This will probably be the last of these I post for a bit, I’m aiming to get the book done soon and I want to have a few stories left to make it worth the €5 for the e-book.
It ended up going a bit over-length and I’m debating whether to divide it into two stories, so the pay-off happens as part of a later one. But I’m not sure where to split it. I’m also not sure if it really makes sense, or is even interesting. I’ve sat staring at it too long.
The ship was a strange, curled thing like a great horn, coloured in the most tasteless assortment of pearly rainbow colours Galana had ever seen. It was really quite ghastly.
“We have established a comm link,” the computer reported, with what sounded like surprise. “That was … easy. Almost as though they already have our comm setup.”
“Maybe their technology is more advanced than ours,” Captain Hartigan suggested, then jabbed a finger at Roney without looking back at her. “Quiet you.”
“I didn’t say anything,” the grinning Boze objected.
“I could hear you thinking it,” Hartigan grumbled. “Alright, let’s see what our new friends in the colourful ship look like.”
When the image of the alien ship was replaced on the screens by the image of its pilot, it wasn’t much improvement. The alien was more or less humanoid, in a stupendously muscled and weirdly barbarian-dressed way. Its tattooed arms were bare except for great studded gloves, and its torso was wrapped in bands of what looked like metal, etched with strange arcane runes. Its head was hidden by a gleaming golden helmet – at least Galana hoped it was a helmet – in the shape of a skull. And not a human skull, but the skull of some long-muzzled and many-toothed monstrosity, made even more unsettling by the fact that it had no eye sockets.
“Well,” the alien said in a deep, booming voice, “this is goodbye.”
“Eh?” Hartigan blinked for a second in confusion – the imposing alien was speaking AstroCorps standard, and they hadn’t established any translation system so it was a bit of a mystery how it could do so – but he recovered well. “I am Captain Basil Hartigan of the ACS Conch. On behalf of ‑ ”
“I suppose I should thank you, but you know,” the alien boomed, “I don’t want to,” its huge gleaming shoulders shook as it laughed heartily. “All in all, you were slightly more help than hindrance, and that is all I can say. Galana, Devlin, I’ll see you in Axis Mundi. Remember – forget everything.”
“What’s going on?” Basil asked plaintively.
The strange skull-helmeted creature vanished from the screens, the starry black of space replacing alien and ship alike.
“Where did it go?” Roney demanded.
“Did it go to relative speed?” Galana asked, although the ship had been so close that it probably would have set off alarms if it had done so. She checked her readouts. There was no energy spike, nothing. It was just gone, as if it had never existed in the first place.
“Well, that was weird even by our standards,” Scrutarius said.
AstroCorps and Boze alike scanned the area for several hours, but found nothing. Captain Pelsworthy was particularly offended by this, insisting that even a departed ship would have left some electromagnetic and gravitational distortions, if not dropped particles. The Conch’s computer agreed. The alien had vanished without a trace.
“And you didn’t recognise it at all?” Basil asked Roney.
The little Space Adventurer shook her head. “Never seen anything like it.”
Chillybin shifted her great booted feet. “I have,” she said.
They all turned to stare at the enormous aki’Drednanth.
“You have?” Galana asked.
“Why the blazes didn’t you say anything earlier?” Hartigan demanded.
“I wanted to be sure,” Chilly said. “I have been conferring with my fellow aki’Drednanth, and the Drednanth in the dream. What we just saw should not be. Must not be.”
“Sounds promising,” Devlin said.
“Sounds like an adventure,” Roney agreed eagerly, with none of the Blaran’s sarcasm. “Come on, frosty, out with it. What was it, and how did it vanish like that?”
“They were known as Time Destroyers,” Chillybin replied. “They lived long ago, and were a formidable and dangerous enemy.”
“Ooh, Time Destroyers,” Scrutarius said eagerly. “Did they start out as Time Wasters, and get militant?”
“Now, hang about,” Hartigan said, “I’m beginning to lose track of all these ancient bally menaces. On a scale of, say, Riddlespawn to Damorakind, how long ago and dangerous are we talking about here?”
“The Time Destroyers are one of the first mortal species,” Chillybin said, “older and mightier than all but the ancient Molren and … others.”
“So they’re one of the family of races?” Galana asked. “The chosen children of the Infinites?”
Chillybin shook her head. “No,” she said. “The Molren may be an Elder Race and a member of the mythical family of races, but most of the family – Riddlespawn, humans, Fergunak – are younger. Time Destroyers are Elders, but chosen by no Infinite.”
“That’s just unnecessarily complicated,” Scrutarius complained.
“I say, why do Molren get to be all of the special things?” Basil asked accusingly.
“Why are you looking at me?” Galana asked. “It wasn’t my idea.”
“So these Time Destroyers,” Bonty persisted. “They’re bad news?”
“Indeed,” Chillybin replied. “They were never truly welcomed in this galaxy. They lived here for a time, but … now they are no more. Or so we thought.”
“Did this all happen more or less than twenty million years ago?” Devlin asked.
Chilly shook her head again. “Four hundred thousand,” she said, “no more.”
“Oh,” Hartigan said, “that’s practically yesterday,” Chillybin laughed. “This one seemed fairly friendly though, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes,” Chillybin agreed, “and that troubles me.”
“And what was that it said?” Hartigan went on. “See you in Axis Mundi? What’s an Axis Mundi?”
“I have no idea,” Galana said.
“But it said it would meet you there,” Hartigan protested.
“It also told us to forget everything,” Scrutarius suggested. “Maybe we just forgot.”
“Do you have anything helpful to say, Devlin?” Hartigan asked.
“Not right now,” Scrutarius smiled.
There didn’t seem to be anything they could do about the alleged Time Destroyer, so after taking a few more scans and samples of nothing in particular they dived back into the grey and headed for their next destination. It was six weeks at relative speed, and when they emerged Roney declared it the most painfully boring six weeks of her life and was outraged at how short a distance they’d come.
“And there’s nothing here,” she concluded. “You’ve dropped out at another inhospitable ice ball with some mushrooms growing at the equator. Well done.”
“Well give us that bally map you said you’d give us, for goodness’ sake,” Basil retorted.
“Alright, biggums,” Roney said mildly, “no need to get roary. I already transferred some info to your computer. There’s a planet not far from here with a very friendly population, they’d be happy to meet you I’m sure. Now, their species evolved from a type of berry and there is a variety of fruit tree on the planet that is very easy to get mixed up with one of their nursery bushes where they develop their young ones, but as long as you give the berries a little tickle and make sure not to eat anything that giggles ‑ ”
“Contact!” the Conch said sharply.
The strange curled rainbow-shape of the Time Destroyer ship appeared in the viewscreens, sweeping around the linked Conch and Splendiferous Bastard in a tight spiral. Eerie light glowed in vents along either side of the twisted vessel.
“Now, release it now!” the alien’s voice thundered through the comm system, and alarms blared across the bridge as the light played over the ship and a strange lightheaded sensation made Galana clutch at her armrests.
Hartigan slumped in his chair, eyes bulging and face going pale behind his moustache, but to his credit managed to tap in some orders with shaking fingers. “We’re under attack,” he said hoarsely, “deploy countermeasures!”
“What sort of countermeasures do we have for alien strobe lights?” Wicked Mary asked. The giela, of course, didn’t seem affected but it was hard to say how the Fergie herself was taking it down in the aquarium.
“Well deploy something!” Hartigan managed to shout.
The alien ship swept around again, and the lights returned. “Now!” the Time Destroyer shouted. “Release it now, you fools told me you’d practiced!”
“Firing pulse turrets at the alien’s weapons array,” Wicked Mary said calmly, and the Conch blasted a swift barrage of turret-fire at the vents on the side of the Time Destroyer’s vessel. It didn’t have any visible effect on the weird light, but the ship peeled off and spiralled away almost too swiftly to follow. The strange dizziness and nausea passed as soon as the strange light had swept away from them.
“What are you doing?” the alien roared.
“What are you doing?” Hartigan roared back. “Also, who are you?” the ship swept back, turned, and vanished again as abruptly as it had the first time. “Alright, damage report,” he said. “And please let me know if we’re trying to win a fight with a time traveller here, what?”
“Captain?” Galana said in surprise. After many years flying together she could often follow the human’s convoluted and amazingly illogical thought processes, and she thought she could see what was going on in his head this time, but he could still surprise her.
“Stands to reason, doesn’t it?” he replied. “These chaps are called Time Destroyers. And the first time we met this one, he treated us like we were all old chums and then said goodbye to us. Seems like time travel is the obvious answer, what?”
“It is a simple explanation, Captain,” Galana said carefully, “but so would be saying ‘he’s a space wizard.’ It completely ignores the impossibility of time travel.”
“Relative field technology completely ignores the impossibility of me walking a thousand light years in a little over a month,” Bonty pointed out.
“It doesn’t ignore it,” Galana said. This was another feeling she had gotten used to over the years – being the only sane person on a ship of lunatics. “It takes the laws of physics entirely into account in order to bypass them.”
“And time travel field technology can’t do the same?” Hartigan asked.
“Well,” Galana said, “I suppose that making up a fantastical explanation for something we don’t understand, and then deciding that the fantastical explanation is possible if we assume a theoretical science we have not yet discovered, is a sort of approach … ”
“Well what’s your explanation, then?” Hartigan demanded.
“We have encountered alien ships in two separate locations within this region of space,” Galana said. “The pilot of the first displayed a wide knowledge of our crew and languages, but communicated in a baffling way. The second displayed an unknown energy emission and communicated, again, in a baffling way. They may have been the same alien and ship, but we don’t know that. At the moment, my explanation is that these … Time Destroyers … are sufficiently different to us that their modes of communication are – are … ”
“Baffling?” Bonty suggested.
“Yes,” Galana said. “If this was a Time Destroyer, and they have been gone for four hundred thousand years, his presence here would have to be explained.”
“Time travel would explain it,” Hartigan replied.
“Space wizard would too,” Scrutarius added.
“He did sort of look like a space wizard,” Bonty agreed.
Galana considered this. “Okay, he did,” she admitted. “But I would prefer something with a little more substance. Computer, do you have any comms data that would confirm they were the same ship, at least?”
“They connected and transmitted data in exactly the same way,” the Conch said. “Either they’re the same ship, or they’ve made everything about their ships unnecessarily identical.”
“Not something we can rule out,” Galana said. “What about damage?”
“No damage,” Scrutarius confirmed, “although I think Bonty should look over all of us if you guys felt as weird as I did when that light hit us.”
“Agreed,” Hartigan said.
“It was not a weapon,” Wicked Mary told them. “The alien seemed to be trying to establish a connection with something. Something he thought we had, and wanted us to release.”
“And then meet these two in Axis Mundi,” Roney added, gesturing towards Galana and Devlin, “whatever that is. For the record, though, I agree with Fen. Definitely not a time traveller.”
“What, really?” Hartigan said, sounding disappointed. “Rather expected you to be on my side on this one, old sport.”
“Sorry, biggums,” the Boze flicked her huge ears. “It’s a fun idea, but even if time travel was possible, there are greater forces than physics preventing reality from being unravelled.”
“It is true,” Chillybin put in before Galana could protest. “There are Vultures that circle in the darkness, waiting to feast on any inventor who wanders where they shouldn’t wander. It is this that occurred to the Time Destroyers of old.”
“I take it back,” Hartigan said in delight. “If you have to agree with Fen, that’s just about the most agonisingly unscientific reason you could choose – and Chilly agrees with you. Listen, I bet you and Devlin can hear Fen’s teeth grinding, even if I can’t.”
“If we’ve just about had enough fun at our poor long-suffering Commander’s expense,” Bonty said to the grinning human, Blaran and Boze, “what should we do next? Do we wait for him to come back, or continue on our way and assume he’ll find us again?”
“I don’t know if I can take another six week jaunt through the grey just to get nowhere much,” Roney said, “as much as I enjoy your company. Look, even if the berry fellows are a bit out of your way, I think I put another one on your charts. There’s an inhabited planet called Spangle about two months from here, at your speeds. Nice people, the Spangles, just keep one eye on your valuables because they’re a bit sticky-fingered. I’ll meet you there when you pop back out, do a bit of exploring on my own in the meantime.”
There didn’t seem to be much else they could do. They concluded their latest check of the system they’d dropped into, discovered that Roney was right – it was uninhabited and impossibly dull – and set course for the next place. The place called Spangle, apparently, which might include nice if slightly thievery-prone aliens. Spangle was a little over fifteen hundred light years away, which was a long, boring stretch. Galana and Hartigan agreed that they would divide the flight into two legs, with a brief stop in normal space at the one-month halfway point, even if it was in the middle of nowhere.
It was without much surprise, as they dropped back out of the grey and into featureless interstellar space four weeks later, that they found the ugly oily-rainbow shape of the Time Destroyer ship waiting for them.
“Are you ready?” the skull-helmeted alien said without preamble.
“No we’re not,” Hartigan replied a little impatiently, “but at least you’re not blasting us with weird light this time. Now get your ducks in a row and tell us what’s going on, and maybe we’ll get it right the next time around. Or the previous time around, for all I bally well know.”
“I explained myself to you once already,” the Time Destroyer rumbled. “I am not accustomed to having to do so ‑ ”
“Look, just tell us what you want us to do,” Hartigan begged. “You wanted us to release something, right?”
“You haven’t got the wayfinder yet?” the Time Destroyer said, sounding outraged.
“We don’t even know what the wayfinder is,” Galana replied while Basil spluttered indignantly. “Maybe you could ‑ ”
“Blast,” the alien snapped in exasperation, “I’ve overshot. Just ‑ ”
The ship and its pilot vanished, leaving star-speckled space in its place.
“On to Spangle?” Wicked Mary asked.
“Yes,” Basil growled, “on to Spangle.”
After another four weeks in the grey, they emerged in the system Roney had marked on their charts. It was rather a surprise not to find the Time Destroyer waiting for them – but at least Roney was.
“Ho there, biggums,” she said, her pointy little grin almost appearing on the screens before her face did. Her ship, the Splendiferous Bastard, was rising swiftly towards them from the peaceful, attractive blue-purple planet below. “You’re late.”
“Sorry about that,” Hartigan said, and nodded across at Chillybin. “Any sign of life apart from Roney?”
“The planet is inhabited,” Chillybin confirmed, “a similar level of technology to our own … ”
“Yes, the Spangles are fairly advanced,” Roney agreed. Galana noted that her ship was still approaching, and wondered if the Boze was going to dock with them. “No ships, though, aside from a few little defence thingies. They don’t believe in travelling beyond their own star system. In fact, most of them don’t even believe in beyond their own star system. But you’ve skipped over the main news,” she said. “I’ve solved our little Time Destroyer riddle.”
Hartigan leaned forward. “Oh?”
“I got here a couple of local days ago, and I’ve been chatting with the Spangles,” Roney said. “They were telling me all about Praxulon the Mad. Do you want to hear about Praxulon the Mad?”
“Is Praxulon the Mad a big fellow in an ugly spaceship and a skull helmet with no eyes, who thinks he’s a time traveller?” Basil asked.
“You’ve heard of him,” Roney said happily.
“Captain Pelsworthy,” Galana said. “I take it the Spangles have had dealings with the Time Destroyer?”
“He was here a while ago, rambling at them in pretty much the same disjointed way he was with us,” Roney said. “I didn’t quite get to the bottom of what else went on between ol’ Praxulon and the Spangles, but he apparently landed for a bit, they decided he was annoying, and so they stole a critical component from his ship just to teach him a bit of a lesson.”
“This thing they stole wouldn’t happen to have been called a wayfinder, would it?” Devlin asked.
Roney tilted her head sharply. “Sounds like you already know quite a lot about this,” she said in surprise. “Yep, they took his wayfinder and cut him loose, told him if he ever came back they’d destroy it. The crazy bugger hasn’t bothered them since.”
“I would suggest,” Galana said, “that if he was a time traveller he probably would have been able to stop people from stealing from him.”
“I would suggest,” Basil retorted, “that if his time machine was dependent on a thing called a wayfinder, his attempts to get it back would probably result in exactly the sort of weird jumbled-up meetings we’ve been having with him.”
“Aha, see, I thought you’d say that,” Roney declared.
“Captain Hartigan,” Wicked Mary said, “there are several of what Captain Pelsworthy called ‘little defence thingies’ approaching from lower orbit. They appear to be pursuing our delicious little friend.”
“Roney,” Hartigan said, “what did you do?”
“Me? Nothing,” Roney replied. “I’m offended by the very implication.”
“Roney ‑ ”
“The Spangles may have misplaced Praxulon’s wayfinder,” the Boze said, “and they may have been looking for it for a while, and working up the nerve to ask me about Praxulon’s wayfinder, and now they might think I’m making a run for it with Praxulon’s wayfinder … ”
“Bloody Hell,” Hartigan said in disgust. “Plot us a course out of here ‑ ”
“No need,” Roney said, and the grey of soft-space enveloped them.
“Alright, Captain Pelsworthy,” Galana said, “perhaps now that we are accessories to your crimes against Spangle, you can tell us why you have taken the wayfinder and what you plan to do next?”
“I’m as curious about this Praxulon the Mad as you are,” Roney said. “Even if he’s not a time traveller, I’ve never heard of Time Destroyers or seen anything like him or his ship, and that’s good enough for me. The Spangles didn’t really want the wayfinder,” she went on, “they just wanted him to leave them alone. It was like a keepsake to them.”
“People usually like to keep keepsakes,” Scrutarius pointed out. “It’s right there in the name.”
“What are we going to do, Roney?” Hartigan asked.
Roney’s answer was prompt. “Stop, and wait for Praxulon to show up.”
“And then give him back his wayfinder?” Bonty guessed.
“What? No,” Roney said. “Maybe. I don’t know, it’ll probably be easier if I show you.”
Somehow, Roney managed to navigate her ship over to the Conch while they were both in soft-space, and they docked. The interior of the powerful little Boze vessel was a little too cramped for any of the AstroCorps crewmembers to fit inside, and so Roney came to join them in the Conch’s docking bay. She was pulling what looked like a stretcher-bed, floating above the deck on a gravity plate, with a sheet over it.
“This is very dramatic,” Galana said.
“Isn’t it though?” Roney grinned, and pulled off the sheet.
Praxulon the Mad’s wayfinder was not a piece of machinery, not even a strange and twisted oil-on-water-sheened object like his ship was. It appeared to be some kind of animal.
It was about the size of a full-grown human, with four limbs but clearly not a biped. The legs, and paws, were small and stunted, as though they had stopped growing when the creature was an infant. Its body was long and cylindrical, tapering to a short fat tail at one end and dipping into a short neck before widening back out to a large round head at the other. Its face was slack and uncomprehending, a tiny wheezing mouth beneath a pair of huge, placid eyes as grey as soft-space. It regarded them solemnly, its rounded sides moving slowly in and out as it breathed – or seemed to breathe. Its entire body, aside from its eyes and the rounded pads on the undersides of its paws, was covered in a soft fuzz of rainbow-coloured fur.
“It’s beautiful,” Hartigan said in a hushed voice.
“It’s sick,” Bonty added with deep concern, and leaned over to begin examining the creature. “Some kind of nutrient deficiency. Of course it’s impossible to be certain since I’ve never seen anything like this before … ”
“This is the wayfinder?” Galana frowned.
“Extraordinary, isn’t she?” Roney reached out and stroked the sleek creature’s back. Its wheezing eased a little and it gave a soft cooing sound of evident pleasure.
“‘She’?” Devlin raised an ear.
Roney gestured vaguely at the wayfinder’s hindquarters. “She’s got all the usual girl bits,” she explained, “but they’re rather a bunched-up afterthought. I just use ‘she’ as a convenience. The rest of her organs appear to be extremely specialised, more like machine components than parts of a body. I think Praxulon’s technology is at least partly organic, if not entirely. This is – well, she might not even really be a living thing, she might just be a piece of his ship. A navigation cell, if the name is anything to go by.”
“Well whatever she is, she’s still sick,” Bonty asserted. “She might need to be plugged into Praxulon’s ship to get the food she needs.”
“In the meantime, can you take her to your medical bay and see if there’s any way we can find the right food for her?” Roney asked.
“Of course,” Bonty said.
“Where are we going anyway?” Hartigan asked Roney as the Bonshoon doctor pulled the stretcher into motion and headed for the medical bay.
“Oh, not far,” Roney said, and waved them all back towards the bridge. The AstroCorps crew fell in behind the Boze Space Adventurer, and Galana reflected in amusement at how effortlessly Captain Pelsworthy took command. She glanced at Basil and saw he was grinning too, not bothered by his alien friend’s manner. “I figured I’d just get us away from Spangle, then drop out of soft-space and see how long it takes Praxulon to find us.”
They only remained in the grey for a few minutes after that. Just as they were taking their stations on the bridge, the linked vessels returned to normal space. The gaudy rainbow twist of the alien ship was already waiting for them.
“Contact,” the Conch said unnecessarily.
“How does he do that?” Roney muttered to herself.
“Time travel,” Devlin said quietly.
The skull-helmeted visage of the Time Destroyer appeared on their screens. “Well,” he boomed, “I promised to explain myself, and here I am.”
“Okay … Praxulon?” Basil said carefully.
“Praxulon the Mad,” the Time Destroyer said, just a little sharply. “I do not forget your titles, Captain Hartigan.”
“You – I’m sorry old chap, I wouldn’t have thought – alright, so you don’t mind being called Praxulon the Mad?” Hartigan stammered. “I rather thought you’d be offended by it for some reason.”
“Not at all,” said Praxulon the Mad. “It is a title of great esteem. Or it was. My people have been gone for a very long time,” he tilted his strange eyeless skull-helmet. “But I imagine your Ogre friend told you that much, hmm?”
“You mean Chillybin? She told us the Time Destroyers were wiped out a long while back, yes,” Hartigan said.
“Yes,” the Time Destroyer boomed, although he sounded rather cheerful now. “You know the Ogres, they’re time travellers too, in their own way. They only go in the one direction, of course.”
“Same as the rest of us, really,” Hartigan said philosophically.
“Ah,” Praxulon the Mad said in approval. “Well, would it shock you to learn that I am the one who did it? I am the one who brought down the Vultures upon my home and all who live there, all those aeons ago?”
“Nothing would shock me at this point,” Basil admitted. “Nice to know you and Chilly agree about the Vultures, though. That’s reassuring.”
“I succeeded, you see, but there are rules. Big rules,” Praxulon told them. “And I broke one of the biggest. There had to be consequences. They told me there would be, if I continued to try, and if I succeeded.”
“When you succeeded in time travelling,” Devlin spoke up from the engineering console. “Just to clarify.”
“Yes,” Praxulon said again. “But that’s why we had this small outpost, this settlement in your galaxy. To protect the rest of our species.”
“You’re from another galaxy?” Galana asked in surprise.
Praxulon the Mad waved an enormous hand. “That is not important,” he said – incorrectly, in Galana’s opinion. “The good news is, I know it happened. I have seen the ruins of my civilisation in this galaxy.”
“That’s good news?” Bonty asked.
“For you, certainly,” Praxulon replied. “The alternatives simply do not bear thinking about.”
“Why isn’t one of the alternatives just destroying you and your time travel research?” Devlin asked. “Seems a lot simpler.”
“The Vultures do not deal in sabotage,” Praxulon the Mad declared.
“So what’s your next move?” Hartigan, at least, seemed enthralled by the insane alien’s story.
“Therein lies my problem,” Praxulon the Mad replied. “My ship was … interfered with. I was stranded here, only able to make small, almost random jumps. I am blind.”
“Maybe if your helmet had eye holes … ” Devlin remarked.
“Scrutarius,” Galana sighed.
Praxulon the Mad just laughed and tapped the strange skull he was wearing. “This old thing? My discipline has worn the skull of the eyeless beasts of the gates for generations. They’re from your past … but the distant future for me. A symbol of my craft. My exceptional genius,” he laughed again, then leaned forward. “Now, to get out of here ‑ ”
“You need your wayfinder,” Hartigan guessed.
“Ah, so you know about that,” Praxulon said. “No, I got my wayfinder back. The problem is, I got it back … out of order.”
“Out of order?” Galana frowned.
“I told you, I am flying blind. I got my wayfinder back, but then you got another copy of it back earlier … these are the hazards of time travel. The different versions – the one you have, and the one I have – are out of tune.”
“What makes you think we have one?” Hartigan asked nonchalantly.
Instead of answering, Praxulon settled back in his seat. “What year is this?”
“Do you mean by the standardised Six Species calendar?” Galana asked, wondering what possible good this information woud do to an alien. But, if his story of time travel was to be believed … “It is 1028 YM.”
“Ahh … ” Praxulon the Mad nodded his great gleaming helmet. “You see, the veil is not due to lift for another two thousand, eight hundred and forty-two years.”
“How do you know that, and what’s the veil?” Hartigan asked.
“Let’s just say that my first test-flight through time was much like a test-flight through space,” Praxulon said. “I bumped into my destination at an ill-advised speed and bounced back to end up here. So I caught a glimpse – quite a close-up glimpse – and then came to rest in this rather specialised section of my own future. And that was when I ran into difficulty with my wayfinder. I must get back to the point in time I bumped into, so that the circle may be completed and the damage contained.”
“What does that even mean?” Hartigan demanded in despair. “Don’t get me wrong, old fellow, I hear you trying to explain this simply for us, but honestly ‑ ”
“Never mind. You must forget everything,” the Time Destroyer replied sternly. “The less you know, the safer you will be if the Vultures come for you.”
“This crew ought to be quite safe from the Vultures,” Bonty said. “We hardly know anything.”
Hartigan did his best to ignore this. “I won’t even be alive in two thousand, eight hundred and however-many years,” he complained.
“I like to think I will,” Devlin remarked.
“Me too,” Galana added.
“Silence in the ranks,” Hartigan snapped. “We don’t like being reminded of our mortality. Bloody Mary, tell them.”
“It’s true,” Wicked Mary said. “The thought of dying in a few years is hardly improved at all by the knowledge that you will continue living for thousands of years afterwards.”
“If I can restore my sight,” Praxulon said, “perhaps I will be able to drop in on you and say goodbye before the end.”
“You already said goodbye to us a few weeks ago,” Scrutarius pointed out.
“You told us you’d meet us in Axis Mundi,” Galana said.
“I did? I must have been crazy,” Praxulon declared. “Do you have any idea how many Cat 9s I would need to fly past to get into Axis Mundi?”
“No,” said Galana. “We don’t know what a Cat 9 is.”
“Oh,” Praxulon said, then angled his helmet down to look at his controls. “Blast,” he added, “I have to ‑ ”
The Time Destroyer and his ship vanished, as abruptly as ever.
“Does anyone understand what’s happening?” Hartigan pleaded.
“Seems pretty simple to me,” Devlin said. “Time traveller half a million years ago, experimental time machine, went into the future and crashed and bounced back to here, got his giant rainbow navigation ferret stolen by the Spangles, and has been bouncing back and forth ever since trying to get it working properly so he can finish his journey and let the time travel police arrest him and wipe him out the way they did with the rest of his people.”
“That’s simple?” Bonty asked.
“Simple as I can get it,” Devlin said. “What I don’t understand is why he isn’t just staying here where he’s apparently safe from these Vulture things.”
“Obviously, doing so would put us all at risk,” Chillybin said.
“That’s obvious?” Bonty wailed.
“What do you think, Fen?” Hartigan was stroking his moustache thoughtfully.
“I agree with Chief Engineer Scrutarius,” Galana said, “only instead of the ‘time travel’ part, he’s just an eccentric alien we have not figured out how to communicate with yet.”
“And we have his wayfinder,” Roney added, “so sooner or later he’ll be ‑ ”
“Contact,” the Conch said, as the strange twisted shape of the Time Destroyer ship reappeared on their screens.
“ ‑ Give me a second,” Praxulon the Mad said the moment comms opened. “There. Alright. Do you have the wayfinder now?”
“We might,” Hartigan said cautiously. “I suppose you’ll want to try to tune it back up with your out-of-order one.”
“Something like that,” Praxulon said gruffly. “I expect I shall explain this all to you when I have a chance.”
“Yes,” Hartigan said. “I mean, I wouldn’t say you explained well, but you did your best … ”
“Your attempt to tune your wayfinder wouldn’t happen to involve shining some kind of energy beam on us,” Galana guessed, “while we release the wayfinder we have?”
“You shouldn’t need to release it,” Praxulon replied. “I can probably synchronise them directly from here.”
“Wait,” Devlin said. “Apparently I’m the only one who thinks you’re actually a time traveller ‑ ”
“I think you might be,” Hartigan said.
“I don’t care,” Wicked Mary added.
“I think it might be dangerous to even speculate about it,” Chillybin said.
“I’m so confused,” Bonty complained.
“But just in case you’re for real, or even if you’re just delusional, this might be important to the, you know, fantasy you’ve constructed,” Scrutarius went on. “We apparently already bollocksed this up on the second try, because you got the second try in front of the first. So we already know the first and second tries will fail. If you’re going to try for a third, you should be aware that you were pretty cross with us about the whole thing.”
“But hang about,” Hartigan frowned. “If this is before that for him, won’t he remember that he already knew it was going to fail because we’ve just told him?”
“‘Forget everything’,” Bonty said.
“Exactly!” Praxulon approved. “The fat old Molran is right.”
“Steady on,” Bonty objected mildly.
“You must forget what will happen in the future,” Praxulon the Mad said severely. “It is the safest course.”
“We don’t exactly operate that way,” Bonty told him. “We don’t know what will happen in the future. It’s not quite the same as forgetting.”
“Bah, a matter of interpretation. But the important thing is, I will forget. So I will probably still get frustrated at your failure, even though I should have known it would occur. So you will have to remind me when I berate you.”
“That’s going to be fun,” Hartigan said.
“Very well. If the field tuning will not work with the wayfinder inside your ship, we will have to do it the way you suggest,” Praxulon said. “I will reconfigure my emitters, and you will release the wayfinder from your airlock so I can interface with it directly in open space.”
“Can’t we just give it back to you?” Galana asked.
“Are you insane? The danger of having two iterations of the same wayfinder inside my ship’s field – it hardly bears thinking about,” Praxulon shook his head. “No, that’s why the field must be reconfigured to emit outwards. I will make the alterations and return. You just be ready to release the wayfinder.”
“But we won’t be ready to ‑ !” Hartigan shouted, but the Time Destroyer and his ship vanished again. “This fellow is the worst time traveller I could possibly imagine,” he exclaimed.
“How long do we wait for him to come back this time?” Bonty asked.
Galana and Basil exchanged a look.
“Give him a day?” Hartigan suggested. “Then we can continue on our way, and let him catch up with us.”
“Shouldn’t make a difference, to a time traveller,” Devlin agreed lazily.
“He’s not a time traveller,” Roney and Galana said together.
They waited, running a few scans of empty space and predictably finding nothing, for twenty-four hours. When Praxulon the Mad didn’t reappear, they set a course for the next inhabited world according to Roney’s charts. It was about five weeks’ journey, which was again four and a half weeks too long for the Boze.
“I’ll meet you there,” she said, “and do a bit more asking around about Time Destroyers while I’m waiting.”
“Don’t steal anything this time,” Hartigan admonished.
Roney snorted. “Steal from the Citadel of Cold Hearts,” she said. “Hardly.”
She didn’t explain what this rather ominous statement meant, in what Hartigan declared to be typical Captain Pelsworthy fashion. The Boze returned to her gleaming red ship and flicked away into the grey, and the crew of the Conch did the same at their own stately pace.
Bonty had gone back to the medical bay to look after the Time Destroyer wayfinder, and over the next few weeks she declared her much improved. The Bonshoon still had little idea what sort of nutrients she needed, and less about what she actually did in Praxulon’s ship, but the clues they’d gathered about the energy and light she absorbed allowed Bonty to try some experimental treatments that soon had the big furry creature looking rather chipper. There wasn’t much for any of them to do on the long flight through soft-space, so they all spent a lot of time in the medical bay. Basil in particular developed an attachment to the wayfinder. He called her Scrambles, for the funny flailing movements she made with her stubby little legs even though she was quite immobile.
“I say, d’you think she could really survive if we dropped her out the airlock into space?” he asked wistfully.
“She seems to produce her own oxygen internally and doesn’t need much to run all her whatever-these-are,” Bonty replied, waving a lower hand at the various scans of Scrambles’s internal organs. “The breathing she looks like she’s doing is really just a sort of internal pulse. I can’t say she would survive for long, but she’s not likely to survive for long without Praxulon’s help, anyway. Getting her back into his engine is probably her best hope for survival.”
“I wonder what she tastes like,” Wicked Mary said. Everyone turned to look at the giela where it stood in a corner of the medical bay. “I bet she’s sugary.”
Finally, their stretch in the grey ended and they returned to normal space on the edge of the solar system containing what Roney called the Citadel of Cold Hearts. Neither Roney nor Praxulon the Mad were there, and so the Conch steered cautiously towards the solar system’s small blue sun. Chillybin reported that there were minds somewhere in the system, but nothing she was familiar with.
Wicked Mary had just picked up faint tech signatures when Praxulon’s ship appeared in front of them.
“Here we go,” Hartigan said with a grin.
Praxulon the Mad flashed onto their screens. Galana noticed his ship’s control room, which she hadn’t paid much attention to before, was visibly wreathed in smoke. It appeared as though several of his consoles had burned out.
“You fools,” he fumed. “Why did you not release the wayfinder as we practiced? You shot my metapendulum! My great-grandparents could have been killed!”
“Sorry about that, old boy,” Hartigan said, surprisingly calm. “The problem was, we didn’t have the wayfinder. Or any idea what you were trying to do. Because we’d only just met you.”
“What?” Praxulon roared.
“Also we still haven’t actually practiced,” Scrutarius added.
“Maybe we could practice now,” Bonty suggested.
“Now? Inside the borders of the Citadel of Cold Hearts? Impossible!” Praxulon snapped. “Besides, if we practice now, we will not practice earlier and that will lead to catastrophic paradox!”
“That doesn’t sound great,” Scrutarius allowed.
“I think we can do it,” Galana said. The others stared at her. “We will put the wayfinder in our airlock and release it, as you fly past with your emitters firing. Just the way we will practice earlier,” she nodded at Basil. “The first rule of time travel is ‘forget everything’ after all,” she added.
“Very good,” Praxulon grumbled. “Once my wayfinder is aligned, I will jump. It is like a series of skips, like a stone across water. This means I will be able to say farewell to you – to those of you with brief lives, and then perhaps – yes – in Axis Mundi as I make my final leap into the nothingness that the Vultures demand of me. Let us get this done. I want to be rid of you and this depressing little galaxy,” he vanished from the screens, but his ship continued to turn slowly in space before them.
“Little?” Scrutarius huffed. “I do believe I’m offended.”
“So,” Hartigan eyed Galana in amusement. “Starting to believe, are we Fen?”
“No,” Galana said, “but the important thing is that he believes. Chief Engineer Scrutarius, Doctor Bont, get Scrambles to the airlock. Captain, I believe we should change course so we can drop the wayfinder into the path of Praxulon’s light when he starts shining it, assuming he will come in the way he did the last time.”
“In a way, it’s like we have practiced this before,” Bonty remarked.
“That’s the spirit,” Hartigan said, and leaned over his controls.
The ship rolled in towards them, the strange light shining from the vents in its gleaming rainbow-sheened sides. This time it didn’t get close enough to affect the crew. As the ship closed in, Scrutarius reported that Scrambles was loaded up and ready to release.
“Cheerio, Scrambles,” Hartigan said, and hit the airlock control.
They barely had a second to watch the sleek, elongated shape of the wayfinder as she flashed between the two ships and vanished into the light. A split-second after that, light and ship and wayfinder alike were gone as abruptly as ever.
“Well,” Hartigan said, “that was anticlimactic.”
“Shall we go and make contact with the Citadel of Cold Hearts?” Scrutarius strolled back onto the bridge.
“Maybe we should wait for Captain Pelsworthy to arrive,” Galana suggested, “to act as a guide.”
“Unless she’s not here because she already arrived, got on their bad side, and ran off again,” Hartigan remarked. “That’d be about her speed.”
“Contact,” the Conch said.
They all turned and looked at the main viewscreen. Praxulon’s ship had returned.
“Maybe he’s come back so we can practice tossing Scrambles at him,” Devlin said.
“He’s hailing us,” Chillybin reported. “Strange. It’s a standard simplified greeting signal, no audio or image.”
“I am attempting to establish a connection,”the Conch said. “He normally initiates contact, so it is complicated … ah, here we are. He is attempting to use an archaic form of Fleet language and a very odd comm spectrum, but he’s adapting quickly. I’ve provided him with an AstroCorps translation pattern.”
“Greetings,” Praxulon the Mad appeared on their screens. “I am not a local – in fact I come from almost as far away as you do, by a rather extraordinary road if I do say so myself. My name is Praxulon the Mad ‑ ”
“We know,” Hartigan said in exasperation.
“Ah,” Praxulon faltered. “We may have met before.”
“Yes we have. And before you bally well vanish again, maybe we can practice releasing your wayfinder in order for you to sync her back up with the copy you’ve got,” Hartigan asked.
“What? You dare to steal my wayfinder?” Praxulon boomed.
“We didn’t steal her,” Hartigan said, and jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “The Spangles took her, because you wouldn’t stop annoying them.”
“Praxulon the Mad,” Galana said, “allow me to greet you on behalf of AstroCorps and the Six Species. This is Captain Basil Hartigan, I am Commander Galana Fen. Our Medical Officer Bonjamin Bont, Tactical Officer Wicked Mary, Chief Engineer Devlin Scrutarius, and Communications Officer Chillybin.”
“Is that an Ogre?” Praxulon said in shock.
“And don’t concern yourself with the wayfinder issue,” Galana went on smoothly. “We have practiced, as you know.”
“We … have?” Praxulon floundered.
“You instructed us to forget everything,” Galana told him.
“Hmph,” Praxulon the Mad was clearly at a loss behind his helmet. “Well, that certainly sounds like me … ”
“Don’t worry, old boy,” Hartigan said. “With our help, you’ll make it to your meeting with the Vultures and save us all from annihiliation.”
Praxulon sat for a moment in silence.
“Fools,” he announced, and then he and his ship vanished once again.
“Good luck,” Bonty called.
“You’re welcome,” Devlin added.
“I say, were all the Time Destroyers like that?” Hartigan asked Chillybin.
“More or less,” Chillybin replied.
“Must have been rather a relief when they got wiped out, what?” the Captain said whimsically. “D’you think he really was a time traveller, or just crazy?”
“Yes,” Scrutarius said promptly.
“I suppose we will have to look for a place called Axis Mundi in two thousand, eight hundred and forty-two years,” Galana said, “and find out.”
“Right,” Hartigan shook his head as though to clear it, and pointed towards the little blue sun in the centre of the viewscreen. “Let’s go and say hello to the Citadel of Cold Hearts, what do you say?”
“You’re at the helm, Captain,” Galana reminded him.
“So I am,” Basil said placidly, and laid in a course.
Soon, in The Sirens of Gozonaar:
When Captain Judderone Pelsworthy of the Boze, Space Adventurer, failed to join them in the so-called Citadel of Cold Hearts, the crew hung around for a few days and then resumed their course around the galaxy.
The Citadel had been fascinating, and far friendlier than any of them had been expecting. Scrutarius suggested that any starship crew used to dealing with the rigidity of the Molran Fleet had nothing to fear from the strict rules and subtle humour of the Cold Hearted, and Galana had a hard time disagreeing with him. The Citadel was actually an ancient derelict space station that had been settled and then added to over the years by the new locals. The Cold Hearted were a strange and quiet folk, built rather like Molranoids but with three pairs of arms instead of two, which made them even taller, and with skin of a mottled orange and red. They were secretive about their society and history, but only too willing to exchange certain harmless information and host visiting aliens for a time.
It was difficult to see why they had such a reputation for ruthlessness, but Galana supposed it was easy to miss something like that if you didn’t provoke them.
“I liked them,” Captain Hartigan declared as they prepared to go to relative speed once more. “Still not entirely sure why they still built all their houses and furniture and everything to the scale of the original inhabitants of the Citadel when the original inhabitants were only about my size, but it was nice not to have to sit on a chair that made my feet swing for once so I’m not complaining, what?”
“Say what you like about Roney’s charts,” Scrutarius agreed, “but they haven’t led us anywhere boring yet.”
“We are receiving final departure permissions and warnings from the Citadel,” Chillybin announced.
“Warnings?” Galana asked.
“Apparently the region we intend to fly through is dangerous,” Chillybin read the official Citadel communication.
“Wouldn’t happen to be High Elonath, would it?” Hartigan asked hopefully.
“No, the Cold Hearted had never heard of High Elonath,” Chillybin reminded him.
“Not that they were telling us, anyway,” Scrutarius added.
“This region is called Gozonaar,” Chillybin pronounced heavily, “and it lies between the Citadel and … ‘Trading Partner 3’, which is apparently how the Cold Hearted label their allies.”
“Golly,” Hartigan said. “What did they call us?”
Chillybin consulted her notes. “‘Alien Union of Moderate Interest 71’,” she replied.
“I’ll take it,” Hartigan decided after scowling for a few moments. “So what’s so dangerous about Gozonaar, then?”
“According to this,” Chillybin said, “enough ships went missing between the Citadel and Trading Partner 3 that they now consider it worth detouring around. But there is no real detail. The Cold Hearted simply expect us to have the good sense to heed the warning, and they don’t really care if we ignore them.”
“How long will a detour take?” Hartigan asked. “Bloody Mary?”
“We can cross Gozonaar in two months,” Wicked Mary replied. “Going around would take almost five.”
Hartigan let out a long, sad whistle. “Fen?”
“I suspect good sense is about to leave the bridge,” Galana said. “But provided we remain in soft-space for the duration, I don’t think there is much risk. If I’ve understood the Citadel communications properly, there would be a special code that meant there was technology at work capable of collapsing relative fields and bringing ships out of soft-space, yes?”
“Yes, Commander,” Chilly replied.
“Since there is nothing like that, I think as long as we don’t stop, we should be safe,” Galana concluded.
“Jolly good,” Hartigan slapped the arm of his chair. “Next stop, Trading Partner 3!”