THE TIME TRAVELLER’S BALL

by Kit Downes

Sample Chapter 1 First English Language Rights 15/02/2014 This document may not be copied, distributed or posted elsewhere without permission.

I

They say you can never see a thing when you teleport. A few of the transport techs like to joke that this is probably a very good thing. Watching yourself being broken down to sub-atomic level and then fired in a stream of particles through the gulfs of inner space at light speed plus would have a really bad effect on your self image, your digestion and your willingness to do it again. They assure first-timers that they will hear and feel nothing except rushing energy, and see nothing but white light. But I always could see. Every time. We left ChronOps Headquarters on the moon; streaming out of the accelerator like two bursts of dragon fire. We climbed upwards, rising high above the grey and craggy Luna surface into the sunshine. Dawn was breaking over Earth’s eastern hemisphere. The illuminated side was crowded and buzzing with satellites, atmosphere craft, slow orbiting space stations and the great Eco Engines, constantly at work; making the sky clearer than even the first Luna explorers would ever have seen it. But we didn’t linger there. We only stayed long enough to achieve escape velocity. We blasted away from Luna, riding on a combination of gravity waves and residual propulsion energy, across the first great chasm between the planets; vast and black and silent. The stars – light years distant – seemed to surround us, close enough to touch as we streamed across the void. Then the gigantic sphere of Mars came rising into our paths. The fourth planet looked like it always did on a ship approach; a rolling, scarlet-swept ball, tipped with shining ice at both poles, the surface scattered with the spider web domes and linkways of the cities.

But the pink wastes were not our destination. We were aimed at the two moons; neither of which I had ever visited before. They were small, crater-scarred but otherwise smooth lumps of rock; ancient asteroids captured in Martian orbit; devoid of atmosphere or interesting metals. But they were there; so humanity had found ways to live on them. The settlements glistened and glittered like diamond barnacles clinging to the dirty brown surface as we swept down towards the second moon, Deimos, and homed in on its largest settlement and the single tallest building. This I had seen before in pictures. A squat, but towering building of a hundred floors. With a wide square base, sloping sides and a flattened roof; it looked like a pyramid with its point missing. It was big enough to contain the administration of a nearly a quarter of the Solar economy. Above its grandiose main entrance, gold letters gleaming in the distant sunlight, was the sign welcoming us to CODEX BANK. It might all have been in my imagination. If so, my first real view of the bank was the senior manager’s teleport suite; where Mirabi and I arrived at 9.52pm local time, January 7 th 3010. Materialising – De or Re – is rarely a pleasant experience. One minute you are weightless and effortless, floating like a carefree ghost. You don’t appreciate this experience until the next minute when it ends. All of a sudden your feet solidify, they feel as heavy as mountains and they land on the transport pad so hard your knees would buckle if they had reformed yet. They, and the rest of you, reassemble at speed as you are literally pulled back down to earth. G-Force kicks in as the process proceeds; so one second your stomach contents is in freefall; the next it lands hard and with a splash. There is always a moment of relief when your eyes reform and you can see that you still have all your fingers and toes.

Mirabi and I stepped down from the teleport pads into a wailing maelstrom of alarms and sirens. That first step off the pad was always important to me. We might have been a hundred floors above the surface, but the moment my boots landed, it felt like I had arrived on Deimos. Two men were waiting for us by the control console. One was a tall, sword-blade slim gentleman in his fifties; with a narrow, creased face, pale blue eyes and wiry grey hair, wearing a butler’s uniform. He stood tall and still, with perfect composure and bowed politely to both of us. The other man was twenty years younger, dark skinned and with black hair worn in salonstyled dreadlocks. The rest of him was wearing a Solar Union diplomatic service uniform and – from the trembling posture, wringing hands and near electrified eyes – he was extremely upset. “Sergeant Erik Midgard! Chronological Operations Agency!” I yelled over the ringing alarms. “Sergeant Mirabi Arjuna! The same!” shouted my partner. “What’s the problem?” “Welcome to Codex Mansion, Officers!” called the Butler, with another bow. “Thank Darwin you’re here!” shouted the diplomat, jumping up and down. “This is bad! This is majorly bad! This is catastrophically…” “Calm down, sir! Who are you?” I called, holding up a hand to stop him bouncing. “Zachary Midnight! Solar Union Ambassador to Free Mars!” he bellowed back. “I sent the distress signal!” “We streamed in as soon as we got it!” called Mirabi. “What’s the situation?” “There’s been a murder!”

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The teleport control console was an elaborate three sided computer terminal; keyed into the central mainframe of the bank. The butler - who introduced himself when prompted as James Metatron - explained that the building doubled as the central branch of the Solar System’s second most powerful bank and the luxury home of its CEO, as he logged into the system to kill the alarms. “You actually have an alarm that sounds when somebody’s been iced?” called Mirabi. “No, Ma’am,” said James Metatron. “That is the general alarm and several sub ones. They’re being activated by something else. I’m trying to find out what.” “What are those power surges? Level eight?” I said, pointing over his shoulder at one corner of the digi-screen; where a bar chart was rapidly growing and shrinking in size. “That’s the hanger floor,” said James Metatron, his eyebrows rising an unprofessiona l fraction. His fingers danced on the touch screen below where I had been pointing. “Oh dear. Some of the guests are trying to leave.” “Would any of them have been here when this murder happened?” said Mirabi. “All of them!” said Zachary Midnight, as the last siren wailed itself out. Before we could ask any of the obvious questions, my Helmcom suddenly bleeped and then threw up a display on the inside of my full face visor. As always, it was a 2D hologram, projected pineally so it was not distorted by the curve of the visor. While it was right in front of my eyes, it was done in pastel colours, in shades transparent enough that I could still see in case I needed to. Mirabi stiffened beside me and I knew she was getting the same message. It was an automated signal; launched from the ChronOps patrol satellite in Deimos orbit;

informing the nearest available officers (us) that a space ship fitted with a chrono-drive had just attempted to make an unauthorised time jump. “Hax it all!” said Mirabi. My breath caught as the details came up. It worse than a chrono-drive ship. Five ships had just attempted to enter the time stream without journey applications, route and destination plans or ChronOps approval. They had all done it from level eight; three floors below us. The good news was that they were all fitted with Blue Boxes; the mandatory flight recorder fitted to all legally manufactured time ships. The satellite computer had managed to lock onto these; override manual control and pull them straight back to their point of origin. They were rematerialising on the hanger floor as we read about it. “Darwin’s beard! Who is it? Who’s running?” demanded Zachary Midnight, hopping up and down behind us. “Whoever it is, they’re not going anywhere,” I said, tapping the button on my wristcom which killed the visor display. “So I see,” said James Metatron, as the computer flashed an arrivals message that the five ships had come back. I breathed a small sigh of relief. If the killer was down there, they had not escaped before I even had the chance to get started. “All right,” I said. “Mr Metatron, you’re going to have to take me straight down there. Mr Midnight. Take Officer Arjuna to the crime scene.” “He’s upstairs,” said Zachary Midnight. “In the ballroom.” “Whoa. Hold on,” said Mirabi, holding up her hand. “I can secure the suspects. You go prod the mortal remains.”

“We don’t have time to argue about this,” I said. “You haven’t been promoted yet, Erik,” said my partner, in her most pointed tone. “You are the one with the crime scene kit,” I countered, gesturing to the small pack clipped to the side of her equipment belt. Mirabi’s face was hidden behind her silver tinted visor, but I felt her scowl like an ancient Punjabi spearhead. I was going to pay for this the next time we had an unarmed combat refresher. “Fine!” she said, and turned to Midnight. “All right. Murder scene. Lead the way. Chop chop.” Midnight scurried towards the doors with Mirabi close behind him; her long, black, nonregulation braid hanging out from under her helmet, all the way down to the small of her back and bouncing as she walked. Mirabi had never been good with discipline. She had it, but only on sufferance. I sometimes wondered how she had ever gotten through ChronOps Academy. But since I had never been, I would never know. Mirabi had joined ChronOps for the adventure; no other reason, and had scandalised her family by applying. Arjuna men were supposed to become cops and soldiers. Arjuna women became doctors, scientists, businesswomen and politicians. But her iron strong streak of defiance had won out, and even her grandmothers and great aunts were beginning to accept that it was the career she had been born for. I had known that almost from day one of our partnership, in spite of how hard she could be to work with. “The hanger floor is downstairs, sir,” said Metatron, acting as if nothing had just happened.

I motioned for him to lead the way. It was an unworthy and unprofessional feeling, but I was pleased; eager to get started. I had six successfully solved murders in my file. I had been waiting three and a half years for a seventh. If I could solve this one, I would finally be promoted to detective. My security clearance would rise and I would at last be able to access the ChronOps personnel files. Including my own.

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With the fugitive ships fully materialised, I keyed instructions to the satellite through my wristcom to keep them locked down until I got there. But Metatron and I – who was in good shape for a man in his fifties – still went there at a run. There was always a chance of someone attempting manual override with power tools or a crowbar. It gave me a chance to examine the bank. The corridors were open and spacious, but the ceilings were low, with sloping walls and thick square columns, making the building seem more solid than it really was. The atmosphere was of an ancient temple or palace, with the wealth of kings stored in unbreakable stone. The effect was spoiled by pretentiousness and planetary rivalry. The stone – all of the stone that I could see – was Martian marble; wonderful ripples and bubbles of red and pink forged in the planet’s ancient volcanoes and then cut, carved, polished smooth and shipped up to Deimos. Not a speck of the native brown-and-grey moon rock seemed to have been used. Pink and red and scarlet were the only colours; enclosing you on four sides. The lighting had to be carefully spectrumed to ensure that everything else stayed the correct colour, and it was slightly too bright in the corridors; all for

the purpose of reminding everyone who visited that while Codex was not yet rich enough to rank with the Martian Super-Corporations; the Solar System’s richest planet was not far below. The only things that weren’t pink were the pale green Origami doors that divided up the rooms and corridors. They were made of Intellipaper and when you approached, they folded up, sideways, inwards and diagonally to let us through, and then folded back down again. “Very nice,” I said, after the third one. “Thank you, sir. They were done by the great Shigure Sakahaya of Yokohama specially for the bank. You will not find finer this side of…” He broke of as I skidded blinking to a halt. The door before us had just folded open to reveal James Metatron, coming towards us with a tray of drinks. Even though James Metatron was standing right beside me that same instant. “Good evening, sir,” said James Metatron, using James Metatron’s voice. “What the Hax…?” “Oh, carry on, for Pete’s sake!” Metatron waved his doppelganger past us. “My apologies, Sergeant. They were the Lady of the House’s idea.” “What are they?” I said, as we resumed jogging. “Waiter androids with mirror-metal surfaces, sir,” said Metatron. “They can be programmed to any physical appearance you wish. Lady Xandra designed the atmosphere of the Ball and decided that identical serving staff would add a wonderful flair to the e vening.” His distaste was showing. Metatron realised this and returned in an instant to his solemn butler’s visage. In retrospect, I realised it hadn’t been a perfect double. There had been no gaps or edges where clothing met skin, and the double had had a slight, but noticeable

glow; which I now realised was a colour rendering hologram. But even so, copies, duplicates, doppelgangers… It made my skin crawl. “Very tasteful,” I said. “Why are you going along with it?” “I value my dignity, sir,” said Metatron, without sounding defensive. “But I also value my job. Serving at Codex provides unique opportunities.” “Hmm,” I said, my stomach twisting slightly. But I left it at that as we descended the last stairway onto the hanger floor.

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There was no outer wall to the Bank here. The hanger floor opened straight out onto the stars; with an atmosphere containment field rippling across it, keeping the heat, and more importantly the oxygen, on the inside. It was the not the entire floor, but one extra long and extra large corridor; divided up into octagonal pods; each with a ship sitting inside them so their launch thrusters would burn harmlessly against the blackened back wall. There were nine ships in total in the guest berths. Every single one of them was a rich boy’s toy. They were small personal transports; one cabin and a cockpit, but they were made by all the biggest names in astronautics and were extremely luxurious; sports ships to a hull. The five of them that were powered up were spaced out down the corridor from the stairs. “Don’t let anyone go up them, Mr Metatron,” I said. “Of course, sir,” he said, and I jogged towards the first vessel.

It was a predator of a ship. A sleek, black painted ShadowFuser 5000; its design largely plagiarised from Solar Union dog fighters. It did not have any obvious weapons, but its engines were still burning blue as I reached the hatch and held out my wristcom. Universal Override keyed into the lock and took 3.7 seconds to spring it open. “This is ChronOps! Step away from the controls!” I shouted inside, hand on the butt of my holstered Unigun. “Oh, grattox!” came a powerful Venusian voice from inside. “Don’t shoot, officer. We’re both unarmed.” “Come on out,” I ordered. “Do not touch the controls!” A broad shouldered, powerful man in his forties stepped out with his hands raised. His dark hair was greying at the temples, but it was styled to enhance this rather than hide this. His narrow, warm face was still handsome and he looked the type to acquire girlfriends thirty years his junior. He wore a slim, slightly amused smile; trying to seem friendly and harmless and at the same time, show that he was taking this seriously. It might have worked on anyone else. “Identification,” I said, snapping my fingers. There was something about that slim smile that fired off a few synapses. Something vaguely familiar. The man held up his left hand and touched the platinum citizen ring around his third finger. A miniature hologram of his face and some biographical detail was projected out from it, and Helmcom beeped its verification a second later. “I didn’t do it,” said Lucian Hell, President of Venus Lava Industries, Inc. “Do what?” I said.

“No one falls for that one, Officer Midgard,” he said, his smile broadening. “I did not commit, or have any involvement whatsoever, in the murder.” Helmcom’s polygraph programme flashed up a result of 98%+ on the truthfulness of his statement. Hopefully, the rest of them would be so open. Polygraph should have been the most useful feature of my field equipment, but – due to a glue-thick web of privacy and entrapment laws – I could hardly ever use it. Simply asking who did the deed and jumping on the person whose answer came up less than –70% would never make it to trial. “Neither did I,” said the man who appeared behind Hell. He was in his twenties, clean-shaven, with a neat dark crew-cut, and a spotless suit. Corporate business was coming out of his pores. But he was surprisingly muscular – like a gymnast – for an office worker, and he did not come out with his hands raised. He looked straight into my visor with deadpan stoicism; defying me to call him a liar. “Calm down, Sebastian,” said Lucian Hell. “Show him your credentials.” He also wore an ID ring, which Helmcom found satisfactory, revealing him as Sebastian Sheol, a junior executive of Venus Lava Industries and Lucian’s Hell’s personal assistant. Once I’d checked by a quick life signs scan that there was no one else skulking on board, I locked the ship down again and led them over to the stairs to wait with Metatron. “I’m aware this looks rather suspicious, Sergeant,” said Hell. “But neither of us did it. We were just trying to take advantage of it. Making the best of bad situ ation.” “How exactly where you taking advantage of a murder?” I said. “New Wall Street,” replied Sheol. “We were going to backstep to yesterday. We were going to buy up arms shares. Before they shoot up tomorrow.”

“Then we would have come straight back here to give statements,” said Hell. He was cut off by a bellowing roar of multiple thrusters. We all ducked as the heat wave swept by, bending the Origami doors out of shape. It had come from the engines of a ship two pods down; a sedate and dignified Silverstream Cruiser, painted pale grey with some discreet, shimmering chrome work. It had just tried to take off – backwards – discharged directly into the atmosphere shield and backwashed its fuel cells. Waving the smoke away, I motioned for Hell and Sheol to stay with Metatron. “Don’t even think about wandering off,” I called over my shoulder as I dashed to the airlock door, overrode it and burst inside. “Do not haxing think about it!” I screamed, thrusting my Unigun ahead of me. I stopped in surprise as I recognised the sole man inside. He was a middle-aged, short, stout North African, using Hairregen. Orson Osiris was a legendary film, stage and videogame director from Aswan City. He had filmed in some of the most dangerous locations of the Solar system; the liquid metal lakes of the unterraformed nature reserves of Venus, the rock tides of Io and the streets of Basingstoke in England. He was famous for his poise and calm under pressure. When I first saw him, he was scrabbling so desperately at the controls that he was almost climbing on top of them, sweating and trembling like a mouse in a blender. “Aaaahhhh!” he screamed as he saw me. “Get off there!” I bellowed, taking aim. He threw himself off the console and almost landed on my feet. “I didn’t do it! I’m innocent! You have to believe me! For the love of Darwin, it wasn’t me!”

“Get a grip, Mr Osiris!” I said. “No! It wasn’t me! You have to believe me! I didn’t kill him! I was…” I didn’t have time to deal with this now. I reached down, grabbed him by the collar and pulled him upright. “You are innocent until proven guilty with 70% accuracy. In the meantime, shut up!” I pushed him out through the airlock. “Where were you off to, Orson?” said Lucian Hell, as I frogmarched Osiris back to the group. Thankfully, both Venusians were still waiting with Metatron at the foot of the stairs. “It’s a little early for them to be selling the film biopic rights. They’d probably execute you if you asked.” “I didn’t do it!” “Be quiet!” I barked, as my eye was caught by a flashing light on the next ship down. This was a Magellan Wayfarer; a flamboyant coracle design modelled on ancient wind-sail ships; all silver, with sweeping curves and an actual figurehead on its prow of an robe-wrapped ancient goddess. The light was the hatch opening indicator; flashing red as the opening button was pushed repeatedly from the inside while the Blue Box kept it locked. I stood before it, tapped two keys on my wristcom and stepped back as it opened. The man inside, who had been pushing against it with his shoulder, fell out onto the stone floor. “Sacre Bleu!” He looked up and saw me. “Oh, Merde! I mean… Good evening, officer.” “Good evening to you too, sir,” I helped him to his feet. He was a tall and wiry and his accent immediately identified him as a Eurozonian, with tousled brown hair and a large beak of a nose. “Would you mind telling me where you were going?”

“As far away from here as possible,” he replied, fumbling with a hologram business card. “There is an armed assassin on the loose.” That was either the truth or a well thought-out alibi. The man himself was Jacques Loki; President of Rhineland Wines and Tobaccos; Over 50% positive customer endorsement rating across the Solar System. “Though I will of course stay now you are here, Officer,” he said, glancing at his watch. “Fine. Stay over there,” I pointed to the group by the stairs, where Osiris was wringing his hands and insisting to an uninterested Sebastian Sheol that he hadn’t done it, just as there was a whirr of gears and the hiss of equalising air pressure. The airlock of the next suspect ship had just opened by itself. This was undoubtedly the gaudiest and flashiest ship on the hanger floor. Firecrest Sun Cruisers were normally only made for the Olympiads; especially the races around Saturn’s rings. This one was fringed with gold from nose to the thruster cone and out of it waddled a fat, nearly circular man with a huge curling grey moustache, wearing a strange white hat with a dented crown and sweeping brim. There was something definitely familiar about his face. I was sure I had once seen it on a newscast. He was carrying the long multi-jack he had used to manually open the airlock and he saw my gaggle of suspects before he saw me. “Say there, folks. Anybody else having engine trouble?” “It’s not engine trouble,” I said, stepping out where he could see me. “Oh, darn,” he said, and immediately set the multi-jack down on the floor. “Identification, please.”

He also wore a holo-ring, which revealed why I recognised him. Charles WashingtonAllah IV was the president and CEO of United Earth Oil. Holding the seat at the head of the table of the inner council of the Solar System’s most dreaded corporation made the rotund Texan (his hat, as he proudly explained, was apparently a local cultural icon) one of the richest and most influential men in the room. His reason for attempting to make a hasty exit was the same as Jacques Loki; he wanted to avoid the killer. Though neither of them had yet explained why they felt the need to escape back in time. “I can assure you, Sarge, I didn’t so much as dip a fingertip in this horrible business…” “It’s Sergeant. You can tell me about it later,” I directed him towards the others. Thankfully, no one had yet tried to slip away. Metatron was standing sentry-like before the stairs, Osiris was still sweating and trembling like a leaf, but the others were simply standing and talking to Loki, who was looking sheepish. The final ship was the ugly duckling. It was a tiny Delta Kestrel of Jupiter Imperia manufacture; squat and functional, made from the extra heavy metals of Jupiter and Saturn’s moons. Its engines were glowing and then dying again as they tried to power up and were shut down by the Blue Box. I ordered it to shut them down completely, before I went inside. The occupant was tall, distinguished and middle-aged, with thick golden brown hair and a large moustache, clad in the silver dress robes of a Jupiter Nobilita nobleman. He was banging the controls with his fists as I stepped inside the single cabin, but as soon as he heard me, he spun around with a large photon pistol in his hand. “What the blue blazes…?” “Drop it!” I had my Unigun out and aimed at him in a flash.

“Oh, thank Darwin! You’re here at last!” said the nobleman, lowering the gun. “And about time. I just was about to summon help in person.” “Really?” I said, lowering my Unigun, but not all the way. “You could have called, sir?” “Lord Karl Yahweh, Steadholder of the Imperial fiefdom of Io of the Jupiter Imperia,” he replied, drawing himself up. “That did occur to me, but I’m not sure who we can trust.” “You can leave that part to me,” I said. I mentally marked him down as another Imperial who would have great difficulty understanding that the influence and privileges he enjoyed at home did not automatically extend to the rest of the Solar System. “I still feel…,” “You can start by surrendering that weapon,” I said. Yahweh looked at me with outrage. I stood still and let his eyes try to bore through my visor. They flickered, as he remembered that even the Emperor recognised ChronOps’ unlimited, universal authority on all matters pertaining to time travel, and so the rules did indeed apply to him. He looked at the pistol in his hand, then tossed it into the air, planning to catch it by the barrel as it spun down and then offer it to me butt first, a gesture that had some nicely insulting innuendos in the Imperia’s etiquette-ridden culture. I spoiled the moment by snatching it out of the air, checking the safety switch was on and stuffing it businesslike into the back of my belt. “Thank you. I’m going to start by not trusting anyone,” I told him. “Move.” With ill hidden fury, Yahweh stepped out of the ship and we rejoined the group at the stairs. I tapped a last instruction to the satellite to lock down the ships again. “Mr Metatron.”

“Sergeant?” “Lead the way to the crime scene.”

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We followed behind Metatron in near silence. Jacques Loki and Charles Washington-Allah exchanged a few whispered words and suspicious glances at the others. Orson Osiris continued to shake like he was naked on the Martian icecaps. Karl Yahweh stalked along in total silence. Lucian Hell and Sebastian Sheol brought up the rear and they were the only ones who seemed at all relaxed. “Tell me, Mr Hell,” I said. “What’s so important?” “I beg your pardon?” “What’s so important about this death that it will affect the stock market?” He smiled with eager understanding. I had guessed correctly that he was a fan of crime fiction. Dreams of becoming a famous amateur detective were probably growing in the corners of his mind. “Ah,” he said. “It’s the victim.”

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The ballroom was a grand, high ceilinged hall on floor fifty. It was probably a conference room in its everyday life; about the size of a lecture theatre. There was no exterior wall, just towering crystal windows, divided by fluted columns, showing the sprawl of Deimos City around the bank below. The rocky curve of the moon itself was visible on the horizon, below the stars. The floor was covered in more Martian marble, but now shaped and cut into a vast, beautiful mosaic of ancient star maps and the constellations traced out in them. High against the far wall was a giant view-screen; showing a stylised map of the Martian system. Mars rotated slowly and serenely on its axis as Phobos and Deimos circled around it; following golden bands that showed their orbit paths. When I stepped inside from the far corner, the party was long over. Long floating tables; made of huge, perfectly rectangular slabs of obsidian floated on gravity beams around the periphery. They were strewn with empty platters and scraped bowls that had once contained every imaginable kind of food from Mercury to Pluto. Glasses, whole and broken, and empty wine bottles and decanters were scattered among them, along with cutlery and abandoned plates. The dance floor was artfully decorated with dazzling diamond fountains and deep green moving crystal trees; turning slowly and artistically inside their pots. More of Metatron’s identical robot doubles stood around the walls of the room; waiting to serve. There was a gaggle of finely dressed guests standing at the far end of the hall in a loose semi circle. They all looked up as we entered. Mirabi was squatting down beside the crime scene. As I reached it, she stood up and faced me, pushing up her visor. “This one’s going to be great fun,” she said. The body was lying face down on the floor, ten yards in front of a set of Origami doors, directly below the big screen. From the wide sprawl of the limbs, he had been running. From

the wide eyes and the gasp frozen on his face, which had landed in profile; right cheek against the polished stone, he had been afraid. From the ugly deep red burn wound that had eaten away most of the back of his neck, carbonised the exposed vertebrae and blackened his blond curls, the cause of death had been a laser bolt and a well aimed one. There was no doubt about it. Crown Prince William Jupitus Justinian; heir to the throne of the Jupiter Imperia, had been murdered.