Reviews for The Planet Dweller

Jane 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

A 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.
SFF Books

The ‘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

The Planet Dweller is a much more traditionally sf novel, and also funny in a Tom Sharpe/Douglas Adams sort of way:
Paperback Inferno

Jane 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.

The 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

Jane 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



Jane Palmer


First published by The Women’s Press Limited 1985

Copyright © Jane Palmer 1985

This edition published by Dodo Books 2008

All 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 work.

ISBN 978-1-906442-08-8

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


Dedicated to the memory of
Ros de Lanerolle


I would like to acknowledge the assistance of astronomer Heather Couper, for whose advice on certain passages I am indebted.


‘But 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 past seventy?’
‘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 hand.
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 to.
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 arthritis.
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 Tudor hall.
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 doing.
‘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.
‘Go on.’
‘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 her head.
‘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 that?’
‘What this voice keeps saying,’ Diana said stubbornly, knowing she was wasting her breath in trying to convince Eva of anything.
‘Nothing else?’
‘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.’
‘Oh really..?’
‘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 dish.
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 its gender.
‘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 before teatime.’
‘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 distant click.
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, 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 root.’
‘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,’ said Kitty.
‘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 off.’
‘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 suggested.
‘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 small planets.’
‘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 other adults.’
They were suddenly silenced by Vicky’s shrill cry, ‘I can hear them! Listen, listen,’ and she pushed her ear closer to the ground.
‘So can I, so can I!’ whooped Tom, ignoring Julia’s disbelieving scowl.
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.

‘Oh, 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 hopefully.
‘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 words.
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.’
‘Then what?’
‘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.’
‘My head?’
‘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.’
‘What 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 really.’
‘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 him.
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 now.’
‘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 horse though.’
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 asked Yuri.
‘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 or something?’
‘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 anyone?’
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 well?’
‘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 planet?’
‘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...’
‘What else?’
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.


‘If 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 Code?’
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 battle fleet.

In 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 a planet.
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 their friends.’
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 insisted.
‘The planet would have been torn apart by now if that was the case,’ protested Jannu.
‘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 needed again.
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 anything.
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 observation chamber.
‘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 took over.
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 with sums.
‘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 for them.’
‘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 myself recently.’
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 in?’
‘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 in full.’
‘I will complete my side of the bargain, Commander. Be assured that Moosevan will die.’


‘I’ve 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 her treasure.
‘Let me see,’ ordered Julia. ‘Don’t eat it!’ she added quickly.
‘Why not?’
‘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,’ Julia scolded
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 Union.’
‘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 staying there.
‘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,’ Lin suggested.
‘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 still is.’
‘Why would she still be so upset about that?’ asked Kitty innocently.
‘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 asked.
‘I would have though it was more a job for the goblins,’ added Julia.
‘That was probably what she was telling Yuri off about,’ Vicky decided.
‘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 Vicky.
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,’ Vicky suggested.
‘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 move!’
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 through it.’
‘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 terribly cold.’
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 than this.’
‘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 tranquillisers?’
‘I do not take tranquillisers either. I was right Diana - I was right!’
‘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 consciousness.
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 the ground.’
‘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.


In 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 and waited.
‘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 the galaxy.’
‘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 now.’
‘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, furry, feline.
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?’ asked Reniola.
‘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 happens.’
‘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 explained.
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.
‘No, what?’
‘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 that could.’
‘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?’
‘No, really?’
‘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 social outcasts.’
‘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.

‘What 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 another buyer.’
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 a little?’
‘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.

‘What 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 back.
‘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.