Copyright 2022
Country of first publication,
Great Britain.

All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

Mary Nightingale sat back on her heels, and brushed a stray lock of hair out of her eyes, leaving a slight streak of garden earth from the flowerbed where she had been working. Her forehead was damp with sweat; it was a warm day. Not that she objected - the weather over the last week or so had been wet and windy, verging on stormy. Not quite what the Jersey tourist brochures led people to expect, she thought, amused.

That she was here at all was a testament to her ex-stepmother-in-law's kindness and compassion.

Marion Knight had married Ed Straker's father some years after his mother, Kara, had died quite suddenly, of a disease of the bone marrow. Ed had spent a few years trying to persuade John Charles to do what he evidently had wanted very much to do, but was reluctant, from feelings of betraying his love for Kara. The fact that Marion had an adopted son named Robert, who would be company for Ed, and that the two boys got on very well despite the age gap, finally persuaded him.

The house here in Jersey had passed to Ed on Marion's death only a few months ago. Mary had been included in the bequest, though it had taken a personal letter in Marion's effects to persuade her to accept. When Ed had died - so she thought - in an incident which seemed confused, Mary had agreed to move to the place. It was convenient to do so; she had been looking to move in any case, as her own husband, Steven, had died recently, after she had put a bullet through him.

She shook her head a little. That confrontation had been as confusing as Ed's own 'demise'.

It had not been the wound that had caused Steven's death. His behaviour had become suddenly erratic, frighteningly so, and he was threatening her and her friend Katerina. As it had happened, Mary had been servicing her competition rifle; it was loaded. Instead of firing it into the block of ballistic gel that she normally used as a test target, she had simply aimed it at her husband's arm. He ignored the wound, but a moment later, he had collapsed, apparently from a cerebral haemorrhage, unrelated to the shooting.

Mary had been grateful to Jack Webb for his assistance in straightening things out. Webb was a lawyer with Harlington-Straker Studio; his remit was to sort out legal matters mostly relating to copyright, and the occasional industrial accident or envy-driven lawsuit. Ed had allowed studio staff to 'borrow' him for personal matters, mostly related to divorce; possible attempted murders, though, were thankfully rare.

And then Alec had come, early one morning, to tell her that Ed had been killed in a helicopter crash off Land's End.

Her own feelings had surprised her. Though she had hated the man for allowing her son to die, the news of his death had brought her to tears. More, it had been obvious from Alec's own reactions to hearing about Johnny's death that there had been more - much more - to that situation than she had thought. She had wondered whether - as her cousin had often said - that M.I. had never truly released Ed from its attentions. Or Alec either, come to that.

Now, it seemed that nothing about that incident was true. Ed had proved this, by turning up on her doorstep, alive, dressed in a hospital gown, and barefoot.

Absently Mary fingered the ring on her right hand; something she often did, especially when she was puzzled. The old-fashioned opal gleamed oddly in the afternoon sun. As she gazed at it, her thoughts far away, she wondered, about Ed, and about what he was doing, right now.

She had no recollection of the way Ed had linked it to his Kei, a near-sentient multi-purpose tool, built millennia ago by an unknown member of a mysterious race that had colonised the planet now called Earth. Nor did she realise that Ed was the Keimon, Earth's ambassador to the universe at large.

She did remember that she had called her doctor to see Ed; he had brought with him a colleague, named Jackson, who had given some more details on Ed's helicopter crash. It seemed that Ed had managed to bring the aircraft down close enough to the water for him to jump clear. He had not sustained any severe injury, not even a broken bone - but his memories had been scrambled, probably from an impact to the head. They took him back to the hospital. That was the last she heard directly; though when Alec returned from his travels, he had been able to tell her that Ed needed long-term treatment, and that it had been arranged for this to be in his home town of Boston.

Strange, she thought, all that was only a few weeks ago. How much the world has changed.

Why don't I hate him any more?

She allowed herself, carefully, to think about the reasons for that. Oddly, it was not as painful as it had been. She remembered her son as a bright, delightful child with good looks, who would wow the girls when he was older. Though that would now never happen, she let her thoughts drift in what was, somehow, a very pleasant direction.

Oh, Johnny. If only...

A light shiver crept over her skin. She looked up, glanced over at the garden gate, that led to the front of the cottage, but it was closed.

Funny, she thought. I could have sworn…

* * *

The gate closed silently behind John Edward Straker as he left, unseen.

He returned to the guest house where he had been staying. He sat in the comfortable chair, sipping from a glass of iced water, fingering his own Emblem. This resembled a faceted gold ring, and he wore it on his right hand. In fact it had been budded from the Kei itself, and served to link those whom the Keimon had selected to be his Companions.

He inspected the memory he had received through the Kei-link. It seemed to him that it had come to him when, inadvertently, he had reached out to his mother, driven by a need to make some sort of contact. Despite his need for caution, he longed to override the synthetic history that Bosan had tried to impose on his mind, while she was pretending to be his mother. A 'history' that had shredded in the gale of his encounter with his true father: Keimon Edward George Straker.

But if the memory he had received was correct…

It horrified him. It indicated that his father, in anger brought on by something he could not quite clarify, had tried to destroy the whole of humanity. It was far from clear, also, what means he could have used; but it was very clear that the Keimon knew and understood how he could have achieved his intentions.

So, John wondered, what could have brought his father to such a pitch? Perhaps he had been under attack from one of the rebel faction. Perhaps he had been angry, despairing, though why was unclear. Perhaps there was something else. Whichever it was, John resolved to confront his father, determine the danger.

He knew that the older man was taking a journey to the star Earth called Proxima Centauri, its closest stellar neighbour outside the solar system, to meet with the chiefs of the alliance of Spicor. His father was currently halfway to his objective, in a trip that would take about four months at the superlight speeds of which the skimmers were capable. But those same skimmers were capable of a time-warp mode which would shorten subjective time to a few days.

John also knew, from Captain Ellis, that the skimmer would lapse back into the normal continuum at intervals, to perform flight checks. Another such check was due in two days.

That gave John adequate time to reach the place where he had hidden the 'Swift', the first skimmer that had been modified by SHADO engineers to be able to do without the green liquid 'cocoon' that buffered their flight crews against flight stresses.

His hiding place for the craft was underwater, in a cave that ran a long way inland, decreasing in size to a mere tunnel; but one that looked as though it could be followed for some distance. Indeed, there were signs that it had seen human activity in the fairly remote past. Also, a first plot of its location suggested that it was not too far from his objective on the land; but that was a task for another day.

Right now, he had an urgent journey to make, one that needed to be planned carefully.

He had already spoken to Elanor, confident in her assurances that she would not enter his mind without invitation, and had satisfied her that he was sufficiently able to handle the controls of the modified skimmer within the 'safe' confines of the Solar System. A journey to another star was another matter entirely; but the 'sleep-teaching' he had been given while in stasis at Avach, the rebel Arkad base at the south lunar pole, had been comprehensive; and John could be very persuasive.

He smiled, crookedly. He was a little late in starting; but he should be able to catch up with the skimmer carrying his father and his friends, Paul Foster and Tyl Merrel. Perhaps even overtake it, if he was fortunate.


"You'd really like me to wear it?" Alec Freeman queried, a touch doubtfully.

Joan Harrington's smile was mischievous as she fingered the Emblem on her right hand. Ed, the Keimon, had given it to her before he left for Proxima, apologising for having to miss the festivities. "Of course, why not? You've got the knees for it!"

"Mmm. It's just that… I haven't worn the kilt since I was ten. My knees were too knobbly for words. But Mother insisted."

"Good for her," Joan agreed. "But does that mean you don't have an adult-sized one?"

"It does, I'm afraid." He rubbed his nose. "Well… OK then, since it's you. And no," he added, as she planted a kiss on his cheek, "you may not come and watch me getting fitted! It's unlucky, that, the bride seeing the groom in all his splendour, before the ceremony!"

"That's the bride being seen, silly," she chuckled. "And what would you like me to wear?"

"Your choice," Alec told her. "Uniform if you like. Or a long dress with puff sleeves and a train. Or a white bikini. Or - "

"Before your imagination steams up your eyeballs," Joan said, mock-scolding, "what's your tartan?"

"Oh, it's one of the lesser septs of the Clan MacDonald. Basically red, with some green and blue lines, though fairly muted. Of course, my mother never wore the kilt," Alec said reflectively. "Women just didn't. That began to change around the eighteenth century, but she was an old-fashioned soul, my mother."

Joan recalled that Alec's parents had died some years ago, unexpectedly, in some kind of accident that had never been adequately explained. Activity from the rebels had not been ruled out. But Alec had declined Ed's offer to ask Pavlor about it. explaining that it would only reopen old wounds to no good purpose.

"I wish you luck trying to explain to Amet how it all works," she smiled. "One other thing - can you play the bagpipes?"

"Yes, of course." As Joan's eyes widened, he added: "But being a gentleman, I don't - "

He yelped as she punched him in the ribs.


The problem of arranging accommodation for Spicor visitors had been handed to Professor Victor Bergman, who had volunteered for the task with eagerness.

As Ambassador Azan Pavlor had once noted, the environment on the moon was vastly preferred by the interstellar visitors. Factors such as lighter gravity, and cleaner air, free of a multitude of substances - including potential disease-causing organisms - kept them both more healthy and refreshed than they would be planetside. Bergman's 'gravity modifier', which operated on Moonbase Alpha, could be adjusted to the Spicorans' needs in the area which had been set aside for them.

Today, however, Amet Pavlor had come through the access tunnel which connected the two bases, and also the test hangar unofficially designated the 'Eyrie', into Moonbase itself. Amet had succeeded to the position of Ambassador to Earth when his father Azan had met his death at the hands of the Arkad rebels. Amet had happily accepted the invitation to attend an Earth-type wedding; and he wished to seek the approval of the bride-to-be for his proposed costume.

That person was busy discussing preparations with Captain Ellis of Moonbase. Food was not as much of a problem as she had feared; in their time at Alpha, the Spicor people been offered the chance to try a number of things, and though there were likes and dislikes, there were no intolerances, and very few actual allergies.

Gay saw Amet enter, and beckoned him inside the Park with a smile. "Hello, Amet, did you want me?"

"I greet you, Captain. For the moment, I wish to consult Joan Harrington, if I may?"

"Right here! Come on in," Joan said. "Well, hello! Don't you look smart!"

"I greet you, Companion," Amet Pavlor said, with a bow."I hoped that you would deem this suitable for attending your conjoining ceremony?"

"It's amazing! Do I gather that it's royal dress?"

Amet Pavlor was dressed in a tunic and trousers which, though black, had a subtle sheen to their fabric. At his throat there was a small emblem. It was a gold shape, pointed at the bottom, and concave at the top, perhaps two inches long and an inch wide; it looked to her a little like a cross between a shield and a spearhead. On it was a gleaming black starburst. Joan recognised the device as the one Amet's father had worn when he had brought Ed and Alec back home.

"That is correct. I wish to do you and Companion Alec Freeman suitable honour."

"It certainly will, Amet, my thanks!"

She turned as Oparel joined them. The scholar was dressed in a manner broadly similar to Amet; but the tunic and trousers were dark primary blue, and the emblem he wore was different. The 'shield' was a gold outline, enclosing something that looked like a scroll, also outlined in gold.

"Hullo, Oparel. I take it, that is the ceremonial dress of a scholar?"

"It is," Oparel confirmed. "Regrettably, it does not include a hat, as I understand your culture's academic dress robes do."

"True," she smiled. "Gentlemen, I'm curious. May I ask a question, please?"

"Of course, Companion," Amet assured her. "At any time."

"It's unusual to see a star in black on a bright background. May I enquire about the significance?"

The two Dyausans exchanged glances. Oparel said: "It commemorates an unhappy event in our recent history. We… 'lost' our emperor."

"I take it you don't mean he died?" Joan said, quietly.

"We do not know." Oparel took a breath. "Zemerad had enemies, as indeed do all rulers. There may have been an assassination, but no body was ever found. Some have said that he had found the strains of ruling too much, and he had decided to vanish, perhaps take his own life. Those who had known him, knew this was nonsense."

"So we wear his sigil, inverted, " Amet continued, "until he returns to us… or until we find him."

"Was he well-liked?"

"By most, yes," Oparel confirmed. "Among the others, some were indifferent, some hostile; a few actively so. We are investigating this, and have been for some years."

"But enough of this." Amet gave his gentle smile. "Today is a time for joy."

"It is indeed… Well, people, if you'll excuse me," Joan said, with a grin that - she hoped - hid her nervousness, "I'd better go and get ready!"


The room was normally kept for general activities, and could become a gymnasium or a meeting-area or even a hall for chess tournaments. Today, however, upholstered benches had been deployed in rows, providing comfortable seating capacity for most of Moonbase staff.

Captain Gay Ellis stepped up to the lectern. Aloud she said: "Are you receiving me, Sire?"

The voice of the Keimon echoed in their heads. I am, Companion. I greet all of you, and especially the groom, Companion Alexander Freeman; and the bride, Companion Joan Harrington.

"Thank you, Sire."

The Captain of Moonbase shifted her focus, and glanced around the room. In front of her sat the groom, resplendent in his highland dress; beside him sat Ambassador Amet Pavlor. The Dyausan had received a 'crash course' in the functions of a best man, from Gay, who found him a quick study. On Freeman's left were two empty seats, for the bride and bridesmaid. None of the other seats was empty; the small room was packed. And upstairs, in Control, Nina - who had drawn the short straw for the duty - was trying to split her attention between the scene on the large monitor and the racks of equipment with which Moonbase kept guard over Earth.

Others were watching from SHADO Control, Earthside. Major Ford was in charge, since the main command personnel were otherwise occupied. He was ably assisted by Mark Bradley - who was also keeping a close eye on a large refrigerated carrier. Major-General Lake, who had taken over the role of handling the finances when General Henderson had died, watched the proceedings with no interruptions. Everyone was in dress uniform, including decorations.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Captain Ellis said, with a warm smile, "welcome. For many centuries, it has been the proud privilege of the captain of an ocean-going vessel to perform marriages. Since it has been decreed by Commander Straker, and agreed by the United Nations Special Committee, that Moonbase is indeed such a vessel - albeit a stationary one - and in international waters, that privilege extends to me as her Captain."

There was a round of applause. Her smile broadening, Captain Ellis raised her hand, and they quieted. Music swelled from hidden speakers; Joan had specified the traditional Wedding March by Mendelssohn, for the visitors' benefit. The door at the back of the room slid open. Joan had opted to wear her own dress uniform, with the addition of a blue garter around her thigh. She was holding a small bouquet, of blue and white flowers, and she was attended by Ayshea Johnson, her bridesmaid, also in uniform. She was accompanied by Captain Waterman, who had won the small contest to give the bride away.

'Small contest', Gay thought, amused. After threatening to race moonmobiles, or have a duel with the Interceptors, the men - six in all - had agreed to a martial arts knockout bout. Waterman's black eye had faded somewhat, fortunately.

Alec rose to his feet, and turned to watch as Joan walked unhurriedly between the rows of seats. She halted by his side, handed her bouquet to Ayshea, and favoured Alec with a cheerful smile. His outfit was, she thought, quite magnificent. From the pale grey jacket and waistcoat, through the leather sporran hanging from his waist, to the knee-length cream socks and gleaming black shoes, he was a picture.

She noted the jewelled pin fastening his kilt; and she spared a quick glance to his left leg, his dominant side. He was indeed wearing a sgian dubh - an ornamental dagger - tucked into his sock. A little mischievously, she thought: hope he won't need that

The groom swallowed, and managed a shaky smile in return.

Captain Waterman gently guided Joan's hand forward, and Alec grasped it firmly. Lew moved to his designated seat. Ayshea covertly checked Joan's ring, took a step forward to take her place. Amet moved to Alec's side, one hand within his tunic, and stood waiting.

At a nod from Captain Ellis, people resumed their seats, leaving the couple and their attendants standing before them. She said: "We are gathered here today in the sight of the Deity and in the presence of this congregation to join this man, and this woman, in marriage…"


For days, now, Mary had been restless. Anticipation had been growing; she could not stop thinking about Ed, and about Johnny.

Ed was still apparently recovering from the effects of his copter crash. Or so his doctor, an East European called Jackson, had claimed. Certainly Jackson had warned her that the recovery process would be lengthy and unpredictable; but somehow, she found this comment itself had made her uneasy.

What kind of accident, she had asked herself, would have had such a devastating effect? Particularly as Jackson not mentioned any head injury?

At the time she had not thought about it further. She had been very tired, after being up most of the night seeing to the sick man and waiting for Jackson to arrive. When the party - consisting of her own doctor, McKenzie; Jackson himself; and a couple of nurses - had come and gone, taking Ed wearing a spare tracksuit, it was nearly morning. She rolled herself into a furry throw and spread out to sleep on the couch.

She did not wake until evening. When at last she roused, to take a phone call from her cousin Penny, she was still fuzzy-headed, with memories of odd dreams. That had been some months ago, and up until now, she had more or less forgotten those dreams; but now they nagged at her.

She gazed absently at the opal ring on her finger, thinking. Perhaps her housekeeper could help. She had previously employed a pleasant young woman called Betty Sinclair; but Betty had left, saying she had to deal with some family problems. She had suggested as a replacement an older woman, June Baines, who Mary had already met, and liked. Even then Mary had wondered whether Mrs Baines could be induced to chat about her former employers, who included Ed himself; and also, the late James Henderson, who may have still been pulling Ed's strings...

Mary took a deep breath, and squared her shoulders, settling the idea. Mrs Baines was due to come in tomorrow, around 10 o'clock. Let's see, she thought, how talkative you can be

The ring, which Ed had linked to his Kei, flashed, once; but she did not notice.


The party had gone on all day. The Dyausans had given every indication of throughly enjoying themselves. Indeed, at one point, Oparel had discarded much of his scholarly dignity, and declaimed a lengthy narrative poem, with gestures. From time to time, Amet tried to translate into English, but there was no need; the gestures were clear enough, and had the audience in hoots of laughter. Even though the poem was - Amet insisted - quite impeccably clean.

"It is all a matter of emphasis," he explained, "and of voice tone."

"It was lovely," Joan said, laughing. "Thank you, Scholar."

Alec tossed back his Scotch. "Well Mrs Freeman," he said, "time we made ourselves scarce, I think."

"I believe your shuttle is ready," Gay said. "Give Jersey my love!"

>From somewhere confetti appeared, and the newlyweds laughed as they ran through the shower of brightly coloured paper fragments toward the reception sphere. The synthetic confetti melted as it touched the deck, its job done. Arriving safely, they quickly shrugged into spacesuits ready for the flight down to Earth and the St Brelade hotel.


June Baines was a little worried.

For some time now, her employer, Mary Nightingale, had been restless. Not the chatty type, she had not confided much of what was undoubtedly troubling her. Neither had she become irritable - which, Mrs Baines had to admit, was a blessing. But the housekeeper was beginning to wonder if she was becoming depressed about something.

If so, it was no surprise. The person Mrs Baines had worked for previously, Ed Straker, a former director of the Harlington-Straker film studios, had vanished, and was believed killed in a helicopter crash off Land's End. And then out of the blue, he had reappeared.

It was no surprise to her either that he had been injured in the crash. He had managed to find his way to the house they had previously lived in, after their marriage. When Mary called in her doctor, he had been accompanied by a man called Jackson, a Pole, who seemed to be some kind of psychiatrist. Ed had gone back with them to the hospital. She had not seen him since; his doctors had apparently advised against it.

In the meantime, James Henderson - apparently one of Straker's technical studio advisers - had died. June and James had been developing a friendship; the housekeeper could not be sure where it would go, but it was thoroughly enjoyable, and the shock of his loss to a worsening heart condition had been severe.

At this point Mary's then housekeeper, Betty Sinclair, had had to hand in her notice, citing family problems. Since June was available, and in need of something to keep herself occupied, her daughter Jill had suggested she apply for the position. It had worked; she and Mary got on instantly together.

June went in search of her employer, and found her in the lounge. At the moment, Mary was knitting. Occasionally she would pause and gaze into the distance, absently fingering the antique opal ring she wore on her right hand. It sparkled oddly in the light.

"Excuse me. Ms Nightingale?"


"I will need to shop today," June said. " I wonder if you would like to come? We could have a coffee somewhere, if you like."

Mary's attention focussed, and she smiled, a little crookedly. "Get me some fresh air, you mean?"

"That's more or less what I had in mind," June admitted.

"Good idea, I'll just put this away, shall I?"

She rolled up the jumper she had been knitting, thinking that Mrs Baines would probably benefit from the 'fresh air' as well, after recent events. Was it really only a couple of months ago that the world turned upside down? she thought. Before Henderson died, and Ed reappeared?

She followed the housekeeper out of the door, to Mary's car. Mrs Baines' green Mini was parked next to it, on the drive.They loaded several carrier bags into the back seat.

"It's a nice colour, that knitting of yours," Mrs Baines commented. "A pullover?"

"A jersey. A sort of jumper, with an anchor shape knitted into the pattern. It's adapted from a fisherman's garment developed in Guernsey," Mary explained, with a smile. "Should be sea-green, I suppose, but I prefer a primary shade… Shop first or coffee first?"

"Shop first, then we can take a little time to relax!"

The shopping took them a couple of hours; after all, there was no need for hurry. At last, when they arrived at Mary's favourite café, their bags were bulging.

A waitress arrived with coffee and biscuits. June, whom Mary had finally persuaded to use first names, poured.

"That's better," Mary sighed. Again, June noticed that she was fingering her opal ring. "June, I hope you don't mind me asking, but… How well did you get on with my ex-husband?"

"With Mr Straker?" There was a mischievous glint in her eye. "Well, I used to throw his weight about a bit. And at times I would sit on him -"

Mary goggled. June relented. "I'm good at martial arts, it's something of a hobby, so I was able to help with his fitness exercise."

"That's a relief!" Mary gave an exaggerated sigh. "He used to enjoy that sort of thing with Johnny, too…"

She touched her ring again, her gaze remote. June studied her carefully, her worry becoming stronger; though, oddly, Mary seemed to be thinking along nostalgic lines, rather than angry regret. Mary had given the housekeeper a brief - very brief - account of her son's death, but had not gone into details of her ex-husband's part in the incident.

They chatted over the coffee. Mary did not try to steer the subject towards Ed, for which June was grateful if a little surprised. She would have liked to venture a few careful questions herself., to try to clear up a few things which had been puzzling her. She wondered, for example, whether she should have said anything about the way the had often felt like a bodyguard to the studio director. After all, the man was a prime target for kidnap/ransom demands.

But now, she was more curious about Johnny. She was sure that Mary's attitude was changing, albeit subtly, from looking back in nostalgic longing to looking forward in anticipation.

She just hoped that such a chain of thought had not been set off by Ed's 'return from the dead'.

Abruptly, Mary gave her head a quick shake, then seemed to pull herself together. She drank her coffee, and said: "Well, I suppose we should get back home! Duty calls, or something."

"I suppose so," June smiled.

* * *

A few light-years distant, the Swift resumed drive, its navigation checks completed. Johnny leaned back in the support couch. The contact with his mother had lacked detail of her thoughts, merely conveying an impression of her mood; but it seemed positive.

More carefully, he felt for his father's mind. The effect of flight stasis made this very difficult; but he could tell that he had passed the other skimmer, and would arrive at Varna comfortably ahead.

Then would come the confrontation with his father. He was not contemplating that with any joy.

Part 2


The skimmer that had been made available for Prince Merrel to use for this journey to Varna - as Earth-humans would call it, Proxima Centauri B - was not new; but it had been thoroughly overhauled, with Merrel overseeing the process closely. When that was complete, the craft had been equipped with Professor Bergman's flight stress buffer. Merrel had performed the test flight himself, and pronounced himself satisfied. Only then did he permit the Keimon to board.

The four months that this journey had taken had been telescoped by the time-compression effects of the skimmer drive. It had felt, subjectively, as though only a few days had passed. Certainly, those few days had been spent as short periods off-drive, in normal space, to carry out various checks. And each time, they had seen that their objective appear larger in the viewer.

Now they had reached the final phase of their outward journey. Their flight plan would bring them within range of the Proxima system in about an hour, Merrel had informed them. He was becoming more accustomed to Earth measurement units.

Merrel had described for the benefit of his crew the local navigation grid. Varna, the Proxima planet that had been colonised by Spicor, employed a network of artificial satellites which he called 'navistars'. They were used by skimmers and other craft to find their way in, among planetary configurations that were necessarily changing with Varna's orbit around its primary and - on a longer timescale - Proxima's own movement in space, around the galactic centre.

"We shall use a chain of three navistars," he explained. "The first is on the outskirts of the Varna system, at some distance from the star Sura, our primary. You would call that star Proxima. From there, we fly to Navi2, the planet Varna itself. From there we could visit other planets in our system. Navi3 is in stationary orbit above our landing platform."

"Useful," Paul commented.

"Yes. It reduces greatly the computing load for the skimmer's instruments. Though," Merrel added, "we do need to carry out checks periodically to ensure that the navistars are where they should be. The last such check was.. only an Earth-century ago."

"Call me pessimistic," Ed said, thoughtfully, "but what if there were an attack, from some hostile force such as the Arkad rebels?"

"In worst-case, Sire," Merrel explained, "a skimmer could request assistance from an in-system pilot vessel. These are heavily armed for just such an eventuality."

"I see. Good… When might we detect the first such beacon?"

"We are due to drop to sublight in a few minutes, Sire."

Ed thanked him, and gave his attention to the display, through his brother's eyes. He was finding the process of deciphering what he was seeing to be more automatic now. A wayward thought occurred to him that this must be how the newly-born learned to see.

"Sublight… now, Sire."

The image on the display blurred, in a way that both Ed and Paul recognised from previous pauses in their journey from Earth. But this pause was different. It heralded the first time in countless ages that a native of Planet Earth would stand on a world orbiting another sun.

* * *

Neither Tyl Merrel, nor Ed Straker, were aware that they had company out here in interstellar space.

John Straker's 'Swift' was following a very similar course to the other, but he had configured his drive to be undetectable, and he had also sheltered from the Kei behind the mental shield that his father had shown him how to use. He wanted the chance to observe before acting.

John's Kei-link to his father closed as Merrel's skimmer re-engaged its drive. His course estimates showed that this would be the others' last break before they reached Varna. It also showed him comfortably ahead - he would have at least ten hours to reconnoitre.

Elanor had told him of the navistar network. As he studied the schematic, he noticed an outlier, a small moon orbiting one of the system's worlds, the gas giant Prasta. The moon was flagged as being habitable - and that it had a single occupant.

Odd, John thought. Perhaps I should check.

The trip would only use a single navistar, and take perhaps an hour. Making sure his personal 'invisibility shield' was holding, he set his course for the strange little world.

He came off the navinet only a few thousand kilometres above ground. His readouts showed a negligible atmosphere, with a mostly icy surface; but it did reveal signs of an artificial structure. And the structure was using power.

A scientific station? he wondered. Surely there would be more than one person here

He flew in carefully, with the comms line listening for traffic, but he heard nothing. That was more than just odd, it was ominous. He felt sure that there would be messages flying between this outpost and the rest of the Varna system; but there seemed to be no activity at all.

Still, that power had to be doing something

As he drew closer to the structure, he could see what appeared to be a landing pad, with a long covered corridor stretching out across it. The corridor had offshoots on each side, so that it resembled nothing so much as a huge fishbone; but there were no skimmers parked there. It terminated at a building shaped like two soap-bubbles nudged up against each other.

His instruments reported that this was the location of the power source. So, he thought, a good place to start looking for the tenant of this world.

He brought the skimmer down. A segment of his control screen lit up with symbols that he could read, though they seemed ancient. Following the directions, he brought his craft to a stop on the landing pad, and managed to persuade the corridor offshoot to connect up.

After a few moments the screen informed him that the corridor segment was now pressurised. He was reassured by this, but at the same time, worried. Did it mean that the building was running under automatic, or that the 'tenant' was aware of him?

He switched to an outside speaker mounted on the hull, and spoke. "Hullo. My name is John. Can you hear me?"

There was no answer. With a small shrug, he determined to take a look for himself. He took a small hand-held scan/track monitor, checked the weapon at his belt, set the controls to neutral, and made his exit.

Outside he found that this corridor was not merely pressurised, it was lighted. A few of the lit segments were dark, evidently having failed - which suggested a lack of maintenance. John checked his monitor again, and was reassured to see that power was still flowing at his destination.

He walked on. This leg of the corridor came to a hatchway; beyond it the lighted segments stretched on into the distance. Beside the entrance was a notice in the old characters he had seen on the skimmer display, One of them was faintly illuminated. He pressed it, and the hatch opened, inwards. Without hesitation, he entered.

This room held two items. One was clearly an instrumentation desk, with readouts which were very similar to those on John's skimmer. The script used for the legends was unfamiliar, but, again, recalled the ancient lettering. John inspected them carefully. He noted a few words that he did recognise, and wondered if he was looking at an older version of the Varna tongue.

The second, larger item, looked very like a covered bed.

It was quite large enough to hold an adult human, and it was shaped appropriately. Whether it was currently occupied was impossible to say - the material of which it appeared to be made was quite opaque, with elusive gleams like muted reflections. John reached out to touch it. It seemed to be at room temperature, and there was an odd, barely perceptible vibration. His monitor indicated that power was being used here.

John marked the room on his tracker, and left. This was an investigation for another time.

As the door to the chamber slid closed once more, one of the panels on the desk suddenly glowed into life.


For a moment, he was dizzy, disoriented. It was as though he was seeing two rooms at once, the image of one overlaying the other. He blinked, rubbed his eyes; they felt dry.

Gravity was pulling at him, but in the wrong direction. Startled, he realised that he was lying on his back. Over his head was a canopy of sorts, misty grey in colour, but clearing to transparency. He put out a hand, and touched it, feeling the smoothness of stasis polymer. The touch brought back a sudden flood of memory. He reached out for the controls, and pushed at the panel in urgent haste. The canopy melted back into its housing. He sat up.

"Felden! Where are you?" he shouted. But there was no answer.

"Felden! Marcas! Come to me!"

Still no reply. Now alarmed, he swung his feet off the stasis pallet, and stood up - or, at least, tried to.

When the room had settled down, he pushed his face off the resilient floor, and tried again, but more carefully. This time he decided to take it in stages. He managed to sit with his back against the stasis module, and looked down at himself.

He was still dressed in robes of ceremony, silky black with the Emblem of Stewardship at his throat, and knee-length boots. But he was also bearded. He realised, with alarm, that this meant he had been in stasis for a very long time. The process did not stop time for the module occupant, but it did reduce its passage to a very slow rate. This beard showed clearly that he had been in stasis for many thousands of Sura's years.

On the thought, he felt his stomach, and gave a nod when his fingers encountered the life-support coupling. This device attended to his nutritive and waste-disposal needs, and could be coupled to the stasis module system for this purpose.

So, he had been taken from the Hall of Ceremony, brought to this place - wherever it was - and placed in stasis. For a long time.

Who would have dared? he thought, with sudden fury; and knew the answer. It was Felden. It had to be. The man's ambition had been obvious; but Zemerad had clipped his pinions for him. Or so he had thought.

A cold voice echoed in the depths of his mind. You dare summon me, Zemerad?

Yes, that was his name… Your pardon, Great Aelar, he responded. It was needful. I have been made captive, it seems for aeons. I am grateful that the culprits have not harmed you.

There was anger in the response. They have not harmed me, indeed. But my brother, Aethon, has been banished. He has returned to our realm, and will no more venture here.

Shaken for a moment, Zemerad thought quickly. Who could have bested the Aethon? Granted, that entity was young in comparison with the Aelar, and inexperienced. Even so...

And what of Felden, and his presumed accomplices? Dead, surely? Great Aelar, have you knowledge of those who took me?

They live no more. The Aelar hesitated, giving Zemerad a second jolt, so unprecedented was that moment of doubt. The Keimon was killed. The Kei, which was stolen and taken to the Prithvi colony, was deactivated and lost. You must find it.

Zemerad took a breath. Great Aelar am I alone here?

You are alone on Prasta. However, you have been visited, by a native of Prithvi, using a stolen and modified skimmer.

Again, Zemerad was shaken. How is that possible, Great Aelar?

I know not. I know only that this thief intends to go to Varna itself.

Varna. The science station. Zemerad recalled that it had been set up as an experimental facility for testing the solar cannon, but the emergency of the Plague had caused the research to be halted, the facility mothballed.

Felden had argued against that. Tempers already frayed by fear had broken control at that last, chaotic, policy meeting. Shouting had echoed cross the hall. Weapons had been drawn. Zemerad's final memory had been of Felden staring at him, very strangely.

Then he had woken in the stasis module, where his time had all but stopped, while outside millennia had passed. Millennia during which the Plague had raged unchecked. Apparently, though, it had not reached the Prithvi colony; but what had happened here at Prasta…?

Great Aelar may I enquire how fares the Plague? How fares Prasta?

The Entity's mental tone was taut with suppressed anger. Prasta is deserted. Varna lives, but at reduced capacity. Prithvi lives. The colony survived the pestilence.

Well, that was good news, Zemerad thought; but what had so displeased the Aelar? Perhaps it was the loss - the desertion - of the Entity's younger kin, the Aethon.

He put that thought aside, for now. More urgent was the need to determine for himself the condition of the Sura system, discover the fate of its inhabitants, and to find the Kei.

Great Aelar, would you deign to tell me, is there a functioning library station nearby?

There is. I shall guide you.

My humble thanks, Great Aelar.

Zemerad felt the contact end. A wayward thought intruded into his mind; it expressed a feeling that had been growing in the edges of his consciousness for some time, a feeling about the relationship with the Aelar into which he had willingly entered. A feeling almost of… rebellion.

Angry with himself, he pushed that feeling aside.

A soft chime sounded from the darkness, and light grew a short distance away. He hurried forward. The light proved to emanate from an access panel beside a door. He touched the panel. After a few moments, the light turned amber, indicating a problem.

Another memory awoke, one that was thoroughly alarming. The access panel was telling him that the area beyond - the corridor certainly, and most likely the whole research zone - had been evacuated of its air.

Automatically he appealed to the control computer using the planet's name. "Prasta, is there damage to structure here?"

"Negative," a familiar voice spoke from the panel.

"Then why is the exit under vacuum?"

The Prasta voice seemed slightly miffed, though that could have been Zemerad's imagination. "Standard operations require that resources be conserved not wasted. There has been no requirement for life support in the zone outside this chamber since the visitor departed."

"Well, I need it now, I require access to - What visitor?"

Deep in Zemerad's mind, the Aelar's 'voice' sounded again. The native of Prithvi of whom I spoke, of course.

Of course you did, Great Aelar. My apologies.

A whiplash of pain curled around him. He dropped to his knees with a whimper as the Aelar 'said': Do not act in a way that requires apology. Get up.

Shakily, he rose to his feet. Direct your servant, great Aelar.

For a moment, there was no reply; but then the 'voice' came again. That must wait. We have company. The thief from Prithvi is still here. And he is accompanied.

I would gladly defend you, but I am weaponless - Zemerad began.

I shall provide, air and arms.

Zemerad thanked him. After a few moments, the access panel turned green; and beside it a second smaller panel flashed blue. Remembering, he confidently pushed this panel aside, and drew out a small weapon. To his hand it felt very familiar.

The hatch opened. Proceed through the corridor and follow my directions.

At the Aelar''s prompting, he made his way out of the exit into the corridor beyond. He passed two more doors, which were closed and unlit. The next panel lit up at his approach, and the door next to it slid open.

Enter, directed the Aelar.

Zemerad obeyed. This room was small, barely large enough to hold what he recognised instantly as a library terminal. A stool glided out, and he lowered himself onto it gratefully.

My thanks, Great Aelar.

He leaned forward to tap the screen into life, eager to learn what had been happening during those lost aeons; but the screen remained dark.

Before he could frame the question, the Aelar 'spoke', its 'voice' - oddly - tinged with nervousness. First we must deal with the intruders. I shall take the boy, and bend him to my will. I shall use him to begin the counter-attack. You will then attend to the other two intruders.

As you command, Great Aelar.

Reluctantly, puzzled, and more than a little disappointed, Zemerad pulled himself upright. It was evident that something had happened to distract the being, something that was causing It concern. Almost, It was afraid. The thought strengthened the feeling within him of rebellion.

Cautiously, being careful to hide the thought as best he could, he let the feeling grow. Perhaps, he could break free… at last.


The corridor had changed.

Or maybe, John thought, he had missed a turning. Easy to do, in this maze. The lighting had become strange, with odd, evanescent, half-seen glimmers and flickers of icy blue-green. The effect was hypnotic; John gazed, fascinated, as they flashed and darted around him.

Slowly the display settled, into a scene he knew well. His home. His mother was beside him, murmuring encouragement. His father was nowhere to be seen, and that was just as well. The man was a danger, to him and to his mother.

It came to him, with a rush of urgency, that he had to find the older Straker, and remove the threat he represented.

Yes, his mother whispered. We must find Ed. We must stop him. I cannot do that; but you can.

I can, John agreed. And I shall. If I have to kill him, I shall.

The figure of his mother seemed to smile.


Now they were approaching the first of the navistars. Merrel had sent out his comms tag, and was awaiting a reply.

"We are within range of the navistar," Tyl Merrel announced. "I have sent our ID... and we have a response."

"I see it," Paul said.

"Yes. We may now ride the beam - "

He broke off. "Tyl, what is wrong?" Ed said, sharply.

After a moment, Merrel relaxed. "There was a slight change from my last visit, Sire," he replied. "It surprised me a little, and this is not a situation where I would welcome surprises."

"Understandably… What was the change?"

"The transition was… smoother, is the only way I would describe it. The difference was not great; just - odd."

"I understand how you feel," Paul agreed. "I've occasionally had such experiences on test flights. Sometimes it's just that the designers have made a change which works well. Sometimes it isn't!"

"And which is it this time, Tyl?" Ed enquired. He rubbed his ears; they itched a little.

The Prince considered. "I would say the former, Sire… except that we have made no such changes before this journey. I have run a full diagnostic scan, which has revealed no problems. When we land, I will ask the servicing crew to investigate further."

"Great. You said there were three navistars defining our path?"

"Yes, Sire," Merrel confirmed. "Transit time between each is a few minutes only."

"Second one in one minute," Paul added.

As they completed the second transit, Ed rubbed his ears again. The itch was worsening. He noticed that Paul seemed to be troubled as well. "You, too?" he said.

"Itch? A bit, yes," Paul confirmed. "And my head feels a bit stuffed, like I had a cold… Tyl, do you notice anything?"

"No itch, Companion," Merrel replied. "But I do have the congested feeling."

"It's like there was strong high-frequency sound. Too high-pitched for us to hear but we can sense it in other ways," Ed said, thoughtfully. "And there's something else. My Kei-sight is affected."

Ed was referring to the Kei-mediated link with his brother which allowed him to 'borrow' Paul's eyes, after his own had been damaged beyond repair by exposure to the sun.

"Can you still see?" Paul said, sharply.

"Sure, but with rather less definition. If it gets any worse I'll let you know. But there's something else - a sort of echo."

Paul concentrated. "I think I see what you mean," he agreed. "Tyl, d'you get anything?"

"I do not, Companion," the prince said. "Sire, may I ask, can you get any information from this 'echo'?"

Ed's sightless eyes unfocussed, as though he were staring into infinity. "Seems somehow familiar. Like but unlike. Another person, used to command. And… trying to take command."

"When did this start?" Paul said, tensely.

"When we ended that last transition."

"Then I think we need to find this person, and quickly." Paul inspected the readouts on the large viewer. "I think we should be in range for contact shortly, Tyl."

"Yes…" He frowned. "I do not detect any carrier, Paul. I should. Would you please recheck?"

"Nothing," Paul said, after a moment. "I am 'pinging' them… Still nothing."

"Nor I… Sire, this is not good. We should at least receive a 'bare' unmodulated signal, which would confirm the connection is functioning. There is no such signal. I am trying for a visual, so that we may see if there are any problems visible that may give us a clue as to what - "

His voice trailed off. Paul sucked in his breath sharply. "There's nothing there, Ed. Not only that, there aren't any ruins!"

"Show me," Ed ordered, sharply.

Obligingly, Paul looked at the screen, and relaxed, to allow the Kei to direct his gaze. "Silly question, Tyl," he said, "but did we come out of that last navistar transit at the wrong place?"

"Not just the wrong place," Tyl said grimly, "the wrong planet!"

The Kei focussed their joint attention on the plot screen which was showing their path. Paul felt his hand move under Its direction, to touch a sequence of control areas, in a manner which did not feel quite as 'creepy' as it had the first time they had tried this. Orbit paths showed, giving an unexpected location.

"We appear to have arrived at a moon of one of the gas giants of the Proxima system," Ed said, aloud. "Tyl?"

"I get that also, Sire. But there are no inhabited ones; the radiation hazard is too great. Varna never made any such installation..." Tyl hesitated; then, after a moment, he spoke again. "I was mistaken, Sire. There is indeed a habitat here, and it is using power. It also has an occupant - one only."

"Call them?" suggested Ed.

"I am doing so, Sire. There is no indication they hear me."

"Hmm. Paul, is there visual?"

"Coming up."

As Ed surveyed the image Paul's Kei-link showed, he was startled to find that it was somehow familiar, a little like deja-vu. He could not rid himself of the feeling that he knew that lone occupant…

And there was something else. There were several entities in the habitat, not one; but two of them hidden from casual notice. Only by pushing his Kei perceptions to the limit could he detect them. They were familiar in different ways. He was certain one of them was Johnny, which meant he had reached the Varna system well in advance of Ed's crew. The second he knew he had not met before; but he also recognised the hidden entity, and knew It for what It was.

"I need to go down there," he said, tensely. "You two stay here, please. Explore a little. See if you can find out something about what's going on here."

"Go down? On your own? What about - "

"I'll manage," Ed cut in. He smiled wryly. "I think I know this place..."

* * *

Straker had won his argument, but narrowly. In the end, it was Tyl's attitude that had tipped the balance. He had - wisely - refrained from joining in, but the sympathetic amusement on his face was not concealed well enough. Paul had caught the man's slight smile, realised it was directed at him, and read it correctly as telling him that the Keimon was not going to give way.

After Ed had made his unhesitating way to the hatch and out of the skimmer without incident, Paul gave a resigned sigh. "Well, shall we go take a look round?"

"Yes, Companion."

"And stop grinning!"

"Yes, Companion," Tyl said, his slight smile widening.

Paul snorted slightly, and led the way. Tyl followed, closing and locking the hatch. "Curious," he commented. "Although there is but one life other than ourselves here, this area has a stable environment. Normally the personnel would shut down unused regions."

"Expecting visitors?" murmured Paul. "Or did it respond to Ed? I'll enquire." Ed, do you receive me?

Yes. I noticed the same thing, it was ready for me. Someone has been here recently.

Comforting thought. Paul exchanged glances with the prince, who nodded slightly. "Let's get on. We need to find whoever that is."

Whoever they are, Ed corrected him, mentally. There are two persons here. One of them is Johnny. I think it was he who switched on the lights.

"He's followed us from Earth?" Paul said, startled. "I didn't detect anything - "

No. He's using a shield, I showed him how. But he's concerned about things, perhaps angry, and that concern has left a slight break. Although, not much is getting through.

"OK… Then who's the unknown?"

Another human.

"Who could that be? Tyl, any ideas?"

"Not at present, I fear, Paul," admitted the prince. "Shall we try to increase our knowledge?"

"Suits me!"


The corridor Ed had used took them to what Paul mentally labelled a workshop. It contained several banks of monitors, and cabinets with drawers and seating.

Still unsure of the wisdom of allowing the Keimon to wander off on his own, Paul bent to examine the array of readouts. His facility with the written language of Spicor was growing, assisted by the 'sleep-learning' Tyl had supplied. He found the characters the worst, though; and it did not really help him much when Ed pointed out that Sanskrit was the basis language of Hindi. He didn't know that language, either.

Oddly, there was a notepad on the bench, and it was handwritten. "Tyl, do you see this?"

"I do." There was a distinct edge to the prince's voice.

Paul looked up. To his puzzlement, Tyl was looking quite angry. "What is it? What's wrong?"

"I thought he was dead." Tyl's voice was bitter. "He would have been. He should be."

He touched the sigil at his throat. It was a shield shape in gold, enclosing the Merrel family crest. Although similar to the sigil that had been worn by Azan Pavlor, it differed in that its shield shape was not solid but an outline, as was the crest itself. And the crest was different.

"You don't wear the royal badge," Paul guessed. "Azan did, so does Amet… but not you."

"I do not."

>From Tyl's expression, and the way he bit off the words with finality, Paul thought that was all he was going to get; but the prince drew a deep breath, regaining control of himself.

"My apologies, Companion." Tyl's voice was tight with anger, but not, Paul realised, directed at him. "The Keimon has appointed you liaison between Earth and Spicor. You need to know this... Zemerad deserted us in our time of need. He was the Indar… the head of our royal class, you would say 'emperor'. The plague was the latest in a long line of troubles to beset us. We know now those troubles were instigated by the rebels from Arkadia, but at the time -" He took a breath. "They masqueraded as our friends. They spread among us, affecting - contaminating - our culture, our land, even our language. He did nothing to prevent it. And having left us to our own devices, he disappeared."

"If he had anything to do with the Prithvi colony that we know as 'Earth', that makes him about 25000 years old," Paul commented, drily. "But if that is his handwriting, it was only done a month ago, or less."

"It must be that he used a stasis chamber."

"I see… So he's around here somewhere?"

"Ask the Keimon," Tyl suggested.

Paul said aloud, for the prince's benefit: "Ed, how are you doing?"

I have not found anyone. You?

"Just a note from someone Tyl calls the Emperor of Spicor. Possibly hostile."

Paul could almost feel his brother's eyebrows lifting, though from understanding rather than surprise. That is unexpected. Is he still alive, then?

"It is likely, Sire," Tyl responded. "I should warn you - I have never liked the man, so I cannot give you an unbiased opinion. But it is likely he is in the area."

Noted. I don't have to say, keep your eyes open.


Being careful to hide his inner thoughts from his brother - which was far from easy - Ed reviewed his evaluation of the situation.

Johnny was here, on this moon of Prasta. So was the Indar. The third entity he had sensed was related to the Aethon, the immature being the proto-Keimon had met and bested before, in Antarctica.

But while the Aethon was young and undeveloped, unaware of the effects and implications of Its actions, the older being - who thought of Itself as the Aelar - most certainly was not. It had plans, intentions. It had influenced the Indar to assist It in carrying out those plans. Somehow It had been thwarted. The Indar had been immobilised, most probably in a stasis chamber like the ones Straker had found at the Antarctic base. Now the Indar was awake and out of stasis, and the Aelar could act.

Its intentions were unclear in detail, but their thrust was only too apparent. Here on this moon, there was something, some weapon, which It would use to wreak havoc on Spicor and its colonies. What this thing was, Ed did not know in detail; where it was, he could make a guess. To reach it, he would need to disable the Indar, possibly kill him, but he fervently hoped that could be avoided.

If it could not, he hoped that would be the only casualty.

He checked again. He could detect Johnny, and Paul, and the Indar; and he could feel matters coming to a head.


Paul turned back to the work-desk. He reached out to touch a control, but recoiled at a sharp hiss. Sparks flew from the metal.

A voice sounded behind them. "Do not move."

"You!" spat the prince. "Zemerad!"


Very carefully and slowly, Paul turned to look.

The man Tyl had named 'Zemerad' stood before them regarding them steadily, with what was clearly a weapon in his hand. He was dressed in black from head to toe, his visible skin was pale green, and - unusually in Paul's admittedly limited experience of the Spicor people - he was bearded, to the chest.

And he seemed young. He looked to be about Ed's age. Though, Paul realised, if Tyl was right, his actual age was far greater.

"I know you," Zemerad said. "At least, I know your origin. You are Arkad. Tell me why I need not kill you, and your fellow."

"I am not Arkad," Tyl said, tightly. "My friend here, whose name is Paul, is not even of Spicor. He is of Earth. We used to call it Prithvi, but no more."

Zemerad stared at Paul, with undisguised - though muted - loathing. "You lie. This 'friend' has never flown. He has clearly never used the cocoon."

"We were able to modify the skimmer, to have no need for the cocoon - "

He broke off as Zemerad fired once more. This time the energy bolt struck the wall beside Tyl.

"That is not possible. It would involve cooling the pilot to the zero point. But…" Zemerad stopped, evidently considering the man before him. Paul did not interrupt; Tyl was frowning. "And yet you are here. You are clearly not of us, nor of the Arkad traitors. What, then, are you?"

"I was born on the planet we call Earth," Paul said steadily. "I am given to understand that it was colonised by Arkadia of Spicor many millennia ago. I came here, with Tyl, in a skimmer modified by a scholar of physics."

"You will understand that I do not find it easy to believe you," Zemerad said, drily. "Perhaps you should show me this skimmer. Is your other companion aboard it?"

"My - other companion?"

"There were three of you, as reported by the navistar network. Who was he?"

"I shall not say," Merrel snapped; but Paul was gazing at Zemerad, brows furrowed in thought. Something about the man reminded him of a situation...

And then he remembered. Zemerad's eyes were dark, but in them was an elusive glimmer of blue-green light, which he had last seen in the Antarctic base that had been set up by the Arkad rebels.

Carefully, he opened his link to the Keimon. Ed, Zemerad is here, he's got us at gunpoint, and I think that Aethon is back.

There was no response. Thoroughly alarmed, Paul tried the contact again; but at that moment Zemerad staggered. Dropping his weapon, eyes screwed in pain, the man fell to his knees.

Tyl took a step forward, but Paul gripped his arm. "No. Not yet. Something's happened to him, and I think I know what - "


Once again, Ed had come to a door; but it was not one his Kei-link to Johnny had known. Certainly the boy had not opened it. As a result, Ed could 'see' only a blank formless rectangle, as though the Kei were inserting representative images from Its host's memories.

Still, that was helpful. Checking with the Kei that there was air beyond, Ed located the sense plate that opened the door, and spread his fingers across it. He heard it slide open, with a slight squeak from an ancient mechanism. He stood there for a few moments, allowing the Kei to digest what It saw, and slowly shapes began to form in his 'vision', some recognisable.

He was standing in a huge chamber that reminded him very much of the 'hangar' at Dyaus that was used to store and work on skimmers; but this place, big though it seemed, was almost empty. There was only one craft present. A little larger than any skimmer he had yet seen, it was in a mechanism that he knew: a launch cradle.

Carefully picking his way across possible obstacles, half-seen, half suspected, he walked to the cradle. He put out a hand to touch it -

"Stop right there!"

"Of course, John." Ed managed a smile. "May I turn, to face you?"

"What did you do to her?" the youth demanded, harshly.

Startled, Ed blinked. There had been no suggestion of anything like this in the surface thoughts that had reached him from Johnny's mind. He consulted the Kei, who obliged with a view of the boy's face - and more.

He could discern clearly the ghostly figure of Mary, standing behind the boy, and smiling; and he could detect in John's gaze a familiar, icy, blue-green glitter.

Kill him, she was whispering. Do it now.

John lifted a weapon unfamiliar to Straker; but he needed none himself. He lifted his hand, and the Kei gathered Itself and streaked forward. As It had done once before, It passed without hurt or damage through John's body, and struck the thing that was masquerading as the boy's mother.

'Mary' screamed. The sound faded, oddly, as though she were receding into an unknowable distance, and her phantom was gone.

John staggered a little, his weapon drooping, and Ed ran to him. Gently he lowered the boy into a sitting position. "Wh - where is she? My mother? Did - did you kill her?"

"She was never here, John." Ed examined the boy closely, satisfying himself that the baleful influence controlling the boy had gone, the tell-tale glitter vanished from his eyes. "What you saw was an apparition generated by someone I've met before, or at least one of his colleagues. Paul has met him also… What brought you here, anyway?"

"I..." John rubbed his eyes. "I was… I was chasing you. Something was wrong. I had gone to look at - at my mother, my real one, Mary… I felt her thoughts…Then I connected to you… I knew what you had done, how you nearly…"

He shook his head again, sharply. Ed did not interrupt.

"I didn't know if you were being attacked by the rebels, or were just angry. I had to reach you, to have it out with you."

"Well, now's your chance." Ed drew a breath. "Actually it was a bit of both… The rebels had been working on me for a while, weeks at least. The effect was to increase the depression I had - "

"What were you depressed about?" John demanded.

"Recovery from illness and injury is always depressing," Ed said, with a wry smile. "And frustrating… One of the rebels, named Gimen, was very good at direct manipulation, he amplified my feelings… and then he represented you to me as… a killer. One who had taken the life of my brother. One who had done that, without regret or remorse. Of course," he said quickly, "you had done no such thing - "

John used a word which Ed did not need translating; it was clearly an Arkad expletive. "Of course I had not! I stopped Gimen from killing Paul - "

"You sure did," Ed said, quietly. "And for that I am eternally grateful."

He put out a hand to the youth, helping him to stand. John gave a shaky smile. "Gimen has a lot to answer for, I think."

"It's a bit late for that… Where is Paul now, by the way? And Tyl Merrel? I left them with our skimmer, but they were going to take a look round."

"Call them?" John suggested.

"In a moment. First we must inspect this device."

The youth stared at the assembly before them. "That's a launch cradle, surely?" he said, slowly.

"It sure is," Ed returned, grimly. "We need to know more about what it's designed to launch. And for that there's someone we need to talk to."

The craft before them was sitting in a hollowed-out area, which ensured that its entrance hatch could be accessed from the floor with ease. Ed strode forward, and placed his hand on the access panel. It opened, more smoothly and silently than the main door. Inside, the darkness was dispersed as internal lighting came on. They both recognised a typical skimmer control layout, but with an exception.

"What's that?" John said, softly.

'That' was a bulge in the floor. It appeared to be hemispherical in shape, but Ed rather suspected it was a complete sphere. He reached out to touch it, but John interrupted him. "I wouldn't, sir,", he said, urgently. "I've seen something like this before, in one of the rooms here."

"Describe what you saw."

As John told him of the curious, man-shaped cabinet, with its odd not-quite-opaque cover, Ed nodded. "Sounds like a stasis chamber to me. And I think I know who was in that one… but this is designed for something much bigger."

"What, sir?"

"Let's not leap to conclusions." Paul, where are you? he added silently.

I'm with Tyl. The relief in Paul's mental 'voice' was palpable. And we've got company. And he's not exactly friendly. But I don't think he's going to give us any trouble.

Look after him, Ed directed. We're on our way.

He considered; then he made a decision. If the situation was as he feared, he needed to know.

Kei, I need help here. This is what I have to do. Is it possible?

There was, again, that slight sense of the Entity feeling almost insulted. It is. An instant of physical contact is required.

Thus? Ed laid his hand on his son's shoulder. As he did so, a form took shape, a translucent, nearly invisible presence. The avatar of himself moved to the boy, becoming more solid. He watched as it smiled down at John, urging him to leave. The access panel closed behind them.

Ed took a breath, checking his Kei-sight, and ensuring that he could not be perceived by his erstwhile companions. Then he turned back to the thing before him.


Between them, Paul and Tyl manoeuvred Zemerad onto a bench. He seemed barely aware of them, as they lowered him to lie flat. Paul checked his pulse, which was fast, thready.

"I do not question the Keimon," Tyl said tightly, "but what interest can he possibly - "

"Wait. He seems to be coming out of it."

* * *

As though from a great distance, Zemerad could hear voices. Hazily he recalled the interlopers, whose tongue he could barely understand.

But the Aelar was gone.

That presence, which had dominated his waking moments for so long, was gone, vanished, as though it had never existed. Only one entity had the power to oppose creatures of the Aelar's ilk; and he was long dead.

And then he heard someone speak, in a voice he recognised as that of the 'Arkad'. Realising he was lying flat, he opened his eyes and tried to raise himself.

"Hold still, I should." It was the second man, the one who claimed to be from Prithvi. "You've taken a bit of a jolt, but you don't need to worry - "

Zemerad pushed aside the restraining arm and managed to sit up. "Who are you?" he demanded, thickly. "What have you done? How… how am I… free?" This last was said in a tone of soft wonder.

Tyl drew in a sharp breath. "Free of what?" Paul asked gently.

"In a moment, if you will," Zemerad said, his voice gaining strength. "Do I mistake, or did you mention the Keimon - "

"He sure did," Ed's voice said. "Hello, Zemerad. So this is what happened to you."

Zemerad shot to his feet, this time glad of the support from the Prithvian. "Sire - "

"Please remain seated," said the Keimon, "you look none too steady."

Gratefully, the Spicor leader resumed his seat. "Sire, my most sincere and heartfelt apologies. To you also, man of Arkad as I thought. May I know your name?"

Tyl had been watching the exchange with his Keimon, in increasing puzzlement. He glanced at Ed, who gave a nod, and took a breath. "Your - your grace - I am Tyl, prince of Merrel Demesne. I was secretary to my kinsman Azan Pavlor, Devas of the Prithvi system and colony. Azan was killed by the Arkads, whom the Keimon has designated rebels and cast out of Spicor. He exiled them to their own planet… It is a long tale, and I know not if we have time to speak it now - "

"We don't, but thank you, Tyl."

Abruptly, Zemerad realised that the Keimon was not alone. Beside him was a youth, barely into his adult life, but strikingly similar to the older man. The Keimon waved him forward. "This is John, my son. We have been exploring, and have made an alarming find - but we have time to attend to it. Sit down, everyone.Your grace, please tell me as briefly as you can, what happened to you?"

"My last clear memory was of being accosted by my assistant and supposed friend, Felden, during a meeting which had turned violent. When next I became aware, I was in a stasis module, and by certain indications - " He fingered his beard - "I realised that much time had passed. I emerged from the module and sought any of the staff. There were none to be found. My alertness came to the attention of an entity with whom I had had previous contact, who had offered me assistance before, but whom I had begun to regard with caution."

"Who was this entity?" the Keimon asked.

"It is difficult to describe, Sire. A non-material being, whom I called the Aelar - " Zemerad broke off at seeing the rueful grin on the Prithvian's face. "You know of It?"

"We've met him, or at least one of his, er, colleagues," the Prithvian confirmed. "Please, call me Paul… You spoke just now of being 'free'. Had he been influencing you, controlling you?"

"It had. Sire, I cannot apologise enough - "

"No need," said the Keimon, quietly. "Also, no time. We must contact Varna swiftly. But first I need to speak with you."

"I am at your service, Sire."

"Then, your grace, would you permit me to access your thoughts? It would speed things immeasurably - "

"Of course, Sire." The Indar relaxed in his seat. He felt the communication from his Keimon, as a cascade of images. Some of them startled him; and then surprise changed to alarm. The Keimon gave him reassurance, and he signalled his agreement.

At last the Keimon-avatar smiled. "Thank you, Zemerad. Now we must investigate the navistar network, and determine how we came to be at Prasta rather than Varna."

He motioned for them to seat themselves, and glanced towards his son. "Johnny, did you stop off at Varna first?"

The youth shook his head. "I came here direct, not using the navistars."

"That may be it, Sire," Tyl interposed. "You recall that our transition from the network was unusually smooth. I would hazard a guess that our path changed then, and sent us here."

"Was that your doing, Zemerad?" the Keimon asked.

"It was not, Sire, at least not that I am aware of. It may, of course, have been the Aelar's doing."

"No doubt… Well, if we are to return safely to Varna, we must determine whether the navistar net is functional, or compromised. Zemerad, I need a control station."

"At once, Sire," Zemerad said, coming to his feet once more, though a little unsteadily. "Would you all follow me, please?"

Zemerad opened the door at the edge of the chamber. With a nod to Paul, Ed took position behind the 'emperor' with John, and the group followed them. A short walk took them back to the room with the control desk.

"This should meet our needs, Sire."

"No doubt… John, may I ask your assistance here?" To Zemerad, the Keimon added: "Your grace, I regret that - due to my own foolishness - my sight is not functioning. But with the consent of my Companions, and the assistance of the Kei, I am able to 'borrow' that facility."

Blinking a little, Zemerad gave a nod. "Then I shall explain the system. Please be sure to ask if you need anything clarified."

Paul and Tyl gave close attention as the 'emperor' talked. At length, Paul said, frowning: "So they shut off part of the navinet to steer us in the wrong direction?"

"It is more subtle than that," Tyl commented. "I would say that the navinet was originally set up in a configuration that included the path to Prasta. The local loop to Varna was added later. Is that indeed so… your grace?"

"It would appear so," Zemerad agreed, his tone grim. "There was an intent here, an intent to conceal something, by a group not friendly to Spicor. If we are speaking of the Arkads here - "

"I think we are, yes," the Keimon put in.

"Then they were preparing for a long interval. Though, perhaps, the interval is longer than they intended. We need urgently to know what happened."

"I have acquired some knowledge from the Kei," Ed said. "That knowledge stream ended with the assassination of my predecessor, some 25000 years ago. He was able, however, to protect his family."

Paul raised an eyebrow. "Your ancestors? And mine?"

"Indeed," Ed confirmed, with a slight smile. "But reminiscences will have to wait... Are we happy with the status of the navinet? Zemerad?"

"I have had the system run a full check of its status. We may use it safely. I am happy to guide us, Sire."

"Thank you… Tyl?" The prince gave a nod, which Ed acknowledged. "Good. Then we must decide how to proceed. Tyl, what kind of reception might we expect?"

"If you refer to the return of the Indar," the prince said carefully "I would guess a cautious if surprised greeting. Of course, since he is in the company of the Keimon, Companion, there is unlikely to be violence."

"That's a relief," murmured Paul.

"We had better move," Ed said. "Tyl, please lead the way to your skimmer. We will follow in the 'Swift'."

As they left, Paul hung back a little, while Tyl explained the situation to Zemerad. He was aware of a sort of 'blankness' in his Kei-link to Ed; but he could not say why that should be. It was as though the older man was shielding something from onlookers. There was danger involved, Paul could tell, but Ed was not the source of that danger.

Just like him, Paul thought ruefully, to play his cards close to his chest. Well, we'll find out what it's all about soon enough.


When his avatar had departed with his son, the Keimon transferred his attention to the stasis bubble in the cabin floor. He was frustrated, and angry. His frustration was born of his lost ability to see, though the Kei was compensating for that as best It could. It did not help that he had done the damage himself!

But he was angry only partly at himself. Most of his wrath was directed at the criminal idiots who had built this device.

Don't mince words, he told himself. You're not just angry. You're terrified.

Perhaps, he thought, this 'Aelar' of which Zemerad had spoken was behind it all. That entity's young compatriot, the 'Aethon', was too immature to have realised the mess it was in. Maybe when Felden, the Indar's aide, had confined Zemerad to a stasis chamber, he had done so with the best intentions, for the result of his actions had been to render the Aelar powerless.

Ed was coming to realise that while the Aethon was a child, the Aelar was a master criminal, probably a fugitive from its own people. The weapon he had persuaded the people of the Sura system to build, telling them it would calm their star for them, reducing its tendency to flare, was nothing of the sort. It would be sent to the primary, start the flaring process, and slide into the Aelar's continuum to protect itself as Sura exploded.

There was only one place where such a device could be sent to its own destruction.

And he, the Keimon, would ensure it arrived there.


Tyl piloted them through the navistar network with a practised hand. As they came off the net, he called ahead. His hail was answered by Nepetane, Deputy Speaker of the Council, whom Tyl knew slightly; she seemed very surprised.

"Prince Merrel? What are you doing here? We thought you were at Prithvi!"

"I was indeed. But circumstances required my return. How goes? Have there been further problems with the Plague?"

"None, sir," Nepetane replied. "But I am puzzled, for the navinet did not report any activity."

"You ned not worry on that score. I bring passengers, with news important to Varna. Please assemble the Council. I request permission to land, with my companions in the other skimmer. "

"Bay 4 is clear, sir, for both craft."

Tyl thanked her, and headed for the site, John following in his 'Swift'. Since Varna was mostly subsurface, entry was by way of a column normally filled with water, like the 'water-locks' on Dyaus. Although these were not intentionally hidden, they had become somewhat overgrown, and could be difficult to locate.

When Tyl's skimmer finally reached its docking bay, its passengers disembarked. Nepetane got another shock. "Sir, you are not cocooned!"

"It is a long and complex tale. Apologies, we have no time to recount it now. I wish to introduce these visitors, to the council."

"They await you in the Chamber, sir. Please follow me."

The Varna council chamber was a long hall, sparsely furnished, comfortable enough but not luxurious. Nepetane had made seats available, but the visitors did not sit immediately. Tyl made the introductions.

"Councillors," he said, "my two companions here you know of, though they have long been - out of circulation. This man you may recognise. He is Zemerad, the Indar."

There was a storm of protest. "This man was exiled! We thought him dead! He should be - "

Zemerad lifted a hand. The noise died down a little. When he could be heard, he said: "I admit that - that I did not serve my people well. I allowed a malign influence to control me. Apologies are not enough, though I offer them. I ask only that you hear me out."

"Go on," said Nepetane, stiffly.

"This malign entity seduced me into thinking that It alone could help Varna, and Spicor itself, against the Plague. This It had no intention of doing. It sought only the destruction of us all. I was rescued from It by the only being with that capacity - the Keimon himself." He held out a hand. "This is he."

The avatar, now in royal robes, came forward into their view. Freeman had seen that outfit once before, and would have recognised the lustrous white tunic and 'slipper-socks'. And he would certainly have noted the crystalline glint of the Kei, worn - if that was the right term - on the wrist.

The council members certainly did notice it. A hush fell.

"Thank you, Tyl, Prince of Merrel Demesne. Councillors of Varna, I greet you."

Nepetane gazed as if mesmerised at the Kei, then tore her gaze away and stared up into the face of her Keimon. "It is truly you, Sire," she whispered. "I could hardly believe it, when - when Devas Pavlor told us… surely, you died at Prithvi?"

"Indeed, my predecessor did give his life, for Spicor's protection. But now, the Keimon has once more been called into existence, for there is much to do… If the council will be seated, I call to the lectern a man from that colony. He is one of my companions, a man born on Earth, for so is named the Prithvian planet. His name is Commander Paul Foster. The authorities on Earth have appointed him primary Ambassador to Spicor."

Paul stood at the lectern. "May I ask your name, Councillor?"

"I am Nepetane Hidras, High Council Member and Deputy Speaker for Segment Varna-Udich." Paul recognised that as a Sanskrit word meaning North. "What can you tell us, Paul Foster?"

"Much," Paul smiled. He had been considering the matter for only a short time - the few weeks of the run-up to the skimmer's departure from Dyaus for Varna - but he had made good use of the time, and was ready to introduce the people of this small world to the idea that Spicor was about to be enlarged. "First, though, I regretfully inform you that Devas Pavlor died at the hands of the Arkad rebels. He has been replaced by his son, Amet Pavlor, both as Devas and as Ambassador to Earth, as we people name it."

Paul gave them a few moments to absorb this. He continued, with a nod in the avatar's direction: "As for the Arkad rebels themselves, the Keimon has exiled them to their planet of origin. They should trouble us no more."

I hope, Ed thought to himself.

"My purpose now," Paul said steadily, "is to present to you the case for Earth to be aligned with the worlds of Spicor. I confidently expect this process to be a lengthy one, and it will change Earth as much, if not more, as it might change Spicor. I will summarise now, for these Council Members, the main areas that our United Nations has proposed; and I would like comments and suggestions from you all…"


The Council session, 'introductory' though it was, took several hours. When it became apparent that the discussion was becoming more positive, Paul suggested a break for refreshment, and for a talk with his brother.

"Ed," he said, "why do I get the impression you want to return to Earth?"

"Possibly because I do," said the avatar. "There is something I need to settle there. Tyl?"

"Sire, you have but to make your request."

"Thank you… Then may I leave Paul in your care, while I do what needs to be done? John has agreed to provide me with transport to Earth, and would be best accompanied by one of your colleagues. if you would recommend one."

"Then, Sire," Tyl said, "may I suggest my niece, Gypsa. She is one of an experimental project to encourage females to become skimmer pilots, and would find the experience helpful. She is knowledgeable in diplomatic matters."

"Sounds ideal… John, what do you think?"

"Fine by me."

Ed caught the slight reluctance in his son's tone; but he also caught Tyl's quietly amused expression. "How old is Gypsa, Tyl?"

"In Earth terms, about eighteen years. I can show you an image."

He turned to a nearby bench, and touched certain places in a sequence. An image formed, of a young woman with a quiet, intent face, attractive rather than beautiful.

"I should watch it, John," murmured Paul. "She'd have you for breakfast."

John snorted. Tyl looked shocked, then relieved. He cleared his throat. "When do you wish to depart, Sire?"

"The sooner the better, I think. First I need to speak with Zemerad."

The Keimon-avatar motioned the Indar to one side, then placed a privacy shield around them. "Go right ahead, Zemerad. We cannot be heard. You may speak freely."

The Indar gave a nod. "I thank you… I am tired, Sire. Worse than that. I am… not dispirited, exactly. Not burdened, though there is an element of that…"

He gazed at the plates of food on the serving-table, and did not speak for a time. The Keimon did not disturb his thoughts.

"Sire," he said quietly, at last, "I have sent people to their deaths. In their hundreds, their thousands. And what of the people they are killing? I cannot think of those as non-humans. These are sons, daughters, they have mothers, fathers, siblings, who grieve for them, as do my own people. What right have I to ask any of them to die?"

Ed knew exactly how the Indar felt. He had felt the same sadness for the then-unknown pilots of the mystery craft they had once called UFOs.

And through the Kei, whose former hosts had also felt that grief, he had come to know the answer. It was not a comfort; but it was all that was possible.

"Zemerad," he said, gently, "you and I are called to a task. It is never an easy one. It is to steer our peoples through evil, and pain, and loss, to better things. Lives will often be lost in the process; but should we shrink from that? Or should we shoulder that burden, no matter how it hurts us, that our people may know a better tomorrow?"

The Indar did not answer, for a moment; and then, he turned, and looked at his Keimon. A tear began to trickle down his cheek.

And he smiled.

"You are right." he said, softly. "Of course. You are right."

They clasped hands. Zemerad drew a deep breath. "There is one other thing. Saving your indulgence, Sire, may I look upon the Kei?"

"Of course," Ed said, a little puzzled. He held out his wrist, where crystal glinted.

"May I touch It?"

"I must caution against it. As Azan Pavlor discovered, It can - "

"The Kei will not harm me." The Indar put out his own hand; the band became a shimmering cloud, then contracted to a softly-shining sphere. He grasped it. "You see, Sire, I made It. And over the millennia, It has grown, learned." He handed it back. "Unless I am mistaken, your dual will need it, Keimon-Avatar."

"I shall."

"And now," Zemerad said, "when this meeting is complete, I think I will shave off this awful beard."

And when you do, the Keimon thought silently, you will forget all about me. And so must John Koenig and his friends, for their own protection. But they will remember me, when the time comes.


In the launch cradle, the Keimon waited until John and the avatar had departed, then walked through the access panel, and gave his attention to the object before him. The pearlescent globe seemed to hover above the floor, its surface showing occasional gleams. When Ed looked more closely, though, those gleams were not reflections of its surroundings, but echoes of the past, images from long ago frozen in time.

It's been thousands of years, Ed realised, since this evil thing was sealed away.

And now I have to waken it.

The Keimon's sightless eyes glinted silver. He lifted his hand, the Kei glimmering on his wrist. Its light shimmered nervously, as though It recognised the thing before It.

The Kei does indeed recognise this weapon.

Surprised, and a little concerned at the evident fear in the Entity's mental 'voice', the Keimon sent: You understand what has to be done?

The Kei understands, and endorses the action.

Very well.

For a moment the Keimon paused, checking his awareness. He could locate Paul, and Tyl, and Zemerad, who was struggling towards wakefulness. And he could feel the presence of his son. They were all safe. And his avatar accompanied them, ready for the forthcoming meeting.

Satisfied, he directed the Kei to shut off all communications bar the avatar. And he gestured towards the huge pearly globe.

Its surface seemed to hurtle outward - though it did not actually move - as the ancient images caught up with current reality. When all had stabilised, the old star-craft lay revealed, pristine in its newness, as though it had been completed only yesterday.

Which it had, in a way, the Keimon knew. It had been built by the entity calling itself Aelar, and its sole purpose was to give that entity total power over Spicor; ultimately to destroy it. Aelar had been partially successful in that aim, the Plague being one of the weapons used; but prompt action by some of Zemerad's councillors had - for a while - frustrated the entity's intentions.

Even though, Ed had realised, they had not known the nature of the threat Spicor faced.

He gestured once more, and an opening appeared in the hull of the strange craft, with a ramp leading down to him. Taking one last glance around at the hangar, he drew a deep breath, and boarded the vessel. The ramp withdrew and the opening vanished.

He set his hands to the controls. Oddly, his blindness seemed to help rather than hinder. Perhaps the Kei was giving direct access to Its own perceptions, so that its host became aware of so much more.

When he had been kidnapped by the rebels and taken to Dyaus, he had speculated on the possibility of there being a wormhole nearby. The Kei had confirmed this, but had also said that the knowledge of its existence had been erased from Spicor records. Its own memories were untouched, but It found them curiously difficult to access, even when pressed.

Wormholes were never stable, since they were generated by stellar movements around a galactic hub, and relative positions between stars were always - though slowly - changing; but nevertheless, their lifetimes could be measured in thousands to tens of thousands of years.

This wormhole was still active; it led to Proxima Centauri. But only the Arkads new about it, and about its instability being due to the movement of Proxima. The little red dwarf was thought by some Earth astronomers to have drifted into the Alpha Centauri system and been captured; and some of those astronomers thought that capture temporary. The Keimon knew they were right. He had used that wormhole to steer the captured rebels from Arkad thousands of years into the past.

But those same astronomers did not suspect the existence of the black hole in the Kuiper belt around Sol. A safe place to dump this weapon.

He set his course, saddened by the fact that he could not witness in person the reunion that he had set up with John and Mary; but he would have to shepherd this weapon over the event horizon. He would be able to watch Johnny come home, via his avatar; and then… who knew?

He might - or might not - be able to escape. He intended to try; but the disposal of the evil thing came first.


The months passed. The drive used by the skimmers made it possible for them to exceed the speed of light, in a way which Ed's own knowledge of astrophysics could barely grasp. They completed the journey in less than a tenth of the time taken by light's plodding pace once thought to be impossible to exceed.

As before, the 'Swift' and its hidden companion dropped out of drive occasionally. Ed was pleased. He had covertly 'borrowed' John's perception to read and use the controls here, checked with him, and confirmed his course was on track.

They entered the Solar System together. Ed located the Kuiper belt. The black hole would not be easy to find, but there was a quick way. Of its nature, the object he sought would distort the light of stars behind it in a phenomenon known as 'lensing', spreading their images out into short arcs. His Kei-enhanced perception would make those arcs stand out.

And they did.

There it was, a near-invisible blank in the darkness of interplanetary space, with those stellar curves pinpointing its centre.

The Keimon set his course for that blank zone, and waited.


Far away, on Ed Straker's home planet, John's skimmer, the 'Swift', was nearing its own objective. Captain Ellis was watching as SHADO's monitor station 'SID' tracked its path. She gave an order, and an Interceptor launched to meet it, to escort it to Earth. Even now, after these months of peace, she could not help feeling the tiniest bit anxious.

She could tell that Nina and Chan felt the same, from the tautness of their backs, as they watched the screens alertly. Joan was not here; through her Emblem link to the Kei, she had agreed to join her husband Alec in Jersey to bring John in to greet his mother.

John and his co-pilot had opted to go direct to the island, by night and under cover of screens. The avatar of his father would accompany him and Alec to the house for the meeting, while Joan would wait in the front garden with Gypsa.

Alec was waiting for them on the beach below the house. They kept the greetings short, for which John was grateful; his nervousness was increasing by the second. The couple embraced briefly; then Ed showed them the path to the top, from where they could reach the house itself.

As they climbed; he said quietly: "OK, John?"

John looked up at his father. He nodded, wordlessly.

He was about to meet his mother, for the first time as an adult. No matter that his personal timescale hade been telescoped, by the actions of the Arkad rebels. No matter that his education had been literally unearthly, showing him things that few present-day Earth inhabitants had seen. No matter that he could fly a skimmer, the interstellar spacecraft used by the people of Spicor. which had allowed him to go to another star.

He was desperately nervous. What if she didn't like him?

Despite his father's assurance, despite the advice from the empath Eleanor, despite the teasing from his uncle Paul, he could only think of all the things that could go so horribly wrong.

He felt his father squeeze his shoulder, lightly. "We'll be there in ten minutes," Ed said. The older man's voice was curiously distant.

Strange, he thought. He's more nervous than I am


Mary's restlessness would not let her settle to anything.

Knitting was no use; she had dropped stitch after stitch, making such a mess that she gave up, and hurled the untidy lump of wool into her workbasket. She rose, and wandered out into the garden for some fresh air. Gazing round at the flower beds, she noted distantly that they needed weeding, and grunted, impatiently. That would have to wait.

Wait for what? she suddenly wondered.

The antique opal twinkled on her finger as a thought struck her. About Ed. Her ex-husband, who had been injured in an air crash, so severely that he had been taken to a special clinic in his home town of Boston. Alec had handled the details, with assistance from that Mr Foster, whom she had mostly spoken to over the phone.

Ed. Her ex-husband. Who had been responsible for Johnny's death -

Another sudden thought, almost painful in its intensity, crashed into her mind. What if Johnny wasn't dead?

Ed had come back from the dead, hadn't he? What if Johnny had, also? What if the hospital had made a mistake - and didn't want to admit it?

Surely not, she thought, wildly. You're being ridiculous. They couldn't be so careless -

Or maybe it wasn't carelessness. What if it was M.I., still pulling Ed's strings, after all these years? Taking Johnny, kidnapping him, to use as a lever?

She glared unseeing at the Jersey lilies. "What the H### do they think they're doing?" she shouted, aloud.

And behind her there was the familiar snick as the gate to the front lawn opened. She swung round. It was Alec. He looked even more nervous than he had while visiting - six months ago? Seven? At any rate, it had been on their way to the hotel.

"Hullo, Mary," he said. "Good to see you... We've brought you a visitor."

"Alec…" She could hardly get the words out. "Alec… Is it…"

Someone else was coming through the gateway. Two someones, remarkably alike, but for age. The older had a steadying hand on the shoulder of the younger, and was urging him forward.

Mary shook her head, slowly, from side to side. She whispered: "Johnny..."

"Hello, Mother."

The two were utterly still; and then Mary threw herself forward. The youth came to meet her. They moved almost hesitantly into a hug, and the tears began to flow.


"Well, that reunion at last," Alec said. His smile was tinged with sadness.

He studied his friend. Ed's was also sad, but there was satisfaction, almost fulfilment, as he watched his son and Mary embrace.

At last Mary relaxed her grip, and moved back, a little. "You've grown," she whispered. Her dawning smile was joyful.

"I suppose I have," Johnny said, managing a smile. He looked up at his father. The avatar moved in to join in the group hug.


The craft had nearly reached the edge of the black hole, its 'event horizon'. Here the Keimon would release the weapon into the buffer zone, and monitor to ensure its fall into infinity.

There was a faint chance of escape. The event horizon was not a sharply-defined boundary. Because of the fundamentally noisy nature of space-time, it was more like a shoreline washed by waves, a fractal foam of warring gravities. He would need to steer the weapon into one of those waves which would swallow it up. If he was skilful - and lucky - he could stay on the 'shore' while the 'water' lapped around him.

He touched the trigger to open the hatch. The weapon seemed to hesitate, but the release mechanism urged it outward.

His craft was close behind it. Too close. He was sure he had been caught, but that was no longer important. The weapon was gone, beyond all hope of retrieval, and that was what mattered.

The only safe place, Ed thought, watching the blackness grow. Goodbye, everyone. Good luck, Alec, you and Joan make a fine couple.

Kei, you may leave.

There was a flash from his wrist, and the Kei was gone to Its new custodian.


After a few moments, the avatar stepped back a little. Mary mopped at her face."Please," she said, "come inside, let's all sit down. Alec, is Joan with you?"

"Right here. And this is Gypsa."

Alec let the pair go ahead into the granite cottage. He turned, with a somewhat watery smile. "Ed - "

But there was no-one there.


Commander John Koenig sat back in his seat, considering what he had just written in his journal. He smiled a little; Victor was always gently teasing him about writing with a pen rather than typing words into a keyboard. But he preferred this way; it was more immediate, more personal.

He hoped that Luke and Anna would thrive, and not be haunted by the loneliness of the planet.

But he was uneasy. The Arkadians had used force to get them to come here, taking control of the Moon, and threatening them with environment collapse. Surely, they could have just asked? Did they not trust the Alphans, their descendants, to help? Or were they simply desperate?

He remembered, suddenly, about the Keimon, who had exiled the rebels from Arkadia, sending them away. Then he himself had vanished. Had he somehow managed to send the rebels back -


The voice broke into his thoughts. Startled, he looked up. A young man, much younger than the Ed Straker he remembered but greatly resembling him, stood there, his face guarded.

And then he realised whom this had to be. "Johnny!"


"It's good to see you!" Koenig came to his feet and put out a hand to shake that of the younger; but it passed straight through. "What - ?"

"Sorry about the projection," Johnny said. "It's necessary, I'm afraid. Yes, the rebels were sent back; and they were the ones who inflicted so much damage on this world. And it was I who took control of this moon, to bring you here."

"And were you indeed that desperate?"

"I'm afraid so." Johnny smiled, a little awkwardly. "I apologise for the rough treatment… This moon's path through the cosmos is random, unpredictable. It would probably not enter this sector again, not for many years, at least. I had to ensure your arrival, to bring the right people here, who will indeed make Arkadia live again as she was intended to."

"But surely - "

"This was the only way, Commander. I am sorry."

The young man lifted his hand in salute. The crystalline band of the Kei sparkled on his wrist. And he vanished.

Commander Koenig stared after him; and then, slowly, he began to smile.



A black hole in the solar system?

Coastline fractal

The Works of Snowleopard

The Library Entrance