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Authors: Una McCormack

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Weird Space

 

The Devil’s Nebula

Satan’s Reach

 

 

Also by Una McCormack

 

N
OVELS

 

Star Trek

Deep Space Nine: The Missing

The Fall: The Crimson Shadow

Typhon Pact: Brinkmanship

Deep Space Nine: The Never-Ending Sacrifice

 

Doctor Who

The Way Through the Woods

The King’s Dragon

 

A
UDIO

 

Doctor Who: An Eye for Murder

Blake’s 7: The Ministry of Peace

Blake’s 7: Risk Management

 

An Abaddon Books™ Publication

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First published in 2015 by Abaddon Books™, Rebellion Intellectual Property Limited, Riverside House, Osney Mead, Oxford, OX2 0ES, UK.

 

Editors: Jonathan Oliver & David Moore

Cover Art: Adam Tredowski

Design: Simon Parr & Sam Gretton

Marketing and PR: Lydia Gittins

Creative Director and CEO: Jason Kingsley

Chief Technical Officer: Chris Kingsley

Weird Space™ created by Eric Brown

 

Copyright © 2015 Rebellion. All rights reserved.

 

 

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ISBN: 978-1-84997-951-1

 

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers.

 

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

 

 

To my beautiful daughter

 

Una McCormack

 

Braun’s World

 

“M
ARIA
! M
ARIA
! W
AKE
up!”

Someone was shaking her awake. She didn’t want to be awake. Too early. She didn’t fall asleep till late. She couldn’t get comfortable. She always needed a full nine hours—

“Maria! You’ve got to wake up!”

Kit. Home early. Still dark out there. Kit shaking her. Waking her up. Waking her up
early
.

Maria shoved her head beneath the pillow. “Trying to
sleep!

But Kit only shook her harder. “You can sleep on the road. Come on, Maria, I need you now.”

He pulled the pillow away, gently, but inexorably. He clearly wasn’t going to give up. Besides, Maria was awake now and past the point of slipping back to sleep. With ill grace, she reached for her dressing gown.

“Leave that!” Kit snapped, pulling it away from her and throwing it onto the bed. “Come
on
, Maria! We don’t have much time!”

Maria grabbed the dressing gown back. “Kit Emerson,” she said. “It’s...” She checked the time. “Four in the morning.”
Four in the morning? What the hell is going on?
“My alarm doesn’t go off for another
three
hours. You’re not due back for another four.”

She peered at his face, pale and starkly shadowed in the glow of the streetlights.

“Kit?” she whispered. “What’s going on? Why are you back early? You’re meant to be on duty till seven—?”

He took her hands between his. She could see he was trying to be calm, but his hands were trembling, and freezing cold. “I need you to do what I say,” he said. “Don’t ask questions—just get up, get dressed, pack a few essentials. Then wake the little one and get her out into the skimmer. We’re leaving, and we need to leave as quickly and as quietly as possible.”

“Kit, are you going AWOL?”

Still holding her hands, he gently pulled her up from the bed. “Love. No questions.” He was pleading with her. “We need to go—”

“If you think that you can wake me up in the middle of the night, drag me out of bed, and make me wake up Jenny for no good reason at all—”

“They’re here, love,” he said softly. “There’s not much time. We’ve got to get away. We’ve got to get away
now.

After that, she barely stopped for breath. She was dressed in seconds—good, practical clothes, clothes that would last a journey—and the bags were out and packed in short order. Kit went into the kitchen, to sort out supplies. They had always been good like this, she thought through her daze and the growing, gnawing fear. They had always been a team: one of them stepping forward when the other reached their limits. She remembered going under the knife when Jenny came: he had held her hands between his then, too, and his confidence and calm had enfolded her as her whole world narrowed and numbed. She hadn’t been afraid, because she knew that he was there and that he would look after them. It meant that she knew he wouldn’t wake her or the child for a bad reason. And she knew for certain that he would not go AWOL without an
excellent
reason.

They’re here...
Maria shuddered. She had known the risks when he had taken this posting, but she had never believed, not really, that they might come.

The worst threat humanity had ever known. Worse than plague, or the second great measles epidemic; worse than any atrocity humans had inflicted upon themselves, and worse even than the Vetch, those enigmatic aliens and their bitter, bloody war against humankind.

The Weird...

“Have you packed everything you want, Maria?”

Maria looked around their little flat. They had only been here six months, and it still had a temporary, institutional feel. They were still living out of suitcases. Everything they owned that she really liked was in storage. She’d regretted not making the space more like a home, for Jenny’s sake, but now it seemed to be a blessing. It would not be as much of a wrench to leave. “I think so.”

“Get Jenny. And make sure she understands that we need to be quiet.”

As soon as he was missed, they would be sending military police after him, and there would be a court-martial, and then...

Maria sobbed. Kit, already heading towards the doorway with bags in each hand, stopped and looked back at her. “I’m so sorry,” he said, awkwardly, his voice rough and dry. “I should never have brought us here. I just wanted a good life for us.”

Maria shook her head. “We agreed,” she said. “Together. We made the decision together.” She rubbed her tired eyes, and smiled at him. “That’s the last squeak you’ll get from me. If we have to go, we have to go. I trust you, Kit. I always have, and I always will. Get those bags in the skimmer, and I’ll get Jenny, and we’ll go wherever it is that you’ve got planned.” She raised her eyebrows. “I assume there is a plan?”

“There’s a plan,” he said. “Not sure if it’s a good one.”

“We’ll work on it,” she said, and turned towards their little girl’s room.

This at least, she thought, felt like a home. Jenny, like any four-year-old, was good at taking a space and bending it to her will. Maria was from a big family—fifth of six—and so the mess was nothing compared to what she’d been used to as a child. She had thought that Kit—orderly and careful in everything—would find the child tornado stressful, but he was a patient man, and while he did not indulge excesses, he understood how Jenny needed space to roam free and explore.

“Come on, sweetheart,” she crooned, softly, like she did when Jenny was tiny, and she lifted her from the bed. “Time to get up. Time to get up.”

The small warm body curled around her, little head nestling into her shoulder. “We can be cosy in a minute, sweetheart,” she said. “We need to get dressed first.”

Jenny began grumbling, but Kit was there in the doorway, holding clothes: little grey t-shirt, blue jeans, socks and shoes and stripy jersey. “Come on, pet. Time to get dressed.”

The complaints stopped at once, and Jenny started to pull off her pyjamas. Jenny would do anything for Daddy.

The chattering began, and Maria said, “We need to be quiet, Jenny. Can you do that?”

Jenny eyed her. “What’s for breakfast?”

“Banana.”

“Is that all?”

“You can have something else once we’re on our way.”

“Okay,” said Jenny. She lifted her arms to her father. “Up.”

“Please,” said Kit.

“Up, please, Daddy.”

He lifted her, and she put her head against him. He nodded at Maria. “Time to go.”

She nodded back. “I’ll leave on the lights,” she said. “It’ll look like we’re here.”

“Okay.”

And that was it. They were gone, slipping out of the flat and down the stairs, away from the routines that had served their whole married life, and into a dangerous, unknown future.

They got into the little car. From the back, Jenny—wide awake now, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed—looked at them with sharp inquisitive eyes.

“Where are we going, Daddy?”

Maria looked over at Kit.He gave her a strained half-smile.

“Somewhere new, pet,” he said, to Jenny. “Somewhere we’ve never been before.”

Somewhere safe
, thought Maria, and then her blood went cold.
If we’re not already carrying the danger with us...

 

 

Hennessy’s World

Later that day

 

A
LITTLE SOUTH
of the equator on Hennessy’s World, the most populous world in the Expansion, lay a vast archipelago. Spread across these hundred thousand islands were the offices, playgrounds, and palaces of the Expansion’s richest and most powerful.

The waterways had been a challenge to the founders of the great city, but one which they met with confidence and panache. Taking lessons from the past, they sunk the foundations of their city deep, and they built with new, lightweight metals, which reflected back the water and the sunlight in triple harmony. The towers shot upwards—but they built downward too: great cavernous buildings of strong plastics developed for this purpose, some opaque, some transparent, so that the deep ocean could provide a backdrop for the days and nights of the people who lived there. No city as big or as ambitious had existed before in the history of humanity: but then, no empire of this scale had existed before to match the great reach of the Expansion, stretched out over hundreds of worlds. The city’s founders wanted a capital fit for humanity’s greatest empire, and they got it, naming their creation Venta, after another great city of old.

But the lightness of the city was deceptive. A great darkness was approaching Venta, and a gloom hung over the Expansion’s most senior servants. One of these is now making a journey by flyer from the outlying island where she has spent the night to her place of work.

The flyer is on autopilot. It takes a smooth path, mostly uninterrupted: air traffic around the capital is tightly regulated, and at this height, permits are restricted to senior officials and military personnel. Few people really see Venta from above; either they hug the ground, snarled up in everyday traffic, or they’re packed into near-orbit craft, so expensive and uncomfortable that few can be bothered to travel in them. But the passenger in the flyer is a person of great importance. Her name is Delia Walker and she is a senior analyst with the Expansion’s intelligence agency, the Bureau. On another day, she might enjoy the view her privilege gives her. But today she has a great deal on her mind.

The flyer continues to its destination: a large square building on Santa Maria, the capital’s largest island. It comes to a halt over the top of the building, hovering there as a great hatch irises open beneath it. Then the flyer falls, in a swift but controlled descent, into the heart of the building. It is a long time since Walker found this part of her journey exhilarating. These days, arriving at work fills her with dread.

The flyer decelerates, and then gently lands. The hatch has sealed above her and the bright sunlight is gone, replaced by the gloomy artificial light of the carpark. Walker leaves the flyer quickly, grabbing handheld and briefcase, and heads to the dropchute. The chute takes her down—further down—deep into the bowels of the great square building, and Walker doesn’t step out until it reaches the bottom floor. She walks along a bright white corridor interrupted only by colourful but unimpressive paintings, and, reaching the big double doors at the end, presents her datapin to gain entrance to the big meeting room beyond.

It is one of those great caverns that the builders of the city liked so much. On one wall, many viewscreens are stacked in rows, pumping out information from across the whole Expansion; the other three walls are transparent, at least to the people inside, and beyond them deep sea creatures swim about, staring around them with huge unblinking eyes.

 

 

K
INSELLA,
W
ALKER SAW,
was already there. Sometimes they varied it, so that she arrived first, but today he had left half-an-hour earlier than usual. Walker passed behind him on her way to the coffee and tapped his shoulder in greeting. He twisted his head slightly in acknowledgement, nothing more.
What a farce
, she thought.
Why do we keep up this pretence?
Surely everyone in this room knew exactly what they were up to in their spare time. She certainly knew everything about them. It was their business, after all. Walker herself could compile dossiers on the private lives of pretty much everyone in this room; it made for an interesting if sly office culture.

Three colleagues—for want of a better word—were gathered by the coffee dispensers, deep in conversation. They fell silent when Walker came near. No surprises there; they would be her chief rivals in this morning’s debate. She ran through what she knew about them. All ex-Fleet, part of the inrush of personnel from military intelligence who had come in during the war with the Vetch, and after. They were a bureau within the Bureau: a different culture that sat uncomfortably with the careful civil servants, brilliant analysts, and enabled boffins who historically had filled the ranks of the department. Chief amongst the ex-Fleet people was Commander Adelaide Grant, who stood now in the middle of the three, stirring her coffee slowly and studying Walker in turn. There were, Walker thought, more Fleet officers here than a few years ago. The Weird threat had breathed new life into Grant and her ilk, providing a focus for their hawkish outlook.

Walker turned away. What Grant wanted was not what she wanted—either for the Bureau, or for the Expansion. The war with the Vetch had ended in an uneasy truce, which, with the Weird providing a common enemy, was turning into an equally uneasy alliance. And even if it had taken the Weird to bring the old enemies together, the fact remained that peace—or détente—
had
happened, when, twenty years ago, nobody would have believed it. And this was why Walker believed that the same had to happen with the Weird. There had to be another way, even with something as alien and destructive as the Weird.
Because God knows we won’t destroy them with brute force...

We have to be smarter than that.

But Grant and her people wanted the end of the Weird, by any means necessary, and for this they wanted money and resources to go towards their current cause—developing the ‘superweapon’ that Vetch scientists had devised, and which had hitherto proved unsuccessful.

Walker’s stomach turned, suddenly. She took her hand off the coffee pot and instead poured herself a glass of water. She sipped, swilling the water round her mouth, washing away the sour taste, and watching her enemies—her colleagues

watch her in turn.
We know about you
, they seemed to be saying,
and we will not hesitate to use what we know
. She knew what they were thinking, because she was thinking the same. She looked around the room, taking stock: the doves, on this side; the hawks, gathering across from her; and, here and there, the undecided—a combination of the waverers, not quite able to make up their minds, and those who simply enjoyed making their colleagues in both camps sweat. The Bureau employed a lot of people like that, and a substantial proportion made it to this level. Walker had done the same, when it served her ends.

She sat down in her usual place next to Andrei. Andrei Gusev, one of oldest of the old-school at the Bureau, sly and clever, and thoroughly ill-disposed towards the military types starting to fill the upper echelons of the Bureau these days. Goose-steppers and heel-clickers, he called them. No nuance. No subtlety. Only one set of weapons for every kind of problem—and no sense of the long game. No sense that while persuasion might take longer, it could be a considerably less costly way of doing business. Walker had been one of Andrei’s deputies for several years during her thirties. He had taught her what low cunning could do that brute force couldn’t, and—slowly, surreptitiously, and entirely according to his principles—had sold her this vision of what the Bureau was for and how it should operate. A tool more complex than any weapon.
Find the common ground
, he would often say.
Enemies beget enemies. So turn your enemies into your allies.

“Good weekend?” Andrei said. It was beneath him to gesture even slightly towards Kinsella.

“The usual.”

“I dread to think,” he murmured. Andrei did not approve of the affair, Walker knew, clearly thinking it a lapse of both judgement and taste. “I hope you weren’t too—how shall I put it—otherwise involved to be able to put some thought to our forthcoming imbroglio?”

“Don’t be pert, Andrei.”

“I ask only for the benefit of our cause.”

And for your own voyeuristic amusement, you nosy old bugger,
Walker thought fondly. “Well, of course,” she said. “Rest easy. I’m not going to lose this one.”

Andrei sighed. Under the guise of reaching for her glass, Walker took a good long look at him. He seemed tired, as he often had in recent months, as if the thought of the fight ahead wearied him.
Not long
, she thought, coolly, but not entirely without compassion.
Not long before he quits all this and goes back to his island to potter around on that little boat
. She had seen it many times: officers for whom the fight lost its allure; who became wearied at the thought of yet another round of chilly, committee-room combat. They sickened, sometimes suddenly, and then they were gone, a lifetime of effort all brought to nothing. But the battle went on, and Walker, at least, hadn’t tired of it yet. Not with people like Grant on the warpath.

The heavy double doors swung open, and the room went quiet as Latimer entered. Everyone—hawk and dove alike—studied the man carefully as he made his way round to the head of the table. The newly appointed head of the Bureau was an outside man, parachuted in by Council to unite what had always been a hotbed of personal rivalries in the face of the Weird crisis. It had not yet done the job. The competition remained, although now just two groups were competing for Latimer’s attention and approval. At some point he would have to show his cards and back somebody. Walker was damned if it was going to be Grant’s lot.

Latimer settled in his seat, taking his time. He was tall man, austere, like a Benedictine monk. He didn’t laugh much—in fact, he didn’t laugh at all—and he didn’t talk much either. He watched. As he laid out his handhelds and screens, the rest of the room shuffled impatiently. Walker saw Grant roll her eyes. If the people in this room had one thing in common, it was resentment at how Latimer was playing them: biding his time; keeping them guessing. This was not how it was supposed to be. Council was supposed to jump when the Bureau ordered, not the other way round. What was the point otherwise of having all that dirt on the political class?

Latimer looked round the room and gave a thin smile. The assembled elite of the Expansion’s spy corps smiled back, wanly. Walker’s stomach lurched again.
It has to be today,
she thought.
What Latimer decides today will affect the Expansion for decades to come...
Beside her, Andrei sighed again, as if letting a little more of his will leave him. “Let the revels begin,” he murmured.

 

 

T
HE BATTLE LINES
were clear from the outset and, throughout the morning, the hawks seemed to have the upper hand. Certainly they were making the most of available evidence, in the form of graphic and gruesome images from worlds where the Weird had attacked. Hardly anyone in the room could watch them in full. The Weird—in their ambulatory forms as Sleer—were repulsive to look at, like mobile, human-sized afterbirth, and their destruction was without conscience, although clearly with purpose. In the images Grant was now showing, the hideous creatures—human-shaped but palpably other—ravaged a city on the world of Rocastle, tearing the human population apart, limb from limb. The hideous Flyers, vast monstrosities of bulky grey flesh, flanked with tiny eyes and suckers, had come in waves, landing and disgorging a relentless tide of pitiless, hideous Sleer. It was carnage, and of the bloodiest kind.

Walker forced herself to watch the devastation for as long as she could, but eventually she had to look away. Instead, she started to watch Latimer. He gazed steadily at the screen, hardly seeming even to blink. Walker glanced across the table at Kinsella, who was looking at her with a question in his eyes.
When
, he seemed to be saying,
are you going to step in, Walker? When are you going to respond?

Walker shook her head, almost imperceptibly. Not now. Not in the face of this. But her moment would come.

The footage came to an end. Grant, turning to her rattled audience, said, “This is the enemy we face. This is what we are up against. And what we must all understand is that the Weird might be amongst us now—here, in this room. They can infect human minds—any of us in this room, right now, could be an agent of the Weird. For this purpose, I am proposing that we introduce mandatory screening of all government employees: a test that will enable us to discover who has been infected and prevent them from accessing positions of power—”

Now Walker spoke. “A test? You mean a telepathic scan, don’t you?”

Grant turned to look at her. “It can take the form of a telepathic scan, yes.”

“Do we have another way of testing for mind-parasites?”

Grant studied her carefully. “Not as yet, no.”

“So you’re proposing a mandatory telepathic scan for all government employees. Have you ever undergone a telepathic scan, Commander Grant?”

“I have not—”

“No, I imagine not. You wouldn’t be proposing them so lightly.” Walker addressed the room. “We need to take a step back. Compulsory telepathic tests are a huge invasion of privacy. What’s next? Mandatory scans for all citizens?”

There was a pause, during which it became patently clear that, given the chance, Grant would certainly introduce such a policy. Eventually, Grant said, “There are always costs during war.”

“But we’re not
at
war,” said Walker. A few voices started to object, but Latimer raised his hand, and they subsided. “We are not at war,” she said again. “In fact, we have never communicated with the Weird, and we have no idea
what
they want.”

Now the disagreement would be heard. “Surely we know they want to destroy us?” one of Grant’s associates said. “Even if they don’t, their very existence is manifestly incompatible with ours—”

“We know nothing of the sort,” said Walker clearly. “We have barely any experience of the Weird. I don’t deny that our experiences thus far have been appalling, but surely we don’t want to rush headlong into another war—”

“The Weird have brought war to us!”

“In fact,” said Walker, “there’s evidence to suggest this might not be true—”

Latimer held up his hand again. “I won’t have this turn into a slanging match.”

“I agree,” said Walker. “But Grant and her team have had their say. She offers a superweapon, which may well not work, and compulsory medical procedures. I have another suggestion. May I present my case?”

Latimer nodded, and the room fell silent.

“Thank you,” said Walker. She stood up and took her place at the head of the table. “We are fresh from a costly war with the Vetch,” she said. “We cannot afford another one. Our experiences with the Weird have been brief, bloody, and brutal, but in truth we know very little about them. Yes, our instinct is to fight back. But what if the Weird
cannot
be defeated by superior force? What if we direct all our energies and resources, and place all our hopes, on a weapon that cannot save us? We have to take a longer view, and we have smarter weapons in our arsenal.”

Looking down the table, she saw Andrei nodding.

“What do you suggest, Walker?” Latimer said.

Walker smiled. “We communicate.”

There was a silence, and then the room collapsed into chaos. “
Communicate?
” said Grant. “You can’t communicate with the Weird! They are a force for destruction! You’ve seen the images from Rocastle, from everywhere the Weird have been! They murder—nothing more! That’s all they do! You can’t communicate with that!”

Another of Grant’s associates called out, “You might as well try to reason with a crimopath!”

“What harm could it do?” Walker shot back. “Why reject this idea out of hand?”

“Because it’s a fantasy!” said Grant.

“I disagree,” said Walker. “And in fact, one of my assets has recently returned from Satan’s Reach with some fascinating information.” Satan’s Reach—a region of space beyond the control of either the Expansion or the Vetch Empire, where lawlessness, theft, and rumour were rife. “This asset reports that there are stories of a Weird portal somewhere in the Reach where a human colony lives alongside it without being absorbed or enslaved—”

“‘Reports’? ‘Stories’?” Grant snorted. “You’re condemning yourself, Walker. This isn’t
evidence
.”

“But it is another option.” Walker turned to address Latimer directly. “We have no evidence either that the weapon that Grant proposes can do what she claims. Are we going to back only one horse in this race?”

Latimer was tapping his finger against the side of his nose. “What do you need?”

“Ships,” said Walker, quickly, sensing her moment. “We need to send out ships in search of this world to find it, and to determine whether peaceful co-existence with the Weird is possible.”

“Ships?” Grant laughed out loud. “You’d be moving them from the defence of the core worlds. This is insanity!”

“What can a fleet of ships do if a portal opens here on Hennessy’s World?” Walker shot back. “If the Flyers emerge and the Sleer hatch? What could ships do? Blow the portal from the sky and take us all with it? If we knew how to communicate with the Weird, we might have a way to bargain with them.”

Grant had turned white. “You’re talking about surrender,” she said.

“You’re stretching the definition of surrender beyond reasonable limits,” Walker said. “I want to prevent mutual mass destruction and, more importantly, our own extinction. A superweapon—by definition—cannot do this.”

Latimer held up his hand. Everyone went quiet. Slowly he began to gather his papers up in front of him. “I’m interested,” he said, at last. “We can at least explore what can be done. Commander Grant—see what ships can be spared.”

Grant shook her head. “I’ll look into it. But this is a mistake. If the Weird arrive and we have depleted our defences—”

“If the Weird arrive, we’re all dead,” Walker said. “Guns and ammo won’t help us. Communication—that might.”

Latimer brought the meeting to a close. Walker, coming back round the table, sat down again next to Andrei. He was nodding, and Walker heard him murmur, “Good, good.”

 

 

L
ATER, SHE WENT
to Kinsella’s apartment.

He opened a bottle of wine and Walker took the offered glass automatically, cradling it in her hands. He bent to kiss her forehead, and sat down beside her, the picture of satisfaction. “A good battle,” he said. “Well fought and well won.”

“Hmm.” Walker put down her wine, untouched.

“You don’t sound as pleased as I thought you would be.”

“That’s because I don’t think Grant and her gang are likely to give up very easily. If we want to send out those ships, they’re going to have to be from Fleet, aren’t they? Where else can we get them?”

He rubbed the palm of her hand with his thumb. It felt good; relaxing. “You think there’ll be a price?” he said.

“There’s always a price.”

He sat and thought for a while. “You think the price will be mandatory scans?”

“That’s right.”

“Then let that be the price. I call that a good bargain.”

“I won’t do it, Mark.”

He put his own glass down in frustration. “What’s the problem? In the great scheme of things, it’s nothing.”

“It’s too far. What about dignity? What about privacy?”


Privacy
? Sweetheart, you’re in the wrong business if you’re worried about privacy! Or has it really never struck you before that what we do, on a daily basis—on an
hourly
basis—is invade the privacy of others?”

“Within limits. And with no automatic assumption that we have the right.”

He frowned. “You sound like Andrei.”

“That’s not a bad thing,” Walker said. Kinsella was silent a moment, and she narrowed her eyes. “What?” she said. “What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking... that sounding like Andrei Gusev isn’t necessarily always going to be a route to success.”

She turned to look at him. “You know,” she said, “under other circumstances, that might sound like a threat.”

“I didn’t mean it that way.”

“No?”

“Look, I know how much Andrei means to you—he’s meant a great deal to a lot of people over the years—”

“Jesus, Mark, you sound like you’re delivering his eulogy!”

Kinsella held up his hands. “I don’t understand why you’re getting so angry.”

“I don’t like hearing Andrei written off like that!”

“I’m not writing him off! God knows, I wouldn’t dare! All I’m doing is making sure we’ve planned for the inevitable!”

“You want to plan his funeral while we’re at it? He adores Beethoven’s late string quartets, but given the occasion would probably prefer Rachmaninov.”

“Christ, Delia, what’s come over you?”

He was cut off by the chime on his comm. “Who is it?” he snapped, impatiently.

Like a supernatural force invoked by his name, Andrei Gusev’s face appeared on the viewscreen. “
Delia
,” Andrei said, looking past her lover and straight at her. “
Get in, now
.”

“Andrei?” she said, caught off-guard. “How did you know I was here?”


Don’t be ridiculous
,” he said, sharply, and she was embarrassed to have asked. “
Get yourself dressed and get yourself in. Something bad has happened.

“What’s going on?”


We’ll talk about it when you’re here. And for the love of God, the pair of you, get here as quickly as possible, and don’t bother with those pointless separate routes.

He cut the line. Walker and Kinsella sat for a moment or two in silence, still reeling from their argument. “Well,” she said at last, “so much for privacy.” She stood up. “We’d better do as we’re told.”

Typical
, she thought, as they sat together in the back of her flyer,
the only time we share a car to work, and we’re not talking to each other.

 

T
HEY WENT THROUGH
the double doors together, their argument still unresolved. Andrei was standing in front of the banks of viewscreens and their array of visual data. He nodded to Walker and Kinsella when they arrived, and directed their attention towards the screens.

“What’s happening?” said Kinsella.

Grant, standing near Andrei, replied. “A Weird portal has opened on Braun’s World.” She gave a bitter smile. “Nobody had even heard of the place, before tonight. Quite dull, all told. A few military installations left over from the war.”

This, Walker knew, was not true. Braun’s World had come to her attention several months ago, when her team had noticed the movement of a number of men and supplies into one of the desert bases. A team of telepaths had been sent there too. She’d struggled to find out what was going on, and still didn’t have answers. What was Grant not telling them?

“How far is this place from the inner worlds?” asked Andrei.

“Considerably closer than we would like.” Grant gestured at the coordinates onscreen.

Kinsella whistled as Walker said, “Well within Expansion space.”

“You see our problem.” Grant pointed at another display. “I want you to look at this,” she said. “You in particular, Walker.” With a flick of her wrist, Grant switched content on the viewer in front of her. “This is Dentrassa, the largest urban centre on Braun’s World, less than an hour ago.”

The onslaught of images that followed nearly made Walker throw up her supper; footage of the Weird was enough to unsettle even Fleet veterans. But to think that this was happening
now
... And then there was the sound. The sound of people being consumed, in fear and terror. Walker turned away.

“Is that shame?” said Grant. “You should be ashamed. This is
your
fault.”

“Adelaide,” said Andrei, with a warning tone to his voice, “I advise you to be very careful about throwing that kind of language.”

“You know what I mean.”

There was a short silence. “How are we getting these images?” said Kinsella, before the argument started again.

From behind them, a quiet voice spoke. “Police and Army on the spot. On the frontline, by the looks of it.” It was Latimer. Pale and shaken: shocking to see from someone usually so controlled. He tapped his brow. “Their helmets are fitted with visual recording devices.” He turned back to the screen. “And sound, it seems. Someone turn that off.”

Grant signalled to someone to cut the audio feed, and the room went mercifully quiet. Everyone waited for Latimer to give some guidance. Walker and Kinsella exchanged glances. A crisis often made or broke people at Latimer’s level—and this was no ordinary crisis. Was he up to it?

“Advice,” Latimer said at last. “I want to hear advice.” Walker and Andrei both opened their mouths to speak, but Latimer held up his hand. “Grant—talk to me,” he said.

No
, thought Walker,
I’m not going to let her seize the momentum...
But Andrei’s hand was upon her arm, holding her back for the moment:
Let her say her piece. She might have something worthwhile to offer.

“Make sure the news blackout is in place,” said Grant. “Seal off Braun’s World—we can’t risk anyone getting off-planet and spreading the infection.”

“Those seem like reasonable actions to me.” Latimer looked around the room. “Any objections?”

Andrei shook his head. “All wise. Shall we get on with it?”

Grant held up her hand. “I haven’t finished yet,” she said, and turned to Latimer. “Braun’s World is finished. You have to understand. And you have to understand the consequences of it. We can’t risk infection. Nothing must escape that planet.”

“We’re sealing the ports now,” Latimer said. “I can have the best part of the Eighth Fleet there in a matter of hours. Nobody is going to get past them—”