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Sequel to Part 2 & Moonstruck


by Tom Anderson

Chapter Twenty-One


Gregory barely felt the mud grab at his feet as he leapt off the path, pursuing Warwick. As he had learned in the past, during drills on Royal Navy ships, he forced himself not to look at his watch – although now it was a fabric-thin chronometer built into the comm on his wrist. He knew that it would only make him feel even worse: what with explaining everything and the hurried journey back through the Citadel, they had already lost at least four minutes of their precious time…

They reached the shuttle. Warwick, with almost inhuman speed, hammered out the access code on the lock and the hatch opened up. Gregory heard his muddy feet squelch on the squeaky-clean (courtesy of nanotech, naturally) deck distantly, as though it were happening on a TV programme – and one which he wasn’t giving his full attention to, at that.

Behind him, he heard one of their Culvanai escorts say something short but incomprehensible. Nevertheless, he could guess what had been said. "Thanks, we’ll need it," he said uselessly, and then dropped abruptly into his seat as Warwick hit the big manual button that closed the door.

Warwick barely gave him time for his restraints to automatically flow into place before her hands were dashing through her holographic display, slamming everything into overdrive. He felt himself pressed back against his seat, the inertial compensators unable to quite make up for the acceleration (and in any case, like all Janvier-Graham technology, they were less effective within a planet’s gravity well). Casting a glance at a monitor showing a rear view, he saw that their over-enthusiastic exhaust had virtually left trails of solid clay in the mud – fortunately all of the Culvanai had sensibly pulled back in time. "Wow," he said, half to himself.

"Can’t afford to waste time," Warwick said through gritted teeth. "Get the fighters on, now!"

Gregory shook himself. "Aye, ma’am," he said. Over the past few weeks, due to their unusual situation, with he being the elder and having until recently been the captain of his own ship, they had worked out a strange arrangement: he said all the right things, but there was a nudge-wink relationship that neither took them too seriously. Now…now it was different. Now lives were at stake.

He quickly flipped through his own holographic display and brought up a couple of tiny, glittering columns which resolved themselves into the seated figures of the two pilots. "Esc One, Esc Two, this is Xiangtan," he said formally. "What is your status?"

"Roger, Xiangtan," said Esc One; what with the transmission muffling the voice and his helmet concealing his face, Gregory wasn’t sure which of the Ingram’s fighter pilots he was. "We are enroute to our respective missile groups and will be ready to intercept within 300 seconds. However we are requesting analysis for guidance on the best way to safely take out the missiles…"

"Acknowledged," Warwick said, not taking her eyes off the forward screen/window as she gunned the engines. With his peripheral vision, Gregory saw a vast trail of confused-looking dirigibles and planes with stubby wings and helicopter rotors – autogyros – being left in their engine wash.

"We’re just a pair of Hullabaloos," he muttered to himself, thinking guiltily of his childhood membership of the Arthur Ransome Society. That thought startled a laugh out of him: for all that it was ten thousand light-years away on an alien world, the landscape below them didn’t look all that different from the more winding bits of the Norfolk Broads.

"Sensors!" Warwick said, seemingly to herself. She hammered away at her own display for a moment, and then Gregory’s changed mode. "Get me a scan of those missiles!"

"Aye, ma’am," he said, scanning the…well…scans. He frowned as the blips of the incoming missiles appeared, and magnified them. "How can we get scans of them if they’re still over the horizon?" he asked.

"Bouncing the scan beams off the ionosphere," Warwick said peremptorily. "Now shut up and get me that scan!"

"Aye, ma’am," Gregory said, allowing a faint smile to spread across his face. Of course, he’d already been setting it up while he’d been talking: he knew the stakes here were too high to allow time for cabbageheading.

He frowned as he sorted through the different scan modes, as he had learned at the GSAT. Terahertz, infrared, ultraviolet, magnetic-resonance…

A three-dimensional holographic image of one of the missiles materialised above his display, rotating slowly. He almost laughed: it was exactly the sort of thing that would happen in a briefing before making a run on the Death Star or something. He just hoped their mission would be just as successful.

"It’s not a Fourther weapon," he said. That much was obvious. "It’s a contemporary job, got to be. Nuclear warhead, simple methane propulsion…"

"Thank God," Warwick said, with feeling. "So find out what it is."

Gregory studied the scan. There was nothing palpably alien about the missile’s design. He knew a little about nuclear weapons – practically all RN captains did – and this reminded him most of a Soviet missile from the 1960s. It exuded that air of unimaginative solidity and reliability. In some ways, though, it was more like an oversized V2: unless he was reading the scans wrongly, there seemed to be no guidance computer beyond a simple gyroscope system.

He said so. Warwick nodded, still devoting most of her attention to the forward view as she flew the Xiangtan as though her hair was on fire and the nearest extinguisher was on the Ickra island. "The Culvanai always made them like that even in the Fourth," she said. Right now her rapid, un-pausing Cancy mode of conversation seemed rather appropriate for the tense situation. "They went through a kind of arms race of electronic countermeasures throwing off advanced guidance systems. In the end they resorted to a simple system like this."

"But surely it can’t be that accurate," Gregory frowned as he shifted his attention to the warhead.

"The wind currents on Culvana are stronger than on Earth but also a lot more predictable," Warwick said. "That’s one reason why they use dirigibles instead of planes. The missiles can ride them to their destination…"

"I wondered at that," Gregory said slowly. "Because this is a cruise missile, not a ballistic one. Only those wind currents would let that work…" And now he came to look at it, the missile’s rear fins were rather wider than an Earth-built one’s would have been, almost more like wings.

"That’s right," said Warwick. "Which is a problem because if we set it off now it’s going to explode right above somebody’s island."

Gregory frowned. "Nuclear weapons don’t detonate if you shoot them down," he said.

"Culvanai ones do," Warwick said grimly. "They detonate via a pressure sensor on the nose cone. Always have."

"But that’s…" Gregory hesitated.

"Stupid?" Warwick said dryly. "Different priorities, different geopolitical situation. It’s to stop anyone getting funny ideas about sending a dirigible to intercept it in flight. They’ll only make it get another island instead – which will make that Cluster the enemy of the one it was originally aimed at. Either way the one who fired the missile gets the target in trouble."

Gregory shrugged. "Really mutually assured destruction," he murmured. "All right. So how do we intercept it?"

"There must be a way," Warwick said. "What are you getting from those readings?"

Gregory looked over them again. "How…accurate are those point-defence lasers of ours?" he asked in a strange voice.

"Very," Warwick said. "Why?"

He pointed at a part of the rotating hologram: it stopped rotating and zoomed in on that component. "The warhead, here…it’s a two-hemisphere job. A conventional explosive on either side, they go off simultaneously, slam the two hemispheres of plutonium together…boom."

"I know how nuclear weapons work," Warwick said dryly. "What’s your point?"

"I remember some Yank once telling me that if just one of the conventionals goes off, slams one hemisphere into the other at that slower speed, it isn’t enough to reach critical mass," Gregory explained. "It’s finely balanced not to permit that. And after that, it wouldn’t matter if the other went off…"

Warwick nodded slowly. "On a twenty-first century Usan missile," she said. "Will that still be true on a Culvanai one?"

Gregory risked a glance at his watch. "Eight minutes," he said. "Unless you can think of anything better…"

Warwick grunted in reluctant agreement. "All right," he said. "You getting this Escs?"

The display briefly returned to the holograms of the two pilots. "Acknowledged, Xiangtan," Esc One said. "Moving to intercept." The display switched back to the sensor view.

"And here we go," Warwick said.

Gregory nodded. There they were, ahead of them, coming up quickly. Four silvery dots, only vaguely visible against the misty background, heading towards them at around two thousand miles per hour (or ‘muff’ as the Fourthers rather embarrassingly pronounced it). They were easily picked out, though, by the jet trails spewing out from them, tracing a quartet of lines back over the horizon to the distant Ickra island. He noted that, a few miles back above a channel of water between two islands, the trails all neatly jerked in the same turn. It was true, then: even without a sophisticated guidance system, the predictable air currents meant the missiles would stay on course.

Or at least that was what their makers had intended. Gregory resolved to change that.

"Prepare for rapid turnaround," Warwick said cheerfully, about a nanosecond before her hands swept across her display.

Gregory felt the acid scratching at his epiglottis as the Xiangtan flipped end over end in midair, using its chemical jets to pull off a trick that would have impressed even a Harrier pilot. Again, the inertial compensators couldn’t, quite, and he only just restrained his gorge as Warwick neatly used a second set of jets to rotate them back upright. The jungle landscape returned to its proper place, beneath their feet, but now they were facing the other way – and flying backwards. Behind them, he saw their exhaust wash knock another three startled dirigibles out of position.

Before he had a chance to get his breath back, Warwick casually flipped all the engines back onto full. The gravity-weakened-shields managed – just – to bend the protesting air currents around an artificially aerodynamic invisible shape. But their glowed bright red with atmospheric friction, almost as though they were doing an orbital dive.

The Xiangtan slowed, attained a velocity of precisely zero for an instant that seemed like a century, and then began to accelerate forwards again. And it was at that moment that the missiles overtook them.

Gregory let his mouth fall open in surprise. Seeing the missiles on the main window/screen, they didn’t look much different from Human ones – except that the writing on the side was in Culvanai script, and for the enlarged fins that let them cruise through the air currents. But the shuttle was travelling at a similar speed, and within seconds had matched their velocity. Warwick pushed it slightly, so that the shuttle was flying along beside the missiles, and Gregory felt like he could reach out and touch them. He could have done, if not for the two-thousand-mile-an-hour air currents tearing his arm off.

"Time to try it," Warwick said. "Seven minutes."

Gregory blinked: time was stretching out, as it always did in stressful situations. That was just as well… "Aye, ma’am," he said. "What do I do?"

Warwick locked her controls on and leaned over. "You’ll have to use manual override to target the lasers," she said. "And controlled bursts…ah…there." A new targeting display came up. "Go wild."

Gregory gulped. He forced himself not to stare at the missiles themselves, but merely at the holograms on his targeting display. That way it felt, distant, detached, like a simulator or a computer game…

"And be careful with that," Warwick added. "Our shields aren’t strong enough here to protect us from four nuclear blasts at close range."

The Englishman shook his head. Just what he needed. Not only were thousands of lives riding on this – one of them was his own.

"No sense in wasting time," he muttered. Using the targeting display, which wasn’t too dissimilar to the one he’d used for training sessions with the more conventional weapons, he focused on the warhead of the nearest missile. Targeting crosshairs locked on the forward explosive pack. Now or never.

He hit the button.

He didn’t look up at the window/screen, but Warwick saw it, as she desperately scanned the mists ahead for any dirigibles that might run into their path.

A faint line of red light, visible only where it contracted the water vapour of the mists, lanced out from one of the shuttle’s eight point-defence lasers. It was only there for a fraction of a second, far from the sustained bursts that were usually used.

The flicker of light hit the missile’s side and cored a hole through it, as tiny as a full stop. A surgical strike indeed.

There was a brief burst of flame emitted from the tiny crack between two of the plates making up the missile’s shell. Warwick almost bit her tongue. But then the explosion died.

Gregory checked his display. The conventional explosive had gone off, detonated by the laser in lieu of its usual electric-charge detonator. It had slammed the forward hemisphere of plutonium into the rear one. And nothing more had happened. He let a slow grin spread over his face. "We did it!" he said.

"Good," Warwick said. "Now the others."

"No," Gregory said, and she shot him an angry, puzzled glance. "First I have to be sure it can’t go off…"

He re-targeted the laser on the missile’s nose cone and, before Warwick could say anything, fired.

The second beam hit the pressure sensor, lighting up all its circuits as well as though it had actually contacted a solid object. The signal was quickly sent back into the warhead, split into two and flowed into the two conventional explosive detonators. One of them fired and propelled its hemisphere forward. The second had nothing left to blow.

The hemispheres clashed together again, and nothing happened. Gregory smiled again. "It’s done!" he said. "We can shoot it down now…"

Warwick shook her head. "Too political," she said. "Let it come down on the Amra’s heads. But I’ll send a signal that they’re harmless…after you’ve done the others."

Gregory nodded. He targeted the same component on the next missile, fired…same result. The conventional explosive went off, the two halves of the plutonium ball were slammed together, not fast enough to reach a critical mass. Then the third missile…

He targeted the component carefully and passed his finger through the holographic firing button –

And the missiles all swerved to the left, as the Xiangtan’s starboard shields flared suddenly with greater air friction.

Gregory gaped as his laser lanced out, missed the missile’s still-armed warhead and detonator by a few feet, and fizzled out. "My God," he murmured.

Warwick slapped her forehead with the heel of her hand. "Stupid," she muttered. "Bang on about the air currents and then forget to think of them myself…"

She quickly turned the shuttle back to the right trajectory, following the missiles, and gunned the fusion engines to get them back into position. Soon the two remaining missiles were there again. Shaking, Gregory targeted the component and fired again. This time it worked. The explosives went off, the plutonium collided, nothing happened.

And now the fourth missile. By now he was doing it almost automatically. Casually he flicked the crosshairs over where the component was and prepared to hit the button…

Then he yelled "STOP!" to himself.

"What?" Warwick said sharply, turning over.

"This missile – it’s a different design to the others," Gregory said grimly. "Look, it’s a whatchamacallit, a plutonium gun. Just a cone of plutonium that’s fired into a ball with that cone shape cut out of it…

"Which means," he concluded. "That there’s only one explosive pack. And if I set that off…" he shuddered.

Warwick blinked. "Then what do we do?" she said.

Gregory’s display cut back to the two pilots. "Xiangtan, this is Esc One," the leader said. "All targets destroyed by Ensign Gregory’s method." Gregory started; he’d forgotten that they’d been eavesdropping.

"None of them had an alternative warhead design?" Warwick asked.

"No, Lieutenant – all were the same," said Esc One.

"It’s an older design, at least on Earth," Gregory said. "Less efficient…"

"I’m sure that’ll be a great comfort for all those Culvanai who’ll be glowing and buzzing by nightfall," Warwick snapped. Gregory was taken aback that the same ridiculous image of nuclear fallout still persisted in the future, although perhaps it was a sarcastic idiom that had entered the language. In any case…

"What can we do?" he said. "How about using the ergblasters to vaporise it all in one go?"

"Won’t work," Warwick said, shaking her head. "The ergbeams would give the plutonium enough energy for each half to reach critical mass alone."

Gregory frowned. "How does that work?" he said. It was nothing like the nuclear physics he knew.

"No time for a lesson on the physics of ergweapons and how wrong Einstein was!" Warwick snapped. "Come on we have to think of something else!"

Gregory thought desperately. "Wait," he said. "You say they’re set off by an impact against the nose cone."

"That’s right – that one too," Warwick agreed, pointing at the hologram. "One minute by the way."

"How about an impact against the rear?"

Warwick frowned. "What are you thinking of?"

Gregory brought up a display and pointed to it. Warwick followed his gaze, gasped, and then grinned. "Helk Ensign that’s a crazy idea. Crazy enough to work. Okk. We’ll do it."

"But you’re not sure it’ll work?" Gregory said, as his fingers danced through the air, making the preparations.

"Of course not," she replied. "But I’ve got nothing else. And we’re running out of time."

"Aye, ma’am," he said with a faint grin. He gently adjusted the crosshairs. No sense in messing this up. Magnetic would be best… "Ready, ma’am."

"Go," Warwick said.

As Gregory’s hand drifted toward the control, as though in slow motion, preserved by the moment stretching off into infinity, he suddenly knew the words he had to say. In the abstract they sounded, absurd, archaic, jingoistic. But he also knew they were the right words to say.

"For England," he whispered, and hit the button.

The Xiangtan shuddered as, from the pod underneath the shuttle, its grappling hook lashed out on its carbon nanotube cable.

It might have hit hard enough to set off the pressure sensors anyway, nose cone or no, but Gregory had dialled down the power. As it was, it barely reached all the way there before the wind currents knocked it back again. But the tip of one claw scratched the wing of the missile, and that was enough. The magnetic clamps engaged, drawing the missile tight to the grappler, incidentally crumpling the thin metal of the fragile wing between the three claws.

Gregory let out a breath. "We’ve done it," he said.

"And now to do our duty," said Warwick. He gave her a sidelong glance, wondering if she was mocking his presumed last words. But all her attention was on the shuttle and its engines. She worked her controls, slowing the forward thrust, cutting in the retros. The cable began to stretch taut between the Xiangtan and the last missile.

Gregory gasped as, on the horizon before them, a familiar island appeared. The distinctive shape of its citadel was unmistakable. "There’s the Amra island!" he cried.

"Dammit," Warwick muttered. "They force our hand. Never mind." Her hands danced over the controls yet more rapidly. Gregory felt the shuttle slow yet further. But he couldn’t take his eyes off the island – he thought he could even see people standing on the battlements of the citadel, and more, far more, desperately fleeing the capital, carrying nothing but their young children and the clothes on their backs. He winced. If this didn’t work…

Well, at least I won’t be around to worry about it.

"Turnaround!" Warwick said. Once again, the chemical jets flared. Once again, the Xiangtan turned – though this time it was a lateral turn, not flipping end to end as that would tangle the cable attached to the ventral hull. Gregory clutched the armrests of his chair. But nothing happened, save for the fact that the missile was now being pulled back. As the grapple was only attached to one wing, the result was that the missile was yanked over to one side, and its engine trail traced bizarre loop-the-loops as the cable led it around. A Human-built missile, with its computer, might have tried to fight against the cable, get back to its preset course, or just detonate. But the simple Culvanai missile just kept flaring, its solid fuel motor not controllable in any case.

"And now we go to somewhere safe we can detonate it!" Warwick said.

Gregory blinked. "Where? You said there’s nowhere on Culvana that we could – oh." He abruptly realised.

"That’s right," Warwick said with a feral smile, and gunned the engines once more.

The Xiangtan rose upward, its nose tilting towards the twin suns. Gregory saw the shields burning again with air friction as they raced upwards. He glanced into the rear-facing monitor, worrying that the missile would be tossed about and thus detonated by their wake. But the grappler and thus its cargo were within the shield, Warwick having extended them around them. The missile still waggled furiously in its uneven grip, but showed no signs of going off.

As he looked in the rear viewer, he could see the three remaining missiles dropping down onto the Amra island. He saw several small Patriot-like countermissiles rising from the Citadel – either Warwick had neglected to send a signal saying the missiles were disarmed, or else the Amra were just panicky and wanted to be sure. Not that the countermissiles would have done that much good – most likely they would have just set off the warheads, meaning that all they could accomplish would be to make the detonation happen a couple of miles more distant.

As it happened, two of the three missiles were successfully brought down by countermissiles, the Amra weapons blowing them to shards of metal in midair. The third successfully evaded – not consciously, of course – all the weapons the Amra hurled at it, and descended into the one of the vast ‘courtyards’ that formed a quarter of the city. Nothing happened, beyond a brief spurt of debris thrown up by the impact. Gregory breathed a sigh of relief: aside from any unlucky person standing right under the missile as it came down, the Amra – and the rest of the Ingram party – had escaped harm.

"We’re getting there," Warwick said. Glancing up, Gregory nodded; the blue sky above was shading to black, and the stars were becoming visible. Behind him, he saw the missile’s rocket motor finally stutter and die. He half expected it to go off as a failsafe – which would have vaporised the shuttle, as the missile was held inside the shields – but nothing happened. He breathed yet another sigh of relief, and felt the adrenaline burning through his veins.

"Orbit," Warwick said presently, flicking some controls. And indeed the Xiangtan was there, the mottled surface of Culvana no longer a flat plain below them, but a palpable sphere. The stars were there, only slightly twinkling from the faint traces of atmosphere still above them.

"We’d better get even higher," Gregory warned. "Detonating it here could set off an EMP and wipe out electronics down there."

"Ah yes," Warwick said. "I keep forgetting the tech won’t be shielded against them. Shame we couldn’t just do that to Mu’rKlungs’ gang, eh?"

Gregory nodded. It was an attractive image. The biter bit, using their own weapon against them. But, while it might take out the twenty-first century era Culvanai technology, it wouldn’t touch the Fourther courier that was, after all, the key to the gang’s power.

"All right," Warwick said, finally slackening off the engine. "We’re coming up on one of the moons – there," she said. The moon, one of Culvana’s pair, was right ahead of them. It was perhaps half the size of Earth’s Moon (as Gregory could readily attest, from having lived there for months) but also much closer to Culvana. He was surprised the tides weren’t worse than they were, but his scanners told him that this moon had a relatively low density and thus a smaller gravitational field. He said so.

"And that’s another reason why it’s a good spot," Warwick said. She carefully adjusted the engines so that the Xiangtan, and its missile passenger, swung around one side of the moon and were now on the far side. The moon effectively eclipsed the planet, both from their sight and, more importantly, any trace of EMP. "Our shields will work well here; not much of a gravity well."

"Ah yes," Gregory said, mimicking her tones of a few moments ago. "So – now?"

"One moment," Warwick said. "First pull the shields in and then release the grappler – just in case –"

"Done," Gregory said. He’d been ready to do it now. The shields retreated from the missile and grappler, conforming to the sides of the cable. "Release the grappler?" Otherwise, if the missile went off, the explosion could conceivably vaporise the cable and rush in through the hole left in the shields.

"Yes, do it," Warwick said after a brief hesitation. "Plenty of spares on the Ingram."

Gregory nodded and hit the button. There was a distant clunk sound, and then the whole grappler pod was falling away from them, neatly jettisoned. The shields briefly bent around the pod as it passed through them, then closed up. "Now?" he asked.

"Retreat a little, and then," Warwick said. She manipulated the controls and the shuttle roared away until it was separated from the drifting, lost-looking missile by a couple of miles. "Now."

Gregory smiled, brought up the laser display again, targeted the nose cone, and fired.

The laser beam, hardly visible at all in the vacuum of space, flickered out, hit the nose cone.

And the missile detonated.

The nuclear explosion was rather anticlimactic in space, as there was no surrounding atmosphere for it to ignite and twist into an impressive mushroom cloud. Nevertheless, the detonation resembled a tiny sun for a brief moment, the window/screen darkening against the light. And then Gregory felt the energy washing over them. Not through them, though; the shields flared briefly as they repelled the gamma radiation and other EM with almost contemptuous ease.

And then the light faded, and there was nothing.

"It is finished," Warwick said, her voice sounding shaky.

Gregory could emphathise: the adrenaline, which had given him the ability to think and act fast enough to respond to the crisis, now demanded he repay it. He slumped in his chair, felt his hands quiver, hurriedly pulled them out of the holographic display lest he accidentally set off the self-destruct or fax his life savings to the government.

"We did it," he said finally.

Warwick nodded. "And now," she added slowly, "perhaps they’ll listen to us."

Chapter Twenty-Two


Amra Citadel, Culvana

March 1st, 2007

For the third time in as many hours, Gregory’s feet were being sucked down by the tenacious muds of Culvana. Muttering obscenities to himself, and making a mental note to get hold of some of those flipper/snowshoes the Culvanai wore, he finally managed to drag himself back onto the concrete path.

Warwick was already there, but things were very different from before. Even this obscure, private path was packed with yellow-skinned aliens carrying young children and, occasionally, belongings. Half of them seemed to be trying to get out, and the other half were trying to get back in: the results of confused rumours going about. Gregory spotted one of the minor Amra Rulers up on the citadel’s battlements, yelling down at the crowd with a megaphone of some sort, but even that was lost in the chaos. Shaking his head, Gregory squared his shoulders and pushed his way through the crowd, Warwick assisting him. It helped that any Culvanai who angrily turned his way was momentarily stunned by his obviously alien appearance, and while they were standing there gaping, the two Humans had already moved on.

Eventually they made their way back into the Citadel proper, where the chaos was marginally more organised. Nevertheless, Gregory saw two groups of courtiers or civil servants – or both, possibly – apparently arguing over whether they were supposed to be taking the rare tapestries down or putting them up. Again, the Culvanai paused in their heated argument to stare at the bizarre pink-skinned, bristle-less beings as they passed, before performing the equivalents of shrugs and resuming it.

And then there was the big room. Gregory had begun to think of it as the War Room, and now that appellation looked even more apt. As well as the two big maps, one on the wall and one on the table, a host of smaller ones had been plastered anywhere they would fit, and pins and stickers and hurriedly written labels had been stuck all over them.

Around the table stood everyone they’d left there – including the Supreme Savant and the Supreme Defender, who’d returned – plus many more. Gregory spotted two younger-looking female Culvanai who bore an obvious family resemblance to Yu’lAmra; well, he reminded himself, all the Amra were members of one extended family, but here the resemblance was enough to suggest they were Yu’lAmra’s daughters.

Rebekah Meisenheimer looked up from one of the maps, which she’d been frowning at fiercely. "Good, you’re back," she said. From the way she relished the English words, Gregory guessed she’d been frustrated by Culvanaic conversations for the past hour or so. "What took you so long?"

Warwick explained what they had done, mentioning Gregory’s contributions in glowing terms; he looked aside, a little embarrassed. Furthermore, He’gAmmj decided to give a running translation into the lingua franca spoken by all the Culvanai here. Supreme Defender Lu’nAmra laughed, at first disbelievingly and then at the Others’ discomfiture, when they had assured her that Warwick wasn’t being hyperbolic. The Supreme Savant, whose name was Ri’lAmra, seemed even more impressed, and immediately began quizzing He’gAmmj about the Fourther laser technology, until Yu’lAmra, with what seemed to be an amused expression, gently told her that that could wait until later.

Ja’rIckra grunted. "So these were our own missiles," she said (via He’gAmmj and Je’tEnnck). "I suspected as much. They would have used their own weapons again before now if they had any left."

Warwick nodded. "Given how they must have pushed that courier to the limit on the way here I’m amazed they even had enough antimatter left for two missiles."

"And, of course, those couriers don’t carry more than two missiles for emergencies in any case," Je’tEnnck said thoughtfully. "I had hoped they’d be limited to that, but I was worried that they might have managed to build some more…"

"Not likely," Ja’rIckra said, once the words had been turned into the Mevlo Altongue for her. "All of my people are dead or fled. There are only twenty or so of the Others – less, now, for we managed to kill one or two of them." She took what pride she could in that minor victory. "They do not have anything like the industry to build anything more. They have only avoided starving so far by scaring the nearby islands into supplying them. Perhaps given more time and they will expand those demands, or else just try and take over one of those Clusters by force…"

"Those Clusters would not willingly serve them, any more than yours would, or did," said Yu’lAmra.

"I hope so," Ja’rIckra grunted, but it was obvious that she was sceptical of her neighbours.

"So these were ordinary atomic missiles," said Lu’nAmra. "Ickra design, I presume."

Warwick hesitated, then described them. By the time He’gAmmj had translated the words, Ja’rIckra – and Lu’nAmra – were nodding along, or the equivalent. "I thought so," Ja’rIckra said heavily. "No wonder they haven’t been active for a few weeks. They must have been busy breaking into our Cluster’s store of atomics." She scowled. "I had hoped those complex locking systems and booby traps were impregnable."

"They did have technology from the future," Ri’lAmra reminded her. "Which reminds me-"

Thankfully, someone cut the Savant off again. "How many missiles did you have?" Meisenheimer asked.

Ja’rIckra frowned at the translated words. "I would not wish to comment…oh, chasm, never mind. What harm can it do now?" Nevertheless, she mulled over her words for a few moments, before letting them out with a sigh: "We always had twelve ready to launch, and twenty-four more in storage. Most of them were plutonium gun warheads I inherited from my mother, but we were busy melting down some of the old plutonium to make bi-hemisphere or implosion sphere weapons instead. That was when the Others came."

Warwick glanced at Gregory. "They fired off twelve missiles," she said. "Eleven of them were bi-hemisphere jobs. The last one had a plutonium gun warhead. That was the one we had to drag into space to deal with."

Lu’nAmra laughed again at the story, at the sheer audacity of the method, as she had put it. The Culvanai had sent the odd probe or satellite into space, but the fact that the space programmes were the products of fragile and always-shifting alliances between Clusters meant that little tended to come of that. No single Cluster had the resources necessary to support a full-blown space programme: many struggled even to build nuclear weapons and missiles, although every Cluster needed them to avoid becoming irrelevant.

But Ja’rIckra slowly tapped the table before her as she thought. "Eleven new ones and one older," she said. "I think that means they’ve blown through our entire stock of the new warheads. As for the number of old ones left," she shrugged, "they’re still in storage and it will take time to get them out. Also some of them may still be halfway through the process of meltdown to make the new weapons, as it was when the Others came."

"So their remaining nuclear capabilities are limited," Meisenheimer said slowly.

"Does it matter?" Lu’nAmra argued. "You dealt with twelve of them easily enough."

Warwick shook her head, sending her blonde ponytail flicking from one shoulder to the other. "Any more missiles must have the plutonium-gun warheads. They may be less efficient but they will be much harder for us to deal with."

"It should not matter," Ja’rIckra said. "As I said, they are sorely lacking in womanpower. They won’t be able to prepare any more missiles for, oh, at least a week by my judgement."

Meisenheimer mulled that over, oncei t was translated. "And they still don’t know we’re here…?"

"Not according to our intercepts," said Ri’lAmra. "They have one of their gang, named Ul’iVrees," and Je’tEnnck groaned, "broadcasting propaganda. Nothing about you lot on the latest broadcast half an hour ago. They claimed to have fired missiles without warheads merely as a demonstration of power."

Lu’nAmra snorted. "They know nothing about this."

"Ul’iVrees," Je’tEnnck murmured to herself. "I might have known. Troublemakers, the lot of them." She laughed harshly. "Let’s send all our paleolithic, sexist, Human-hating morons to the Embassy on Luna, that way they won’t be able to avoid running into Humans, and their eyes will be opened by the experience." The words were a sarcastic singsong. "Avoiding the fact that that means you’ll be putting all your dangerous lunatics in one basket, where they can all swap their comm numbers…"

"There’s nothing we can do about it now, Ambassador," He’gAmmj said quietly.

Je’tEnnck ‘nodded’ slowly. "All right. So, what’s our plan of action to deal with them?"

Lu’nAmra glanced at Yu’lAmra, who nodded. "We’ve already moved a large part of our army down to the vicinity of the Ickra island, over the past few weeks," he said. "They’re being supported by the island of the Uref, a Cluster currently allied to our own." Gregory was amused at the ‘currently’: Culvanai alliances were like shifting sands. "In addition to that, I bet that at least the Onnv and the Rannt will support us, and their forces are also reasonably close by."

"But we haven’t dared attack yet," said Yu’lAmra. "Not while we thought they might have more of those chasm-weapons…"

"They do not," Je’tEnnck assured her. "And Matriarch Ja’rIckra seems able to confirm that they will not have access to any more atomics anytime soon, either…"

Yu’lAmra nodded. "Then we must strike now," she decided. "Hard, and fast."

"Hear, hear," Meisenheimer said loudly. "Perhaps a strike from orbit would be best. The Ingram could flux its way in and drop a missile on their heads before you can say Jack Robinson." Gregory pitied He’gAmmj, who struggled with the direct translation of that idiom.

Ja’rIckra frowned. "Would that not do even more damage to my island?" she asked.

"Well…" Meisenheimer shrugged; the Culvanai drew back in surprise at how her shoulders moved, a very alien way indeed to them. "Yes. But it would certainly take them out before they knew what they were doing."

"I don’t like it," Ja’rIckra said slowly.

"But if it means we don’t have to risk the lives of our soldiers…" Lu’nAmra pointed out.

"Your soldiers, you mean," Ja’rIckra shot back.

"Peace," Yu’lAmra said sharply. "You – Irthai male – you have something to say?"

Gregory lowered his hand. He’d been hoping that the Firster Culvanai couldn’t tell the difference between Human genders: a vain hope, evidently. "My name is Ken Gregory," he said. "There’s one thing: Ms Meisenheimer, were we not sent here partly to retrieve shielding technology appropriate for our new Unity spacecraft?"

Meisenheimer frowned. "Why, yes."

"Well – can the Culvanai of this period supply it themselves?"

He’gAmmj rattled off a few sentences at Lu’nAmra and Ri’lAmra, who replied, and then they went back and forth a few times. Gregory felt his heart sink: he could recognise someone trying to get across unfamiliar concepts. And if the concepts were unfamiliar…

Finally the Fourther Culvanai looked up. "They have particle shields, very early ones," he said in English. "Janvier-Graham? No. We are before the advent of Janvier-Graham technology on Culvana, just as we are on Earth."

Meisenheimer let out a sigh. "I had feared it might be so," she said. "Your histories are a little vague on this subject-"

"Because some of the Clusters discovered the effects before others and kept it secret for a long time," Je’tEnnck explained. "But I think now is too early, for any of them."

Meisenheimer raised an eyebrow. "And you didn’t feel the need to mention this back on Luna?" she said dangerously.

Je’tEnnck gave her an apologetic look. "I needed to use everything I had to get Mr. Garrows to sponsor this mission…"

Meisenheimer sighed. "All right," she said. "What was your point, Ensign Gregory?"

"Thank you. It is this," Gregory said. "Commander He’gAmmj, please ask Matriarch Ja’rIckra if the…the Others ever went around with datareaders – describe them to her – talking about how to build bits of future technology."

He’gAmmj went back and forth a few times with Ja’rIckra, who bit his head off once when (Gregory guessed) she felt she was being patronised by a mere male. But then He’gAmmj turned. "Yes," he said. "She says that some of her Savants wanted to start building future weapons and devices according to the plans given to them by the Others."

Gregory let out a breath. "Then, you see-"

"I see," Je’tEnnck said grimly. "They brought a copy of my embassy database with them when they fled, when they erased ours. So if we want those plans-"

"We have to take them intact," Warwick concluded. "Them, and the ship."

Meisenheimer looked up, as He’gAmmj filled in the Firster Culvanai. "All right," she said. "In that case, a new plan." She frowned. "We need to get people into that island secretly – commandoes – and bring it down that way. Not give them time to destroy that database or use it as a bargaining chip."

"Ah yes," Gregory said. "A Daring Commando Raid™." Inwardly, he wished they had a few SAS divisions on board. He knew they had a few, a very few, Astroforce SpecOps commandoes, but not many had been on Luna when the Shift happened…

"We’ll need to distract them," Je’tEnnck decided. "A frontal attack, while we send our women in the rear."

Yu’lAmra frowned at first, but Lu’nAmra enthusiastically talked her around to it. "It won’t be for long, and, as the Matriarch says, they don’t have much womanpower. They can hardly mobilise what’s left of the Ickra garage and hangar against us, if there are only twenty of them."

"Our women?" Ja’rIckra objected. "We should be in the first rank. I, and other Ickra. To retake our island." She spoke with as much confidence and dignity as though she were representing a force as united and powerful as that of the Amra: Gregory briefly had a mental image of Charles de Gaulle superimposed on the towering Culvanai, and restrained a chuckle.

"I suppose that can be arranged," Yu’lAmra said, sounding as though she rather hoped that the first rank got mown down by machinegun fire.

"And no NoMercies," Ja’rIckra added sharply.

Lu’nAmra’s bristles stood out straight in surprise. "But NoMercies are our best fighters," she objected. "I had planned to hire three brigades of them…"

"No," Ja’rIckra said firmly. "They will try and claim the island for themselves."

While the argument went on, Gregory asked Warwick: "What are NoMercies?"

Warwick laughed. "It’s just a translation of the Culvanaic term which is a contraction of ‘Nomadic Mercenary’. The other meaning in English is incidental – but accurate," she added with a wink. "They consist of those Culvanai left over when Clusters are wiped out or those exiled from their Cluster for an indiscretion. So they band together in nomadic brigades without a home island and travel around hiring themselves out. Some act as scientists or engineers for hire but most are warrior commandoes. They hope to raise enough money to improve their own weapons until that brigade can try and take an island from an established Cluster – or settle an empty one. That’s what Ja’rIckra is scared about."

Meanwhile, the argument had wound down. Yu’lAmra sighed. "Very well, no NoMercies," she said. "We shall supply the commandoes ourselves, and of course from you and your exiles…"

"And us," Meisenheimer chipped in once the words were translated. "And we will bring down more shuttles, so you can rapidly travel to your armies, and then we’ll use them to insert the commandoes."

Yu’lAmra’s bristles flickered. "Very well," she said. "They must be there in any case, just in case the Others manage to fire off another atomic missile."

Meisenheimer nodded and turned to Warwick. "Lieutenant, Ensign, please take the Xiangtan up to the Ingram. Get refuelled and request from Captain Stjepanovic that she detach all available shuttles to follow you back down. Ensure you stay over the horizon from the Ickra island and keep flux radio silence – that stands out a mile, or so they tell me."

"It’s true," Warwick agreed. "We should be able to get away with old-style Firster radio though if necessary."

She stood, beckoning Gregory with her. "Come Ensign. We must return."

Gregory nodded. "I’m beginning to get sick of the sight of that shuttle," he admitted.


Deception, orbit of Vároton

August 25th, 2007

Celoun admired the forward screen of the Deception. Not only was it a fine piece of engineering, far more advanced than the cathode ray screens that the Vároto normally had to put up with, but it displayed a most pleasing image as well. One side of the screen was occupied by the planet Vároton, its jungles and scrubland looking lovely on the single, rather contorted, enormous continental mass. The sea, a slightly purplish shade of blue – due to the presence of photosynthetic marine microbes – formed an aesthetically pleasing counterpart to it. Almost as fitting as blood on the soil of the battlefield, Celoun thought, or perhaps blood on the clinical whitewashed floor of the laboratory. After mulling it over for a while, he decided he preferred the latter image.

His favourite Vároto at the moment walked up to him and genuflected. It was a measure of how much this Vároto pleased Celoun that he had told him he could get away with such a cursory display of respect: others were forced into a full proskinethis, or worse. But not this one. His name was Wrais. Ehred Wrais. And he was the captain, the Killerlord, of the Deception, the ship that Celoun had chosen as his personal flagship.

"Killerlord Wrais," Celoun said. It amused him to address a member of one of the child-races, even though one he was pleased with, by a title containing the word lord. An uninformed fool might even think he was addressing Wrais as a superior…he laughed to himself at the joke.

Wrais was clever enough not to ask what the joke was. "Honoured Sahdavi Celoun," he said, and again, that relatively perfunctory title was enough from him. Celoun knew that the real respect lay beneath it, and unlike with some subordinates, he didn’t need to have them remind themselves of it all the time.

"Good," Celoun said, staring forward again. The right hand side of the screen showed the vastness of space, and in it were five more sleek black shapes, indeed visible only where they reflected the light from Vároton – which was in turn reflected from the suns. "The fleet is assembled. We are ready. And you have performed those checks I demanded?"

"Yes, my lord," said Wrais. "Lord Rosuntur’s subordinates were correct," he said reluctantly. "If we are careful, then we will be able to reach this planet Stentyrrea without stopping to set up refuelling stations. Just. Barely."

Celoun nodded. "Good enough. It will save time, and time is precious here. If our mission is a success, we will not require refuelling at any time."

Wrais frowned slightly. He did not know all the specifics of the mission, only that they were going to acquire some lost technology from the Noontide Age. In fact, Celoun’s words might have made him think that the god intended to abandon the Vároto there. But if so, then so what? He was content with it, for he knew that he had served his god well.

"Then that is all," Celoun said, half to himself. "Gilael and Xanthir shall press ahead with the construction projects," he laughed again, "not least because Gilael insists we shall need more ships to repel the Ol’Banedt invasion." Wrais shrank back at Celoun absently mentioning the hated name. "They can go for Svaalrog. We shall take the quicker path."

Celoun looked at the screen once more. In the centre of it, between the fleet and Vároton, were the shipyards. Six already, and more under construction. Two of them larger than the others, for new designs of ships. By the time they returned, a true battle force would be well under way.

"Open a channel to Rosuntur’s ship," he said in lordly tones. Rather than convey the order to one of his subordinates, Wrais pulled out the bulky remote control board that he carried with him at all times, enabling to override all the other bridge consoles. He selected the right mode and fiddled with the touch screen. "Done, my lord."

The screen shifted to show Rosuntur standing on the identical bridge of his chosen ship, the Truthful Lie. In fact, the bridges were so similar that Celoun suddenly had the thought that he was looking into a mirror – apart from the fact that Rosuntur’s Vároto killerlord was a female, and of course Rosuntur was (in Celoun’s entirely unbiased opinion) much uglier.

"Celoun," Rosuntur said without prologue. "We begin?"

"Presently," Celoun said. "Let us leave the gravity well and head for the edge of the cometary cloud."

"I concur," Rosuntur said. "This mission will succeed."

Celoun smiled. "We have no other choice, old friend," he said, for once without adding too much sarcasm to the phrase. "And once it has succeeded, then we shall be able to defeat our enemies once and for all."

Rosuntur nodded, but there was an odd twinkle in his eye. "I agree wholeheartedly, Celoun…"

Chapter Twenty-Three


Charles Ingram, 30 light-seconds from Culvana

March 1st, 2007

"You want to what?!" Captain Stjepanovic yelled.

Ambassador Je’tEnnck folded her arms, a deliberately learned Human gesture. "We want to wipe the traitor scum off the face of Culvana and try to repair the damage they have done," she said coldly. "I fail to see why you have any objection to that."

"You want to launch an assault using the shuttlecraft and personnel of this ship," Stjepanovic said. "In coordination with contemporary Culvanai forces down there…with the intention of restoring the Ickra to control of their island? That does not sit well with me."

Je’tEnnck paused, composing her thoughts. "I would have said the same thing, a few hours ago," she admitted. "But things down on the surface are not as we imagined them. The Ickra did not live up to my treacherous subordinates’ expectations. Now, what few of them are left oppose them, the ‘Others’ as they call them, with every…" she paused, dredging up the Human phrase from her memory, "fibre of their being."

"One of these survivors is Ja’rIckra," Stjepanovic pointed out. "The grandmother of Ky’lIckra herself! And you want to help them?"

"Considering the alternative, yes, Captain," Je’tEnnck said. "Ja’rIckra is not her granddaughter. She is conservative and rather abrasive, but far from the ogre that revisionist historians have made her out to be, those who blamed Ky’lIckra’s ravages on the fact that her mother and grandmother had so expanded their domain and its power…"

She paused. "Captain, we have to move now," she said. "The…Others have expended all their antimatter stores for weaponry, and have fired off all the contemporary atomic weapons they have ready access to."

"So you claim," Stjepanovic said, "based on Ja’rIckra’s information…"

Je’tEnnck sized up the fiery Serb. "Captain, we do not have any choice," she said baldly. "There are other weapons in the Ickra caches. Given time, the Others might be able to activate them and use them, perhaps even seize control of a Cluster more amenable to their demands…or less willing to stand up to them. I cannot allow that. We cannot allow that."

Stjepanovic frowned. "If the Others lack any significant weapons capability now, why not let the contemporaries make the attack themselves?"

"One, because the Amra or someone might try and take the island for themselves, destabilising the balance of power," Je’tEnnck said. That was normally forbidden, but the Amra could claim extraordinary circumstances…and with the Ka’Mevweck gone, there was no forum for anyone else to present a united front opposing such an action. "And, more importantly to you, we believe the Others have a copy of our database, the embassy database, with them. Including the plans for those shield technologies that Mr. Garrows is so interested in…"

Stjepanovic’s eyebrows came down suspiciously. "Why did you not mention this at the start?" she asked in dangerous tones.

"Because I wanted to see if you were willing to commit forces merely on the strength of saving Culvanai lives," Je’tEnnck said coldly. "The answer appears to be no, and I shall remember it. Furthermore, I have a direct request from your envoy Meisenheimer." She slid the datareader across the desk.

Stjepanovic read the words rapidly, then gave a sharp nod. "Very well," she muttered. "Some of our shuttlecraft cannot be spared from the work of the gasdiver," she said. "But I shall commit what I can. And those SpecOps people we have on board."

"And weapons," Je’tEnnck added pointedly.

Stjepanovic gave her an icy stare. "Yes," she said. "Under orders, I will hand over cases of ergrifles to a bunch of feuding primitives."

Je’tEnnck raised her (hairless) brow, another learned Human gesture. "You seem to have no problem with doing it on Earth."

And with that, she turned on her heel and left. Stjepanovic sighed, and went back to looking at the datareader.

"This had better be worth it, Meisenheimer," she said to the empty air.

Meanwhile, outside Stjepanovic’s office, Je’tEnnck met up with her pilots again. "We have permission, finally," the ambassador said.

Warwick nodded. "Not all the shuttles though?"

"No, just as you thought, Lieutenant," Je’tEnnck said. "The gasdiver. But enough." Her own personal datareader beeped and she lifted it to find that Stjepanovic had sent the authorisation through. She handed it over to Warwick, who scanned the numbers.

"Enough," the Cancy repeated eventually. "But not enough pilots…"

She turned to her protégé. "Which means, Ensign, that you’ll be flying the Xiangtan alone."

Gregory raised his eyebrows, but gave a quick nod. "Hey, we’ve already saved the planet," he said half-jokingly. "How hard can it be?"


Shuttle Xiangtan

Enroute to Uref Island, Culvana

Gregory soon found out. He didn’t know whether it was due to the fact that, given his actions with Warwick, the others now thought he could handle himself in the shuttle, but he had been given an…interesting complement for his shuttle.

They’d already landed on the Amra island – and he’d smiled at the obviously awestruck expressions of some of the Culvanai, who pointed at an entire fleet of the advanced craft – and loaded up even more on top of what they already had. The fleet consisted of five other bread-and-butter Raleighs like the Xiangtan, three Kohl heavy cargo shuttles and four Cordiale executive models now placed into service as transports. Thirteen in all: Gregory was glad he wasn’t superstitious. The Culvanai of course wouldn’t care. There were no fighters committed: they weren’t suited to the infiltration and would immediately give away the Fourther involvement if included in the distracting frontal strike. Stjepanovic would have been unlikely to part with them anyway. Esc One and Two, for their part – and Gregory wondered if he’d ever find out which of the pilots they had been – had returned to the ship.

He jerked his hands through the holographic controls, avoiding another startled-looking airship. "Close one," he muttered. "Still nothing on the Others’ radio to indicate they know we’re here?"

He’gAmmj was sitting in his passenger seat, acting as a translator. The other shuttles also had Fourther Culvanai in them for the same purpose, taken from the remaining Culvanai embassy staff on the Ingram. The Firster envoys, on the other hand, seemed to be watching the whole affair with an air of detached bemusement. None of them had insisted on observing the events, either trusting in Andrew Stillsby’s account or simply not caring.

He’gAmmj now answered his question. "No," he said. "I’m not surprised. The only place where they could have heard about us is on the contemporary radio."

"But surely all those airships must have reported us…"

"Encrypted military channels," He’gAmmj reminded him. "Oh, the Others could crack them with the courier’s computer. But why bother trying to catch all of them? Anyway, most of these are over the horizon from them." He frowned. "Maybe we should try and be a little more careful when we get closer to the Uref. The Others might be intercepting local transmissions to warn them of any attack."

"Seems sensible," Gregory agreed. He dodged an even larger airship, one which had a massive double gondola – almost like a catamaran – with what was obviously a flight deck spread between the pods. Two or three autogyros buzzed around the airship and he thought he could see the snouts of more protruding from the front of the flight deck. He frowned: he knew that airships had been poor bombers on Earth because even a small extra load could make it difficult for the gasbag to hold them up. How could this one manage the varying weight of autogyros on the flight deck, then? But he soon realised: the gasbag was only one means of holding the craft up. Poking out of the gondolas on either side were large nacelles bearing propellers, capable of rotating to point upwards and provide more downward thrust. By doing this with more and more of its nacelles, the airship could thus counter the increasing payload as autogyros landed – albeit at the expense of the forward drive that the propellers were otherwise engaged in.

"Interesting airship," he said, making conversation. "Autogyro carrier?"

"That’s right," said He’gAmmj. "I’m not an expert on the ones of this era…" his bristles drooped, he groaned, and he leaned over to ask a question of the other passenger in the front. Gregory was about to tell him that it wasn’t necessary, but He’gAmmj was already putting the question to Ja’rIckra. And who decided to put them together, and more to the point, with me? So far they had spent the trip in a frosty silence, avoiding each others’ gazes.

Ja’rIckra gave a few monosyllabic answers and then followed up with a flow of Culvanaic. He’gAmmj turned back to Gregory. From the way his bristles were twitching, Gregory – though he was hardly an expert on Culvanai body language – guessed that Ja’rIckra had managed to say something casually insulting again. But He’gAmmj spoke only of airships. "These large carrier dirigibles, Polh’ckelli we call them, are capable of carrying six autogyros. They are also equipped with secondary armaments, machine guns and rockets."

Gregory raised an eyebrow. Ja’rIckra, and even He’gAmmj, had sounded absurdly proud of such a small number of aircraft. Then he remembered that the powers putting forward these airships were not the vast nations of Earth, with their millions of people, but familial Clusters, perhaps fifty thousand people each, on tiny islands the size of the Isle of Wight or smaller. What was a miracle was that they were able to afford any serious firepower at all…

The shuttle passed near to another carrier airship and Gregory programmed a secondary console to give him a rotating holographic overview of one of the autogyros. He studied it: not unakin to the autogyros that (much like airships) everyone had claimed would catch on in the 1930s. Absurdly, he wondered if the Culvanai had ridiculous old movies claiming that in the future, the skies would be filled with planes and helicopters…

The autogyro had a short snout bearing a broad propeller: he’d learned that the Culvanai knew of the theory of the jet engine, but the composition of the atmosphere down here made them less efficient than a propeller, and besides, Culvanai vehicles rarely had to travel a long way so did not require such high speeds. The Amra had only managed to get their army a few hundred miles away by a complex webwork of deals and treaties. The shuttle convoy, of course, simply blasted through a half-dozen Cluster territories in a few minutes without bothering to ask permission. Why, when most of the Clusters couldn’t even be certain that they’d seen them?

There were two stubby wings extending out from the fuselage. They seemed to exist more to be a weapons platform than for any aerodynamic purpose. The wings had machine guns mounted on the tips, so ensuring that the bullet stream went around the broad propeller and not through it (Gregory wondered if they’d ever invented the interrupter gear, or just didn’t trust it), and a pair of rockets slung underneath. Like the nuclear missiles, the rockets were unguided. The Culvanai were too good at confusing their own guidance systems at this point in history, and besides, the rockets were built for shooting at big targets – such as airships. Hard to miss.

"Do you use autogyro bombers at all?" he asked He’gAmmj.

The Culvanai mulled it over. "Not to my knowledge," he said. "They’re not very efficient for bombing our cities, and…well, it’s not really our way in any case."

Gregory frowned. "What do you mean?"

He’gAmmj paused. "Have you read much about the Culvanai attitude to warfare?"

Gregory nodded hesitantly. "A little, in the encyclopaedias. I didn’t really understand it, though."

"Right. Well, we believe that the purest form of warfare is a single combat between two equal individuals, womano a womano," he said. "Everything else, you know, vehicles, aircraft, even armies, corrupts that pure scenario. So everyone tries to get the moral high ground." He paused. "Our aircraft are only built to destroy other aircraft. Our vehicles, only to destroy other vehicles. It’s hoped that this will cancel everything else out. Everything that’s, as you would say," he laughed, "ungentlemanly."

Gregory scratched his head. "Hard to see how such a system could survive. It died out on Earth in World War One, even if it was ever there. When it’s total war, with your very survival at stake, you begin to wonder whether keeping to the rules is worth it."

"Yet you do it yourself," He’gAmmj argued, as Gregory hastily swerved them around a whole convoy of airships crossing their course at ninety degrees. "In your Second World War, yes I know my Human history, both sides refrained from using poison gas. And don’t try and claim that wasn’t a total war."

Gregory opened his mouth, shut it again. The Culvanai had a point.

"Furthermore, I’ve seen it happens in your world today," He’gAmmj continued. "I’ve read your news broadcasts to get a feel for your world. The president of Usa has declared a ‘war on terrorism’, as though you could somehow expunge a certain underhanded form of warfare from your collective consciousness. And others, usually his political opponents," Gregory smiled, despite himself, "have said that they want to ban land mines and cluster bombs, because they carry on being a danger to civilians long after the original war has finished. By your argument, you never think about the afterwards while the war is on, and so you would use every weapon at your disposal just to ensure you did everything you could to survive and emerge victorious. But that doesn’t always happen."

"You make good points," Gregory said. "But what about your nukes? They’re an attack on a civilian target, and hardly a fair fight…"

"Quite the contrary. They are cannons at one pace, you might say. We all have them to ensure that nobody uses them. The Ka’Mevweck…" He’gAmmj winced, as did Ja’rIckra, though she was not following the English conversation, "…used to be able to authorise the collective use of atomics on any Cluster that made a serious breach of conventional law. But that was rarely needed…"

Gregory imagined a UN with teeth, a UN made up solely of tiny, tiny states, like a sort of global Holy Roman Empire, but all of them armed with nukes. To a Human, it seemed like a dystopian vision. To a Culvanai, it was normal…Gregory wondered how they would see – how they did see, in the case of the Fourthers, Earth, with its relatively few large nations, some larger and more powerful than others. He suspected that their enthusiasm was not overwhelming.

"Ah, we’re coming up to the horizon," said He’gAmmj. "I recommend we tread carefully now…"

Gregory nodded and hit his comm display. "All ships, this is Xiangtan…I recommend we try to avoid showing ourselves too much…the Others may be monitoring nearby transmissions…hug the terrain…" he laughed to himself as he signed off. He’d found himself slipping into the cool-calm American astronaut voice again.

"Good," He’gAmmj said. "We’ll land, organise everything, and then come up with the people for our…what did you call it?"

"Daring Commando Raid™," Gregory supplied.

Ja’rIckra must have recognised that term, for she spoke up. He’gAmmj paled at her words – Gregory reminded himself that to a Culvanai, that was the equivalent of a Human flushing. He’gAmmj immediately fired off a stream of Culvanaic back, and Ja’rIckra’s bristles…well, bristled.

Hoping to intervene (and incidentally avoiding even the sight of airships now), Gregory spoke up. "What is it, Commander He’gAmmj?"

As he’d hoped, the use of the title made He’gAmmj remember he was an Astroforce officer speaking before what was technically a subordinate. What with both their unusual circumstances, they’d mostly dispensed with decorum up to now, but…

"Matriarch Ja’rIckra," He’gAmmj said at length, "has decided that any pretensions I have of going on the raid should be dispensed with forthwith."

Gregory glanced over at Ja’rIckra, who looked defiant. "And what did you say?"

He’gAmmj hesitated. "Something about crawling back under a stone…"

"I thought so," Gregory said. "Well, tell her that I’m coming on this bloody raid, and so are a load of other Human males. See what she says to that."

Ja’rIckra ran on for a while, and He’gAmmj began a running translation. His voice turned with a tone of surprise at times, a surprise that was clearly not present in Ja’rIckra’s original speech. "Do not treat me like a fool. I know that you are an alien, and I have already surmised that in your biology and your society the positions of females and males are reversed relative to my own. That fact…surprises me, and yes, you might say, it disturbs me a little. But do not accuse me of being unable to deal with such facts or implying that they may cause me to change my worldview. Just as the males of your race are better suited for combat than your females, so the reverse is true of mine."

He’gAmmj, although still outraged, seemed surprised that Ja’rIckra had taken such a view. He’d obviously expected her to mindlessly condemn the Human males for fighting as well. For that matter, so had Gregory…

"Yet some females of my race fight," said Gregory, hastily adjusting his controls as he spotted a group of unknown autogyros peeping over the horizon. "Why not should then some of your males?"

Ja’rIckra seemed to laugh. He’gAmmj kept up his running translation. "I have seen males among my race who fight," she said. "Mostly NoMercies, I admit, and they cannot be classified as normal by any means, but…" she appeared to shrug. "Based on what I have seen, let me make a prediction about the females of your race who fight. I predict that a large number of them are rather, uhh, masculine in nature, and even those that are not, are extremely vicious, being ruled by their emotions rather than reason, and seem to hate all, uhh, men in the abstract, as though they were…" and Ja’rIckra moved her lips without speaking as she thought, "…all just interested in raping, uhh, women."

Gregory raised an eyebrow. "A bit of a stereotype, but I can’t claim that there’s not some truth in it," he admitted. "How did you surmise that?"

Ja’rIckra spoke again. "Because I have seen directly equivalent behaviour in those males of my race who have fought," she said. "Perhaps because they are at one and the same time, trying to fit in to a female-dominated system and yet also hating that very system. No wonder the contradiction seems to make them a little…unstable."

He’gAmmj still looked annoyed, but also thoughtful. Gregory said: "Perhaps. But while that may – may – be true of your world, and indeed of mine at the moment, Commander He’gAmmj is not of your world at this time. He belongs to a military which is not female-dominated or indeed solely Culvanai. To that end, will you not trust him on such a mission?"

To her credit, Ja’rIckra didn’t dismiss the idea out of hand. Instead she spoke directly to He’gAmmj. "She asked me how much experience I have with…" He’gAmmj began to explain.

"Darin’ Ck’ummando Misshun tee-emm," Ja’rIckra added, copying Gregory’s words.

Gregory smiled. "And what do you have?"

He’gAmmj spoke in parallel, while Gregory checked the map and knew they were nearing the Uref island. "I have been on two such missions," he said. "One into the stronghold of a Xalbaynian pirate out in the Untamed Regions…uh, never mind," he said when both Gregory and Ja’rIckra looked askance at him, "and the other into a minor Rómidi outpost. I am not a commando primarily, true, but…"

Ja’rIckra spoke. "I went on many infiltrations in my youth," she said. "Though my mother was wary of it. She wanted me to get combat experience, of course, but not in a fashion associated with such high, unpredictable casualty rates…

"I did not believe her, of course. And I carried on not believing her right up until I lost this." She tapped her orphaned wrist and the mechanical claw that replaced her hand. "I was fortunate. Merely a botched detonator. If the whole bomb had gone up…" her bristles lay down flat for a moment. "They had to amptutate my hand in the ckelh-" (Autogyro, He’gAmmj told him) "on the way back to the island. After that my mother would not let me go on any more commando missions. And I forbade it to my own Vo’nIckra, before…" she trailed off, thuddingly reminded of her daughter’s death at the hands of Mu’rKlungs.

He’gAmmj, despite himself, seemed moved. But he spoke in Culvanaic, and then translated: "I hear you. But nevertheless…this is important. These are traitors to our kind, even more than they are to you. We must go down there. Je’tEnnck, the ambassador, must hunt down her treacherous subordinates…"

Ja’rIckra said: "That is true."

Gregory rolled his eyes. "Is this a ‘Crazy Culvanai Revenge Thing’?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Never mind – ah. Here we are. Hmm, nice army they’ve got down there…" Gregory reached for his comm.



eChapter Twenty-Four


Amra Staging Area, Nr. Uref Island, Culvana

March 2nd, 2007

In terms of size, the Amra army was about what Gregory had expected. Even such a relatively large and potent Cluster as the Amra could only field what would hardly be classified as a serious invasion force on Earth. Still, ottoh, they would scarcely be facing an Earth-standard-size defence force, either…

It was not the entire Amra army, for something had had to remain on the Amra island to defend against aggression from other Clusters. What with the webwork of alliances and treaties protecting them from war being fragile at the best of time, it would be entirely in character for one of their more ambitious neighbours to strike at them now, sensing weakness. Gregory scowled. Now should be a time for all Culvanai to unite against their common enemy. He’d feel even angrier if he hadn’t quietly known to expect exactly the same behaviour from Earth nations in the same situation.

So the force consisted of around two and a half thousand soldiers. Mostly females, including all the frontline troops of course, but some of the auxiliaries included males among their number. Gregory was amused to find that the male corps almost perfectly paralleled the female ones on Earth until recently: medical, logistics, aides. At least He’gAmmj wouldn’t have to fight against the system here, having got his way about being included on the Daring Commando Mission™.

Gregory nodded as Corollary Warwick stepped (sloshed?) up, accompanied by Andrew Stillsby. "Hello, ma’am," he said perfunctorily. "Is everything on schedule?"

Warwick inclined her head. "As well as can be expected," she said neutrally. "We’ve had the usual problems. Some of the Fourther Culvies who came down from the embassy staff are males and they intend to fight. Still they’ll probably all go with the Daring Commandoes so we should be okk."

"Along with Captain Gonzalez’s men?"

"That’s right." Pedro Gonzalez, the OIC of the small Astroforce SpecOps Corps who’d come along with the Charles Ingram, was a diminuitive movie-stereotype Spaniard with wiry strength and a sniper’s eye. His soldiers, who mostly towered over him, nevertheless had an almost religious adoration for his abilities. "Nearly all the Fourthers will be with the Daring Commandoes."

"Nearly?" Gregory asked.

Andrew Stillsby smiled. "I’m no Daring Commando," he said. "And the Firster Culvanai will want a few of us with them to help persuade their troops that they’re not being hung out to dry."

Gregory frowned. "Is that safe, Mr Stillsby?"

He laughed. "As safe as a war zone ever gets," he said seriously. "But I was a war correspondent in my youth and I know what it’s about. I won’t be putting myself into harm’s way if I can help it: I have a wife and son to think of, after all."

"I see. If you don’t mind me asking, which war?"

"First Gulf War," Stillsby replied promptly. "And Somalia in 1993. That meet with your exacting standards, Ensign?" he added amusedly.

"Quite," Gregory said hastily. "Don’t mind me, I just wanted to make sure…"

"That it wasn’t a set piece thing. Well, you have." Stillsby smiled to take the rancour from his words, and then gestured to the Amra forces before them, fanning out from the coast of the Uref island. "This seems altogether familiar, and yet interestingly different too."

Gregory nodded. The Amra forces were heavily mechanised, despite what He’gAmmj had told him about the Culvanai favouring infantry combat. He supposed that, in the morass of the sea-or-possibly-marsh, even experienced footsoldiers equipped with those snowshoe/flipper feet would rapidly be left behind.

Four or five types of vehicle were included in varying numbers, dispersed across the coastal marsh(?) in a carefully assembled formation. All of them were hovercraft. The two most common designs were a large, blocky troop carrier, apparently unarmed, and a slightly smaller light tank. The others seemed to be specialised vehicles built on the same two chasses, some mounting powerful anti-aircraft Gatling-type weapons, others converted to open-topped command cars. Culvanai support personnel swarmed over the whole lot, dragging smaller, non-propelled hovercraft behind them loaded with shells, machinegun belts and other supplies. The Amra army was getting ready to move.

"Those things don’t look very tough," Stillsby said, pointing at one of the light hovertanks. In the abstract, Gregory had to agree: due to the hovercraft propulsion, the armour couldn’t be too heavy or the tank wouldn’t move at a reasonable pace. The forward gun, which looked perhaps 90mm, was not mounted in a turret, but a sponson which gave it a more restricted arc of rotation – perhaps 120º, Gregory thought. It reminded him a little of the early American Lee tank design, and put serious limitations on the vehicle’s fighting ability – particularly since a hovercraft would probably be more cumbersome to turn around than a tracked vehicle.

"Well, I reckon it wouldn’t last long versus a Challenger II or an M1A1 Abrams," Gregory conceded, "or even one of those hoary old Soviet models the Iraqis used. But what’s the use of that, if any of those would just sink immediately afterwards?"

Stillsby laughed. "You’re right," he admitted. "I wonder why they have that sponson in the front instead of a turret?"

"So do I," Gregory confessed, who still hadn’t managed to work it out. "Maybe we can find out. Commander He’gAmmj?"

The commander glanced up from where he’d been poring over a large datareader. "What is it, Ensign?"

"Sorry to bother you, sir, but we were wondering if you could tell us why those tanks use sponsons instead of turrets?"

He’gAmmj moved his lips into an obviously practiced Human smile. "I could tell you," he said, "but it’s probably better if I show you."

He walked up to the nearest tank: Gregory saw that he’d got himself a pair of those snowshoe/flippers. He’gAmmj rapped on the metal hull, producing a hollow bong rather than a flat clunk which also told of the tank’s relatively thin armour. The top hatch of the tank slid back rather than hinging, and a young female Culvanai emerged from it. Her forehead tattoo was the orange of Warriors, of course, and showed a relatively simple version of the Amra symbol, indicating her lack of seniority. Her bristles flickered in surprise at He’gAmmj; she then released an almost Warwick-like continuous stream of words at He’gAmmj – in Culvanaic of course. He replied a few times, making descriptive hand gestures that were, oddly, perceptibly alien. Then the tank commander’s bristles lay down and she returned to her position, sliding the hatch shut behind her. He’gAmmj turned, gave Gregory and Stillsby a practiced ‘thumbs-up’ and slapped his way back to them over the marsh.

"She listened to you?" Gregory said, not bothering to hide his surprise.

"She was too thrilled to meet the Fighting Male From The Future that they’d all heard about to think of refusing me," He’gAmmj said, obviously amused. "The army grapevine, as usual: the stories have grown, so apparently now I hacked off Ja’rIckra’s other arm when she looked at me in a funny way."

Stillsby laughed. "But she’ll demonstrate?"

"That’s right – they were planning to do a few test firings anyway." He’gAmmj pointed at the tank with his middle finger. "Watch."

The commander rose from her hatch again, bearing a flag. Gregory had been surprised to discover that the Culvanai used flags on flagstaffs, but the designs of them were quite different to those on Earth, typically consisting of a small irregularly shaped piece of cloth at the hoist – usually evoking the shape of the Cluster’s tattoo symbol – and then with a variety of brightly coloured ribbon streamers of different lengths attached to that piece, streaming out from the flagstaff in the wind.

He recognised this one as the Amra flag he’d already seen. The tank commander waved it a few times to get the attention of the nearby soldiers, then flapped it in a complex semaphore-like pattern. Immediately the other vehicles moved away from the tank’s line of fire, and a few maintenance people used one of their drag-hovercrafts to pull a target into place: a chunk of debris, apparently salvaged from an old Uref vehicle.

The maintenance women retreated, leaving the tank a clear shot. "This is it," He’gAmmj said. Gregory, Stillsby and Warwick all put their fingers in their ears, then grinned embarrassedly at each other. He’gAmmj’s bristles all lay down: the percussive shockwave could be very disorienting to him if it hit them while they were extended.

The tank’s gun rotated slightly from side to side as the gunner picked her position. Then it fired.

In fact, the operation was in many ways not unlike that of an Earth tank. The shell, it was a discarding-sabot armour piercing job, exploded out of the barrel with a long tongue of flame, then almost instantaneously smashed into the target. The target was knocked backward a few tens of metres, spinning over and over in midair, before crashing down with a ten-inch burnt hole punched through the middle.

All of this was fairly unimportant, though, because the Humans’ eyes were not on the shell or the target. Instead they were watching the tank itself. Almost frictionless cushion of air + Newton’s First Law = Flying backward twenty feet at ridiculous speeds before the forward motors successfully brought them to a halt.

"Wow," Gregory said as the tank slowed. The commander leaned out of the hatch and waved to He’gAmmj, who returned it with a gesture of thanks. "That’s some recoil."

"I see," Stillsby said. "If it was a true turret, and you tried to fire at ninety degrees from forward, lengthwise across the hull instead of in line with it…"

"It’d probably flip over," Gregory concluded. "Which is, I believe, A Bad Thing."

"Now do you understand?" He’gAmmj asked. "It’s limiting, yes, and we’ve come up with some counters for it up in the Fourth, as you say. But it works well enough."

Gregory shrugged. "You know your business – or rather your Firster cousins do – Commander," he said. "I was just curious…"

"So was I," Stillsby continued. "I still am. Tell me, Commander, do you think your tank commander there would be willing to take on an embedded journalist?"

He’gAmmj laughed wheezily. "She’s young. If I show a bit of leg I think she’d give me one of the moons."


Supreme Defender Lu’nAmra frowned at the item she held in her hands. In many ways, it looked just like an ordinary glossy photograph. If she ignored the little holographic text boxes and helpful three-dimensional pop up arrows that hovered above it like yernee’lhe over the swamps. She tried to. "How did you take this?" she asked. "We tried with our satellites, of course, but the Others have got a jamming field that shuts down everything passing above the Ickra island…"

"We took it from our ship," Je’tEnnck explained.

"But you told me it was, what, thirty light-seconds away?" Lu’nAmra scowled. "I’m no sky-savant but that’s one chasm of a long way."

"It is," Je’tEnnck agreed. "But we have interferometers on board. You know interferometers?"

"Vaguely. That’s where you put two telescopes a few miles apart and, you know, it’s the equivalent of having one with a lens a few miles wide?"

"That’s about right. The amount of light you collect is very small, of course, but computer enhancing can fix that." Je’tEnnck’s bristles moved in a gentle, thoughtful rippling wave over her body. "The Ingram put out some self propelled camera probes a few hundred miles away from each other or the sensors on the Ingram…"

"I see," Lu’nAmra said. "Useful." She looked at the datareader again. "And this is what we’re attacking."

The photo showed a clear image of the Ickra island, or what was left of it after an almost ground-zero antimatter bomb let off by the Others themselves, and the few revenge-for-Ka’Mevweck atomics that had got through the laser shield. One of the deserted courtyards between the arms of the Citadel had been cleared of the debris that had once been homes and markets, and now housed a large, advanced-looking ship. A long, tapering cylindrical fuselage with two spherical objects at the back, the mysterious flux engines that the future people spoke of. They were currently lifted up in the air so they did not contact the ground: Je’tEnnck had told Lu’nAmra that they could be lowered to a different position once the ship was in space.

Not important. Lu’nAmra didn’t intend to let the Others escape. With the ship or otherwise.

"The Daring Commandoes will go in here," Je’tEnnck said, pointing at the wreckage-strewn courtyard opposite the one where the courier was landed. "Some will go through the courtyards and try and get into the courier to stop the…Others using it to escape, or deleting the database. The other DCs will go straight through the main part of the citadel, which seems to be inhabited, and make a distracting attack."

"I thought we were the distracting attack," Lu’nAmra said, amused.

"You’re the distraction for the distraction," Je’tEnnck told her. "Not that that’s not glorious," she added hastily.

"Of course."

"But it all comes down to the ship." Je’tEnnck sighed. "Without that ship they’re nothing. I wish they had never got hold of it in the first place."

"So do I," Lu’nAmra said. "Best we can do now is take it off their hands."



Janet’s voice resounded in his head: This is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into, Stillsby…

Andrew grinned to himself and then scowled as he bashed his head on the ceiling. The female tank commander said something that might have been an apology: unfortunately, they couldn’t spare any translators to accompany him. He’d have to manage: at least with the datareader, he didn’t need a camera team. Everything was being recorded for posterity.

The light hovertank had a crew of three: the commander, who also handled radio communications, the gunner, and the loader. There was no coaxial machinegun or other anti-infantry weapons – Gregory had explained to him what He’gAmmj had told him about the Culvanai attitude towards warfare. He’d be interested to see if all their scruples really held up in fighting combat.

Andrew had previously been a similarly awkward passenger in other tanks and mechanised fighting vehicles, most prominently a British Challenger I on the sidelines in the Gulf War. At least the Culvanai vehicle had one advantage: its hovercraft air cushion meant that its motion was a smooth glide, far from the terrific vibrations common to human-built tanks travelling over uneven terrain.

Still, he couldn’t accomplish much tied up in here. As he had before, he pointed at the hatch above and gave the commander – her name was Yi’lAmra, he knew that much – a winsome smile. He didn’t know how much of his obviously Human body language would translate, but…

Yi’lAmra wasn’t exactly dripping with enthusiasm, but she pulled the hatch back and gestured. Nodding, Andrew pulled himself up from his awkward pose, sprawled over one of the high explosive shell racks, pushed his way past Yi’lAmra’s alien but nonetheless obviously female form with a muttered English apology, and managed to get his head and shoulders out of the tank.

He whistled as an autogyro hurtled overhead, making its characteristic buzzing sound. The Culvanai seemed to use their autogyros much as Humans used helicopter gunships, for taking out tanks with their rockets, but they also engaged in dogfights with other autogyros. It was irrelevant now, for of course the Others could not field any autogyros against them…

The autogyro – it was one of the few bearing pontoons instead of skis, allowing it to land like a seaplane on the more ocean-like parts of the Culvanai landscape – buzzed back up into the sky. Three powerful Amra airships loomed high in the sky, their sides painted with the Amra symbol in the orange of the warrior vocation caste. Any one of them would have been enough to make Count Zeppelin die of ecstasy, Andrew thought to himself. The carriers were larger even than the Hindenburg and seemed markedly less inclined to burst into flames.

Surrounding the three carriers were six or seven smaller airships, with single gondolas and clearly designed for more frontline fighting. Their gondolas mounted a large cannon, perhaps 150mm, which had a clever ball-and-socket mount so it could fire almost straight downward, in the plane of the airship’s own movement, or anywhere in between. It reminded Andrew of the cannon on the Apache helicopter gunship, only much larger. These smaller airships also had stubby wings with rockets mounted on them, and a series of bubble cockpits with Gatling guns protruding from them, evoking the Lancaster bomber in Andrew’s mind. Overall, they seemed to be the equivalent of the guided-missile destroyers and cruisers that escorted and defended the central carrier in a modern human naval carrier battle group.

"Seems almost pointless," he murmured to himself. "Damned impressive though." After all, all of this was only to provide a big flashy distraction for the Others while the Daring Commandoes used the shuttles to sneak into the Ickra island.

And there it was – on the horizon. Andrew was no expert but he could hardly miss it: it was by far the biggest island for miles around, larger even than the Amra’s. In fact, it was as large as Majorca. No wonder the Ickra were – had been – such a powerful Cluster.

"Here we go," he murmured. Instinctively, he tensed. Could the Others have something up their sleeve…?

Yi’lAmra suddenly let out a sharp yell and then began barking orders. Andrew ducked his head back inside the tank to look: her silver eyes were wide and her bristles quivering with foreboding. He followed her gaze to the large WW2ish radar-display in front of her, rather different from a human one – the phosphor was red instead of green, for one thing – but some thing were obvious. Such as the large cloud of blips moving towards the centre of the display, the tank, at rather high speed…

Andrew stuck his head back out again, just in time to see the first rocket slam into an airship.

It was one of the smaller, escort airships, and the dumb rocket, trailing a blue methane flame, struck its gasbag almost on the nose. There was a rather damp explosion and the front quarter of the gasbag deflated, the rest remaining intact due to its compartmentalisation. But that airship was immediately thrown out of balance, its nose drifting downwards, and it struggled with its rotating nacelles to correct its motion.

More rockets shot out of the mists and struck the airships. Some of them missed, going on to strike randomly in the Amra army or just thud into the mud. But several more compartments were deflated, in the large carriers as well as the small escorts. One of the escorts was unlucky: two rockets hit it in rapid succession and the resulting double explosion was enough to pierce the membranes between the compartments. The entire gasbag deflated and that escort slowly toppled out of the sky, ponderously drifting through the air. Most of the tanks and troop carriers below had time to float out of the way, but what with the panic and confusion at the sudden, unexpected attack, a few were caught underneath as the airship crashed. No, it was no Hindenburg: the explosion was muted, the result only of the airship’s weapons’ ammunition brewing up. That was no comfort to the Amra soldiers crushed beneath, though…

The Amra autogyros spun through the air in confusion, trying to find this new unseen threat. A few of the more reckless pilots unleashed their own unguided rockets into the mists as though they would hit anything.

And then they emerged, in a swarm…

Andrew blinked. Two dozen autogyros, more than the entire Amra force, and sleeker and more advanced-looking models. Even as he watched, two of them calmly and competently cornered one of the Amra autogyros and raked it with machinegun fire before the pilot could respond to the threat. That autogyro toppled out of the sky, its pilot dead and its engines trailing fire. Elsewhere, the situation was similar. Within seconds, the new autogyros had taken out five of the Amra ones with the loss of only one of their own number – and that to a collision with an airship. Not even that was wasted: that escort airship, already partly deflated by a rocket attack, was fully taken out by the crashing autogyro’s whirring blades. It began to fall through the air after its sister ship.

And then one of the new autogyros buzzed overhead, and Andrew caught sight of the symbol on its stubby wings, now bereft of rockets: all had been fired, wreaking havoc among the Amra airships. The symbol was not the usual complex Culvanai Cluster symbol, and nor was it warrior-orange. It was a simple, unassuming, sinister black disc. Andrew shivered, thinking of the Japanese fighters of WW2 and their ‘meatballs’. Furthermore, these newcomers had fought with a similar combination of skill and suicidal bravery.

A word, sounding like a curse. Yi’lAmra had poked her own head out of the wide hatch and was watching the autogyros. As he turned to her, she spoke another word. Andrew knew no Culvanaic, but he recognised this word, for he had heard it many times in one sentence, when Ja’rIckra had been arguing about her conditions for the attack…


Chapter Twenty-Five


Xiangtan, approaching Ickra island, Culvana

2nd March 2007

Gregory flicked his thumb and adjusted his holographic display to show a better view of their target. There was the Ickra island, and there was the courier, hidden on the other side of the main citadel tower. Hopefully, they should only be using passive sensors – if that, for their power must be severely depleted – and so the bulk of the tower alone should hide the shuttles’ approach.


"The Amra had better be a good distraction," he muttered.

"They’ll pull through," He’gAmmj reassured him. "In…the other history, they would have become one of the most militarily successful Clusters ever, in this age."

"Mm," Gregory said. "Well, in that case, might the Others panic and try to take off before we can get there?"

He’gAmmj laughed wheezily and repeated Gregory’s words, in the Mevlo Altongue, to the rest of the shuttle. There were a number of dutiful wheezes in response, and one scowl. From who else? "You worry too much, Irthai," Ja’rIckra said via He’gAmmj. The matriarch was beginning to pick up a few words of English on her own, as well.

Gregory shrugged. "Just want to do everything possible to minimise the chances of them seeing us."

He’gAmmj translated that, and then Ja’rIckra rattled off a reply. He’gAmmj’s bristles quivered in a manner that, Gregory was learning, was the equivalent of a frown. "The Matriarch says that they have a plan for just that."

Ja’rIckra gestured towards the rear of the shuttle. A single figure stood, quietly, and walked up to the cockpit, passing on either side a row of Culvanai and Human commandoes. Gregory glanced back at the figure, whom he was only perceiving with his peripheral vision as a purple blur, and his eyes bulged.

The figure was female. Very obviously and unmistakably female. Every other Culvanai woman that Gregory had seen so far, whether Firster or Fourther, had worn rather loose clothing that, once you looked beyond the slightly different design philosophies and aesthetic sense, was roughly comparable to what Human males usually wore: pragmatic, workmanlike, not particularly individualistic. Of course, many of the Culvanai he’d seen so far had been in the military, and so it was not surprising that their clothes were, well, uniform: even some of the males wore similar.

But this female was dressed – if such a term could be applied – in something more akin to what the archetypal TV sci-fi show alien bit of stuff wore. An extremely tight-fitting catsuit, apparently a single piece of (fabric?) all the way down to the soles of the (high-heeled?!) boots that blended directly into it. The material was violet in colour, and reflective, almost like PVC (and there’s an image Gregory could have done without). It covered her entire body except for her head and neck, her hands, and a collection of small holes dotted in a symmetrical but otherwise fairly random pattern over her body, revealing patches of the yellow skin beneath.

Despite himself, Gregory almost lost control of the shuttle. He hastily dragged his gaze back to the display, avoiding a collision with another of the Daring Commando shuttles. Not the sort of excuse that Warwick would be too happy with for snafuing the mission…

"Spellcaster Re’nIckra here will conceal us from the Others," Ja’rIckra said via He’gAmmj. He’gAmmj looked amused at Gregory’s discomfiture, while Ja’rIckra just seemed puzzled.

Spellcaster. Gregory nodded. Of course; purple was the colour of that Vocation cast, just as orange was for Warriors and blue for Rulers. He risked another glance back. Re’nIckra indeed also had the Ickra forehead tattoo in purple rather than the blue one that Ja’rIckra sported. Then, of course, his gaze was inevitably dragged down again…

He realised that the holes all over the bodysuit were there to allow the bristles in clumps across her flesh to protrude. And they were long, thin, delicate bristles, far more so than those of Ja’rIckra or He’gAmmj, waving softly from side to side. Her red hair was also rather longer, and its ends turned up in a wave, quite unlike the usual no-nonsense bobs of the female Culvanai. It made her look more like a Human female, Gregory thought unsteadily. The largest clump of the longest sensory bristles was situated between her breasts…

No. Gregory frowned, casting another glance back at his display to ensure he hadn’t overshot the Ickra island and was flying them all the way back to England. It had not been obvious on the majority of the Culvanai females, with their loose uniforms, but now it was unmistakable. The raised mass on Re’nIckra’s chest was not a Human female’s pair of breasts. In fact it was a single continuous lobe, almost like a fold-over of skin. He realised that it must be simply to support that single clump in the middle…

He remembered reading, and it seemed years ago, in the Ingram database articles on the Culvanai: The females are distinguished from the males by the presence of an additional clump of unusually long and sensitive sensory bristles, these being called the lack’ren or ‘hunters’. It is these which gave the females a superiority in hunting in Culvanai prehistory, then combat, and thus was ultimately responsible for their matriarchal society…

All fine and good, but the article had never said where the lack’ren was. Probably enjoy reporting all those faux pas, Gregory thought to himself.

He’gAmmj was speaking, in Culvanaic. He politely gave Gregory it in English: "The Matriarch asked me if the Others had any Spellcasters of their own, to possibly counter our efforts. I said I didn’t think so. In any case, the Matriarch says that Re’nIckra and her comrades should be skilled enough to ensure they won’t pick up her interference in itself, although in that case it won’t do any good."

Gregory thought about it. "All right," he said. "So you’ve got a Spellcaster in each shuttle?"

"That’s right. One wouldn’t be enough."

"Okay, er, okk – so they’ll stop the Others seeing us? But what about sensor displays?"

He’gAmmj produced a Human-style smile. "You misunderstand. Spellcasters do not make us invisible, either to the eye or to a sensor scope. They reach out to the brains of any watchers, and gently…push aside any impressions of our approach. Whether that be the sight of our trails in the sky, or a blip on a sensor display. Either way makes no difference. We will be safe unless we make a move that is so obvious it cannot easily be pushed aside."

"Such as if we went in with guns blazing," Gregory concluded, nodding. "Okk. So when do we begin?"

"Now seems as good a time as any," He’gAmmj said, glancing at his own display from the passenger seat. He gestured to Ja’rIckra, who in turn gestured to Re’nIckra. The Spellcaster – she seemed so young – gulped in a very Human fashion and then placed one hand on each of the two seat backs at the front of the cockpit. Gregory glanced down and saw a clump of ethereal bristles on the back of her hand, waving back and forth in a faintly disturbing manner. And then she closed her silvery eyes and began to mutter to herself, almost like a mantra…

Gregory hadn’t been sure what to expect. Perhaps some surge of a deep spiritual sense? In the event, it was just like being touched with a mild electrical shock. He started, as did the other Humans in the shuttle – the Culvanai seemed unaffected – and Re’nIckra’s hands gripped the seat backs ever tighter as she continued to chant.

Gregory glanced at his display. With the shock faded, he felt no different. "Is it working?" he whispered to He’gAmmj, not wanting to disturb Re’nIckra.

"I think so," He’gAmmj said. "We’ll know for sure if it isn’t when they shoot us out of the sky."

"Thanks," Gregory muttered. He blinked as a new series of blips appeared on his screen, rising from the Ickra island. He magnified them with a flick of his wrist within the hologram. "Whoa. See these? What are they?"

He’gAmmj frowned at them. Ja’rIckra took a closer look and muttered a few words. "They’re NoMercies," He’gAmmj said grimly. "The Matriarch says the symbol is that of the Korul Group – hah! Back in the Fourth, they’d become a Cluster years ago…they’re particularly known for their air forces."

"The Others have hired them," Gregory said. "Which means…"

"Which means that the Amra aren’t simply marching out to distract the Others," He’gAmmj concluded. "They’ve found someone to fight for them. Maybe even enough to crew some of those Ickra leftovers we all thought would be useless to them…"

"We’ve got to do something," Gregory said. "These shuttles – our missiles could get them even now –" for the cloud of autogyros was heading off in the opposite direction from them, towards the Amra.


"We can’t," He’gAmmj said grimly. "The Others would spot us for sure then. Not even the Spellcasters could guard against something as obvious as that."

Gregory bit his lip. He’d been in this situation before, about a year ago (it seemed much longer, now). An SAS team sent off from the Kent to cause an ‘accident’ in the nuclear ambitions of a certain unsavoury power, and then he’d learned that there were double the number of helicopters scanning the ground for any possible infiltrators. He could have blown them out of the sky with his ship’s long-range missiles, of course – but doing so would scrub the mission before it had started (and probably started World War III, of course). So he’d held his fire.

He tried not to think about how that mission had turned out…

"Well," he said, half to distract his own thoughts, "at least the Amra won’t win so quickly that the Others will take off…"


Amra Army, Nr. Ickra island, Culvana

March 2nd 2007

"Chasm!" Lu’nAmra swore as yet another of her precious autogyros fell to a coordinated attack from the NoMercies. The Amra had begun to recover from the surprise attack, to regain some of their own battle coordination, but the NoMercies weren’t going to let them get the upper hand if they could help it. So they attacked again and again, almost without regard for their own safety… The Others must be paying them one chasm of a lot.

An aide glanced up from the rear of the open-topped command vehicle, sensibly anonymous among the dozen or so scattered throughout the Amra army. "Supreme Defender, our Spellcasters report that their Ickra counterparts have hidden the Daring Commando shuttles. They are closing on the target."

"Oh, lovely," Lu’nAmra snapped. "Maybe our Spellcasters can pull their damned lack’rens out of their own arseholes and do the job they’re supposed to?!"

The aide flinched back and operated her radio again. "Supreme Defender, they say they’re doing the best they could, but the NoMercies have Spellcasters of their own. They’re attacking our pilots…"

Lu’nAmra cursed again. No wonder the Amra autogyros had failed to react effectively even to the surprise attack. "Well, tell our Spellcasters to focus on blocking the NoMercies’ efforts. Balance them." That was the common Culvanai command. Every weapon should balance its counterpart on the enemy side, until things were returned to their natural state of affairs, and it was just flesh against flesh, blood against blood, mind against mind.

Unfortunately, the NoMercies were often disinclined to hold to the laws. After all, they had all lost their own Clusters while fighting within those laws…

Even as she thought it, a NoMercy autogyro, one of the few to still have rockets left, fired one at one of the Amra tanks – or ‘armoured self propelled guns’ as the Culvanai word literally meant. The tank exploded, its thin armour unable to prevent the penetration. Lu’nAmra muttered to herself. "Bring forward our AA platforms," she said. "If our own autogyros can’t stop them…"

But, now that the Amra Spellcasters were balancing the NoMercy ones, the remaining autogyros had recovered. Using the NoMercies’ own tactics against them, three Amra autogyros closed on a single NoMercy one from three directions and ripped it apart with machinegun fire. The NoMercy craft blew up spectacularly, obviously the design having sacrified an armoured fuel tank for greater manoeuvrability. All fine and good, but there probably weren’t enough Amra autogyros left to tackle all the NoMercy ones…

The AA weapons came into play. No guided missiles, but some of them fired powerful dumb rockets equipped with shrapnel or flak warheads that basically removed an entire area of the sky from consideration: as the first cloud of flame and black smoke bloomed out with a muted thump, the NoMercy autogyros hastily adjusted their tactics. Only one NoMercy was caught in a flak burst before they instead closed with the carrier airships at point-blank range, taking damage from the airships’ point-defence Gatlings, but ensuring that the indiscriminate flak rockets didn’t dare fire at them. Lu’nAmra cursed again: these NoMercies were good. What was that symbol? The Korul? She’d heard good things about them – or, from this perspective, very bad indeed.

"Supreme Defender!" That was the aide again. "Supreme Defender, forward positions report vehicles approaching. Approximately twenty tanks and perhaps five troop carriers. All are Ickra designs with Korul signage."

Lu’nAmra’s bristles drooped. I might have known. "They’ll have something up their sleeves," she said. "They have at every other turn so far. All right: all positions, approach the enemy at maximum speed possible without breaking the formation. Let’s engage them as closely as we can, just as they have with our airships: then they won’t be able to pull off anything fancy without taking themselves out too."

Even as she said it, one of the huge carrier airships finally lost enough of its gasbag compartments. Lu’nAmra winced as it began to drift ponderously towards the ground. At least this descent was slow enough for the crew to dump the ammunition and the troops below to get out of the way…and it wasn’t as though there were enough autogyros left that the loss of the airship left some of them without a landing platform…

Lu’nAmra took out a pair of binoculars and scanned the horizon ahead. Yes; there they were. A line of tanks, perceptively of Ickra design even from this distance, approaching them in a rather conventional formation. Suspiciously so, for NoMercies.

She smiled to herself, grimly. Payback time.


Ickra Citadel, Culvana

2nd March 2007

The face on the datareader was jounced around by the movement of her tank, but still clearly that of the NoMercy leader, Ya’vKorul. "They are approaching faster than we expected," she said. "You had better proceed soon or they will overwhelm us."

Ul’iVrees allowed herself a contemptuous sniff, on the inside. Even the NoMercies here in this barbarian age were constrained by absurd notions of honour. Surely Ya’vKorul was canny and had a mind for tricks? The history books said as much. But then the history books had said so much that had turned out to be a lie, a painful, painful lie…

"Do not worry," she told the datareader. "We will succeed." Yes. We will.

Ya’vKorul seemed to have some misgivings, but continued: "And we shall be restored to our rightful place?"

"Of course," Ul’iVrees lied. "It shall not be like that other history. This time you will become a Cluster, not face destruction."

Seemingly reassured, Ya’vKorul flexed her bristles politely and signed off. Ul’iVrees made sure the transmission was dead, then put her datareader down with a laugh and went over to one of the consoles. This, what had until recently been the Ickra command bunker, had survived the ruin visited upon the island when…it happened. Even now, she found it painful to think of, though she thought of herself as at least not possessing the delusions of Mu’rKlungs, who still maintained that the Ja’rIckra and Vo’nIckra of this place had been impostors somehow placed by the Humans.

Ul’iVrees glanced over the console. Nearly everything was shut down now. Evidently all the Ickra equipment had been as inferior as its makers: not one of those atomics they had fired off had apparently reached its target. She just had to hope that had been the rockets, and not the warheads…

She glanced at the radar display, which had been redirected from the primitive and now destroyed Ickra dishes, and now showed an uplink from the sensors on the courier. A few minutes ago, she had thought for a moment that she saw a blip or two on the other side of the island – the Korul assembling extra fighters elsewhere? That wouldn’t do… But when she had looked again, the blips had been gone.

Yes. Now was good enough. The Amra had indeed raced forward faster than they’d anticipated, but more fool them. And the Korul were also in place…Ul’iVrees smiled to herself and reached forward for the button.

"I don’t think so," said a voice from behind her in Culvanaic. A Fourther dialect of Culvanaic. Yet not one of the voices of their group, that she well recognised now from weeks of working together…

Ul’iVrees spun around, even as the puff of conductive gas hit her in the chest and the bolt of lightning lanced through it. Screaming, she collapsed to the floor, her bristles burning with sensation, her electrified nerves causing her muscles to spasm uncontrollably. She lay there, below the console, staring up at…

"No," she said thickly.

Ambassador Je’tEnnck stepped forward, lowering the Human-built gastaser she was holding. Glancing down contemptuously at Ul’iVrees, she casually placed her boot on the traitor’s neck.

"Ul’i," Je’tEnnck said conversationally. "No longer of the Cluster Vrees, for they have disowned you, you know? So have all the other Clusters your little band of shits hail from."

Ul’iVrees’ eyes widened. "Not…true…Culva…" she managed.

Je’tEnnck snorted. "If you are true Culvanai, then who would want to be one?" she said. "I could kill you now, you know. Crush your life out with one blow, you stinking coward." She put the pressure on harder, leaning into her foot. Ul’iVrees felt her larynx trying to slip down into her oesophagus, choking her. Je’tEnnck gestured at the console. "What’s this, hmm? Some minefield or something? Wipe out your allies and your enemies in one fell swoop? How like a true Culvanai," she sneered.

"…’tomic," Ul’iVrees gurgled.

"An atomic?" Je’tEnnck’s sneer was wiped off her face. She glanced at one of her subordinates – Ul’iVrees saw to her horror that there were males here, holding guns! And Irthai! "Can we inform the Amra?" Je’tEnnck asked.

The Human shook his head. "Not without alerting those Others still at the courier."

Je’tEnnck scowled. "All right. Well, at least I can do something about this." She opened the bottom of the console, casually disconnected it, and then fired her gastaser into the control panel. The circuits sparked, the solder melted, the radar display went dead.

"…nnot stop…us…" Ul’iVrees managed.

"You’ve already stopped yourself from achieving anything," Je’tEnnck said, almost sadly. "And now you’re not even worth me killing."

She pulled her boot off Ul’iVrees’ neck. "You," she said to a Culvanai subordinate, "get me some suitably twisty rope and tie her up. And leave her to wonder if Mu’r decided to mine this place as well."

Chapter Twenty-Six


Nr. Ickra island, Culvana

March 2nd 2007

Andrew blinked as the first enemy tanks appeared on the horizon. Yi’lAmra cursed and impatiently dragged him back into the turret, then took his place. It exposed her to sniper fire – and the Culvanai had no qualms about coldbloodedly shooting down anyone in a vehicle, who had forfeited the personal combat rights of honour – but she could get a much better view of the battlefield from there.

Just when it’s getting interesting, Andrew complained to himself. Adimittedly, also interesting in the Chinese sense. But still… He blinked, staring at his datareader. Wait a minute…what was that thing that Ken showed me…?

Andrew played with the datareader’s controls, searching. He was pretty certain…this thing wasn’t just a PDA, but could also serve as a crude scanner…ah. There you go.

The screen reconfigured and now showed a view of the battlefield: even sensors that were a cheap bells-and-whistles feature to a Fourther were almost omniscient to a Firster. The datareader could easily see through the tank’s armour and give him a view of everything up to the horizon – and a little further, thanks to bouncing scanner beams off the ionosphere. As well as the flattish terrain and the vehicles on it, the datareader was capable of projecting rudimentary coloured holograms of airships and autogyros floating above it. Andrew winced as he saw two red NoMercy autogyros take out another green Amra one, but then an Amra carrier managed to see off the tormentors by raking them with Gatling fire. The Amra autogyros crashed and burned.

Andrew glanced back at the ground. Yes; there were the approaching tanks that Yi’lAmra was now examining with her Mark One Sensory Bristles. Only a couple of dozen or so, far fewer than the Amra force – a welcome change, when they were outnumbered in the air. And yet it made Andrew wonder to himself. He’d seen suicidal charges like this on Earth, but the NoMercies were supposed to be both subtle and extremely reluctant to spend more lives than they had to. This had to be a trap of some kind…

Yi’lAmra called out something. The loader quickly locked a shell into the breech. Andrew had noted that all the shells were of the same, armour-piercing type; high explosives against infantry formations was not the Culvanai way.

Yi’lAmra gave a continuous stream of instructions, the gunner minutely adjusting the sponson, and then a single word, snapped out: "TILAH!"

Andrew could guess what that meant, and had time to brace himself. The main gun fired, recoiling into the tank and spitting out the spent cartridge; the experienced loader quickly stepped out of its way. The tank itself lurched and went flying back twenty feet before Yi’lAmra got it under control. Yi’lAmra let out a yell, apparently of triumph: Andrew looked at his datareader and saw one of the red tanks vanish off the scope. He let a grin spread across his face, despite himself. Direct hit. And from outside what the datareader thought was maximum accurate range for these tank guns.

A few seconds later two more NoMercy tanks vanished, and one Amra one. They were coming thick and fast. Andrew’s smile slipped. This still didn’t make any sense. The NoMercy were throwing their lives away for nothing.


He frowned, and cycled through a few more scanner settings, not quite sure what he was looking for. Let’s see, IR, Raman, Mossbauer


The datareader lit up, the glow centred on a single point, which on the ordinary radar display looked…rather like it had been recently dug up and re-covered…

A point that was right under the middle of the battlefield.

Andrew gulped, even as the tank fired again. "Nuke," he murmured, almost to himself, then shouted: "NUKE!"

The Culvanai crew looked at him with a mixture of curiosity, irritation and incomprehension. An awful thought struck him. How could he get this across…

Desperately, he flipped over to the datareader’s database and brought up the article on nuclear bombs. Would a diagram be enough…

Then he saw a menu off to the side. Language Options…IP English, Standard Chais Miradic, Culvanaic (Dalan Altongue), Culvanaic (Mevlo Altongue)…

He stabbed the latter with his thumb and the display reconfigured, now displaying the same information in Culvanai glyphs. Hurriedly, he tapped Yi’lAmra gingerly on her hip and proffered the datareader to her, pointing at the large bold title.

Yi’lAmra looked down, irritated, and glanced at the datareader. Her silvery eyes widened. "TEREL!" she cried, then snapped what sounded like a question.

Andrew flicked the datareader back over to the sensor mode and pointed to the Geiger glow under the battlefield.

Yi’lAmra looked at it, then put her head out of the turret again, staring at the area on the battlefield. She let out a long, low curse, then grabbed the comm phone out of its holster, pulling it out on its long flexible cord, and began to shout into it.

Andrew shivered. It could go off at any time. He could already be in the blast radius. And all he could think of were the faces of Janet and Luke…


Another part of the battlefield

March 2nd 2007

It was not the Culvanai way to lead from the rear. Supreme Defender Lu’nAmra’s command vehicle was in the fray with all the others, albeit protected by an escort of tanks and AA platforms.

The battle was raging. In the air, the Amra were still losing, having lost one of their carriers and four escorts. The AA weapons were beginning to pick off the autogyros, and at least kept them close to the airships rather than wreaking havoc elsewhere, but how long could it be before the autogyros brought down another of the horribly expensive carriers? The Amra’s own autogyros had got their act together and were trying to take down the NoMercies’, but there were so few of them left…

On the ground, though, the NoMercies’ small tank force was no match for the Amra’s, and the NoMercies didn’t handle them as skilfully as they did their autogyros. The Korul were primarily a band of sky fighters, Lu’nAmra remembered. Those tanks were Ickra leftovers, not like their own custom-built and personalised autogyros. Even as she watched, the Amra traded one tank loss of their own for three.

And yet she was not happy. Why, why would the NoMercies do this? No band of NoMercies would so casually throw their lives away, no matter the money. No sense in having the resources to rebuild a Cluster if there was no-one left to form it.

Which meant this was not what it seemed…

Her adjutant spun around. "Supreme Defender, a report from one of the tanks – it’s urgent."

Lu’nAmra grabbed the relevant comm phone. "Lu’nAmra. Speak."

The voice on the other end was young and a bit rattled, but nonetheless competent. "Supreme Defender, this is Lesser Defender Yi’lAmra. We think there is an ATOMIC repeat ATOMIC weapon buried beneath the battlefield, coordinates…"

Lu’nAmra’s eyes widened as her adjutant hurriedly moved the pins on her map and gave it to her. The supreme defender glanced from the map to the battlefield and nodded: yes, now she knew where to look, the soil/swamp looked disturbed there. But an atomic?! That would take out the NoMercies along with the Amra! There was no sense in it! Unless perhaps those tanks were not being driven by NoMercies at all and were designed to be disposable bait…


"We know the Others have no honour," she murmured to herself.

She glanced at the adjutant. "Get me a connection with the NoMercy leader," she snapped.

The adjutant blinked. "Supreme Defender?"

"Now, or I’ll rip your evidently non-functioning aural bristles off!"

The adjutant hastily flipped through all the frequencies, then glanced up. "This is it, Supreme Defender."

Lu’nAmra spoke into her comm phone. "NoMercy leader, this is Supreme Defender Lu’nAmra. Identify yourself."

A pause, then: "I am Captain of Captains Ya’vKorul. What is the meaning of this?"

"The Others have betrayed you, Ya’vKorul," Lu’nAmra said without preamble. "There is an atomic buried under this battlefield. It’s going to go off and take out both our armies."

A pause. "As you seem to know anyway, then yes there is indeed an atomic," Ya’vKorul said. "But it shall only take out your army when it is detonated…presently." But beneath Ya’vKorul’s usual calm, almost emotionless NoMercy voice, there was an uncertainty.

"Look for yourself," Lu’nAmra said. "Where the soil is disturbed at…" she rattled off the coordinates. "Send someone with a rad counter. We can have a ceasefire until then if necessary."

"No," Ya’vKorul said. "That might be a trap. But I will send someone. Out." The transmission went to static.

Lu’nAmra winced. She had hoped she could save a few lives, but evidently not. "All right," she said. "All units, do not engage any unit the NoMercies sent to coordinates…" and she spoke them again. "They must learn the truth. Stand on the defensive until then." But even as she spoke, another escort airship came crashing out of the sky, though not before it raked another pair of NoMercy autogyros with Gatling fire. The supreme defender winced again.

"There, Supreme Defender," said the adjutant, pointing. Lu’nAmra scanned the area with her binoculars. Yes; there was the Ya’vKorul unit. And not just a soldier with a rad counter, either: a large vehicle equipped with a massive rocket artillery unit (Humans might have called it a Katyusha). Such weapons were deadly but often difficult to get close enough to do any damage before they were destroyed; Ya’vKorul had evidently gambled that Lu’nAmra would not fire on any unit she sent to the spot. And if she decided there was no atomic there, then she would have a weapon in place that might turn the tide of the battle…

"I hate fucking NoMercies," Lu’nAmra muttered to herself. "They’re too fucking clever."

The Katyusha stopped and a NoMercy in her black jumpsuit leaned out of the door, carefully not presenting herself to more fire than necessary. She waved a bulky rad counter over the broken ground a few times, stared at the display, then simply retreated back into the vehicle.

A few seconds later, the comms went again. It was Ya’vKorul. "Yes, there is an atomic there," she said. "But the Others have not detonated it. You must have overrun us too quickly. They would not sacrifice us."

Lu’nAmra sighed. "There are no other bombs," she said harshly, "and your forces were over it BEFORE we even engaged you. Face facts! The Others have no honour!"

A pause as Ya’vKorul reviewed the data, then spat out a word so pungent that even Lu’nAmra didn’t recognise it. "All right, damn you," Ya’vKorul said. "Ceasefire. Now! We shall discuss terms in one hour, or resume combat."

Lu’nAmra inclined her head. "Agreed. Ceasefire. On the honour of the Amra."

"On the honour of the Korul," Ya’vKorul replied grimly, "but not that of our employers."

Thirty seconds later, everything was quiet.


Ickra citadel, Culvana

March 2nd 2007


The two groups of Daring Commandoes met up again in the wing of the Citadel next to that which had been crushed to make way for the courier’s improntu landing pad. There was Gregory and his shuttle pilots, Je’tEnnck, He’gAmmj and the other Fourther Culvanai embassy staff, Gonzalez and his Astroforce commandoes, and Ja’rIckra and her fellow exiles…

Gregory blinked. But not all of them were there, or all the Astroforce commandoes. "Where are they?" he asked, dreading the answer.

"We didn’t take many casualties, Ensign," Gonzalez said dryly. "We found out that a lot of the Others are in the bowels of this place, trying to get another nuclear missile working. They’re all in separate rooms. So the Matriarch here," he nodded to Ja’rIckra, "sent her Spellcasters in with my men and her women. They take out one roomful of Others at a time, the Spellcasters stop the ones in the next room from hearing any of the banging and screams…" he grinned, "so we’re taking ALL of them by surprise."

"That sounds good, sir," Gregory said, "but how are we going to get into the courier for the rest?"

Je’tEnnck smiled in a Human-learnt gesture. "This is still MY ship," she said quietly.

They made their way around to the edge of the citadel wing and cautiously stepped out onto a sort of balcony or walkway edged by battlements. There was the rather absurdly phallic shape of the courier, parked in the debris field below. Gregory swallowed; debris field was a somewhat euphemistic way of describing what had until recently been homes, shops, people’s lives…

He’gAmmj risked a look and cursed. "Two guards outside with streamers," he said. "Others, of course."

"We can take them out from here," said Je’tEnnck. "But we don’t have any Spellcasters, so whoever’s in that thing might notice that the guards are shot."

"It would help if we used a Firster weapon," said Gonzalez. "Your streamers are excellent sniper weapons, but they light up a sensor board like I don’t know what. Your sensors are pretty blind to projectiles, aren’t they? I know ours are."

Je’tEnnck gave another practiced smile. "Why, yes, Captain. Why bother, when your particle-shields or flux-shields will easily deflect any projectiles…

"…unless of course your ship is so low on fuel that you aren’t projecting a shield around it," He’gAmmj concluded. "All right. Who’s the best shot with a Firster sniper rifle?"

All heads turned to the four or five Ickra there. And all the Ickra’s heads turned to Ja’rIckra.

"I…see…" He’gAmmj said neutrally.

He quickly explained the situation to her in the Mevlo Altongue. Ja’rIckra’s bristles flicked in a gesture that seemed to Gregory one of glee. She brought up her personal weapon. It was a rifle that reminded Gregory a little of the AK47 – it had the same sort of simplistic but reliable feel to it – but it had a rather long barrel for its size and an incongruously complex scope. Even normal Culvanai sidearms were designed with sniping in mind as a secondary use: after all, anyone in a tank or other vehicle was considered fair game for being shot down in cold blood, by their code of honour.

Ja’rIckra nevertheless felt around in a pocket and pulled out another eight inches or so of barrel with what was obviously a silencer on the end. She screwed it onto the existing barrel with the casual air of a professional, then beckoned the others to stay down. She leaned the rifle in the gap between two battlements, using long, slow, easy movements that would not draw the casual eye. Carefully, she reached a position that would put both guards in her field of fire. She used the scope.

And then, without warning, she matter-of-factly fired once, jerked the barrel slightly and fired a second time. There was no sound other than a pair of subtle ‘whhtpings’. And, when Gregory risked a look, both of the guards were crumpled on the ground, lying in small lakes of yellow blood. Both of which were centred on their heads. Gregory looked at the Matriarch with a newfound respect, and a bit of fear.

"Come on – no time to lose," Je’tEnnck said perfunctorily. The group dashed down a nearby concrete staircase and into the smashed up courtyard. They made their way across the courtyard, glancing up nervously at the courier’s small but all too deadly point-defence lasers, but they remained silent as the great hull loomed over them. Ja’rIckra and Je’tEnnck paused only to both spit on the corpses of the guards, one gesture that seemed to be the same in both Human and Culvanai culture. Gregory took another look at them as they passed: yes, both perfect headshots, in the centre of the forehead. Incidentally, he noted uneasily, wiping out the Cluster tattooes on the guards’ foreheads. Not only was Ja’rIckra a prodigious shot, but she had…style.

As it happened, the courier’s main ramp was already down, so they had no need to take the risk that Je’tEnnck’s passcodes would still work. The Daring Commandoes went up the ramp, the Astroforce and Ickra troops suspiciously scanning the airlock and corridor with their weapons. The ship seemed deserted.

"All right," Gonzalez said. "I want teams for the engineering bay, the bridge, and the main computer room to secure those database files."

"The main computer room is attached to the bridge," Je’tEnnck corrected him.

"Two teams, then," Gonzalez said.

"I shall go to the bridge, for that’s where Mu’rKlungs will likely be," Je’tEnnck said quietly.

"And I as well," Ja’rIckra said via one of the others, when she heard that name.

"All right," Gonzalez repeated. "I and Commander He’gAmmj shall take engineering. The others, split up accordingly."

As it happened, Gregory ended up with the group going to the bridge, and that team went forward from the ramp; the engineering team went aftward. Again, he got the impression that the ship was deserted. The narrow corridors were strewn with minor debris and the lights were dim and flickery.

It did not take long to reach the bridge; the courier was only about the size of a Boeing 747. Finally they were there, at the doorway, whose lock – unlike every other one – appeared to be illuminated. Power was running through here.

Ja’rIckra glanced at Je’tEnnck. "Time to see if these codes of yours work," said the Matriarch.

"I hope so," Je’tEnnck said. "And you do realise that, as MY traitorous subordinate, Mu’rKlungs is mine."

"But she did not kill your daughter and do her best to destroy your entire Cluster," Ja’rIckra said quietly.

Je’tEnnck hesitated. "You have a point. Very well; we can tear her apart together."

"Sounds good," said Ja’rIckra. "And now?"

Je’tEnnck steeled herself, walked up to the door lock, tapped in a code so quickly that Gregory saw her fingers as a blur, and then threw herself through the entrance as the door obediently slid open.

Gregory, Ja’rIckra and the others were right behind her. As they did so, Gregory spotted a narrow bolt of grainy green-white light go slashing past: a Culvanai streamer. It missed Je’tEnnck, who somersaulted like an Olympic athlete and whipped out her own streamer weapon, firing in one smooth movement. Her bolt did not miss. With a subtle khrrr sound, it lanced out and neatly hit the gunwoman in her rather broad chest. Gregory watched in a mixture of horror and admiration as the beam hit her heart (he assumed) and then, as the dying Other slumped forward, sliced neatly up through her chest and shoulders and head. The entire upper half of her body was in two pieces before she hit the floor, spilling yellow blood.

Je’tEnnck lowered her weapon, panting almost ferally, and spun around. But Ja’rIckra already had her own, Firster, weapon trained on the only other occupant of the room. A big fat face that Gregory had already seen, on a dozen briefings on the Ingram.

The ringleader. Mu’rKlungs.

Chapter Twenty-Seven


"You," Je’tEnnck snarled. "YOU!"

Mu’rKlungs was seated at one of the few consoles in the room that was still illuminated, projecting a rather halfhearted hologram that appeared to be a page from some database or other. But even as her bisected co-conspirator fell to the floor, Mu’rKlungs was bringing something up out of a holster.

"Drop the weapon!" Je’tEnnck shouted.

"This is the only weapon I need here," Mu’rKlungs said unpleasantly. At the back of Je’tEnnck’s mind, a hundred treacherous memories began to rise up: this same corpulent figure with its sneering face, not dressed in rather ragged and ill-fitting combat fatigues but in formal embassy dress, not seated at a console on the bridge of a courier that should never have been used but standing idly around a buffet table. Making snarky comments about uppity males and Irthai. Je’tEnnck told herself she should have seen it coming, but such casual unpleasantness seemed a world away from the unthinkable horrors that fat bitch had wrought upon Culvana.

Je’tEnnck took another look at Mu’rKlungs’ weapon. It was not a pistol of any kind, but a boxy…control remote of some kind? "And what do you intend to do with that?" she asked sarcastically. "Open my hangar bay doors?"

"It’s a deadwoman switch," Ja’rIckra said abruptly. "She threatened me with it before. If she lets go of that button, we’re goners."

"You are not so stupid, for a change," Mu’rKlungs sneered; Ja’rIckra’s eyes glowed with unimaginable hatred. "Yes. If you dare to lay your filthy male-loving hands upon me, then this whole ship will go up."

"You’re all out of antimatter," Je’tEnnck snapped. "You used it all in your cowardly attacks on the Ickra and the…the Ka’Mevweck."

"A cleansing flame," Mu’rKlungs said, almost dreamily. "Necessary to eradicate the…corrupted duplicates that your transtime Irthai have placed here! They have been meddling! This is not our history!"

"You are insane," Je’tEnnck said coldly. "Just because the Ickra aren’t the moronic murderers that we thought they were – that you HOPED they were-"

"Don’t be touchy, Ambassador," said Mu’rKlungs, waggling the pudgy hand that held the button down on the remote. "Or I’ll decide to stop being touchy."

"That’s an awful pun and you wouldn’t dare," Je’tEnnck said in a single stream. "You’re a pathetic coward, like all your kind, Mu’r-without-a-Cluster. You would never do anything that would result in your own death, no matter how many of your enemies you took with you. You would keep scrabbling and screaming for mercy until the end-"

"Silence!" Mu’rKlungs said; she’d hit a nerve. "Or never speak again-"

"In any case, as I was saying, you have no antimatter left to go big boom with," Je’tEnnck baby-talked sarcastically.

"This ship’s secondary self-destruct is more than enough to take out this entire island and all the armies," Ja’rIckra said nastily, "not that it’s required in the second case."

"Oh yes it is," Ja’rIckra roared. "We stopped your little coward’s trick with one of MY atomics."

For the first time, Mu’rKlungs looked uncertain. "Impossible," she murmured.

"What is impossible with evil is possible with good," Je’tEnnck retorted.

"You have been corrupted by the Irthai," Mu’rKlungs gabbled, then thrust her other hand at Gregory and the other Humans. "You bring them here! Onto sacred Culvanai land!"

"Sacred Culvanai land that you damn well NUKED!" Ja’rIckra yelled. "You killed my daughter and so many more."

"She would not carry the great one she was destined to produce!"

"Ky’lIckra was a diseased madwoman," Je’tEnnck said coldly, "but even she would have had nothing but contempt for you, you pathetic piece of shit!"

Mu’rKlungs’ eyes flashed and slowly, threateningly, she stood. She took one step away from the console, then another. If only we had a Spellcaster, Je’tEnnck thought. She could keep Mu’r distracted and give us time to grab that remote… But they had no Spellcaster. Surprising herself, Je’tEnnck glanced aside at Ja’rIckra, as though asking the veteran’s advice, asking the advice of one who until a few days ago she had had nothing but blind hatred.

But Ja’rIckra’s silver eyes seemed glazed over. Her hand was twitching slightly. And the two clumps of unusually long bristles growing out of her cheeks, which lent an effect similar to a luxurious moustache, were twitching in a gentle rippling pattern with Je’tEnnck recognised.

No, they had no Spellcasters. But they had Ja’rIckra, who had Spellcaster blood…

"You will not defeat me," Mu’rKlungs said, still sounding lucid as she took first one and then another slow step, brandishing the remote like a talisman. "You will not stop our plan for this world, to restore it to its proper path, and-"

She blinked, then shook her head. Her bristles rose in anger. "You! Human copy!" she cried, addressing Ja’rIckra. "You are inside my head! Well, you shall not succeed!" Mu’rKlungs raised the remote defiantly. "Drop your weapons! NOW!"

The Culvanai glanced at each other, shrugged, and lowered their weapons, dropping them to the floor. Though Je’tEnnck still thought that Mu’rKlungs was too cowardly to do it, they didn’t have much choice. What were they going to do, shoot her, then die in the inferno as the ship exploded when her dead fingers let go of the remote?

"Now," Mu’rKlungs said with an unpleasant expression, "now you will surrender to me and I shall make an example of you to what remains of the corrupt Human-made leadership of this world-"

"Oh, shut up," Ja’rIckra said tiredly. Her organic hand came up from her belt, holding a tiny concealed pistol. She brought it up and fired a single shot into Mu’rKlungs’ right thigh. Despite herself, Je’tEnnck let out a cry of surprise and horror, but it was nothing compared to Mu’rKlungs’ childlike screech. She fell onto her knees, clutching at the leg, and then looked down in horror as the dropped remote bounced on the deck. Desperately, she grabbed it up and depressed the button again, looking around wildly, then clicked it on and off a half-dozen times. Nothing happened.

"Matriarch?" Je’tEnnck said, shocked. "What happened – how did you know –"

Ja’rIckra took a leisurely step forward, reached out with her mechanical claw, and gripped the back of Mu’rKlungs’ battered uniform. Without apparent effort, she lifted even the overweight Culvanai into the air by the scruff of her neck. Mu’rKlungs squeaked incoherently in pain again.

"Ambassador," Ja’rIckra said, without taking her burning gaze away from Mu’rKlungs’ horrified and sick-looking face, "I told you that Mu’r here threatened me with it, when I first refused to obey one of her more absurd commands. Well, I am not a fool, though I can recognise one when I see one." Ja’rIckra spat into Mu’rKlungs’ face. "I sent one of my prettier nephews along to…distract her, and he managed to take the remote. My engineers studied it – a relatively simple design – and succeeded in inactivating it. My nephew then returned it." Ja’rIckra shuddered. "He was braver than any soldier, to go into bed with HER again after the things she made him do…they should be banned under Mevweck, would be banned but for the fact that no-one sane would ever think of them in the first place."

Mu’rKlungs continued to gabble incoherently in pain, her mindless eyes boggling out. Ja’rIckra spoke again: "The only reason I did not shoot her down when we first arrived here is that she was sitting at the console, and might have time to trigger a self-destruct by those means instead."

"So you made her get up and come over…" Je’tEnnck realised.

"I am not a full Spellcaster but I am not stupid," Ja’rIckra repeated. "And those that are…are easy to manipulate."

She glanced aside. "We have an agreement," she repeated. "But I shall strike the first blow."

"…Agreed," Je’tEnnck said after some consideration. "And THEN we shall rip her apart together."

Mu’rKlungs’ eyes bulged. "Wait!" she managed in a squeaky voice. "There must be a trial – it is Mevweck-"

"WHAT DO YOU KNOW OF MEVWECK?!" Ja’rIckra roared in her face like a hurricane. "I shall tell you the first rule: The Violator Is Rewarded With Violation! Let she who breaks the rules be broken upon a world without the rules!"

And Ja’rIckra’s organic hand lashed out and fastened onto Mu’rKlungs’ throat. Gregory and the other Humans watched in horror, but the Culvanai seemed to take it as a matter of course. The hand clenched around Mu’rKlungs’ throat, casually shrugging off the traitor’s pathetic scrabblings to try and dislodge it or strike at Ja’rIckra. She brought her fingers together, exercising a strength with one hand that most did not have in two. Her expression remained unchanged.

Finally, there was a very final SNAP-CRUNCH, and Mur’Klungs’ fat head twisted a way that it was definitely not meant to go.

It was hard to say when a light faded from a Culvanai’s reflective eyes, much more so when said Culvanai was a mindless meathead like Mu’rKlungs. But nevertheless, something went out. The sack of meat dropped to the deck as Ja’rIckra released it with both her organic and mechanical hands, the head almost dangling off the neck. It hit the deck with a THUMP, and that was it.

"It is done," Ja’rIckra said quietly. "And now?"

Je’tEnnck rolled up her sleeves. "First comes the Law. Then…" she glanced to one side, at the hologram of the database, and nodded. "Then comes the time to reclaim what is ours." Her bristles quivered in a pleased fashion. "For, indeed, a copy of what is needed has survived."


Nr. Ickra island, Culvana

March 2nd 2007

Captain of Captains Ya’vKorul gingerly prodded the cylindrical metal device from where they had unearthed it. The bomb was perhaps the size of a small hovercraft, but now entirely harmless now that they had disarmed the remote detonator.

"You were right," she said abruptly. "They had no honour. They would have wiped us both out together."

"Why did you do it, anyway?" Supreme Defender Lu’nAmra asked. "Why did you support them? Surely no amount of money could have justified the sacrifices they were asking you to make – even without the backstab–"

"We did not do this for money," Ya’vKorul said sharply. "They told us that, in the original history, we would have been wiped out and never had the opportunity to reform a Cluster. They told us that, if we assisted them, they would ensure that we would have that chance."

Lu’nAmra frowned, bringing up her Fourther datareader and playing with it, switching it over to the database mode. NoMercies…list of NoMercy groups…the Korul. She read the lines there, blinking when she noted that half the information refused to unlock itself: evidently the Fourthers had put some restrictions on what she could access. They’re not stupid, she thought.

But it was enough. "Look at this," she said, passing the datareader to Ya’vKorul. The NoMercy seemed unsurprised by the future technology and Lu’nAmra guessed that the Others had previously shown similar devices to her. Ya’vKorul read the article and her eyes widened. "Became a Cluster in 2031," she snarled. "Within my lifetime! And those Others…"

"They’ve deceived so many," Lu’nAmra said grimly. "They directly killed everyone on the Ka’Mevweck and half the Ickra. They would have nuked another three islands if our future friends hadn’t stopped them. Small wonder that they would see no problem in cheating you out of your inheritance, either."

"I wonder if there are even enough of us left for that to come to passs now," Ya’vKorul said bitterly. "And we have killed some of your people, too, for which you have my apologies."

"You were fighting as a NoMercy," Lu’nAmra said simply. "You have your code and we have ours. Let not the Clustered condemn the actions of the Clusterless."

Ya’vKorul sharply inclined her heads at the old words of the Mevweck Law. "Very well. At least we can ensure that no more die because of this."

The two warriors touched each others’ shoulders in salute. "Agreed."


Charles Ingram, 30 light seconds from Culvana

March 2nd 2007

"Captain Stjepanovic?" said Lieutenant Callaghan. "A signal coming from the surface. It’s the Ambassador."

Stjepanovic pulled the front of her uniform jacket down meditatively. "They said they weren’t going to signal until and unless they had defeated those renegades," she said, half to herself. "Put her through."

A hologram materialised, a hologram whose faint colour distortion said that it had been transmitted with Culvanai equipment and there wasn’t a perfect interface with the mostly Human technology of the Ingram’s receiver. Nevertheless, it displayed the form of Ambassador Je’tEnnck clearly enough. Including her torn, yellow blood-stained clothes and her wild eyes.

"Captain Stjepanovic," said Je’tEnnck, slurring the name far more than she usually did. "We have done it. The Others – the renegades – are defeated. We have recovered the courier, and…" she developed a practiced Human-style smile, "a copy of our database remains intact. We have already isolated the files that First Consul Garrows wants."

Stjepanovic quirked an eyebrow. "That was fast," she commented. "A bloodless battle?"

"Hardly," Je’tEnnck replied. "They had hired some NoMercies. But we have triumphed nonetheless. Do you want us to transmit those files?"

Stjepanovic smiled thinly. It was obvious that Je’tEnnck intended to hold the entire database as her own bargaining chip and not surrender all of it to the Humans. Well; she was only trying to ensure her planet still had some cards to play. "Very well," Stjepanovic said, "but I’m not sure how we’ll go about transmitting them back to Earth. As you know, we travelled outside comm range several weeks ago."

"We shall have to send a ship to the maximum comm range and transmit, then," said Je’tEnnck. "Your gasdiver is now operational, I believe? We have antimatter supplies?"

"Yes, but it will take weeks to produce enough antimatter to refill our tanks," Stjepanovic protested, then stopped. "So we don’t send the Ingram. But our shuttles don’t have the range." She paused. "Ohhh…"

"The courier," Je’tEnnck confirmed. "It’s all out of antimatter, but seems undamaged. I think your station could produce enough antimatter for a trip all the way back to Earth in a day or two, never mind just a jaunt to the edge of comm range."

Stjepanovic frowned. "I might want to send some officers back to make a full report anyway," she said. "We might as well go the whole hog. Very well, we’ll produce the fuel for your courier, and I’ll start thinking about who I can spare."

"Very good, Captain," Je’tEnnck said, with the warm and tolerant tones of someone who has got everything they were hoping for.

"Oh, and Ambassador?"

"Yes, Captain?"

"Nice work."


Ickra island, Culvana

March 3rd, 2007

The Culvanai, much like Humans, liked to celebrate with a big bonfire and fireworks. Ottoh, as they were mostly burning damp rotting swamp plants, the bonfire was both smoky and was surrounded by the blue corona of burning methane. Gregory had read that methane was, contrary to popular belief, odourless, so he guessed that there must be something else in those plants that was producing that pungent chemical smell emanating from the flames.

He smiled as he looked up and watched as three autogyros – two Amra and one of the sleek custom-built NoMercy ones – zipped overhead through the night sky, trailing decorative sparks and performing a complex display manoeuvre that tied a sort of knot with their trails. Laser searchlights from below illuminated the smokes left by the autogyros, so the shape lived on for seconds after the sparks themselves had faded.

He was sure that could be a clever metaphor for something or other. Now if he could just think of what it might be…

"They know how to party," Andrew Stillsby said with a laugh as he sat down with a squelch. Like Gregory, he was holding a tall decanter of the local brew; unlike Humans, Culvanai could metabolise methanol safely, which meant that a Human had to be wary of Culvanai alcoholic beverages – but the scanners assured him that this brew was safe enough. Stillsby sipped, made a face, then shrugged and drank some more.

Gregory laughed and spread his arms in the benevolent manner of the slightly drunk. "Sure can. Dancers, music, bonfires, air displays…" although the image of male exotic dancers was not one he would like to carry with him to the end of his days.

"All we need now is a load of Ewoks and we’d be at the end of a Star Wars film," Stillsby said with a mischievous grin.

"Yeah – just what we need, actually," Gregory said, then added dryly, "I just fancy a barbeque."

Stillsby chuckled and they clinked their glasses together, soliciting an odd look from the slightly inebriated Culvanai couple who were snuggling together on a nearby stone bench, probably with the intent of doing something slightly more ambitious later. Gregory noticed that the male was a NoMercy, with the black disc on his forehead that blotted out the image of his original Cluster that had exiled him or been destroyed, while the female was one of Ja’rIckra’s Ickra survivors. Strange bedfellows, he thought with a smile.

He looked up to see a silhouette approaching: a feminine shape, but one with reassuringly narrow shoulders and two distinct breasts. "Greetings and aren’t we having a nice time," Warwick streamed a little drunkenly. "Though I’m sure that what my group found in the damned engine room of that courier is nothing like what I’ve heard about that confrontation on the bridge."

"Yeah," Stillsby said, who in his tipsiness tried to pull up the stone seat he was sitting on, even though it was fused to the citadel courtyard beneath. "You haven’t talked about that, Ken."

Gregory shrugged. "I didn’t follow what was being said," he admitted, "it’s all Culvanaic to me. But it wasn’t one of those insist-on-a-trial, you’re-not-worth-killing things. Ja’rIckra broke Mu’rKlungs’ neck, and then she and Je’tEnnck…" he shuddered. "They tore her apart with their bare hands. Something about Mevweck."

Warwick nodded. "If you break the Mevweck code than it no longer applies to you in turn," she said, "and a brutal execution is allowed – indeed mandatory."

"It’s one thing to talk about that in the abstract, and another to actually see it happen in front of you," Gregory said.

Warwick shrugged. "Yes. I suppose it is."

"They’re not exactly big on human rights, are they?" Stillsby said, trying to make a joke of it.

"They’re not human," Gregory said simply.

There was a pause as the three of them stared into the fire burning alien vegetation, heard the alien songs of the alien dancers, and looked up into the alien sky with its alien stars. And they felt very alone indeed.

Warwick was the first one to break the silence. "You know that some of your Firster people came down with the first shuttles after the Captain was informed?" she asked.

"Oh yes," Stillsby said, an evil glint in his eye. "For instance, you know that Cecil Grosvenor…fellow?"

Gregory nodded. "British representative. Blair’s man, I think. Not…my cup of tea."

"Not anyone’s cup of tea," Stillsby said. "Amoral bugger. Probably sell his own granny into slavery. Certainly jump at the chance for a quick shag, and no matter that he’s supposed to be representing his country."

"Maybe he thinks that IS representing his country," Warwick said dryly.

"Anyway," Stillsby said with a faint smile that did not reach his eyes, "I happened to…let slip…that the Culvanai are rather…promiscuous and drop their inhibitions at these victory night celebrations. I’ve been reading the databases. Including of course the Culvanai females."

Warwick raised her blonde eyebrows, and Gregory’s bushier brown ones followed a second later. He’d been reading the databases too… "Oh dear God," he said, half horrified, half gleeful. "You don’t mean-"

With the inevitability of narrative causality, they heard the scream that resounded about the citadel, a Human scream momentarily overruling all the Culvanai chants and shouts of joy. And then there were words, words yelled out by a half-naked figure running through the night, only a towel clutched around his middle for modesty:


Stillsby grinned and leaned over the battlements at the courtyard below where Grosvenor was engaged in his improntu streak. "I never told you what?" he asked innocently.

Grosvenor paused to stare up at him with wild and furious eyes. "That," he began, spitting out one word at a time: "THEY…HAVE…PENISES!!!"

"Oops," Stillsby said. "Must have slipped my mind."

Grosvenor glared at him, then spat at the ground and hurried off to find some more clothes. Stillsby shrugged at the two others, who stared at him with a mixture of disgust and admiration. "Sure, I know," he said, "the…what do you call it… pelk’ren of the female Culvanai is not really the same as what he said, just that the sperm receptor is on the end of an extensible tunnel of erectile tissue…but he doesn’t know that."

"Heck, I’m not splitting hairs," Gregory said. "It drove him off, anyway – and I wasn’t even sure it would. You know these New Labour types."

Stillsby grinned at him. "Yeah, I know."

"You think this will make your enemies on Earth any happier?" Warwick said, her expression fighting between amusement and confusion. "I thought the idea was to wait until the government scrutiny died down and your family could return."

"I don’t think it will make much difference," Stillsby said. "He’ll be too embarrassed to report it, anyway."

Warwick smiled. "All right, then. How about we go for a spot of how do you Firsters say it? Partying?"

Gregory nodded. "Suits me." He glanced over at the Culvanai couple, who now, ignoring the fact that they were in full view, had removed their clothes and were treating him to a view of the certain female organ that they had just been discussing. Even though Gregory had been expecting it, he still shuddered as the plunger-shaped thing fastened to the male’s almost spherical sperm-producing organ on a similar extending tube. For Grosvenor, who hadn’t expected anything of the sort…no wonder he was running around screaming.

"Strange bedfellows," he repeated. "If we hadn’t come along, they’d have never met. Funny thought."

"An Amra and a Korul – helk that’s almost a paradox in itself," Warwick said, then a sense of alarm showed through her slightly drunken eyes and she clapped a hand over her mouth.

"What do you mean?" Gregory asked curiously.

"I shouldn’t say anything about it," Warwick said, glancing at the copulating lovers. "It might-"

"They can’t understand English," Stillsby said with the persistence of the inebriated. "Come on: what did you mean?"

Warwick hesitated, then sat down abruptly. "Ambassador Meisenheimer and Ambassador Je’tEnnck said it was top secret," she said. "If we’d have told them they’d never have agreed to this."

"Told them what?"

Warwick sighed heavily. "That the Amra would face destruction in less than thirty years," she said quietly.

Gregory blinked. "What?!"

"They became powerful for a while, but then Yu’lAmra was killed in an accident," Warwick explained. "They got into a long war with another Cluster. A long hard and vicious war. Eventually that other Cluster triumphed. The Amra island was depopulated and a NoMercy group allied with that other Cluster moved into the Amra island. Becoming a Cluster in their own right and remaining a close ally."

She sighed again. "That Cluster was the Ickra, and those NoMercies were the Korul."

Gregory’s eyes widened. "You mean-"

"Yes. We have essentially got King Charles to agree to help us rescue Oliver Cromwell if you like," said Warwick. "It was that war with the Amra that drove the Ickra down their decline. Both Clusters had grown powerful under good leaders. Yu’lAmra and Ja’rIckra. So powerful that by proxy they controlled many of the Clusters in between – hence why they were able to fight each other directly when their home islands were dozens of miles from each other. Then both those leaders died and they were taken over by an incompetent and a grief-stricken madwoman respectively.

"When Vo’nIckra completed the war she left a powerful multi-Cluster Empire for her even madder daughter Ky’lIckra. One who had been born with a maddening disease rather than being driven to it by life events. And Ky’lIckra controlled more territory than any Culvanai before her. She skirted the boundaries of Mevweck Law just by existing. But no-one ever questioned that Empire out of fear and so she believed that she could break more and more Laws. Until it came to the great war in which the Human first contact ship turned the tide."

"My…God…" Gregory said slowly.

"That’s not all," Warwick said. "When the Korul group seized the Amra island and declared themselves a Cluster…they renamed themselves Klungs."

Stillsby blinked. "You mean…Mu’rKlungs was about to nuke her own Cluster out of existence before it ever was?"

"She was mad," Gregory said slowly. "She thought everyone here was somehow already corrupted by Humans, or a copy. She didn’t think they were real lives."

"Treating people as things," Stillsby said. "The root of all evil."

"Come on," Warwick said, "I’ve already said enough. Let’s party."

But somehow that night of celebration was now just a little bit darker.

Chapter Twenty-Eight


Ickra island, Culvana

March 12th 2007

"Well, not quite as quickly as I had hoped," grumpled Captain Marka Stjepanovic. Self-consciously, she tried to rub off the swamp mud sticking to her boot on a nearby stone. It was, of course, a futile battle: this whole planet was swamp mud. She’d never liked the planet Culvana even up in the Fourth, where there was a planet-wide public transport network operated by one of the pacifist NoMercy groups across all Cluster borders, and with Human-favoured facilities available. Back here, when things were still stuck in the middle of the ages of petty warfare before the rise of the Ickra…

Which will now never happen, she reminded herself. One plus point, at least.

She looked up at the rather embarrassing shape of the courier as it loomed over the square. In the week or so since the Amra had took back the island and the remaining Ickra had been installed – sharing the island with the Korul remnant, whom Ja’rIckra had offered to take under her wing – there had been much rebuilding of the citadel, some of it with Fourther help from the Ingrams. But this one courtyard remained in its bleak, debris-strewn state, still occupied by the courier.

Until now.

Lieutenant-Commander Shirley Vaughn, the Ingram’s chief engineer, poked her head out of the courier’s forward hatch. "The refuelling is completed, ma’am," she said, and couldn’t suppress a grin.

"Good," Stjepanovic allowed. The huge tanker pod filled with antimatter, sent down by the Ingram’s shuttles from the gasdiver, was being held in midair by a combination of said shuttles and some of the remaining Culvanai airships. Now it was empty, and the motley collection of craft gently tugged it away from the citadel with their carbon nanotube cables. They’d set it down on the coast of the island, if you could even say where that was on the usual Culvanai landscape that couldn’t make up its mind whether it were land or water. Checks would be made that every last antiproton had been offloaded into the courier or elsewhere, and then the magnetic containment field would be deactivated. Stjepanovic had no intentions of retrieving the pod: the Ingram herself could be refuelled easily by a direct cable connection to the gasdiver. Perhaps the Ickra would turn the empty pod into some sort of housing complex for their displaced refugees; she quirked a smile at that thought.

Vaughn continued: "The controls are all operational and we’ve gone through the computers," she said, emphasising the ‘we’ pointedly. At Je’tEnnck’s insistence, He’gAmmj was there looking over Vaughn’s shoulder, ensuring that the Culvanai database did not fall into Human hands. Politics, Stjepanovic thought, making it a curse.

"Then the courier is ready to depart? I do not wish to waste time."

"We’ve made the final checks, ma’am. She’s as ready as she’ll ever be. And we’ve offloaded the suspended animation units and replaced them with more stores. Plus some new missiles in case she needs to blast her way through an Oort cloud."

Stjepanovic gave a quick nod. "Excellent work, Commander. All right." The captain brought up her wrist and appeared to speak into the golden stripes denoting her rank. "Earthbound team, please report to the courier immediately."

A few moments later, four figures were standing before her: three Humans and a Culvanai. One of the Humans did not wear an Astroforce uniform; the Culvanai did, but she was beginning to wonder about whether he should. As well as the four on the team, two Culvanai VIPs, Ja’rIckra and Je’tEnnck, appeared to watch the proceedings.

"Commander He’gAmmj, Lieutenant Warwick, Ensign Gregory, Mr. Stillsby," Stjepanovic said perfunctorily. "You shall be taking our news and information back to Earth. You shall fly the ship to the edge of communications range and transmit it, then continue all the way to Earth in order to make a report in person."

The four nodded rather wearily; they all knew the plan by now. "Yes, ma’am," said He’gAmmj. "I presume those tests we were talking about came out correctly?"

"Yes, Commander," Stjepanovic said. "This courier is only intended to fly the route from Luna to Culvana with three people, but it can take four without any need for suspended animation. No need for the freezebox; it’s not like we’re taking twenty-odd people like the Others." Everyone still winced at that name.

"Suspended animation doesn’t work too well on you Irthai anyway," He’gAmmj said cheerfully. "I’m glad we can make the voyage."

"Oh yes," Stjepanovic said, with the air of an afterthought, "and the courier shall be commanded by Lieutenant Warwick."

"WHAT?!" yelled He’gAmmj and Je’tEnnck together. He’gAmmj rattled off an angry sentence in one of the Culvanaic languages before he pulled himself together. "Ma’am, that is a gross contravention of the-"

"Commander He’gAmmj," Stjepanovic said quietly, "look me in the eye."

He’gAmmj obeyed, his reflective silver eyes meeting her cold blue ones. "You are an Astroforce officer and my subordinate, yes?" she asked.

"Of course, ma’am. Which is precisely why-"

"All right. In that case, hand over the Culvanai database."

He’gAmmj blinked, his bristles waving wildly, and he glanced desperately at an equally shocked looking Je’tEnnck. "Ma’am, I-"

"I gave you an order, Commander."


Stjepanovic gave him a smile, though there was no humour in it. "I don’t blame you, He’gAmmj," she said, not using his title. "Thrown back in time like this…it’s a bit different to before, isn’t it? When you joined the Astroforce to escape the whole Culvanai ‘system’. But now you’re one of just a few Fourther Culvanai in a world dominated by Humans, and you have the chance to stop the ‘system’ before it ever arises."

"Ma’am…" He’gAmmj began, but the look in those mirror eyes betrayed the truth of what Stjepanovic had said.

"I don’t blame you," Stjepanovic repeated. "And if you want to go native and work with the Culvanai, then fine. But you can’t do that and be an Astroforce officer, belonging to no single government. Not at the same time."

"As though this Astroforce will be anything like the old one," He’gAmmj grumbled. "Garrows has almost said as much. It will be a Human-only service, or as near as makes no difference. A tool of the Union, not a defender of FedCom."

"He’gAmmj – there IS no Union," Stjepanovic said gently. "And certainly no FedCom, although I hope we can rebuild the Human-Culvanai alliance, perhaps by other means."

She paused. "But I take your point. In any case, it is inappropriate for you to continue as an Astroforce officer if you truly believe that your duty to Culvana comes first. And so?" she said. "Choose."

He’gAmmj stood there for a long time, almost like a statue had it not been for his bristles waving in silent meditation. Then, with a long sigh, he reached up to his chest, unclipped the diamond shaped blue badge with the four golden stars connected by a white cross, and handed it to Stjepanovic. "I resign my commission as an officer in the Joint Astroforce," he said quietly, sounding particularly bitter as he said the word ‘Joint’. "Let the record show it."

"I accept your resignation…Mr. He’gAmmj," Stjepanovic said quietly. "Now go to Earth and speak for the Culvanai. I daresay you will return on the first ship Garrows sends," she added with a smile.

He’gAmmj didn’t reply as such. He just looked sidelong at Ja’rIckra, who flickered her bristles in a way that Stjepanovic hadn’t seen a Culvanai do for years.

Oh no. Surely not. Him and her? Heh, instant sitcom. Stjepanovic inwardly laughed. "All right," she said. "In that case, there is nothing more to say. Go, and help us do what we have to do."

Lieutenant Warwick nodded, looking a little frightened at being placed in command. "Yes ma’am. We’ll do our duty ma’am."

"I expect nothing less," Stjepanovic said. "Now let’s move!"

Three hours later, there was no-one in the courtyard, but the courier was home to four people. Gregory, feeling a little bit uneasy about it, was seated in the same chair where Mu’rKlungs had been when they had burst onto the bridge – it seemed so long ago. The displays could only read in Culvanaic, so He’gAmmj was having to do most of the work, but Gregory was slowly beginning to recognise that that collection of symbols meant ‘nuclear drive diagnostics’ and so forth, even if he couldn’t actually understand the language.

"All right," He’gAmmj said. He kept his Astroforce uniform on, despite everything, but his chest remained bare. "Time to lift."

The comm flickered. "Godspeed," Stjepanovic said simply, and then Je’tEnnck said something similar in a Culvanaic language. He’gAmmj’s bristles lay flat for a moment. Then he looked forward, out of the main window/screen, which was configured using colours which made Gregory’s eyes hurt slightly.

"Engaging," He’gAmmj said. He hit the controls.

The VTOL chemical jets ignited. Gregory watched on the main holoviewer – not that dissimilar to a Human one – as the phallic-shaped ship rose into the air, its downdraft swirling debris around in the courtyard below. A few moments later, the courier had risen fifty feet into the air, and He’gAmmj also eased her forward so that her exhausts were not aimed into the middle of the Ickra island. He favoured the forward-mounted VTOL jets slightly, so that the front of the ship began to tilt upward, until the ship was aimed at the sky.

"The routes are clear of airships," He’gAmmj said, and pulled a lever.

Gregory was instantly thrown back against his seat. Like Humans, Culvanai had inertial compensators, but this was a rather stripped-down ship and He’gAmmj was really gunning the throttle. The murky, foggy clouds above rapidly peeled back on either side as first chemical and then nuclear engines flared. Deuterium fuel fused away merrily in the latter. The sky went from its usual mouldy cheese colour to dark grey, and then black, the stars beginning to appear. Almost none of them formed familiar shapes; Culvana was so far away from Earth that most of the constellations were scrambled. Somehow, that was the biggest reminder that they were on an alien world. Or had been.

"What did you think of Culvana?" Gregory asked through gritted teeth, aiming his question at Andrew Stillsby. "I thought you had intended to stay longer."

"I saw enough," Stillsby said. "An interesting place, no doubt. But when you’ve been shot at and nearly nuked in the middle of a battlefield worse than any Hollywood producer’s idea of Vietnam…" he shrugged. "Kind of turns you off sticking around to explore the local customs."

Gregory nodded. He also heard what Stillsby wasn’t saying. He’d been away from home for months. He missed his wife and child more than he’d like to admit.

"Orbit achieved!" He’gAmmj said with a practiced smile. And it was true. Out of the forward window/screen, Culvana was visible below as a perceptible ball, a ball of brown and yellow and green covered with clouds. It looked beautiful from up here, in a sort of pebble-dashed way, all the tiny islands in a sea or possibly tiny lakes in a a continent. All the same, Gregory wasn’t too sad himself to leave it behind.

"Fortunately, the Ingram is clearing a path for us this time," He’gAmmj said. "We only need to flux to the edge of the Oort cloud and then feel our way through. No need to waste missiles; we’ve only got six."

"I though this ship only had two?" Gregory said.

"Eight," He’gAmmj said. "The Others used two, but they’d already taken the antimatter out of the other six just to fuel the ship. They strained it terrible coming the way here." He paused, aware that this might not be the most reassuring thing to say. "But it should be fine if we’re careful," he added.

In any case, Gregory wasn’t listening. Instead, he was very carefully not looking at the windows. Views of Human flux drive were bad enough. He didn’t want to know what Culvanai ones might look like.

"What is this ship called, anyway?" he asked.

"Its original name was Ke’reelth’pack," said He’gAmmj, "which means something like ‘If this thing is ever used, then we’re all screwed’." He smiled again at Gregory’s expression. "It was attached to the embassy for a reason: to try and get word to Culvana if Humanity ever went mad and decided to declare war."

"I see," Gregory said. "Perhaps we should come up with another name."

"I’m open to suggestion," said He’gAmmj.

Gregory looked at the design of the ship on the holoviewer, the long, tapering, cylindrical fuselage, with the two glowing fluxglobes at the back, now lowered into spacegoing mode. "How about," he said, with an evil glint in his eye, "the I’ve Got A Great Big Tonker?"

Stillsby laughed once and then looked scandalised. He’gAmmj, and Warwick for that matter, seemed not to get the reference. In fact He’gAmmj looked pleased. "A most excellent choice," he said. "To’nKer was one of the most important leaders involved in signing the first treaty between Earth and Culvana. I am glad that you are not entirely ignorant of our history."

"Ah – yes," Gregory said, avoiding Stillsby’s gaze.

"Here we go," He’gAmmj said cheerfully, bidding farewell to his homeworld – for a while, at least, and hitting a button.

A blue-green shroud of energy spilled from the fluxglobes, wrapped itself around the To’nKer, and protected it as it leapt into fluxspace.


First Consul’s Office, Luna

June 10th 2007

"First Consul!" said Fiona Adams.

Garrows looked up from his work and frowned. These days, they rarely used titles between them – and that was a measure of their working relationship, for Garrows seldom let anyone call him by his first name. The fact that Fiona was now calling him by his title meant that something big was going up.

For better or for worse.

"What is it…Ms Adams?" he said, putting down his report on the genfood situation in sub-Saharan Africa.

Fiona smiled at him. "It’s the Ingram," she said. "They’re reporting in."

Garrows jumped up from his desk, then hesitated and sat back down again. "Excellent. Put them through." He wiped a relieved smile off his face. For better or for worse, now, at least he had news. He was pretty certain that the worst case scenario couldn’t be any worse than the ones his own mind had been whispering in his ear for the last few months.

Garrows’ holoviewer flickered, showing the Astroforce logo for a moment, then cleared and displayed the face of a young woman in an Astroforce lieutenant’s uniform. Garrows struggled to recall her face, then remembered the officer on the Voordijk who’d been mixed up with the Gunn business and had been transferred to the Ingram. What was her name? Ah yes. Warwick.

"Lieutenant Warwick," he said casually, before she could open her mouth, and was guiltily pleased by the way she jumped at his recognition. "Report, please."

"Yes First Consul sir," said Warwick, in the un-pausing manner of the Cancies. "Sir a full mission report will be transmitted in compressed form along with the plans for the Culvanai technologies we wanted." She took a breath. "Suffice to say though that while the Mu’rKlungs group did some damage they were defeated."

"Good," Garrows said, though privately he was more concerned about the technologies. "How were the technologies obtained? Did the Firster Culvanai make them for you?"

"No sir," said Warwick. "They were not advanced enough yet. But the Mu’rKlungs gang had a copy of the embassy database."

"And you recovered it?"

"Sort of sir," said Warwick, avoiding his gaze. "It remains under Culvanai control and they are unwilling to hand it over to us. But they have given us those plans that the Unity group wanted."

Garrows let out a sigh. He might have known. Well, never mind, never mind. "And where are you?" he asked. "I assume this is not the Ingram or Captain Stjepanovic would be the one reporting."

"This is the courier that the Mu’rKlungs gang stole," Warwick explained. "We are flying it all the way back to Earth. Crew is myself; Ensign Gregory; He’gAmmj," Garrows frowned when she missed out his title, "and Mr. Andrew Stillsby."

"Ah yes," Garrows said, then frowned to himself. "Could you put Mr. Stillsby on, please? And begin transmitting the data."

Warwick adjusted the camera and it reconfigured to show the face of Andrew Stillsby, which Garrows recognised from reports. Along the bottom of the holoview, a flickering band of light showed that the data was coming in in parallel with the holo transmission. "Mr. Stillsby?" he said. "This is First Consul Garrows."

Stillsby’s eyes widened when he saw Garrows, and his forehead creased in dread. Garrows quickly realised what he must be thinking. "Don’t worry, Mr Stillsby," Garrows said with a deliberate smile, "it’s nothing to do with your wife and child. They’re both well, and still here on Luna."

Stillsby’s face drooped with relief. "Thank God," he said, then frowned. "So what do you want to tell me, Mr First Consul?"

Garrows shrugged. "I thought you might like to know of events over the past few months," he said. "We have raised another three Stairways and have disposed of all the non-functioning Firster satellites-" though the Stewards had insisted he put them in museums, he recalled with a chuckle, "-left over from the Shift. Instead we have replaced them with three master satellites that can handle all the same business. We’ve asked the nations to sign treaties limiting the number of satellites they can put into orbit via the Stairways, to prevent another space junk situation. So everyone’s building big multifunctional space stations instead.

"The Unity project has moved ahead – not least thanks to your wife being the liaison to the Shed Men now that Mr. Saunders has gone off with the Voordijk mission." Garrows scowled at that: the Voordijk’s progress was slower than he had hoped, still only about halfway to Stentyrrea. But he didn’t have to tell Stillsby that. "We are already building ships with mostly Firster technology. Many of the nations have agreed to host large super-factories producing advanced technology but staffed by Firsters.

"But most importantly to you, Mr. Stillsby, there have been…events in your homeland. The Blair government has finally fallen." Inwardly, he still felt odd about saying that. In the original history, Blair had been beatified as one of the founding fathers of the European supranation, not castigated for corruption and being involved in unpopular wars.

Stillsby’s eyes widened. "What was it?" he asked. "In the end?"

"A scandal to do with running our technology to nations on our banned list, such as Saudi Arabia," Garrows said. "And that’s a keg right there, I might add. They couldn’t wriggle out of it this time. Most of the government had to resign. The Queen dissolved Parliament and there was a snap election – Labour lost most of its majority but still ended up as the government. But there’s a new Prime Minister and cabinet."

"Who’s the new PM?" Stillsby asked. "The Chancellor? The media have acted like he’s almost the indisputable heir to the throne ever since 1997."

Garrows smiled. "No," he said, and was privately glad that he didn’t have to deal with that dour Scotsman. "But it is someone that you have history with."

Stillsby blinked. "Oh no. Oh God oh no."

Chapter Twenty-Nine


Cabinet Offices, London, UK, Earth

June 14th 2007

The Right Honourable Peter David Chambers, Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, scowled up from his position at head of the ancient oak table. Beneath his intimidating expression, though, he was pleased: the breadth of the scandal that had wrecked the previous government, coupled with the catatonic media being unable to protest much out of the shock that the Chancellor hadn’t become the next PM, he’d been able to get his way on a lot of things. The vast majority of his cabinet ministers were his own men, or women, though he’d kept over a few of the better choices of his predecessor, those that hadn’t been implicated in the scandal.

Although it had not been his primary intention, that being simply choice by sheer ability and suitability for a cabinet post (a dangerously revolutionary idea in the modern world), he’d ended up with quite an inclusive and representative cabinet. Fortunately, though, both his ministers from ethnic minorities were from highly anglophilic backgrounds and indeed tended to out-British the British. Which was fine as far as Chambers was concerned.

"All right," he said. "Next item on the agenda. Mr. Courtenay?"

William P. Courtenay leaned forward earnestly. The new Minister for Defence had been one of Chambers’ closest advisors, and one of the few whom Chambers actually trusted to step into his shoes. Until the snap election, he’d been a civil servant, but Chambers had successfully managed to get him parachuted into a safe constituency and he was now a Member of Parliament. "Because, unlike our neighbours across the Channel who see no problem with having an unelected prime minister," as Chambers had put it, "in this country everyone goes berserk if as much as the Minister for Paperclips is not a democratically elected figure."

"The Shed Men move ahead," Courtenay said. "The partnerships with our chosen firms," and he winked at Chambers: none of the absurd selections of the previous Government’s love affair with PFI there, "also appear to be proceeding on schedule."

Chambers nodded. He already knew all this, of course: he’d kept a personal interest in the Shed Men – who were now absorbing more than a third of the UK’s defence budget, which had itself been increased over the last Government’s. In fact the Shed Men were now too big to simply be referred to as ‘a project’: they were almost a ministry in themselves, albeit an extremely loosely organised one. "What about the specific projects we discussed?" he asked. "In particular the Advanced Future Main Battle Tank Development…argh…whatever the rest of that colonial-style acronym is."

Courtenay grinned. Though a strict vegan, he’d been looking a lot more robust since the Selenites introduced the same bacterial-paste farms that were helping to feed Africa until the gencrop farming could be pushed through. "That project is reaching its final stages," he said. "Professor Bone claims an ETA of around six, perhaps seven weeks before a prototype can be tested. General Stawes is requesting a name for the vehicle be assigned."

"Isn’t the Advanced Tank a reverse-engineered design from the 2060s, taken from the Wildfire Database?" asked the Home Secretary, Sudan-born Anthony Floid.

Courtenay inclined his head. "That’s correct. The Shed Men have been working on it almost since they began."

"Well, then," Floid said, "why not simply use the original name?"

Chambers rolled his eyes at the ceiling and let Courtenay reply. "Er…the tank’s original name was Blair," he said.

"Oh," Floid said. "Not the best idea, then."

"I think not," Chambers said. He grabbed a piece of House of Commons paper off a nearby pad, scribbled nine large block capitals, handed it to Courtenay without a word.

Courtenay blinked as he read it. "My…snappy, sir," he said.

"Oh hardy har har," said Chambers at the pun. "In any case, seven weeks is faster than I’d hoped but it’s still not enough to take part in the operation. Never mind; our Shed Men-modified Challengers and other vehicles will still be more than enough." The PM turned to the other side of the table, addressing the Foreign Secretary. "And what of the operation’s progress through the Scary World Domination Plot or Ineffective Commie Cashdrain, depending on which American nutjob you ask?"

Sir Christopher Morgan smiled. Though he and Chambers had had sparring matches before, the PM had seen fit to recall him from the United Nations to take up the post of Secretary of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as it was known under the Chambers premiership (he’d even literally underlined those two words on all the stationery). One of Morgan’s protégés had taken over his own former role, and the two were now corresponding with increasing urgency over Chambers’ plan.

The operation, as Chambers referred to it, had begun almost as soon as he had crossed the threshold into Number Ten. "And it is an operation," he had said, "not just in the macho Operation Absurd Name type thing that the colonials like so much, but in the sense that we need to perform an operation to excise a tumour out of the heart of a continent."

"I think we’re on track," Morgan said, hedging his bets. His mild southern Welsh accent lent a musical air to his educated voice. "France and the United States should both back us at the Security Council, so long as neither of them finds out that the other one is doing so until the last moment." He smiled to himself.

"Politics," Chambers said. "What about Russia and China? Any chance of a veto?"

"Not likely," said Morgan. "They both may have some business interests there but, equally, both are scared of getting on the Selenites’ wrong side. As a near-dictatorship and a dictatorship respectively…and specific regimes which were implicated in starting the Third World War in the other timeline…" he shrugged.

"Which of course brings us to the most important issue," Chambers said, "the Selenites. I have talked it over in a personal meeting via holo-link with Mr. Garrows, and I understand you have also consulted with Ms Renwick and his other ministers." Garrows didn’t have a single foreign minister; Luna’s relationship with Earth was too complicated, he had judged.

"That’s right," said Morgan. "And I received some enthusiasm for the prospect. Setting a precedent, as it were. So long as it does not get out of hand."

"It’d have a hard time now," said the Minister for Education, Singaporean-born Sanjay Mathew. "Look what’s happened to Iraq."

"All the same, the Selenites don’t want to have to bale us out of another hellhole," Morgan retorted. "And, what with the scandal, heck, we need to stay on their good side almost as much as the Russians and the Chinese do."

"That would be funny if it wasn’t true," Chambers growled. "Well; we can start as we mean to go on."

He glanced up, as though looking towards the Moon, or perhaps the Almighty. "We won’t back down over this," he said. "We won’t go alone if we can help it, and we won’t mess up. But we’ll set a precedent."

He lowered his gaze, until it carried to the gorgeous modern worldmap on the opposite wall, his eyes fixing on that tumour wedged between South Africa and Zambia, between Botswana and Mozambique. Once the richest country in Africa and now the poorest.

If he had been Superman, that map would have burst into flames from the heat of his glare. He wasn’t Superman. But he was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and that wasn’t a bad second prize.

"We won’t make the same mistakes again," he said to himself. "Meeting adjourned."


First Consul’s Office, Luna

July 5th, 2007

Garrows was pacing back and forth, which was one of his hobbies. He could almost still hear the explosions ringing in his ears from last night, when he’d made a surprise state visit to the United States on the night of their Independence Day, in order to co-open their new megafactory in Illinois with the President. Like the existing one in western Arizona, it would soon be producing technologies that, while not twenty-fourth century standard, were still a helk of a way ahead of anything else on Earth. Canada, with plenty of space and natural resources if not perhaps so much manpower, was also supporting megafactories, as were Russia, China and Australia. The somewhat disunited European Union, rich but rather crowded when it came to finding space for a city-sized megafactory without offending some group or other, was currently only hosting smaller projects. Still, every little helped…

He glanced up at the big map on the wall. It was in fact a display screen, but for all intents and purposes it could have been a map only: he had left it switched to this mode for the past month and more.

Unfortunately, it could also have been a static picture. Or at least that’s how it seemed to Garrows.

He inwardly frowned at the brilliant red line that showed the progression of the Voordijk (and the Bohemia, still, he reminded himself) across the Local Spur of the Saggitarius Arm, from Earth all the way to Stentyrrea. The outlines of the old political divisions were still faintly marked on, even though they were completely meaningless now and, one way or another, would never come to be in the same way in this timeline. However, at least they let Garrows’ eyes work out roughly where the planets he knew were, in relation to the borders that he had learned in school and hadn’t changed a great deal since then.

Let’s see. The fleet had long since passed out of the Home Systems, the border of which was arbitrarily marked by Emnoneea. Then they had travelled westward, stopping at one of the Old Colonies (Europa Nova?) to set up a refuelling gasdiver and a comm relay station. Then onwards further to the dead planet known as SPECTRUM, that in the future had housed the alternative seat of government for the Union of Humanity if Earth were ever compromised. This was important, because SPECTRUM had been chosen precisely because it was almost bang in the middle of the Union of Humanity.

They had set up another gasdiver there, at one of the outer gas giant planets in the SPECTRUM system, and it was there that the Petrozavodsk had had to leave them. The frigate was still refuelling (the two ships going on had had first priority from the gasdiver, of course), and awaiting orders. Garrows was still debating whether to send it on after the two others, bring it back to Earth to serve as a flagship for Admiral Nuttall’s new Unity-based Astroforce, or leave it there to explore the old systems for future colonies…

Next came Aressfor. Another gasdiver there, leaving them with just two, the one left in the Voordijk’s cavernous cargo bays, and the single one that the Bohemia had been carrying all these times. The comm relay stations were still working, but even with them, communications across such a vast distance was becoming decidedly difficult. Garrows could no longer have a realtime conversation with Captain Zhang, as he had in the early stages of the mission.

And now…

Garrows blinked, walked up to the map, stared hard. Yes. He was not mistaken. They had reached Terminus. The westernmost outpost of the Union of Humanity (although disputed by the Cancies, of course). They had travelled three-quarters of their entire journey. Terminus would be an idyllic green uninhabited planet now – strange to think of it that way, though not half as strange as it was to think it of Graham. That brought to mind the tiresome committees that were still petitioning Nuttall to divert resources from the military Unity project to a New Pioneer colony-ship project to (pre, re?) colonise Graham. He pushed the thought aside.

Terminus. Yes. There was a gas giant planet in that system, he was sure of it – helk, there seemed to be at least one in almost every system. Good. Drop a gasdiver there, stop to refuel…ah. They’d have to leave the Bohemia behind there. Hard one for Captain Annejdi: too far away from either Earth or their destination. Still, eventually the gasdiver would produce enough antimatter for the Bohemia to proceed to. Garrows had been, and still was, uncomfortable about stringing his fleet out like this. But they had no other choice if they wanted to reach Stentyrrea as quickly as possible. And Stentyrrea was the only thing that mattered. Gunn had certainly thought so, judging from the reconstituted transmission that Colonel Wilkinson’s people had produced.

"Terminus," he said aloud. "And then, what? Smim Teth, and then Miraddus – drop another gasdiver there, treat with the natives," he laughed, "Chais and Lirec still I daresay – and then Chalith, the Halfway House, and finally Stentyrrea."

He fell silent. It would still take more than a month, even allowing for a quick bit of diplomacy at Miraddus. Maybe even two months. And that if nothing went wrong.

He brushed that thought aside, too. Well. There was nothing he could do about it. He’d be getting a burst transmission sooner or later, from Zhang or perhaps Annejdi, telling him that they’d reached Terminus. He could hardly tell them to buck up now: if they bucked up any more, there’d be a stag on Mount Everest. And, more to the point, exploded flux engines. And possibly exploded crew. Definitely exploded chances for getting to Stentyrrea first.

Garrows sighed. He had things to do. On the 23rd, it was the first anniversary of the Shift, and he intended to give the feverishly working Selenite population a proper day off, with a good old fashioned Colonial carnival. He wouldn’t let Earth show him up.

"Fiona?" he called. "Bring me that memo from the mayor of Tranquillity. I got that helpful undersecretary from the Supreme Court to look it up, and he hasn’t got a leg to stand on – there’s a precedent for closing Armstrong Square to traffic for the day…even if admittedly it was a Vároto attack…"


Pieter Voordijk, Terminus System

July 6th 2007

Captain Zhang glared almost angrily at the lovely blue and green, hauntingly Earthlike planet of Terminus below. Like Graham before it – and Europa Nova and Aressfor and the others – it was disturbingly pristine, quite unlike the inhabited world he knew well and had visited. At least Terminus was a younger colony, though: it had retained a good deal of its pre-colonisation appearance.

It had been/would have been a funny place, as well. The last Human colony world as one went westward, the last real outpost of the Union of Humanity. And yet, for a ‘Human’ colony world, Humans had (would have had?) only made up about 52% of the total population. For Terminus was probably the most cosmopolitan world in known space, maybe even the entire galaxy.

There had been Miradi, of course, and Stentyrreans: the two largest groupings, for their homeworlds lay so near. Culvanai, the most distant Culvanai community from Culvana, most of whom descended from Astroforce officers and hence rather unorthodox in their views. Ucasa, both the red-haired ocr’Ucasa from Gahjj and Noiroa, who claimed to be more civilised than the green-haired aqa’Ucasa from the Vároto territories, and indeed both ocr’Ucasa and the Vároto themselves treated the two like different species. The Vároto, despite their ancient directive to exterminate or enslave all Ucasa, had always compromised with the ocr’Ucasa, not least because an all-out assault on somewhere like Gahjj would be difficult, bloody and ultimately self-defeating.

There had been short, stocky Xalbaynians and olive-skinned, big-eyed Ke’kakkans, both out of the Rimward Untamed Regions. There had been a few examples of races whose mere existence was unconfirmed or classified, like the Deasdonians and the Unduli and maybe even the fabled Zachy. And, most surprisingly at all, there had been a sizeable Vároto community. Exiles, mostly, of course. Families who had been all but destroyed by political upheavals back home, those who had backed the wrong side in one civil war or another. Some of them fitted into Human, or rather Federate, society well enough. Others, including a lot of angry second-generation immigrants, had caused trouble, either by rioting with Ucasa or serving as a fifth column when the Vároto attacked Terminus – as they invariably did in the various wars.

Yet that Vároto community had also lent some hope to those who had hoped that one day the endless Human-Vároto conflict could be resolved by some means other than one side completely annihilating the other. The Vároto of Terminus had been relatively liberal when it came to matters of tradition, and their devotion to the Sahdavi, though some of it was genetically programmed, had begun to soften. Perhaps one day, some Humans had hoped, all Vároto could be like that…

Not a very reasonable hope right now, though, Zhang thought bitterly. There ARE no Vároto on Terminus now – not anybody – and their so-called gods are still around lording it over them right now. At least Gunn thought so.

Zhang turned to the comm officer, Commander Zalaran Chouvel. Like the other Stentyrreans and Miradi in the crew, he had begun to get a little jumpy and excited as they had neared the two homeworlds. There had even been unrest among the crew, which Zhang had hastily quietened down by throwing a few of the ringleaders into the brig. There were two separate conflicts going on: Miradi vs. Stentyrrean, for on Stentyrrea right now there was a war between an alliance of Stentyrrean nations and the descendants of the Miradi group who had hijacked the Sahdavi ship and flown it to Stentyrrea in the first place; Miradi vs. Miradi, for on Miraddus, the cold war between the Chais and the Lirec was still ongoing. Those few Lirec among the crew, whose side had lost the war and spent most of the next few centuries paying for it, were beginning to murmur that something ought to be done about it this time around.

Zhang sighed. They never thought about this when they suggested multiracial crews, he thought ironically. Of course, it would take a rather imaginative planner to consider the possibility of being thrown back in time…

"Commander Chouvel," he said, "what’s the word on the gasdiver and the comm relay?"

"Captain Annejdi says that the gasdiver is in place, but her man on board – uh, a Lieutenant Novacek – says that there’s a problem – one of the nuclear batteries has blown and the Bohemia isn’t carrying any of the replacement sizes."

"Do we have one aboard?"

"Yes, sir – I’ve just got word back from Commander Peterson." Chouvel’s antennae flexed gently. "We have three of them spare."

"Good – have them send a Kohl around with – ah, never mind," Zhang changed his mind. "Is the comm station operational?"

"Yes, sir. Lieutenant Yazidi and Ensign Flynn report they’re ready to send the transmission to Luna when you request it."

"Excellent." Zhang hesitated. "As we’re going to the gasdiver anyway to refuel, we might as well just take the whole ship rather than bother with a Kohl. Set a course, Commander Ishikawa…and Commander Chouvel, give Lieutenant Yazidi the confirmation to transmit when ready. If they’re a go, we’re no longer needed here."

"Yes, sir," said Chouvel, and bent his big bald orange head to the task.

Zhang looked out of the main window/screen as the enormous outer gas giant planet of the Terminus system rolled away before him. The gasdiver and the comm relay had both been set up in geosynchronous orbits, but on opposite sides of the planet to minimise the chances of any collision. So, travelling around to the gasdiver to meet the Bohemia and the gasdiver itself meant that they left the comm relay, occupied by two people, on the other side of the planet and cut off. It slipped beneath the horizon even as he watched, the great gassy horizon with its powerful comm-dampening electromagnetic field.

Purely a coincidence of course.

Chapter Thirty


Comm Relay Station, Orbit of Gas Giant, Terminus System

July 6th 2007

Lieutenant Farhad Yazidi glanced up from his panel. "It’s a go," he said, half to himself. "The Big PV is going over to the gasdiver. Something about a faulty part. We can send the signal."

"That’s good news, sir," said Ensign Seamus Flynn earnestly. Despite his overtly Irish name, the Firster ensign had African features: he was a black Usan. The Firster Earth often seemed to throw up stranger combinations of names and ethnicities than the Fourther one had, Yazidi thought; up in the Fourth, things had calmed down a bit when it came to global migrations. No wonder, when all countries were pretty much equally prosperous.

"It is," Yazidi agreed. "So we might as well begin. Go and check we’ve got a clear line of sight."

"I will, sir," Flynn promised. He went over to the appropriate console: fortunately these relays were equipped with Janvier-Graham gravity technology, and they weren’t close enough in to the gas giant for its own gravity well to interfere with the J-G field. Thus he was able to walk about rather than swinging around in zero gee.

Yazidi turned away and went to his own master control console. Waving a hand through the holographic projection, he selected the transmission that Zhang and Annejdi had recorded, accompanied by a compressed datastream giving details of the mission: unexpected differences in how well-known planets were now, confounding centuries of theorising about this time period; how much of their supplies they had consumed; a revised ETA for reaching the next stop, Smim Teth, and ultimately Stentyrrea. He didn’t look at the data himself: that wasn’t his job.

"I’m ready when you are, Ensign," Yazidi said.

Flynn was fiddling with his own console. For a Firster, he had learned very rapidly how to operate Fourther technology, Yazidi thought. A welcome change to the horror-stereotype going around the Astroforce about Firsters coming out of the GSAT being disasters waiting to happen.

The ensign was obviously checking whether they had a clear line of sight between Terminus and Earth. The comm beam was powerful enough to punch through two Oort clouds, that of the Terminus and Sol systems, but might be unacceptably weakened if it contacted any other star systems’ Oort clouds on the way there. Flynn made some minute adjustments, slightly altering the position of the main transmitter dish on the outside hull. Finally he nodded. "Ready, sir."

Yazidi inclined his head, turned back to his own console, and waved his finger through the big holographic button. Instantly, his holoview filled with lines of scrolling text, interspersed with holo footage of Captains Zhang and Annejdi. For a moment, he allowed his eyes to be dazzled with the beautiful holographic light show that also carried valuable information.

That…would prove his undoing.

Yazidi never even felt the electrical discharge hit his back, arcing through the puff of conductive gas. He simply started, a reflex as his muscles tensed, then slumped back.

Seamus Flynn smiled, a smile that did not reach his dark eyes, and lowered the gastaser. They were so foolish, he reflected to himself. He had not even had to somehow bring a weapon of his own aboard. They had given him the authorisation to open the relay station’s small armoury instead.

But he did not give himself time to gloat. He had work to do. He blinked, flexed his shoulders, relaxed his posture. And his muscles fell into patterns that, although you couldn’t quite put your finger on exactly why, just looked…wrong.

Seamus Flynn had left the building. In his place was Szamesz Pflen, former Ambassador of the Primacy of Vároton to the Union of Humanity, and the last survivor of the Yarghûn plot.

But he kept the same, rather unpleasant, smile.

Quickly, Pflen took a step forward and diplomatically pushed Yazidi’s unconscious form away from the console. He was glad he hadn’t had to fight the big Harwestani in a fair fight, and not just because any Vároto balked at fair fights on principle. But Yazidi was trusting. Pflen probably wouldn’t even have to kill him, which made his mission both more survivable and potentially more useful.

Pflen stood over the console, not daring to take Yazidi’s seat. He’d used the lowest setting on the gastaser that would still stun, not wanting to traumatise the man as it would make him more likely to remember the attack. But that meant that Yazidi was not so quite deep under as he might be, either.

A quick swipe of the controls cleared the display and brought up the screen he wanted. He pulled a cybercomp disk out of his pocket and slipped it into the appropriate slot on the console; data rapidly poured into the machine. Ironically it was not so detailed as the report that they had just sent back to Luna. It didn’t need to be.

Pflen went back to his original console and pressed one holo-button, activating a programme he’d been tapping out while Yazidi was otherwise occupied. The holo flickered, and he heard a faint whirr, more a vibration felt through the deck really, as the big transmitter dish reoriented. The station also automatically fired its reaction control chemical jets, turning it into the grossly correct position which the dish’s finer rotation would build upon.

Broadly speaking, the new direction was almost 180º to the old one.

Pflen heard the BEEP that signalled the operation was complete. Humans disliked hearing Human voices from their own computers: that was one area where the Vároto unquestionably agreed with them – their own experiments with A.I.s were also hardly an unqualified success. Pushing the thought aside, he sat back down at Yazidi’s console and then glanced at an indicator. Yes – the disk data was now ready to transmit…the dish was in the right position…

He muttered a quick prayer to the Sahdavi, and pressed the button.

It took only a few seconds. Once it was complete, if it were possible, he moved with even greater urgency than before. Quick – wipe the records – data disk out, into the disposal chute – drag Yazidi’s chair back into position – quickly reverse the programme so that the station moved into its original position, then delete THOSE records and fabricate a reason why some of the chemical fuel had been used…

But within a couple of minutes, it was as though he had never acted. Well, nearly. He walked up to the still unconscious Yazidi, schooled his features into a Human expression of concern, and shook the big Harwestani gently by his shoulders. "Lieutenant!" he said. "Lieutnenant!"

"Mm?" said Yazidi, his eyes opening sleepily, then snapping open suddenly. Pflen held his breath: would he realise the truth? Would Pflen have to kill him now and ruin nearly everything? And he didn’t even have his knife with him, the knife that had blooded him as a child, the knife that was his and only his…

"Mm?" Yazidi repeated. "Sorry, Ensign – did I drop off there?"

Pflen inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. "Ermm, perhaps you did, sir," he said, shuffling his feet embarrassedly. "I’m sure you were just resting your eyes. We’ve all had a lot on lately."

"Ah – yes – you’re right," Yazidi said. "Still, no excuse. Better stay awake, you never know when Luna will be calling, hey?"

"No, sir," Ensign Seamus Flynn said neutrally. Or Vároton.

He smiled. Miraddus – Stentyrrea – the Miradi and Stentyrreans – there were plenty of possible suspects on board. No, he doubted Zhang would come to the correct conclusion when he found out that that ‘damaged’ nuclear battery had been deliberately sabotaged.

"Why don’t you get some sleep, sir?" he asked. "It’s my shift coming up anyway in an hour, when we go over to regular station time."

"That’s kind of you, Ensign," Yazidi said, yawning again. Pflen remembered that being stunned by a gastaser tended to leave a long-lasting effect of sleepiness. "Perhaps I’ll take you up on that. In a few minutes. After the Captains have reported in." He smiled. "I’m glad to see that GSAT seems to work. You’ve done well today."

Pflen smiled back, a bit glassily. The GSAT! He had considered actually going there, posing as a Firster. But not when lectures were being given by, among others, Colonel Geoffrey Bradford Wilkinson and Dr. Maria Dominguez, both experts at spotting Vároto infiltrators. No; what with all the paperwork caused by the Firster cadets being entered into the regular Astroforce, it had been easy enough for an accomplished forger to slip through.

He looked up at one of the window/screens, at the strange and deserted stars around them. This territory was all but empty now. The Humans had claimed it as their own, in his time, but it had truly been part of the Vároto’s proper sphere of influence.

Of course, now, he realised, there was no reason why the Vároto’s sphere of influence should have any limits. Not when they were still led by the Sahdavi…

He muttered another quick prayer.

The two ships, the vast battleship Voordijk and the smaller destroyer Bohemia, both appeared from around the curve of the gas giant planet almost simultaneously. They left the gasdiver behind, now on the other side of the planet. Pflen knew that the Bohemia had still yet to refuel, and was just coming along to ceremonially see the Voordijk off.

The holoview lit up again, now showing two half-sized holograms of Captains Zhang Ji-cai and Mariam Annejdi, alongside each other. It was obvious from their postures that they were not actually standing next to each other, but each image from from a different bridge. "Captain Annejdi, Lieutenant Yazidi," Zhang said.

"Yes, sir," said Annejdi. Yazidi stifled another yawn and hastily repeated her words.

"It is time for us to part company," Zhang said formally. "We shall not see each other again for a long time. But we both have our jobs to do. For the Union! For Humanity."

"For Luna," Yazidi grumbled to himself. Pflen remembered that he was not a naturalised Selenite, merely having been on the Moon when the Shift happened. He still half felt more loyalty to his native Iran than Luna, despite the situation in contemporary Iran.

Zhang nodded, half to himself. "Godspeed." His hologram winked out, followed a moment later by Annejdi’s. Pflen glanced up, saw the purple-gold fire emanating from the Voordijk’s glowing Janvier-Graham crystal pods, enveloping the massive ship, and then, in the blink of an eye, it was gone – accelerating to speeds that would make any Firster physicist cry.

Speeding away towards Stentyrrea.

But it would not reach that destination. Not now. Pflen was certain of it.

He’d done his job well, after all. First and Foremost.


Deception, enroute to Stentyrrea

August 28th, 2007

Celoun smiled at his stateroom. The Vároto who’d designed and built the Deception and the other ships to the original Tyrant class specifications had modified them somewhat, clearing away a number of crew quarters to make room for this single, large and luxurious penthouse. So what if that dangerously cut the number of crewmen available for certain maintenance tasks? The Sahdavi came first. A Tyrant class ship had never had to carry a Sahdavi in the original history, but this time around, each of the Tyrants carried one Sahdavi each.

Regretfully, Celoun had left his servant behind on Vároton. For one thing, despite his intentions to string things out for Aeo Uea, he’d found that he’d been treating the Ucasa scum too viciously. A couple more weeks of that treatment and his body would have just given up. And that would not have been anything like enough punishment for the inconvenience and ennui he had subjected Celoun and the Sahdavi to over the past few decades.

Wrais had also left his servant/concubine, Uia Eou, behind. He certainly didn’t want to take a privilege that his Sahdavi god had denied to himself. Celoun remembered that Wrais, obviously hoping to please his god, had told Uia Eou that she was to nurse Aeo Uea, her old national leader, back to health. Celoun hadn’t objected, either: for one thing, it would let him break Aeo Uea all over again – he smiled at the thought – and also, it would make the somewhat fiery-spirited Uia Eou realise that the great war leader she had almost worshipped since childhood was just a single man, now pathetic and humiliated. Celoun knew that Wrais was looking forward to seeing that expression of broken dreams and terrible hopelessness upon her face when he returned. Delicious, delicious. He emulates my own heart, as well as he is able, Celoun thought proudly of Wrais.

The room was dominated by a large, soft bed: for all his pretensions, Celoun’s immortality treatment was decidedly running thin and he needed a great deal of rest for his aching, aged body. Around the bed were a number of chairs and tables, upon which were various pieces of salvaged Sahdavi technology. Very few of them had worked, before the Yarghûn transmission had informed them of how to repair the others – information which the Vároto had gradually pieced together as their own technology had advanced over the years in the other timeline, but too late to help the then deceased Sahdavi then. Celoun scowled at that thought: the notion of him passing away, his vision for Vároton incomplete, Uia Eou’s big smug face ruling over the Ucasa lands until his own death, and only his second successor finally succumbing to Vároto struggling to lead themselves…it was sickening.

The very fact that the Vároto had yet done so well in that history – almost defeating Humanity three times, fighting respectably against a dangerous foe like the insectoid Pheag (which, Celoun had an uneasy feeling, might have been created by some unwise Sahdavi group), carrying the War of Revenge to many more Ucasa planets and making a spirited attempt even at the powerful Obvians – was clear evidence that they were a truly worthy successor race. The final solution to the Immeri problem, the problem that had been laid on their shoulders ever since the last of the Grigóri had succumbed to the Oncoming Wave.

And that was another idea which Celoun did not want to think about. No. Well, let the Enemy of Religion try something this time, he thought fiercely, but his subconscious treacherously added: just not quite yet.

Celoun paused, sitting down on the bed and exhaling, cursing himself. Old. Old. How could he lead the Vároto in this condition? He might as well be dead as it was.

But he had to. He owed it to them. Shaking his head, he levered himself up again.

It was then that his rather myopic blue eyes spied something odd. One of the old bits of surviving Sahdavi technology, a comm receiver – indeed the very one that had had just enough power left to receive the Yarghûn transmission and start everything off – had a blinking light on it.

Message waiting.

Celoun gaped. In the first few weeks after the Yarghûn transmission, they had watched that receiver feverishly, expecting an addendum or clarification that had not come. The Yarghûn data had been very helpful, yet frustratingly incomplete: none of the graphics that Yarghûn had sent were decipherable: some sort of incompatible file format, even the very basic ones. And the text had been very badly translated, leaving annoying gaps and strange ambiguities. Had Yarghûn’s data not allowed them to at least know the Ucasa’s campaigning plans for the next few years, and thus allowed the Vároto armies to defeat them easily, Celoun thought he could have strangled the mysterious Yarghûn more than once. It was painfully ironic for a Vároto to do this to a Sahdavi: we’re supposed to be the gods being deliberately cryptic to confuse them, he thought to himself dryly.

Still, at least the Yarghûn data had been enough for them to build these ships, and no one could dispute the fact that they worked. And now, long after the comm receiver had been forgotten, neglected, and left in Celoun’s stateroom, more data had come…

Celoun got up, wincing as his back almost locked, staggered over to the receiver, and grabbed it. He gratefully retired to his bed, but his eyes were locked on the receiver. He pressed the relevant button. No need to worry about power now: the Yarghûn transmission had told of a technique that would have been developed by the Vároto a hundred years from now, a technique that let the Sahdavi technology be charged off the far more primitive Vároto generators.

His eyes flicked back and forth, his old but still active brain whirring as he processed the data. As with Yarghûn, he’d need a team of trained Vároto to memorise this and copy it out. It was easy, with their brains deliberately designed so.

"Interesting," he breathed. It was a short message, and if he’d stopped to think about it, he’d have been annoyed and disappointed that it didn’t clarify a lot of the problems they’d had with Yarghûn. But this new transmission, from this…Pflen…also delivered one big whackingly important bit of information.

Frowning to himself, Celoun reached out and hit the big button on his bedside table, wincing at the feel of touching a physical plastic button on a spring. He should have gotten used to it; he’d been doing it for hundreds of years. But there was something that offended his dignity about not using even a holographic display, to say nothing of telepathic immersion control.

It seemed only a few seconds later that the main doors opened and a single figure stepped through. Celoun smiled. Wrais.

The Vároto killerlord genuflected, and it was a measure of his stauts that he could get away with this rather than a full proskynesis. The very fact that he would have been ready and willing to perform such an act, in Celoun’s eyes, resolved him from the need to do so. "My lord Sahdavi Celoun," he said, when Celoun showed no signs of speaking first. "How may I serve?"

Celoun pointed to the comm receiver. "Do you remember this, Wrais?"

"Why, yes, my lord," Wrais said, after giving it a cursory glance. "In one of our sessions, my lord saw it fit to impart the knowledge unto me that the said device was that which received the Yarghûn Transmission, which has so assisted our endeavours of late – for your glory," he added.

Celoun frowned. Wrais wasn’t usually that deferential. Was he simply nervous because they were a long way from home, or was he up to something? He was a Vároto, after all – for better or for worse, they were almost intrisincally always up to something.

He wasn’t sure which would be preferable.

"You are correct," he said finally. "Well, the device has just received a second transmission."

Wrais looked as surprised as Celoun had. "And what does this second transmission contain? – if you see it fit for my ears to hear," he added hastily.

Celoun chuckled at that, not least because Wrais’ Vároto ears were almost unnoticeable besides the very long, pointed ones of the Sahdavi. Wrais could still hear better than him, though, both because of genetic engineering and Celoun’s age. "Indeed I do, for that is why I called you here," he said amusedly. "Killerlord Wrais, the message carries intelligence about our…opposition."

Wrais cocked his head at that word. "Opposition…the Humans, my lord?"

"Precisely, Wrais. Specifically, the mission that they have sent to pre-empt ours." He frowned. "To snatch what is rightfully ours before we reach Stentyrrea!"

Wrais’ face showed mixed emotions. Part of him, of course, shared in the righteous outrage of his god. Another part, though, was hung up on the Vároto love of such audaciously criminal acts as the one the Humans were trying to perform. The Sahdavi-worshipping part won, of course.

"The message – the Pflen Transmission – also contains specific data referring to the course plans of the vessel that the Humans have sent for this purpose," Celoun said.

"One vessel, my lord?" Wrais said, obviously spoiling for battle. "To our six?"

Celoun shook his head. "Not a good idea, Killerlord Wrais. The Humans’ vessels is…more advanced," he said, deciding to skip the whole future debate, which most of the Vároto seemed to have ignored as the sort of problem that only gods should be concerned with – even those who had been told the truth behind the transmission. "And larger. No, we shall use subterfuge."

Wrais’ eyes lit up, first with the usual Vároto desire for a nonstandard operation, and then with comprehension. "Ah. Plan 14," he said.

"Precisely, Wrais," Celoun said again.

"Three sacrifices?" Wrais said, with a frown. "As was planned?"

"No, Wrais," Celoun said. "One should be sufficient, as we know the course thanks to Pflen," he added, waving the receiver. He refrained from thinking about how long it might have been flashing away with that transmission, but him not noticing due to his myopic eyesight and the fact that no Vároto could enter his stateroom without invitation.

Wrais nodded slowly. "One. It makes sense, my lord. The procedure as was planned?"

"Correct. Random selection. Let the Grigóri decide," Celoun said absently. "Evacuate the Sahdavi and any nonessential personnel, transfer the necessary fuel and other resources, and begin the mission as soon as possible."

Wrais made an affirmative gesture, recognising a dismissal. He genuflected again. "For the Sahdavi, Prime and First," he said.

Celoun smiled. "And for the Primacy, First and Foremost," he said dryly.

Chapter Thirty-One


Pieter Voordijk, Miraddus System

August 17th 2007

"So that’s Miraddus," Mick Saunders said, staring at the window/screen tied into the interferometer scope.

Bruno Lombardi nodded. "Less an occupation or two and a half-dozen sieges from the last time I saw it. But it doesn’t look too different," he added wistfully.

Saunders smiled. Over the past few months, the two of them – who had already met on the Voordijk during the disastrous mission to Mars, when Gunn had worked his trickery – had struck up a friendship. They were both apart from the rest of the crew in different ways, Lombardi because he was a civilian and Saunders because he was a Firster, despite being intimately involved with the Unity Project and other commissions. But they had a shared interest in history and technology, although Lombardi’s ran towards more the former and Saunders’ the latter, and that had been enough to draw them together.

The Voordijk did not have many Firsters on board, except about a hundred cadets and junior ensigns from the GSAT, who – isolated in a much larger Fourther crew – were hastily avoiding making it obvious that they were Firsters. Unlike the rather less important mission of the Charles Ingram, there were no representatives from Firster governments on board: said governments had been excited about the Ingram mission just because it had been launched first, and had been more lukewarm about the Voordijk. By the time the Voordijk had been launched, the Ingram was already halfway to Culvana, there was basically no obvious benefit to the representatives that the governments had placed on board, and so the interested parties had been unable to ‘sell’ another representative placed on the Voordijk to their governments.

At first he had wondered if that was a coincidence. Since then he had decided that he knew Aldrin Garrows all too well. It was exactly the sort of Machiavellian manoeuvre that he would pull off to prevent there being too much Firster interference in the important mission of the Voordijk, while allowing as much as they wanted in the less vital Ingram mission.

What it amounted to, though, was that Firster interests were effectively being represented upon the ships by a somewhat surprised Professor Michael Saunders. He’d only come on board in order to survey any enemy (or other alien) technology for purposes of the Shed Men and allied teams, but he’d reluctantly accepted his second, somewhat vague responsibility. For one thing, it had let him lobby Captain Zhang into giving him a permanent position on the bridge, along with Lombardi. In any case, without the surrounding fleet that it had been designed to form the centrepiece of, large portions of the Voordijk’s oversized bridge were effectively unused. so long as Saunders and Lombardi kept quiet, Zhang had no objection to them using a few of the dormant consoles and holoviewers.

"Interesting looking planet," said Saunders, looking at the holoview of the globe as it rotated before him. Of course, he’d seen dozens of old archive pictures from the ship’s database, which actually showed a future that would now never be. But it was different seeing live footage of a planet that was now only a few dozen light-minutes.

Miraddus was slightly larger than Earth, with similar gravity. It had a single large moon and three small ones much like the moons of Mars, probably captured asteroids, but surprisingly dense and therefore with disproportionately high gravities. This introduced a certain amount of interesting – sometimes in the Chinese sense of the words – variations to its tides which the big moon set the bass line to.

The planet’s continents were mostly deep tan colour where the mountains poked through the almost omnipresent deserts. The latter were available in a range of colours, their sands being golden, reddish, black or all three. The black sands seemed to be the remains of volcanic rocks, plateaux of which were spotted all over the continents. Miraddus’ volcanoes were very active, not least because the magma sources were ‘squeezed’ by the action of the four moons.

The seas were a deep turquoise colour, and seemed to support rather more life than Earth’s. The majority of photosynthesis on Miraddus went on in the oceans, with only a light dusting of resilient green and red cacti and similar plants scattered across the continents. Sea on Miraddus made up slightly more than fifty percent of the planet’s surface, less than Earth’s but more than many other planets’.

But the thing that most stood out about Miraddus was the fact that it was dominated by a single large continent. The great band of deserts and mountains wrapped almost the whole way around the planet, not following the equator but on a tilt that meant its climate varied considerably as one went from one end to the other. The only reason it didn’t completely circumscribe the whole of Miraddus was a single wide strait punching through the continent at its narrowest point.

North and south of the great continent were smaller island continents, the largest perhaps the size of Australia. They were greener than the big continent, supporting more plant life.

"A world of contrasts," Saunders pronounced. "That’s what you were telling me about?"

Lombardi nodded. "That’s Chaisop," he said, pointing to the enormous deserty continent. "Where the Chais come from. And the islands are collectively known as Melirec."

"Where the Lirec come from," Saunders concluded. "And they’re engaged in a cold war?"

"Pretty much," said Lombardi. "Only one based mainly on ethnicity and culture rather than ideology, as ours – uh, yours, I suppose – was." Lombardi shook his head. "I keep forgetting that it’s so recent to you."

"Recent? Heck, I grew up in a world where we were constantly expecting to be melted by nuclear fire," said Saunders, "although we were kind of hoping that the Reds would forget about Australia."

Lombardi laughed. "Well, the Miradi have atomics, but haven’t used them." He paused. "Well, you’ll see – in any case, suffice to say that on paper there aren’t any pan-Chais or pan-Lirec alliances. Chaisop is still technically divided into a number of countries and Melirec really is the loosest of unions between a host of rather arrogant island nations. But this ethnic identity movement has been sweeping the planet for more than a hundred years now. You’d be unlikely to see the sort of realpolitick they used to have – you know –"

"A Lirec country helping one Chais country against another Lirec country, that sort of thing?" Saunders suggested.

"Exactly," Lombardi said. "It’s a war mentality now. A silent war, a war fought mainly by proxy, like Korea and Vietnam in Earth’s cold war, in the smaller and poorer countries making up both sides."

"It’s a funny thought," Saunders mused. "It’s like Britain and Japan and Indonesia and Madagascar and Sri Lanka all forming an alliance against all of Eurasia and Africa."

"Pretty much," Lombardi said. "And the Lirec lost, in the end. Not for another fifty years though. Then their alliance structure collapsed and they effectively became second-class citizens. Rarely got into space, which means that the Miradi colonies are almost entirely Chais."

"As though planning for the next war," Saunders said, his lip twisting at that unpleasant thought. "No wonder the Lirec on the crew are angry and want to change things."

Lombardi inclined his head in thought. "It could be a big problem. And the trouble is, Captain Zhang doesn’t want to spend much time here, what with…you know, the mission. But he can’t very well fob the Miradi off. Their ambassador is here, after all."

Saunders nodded and glanced aftward. There, seated at another of the unused stations, was the Miradi Ambassador, Yiv Risibly. The reptilian alien’s cold, unblinking gaze made him turn away with a shudder. Seated next to Risibly, but not looking at him, was Margarlar Suwel of the Stentyrreans. The two, normally amenable to each other – after all, their two powers had been loosely united as a single government up in the Fourth – had stopped talking over the current situation. It wasn’t just that Miradi were currently running rampant on Stentyrrea; it was that Risibly wanted to stop here and hash things out, but Suwel of course wanted to drive onwards with greater urgency to reach Stentyrrea. For mission reasons, of course, Zhang favoured Suwel’s priorities.

And now Captain Zhang Ji-cai turned towards Commander Zalaran Chouvel, another Stentyrrean, who also seemed to be sulking a little. "Commander Chouvel," Zhang said, "what is the report on the relay station and gasdiver?"

"Both are operational, sir," said Chouvel. "The relay station is ready to send the latest data transmission, and the gasdiver has begun operations. There was no…sabotage this time," he added. He did not look at Risibly, but the twitch of his antennae somehow conveyed that he would have if he thought he could get away with it.

Zhang ignored that. "Good," he said. "Well, if the gasdiver has begun, we are not needed here until it has produced enough antimatter for our scheduled refuelling. So it is time to make first contact, err, again, with the Miradi."

Chouvel looked up. Emotions warred in his face, all the more hard to read because they were alien emotions. But he finally seemed to concur: after all, the sooner they had started anything with the Mriadi, the sooner they would be finished. "Yes, sir. Would you like me to send a comm transmission?"

"Not yet," said Zhang. Unusually, he turned to Lombardi and Saunders, though he addressed the former. "Mr. Lombardi, what is the premier means of communication on Miraddus in this period of history?"

Lombardi looked up, startled. "Er – well, Captain, they were still using approximately the same part of the EM radio spectrum as the Firsters are," he said. "I have the precise frequencies recorded here if you want, or Commander Chouvel could intercept them-"

"Thank you, Mr. Lombardi," Zhang cut him off. "I think the dramatic approach be best." He frowned. "Though if I know my Miradi history, it might be best not to be too dramatic."

He turned to Goro Ishikawa. "Set a course for a point twenty light seconds from Miraddus," he said, "and take us there at one hundred kiloGrahams."

"Aye-aye, sir," said Ishikawa, his fingers dancing through his holo-display. Saunders looked up with interest; unlike some Firsters (and Fourthers for that matter), he had no problem with watching the strange effects produced by the ship using its flux drive.

The main window/screen was briefly consumed with the purple light of the fluxshroud, through which shone the strange appearance of what was happening to the universe outside the ship. It was all the more disturbing for the fact that it was only indistinctly visible through the purple fluxshroud. Saunders had always had a strong stomach, though.

A few minutes later, the twisted universe reverted to its normal self and the purple glow retreated into the Janvier-Graham fluxpods. Zhang glanced around the bridge. "Report," he said.

Chouvel’s eyes widened, a gesture that seemed common to both Humans and Stentyrreans. "Captain – three contacts, approaching at five centiGrahams. Running them through the sensor database now…"

"Defensive stations," said Zhang, which caused Commander Pekka Reikonnen to adjust more Janvier-Graham power to the shields, and put her weapons on cold standby. "Commander Chouvel, how about those comm frequencies Mr. Lombardi was referring to?"

"Yes, sir," Chouvel said, running through his displays. Meanwhile, the results of his database query popped up and Lombardi transferred it to his own holo-display.

"They’re planetary interceptors," he said. "Manlith and Trakon class respectively, two and one – that’s Chais and Lirec obviously…"

"They have space fighters?" Saunders said.

"Small space cruisers, really, although they look a bit like oversized fighters," said Lombardi. "Crew of about ten."

"But they don’t fight a war in space?"

"No. You have to bear in mind, that Sahdavi ship landing on Miraddus five hundred years ago really shocked them and made them paranoid about an attack from space. That’s why they’ve agreed to never let a war spread to space, and to try and limit their own wars on the ground, just enough to keep their armed forces well trained and experienced to repel any alien threat. Of course, that was five hundred years ago, and since they’ve never had any other evidence of aliens since then, people are beginning to question the idea – especially since the ship itself was taken away by that group, so there’s no solid evidence anyone can look at…"

"So what would they do if a large and very advanced spaceship suddenly appeared in the middle of their system?" Saunders asked, raising his eyebrows.

"Ah. Well. Yes. That should be interesting," Lombardi said.

"Captain, I have their relevant comm frequencies and their codes have been cracked," said Chouvel. "I’m sending it across to our Miradi translators…"

"How are they armed?" Zhang asked, standing up.

Lombardi answered, as Chouvel was busy. "Captain, they are each armed with six missiles with nuclear warheads and two heavy laser weapons. The arrangement and precise models are different between the Chais and Lirec models, but they both have similar capabilities…"

"I see," said Zhang, frowning. Such weaponry was extremely unlikely to puncture the shields of a Blair class battleship, but there was always the possibility of a lucky shot…

"They’re sending a transmission directly to us," said Chouvel. "Both of them."

"Get those translators ready," said Zhang, and Chouvel pressed a button that provided a holo link to the three Miradi down in one of the linguistics departments of the ship. Zhang hastily pushed a button that left it just with an audio link, and explained why: "Ambassador Risibly, could you move out of the way, please? I don’t want them to be freaked out by seeing one of their own kind on the bridge, not yet." Especially when it’s a Chais. Risibly grumbled but stepped out of the line of sight of the holocams.

"Now," Zhang said, straightening his shirt, "put them through."

The main screen shifted from a view of the three approaching ships silhouetted against the backdrop of Miraddus itself. Now it showed a three way split screen between three small bridges, almost oversized cockpits. Two of them were identical in design and staffed by the taller, brown-scaled Chais Miradi who Saunders recognised as making up the majority of the Miradi on board the Voordijk. The other had a somewhat different design philosophy and was manned by shorter, more petite, bluish-green-scaled Lirec Miradi with longer snouts and smaller fans.

The thirty Miradi on screen all seemed equally taken aback, though, by Zhang’s appearance. Each one of the Miradi captains – pretty obviously the one in the scentre of each bridge, with the most ostentatious decoration (they didn’t wear clothes in the sense that Humans did) – had an opening greeting/question die in his throat.

By contrast, of course, Zhang was not fazed at all. Hoping that he – and more importantly, the translators – didn’t bottle it, he cleared his throat. "People of Miraddus," he said, knowing that the Chais language translators would use the Chais word for Miraddus and vice versa for the Lirec, "I am Captain Zhang Ji-cai of the vessel Pieter Voordijk, representing…Humanity and our allies." Such a vague description had been chosen thanks to the somewhat up in the air nature of the Union of Humanity, never mind FedCom.

The Miradi reeled back as Zhang’s words were translated and transmitted. They were obviously surprised just in that he, or at least his interpreters, knew their language. In the background of the images, he could see a subordinate on each bridge fiddling with a display, and wondered if the Chais and Lirec were comparing notes and realising that Zhang’s words were being translated into both their languages simultanously.

"The situation is complex," said Zhang. "But suffice to say that we have nothing to do with the vessel that crashed on your world five hundred years ago. That vessel was created by a race known as the Sahdavi, a cruel and vile race who we even now race to defeat. A race that would doubtless have returned and subjugated all of you, Chais and Lirec, if they could. And soon they might be able to."

Zhang paused. The Miradi still seemed tongue-tied. "I don’t expect you to take my word for this, so I tell you that on board, I have representatives of both the Chais and the Lirec, Miradi who have joined with us against our enemies. As I said, the situation is complex, but they shall explain it to you. We shall sent our representatives down, or you can send yours up, whichever you prefer. Arrange it among yourselves."

Zhang smiled, and knew the gesture would not carry to the reptilian aliens. "In the name of Humanity under God, we come in peace."

He stood there, with his smile fixed on his face for a full ten seconds, before the Chais and the Lirec began to speak, at first both at once. Saunders still had his gaze fixed on the historic moment, but Lombardi was glancing down at his display. "Wow," he said. "See those designs? Classics."

Saunders tore his gaze away, as the Lirec captain spoke in disbelieving tones to Zhang about what planet he came from. He looked at Lombardi’s holograms, and nodded. As he had said, there were three ships, two Chais and one Lirec, similar in size and capabilities. But the Chais ships were shaped like horseshoe crabs, with a rather spidery and insubstantial-looking design, while the Lirec ship was blockier and, to Human eyes, more conventional looking. Bulky nuclear missiles were slung under and over the wings of all three ships, wings obviously intended just for that purpose and not for aerodynamics.

What was faintly disturbing was that he’d seen images of Miradi ships from the future, while researching for the Unity Project…and every single one of them had shown the design architecture of the Chais ships. None seemed derived from the Lirec.

"No wonder they want to change history," he murmured.


It was five days later. The gasdiver was ready. Ambassador Risibly had been left behind, along with a shuttle and representatives from both Chais and Lirec communities – plus a few Human watchdogs to make sure they didn’t do anything too silly.

"Captain Zhang certainly sorted out that Lirec maniac who tried to set off the orbital nuclear systems, didn’t he?" Saunders commented.

"You’re right," said Lombardi. "Even with everything we were saying before, who would have expected that the Lirec on the crew would have helped the nutter groups down on the planet?"

"Well, according to that last data dump we got back from Earth, it seems that the Ingram mission found out similar things," said Saunders.

Lombardi nodded. "Mind you, it’s not as though the Chais here or on the planet were exactly well behaved, either."

"Just so long as perhaps this time they can reach a peace that does not involve turning the other side into virtual slaves," said Saunders. "I’m a bit disturbed by the fact that the future vision only seemed to shock the Lirec. I mean, you’d expect a BIT of white…er…brown-scaled guilt from the Chais…"

"They’re not Human," Lombardi reminded him. "I know it’s a cliché, but you always have to remember that. Cold blood. Mood swings based on temperature, never mind anything else." He giggled to himself. "Did I tell you I once dated one of them?"

Saunders gave him a Look. "You dated a nonhumanoid reptilian alien with no visible genitals that gives birth via a system of eggs?" he asked incredulously.

Lombardi shrugged. "Truth to tell, I found it strangely arousing…"

Saunders shook his head. The trouble with Bruno was that you could never be sure if he was being serious or not. He’d already done enough weird things in Saunders’ own sight that he couldn’t dismiss it out of hand, as he would with anyone else.

So he brushed it aside. "All seems to be something of a rush, though," he commented.

"Well, we need to get to Stentyrrea," Lombardi said. "And Captain Zhang knows that. Sometimes you just don’t have time for a proper adventure…"

Chapter Thirty-Two


10 Downing Street, London, UK, Earth

August 28th 2007

"Your connection to the French President is ready, sir," said General Stawes. "Sir, are you absolutely sure you wouldn’t like to speak to the American President in person as well?"

"Quite sure, yes," said Chambers. "You see, I have no intention of unnecessarily undermining the transatlantic relationship by the creation of a diplomatic incident, and sadly I cannot speak to that man for more than twenty-five seconds before I want to punch him in the face."

"Err – yes, sir," said Stawes, as usual a bit uncertain as to whether Chambers was joking or not.

"No; Sir Chris can speak to the American Secretary of State," Chambers said. "In any case, this is more important on a tactical level, at least." He nodded. "The video link is ready, you say?"

"Yes, sir. Er – sir, you are aware that both you and the French President have access to the new Selenite holoviewers?"

"Of course," Chambers said patiently, as they walked to the communications centre in one of the underground rooms, "but this time I actually intend to disclose matters which I would not like Garrows’ master spook Wilkinson to hear. Unless you really believe that Professor Bone found all the bugs in that thing? Not to mention his opposite number, Docteur L’Os or whatever his name is."

"Ah – yes, sir," said Stawes. "Here we are."

"Give yourself a Nobel Prize for Stating the Bloody Obvious," Chambers grunted. He sat down in front of the videoconferencing screen and camera, impatiently ushering Stawes and the technicians out of its field of view.

"Ready in five," said a technician. "Four…three…"

A few seconds later, the screen changed from its holding setting, a black background with the seal of the French Government upon it. Now it displayed the image of France’s recently elected Socialist President, David Vandamme, and his own communications centre deep within the Palais de l’Elysée. Though it was presumably equally cramped, the French had almost inevitably managed to make it look more statesmanlike, with an antique desk for Vandamme to glower over and a Tricolour in the background facing off against – inevitably – the EU’s circle of twelve golden stars.

"Mr. President," Chambers began in halting French. Although Vandamme’s English was far superior to his French, and their serious conversations were conducted almost exclusively in that language, he felt the need to make the effort at the start.

Vandamme seemed to appreciate it, anyway. "Prime Minister," he replied in English. "Without preamble, I presume that you’re aware of the situation?"

Chambers nodded. "The Security Council has voted in our favour," he said.

"Barely," Vandamme said. "Both African temporary members voted against, and it wasn’t only Russia and China that abstained." At the mention of China, his lifelong field of interest, Vandamme’s attention briefly seemed to wander.

"But it is sufficient," said Chambers. "At least we should be able to avoid some of the fallout that afflicted the Iraq action."

Vandamme wrinkled his nose at that comparison. "I notice that the Americans have not seen fit to reciprocate the support that your predecessor gave to them at such cost to himself at home," he commented. "A brave man, I suppose, but foolish."

"I wouldn’t start that debate now," Chambers said. "As it happens, the American government has privately offered me air cover, at least."

Vandamme raised an eyebrow. "Oh? And what was your response?"

Chambers laughed. "I said that we’d have enough problems without our own side bombing us every five minutes," he said. "Although Mr. Morgan put it into slightly more diplomatic terms for them."

"I can’t say I blame you," Vandamme said. "But that was all?"

"They’ve adopted the Canadian option, ironically," said Chambers.

Vandamme nodded. He knew what the Englishman meant: in 2003, most people had been left with the impression that Canada had not supported the Iraq war in any way, but in reality the Canadian government had lent indirect help to the United States by sending troops to Afghanistan, freeing up American troops there for the Iraq action. "So I presume that they have taken over your troops’ responsibility in Iraq?" he asked.

"Got it in one," Chambers said. "Ours, and the Australians, which means their PM-for-Life can send me more than token assistance for what is after all a joint Commonwealth intervention."

"And what of the Canadians’ PM-for-Five-Minutes-Before-Someone-Calls-Another-Election?" Vandamme asked, quirking a smile.

Chambers laughed. "Less concrete support than the Australians, but you can’t deny this is at least has more popular support than Iraq there. Or anywhere for that matter." He scowled. "Except South Africa, which is the problem."

"Perhaps the domino effect is more than a pipe dream in this case, though," said Vandamme.

"Perhaps," Chambers said. "But I was speaking more of the fact that it makes it more difficult to actually bring our troops into position. Initially everything will have to be airborne."

Vandamme nodded slowly. "I see. And bringing your fleet into position will give the…target time to prepare, just as it did Saddam in 2003…"

Chambers smiled. "In theory. In practice, we have adopted the strategies of a certain Mr. Maskelyne, albeit with a little assistance from the twenty-fourth century via our Shed Men."

It took Vandamme a few moments to interpret Chambers words, and then he smiled slowly. "No," he said. "Surely not?"

"In these days of satellites and intercepts and Google Earth, you can’t be too careful," said Chambers. "But verily I say unto thee, there are a lot of holographic images of warships parked in Portsmouth harbour even as I speak." He smiled slowly. "And HMS Invincible has been taken out of mothballs – a process begun under my predecessor just after the Shift, I might add – and is now serving as the core of our homeland defence. I trust I don’t have to draw you a picture."

"Most of the real Royal Navy is parked off the coast of Mozambique. Cloaked, or something." Vandamme concluded. His eyes narrowed. "Why are you telling me this now?"

"Because I thought you might want to avoid confusion," Chambers said. "You see, what with one thing and another, this will be the first military action in decades where the media haven’t been informing the enemy what we’re about to do before we do it. As far as the BBC and CNN and the rest are concerned, we’re just about to begin loading the fleet now." He smiled slowly. "In a few minutes, you may be asked to give a statement, if you catch my drift."

Vandamme nodded sharply. "And what if I condemn your actions?" he asked simply. "After all, you have deliberately misled the world’s media, and begun preparing for an action long before you knew you would have UN support…"

"Then we shall not reciprocate with support for any Francophonie action against a similar case of a failed state," Chambers said. "Let the rest of the world call it neo-colonialism, if they want. But anything is better than the present state of affairs."

Vandamme mulled it over. This kind of foreign policy was rather, well, foreign to his more domestically oriented agenda. But despite having elected him over the UMP and Fronte Nationale candidates, the French population was still surging with nationalism lately. It hadn’t helped that the Fourther databases spoke of how, in the other history, a large part of France’s Muslim population would have served as a fifth column in the Eastern Coalition’s invasion of Europe.

Being able to show the flag, placate some feelings at home, and perhaps even ultimately do some good in the world at the same time…

"All right," Vandamme said at length, with a sigh. "Damn you. D’accord."

Chambers smiled slowly. "Good day, Mr President," he said, "and thank you."

"I’m sure," Vandamme muttered, and vanished.

Chambers instantly turned away from the screen and back to General Stawes, who was practically hopping from foot to foot. "Well, General?" he asked.

"Colonel Davidson on HMS Ark Royal reports that the various camouflage systems continue to function within normal parameters," Stawes said. "Unless the target has access to Selenite sensor systems…"

"I doubt it," Chambers said, "or we’d have noticed the activity in response." He frowned, steepling his fingers. "So they know we’ll be coming…in a few months, when we’ve assembled our forces and moved our fleet into position," he smiled unpleasantly. "But now? Why, there’s no reason for the, ahem, Prime Minister to be anywhere other than his official residence."

"That’s what those Selenite pictures from Colonel Wilkinson’s office suggest as well," Stawes said quietly.

"I’d prefer not to rely on those, particularly considering that any Selenite support for our intervention is decidedly unofficial," Chambers said. "But I think we can conclude that now is the time to move." He nodded decisively. "All right, get me Admiral Nelson."

The screen was hastily reconfigured and brought up an image of HMS Illustrious’ bridge, the impending conflict bringing forth a degree of chaos that made its usual bustle look positively civilised. But the figure of Admiral Phileas Gaylord Nelson, Supreme Commander for Operation Absurd Name, stood calm and unruffled amidst the bedlam. "Prime Minister," Nelson said simply. He claimed descent from the hero of Trafalgar, of course, but Chambers was somewhat suspicious of most of what Nelson claimed at the best of times.

"Admiral," Chambers said. "Operation Absurd Name is a go. You have my authorisation. And that means beginning with the Gunpowder Plot. You’re to coordinate with Colonel Davidson, of course."

"Naturally, sir," said Nelson, idly examining a clipboard that an adjutant hastily pushed into his hand. "England expects that every man shall do his duty, eh?" he added, winking horribly.

"Not merely England," Chambers said, cutting through the innuendo. "Zimbabwe, as well."

Nelson nodded, suddenly serious, and nodded offscreen. The screen cut out.

"To the war room, Prime Minister?" Stawes ventured.

"Only if you promise to shoot on sight anyone who does any Dr. Strangelove jokes," Chambers said, but followed him.

They arrived at the war room, which was also housed in part of the great underground complex beneath Downing Street, just in time to catch some satellite footage of what Chambers had dubbed the Gunpowder Plot.

The missile, like the British fleet, was invisible to anything other than Selenite sensors. It showed up merely as a faint blip on some of the radar-type displays scattered around the room, and wasn’t visible at all on the satellite feed. But Chambers fancied he could see a shimmering outline come plunging down into the streets of Harare.

A brilliant white flame rose upwards, cold and bright, as though someone had punched a hole into another universe and it had come out in the middle of the Sun. For a brief, horrible moment, every building in the city was thrown into sharp relief, casting a mile-long shadow behind it, its outline drawn by an edgy comic book artist.

And then there was nothing but a big purple stain on the back of everyone’s retina, and a neat circle of molten rock where, a few moments before, the official residence of the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe had stood. It was as though it, and everything in it, had never existed. Would that it had not…

The seconds stretched out as everyone in the war room was silent. Then Chambers spoke: "Bloody hell!" he said. "Are you sure that wasn’t a nuke?!"

"Conventional explosive," Stawes said dazedly, "albeit a conventional explosive from 2075. Professor Bone was most…" he shuddered, "enthusiastic about this one."

"Just so long as it’s not a nuke," Chambers grunted. "The public don’t care if it’s ten times more powerful and poisons half the population of the Earth, just so long as it isn’t a nuke. They’re, you know, irrational that way."

"Er – yes, sir," Stawes said again.

Chambers looked again at the image. No great cloud of smoke, no crater, just a brief white flame and then that blank circle. Like a rapture. Albeit a rapture to hell, for there was no way heaven would have taken that man and his lackeys…

"Cruel necessity," he murmured, then shrugged. "Hell, who am I kidding." He clapped his hands sharply. "All right! Snap out of it, everyone! Operation Absurd Name is a go!"

As the room went back into its usual bustle, and reports came in of the first troops being landed in Zimbabwe via invisible helicopter, with flights of invisible Harriers on station to take out any troop formations of hardcore ZANU-PF loyalists, Chambers turned back to Stawes. "Now," he said, "I’d better go and hold a bloody press conference."

"Mr. Courtenay has already arranged it, sir," said Stawes. "So I’ll stay here and coordinate with Colonel Davidson?"

"Yeah, go on, you have all the fun," Chambers growled. "Meanwhile I have to try and answer a load of half-arsed questions and, because I’m not the president of America, I can’t even get out of it by shaking my head pityingly and answering a completely different question."

But he smiled slowly. "Still, not a bad start."

"To this operation, sir?" Stawes asked mischievously. "Or your premiership?"

"Oh, go back to your invisible army," Chambers grunted.


First Consul’s Office, Luna

August 28th 2007

"I see Prime Minister Chambers has launched his intervention," Garrows said. "I suppose I’ll have to give a press conference in a moment."

"They won’t get organised for an other hour," Fiona reassured him. "Plenty of time. Ms Renwick is handling the proceedings."

"Mm, I’m sure," Garrows said. Felicity Renwick was a very competent deputy as well as defence minister, but there was no denying the fact that she was obviously hoping to succeed him one day – and, more importantly, hadn’t quite left the pre-Shift political divisions of Moderate and Reactionary behind. Well, I suppose there are worse choices for First Consul, he thought. But just not yet…

He cast another look at the great map on the wall. Now there was no denying the fact that the Voordijk had moved, despite that annoying delay at Miraddus. They’d be at Chalith now, or nearly, although it would take time for them to send the transmission to him. No refuelling, though, so immediately proceed on to Stentyrrea…

"And then at least we’ll know, one way or the other," he murmured. "Anything’s better than being kept in the dark."


September 1st 2007

"You are certain that your calculations are correct." It wasn’t a question. She knew her intendant too well at this stage. If he had failed her before, he would not be where he was now.

"Yes, my killerlady," he replied anyway. "We shall do the gods proud."

"Yes," the killerlady replied, staring up at the screen. She could not see it coming, not when it overtook even light itself. But nonetheless, they would catch it. Something that had never been done before, and she was the Vároto to do it. It made a warm glow inside her.

"The liar about machines says that the flux pods are now effectively unusuable," the intendant said after a pause. "Straining them as we did to make it here in time…"

The killerlady smiled. "But it does not matter, does it?"

The intendant returned the grin, revealing the teeth that he had filed to points. "Of course not, my killerlady. Not to us…"

"We do our duty unto the end. For the Sahdavi. First and Foremost."

Chapter Thirty-Three


Pieter Voordijk, approx. 500 ly past Chalith

September 2nd 2007

Captain Zhang Ji-cai paced up and down the bridge. It might be a cliché, but he’d already exhausted every other way of releasing his nervous energy. He had done everything he could do, he was certain of it. Not even Admiral Nuttall could have done better. Everything was ready. It had been ready since they had stopped outside the Chalith system’s Oort cloud, halfway between Miraddus and Stentyrrea, in order to check their course and sensor readings.

The fighter and bomber squadrons had taken the opportunity to perform exercises at Miraddus and had in fact been briefly involved in that Chais-Lirec kerfuffle. The ship-based weaponry had also been test-fired, to a greater degree than it was anyway to clear a path through the Oort cloud. The Voordijk was ready for battle, if battle it would be. One thing was certain: judging by the data from the Ingram’s dealing with the Firster Culvanai and their own experiences with the Firster Miradi, the Firster Vároto should pose no problem.

If, of course, the Vároto had the common decency to remain at a Firster technology level…

"More than a year," he murmured to himself. "If they received the Gunn transmission, they’ve had that information for more than a year. If they had no technology capable of receiving it, of course, then this will be a walkover." He nodded slowly; the Ingram had reported that, though Mu’rKlungs "Others" had caused no end of damage on Culvana, the Culvanai hadn’t received the companion transmission that Gunn had also sent out to Culvana. Presumably the same was true of the Rómidi, though no-one had bothered to go and check yet: they might be closer to Earth, but they had developed flux drive rather late in the day, and they had always been defensive fighters. It was merely that they saw their own exclusive zone of space as being rather absurdly large for their population size to justify it objectively.

No, the Vároto were the real threat, if any such threat existed.

"And if they did receive the transmission?" he mused to himself, walking over to the weapons station and leaning over Commander Reikonnen’s shoulder, rather unnerving her with his distant expression. His eyes looked straight through the reports telling him, for the 435th time that week, that the ship’s weapons and defences were as ready as they would ever be.

It would depend on what they could do, he realised. After all, the Unity Project was only just reaching fruition back in the Sol system, and that was with the entire Fourther industrial base of Luna to draw upon. The Vároto had no such advantage. Nothing but a half-made-up rumour of their old ‘gods’ still hanging around at this time.

Zhang shrugged as he straightened up and began pacing towards the other side of the bridge, where Bruno Lombardi and Mick Saunders were consulting the databases about Stentyrrea – facing them across from the other unused station was Ambassador Suwel only, Risibly having remained behind on Miraddus. Could the Sahdavi, as the legends and the várotologists called them, really make a difference? Or would they be facing another Firster culture, defiant and still with that hideous Vároto inventiveness, but ultimately powerless before their technology advantage?

He soon found out.

"Sir, anomalous sensor read-" began Zalaran Chouvel. That was as far as he got. For the last lap, irrationally perhaps, but knowing they had fully refuelled at Miraddus, Zhang was pushing the engines past flank speed, not wanting to lose a second if he could help it. And that meant that, even with some of the most powerful and long-range sensors in the Federate armoury, the Voordijk barely saw anything unexpected before she hit it. Enough time to automatically dodge a rogue planet that was a bit off where the predictions for the twenty-first century put it. But not enough time for the computers to realise that that odd blip up ahead didn’t really match anything concrete, feed said data to Chouvel, and for him to report it to Zhang. Much less than enough time for Zhang to actually think about it, make a decision and give an order.

There was…


…hard to describe. Though Zhang would spend many times throughout the rest of his life making increasingly outlandish attempts to do so.

When a ship used its flux drive, some among its crew felt an unpleasant twinge in their stomach, or something like an ice cream headache. Many of them couldn’t bear to look at the bizarrely distorted images of the, admittedly itself bizarrely distorted, space outside. There were a few who entirely swore off flux travel altogether without being put into deep sleep for the duration of the voyage.

And all of these effects were strongest when a ship was either jumping into flux at the start or decanting at the end of its journey. Astroforce men and women were known for having strong stomachs (and heads, and eyes). But even they were known to get a bit queasy at these points.

And that was when the jumping and decanting was carefully planned and controlled, managed by limited computer intervention and organic administration working in harmony.

This, on the other hand…

The seconds seemed to stretch out into minutes, hours, centuries. Perhaps they did; no-one really understood how time dilation fitted in with a technology that had no time for Einstein. Most of the time it seemed unnoticeable. Not now.

Vaguely, Zhang felt his feet leave the floor. His sensory input became a confused mass of blurry shapes, colours and sounds, almost like the biological equivalent of static, as his brain struggled with the fact that the very physical laws that allowed every neurone to fire, every synapse to transmit, and ultimately the whole to form a discrete intelligence…those laws were suddenly not laws anymore, but rather flexible guidelines.

He almost died. A few of them did, they learned later, those nearest the flux engines when it happened. Many more were knocked out or fell into comas. But Zhang survived.

Shapes, colours, sounds…turning over and over. That sensation overlaid everything. Turning over and over, as though he himself was rotating through the air, towards…


Zhang was shocked back to the land of the living.

He blinked, struggling to make sense of what he saw before him.

Static. Nothing but static. And then –

Blackness. Blackness scattered with dozens of tiny points of light, not twinkling but cold and dead, yet somehow by their very existence, promising life deeper within, drawing him in like a moth to a candle…

Not for the first time, perhaps, the Purges were regrettable. For it never occurred to Zhang to say anything along the lines of "My God, it’s full of stars!"

Instead, he paused, and realised that the stars were retreating from him. He wondered how this was happening. Was he somehow racing away from them, backwards? Was something drawing him in? A black hole?

Zhang steeled himself, turned, and was presented with a truly horrifying sight.

The bridge was in chaos. Zhang had been the only one actually thrown through the air until he had hit the main viewscreen/window and rebounded, but the others had been tossed about in their chairs, the emergency restraints quickly snapping into place. Three people had vomited.

Zhang knew this because the almost spherical globules of vomit were drifting lazily through the air, some mysteriously malicious force conspiring to make them collide with the unconscious or at least seriously disoriented crewmembers. There was something particularly horrible in that one of the clouds of vomit was that of Commander Chouvel, and was the colour of beetroot. The globules began to mix with the two human vomit-clouds even as he watched, and for some reason this disquieted him. Maybe it means I’m a closet Jerzewicz supporter, the back of his mind gabbled.

Captain Zhang cleared his throat, and found that while he had not vomited, acid had slicked the back of his throat and he spoke with a grating, hoarse voice. "Report," he managed. "REPORT!" Somewhere towards the back of the bridge, a console went black, flickered, then came up again.

Some of the bridge crew remained at least vaguely lucid. "Captain…"Chouvel began, his voice sounding even hoarser. "Everything’s down…"

Zhang nodded. The bridge was lit only by emergency lighting. The consoles, he guessed, were being run off the bridge’s backup nuclear battery. What the hell just happened?

"Emergency restart," he said. "Everything." He glared at Lieutenant-Commander Jiv Tavasly, one of the few Miradi who’d elected to stay on board after Miraddus, and the chief computer officer.

She stared at him unblinkingly with her reptilian eyes, then looked down at her boards. "It has already begun, sir," she hissed. "The computer log of…what just happened is now available."

"Run it," Zhang said, turning again to face the starry viewscreen, no planets or stars within a light year. In which case how the hell did we decant? he wondered. Malfunction? Sabotage? In his mind’s eye, he saw Colonel Wilkinson’s men in their security checks all those months ago, missing some crucial subroutine that Jack Gunn had inputted into the computer when he had sent his message. Garrows was a fool to send this ship on the most vital mission, he thought, then berated himself. Gunn hadn’t been invincible. He certainly hadn’t been clever enough to perform work in a few hours that would stand up to an entire month of Colonel Wilkinson’s entire security team sifting through the files.

Hadn’t he?

Tavasly hit a button and an emotionless computer voice spoke, the words scrolling up on the main holoviewer in time:




20024155020907 REQUEST SUBMITTED






"I get the picture," Zhang said, cutting off the black box. Beneath his brash exterior, though, he was both horrified and relieved. Horrified that they had come so close to, not certain death, but worse: uncertain death, because no-one would ever have found so much as a molecule of any of them; and relieved because they had relaxed the A.I. tie-in provisions after Gunn had used them against them.

"Gunn saved us," he muttered. "How ironic."

He turned to Chouvel. "Did that thing say all our sensors and comms were gone?"

Chouvel nodded in a deliberately Human fashion. "An uncontrollably collapsing flux field tends to do that," he said.

"Weapons appear mostly undamaged, though, except targeting sensors," said Reikonnen, looking at her displays. "Shields are completely unresponsive, though: the flux pods are still shut down."

"I’d noticed," Zhang said sarcastically, pointing at his feet, which were still a foot off the ground. No flux pods meant no gravity. He was still drifting toward the back of the bridge, slowly, but he managed to grab the side of the main holoviewer and slowly pulled himself back into the Big Chair, waiting as the automatic restraints strapped him in. That was better; now he felt less like he was floundering around. "How about internal communications and sensors?"

"Those are both operational, sir, apart from a few blown fuses from the power surge," said Chouvel. "I’m getting reports from all over the ships now…a large number of minor injuries and a few serious ones…"

"Figures," Zhang muttered. "Get me Commander Macfarlane."

A few moments later, the main holoviewer blazed with static and then resolved itself to show the broad Celtic features of Commander Donald Macfarlane, a native of the planet New Arran and the Voordijk’s chief engineer. The man looked harassed and appeared to have quite severely bruised one side against a workstation when they decanted. Vague holo-shadows in the background showed his subordinates as they rushed to make damage reports and repairs; Macfarlane occasionally paused to snap an order at one or another.

"Captain," the engineer said, respectful but clearly itching to get back.

"Commander," Zhang said, "damage report."

Macfarlane nodded. "We’re still checking everything, sir, but it looks to me like we hit a dragship flux-denial field. The flux pods have crystallised. I’m going to have to do a full run-down and restart – and half the power transfer conduits are fried. We’ve got enough spares, but it’ll take time."

"Time? How much time?"

Macfarlane shrugged. "A week? At the least."

"You’ve got three days," Zhang told him, professionally ignoring Macfarlane’s expression of outrage and dismay. The captain paused. "Did you just say it looked like we hit a dragship field?"

The engineer nodded again. "That’s the closest I can think of. We’d have been wiped out if we’d hit an uncharted rogue planet’s gravity well or something, if the computer didn’t steer us away for some bizarre reason. But a dragship field should have shown up on the sensors a long way back."

In the background, he vaguely heard a conversation between Saunders and Lombardi. "Dragships?"

"Specialised class of ship. They run their flux engines in reverse, if you like, so they remain stationary but cancel out any flux fields nearby. So it stops anyone within a certain radius using their flux drive, almost as though you had a portable planet. And if you’re unlucky enough to hit one while at flux speed, then you decant – violently."

"Couldn’t you just do it with a regular ship?"

"No; you need specialised variants of flux engines – if you tried it with a normal ship the field wouldn’t be very big, and would probably burn out your engines."

An unpleasant thought occurred to Zhang. They should have seen it a long way back… "Vároto ships are stealthed under fluxfield," he said slowly. "That armour…"

"Not a dragfield," Macfarlane told him. "It’s different to a regular fluxfield. No, Captain; I’ve been on ships where we’ve encountered Vároto dragships – you know, those nasty little Entrapment class jobbies – and they’re always visible on sensors from a long way off. When the field is active, that is."

Zhang paused, thinking. "What about if the field wasn’t active until we were right on top of it?" he asked.

"Then you wouldn’t have picked up anything except maybe a slight anomaly from the dragship itself," Macfarlane said, "and, as you say, Vároto ships are pretty stealthy otherwise."

Zhang muttered something unprintable under his breath. That anomaly. The anomaly that the computer had thought far too unimportant to steer away from…and yet he couldn’t blame it, or its programmers. They had hundreds of such minor anomalies every day, and most of them were just glitches or harmless bits of stellar debris, too small to have enough gravity to disturb the fluxfield. If they steered away from all of them, they’d run through their fuel twice as quickly. And, let’s face it, in the twenty-first century such an anomaly was statistically much more likely to be a random bit of debris than a Vároto ship. The Vároto shouldn’t have any ships.

"I hate statistics," he said, then pulled himself together. "Commander Chouvel, do we have any external sensors left?"

"Most were burned out, sir, but I could launch a probe," said Chouvel.

"Do it," Zhang said.

It took longer than usual; all the launchers were configured with a full load of torpedoes. They had been ready to face the Vároto, far readier than they should need to be, given that the Vároto must be far less advanced. And yet they pulled the rug from under us anyway, Zhang thought bitterly.

But finally the sensor probe was away, going out on a straight line from the ship, transmitting its data back to a receiver which had been protected, retracted within the hangar bay, when the others had been knocked out by the emergency decantation. "Receiving telemetry," said Chouvel. "We’re 521 ly from Chalith and still 986 from Stentyrrea, sir."

Zhang nodded. He resisted the urge to order them to continue on the sublight engines until Macfarlane could repair the flux drive. With more than a thousand year journey at sublight ahead of them, it would make absolutely not one jot of difference.

"What about the dragship?" he asked. "Any sign of it?"

"Negative, sir," said Chouvel.

"What about any flux signatures departing here? We were pretty helpless back there. And Vároto ships are pretty near invisible at flux…"

"Still nothing, sir," Chouvel said after a moment. "And sir, even Fourth dragships usually can’t switch off their denial field and go over to flux drive as quickly as that."

"Of course not," Zhang said, "you’re right." He was being attacked by the condition that soon overcame anyone who faced the Vároto: a scared half-belief that they could do anything. The very fact that it was creeping up on him almost confirmed to him that it was the Vároto who had somehow engineered this.

"Furthermore, sir, the flux denial field is still here," Chouvel said. "Albeit fading rapidly. Almost like…"

"A dragbomb," Zhang and Macfarlane said at the same time. The engineer continued: "The Vároto have always used fields of dragmines. A single suicide detonation rather than a continuous field, a mapulse warhead’s energy fed directly into a denial-optimised flux crystal…"

"But you have to know when the target’s coming, and detonate at precisely the right moment," Zhang said, puzzledly. "All right, they might have got sensors good enough for that. But surely they can’t have set up an entire dragmine field this far out?" Mentally he warred with himself. They shouldn’t even have been able to GET this far out! Another part of his mind said, grimly: They’re Vároto.

"If it was a dragbomb, it’s one of the most powerful I’ve ever seen," said Macfarlane. "Much more so than their usual models, any of the ones they’ve used throughout our wars with them. Far more so than was actually needed to drag us out of fluxspace."

Zhang wracked his brains. Then he stopped, a horrified expression spreading across his face. "Mr. Chouvel," he said, "scan for an expanding energy signature – you know, the remnants of the, uh, dragbomb casing. You know what to look for – that molecular resonance on the wave…"

"Yes, sir," said Chouvel, obviously cutting Zhang off before he could spout any more terminology clearly based on that outdated theory which they still continued to teach to non-specialists at the academy. A few moments later, Chouvel reported: "Probe’s sensors show signs of Vároto stealth armour traces in the wave, probable early composition, First War vintage, 68% probability."

"What about biologicals?" Zhang asked grimly.

Chouvel quirked his antennae, but worked his holographic controls again. Then his antennae rose in alarm. "Yes, sir! Clear signs of Vároto organic molecules. Too many to just be, you know, people touching the bomb casing when it was built. Far too many."

"I don’t think it was a bomb," Zhang said grimly. "I think the Vároto blew up a whole ship, channelling the reactor overload through the flux engines in such a way as to produce a dragfield. Those traces…are what remains of the crew."

Chouvel pulled his hands back reflexively at that macabre thought. But the Macfarlane hologram was nodding along. "Dzuddah," he said. "They did that at the Battle of Dzuddah in the Second War, you know, that front of the Wide War. That was mostly against the Pheag of course. They had no dragmines, there was an entire Swarm fluxing towards the planet, and so…" he shuddered.

"But the Vároto shouldn’t even have been able to build a ship, surely," said Reikonnen. "Much less get it all the way out here."

"They’ve had a year, and they are Vároto," said Zhang. "I don’t want to rule out anything."

He paused. "And if they’ve got here, that means they could already have reached Stentyrrea."

Everyone dwelt on that gloomy thought, especially Chouvel and Suwel. The ambassador spoke up: "Then we have to do something!"

"This ship isn’t moving for days," Zhang said harshly. "You heard Commander Macfarlane. The pods are shock crystallised."

He paused. "But," he said, "what about the shuttles?"

Chouvel exchanged a glance with Macfarlane. "Theoretically they should have been protected," said the engineer.

"Certainly, the probe’s sensors and comm gear survived," Chouvel pointed out.

"All right," said Zhang. "Do we have any shuttles with the range to reach Stentyrrea?" He turned to Reikonnen, who had responsibility for ancillary craft.

"A thousand ly is quite a lot," the Europa Novan said. "Most of our shuttles have a range of more like a hundred, or five." She paused. "But we do have a Marathon class courier, the Pheidippides, and that has a range of almost two thousand ly."

Zhang nodded. He’d wondered whether carrying such a ship onboard (supposedly, to help supplement the communications link back to Earth), was a waste of space. Now, he was all too glad that his opponents had won the day on that debate.

"How many men can we cram aboard that ship?" he asked.

Bruno Lombardi, who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of these things, spoke up: "Thirty-five is the maximum safe rating, sir. Forty if you push it. Marathon class is only supposed to take two or three. But it can make the voyage within a day."

"Thank you, Mr. Lombardi," Zhang said, not unkindly. He frowned. "For that matter, we could use your expertise with Vároto ships on this mission." Lombardi looked startled at such an inclusion. "And I’ll add Professor Saunders to represent the Firsters," he added. "For that matter, Professor, your work with reverse-engineering Fourther tech to Firster standards might give you an insight into how the Vároto must have done the same." Saunders nodded, looking resolute.

Zhang turned. "Of course we must send you, Ambassador Suwel, and Commander Chouvel can go with you as well to represent Stentyrrea of the Fourth," he said. "We won’t be needing you anyway, Commander, as your entire domain of sensors and comms appear to have been fried."

The two Stentyrreans inclined their heads to him, and the Ambassador spoke up: "We will do our best to prevent Vároto interference with our homeworld," she said, anger obvious in her words. Stentyrrea had been occupied by the Vároto in the First War, some 150 years from now as it would have been in the original timeline. Some radical Stentyrreans even wistfully referred to the time before that as ‘the pure time’, and not for racial reasons, for the Miradi hijackers had been there for centuries before. But the things the Vároto could – and would – do…

"As for the rest of the crew," Zhang said, "I want you to take Captain Barry and a squad of his Marines, and also our top three SpecOps men in case we need to try anything more subtle.

"And find Commander Peterson." The XO was not on the bridge as it was not his shift; Zhang supposed he’d been rudely awakened by the decantation. "He’s to be the ranking officer." He would normally have trusted Chouvel, but with the Stentyrrea connection, he couldn’t afford to wonder whether he would put his own racial concerns before his Astroforce oath, given the situation. "I wish I could go myself, but I’ll be needed here to shout at the engineers." Everyone smiled wanly except Macfarlane.

Zhang pulled his shirt down. "You’re to set off aysap," he snapped. "Every second counts now. We’re counting on you. I’m counting on you. Hell, everyone on Earth and Luna are counting on you. So don’t screw up!"

Chapter Thirty-Four


Astroforce Courier Pheidippides

September 3rd 2007

Mick Saunders hadn’t slept. None of them had. He had spent the night in this seat at the back of the Pheidippides’s rather overloaded cockpit, the seats with the controls occupied by people who knew what they were doing – people like Commander Michael Peterson and Marine Captain Matthew Barry, both future Americans ("Usans"). He still counted himself lucky: most of the Marines and SpecOps men were crammed in the back, in areas which had previously been occupied by vast stocks of food stores that had been hastily cast out for this one-day trip for many rather than the courier’s usual months-long voyages for a few people. What was left wouldn’t feed them for a week, and humans couldn’t eat Stentyrrean food. Yet none of this seemed important right now…not when the Voordijk had just been dragged from fluxspace by, everyone seemed to assume, Vároto.

He looked up, over the waving antennae of the two Stentyrreans, at the main window/screen. He’d gotten used to the unsettling fluxspace effects by now. Even so, he looked away as the ship trembled slightly, signalling they were about to decant even before Peterson spoke up: "Brace for re-entry." The effects upon decantation were the worst.

He half expected them to be dragged out as the Voordijk had, by another impossible Vároto trick. But the Pheidippides decanted normally, and within seconds, the main window/screen was filled with the faintly glittering Oort cloud of the Stentyrrea system.

Saunders wondered if a Vároto ship had already blasted its way through that cloud. There was no way to tell, not when the random drifting motion of the Oort objects would close up the passage in minutesas though it had never been.

"All right, we all know what to do," said Peterson, wiping the sweat from his dark-skinned brow with the back of one hand. "Speed is essential. But so is safety."

Peterson and Chouvel took the controls, and the Pheidippides dived into the cloud, atomics and antimatter missiles at the ready. It was one of the more rapid path-cutting missions that Saunders had been on, and certainly the most nerve-racking; the Pheidippides, being far smaller than the Voordijk, could squeeze through much smaller gaps between the Oort objects. The downside was that an impact with one of those rocks might be enough to overload her smaller and weaker shields: kinetic impact wasn’t much as far as shields were concerned, but a regular fusillade of Oort objects was enough to ruin everyone’s day.

There were plenty of close calls. A massive Oort object, a dead comet half the side of the Moon, loomed up before them, several smaller ones on a collision course. Peterson, by now drenched in nervous sweat like the rest of them, glanced over the boards. "It’ll take us half an hour to get around that mess," he said.

"There," Chouvel said, pointing. "At those coordinate…that cloud there looks pretty dispersed. One atomic should vaporise the lot and let us through the gap. But we’ll have to be quick…when that object there floats over it’ll close us off…"

"Right!" Peterson said, his hands weaving complex patterns through the holographic display. The Pheidippides’ sublight engines roared, thousands of tiny Oort objects spattering off her shields, and dived for Chouvel’s gap. "Ready atomic!"

"Ready and targeted," said Chouvel.

Peterson glanced from one display to another. "Fire at will!"

A second later, a missile lanced out from the ship’s launcher, its dull shape blending immediately into the Oort field and visible only by the trail from its motor, and detonated in the centre of the field of fragile-looking ice rocks. Saunders squeezed his eyes shut, although nuclear detonations in space were far less spectacular than those with an atmosphere to whip up around them. The cockpit filled with white light for a brief moment, suitably dimmed by the filters on the window/screen.

"Report!" Peterson said, still blindly steering the ship towards the expected gap.

Chouvel blinked as his scanners recovered in time with everyone’s eyes. "Looks good – WAIT! That big one there – shockwave must have knocked it off course! It’s heading right for us!"

"Another atomic!" Peterson said. "I don’t dare risk an antimatter annihilation at this range! Fire!"

Chouvel put another nuclear missile straight into the massive object, which looked to be the size of Tasmania, Saunders thought uneasily. The missile vanished into the heart of the huge Oort object, betraying that it seemed to be made up of relatively dispersed, soft crystals, almost like snow. And then it detonated.

Even as Saunders shielded his eyes again, he marvelled at what was happening. Water that had not been liquid for millions of years had suddenly, impossibly, reverted to a liquid state. For a very brief moment before the sheer force of the explosion thermolysed it back to oxygen and hydrogen, re-ignited the two to produce water again, and repeat…

The Australian imagined that he could hear the remnants of the massive object slapping into their shields like soggy snowballs. It was just imagination, of course. "Object destroyed," Chouvel said, and then a few seconds later, "We’re through!"

Peterson’s shoulders sagged, though he clearly dared not relax completely. "That was close," he said. "Shields took a bad hit there. No more detonations at that range. If the object itself hadn’t partly shielded from our own explosion…"

The rest of the trip passed in silence, but they were past the worst. Soon any Oort objects worthy of the name were behind them, and they were there: at the top of the Stentyrrea system, just as the Voordijk had so long ago been at the top of Earth’s. There below them was the Stentyrrean sun, Hafal, relatively unusual for an inhabited system in that like Earth’s Sol it was a lone star and not a binary. Orbiting it were a total of seven planets, including Stentyrrea itself (the fourth out, and last of the inner planets), an asteroid belt nothing like so large and impressive as the Solar system’s, and three gas giants.

"Anything on sensors?" Peterson asked. Everyone knew what he meant by ‘anything’.

Chouvel worked his controls for a little, then quivered his antennae and shook his head as an afterthought. The fact that his homeworld was now in sight had to be affecting him. Suwel was not so restrained, letting out a deep sigh as the white light of Hafal gleamed at them. "Sir, the long-range sensors are still iffy after all those detonations. I could wait for them to clear up…" he didn’t add ‘if you want to face a mutiny’, but he might as well have.

In any case, Peterson was scarcely less patient: it might not be his homeworld, but he urgently needed to know the situation. "All right," he said. "Usual procedure. A flux hop, to thirty light seconds out from Stentyrrea. We’ll take a look with the interferometers, see what we can see."

"And then we shall proceed to the homeworld," Suwel said, in a tone that brooked no argument.

Peterson did not reply. Instead, he brought up the necessary controls and began programming in the last flux jump of the mission. "This is it, people," he said. "A journey of more than twenty thousand light years, and it’s finally over. This is what we’ve been working for, for the past few months. Almost since the Shift, even."

Chouvel did his bit, plotting the course and checking the sensor data for anomalies. "Done, sir," he said.

"Prepare to jump," Peterson said, and then hit the holographic button.

Despite his stomach, Saunders kept his gaze on the window/screen as the purple-gold fluxshroud wrapped itself around the ship and then, with the shroud protecting the ship and its mortal passengers from the effects of twisting space, the ship leapt forward into fluxspace.

The journey took only a few minutes; the Pheidippides, being a courier, was a fast ship. Even so, it seemed to stretch to years. Peterson was right. It all came down to this, at the end of all things.

And then the distorted space was twisting back into something approaching normality, Hafal was a visible sun-like disc glowing away in the distance with a tiny crescent Stentyrrea next to it, and the fluxshroud was flowing back into the pods. Saunders stared almost dumbly at the image, snatched as though from some NASA speculative artist’s painting, and wondered at the beauty of it. It didn’t spoil it to know, as he had learned from the database and Lombardi, that that alien crescent concealed a world bustling with industry and warfare. In some ways, it was almost better. It seemed to highlight the insignificance of life in the grand scheme of all things; but, unlike most such images, at least it wasn’t the insignificance of Earth life.

"Report," Peterson said sharply, his own hands already flying over and through his displays, quickly converting the flux pods to project shields rather than a fluxshroud, bringing weapons back on line.

Chouvel was even more frantic. "Scanning," he said. "Long range sensors still a bit dodgy, but I’ve got reliable data from the interferometer at least. Deploying probes…"

The probes were large compared to the Pheidippides, and so were physically clamped to the bottom of the ship rather than being shot out of torpedo tubes. Chouvel released the connections and the probes automatically found their baseline, several hundred miles to either side of the Pheidippides. Data began pouring in from them, and the computers began working through the parallaxes and enhancing the meagre light.

"Well?" Suwel said impatiently. "What do you have? What’s happening?"

"Here we go," Chouvel said, ignoring her. He waved one bright orange hand almost theatrically through his display.

The main window/screen reconfigured, disorienting Saunders at first: he was used to thinking of it as though it were a literal cockpit window rather than a screen that could be programmed to show different views. But now it showed a far sharper looking view of what it had previously done, then zoomed in on that tiny crescent until it filled the whole screen. Light enhancement brightened up the far side until it could also be seen, the complex collection of medium-sized continents seemingly connected by chains of volcanic islands that seemed to characterise Stentyrrea.

It looked almost exactly like the profile picture in the database, save for the obvious lack of a Stairway and Slingshot network. That in itself was oddly reassuring, as though they had inwardly half expected to find an enormous apple core where the planet had been, eaten away by the Vároto. Suwel breathed out slowly.

"Running additional scan for anomalies," Chouvel said. That meant that the computer would run its far more perceptive eye over the visual data – and not all the data was visual, for the interferometer probes also carried other forms of sensors.

But everyone almost ignored him as they took in the beauty of Stentyrrea. Though the image was obviously computer-enhanced, there was something compellingly…natural about it. It reminded Saunders a bit of the photos of Earth from the Apollo missions; something somehow came through that said: these photos were taken by men on a single small spacecraft a long way from home. Not a robot probe. Not a massive space cruiser. True pioneers, going out into the unknown, in the knowledge that they might well not come back. And, though he now knew its map almost by heart, Stentyrrea was still in many ways the unknown.

He had already begun to plan how he would speak on behalf of Firster Earth to the Firster Stentyrreans when Chouvel spoke up. Sharply. "Anomaly," he said. "There – that quadrant – magnifying."

The screen zoomed in. All was quiet. There was…something. Subtle. A flashing light? A regularly flashing light. Clearly not artificial, unless a pulsar had somehow manifested itself in the Stentyrrea system and had decided to blink in the visible rather than radio portion of the EM spectrum.

"Airship?" Suwel said uncertainly.

Saunders turned to Lombardi. "Oh don’t tell me they have airships too," he said.

"Why of course," Lombardi said, trying hard to smile over his obvious unease, "as you are always telling me, Professor, you’ve got to have airships."

"It’s not an airship," Chouvel said. "Profile is all wrong. It’s clearly orbital."

"We had satellites then," Suwel said. "Launched by space gun, you know that. I’m sure-"

"Enhancing profile," Chouvel said.

The screen flickered as the computer struggled for yet another layer of enhancement, and then it snapped into cold clarity.

A shape which all of them recognised, though Lombardi could probably draw it in his sleep.

Something like a mushroom, with a great hemispherical cap, and a long tapering fuselage behind it terminating in a smaller gap. With, in a ring and a globe behind the caps, a purple, crystalline glow. Flux engines.

And the whole thing was as black as death and twice as deadly.

Peterson was the first to find his voice. "Vároto," he croaked. "Tyrant Mark One class – cruiser, it was then."

"Well, actually, it’s more like Mark Nought Point Five," Lombardi said, examining the image. "That sensor array decidedly suggests not the Mark One but even earlier Vároto ship models, such as those operated by the Copperhead Brigades in the action at Svaalrog…" he trailed off, realising no-one was listening.

"They’re here," Chouvel said. His antennae lay flat on his forehead. "They got a ship here first."

"More than one,"Lombardi said, looking at the sensors. "There…and there…at least three."

"They’re already here," Peterson said. "Then all of this was for nothing." His voice was completely bereft of emotion.

The cockpit of the Pheidippides was silent for an eternity, the silence of despair.

Then Saunders’ eyes narrowed, and he said: "No."

"What?" Captain Barry said, tearing his gaze away from the Vároto ship."

"No," the Australian repeated. "Commander Chouvel, could you scan the site where the database says the Sahdavi ship was?"

Chouvel shook himself. "Of course," he said. He worked his controls. The screen adjusted itself, refocusing on the planet itself rather than what was orbiting. "Just west of that city, near the middle of the main Miradi controlled continent…" for some reason, he didn’t use the names, almost as though he didn’t want to contaminate the Stentyrrean tongue by using them in the same breath as talking about the Vároto.

The screen zoomed in. There was the city, an oddly structured mass even from this angle, obviously a mix of very different architectural styles. And there, westward…in a valley, which Saunders abruptly realised was in fact an ancient furrow ploughed into the earth when the Miradi had crashed the ship so long ago…was the Sahdavi ship.

It was not quite what he had expected. No reliable images had survived for the database, the Stentyrreans choosing to destroy practically all references to the ship after the Miradi had finally been defeated. The ship, what little of it was visible above the soil – for it was still half buried – seemed long, and sleek, but had a curiously flat colour scheme. The central part of the hull was a dark, metallic grey that looked oddly textured, and what was visible of two outthrusts from that central part seemed to be a deep shade of copper. Both looked…almost corroded. Given how everyone had spoken of the ancient Sahdavi technology as being so advanced, he had half expected the ship to look at pristine now as it had then.

But that was not the most important thing.

"It’s still there," he said. "They don’t have it yet."

Peterson grinned widely. "You’re a genius, Professor!" he said. "Of course not! Even if it’s still useful, it would take them years to dig it out of that!"

"If they could get it working, it might be able to dig ITSELF out," Suwel retorted, but her eyes were shining. "We still have time. We can still stop them."

Peterson nodded. "All right. Prepare to-"

"Commander," Chouvel said urgently, "two more Vároto Tyrants are approaching from the south – they were previously concealed by that mountain range-"

"What do you mean?" Peterson said, confused. "How can an orbiting ship be-" he broke off, then nodded in understanding. "I see."

"I don’t," Saunders muttered to Lombardi. "What’s going on?"

"Even big Vároto capital ships can fly through the atmosphere and hover just above the ground, even land on it," Lombardi explained. "It’s that magnetic technology of theirs – it means they can hug the ground safely –"

"They’re heading for the Sahdavi ship," Chouvel said grimly.

"They’re trying for it right now!" Suwel said. "Commander, we have to-"

"I agree," Peterson said grimly. "Mapulse torpedoes and ergweapons ready. We’ll just have to blast them out of the sky – we can’t do anything about the people below them –"

"Commander, they’ve stopped," Chouvel said puzzledly.

"What?" Peterson said, confused once more. "What do you mean?"

"They’ve taken up position, one on either side of the ship," said Chouvel. "But they don’t seem to be landing or deploying shuttles or anything. And…it’s not that good a view, but the Miradi in the city aren’t attacking them, and there’s a big army and a lot of anti-air defences there. They don’t seem to be panicking, either."

Saunders looked at Lombardi, who was also perplexed. "I don’t get it," he said. "Okk, some people might be indifferent to two alien warships coming out of the sky and hovering above you – though they’d be pretty strange people – but certainly not the Miradi of Stentyrrea."

"They were always very fearful that the aliens who built the ship – the Sahdavi – would return for their revenge for them stealing it," Suwel explained.

"Close enough!" Peterson said. "And yet…"

"Commander," Chouvel said again. "The orbital ships. Look!"

The window/screen changed again, disorienting Saunders once more. There was that orbiting ship, but it had changed direction, pointing its forward cap inwards, towards the planet’s surface. And now…

Everyone gasped as something leapt out on a tongue of flame from a portal that irised open in the cap, something heading towards Stentyrrea at incredible speeds…

"What was that?" Peterson said sharply.

"Atomic," Chouvel said grimly. "Targeted on Irwangar…"

Suwel’s antennae stood out straight. "The capital of Perlaien!" she cried. "We have to intercept it-"

But it was too late.

The explosion blossomed, Chouvel focusing the view on the city. Saunders caught a single, horrible, glimpse of the city before the atomic went off, saw the enormous skyscrapers, the streets bustling with vehicles, the skies filled with airships. And then…a flash of white, a shockwave spreading out in all directions. A great sun-like cloud rising from the ground, its mushroom shape almost recalling that of the ship that had called it down upon the ground, unleashing death and destruction.

Saunders could now say from his own experiences that, indeed, nuclear explosions in atmosphere were much more spectacular than those in the vacuum of space.

He wished with all his heart that he couldn’t.

"They just destroyed the capital city of one of the primary members of the League of Free Nations," Suwel said dully. "More than a million people, dead."

"They’re Vároto," Barry said grimly.

Lombardi’s brow was creased in thought. "The League of Free Nations," he murmured. "Founded to oppose the Miradi, of course, and the alliance that would have eventually have ended their state here…"

His eyes widened. "Oh my God," he said.

"What is it, Mr. Lombardi?" Peterson asked sharply, gratefully accepting any excuse not to look at the hell that had been Irwangar.

"Don’t you see?" Lombardi said, rising from his seat, staring at what the Vároto had wrought. "This, coupled to the fact that the Miradi are ignoring them…"

He turned away from the screen, facing them. "We went about this all wrong," he said quietly. "We forgot who we’re facing. Send in your ships with weapons blazing, blast your way in, grab the ship and get out?" he asked theatrically, then shook his head. "Since when have the Vároto thought like that? In many ways, they can’t think like that. They don’t do direct."

Barry cottoned on. "You – you mean –"

Lombardi nodded slowly, grimly. "The Vároto are subtle. They work by politics and backstabbing and intrigue.

"To them, the obvious solution here is to ally with the Miradi, help them destroy the Stentyrreans, ingratiate themselves with the Miradi so that they get access to the ship, and then stab them in the back and steal it."

Peterson opened and closed his mouth. "That gives us time…" he murmured.

"But it also makes our lives a lot more complicated," Saunders murmured.

"We don’t have any choice," said Suwel. "We can’t let them destroy us – Stentyrrea – or get that ship!"

Peterson nodded resolutely. "Then we do what we were sent to do," he said grimly. "We stop the Vároto."

He turned to Chouvel. "Commander…take us in. Weapons blazing."

The leader turned back to the window/screen. "For we Humans do do direct. And we do it so very well."



Location: God Knows (Literally)

Time: Irrelevant

There is a…space. Somewhere. And there are beings within it, beings who have as their passion and their responsibility the care of all time and all space.

It is customary at this point to describe such a space in vague and impressive terms. For example, one would never refer to its leader by name. Let us call him ‘the Leader’, it would say, or ‘the Master’, or some obscure title based on mediaeval terminology for some reason.

However, these are also beings who do not truck with convention, for they lie outside it, and destiny and narrative are but playthings to them. And they liked being contrary for no reason whatsoever.


"This one has been put back for a while," said Cyszine cexe-Uszyne, who was a relatively junior member of the Vectorate Division of the Order of Time. She licked her lips; she might be related to her superior, but that didn’t mean all that much when it came to dealing with Bavvang.

But Bavvang cexe-Uszyne smiled at her, meditatively stroking the bushy golden beard that underlined his eccentricity. "‘A while’ is about as specific as we can be here, isn’t it?" he said.

Cyszine knew when her great-great-uncle was avoiding a question. Nevertheless, she pressed on: "But why?" she asked. "Normally, a simple affair like this is solved in no time at all, and no-one is the wiser. But this…" she nodded to the great Univat. "The growing divergence is becoming obvious to everyone."

At this point it should also be made clear that it is customary to describe the space in which this sort of thing happens as though it were infinitely or impossibly large, or at least incomprehensible to the human eye and brain. However, the same restrictions as above reply. When one works with what might be called the supernatural every day, one grows rather bored of mysticism.


This chamber, which did not make up the entirety of the Vectorate Institute but could be considered to be its heart, was what humans thought of as a Dyson sphere. In some ways, that is. It was a small one, though, smaller than a planet, with an interior surface equivalent to that of, perhaps, Asia. At the very heart of the chamber was a tiny artifical sun, the size of France.

And dotted around the interior surface of that hollow world, stretching from one inverse horizon to the other, were the Univats.

There were about six hundred of them, one for each discrete dimensional universe, hence the name. Each one of them was the size of the island of Great Britain, and the plaque above it recording the name of the dimension was as big as Jutland, every single character upon it being city-sized. The Traeóri, as the beings still thought of themselves, did not think small. Ever. Not for nothing did their language have no word or concept corresponding to that of ‘overkill’.

Throughout the chamber, dozens, hundreds of senior Vectorate personnel rode their hover-pedestals, as the vehicles rather like flying lecterns were known. They flew up to each Univat, scrutinised it as though the staff already on duty watching it day and night could have missed something, and then nodded to themselves and moved on. For it was the Univats that held the secrets of the universes, that allowed the Vectorate to predict, with some degree of accuracy, what was going to happen. To spot troubles before they could even emerge, and to correct them before anyone still down in the Mortal Realms could figure out what was going on.

And everyone remembered about the one time when they had messed up such a recovery operation…

The Univats were filled with pure reality. Every particle – though such a term was misleading – of matter or energy in a real universe had a reality quotient, distinguishing it from that which was found Outside. The Univats were filled with a concentrated, distilled form of that very reality, taken from all over the corresponding universe, and that set up a resonance between the two. They were difficult to read: it was not a case of ‘this swirl corresponds to this galaxy’. But they could be read, interpreted, understood, and that was perhaps the fifth most valuable piece of knowledge in Creation.

The giant seas of reality pulsed with colours, formed for no obvious reasons into swirls and eddies, or great complex Mandelbrot fractal patterns. Some of them looked like they represented concepts far more sinister than they themselves. Occasionally a droplet of reality would drip from a Univat and fall into another, spreading ripples throughout the entire sea. There was no up or down in the Vectorate chamber and thus the droplets would fly any way they chose. This represented a number of things down in the Mortal Realms: portals being opened between universes, or merely the thought of a universe pouring down into the mind of an author in another, becoming merely an idea, a fiction, a story, yet one that seemed to write itself.

And the great Univat corresponding to the universe known in the old days as Thalvetia was…wrong. It was parted like the Red Sea, with a channel of nothingness down the middle, the two halves of the sea of reality roaring almost threateningly at each other like waterfalls. The Mandelbrot patterns and swirls within the two seas were more violent than any Cyszine had seen since…since the Phelgeautian Crash.

"Whether they notice or not is irrelevant," Bavvang said, and his smile vanished, his bushy golden eyebrows rising. Cyszine almost took a step back; she had forgotten how formidable the great man could be. "But this is not merely the whim of an old man," he added, softening again.

"Then why?" Cyszine whispered.

Bavvang turned away from her and seemed to address the little sun. "I have had orders from on high," he said.

Cyszine frowned. Bavvang was about the third highest ranking man in the entire Transcendancy. Which meant… "The Council?" she asked. "I would not have thought that Volange or Talangde would condone such an action-"

Bavvang shook his head. "On High," he repeated, stressing the capitals.

Cyszine realised. "Oh," she said. "I see."

There was no point in arguing with that. But again she looked towards the Univat and shivered. "I wonder why, though…"

"You wonder too much," Bavvang said, but then added: "Though I am not one to talk." His entire House were well known for their experiments that tended to blow themselves into the Outside at the slightest opportunity, screaming ‘I think I know what I did wrong.’

Bavvang hesitated, then continued: "I have been following the actions in a more indepth level. The Classica was dispatched…some time ago," he added with an amused grunt at the lack of any specificity when it came to lengths of time around here. "Suffice to say that the Kanóri are involved, and that should tell you all you need to know."

Cyszine smiled. "The Kanóri seem to be involved with half of these trouble spots," she said. "Diversity is evidently also the key to catastrophe."

Bavvang laughed. "There is some Ezzeng in them," he began, then his face clouded over. "You know what I mean. But I should not speak of such things. Not when THEY are also involved."

Cyszine knew who he meant, for the rumours had been sweeping the Vectorate all…er…indeterminable period of time. "They will come to blows?"

He nodded. "And I believe that is why this has been allowed."

Cyszine frowned. "To allow the Kanóri a revenge of their own, at the last? That does not sound like On High to me."

"I don’t think it’s like that," said Bavvang. "It’s them, not the Kanóri, that On High is interested in. Everyone should have a second chance, or so I hear."

He grunted. "But my investigations tell me one thing. This is where it all comes together."

Bavvang glanced at the divided Univat. "The Kanóri have a saying: history is written by the victors. Well; now their arm’s-length war is over.

"And the battle for history has begun."



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