First 4 chapters – Traitor’s Bargain

Chapter 1

Unknown Sector / Lenticular

The transport ship was hunting me and I had no way of knowing where it was. I was going to die.
            I nudged the thruster, bringing the pod I’d stolen closer to the asteroid’s rough striated surface. A flash of brilliance to my left, and a smaller rock burst apart at the far edge of the asteroid field. Debris smashed into neighbouring rocks, setting up a rippling cascade of collisions. The direction of the burst gave me a momentary fix on the transport’s position.
            I eased the pod around the asteroid, so close now the hull scraped across it. A wave of dizziness took me and my vision faded.

I lay on the table where they’d excised me. But my mantle was already gone. What more could they take?
            Bright lights. Alien voices. But no pain this time. No sensation at all.

I jerked awake as the light from another blast blossomed silently near the centre of the asteroid field. I was still sheltered against the large rock, but if I blacked out again …
            The next explosion was closer, but behind me. The pod’s hull rang with an ominous sound then another long scrape. A second asteroid had been pushed against the pod. I was trapped on both sides. If I moved again I’d disturb the rocks I was nestled between and the transport would find me.
            The best thing to do was sleep. Conserve air.
            I got as comfortable as possible, then concentrated, slowing the rush of air through spiracles. I felt my pulse points slow in response and let exhaustion take me.

            The voice that spoke my name sounded odd. Attenuated, like sound through a door. Like I was the door, vibrating in sympathy.
            White walls glowed with their own inner light. Someone spoke again. But they were too far away to hear me answer.

I woke. A light flashed on the control array. The air supply was almost gone but I hadn’t been asleep that long. Whoever owned the escape pod hadn’t kept the tanks filled. If I drifted back into comfortable unconsciousness I’d suffocate. But each second I survived made me hungry for another and another. If I was going to die, I’d die doing something.
            I eased the thrusters back and forth, gently pushing against one asteroid then the other. There was a disconcerting scraping noise, but it was working. The gap between the rock faces opened until I could see stars above me. I sent the pod moving up. As I cleared the rocks, I looked through the ports front and back, to the side and above, trying to spot the transport. I wanted to see the ship if it was going to fire on me.
            No killing shot came. But the transport might be on the other side of the field, manoeuvring towards me.
            “Come on,” I said, my voice hoarse and desperate. Where were they?
            A chime sounded. My air was exhausted.
            I floated above the asteroid field, close to the centre. The thin air wheezed through my spiracles. I blinked as a darkness deeper than the starfield closed around my vision. I was losing consciousness.
            The pod turned. There was movement out near the edge of the field. A ship. Or maybe my imagination.

“Udun.” The same voice spoke my name.
            I opened my eyes, but they refused to focus even with the desert eyelid. A shape moved closer. I tried to speak but something was clamped to my feeders. I made to lift my claws to brush it away. My arms were bound at my sides. My hoofs couldn’t find purchase.
            “Udun, it’s Emba. Calm down. You’ll hurt yourself.”
            I pulled harder but I couldn’t move. I was submerged in liquid, but a liquid I could breathe.
            The shape moved again. Hard to see. Emba? We’d met on Telsus IV when I was setting up the secret trade deal for Hierarch Czerag. Emba had introduced me to Atalna, who’d warned me about … the Hegemony. The invasion. I had to warn him but the thing around my feeders made it impossible. I kicked and my hoof hit something. There was a dull ringing. I kicked again.
            “Stop! You’ll smash the tank. Wait.”
            My body was pulled down and I touched bottom. The liquid was draining into the floor.
            “Just wait,” Emba said again. “You’ve been sick. Injured. We had to put you in a coma while you healed. The tank’s cleansed the radioactives from you.”
            The liquid continued to drain and the level dropped past my eyes. I blinked, the inner eyelid flicking over, and saw Emba through the crystal wall of the tank.
            “You’re healed now,” he said.
            But I’d never be completely healed. I still felt the laser searing away my mantle flesh. When I closed my eyes I could see my sister Isza blown apart on Treaty Mount steps.
            My arms were released, but as the liquid sucked away gravity fully asserted itself and I slumped against the tank wall, barely able to stay upright. The crystal slid aside and the cold air stung the hide beneath my plates.
            Emba tried to help me stand but I was too heavy for him. I fell forward, taking him with me, and we landed together on the floor.
            He wriggled out from under me.
            “Emba,” I rasped, “I have to warn y–”
            “You have to help me get you into bed. Then you can warn me.” He scuttled behind me and helped me to sit up. Then he grabbed at my torso plates and dragged me backwards. “Come on. We need to do this together.” He grunted as he gave another pull. “I told the house staff to take a holiday when I knew you were coming.”
            I pushed with my hoofs against the carpet and in this way we slid across to the bed. With his help I was able to haul myself up on to the broad platform. Finally, I lay across the mattress, out of breath, but I couldn’t wait any longer.
            “The Hegemony – they’ve invaded Homeworld. You have to warn the Lenticular.”
            Emba was puffing as he sat on the edge of the bed. “Save your words, Udun. We know what’s happened on Homeworld.”
            I lay back ready to hear more, but Emba was silent. “And?” I asked finally.
            “And nothing. Hierarch Kergis contacted the Lenticular Assembly and explained that there’s been a regime change on Homeworld. Trade is unimpeded and life goes on. It’s not for us to interfere in internal politics.”
            Kergis. I remembered the battle at the Point. The Hegemony ships streaming through, being met by our own forces. And then the Kergis ships pulled back and fired on the other Kresz Defender ships. Betraying us.
            I tried to push myself up, but my arms were too weak and I collapsed back onto the pillow. “There’s been an alien invasion by highly aggressive forces from outside the Lenticular,” I said. “Doesn’t that worry you?”
            “It’s highly unusual.”
            He wasn’t making any sense.
            I tried again. “My people are dying. You need to help them. The Lenticular needs to help them.”
            “Kergis has assured the Assembly that the Hegemony is no threat to the wider Lenticular,” Emba said.
            “And you believe him?”
            His snout wrinkled, showing sharp teeth. “Of course not. We’re on high alert. But there’s nothing to be gained from attacking them on Homeworld. If they move against us, we’ll be ready. Right now it’s a stalemate.” He stood. “You need to rest, Udun. We can talk about all of this when you’re stronger.”
            I tried to push myself up again, but it was no good. “Does anyone know I’m here?”
            “No. You were delirious when they picked you up, but you had enough wit to say my name. The freighter captain is a friend of mine. He contacted me and we felt it more prudent to bring you here with a minimum of fuss.”
            Prudent. This wasn’t the time to be prudent. I closed my eyes and saw the Hegemony ships boiling out of tenspace and our Defender craft exploding in gouts of flame. And then on Homeworld, the Hegemony troops firing at us on the runway of the spaceport, killing indiscriminately. Even forewarned I’d been unable to prevent the invasion. I should have done more to convince Czerag to alert the other houses.
            “It was harder getting the tank installed when the doctors told me you needed one,” Emba continued. “But you can –”
            “I want to see Atalna.”
            Emba stared at me. “That’s not a good idea.”
            “Pl–” My voice failed me. I tried again. “Please. Bring him here.”
            At least the Betlaan would understand what we were dealing with. He’d already suffered through a Hegemony invasion on his world.
            “All right. But only if you promise to sleep.”
            I felt I could never sleep again.

When I woke, the light filtering through my eyelids felt wrong. The wall beside me glowed blue-white. Of course. I was in Emba’s house.
            Without thinking, I rolled onto my back and realised there was no pain. I reached around to feel the ridge of flesh where the Hegemony had cut off my mantle. I’d become so used to the constant nagging ache or sharp shock if I jarred it, but now the skin was puckered but firm.
            The room was empty except for the bed and the tank I’d woken in. The tank looked out of place here, its crystal door still open, pipes and cables snaking from its sides across the carpet and into the wall.
            I pushed the bedcovers back and stood slowly. No dizziness. My muscles were tired but I felt I could walk a little.
            The door opened into a short corridor that ended in a blank wall with a sparkling piece of sculpture composed of shifting light and not much else. To my right the corridor led into a wide, low room with a long table and a sitting area with padded chairs. A crystal wall ran the length of the house and through it I could see a garden, illuminated by overhead lights set into a transparent dome. A gravel driveway separated the house from a central flower bed dominated by strange, many-stalked plants with fat pods on the end of thick, curling branches.
            The house seemed empty. I remembered Emba saying he’d sent the servants away. Right before he told me his government knew about the invasion of Homeworld. Why weren’t they and the other Lenticular governments planning a counterstrike? Were they all too scared to act? Or – worse – had they struck their own bargains with the Hegemony, just like Kergis? I needed information. Even a lie would tell me something.
            I heard the whine of a turbine, then a vehicle ground along the drive and came to rest in front of the window-wall. The vehicle’s door axed up and Emba climbed out.
            I stepped forward and the crystal wall split and moved aside. The air was warmer outside and smelled of growing things.
            “Udun. You’re up,” Emba said as he went to the far side of the transport and helped his passenger stand.
            “Atalna!” I called, and walked out onto the rough gravel to meet him.
            The Betlaan turned stiffly, his leg obviously paining him, but I was by his side and supporting him while Emba closed the vehicle door.
            “You’re well?” I asked.
            “I bear my scars. As I see you now do, Udun. It is good to see you.”
            Emba bared his teeth at the two of us. “It seems I have a weakness for looking after lost souls.”
            “I was on Telsus when Emba sent word,” Atalna said as we walked together into the house. “He organised a fast transport here.”
            “This isn’t Telsus Prime?” I asked. But then a gout of smoke and flame flared up through the bushes, and I saw past the lights in the dome that the sky was a dark blanket of brown and yellow cloud reflecting a red glow from below. This was Telsus IV.
            “We’re at my estate,” Emba said.
            “Udun, you look like you’ve been through a terrible ordeal,” Atalna said as I helped him to a chair at the long table. “I’m sorry that my fears of a Hegemony attack have been fulfilled more swiftly than even I imagined.” He glanced towards Emba. “If only I could have done more.”
            I pulled up a stool and sat opposite him without replying. I could plot my own “if onlys” all the way back to when Sakat sucked the poisons from our world and set the first proto-Kresz to live there. There was no use in “if onlys”.
            Emba noted my silence and changed the subject. “Udun, you haven’t eaten since you got here. And you’ve slept around the clock since we talked last. It’s time for breakfast.”
            He crossed to a wall of cupboards and pulled out plates of fruit, bread and some kind of cured meat that he placed on the table before us. I was hungry and piled berries and slices of dark bread onto my platter.
            Emba poured us all a drink from a crystal ewer filled with a green liquid. “It’s goja juice. Try it.”
            He took a long gulp, exhaling loudly as he finished his own glass, and refilled it. “So, Atalna,” he said, “you’re well? How is the dwelling?”
            “I am well, thank you. And the house you found me meets all my needs.” Atalna turned to me. “Emba provides me with a stipend. Far more generous than I deserve. I have money enough to live. And it’s peaceful there.”
            “I could do the same for you, Udun,” Emba said. “I have more than enough resources. You know I’d be happy to help.”
            The piece of bread I was chewing felt suddenly thick and too salty on my feeders. Some juice helped and I swallowed the mouthful. “Have the Hegemony surrendered or withdrawn?” I asked.
            Emba’s snout dipped. “No. Everything is the same. But you escaped. You were lucky to get away alive.”
            “Others were not so lucky,” I said.
            Emba glanced at Atalna again, then sighed. “It was clear from the first moment I met you that your hierarch was playing a dangerous game and the political situation on your world was far from stable. Your side has been out-manoeuvred and you’ve been caught up in the consequences of that.”
            “This is more than some internal power struggle,” I said.
            “But is it? Kergis chose to get help from outside. Unconventional for a Kresz, but not difficult to understand in the scheme of things. Now he’s formed a new government which is making all the right noises to my political masters and the rest of the Lenticular. The Point is being rebuilt. Though the Hub has been damaged by terrorists acting against the legitimate government –”
            “It sounds like Betlaan all over again,” Atalna said.
            “The point is, things are calming down,” Emba finished.
            “You’re talking as if all the killing that will be done on Homeworld has been done,” I said. “As if all the suffering has passed. Kergis is destroying our way of life and anyone who stands in his way is put to death. How long till he decides to execute anyone who’s not House Kergis just to be rid of an inconvenience? I can’t stand by and watch that happen.”
            “What can you do?” Emba said. “You’re one Kresz and not even … well … an injured one at that. It’s over for you. You survived. Come to terms with that, because if you don’t it will only end in your death. Either you’ll throw your life away on some foolishness, or you’ll make such a nuisance of yourself Kergis will reach out from Homeworld and crush you.” Emba leaned over and touched my claws. “I can help you. You want a place to live, somewhere you can feel safe. Somewhere you can stop running. Somewhere the Kresz and the Hegemony will never find you. I can do that for you if you’ll let me. The fight is over. Be kind to yourself.”
            I pulled my claws away. “Have you forgotten what Atalna told us? The fight is never over with the Hegemony. You can sit here and fool yourself you’re safe, but eventually they’ll come here and take everything you have too.”
            “I brought Atalna here to show you there are alternatives to fighting and dying.” It was clear Emba was struggling to keep his voice calm. “He escaped the Hegemony. They’re still out there, but Atalna has found peace.”
            There was a grunt from the other side of the table. “Friend Emba, you have made my life very comfortable, but I cannot say I have found peace. Not the peace that comes from knowing that justice has finally been done. The people of Betlaan are enslaved. The fact they are light years away does not alter that fact, and there is not one second of every day that I do not think of them and wish I could make their suffering stop. I ran, and that is my shame. But I could see nothing else for me. I stopped running because, again, I was weak. I do not want you to think I am ungrateful for your help. But I would throw myself into the fight against the Hegemony again in an instant if I could only see some way I could hurt them. Even if it cost my life.”
            Atalna hesitated. Emba’s face was unreadable. “Again I’m sorry, Emba. I do not mean to toss your kindness back in your face. But I think I understand Udun more than you can.” He grasped my claws across the table. “Don’t become like me, Udun. The daily bread of life is poor feeding when you can’t share it with those you love.”
            I grasped his hand back. “Believe me. I will not give up until the Hegemony is gone from my world.”
            Emba slammed his glass onto the table. “You are both as insane as each other.”
            “I pray you don’t get to share in our insanity when the Hegemony comes to your world,” Atalna said.
            “Emba,” I said quickly, “you want to help – I know that. You are genuinely a friend. One of the few I have left. Please. I’m asking you for the sake of our friendship, for the dead and suffering Kresz on my world, for the sake of your own loved ones. Please help me.”
            “I thought I was helping you,” he rasped. “I don’t know how else I can. What do you want, Udun? No one cares about your world enough to intervene.”
            His words hurt but they were true. The Kresz had never bothered to make alliances beyond expedient trade links with the Lenticular.
            “Just do one thing for me,” I said. “Arrange it so I can speak to the Lenticular Assembly. It’s not a small thing, I know, but I hope, I pray, you can do it. Let me help them see what I have seen. Give me a chance to change things.”
            Emba stood. He looked like he’d lost his appetite. “Finish your breakfast,” he said. “I’ll make some calls.” And he went out of the room.
            “He’ll be all right,” Atalna said. “He has a habit of doing the right thing. It’s unavoidable for him. And this is the right thing.”
            I blinked. “I don’t know. Emba’s right that I’ll be putting myself in harm’s way again –”
            “You are doing the right thing,” Atalna said. “Believe someone who relives the consequences of his actions every day I draw breath. The faces of my dead family never leave me. Let me help you. You won’t have to fight the Hegemony alone.”
            “I …” I stopped; I didn’t know what to say. “Thank you,” I managed, and squeezed his hand again, embarrassed by how much his words affected me.

Chapter 2

Voss Space / Unknown Sector

The combined Brell, Totek and Sissilak force was strung out in a column across the dark Voss Space chamber: massive, illegally armed support carriers interspersed with destroyer escorts and equally outlawed battlecruisers, accompanied by a swarm of Sissilak Talon fighters and delta-wing Brell singlecraft. Rhees froze the recording, then spun the holo to orient her view at ninety degress to where she knew her Hegemony Diplomatic Corps scoutcraft had been, hanging back on the lip of the chamber as she, Denev and Volmar followed the rebel force.
            She hadn’t seen the attack ships transit first time around, but she was looking for it now. Maagba fighters, shaped like horseshoes standing on end, phased into the chamber at its apex. They speared down on the convoy, which was already breaking apart as limited sensors registered the intruders. A series of explosions rippled through the disintegrating column, and ships veered madly to escape destruction.
            Another wave of Maagba ships and more missiles, and then the Sissilak, Totek and Brell began firing back. Lasers and particle weapons lanced out and dark bulbs of energy formed as the Voss Space field reached criticality then exploded in searing plasma blasts, burning ships out of existence. In the mayhem, the pace of attack stepped up and the Voss Space chamber began to break down, walls shifting and tunnels extruding to crush unlucky ships, singlecraft stuttering in and out of existence. That was when Volmar had insisted they transit.
            The image shifted to space. Rhees could see her scoutship, mostly disabled and too close to the planet. While she was crash-landing – heavy on the crash, not so good on the landing – the other half of the Maagba force that was waiting safely in space mopped up what was left of the rebels sent to attack it. Sent by Volmar – although the poor rebels hadn’t known he was the source of the intel Denev had fed them through his network on Herakli.
            The Brell, Sissilak and Totek had only been defending themselves from a series of attacks from the Maagba that had already killed billions. But somehow they’d hidden their own considerable attack force from the Hegemony auditors. It was far more than they were allowed for a local militia. They still didn’t deserve to be sacrificed by Volmar so he could make an alliance with the raiders.
            Rhees fast-forwarded the images. She knew what happened next. The Maagba had captured them on the planet – but only after she’d punched Volmar in the face. That at least had felt good. Then Volmar made whatever slimy deal he’d been planning all along with the Maagba and offered Rhees up to them as a blood sacrifice to seal the bargain. That shouldn’t have surprised her. Volmar had been looking for an excuse to get rid of her ever since she’d been thrown out of Fleet for killing her boyfriend – Denev’s brother – in a training exercise and ended up in HDC. Except the Maagba hadn’t killed her. She’d won her fight with them and they’d gifted her a ship. Something Volmar and Denev didn’t know.
            She watched to the end of the recording, saw the HDC scoutcraft she’d piloted leaving without her, heading back to Hegemony space. The sensor channel running along the bottom of the image showed the ship contained two humans. So Denev had survived. She hoped he was still safe.
            She’d been picked up by the Jantri ship and Nok a few hours later. The alien had offered the recording when Rhees had asked if he knew what had happened to her companions, though she didn’t give a shit about Volmar. She hadn’t expected to see such a comprehensive record of Volmar’s treachery. Now she wondered just how long the Jantri’va had been observing Cygnus Sector, and did their surveillance extend deeper into the Hegemony?
            We don’t just want information on the Hegemony. We want you to help us defeat them. She hadn’t been able to sleep since Nok had dropped that bombshell.
            Part of her felt it was the perfect solution. What she’d seen of the Hegemony Diplomatic Corps, Volmar and the ruthless acts of the Central Administration disgusted her. The species bigotry she’d witnessed on Herakli, and Volmar’s deal with the Maagba – a plan her father, Fleet Admiral Gart Lowrans, had signed off on – were shining examples of how low Earth had sunk. So if the Jantri wanted her help to defeat the Hegemony and free humanity and every other species in its grip … Why not?
            But could she really support a bunch of powerful aliens who wanted to attack Earth? Twenty years ago the K-Chaan had come close to wiping out the human race and the Hegemony had been created to make sure that never happened again. Since then though, the Central Administration had lost its way, seeming to believe any action was justified in order to maintain control. The majority of humanity thought itself safe and secure, but that safety came at a terrible price. Privacy was just a word. No secret was left undisturbed under the gaze of the HDC. Freedom was another illusion. It was freedom with hard barriers. Freedom to do whatever you wanted as long as it accorded with what the Central Administration judged was right and good. Meanwhile, HDC and Fleet moved out into space and subdued, threatened and corrupted any alien species they encountered all in the name of keeping the peace. But that wasn’t how lasting peace was won, was it? Even a Fleet brat like Rhees could see that.
            And now HDC had stirred up a bunch of aliens from a star system she’d never heard of. From what she’d seen of this ship and Nok’s armour, the Jantri’va looked at least equal to the Hegemony in technology – and may be more advanced in some respects. There would be other species in the Lenticular who were equally unhappy with the Hegemony’s incursion. HDC was already picking a fight with the Hanloi out towards galactic centre. Just how many battles on how many fronts did they want to start?
            She shifted on the mat, still far from sleep. Her gaze took in the table where she and Nok had sat. There was no way she could afford to trust him – it – whatever. But they were already aligned in one respect. The Jantri’va wanted to stop the Hegemony encroaching on their space; she wanted to change the paradigm under which the whole Hegemony operated.
            She barked a short laugh. When had she developed such lofty ambitions?
            But she knew she was right. It was important to protect Earth, yes. But do it through cooperation, alliances, friendships, not fear, suppression and – what did Nok say? – by destroying the souls of entire species.
            If she worked with Nok, she would be branded a traitor. There were those who would never forgive her. Her father, who she’d had little contact with growing up, already saw her as an unreliable hothead. This would put her beyond the pale.
            There were also no guarantees she’d be able to influence how the Jantri’va ultimately acted. It was easy enough to aim a weapon and fire the kill shot. It was far more difficult to pull your aim to simply wound your adversary, and then hold back from firing again. Especially when a wounded foe was the most dangerous of all.
            But what was the alternative? Run away? Fuck that.
            She stood, feeling like her brain was wrapped in cobwebs. The door opened at her touch – Nok had insisted she wasn’t a prisoner – and as she stepped over the threshold, a light track set into the deck strobed sequential lights leading away to her left and around the corner. She was being shepherded again. She almost turned right in defiance, but she was too tired for games.
            She followed the lights, taking everything in: the walls, ceiling, control panels, ducts, doorways, other passages, trying to get a feel for the internal topography. Finally she came to a broad entrance. The lights disappeared as the door scissored open. Nok stood there, or at least the suit did.
            “I’d like to hear more,” Rhees said.
            “Come inside,” Nok said.
            There were two other suits in there, operating wall stations. Maybe they were robots. Maybe Nok was too. As she entered, she was surrounded by a web of light: wildly looping beams all connected into a network floating around and above her. She raised a hand tentatively, brushed at a light trace with the back of one finger. She heard a low hum and the light felt cool against her skin.
            She joined Nok in the centre, ghost fingers of light brushing against her face and arms.
            “This is the – Voss Space, you call it – network for the galactic arm,” Nok said.
            “All of it?”
            “As much as we’ve mapped, which now reaches into Hegemony space and back past the Lenticular. Speaking of which.” He caught a loop of light in one gauntlet and pulled it towards them. The network shifted, expanding along the line Nok was following. “This is near-Lenticular space. And this intersection is where your Hegemony emerged to attack the Kresz Homeworld. As you see, the local branchings open into a much larger passage that leads through the rest of the Lenticular. We detected another, much larger Hegemony force advancing on the same corridor a few days ago. We feared a further invasion force, to consolidate their hold on Homeworld before launching an attack on the rest of the Lenticular. It was certainly a large enough group. But instead …” He expanded the view of the main Voss Space corridor crossing that part of space. “They passed right through the heart of the Lenticular and kept going. They’re currently passing a gravitational anomaly at the far end with no sign of slowing. There’s another similar Hegemony force heading to the Lenticular now. It’s not clear whether they’ll follow the others or stop once they reach that part of space.”
            Rhees plucked at the main passageway. It felt slippery against her fingers, like soap. She rotated the view, turning it end to end, studying the branchings. The anomaly Nok mentioned was impossible to miss. Voss Space bent round it in a distinctly ungraceful way, and beyond it was a local network of crosspaths that opened into another, much wider chamber extending further into the arm towards galactic centre. That second Hegemony force had to be the Hanloi attack group. Volmar had said the Hegemony was going to war. Which meant the destruction of the Kresz was collateral damage. The poor bastards were just in the way.
            She could tell Nok about the Hanloi, but she wasn’t ready to share just yet.
            “So what’s the plan?” she asked.
            The suit was silent. Was it reading her? Did it know she was holding back information?
            “We are not ready for a plan yet,” Nok said eventually.
            “They’re already killing your Kresz friends. Don’t you want to do something about that?’
            “Any unilateral plan to attack and subdue the Hegemony in the Lenticular has already been considered and discounted. The K-Chaan learned that lesson and the Jantri will not repeat it.”
            So the Jantri knew about the K-Chaan. Just how long have they been studying us, she wondered.
            “Any solution must be owned by those it most directly affects,” Nok continued. “We are not saviours, we are facilitators.”
            Rhees shook her head, then wondered if the gesture would be understood. “That’s just an oblique way of justifying not doing anything. What happens if ‘those it most directly affects’ are too beaten to see a way out or fight back?”
            Eddies of gas sparkled behind the Jantri’s faceplate. “Then they will be trapped in the situation.”
            Fuck. She’d been about to say that was inhuman. But look at what she was talking to.
            People were being crushed but who was worse – the group doing the crushing or the group that stood by while it happened? The Hegemony had stripped itself of its humanity. The Jantri had none to begin with. But they’d chosen her to help. Why?
            “But we don’t believe that’s the current situation,” Nok said, bringing her back to the present.
            “So you wait? For what?”
            “For the necessary elements to align.”
            “And how long will that take?”
            This was insane. Should she cut and run? Could she? They wouldn’t just let her leave. And there was no way she could outrun this ship. But she needed space around her.
            “I need to get outside for a while,” she said. “I think better out there.”
            The faceplate looked down at her, unreadable.
            “You said I’m not a prisoner. Where’s my ship?”
            Nok crossed to a door at the far side of the room. As it opened, his head – disconcertingly – turned one-eighty degrees on his shoulders to face her. “The hangar is below, but we have something better than the Maagba craft you brought.”
            She followed him into a large elevator, and the car dropped a long way. The doors opened onto a blindingly white hangar. Rhees blinked, not able to get a sense of how big it was. The vessels studded along the deck – including her “gifted” ship – looked like toys.
            “You can take your own ship out if you like, or you could try one of these.” Nok pointed a gauntlet towards the nearest of a long line of singleships.
            The hull was featureless grey, shaped like an ellipse, pointed at the front and flowing up and back into a sleek hump. It didn’t look like anything Rhees had ever seen but somehow reminded her of a dolphin, or an artistic abstraction of one.
            “Gravity drive, of course,” Nok said, “but it also generates an inertial field I think you’ll find interesting. Far more manoeuvrable than Hegemony ramcraft and no need for you to be entombed in a gel coffin.”
            “For someone who’s only recently encountered the Hegemony, you know a lot about them,” Rhees said.
            Them, she thought. Not us. She’d crossed a line. In her head, at least.
            Taking one of their ships guaranteed she couldn’t just run. But the pilot in her was intrigued. “How do I …”
            The hump of the ship split open, flowing back like putty. The interior seemed made of the same material as the hull, some of it bulging into the approximation of a crash-seat. She glanced at Nok but he said nothing. The floor of the cockpit was spongy, giving beneath her weight as she climbed in. The chair moved around her as she sat, and the hump flowed back over her head, plunging her into darkness.
            Control faces lit up around her – lightboards floating in space – and she forced herself to relax. The seat supported her, easing back a little, and a view of the hangar opened up just above the controls. Then … it was as if she’d blinked very slowly and opened her eyes on a new way of seeing. She couldn’t still be looking through her eyes, but it didn’t feel like the synaptic shunt of immersion either. She could see the hangar all around her, the controls superimposed on her view as if the ship hull wasn’t there. But that wasn’t all of it. Somehow she had a complete three-sixty-degree view. She saw everything without turning her head or focusing on a particular area. It was like suddenly being given a third arm – weird but obviously useful. Especially for a combat pilot. She’d used broad-range sensors before but this was more immediate, like it was a part of her. And instinctively she knew her sight extended far beyond the visible spectrum now. She also realised she knew exactly how to fly this ship.
            Nok was standing patiently by the hangar entry. Rhees activated the launch sequence – a moment’s concentration on the blinking icon – and headed for a new opening in the larger vessel’s hull.
            The stars waiting beyond were tinged slightly green by what her augmented senses knew was a force curtain holding in the hangar’s atmosphere. She punched for full thrust as soon as she was clear. She knew exactly how fast she was accelerating, and Nok’s ship dwindled to a pinpoint in less than a second, but she may as well have been sitting on the bed in her apartment. Inertialess. Intellectually it was impressive, but her body missed the rush of the ramcraft. Still, that would mean …
            She plotted a series of manoeuvres that would pancake a ramcraft pilot even in the most advanced gel coffin, and activated commit. Three seconds later she was back where she’d started, and the craft had traversed the six planes of a cube five hundred kilometres on an edge and executed twenty-four ninety-degree turns at the vertices. She hadn’t felt a thing.
            There wasn’t one ship in the Hegemony she couldn’t fly rings around. But flying was only half of it. Her view expanded, magnifying local space and shifting into ladar. There. A tight cometary swarm, way out on the long orbital axis of whatever sun it visited in an epochal cycle. Weapon interfaces shouldered into her awareness. Pretty impressive armaments.
            She imagined her ship from outside: a dolphin pausing for a moment, sonar penetrating the depths in search of prey, then diving in a flash of fin and tail for a glittering shoal. Again, she couldn’t feel the acceleration, but she saw the comet swarm leaping towards her and sensed the tightening in her chest and belly.
            There were six cometary masses. Dirty accretions of rock and water-ice, packed so close the tenuous gas halo enveloped them as one. She was headed straight for the centre, counting down seconds to impact.
            This is the last thing Petar saw, she thought. She’d never be able to forget the sight of his gel coffin burst apart. But she pushed the ship faster, the wall of ice rushing to meet her. She screamed. Almost broke off at the last moment.
            Then weapons engaged – laser clusters breaking out along the length of the ship’s body, an expanding shell of missiles, the harsh grunt of a rail gun mounted in the nose. The rushing ice vapourised ahead, and around her each rock and pebble freed from the conglomerate was tracked and slagged by lasers or burst into dust by pinhead rockets, the gas halo lighting up like an aurora. And then she was through, with nothing bigger than a grain of sand left in her wake.
            She brought the ship to a full halt and let out a long breath. Going by the holo records she’d seen, it was clear the Jantri had been observing the Hegemony for a long time. Nok might be content to wait for the ‘necessary elements to align’, but she needed to know everything the Jantri knew. There was no going back, no matter how many caveats she put on it.

When she stepped out of the dolphincraft, Nok was waiting by the door as if he hadn’t moved the entire time.
            “I’ll work with you,” she said. “But only as far as our goals align. I’m not handing over everything just because you want it.”
            “That is acceptable.”
            “The Hegemony forces you’ve been tracking. They’re not interested in the Lenticular. They’re heading further out to engage the Hanloi at galactic centre.”
            Nok’s faceplate glowed the same as always. “I see.”
            “I need to know everything they’re doing,” she said.
            “Follow me.”
            They re-entered the elevator and got off at the same level as before. Rhees followed Nok down a series of corridors. She was expecting him to take her to some kind of surveillance hub crammed with listening tech. Instead he led her back to her room.
            “Everything you need is here,” he said.
            The room filled with light – coherent interfaces floating in midair, control surfaces that Nok pulled into place, arranging them around his visor. Rhees moved to stand beside him, already recognising some of the functionality.
            “These can be reconfigured any way you want,” he said. “And you may as well be comfortable while you work.” He pointed at the mat she’d failed to sleep on and it twisted and folded to form an angled chaise longue.
            Rhees settled herself on it. “Got anything worth eating onboard?”
            “I’ll see what we can find,” he said, and left her to it.     


Chapter 3

Emba Residence, Telsus IV / Telsan Sector / Lenticular

Atalna and I were looking at the garden when Emba came out of the house.
            “There’s some people I need to see,” he said. “I’ll be back, but I’m not sure how long this will take.”
            “Will the Assembly let me address them?” I asked, feeling guilty at the trouble I was putting him to.
            “I hope so.” He looked at Atalna. “Try not to hatch any more crazy plans while I’m gone.” He climbed into his groundcar and followed the curve of the driveway behind the house.
            “He’s not really angry,” Atalna said.
            “You’ve come to know him well,” I said.
            “He’s done more than house me. He’s been visiting. More regularly lately, sometimes to talk, sometimes just to sit with me.” The smooth mosaic skin of his face crinkled. “I have the impression his work isn’t going as well as in the past. That he’s fallen out of favour. Not that he’s said anything to me directly.”
            “I’m sure this isn’t going to help,” I said. “No one likes the bearer of bad news.”
            “It may be worse than that. If the Hegemony is on your planet, they may be here also. It’s not a good time to look like an opponent.”
            “Do you think they are here?” Hearing Atalna express my own fears made them more of a possibility, more real.
            “I have seen nothing to suggest it, but that means precisely nothing. The bigger question is why they’re in the Lenticular at all.”
            “You warned us they were coming.”
            “I warned they may come some day. But I never thought it would be this soon.”
            I took his arm and we walked along a winding path through the garden. The plants clearly thrived in the rich, dark soil, and I could hear insects rustling between the stalks and leaves. As we passed through a stand of tall, thin trees, we could see where the thick dome wall melded with the ground. Outside was bare, glassy black rock running for several spans then abruptly ending in fire and smoke. Molten lava, red and hungry-looking, spat and smoked in a line that followed the curve of the rock plate. There were other islands like this one in the distance, floating through drifts of thick smoke that occasionally covered them from sight. Further away, plumes of fire or liquid rock shot up into the yellowed sky. It was hard to conceive a less hospitable place to live. Inside the dome, however, I felt none of the deadly heat. The still and cool of the garden shrouded us and the chaos outside could have been a holo for all the effect it had. I saw now why the Telsans had been so keen to access a cheaper source of tekla. Its energy-absorbing and insulating properties were vital to this type of construction. I thought they’d wanted it for ship hulls like most of the rest of the Lenticular.
            We sat on a bench on a patch of grass near the dome wall and looked out into the toxic clouds and living fire. The view was surreal.
            “The Hegemony took your mantle,” Atalna said. “What happened on your world?”
            “They took everything,” I said.
            Without my mantle I’d lost my empathic link to my people and become an outcast through no fault of my own. But I would have gladly ripped it from my shoulders myself if those I loved could still be alive. Up to now I’d been able to build a barrier between me and much of what had happened, just as Emba’s dome kept out the inferno beyond. But here I was safe, if only for now, and that seemed so wrong when everyone I had loved, everyone who’d ever helped me or been kind, was dead. Isza, my breach-sister. Gurud, the huge Defender who was her lover. Elrak, the shopkeeper who had preferred the company of excisees like me, was most likely dead too. So many had died in the massacre at the Point, on the streets of Aktiuk and on Treaty Mount.
            “You told me you wished you’d been killed when the Hegemony came to your world,” I said.
            “I still do. But I have to believe I survived for a reason.” He paused. “I can’t understand why the Hegemony came so far so fast, skipping who knows how many civilisations in the process.”
            I thought about how the Hegemony had arranged the rendezvous with Kergis in deep space, and the secret meetings with Kergis that must have taken place afterwards. And their fleet suddenly appearing at the Point. Such things didn’t happen quickly or easily.
            “Does your world have something they might want?” Atalna asked.
            What would an alien species want with Homeworld? “We have tekla ore,” I said. “It’s used for spaceship hulls. And for Emba’s house and this dome too, I think.”
            A momentary crease ran across Atalna’s otherwise smooth forehead. “No. They have mineral wealth aplenty and their ships are advanced. More advanced than your own, I suspect.”
            “What did they want with your world?” I asked.
            “With us it was far more straightforward. The Hegemony acts with an almost paranoid fervour which would be insane if it weren’t so effective. With the expansion of their territory, it wouldn’t have been long before our part of space was on the border of their own. That alone brought us to their attention. I’m sure it was nothing related to Betlaan or its people except in the broadest terms, because, you see, even though we were peaceful there was always the chance, however vanishingly small, that we might one day attack the Hegemony. This is the way they think. In order to rid themselves of the risk of potential attack, they prefer to strike first. It didn’t matter to them that we were an insular race, wanting nothing they had. It didn’t matter that we had no ships, no weapons that could threaten them. It didn’t matter that in the tens of millenia before their ships came we had never known war, had no military and barely even need for a police force. We were close to their territory and we weren’t under their control. Those two factors sealed our fate. But one day they will regret ever setting foot on Betlaan. They will regret their aggression against us. They have made me their enemy. I, who would never have considered the violence I wish now to bring down upon them.”
            His attention seemed focused inward, as if he were seeing those ships landing on his planet once again. I knew exactly how he felt. But then his cheek slits vibrated and he settled back on the bench, his anger subsiding as quickly as it had come.
            “My pardon for the rantings of an old man. But I will help you in any way I can. Our causes are aligned now. You oppose the Hegemony as much as I.”
            We sat in silence for a while, looking out on magma lakes and basalt islands. The violence beyond the dome mirrored my own inner landscape.
            “I feel the same anger you do,” I said. “I’d never hurt anyone before this happened, but now I’ll suddenly be filled with an urge to lash out for no reason. I want the comfort that only violence can bring; the comfort of inflicting pain rather than being the target for it. It scares me that I’m no better than those who attacked us, who did this.” I indicated the mantle stump.
            “No, Udun. You’re nothing like them. These feelings, they’re a reaction to stimulus. An emotional response. The Hegemony acts without emotion. Their people apply violence and torture coolly, as the logical end point of a set of arguments which, to them, make perfect sense. But your rational side is shocked by the anger you feel. That’s another point of difference: you feel horror; they … I’m not sure what they feel.”
            “Can an entire species be evil?” I said.
            “You mean can the morality of a species contain values that are diametrically opposed to anything we know? I’m not sure. Look at the member species of the Lenticular. You are all so diverse and yet you live harmoniously enough. There is a common ground for understanding. Life seems to have a set of rules hardwired into it, no matter the environment that begets it. I don’t dispute there are individuals who have been twisted by their upbringing perhaps or some genetic weakness to become evil as you say, but they are the exception. It seems to me that no civilisation could exist without at least some utilitarian morality: that to do good for others is to increase the good directed to oneself and to the benefit of the whole as a secondary effect.”
            “And yet the Hegemony does inflict evil on others,” I said. “You said they attacked Betlaan to prevent a future potential threat. That’s a twisted application of the utilitarian principle. And yet they seem able to justify it to themselves.”
            “True,” Atalna said. “It’s counter-intuitive but they don’t seem to see it. Eventually some enemy they create through their actions is going to make them pay for what they’ve done.”
            “But even if they were friendly to other species, in a vast and diverse universe they’d eventually come across a powerful aggressor,” I said. “At least this way they act from a position of power when that time comes.”
            “You think they don’t care that their policy multiplies the chance they will eventually be attacked?”
            “Apparently not. But is the Hegemony such a unanimous force? Do they all subscribe to the motto of ‘attack first and dominate’? If we agree a species cannot be philosophically and fundamentally evil, then surely there must be those inside the Hegemony who question its actions.”
            Atalna’s black eyes regarded me. “I said before you are unique. You question where others would simply decide and move on. Myself included. But even I was forced to look beyond the surface detail when I fled Betlaan. I searched for a weakness in the Hegemony’s war machine. I found none, but I did learn a little of their politics. The Hegemony’s rulers are strong but there are dissenting voices. I couldn’t find out much more than the name of the opposition group: the Inclusionists. But its existence at least suggests the Hegemony is not some all-conquering force of nature. There is a chance it can change.”
            That seemed a far-off possibility. I needed to change things here and now.
            “If the Hegemony does have some other goal in the Lenticular beyond Homeworld, it might be useful leverage,” I said. “If I can talk to the Assembly, get them to think of themselves as potential targets …”
            “Nothing focuses the mind more fully than the thought of imminent death,” Atalna said. “Believe me, I know.”

Telsus IV’s single sun had passed its zenith when we heard the ground car return. By the time Atalna and I reached the house, Emba was already out of the vehicle. Another Telsan was with him, larger than Emba, although still short by Kresz standards.
            “Well, Udun, you’ve got your wish,” Emba said. “Not the entire Lenticular Assembly, but the Inner Council. They’re waiting for you.”
            “Now?” I said, startled.
            “I didn’t realise you had this much power.”
            Emba nodded to his companion to climb back into the car’s cockpit. “Well, there are a lot of things you don’t know about me. Atalna, we’ll have to leave you, I’m afraid – we’re going straight to the broadcast spire. You’ll have to make your own way to Fa’ar Rojen’s.”
            “I’ll be fine,” Atalna said. He patted my forearm. “Good luck, Udun. I hope they listen.”
            “Come on, Udun,” Emba said, already standing by the car’s open rear door. “These people don’t like to be kept waiting.”
            “I’ll see you later,” I said to Atalna and squeezed into the car. Emba sat beside me and rapped the screen between us and the cockpit.
            The car started moving immediately, taking us slowly round the house and under an arch in the clear dome. There was a short tunnel where we stopped while the dome sealed behind us. An airlock. The yellow-brown mist from outside flowed in through a widening gap in front of the car.
            When the outer doors were fully open, both Emba and I were pushed hard back into our seats as the car sped along a short span of road, whipping the smoke into shreds, and then became airborne. I couldn’t see anything through the cloud around us, except the occasional plume of lava from below or a flameball of exploding gas. And then we were above the cloud deck. The sky was violet, thinning to black, and the planet below was shrouded in a patchwork of browns, yellows, pinks and reds.
            Emba was quiet. I wondered if he was still annoyed with me for not ‘being sensible’. But there wasn’t really anything I could say. He wasn’t going to change his mind, and I couldn’t.
            The car dipped back into the clouds again and Emba eventually broke the uneasy silence. “It won’t be long now. I hope you’re ready.”
            The nerves I’d been feeling since getting into the car intensified. Was I ready? It was all happening so quickly. But if I could make the Inner Council see that the Hegemony was a direct threat to their own sovereignty, that it couldn’t be trusted to stop at Homeworld alone, I might convince them to act. I had to trust they’d believe me.

Chapter 4

Elysem, Telsus IV / Telsan Sector / Lenticular

We were low enough now to see the rivers of lava beneath us give way to a large plate of rock that extended into the fog left and right. The car landed smoothly, running along a broad roadway. I still couldn’t see the city – the smoke was too thick – but a roof passed over us and then we were joining rows of cars filing into a series of locks like the one at Emba’s residence except much larger. The outer door closed behind us and a strong jet of steam from above played over the vehicles and was sucked down into the floor. Then the inner door opened and we were driving into Elysem, this time up a ribbon of road that rose quickly past tall buildings towards the crystal dome that covered the entire city. At this height, our destination was easy to see. The broadcast spire was the tallest structure in a forest of giant structures, its thin needle terminating just below the apex of the dome.
            Our driver moved the car easily from ribbon to ribbon until we were on a wide avenue that led to the spire building: a broad pavilion enclosed by a basketwork of thin cables that held the spire in place. The size of the structure was more than just for show. The antenna boosted the frequencies needed to punch a signal into tenspace and then modulate it into an even more tightly packed dimension to cut broadcast lag between planets down to almost nothing. Homeworld had one but it was hardly ever used: instantaneous communication with outworlders wasn’t often necessary. Even so, I suspected Kergis would have moved to capture it as soon as the Hegemony attacked.
            The car ground to a halt at a low run of steps up to the main entrance. Emba pulled at the door and leaped out. I followed, taking the steps quicker than he could so we were abreast as we came to the entrance doors. Emba paused and looked back. His driver was right behind us.
            “Can’t you wait?” Emba snapped at him.
            The driver said nothing.
            The doors opened to reveal two Telsan guards with guns strapped to their chests. They looked at me intently, beady black eyes in impeccably combed furry faces.
            Emba raised a paw and they stood aside. One of them pointed to the first in a series of doors that ran in an arc around the base of the spire.
            Emba’s driver followed us into the room and I saw the guards take up position on either side of the closing door. The driver sealed the door and stood with his back to it. It was obvious he was more than just a driver. Why all the security?
            I didn’t have time to ask because Emba was thrusting a pair of goggles and a set of hearing buds at me. He looked angry. With me, I supposed. Had this meeting cost him more than I realised to set up?
            The hearing buds fitted into my ear gaps well enough, but as I put on the goggles the room seemed to lurch. Emba still stood beside me, although the goggles and buds he wore had disappeared and so had the room. We were at the edge of a circular platform that curved gently away from us to the centre. I looked behind. The platform was suspended over a deep black chasm that I stepped quickly away from. Then I realised it was as if the spire above us had flipped around to beneath us and we were standing on an impossibly large siphon. Had our broadcast images appeared out of that hole? It seemed likely. This was a virtual space, I understood that.
            The sky above us was dark green and purple lightning shot across it, illuminating a group of three or four figures further along the platform’s rim. Beyond the rim the landscape quickly faded into a dark neutrality.
            “Watch Lintal,” Emba said. “He’s our representative on the Inner Council.”
            His tone made me instantly alert. Something was wrong.
            As we approached the group I saw more clearly there were four others here; although if I hadn’t eagerly read everything the escarpment’s records hall held on the Lenticular’s inhabitants, I might have mistaken one for a pile of mud. The Aphsans were rough cone shaped mounds. Their only distinguishing feature – at least for me – was the thick brow ridge that ran just above the centre of their lumpen bodies and protected a band of sensory tissue.
            The other beings were more easily recognisable. The giant to the Aphsan’s right was a Svestan. It was similar to a Kresz Defender in height and build but its exoskeleton was covered in thick spines that rattled as it turned to watch Emba and me. To the left was a Jantri – clad in the usual golden pressure suit, although there was no need for it in this virtual space – and then another Telsan. This must be Lintal.
            The group split, whatever they were talking about cut short by our arrival.
            “Emba, can you introduce your companion,” Lintal said.
            “This is Udun, emissary of House Czerag from the Kresz Homeworld.”
            “I am Lintal, Minister of the Exterior for the Telsan Congress. With me are representatives of the Inner Council: Tol Imnan of Svesta, Nok of Jantri’va and Goraan of Aphsus Prime.”
            These four represented the core governments of the Lenticular. There were other species in the Assembly, but these were the strongest, the most technologically advanced. I only had this one chance to convince them to help Homeworld, and I felt sick hope and fear of failure all wrapped up together.
            “Thank you, council members, for agreeing to see me at short notice,” I said.
            Thunder rolled across the vault of the sky, then I realised the sound had come from Tol Imnan.
            “What do you want, little shell thing?” it said.
            Svestans were notoriously aggressive, but they were also pragmatic. I had to appeal to that side of its nature.
            “I’ve come to warn you of danger and to ask for your help.”
            “Speak then.” This from Goraan, I guessed, only because the mound shifted slightly.
            “The Kresz people have been invaded by a ruthless enemy from beyond the Lenticular and betrayed by a hierarch who has seized control –”
            “We know what has happened.” Goraan again.
            “What happened is what happens to all who are weak,” Tol Imnan said. “You only have yourselves to blame.”
            I looked at Emba, trying to understand if I was missing something, but he gave away nothing.
            “The younglings and elders I saw lying dead and broken in Aktiuk did not deserve their fate,” I said. “This isn’t some bloodless coup. The killings have been brutal. The excisions,” I turned to show the scar of my mutilation, “even worse.”
            “And yet there has been no call for help,” Lintal said. “Hierarch Kergis assures us no assistance is required. How can we of the Inner Council take it upon ourselves to encroach on the sovereign territory of the Kresz uninvited?”
            I couldn’t believe this. “Those that aren’t dead or suiciding because of excision are being worked to death right now as forced labour. Some still fight or are hiding in the deep desert waiting for rescue. You have a moral duty to act.”
            Tol Imnan shrugged his massive shoulders and the spines rattled together. “Your people have always shunned contact apart from what trade suits them. They must look to their own for help.”
            The Jantri had been silent during the exchange. But now it spoke up. “That demonstrates as short-sighted a view as the Kresz you’re criticising.”
            “The Hegemony has come hundreds of light years to reach the Lenticular,” I said. “They’re not going to stop at the Kresz Homeworld. They’re a threat to all of you. They must have recruited Kergis to their side before the invasion. Right now they could be infiltrating your own worlds.”
            “And if they take your air-breather worlds,” Tol Imnan continued, “why should we care?”
            I couldn’t keep the anger from my voice. “The Hegemony is more than one species. It’s possible they have methane-breathers. And if your planet has something they want, your atmosphere won’t stop them.”
            Tol Imnan stepped closer. It was a threatening move and I was glad this was only telepresence. “Svesta is not so easy to take as you think.”
            “This has gone on long enough,” Lintal said. “We know about you, Udun. Your own government has branded you a criminal. That is why you bear the mark of excision. You escaped custody on Homeworld and now you’re out here spreading alarm to destabilise the sector.”
            I looked to Emba for help, but he’d vanished.
            “That’s a lie,” I said.
            “A warrant has been issued for your arrest,” Lintal continued. “To be honest, we wouldn’t have allowed this audience if some among us hadn’t insisted.”
            The Jantri spoke again. “I still believe it was useful.”
            “A Kresz ship is on its way to pick you up,” Lintal said. “You’ll be confined until then.”
            “This is all lies,” I said and ripped the goggles from my eyes. The world lurched around me and I almost fell over. I was back in the broadcast booth.
            Emba was there, leaning over the prone body of his driver.
            “We have to get out of here,” he said. “The door’s guarded, but that wall …” He indicated the curved wall opposite the door. “I don’t think it’s very thick.”
            “Why didn’t you tell me?” I said.
            “No time.” Emba nodded at the driver. “And he was listening all the way. Udun, we have to go!”
            I tapped the wall Emba had indicated. It sounded hollow. There was nothing else in the room I could use, so I took a step back and ran my shoulder into it. The panel broke easily. Behind it was a narrow corridor arcing round the base of the broadcast spire.
            Emba followed me into the space. “Go left,” he said. “Quickly.”
            Lintal would alert security. It wouldn’t be long before they broke into the booth and found us gone. I ran, hunkered over in the cramped space, until we’d worked our way to the other side of the spire.
            “Out here,” Emba said.
            It was another blank wall panel, hopefully leading into an unoccupied booth. I leaned against it and kicked hard with my hoof. The panel split, and another kick broke it open wide enough to push through. The room was empty, the outer door closed.
            Emba put a paw on my arm. “The car’s waiting outside where we left it. I don’t think the guards will shoot us.”
            “That’s reassuring. But where can we go?”
            “That depends on Atalna.” There was a voice in the corridor behind us. “Move!” Emba said.
            I keyed the outer door open and we ran back along the curve of the spire towards the bright entranceway. There was one guard looking into the booth we’d vacated. He heard us coming and turned, clutching at his gun, but my momentum carried me into him before he could fire. He bounced off me and slid along the polished floor.
            I was already at the exit before he’d stopped. I leaped down the steps and into the rear of the car. I didn’t know how to drive it.
            “Come on!” I yelled out the open door.
            Emba was panting loudly as he half-fell, half-jumped into the driver’s seat. The car slewed round and I was thrown back, just managing to get a claw to the door to pull it shut.
            We accelerated along the broad strip leading away from the spire, then the car swerved. “Hold on,” Emba said needlessly. I was already gripping the armrests tightly.
            There was a loud whine as the car came to the edge of the roadway and was slowed by some invisible force. Then our momentum carried us through whatever it was and we were off the road and dropping down. Turbines roared, the car bucked around, and I thought we were going to hit a supporting pillar beneath the roadway, but the car angled down until we were on a steeply descending ramp.
            “We have to get to a smaller service lock,” Emba said. “Lintal will have the obvious exits guarded, but I got the feeling he’s not that keen to catch you.”
            “I thought you’d betrayed me back there,” I said. I wasn’t proud of it, but he deserved to know the truth. “It seems you’ve saved me. Again.”
            “Not yet, I haven’t.”
            “The others didn’t believe me,” I said. “Or didn’t care. I don’t understand it.”
            I’d thought I could rally the Lenticular. A call to arms, with me – the outsider, the excisee who couldn’t even keep his breach-sister safe – at the front of an avenging fleet swooping in to rescue Homeworld. It sounded pathetic now.
            “Bad news is hard to swallow. And people don’t generally thank the bearer of it,” Emba said.
            The ramp levelled and soon we were tearing along a narrow way between the foundations of buildings wreathed in darkness, their tops lost somewhere in the brightness above. Emba’s furry paws were gripping the control stick, his whole body leaned forward in concentration. We were going much too fast for such a narrow street and the car’s lamps did little to penetrate the shadows. There could be all kinds of unseen obstacles ahead.
            “You know where you’re going?” I asked.
            “I managed to get word to Fa’ar Rojen before I acquired my ‘bodyguard’.”
            “Who’s Rojen?”
            “The captain who found you in the asteroid field and brought you here at my request. The rendezvous isn’t far. With luck Atalna should be with him. It’s best you both leave.”
            The car slowed and we turned into an equally dark alley, then emerged from between the buildings to see the dome wall in front of us. Set into the wall was a dimly lit airlock. There was no one around.
            “Wouldn’t Lintal have had all the exit ports in the dome locked down electronically?” I asked.
            “As I said, he’s not that keen to catch you. He doesn’t like diplomatic incidents. Too much apologising and Lintal never apologises. He alerted your government. I couldn’t talk him out of that.”
            “Why allow me to address the Council then?”
            “That’s the strangest thing. When I was in Lintal’s office he got a call from Nok. Somehow he knew you were here and wanted to see you.”
            “I don’t understand.”
            “That makes two of us. Look, don’t worry. I’ll work on Lintal. The Hegemony is too much of a threat for him to ignore for long. But for now he’s done the minimum to keep our government, and his own hairy hide, out of trouble. If you happen to slip past our security and get off-planet … Well, then you’re someone else’s problem. Besides, this service exit is so old and out of the way, it’s easy to forget in a general shutdown. I don’t even think the automatics work any more. That’s the reason I like it.” His snout wrinkled, the lips pulling away from sharp teeth.
            “You’re enjoying this,” I said.
            “Best fun I’ve had in ages.”
            “And you won’t be in trouble for helping me escape?”
            “I probably won’t be welcome in Kresz space anytime soon, but that’s no great loss. Lintal will publicly reprimand me, just to appease your government if they complain too much. An enforced period of leave. Not much more.”
            I was glad Emba wouldn’t be in too much trouble, assuming I escaped, but I couldn’t quite see it his way. I’d failed to get the help Homeworld needed.
            Emba scurried out of the car and ran to a panel at the side of the lock. Moments later he was back and the door was grinding upwards.
            “Mind you, there’s something to be said for a peaceful life free from violent incident,” he said. “After this little adventure a holiday might be rather nice.”
            The outer door opened and thick brown mist swirled in around the car. There was no sign of any pursuit behind us and, as we moved out onto the brittle rock of the planet, no one here to stop us either. After a short run, the car took to the air. I felt safer flying through the impenetrable smoke, though I was sure our vehicle could have been tracked if Lintal wanted it.
            “What will you do now, Udun? Where will you go?”
            I had no idea, but I didn’t want Emba to know that. It would make his recent rescue efforts seem redundant.
            “It’s best if I don’t tell you,” I said. “But you make sure to keep yourself safe, Emba. Don’t trust anyone.”
            “I’ve never trusted anyone in my life. I’m not about to start now.” There was a ping on the cabin processor. “We’re here.”
            The car descended through the smoke and a sinuous band of amber appeared: a river of lava, just a thin strip. We flew over it, dropping all the time, and then the wheels hit solid rock again and the car slowed quickly to a crawl. Emba was navigating by screen, staring intently at a point on the display.
            There was a thump on the outside of the car. I jumped and looked out the window. Something had latched onto the door on the right.
            “It’s not really standard to enter a ship this way. But then there’s nothing standard about today,” Emba said.
            The smoke cleared and I saw a thick ring attached to the metal outside with a ribbed tube stretching up from it into darkness. I couldn’t see anything outside the curve of the ring, so I didn’t know where it led.
            “Just give it a moment,” Emba said. “They’re replacing the atmosphere.” He turned in his seat to look at me. “This is where we part, Udun. I really wish you the best of luck. Rojen will take you wherever you want to go. I’ll do what I can here.”
            “Be careful, Emba.” I reached over and held his arm. “It was good to have a friend for a while in the middle of all this.”
            “If you need anything more from me, all you have to do is get in touch.”
            The door opened to my side with a slight hiss. There wasn’t anything else to say, so I let go of his arm and pushed out into the tube. It swayed a little under my hoofs, but I managed to stay upright. I found that if I leaned forward and took some of my weight on my arms as well as my lower knees, it didn’t bend as much when I began to climb. Through the thin plastic of the tubing was searing heat and deadly gas. I felt instantly vulnerable, but the plastic was cool to the touch.
            Finally I got to the ship’s hatch. It slid aside and a stocky Telsan dressed in a baggy flight onepiece stood in the entrance. His face had the typical pointed snout, the floppy ear flaps and the dark eyes, but his fur was shot through with patches of white.
            “In more trouble, Kresz?” he said. “It seems to follow you. Come on.”
            He reached for my arm and helped me into the inner lock. The door shut behind us; there wasn’t much room in there.
            He flicked at a wall panel. “I’ve got him, Emba. Make yourself scarce.”
            I didn’t hear Emba’s reply, but there was a churning sound outside – the tube retracting, I supposed.
            The inner door opened and I followed Fa’ar Rojen down a corridor that split at a junction. The roof was low and draped with cabling; I had to stoop, my shin plates scraping along the metal decking.
            “We need to get you strapped in and get out of here,” Rojen said. “Security already know where we are.”
            “Where are we going?”
            “Where I can get rid of you with no questions asked.”
            That made me stop. Was Rojen going to give me up?
            The Telsan turned around. “Come on, Kresz – assuming we get off this ball and out to tenspace, it’ll be safer for you and for me if we part company with no knowledge of the other. Whoever’s after you will be looking for me too now. I’m taking you to Maelstrom – a tenspace junction at the in-arm point of the Lenticular. It’s busy enough for even you to get lost in the crowds. After that I’ll have no idea where you’re going. It’s better that way.”
            He turned and kept walking. I followed, feeling a little better. He had picked me up from the escape pod and brought me to Emba. That must count for something.
            “Here’s your old cabin,” Rojen said. “Though I doubt you remember it. You’ll have to share this time.”
            He keyed the door open and I looked inside. Atalna was strapped into one of two couches in the cramped space.
            “So Emba was right – it was a trap,” he said.
            The ship shuddered and I held the doorframe to stop from falling.
            “That’s the lift sequence starting up,” Rojen said. “You can say your hellos strapped into the couches.” He left.
            I sat in the second couch and pulled the straps tight around my legs and waist. The couch fitted the Betlaan a lot better than it fitted me but I felt secure enough.
            “Lintal told the Kresz I was here,” I said. “We’re not sure when they’re going to turn up so it’s safer we leave now. But why are you here?”
            “I told you: I want to help you. I can’t do that staying behind.”
            The cabin lurched again as we took off. Rojen wasn’t wasting any more time. We climbed, then levelled a little, still in atmosphere.
            “I’m glad you came,” I said. “Thank you.”
            Atalna was silent for a moment. “Purpose in life is hard to discern, if it exists at all,” he said eventually. “But it comforts me to think this may be why I met you on your first visit. And why I’m here now. We all have to make sense of the world somehow.”
            I couldn’t see much sense to the world right now. I was grateful for Atalna’s company, but how much help could he be? He was old and crippled. Any long trip would be hard for him.
            I looked at him quickly, concerned that he might have picked up my emotions. But it was a redundant reaction: my feelings were locked solely within me. Here was the privacy and solitude I’d craved when I left Homeworld for the first time on Czerag’s mission. It was the bitter fulfilment of a wish by an Udun I felt little connection to any more. Too much had happened to change who I was.        

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