for The Planet Dweller
Palmer’s first novel Is a real find -definitely a specimen of higher
lunacy. The Planet Dweller appropriates all the furniture of TV sci-fi
and duly stands it on its head, with a wonderfully pragmatic absurdity
- that’s been done before, of course (Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams),
but not quite this way. How characters quite as insane as these - menopausal
Diana and the radio-astronomer Eva, 11-year-old Julia, and the drunken
Russian eccentric, Yuri - turn out to be as plausible as anyone you’d
find in the average bus-queue, I do not know; but at one time or another
I’ve met all these people. Real people are always more incredible
than fiction likes to think...
Mary Gentle Interzone
hilarious story in which the Earth is threatened by the deadliest life-form
in the universe: the Mott. Diana, a menopausal mother, and Yuri, a practised
drunk, are the two humans destined to fight them. They do have some help
in the form of Dax and Reniola a pair of Torrons; uncomfortable in their
new bodies they are eager if incompetent allies.
‘familiar’ voice - if their is one - should surely be credited
to Jane Palmer, whose first novel ‘The Planet Dweller’ brings
a much-needed note of sanity into the launch. Palmer has more in common
with Muriel Spark than Marge Piercy. Her alien invasion of Earth takes
place among the kind of people who cause havoc at the supermarket checkout.
She also, with deft comedy, creates a Feminist who’s literally the
size of a planet, and that is a daunting prospect...
Jane Solanas Time Out
Jane Palmer’s novel, The Planet Dweller quite unashamedly a good
sci-fi adventure, is really the odd one out. It draws most on the traditional
‘adventure’ strand of science fiction and quite cleverly weaves
together all the ingredients for a good read.
Liz Adams Chartist
Planet Dweller is a much more traditionally sf novel, and also funny in
a Tom Sharpe/Douglas Adams sort of way:
Palmer’s first novel The Planet Dweller comically (and Britishly)
juxtaposes menopausal female reality with a farcical chauvinist SF subplot
about the Molt and their plan to rule the galaxy. . . The Planet Dweller
is the most easily readable of the four books, involving no noticeable
shortforms. Anything even slightly scientific is explained in a no-lecturing
manner, and if there is a feminist message, I can’t see it.
only first publication is also the only British one, Jane Palmer’s
The Planet Dweller, and it is a world away from the American novels. .
. The Planet Dweller has more in common with Dr Who than with American
theological feminism, including a sense of humour.
David Sexton Sunday Times
Palmer spins a confused but amusing tale of earth menaced by extragalactic
baddies. Her heroine, Diana, a menopausal housewife and administrator
of an architectural museum, is original, sympatico and fun.
Sunday Times Supplement
First published by The Women’s Press Limited 1985
© Jane Palmer 1985
edition published by Dodo Books 2008
rights reserved. This is a work of fiction
and any resemblance to persons
living or dead is purely coincidental.
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this
All right 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 publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or
cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition
being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
Other science fiction books by this author
to the memory of
Ros de Lanerolle
would like to acknowledge the assistance of astronomer Heather Couper,
for whose advice on certain passages I am indebted.
hot flushes can be very embarrassing,’ insisted Diana with a sincerity
only the most stubborn of men could have doubted. Unfortunately Dr Spalding
was one of those men. However charming, sympathetic and good with children
he might have been, his biology would never allow him to comprehend what
Diana was talking about.
Although he was stubborn, it was with a genuine concern for Diana’s
welfare that he assured her, ‘But Hormone Replacement Therapy can
have very unpleasant side effects, my dear. I’ve heard of some women
losing their fingernails and others being stuck with headaches for weeks
on end - and do you really want to go on having periods until you’re
‘I’ve already worn my fingernails away by climbing up the
wall and give my daughter regular headaches by screaming at every animate
and inanimate thing that gets in my way,’ Diana persisted. ‘And
won’t live to be seventy if I carry on at this rate.’
‘But in a short while these symptoms will be gone,’ Spalding
said soothingly. ‘It would worry me to prescribe something I’ve
misgivings about. Let me give you some more Prozac to tide you over.’
‘They make me twitchy,’ grunted Diana, knowing the quarry
had managed to evade the net as he had done a dozen times before.
‘At least it will give Julia the chance to relax.’ He smiled,
blissfully unaware that Diana was mentally digging his grave. ‘Just
take them as you need them, but don’t overdo it. We don’t
want you to get hooked, do we.’
Diana managed to grimace a smile of false gratitude, and clutching the
elegantly scrawled prescription, strode sullenly home.
Only stopping to screw the prescription up and throw it in the pedal bin,
she hauled her partially dressed daughter to the front door after her,
and strode back outside.
‘Didn’t get it then, Mum?’ Julia asked, with an unusual
understanding of the menopause for a child of eleven and a half.
‘You won’t find it so funny when you get to my age,’
Diana promised her daughter with a marked lack of motherly affection.
‘Oh, they would’ve thought of something much better by then,’
Julia assured her with practised indifference to her mother’s intolerance.
‘Besides, I haven’t even started my periods yet. Can I have
some money for crisps?’
Without a word, Diana took out some of the cash she had hopefully put
aside for the prescription she wanted and thrust it into her daughter’s
By the time they reached their different routes, Julia’s uniform
was correctly arranged and buttoned, and Diana’s mood mellowed.
‘I’ll be back at four, so don’t go out to play until
you’ve had some tea.’
‘Well, will you give Yuri his magnifying glass back as you go past
then?’ Julia produced a flat box from her satchel. ‘I promised
to let him have it as I came home.’
‘Oh. He wouldn’t mind you dropping it in later. I can’t
see what he’d want it so urgently for.’
‘It’d be better if I didn’t take it to school with me.
I’d hate to lose it.’
‘Oh, all right. I‘ve got a few minutes to spare. Now don’t
be late, and I’ll see you at teatime.’
‘All right. Tarrah Mum,’ and Julia trotted off after some
of her friends.
As soon as they were out of sight, Diana made her way up the gravel path
that led towards the open-air museum of architecture where she worked.
In the sloping meadow overlooking her terraced cottage, stood Yuri’s
less well maintained home. Having recovered enough of her natural tolerance,
Diana braced herself to listen to her friend’s engaging babble for
five minutes. Though totally harmless and likeable, his grasp of reality
could seem a little crazy to a serious mentality, and Diana had a secret
reason to wonder if she was becoming as crazy as he was.
As she reached Yuri’s solitary cottage sitting like a delinquent’s
dolls house tossed carelessly down in the meadow, it crossed Diana’s
mind that he might be the only one she could confess the guilty secret
As soon as she walked into the garden that idea was immediately dashed.
Yuri was lying quite drunk under his ten-inch reflecting telescope with
a fob watch in one hand and a gin bottle in the other. A hard night’s
observation and excess of alcohol had undoubtedly affected his conversational
ability for the next few hours.
Having ascertained that Yuri was still alive, and as there wasn’t
much of him, Diana hauled him to his feet. She helped him into the cottage
and let him collapse onto an old horsehair sofa, still clutching the fob
watch and the gin bottle.
Knowing from experience that Yuri would sleep solidly until the effect
of the gin had worn off, then wake up to be his usual muddled self, Diana
placed the magnifying glass on the table by a pile of exercise books filled
with scribble. Fortunately it was midsummer, otherwise a heavy dampening
dew might not have let the astronomer off so lightly. Diana was almost
fifty as well, and knew that as joints grew older they reminded their
owners of their existence with more frequency before developing into full-blown
She covered the slumbering Yuri with a blanket and briefly watched his
contented expression, then left, carefully closing the gate that was suspended
on one hinge.
The sun was obviously going to shine all day, so Diana left the carelessly
discarded tarpaulin that protected the reflector hanging over the fence
and made her way back onto the gravel path. She passed the museum’s
reconstructed ancient buildings that sat like interlopers in the modern
managed landscape. Many of them had never known cleaner or more pleasant
surroundings, or even some of the parts that made them up. Most had been
elegantly cobbled together from bits and pieces salvaged from demolition
sites with the love and artistry of the dedicated. The brief glint of
space-age technology above the trees as the sun’s rays caught the
edge of a smooth dish no longer disconcerted Diana, though it must have
stopped many a lover of ancient architecture dead in their tracks.
The museum offices were housed in a large timber hall. She was grateful
to get inside to a morning mug of tea.
By the time she had finished photocopying maps of ancient stone huts once
lived in by stone-age people and wondering how many of them had survived
to endure the menopause, Diana’s desire to share her embarrassing
secret had increased tenfold. Her thoughts were thankfully broken by the
jovial tones of Mr Lowe, the curator.
‘Up to taking half a dozen kiddies round the iron-age farm, Di?’
his voice sang out sweetly from the adjoining room of the partitioned
In such an institution, a general secretary’s duties could be as
diverse as explaining to six-year-olds how to smelt metal and explaining
to eighty-year-olds how much more hygienic their new warden controlled
homes were compared with the picturesque hovels they had been moved from.
So the question came as no great shock.
The spectacled Mr Lowe poked his head round the temporary wall. ‘The
fresh air might agree with you.’
Diana marvelled at the older man’s concern for her health, though
she was convinced he didn’t know what made her break into trembling
sweats and moods of uncontrolled irritation. Mrs Lowe had somehow managed
to escape into her sixties with a graceful ease she envied.
‘How far do they go?’ Diana asked.
Mr Lowe was relieved that she appeared to be in a moderately humane mood.
‘Only as far as the dishes, they’ve got a teacher to take
them round the rest.’
‘All right.’ Diana left the photocopier and braced herself
for livelier company.
The teacher of the six junior-school pupils was wearing the same enthusiastically
expectant look as her charges. Diana could tell they were anticipating
wondrous revelations about the past from one who spent her life working
next to it. Their guide was already entertaining as much knowledge about
ageing as she wanted, however, and was unable to take a sympathetic view
of thankfully vanished bygone times. Diana had always been puzzled about
more recent generations wishing themselves back into the unhygienic, monarchical,
and impoverished epochs of their ancestors, and it was with only a supreme
effort that she could describe them as being anything other than that.
None of the children could imagine the shades of such poverty in those
beautifully arranged and reconstructed buildings and gawped at each in
admiration and wonder. Those carved doorways and arches must have been
chiselled by inspired sculptors, not the bonded masons and carpenters
who were the ancestors of council house builders. Despite all this, it
was inevitable that when they reached the iron-age farm the attention
of the small group would be distracted. The massive metal dishes pointing
skywards as they rumbled sedately down their tracks were more fascinating
than early architecture.
Diana dutifully did her piece about how people lived so many hundreds
of years ago, making it sound more like spring in Marie Antoinette’s
farm than midwinter in the frozen pig sty it must have more closely resembled.
Her romantic interpretation of the near unspeakable was lost on the young
audience. They wanted to know what those huge tilted cereal bowls were
‘They’re listening to the stars,’ Diana explained, with
the experience of someone who knew better than to use the word ‘telescope’
to describe them.
Before any awkward questions beyond the limited scope of Diana or their
teacher could be fired, deliverance was suddenly at hand.
‘Mog! Mog!’ screamed a figure running alongside the track
and waving her arms in a state of high agitation. ‘Have you seen
Bert Wheeler? I’m going to kill him!’
With an open overall flapping round her legs and the hair escaping from
her bun streaming about her face, the angry creature bounded towards them
with strides that should have been beyond her short legs.
‘Hello, Eva.’ Diana smiled sweetly. ‘Just the person
we wanted to see.’
‘What for?’ demanded Eva, suspecting her friend was trying
to divert her mind from murder.
‘These children would like to know what those dishes are for.’
‘Listening to the stars - and other things,’ Eva explained
automatically to the children who were already flinching at her arrival.
‘And how do they listen to the stars, Eva?’ Diana insisted.
‘In the same way an optical telescope mirror collects light and
reflects it to the eyepiece. These dishes reflect radio signals onto the
dipole at the centre. With a computer we can combine the output from several
dishes, which gives a better picture than if we used just one of them,’
she went on, ‘-or at least we could if some idiot didn’t keep
opening up with a shotgun at any crows that look as though they’re
going to perch on them!’
‘Oh ... Bert Wheeler?’
‘Bert Wheeler,’ agreed Eva menacingly.
The teacher quickly made her farewells, fearful of having her pupils treated
to the spectacle of this demented female and crow-shooting gentleman trying
to beat each other to the draw.
‘Of course,’ Diana went on, when the tunics and felt hats
had scuttled from sight through the cobbled courtyard of a market hall,
‘he does think they’re an invention of the Devil. His mother
was the local witch and brought him up to believe that the only things
to come from the stars were bad omens and lumps of rock.’
‘The woman must have been an idiot.’
‘You’d think a lump of rock that crashed through your greenhouse
on a Sunday morning was a bad omen.’
At that, Eva’s interest was instantly aroused. ‘A meteorite?
Where is it now?’ she demanded.
‘The old girl got her own back on it. She told Bert to take it to
Joseph of “Ironsides” and to melt it down in his furnace.
They smelted it and turned it into a cast-iron foot-scrape and a plaque
to ward off the evil eye. Somebody got too vigorous with the foot-scrape,
though, and it shattered.’
‘The man’s an idiot!’ snapped Eva.
‘I know,’ agreed Diana. ‘They should have worked it
into wrought iron.’
‘I meant - to melt the thing down in the first place. The man can’t
have any sense at all.’
‘That’s as may be, but there’s not many who’ll
do Bert’s job for the pay.’
‘You pay him to shoot at our telescopes, Mog? Your crowd are just
as decadent and heathen as he is.’
‘No we’re not!’ Diana wished Eva would for once call
her by her right name. ‘We just take things a little more sedately.
After all, we’re hardly paid anything like the wages you mob get.’
‘There you go. On about money again. It’s not my fault you
wouldn’t swot at school. We both had the same chance, you know.’
‘I never said we didn’t.’ Diana felt her body tighten
for one of her moods. ‘It’s just that you somehow managed
to end up successful and prosperous and I ended up menopausal and broke.’
‘Why don’t you get something done about it? You’ve been
like it for long enough.’
‘Because Spalding is the only doctor in the area and I can’t
afford private treatment.’
‘Never mind,’ sniffed the short untidy female beneath a mop
of tangled grey hair. ‘You’ll always be better looking than
me. Always were, so I don’t see why you shouldn’t do some
suffering for it. If you did manage to get HRT, it’d only make you
stay young, and you don’t want that, do you?’
‘Yes!’ Diana’s voice was high-pitched and desperate.
‘Just because it’s impossible for you to look any scruffier
than you do now, doesn’t mean all women have the same rational acceptance
of ageing that you’ve managed to work out in your logical mind.’
‘So I’m a mess. If I had half your looks I would never have
been taken seriously.’
‘And apart from that-’ Diana found herself blurting out.
‘I think I’m going mad.’
‘Oh really. Like violently, or like Yuri?’
‘Like both,’ was the taut reply.
Knowing at that point she would have been better off pursuing Bert Wheeler,
something in the expression of her friend’s hazel eyes riveted Eva
to the spot. Her dotty companion didn’t become serious very often,
even at the height of one of the moods she’d been having for the
past year. Diana may have ranted at her daughter, canvassers, and the
birds fouling the washing, but never tried to bundle the stands of her
humdrum life together with logic. The Almighty knitter in the sky ensured
that the single mother’s existence was a perpetually unravelling
lace doily. A bad fairy was always trying to shit on that as well.
Eva had sense enough to read the warning signs and was on guard against
saying the wrong thing. ‘What’s the problem then?’
‘I hear a voice,’ Diana admitted. ‘It’s as though
someone keeps turning on a switch and transmitting something, then switching
it off again just as suddenly.’
‘Told Spalding? You shouldn’t be having problems of any sort
after all this time.’
‘I know!’ was the furious reply. ‘I’m not imagining
it. There really is a voice.’ She could tell her friend’s
credence had been stretched beyond its non-elastic bounds.
Determined not to trigger another outburst, Eva attempted to sound interested.
‘If there is, then it must be making some sort of sense?’
‘It may be making sense to whoever owns the voice, but it doesn’t
to me. It only ever says one word, and I can tell when it’s there
but not speaking, as though it had left the transmitter open.’
‘Where do you think it comes from then?’ Eva’s gaze
slowly followed Diana’s finger as it pointed heavenward. Convinced
that she knew as much about that direction as anyone, Eva slowly shook
‘Why not?’ demanded Diana.
‘The human brain, in most cases, is a marvellous thing. However,
it does not have the receptivity of a radio telescope.’
Diana could tell that Eva was on the verge of an explanation and cut in.
‘Perhaps you aren’t pointing them in the right direction?’
‘Now look, Mog,’ said Eva firmly, ‘I’ve had the
same trouble with Yuri. We can’t go swivelling the dishes about
at the whim of someone who hears voices from outer space. We have to work
to a programme. And even if we could be sure you were receiving a signal
from “out there”, we would at least have to know that it was
coming from more specific co-ordinates than the general direction of “up”.’
‘You don’t believe me,’ Diana accused.
‘You obviously believe it. That will have to be enough. Though I’ve
no doubt Yuri would find some sympathy with the condition if he could
stop entertaining his own fantasies for five minutes.’
‘There’s no need to be so mean about him,’ Diana warned.
‘He may not be right in the head, but we don’t know what made
him like that in the first place, do we?’
‘It’s a pity someone doesn’t confiscate that reflector
of his. I’m just thankful he busted the camera so he can’t
take any snaps of planets colliding.’
‘It keeps him happy, and I’m sure he’s not so stupid.
He’d probably be away with the little green fairy if he didn’t
have that telescope.’
‘Him – no. Gin will always be his poison.’ Eva smiled.
‘And he’s already a perfect example of matter over mind. Do
you know what he told me?’
‘No. And I don’t want you to tell me either. If he does ever
want to let me know anything, I prefer him to tell me in his own way.
I don’t want you sneering to me about it before he has the chance.
Anyway, he does look after himself.’ Then, as an afterthought, she
remembered the state he had been in that morning. ‘Most of the while.’
Realising that her irrational friend was prepared to defend the crazy
Yuri beyond the bounds of any reason she was liable to entertain, Eva
asked innocently, ‘What does the voice say then?’
Diana looked at her hard and long before replying, ‘Moosevan.’
‘Moo-se-van,’ repeated Eva objectively. ‘What’s
‘What this voice keeps saying,’ Diana said stubbornly, knowing
she was wasting her breath in trying to convince Eva of anything.
‘Nothing else. Just “Moosevan”.’
‘Oh, good grief...’ muttered Eva under her breath. ‘Don’t
you think you should have some time off?’
‘I am. Julia breaks up in a couple of days. No more parties of sticky
little urchins coming down here and wanting to look through your radio
telescopes for at least a week. Just think of that. You can hunt Bert
Wheeler in peace, and roll those outsize ears up and down to your heart’s
content without needing to bother whether there are any bodies on the
track. But if they do come across Moosevan in the process, just remember
who heard it first.’
‘Why don’t you keep tuned in and let me know if it ever says
anything else?’ asked Eva mischievously. ‘We’ll let
you have the credit for discovering it.’
‘Why not? There are some things radio astronomy shouldn’t
have to take the blame for,’ and before she could say any more there
was the report of a shotgun in the distance. ‘Bert Wheeler!’
Eva screeched with renewed vigour, and was off before Diana could tell
her that a flock of starlings were showing interest in the furthest radio
Strolling leisurely back to the Tudor hall, Diana felt the thankful mists
of numbness creep over her. It was more bearable than hot flushes and
messages from outer space. A refreshing summer breeze brought back the
recollection of the balmy, almost carefree, days of her long-lost youth
and the bright-eyed, smiling child the convention of that time would not
allow a sixteen-year-old unmarried mother keep. Eva was right about looks.
She had managed to appear so dowdy the boys allowed her to continue her
studies in peace. Diana had been all high heels and lipstick and was consequently
flattered into believing attraction was all, until she had the rewards
of that attraction taken from her. From that time, caution had been her
second name. Never to want marriage, yet determined to have a replacement
for her lost offspring. Just as she thought it was becoming too late,
a man discovered that she was the girl of his dreams. Thinking a woman
in her late thirties would be easy to hold, he slackened his grip by not
insisting on marriage only to find his ladylove and daughter had flown
within a year. Diana should have felt guilty about the deception but all
she could do was smile at the man’s self-confidence.
‘Come and meet the new temps,’ sang out Mr Lowe as Diana entered
the cool timbered hall. ‘They’re both from college so will
need some local digs. Know of anyone who could put them up?’
Diana was about to recommend Flora and Irene who were sisters with a house
too large for their prim activities. Then she set eyes on the students.
Both looked as though they could not only have been happy to live in the
iron-age farm, but blend in quite convincingly with its surroundings.
One face was concealed by an outgrowth of beard unnatural on one so young
and the other looked angelic enough for Diana not to be able to distinguish
‘We’re very lucky,’ Mr Lowe babbled. ‘They’re
both studying anthropology and know something about archaeology.’
Noting Diana’s reluctance to say anything in haste, the bearded
student mumbled something in an amiably low voice to which she managed
to smile non-committally.
Then she remembered something. ‘Do you like farms?’
Mr Lowe’s eyebrows shot up towards his bald pate (he had obviously
drawn the same conclusion about the iron-age village as she had) then
they relaxed as she went on.
‘One of our local farmers, Mr Cooper, has converted a stable to
put up hikers. It has running water, and Mrs Cooper will cook if you don’t
mind eating with the farm hands. If you like the idea I know she won’t
charge you much.’
As though she had just described a palace, the students’ eyes lit
up in enthusiasm. Diana sighed in relief that she had stopped herself
from mentioning Irene and Flora in the nick of time. Although they had
known her for years, the sisters still insisted she should refer to herself
as ‘Mrs’, as though illegitimacy was still a word not to be
found in any dictionary. As they were coming to tea in a couple of days,
guiding two inoffensive, but visually amazing, students to their doorstep
might not have endeared her to them.
‘What do I call you?’ Diana suddenly thought to ask.
‘My name’s John,’ announced the beard gravely.
‘My name’s Fran,’ announced the other in a voice that
still gave Diana no clue as to what gender its owner was.
‘I’m Diana. Most people call me Di.’ She was about to
add that that was because she often felt like death, but decided it would
have been in extremely bad taste and broken up the good-natured atmosphere.
‘I hope you enjoy your stay here. If you’re interested in
astronomy, I know one of the doctors at the observatory. I’m sure
she wouldn’t mind showing you around.’
Although the heads nodded in gratitude, Diana could see acute disinterest
register in the eyes. She wondered how they would cope with the questions
that were bound to be fired at them about the perambulating monsters at
the bottom of their garden; not to mention the occasional enraged astronomer
chasing Bert Wheeler whenever he had the urge to chase crows.
‘Yes,’ continued Diana, smiling inwardly at the thought of
what delights awaited them, ‘I’m sure you’re going to
enjoy yourselves here.’
‘Sure,’ murmured John shaking his head knowingly. ‘This
is our thing. Old places really appeal to us.’
‘People too,’ agreed Fran in a way that sent irritable prickles
down Diana’s back at the unintended faux pas.
‘You won’t mind showing John and Fran around, will you Di?’
asked Mr Lowe. ‘I’ll have to finish these plans for the bridge
‘Of course not.’ Diana smiled as she choked back a bad taste
in her mouth brought on by sudden nausea and the unwelcome awareness of
ageing. ‘I’ll show them the way to Mr Cooper’s afterwards
if you like?’
‘Marvellous idea,’ agreed Mr Lowe. ‘You can go straight
home after that.’
Diana needed no second bidding. Seizing a handful of literature about
the exhibits, she led them outside. John and Fran followed, laden with
knapsacks like two obedient yaks. The students drank in every word she
uttered with rapt attention as they examined the reconstructed antique
world they had such affinities with. Being more modern in outlook, Diana
found their fascination baffling. She had genuine terrors of fires in
thatched roofs and bats in belfries. Until meeting these two, she had
thought of her work as being little more than a matter of economics. Their
reverent, lulled tones echoing about the empty living spaces made her
feel quite guilty, and for the first time she actually found herself concentrating
on the wonder of it all.
As she looked up with Fran and John into the silent timbers of a fourteenth-century
barn, a faint familiar click sounded in the back of her mind. Gritting
her teeth and clenching her fists, she froze for fear of letting out some
exclamation as the soft melodious voice broke into her thoughts.
‘Moosevan,’ it whispered. ‘This is Moosevan.’
then nothing for a few seconds before it seemed to fade with a sigh and
Fran and John must have taken her taut expression as being one of rapture
and waited patiently while she reorganised her attention sufficiently
to lead them on to the next exhibit. Although they hardly glanced at the
huge dishes gleaming in the sunlight, Diana found herself glaring at the
nearest of them with an expression of suspicion and resentment at its
smug indifference to her voice. When she was able to hear this creature
so clearly, it seemed an almighty waste of time and money that they between
them could not.
Diana was relieved to be able to return home early and have a quiet half-hour
in the privacy of the bedroom she had papered in peaceful pastel posies.
no, not there,’ Julia bullied the small Chinese twins as they insisted
on sitting next to each other and not in their allocated places around
the fairy ring. ‘If we go and leave gaps like that the giant can
easily reach in and snatch one of us.’
Tom, most of his face covered by a battered old top hat, warned, ‘And
he’s got claws like a crab which will bite you in half,’ thinking
more of horror comics than fairies.
‘We eat crabs.’ Lin’s mind was more on his parents’
cooking than the game in hand.
‘I like your parents’ food,’ piped up the small voice
of Vicky sitting opposite the twins. ‘We’re going to have
sweet and sour pork on Friday with beanshoots and spring rolls and lotus
‘We picked mushrooms here this morning,’ Kitty, Lin’s
twin, told her. ‘There were at least fifteen around this ring.’
‘Really?’ Vicky was wide-eyed with amazement. ‘Did the
fairies put them there?’
‘Oh no. This ring is made by mushrooms growing under the ground,’
‘Oh I do hate clever kids,’ sneered Tom, who would rather
it had been a magic barrier against the claw-fisted giant.
‘We usually have dried mushrooms, but I like fresh ones much better,’
Kitty added. ‘Fairies may live here too.’
‘If there are any giants about, we’ll be in trouble if they
don’t,’ Julia reminded them with the authority of the eldest.
‘Mind you, it is a very big ring to try and surround, I suppose.
Perhaps as long as we sit inside it they won’t bother us.’
‘I’ve never seen a fairy ring as big as this before.’
Vicky lay on her stomach and tried to unsuccessfully reach across it.
‘It’s really huge.’
‘I suppose there must be a fairy palace underneath it,’ pondered
Tom, taking off his top hat to lie flat and put his ear to the ground.
‘It would only come up at night though. People would frighten them
‘What about Yuri and his telescope?’ Kitty reminded him.
‘Oh, Yuri wouldn’t frighten anyone,’ Vicky told her.
‘The fairies probably like him.’
‘Why don’t you ask him if he’s seen any?’ Lin
‘I’ll do that when I go back,’ Julia said. ‘He
called in to see Mum. I don’t think he sees fairies though. He’s
always looking at the stars. He knows a lot about the stars and planets.’
‘Oh yeah?’ Tom still had his ear pressed to the soft grass.
‘Did you know that, apart from the big planets like Mars and Saturn,
there are thousands and thousands of much smaller ones going round the
sun as well?’ Julia told them.
‘Never,’ scoffed Tom.
‘Well, there are. There must be because Yuri told me, and he can
see them. They are so tiny he has to make this complicated map of where
they are, then make another several hours later to see if they‘ve
moved. If they don’t move then they’re stars, if they do they’re
‘Why?’ asked Lin in wide-eyed wonderment.
‘Why?’ echoed Julia. ‘I don’t know why, but he’s
got piles and piles of books full of writing and sums which tells him
where they are.’
Vicky giggled. ‘Why bother to look at something so difficult to
find?’ She rolled over and pressed her ear to the ground as well.
‘He must be very clever,’ pondered Kitty, and her twin shook
his head in agreement.
‘He must be,’ added Lin, ‘because he isn’t like
They were suddenly silenced by Vicky’s shrill cry, ‘I can
hear them! Listen, listen,’ and she pushed her ear closer to the
‘So can I, so can I!’ whooped Tom, ignoring Julia’s
Kitty and Lin immediately put their ears to the ground as well and laughed
at the sound they fancied they heard beneath it.
‘Oh really.’ Julia sighed, sure they were only doing it to
try and get her to join them.
Their fascination with the sound was too deep and sustained to be a practical
joke. Cautiously, Julia bent down and listened.
There was something sinister down there, a low tuneful hum. Too old to
believe it could have been fairies like the other four, Julia felt an
odd tingling on her scalp.
The others remained in rapturous silence until it stopped as suddenly
as it had started. Then they sprang up, joined hands, and danced in a
circle around the mystified Julia and Tom’s top hat.
you are clumsy,’ scolded Diana as she mopped the tea from Yuri’s
sweater. ‘I’ve only just scrubbed Julia’s experimental
toffee off the kitchen floor. I don’t want another mess on it. Why
can’t you hold the cup straight?’
‘I do. I just have trouble getting it to my mouth,’ protested
Yuri. ‘My hand will shake so much lately.’
‘I’m not surprised. After the way I found you the other morning
it’s a wonder that’s all that shakes.’
‘But I only drink the gin to stop my hand shaking.’ Yuri smiled
so disarmingly, Diana almost believed him.
‘You shouldn’t touch that stuff at all. How on earth do you
manage to hold your telescope still?’
‘Oh, I do not need to. The equatorial mounting makes it still or
the motor will drive it.’
‘Oh ... Do you want another cup of tea?’
‘No thank you. I still have some left in this to spill.’
Diana poured herself another cup and stood pondering over the top of Yuri’s
head, which was covered in crinkly grey curls that had somehow managed
to grow outwards at different rates.
‘Yuri?’ she said eventually.
‘I’ve been having a little trouble lately.’
‘What sort of trouble?’
‘I hear a voice in my head.’
Yuri was silent for a moment. ‘That is very odd.’
‘Haven’t you ever heard voices in your head?’ she inquired
‘Never,’ he assured her. ‘I talk to myself, but I never
listen.’ Then he added thoughtfully, ‘You should not hear
voices. You are healthy woman ... as far as woman your age can be healthy.’
‘Thank you,’ snarled Diana.
‘I meant... because...’ Yuri couldn’t think of the right
Diana finished them for him. ‘Because I am a menopausal female,
hearing voices should be a natural pastime for me.’
‘I did not mean that.’
‘If you hear a voice, it is either because you are imagining it,’
he could tell by her expression that was dangerous territory, ‘or
because there is someone talking to you.’
‘If there is someone talking to you from great distance away, that
means you are either telepathic,’ Diana didn’t seem very enthusiastic
about that either. Yuri was relieved because he wouldn’t have believed
it, ‘or that they have transmitter, and you have receiver tuned
in to their frequency.’
‘If that is where you hear voice, where else?’ shrugged Yuri,
not taking into account the reorganisation going on elsewhere in Diana’s
body. ‘I would not say it is impossible, but telepathy is much more
fashionable nowadays. Old-fashioned things like transmitters and receivers
take the mystery out of unexplained messages.’
‘I can do without those sort of mysteries, thank you; I prefer a
more conventional explanation.’
‘There is much money in being telepathic.’
‘If I had to choose a dishonest way to make money, I’d sooner
see fairies. Even if they aren’t so fashionable.’
‘Unfortunately one cannot choose the way to go mad. It is something
that suddenly thrusts itself upon you.’
‘You make that sound like the voice of experience. You can’t
really make up your mind whether you’re crazy or not, can you?’
‘If I could choose,’ said Yuri intensely, ‘then I would
choose to be crazy.’
For a moment, Diana began to have doubts about his derangement and, not
wishing any of his fantasies to ever prove themselves facts, she ordered
him, ‘Come into the garden and see the roses.’
Obediently, Yuri followed her through the French windows, quickly trying
to swallow the rest of his tea and spilling it down his sweater. Diana
didn’t comment as she saw him attempting to brush it off with his
sleeve, merely signalled him to remove it altogether. He did so and revealed
a striped sweater beneath it. Wondering whether his dress habits had been
learnt in Siberia, she pegged the tea-soaked sweater to the washing-line,
watched it hang limply for a few seconds, then took it down again.
‘I’ll have to wash it,’ she announced.
‘But I wash it last week. Why again?’
‘It annoys me.’ Her tone didn’t invite opposition. ‘I’m
beginning to be annoyed by everything lately.’
‘Have you seen Dr Spalding?’ asked Yuri innocently.
Her glance could have stopped a charging rhino in its tracks. ‘I’ve
seen Dr Spalding too often to do my temper or health any good.’
‘Oh,’ he mused. ‘He give me tranquillisers as well.’
‘What did you see him for?’
‘I was taken to him when I have accident.’
‘I stop some shot...’ he murmured.
‘You were shot!’ shrieked Diana. ‘How on earth did you
manage to get shot?’
‘I think he aimed for crow, but that flew away,’ Yuri briefly
explained, and made to escape to the other end of the garden.
‘Bert Wheeler,’ groaned Diana. ‘And what were you doing
near those telescopes? Eva must have gone mad.’
‘She did not know. Bert said he was very sorry and we agree to say
nothing. I was doing nothing with her stupid radio telescopes. What could
I have been up to?’
‘Whatever it was, getting shot must have made a good second. So
why did Spalding prescribe tranquillisers for gunshot wounds?’
‘It was just graze. I just take them to humour him. He is good man
‘Just bloody incompetent. And I want you to promise me-’
Yuri raised his hands in surrender. ‘I promise never to go near
Dr Eva Hopkirk’s precious toys again.’
‘Or Bert Wheeler,’ added Diana. ‘Why go there anyway?’
‘I like looking at those expensive toys. They remind me of...’
His words trailed off.
Diana could tell by the distant look in his eyes she that shouldn’t
demand to know what he was thinking.
Yuri wandered to the bottom of the garden and watched the children in
the meadow with their ears to the ground in the middle of the fairy ring.
With his back to her, Diana wasn’t able to see the tense expression
cross his usually relaxed features. He stood there for some minutes until
the children sat up and the four youngest began to dance in a circle.
By the time he turned away from the happy gathering, Diana was hanging
his dripping sweater on the line.
‘That was quick,’ he commented.
‘I had some stuff in soak and used that water. I’m not sure
it would stand up to a spinning with the rest, though the washing will
have to go out before the others arrive,’ Diana told him.
‘Irene, Flora, and … Daphne,’ announced Diana, blocking
his way to the gate before he could bolt. ‘And there’s no
need to go because of them.’
‘I have some calculations to do.’
‘That Mrs Daphne Trotter woman hates me,’ protested Yuri.
‘I know she doesn’t want to see me.’
‘Just because she shouts abuse at you about the state of your garden
every time she rides past does not mean she hates you. It’s just
that the English have firm ideas about keeping gardens tidy.’
‘And that horse kicks gate off hinge. It hates me as well. I always
like horses, but this one hates me. They are both bullies.’
‘The woman’s a little eccentric, that’s all,’
Diana tried to pacify him.
‘The world was conquered by these harmless English eccentrics. The
rest of the world and me do not think them harmless.’
‘Okay, I’ll make sure she doesn’t start on you. But
I have to invite her if I invite Irene and Flora or they’ll think
I’m snubbing her.’
‘Why not? It is good idea. I suppose I will have to tidy up for
this Mrs Precious woman?’
‘Well, you do look a right little scruff,’ Diana reminded
Yuri was defiant. ‘I like being scruff. I will not tidy up for Mrs
Daphne. You make me stay, I will stay like this.’
‘All right. It’s difficult to see what can be done about it
‘You wash my best sweater so it is your fault.’
‘Well, can’t you just roll your sleeves up to hide the holes
in the elbows?’
‘All right. But I will not comb my hair.’
‘I wouldn’t know the difference if you did,’ Diana muttered
before walking into the kitchen to pull the clothes from the sink and
throw them into the spin-drier. Yuri rolled up the sleeves of his sweater
that had hidden the holes in the sleeves of his shirt. With much fiddling
and adjusting, he managed to reach the happy balance where he was able
to conceal both.
Ignoring the grimace that Diana made at his hardly improved appearance,
he put the dirty cups into the sink she had just emptied. Knowing the
expected guests would be treated to the best tea service, he put the teapot
in as well and vigorously turned the tap on to flush the tealeaves away.
Instead they were splashed all over the front of his striped sweater.
After pondering on what he could be expected to do about that for a few
seconds, he turned to see Diana rummaging about in the pedal bin for the
Prozac prescription she had thrown away two days ago.
‘Damn!’ she snapped as she realised the dustman had it. ‘Damn!
Damn! Damn!’ Then, to make matters worse, the doorbell rang. ‘Don’t
move,’ she ordered Yuri, and dashed to answer it.
Yuri could hear the fond greetings echo down the narrow hall and the boots
of Mrs Daphne clip clopping after the others on the polished floorboards.
In his mortal terror he fancied he could hear her spurs rattle and, not
daring to look round to make sure she had gone into the living-room, was
suddenly startled by her overbearing presence in the kitchen doorway.
Her tight lips uttered not a word as she viewed the tea-stained Yuri,
washing half hauled from the sink and contents of the pedal bin scattered
over the floor. The gleam of the hunter spying the fox crept into her
cold eyes before Diana’s voice called from the other room.
‘In here Daphne, I haven’t finished tidying up out there yet.’
This made the cruel lips twist into a smile as she turned with a slap
of the thigh and creak of boot leather to join the others. Yuri half expected
a pack of hounds to come bounding up the hall after her. He nervously
brushed the tealeaves from his sweater in readiness to make his escape
through the front door should they not materialise.
Diana came shooting in before he had the chance. ‘I’ll make
the tea, Yuri. You can keep the girls entertained. Take that sweater off,
you’ve got a reasonably good shirt on underneath it.’ He obeyed
and she saw the holes in the shirt, ‘Well, at least it’s clean.’
‘I am not going near that Mrs Daphne Trotter. I never realise how
good she make the horse look till now.’
‘I’ll only be a couple of minutes,’ pleaded Diana. ‘They’ll
troop out here if you don’t.’
With a grimace of disapproval and irritably plucking at the badly tied
scarf round his neck, Yuri ambled into the living room.
Irene immediately greeted him with, ‘Why hello Yuri, I haven’t
seen you for ages.’
‘You are all right aren’t you?’ twittered Flora in her
bird-like fashion. ‘We heard you had an accident.’
‘Accident?’ murmured Yuri in innocent amazement. ‘What
sort of accident should I have?’
‘Oh, weren’t you shot after all then?’ Daphne sneered
with all the charm of a scavenging shark.
Yuri burned to know how she had found out about it, and was determined
she shouldn’t have the satisfaction of making him admit anything.
‘No.’ He smiled calmly. ‘I was nearly stamped on by
Having no sense of humour, Daphne chose to ignore his snipe at her equine
pursuits and sang out with an accent that could have cut glass, ‘You
shouldn’t drink so much and lie in the grass then, dear boy.’
‘Oh really…’ Flora blushed, knowing quite well about
Yuri’s fondness for a drink, and being too much of a lady to mention
it. ‘We mustn’t embarrass Yuri like that, Daphne.’
‘You will make him think the English are terrible people,’
Irene agreed with her sister. They were probably the only local people
forbearing enough to tolerate the friendship of the bossy Daphne Trotter.
‘Beats me where he manages to find the money for drink,’ Daphne
went on. ‘It wouldn’t surprise me if the Russians gave him
a pension to stay in this country.’
Catching the gist of the last comment as she was about to enter, Diana’s
foot struck the living-room door with such force that its resulting crash
against the sideboard made even the steel-spined Daphne jump.
‘Tea!’ she announced, more by way of a threat than an invitation.
Flora and Irene breathed a sigh of relief.
‘Have you discovered any more of those little planets?’ Flora
‘I do not think so. They already have been discovered by someone
before I see them. I only look for alignments.’
Diana sensed something guarded in Yuri’s manner and when Daphne
decided to chip into the conversation, she knew she would have to wait
before she could prise anything more from him.
‘What d’you mean? They’re making patterns in the sky
‘Something like that.’
‘What rubbish,’ she snorted. ‘What makes you think that?’
‘I have good telescope.’
‘All right then. So what does it mean?’
‘Well...’ Yuri began ponderously. ‘Now, you know everything
revolves around the sun because of its gravitational attraction?’
The blank faces showed no signs of opposition to that Newtonian principle.
‘Well, when some planets are lined up, this gravitation increases
more and more. Eventually, when all the planets are lined up together,
the gravitational attraction will be so great they will fall into sun
one by one.’
Not realising he was mocking them, Irene and Flora sat listening to him
in wide-eyed innocence with the conviction that he was talking about somebody
else’s solar system. Daphne darted him a sideways glance that told
him he should have been locked up long ago.
Diana took the coward’s way out and asked sweetly, ‘Biscuit
Managing to keep Yuri there until Flora, Irene and Daphne had left, Diana
remembered his remark about planetoid alignments and was curious to know
if this was the story he had told Eva.
Diana came straight to the point. ‘What have you found out about
the asteroids then, Yuri?’ He was reluctant to answer. ‘I
did tell you about my voice.’
‘I tell Dr Eva and she laugh,’ he said. ‘And she should
know what I talk about. They are only interested in listening to scintars
and pulsars on other side of infinity. These lumps of local debris are
too close for them to waste precious time on, and if they are not interested,
what chance would there be of you believing me?’
‘I’m not Eva, am I, Yuri.’ Diana sat beside him on the
settee. ‘Would it be so terrible to share the secret with me as
‘Of course not, Diana. You promise not to think me mad though?’
‘Of course not,’ lied Diana.
‘Because if you do not believe me, then I will think I am mad to
see such things. I have been watching the planetoids for many years. Long
ago I discover that some of these small planets briefly form patterns.
I put it down to coincidence. The more I study them, the more I become
convinced that these patterns are not natural, even though they have orbits
more eccentric than me. It is as though something is guiding their orbits
to make pattern in space.’
‘Surely somebody else must have noticed this? You can’t be
the only one looking at the asteroid belt.’
‘Of course not. But each planetoid is so small, it is difficult
to find one or two at a time, even with photographs. It does not occur
to others to mathematically work out their positions in relation to each
other over long periods of time.’
‘This is what you’ve been doing?’ asked Diana.
‘For many years. And the more I learn, the more I am convinced that
these little bodies are forming themselves into group.’
‘What on earth for?’
‘I do not know. It is like jigsaw pieces coming together.’
‘And forming what?’
‘Huge jigsaw perhaps.’
Diana didn’t like the sound of that. Yuri could only be talking
about a new planet. It was absurd, but he sounded convinced.
‘Are you sure?’
Yuri was silent for some while, then replied, ‘I do not want this
to be true. But how can I not believe the findings of my own eyes?’
‘Would it matter very much if they did come together and form another
‘Not as things are now. Their mass would only make very small body
which would not affect our position in space. If that were the only thing...’
Yuri’s voice dropped to a whisper.’ Just in case you do believe
me, I dare not tell you. It would be too worrying to you to think about.
Just keep calling me crazy so I eventually have to believe you and not
worry about it myself.’
‘You are a strange one. What happened to make you like this?’
‘Nothing that terrible perhaps. It isn’t always unreason that
addles the brain.’
‘Will you promise me something?’
‘What is it?’ Yuri already half suspected.
‘No more gin - or whisky - or any alcohol. I wouldn’t put
it past Daphne and her gallant steed to trample all over you if they did
find you lying drunk in the grass.’ Yuri laughed silently at that.
‘She’s a wicked woman,’ Diana insisted. ‘You know
that better than I do, and she’s got powerful connections, and doesn’t
need to worry about being disliked. What their family never inherited,
they bought up.’
‘Do not worry, Diana,’ Yuri told her, ‘I have a good
friend and powerful woman on my side as well.’ Diana was flattered
by the description, though she would have hardly described herself as
a powerful woman.
the ancient races were so advanced, they wouldn’t have left us with
the prospect of slow extinction,’ growled the representative of
the most dangerous species in the dwindling galaxy. ‘My empire proposes
to the other races here that we colonise what fertile planets are left.
It’s hardly fair that one planet creature should be able to keep
a world all to itself.’
Murmurs of approval from the compliant audience ascended to greet the
Mott’s huge ears. They so flattered his oratory that for a brief
second he actually wondered what democracy could be like. That concept
had disappeared with the old races though, and only rumours of what the
strange process involved remained.
The dull green sun loured down gloomily on the clusters of high-ranking
dignitaries from every part of the wispy barred galaxy. As the sun sank
rapidly below the horizon, they could see the bleakness of their isolation
in the pitch-black sky. Beyond the disorganised collection of blasted
supernovae remnants and small dense stars lay nothing, not so much as
a gas cloud or remote galaxy. Their part of the Universe indeed appeared
to be going out like so many pinpricks of light retreating into infinity.
With the stars had fled the Old Ones. They had been so advanced that the
others had never been able to make contact with them when they were there,
let alone understand what they said. Not being able to plead with the
Old Ones to save them, the remaining civilisations were like foundering
ships in a time-extinguishing whirlpool. Their suns had made nearly one
circuit of their galaxy since then, but traditions about the benevolence
of those ancient people still echoed uncomfortably from recordings. Lately
though, as the habitable planets disappeared through natural ageing and
the warlike policies of the Mott, most species had begun to wonder just
how charitable the Old Ones had been to leave them in such a predicament.
The Mott were aggressive, not particularly bright, and so committed to
building their empire that the races not represented at the gathering
were the races they had virtually wiped out. Who else could the survivors
turn to? Even the Torrans, reputedly the most intelligent species, had
managed to disappear en masse. Compared with the others, they were believed
to be too delicate to survive anyway.
There was little to recommend detailed description of most members of
the gathering. Many of them at some time or other had resorted to genetic
engineering to preserve their species from extinction, and their efforts
had produced far less pleasing results than Nature’s. She had been
relegated to trimming whatever fringes of the galaxy the Mott had so far
not found any use for. Needless to say, there were many greys, dingy greens
and several shades of puce rubbing fin with scale that night.
Apart from the shudderingly abrupt sunset and ascent of the artificial
green moon, the other entertainment came from a slimy chorus who had managed
to ease themselves from their shells for the occasion. Even the Mott representative
had come as a welcome relief from their painfully drawn-out dirge in memory
of some obscure warrior.
‘As we are in agreement, we must work out a course of action,’
he told them. ‘The Mott will implement it.’ They always did.
The Mott were the only ones with the firepower, energy resources and vested
interest. Naturally the course of action taken would turn out to be the
one they suggested. Had they been able to spell “democracy”,
they would have put that stamp on the “agreement” as well.
But sometimes small flies would insist on sacrificing themselves to the
glutinous Mott ointment.
A thin voice piped up from the audience, ‘But what about the Jaulta
It was all the Mott could do to stop himself pulling out his blaster and
vaporising everyone within the questioner’s vicinity.
A huge space rapidly appeared on the crowded floor and the owner of the
thin piping voice stood alone like a soapsud in a puddle of oil.
‘What about the Code?’ growled the Mott. We’ve been
trying to decipher it for thousands of years. Why should we be successful
now? It was left by the Old Ones to keep us hoping, not because it would
show us how to escape this galaxy. The only ones who can save us now are
ourselves. We will take what we have a right to! These planet dwellers
are not like us. They live at our expense.’
A rumble of approval rippled through the crowd to drown out any more thin
piping voices that might have tried to make constructive comments.
When their meeting on the subject of self-preservation at any cost came
to an end, agreement about how to tackle their expansion in a dwindling
galaxy had been decided. The Mott would drive out the creatures who inhabited
the planets they wished to expand to. Far easier than training clever
people to sit, or stoop - depending on their anatomies - for the best
part of their lives in trying to translate the impossible Jaulta Code.
Anyone who wanted part of the action would have to bring along their own
the depths of a well-furnished bunker that protected its occupants from
the radiation of their own failed experiments, three creatures sat viewing
each other with stern green expressions of disapproval. An onlooker might
have been excused for thinking they didn’t like each other, but
it wasn’t personal. It was in the nature of their particular species,
the Olmuke, to like nothing, not even themselves. Self-dislike being the
most potent motivator, next to fear, for engineering the despicable, these
three had the highest qualifications for carrying out the work of assassinating
Before them stood the three-dimensional map of their first quarry. It
was a pale, lush world without any great oceans, and just enough water
to rain on the vegetation. It revolved at a comfortable distance around
a stable yellow sun, and would only need slight adjustments in its atmosphere
to ideally suit the Mott. Being the most powerful and dangerous species,
they got first pick from the fruits of the green trio’s endeavours.
Jannu flicked the image off with the middle toe of his splayed foot. He
leant back and rubbed the top of his flat head with a six-fingered nail
less hand. ‘If this one goes right, we shouldn’t have much
trouble with the others.’
‘If this one doesn’t go right, we’ll have more than
just trouble with the Mott,’ Kulp reminded his partner in crime.
‘I have this peculiar attachment to my own skin and am determined
nothing will go wrong.’
As neither of the others were as attached to Kulp’s skin as he was,
Tolt said, ‘Your space-distort net, remember. You take the blame
if it doesn’t work.’
‘I take the reward if it does,’ Kulp snarled.
‘We take twenty per cent each,’ the others promptly reminded
him, unwilling to be browbeaten by the arrogant engineer. After all, they
had provided space freighters for the enterprise and had raised the battalion
of robots to transport the beacons for the net.
‘Have you noticed that if the Mott occupy this planet they’ll
have surrounded the most densely populated cluster?’ asked Jannu.
‘So?’ Kulp wasn’t interested. ‘We’ll be
Tolt glanced accusingly at Kulp. ‘It can’t have escaped your
attention. Least of all someone with your massive intellect.’
Kulp made no apology. ‘I’m a pragmatist. Our own species didn’t
appreciate my talent. The Mott do. If it so happens that I land on the
winning side, it’ll be because they recognised my potential.’
‘Well,’ said Tolt, ‘what you were putting your talent
to on our planet would hardly have endeared you to anyone there.’
‘Are you complaining?’
‘Not yet. But I might reserve that right.’
‘You’re in too deep to have rights,’ Kulp reminded them.
‘Squirming like hooked sea serpents when things start getting tough
won’t help you. Besides, what is there to worry about? What sort
of opposition can we expect from the planet? These creatures have always
been pacifists. They wouldn’t even let anyone fight on their behalf.’
‘I wonder why?’ murmured Jannu thoughtfully. ‘There‘s
something definitely unnatural about that.’
‘Just because most of the galaxy are warriors doesn’t mean
there can’t be exceptions,’ laughed Tolt in a guttural splutter.
‘What’s the point in having so many fighters if there aren’t
a few victims?’
Jannu sneered with self-disgust. ‘Aren’t we advanced. I wonder
if this is really progress?’
Kulp shrugged. ‘Why worry? It’s now that matters. Now and
how much you can make out of it. So let’s survey the system for
any possible distort factors.’
In a chamber below the room where they had sat, the three-dimensional
image of the planet they had been watching was projected into a large
sphere. The planet became smaller and smaller until the entire solar system
and sun were revolving before them in reduced splendour.
Kulp activated a grid over each section of the projection and carefully
checked out every flaw, comet, and piece of space debris that inhabited
the system. Eventually he came to something odd. He flicked the grid on
and off once or twice as though not believing his findings.
‘What’s the matter?’ Jannu demanded.
Kulp didn’t reply. He left the grid encircling the planet, to operate
the scanner that could isolate the smallest space distortion. His suspicions
confirmed, he rocked back on his heels to announce, ‘There’s
a compressed black body circling that planet.’
‘Can’t be!’ Tolt immediately protested, though he knew
Kulp would never have made such a statement without being sure.
Kulp’s ego would never let him make mistakes. ‘It’s
causing a space distortion equivalent to a small collapsar,’ he
‘The planet would have been torn apart by now if that was the case,’
‘Nevertheless,’ Kulp pondered, ‘it obviously hasn’t
been, so we must assume either that it’s artificial, or that the
planet has some control over it.’
‘Will it affect the space-distort net?’ asked Tolt.
‘Not when I’ve finished adjusting it. If it doesn’t
act on the planet, I’m pretty sure I can do something to prevent
it counteracting the net.’
If any of them had possessed any intuition in place of their limitless
confidence, they might have stopped to wonder what had caused the planet’s
unlikely companion, sinister in both presence and motion. It defied every
law of physics known to Kulp’s logical mind. He just knew that it
would have to be dealt with. Because someone or something had managed
to place it there without it sucking in the surrounding solar systems,
didn’t mean they were more super-intelligent than he was. The mathematics
that held it inert could probably be unravelled with time. Kulp didn’t
have time and decided to simply isolate the anomaly so it didn’t
interfere with his distorting net.
Once on board the service freighter, Tolt sent a jolt of power through
the thousand robots that were to carry explosive beacons and unkindly
woke them from their dreamless lethargy.
He fed the first of Kulp’s revised instructions through their obedient
circuits. ‘Work, you idle junk piles!’
As the beacons had to be adjusted to surround the collapsar, the Mott’s
budget for the distorting net would be doubled. The Mott had the reputation
of being the touchiest species ever to bumble part way up the evolutionary
spiral, and, above all, they were touchiest about parting with their wealth.
As far as Kulp was concerned, they were just roadkill on the highway to
engineering achievement. He was more interested in the procedure for wringing
the planet dweller from her cosy shell.
With the beacons adjusted, the robots were put to sleep until they were
As they had so many automated systems to crew their spaceships, Kulp,
Jannu and Tolt were able to have one each, which suited their inborn anti-social
natures a treat. Especially Kulp, who could be paranoid about letting
any inferior being touch his preciously expensive craft. He regarded it
with the nearest sentiment to affection that an Olmuke could have for
Although Jannu and Tolt occasionally spoke ship-to-ship on their tedious
journey, Kulp was left alone. By the time they reached the Mott monitoring
station, Kulp had completed the revised mathematics for his web.
It was with his usual arrogant manner that he strode into the commander’s
‘We had to compensate for a dense anomaly,’ he announced to
the Mott’s back without introduction or apology, knowing the warrior
wouldn’t understand the mathematics and be able to contradict him.
The matted hair that reached down the Mott commander’s belt didn’t
give any indication that their owner was alive let alone had heard what
Kulp said. (The Mott regarded tripping over their ringlets in the heat
of battle an honourable way to die.) Kulp knew the species well enough
and stood in silence to wait for the acknowledgement of someone who rivalled
him in arrogance.
Slowly the Mott turned to reveal his solitary bloodshot eye and trio of
tusks. Having four wide short legs and an equally short pair of arms with
immensely long fingers, Jannu and Tolt couldn’t help wondering if
evolution had quite finished designing the species when the genetic engineers
The commander switched his translator on and indicated that Kulp should
repeat his message. Kulp switched his translator on and obliged, as though
the Mott should have understood it the first time.
Not comprehending the best part of what Kulp explained in a deliberately
confusing way, the Mott decided not to show his ignorance of the figures.
He could feed them through a machine that would explain them for him later.
Instead, he feigned the thoughtfulness of an intellectual, as most tyrants
do at some time or other to justify their actions. He hoped this might
confuse his uncompromising green visitor just as Kulp had confused him
‘I have been pondering on the fragile state of our galaxy, my friends,’
the Mott declared, as though they should have been profoundly interested
in his findings, while knowing that all three of them would have felt
more at ease with any one of the polished robots operating the station.
‘I have been wondering how the older species managed to construct
the ships to take them from this galaxy. There were no other galaxies
within range then either. Such a distance must have been impossible, even
‘Perhaps they didn’t make it,’ Kulp said. ‘It
seems obvious to me that we were the ones to survive and they died somewhere
out there on the edge of the Universe.’
This annoyed the Mott. ‘That’s what I thought!’ he snapped.
It had been difficult for the Mott to accept that the rest of the galaxy
didn’t love their empire-building species. Especially as they had
bestowed such benefits as pointless loans and bombs in exchange for their
freedom, but having to listen to someone of greater genius was more than
they could bear. And who were these green, flat-headed creatures anyway?
Then the Mott remembered the space-distort net and his temper sweetened.
‘Many theories have been put forward about the subject by those
time-wasting thinkers who should be liberated from breathing. I doubt
that the solution to it matters as much as they would have us believe.’
‘I understand my planet has discouraged such activities as well,’
Kulp agreed, ‘though I haven’t been back to confirm this for
The Mott sneered. ‘Of course not. One could hardly expect you to.’
‘How the Old Ones managed to escape is now irrelevant,’ Kulp
went on. ‘Let’s just be thankful they didn’t decide
to stay and make the galaxy more crowded than it is.’
The Mott sniggered through his wickedly curved tusks. ‘Their strange
ideas about fairness and justice might have cramped our styles if the
records are to be believed. What freedom would they have left us to operate
‘I doubt that they would have even left us alive. I sometimes think
those rebellious Torrans understand more about the Old Ones than they’re
willing to admit and are trying to resurrect their old-fashioned ideas.
The way they disappeared means they must be up to something.’
‘They don’t have the strength to cause much trouble. They’re
ineffectual when it comes to fighting.’
‘Must be the only ones who are,’ Tolt observed, from what
he thought to be the safety of the far side of the chamber, but he wasn’t
out of the Mott’s translator range.
‘And where would you be without our wars and victories, my green-featured
friend?’ the commander snapped. ‘Probably running some needlework
class on your insignificant little world with all the other Olmuke defeatists
secretly dreaming of becoming warriors.’
Tolt said nothing because he knew he could never win the argument, and
Kulp said nothing because he agreed with the Mott. Jannu had long since
lost interest in the conversation and was trying to engage a promising-looking
robot in discussion.
Noting the lack of response to his challenge about the insignificance
of their planet, the Mott grunted in disgust, ‘You green things
are all spineless.’
‘As long as we’re paid, we’ll be almost anything your
ego needs,’ promised Kulp insincerely.
The Mott knew that wealth was a matter Kulp took as seriously as the rest
of his species. ‘You’ll be paid, technician Kulp. You make
sure we have that planet in the time specified and you’ll be paid
‘I will complete my side of the bargain, Commander. Be assured that
Moosevan will die.’
found a mushroom! I’ve found a mushroom!’ Vicky squeaked in
her reedy voice as she danced round the outside of the fairy ring clutching
‘Let me see,’ ordered Julia. ‘Don’t eat it!’
she added quickly.
‘Because horses come through this field,’ Julia reminded her
as she saw Mrs Trotter and her black beast in the distance.
‘Oh, all right.’ Vicky carefully put it in her pocket with
the old pine cone and flint shaped like an arrowhead.
Kitty held out a blue and yellow marble and waved it tantalisingly in
the air before her. Without hesitation, Vicky surrendered the mushroom
in exchange for the marble.
Kitty popped the delicacy in her mouth and swallowed it.
‘Oh honestly - that could have had all sorts of dirt on it,’
Vicky resented the accusation that she could have poisoned her best friend.
‘It was clean. Mrs Trotter never comes down this far. She always
goes past Yuri’s gate.’
Sure enough, Daphne Trotter and her menacing mount seemed to be paying
the unfortunate astronomer a visit.
If Yuri had heard Daphne’s unusually silent approach he would have
stopped polishing the frame of his reflector and beaten a hasty retreat.
The first thing he knew about it was her cutting tones calling out, ‘I
suppose that must be the only thing you bother polishing?’
Knowing it was too late to dash inside and pretend he hadn’t heard
her, Yuri’s dignity would only allow him to reply unenthusiastically,
‘Good afternoon Mrs Trotter,’ and he carried on carefully
buffing his most precious possession.
Daphne was hardly going to be put off by the disgruntled tone in his voice.
‘I see you haven’t done much about your garden yet?’
‘Why deprive field voles and mice of home?’ asked Yuri. ‘I
like things the way they are.’
‘You know that cottage is under lease to whoever you rent it from,
don’t you?’ She leant over the side of her huge black horse
to peer threateningly down at him.
‘I have heard…’ muttered Yuri unsurely.
‘And I’ve discovered that one of the conditions of that lease
is proper maintenance of the property by the resident,’ she informed
him with relish, but he just shrugged his shoulders. ‘You don’t
even know who owns the lease on this land do you, my little Russian misfit?’
‘I know it is not you, Mrs Trotter,’ Yuri said firmly, not
seeing how she could counter that.
‘Not yet,’ she replied with the fixed smile of a crocodile.
The duster fell from Yuri’s hand at the horror of what she was insinuating.
‘Don’t look so crestfallen, Yuri. I’m sure you must
have another home in a polluted junkyard in the east of the old Soviet
‘I cannot go back there,’ he tried to explain, though he knew
such appeals to her better nature would be exhausted before they found
it. ‘Why hate me so much?’
‘I don’t hate you, Yuri,’ explained Daphne with the
peculiar conviction of the hypocrite, ‘I just believe everyone has
a place on this Earth - and yours isn’t here! Your people are a
threat to the peace of the world and I don’t see why one of them
should have the protection of this country.’
‘I and my people have little to do with policies our leaders pursue.’
‘Then that is their look out. You can find somewhere else to set
up home if you like, but by the time I’ve finished, there’ll
be no aliens residing here.’
At that, pictures rose in his mind of Daphne Trotter riding out of the
village the family who owned the Chinese take-away, Mr Singh the dentist
and himself. She would probably even gallop down to Mr Cooper’s
farm and set about the two anthropology students had she known they were
‘And don’t go running to Diana. She can’t help you.
She’s got problems of her own to worry about,’ warned Daphne.
‘I’ll see you again tonight when I have the lease to the property,
then I’ll find a young local couple who won’t be too idle
to do some gardening.’ With a click of her tongue and prod of her
heels into the horse’s flanks, she left the stunned Yuri looking
helplessly after her and wondering if she hadn’t invented it all
to frighten him.
With little enthusiasm, he picked up the duster to carry on polishing
the frame of the telescope, muttering, ‘Oh, Mr and Mrs Trotter,
why did you decide to have that little girl? She is not healthy in head.’
The children in the fairy ring watched Daphne gallop off and wondered
what they had been talking about.
‘I think she was asking to have a look through his telescope,’
‘Oh, she was probably nagging him about his garden again,’
Julia told them, well aware of what sort of woman Daphne was; Diana was
unable to keep her opinion of the creature to herself once one of her
moods came over her. ‘She always is. But Yuri says he likes to keep
it like that for all the wild animals to live in. I saw this tiny dormouse
up there the other day, and a baby fox.’
‘They were probably hiding from Mrs Trotter,’ Tom remarked
gravely. ‘They were hunting foxes the other Sunday.’
‘I think that’s very cruel,’ said Vicky wrinkling up
her nose. ‘They teach us to be kind to animals at school, but one
of our teachers goes out hunting as well!’
‘That hairy student called John who works at the museum told me
that he belongs to a group who go around upsetting people who hunt foxes,’
Julia explained. ‘He and his friend put some aniseed down to confuse
the hounds and the other Sunday Mrs Trotter got very upset. They say she
‘Why would she still be so upset about that?’ asked Kitty
‘Well… I don’t think it was that so much. On the way
back her horse went and tipped her into the stinging nettles at the bottom
of Yuri’s garden. She was stung terribly badly.’
Vicky sighed thoughtfully. ‘The fairies should have kissed her better.’
‘If you were a fairy, would you have kissed her better?’ Tom
‘I would have though it was more a job for the goblins,’ added
‘That was probably what she was telling Yuri off about,’ Vicky
‘Serves her right for killing little foxes,’ said Lin. ‘I
wouldn’t like her to come and kill our little puppy.’
‘Oh, that’s not likely to happen,’ Julia reassured him.
‘Your mother said that when it grows up it’s going to be a
very big dog. It will probably be able to eat one of her hounds.’
At that, Tom and Kitty began crawling about the ring on all fours, snarling
and snapping at each other.
‘You’ll wake the fairies up doing that,’ Julia said.
‘Shall we listen to see if they’re talking again?’ suggested
After what she had heard the other day, Julia wasn’t that keen.
She had felt too foolish to mention it to her mother, yet worried enough
to wonder what could have caused the humming sound. ‘Perhaps they
don’t like us eavesdropping,’ she warned Vicky. ‘They
might even get angry if they knew we were here.’
‘Let’s all hold hands and ask them to come up to us,’
‘All right,’ agreed Julia. She drove the two dog imitations
from the centre of the circle and told them to sit up and hold hands.
Yuri had lost interest in cleaning his reflector and stood idly, leaning
on his partially suspended gate looking down the slope to where the children
were playing. There was apprehension in his expression, brought on by
more than the visit of the local bully.
‘Fairy, fairy, come and play,’ he could hear the children
sing. Then they stood up to join hands and stomp round inside the fairy
ring, swinging their arms in time to the repetitive chant.
Yuri started slowly down the meadow towards them, as if every step they
took increased some terror he had been nursing for years. He was about
to raise his hand to warn them not to make so much noise when the grass
in the centre of the fairy ring began to gently ripple. The children noticed
as well and immediately stopped their game. Although they’d been
calling on the fairies to come and play, they had hardly expected the
invitation to be taken up. Julia quickly snatched the younger ones out
of the circle and stood rooted to the spot in hypnotised fascination.
Being much younger, the others were far from terrified as a translucent
shape full of squares, diamonds and circles materialised in the centre
of the ring. It twinkled and sparkled at them like fairy treasure as though
inviting them to come into its world. Kitty was so fascinated she took
a faltering step forward to touch it.
She was warned back by Yuri’s emphatic, ‘No! You must not
The web of different shapes twisting up and down in a complex spiral scared
Julia. ‘What is it, Yuri?’
‘It is sort of strobe effect,’ Yuri tried to explain, just
as alarmed as she was. ‘It is being projected from ground. Though
you cannot see it, those shapes are really moving very fast. If you were
to touch one of them it might cut your fingers off.’
‘But if it’s only a projection, my hand should go straight
‘Not with this. It is linked to something far above us.
‘How, Yuri, how?’
‘I cannot explain easily, Julia, but it will soon go,’ he
replied, hoping that he was right.
It didn’t fade though. If anything it became more intense.
Julia could tell that its presence meant something terrible to Yuri. He
carefully made his way about the apparition, moving as close as he dared,
looking for a safe access point. Each time he seemed to find one, the
spiral turned and barred his way.
‘Be careful, Yuri!’ Julia caught his arm and held onto it
as he passed her. ‘You might be hurt if you touch it.’
‘There must be neutral point,’ Yuri muttered to himself and
gently eased his arm away from Julia. ‘There must be place where
it can be neutralised.’ Then he fancied he saw just such an opening.
Yuri reached out towards it.
The children instinctively stepped back.
With a bright flash and loud ‘pop!’ Yuri was hurled out of
the circle. Then the apparition disappeared.
The astronomer lay so still and cold the younger children ran towards
Diana’s garden screaming and shouting at the tops of their voices.
Julia tried to find Yuri’s pulse as she had been taught at school
and took off her cardigan to wrap it over his shoulders.
Diana was lying on the settee in the living room after another attack
of her voice, when four hysterical young children bounded in through the
French windows as though Daphne’s hounds were after them. Unable
to understand anything they blurted out in disjointed sentences, she hastily
followed them into the garden and looked out into the meadow where Julia
was kneeling by Yuri.
‘The fairies did it! The fairies did it!’ Vicky was saying
over and over again, and the other three youngsters kept chipping in with
equally unhelpful information as she dashed to them.
‘Something stunned him, Mum,’ Julia told her, sensing that
it wouldn’t be wise to blurt out the whole truth too soon. ‘He’s
Diana knelt down to feel his skin. ‘Fetch the blanket off the settee,
Julia. When he starts coming to we’ll get him inside.’
‘Is he very bad?’ inquired Tom, who had already removed his
top hat in anticipation of the worst.
‘He’ll be all right, Tom. I’ve seen him in a worse state
‘Shall we run and fetch Dr Spalding?’ Vicky asked.
Knowing a visit from that gentleman might result in making his condition
worse or, at the best, leave him with another dose of tranquillisers,
Diana told her, ‘No, I don’t think that will be necessary.’
As soon as the blanket arrived, she wrapped it round Yuri and waited with
fingers on his pulse until his eyelids flickered open.
‘Right, children,’ Diana announced. ‘The emergency is
over. I think you can all go home now while Julia and I take him inside.’
Reluctantly, Lin, Kitty, Vicky and Tom took their leave, looking back
over their shoulders to see Yuri helped to his feet and guided into the
living room. As soon as he was safely on the settee, the astronomer was
overtaken by an attack of shivering that could have been diagnosed as
the DTs by a less charitable person than Diana. At that moment she wished
he would drink something that left a more obvious trace on his breath,
then she could confirm beyond all doubt that his collapse had been due
to alcohol rather than being stunned by irritable fairies. Wrapping the
blanket more securely round him as he kept trying to pull it off, Diana
pushed Yuri down onto some cushions and waited until he was capable of
uttering words in English. As soon as he showed signs of wanting to make
sense, Julia was sent to fetch another pint of milk.
‘What on earth have you been drinking, Yuri?’ were the first
distinct words he heard.
‘Drink…’ he murmured unsurely, ‘I drink nothing...’
‘Well, you wouldn’t have passed out like that without some
reason. Are you sure you haven’t been mixing gin with Spalding’s
‘I do not take tranquillisers either. I was right Diana - I was
‘Right, Yuri? What about?’ she asked, unable to relate his
rambling to what he had told her the other day.
‘It is terrible - This could mean the destruction of the Earth!’
‘Oh, Yuri. Wake up, you silly man. You only fainted.’ Diana
waved some smelling salts under his nose and he gasped himself to full
Far from pacifying him, they seemed to make him worse. ‘There can
be little time now!’ Yuri persisted, pushing himself up from the
settee. ‘We must stop it! We must stop it!’
‘Stop what, you dumb-bell? Nothing terrible is going to happen.
You dreamt it all.’
‘I saw it, though. I reached to touch it - It must be stopped.’
Diana was used to Yuri’s strange flights of fancy and, because he
wasn’t behaving rationally, didn’t take his raving to be serious.
She wouldn’t let him move from the settee until he was much calmer
and Julia had returned from the shop.
‘What did happen out there, Julia?’ she asked her daughter.
Julia took a careful look at Yuri, then at her mother, and wasn’t
sure what to say. The only thing for it was to tell the truth. ‘There
was something in the fairy ring. It came up through the ground.’
‘Oh, Julia,’ Diana sighed in exasperation. ‘Can’t
you see I’m trying to calm Yuri down, not make him worse?’
Steeling herself to look her mother in the eye, Julia continued, ‘We
were playing in the ring, and Mrs Trotter had just been talking to Yuri.’
She hesitated as her mother sighed. ‘When I was dancing round with
Vicky, Tom and the twins, something started to move inside the ring. Yuri
came down and reached out to touch it. It was like a pattern growing from
‘Oh, Julia ... Why are you always trying to cover up for Yuri? He’s
not going to get into any trouble if you tell us what really happened.
I don’t suppose it had anything to do with Mrs Trotter, did it?’
she added as an afterthought when she remembered the inbred expression
of her horse.
‘Oh, no, she’d already gone.’
‘All right,’ Diana surrendered, ‘I won’t make
you tell me if you don’t want to. He’s obviously going to
live, but we’ll have to keep an eye on him until he calms down.’
It took a good hour before Yuri would calm down and was capable of being
taken back to his cottage. Diana made him eat a meal, and, with the promise
that she would drop in later that evening to see if he was feeling any
better, she returned across the meadow to her own world of hot flushes
and the alien voice.
Moosevan,’ she kept thinking to herself, even when the name was
not being pushed into her brain. ‘Who or what can Moosevan be?’
As she reached the fairy ring where Yuri had collapsed, she inexplicably
felt the urge to give it a very wide berth.
a remote corner of the Mott’s even remoter galaxy a plot to deal
with the bellicose empire-builders was being hatched.
Reniola and Dax waited apprehensively at the controls of their spacecraft.
The tyrannical Mott could have had surveillance patrols even in this secluded
solar system: not that there was any guarantee that their mysterious accomplices
would keep their rendezvous on the deserted planet. As far as the two
Torrans knew, these entities had to come from the next galaxy and, as
no other galaxy was visible with the most powerful telescope, it would
have been no surprise if they didn’t make it.
In the safety of their hidden home planet, the Torrans had at last solved
the riddle of the Jaulta Code, the galaxy’s greatest enigma, and
the Old Ones were obliged to respond to the message they transmitted.
How a signal from an insignificant satellite could be picked up on the
other side of the Universe was beyond them, and what the message was remained
a mystery to even Reniola and Dax. For fear of it falling into the wrong
hands only one terminally ill Torran was allowed to transmit it. Then
all the deciphering and documents involved had been sealed in an impenetrable
monument to the centuries of effort.
Two flittering forms passed in front of the spaceship and a light shower
of carbon dioxide particles floated gently down through the thin air.
Dax and Reniola donned their atmosphere suits and went outside to wait
patiently on the barren rocky ground. The glimmering shapes came closer.
First they danced about each other in dainty pirouettes as though looking
for some suitable place to rest, then perched on the rim of a small crater
‘Why don’t they say something?’ Reniola whispered into
her voice link.
‘Give them time. They’ve probably never known anything like
us Torrans before. We didn’t evolve until after they‘d left
‘We deciphered the Code. Why should they be suspicious?’
But Dax was listening to an alien thought. ‘I think they want us
to remove our suits.’
‘You have to be joking!’ Reniola concentrated for a second.
‘You’re right. I can hear them. What shall we do?’
‘We’ve come this far. It would be absurd not to trust them
‘Which do you think will happen first? Suffocation or freezing?’
The alien thought reassured Reniola. ‘Oh, all right. I suppose since
I chose this stupid little planet I should be the one to find out.’
‘Someone will have to get back to the others to tell them what happened.
Keep your suit on and watch what happens. I’m due to die because
of the mark the Mott put on me anyway.’
‘Oh, all right,’ Reniola agreed reluctantly. ‘They must
know what they’re asking.’
Dax slowly released the clips holding her helmet to the light suit and
she felt a cold draught seep through the gap. Although impossible, the
atmosphere had balanced with that inside her suit. Not having inflated
or froze, the Torran pulled the garment apart and stepped out of it, then
unfastened her tail to let it sway in an unnaturally gentle breeze that
ruffled her fine mane. As she stood before the visitors perched on the
rim of the crater, she sensed that they were satisfied with the long legged,
As Dax hadn’t suffocated, Reniola took off her suit and helmet to
reveal her more portly proportions.
The Torrans stood and waited. Their long muzzles sniffed the atmosphere
for signs of sudden change, and their crimson eyes were alight with anticipation.
The two visitors above them started to rotate within their diaphanous
bodies. Two shapes formed.
Before Dax and Reniola had time to glance at each other, they were staring
ahead in disbelief. Accurate in form and every feature, they found themselves
gazing at exact replicas of their own bodies.
‘You have achieved much,’ the taller slender shape said. ‘Now
you must return to your people.’
‘But I have the mark on me,’ Dax protested. ‘The Mott
can track me back to them while it’s still transmitting. It will
only stop when I die.’
‘Don’t worry about the Mott,’ said her double. ‘We
have removed the mark. For the sake of this venture and your own safety,
you must assume new identities. We are now Reniola and Dax.’
‘Don’t you want to know why we had to break the Jaulta Code?’
‘The fact that you did is enough,’ the new Reniola told her.
‘As this galaxy gutters out, only waste material will die with it.
We shall endeavour to evacuate all who deserve preservation before that
‘Where will you send us?’ the old Dax asked. ‘And where
did you come from?’
‘There are millions of years yet to deal with the survival of the
Torrans and like-minded species. Our main concern now is for those who
do not have your mobility. Do you object to us using your forms?’
‘Why should we?’ asked the old Reniola. ‘We hardly expected
to live this long.’
‘Life as you know it is not as important as you may believe,’
the new Dax explained. ‘But evolution, however primitive, must always
carry on. As stars dwindle and explode and revert to the matter that will
form more stars, much of it creates darker, more destructive, anomalies.
The same happens with life. Not all life forms improve with time. There
are always some that retrogress. By withdrawing from the galaxy when we
did, we left the dregs of stagnant evolution. A few like you managed to
progress despite this, and only someone like the Torrans could have broken
the Jaulta Code. With so many stars gone, it was inevitable a struggle
for what was left would ensue.’
‘Can we help you in any way?’ asked the old Dax hopefully.
‘We need you to disappear from the attention of others so we can
operate in these guises. What we have to do will endanger you more than
you could believe possible.’
‘Oh, we don’t mind that,’ the old Reniola chirped, almost
relieved that she would still have a dash of excitement to live with for
the rest of her life.
The old Dax, having just been saved from the inevitable death of the mark,
was content enough to follow instructions. ‘All right,’ she
agreed. ‘I’ll be known as Clyn, and Reniola as Holia. Those
names are so common they’re protection in themselves.’
‘Very well. We are now Dax and Reniola. When we are believed dead,
those names will die too.’
The new Clyn was puzzled. ‘Will you die?’
‘No. We have outlived such clumsy points of evolution as death and
birth. Now you must put your suits on and go.’
‘You must let us know what’s going to happen,’ Holia
insisted. ‘They’d cut our tails off if we didn’t have
something to tell them when we got back.’
‘You needn’t concern yourselves from now on,’ Dax told
them. ‘You have fulfilled your side of the contract.’
‘She’s trying to say that after centuries of mental sweating
over the massive problem the Old Ones set, the Torrans should have some
idea of what you propose to do now it’s been solved,’ Clyn
Dax and Reniola conversed mentally for a short while, before Dax replied,
‘We must contain the ambitions of your most aggressive species,
and preserve the ones who are being exploited from further suffering.
Only then will we decide who is suitable for eventual transference. How
we will do this is yet to be decided.’
‘We could give you a few starters,’ Holia told her enthusiastically.
‘Thank you, but we already have access to your memories,’
was Dax’s sobering reply.
‘Oh yes - of course. I suppose we must retire now then?’
‘No. Just be careful,’ Reniola advised.
Clyn shivered. ‘I think the atmosphere’s getting a little
thin. Cold too.’
Holia understood what that meant. ‘We’re being told to go.’
Without another word Holia and Clyn pushed their manes and tails back
into their suits and helmets and, with one last look, walked back to their
spacecraft. By the time they were inside powering up the engines, Dax
and Reniola had gone.
The idea that Reniola’s ample frame could filter away into the atmosphere
amused the original owner. ‘Seems strange there wasn’t any
more it.’ Holia eased the craft out of the thin atmosphere and towards
the more agreeable climate of their own world, hidden from the prying
eyes of the Mott inside the centre of a huge, apparently gaseous, planet.
Clyn smiled. ‘My goodness, those two are really going to upset the
Mott - and they won’t even know it isn’t us.’
‘Mind you, it’d be enjoyable just to see what they intend
to get up to. The idea of all those gallant warriors being beaten up by
a couple of pacifists appeals to me.’
‘With their powers, they’ll be able to do anything - Mind
that planetoid, can’t you! I want to get back alive to enjoy this.’
‘Damn junk everywhere,’ Holia complained. ‘Ever since
the Mott blew those planets up, this route has been an obstacle course.’
‘That was only because they were too pretty for them.’
‘Never. It was because they couldn’t make any strategic use
of them and weren’t going to leave them for anyone else to colonise.’
‘What a waste with the way things are now. There are too few habitable
planets as it is.’
‘Haven’t you heard the latest?’ Holia swerved the craft
to avoid another chunk of debris.
‘They’re going to shake the planet dwellers from their homes
with a space-distort net invented by a friend of yours.’
‘The planet dwellers?’ Clyn didn’t believe her. ‘That’s
impossible. I don’t know anyone intelligent enough to invent a device
‘Not even that loveable green Kulp?’ Holia reminded her.
Clyn shuddered. ‘I’m glad I changed my name. Now I won’t
have to admit to ever knowing that arrogant, poisonous slime squirt. Four
tours of the K 49 cluster I did with him, then he decided to turn me over
to the Mott when he knew the price was right. Did you know they grew him
in a jar under a grey light?’
‘Yes. The Olmuke forgot how to reproduce ages ago. They just keep
using the stock of sperm and eggs they collected before females were banned.’
Holia laughed. ‘You must have come as a horrible shock to him.’
‘No, I think it just annoyed him. At first he thought I was some
bio-mechanoid. Then he discovered that I was living. That’s what
really upset him. Can’t stand to be made a fool of. Hides everything
that goes through his evil calculating brain very well though. His homeworld
didn’t realise what he’d do when they withheld a grant for
him to develop a solar blaster.’
‘What did he do?’ asked Holia.
‘Developed an invisible atmosphere dye instead. He sprayed it over
five major cities. When their inhabitants now go into the sunlight they
turn bright pink. And you can guess how much the Olmuke would love that
colour. There was no antidote for it, so a quarter of the planet’s
population have to spend their days under shelter or turn pink and become
‘Very nasty. But you’ve got to admit it does have style.’
‘I’ve no doubt the infernal contraption he’s invented
to dislodge the planet dwellers will have even more “style”.
Of all the inoffensive individuals to start on, they couldn’t have
picked a more harmless.’
‘It’s not as if they can even flee to safety. None of them
can exist without their planet.’
‘Of course,’ Holia smiled. ‘I wonder...’
The ribbons of vapour parted slightly to let their spacecraft slip through
the shell of the ostensibly gaseous planet. Down into the massive giant
they sped to the small terrestrial world at its centre.
do you mean? Double the price!’ the multi-footed creature with the
dental problem spluttered. ‘Why didn’t you tell me that when
you first came in?’
Kulp sneered. ‘I’m sorry I made you behave reasonably under
false pretences, but there’s no way I can isolate that collapsar
under the original system. If you don’t like it, I’ll find
If that didn’t sweeten the Mott’s temper, it at least stopped
his abuse in mid flow. That planet was strategically vital to the Mott’s
conquest of several star clusters, and to lose it to a higher bidder wouldn’t
endear him to his superiors. He had to get the price down somehow.
‘Why don’t we make a compromise?’ His four feet shuffled
his shape of all body and little brain annoyingly about the implacable
Kulp. ‘Can’t you drop a few terminals and tighten the net
‘That would mean having one on the planet’s surface,’
Kulp reminded him. ‘It’d be a gamble if you want it to be
habitable after Moosevan has gone.’
The Mott weighed up the risk against what it could save in cost and immediately
decided. ‘That’s what we’ll do then, and it’ll
be on your ugly head if it goes wrong.’
Kulp said nothing. He preferred the thick-skulled creature to go on underestimating
him. The watching Jannu and Tolt were just relieved they hadn’t
resorted to anything more violent than words.
‘How predictable are things down there?’ Jannu asked apprehensively,
not ignorant of the danger in going to the planet’s surface.
‘It hasn’t moved for the last few years or so,’ the
Mott replied without any trace of sentiment that could be called scientific.
‘Though once it realises what we’re up to it might well start
thrashing about. I only know I’m not going down there.’
‘Spoken like a true fearless warrior,’ said Kulp.
‘You’re the one that’s paid to be fearless,’ snapped
the Mott. ‘You’ve got too much invested in your own self-importance
to believe anything could happen to you.’
‘I know what I’m doing. Unlike anyone else who has tried to
tackle this before.’
‘I won’t say you’d better be right, because I’ve
no doubt you are. But survival doesn’t always depend on being right,’
the Mott threatened.
‘We’ll see, we’ll see.’ Kulp grinned provokingly.
‘Just make sure when you pay me the credits are untraceable. I don’t
want Olmuke tax inspectors pouncing on them.’
All avenues of conversation explored, Kulp returned to his ship.
Although Kulp and the Mott commander could be considered as equally objectionable,
their reasoning was species apart. What the Mott could achieve out of
ignorance pure greed, Kulp could achieve far better out of greed alone.
Any other emotion was an encumbrance. This green engineer had so much
lack of charm he could give orphans a bad name. Kulp didn’t believe
any mortal, or immortal, Nemesis would descend on him for his sins. He
had been the agent behind many outrages inflicted on unsuspecting and
innocent people and could still sleep soundly, though he ensured his spacecraft
was the fastest his ill-gotten gains could buy. His associates, Jannu
and Tolt, were cowardly and easy to manipulate. It was a simple matter
to predict their actions. At that moment they would be bumbling around
in one of the freighter’s robot controls talking about everything
they wouldn’t dare say in front of him.
a way to spend this quarter’s festival,’ complained Jannu
as he jarred his unfortunate robots back into life once again.
‘Don’t worry,’ Tolt reassured him. ‘After they
discover we’ve teamed up with Kulp, they’ll never let us back
on the homeworld again anyway.’
‘The last quarter, Tritten’s moon was blasted out of orbit
and a portrait of the supreme commander was made out of its fragments.
It could be seen right across the system when the old supernova was above
the pole,’ reminisced Jannu. ‘I doubt if we’ll ever
witness the like of such things again.’
‘The glory of the empire we sold to the Mott and the deterioration
in the hatchery stock are the only things we’ll have to celebrate
from now on. That and how hero Kulp managed to blast numerous creatures
from their rightful homes so the glorious Mott could claim their planets.’
Jannu fed in yet more of Kulp’s modifications to the unprotesting
robots. ‘Are you complaining?’
‘I would be if I could see a better way of life, but there are too
many Motts and too many Kulps between us and the nearest civilisation
for that to happen.’
‘You’re beginning to sound like a Torran sympathiser. I’d
keep those thoughts dark. You know what Kulp thinks of their species.’
‘I have heard, but didn’t believe anyone could get the better
of our infallible partner.’
‘Well, someone did,’ Jannu’s voice dropped to a whisper.
‘A Torran female called Dax.’
‘Go on.’ Tolt lowered his voice as well, so intent on learning
the scandal he didn’t notice the panel in the ceiling slide silently
‘She was a pilot on a freighter touring the K 49 cluster when he
was chief technician and second in command. He always thought she was
synthetic until she used the hold to evacuate some refugees from a planet
poisoned by the Mott. Kulp wanted to use the space for more freight and
was going to open the hold doors and ditch them. She managed to get hold
of some of the dye he used on our planet and sprayed it through the ventilator
into his room, then altered all the freighter’s lighting to shine
in the same wavelength as our sun.’ Jannu stopped briefly as Tolt
began to snigger in his distracting way. ‘He couldn’t do anything
about the refugees after that because he daren’t leave his quarters.
And what’s the betting that when he goes down to that planet he
won’t want any company?’
By this time Tolt was rolling about in delight and Jannu had to stop feeding
the robots information for fear of making a mistake.
‘What did he do?’ Tolt gasped.
‘Oh, as soon as he was able to put the lights straight without being
seen, he trumped up something to frame the Torran with and handed her
over to the Mott. They couldn’t understand the complexity of the
crime he invented, so they put a mark on her and let her go. He got paid
for it though.’
‘Trust him to land on his feet,’ Tolt sniffed, as his six
fingers wiped his tears away. ‘I don’t suppose Kulp would
take kindly to us knowing that one.’
‘It’d be sudden death if he thought we did. As long as that
Torran lives, so does his moment of ignominy.’
‘I’ll keep it to myself and relish it whenever he lapses into
one of his least bearable moods.’ Tolt was too overcome to look
up and see the panel in the ceiling silently slide back.