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Sequel to THE ARM’S-LENGTH WAR Volume 1 & Moonstruck


by Tom Anderson (aka Thande ta Kirinrenor).


Chapter Eleven


Hangar Bay, Charles Ingram

December 3rd, 2006

"That’s right. Want to try recycling the atmospheric compressors?"

Gregory moved his hand towards the submenu for life support systems, about to wave a fingertip through the three dimensional, holographic ‘button’. Then he hesitated. "Atmospheric com…there’s no such thing!"

Warwick grinned. "You’re learning."

"Heh." He shook his head. "I learned to recognise fake technobabble back in the RN, missy."

Warwick was obviously about to reply with a snappy comeback of her own, but then abruptly lifted her wrist and tapped it with the other hand. Gregory had spent enough time with Fourther Astroforce officers to recognise the gesture, which at first glance seemed rather odd: inlaid into the flexible gold bands wrapped around the ends of the uniform sleeves as rank indicators, was a series of paraquantum circuitry that services as a communication device. Much like a contemporary mobile phone, it could be set either to give off an audible bleep for an incoming call, or – as Warwick’s obviously just had – vibrate or make some other discreet signal.

Small microphones and speakers, designed to produce sympathetic sound waves so that only the wearer could make out the replying voice clearly, were built into the collar. Gregory thought they might perhaps be in the gold braid there, for symmetry, but with the Fourther technology they could be anywhere.

The microphones could transmit Warwick subvocally, allowing her to speak without him overhearing, but she spoke out loud anyway: "Yes, ma’am…Understood, ma’aam. I…see, ma’am. Warwick out."

"What was it…ma’am?" Gregory asked.

Warwick laughed at his comically obsequious tones. "The Captain……just to say that our…payload will be here within a minute or two."

Gregory nodded, glancing back from the shuttle cockpit. The rest of the shuttle – it was a Raleigh, named the Xiangtan – extended out behind them for about eight metres before ending in a blank rear panel. The doorways were side-mounted, both of them lowered to permit boarding. "A good way of putting it," he said. "And what ‘payload’ will we be taking today, ma’am?"

"I don’t know specifically," Warwick said. "I know the portfolio as a whole but there are five or six shuttles involved and which ones we end up with is a lottery…"

She broke off. "Here they come now."

She stood to attention, and Gregory hastily imitated her, but did not salute. Through the open doors came eight people, filling the seats that lined the sides of the shuttle and faced inwards – the setup reminded Gregory of some of the contemporary London Underground train carriages. "Welcome to the Xiangtan," Warwick said. "We hope you have a nice flight."

That rapidly weeded the Firsters out from the Fourthers: the latter, a man and a woman, snorted at Warwick’s airline-stewardess talk as a joke, while the former weren’t sure whether to take it seriously or not. "My assistant here will perform the final preparations for launch," Warwick continued, "and perhaps while he does so we can acquaint ourselves with each other."

Gregory gulped: Warwick had run through the procedures with him, and of course he’d read up on them back at the GSAT, but so do it here, with eight VIPs from both present and future breathing over his shoulder…

He pulled himself together, took a deep breath, flexed his fingers and began to operate the holographic control panel. He let his mind re-enter the almost hypnotic state he always used when facing an examination or some other test: let the knowledge connect directly with the fingers or the pen, don’t let the mind interfere and start second-guessing itself…

Inevitably, as he tuned out to the procedure itself, he began overhearing Warwick speaking with the VIPs as they introduced themselves. "And you are sir?"

"My name’s Daniel Mocchasin," said the male Fourther. He was a man in early middle age, with a beard that was just beginning to show grey and a pair of penetrating brown eyes. He wore what appeared to be the Fourther equivalent of a serious business suit: it didn’t appeared to have changed much over the centuries from Gregory’s own time.

"Ah I see," Warwick streamed. "You’re a descendant of Gary Mocchasin?"

"That’s right," Mocchasin said gruffly, "a direct descendant. I don’t know if they managed to dredge up a Graham, though; I know there are a peaceload of ’em about, but Lord Gerald keeps most of’em back home…kept’em, I mean." For a moment, his eyes became distant, even misty. "That’s hammered it home, I’m afraid. We may be here, at a ball of mud that would have become Graham, but it ain’t Graham. Graham is lost forever."

The woman put her hand on Mocchasin’s shoulder: not the intimate gesture of a wife but the comforting one of a friend. "At least we’re here to see the foundations of a new Graham," she said quietly.

Mocchasin nodded. "You’re right, Pauline. But it won’t be the same."

"Different is not always worse," Warwick interjected. "Ensign Gregory?"

That startled Gregory out of his reverie, but he was already laying in the last keystrokes. "Done, Lieutenant. All tests a-okay, er I mean ‘okk’, within normal parameters…"

"Good work Ensign," Warwick said. Gregory noted that she still cast her eyes casually over the display to check he’d done it right: he wasn’t insulted, he would have done the same in her place. She seemed satisfied, anyway. "All right then. As soon as I get the signal-"

"Excuse me," Mocchasin said. He had a curious expression on his face. "Did you say his name was Gregory?"

"That’s right," Gregory said neutrally, before Warwick could reply. "What of it?"

"I’m sorry," Mocchasin said with an apologetic smile. "I just wondered…whether you might be related to Robert Gregory, you know, the leader of the fleet division of the Graham Expedition."

"As a matter of fact I am," Gregory said. "I’m his grandfather."

Mocchasin gaped at him, then let out a laugh. "No – you mean – really?"

Gregory nodded. "Or rather I would have been. Now you’ve changed history…" he shrugged.

Mocchasin was still staring in surprise, and his friend Pauline seemed little less taken aback. "But…"

"What a good way to celebrate Graham, then," Pauline said. "The past and the future of the original Expedition."

"How New Labour," Gregory snorted.

Warwick reacted again. "Yes ma’am," she apparently said to the empty air, then nodded to Gregory. "That’s the signal. You take over those readings like I explained."

"Yes ma’am," Gregory said, moving over and taking over a secondary control panel. Warwick sat down – her seat restraints slithering into place by themselves, as did those of the passengers, and again it was very obvious which ones were Firsters and which Fourthers – and began flickering her fingers through the main display.

Warwick gently eased up the VTOL jets and the Xiangtan rose from the deck. It was only the smallest of thrusts forward, just enough to put them out of the ship’s gravity field and into the neutral area that the superstructure had been specially designed to allow. The Xiangtan drifted forward, its inertia propelling it through the zero-G area, and through the opened inner doorway. To the left and right, three other shuttles followed them; at the second bay at the rear of the ship, the same was happening. When the shuttles had all reached a point halfway between the inner door threshold and the closed outer door, they came to a relative stop with another gentle puff of the reaction control jets. Gregory noted with an inward grin that at least two of the other pilots misjudged it and almost rebounded.

Then the ground control lowered the interior door, locking them in the airlock, and Gregory heard a hiss as the air in the intervening space was pumped out and back into the life support system. A few seconds later, one of the large indicator lights beside the outer door went from red to green, and the outer door slid aside.

Gregory had to restrain a gasp as the planet loomed below them. He’d seen the Earth from orbit, and Luna of course, but this was an alien world. Alien, and yet heartbreakingly Earthlike…

If it was awe-inspiring for him, it was obviously even more emotional for the two Grahamites, Mocchasin and Pauline (he still didn’t know her last name). "It’s…" he began.

"It’s not entirely the same," Pauline babbled, obviously trying to restrain her own emotions. "It’s still all that native vegetation, the lighter green stuff, nothing transplanted from Earth, and there’s no dome over the Asylum…oh God…" she sniffed.

Gregory took a longer look himself, as the businesslike Warwick brought them into an orbital dive. The Ingram was visible, majestic amongst the stars behind them, but no-one looked back. Graham held the full attention of Firster and Fourther alike.

The planet was about the size of Earth, perhaps a little smaller. It was nearer to its primary star, referred to as ‘Aitchess’ as an abbreviation of its original designation of HS7614, and that was reflected by its almost Mediterranean apprearance over much of the planet. Graham was dominated by a single, massive, irregular continent about the size of Eurasia and Africa put together. The great continent stretched from one spur over the North Pole down to Graham’s equivalent of the Tropic of Capricorn, encompassing a dozen different ecosystems along the way. The rest of the planet was ocean, save for a couple of smaller island continents, one of which almost suggested the shape of a question mark, and the second looked rather like the silhouette of a fish. Those facts had not been lost on the original cartographers, either.

But it still had so many features which reminded Gregory of Earth: the colours, the streams of white water-vapour cloud that no other planet in the Solar System could lay claim to, and of course the starry background. Only 18 light-years from Earth, the stars of Graham’s sky were laid out in an almost identical pattern. It was as though Graham was some alternate, alien form of Earth and Gregory had to struggle to overcome that misconception.

"Landing site has been transmitted," Warwick said. "Site of Graham City."

Mocchasin winced. "That’ll be painful."

"Oh, I wouldn’t say so," Pauline retorted. "I’d quite like to see that valley before it was covered in buildings and artificial gardens."

"…Maybe," Mocchasin said, evidently unconvinced."

The Xiantan began to plunge through the atmosphere. "Shields Mr. Gregory?" Warwick said calmly.

Gregory brought up the appropriate display on his secondary panel. He’d been talked through the characteristics of Janvier-Graham shielding, though as far as he was concerned the underlying theory was nothing less than black magic. Suffice to say, though, that J-G type shields were superb at deflecting purely kinetic projectiles: not straight back at the shooter, but the most minor deflection was sufficient to redirect the projectile away from the hull of the ship. It took very little energy and from the outside looked almost like the projectiles were skipping off a curved, invisible wall.

In fact, the process was so efficient for kinetics that the people of the Fourth had almost entirely forgotten about projectile actions save for the occasional ground action, where J-G shields were useless (and even then, there were other workarounds). You could blaze away with a machinegun, or even a railgun, at a J-G shield almost forever and never make any significant penetration. Hence the use of directed-energy weapons and mapulse detonations: the J-G process could still deflect high-energy photons, but far less efficiently, and sooner or later the shield would be overwhelmed. And once that happened, the ship behind was vulnerable to an attack which shielded targets would easily shrug off, such as a pure antimatter strike or, for that matter, kinetic projectiles.

In any case, though, the shield could easily deflect the millions of tiny kinetic projectiles known as ‘the atmospere’, and so as the shuttle dived towards Graham’s surface, the shields, projected into a suitably aerodynamic shape, streamed the particles harmlessly away to either side of the hull. A conical, reddish glow seemed to be wrapped around the shuttle’s nose, the effect of the deflected molecules colliding with the ones that had already been heading through that space. It delineated the extent of the shield as easily as if there had been a real ‘bubble’ of force there – which there wasn’t, just a continuous field extending from the J-G fluxpods.

Inside, they were insulated from all that. The hull temperature rose only gradually as they knifed towards the surface of Graham. Gregory marvelled once more about the technology of the Fourthers, and (as he always did) then began to worry what might happen if it fell into the wrong hands…

Or if someone with equal technology decides to come after us. Like the Vároto.

"Final approach," Warwick said, startling Gregory from his reverie.

The planet went through that odd mental shift, when it changed from a ball in space to the flat ground beneath the sky, and then the shuttle was levelling off to cruise down to the landing site. Gregory examined the map on his display, comparing it to the view from the cockpit window/screen. The unoriginally named Graham City had been well sited, just inland of a great river mouth that reminded him of the Thames Estuary, but four or five times the size. A mountain range, larger than anything in Britain but not reaching the heights of the Rockies, was visible off to the west, with something rather like an evergreen forest wrapped around its feet. For some reason, though, the plain itself seemed to be a temperate grassland.

And it all looked so…Terran. Oh, he could see what the two Grahamites were saying: the vegetation was a paler shade than that which he might have expected on Earth, and there were a few other subtle differences…but it was scarcely the alien landscape he had been conditioned to expect in reality.

One of the Firster passengers snorted "Just like Stargate," he muttered. "Every damn planet looks like bloody British Columbia."

Gregory stifled a laugh, for it was true. But as he glanced back at the Firster, he noted the British accent: the man must be the UK’s envoy for the mission. Many individual countries had sent their own diplomats to oversee the contact with the Culvanai later on in this mission – he’d heard there were at least fifty on board. Blair’s man, then…or Chambers’.

"We’re coming in to land," Warwick said unnecessarily as the Xiangtan dropped towards a flattened area of grassland, away from the glacial rocks that studded other parts of the plain. "Ensign check the ground consistency."

Gregory nodded, bringing up the sensor display without any of the false starts he’d dreaded. He scanned the readouts. "It looks fine, Lieutenant; no hidden bogs or concealed rocky outcrops."

"Good," Warwick said, and this time, he noted, she didn’t double check. "Ladies and gentlemen I give you – Graham!"

She cut the jets and the Xiangtan gently touched down.

It hit Gregory again as he felt the contact. He was upon another planet, another Earthlike planet. He found it hard to accept…but he’d better get used to it, for Warwick was already rising and striding towards the door.

"Um…shouldn’t we check for pathogens in the air, ma’am?" Gregory ventured.

Warwick blinked at him, and Mocchasin laughed. "Nothing dangerous to Human health on Graham, Ensign," he said. "All the tests were performed years before the Expedition got there, by robot probes, and I see no reason to redo them."

"It is rather earlier that that, though," Gregory said. "What if-"

"Well, we’ll soon find out," Warwick said with a smile. She touched a control and both the doors hissed open. A blast of warm, scented air swept the shuttle interior, and Gregory abruptly blinked as he sensed an acrid, floral stink that reminded him of oilseed rape. "Ugh," he said. "Even on other planets, you can’t escape hay fever."

"What fever?" Pauline asked, as everyone touched the button that undid their seat restraints.

"I remember reading they’ve cured it now," the British representative said dryly: his name badge said JAMES CALDWICK. "Some vaccination or other…"

"I’ll have to look into that," Gregory muttered, wiping his already streaming eyes on the strange, futuristic material of his sleeve.

But he joined the others as they went down the ramp and touched alien soil for the first time. The smell of summer fields, the glare of the sun Aitchess from above, the flowing, unspoilt blue waters of the river off to the right, the shining mountain peaks on the right…

"You were right," he muttered to Caldwick. "This is British Columbia."

The other shuttles had landed in a rough circle nearby. Gregory watched as other Astroforce officers – none higher ranking than Warwick, for both the captain and XO were still on the Ingram – and passengers joined them. The small crowd assembled, waiting as one of the Fourther passengers, a journalist, assembled his camera rig. Then Mocchasin and Pauline took their place beside another man, a young redhead with incongruous blue eyes and a confident, forward-jutting chin.

The redheaded man spoke to the camera. "We stand here upon the virgin soil of the once and future Planet Graham!" he said. "As my ancestor stood here two hundred and fifty years ago, or ninety years from now, whichever you prefer," he grinned, "I, William Graham, stand here with other descendants of that first, glorious, Expedition."

Mocchasin and Pauline drew nearer. "I, Daniel Mocchasin, stand here where Gary Mocchasin once did," he began.

"I, Pauline Backwash, stand here where Lord Colin Backwash once stood," she continued quietly.

Then Mocchasin did something unexpected. He reached out and took Gregory’s arm, gently dragging him into the camera’s field of vision. "You deserve to stand with us as well," he said, nodding to the camera.

Gregory was a bit flustered, but quickly recovered. "I…Kenneth Gregory…stand here where Robert Gregory once did, or would have done."

Mocchasin winked at William Graham. "Together with we descendants, an ancestor!"

Graham clearly liked the idea, and laughed. "The old and the new! Well, let that stand as a sign of what will one day soon be built here, again. A Graham that remembers the past yet looks towards the future."

He looked directly at the camera again. "This is a world of milk and honey," he said quietly, speaking in a serious tone. "Utterly free from the touch of intelligent life, and yet it can support millions or billions of Humans…if, and only if, we care for it in return. This is the Covenant of Graham, and on the honour of my family, I will see it is upheld."

"And I and mine," Mocchasin said coldly.

"And I and mine," Pauline Backwash whispered.

"And…I and mine," Gregory said, despite himself.

The journalist nodded and switched the camera off. "Nice!" she said. "Do you want to take that again-"

"Not unless you want conspiracy theorists to chase you for the rest of your life," James Caldwick said flatly.

He turned to Pauline. "And anyway…Backwash?!"

She winked at him. "My ancestor sold his surname to a soap powder company as advertising material. That’s how he started his company, with the money from that, and that’s how eventually he…er…acquired his British House of Lords peerage."

"I might have bloody known," Caldwick muttered.

"And now," William Graham said grandly, gesturing to the mountains, "let us take this opportunity to explore the untouched vistas of Graham!"

"I hadn’t heard your vistas were untouched," Backwash said with a coy smile.

"Can we refrain from the innuendo?" Warwick suggested. "We only have two hours before the Ingram leaves and Captain Stjepanovich said she’d be leaving regardless of whether we were back or not…"

Graham lowered his Grand Gesturing Hand. "Erm…in that case, how about we explore the untouched vistas of this field?"

"What a good plan."

Chapter Twelve


First Consul’s Office, Luna

December 4th, 2006

Admiral Nuttall burst through the door with as much alacrity as decorum permitted. "First Consul-"

"No," said Garrows without looking up.

Nuttall ground to a halt, confusion spreading across his face. "Sir?"

"No," Garrows repeated, "you can’t command the Pieter Voordijk on its upcoming mission westward."

"First Consul-"

"Admiral, I need you here," Garrows continued, apparently filling in the other side of the argument for himself. "I know you’re champing at the bit to be facing off the Vároto or whoever, but I need your expertise here to help mastermind the new projects. In any case, your own combat experience is almost exclusively in eastern theatres, whilst Captain Zhang has considerable experience of the west, as do many other senior members of the Voordijk’s officer corps."


"You may very well say that Zhang doesn’t have the rank, but dammit, Admiral, none of us do for this situation," Garrows said, getting emotional. "But he’s the best we’ve got for that job, just as," he winked knowingly, "you’re the best for this one. Now stop arguing and do as you’re told."

Nuttall closed his eyes and sighed. "First Consul, I wasn’t going to say anything about commanding the Voordijk mission."

Garrows raised an eyebrow, looking sceptical. "Oh, really?"

"Well…" Nuttall shrugged, "I might have brought it up later…"

"Ah. Well. It seemed like the most likely reason for you to burst in like that, given that the Ingram has completed its jaunt to Graham flawlessly and is now travelling Hubward towards Culvana." Garrows coughed, the most indication he ever gave of embarrassment. "Still, I suppose the whole smooth-operator-in-charge-knows-the-outcome-of-an-argument-before-you-even-begin thing is cliché these days."

As usual, Nuttall wasn’t quite sure whether to take that seriously or not. "I…see, sir."

"In any case, what were you going to speak of?" Garrows said, waving Nuttall to a seat.

"Well, sir, I was going to give you some of the latest updates from the shipyard projects: we’ve completed our sixth in Lunar orbit – the third one we’ve built proper rather than, ahem, ‘downgraded’ from an existing Fourth era yard – and the two we’re building around Earth are coming along nicely with the assistance from a number of Firster countries. There were some issues with the various companies and peoples working together at first, but now it’s moving along as smoothly as can be expected. And the Hainan Stairway should be completed within the week, ahead of schedule. The Chinese government has never liked losing face to the Usans, ah, Americans, or Europeans – that’s one thing that never seems to change regardless of the time. There’s talk of setting one up off Africa – but no-one can agree on who will help finance it – and a mostly Indian-built one off Ceylon. And then the Americans – they seem pretty indefatiguable – want another one, off southern California."

"I know all that," Garrows said with a frown, "or most of it. All good news but it doesn’t explain your urgency."

Nuttall nodded. "That’s…kind of related," he said. The admiral pulled a datareader from his pocket, unrolled it and handed it to Garrows, who picked it up and scanned it with his customary conciseness. His eyes raced down the datareader then – highly unusually – stopped, blinked, quickly went back and cycled across more slowly. Twice.

Finally Garrows deliberately set the datareader down. "…Drampt," he pronounced. "How the helk could I forget about that? How the helk could you forget about it?! How the helk could anyone forget about it?"

"I’ve been thinking about it since it landed on my desk a couple of hours ago – sent up by the Shed Men of all people – and I reckon I know, sir." Nuttall shrugged. "We, and especially you Selenites, are used to thinking of it just as some monument. If anyone even remembered where it came from, I suppose they must have realised that it was unsalvageable and obsolete…"

"I suspect it won’t be obsolete compared to whatever the Vároto throw together this time…maybe," Garrows shrugged. "Trouble is, we still have no idea what they’re doing. They might not even have received the Gunn transmission, or they might be further along than I dare fear."

"Well, Gunn himself thought they’d get it. We don’t know that much about Vároto history at this point, what with the brotherhood of lies they threw up around everything."

"All too true," Garrows muttered, "but I suspect we’re going to learn about it."

"It would be a big help if we actually knew what was in that transmission," Nuttall said, wincing.

"As a matter of fact, I believe we may be able to do something about that," Garrows said, pushing a button on his desk. "Fiona? Is the Colonel here yet? Ah, yes…send him in now."

The door opened again and Colonel Geoffrey Bradford Wilkinson entered, wearing his usual expression of paranoid suspicion. Wilkinson was, in fact, one of the few Humans capable of approximating the Vároto’s own wheels-within-wheels mindset, which made him even more invaluable as a counterintelligence man. "Sir?"

"I need your help for this," Garrows said, waving him to another chair. "We can discuss the scheduled matters later."

"Yes, sir," Wilkinson said, sitting down. "Sir, this Ms Adams of yours-"

"Stop," Garrows said, sounding resigned and holding up a hand, palm outwards. "For what must be the fiftieth time, yes her background checks out. She is not a Vároto spy you somehow missed, nor a Firster infiltrator, nor anyone else you don’t like the sound of."

Wilkinson shrugged. "If you say, so, sir. Still, it seems like it’d be-"

"Awfully clichéd," Garrows said with a faint smile. "Now come on. Admiral Nuttall and I were discussing the Gunn Transmission situation."

"Yes, sir – you know we’ve been working on that practically since the Voordijk returned at the beginning of August. Well, Gunn, or Yarghûn properly, he was a good enough rousser, I’ll give you that. But he wasn’t perfect, nobody is." Wilkinson allowed himself a hint of triumphant smile. "He thought he’d wiped all traces of the Transmission data from the Voordijk’s computers, but no, there was something left. Are you familiar with orthoquantum tracing?"

Nuttall gave a hesitant nod; Garrows said, dryly, "Let’s pretend I am for the purposes of this conversation."

"Er – yes, sir," Wilkinson said in that droning Fourther Usan accent of his, so different to the twanging, nasal one of the contemporary Americans. "It’s taken us months just to construct a skeleton of what he sent, and most of what’s left will be extremely difficult speculation building upon that. I’ve allocated five of our Turing-VI level A.I.s for the task – don’t worry, I’ve taken the appropriate precautions," he said, forestalling Nuttall’s indignant retort.

The admiral sighed; the Usans had always been rather more cavalier with A.I. systems than most people, not least because half of the really nasty disasters had happened when they themselves had been too concerned with rebuilding their country after the Third World War to try and build an A.I. themselves. Ottoh, it was over-zealous A.I. containment systems that had let Gunn lock down the Voordijk

"What do you have so far?" Garrows asked.

Wilkinson shrugged and unrolled a datareader, reading from it. "My people used a random dispersion algorithm to try and build up a reasonably representative snapshot," he said. "Most of it appears to be either technological information obviously derived from our own computers, a lot of it apparently about Vároto technology of the coming centuries, while another large section seems to have been drawn from the Firster Internet…indeed, what with the data compression he used, it could be the whole Firster Internet."

"We’ve known that much for a while," Garrows said. "Almost as soon as you first looked at it you gave me those ideas."

"But now they’ve been confirmed," Wilkinson said. "Including that theory I had about there being a focus on early Vároto technology. He wanted a direct uplift."

"There was something more, though…"

"Yes, sir. I think we’ve got as much as we’re going to get of the thing you wanted the most: the explanatory note Gunn wrote at the beginning."

Nuttall glanced at Garrows. "Well?" they said together.

"Still very incomplete, gentlemen, but…" Wilkinson unrolled the datareader some more, holding it like a scroll as he read out loud. "‘To the great Sahdavi, true gods of the Vároto’," the three Humans exchanged glances which combined mutual revulsion, amusement and pity, "‘may this most humble data find you in…’ and then we didn’t bother doing the next three paragraphs, we know the formula anyway…ah, here we are ‘the Humans of which I speak…’ blah blah, he describes the Shift… ‘I humbly suggest that you retake what is rightfully yours and…’…Well, look for yourself." He handed the datareader over.

Garrows scanned it, occasionally backing up on Gunn’s odiously bootlicking prose, and grimaced. "You were right. The ship, the legendary ship on Stentyrrea. Gunn’s practically ordered them to go for it, whatever his tone."

"It’s the only logical thing to do," Wilkinson said. Nuttall glanced pointedly at him and he added, "and yes, I know, logic doesn’t necessarily get you far with the Vároto."

"Hmm," Garrows said. "Well, on the face of it, that doesn’t change anything…but if it’s even possible, accelerate the programme. I want the Voordijk at Stentyrrea aysap."


"No, Admiral, that does not mean you can command it," Garrows said with a faint smile.

Nuttall slumped. "It was worth a try," he said bashfully.

Garrows turned to Wilkinson. "Which brings me to what Admiral Nuttall has just told me of," he said. "Colonel, you’re familiar with the Litzmann Memorial?"

"What? Of course I am – oh – oh," Wilkinson cottoned on, then slapped his forehead. "Dammit."

"That was my reaction, more or less," Garrows said dryly. "Granted, it’s probably been too tampered with and beat up to tell us much about Vároto tech of the First War period, which might be close to what they’ll field, but it serves another important purpose."

"I see it, sir," Wilkinson said. "It’s a proof to the sceptics down Earthside. Something built by the Vároto. They’re not just bogeymen."

"The diehards won’t believe any amount of proof, of course, even if they’re about to be cut down by a Blackguard," Nuttall said sourly, "but it might help convince some of the waverers. We need more investment, particularly if you want us to accelerate our plans."

Garrows nodded. "What about the ship projects?"

"As you know, Beag – ah – Unity is on track and the design has been finalised," Nuttall said. "They can begin construction any day now."

"There’s just one thing…" Wilkinson continued, relentlessly. "I’m sure you remember the First War, sir-"

"I’m not quite that old, Colonel," Garrows said with a smile. "But yes, I know what you mean."

"Well, sir , we had serious problems until we had shields," Wilkinson said. "Which were invented by the Culvanai for the Unity type."

Garrows frowned. "But surely you have the plans on file-"

"No, sir," Wilkinson said. "You see-"

"It was one of those periods of mutual suspicion," Nuttall explained, cursing. "The Culvanai of the period only equipped our ships with shielding if they had an officer on hand the watch the machinery and to check we didn’t reverse-engineer anything. Oh, they feared the Vároto too, but they didn’t want to give us too many advantages in case we ever fell out with them."

"But the Culvanai eventually gave us the plans to make our own shields…"

"Years later. By which time the Beagle-model shields were completely obsolete, and who’s going to bother trying to drag useless information out of our always-recalcitrant bristly friends." Nuttall sighed.

"The modern ones aren’t compatible with these old-style flux drives," Wilkinson added.

"You’d think some historian or military enthusiast would have found a Beagle one and taken it apart, but no," Nuttall muttered. "The Culvanai even recalled them all after the war, and we didn’t manage to keep hold of any through subterfuge…though not for want of trying," he admitted.

Garrows’ face was even stonier than usual. "So what you are telling me," he said quietly, "is that our new ships will be completely outmatched against the Vároto until and unless 1) the Culvanai on Culvana can recreate a shielding system which is a hundred and fifty years in their future, 2) we can make them give it to us, and 3) we can get it here in time for it to do any good."

"Er…yes, sir," the two officers said together.

Garrows sighed.

"It probably won’t come to that," Nuttall protested. "If we get the Voordijk over there in time, that will easily outmatch anything they can build."

"Yes, Admiral," the First Consul said. "If."

Chapter Thirteen


Charles Ingram

24th December, 2006

Three weeks, Ken Gregory thought to himself with a shiver. It’s gone by so quickly. Although, given that he was on a ship currently engaged in outrunning the speed of light, that was perhaps understandable; even if the Fourthers treated Einstein like Aristotle, all the old ideas about relativity were hard to shake off.

For three weeks, after the initial excitement of the shuttle mission to what would have been, and now would be again, Planet Graham, Gregory had performed his shipboard duties under Lieutenant Warwick. Mostly, it was precisely the sort of drudge-work he’d become accustomed to back when he’d been an ensign for the first time around, years ago in the RN. However, the sheer novelty of the Fourthers’ technology and procedures, which they themselves obviously took for granted, helped turn even the most mundane of chores into an adventure. He felt almost as though he were an Elizabethan sailor learning the ways of the modern Royal Navy, although in some respects the gap was not quite as large as that.

He’d found himself oscillating between two mindsets, that of trying to treat everything as though it were just a shinier version of modern technology with more flashing lights, and thus underestimating its capabilities; or lapsing into a Clarkean, Star Trek-ish attitude that the Fourther tech was tantamount to magic, and therefore overshooting its potential. The real world – or worlds – kept jumping up to smack him in the fact whenever he wandered into that attitude. The Fourthers’ achievements were hardly infinite, and furthermore they were subject to the same sorts of economic and logistic shackles as those of present day Humans: it was not necessarily a case of ‘can we do X’ but ‘can we do X in a cost-effective manner compared to the alternative, and out here isolated from resupply?’

So for now the Ingram remained in power-conservation mode, subject to the diktat of the Almighty Nuttall and his vicegerent, Captain Stjepanovic. As before, the Fourthers griped at missing out on some of their more power-intensive schemes and, more importantly, recreations, while the Firster crewmembers tried to imagine what wonders could be more amazing than the low-power variants.

And, privately, Warwick had told him that he was one of the Firsters who’d adapted best to shipboard life. Unbelievable.

He glanced out of a nearby window/screen, currently displaying a ‘diplomatically stylised’ view of what lay outside the ship: in other words, it had been blurred so much that nothing beyond the vague purple aurora of the Janvier-Graham field was visible. Gregory shuddered: he had no desire to see again what…what the view of the stars became when one put the fabric of spacetime through the mangle.

"We’ve been travelling at something near flank speed ever since we got out of the Graham system’s Oort cloud," he remarked, half to himself.

Warwick glanced at him: she’d also been observing the censored exterior view. Even with the deliberate blurring, the movement and fluctuation of the Janvier-Graham field was both disturbing and oddly compelling, a bit like a screensaver (Gregory thought). "They say that old Stjepanovic has got a bee in a bonnet," she streamed, then winked, "or possibly a kick up the protestor – from the Admiral or maybe even the First Consul himself." Warwick took a deep breath. "We’ve got to get to Culvana aysap apparently."

Gregory nodded. He didn’t know why the mission had suddenly been accelerated after the Graham jaunt, although he had his suspicions. "But won’t travelling at these speeds only burn through our antimatter reserves faster?" he asked.

"Of course," Warwick said, shrugging. "That’s why the Captain argued um at length with……with whoever it was." She gestured at the window. "No use in us saving a few weeks getting halfway there and then having to stop for a month to deploy a refuelling station."

"But Luna disagreed?" Gregory asked quietly.

"I suppose so," Warwick said. "At least we’re not travelling at full flank speed; this must be a compromise between outright speed and fuel economy."

The Englishman nodded again. No, it wasn’t full flank speed, but even he knew that it was damn-near close. Whatever it was Nuttall…or Garrows…wanted them to get to Culvana for, it must be important.

Then Warwick gave him a smile, and for a brief moment he let himself see her as a woman rather than an officer and his superior. "But enough of that gloom……Ken." She coughed, almost embarrassed. "Would you like to…"

"Of course," Gregory said, returning the smile as best he could, putting aside the percolator of theories that was his brain. "May I?"

They moved out onto the dancefloor.

He’d been surprised to find that the Ingram, apparently like all Union capital ships above destroyer size, had a large diplomatic hall for this very purpose. Adapted from a small cargo bay it, like the other bays, was situated in the central cylindrical core of the ship. The room was still large enough that the floor would have displayed a noticeable concave curve, had it not been suitably filled in, and the ceiling had not: it bulged alarmingly towards them, bearing an archaic-looking chandelier at its nadir. It was so easy to forget that he was standing on the inside edge of one of a series of concentric cylinders that formed the decks of the hull, with ‘down’ pointing outwards toward the gravity-generating J-G fluxpods. But this room felt the need to remind him every time he looked up.

Perhaps because of the disorientation, perhaps just because the dance had ‘adaptated’ (he’d learned that the Fourthers disliked the term evolve for some reason) over the past three hundred years, but he then stood upon Warwick’s foot. "Sorry!" he broke out.

She muttered something under her breath, doubtless a Cancy dialectal swearword, then shook her head and quirked an eyebrow at him. "No need," she said eventually. "Just don’t do it again…"

"I won’t," Gregory promised, hurriedly getting back into the step. The general tone of the evening was formal, but all the Astroforce officers were wearing dress uniforms rather than civilian formal wear as he’d half-expected. The few civilian Fourthers among them, and many of the Firster civilians who’d come along, had adopted formal wear of the sort Gregory mentally dubbed ‘future tuxedo! cool!’.

Warwick gently led him through a manoeuvre easily as difficult as any of those he’d read about from the First Vároto War. "That wasn’t so bad," she said. "At least you don’t have two left feet."

Gregory smiled that that colloquialism had remained in the language. "There are times when I wish I had," he said, "it would have given the procurement office on the Kent a much easier job." It took her a moment to work that out, and then she chuckled.

The dancefloor was covered in a sort of tiles that, from a distance, looked rather like marble: however, it was immediately obvious once one had walked on them that they were not. What was rather more interesting was that the pattern and appearance of the tiles could be altered, and this happened every time the band – it was a real band, not a recording – struck up a new tune. The first few times, it was just different mineral effects, then they switched to crossword-like patterns of dark and white marble, and then some joker used the floor to show a rather unflattering image of Admiral Nuttall’s face. Gregory glanced over to the Captain’s table, but Stjepanovic seemed unmoved to act: indeed she seemed to rather enjoy the spectacle of the dancers repeatedly stepping on the admiral.

Finally, as the band paused for drinks, Warwick let him go. They went over to the edges of the dancefloor, where an enormous buffet of staggering variety was laid out on a series of rather dingy ‘emergency tables’. Gregory cast his eye over the dishes on offer, recognising perhaps one in three. Some of the unfamiliar ones were doubtless just innovations in cuisine over the past three centuries, but others…

He pointed "What are those ones marked with the green square?" The symbol was born on a label attached to the plates.

Warwick glanced at them. "Culvanai dishes re-created from Human foods so you can eat them," she said. "Don’t touch the yellow square ones – they’re the originals."

"And poisonous?" Gregory guessed.

"Most of them," Warwick said. "There are a few bwoshers who’ll risk their lives to taste the real original alien cuisine – but fewer every year," she added with a faint grin.

Gregory nodded and tried a few canapé-like small items from one of the green-square plates. Although he could recognise a few of the ingredients, the overall flavour was unlike anything he’d ever tasted. Not repulsive, but not really compelling either: a bit like trying to watch an NTSC video on a PAL TV, he thought – doubtless all very well in its original setting, but disturbingly discordant in this one. It had been intended for a palate, but not the Human one. It was an odd thought.

He realised abruptly that they were being approached by three VIPs. To be precise, Captain Stjepanovic; her parachuted-in XO Commander He’gAmmj; and the Culvanai Ambassador, Je’tEnnck. Judging by her expression, Stjepanovic was in a bad mood, although this was scarcely calendar news, but the two Culvanai were unreadable.

Gregory pulled off a hasty salute, noticing via his peripheral vision that Warwick did the same. "Captain," he said.

"No ranks here," Stjepanovic said coolly, for all that she pointedly bore her own rank decorations and fruit salad. "I presume you are Ens…ah…Kenneth Gregory, the Firster recruit that I hear so much about." Her accent, recognisably Serb for all it had changed over the past three centuries, nevertheless did not touch the pronunciation of Gregory’s name. The effect of the saturation of English, he supposed. When even your own native accent sounds like an affectation layered on afterwards.

"That’s correct…ma’am," Gregory added anyway. Stjepanovic struck him as the sort that you couldn’t be too careful with when it came to matters of decorum.

The captain glanced at Je’tEnnck. "He is the one," she said – rather ominously, Gregory thought. I’ll get bundled into a van next, or a shuttle rather, and flown off to be held as a hostage somewhere…

The ambassador coughed: to Gregory, it sounded like an acknowledgement of embarrassment, but he’d learned that Culvanai body language used deceptively similar items to Human, but meaning totally different things. And from what Je’tEnnck said next, that cough had been closer to a snort of dismissal. "I shee. One. Very good." The Culvanai accent – not that there was just one, of course, but they all sounded the same to Gregory – clicked the hard K sounds and slurred the sibilants like a drunkard. "I am shure that is enough to shatishfy ush all."

Warwick frowned. "With respect Madam Ambassador why are you speaking in such a way?" she streamed.

Je’tEnnck seemed to find Warwick’s Cancy-style streaming even harder to follow than Gregory did. Finally she pronounced: "There are many among ush who have…reshervations about the Firshtersh. No offence," she added hastily to Gregory, who’d raised an eyebrow, "but we know what we were like during thish period of history."

"And we’ll have an opportunity to see it for ourselves in a few short weeks," He’gAmmj said quietly. Unlike the ambassador, he did not slur his sibilants so obviously. "That is, if there is anything left of it after those maniacs have finished with it."

Je’tEnnck slouched her shoulders in a way that subtly but strikingly reminded him she was an alien. "Indeed," she said, her face in its typically immobile Culvanai expression: that juxtaposition almost provoked an unwise laugh from Gregory. "That ish one good reashon why we musht may’cke hashte."

Stjepanovic avoided Je’tEnnck’s look: the ambassador’s mirror-silver, pupil-less eyes nevertheless seemed to bore into her. "You know that I am under orders," she said quietly.

"As am I," Je’tEnnck retaliated, her voice harsh. "Orders from the tradition and the Law. Not orders from a jumped-up moonboy who think’s he’s a matriarch-"

She broke off. "Forgive me. I shpoke out of order."

"Yes, you did," Stjepanovic said coldly. "And I will remember such when the First Consul asks me why you have been less than forthcoming with…" she threw a quick glance at Gregory and Warwick, then shrugged, "the plans."

Je’tEnnck’s red sensory bristles stood out from her forehead defiantly. "I have already explained the situation," she bit out. "The information is contained in the Embassy databanks."

"But the Mu’rKlungs group purged the banks before they left," Stjepanovic said promptly: Gregory guessed this was by now a well-rehearsed argument. "Probably with assistance from the Vároto agent. All fine and good, but Luna tells me that Colonel Wilkinson’s teams have had some success with retrieving information from other files that Gunn supposedly deleted, including the transmission to Vároton. They could conceivably do the same to your databanks…

"If you actually gave us access to them."

Je’tEnnck folded her arms, in what Gregory guessed was a deliberately learned Human gesture. "No," she said. "It would be one thing to give you access to a shingle technology that would ultimately benefit us both, give it to you on our terms. But I will not gleefully shign over what is potentially the entire sum of twenty-fourth century Culvanai knowledge. In your rather vulgar terms, I would be throwing away all my bargaining chips."

"But Wilkinson’s team can’t work on only those files we have your permission for," Stjepanovic said reasonably. "Not if we don’t even know which are which yet."

"Precisely. The risk is too great. And so, regretfully, I musht de’ckline."

Stjepanovic turned and met Je’tEnnck’s implacable silver glare. "That is…a mistake."

"Call it what you will. The answer remains no."

Stjepanovic hesitated, obviously weighing up what she was about to say. "Then I ask you to consider whether you think your embassy and the ten or so personnel you have left behind…can withstand an assault from a fully armed strike team."

Je’tEnnck sucked in a breath. "You would contemplate war with your oldest ally?" she said matter-of-factly.

"When our oldest ally consists of a few thousand intransigent introverts who could doom us by their inaction, what other option do we have?" Stjepanovic bit out.

Je’tEnnck looked away. "If you are actively considering violating mevweck then I have nothing more to say to you. Come." The ambassador turned and left, her ceremonial flares-like trousers flapping around her ankles. Commander He’gAmmj, who’d remained silent in the common manner of Culvanai males in the presence of assertive females, gave Stjepanovic an apologetic glance and followed Je’tEnnck.

The captain watched them go, her face unreadable. "So that’s it," she muttered. "It all comes down to this…"

She walked away, apparently having forgotten that Gregory and Warwick were still standing there, virtually frozen, and had heard every word. After a few moments, Gregory let his breath out. "Good…grief," he managed. "Storming the embassy? What are we…?" he almost said ‘Iranians’, then remembered hastily that Ali Ahmed might be within earshot.

"It’s pretty grim," Warwick agreed. "And trespassing on mevweck, well, you can’t get more serious than that…"

"What’s mevweck?"

"Culvanai law," Warwick explained. "No; it needs a stronger word than that……commandmant perhaps…even taboo. Literally means ‘where all are one’. Places set aside where Culvanai do not have Cluster-loyalty and act out of united racial purpose. Their embassies are placed on mevweck land. Grave insult to bring weapons of violence into one."

"I…see," Gregory said. "There’s so much I need to learn about them. You can’t just get it out of books."

"No," Warwick agreed, "but I don’t know that much about Culvanai culture either. You’d do better to ask one of them themselves."

Gregory nodded, slowly. "But, after how Commander He’gAmmj acted there, whether that would be such a wise idea."

Warwick winced. "It’s bad when it’s come to that," she said. "Our oldest allies…"

She shrugged. "Never mind. It’s Christmas." She pronounced it cry-stmas, with a long I-sound. "We might as well go down for the midnight service."

Gregory raised an eyebrow. And there’s another thing that didn’t appear in my preconceived vision of this mission…

They left the room, and as they approached the door, he noticed that they had begun to walk arm in arm. Nor did that.


Chapter Fourteen


Proving Grounds, Nr. Maghlar, Vároton

12th August, 2007

Celoun watched the events with his long, elegant but aged arms folded across his chest. It was not a gesture of reserve, but of reflexive protectiveness: intellectually he knew that nothing he saw could possibly affect him, but the instinct remained. Not even the gift of the Grigóri can purge such things from the flesh from us, he thought, a bit sadly. And we know where our own attempts to do so lead… he shuddered.

"So this is your little game," said a voice from behind him: female, amused…Sahdavi. But of course Celoun recognised its owner immediately, for he had known her for longer than the entire lifespan of most civilisations.

Letting the equivalent of a smile spread across his old elfin face, Celoun turned and welcomed her. "Xanthir. I am glad that you could be here." It was a mindless social inanity, of course, but nevertheless he felt the need to speak it.

Xanthir returned his near-smile. She was of an age with him, both among the most senior of those few Sahdavi survivors, both among the few of the few who actually remembered the Grigóri personally. While, if you asked them, the Sahdavi would have scoffed at such an obviously primitive social system as gerontocracy, nevertheless the younger among them tended to look up to those who had a more personal connection with their vanished Grigóri predecessors, whom they almost worshipped as gods themselves. Which meant that the Sahdavi on Vároton were effectively led by Celoun, Xanthir…

"And I?" said a third voice. It belonged to a corpulent, fiery-eyed Sahdavi who scarcely fitted the elven-fantasy-race stereotype. Indeed, with his short stature, baldness and unruly beard, he looked more like a dwarf.

Celoun sucked in a breath. "Rosuntur." He deliberately left off the addendum he’d used to greet Xanthir, for Rosuntur was not welcome with him. They had been rivals even before the recent victory had removed from the equation their old common enemy, the Ucasa, that had forced them to work together. Now, at a time when even a single mistake could be fatal, they nevertheless butted heads.

"I presume there is a reason behind your asking to meet with us here?" Xanthir asked, gesturing at the field before them.

Celoun nodded. "Of course. Primarily simply that you may view the effectiveness of the new weapons and tools…"

"Hmmph," Rosuntur pronounced. "I could have done that back in Tiszag. They are very effective, indeed, and will doubtless prove important in our war of revenge. Is there anything more you wanted to tell us?" he added, his voice bordering on sarcasm.

Inwardly, Celoun forced down his rage. Giving into his emotions was as bad as folding his arms before the demonstrations, or worse. "Naturally. The information acquired from the Yarghûn Transmission-" as the Sahdavi had taken to calling it, "-is useful not merely in terms of instructions for more advanced armour compositions or how to construct mass-feed fusion reactors using only the technology available to us. In fact the most useful data may be something quite different."

Rosuntur opened his mouth, doubtless to begin a snide retort, but Xanthir spoke before he could. "What do you mean?" she asked.

Celoun smiled and gestured to the fields again. This time they all looked, and slowly nodded along.

The field was, in other times, used by Vároto both for children’s games, adult sports and military training: indeed the three tended to merge into one. The old Yenapa sports were still played by the Vároto, but they had added extra sets of inordinately complex and subtle rules that could potentially decide the outcome of a match. Those brains of theirs, programmed by the Sahdavi to be like organic tactical computers, found the originals too…simplistic. Almost disturbingly so.

But now the field was being used for a purpose which, while arguably closely related, was rather more…direct.

Celoun took a step back as a stray shell hurtled towards the three on their viewing platform. Another reflex, of course, for it was caught and dealt with long before it could pose any threat to the three Sahdavi. Rosuntur smirked at him anyway.

The vehicle responsible for the shell paused in the midst of the fighting and its topside hatch opened, its commander rising from within. The commander, a Vároto so burly that Celoun wondered how he’d managed to fit through the hatch, pulled a knife from his pocket and held it to his throat, looking askance to his god. Celoun felt a vicious urge to let the Vároto who’d embarrassed him kill himself over it, but cold practicalities clicked into place in his mind: this was a war, and he couldn’t afford to throw any resource away. Slightly pleased that his baser impulse had been defeated, his waved his arm in a ‘No’ sign and the commander put down his knife, lowering himself back into the vehicle. Less than a second later, it was already targeting the enemy with rather more accuracy.

It was a battlefield. Two forces of around twenty vehicles each, both balanced with some vehicles optimised for destroying others and some designed to provide anti-air or anti-infantry cover, clashed before the three Sahdavi watchers. It was quite an alien sight to them: in their glory days, they had preferred to use very well-equipped infantry and neither their nor their enemies had ever deployed armour formations. For one thing, being an obvious man-like creature who could fire bolts of heavenly fire from his hands made it much easier to persuade the primitives you were a god than if you were just backed up by a formation of armoured chariots…

The two forces were using identical vehicles, but one side had purple paint splashed on their naturally black armour, while the other had green. As the Sahdavi watched, the vehicle whose commander had offered to kill himself – a purple-painted, heavy vehicle designed primarily to take on other vehicles – managed to destroy a smaller green-painted vehicle. The shot was either extraordinarily well-aimed or incredibly lucky, slamming straight through a weak point under the opposing vehicle’s main weapon and detonating the magazine. Celoun frowned and made a note on his ancient, reactivated Sahdavi datareader: possible design flaw for review…

Rosuntur frowned as the rear hatch on the green vehicle flipped open and the survivors of its crew (and the mere fact that there were some demonstrated how well the magazine was shielded), bailed out. The purple vehicle immediately mowed them down with its rapid fire anti-infantry weapon, but it wasn’t their escape that had drawn his attention. It was their colour…

"Ucasa?!" he bit out. "You’re training your troops against Ucasa?!"

"Why not?" Celoun said curiously. "The only other real option is Yenapa, and I’m not sure how helpful that would be…"

"Why don’t you damn well train them against another Vároton company like everyone else?" Rosuntur retorted.

Celoun sighed. "Rosuntur, have you even read the Yarghûn Transmission?"

"Of course I have," Rosuntur muttered. It was even true: all the Sahdavi had, for the simply reason that no-one would have believed it if they hadn’t. But, Celoun was coming to realise, the gulf between that and actual understanding was as wide as that separating Vároton from the tantalising treasure of Stentyrrea.

Celoun gestured to the battlefield again, as the purple Vároto force scored another local victory over the green Ucasa. "One hundred and fifty years from now in the original timeline, the Vároto would have attacked the Miradi. They would have had to face off against forces from both the Miradi themselves and their Culvanai and Human allies. Yet they nevertheless had many advantages: their technology, the technology we gifted them with, was more advanced than that of their foes, and also they were much closer to their homeworld and so had less of a problem with logistics. They should have won, and yet they did not. Why?"

Rosuntur muttered to himself. Xanthir answered: "I have read it, Celoun. Whenever they faced the enemy in a straight-up battle, two forces simply hammering at one another-" she inclined her head at the skirmish before them, as the earth became slicked with both green and a little violet blood, "-they went to pieces."

"You are correct, Xanthir," Celoun said, a tad over-formally. In their vanished youth, he and she had almost become lovers, before the longevity treatment made them sterile and destroyed their sex drive with it. At the time, he’d reckoned that living for thousands of years was well worth the loss. Occasionally, though, he wondered…

"But why?" Rosuntur said. "You told us that the files confirmed that the Vároto were indeed the ultimate fighting race that we strived for." He sounded accusing, as though Celoun himself was the sole mouthpiece for the Yarghûn files and Rosuntur couldn’t simply go and look for himself.

"Exactly," Celoun said, bringing his hand down to emphasise his statement. "They would have lived for a century without any foe but each other, never allowing their Ucasa slaves to rise to a position where they could give them anything approaching a fair fight-"

"And quite rightly so," Rosuntur snapped. "The last thing we need is for them to become complacent-"

"But it meant that they only fought other Vároto," Celoun explained patiently. "And that only in a low-level, individual fashion of course. When they attacked the Miradi, no living Vároto soldier had ever faced any sort of enemy mind but that of another Vároto. So they assumed that others thought the same way as they did. That’s why they lost."

Xanthir caught on. "The same reason why they can’t play the old Yenapa sports," she breathed, gesturing to the battlefield. A cornered Ucasa vehicle managed to take out two Vároto ones in its death throes: impressive.

Celoun nodded. "Simplicity frightens them. We built their brains to look for traps, to analyse everything to a dozen levels and more, to be suspicious of anything that looks too good to be true. An enemy setting up what looks like a perfectly basic attack movement, and then actually following through with a basic attack movement, completely confuses them. They’d expect it to be some sort of deception."

"I see," Rosuntur said harshly. "So our famous Vároto, who you have harped on repeatedly about their superiority and fulfilment of our dreams, are in fact fatally flawed."

He glared over at where a small group of Ucasa vehicles seemed to be fighting their Vároto counterparts to a standstill. "We must improve the stock. We cannot go to war with these-"

"We have no choice," Xanthir said softly. "Even if we had access to our cloning and genengineering equipment from the old days, it would take perhaps ten years to raise another generation of soldiers. Using the methods we are currently limited to, mainly selective breeding, it would take far longer."

"And we have to get to Stentyrrea, at least, as soon as possible," Celoun concluded. "We have to use what we have, and just try and instil in them a broader tactical sense. We do have some advantages: they have been fighting the Ucasa until recently, and so know at least one other mindset devoted to combat."

"But the Ucasa lost," Rosuntur snapped.

"Only thanks to the Yarghûn data," Celoun reminded him.

"And without it, it would have taken us another fifty years," said Xanthir. "And these seem to be doing rather well, too." Indeed, though the Vároto were clearly winning, the Ucasa on the field seemed determined to take down as many as they could. Unsurprising when they knew what their fate would be if they were unfortunate enough to be taken alive: a better approximation of a real-life fight, too, unlike one of Rosuntur’s Vároto-on-Vároto matches where the worst fate that could await a captured combatant was death.

Celoun looked at the battlefield meditatively. "All right," he said. "That’s it." He clapped his hands, once. Almost immediately, all the fire from the Vároto side died away. The Ucasa followed seconds later: they had learned what happened if they unwisely fought on. "Return to your barracks," he called out to them. The vehicles separated from each other and trundled back over the field, leaving the smoking wrecks and battered corpses of the battle behind them.

Rosuntur gave him a dirty look. "What was all that about?" he inquired. "Why not let them fight to the death?"

"Because I have lost enough Vároto," Celoun replied coolly. "My intention was to weed out the unimaginative, those who would handicap them in a real battle and even maybe cost us a victory. They are all killed pretty early on in the combat: now, they had reached the stage where my Vároto would have won, but only through a slow grinding advance that would have killed many good soldiers, as these things unavoidably do."

"Hmmf," Rosuntur said. "I’m inclined to think that you did it because it was far from certain that your Vároto would have won. And you let the Ucasa live as well!"

"I need a trained Ucasa corps to provide a real enemy for my Vároto," Celoun said.

"Well, I just think we should get rid of them all," Rosuntur said. "Never mind all this mucking about."

"Your views are well known," Xanthir said icily.

"Indeed," Celoun agreed. "And I say that you are wrong. Why simply destroy what we can get useful labour out of?"

"You are soft on them," Rosuntur sneered. "You cannot countenance that-"

A shambling figure wandered up to the trio. It was emaciated, its eyes now somewhere in the depths of sunken sockets, the spark of rebellion within them now so dim as to be snuffed out. "What you want master?" it slurred, the Agonist in its jaw distorting the words.

Celoun smiled brightly. "I want you to suffer," he said, pressing a button on his remote. With a howl that was frighteningly muted from sheer practice, Aeo Uea collapsed onto his side, scrabbling desperately at his mouth.

Celoun looked toward Rosuntur. "Which is a more fitting punishment for the leader of the great traitors?" he said icily. "A quick death by your exterminators…or this?" He kicked the pathetic figure in its visible ribs, promoting another howl of pain.

Rosuntur licked his lips, but could find no response.


Oathbreaker Memorial, Luna

29th December, 2006

"Interesting sort of Christmas present," Pete Chambers muttered as he ducked under the archway. He was only one of the four or five Firster politicians and other luminaries in this group, of which there were a dozen or more. After Garrows had got behind it, the Zobodins’ bright idea had snowballed…

Into this.

Chambers thought back to when he had arrived. Though he kept it concealed beneath his professionally unimpressed exterior, he had felt an almost childish excitement reawakened within him as the Moon had filled the window/screen on the torus ship. To set foot on the Moon at all, much less one that was inhabited by millions of people and concealed many wonders of the future…

It was only a shame that the American president had managed to get there first.

Tranquillity had been extraordinary, of course, but like the others he had been impatient to get here, to the place that Garrows and the others seemed to have mysteriously forgotten until Rachel Zobodin reminded them (and the conspiracy theories back on Earth were already having a field day with that one). Here…the Oathbreaker Memorial.

Though there was a maglev rail link underground from Tranquillity via the other cities, they had flown here via shuttle. It might waste fuel (though the gasdiver stations at Jupiter were beginning to approach production levels capable of supplying Luna at its normal consumption), but it was worth it to give the dignitaries a really impressive look at what they had come to see.

It sat there in the middle of the Lunar landscape like, Chambers thought uncharitably, a humongous dog turd. But that earthy description did not do justice to the sheer…alienness of the thing. It was a strange thought, considering that all the Human settlements nearby were scarcely more ‘native’ to the Moon than the thing, and yet it still looked unquestionably out of place.

The thing, the Oathbreaker, was – had once been – shaped roughly like a mushroom tipped on its side, with a broad hemispherical cap and a thick stalk stretching back from it. At the end of the stalk there was a much smaller cap also facing forwards. Chambers had seen pictures and designs of the original in the briefing material that the Selenites had sent, and so could recognise items in the twisted wreck that would otherwise have been incomprehensible. There were the two flux crystals, now long since dark and useless: one shaped like a torus, positioned under the lip of the big forward cap and around the stalk, the second a globe fitted into the little aft cap. There were the nuclear sublight engines, five around the edge of each cap arranged in a pentagonal array, the forward and rear caps having them staggered relative to each other.

What remained of the weapons arrays had been carefully removed (Spoilsports, Chambers thought) but he could see the gaps and mentally compared them to the plans: those were where the laser turrets had been mounted, while that thing in the middle of the forward cap was what had been the whole forward torpedo and missile launcher system.

And the Oathbreaker was black. It had become dusty and shabby over time, doubtless encouraged by its curators to make it look even more defeated and symbolic, but beneath the patina Chambers could still perceive the jet-black, reflective hull. He’d read about the armour that the Vároto had used, hadn’t really understood the details, but knew it was designed with two purposes in mind: to ablate incoming weapons fire (obviously) and to make the ship not leave a sensor signature when using its flux engines. Stealth, by any other name.

And now he was inside, and was getting an even more in-depth view of what had gone on in the minds of the Oathbreaker’s makers.

He did not like what he saw.

"And this is one of the aft sensor relay stations that survived," said their guide, one of those Divergence Colloquy people – Bruno Lombardi, Chambers recalled. "It’s been restored several times and you can clearly see from this scope how the Vároto vision differs from our own, in particular their greater perception of the ultraviolet at the expense of red-"

"Excuse me, Mr. Lombardi," Chambers interrupted. "I’m sure that’s all very interesting, but I would like to see an overview of the battle which led to this crash in the first place."

Rather than being upset at Chambers’ interjection, Lombardi brightened. "Of course! This way."

He took them away from the surviving sections of the ship that had been restored to the old Vároto look, and into those that had been too badly damaged and had simply been rebuilt by the Selenites into a Human-designed museum. As they passed through the transition, Chambers’ eye noted where the cracks started in the bulkheads, starting to grow before being abruptly cut off as they switched to the Human-built portion. He was oddly irritated to be back in that area: yes, the Vároto section was disturbing, with its almost colourless décor, its dim half-ultraviolet lighting and its bizarre items in the crew quarters that even Lombardi had been embarrassed to speak of the use of, but he had come here to get an idea of the Vároto mindset. Going back to the Human area felt like a waste of time.

Lombardi led them to a holoviewer whose recorded segment was by now a bit staticky. The museum normally had several hundred visitors a day, but the Shift had almost wiped out casual tourism. In any case, Garrows had pulled strings to make this a personal day for the Terran VIPs only.

Chambers, along with the other VIPs, watched the record. A deep narrator’s voice played over the top of the holographic space battles, explaining things to them. "At the height of the first Vároto War, in 2154, the then Diktat Primate of Vároton, Melakh Poszar, decided that Earth must be knocked out of the war in order to prevent Human and Culvanai support of the Miradi Conclave. The Vároto planned a bioweapon attack by a long-range strike into the heart of Human Union territory. It would be a one-way mission, but there was no shortage of volunteers…

"The Vároto sent three of their Tyrant-class battleships, then the most advanced and powerful of their fleet, together with an Swindler-class fleet oiler to refuel them. Earth might have been doomed but for the fact that the fleet was briefly spotted near Terminus, decanted from fluxspace for an hour in order to refuel. Which meant that when they reached Earth, three weeks later, the fledgling STREPTOMYCIN Defence Network was ready for them.

"Even then, the Vároto almost succeeded. The STREPTOMYCIN defences, together with what Astroforce ships could be spared, managed to destroy two of the Tyrants and the Swindler. But the third Tyrant, the Oathbreaker, got through the defences and headed for Earth with its payload of bioweapon missiles. All might have been lost, but the Oathbreaker had to swing past Luna to reach Earth. And that proved their doom.

"Then, there was no VANCOMYCIN, the situation of the time being that ships could not possibly flux directly to the heart of the Solar System and so the defences being concentrated at the Oort Cloud. Yet there was one defence orbiting Luna: the private ship Geneva of the old Selenite founder, Lord Werner."

On the display, the holograms showed the last Vároto ship speeding over the surface of Luna, only a few hundred metres above it as it sought the straightest path to Earth. And there before it, in the way, silhouetted against the Earth as it rose over the horizon, was the Geneva.

"The Geneva had no weapons, being a civilian yacht. But Lord Werner had designed it to carry a large amount of fuel for long-distance business trips. He was the only person aboard. He had one weapon and one chance to use it. And he did."

The holographic yacht accelerated to full sublight speed and, even as the furious Vároto laserfire melted half of its hull away, slammed into the forward cap. As the Oathbreaker had been low down and the Geneva had been in true orbit, it struck from above, the impact forcing the Vároto ship downwards.

"The matter/antimatter detonation was sufficient to momentarily rip away the entirety of the Oathbreaker’s magfield and it lost its ability to hover using Luna’s own gravity. It crashed into the surface of Luna, the force of the impact crushing half the ship and killing or injuring the entire crew, but not totally destroying the ship.

"Which meant that response teams captured the wreck almost immediately and found the bioweapons stocks before the crew could destroy them. Finally Earth had proof that the Vároto were countencing the use of such weapons and could retaliate in kind with public opinion behind it. History tells us of the success of the Svaalrog Attack, no matter how morally questionable it might have been in retrospect, and it was that which led to the ultimate defeat of the Vároto.

"This museum is dedicated to Lord Werner’s sacrifice…"

Chambers tuned out the rest. He turned to Lombardi. "So that’s it, eh?"

"That’s it," Lombardi confirmed. "This is a Vároto ship that almost killed everyone on Earth. They tested the potency of the bioweapons afterwards and came up with a vaccine, of course…"

But Chambers wasn’t listening. He had known that the Vároto were the enemy; he had seen what one of their assassins had done in the UN.

Now, though, they were his enemy.

"I’ve seen enough," he growled. "I need to get back to kicking those workshy Shed Men up the arse. Building weapons so we can boot those bloody elf-worshipping dipshits into the next century."

Lombardi backed away. "Of…course, sir."

Chapter Fifteen


Charles Ingram

January 17th, 2007

Andrew Stillsby puffed and panted as he forced his feet down on the pedals, staring blankly at nothing, his mind concentrated solely on the simple physical task. He knew all too well how he tended to blow up if he neglected his exercise, exercise that back home he had achieved easily enough simply by cycling to work, much like almost everyone else in Cambridge.

But, while the Charles Ingram was one bloody big ship, he could hardly go cycling up and down the corridors through a horde of perpetually busy Astroforce personnel running around with datareaders. Hence, the gym. Hence, the bike.

Of course, it was a lot more advanced than the sort of thing that he’d expect back home. There were lots of subtle things, like the fact that the material forming the seat had neither the organic feel of real leather or rubber, nor the synthetic feel of any plastic he’d ever encountered. Rather than a chain, there was a series of adjoining wheels, like cogs without teeth, that seemed to seamlessly mesh with the perfect amount of grip and friction: surface engineering, he supposed. And the built-in computer was both far more advanced, and had an interface far less bewildering, than those in the exercise equipment of the twenty-first century.

On the other hand (or ‘ottoh’, as the Fourthers were wont to abbreviate it), in many ways it was oddly unchanged from those of his century. For a start, it was still a solid object of metal and…er…whatever that stuff was, with real moving wheels, not some sort of automatic muscle stimulator. Furthermore, there was no super-realistic holographic simulation of a cycle path being projected around him: all he could see was the gym around him and the odd screen/window tuned to a slideshow of impressive nebula photos or some entertainment programme with the sound turned down. Maybe it was because this was a no-frills, military gym; maybe it was because the ship was running in reduced-power mode and couldn’t afford to waste power on such things.

But Andrew was willing to bet that it was down to the attitude of the Fourthers, different both from the Firsters like him, and what they had expected people from the future to be like. The Fourthers had an attitude of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, and a natural frugality – or at least most of them did. They found the hedonism of the twenty-first century West, particularly considering the juxtaposition of the starving Third World, to be both shocking and disturbing. Andrew supposed it was down to a few centuries of having to be on their guard against attacks by the Vároto, the Rómidi, and assorted minor unsavoury groups. That, and the fact that there was an urge to push the boundaries, to colonise further, both to relieve overpopulation and to try and set up more and more series of Human planets further out, putting something between the highly populated core worlds and the outside aggressors.

He understood the attitude, but it still took him aback at times. By the standards of his day, it was almost a war-economy feeling. A permanent one.

The computer beeped and a series of holographic statistics were projected into the air, together with what appeared to be a sort of advanced MRI showing his whole body. Andrew studied the data, pretending he understood it (God, I wish Janet was here, he thought, and not just for the usual reasons). Then he nodded and gradually let his speed come down, not wanting to jerk to a sudden stop.

After a few seconds, his legs were once more at a standstill. He felt the odd, rubbery sensation of the lactic acid produced by his intense work being re-oxidised to pyruvate (something Janet had once explained to him, with diagrams). He took several deep but measured breaths, feeding in more oxygen to help it along.

Finally he swung his leg over the bike and stepped off, his legs feeling almost completely recovered. He noted that that strange saddle had somehow absorbed all the moisture and salt from the sweat he had doubtless deposited on it: what will they think of next, he thought dryly.

Andrew picked up the plain white ship-issue towel from where he’d swung it over the handlebars, and glanced at the big holographic clock projected in the middle of the room. It was hard to read at first, being a spherical interpretation of an analogue dial overlaid with a series of numbers, showing both ship time, various Earth and Luna times, and a host of others that were irrelevant after the Shift. He stood there for a moment and saw that in the Storms City time zone, where he understood that Janet and Luke were presently staying, it was midday. A thought came to him…

"It’s the last day, you know," a voice said from behind him.

Andrew turned to find an individual whom he knew, vaguely, by face: that rather overage ensign who’d been one of the first recruits from the Firsters. He was British – what was his name? Grey? Gregson?

"Ensign Gregory," he said, remembering it. "What do you mean?"

Gregory smiled. He too had stripped down to the shorts and vest-like combo that was the undergarment component of the Astroforce uniform. Like the saddle on the exercise bike, the materials of the clothing gleamed and shifted in an ever so slightly unfamiliar way – and, for that matter, seemed to drink up sweat just as cheerfully. Gregory had clearly been exercising as strenuously as Andrew, judging by his slicked forehead, but you’d never have guessed from his clothes.

"This is the last day when we’ll be able to contact Earth," he clarified. "We’ve dropped a host of comm relays – I helped do some of them – but this area of space is just too…crowded for it to continue beyond here. We’d need ten times the number of relays that we have."

Andrew nodded. "So if I want to write home, this is my last chance," he said.

"That’s right," Gregory said. "I’ve already send a last message to my family…"

"Then I think I’ll do the same," Andrew said. As though there was any other choice. "Thanks for telling me."

"No problem," said the former RN man. "In any case, you can repay the favour for me now…"

"Can I?" Andrew asked, arching an eyebrow.

"Yeah," Gregory said. "I may have studied the Fourthers’ technology for months, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out how to work those exercise bike controls…"

Andrew laughed.


Nr. Storms City, Luna

January 17th, 2007

"Luke!" Janet called upstairs, feeling a brief flicker of dèja vu. "Luke!"

"What is it?!" came the irritated-sounding reply from upstairs. After the childish wonders of Luna had subsided for him, Luke had reverted to his usual teenage surliness. The perceived abandonment by his father hadn’t helped, either. "Does it have to be now – the Divergence Colloquy people are about to tell me if they’ve decided whether I can be a moderator or not-"

"Come down! Your father’s calling!" Janet called.

She heard a mutter that she felt it best not to pay too much attention to deciphering, the very deliberate grind of a chair being pushed away from a computer station, and thumping steps going around to the stairway. She sighed. An entire planet, well, moon, worth of futuristic wonders to go out and explore, and he just wants to go on the future Internet all the time…

Luke came down the stairs with a series of metallic clangs and stood before her. "Well?" he said, his arms folded. "I might be a moderator," he added in a mutter, "although they call it a deacon…"

"Your father is calling," Janet said, her voice brittle. She touched a button on the big holoviewer in the centre of the living room.

"I could have watched that from up there," Luke muttered to himself as the gleaming ‘hold’ screen with the Astroforce logo coalesced out of millions of glittering photons.

"Shush," his mother commanded. "Here we go-"

The holoviewer flickered and the floating, rotating logo broke up. A new item coalesced out of the pixel-like photons, though a few of them wandered around aimlessly or occasionally jumped out of position: static. The shape of Andrew Stillsby, life size but rather translucent, materialised before them.

"Janet. Luke," it said, its voice also crackling with a little static. "I say, this transmission isn’t very clear-" Janet remembered that their forms would look the same to him, "-but I suppose that’s only to be expected."

"What do you mean?" Janet asked.

Andrew avoided her gaze, transmitted across thousands of light-years by the flux radio. "The ship is about to move out of range," he said. "This is the last time I’ll be able to contact you for a while."

Janet blinked back a sudden tear: whether of sorrow or anger, she couldn’t say. "A while?" she repeated, her voice deadly. "How long is a while?"

"Well, it’s longer than 35 minutes," Andrew said, his apologetic tone somewhat ruined by his wry wink. "I don’t know how long it will be before we get enough relays to punch a signal through, or more likely when the ship moves back into range."

"Too long," Janet muttered. Unmindful of Luke’s presence, she continued: "How long before…"

Andrew smiled. "I know," he said. "But I’ll do all I can. It’s fascinating here-" he saw her expression, "-yes, I know that’s no comfort. But hopefully, by being on this mission, I’ll accumulate enough kudos and recognition to get Garrows to get Chambers off our backs."

Janet laughed. "I see you haven’t lost your talent for rationalising your actions after the event."

"Of course," he deadpanned, "but still, I doubt I’ll ever be a scientist."

"Low blow," she chuckled. "All right, Andy. Take care of yourself. Don’t get your chest eaten by a silicon-based life form."

"Will do. I’ll also try to avoid having one of my teeth replaced with a nerve gas capsule," Andrew replied dryly. "But who knows what can happen in deep space…"

"If you let too many things happen, I assure you that in space, they will hear you scream," she said, her voice becoming mischievous. Through her peripheral vision, she saw Luke making retching gestures and staring at the ceiling while humming desperately.

Andrew laughed. "Don’t worry. I’m hardly going to play the field on a planet of matriarchal aliens with uh…" he glanced towards Luke, "…unusual architecture."

"You’ll have to do me a full report when you get back," Janet said. "But for now, well, Godspeed."

"And you," Andrew said. He glanced over at Luke. "And may the Force be with you, kiddo," he added.

Luke looked up, startled. "Thanks, dad," he said. "Did you know, these Fourthers don’t have a clue about Star Wars, or any of the sci-fi of our period…?"

"Probably seems a bit amateurish to them," Andrew said. "Still, might be a conversation piece. Thanks."

The static increased slightly. "Looks like we’re heading for a dramatic cutoff," Janet said with a slightly sad smile. "I love you."

"I know," Andrew quoted, then seeing her expression, hastily added: "I love you too."

The transmission clicked off, reverting to the standby screen.

"Wow! We really did get a dramatic cutoff!" Luke said, momentarily back to enthusiasm.

"I doubt it," Janet said, staring at the rotating logo and blinking back another tear. "Knowing Andy, he probably did it himself, just to be, well, dramatic."

Luke shrugged. "Maybe."

His mother sighed. "Okay, go and see if you’ve been made a subaltern or whatever it is."

"Deacon," he corrected her, then, with a quick guilty glance at the holoviewer, hurried back upstairs.

Janet sat down and made herself a cup of tea in the little kitchen. This dome-house was Rachel and Piotr’s, loaned to the Stillsbies while the Zobodins were stuck on Earth with the Shed Men. Piotr, just to be stereotypical, used a samovar, but Rachel was of Anglo-Canadian descent and kept a teapot in the house.

Janet sipped the cup, staring vaguely into the middle distance, her mind refusing to dwell on any particular matter. One of Admiral Nuttall’s underlings had been pestering her about more Firster input on the GSAT, and she’d been looking at the progress of the various Stairways, wondering which one they might eventually ride down if they ever decided it was safe to return to Earth…

And if Andrew returns to us.

She barely heard the cry of triumph from upstairs as Luke received his vital message.


Chapter Sixteen


VESSEL #4, orbit of Vároton

17th August, 2007

Ehred Wrais made an abbreviated bow before the monitor. There was simply no room for him to perform a full proskinethesis. Fortunately, Celoun was an understanding god, not like some out there (he thought guiltily).

"The last tests are completed," he said. "My lord, we can begin our shakedown cruise as soon as you command."

"Excellent," Celoun said. His almost ethereal visage was vague and foggy on the cheap cathode-ray tube monitor: much of the basic equipment had been built on the cheap or reused, as the whole mass of Vároto/Yenapa industry had been focused upon developing and mass-producing the new innovations. "You have done well – indeed, you have performed the best of all the drydock masters. The next nearest to completion is more than a week away from you."

Wrais was glad that his dark violet skin, deeper than the average unenhanced Yenapa’s, hid his blush. "You give me too much credit, my lord."

"Nonsense," Celoun said. The old, wrinkled skin around his eyes tightened as an element of hardness entered both them and his voice. "And do not proceed any further, for arguing with me in this fashion is no better than claiming I do not give you sufficient credit."

Wrais opened his mouth, shut it. "You are wise, my lord," he said inanely: always a safe response.

"I’m sure," Celoun almost deadpanned at him. "Very well. Wrais, the shakedown cruise shall commence – and, as I am sure you are not unsurprised to learn, you shall command the ship."

Wrais sat back and slowly sucked in a breath of stale, recycled air. He had half suspected it on one level, true. But what really drove him to the heights of achievement that pleased his god was the fact that he had an internal slave driver, a perpetually unsatisfied master who always whispered to him that if he relaxed for a moment, his competing peers would surpass him – and that could not be tolerated. In many ways, he was no less enslaved by his own psychology than Uia Eou was enslaved by Wrais himself.

"I…am glad, my lord," he said, deciding not to risk any more protestations of unworthiness. "May I inquire as to what title that will grant me? Will these ships be subject to the same command structure as our sea-going vessels?"

Celoun smiled. "You are thinking ahead; that is good," he said. "In fact, the current system is inadequate." He gestured grandly around him, seeing not the walls of his palace but what lay beyond – given his godhead, possibly literally. "Here on Vároton, where all significant fighting for the last few decades has taken place on land, the navy has become seen as solely a means of transporting troops in a land invasion. It was not always like that; I remember when the Ucasa domains still had a significant coastline and a navy of their own. But you have forgotten how to fight a navy as a navy.

"Space is like a vast ocean separating the tiny islands that are worlds. A space navy’s ability to take on other space vessels in combat is just as important as its ability to transport troops for planetary invasions. So no, the present structure is not suitable. Instead there is another command structure that will be supplied to you. A new, efficient, tried and tested one."

Wrais paused, his normally poker face momentarily consumed by confusion. "Excuse me, my lord? I beg your pardon, but how can a system be both new and tried and tested?"

The god laughed at him. "You are sharp, Wrais," he said. "Another quality to commend you. Yes, in fact, there is an answer to this paradox." He hesitated, glancing from side to side – if Wrais hadn’t known better, he would have thought that the invincible Sahdavi was afraid of an enemy overhearing him. "Wrais, we – I have decided that a few of our Vároto, the most competent and trusted among you, such as yourself, who are being allocated to command positions – you shall be entrusted with vital information."

The Vároto was staggered by the compliment. "I…am grateful, my lord," he said neutrally. "How will this be gifted to me?"

"I may as well give you the groundwork now, although you will be supplied with more detailed data later," said Celoun.

The Sahdavi spoke for almost half an hour, and a part of Wrais’ efficiently compartmentalised brain reflected on the sheer honour of being gifted with so much of a god’s time alone. But the majority of it was working away on the strange and wonderful things that he spoke of.

The Vároto brain, as has been said before, was designed to see wheels within wheels and hidden plots everywhere. It makes, to a given degree, for a powerful grasp of strategy and tactics that is difficult to surprise except, perhaps, by a nihilistically simple approach. It also leads to internal politics that make those of Earth look positively straightforward. And it means that they can instantly grasp concepts that a Human might spend ten minutes muttering "Impossible!" at. For the Vároto mind is designed to consider the very possibility that nothing is impossible…

Celoun concluded his talk. "What are your comments, Wrais?" he asked.

Wrais opened his mouth, closed it again. Bubbling thoughts percolated through his mind, before being fed into the efficient flowchart of reason via a mixed metaphor. "A message from the future," he pronounced. "A future somehow transported into our present. A future of an enemy we have never even heard of, but which will…would have become the greatest foe of the Vároto." He winced. "A Vároto race bereft of your wisdom and stewardship. No wonder we failed to overcome them, though we must have tried it with all our blood."

"You know we must leave you one day, just as the Grigóri left us," Celoun said sharply. "That is the order of things and you are not to dispute it. You know what happens if you do. As I said before, arguing one way against these things is no more acceptable than the other."

Wrais winced at that: it was effectively equating him to a Traitor, a Ucasa or one of the fabled Obvians, something that he found repulsive. "I apologise, my lord," he said. "It does seem, though, that…our descendants were canny enough to send us warning of this boost to these…" he tasted the odd, alien word, "Humans. And give us the tools with which to match it…"

Celoun smiled. "Indeed." He leaned forward, fixing Wrais with his sapphire gaze. "Are you disappointed that the wonders you have helped build are not, after all, a true revelation from your gods?"

"Of course not," Wrais said, genuinely shocked at the suggestion. "Regardless of where the information comes from, it would have meant nothing without your leadership – and intercepting it in the first place, of course. We could not have done that…alone." Despite what Celoun had said, the mere concept of that made him shudder.

"Good," Celoun said. "You have a healthy attitude, rightful respect to your elders and betters without mindless adoration." He laughed to himself. "An attitude all too difficult to find, I assure you."

"Whatever you say, oh great one," Wrais said, moving his lips into a puckered position that gave his words an oh so subtle air of sarcasm.

Celoun laughed again. "Quite. Very well, Killerlord Wrais – for so the new system dubs you; all the Yarghûn information shall be uploaded to your ship presently – you may begin the shakedown cruise.

The god reached for the button to cut off the transmission, then hesitated. "And, as a special reward for your achievements, I shall allow you to name this ship yourself. I suggest you look in the records I send you for celebrated ship names from the vanished future: there are none from the last century, at least, that live up to the standard you must set."

Wrais bowed his head again. "A most appreciated gift. I shall do as you…suggest." As though he would treat it as anything other than a direct order. "And, on the contrary-" daring, but he thought Celoun might appreciate it, "-I shall not live up to that standard."

Celoun raised his eyebrow. "What?" he said, coldness seeping into his voice. "What do you mean?"

Wrais smiled, though inwardly both his hearts hammered. "For, however high the standards of the Vároto from the…other history were, they did not manage to defeat these…Humans. I intend to surpass that standard, not live up to it."

Celoun stared at him for a second – almost, though it was impossible, as though he were slow on the uptake – and then let out a single bark of laughter. "Excellent, Wrais. And quite right. Where they tried, you shall succeed."

"For you stand before us," Wrais said quietly.

The Sahdavi frowned briefly, but decided to let it pass. "Very well. As they, ah, would have said: for Vároton, Prime and First!"

"For the Sahdavi, First and Foremost!" Wrais returned the salute that Celoun had told him of.

The cathode-ray screen flickered off. Wrais let himself relax into his rather hard, mass-produced seat. The act of speaking personally to a god, even attempting wordplay with him, had drained him. His plasticky space jumpsuit was slicked with sweat and even a little blood, where one delicate capillary had burst from stress. It was the price the Vároto paid for the super-fast metabolism that the Sahdavi had engineered in them: it also meant that their life span was less than that of the unimproved Yenapa, averaging only about sixty years before a heart(s) condition got them. But at least the wounds clotted just as fast as they spurted their precious violet blood…

Wrais managed to lever himself upright. Regardless of the fact that he wanted to fall back into bed (and not with Uia Eou, either), he had a duty. His internal slave driver had his whip out: now he had permission, he simply could not delay the shakedown cruise.

Staggering at first, he got up and walked out of his rather cramped quarters. Perhaps he might get something a bit better now he had been confirmed as the ship’s captain – killerlord, he reminded himself – but he doubted it. The ships had, after all, been constructed hurriedly and on a budget, with no space being wasted. Now, after Celoun had told him, he understood why: they needed to get to some planet he’d never even heard of (and, though it was surely impossible, Celoun didn’t seem to have heard of either) to retrieve some vital technology of the Sahdavi. And the only way to get there all in one go was to reserve as much of the ship’s internal structure for fuel storage. Fancy quarters for chosen men were not high on the list of priorities.

A simple magnetic lift, a thousand-year-old Yenapa technology, took him up to the ship’s bridge. Like every other room in the ship, it still had a rough-hewn feel to it, as though it had just been carved out of a mountain rather than put together out of metal and plastic components. That would change as the ship came into use, he supposed – it had certainly been true of the fighting vehicles he’d used in the wars against the Ucasa.

That reminded him of Uia Eou again. He’d intended to do something…special with her to commemorate the launch of the ship, but now he felt he could barely stand upright as it was. Oh well. There would be another time.

Wrais glanced around him. The bridge had the usual feel that said Vároto: all the metallic surfaces were matte black, the result of a sort of galvanisation or anti-rust sealant, although to Vároto eyes they were more colourful than they would have looked to Human ones. Wrais had thought they looked attractive before, but compared to the slick, mirror-reflective, darker-than-a-black-hole colour of the outer hull armour, they now looked almost shabby. The plastic control panels mounted on the stations – they would have looked rather anachronistic to, say, Dzakh Yarghûn, being a reuse of existing push-button interfaces and old circuitry – were coloured in shades of pale yellow that would also have looked rather horrible to Human eyes.

A female Vároto, dressed in another of the hoary old ill-fitting space jumpsuits, stood up: she’d been seated in the still badly adjusted command chair in the middle of the bridge. The chair was positioned at the bottom of a pit with stairs down the side, lower than the surrounding subordinates’ chairs. Designed to represent the greater depravity and deeper levels of guile of the commander than his subordinates, Wrais supposed. That and it might help shield him against an explosion on the bridge…

The female – her name was Marfe Sluff – climbed the stairs and saluted him. "Commander Wrais," she said. "I-"

Wrais smiled unpleasantly. "Killerlord Wrais, actually."

Sluff paused, confused. "Killerlord?...I have never heard of that rank…?"

"I have been gifted of it by the Sahdavi themselves, may they live forever," Wrais said proudly. "And they have given me permission to take our fine ship on its shakedown voyage."

Sluff’s eyes widened. "I…see…" she said, then snapped out of it. "Then let us serve you and accomplish our endeavour for the Sahdavi." Of course, it must have occurred to her that Wrais might be lying – it could scarcely not occur to a Vároto – but while deceit and artfulness were built into the Vároto character, the one thing they would never dare lie about was their Sahdavi lords.

Wrais nodded. "Indeed," he said. He wondered if Sluff would be assigned as his second in command on the ship, as she had been on the construction project. That would be good, he decided: she wasn’t perfect, but she was far more reliably competent than most of his subordinates. As always, the trick was to find someone who was intelligent enough not to mess up the mission, but unambitious enough not to try bumping their captain off…too often. A little internal opposition, after all, kept one sharp.

As Sluff took her position, Wrais stepped down the stairs and sat at the bottom upon the command chair. Of course, he couldn’t see up into the bridge now, but there were plenty of monitors down here, including one of the more expensive plasma-based ones rather than the foggy old cathode-ray tube screens. Smiling at the privilege, he carefully adjusted the controls and got an external view from a nearby satellite of the ship and drydock 4. There had been plenty of satellites in orbit even before the Yarghûn message had kickstarted a full-scale space programme: the Ucasa and Vároto had used competing satellite networks for battlefield intelligence, communications and, of course, to destroy the other side’s satellites. It wasn’t hard to find one for his purpose.

There was the drydock – looking rather battered and haphazardly built now which, of course, it always had been. But when he had had nothing to compare it to, it had seemed an enormous achievement: after all, it was the largest thing that had ever been built in orbit of Vároton.

Now, though, the dock was wrapped around an object that was far more impressive. A great, night-black mushroom, presently entirely dark as though the arms of the dock were stinging it into submission…but that was a deception.

A deception…

Wrais smiled. "I don’t know if it was a famous ship name," he said to himself, "but knowing our kind, I wouldn’t be surprised."

He drew himself up and let his commanding voice echo from the depths of the pit. "Signal the remaining personnel on the drydock: retract all armatures and open the forward portal." He almost wished he could blast his way out of the dock as though he were an insect escaping from its cocoon, but the drydock would be used once again. More ships would be built, and once it was begun, the cycle would never end…

The drydock personnel complied, the armatures being pulled back into the spidery hull of the drydock and the forward portal irising open: another common motif of Vároto technology and architecture, the effortless interlocking iris. Wrais glanced at one of his smaller monitors, showing a camera view from the front of the forward mushroom-cap, and saw that the stars were finally revealed. He felt almost as though the ship were a living being about to be born, and was seeing its natural environment for the first time. Somehow, something of that thrill passed to him and he patted the armrest of his chair. "Welcome to the world," he said fondly, then wondered at himself. He’d never heard of anyone thinking of a ship as a living being, merely tools to transport troops around. Celoun must be right – of course… – this navy would be truly different.

"Status of the reactors," he said.

The voice of Sluff echoed down from above as she reported. "All fusion reactors are still running on standby from the tests yesterday. We may power up when ready."

"I give the order," he said formally.

He felt a thrum run through the ship. Now it was not powered by feeds from the drydock through the armatures, nor through onboard batteries charged by same, but by its own reactors. It was as though its hearts had begun beating, pumping the precious lifeblood of energy around its system.

Smiling to himself at the persistent metaphor, he watched the big plasma screen. The dark mushroom shape suddenly lit up, its running lights flickering on, its weapons arrays being illuminated by their manual targeting systems. And the ten nuclear engines slowly attained a sharp red glow that shone out like a cluster of stars.

Wrais savoured the moment, then nodded to himself. "Status?"

"All reactors running within ten percent of normal capacity," Sluff reported.

Wrais nodded. It would do; in fact it was better than he had expected. The shakedown cruise would doubtless help them work out the remaining bugs.

"Then I give the order," he said again. "All nuclear engines, prepare for one-tenth aftward thrust. Chemical thrusters on standby for manoeuvre correction."

"Yes, sir," said Sluff from above, and he heard the murmurs of her subordinates in turn reporting to her. "We are ready," she said presently.

Wrais smiled, patting his armrest again. "Then begin," he said. "Take us out of here."

"Yes, sir," said Sluff.

The thrum running through the ship changed its tone, becoming oddly metallic. Wrais watched as the nuclear engines opened their rear manoeuvring vanes, permitting thrust to be emitted aftward and thus propel the ship forward.

Slowly at first, so slowly, the thrust of charged particles streamed out behind the ship. Wrais looked upon the hot red flames, fascinated. As had been carefully planned, none of them came near any part of the drydock, but he would bet that it would have fried anyone still out there in a spacesuit.

One of the engines flared a bit more brightly than the others and the ship began to descend in the opposite direction. Wrais frowned, but Sluff’s team corrected it almost immediately: they carefully decreased the power to that engine and fired all the chemical thrusters on the other side to compensate. Soon the ship had re-attained its nearly straight path of flight and was aimed at the centre of the iris portal.

Wrais held his breath as the ship finally, without ceremony, drifted through and was engulfed by the velvety black vacuum of space. His satellite view showed that the stars – and, he almost gasped at the sight, the blue and brown globe of Vároton below – reflected in the mirror black of the hull. The ship had been born, and was now living in its natural environment, and was already blending in a treat.

The ship…

Wrais let out his breath and smiled at last, throwing caution to the wind. "Well done," he said. "We have accomplished our task! The cruise may begin, and we shall test the marvellous faster-than-light drive that the Sahdavi have gifted us with, test this ship…

"My ship.

"The Deception."

Chapter Seventeen


Pieter Voordijk

February 12th, 2007

Captain Zhang Ji-cai surveyed his bridge with an air of professional competence that belied his youth: although Neogen use made judging one’s age from appearance a positive minefield, Zhang did not care for the stuff and he looked like what he was, a mere thirty-four years old. After the Shift, Garrows’ hasty national unity government had concluded that Zhang was not sufficiently experienced to be entrusted with the vast Blair-class battleship Pieter Voordijk, preferring to reactivate even the controversial Admiral Chris Nuttall. Zhang hadn’t been particularly offended, acknowledging at the time that his command experience was indeed limited. But he’d known that the stranded nature of the Selenites meant that he would get a chance for a command soon enough, and far earlier than he would have back in the Union.

Though he hadn’t considered that it might be this early…

Zhang shook hands with Nuttall. "I’m sorry to be taking away your ship," the captain said in a low voice, out of earshot for the backup Orwell system also known as ‘the bridge crew’.

Nuttall smiled, although the tightness of the skin around his eyes belied his supposed indifference. "It was truly never mine for you to take," he said quietly. "The crew knows and trusts you, Ji-cai. I wouldn’t want to try another command after the Gunn fiasco happened on my watch, even if the First Consul would let me." But there was obvious bitterness under his words.

Zhang exhaled at length, considering what to say. But in the end there was nothing he could say to assuage Nuttall’s gloom. The admiral was privately convinced that the Gunn business had meant Garrows now shared Sienna Pardenne’s low opinion of his competence. Zhang was pretty certain that that was untrue – after all, Gunn had fooled everyone he’d met – but Nuttall remained unmoved.

"At least the mission can begin now," Zhang said carefully.

Nuttall snorted. "Too right," he muttered. "We’ve had quite enough delays. Three months! It’s criminal. We could have been halfway there by now…"

"If we’d had enough refuelling stations ready to make it worthwhile when we got there," Zhang said diplomatically. "No point in us getting halfway there and then being stuck there for a year."

The admiral shrugged. "You’re right, of course. I meant that we should have had enough gasdivers ready faster. Giving even one to the Ingram was unwise im-ho; that mission’s a sideshow."

"But we do not set policy," Zhang said.

Nuttall nodded heavily. "For better or for worse," he said. "And that wasn’t the only thing slowing you down, was it?"

Zhang shook his head. "No indeed, sir. The Gunn fear-" and he inwardly winced, for he had reminded Nuttall of the very subject he’d been trying to escape.

But Nuttall seemed unaffected. "I can’t say I blame them there," he murmured. "After all, the man did manage a half-dozen tricks that I would have sworn were bloody impossible. All the same, all those scans, going through things with a fine toothcomb…"

"Tedious, but better than having the ship disabled by some dormant virus that Gunn told the Vároto how to activate in his transmission," Zhang said grimly. "Colonel Wilkinson’s people are ninety-nine percent sure now that there are no foreign protocols or physical components in our computers, anyway. My advice to you, sir," he said formally, "is not to let he, or any of his people, talk to you at length about the techniques they use. They could put InsomniGone out of business."

Nuttall laughed. "At least you didn’t have to field calls from the Firsters asking why we couldn’t just use our-" and he made quote marks with his fingers, a Firster gesture he’d picked up, "-teeny weeny little nanobots – to go through the computers and check everything."

Zhang echoed the admiral’s grin. Many of the Firsters persisted in trying to fit the Fourther technology into their own preconceived ideas, misinformed by futurist speculation and science fiction. Of course, the Union did use nanotechnology, even nanobots. But they were restricted to highly specific tasks, with little ability to adapt and none to reproduce, for the same reason that A.I.s were hamstrung – not all the sci-fi scaremongers had been wrong. Union nanotech was useful for many tasks, but almost useless for something as unspecific as trying to find evidence of computer tampering, which could take multitudinous forms.

The admiral sighed. "Well; for better or for worse, you’re going now. At least Garrows managed to offload most of those pointless ambassadors on the Ingram," he added. "Maybe not such a sideshow after all."

Zhang nodded. "We just have a scattering of Firsters on here," he said, "mostly trainees from the GSAT and a few people who want to examine Miradi and Stentyrrean-"

"And Vároto," Nuttall added quietly.

"God forbid – yes, sir," Zhang said. "They want to examine their culture, language, and of course their technology. You know Professor Saunders?"

"The Firster from the Unity project?"

"The same. Now that the design phase of the project has been completed, he’s decided that he’d rather come with us and see some new horizons."

Nuttall nodded. "Leaving me to handle the construction phase," he sighed. "With helpful assistance from Monsieur Chenier, of course."

Zhang hesitated, wondering how to respond to what might be a slur against a man who had until recently been an important leader of the Selenites. In the end, he relented. Releasing Nuttall’s rather limp grip, he gave a salute. "Sir."

Nuttall nodded. "Captain."

And he turned and left.

"Admiral Nuttall’s shuttle has left the drydock," Commander Zalaran Chouvel reported after a few minutes. With He’gAmmj having been transferred to the Ingram, Chouvel had been promoted to take on the important post of SENSCOMM, or sensory and communications. Like the other Stentyrreans on board, he was itching for the mission to begin so that he could see his homeworld. And drive the invaders off it, as he always carefully put it, when questioned. No-one dared press them as to which set of invaders they were referring to…

Zhang nodded, sitting down in his command seat. After a few moments of shifting uncomfortably, he shrugged and stood again: he was too full of nervous energy. "Then we have the green light?" he asked.

Chouvel operated his boards for a few moments, then nodded. "Yes, sir. Communication from the First Consul’s office," he added.

"On," Zhang said.

One of the smaller holoviewers – the big main one was still showing a detailed map of the entire solar system – broke into static and then resolved to show an image of the First Consul’s office. Zhang saluted the image of Garrows sitting behind his desk, noting that Felicity Renwick was stood behind him with her arms folded. "Sir," Zhang said.

Garrows inclined his head. "Well, Captain Zhang," he said, "you know what the stakes are."

"Humanity is counting on you," Renwick added, rather contradicting Garrows’ statement.

Zhang nodded. "I’m aware of the fact," he said quietly. "We will not fail you."

"Godspeed," the First Consul said. "Luna out." The image flickered away and the holoviewer reverted to its standby logo.

Zhang turned to Lt. Commander Goro Ishikawa, the chief pilot. "Mr. Ishikawa, in your own time," he said perfunctorily.

"Aye, sir," Ishikawa said with a hint of a smile, his hands floating artistically through his holographic control display – which was almost invisible from any angle of view save his own, and thus if Zhang had not known better, he would have thought that Ishikawa were having a seizure.

"Has the drydock been informed?" the XO asked Chouvel. He had been promoted to fill Zhang’s old role, being a black Usan named Michael Peterson.

"Aye, sir," Chouvel said. "All armatures are retracted and we have a clear path."

"Chemical thrusters firing," Ishikawa said as he performed the action. The ship shuddered, very slightly, as the thrusters flamed briefly. Then inertia carried the Pieter Voordijk forward, drifting through the interior of the massive (and nearly useless to the Selenites) drydock, heading for the huge aperture at the end.

"Inertial compensation prediction operating at normal levels," said Lt. Commander Jiv Tavasly, the computer officer. The Janvier-Graham field insulated the ship from the inconvenient Newton even at sublight speeds, but computational prediction of changes in velocity was needed for fine tuning. Even a very minor miscalculation could still crush the bridge crew against the forward or aft walls, to say nothing of the rest of the crew.

The Voordijk finally left the drydock, the view from all the flatscreens rolling back to show the endless, star-pocked heavens beyond. Zhang turned, watching the screen which someone had whimsically set up at the very rear of the bridge to broadcast a rear view. What with that and the usual main forward flatscreen, it gave the false impression that the bridge was either a complete small ship, or (ridiculously) perched on the very top of the Voordijk. In the screen, the huge drydock receded into the distance, something between a cylinder and a hexagonal prism. Very impressive, Zhang thought, but with us gone there’s nothing large enough to use it. Probably get broken up and the components used to build smaller ones for the Unity construction project. The admiral will love that.

Finally, Chouvel looked up, his antennae poised tight against his skull in a gesture of eagerness. "Captain, we are outside Luna’s gravity well," he said.

"Good," Zhang said. "Mr. Ishikawa, prepare a short flux hop to the north pole of the Oort cloud, as arranged. Mr. Chouvel, I presume the Petrozavodsk and the Bohemia are in place?"

"Affirmative, Captain," Chouvel said. "They signal that they are ready to begin opening up a passage when we are."

Zhang sighed. "Naturally." They’d have to blast a new hole through the Oort cloud to get out: there were none of the ubiquitous, tireless droneships to keep the holes open as they had back in the Fourth, permitting direct flux travel from the interior of one star system to another. That would add time to their journey – just a few hours here and there, but they would have to stop at at least two other star systems, maybe more, set up the refuelling stations and then wait for them to produce enough antimatter so that they could continue. And every time they would have to blast their way in and blast their way out.

Their two companions were there to try and save some time. Neither ship could stay with them all the way, but both were carrying massive loads of the nuclear and antimatter missiles they would need to break through, saving more room on the Voordijk for antimatter stores to guard against the time of refuelling. Garrows’ best logisticians had assured him that the loads had been balanced for maximum efficiency. It was still a serious price to pay, as it would effectively strand two of the precious Fourther ships far away from either Earth or Stentyrrea for the foreseeable future. But Zhang didn’t make the rules…and in this case, Stentyrrea was the only prize that counted. Winner take all…

"Course ready, sir," said Ishikawa, startling him out of his reverie. "One hundred kiloGrahams," that is, a hundred thousand times lightspeed, far from the ship’s top speed, but Zhang knew he had to watch fuel economy in this of all missions.

Zhang nodded. "Engage flux engines," he said.

Ishikawa did so. The familiar purple-gold cocoon of energy formed around the ship, and Zhang fancied he felt a faint feeling of motion in his stomach – though nowhere else – as the ship leapt forward.

It was about eight trillion kilometres to the edge of the Oort cloud, or to be more precise the edge of the part of the Oort cloud where the objects became densely packed enough for their overlapping grav fields to make flux travel impossible. That was just shy of a light-year, so the ship got there in around five minutes. Then the flux field faded, the stars reappeared around them, and they were there…

Zhang saw the Oort cloud objects, almost invisibly dark in themselves for the sun was so far away to be merely a bright star, but illuminated by the searchlights of their two companions. For there they were – the destroyer Bohemia and the almost brand-new frigate Petrozavodsk.

"My compliments to Captains Annejdi and Volkov," Zhang said to Chouvel, "and a reminder that we cannot afford too many impacts here." The shields could easily stop any kinetic impact, and anyway the Oort cloud objects were pretty fragile, but that could send them bouncing from asteroid to asteroid like a pinball, and sooner or later the number of impacts would sap considerable power from the shields, as well as throwing them off course. Unacceptable both in terms of time and fuel economy. "Prioritise nuclear weapons where available, guard antimatter as though it were your lifeblood."

"Transmitted," Chouvel said. "Anything more, sir?"

"Of course," Zhang said, nodding to the gunnery officer, Pekka Reikonnen. "Full ahead, and…open fire."


Charles Ingram

March 1st, 2007

The last Oort cloud object disintegrated into nothingness as the antimatter missile annihilated most of its mass in an instant, and then the energy burst from the annihilation vaporised the rest. "Cease fire," said Captain Stjepanovic. "Mr. Kang, how many antimatter and nuclear weapons do we have left?"

Lt. Kang Fu-chen checked his holographic display. "Four antimatter missiles and thirteen nuclear, ma’am," he said.

Stjepanovic muttered something guttural. "Barely enough to get us back out of this system, never mind once more into the Solar system," she said.

Ambassador Je’tEnnck bristled, literally. "Are you sho deshperate to leave our shystem?" she demanded.

"Anything but," Stjepanovic said coldly. "But I do want to be able to get home without my ship being pounded into dust."

Commander He’gAmmj played the peacemaker, as had been his wont over the four-month trip. "We just need to deploy the gasdiver," he said. "Then we will be able to replenish our antimatter stores, and if necessary produce more antimatter missiles in the machine shop."

Stjepanovic nodded reluctantly. "Eventually," she qualified. "But you’re right. Very well, then; Mr. Scappaticci, prepare a flux hop to the outer gas giant planet, ah…"

"Anck’en," He’gAmmj supplied.

"And I don’t see what gives you the right to cheerfully go mining our shystem, either," Je’tEnnck muttered.

Stjepanovic opened her mouth to retort, but again He’gAmmj hastily cut her off. "We won’t miss a few thousand cubes of hydrogen, and a deal can be retroactively established with our, ah, Firster cousins later," he said.

Stjepanovic and Je’tEnnck exchanged another cold glare, but then Je’tEnnck reluctantly looked away. "Very well," she said.

The captain nodded. "Lieutenant Warwick, standby on the prearranged sequence."

"Yes ma’am," Warwick streamed, turning back to her holographic console and beginning to send the orders.

"Will this involve us?" asked Ken Gregory, who was sitting at the station beside hers. It was the first time he’d been on the bridge, and he found it a little overwhelming, particularly considering that they were at the end of the voyage.

"Not yet," Warwick said. "The other shuttle pilots will be the ones deploying the gasdiver." She turned to him and winked. "I’ve managed to get us to be the ones to pilot the shuttle down to the planet."

Gregory worked his lips. "Oh, goody," he muttered to himself. He had a sudden image of the Archetypal British Explorer being lowered into a cooking pot…

"Flux hop trajectory confirmed," said Lieutenant Giovanna Scappaticci. "Ma’am?"

"Go ahead," Stjepanovic told her.

The Ingram shot into flux once more. Gregory thought he could amost feel as though they were practically running on empty; flux engines didn’t cough or splutter, but nonetheless there was something undefineable, a vibration or something…

It only took a few minutes, and then the distressing curtain of purple energy retreated again. Gregory’s heart rose to his mouth as he took in the picture on the main flatscreen, repeated on all the holographic displays around: silhouetted against the stars, stars arranged in strange patterns wholly alien to his knowledge of Earth constellations, was a planet. A vast planet, lit only on one side where Culvana’s twin suns illuminated it, and there he could see a series of colourful bands, ranging from pale yellow to beige to golden. It was peppered with a series of small, dark spots, some of which he rapidly realised were tiny moons silhouetted against the bulk of the planet. And there was a ring: far from as spectacular as those of Saturn, but unmistakably there, thousands of tiny fragments of ice and rock glittering in the light of the twin alien suns.

Even the Fourthers seemed awed, as did the Culvanai. "Anck’en…" Je’tEnnck breathed, then gave out an enthusiastic, incomprehensible stream of dialectal Culvanaic.

He’gAmmj would have translated, but seemed little less enraptured. "This is before the Great Impact, of course," he gabbled in English. "So…smooth, untouched, and yet so blank compared to the great pockmarked face we know so well…"

Gregory reluctantly turned away from the main display and fired up his holographic display. Though it was far from a full-immersion system, it gave him a controllable three dimensional view of the planet hovering in front of him, beachball-sized. With a flick of a finger, he switched on the commentary and brought up some statistics, quoted in both Culvanai and then human units of measurement. He hastily compared them to what he remembered of the Solar System’s, and whistled. Anck’en might look a bit like a cross between Jupiter and Saturn, but it was larger than either, indeed almost as large as both put together. Indeed, now it seemed rather petty for Je’tEnnck to fuss about the loss of a few thousand cubes of hydrogen from that implacable giant…

Stjepanovic, typically, seemed entirely unmoved. "Very pretty," she said. "Lieutenant Warwick, send the orders."

"Yes ma’am!" Warwick’s hands flickered through the air as she operated her own holographic board. "Forward cargo bay doors open. Cargo withdrawal commencing."

Gregory retuned his display to show an exterior view of the ship. Indeed, the cargo bay doors were open, and as he watched, a pair of Alpine heavy-lifter cargo shuttles emerged from the bay. Between them, they were carrying the first component of the disassembled gasdiver station that the Ingram had brought all the way from Luna.

After the shuttles had jetted a little way away from the Ingram, a second pair emerged with another component, this one including the coiled up nanotube cable that the gasdiver used to suspend its collector pod into the interior of the gas giant. This little ballet proceeded for about an hour, with the four Alpine shuttles (the entire complement of the Ingram) returning three times and going out. Finally all six components were in place, neatly slid into a parking orbit around the vastness of Anck’en. Fortunately, the planet’s magnetic field, though stronger than Earth’s, was nowhere near so deadly as that of Jupiter.

"The shuttles are in place Captain," Warwick reported to Stjepanovic, "construction commencing."


"They estimate ten to twelve hours barring unforeseen circumstances."

"Circumstances are always unforeseen," Stjepanovic grunted, but then nodded. "Very well. Lieutenant Callaghan, wish them good luck from us. And Lieutenant Scappaticci, move us out of Anck’en’s gravity field and prepare another hop."

"To Culvana, Captain?" Scappaticci ventured, as her hands danced through the holographic displays and the Ingram’s nuclear engines drove it away from the enormous planet.

"Negative," Stjepanovic said, to an angry gasp from Je’tEnnck. "I do not want to rush in blind. You will find me a point at a safe distance but within sensor range, perhaps thirty light-seconds."

"Aye, ma’am," Scappaticci said, inputting the coordinates.

"I do not see why we must delay-" Je’tEnnck said.

"Do you want us to be exposed to, perhaps, a mapulse weapon that your embassy’s traitors have taught their Ickra friends how to make?" Stjepanovic said, her tone deceptively mild. "Well then."

As the argument went on, Gregory turned back to his display and called up the report on the Culvanai traitors. He’d read it a dozen times, before, of course – it had been available at the start of the voyage, and there hadn’t been any new information since then. But he thought it prudent to reacquaint himself with what little data Colonel Wilkinson’s people had scraped together…

A ship appeared, rotating around before him on the holographic display. Like a lot of Culvanai ships, it had an unintentionally hilarious shape to human eyes, particularly for a ship built by a matriarchal race: an elongated fuselage with two low-hanging globes at the back containing the Janvier-Graham crystals…

But this ship was rather elongated even by Culvanai standards. The statistics Gregory called up told him that it was a Re’wIllp-class courier, one of the fastest of all Culvanai-built craft which were reckoned anyway to be a byword for speed. Furthermore, its narrow design and small size meant it could pierce through all but the densest Oort cloud without messing around with the time-consuming blasting that had so delayed the Ingram. Of course, it was rather austere inside, and Warwick had told him that to try and fit the twenty or so traitors on, they must have resorted to suspended animation – something to which Culvanai physiology was apparently far better suited to than human.

The traitors had stolen the ship from the embassy, who had wanted a one-shot ship for getting a messenger to Culvana in the nightmare scenario that Humanity became hostile and cut off the embassy from home. Wilkinson’s estimates said that it might have reached Culvana as early as November, although its engines would have been practically on fire by then, and mid-December was a more realistic date. It still gave the neo-Ickra crazies more than two months to wreak havoc, though…

Well. Now they must find out.

"We’re out of the gravity well, ma’am," said Scappaticci.

"Go ahead," Stjepanovic said again.

Once more, the Ingram briefly dived into fluxspace, guarded by its protective sheath of violet energy, and then it returned to normal space. A good distance from Culvana: but the planet was still visible. Just a dot, at first, and then magnified…

Gregory whistled and resorted to his display again. He’d seen pictures before, of course, but they had been of a twenty-fourth century Culvana, complete with the orbital bolases that the Culvanai preferred to space elevators. This…

It didn’t look that much like Earth, apart from being a green, blue and white ball. For a start, Culvana had an almost all-over tropical climate except at the extreme arctic and Antarctic, and both sea and vegetation were brighter, paler shades than those of Earth. More importantly, though, Culvana did not have continents and oceans. Instead, the planet was a confused network of many tiny islands in a giant ocean, or perhaps many tiny lakes in a giant continent – it was hard to say. Much of the water was shallow and supported swamp life, despite being salt water. There were also plenty of lagoons and the equivalent of coral reefs.

Gregory knew that the Culvanai, who were themselves almost amphibious, had been shaped by this strange, alien environment. They lacked the concept of a nation state. Instead, each island was the home of a Cluster, a sort of ultimate extended family with thousands of members, continually supporting a complex webwork of alliances and hostilities with its neighbours. There was only a very light planetary government over the top, hardly more potent than Earth’s United Nations, the Clusterate. Its raison d’être was simply to rally the individual Clusters when a task arose that they could not attempt alone, such as working together to stop an asteroid impact that would harm them all equally. Nevertheless, Gregory understood that the task was akin to herding cats…

"Full sensor scan, all wavelengths," said Stjepanovic, interrupting Gregory’s reverie.

"Should we go down to the shuttlebay and get ready?" he whispered to Warwick, as Daniel Callaghan worked the sensory.

Warwick shook her head. "I got Ensign Collins to prep the shuttle for us," she said. "Anyway I think we should be here for this – one way or another," she added grimly.

Gregory found himself nodding. Culvana might look idyllic from here, but for all he knew, the entire planet could now be under the control of the radical Nazi-like Ickra faction and their future helpers…

Callaghan stared at his displays, then made the feathering motion that Gregory recognised, even without being able to see the hologram, as ‘repeat’ or ‘re-try’. He did this several times, frowning more deeply each one.

"Mr. Callaghan?" Stjepanovic asked. "What do you report?"

Startled, Callaghan turned to his superior. "I wanted to be certain, ma’am," he said, "these readings are a bit…unexpected…"

"Spare us the ‘subordinate can never describe the situation to his captain’, routine," Gregory muttered to himself: Warwick gave him a puzzled look.

"But?" Stjepanovic said.

Callaghan shrugged. "Captain, I have readings consistent with a single collider plant functioning down on the planet, apparently in or under the Ickra capital city on their main island." The Ickra, like the other major clans, had long since conquered or absorbed their immediate neighbours, with those who refused to be absorbed banding together to become the pariah groups which had then grown into the peripatetic NoMercy mercenaries. Gregory had been doing his research.

Je’tEnnck let out a long, whistling sigh at this news. "The ck’ourier," she said. "They’ve got it down there. Powering the Ickra war machine."

Stjepanovic gave a single nod. "What else, Lieutenant?"

"Um…I’ve got what appear to be around ten to twelve sites consistent with the detonation of nuclear weapons, and two antimatter," Callaghan said quietly.

Je’tEnnck and He’gAmmj alike suddenly cried out, long detailed cries containing many syllables of Culvanaic. Je’tEnnck grabbed the console before her, steadying herself and continuing to mutter in the language.

"What is it?" Gregory asked.

"Law of Pa’lInnp," Warwick said. "Think of it like the Test Ban Treaty, only more so. There’s an almost religious obligation not to use the atomics that the different Clusters keep as insurance against destruction."

Evidently he hadn’t done enough of that research, Gregory thought to himself wryly. "But the traitors must have brought them here…"

"Same thing. Polluting the land…"

"Continue, Mr. Callaghan," Stjepanovic said sharply, ignoring the grieving aliens. "Where are these detonation sites?"

Callaghan scratched his head. "Um…that’s just it, ma’am. All, except one of the antimatter detonations are near Ickra territory…or in it."

It took Gregory a while to realise why that was so unexpected. If the traitors had been helping the Ickra, then they should have been able to prevent any nuclear counterattack by the other Clusters with their superior future technology, such as the point-defence lasers.

"One of the antimatter detonations?" Stjepanovic repeated.

"Yes, sir. It destroyed…" Callaghan gulped, "it destroyed Ka’Mevweck."

He’gAmmj and Je’tEnnck stared wildly into each others blank silver eyes and then grabbed each other, in a fashion that to humans looked more violent than intimate, and held each other tightly for a moment. No more screams now: they were simply murmuring quietly, as though saying prayers for the dead – which might well be what they were doing, Gregory supposed.

"Ka’Mevweck," Warwick said, sounding horrified herself. "The Culvanai neutral capital, on sacred, mevweck ground, where none are permitted even to bring a dagger or a pistol…"

"I’d guessed that from the name," Gregory said. But he too was staggered. He tried to imagine someone nuking Geneva. Even then he suspected it wasn’t as strong as what the Culvanai were feeling. There was nowhere on Earth bound by a non-violence law as strong as mevweck – and Gregory gloomily wondered what that said about the human race.

Even Stjepanovic looked moved. "We’ll…" she opened and closed her mouth, "We’ll make those bastards pay. Lieutenant Scappaticci, prepare to move us closer to the planet; Lieutenant Warwick, ready the shuttle-"

"There’s one other thing, ma’am," said Callaghan.

"Yes, Lieutenant?"

"The nuclear detonations are clearly all old, contemporary Culvanai weapons. Not Fourther ones. And…" he looked more puzzled than horrified, "I’m picking up almost no life signs on the Ickra islands. But there haven’t been anything like enough nuclear hits to kill them all…and the nearby islands have larger populations than it states in the Culvanai records, quite considerably so."

"And the records match up with your readings of the populations of the islands not near the Ickra?" Stjepanovic asked.

"That’s right, ma’am," said Callaghan.

Stjepanovic scratched her head, looking as puzzled as everyone else. "It doesn’t make sense to me," she admitted. "But we’ll see, when we go down there. Which we’re doing now."

She turned to the near-catatonic Culvanai. Unexpectedly, she suddenly spoke loudly…in Culvanaic. "Yant’an Je’t mav’we Ennck! Movvwer jalann! Kelesh ck’ooj!"

Je’tEnnck looked up sharply. "You speak…" she began in English, then made the complex Culvanai equivalent of a shrug. "Yes. We will make them pay. Now."

"We ask questions first," said Stjepanovic, and allowed a smile to cross her face. It was not a smile that Gregory would have liked to meet on a dark night. "And then we shoot."

Chapter Eighteen


22nd August, 2007

Maghlar, Vároton

Celoun looked evenly around the huge table. It would have been impossible, of course, to bring every Sahdavi on Váorton to this place: too many of them were concerned with the dull but necessary day-to-day tasks of administering their fiefs. But more were gathered here, in his palace, in the would-have-been capital of Vároton, than had been for many a year. Almost eight hundred, more than a third of all the Sahdavi left on the planet. All of them were old, many times their natural lifespan already, and their anti-ageing treatments, administered so long ago, fading away now that they had lost access to the requisite technology. Before the Yarghûn transmission, the fate of the Sahdavi had been clear to anyone willing to face the facts: a long, slow, lingering, ignominious death.

But now…

"The tests are complete on the first ship," he said, "which Killerlord Wrais has proposed shall be called Deception, and I do not have any objections to that name. The vessel performs well, to within all parameters – indeed, more so than I had dared hope given the haste we proceeded with in its construction."

"What of the other ships?" Rosuntur interjected.

Celoun set his jaw. Technically, they were all equals here; in practice, the eldest such as he and Rosuntur tended to dominate, and it was they who were sitting around the table. Younger Sahdavi, merely a few thousand years old, to whom the Grigóri were merely a fading legend, sat in seats around the table. Listening with scarcely less fervour than the Vároto would have…

Still, it was rude for Rosuntur to interrupt. He elected to ignore it… "The ETA on the five remaining ships has been accelerated, and three of them are now completed – the other two will be within two days."

Beside him, Xanthir smiled. "We used some very…specialised forms of discipline to achieve our aims."

Rosuntur seemed unsatisfied. "Hmmph," he grunted. "How can you be sure that you didn’t just scare them into doing a bodge job?"

"The new ships will be subjected to the same battery of tests as the old," Celoun said hurriedly. "But I do not foresee any major problems."

"There were many things you did not foresee, a long time ago," Rosuntur said, then, when he sensed that there were too many pairs of accusing eyes on him, hastily added: "And nor did I. Nor did any of us."

"It matters not. We have been given a second chance, and we shall not make the same mistakes again," Xanthir said soothingly.

"No indeed," Celoun agreed. "Now that we have our six ships and our trained crews, it falls to us to decide what to do with them." Naturally. "I reiterate my…proposal that we must strike while the iron is hot." Interestingly, the language of the Sahdavi remnant on Vároton contained exactly the same idiom as English.

Though it had a rather darker etymology…

"I concur," said Rosuntur, then added with a smile, "for once, my old adversary. But there is truly no other option: we must make haste to this planet of…Stentyrrea. Some of my Vároto even suggest that we may be able to get there in one, uh, hop, and not require a stop at the planet…" he checked his ancient, recently reactivated datareader, "Svaalrog."

"Interesting," Celoun said. He hadn’t heard that. Maybe it was just Rosuntur’s sycophantic Vároto telling him what he wanted to here…but just perhaps…

"I do not see why we should fall straight into a trap," said another voice. Heads turned, and Celoun nodded slowly to himself. He’d known this was coming.

Gilael was another of the eldest of the Sahdavi, a female. She had a reputation for cautious conservatism, having survived the great civil war and the ensuing rebellions by dint of never taking undue risks, of relying upon a few trusted servants. Perhaps, Celoun admitted to himself, she had saved the little colony too, standing against overzealous rivals who had wanted to hit the Ucasa with everything, all the time, in spite of the risks of overstretch.

But now she was a roadblock to vital progress.

"We do not know of the providence of this so-called Yarghûn transmission," Gilael pointed out. "It may have merely come from one of the moons for all we know, not thirty thousand light-years away. We have no reason to trust it."

Rosuntur raised an eyebrow. "Aside from the fact that it gave us vital intelligence of the Ucasa that enabled us to crush them, and advances in technology that, as, Celoun has just confirmed to us, do indeed work?"

"It may be bait for a trap," Gilael continued stubbornly. "To draw us away from Vároton on a wild goose chase for this so-called lost ship. This planet Stentyrrea is supposed to be over three thousand light-years away. With these so conveniently slow ships, we and our best troops would be unable to return to Vároton if it were attacked."

"By whom?" Rosuntur said sarcastically. "These Humans, whom can assuredly be relied upon to attack us if we don’t grab the ship first?"

"If you believe Yarghûn," Gilael said flatly. "In fact I was referring to the Ol’Banedt."

There were intakes of breath all around the room. No-one mentioned the name of the Ol’Banedt, the Fathers of Treachery, idly. They had been the enemy in the civil war, Sahdavi who had turned against the true path laid out by the Grigóri in reaction to a… (and even now, the Sahdavi were unwilling to discuss it) certain…disaster. They had been the foe whom the Obvians and the Ucasa had exploited to raise their own rebellions, perhaps even originally inspired by the Ol’Banedt.

"The Yarghûn files clearly state that, as we had previously surmised, the Ol’Banedt were reduced even more so than ourselves after the war, perhaps even to total extinction," Celoun said carefully.

"Well, yes," Gilael said, looking him straight in the eye, "they would, wouldn’t they."

"This is pointless," Xanthir interjected, the peacemaker as usual. "In any case we will be unable to take much materiel to Stentyrrea. The six ships, which were not even here a few months ago, when we would have been much more vulnerable to attack," she added, with a faintly reproachful look at Gilael. "And, as I am led to understand, they cannot carry many of the vehicles we have built."

"If that," Celoun admitted. "The ships have been built with vast antimatter storage tanks for the long mission…that doesn’t leave much room left over."

Rosuntur frowned. "I was not aware of this. What then is the point of all those vehicles, all those exercises we have been wasting our time with?"

Celoun smiled. "There are reasons. Once we have our vessel back, we will be free to strike at whatever target we please."

Rosuntur nodded, slowly. "I see. Time to continue our war of revenge against our treacherous servants to those on other worlds, eh?"

"That, certainly," Celoun said carefully. He didn’t say any more. He knew that Rosuntur would disagree, and right now he needed the old fool’s support, particularly given the divisiveness from Gilael.

Later, on the other hand…

"So, it’s settled," Xanthir said. "The ships and crews shall be sent to Stentyrrea. The army shall remain here in case-" she looked at Gilael as though humouring her, "-we are attacked."

"Indeed," Celoun said, and noted with relief that the other Sahdavi sitting around them were nodding along. "It only remains to choose who shall go with the ships."

Xanthir frowned. "And who shall remain here."

"Yes," Celoun replied. "I propose that the mission shall be led by myself and Rosuntur-" the adversary looked surprised at being included, "with perhaps ten subordinates each, to be chosen by us. With popular approval, I suggest that in our absence, Vároton shall be ruled by Xanthir and Gilael." And those two looked equally surprised, before glancing at each other and then hastily looking away.

"Are there any objections?" Rosuntur added quickly.

"I had hoped to see this ship for myself," Xanthir said quietly.


Celoun smiled. "You will, Xanthir; when we bring it back to Vároton to begin our new golden age."

"And I should remain here," Gilael agreed. "That way, I can actually marshall our troops into order to oppose the oncoming invasion, without any interference from you."

Celoun inwardly sighed, while Rosuntur outwardly snorted. It was obvious the anti-ageing treatment was wearing off rather rapidly in Gilael’s case. She was becoming paranoid in her old age. Either that, or she had been infected by the Vároto’s annoying capacity for unnecessary wheels-within-wheels circuitous logic…

"Then we agree," he said. "The mission shall leave as soon as possible. Those that remain behind must continue with our new construction projects, both ground vehicles and ships. And the new ship types as well as more of the existing ones. And more drydocks, of course."

"After all, we’ll need them to repel that Ol’Banedt invasion, won’t we," Xanthir muttered under her breath.

"It shall be done," Gilael said, ignoring her.

"Good," Rosuntur said. "Well; no point in any more faffing around. The Grigóri smile on those who can stay ahead of the onrushing wave." To most of the Sahdavi in the room, Celoun reflected, that was only a phrase, a metaphor at most. He was half sad about it, half relieved for them that they had never experienced the horror for themselves…

He forced a smile on his face. "Indeed. And we shall stay ahead, ahead of our unseen competitors, until we reach our destination."


Shuttle Xiangtan

Enroute to Culvana

March 1st, 2007

"Watch the trim," Warwick muttered. Gregory nodded and made what would look to an outside observer like an idle wave. In reality he was making quite a complex adjustment to one of the holographic control dials hovering before him, properly visible only to him.

He made the correction, then allowed himself a quick glance behind. The shuttle was full. There were Commander He’gAmmj and Ambassador Je’tEnnck, who’d insisted on coming along over the objections of Captain Stjepanovic, and had scorned their seats to stand anxiously at the front of the shuttle. Behind them were two Human and two Culvanai guards, the latter recruited from the embassy, armed with relatively heavy weaponry. And at the back were the representatives from Garrows and the Firsters: the former a relatively young-looking woman named Rebekah Meisenheimer, the latter…

Gregory thought back to when he had first stepped on board. "You’re joking," he, Gregory, had said. "They picked you to represent them?"

"When Stjepanovic said that there could be only one on the first trip, they all started vetoing each other’s choices," said Andrew Stillsby. "In the end the picked me because they thought that, as I’d betrayed my country over such a small thing as a human life, I clearly had no concept of national loyalty and was thus as trustable by the others as by the British envoy." Though Stillsby’s voice had been offhand, joking, Gregory had sensed the anger beneath it. Just because he wasn’t mindlessly patriotic, he had been dismissed from the threat list by the other nations’ envoys…

Beside him, Warwick blinked. "We’re passing through the cloud cover," she said, reporting back to the ship. Warwick was effectively the senior officer on this trip, what with the special situation with He’gAmmj. "The Elpri island should be coming into view...ah now."

Je’tEnnck leaned over her shoulder anxiously. Gregory couldn’t help noting that, up close and when she was bent over into such a position, Je’tEnnck’s anatomy looked much less human than it did at first glance. Almost disturbingly so, in fact… "Yes, that’s it," Je’tEnnck whispered. She’d recovered some of her composure by now and her accent was no longer as strong as it had been on the ship. "It looks so different, though…all those developments on the eastern peninsula have gone."

"No. They haven’t been built yet," He’gAmmj reminded her. Je’tEnnck, startled, made the Culvanai equivalent of a nod. Gregory also nodded to himself: the Humans, both Firsters and Fourthers, had adapted to the consequences of the Shift months ago. But the Culvanai, not seeing any familiar places until now, had clearly not overcome the same mental barrier yet…

"Passing the Anto island," Warwick said. The shuttle was speeding over the surface, about ten thousand feet up (as Gregory found when he easily recalibrated the sensors to Imperial measurements). Far below, he could see odd, alien houses, cities, even farmed fields passing by. In many ways, they looked not dissimilar to those of Earth; in others, they were from a different world indeed…

The Culvanai cities, and even individual houses, were built upon slabs of what looked like pale yellow, carefully poured concrete. Rising from this were buildings typically of a dome shape, looking almost like igloos, but studded with windows. Gregory’s military eye noted that many of them, even the obviously civilian structures, seemed to have been built with an eye for defence, of making any foe who wanted to try his hand at urban warfare suffer greatly. It correlated well with what he’d read of the Culvanai, broadly, favouring defensive warfare more than Humans did.

A little hologram of a seated person slid upwards out of a holoviewer next to Warwick; Gregory was disgustingly reminded of pop-ups back on the old Internet. "Xiangtan, this is Esc One," said the man, an Astroforce officer wearing the bright orange Starforce flight suit. "I’ve got some scanner blips, five miles ahead. Large but not very dense. Moving slowly."

Warwick glanced at He’gAmmj. "Commander," she said, "airships?"

He’gAmmj shrugged. "Polh? Dirigibles, you would say? Yes, perhaps. They had been around for more than fifty years before this date, if my memory does not deceive me."

Behind him, Stillsby smiled. "You’ve got to have airships," he murmured, half to himself.

"Do they pose a threat?" Meisenheimer asked, not so much nervous as matter-of-fact.

"Unlikely," Warwick said, "we have shields and-"

WHAM. WHAM. The twin explosions blossomed in front of the Xiangtan in a heartbeat. Vividly, though it was only a split second, Gregory saw the explosion conform to the shape of the invisible field being put out by the fluxpods, as each and every particle of expanding gas or fragment of metal was gently guided away. Only the energetic release itself actually significantly depleted the shield, and there wasn’t much of that – Warwick had been right. But it was still rather shocking.

Stillsby let out a bark of surprise, and even the two Culvanai were shocked. "They’re shooting at us!" Je’tEnnck said, instantly winning an Interplanetary Nobel Prize For Stating The Bloody Obvious.

"We copy that, Xiangtan," said Esc One again. "Looks like regular old chemical missiles. You want us to engage?"

"Negative," Warwick said sharply. "They don’t pose a threat and we don’t want to start a war."

"I rather think they’ve already done that for us," Stillsby said dryly, as another missile sped towards them on its white vapour trail. Gregory used his display to examine it: to him, it looked ridiculously primitive and was drifting along at a ponderous pace, but he abruptly realised that technologically, it was at least equivalent to an American missile of the 1980s.

The third missile hit the shield again, causing no more damage than the first two. "You taking any fire?" Warwick asked the escort fighter leader.

"Negative, Xiangtan – looks like they’re only interested in the big fish," Esc One said amusedly.

Warwick sighed and turned to Gregory. "Put the point defence lasers on," she said. "These missiles are primitive enough-" Je’tEnnck stiffened at the perceived insult to her people, "-that the lasers are actually going to hit something. It’s not like we’re going up against modern Rómidi torpedoes or something."

"Aye, ma’am," Gregory said, going through the sequence of commands. He’d learned that point-defence lasers, although very important in the first Vároto War that would have taken place in the 2150s, had become less and less important over time as missiles were built that could dodge or withstand laserfire.

The Culvanai missiles, though, were not one of them. As two – no, three – more missiles leapt out on trails of white vapour, the little laser emitters studded all over the hull flickered out their beams, nearly invisible except where they contacted cloud matter in the air, and then stood out as faint bluish lines. Glancing blows took out two of the missiles before they could come within a mile of the shuttle, obviously holing their fragile casing and detonating the warhead. The third missile, perhaps because of the awkward angle at which it was approaching, withstood a steady beam for several seconds before simply coming apart in midair, somehow sliced in two without its warhead going off.

"Got those dirigibles now," Warwick said, pointing up ahead. Gregory looked, and murmured something unprintable in his throat. Up ahead were, indeed, four great airships, looking not unlike the sort of thing one would find in a steampunk novel. Three were relatively small, perhaps the size of a jumbo jet’s fuselage, but the fourth was larger than the other three put together, and larger even than the Hindenburg. Gregory noted the weapons turrets studded all over it; a few big guns, and rather more missile launchers. The bottom of the balloon had several gondolas, some of which had heavy weapons aimed downwards for bombardment.

"They’re not as fragile as they look," Je’tEnnck said defensively without prompting; Gregory got the impression that Culvanai were used to doing this to Humans. "We use malya gas, helium you call it, so they cannot be combusted, and the gasbags are compartmentalised so that a single hit does not sink them. When it comes to having a relatively stationary, airborne gun platform, an airship is unmatched: autogyros are far easier to shoot down."

"Speaking of which," Esc One said dryly, "here comes a squadron of them."

Warwick glanced at her own screen and cursed. "All right," she muttered. "Ambassador Je’tEnnck-"

Whum Whum Whum Whum Whum Whum Wh- The shuttle vibrated again, but less so than before. Gregory checked his display: the airship had opened up with several of its cannon, pelting the shuttle with shell fire. But as the shells contained less explosive than the missiles, and it was only the explosive force that actually damaged the shields, even this quantity of shell fire wasn’t having much effect. Gregory switched to an outside view of the Xiangtan, a camera feed from one of the two escorting fighters, and amused himself watching the shells seemingly bouncing off an unseen shield as though they were made out of rubber. He wondered what the Culvanai would think to that…

"Ambassador Je’tEnnck," Warwick repeated firmly, "do you want to find an old radio frequency and tell these…people…to stop shooting at us?"

Je’tEnnck glared at her, but then gave a quick, practiced Human-style nod. "I will. Many militaries used…ah…about 88 to 91 megahertz on your scale at this point."

"Ensign," Warwick said carefully.

"Aye, ma’am," Gregory said. He quickly converted his display to a comm station. A point of red light, visible to everyone, materialised before him; he manipulated more controls and the point of light quickly moved over to sit right in front of Je’tEnnck’s face. "Microphone ready, Ambassador," he said.

Je’tEnnck seemed to have used such systems before. She spoke calmly into the point of light, in Culvanaic, and at length. Gregory only caught a few words, including Irthai, the Culvanai word for Humans; literally, People of Earth. At first, there was dead silence: then, another voice, sounding cautious and disbelieving even to Gregory, replied. Je’tEnnck listened, and her sensory bristles quivered in the patterns Gregory had begun to associated with surprise and anger. Then she spoke again, shortly and quickly. Another acknowledgement from the voice, and it was over.

Warwick checked her display. "Well they seem to have stopped shooting at us," she said dryly. "Whatever you said must have worked."

"And what did you say?" Meisenheimer asked. "And what did she say?"

Je’tEnnck hesitated. "She told me to take the shuttle to the Amra Cluster island," she said. "That is the headquarters for…what she referred to as the…Alliance."

"The Alliance?" Warwick repeated with a frown. "I’ve never heard of such a term among the Culvanai-"

"No," Je’tEnnck whispered, flushing where a Human might have paled. "There shoudn’t be. But there is.

She stared at the windscreen, at the islands racing past far below. "An Alliance against those who have used weapons of mass destruction indiscriminately in pursuit of their twisted goals," she said quietly.

Meisenheimer nodded. "The Ickra-"

"No!" Je’tEnnck said sharply. "That’s just it. The Ickra are not the enemy. She told me they had joined the Alliance, those few of them that are left."

The ambassador let out an odd, almost mule-like groaning sigh. "The enemy are few, but they are powerful. They come with technology from the future and they warned of a vile foe called the Irthai. But after what they did, that High Defender Ja’lElpri reckons, any enemy of those people is a friend of Culvana."

"I don’t understand," Meisenheimer said with a frown. "I thought you said that the traitors from your embassy, Mu’rKlungs and the rest, they had come to join up with the Ickra and help them dominate Culvana!"

"I did," Je’tEnnck agreed, then stared off into the distance once more, as the Amra island approached. "But your heroes never quite live up to your expectations when you finally meet them for real…"

Chapter Nineteen


Nr. Amra Citadel, Qu’Amra (Amra Island), Culvana

March 1st, 2007

Gregory blinked as he stepped out of the Xiangtan and took his first real glimpse of an alien world.

Inwardly, of course, he knew that was a ridiculous statement to make – after all, had he not walked on Graham, and a couple of less celebrated planets that the Ingram had made brief stopovers at on the way here?

But this was different. Graham, and the other two worlds, had been future Human colonies. Warwick and the Grahamites had assured him that no aliens had stepped on their soil before Humans arrived – or at least not within the recorded history of any known race that was willing to admit to it. Culvana…Culvana was different. It was not merely covered in alien vegetation and minor fauna, as Graham was (and even then, those were rather disappointingly similar to Earth’s). It was the home of a race, a race which dominated its geosystem no less than Humanity dominated Earth’s.

Before him he could see two contrasting landscapes. To his left lay the capital city of the Amra island, which took up perhaps a third of the land area. The rest of the island (he estimated it was about the size of the Isle of Wight) was taken up by intensive-hydroponic farms, and defensive stations on the coastline. He’d seen from the air that some of the islands were covered entirely with skyscrapers, looking rather like Manhattan or Singapore – Warwick had told him that those were home to non-violent Clusters who preferred to just sit back and sell weaponry to both sides in the infinite number of minor wars on Culvana. They survived, despite their rich prizes and lack of defences, by a complex webwork of treaties that meant it would be just too inconvenient right at the moment for any of the more militaristic Clusters to attempt a takeover by force.

But the Amra were a powerful Cluster with a long history who cherished both their ability to defend themselves and project power, and their self-sufficiency. Hence large parts of the main island had been converted into intensive farms to permit even the populous city to feed itself in times of siege. Such a strategy, Warwick had told him, meant that they had become one of the most important Clusters on Culvana, and were a natural choice for the leaders of this mysterious new Alliance.

Warwick had had a lot of time to tell him things. For, as soon as they had landed, Je’tEnnck had been spirited away by two muscular female guards who told them flatly that the others would wait here until it was decided what would be done with them (as He’gAmmj translated). Two more guards stood before the door in case they tried anything funny, and occasionally shot odd looks at He’gAmmj: Gregory thought they were something between professional disgust and a lustful leer.

Now, though, an Amra official had arrived and told them (via He’gAmmj) that they were permitted to advance. And so…

Gregory’s foot touched down on the alien soil. Well; mud would be a better word, less dramatic and Neil Armstrong-y though it was. The whole planet seemed to make Southeast Asia look positively arid. Shaking his head, Gregory pulled his foot up again, the ground sucking at it but finally letting go with a resentful gloop, and began to progress forward after the others. He noted that the Amra official and the guards were wearing shoes with flat, wide soles, almost like flippers or snowshoes, and they seemed able to walk easily on the cloying mud.

He glanced behind him and spotted Warwick, the last in the group, exiting the shuttle. When both guards seemed distracted (possibly by He’gAmmj), she quickly slammed down the door and hammered out a combination on the keypad on the outside of the door. The guards spun towards the noise, but Gregory already heard the slamming clunks of the manual locks sliding into place. Warwick offered him a triumphant smirk. Of course, the manual locks were only the first layer of security: even a Fourther expert mechanic would have had trepidations about trying to break through them. These twenty-first century Culvanai had no chance, and Warwick had therefore preserved them a bargaining chip.

The guards offered Warwick what appeared to be irritated stares with their mirror-silver eyes, but merely impatiently waved her along. Gregory had half expected them to shoot her on sight, or at least hit her out of sheer annoyance. The Culvanai were so difficult to judge, their body language being very different – and sometimes even diametrically opposed – to that of Humans.

One slurpy step at a time, the group made their way over to – Gregory sighed with relief – a poured-concrete path set into the ground, leading into the capital city. He noted to his surprise that there seemed to be relatively few of such paths, even though there were many clearly delineated gates in the city walls. His unasked question was answered when one such gate slid smoothly open and a hovercraft, not a magic alien floating thingy but a recognisable hovercraft supported by a rubbery air-cushion, emerged. He watched it jet down to the nearest coastal beach, almost missing the welcome sensation of solidity beneath his feet as he finally made it to the concrete path. The hovercraft seemed to move much faster and more smoothly than similar-sized Human-built ones he’d seen; the Culvanai might have a similar level of overall technology, he realised, but they’d obviously had more need of a hovercraft vehicle than Humans had and had devoted more effort to improving it.

He imagined that Culvanai ground- or sea-only vehicles would be as amateurish as Human hovercrafts, if any even existed: they would be even less generally useful here than hovercrafts were on Earth. The Amra island was one of the larger ones, and you could only drive for about twenty miles across it before you fell into the ocean, even if you could avoid sinking into that mud.

Finally, as the hovercraft transitioned to the sea without even seeming to notice the change, the group reached their own doorway. It was much smaller than the one that the hovercraft had emerged from, and looked more private as well: an official-looking sign in incomprehensible Culvanaic characters, two languages from the look of it, sat above the door. "Abandon all hope ye who enter here?" came a dry voice from behind him: Andrew Stillsby seemed to be enjoying the trip, despite – or perhaps because of – the problems they had run into.

"I hope not," Gregory said automatically, then laughed bashfully at his unintentional pun. "I just wish that Ambassador Je’tEnnck’s managed to convince them…"

"Or, in other words, you hope that she was more diplomatic with them than with us," Stillsby said with a faint smile.

They passed through the doorway and, according to the conventions of narrative causality, there was a big ominous grinding noise from behind them as the outer doorway was slid back into place. A few of the group looked overtly nervous, including Meisenheimer, but Gregory elected to take it in his stride. So what if I get cooked and eaten by aliens on their home planet? How cool a way is THAT to go? He laughed to himself.

The passageway led to, not a bustling city street as Gregory had supposed, but up some steps and across a narrow bridge-like affair wrapped around the outside of a series of buildings, which gave him a view of a bustling city street below. It was not the picture of alien merchants yelling incoherently and pushing indeterminate merchandise on punters that he had half expected, though. Instead, the street was full of Culvanai in what were obviously uniforms, a yellowish shade of khaki, marching in time toward another gate.

The female soldiers – for it was obvious what they were – fascinated Gregory. In many ways they were almost absurdly reminiscent of human soldiers, particularly those of the last century or so. They seemed not to wear any body armour and used only the most rudimentary camouflage, also seeming to put more effort into marching in time than most modern human soldiers did. Their weapons were interesting, looking to Gregory like rifles with oddly long barrels, and apparently not automatic. A few of the soldiers, perhaps one in every five, carried a Tommy gun-like submachine weapon instead. All of them had sheathed blades and a pistol on their belts.

The contrast was striking. Surely if they had machine guns, they couldn’t still be doing Napoleonic-style marching calmly into enemy fire…Gregory resolved to work out the contradiction later, for the Amra official was leading them through a portal in the sheer wall to their left.

They were led through many interior corridors, getting progressively more ornate as they made their way deeper into the structure. Gregory realised this must be the Citadel that Warwick had told him of, a great castle-like building which sat at the centre of the city and extended out branches, like tentacles, to the walls. It both made it easy to rush soldiers from one part of the city to another, and to cut off one section of the city from another for purposes of quarantine.

Finally, when the bare concrete underneath them had become carpeted in a really horrible shade of burgundy and there were odd-looking portraits and pictures of battle scenes on the wall – Gregory noted they, at least, looked pretty Napoleonic – they entered the very heart of the Citadel and the Amra official came to a halt. She raised a hand in a stop sign, one gesture at least that the Humans and Culvanai seemed to share, and spoke briefly in Culvanaic.

"What does she say?" Meisenheimer muttered in He’gAmmj’s direction.

"I cannot translate with hope of complete accuracy," He’gAmmj warned her. "She uses the Mevlo Altongue, not one which I am the most proficient in, and of course an older dialect of it, to shoe…" as Culvanai often did, he didn’t get the English idiom quite right, "However, I believe she told us to wait until we are called in…"

"Par for the course, for this mission," Stillsby grunted. But in fact it was only a minute or so before another figure, an Amra wearing a similar close-fitting suit to their guide but with a more complex logo both on the suit and tattooed on her forehead, emerged from an impressive-looking doorway and inclined her head to them. Their guide returned the look and then shooed them through the doorway.

Gregory had to control himself not to stop as soon as he stepped through the door. He knew little to nothing about Culvanai culture or history, of course. But he didn’t have to, to know that this room was Very Important Indeed.

Unlike the carpeted concrete of the rest of the castle, its floor was layered planks of wood, varnished to a rich brown shade. They looked quite poor quality compared to many similar floors Gregory had seen on Earth, but of course, he realised, real tree-wood of any sort must be quite rare and prized on a swampy planet like Culvana.

The walls were also of wood, and supported what appeared to be ancient tapestries in unusual colour combinations – clearly made for alien eyes – more portraits, and what was obviously an enormous map, using a conical projection that on Earth was considered pretty obscure. Also, Gregory was at first confused by the fact that the map put west, the direction from which the suns rose on Culvana, at the top of the map. But nonetheless it was soon recognisable as a map of the Amra island and the surrounding hundred miles or so.

In the centre of the room was a great and ancient-looking table, upon which someone had spread another map and was keeping it from coiling up by the universal method of placing random objects on the corners: Gregory thought he recognised one of the alien pistols, a hefty and much-thumbed book-like object, and two piles of rather greenish, near-transparent paper covered with hasty notes. Of course, he couldn’t read any of it, but that’s what it looked like to him.

And sitting around the table were six Culvanai, all female. One was Je’tEnnck, looking more shocked than worried, insofar as much as Gregory could read Culvanai expressions. One wore the same yellow-khaki uniforms as the soldiers in the street had worn, but with ornate decorations stitched on the shoulders and hips: a general, he supposed. One wore a white coat that shouted ‘scientist’: the idea of dangerous stains being immediately recognisable had led to a parallel development there. One was wearing what he had begun to think of as Culvanai civilian clothes, robe-like, perhaps those of a rich businesswoman?

And the sixth wore, over one of the military uniforms, a great and ancient-looking cloak trimmed with cloth-of-gold…no, silver. Platinum. Different materials, he supposed; the cloak looked rigid and scaly, as though it were made from alligator skin, not the ermine of an Earth monarch. But nevertheless some ideas seemed universal, and wearing a symbol of wealth and power on one’s person to show personal wealth and power was one of them.

He’gAmmj’s bristles stood out straight for a split second and then flopped down over his face, the equivalent of a human nervously licking his lips. "Everyone," he said in English, "this is Yu’lAmra, the Matriarch of the Amra Cluster-"

The general said a single, sharp, indignant-sounding word. He’gAmmj rocked back on his heels, but Gregory thought he saw anger building behind those blank silver eyes. "What did she say?" he, Gregory muttered.

"The usual crap about little boys speaking when they’re spoken to," He’gAmmj muttered back. "This really is the sanguinous dark ages."

But Yu’lAmra herself cut in with a soft, diplomatic voice that defused the situation. Gregory thought he sensed, though, that beneath that velvet was a steel rapier. The Matriarchate might be an inherited title, but what with one thing and another, you didn’t maintain it for very long unless you were on your toes. Or webs, rather…

Gregory took the opportunity to study the Amra in more detail. All of them had a symbol tattooed on their forehead, as indeed had all Culvanai but outcasts and Cluster-less exiles. The basic shape of the symbol defined the Amra Cluster, the complexity of its detail denoted seniority within the Cluster, and the colour of the dye spoke of the wearer’s Vocational Caste. The Culvanai had five of these, orange for Defenders, teal for Savants, purple for ‘Spellcasters’, their supposedly psychic mystics, brown for Supporters – builders, farmers, merchants and the like – and blue for Rulers. In this room, as he had previously surmised, they had a representative from each caste, except the Spellcasters who tended to avoid the others in any case.

Yu’lAmra spoke again. Gregory noted that her Ruler tattoo, though more complex than that of Je’tEnnck, was also paler – dyes had got better over the centuries. The Englishman tried to listen to her words, but he only knew a few words of the modern Culvanaic Altongues, never mind this archaic version. But it was unmistakably a beautiful, mellifluous language, less bedecked with the harsh clicking noises of the form Je’tEnnck and He’gAmmj spoke.

"The Matriarch says that she has permitted me to translate for her," said He’gAmmj. He sounded partly amused, but Gregory realised that he took her authority seriously. After all, for better or for worse, future Culvana was – had been – still ruled by such matriarchs.

"And what does she say?" asked Meisenheimer, having recovered her composure.

Yu’lAmra said another few sentences and He’gAmmj smoothly took over: "We have no reason to trust you, but we have every reason to mistrust the Others, and they told us not to trust you…therefore, we shall trust you." The matriarch’s bristles twitched in a pattern that looked like wry amusement. "Therefore, we shall fill you in on the situation."

Yu’lAmra nodded to the general who’d taken issue with He’gAmmj. The general scowled, but reluctantly spoke directly to He’gAmmj. "Supreme Defender Lu’nAmra," He’gAmmj said carefully, "says that…uh…a period of time equivalent to about two of your Earth months ago, the Others landed in the Ickra island.

"From what we have been able to learn, they approached Ja’rIckra, Matriarch of the Ickra Cluster, and told her that they were from the future. Or a future. At first, of course, no-one believed them, but when they demonstrated wonders of prediction and advances in technology, they became hard to ignore."

Yu’lAmra took up the story again and He’gAmmj continued to translate: "These Others, they never gave themselves a real name, told Ja’rIckra that the doom of the Culvanai was coming. They had seen the future and it was bleak. A race called the Irthai would come from without and force their own perverted system of values upon us.


"But now there was a second chance, for a group of Irthai had been flung back into the past and the Others with them. They told Ja’rIckra that the Ickra were the last best hope for the survival of the Culvanai way of life, and that in order to create a strong front against the oncoming Irthai invasion, the Ickra must quickly conquer the rest of Culvana. This would also prevent any internal decay, for the Ickra were the purest, sticking closest to the true path of any Culvanai." Gregory didn’t need to be able to speak Culvanaic to know that Yu’lAmra’s voice was dripping with sarcasm.

"So what happened?" Meisenheimer asked.

This time, Je’tEnnck translated the question into Culvanaic, and then the answer from Lu’nAmra. "Ja’rIckra told them they were fools, and rightly so in my opinion. How could they claim to defend the Culvanai way of life with the breath from one lung and speak of uniting us with the other? Union is not a natural existence for us…or for Humanity," Je’tEnnck added with a practiced wink after Lu’nAmra had finished.

Meisenheimer nodded heavily. "I think I see where this is going. What did Ja’rIckra-" she pronounced it pretty well, "-say to the, uh, the Others’ ideas about males?" Beside her, He’gAmmj stiffened.

Je’tEnnck spoke in English without any prompting. "I’ve been discussing that with the Matriarch and the others. Suffice to say that Ja’rIckra was horrified."

Yu’lAmra spoke through Je’tEnnck. "The Ickra have always claimed that closing their webs-" dragging their feet, in other words, "-on the male emancipation issue was down to the fact that their own males were in favour of a gradual process, and that radical social changes were only bound to upset society and endanger the Cluster. And indeed there have been a few examples of Clusters that have collapsed when their males became radicalised and went on fertility strikes for greater rights. Though that is their greatest weapon in their fight, even withdrawing it from a Cluster for a short while can lead to the Beast engulfing them in the long run." Je’tEnnck paused and spoke directly to them: "You Humans would say that Darwin eats them, I think."

"I see," Meisenheimer said slowly. "It’s as I suspected. Klungs’ gang thought the old Ickra they idolised were going to be like them. In fact they were the opposite."

Stillsby nodded. "I think I see what you’re getting at. They’re like neo-Nazis time travelling back to try and recruit Nietszche, or even the Kaiser. They think those people will like the way they’ve perverted their ideologies, turned a school of philosophy into a rant to string up all the dirty foreigners!"

"The Ickra are conservatives," Gregory said, nodding along. "Klungs’ people are radical reactionaries. Big difference. Conservatives hate radicals regardless of what their ultimate aims are."

Lu’nAmra spoke, sounding irritated. Je’tEnnck hastily replied. "The Ambassador is just telling her that we were speaking of examples from history," He’gAmmj said to the others.

"So…what happened in the end?" Meisenheimer asked.

Lu’nAmra exchanged a glance at the Supreme Savant, whose name, He’gAmmj had mentioned, was Ti’vAmra. "Ja’rIckra refused," Lu’nAmra said flatly via Je’tEnnck. "She told them that no amount of technology was worth pandering to their absurd, un-Culvanai," and Je’tEnnck relished the term, "worldview."

There were intakes of breath from the Humans. "And what did Klungs and co. say to that?" Meisenheimer asked quietly.

"We don’t know for sure," Ti’vAmra spoke for the first time via He’gAmmj. "But we know that an antimatter explosion was involved," she concluded quietly.

"The surviving Ickra have fled their island," Lu’nAmra said. "Most of the neighbouring islands are too scared of the Others now to take them in: they’re practically bowing and scraping to Mu’r, the leader of this odious group." Lu’nAmra snorted loudly, which to a Culvanai was as bad as spitting. Furthermore, he underlined Mu’rKlungs’ lack of honour by refusing to append her Cluster name to her given name. There was, after all, a Klungs Cluster on Culvana now. Like the other Clusters to which the Others belonged, they had almost universally disowned their would-be descendants, Lu’nAmra told them.

"So where have the refugees gone?" said Meisenheimer.

Yu’lAmra exchanged a glance with her advisors. "Many of the higher ranking ones have gone to powerful Clusters, some of them even former rivals of the Ickra, to try and allow their people to be temporarily cared for. And there’s one of them who has tirelessly spent the last…month, since the first explosion, trying to organise an Alliance to strike back at the vile foe."

The Matriarch gestured, in an alien, almost limp fashion, to another door. "This one."

The door opened and a thickset figure stepped out. She wore a battered military uniform, this one in a more greenish shade than the Amra’s, and, significantly, a scaly cloak of her own around her shoulders, glittering with platinum.

And in her silvery eyes, a deepset fury burned within.

He’gAmmj, despite himself, shrank back. It was her. The grandmother of Ky’lIckra, the name they had all learned to fear since childhood. From the scarred face to the piratical metal claw that replaced her lost left hand, large as life and twice as solid.

And she was on their side.

Matriarch Ja’rIckra.


Chapter Twenty


Amra Citadel, Culvana

March 1st, 2007

"You," He’gAmmj whispered in the Mevlo Altongue. "You…"

"You will speak when you are spoken to," Ja’rIckra said shortly, the voice of someone who was used to being obeyed without question. And no wonder, for she was no posturing, flabby stay-at-home fool like the neo-Ickra supporters that He’gAmmj had encountered back in the Fourth. Her tanned yellow skin bespoke of campaigns farther south, for the suns shone weakly on the Ickra domain. Her sinister claw and the scars visible on her exposed arms, face and legs told him that not all of those campaigns had gone exactly as she’d planned. And the unusually long, crimson sensory bristles extending from her cheeks, flopping down like a Human moustache, reminded him why she had nevertheless gone on to win every one of them.

They said that there had been Spellcaster blood in Ja’rIckra and her descendants, but she herself had scorned such a monastic life, thirsting for political power and influence. Here and now, He’gAmmj knew that ‘they’ had been right. It was a lethal combination.

But, unlike her unborn granddaughter, Ja’rIckra was not insane. Indeed, those cold silver eyes held the promise of a quick and cunning mind attached firmly to the plane of reality.

And now they were directed towards Yu’lAmra, ignoring the newcomers. "Matriarch," she said in the tone to which Cluster Matriarchs were accustomed to speaking to one another. It was not disrespectful, but gently reminded everyone that they were equals. For Ja’rIckra, her island half destroyed and her people scattered, it bespoke of either sublime confidence or unutterable arrogance. Or both, He’gAmmj thought.

"Yes…Matriarch?" Yu’lAmra replied. Though both the matriarchs spoke with an archaic lilt, of course, the different accents they put to the Mevlo Altongue were still obvious.

Ja’rIckra’s longer bristles briefly stood up. "You told me of visitors," she said perfunctorily. "I see what are clearly aliens from beyond our world. I see one of our own, bearing her tattoo in a dye which I have never seen before, wearing the same uniform as the…Others," she spat the word. "And I see a boy wearing alien clothes." He’gAmmj was inwardly gripped by fury, but his higher mental functions reminded him that Ja’rIckra was 1) a matriarch, 2) ostensibly on their side, and 3) could almost certainly rip him apart with her bare hands – or hand.

"So I must inquire as to what, precisely, they have come for and how it concerns me," Ja’rIckra concluded, a trace of amusement seeping through her anodyne tones.

"Je’t of the Cluster Ennck here has told me of interesting things," Yu’lAmra said cagily. In the background, He’gAmmj noted that the Humans were getting a bit fed up at not following this conversation. But neither he nor Je’tEnnck dared translate. She, like he, still seemed stunned at being in the same room with the fearsome ogre of legend.

Ja’rIckra frowned. "There is currently no Je’t of the Cluster Ennck, if my memory does not deceive me," she said. Judging by the way she tacked on that clause, she was doing so purely for form’s sake. She knew what she was talking about for certain.

Yu’lAmra’s bristles curved into what constituted the Culvanai equivalent of a smile. "Well, then. You note that she is wearing the same uniform as the Others, and you know what the Others warned you of. Do you not see…?"

Ja’rIckra started as she made the connection, although she hid it very well, and He’gAmmj doubted that not even those of the Humans who knew about Culvanai body language would have noticed it. "I…see," she said at length, obviously thinking through all the implications. "I see, indeed…"

Ja’rIckra took a step into the room – He’gAmmj had to force himself not to flinch away from her – and took a seat at the table, turning it around and straddling it rather than sitting normally. That was a very blatant cue, which probably even the Humans could spot, meaning she was feeling defensive.

"This…complicates things," Ja’rIckra said.

Je’tEnnck spoke, hesitantly. "Madam Matriarch, I wish to offer to you our help at defeating the, the Others."

Ja’rIckra made the equivalent of raising an eyebrow. "And what is it to you?" she bit out, one word after another. "You are not Ickra. You are not even of our world, not truly, if you originate from the future and were dwelling upon an alien moon. You are no better than the Others."

He’gAmmj almost stood in anger to defend his Ambassador, but still couldn’t quite muster up the courage. It was all very well for those male-empowerment holomovies to indoctrinate him with images of plucky lads standing their ground against sexist female bullies; in the films, the lads always had an unrealistic command of martial arts or an enormous gun somehow concealed in their carrypouch. It was a different thing indeed to try and face off against a (literally!) backward strongwoman who probably had twice his strength.

But, as it happened, Je’tEnnck could handle herself. "They betrayed me," she said tightly, managing to look Ja’rIckra straight in the eye, though her bristles quivered. On the other hand, it might have been with fury as much with trepidation. "They betrayed me, erased my vital data, wrecked my embassy, and stole my ship," she added. "And, whatever you may think, this is my world, and my people. But they have attacked mevweck ground, and that means that they no longer belong to Culvana." Finally Je’tEnnck spoke in several short, sharp breaths, banging her fist on the table to accentuate each word. "WE – ARE – NOT – THE – SAME!"

Ja’rIckra drew back. At first, He’gAmmj couldn’t believe his eyes. The Ogre, retreating before a mere diplomat? But then he realised that, to Ja’rIckra, they were the ones to be feared. After all, the unknown was always more frightening than even the worst of the known. As the Humans put it, better the devil you knew…

He wondered why he had not seen it before. And he knew. Truly, Ja’rIckra was good at masking her true intentions and feelings.

Then the matriarch spoke, and her voice cracked. "They killed my daughter," she said, her voice without emotion. "They killed my eldest daughter, for the crime of not conforming to their expectations of her."

Je’tEnnck’s bristles shot out straight, the Culvanai version of a Human’s mouth falling open in surprise. "They…" she began. "They killed…Vo’nIckra?"

"Yes," Ja’rIckra continued flatly. "Because she told one of them that she did not intend to bed Ro’v of the Olmed as her concubine."

He’gAmmj’s mind whirred as he put the pieces together. "Vo’nIckra must have found out what would have happened," he said softly. "That Ro’vOlmed would infect her with that disease, the disease that made her sterile after that one child, and made that very child…" he broke off.

Ja’rIckra glared at him, then relented. "Yes," she whispered, her voice far from that of the menace it had formally held. "My daughter did not wish to meet that fate, and did not wish to bring a maddened child into the world to lead our Cluster to rack and ruin. And for that crime-" she gulped, "they killed her. Shot her down like a relop." She stared fiercely into the distance, away from the others. Culvanai didn’t cry like Humans did, but there were other cues. And He’gAmmj could see all of them.

He felt his own preconceived ideas of the Ickra crashing down almost as shockingly as Mu’rKlungs’ gang must have.

"And that’s where that antimatter bomb came from?" Je’tEnnck asked.

"I…" Ja’rIckra began, then quickly made her version of a nod. "Yes. They had already been making unreasonable demands, but that – that was the last straw. I led my forces against them and they destroyed the bulk of our army with that chasm-weapon of theirs. That was it, then." She sighed, and no longer hid her sadness. "The end of the Ickra Cluster."

If He’gAmmj had been faced with Ja’rIckra speaking those words even an hour ago, he would have gloated. Now…now all he could do was feel a faint echo of her mourning, and, despite himself, sympathise…

"Perhaps not," Yu’lAmra said. He’gAmmj started, having forgotten the others were there. "These visitors have the same advanced technology as the Others, but much more of it. Je’tEnnck has told me that they can use it to destroy the Others and take back your island."

Ja’rIckra looked up. Her expression was unreadable. Then she said, simply: "But take it back for whom?"

Je’tEnnck frowned. "We have no ambitions of our own, if that is what you are implying."

"Believe that and you’ll believe anything," Supreme Defender Lu’nAmra interjected wryly.

"Towards the island, then. We have no objections about restoring the Ickra to…" and Je’tEnnck hesitated over the idea, which would have been revolting to her such a short time ago, "…their rightful place."

"Hmm," Ja’rIckra said slowly, her bristles moving in patterns that spoke of deliberation. He’gAmmj risked a glance at the others: the Humans still looked annoyed at being left out of the conversation, and Gregory and Warwick had begun one of their own in hushed voices. Lu’nAmra and even Yu’lAmra looked faintly put out at Je’tEnnck’s words: he guessed that they had been hoping for some piece for themselves out of any recovered Ickra land.

Finally Ja’rIckra’s bristles lowered. "How can you prevent them striking back?" she said sharply. "After we…retreated," and it was obvious the words were anathema to her, "the Others used another of their chasm-weapons against the Ka’Mevweck, when the other Clusters refused their demands to submit to their overlordship. What insolence!"

"They were still acting like it was the Fourth," He’gAmmj realised. "But back here, there’s no Overcluster system yet…"

"No indeed," Ja’rIckra grunted, still avoiding looking at He’gAmmj. If she didn’t have his gender rubbed in her face all the time, she could perhaps pretend that she was conversing about matters of great import with another female. It amused him that, for all her obvious intelligence and cunning, Ja’rIckra was unable to look past her crusty old chauvinism. "And I for one hope that such a system never comes to pass. It would be barbaric, un-Culvanai…"

Je’tEnnck bristled, literally, at that: after all, it was the system which had appointed her as ambassador to the Humans. "It is a system that came into place after the upheavals wrought by your Cluster in the other history," she said sharply.

"And therefore we should have no need of it in this one," Ja’rIckra shot back. Je’tEnnck looked confused, opening her mouth to argue, then shutting it again.

"In any case, we can stop another such attack," He’gAmmj put in.

Ja’rIckra made the equivalent of a snort. "Don’t speak of things you don’t understand, little boy."

"Don’t you little boy me," he replied, his tongue working before his brain could intervene. "Our weapons can easily take down any such attack."

Rather than exploding with rage, as he had half expected, Ja’rIckra cocked her head at him and gave him a measuring glance. He wasn’t sure whether she was giving him more respect or just wondering what he’d be like in bed… "The Ka’Mevweck was defended with more, and more advanced, countermissile systems than anywhere else on Culvana," she said eventually. "None of that did any good against the Others’ weapon."

"This weapon…" He’gAmmj said slowly. "It was a future missile, I presume? Not an antimatter warhead mounted on a rocket of this time?"

"Of course."

"Well, then," Je’tEnnck realised, shamelessly butting in as women always did, "Of course your countermissiles were unable to stop it. Our defences, on the other hand, were built to stop weapons like that."

Ja’rIckra paused again, mulling this over. "I see," she said eventually.

"At what sort of success rate?" Lu’nAmra interjected.

"About forty, fifty percent if we get enough warning," He’gAmmj admitted. He was a bit infuriated to see Lu’nAmra surreptitiously glance toward Je’tEnnck, who ‘nodded’ to confirm his words. He’d expect that sort of chauvinism from Ja’rIckra, of course, but from the comparatively liberal Amra…

Comparatively was the key, he realised. This was, after all, still the twenty-first century.

"I don’t think that’s good enough," Yu’lAmra said quietly. "We can’t risk any more Clusters being lost."

"Can we afford to do anything else?" Ja’rIckra argued. "They will come for us anyway, they have stated as much. We will fight as one island at a time. We might as well fight all at once, and at least have a chance of taking them down."

He’gAmmj thought of the Human saying, "If we don’t hang together, be assured that we shall all hang separately". Unfortunately, it didn’t translate into Culvanaic, as traitors here had always been executed by drowning or dragging through the water at high speed.

"But will many Clusters go for it?" Yu’lAmra replied to Ja’rIckra. "After all, when that attack against Ka’Mevweck happened, almost everyone launched their atomics at them, and none of them really got through…" she sighed. "Most of them detonated more than a mile out." He’gAmmj realised where those nuclear explosion traces Callaghan had spotted near the Ickra island had come from. "Now most of the Clusters think the Others are invincible, and in any case they haven’t done anything in the three weeks since then…"

"Just because they haven’t doesn’t mean we can’t," Ja’Ickra said. "Why-"

But she never finished the sentence.

Alarms suddenly blared throughout the room and, judging by the echoes, the entire citadel – maybe across the whole island. The alarms were Culvanai, more like the sound of a terrifically rushing wave than a Human klaxon. After all, there was nothing the Culvanai, inhabitants of lowlying islands all, feared more than a tsunami.

"What’s that?" Meisenheimer said in English, still seeming annoyed at having been excluded from the conversation.

"Yes, what is that?" He’gAmmj repeated in the Mevlo Altongue, although he thought he knew…and hoped fervently that he was wrong…

He wasn’t. "Nuclear attack!" Lu’nAmra said sharply. "Missiles detected." She quickly stood, walked over to the rear wall of the glorious room, where there was a comm handset disguised artfully as part of a cabinet full of old treaty documents. "Lu’n. Speak," she said peremptorily.

He’gAmmj vaguely heard a tinny but urgent-sounding voice on the other end. Lu’nAmra’s bristles shot up, then lay limp. Grimly, she replaced the handset. "Four long-range missiles heading for our island," she said. "Telemetry indicates they were launched from the vicinity of the Ickra island."

Ja’rIckra sucked in a breath as He’gAmmj hurriedly translated it into English. He saw the Humans’ eyes widen and their skin pale, which – he reminded himself – meant the opposite to what it did to the Culvanai.

"What can we do?" Yu’lAmra said sharply. "Our countermissiles are in place, yes?"

"Of course, Matriarch," Lu’nAmra said, "but..."

Yu’lAmra realised, and nodded. "I see," she said flatly. "Very well. How much time do we have?"

"Fifteen minutes?"

"Then begin the evacuation. Take my daughters with you. I shall stay here until the end." Yu’lAmra jutted her chin out defiantly.

It looked as though Lu’nAmra was about to argue, but then rapidly realised it would only waste time. Swearing under her breath, she swept away, taking the Supreme Savant and Supporter with her.

Then Meisenheimer spoke up. "We can help," she said.

He’gAmmj quickly translated. "How?" Yu’lAmra said sharply.

Rather than replying, Meisenheimer nodded to Lieutenant Warwick, who held up her wrist comm. A voice, obviously deliberately amplified so everyone could hear, rang out in English. He’gAmmj translated for the others… "This is Esc One. We’re detecting three groups of four missiles each leaving the Ickra island and heading for widely dispersed targets: your present location, the Onnv island and the Rannt island."

"Makes sense," Je’tEnnck said grimly. "Onnv produced the defender who made first contact with the Humans. Rannt were notoriously liberal. And the Amra here were the greatest enemy of the Ickra during Vo’nIckra’s expansionist phase-" and she stopped, as expressions of both surprise and remembrance of loss spread across Ja’rIckra’s face.

"Then it’s not because of you?" Yu’lAmra said.

"I hope not," Je’tEnnck said. "They shouldn’t have detected us."

Meisenheimer spoke and He’gAmmj translated. "Matriarch, we think we can bring those missiles down. Our two fighters are each going to intercept one of the groups heading for the Onnv and the Rannt. My officers will take our shuttle to remove the third, heading for here."

Yu’lAmra’s bristles quivered uncertainly. "You would do this?" she said.

"We are doing it, whether you want us to or not," Meisenheimer said dryly, He’gAmmj not softening her words when he translated them. "We don’t want to be destroyed any more than you do."

Yu’lAmra gave a single, sharp nod equivalent. "Very well. Do it!"

And Ja’rIckra also inclined her head. "I concur. This ends here."


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