by Russ Massey


“Jenna, what do you make of this?”

Glad of an opportunity to stretch after four long hours in the pilot’s chair, Jenna Stannis stood and moved over to the navigation console, turning her head from side to side to ease the ache. She craned forward to peer over Cally’s shoulder at the readouts. “Whatever it is, it’s small. We’d never have detected it at more than a few hundred spacials.”

“And it seems to be just drifting,” Cally said, “I can’t pick up power emissions from any type of drive unit.”

“Perhaps it’s a distress beacon of some kind?” hazarded Jenna. She straightened to address the pattern of ever-changing lights on the port bulkhead, “Zen, give me a visual reference on the object on forward detectors. Maximum magnification.”


The screen projection expanded outward from a central point, until it appeared that the band of close-packed stars through which the Liberator flew was near enough to be touched. An object tumbled across the field of view. Its size couldn’t be judged, as the void held nothing to compare it with, but it reminded Cally of nothing more than a coffin. She dismissed the thought. Precognition was a rare gift among her people, and usually only experienced near the moment of death.

“I’ll bring it aboard,” said Jenna, moving purposefully back to the pilot’s console.

Cally looked up in surprise. “Shouldn’t we let Blake know? Or Avon?”

Jenna snorted, “Blake needs sleep after everything that’s happened, and I’m not really interested in hearing Avon’s opinion. Depressurise the aft hold! I used to skim pods of contraband out of close orbit for my living a few years ago; let’s see how rusty the old skills are.”


At rest in the cargo bay, the object glistened with ice. Its skin was still as frigid as the cold between stars, and the moisture in Liberator’s atmosphere had crystallized on it as it thawed. It was a cylinder, about four metres long and two wide. It rested on a flattened section - one of three such areas spaced equally about its circumference. Jenna and Cally examined it closely, checking for markings on the weathered off-white surface.

“I think it’s some sort of cargo pod,” said Jenna, pointing a powerful torch beam, “and by the look of all the pitting, it’s been floating through space for centuries - maybe longer. Wait! Here’s something!”

Cally bent closer to examine faded letters revealed by the light, “E.R.V. Trenton, Museum Exhibit 26,” she read aloud. “Terran, anyway. What do the letters stand for?”

“Nothing in current use,” said Jenna absently, “so it’s definitely pre-Federation. Museum exhibits? I wonder if there could be valuable antiques among them.”

Cally hid a grin. The strongroom held more wealth than they were ever likely to need, but it seemed that the acquisitive instincts of humans were not so easily satisfied. She checked the instrument she held. “The scanner says the pod’s warm enough to touch.” She smiled slightly. “Let’s take a look.”

Jenna reached for the tools at her belt. Any ’moving’ parts that had been in space as long as these were certain to be vacuum-welded immobile. She extended the sonic drill, only then noticing that she had drawn her handgun instead. When had she strapped on the weapon? She couldn’t remember doing so. She glanced toward Cally, who now had a weapon in her hand as well. Jenna felt curiously detached. Somehow what she was doing had ceased to be important. Fighting back a growing feeling that this was a dream of some kind, she tried to resheath the weapon. Her arm trembled with effort, but wouldn’t obey. She tried to turn her head away from the pod; tried to look toward Cally; tried to say something. Nothing happened. Her body belonged to someone else - someone far, far away.

With a mild hiss, the flat section of the pod which faced them cracked open. Jenna couldn’t even blink as the black slit grew slowly wider. And wider still. Impossibly wide, it filled her vision, blocking out first her view of the rest of the hold, then the light of the torches, then even the sight of her own hand. The universe had vanished. There was nothing but darkness.


Blake edged carefully onto the flight deck, a plate of food in one hand and two cups of coffee balanced in the other. “Jenna, Cally, I thought you might want a bite to...” He looked up and fell silent as he saw there was no one at the controls. Frowning, he found a space to dump the meal and turned to the computer. “Zen, where is everyone?”


“What! What are you talking about? I didn’t order any course change!”

“What is it, Blake?” Jenna entered the flight deck. “End of my watch already?”

He swung around to confront her. “It’d be nice to think you actually spent it watching! What the hell do you think you’re doing leaving all stations uncrewed? Pursuit ships could be right on our tail for all we know!”

Jenna slowed and put one hand to her face while she strove to remember, “I ... was helping Cally with something.”

Blake, striding angrily about the deck, ignored her words. “It’s not good enough, Jenna! I trust you to run the ship. And what’s Zen trying to tell me? Have you ordered a course change?”

Before the confused pilot could frame a reply, Avon entered and came to an abrupt halt in the doorway. “Have we stopped to pick up passengers, Blake?”

“What are you talking about? We’re still in deep space!” replied Blake, beginning to lose patience.

“Then who,” responded Avon, pointing his finger, “is that!”

Vila was next to arrive, and peered cautiously along Avon’s arm. Blake and Jenna both turned to look. A figure could be seen standing over the navigation console. It wasn’t completely focused, like a poorly maintained holoprojector, but seemed to be a tall, dark-skinned young woman in a close- fitting blue jump-suit. Even as they watched, the apparition gradually faded to nothing.

“Zen,” snapped Avon, “was there someone just operating the navigation controls?”


“Was she real? Who was she?” asked Vila.

Jenna moved cautiously to the position where the image had stood, and passed her hand through the empty space.

Blake shrugged, “No one I know. Does anyone know if Zen projects holograms?”

“By anyone,” said Avon, “I presume you mean me. The answer is yes, but only to certain locations. That is not one of them.”

“Could it have been a ghost?” asked Vila. “My grandmother used to tell me about ghosts. She always said a little fear was healthy for a growing lad. Strange woman. I never liked her.”

“Believers in the supernatural think that certain things are unknowable. I disagree. Things are only unknown at the moment, never unknowable. Of course...” Avon smiled and turned to face Vila, “if it was a ghost, it does sound as though Vila would be our expert in dealing with it.”

“Now, wait a minute...” Vila began.

“Hold it, all of you.” Blake moved to switch on the shipwide intercom. “Cally, Gan, report to the flight deck.” He moved to stand where the strange woman had been seen, and looked over the detector readouts before raising his head to sweep his eyes over the crew. “I don’t like events I can’t explain. Especially when they happen on a ship we still know too little about. I think we need to find some answers.”


Several minutes later all six crew members were sat in the central area of the flight deck. Blake summarised events from the moment he had entered.

“Could it be some sort of Federation weapon, Blake?” asked Gan. His hand moved almost of its own accord to touch his scalp.

“What sort of weapon?” pondered Blake. “Something affecting our minds? I doubt the Federation could get to us aboard Liberator.”

“Agreed,” said Avon, staring into space, his fingers steepled. “If the Federation could influence our minds at interstellar ranges they would already rule the galaxy, and we know that they do not. Cally, could it be telepathic in origin - someone calling to us, like the Lost did?”

Cally was embarrassed to be reminded of the episode. “Well, I wasn’t on the flight deck when it happened, remember. But you don’t see mental projections with your eyes; it happens in your mind. I do have a feeling of unease though. As if something’s not quite right.” Absently her hand dropped to her belt, as if seeking an object that was no longer there.

“So do I!” said Vila, “and I’ve no mental powers!”

“That’s very true,” drawled Jenna, with a withering glance in his direction.

“If we can come up with nothing more substantial than ’feelings’ and indifferent attempts at humour,” said Avon with a sideways glance that took in both Vila and Jenna, “I propose this discussion be ended. We’ll learn a lot more from a thorough systems check.”

“In your opinion,” stated Blake, mildly.

“It’s an opinion that should carry more weight than most on matters concerning this ship,” replied Avon, with a belligerent stare.

Blake chose to ignore the challenge. “Drugs,” he suggested. “Contamination doesn’t seem likely to me, but I’ll run checks on the stocks of food and drink we’ve consumed since Centero. Jenna, can you give me a hand? Gan, I want you and Vila to search the ship for anything out of the ordinary. Avon and Cally can stay here and run diagnostic checks on all systems. Let’s get to it!”




A man and a woman stood in the Liberator’s teleport bay. They looked around carefully, as though they were new arrivals, though they wore no teleport bracelets.

She was tall and slender. Long blonde hair fell in ringlets reaching half way down her back. Her tunic, skirt and boots were all the same shade of sky-blue. Her eyes were a much darker colour, difficult to pin down. “It’s a ship,” she said.

Her companion matched her in height, but was more powerfully built. His hair was also fair, but cut severely short in a military style. If her colour was blue then his was grey. It was in the shiny cloth of his high-collared uniform, in the supple leather of his shoes, and in the hard eyes that scanned his surroundings. He glanced down at his clothes and then up at his companion, raising an eyebrow.

She shrugged. “It’s not out of period.”

“Sailing ship?” he asked.

There was humour in her return glance. “Space ship. And a very advanced one for the period.” She reached out to touch the wall. “Built twenty-two years ago.”

“What is the period?”

“Oh, Second Calendar. Mid-third century, I think. The Terran Federation’s first major expansion.”

He grunted. “Not your usual level of precision.”

“We’re travelling outside the normal axes. Time gets altered. It complicates things.” She turned to her grim companion and smiled. “I’ve never been this far out from the centre before.”

He gave her a sour look, and led the way into the corridor. “I have. I had to handle a time break with Ruthenium in this zone.”

“Your first partner? I don’t think I’ve ever met her.”

“Then you missed your chance. That was her last mission.”


“What do you say Gan? I mean, we don’t know anything about the Liberator before they found it just drifting in space. With no crew aboard. No living crew.”

“There were no dead crew either, Vila! There was no one at all on board when Blake took over.” Gan finished looking around the teleport chamber and headed for the portside cabins, with Vila trailing behind him.

“Well that’s even more suspicious if you ask me. What if the ship was abandoned because it was haunted, eh?” Catching a movement out of the corner of his eye, Vila spun to see a cloaked man pointing some sort of weapon at him His yelp of fear as he dived to the floor brought Gan back.

“What is it, Vila?” Gan looked all around, trying to find something that could have caused the panic.

Vila opened one eye cautiously, and then climbed shakily to his feet. “I saw someone. A man with a gun. He was firing some sort of gas at me.”

Gan looked at him without comment.

“I know! I know there’s nothing there now! How come everyone takes Avon’s sightings seriously and not mine?”

With a last look around Gan resumed his journey. Vila hurried swiftly to keep up, muttering under his breath.


The grey man and the blue woman stood on a gantry, overlooking the vast spherical housing of the Liberator’s drive systems. The sound here made verbal communication impossible. The very air vibrated with power.

Is it this travesty that's responsible? asked the man.

Not entirely.

What's that supposed to mean? Even I can feel it! Time being twisted, stretched... mastered.

The contempt in his mind-voice made her shudder. It's their key to the galaxy. They don't realise the dangers involved. They don't know what time is.

And so things go wrong.

Yes, her voice was soft, distant, things go wrong. What happened to Ruthenium? At first she thought that Steel wasn’t going to answer.

She started thinking too much. It's a distraction.

Thinking about what?

About things that had nothing to do with the job. You do it but you have an excuse - you were human only a few years ago. You'll grow out of it. Ruth was a veteran.

Like you?

Steel grunted audibly, his eyes still scanning the drive chamber. He changed the subject. So. What's gone wrong here? Why have we been sent?

Sapphire sighed inwardly. Even after two missions with Steel she knew so little. I'm not sure. Everything I look at seems blurred somehow; as if several slightly different images are overlaid one on top of the other. Her hand tensed on the rail of the gantry and she swayed.

Sapphire! His reaction was swift; his grip certain. She was pulled back from the edge.

The age of the ship, Steel! It changed!

Changed? How can it change?

l felt it. One second it was twenty-two years old and the next - it was two hundred days older!

Have we travelled forward?

She concentrated briefly, No, Just the ship, It's ageing.

He grunted, Then we'd better get moving.


Vila followed Gan around the bend leading to their own quarters. He looked over his shoulder for signs they were being followed, and rebounded from Gan’s stationary form. The exclamation that came to his lips was choked back as he turned and saw Gan’s raised hand. “What is it?” he whispered.

Gan slid back around the corner of the passage, pushing Vila ahead of him. “The door to my room. I just saw it slide shut.” He activated the nearby intercom. “Blake, it’s Gan. Is there anyone in the crew quarters besides me and Vila?”

“Definitely not. What have you seen?”

“My door closing. I think there’s someone in my room.”

There was a pause. “I’m on my way. Be careful, Gan.”

With a grim expression, Gan began moving cautiously toward his door.

“Shouldn’t we wait for Blake?” hissed Vila. “We haven’t even got a weapon.”

“I don’t think you can shoot a ghost,” said Gan. Once outside his room he slapped the door release, springing through the widening gap with a shout intended to surprise any occupant. The noise died as he took in the scene. One hour ago his room had been pale green. There had been a few small landscapes of his homeworld on the wall, a bronze sculpture of a woman on his desk. Now all was changed. The walls were diagonally striped in brown and orange bars. A hologram of a Federation Fast Attack ship banked and spun in the air near the ceiling. His bronze was gone, replaced by sheaves of navigation charts.

“Vila, Look at my room!” At the lack of reply Gan reached back through the door and pulled his companion forward. “Look at it!”

Vila checked the four corners nervously. “You’ve redecorated I see, It’s very nice.” He crouched to peer under the bunk. “Very... empty.”

“I didn’t do this!” Gan threw open the doors of the wardrobe. He pulled out a Federation uniform, one obviously made for a man of considerably lesser bulk. “Even my clothes have gone.”

Blake entered, blaster at the ready, and looked curiously around. “What’s happened to your room?”

Gan just shrugged, staring at the uniform he held at arm’s length, as if to minimise the risk of contamination.

“Do you suppose Zen could have managed this?” said Vila.

Jenna now peered through the door. “If I were Zen I’d be insulted. It takes a human male to be that tasteless.”

Vila’s indignant reply was interrupted by a shock that flung all four of them to the floor. Cally’s voice came over the intercom, “Everyone to the flight deck! We’re under attack!”


Sapphire turned to her companion, now able to be heard using normal speech. “It’s a large vessel, Steel. We aren’t getting far just wandering around.”

Steel didn’t break stride. “We won’t get anywhere at all standing still. Can you feel it?”

“The aura of violence?”

“Exactly. This whole ship is designed for war. For killing. It practically resonates with it.”

“I’ve been thinking about that. It doesn’t fit. You might get that sort of background impression from something like an ancient battlefield, but this ship simply isn’t old enough for that sort of psychic residue to have accumulated.”

“Could it happen in a place where time is being manipulated? A by-product of something else?”

“No, I don’t think so. Give me a minute for a spot reading.”

Steel kept on walking.

“Steel, wait!” Sapphire halted in the featureless corridor, and her companion grudgingly turned back to watch. She reached out. Her eyes began to glow with the colour of her aspect. It was built, twenty- three years ago. It was built to explore. It's deadly, yes. It has fought. The ship has killed. In self-defence. It's never struck first. There are humans on board. Not the original crew. And they aren't alone, there's something else on board. I can feel it now. It's growing stronger. An older killer. So ancient. Blood on flint! Bronze tearing through skin! Bullets shattering bone! Old death and new!

Steel gripped her shoulders and stared into her eyes. “Enough, Sapphire.”

The blue gradually faded, and she met his own gaze with a bruised look, “It’s so old, Steel. Older than fire. Older than the caves. And it feeds on death.”

Steel glanced around. “Ancient death combined with cutting-edge annihilation. In a ship that uses temporal energy as if it’s just one more power source. It’s a time break, isn’t it?” There was no answer. He spun to shout at her, “Isn’t it!”

Sapphire nodded mutely. She staggered as the Liberator shook. Steel’s position hadn’t changed a hair’s breadth.

“You say there’s a crew on board?”

She nodded again.

“There would be! Lead me to them.”


Cally was piloting and Avon was hunched over the detector readouts when the rest of the crew made it to the flight deck.

“Zen reports several plasma bolt strikes,” said Avon, “but detectors say there’s nothing but empty space as far as they can reach.”

Blake took command as the others moved to their positions. “Zen! Random evasive course, speed standard by ten.”


As a rising hum indicated the increase of engine power Blake stared ahead with dawning comprehension, “Now where have I heard that before?” he muttered darkly.

“Deja vu can be expected when time is out of joint.”

All heads spun on hearing the unknown woman’s voice. Blake smoothly drew his sidearm and brought it to bear. When he saw that the two intruders were unarmed and apparently unmoved by the threat of his weapon, he allowed it to fall. “Who the hell are you two?”

“And how did you get aboard?” asked Avon.

Sapphire smiled radiantly, walking down the steps to face Blake. “We’re just travellers. You seemed to be having trouble, and we’re here to help.”



“Very reassuring,” said Blake sarcastically, “but it doesn’t really answer my question.”

“And it ignores mine completely,” added Avon, not taking his eyes from Steel.

“Who we are,” said Steel, “is the least of your worries. Something is happening on this ship that will destroy you all if it isn’t stopped.”

“I don’t like the sound of that,” said Vila. “Can you stop it? Whatever ’it’ is?”

“Just a minute,” interrupted Jenna. “Odd things start to happen on board and then you two conveniently appear from nowhere with an offer of help. Why should we believe you aren’t behind all this?”

Steel stared at her without expression, “Why should I care what you believe?”

Sapphire broke the hostile silence. “Please forgive my companion’s bluntness. He’s experienced the consequences of failure in a similar situation and it makes him irritable.” She took Blake by the arm and led him to the couch. Steel joined her, while Avon pointedly moved to stand in front of the gun rack.

“Avon had a good question,” said Jenna. “I’d still like to know how you got on board.”

“We were sent,” said Steel.

“Sent by who?” asked Cally. “The Federation?”


“Then who?” Blake was exasperated. “Cryptic guessing games aren’t going to get us very far. If the situation is as serious as you claim then you must have some means of proving it. If not, you can understand why we just might be inclined to treat you as hostile! If you want our co-operation you’re going to have to trust us.”


Tell them what you like. It probably won't matter in the end.

“I am Sapphire. He is Steel.”

“Steel, eh,” mused Blake, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “It’s not an uncommon code name among revolutionaries.”

Steel grunted derisively as he moved to examine the weapons console. Vila hastily backed out of his way and edged around him to take the seat next to Sapphire.

“We aren’t... political,” she continued, “We’re investigators; scientists in a way. Our job is to guard the timestream from interference that could be damaging to human existence.”

“Under whose authority?” cut in Avon.

“We’re volunteers.”

Steel gave a hollow laugh.

“Most of us, anyway,” said Sapphire, with a sharp glance in his direction. “We intervene in human affairs only when absolutely necessary.”

“And when is that?” said Blake.

“Whenever irregularities in the timestream become threatening to life.”

Vila put his hand on her arm, “Er ... you keep mentioning life. In particular the lack of it. I get the impression that it’s our lives under discussion.”

Steel turned to him, “Now you’re getting the idea.”

“I thought I might be.”

“And you seem to be implying that you’re not human,” said Cally.

“Not anymore, no.” Sapphire took Vila’s hand in her own and smiled at him, Vila Restal, Part of the Federation's underclass. A thief and a dissembler. Hides his true capabilities. Steel sensed a flash of humour in her mental voice, Very human!

Vila was gazing into Sapphire’s eyes with an expression of unsubtle admiration, “If only all aliens looked like you!”

Blake caught Cally’s icy glare from the corner of his eye, and coughed to cover a smile. “So, Sapphire, Steel. I’m Roj Blake.” Quickly he introduced the rest of the crew, describing them as a band of fighters against a tyrannical government.

Steel only became interested when Blake went on to relate the unusual events of the last hour. “Where exactly did you see this ’ghost’?”

Jenna indicated the spot in front of the navigation console.

Steel glanced toward Sapphire, and without a word she moved to the same position and began to concentrate. The blue glow that appeared in her eyes was noticed by all the Liberator’s crew, though none commented. “Nothing,” she said.

“Can you replay the image?” asked Steel, “Take time back?”

“I don’t know. It might be too far. I don’t think I can.”


Sapphire took a step backwards and stared into space. Her eyes glowed more strongly than ever. Gan was closest to her. He felt his skin tighten, and the hairs on his arms stand straight up. His head began to pound in time to his heart beat. All the small noises of the flight deck were dulled, as if the air itself were thickening. He wanted to back away, but his legs wouldn’t obey him. A shape gradually appeared before the console. More than just a shape, a woman. She bent over the readouts and then straightened and looked over to where Blake was still seated. Her mouth moved, but there was no sound. Suddenly the image was gone. Sapphire swayed and seemed about to fall.

Gan instinctively leapt forward to hold her upright. She held onto him for support, strain evident in her features. “Are you all right?”

Sapphire smiled her thanks and nodded. Olag Gan. He was a veterinarian on an Earth colony. Steel, he's a killer! The memories have been mostly sealed off. He doesn't remember much about it. There's a device implanted that modifies his behaviour. Keeps him sane. He has less than a year to live.

He's a potential danger.


“Impressive,” said Avon, “but what exactly did it tell us?”

Sapphire turned to meet his icy expression, “You saw a glimpse of the future. That girl will become a member of the ship’s crew.”

“And my room...” said Gan, “has that been taken over by another future crew member?”

There was compassion in her face. Gan turned away, unable to meet the eyes of the rest of the crew. They all knew he wasn’t likely to have left the Liberator by choice.

Steel broke the moment, speaking briskly. “Some entity has broken through time and is now on board this ship. It’s responsible for these sightings of future events. There will be more of them. They’ll get longer and more real until there comes a point where reality can no longer tolerate the paradox.”

“And then?” Vila spoke, not really sure that he wanted to know the answer.

“It won’t get that far. There are others of us to deal with events of that magnitude.”

“Then why didn’t they send one?” asked Avon.

Steel smiled for the first time. “Consider a patient, infected with some malignant growth. It has to be removed. From the growth’s point of view it doesn’t matter whether the surgeon uses a scalpel or a neutron blaster.”

“It matters to the patient!” said Vila.

“Consider Sapphire and I the scalpels. You wouldn’t enjoy meeting the others.”

“I’m not sure I’m enjoying meeting these two,” muttered Jenna.

“We need to locate the entity,” said Sapphire.

Blake took the opportunity to take charge, “Right, I suggest we split into teams. Gan and Vila, you go with Steel and take port side. Avon and Jenna, with Sapphire on the starboard. Cally and I will search forward and then co-ordinate from the flight deck.”

As the crew moved toward the exits, Avon took the opportunity to speak quietly to Blake. “I hope you’ve noticed, two handguns are missing.”

“I’ve noticed,” said Blake. “Stay alert.”


Deep in the hold there was a stirring. Something born long, long ago sensed the nearness of its age-old foes, those who would try to stop its being, whatever face or form they wore. It reacted. It wasn’t fear. The entity could feel no fear. But the resonance it drew from artifacts of death took time to build, and the two handguns it had obtained were less than it desired. Soon it would have the power to engulf the whole ship, and then it could feed on death greater than any it had encountered. But for now it must be safe. It must grow in darkness until it had power enough. There was no intelligence in its actions, no reasoned logic to guide what it did. There was only eternal malevolence and a chill, final lust for the annihilation of all. And that would be enough.


Blake closed the hatch of Probe Subsystems Room 3 with a sigh, “This is going to take longer than I thought.”

Cally called out, through the open doorway of the Auto-Repair chamber opposite, “Did you say something?” She finished her inspection of the machinery spaces and found Blake leaning against the corridor wall, scowling. “Blake?”

“I’m not happy with all of this, Cally. Those two claim to be some sort of trouble-shooters, supposedly acting to save ’humanity’ from things that go wrong with time... It all seems just a bit too convenient.” He looked up and grinned as he saw dust smudges on Cally’s nose and chin.

She rubbed at her face self-consciously. “You’d think that at least auto-repair would be clean.” Her hands left even more dirt behind. “Is it possible, do you think? That what they claimed could be happening?”

Blake massaged his neck wearily as he led the way to the next set of rooms. “I just don’t know. I’ve been remembering the early history of the time-distort drive. There were a lot of strange accidents; deaths of scientists, destruction of research stations, prototypes that just went missing. The history books blamed it on sabotage by anti-Expansionist terrorists.”

“And you think that it could tie in with what’s happening here instead?”

“I don’t know Cally!” He glanced at her apologetically, lowering his voice, “I just don’t know. Does your telepathy tell you anything about them?”

“Very little I ’m afraid. They definitely aren’t Auronar; they could possibly be human. I still have that feeling of unease I mentioned earlier, but I can’t tell the source. It feels like... I don’t know. I was once in a skirmish on Saurian Major. We’d wiped out a Federation patrol, but the two Auronar with me were badly wounded. There was no one else around to help. It feels like it did then. A constant background of mental anguish. Their pain became my pain, but it was far away in the distance.” Her eyes unfocused. Her voice was filled with pain. “Rylor’s dying, coughing up blood from his broken chest. He wants to be an actor; to make people feel things. Thara’s dying, half her face burnt off. She won’t let go of my hand; keeps trying to tell me not to worry. The smell. The smell’s so bad I want to vomit, but I can’t let myself. I’m trying to save them; I’m trying to stop the blood, but I’ve no drugs, no proper equipment. Two of the enemy are still alive. They scream, over and over. I can’t concentrate, they just keep screaming and screaming. I have to shut them up, have to make them quiet so I can think.” She shuddered, and Blake put his hand on her shoulder. She raised her eyes to his, They were filled with pain, and fear, and loss. Tears trickled down her cheeks, making streaks in the dirt. Whatever she was now seeing, it wasn’t him.

“Cally.” He pulled her close as she showed no signs of recognising him. Her entire body was shaking. “Cally! It’s over. You’re safe. There’s no danger. You’re with friends.” Blake was mystified. She seemed to be reliving the experience in such detail that she was actually back there. He continued to speak softly and gently, making meaningless reassurances, while stroking her hair.

Eventually the trembling ceased.

You can release me now.

Blake cleared his throat, and took a step back. “Are you all right?”

She looked at him bleakly.

“I’m sorry. Stupid question. What happened ? Some kind of flashback?”

She shook her head slowly, “More than that, I think.”

“Something to do with the ’entity’?”

“Perhaps. It doesn’t matter; we still have a job to do.” She turned away and pushed the door panel for Probe Subsystems room 6 As Blake moved to check the room opposite he barely sensed a quiet thought. Thank you.


Avon was trying to gain more information about the problem from Sapphire, but without much success. “Be more specific! If we knew the form and capabilities of this so-called entity our search would be more efficient.”

“I’m afraid our work rarely lends itself to neat categorisations,” said Sapphire coldly.

“Which roughly translated, means that you don’t know what the hell you’re looking for either!”

Jenna had noticed that while she and Sapphire were searching the cabins and control rooms, Avon had kept most of his attention on the woman. It was obvious Avon didn’t trust either her or Steel, but then that was hardly surprising news. Their claims about time monsters were bizarre enough, but add that to their ability to just appear aboard a ship in distort space and it certainly gave you something to think about. “Sapphire, what are you and Steel?”

“I told you, Investigators.”

“No,” said Jenna, “I mean what’s your relationship to each other?”

Sapphire seemed surprised by the question. “We’re partners. In the sense that we work well together. Our abilities are complementary.”

“Have you worked together a lot?”

“No, this is only our third mission as a team.”

Her tone was not exactly encouraging, but Jenna pressed on regardless. “You mentioned something before about volunteering to do what you do. Steel didn’t seem to agree.”

Sapphire smiled. “He and I disagree about quite a few things.”

Jenna grinned back, flicking her eyes in Avon’s direction. “That sounds somehow familiar.”

Sapphire halted for a moment, touching the walls of the corridor. Her eyes glowed faintly blue for a few seconds. Jenna watched with a fascination tainted with unease at this display of inhuman ability.

“What exactly did that tell you?” asked Avon.

“That this ship was now apparently built twenty-four years ago. And that the influence of the entity is growing.”

“Can you tell the distance and direction? We could get a bearing from different parts of the Liberator and then triangulate its location.”

Sapphire shook her head. “It isn’t like that. It’s not a beacon you can focus on - more like a bank of dark fog coating everything. And I think it knows that Steel and I are here. It’s trying to hide until it’s too late for us to do anything.”

“Meaning it considers the rest of us no threat?” said Avon. Sapphire just smiled.

“I thought you had friends who could destroy it no matter what,” said Jenna.

“I wouldn’t call them friends exactly,” Sapphire shivered a little, and wrapped her arms around herself. “I saw one of them once. From a distance ... There’s a rule, you see. The trans-Uranics can’t be committed if their presence would destroy life.”

“But Steel said that he would call for them, and we’re still here,” said Jenna.

Sapphire just glanced at her, and turned the bend in the corridor without answering.

Avon looked stonily at Jenna. “I imagine Steel is quite capable of making sure no rules are broken.” He checked the play of the handgun in its holster and followed.

Jenna’s attention was caught by a discoloration on the wall, far above head height. Some sort of mildew? She shrugged and walked after Avon. It could hardly be as important as finding Sapphire’s entity.


“That’s the force wall generator room checked out. There’s just hold number three at the end of this corridor.” Gan closed the doors and led the way along the corridor to the turning ahead.

“So, Steel. Can you see into the future then?” Vila asked the grim man by his side.


“Oh. Does it pay well, this job of yours?”

Steel simply glanced contemptuously at Vila and kept on walking after Gan.

“Not enough obviously. Still, you do get to work with pretty women.” Vila almost stumbled as the ship seemed to blur about him.

“That’s the force wall generator room checked out. There’s just hold number three at the end of this corridor.” Gan closed the doors and led the way along the corridor to the turning ahead.

“So, Steel. Can you see into the future then?” Vila asked the grim man by his side.


“Oh. Does it pay well, this job of yours?”

Steel glanced contemptuously down at Vila. He seemed about to say something for a moment then shook his head, as if bothered by an insect, and kept on walking after Gan.

“Not enough obviously. Still, you do get to work with pretty women.” Vila almost stumbled as the ship seemed to blur about him.

“That’s the force wall generator room checked out. There’s just hold number three at the end of this corridor.” Gan closed the doors and led the way along the corridor to the turning ahead.

“So, Steel. Can you see into the future then?” Vila asked the grim man by his side.


“Oh. Does it pay well, this job of yours?”

Steel stopped, looking around as if confused.

“What’s wrong?” Vila looked around nervously, but could seen nothing threatening.

“Gan. Stop!”

The barked command brought Gan around, “What is it?”

“Something isn’t right here. Walk forward, very slowly.” Steel concentrated his senses, willing them to resist any deception. When he reached a certain point in the corridor he saw a flicker of darkness, a shifting of the images around him. The trio stood once again outside the door of the generator room.

“That’s the force wall generator...” Gan trailed off to silence as Steel raised his hand.

“We’ve been through this already.”

“We have?” asked Vila in surprise.

“Take my word for it.”

“What do you mean? We’ve only just finished searching the room.” Gan was puzzled.

“I mean,” said Steel, “that every time we walk down that corridor we end up back outside this door. It’s a time loop. Quite a good one in fact. Whatever’s responsible is probably somewhere on the other side of it. Hold number three you said?”

“This is the only linking corridor. Can you get past it?” asked Vila.

“One learns by doing,” Steel said grimly.


Avon had been listening with fascination as Jenna had skillfully drawn out more of Sapphire’s history while they searched. He wasn’t sure yet how much of it he believed, but the idea that ordinary humans could be granted such abilities had he had already seen was a sobering one. The unnamed organisation backing the pair had to be powerful. Powerful enough to laugh at Federation bounties. But the price might not be worth it. Certainly the occupational hazards of such a profession were enough to give one second thoughts.

Sapphire abruptly halted, ending his train of thought. “Steel’s found something. How do we get to the force wall generator room from here?”

Avon raised an eyebrow at the evidence of the link between the pair.

“Which one?” asked Jenna.

Sapphire thought for a moment, “The one nearest hold three.”

“This way.”


Cally was at the pilot’s console and Blake was pacing the flight deck when Vila burst in. “Blake! Cally! Steel says the thing we’re looking for is in the aft-hold. He’s trying to find a way to get through to it.”

“Right! We need to leave someone on the bridge. Cally, I’ll go join them.” Blake raced off, relieved to have something concrete to do.

Cally paused for a moment, frowning, “The aft hold... What was I doing in the aft hold earlier?” she whispered.

“I’ll stay on the flight deck with you,” said Vila, nervously moving closer to Cally’s position. She raised an eyebrow and stared at him “Well, I mean to say,” he continued, “you might need some protection from whatever it is. And what’s happening to the ship anyway? There were lumps of green goo covering the walls on the way here...”


Blake encountered Avon’s team as he ran, and with handguns at the ready they turned the corner leading to the hold. The normally unchanging temperature of the Liberator’s corridors seemed to drop sharply. Blake could see Steel standing in the middle of the corridor, arms outstretched, one hand pressed against each of the walls. The surface around his fingers glittered with ice crystals. Gan was watching from close by, and his breath steamed as it left his mouth.

“What’s he doing?” Avon asked.

Sapphire’s attention was fixed on her partner. “He’s trying to stabilise the time loop. Extreme low temperatures could do it.”

Even as she spoke the air in the corridor began to sparkle darkly. As the patches of ice spread outwards from Steel’s fingertips, a complex web of glittering strands gradually materialised in front of him. It almost hurt to look directly at them. The eye wandered along their coils and whorls until it met impossible geometries, and the mind recoiled before the impossible. Steel was not finding the task easy. The strain was all too evident in his features.

Gan threw a small object past him and into the black tangle. As it approached it seemed to slow in mid-air, then come to a complete stop, hanging as if suspended by invisible strings. Blake recognised it in a brief moment of stasis, before it began to flicker as though lit by a stroboscopic light: the cartridge from a vid unit. Then it was gone completely.

A clatter from behind caused them all to spin. The cartridge bounced off the floor in front of the force wall generator room door.

Sapphire turned back to Steel. “You can’t do it Steel! It’s too strong.”

“Must ... try,” was his reply, through gritted teeth.

Blake clenched his fists in frustration. He hated seeing someone making extreme efforts on his behalf when there was nothing that he could do to help. Avon slipped away from the group of observers, unnoticed by any of them.


Back on the flight deck Cally and Vila were staring in dismay at the shambles that surrounded them. All the ship’s surfaces were bubbling and oozing as if in a furnace. Brown slime dripped down from the walls, and globs of sickly jelly pulsed from cracks in the consoles.

“Zen!” Cally called out, “are the auto-repair circuits operating?”

+THIS IS NOT... AUTO-REPAIR SYSTEMS ARE ... SITUATION IS...+ the voice trailed off into silence, and Zen’s lights flickered off.

“Well he’s a lot of use,” muttered Vila. “I think we’d better let Blake know about this.” He reached gingerly for the intercom switch, trying to avoid contact with any of the disturbing material on the panel’s surface. There was no response.

“It’s affected the internal communication net,” Cally confirmed. “You’ll have to go and find him.”

Vila’s expression of horror was almost comical. “I’m not making my way through a ship full of this! Can’t you use telepathy?”

Cally frowned, but then gave a short nod. With one hand to her temple she focused her mind and reached out for the familiar trace that was Blake. It felt harder than usual. Distance was normally not something that she was particularly aware of, but Blake now felt very far away. Not in space, or he would have been out of range completely - just distant in a way that she had never experienced before. She spoke aloud at the same time as her mind cast her thoughts outward, the one helping to reinforce the other. Blake! Hear me. The ship is decaying. Systems are failing. We may not have much time. She repeated the message twice more, but couldn’t be sure that he had heard. The effort had drained her far more than it should have.




Avon returned, pushing a pallet on which was loaded a massive section of the main drive unit. Thick cables trailed behind him. He saw that Steel seemed to have abandoned his attempt to break the loop, and was now lent stiffly against one of the corridor walls, a thin coating of rime clinging to the exposed skin of his face and hands. Even from five metres away Avon could feel the waves of cold emanating from him. Steel’s eyes were closed. His chest neither rose nor fell. Sapphire had draped one of the thermal coveralls around him and was watching him carefully, perhaps speaking to him through the telepathy they apparently shared.

“What the hell have you got there?” asked Blake.

“The Liberator’s drive destabilises normal space-time, correct?”

“Yes, so..?”

“So, if I can generate a local reversal of that effect and focus it on the instability that creates the time loop...”

Blake rubbed his neck, deep in thought, “It sounds like pure guesswork to me. Any one of a dozen things might happen.”

“Does that mean that you have a better idea?”

Blake shrugged. “No.”

“Then you can have the pleasure of saying ’I told you so’ if my idea fails. I need someone at the auxiliary engineering panel to control the power flow.”

Jenna nodded. “I’ll go.” She caught the teleport bracelet that Avon threw to her. “Why this?”

“Intraship communications look to be out,” he answered, handing bracelets Blake and Gan also. “Now move!”

Jenna ran off.

“Gan, can you handle this module? It will need to be raised so the field coil is midway between all the corridor’s surfaces, and we don’t have a dolly that high.”

Gan eyed the metal cylinder carefully. “I can lift it,” he said with confidence.


Steel? Can you hear me, Steel? For several minutes there had been no reply. Her partner had refused to give up, had pushed himself beyond even his prodigious limits. Finally he’d staggered back against the wall and the dark web had faded back into invisibility. Since then he’d shown no signs of life. Sapphire was shaking with the cold, even from being within a metre of him. Shaking with more than just the cold. She had never really faced the possibility of extinction before. She knew of it intellectually of course; knew the risks involved in every mission she undertook. But this was different - this was her partner dying before her eyes, a mission teetering on the brink of disaster, a choice to be made that she didn’t know she would be strong enough to make.

Ruth ..?

His thought was so faint she almost missed it. Steel! It's me, it's Sapphire.

Saph ... Sapphire? Yes. So. Far. Below.

You'll be all right, Steel. Come up slowly. I'll be here.

Yes. Slowly.

Sapphire sighed with relief, composing her face carefully before she turned to check on what the humans were doing. The man called Gan had a large cylinder of complex machinery balanced on one shoulder and was making his way, step by careful step, along the corridor. Now almost half way to the airlock connecting the corridor to the cargo bay, he was flickering in and out of sight in the same way the object thrown earlier had. He seemed to be wading through twisted ribbons of yellow-green and sparkling black. The dark strands coiled from the roof, the floor and the walls to wrap around him. They were a different manifestation of the ’loop’ that Steel had struggled to subdue. The other tendrils whirled outwards from the maw of the object he carried. They spun off in vortices of colour which chopped through the darker lines, causing them to shrivel, shrink, and dissipate. The clash of temporal forces made it had to see the man at their centre, but to Sapphire’s eyes it was apparent that Gan was fast approaching his limits. Sweat dripped steadily from him, and his face was contorted in a rictus that spoke clearly of the agony coursing through his powerful frame.

Blake smashed his fist into the wall. “The fool! I should never have let him do it.”

Avon glanced at him with a raised eyebrow, “Don’t be stupid, Blake! Do you think you could have made it half as far?” He raised his bracelet. “Jenna, give me the full output of bank four. Now!”

Gan screamed, and his body seemed almost to flow like liquid as the emanations from the drive unit reached their peak. As the trio watched, the flickering in the corridor slowed, then slowed still more. The tendrils of black began to fade away, finally vanishing altogether. Gan slumped to the floor, the massive cylinder crashing with him to roll heavily against the wall.

“That’s done it! Jenna, shut down all drive systems!”

Sapphire moved cautiously toward the prone figure, which stirred feebly. She bent to examine him. “He lives. It seems the loop has been destroyed. How remarkable. The loop was only a minor manifestation though.” She looked toward the airlock. “The real enemy is in there.”

Blake straightened suddenly, and drew Avon’s curious glance. “It’s Cally. She’s saying something about ship damage. I can’t quite make her out.”

Sapphire looked up in surprise. “A telepath?”

Blake nodded, “Cally’s Auronar. Many of them have telepathy.”

Sapphire pulled Gan up on unsteady feet. “A telepath. And you said nothing!”

Blake stared at her in surprise. “Is it important?” The withering glance he received was reply enough.

Sapphire held Gan steady and stared into his eyes. “Can you take me to the flight deck?” Gan nodded numbly. Supported by the slender woman he staggered away.

Jenna passed the pair as she rejoined Blake and Avon, panting from her run. “Is Gan all right?”

“It seems so.” Blake drew his handgun and turned toward the hold. “Are we ready to continue?”

Avon drew and moved to Blake’s right. Jenna exhaled heavily and moved to his left. Together they approached the internal airlock.


Hearing footsteps, Vila turned to see Sapphire enter the bridge, still helping Gan to support himself.

“Is Gan badly hurt?” called Cally.

“I think he’s just exhausted,” she replied. “He must have absorbed a lot of drive radiation in neutralising the time loop, and it seems to have been too much for him. The corridor is stabilised now.” She and Vila carried Gan to the couch and laid him on it. Sapphire then approached Cally, reaching out to grasp the surprised woman’s hand. “It’s true! You are a telepath.”

“Yes... But I am limited to projecting my thoughts to humans. I can receive only the thoughts of my own people, the Auronar.”

You can hear my thoughts. With your help, and that of Vila, we can make a difference to this fight. Will you let me into your mind, Cally of Auron?


The inner door of the airlock opened at Blake’s touch, and he cautiously led the way into the hold. The huge chamber arched high overhead, and each footfall echoed in the hollow vastness. The only thing in the hold was a white container, nearly the height of a man and five times as long. One of its six long sides was raised open, but the interior was in shadow and nothing of the contents could be seen.

Jenna shook her head. She had the strangest feeling that she’d seen the object before.

“It’s a cargo container,” said Avon, “and it couldn’t have got here on its own. But is this responsible for what’s happening to the ship?”

“There’s only one way to find out,” answered Blake, walking forward. The look Avon gave him was troubled, but both he and Jenna followed Blake deeper into the hold. As they neared the container they could begin to make out some of what it held. None of the objects appeared threatening in themselves, but each of the trio could feel something oppressive, as if a low roof was forcing them to crouch as they advanced. There were ancient blades within the pod; weapons so rusted and fractured that even to lift one would be to destroy it. Beside them were fragments of armour; tattered scraps of leather, sections of metal links, solid plates of metal. The closer they approached the more certain became the sensation of something evil, something wrong connected with the pod. Finally they could all see two very familiar objects, half-concealed amid the antiques.

“The missing handguns! How did they get into this pod? This has to be it,” said Blake through gritted teeth. “This is what’s destroying my ship.”

“I agree,” confirmed Avon, “there’s definitely something malevolent in there. But can it be destroyed?”

“Let’s find out,” said Blake, raising his weapon to fire. _________________________________________



He was in a forest; both like and yet unlike Earth. Jenna was close by, bound with ropes and guarded by some stony-faced woman in Federation black. A mutoid by the look of her. His chest heaved with the eort of drawing breath. Adrenaline surged through his body. His old enemy stood just a few metres away, Blake raised his spear just in time, parrying Travis' thrust and spinning with the reaction to hit him a glancing blow with the butt as his enemy sped past. The Space Commander rolled out of reach and quickly returned to his feet.

Nice try Blake, he sneered, but if the only way I can get o this grave-world is by killing you, then you're as good as dead! Travis sprang forward, spear lancing towards Blake's chest, while he ung a handful of dirt into the rebel's face...


Avon glanced sideways at Blake, wandering why he had failed to shoot. Blake’s eyes were flickering from side to side and beads of sweat had sprung out from his forehead. His hand was trembling on the grip of the blaster. “Blake ..?” Avon began, and then realised what must have happened. He jumped forward to get a clear view of the white cargo pod and bought up his own weapon. _______________________________________________________________________________________



The gun in his hand was small, but it would do the job. The shuttle's cargo deck was empty, there was Vila? Not the airlock, that would be suicide. He paced quietly forward, one careful step at a time. In less than a minute he would eectively be dead. They would both be dead unless Vila could be made to see the logic of the situation. A gun could be wonderfully enlightening. Vila, Where are you Vila? I've found a way to save the ship, but I need your help...




Jenna watched in disbelief as she first saw Blake crouch and spin around the hold, and then Avon begin to slowly pace back and forth seemingly searching for something. Both of them appeared entranced - their minds no longer dealing with what was real. She realised that in each case it had happened when they pointed their handguns at the container. Some sort of defensive system? She sheathed her gun. Maybe it only reacted to advanced weaponry. A distant shriek told her that the Liberator was in trouble. Every spacer knew the sounds of hull rupture, and Jenna could also feel a new vibration in the deck plates that told of structural failure. Somehow this thing was killing her ship. Purposefully she advanced on the container. There was faded lettering on the surface of the pod, but even without looking she knew what it said. She reached out to grasp the rim of the open door so that she could lean into the interior for a better look. ________________________________________



Her hands closed on the arms that were throttling the life from her. She could feel muscles like steel cables. Her own strength was useless against them. With blurry eyes she could see Gan's face twisted into a murderous rage. She put all her waning energy into a punch that should have doubled up any normal man, but Gan didn't even seem to notice. With consciousness gradually slipping from her she only had the time to wonder - Why?


Sapphire, Cally and Vila stood in a circle on the Liberator’s flight deck, holding hands. Around them the ship was disintegrating; consoles melted into surreal shapes by the attack of the plague fungus. Gan was laid on the couch, still only half-conscious.

Trust me, Cally, said Sapphire, through the mind-link that she created, What neither of us could do alone, we can do together. In this circle our minds are one. Now reach out; see if you can make contact with your friends. You know their thoughts. You can find them.

No! I can't see them. Cally’s head flicked back and forth as she struggled. There is a darkness of the mind that presses in on us. Something watches from the darkness. I hear it laughing. I feel its hate. It knows we can't succeed!

Sapphire’s eyes began to shine, a pure blue light that forced Vila to look away.

Wait... thought Cally, There are paler shadows in the blackness now. Yes! I can sense Avon. I'm calling to him, but he cannot hear me. Something's wrong. I can see into his mind, but it's so very far away. How can this be?

I'm helping you, Cally. Through me, Vila can lend his strength to help you. Keep fighting. Go further.

Avon isn't on the Liberator. He's on a tiny craft. Searching for someone. He is very afraid. Where is he? What is happening? He wants to kill, but also he is afraid to kill.

Sapphire caught a glimpse of what Avon was experiencing and recognised the threat. Leave him now, Cally. He has been taken to another time, and there's nothing you can do to help him. You have to find the Darkness. It's the Darkness that has Avon's mind. You must find the source of the Darkness and confront it to free your friends.

Cally fought against her instinct to hold tight to her unity with Avon’s mind, a familiar anchor in the otherwise featureless void. It wasn’t easy to return from so far, but she focused on Vila. His mind was a beacon of hope and fear, shining a pale blue inside Sapphire’s protective embrace, a flickering candle of mortality in the endless dark. Struggling against mental tides that tried to sweep her across aeons, past strange worlds and through spirals of stars, she stretched out and clung to the blue. She was deeply frightened. Her telepathy had always been a source of strength and comfort to her, but now she was facing something that used her strength against her, made it a flaw to torture her with. She perceived her tormentor more clearly now. In trying to trap her it had revealed itself . It wasn’t in any place she could detect, but she knew it. It is cold. It hurts to even sense it. It's so ancient. It means to kill. Not just us. Everything! Sapphire, it hurts so much!

A chill ran through Sapphire. She knew the enemy at last. It couldn’t be allowed to destroy this ship or the power it would gain would be too much - it would expand to engulf entire clusters of worlds, perhaps the whole galaxy. If they could achieve nothing in the next few minutes she would have to make the Call. Better that the rules be bent then to risk the alternative. l can take some of your pain Cally. I can share it among all of us. This Darkness has broken through to your time because of your ship. It doesn't belong here. You can make it retreat.

Vila’s thoughts joined in. I'm with you, Cally. Don't give in to it. You can take anything from me you need.

Cally felt a reassuring strength flood her psyche, restoring her ebbing faith that the Darkness could be fought. She gathered the combined life energies with a skill she hardly knew she had, hurling them against the soulless entity in the black, countering its raging bloodlust with her own compassion, backed by Vila’s desperate determination to survive and guided by Sapphire’s knowledge and experience. l think it is working! I can feel its confusion.


In the corridor leading to the hold, Steel sensed the spillover from the massive psychic struggle. A moment of concentration told him that the entity was far from defeated, but the attack had weakened it; had distracted it a little. He would do what he could. His nature did not permit otherwise. He flexed stiff limbs, discarding the insulating layer of clothing that had been draped over him, sending shards of ice tinkling to the deck. His long stride crushed them underfoot, taking him swiftly to the open airlock doors through which Blake, Avon and Jenna had gone.


Its hate is so strong! I can't push it back any more, I just can't do it.

Don't give up now, Cally! thought Sapphire, We can do it!

What if we can't? came Vila’s reply. As the strength of the mental gestalt began to ebb each of the three could feel the black, flailing menace of the entity begin to recover, regaining its strength. A freezing, paralysing numbness began to creep along the pathways linking their minds.

Sapphire knew this was the moment. She drew on what remained of her reserves and began building a glyph in her mind: a vast golden sphere surrounded by a hundred orbiting flecks of coloured light. Her concentration began to fail as the energy drained from her. The glyph dimmed and wavered. Too late. She had left it too late. The glyph broke apart, the motes of colour drifting haphazardly away until they flickered into darkness...

So cold, came the faint, final thought from Cally.

Sapphire? came a tentative query from Vila. Should we break contact now? Cally? Vila could sense a massive threat poised to strike against them. Somehow he knew that the entity was preparing the killing strike, and the others seemed unable to act. As the lethal stab of darkness rushed in on them, his mind screamed with the terror of approaching extinction and hurled itself away, seeking escape; hoping above all else to live. The mindlink shattered and the three minds flew apart, allowing the hammer blow against them to fall on mere emptiness.


Steel stepped into the hold and took in the situation at a glance. Blake was moving in slow motion around the white object, which now pulsed with a dark radiance that showed Jenna collapsed nearby. Avon was closer to the airlock, eyes unfocused, his head swinging from side to side as if searching. Steel strode towards the pod, his eyes boring into the shadowy interior. He moved in a manner that brooked no interference, a living juggernaut; slow but irresistible. Even so, as the entity turned its attention upon this new foe he found his pace began to slacken. The very air around him seemed to thicken, and his advance became measured in yards, then feet, finally only in inches. The space between Steel and the pod seethed with energies, and to halt this approaching nemesis the entity was finally forced to relax its grip elsewhere.

Blake dropped into a crouch, gasping, “Travis ... what?” as he gazed around the hold, stunned by the transition from past to present. Where was Travis?

Jenna groggily got to her knees rubbing at her throat and gasping for air. She stared uncomprehendingly at the blazing light surrounding the man in the hold. What was happening? Slowly she began to remember. Much too slowly.

Only Avon reacted instantly as reality returned. He spun and leapt for the airlock leading to the corridor from which he’d entered the hold, slamming his fist on the close-and-lock. Too much weight. He was a dead man unless he could get rid of the extra weight. As the door slid shut he felt a terrible hammering at the fringes his mind. Something was trying to stop him. Ignore it. Can’t afford to think. Just act. One hand pressed to still the agony in his temple, he wrenched open the emergency panel and punched the button labelled ’DEPRESSURISE HOLD’. From the other side of the lock he could hear a low hiss become a mighty roar. The ship trembled as the cargo doors opened, allowing the huge volume of air in the hold to rush out into the vacuum of space, sweeping all contents with it.

Avon lent against the airlock for support, panting as if he’d run a great race. The pressure on his mind gradually diminished and faded, long before the pain that etched his features did. He knew now where he was. He knew now what he had just done. It may even have been the right thing to do, though that was not why he had done it.

He raised his hand to rub his face, and noticed the teleport bracelet on his arm. Realisation dawned. One chance, one slim chance...

“Cally! Vila!” he called through the bracelet. “Get down to the teleport at once!” Then he remembered they probably didn’t have bracelets on. He ran. He ran as if chased by demons, as if running from an unnamed dread to a distant haven. He ran to the teleport section, for a single chance at life.


Cally pulled herself painfully upright and looked around. The bridge now appeared completely normal, with no sign of the strange rot that had been destroying it. The other two participants in the mental union were still sprawled on the deck near Gan, but both seemed to be breathing normally. A small snore drifted upwards from Vila.

Sapphire stirred, and opened her eyes. They were brown. You did well. All of you, came her thought. And then she turned away as her mind reached out in search of her partner and she realised the price paid for victory.

Cally smiled and set about waking Vila.

Avon’s breathless voice came over the intercom. “Cally! Vila! I need you down in teleport! Medical emergency!”




Cally walked onto the flight-deck where the others were waiting. “It looks like they were teleported just in time,” she said. “Blake and Jenna are still unconscious, but it looks like they’ll pull through. Gan’s keeping an eye on them.” She looked searchingly at Avon. “How did this happen, Avon?”

Avon ignored the question, tapping commands on his flight console.


“Come on, Avon,” Vila pressed him, “what happened with the thing in the hold?”

Avon turned to stare directly at him. “It was playing with our minds, filling them with violent fantasies. Something weakened it, and I was able to break free of the control. I opened the hold to vacuum and ejected the pod into space. The Liberator now appears to be safe.”

“And you left Blake and Jenna to be ejected with it!?” Vila exclaimed, staring.

Avon met his eyes without flinching. “They were both in the hold. There was no other way.” He turned away.

Cally followed Avon and spun him around to face her. “How is it that you were the one who managed to get to the airlock controls when everything returned to normal?”

His eyes were hooded. “Let’s just say that I was already half prepared for the eventuality. The entity had awakened my instinct for self-preservation.” He continued in the same flat tone, “You should check the sensors. We need to know where that thing is.”

Silently and stiffly Cally walked over to the required console, her back a study in reproach. She bent over the screen. “I’ve got something,” she said with surprise. “Two objects, drifting...”

“Two readings?” asked Avon, glancing at Sapphire, who had been completely silent up till now.

“It was Steel who forced the entity to drop its control.” He could see tears trickling down her cheeks. “He wanted me to agree to summon the Others, and I couldn’t do it. Maybe I could have saved him.” Vila put one hand on her shoulder, but his eyes never wavered from watching Avon. “He’s dead.”

“Are you sure?” Vila asked, trying to be comforting. “I mean, he could go so cold, surely a little vaccuum wouldn’t hurt him?”

“I’m sure,” Sapphire declared. “We aren’t immortal. Just not quite human.” She looked up at Avon. “Sometimes the price is too high, but it must be paid anyway.” I understand, her eyes said to him. I forgive you.

“Your mission would now seem to be over,” said Avon quickly, uncomfortable with her gaze.

Sapphire nodded. “The entity still exists, and it could threaten another ship, but now we know its exact location someone can be sent to destroy it. It would be best for you to avoid this area of space for the next year.” Sapphire hesitated, “Without your help the end result could have been much worse.” She paused, lost in thought.

“I’m sorry about Steel,” Vila said sympathetically.

“He will be replaced,” Sapphire said, staring at Avon.“There is always a need for Steel.”

“I don’t think the job description is very attractive,” Avon commented, trying to rebuff her pointed glance.

Sapphire smiled. “I think you might change your mind - when the time is right.”

“When the time is right?” Avon echoed.

Sapphire stared through him, nodding. “About four years,” she declared, half-smiling. Her eyes flicked over to Cally. “Or three, perhaps.” Her porcelain-perfect features hid her thoughts completely. “It’s all a matter of time,” she said.



A matter of time, she said.
Indeed, it laid its toll on me.
This camel’s back was broken
Though I cannot count
which one was the last straw.
They all came on at once.
She came to me at night
All blue.
Another madman’s vision to converse with.
It was a change from the ghosts.
She offered, I answered, I could not refuse.
So much for volunteers;
Desperation is all the fuel they need.
Who would say no
when there’s nothing to lose?
Nothing but one’s humanity.
They took me then, and shredded me
and built me up again,
Took me as a core to forge their blade upon.
Molten and tempered, elemental.
Say goodbye to Avon,
Say goodbye to past,
Say goodbye to vengeance and to love.
There’s nothing left.
Nothing but Steel.
    – Kathryn Andersen