The Pains By John Damien Sundman


THE SHUTTLE FLEW LOW over the desert, locked in a dead heat against the shimmering delta-shaped shadow racing across the desiccated scarlet dunes beneath. The remote airstrip from which it had departed had long since slipped below the horizon. Now there was just the endless bleak sands, broken by an occasional silvery glint of water away to the east. The sun known as Tau Ceti was almost directly above, but the air was cold and unforgiving. Falsafah was not a planet that welcomed the people of Earth.
The Pains
The Pains By John Damien Sundman



“I spy with my little eye,” began the pilot, “something beginning with ‘S’.”

Her voice carried a weary note of resignation typical of those posted to the desolate Arallu Wastes. She glanced to the sallow-faced co-pilot sat on her left, who grinned.

“Sand?” he suggested. The game was a feeble attempt to relieve the monotony of the flight. “My turn. I spy with my little eye... something beginning with ‘S’.”

“More sand?” she suggested. Her smile froze. “Son of a bitch!”

The man looked puzzled. “Actually, no. You were right the first time.”

The pilot cursed, ran quick dark fingers across the console and pointed to the desert contours rolling down the scanner screen. A hazy mass had appeared dead ahead, stark and defiant. Her co-pilot followed her finger and released a low whistle of surprise.

“They never reported this last recon,” he murmured uneasily. “We’re getting a lot of heat signatures too. Running full-spectrum analysis.”

“I have visual,” said the pilot. “Five degrees to starboard. Mighty Allah, look at that!”

A pale hill loomed on the horizon, rising from the dunes like a berg upon a blood-soaked sea. The shuttle sped on, closing in on the mound until it filled the windscreen. The whiteness shifted and sparkled in the sun, a dew-spotted shroud haloed by drifts of gossamer threads. Dark shapes moved within, the nature of which she dared not contemplate.

“Routine surveillance, my arse,” the pilot muttered. “This planet is supposed...”

Her words died on her lips. An ethereal mass of fibres rose from the hill, directly in their path. Mesmerised, she stared as it was joined by others, swaying like the tentacles of a sea creature fishing for prey. They were about to fly into a snare a thousand times bigger.

“...Oh crap,” she concluded.

“Turn around!” shrieked her colleague.

The pilot pulled hard on the control stick. The shuttle, engines screaming, slewed desperately to port. A towering bundle of fibres slammed into the starboard wing and the flyer crunched to a stomach-churning halt. Another crash jolted them sideways and suddenly they were tumbling to the ground. Something long and white rushed towards the windscreen.

She did not realise she was screaming until glass exploded into her face. A freezing poisonous wind ripped through the shattered windscreen, drowning her cries in fitful chokes. Trapped in the wrecked cockpit, suffocating and wracked by pain, she smacked a fist upon the distress beacon switch and closed her eyes against the oncoming rush of ground.

Her final agony as their mangled shuttle hit the ground was beyond words. When she opened her eyes, her heart thudding weak staccato beats inside her chest, her co-pilot had gone, the fuselage to her left torn away. An emergency oxygen mask dangled tantalisingly before her eyes but her arms were hopelessly pinned beneath the twisted console. Amidst her dizziness, she wondered if she should be worried about the sight of so much blood.

Her stare widened. A bulbous mass, standing shoulder-high on eight spindly legs, approached from the blur of white beyond the wreckage-strewn sands. A cluster of eyes above a pair of fierce mandibles met her own with a blank alien gaze.

“I spy with my little eye,” she murmured. Her pain was gone, leaving her with a sweet weariness she knew would be her last. “Something beginning with ‘S’...”





* * * * *





Chapter One


A message to Earth





[Prologue] [Contents] [Chapter Two]





RAJA SURYA PULLED BACK THE CURTAIN and flinched as the aircar parked in the dark courtyard beyond promptly exploded before his eyes. A rainstorm of fiery shrapnel glittered against the golden glass walls of the palace, setting fire to the ornamental shrubbery below. A split second later, the blackened stone elephant head of the Hindu deity Ganesh thudded to a rest outside the window, causing the young boy to muffle a shriek.

A barrage of tracer shells erupted from a nearby tower, bright against the gloomy starless sky. The corporation gunship that launched the missile, a sinister black wedge riding upon blue-tinged columns of thrust, swung its searchlights across the courtyard and moved away into the night. Through the window, the young boy watched a lone figure race through the darkness towards a nearby door, moving with the bounding lope peculiar to low-gravity worlds. A sound of footsteps reached him from the antechamber next door. Surya moved to release the curtain and paused. Reflected in the window, the worried frown etched into his own dark features betrayed the queasiness he felt within. Each attack on the palace seemed more intense than the last. He heard the door behind him open.

“Surya!” called an anxious female voice. “Stay away from the window!”

The Raja turned to the slim figure of his mother in the doorway. Maharani Uma, her long black hair fastened in a ragged plait, wore a battered flak jacket over her blue saree and there was a smudge of dirt on her cheek. At her waist was a holstered plasma pistol, which Surya knew was bad news, for she only carried arms when there was a risk of a ground attack. He had heard tales of children as young as ten having guns to defend the streets of Lanka, though Surya had yet to persuade his mother that himself, fourteen years old, should also be allowed to do so. In the last decades of the twenty-third century, the domineering Que Qiao Corporation was pushing hard to impose its harsh authority once and for all across the Indian moon of Yuanshi. The anger of those who objected had never run so high.

“They blew up an aircar,” Surya said nervously. “And my favourite statue.”

“Yes, I saw,” the Maharani told him. “No one was hurt. Come with me.”

Surya heard a muffled bang and instinctively raised his forearms above his head. His mother barely batted an eyelid. He had no idea how she stayed so calm.

He grabbed her offered hand and followed her through the door into the ornate antechamber beyond. The once-magnificent Crystal Palace of Kubera, his late father’s summer palace in the city of Lanka, no longer felt like home. The stomp of countless boots had scuffed the tiled floor, there were cracks and plasma burns across the wooden panelling and black anti-blast tape at every window. Ammunition crates lay stacked in rooms where Maharaja Kashyap and family had once hosted high-class gatherings of Yuanshi’s elite.

His mother often told stories of when Que Qiao in Epsilon Eridani had been content to let the Indian settlers run their own affairs. Those days were long past. The civil war had started long before he and his mother sought refuge at Barnard’s Star, back when he had been just four years old. Their recent return had seen the conflict escalate to new heights. It was ironic that it had been a peace conference on Yuanshi’s sister moon of Daode, some ten months ago now, that had convinced Maharani Uma it was time to end their long exile.

Surya followed his mother along a hallway and down a flight of stairs. He guessed where they were going even before they entered the brightly-lit basement, a large barrel-roofed space that Commander Kartikeya, the Maharani’s chief military advisor, grandly called his intelligence and operations room. She in turn sneered that military intelligence was an oxymoron, not that Surya understood what she meant.

Kartikeya, a bearded young Indian man in crisp military fatigues, paced restlessly before the holographic projection table dominating the room. As he turned, Surya felt his mother’s grip tighten. She and Kartikeya rarely said a civil word to one another.

“Maharani Uma,” said Kartikeya, eyeing her coolly. He tilted his head imperceptibly in lieu of a proper salute. “Come to join the action?”

“While you’ve been skulking in your basement, I’ve been with the gunner crew on the northwest tower,” she responded icily. “Your report, if you please.”

Kartikeya held her stare for a few moments, then turned away.

“Team A, Lieutenant Shakti’s unit, has secured Lanka spaceport,” he said. He was trying hard to soften his Indian-accented English into something more like the educated lilt used by Surya’s mother. “They neutralised a freighter, but that turned out to be carrying smuggled rice, not guns. Team B, Lieutenant Balin’s squad, ran into an armoured convoy and are returning fire. Que Qiao won’t notice our saboteurs slipping through their lines.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Who did you send? We have a lot riding on this.”

Kartikeya hesitated. “Namtar and Inari,” he said.

“Those blundering fools?” The Maharani put a hand to her forehead and gave a sigh of both exasperation and dismay. “You idiot! I asked for your best, not Team Z! What on Yuanshi possessed you to send those two numbskulls?”

“They were the only operatives who were free and not wounded or dead,” Kartikeya replied carefully. “We lost a lot of recruits when you split ties with the Church.”

“Your beloved Dhusarians banned music and dancing! I’m amazed Taranis ever gained the support he did, issuing such stupid rulings. We’re well rid of that dangerous fool.”

“Priest Taranis knew what was good for Yuanshi,” said Kartikeya, sounding hurt.

“Really?” she snapped. Surya guessed she was thinking of when he and his mother last saw the fabled mad priest of Lanka, back at their old refuge in the Barnard’s Star system. On that occasion, Taranis had been caught creating a dozen human-alien cyberclones to act as his Dhusarian disciples. “Was that before or after he kidnapped my son and tried to derail the peace conference? Your own performance was also highly questionable, I recall.”

“Some things are best left in the past,” Kartikeya said hurriedly. “As for the mission, Namtar knows what he’s doing. A fine corporal and a dedicated Dhusarian.”

The Maharani looked far from convinced. Surya gingerly approached the projection table, which he saw showed not the customary map of Lanka, but a three-dimensional schematic of Ayodhya, Yuanshi’s capital city and one firmly under Que Qiao control.

“Are they in Ayodhya?” he asked. “Namtar and Inari, I mean.”

Kartikeya glanced to the Maharani and frowned. Above them, Surya heard another muffled explosion outside the palace. A cloud of dust drifted from the ceiling.

“You can tell him,” she said. “You report to my son as well as myself.”

Kartikeya scowled, as he always did when reminded of his position. The commander had single-handedly led the royalist rebellion on Yuanshi during the Maharani’s and Surya’s long exile and had not reacted well to his demotion upon their return.

“They carry a message,” he told Surya. “A request for a ceasefire and talks, along with a threat that we will destroy the Que Qiao bio-labs at Anjayaneya if our demands are not met. It’s a bluff, of course. Capturing the plantations has been our only major victory to date and Governor Jaggarneth knows we would not dare play that hand so recklessly.”

“I am not bluffing,” snapped the Maharani. “I would happily rid the five systems of that despicable drug for good! Unfortunately, those laboratories are the only thing Que Qiao on Earth care enough about for a threat to have any effect.”

“On Earth?” asked Surya.

His mother nodded. “The holovid is not intended for that idiot Jaggarneth,” she said. “Intelligence suggests he has been lying to the Que Qiao Board in Shanghai about his failure to maintain order on Yuanshi. We aim to expose him for the war criminal he is.”

“As you know, Lanka is cut off from the servermoon network,” explained Kartikeya. “Namtar and Inari are to gain access from Ayodhya and send the message from there.”

Surya considered the magnitude of Namtar’s and Inari’s mission. Near-instantaneous interstellar communication was possible due to the wonders of servermoons, kilometre-wide satellites with huge data banks and extra-dimensional transmitters, linked in a five-systems network. Que Qiao had recently begun blocking all non-corporate transmissions: when added to the trade embargo, news blackout and a ‘shoot on sight’ policy with regard to spacecraft heading for Lanka spaceport, the corporation’s actions had left the royalist rebels on Yuanshi isolated like no others before them. Surya frowned, struck by a thought.

“I have a friend who works for Que Qiao,” he said cautiously. “He says he hates them and wants to quit his job. He could probably send the message for you.”

“What?” cried Kartikeya. His eyes blazed with fury. “Fraternizing with the enemy?”

He looked ready to strike Surya. The Raja stepped back in alarm, taken aback by the commander’s reaction. His mother too looked startled, but more shocked than annoyed.

“Surya!” she exclaimed. “What friend?”

“I met him online,” he replied meekly. “We play Battlefield Earth together,” he added, referring to a popular virtual-reality combat game which saw heavily-armed troops battling marauding aliens, unless players preferred being xenophobic extra-terrestrials out to crush humankind. “He works in a warehouse in Ayodhya but hates his boss and wants to leave.”

“And does this friend have a name?” she asked carefully.

“Master Blaster,” Surya replied meekly.

“Well, that sounds genuine,” scoffed Kartikeya. “Honestly! What’s the point of security training if the Raja here goes off and talks to corporation lackeys over the net? What is the world coming to? I despair! I really do.”

“Shut up,” the Maharani retorted. She turned to Surya. “You’re not to play that game again,” she said firmly. “You can’t trust anyone. Especially those who work for Que Qiao.”

Surya opened his mouth to protest, caught her stern glare and decided to keep quiet.

“Leave the winning of this war to adults, okay?” Kartikeya said. Surya scowled. The commander sounded like he was addressing a four-year-old.

“He meant well,” the Maharani said, putting an arm around her son’s shoulder.

Kartikeya snorted. “Only Namtar and Inari can help us now.”

Surya looked at his mother as she sighed. If there was anyone who irritated her more than Commander Kartikeya, it was the dynamic duo of Namtar and Inari.

“Wonderful,” she murmured. “Things are worse than I thought.”





* * *





Inari stared up at the roof of the four-storey office block, silhouetted against the star-spangled sky. The alley in which he and Namtar stood had no street lamps and the only light came from the pale blue crescent of Daode upon the horizon. The rain threatened for Lanka had not followed them to Ayodhya and it was a cool, clear night. Inari was nevertheless drenched in sweat, for Namtar had somehow persuaded him that his pale and portly frame was ideal for carrying all their equipment. Inari slipped on his night-vision goggles, turned to where his tall colleague waited in the shadows, looked up again and frowned.

“I’m not climbing up there,” he grumbled. “What’s wrong with the front door?”

“Our adversaries will naturally expect our ingression by conventional means,” Namtar replied smoothly. “Breaching the perimeter at the uppermost level will facilitate the element of surprise and support us in the need to avoid detection.”

“Whatever,” he grumbled. Namtar’s condescending Russian lilt made his own clumsy Greek attack on the English tongue appear distinctly working class, which he knew was his colleague’s intention. “Don’t blame me if I fall and squash you flat.”

Inari slipped the heavy backpack from his shoulders to the ground, opened the flap and removed a gun-shaped device with a grappling hook protruding from the barrel. Next came a canister of compressed air and a coil of wire rope, both of which he dutifully attached to the device. Once done, Inari put the gun to his shoulder and pointed it at the roof.

“Stand back,” he advised. Hearing no response, he glanced over his shoulder and saw Namtar cowering behind a large recycling bin at the end of the street. Inari snorted in disgust. “Coward,” he muttered. “My aim ain’t that bad.”

He returned his focus to the roof, lined up the shot and squeezed the trigger. There was a muffled pop and suddenly the hook was flying through the air, a stretched spiral of wire unravelling in its wake. Moments later, he heard a muted thump as the hook passed over the safety railings and landed on the roof. Inari reached for the hanging cable and slowly took up the slack until it became taut. The wire seemed incredibly thin in his gloved fingers, but the weight it had to carry on Yuanshi was against gravity just a quarter of that on Earth. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Namtar had emerged from hiding. Inari turned his back and busied himself fitting the first of the powered pulleys to the rope.

Namtar came to his side and stared up at the roof. “You got it right first time?” he asked, sounding surprised. “Things are looking up.”

“Yeah, four storeys,” retorted Inari. “You go first.”

Namtar calmly clipped the safety line to his belt, gripped the handles attached to the pulley and thumbed the switch. The motor buzzed and suddenly he was racing up the wall, his feet launching him into one vertical stride after another like a dimensionally-challenged triple jumper. Inari scowled, knowing his own ascent would be far less graceful. He got the second pulley ready, tied the end of the rope to the backpack and stepped up to the wire.

Much to his relief, he made it to the roof without the cable snapping and unscathed apart from a couple of grazed knees. Once over the safety rail, he wasted no time in drawing up the rope and returning everything to the backpack. Namtar had removed his night-vision goggles and was waiting at the open door of the roof-top air-conditioning plant. Inari slipped off his own goggles, slung the pack on his shoulders and went to join him.

“Standard lock and proximity sensors only,” Namtar whispered. He pulled free the short cable running from his wristpad to the control panel at the doorway. “All of which I have neutralised. It seems the information provided by our mole was correct.”

Inari peered into the space beyond. An ageing air-conditioning unit sat within a caged area that took up most of the floor. A half-full bucket of water stood beneath a dripping overhead pipe. Beyond the rusty cage was another door.

“That way?” he suggested.

Namtar nodded. “Intelligence suggests it leads to the building’s central stairwell.”

Inari followed him past the silent machinery. The door on the far side was locked, but quickly opened by Namtar as before. Beyond, a narrow stairway descended to a brightly-lit landing. Inari was not in the least bit surprised when Namtar gestured for him to go first.

They found themselves in the lift lobby for the fourth floor. Opposite the closed metal sheaths of silent elevators was another wider staircase heading down. Glass-panelled double doors led off to the left and right. Inari moved towards the stairs and paused. Namtar’s reluctance to lead the way was not helping his nerves.

“Which way?” Inari hissed. His whisper came out far louder than expected.

“Try the doors to the left,” whispered Namtar. “We need to find some secluded terminal where we can complete our mission undisturbed. It is unlikely we have this establishment to ourselves even at this inhospitable hour. Vigilance is key.”

“You mean there’s security guards?”

“Is that not what I said?” snapped Namtar. “Are you purposely obtuse?”

“I’m standing as straight as I can,” muttered Inari. “There’s no need to be so angry all the time, you know,” he added. “I’m in a good mood today. Remember that jigsaw you got me? I finished it this morning.”

“That silly puzzle with camels and pyramids? You started that two years ago!”

“Yeah, but on the box it said four to six years,” Inari declared proudly.

Namtar buried his face in his hands. “Can we get on?” he asked.

Inari nodded. Leaving his colleague crouching in the shadows, he crept towards the nearby doorway. His attempt at stealth was ruined when the glass doors, triggered by automatic sensors, opened wide with a loud creak. Inari stifled a shout, scurried through and dropped to his knees behind a bank of desks, which as luck would have it were the tall versions that kept users standing as they worked. Peering out, he saw the room was some sort of office, one thankfully empty of anyone burning the midnight oil. Namtar poked his head through the doorway and gazed across the rows of desks and cabinets.

“Is it safe?” he whispered.

“There’s no one here,” Inari said tartly. “What is this place?”

“Comrade, this is a lair of the utmost capitalistic evil,” Namtar declared, creeping to his side. “The Epsilon Eridani headquarters of possibly the most heartless, back-stabbing commercial insurance broker throughout the five systems. These people are the leeches of interstellar trade, sucking the lifeblood from free commerce and offering hazy promises in return. Insurance companies are scum.”

Inari grinned. “Still waiting for that payout?”

“All that matters is that this company has a special arrangement with Que Qiao that grants it unrestricted access to the servermoon network,” Namtar replied frostily. “Breaking and entering here carries far fewer risks than infiltrating a corporation establishment.”

“You are good at not taking risks,” Inari acknowledged.

Namtar scowled. Keeping low, he scurried past rows of desks until he came to an area sheltered from the rest by privacy screens. By the time Inari caught up, Namtar had powered up a terminal and put on a headset plucked from the desk, the polarised eyepieces of which looked like cheap sunglasses. Inari was not a gifted user of network terminals and watched in rapt admiration as his colleague opened the navigation tool for the five-systems network. Only then did Namtar reach into a pocket and withdraw a thin plastic tube a few centimetres long, the data rod upon which was stored Maharani Uma’s message to Earth.

Inari heard a creak somewhere behind him and glanced over his shoulder, but saw nothing. By now, Namtar had found the public portal for Que Qiao’s head office and called up the virtual receptionist. The on-screen rendering of the computer-generated young woman undoubtedly looked better through Namtar’s glasses than the blur Inari saw on screen. All he could hear of what she was saying was a tinny murmur from Namtar’s headset.

“What’s going on here?” asked a terse voice in his ear.

“Maharani Uma has a message for Que Qiao,” said Inari, without turning round. “We can’t send it from Lanka so we broke in here.”

He gulped. Moving slowly, he turned his head and stared in dismay at the muscular, black-clad security guard standing behind him. The expression on her face suggested an interest beyond mere curiosity. The electro-bolt gun in her hand removed any doubt.

Inari felt the blood draining from his face. “Namtar...!”

“Do not interrupt me with your feeble ramblings!” Namtar retorted. He slotted the data rod into the side of the terminal screen. “No, I’m not talking to you,” he added hastily, gesturing at the screen. “I have an urgent communication for the President of the Board, an unencrypted holovid report regarding Que Qiao operations on Yuanshi.”

Inari reached across and tugged his sleeve. “But...!”

“Be quiet!” snapped Namtar. “Apologies; my outburst was not directed at your good self,” he said quickly, addressing the animated receptionist. “The file is...”

“Namtar!” cried Inari. “Behind you!”

The guard’s eyes narrowed. In a sudden blur of motion, she pushed Inari aside and shoved her gun hard against Namtar’s head, dislodging the headset. Namtar shrieked, spun around and in a panic caught the edge of the desk and fell backwards to the floor. The guard’s other hand whipped to the terminal and deftly plucked the data rod free. Inari darted behind a desk and slipped the backpack from his shoulders.

“Don’t move!” the guard growled, as Namtar tried to crawl away. Pocketing the rod, she tapped at her wristpad, taking care to keep her gun aimed at the petrified figure on the floor. “Where’s the idiot friend of yours?”

“Right behind you,” Inari said roughly. His outstretched hand held the grappling hook gun. The guard turned her head and stared in disbelief at the barbed projectile aimed her way. “Getting ready to zap you and your electro-thingy with something far more pointy.”

The guard laughed. “That is a terrible action-hero quip.”

She whirled around and shot an electro-bolt square into his chest. Inari howled and reeled backwards, his hand closing upon his own gun’s trigger as he fell. With a whoosh the harpoon-like hook shot across the room, missing the guard by centimetres.

The air filled with terrible cries of pain. Namtar leapt from hiding, clutching the grappling hook stuck in his buttocks. Inari scrambled to his feet and in a panic threw his gun at the guard, unexpectedly landing a blow to her head that sent her crashing unconscious to the floor. Namtar hurtled towards the doors like a man possessed, his face twisted in agony, his hands wrapped around the projectile in his rear.

“You’ll pay for this!” he shrieked. “Get me to hospital!”

Inari glanced at the terminal, which showed a blurry warning about an incomplete file transfer. A groan from the fallen guard was enough to make him grab his backpack and run after Namtar, who judging by his echoing screams was now halfway down the stairs.

At the main entrance, the security guards at the front door were too stunned by the sight of Namtar dashing by with a grappling hook in his backside to give chase. Inari even managed a wry grin as he raced after him. He knew in his heart that Namtar would never, ever forgive him for this. Against all odds, they escaped into the night.





* * *





The gunship attacks eventually ceased and Raja Surya retreated to his suite of rooms, tired yet unable to sleep. He was curious about his mother’s message to Earth and it did not take him long to find a copy of the holovid on the palace network. Wary of being disturbed, Surya used his cranium implant to secretly view the recording of his mother’s statement of demands. He understood little of what he heard. A holovid signal straight into his optic and auditory nerves could never make his head hurt as much as people talking politics.

Surya called up his implant’s communications application and sent a request to the kitchen for a glass of hot milk. Ten minutes later there came a knock on his door, but instead of one of the palace’s android butlers, a grey-haired Indian woman dressed in a green saree stood there, holding a tray with his bedtime drink.

“Yaksha!” said Surya, surprised. “I thought you were in bed.”

The woman managed a smile. “Us oldies never rest,” she remarked lightly. She passed him the tray. “I stole this from the robot coming up. Can’t you sleep?”

Surya shook his head glumly. “Have you heard from Namtar and Inari?”

“There’s been no word as yet,” she told him. There was a tinge of despondency in her voice. “I’d usually say no news is good news, but with those two...”

Surya grinned. He liked Namtar and especially Inari, who had both been nice to him, even when they had been charged with the mission of kidnapping him from his mother’s place of exile the year before. During the adventures that followed, Namtar had let Surya fire a missile at Que Qiao headquarters, though in the end the only thing that got destroyed was their own getaway vehicle. It was the thought that counted.

“They delivered the message,” he said confidentially. “I am sure of it.”

“I do hope so,” she said sadly. His smile of encouragement had not cheered her. “You should get some sleep, Surya. Tomorrow is another day.”

She turned from the door and was gone, leaving him standing in the doorway holding the tray. He retreated into his suite and sat for a while on the edge of his huge four-poster bed, idly sipping his hot milk. Yaksha often spoke of the suffering people were going through and the injustices done in Que Qiao’s name. The old woman had a long association with Lanka and on occasion had taken him to visit her friends and family who lived in the poorer parts of the city, to remind him of what life was like outside their glittering glass castle. It was no secret that the rebellion against Que Qiao was not going well. There was more riding on Namtar’s and Inari’s mission than anyone let on.

Surya finished his milk and yawned. His gaze fell upon the terminal on the nearby desk and he remembered what his mother had said about him playing Battlefield Earth. It suddenly seemed wrong to play combat games with an actual civil war going on outside.

He went to the desk and thumbed the switch to wake the terminal. He would post his resignation from Battlefield Earth, delete his avatar, then go to bed. The least he could do for the people of Lanka was listen to his mother. His late father had been a respected figurehead for a real rebellion. It was time Surya lived up to his legacy.

A deft jab at the quick-start options on the screen brought up the regimented rows of bunks of the alliance forces barracks. Surya dropped into his chair, slotted his feet into the terminal’s footplate, then picked up his virtual-reality helmet and gloves and slipped them on. Fingerprint sensors in his gloves registered his arrival and his game avatar sprang into life. Suddenly he had virtual arms and legs, clad in black armour stained with the blood of alien hordes. Lieutenant Ironfist, feared warrior of the alliance with over three hundred confirmed kills to his name, had returned to the battlefront and was ready to engage.

Immersed in his computer-generated world, he scanned the room. No other players were present, but the mission status screen on the wall next to the quartermaster’s desk showed half a dozen skirmishes in progress on the battlefields outside. With a sigh, Surya directed his avatar to the desk. He would miss his virtual buddies.

“Quartermaster, I have a notice to post,” he declared.

A bushy-moustached, khaki-clad officer appeared from a door and sat down at the desk. Surya took one last look at the mission board and saw his friend Master Blaster was online, but he generally always was. Surya had never known anyone spend so much time in virtual reality. His guilt over having neglected his own real-world duties for so long rested heavily on his mind and several moments passed before he caught the irritable glare of the seated quartermaster. Though computer-generated, the officer was modelled on a famous Russian actor and his look of impatience was convincingly fierce.

“Lieutenant Ironfist?” asked the quartermaster. “You wish to post a message?”

Surya thought about his mother’s holovid to Que Qiao and her reaction on hearing it was in the hands of Namtar and Inari. Here, things were different.

“Make that two,” said Surya. His mind was made up. “The first is a private note to Corporal Master Blaster. I have a job for him back in the real world.”





* * *





Governor Jaggarneth stared levelly into the monitor on his desk and tried not to squirm. The blond woman on the other end of the holovid conference returned his gaze with more than a hint of disgust. She sat at a large mahogany desk, flanked by two nondescript men who like herself were groomed to perfection and clad in the latest dark suits of corporate finery. Behind where they sat, the weak sunlight of Earth glinted at the half-open blinds of a rain-splattered window. The governor glanced at the small inset in the corner of his screen and cringed at the sight of what they were seeing of him: a crumpled bureaucrat with pallid Eastern European colouring, dark thinning hair and a shadow of stubble.

It was the early hours of the morning in Ayodhya and most sensible people were in bed. His own office, an ornately-furnished study in the Palace of Sumitra, had been Maharani Uma’s back when her late husband had authority. He reassured himself that despite the efforts of her royalist supporters, the balance of power on Yuanshi remained firmly on the side of Que Qiao. The conflict had allowed him to deploy armed agents and impose corporate martial law. It was a messy way to do business, but until now few people had cared.

“Governor,” the woman said slowly. Her measured American drawl was cold and devoid of regional inflections. “You’ve been rather economical with the truth regarding operations on Yuanshi. Why were we not informed about the loss of the plantations? Here you are, held to ransom by the widow of the upstart Maharaja and you didn’t think to escalate this to senior management? This is bad, Jaggarneth. Very bad.”

“Agent Laverna, my people are pro-actively escalating neutralisation tactics to get space boots on the ground,” Jaggarneth said nervously. “These terrorists have lasered off more than they can synth. The bio-labs will soon be back in Que Qiao hands, I assure you.”

“You slipped up!” the woman snapped. “Count yourself lucky that we intercepted Uma’s transmission before it hit the wider network. You’d better have a plan by the time I file my report if you are to persuade the Board you’re still the best man for the job.” Laverna leaned forward and fixed him with a steely glare. “Shareholders will expect heads to roll.”

Jaggarneth gulped. “You say the Maharani’s message was blocked?” he asked cautiously. He glanced at the caller identification code in the corner of the screen and realised it was that of Que Qiao’s office in London, which confused him. His immediate superiors were in Mumbai; last time Laverna called, she had been in New York. “I regret that not all capsules of data have fallen in my splash-down area.”

“Operation Playmate,” she told him. The men either side of her had yet to speak, not that Jaggarneth cared. “Intelligence revealed that Uma’s son is keen on certain online games, so we created an AI avatar to befriend him. A few hours ago, the young Raja passed a holovid to this supposed online friend, with a request to forward it on to Que Qiao headquarters. These games appear to be a loophole missed by your communications clampdown. Needless to say, the message did not reach the servermoon network.”

“Thank the stars for that,” murmured Jaggarneth. He still puzzled over her earlier reference to him being held to ransom. “May I see it?”

Laverna hesitated, then nodded. “You may. But no one else. The bio-labs are vital to several government initiatives here on Earth and corporation contracts will be lost if Yuanshi does not deliver. My head is on the chopping block. I don’t like that one bit,” she said. “As for your own head, I will be the first to arrive with an axe. Understood?”

“Understood,” confirmed Jaggarneth, nodding nervously. “Let’s hit the runway with full thrusters. I am optimistic my containment strategy for Lanka will feed through the delivery pipeline and shield us from free radicals. Give me a day or two to tweak the terraformers and we’ll soon sweat Uma and her terrorists from their lair.”

“Tweak the terraformers?” she retorted. “You do realise there are UN Charters against using climate change as a weapon?”

“It was just a metaphor,” he protested weakly.

“It had better be! This is your last chance, Jaggarneth. You have a day to fix this!”

The screen went blank. Jaggarneth sighed and slumped in his chair. A sheen of sweat clung to his face, despite him having opened the doors to the private garden to let in the night air. He had feared this day ever since Commander Kartikeya’s rebels seized the plantations. Yuanshi was a major centre for biological research and very important to Que Qiao.

“One day,” he mused. The moon’s slow rotation around the gas giant Shennong meant that days on Yuanshi were five times the length of Earth’s. It was a shame Laverna ended the call before she clarified his deadline.

He leaned back and stretched wearily, ready for bed. He was about to switch off the terminal when it blinked an alert for a new message. As promised, it was a copy of Maharani Uma’s ransom note, packaged as a simple holovid. Jaggarneth hesitated, but could not resist. A tap on the screen brought up the Maharani herself, speaking directly to camera. His face cracked into a smug, self-satisfied grin. All he needed now was a tub of popcorn.

“This message is for the President and Board of Que Qiao,” she began. “I am Maharani Uma, regent of Raja Surya, heir to the throne of Yuanshi. For years the corporation has pillaged our world for its own gain, subjugating not just those from Earth who have made this world their home, but also the noble alien life forms here before us, the existence of which the corporation has tried so hard to keep secret...”

The holovid switched to footage taken inside one of the secret laboratories on the far side of Yuanshi, the camera lingering on the dissected corpse of a squat, humanoid creature with grey skin. Jaggarneth grimaced. This was the first confirmation that rebels had done more than release creatures from their cages following a break-in last year. The screen blinked up another alert, this time for a waiting internal call. Jaggarneth scowled and jabbed a finger at the terminal. The Maharani was shuffled into a corner, the audio track quietening to murmur. On screen was an anxious-looking man wearing security agent attire.

“What is it?” Jaggarneth asked impatiently. “It’s late and I’m busy. Can it wait?”

“Sir, we’ve had a report of a burglary at an insurance broker downtown,” the man said, sounding flustered. “The suspects evaded capture, but were positively identified as two known associates of Kartikeya.”

“What?” murmured Jaggarneth. “A burglary?”

“They accessed the network and compromised their systems,” the man continued. “Sir, we have the data rod they carried. It is a message from Maharani Uma.”

Jaggarneth went cold. He should have expected the Maharani to try a sneaky trick along the lines of multiple attacks. He had underestimated her yet again.

“...bombing our city with no regard for civilians,” her voice continued. “The governor of Yuanshi has the power to call a ceasefire and negotiate for peace but refuses to do so...”

“Did it get through?” Jaggarneth asked cautiously. “The message, I mean.”

The man shook his head. “A security guard got to them before they finished the upload, but there’s a nasty data virus loose. It’s affected all services in Ayodhya, including our own network. We’ve released a seek-and-destroy antiviral but the infection has already passed to the servermoon, which means it’s on the interstellar network.”

“The message didn’t go,” murmured Jaggarneth. He felt his shoulders slump in relief. “That was one rogue asteroid too many for our flight path. Send me the data rod, please. Headquarters will want a report.”

“I will send it by courier at once,” the man replied. “Whatever you do sir, don’t play the holovid file. The virus is lying in wait and if that message hits the net it’ll be broadcast right across the five systems. I repeat, don’t play the holovid file.”

“...my own grief at the assassination of my husband is a pale mirror to the heartache suffered by the people of Lanka and beyond every day...”

Jaggarneth gulped and looked at the shrunken image of Maharani Uma challenging him from the corner of his screen. She had never taken their war onto the network before and now he knew why. She had waited for a good hand and played it well. He could not believe he had been out-smarted by the self-proclaimed queen of Lanka and her rabble of rebels.

“Crapping hell,” he muttered. “We have a problem.”





* * *





Raja Surya awoke after a fitful night’s sleep to the sound of crashes, bangs and muffled thump of tramping boots. His fear that he had slept through an air-raid alert and Que Qiao had launched yet another gunship attack sent him scrambling from his bed to the window, where he shunned his implant’s remote control and yanked back the curtains by hand. Clocks across Yuanshi followed India Standard Time, but while it was midway through a humid summer morning in New Delhi, in Lanka the distant sun of Epsilon Eridani would not break the long night for another twenty hours. Surya rubbed the sleep from his eyes and stared through the rain-spotted glass into the dark, overcast night, the clouds tinged orange by the muted glow of city lights. The skies of Lanka were quiet.

Confused, he walked to his door, pulled it open and listened to the murmur of gentle panic downstairs. A new fear struck him, that the hive of activity was something to do with him passing the holovid to his online gaming buddy and something had gone wrong. He picked up his dressing gown from where he had left it strewn across the floor, slipped it on and slunk out to investigate, holding a hand to a yawn.

His mother stood with Yaksha at the bottom of the grand staircase, facing away from him as he stumbled down towards them. The Maharani, dressed in a navy trouser suit, was speaking animatedly into her wristpad, neither of which were something she often wore. The long coat Yaksha had on over her usual saree was spotted with rain and splashes of mud. On the far side of the lobby, the main doors were open, revealing a large black ground car parked on the driveway outside. Surya’s confusion grew at the sight of half a dozen luggage trunks near the doors, next to which lay the long, coffin-shaped transport case for his cyberclone, a biologically-enhanced android modelled upon himself for reasons his mother had never made clear. Yaksha heard his approach and greeted him with a smile.

“What is happening?” asked Surya.

Two men he did not recognise appeared from outside and collected the first of the trunks. Someone was going on a journey, but his mother’s expression suggested it was good news. The Maharani finished her wristpad conversation and reached to give him a hug.

“Surya! You need to get changed if you’re to accompany us to the spaceport,” she said. “I’ve been called away on very important business and must leave soon. Governor Jaggarneth has agreed a ceasefire! Isn’t that wonderful?”

“You’re going away?” asked Surya.

The Maharani nodded. “To Earth,” she confirmed, before clarifying, “England.”

“Earth!” Surya exclaimed. He frowned. “Why England?”

“The governor and I have been summoned to an emergency session of the UN Security Council in London,” his mother replied. “My message created quite a stir!”

“You’re going with Governor Jaggarneth?” asked Surya in surprise. He had never been to Earth and gave her a hopeful look. “Am I coming with you?”

“No,” Yaksha said firmly. “You’d never cope with the gravity!”

“I need you to stay here with Kartikeya,” the Maharani told him. “Don’t look so glum. It will just be me and other grown-ups talking politics all day and you’ll only be bored. We’ll have a proper holiday somewhere fun when all this business is sorted, I promise.”

“But...” began Surya.

“No buts. Yaksha will tell you all the news while you get dressed.”

Yaksha shrugged. “Yes, of course. Follow me, Surya.”

She held out a hand to lead him back to his room. His mother turned away to make another wristpad call, leaving Surya with nothing to do but meekly follow the old woman upstairs to his suite. His guilt over passing the holovid to his online friend had faded but he remained puzzled. Reaching his door, he swept into his room and leapt onto the bed. Yaksha went to his wardrobe and withdrew a couple of military-style suits, one blue and one maroon.

“I said Namtar and Inari would do it,” Surya declared, watching Yaksha carefully to judge her reaction. “The message to Earth, I mean.”

“Kartikeya’s debriefing them right now,” she told him. “From what I heard, they were disturbed before they could complete their mission and thought they had failed. They made it back to Lanka just a few hours ago. I understand there were, err... injuries.”

“But the message got through?”

“Oh yes,” said Yaksha. She gave a purposeful glance towards the network terminal across the room. His VR helmet sat on the desk where he had left it. “Someone else passed the message to Que Qiao. Funny how these things work out.” She held up the two suits, still on their hangers. “Which one?”

“Blue,” he said. “Do they know who?”

“Kartikeya has his suspicions,” said Yaksha. Her knowing look caused Surya to turn away. She laid the chosen outfit on his bed and returned the other to the wardrobe. “It hardly matters now. Your mother’s message is out there, making news across the five systems! By now millions have heard what she has to say about Jaggarneth and the war. He’s issued a denial, of course; so have his overlords in Que Qiao. But it’s forced the Indian and Chinese governments to ask the United Nations to settle the sovereignty of Yuanshi once and for all. It’s about time mother India stood up and remembered the children she sent to the stars!”

“I was born in Ayodhya,” Surya said warily. “Then we lived in that strange hollow moon at Barnard’s Star for years and years. India did not send me.”

“It was just a figure of speech, my dear,” said Yaksha. “Anyway, what we heard an hour ago is that Jaggarneth has been ordered to go with your mother to London for talks. This could be the break we’ve been waiting for all these years.”

“Independence day,” murmured Surya. It was his mother’s dream for Yuanshi.

“Get dressed.” She ruffled his hair and smiled. “Your mother needs your support now more than ever. We’ll be leaving for the spaceport in an hour.”

Yaksha closed the wardrobe, walked to the door and was gone. Feeling slightly stunned, Surya sat on his bed and looked at the clothes laid across the covers. Things were suddenly moving very fast indeed.





* * *





It was early evening by the time Maharani Uma and her entourage departed for the spaceport. The feeble glow of streetlamps did little to dispel the rain-drenched shadows that clung to the city like a shroud. Raja Surya had not left Lanka since their return from exile and gazed absorbed at the sights beyond the window as their ground car sped towards the tunnel through the city wall. Lanka began life as a domed settlement and the apron of the dismantled roof still encircled the city’s tightly-packed buildings and claustrophobic streets. The dome had once protected Lanka from an unforgiving pre-terraformed atmosphere; the part that remained, now fortified, guarded against a more human foe. The city wall could not stop attacks from Que Qiao’s airborne gunships, but it had been enough to keep the corporation at bay and give the late Maharaja’s supporters a haven to call their own.

Beyond the road tunnel, the destructive legacy of civil war was plain to see. Here lay a crumbling wasteland ravaged by war, a bleak landscape of derelict buildings, scorched fields and craters, each a sad reminder of the battles fought between the royalists and corporation over the fate of one small moon. A burned-out patrol car stood by the roadside, twisted almost beyond recognition by flames that burned fiercely in the thin, oxygen-rich atmosphere. Yet occasional lights glowed amidst the devastation, for even here lived families who had nowhere else to go. Surya thought about his own life in the sumptuous Kubera Palace and felt a pang of guilt. He knew he should do more to help his people but did not know what.

The Maharani and her travelling companions were flying not from Lanka, but from Yuanshi’s main interstellar spaceport at Ayodhya on the far side of the island continent. The sleek black ground car, sent by Que Qiao with a silent, stern-faced woman at the controls, lapped up the kilometres with barely a murmur from its hydrogen turbines. In the car with Surya and his mother was Yaksha, while Commander Kartikeya, Namtar and Inari rode in one of their own vehicles not far ahead. The rain began to ease and before long the clouds parted to show a glorious, star-spangled sky. Surya tried to find the constellation Serpens and the star that was Sol but found it difficult to get his bearings from the moving car.

“Why cannot I come with you to Earth?” he pleaded. It was a question his mother had heard a dozen times already. “I would be much better at helping you than that silly cyberclone. It does not even look like me now.”

The Maharani looked up from the touch-screen slate in her lap and frowned.

“It’s been over a year since we got the cyberclone,” she pointed out. “You’re growing fast. Of course you don’t look the same anymore. But you’re still not going to Earth.”

“Why are we taking that thing?” asked Yaksha. “I always found it a bit creepy.”

“Thanks,” muttered Surya.

“Not you, silly boy!” said Yaksha, smiling. “I meant creepy as in robots that look and act like people. It’s not natural.”

“Nor is living on the moon of a planet of another star,” the Maharani said calmly. “But I will still fight for us to call it our own. Namtar suggested the cyberclone might be useful in London. We need someone or something that can understand the tangle of technology they have on Earth. I’m told it can be a nightmare to navigate.”

“The net on Earth is three hundred years old,” Surya told her. He could not remember how he knew that. “Some of it still uses wires.”

“Much as you like to mess about online, it is not a job for you,” she said. There was an odd tone to her voice that convinced Surya more than ever that his mother knew what he had done. “I need you to stay in Lanka for me.”

Surya pulled a face. “Why Yaksha instead of me?” he asked. “She’s old.”

“Don’t be cheeky!” Yaksha retorted. “Though I can’t say I’m looking forward to hobbling around under quadruple gravity. As for poor Namtar, he can barely walk after what the autosurgeon did to patch him up. I can’t see us leaving the hotel, never mind doing much sight-seeing when we get there!”

“We’ll be fine,” the Maharani said irritably. “Surya, this trip to Earth is the most important thing I have ever had to do. There’s nothing more I’d like than to have you by my side, but there’s too much that can go wrong. Kartikeya doesn’t trust Que Qiao,” she said, lowering her voice so the driver could not hear. “Neither do I. The last thing I want is for you to be in danger just because of a silly political squabble.”

“Danger?” asked Surya, his eyes wide.

Yaksha raised a surprised eyebrow. “Namtar and I won’t be much help if things get nasty,” she murmured. “Are you sure you’ve picked the right team?”

“My team is not yet complete,” the Maharani revealed. “I need you to find a friendly face at Ayodhya spaceport and get a message to some old acquaintances of ours. I don’t like hiring mercenaries, but they’ve proved their worth before.”

“Ah,” said Yaksha and smiled. “I know exactly who you mean.”





* * *





The city of Ayodhya, India’s pioneering colony in the Epsilon Eridani system, began life as a sprawling complex of interlinked domes and greenhouses. Forty years on, little remained of the original settlement. Crude terraforming on an industrial scale had transformed the primitive native biosphere into something more palatable for humans and over the years Yuanshi’s capital had grown to become home to almost two-thirds of the moon’s half-million population. Many were transitory workers employed by Que Qiao’s bio-engineering laboratories and aerospace factories. Others, like most elsewhere on Yuanshi, were making a new life away from a weary, overcrowded Earth.

Ayodhya spaceport lay to the south of the capital, on the vast coastal plain separating the central highlands from the ocean beyond. Its two runways and low-rise terminal building sat sprawled upon a stretch of primitive scrub, surrounded on all sides by endless square kilometres of irrigated rice paddy. The long Yuanshi night was finally coming to an end and the grey pre-dawn light lent an eerie tone to the misty, waterlogged fields.

Raja Surya awoke from his slumber and frowned. His dreams had been of Earth, or at least of what he imagined Earth to be like. The sight of the squat, delta-winged shuttle on the runway, there to ferry delegates to the interstellar cruiser awaiting them in Daode orbit, made him want to go more than ever. Their ground car continued straight onto the airstrip, making for where Governor Jaggarneth and his party were gathered at the foot of the steps leading to the spacecraft’s main airlock. Surya’s eyes moved to the ground crew busy loading the cargo bay and wondered if he could sneak aboard.

The car pulled to a halt and Surya quickly followed his mother and Yaksha out onto the concrete runway. Ahead, Commander Kartikeya, Namtar and Inari were emerging from their own vehicle. Governor Jaggarneth broke away from his group and approached the Maharani. The smile on his face seemed more forced than usual.

“Maharani Uma,” he greeted. Clad in a sharp suit, his bulky frame towered over the slim and diminutive Maharani, yet he approached warily. “You must have sold your soul to one of your Hindu devils to remain looking so young.”

The Maharani’s eyes narrowed. “Your own, of course, was sold to the corporation long ago,” she said. “I take it the necessary arrangements have been made?”

“The Fenghuang III awaits us in Daode orbit to transport our party to Earth,” he told her. “This is an auspicious moment, though somewhat regrettable. I’m sure you agree that we do not need outsiders to impose their idea of a holistic, molecularisor-to-recycler approach to intervene in our domestic dispute.”

Yaksha rolled her eyes. Surya saw the governor’s glare and giggled.

“My dear Jaggarneth,” the Maharani replied icily. “I would need my brain removed before I ever deemed it sensible to agree with you. You so-called ‘domestic dispute’ has led to the deaths of countless people. This intervention is long overdue.”

“Very well!” snapped the governor. “But I warn you, you’ll soon be gasping for air with your puny diplomacy. You cannot turn a megafreighter with an orbital tug!”

“Actually, that’s exactly what orbital tugs do,” said Kartikeya, coming to join them. “Small, but immensely powerful. Remind you of anyone?”

Jaggarneth’s eyes blazed furiously, as if imagining himself at the helm of a gunship hovering menacingly before the smug-faced commander. With a last withering glare at the Maharani, he spun upon his heels and stomped back to his waiting officials.

Surya slipped away to where the portly Inari stood talking to Namtar, who leaned against one of the ground cars with a hand tenderly holding his backside. Surya tapped Inari’s arm to attract his attention and led him to a quiet spot behind the parked car. Namtar looked puzzled, but declined to follow.

“I want to go to Earth,” said Surya, once they were out of earshot of the others.

Inari shrugged. “Me too,” he admitted. “But we weren’t invited.”

“We could sneak onto the shuttle.”

“Do you want to get me into trouble?” exclaimed Inari. “More trouble, in my case.”

“How about if I ordered you to?”

Inari paused. “Commander Kartikeya directed me to stay at Kubera,” he said slowly, then winked. “But I could not ignore a direct order from the heir to the Yuanshi throne.”

“In the name of my father, will you get me aboard?”

“Is that an order?”

Surya glanced to where his mother stood talking to Kartikeya and Yaksha, then to Governor Jaggarneth and his officials climbing the steps to the shuttle. When he looked again, his mother was beckoning to him, probably to say a final farewell.

“Yes,” he declared. “Private Inari, your orders are to get us on that ship and come with me to Earth. I need to say goodbye to mother first,” he added hastily. “Is that okay?”

Inari shrugged. “Fine by me,” he said. “What’s your plan?”

Surya looked to where the last of the cargo was being loaded by a couple of crew in bright yellow overalls. The cyberclone’s casket and several of the Maharani’s trunks were on the concrete behind the ground car, waiting to be carried aboard. As plans go it was far from original, but the temptation was too good to resist.

Inari caught his glance and sighed. “Really? Hiding in the cargo bay?”

Surya shrugged. “Do you have a better idea?”

“I might,” Inari said thoughtfully. “Watch and learn.”





* * *





Maharani Uma settled into her seat and through the porthole watched the last of the spaceport workers scurrying to safety. Her farewell to Surya had been strangely abrupt, leaving her with the impression he was eager to rush off elsewhere, but her misgivings were probably due to her own apprehensions regarding what lay ahead.

The narrow cabin of the shuttle was cramped and she was glad her small contingent sat away from Jaggarneth and his officials. It would take the best part of a day to reach the orbital space dock at Daode and she had no desire to spend any of that time engaged in pointless conversation with the governor or his tedious corporation bureaucrats.

Yaksha appeared at her side and slipped into the seat on the other side of the aisle. Namtar had already claimed the window seat and sat crookedly within a nest of borrowed pillows, his expression creased in pain. The Maharani gave her a questioning look.

“I talked to one of Jaggarneth’s team,” the old woman said. “All he knows is that the UN has called an emergency session on some trouble at Tau Ceti and our little dispute has been added to the agenda. Your request for help has been sent,” she added. “I couldn’t get a live link, but I left a message and forwarded the information you gave me.”

“Thank you,” said the Maharani. “It’s the best paid job they’ve ever been offered.”

Yaksha smiled. “How did you know where to find them?”

“A lucky guess.” The Maharani glanced ruefully at the briefcase and slate secured beneath the belt of the empty seat beside her. The thought of the political guessing games that awaited her on Earth filled her with dread. “Was I right?”

“Barnard’s Star,” Yaksha confirmed. “At that crazy asteroid you used to call home.”





* * *





Two yellow-clad figures took one last glance at the neatly-stacked cargo in the bay, retreated to the inner hatch and waited for the loading ramp to close. The coffin-shaped cyberclone case had been heavier than expected, as had the last of the large trunks containing the Maharani’s personal effects. Satisfied everything was secure, the fat man closed the hatch and led his shorter colleague to the cabin reserved for crew.

“That was too easy,” murmured Surya as they walked. “Those two men almost ripped those credits from your hand when you asked for their uniforms!”

“Bribing folk is easier than hiding in crates,” said Inari. “Especially with my knees.”

“You never have to kneel before me, Private Inari. You are my friend.”

Inari beamed. “I hope you can cook. Those crew worked in the galley.”

“We will manage,” Surya declared triumphantly. “We are going to Earth!”





* * * * *





Chapter Two


No more adventures





[Chapter One] [Contents] [Chapter Three]





ZOTZ WAK LEANED CLOSER to the flight-deck windows and peered at the ten-kilometre-long rock drifting in deep space ahead, his young eyes searching for the sparkle of ion flares from the distant maintenance pods. Two colossal engine nozzles emerged from the end of the asteroid, the nearest of which even now was being eased back into its cradle after being lost almost a year before. Zotz had been personally responsible for triggering the ejection of the engine room and it felt right he was here to help put it back into place.

It was not often he got to see his home from space. The asteroid was the century-old colony ship Dandridge Cole, affectionately known as the hollow moon. The sun that was Barnard’s Star lay behind them, though they were too far out for the distant red dwarf to cast more than a dim glow upon the scene. The meddling of a mad priest almost killed the strange world for good. Ten months on, Zotz’s home was finally coming back to life.

The asteroid usually spun upon its long axis to generate artificial gravity against the walls of the cavern within, but for the first time in living memory the Dandridge Cole lay still. The ejected engine room, a massive steel cylinder with a single huge engine nozzle, was fifty metres in diameter and twice as much long. Manoeuvring something of that size into its concrete housing was a painfully-slow process. Even at just a few metres per hour, the engine room had so much mass its momentum could crack the rock like an egg.

Temporary boosters had brought it back from Sky Cleaver, the cloud-mining facility at the gas giant Thunor, whose crew had hoped to make money on the salvage. Four multi-limbed robots, latched to the engine room, now used their weak ion drives to nudge the huge assembly along. From Zotz’s vantage point aboard the spacecraft Sun Wukong, a kilometre distant from the Dandridge Cole, everything seemed to be going to plan.

His hand idly stroked the fledging ginger moustache sprouting above his lip. He had turned sixteen last month and chosen to declare his manhood by growing facial hair. The results so far were not promising. With a sigh, Zotz twisted in his seat and looked through the open hatch into the cabin behind him. Quirinus, a burly bearded Australian with a tatty flight suit and a patch over his left eye, drifted before a large console strapped to a row of seats, his hand on the joystick of a maintenance pod controller. On his far side was Ganesa, a young Indian woman with long dark hair tied in a ponytail, working at a similar console. The passenger cabin of the ex-military Sun Wukong, a flying-wing interstellar transport, was cramped compared to its cavernous hold. Quirinus caught Zotz’s gaze and grinned.

“Your ’tache won’t grow faster in zero gravity,” he remarked.

“What?” asked Zotz. Embarrassed, he dropped his hand from his face.

“Don’t tease him,” said Ganesa. “He’s doing a fine job, keeping an eye on things for us up there. Any news from Hanuman and Ravana?”

Zotz glanced to the communications console. The image on the screen, broadcast from Hanuman’s wristpad, jerked back and forth to show glimpses of a gloomy narrow passage, its wearer seemingly having forgotten he had left the channel open. Ravana’s distinctive tones, carrying the antipodean twang of her father Quirinus with a hint of Indian from her late mother, came from somewhere out of sight. Zotz heard snippets of Ravana’s anecdote about her previous trip down the tunnel in the company of a teenaged superhero and blushed.

“I don’t think they’ve reached the door yet,” he said. “Is your bit done?”

“The engine room is back where it should be,” Quirinus said, squinting at the screen of the controller. “We just need to be sure the hatches are aligned. I wouldn’t put it past those robots to fit the thing upside down.”

“Hey, that was good flying!” protested Ganesa. “It’s not every day you get to play crazy golf on an asteroid with a few hundred tonnes of fusion reactor.”

Zotz grinned. A staccato double bleep drew his attention back to the console.

“You have one message waiting,” said a synthesized voice.

A short text message saying much the same thing scrolled across the bottom of the communications console’s screen. The ship’s computer was persistent, if nothing else; the reminder had been repeated every ten minutes for the last three hours.

“Are you sure you don’t want to answer that?” Zotz asked. “It might be important.”

“Later, once we’re back in dock,” said Ganesa. She caught Zotz’s look of impatience and shook her head. “We need to keep the channel open for Hanuman. Besides, people who call and leave messages are either chasing us for money or want to arrest us.”

“Where did you say it’s from?” asked Quirinus.

Zotz scrutinised the screen. “Yuanshi,” he said. “Ayodhya spaceport. I could check the servermoon file to see who sent it.”

Ganesa shook her head. “It can wait.”

Zotz gave Quirinus a pleading look.

“I’m with Ganesa,” he said, looking at him sternly with his one good eye. “You know full well that no good news ever came out of Yuanshi.”





* * *





Ravana looked at the hatch and shivered. It was not the sign marked: ‘REACTOR A’ that sent a chill down her spine, nor the eerie red glow from the tiny spy hole, but the memory of what had awaited on the other side last time she was here. The strange purple fungus covering the walls of the dank and gloomy chamber gnawed at her nerves like a malignant living shadow. The musty air felt cold upon her lungs.

Hanuman drifted to her side and cast a wary gaze around the room. Like Ravana, the young Indian man wore a lightweight spacesuit, his glass-bowl helmet clutched under an arm. With his free hand, he scratched his stubble and smoothed back his unruly dark hair. The plan originally was for Ravana to work with her father to refit the huge bolts that held the engine room in place. Hanuman had pointed out that two eyes were better than one, handed the Sun Wukong to his co-pilot Ganesa and taken Quirinus’ place in the bowels of the Dandridge Cole. Ravana was there as lead engineer; although not yet seventeen, she had recently completed core training and was a qualified aerospace technician.

“Are you okay?” Hanuman asked suddenly. Ravana saw his usual devil-may-care grin had slipped into a pensive frown. “You’re looking a bit flushed.”

She automatically raised a hand to the large scar on the right side of her face, not that she could feel much through the suit’s thick gloves. She felt slightly feverish but dismissed it as a symptom of breathing poor air and nausea from being weightless. With the hollow moon not spinning, the only gravity within the Dandridge Cole was the minute pull of the asteroid itself, which revealed itself in their slow drift away from the hatch.

“I’m fine,” she reassured him.

“This place is disgusting,” he remarked. “Who’s your cleaner?”

Ravana shot him a withering smile, grabbed hold of the hatch’s hand wheel and pulled herself closer to peer through the spy hole. The narrow chamber beyond, lit by red emergency lighting, ended after a few metres at a second hatch, the entrance to the engine room. The robots and their guides aboard the Sun Wukong had achieved a perfect alignment. Ravana moved aside and invited Hanuman to take a look.

“Not bad,” he said, after a quick squint. “Looks like it’s up to us now.”

He passed his helmet to Ravana and prodded the window of clear plastic on his suit sleeve covering his wristpad. Zotz’s pale face loomed closer on the tiny screen.

“Hi there, Sun Wukong,” called Hanuman. “We’ve reached the door to the engine room. Is it okay for us to enter?”

On screen, Zotz turned and called to someone behind him, then shuffled aside as Ganesa joined him on the flight deck. She greeted Hanuman with a wave.

“Everything looks good our end,” she reported. “We’ll keep the pods attached. You’ve got four hours before they start running low on fuel, so don’t hang about.”

“How many bolts in all?” Hanuman asked Ravana.

She glanced through the open rusty door behind them at the three crates they had brought down the long access tunnel. “A hundred and twenty,” she replied gloomily.

“You’ll have it done in no time,” Ganesa called. “Keep the channel open!”

“Will do,” said Hanuman.

Ravana handed him his helmet, wedged her own between her knees and secured her long dark tresses beneath a less-than-flattering skull cap, earning a grin from Hanuman. She hated jobs where she needed to wear a spacesuit, but until the engine room was firmly bolted back into its cradle they had no choice. Hanuman deftly popped on his helmet and went to fetch the first crate. By the time he returned, pushing the long steel box through the door like a zero-gravity barge, she was ready to face whatever lay beyond the hatch.

She saw Hanuman speaking but could not hear a thing through her helmet. Without thinking, she flexed an image in her mind’s eye to activate her cranium implant’s inbuilt communicator, then realised her mistake and fumbled for the switch to her helmet’s intercom. The reason why she had an implant was a disturbing story in itself. She had no idea where the thought came from to try her headcom first.

“Ready?” Hanuman asked, his voice loud in her helmet.

Ravana nodded. She braced her feet and left hand against the door frame and grabbed the locking wheel. She knew it was anticlockwise to unlock, yet the wheel refused to budge. On a whim, she tried the other direction. Much to her surprise, the wheel turned smoothly.

“Whoops,” she murmured. “We forgot to lock it after we sent Taranis and his monsters into space. It’s only the vacuum keeping it closed. The alarm must be fried.”

“Wonderful. Where are the airlock controls?”

“It’s not an airlock,” Ravana told him. “Just a hatch. Once we’re inside, we should be able to reconnect life support, though we can’t do that until the engine room is secure. These spacesuits are going to get very sweaty by the time we’ve finished.”

“You can tell all that just by looking through a spy hole?”

Ravana stuck her tongue out at him. “I did my homework, Hanuman.”

Hanuman reached for the handle and tugged, but the hatch may as well been welded shut. Ravana watched curiously as he removed a long crowbar from the crate floating at his side and slotted it into an indent halfway up the frame. His heavy-handed attempt to lever the door open in zero gravity did little more than throw him into a somersault, sending Ravana into a fit of giggles. To his credit, he tried four times before giving up.

“I could open the bleed valve,” she suggested mischievously.

Hanuman stared at her and burst out laughing. Ravana manoeuvred to a vent in the wall, opened the hinged grill and pushed her glove past fronds of purple fungus to the valve within. A gentle hiss was heard, one that became louder then receded as the chamber beyond filled with air. Hanuman tugged the handle again. The hatch jerked and swung free.

Ravana switched off the valve and peered cautiously into the chamber. She could not tell where the Dandridge Cole ended and the unsecured engine room began, which was a good sign. She pulled herself through the doorway and approached the door at the other end. This one was locked, but the wheel turned easily. She took a deep breath, pushed the engine room hatch open and stared into the darkness beyond.

“Lucky we brought lamps,” remarked Hanuman. “At least, I think we did.”

“The helmets have lights,” Ravana reminded him, switching on her own as she spoke. Twin beams sliced through the blackness, revealing air thick with debris and dust. “But yes, we have plenty of lamps. Once we get a few bolts in I’ll see about reconnecting the power.”

“You’re going to restart the reactor?” Hanuman sounded worried.

“No, silly! I meant so we can get some proper light in here. The reactor in the other engine room is still running, you know.”

Hanuman raised his wristpad to his face, frowned and tapped at the screen, muttering something about suit intercoms. Finally, he spoke.

“Hello, you fine people on the Sun Wukong,” he called. “We’ve got the hatches open and are about to enter the engine room. Please try to keep us from drifting off.”

Ganesa’s reply came loud into their helmets. “We’ll do our best!” she said. “Good luck to you both. Ravana, make sure he knows which end of the spanner to hold.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Hanuman muttered. “I’m a pilot, not a mechanic.”

Ravana smiled. Grabbing the door frame, she heaved herself through to the lattice balcony beyond. Hanuman joined her at the handrail, momentarily lost for words.

The scene revealed by their helmet lamps was much as she remembered. The walls of the vast cylindrical hall, hugged by galleries and metal staircases, curved from beneath their feet to an apex high above. At the centre rose the silent fusion reactor, a huge spherical mass wrapped in a web of electrical conduits and pipes. Twelve man-sized pods stood before it, glass doors hanging wide, tethered to bulky apparatus drifting on thick cables. Everywhere she looked floated broken bits of equipment, tangled rubbish and globules of thick green fluid. Every girder, walkway and ladder was covered in withered vine-like stems and flaking patches of fungus. The weird alien growths were a product of Taranis’ experiments. The engine room’s jaunt to Thunor had left the priest’s lair looking very dead indeed.

Hanuman gasped. “What sort of room is this?”

“The lair of a mad scientist,” she murmured. “Welcome to the birthplace of Taranis’ creations, his human-alien disciples for the Dhusarian Church.”

“Why didn’t he just hand out leaflets like other religious nutcases?”

“Come on,” Ravana said wearily. “Let’s get this over with.”





* * *





Refitting the bolts was exhausting. Each were the length of her arm, twice as thick and would have weighed a kilogramme or more if gravity had been available to make the job easier. The remains of the old bolts had been removed prior to today’s manoeuvres, in a series of spacewalks that had kept Ravana and her father busy for almost a week. Fitting new ones was a simple matter of slotting a bolt home and tightening it with a power wrench, but they had to be replaced in a specific order, with her and Hanuman working at opposite sides of the engine room’s rear circular wall. Their stress levels were not helped at all by the knowledge that each bolt was designed to explode at the flick of a switch.

The crate brought in by Hanuman contained the first twenty bolts, their tools and a dozen bio-chemical lamps, the latter now strung along various walkways to fill the engine room with an eerie green-tinged glow. There was air in the chamber, but the gas analyser from their toolkit showed it was low in oxygen and thick with fungal spores, added to which was the risk of them breaking free from the Dandridge Cole if the robots outside flipped their diodes. The lightweight spacesuits they wore had just basic heating and cooling systems and the strenuous activity soon left them uncomfortably sticky and warm.

Some three hours had passed by the time Ravana returned to the crate to remove her final two bolts. The weird globules of artificial amniotic fluid, drained from the cloning pods when the hollow moon had gravity, had got everywhere and her suit and gloves were smeared green. Pausing for breath, she ran her gaze around the edge of the wall to where she and Hanuman had fitted red barrel-shaped covers over the ends of replaced bolts. She thought of the hundred yet to be fitted in the crates outside and sighed.

“Creepy place,” said Hanuman, his voice loud in her helmet. She realised he must have heard the weary exhalation that accompanied her thoughts. “It’s hard to imagine Taranis winding up here. How did he escape? Wasn’t he stuck in a mobility chair?”

“It had become part of him,” she told him, thinking back to the eight-legged machine the priest used to move around. “I seem to be haunted by things that scuttle in the night.”

Hanuman chuckled. “So I hear. Quirinus told me about your adventures on Falsafah. Giant spiders! He reckoned they were aliens,” he added dubiously.

Ravana frowned. Que Qiao agents had warned them not to speak of the strange portal and the creatures that had emerged from who knows where, but the resulting nightmares made forgetting what happened far from easy. She picked up the bolts and started back along the gantry, trying not to become entangled in her safety rope on the way.

“They were probably just machines. Like the monsters on Gods of Avalon,” she said cautiously, referring to the fantasy-themed holovid show. She tried to change the subject. “I wish we had machines to do this. We’ll be at it for days at this rate.”

“Nonsense!” retorted Hanuman. “Though another pair of hands would be welcome. What happened to the new people due from Newbrum?”

“A few are on their way but no one was willing to help with this,” Ravana said bitterly. Like many of the Dandridge Cole’s refugees, she had spent time in the domed spaceport city on Ascension, a planet that although within Barnard’s Star’s habitable zone was a harsh, unforgiving world for humans. “I heard we can expect some new faces. Many of the old residents found jobs and don’t want to return. I’d rather live here than Newbrum,” she added. “But it’s a lot of work to maintain the farms and keep the hollow moon self-sufficient. We had over four hundred here before the evacuation.”

She found the next hole, picked up her wrench and eased herself into position, a task not made any easier by the bolts tucked under her arm. Over the suit intercom, she heard Hanuman give a quick update to the Sun Wukong. It bothered her that no one else had come to help. The hollow moon had been a haven for society’s outcasts for years, away from the disapproving gaze of governments and the corporations contracted to do their bidding. When her father’s ship the Platypus was grounded following yet another breakdown, it had been Ravana’s idea to contact Hanuman and Ganesa, who had played a key role in foiling Taranis’ plans the year before. The Sun Wukong crossed fifteen light years from Epsilon Eridani to help; in contrast, not a single refugee on nearby Ascension had as yet heeded their call to save their former home from a cold, lingering death.

Hanuman seemed to share her thoughts. “So,” he said hesitantly. “It’s just you, Quirinus and Zotz here at the moment?”

“And Zotz’s father,” she replied. Letting her wrench drift on its tether, she slotted the bolts into waiting adjacent holes, a metre apart. “Professor Wak is back in Dockside, making sure the animals stay sedated until we start spinning again. He stayed aboard the whole time, you know. He hardly ever leaves his workshop now.”

She retrieved the wrench, fitted it to the nearest bolt and pulled the trigger, bracing herself against the noisy shuddering as it drove the steel cylinder home. Removing the tool, she connected the trigger circuit cable to the bolt-head socket, pulled what looked like a red bucket from the net tied to a nearby girder and fastened it in place. Each bolt cover bore a large yellow warning sign to remind the unwary of the explosives within.

“He’s a funny one,” Hanuman said. “Did you know he used to work for the American government? I never did find out what made him run away to this place.”

“Run away?” asked Ravana. “What do you mean?”

“Everyone here was running from something. With your father, it was that damn war on Yuanshi that took your mother.”

Ravana opened her mouth to object, but knew what Hanuman said was true. The hollow moon had a reputation for attracting crooks and smugglers seeking a bolthole away from the authorities, but in truth most ex-residents had come to the Dandridge Cole simply to escape the challenges of the twenty-third century and live a simpler life. As for herself, she had not felt safe in Newbrum ever since that time in Falsafah orbit when she came close to being arrested by a Que Qiao agent, coincidentally for something she had done last year when with Hanuman and Ganesa on Yuanshi. Ascension was a Commonwealth colony, but Newbrum’s police were under corporation control. With a sigh, she shifted her position along the curved wall to where the other bolt stuck from its hole.

“We had a nice little world here,” she said sadly, placing the wrench upon the bolt head. “The perfect free-thinking commune, father called it. Everybody got the chance to do what they were good at and we didn’t have to worry about money or wars or being controlled by big business. I sometimes wonder if it will ever be the same again.”

“I don’t see why not,” Hanuman replied. “New people, a new start. For you, a haven far away from giant killer spiders!”

Ravana grimaced and pulled the trigger. Hanuman’s laughter was lost beneath the rattle of the wrench. She was keeping track of his own progress and reckoned he was just two bolts behind. She fitted the cable and cover for the bolt and stretched wearily, then cursed as her outstretched hand found another floating ball of sticky green fluid.

“I’m off to fetch the second crate,” she said irritably, wiping her glove on her suit. “Any news from the others?”

“I can just picture them now, munching biscuits and drinking tea,” complained Hanuman. “Save some for us workers!” he called, hearing a muted giggle from a listener on the Sun Wukong. “And don’t you dare touch my fig rolls!”

Ravana smiled. She began to pick her away across the gantry, listening to the banter as Hanuman gave his co-pilot what he called a ‘lack of progress’ report. Ganesa’s welcome news was that Quirinus had decided the engine room was no longer in danger of floating off and so the Sun Wukong was returning to dock, its crew ready to give Ravana and Hanuman a hand. Buoyed by the prospect of not having to fit another fifty bolts all by herself, Ravana pulled herself along a handrail and over a dusty console to the hatch. In the tunnel beyond the chamber, she found the floating crate and tugged it into motion.

The box of bolts was not an easy thing to manoeuvre. The metal door of the access tunnel, already badly corroded, was almost torn from its hinges when her over-zealous nudge gave the crate too much momentum and twisted it off course. The box shot across the room and crashed to a halt near the engine room hatch, knocking a chunk of concrete from the wall. Ravana braced herself against the hatchway and tugged the crate into the chamber.

She was too eager and instantly knew she had pulled too hard. The box slipped from her grip and slammed into her torso, squeezing the air from her lungs. To her horror, the crate failed to stop, propelling her onwards through the chamber. Her shriek became a scream as she hit the locking wheel of the second hatch. An explosion of pain tore through her ribs.

The crate surged onwards, taking her through the hatch. With a final, sickening jolt, Ravana crunched heavily into the balcony guard rail. She became aware of Hanuman’s desperate shouts above her own breathless cries. The pain in her chest was agonising.

“Ravana!” he yelled. “Don’t move!”

Now there was another voice in her helmet, the worried yells of her father aboard the Sun Wukong. Ravana tried to speak, but could not form the words. Still wedged behind the crate, she looked down at her crumpled suit and saw a huge tear in the fabric near her thigh, sliced open by the edge of the metal box. Dazed, she touched the dark fluid welling from the gash and stared blankly at the scarlet stain smeared across the slime on her glove. An unexpected calm descended upon her as she decided it was a very stupid way to die.

“Ravana!” Hanuman was at her side. “Are you hurt?”

“Can’t breathe,” she whispered. “Suit’s ripped. Think I’m bleeding.”

The pain across her ribs had been joined by a fierce agonising throb in her leg. The crate moved from her chest and she felt Hanuman’s arms around her, pulling her towards the hatch. A sudden tiredness joined the pounding in her head and a deathly chill seeped into her bones. Ravana caught one last glance of her rescuer’s anxious features through her visor, then her world shifted into hazy shadows, beyond the depths of sleep.





* * *





The Dandridge Cole hung silent and still in the cold, dark void. The Sun Wukong had returned to the airlock in the asteroid’s nose and now the only eyes upon the hollow moon were the electronic sensors of an orbiting robot probe. In the weak red sunlight, the ancient rock looked to be bathed in blood.

A whole day had gone by since Ravana’s accident and the panic-stricken race to get her to the medical unit in Dockside, since when Quirinus had not left her side. Ravana had not damaged any vital organs but remained unconscious. Professor Wak, Zotz’s father, hid away in his workshop, lost in a world of schematics and thrust-vector calculations. It had been left to Hanuman and Ganesa, with a little help from Zotz, to feverishly finish replacing the engine room bolts so that gravity could be restored to the world.

A jet of gas erupted from the side of a bunker upon the asteroid’s flank, sending a cloud of dust into space. On the opposite side of the rock, a second blast surged into life, soon to be joined by two more from the bunkers between. The four spears of thrust emerged parallel to the surface, clockwise and at right angles to the asteroid’s long axis.

Slowly, the hollow moon began to turn.





* * *





Zotz despondently picked his way through corridors strewn with fallen equipment and belongings, which having enjoyed the chance to float free had come to ground scattered far and wide. He had just left the medical unit, where Quirinus continued his bedside vigil. Ravana had still not awoken. He had seen the look in her father’s eyes and could not help fearing the worst. Zotz and Ravana had grown up together on the Dandridge Cole and been close friends throughout, though at times his feelings towards her had been more like a secret crush. He had always assumed she would be there wherever his life took him. The fear of loss hung heavy upon his thoughts.

It was taking an age for the Dandridge Cole to accelerate up to its proper spin speed. Although there was now some downwards pull, Zotz had to be careful not to leap too hard along the corridor for fear of cracking his skull on the ceiling. It was the animals he felt sorry for. Dockside served as a temporary haven for farm livestock that had not gone to Newbrum with the refugees, but judging by the abundance of manure, droppings and scattered feathers, their guests had not been impressed by the temporary loss of gravity.

His old room was a steel-walled cabin on the level above, not far from his father’s workshop. Zotz had been away in Newbrum barely a year but now he was back was surprised by how childish his Superhero Showdown bedding, spaceship models and miniature Gods of Avalon action figures all seemed. Switching on the wall-mounted screen, he dropped onto his bed and for what seemed like the hundredth time watched the latest holovid from his mother. It had been almost two years since she left to sort out the affairs of Zotz’s late grandfather, an experimental biologist and farmer in Patagonia. Whilst in South America, her old boss had persuaded her to join a project at the French Guiana space centre and she had remained on Earth longer than planned. Zotz never felt so alone as he did now.

Sprawled across his bed, he was about to replay his mother’s message yet again when he remembered Quirinus had asked him to take Ravana’s damaged spacesuit to his ship in the maintenance bay. Not wanting to get into trouble, Zotz left his room and headed back to the medical unit. The bag containing the smelly suit was in a corridor away from Ravana’s room. The green slime covering her suit had a bitter and surprisingly strong stench. He suspected he could have found his way using his nose alone.

Zotz picked up the bag and made his way to the hangar workshop. Along the way, the passage opened into a glass-walled veranda and he paused to take in the view beyond. The unruly ring of buildings that made up Dockside lined the perimeter of a great circular cliff, a kilometre in diameter, at the end of the five-kilometre-long cylindrical cavern deep within the asteroid. The hollow moon was an inside-out world, where empty villages, farms and fields deep in frost lay scattered across a concave panorama, curving up on both sides until the ground became the sky. The tiny artificial sun, central upon three radial pylons in the middle of the long cavern, was in daylight mode but looked watery and pale.

The mournful bleat of a lost sheep in the corridor ahead snapped Zotz from his melancholy contemplation. A flurry of bounding steps later, he was at the door to the maintenance bay and slipping past a bewildered-looking goose into the hangar beyond.

The spacecraft Platypus loomed large in the gloom. The freighter’s narrow cylindrical hull, from the beak-shaped sonic shield generator at the bow to the blackened engine nozzles and dented fins at the tail, was thick with dust that softened the cosmic scars upon the purple and white fuselage. Maintenance hatches hung open at the stern and a large section of hull plating had been removed from the port engine housing. Zotz was not sure what was wrong with Quirinus’ ship this time but it was clearly going nowhere fast.

The hangar was quiet as the grave. Even the maintenance robots were absent, having been sent to clear up the mess inside the refitted engine room. Zotz trotted across to the ramp at the ship’s open cargo bay door and peered inside.

The hold of the Platypus looked creepier than ever. Alien hormones from Taranis’ secret laboratory had tainted the hollow moon’s air, causing the organic brain of the Platypus to sprout weird tendrils throughout the ship. It was known as Woomerberg Syndrome; Quirinus and Wak wanted to get rid of the strange growths but Ravana, convinced they made the ship’s systems more aware, had persuaded them to wait. Zotz found them fascinating and disturbing in equal measure. The way the tendrils twitched made his skin crawl.

He paused at the airlock and tipped the crumpled and sticky spacesuit onto the cargo bay floor. After a moment’s consideration, he tossed the bag after it for good measure.

“Yuck,” he murmured, wrinkling his nose. He had somehow managed to avoid getting green slime all over his clothes. “Why do I get all the best jobs?”

He wondered what to do next and remembered the Sun Wukong was still in the main airlock. Hanuman and Ganesa would enjoy a good story about alien snot.





* * *





Deep within the rocky nose of the asteroid, the Sun Wukong drifted gently on its tethers. Dockside’s main airlock lay at the end of a kilometre-long tunnel bored through to the huge habitation cavern inside, making it the only way in and out of the hollow moon. Hefty elevators carried ships to one of two maintenance bays that stood at what passed for ground level within; the one above the Sun Wukong held Quirinus’ ship the Platypus, while the one below had become home to a herd of very traumatised dairy cows.

Aboard the Sun Wukong, the communications console screen lit up, revealing a pale and weary Quirinus. Hanuman and Ganesa, equally exhausted, had returned to their ship to get some rest. Notwithstanding their desperate need for a change of clothes, the mysterious message from Epsilon Eridani still awaited their attention.

“We now have gravity,” called Quirinus. This was far from stating the obvious; the main airlock lay on the asteroid’s central axis, out of reach of the centrifugal pseudo-gravity. Aboard their ship, Hanuman and Ganesa were as weightless as ever. “Not much, but it’s better than nothing. It’ll take another day or so before the spin is back to normal. Be careful when you come down. It looks like a tornado has ripped through the place.”

“How’s Ravana?” asked Ganesa. “Any change?”

“Her vitals have improved,” Quirinus replied, with a sad shrug of shoulders. “She should be in hospital, but I don’t know if we can risk flying her to Newbrum. The Indra’s on its way and I’m told there’s a doctor aboard. All I can do is wait.”

“You know we’re here to help,” Hanuman told him. “Just say the word.”

Quirinus gave a wan smile and nodded, then ended the call. He was clearly not in the mood for conversation. Hanuman’s gaze caught a movement beyond the flight-deck windows and he smiled at the sight of a small ginger-headed figure slipping into the airlock bay from the personnel access hatchway. Rubbing his eyes wearily, he turned to Ganesa.

“Shall we watch that message?” he asked. “It might be a job.”

“You uncaring brute!” retorted Ganesa, giving him a shove. “How can you think of getting back to smuggling with poor Ravana and her father down there in sick bay?”

“Up there,” Hanuman corrected and pointed to the ceiling. “Though it is technically downstairs. The geography of this place is crazy. Aren’t you interested?”

Ganesa shrugged. “Well, yes.”

“Computer?” asked Hanuman. “Let’s have that message you’ve got saved.”

“Your command is not recognised,” intoned the synthesized reply.

Hanuman frowned. “I thought you’d fixed the voice recognition circuit.”

“Do you want me to switch it back to Chinese?” she asked, smiling. “It works fine for me. Computer? Put the message we have waiting on screen, please.”

“Confirmed,” replied the computer.

The screen lit up, revealing the image of an elderly Indian woman squinting at the camera and grimacing. Rather than a public holovid booth, she seemed to be using a terminal in a small office. A nervous-looking official hovered in the background.

“Yaksha,” murmured Hanuman. “It’s not like her to call. The Maharani usually gets Kartikeya to order us about. Not that we take any notice.”

“Shush!” hissed Ganesa. “Listen!”

“There’s no one there,” Yaksha was saying on screen. “I hate leaving messages!”

“Just speak normally!” urged the figure behind her.

Yaksha pulled a face. “This is a message for Captain Hanuman of the privateer Sun Wukong. You too, Ganesa; assuming you haven’t come to your senses and found something better, that is,” she began. “A year ago, you served Raja Surya at the peace conference. Now Maharani Uma begs you to help her family again in her struggle against Que Qiao. Did I say beg? She’s offering hard cash to you scoundrels to do a decent day’s work for once.”

“Classic Yaksha,” mused Hanuman. “Though I don’t think much of her sales pitch.”

“I’d say she knows exactly how to grab your interest,” Ganesa remarked.

“The Maharani, Namtar and I are on our way to fight for Yuanshi’s independence at an emergency UN session in London. That’s on Earth,” she added, with a look that suggested she knew navigation was not Hanuman’s strong point. “The Maharani needs your help to make sure we’re not double-crossed by Jaggarneth. Also, while you’re at that asteroid, there’s something she needs you to make safe at her old home. You’ll find all the details attached to this transmission; Ganesa will know how to retrieve it. Help us, Hanuman, Ganesa. You’re our only hope. Actually, you’re the only mercenaries we know who aren’t dead or languishing in Feng Du, which is much the same thing. See you in London!”

The screen switched to the logo for Ayodhya spaceport, then went blank.

“End of message,” intoned the computer.

Hanuman looked at Ganesa, who was already tapping the console to retrieve the information sent with the message. A text file appeared on a secondary display. Ganesa read the first few lines and paused, her eyes widening as she pointed to a number on the screen. Hanuman pulled himself nearer and gave a low whistle of surprise. The job offer came with a credits bonus that carried a lot of trailing zeroes.

“That’s a nice pay cheque,” Ganesa remarked. “All we have to do is turn is up and keep an eye on Jaggarneth’s cronies.”

“Where did she get that sort of money?”

“Read further,” she urged. “Remember how Yuanshi’s gold reserves disappeared the day Que Qiao drove the Maharani from Ayodhya? That’s what she wants us to ‘make safe’ at her grand palace of exile. What’s left of the gold is here, on the Dandridge Cole.”

“Wow.” Hanuman gave a mischievous grin. “We could just grab it and run.”

“It isn’t easy trading stolen bullion,” Ganesa pointed out. “Why bother? She’s offering good money for us to play spies on Earth. Very good money.”

Hanuman laughed. “I was joking,” he said. Ganesa looked unconvinced. “But we should wait until the Indra is here before we blast into the black. Agreed?”

Ganesa nodded assent. “But we’ll take the job? I could do with a holiday.”

“A holiday?” Hanuman smiled. “London in summer? Don’t get too excited. If you thought the weather was bad in Lanka, you haven’t seen anything yet.”





* * *





Zotz crept from the Sun Wukong, his mind whirling. He had not intended to skulk unseen in the passenger cabin without revealing his presence, but Yaksha’s message to Hanuman and Ganesa sounded as if it was meant for their ears only. That the Sun Wukong was to leave for London was big news. In every one of her recent messages his mother had urged him to join her and spend some time on Earth now he had finished school. What with all the problems on the Dandridge Cole, Zotz had not dared ask if this was possible. Now they had a ship at the hollow moon about to go that way.

He reached the airlock wall rail, pulled himself to the personnel elevator and within moments was on his way back down into the gravity of Dockside. His mind was already concocting a plea to his father. Zotz wanted to be on the Sun Wukong when it left for Earth. He could already picture his mother waiting for him at the spaceport when he arrived.

Zotz felt guilty over the prospect of leaving Ravana. However, something else weighed heavily on his mind. Giant spiders aside, his adventure in the Tau Ceti system last year had been a shock to the system in a way that had left his bones aching for weeks. Ascension and the Dandridge Cole had a surface gravity that was around half that of Earth’s; on Falsafah it was closer to eight-tenths. He had never in his life had to walk around under the full force of one gee. It was well known that visitors to Earth from low-gravity worlds often resorted to mobility chairs or power suits to get around.

“A power suit,” Zotz murmured. “I wonder if it’s still there?”





* * *





The spacecraft Indra, the Dandridge Cole’s fuel tanker and makeshift passenger ferry to and from Ascension, was on its final approach. The hollow moon was not designed as a shipping port and Ganesa found herself having to take the Sun Wukong back outside so that the new arrival could slip down the access tunnel into the main airlock. By now, the cattle had been released from the other maintenance bay and the Indra was able to descend to Dockside. The Sun Wukong returned and before long was back at its berth.

Quirinus wrenched himself from Ravana’s bedside and went to the hangar to greet the new arrivals. The Indra had brought around two dozen people to the hollow moon, a few old faces but mostly new. A gangly, dark-skinned man caught his attention. The young Nigerian wore the overalls of a Newbrum spaceport worker and a grin Quirinus knew well.

“Endymion!” he exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”

“Hey, I thought I’d pay you a visit,” called Endymion. “Actually, I’m on a mission from Verdandi. Is Ravana here? I haven’t seen her for weeks.”

“Ravana’s not very well,” Quirinus told him. Endymion’s face fell. “I heard there’s a doctor with you. Do you know who?”

Endymion nodded. “That’s her,” he said, pointing to a small, dark-haired Japanese woman in a blue casual suit, who stood a few paces away staring in distaste at the cow pats on the hangar floor. “Doctor Benten. She’s here with her father.”

Quirinus looked at her companion. Benten’s father, a tall figure in a long grey cloak with a hood that hid his face, leaned upon a staff but did not look in the least bit frail. A shiver ran down Quirinus’ back, one he was not entirely convinced came from the frosty air.

“Thanks,” he said. “Endymion, can you do me a favour? You’ve been here before. Look after the new arrivals while I have a chat with the doctor. Once you’ve got them settled, come and find me at the medical unit.”

“The medical unit? Is Ravana...?

“Good man,” said Quirinus, before he could finish. “We’ll talk later.”

Leaving Endymion to take care of the others, Quirinus approached the doctor and held out his hand in greeting. The woman whispered something to her father, who bent to listen before nodding and moving away. There was something unnatural about the way he walked that tugged at a memory Quirinus could not quite place.

“Doctor Benten?” he asked. “I’m Quirinus O’Brien.”

The woman had delicate, petite features that looked like they had not for a long time had occasion to smile. Close up, her thick make-up was less successful at masking her age and Quirinus guessed she was somewhere in her fifties. He wondered why a woman like her was at such a remote outpost and decided it was probably to get away from stupid questions like that. If she was not a fugitive of some sort, her mysterious father certainly was.

“Mister O’Brien,” she acknowledged. Her accented English was cold and precise. “A pleasure to meet you. I hear you have grand plans for this unusual habitat of yours.”

“It’s not all mine,” Quirinus said hastily. “I’m sorry to grab you off the ship like this. My daughter had an accident yesterday. We’ve done what we can but she won’t wake up.”

Benten’s expression abruptly changed to one of concern.

“There is no apology required,” she said. “Please, take me to her.”

Quirinus retrieved Benten’s medical bag from the Indra and led her from the hangar along a short corridor to a door leading outside. The Dandridge Cole’s life support systems had worked hard for months to revive the atmosphere and despite a faint smell of mould the cold air was breathable. The short period without gravity had left quite a mess. Quirinus caught Benten staring at the concave frosted landscape of rubbish-strewn fields, leafless trees and shivering brown cows and waited for her frown of disapproval.

“It’s bigger than I expected,” Benten said thoughtfully. “This place has potential.”

Quirinus took her to where he had parked Professor Wak’s battered blue hovertruck and helped her into the open cabin. Moments later they were on their way, rushing along the edge of Dockside, the landscape rolling beneath them like the inside of a barrel. In no time at all they were touching down outside the hangar where the Platypus lay awaiting repair. Quirinus led Benten inside and along a corridor to the nearby medical bay.

Ravana lay silent and still, save for her gentle breathing. The dressing on her thigh and bandages across her bruised chest were covered by white linen, but there was no hiding the wires running to the bedside monitor, nor the ashen colour of her skin. Her arms lay above the sheets, a drip needle taped to the back of her left hand. The childhood scars on her face and right arm shimmered strangely. Quirinus took her hand in his own and with his other brushed a length of hair from her face. He was startled to find her hot and drenched in sweat.

“She’s burning up,” he murmured. “She wasn’t like this when I left her.”

Benten’s expert fingers felt for a pulse and she glanced at the nearby monitor screen with a frown. Opening her bag, she withdrew a palm-sized device Quirinus recognised as a portable beam scanner as used by paramedics, which she proceeded to run along Ravana’s body from head to toe. After a cursory glance at the scanner display, she returned it to her bag and retrieved a stubby cylinder. This she placed upon Ravana’s forearm, whereupon it gave a short satisfied beep. Last out of the bag was a bulky version of a touch-screen slate, with a large socket at the top into which she slotted the cylinder. A faint red mark remained on Ravana’s arm where the cylinder had been.

“A simple blood test,” Benten explained. “It will take a few moments to get the results. You said something about an accident?”

“Ravana was working in zero gee and got hit by a moving crate,” Quirinus told her. “The autosurgeon found no internal damage other than a few broken ribs. There’s a nasty gash to her leg and her suit was torn. Does your scanner show anything?”

“Ravana, is it?” asked Benten, ignoring his question. “Unusual name.”

“It’s a long story,” admitted Quirinus. “What’s the verdict?”

Benten looked at the screen of her slate. For a moment, Quirinus thought he detected the tiniest hint of a self-satisfied smile.

“Her blood shows signs of infection,” said Benten. “The viral strain is unusual, but that tends to be the case with deep space incidents. Cosmic radiation creates some wonderfully weird mutations. Fortunately, I have something that will clear it up in no time. Your daughter is going to be fine,” she reassured Quirinus, as he gave her a worried look. “I’ll give Miss O’Brien the first shot now and check on her again later.”

Quirinus released a sigh of relief. “Thank you, doctor.”

“Glad to be of service,” she said, stony-faced as ever. Moving to her bag, she withdrew a small glass vial and a packaged syringe. “We must do what we can to tend his flock, no matter how far they have strayed.”





* * *





Zotz stepped through the front door of the palace and paused. Maharani Uma’s and Surya’s old home, with its elaborate stonework, domed turrets and gaily-painted verandas, had been a place of mystery during their years of exile at the hollow moon. Painted vases of withered brown stalks sat forlornly at the windows, the sun upon the grimy glass illuminating a hallway decorated with fading tapestries of fabulous mythological scenes. The air smelt sour and everywhere he looked was thick with dust. Though abandoned, like most buildings in the Dandridge Cole, it still felt like trespassing. More unnerving were the strange noises. He did not seem to be the only one creeping around the ornate rooms.

The palace lay at the far side of the main cavern, five kilometres from Dockside. This was the second time Zotz had taken the monorail across the hollow moon in as many days. Yesterday it was with Hanuman and Ganesa, on their way to the engine room at the end of the asteroid. The original access tunnels were high in the rear circular cliff face and only easily accessible with his father’s hovertruck. However, a previous employee of Maharani Uma, secretly in league with Taranis, had hacked a narrow passage from his palace quarters, up through the rock into the four-kilometre access tunnel leading to the priest’s engine-room lair. This secret burrow remained a convenient way in and out.

Fortunately, there was no need for him to go any further. Scattered about the hall was the cloning apparatus taken from the engine room. Amongst the detritus was what looked like a crumpled scarlet spacesuit and jet pack. Zotz grinned and went to collect his find.

A sudden scraping sound drew his stare to the end of the hall. A squat robot porter hove into view, carrying a glass cloning pod in the basket on its back, the machine’s metal wheels grinding noisily against the stone tiles. The robot was designed to load freight into cargo holds, not negotiate the corridors of an ex-royal palace and Zotz winced as it caught the edge of the wall and split a large chunk of wood from a varnished panel.

Keeping a wary eye on the robot, he carefully extracted the red birdsuit from amidst the dumped equipment. The jet pack containing the propulsion unit and retractable wing assembly had become detached during his foolish confrontation with Taranis, but whoever had retrieved the suit and pack from the engine room had thoughtfully placed them together in the hall. The suit’s inbuilt artificial muscles gave it some bulk even when empty.

“Looks like the sort of thing a superhero would wear,” came a voice from behind.

Zotz jumped and spun around to see a grinning Hanuman standing a few paces away. The pilot’s shoulder bag hung heavily from its strap, making the boy wonder what was inside. Zotz looked at the suit in his hands.

“The Flying Fox,” he said sadly. “She named him for me.”

“Him?” Hanuman looked puzzled. “I thought that belonged to you.”

“It does,” Zotz admitted. “What are you doing here?”

Hanuman gave a sly smile. “I’m checking up on something,” he said coyly, swinging the bag behind him and out of sight. “I see the robots haven’t got far clearing the engine room. We should have spaced this junk when we had the chance.”

“Some of it is ours,” Zotz pointed out. “It was stolen from the biology labs.”

“Fair enough.” Hanuman came closer, then hesitated. “I’m sorry about what happened to Ravana. Ganesa and I hate to leave, but it’s not good for us to stay anywhere too long.”

“You’re going to Earth to help Surya and the Maharani.”

“So you were aboard when we watched Yaksha’s message!”

The boy tried his best smile. “Can I come with you?”

“What?” Hanuman looked confused. “To London? Why?”

“My mum’s asked me to visit. She’s on Earth,” Zotz added unnecessarily.

Hanuman rubbed his stubble, deep in thought. They were rudely interrupted by a loud crash as the robot tipped the contents of its basket across the hallway floor. Zotz was amazed the glass cocoon had not shattered. Hugging the birdsuit to his chest, he picked up the bulky jet pack and awaited the pilot’s response. Hanuman grinned and ruffled Zotz’s hair.

“Hey, fine by me,” he said. “Let’s go speak with your dad.”

“Cool!” said Zotz. His grin slipped into a frown. “What if he says no?”






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