This got pretty long, and quite complicated as the distant past of the Void Dimension and the ancient species that live there began coming out of the woodwork. I won’t say careful readers of my published works should be able to put any of this together, although of course I am always ready to be pleasantly surprised. That sounds bitter but I’m really not – this was a lot of fun to write and I hope you find it interesting.
The nimble little amber-furred creature strode into the docking area ahead of her handsome bushy tail and stood, fists on hips, grinning up at the crew of the Conch. Her teeth, sharp and white except for one fang which was gold, gleamed in her pointy little muzzle. Her uniform was as regal and crimson and ostentatiously-gold-decorated as ever. She had a large bag slung over one shoulder – or a least it looked large as she set it down next to her boots. It wasn’t actually much longer than Galana’s forearm.
“Roney,” Hartigan said happily. He went down on one knee and shook the Boze’s hand. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Good to see you too, biggums,” she said. She greeted Galana, Chillybin, Bonty, Devlin, and tipped a little salute at Wicked Mary’s giela. “You’ve been busy, eh? Taking it nice and easy, seeing the sights.”
“Our ship isn’t as fast as yours,” Hartigan reminded her.
“I bet you’ve found a lot of lichen and algae,” Roney said. “Not much else to be found in this stretch of space. That’s why they call it the Sludge Corridor.”
“Who calls it that?” Galana asked.
“Y’know, maybe if you were to give us a map…” Hartigan said. “Just before you left last time, you mentioned a place called High Elonath that-”
“No time for that,” Roney interrupted, “and you don’t want to go near High Elonath anyway. Come on, let’s eat. Grab this for me,” she poked the bag with the toe of her boot. “I’ve brought some real food. Even a little something for Bloody Mary.”
“Oh?” the giela clicked forward and picked up the bag.
“A ferocious little critter called a pepper shrimp,” the Boze replied. “Fast, cunning, and packs a real punch. I’m pretty sure it’s still alive in its jar,” she added, “so handle with care, hm?”
“That doesn’t sound very regulation-friendly,” Galana said.
“You’re really not going to like the rest of the stuff I brought aboard, then,” Roney grinned.
They went down to the aquarium deck, and sat around a table Scrutarius assembled quickly out of storage crates. Roney laid out her offerings, introducing each one as she went, and Bonty rather worriedly checked each one and listed its approximate ingredients and danger levels.
“These are death pearls from the chasm of Nid.”
“There’s an awful lot of solid-state defragmented mercury in them.”
“And this is a holy mushroom pie made by the monks of the Wailing Dark.”
“A very small slice will probably be fine for us, but the Captain would probably enter a permanent state of psychotropic hallucination.”
“Fruit from the Tree of Thunder. They must be sliced just so, removing the skin and the seeds, otherwise they’re quite deadly.”
“These have at least three kinds of complex sugars that the scanner doesn’t recognise, but they’re probably harmless.”
“And this is a gourd of Prothagnian flavour seeds. I think I already picked out all the blue and purple ones.”
“I’d advise against anyone eating the red ones either, but the yellow and green ones are probably okay. Not for you, Captain.”
“Oh I say, poor form.”
“Don’t worry, Basil,” Roney announced. “I remembered what a delicate little giant fellow you are, and I brought you a roll of pixie wubblebread from the secret court of the King in Lavender.”
“It … won’t kill you,” Bonty announced. “You might want to have a drink handy to wash it down, though.”
For a little while, then, the reunited friends sat and ate, and watched Wicked Mary flash and sweep around her aquarium hunting the tiny, many-legged black shape of the pepper shrimp. Eventually the great shark stunned it between the wall and her great mottled-grey tail, devoured it in a rapid clashing of jaws, then was briefly unable to control her giela due to her gastronomic distress. She then recovered and declared the shrimp to be a delightful experience, but not one she relished the idea of passing all the way through her digestive system. Roney laughed and applauded this heartily.
“Speaking of the last time we were all together, and not speaking at all of digesting small creatures,” Scrutarius said, “how are … my gift, did you take care of it?”
Roney waved a fuzzy hand. “Oh yes, excellent care,” she said, “nothing to worry about there. Very funny it was, too. But perhaps a story for another time.”
“Alright,” Hartigan said, and took a large mouthful of the doughy pale-purple bread. “You said you needed our help with something – Karl’s bloody mittens!” he lunged for his drink and gulped it down while Roney and Devlin laughed. “It’s a spicy little bugger,” he burbled sheepishly.
“Alright, to business,” Roney wiped her eyes and chuckled as Hartigan glared at her over the rim of his glass. “You remember, last time we met, the star serpent – the big fiery beastie we faced together?”
“Hardly something we’re likely to forget,” Galana replied. She picked up a piece of the pale pink Thunder fruit, and chewed it. It was cloyingly sweet.
“Right, then you’ll remember it wasn’t really a creature,” Roney said. “It wasn’t intelligent, it was just a force of nature without a guiding hand.”
“Yes,” Galana replied. “You said it was a weapon used by some ancient hostile species. The Riddlespawn?” she glanced at Chillybin, who nodded slowly.
“The buggers who destroyed the Empire of Gold,” Hartigan recovered his voice, “and turned it into High Elonath. But didn’t you say they’d been gone as long as the Empire of Gold had? They were basically a myth?”
“Turns out I was wrong about that,” Roney said with unaccustomed solmemnity.
Galana and Basil exchanged a look of surprise. It was so strange to hear the witty Boze admit to being wrong about something, Galana was a little disoriented by it.
“You found them?” Chillybin said, with a low rumble from inside her suit that was even more unusual than Roney’s admission. “They are here?”
“One,” Roney said grimly. “Or a part of one. Sort of.”
“A part of one?” Galana asked.
“Sort of?” Hartigan added. Roney flicked her huge ears enigmatically. “And you need us to face it, what?” he went on eagerly.
“And who is ‘we’ exactly?” Bonty asked. “The Boze?”
“Look, I just thought,” Roney said. “I figured, what with how you put paid to the star serpent, how ingeniously you make do with all this terrible technology of yours, and are still out here trying to fly around the galaxy, you’d be good allies to bring into this. Only … when we meet them, maybe we’ll just not tell them I found you still wading through the Sludge Corridor.”
“Tell who?” Hartigan demanded.
“I take it you’re interested?” Roney asked. “We’re about two weeks away from the gathering spot. I can explain on the way.”
“In my experience, just because you can explain doesn’t mean you will,” Galana pointed out. “Quite the contrary, in fact.”
“Alright, you got me there,” Roney said. “But if you want to make friends – friends who might be willing to come and pull you out of High Elonath when you inevitably blunder in there with your pants down – this is your chance,” she leapt up to stand on the box she was using as a seat, and extended her hand to Basil. “What do you say, biggums?”
Hartigan barely glanced around. “Let’s do it, by jingo!” he clasped Roney’s tiny furry hand firmly between two fingers and a thumb.
“Will your friends be able to give us more pepper shrimp?” Wicked Mary asked.
“All you can eat, my horrifying aquatic friend,” Bonty said.
“So one, then,” Devlin grinned. “When do we start?”
“We already have,” Roney announced. “The Bastard took us into the grey ten minutes ago.”
“Computer?” Galana said with a little sigh.
“Oh, look at that,” the Conch said mildly. “I thought it had gotten very soft-spacey out there.”
Their journey from the ‘Sludge Corridor’ to wherever Roney was taking them was as uneventful as all flights through the grey were. The Boze remained aboard with them, spending most of her time up in the Captain’s quarters or mooching around the bridge asking what the consoles did and why they didn’t do other, far more fun, usually impossible things.
“Do you know the story of the Riddlespawn?” she asked during one lull period while Basil, Galana and Chillybin were relaxing in Hartigan’s lounge. “What we’re facing, precisely?”
“Nothing,” Galana said. “Only that they were supposed to be gone for twenty million years, and they used star serpents as weapons.”
“Weapons, pets,” Roney shrugged. “Hard to say, really,” she looked at Chillybin. “What about you, frosty? What’s the aki’Drednanth perspective?”
“You tell me, Captain Pelsworthy,” Chillybin said. “You have spoken with other aki’Drednanth about this.”
Galana looked at Roney sharply.
The little alien shrugged, her great white-furred ears turning down. “A few,” she said. “None of them give a straight answer.”
“That must be frustrating,” Chillybin said, the mechanical voice from her glove flat and emotionless. Galana stifled a laugh, and Hartigan spluttered into his drink. “Will there be other aki’Drednanth at this gathering?”
“No,” Roney said with a little grunt. She jumped to her feet and began pacing the room. “You lot are like mothers telling their children not to throw rocks at the plaznok nest. ‘Leave the Riddlespawn alone,’ you say. ‘Nothing good will come of it,’ you say. ‘You are inviting ruination and destruction down upon your heads like the last great lords of the Empire of Gold,’ you say. Almost exactly like a mother warning her pups about plaznoks, in fact. The point is, the aki’Drednanth have never had anything useful to say.”
“That all sounds quite useful to me,” Galana disagreed.
“The Riddlespawn were weapons themselves,” Chillybin said. “The chosen children of a dark and violent force, they were savage and deadly. Our kind did battle with them, but seldom. And never when we had a choice. Most other enemies, we could face. But the Riddlespawn were like nightmares brought to life,” the great figure shifted slowly in her armour. “Our name, aki’Drednanth, means nightmare in flesh,” she said. “But it is just a name. We move from our Dreamscape and into the world of the living and back again, and we are formidable when we need to be, but not like the Riddlespawn.”
“That’s more or less what the other aki’Drednanth told me,” Roney said. She was standing on a chair now, fiddling with the little collection of decorations and souvenirs on Hartigan’s shelves. “A species of monsters that live in some kind of nether-Hell until called forth by the terrible entity that they were children to. They’d come rampaging out, smash everything to pieces, fling around their fiery star serpents, then wink back into nothingness. Without a trace. No way to follow them back to their lair and take them down once and for all.”
“The star serpent was the better part of a solar system in size,” Galana said. “If a Riddlespawn is big enough to fling one around…”
Roney shook her head. “No, they’re not much bigger than one of you lot,” she said. “Although there are all sorts of legends. I think they can be as big and dangerous as the story needs them to be. They’re terribly inconsistent. The one on Palothane is even smaller – not much bigger than little old me, actually. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m the one who found it, or ‑ ”
“Palothane,” Hartigan said. “That’s the name of the planet we’re heading to?”
“That’s the one,” Roney said.
“The one where your friends are waiting,” Chillybin said.
“That’s – yeah,” Roney said, and picked up the large, thick golden coin Hartigan had pocketed from the dragon hoard the Conch had almost been added to. “Hey,” she said, sounding surprised. She turned and waggled the gleaming disc with the disturbing spidery shape engraved on one side. “You lot had dealings with the Web? And they gave you a favour? I knew I’d come to the right people.”
“Hmm?” Hartigan said. “Oh. No, can’t say we ever met the Web. We got that from the Fudzu. They had a mountain of ’em.”
“The Fudzu aren’t real,” Roney said with a dismissive wave of her paw, and put the coin back. “But alright, be that way. We’ll get to Palothane in another few days, and that’s when the fun starts.”
“Fun like the star serpent?” Galana asked.
“Better,” Roney declared.
Galana suspected that there was something Roney wasn’t telling them about the group that would apparently be meeting them at Palothane, but the Boze was as elusive and difficult as ever. She did confess that she needed them for more than just their peculiar genius with inferior technology, but it was all wrapped up in her usual confusing layers of misleading information. And was all based in myths twenty million years old, just to make it worse.
All the Boze would reveal was that her mysterious allies couldn’t get close to the Riddlespawn, and even though she’d managed to find it she hadn’t been able to do anything on her own, and she suspected the crew of the Conch could help. Then there was a lot of unhelpful rambling about an ancient tablet, and a prophecy, and a family long divided, and the more she danced around the explanation, the more impenetrable the infuriating little creature made the whole subject.
“What do you think of this prophecy?” Galana asked Chillybin one night-shift. She was visiting with her friend in the icebox, the large refrigerated deck they’d converted for the aki’Drednanth just like they’d made the aquarium on the deck below for the Fergunakil. She didn’t visit often – Chilly was not fond of playing host, and preferred to be left alone to remove her freezer suit and run and roll in the cold.
“Not many prophecies can last twenty million years,” the aki’Drednanth said. It was a little jarring to hear Chilly speak when she was out of her armour. The words, formed by the movements of the electronic webbing she still wore on one great clawed hand, still came from the open suit that stood near the door. Chilly herself, meanwhile, rolled and scratched herself luxuriantly in the drifts of crushed ice. “Even the Drednanth dream grows confused over such a long time. But you heard what Captain Pelsworthy said about the Riddlespawn. About them being the chosen children of an ancient entity.”
“Children of … what, a God?” Galana asked. Such superstitions were not unusual among the various alien races. Even Blaran and Bonshoon groups had their share of stories.
“Not a God,” Chillybin lay in the ice on her back, great black-horned feet in the air, her hand moving lazily as it formed the words. “Something greater than a God. A natural law of the universe, with a conscious will and infinite power.”
“Aren’t Gods said to have infinite power?” Galana asked.
“Only by those like us,” Chilly said with a woof of amusement from her great shaggy chest, “who cannot see the difference between great power and infinite power, because both are so far above us we cannot see them. The Infinites were said to have been ten in number, and each were said to have taken a mortal species as children.”
“Who said all these things?” Galana asked with a smile behind her thermal mask, although she remembered Roney using the word, Infinites, before. If the Infinites had wanted you to get from place to place faster, she’d said, They would have introduced you to the Boze before now.
“Enough people, over a long enough period of time, that it seems a funny coincidence,” Chilly said. “But the funniest thing is, your species were also said to be the chosen children of an Infinite.”
“Molren?” Galana asked in surprise.
“So it was said,” Chilly said. “Molren, Bonshooni, Blaren, Fergunak, even humans.”
“And aki’Drednanth?” Galana asked.
Chillybin rolled, and regarded her with a glittering crystalline eye.
“No,” she said. “Of all the Six Species, the aki’Drednanth were the only children without an Infinite to be our parent. Ours is a … different family.”
“What about the Boze?” Galana asked.
Chillybin gave another deep laugh. “Perhaps they are,” she said. “I seem to recall a tale of a scattered and lost race called the Potádi, the Hounds of Mayhem. The Boze might be some remnant of them. Our friend Captain Pelsworthy certainly seems to fit the bill, doesn’t she?”
“She did say she was able to get close to the Riddlespawn,” Galana said thoughtfully. “Do you think that’s why?”
“I honestly have no idea,” Chillybin admitted. “But it is a strange universe.”
After two weeks at relative speed, they were really none the wiser about Roney’s plan or the terrible empire-destroying monster they were meant to be facing. They emerged from the grey as abruptly and without warning as they’d entered it, Roney marched onto the bridge and struck a bold pose in front of the main viewscreen. One by one, the others made their way to their stations.
“Alright,” Hartigan took his seat, “what have we got?”
“Standard solar system, red giant star, six rocky planets, only one seems to be habitable,” the Conch told them. “Not very habitable, though – you will need breathers and protective suits.”
“Palothane?” Galana asked.
“Palothane,” Roney confirmed grimly.
“There are seven ships in orbit,” Chillybin added. “Each one different, all of them alien of course. They have not seen us, as far as I can tell. We came out of soft-space a fair distance away and we may be running too quietly for them to notice us.”
“Aha, that’s the beauty of your ships and your communication devices,” Roney said. “So slow and steady and unobtrusive.”
“Captain Judderone,” Galana said, “I take it these seven alien ships are our ‘friends’ that you were telling us about?”
“Sort of,” Roney said. “They’re the Seven Sisters. The Pirate Queen’s elite guard.”
“They’re the bally what?” Hartigan demanded.
“Well, you know how you lot are the Six Species?” Roney said. “The Pirate Queen rules a similar bunch, only there are … ooh, at last count there were something like fifty-three species. Or representatives from them, anyway. The Seven Sisters are … okay, there’s one Gastronid, one Agony Worm, one Soulfeeder, two Cold Fingers Of Fate … and two representatives of the Boze.”
“Well, they all sound awful,” Devlin said.
“Except the Boze,” Bonty added loyally.
“Now, let’s not go making exceptions,” Devlin murmured.
Roney grinned, showing once again just how good her hearing was. “You’re right,” she said, “all seven of them are perfectly dreadful, and the Boze are two of the worst.”
“I thought you said you were the last Boze,” Galana reminded her.
“I am the last,” Roney said. “But I told you there were others. Look,” she went on awkwardly while Galana attempted to process this, “I … I may have misled you about how welcoming this group was going to be.”
“I think we were all pretty sceptical about that,” Galana said.
“I wasn’t,” Hartigan said indignantly. “What about the friends who were going to turn up and help us when we get into trouble in High Elonath?”
“Well, I was more talking about me,” Roney said. “I’d be your friend. I mean, still. I’m already your friend, but I don’t know that I’d go into High Elonath for you. But, if that’s what you feel like you have to do, then helping with this will definitely be good practice, hmm?”
“Roney ‑ ” Bonjamin said, stern and grandmotherly.
“Look, I’m here to push the Riddlespawn back into Hell,” Roney said. “These cretins want to bring it the rest of the way out.”
“You’ve had two weeks to tell us about this,” Galana said. “Why didn’t you ‑ ”
“I did tell you. By Bozanda, you never listen. Here’s what we’re going to do,” Roney went on, speaking slowly and clearly. “I’m going to get in the Bastard and fly into the Seven Sisters, and get in a big noisy argument with them. You are going to fly this beautiful quiet old ship of yours down to the surface of Palothane and wait for me there,” she turned and headed for the main bridge doors. “I’ll give you the coordinates of the temple. Once they let me land ‑ ”
“Wait, did you say temple?” Scrutarius repeated. “Is it a spooky temple?”
Roney stopped and grinned over her shoulder. “Pretty spooky,” she said. Then she was gone with a swish of her tail.
“Tactically,” Galana said to the bridge in general, “this whole plan leaves a lot to be desired.”
“Maybe,” the Conch agreed, “but getting a lift from Captain Pelsworthy has cut almost five years off our journey.”
“Five years?” Bonty exclaimed.
“We are forty-seven thousand light years from our last stop,” the computer said. “We’ve crossed a distance greater than the breadth of all of Six Species space in just two weeks.”
“That would place us … ” Hartigan breathed.
“Very close to halfway around the galaxy from Declivitorion-On-The-Rim,” the Conch confirmed.
“That puts us close to where the alicorn is meant to be,” Hartigan said in excitement. “This High Elonath place.”
“Perhaps,” the Conch agreed. “Certainly we could fly on from here, since we have not yet been spotted by this so-called Pirate Queen ‑ ”
“What, and leave Roney in the lurch?” Hartigan exclaimed.
“The Splendiferous Bastard is away,” Chillybin reported.
“Separate the Nella,” Hartigan said. “We’re going in. Devlin, give us as close to absolute dark and silent running as you can.”
“Pretend you’re stealing something,” Bonty suggested. Scrutarius favoured her with a narrow look, but began entering commands into his console.
“I will remain here with Wicked Mary,” Chillybin said, and headed for the doors. “I feel this is a … family affair. I do not think I would be welcome down there.”
Galana frowned. Of course, it was probably a good idea for somebody to remain on the main body of the ship with the Fergunakil anyway, but it was always good to have a reason you could say out loud. “Do you think you can prepare some responses in case the Seven Sisters decide to attack?” she asked.
Chillybin paused in the doorway. “I can protect you against the other vessels,” she said, “even if their minds are alien to me. At least the Boze minds are somewhat familiar. And Wicked Mary, of course, will have tactical control.”
“What about down on the surface?” Bonty asked. “The Riddlespawn? Anything down in this temple?”
“I cannot sense any minds aside from the aliens in the ships,” Chillybin said. “But we have never had much success in sensing the Riddlespawn.”
“This is such a bad idea,” Scrutarius said, although he sounded delighted.
“Captain Pelsworthy seems to have gotten the attention of the Seven Sisters,” Wicked Mary’s giela announced. “If we are going to separate and attempt to land, we should do it now.”
“Running silent,” Scrutarius reported.
They crept towards Palothane, which was a blasted-looking little ball of rock under the baleful red fire of the sun. The location of the ‘temple’, according to Roney’s coordinates, lit up on the screens as a tiny red dot.
“Chilly seemed to know more about this than I do,” Hartigan said uneasily to Galana. “Did Roney tell you what we’re meant to be doing down here? How are we meant to push this Riddlespawn bugger back into Hell?”
“Roney didn’t tell me anything,” Galana said. “I actually got more information from Chillybin’s ancient aki’Drednanth ancestral memory.”
Basil whistled through his moustache. “That’s really saying something.”
They descended through the thin, howling atmosphere and landed on the shattered plain near the edge of the temple. It seemed to have been built in the middle of a crater that had probably been quite impressive a few million years ago but had since been worn away by the elements. Once they were down, they peered out at the temple through the Nella‘s screens – it was barely visible as a line of weathered blocks, the wind and sand and noxious gases obscuring the view.
They hastily donned protective gear and breathers, staggered off the shuttle and headed towards the weathered ruins, Galana and Bonty and Devlin supporting Hartigan and Wicked Mary, both of whom seemed in danger of blowing away in the sandstorm.
“Delightful place!” Basil shouted over the comm.
“I can see why you’d want to build a temple here!” Scrutarius agreed.
They climbed up onto the temple foundation and over the tumbled, sand-heaped remains of the outer walls, finding a broad depression not much different to the surrounding plains, although at least the wind was a little calmer. Rounded stone objects that could have been statues stuck out of the sand here and there. None of them were particularly pleasant-looking shapes. One of them was unsettlingly similar to the spider-like shape stamped on the coin Hartigan had found in the Fudzu hoard. What had Roney called them? The Web? That sounded about right.
“There is an opening over there,” Wicked Mary said, and pointed. A protected area between two statues and a broken section of internal walls held a darker patch that revealed itself to be a set of stairs descending below the surface. They staggered over and down the stairs, which were eroded almost to the point of being a ramp, and stopped once they reached a small chamber where the stairway doubled back and continued deeper. The wind receded at this point, although the air was still toxic, and Galana checked that they were still in contact with the Nella, and from the Nella the Conch.
“Still reading you loud and clear,” Chillybin reported. “You have gone below the surface but there is nothing in the surrounding stone to interfere with the signal.”
“Keep an eye on the signal, looks like we’re about to go deeper,” Hartigan said, stepping away from Devlin’s supporting grip with a little pat of thanks, and peering down into the darkness of the temple bowels.
“I am still in full control of my giela,” Wicked Mary reported, “so I imagine if the signal begins to fail I will notice that almost immediately.”
“Good point,” Hartigan said. “How are you doing up there otherwise? How’s Roney getting on?”
“Captain Pelsworthy is holding position among the Seven Sisters’ ships,” Wicked Mary reported, “and they seem to be communicating. They have given no indication that they are aware of our presence. She must be giving them a good argument.”
“I bet she is,” Hartigan said, and put a booted foot on the top step. “D’you think there’ll be traps down here?”
“If there are, Roney would have tripped them already,” Scrutarius said. “But you go first, just in case. I mean because you’re the Captain.”
Muttering irritably, Basil clumped down the stairs. The others followed, Holding up arm-lamps as the darkness became almost total. They reached another little landing-space, and the stairs doubled back again and went deeper.
“Where is this thing?” Bonty murmured.
The next flight of stairs ended in a short tunnel, which in turn ended at a wide opening ringed with what looked disturbingly like a great clotted mass of dried blood under their lamps. Closer inspection revealed that it was some kind of metal, long since corroded and worn down by the atmosphere. Galana guessed that the passage might have been sealed by a huge pair of imposing metal doors once upon a time, but they were gone now.
“Look,” Hartigan said excitedly, and pointed at the wall next to the door. More weeping rusty stuff had leaked out of worn-down holes in the stone here, and the hardened sludge and dust on the floor covered a shape that was clearly a petrified skeleton of some kind, although it was entirely alien in appearance. “I bet there were traps,” he said, “but they’ve all just broken down. This poor blighter was the last person to set one off.”
“Spooky temples these days,” Scrutarius tutted. “Where’s the workmanship?”
They stepped through into a wide, high-ceilinged chamber that Galana estimated was directly beneath the centre of the temple ruins above. It was dark, and Galana could hear a soft, disturbing sound echoing inside the space – something scraping and flopping repetitively against stone, she thought. Perhaps a small trapped animal … although by all reports this planet had been deserted and uninhabitable for a very long time.
There was no immediate sign of what might have been making the noise, which was drowned out by their own footsteps and voices as they entered the chamber anyway. There was a lot of broken stone and more of the rusted-down metal threaded through the space, they saw as they raised their lamps, but if there were more rooms or tunnels or stairs, they were not immediately visible. The centre of the chamber was dominated by another statue, this one in much better repair than the ones on the surface due to its sheltered position. It was also streaked with dark stains of corroded metal, and more broken and melted pieces of debris were heaped around its great muscular knees where it knelt, but the stone of which it was made seemed quite smooth. Galana frowned at the immense figure.
The shape of the thing hadn’t escaped Hartigan’s eye either. “I say,” he whispered, “is that … that’s not meant to be a human, is it?”
The statue was definitely humanoid, with its single pair of arms and its round head. It was much bigger than a human, or even a Molran – Galana estimated that it would have been twice her height if it had been standing rather than kneeling on one titanic knee and one huge splayed foot. It looked, from the mess around the statue’s base, that it might have been wearing clothes at some point but they were long gone. Behind the huge figure, rising from its bulging and gleaming shoulders, a pair of huge dark-feathered wings spread over the dusty floor.
“Those teeth aren’t human,” Scrutarius noted, pointing at the big jutting tusks the statue’s face was sporting. “And I haven’t seen a human with wings since the last time I ate whoop-whoop frogs,” he glanced sidelong at Galana. “Not that I ever ate whoop-whoop frogs,” he added, “since they’re definitely illegal.”
“I’ll overlook it this time,” Galana said dryly, and turned back to her study of the statue. Only … she wasn’t entirely sure it was a statue. Something about it reminded her of the remains they’d found outside the chamber. “Could this be the Riddlespawn?” she pondered out loud.
“No,” Wicked Mary said from around behind the gigantic shape. “I believe this is the Riddlespawn.”
They hurried around to where the giela was standing between the wings where they lay across the uneven stones of the chamber floor. There, squirming and writhing on the floor, was the source of the strange sound Galana had heard when they’d entered the room.
The Riddlespawn wasn’t humanoid. If anything, the body looked vaguely like that of a Molran, with four long arms and two legs, all of which were in motion, slapping and flopping as the creature thrashed in place between the huge figure’s wings. It was the size of a young child, Galana judged in horror, its skin coated in fine yellow-pink scales that occasionally rasped against one another or the stones of the floor as it moved. It was hard to imagine such a tiny and pitiful thing being a threat, and yet there was something … horrible about it at the same time. The way it moved, vague and helpless and yet unendingly, like an insect that had been poisoned but was too tough to simply die.
The reason it wasn’t able to move more purposefully was readily – and horribly – apparent. The squirming figure didn’t have a head. From the way it was flexing and twisting, it looked like it actually had its head stuck in something and was trying to escape, but neither the head nor whatever it was stuck in were visible, so the neck just sort of ended hanging in the air above the temple floor, a meaty amber-coloured wound that looked raw and terrible but was not actually bleeding. Galana remembered Roney saying they’d found part of a Riddlespawn, and that the Pirate Queen and her followers wanted to bring it all the way out. Was its head already stuck in the Hell that Riddlespawn came from?
“Look at the floor,” Bonty said in horror.
Glana leaned back and took in the wider area at a glance, and realised what her friend already had. The stones between the statue’s wings were worn down in a shallow depression, free of dust but clearly eroded. The Riddlespawn shifted and flailed in this depression, hanging by its neck from its invisible bonds, and it was impossible to dismiss the idea that it had worn down the stone over time, just with the patient, mindless movement of its limbs.
“Well,” Basil said a little queasily, “this isn’t something they covered in AstroCorps training. Anyone else got any thoughts? Thoughts they can express without starting to scream and then maybe not stopping, that is?”
“It’s no wonder Chilly couldn’t find a brain down here to latch onto,” Scrutarius started.
“Thank you Devlin. Anyone else?”
“The delicious morsel Captain Pelsworthy has finished arguing with the Seven Sisters and is descending towards the surface,” Wicked Mary reported.
“The alien ships still appear to be holding position,” Chillybin added. “I find it hard to believe they haven’t spotted the Nella down on the surface no matter how quiet we were, but I am attempting to keep their attention from focussing too closely on you. It is difficult when I am unfamiliar with many of the species involved. Fortunately, Wicked Mary has also got some electronic interference in place ‑ ”
“Hey,” Bonty said, “this looks like a Molranoid, doesn’t it?”
The others were only too happy to look away from the Riddlespawn for a moment and turn their attention onto the carvings on the walls. These were also worn down and obscured by the general collapse of the whole place, but it was easy to see that the carvings – old as they were – were much younger than the temple itself. There were crude outlines of figures that could be humanoid, others that looked like Molranoids, and others still that didn’t look like anything much. There was even one that Scrutarius pointed out, a long wormlike thing with fins that he insisted could be an artistic impression of a primitive Fergunakil.
“Roney mentioned that there was an ancient tablet, or a prophecy, or something,” Bonty said. “Didn’t she? Something about an ancient family of races?”
“The chosen mortal species of ten mythical entities,” Galana agreed. “The Riddlespawn were supposed to be one, as were Molren, humans, Fergunak … ”
There was really nothing to be learned from the carvings, and there was no sign of a tablet or anything remotely resembling writing anywhere in the chamber. They were still attempting to analyse the giant statue and the disturbing thrashing shape of the Riddlespawn when Wicked Mary announced that Roney had landed. Hartigan was beginning to mutter apprehensively about his breather running low, and Devlin and Bonty had decided that the Riddlespawn were so named because their whole existence was an unsolveable and very annoying puzzle. A few minutes later the irrepressible Boze marched into the temple, her narrow furry face hidden behind the gleaming golden visor of her red suit helmet. It was just as shiny and decorative as the rest of her uniform.
“Good,” she said, “so you found it.”
“Bit hard to miss,” Hartigan replied, “what with there being only one staircase and one room.”
“Ah, don’t sell yourselves short,” Roney said, striding past the Captain and giving him a hearty clap on the thigh. “I’m sure you could have gotten lost if you’d really set your minds to it. I’m joking, I’m joking,” she chuckled and held up her gloved hands. “What do you think of the place?”
“It’s horrible,” Galana surprised herself by saying. “But we have cautiously established that this whole thing was a much older building that has been … redecorated. Probably sometime in the past twenty to forty thousand years.”
“Very good,” Roney agreed.
“Which is confusing us a bit,” Scrutarius added, “because you said the Riddlespawn destroyed the Empire of Gold twenty million years ago, not twenty thousand.”
“Quite so, quite so,” Roney said, and pointed at the giant figure kneeling in the middle of the floor. “What do you make of the big wingèd fellow?”
“Looks like an Angel,” Hartigan said, “mythical Earth creature, basically an immortal human with wings. Only this chap’s a lot bigger, and he’s got a nasty set of choppers, don’t y’know.”
“You know, he does look a bit like a human doesn’t he?” Roney said in surprise. “But no, he’s not human, although he is rather mythical. In the days of the Empire, these lads – and lasses – were called Drakspars. The regular kind were pretty tough, but the kind with wings were – well, a bit like your alicorn, see. They were glorified. Immortal, all sorts of powers, you name it. They were the soldiers of the Empire, if you like.”
“And the Riddlespawn beat them?” Galana asked, glancing from the massive kneeling figure to the pathetic, flopping shape behind it.
“Easy as kicking a spugget off a log,” Roney replied grimly. “Did you happen to notice this place was built in the middle of a crater?” they nodded. “Legend has it that the crater was made by this fellow,” she gestured at the Drakspar. “It got blasted so hard it flew all the way here through space, landed on Palothane, and then – I don’t know, fell asleep or something. Drakspars were supposed to go dormant if they weren’t on holy ground, not sure whether that means all of the Empire was holy ground or what. Anyway, they tried building this temple around him, but he still didn’t wake up.”
Galana looked up at the fiercely scowling face with its great jutting teeth. They hadn’t managed to identify the substance the figure was made of, but it certainly hadn’t scanned as organic. “It doesn’t look like it’s asleep,” she said.
Roney laughed. “That’s what I said,” she replied. “Apparently, this is about as unconscious as Drakspars got.”
“So the Empire of Gold was destroyed,” Bonty said, “and the Riddlespawn went back to wherever they came from ‑ ”
“Except for the star serpent we took down,” Devlin added.
“Right, except for the star serpent,” Bonty agreed. “And this temple was built to commemorate the, um, fallen Drakspars and what have you … and then this Riddlespawn showed up?” she waved her left hands at the flailing headless shape. “Thirty thousand years ago or so?”
“That’s the best I’ve been able to figure out,” Roney agreed. “Good job.”
Bonty looked at Galana, and shook her head.
“We still have no idea what’s going on,” Galana admitted. “And what we’re supposed to do with this. Maybe if you told us more about the prophecy ‑ ”
“Well, it’s not exactly a prophecy,” Roney admitted.
“Of course it isn’t,” Galana sighed.
“All I know is, when this Riddlespawn was dragged out and maimed, it was left in this temple as a – a grim joke,” the Boze went on. “Like a way of saying look, we won after all, who’s afraid of the big bad Riddlespawn?”
Galana stared at the pathetically squirming creature on the floor. It looked neither big nor bad as far as she could tell. “‘Dragged out’?” she echoed. “Dragged out of Hell?”
“No,” Roney said. “And yes. Not exactly.”
“Roney, I swear ‑ ” Hartigan said in exasperation.
“It was dragged out of a dark and terrible place it was already crawling from,” Roney explained.
“I don’t understand,” Bonty said.
“None of us bally well understand,” Hartigan snapped.
“Of course not,” Roney sighed, although she sounded more regretful than frustrated. “Bozanda knows I don’t understand either. The Riddlespawn live in some unknown place, right? This one was trapped somewhere, somewhere in this sphere of existence, and if it had escaped from the trap intact it would have become something terrible. Instead, it was dragged out of the trap but in doing so it was … damaged.”
“Damaged?” Devlin exclaimed. “It’s got no head.”
“Not here anyway,” Roney shrugged. “Like a wounded animal torn out of a snare, it just wants to return home.”
“Home … back to wherever the other Riddlespawn are?” Hartigan asked. Roney nodded.
“Back to where its head is?” Scrutarius added.
Roney turned her golden visor in his direction. “You seem a bit fixated on the whole ‘head’ detail.”
“I think it’s a detail worth getting fixated on,” the Blaran retorted.
“But in short, it wants to go home,” Basil cut off the developing argument. “To heal, and get ready to charge forth and demolish the next empire that comes along and gets too big for its boots?”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” Roney said. “We’re all pretty small-time compared to the Empire of Gold. The Riddlespawn don’t come out and play with just anybody, you know,” she pointed at the towering shape of the Drakspar. “Look at this big magnificent bastard.”
“So what do we do?” Bonty asked.
Roney shook her head. “If the Seven Sisters manage to get close, if they manage to pull it the rest of the way into this world and fix it, they think they’ll be able to make an ally of it. But it will never do what the Pirate Queen wants. It will be unstoppable. It might have taken a bunch of Riddlespawn and star serpents to bring down the Empire of Gold, but this tiddler right here would make short work of anything this galaxy has to throw at it, in this day and age.”
Galana narrowed her eyes. “Why can’t the Seven Sisters get close anyway?”
Roney shrugged. “They can’t land. The last time anyone tried, twenty-odd years ago, this thing screamed and the star serpent showed up and burned everyone right out of orbit. Made this planet even more attractive than it was already.”
“It screamed?” Devlin pointed. “It’s got no head.”
“Yeah yeah,” Roney waved this off.
“The star serpent is dead now,” Bonty frowned.
“Right,” Roney pointed at the ceiling. “But they don’t know that. Right now, they just think I’ve come up with some clever way of sneaking down,” she gestured around at the group in general. “You know, the whole ‘family of races’ thing. Which it looks like I was right about, by the way.”
“Hang about, you didn’t know we were the right species,” Hartigan objected.
“I was reasonably sure,” Roney said.
“What if this thing could have called another star serpent?” Bonty asked.
Roney tilted her head. “I never thought of that,” she admitted. “But look, it’s not yelling. It trusts us more than the Sisters, see? Family of races.”
“It’s got no head,” Devlin repeated.
“Listen, sooner or later Her Majesty is going to figure out that it’s safe, and she’ll order them to attempt a landing, and that’s when this whole thing is going to get messy,” Roney said. “We need to send this thing back to Hell before that happens.”
Galana spread her hands helplessly. “And how are we supposed to do that, exactly?” The satisfaction of watching Captain Pelsworthy squirming in an attempt to avoid saying ‘I don’t know’ was quite small in comparison to the mounting alarm Galana was feeling about this whole situation. She looked around at the others. “Suggestions?”
“There is a very mild but unknown energy field immediately surrounding the Riddlespawn’s severed neck,” Wicked Mary reported. The little silver giela was standing directly under the Drakspar’s wings and had been prodding at the Riddlespawn’s neck-stump with a sensor built into her finger while the others talked. “If we pretend Captain Pelsworthy’s story is true ‑ ”
“Hey,” Roney objected.
“ ‑ we can imagine this is a sort of wormhole, or gateway the Riddlespawn is using to come and go between this world and its own,” Wicked Mary went on calmly. “It got its head in, and then got stuck. I could boost the amount of energy that gateway is receiving, and increase its size. The only problem is … ”
“Its head could just as easily pop out on this side as the rest of its body pop in on that one,” Hartigan finished. “More easily, if it really is just a hole it’s got its – its head stuck in. Its head is probably smaller than its body and if it isn’t, I absolutely don’t want to know about it,” he added fervently.
“Yes,” Wicked Mary said, “that is the problem. Anything we do to help it get home could backfire and result in it being pulled fully into this world, the way the Pirate Queen wants.”
“Can you just … neutralise the energy field?” Galana asked.
They turned and stared at her.
“That would cut its head off for real,” Bonty said, then looked down at her boots. “Oh. You knew that already.”
“Yes,” Galana said. “The question is, if we can close the hole it is stuck in, would that kill it? Or would having its head cut off for real just make it angry?”
“Not as stupid a question as it sounds,” Roney said, “knowing even as little as I do about Riddlespawn.”
“The Seven Sisters are changing formation,” Chillybin reported. “They may be preparing to send a landing party.”
“Well, it doesn’t seem like we have much choice, and we’re running out of time,” Galana told Roney. “You brought us here because you thought we could help.”
“So you can really do this?” Roney asked Wicked Mary in surprise.
“Of course, morsel,” Wicked Mary said. “Our civilisation is designed around getting nowhere as slowly as possible, after all, so we are in a perfect position to get this unfortunate creature nowhere after thirty thousand years,” Roney laughed, and Wicked Mary gestured at the squirming shape. “Should I proceed?”
“Do it,” Hartigan said unexpectedly. Galana looked at him. “We don’t want this thing alive in either sphere,” he said with a shrug. “Do we?”
Wicked Mary performed some swift, complicated rearrangements on her giela‘s machinery, then leaned back over the Riddlespawn. The lights set into her gleaming metal carapace flickered, and the headless torso stiffened – and then flailed more frantically. A high, raucous shriek sounded, making Galana and the others flinch. The sound wasn’t audible inside the temple, but over their communicators.
“It’s calling for the star serpent!” Roney shouted over the din.
Wicked Mary’s lights flickered again, the scream cut off and the body fell limp into the depression it had worn down over the past thirty thousand years. With a final slither of scales, it collapsed … and then collapsed further, darkening and cracking until it dissolved into a faint black smudge on the stones.
“Is everything alright down there?” Chillybin’s voice asked. “The Seven Sisters just turned their ships around and jumped into soft-space like their loading bays were on fire.”
“We’re fine,” Galana reported. “They probably heard that scream and assumed the star serpent was on its way.”
“Let’s get out of here before they realise it’s not,” Roney suggested.
“Excellent notion, young Captain Pelsworthy,” Hartigan declared.
Soon, in The Blind Time Traveller:
Judderone Pelsworthy of the Boze, Space Adventurer, stayed with them for a short time after their victory on Palothane and their retreat to a safe distance a few light years away. She came up with a variety of excuses – “I want to be sure another star serpent isn’t going to show up,” “I want to keep an eye on things in case the Riddlespawn come back,” “You’ll want me nearby in case the Seven Sisters come after you,” – but after a few days it became pretty clear that she just enjoyed the AstroCorps crew’s company.
“You know,” Hartigan said one evening-shift as they were sitting and enjoying another meal of mixed Six Species and Boze rations, and Basil was puffing on one of his rare cigars, “if you wanted to travel with us you’d be very welcome.”
“I thought you had to do this little circumnavigation thing yourself,” Roney said. “Hardly counts if I carry you most of the way, does it?”
“Oh carry us, now is it?” Basil laughed, but had to concede the point. The Boze had given them a five-year lift over the course of the past couple of weeks. “Well, if you don’t mind taking it casually, you’d be welcome to dock with us and carry on at our pace. I’m sure we have a lot to teach each other.”
“About High Elonath, for example,” Roney said, a wily expression on her amber-and-white-furred face.
“Well, among other things, certainly,” Hartigan said. “You know an awful lot about the galaxy. Even if you can’t share your marvellous technology with us poor biggumses, you must be able to help fill out our charts a bit, give us a few pointers.”
“It would be nice to know more about mobs like the Pirate Queen, too,” Devlin added. “So we don’t go blundering into enemy territory unawares.”
“Ah, you only want to blunder into enemy territory with complete awareness, eh?” Roney flashed her gold fang in a grin.
“Exactly,” Scrutarius nodded. “No, wait ‑ ”
“I’ll give you a few notes,” the Boze promised, “but you have to know it’s a dangerous and ever-changing thing, space. And I’ve got my own path. Don’t worry, though,” she added, and raised her glass. “I have no doubt it will cross with yours again. Many times.”
“No need for our paths to split again quite yet, though,” Bonty insisted. “Surely?”
“Absolutely not,” Roney agreed. “Oh, and that reminds me – here, I picked up something for you to add to your little souvenir collection,” she jumped off her couch, stepped over to the table in the middle of the Captain’s lounge, and drew a long, jagged grey-black shape from a pouch in the back of her uniform. At first Galana thought it was a blade of some sort, but then Roney set it down on the table and she realised it was a feather.
Hartigan leaned forward, eyes widening. “Is that … ?”
“A Drakspar feather,” Roney said proudly. “I plucked a couple off the big fellow down on Palothane. One for you, one for me.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Basil said, his voice wobbling sentimentally.
“I’m glad it didn’t wake up when you plucked it,” Devlin remarked.
Roney grinned and was about to say something else, when the Conch’s computer interrupted them with a polite chime.
“I’m sorry to bother you, Basil,” it said, “but a ship has just emerged from soft-space in our vicinity.”
Everyone jumped to their feet at once.
“The Seven Sisters?” Hartigan asked.
“Can’t be,” Roney tapped at one of the little devices built into her uniform sleeves. “My computer would have told me if they’d shown back up. It would have let me know if anything in my databanks had shown up.”
“So what is this?” Galana asked.
Roney frowned at her sleeve.
“Something else,” she said.