in the same universe. Death to the Imperium is a standalone adventure set roughly 300 years before the first book.

If you are a Kindle author interested in writing for the series, the best place to start would be the discussion forum on Chris’s website (



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two



Paradonian Sector

The young Lieutenant approached the Captain of the ship and saluted. “We’re approaching the planet Chaos now, sir.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant.”

The Captain stood up and approached the main scanner. The Churchill was an auxiliary warship, significantly smaller than the Imperial superdreadnoughts that he was used to. The ship was designed to supplement the larger Navy crafts, and it was chosen for this particular assignment because it was fast and inconspicuous. The brief was simple: the Navy had become aware of an unidentifiable ship in orbit around a planet called Chaos, which was located in the Paradonian Sector. Ten years previously, a scientist working for the Navy had invented a system called MARS, which stood for “Multiple Area Response System”. The system consisted of thousands of small drones, which roamed the entire galaxy systematically, detecting any unusual occurrences or possible signs of hostility. The discovery of the strange ship had alarmed the Navy—the planet Chaos was a known wasteland planet, with no desirable natural resources.

The Admiralty Board had come up with several possibilities for the ship’s presence. One option was that an unauthorised terraforming process was taking place on the planet. Another possibility was that a rebellion was forming. Admiral Blaize, one of the key commanders in the Navy, had argued that they should send a fleet of ships to neutralise the threat, but the rest of the Board had argued for more furtive tactics. Although the ship was unregistered, and of an unknown origin, there might be an innocent explanation. After all, it was not in the vicinity of any Imperial base or outpost. If the ship did contain rebels, the Navy wanted to gather as much information as possible before destroying it. In the end, it was decided that a Navy officer would take a single ship to the area to discover the truth, and make a full report to the Admiralty Board.

Now the ship was approaching the planet around which the ship was in orbit. Captain Blane walked over to the wide range scanner and looked at one of the display screens. The ship was almost the size of two Imperial superdreadnoughts. The planet of origin of the craft could not be determined.

“Possibly not human, then,” Captain Blane said, swallowing.

“Captain, you might want to take a look at this,” Lieutenant Ava said.

The ship was now in visual range. The Captain peered at the main scanner. It certainly wasn’t an Imperial or trade ship. The planet it was orbiting was dark and sinister-looking; a fiery seam ran through the centre. Captain Blane’s brief had suggested that there was nothing there of any importance. So why was the ship so interested in it? Before the Captain could begin to think properly about any of these questions, there was a loud crash, and the deck of the Churchill shuddered.

“Enemy fire!” the Lieutenant shouted.

“General quarters!” the Captain cried.

The crew jumped to battle stations, preparing to fire on the enemy ship. Captain Blane had been prepared for a fight—Naval commanders always had to be—but he hadn’t expected one. The mission was supposed to have been a peaceful one; they were to make contact with the mysterious ship and find out their intentions. It seemed it had been a foolish idea to send only one ship; in fact, he had argued against the idea originally. But most of the admirals had gotten their positions because of their aristocratic connections, and many of them didn’t have very sound judgement.

“Concentrate fire!” Captain Blane said. “Antimatter cannons and phase torpedoes—fire!”

One thing was clear in the Captain’s mind. The ship had malevolent intentions. Whatever it was doing orbiting the mysterious planet, it wasn’t something good. You didn’t just start shooting at an unknown ship unless you had something to hide. Another crash rocked the ship. The Captain glanced at one of the screens; they were too close to the planet to make a phase jump. The operator manning the antimatter cannons checked the console; the weapon was fully charged. He slammed his hand down—

—but it never touched the launch button. A white stream of… something shot out from the enemy ship, perhaps some kind of vastly improved plasma bolt. The last thing the crew saw was a blinding light. Captain Blane didn’t feel his life flash before his eyes, like the old cliché. In fact, he didn’t feel anything at all.

The world simply stopped.

Chapter One

Interstellar Shipyard

Terminal Island


Harlan Glitz scowled at the guards as he was pushed forwards by the steady flow of prisoners. Glitz was a tall man of around forty, with a tangle of brown hair, a thick growth of stubble, and a muscular chest. The prisoners were all handcuffed, and he knew it was futile to attempt to escape. A single prod with a shocker, one of the guards’ electric cattle prods, was enough to make you comply. Glitz wondered vaguely why convicts always seemed to be men. In the group of criminals being led inside the ship, there wasn’t a single woman. Glitz nearly tripped on the entrance ramp as he went inside the ship. It was a standard Imperial prison ship, with conditions worse than those in a 4th class spaceliner.

Once the prisoners were all aboard the ship, the ramp was quickly raised, and the ship sealed. Prison ships in the Imperium had a somewhat unusual layout: the entrance led on to a large open space, almost like a warehouse, which was called the floor. The floor led on to several other parts of the ship, including the canteen, the living quarters, the flight deck and the officers’ lounge. Prisoners were generally confined to the floor, the canteen, and the living quarters. The floor was usually where prisoners would be forced to perform menial tasks. In this ship, however, the floor was filled with tables, vidscreens, and even a gravity-ball net. It was presumably some kind of cruel trick to give the prisoners a false sense of security.

“Next stop, hell,” Glitz muttered.

“Shut it!” one of the guards yelled. He was a thin man with pimples.

“You’re young for a guard,” Glitz said. “Shouldn’t you still be in school, kid?”

“How dare you!”

“That’s enough,” the Commander said, and Glitz continued to grin at the guard. The guard began to redden with annoyance.

“Sir,” the young guard protested, pointing at Glitz. “He’s still smiling at me. Can’t you make him stop?”

“Grow up, Narko,” the Commander said. He turned to face the assembled band of convicts. They were all dressed in regulation prisoner uniforms, which were grey bodysuits bearing a circular badge with the letters “P.I.” The letters stood for “Property of the Imperium”. Once someone was successfully convicted of a felony—unless they were an aristocrat, of course—they became legally owned by the Imperium until they had finished the period of their sentence.

“Now, my name is Commander Halland Rica. You will find that I am a fair and just man, but that I can also be ruthless if you get on the wrong side of me. If you all behave like civilised people, we can look forward to a pleasant journey. If not, you will spend the trip in irons.”

Yeah, Glitz thought. Pleasant, that’s funny. It was well known that prison ships were anything but pleasant. Often, prisoners were forced to work in the engine room, which could be extremely hazardous.

“Providing there is no trouble,” Commander Rica went on, “you will not be forced to do any kind of work, and you can simply relax during the flight. Space knows you will be worked to death once you finally reach the planet. You will notice that the floor has been laid out with several diversions, which are provided for your entertainment.”

Some of the men exchanged disbelieving glances. Glitz wondered if it was a trick. He knew that Imperial prison officers were often callous and cruel.

“That’s all,” Commander Rica said. “I’m going to deactivate your handcuffs now, and I expect you all to be on your best behaviour for the duration of the flight.” The Commander had the air of a schoolteacher addressing a class of wayward children. He activated a switch, and all of the handcuffs clicked open. The men stretched their arms and wrists gratefully.

“We make planetfall in approximately one hundred hours,” the Commander said. He turned to his guards, and nodded. “Good work. I suggest we retire to the officers’ lounge and get ourselves a large brandy.”

To Glitz’s astonishment, every single one of the guards filed out of the floor, following Commander Rica to the officers’ lounge. It had to be some sort of joke. It was a total contravention of Imperial regulations to leave a ship of prisoners unattended. Glitz knew this well, because he had once read the entire Imperial Military Handbook. When he was sixteen, he had been a cadet in the Imperial Army, before being unceremoniously discharged for a romantic liaison with an older female officer. Romantic relationships were strictly forbidden between members of the armed forces. It had completely ruined his life, but somehow he still didn’t regret it.

With the roar of engines, the ship began to rise into the air. Glitz glanced around at the occupants of the ship. Another man might have been intimidated by being in a room full of prisoners with no official authority present, but Glitz wasn’t the kind of man to be easily intimidated. He wasn’t particularly large, but he wasn’t weak either, and he had picked up a few tricks in his years of being a spice trader for the East Galaxy Company. Most people didn’t realize how tough it was to pilot a freighter, but there was always some bastard that wanted to steal your cargo.

The prisoners all seemed slightly dazed. It appeared that, now they had been given a measure of freedom, they didn’t really know what to do with it. A more inexperienced person in a position of authority—like the guard with the pimples, for example—would seek to harshly dominate the prisoners to quash any possible stirrings of mutiny. But Commander Rica had spent too many years of his life in the company of criminals, and he knew better. Discipline was important, but providing the men behaved themselves there was no need to grind them down. He had been in charge of prison runs from Varon to Malus for nearly five years, and he had turned down two promotions during that time. He had no pressing desire for more power. All Commander Rica wanted was an easy life, and a regular pay check.

On a longer journey, giving prisoners such a large amount of freedom might have been a bad idea. But the trips to Malus were so short it would have been senseless to expect a rebellion. As Rica had predicted, the prisoners did not use their surprising liberty to start any big fights or to attempt to take control of the ship. They knew escape was impossible, and so a revolt would only have the effect of bringing punishment upon themselves. As the guards sat with Rica, sipping brandy, the prisoners began to settle down and entertain themselves.

Glitz realised after a few minutes that Rica had actually been serious—they actually were going to be treated like guests. He was grateful, but at the same time he was conscious that it would make their time on Malus seem even more terrible. Conditions on the planet were reportedly atrocious.

“Want to play me?”

Glitz looked up. A skinny man was pointing towards a chess board. He nodded. “OK.”

The two men sat down at the table. It was a real chess board with metal pieces, and Glitz thought it looked quite old-fashioned. He wasn’t really a chess player anyway, but the last time he had played it was with a holographic board.

“I’ll be whites,” the man said.

The newcomer had white hair and small dark eyes, and a sort of nervous energy. Glitz guessed that he was in his early thirties.

“What’s your name?” Glitz said.

“Doland. Raja Doland.”

“You a Proteist, Doland?”

Religion was frowned upon by the Imperium, as the Senate disliked any other organisation that could hold power over people. Religions could become a conflicting source of loyalty; this would be especially problematic if there was ever a disagreement between the Imperium and a church. The official religion of the galaxy was formerly Monarchism, a kind of emperor worship, but it no longer had a statutory place in society, and it was hardly ever practised—largely because the Senate discouraged it. The last thing they wanted was for the people to be loyally devoted to the Emperor. Inhabitants of several planets in the Imperium adhered to a religion called Proteism. It was a curious amalgamation of a few old religions, including Planetiatry and Hullism, and it boasted many celebrity members. It was perhaps most famous for its peculiar belief system, holding that the only way to attain salvation was to engage in sexual encounters with complete strangers.

“Why? Do I look like a Proteist?”

Glitz pointed at his hand. “Your ring.”

“Oh, right.” Doland glanced down at the ring on his index finger. Prisoners were allowed to keep one item of jewellery if it had sentimental value. It was engraved with a purple eye, which was one of the symbols of Proteism. “No, ha, this isn’t sentimental. I just told them that. I just found this in the street. I thought I could use it as a knuckleduster if someone attacked me in here.”

Looking around, Doland felt that depictions of convicts in popular vidfilms had been greatly exaggerated. When the guards had all left the floor, he had felt an overpowering wave of terror. But no one had tried to beat him up or do something worse… yet.

Glitz nodded at Doland. “Your move.”

Doland moved one of his pawns two spaces forward. He had never been very good at chess, but it was useful for passing the time. Doland was just grateful that he didn’t have to work in the engine room, and like the other prisoners he was determined to obey the rules so he could keep his surprising measure of liberty.

“So what you in for?” Glitz said, moving one of his pieces.

“Voting fraud.” Doland sighed and leaned back in his chair. “I live on Opus, and we use a computerised system for voting in our regional leaders. Each person of legal voting age is sent a transmitter with two buttons, one for each Regional Governor. The two candidates were Jog Rasputt and Charl Hens. Now Jog’s a nasty piece of work. He’s been involved in more scandals than a tabloid news feed. But for some reason the people of our region always vote him in. On voting day I was especially fed up, so I took my wife’s transmitter and voted for Charl.”

“So you had two votes?”

Doland nodded.

“How did they find out?”

“The bitch told them. She would have voted for Charl anyway, of course—she voted for him in the last election. But she’d been looking for an excuse to inform on me anyway. Got another man waiting in the wings, I reckon.”

Glitz felt a strange mixture of pity and amusement. He felt sorry for Doland, but at the same time he couldn’t help finding it slightly funny that his wife had managed to get him exiled to Malus.

“How long’s your sentence?” Glitz said.

Doland tapped his fingers on the table. “Five years. What about you?”

“Same. Five years.” Glitz nodded. “Five stinking years on the most miserable planet in the Universe…”

He stared at the board, formulating his next move. Eventually, he decided which piece to pick up.

“Bad idea.”

Glitz and Doland turned to face the man that had spoken. He had dark hair and his brown eyes were intense and cold. His pronounced nose gave him the aspect of watchful bird of prey.

“What’s a bad idea?” Glitz said.

“You were thinking about moving your bishop to D4. But look—” The man pointed at square F5. “—that would allow this man to take your bishop. He could then move his queen to D3, which would be checkmate.”

Glitz examined the board. The man was right; he hadn’t noticed the knight at F5. He turned to the newcomer. “How did you know I was going to move my bishop?”

The man shrugged. “I find most ordinary minds easy to predict.” Without another word, he walked away from the table in search of something more diverting than interfering with chess games.

When Glitz and Doland were nearing the end of their game, an electronic bell began to sound through the ship. They heard a voice over the intercom, explaining that it was mealtime. The metal canteen door slid open with the whirr of a motor, and the prisoners made their way eagerly through it. The canteen was very small, but large enough to seat all of the fifty or so prisoners. Unsurprisingly, the guards didn’t show up for the meal. Glitz guessed that they had their own dining area. A robot armed with a shocker was apparently in charge of the canteen. It was an old X-90 model—roughly humanoid in shape but with clearly robotic features and an immovable neck.

“Form an orderly queue,” the robot ordered, its synthetic voice reverberating through the canteen. Glitz hated robots, especially when they were carrying weapons that could send over 1,000 volts at a current of 0.2 amps through your body.

Glitz lined up behind an obese prisoner, who was carrying two meal trays. The man pressed the button on the food machine twice, collecting two meals. He turned around with an angry face, as if daring someone to question his right to have twice as much food as everyone else.

“You on a diet?” Glitz said, who could never resist starting an argument.

“What?” the man said fiercely.

Glitz shrugged. “Just thought you must be on a diet, that’s all.”

The fat man glanced at his two trays, looking slightly confused. “Are you trying to be funny?”

“No,” Glitz said sincerely. “It’s just that I’d always thought whales ate a million calories a day. So I figured you must be on a diet.”

The robot’s fight detection circuits perceived the signs of a possible brawl and it edged closer, wielding the shocker eagerly. But, luckily for Glitz, the man didn’t understand the joke, and simply glared at him before walking away. Glitz stared at the choices on the machine, trying to decide which option to choose.

There were three buttons, which had changeable labels with pencil writing. Today’s choices read CHEESEBURGER, CURRY and VEGETARIAN. A decade of ferrying spices for the East Galaxy Company had made Glitz loath spicy food, and the third option sounded suspiciously vague. He wondered how many convicted criminals were vegetarians. Not many, he would guess. He opted for the cheeseburger. He pressed the switch and a burger appeared on a paper plate, along with a side of fries.

He glanced around the canteen, where the seats were filling up fast, looking for somewhere to sit. At the far end, the man who had interrupted his chess game was sitting alone at a table. Glitz made his way over to him and sat down.

“Hi,” Glitz said.

The man said nothing. He had also ordered a burger, and he was eating it slowly with an air of being deep in thought. Glitz frowned and started to eat his own meal, noticing that Tekka was wearing a large golden ring with a blue stone. The burger was, surprisingly, not bad. There was a good helping of meat inside it and the bread was fresh. Again, although Glitz was grateful for the humane treatment, he was conscious that conditions on Malus would seem even worse by comparison.

“Tekka,” the man said finally, after finishing his burger.

“Glitz.” He paused. “What did you do to end up here?”

“I committed a crime,” Tekka said simply.

“Yeah, but what crime?”

Tekka didn’t reply; he just stared darkly into space. Glitz shrugged and continued to eat his food. Doland sat down at the table, carrying a plate of curry.

“It was fraud,” Doland said, grinning. He pointed to a bearded man standing at the food vendor. “I’ve just been talking to your friend Marc.”

“He’s not my friend. I only told him what I did so he would leave me alone.”

“Yeah, well… anyway, he told me about your little plan, you know, the one to steal five billion credits from Central.”

According to old, unverifiable documents, digital cryptography-based currencies had existed as early as eight thousand years ago, including the mythical Bitcoin. During the early years of the Imperium, many similar currencies had come into general use, such as the stupidly-named Coincoin, which used a proof-of-work mechanism to generate coins. The currency fell into disrepute when it was discovered that the processing power used to “mine” the coins had been used to crack the security of several key Imperial computer systems. Around two thousand years ago, the Imperium had switched from using paper-based fiat currencies to a universal centralised cryptocurrency system, the “coin” of which was known simply as the credit. Some people still used secret alternative currencies for illegal transactions and money laundering, but the only official currency was the credit, regulated by the Imperial Central Bank.

“Five billion credits?” Glitz said, impressed. That amount would be enough to buy a small island on the planet Eden.

Tekka nodded, but did not reply.

“He’s a mathematical genius, so Marc says,” Doland went on. “Graduated from Homeworld University, too.”

Glitz stared into Tekka’s cold eyes. Homeworld University? He was obviously no ordinary criminal. What made a man like him turn rogue? Why would someone with brains—and all the opportunities in life—turn to crime?

“Can you two be trusted?” Tekka said suddenly.

Doland looked up from his plate of curry, surprised. “What do you mean?”

“I mean exactly what I said. Can I trust you?”

“Trust us for what?”

Tekka placed his fingertips together, and lowered his voice. “I assume that neither of you wants to go to Malus. We have all heard the stories. I for one am not at all keen on going. I believe I may have a viable escape plan, but I need to know whether I can trust you.”

Doland and Glitz glanced at each other, and nodded at Tekka.

“Excellent,” Tekka said. “Like Doland said, I have considerable expertise when it comes to—”

“Hang on,” Doland said. “How do you know my name?”

“I made a point of memorising the flight manifest,” Tekka said, pulling out a folded piece of paper. It was a print-out of all of the convicts’ names, along with thumbnail snapshots of their faces.

“A manifest?” Glitz said. “Where the hell did you get that?”

Tekka smiled coldly. “All of the vidscreens on the floor are connected to computers. Of course, all of their functions are locked down except video playback. But I asked the computer very nicely.”

“So what’s your plan?” Glitz said quietly.

Chapter Two

Tekka glanced around to make sure they were not being overheard. Then he began to explain his plan in a quiet voice. When he had finished, both Doland and Glitz were a little in awe of the man. Doland was right. He was a genius. But Glitz found one element of the plan troubling.

“Not this ship.”

“What?” Tekka said, his eyes narrowing slightly.

“Not this ship. The Commander has been good to us. It wouldn’t be right to do it to him.”

“Oh, come on,” Doland said. “We’re being taken to the worst planet in the galaxy. We’re going to be slaves for five years. This isn’t the time for caring about other people.”

Glitz wouldn’t be persuaded. He turned to Tekka. “Look, there’s no reason why your plan couldn’t work with another ship, right? When will the next prison ship arrive on Malus?”

“In about a month, I expect.”

“A month!” Doland said. “You want us to be stuck on Malus for a month?”

“It’s better than five years,” Glitz replied.

Tekka paused, stroking his left palm with the fingertips of his right hand. “If the plan is to work, it requires three people. If Glitz is determined not to harm the commander of this ship, it seems we have no choice but to make planetfall and wait for the next ship.”

Doland grimaced, but he knew that Tekka was right. Without all three of them, the plan would be much more likely to fail. “All right,” he said. “I’m in.”

“Why us?” Glitz said. “I mean, your plan needs three people, but why choose me and Doland?”

“Truthfully, there is no particular reason. I need two people to help me escape. I don’t care who those two people are. You were the two people that happened to sit down next to me.”

Glitz nodded slowly. In that case, he was very glad that he had chosen to sit with Tekka. The rest of the journey to Malus went by quite uneventfully. A few prisoners became restless and started to fight, but these confrontations were quickly broken apart by the other convicts. Nobody wanted to have stricter measures imposed upon them. They ate five more meals in the canteen, and slept twice in the prisoners’ quarters. The guards only appeared occasionally to check that everything was running smoothly, and no one even saw the Commander again until they finally reached the planet. Around forty-eight hours into the flight, he appeared on the floor with a small group of guards.

“We’ll be arriving on Malus shortly, gentlemen,” Commander Rica said. “Thank you for conducting yourselves so graciously, and I hope that your stay on Malus won’t be overly unpleasant.” He knew there wasn’t much hope of that. The Commander was a man of dangerous tastes, and there were many illegal pleasures that he denied himself, purely so that he would never end up on Malus.

“It’s been nice,” Glitz said loudly. “I’ll fly with you again some time.”

The prisoners all laughed, and the Commander smiled and left the floor. Glitz had, of course, been joking, but the journey had actually given him a deep respect for the man. So many weak-minded people tried to gain respect through violence and anger. It was refreshing to see someone who expressed their authority in a reasonable way.

The ship touched down on the planet Malus.

Narko, the pimpled guard, smiled nastily at Glitz as the ship’s main door slid open. The guards escorted the prisoners off the ship, where they were taken into custody by another lot of guards. They were wearing their handcuffs again, which they had been made to reattach before the ship’s landing.

Glitz glanced up at the sky. It was permanently dark on Malus, because it was a planet on the edge of the Talos system. The light from the central sun barely reached Malus; it was only warm enough to sustain life because of thermoactive rocks close to the planet’s surface. Volcanoes were one of the main causes of death on Malus, next to overwork. The Imperium was notoriously tough on all prisoners—again, unless they were from the aristocracy—holding the view that the worse the prison, the stronger the deterrent. Glitz didn’t think that prisoners should get off without punishment, but five years of hard labour seemed a little extreme for his crime.

The guards began to lead them towards the main prison site, which was where the convicts would be sleeping and eating for the duration of their sentences.

“You didn’t tell me what you did,” Doland said, who was standing behind Glitz.

“Smuggling.” Glitz frowned at the imposing volcanoes. He could swear that some of them were spewing black smoke. “I was in charge of a freighter for the East Galaxy Company, but the pay was bad. I boosted my salary by smuggling weapons in a secret compartment inside the ship.”

Doland looked impressed. “Yeah? How’d you get caught?”

“Just a routine inspection, or so I thought.” Glitz grinned. Although he hated the fact that he had been caught, he couldn’t deny that it made a good story. “I was carrying an official load of turmeric and moonspice, as well as a few kilos of black market tobacco that I picked up from a guy on Zita-4. I was taking the leaf to Paradise to sell. When I was boarded by Imperial troops, I figured it was nothing to worry about. I’d been boarded before, but they hadn’t found anything. But it turns out the leaf wasn’t just duty-free—it was stolen. Even worse, the stupid bastard had robbed an Interstellar Courier to get it.”

“So they found the stuff?”

Glitz nodded. “They went all out. Practically took the ship apart. I got five years, but the other guy was executed.”

Doland breathed out slowly. “You were lucky then, in a way.”

“Lucky?” Glitz poked his finger into Doland’s chest. “I’m stuck on a prison planet for five years with nobody for company but you and that guy—” Glitz pointed to Tekka, who was standing nearby. “—and he doesn’t even like me.”

“Don’t be too heartbroken,” Tekka said. “I don’t like anyone.”

“Yeah, well…” Doland lowered his voice. “We still have our plan…”

Glitz glanced around at the forbidding planet, at the rocks and strange-looking birds wheeling through the sky. Now that he was actually there, Tekka’s plan didn’t seem quite so likely. He knew that no one had ever escaped from Malus before.

The prisoners walked, handcuffed, towards the main prison, with uniformed guards marching in front of and behind them. The air was filled with noxious smoke, and the ground was covered in black dust—the prisoners’ feet kicked up dirt clouds that blackened their convict uniforms.

Eventually, they reached the main prison. It was a large silver dome that was composed of triangular shapes arranged in a tessellated pattern. Glitz entered with the other prisoners, flanked by Doland and Tekka. He wanted to make sure that he stayed close to Tekka over the next few weeks; the man was his only chance of getting off the stinking rock.

“My name is Mr. Quex,” a bald man said, stepping in front of the prisoners. He was carrying a large black staff with a tapered handle. Although it was black, it looked suspiciously like a shocker. “I’m the officer in charge of this prison. Let me be very clear. I don’t tolerate bad behaviour. If any one of you jokers steps out of line, they’ll be treated with the greatest serevity.”

“You mean ‘severity’, right?” one of the prisoners said. He was a thin man with a permanent grin.

The officer’s face reddened, and he stepped over to the man, his pig-like eyes bulging from his head. “Silence!” he said.

“That’s better,” the prisoner said. “Maybe you should just stick to two-syllable words in future.”

The prisoners laughed, and Mr. Quex looked like he was about to explode. He touched the man with the end of his staff, who felt an excruciating pain surge through his limbs. The prisoner cried out in agony, and Mr. Quex withdrew the staff. The pain ceased.

“Let that be a lesson to you all,” Mr. Quex said. “Like I said, I don’t tolerate insol… insolence.”

All of the prisoners were weary and ill-tempered; they had last slept nearly twelve hours ago, and they were all ready to go to bed.

“You will be sent to your cells in alphabetical order,” the prison officer said. “As soon as I read your name, two of the prison guards will escort you to your cell.” He brought up a list on his tablet. “Alph, Tonek.”

Tonek Alph, a tough-looking man virtually covered in tattoos, stepped forward. Two even tougher-looking prison guards escorted him out towards his cell.

“Bane, Rog.”

Rog Bane was next to be taken to his cell, followed by Bergson, Cap, Christoph, Doland, Edgewood, Fhali and Haaj.

“Glitz, Harlan.”

Glitz strolled forwards and peered at the two guards. “You sure these guys know where they’re going?”

Mr. Quex showed his teeth. “Follow!”

Grinning, Glitz followed the guards; they led him through the prison, opened a metal sliding door using a wall panel, and pushed him into his cell. The room was tiny and grey. It had no windows, and no furniture except a bed. And a toilet, if that counts as furniture. At least it was clean. The whole room smelled comfortingly sterile, like a hospital room. The room was cramped and unpleasant, and would certainly be a nightmare come true for anyone suffering from claustrophobia. But at least it was safe. You didn’t have to spend every night looking behind your back. Glitz knocked on the metal cell wall, and someone knocked back. The sound was very muffled.

“Attention all prisoners.” Glitz frowned. The tinny, metallic voice was coming from a hidden speaker somewhere in the cell. “The time is 6:48. Work will begin in twelve minutes. Please make sure you are dressed in your work clothes. New convicts will find their work suits beneath their beds.”

“For the love of space!” Glitz shouted. “I haven’t slept for twelve hours!”

The message began to repeat again. “Attention all prisoners. The time is 6:49…”

Scowling, Glitz reached under his hard bed and felt around for his work suit. His fingers brushed against a clear plasthyne bag, and he pulled it out. Inside there was an orange bodysuit that was made of some sort of tough artificial material, probably PalTex. He stripped to his underwear and stowed his prison uniform under the bed, struggling into the orange suit. The material was rough and scratchy, like tarpaulin, against his skin, and his shoulders and neck began to ache.

“Work will begin in eight minutes.”

Glitz sat on his bed and waited. He didn’t know how the whole thing worked. Obviously, there was no way out of his cell, so all he could do was sit and wait. He wouldn’t have got dressed at all in protest, but he didn’t want to be taken outside wearing non-protective clothing.

“Work will begin in four minutes.”

He sat and waited, wondering vaguely what kind of work the prisoners were made to do. Of course, he had heard several different stories from the other convicts while on the ship. Some said they would be forced to dig holes in the rock, while others claimed that the prisoners had to dive into the volcanoes using special equipment, looking for precious stones in the lava. On balance, Glitz felt that the first story was more plausible.

The cell door slid open again, and a voice ordered him to leave the cell. He was taken with a dozen other prisoners towards a guarded prison exit, and they stepped back out onto the dark planet. Glitz and the other prisoners were led by prison guards in one direction, and he noticed other small groups being led in other directions. Presumably, different prisoners were assigned different jobs. With irritation, Glitz realised that the arrangement might make it more difficult for him talk confidentially to Doland and Tekka.

The prisoners were led into a small all-terrain wagon, and were thrown around roughly as they were sped to their destination, which they reached in just over five minutes. Glitz glanced down at the quarry as they stepped off the truck. It was a pit surrounded on all sides by volcanic mountains. The soil was like black ash, and the hole was filled with huge boulders. The men were all carrying large pickaxes and sledgehammers. A man got off a second wagon which had followed the first. He was wearing a grey suit and brown boots. It was Mr. Quex, the prison officer.

“Good morning, Work Group Eight,” Mr. Quex said. “You may be aware that you have a new member.” He pointed at Glitz. “Harlan Glitz.”

Glitz grinned at the prisoners, but the other members of the work camp glowered at him. He had a distinct feeling that he wouldn’t be getting along very well with his new “colleagues”. He also felt a great sense of disappointment. He had assumed that he would be working alongside Tekka and Doland.

“Sir,” Glitz said. “Will I always be in the same Work Group?”

Mr. Quex nodded. “In future, you will only speak when spoken to, but yes. You will be working with these twelve men for the duration of your sentence. You will also eat with them in your own section of the refectory.”

Glitz cursed inwardly. So it seemed he wouldn’t even get a chance to talk to Tekka and Doland again. In that case, the chance of implementing their plan successfully seemed small. In fact, what was to stop Tekka and Doland simply finding a new third member for their group? Tekka had said himself that he didn’t care which two people escaped alongside him.

“Sir,” Glitz said again.

“If you want to speak to me, put your hand up,” Mr. Quex said.

Glitz frowned at the man’s pettiness, and raised his hand.

“Yes, Glitz?”

“What sort of work is it we do here?” he asked.

Mr. Quex turned to the largest member of the group, who had a bald head and a tattoo of a bald eagle across his forehead. “Pieterson’s in charge here.” He nodded to the man. “Why don’t you tell Glitz all about your work? I might be checking up on you later.”

The prison officer got back into the second wagon and it drove away, leaving a cloud of dark dust. The first truck, which was carrying the prison guards, followed it. When he had followed the other prisoners as they scrambled down into the quarry, Glitz turned to Pieterson and saluted, half-sarcastically.

“I’m Piet,” the man said. “And you obey me without question.”

Glitz nodded with mock solemnity. “So what kind of work do we do, Piet?”

“We break rocks,” Piet said simply.

To provide a demonstration, he raised his tool and swung it from above his shoulder, smashing it into the boulder. A tiny crack appeared in the centre of the rock. Piet swung his pickaxe again, hitting the rock in the same place. The crack became slightly larger. Glitz watched the mundane exercise, and then raised an eyebrow.

“So that’s it?”

One of the other men laughed. “That’s it, brother.”

“But what’s the point of it?” Glitz persisted. “We break rocks, right, but what for? What does it accomplish?”

“Look,” Piet said. “There don’t need to be a point. We break rocks.”

“Right,” Glitz said, looking up at the blackened sky. “That sounds fair.”

The men began to drift apart. The quarry was about the size of a gravity-ball stadium, and they spread out across it. Glitz grabbed one of the pickaxes and approached one of the smaller boulders. He swung his pickaxe into the rock, and felt a vibration from the rock jolt his arm.

Annoyed, Glitz inspected the surface of the stone. He hadn’t even made the tiniest mark on the surface. He raised the pickaxe again and smashed it into the rock. This time, a tiny fracture appeared. Wiping the sweat from his brow, Glitz exhaled loudly.

“What are these things made of?” he muttered.

“Hey, no slacking! Get back to work!” Piet shouted.

Sighing, Glitz swung the tool into the rock again…

Chapter Three

The rest of the day passed in the same way. It took him almost an hour to finally break apart the first boulder, and he wasn’t allowed even a small break before he moved on to the next. It was exhausting work, made even more tiring because he was in desperate need of sleep. Also, he was convinced of the futility of the job. Why were they breaking rocks? It didn’t make any sense. If the prison officer was so intent on making the prisoners work, why not make them do something useful that could actually raise revenue for the prison? Glitz was thankful, however, that they had free access to water. There was a pump in the quarry, which provided an unlimited supply of hydration. True, the liquid that spouted from it tasted vaguely of metal, but it was very satisfying after a few hours of rock smashing. The work day was ten hours long with only a couple of water breaks, and by 17:00 Glitz felt like he was going to collapse from hunger and overwork.

“Is every day like this?” Glitz muttered to one of the prisoners, after they had started putting away their pickaxes.

“We work seven out of eight days in a week,” the man said, who had watery blue eyes and a crooked nose. “Usual schedule is breakfast at 6:00, followed by work at 7:00. Each work day is ten hours, followed by another meal hour, and then a ten hour rest period. Obviously, transport time eats into our leisure hours, rather than work hours. On the ninth day every week we have a shower, followed by a day of rest in our cells.”

Glitz nodded. It seemed the planet Malus had a nine-day week. And each day was twenty-two hours long. Of course, few planets colonised by the human race had the same orbit and rotation as Homeworld. However, many planets tried to adjust their time zones to ensure compatibility with Galactic Standard Time. It was a good idea in theory, but it practice it caused many problems. For example, the planet Velatia, despite making a full rotation every twelve hours, still followed G.S.T. Thus, the planet would go dark in the middle of every day, and the first half of every night would be bright. The humans were constantly searching for a “perfect world”—or trying to engineer one—but all of the current colonised worlds had some kind of fault or deficiency. Several even had different oxygen or gravity levels, which could be very surprising for tourists. A particularly undernourished visitor to Phoros B might find himself floating off into the air like a children’s hydrogen pod.

When their wagon arrived, the men stowed away their pickaxes in a small cave cut into the side of the quarry. They were driven back to the prison compound, and led into the refectory. Glitz noticed that there were dozens of doors leading into the cafeteria, which seemed odd. They entered; it was a plain looking room with no windows. Then again, any windows in Malus would only look out onto the unpleasant volcanic landscape, so Glitz was quite glad that there weren’t any. The tables were made of cheap plasthyne and coated with a waterproof vinyl cover. With dismay, Glitz realised that the canteen was demarcated by translucent plasthyne sheets. That was the idea of the separate doors, then. The section for Work Group Eight was totally separated from the rest of the refectory.

“Can’t we talk to the other prisoners?” Glitz said.

Piet snorted, and replied, “Course not.”

That explains everything, thanks, Glitz thought. It’s all so clear to me now. Later, Glitz learned that their refectory was only one out of about two-dozen across the prison site, and that each Work Group was kept in a separate compartment in every cafeteria. The policy was intended to prevent large groups of prisoners from planning a rebellion.

A small hatch built into the dividing wall opened, and a large pot was pushed through, along with thirteen tin plates and thirteen tin spoons. Piet took the pot and carried it to the table, and one of the other men—Glitz thought his name might be Raal—put down a plate and spoon in front of each table seat. The men all sat down, and Glitz joined them. The pot was pushed politely from person to person. He watched, astonished, as each man poured himself exactly the same amount of the pale goo, said “thank you”, and pushed the pot along to the person next to him. Piet certainly did keep a well-behaved Work Group. When it was Glitz’s turn, he scooped out some of the mixture and dropped it into his bowl. It didn’t have any noticeable odour, and it had the consistency of thick porridge. None of the men started to eat; they were waiting for everyone to take their helping.

Finally, the pot reached Piet, and he scooped out the rest of the food into his bowl. There were barely more than two spoonfuls left for him. Glitz couldn’t help but be impressed by the man’s humility. As leader of the Work Group, he would surely be entitled to a larger helping than anyone else. Who would dare to challenge him if he did so? But Piet obviously thought so highly of his men that he was prepared to be served last, at the risk of ending up with a smaller portion.

“Look,” Glitz said, moving the meal around with his metal spoon. “I’m not really hungry. Think I picked up an infection on the ship. Why don’t you eat this?”

Glitz pushed his bowl across the table towards Piet. The table fell silent, and Glitz wondered for a second if he had done something wrong. But Piet simply smiled, nodded, and began to eat. It had been a lie, of course. Glitz was starving. But he had felt sorry for Piet. Also, it couldn’t hurt to get on the good side of their leader.

He still hadn’t quite given up on the idea of escaping from Malus, even if it seemed unlikely that his plan with Tekka and Doland would go ahead. But if the worst came to the worst, and he really was stuck on Malus for five years, he wanted to make it as easy on himself as possible.

After everyone except Glitz had eaten, they were escorted back into their cells. He had no way of telling the time, but he assumed that it was 18:00. That gave him ten hours to sleep before breakfast the next morning. Glitz took off his work clothes and changed into his normal prison clothes, before climbing into bed. The sheets were made of polycotton, and the mattress wasn’t as uncomfortable as he had expected. Glitz banged on the metal wall, and someone banged back. Glitz laughed and banged again, trying to irritate whoever was in the next cell. But the other man didn’t knock again. He felt his eyes begin to close and he laid back. In a few seconds he was asleep.

The next few weeks passed in much the same way, and each day the work outside seemed a little easier. He still thought it was pointless labour, but he tried not to complain too much. Their group leader, although not very bright, was a decent man. As soon as he realised that Glitz was prepared to work hard without supervision he began to treat him a little more kindly.

They were served the same food at breakfast and dinner each day. The prisoners called it “manna”, a sarcastic reference to the miraculous food the god of Proteism had supposedly provided for the planet Israel during a time of famine. It tasted a little like marchgrain porridge—that is to say, it tasted like nothing at all. There was no flavour, no seasoning. But apparently it was artificially constituted to contain all of the essential nutrients, and it seemed to keep all the men in good health.

One evening, after a particularly hard day, Glitz collapsed onto his bed while still wearing his work clothes, not caring that he was covering his sheets in rock dust. He was drifting off to sleep when a voice suddenly made his eyes snap open.

“Harlan Glitz. Harlan Glitz. Can you hear me, Harlan Glitz?”

Glitz jumped out of bed. I recognize that voice! “Tekka?” he said, hardly able to believe it. “Is that you?”

“It’s me,” Tekka said coldly, and added, insincerely, “I hope you are well.”

“Could be worse,” Glitz replied. “How are you speaking to me?”

“I have hacked into the main communications server. The software allows me to speak to the occupant of any cell. I have already spoken to Doland.”

“So what do you want?”

Tekka sighed. “You know perfectly well what I want. Do you not remember our escape plan?”

Glitz grinned. “Yeah, I remember. So it’s still on?”

“Of course it’s still on,” came Tekka’s tinny voice. “The next prison ship will be arriving on the planet in two days. I think it would be advantageous to go over every point of the plan.”

“Fine,” Glitz said.

Tekka began to go over the plan with Glitz, reminding him of the key points. Glitz listened carefully to the man.

“But how are you going to get us out?” Glitz said.

The plan seemed to depend on the three men somehow escaping from their cells. But that didn’t seem very likely. The only way to break free from a cell was to operate the door mechanism, which could only be operated from outside the cell.

“You leave that to me,” Tekka said. “I will take care of everything. Just make sure that you are ready at 6:00 sharp the day after tomorrow.”

“I will be,” Glitz said.

Now that he had heard Tekka’s plan again, he found his confidence in the man renewed. Glitz still didn’t know how Tekka planned to break them out of their cells, but somehow he believed that he would manage it.

“One thing, before you go,” Glitz said.


“Why didn’t you just choose two different people? I mean, why stick with me and Doland, even though we aren’t in your Work Group?”

“I always keep my word unless I have a strong reason for doing otherwise,” Tekka said simply. “In any case, it would have been illogical to choose anyone else. You two already know the plan, and the comms system is the only safe way to communicate anyway.”

“All right,” Glitz said. “See you in two days.”

Glitz took off his work clothes, put on his prison suit, and brushed the dust from his bed. He began to wonder if he had simply imagined Tekka’s voice. Maybe the hard daily labour was screwing with his brain. But the prospect of possible escape made him feel very excited. The next morning, Glitz had an extra spring in his step when he was taken down to the refectory for breakfast. The other prisoners noticed that he seemed to be in a good mood.

“You’re happy,” Tonek said, stroking his goatee.

“I am,” Glitz said, helping himself to a portion of manna. “I’m getting the hell out of here tomorrow.”

“No way,” Roper said. “How do you plan to do that?”

Glitz tapped his nose mysteriously. “Wait and see. The last time you’ll ever see me is at dinner this evening.”

He knew he shouldn’t be telling the rest of the Work Group about his imminent escape attempt, but he couldn’t resist showing off a little bit. Anyway, all of the prisoners and guards believed escape to be impossible, so they would simply think his comments to be the idle boasts of a very bored man. Glitz glanced at Pieterson; the man looked slightly uncomfortable. He was stirring his manna with a strange look on his face. Glitz frowned and ate the rest of the meal.

When the group was driven to the quarry, Glitz picked up a pickaxe enthusiastically. The prospect of leaving Malus so soon had put the work into a whole different perspective, and he put a great deal of energy into his morning labour. He had developed a method that he found to be very effective for breaking the rocks. First he would create a small crack in the stone using the pickaxe. Then he would hit the rock with the sledgehammer, which had the effect of using the weakness created by the crack to split open the rock. Once the rock had split into several pieces, he would then use the sledgehammer to crush the fragments into pebbles.

When the men had stopped for a water break, Piet beckoned Glitz over. Glitz put down his sledgehammer.

“What’s up?”

Piet spoke in a low voice. “You said you were leavin’.”

Glitz sighed. He should have known better than to boast about his plans. “Just a joke,” he replied.

“Then why’re you so cheerful today?”

He shrugged. “Just a nice day. Fresh air. The sun’s out. Well, the sun’s not out, but…”

“You think I’m an idiot?” Piet said. He sounded more upset than threatening.

“No,” Glitz said, shaking his head.

“Well,” Piet said. “If you’re gonna leave, I ain’t gonna stop you. And I won’t tell nobody about your plan. I won’t tell Quex or the guards. But I don’t want anythin’ to do with it. And don’t go dragging none of my men into it, neither. Promise me.”

“I promise,” Glitz said. That was one promise he could definitely keep. Even if he had wanted to help anyone else escape, he doubted Tekka would want to proceed with the plan if there were any unknown elements involved.

“Fine,” Piet said. “Now get a drink and get back to work.”

Glitz began to walk towards the water pump, but then he turned back. “Thanks, Piet.”

“What for?”

“For not informing.”

Piet simply nodded, and Glitz went to the pump to take a drink of water. The jet of cool liquid from the pump moistened his cracked mouth, and he gratefully drank several gulps before returning to work.

When their shift had finished, and the men had eaten their dinner, Glitz smiled at them all. “It’s been fun,” he said. “Nice knowing you all.”

Roper scoffed. “You’ll be here tomorrow just like the rest of us.”

“Maybe,” Glitz admitted, nodding. “But I damn well hope not.”

The men were taken back into their cells, but Glitz was too excited to sleep. He had resolved to stay awake anyway. Tekka was planning to send an wake-up alarm signal to his room at 5:30, but he wasn’t going to risk it. He would stay awake all night to be ready to leave at 6:00 sharp. He still didn’t know how Tekka planned to let the three of them out of their cells; he was trapped as well. But Glitz could do nothing but wait, and hope Tekka was as clever as he claimed. The night passed slowly, and Glitz couldn’t relax. He had no way of finding out the time, and as the night dragged on, he worried that it was past 6:00, and that Tekka hadn’t managed to do as he’d promised.

But suddenly a tinny ringing sound filled his cell. It sounded insanely loud after the deathly quiet of the last few hours. He hoped that none of the guards would hear the noise, and he took a little comfort in knowing just how thick the cell walls were.

“Harlan Glitz, can you hear me?” came Tekka’s voice.

“Am I glad to hear your voice.”

“So you can hear me. Good.” Tekka’s voice had its usual cold quality, but there was a nervous edge to it that Glitz hadn’t heard before. “Please ensure you are wearing your normal prison clothes. Prepare for release in exactly thirty minutes. It would be beneficial for you to go over the main points of the plan in your mind to refresh your memory.”

Glitz was already wearing his prison clothes, so he did not get up. He would usually object to being ordered around, but when his freedom was at stake he was more willing to take commands. He ran through Tekka’s plan in his mind. The whole thing was actually quite simple—at least, his and Doland’s roles were simple. Tekka had all the complicated work.

He sat in his cell, waiting for another message from Tekka. But none came. Glitz began to feel slightly worried. Maybe Tekka had decided that the plan was a bad idea. Or perhaps the prison ship wasn’t due to arrive at 6:30 after all…

But, just when he had been almost ready to give up hope, there was a whirring sound, and his door slid open.

Chapter Four

Glitz stepped outside his cell. The corridor was dark, and two guards lied motionless on the floor. He stepped past them cautiously, and glanced around for any sight of Tekka or Doland.

“Tekka?” he whispered. “Where are you?”

“Follow the blue lights!”

Tekka’s voice seemed to come from all around him. Glitz realised that he must be using the main communications system. A line of blue lights began to flash along the ceiling of the corridor, and Glitz could do nothing but follow. As he followed the lights, he came across dozens of crumpled guards, who were all seemingly unconscious. Finally, the lights led him to a door, which obligingly opened for him. Glitz stepped outside, to be met by Tekka. A moment later, Doland too emerged from the prison, covered in nervous sweat.

“Follow me,” said Tekka.

They followed Tekka on a strange path away from the prison, and they finally paused some distance from the complex. They sheltered under a cluster of black Hinnom trees; the totem-like growths were the only trees to flourish on Malus.

“How did you do it?” Glitz said, turning to Tekka, whose face seemed even paler than he remembered. “How?”

“It’s like magic,” Doland murmured.

“Not magic,” Tekka replied tersely. “Technology. Although, admittedly, primitive people throughout history have often confused the two, so I can see where you might have difficulty.”

“But there aren’t any computer terminals in the cells,” Glitz said. “How did you access the door controls?”

“They thought they had confiscated all of my possessions, but they didn’t search me carefully enough.” Tekka tapped the side of his head. “My head contains a neurochip. I designed and fitted it for myself a few years ago—my constitution is a little too weak for full augmentation, but I wished to enhance my mind. I, the user, can communicate with any systems in the nearby vicinity, providing that certain necessary conditions are met by the system, such as permitted external access and lack of blind quantum security.”

“I see,” Doland said, who looked like he didn’t see at all.

“So you can hack into computers using nothing but your brain?” Glitz said.

“Precisely. I used my neurochip to cause all of the guards’ earpieces to emit a burst of energy, enough to stun them all for several minutes. Disabling the door controls and arranging the little light show for you both was simple enough.” Tekka looked up at the sky. Through the web of thin branches, they could see a shape in the heavens getting larger. “They’re early.”

The prison ship touched down on the landing site, which was located close to the main dome. Glitz and the others were standing a few metres away from the ship, shielded by the trees.

“Remember,” Tekka said. “The timing is crucial. We will act only after the prisoners have left the ship but before the ship has taken off again.”

“And we don’t make a move until you give us the nod,” Doland said.


The three men waited in the cover of the trees. Glitz could hear the rustling of creatures in the branches above them, and he hoped nothing would drop down onto his head. The wildlife of Malus could be pretty unpleasant.

“So how’ve you been enjoying your stay?” Glitz said quietly.

“Don’t get me started,” Doland said. “Look at me. I’m weak and feeble. I wasn’t built for heavy work. And some idiot keeps banging on my cell wall!”

Glitz suppressed a smile. So it was Doland that had been in the cell right next to his. He turned to Tekka. “What about you? How are you finding the Malus experience?”

“It wasn’t what was promised in the brochure.”

Glitz would have laughed, but Tekka had a habit of delivering even witty comments in a voice that would give children nightmares. They watched as the prisoners were led off the ship. As soon as the guards had re-entered, Tekka stared intently at the ship. His eyes widened, and he looked like he was focusing intently on something.

Suddenly, cries of pain erupted from the ship. Glitz knew that Tekka had used his neurochip to hack into the ship’s computer, activating the intruder removal systems and causing the entire ship to become electrified. Glitz had to laugh when he saw the guards running out of the ship, their clothes slightly blackened. They were followed by a prison officer that he didn’t recognize. He was glad that it wasn’t Commander Rica.

“Now!” Tekka shouted.

Glitz and Doland sprang into action. They ran up to the ship, shouted, and each made a rude gesture in front of the guards. Then they ran off in opposite directions as fast as they could. Tekka watched from a distance, hoping that the guards would take the bait…

They did. The guards split up; half of them chased after Glitz and the other half chased after Doland, leaving the ship unguarded. Even the ship’s commander had taken up the chase. Idiots, Tekka thought. Taking his chance, Tekka used his neurochip to disable the intruder removal system and make the ship safe again. Then he ran into the ship, sealing the door behind himself.

Once he was safely inside the ship, the first thing he did was remove all of the authorised security cards in the databanks, which would stop the guards from gaining entry back into the ship. When that was completed, Tekka sighed. Now it was time for the hard part. Somehow, he doubted that Glitz and Doland would perform acceptably.


Glitz was running over the rocky surface of the planet Malus, trying desperately not to trip over. If he did, it would surely mean recapture. He couldn’t risk a backward glance, but he was sure the guards were gaining on him. A month of hard labour had made him slightly fitter than he was before, but he had never been built for running. His chest was in agony, but he didn’t dare stop. Glitz caught his foot on a sharp rock, and went tumbling to the ground. Cursing, he scrambled up and carried on running, even though pain was surging through his ankle.


Doland was sweating profusely as he pushed onward through the trees. He had entered the forest and tried to lose himself among the gloomy Hinnom trees. It had worked, because the guards hadn’t entered the forest. They had been too scared. Everyone had heard the rumours about what lurked in there.

He heard a terrible sound. It was the roar of some kind of wild beast. Doland looked around, his knees trembling, but he couldn’t see the source of the noise.

Then he felt warm breath on the back of his neck.

Doland turned slowly. The beast was standing right behind him. It looked like one of the huge bears in the Imperial Zoo, except that it had red eyes that glowed like embers. The beast lunged at Doland.

He jumped back, and started to run again—tearing through the forest. He knew it was a bad idea to run suddenly from a wild animal, but he had no choice. He had to make the rendezvous.


Tekka was standing on the flight deck of the Imperial prison ship. A simple punch in the nose had been enough to deal with the pilot, who now lied in a heap on the floor. The flight deck was a large grey room, and the walls were covered with distressed metal panels. The whole place had a somewhat shabby, rundown feel. There were several computer terminals that performed various tasks. Tekka was working intently at one of the computers.

The operation of the ship was easy enough, and Tekka piloted it towards the agreed place outside the storage sheds near the back of the complex. The short journey would certainly have attracted attention, and the stunned prison guards would have woken up by now; hopefully, Glitz and Doland would arrive before the guards.


Glitz and Tekka had headed off in opposite directions, but they had actually travelled on a curving path—the intention was to both meet up eventually at a point of convergence. If all went to plan, Tekka would be ready at that point to allow them into the ship.

Finally, he began to get nearer the storage area, and saw the ship outside it, exactly as planned. But he knew that the prison guards were right behind him. Just before he reached the ship, Doland appeared and dashed into the ship before him. Glitz climbed in straight after him, and the entrance closed immediately.

Glitz exhaled slowly as they stepped onto the flight deck. Doland fell to the floor, looking very pale. His whole body was shaking. “A creature…” he said faintly.

“Ah, you had a little run-in with one of the forest creatures, did you?” Tekka said, smiling coldly.

Glitz clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. We’re safe now.”

“I am not so sure,” Tekka replied. “Look.”

He pointed at the main scanner. A small force had assembled outside the ship, comprised of the ship’s guards and prison security. It was unlikely that they would be able to gain access to the ship, but they were pointing a large weapon at them. It looked like a huge cannon.

“It’s a plasma cannon,” Tekka said darkly. “A this range, a single shot would tear the ship to pieces.”

“Then let’s move!” Glitz said.

Tekka shook his head. The main scanner crackled, and a face appeared. He looked furious. “My name is Commander John Styke. I’m the officer in charge of this vessel. I am going to give you one chance. Get off my ship right away, or I’ll give the order to fire.”

“You wouldn’t destroy your own ship,” Doland said.

“He would,” Tekka said. “Imperial regulations state that if a prisoner is escaping they must be stopped using any means necessary, even if that means destroying their own property.”

Glitz swallowed. There had to be something they could do. Obviously, if they tried to launch, the officer would simply fire the cannon and they would all be killed. There had to be another way.

“Make your decision quickly,” Commander Styke said, and his face vanished.

“Can’t you use your chip to hack into the cannon?” Glitz said.

Tekka shook his head. “No. There is no digital interface.” Then his eyes widened, as if he had come up with an idea. “Although…”


“Did you notice anything unusual about the Commander’s face? About his eyes?”

The Commander appeared on the screen again. “We are preparing the plasma cannon. Step out of the vehicle, or prepare to die.”

Glitz stared at the Commander’s eyes. There was something strange about them. They were a vivid electric blue colour, and they seemed unusually bright.

“He has been augmented,” Tekka said quietly, switching off the microphones so the Commander couldn’t hear them. “And the surgeon made a pretty bad job of it, too. I imagine he has zoom, infrared vision, that sort of thing.” He smiled slightly. “I only hope that his augmentation technology has some sort of software component, because if it does…”

Glitz realised what he was driving at. “You can hack into it?”

“Possibly. Distract him for a few minutes, so I can have time to find out.” Tekka switched the microphone back on.

“You win,” Glitz said, facing the Commander. “Please don’t blow us up. We’ll come out of the ship now.”

“Excellent,” Commander Styke said. “Open the main door and step outside with your hands above your head. You won’t be harmed, unless you do something stupid.”

“OK,” Glitz said. “But first I’d like to congratulate you for a great victory.” He began to clap slowly, and Doland joined in.

The Commander frowned. “No games. Just get out of the ship.”

“Fine.” Glitz pretended to press a button on the control panel, and he cursed. “The doors are jammed. I think the hinges have rusted. I don’t suppose there’s any machine oil on the ship?”

“I’m not a fool. Now step off the ship.”

“But the doors are stuck!”

“Maybe you shouldn’t irritate him,” Doland said, glancing uneasily at the Commander’s reddening face on the scanner.

“Get out, or I’ll fire!”

“Do something,” Doland murmured to Tekka.

“I am trying,” Tekka replied. Although they were in a life-threatening situation, Tekka had somehow managed to stay calm. His face was still as pale as ever. He was staring at the Commander, concentrating on his eyes… Suddenly, the Commander’s eyes turned black, and he cried out in pain.

“I’m blind!” he yelled. “I’m blind!”

“Now!” Tekka shouted, muting the microphone. “Glitz, get us out of here! Doland, hold on!”

Glitz, who had been flying a freighter for the East Galaxy Company for a decade, began to power up the engines. Tekka made rapport with the computer using his neurochip, and quickly prepared the ship for entry into phase space, so they could make a jump as soon as they were at a safe distance from the planet. The ship quickly rose into the air, and the guards were busy attending to their commander, who was still unable to see.

“The cannon!” Commander Styke shouted. “Fire the cannon, you fools!”

Angrily, and still unable to see, the Commander grabbed hold of the cannon and swivelled the weapon around, trying to fix it on where he thought the ship was. There was a loud bleep as the crosshair locked on to its target.

“Sir, no!” one of his men shouted.

But before anyone could stop him, the Commander hit the red button, and the cannon fired. The prison ship had almost broken out of the atmosphere, but a direct hit from the plasma cannon would have certainly destroyed it. However, the Commander, unable to see, had actually locked on to a prisoner tracking satellite in orbit around the planet. The satellite had been blasted to pieces. The Commander groaned deeply as his sight returned. He was going to have a lot to explain to his superior officer.

One of his men turned to Commander Styke, whose eyes had returned to their normal colour. “Missed them, sir.”

“Yes,” the Commander said testily. “I can see that.”


The ship’s new crew relaxed slightly when they were at a safe distance from Malus. Of course, it could only be a matter of time before someone came looking for the ship. Glitz knew that a tracking serial number was coded into all Imperial ships, which meant that the authorities would have no trouble finding them. Glitz pointed out to Tekka that they would have to abandon the ship at the next opportunity.

“No,” he replied. “We don’t.”

Doland frowned. “Why not?”

“Simple.” Tekka turned to the main scanner, and activated a switch. A male face appeared on the screen. It was the ship’s computer. “Computer, who is the legal owner of this ship?”

“This ship is the property of the Imperium. I detect unauthorised personnel on the flight deck. You are not authorised to pilot this ship. Please make landing on the nearest Imperial outpost and turn yourselves in.”

Tekka smiled. “I hardly think so. You see, I am rather good with computers.” He began to type quickly at one of the smaller computer terminals. Then he opened a panel that was built into one of the walls, pulled out a wire, and reconnected it to a different port.

The face disappeared from the screen, and coloured lights began to flash. Red, blue, green, yellow. Red, blue, green, yellow.

“Quickly,” Tekka said. “Stand in front of the scanner.”

Tekka, Glitz and Doland stood directly in front of the flashing colours. There was a faint humming sound. They watched the lights as the sequences began to get shorter and quicker, until finally the colours red and blue were flashing at a high speed. Then the screen crackled, turned white, and the face of the ship’s computer appeared again.

“Let’s try again, shall we?” Tekka said. “Who is the legal owner of this ship?”

“This ship is the property of Hans Tekka, Raja Doland, and Harlan Glitz.”

“And who are those people?”

“You are.”

“And what is the serial number of this ship?”

“This ship is unregistered.”

Tekka turned to his companions. “You see? This ship just became untraceable to the Imperium. Now the only way they can find it is if we enter visual range on one of their scanners.”

Glitz and Doland exchanged an awed glance.

“And they said escape from Malus was impossible,” Glitz said, unable to resist a grin.

“Nothing is impossible,” Tekka said. “Perceived impossibility is purely the result of a lack of imagination.”

After the events of that day, Glitz was inclined to agree with him.

Chapter Five

Admiralty Board Room


Volori System

Twenty high-ranking Naval officers were sitting at a long table, which was made of sparkling black stone. They were the members of the Admiralty Board, the body of officers that led the Imperial Navy, in times of both war and peace. The Board Room had been designed by Sir Delphon Bruneletti, the applauded architect that had also designed the Great Lunar Planetarium and the Jaxiaten Gallery. The room was held up by rows of white stone pillars, and the walls were hung with fine tapestries. Presiding over the Board, at the head of the table, was the First Naval Lord, the commander of the entire Navy. The First Naval Lord had called an emergency meeting of the Board to discuss the situation regarding the hostile ship in the Badlands.

“The situation is becoming ridiculous,” Admiral Blaize said, clenching his fists. He was a tall man with a sharp crew cut and a strong jaw. “We cannot simply continue to ignore the mounting evidence of illegal actions carried out by this antagonistic power. We need to show a firm hand, and wipe out the enemy fleet.”

The First Naval Lord sighed. “I wish it was that simple.” He was a man of around sixty, white-haired and gaunt. But his eyes sparkled with a fierce intelligence.

“As I’m sure you are aware,” Admiral Tryssan said, “we sent a single ship to the Paradonian Sector to assess the situation after hearing word of a mysterious ship in the vicinity of Chaos. The ship was destroyed.”

“I know that,” Admiral Blaize said. “My friend Captain Blane was killed. But are you telling me that the mighty Imperium cannot deal with some upstart insurgents?”

“We cannot risk any more men until we understand the full nature of their weapons. After all, the security of an uninhabited backwater planet is hardly our top priority.” The First Naval Lord placed his fingers together. “We do not even know if the enemy is human. We have always been aware of the risk that an unfriendly alien species would locate us.”

A defining characteristic of the Imperium was xenophobia. Aliens were treated as inferior beings, and were denied the rights given even to humans of the lowest class. There were hundreds of alien species living on planets in the Imperium, but they were kept firmly under the thumb. According to the official dogma of the Imperium, which made its way into nearly every school textbook, aliens were lesser beings, incapable of true understanding or empathy.

There were ancient myths about other alien races that supposedly visited the human race before the age of the Imperium. Some of these races were hostile, seeking to dominate the humans. Others were more benevolent. One legend told of an alien species called the Zierons, a peaceful race with an almost godlike intellect. As the story went, the Zierons visited the humans bearing many gifts, including the Dragonfire tree, a valuable source of protein that can grow in virtually any type of soil. But their most treasured gift had come in the form of a piece of technology—the phase drive. The phase drive allowed human ships to travel faster than light.

Of course, there was no substantial evidence for this myth, and most serious people regarded it as a story for children. Several other stories existed which sought to explain the invention of the phase drive, including the idea that humanity stole it from an alien civilisation. However, the only official explanation for the origin of technology was that it was developed by a physicist named Professor Val Sazer—and the Imperium strongly discouraged the unofficial myths. If there had ever been proof of another theory, it had been lost in the mists of forgotten history. But however the technology came into being, the effects on humanity were clear. The phase drive had been the catalyst for human expansion. It had united human ambition and greed with the ability to conquer the stars. They used the phase drive to colonise thousands of planets, building an Imperium that stretched right across the galaxy.

“Indeed, the ship does not match any record in our databanks,” Admiral Brown said, moving his fingers over the black table, the surface of which was a giant touchscreen computer. He pressed a button, and a holographic projection of the enemy ship appeared over the table, moving in a slow rotation. The ship was black and functional, and of a blocky, unusual design.

“It is a strange ship,” Admiral Trenna said.

“Puzzling, isn’t it?” the First Naval Lord said.

Admiral Lake exhaled slowly. “It seems we are in a no-win situation. We can either do nothing, and risk the build-up of hostile forces, or send more ships to the area and risk their destruction.”

The First Naval Lord smiled. “There may be a third option.”

All members of the Admiralty Board turned eagerly to face the First Naval Lord. He had been in charge of the Imperial Navy for over twenty years, and not a single member of the Board doubted his judgment. He had proven himself to be a wise and careful leader, and while some of the Board disliked his authoritarian mode of governance, it was impossible for them to call his intelligence into question.

“My idea is somewhat risky,” the First Naval Lord admitted. “What is more, it contravenes Imperial law. If we agree to go ahead with it, we will have to obtain permission from the Senate.”

Admiral Blaize was intrigued, although he disliked the idea of calling the Senate. The Imperium was, in essence, an autocracy, but the Emperor himself had no real power. Just like the historic Magna Carta spoken of in ancient, spurious documents, the Galactic Charter, which was signed over a thousand years ago, had made the Emperor of the Imperium subject to his Senate. The idea was to make the Emperor more accountable, and in this purpose the Galactic Charter had succeeded. But the despotism of the Emperor had simply been replaced by the dictatorship of the Senate; it was worse, in a way, because the Senate did not have to worry about rival heirs or pretenders to the throne.

The First Naval Lord clasped his fingertips together. “We have already accepted two basic propositions. The first is that we have a potentially serious enemy in the form of the ship orbiting Chaos. They possibly have some kind of unusual weapon—something we have not heretofore seen. The second proposition is that it would be foolish to send more men to their doom. But there might be another way to find out what the ships are up to without risking more than a single ship.”

Admiral Blaize frowned. “One ship?”

“Please, let me finish.” He paused. “We need someone to visit Chaos who can be discreet. Someone who can slip behind their defences without being seen, and find out the truth about what is going on.” The First Naval Lord activated a control on the table, and a holographic projection of three faces appeared. “These people are convicts, who recently escaped from a penal world. My intention is to send these three people to the planet. You see, escape from penal worlds is supposed to be impossible—it has never been done before. If these men can escape from Malus, maybe they can get close enough to Chaos to find out what is going on.”

There were a few cautious nods of agreement as they stared at the floating faces of Harlan Glitz, Hans Tekka and Raja Doland…

Chapter Six


Upsilon System

“So tell me why we’re here again,” Doland said, staring grimly at the monitor. The Upsilon System was around the size of Homeworld’s solar system, and four out of the nine planets were habitable. The most well-known of the planets was Red Spark, which was famous for hosting the yearly Spark Cup, a prestigious starship racing tournament. But their ship was currently in orbit around a bleak looking world called Mazaroth, which seemed to be nothing but a ball of desert.

“This was where I was born,” Tekka said simply.

“Yeah,” Doland said, starting to become irritated. “That’s what you said before. But we’ve been travelling for four days, and I think you owe us a proper explanation.”

“Let me be clear,” Tekka said coldly. “Although I acknowledge your role in our escape plan, the attempt would in all probability have been successful with two different prisoners. I formulated the plan in every detail, so perhaps you should show some gratitude.”

Doland tried to think of a response, but he knew Tekka was right. And he was grateful. He just didn’t appreciate being dragged halfway across the galaxy without a reason.

“Let us land,” Tekka said.

Glitz couldn’t help feeling uneasy about their journey to Mazaroth, but Tekka had insisted that it was vital if they were to remain undetected by the Imperium. They landed in a discreet location and stepped out of the ship. The planet looked even more dismal up close. The sand, stirred by a thin wind, seemed to stretch on to infinity. The Upsilonian sun was hot and bright; the temperature had to be at least ninety degrees. The three men were wearing Imperial prison guard uniforms that they had found in the storage bay of the ship, having gleefully thrown their old prison clothes out of the airlock. Glitz zipped down the neck of his uniform, trying to let the air circulate more freely. He had only been on the planet for a few minutes, but he was already starting to overheat. They couldn’t make out any landmarks of any kind—or even any buildings. There was nothing but sand.

“This way,” Tekka said, pointing.

“How can you be so sure?” Doland said tiredly. “It all looks the same.”

Tekka tapped his head. “Neurochip, remember. I always know which direction is north. Do try to keep up.”

Doland scowled and trudged along the hot sand. After about twenty minutes of trekking across the dunes, the ground took a sharp dip, and for the first time some buildings became visible, although they were almost camouflaged. It was like a tiny city where the buildings were made entirely from sand.

“This is where I was born,” Tekka said. “It is called the Elder Village. The Younger Village is a few miles east.”

“You grew up here?” Glitz said, staring from their high vantage point down into the village. The sections of the city were linked by dusty roadways, and he could see a few people dressed in rags traversing the streets. It looked like a deeply impoverished area—not at all where you would expect a genius like Tekka to have been raised. Certainly, it was unlikely to have any level of autonomy… and it probably also had a large alien population.

Tekka nodded, and led them onwards. After a few steps, they found their way onto a crumbling path that led them directly into the village. A few villagers stared at them when they entered, presumably thinking them to be genuine Imperial guards.

“Do your parents still live here?” Doland said.

Tekka winced, as if the word “parents” was painful to him. “No more questions, please.”

Glitz stopped walking, and folded his arms. “Tekka,” he said. “I’ve followed you this far, but enough is enough. Tell us why we’re here.”

“Very well. I would have told you sooner, but I was afraid you would not come if you knew.” Tekka sat down on the dusty path, in front of two egg-shaped houses. The other two men joined him. “There is a man in this village named Shaitana. He was a friend of my father’s. He is a specialist in DNA transmogrification.”

“Trans-what?” Doland said.

“Transmogrification. It essentially means altering DNA. I have brought you here so we can all have our DNA altered.”

Doland turned pale. “What are you talking about? You’re not touching my DNA!”

“Listen,” Tekka said. “If you remember, the authorities took a DNA sample from each of us after our trials and before we were sent to Malus. Now, we are free, technically speaking. But what will happen when they find us? If we change our names, or even our appearances, a simple DNA test will be enough to verify our identities if we are recaptured.”

Glitz breathed out. He hadn’t even thought about that.

“However, there is a solution,” Tekka said. “Shaitana developed a machine which… modifies the genetic code. Thus, DNA analysis would identify us as not ourselves.”

“Clever,” Glitz mused. “It sounds painful.”

“Listen,” Doland said, who looked terrified. “You’re not going near me with a… trans-whatever it is.”

“It is essential that the three of us undergo the process,” Tekka replied. “It will cause us no harm. There will be no visible difference in our appearance or behaviour—the change will be purely superficial.”

Doland fell silent for a moment, staring at his fingers as if deep in thought. Then, without warning, he jumped to his feet and began to run back up the sandy path. Glitz clambered up and ran after him. Doland was a fast runner, and Glitz quickly got out of breath. For a minute, Glitz was worried that he would get away. But then Doland tripped and fell forwards into the sand.

Glitz increased his speed, running as fast as he could, and leapt on top of Doland.

“Get off me!” Doland shouted.

“Just calm down!” Glitz said, restraining Doland against the sand. The man struggled for a while, but to no avail, because Glitz was much stronger.

“Now, I’m going to let you go,” Glitz said. “But no running away. The three of us need to talk.”

He relaxed his grip on Doland, almost expecting the man to make a run for it again. But Doland was clearly too exhausted. He spat sand out of his mouth and wiped his sweaty white hair back from his forehead.

“It seems we have a coward in our midst,” Tekka said coldly, once he had taken a leisurely stroll back to his companions.

Doland swore at Tekka, but deep down he wondered if the man was right. He had certainly never been a particularly brave man. He had gotten through life by being charming and charismatic. For the last ten years of his life, he had worked as a salesman for the Nexus Technology Corporation, which was based on Opus. The company was notorious for selling low quality products, but the quality of its sales force meant it remained in profit every year. Before his prosecution for voting fraud, Doland had been one of the most successful salespersons in the company. He had started off as the worst employee, but had quickly absorbed the techniques of more experienced salespeople to get his own pitch perfected. The sales techniques he learned didn’t just work when it came to door-to-door sales. He had gotten his first date with his now-wife after trying out a version of his sales pitch that had been converted to a chat-up conversation. In truth, Doland was neither charming nor charismatic. It was all an act, but a good act.

“Look,” Glitz said. “I know why you’re scared. I’m scared too. But Tekka’s right. We need to go through with this.”

“I refuse,” Doland replied.

Tekka frowned. He had always found it amazing that other humans acted so irrationally. He had never quite understood the illogical turn of mind possessed by so many people. In fact, Tekka had always been more comfortable in the company of computers than of people, for much the same reason.

“If you leave this planet now,” Tekka said, “what kind of future do you think you will have? Breaking out of a prison is a Category A offence. Unless you undergo this procedure, the Imperium will hunt you down and probably—once your DNA is verified—kill you.”

Doland swallowed, and Glitz felt a small shiver ripple through his body. Tekka’s smooth, icy voice could be frightening.

“All right,” Doland said quietly. “So where does this Shaitana live?”

They followed as Tekka led them back down into the Elder Village. They walked along the sandy path, their shoes creating trails in the dust. They passed several houses of different shapes but all made of the same sand-coloured material, and eventually reached a dwelling that was even more ramshackle than the other buildings.

“A scientist lives here?” Glitz said, with disbelief.

“I hope so. It has been a long time.” The entrance to the tiny house was a hole covered by an ill-fitting board. “Now to enter the code.”

Tekka tapped several times on the door, leaving pauses of various lengths between the beats. When he had finished, there was a low grinding sound, like a rock being pushed over a rough surface.

“We’re in,” Tekka said. He pulled away the ill-fitting board and pointed into the house. Just beyond the threshold, a slab had been moved away, revealing a gaping hole. “After me, I think.”

Without waiting, Tekka jumped into the hole.

Glitz peered through the door of the house and down into the chasm. He could see nothing but blackness. “Tekka?” he called.

“I’m fine,” came Tekka’s voice. “Come on.”

Glitz shrugged, and jumped into the hole after Tekka. After his companions had both disappeared into the black hole, Doland wrung his hands. If he was going to escape, this was his chance. He could run back to the ship, find some way of accessing the ship’s computer, and get off this planet before they could stop him. But he kept thinking about Tekka’s words of warning. “The Imperium will hunt you down…” Doland braced himself, and jumped.

Doland felt himself sliding down a kind of chute; it was completely dark, but he could feel a smooth surface beneath him as he whizzed along; air rushed past his face. Then he could see light. The tunnel came to an abrupt end and he was thrown onto a pile of rubbery material, which was presumably meant to provide a cushioned landing.

“You all right?” Glitz said.

Doland nodded and got up. “Yeah.” The chute had deposited them in what looked like an underground laboratory. A long table was covered with fizzing chemicals, complicated charts, and strange instruments. The room was illuminated by gravity lamps, floating luminescent spheres.

“He’s not here?” Doland said.

“He must be,” Tekka said. “Otherwise we would not have been able to gain access.” He pointed towards a door in the side of the lab. “Maybe he is in the second laboratory.”

Tekka made a move to open the door, but it burst open before his hand reached the handle, and a man jumped out, brandishing a laser weapon.

“Nobody move!” he ordered, staring at the three intruders with wide eyes. The man looked like the stereotypical mad professor; he had thick glasses, messy white hair, and a tattered lab coat.

Tekka sighed. “We are here for—”

“SILENCE! You’re not taking me! Do you understand! You’re not going to arrest me!”

Of course, Glitz thought, the uniforms… he thinks we’re Imperial guards!

“We are not here to arrest you, Shaitana,” Tekka said impatiently, taking a step towards the man, apparently oblivious to the fact that he was pointing a gun at his chest. “Don’t you recognize me?”

Shaitana blinked a few times. He seemed confused. “Is it… it can’t be… Hans Tekka?”

“The same.”

“The last time I saw you… well, you were just a boy. So… so you became a prison guard?”

Tekka shook his head. “You never were too quick on the uptake, were you? Of course not.” He paused. “Lower your weapon and we can talk about it.”

Shaitana hesitated, but he clearly decided that he trusted Tekka, and he put his weapon inside the side pocket of his lab coat. “So what’s going on?” he said.

“We are in trouble,” Tekka said. “We escaped from the planet Malus after stealing an Imperial prison vessel. That is where we obtained these uniforms. The Imperial soldiers will be looking for us. We need to undergo the transmogrification procedure.”

Shaitana shook his head. “No. I’m sorry. I don’t do that anymore. Too risky.”

“But—” Glitz said.

“No. I mean, the work I do here still isn’t strictly legal. But I draw the line at transmogrification.”

“I will pay you a million credits.”

The man was taken aback for a second. Even Glitz and Doland were surprised. A million credits was an insanely large sum—you could buy a home on the leisure planet Eden for that much.

“Do you have that much money?” Doland said.

Tekka nodded. “I was arrested after stealing five billion credits, remember. That does not mean that they reclaimed the money. I had already transferred the funds into a thousand anonymous accounts by that time.”

Glitz could hardly believe it. Five billion credits…

“I’ll do it,” Shaitana said, “but I want a billion credits.”

Tekka frowned. “No,” he said icily.

“You’ll die unless you have the procedure!” Shaitana said.

“Be that as it may,” Tekka said, without losing his composure. “The price is a million credits. If that is not enough, I am sure I can find another scientist somewhere in the galaxy to carry out the procedure.”

Shaitana frowned, but it was clearly checkmate. He could really do with the million credits.

“Fine,” Shaitana said. “This way.”

He led the three men into the second lab, and lifted a large contraption off one of the tables, creating room for them to lie down. They lied down on their backs, facing the gravity globes. Shaitana wrote down their names. Glitz felt a little nervous, but he knew the procedure was necessary. Besides, he knew that Doland was far more nervous. Tekka lied on the table calmly, showing no hint of emotion.

“So you’re a professor?” Glitz said.

“Oh, no,” Shaitana said, laughing. “I’m self-taught.”

“Oh, right,” Glitz said, not at all encouraged by that information.

Shaitana started by administering Thranitol, a general anaesthetic, to his three patients. Within seconds, they were all fully unconscious. Then Shaitana unbuttoned their shirts and checked their heartbeats and blood pressure. All normal. Satisfied, he then took a skin sample from each man. The transmogrification process was much easier to perform on Traals, the native life form of Mazaroth, because they had nucleated blood cells. This meant he could just use a blood sample as the starting point. But human red blood cells contained no nucleus, so skin cells had to be used, which were far harder to adjust.

Keeping the skin samples carefully separated in different covered petri dishes, Shaitana took the first one—which contained Tekka’s cells—and placed it into the sequencer. The screen showed a DNA molecule, and Shaitana began his work. He knew he could alter over 98% of the molecule’s structure without causing any changes in the actual chemical makeup of the animal. The problem was, if he changed any of the code in that remaining 2%, the patients might end up with three arms, or hands instead of eyes. Shaitana painstakingly made superficial changes to the DNA samples of the three men, and then suspended the samples in a bio-neutral solution called Harrison’s fluid. He went on to add a nanoliquid to each solution. Finally, crossing his fingers for luck, Shaitana injected the completed solution into each of the men’s arms…

Chapter Seven

The men’s muscles began to twitch violently, and their faces became convulsed by terrible spasms. Shaitana knew they couldn’t feel any pain, but he had always hated that particular stage of the process. And it had been a very long time since he had last performed a transmogrification. He hoped that he had remembered every stage correctly…

Finally, the convulsions stopped, and Shaitana peered at them. They looked normal enough… He took another skin sample from each man, and prepared to analyse each one using the synthesizer. The first sample was Doland’s… oh no. The DNA molecule was not registering as human. Shaitana felt a horrible sinking feeling. He knew he shouldn’t have carried out the procedure, even for a million credits. He must have carried out a stage of the process incorrectly. He placed Tekka’s skin sample into the sequencer, and was relieved when it showed up as normal. When he came to check Glitz’s DNA, his was registering as normal too. The genetic deviation was enough to help them avoid identification, but not enough to register as inhuman. But why had Doland’s procedure had such an effect? He didn’t look like anything was the matter with him. Perhaps the change was internal. Maybe Doland now had three stomachs instead of a heart. Or maybe he had eyes instead of lungs. He would only find out when he tried to wake him. With much trepidation, Shaitana injected the men with the chemical that would wake them up. Slowly, the three men sat up.

“Is that it?” Doland said.

Shaitana nodded slowly. “How… how do you feel?”

“Fine,” Glitz said, shrugging.

“We are all well,” Tekka said, climbing off the bed. “Thank you. I trust it is safe for us to leave straight away?”

Shaitana paused. He knew he should tell the men what had happened. But there didn’t seem to be anything the matter with Doland. The man looked perfectly healthy; according to the medical scanner, his breathing and heart rate were absolutely normal. And he needed those credits…

“Of course,” Shaitana said. “The process was 100% successful.”

Tekka nodded, flexing his wrists. “Excellent. What is your credit number?”

“Er… better put it in my secret account.” Shaitana gave Tekka his credit number.

Tekka closed his eyes for a moment. “There. Check your credit account. I have just transferred the payment.”

The white-haired man checked his account using his tablet. The money had been transferred successfully.

“Thank you,” Shaitana said.

Tekka nodded, and the three men walked back into the main lab. When Tekka stepped into the tunnel, a gravitational force dragged him up through the chute, dropping him outside the entrance to the house. Glitz and Doland followed after him, and then the three men were all back outside in the Elder Village.

“Do you want to have a look around?” suggested Glitz. “Enjoy some old memories?”

“There are no memories for me to enjoy here,” Tekka said. “Let’s go.”

The three men hiked back across the expansive desert towards their ship. The anaesthetic chemical had now completely worn off, and they were feeling fully alert again. Glitz didn’t understand exactly what Shaitana had done to them, but he certainly didn’t feel any different. Somehow, the word transmogrify seemed to conjure up images in his mind of strange or grotesque transformations.

“I thought I’d feel different,” he said.

Tekka held up a hand to shield his eyes from the sun. “Of course not. Did you know that human beings share around 98% of their DNA with bonobos and chimps? And we share 50% of our DNA with a banana. The devil is in the detail. That tiny 2% of DNA is what really makes us what we are. The remaining code, while not absolutely redundant, does not define us.”

“So we’re unidentifiable now, right?” Doland said. “You know, I’m not too keen on being executed. What if Shaitana just took the money and lied to us?”

Tekka shook his head, tapping his skull. “No. I scanned. My neurochip is not sophisticated enough to run a full DNA examination, but my genetic code registers as different. We have been changed. Our DNA should now be sufficiently altered so that we cannot be identified.”

“Should?” Doland said. “Should?”

Tekka ignored him. Once they were back on the ship, Glitz began to relax a little. The grey flight deck was pleasantly cool after the heat of the planet Mazaroth. Tekka began to operate the controls.

“Where are we heading?” Glitz said. “I mean, is it safe for us to return to civilisation?”

“Yes, I believe so,” Tekka said. “Of course, you will both have to move to a different planet and adopt new identities, but I know a man that can help you out in that respect.”

“And what about you?” Doland said.

“I do not intend to return to civilisation,” Tekka said simply. He paused, staring at the computer terminal. Glitz glanced over at the screen; incomprehensible figures were scrolling across it. “We have a slight problem,” Tekka went on. “I have just been examining the inventory. It seems we are very low on food and water purification filters.”

“There must be a supplies asteroid open somewhere,” Doland said.

Tekka nodded. “Quite possibly, but there may be another solution. Take a look.”

The man brought up an image on the main screen. They had left their orbit around Mazaroth, and were now moving away from the Upsilon System. A black object was drifting through space, beyond the reach of any large gravitational forces. There were no signals coming from the ship, no signs of life.

“Is that… a ship?” Doland said.

Tekka nodded. “I have tried to scan it. The engines are inactive, and there seems to be no power to most of the ship. I cannot make out any signs of life, but that may be because they are well-shielded. The hull has clearly not been breached.”

“How long do you think it’s been here?” Glitz said, staring at the shape.

“A few weeks, perhaps. Maybe more.” Tekka sighed. “I imagine that a fault on the ship led to the power loss. Without sufficient power, the occupants of that craft can have no way to break free from their inertia.”

Doland tapped his finger on the main computer panel. “So what are you saying?”

“I am suggesting that we help the other ship. We can dock with the ship—wearing oxygen suits, of course—and look for any survivors.”

“And why would we do that?” Doland said.

“Because they might have supplies to give us,” Glitz said. “You heard Tekka—we’re running low on food and water. And… well… if they are dead… they won’t be needing their provisions, will they?”

“Precisely,” Tekka said. He glanced at Doland. “You can remain on the ship. It is too hazardous for all three of us to go.”

Doland nodded. He looked quite relieved that he wasn’t expected to go along.

“How are we going to dock?” Glitz asked. “If they are dead, they won’t be able to authorise us. And even if they aren’t, we might find it hard to make them trust us.”

“I am hoping that their ship is programmed to allow any Imperial vessel to dock in the event of a crisis,” Tekka explained. “If so, we will have no issue. If not… well, my neurochip should be able to get us aboard.”

“Right,” Glitz said. “Where are the oxygen suits?”

They left the flight deck and entered the floor. The dimensions of the ship seemed almost identical to the one that had taken them to Malus, but the floor was not filled with vidscreens and other diversions. It was bare and empty. They discovered the spacesuits in a storage room down the corridor that led to the officers’ lounge, along with oxygen packs. Glitz and Tekka climbed into the suits and returned to the flight deck.

“Ready?” Glitz said.

Tekka picked up two laser weapons and handed one of them to Glitz. “These are ZK-99s, standard Imperial blasters. They are not particularly easy to aim, but they can easily deliver a lethal blow.”

Glitz examined the weapon. “Know a lot about guns, do you?”

Tekka simply nodded. He had been right about the boarding protocols; the ship granted automatic boarding permission, and Tekka carefully aligned the docking ports. Within minutes of docking, the two men had stepped aboard the other ship.

“This is creepy,” Glitz said, looking around. The interior of the ship was utterly dark, and he couldn’t see anyone around. “Looks like it’s empty.”

Tekka used his neurochip to scan the ship’s atmosphere. The oxygen level was quite low, but acceptable. Fortunately, the gravity was still normal, even thought there was no power to the ship; it must have had a flywheel mechanism that kept gravity for a while after a power loss. After a power failure, flywheels would only continue to operate for a few weeks. That meant the ship couldn’t have been powerless for very long…

He turned off his oxygen, removed his helmet, and gestured for Glitz to do the same. Glitz removed the seal from his helmet, there was a small hiss, and he screwed it off. The air on the ship smelled musty, and the only light was coming from bioluminescent plants that were growing around the flight deck.

“Let me see if I can restore the power,” Tekka said. He stepped over to the control panels, switched the computer to emergency power, and began to examine the readings. His frown deepened. “That can’t be right…”

“What?” Glitz said.

“All readings are normal. The engines are operational, the shields are intact… everything is in full working order.”

Tekka pulled a lever on the side of the wall, and the lights flickered on; Glitz had to squint in the sudden brightness. Light flashed on several panels as all the equipment rebooted. Everything seemed clean and shiny—it seemed to be a new ship.

“You see? Everything is working.”

“But… where are the crew?”

“There are no life signs aboard. This ship is totally empty. Perhaps the crew left in the escape pods.” He checked another reading. “Yes, it seems that all of the escape pods have been taken.”

Glitz shuddered. What could have possibly caused the crew to evacuate? The ship was in perfect condition.

“You sure there are no life signs on board?”


Glitz didn’t feel comforted. Something must have frightened the crew. But what?

“Let’s just grab the supplies and get the hell out of here,” Glitz said.

Putting down their helmets on the flight deck, they opened the bulkhead door and stepped into the corridor. The entire ship was eerily quiet, with no noise apart from the whirr of the electronic lighting and life support. Tekka switched on the communication feature of his neurochip and spoke to Doland on the other ship, informing him that they had arrived safely and should be back shortly. Tekka then used one of the wall panels to access a schematic of the ship’s design. Using his finger, he traced out the quickest route to the main storage bay, and beckoned Glitz to follow him. They entered the main storage area, which was filled with countless crates of provisions. They opened a few of them and discovered assortments of dry foodstuffs, water, oxygen packs, particle weapons, hull repair kits, gravity boots… the variety of useful items was amazing.

“We’ll have to make a few trips,” Glitz said, grinning.

Tekka looked uneasy, but said nothing. They decided to take a crate of food and water filters first, and then return for the other provisions. Carrying a crate each, they returned to the other ship, and then went back again to pick up more items.

“It’s amazing that they left all this stuff,” Glitz muttered, looking at the remaining cargo. “It must be worth at least fifty thousand credits.”

“That’s what worries me,” Tekka said. “Think about it. What could possibly warrant the abandonment of such expensive supplies?”

“There could be some sort of danger here,” Glitz admitted, looking around as he said it, as if expecting some monster to come lurching out of the air ducts on cue.

“Perhaps.” Tekka nodded. “Or perhaps this is a trap. On some primitive planets in the Rim, the inhabitants have a problem with a small mammal called a mouse. To deal with the mice, devices called mousetraps are used. These contraptions usually consist of a spring-loaded metal bar, along with a piece of cheese as bait. As soon as the vermin tries to take the cheese, the trap is activated and the bar snaps over the animal, breaking its neck or spinal cord.”

“Nice,” Glitz said.

“But do you not see?” Tekka said. “What if this ship is the mousetrap, and these provisions the cheese?”

Glitz glanced around at the abandoned supplies, as if seeing them in a new light.

“OK,” Glitz said, starting to feel uneasy. “Let’s make this our last trip. But we’ll carry as much as we possibly can. Look—pick up one of those giant crates and we’ll…” He tailed off, staring at the walls of the ship.

“You have gone pale,” Tekka said.

Glitz did not reply.

“Is something the matter?”

There was something wrong, Glitz was sure of it. His years of working for the East Galaxy Company had taught him everything there was to know about smuggling. He had discovered just about every hiding place on his old freighter. Once, on a visit to Vortan, he had picked up nearly three hundred illegal blasters in addition to his official cargo of fortified wheat and marchgrain. On that occasion, he had not only hidden the weapons in his secret compartments beneath the floor, but also in the walls behind the maintenance panels. He knew everything there was to know about hiding things on a ship. That was why he noticed that one of the wall panels had been replaced. A huge sheet of metal wall had clearly been lifted from its place, as there were metal shavings on the floor, which must have been scraped off by the movement. The wall had obviously been replaced. But why had the wall been removed? What was hidden behind there? Suddenly, there was a clang. The sound had come from behind the metal sheet.

“I don’t like this,” Glitz said.

Without warning, there was the sound of a laser being fired. The metal sheet, propelled by the power of the energy blast, hurtled across the room—Glitz dodged out of the way, narrowly avoiding the white-hot steel. Five men were standing in the alcove that had been covered by the metal sheet. They were wearing Marine uniforms. And they were pointing their weapons at Glitz and Tekka. Two of them were carrying assault rifles, and the other three had energy weapons.

“Put down your weapons,” one of the Marines carrying a rifle said.

Glitz sighed, but he wasn’t about to argue with an Imperial Marine. They both slowly dropped to the ground and placed their guns on the floor. Then they stood up slowly, holding their arms above their heads.

“Kick them away!”

They did as the Marine said, and one of the other soldiers picked up the weapons. Glitz stared at the men, still in a state of shock. What were Imperial Marines doing on the abandoned ship? And why had they been hiding behind the wall panel? There seemed to be only one possible solution—that it had been an ambush. But why would the Imperium go to so much trouble to recapture some absconded prisoners?

“Deactivate them!”

Glitz turned to Tekka. “Deactivate? What does he mean?”

To answer Glitz’s question, the three Marines carrying energy weapons pointed them directly at the three fugitives. Without even a slight hesitation, they fired their guns. Glitz, Tekka and Doland collapsed to the floor.

“Now bring them.”

Chapter Eight


Volori System

Glitz awoke to the sound of dripping water. The noise of the droplets echoed and reverberated. It sounded like it was falling from a great height, before splashing against a rocky surface. He opened his eyes, and winced in pain. He had a splitting headache. He began to examine his surroundings. He was lying inside a huge cage, along with Tekka and Doland. Although it was dimly lit outside the cave, he could make out huge walls of craggy rock on every side. They were in some sort of cave. He stood up and approached the edge of the cage. With a jolt, he realised that the cave floor was almost thirty metres below them; the cage was hanging by a metal chain, suspended in the air. Light was streaming down from a hole in the rock about a mile above them.

“Wake up,” Glitz said, nudging Doland and Tekka. “Wake up, both of you.”

Doland stirred and sat up, wiping his eyes tiredly. Tekka’s eyes flitted open. Most people, on awakening, require a few seconds to adjust to their surroundings and clear their mind. Tekka, however, leapt to his feet immediately, taking in their predicament with sharp, alert eyes.

“This is most unpleasant,” he concluded.

“You know this place?” Glitz said.

Tekka nodded. “I have never been here before, but I believe we are inside the catacombs of Lightworld.”

Doland swallowed. “Lightworld? Lightworld as in the seat of the Imperial Navy?”

“Of course,” Tekka said, somewhat impatiently. “Examine the rocks on either side of our cage. Notice the purple flecks that seem to sparkle inside the grey stone. The surface of these walls appears to be made of targon, a type of rock that is only known to exist on one planet: Lightworld.”

“I’m as interested in geology as the next guy,” Glitz said. “But I’m a lot more interested in how to get out of this cage.”

“I hardly think that will be necessary,” Tekka said.

“If we don’t escape they’re going to put us on trial!” Doland said. “Come on, man. You’re the smart one. Think of something!”

“Since when did you hear of common criminals being taken to Lightworld?” Tekka said. “No, no. We have been brought here for a special reason. For some reason, the Navy has seen fit to bring us to this planet. And I have a distinct feeling that we will be finding out that reason very soon.”

As if on cue, there was the echoing sound of footprints as several men marched into the cave, wearing Naval uniforms. Behind them, Glitz recognised the five Marines that had been hiding on the abandoned ship. Tekka had been right; the whole thing had been a trap. For whatever reason, the Navy had set up the abandoned ship in the Upsilon system specifically to capture them. But what could the Imperium possibly want with three common criminals?

One of the men pulled a lever built into the cave wall. There was the sound of a motor whirring, and the cage began to slowly descend. When the cell finally touched the floor with a dull thump, one of the men opened the cage, pointing his gun at the captives.

“Follow me,” he said. “And don’t try anything stupid.”

Half of the men walked behind the captives, and half of them walked in front, escorting the three men out of the catacombs. Glitz wasn’t thinking about escaping right then; he was more curious than anything. The men led them along several tunnels. Finally, they reached a metal bulkhead. One of them inputted a code into the keypad, and the metal door began to rise. Glitz, Tekka and Doland were led along a metal corridor, which was illuminated by hot yellow directional lights. Finally, they reached the end of the corridor, and another bulkhead was opened.

They stepped out into a grand room. It was supported by stone pillars, and fine tapestries hung on every wall. There were golden bowls, silver statues, and what looked like a diamond-encrusted altar. The gems glistened in the bright lights. A long table stood in the centre of the room, which was made of a sort of glistening black stone. Glitz looked slowly around the room, unable to hide his surprise. He had expected to be taken into another cell, or maybe even a torture room. He hadn’t expected such grandeur.

His eyes were drawn to the men sitting at the black table. One of the men was wearing a Navy uniform with six holographic medals, and he was older than most of the others. From his distinctive shoulder board and sleeve lace, Glitz recognised him as the First Naval Lord.

The First Naval Lord smiled at the men. “Leave us.”

Immediately, they saluted, turned, and marched out of the room, leaving Glitz, Tekka and Doland alone with the admirals.

“Welcome to the Admiralty Board Room,” the First Naval Lord said. “My name is Admiral Maximil. I am the First Naval Lord, Commander of the Imperial Navy. Please, sit.”


Far across the galaxy, quite another sort of meeting was due to take place in considerably less grandiose surroundings. A tall man wearing a dark suit was sitting in the conference room of his ship, the Insurgent. The conference room was low-key and simple. It consisted of a long metal table lined with steel benches. The room was devoid of decoration. Everything was black or grey, and the only colour was provided by the man’s golden staff, which contained a bright sapphire in the hilt.

The man was sitting alone, but he knew that his friends would be arriving soon. As he sat in silence, he thought about everything that he had accomplished during his lifetime. Cheated of his birthright and cast into poverty, he had spent his entire life rebuilding his fortunes. Many years ago, he had founded the East Galaxy Company, which had become famous for interplanetary trade. Now, after selling the company for over fifty billion credits, he was finally in a position to restore his rightful place in the Universe. And he would do that by changing the Universe.

I, Ozytan, will reclaim my birthright…

Three creatures appeared in the conference room, bringing Ozytan back into reality. They were roughly humanoid in shape, except that they had snake-like skin and black eyes. The creatures also had lethal claws on their arms, feet and tail. They were called Weerms, and were creatures of not only great intelligence, but also great ferocity.

“Hello, my friends,” Ozytan said, smiling at his visitors. He glanced at the holographic timeprint hovering over the table. “Precisely on time, as usual.”

“Unpunctuality is a human trait,” the largest Weerm hissed.

They sat down at the conference table, facing Ozytan. The man gestured to a jug of water lying in the centre of the table, along with several cups.

“Would you like some water?”

Without replying, the two creatures lifted up their hands. A tendril shot out from each hand, landing in the jug of water. There was a slurping sound as they began to suck up the water through their tendrils. Ozytan looked away. Although he needed the Weerms, he could still not bring himself to like them. Nearly everything about their nature repulsed him.

“How does the plan progress?” one of the Weerms said.

“It progresses well,” Ozytan said. “Soon we will be ready to strike at the heart of the Imperium. It will be crushed.”

The Weerms made a horrible grating sound that Ozytan interpreted as laughter. He knew that the creatures desired nothing more than the overthrow of the Imperium. They stood to gain a massive reward—the spread of their species right across the galaxy…

“Soon, my friends,” Ozytan said. “Soon…”


Glitz, Tekka and Doland sat down at the table in the Admiralty Board Room. Glitz glanced at the First Naval Lord. He had quite a familiar face; Glitz was sure that he had previously seen him on patriotic vidcasts on the official Imperial broadcast standard. He seemed to be stern and masculine, but there was an almost imperceptible sense of childishness, of mischievousness, bubbling beneath the surface. In Glitz’s experience, many older men in positions of authority seemed to develop such personalities; while never immature, they had an occasional tendency towards irreverence and comedy.

“Why are we here?” Tekka said. “I would appreciate it if you could be both exact and concise.”

A couple of the admirals clenched their fists, and Glitz swallowed. He admired Tekka for being brave enough to speak to the Commander of the Navy of the Imperium in such a disrespectful way, but he was worried that they would all end up being punished for Tekka’s insolence. But the First Naval Lord simply chuckled.

“Well, I shall do my best.” The First Naval Lord pointed to the men sitting around the table. “These are the finest men in the Imperial Navy. And still none of them can get us out of our current mess.”

“Please,” Doland said suddenly, looking panicked. “I don’t know why we’re here, but… whatever it is, we’re sorry! We’ll go back to Malus and serve the rest of our sentences. Just please… please don’t execute us.”

Grow a pair, Glitz thought, annoyed. Of course, he too was intimidated by being hauled in front of the First Naval Lord and the other officers. But he wasn’t prepared to lose his dignity quite so easily.

“Execute?” the First Naval Lord said, his shining eyes widening. “Oh no, that was never on the table. Oh no. We need your help.”

Doland gulped. “Help?”

The man nodded, placing his palms on the shiny table. “Let me tell you a story,” he said. He activated a panel and a hologram projection of a planet appeared. It was a cracked grey sphere, with a fiery seam running through the centre. The cratered surface was dry and barren. “This is the planet Chaos. It is located in the far reaches of the Paradonian Sector, in the part of space commonly known as the Badlands. The planet was first discovered centuries ago by Dorian Night, the famous intergalactic explorer, but for obvious reasons it was declared unsuitable for colonisation. It is perhaps the most unfriendly planet in the Universe, inhabited by savage creatures and home to every sort of catastrophe and pestilence imaginable.”

He nodded to Admiral Blaize, who carried on the story. “The only life forms Dorian Night found on Chaos were vicious, primitive animals. Chemical storms rage in the heavens. Quakes are a weekly occurrence. The world has no redeeming features. There are not even any valuable minerals on the planet. So imagine our surprise when we discovered a mysterious ship in orbit around the planet.”

Tekka frowned. “What kind of ship?”

“That is the interesting thing,” the First Naval Lord said. “We do not know. The ship is unlike any we have ever seen.” He activated another control, and an image of the ship became overlaid over the projection of the planet.

“We need to find out who they are, and what they want,” Admiral Andronica said.

“Then send some of your ships,” Tekka said.

The First Naval Lord smiled. “Would it were that simple. In fact, the scout ship that we sent was promptly destroyed. They most likely have some sort of advanced weaponry—something we have not encountered before.”

“How do we come into all this?” Glitz said, somehow already knowing the answer.

The First Naval Lord’s eyes twinkled. “You are to fly to the Badlands and visit the planet Chaos, with the intention of discovering the purpose of the enemy ship. You will then return to Lightworld with a full report of your discoveries.”

Glitz glanced at his companions. Doland looked terrified, and Tekka was apparently lost in thought; his face was expressionless.

“And what if we refuse?” Tekka said finally.

“Come now, come now,” the First Naval Lord said. “You can use your imagination, surely?”

Tekka smiled coldly. “I have been reliably informed that I do not have an imagination. So why don’t you just tell us?”

Glitz winced. He couldn’t believe that Tekka was talking to the leader of the most powerful Navy in history as if he was an errant schoolboy that hadn’t handed in his homework. But the First Naval Lord smiled again—for some reason, he seemed to like Tekka.

“I do so hate threats. You have to make so many of them when you’re in my position, you know. I sometimes think my only purpose in life is to threaten people. So let’s try something different. How about a carrot instead of a stick? If you manage to find out the purpose of the mysterious ships, I will offer the three of you a full pardon.”

Tekka looked interested. He nodded slowly. “Why did you select us for this mission?” he said finally.

“A couple of my admirals thought it was unwise,” the First Naval Lord said, “but I think that this unusual situation calls for a maverick solution. We are in a—potentially—very dangerous situation. When I heard about your escape from Malus, I decided to recruit you. After all, it’s a well-known fact that no one escapes from Malus. Luckily for us, you set the co-ordinates for the Upsilon System before you reset the ship’s tracking system. And we knew your ship was low on supplies. All we had to do was place the snare ship in orbit and wait for you to board.”

“Neat,” Glitz said, with a touch of sarcasm. Nevertheless, he had to admit that he was impressed.

The First Naval Lord smiled. “You have proven yourselves to be cunning, intelligent, resourceful—”

“And expendable?” Tekka said.

The First Naval Lord paused. Then he nodded. “Yes. I won’t try to deceive you. If the three of you died I would hardly lose sleep over it.”

“Of course,” Admiral Blaize said, “you will not be going alone.” He tapped a switch on the table, and spoke into a microphone. “Midshipman Barnes. Bring in Captain Wickham.” He looked up at Glitz, Tekka and Doland. “As you are aware, the use of civilians in official Imperial missions is unprecedented. We have obtained permission from the Grand Senate, but they have imposed a limitation—you must travel with an officer of the Imperium. Therefore, I am assigning Captain Wickham as your superior for the duration of the mission. You will defer all decisions to Captain Wickham, and obey all orders with full subordination.”

Glitz glanced at Doland and Tekka. He didn’t like taking orders from anyone, let alone some military control freak. No doubt Captain Wickham was some brainless, muscle-bound fool who would insist on dominating every aspect of the mission. Just when he was about to protest, the door slid open, and two officers entered the Board Room. They saluted to the Admiralty Board.

“Captain Wickham to see you, sir,” the first officer said, a young midshipman with smooth, baby-like skin. He stood aside to reveal the Captain.

Glitz was astonished. In place of the hard-edged military man he had expected to see, there stood a young blonde-haired woman. Even though she was wearing an unflattering Imperial uniform, he could tell that she was very beautiful. She had a fresh, symmetrical face, with blue eyes and full lips. Her figure was strong and curvaceous. She had an air of assured confidence.

“Captain Alyce Wickham reporting for duty,” she said, in a voice that was at once firm and musical.

Glitz was so taken aback by her attractiveness that he was rendered momentarily speechless, but he quickly recovered his composure. He didn’t want to be ordered about, even by a woman as beautiful as Alyce Wickham.

“Are you serious?” he said finally. “You’re putting this… girl in charge of us?”

Alyce coloured slightly with annoyance, but she managed to restrain herself.

“Captain Wickham is one of my finest officers,” Admiral Trenna said. “She has proven herself to be courageous and strong. Whereas you, on the other hand…” The Admiral paused to frown at Glitz. “You are nothing more than a common criminal, a smuggler, thrown out of the army for being unable to keep it in your pants. I would advise you, Mr. Glitz, to show more respect towards Captain Wickham, who was shown herself to be more of a man than you will ever be.”

Glitz frowned, but said nothing in reply.

“Now,” Alyce said, smiling slightly. “Let’s go over the full plan…”

Chapter Nine

After Captain Wickham had explained the full plan to Glitz, Tekka and Doland, she led the men out of the Admiralty Board Room, along a series of metal corridors, and into the large spaceport. It was filled with Imperial crafts, including the famous Behemoth, which Emperor Ferdinand used as his official transportation when on peripatetic duties. After the three men had changed into official army uniforms in a small changing area, Alyce pointed out a tiny silver cruiser that was sandwiched between two larger vessels. It was hardly bigger than an escape pod.

“You’re joking,” Glitz said. “That thing? We’re going in that thing?”

“It’s a Beetle,” Alyce said.

“I know what it is, lady. I had one of those things when I was a kid. But I don’t fancy its chances against a line of enemy fire.”

Alyce simply smiled. “Come along, now.”

Captain Wickham led the three men towards the ship. She opened the pod door and they all climbed inside. It was cramped, but there was enough room for them all to be seated. Glitz found himself squashed up against Alyce, and he noticed that she was wearing a fragrance.

“You smell great,” he said, grinning at her.

Alyce shook her head, as if shaking off a fly. “It’s the shampoo I use.”

Glitz said nothing more as she closed the door and prepared the ship for take-off. She flicked a switch to open a communications line with the spaceport control. “This is Captain Wickham. Request clearance for take-off in Beetle 819.”

There was a slight pause, then a voice responded: “Permission granted. Good luck with your mission, Captain.”

With a hiss, the roof above the ship began to move. A hatch opened, revealing a gap large enough for the ship to pass through. Alyce made a few more checks on the control.

“You sure you can squeeze through there?” Glitz said. “It’s pretty narrow.”

Alyce simply fixed him with a stern look, then activated the engines. The Beetle began to rise into the air slowly; they passed through the hatch and rose high above the planet Lightworld. As they climbed higher, Glitz stared down at the maze-like city structures that were spread all across the planet. Although it was common knowledge that Lightworld was the seat of the Navy, there were many mysteries surrounding the planet. For one thing, it had an official population count of zero, despite the expansive cities. If no one really lived there, what was the point of it all? There was clearly something going on there, quite apart from its role as Navy HQ.

Doland stared miserably out into space. A part of him wished he had never escaped from Malus in the first place. First he had been forced to have his DNA changed, and now he was being forced to undertake a dangerous mission for the Navy. The chances of surviving couldn’t be great. Had it been worth it? His sentence had only been for five years. It was quite a long time, but at least he would have been able to walk away free at the end of it. The First Naval Lord had said that the scout ship had been destroyed before reaching the planet Chaos. Doland couldn’t think of any reason why they would be treated any differently.

Tekka glanced at the space co-ordinates on the location grid. “I cannot help but notice that we are travelling further away from Chaos.” He paused, staring at Alyce. He didn’t seem to see her as a beautiful woman—he looked at her as if totally oblivious to her charms. Glitz wondered vaguely if Tekka had ever made love to a woman in his life.

“You’re right,” Alyce said. “We have to make a small detour to the planet Cronor.”

“Cronor?” Tekka frowned, and accessed the databank stored on his neurochip. “A scrapyard planet. Owned by a consortium of non-ferrous metal dealers from Stoln.”

“A junk planet?” Doland said. “Why are we going there?”

“Because we need a ship,” Alyce said simply. She turned to Tekka. “Do you—do you have a neurochip?”

Tekka nodded.

“But… that’s illegal,” protested Alyce. “You could be…” She tailed off, her face softening slightly. “But I suppose it might come in useful.”

Most Navy captains were augmented as a matter of course, but the Navy surgeons had concluded that the process would likely cause Alyce harm, so she had never been augmented. Some people’s bodies were simply not suitable for augmentation.

Tekka didn’t say anything else, and Alyce too fell silent. Glitz was almost ashamed by the feelings of passion that were surging up inside him because he was pressed in so close to Alyce. It was almost like being a teenager again. It had been several months since he had enjoyed any female company, and the period of abstinence had made it all the more exciting to meet such a beautiful female. The journey was short, and before long they were approaching a planet.

“Nearly there,” Alyce said.

In the distance, Glitz could see a speck of light becoming larger as they approached. As they got closer, he could see that it was a grey-coloured orb surrounded by some sort of fuzzy ring.

“What’s that ring?” he murmured.

“It’s called the Scrap Ring. If someone on a nearby planet doesn’t want a piece of metal anymore, they simply fire it off towards Cronor. Then the scrap gets caught up in the planet’s orbit, ready to be extracted by the Stolnites. They don’t like people disposing of their rubbish in this way, but there’s little they can do to stop it.”

“I’d have thought they’d be grateful,” Doland said. “Scrap’s their bread and butter.”

Alyce smiled. “Would you like it if someone threw a piece of bread and butter at you?”

Doland frowned thoughtfully. “Good point.”

Her face took on a stern expression as she prepared the ship for landing. Small crafts were generally harder to steer than larger ones; the onboard computers were more simplistic and required more manual intervention.

“OK,” Alyce said. “We’re about to land on Cronor. Please keep quiet so I can concentrate.”

Glitz bowed his head with sarcastic reverence. “Yes, ma’am.”

Alyce’s brow furrowed as she slowly steered the ship. She had programmed in the landing procedure, but the Beetle still needed a slight nudge in the right direction. Glitz watched her face as she made slight corrections to the ship’s course. She seemed even more attractive when she was stressed; her body emitted a sensuous heat and her face glistened. Finally, they entered the planet’s atmosphere and landed on the surface. Alyce exhaled slowly, and turned to the rest of the crew.

“Listen up,” she said. “These Stolnites can be tricky customers. So just follow me and don’t say anything. I’ll do all the talking.”

Every time she spoke Glitz felt a strange mixture of intense irritation and extreme physical attraction. Each emotion seemed to amplify the other.

“Why are we even here?” Doland said, as they stepped out onto the planet. It was little more than a huge junk heap. There were thousands of wrecked ships, faulty parts and broken machines scattered around. Large brown furry creatures were climbing over the wreckage, either repairing things or pulling them apart.

“I told you. To find a ship.”

Glitz didn’t like the look of the furry creatures, which he recognised as Stolnites. He had never visited Stoln during his time working as a spice trader for the East Galaxy Company, because they had no interest in spicy food—or indeed flavour of any kind. They were the scavengers of the galaxy, notorious for thieving. The old joke said that a Stolnite would steal your dung if there was a market for it.

But Alyce seemed unperturbed by the creatures. She marched towards a nearby Stolnite that was using a laser cutter to saw into a damaged star-shift engine.

Doland grinned at Glitz and Tekka. “She’d better watch herself. These Stolnites are taught how to pickpocket before they can walk.” The three men followed Alyce and stood behind her when she stopped.

“Excuse me,” Alyce said, trying to get the Stolnite’s attention. It heard her, and switched off his laser cutter. The creature looked almost like a giant dog, except that it was walking upright and had beady, rat-like eyes.

The Stolnite made a loud sound that was like a mixture of a roar and a bark.

“Galactic Standard One!” Alyce said firmly. It was a frequent source of irritation to the humans that Stolnites insisted on speaking their own language. The only official language of the empire was the Galactic Standard tongue, and all aliens were required to show proficiency in the language. The Stolnites could speak it perfectly, but they chose not to. Unsurprisingly, many humans saw this as an act of insolence. Occasional petitions were made to Emperor Ferdinand, urging him to address the problem of Stolnite impudence, but there were usually more pressing matters to take care of.

This particular Stolnite snorted, but began to speak in Galactic Standard One. “What do you want?” it said gruffly.

“My name is Captain Wickham, and these are my… associates—Harlan Glitz, Hans Tekka and Raja Doland.” Somehow, “associates” seemed the wrong word, but the men were not members of the Navy either. Their uniforms were plain and gave no indication of rank, as they were not officially part of the Navy. “What is your name?”

“What’s it got to do with you?” the Stolnite said, showing its teeth. It placed a defensive paw on the metal object beneath it. “If it’s about this engine, this was thrown out as scrap. I found it fair and square. If it’s stolen, it’s nothing to do with me.”

Alyce sighed impatiently. “No, we’re not here about the engine.” She paused, wondering which line to take. She decided that there was only one language that Stolnites truly listened to, and pulled out a credit bar. The Stolnite’s eyes lit up. “This credit bar contains twenty thousand credits. In addition to this we also have a Beetle cruiser to barter with. We need to purchase a ship.”

After seeing the shiny credit bar, the Stolnite’s manner changed completely. It hopped off the engine as if forgetting it completely, and bowed before the four of them like a particularly eager waiter. “Janzley at your service. I am your most faithful servant. Now… what kind of ship are you looking for?”

“We need the most ugly ship that you can find. It should be a big pile of old scrap, the kind of ship no one would ever want. But it has to be in perfect working order.”

The three men stared at Alyce in disbelief. Had the woman lost it? Twenty thousand credits was enough to buy a decent galactic craft from a reputable dealer. Why were they using the money to buy a heap of junk from a sneaky-looking Stolnite? The Stolnite seemed a little surprised by her request, but he wasn’t going to argue when such a huge reward was on offer.

“I have just the thing,” Janzley said. “Come with me.”

The Stolnite led them across the surface of the planet. The sky overhead was pale, and the colour almost blended in with the shade of the ground. The grey monotony was broken only by the scrap littered all over the world. Many Stolnites turned to stare at them as they passed; Glitz guessed that they didn’t get many human visitors to such a dreary world. Finally, they reached a small bay. The ocean beyond was almost motionless, and the water was cloaked by white mist. The beach was made of grey and black stones. The whole place had a somewhat dreamlike quality. They reached what looked like a small cave in the cliff face. Janzley beckoned them inside.

“These are my humble lodgings,” the Stolnite said, as they entered the cave. It was illuminated by phosphorescent plants growing up the cave walls. The place was filled with scrap; the concentration of junk metal was even higher than on the planet’s surface. Glitz noticed that a small bed was wedged in between a huge metal chest and a defunct android. Janzley pointed to a corner of the cave. “Now what do you think of that?”

“It’s perfect,” Alyce said, grinning.

“Are you joking?” Doland said, raising an eyebrow.

Whatever the thing was, Doland would not describe it as perfect. It was clearly a ship of some kind, but the model was obviously years out-of-date. He had never seen such a craft. It had a somewhat unwieldy, bulky appearance, and had many obvious signs of repair. The paintwork had scratched off in many places, revealing bare metal. A piece of dull metal had been hammered in place beneath the main starshield, presumably to cover up damage. Some words starting with “SOLD” were scribbled in white paint over the side.

“And it’s in full working order?” Alyce said.

“Of course,” the Stolnite said. “You have my word.”

They all knew that the word of a Stolnite didn’t count for anything.

“I can scan it,” Tekka said. He activated his neurochip, and performed a thorough digital deconstruction of the ship, looking out for any breaches of the hull or machines in a state of disrepair. When the scan was completed, he nodded. “The ship looks terrible, but it is actually in quite good order. None of the major systems have any problems. It is certainly spaceworthy.”

“You see,” Janzley said. “I told you. This thing is my own project. I’ve repaired it with parts from other ships.”

Alyce stared at the ship. It was certainly a horrendous sight. No one in their right mind would want to buy such a vessel—unless they needed it for a special reason. Alyce smiled. It was just right for their needs.

“We’ll take it,” she said.

“Twenty thousand credits, plus your Beetle craft?”

Alyce nodded. “Agreed.”

She handed Janzley the credit bar, as well as the access key for the Beetle. Then she shook hands with Janzley, squirming slightly at the moistness of its paws. The Stolnite thought she must be stupid for spending so much money on such a worthless craft. Janzley had only kept it in a state of repair because he had won it in a game of Heartless. When you get something for free—either by stealing it or winning it in a card game—you are guaranteed a profit, even if only a small one.

He pointed upwards. “There’s a hole in the cave roof. You’ll be able to pilot the ship through it—if you’re careful.”

“What kind of drive does it use?” Alyce said.

“A phase drive,” Janzley said, pointing a finger proudly.

“Great,” Alyce turned to Alyce and Tekka. “We can also use the wormhole network; I have full authorisation. Come on. Let’s get moving.”

They navigated their way through piles of obsolete and broken machinery, climbing over engines and androids on their way to the ship. The thing looked even worse up close. The signs of repair were even more obvious, and the whole thing looked like something a cosmic hobo would ride around in. In short, it was exactly what they needed.

Alyce led them inside the ship through the creaking entrance hatch. It was quite small inside, but there were two levels. On the bottom level were two tiny rooms each containing two bunks, as well as the engine room. A narrow ladder led up to the top level, which contained the miniscule flight deck and a small kitchen. It was so tight in there that Glitz had to duck his head when passing through into the flight deck. They all stood amidst the ship’s controls.

“Well, this is cosy,” Alyce said.

“Can you explain what all this is about?” Glitz said. “I mean, presuming you haven’t just lost it, I’m guessing there must be a reason for this. So why a scrap ship?”

“The scout ship that entered the vicinity of Chaos was destroyed very quickly,” the Captain replied. “This suggests that the hostile forces may have some kind of threat detection technology. Perhaps they can detect the presence of weaponry, or maybe they respond to the serial numbers of Imperium ships. In either case, this ship wouldn’t register as a threat.”

“Very neat,” Tekka said. “But suppose that they simply destroy every ship that approaches them, regardless of its intention?”

Alyce nodded slowly. “I’ve considered that. And it’s a possibility. But we have to take that chance.” She paused. “Before we go to Chaos, we’ll stop off at a nearby planet to change our clothes. It contravenes Navy regulations, but it might give us greater chances of survival. If we’re captured we can pretend to be some wandering bohemians roaming the galaxy.”

Glitz glanced at Tekka, unable to resist a smirk. He couldn’t imagine a less likely bohemian than Tekka.

“Is something funny?” Alyce said sternly.

“Listen, lady,” Glitz said, his temper rising, “don’t think you can talk to me like one of your sycophantic underlings. I was a cadet in the army before you were even born.”

“And thrown out before I was born, too,” Alyce retorted.

Glitz scowled. “What’s to stop us blasting you off into space, commandeering this ship, and flying away to some far off galaxy?”

Alyce pulled out a blaster from her holster. “You aren’t holding a ZK-88.”

Glitz pretended to glower at her, but he felt his anger turning into quite a different passion at the sight of Alyce holding the gun, aiming it at him with such an intense look of ferocity.

“You win this time,” Glitz said, and she lowered the blaster.

“Let’s just get off this rock,” Doland said.

Without saying a word, Tekka stepped up to the controls and began to operate them. His hands moved deftly over the switches and buttons; within a few seconds, the engine began to roar, and the ship started to ascend. With careful precision, Tekka piloted the ship through the gap in the cave roof, and took them higher into the sky. They passed through the planet’s atmosphere with ease, and the artificial gravity—thankfully—kicked in.

“Well, I’m going to get some sleep,” Glitz said.

“Same here,” Doland said.

On Doland’s suggestion, they moved one of the mattresses from the second room into the first, so the three men could share a room. Glitz didn’t like the idea. For one thing, the rooms were tiny. Also, he didn’t like the fact that Alyce got her own room. Surely it would only increase her sense of superiority? But in the end he agreed with Doland, mostly because he was too tired to argue.

Once they had moved the mattress, Glitz lied down. There were no sheets—not even a pillow—but he was so tired that he fell asleep almost instantly. Doland lied awake for a while, feeling a little sorry for himself. How have I ended up here? he thought glumly. How did I go from being the best salesman on Opus to being a convict on a mission of certain death? Finally, the disturbing thoughts eased, and he managed to get to sleep.

A few hours later, when Alyce had already gone to bed, Tekka retired to bed and lied awake in silence. He had never slept much, even when he was a child. Somehow, he didn’t seem to need as much sleep as ordinary people. He stayed awake all night, listening to the sound of the engines.

Chapter Ten

They were now very close to their destination. Alyce and Tekka had navigated the ship towards the Farron system, which was a popular shopping destination for wealthy space tourists. They landed on a parking asteroid, and one of the robots took their ship away for temporary storage. The group then took the shuttle to one of the planets in the Farron system, which was called Clothes Direct. Glitz grimaced as the shuttle took them to the planet. He hated shopping, especially on tacky planets like that one. What kind of name for a planet was “Clothes Direct”? As the shuttle took them closer, Glitz could see Tekka staring grimly out of the window.

“You don’t like shopping either, eh?” Glitz said.

Tekka shook his head. “I hardly see the purpose of such an activity. Shopping is a pursuit which steals the hours, dulls the mind, and empties the wallet.”

“Too bad it’s necessary,” Alyce said, slightly amused by Tekka’s poetic epigram. “Like I said, wearing our Imperial uniforms to Chaos is too risky. We need to change into something less… official.”

Doland raised his eyebrows. “I don’t know… I quite like a bit of shopping.”

Tekka frowned at him. Eventually, the shuttle landed, and they got off on Clothes Direct. The entire planet, which was around a quarter of the size of Homeworld, was covered by one large super-mall. They entered the mall through the nearest entrance. A series of guided transport pods stood empty, waiting to be used. Alyce approached one of the information terminals and glanced at the directory of stores on the adjacent screen.

“Right,” she said, tapping her pocket. “This place is huge, so keep your communicators on you at all times.”

Glitz instinctively felt the pocket of his uniform. The communicator was slipped into a purpose-made pouch. The last thing he wanted was to be stranded on the wretched planet.

“Can we make this quick?” he said.

“I’ll do my best,” Alyce replied.

She selected one of the stores—which was called “Sullivan’s”—from the directory, and the option blinked yellow. The guided pod opened, and the four of them climbed inside. It was comfortable and roomy, and the seats were upholstered luxuriously. The guided pod, which had a vidscreen in place of a window, played advertisements as it flew them to their destination. They arrived, and stepped out of the pod. Glitz looked around. The store was stylishly decorated, with smart wooden floors, black mirrored walls, and bright directional lights that seemed to give everything sharp definition.

“Been here before?” Doland said.

Alyce nodded. “Once, when I was a little girl. I was going through a rebellious phase.”

Glitz frowned. What did she mean by rebellious? What was rebellious about visiting a clothes store? He looked around again, making a closer examination of the clothes that were hanging on nearby racks. Everything seemed to be black… and made of leather… Glitz started to have a bad feeling about the place. Then he looked up at the logo that was glowing on one of the black walls. The word “Sullivan’s” was printed in red text beneath a large purple eye.

“For the love of space!” Glitz said. “This is a Proteist shop!”

“That’s right,” Alyce said, grinning. “Why? Not embarrassed are you?”

“Why would you even bring us here?”

“Simple. We need a good cover story in case we get captured by the enemy forces. What better disguise could we wish for? We’ll tell them that we’re just a bunch of Proteists—we’ve bought a rundown ship and we were looking for a quiet spot in the galaxy to practise our… religion.”

Tekka nodded. “It is a good idea.” But Glitz could tell by his expression that the idea was distasteful to him.

“Fine,” Glitz said, shrugging. “Let’s get kitted up.”

There was nothing particularly scandalous or embarrassing about the actual clothes worn by Proteists—members of the religion had a predilection for black leather, but a lot of non-Proteists also wore such clothing. The main embarrassment for Glitz was to be inside a Proteist shop. He moved around quickly, as customers dressed in black roamed around, picking out garments. He didn’t spend too long choosing his outfit; he was eager to get out of Sullivan’s as quickly as possible. Settling on a black leather jacket, a pair of black jeans, and some plain boots, he took them over to the checkout and waited for the others. They seemed to take forever. When they finally arrived, Alyce paid for all of the clothes with an Imperium-issued credit bar.

They then went into the customer changing area. Glitz entered one of the booths and got changed into his new clothes, placing his Imperial uniform into the incineration chute as Alyce had instructed. When he had changed, he glanced at his reflection. He had to admit that he looked pretty good. His usual choice of clothing was limited to brown work trousers and a Vellorm jacket, but the leather suited him surprisingly well. He stepped out of the booth and waited for the others.

Tekka emerged next, wearing an all-black leather suit, along with black Cyclone shoes. The suit was an excellent fit, but he looked rather uncomfortable. He usually wore loose-fitting, comfortable clothes. Then Doland came out, wearing an ostentatious jacket with encrusted gems. It looked far too big for him, and the overall effect was pretty ridiculous.

Then Alyce stepped out of the changing rooms, and Glitz was speechless. She looked amazing. She was wearing a fitted leather jacket, along with a black leather skirt and a tight black blouse. The black material clung tightly to her skin and emphasised her shapely breasts. For a moment, Glitz just stared at her.

“You look… nice,” he said.

Alyce smiled condescendingly. “Thank you. Now, let me make one thing clear. Although we’re pretending to be Proteists, there’s to be no funny business on the ship. Don’t go trying anything on. We’re all professionals.” She glanced at Tekka, who still looked uncomfortable in his new costume. “That includes you, Tekka. I know how much men like leather, but don’t go coming on to me. It’s against regulations.”

She was obviously trying to embarrass him, but Tekka simply stared at her with a cold aspect and stony face. Alyce shrugged and walked over to the guided pods, and searched for the shuttle bay in the planet’s directory.

“She looks so hot,” Doland murmured longingly, with a hint of hopelessness in his voice. He knew that he would never be able to attract a woman like Alyce Wickham.

“Yeah, she does,” Glitz admitted, staring at Alyce, feeling a familiar stirring of passion. He glanced at Tekka, who was staring at the floor, seemingly immune to Alyce’s charms. “What do you think?” he said, nodding to Alyce.

“She looks fine,” Tekka said perfunctorily. “A very convincing Proteist.”

Glitz rolled his eyes. “Yeah, but come on. Look at her. You’ve got to admit that she’s beautiful.”

Tekka paused, frowning slightly. He had never really appreciated the concept of beauty. He understood the principle—that an aesthetically-pleasing object was supposed to provoke some kind of emotional reaction—but he had never felt such a reaction himself.

Doland frowned. “You’re not… I mean… you do like women, right? You aren’t…” He tailed off, staring at Tekka.

“If you are asking whether I am a homosexual, then no. I am not,” Tekka replied simply.

“So… have you ever had a girlfriend?”

Tekka nodded. “Yes. In fact, I was married.”

Glitz was suddenly intrigued. The old adage that said there was someone for everyone really seemed to be true. Visions flashed before his mind of a female version of Tekka, another cold and analytical genius. “Really? What was her name?”

“Her name was Nim.” For a second, Glitz was sure that a flash of sadness passed over Tekka’s features, but before he could press him any further, Alyce spoke again.

“Come on, you three. Back to the shuttle.”


They returned to their scrapyard ship, which Alyce had decided to christen the Wreck, due to its origin and appearance. The journey to the planet Chaos had been estimated by Tekka as a three-week flight. Alyce and Glitz were mainly in charge of the flight computer, with occasional help from Tekka. There was very little Doland could do to help. He found it ironic that he had been asked to go along on the mission. Their escape from Malus had been almost entirely thanks to Tekka; Glitz and Doland had played simple parts in the plan. Tekka had been the mastermind. And now, because of Tekka’s genius, they were all being forced to travel to the planet Chaos to face an unknown enemy. Doland didn’t have any skills that would be useful to the mission. He was a salesman, and he had entered such an occupation because it was easy. He hadn’t wanted to become a doctor or an engineer—those jobs were too difficult. He hadn’t paid much attention in school, and he knew very little about basic physics, let alone astronavigation. Now his ignorance might cost him his very life.

The men tried to let Alyce have her own space during the flight, but somehow Glitz and Alyce couldn’t help getting on each other’s nerves. When he was ten years old and a pupil at the local Primary School, Glitz had formed a strong rivalry with a girl in his class called Dia Foley. He had done everything in his power to annoy her, and Dia had told the teacher about every little thing he did wrong. The pair hated each other, and yet at the same time they felt bound together by the angry passion. Oddly, his relationship with Alyce seemed to be rather the same. Although she irritated him, he couldn’t find it in himself to hate her. The more annoying she became, the more attractive she also seemed to become.

Although Alyce was not prepared to admit it to herself, she had similar feelings towards Glitz. The man was handsome, rugged, sarcastic and selfish. And she found him irresistible. Somehow, the fact that she knew a relationship with him was virtually impossible made her even more annoyed by his actions. Little things he did—like snoring loudly from the other room, or picking faults with her course correction—infuriated and exasperated her beyond belief. She couldn’t wait to finish the mission and get away from the man, but a tiny, unacknowledged part of her wished that the mission would never end. But such a feeling was inappropriate for a captain of the Navy, and so she pushed it to the back of her mind, suppressing the idea.

After a long journey, and several arguments, the Wreck had finally entered the vicinity of space known as the Badlands. This was a part of the galaxy that was still largely unoccupied. A few pioneering explorers, such as the legendary Dorian Night, had visited many of the local planets, but no significant settlement had ever been carried out.

“We’re in the far reaches of the Paradonian Sector,” Alyce explained. “We’re close to the planet.”

It took only a few minutes for her to locate the planet. Alyce brought up an image of the world on the main scanner. The picture was fuzzy and unclear, but they could see a dull sphere, broken by a chasm of fire. Doland shuddered at the sight of the forbidding world, thinking of General Blaize’s comments about the planet Chaos—that it was a world populated by vicious wild animals, and ravaged by fierce meteorological phenomena.

“I don’t believe it,” Alyce said quietly, staring at the scanner.

She had been prepared to meet almost anything when they arrived at the planet. She had braced herself to encounter at least one hostile ship, perhaps of a terrible unknown alien race. But she had not expected to see… that.

“What?” Doland said, staring at the picture. All he could see was the planet. “What is it? What are you looking at?”

Tekka was smiling slightly; he had obviously noticed the same thing as Alyce.

“What?” Doland looked confused, looking from Alyce to Tekka.

“Nothing,” Alyce said.

Doland shared a bewildered glance with Glitz. They felt almost like Tekka and Alyce were enjoying a private joke at their expense. What were the pair so surprised about?

“Oh, use your brain,” Tekka said. “The First Naval Lord explained that the planet Chaos was being orbited by a mysterious ship. So where is it?”

Glitz finally understood what they were driving at, and felt a little annoyed with himself for being so slow. Of course. They had been expected to be greeted by an enemy ship; that was the whole reason for obtaining the scrapyard ship and the Proteist disguises. But not even a single satellite was orbiting the planet.

“Perhaps the ship landed on the planet…” Doland pointed out.

Tekka shook his head. “I scanned. There are no large energy signals on the planet, which means no ships. I can, however, detect some advanced machinery—I am not yet sure of its purpose.”

Glitz turned to Alyce. “So what’s the plan now?”

Alyce frowned, thinking for a few moments. “We will land on the planet, as per the mission brief. Of course, we will find that part of the plan a lot easier now the ship has apparently deserted Chaos. We will try to find any clues or important data. We still need to find out who the ship belonged to, and what they wanted. Our mission is the same. We should just have fewer obstacles now.”

Doland felt like arguing that the mission should be aborted, but he kept silent. He was grateful for the absence of the enemy ship—he hadn’t much liked the idea of being blown to pieces.

“Right,” Alyce said. “I’m going to make the landing.”

She operated the controls, piloting the ship with precision. As they passed into the planet’s atmosphere, there was a strange disturbance on the flight deck. The lights blinked, and some of the displays were disrupted. Strangely, the chronometer suffered the most interference. The Date/Time stamp fluctuated wildly for a few seconds, before settling along with the rest of the controls. The members of the crew were a little troubled by the disruption, but said nothing. A few minutes later, the Wreck had landed on Chaos. Alyce stepped out first, after making sure that her ZK-88 blaster was safely in her holster. The last thing she wanted was to meet some unfriendly life form and realise that she was without a weapon.

Her first overwhelming feeling was one of pure disgust. Glitz, Tekka and Doland followed her out onto the planet, staring at the terrible world. Even their weeks spent on Malus had not prepared them for such an ugly sight. Alyce was not an overly sensitive woman—in fact, she prided herself on being logical and hard-headed—but the sight of the atrocious planet almost brought her to tears. It was nothing more than an expanse of grey mountains, broken occasionally by lava streams. There was a bitter smell on the wind, and the trees were blackened and charred. But the really saddening thing was the sight of the animals. A few birds were flying unevenly through the sky on broken wings, crying out as if in great pain. Far away, a large cat-like creature was being attacked by a giant lizard; it was rolling around, bleeding from its stomach, as the lizard made a slow kill.

Miserable-looking quadrupeds trudged through a river of black slime, apparently searching for food in the mud. As they searched, another giant lizard ran up behind them, tearing the nearest two to pieces. Alyce felt a strong urge to blast the lizard to pieces with her blaster, but she resisted the impulse. She went back inside the ship, returning with three more blasters. She passed one to each of the men.

“Listen,” Alyce said. “We’ll get this over with quickly. I want to get off this horrible planet as quickly as possible.” She looked at Tekka. “Does your neurochip contain a navigation system?”

“Of course.”

“Right.” She pointed at Doland. “You and Tekka travel east, and we’ll travel south. After three hours we will meet back at the Wreck and leave this forsaken place.”

“What are we looking for, exactly?” Tekka said.

“Anything. Any possible clues as to why the ship was so interested in this place.” She paused thoughtfully. “You mentioned that you detected advanced technology. Try to find an example of it, and determine its function.”

Tekka nodded, and Alyce went on, “But I can’t imagine why anyone would want to come here. I’ve never seen such a horrible planet.” She shivered slightly. “Anyway, see you in three hours.”

Glitz nodded to Tekka and Doland and followed Alyce as she walked towards the faraway mountains. The terrain was rocky and uneven, and Glitz fingered his blaster uneasily. Several weird-looking creatures bared their teeth at him as they passed them. There seemed to be no friendly life forms on the planet. He glanced behind them; Tekka and Doland were now small shapes in the distance.

“You sure it was a good idea to split up?” Glitz said. “You never heard of safety in numbers?”

“That’s quite an primitive phrase,” she retorted.

“Doesn’t mean it’s not true,” Glitz muttered. “And what makes you think you always need to disagree with me?”

Alyce shrugged. “I tend to disagree with people when they are wrong.”

Glitz scowled as they climbed over a large black rock. A tiny rat-like creature was hiding beneath it; disturbed, it raced out from underneath the rock and scurried away. They walked for almost half an hour without seeing anything of interest. Everything around was bleak and featureless. Then Glitz noticed something that seemed conspicuous. He pulled the object out of the ground, brushing off some of the dirt.

“Is that…?” Alyce examined the object that Glitz was holding. “Is that a skull?”

“Looks like it.”

“But… it looks like a human skull.”

Glitz handed her the skull, and she turned it over in her hands, puzzled. “There are tooth marks all over the bone. Some sort of creature has torn off the flesh—maybe one of those long-toothed lizards.” She glanced around, looking for the rest of the bones. Then she spotted a white shape sticking out of the mud. Alyce uncovered several more bones and scrutinised them. She was no expert on skeletons, but she was fairly confident that the bones were human. She took several pictures of the discovery using her Spectrum arm band, a Navy-issued tool that had many useful functions.

If the bones had belonged to a man or woman, why had they visited Chaos in the first place? And what had killed them?

Chapter Eleven

Doland and Tekka were heading south, towards a thick river of orange lava. Doland kept trying to engage Tekka in conversation, but quickly realised that his companion was not willing to provide more than one-word answers. Their whole presence on the planet Chaos seemed pointless to him. The entire world was thoroughly unpleasant, and seemed to have nothing of interest. But Tekka seemed to be fascinated by the place. He stared intently at every mouldy rock, and carefully examined several mud banks. Doland wasn’t sure why such dreary objects were capturing his attention.

Tekka noticed a large excavated hole in the ground, and approached it with interest. Doland stared at the gaping chasm.

“I wonder who dug this,” Tekka said, gesturing to some nearby lizard creatures. “Somehow, I cannot imagine any of those lizards being capable of such a feat.”

Doland shrugged. “Maybe the people who owned those ships.”

“Yes, possibly…”

Tekka scrambled down into the chasm, picking up some of the dirt and running it through his fingers. His hand brushed against an object. He pulled it out of the ground, wiping off the black soil with the sleeve his jacket. He could hardly believe what he had found.


“Look,” Glitz said, pointing to a charred crater in the ground.

Alyce stepped back to inspect the hole. It was clearly a burn mark of some kind—most likely caused by the landing or take-off of some kind of craft. But it was odd that they could only see one mark. Usually, a ship would create anything between two and ten landing marks, depending on the number of rockets.

“A ship was here,” Alyce said.

They walked for another five hundred metres or so, and then discovered another similar black mark. Alyce touched the cold ash. It was the same size as the other mark.

“Must be the same ship,” she muttered. “The thing must have been pretty big.”

“Do you reckon it was the ship—the one that destroyed the scout ship?”

She shrugged. “Quite possibly.”

They were both perplexed by the discovery of the landing marks. The ship must have visited the planet quite recently, because it wouldn’t be long until the marks were covered by the shifting dust. But why had the ship landed on Chaos in the first place? Glitz hadn’t seen anything that would justify a visit.

“Look out!” Alyce shouted suddenly, pulling out her blaster.

Glitz swivelled. While they had been checking out the landing scar, one of the lizard-like creatures had sneaked up on them. Its eyes were pale and yellow, and Glitz could smell its foul breath.

Before Glitz pulled out his own blaster, the creature pounced on him, sinking its jagged teeth into his flesh.


Tekka held up the object that he had found, and Doland stared at it wonderingly. It was some kind of large gem. It was uncut and rather rough, but it still gleamed in the light from the dull sun. Tekka scanned the gem with his neurochip. It was a diamond—an improbably large one. It had to weigh almost 150g.

“It’s a diamond,” Tekka informed Doland.

“You’re joking.”

“I don’t make a habit of telling jokes.”

Doland could hardly believe it. General Blaize had told them that Dorian Night had not discovered any precious minerals when he came to scan the planet.

Tekka dug his hands into the dirt, sliding them through the black soil. He felt several more hard objects, and pulled them out one by one. Unbelievably, there were even more precious stones—rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and more diamonds. They were all at least as big as roanfruit. Without wasting another second, Doland began to rummage through the dirt himself, retrieving several large precious stones. He stuffed them into his pockets, his face lighting up with glee.

“This is amazing,” he said. “I’m glad we came to this planet, after all. I never thought I’d say that. Just think how much these things are worth! But I wonder how they got here…”

Tekka nodded. “Intriguing, isn’t it?”

The whole situation was strange. The excavation was large, but there was no sign of the dirt that had been lifted from the hole. Of course, it might have been taken away, but why would anyone want to do that? And there was more—he could sense the advanced technology that he had previously detected. It was somewhere very close.

But his train of thought was interrupted by a white flash. He looked up; the sky had become filled with dark clouds. A second later, there was a dull rumble.

“The lightning was close,” Tekka said quietly. He looked around; there was no shelter nearby. “Let us return to the ship.”

Doland shuddered, glancing at the storm clouds. He wasn’t about to argue with Tekka. He had already collected enough gems to retire on, and he didn’t like the look of the clouds. He remembered General Blaize mentioning something about chemical storms…

They clambered out of the dark pit, and began to run in the direction of the ship. Tekka pulled his communicator from his jacket pocket. “A storm has come upon us. Return to the ship right away.” He didn’t seem to think twice about giving orders to Captain Wickham.

As they ran, several bolts of lightning lashed out from the sky, narrowly missing them, and creating smoking holes in the ground. Doland felt nervous sweat dripping from every pore of his body, and his limbs were trembling as he ran. Tekka seemed more focussed than scared. Doland could see the ship in the distance, and he ran more quickly, motivated by the visible destination.

But before they could reach the ship, the heavens opened, and hot rain began to pour down on them. As the liquid touched his leather jacket, Doland heard a hissing sound—the rain was eating through his jacket. He felt a sudden surging pain—it was burning his face, his neck, his hands. Doland screamed out in pain. Tekka felt it too, but he just carried on running.

Fighting through the pain, Doland continued to run, even though he was in agony. To think of the damage the chemical rain must be doing… Finally, they reached the Wreck, and Tekka unlocked the door with his neurochip and pulled it open. They climbed into the ship and slammed the hatch behind them.

Doland stared out of the window at the horrific rain. “I hope the other two are all right…”

Then he looked down at his hands, and cried out in horror.


Glitz and Alyce, after seeing the gathering storm and hearing Tekka’s message, had quickly climbed into the shelter of a nearby cave, which was carved out of the mountain. They sat at the cave entrance as the first bolts of lightning began to strike, and watched the rain pour down.

“I don’t like the look of that rain,” Glitz said.

As it fell, it seemed to be striking down the animals that had not managed to find shelter in time. Even the rocks were hissing and dissolving.

“I hope to space they got to the ship,” Alyce said.

They stared out of the cave entrance, powerless to stop the awful storm, helpless in the face of the terrible thunder. After a few minutes, the rain gradually stopped. The clouds had dissipated; clearly the storm had run its course.

The landscape, if possible, had become even more barren. Glitz watched as a mountain, weakened by the assault, crumbled and collapsed, the towering structure turning to ruins. If the rain could do that to a mountain, Glitz dreaded to think what had become of Tekka and Doland. Was it possible that they had reached the ship in time?

Suddenly, Glitz became aware of a warm sensation on the back of his neck. He turned around, and came face-to-face with the most terrible thing that he had ever seen.


Doland stared at his hands. The skin had peeled away, revealing blood and bone. Touching his face gingerly, he realised that the flesh was cracking off there too. He almost felt like crying, although he would be too embarrassed to cry in front of Tekka.

Tekka examined the damage to his own body with a detached air, as if he was a doctor performing a check-up on another person.

“Chemical burns to 25% of the body,” he muttered. “It seems to be a form of hydrozine. The poisonous compound has penetrated the skin, and poisoned the blood. I would estimate less than an hour before the vital systems are impaired, and then death will shortly follow.”

Doland almost choked. “We’re going to die? How—how can you be so calm about it?”

He felt a crushing, annihilating sensation. So this was it? This was the end? Of course, he knew that soldiers could die on missions for the Imperium—that was a necessary risk of the job. But he wasn’t a soldier, or a sailor. He was just an ordinary man. A man that had made all the wrong choices.

“Oh, we are not going to die,” Tekka said, after a pause.

“We’re… we’re not?”


Doland was furious. “Then why did you make me think that!”

Tekka ignored him, and slid a gold ring off his thumb. Doland vaguely remembered that he had seen Tekka wearing it inside the prison ship on the way to Malus. He twisted the blue stone on the ring, and a cloud of tiny yellow dots flowed from it.

“These are nanobots,” Tekka said. “I built them myself when I was ten years old—it was a hobby of mine.”

Doland didn’t respond. Tekka activated his neurochip, and sent two commands to the nanobots. The first command: clean up all the chemicals from the interior of the ship. The second command: repair the damage to their bodies and clothes. Fixing tissue damage was just as easy as fixing torn clothing to a nanobot.

The nanobots glowed and flowed from the entrance of the ship to the spot where they were sitting. Then they swarmed around them. Doland felt a pleasant warm sensation as the tiny robots covered his skin. After a few seconds, the robots began to flow back towards Tekka’s finger, and returned into his ring.

Doland touched his face gently. His skin felt soft and pure, like a baby’s skin. He pulled up his sleeves; all of his skin had been repaired. Even the damage to his leather clothes had been undone.

“All traces of the chemical have been removed,” Tekka explained, “and all of the damage has been reversed.”

Despite his irritation with Tekka, Doland couldn’t help but feel a surge of gratitude. He shook hands with Tekka, feeling cool relief spreading through his body.

“Guess I owe you my life,” Doland said.


The creature was monstrous. It was roughly humanoid in shape, but the skin was tough and scaled. Its eyes were evil black slits, and it had claws attached to every limb.

Instinctively, Glitz pulled out his blaster and fired several shots at the creature. Each shot knocked it back, but it climbed back towards them, with no visible damage. It shouldn’t have been possible… nothing should be able to survive a direct hit from a ZK-88 at such close range.

The creature lunged at Glitz, slicing towards his throat with a dagger-like foreclaw. Alyce acted on instinct. She lifted up her own blaster, pressed it right into the creature’s eye, and fired. The laser blast shot through the eye and fried the creature’s brain; it fell back, dead.

“Space, are you OK?” Alyce said, rushing to Glitz.

Glitz grinned. “Just Glitz will do.”

Alyce smiled, relieved that he was unharmed. Those claws looked lethal. She peered at the stinking carcass, and realised that the skeleton they had found outside was probably from one of the creatures. The First Naval Lord might have given her a warning that such things existed on Chaos—he had given them the impression that the only predators were low and primitive creatures. But this creature had a large skull with a pronounced brow, which suggested a developed brain. And its eyes had contained a wicked hint of malevolence…

“Ah, hello there.”

Alyce raised her blaster again. A man was approaching the cave. He was dressed in a grey robe, and he was carrying a golden staff, which had a sapphire in the handle.

“Name yourself,” Alyce said, shocked to see another human.

“My name is Ozytan,” the man said, smiling. “We have lots to discuss.”

Chapter Twelve

The man called Ozytan had landed his ship on the planet during the chemical storm. It was parked near the cave, right next to a thin stream of lava. The man had to be at least fifty—possibly older. But his eyes had a twinkle of extreme youthfulness. His grey robe was simple and nondescript, but the man had an aura of great power.

Ozytan gestured to his ship. “Won’t you come in?”

“How do we know we can trust you?” Glitz said.

The man smiled, lifted up his staff, and brandished it towards a faraway mountain. A stream of light poured out of the sapphire, and struck the face of the rock. The mountain was demolished, reduced to dust in an instant. Glitz and Alyce stared at the destruction. It was clear that they weren’t being given a choice. Ozytan led the way into his craft. It was a handsome ship, but rather plain. The hull had a dark matte finish, and there were no decorations or symbols. It was clearly the ship that they had been searching for.

The interior of the ship was equally unexceptional. The walls were black and the ship was illuminated by bright lights. Ozytan led them through the ship, which was apparently empty. They turned a corner, and Glitz yelled in surprise. Standing outside a metal door were two terrible creatures, the same kind that had attacked him inside the cave.

“Do not be alarmed,” Ozytan said. “This is Regorn and Ragarn. They are my servants.”

“You’re keeping those… things as servants?” Glitz said, in disbelief.

Alyce looked similarly shocked. “One of them nearly killed Glitz.”

The man smiled. “Please, be at peace. I will explain everything shortly.”

The creatures stepped aside to allow them to enter the room; Glitz looked uneasily into one of the creature’s black eyes as they passed them. It was a small conference room, with a long metal table. The room was as bare as the other parts of the ship, and the benches were made of grey steel. Ozytan gestured for them to take a seat, and sat down at the head of the table. Glitz and Alyce sat down next to each other at the other end of the table. After a few minutes, two more Weerms entered, dragging Doland and Tekka with them. They dropped the men onto the floor of the conference room, and then left.

“Wh—what’s going on?” Doland said.

“I instructed my creatures to bring you here, my friends,” Ozytan said, smiling. “Please, sit.”

Doland and Tekka’s clothes were ripped, but they were clearly unharmed. The creatures had been careful. They sat down, warily, and Tekka glanced from Glitz and Alyce to the strange man at the head of the table.

“Now,” the man went on, “My name is Ozytan. I want to tell you all about the planet Chaos. You are—I assume—on a mission for the Imperium?”

Alyce shook her head. “No, of course not. We’re Proteists. We were exploring the Sector when we stumbled across this place.”

Ozytan laughed. “A most original cover story, but I’m afraid the ZK-99 blasters are a giveaway. Also, I know who you are, Captain Wickham. I have managed to access some of the Imperium’s military records; blackmail can be a most useful tool.” He frowned at Glitz, shaking his head. “Using non-military personnel for official missions… well, well. The Senate has really become desperate. Now, what are your names?”

The others reluctantly introduced themselves. Then Alyce turned to face the man. “And who are you?”

“I’ve told you. My name is Ozytan.” He smiled. “I think you must have seen my brother on public vidcasts. His name is Emperor Ferdinand.”

Alyce was shocked by this revelation, but it explained why the man looked so familiar. He had Ferdinand’s bone structure—the same rounded jaw and hooked nose. The eyes were also similar, although Ozytan’s eyes had an intense edge that almost seemed to suggest a touch of mania.

Ozytan’s eyes narrowed. “You see, I am the eldest son of Emperor Quintill, the previous ruler of the Imperium. The rulership of the empire should have been my birthright. But my rightful throne was cruelly snatched away from me when the Senate refused to name me as my father’s successor.”

Alyce knew that the Senate had complete authority to decide who would rule the Imperium. They tended to choose members of the same royal line, but public knowledge of the Imperial family was very scarce. Back in the days when Monarchism was the official religion of the Imperium, people had taken much more interest in the Imperial lineage. Now the office of the Emperor was simply a relic of a past age, albeit one that the Senate could not quite summon enough courage to abolish absolutely.

“What happened?” Alyce said, unable to conceal her curiosity.

“The Senate disapproved of my character and plans for the future of the Imperium,” Ozytan replied bitterly. “You see, I had some rather revolutionary ideas. To my mind, the history of the Imperium is one of unchecked power and brutal domination. I had it in my head to reform the Imperium—to implement a totally new way of governing. I wanted the Imperium to become a true parliamentary democracy, freed from the shackles of tyranny.” He tapped his staff softly on the ground. “But the Senate discovered my plans, and were frightened for the future of the Imperium. The Senate usually select the heir with the strongest blood claim, providing they can be sure of his weak co-operation, but can deviate from the line of succession with impunity. So they barred my ascension to the throne. My brother Ferdinand, a weak-spirited, easily-controlled man, was selected as the new Emperor. And I was left with nothing.” Ozytan paused again, staring severely into the sapphire on his staff.”

Alyce frowned. She was moved by Ozytan’s story, but she was a little confused. “Why are you telling us all of this?”

“Because I have a plan to reclaim my birthright,” Ozytan said, smiling for the first time. “When I was seventeen years of age, I was in an utterly hopeless state. I did not want to take any money from the Senate—not after what they had done to me. Creditless and powerless, I spent years in a state of idleness. All those wasted years… I roamed the galaxy like a cosmic vagrant, watching the Imperium become even more powerful and destructive.

“Then, around ten years ago, I took a hallucinogenic drug called Morpheus, which is banned across the galaxy due to severe neurological side effects. But, far from destroying my mind, the drug gave me a wondrous vision. Oh, the vision! I saw a future of kindness and prosperity, a galaxy under the umbrella of a utopian rule, shielded from dictating rain. I saw the Imperium transformed into a democratic peacekeeping organisation, committed to dispensing wisdom and justice. All inequality had been stamped out; every worker was paid fairly, and no one went hungry.” Ozytan’s eyes became even more wide. It was if a tiny flame had been lit behind each pupil. “What was more—I saw the means of achieving that vision. Morpheus showed me how the utopian future could be attained; it gave me a plan.”

Tekka, Glitz, Doland and Alyce watched silently as Ozytan carried on speaking.

“I already knew of a planet called Chaos, a planet of terrible natural events and fierce predators. But I finally understood the potential of the world. It was to become the foundation of a brand new species.” Ozytan grinned. “Imagine a life form born into chaos. From its first waking breath, this creature is hounded on every side by chemical storms and vicious animals. Every second of its life is a bitter fight for survival, acted out on the stage of an unforgiving, uncaring world.”

“Such a creature would be terrible,” Tekka said.

“Precisely,” Ozytan said. “Humans, while having the potential for goodness, have evolved many undesirable traits on a planet as nourishing as Homeworld—or wherever else the humans came into being. Imagine what kind of animal would be produced by millions of years of evolution on a world such as Chaos.”

Tekka was imagining it—and it was almost too terrible to consider.

“But producing such an organism would take millions of years, and there would be the risk of the creature becoming extinct before it reached a sufficient level of ruthlessness. Right?” Ozytan tapped his stick excitedly as his voice rose in fervour. “Wrong! I have managed to evolve such a creature in a matter of weeks!”

“It is not possible,” Tekka said.

“On the contrary, it is perfectly possible. You see, after seeing my wondrous vision, I started up a corporation called the East Galaxy Company—perhaps you have heard of it.” Glitz raised his eyebrows. He had worked for that company for years, but had never found out who owned it. “I sold my shares in the company two years ago for fifty billion credits, and used the funds to develop a chrono-disrupter.”

“Ah,” Tekka said.

“A chrono-what?” Doland said.

“The device was designed to seal this planet within a time bubble—accelerating the march of time within the isolation field. In short, it would allow millions of years to take place inside the bubble, when only a few days have passed outside it.”

Tekka turned to Glitz. “Remember when we landed on the planet? There was a heavy disturbance on our chronometer. That must have been the time field.”

Ozytan nodded. “Of course, the acceleration process has finished, so we are currently existing at normal time.” He smiled, as if admiring his own cleverness. “One thing was clear to me after experiencing my vision. I knew that the Imperium could only be taken down by a creature of utter depravity. I had to evolve an animal with no compassion, no kindness, and no emotions except anger and hatred. And I have succeeded.” He thrust his staff out towards the door. “Behold—the Weerms!”

On cue, the two creatures that had been guarding the conference room stepped inside it. They were the same type of creature that had attacked Glitz in the cave. They were human shaped, but with snake-like skin, under which powerful muscles rippled. They had vicious claws attached to every limb, as well as a barbed tail. Their teeth were like jagged pieces of painted glass.

“My Weerms…” Ozytan said, with the pride of a father showing off the accomplishments of his sons. “Living proof that—given a hostile enough environment—evil is a desirable evolutionary characteristic.”

Alyce and the three men were speechless in the face of the creatures. After hearing Ozytan’s story, they all felt a sense of horror. To create such a creature… it was madness.

“What source material did you use?” Tekka said quietly, somehow already guessing the answer. “From which animal did you evolve these creatures?”

Ozytan stood up to his full height, basking in the glory of his creation. “From us, of course. The Weerms are the evolutionary descendants of a hundred thousand slaves that were bought from the Crystal Mines of Ziridian. They are the distillation of every malevolent impulse that exists in the human brain, stripped of all goodness.”

Alyce stared at the two Weerms, feeling a sickness well up in her stomach. So they used to be human…

Doland pulled out one of the diamonds from his pocket, and showed it to Ozytan. “I found this buried in the dust. I suppose you had something to do with this, too?”

Ozytan smiled, glancing at the glinting object. “Of course. I used various scientific methods to encourage the formation of precious stones during the millions of accelerated years. When I harvested the Weerms, I also mined a huge quantity of diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds—the stones will help to fund my military campaign against the Imperium.” He nodded at Doland. “You can keep whatever you found. They are simply the table-droppings of what I have already collected.”

Doland tucked the stone inside his pocket, hoping that Oyztan wouldn’t change his mind. Glitz was horrified by Ozytan’s actions, but a part of him felt that it wasn’t anything to do with him. He had always kept out of politics, and since his dismissal from the army he had had nothing to do with the military—not until he was coerced into going along on the current mission. The Weerms were clearly dreadful beings, but that only made him want to get away from them as quickly as possible. But before he left the planet he wanted to find some precious stones of his own…

Tekka pulled out a ruby, and held it under the light. “Surely the chrono-disrupter had a certain destabilising effect on the planet’s molecules? Of course, the vibrations would cause little problem within the isolated field, but how did you manage to remove the Weerms and the precious stones from the planet?”

“Ah, that was a significant problem,” Ozytan said, smiling. “And I must say that it is a pleasure to speak to someone with a scientific turn of mind. I got around the problem by using a ship fitted with a second chrono-disrupter—the effect was to remove the vibrations by oscillating on a reverse frequency.”

Tekka nodded, feeling some admiration towards Ozytan. He might have committed acts of unspeakable atrocity, but he was also clearly a genius.

Alyce looked with disgust at Ozytan. She certainly didn’t have any admiration for the man. “Why are you telling us all of this?”

“Simple. I want you to report everything to the Senate.” Ozytan beamed; he could tell that his words had surprised them. “Yes, indeed. At first, when the acceleration was in process, I went to great lengths to ensure that the procedure was not interrupted—including destroying any ships that came near.”

Doland looked puzzled. Was Ozytan really going to let them go after telling them all of his plans? Why would he want the Grand Senate to know about his scheme? Surely it was some sort of trap.

“I want you to tell them all about my plan, and I want them to realise that the inexorable march of the Weerms cannot be prevented. They do not injure, or tire, or feel. They are unstoppable, and I want my brother—along with the rest of the Senate—to know that control of the Imperium will shortly be taken from them.”

Alyce exchanged a glance with Glitz. Ozytan pointed to the door. “What are you waiting for? Off you go. Tell the Senate everything you have seen here.”

Frowning, Tekka stood up, and the others followed. Edging carefully past the terrible Weerms, they left the conference room, and stepped off the ship back into the chaotic dust.

“Well, looks like we know where we’re going next,” Alyce said. “Let’s go back to Lightworld.”

They returned to the ship—despite Glitz and Doland’s protestations that they should look for more precious stones—and Alyce programmed in their return flight path. The Wreck lifted back into the air. As they broke out of the atmosphere of Chaos, there was another disturbance on the chronometer.

Doland felt something warm in his pocket. He stuck in his hand, and realised with dismay that his precious stones had turned to dust, and so had Tekka’s.

“It was to be expected,” Tekka said. “The artificial time field is too destabilising; objects cannot be taken off the planet without prior stabilisation. Weren’t you listening to Ozytan?”

Tekka scowled, feeling cheated. He would have been able to buy so much with those jewels… He returned to his bunk, closed his eyes, and tried to sleep. Alyce stayed on the flight deck, staring out at the stars, and thinking about the dreadful Weerms.

Chapter Thirteen


Volori System

The arrival of their ship to Lightworld caused some consternation. When they approached the strange planet, the protection forces on Lightworld went into full alert, ready to shoot down the bizarre ship. It didn’t look like a threat, but it was a historic tactic to hide powerful weaponry in a seemingly innocuous ship, allowing it to get near to its target without raising alarm. The First Naval Lord himself was notified that an unidentified ship was in the vicinity of the planet, and asked for permission to destroy it.

But, at that moment, Alyce finally managed to make a successful communication with the planet. The communicator on the Wreck had been malfunctioning, and they had not been able to contact Lightworld or respond to their commands to identify themselves.

“Do not fire!” Alyce said urgently. “I repeat: do not fire! This is Captain Alyce Wickham, serving under the direct orders of the First Naval Lord. Do not fire!”

There was a pause, and Alyce held her breath. The men were clenching their fists, sweating. If they didn’t believe her identity…

“Permission granted for landing, Captain,” the voice said. “Come on down.”

Alyce exhaled slowly, cursing herself for not keeping the Beetle. She was almost certainly going to be in trouble for causing such alarm. Not only that, she had traded away Imperial property. She couldn’t help feeling some trepidation, but she managed to keep her emotions in check and made a successful landing on the planet’s surface.

They stepped out of the Wreck, and looked around at the planet. Alyce rarely got a chance to see the exterior of the planet up close; members of the Navy ranking lower than admiral were rarely required to visit Lightworld. As directed, she had landed the ship in a white circle many miles away from the main “city”, a security precaution because the ship was unknown. The planet’s curious atmosphere meant that the sky was a dull sepia colour, and the white terrain was perfectly level. In the distance, Alyce could see some of the maze-like structures that spread all across the planet, almost forming a circuit-board pattern. The air was perfectly still, and seemed oddly artificial—it was like breathing from an oxygen tank.

After they had waited outside the ship for a few moments, a roaring sound filled the air, increasing in intensity. Some sort of vehicle was heading in their direction. As it came closer, Alyce saw that it was a standard levitating buggy. It stopped at the ship, and an officer got off it, saluting to Alyce. It was Midshipman Barnes, the man that had accompanied her to Lightworld.

“Good to see you, Midshipman,” Alyce said, secretly relieved that it was no one more senior. It meant that she might not be in so much trouble after all.

“Likewise, Captain,” Midshipman Barnes said, smiling. He gestured to the buggy. “Please have a seat. I’ll take you straight to the Admiralty Board.”

They climbed into the buggy, which began to move again. Tekka stared out of the window, trying to observe as much as possible. Information about the planet was scarce, because no one except trusted members of the Navy and a few other privileged people were ever allowed near it.

The buggy reached the building after a short ride. It was an imposing building carved from white stone. The shape was almost a pyramid. Tekka knew from their last visit to Lightworld that miles of catacombs lied beneath the structure, spreading out under the ground like the roots of some great tree.

“Follow me, Captain,” Midshipman Barnes said, leading Captain Wickham and the others towards the building.


The full Admiralty Board was in session. Thirty officers sat at the sparkling black table, dressed in full ceremonial robes, their faces grave. They were talking in low voices, but fell silent when Alyce and her three companions were brought in. Admiral Andronica, wearing his gold-buttoned uniform, frowned when he saw what they were wearing. He didn’t think much to leather clothing.

“Welcome,” the First Naval Lord said. He managed to smile, but his face was serious. “Please say that you can enlighten us, Captain Wickham.”

“I can,” Alyce said simply. “But I fear that you will not like the truth.”

The First Naval Lord waved a hand. “Be frank and precise. Hold no piece of information back. Tell us your full report.”

“Very well.”

Alyce proceeded to relate their entire experience from the moment of leaving the spaceport. She briefly told the Board about their purchase of the scrapyard ship from the Stolnites, and the visit to Clothes Direct, before moving on to the main body of the report. She told them, with a slight tremor in her voice, about their arrival on Chaos, including the dreadful creatures they witnessed there. Finally, lowering her voice slightly, she told the First Naval Lord and the rest of the admirals about their meeting with the Emperor’s brother Ozytan, and about his terrible plan regarding the Weerms.

When Alyce had finished the report, the First Naval Lord had turned very pale. He fixed his eyes on Alyce, his face softening a little. “You have been exceptionally brave, Captain Wickham, not to mention cunning and resourceful. The idea of purchasing the scrapyard ship, and the Proteist disguises, was masterful… masterful…”

A few heads nodded in quiet agreement, and Alyce felt herself colouring a little from pride.

“And you three,” the First Naval Lord said, turning to Glitz, Doland and Tekka. “Very, very well done.”

Glitz smiled. “Thank you, sir.”

The First Naval Lord was terrified after learning of Ozytan’s plan. But his feelings would not prevent him from showing due gratitude to those that had brought him the information. Glitz, Tekka and Doland—as well as receiving full pardons from the Senate—were given a reward of fifty thousand credits each, and Captain Wickham was given two months involuntary paid leave—despite her protestations—to recover from her ordeal. If there was a war looming, she wanted to fight! She didn’t want to be hidden away on some leisure planet, away from the action. But the First Naval Lord waved away her assertions, pointing out that she was not experienced in actual warfare. The Captain was convinced that the First Naval Lord’s attitude was because she was a woman, but she didn’t dare argue further.

After they had politely thanked the First Naval Lord for his kindness, they left the Admiralty Board Room and stood outside the white structure, waiting for Midshipman Barnes. The Midshipman arrived, and took them back to their ship in the buggy.

Captain Alyce Wickham got out of the buggy with Glitz and the others, and bowed courteously.

“Thank you for your role in this mission,” she said formally. “You can be sure that your assistance is most appreciated by the Imperium.” She paused, and a slightly more human edge crept into her voice. “So… I guess this is it.”

“I guess so,” Glitz replied. “Here—you’d better have my contact chip.”

Doland and Tekka said nothing; they simply waited by the Wreck, eager to leave the planet before the First Naval Lord could change his mind and revoke their pardon.

“Right,” Alyce said, coughing. “Well… goodbye, Harlan Glitz.”

Glitz might have imagined it, but it almost seemed like a surge of tenderness rushed through her face. But she quickly turned, got back into the buggy, and drove back to the building with Midshipman Barnes. Glitz felt a sense of regret as she drove away, but knew deep down that their parting was inevitable. They were from different worlds. Alyce had all the admirable qualities—bravery, responsibility, patriotism. Glitz felt that he would never be able to measure up to such a woman.

He smiled weakly at Doland. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Finally,” Doland said, rolling his eyes. “Let’s get away from here.”

Without looking back, Glitz climbed into the Wreck with Doland and Tekka, and they made a speedy take-off. Within a few minutes, the planet Lightworld was simply a speck on the long-distance scanner. Glitz felt sure that he would never see Alyce Wickham ever again. He didn’t realise that he would be meeting her again very soon indeed.

Chapter Fourteen

Chamber of Stars


Politic System

Ropeville was the home of the Chamber of Stars, the Imperial Parliament. The Imperium was essentially an autocracy, a dictatorship presided over by a ruling body, the Grand Senate. However, there were times when the Emperor needed to call a full Parliament. Of course, the Grand Senate without exception were the real orchestrators of such events; the Emperor had no real personal power. If an Emperor called for a full session of the Chamber of Stars, it generally meant that the Senate either wanted to raise taxes or raise a larger army. In this instance, the Senate wanted to do the former.

Emperor Ferdinand was sitting in his golden throne at the head of the Parliament, waiting for all of the Planetary Ambassadors to arrive. Behind him, on rows of golden benches, sat the real figures of power—the members of the Senate. There were thousands of semi-autonomous planets in the Imperium, and each of these planets had at least one official representative in Parliament. The poor worlds, such as those on the Rim, or those with a majority alien population, were not permitted to be a member of the Chamber of Stars. On the whole, while the more favoured planets were allowed a degree of autonomy when managing their own affairs, the Grand Senate (using the Emperor as a puppet and mouthpiece, of course) had the only real power in the Imperium. However, the Senate did not have the power to raise taxes above a yearly increase of 4%. Unusual circumstances called for additional parliamentary agreement. In this instance, the Senate needed to charge all member planets of the Imperium a one-off tax, in order to fund a possible war.

The Chamber of Stars was a grand place, both in terms of scale and style. The ceiling was cavernous, and everything was coated in gold or silver. Representatives from each planet sat in separate gilded “boxes”, which moved around in a constant orbit around the room, ensuring that no ambassadors could get the impression that they were in a position of lesser or greater prestige in relation to the other members.

All around the chamber, the ambassadors took their places. The Emperor watched as the main representative of Alpha Centauri made her way into her seat. She was a beautiful mixed-race woman—half-human and half-Pixie. The event of a mixed-race person being elected to such a high office seemed to many to be an encouraging sign of improving relations with alien races. To others, it was a terrible crime to put such an abomination in a position of power. Within a few minutes, everyone was seated.

“Welcome,” the Emperor said.

He began to make the formal parliamentary introductions. It was a somewhat tedious process, but it was a necessary formality. Then he moved on to the list of issues brought forward by several planets. It seemed ridiculous to spend almost an hour discussing shipping disputes, galactic boundaries, the rudeness of Stolnites, and other minor issues, when there was the vital matter of defending the Imperium against its enemies to be discussed. But the Imperium was founded on centuries of unchanged ritual, and Emperor Ferdinand knew the importance of respecting tradition.

Finally, when all decisions regarding the trivial issues had either been resolved or postponed for further deliberation in another session, the Emperor began to tell the gathered ambassadors about the great danger posed by his brother, Ozytan. He held no detail back from the representatives; as members of the Imperium, they had a right to know everything. Of course, his words were not his own; the entire speech had been drawn up by the Senate. When he had finished the story—which had been interspersed with shocked exclamations—a terrible silence fell over the Chamber.

“And now, my friends, I must ask a great thing of you,” the Emperor concluded. “You must vote to donate to the Imperium a one-off payment of 5% A.P.G, to be paid in addition to your yearly tax amount. I understand that this is a lot to ask for, but I hope you will agree that my request matches the magnitude of the danger.”

The majority of the ambassadors did not need to think about the Emperor’s request. Many of them felt a great sense of pride at being part of the Imperium, which was founded on noble traditions. Even those who disliked the Imperium did not want to be conquered by a species as hellish as the Weerms. The members from the planet Nortan—a planet which was notorious as a seat of radical views—actually agreed with Ozytan’s motives. The idea of a democratic Imperium run entirely as a republic, without a single ruling figure, was very attractive to them. However, they could not support Ozytan’s actions. The idea of forcibly evolving a creature of pure evil was abhorrent to them, and they voted in support of Emperor Ferdinand, despite their liberal leanings.

The Emperor felt a wave of relief when there was overwhelming support for the Senate’s request.

“Thank you, my friends,” the Emperor said. “Thank you.”

Of course, the Emperor had no real power; he was simply a figurehead for the dictatorship of the Senate. He had brought the proposition before the Chamber of Stars because of the direct orders of the Senate; he could initiate no original motions of his own design. But Emperor Ferdinand had no wish to defy the Senate; he was happy to respect the historic precedent of rulership by the Grand Senate. His brother was the one who had always wished to rock the boat, to implement pointless changes, to spark senseless revolution. But now they would be able to raise an even mightier army to fight against Ozytan. Then his rebellious brother would see the true might of the Imperium.


The crew of the Wreck were heading towards the planet Necreon, a desert world in the Gold Sector. Tekka would depart at Necreon, leaving Glitz and Doland to travel back to the core worlds. Glitz didn’t know why Tekka wanted to go to Necreon—the planet was little more than a giant shoreless beach, with extreme temperatures and hardly any water. The planet was mostly inhabited by Stolnites, another reason why Glitz wouldn’t go there personally. But Tekka, when questioned, refused to explain why he wanted to be dropped off there.

“I have my reasons,” he had replied simply.

They reached Necreon in a matter of days. The ship felt somewhat empty without the presence of Alyce, and Glitz found the journey tiresome. They tried to pass the time by playing cards, drinking whisky, and watching old vidfilms, but it was hard to be cooped up in such a small ship. Glitz felt very relieved when they finally reached the planet.

“Excellent,” Tekka said, as the planet came into view out of the window.

It was a sand world, with a single small ocean on the northern hemisphere. It was a dry, barren planet, but after experiencing Chaos, it seemed positively hospitable. Tekka carefully landed the ship, and climbed out onto the desert. The sun was hot and bright; behind heat haze, he could see a group of cloaked Stolnites, sweeping the desert with metal detection sensors.

Glitz and Doland followed Tekka out of the ship, and stared out at the sandy planet. If there had been a nearby ocean, it might have seemed quite pleasant. But there was no refreshing blue sea to provide contrast and relief—the landscape was identical for miles around. Glitz was still wearing his leather ensemble from the Proteist shop, and he felt himself beginning to sweat under the heat of the sun.

“Well,” Tekka said. “Now I leave you.”

He shook hands unemotionally with Glitz and Doland. Glitz was surprised that he actually felt a little regretful about leaving him. They had all been through a lot together, and despite Tekka’s cold personality, he had found himself warming to him.

“See you,” Glitz said. “If you ever need anything, get in touch. Here’s my contact chip.”

Tekka nodded. “Thank you. Goodbye.”

Without saying another word, Tekka turned and began to stroll north across the desert, which was the opposite direction to where the Stolnites were headed. Glitz took one last look at the unfruitful planet, then climbed back into the Wreck.


“Hydra is now back in business,” Glitz said, grinning.

Using the ship’s computer, he had accessed the Net and reactivated his callsign. The Net was an anonymous data exchange which was loosely based around the ancient network architecture known in some legends as the Internet. But the Net had the advantage—or disadvantage, depending on your viewpoint—of being largely unrestricted and untraceable. It enabled totally anonymous transfer of data, at least in theory. In practice, there were still ways to track Net usage—if you were clever enough. The Office for Public Morality, a prominent arm of the Imperium, had several tricks up its sleeve when it came to monitoring Net use. However, monitoring was expensive, and even the great Imperium did not have sufficient resources to police all areas of the Net. Thus, before Glitz was arrested, he had been active on the Net for years, arranging to pick up illegal goods in addition to his official cargo.

“You’re online again?” Doland said.

“Online and ready to go.” A message popped up on the screen; someone was making an incoming call—Glitz instantly recognised the callsign.


“Hydra!” The man that had appeared on the screen was balding and corpulent, but he had an apparently cheery disposition. “I thought you were locked up for years!”

“I escaped.”

“Escaped? From Malus?”

“I met a guy—a computer expert. Then after that…” Glitz stopped himself. He had been about to tell Spaceman, which was the man’s net callsign, about his mission for the Imperium. But he quickly remembered that the Emperor had made them agree to keep the whole thing a secret. If people learned about the Weerms, they might panic. “…so now I’m heading to Edo, to collect a few things.”

“Congratulations, then! Want to make a little detour? I might have a job for you, if you’re interested.”

“What kind of job? Nothing illegal. I don’t want to get sent back to Malus.”

“No, no, it’s nothing illegal, I promise you! Perhaps it involves… bending a few laws.”

Glitz frowned. He had known Spaceman for many years, although they had never actually met in person. The man had contacts all over the galaxy, and always seemed to find out if there was a money-making opportunity somewhere. However, he never liked to get his own hands dirty. If there was a possible job, he would tell someone else about it, taking a small commission for his troubles.

“What job?” Glitz sighed.

“Just a little one, just a little one! Word has it that a shipment of medical lasers was sent to Hansea last week. Just a routine delivery, you know. The equipment was sent to the Abigail Smythe Hospital on the planet, in fulfilment of an order. But, for some reason, the lasers were recalled by the delivery company. I expect there was some kind of mechanical fault with the equipment—something trivial, you know.” Spaceman smiled, revealing a gold tooth among his white teeth. “Of course, when the lasers are returned, they will probably be stripped of their components, so no one is to profit from them as matters stand.”

“What are you getting at?”

“Well, if the lasers were to go… missing, would it be such a big deal? They’re only faulty equipment after all. And no one would lose out—the insurance company would cover the losses of the manufacturer.”

“I’m not sure about this. How many lasers?”

“I don’t know… maybe around a hundred? The thing is, these medical lasers contain Zirgotic crystals, which I’m sure you know fetch up to ten thousand credits a piece. So you stand to make a profit of—well, let me see now—around one million.”

Glitz whistled through his teeth. It was certainly a lot of money. And the plan was undeniably attractive. If everything went well, all he would need to do was walk into the hospital, pick up the crate of medical lasers, and walk out again. But a part of him was worried. He was very lucky to have not only escaped from Malus, but also to have obtained a full pardon. If he was sentenced again, there would be no Tekka to help him get free.

“I can’t,” he said finally. “It’s a tempting offer, but I promised myself I’d stick to legitimate cargoes from now on. I can’t risk going back to prison.”

“Wait a minute,” Doland said, turning to Glitz. “I mean… one million credits? One million credits for picking up some medical equipment?”

“For stealing some medical equipment,” Glitz replied.

Doland shrugged. “We could do with the money.”

Glitz frowned. He had to admit that the promise of such a great deal of money was exciting. The First Naval Lord’s gift of fifty thousand credits had been generous, but it would hardly last for long. And it was unlikely that he would find a job again—at least not as a cargo trader. Criminal records could be accessed by any potential employer.

“No one will find out,” Spaceman said, wiping his sweaty brow with a handkerchief. “The East Galaxy Company fulfils millions of orders every single day—they will hardly pay much attention to a single missing shipment.”

Glitz stroked his chin. “The East Galaxy Company, you say?” So the shipment of medical lasers had been delivered by his old company, the one owned by Ozytan. And Ozytan had told them that his profits from the company helped to fund his military movements, so in a way they would be doing the Imperium a favour by stealing the equipment…

“What cut would you be looking for?” Glitz said.

“Standard rate. 10%.”

Glitz nodded at Doland, sighing slowly. “We’ll do it.”

Spaceman grinned. “Fantastic. I assume you know the location of Hansea? It’s in the Silver Sector—the planet’s part of the Helliam System. The hospital itself is located almost in the centre of the Health Zone. You’ll be likely to find the equipment in the main surgery equipment store. Failing that, you can use one of the computer terminals to check the purchase log. I’ll send you the laser serial number.”


“I’d better leave you now. I’ve heard rumours of a collapsed gold mine on Sygmus. There might be a job in it for my old friend Jocka the Digger. Good luck! You can wire me the 10% after the mission—if you’re successful, of course. Have fun! Spaceman out.”

“Hydra out.”

It didn’t take long to travel to the Silver Sector, and Glitz spent the entire journey wondering if he had made a mistake in accepting the job. But there was no turning back now. Spaceman was in charge of nearly all illicit trade across the galaxy, taking 10% of every job. If you let him down one too many times, he would simply stop giving you work. But maybe that’s not a problem, Glitz thought. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe if I stopped getting work from Spaceman I’d be forced into doing something honest.

But he decided that he would carry out the job on Hansea. With half a million credits, he wouldn’t have to worry about getting work for a long time…

They reached the vicinity of the planet. It was a strange looking world. There was a divide almost exactly down the centre, splitting the eastern and western hemispheres. Half of the planet was covered in snow and ice, and the other half was hot and barren. The two halves were demarcated by a strip of verdant country.

“The planet of extremes,” Doland said, quoting from an article he was reading on the Net. “Half of the planet is inhospitably hot, and the other half is unacceptably cold. The strip of land in the centre is called the Health Zone; it is a habitable area filled with thousands of private hospitals. Patients from all over the Imperium visit the planet; it is famous for medical excellence.

“Any Imperial hospitals?”

He scanned the text. “A few. Luckily, the Abigail Smythe Hospital is private.”

“Thank space for that.” Glitz paused, staring at the bizarre planet. “How could a world like this ever come about?”

“A terraforming experiment that went wrong. According to the Encyclopaedia Imperia, the world was originally supposed to become a paradise planet.” He scrolled down through the article, quoting loosely again: “The original settlers around two hundred years ago used the now-defunct technique of particle excitement… blah, blah, blah… alter the weather conditions without the necessity to move the planet closer to the sun. But the technique was only partially successful, leaving the small belt of green land, etc…etc… Of course, the developers had spent vast amounts of money on the terraforming process, and they did not want the planet to go to waste. It was clearly unusable as a paradise world, so it became a centre of medicine.

“So where’s the hospital?”

“Right in the middle of the Health Zone.” Doland pressed a button, and a flashing light appeared on the scanner. “That red light is the location. That’s where we need to go.”

“Fine. You ready? Let’s go.”

Glitz contacted the OTC, and requested permission to enter orbit around the planet, so they could land. He explained that one of his crew was seriously ill, and he needed urgent treatment. The man in charge of landing permits pointed out with an air of snobbishness that medical treatment on Hansea was invariably expensive.

“Are you saying that I’m poor?” Glitz said.

“No, sir. I am simply suggesting that perhaps a man who is driving a rundown Box 2000 ship might not have the funds required for treatment in the Health Zone.”

“If you must know, I have a credit bar here worth fifty thousand credits.” Glitz flashed the silver bar in front of the camera. “That’s enough to be get things started, right?”

The man’s demeanour changed. “Of course, sir. My apologies. Permission granted to enter planetary orbit and to land if you so wish.”

“Well, thank you!”

Glitz deactivated the communications line and grinned at Doland. They had permission to enter orbit around the planet, and the man hadn’t even taken their names or credentials. Every planet had a different space traffic policy, and Glitz had been worried about giving out his name. But now it would be easy for them to land near the hospital, steal the medical lasers, and fly away again. Then they could dump the Wreck in a scrapyard somewhere—maybe even back on Cronor—and enjoy the one million credit profit. No one would ever find out.

“Did you find out anything about the lasers?” Doland said.

Glitz accessed the file that had been sent by Spaceman, and summarised the information for Doland. It was the supporting documentation for the delivery of the equipment, evidently stolen from the servers of the East Galaxy Company. The lasers had been delivered two days ago. They were called Cellzers, which Glitz thought was a silly name. The item specification revealed the nature of the equipment; Cellzers were cutting tools used in surgical procedures. Instead of actually slicing into the skin of a patient, Cellzers would create an artificial opening by shifting around the skin cells, allowing the surgeon entry into the body. After the operation was complete, the Cellzer would seal up the wound without leaving any scarring. There had been similar devices around for decades, but the Cellzer was the first not to leave even a superficial scar.

“Sounds high-tech,” Doland said. “And profitable…”

“Right. I’m taking us into orbit now.”

Glitz had become fully accustomed to the idiosyncrasies present in the ship’s design, and he could operate it easily, compensating for any hardware faults. He brought the ship into a perfect orbit with ease.

“So here’s the plan.” Glitz paused, checking the structure in his head before confirming that it was sound. “Right, OK. First, we land on the planet and go into the Abigail Smythe Hospital. Our story is that you’ve been infested with a Gargonian brain parasite, and need urgent treatment.”

Doland let his eyelids and mouth droop; a line of saliva dropped from his lips.

“Uncanny. Once we’re in the hospital, we make a break for it and enter one of the staff changing rooms. There’s bound to be some spare uniforms lying around. So we change into a uniform each, and then travel down in one of the elevators to the main storage area. We pick up the Cellzers—they’ll probably be pretty heavy, but we’ll manage—and return to the Wreck. Then we get out of here as quickly as possible.”

“Got it.”

“Ready?” Glitz said.

Doland nodded, and Glitz prepared for landing.

Chapter Fifteen

Glitz and Doland were standing in a lush green square, which was part of the courtyard of the Abigail Smythe Hospital. Glitz didn’t know who Abigail Smythe was, but many modern hospitals were named after exemplary scientists from antiquity. The courtyard made it clear that it was a private hospital; Glitz wondered vaguely how much treatment would cost in such a luxurious place. A crystal fountain stood in the middle of the square, surrounded by benches carved out of fragrant limewood. The white brick path leading to the hospital was edged by excellent statues.

The two men followed the white path towards the hospital. The building itself was a stunning design, which clearly followed the classic architectural principles laid out by Sir Delphon Bruneletti in his excellent book Principles for a Classical Future. Neither Glitz nor Doland knew the first thing about architecture, but they both recognised the splendour of the fine building.

They entered through the main door, and stepped into a finely decorated reception hall. The two men walked along the flagged stone floor and approached the reception desk. A blonde woman was sitting at the desk filing her nails discreetly, but she put away the nail file and smiled when she saw the visitors.

“Good morning!” she said politely, her golden hair illuminated by sunlight streaming through the glass roof. “Welcome to Abigail Smythe Hospital. May I take the name of the patient?”

She politely averted her eyes from Doland, who was slumped against Glitz with his eyes rolling and his tongue hanging out. He was giving a very good impression of a man with a Gargonian parasite, even though Glitz thought he might be overdoing it slightly.

“His name’s Ral Burnote. I’m afraid it’s a pretty bad case of parasite infection.”

The woman typed into her computer terminal, then looked up at Glitz. “Thank you.” She waved a hand over a sensor, and a glowing white shape appeared. It was a kind of stretcher that seemed to be made of light. “You can let go now,” she explained.

Glitz—hoping that Doland wouldn’t give himself away—let go of him slowly. As he did so, Doland began to rise slowly into the air, as if carried by an invisible force. The force lifted him, like some great puppet, onto the glowing stretcher. Then the stretcher began to move away from the reception desk.

“Please follow the stretcher,” the receptionist said. “It will lead you to the appropriate ward. The Abigail Smythe Hospital wishes you the very best of future health.”


Glitz still felt ridiculously nervous; it had been a while since he had been on a job. But everything seemed to be going smoothly. They followed the stretcher as it led them away from the main reception area, and along a white corridor, which was labelled CRANIOSURGERY DEPARTMENT. Glitz noticed a door marked STAFF CHANGING ROOM and tapped Doland.

“In here!”

Doland leapt off the stretcher and followed Glitz inside the room. It was a small room with lines of pegs and changing cubicles. The room was empty. Thank space for that, Glitz thought. He began to open the nearby lockers one by one, searching for…

“Here we go.”

Inside the locker, there was a pile of sealed plastic bags, each containing something made from white fabric. Glitz pulled out two bags and checked the sizes. They were both marked “Medium: Single Use”.

“Put one of these on.”

Glitz and Doland each dived into a separate cubicle. Glitz pulled off his leather jacket and jeans, pulling on the white medical clothes. It was a one-piece garment that looked almost like a white jacket and trousers, except that the arms and legs were short. The texture of the thing felt strange, because it was made of recyclable plasthyne. Doctors had been ordered to start wearing these type of clothes, which were called “singles”, after the terrible TRPT pandemic thirty years previously, which had been the scourge of the galaxy.

After the two men had changed, they hid their old clothes in one of the lockers and left the changing rooms. The floating stretcher was no longer in the corridor; Glitz guessed that it must have either dissolved or returned to reception. He turned to Doland.

“Right. Remember what Spaceman said? The Cellzers should be in the main equipment store, rather than in a specific department. So we need to find an elevator.”

“I saw one on the way here, just outside the corridor.”

At that moment, two doctors wearing singles appeared and marched down the corridor. Glitz froze, and nodded stiffly in greeting as they passed. The doctors ignored them, apparently lost in their own conversation. Glitz and Doland exhaled slowly, and left the corridor.

They stepped into the elevator, which was panelled with limewood. A female digital face appeared in the gilded mirror.

“Good morning. Which floor do you require?”

“Main storage,” Glitz said, unsure of the floor.

“Certainly, sir. Please provide your security clearance code.”

Space, Glitz thought. Where’s Tekka when you need him? He racked his brains, trying to figure out what to do. If they gave the wrong code, they risked attracting the attention of security. But if they didn’t enter any code at all, they wouldn’t be able to enter the storage area.

Then a nurse entered the elevator. She had dark hair and she was dressed in blue plasthyne scrubs. She frowned at Doland, and smiled at Glitz.

“Second floor,” she said.

Glitz touched her arm. “Er… my name’s Dr. Glitz. I’m new here. I wonder if you can help me? I don’t seem to have security clearance for the main storage floor… I don’t suppose you have an access code?”

The woman smiled. “I’ll swap it for your contact chip.”

“It’s a deal.”

“OK, the override password is ‘Velvet Nights’, you know, after the chocolates. But don’t go telling everyone. It’s bad for security. You’re supposed to have the full ID scan and everything. But us nurses always forget our clearance cards.”

Glitz winked. “I won’t tell a soul.”

The elevator doors slid open when they reached the second floor.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” the nurse said.


“Your chip.”

“Oh, of course.” Glitz reached into the pocket of his single, into which he had dropped his wallet. He removed a contact chip, and passed it to the nurse.

The nurse grinned. “I’ll call you.”

With that, she turned on her heel and walked primly out of the lift, turning to wink again at Glitz before the doors closed. Doland glanced at Glitz with some jealousy. He really couldn’t understand what women saw in the man. To be able to walk into a lift, persuade an attractive nurse to give you security clearance… and then for her to ask for your number… Doland had never had an experience that came remotely close.

“Take us to the storage floor,” Glitz said.

“Certainly. Please provide security clearance.”

“Override: Velvet Nights.”

There was a slight pause, and Glitz’s stomach lurched slightly. What if it was the wrong code? What if security came charging in to arrest them?

“Override accepted.”

The lift began to move down, and Glitz wiped his brow. A few seconds later, the doors slid open again, and they stepped into what looked like a darkened warehouse. A sensor, responding to their presence, activated the lights. As the gravity globes hanging above the storage bay flickered on, the men realised just how big the place was. It had to be almost the size of a gravity-ball pitch.

Glitz wandered over to a computer terminal, and tried to access it. But the system kept locking him out, because he didn’t have the required clearance. Once again, he found himself wishing for Tekka’s presence. No doubt, the man would have been able to hack the computer in a matter of seconds. As a last resort, he typed “Velvet Nights” into the system, and laughed aloud when he was granted access. The security in the hospital was appalling, but Glitz wasn’t complaining.

He managed to activate the virtual interface, and a hologram of a woman appeared. It was the same woman that had been the face of the computer inside the elevator.

“Good morning. How can I help you, sir?”

“We’re looking for a shipment.” Glitz checked the notes on his pocket tablet. “Shipment number 00392. A consignment of medical lasers—Cellzers.”

“Shipment registered as returned to manufacturer. Shipment number 00392 was collected thirty minutes ago by a courier from T&L.”


So the lasers had already been collected; they were too late. Glitz hadn’t thought to ask Spaceman when the Cellzers were due to be picked up. He was so angry that he kicked a nearby shelf; with a crash, a few boxes fell to the floor.

“So where’s the shipment now?” Doland said.

“T&L use the rail network almost exclusively,” the computer explained, “so in all likelihood the cargo is travelling towards the spaceport via the grav-train.”

Glitz’s heart leapt. So maybe it wasn’t too late. There was still a chance of picking up the lasers before they were returned to the East Galaxy Company. It was still possible for them to make the one million credits after all.

“Come on! We’ve got no time to lose! We’ve got to catch up with that train!”

Glitz and Doland ran back to the Wreck, which was still parked in a transport bay near the hospital. The new plan was risky, but the prize was worth the risk. With trembling hands, Glitz began to prepare the ship for ascent.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Doland wrung his hands together. “It seems… I don’t know… maybe the traffic authority will try to blast us out of the sky.”

“Why in the name of space would they do that? We’ve got landing permission, remember. All we need to do is catch up with the train, climb inside, pick up the Cellzers, and get the hell out of here.”

“I don’t know…”

Doland still looked uneasy. Glitz rolled his eyes, and started to lower the ship. There was no time to wait around. If the train had left over thirty minutes ago, it could be arriving at the spaceport any minute. As they rose up higher, they could begin to make out the grav-train tracks. There were only two tracks, which ran adjacently in a straight line from one end of the Health Zone to the other. As they got nearer, Glitz spotted the train.

“There it is!”

It couldn’t be more than sixty miles from the spaceport; they would have to be quick. They flew over the Health Zone, passing hundreds of hospitals, as they followed the line of the tracks. A few patients in the garden of one hospital glanced at them with curiosity; it was unusual for a ship to be flying so low across the planet.

“Nearly there,” Glitz said.

They had finally caught up with the grav-train, and Glitz set the controls so they would travel at a constant speed above the vehicle, keeping pace with it. Luckily the tracks were extremely straight, which made them easy to follow.

Glitz pulled out what looked like a length of metal rope from under the ship’s console. On each end of the rope, there was a small cube. “Atom clamps. Took them from Alyce’s pack when she wasn’t looking. She’d have killed me if she knew. Here, come and give me a hand.”

They left the flight deck and headed to the ship’s hatch. Glitz opened the door, and air began to rush in, creating a deafening sound. He fixed one of the atom clamps to the floor by the exit hatch; it held tight, adhering to the molecules.

Aiming carefully, Glitz threw the other end of the rope out of the hatch. It shattered a skylight in the roof of one of the train carriages, and the other atom clamp stuck fast to the floor of the carriage. Now, the metal rope between the atom clamps was vertical, connecting their ship with the train carriage.

“Follow me,” Glitz said.

He swallowed, and then, taking hold of the metal rope, slid down from the ship into the train carriage. “Come on!” he shouted.

Doland didn’t plan on going anywhere. He was perfectly happy where he—

The ship jolted, throwing him out of the hatch. He managed to keep hold of the rope, and he slid into the carriage.

“Good jump.”

Glitz took a deep breath, trying to calm down. He had to think straight. Where would the shipment be? He glanced around the carriage. The train was clearly owned by T&L, because it was filled with boxes, letters and parcels. But none of the mail had been sorted yet. The lasers could be in any carriage…

His eyes alighted on a huge crate, which was marked 00392. He laughed out loud, feeling almost like someone who had just won the Galactic Lottery. “What are the chances of that?” He pointed at the crate. “Come on, let’s lift it and get out of here.”

The crate was surprisingly light, despite the large size. Glitz guessed that it was fitted with a weight-reduction system, making it easy to carry despite the mass.

“Hey! Put down that crate!”

Glitz tensed. Three men had entered the carriage. They were dressed in odd black uniforms, which did not bear any official insignia.

“I said put it down!”

“Fine.” Glitz made a movement as if to put down the crate. Then he shouted, “Doland, grab hold!”

Glitz took hold of the atom clamp wire, and Doland did the same—they managed to take hold of it without letting go of the box, because it was so lightweight. Glitz kicked out his foot suddenly, activating the atom clamp. The bottom fixture came loose, and the wire dragged the two men up out of the train carriage and back into the Wreck. Glitz slammed the hatch.

There was the sound of a laser shot, and the ship shuddered.

“They’re firing at us!” Doland said.

Glitz leapt over to the controls and began to steer the ship away from the train. The three men in black uniforms fired at the ship a few more times, but within a few seconds they were out of range.

“Space, that was close!” Glitz said. “But one million credits!”

Doland grinned. “Let’s make sure we’ve got the right box first.”

The two men stepped over to the crate to look inside. There were about a hundred white items, which looked more like code scanners than lasers. Glitz took one of the lasers out, and turned it over in his hands. The operation seemed fairly straightforward. They were powered by a small solar grid, and there were only three controls: one to remove the safety, one for the setting, and one to activate. Flicking through the operation manual, Glitz read that the Cellzers could be used to cut and repair many different things, including skin, bandages and stitches, and even materials such as metal. Glitz turned off the safety and held the Cellzer at arm’s length.

“Careful with that!”

Glitz ignored him, and pointed the device towards a piece of bent metal that was beginning to come loose from the side of the ship. The Cellzer, which was set to -5, emitted a glow, and within seconds the metal had become re-joined. Glitz pulled it firmly, and it wouldn’t budge. The two men stared, impressed.

“Seems to be in full working order,” Glitz muttered. “So why were they due to be recalled? Anyway, I suppose it doesn’t matter. We’ll make a good profit for these on Silicon Valley. Come on!”

Glitz set a course for the planet in question, which was unaccountably named Silicon Valley. No one really knew where the name came from; obviously it had something to do with the material used in many computer components. But the “Valley” part of the name was strange. The planet was infamous as a centre of cybercrime. All of the most notorious hackers, crackers, blackmailers and alien porn-dealers made their home there. Glitz tended to avoid the place, mostly because he was always worried that someone would be able to access his credit account remotely and steal all of his money. But he knew a man on Silicon Valley that would be very interested in the Cellzers, and not only because they contained valuable Zirgotic crystals.

The two men landed on the planet in one of the public hangars. The fee was quite expensive, but it was one of the few places on the planet where it would be even remotely safe to park a spacecraft—even one as useless as the Wreck. The world had only small pockets of green land in the more wealthy areas; aside from that, it was covered pole to pole in one sprawling city. Whole families of hackers were born and died on the same world. Parents would bring their children up in the art of computer fraud, and many of the biggest crime organisations on the planet were family-owned. The only group resembling a police force on Silicon Valley were the Bouncers, who mainly spent their time flying around and intimidating people. The Bouncers more often than not had heavy links with the big crime syndicates, and you could avoid punishment for virtually anything if you could come up with the right price.

“I don’t like the look of this place,” Doland said, as they strolled through a street. The air was heady with the scent of fried street food, and the road was strewn with litter.

“Just keep your head down and you’ll be fine.”

The two men passed through the rougher suburbs of the city and got on a grav-train. They watched the city speed past. Eventually the houses began to look a little less rundown. They were entering the wealthy exurbia. The inhabitants of the area were still criminals, of course. No one but a criminal would live on a world like Silicon Valley. But these were the homes of the truly successful criminals, those who had hacked their way to riches. Nearly every city on Silicon Valley had such areas, which were generally known as Havens. The creator of Benediction, a virus that had stolen credits from billions of accounts across the Imperium, lived in one of the Havens. If he left the planet, he would be quickly arrested, so for him it was a haven in the literal sense of the world. Many citizens of the Imperium were angered by the existence of a planet like Silicon Valley—a place where computer criminals could operate freely, without fear of reprisals. But, in truth, there was very little the Imperium could do. Certainly, they could storm in and arrest everyone, or even utterly wipe out the planet. But they were painfully conscious that they were dealing with the most technically competent people in the galaxy. A ten-year-old boy brought up on the planet could probably wipe out their most advanced systems with a single button press. So the Imperium kept a close eye on the planet, while conscious that there was very little they could do to control it.

Glitz and Doland got off the grav-train. The city there seemed almost utopian. The streets were perfectly clean, and even the weather seemed better—the result of atmospheric nanoparticles, Glitz guessed. Not wishing to stay very long on the planet, they visited the magnificent home of Glitz’s contact, who was a man named Fellian. Unlike most of the residents of the Haven, he was not a hacker. He owned an illegal trading platform that operated in the dark corners of the Net, which was called the Amber Road. People from all over the Imperium traded goods using discreet (illegal) delivery services, while avoiding both taxes and control on prohibited items. As Glitz predicted, Fellian was very excited by the Cellzers, and readily agreed to pay Glitz one million credits. They both knew that he was likely to make a huge profit. The Zirgotic crystals alone were worth more than that amount, because there had been 112 of the devices when they had actually counted. They had kept two of the Cellzers, in case they came in useful. Glitz wasn’t going to argue with a million credits; it wasn’t a bad wage for a day’s work.

Glitz and Doland left the planet quickly, slightly worried that some computer genius would find a way to rob them of their new funds, even though they had placed them in a secret and secure account. But luck was on their side, and they managed to leave the planet without event. When they were far away from Silicon Valley, Glitz turned to Doland and grinned.

“A million credits, eh?”

“I know.”

“What do you say I call up Spaceman and see if he has any other jobs lined up?”

Doland sighed. “Thanks, but… this life isn’t for me. I haven’t been able to relax since I was arrested. It’s been non-stop. First I was sent to prison, then I escaped, then I had my DNA transmogrified, then I was recaptured, then I was sent on a mission by the Navy, and then I was nearly killed by armed guards on a grav-train… I want to go home.”

Glitz glanced at Doland’s miserable face, and clapped a hand on his shoulder. “I understand. Let’s get you back to Opus.”

The funds obtained from the sale were distributed—10% of the full amount went to Spaceman, as commission for the job. Then the remaining 90% was split in half between Glitz and Doland. That left them with 450,000 credits each. It wasn’t bad at all for a day’s work. Glitz immediately decided to spend a portion of the funds on a new ship; he didn’t think he could bear another flight on the Wreck.

“I suppose I’m just a coward,” Doland said glumly, after Glitz had set the course for their new destination. His face took on the slightly rigid quality that is often seen in men struggling to express their feelings. “I’m nothing like you. I can’t be fearless in the face of danger.”

Glitz laughed bitterly. “Don’t be jealous of me.” He sighed. It seemed it was the time for speaking hard truths. “I’m not brave, or daring. I started smuggling because it was easier than looking for a promotion, or a better job. I got into crime because it was easy, not because I’m tough. My father always wanted me to be a doctor, or an engineer… but I didn’t listen. Too hard. Too much study. I thought I was getting on the right path by entering the cadets, but I only ended up getting kicked out for sleeping with an officer. I suppose a psychologist would say I slept with her to sabotage my career, because I secretly wanted out. And I guess he would be right…”

The men sat by the ship’s controls in silence for a few minutes, watching the stars fly past. They seemed to have formed a sort of kinship of uselessness—they had drawn closer to each other by feeling similarly inadequate. The journey to Opus took several days. They spent most of the time playing cards, and stopped off at several space bars along the way. After their takings from selling the lasers, they could afford to go to slightly more classy establishments than Glitz was used to. He had never even heard of Charotan wine before entering a small, expensive bar in the Vortigan Sector. When they finally landed on Opus, Glitz was sorry to see Doland depart.

He handed Doland a contact chip. “Stay in touch. If you ever need anything—well, let me know.”

“I will.” Doland smiled. “Look after yourself, mate.”


There was no need for any more words. On the long flight to Opus, the men had already exhausted nearly every topic of conversation. The men smiled, nodded, and walked in opposite directions. Doland walked towards his old house, which was in a town called Magra. He would talk to his wife, find out if there was any chance of reconciliation. If not… well, there were bound to be other women on the planet. He had never been in love with his wife—it had always been simply a marriage of convenience. They had been two lonely individuals who, for one reason or another, had never found the right partner. So they had ended up settling for each other. Glitz headed back into the Wreck, and took off into space.

“So it’s just me again,” Glitz muttered to himself. “They’ve all gone. It’s just me. Me and the stars. Just like the old days.”

There was a bleeping sound, which signalled an incoming call on the Net. Glitz cursed, assuming that it was Spaceman with another tempting mission. It was a pretty bad state of affairs when the only person who ever wants to speak to you is a criminal trying to get you involved in illegal activity. But his heart leapt when he saw the callsign: <Alyce.Wickham.I.N.>

“Hello!” Glitz said, accepting the vidcall immediately.

Alyce’s face appeared on the screen. He didn’t recognise the background; it seemed that she was in some sort of hotel room. She was wearing a casual blouse, and her hair was down, so apparently she was still on leave from the Navy. She smiled when she saw Glitz, her eyes lighting up with excitement.

“What’s up?”

“I have to ask a favour of you. It’s very important.”

“Well, what is it?”

“Not here. I need to tell you in person. I can see that you’re in the Wreck; what is your current galactic position?”

“Erm… I’ve just left Opus.”

“Oh, how fortunate. You’re very close. I’m only in the next system. Can you meet me?”

Glitz didn’t know what she wanted, but seeing her face again had stimulated a familiar feeling of warmth. He nodded at her without hesitation. “Sure. I’ll meet you.”

Chapter Sixteen

The small ship approached the unusual planet. The Wreck was easy enough to pilot, even for one person, but Glitz was always very conscious of the fact that if it ever broke down there was very little in the way of spare parts on board. He longed to return to his old trading vessel, the Merchant’s Luck, which had been a reliable companion for many years during his time working for the East Galaxy Company.

The planet he was approaching had clearly been heavily engineered. The surface itself was a bewildering mixture of sweeping beaches, mysterious deep forests, urban jungle, and tropical paradise. The idea was, presumably, that it would cater for all tastes when it came to holiday destinations. Whatever your idea of a good holiday, you would find something to meet your needs on the Pleasure Hive.

Glitz used the ship’s communication system to communicate with the OTC, requesting permission to land on the planet’s surface. Permission was speedily granted, and he was quickly allocated a landing slot. Without wasting any time, Glitz expertly piloted the Wreck and landed in the designated area. He brought the ship down into a small open-roofed metal hangar, which was intended for new arrivals. As soon as he stepped off the ship, robotic arms carefully lifted the vessel away for storage. The proprietors of the Pleasure Hive made sure that visitors didn’t see their ships until the end of their vacation; the last thing the managers wanted was for people to sleep in their ships.

With some irritation, Glitz realised that the only way he would be permitted to enter the planet was to purchase a holiday package. He got into a prolonged argument with the young female attendant, arguing that he only wanted to meet a friend on the planet. But the poor girl clearly was not authorised to allow such a thing, and there was no way to speak to her superiors without a long wait. Obviously, this was a planet that sought to extort as much money as possible from its visitors, without caring too much about customer satisfaction. Presumably they kept holiday prices just low enough to keep a steady flow of custom despite their poor service.

“Fine,” Glitz muttered angrily. “I’ll book a one-night stay on the cheapest package you have.”

“That would be the Forest Adventure package, sir,” the attendant explained calmly. “The price includes an overnight stay in a one-man tent in the Forest Zone.”


Glitz reluctantly paid up, and took his securi-key from the woman. The device would enable him to check out his tent when arriving at the accommodation storage depot in the Forest Zone. He slipped the key into his pocket, privately doubting that he would stay the night on the planet. He had never really been one for holidays.

He left the welcome area of the planet, and found his way on to a beach. It must have been artificially-engineered, but it looked very realistic. The blue sea—from which the distant horizon was barely visible—lapped softly against the yellow sand, and bikini-clad girls splashed around in the warm shallows. The sun overhead was comfortingly warm, and Glitz started to wish that he had agreed to meet Alyce there. He had never liked holidays, but he would have appreciated a few hours to stretch out in the sun.

Reluctantly, he boarded one of the grav-trains that connected all parts of the Pleasure Hive. He sat down in a comfortable seat in first class, despite only having purchased a third class ticket, and stared out of the window as the train began to move. As the gravity-defying train shot forwards over its tracks, Glitz watched as he passed through several different “zones”. Several people got off the train at each stop along the way—some to the Combat Zone, others to the Love Zone (an island connected by causeway to the mainland, which was filled with brothels), and still more at the Arts & Crafts Zone.

Eventually, the train arrived at Glitz’s intended destination, which was the Fishing Zone. As he stepped off the transport, he realised that even the atmosphere was different in this zone. While the air had been warm and dry in the Beach Zone, there it was cool and moist. The zone consisted of a winding river surrounded by green land. The river was covered with fishing boats of every type—right from rickety old plasthyne canoes to shiny hoverboats. People were also lined up all along the edge of the river, which had to be miles in length and at least half a mile in width.

At a small lagoon, Glitz spotted Alyce. She was wearing mud-repelling boots, along with a plasthyne body cover. She waved when she saw him approach.

“Lovely day,” Glitz said, staring out at the river.

“Isn’t it?” Alyce cast her fishing rod into the river; it penetrated the water with a small splash. “Some people believe that these kind of rods have been used for over ten thousand years, but no one knows for sure.” She glanced around at the other fishers. “All these people love their atomic nets, or their nucleic fishing rods. But you can’t beat the old-fashioned way. It’s so relaxing.”

Her face lit up. “Wait, I think I’ve caught something!” She reeled in her line quickly, pulling something up out of the water. She held up the flapping blue creature. “It’s a skyfish—they’re actually rare, but I imagine that the Pleasure Hive staff keep the rivers topped up with them.”

She tossed the fish back into the river and laughed. Glitz was impressed by how relaxed she was away from official duties. Her hair was hanging loosely in the breeze, and she had an easy naturalness about her smile and posture. She wasn’t wearing any makeup, but her face had a light, unblemished complexion.

“Thanks for coming,” Alyce said, stretching out a large plasthyne sheet in front of the muddy lagoon. “Please, sit down.”

Frowning slightly, Glitz sat down, cross-legged, on the sheet, and Alyce sat down next to him.

“I would have told you more over the Net,” Alyce said, “only I couldn’t be sure that no one was listening in. That’s the beauty of the Pleasure Hive—it’s a strictly bug-free environment. The staff scan for them every ten seconds. You can’t relax, you see, if you’re worried about things you say coming back to haunt you. Quite literally, what happens on the Pleasure Hive stays on the Pleasure Hive.” She grinned.

“So what’s so urgent?” Glitz said.

Alyce’s face became a little more serious. “Before we begin, I need to tell you a little bit about myself. For one thing, my real name. It isn’t Alyce Wickham. It’s Alyce Rejak-Thohne.”

“Rejak-Thohne?” Glitz repeated her words; it took a few seconds for the full import to sink in. “You mean you’re part of the Rejak-Thohne family?”

She nodded. Glitz had heard the name, of course. Everyone had. The Rejak-Thohnes were famous for being one of the oldest and richest noble families in the Imperium. They had plantations stretching nearly from one end of the galaxy to another; they were the masters of hundreds of worlds, and commanded millions of men.

“I didn’t want any special favours when I entered the Navy,” she explained. “Plus there was another reason to conceal my real name. The Rejak-Thohnes, although powerful, have a certain… reputation among the rest of the aristocracy. Of course, most of this reputation doesn’t filter through to the proletariat. Most commoners regard us simply as a family of great standing.”

Glitz shook his head. “So what’s this reputation you have?”

“Do you know the legend of the Zierons?”

“Of course. I mean—I know we’re not supposed to talk about it these days. But yes, the Zierons were the aliens that brought humanity the phase drive in the old myth.”

Alyce nodded. “That’s right. The legend says that the Zierons came to our galaxy through a natural wormhole, a singularity resonating on the same frequency as another point, far away in another galaxy.” She paused. “Well, according to my family history, one of my distant ancestors, a man named Cillian Rejak, was one of the people privileged enough to make contact with the Zierons during their visit to our galaxy.”

“Interesting. But you can’t believe it? The Zierons weren’t real. It’s just a story for children.”

“Perhaps. But perhaps not. According to my family history, the Zierons gave Cillian Rejak a machine which enabled him to easily mine precious metals from asteroids, thus paving the way for him to build up a fortune. He ended up getting married to a woman called Martha Thohne—and our noble tree was born.”

“So this reputation of yours…?”

“My great-grandfather became infamous for his unwavering belief in the truth of the family legend. He was also convinced that the only hope for humanity was to relocate the Zierons, so their compassionate wisdom could guide us into an age of peace. He openly believed that the family fortune was only a lot of refuse, unless it was used to locate the Zierons. He was convinced that if the Zierons could be persuaded to return again, the problems inherent in the Imperium could be solved, making way for a nobler and fairer empire.” She grinned. “My grandfather wasn’t put off, either, by the way my great-grandfather was treated by the rest of the aristocracy. He too devoted his life to finding the Zierons.”

“And your father?”

“He was a little more pragmatic. By the time he received his inheritance, the family riches were seriously dwindling. He has spent his years restoring the family finances—and has done a fine job, too.”

“Which brings us to you.”

“It does. Well, I am no idealist like my grandfather. If the Zierons do not exist, no amount of wishing and blind faith will conjure them into existence. While the family legend is attractive, I had not received any convincing proof of its authenticity. There did not seem to be a shred of evidence pointing towards a meeting between my ancestor and a benevolent alien race.”

Had not? So you’ve seen proof since?”

Alyce smiled. “I think so. Three days ago, one of my uncles died. The funeral is to be held next week. The thing is, when he died, my Aunt Callia—another believer in the Zierons—immediately went into his study and made a search of his papers. In among a pile of ancient, dusty papers, she found a star chart.”

“Pointing to the location of the wormhole?”

“Perhaps. The paper bears the Rejak seal, and the signature clearly reads ‘Cillian Rejak’. It’s clear that my ancestor drew up this chart—pointing to a specific area in space, somewhere in the Nosferatu Sector.”


Alyce nodded enthusiastically. “Of course, it’s most likely nothing. The Rejak-Thohnes are pretty stubborn, but you can’t make a legend true simply by believing in it.”

“But you still want to look?”

“Yes. Because what if the story is true? Imagine the implications. If we could bring the Zierons back, we could fix the Imperium—usher in a new age of peace and prosperity.”

“Or start an intergalactic war…”

“I don’t think so,” Alyce said. “Most stories about the Zierons agree that they were a peaceful race. After all, the old legend says that they gave us the Phase Drive. If they were that advanced thousands of years ago, they could have easily wiped us out if that was their desire.”

“That’s true.”

Alyce took hold of Glitz’s hand suddenly. “I need you to come with me. I’m a decent pilot, but you have years of experience circumnavigating the galaxy. More than that—I trust you. If I’m to have anyone by my side, I want it to be you.”

Glitz paused. He was intrigued by the idea of possibly finding the mythical aliens, but the Nosferatu Sector was infamous for piracy. There were even tales of a vampiric life form, pulling in unwary ships with its tractor beams, breaking into them, and sucking the blood out of their occupants. Now there was a children’s story he didn’t want to verify.

“I’ll pay you, of course,” Alyce said, sensing his reluctance. “My family have great pools of resources. You won’t have to worry about money once the trip is over.”

He squeezed her hands and looked into her eyes. He felt a warm feeling rush through him, quite different from the sensation of lust that he was quite used to while in the presence of a beautiful woman. No, it was something else entirely.

“No,” Glitz said.

Alyce’s face fell. “Oh. I see.”

“No, I won’t take your money.” Glitz grinned at her. “I’ll come with you, but because I’m your friend. If the Zierons are out there, we’ll find them together.”

“Really?” Alyce hugged Glitz. “Thank you.

Glitz stood up, stepping off the plasthyne sheet back onto the muddy ground.

“Now?” Alyce said.

“Why wait?” He smiled at her. “Let’s see if we can find ourselves a wormhole…”

They returned via the grav-train to the Welcome Zone, and requested the return of Alyce’s ship. It was mutually decided to leave the Wreck on the planet for recycling or salvage, once Glitz had removed his possessions. They had only bought it in the first place to sneak to Chaos without being spotted, and Glitz had no sentimental feelings for it. By her account, Alyce’s ship was far more comfortable.

Once Glitz had retrieved his possessions, they boarded Alyce’s ship, which was named Middlemarch. Alyce explained that it was named after a book of questionable veracity, which was possibly from the times before the Imperium. Most scholars doubted its authenticity, claiming that it was a forgery created by humanities students at Edo University, but if it was true, it painted a picture of a past human civilisation far more alien than that of the Snakes or other alien species known to the Imperium.

The Middlemarch, which was Alyce’s private cruiser and not owned by the Navy, was incredibly luxurious. The exterior design was quite muted; Alyce explained that this was to avoid the attention of space pirates who might otherwise smell rich pickings. But when they entered the ship, Glitz was astounded by the interior. The floors were all richly carpeted, and the walls were panelled with limewood. Holo-paintings hung on the wall corridors, depicting members of the noble Rejak-Thohne family.

“Ostentatious, isn’t it?” Alyce said, with some distaste. “It used to belong to my mother, but she doesn’t fly anymore because she was diagnosed with Heronie’s disease.”

“You mean you don’t like it?”

She grinned. “I wouldn’t say that. It’s just a bit… over the top. I guess I’m just a simple girl with simple pleasures. Talking of which… the dining room is through here. Oh, wait, let me set the autopilot first.”

Alyce brought the ship into phase space, and set the ship to travel towards the Nosferatu System. If there were any problems, there was a remote console in the dining room, which she could use to perform course-correction. Glitz and Alyce entered the dining room, which had a long limewood table. They were greeted by a smartly-dressed waiting robot, who showed them to the table and took their orders.

“So we can order anything?”

Alyce nodded. “The ship is fitted with a marvellous food synthesiser. That’s one thing about the ship that is to my tastes.”

Glitz ordered a beefsteak. When it arrived, he stared at it suspiciously—it more resembled a block of grey rubber than a delicious steak. He tasted a chunk, warily, but to his surprise the texture and taste were identical to a real steak. It was simply the appearance that was inaccurate.

“So when do you return to work, Captain?”

“There’s no need to call me Captain. Alyce is fine. I’ve still got nearly a week of leave—the Navy were very generous after our mission. I’m assigned to roaming duties around the outer worlds for the next few months—I told the Admiral I would rather fight Ozytan on the front line, but he thinks I’m too inexperienced. And that after we found out about the Weerms in the first place!”

“All the same, you must be looking forward to going back.”

“In a way…” She paused. “I don’t know. In a way, I feel more like myself when I’m not commanding a ship.”

“I’ve noticed a difference in you,” Glitz observed. “You seem a lot calmer. Happier.”

“I’ve always wanted to command a ship—ever since I was a little girl. I had posters of every type of spaceship you can imagine pinned up on my bedroom wall, and I’d spend hours dreaming about planets right out on the Rim. I figured that joining the Navy would be the best way to travel—I’d be seeing the stars and serving the Imperium at the same time.”

“But it’s not what you thought?”

“I suppose…” She paused thoughtfully. “The actual travelling is wonderful. And I love to serve the Imperium. But there’s so much red tape, so much damn bureaucracy. You can’t even carry out a simple reconnaissance operation without filling in half a dozen forms afterwards. The whole Navy superstructure is, in my view, stifling.”

Glitz paused. “It seems strange to be sitting here eating beefsteak when there’s a war going on out there in the Paradonian Sector. Any moment, Ozytan could use his Weerms to strike at the seat of the Imperium.”

“Perhaps. But even with such terrible creatures, it would take an awful lot to bring down the Imperium… Anyway, we’re doing our service to the Emperor by checking out this star chart. If there is a way to contact the Zierons, we might be able to end this whole damn conflict.”

Glitz smiled at Alyce. If he was being truly honest with himself, the idea of actually locating the Zierons seemed ridiculous. Everyone knew that they were the stuff of fables. The idea of a benevolent, all-powerful aliens who would return to save the human race… it was ridiculous. Perhaps the belief in such a creature stemmed from the same natural desire that led people to believe in a God. Maybe humans wanted someone else to take responsibility for the ownership of the Universe, so they could feel at ease doing nothing to prevent evil.

But the journey gave him some time to catch up with Alyce, which was a surprisingly refreshing experience. There was no petty squabbling or one-upmanship. The relationship paradigm had shifted; Glitz was no longer a civilian under her direct control, but they were equal partners in the mission to look for the wormhole. The journey was quite short, thanks to the phase drive, and it wasn’t long before they entered the Nosferatu Sector.

Glitz was standing on the flight deck, watching Alyce from the back as she brought the ship out of phase space. She was wearing a tight skirt and a fitted leather jacket, which Glitz found to be remarkably arousing. The stars became visible again, and Alyce sighed.

“I always hate that part of journeys—coming out of phase space.”

“Scared something will go wrong?”

Alyce nodded and laughed. The Nosferatu Sector was a vast sector that was almost the size of the Gold and Silver Sectors combined. Most of the planets in the Sector had large alien populations, and many contained valuable natural resources.

“Watch out for pirates,” Glitz muttered.

The East Galaxy Company had ceased to trade with the Nosferatu Sector nearly ten years ago, due to the area becoming infamous for pirate activity. Several of the EGC’s freighters had been ransacked by vicious space bandits, and the company had decided to draw permanently out of the area. The rich pickings on some of the planets were simply not worth the risk. Only the Interstellar Couriers could ferry goods to and from the Sector without fear of hijacking; even the ruthless pirates would think twice before attacking a vessel with such strong links with the Imperium.

“So where’s this wormhole of yours?”

Alyce consulted the old piece of paper that she had carried with her. Glitz glanced at it over her shoulder. It was so old that it was nearly falling to pieces, but the ink was still readable.

“According to old Cillian Rejak, the location of the wormhole is less than a parsec away. I just need to get my bearings, and then we can go there.”

“Is it near a planet?”

“No. The co-ordinates seem to be in the middle of nowhere.”

“So what’s the plan? We travel to this part of space and the wormhole is right there, ready for us to jump through it?”

Alyce grinned. “Of course not. If that were the case, someone would have found it a long time ago.”

Glitz frowned at Alyce, wondering vaguely if she had lost her mind. Opening a wormhole required complex calculations and colossal processing power—none of which could be provided by the Middlemarch, even though it was a fine ship. But he decided not to argue with her. It would not be long until they reached the co-ordinates, and Alyce could get the idea of the Zierons out of her system. Within the hour, they were looking at the main scanner at the point where the wormhole was supposed to be.

“Nothing.” Glitz shrugged. “Let’s be honest. We didn’t really expect to find anything here, did we?”

Glitz stared out at the emptiness of space. The great blackness was broken only by occasional stars. The scanner had highlighted the area of space where the wormhole was supposed to be using a 3D overlay grid. There was nothing. Not even the slightest disturbance, energy trace, or flicker.

“I’m not finished yet,” Alyce replied. She pulled a necklace from around her neck. A crystal pendant attached to a gold mount glimmered at the end. “This is a Star Point crystal. It is the only such crystal ever to be found in our galaxy. Our family history claims that it used to belong to Cillian Rejak, and that it was passed through his descendants over the centuries.”

“It’s pretty.”

“Yes. It might also be a little piece of Zieron.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, think about it. The legend says that Cillian Rejak met the Zierons. And this crystal seems to be utterly unique. What if this crystal is so unusual because it came from a different galaxy?”

“Seems a little farfetched.”

“Well, perhaps. But think for a second. Some scientists have argued for the existence of natural wormholes—two singularities resonating due to natural causes, rather than human interference. If there is a connection here between our galaxy and another, perhaps the presence of something from the other galaxy will stimulate the resonation.”

“Is this all speculation? You been reading up on wormholes?”

Alyce chuckled. “Not really. My great-uncle was a professor at the University of Homeworld, a spacetime expert. He studied this crystal for most of his life, and ventured that it was some kind of device for opening up closed wormholes.”

“So if it is a wormhole thing… how do we use it?”

She lifted the crystal to her eye thoughtfully. She was certainly no expert on wormholes, and her great-uncle had sadly died before managing to complete his research on the Star Point crystal. If the Zierons had left the crystal with her ancestor as a sort of recall device, it would have to be quite simple to operate. But how…? As she watched, a tiny light appeared inside the crystal, the glow oscillating like a tiny visual heartbeat.

“Something’s happening,” Alyce whispered.

On the scanner, a similar light appeared. It flashed out from the black chasm of space, pulsing. It was like the glow that appears in a pile of embers when it seems the fire has completely died, re-igniting the dry wood. Now Alyce’s Star Point crystal was causing the regeneration of the natural wormhole. Within a few seconds, the wormhole had enlarged and stabilised. In contrast to a man-made wormhole, it was fiery orange—it almost seemed to be made of pure fire. Alyce and Glitz stared at the flaming circle, their eyes wide.

“Shall we?” Alyce said, diverting her eyes from the mesmerising shape.

Glitz nodded.

“It might be dangerous.”

“It might save the Imperium,” Glitz replied. A year ago, he would never have believed it if someone told him he would enter a glowing vortex, uncertain if he would survive the experience. He had always been very focussed on his own well-being, with little thought to the needs of others. But being with Alyce—as cheesy as it sounded—brought out a different side to him. When he looked at the woman, he felt like he wanted to be a good man, to act for the benefit of others.

“Let’s do it,” Alyce said.

Glitz put his hand on the directional control, and Alyce placed her own hand on top of his. After checking the co-ordinates, they pushed the lever together, causing the ship to enter the burning wormhole.

There was a flash of fire, and the galaxy disappeared.

Chapter Seventeen

Glitz awoke to the sound of birds chirping. Before he opened his eyes, he was aware of warm sunlight touching his eyelids. He sat up slowly, and glanced around with surprised eyes. He was lying in the middle of some kind of green meadow, which was planted with flowers in shades of pink, red and blue. The scent of the flowers wafted into his nostrils, making him feel strangely calm.

He became aware of Alyce lying next to him. She was wearing a stunning pink dress, that was woven from a most delicate material. Ne nudged her, gently, and her eyelids fluttered open. She took in the scene, feeling quite disoriented.

“What are you wearing?” she said.

Glitz looked down at himself. He was attired in a cream-coloured suit, with a white shirt unbuttoned at the neck. It would have only taken a straw hat to complete the ensemble. As soon as this thought appeared in his mind, he felt something brush against his head. Reaching up, he picked the object from his head. It was a straw hat, exactly like the one he had just imagined. He put the hat back on his head and stood up, holding out a hand to Alyce. Glitz lifted her up, and they stood hand-in-hand, surveying the garden. The meadow seemed to stretch on for miles—a never-ending expanse of hills, crystal streams, and delicate flowers. There was not another person in sight. The sky was blue and unmarred by a single cloud.

“How did we get here?” Alyce breathed. And then, answering her own question, she added, “The wormhole. We passed through it and then… we must have fallen asleep somehow. But what sort of place is this? And where is our ship?”

“I’d like to know the answers to those questions, too,” Glitz said. He looked around the verdant landscape, trying to spot any movement that might reveal the location of another being. But everything was still and tranquil. “Hello!” he shouted. “Is anyone out here?”

With a flash of light, an old man appeared, wearing a sort of buttonless navy suit. Although he was humanoid, Glitz suspected that he was an alien. There were no physical details to support this assessment, but so much about him—his bearing, his smile, his intensity of gaze—seemed totally inhuman.

“Who are you?” Glitz said harshly. “What is this place?”

“My apologies if I startled you,” the man said. “I am aware that some species do not enjoy the benefits of teleportation technology. As it happens, we find it to be a very useful means of getting around. The Zieron Empire encompasses three galaxies, so it is quite essential.”

“So you are real!” Alyce grinned at Glitz. “Looks like the Rejak-Thohnes aren’t as mad as everyone thinks!”

“Rejak-Thohne.” The old man seemed thoughtful for a moment. “The name sounds familiar. Ah, I see it. A creature named Cillian Rejak once met a member of our race. We have a collective memory, you see. Every scholarly Zieron shares the common experience of every other Zieron in history. This is our way of ensuring that valuable knowledge is never lost.” He paused, as if consulting the archive of his memory. “So you are… humans. Now let me see. Inhabitants of the galaxy you call ‘Milky Way’. We encountered your species when we were investigating a natural wormhole that had opened between our galaxy and yours.”

Alyce smiled. “Yes!”

The old man smiled. “Excellent. Forgive me, but… why are you here?”

“Our galaxy is in danger,” Alyce said. “We need help.”

“Ah.” The old man touched Alyce’s shoulder gently. “You had better come with me.”

He touched Glitz’s arm. As soon as the three of them were connected, there was a small flash of light, and the garden dissolved away around them. Instantly, they had teleported into what looked like a small study. There were shelves made of a kind of red wood, filled with objects that they didn’t recognise. Alyce guessed that they were some kind of information storage devices. The room was unmistakeably alien, although there were many indications of an affinity with human culture. The chairs were reminiscent of leather wingback armchairs seen in old vidfilms, and a holographic painting hung on the wall behind the desk.

“We woke up wearing these clothes,” Glitz said. “And… and I thought about a straw hat and it appeared on top of my head.”

“This is the result of nanotechnology. It is a special occasion today, and everyone must be dressed correctly. It is also the nanobots that are currently translating your speech and interpreting mine, allowing us to be mutually intelligible.”


Glitz glanced around the study, unsure of what to say. He wanted to demand to know where their ship was, and to insist that the Zierons help them in their fight against Ozytan and the Weerms. But he was painfully conscious of being inside an utterly alien domain, surrounded by beings infinitely greater than humans; he was powerless here.

“Sit down. I think we should begin,” the Zieron said. “First, I will tell you a little about our planet, race and customs. Then, you may further explain your purpose in coming here, and I will see if we may assist you in any way. Is this order of events acceptable to you?”

Alyce and Glitz glanced at one another, then nodded. “Yes,” Alyce said. They sat down in comfortable armchairs, and the Zieron sat at the other end of his wooden desk, facing them.

“Excellent. Would you like a drink?”

“Don’t suppose you have any whisky?” Glitz said hopefully.

The Zieron smiled. “As I alluded to previously, the nanobots all around us can scan your surface thoughts and create whatever you wish, within reason. If you want a… what you call a ‘whisky’, simply think about your desire for the drink, and it shall appear.”

Glitz closed his eyes, feeling pretty ridiculous, and imagined a glass of delicious John Copes whisky, freshly poured, with ice. As soon as he opened his eyes, he was amazed to see that the glass of whisky had appeared. Of course, humans had invented food and drink synthesising technology, but such technology was quite crude, and was unable to scan a person’s thoughts and use that as a pattern. Still, the proof of the replication would be in the tasting. As yet, Glitz had never encountered an artificially-constituted glass of J.C. that tasted remotely like the real thing. He took a sip. It was exactly right, down to the slightly sweet aftertaste. But then again, it had been constructed from his memory, so it should, by rights, taste exactly as he remembered it. Alyce conjured up a glass of lemon water, and began to sip it slowly.

“What are your names?”

“I’m Alyce, and this is Glitz.”

The Zieron placed his fingertips together. “My name is Rell. I am the Keeper of the Seals, a job I have enjoyed for close to seven hundred years.”

“I see.”

“Our race once started off in a similar position to humanity. We had extremely short lifespans, limited intellect, and our planet was plagued with civil war, intrigue, and despotism. But, over countless centuries, our ancestors used science to perfect our civilisation. Negative traits were rooted out from the population, lifespans were extended, the environment was perfected, and hostile neighbours were eliminated.”

Alyce frowned. “For a peaceful race, that sounds an awful lot like eugenics and fascism.”

“I do not quarrel with the terms.”

“Then you admit your civilisation was born from evil?”

“You have changed the proposition. You must remember that humanity is still at a very basic position morally. You have not yet developed an absolute scientific law of what is right and wrong. The history of your civilisation has been one of stumbling around in the dark—creating and abolishing religions, trying on different governments as you would different garments, trying desperately to ascend to a greater plane of moral understanding.”

“So you’re saying you’re better than us?”

“Those are not my words.”

Alyce paused for a second, staring at the Zieron. She hadn’t meant to get into an argument, but his words seemed odious to her. But perhaps she had been a little too quick to rush to judgement. Was she right to question the actions of a race clearly far more advanced than the humans? Besides, she was a member of the Imperial Navy, which had hardly kept its hands clean over the past few centuries.

“How big is your empire?” Glitz asked.

“Oh, three galaxies wide. At the last count, there were around 300 million hospitable planets.”

“And all containing Zierons?” Alyce asked.

“There are some alien worlds, but the population of the galaxy is 80% Zieron. Now that we have achieved peace with our neighbouring friends, we do not have any reason to interfere with their day-to-day business. The alien planets within our Empire have sworn allegiance to us, and they would be fools to renege on that promise. However, we do keep a strict policy of separation. All Zieron worlds are only for the settlement of our race. We have found it beneficial not to allow aliens and Zierons to mix.”

“Why? If the Zierons are so peaceful, what’s the problem?”

Rell laughed. “Are you a chemist? I’m sure you will agree that water is a fairly innocuous substance. It is natural and safe, and the basis for most life. But what happens when you mix water with a water-reactive chemical, such as lithium? An explosion of light and fire! Barbarians and the peaceful cannot mix!”

Alyce shrugged, and Rell smiled. “I do not wish to dispute. Let us move on to discussing your reason for visiting us. First, how did you get here?”

“My ancestor kept this crystal from the Zierons’ visit to our galaxy.” She pulled the necklace from around her neck to show Rell the pendant. The Star Point crystal glinted at the end of the chain.

“Ah, yes. The Star Point crystals were specifically designed to stimulate the opening of natural wormholes. Our original expeditionary force that entered your galaxy used these crystals to enter.” He paused. “It has been many millennia since one of our race visited the Milky Way. We have had no information since about the state of affairs in your galaxy. If you permit, I would very much like to scan your minds to discover the current situation. Then we may be able to help you with any problems.”

“Can’t you scan our brains without permission?” Alyce said.

“I could,” Rell admitted. “But that would hardly be polite, especially to a lady.”

Despite herself, Alyce smiled. She nodded at the old man. “Fine. Scan away.”

Glitz too gave his assent, and Rell raised a long-fingered hand. His fingertips hovered in front of their faces for a few moments, reaching into the furthest recesses of their minds. Luckily, Alyce had an excellent memory, and a better understanding than most of the history and state of the Imperium. Although Rell could tell that some of her historical understanding must be the result of Imperial propaganda and misinformation, he had more than enough data to fill in the gaps and see a relatively complete picture. It was exactly as he had expected. The humans, despite developing many technologies, had not taken steps toward enlightenment. They had taken the easy path followed by so many struggling species—they had developed a puzzling and irrational civilisation; they had refused to develop technology intended to perfect their race; they had allowed silly quarrels about ethics to stunt their ascendance. And now the human race faced threats on all sides. As well as all the pointless infighting, they faced rising hostility from countless alien species. Even worse, there was the matter of the Weerms. It occurred to Rell that the Weerms were the opposite of what the Zierons had achieved. While they were an enlightened race of pure reason, the Weerms were creatures of pure irrational hatred.

“Well,” Rell said simply.

“Well? Is that it?” Alyce said.

“I cannot help you. Throughout the chaotic, tapestry-like story of the Universe, there have been thousands of galactic empires. Out of those empires, a mere handful have managed to reach a state of illumination sufficient to ensure their survival. The vast majority have, by taking the wrong path, been consigned to the slagheap of history. It pains me to tell you this, but I see little hope for the Imperium.”

Alyce bit her lip before replying, trying to hold back her temper. “How can you say that? History isn’t written for us. Our future can always be changed.”

“Granted. But I’m afraid that your race has taken a course that cannot be readily altered. Your species is charging towards barbarism with an almost irresistible momentum. The Imperium is riddled with weaknesses. Both your Grand Senate and your armed forces are ruled over by an aristocratic elite, the members of which mostly have no real political or military genius. Your society is corrupted.”

“Admittedly, yes. But we can change things! What do you even know about it?”

“Forgive me, but I have drawn all of my conclusions from data stored in your own memory. You have convicted your own species.”

Alyce scowled. In a way, she could see the Zieron’s reasoning. The Imperium was certainly loaded down with injustice, suffering and bureaucracy. She did not disagree with his statements about the state of the empire; rather, she did not accept that change was so unlikely.

“Is it really that bad?” Glitz said.

“I fear so. Your grand empire is slowly turning into Hhesteran Shahsha. In the Zieron tongue, this means Empire of Ashes.”

Alyce stared at the wooden table. Ever since she was a little girl, she had dreamed about the Zierons. She had envisioned their grand return through a wormhole, ready to bring peace and prosperity to the galaxy. But the Zierons were different to how she had imagined. They had formed their peaceful empire by means she considered immoral, and now Rell was prophesying the end of the Imperium as if he was discussing an unfavourable weather forecast.

“The problem is,” Rell said, “whatever political regime you implement, you will not be able to change the fact that the human race is degenerate. Humans share the characteristics of all emerging intelligent species—self-interest, lust, envy… There is nothing wrong with these traits when a race is evolving. Quite the contrary, in fact. Such traits are very beneficial when only the fittest can survive.” Rell sighed. “But now you have entered an age where you must take control over your evolution. The selfish traits must be eliminated from your species if you are to have any chance of lasting peace.”

Alyce shrugged again. She felt an instinctive disagreement with Rell’s words, although she could not think of a valid argument to oppose him. She had always believed sincerely in the inherent goodness of the human race. Sure, there were bad eggs in every species, but she had always been convinced that the humans would eventually overcome their problems through reasoning and diplomacy. But Rell was arguing that such an outcome was impossible, due to the inherent flaws in the human species. His argument was that humans would have to be genetically altered in order to find peace.

“I sense that you find our methods of procuring peace distasteful,” Rell said. “If it may ease your mind, let me point out that if all humans were like you, Alyce Wickham, I would not have a fear for the future of the Imperium. You are a pure individual—an anomaly among a egoistic race. You are an embodiment of all that is good and virtuous about the humans.” Rell waved a hand; a glass of amber liquid appeared. He took a sip. “However, all humans are not like you. And that is why I believe that the Imperium is doomed to fail.”

“But you said that genetic alteration would save the species,” Glitz said.

Rell smiled. “I did. But I hardly think that such an action would ever be permitted by the Grand Senate. Removing humanity’s imperfections would be tantamount to creating a new race—a perfect race. The old humanity would cease to exist. You would have to commit self-genocide.”

Glitz frowned. “Is that what you did?”


Alyce shuddered.

“How long do you reckon the Imperium has left?” Glitz said.

“Your friend is correct in her statement that the future of the Imperium is firmly in humanity’s hands. It is not impossible for the destiny of your empire to be altered, although it would be most difficult. However, providing the Imperium continues along its current path, I would estimate the Imperium to collapse in less than one thousand years.”

“One thousand years!”

“You may laugh, my friend, but a millennium is no time at all in the grand scheme of things. We Zierons, due to our improved lifespans, do not often deal in such insignificant increments as years or decades.”

“OK, so the Imperium is likely to end in a thousand years. But what about our current problems? We came to visit your planet for help. The Weerms are threatening our entire civilisation. If we don’t stop them, our society is likely to collapse a lot sooner.”

The Zieron pondered Glitz’s words for a moment. “I believe that the Weerm threat will be neutralised. Certainly, they have horrific personalities, but the human history has been one of conquering seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Although I believe that the Imperium will fall, I am convinced that the humans will survive.”

“It’s all right you saying that,” Alyce said, “but—no offence—the assurance of an alien is hardly enough for us to sleep easily. Is there anything you can do to help us ward off the threat?”

“Like building us a weapon,” Glitz added hopefully. He knew from even a slight encounter with the Zieron civilisation that they had technology so advanced that it would be considered miraculous in their own galaxy.

“I am afraid that we no longer create weapons. We have guaranteed our dominion through impenetrable defence systems, and through the non-violent suppression of neighbouring races. We no longer have any need for guns or bombs. Weapons could only introduce an destabilising factor in our society; therefore, they are forbidden by the Zieron Code.”

“But you wouldn’t be building guns for yourself,” Glitz replied.

Rell shook his head. “It is out of the question. I am sorry.”

“Then what’s the point of you?” Alyce blurted out angrily. “My family has been trying to locate your people for generations, in the hope that you could guide our race out of the darkness. But you’re not even willing to help us!” She paused.

“I did not say exactly that.” Rell paused, pressing his forefinger to his lips thoughtfully. “In fact, there is a weapon in existence that might well be effective against your enemy. The weapon in question is located onboard your ship, the Middlemarch.”

Alyce’s heart began to pound. “What?”

“When I scanned your memories, I couldn’t help noticing an odd detail.” He turned to Glitz. “When you collected that medical equipment from the planet Hansea, it had been due to be recalled by the East Galaxy Company, which had delivered it in the first place. You assumed that the Cellzers must have had some sort of fault. But, if you recall, the Cellzers revealed themselves to be in perfect working order.”

“Yeah, so?”

“Who owns the East Galaxy Company?”

“Ozytan. Ah…” Glitz was starting to see where Rell was coming from. “So—so you think Ozytan recalled the Cellzers because he realised that they might be effective as weapons against the Weerms?”

“I cannot say anything for certain, but it seems likely.”

“I’ve still got one two of the Cellzers on the ship. If we can take them back to the Navy, they can analyse them, find out if they could be used as offensive weapons.” It was a long shot, but Rell’s reasoning was sound. Why else would the East Galaxy Company have wanted to recall the Cellzers? It had seemed odd at the time that an armed guard was protecting the equipment, but he hadn’t really thought about it.

“So that’s it?” Alyce said savagely. “We cross into your galaxy, untold billions of parsecs across the Universe, for some speculation about a piece of medical equipment?”

The old man smiled. “Here you are the aliens.”

Alyce frowned. “Why are you being so unhelpful? I mean, you gave us the phase drive, so why not—”

“You seem to be under some misapprehension,” Rell said. “The Zierons did not give the humans any such thing.”

“You… you didn’t?”

Rell shook his head. “No. We passed into your galaxy on a purely investigative mission. We did not give you technology of any kind. Wherever you obtained phase drive technology—well, it was not from the Zierons.”

Alyce felt tears welling up in her eyes. Glitz put an arm around her. He was slightly puzzled by Alyce’s sadness and anger, until he considered that she had dreamed about meeting the Zierons since she was a little girl. He still remembered the day when he was seven years old, when he had first discovered that the Gift Goblin wasn’t real. He had sneaked down in the middle of the night, and discovered his mother leaving wrapped presents under the Chime Tree. He had cried all night, despite feeling vaguely ashamed about being so upset. Alyce had discovered that, while the Zierons did truly exist, that they did not match up with her fantastical expectations. In fact, they held strictly to a set of beliefs that she found abhorrent, and viewed the humans under a deeply misanthropic lens. It was like a child learning that the Gift Goblin was actually an evil creature that stole children’s presents.

“There must be something else you can do,” Glitz muttered.

“I’m sorry. But you must understand that every Zieron is strictly bound by the Code. To disobey would mean death.”

The three sat in silence for a second; Alyce silently fumed, Glitz thought about the Zieron’s words, and Rell contemplated the two humans in silence, staring at them from under bushy eyebrows. A bell tolled dimly outside the room, and Rell was drawn out of his brown study.

“Ah. The Winter Festival is about to begin.”

Chapter Eighteen

“The Winter Festival?” Glitz repeated.

“It is a very special time for the inhabitants of this planet. This world is called Zieros; it is the home world of the Zierons. Environmental conditions on our planet are decidedly peculiar, in comparison to your world. Each season lasts for a full year, which on Zieros is composed of three hundred days, each of a duration of twenty hours. And we only have two seasons—summer and winter.”

“Must get tedious,” Alyce muttered.

“Not at all. Each season provides a refreshing contrast from the other. Of course, seasons are rather less extreme than on many planets within the Imperium. You have already witnessed our summer. The sun is warm, yet mild, and plant and animal life can flourish without fear of overheating. Our winter is similarly gentle. We have lots of snow, but temperatures rarely fall below freezing temperature. Winter, for many Zierons, is a time of study and meditation, following the physical labour and energetic activity of the summer months.”

“So what’s this festival?”

“At the beginning of every summer and winter, we crown a ceremonial king in a lavish ceremony. This kingship carries no administrative or governmental responsibilities. The king is chosen purely as a result of special accomplishment. It is a fine way to honour outstanding citizens. Today, the Winter King will be crowned, which will herald the beginning of the season.”

“It seems rather misogynistic, to me,” Alyce muttered. “What about a Winter Queen?”

“The Winter King may be either male or female,” Rell said patiently. “In Zieron society, both sexes are equal in every sense. Further, we do not believe it necessary to bestow different titles upon each sex, as if we judge any gender by different standards.”

Alyce nodded. That was one aspect of Zieron culture that appealed to her. Despite what anyone said, it seemed that the establishment of the Imperium still viewed female citizens as inferior. Some people even cited reasons for their belief in the inferiority of women, such as physical or emotional frailties. Perhaps the Zierons had addressed such genetic differences when altering the DNA of their species…

“Do you wish to observe the festival?”

Alyce and Glitz glanced at one another, then nodded. No human, as far as they knew, had ever entered this galaxy. How could they pass up on the opportunity of learning more about a species that was, by its own claims, enlightened? Even though Alyce was disturbed by some elements of the Zieron belief system, the festival sounded intriguing, and she was excited by the idea.

“Excellent,” Rell said. “Follow me.”

Rell led them gracefully out of the study, and into a long wood-panelled corridor. They reached the end, and stepped out into an expansive courtyard. Rell’s house was huge and grand, cast out of some kind of white stone. His garden was fit for Emperor Ferdinand himself, complete with a fountain and striking flowers.

“Zierons believe in rewarding achievement,” Rell said. “We still believe in the incentivisation of initiative. I received this house after solving a mathematical theorem that had tormented mathematicians for generations. However, such rewards are not purely financial. Society rewards pioneering individuals largely by bestowing honour upon them; you will see an example of this in the festival.”

They walked through the garden, crossed a bridge over the river, and Rell beckoned them over to a large silver box. It looked strangely incongruous sitting beneath a red-leaved tree, and Rell explained that it was a form of transport. They were communally-owned, and so could be used by anyone. They generated their own electricity using nuclear technology, and generated no pollution. Rell touched the surface, and an invisible door slid open, allowing access. The interior of the transport pod contained several rows of luxurious seats, and it was coolly air-conditioned. When they were all seated, Rell gave the computer instructions, and it began to move with a low whirring sound. Glitz had no idea what the box looked like from outside, but he imagined the cube to be simply moving along the street on its flat surface.

The vehicle stopped, and the concealed door slid open, allowing rays of sunlight to stream inside. Rell stepped out, signalling the others to follow him. They had arrived in a large open square, which was teeming with people. The sound of a high bell chimed in the air. The square was surrounded on all sides by rectangular pools of water; some children were sitting down, dipping their feet in the water, while the adults stood and talked quietly. The square itself was a large area of grass, surrounded by a perimeter of paved ground. Glitz was amazed by how well-behaved the crowd was. No one was cheering, arguing, or talking above a certain volume.

“I thought this was supposed to be a celebration,” Glitz muttered, as they joined the Zierons in the square.

“We do not believe in losing ourselves in good cheer, neither do we applaud forced joviality. The coronation of the Winter King is a distinctly dignified occasion.”

Glitz and Alyce stared out at the other Zierons, who were constantly arriving in the grey transport cubes. They looked remarkably like humans, except for their oddly straight-backed posture, and neutral expressions. Alyce couldn’t help thinking to herself that a Zieron man wouldn’t make a very good lover… She began to notice patterns in their dress. Some of the creatures wore nondescript grey robes, whereas others were attired in buttonless navy suits of the same design as Rell’s. What did all the variation in clothing mean?

When Alyce asked this question aloud, Rell explained that the Zierons organised their society by means of a sort of caste system, whereby all babies had their career path genetically predetermined from the moment of conception. In human society, Rell argued, many people were unhappy due to being genetically unsuitable for their jobs. Millions of receptionists craved a career as an artist, and millions of engineers secretly harboured dreams of becoming actors. The problem was, not enough of such jobs were available in human society to meet the number of people who desired them. Clearly, the most effective solution was to create people who would be perfect for their assigned jobs. For example, if the Zierons calculated a future need for another bookkeeper, they would produce someone with a feverish love of order and system. Genetic traits could be manipulated to such a precise degree that there were always the right amount of people for any vocation. Again, Alyce felt an instinctive loathing towards this policy of social engineering, but she could not seem to come up with a logical argument to oppose it.

As the time neared for the ceremony to begin, Rell explained that he had to leave; as Keeper of the Seals, he was required to change into a special robe for the festival. He vanished in a flash of light. Glitz and Alyce observed the scene with curiosity; none of the Zierons paid attention to them, or tried to engage in conversation. They stood on the paved area with the creatures, right at the edge of the empty green square, waiting for something to happen. About thirty minutes later, the ceremony began properly. The gathered spectators watched quietly as a slow procession emerged from a domed hall and began to proceed across the grass. The members of the procession were all dressed in vivid robes; Alyce picked out Rell, who was donning a purple and gold cloak. There had to be around fifty participants in the ceremony itself. The members of the parade stopped on the grass, and conjured a large stage into existence. Then many long-winded formalities were carried out, most of which Glitz and Alyce found to be abstruse, even incomprehensible. The Zieron elected to be crowned as Winter King was a young woman with blonde hair and blue eyes; from what Alyce gathered from the proceedings, she had genetically engineered a new fibrous plant for cloth-making that was easier to grow on the outer worlds of their empire. Alyce had noticed that all of the more educated castes in Zieron society—the ones wearing suit-like clothing of various colours—all had blonde hair and blue eyes. The worker castes all had dull brown or grey hair. This was yet another aspect of Zieron society which she found troubling.

The whole affair lasted for almost two hours, during which time both Glitz and Alyce began to lose patience. Finally, the ceremony was completed, and a garland of golden flowers was slowly lowered onto the head of the female Winter King. Rell approached them once his role as Keeper of the Seals was completed, and asked them what they thought of the ceremony.

“It was interesting,” Alyce said.

“I understand it may have seemed slightly tedious to a non-Zieron,” Rell admitted. “Many of the customs you observed can only really be understood by someone with a full knowledge of our culture and history. You must be tired. Come, I will show you to your lodgings.”

“There isn’t any need for us to stay.” Alyce glanced at Glitz. “There’s a war brewing back home. We should—”

“Nonsense! You must stay!” The old man’s eyes twinkled. “I promise you, Alyce, that if you stay the night here you will not regret it. I have a gift for you both, but it shall not be ready until the morning. Stay, I beseech you.”

Alyce shrugged reluctantly. “Well, I guess we can stay one night…”

Beaming, Rell led the two humans out of the square, through the city, and into what appeared to be a forest. They did not recognise the trees, but they had similarities with the ancient oaks and redwoods preserved on the planet Chase. As soon as they entered the forest, it was as if a thick blanket had fallen over them. The silence of the forest was broken only by the chirping of woodland birds and the rustling of small mammals. As they followed Rell through the trees, sunlight streamed through the faraway leaves, bathing them in a gold-emerald glow. Finally, they reached a small cabin, which was made of hewn logs. It was set in a small clearing in the forest. Outside, there was a small log pile next to an axe.

“Here?” Alyce said.

“It’s getting late,” Rell replied. “The sleeping hours are nearly upon us.” He pointed up; the bright sunlight was beginning to dim; the dusk was approaching. “You will find the cabin perfectly suited to your needs, I trust. Now, I must leave you. Good night!”

After that abrupt farewell, Rell disappeared in a flash of light before they could argue further.

“I really hate it when he does that,” Glitz muttered.

They stared at the cabin, and Glitz was the first to enter. It was a small, one-room affair, but nonetheless cosy. Fading light streamed in through two windows, and gently-burning candles provided additional illumination. There was a heady scent in the room; some kind of oil was burning over the flames. His spice trader’s nose decided that the scent bore a resemblance to vanilla and cloves. There was one noticeable problem with the cabin.

Alyce stepped inside, and noticed it immediately. “Only one bed.”

At the end of the cabin, there was a decorative, gilded bed, with silver knobs. It was covered in a silken material, and scented rose petals—or something of the kind—were sprinkled over the surface. In the dim light of the candles, it seemed very romantic.

Alyce blushed. “I guess… I guess Rell thought we were a couple.”

Glitz stood next to Alyce, facing the luxurious bed. “Perhaps… but he did scan our minds. He should have known that we weren’t together.”

“Maybe that’s it,” Alyce muttered. “Maybe he saw more into our minds than he let on. Maybe he…” She tailed off. Feeling unable to complete the sentence, she avoided Glitz’s eyes shyly.

Feeling a rush of sensuality, Glitz took hold of Alyce’s hand. He looked directly into her eyes; the connection was maintained. Slowly, gently, he drew her towards him and kissed her gently on the mouth. She flushed, and returned the kiss. With slightly trembling hands, Glitz stroked his hand across the back of her pink dress, and then unfastened it, letting the dress fall to the ground. She was wearing no underwear beneath the dress, and he began to caress her breasts gently. Then he removed his own clothes quickly and silently, and they both descended to the bed. Glitz had always been somewhat of a rough lover; the women he had slept with in the past seemed to enjoy such treatment. But somehow, it wouldn’t have seemed right to treat Alyce in such a way. After almost an hour of passionate, sweet lovemaking, Alyce and Glitz fell asleep, under the starlight of unfamiliar constellations.


In the morning, Alyce and Glitz woke to the sound of birds singing. Fresh morning sunlight was seeping into the cabin. They sat up slowly, quickly realising that they felt none of the tiredness that usually accompanied mornings. For some reason—possibly the air was purer on Zieros, or maybe there was a higher level of negative ions—they awoke feeling perfectly refreshed and happy. Of course, it helped that they had both enjoyed a night of intense passion. Glitz realised that Rell must have left a single bed in the cabin on purpose; the man had recognised that they both had feelings for each other, and decided to give them a prod in the right direction.

“I hope last night was OK for you,” Glitz said softly, looking into Alyce’s eyes. Somehow, he had a feeling that he had left her very satisfied.

“It was perfect,” Alyce replied.

Glitz smiled, and conjured up a tray of coffee and pastries, courtesy of the nanobots that filled the air even in the forest cabin. They ate their breakfast in a comfortable silence, and then willed on a pair of clothes each. Glitz opted for a Vellorm jacket and plain trousers, while Alyce fabricated a comfortable black skirt and blouse. When they had dressed, there was a knock at the cabin. It was Rell. He smiled at them both.

“I hope you slept soundly?”

Glitz and Alyce both smirked, avoiding each other’s gaze with slight embarrassment. Rell was wearing a navy suit again. “I have a gift for you. It is something that may help you in your crusade against the Weerms.”

Alyce frowned. “I thought you said you couldn’t help us.”

“I said I could not build you a weapon. That is because Zierons have realised that there are invariably more intelligent ways to protect oneself against violence. I cannot build you a gun. But I have something for you of even greater utility.” He beckoned them to follow him with a finger.

He led them to another clearing in the forest, a quarter of a mile from their cabin. There was a raised platform on the leafy soil, which seemed to be made of a marble-like rock. Alyce gasped when she saw what was on top of the platform. It was a ship—but a ship like she had never seen before. The central part of the ship was reminiscent of a huge missile, and three nacelles attached in a triangular arrangement defined the shape. The material was white, with a strange sheen.

“This is the Deliverer,” Rell said proudly. “My son, Horran, is a spaceship developer, and the inventor of the fissionable forcefield. He produced this ship as a prototype for the Zieron Defence Force, but it was ultimately judged as unusable, due to the use of rare materials in its design. The hull is made from a type of polymer—it is stronger than any metal, and will withstand almost any attack. In addition, the ship has three layered forcefields, as well as a full auto-repair system. It has FTL technology, of course, as well as all other regular features. An antimatter drive generates unlimited power for the ship; there is never any need to refuel.

“But the really special thing about the Deliverer is the control system. The ship’s computer runs on an intelligent operating system, known as Seraph. The computer can handle all day-to-day operation, including flight, landing and defence.”

“So you’re… giving this to us?” Glitz said.

“Yes.” Rell smiled. “It is the least I can do. You have been very gracious guests, and I wish for you to win in your fight against the Weerms. All of your possessions from the Middlemarch have been transferred to the Deliverer. Of course, you may still take your other ship back to your galaxy if you wish.”

“Well, thanks.”

“I think I’ll leave the Middlemarch here, if that’s OK with you,” Alyce said. “I never was very fond of it.” She paused. “Aren’t you worried about being pestered by other humans? I mean, if people find out where the Deliverer came from, everyone will want one. It won’t be too hard for them to work out how to open the wormhole, I would imagine. Then you risk being inundated with people begging for a super-ship of their own.”

Rell nodded. “That would be a troubling thought. However, I’m afraid it will not be possible for humans to ever visit Zieros again.” He paused, a dark look coming into his eyes. “There is a darkness coming, something that threatens our entire empire. The chaos has been foreseen by every soothsayer, every prophet of the Zierons.”

“What kind of darkness?” Alyce breathed.

“We do not know. That is the terrible thing. We simply know that a great evil is soon to be visited upon this part of the Universe. The Zieron Council have agreed unanimously that our empire must be relocated. We have achieved immense power over the millennia, but it would be foolish to risk injury.”

“Relocate? I don’t understand.”

“The Universe consists of two types of space—creation and uncreation. This is an oversimplification, but close enough. The Universe is constantly expanding and changing; old galaxies die out and become emptiness, and new galaxies are born out of the chaos. We are simply taking control over this process. Our three galaxies will be shifted into another part of the Universe, an empty, creationless space called the void. We will then, I hope, be far from the reach of the great evil.”

Alyce shook her head, trying to comprehend the Zieron’s mind-boggling words. “So the wormhole will no longer lead to your galaxy.”

“I am afraid not.”

“So when do you plan to move?”

“Today. The effects on the inhabitants of the Zieron Empire will be minimal. Many will not even be aware of the change. All visible constellations will stay exactly the same. To all intents and purposes, our three galaxies will remain unaltered. They will simply exist in a different part of space.” He smiled at Alyce and Glitz. “If you like, you may stay to observe the galactic translation. We can still produce a one-time wormhole for you to return to your galaxy, once the process is over.”

Alyce glanced and Glitz, and smiled. “We’d love to see it.”


Glitz and Alyce were standing in a large underground cavern, surrounded by red-cloaked Zierons. As Rell had pointed out, red was the designated colour for engineers and scientists. It was these men and women of science that had developed the process to move the three galaxies. The great darkness had been prophesied by the Zierons nearly a century ago, and the time had finally come for the theory to be put into practice.

The cavern was located miles beneath the crust of the planet; Rell was unsure of the exact measurements, but believed it to be close to the actual core. Temperature-control devices maintained a habitable environment. The controls to shift the planet had to be located near the centre of the globe. Zieros was, quite literally, in the centre of the three galaxies. The calculations required for the matter translation process mandated the physical force to originate close to the centre of the empire.

“I am glad you came to witness this,” Rell said. “No human will ever be able to witness such an event again. You are both very honoured.”

Dozens of red-cloaked figures were checking devices built into the walls. A green island was located in the middle of the cavern, surrounded by a glassy blue lake of pure water. The cavern itself had to be at least a mile in diameter. Most of the engineers were working on machines at the periphery of the cave; the island seemed to be deserted. The whole place was illuminated by an artificial sun, which gave them the odd impression of being in daylight. Glitz swallowed as he observed the scientists. Now that the time was at hand, he was beginning to have second thoughts. What if something went wrong with the process? The idea of moving three galaxies across space sounded risky. What if the empire simply blinked out of existence? But it was too late now; the empire would be translated in less than thirty minutes.

“Come with me,” Rell said.

He was dressed in a ceremonial robe, complete with a gold jewelled chain. Three other Zierons approached, dressed in robes of various colours, and were introduced to Glitz and Alyce. The Grand High Zieron was wearing a yellow robe with white stripes, the Secretary was wearing a silver robe, and the Defence Force Leader was wearing a black robe. They bowed to the four dignitaries, which included Rell, the Keeper of the Seals.

“It has been decided that you will be allowed to travel with us to the Wheel Island,” Rell said. “If you so wish, of course. It is from the Wheel Island that the process of galactic translation will be initiated.”

Glitz and Alyce readily agreed, and were instructed to leave all electronic equipment behind. They complied, and followed the dignitaries into a large golden boat. There were no oarsmen, but as soon as the six people were safely seated, it began to move of its own accord across the lake, creating small ripples on the crystalline surface. It took them slowly to the Wheel Island, which appeared to be covered in a kind of jungle. The boat moored in a small lagoon, and Alyce and Glitz stepped off with the others. The jungle was eerily silent; there was apparently no animal life.

“The Wheel Island uses plant-based energy as a power source,” Rell explained quietly. “The translation process is extremely delicate, and any sort of electric device could disturb the process. Even a slight error could send our galaxies into a collision with another physical space, or cause us to dissemble.”

Glitz and Alyce silently followed the men into the very centre of the jungle. The robed Zierons walked with an almost holy reverence. A giant wooden wheel, with jutting spokes, stood in the middle of a piece of rock. There were no wires, no computers, no visible power source. Glitz began to wonder if the whole thing was nothing but hokum. How could a piece of wood move three galaxies across the Universe? After considerable chanting, the Grand High Zieron bowed to his fellow officials, and climbed on to the wooden platform. After taking a deep breath, and soliciting the good favour of Chance, their deity, he took hold of the wheel…

Alyce took hold of Glitz’s hand, and he squeezed it gently. As the wheel turned with a low clicking sound, a white glow began to fill the island. The light seemed to be filled with smaller sparkles, and Glitz felt a strange calm come upon him. It got brighter and brighter, filling the jungle with warmth—and then it faded.

“Is it done?” the Grand High Zieron asked.

The secretary nodded slowly. “I believe so.”

The Defence Force Leader stroked his beard, exhaling slowly. “Then let us pray to Chance that we are now safe from the oncoming darkness.”

The four Zierons and the two humans returned to the main body of the cavern in the golden boat, and left the cavern using the anti-gravity elevator. Outside, hail was falling heavily, and the sky was dark and grey.

“A result of the translation process!” Rell shouted, over the deafening hail. “This was predicted by the scientists!”

Then, quite suddenly, the hail stopped, and sunlight once again filled the sky. Now, the entire planet looked exactly the same as before. The landscape was identical, and the few people present in the city seemed largely unaffected by the experience.

“Excellent,” Rell said. “A testament to Zieron science! Excellent!” He turned to Alyce and Glitz. “I will escort you back to the Deliverer. I am glad that you could witness this.” He took Alyce’s hand and kissed it gently. “And let me say, while there are still humans like you alive, Alyce Wickam, there is still hope for the Imperium.”

Alyce flushed. Rell produced a book from within the folds of his robe. It was a black, leather-bound volume, with golden text. The title read: THE HISTORY OF THE ANCIENT AND NOBLE ZIERONS.

“Now, you may never be persuaded that our society is perfect. I sometimes question that statement myself. But I understand that you—and the rest of your family—have been interested in our people for a long time. Hopefully this book will give you further insight into our ways.”

Alyce bowed her head respectfully. “Thank you.”

“Now let us return to your ship.”


Glitz and Alyce said their goodbyes to Rell, who had promised to open a one-time wormhole near their ship, which they could use to re-enter their own galaxy. They entered their new ship, which was still parked on the marble-like platform. The design of the flight deck was smart without being ostentatious, and minimal without being Spartan. The non-human design was evident straight away; three hexagonal control screens were built into the far wall, and the floor was a strange hexagon grid design. There was a large white sofa-like object, which was shaped like two-thirds of a hexagon.

“Looks like the guy who built this was fond of hexagons,” Glitz grunted.

There were various consoles on the flight deck, all of which seemed to operate in a way entirely different from human technology. But hopefully that wouldn’t be a problem; Rell had mentioned that the onboard computer was capable of full automatic operation.

“Computer,” Alyce said. Nothing happened. She paused, trying to remember the name of the operating system. “Seraph.”

At the mention of the word, the computer began to speak. One of the hexagonal control screens lit up in synchrony with the words. Seraph’s voice was male—if such a designation could be applied to a computer. It had a calm and pleasant tone.

<Welcome to the Deliverer. My name is Seraph. May I take your names?>

“I’m Captain Alyce Wickham, and this is Harlan Glitz.”

<Thank you, Captain. Your names will be stored in my databanks for future reference. May I take the destination you require?>

“He’s a polite computer,” Alyce murmured. Then she raised her voice. “One of the Zierons should be opening a wormhole in a few moments. We need to enter it.”

<Very well. My sensors indicate that the wormhole has already been generated. Please prepare for take-off.>

With a hum, the engines started. Glitz wondered if the three nacelles provided extra engine power, or were simply there to provide extra room on the ship. Perhaps they did both. One of the hexagonal scanners flickered into life; it showed a view outside the ship; they were heading straight into the wormhole. They both felt a tremor of anticipation as they slipped through the wormhole. If the Zierons had opened it to the wrong galaxy, they might never be able to return to the Imperium. There was a flash of light, and the ship emerged from the other side of the wormhole. Now stars were visible outside the ship.

“Seraph, plot us a chart of our current galactic position.”

<Certainly, Captain.>

Immediately, a chart flickered up on the third display scanner. Alyce perused it carefully. She had only ever been average at map reading, and there were some sectors which she wouldn’t recognise at all. With a great feeling of relief, Alyce realised that they were back in the Nosferatu Sector. Rell had been as good as his word; they were exactly where they had been before entering the first wormhole. She exhaled slowly, and then turned to Glitz.

“What do you think about the Zierons? Do you reckon they were right to genetically engineer themselves?”

Glitz shrugged. “They seemed like nice enough people. As for their morals—well, I’m no philosopher. I’ll leave such questions to better men than myself.”

“That’s a refreshing attitude.” She smiled. “Come on, let’s explore the rest of the ship. Oh—” She turned back to face the control screens. “Seraph, are you familiar with the layout of this galaxy?”

<Yes, Captain. I have downloaded current starcharts from the Imperial Open Databank.>

“Great. Please take us to Lightworld.”

<Yes, Captain.>

Alyce turned to Glitz. “Now we’ll see just how capable Seraph is when it comes to automatic operation.”

<Phase drive activating.>

The Deliverer entered phase space; and the scanner revealed darkness as all the stars vanished. Glitz and Alyce left the flight deck to discover what else was onboard the ship. There were three main decks, including the flight deck. The second deck, which was located above the main deck, included the crew room, leisure room, spacious accommodation, a kitchen, and a dining area. All of the ship’s design included the peculiar hexagonal shapes. The third deck, which was located beneath the flight deck, housed the engine room. It was clear to both of them that the engines were too complicated for them to understand, and the thing they assumed to be the antimatter power generator looked positively dangerous. They would simply have to pray that the auto-repair system was as good as Rell claimed; a human engineer would be unlikely to understand the equipment.

The three nacelles provided additional room, and were clearly designed for easy reconfiguration. One of the nacelles housed a couple of extra bedrooms, the second contained spare parts and materials, and the third was mostly empty. The ship was extremely big for two people, but luckily it did not require a large crew. Seraph had been designed to operate the ship without assistance.

She smiled at Glitz. “It’s been a long day. I could do with a lie down. Would you care to join me?”

Glitz smiled at her. “With pleasure.”

Chapter Nineteen

Volori System

Glitz and Alyce sat on the sofa on the flight deck, feeling a little redundant. Seraph had exceeded all expectations of capability. It had single-handedly navigated the ship successfully through phase space, and piloted it carefully through the Volori system. Now they were approaching Lightworld. Seraph opened a communication line with the OTC.

<Communication line open.>

“Thanks.” Alyce jumped to her feet. “This is Captain Alyce Wickham, requesting landing permission.”

“Good afternoon, Captain. Our records indicate that you are on paid leave, and not due to return until—”

“This is urgent. I have information for the First Naval Lord regarding the current galactic situation. I must speak with him.”

There was a pause; Alyce guessed that the speaker was consulting with a superior authority. Finally he spoke again. “Permission granted, Captain.”

They landed on the planet as before, and a buggy came to pick them up. Midshipman Barnes was not driving this time; it was a man that Alyce didn’t recognise. When they entered the building, the First Naval Lord welcomed them, and led them into the Admiralty Board Room. It was empty apart from the three of them.

“I understand your leave has not yet expired,” the First Naval Lord muttered. “However, I am glad you came. The situation is becoming dire indeed. Soon, we may need all men at our disposal—and all women, of course. With hindsight, it was foolish to grant leave in the middle of such a crisis.” The First Naval Lord’s face was pale. “One of our stations has been taken.”

“Taken?” Alyce sat down, feeling a little weak. “How?”

The First Naval Lord paused sourly. “This morning, we received a report that a huge ship was approaching Station 949.”

“949? Which station is that, sir?”

“It houses the Genetic Archive.”

“That’s odd.”

The Genetic Archive was not directly under the governance of the Imperium; it was controlled by a semi-independent organisation called the Imperial Conservation Committee. The idea was to preserve a genetic sample of every single known life-form, from all discovered planets. However, the collection was never completed. The Imperium saw fit to discontinue the project two years previously, and the Archive was only still operational because the funding hadn’t quite run out. When it did, the samples would likely all be destroyed.

“Indeed—we expected a fight from the Weerms, but we never predicted that they would attack such a strange target.” He sighed. “The station is located in the Argive Sector, which does not have a significant Navy presence. Ozytan only attacked with one ship, but the Sector Defence Force was no match for him—he has developed some kind of projected energy weapon, which can penetrate our strongest forcefields. The ship docked with the station, and about a hundred of those creatures—the Weerms—stormed in and took control. Luckily, a worker on the base managed to get a message to Lightworld before the station was taken—otherwise we would be none the wiser.”

“So Ozytan is in full control of the station?”

“I am afraid so.”

“Space! And all this happened this morning?” The First Naval Lord nodded, and she paused. “I assume you are readying a fleet, sir?”

“Yes, our fleet will be leaving tomorrow, in a mission to reclaim the station. I would have wished to leave today, but we need time to gather all of our forces. The weapons on Ozytan’s ship are very powerful.” He paused. “You said, when you arrived, that you had some important information for me.”

Alyce nodded. “I have a weapon which I believe may be effective against the Weerms, sir.”

She produced the white Cellzer, and showed it to the First Naval Lord. “This is a piece of medical equipment, but I have reason to believe that it may damage the Weerms.”

The First Naval Lord smiled. “Is that so? In that case, you might want to meet our prisoner…”


The First Naval Lord led Alyce and Glitz into the secret hangar, which was dark and enclosed. The lights were dim, and there was the sound of water dripping somewhere. It was little more than a wide, dark, empty space; it had presumably been built for ship storage, but it seemed unused. The only object in the hangar was a metal cage right in the centre. As they approached it, Glitz saw that there was… something inside it. It was a dark shape, lying at the edge. It was not moving. They drew closer, and Alyce stepped back in horror when she realised what it was. It was a Weerm.

“After your visit to Chaos, we sent a flotilla to the planet. Ozytan and his creatures had already left; the planet contained only indigenous life. However, we did find this one Weerm that had been left behind. It is badly damaged—which was presumably why it had not escaped with the rest.”

“Is it dead, sir?” Alyce whispered.

“Well, it is hurt—badly. But, in answer to your question, no, it is still alive.”

“I wonder,” Alyce said, turning the Cellzer over in her hands.

She felt somewhat guilty about injuring an unarmed, injured creature, but she knew she had no choice. She set the device to a +5 setting, knelt down, pointed it at the Weerm, and activated it. A beam shone out, making contact with the creature. Incredibly, it burned right through the creature’s skin. The Weerm yelled out in agony, and Alyce quickly switched it off.

“Wonderful!” the First Naval Lord exclaimed. “Give it to me! I shall have it reproduced within the hour, and given to every man! And woman!”

Alyce and Glitz grinned at each other. They weren’t going to let the Imperium fall without a fight. Ozytan probably thought his Weerms were invincible, what with their tough genetic makeup. But he was about to discover what the Imperial Navy was really made of—many of the higher-ranking officers might be useless, but the bulk of the force was dedicated and strong. The technicians worked faster than they had ever worked; the simple design of the Cellzer was analysed, and then duplicated on a huge scale. The work was not completed within a single hour, as the First Naval Lord had vowed. Still, by the end of the day, all of the members of the Navy had been issued with the devices, which seemed to be the only weapons that stood a chance against the Weerms.

On the First Naval Lord’s insistence, Alyce had taken him into their new ship, the Deliverer, to look around. Since they had landed on the planet, word had quickly spread that it was a unique and astonishing vessel. The First Naval Lord wandered around the flight deck, examining it in awe. He still didn’t know whether to believe Alyce’s story about how they had obtained it—everyone knew the Zierons were just a fairy-tale—but he could tell that it was a very special ship. After he had spent several minutes poring over the design, he sat down on the sofa in the control deck, and gestured for them to join him.

“Do you have a command at the moment, Captain?”

“No, sir. My last crew was disbanded several weeks before my mission to Chaos.”

“Very good. I assume you are not prepared to let anyone else command the Deliverer?”

Alyce shook her head. “Absolutely not, sir. She is not a Naval vessel, but I am fully willing for her to be of use to the Imperial Navy. However, I must insist on commanding her myself.” Almost as an afterthought, she nodded at Glitz. “And Glitz will have to join me. After all, it is his ship too.”

“Fine. As I said, we fly to the Argive Sector tomorrow in order to seize control of Station 949. I am going to assign you a group of men—Marines, if I can arrange it—and you must join us on the mission. I have a feeling that the Deliverer may just live up to its name.”

“Yes, sir.” She paused. “If I may have permission, I would also like to bring another man on the mission. His name is Hans Tekka.”

“One of the convicts who travelled to Chaos with you? The computer genius, I believe. Very well. It is a good idea. He may prove useful when you get to the station.”

“Thank you, sir.” Alyce paused, grimacing. “I think he’ll take some persuading…”

The First Naval Lord smiled. “Oh, no. You won’t have to do any persuading. He will not have a choice. I shall issue a Mandatory Enlistment Notice to his Net callsign. Then all you will have to do is arrange a place to meet him.”

Alyce grinned back. “Thank you, sir.”

The First Naval Lord was as good as his word. As soon as Tekka received the notice, he contacted Alyce and agreed to meet her on the planet Flora, which was in the next system. Without wasting any time, Alyce and Glitz took the Deliverer on a course to the planet. After a short, easy flight, they landed on the world. Flora was one of the worlds that retained a certain autonomy. It was a purely commercial planet, dedicated to the production of expensive oils found in certain plant species. As a result, the world was one huge flower farm—apart from a few small factories, landing sites and miniature towns, the world was literally covered in flowers. Glitz sneezed when they got out at the landing site; pollen was thick in the air.

“Why did he want to meet us in a place like this?” he muttered.

They waited in the shipyard for a while, until Tekka approached them, carrying a small grey box. He seemed to have improved in health since they had last seen him, although he was still pale and thin. Despite his apparent good health, he didn’t at all seem pleased to see them.

“I suffer from an acute respiratory condition,” he said, in answer to their questioning looks. “I self-medicate with Oil of Thoralis, which contains a compound that minimises the effects of my illness. The planet Flora is one of the only places to obtain it.”

Another man stepped out from behind a nearby luxury cruiser and grinned at them. “Room for another one?”

Glitz could hardly believe what he was seeing. It was Doland.

“What are you doing here?”

“You could sound a bit more pleased to see me. I ran into Tekka again, by a complete coincidence, a few days ago, when we were both on the shipyard on Rechya. Tekka was looking to travel to the next system, and I’d just bought a new Pearl Class cruiser. So I agreed to give him a ride. Obviously, that was before he got the notice from the Navy enlisting him.” He smiled. “So, when do we leave?”

“You don’t have to come with us,” Alyce said. “It’s only Tekka that’s been enlisted.”

“I know, but… I want to come with you.” Doland’s face became slightly wooden as he struggled to express what he wanted to say. “I… I feel like I should help. I mean… I probably won’t be much use, but if you’re willing to let me come with you…”

Alyce touched his arm. “Thank you, Doland. We’d be glad of the support.”

“Well,” Tekka said. “Are we going to set off, or are we simply going to stand here chatting all day?”

Once they were back onboard the Deliverer, on a course back to Lightworld, Alyce made sure that they were all armed with Cellzers. The Navy technicians had masterfully replicated the core of the technology, which they had found to be surprisingly simple. However, they had made some slight modifications. The technology had been made into a device resembling an assault rifle, making them easier to hold and operate. Another change was the name: rather than Cellzers, the weapons had been renamed “sonic rifles”, due to the discovery that they operated largely by means of focussed sound waves. Each rifle had two triggers; one to emit sonic energy, and one to fire a blast of focussed laser energy. Thus, they could be used against both human and Weerm targets. The power of each device had also been vastly increased, to the point that a single sonic blast from one of the guns should be enough to obliterate a Weerm… at least in theory. Of course, there was still the possibility that the captive Weerm had been more easily damaged due to its weak condition. They would not know for certain until they began to test them in the field.

When Glitz, Alyce, Tekka and Doland arrived back on Lightworld, they were immediately taken by the First Naval Lord to meet the men that would be accompanying them on the Deliverer. They met in a large battle room, which was filled with computer consoles and holographic starcharts. There were thirty-two commandos in total, led by their platoon leader, Lieutenant Horace Jameson. The First Naval Lord was slightly disappointed by what he had been sent; he had been hoping for a company of at least a hundred men, led by a competent Lieutenant Colonel. Then again, from his accent, it seemed that Lieutenant Jameson was of a common birth, so perhaps he was competent enough for a promotion but had been denied it.

“I understand I will be working under you, Captain Wickham,” the Lieutenant said, shaking hands with Alyce. He was a tall, handsome man with blonde hair and a strong jaw.

“Well, you will be working with me, Lieutenant,” Alyce said, smiling. “Why don’t we all sit down and go over the plan in detail?”

Glitz, Doland and Tekka sat down with Captain Alyce Wickham and the Marines. The First Naval Lord wanted the Deliverer to play an unusual part of the overall battle plan. The idea was to send in the main Navy and Marine forces in first of all. The Navy superdreadnoughts would deal with any enemy ships near Station 949, including Ozytan’s flagship with the high-energy weapons. While the Navy engaged in space combat, the Marines were to get onto the station using any means necessary—they would then kill or capture the Weerms, and reclaim control of the base.

The Deliverer would arrive at the base thirty minutes later. The idea was that if the Imperial forces were losing, the ship might swing the balance back in their favour. Alyce thought the idea was ridiculous, but the First Naval Lord had been adamant. She wondered if it was because she was a woman that he wanted to hold her back. Because the ship had been built with no weaponry, the technicians had fitted her with the best weapons available, including antimatter cannons, fission beams, phase torpedoes, anti-gravity bombs, plasma bolts, and neutron blasters. Alyce had wondered whether Seraph, the ship’s computer, would forbid their installation, but it actually co-operated.

After going over all parts of the plan, Lieutenant Jameson took his men to their sleeping quarters, and Alyce returned to the Deliverer with Glitz, Tekka and Doland. There was a shortage of sleeping space in the Navy headquarters, as there was a massive fleet preparing for take-off on the next day. Usually, Naval missions were on quite a small scale; sometimes they had to mediate in border disputes, while other times they were required to impose justice on planets that had not paid their due taxes. But the situation was much more serious indeed—an Imperium-owned station had been taken over by rebels. If they did not show a strong hand in dealing with the enemy, other rebels might start to get ideas.

When they entered the Deliverer, Alyce quickly showed Tekka and Doland the way to the sleeping area on the second deck. It was quite late, and they would be making an early start the next morning. There were five spacious “pods”, which all contained a double bed, a shower, and a toilet. Once Tekka and Doland had entered their rooms, Glitz turned to Alyce.

“You feel like…”

“No,” Alyce said firmly. “We both need to get some rest.” Glitz frowned; she was acting more like the old, imperious Captain Wickham, rather than the gentle and sensuous woman he had come to know. She seemed to realise this because her face softened. “When this is all over, we will, I promise.” She grinned at him, and then entered her pod and closed the door. Feeling a little irritated, Glitz got into his own bed and sealed the door.

Chapter Twenty


“Yes, Captain,” came the dull reply.

Captain Alyce Wickham nodded slowly as she looked over her full crew, who were all assembled on the flight deck. In addition to the commandos led by Lieutenant Horace Jameson, the Navy had also seen fit to assign her a helmsman, a weapons operator, an engineer, and two dozen able spacemen. She had attempted to explain to the First Naval Lord that the additional crew was unnecessary; Seraph, the computer system on the Deliverer, had shown itself to be more than up to the task of piloting the ship, and it had a full auto-repair system. Even if it did somehow break down, it was highly unlikely that the engineer would be able to do anything about it. But the First Naval Lord had been insistent, and so Alyce was leading the ship towards Station 949 with several redundant crew members. Hopefully they wouldn’t get in the way too much.

“Okay,” Alyce said. “You all have your orders. We should reach the station in just over six hours. We have been given wormhole network priority, so there should be no significant delays. When we arrive at the station, we do not know what the situation will be. The other Navy ships will have arrived half an hour before us, so the battle may already be decided before we reach it.” Alyce felt like adding that she thought holding the Deliverer back was a foolish tactic. Why save your best ship until last? But it wasn’t good for discipline to publicly question the orders of superior officers.

“We will exit phase space as close to the system as possible, but the station surveillance will almost certainly detect our presence before we even get close. If fired upon, we will simply have to hope that our defences are up to the challenge.” She paused, wondering whether to tell the crew about the origin of the ship. She decided that it would likely improve moral, so added, “Many of you have been wondering where this ship originated. The engineer pointed out that the engines operate in a way totally alien to normal design principles. Well, he was right. This ship is alien. It was given to us by the Zierons.”

Alyce smiled at the reaction from the crew, and noticed one or two disbelieving faces. That was to be expected. The Zierons were not a race believed in by most rational people; indeed, there had seemed to be no evidence at all of their existence. That is, unless the Imperium, for whatever reason, had decided to conceal the evidence in the past.

“That’s right. I travelled to the Zierons’ home planet with Mr. Glitz, and we informed them about the threat we face from Ozytan and his creatures.” The crew had already been briefed about the horrific nature of the Weerms, and armed with sonic rifles. “Without hesitating, they gave us this ship so we can stand against them. Now, have courage! We go into battle with the support of the Zierons, and the future of the Imperium may depend on us! Now, I will repeat: ARE YOU READY?”

“Yes, Captain!”

The difference in the response was phenomenal, and Glitz really had to admire Alyce’s ability for rousing enthusiasm and morale. The men and women were all sitting up straight, eyes gleaming—they were ready for battle.


The crew had all been assigned to various parts of the ship. Glitz, Tekka and Doland, along with the weapons operator, helmsman and engineer, would remain on the flight deck for the duration of the journey. The able spacemen were assigned to the dining area on the second deck, and the Marines were allocated the crew room. The ship had no need of such a large crew, and the Marines would not be able to be of use until arrival at the space station. So they simply had to wait.

Alyce sighed as she sat down in the captain’s seat on the flight deck. “Seraph, please report on the status of the main ship systems.”

<Certainly, Captain. Drive system: operational. Defence capabilities: operational. Weapon systems: operational. Auto-repair system: operational. Power generators: operational. All systems are fully operational and are predicted to run without fault for one thousand years, with a 0.01% chance of earlier malfunction.>


She sighed, stood up, and joined Glitz, Tekka and Doland on the polygonal sofa. They all seemed taut and nervous; even Tekka seemed slightly paler than usual. She was tremendously grateful for their support. Yes, it was true that Tekka had been pressed into service, but with his technical powers she was sure he could have escaped if he really wanted to. She smiled at Glitz, and made a small gesture as if to take his hand, but decided against it and pulled away. There was not any time to indulge such instincts until Station 949 was back under Imperial control. The mission must come first.

“So how long do we have now?” Doland said, glancing at his chronometer.

“Hours.” She smiled at his bored expression. “Tell you what, why don’t you retire to the leisure room for a while. There are vidfilms and virtual books in there. I’ll call you if I need you.”

“OK, thanks!”

Doland got up and stood in the anti-gravity elevator, which lifted him silently up to the second deck. The three remaining people sat in silence for a few minutes, staring into space. Finally, Glitz turned to Tekka. There was something that he had been wondering about… Tekka would probably refuse to venture any information, but if he did… it would be nice to satisfy his curiosity.

“Can I ask you something?”

Tekka raised his eyebrows fractionally. “You can ask.”

“What were you doing on Necreon, when you asked us to drop you off there after we’d visited Chaos? It’s nothing but sand.”

For a moment, a slight colour seemed to appear in Tekka’s cheeks. It wasn’t a tinge of embarrassment, or anger. It was more like a touch of warmth, of human feeling. He paused for a few seconds, as if considering how to respond. Finally, he looked directly at Glitz, and began to speak.

“Necreon is the planet on which my wife died.” Glitz said nothing; he was stunned. Tekka went on, “Her name was Nim. We met ten years ago, when I was a graduate student at Homeworld University. She was a researcher of Mathematics—her full title was Professor Nimrat Delevigne. However, her colleagues at the University knew nothing of her secret life; she was also Nim, the master criminal.” A light came into Tekka’s eyes; his face brightened with her memory. “I was enraptured—that is the only word to describe it. Others said she was beautiful; well, perhaps. But I fell in love with her mind. She was the most intelligent person I have ever had the honour to meet. We were married on the planet Prime Number, after successfully solving Dearborn’s 15th Problem.”

He fell silent for a moment, before continuing. “We studied by day and committed crimes by night; we were not interested in the money, the infamy, or even the thrill of avoiding capture. No, we did it for the mental exultation! We cracked the most complex security systems in the Universe, and avoided detection from the most advanced surveillance machines devised. But then… one day… things went wrong.” The light in his eyes seemed to diminish a little. “We devised a plan to steal five billion credits from the Imperial Central Bank. It was audacious, but we had done everything else—it was to be our last crime. But… I made an error. I have only ever made that single miscalculation, but it caused the death of my wife. We successfully penetrated the levels of security, and we entered the headquarters of the Bank, which is located on Necreon, in a secret underground chamber. There is also a decoy bank on Homeworld—which fools most people—but we went to the genuine establishment. After hacking into the computer system, I transferred the credits into a dispersion account designed to disseminate the money into hundreds of anonymous accounts. But then, as we readied to make our escape, we heard the sound of a door crashing. I realised—I realised—I had entered an incorrect digit when deactivating the alarm system. I had worked out the cryptographic code, but I had confused the Thermon string with a Bettelheim cipher. And they—”

Tekka’s usually calm voice cracked a little. He swallowed, then continued, “—they came for us. Every guard of the bank swooped in; we were outnumbered; escape was impossible. I held up my hands in surrender, but Nim dived at one of the computer consoles. I believe she had intended to create an energy inversion field to render their weapons useless. She began to type at the keyboard, and she was ordered to step away. But she did not listen. So—so one of the men fired his blaster—she was disintegrated—not even her ashes were left.” He paused. “I asked you to take me back to Necreon so I could build her a grave. There was no corpse, but I know that her atoms still remain on the planet… somewhere.”

He did not cry or wring his hands in anguish, but his pain was almost palpable. Glitz didn’t know whether to put a hand on his shoulder.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Alyce said softly. “Don’t blame yourself.”

“I appreciate your attempt to console me, but such a statement cannot be justified. It was I who inputted the incorrect sequence; without my mathematical blunder, she would live today. You need not be a logician to see this. To deny the truth of the situation would be to indulge in happy falsehood.”

“Right.” Alyce paused. “You never know… you might find someone else.”

“There is no one else like her. She eclipsed and predominated the whole of her sex.” He looked up at Alyce. “I mean no offence.”

“None taken.”

Alyce didn’t know what else to say to him. He had quickly returned to his cold manner, but clearly the death of his wife had had a profound impact on him. But how did you console someone like Tekka? Any possible comforting notions would have been already considered and dismissed by his astonishing intellect. She was relieved when he stood up, announcing that he was going to read a book until the arrival at the space station. It was technically bad form to leave the presence of an officer without requesting permission, but she did not press the matter. After all, he was not really part of the Navy.

She turned to Doland. “You don’t have to come with us to the space station, you know. The majority of the crew—Marines excepted—will be staying onboard while we enter the station.”

“Thanks,” Doland replied. “But I want to do this. It’s… it’s important to me.”

Alyce nodded. Secretly, she felt that Doland would likely be more of a hindrance than a help. He had no technical aptitude, no military experience, no particularly remarkable characteristics… but she admired him for wanting to help, and she wasn’t prepared to prevent him from serving the Imperium.

The Deliverer had calculated a route to Station 949 that included four phase jumps and two wormhole trips. First they would phase jump once to get to a wormhole, and then travel through the wormhole to the junction. Then, they would take another wormhole, followed by three more phase jumps. Then they would be on the edge of the sector in which the station was located. It was fairly hard to reach; it had been set up well away from the core worlds in a bid to detract attention from it. The Genetic Archive was an important scientific establishment, because of its wide collection of DNA samples. Alyce wondered what Ozytan wanted with it…

The Captain’s intervention was rarely required for the duration of the trip; the almost-miraculous Zieron ship computer handled the flight with care and precision. She had to manually take over to obtain authorisation before using the wormhole network, but apart from that the journey was fully automated. When they were nearing the end of the journey, she recalled the Marines and the rest of the crew to the flight deck to go over the plan. Once they had entered the system in which the station was located, they would quickly assess the situation. If there were enemy ships still active in the vicinity, the weapons operator and helmsman (who had been reassigned as the 2nd weapons operator), would fire at will. It was a risky tactic as far as the safety of the Deliverer was concerned, but it would simply have to be hoped that the shields would remain strong.

As soon as it became possible, the Deliverer would dock with the space station—forcibly, if necessary—allowing all of the Marines, as well as the Captain, Tekka, Glitz and Doland, aboard the station. The computer began to speak.

<We are approaching the Argive System now. We will be leaving phase space in approximately three minutes.>

“Thank you, Seraph! Marines, stand by for docking. All the rest of you—to your positions!” It was hardly a Naval command, she knew, but then a significant part of the crew had little experience in Navy missions.

The Deliverer had a wide docking bay; it was to this that the Marines now made their way, nodding to one another to show their support. A few of them were sweating profusely; they knew how dangerous the mission was likely to be.

“Now, listen up,” Lieutenant Jameson said. “Remember that our remit is simple. We need to neutralise any enemy forces—human or otherwise—that may be on the station, and reclaim control over the base. You are all armed with sonic rifles; with a bit of luck they will be effective against the Weerms. Sonic blasts will have no effect upon human targets; use the secondary trigger when taking down humans.”

<Exiting phase drive now.>

“Silence on deck!”

Alyce tensed as she stared at the scanner, waiting to assess the situation. Seraph had been ordered to show a close-up view of Station 949 immediately after entering normal space, so instant action could be taken. Luckily, the station was located right on the edge of the system, so there would be little laborious sublight travel involved. The ship left phase space, and within minutes the shape of Station 949 appeared on the scanner. It took Alyce a moment to evaluate what she was seeing; it was so unexpected. There was no sign of any battle. Ozytan’s ship looked undamaged, and there were also many Navy ships in the vicinity of the station. But the situation seemed peaceful.

“What’s going on, Captain?” Lieutenant Jameson said, noticing her expression.

“I don’t know. But we will proceed with the plan. Are your men ready for boarding?” The Lieutenant nodded. “Good luck, everyone.” She picked up her sonic rifle, and joined the men in the docking bay with Glitz, Tekka and Doland. “If any hostile ships are located, helmsman, fire at will. Seraph, can you obtain boarding permission?”

<Yes, Captain. We will be able to board without impediment.>

Alyce frowned. It was of great help to them, but it seemed strange. Perhaps the Imperial forces had already won the battle. Either way, they had no choice but to dock and evaluate the situation themselves.

“Fine. Dock with the station.”

<Yes, Captain.>

The Deliverer effortlessly docked with the space station, and the Marines stepped into the station first, led by Lieutenant Jameson. The docking chamber was empty, so they proceeded through the ship. They entered a kind of large control room, which was filled with complex machinery. The men had their sonic rifles raised, ready to shoot at any hostile targets.

“Don’t shoot!” someone shouted. “Mission is completed. I repeat, mission is completed!”

Captain Wickham stared at the scene in the control room; it took a few seconds for her brain to process the full situation. A handful of Marines and Navy officers were holding the control room, and the floor was strewn with bodies. Alyce peered at one of the corpses, which she realised was a dead Weerm. She noticed with some distaste that sticky green blood was pooling beneath it. So it was over. The Weerms had all been killed.

“Tell your men to stand down, Captain,” said a deep voice. She smiled when she realised who had spoken. It was Admiral Trenna, who had been leading the fleet.

“So it’s over?”

The Admiral nodded slowly. “It’s over.”

Feeling a little dazed and disoriented, Alyce nodded to the Lieutenant, and he turned to the commandos. “Stand down. It looks like the battle’s already been won,” the Lieutenant said.

Glitz and Doland exchanged a glance; they were both relieved to have avoided the fighting, but it seemed somewhat of an anti-climax. They had both seriously expected a huge battle on arrival, but now it seemed they would not see any action. Glitz stared around at the control room. Bodies were littered everywhere, and both members of the Navy and commandos were standing around.

“What happened, sir?” Alyce said slowly.

The Admiral smiled again. “When our fleet arrived at the station, we were ready for a full-on fight. All of our ships were armed to the teeth with fission beams, antimatter cannons—all of the most advanced Imperial weaponry. Ozytan must have known that he was overpowered, because we didn’t even get a chance to fire a single shot. As a matter of course, we made contact with the base, ordering the enemy to surrender or we would have to take the base by force. To our surprise, Ozytan capitulated. He accepted all of our terms without a quarrel.” He paused. “Of course, we expected some kind of deceit, but we boarded with the station, ready to fire on any hostile forces. But it was not a trick. Ozytan genuinely surrendered, and we sealed him in a force vault. The Weerms, unfortunately, didn’t think much of Ozytan’s submission, and they tried to attack us, contrary to Ozytan’s orders. But those sonic rifles did the trick—they were superb. Each of the creatures went down with a single blast, and none of our men were killed. Most of the fleet are still on board their ships; I will soon give the order for them to turn back and go home.”

“That’s… great news, sir,” Alyce said. She was still finding it hard to take in. It was incredible to think that Ozytan had surrendered. But she couldn’t help thinking that some details were strange. She turned to the Admiral. “Sir, would it be possible for me to question the prisoner?”

“I suppose so, Captain, but why do you wish it?”

“I have a few… things to clear up, sir,” she replied vaguely.

The Admiral seemed a little confused, but there was no reason not to allow it. The Captain had proven herself to be a loyal member of the Navy, and Ozytan was safe in his force vault. A human being could not penetrate the energy field without frying every cell in his body.

Captain Alyce Wickham turned to her men. “Thank you for being ready for this battle, even though it seems our skills were not required in the end. If we had fought the enemy, I feel sure that you would have acted valiantly.”

“Yes,” the Lieutenant agreed, nodding.

“Come on,” Alyce said, gesturing for Glitz, Doland and Tekka to follow her. “Let’s go and see our old friend.”

A commando, on instructions from the Admiral, led the Captain and the others to the location where Ozytan was being held. He had been placed inside a force vault in a large storage room, which was filled with boxes containing petri dishes and other simple scientific supplies. The room was filled with glowing blue light from the force vault. The devices had been developed nearly a hundred years ago, and as yet, no one had discovered a way to circumvent them. They worked by projecting a field of destructive energy into a concentrated bubble around the captive; although you could technically walk through it, the act of passing through the force membrane would certainly kill you, even if you were wearing the strongest armour in the galaxy. Private individuals and corporations were banned from using them, due to their inherent danger, but the Imperium found them to be a useful tool. Two more ships were on their way to the station—a passenger liner containing a new set of workers for the station, and a prison ship from Varon. Oyztan was to be kept imprisoned until the ship from Varon arrived, and then he would be taken away to be placed on trial.

He smiled when he saw Captain Wickham, Glitz, Doland and Tekka enter the room. He was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the force vault, wearing a grey robe. Despite his defeat, his eyes were still gleaming with the same revolutionary zeal.

“So… you surrendered,” Alyce said.

Ozytan nodded. “I am no fool. I was outnumbered and outgunned—it was a choice between surrender or death. I will be placed on trial on Varon, and no doubt the Imperial Prosecution Service will seek the death penalty. However, I have money enough to afford some very expensive lawyers, as well as a certain amount of personal legal experience. I think it is safe to say that I will be able to get off with a mere thirty years imprisonment.” He smiled wryly. “At least I will have my books.”

“I don’t understand—” she began, and then paused, marshalling her thoughts into coherent speech. “With all the capital you have at your disposal, why did you only have one ship to protect the station? And why did you bring so few Weerms? There can’t be more than a hundred out there dead in the control room. With a bigger army, you might easily have beaten the Imperial fleets. Also, you must have known that the Weerms could be easily defeated—given the right weapons.”

Ozytan tilted his head slightly in the direction of the floor, and said nothing. But he didn’t need to reply. Sometimes, expressing a question out loud has the remarkable effect of causing the brain to process the problem in a different way—or a more efficient way—which has the result of making the answer immediately clear. Alyce stared at Ozytan, realising the truth.

“You never expected to win,” she said slowly. “And the reason is because you only had a tiny number of Weerms on your side. You tried to give us the impression that you had harvested millions of the creatures from the planet, but in actual fact the majority of the Weerms had killed one another before you could rescue them.”

“They were too vicious,” Ozytan admitted. “They had no loyalty, even to their own species. By the time I disabled the chrono-disrupter, the majority of the species had been annihilated. The corpses you saw in the control room are the only thing left of my army.”

“And that’s why you only had one ship,” Alyce realised. “The Weerms couldn’t be trusted to be pilots—and even if they could, you needed them onboard the station for protection. And what human would be insane enough to help you on this impossible mission?” She paused, staring at Ozytan with a sudden look of disgust. “But you never wanted to win, did you? You knew taking the Imperium was impossible. You just wanted to make a name for yourself, to go out in a blaze of glory. In true revolutionary spirit, you wanted to satisfy your own egoism. But you showed yourself to be a coward at the last minute—you backed down from the might of the Imperial Navy. And now you will be remembered as nothing but a weak rogue.”

Ozytan said nothing, and Glitz stared at the man. He understood what Alyce was saying, but some parts of her argument did not seem to ring true. Of course, it was possible that Ozytan had simply been a madman who wanted to generate personal glory, but why? Why would he place himself in such a position of weakness, when the only two possible outcomes were defeat or surrender? Mathematically, his chance of success against the Imperium had been zero. And there was more. The light in Ozytan’s eyes had not gone out. Although his head was bowed slightly, he still retained his composure. He did not seem a man broken by defeat.

And then something inexplicable, and terrible, happened. Doland fell to his knees, as if suddenly experiencing terrible pain. Alyce knelt beside him, her eyes wide with concern. “Doland? Doland? What’s the matter?” He began to convulse violently, and she had to let go of him.

His appearance began to change. His skin began to change colour, and his face was distorted into an uglier shape. Sharp claws shot out from his limbs. His teeth became pointed and vicious. Doland stood up, and hissed angrily. None of them could quite believe what had happened. Before their eyes, he had transformed into a Weerm. And then Ozytan began to laugh within his force vault. Alyce, Glitz and Tekka began to back away from the Weerm slowly, who seemed to be considering his next more. They pointed their sonic rifles at Doland, but none of them wanted to shoot. Until a few seconds before, he had been their friend.

“What did you do?” Tekka said coldly.

“Can you not work it out? You see, I am not beaten, as I had you all believe. I only wanted you to think that I had been defeated. The Weerms had never been intended to be a fighting force—at least not in battle. In fact, it was I who killed the majority of the creatures on the planet Chaos; the sheer number of them was proving to be dangerous.”

“Then what’s happening?” Alyce said, staring with terror at Doland, who was slowly advancing on them.

“You have all overlooked one important fact, and that is the function of this station. If you recall, it houses the Genetic Archive. As a result, it contains a large store of genetic equipment. I have used this apparatus to produce a device of my own, with the assistance of a certain genetics professor who shall remain nameless. Now, the function of Station 949 has been radically altered. It has become one giant transmogrifier!”

Glitz swallowed; he was starting to understand what was happening. The memory of his own transmogrification at the hands of Shaitana was still fresh. That had been a minor change to his DNA, but what if someone tried to cause a bigger change?

“The transmogrification cloud will radiate out from this station over the course of the next hour,” Ozytan said proudly. “The nanobots contained within the cloud are programmed to pass through the nearest wormhole, using the wormhole network to spread out through the galaxy, activating additional nanobot generator nodes. A third of the human race will be transformed into Weerms!”

“Why?” Alyce said, keeping tight hold on her rife with sweating hands. “What’s the point of it all?”

“Don’t you see? With a third of the human race turned into Weerms, there will be anarchy. The creatures will tear apart the Imperium from the inside. There will be no invasion fleet—no war—no battle strategies. Chaos is my only strategy. Every governmental establishment will be utterly wiped out; whole planets will fall into lawlessness; swathes of the remaining human population will die. Finally, the Weerms, in their terrible evil, will turn on one another, and utterly annihilate themselves.”

“So everyone dies?” Glitz said.

“On the contrary. According to my predictions, a small percentage of the human race will survive—most likely through building secret underground dwellings. After the fall of the Weerms, the human race will re-emerge. And, like the new life which grows from the ashes of a forest fire, the shoots of the human race will begin once again to flourish. But the tyranny of the Imperium will be no more, and humans will have a chance to build a better galaxy!”

“You’re insane!” Alyce spat.

Ozytan started to laugh again. The Weerm had backed them into a corner. He was still advancing very slowly—but they would be dead within seconds. There was a way to stop the creature, but could she do it? Yes, Alyce thought firmly. It’s either him or us. I have no choice…

But then Doland suddenly turned, and began instead to advance towards the force vault in which Ozytan was sitting. “Ozytan,” he hissed, through jagged teeth, “I remember you. I can’t… remember everything… even my name… I don’t remember… but I know you. You did this to me!”

Doland lifted a clawed arm and thrust it into the force vault. It had no effect at all, and he quickly walked through the membrane. Clearly, the technology was not effective against the Weerms, who had a much tougher exterior. Glitz realised what Doland was about to do.

“No!” he yelled. “We need him! We need him to stop the machine!”

But there was not enough of Doland left in the creature to reason on the matter. He had become an unreasoning, vicious brute—a brute who vaguely remembered that Ozytan was to blame for his transformation. The creature Doland lashed out at Ozytan with a fierce claw, piercing his stomach—his intestines began to unravel…

“You can’t stop the transmogrifier,” Ozytan said weakly. “I’ve won! The Imperium… the Imperium will fall…”

He collapsed, dead, his innards spilling out onto the ground. Doland picked up the fleshy mass of organs with a clawed hand, and lifted it into his mouth, savouring the taste of fresh blood. It only took less than a minute for Doland to finish the whole corpse, and then there was nothing left of Ozytan. Then, after finishing his starter, Doland climbed through the force vault to get his main course.

“Doland,” Alyce said nervously. “Doland! It’s us! Your friends!”

But of course it was no use. Doland continued to advance. Glitz felt sweat beads forming on his neck and torso, and his forehead was moist. Was this the end? Were they going to be murdered and eaten by their friend? Or were they going to have to kill him? It certainly looked like they only had one of those two options. Tekka kept his exterior calm, but he was just as frightened as the others. They all had their sonic rifles lifted, aimed at Doland. They walked backwards out of the door, exiting the storage room and entering the connected corridor. The Weerm followed them… then it leapt forward… slicing out with its claws…

Alyce fired the sonic rifle. A split-second before the sonic beam touched Doland, he fell forwards onto the floor. Because of his collapse, Alyce assumed that the beam had made contact, and that the weapon had killed him. Doland was lying face forward on the floor. Then he stirred.

“Doland?” Alyce said, edging forward carefully, still pointing her sonic rifle.

The man thrust out a hand towards her. It was pale and white—a human hand. Slowly, Doland lifted himself back to his feet. His skin was no longer dark and reptilian; the process had reversed itself, and he was human again. Glitz and Alyce simply stared at him, bewildered. They had assumed that he had gone for good.

“What happened to me?” Doland said weakly. “I feel… I feel terrible. And I have a funny taste in my mouth…”

Alyce turned to Tekka. “What did happen?”

“It seems that our little trip to Mazaroth wasn’t wasted after all. Remember, we underwent the transmogrification procedure at the hands of Shaitana, in a bid to avoid Imperial detection. I would guess that Shaitana made a slip-up with Doland’s transmogrification—perhaps he used some unstable nanoliquid. Doland’s DNA was, I assume, altered sufficiently to render his DNA strand quite different from that of a normal human. And remember, Ozytan’s transmogrification machine is designed to alter human DNA. I would guess that the transmogrification could only be partially successful in Doland’s case, and so he reverted to normal form after a short duration.”

“What do you mean, normal form?” Doland asked suspiciously.

Before Tekka could answer, they heard a cry of pain. It had come from the direction of the control room. “No time,” Alyce said. “We’ll explain later.” She wasn’t looking forward to explaining; how would Doland react when he realised that she had been ready to kill him? If she had fired even half a second earlier, it might have been a completely different story. He might have died.

“Come on,” she said. “To the control room.”

Alyce, Glitz, Doland and Tekka made their way to the control room as quickly as possible, and dived through the main doors. They were met with an alarming sight. Three snarling Weerms in Marine uniforms were standing in the centre of the room, each pointing a sonic rifle, and each facing out to a different part of the control room. Some of the human Marines were pointing rifles back at them; it was clearly a stand-off.

“They just changed!” the Admiral said, when he noticed Alyce enter the room. One of the Weerms had a rifle pointed straight at his chest. His eyes flickered to her face, almost pleadingly. “Please tell me you know what’s going on.”

“I have some idea,” Alyce said quietly. When they had entered the control room, they had stepped directly into the line of fire of one of the Weerms. They would not be able to move another inch without being gunned down, presuming that the creatures remembered how to fire the weapons. She would have to make that assumption; to assume otherwise could mean the end of their lives.

Right now, it looked like none of them might leave the station alive.

Chapter Twenty-One

Alyce and Glitz had entered the control room first, and they were pointing their rifles directly at the trio of Weerms. A single shot might, in theory, be enough to wipe out the three creatures. The sonic blasters had proven themselves in testing to have a fairly wide range of impact. But Alyce could see the Weerms’ reptilian fingers hovering a hair’s breadth from their own triggers. And one of the Weerms had its weapon pointed straight at them. If she fired her weapon, the Weerm was likely to fire too—and the laser energy would certainly kill one of them, if not all of them. It was too fine a chance.

And yet what alternative was there? They could not stand like this all day. Eventually, someone was going to tire. If someone was going to shoot first, it should be her. With a bit of luck, the creatures might be destroyed before they managed to fire. It was a long shot, though, she knew that. She wished there was some way of secretly communicating with the others, but it would be impossible. It was clear that the converted Weerms retained their ability to speak Galactic Standard One. If only there was a way to reason with the things… she knew that the Weerms were savage and malevolent, but perhaps there was still some human goodness buried in the back of their minds. After all, they had been human only minutes before. The creatures were still wearing Marine uniforms. If she did kill them, she would be killing Imperial troops… she shuddered…

“We mean you no harm,” she said, as calmly as she could manage, without moving her gun an inch. “If you lower your weapons, we will lower ours. Then we can talk things over, and come to some agreement.” She paused, but there was no reply from the Weerms. “Is this acceptable to you?” she prompted.

“No bargaining…” the Weerm hissed, revealing his pointed teeth. “Anyone not of our species will be destroyed. No exceptions, no deals, no mercy.”

So it seemed there was no chance of reasoning with the things. It was to be expected, of course. The Weerms had developed on a world where all other existent life was harmful to them—they had evolved to trust no other species, and to believe that their survival could only be ensured by wiping out all others. These Weerms may originally have been human, but the fear of other species was clearly hard-wired into their very genetic makeup. In a way, she felt sorry for them… even more so because they had used to be human. But there was no room for sympathy in war.

Alyce swallowed, her finger brushing the trigger. If she fired, and the Weerm facing her fired too, she would almost certainly die. But if she waited any longer, it might fire anyway, and she would still be dead. Sometimes, you just have to take the risk, even if the chances of survival seem microscopic.

“I love you, Glitz,” she murmured quietly, and pulled the trigger—

The beam of sonic energy shot out—and made contact with the trio of Weerms. It pierced their tough flesh, ravaging their cells. As the creatures fell to the ground, the Weerm facing Alyce fired its own rifle, and a burst of projected laser energy streamed towards them. But, collapsing, the creature didn’t aim the rifle correctly, and the beam collided harmlessly with the wall of the control room. The three creatures buckled finally into a lifeless heap.

“You did it!” the Admiral shouted. “You killed them!”

“Don’t congratulate us just yet,” Alyce said grimly. “Unless we do something, a third of the human race will turn into those things. She turned to Tekka. “How long do we have?”

“Ozytan stated that the transmogrification cloud is set to radiate out from this station,” Tekka observed. “We have perhaps twenty minutes to stop it. I expect that the nanobots will pause at the wormhole and wait for a freighter or some such to pass through. The nanobots will enter it at the same time, and then nothing will be able to stop their progress.” He paused, trying to think of a simple way to express the function of the transmogrification cloud. “It is like a software patch. The nanobots—spreading out through the galaxy by means of the wormhole network—will transmogrify a third of all humans to fit in with the new genetic template, which happens to be that of the Weerm. This was Ozytan’s plan all along; the idea was not to use the Weerms as foot soldiers, but to turn a third of us into the Weerms.”

“OK, so how do we stop it?”

Tekka frowned. “The transmogrification controls must be somewhere on this station. We are nearest the machine, so we began to be affected first. But the nanobots will quickly spread out from this point of origin. We must stop the machine before the nanobot cloud can reach the wormhole. The machine will be something big, very big indeed…” He glanced around; there was nothing resembling the device he was looking for. But if the device wasn’t located in the control room, then where was it?

Alyce racked her brains. She had memorised the full schematic of the station, and she went over it mentally, trying to decide which would be the most likely place to store a giant machine.

She turned to Tekka. “How big is this machine?”

“I would estimate the height of the device to be at least sixty Imperial metres. He must have built it using cannibalised parts from this control room, as well as some external materials.”

Glitz whistled, and Alyce once again ran over the schematics in her head. If the machine really was so large, there was only one logical place for it to be. She beckoned urgently to Glitz, Tekka and Doland. “Come with me!” She turned to the Marines. “Lieutenant, we need your men too.”

“Certainly. Men, with me!”

They followed Alyce as she led them to one of the anti-gravity elevators, which were used as the primary intrastation transport. They all stepped inside the wide opening; as soon as they passed the threshold, it was as if they had become suspended in the air. There was no floor inside the lift, because there didn’t need to be. They worked by reversing the polarity of the neutron flow, which had the effect of neutralising the artificial gravity. Thus, the neutron flow could then be distorted in either direction, allowing you to travel up or down. Alyce hit the bottom arrow on the controls. They were going down—all the way down. They floated right down to the bottom of the elevator, and Alyce led them out.

“What is this place?” Glitz breathed.

They had entered a sort of massive cylindrical hangar, the ceiling of which was particularly high. The circular wall was covered in millions of tiny glass panels, all of which were marked with small holo-printed labels. Alyce had the extraordinary feeling of being inside a giant tube, a tube which was covered in glass compartments. The hangar was lit by bright white artificial lights.

“This is the Archive Chamber,” she said.

There was no time to explain its purpose further, but she was not so much interested in the Archive as what lied in the centre of it. In the very middle of the hangar, there stood a colossal machine, which was protected by a field of crackling energy. It was a force vault, Alyce realised. The only way to get past it was to disable it somehow. The machine was clearly made up of largely stolen components from the station; Tekka clearly recognised an Imperium-produced splicer and sequencer in the mesh of cables and circuitry.

“This is it,” Tekka said, nodding. “This is Ozytan’s machine. Unless we can disable it, a third of the human race will turn into Weerms very soon. But how can we…”

He circled the force vault, attempting to located the power source. He cursed when he realised that it was being powered by an antimatter battery right at the top of the hangar, well out of reach. If they were to disable the power, they would have to find some way to reach the top. Perhaps they could switch off the artificial gravity temporarily. No, he thought, shaking his head. That would simply cause the force vault to destabilise and destroy us all. So how would they stop it? Force vaults were designed to be the ultimate security, he knew. He could technically step through it, but he would certainly die. Even the most heavily augmented human could not survive the ravages of the field.

“What do we do, Captain?” Lieutenant Jameson asked, turning to Alyce. He looked desperate. His skills were in ground combat, in fearlessness in battle, in keeping his men in prime fighting condition. When it came to highly technical operations, he left it to the experts.

Alyce shook her head stiffly. “I don’t know. I just don’t know…”

One of the Marines fell to his knees, howling in pain. The other commandos went to his aid, but jumped back, horrified, when they realised that his face had changed. He had been altered, just like the other three Marines earlier—Singh, Buckner and Blake.

One of his friends murmured quietly. “Tabiner? Tabiner?”

The creature that had formerly been Marine Simon Tabiner lunged towards the other men, bearing his sharp claws. It lashed out with vicious, brutal talons, slicing Edgewood in the stomach. The other man fell down, gushing with blood. Lieutenant Jameson raised his gun coldly, and shot Tabiner in the back. The Weerm fell to the floor, thoroughly dead.

“Mathematically, roughly a third of humans on this station will have changed within five minutes,” Tekka said quietly. “Followed by a third of the humans in the rest of the galaxy. Any one of us could change at any time. We have to get through that force vault somehow.”

In the back of his mind, Tekka knew that there was a possible solution. But it was horrible to contemplate. He had never considered himself to have any friends, but his relationships with Glitz, Alyce and Doland had come closer than any others before to friendship. And the only plan that presented itself involved the death of one of them. Worse than that, he guessed that the idea had less than a 10% chance of success. Ozytan had really stitched them up well. Tekka had to admire the man, despite his great evil. He wasn’t even alive anymore, and yet they could still feel his hands, from beyond the grave, pulling mankind down into a great disaster.

If he did succeed, if the machine did turn a third of the human race into Weerms, the consequences would be dire. Even assuming that the Weerms followed the calculated pattern, destroying themselves while there were still some humans left alive, the galaxy would be thrown into barbarism, a savagery that would last for centuries. And he highly doubted that humanity would develop a more peaceful civilisation. No, the human race would regress, possibly even losing their knowledge of science and technology. He glanced at Doland out of the corner of his eye, wondering whether he should tell him the possible plan…

Doland turned to him, and nodded. “I know what you’re thinking.”

“I doubt that,” Tekka said.

“You all think I’m so stupid,” he said, raising his voice a little. He stared around the room, at Captain Wickham, Glitz, and the Marines. “Stupid and cowardly. I know that.”

“Doland—” Alyce began.

Doland cut her off. “It’s OK. I haven’t given you any cause to think otherwise. Look at me. I was born on Opus, and spent my life as a bloody salesman for some two-bit firm. I got sentenced for five years imprisonment. For what—for something brave, or interesting? Did I rob a bank, or smuggle? No! I had two votes in some meaningless, trivial election! I’ve spent my life doing nothing of importance, being nobody. But that will change today.” He nodded at Tekka. “I know what you’re planning, and I agree.”

“What’s he talking about?” Alyce said, turning to Tekka.

“None of us can step inside the force vault without instant death. It has been designed that way. But we have already seen it demonstrated that Weerms can penetrate the force barriers. They have much tougher skins, and a more robust genetic makeup. Of course, we cannot predict who of us will turn into a Weerm, or when. But Doland has already been affected by the cloud, despite his reversion. All we would need to do is turn Doland back into a Weerm.”

“Back into a Weerm?” Alyce frowned. “Can that be done?”

“I believe so. A beam of low-level radiation should be enough to re-excite the nanoparticles which are still streaming through Doland’s bloodstream, and they would restart the transmogrification procedure. Of course, Doland would not survive the procedure.”

“Why not?” Glitz asked.

“His DNA is not compatible for further transmogrification; that is the reason that his DNA reverted the first time around. We can force through the procedure, but his genetic structure would be unalterably distorted. Doland—the Doland you know—would cease to exist. Even if his Weerm body managed to somehow survive beyond a few hours, there would be no way to change him back.

Alyce wanted to scream to Doland that he couldn’t do it. She wanted to insist that they could find another way, a way that didn’t involve his death. But the simple truth of the matter was that Tekka’s plan did seem to be the only viable option. Sometimes, in war, there were casualties. Deaths were unavoidable. Despite her friendship with Doland, she did not really have a choice. She could either sacrifice her friend, or the security of the Imperium. If they did not stop the machine, billions of lives would be lost. Sometimes, she really hated being in the armed forces.

She swallowed. “It’s up to you, Doland. It’s your choice.”

Doland was visibly shaking with terror. The poor man was obviously terrified. But who wouldn’t be? Hell, he was thinking about turning into a nightmarish, monstrous creature.

“I’ll do it,” he said, his lips trembling. He turned to Tekka. “I’ll stand just in front of the force vault. As soon as I change, push me straight through the barrier. I’ll hopefully retain enough of myself to destroy the machine once I am inside. We’ll see.”

Tekka nodded. “Very well.”

The Lieutenant offered Doland his hand. “You are the bravest man I ever had the privilege of serving with,” he said.

Everyone looked miserable, and Doland felt his knees trembling. A large part of him seemed ready to fly into panic. Was he making a terrible mistake? He was talking about losing his very life. Was he ready to die? He had never really considered the idea of death, but now the concept of eternal blackness filled his mind. Never again would he experience a planetary sunset, or taste the sweetness of Star One sherry. He would simply… be gone.

Then, as he stared into the electric blue of the force vault, he felt a strange peacefulness come over him. It was remarkable; if he had believed in a divine deity, he might almost have supposed that he had been touched by God’s own hand. For the first time in his life, a transcendental warmth filled his body. Doland smiled, and took one last look at his friends. He embraced Glitz, and then turned to Alyce, who leaned forward to kiss him on the lips.

“Goodbye,” he said simply, and walked to the force vault. He paused right at the edge of the crackling energy field, his nose almost brushing the crackling force. He turned with a slight inclination of his head, and nodded at Tekka. “I’m ready.”

Glitz stepped forward and stood to the side of Doland, ready to shove him through the force vault as soon as he transformed. He knew that if he pushed him a moment too soon, Doland would be killed instantly. Tekka, who had attached a dispersion unit to the end of his sonic blaster, brushed his finger against the trigger which would cause a stream of radiation to stream towards Doland.

“Goodbye, friend,” Tekka said, and fired the blaster.

The laser energy streamed out, exciting the nanoparticles. Doland did not fall to his knees this time. The reaction was instantaneous. Sharp claws shot out from his limbs, and his skin turned dark and tough. The Weerm turned his head sharply and hissed at Glitz.

Wasting no time, Glitz leapt forward and kicked Doland squarely in the back. The Weerm, taken by surprise, was thrown through the barrier, straight into the force vault. Enraged, the creature let out a howl of fury. With inhuman anger, Doland the Weerm turned to Ozytan’s diabolical machine, and began to take his anger out on the controls. A couple of furious blade slashes severed the connection to the main sequencer. Then a swift knee-stroke destroyed the main particle incubator. With one last savage cry, Doland launched an attack on the nuclear source, disuniting the power source from the machine.

In his blind fury, Doland had damaged the outer protective guard of the nuclear source. There was a massive, fiery explosion, which was contained inside the force vault. The flames shot right up to the ceiling, touching the antimatter battery. The safety shield kicked in before the integrity of the power source was lost; a miniature force vault opened around the antimatter battery, which had the effect both of protecting itself and disabling the main force vault.

The flames died down quickly, absorbed by the nuclear dampers. Doland was left on the floor, lying in a pile of mangled machinery. Everyone was quiet for a moment, then Alyce ran to Doland, and flipped him over, expecting to see the corpse of a burned-out Weerm.

But his flesh had once again become white.


He coughed and spluttered; his eyelids flickered open. “Alyce?”

“Get someone from medical here right away!” Alyce shouted.

Tekka approached the man slowly, his eyes wide with surprise. The plan had worked perfectly, and Ozytan’s machine had been destroyed. Now no more people would be turning into Weerms; the Imperium had been saved. But he couldn’t understand why Doland had survived. That nuclear blast had been enough to destroy a small moon; if it hadn’t been for the force vault, and then the nuclear dampers, they would all have been wiped out. So how had Doland survived? Was it possible that he had made an error in calculation? If so, it would be the second error of his life—and one that he would actually have been glad to have made. But Tekka knew when he seriously considered the situation that he hadn’t miscalculated. Now that he came to think about it, a lot of things didn’t make sense.

Why had Doland’s transmogrification on Mazaroth disrupted his DNA to the point when he no longer registered as human? And what were the chances of the two men meeting again on Rechya, totally coincidentally? And how had Doland reverted back to human form after being re-transmogrified, when the process should have technically either been permanent or killed him? And now the man had survived a nuclear blast without a single scar…

There was something very peculiar about Raja Doland…

“Who are you,” Tekka whispered, as the medical crew took him away. “Who are you, Raja Doland?”

Chapter Twenty-Two

“We won!” Captain Alyce Wickham said.

A cheer rose up from the men congregating around the control room. The bodies of the Weerms had been cleared away, and a post-battle team would be arriving shortly, both to collect the bodies and to obtain as much data as possible before clearing up the station. It had been sad to lose the Marines that had been transmogrified into Weerms, but everyone knew that things could have been worse. A lot worse. If Ozytan’s plan had succeeded, the Imperium itself would have crumbled overnight. The Zierons might have predicted that it would end in one thousand years anyway, but that was a long time away…

“You all fought valiantly,” Lieutenant Jameson said, including both his men and the rest of the people on the flight deck in his expansive gesture. “And you all have much cause to be proud of yourselves.”

“It is regretful that lives were lost today,” Alyce went on, “and I know that some of you will have been very close to the Marines that were sadly killed. But I want you to know that their deaths were absolutely not in vain. Because of the bravery of all of you Marines, the safety of the Imperium has been maintained.”

“Navy and Marines unite!” one of the men shouted, and everyone laughed. The Navy and the Marines had a historic rivalry—it was largely good-natured, but occasionally things could get ugly. But when they needed to, the two military groups could work together astonishingly well—and the Battle of Station 949 had been an excellent example of that.

Captain Wickham, after the clean-up team had arrived, took her men—Glitz, Tekka, Doland and the Marines—back to the Deliverer, and asked Seraph to set a course for Lightworld. She had never liked military debriefings, but it was a necessary part of the job. It would be a little different this time, however, as she would likely be considered the hero of the hour. Hopefully being a hero wouldn’t involve any additional paperwork. Alyce had a distinct feeling that it might.

When they were on the way back to the Volori System, Alyce relaxed in the command chair on the flight deck, letting her muscles loosen for the first time. As she sat facing the hexagonal display screens, she felt two strong hands begin to massage her shoulders. From touch alone, she knew that it was Glitz. She tilted her head back to look at him, and smiled. Glitz rubbed her shoulders firmly, pressing out the tension knots that had appeared. He had a quick glance behind him; they were alone on the flight deck, so they could talk privately.

“You know that thing you said back on the base…” Glitz said softly. “You know, when those Weerms were pointing their guns at us… Did you mean it?”

Alyce sighed, and turned her command chair around to face him, preventing him from rubbing her shoulders any further. “Look, Glitz. What I said… I thought we were about to die. I… didn’t want to die without saying it. But we didn’t die.”

Glitz frowned. “So it wasn’t true?”

“I didn’t say that. I do love you, Glitz. But I was foolish to admit it.” She hesitated, trying to find the right words. She knew what she had to get across, but she didn’t want to hurt his feelings. “We’re from different worlds, you and me.”

“You mean you’re too good for me?”

“You’re putting words in my mouth. I’ve just seen so many romantic relationships between members of the Navy and civilians—too many to think that anything good can come from them. They invariably end in upset. I care for you, Glitz, but I can’t just drop everything and fly away with you. I’ve spent years building up my career. How could I just throw it all away?”

Glitz paused to consider. “I wouldn’t dream of asking you to abandon your career for me.”

“Well, I’m glad you understand.” Alyce’s voice had changed suddenly. It had become once again cool and magisterial.

“You know what I think?” Glitz said, annoyed by her manner. “I think you’re scared of getting close to someone. I think you’re sabotaging this relationship because you’re frightened.”

“What relationship?” Alyce felt her temper flaring. “We slept together twice!”

“Yes, and then you said you loved me!”

“I did, but then I explained that it couldn’t work!” She took a deep breath. “Dismissed, Mr. Glitz.”

Glitz stared at her, his eyes cold. “Certainly, Captain.”

He marched out of the flight deck, and Alyce immediately instructed Seraph to seal the doors. She wanted to be alone. Burying her face in her palms, she began to cry. She did love Glitz—she truly did. But it couldn’t work, could it? She would be abandoning everything. But did Glitz have a point? Was she just running away because she was afraid of getting too close to someone? She had never said the words “I love you” to anyone before. Had she made herself vulnerable by admitting her feelings for him?

She shook her head, and wiped her tears away roughly. She was being ridiculous. The idea of a Navy captain giving up her career to run away with a convicted criminal… well, it was preposterous. Still, she had previously admitted that many elements of life in the Navy had left her disillusioned. Maybe it was time for her to move on. She scowled. Her mental arguments would often proceed in a similar way. She would bounce back and forth between opposing viewpoints, unable to settle on an opinion. She needed to make a resolve, and stick with it.

And so she made her resolve, and decided that she would not change her mind.


Captain Alyce Wickham was sitting in a Debriefing Room along with the Admiralty Board of the Imperial Navy. She had been sitting there for several hours, making yet another report. She had done nothing but make reports for nearly three days. The admirals, along with some other experts that were present, had questioned and cross-questioned her on every point, seeking to extract every possible detail. She knew that Glitz and the others would be undergoing a similar process. It was soul-destroying, but she was being treated well. Finally, the admirals seemed satisfied with the information that they had acquired from her.

“Thank you, Captain Wickham,” the First Naval Lord said. “You may leave.”

“With permission, sir, I would like to ask the Admiralty Board something.”

“Go ahead.”

Alyce took a deep breath. “I am considering leaving the Imperial Navy. I have served for longer than the minimum five years required.”

The First Naval Lord tapped the table. “It would be a great shame to lose you, Captain. I must confess that I had great doubts about the appointment of a female Captain, even after your successful mission to Chaos. But you have proven yourself, beyond a doubt, to be better and braver than any man I have ever met.”

Alyce felt her cheeks burning with pride. “Thank you very much, sir.”

“Why do you want to leave?” Admiral Trenna said.

She paused. She could hardly admit the truth to the Admiralty Board, that she was considering leaving because she had fallen in love with an ex-convict. They would think her to be a fool. There was a large part of her that considered herself a fool. But she could not lie to them either.

“The battle has caused me to rethink my life,” she said slowly, carefully avoiding falsehoods. “Although I have been happy to serve the Imperium for years, I believe it may be time to seek out other ways to be of service.”

The First Naval Lord nodded slowly. “So what do you intend to do?”

“I think I will leave.”

“You should be aware that if you choose to leave, we will be forced to requisition your ship, the Deliverer. I understand that this may be difficult for you, but we simply could not have such a dangerous ship in civilian hands. We would, of course, arrange for suitable compensation to be made.”

Alyce suppressed a sarcastic grin. The Deliverer was an astonishing ship, a product of alien technology. It seemed unlikely that the humans would ever come close to producing such a fine vessel. It was priceless, and thus any compensation would never be able to fully cover its value. However, the First Naval Lord’s words came as no surprise. She had fully expected the Navy to confiscate the ship if she left; that was one of her main internal arguments against leaving. In a flash of sudden inspiration, Alyce realised the real reason that the First Naval Lord had kept her ship behind while the others went into combat. It hadn’t been because she was a woman. It was because he hadn’t wanted to damage his prize.

So she faced the most difficult choice of her life. She could either stay in the Navy, keeping the ship built by the alien race that she had dreamed about since childhood, or she could abandon everything and run away with a smuggler. If she did choose the latter option, would she be happy?

“Do not feel the need to rush into a decision,” Admiral Trenna said.

Alyce forced a smile. “Thank you, sir, but I have made my decision. I wish to—”


Glitz scowled as he made his way down the long corridor. He was being escorted back to the Deliverer by a young Navy officer, but he secretly doubted that he would be allowed to board the ship. It seemed highly unlikely that the Navy would allow an ex-con back on board an alien super-ship—not now that the immediate crisis was over. No, he was sure that they would want to confiscate it, perhaps to pull it apart and cannibalise the components. Either way, he wasn’t sure that he wanted to go back on board. Alyce had made it perfectly clear that she wasn’t interested in a relationship. The Zierons had given the ship to both of them, technically speaking, but he wasn’t going to argue with the Imperial Navy. No, he would probably use some of the money he received for selling the Cellzers, and buy himself a new ship. The Merchant’s Bad Luck, perhaps, would be a fitting name, after his recent disappointment.

He had been subjected to a thorough grilling by several senior Navy officers; he, Tekka, Doland and Alyce had all been briefed separately, according to standard Navy procedure. The Marines, too, had been questioned. The thorough examination had taken almost three days, during which time Glitz had almost lost the will to live. Now that the debriefing process had been completed, a victory celebration was to be held on Strobe, a party moon. The whole affair was strictly classified, and the general public would never be allowed to find out about Ozytan or his terrible mission to turn a third of the humans into Weerms. No, they had simply been informed that a mad rebel attacked an Imperial station, and was promptly destroyed. Glitz didn’t think he would be travelling to Strobe with the others. Sure, he liked a good party, but Alyce would certainly be there. He didn’t want things to be awkward. He was not the kind of man who would spend weeks pining after a woman that he couldn’t have. He was realistic about these things. He was old enough to realise that life was mostly shit, with perhaps a few enjoyable moments thrown in.

When he reached the Deliverer, he stepped inside cautiously, thanking his escort for showing him the way. There was no sign of Navy occupation, and no one tried to prevent his entrance. Inside, Alyce was sitting alone on the flight deck. She got up from the sofa as soon as she saw him.

“Glitz. We need to talk.”

“I don’t think so.” Glitz shook his head. “I think we’ve done all the talking necessary. Now it’s time to move on.”

“Please,” Alyce said, pointing to the sofa. “Please humour me.”

He nodded reluctantly, and joined her on the sofa. Alyce had changed into normal civilian clothing, which had been a welcome relief after wearing her uniform for so long. She looked very pretty, Glitz had to admit. She was wearing a black skirt and blouse, and her face was fresh. She seemed a little nervous.

“I spoke to the admirals,” she said. “They said they wanted to keep the ship.”

“No surprise there. I suppose they’ll find you another vessel to command.”

“No, you don’t understand. I asked for permission to leave the Navy. And the admirals said that if I chose to leave, I would have to give up the Deliverer. I had to decide between staying in the Navy and keeping the ship, and… well, and you.”

Glitz paused, trying to understand what she was getting at. “So… what did you decide?”

“We came to a compromise.” Alyce took a deep breath. “I have decided to leave the Navy, with immediate effect. Usually, officers have to give a fourteen-week notice period, but after the battle they decided to let me go earlier. And I have been allowed to keep the ship, as long as I stay in the special reserves. That means that if they really need me, I will return, and the Deliverer will once again be at their disposal. They’ve fitted the ship with a recall beam, so they can take control over the ship and bring it back at any time.”

“So… so you’ve really left?”

“I’ve really left. You were right. By staying in the Navy, I would really have been running away. I decided that running away would be the only way to… to not run away. Does that make sense?”

Glitz took her hand gently. “It makes sense. So… so this means that you do love me?”

“I love you.”

Feeling a swell of passion mingled with pride, Glitz took Alyce in his arms and kissed her. She yielded completely to his masculine grip, savouring the sensation. As they kissed, he heard the sound of the door open, and two men stepped on to the flight deck.

“Tekka? Doland? What are you doing here?”

“Alyce said we could come with you, if that’s OK with you,” Doland said. He grinned. “I’ve gotten a bit of a taste for bravery, after what happened on the station. I want to see if I can do anything else for the benefit of the Imperium.”

“Well, great.” Glitz turned to Tekka, who looked back at him without emotion. He could understand why Doland had chosen to stay, but Tekka…?

“Despite my criminal record,” Tekka said, “I am sure that I would still be welcome in the Mathematics department of any respectable University in the Imperium. Without wishing to seem arrogant, my intellect is simply too great to be ignored. However, I do not believe it possible to find full intellectual fulfilment in such a role. If you allow me to come with you, I feel sure that I will find a challenge suitable for my intelligence.”

Glitz grinned. “Fair enough. I’d be glad for you to travel with us.”

Tekka glanced at Doland out of the corner of his eye. He hadn’t mentioned to Glitz that he knew exactly which challenge he was interested in. He wanted to know why Doland had managed to survive a dangerous, uncalibrated transmogrification procedure, as well as a nuclear explosion. He wanted to find out the secret about Doland. Who was he? Somehow, he was sure that the man was important…

Alyce smiled at Glitz, linking her arm around his. “So, where next?”

Glitz stroked her hair. “I don’t know. It’s a big galaxy. I’m sure someone somewhere is in need of our help. We can go anywhere. The market world of Vortus… the river world of Lagoos… the Eye of Orion.” He smiled. “We could always go Strobe. I heard there was a party going on there.”

Tekka rolled his eyes.

“Not unless you want to go,” Alyce said, grinning.

“Right.” After requesting permission to leave the planet, Glitz turned his head to face the hexagonal scanners. “Seraph, take us somewhere far away from here. Pick a random destination.”

<Certainly, Glitz.>

Tekka and Doland joined Alyce and Glitz on the sofa. The alien ship took off; they passed through the planet’s atmosphere, and shot off towards the distant stars. Alyce smiled at her new friends as they entered phase space, and snuggled up with Glitz. For the first time in her life, Alyce didn’t have a clue where she was going.

And she couldn’t have been happier.

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