Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Hall of Mirrors

Copyright © 2010

A small boy discovers something strange in grandma's basement.  When he has grown, he has to go exploring the basement to find missing family members only to find himself trapped and with no apparent way out...

Grandma always was a bit strange, and Mum went that way too as she grew older; but then, the house was strange and I think it got to them.

I remember a particular visit to Grandma's when I was about six.  Dad was still with us then, so we lived in our own place and went to Grandma's about once a month.  It was always an adventure because the house was huge, not like our tiny housing estate box, and I could quite happily spend time exploring while Mum and Dad tried to find some amusement in Grandma's ramblings.  I would disappear for hours and was always surprised to hear Mum's, 'Come on Adam, it's time to go!' shouted up the stairs or into whatever region of the house she thought I might be in.

Anyway, the visit when I was six.  The most intriguing place in the house was the basement, at that time in my life because the door to it was always locked, which made it darkly mysterious.  When asked about it, Grandma just said, 'Run along and play in the attic,' or, 'Why don't you get some fresh air in the garden?'  Well, on this particular visit, Mum and Dad found Grandma in the dining room eating nettle sandwiches, wearing a tea-cosy on her head, and dribbling down her blouse.  Mum pushed me out of the room lest I should be upset by what might have to happen.  No matter.  I would have wandered off almost as soon anyway.

Even though the basement door was always locked, I went as always to try the handle.  This time the door was not only unlocked but standing wide open.  The light was on, so I was quite bold as I went down the stairs, my heart nonetheless pounding in my chest.  At the foot of the stairs there was a long corridor with five doors down one side.  None of the doors was locked, and each led to a small, square room that was in every way identical to its neighbours.  Then, as now, the floors were dark-stained oak boards with cracks wide enough to lose pennies down, and some enough to let mice in, judging by the evidence deposited near them.  The ceilings were low and plain with a single, flush light-fitting at the centre.  The walls opposite the doors were blank, painted with buttermilk emulsion.  Each side wall was covered almost completely by a large mirror held in place by stout brass brackets at its corners.  The mirrors were positioned exactly opposite each other, and if you stood between them, you could see innumerable reflections of yourself and your surroundings dwindling away to a virtual infinity.  When you are six, that is shocking and exciting all at the same time. 

I had a tennis ball in my jacket pocket.  I took it out and tossed it at the mirror, just to see a million balls in perfectly synchronous flight.  The sound the mirror made when the ball hit it was strange, a sort of Bpaahh!, if you can imagine it.  I threw the ball again.  Bpaahh! went the mirror, but the sound seemed louder, as though all the balls I could see were actually hitting all the mirrors, and their noises were adding together.  Holding the ball with both hands, I listened to the sounds dying down to nothing.  Fascinating...

Throw ... Bpaahh! … catch.

Throw ... Bpaahh! … catch.

Throw ... Schloop!

The ball disappeared!  Quite why I did what I did next, I don't know; it just seemed obvious to my uneducated mind.  I ran out of the room and into the next one.  There was my ball.  I picked it up and threw it at the mirror it had just come through.

Throw ... Bpaahh! … catch.

Throw ... Bpaahh! … catch.

Throw ... Schloop!

Back I went to the first room, and there was the ball.  I spent what must have been the next half-hour doing the same thing, over and over again, until I heard Mum shouting, 'Adam!  We have to go now.  Grandma's not well and we have to take her to hospital.'  I put my ball in my pocket and made the dejected climb up the Everest of stairs.

There was an ambulance outside.  Two paramedics were loading Grandma, who was moaning and strapped to a gurney, into the back of it.  Dad was waiting in the car while Mum locked the house.  She took my hand and led me to the car.  'You go home with Dad,' she said, 'I'm going in the ambulance with Grandma.'  Her eyes were red, with black lines running down from them over her cheeks.

'Are you all right, Mum?' 

'I'm fine, dear, just a little upset because Grandma isn't very well.'

Going home with Dad was OK.  Being home with Dad wasn't.  He cooked tea and I tried my best to eat it.  I say 'cooked' but 'cremated' would be a better word.  Then I went to bed early – not by choice – and lay awake until Mum came home and the first argument ended ...


It was a long time until Grandma got out of hospital – the 'looney-bin', Dad called it – and, after that, we hardly ever went to the house together.  Mum went several times a week for ages but Dad never went (another reason to argue) and I always had to stay with Dad.  We saw a lot more of Dad's parents.  Nanna and Pop expected me to stay in the same room as them so they could pinch my cheeks and feed me stale doughnuts.  They often heard me ask, 'Can we go home yet?'  They would just smile and tousle my hair and give me another doughnut.  I hate doughnuts.  They remind me of interminable boredom.

Then Grandma disappeared.  Without trace.  Mum flipped.  Dad left.  Great.  In the space of a week, at the age of twelve, I lost all the important people in my life.  Well, I say 'important' but 'breathing' almost covers it.  Mum came back from her depression eventually but Dad never showed up again.  We had to sell our house because of the divorce, and Mum and I went to live at Grandma's.  The basement door was kept locked and the key hidden away.

Sometimes, when I came home from school, Mum was a bit spaced out and incapable.  At first, I thought she was drinking but one Friday, when there was a fire at the school and we were sent home early, I caught her coming out of the basement.  At least, she gave the impression of having been caught.  As it happened, I did have to catch her because she collapsed.

She slept for 12 hours solid that night; most unlike her, as she was lucky to get six as a rule.  When she woke, she was incoherent and just rambled on, '… basement … don't go there … mirrors are bad … haunted … forever …'  I suspected she was going the same way as Grandma.

Being 18 by this point, I was a bit more aware of the ways of the world and Mum's aberrations worried me.  Grandma went mad.  Mum is following suit.  What will happen to me?  Such concerns soon vanished as life for me took on a different direction.  I went off to university in a city far from home and immersed myself in my studies.  I also overcame my shyness with girls.  Oh my, the girls...

Each vacation began with the long train-ride home, and so with plenty of time to wonder what state Mum would be in.  For the whole of my undergraduate training, she always seemed normal and as happy as you could expect her to be.  There was always an abundance of empty wine bottles in the rubbish but she seemed sober and stable when I was home.  She also had a new man, which was nice because it meant I could forget worrying about her and get on with my own life.

Half-way through my Ph.D., I got a phone call from Dad, the first contact he had bothered to make since he left.  He sounded disinterested, which he was, and in a hurry to get off the phone, which, again, he was.  'The police called.  Your mother's gone missing.'

'How did you get my number?'

'They called me to the house.  I found your details there.'

'Why did they call you?'

'Dunno.  First number they found.  You OK?'

'I'm fine.  What do they think has–'

'Contact them.  She's not my problem.'  He hung up.

'Hello?  Dad?  You bastard!'

So I went to the house.  I spoke to the police.  Apparently, milk bottles, newspapers and post had built up at the house for a week and the milkman tipped off the police, who broke in and found nothing suspicious and no-one at home.  They thought Mum had just gone away without letting anyone know.  They had contacted Dad to be sure but, since he knew nothing – why would he? – they asked him to contact anyone else who may know Mum, and then put the case on the back burner. 

All Mum's things were there, suggesting that she had not gone anywhere, and the police told me that the only thing unusual on their arrival was that the basement door was open and the light on.  They had turned it off to save power.

I contacted Mum's man to see if she was there or if he knew anything.  His new girlfriend answered the phone, so I guessed not.  The neighbours knew nothing, and Mum's boss was as surprised by her disappearance as I was.

Everything – that is, the one and only clue – pointed to the basement.  What was Mum doing down there?  Grandma must have told her the secret of the mirrors: she must have rambled on about them when she was hospitalised. Why had Mum started messing about with them?  She hadn't mentioned the end of her relationship when we last spoke but, knowing Mum, it would have upset her profoundly.  Maybe that's what started it.

So down to the basement I went, and into the first room.  Of course, I knew only what I had learnt about the mirrors when I was six and had no idea what Grandma or Mum knew.  On the wall opposite the door, someone had written, 'You started here.'  The word, 'here', was heavily underlined, and the underlining became an arrow pointing to the mirror on the right.  I tapped on the mirror.  It's familiar ring stirred the excitement I had known when I was six.  I took a coin from my pocket.  I tapped the mirror four times and tossed the coin at it, then heard it spin to a standstill in the room two doors down.  I ran my hand over the solid surface of the mirror.  Like when I was six, I was going to walk round to the other room but then I had an impulse.  I tapped four times, then stepped through the mirror to pick up and pocket the coin.

To confirm my location, I left the room by the door.  I recalled my experience as a six-year-old.  Three tosses of the ball had sent it only one room away but tapping four times allowed me to send the coin two rooms away.  Of course!  Three tosses of the ball only resulted in two taps: the third throw was the transition.  I started to form a theory. 

One tap leaves you where you are in Room 1.

Two taps allow you to move one room to Room 2.

Three taps?  Well, I hadn't tried that yet.

Four took me to Room 3.

Five?  Or do only even numbers work?

I went back upstairs to get a pencil and then walked round to each room, writing its number on the blank wall.  Back I went to the first room, ready to start experimenting.

Tap, tap, tap.  I walked through the mirror.  The number on the wall was 2.  Three taps only allowed one transition, just as two did, so maybe odd numbers didn't work.  I walked back to the first room.

Four taps, I already knew, would take me two rooms away, so I moved on to five.  Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.  I walked through into Room 3.  Another odd number, and it took me no farther.  I tapped the mirror behind me four times and stepped through it back to Room 1.  Six taps gave the same outcome as five.

Seven taps, being an odd number, should have put me in the same room but was I surprised to find myself in Room 4.  This time, I walked back to Room 1, thinking about the data as I went.  I wrote on the blank wall:

1 transition requires 2 taps

2 transitions requires 4 taps

3 transitions requires 7 taps


The numbers that worked were looking like they had something to do with the sums of a simple arithmetic series: 1 + 2 is 3, plus one is 4; 1 + 2 + 3 is 6, plus 1 gives 7;...  Maybe the first tap set some sort of counter running and only the subsequent taps were counted.  That would make sense because it would provide a measure of protection against accidental contact with a mirror.  The mirrors must then transmit whatever follows as far as the tapping allows.  If that was so, then I could discount my first tap, and should be able to predict the number of the room I would end up in from the sum of the arithmetic series: n(n+1)/2, with n being the number of transitions I want to make.

I predicted that to reach Room 5 from Room 1, making four transitions, I would need to tap 4 multiplied by 5 divided by 2 + 1 times: 11; and that eight, nine or ten taps would only get me to Room 4.  I wrote on the wall

4 transitions requires 11 taps?

then approached the mirror.

Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.  Room 5.  Success.  There was a definite impulse as I stepped into the mirror, as if I was being dragged in and spat out at the end of my journey.

I messed about for a while, jumping between rooms.  Sometimes I couldn't make the jump if I approached the mirror too soon or too long after making the taps.  I concluded that the first tap turns a counter on, you then had a limited time in which to make the taps that determine how far you go, and the mirrors remain active only for a limited time before resetting.  I couldn't imagine Mum working all this out, much less Grandma.  What were they doing down here? Where did they go?

Standing in Room 5, I wondered if there was a Room 6?  I tapped the mirror twice and threw my coin through.  I tapped twice again and, with my heart trying to break out of my chest, stepped through the mirror.  I drew a 6 on the wall, tapped the mirror 16 times and stepped back through to Room 1.  Perfect.  I walked back to Room 5, then went to Room 6 again and this time noticed the room had no door.  Then, with my heart in my mouth, I went to Room 7.  There was a door in this one, so I went through it and found myself on a corridor like the one in Grandma's house but painted a different colour.  Also, just like at Grandma's, there were five rooms on the corridor.  I numbered them all from 7 to 11.  In Room 10, I tapped the mirror using the index fingers on both hands to achieve the necessary and furious 56 taps in the allotted timespan and stepped through.  Room 1, just as predicted.  I took myself back to Room 10 and walked round to Room 11, where I made an even more furious 67 taps.  Room 1.  I was satisfied with my theory but a little winded by the force that had thrown me through the conduit.

Well, there was the next question: conduit through or to what?  Why was it in Grandma's basement?  Who built it and what for?  And how did they get such huge mirrors through the doors?

I explored the other way from Room 1 and found another room without a door, and five more beyond that.  Backwards and forwards I went, stopping in each new place to number the rooms.  Just once as I stood in one of the rooms, I felt a chill draught as though through an open window but saw nothing.  Was it someone else passing through?  It gave me the creeps, whatever it was.

I needed a better way of tapping if I was to explore properly, so I spent a couple of weeks in the garage building a device.  I programmed it so I could tell it how many transitions to make and it calculated the number of taps and moved a solenoid.  All I had to do was dial in the number of rooms to jump, hold the end against the mirror and press the start button.  It worked a treat, and I managed to jump 20 rooms in one go; 211 taps, and the suction almost dragged me off my feet!

I moved back homewards five rooms at a time.  All the basements looked pretty much the same.  This time, I ventured up the stairs.  All the houses were empty, and three of the four were derelict, and very different from Grandma's.  The nearest one to home was almost identical.  There were minor differences: wall colours, the position of windows, the piano was a Yamaha rather than a Steinway.  A car drew up on the gravel outside, so I went to the door and peered through the window beside it.  An agile old lady climbed from the driver's seat and went to the boot to get her bags.  She locked the car and walked towards the house.  My heart leapt in my chest.  I threw the door open and shouted, 'Grandma!'

The old woman stopped and dropped her bags, shocked.  'Who are you?  What do you want?  Why are you in my house?'

'It's me, Grandma.  I've been looking for you and Mum.'

She reached into her coat pocket and pulled out her mobile phone.  'I'm calling the police,' she shouted, 'I'm not your grandma, I haven't any children!'  She retreated to the safety of her car, locked the door, dialled, and started talking into the phone.

It was Grandma or, if not her, her identical twin – except she never had one.  I slipped back inside then ran down the basement stairs and into the end room.  Four taps and I was home again. 


I wandered back and forth through the rooms.  The farther I went from base, the more different the houses were; some more elegant, others more humble, some occupied, more abandoned.  I concluded the conduit linked alternative realities.  Every sixth room had no door, and every reality had five rooms. 

I had assumed a while ago that Grandma had gone off in search of Grandpa, and Mum in search of Grandma.  My guess was that they were moving one room at a time or, at best, if they realised that they could miss out rooms by using the corridors, one reality at a time.  The one thing to my advantage was that I had the means to move around quickly.  The problem was, they could be anywhere along the conduit, and if they had left the basement in any reality, I may never find them...


I spent some time examining the mirrors, even taking one off a wall and checking out the back of it.  There was a small oval area at the centre that was raised above the surface, and the wall had an oval depression that corresponded with the centre of the mirror.  I guessed it was nothing more than an alignment device; certainly, it helped me reposition the mirror perfectly when I replaced it on the wall.  The brackets at each corner had adjustable pads, and the degree to which they had been adjusted seemed to account for unevenness in the walls.  When in place, the mirrors in each room were exactly aligned and perfectly parallel.  I deduced that accurate alignment was critical to their operation.  Apart from that, I found not one single clue to how they worked, or what they were made of.  Whoever, or whatever, had built them had access to technology far in advance of ours. 


I was getting nowhere, so I decided to go exploring farther afield.  I filled my rucksack with enough food and water for five days, and spare underwear and socks.  In case I needed to get out of a locked basement somewhere, or mend something, I packed a few basic tools – a screwdriver, pliers, a hammer, a knife and a roll of duct tape.  My plan was to make three maximum-length jumps away from Room 5 to start with.  That would take me 12 realities away to Room 73, if I made each jump from the last room in each set.   Then I would travel back one reality at a time, spending a day in each location.  I could always return home to restock my supplies, so I could stay anywhere longer if I found something interesting.

The first jump took me by surprise.  With about 25 kilogrammes on my back adding to my momentum, I found myself staggering to stay upright at the destination.  I numbered the rooms 25 to 29.  On the second jump, I just stepped up to the mirror and allowed it pull me in.  That made for a much easier landing.

After numbering the new set of rooms, I approached the mirror in the last room for the third jump.  I reset the tapper, placed it against the mirror, pressed the button, then let myself be sucked through.  Something hard like a truck hit me, and I collapsed dazed to the floor, my nerves buzzing.  Pain in the middle of my face.  Agony.  Dragging me back to full consciousness.  That's when the smell hit me.  Stench.  That would be a better word.  An awful stench gripped me that was so bad I wanted to vomit.  I sat up and opened my eyes.  What I saw made them open so wide they almost fell out of my head.  I screwed them tight shut.  I threw up.

My hand somehow found its way to the throbbing, sticky mess in the middle of my face.  I opened an eye and looked in disbelief at the blood that trickled from my fingers.  My nose was broken.  What the hell had happened?  I had to look around, had too.  I had to find out what was going on.  I put a hand down to push myself from the floor.  'Oh! Oh God!' I shouted, pulling my hand out of the sticky gloop on the floor and thoughtlessly wiping it on the front of my jacket.  Another wave of nausea hit me as the stench assaulted me once more and I saw I was sitting on a corpse whose entrails I had just probed.  I threw up again.

In the corner, a skeleton sat propped up and grinning at me, clothed in rags that hung as if from a wire hanger.  Two more lay strewn against the wall.  I turned around, taking in the gruesome view.  Another skeleton.  Another pile of rotting flesh.  Another skeleton, and... 'Oh God, no!'

I jumped to my feet and stepped to the body of a woman that sat slumped in the corner in familiar clothes.  On her left hand, there was a wedding band, a three-diamond engagement ring, the stones set distinctively on the diagonal across its wasted finger, and an eternity ring that used to belong to Grandma, and that she had given to Mum several years ago after Grandpa had disappeared.  Her face was falling off but I forced myself to look.  I threw up again.  I looked again at the skeleton in the other corner.  Grandma had a dress like that; a necklace Mum had given her for her sixtieth birthday hung from the fleshless phalanges of her right hand. 

Mum had gone looking for Grandma, and had found her.  Now I had found them both.

My mind raced and grappled with what it saw, trying to get hold of what was happening whilst at the same time pushing the facts away.  I threw up yet again, and my breath rasped in my throat.  I snatched a look around the room.  No door.  This was an intermediate reality.  What was happening?

Then realisation struck me like a sledgehammer.  There was only one mirror!  I should have gone on but the sequence of reflections was broken; and so was the other mirror.  The truck that had hit me was the wall, and there was a smear of fresh blood where my nose had been.  How far had I come?  I sank down the wall and sat beside Mum.  Death leered at me through her receding lips and cheeks.  I cast my eyes over the fragments of mirror that lay beneath the remains of ill-fated travellers.  Travellers such as myself...  I wept.

My food and water would last for five days.  With care, I could stretch that out for nine or ten.  Beyond that, I could survive perhaps another three days without water.  I had about twelve days to find a way out, as long as there was air.  Rationality pushed the clamouring panic away.  The corpses would be desiccated in the absence of air but they were not; they were rotting and putrid.  There was no door.  The only way into this space was through the mirror.  Perhaps the only air is what came through with me and the other travellers.  Would that be enough to allow all these corpses to rot?

There were eight bodies here. Either there were not many travellers or the mirror had been broken relatively recently: I knew when Grandma had disappeared, Mum had gone after her, and  the corpse I had sat on was more recent than both of them.  Was this the person I had felt pass through a couple of weeks ago?  The room was not huge so air must be getting in from somewhere.  If I could find its source, I may find a way out.

I looked around again.  The clawed marks on the walls showed me that previous captives had despaired of getting out.   A broken femur lay discarded on a pile of plaster scraped from the wall that was revealed to be solid rock.  Obviously, tunnelling out was not an option.  A floorboard had been prised loose, but the joists rested on solid rock.  No way out that way either.  There was no lamp on the ceiling.  The room seemed to be illuminated by a faint glow from the intact mirror.  Maybe that's how the air gets in!  Perhaps the mirror...?

I tapped twice and pressed myself against the mirror without expecting it to work.  The others would have tried it and it hadn't worked for them.  One way only: in...

The broken mirror lay in several large and many more small fragments on the floor.  The largest,  a metre or so across, was under the corpse I had sat on.  Using my feet, I pushed the body aside.  It left an arm and a trail of juice behind as it moved, and the renewed stench from its newly-disturbed innards had me retching again.

I retrieved the fragment and leant it against the bare wall.  Multiple reflections came into view as I brought it upright.  I picked up a metacarpal and tapped the mirror twice, waited, then threw the bone at the fragment.  It bounced off and clattered to the floor.  How many of them had tried that? 

The back of the fragment had an oval on it, so it came from the centre of the original mirror.  That reminded me of my earlier investigations: alignment.  I was ravenous and parched, so I leant the fragment back against the wall and reached for my rucksack.  Without thinking, I guzzled down a day's worth of water.  I lifted a sandwich to my mouth but the stink turned my stomach over and I couldn't face eating it.  The sandwich went back in the rucksack and I sat down next to Mum.  'Please, God, there has to be a way out,' I said as I stared at the wall.  No-one answered.

Then I saw the oval depression.  It was in the middle of the blood spattered from my broken nose.  Thinking about it made me realise how much it still hurt.  I picked up the mirror fragment and slid it around until its oval engaged in the hole.  Holding the fragment in place with one hand, I fumbled in my pocket for a coin, then I tapped the fragment twice and tried to pass the coin through.  It fell at my feet and rolled away under Grandma.  Alignment.  I put the fragment down again and went back to my rucksack to get my tools.

With the fragment relocated in its hole, I marked its outline on the wall with my pencil.  I used my screwdriver to prise the brackets from the wall then fitted them around the outline and put  the fragment back in place.  Blood-stained sweat dripped from my nose and I was panting.  The air in the room was none too rich in oxygen, and my frantic efforts were depleting what there was.  I sat down by Mum again, hungry and weak: I had to eat that sandwich, so I forced it down and held it in.  Exhausted,  I looked at my watch.  It was almost midnight.

About three hours later, I jerked awake.  The air felt more breathable.  My reduced exertions must have had given chance for whatever diffused through the mirror to replenish the room.  The constant bombardment by air molecules must cause micro-activations of the mirrors, allowing some diffusion of air. 

Feeling refreshed from my sleep, I stood up and examined the fragment.  The reflections were skewed so I could see that the alignment was wrong.  I adjusted the brackets until the reflections were as regular as I could make them.  Would it be aligned closely enough?  Would a fragment work?

I approached the intact mirror and tapped it twice with another metacarpal.  The sound from the mirrors was a feeble reminder of the noise I remembered from when I was six, but sufficiently close to give me hope.  But the bone would not make the transition.  I used my tapper to set up a longer jump – but still no transition.

Once more I sat next to Mum.  'How the hell do I get out of here?' I asked her.  She just grinned and said nothing.  I looked at the mirrors.  I had gone to great trouble to align the centres.  Perhaps transitions could only happen in the zone defined by the fragment...

Leaping up, I raced to the intact mirror and tapped it twice.  I tossed the bone at the centre of it.

Schloop!

It was the most wonderful sound I have ever heard.  Next, I used a femur to probe the mirror, keeping a firm grip on the end so that it could not pass through, hoping to discover the boundaries of the reflecting zone.  The mirror's active interval closed down all too quickly, slicing the end off the femur where it passed through the mirror.  I used a few ribs to confirm that the active zone corresponded exactly with the fragment's size.  There was a way out but how could I open a portal and get myself through it before it closed, slicing off however much of me remained on the wrong side of the mirror?

By now, it was five a.m., and I was fighting to stay awake and struggling to think clearly.  I needed to rest.  I sat down and slept for another few hours and, as I slept, I dreamt.  Dreams of falling headlong through space.  Dreams of being sucked into a pipe and spat out against a wall.  Dreams of laughing skulls, and rotting flesh.

A loud thud shocked me from my nightmare.  I opened my eyes to see a body topple slowly away from the wall beneath the mirror fragment.  It was intact from near the middle of the chest downwards.  Everything above that was missing, as though it had been sliced off.  The line of the slice matched the shape of the fragment.  As it fell, blood fountained from the severed aortic arch.  I lost some bile.

She had been a traveller, unaware of the danger that lay in wait for her.  She had stepped upright through a mirror.  Just how far her head and shoulders went, I will never know.  Hopefully, she was oblivious to the danger that now lay behind her...

Now I knew for sure the danger that confronted me.  I ate and drank, then slept a few more hours.

Speed and suction.  They were my best friends.  I would have to run and dive at the zone to get myself to the right level and as horizontal as possible.  If I set up the longest transition possible, I could count on a big pull from the conduit to help get me through the portal before it closed and took off my legs.  I fixed the tapper to the good mirror using plenty of tape to make sure it wouldn't fall off while tapping.

I was ready to go.  My choices were to stay here and die or risk death or dismemberment in an escape attempt.  Half a chance was better than none.  I took Mum's rings from her finger and Grandma's necklace from her hand, then lay their bodies side by side.  With the tapper primed and ready, I stood with my back to the fragment.  I reached across the room with a pole made from femurs and humeri taped together and pressed the start button on the tapper.  I began my run just before the tapper finished and threw myself headlong at the centre of the good mirror.  The conduit tugged on my fingers, then hands, forearms, head and shoulders and on down my body.  I wrapped my arms around my head and prepared myself for the collision that I knew awaited me at the end of my journey.


I came to on the floor.  A light glowed above me.  I opened my eyes to see it, then turned my head to each side.  A door stood ajar in one wall and the number 52 was written on the other; I had been trapped in Room 72, only one short of my intended endpoint, reality thirteen.  I was surrounded by broken mirror but, apart from bruising to my elbows, my broken nose, and a few new nicks, I was intact.

Somehow, I had to, I must, stop other travellers being trapped.  At least if anyone came to a halt in Room 52 they could return home from another.  I worked my way up to Room 71, one before the trap, tapped the mirror twice and, using all my might, threw my hammer hard through its centre.  There was no way to be sure I had hit the fragment and smashed it.  I hoped so.  Then, at least no-one coming the other way would be diced and trapped.  But I could make certain that no-one travelling from my direction would be caught.  I removed the mirror from its brackets, lay it on the floor, and jumped all over it until it was completely shattered and useless.  How many other traps were there?  How many hapless travellers had come to grief?  How many more would?  None from my reality!


Back in Grandma's basement, I smashed every mirror and removed all trace of them.  I scrubbed the writing from the walls.  Whoever bought the house would have no idea what had once been down here.  I addressed an envelope to an estate agent and put a key and my instructions inside.  On my way out, I locked the front door and then, without a backward glance, left the house for the last time.

Friday, 4 February 2011

In the Sky with Diamonds

Copyright © 2010

A powerful industrialist holds a prospector prisoner, aided by strange, alien mercenaries.  He is intent on securing the prospector's prize for his own evil purposes but he cannot without the prospector's expertise.  The prospector, of course, has other ideas but can he overcome the odds...?

The number of times that Jason Smith had eaten hog soup as his one and only meal a day could be counted on the fingers of one hand; the hand of a Turingean Swamp-lofe, that is: forty-seven fingers, forty-seven days.  This afternoon was no different.  The hot, clouded liquid steamed in the bowl that sat before him on the table.  A silver-plated spoon lay beside it; the plating worn thin around the edges, black tarnish engrained in the hallmarks and the manufacturer’s name where the silver polish had not been able to do its work.  On a plate in the centre of the table, a few slices of meal-bread, cut ragged and heavily buttered, glistened in the feeble light that streamed through the small, high window.

Jason swung a lazy hand at a pretzel fly that was trying to make a meal of the butter, and lifted the spoon with his other.  He sank the bowl of the spoon into the soup and watched the liquid ooze over its edges and trickle in viscous streams to its bottom where it pooled and filled the hollow.   He lifted the spoon towards his mouth, watching its content carefully.  Nothing moved, and so he pursed his lips and slurped at the spoon’s edge.

As he had every afternoon in the last forty-seven days, he choked back his impulse to wretch on the foul-tasting gloop that congealed like thick mucous on his tongue and clung to his teeth.  He closed his eyes tight and swallowed hard, forcing his sustenance to the back of his mouth and down his throat.  He gasped as he lowered the spoon once more into the bowl and repeated the sequence again.  He reached for the bread as the spoon sank, tore a piece from a thick slice and thrust it into his mouth, where the bitter, acidic taste of the rancid butter mollified the putrid stench that came back up his throat and through his nose.  He chewed slowly on the hard morsel, probing it with his tongue, searching for anything that could damage his teeth.

The rage that had seethed in the core of his being like a plug of boiling magma seeking a passage to the surface finally achieved its goal.  He spat out the masticated bread and threw the spoon across the room, where it clattered against the wall and then spun in chaotic circles to the floor.  ‘Enough!’ he shouted, leaping to his feet with the speed of a startled antelope; his chair flew back, thrust spinning away from him by the force of his sudden action, and crashed onto its side behind him.  He grasped the table’s edge with both hands and threw it after the spoon, the bowl emptying its contents as it fell towards the floor, the slices of bread spinning through space in a cloud of opportunistic pretzel flies.

Jason lunged at the door, hammered at it with tight fists, kicked it with booted feet, and screamed through the barred window.  ‘Enough!  Take me to Fabrioni!  I’ll give you what you want!’

Hogworms wriggled free of the pool of spilled soup and slithered between the shards of the shattered bowl into the small pile of excrement that lay reeking in the corner.

Jason heard a door open in the distance at the end of the corridor onto which the door of his cell gave access.  He heard the familiar shuffle of the Ospasian mercenary guards and their grunted exchange that passed for speech; being lungless, Ospasians stimulated their vocal chords by belching from a sac on their throats which they inflated by gulping mouthsful of whatever gas they happened to be immersed in.  When their characteristic and aromatic smell reached Jason’s nostrils he knew his captors would not be far behind it.

‘Stand clear of the door,’ one of the guards grunted at him as it peered into his cell from the other side of the bars.

Jason moved back, standing accidentally on the slowest hogworm in the room, crushing its pointless life from it.

The door swung open, groaning and squeaking on its under-used hinges.  A guard’s hand pushed on the door, forcing it back through its full range of movement until it clanged dully against the wall.  The three guards shuffled in, still grunting at each other.  They stood before him in their reactive-armoured combat suits, their cat-like eyes fixing first on him and then breaking away to take in the scene around them.  He in turn stared at them, still, after all this time, fascinated by their faces bereft of features save for two eyes and one broad, down-curved, lipless mouth, all surmounted by a large, domed cranium covered with velvety down.

The leader addressed one of his fellows, in English so that the captive would know what was happening and what to do next, ‘Clear this place up while we take him to Fabrioni.’

The Ospasian thus charged snorted as he looked at the mess, and particularly the waste in the corner.  ‘Humans!’ he said to Jason, his throat-sac throbbing and quivering, ‘Your digestive systems are so inefficient.  I’m just thankful that you were on a low-residue diet.’

‘I wouldn’t call that filth a diet,’ Jason retorted.

‘You would if you were a pretzel fly.’

The Ospasian leader fixed his unblinking gaze on Jason. ‘Follow me,’ he ordered, ‘and don’t try anything.’  He turned and left the cell, and the remaining Ospasian pushed Jason out of the cell then fell in behind him.

Down the corridor they shuffled, Jason scratching at his unkempt beard, and rubbing his thighs to encourage them into unaccustomed movement.  They passed through the door at the end of the corridor and into an anteroom.

‘You are to wait here,’ the leader said before leaving the room through a wide glass door in the opposite wall.

Jason blinked against the strong light that streamed in, and held up a hand to shield his eyes while they adjusted.  He looked around the room, which was hung with artworks of a sort he had not seen since leaving Earth.

The leader returned.  ‘Mr Fabrioni will see you now,’ he said, and once more left through the glass door, issuing in the process a gesture which to another Ospasian would indicate that its issuer should be followed but which to a human meant nothing intelligible.  Jason followed him through the glass door and the other guard followed on behind.

The door gave onto a larger room, with even more sumptuous furnishings and decoration than the other, and dominated at its centre by a large table set with an opulent cloth and gold cutlery.  At the far end of the table sat a small man with ginger hair receding in a widower’s peak and greying at the ears, and whose top lip was edged with a pencil-thin moustache.  A small, triangular patch of whiskers decorated his chin and danced up and down as the man chewed on a piece of the rare steak from the plate before him.  He was dressed in the finest linen that all but masked his tendency to rotundity, and wore on his right forefinger a ring set with a large diamond; not the largest that Jason had seen but certainly the largest in a ring.

‘Ah, Mr Smith.  I understand you have had a change of heart,’ Fabrioni said, his thin, piping voice immediately an irritant to Jason, ‘although I suspect a change of clothing would be more welcome.’  He wrinkled his nose at the stench that emanated from Jason, the result of forty-seven days in solitary confinement with no creature comforts.  ‘At last, you are prepared to give me the information I have asked of you.’

‘No,’ Jason responded, ‘that’s not what I’m offering.  I don’t trust you.  If I tell you how to get there you’ll have no further need of me.  I’ll take you there.’

‘You think that I would kill you without having verified the accuracy of your information?  I would look foolish, don’t you think, if you misdirected me and were, shall we say, unavailable for further consultation.  In any case, I am not a killer.  I have Ospasian mercenaries to do that for me.  Killing is such a messy business, and they enjoy that sort of thing.  Indeed, they are remarkably good at it.  No, my friend, I fully intend that you will join us in our quest.’

‘And when you have what you want?’

‘I am not an unreasonable man.  You will be rewarded with you life, if what we find lives up to your report.  Otherwise…’  He ended his statement with a shrug of his shoulders and a twisting of his mouth.

Jason’s stomach churned and grumbled in the presence of the meal on Fabrioni’s plate.

‘Ah, you will be very hungry, no doubt.  Please.  Sit down. My man will fetch you some food.  I suspect hog soup is not on our menu.’  He clapped his hands and a slight, wasted manservant came in and stood behind Fabrioni’s left shoulder.  Fabrioni spoke quietly to the servant, who left the room, then cut another square of steak and lifted it to his mouth.  ‘Wine, Mr Smith?  Please help yourself.’  He gestured towards a flask with his knife.

Jason reached out and lifted the flask of rich red wine that stood at the centre of the table.  He filled the nearest glass as the servant returned with a plate of hot, delicious, normal food and set it down in front of him.  He put down the flask, forgot about the wine for a while, and set about the meal like a dog that has not been fed in a long time.

Fabrioni continued his monologue, ‘We shall need your ship, of course.  This one is not really suited for long jumps and, in any case, does not have the necessary power for the task ahead of us, not to mention the equipment we require.’

‘We’ll need manpower as well as engine power.’

‘We have you and your three crew, my three crew – not counting Alonso, of course, who would be quite useless – and the nine Ospasians.  Sixteen should do it.’

‘The Ospasians know what we’re going to do?  And they’re willing to help?’

‘They know as much as they need to know and they will do almost anything for money.  They are very useful employees, although it’s a damned shame that they are so attractive to pretzel flies…’

‘Sixteen will be enough.’

‘Alonso will show you to your cabin for the night.  You can rid yourself of your farmyard smells and prepare for our transfer to your ship tomorrow.’

Jason sipped on his wine.  ‘What about my cut?’ he ventured.

‘Your cut?’

‘You’re paying the Ospasians.  Why should I work for you for free?  After all, I found the thing and, by rights, it’s all mine.’

‘It will not be yours if you are dead, Mr Smith.’

‘No, it will be my sister’s.’

‘Ah yes, your sister.  A charming woman.  And the main reason why you should work for me for free.’

Jason’s face became pale as the blood drained to his boots.  ‘If you lay so much as a finger on her I’ll—’

‘I already told you that I am no killer, Mr Smith.’

‘But your bloody Ospasians are.’

‘Quite so, Mr Smith, quite so, and apparently not averse to eating their victims…  I promise you that, if the need arises, she will know nothing about it.  For that matter, neither will you: I guarantee that you will not outlive her by so much as a millisecond.  And now, Mr Smith, I wish you a good night’s sleep.  Tomorrow will be a busy day.  Alonso!  I will take brandy in my quarters.’  Fabrioni rose from the table and strutted from the room.

Jason raised his glass and gulped down its content, then threw the glass at the wall where it shattered into a thousand-and-one pieces.  The few remaining drops of wine spattered an expensive-looking wall-hanging.  Jason wished he had not emptied the glass quite so well.  Roused by the noise of the breaking glass, four Ospasians burst into the room, their disruptors unholstered and armed.  Satisfied that there was no cause for alarm, they shuffled back out of the room to return to whatever it is that off-duty Ospasians do with their time.  ‘Humans!’ one of them grunted as he left.

Alonso entered the room, took in the debris and wine stains at a glance, and announced, ‘If you would care to follow me, sir, I will show you to your room.’
Jason stood to his feet, picked up the half-full flask, and followed.

*

He woke from a fitful, dreaming sleep still feeling exhausted.  After forty-seven days in solitary confinement in a small, ill-equipped cell, he found the bed too soft, the air too fresh and the room too temperate.  The alcohol and his stomach, which was unaccustomed to being full, had also taken their toll on his ability to sleep well.  The only favourable circumstance had been the absence of pretzel flies, since the Ospasian quarters were at the other end of the vessel, and he had been awake long enough and often enough to notice that they were missing.

He had been tossing and turning for about an hour since his last episode of sleep when he noticed that the ship was waking up.  People and other species were moving about, easing themselves into the new day, preparing for their transfer to Jason’s craft.  He did not bother to busy himself as all his belongings were already aboard Endeavour: he had been captured and brought over to Fabrioni’s vessel in the clothes he had stood in.  He turned over again and tried once more to sleep.  He would be sent for when Fabrioni was no longer willing to wait, and he was in no mind to make life easy for the richest and most malevolent industrialist the known universe had ever seen.  He may be a prisoner but, as Fabrioni realised, he was an extremely valuable one.

He was summoned from his eventual sleep by a gentle tapping at the door of the cabin.  He picked up his watch and looked at the time.  The tapping repeated.  ‘Come in,’ he shouted.

The door slid back to reveal Alonso carrying a fresh change of clothing that had been brought from Endeavour.  ‘We intend to transfer to your vessel in forty minutes, sir.  If you would be so good as to prepare yourself and join us at the airlock…’

Jason looked at the man.  Not only was he wasted physically but his sunken eyes betrayed an emptiness of soul such as belonged to someone without the slightest glimmer of hope, whose hollow life was filled with endless drudgery and constant tedium.  He had seen androids with more sparkle.  He sat up and swung his feet onto the floor, then reached out and took the clothing from the empty shell that stood before him.  ‘Thank you, Alonso, you are very kind.’

A slight movement of Alonso’s eyes in Jason’s direction betrayed the surprise that the man experienced at being thus acknowledged.  He maintained his composure with a slight clearing of his throat.  ‘Will that be all, sir?’

‘Thank you, yes.’  Alonso turned and left the room, closing the door after him.  Jason wondered what held him in Fabrioni’s service.

He dragged himself out of bed and stretched and yawned, arching his aching back.  He showered and then pulled on his fresh clothing.  Having eaten so much the night before, he felt no need for food, an idea which, after weeks of constant hunger, satisfied him almost as much as food itself.  He took water, left the room and headed for the airlock.

He was surprised to find that he was the first to arrive but pleased that it gave him chance to look through the porthole at his ship that stood stark in full sunlight against the black, spangled backdrop of space.  As a prospector’s vessel, it was not the most beautiful thing ever built by man but, for Jason, it was home.  He found himself longing to be back aboard Endeavour, to be reunited with her crew, to have her underway again and be working her.

His reverie was interrupted by the slow-crescendoed grunting of approaching Ospasians.  Fabrioni had mentioned nine of them.  There were only four aboard so the others must be on Endeavour.  He hoped his crew had been well-treated and that the ship was not crawling with damned pretzel flies; at least the Ospasians kept their numbers in check.  Where the hell did they keep coming from?

The first two Ospasians came into view.  Seeing him, they switched to English.  For some reason, their culture required them to use the language of other races in their company, if known.  ‘Exciting?’ one said, ‘Not really.  I had more fun as a chrysalis.’  The other, Jason presumed from the quivering of his throat-sac and the screech that sounded like a leaking party balloon, laughed: it was difficult to tell what was happening on such immobile faces.  Then again, it may have been merely an expression of agreement.  Jason had not met Ospasians before this episode of his life, and his limited encounters with them had not revealed whether they had a sense of humour.  Since one of them had used the word ‘fun’, he thought it possible although by no means certain, since pleasure and amusement do not necessarily coincide.

A few minutes later, Fabrioni came into view, trailed by an even more morose-looking Alonso and, behind him, the two other Ospasians.

‘I am glad to see you are prompt, Mr Smith,’ said Fabrioni, ‘I would hate to put off our adventure any longer than necessary.  You have already, by your stubborn unwillingness to cooperate, delayed us by more time than I care to think about.’

‘Where’s your crew?’

‘My crew is staying here to keep an eye on things.  I am sure we will manage without them.  On reflection, I thought they would be quite useless for the task we have in hand, perhaps even obstructive, if not an actual liability.’  Jason said nothing but thought the odds reduced.  ‘Shall we leave?’  Fabrioni’s question was seen for the order it was and all moved into the airlock and through it to the shuttle.

An Ospasian took the controls while another sealed the airlock and released the docking bolts.  As the shuttle edged away from Fabrioni’s ship, Jason stationed himself on the bridge beside the pilot and watched Endeavour grow larger.

Fabrioni stood behind him and announced, ‘While you were playing your little game, Mr Smith, I took the liberty of exploring your vessel.  Fascinating.  Very utilitarian.  You will be pleased to know that I have in no way interfered with any of its systems.  I am fully aware that we need it in perfect shape for the task ahead of us.

‘I had your crew familiarise the Ospasians with every aspect of its navigation.  Since I had your life at my disposal, they were more than willing to cooperate.’

‘To what purpose?’ Jason interjected, squeezing his fists tight closed.  His brow furrowed and his eyes blazed with fire.

‘For the purpose of replacing your crew with my Ospasians, of course.  Your crew are now tucked away in the brig, where they will remain until your job is complete.  A role reversal, if you will: now I have their lives at my disposal, their fate depends very much on your continued cooperation.  I could have used this threat before, perhaps, but, then again, until they had finished training the Ospasians they were not expendable, a fact of which you would have been aware.’

‘You can’t seriously expect the Ospasians to master our technology that quickly.  I need my crew, we can’t function without them.’

‘The Ospasians have been travelling in space for centuries longer than we, Mr Smith.  They are extremely accomplished at crewing starships.  They are stationed in the armoury, by the way, so if you have any intentions of staging a one-man coup, you will have to do it with your bare hands.’

Jason slumped into a seat.  The odds had just been lengthened again.  He sat in silence for the remainder of the short journey.

When he finally stepped onto Endeavour, he heaved an involuntary sigh of relief.  ‘I’ll be on the bridge in ten minutes,’ he said, and then dictated, ‘We will be underway in twenty.’  He imagined that Fabrioni would have no objection to getting on with the job and, in any case, did not care if he did; Endeavour was his ship and he was its captain, whoever it was operating for and whoever was crewing it.

In his cabin, he turned on the comms panel, logged in and tapped the ‘Send Message’ icon.  ‘Function disabled’ popped onto the screen.  He tapped the ‘Read Mail’ icon.  ‘Function disabled’ again.  So much for not interfering with systems.  He tapped the ‘Systems Admin’ icon.  ‘Access denied – insufficient permissions’.

He felt his pulse pounding in his ears, and the muscles in the sides of his face began to ache from the force with which he clenched his teeth.  ‘Damn you,’ he shouted as he pounded both fists on the comms panel.  He turned and swept out of the room and made his way to the bridge.

Two Ospasians awaited him.  He ignored them while he spent the next half hour working out just how much of his ship he had control over.  Not much, it turned out.

‘We have prepared the ship for departure,’ the Ospasians announced.

Without acknowledging them, he logged on to the command console and hit the ‘Systems check’ icon.  ‘Ready for launch,’ the computer declared, and requested the coordinates of the destination and way markers for the flight plan.  He was impressed, having expected the Ospasians to be unable to get this far without him.  He looked at them and thought he detected a puzzled look on their faces, which looked as they always did.  They asked, ‘Is something wrong?’  He shook his head and the Ospasians returned to the consoles they had been monitoring.  He punched in the flight plan and pressed ‘Commence launch’.

Endeavour, like some great, dreaming dragon summoned from the sleep of centuries, turned until it faced the first waypoint.  As if in anger at being awoken, the light engines burst in a brilliant explosion of fierce incandescence.  The ship shuddered as the initial wave of compression from the thrust propagated through her frame.  For a lingering second or two, nothing happened and then she began to edge forwards.  Soon, Fabrioni’s cruiser dwindled to nothing as the distance between the two ships grew, and Endeavour’s speed built in response to the irresistible force of her engines.  Space folded in on itself as Endeavour slipped through the barrier and leapt forward, unleashed from the drag of Einstein Space.

Jason addressed the Ospasian at the helm, ‘You can handle this?’

‘Of course,’ came the matter-of-fact reply.

‘Good.  Call for me if there’s a problem.’  He left the bridge and headed down the corridor leading towards the brig.

An Ospasian stood blocking the way.  Seeing Jason approach and the look on his face – humans are so easy to read, he thought – he slipped his hand under the flap of his holster and clicked off the safety catch of his sidearm.

Jason approached the guard.  ‘I want to see my crew.’

‘That will not be possible.’

‘Look, I’m not going to try to get them out.  You can come with me.  I just want to see them.’

‘That will not be possible.’

Jason stepped forward, intending to push past the guard, but checked his advance when the armed disruptor came into view.

‘It will not be possible.’

‘OK.  I get your message, you little turd.’  He wanted to swat away the five or six pretzel flies that had landed below his left eye but was unsure, despite his value to Fabrioni, that the disruptor would remain undischarged if he made any sudden movement.  He felt the mouthparts of a fly probing under his lower eyelid as they had when he slept while incarcerated on Fabrioni’s ship, and he fought the instinct to react against the intrusion.  He stepped back, raising both hands slowly and deliberately, showing the Ospasian that he was unarmed and non-threatening.  ‘OK, I’m going now but you can expect to see me again.’

He turned and strode away along the corridor, knocking the pretzel flies off as he went.  They harassed him for a while, giving up their pursuit only when they were about a hundred metres from the guard, to whom they returned as though they were attached by elastic.

Jason headed off to the crew quarters where Fabrioni had installed himself.  He hammered on the door until the diminutive figure appeared.  ‘I want to see my crew,’ he demanded.

‘They are in the charge of the Ospasians.  Ask them.’

‘I already did.  I was told that seeing them would not be possible.’

‘Then they are doing their job properly.’

‘Why can’t I see them?  I want to know they’re safe.’

‘You should think of them as hostages, held to ransom.  The fee I require is your cooperation and the relinquishment of any rights you feel you may have over our objective.  Simple, really.’

Jason clenched his fists and jaw and took half a step towards Fabrioni, his eyes aflame with rage.  Fabrioni’s face began to crumple as, for the first time, a genuine fear of his captive began to take hold of him, there being no Ospasians ready to hand. Jason checked himself and, instead of delivering the devastating blow he had intended, shouted at Fabrioni, ejaculating spittle into his face, ‘You bastard!  You complete and total bastard!  How do you live with yourself?’

Sensing that the danger may have passed, Jason’s anger having been expended in the verbal onslaught, Fabrioni smiled and answered, ‘Unlike you and your crew, very comfortably.’

The camel’s back broke and Jason lunged forward with a vicious right-cross that caught Fabrioni full in the face, lifting him off his feet and throwing him through the air and crashing against the bulkhead.  He slithered down the wall to the floor.  Jason stepped forward and stood over the startled industrialist with his fists ready to rain down further punishment.  ‘I want to see my crew!’

There was the sound of hurried shuffling in the corridor, the nearest Ospasians ever come to running.  Sensing his route out of danger, Fabrioni shouted, ‘Guards!’

The door slid back and three Ospasians rushed in and grappled Jason to the floor.  Jason was surprised at their strength which was not evidenced by their physical appearance, and there had been no struggle in their very first encounter; the Ospasians had merely ambushed and stunned him, and dragged him to the cell.

Fabrioni hoisted himself to his feet and steadied his shaking frame with a hand oustretched against the wall.  With his other hand, he wiped away the blood that poured from his broken nose.  ‘Take him away,’ he ordered, ‘and lock him in his cabin.  He can stay there for a couple of days.’

The Ospasians heaved Jason up and frogmarched him away.  ‘I’ll kill you, you bastard,’ Jason shouted as he was dragged away.  The Ospasians said nothing.  Jason spent his two days calming down and formulating a plan.

*

Jason opened the door that led into the cabin the Ospasians were using as a common room. Eight unblinking faces turned to see him. ‘Er… Take me to your leader.’  He rolled his eyes in disbelief that he had used that phrase.

‘Follow me,’ said one of the mercenaries making, at the same time as he rose from his seat, the strange gesture Jason had seen before.  The Ospasian led him through a door at the far side of the cabin and into another room with even more pretzel flies than the room they had left.  ‘The Smith human wishes to address you, Excellency,’ he said in English for Jason’s benefit.

‘Very well, make the introduction.’

‘This,’ said the first Ospasian, indicating the other with a sweep of an arm and a deep bow, is His Excellency, Dlaax, our commander.’

‘Tlarx,’ began Jason.

‘No, no, that will not do!’ said the underling with, were Jason able to discern any change in the Ospasian’s face, what he would have interpreted as an expression of horror.  ‘It is quite rude to mispronounce an Ospasian’s name.  His name is “Dlaax”.  Do you get that? “Dlaax”, not “Tlarx”.’  His throat-sac quivered and shimmered in several shades of pink and yellow.

Jason tried harder to distinguish the subtle differences in sound that the guard had made, ‘Dlarx,’ he said.  The shimmering of the Ospasian’s throat-sac intensified.

‘That’s close enough for a human,’ said Dlaax, ‘It never ceases to amaze me how successful your species has been, with your needs for respiration and the elimination of waste.  How you ever learnt to function out here in space I will never understand.  What do you want?’

Jason brushed away the pretzel flies that were attempting to land in his eyes and around his lips to satisfy their need of salt.  Dlaax had been direct and Jason responded in like manner. ‘How much is Fabrioni paying you?’

‘That is a private contractual agreement and is none of your concern.’

‘It is my concern if I wish to outbid him for your services.’

‘And how would you achieve such an ambition?  You have no money.’

‘That’s not entirely true.  I have plenty of money.  I will have plenty more if you help me to stop Fabrioni stealing what is rightfully mine.  More than enough to, say, double what he is paying you…  All of you…’  He was talking loud enough to be heard through the door that stood open behind him.  ‘I will need to see the contract, of course, so I can be sure you’re not cheating.’

The guards in the other room, whilst pretending to be engrossed in their own undecipherable pass-times, were listening intently to the conversation that was taking place with their leader, one of them translating sotto voce for those unable to understand English.  The background level of grunting rose considerably at the mention of improved pay.

‘The object of our mission is of great value?’ Dlaax posed.

‘Fabulously so,’ said Jason, smiling.

Dlaax shuffled in his seat at the sight of Jason’s teeth, suppressing his disgust and annoyance at this breach of protocol.  He settled again, and appeared to be ruminating on the offer, although his inscrutable face showed, at least to humans, no indication of what was going on in his mind.  ‘We are a mercenary race, Mr Smith.  We are quite happy to sell our absolute loyalty to the highest bidder.  Can you guarantee that Fabrioni is unable to outstrip your offer?’  As if to punctuate his question, his long, sticky tongue whipped out, swept around the outline of his mouth, and disappeared again along with a dozen or so pretzel flies.

‘If you stay with Fabrioni, you will get what you agreed with him.  If you help me, I will see that you are well paid for your efforts.  If he offers you more I will beat his offer.  I can guarantee that.’

Dlaax’s unblinking eyes fixed on Jason’s for too long, at least for humans, to be polite.  Jason held his nerve and returned the stare, not knowing if that was the right thing to do or not, willing himself not to blink, keeping his face as free from expression as a human being could and pretzel flies allowed.  These guys would make brilliant poker players, he thought.

‘Is that all?’ Dlaax queried, still maintaining eye contact.

‘I’ll leave the offer on the table.’

Dlaax broke off the stare and cast his eyes across the desk.  ‘I see no evidence of … Ah!  A figure of speech.  Another human inefficiency: talking in riddles.’

‘I hope you find my proposition interesting.  I’ll leave you to think about it.’  Jason turned and strode out of the room.  The Ospasians fell silent as he passed.  He saw some of them straining to see past him to catch any indication Dlaax may be showing interest in the new deal.  Jason noted that, whatever they thought of humans, they thought highly of hard cash.  Their murmuring resumed as he passed beyond their room and into the corridor.

He had played his best card.  With his crew and the advantage of their familiarity with the ship unavailable to him, his only option was to get the Ospasians to switch allegiance.  He had no idea if it was possible to buy them over but his brief discussion with Dlaax gave him hope that it just might be.  He had little knowledge of the Ospasian mind.  If the chief Ospasian thought anything like a human being on the make, he expected Dlaax to come back with a higher demand.  Whatever he asked, Jason would be able to pay, provided Dlaax would wait long enough for the liquidation of the soon-to-be acquired asset…

*

Jason was wrenched out of the best sleep he had had in 48 days by the bursting open of the cabin door.  Several pretzel flies circled around his head, looking for a suitable place to land.  Commander Dlaax stood in the doorway with a document chip in his hand.  Seeing Jason was awake, he entered the room and closed the door behind him.


‘I thought we should finalise our arrangement before we become too busy,’ Dlaax said, and handed the chip to Jason.  ‘Here is the contract you wanted to see.’  He reached inside a flap on the breastplate of his armour and took out a second document chip which he also handed over to Jason.  ‘This will be the contract between us.  I will keep it separate from the other.  It is important that Fabrioni is unaware of our subterfuge until after we arrive at our destination.  I want to have him where I can control him and beyond the easy reach of his security forces when he finds out the new circumstances.’

‘Security forces?’

‘He has a private army.’

‘So why does he need you?’

‘Because he cannot trust those they subjugate to remain loyal without oversight.’

‘It seems he cannot trust you.’

‘He cannot afford to trust me.  You however, assure me that you can…’

Jason smiled a wry smile.  He wondered if the expression meant anything to Dlaax or whether human faces were as mysterious to him as Ospasians’ to humans.   ‘Well, I guess that, for much the same reason, my crew must remain where they are for now.  I assume they are being treated well.’  Dlaax said nothing and gave nothing away by his expression or lack of it.

Jason returned his attention to the document chip, which he slotted into a reader.  He scanned through the entire document, pausing briefly at salient details.  ‘I will have to read this properly before I sign it.  And there is no mention of money.’

‘Ah, yes.  I want five times what Fabrioni is paying, three for my men.  This is not negotiable so please do not attempt to sway me.’

Jason fixed him with a cold stare and held him in it in silence for a good thirty seconds, returning the compliment of their previous meeting.  ‘I don’t blame you for attempting to maximise your profit from all this,’ he sneered, ‘but I don’t like it.  If our arrangement works out well, I will agree to your enhanced payment.  If not, you and your men will get nothing and they will find out that you tried to short-change them.’

It was Dlaax’s turn to play it cool.  He held the stare as he spoke, ‘You know as well as I do that you can do nothing without my squadron on your side.  Since I have no doubt that you will be fully satisfied by our services, I will agree to your conditions being included in the contract.

‘We reach the first waypoint in two hours.  I will return in one to finalise our agreement.’   Without further interchange, he spun on his heels and left the room accompanied by his complement of pretzel flies.

Jason felt only a degree of satisfaction at this turn of events.  He was relieved that the Ospasians would be working for him, and confident that they were unlikely to change sides again.  While Fabrioni was fabulously rich, he would find it hard to lay hands on enough ready cash to win a bidding war, whereas Jason would soon be in possession of something worth an obscene amount of hard cash.  This last fact was the one that took the edge off Jason’s satisfaction.  He had had to betray his secret to Dlaax…

*

During the next two weeks, Jason kept himself to himself, leaving Fabrioni to keep his own company and the Ospasians to contemplate how to spend their newly-inflated ill-gotten gains.  He took all his meals in his own quarters, served by Alonso, a man for whom he developed immense pity.  What was the hold that Fabrioni had on him?  He suspected that Alonso had once been a proud and successful man.  He showed him kindness and respect, to the extent that Alonso began to seek out Jason’s company in the rare moments when Fabrioni could spare his services.  Those times were strained, with Alonso unable to talk freely but happy, if that was the word, to be in the company of a man with some humanity.  They played chess together, and Jason found him to be a skilful opponent who presented him with gambits unknown to any of the masters whose works he had read.

*

‘Checkmate, Mr Smith.’

‘Again.  You play a mean game, Alonso.’

‘Thank you, sir.  I must say that your game is by no means trivial.  Quite interesting, in fact.’

‘I’ve spent many a long hour studying chess.  Tasks such as the one we’re about to undertake involve brief periods of frenzied activity interspersed with eons of waiting.  They provide lots of scope for boredom.  Chess provides me with plenty of intellectual stimulus.  I must say, it’s a great pleasure to play a human opponent, especially one so talented, instead of the ship’s AI.  How did you get to be so good?’

Alonso froze.  He decided to take the risk and open up a little.  ‘My father was a Grand Master on my world.  Naturally, he inspired me to play.  Thanks to his coaching, I too became a Grand Master by the age of thirteen, and Supreme Master, beating all opponents in three systems by the age of twenty.  Including the most advanced AI opponents in our arena.’

Jason’s expression showed that he was impressed.  ‘I must be a poor challenge by comparison.’

‘By no means.  Your AI is obviously very advanced.  How often do you beat it?’

‘About 30 percent, at present, but improving slowly.’  Alonso nodded his approval.  ‘You obviously had no time for more conventional pursuits, such as work…’  Jason had cast the hook.

‘On the contrary.  My father also owned a large engineering empire covering two of the three systems I mentioned.  He built it up by hard work, and won contracts on reputation.  He had me work my apprenticeship before setting me up as head of a division.  When he … died, I inherited everything.’

‘So… How come…?’

‘I am here?  In these straitened circumstances?’  The man’s face became hard and he fell silent.  Jason thought the conversation may be about to end.  Alonso pulled himself up straight and looked Jason in the eye.  ‘I believe you to be an honourable man, Mr Smith.  I will tell you.

‘We began to win contracts in the third system.  We had made inroads through our pro bono work – there was nothing cynical about our efforts in that direction.  We are – were – an ethical company.  My father progressed because of the kindness of others and believed in giving the same chances to other unfortunates.  Anyway, we won some major contracts and earned the displeasure of the system’s major player, who made me an offer I dared not refuse.’

‘Fabrioni?’

‘The very same.  He had his henchmen everywhere, it seems.  In one swift move, he had our whole family abducted – all of them, I mean: cousins, nephews, nieces, … not one escaped.  We had never thought such a thing possible.  It was totally unexpected.

‘That was not the worst of it.  He had every one of them, including me, implanted with a lethal device.  One word from him and a whole dynasty would be wiped out in the time it took a signal to cross the systems.  To demonstrate the effectiveness of the device, he had my father’s implant tuned to a different signal.  When we would not agree to his terms – what made us think we could resist him, I have no idea – he had the signal transmitted.’  Jason winced as Alonso’s face turned into a mask of unbridled rage, ‘My father took five hours of utter agony to die, and I was made to watch every second of it.’  Alonso hammered the table with both fists.  Chessmen flew in every direction.  Tears of dismay flowed down Alonso’s cheeks.  Blood ran bright red from the knuckles torn open by the violence of his outrage.  Jason sat in absolute silence, hardly daring to breathe.

In an instant, Alonso composed himself and became once more the self-effacing, mild-mannered man that Jason had come to pity.  ‘So, you see, Mr Smith, I, the new Emporer, was completely robbed of authority in my own empire.  If I did not comply with Fabrioni’s will, my whole family would suffer the fate I had just witnessed.  It was too much.  I had no choice but to accede.  The family was set at liberty, free to go on with their lives as long as all remained well in the boardroom.

‘Gradually, of course, our men were replaced with his to the extent that our continued existence made no difference to the business.  He has absolute control.  I remain here in his service for the sake of my family.  If I leave, they die.’

Alonso rose from his seat and, in silence, recovered the chessmen from around the room.  He set up the board again.  ‘I apologise, Mr Smith, for my outburst.  Would you give me the honour of another game?’  Jason was pleased to bring some pleasure into the life of this broken man.  He lost again, beaten by the better player.

*

Jason slept well once asleep but took hours to find sleep: there was so much to be anxious about.  He was confident that he had Fabrioni beaten but would Dlaax be satisfied with his fee or, once he realised the true value of their goal, would he succumb to greed?  What was the Ospasian code of honour?  What were its limits?  He had access to the Googlenet and spent hours surfing but found very little about them or pretzel flies.

*

‘Mr Smith, please come to the bridge.’

‘On my way.’  Jason pushed himself off his bed and climbed into a clean overall.  He caught himself in the mirror and rubbed a hand over his stubble.  Somewhere in the room he had some boots.  He sifted the pile of debris that had accumulated on the floor until he found them.  Out in the corridor, he was swarmed by the dozen or so pretzel flies that kept station around the Ospasian guard outside his room.  ‘Hi,’ he said to the inexpressive visage that turned to view his emergence.

‘Hmm.’

‘I’ve been summoned to the bridge.  Are you coming?’

‘May as well.’

Jason strolled casually along the corridor, leaving the shuffling Ospasian farther and farther behind him.  He glanced through the portholes as he passed them and was excited by the asteroids picked out by the light of the distant star.  They had arrived.

Fabrioni was waiting on the bridge.  ‘Well, Mr Smith, we have finally reached our objective.  Can we see our quarry from here?’

‘It will be less visible from where you’re going.’

‘What do you mean?’

Jason looked at Commander Dlaax, who had been standing behind the industrialist, and raised his eyebrows.

Dlaax understood the gesture to imply that he should enact their plan.  His throat-sac quivered, and two of his squadron stepped forward in obedience and stood one each side of Fabrioni.  ‘Kroep! Slaert!  Escort Mr Fabrioni to the brig and incarcerate him.’

‘What?’  The two Ospasians each took a firm grasp of one of his arms. ‘What?’

‘We are no longer in your employ, Mr Fabrioni, having received a much better offer from Mr Smith.’

‘What?  You treacherous, mercenary, bastards!  I’ll pay more, I’ll—’

‘Huh,’ muttered Kroep, ‘what you pay wouldn’t feed a pretzel fly for one of your earth-weeks.’

‘You’ll do nothing,’ said Jason, ‘except rot.’  He turned to Alonso.  ‘Do we have any hog soup aboard?’

Alonso was visibly shaken by the turn of events that had materialised before him.  ‘Er, … n- … n- … no.’  His face took on the appearance of alarm in collision with astonishment.  ‘We have … we have …’ He glanced at the fuming Fabrioni, at Dlaax, and then back to Jason.  ‘We have Ospasian Slebnet.  It is of a similar consistency … and quite unpalatable to humans.’

‘That will do nicely.  See that he gets nothing else without my say-so.’
Alonso struggled to conceal a smile, still apparently in fear of his master.  The smile won.

‘What?  You won’t get away with this, you stupid, snivelling little man!’

Dlaax’s throat-sac throbbed and quivered.  ‘You are still here,’ he said aloud for the benefit of the humans, the irritation in his tone barely disguised.  With a rare show of embarrassment in the form of blushing throat-sacs, Kroep and Slaert dragged the protesting Fabrioni away to lock him up.

‘You’re a fool, Smith,’ Fabrioni raged as he was dragged from the bridge.  ‘They’ll double-cross you next, mark my words,’ he shouted from the corridor.  ‘They’ll kill you and eat you, you know.  That’s what Ospasians do to their captives.  You’ve heard the stories ab—’

Jason had not heard the stories but he did hear the dull thud that rendered Fabrioni unconscious and the scrapping of his boots along the corridor.

‘Can we see our quarry from here, Mr Smith?’

‘Yes, we can.  You can call me Jason, Dlarx.’

‘Thank you for that honour.  However, my name is still Dlaax.’

‘I’m sorry.  I mean no offence.  I just find it … difficult.  Out of interest, why is the pronunciation of your name so important?’

‘No offence taken, Jason.  I am fully familiar with the inadequacies of the human vocal system.  Some of the subtleties of our speech are impossible for any species without a throat-sac.  Perhaps you have not noticed how similar all Ospasians are in appearance?  My name is my uniquely distinguishing feature.  No two living Ospasians have the same name.  The person to whom you refer, one Dlarx, lives on the third moon of the fourth world of the Ospasian system.  She is a great and illustrious female, the mother of many thousands.’  As he spoke, Dlaax bowed his head in deference to the great Dlarx.

‘OK…’ Jason held his face as expressionless as he could, totally flummoxed as he was by the strangeness of the Ospasian way of life.  ‘Take a look at the screen.’  Jason worked a keyboard and the images on the monitor that filled a whole wall of the bridge cycled through a series of realignments followed by zooms and resolution enhancements.  Eventually, a large spinning rock filled the field of view.  ‘That’s what we’re here for.’

‘A rock?’

‘A very special rock, Dlarx.  This asteroid belt was formed from the collision of two planets.  At least one of them had a highly evolved biosphere, with coal shares many metres thick laid down.  We believe that the collision was sufficiently close to one of those deposits that the extreme temperatures and pressures produced were enough to transform the carboniferous deposits without smashing them to dust.  What you see on the screen is fourteen tonnes of solid diamond, give or take.  That’s 7x107 carats.  All we have to do is pick it up.’

‘But it is spinning at a phenomenal rate.’

‘That’s where the expertise of my crew comes in useful.’  Dlaax eyed Jason in silence.  Jason thought he detected a slight flush in Dlaax’s throat-sac; he was learning to look there instead of at the Ospasian face for non-verbal signs.  ‘Time to let them out of the brig, I think.’

‘That will not be possible.’

‘What do you mean?’

Dlaax’s throat-sac flushed a deeper red.  ‘Your crew is not here, Jason.’

Fabrioni’s last statement came into Jason’s mind.  ‘What do you mean, “not here”?’

‘Your crew is on Fabrioni’s ship.  He thought it best to keep them there in the interests of maintaining your cooperation once we arrived, and to reduce your number of allies.  Had I known we would have need of them, I would never have agreed.’  A swathe of pretzel flies was swept into his mouth by the tongue that darted out over his face.

‘That bloody stupid, pig-headed, idiot of a man!  I could kill him with my bare hands!’

‘Why are we keeping him?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘We don’t need him.  Why don’t you kill him?  Or have us do it for you?  Is he not what humans would call “dead weight”?’

‘It’s not my way.  Not the Human way.  What he’s done is against our law, and it’s the law he has to answer to.  Besides, I think Alonso will enjoy playing with him for a while…’  He thought the quivering of Dlaax’s throat pouch may have conveyed amusement with the idea but he could not be sure.

‘So, Jason, how do we stop the rock?’

Jason turned to look at Dlaax, and fixed him with an anxious gaze.  ‘Without my crew, I’m not sure we can.  I’ll need to use your men but the equipment won’t be familiar to them,’ he pointed at Dlaax’s non-humanlike hands, ‘and will be difficult for them to operate.  The task is dangerous and the risks of injury or worse are great.’

‘My men are very skilled and familiar with all manner of human technology.  I am sure they can master your equipment.’

‘That’s the problem.  It is my equipment.  I designed and built it.  It’s tailor-made for the job.  I used common components where possible but much of it is original.  There’s nothing like it anywhere else.  My crew is the only one ever to have worked with anything like it.’

‘We can only try, Jason, and for such a prize…’

Jason paced across the deck and back.  ‘Get them all here.  I’ll show them what’s involved.’

Dlaax summoned his squadron and they settled around the screen.  Jason stood before them and cleared his throat, making a noise that surprised some of the Ospasians.  ‘Such bad language, and from a human,’ one of them said.

‘The recording you are about to see shows an example of the task that lies ahead of us—’  Jason looked around at the large Ospasian who grunted a loud translation for the benefit of the non-linguists.

The Ospasian met his gaze.  ‘Well, what do you expect?’  Three pretzel flies were swept away.
‘—except it is a much simpler case.  The rock we are here for is rotating much faster than this one, and on three axes not two.’  The screen showed an asteroid tumbling towards them.

This is the asteroid we will harvest,’ said the commentator, ‘and here is the rig we will use.’  The camera panned away from the rock and zoomed in on a piece of machinery. ‘Once we have matched speed with the object, twelve of these devices will be deployed around it.  We will assemble them along the sides of an imaginary cube containing the asteroid.’  The film ran on, showing the team of engineers manoeuvring the twelve devices together around the object to form the cubic frame at rest relative to its centre of mass.  The corners of the cube were bolted together and the camera drew back to show the rock spinning centrally within the huge structure.  ‘Now we leave the frame to do its job.  Onboard computers analyse the asteroid’s rotation and control jets that spin the frame to match that rotation.’  The film stepped forward, each step showing the frame beginning to rotate, accelerating, matching angular velocity in one plane, and then repeating the processes for the second plane until the frame and asteroid rotated as one.  A view from a camera on the frame showed the asteroid stationary from its point of view, and the stars in the background whirling in violent spirals.  ‘Once we’ve matched rotation, we have to capture the asteroid.’  The frame contracted slowly, jets firing intermittently to counter the effect of momentum being transferred towards the centre of mass, until it came into intimate contact with the rock.  Then, projections emerged from assemblies at the corners of the cube and crept towards the rock.  Once in contact, they locked rigid; the rock and frame were as one.

Now we slow the rock down,’ said the narrator, ‘using the same jets that brought the frame up to speed.’  The film stepped forward as before but, this time, showed the whole assembly being brought to rest.  ‘This part of the process takes much longer, of course.  The angular momentum in such a large object is enormous.  Act too quickly and the frame collapses with disastrous consequences…  It’s quite usual to—

Jason stepped forward to the console and skipped the projection to near the end of the film.

—and now that the asteroid is stationary relative to the ship, we can easily grab it and haul it to its destination.’  The asteroid, now denuded of its cage and harnessed to Jason’s ship, dwindled to an invisible point in the blackness of space.

Jason stopped the film and addressed the Ospasians.  ‘That’s all there is to it, really.  You’ll have to learn how to manoeuvre and assemble the components into the cube.  I can train you but you may not find them easy to handle.  The mission will take longer, that’s all.’  He addressed Dlaax, ‘Did we load enough food?’

‘That depends on how much Slebnet Fabrioni consumes…’  His throat quivered and bands of colour rippled down it.  All the Ospasians joined in the display, looking at each other and making squealing noises, all of which suggested to Jason that they were having a huge laugh at Fabrioni’s expense.

Alonso, acting out of character, stood up and announced, ‘Thanks to Fabrioni’s long-term planning beyond this particular venture, there is enough human food aboard for several months, especially as he is not eating any of it.’  The laughter-display rippled once more through the Ospasian squadron.  Jason grinned and fell to uncontrolled laughter.  Alonso only smiled…

*

Jason was amazed by the rapidity with which the Ospasians learnt the new technology and the way they adapted themselves to the specialised controls.  Inside a week, Jason felt they were ready to begin assembling the frame.  In much the same time, Fabrioni had begun alternately begging Alonso for a change of diet and threatening him with vengeance if he continued to bring Slebnet.  Alonso’s mood flipped between triumph and despair, depending inversely on Fabrioni’s attitude.  Jason’s attempts to placate the unstable Alonso with promises of justice and liberation for his family met with varying degrees of success.

Jason headed down to the Ospasians’ quarters and opened the door to Dlaax’s room.  ‘Commander Dlarx, I think we are ready to begin,’ said Jason, to him and indirectly to the Ospasians assembled in the anteroom. ‘We’ll get some sleep and start work on the next watch.’

‘Very well.  My men are eager to begin.’  A general grunting started up, and Jason got the impression that the word ‘eager’ was not an entirely appropriate adjective in relation to Dlaax’s troops.  ‘We will be suited and ready at the main airlock at eight a.m., ship’s time.’

*

Jason slept well.  He was always more relaxed with a clear objective in his grasp.  At last they were doing something constructive.  He arrived at the airlock shortly before eight, and the whole Ospasian contingent was assembled and ready.  The first of three teams entered the airlock and waited the five minutes it took for the air to be harvested.  Then they exited to open space, propelled by the thrusters on their suits.  It took another five minutes for the airlock to re-pressurise in readiness for the next team, lead by Dlaax.  Ten minutes later, the third team, lead by Jason, entered the airlock.



Alonso, who was staying on board, had slipped away from the group when the first team entered the airlock, and worked his way along the corridor that passed centrally through the entire ship, stepping through bulkheads as he went.  Once he was past half way, he started closing bulkhead doors.  At last, he reached the brig.  He opened the hatch in the door to Fabrioni’s cell.

‘I’ve been waiting for you.’

‘Well, I’m here now.’

‘It’s time to let me out.’

‘You know I can’t do that.’

‘You know you have no choice…’

Alonso stood in silence and stared at Fabrioni through narrowed eyes.  Fabrioni sat down in the corner of the cell and pulled his knees to his chest.  He lowered his forehead onto his knees and sighed.  He slumped, appearing to shrink further into the corner.

Alonso stiffened and stood erect, his face twisted by the sneer that spread across it.  ‘I must leave you here for now,’ he said.  He turned and left the brig, retracing his steps along the corridor to the other end of the ship, where he entered the bridge.


By the time Jason got out of the airlock, the Ospasians had already begun manoeuvring the third section of the rig into position.  He was impressed at their adeptness.

He gave a quick squirt from his suit’s thrusters and jetted towards the assembly.  As he approached, something struck him as not quite right.  The section was accelerating.  ‘Look out Slaert!’ he shouted over the comms link.  From the very edge of his peripheral vision, a startled Ospasian jetted suddenly into view.  The section advanced towards an unavoidable collision with the assembly.  Another Ospasian, named Sleert, turned slowly around just in time to see the wayward section filling his vision.  He tried to clear the narrowing gap but his effort was too late.  His carapace cracked like a walnut between the jaws of a nutcracker.

‘Oh God, No!’  Jason accelerated to the stricken Ospasian’s aid.  Dlaax and a couple of others reached Sleert before him.  Sleert wailed over the comms link, and his limbs writhed and twitched uncontrollably.  Jason drove forwards, and saw hundreds of small, black objects coruscating in the light of the several suit-lamp beams that were converging on Sleert.  The Ospasian’s suit was torn apart and venting, not that he needed atmosphere, and it was clear that the objects were being ejected from his ruptured carapace.  ‘Pretzel flies,’ Jason blurted, ‘Damned pretzel flies!’

Dlaax’s expressionless face twisted around in his helmet, and, by the light of the helmet’s internal LEDs, Jason could see the rapid, rhythmic flushing and rippling of Dlaax’s wattle.  All the Ospasians were doing the same, and trying to release their mortally-wounded comrade from the jammed assembly.

Jason shouted at the Ospasian at the new section’s controls, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?  Back it up!  Pull it out of there!’

‘I have no control here.  Something is wrong.  Nothing responds.’

‘What?’  Jason turned and looked at Endeavour.  No-one was aboard who could have overridden the controls.  Fabrioni was in the brig, and Alonso, although Jason had left him aboard, was not capable of doing anything technical.  Everyone else was out here.

The section’s thrusters suddenly fired.  ‘Wait, it’s working again,’ its driver announced.  The Section’s momentum was killed and it began to ease back from the assembly.

‘Stop that rig from rotating,’ Jason shouted.  No-one moved.  ‘Get to work before it hits the rock and someone else is injured!’  A team of Ospasians stirred from shock to bring the rig back under control.

Jason turned his attention back to the accident.  ‘Is there anything we can do for him?’

‘Unfortunately not,’ said Dlaax, ‘or, at least, nothing that can save him.’

The other Ospasians began a rumbling incantation, their throat-sacs vibrating and pulsating colour.  Jason was stunned as Sleert’s face became even more expressionless than normal...

‘Our brother Sleert is gone,’ Dlaax announced.  ‘He is gone, and is with us no more.’

Farewell to Sleert, who is with us no more,’ replied the others in unison.

‘His name shall live on.’

Another shall bear it with pride,’ was the response.

‘Farewell, brother Sleert.’

Farewell, brother.

The Ospasians who had been making the rig safe moved in to join the ritual, and then silence and stillness fell on the whole group.

Feeling awkward and dazed, Jason said, ‘OK, let’s call a halt so you can do whatever you need to do … whatever is your custom.  Take whatever time you need.’

The mournful Ospasians formed up around the corpse into a protective shell.  Moving off as one, they guided their brother’s remains towards Endeavour’s main airlock.

A single tear burgeoned in Jason’s right eye but, in the weightlessness of space, failed to flow down his cheek.  He sniffed, and then followed the entourage.

It took them almost an hour to get back aboard Endeavour, the whole process of passing in groups through the airlock stretched out by effect of the group’s morose mood.  Jason went through in the first batch and headed straight to the bridge once he was aboard.

He logged in on the main console and ploughed through the logs to find out what had happened.  He found the sequence of commands that had overridden the controls on the frame section and resulted in Sleert’s death.  He also found a record of a message having been sent during the turmoil.  Both actions had Fabrioni’s ID attached to them.  Jason traced the message but found that it was encrypted and that its destination was a secure address.  He went off in search of Alonso.

Alonso was in his quarters, listening to ancient Earth music.  ‘Ah, Mr Smith.  Have you ever listened to Mozart?  I find him quite stimulating.’

‘Yes, but he’s not as good as Sibelius, in my opinion.  Anyway, I didn’t come here to pass the time of day.  What were you doing while we were all outside?’

‘I was sleeping.  Why?’

‘Because, my friend, it seems that Fabrioni found some way to interfere with our operation out there.  You were the only person aboard, other than him.  How do you think he managed it?’

‘I have no idea, Mr Smith.  As I said, I was asleep.’

‘Has he got to you somehow, Alonso?  Has he threatened you?’

‘What are you suggesting?’

‘I’m suggesting that, for some reason, you let him out of the brig while we were outside.  I can think of no other explanation.’

‘I assure you, Mr Smith, I did no such thing.  He is the last person I would want loose on this ship.  Do you think he would willingly return to the brig, if I had released him?  I find your implication quite disappointing.’

Jason bit his lip.  ‘Did you do anything on the bridge, Alonso?  Did you use Fabrioni’s ID to send a message?’

‘I did not.  I do not know his ID.  He has never trusted me with anything like that.’  Alonso stood as he spoke.  His face had hurt written all over it.  His body trembled in anger.

Jason left the room and headed for the brig, collecting a couple of Ospasians on the way past the armoury.  At the brig, he opened the hatch in the door and scanned around for Fabrioni.  He couldn’t see him.  He shouted back along the corridor, ‘Come on, you two!  Get a move on!’  The Ospasians shuffled a little quicker.  When they arrived, he unlocked the door and stepped through it, and they followed him in with their hands on their disruptors.

Jason spun around and saw Fabrioni slumped in the corner behind the door, his head resting on his knees.  Jason was shocked on first seeing him, thinking he was dead.  Fabrioni sighed, signalling that he was still very much a live.  Jason lunged forward, grabbed the man’s collar, and dragged him to his feet.  ‘How did you do it?’ he shouted into his face.  Fabrioni looked away, and sighed again.  ‘Talk to me!  I want to know how you did it!’  Still the industrialist said nothing.  Jason let go of him, letting him fall into a crumpled heap at his feet, and barked at the Ospasians, ‘Search him!  Strip him.  Search him intimately if you have to.  If he has anything other than his clothing on him, I want to know.  Make sure he is locked in when you leave.’

Jason stormed out and fumed his way back to the bridge, where he sent a message of his own.  He occupied himself by running diagnostics on the part-assembled rig and the section that had collided with it.  Everything seemed to be intact and working.  That fact, and the action of doing something constructive, proved therapeutic, calming Jason down.

One of the Ospasians left in charge of Fabrioni approached him.  ‘We found nothing,’ he said.

‘Nothing?’  Jason looked puzzled, although his expression was lost on the Ospasian.

‘Nothing at all.’

‘You stripped him?’

The Ospasian nodded, a gesture he had seen humans doing and had deduced it meant ‘yes’.  He saw that Jason had taken the meaning and felt quite proud of himself; the slow inflation and flushing of his throat-sac went unnoticed by Jason.  ‘Not so much as a pretzel fly dropping.  Nothing,’ he said.  ‘Outside or in,’ he added for clarity.

‘OK.  Thanks.’

Jason returned to his work at the console, and the Ospasian eventually worked out that he could leave, his task concluded satisfactorily.  Half-an-hour later, Jason too left the bridge and went in search of food.  The galley was empty, except for Alonso, who sat and ate in silence, not casting even a glance in Jason’s direction.  Jason sat at a different table to eat.

*

‘Dlarx,’ said Jason, ‘may I ask you something?’

‘You may ask.  I may not answer.’

‘When Slaert was wounded, where did all the pretzel flies come from?’  Dlaax, annoyed by the mispronunciation of the dead Ospasian’s name, a shortcoming of Jason’s which had in part contributed to Sleert’s demise, fixed his eyes on Jason; his wattle turned pale and hung still.  The silence between them became almost oppressive, and Jason felt like squirming. ‘I’m sorry.  I meant no offence.’

Dlaax decided to respond.  ‘You have seen something that very few humans have ever witnessed, Jason.  You know that we have no need of respiration or elimination.’  Jason nodded.  ‘We do however have a great need of pretzel flies.’

‘I’ve seen you eat them.’

‘No, you have seen us ingest them.  We do not digest them.  They pass through our gut unharmed and lodge beneath our carapace.  There, they fulfil their part in a symbiotic relationship.  They devour our waste and release oxygen from it directly into our vascular system.  For our part, we provide them with food and shelter.  They leave us only to dispose of their small amount of waste and to seek out additional sources of sodium with which to supplement their diet, a substance which our bodies can ill-afford to share with them.  Unlike us, they cannot survive in the vacuum of space.  We mourn not only Sleert’s passing.’

‘How long for?’

Dlaax just looked at Jason.

‘How long do you mourn?’

‘We mourn until we hear of another who has taken Sleert’s name.  As you can imagine, out here that can be a very long time indeed.’

‘We have limited time out here.’

‘True.  And we have work to do.  Is all well with the rig?’  Jason nodded.  ‘Then we shall recommence in 24 hours.’


Twenty-four hours passed.  The teams went out and finished assembling the rig, and Alonso found himself locked in his quarters while the work went on.


Finally, the rig was assembled and began matching its rotation with that of the rock.  Before long, it held the rock in its embrace and began the slowing-down process.  ‘And now, we wait,’ said Jason to the assembled Ospasian squadron.

‘How long?’ asked Dlaax.

‘About four weeks.’

‘Four weeks!’

‘Normally, we would go and start on another rock while we wait but there’s nothing else here of any use to us and we have no spare rig sections anyway.’

‘Four weeks…’


The time dragged for everyone.  Jason played chess with the ships AI, having no stomach for Alonso’s company any more.  Jason regretted that but, in the absence of any explanation for the activities in the log on the day Sleert died, he could no longer trust the man, confining him to his quarters except for exercise, trips to the galley, and taking food to Fabrioni, all under close Ospasian supervision.

During this time, Alonso’s mood continued to swing between misery and petulance.  In Alonso’s depressive phases, Jason took meals to Fabrioni, who was always in a state of vengeful aggression, despite Jason’s having relented on the strict Slebnet diet.  Alonso’s manic phases became increasingly difficult to manage, and so he was confined to his quarters permanently.  Jason had to take on the job of feeding Fabrioni and Alonso.  He noticed that their moods seemed consistently opposite.

For a while, the Ospasians amused themselves outside, playing a long and complex wide-game.  Jason had tried to join in but gave up because he could not work out the point of it.  It came as no surprise to him that Dlaax was eventually proclaimed the winner.

Once the game was over, Jason discovered that Ospasians had a penchant for alcohol, and very little resistance to it.  Fortunately, Jason reflected, they were all happy drunks…  Unfortunately, Ospasian singing was symptomatic of their over-indulgence and put Jason in mind of a gathering of a thousand schoolboys with chronic and explosive flatulence.  Once all the stock of alcohol was gone, they tried making their own, getting instructions on distillation from the Googlenet.  Four of the five ensuing concoctions, based loosely on an old Earth recipe, were toxic to humans in the large quantities that seemed to have no lasting ill-effect on Ospasians.  Fortunately for Jason, they were also utterly disgusting and so he was in no danger of overdose.  The fifth was passable, and resulted in Jason’s passing-out for several days but, to his great surprise, absolutely no hang-over.

The asteroid had been at rest for four days before anyone noticed.

*

The next stage of the operation was to dismantle the frame and then attach the rock to Endeavour ready for transport.  Since that meant Jason and all the Ospasians would be outside for several hours, he prepared meals for the captives and went to Alonso’s cabin for the first delivery.  Dlaax was waiting for him.

‘Ah, Jason, Alonso was making such a noise that we thought he would be safer in the brig.  So we sedated him and put him in with Fabrioni.’

‘You sedated him?’

‘Yes.  With a disruptor on low power.  It will not harm him, and he is already conscious again.’

‘Was it wise putting them together?’

‘They seem quite calm in each other’s company.’  He pointed at the food that Jason carried.  ‘This is for them?’  Jason nodded.  ‘I will come with you and check there are no problems.’

Down the corridor they went, Dlaax falling behind because of Jason’s quicker pace.  Dlaax increased his effort and almost managed to catch up.  Two more Ospasians were waiting at the cell door.

‘Open up,’ Dlaax huffed as he arrived, and one of the Ospasians obeyed, entering the cell behind the opening door.  The other stepped aside to allow Jason through with his burden.  After Jason stepped through, the first Ospasian left the cell, pulling the door to behind him.  ‘Lock it,’ said Dlaax.

Jason, realising what had happened, turned quickly, dropped the food containers, and grabbed at the bars to keep the door from closing but he was too late.  Dlaax peered in at him.  ‘Come on, Dlaax, there’s no need for this.’  He cast a glance at the two quiescent figures on the cell floor, ‘These two are out of it.’

‘No, Jason, they are “in it”, as you humans might say.  And so are you.’

‘What’s going on?’

‘Our contract is now terminated.  You should have read the small print.’

‘What the hell are you talking about?’

‘I’m talking about the clause that allows us to back out of the contract if more advantageous opportunities arise.  The same clause that enabled me legally to change allegiance from Fabrioni to you.  And now, more advantageous opportunities have arisen.’

‘You’re keeping the whole rock for yourself…’ Jason shook his head in dismay as he spoke.

‘Quite so.  We shall, of course, release you unharmed when we get back to civilisation.  You can do what you want with those two.’  Dlaax and his two underlings turned and left.

‘Come back, you double-crossing bastard!’ Jason shouted.  The only reply was the diminuendo of shuffling Ospasian feet.  A couple of pretzel flies buzzed through the bars and headed after their hosts.

Jason threw himself down on the floor against the wall opposite his fellow prisoners.  ‘Bugger you, you bloody Ospasian bastards!’ he shouted.  He drew up his feet, rested his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands.

‘You must have known this would happen,’ said Fabrioni.  Jason looked up and saw the two men opposite him, sitting quite calmly, their faces expressionless, their eyes blinking in unison.  Their seated postures were identical.  They looked at each other, blinked twice, smiled, and turned back to Jason.

‘What’s going on,’ said Jason.  For the first time, with them sat so close to each other, he noticed how very similar their faces were, discounting Fabrioni’s facial hair.

‘I am not …,’ Fabrioni began,

‘… entirely what I seem,’ Alonso finished.

‘I don’t get you.’

‘You assumed that I was …’

‘… human, because of my outward …

‘… appearance.  Nothing …’

… could be …

‘… further from …’

… the truth.

‘Do you have to do that?  It’s weird.  And what the hell are you talking about?’

The two looked at each other again, blinked twice and turned back to Jason.  Alonso began the explanation, and they continued blinking in unison as he spoke.  ‘I am what is known to humans as a Binar.  I am one being in two distinct and complementary personas; yet each of me is fully the other.

‘But the story you told me about your family,’ Jason fired at Alonso, ‘and Fabrioni’s coup…’

All true, but not the entire truth.  Many decades …’ (the Fabrioni persona took over) ‘ago, my physical forms became separated because of a long … and bloody war.  This one was captured and taken from our sector, and eventually adopted by the family I described to you.  Such great physical separation is not natural to my kind and …tends to leave us polarised into our basic elemental psychologies.  I became pure dominance and aggression … and I, pure servility and compliance.  The family was indeed generous and successful, and my attributes endeared me to them.  When they began to move into my sector, they became a threat … to the industrial empire I had built among humans, and I moved against them without mercy.’

The Binar blinked, and fixed its four eyes on Jason, as if assessing his level of confusion.  He went on, ‘The great temporal and spatial separation I had experienced, you could say, “hardened” the polarisation in my personas to the extent that I could limit neither my … dominance, nor my servility.  Each persona was untempered by the other.  Until this barrier of distance was broken down, I could not coalesce.  I suffered what, in a human, could best be understood as a multiple personality disorder.  It is a rare but not unheard-of condition in my kind, but much more severe because of our inherent … duality.  I now regret the extremes of my behaviour but it was unavoidable.  Think of me as two elements from the opposite ends of the electrochemical series.  In coalescence they come together to form an inert compound.  In isolation however they are explosively … reactive.  This is a barely adequate analogy.

‘I think I get the picture.  But why are you still behaving like you have been?  You’d been together on your ship for ages before I came along.  Shouldn’t you have, what was the word, “coalesced”?  But you’ve been acting like master and slave, and like a couple of mental patients since you,’ he pointed at the Fabrioni persona, ‘were incarcerated.’

‘I am fully coalesced but … it suited my interests to hide my … nature.  Subterfuge, you see.  For one thing, Ospasians … and Binars have been enemies for centuries and do not keep good … company.  For another, adopting the guise of … a greedy industrialist and his pathetic manservant … obscured the true purpose of my … mission from those who would wish it to fail.  As to … my recent behaviour, losing control of the situation has placed my cause in dire jeopardy.  My fear is that all is lost, and this has caused … me considerable stress and internal conflict.’

‘So what was the true purpose of your mission?’

The Binar blinked four eyes as one for a while, as an internal dialogue took place.  ‘I will tell you, since there is nothing you need do now to stop me.  My kind has long sought to … avenge those who died in the war.  As Fabrioni I have gained us much strength … and developed a new weapon which, with the one missing component in place, will … make us invincible.’

‘A very large diamond?’  The Binar’s two heads nodded in unison.  ‘It’ll do you no good now, though, will it?  You’re stuck in this cell with me and at the mercy of the Ospasians.’

An unfortunate position indeed, since … mercy is not an Ospasian virtue.  Their rumoured tendency to consume … their victims, by the way, is factual.’

‘Well, thanks for that.  That really helps.’  Jason knitted his fingers together behind his head.

‘Do not be overly concerned.  Help is on its way.  The signal … I sent, the one you interrogated me about, was … to my ship.  It should be arriving before too long.  Unlike your ship, it is armed.  Even an Ospasian will have the sense to back down and release us.’ Jason’s sharp intake of breath and grimace took the Binar by surprise.  ‘Is there a problem?

‘I also sent a signal.  Your ship won't be there.  I had it taken care of.’ Vibrations reverberated through the ship as the Ospasians began stowing the dismantled frame in the equipment hold.  Jason grimaced.  ‘At the speed these guys are working, your ship couldn’t have got here in time anyway.  We’ll be away to goodness knows where before long.  Gone before even my people can reach us.’

The noises of work continued for several hours, and then silence fell and nothing happened for several hours more.  Jason voiced his thoughts, ‘What’s happening now, I wonder?  I would have thought they’d have us under way by now.’  The Binar said nothing but fixed him with its four eyes staring from two impassive faces.

The sound of shuffling feet grew louder until they stopped outside the door.  Dlaax peered through the bars.  ‘We have a problem,’ he announced.

‘Don’t care.  It’s your problem, not mine.’

‘Nevertheless, I require your assistance.’

‘Go hang yourself.’

Dlaax paused, his wattle throbbing in reflection of his contemplation at how Jason’s instruction might be fulfilled.  He performed the Ospasian equivalent to shaking one’s head.  ‘You will either do as I ask or suffer the consequences.’

‘And just what consequences might they be?  If you need me, you can’t dispose of me, and I couldn’t care less what you do with these two.’  He nodded his head at the Binar.

‘Mmm,’ said Dlaax, ‘then we shall have to use other sanctions.  You’ve tried Hog soup, now you can try Slebnet.’

‘Forty-nine days…  Let’s try for a new record.  How about a hundred?’  A voice penetrated his mind: I can … sustain you … Jason.  We can … wait for your … rescue ship.  Jason stared wide-eyed at the Binar, who smiled back at him, nodding.  ‘Or how about two?  Let’s go for that, shall we?  Two hundred days.’

‘Then let us try you with no food at all.  See how long you last then.’  Dlaax’s throat-sac throbbed and rippled in angry colour.

Jason looked again at the Binar, and four eyes blinked back, and two mouths smiled their assurance at him.  I can … sustain you, said the voice in his head.  ‘Do your worst,’ he shouted after the receding Dlaax.  ‘You need me.  Don’t forget that!’


Jason’s first week without food was agonising, with hunger gnawing at his guts; yet he felt no weakness.  An Ospasian guard was never far away, and Jason noticed that the time each one spent on duty grew shorter by the day.  ‘This is more than boring,’ he heard one say to another as they changed the watch, ‘it’s enervating.  I’ve never felt so tired, or so hungry.’  The Binar just smiled at Jason, and another pretzel fly fell dead to the floor, adding to the numbers accumulating below the bars in the door.

You are wondering … how I do it? Jason just looked at the Binar, who continued, I am not entirely … restricted to these two … bodies.  As … I can channel freely between … my personas, so can I … access any life-form … within a short distance.  I can transfer limited … amounts of energy to … and from … other … beings.  But for the evidence of his well-being, Jason would never have believed it, even if he could have understood it.

*

Fifty days passed.  Dlaax put in a rare appearance.  ‘You astound me, Mr Smith.’  Jason noticed the return to formality.  ‘Would you not care for a steak?’

‘Actually, I feel great, and not the slightest bit hungry.  Have you solved your problem yet?’  He saw Dlaax’s eyes falling shut, the Ospasian swaying slightly, and felt his own strength growing.

‘Pah!’ said Dlaax, shaking himself awake, ‘I will leave you to suffer a while longer.’  He shuffled off in a cloud of pretzel flies, which surprised him by falling dead en masse to the floor.

My skill … with the Ospasians … is growing.  Their … flies are easy.

Jason smiled at the Binar.  ‘They are not the only ones who eat their victims.’  At the sound of his voice, the Ospasian guard outside the door shuffled over and peered with tired eyes through the bars.

The Binar smiled back.  Soon, I will … have them … dropping like … their flies!

Jason concentrated and thought, Can you read my mind?

When you … focus like … that, yes, I can.

Jason told the Binar about Sleert, and the Ospasians’ dependence on the pretzel fly, and tried hard to project an image of the inside of Sleert’s carapace.  The Binar’s two heads nodded slowly.  ‘But not, Dlarx,’ he said out loud, ‘we may need him.’  He thought he heard the Ospasian guard snoring but he may have been talking to himself.  It was difficult to be sure.

The Binar closed its eyes and held its breath.  Thirty seconds later, a dull thud from outside the door signalled the falling of the guard onto the floor, into unconsciousness and, minutes later, death.  ‘Only … seven … left.’

Half an hour later, the replacement guard came along.  He saw his fellow Ospasian lying on the floor and shouted, ‘Assoll, you lazy oaf, wake up.  Assoll?’  He shuffled down the corridor at speed, stooped over the dead Ospasian and prodded him in all the appropriate places to check for Ospasian signs of life.  ‘Oh no…’  He stood and, in panic, turned to head back down the corridor to raise the alarm.  He swayed, and put out a hand to steady himself against the wall.  As he moved along, he staggered from side to side, then stopped and sunk to his knees, his throat-sac quivering.  ‘Ospa Assoll xrrospik shkurrkruxmi,’ he shouted into his comms link as he fell forward onto his face,

Now there … are but six.’

‘Assoll.  Great name,’ Jason said to himself, smirking.  To the Binar, ‘They’ll probably come in force now.  Can you deal with more than one at a time?’

‘Unfortunately, no, but … they can have no … idea that I am to blame … for their predicament, so … they will not stop me killing at … least one more.’

‘Perhaps you’d better stop.  If they think they’re not safe down here, they may just leave us to rot.  We need food or whatever it is you do to survive.’

‘Perhaps we … can use the unfortunate … circumstances to … talk our way out … of here.  We are close to … the engines.  A … radiation leak is … killing … their flies, perhaps?’

‘Maybe.  But insects are more resistant to radiation than larger organisms.  If the Ospasians know that, they won’t buy the idea.’

‘They are … soldiers, not … scientists.’

‘And if we get out of here?’

‘You … have seen what I … can do.  Can you secure … the diamond without the … Ospasians to help you?’

Jason bit his lip – So that’s why you’re keeping me alive.  You still want the rock – ‘It depends what Dlarx’s problem turns out to be,’ he said, giving nothing away…

They heard the corridor’s bulkhead door open.  Dlaax shouted, ‘Smith!  Are you alive?’

Good, thought Jason, they haven’t connected us with the deaths.  ‘Yes,’ he shouted back, ‘What’s going on?’  Dlaax was too preoccupied with the sight of his men lying dead on the floor to answer.  ‘Dlarx!  What’s going on?’

‘There is a problem.  Some of my men have died outside your cell.’

‘What’s happening?  Are we in danger?’

‘Are Fabrioni and Alonso still OK?’

‘Yes.  Are we in any danger?’

‘I do not know.  The problem would seem to affect only Ospasians.’

‘Get us out of here before it affects us!’

Dlaax grunted a series of commands, and his men grunted what was obviously their dissent.  A safety-catch clicked and the dissent subsided.  Two Ospasians made their cautious way along the corridor as far as the first fallen Ospasian.  They dragged him away.  The grunting began again, and Dlaax shouted, ‘Silence!’

In the cell, the Binar closed its eyes.  ‘Don’t kill any more,’ said Jason, ‘Not until we’re out of here.’

‘I am not … killing, just … weakening.’

The sound of laboured shuffling came back along the corridor, followed by sounds of even more laboured dragging as the second lifeless Ospasian was taken away.  Several pretzel flies fell to the ground.  Dlaax’s throat-sac became bright red with alarm.  ‘The flies!  Our pretzel flies are dying!  Slaert, check the bodies!

Slaert baulked at the command.  A disruptor was levelled at his head.  He unzipped the first dead Ospasian’s suit and groped around inside it.  His hand came out holding a fistful of dead flies.  More grunting, and nodding and shaking of heads.

The second body was dumped at Slaert’s feet, and he repeated his investigation with the same result.  The two carriers slumped against the wall.  ‘I feel so weak,’ said one of them.  ‘Me too,’ said the other.

Dlaax shouted along the corridor, ‘Are you certain you are unaffected, Smith?  Whatever the problem is, it is killing our pretzel flies.’

‘It must be a radiation leak from the engines. Get us out of here, or we’ll be affected too.’

Dlaax ordered another of his troops along the corridor to open the cell door.  He obeyed in double-quick time, his throat-sac quivering with fear, and returned just as quickly to the relative safety beyond the bulkhead door.  Jason left the cell, followed by Fabrioni and then Alonso.  ‘You will be locked in your quarters,’ Dlaax told them, and they were each marched off by a still-fit Ospasian.  Dlaax followed Jason to his cabin.  ‘You have had time to think, Smith, what is your decision?’

‘No dice.’

‘What?  You need a gambling device to make the decision?’

‘Let me explain.  No!’

Dlaax left room and had the door sealed.

Jason sat on his bed and concentrated.  Can you still read me?

I can … but it is less … easy when I am … separated.

Can you finish off the two Ospasians you weakened?

I can but … it will take … longer.

Do it.  Take down any more that you can reach and then I’ll get us out of here.


Two more Ospasians died, and the third, who had been sent to open the door, had fallen too ill to be of any threat.  Jason … I have done all … I can.  The remaining three … are beyond my … range.

OK.  I’m going to rig a fire detector.  All cabin doors are unlocked in an emergency.  Meet me by the entrance to the bridge.  Jason climbed on a table and began prising the cover off the detector on the ceiling.  The door slid open, and Jason turned towards the opening in surprise.

‘What are you doing,’ said Dlaax?

‘Trying to get out of here.’

‘No need.  Follow me.’  This time, Jason recognised the gesture, and followed Dlaax to the bridge.  Once there, they stood opposite each other and waited.

‘What are we waiting for?’

‘You will see.’

The door opened and Alonso was escorted in by two Ospasians.  Now … there are only … three.  Slaert grunted at length and Dlaax nodded, his throat-sac slowly pulsating colour as it had when Sleert had been killed.

‘I have tried sanctions,’ Dlaax said, ‘and now I must resort to violence.  You had once a close attachment to Alonso.  Perhaps you still feel some pity for him…’  He drew his disruptor and pointed it at Alonso’s shoulder.  ‘The disruptor is a terrible weapon, Mr Smith.  Death can be agonisingly slow.’

Slaert groaned and wobbled.  Dlaax and the other Ospasian looked at him.

‘What’s the point, Dlarx?’ Jason asked, ‘It looks like you’ve all had it.  Perhaps it wasn’t radiation.  Perhaps your brews have killed your flies.  Whatever the cause, why harm Alonso?  You may not live to enjoy the proceeds from the rock.’

Dlaax pulled the trigger, and Alonso’s shoulder dissolved.  He screamed loud enough to shatter glass and fell writhing to the floor.  Jason heard a second scream from the ship’s crew quarters.  Alonso turned and looked at him with wide, watery eyes.  ‘Stop him! I cannot live withonly one persona.’

Dlaax started at Alonso’s words, and realisation burst upon him.  ‘You are a Binar!  You have been killing my men!’  Dlaax’s throat-sac flashed rampant displays of anger, and he pointed his disruptor at Alonso’s head.

Jason’s will collapsed.  ‘Enough!’  His whole body trembled with rage, and his knuckles turned white.  ‘Stop it, you evil bastard.  You win.  I’ll help.’

The Ospasian commander wrestled with his desire to kill the despised Binar.  ‘Good,’ he said, forcing himself to lower his weapon, ‘I knew you would see reason.’  Slaert fell to his knees.  Dlaax looked at him.  ‘You are excused.  Go and lie down.’  Slaert crawled to the door where he pulled himself back to his feet before staggering off down the corridor.

A signal bleeped from the command console, and the remaining Ospasian soldier walked over to see what was happening.  ‘Sir, two ships have just arrived and hailed us.  Fabrioni’s ship and another prospector’s vessel.  It seems that the Smith human’s crew is in command of Fabrioni’s ship.’

‘Then it is a good job we have a desirable hostage.’  Dlaax pointed the disruptor at Alonso again.

Just then, all power on Endeavour was cut and the bridge was plunged into darkness.  The disruptor discharged, Alonso screamed again and was answered by his echo.  Jason lashed out in the darkness and discharged his full energy into Dlaax’s face.  He heard the Ospasian go down and the disruptor clatter away across the floor.  Beams of torchlight burst through the bridge door, and someone shouted, ‘Everyone down on the floor!’  The beams sought out Dlaax, and he found himself staring into the wrong ends of six pulse rifles.

*

The Binar lay on a bed in the master cabin of Fabrioni’s ship.  Its breathing was heavy and laboured.  ‘Thank you … Jason, for this … final kindness, although I … know you think I do … not deserve it.  Yes, I would … have taken the … diamond, and, yes, I … would have killed … you to get it.  Now … my people … will never … be avenged…’

‘There are other ways of righting wrongs.  War is not the right way.  The cycle of revenge is unending.’

‘Perhaps … one day … we will … find … another … way.  Regrettably, I … will not … live to … see it.’

*

On the bridge of Fabrioni’s ship, Dlaax and a much-recovered Slaert stood looking through the window at a stationary asteroid and two prospector’s vessels on the brink of departure.

On Endeavour, Jason began his final words to the chastened Ospasian commander.  ‘You will find that all your personal weapons have been confiscated, and the ship’s completely destroyed.  We’ve also crippled all manual controls and laid in a course for the nearest Ospasian world.  Your vessel is programmed to set off about a day after we leave.’

‘Why are you letting us go?’

‘Because the risk of a long and bloody war with your stupid race is all too probable if we don’t.’

‘And the rock?’

‘You can come back for it sometime, if you want.  It’s worthless.  A decoy.  The real prize is 200,000 km from here, four times bigger, stationary, and waiting to be collected.  That’s where we’re going now.’  As he spoke, the other vessel eased away from the group.  ‘I hope we never meet again.  In fact, I hope I never meet another Ospasian.’

Jason signalled his crewman and Endeavour turned about to follow its companion.  As the vessel accelerated away, Jason heard the voice of the third Ospasian over the comms link, ‘The Binar is dead, sir.  Do you want some leg meat?’

‘No thank you, I prefer the offal.’

‘Sir,’ said Slaert, ‘why are we still speaking Eng—’