You are on page 1of 40

About the Author

Jackson J. Radley was born in London in 1951. He was educated in

South London at Kingston Polytechnic and now lives in East Sussex.


To my parents

J ackson J . Radl ey.


Copyright Jackson J. Radley.

The right of Jackson J. Radley. to be identified as author of this work
has been asserted by him in accordance with section 77 and 78 of the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. 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.

Any person who commits any unauthorized act in relation to this
publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for

A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British

ISBN 978 184963 687 2

First Published (2014)
Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd.
25 Canada Square
Canary Wharf
E14 5LB

Printed and bound in Great Britain


My thanks to Susan Woolcott.


The Father of the Dawn, the Sun and the Moon.

Fanatics have their dreams wherewith they weave
A Paradise for a sect

John Keats




Christs bollocks!
Leila Kumar broke away from what she was doing and walked across the
observation room towards the source of the profanity. Lenny West commanded a
liberal variety of expletives and the conservative quality of his latest one was in
deference to her known dislike of such language.
What is it? she enquired of her junior officer.
Look at these readings, Captain.
She stood behind the seated West and peered over his shoulder at the
illuminated figures emerging from the machine. The wall of graphs and charts in
front of them indicated a sudden increase in temperature and pressure of the
magma chamber. She turned and looked at the large image that occupied the
entire end of the observation room. The massive volcano two hundred kilometres
below the ship showed no outward sign of unusual activity; just a series of small
eruptions at regular intervals. At that moment another ejection peppered the
slopes with glowing bombs of magma, just as it had done for the last six days. A
pyroclastic flow cascaded down the steep slope in an avalanche of sulphurous
dust that choked the thin atmosphere of Vega Delta. It all looked normal. She
turned back to the figures; temperature and pressure were still increasing at an
alarming rate; some warning lights started flashing red.
What do you want to do, Captain?
She passed her hands through her spikey, black hair as she thought. The
landing party still had two days work to do down there; it would be expensive to
bring them back prematurely. Whats causing that? There shouldnt be any
pressure increase like that. The volcanic plug was breached with the first
West shook his head. I dont know. It shouldnt be happening. Its a sodding
mystery, thats for sure. Maybe theres another volcano; I mean one inside the
Captain Kumar rolled her eyes; the question had been rhetorical and she had
not expected to receive an uneducated opinion from her junior officer. She had
little time for West although she was always careful to maintain her professional
inscrutability in his presence. Mr West, you are not a volcanologist, therefore
your opinion is of little value in this situation.
West detected another put-down and wondered, not for the first time, why the
captain didnt like him. He pressed his lips together glumly while she contacted
the landing party where First Officer Johansen, the ships volcanologist, was
conducting a survey and collecting samples for mineralogical analysis.
The face of Alex Johansen appeared. Yes, Captain.
Alex, have you seen the current readings of the magma chamber?
No, were sort of busy down here.
Take a look at them, will you?

Johansen glanced down; she saw his eyes widen in surprise. That doesnt look
right. He commanded some more data to appear, frowning deeply as he read the
figures. The composition of the magma chamber appears to have suddenly
What does that mean?
I cant be certain but the most likely cause is an upwelling of fresh magma
from the mantle; its what we call a plume.
What does that mean? repeated Leila Kumar with studied patience.
Johansen scratched his head. Im not sure; Ive never seen anything like it; at
least not this rapid and on this scale.
Well, youre the volcanologist, what do you think it means?
Johansen considered. It could be dangerous; its difficult to predict. The
pressure from below could force the magma chamber to the surface.
A large eruption?
You could say that; perhaps more of a cataclysm really.
What sort of time-frame would you estimate?
Johansen shrugged. Could be a day; maybe as little as a few hours. Its hard
to say.
As he spoke a violent shudder passed through the vehicle and his image
shook for a few seconds.
What was that? said Kumar.
A quake; weve had a few in the last couple of hours. Its normal.
The captain bit her lip; a decision had to be made and she was in no doubt
that the safety of the landing party trumped any commercial considerations. I
want you out of there now.
Were over two hundred kilometres away from the thing, protested
Johansen. We havent finished.
I dont care. Leave immediately.
Her first officer seemed strangely reluctant. Are you sure? Its probably just
a local spike in pressure.
What if its not? Im not gambling the lives of six of my crew members; Im
commanding you to leave.
Johansen seemed to be deliberating upon further argument, but he knew the
force of his captains will. She was a decisive commander who they all respected
but she would have no truck with dissent. Very well, Ill pick up the survival
gear from the safety chamber and then head back.
You will not; you will take off immediately, she returned in a voice that
betrayed rising impatience.
Its valuable; we cant leave it; it might be destroyed.
First Officer Johansen, Im telling you to leave now. THIS MOMENT.
Johansen passed her a look that she fancied resembled resentful defiance. He
nodded and cut the communication.

Alex Johansen was not happy. The captain was panicking and making a
wrong decision. The life support in the survival chamber excavated at the
beginning of their mission to the surface of Vega Delta was not something that
could be just left behind as if it had no value. He had to retrieve it and she would

thank him for it later when she had calmed down and applied rational thought to
the matter. The loss of equipment meant docked pay and he was not a fan of
docked pay; in fact, the very thought of it made him feel quite queasy. But,
unpalatable as it may be, the loss of money was not the primary source of concern
on Johansens mind for hidden in the chamber was something of which he was
deeply ashamed but now realised that he could not bury and leave behind as he
had intended.
Ever since he could remember Alex Johansens father had imbued him with a
love for ancient Greece. He was an archaeologist famed for the discovery of a
ceremonial sword attributed to Alexander the Great; a jewel-encrusted weapon
unearthed in the lands to the north of the Tigris River. He named his son after the
conqueror of Persia and, when he was old enough, took him on many digs to the
Middle East, the Levant and Greece. Alex was a keen student and had read the
entire works of Sophocles and Plato before he was eight years old. But of all the
ancient writers it was the work of Aristotle that he revered the most. Aristotle was
the teacher of Alexander the Great, who was himself taught by Plato and Plato by
Socrates. What a line! A ribbon of genius running through the thread of history.
And it was Aristotle that had brought him to his present predicament.
Well, you heard her.
Johansen recovered himself with a start. Sara Clark was sitting next to him,
her gentle face filled with anxiety.
Arent you going to take off?
Shes wrong, he replied. The volcanos still quite stable. Theres time to
pick up the gear from the chamber. Wake the others up while I go and get it.
Second Officer Clark stared at him in disbelief. She had a soft spot for
Johansen; he wasnt a bad looking chap. Late thirties in appearance, pure
Scandinavian stock, blond hair, blue eyes; unusual in an age of racial impurity.
She gave you a direct order, she protested. I heard her.
Johansen rose. I know. Do as I say, go and wake the others up and then
prepare for take-off.
Shes not going to be happy; not at all.
Shell get over it, he said as he passed her and went directly down to the
air-lock anti-chamber. There he stripped down to his underpants and climbed into
the E.V.A. suit reserved for him. He checked all the functions on the heads-up
display before stepping into the compartment itself. It closed behind him and he
heard the hiss of the escaping air as it began to match the exterior pressure. A
green light appeared and he touched it with his gauntlet. He began to descend the
short distance to the surface of the planet. Between the two rear legs of the lander
he could see the broad, flat horizon of Vega Delta, the fourth planet from the star.
There was no colour to speak of, just endless shades of dusty grey which blurred
into the heavy blackness of the starry sky. The distant, fragile light of Vega itself
was not visible. In a world of perpetual dusk it was night. He moved forward,
planting his feet carefully in the fine dust of the surface. The survival chamber
was just a few metres beyond the ship; an excavation three metres below the
surface formed by the melting and then compacting of the basalt crust. A standard
procedure carried out by every landing party entering hostile environments. As he
approached a trapdoor sprung open and light shone like the beam of a torch into

the blackness above the chamber. He glanced behind him at the insect-like
silhouette of the lander. They would all be watching, intruding on this private
business. Damn them.

Why havent they taken off?
Not in the thirty-two years of the expedition had Lenny West ever seen his
captain so agitated. Get me that lander.
Theyre not replying to my signal, Maam.
Im the captain of this ship, stated Leila Kumar imperiously. Override the
normal channel, use emergency protocol.
The sheepish face of Second Officer Clark appeared. Captain?
What the devil is going on? Why havent you left the surface?
The number one is outside, replied Clark hesitantly.
The captains face visibly drained; she glanced down at the readings of the
magma chamber and struggled for equilibrium. There had been a sudden and
startling increase in both pressure and temperature. Tell him to get back inside
He said we had plenty of time.
Did he? Well, hes wrong. The readings are off the chart, youre about to run
out of time.
Hes in the chamber.
BUGGER HIM! she exploded making West jump out of his skin. He had
never heard the captain swear before. Not one word in thirty-two years.
TO, she searched for a suitable destination, BUGGERY.
Captain! shouted West pointing at the display.
Get out of there now! screamed the captain.
But the number one.
Leave him, youve run out of time.
Clarks face twisted in agony. She engaged the landers motors just as the
mountain blew itself to pieces with the power of a million atomic bombs.
The captain and West turned to the monitor display and watched the entire
mountain and its surroundings collapse in on itself before blasting into the thin
atmosphere of Vega Delta. The whole planet shook triggering quakes across its
entire surface.
Are you clear? enquired the captain.
The crackle of electrical interference filled the observation room as they
waited anxiously. A minute passed and then a faint voice struggled through.
The blast front shook the lander and they heard the ominous sound of debris
peppering its outer shell as it reached the upper atmosphere. Suddenly all hell
broke loose inside the craft; a klaxon began to wail; lights flashed and emergency
breathing apparatus burst from above. The crew grabbed them and strapped them
on to their faces. Instinctively they began to pray as the lander continued to rise in
the buffeting storm. And then nothing beyond the whisper of escaping air; the
buffeting ceased and they were surrounded with the velvet blackness of space.

Sara Clark sat in the pilot seat stunned at the closeness of their escape. Never
in the entire mission had they ever been exposed to danger; the captain was very
cautious and they all had reason to be thankful for it. She calmed herself, tried to
breath normally and glanced around at the four faces of the landing party; they
were grim and drained. No one spoke. In thirty-two years they had never lost a
crewmember, now they had lost the first officer. It was a bitter blow but at least
they had escaped.

In the tomb of the survival chamber Alex Johansen felt the rocks shudder and
then violently convulse, throwing him to the ground. It seemed to him that
minutes passed as he was tossed like a boat in stormy waves as the blast front
passed through the surrounding rocks. The temperature inside the chamber
soared. Desperately he lunged for the survival unit and activated it. Cold air
flooded the chamber as the sickening rocking motion began to subside. When he
was able, he stood and inspected the walls. They were intact and might remain so
providing there were no more major events. He turned on his communicator. Just
static, exactly what he would have expected. He hoped to God that the others had
got away in time; they would certainly all be dead by now if they hadnt. Damn
his luck! If the mountain had just held for a few more minutes they would have all
got away safely. Now he was stranded and they would have no way of knowing if
he had survived, at least not until the atmospheric disturbances had subsided and
that could take many days.
He wondered what the captain would do and various scenarios entered his
head. If the lander had been destroyed would she risk the remaining one?
Probably not, he thought. But what if theyd got away? He tried to put himself in
her position but hope clouded rationality. He had to have some prospect of rescue
otherwise why wait? Why not just turn off the machine, remove his helmet and
give himself over to the heat and poison. He wondered, ghoulishly, which would
kill him first. It would be a close run thing.
After about an hour the temperature in the chamber had stabilized and
poisonous, irradiated atmosphere had been replaced by breathable air. To make
himself comfortable Johansen removed his E.V.A. suit and began to turn his
thoughts to mundane matters of survival. The unit would function for about three
hundred days. It would provide him with nutrition in the form of tablets taken
once every twelve hours and water mainly extracted from his recycled urine. A
long time, three hundred days, stuck in a hole on your own. He smiled grimly; of
course, he would probably go mad with solitude long before the unit gave out
and, if eventually rescued, would emerge like some long-bearded, lank-haired
prisoner from an oubliette, blinking at the unaccustomed light. Except there was
no light above, just an enormous, impenetrable dust-cloud of violent, swirling gas
and poison. He knew that. There would be no communication, no landing, for
some time.
The chamber walls were still too hot to touch so he spread his E.V.A. suit on
the floor of the chamber and up the wall so that his skin would not come into
contact with it. For some time he brooded further on the nature of his predicament
until it occurred to him that, until that moment, he had not given a thought to the
cause of it. He looked up and could just make out the faint outline of the cover to

the small niche he had fashioned to accommodate the treasure; virtually invisible
unless someone knew it was there. The casket would still be inside; it could
survive practically anything, protecting its precious contents from harm. He had
intended to leave it here, as if somehow the act of concealment would assuage the
guilt of its unethical and illegal acquisition, but when it had come down to it, he
had realised that he could not be parted from it. He had to retrieve it, even in the
face of mortal danger. Now, here he was and Fate had decided; they would be
buried together, Alex Johansen and his guilty treasure in everlasting communion.

Captain Leila Kumar had exceedingly beady, dark eyes and a large hooked
nose that, from certain angles, gave her the aspect of a witch. Had she also been
furnished with a pointed, protruding chin and a hairy wart the image would have
been complete and she could have frightened naughty children for a living. She
had neither wart nor oversized chin, but for Second Officer Sara Clark the beady
eyes were more than enough to produce a childish anxiety, especially when they
were turned on her, as they now were.
So, Officer Clark, you are proposing to take a lander into the Maelstrom
beneath us, effect an extremely hazardous landing, undertake an even more
hazardous expedition in order to extract a crewman who is unlikely to have
survived. Have I got that correct?
Clark slumped. They were alone together in the observation room; the
muffled sound of conversation filtered from the crew lounge down the corridor
and filled the pregnant silence between the two women. Thats about it,
Captain., replied Clark quietly, hopelessly.
May I ask does anyone else share your suicidal enthusiasm?
Clark slumped further. No, Captain.
Then listen to me. In the entire history of humanity no manned spacecraft
has ever been as far into deep space as we now are. Should anything go wrong we
are way beyond any reasonable expectation of rescue and I will not, I repeat not,
ever sanction any action that jeopardises the safety of this ship, its crew or this
mission. Am I clear?
Clark nodded resignedly.
With the absence of Johansen, you are now acting first officer and I expect
total professionalism.
Of course, Captain.
And rationality, added Kumar with some emphasis. Besides, the fate of
Johansen is not my principal source of concern right now.
What do you mean?
Liela Kumar sat back in her chair and drew her fingers into a steeple at her
chin; an act that usually preceded a difficult announcement. We seem to have
lost contact with base.
Clark looked puzzled. You mean we have no reception?
No, there is nothing wrong with our equipment, I had the Obi check it
What did it say?
That there was nothing wrong at our end. The quarterly communication had
not been sent.

Have they ever missed before?
Theyre not allowed to.
How overdue is it?
Two days.
Perhaps theyve had equipment failure at their end.
Kumar shook her head. They have massive back-up on Argentu Station.
She dropped her voice to a whisper. Do not speak of this to the crew, but the last
com., ninety-two days ago, was very strange. Much of it was garbled; full of non-
sequiturs, as if the sender was drunk. It mentioned that they had received no
communication from Earth for almost three months. That much was clear at
Three months!
Yes. That is why I was so keen to receive this next one. I was hoping for an
That com. would have been over five years old.
Were five point six two light years from Argentu Station actually.
Clark puffed her cheeks and blew. Makes you wonder, doesnt it?
The captain nodded slowly. Thats why Ive decided to abort the mission.
Were going home.
Clark blinked in surprise. Have you consulted the Obi?
Its my decision; the ships on board intelligence system has nothing to do
with it.
Are you sure?
The Obi is designed to protect us and act in our interests. It is not its place
to second guess a captains decision.
Clark passed her a sceptical look; she wasnt so sure. The Company wont
like it, she ventured.
The Company isnt here, we are.
When are we leaving?
In four hours. I thought wed have a brief commemoration for Johansen and
then head for Argentu Station.
At the mention of his name, Clark glanced at the image behind her captain.
The dust cloud had wrapped itself around the planet like a shroud, but the thermal
image showed what was going on beneath it. Fiery quakes had rent the crust into
a mosaic, magma poured from the enormous caldera that had once been a volcano
some twenty-five kilometres high. Huge tongues of molten rock slurped towards
the site of the chamber and would soon bury it under their heavy flow. If he was
down there and still alive there would soon he no hope for him at all.

Well, what is there to say? We all knew Alex Johansen, a steady and
likeable person and a proficient first officer. He certainly had his faults, but who
among us can make any claim to perfection. Captain Kumar smiled reflectively
at the assembled crew in the muster room. Most of the faces were appropriately
glum, a few looked as if they would rather be somewhere else. We live in close
proximity when we are not in stasis and, although I know this is not a fashionable
view in these times of individuality, but I think of our company as family and
Alex Johansen was part of our family. I propose we take a few moments of

silence to remember him as he passes into the hands of God. To offer an
example the captain shut her eyes and bowed her head in prayer; most of the crew
followed her lead; some more awkwardly than others. A minute later she spoke
again. As you know I have decided to return to Argentu Station. This will
shorten our mission by approximately seven years with inevitable consequences
to your salaries. I havent made this decision lightly. You were all aware of the
deteriorating situation on Earth before we left, I have not hidden from you the
disturbing despatches from Argentu Station, but now it would appear that we
have lost contact with Argentu itself.
A buzz of disquiet ran through the crew. Edwards, a junior researcher, stood
up and spoke first. What do you mean? How can we loose contact?
The last despatch is two days overdue, replied the captain.
Edwards sat down heavily; he had an uncle on Argentu.
Are there any other questions or observations? asked the captain.
The room fell silent.
Very well, we will depart immediately.

One hour later Leila Kumar and Acting First Officer Clark were, once again,
closeted in the observation room. This time the door was shut so that they could
not be overheard.
It must be Johansen, it wont let us leave without him.
The captain brooded while Clark let the statement hang in the silence. She
had never seen Kumar at such a loss; she had always known what to do in any
situation. Eventually the captain shook her head. I cant accept that. The Obi
cant possibly know if Johansen is still alive and it wouldnt sanction risking crew
to retrieve him even if it did know. It must be something else.
And youve had absolutely nothing from it?
Nothing. It has simply stopped responding.
Clarks face assumed a look of puzzlement. It must be malfunctioning.
Look around you; everything is normal; it is functioning perfectly.
But it doesnt make any sense. It has to act in the best interests of all the
crew; it cannot function in any other way. Can it? She added with a questioning
Thats what we have always understood; now Im no so sure.
Cant we disable it? Bypass it somehow? There must be a way.
None that I know of. The Obi controls every aspect of the ship; the
environment; the propulsion units; the communication system; everything right
down to the last microcircuit.
Even us, added Clark.
We all signed up to it.
Thats true. She glanced over the head of her captain at the projected image
of the planet below. The dust cloud still obscured the surface but the image
showed that, below it, the wall of magma had advanced to within ten kilometres
of the chamber. It had slowed down significantly as the rock cooled and solidified
in the freezing atmosphere forming vast cliffs over which the fresh outpourings
tumbled glutinously. Itll soon cover the chamber, she said.
Captain Kumar turned towards the image. Yes, she replied wistfully.

You know the atmospheric conditions down there have eased. Wind velocity
is less than one-twenty.
I see that. Are you suggesting a landing?
Its feasible; you know it, I know it and the Obi knows it.
Kumar noticed the particular emphasis on the last five words. You persist in
thinking that we are being detained here because of Johansen? Because he might
still be alive down there.
That is what I hope; the alternative is too awful to contemplate.
Kumar sat back in her chair and formed steeple with her fingers beneath her
chin as she contemplated. Both knew what the other was thinking; that the
contamination afflicting Earth had reached Argentu Station and they were being
protected from themselves by the on board intelligence. Its extremely risky,
she said at length.
Agreed, but we dont have much time; the magma wall is advancing. She
observed her captain deliberating and detected a chink in the wall of her
opposition to a rescue. Clark knew that Johansen was still alive, at least she felt it
strongly and the thought of leaving him down there to die alone disturbed her
greatly. Theres no reason why we shouldnt try, she added.
There are many reasons, returned the captain brusquely. I suppose youve
canvassed for volunteers already.
Clark nodded.
Very well, Ill sanction it. We dont seem to be going anywhere and you
may be right. If he has not survived you will still need to bring him back. Do you
Youll need a crew of two; thats all Im prepared to risk.

During his enforced entombment time oppressed on Alex Johansen for there
was little to do other than monitor the conditions of his cell and sit and ruminate
on the forlorn situation in which he found himself. Ironically he had not even
been able to enjoy the sight of the treasure that had cost him his life; the rock
covering the cavity in which it lay had fused shut with the heat and movement of
the cataclysm and he had no instrument to hand that was capable of breaking it
open. A punishment for his wickedness; tortured by the unobtainable proximity of
that which he most treasured.
It had dawned on him some time ago that Captain Kumar would be unlikely
to risk a lander in the conditions that prevailed outside and so he would be forced
to bide his time. And then it occurred to him that the magma field surrounding the
cataclysm might spread as far as the chamber, in which case it would be all over
for he would surely burn to death as it stripped the hatch from the entrance and
encroached into the survival chamber itself. The machine would be useless
against that kind of force. Alex Johansen did not want to die like that and so he
rested his thoughts on the hope that the captain would wait for a respite in the
atmospheric conditions and the restriction of the magma field.
He turned out the light and slept; a troubled sleep that lasted no more than
four hours. When he awoke he checked the readings on the equipment. The
surrounding rock temperature had begun to decrease and now he could touch the

walls with his bare hand. He looked up at the entrance hatch but could see nothing
through the small transparency at its centre. He sat back on his E.V.A. suit and
looked up at the fused cover of the niche. It had not budged and showed no sign
of weakness. The treasure was well and truly trapped. Perhaps, he speculated, it
was as well; it would be safe there, no one could ever destroy it, it would exist for
all time. He took comfort in the thought and in the notion that he, of all men,
would be the last to have seen it.
Another shudder passed through the chamber as the crust split again a
thousand kilometres away. It reminded him of the deadly conditions outside and
on the scales of hope and doubt, another weight fell on the side of doubt. He
placed himself in the captains chair and speculated; would he risk a rescue? He
hoped he would but knew he wouldnt.

On the fourth day of his confinement Alex Johansen awoke. He was back on
Earth in his parents house; he was unwrapping a gift; faces looked down at him
expectantly; it was his ninth birthday and the family had gathered in the sitting
room of the house near Stockholm. Outside the large window the snow was
falling; he had never seen such a thing; it had not snowed in Stockholm for a
generation. He wanted to go out and play in it but he could not escape the smiling
faces. Sara Clark said, come in Alex, and offered her hand to take him away.
Where were they going? Out into the snow?
He opened his eyes with a start. What was Sara Clark doing at his ninth
birthday? He had no special connection with her, or indeed, with any other
person. The Company had seen to that during sterilization when they had also
been rendered impotent and stripped of libido. The Company did not tolerate
emotional complications between male and female crewmembers. So why had
Sara Clark invaded his waking dream?
The communicator on the survival unit cracked into life and through the
heavy static he heard her voice. But this time he was awake.
Come in Alex.
Yes, he practically shouted for joy, forgetting the correct response.
Are you injured?
No, repeat no.
Good. Were going to blow the hatch; its fused shut. Are you wearing your
No, repeat no.
Put it on: we dont have much time.
Johansen hurriedly climbed into his suit, checked that all the seals and life
supports were functioning correctly and, taking cover, indicated that he was
ready. The shaped charge blew the entire hatch mechanism away from the rock; it
flew high and landed some distance away. A cloud of hot dust swirled into the
chamber obliterating his vision; he switched on his view filter, picked up the
survival unit and headed for the space below the entrance where the faces of Sara
Clark and Chin Sen, the microbiologist, peered down at him.

Leave the unit, we havent time, shouted Clark; she had just received a
warning that another magma flow was on its way. They had three minutes to get
out of there.
Johansen pushed it up the ladder towards them. Take it, take it, he insisted.
They didnt have time to argue. She and Chin Sen reached down and pulled it
up to the surface. Johansen climbed out into the swirling eddies of dust. The heat
hit him like a club; the huge wall of solidifying magma was less than fifty metres
away. He activated the ladder and it folded into itself making a small, light
portable package. Clark and Chin Sen had already started back to the lander with
the survival unit; their bodies now no more than shadows in the swirling dust. A
faint light blinked on the survival unit they carried between them; he took a
heading from it ran as fast as the suit would allow.
As the lander took off they saw how close they had come to destruction. The
magma plain was a sea of molten rock flowing like water towards the cliff edge.
As they rose through the dust they saw the first wave tumble over the precipice
and splash into the dust where they had so recently stood. A moment later the
chamber was swallowed up.

Alex Johansen had not expected his conversation with his captain to
characterised by any joy at his survival and in this his expectations were soundly
justified. Her tone was stony, admonishing.
You disobeyed a direct order and placed the lander, its crew and yourself in
serious and unnecessary danger. Your actions caused endangerment not only once
but twice and I have to tell you I have found them inexplicable.
I understand, but.
I havent finished. It is in my power to demote you and to recommend that
fifty per cent of your remuneration be withdrawn and I am minded to do both
unless you can furnish me with a credible cause for mitigation. What do you
Alex Johansen stared at the deck of the observation room where they were
alone, as if expecting some revelation to emerge from beneath his feet. But no
such revelation came to him and he was reduced to his rather incredible
explanation. I just thought we had more time; I didnt want to leave the
equipment; I was responsible for it.
You were responsible for making sure that your crew and the lander were
safe. You failed.
I know, Im sorry.
Sorry! Sorry! You cant be sorry out here; out here we deal with certainties.
We are not cavaliers; things only work when orders are followed.
I understand, I truly do.
Well I dont. Since the beginning of this mission you have been an
exemplary officer; I had no reason to doubt you; you have carried out all your
duties with calm professionalism at all times. But down there, on that planet,
something changed and I would like to know what that was.
It was a misjudgement.

The room fell into an expectant silence as Johansen debated the merit of
telling her the truth. Had the circumstances been different he would never have
done so, but now what was there to lose?
Have you heard of the philosopher, Aristotle?
You and your Greeks, she replied contemptuously. The entire crew were
well acquainted with his obsession. Of course Ive heard of Aristotle.
In the fourth century B. C. Aristotle composed a treatise on the constitution
of Athens; a masterpiece of historical importance. A copy of it crossed the
Mediterranean to the library in Alexandria in Egypt where further copies were
made. At one time the Library was very extensive, containing practically all the
knowledge of the western world; its importance to humanity could not be denied,
but much of it was destroyed by fire during the invasion of the city by Julius
Caesar in 47 B.C. Further destruction took place in 391 A.D. during the reign of
Theodoseus the Great when the Library was sacked by a mob of fanatical
This is all ancient history, interrupted Kumar impatiently.
Johansen held up his hand to stay her impatience. No, Im telling you this so
that you might correctly understand the magnitude of my crime.
Her eyes bulged in incomprehension at the mention of the word crime, as if
an alien monster had suddenly appeared in his place. Johansen ignored her and
The contents of the Library were thought lost and indeed they were until an
almost complete papyrus containing the Constitution of Athens was unearthed in
Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century. It was brought to the British Museum
in London where it stayed for over two centuries until it was lent out to an
exhibition of antiquities in Kinshasa, Central Africa where it was destroyed in a
disastrous fire. But it was not entirely destroyed; one small fragment survived and
was sold at auction. It passed through many hands over the next decades until it
came into the possession of a very good friend of mine. When he showed it to me
I knew I had to possess it. I would have paid anything he asked but he would not
sell it to me. So I stole it.
Captain Kumars jaw dropped. You stole it!
Yes. To my everlasting shame, I stole it and because of what I did my friend
killed himself.
You stole it! repeated Kumar as if unsure that she had heard him correctly.
Johansen nodded gravely. I could not live with the shame and so I sought to
bury it in the survival chamber. I intended to leave it there but when it came to the
point I realised I could not be without it. It was that which I was trying to retrieve,
not the equipment.
You endangered yourself, your crewmates and the lander for a piece of
Papyrus, corrected Johansen.
Whatever. Where is it?
Still down there.
Kumar let out an ironic snort. I am several leagues beyond mystified.
I thought you wouldnt understand.

You are quite correct. Under normal circumstances I would bust you down
to nothing and place you in immediate stasis; your contract would be terminated
and no remuneration given, but these arent normal circumstances are they?
No, they are not.
I had hoped that rescuing you would be the answer, but it seems that that is
not the case. The Obi still does not respond to any command I give it; we are
I wondered why you risked the rescue.
Be under no illusion, I would not have sanctioned it had it not been a
possible solution to our situation.
I would not have blamed you in any way had you left me down there.
I would hope not. However, we are where we are and there appears to be no
Perhaps there shouldnt be a solution.
What do you mean?
Johansen scratched his head. The Obi must act for the preservation of the
Yes, that is its overriding directive.
Communication has ceased from Earth and now Argentu Station. Perhaps it
is preserving us by keeping us here.
He saw by the expression on her face that this had already occurred to her.
I hope to the very core of my heart that that is not the reason, she replied
almost inaudibly.
He looked up reflectively at the image of the spreading magma field far
below. It had long since swallowed up the survival chamber but the outpourings
had decreased and the advance of the magma field had almost halted.
Do not imagine that your shame is buried with that object, said Kumar,
following his gaze.
I dont.
She became suddenly reflective; her mood softened. I do not propose to
inform the crew of your crime; I see nothing to be gained by it.
Thank you.
It is something that must weigh heavily on you and you alone.
It does.
Then that is some small justice, I suppose.
Johansen smiled weakly and took comfort in the thought that the fragment
would be preserved forever or rather preserved until Vega exploded and
consumed its own system of planets billions of years from now. He, Alex
Johansen was the last to see it and that was how it would be until the end of time.

But Alex Johansen was wrong for he was not the last human being to see the
surviving fragment of Aristotles Constitution of Athens. He could not have
foreseen that the arc of human history would eventually bring men back to that
very place on Vega Delta where he had placed the precious object. For over one-
hundred-and-twenty-thousand years the fragment rested in its tomb waiting to
play its part; waiting until a man would reach into its protecting casket and bring
it into the light of a different sun. Waiting for a man from a world so distant in

time and space that he belonged to a civilisation having no knowledge of the true
source of humanity; a man who belonged to a civilisation intolerant of dissent,
steeped in a doctrine of human origin based on myth and superstition allowing no
place for evidence and scientific reason. The fragment of The Constitution of
Athens fell into the hands of the one individual with the ability to recognise it for
what it was and to use it to change the course of human history. His name was
Solon Bru.




Twenty five million years ago, the molten currents and eddies that churned
beneath the equatorial crust of Agon caused a small fissure to appear on the
surface of the planet. At first, this geological event was of small significance, but,
as time passed, the pressures below began to exploit the weakness and the fragile
skin of Agon opened and a vast gash appeared in the parched, primeval
landscape. Volcanoes burst forth at its margin, forming towering peaks of ash and
magma which were then rent asunder as the fissured land collapsed into the
mantel to be consumed in the boiling heart of the planet. And then, as though its
anger had been sated, the world began to cool, the volcanoes ceased their
poisonous belching and the land became still. The turmoil that had gripped Agon
for over two million years was ended, but it had left an indelible scar on the
landscape in the form of a great rift valley that extended for over two thousand
As time passed, a more forgiving season embraced Agon. The climate cooled
and rain poured into the valley, flooding it with life-giving water and creating a
vast sea that lapped against the towering walls of solidified magma. Primitive
plants colonized the shoreline and clung to the cliff ledges and the valley
gradually turned green and temperate.
It was in this green and temperate valley, over three thousand years ago, that
men first walked on Agon. It was here that they first built their primitive villages
and cultivated the fertile ledges that had formed at the base of the cliffs. These
were simple men with few demands beyond survival. In their ignorance, they
worshipped the sun, the water and the land, for it was these elements that gave
them life and prosperity. The population grew and eventually a city was founded
and in that city men began to turn away from the old gods and look for new ideas.
And so, in time, a prophet, who was born of the sea itself, came among them.
His name was Minnar and he taught them that he was the essence of the Spirit of
Creation and that they should worship him. He taught them that they were created
from the waters of the sea; he taught them of life after death and the judgement of
their sins that was to come to all men. He taught of the sin of polyphony and
complex rhythm, decreeing that only devotional plainchant was to be heard from
the mouths of men and that dancing was the surest path to damnation. He spoke
of abstinence in all matters of the flesh, saying that only those who followed him
in purity, eschewing the contamination of female company could achieve the
highest plain of ecstasy in the Afterworld. These laws with many others, he wrote
down in a document that became the known as The Book of Minnar. This book
was taken up by a small but devout faction of adherents who evangelised it
among the superstitious population with promises of life beyond corporeal death.
But the city elders grew frightened of his power and fearful of his message
and so they took him to a high cliff, bound him and weighed him down with rocks
and threw him into the sea from whence he came. At that very moment, according
to scripture, there was a terrible shaking of the ground and the mountains began to

fall into the sea. The city was destroyed and the life-sustaining waters of the sea
drained away until all that remained was a lake, trapped in the deepest recesses of
the valley.
The Elders, in fear and contrition, commanded the building of a great temple
on a pinnacle of rock called Imbar that had once been an island in the sea. They
ordered the smashing of all the primitive instruments for the making of music and
banned their manufacture on pain of death. They banned dancing!
But all their prayers to the spirit of Minnar were unanswered, for the waters
gradually turned foul and famine visited the cursed people. The region was
abandoned except for the temple, which grew into a shrine, enticing pilgrims and,
eventually, the construction of a new city to serve them.

Over two thousand years after the death of Minnar, Solon Bru gazed across the
glassy surface of the lake. The long day of Agon was closing and the vivid sun
touched the parched valley walls with a sanguineous hue that appeared to make
them bleed into the dark, putrid waters. The lake was now known as the Sea of
Creation and from the apron of his high, cliff dwelling Bru had an unparalleled
view across its sterile waters to the distant shore and the City of Imbar with its
crumbling towers shining like bloody fangs in the declining sun.
It was the very place that Minnar had lived and died and had taught of the
creation of Mankind. It was here that men had first emerged from the waters and
walked upon the land. The irony of his situation was not lost on Bru. He was an
exile from his home world and known to be a heretic. The Elders of Agon had
chosen this revered location for him so he that could look upon it every day and
eventually come to realize his error. They believed he would recant his heresy and
embrace the One True Faith.
He took a large swig of the bitter distillation that passed for wine on Agon
and tossed the rest over the wall of the apron. The droplets glinted like red jewels
in the sun and tumbled two hundred metres to the dusty floor of the valley below.
Then, as an afterthought, he tossed the goblet over after them, turned and wearily
walked past his vehicle and into the cool interior of his home.
Inside he entered his sleeping quarters and pulled off the grimy tunic he had
been wearing for three days. He noticed, with distaste, the odour of his own body
and caught sight of his image in the reflector. At seventy-six years of age he was
in the prime of his life; at an age when the rash vigour of youth had matured into
a deeper physical strength. But the image that stared back at him belied these
attributes and for the first time, he saw what he would become in old age. The
skin around his sharp, grey eyes had begun to wrinkle and sag and the furrows of
his brow had deepened into sun-starved crevasses that extended almost to his
temples where grey variegated his dark brown hair. He scowled at the image and
ambled towards his ablution area.
The particle bombardment cleaned his skin and made it tingle pleasantly.
Revived a little, he dressed himself in a fresh tunic and swallowed a stimulant. He
could not think of sleep; not yet anyway.
He returned to his living quarters to discover his wife Rhell. She was seated,
as usual, on the floor, cross-legged and straight-backed, patiently waiting for him.

He had been expecting her arrival, but not this soon. This was most inconvenient.
He spoke first, as was the custom on Agon.
I greet you, but I was not expecting your presence here.
My father brought me, Sir.
Why? He noticed her eyes did not meet his; she fixed her gaze on his naked
My father thought you would need nourishment, you have been away. He
thought you would require me.
This did not surprise Bru, the old man would have instructed her to find out
where he had been. He would have to report his son-in-laws movements to the
appropriate authority. I do not require you, he said shortly.
But your meal Husband, I must prepare it.
The simulant will do it.
No Sir, it is my duty.
I release you from it. You will return to your fathers home by my vehicle.
She looked up at him imploringly. No Sir, please, I may not go home.
Bru frowned in surprise; she had never defied him before. She looked
terrified as her dark eyes began to moisten while she pulled at her long, black
hair, as was her habit when she was nervous. She was not handsome, even by the
modest standards of Agon, and at thirty-six had been well past the acceptable age
of marriage when their union had been arranged. But she was tolerable company
and in the nine years of their marriage had proved biddable and willing to accept
the inevitable limitations of their relationship. He had even developed a manner
of affection for her which had caused him to take the trouble to give her a
rudimentary education, a practice against both law and custom on Agon where
women were not permitted to read or write. The fiercely misogynistic culture of
his adopted world had always discomforted and mystified him and he had never
fully come to terms with it. The social and economic exclusion of over half the
population seemed to him a tragic waste of human potential that must inevitably
compromise the economic viability of Agon. But he was a guest here and there
was nothing he could do about it beyond flouting the law privately and teaching
his wife. She had accepted the lessons with reluctant grace and prospered
modestly. It had been their secret and it had been her pleasure to accede to his
wishes. She had never questioned or defied him before, but something was
making her practically shake with fear.
Very well, he said at length, you may stay for a while.
Thank you, Sir, she whispered as she rose and left without meeting his eye.
Deep in thought he watched her leave. What did they suspect? Had he made
any mistakes? Anything at all that would arouse suspicion? He paced the room
and reflected, trying to recall any action that might have betrayed him. He could
think of none.
Presently she returned with his meal and placed it on a low table near the
threshold to the terrace where she knew he liked to sit. The vermillion rays of the
setting sun shimmered on the walls of the sparse, elegant dwelling like the flames
of a campfire. Only her soft footsteps broke the intense silence. He sat cross-
legged on a floor cushion and began to eat while she observed him from a
distance. At length he started the conversation.

How is your family?
My father and brothers are well, Sir.
The omission of any mention of the female members of the family was quite
normal and Bru knew better than to ask. I am glad to hear it, he replied.
There was a silence before she continued in a somewhat tentative manner.
My father was concerned by your absence; he wondered what had become of
I thank your father for his concern but my absence was quite normal.
There was a pause before she probed further. My father said you had failed
to deliver four lectures at the Institute. This is not usual for you.
He glanced up from his meal. She was staring out at the evolving sky and
would not look at him. I arranged an adequate substitute to deliver the lectures.
This was not normal.
She was getting reckless, on the very edge of permitted intercourse. He
resumed eating. What of it? he thought. They will eventually find out where he
had been; why not let her bear the news?
I was with my researcher Engin Par, in the north, at a retreat he keeps. We
were engaged in some difficult astro-geological theory that required a complete
lack of distraction. I am sure your father will understand and I hope this will
relieve his concern.
He did not look at her but could feel her relief from across the room. The
tension in the atmosphere eased and he heard her whisper, Thank you, Sir.
She had done her duty to her father by honouring his command to find out
where her husband had been. He had done her the kindness of telling her and as
she sat in the pregnant silence and gazed out beyond the terrace, she reflected on
the first time she had set eyes on this strange being, her husband.
At thirty-six she had resigned herself to spinsterhood. Although high born,
she knew she was not desirable and could not expect to receive offers of marriage
from the most eligible quarters. Her father had already refused three offers from
individuals deemed to be unsuitable, describing them as low rank fortune
hunters. She despaired at his reticence, but his judgement was vindicated when
he solicited an offer from Solon Bru.
It was the duty of all the men of rank on Agon to marry and, although an alien
and naturally unsympathetic to the institution of marriage, Bru had finally been
prevailed upon to accept a union. Bru was Suran, an exile from a world quite
unlike her own. She discovered that Surans were a slight, pale-skinned,
androgynous people who had a pathological aversion to hair and were thus
universally bald. They were disgusted by any form of physical contact and relied
on technology to perpetuate their race. Her brothers had laughed at her, telling her
that she was betrothed to a dickless, hairless freak, but when, at the marriage
ceremony, she saw him for the first time, she was surprised to discover that her
future husband was neither slight nor hairless. Solon Bru was just under two
metres tall, well-built and had a fine head of cropped, dark brown hair. Indeed, he
might have been taken for a native except for his beard, which was neatly
trimmed instead of the full growth traditional on Agon and his intense, grey eyes
that had glanced disinterestedly in her direction as she had entered the marriage

Solon Bru looked so masculine, so normal, that despite her fathers warnings,
she entertained thoughts of conjugal bliss. But in this, she was deceived, for
despite his appearance, Bru was essentially a Suran. In the nine years of their
marriage he had never touched her, nor shown the slightest inclination to do so
and she had never seen him in any other state than fully clothed. She had the good
sense and grace to accept this, for there were other compensations. Though distant
he was kind, considerate and patient. He was liberal and did not require of her the
strict confinement of a normal spouse. He was superior in virtue to her brothers
and yes, even to her father and treated her as a person not as a chattel. In short, he
was the best man she knew. Had Bru been less emotionally obtuse, he might have
discerned that she had come to love him very much.
Her husband finished his meal and, for while sat in contemplative silence. A
slight breeze wafted across the terrace and curled down the valley towards the
city, carrying away the last of the days breathless heat. Bru was never garrulous,
but this evening he seemed more taciturn than usual, as if he was contemplating
some intractable problem. At last he spoke again.
And your father, I trust he is well?
For a moment she did not know how to respond; he had asked her about her
family earlier.
He is well, Sir, she replied, not wishing to draw his attention to a mistake.
He realized his error and turned towards her. I believe I have already
enquired after your fathers health. Forgive me.
There is nothing to forgive, she uttered demurely.
He was about to speak again but was forestalled by an incoming
communication. It was from his assistant, Engin Par. What does he want now?
thought Bru, as he rose to receive the communication in his study. He had only
just left him in his squalid, little retreat in the north.
Rhell watched him leave and close the door to his study behind him. There
was an uneasy quality about him that she could not quite measure. She wondered
at her fathers particular insistence that she obtain news of Brus whereabouts, but
it was not a womans place to question the ways of men. She stood and went to
the low table to clear away the remains of her husbands meal.
Inside his study Bru accepted the communication and a three-dimensional
life-sized image of Engin Par appeared before him. Pars normally alarmed
expression had developed new heights of distress. His bony frame, shrivelled with
years of worry, buckled before his employer. He gestured imploringly. Doc
Doc, have you seen it?
Seen what exactly? replied Bru with forced patience. He found his
assistants constant state of angst wearing. These past three days alone with him
had been something of a trial.
The newscast, of course The newscast. Have you seen it? They know
they know. Oh Lord! What are we going to do? What are we going to do? Tears
welled in his eyes, he grabbed nervously at his thinning, gingery hair.
To which newscast do you refer?
Par shot him a look of surprise through his tears. You mean you havent seen
it yet? Its the main item on Inter-World; its everywhere.

Remain connected, said Bru, deleting the squirming image of his assistant
and commanding Inter-World to appear. He slumped in his chair and waited
patiently for the nugget of news to escape the deluge of publicity.
We now return to sector ninety-three for the latest report on the destruction
of Station Two Eleven.
He sat up sharply whilst the commentary continued over the image of a field
of debris glinting in the stark light of a nearby star.
The Station was destroyed by a catastrophic explosion timed at zero, zero,
eleven two five
Bru calculated the time; it was two days ago.
There are thought to be no survivors from the three hundred and twenty six
registered on board. We have, as yet, no explanation of what happened here. An
inspection team from Barta Magnus is expected shortly. Station Two Eleven was
owned by The Odin Recovery Company of Barta Magnus. It was primarily
engaged in the resale, and salvage of interplanetary craft. A spokesperson for
The Company said
Bru cut the transmission and stared, grim faced, into the void where it had
been. Could there possibly be a connection between this disaster and his
activities? It was impossible to be sure but the coincidence was alarming. The
station had been destroyed just four days after Par had left it. He composed
himself and returned to his assistant.
Have you seen what they did? Have you? Oh shit! They know Doc they
know. It must have been Evangelists; who else could it have been? They must
have followed me. Oh Lord! I cant bear it. Par dissolved into fresh paroxysms,
biting his hand while tears and snot ran down his face and into his wispy excuse
for a beard.
Pull yourself together, said Bru sharply. There is nothing to suggest that
this is the work of Evangelists or that it has any connection to us. You followed
my instructions regarding your departure and return to Agon?
Par nodded dejectedly. Yes, I did, absolutely.
Good, in that case we have nothing to fear. You could not have been
detected; I assure you nobody knows anything about what we have found,
especially not the Evangelists.
Par let out a final sob. You know what they would do to us if they found
Bru knew well enough what happened to apostates. Their executions were
degrading, public and long drawn out. They were designed to maintain loyalty to
the Faith through fear. As a Suran and a diplomat he would not suffer such a
public fate, but he had no doubt that he would suffer privately. The Elders of
Agon would be forced to render him to the Evangelists and he would simply
They will not find out, he said with quiet authority. Are you still working
on the casket?
Par nodded.
Meet me at the Institute and bring it with you. We will decide what is to be
done when you arrive.
Shall I come straight away?

Yes, straight away.
Pars image faded and left Bru alone in his study. For the first time in his life
he wasnt sure what to do. Had he made a mistake? Had Par been detected and
followed? Could someone have found out what they had obtained on Station Two
Eleven? It just seemed impossible to him that after forty-seven years he could still
be worthy of such scrutiny. If they were still watching him it might follow that
they would also be watching his assistant. He considered contacting Par to warn
him of his thoughts, but concluded that it would only make him even more
neurotic and irrational. Best to leave it until he saw him in person, then they
would decide what to do.
He walked distractedly back into his living area. Rhell was seated,
crosslegged on a floor cushion, waiting for him. Is everything well Sir? she
He almost started at the sound of her voice; he had forgotten she was there.
Everything is well, he replied hastily. Im afraid we must forgo our
conversation this evening, I am required at the Institute.
She made a poor attempt at concealing her disappointment. May I stay here,
He looked down at her and their eyes met briefly; he knew how much she
treasured her time away from her fathers house. If you wish, although I do not
know when I will return.
I will wait, she replied as he walked past her and out on to the terrace. She
watched his vehicle rise gracefully into the air and head away from her towards
the city. She kept her eyes on it until it became just another light in the emerging
star field of the sky.


Engin Par was, by no means, assured by Brus apparent lack of concern. His
natural disposition had brought him to a state of near hysteria and his vivid
imagination entertained all sorts of macabre punishments and tortures that his
frail body would have to endure before the blessed release of death. He reflected
bitterly on his own stupidity and naivety for enthusiastically embracing Brus
passion for ancient mysteries. Why had he not seen that it would lead him to
question and eventually abandon his faith and to expose himself as an apostate?
What, a matter of hours ago had been an adventure, an excitement in his dull life,
had now become a nightmare and the fruit of his sacrilege was now about to fall
on his own head. He had convinced himself (and it was an easy job) that he was
about die in the most appalling way.
He picked up the small casket from the makeshift analysis table they had set
up in his retreat and contemplated destroying it. But what good would that do? It
was already too late for that and if he were wrong Bru would be furious. He
turned it over in his hands, caressing its smooth, featureless surface with his

fingers and acquainting himself anew with the perfection of its engineering. Even
now, when he knew exactly where it was, he could not see the join where the
body and the lid came together. Only the analytical power of the finest
instruments Bru had brought with him from Suran had revealed how to open it; a
combination of pressures applied in a certain sequence to each of its corners. And
yet there were no obvious working parts; the mechanism was in the structure
itself, a hydrocarbon construct completely unknown to science. They could not
even accurately date the object, its matrix was so alien; but, by its provenance,
they knew was that it was very, very old.
And when, at last, they had solved the puzzle that kept it secure, it had
smoothly opened to reveal something quite extraordinary, a thin fragment of
material with strange markings on its surface. Bru had carefully lifted the object
from the casket with a pair of tweezers and placed it between two sterile
transparencies that he had sealed. He had then placed it on the analysis table for a
better look.
What is it? Par had asked.
The destroyer of lies; its the destroyer of lies, came the reply and his friend
and mentor had looked at him and smiled.

Par had been surprised by Brus request that he should take the casket straight to
his retreat where he would join him. Knowing Brus natural Suran fastidiousness,
it worried him, somewhat, that his basic accommodation would not meet with his
bosss approval. He was right, even though he had tidied it up as best he could
Bru still declared it to be squalid and depressing. Never mind, he said, it is
remote and we will not be disturbed here.
They had worked on the casket for three days before discovering its secret.
When, at last, they had opened it, Bru declared that he had better return to allay
any suspicions. He took the fragment and left the casket for Par to continue work.
It was soon after the departure of his mentor that Par saw what had happened
to Station Two Eleven and everything changed.
He stuffed the casket into his grubby tunic and took one last look about the
rudimentary cabin. He knew that he would never see it again for he had decided
not to meet Bru at the Institute but to throw himself on the mercy of the priests of
Imbar. They might just be able to protect him from the Brothers of Mercy, the
Evangelists. He would never be allowed to leave the Temple and would have to
spend the rest of his life making devotions, but at least he would be alive and the
priests werent such a bad lot. It gave him pause that he would have to denounce
his friend, the man who had trusted him and given him so much, but it was also
Bru who had led him down this dangerous path and by that logic he justified the
With a beating heart, he opened the cabin door a fraction and peeked out. A
zephyr winding its way up the valley sang through the needles of the trees. It was
a beautiful sound that Par loved, but now it only served to mask the movements
of his enemies. He waited awhile and detected nothing moving in the darkness
and then he stepped out and hurried down the winding path that led to his waiting

Par owned a vehicle that had once been in public service. It was large,
dishevelled and unkempt and had seen better days, but it was robust and reliable
and rarely required maintenance. He climbed in, relieved at having made it safely
and sat in the front seat. He placed the casket next to him and commanded the
craft to take him to the Temple of Imbar. It shuddered and rose into the cold night
air and he watched his retreat disappear as the star-tousled forest swallowed it up.
As he sped south towards the city, he stared fixedly ahead, his mind in
increasing turmoil. What if he was wrong and Bru was right and the Evangelists
knew nothing of their activities? To denounce a friend was not very admirable
and he always fancied himself better than that. Was he being rational or was it
just paranoia? His mind churned, at one moment attracted to one course of action,
at the next attracted to another. He was so engrossed that, at first, he did not
notice the strange, sickly, sweet odour that had begun to creep into his nostrils.
Then he became aware of it, the unmistakable waft of incense that took him back
to his youth and the long hours of worship in the temple. He wondered what piece
of discarded detritus would generate such a smell; then he realized that he was not
Do not turn around, my son. The voice was soft and mellifluous, as if
chanting an incantation.
He felt the blood drain from his body as fear paralysed him and stifled a cry
in his throat.
The voice came close to his ear and he could feel warm breath on his skin. I
have come for you, Engin Par. I have come to grant you salvation.
Par tried to speak but no words escaped his dry mouth. He felt the warmth of
his own urine as it trickled down his leg.
Do not be afraid, Engin Par, for I am here to release you of your burden.
Yes take it, he managed a broken whisper and fumbled for the casket.
A large, powerful hand stayed his skinny arm. These trinkets are for fools.
Close your eyes and pray. Do you recant your blasphemy, my son?
Yes yes.
Do you confess to the sin of apostacy?
Yes I confess.
Are you now truly the servant of He Who Knows and Sees All?
Please, I am a poor
He knows what you are, my son. The Lord Minnar sees it all. He knows of
your transgressions and sees into the darkest recesses of your soul. He has asked
for your release and now I will obey His command and release you, Engin Par.
A wave of elation shot through Pars body; he was to be spared. Release, he
Yes my son. I will release you to stand before him and be judged.
Par felt the powerful hands clamp around his scrawny neck and heard the soft
flow of an incantation as the grip began to tighten. The brief elation of reprieve
was banished, not by panic but by a calm resignation. His body felt so heavy, as
though it would melt into the fabric of the craft. He did not struggle; he just gazed
at the endless vault of the night sky before him. It was beautiful, so beautiful. For
the first time in his adult life he was not afraid of anything.


The Institute of Science occupied the one hundred and first level of the Great
Tower in the City of Imbar. There were six other towers of lesser stature in close
proximity, each being surrounded by a tangled network of crude, squalid,
mudstone buildings and heaving markets in which all manner of commodities
could be obtained for the right price. The towers were an expression of a bygone,
more prosperous age, an age of hope in which Imbar attempted to capitalize on its
position and kudos as the cradle of mankind. But the economics of the depleted
equatorial region had defeated the dreams of the city elders and the small wealth
of Agon had drifted to more temperate climes.
The seven towers themselves had seen better days. One had been entirely
abandoned and left to crumble, whilst two others had been declared unsafe with
several unsuccessful attempts having been made to clear them of squatters and
criminals. Large, ugly cracks in their fabric were evidence of frequent quakes that
split the thin crust of the planet below Imbar. Only the temple remained
impervious to geological assault. Its gaudy, overblown edifice stayed intact on a
volcanic plug that had once been an island in the sea.
It had been something of a coup for the governing body of the Institute to
entice Bru to their backwater of learning. His acceptance of their offer of a
position as the head of astro-geology had greatly surprised them for they were not
aware that he had been given very little choice in the matter. Bru was unique, for
no other Surans had left that academic paradise for as long as anyone could
remember. To make him comfortable they funded, at considerable expense, the
construction of a dwelling located at a suitably remote distance from the city.
They knew he would require solitude, at least until he acclimatized himself to the
populous conditions on Agon.
He repaid their faith and expense with diligence, publishing numerous,
influential treatises with the Institutes name on them and attracting to the faculty
a cohort of distinguished professors. Apart from the Temple, the Institute was the
only organ of distinction in Imbar and the governors of it were very pleased with
their Suran exile.
Bru landed his vehicle at the high port, in a place reserved for him and
walked the short distance to his research rooms at the Institute. A couple of
students noticed him and nodded deferentially. It was late and the place was
almost deserted. Once inside, he secured the door and went to his safe. He opened
it and took out the fragment and gazed at it, as though it had some mesmeric spell
over him. It was no more than six centimetres by four with two straight and two
ragged edges where the material had been torn. The markings on its surface,
which were truncated at the torn edges, were obviously a form of writing, but it
was alien script and of insufficient quantity to attempt an interpretation. It
intrigued him but he would never know what the words said.
He carefully placed the object on his workbench. All his instruments were
dedicated to the analysis of rocks, minerals and crystals and they were not