Tyranny reigns on the planet Erdack, held in the iron fist of the Emperor, and the Pantheon run free and wild. The question of cosmic morality is answered, and it is one that holds dire consequences for those unable to embrace the truth. The burgeoning new team must forge their way as soldiers – and quickly.

*

There was an eruption of bright feathers. The colourful explosion collected into a cloud and rained feathery rubble, talons caught unsuspecting rubbish and tossed them into the growing storm. Faint whimpering could be heard beneath the solid blanket of sound and madness, the hiding child ducking under the covers to escape the raging unknown.

Mevoine ducked as four fluttering wings barrelled over him. Squashed himself against the floor and brought his hands defensively to his head. The storm squawked, grasping claws skimmed his cropped hair.

He dodged a wayward chair that was flung unceremoniously towards him and watched helplessly as storm Salen made an arch around the room and then perched atop the mirror, her beady eyes studying him for a reaction.

This was the third time she’d smashed the room to bits. It also was, coincidentally, the third time Mevoine had attempted to examine her.

Within the last two days she had grown unexpectedly, from the tiny, fist-sized blob drenched pitifully in the cloudy waters of its birth, into the grand, almost fully formed, four-winged gold-feathered beast, whose dainty frame had transformed into something remarkably meatier. She was recognisable as a bird now; a hooked beak, the aforementioned talons that had left ugly marks in the furniture, a short tail covered in fluff balls, and her neck had managed to escape the mounded ruffles around the top half of her body.

The colours that were merely suggested before had arrived in full: most of her shined golden, her upper wings were opal blue, as the clear sky on a summer day, and her lower wings sported grey streaks across profound black, dark enough to merge with the starless night sky. Around her eyes and stretched down to her beak were odd markings tribal in appearance, dark rivers that coiled in wide loops and ensnared her disproportionally small head. They looked like birth marks, but he couldn’t be sure that these weren’t simply feathery markings that blossomed as she did.

Truthfully, the knotted mysteries of the Lapros were like mist, visible yet uncatchable, for a moment in your hands but forever after eluding your searching grasp.

Salen peered judgingly out her mane of untamed feathers and quietly seethed. Mevoine could almost feel the hatred on his skin, pouring out of those black, soulless eyes.

The wall propped him up. He rested for a moment, caught his breath. For the moment it seemed Salen was content on her favourite perch and wouldn’t bother him again unless he did something extraordinarily stupid, and while that was inevitable he did have a small window to enjoy where he could harmlessly observe his beaked dependant.

He tried a smile. Salen glanced sideways at him. Her wings lowered slowly to her side, her tail relaxed. Mevoine popped the bubble of hope ballooning in his chest. There were times like this, when the storm had expended its energy and all that was left was to clean up the destructive wake, but these times were few and fleeting. It was like living in tornado alley; the brief breaks between each mad flurry a short and sweet relief, offering just enough time to clean the mess before the next one came rampaging along.

So long as nothing disturbed her, she’d sit happily until boredom struck, then she’d retreat behind the mirror and sleep in her cosy alcove, seemingly dead to the world.

That’s when the door opened.

He braced for the incoming missile – a hairbrush whistled past his ear, which was then filled with horrible screeching. It lasted for only a few moments, then the sound retreated from the canal and followed the little beast behind the mirror.

‘Wow,’ said Aila dryly, sliding the door closed. ‘She’s getting big. And loud. And messy. What have you been feeding her?’

He pointed glumly to the empty bag of food under the desk and rinsed his suffering ear.

‘And your Mite said that was the right stuff?’ He nodded. ‘Right. Maybe lower the dosage? Cos she’s gone from a maggot to a small dragon in less than forty-eight hours. If she keeps growing at this rate she’ll be bigger than Monsoon within a week. Or is that supposed to happen?’

Mevoine shrugged helplessly.

‘Right. Well,’ she grinned, ‘at least she’s got plenty space in here, right? And we can always kick Durane out and give her the bed if she outgrows the cupboard. We do have spare beds… But I’ll take the excuse.’ Salen’s unique colouring peeked around the mirror’s edge. ‘Her colours are really coming out, she’s like a flower of colour! And her size! It’s like having a giant cat. Or a mouse that’s gotten into the Miracle-Gro. My only concern is… Are you listening to me?’

Mev nodded.

‘Okay. It’s just… you weren’t saying anything. Never mind. My only concern is that the Mite isn’t translating what she’s saying. It’s meant to translate any language, and I’m making a guess that she is speaking some sort of language. Apparently Nephilim isn’t translated, do you think she’s speaking that?’

‘No,’ said Mev.

‘No? What makes you think that?’

‘S-S-Squawk.’

Aila offered a sympathetic look. ‘You’ll have to do better than “squawk”.’

He struggled for the words. ‘It’s… It’s n-n-not language. Noise.’

She considered this thoughtfully.

‘Ah,’ said Aila. ‘I get it. She’s not speaking, she’s just making noise. Sounds a lot like some people around here, she should fit right in. That being said… How are you coping?’

‘Fine,’ he lied.

‘You’re a terrible liar. I’ve seen your arms. It looks like you’ve been dropped naked into a snake pit. Look at what she’s doing to you.’

He couldn’t argue – his arms looked like carved meat, ugly deep gashes where claws had sunk and pulled, reddened bruises where the beak had pierced the skin. He’d taken the punishment, deciding Salen’s wellbeing more important than his own vanity, but if people were noticing it…

‘Raising a pet is tough,’ Aila continued softly. ‘On a ship in the middle of deep space, while we’re fighting giant snakes and psychopathic commanders, it’s next to impossible. What I’m saying is… I mean, it’s difficult…’

She wouldn’t say the words. As genetically talkative as Aila was, it would take someone crueller to really say the words, to coldly watch as the dim light of defeat spread in his sad little eyes. It was a concession too far for her – to say what needed to be said, rather than what he wanted to hear.

But what Aila didn’t know was that he already knew the lecture – it was the same lecture his brain had been reciting for the last two days. If he couldn’t care for Salen and provide for her, be the paternal guide and act in her best interests, he was wasting both their time, and though he cared for the beast, her reactions towards his offers of help had been less than enthusiastic. He’d go so far as to call them borderline patricidal.

Aila sensed his thoughts, placed a hand warmly on his shoulder. ‘We can try figure something out. Maybe she’ll grow out of it. She is just a baby when you think about it, I can’t imagine being here when I was two days old. Give her some time and she might surprise you.’

She waved happily at the half-hidden bird behind the mirror, then gently tugged Mevoine to the door.

‘Samir’s been in touch,’ she whispered. ‘He needs us down at the dock. Do you know what a dock is? Apparently it’s somewhere they keep ships. Why don’t they call it something else like… The Ship-Place. Or the Ship-Storage. Something with the word ship in it so you know what people are talking about. What’s dock got to do with ships?’

Mev gulped, prepared his lips for another sentence. ‘I d-d-didn’t get a call.’

‘He only called Monsoon, to tell him to tell us about what’s happening. Berrel seems to think Samir’s propping Monsoon up to be a sort of leader – our leader when Samir’s not around to boss us about. I like the guy but I’m not sure how I feel taking orders from him. We’ll have to see what happens.’

She opened the door and waited at the threshold. Mev hesitated, looked over his shoulder, caught a lasting glance at the hiding bird. She peeked around the mirror and trapped his gaze, transmitting nothing but cold, cool detachment, like she was waiting for him to leave before she could really relax.

The unfortunate truth of their relationship had never seemed clearer, but regardless, he was going to do the stupid thing. Sometimes the stupid thing is so moronically brilliant that it blocks out all other motives, like rational thinking and hazard perception, and the only option available is to immediately and recklessly find out if the stupid thing is really as stupid as your silly, over-protective brain is making it out to be.

His hand outstretched, reaching for the bird. Salen looked at the olive branch as if it were a knife pointing towards her and shuffled away. It didn’t matter, he would pursue this until the stupid idea weighed down on either side of the intelligence scale.

The scale tipped firmly to the ‘utterly moronic why are you doing this’ side as fingers dangled and wriggled like fat tasty worms. The bite came fast and harsh, added another bloody mark to his hand. He recoiled, rubbed the fresh wound, internally cursing the damn bird and his own irrational brain.

Why was she like this? All he did, he did for her. Gave her food and shelter. What little in the way of company he could offer by himself, he freely gave. He’d offer the shirt off his back if he thought it would fit her… And this is what he got in return. Selflessness makes martyrs of us all.

He gave Salen one last look. The bird caught his gaze again, and for a moment Mevoine could’ve sworn he saw regret wash around those beady black pearls. But then she retreated fully behind the mirror, into her humble alcove, like a snake returning to its nest. He felt his heart drop – she wanted nothing to do with him, other than the food and shelter he was nothing to her; a punching bag to be abused, something into which she could channel her anger. And if that’s all he was to her…

It felt like a knife in the pit of his stomach. Admitting defeat. Another concession in a lengthy history of concession. He couldn’t even take care of himself, how could he have expected to take care of a new-born?

Abandoning the golden monster while he left on a mission seemed heartless, and he certainly felt that way, but she had proven that this was her preference; life without him, a life alone, unbothered by the world. Salen would get her way eventually, Mevoine decided then. A life without him. In her best interests. Another hand would rear her, show her how to live, give her the life he never could.

In the stunning silence, it was almost easy to hear his heart break.

The door closed and buried his shame on the other side.

*

Monsoon and Durane argued over a tall stack of brown, leather-bound cases that had appeared in the middle of the room. Each was intricately designed; notably, Nephilim script ran up and down the sides, and Nelia’s crest was stamped on the fronts like a badge of honour. They were fancy looking, and the material seemed to glimmer oddly in the dim light.

‘I don’t want anything to do with that prick!’ Durane shouted, pointing accusingly at the cases. ‘He punched me in the face! Doesn’t that mean anything to you?’

‘It means we have to respect his wishes,’ said Monsoon levelly. ‘I’m not arguing with you, Samir was out of line. Nobody here would disagree. But given his aggression, it would make sense to respect how he wants things done and do as he says. We have to open the boxes.’

‘There could be anything in there!’ Durane reasoned. ‘Poison, traps, giant knives that shoot out of the case and kill curious people. Curiosity killed the cat!’

‘I don’t doubt it. And in this case, you’re the cat and Samir is curiosity. It could be a test for all we know – he’s testing to see if we’ll do as he says without evidence he’s doing this in our best interests. Presenting the unknown and observing how we react. We must open the boxes.’

Durane cursed. ‘Hell no – if you want to die, be my guest. Better you than me. Open the damn box for all I care, hope you get a snoutful of lead!’

Monsoon crooked a wiry eyebrow. Durane shrunk into himself, slightly embarrassed, and grumpily returned to his bed.

‘Right then!’ Aila announced as she and Mev glanced over the gleaming stack. ‘Let’s get tucked in! Bound to be some goodies in there. Look at these things! I haven’t seen luggage this nice since… Well, never. I wish mines had a big stamp on the front. Like a big tag that says it’s mine.’

‘They have names on the bottom,’ Monsoon observed, turning the top case in his gargantuan claws. ‘This one is Lyrik’s.’

He handed Lyrik the case and continued to dismantle the stack. Mevoine’s was long and heavy, he felt like he was smuggling bowling balls in plastic bags

He waited for the others to open theirs first. Durane’s warning had gotten the better of him. He’d hedge his bets that Durane’s case was rigged to explode, but his own could hold horrors of another sort.

‘How’s the bird?’ asked Berrel as he unclipped the lid.

‘Fine.’

Keeping Salen secret had inevitably failed. When she was no larger than his hand the plan had looked perfect: raise her in secrecy, with Aila and Syna’s help, until she was big enough to not be an easy target. Her sudden growth spurt had dispelled such worries, and her constant yelps in the night made her presence impossible to maintain secret.

He fought off the mental hijack, refusing to allow thoughts of Salen to take hold. Couldn’t think about her now with all this excitement and mystery – at least, that’s the lie he drilled into his own brain. The truth hovered below the surface, a poison building up beneath the lie. He would remedy it, as always, by blatantly ignoring the problem. There’s no problem if there’s no-one to face the problem.

‘Keeping a pet’s tricky business,’ Berrel continued. ‘I remember my first pet… Well, it wasn’t mine. I suppose it was, in a way. It was a beautiful little thing, precious, innocent, and loyal. But I had to give it up when it got too… big…’

He trailed off, and joined everyone else staring at Lyrik.

‘What is that?’ Aila gasped.

Lyrik held the objects to the light, and there they shimmered, like tiny pearls under the moon.

‘I’ve no idea,’ she admitted. ‘They look like beads. Maybe it’s a necklace?’

‘Samir’s sending you jewellery now!’ Durane exclaimed.

She rolled the glistening silver orbs in her palm like loose marbles, holding each to the light to examine its alien shine.

‘There’s markings on them,’ she noted. ‘I can’t really make them out. They look like…’ Her fingers wrapped around one and pulled it from the box. ‘This one has something on the bottom… Hold on.’

The orb in question was carefully studied in Lyrik’s capable hands. Strange etchings on the bottom invited curious prodding. Almost immediately, one delicate finger sank into the shining metal, and was at once swallowed.

There were screams as everyone moved to Lyrik’s aid, and then everyone stopped in one startled movement. They stared at the harmless orbs hovering in a firm circle around the shocked girl.

‘What’s happening?’ asked Lyrik fearfully, from behind closed eyes.

‘They’re just kind of…’ Berrel started.

‘It looks like they’re protecting you,’ said Syna, already beside her on the bed.

Mev silently agreed. The orbs had malignant positions, but if they were going for the kill they had missed the opportune moment. Instead they hung there, maybe six or seven in total, gently bobbing, as if tethered together by invisible thread and floating on invisible water.

Syna experimented with a playful tap on the shoulder – no response. She tried one of the orbs. It moved at her touch and then swooned back in place.

‘You can open your eyes,’ she said. ‘Looks like they’re duds.’

Lyrik peeked through one raised eyelid. ‘What are they doing?’

‘Not a whole lot, it seems’

‘The question is,’ said Monsoon, eyeing the orbs with a mixture of confusion and awe, ‘why would Samir send you this? Are they weaponry? Defence?’

‘Not everything has to be about bloody battle,’ moaned Durane.

‘For a soldier, that’s a poor motto to have,’ Monsoon replied. ‘No, these have to be for something. Perhaps someone should try…’

He gestured helplessly at Lyrik and looked around for support.

‘You mean attack her?’ gasped Aila.

‘No! Not literally go for the kill, but… just to see if these raise anything in defence. A test, if you will. We’ll have our answers.’

‘She already has Syna for defence,’ grumbled Durane. ‘No-one’s getting close to her.’

‘I already have me for defence, thank you,’ said Lyrik, forgetting for a moment she was somewhat trapped. The orbs clung to her like flies to a corpse. ‘Why don’t the rest of you open your presents? I feel bad being the only one with mine.’

‘And you’re just going to sit there with those things floating around you?’ said Durane.

She glanced around her upside-down metal halo, identified the orb she had pressed before, and snatched it from the air. The balls dropped like stones into the waiting casket.

‘Done. Your turn.’

Durane grumbled and hesitantly opened his own, expecting all manners of traps to be sprung.

‘Nobody else want to go first?’ he tried.

‘I think I speak for everyone when I say we want to see yours first,’ said Syna, craning to peek over the lid.

‘Fine. I’ll do it.’ A string of curses polluted the air around his mouth. ‘It looks like…’

‘What?’ urged Monsoon.

Durane chattered noiselessly, stared into the casket with such fear that the group almost lurched forward as one to help free him of this sudden terror. It looked like the cold horror of a man staring into the pitiless unknown.

The contraption was lifted out the box. The light shifted oddly on its supremely dark surface.

‘What… is that?’ gasped Berrel.

‘It’s sort of… enchanting,’ said Monsoon thoughtfully, regarding the article with aloofness. ‘I’ve never seen anything like that before.’

The thing Durane held in his hands was confusing, fascinating, and just a little terrifying. He tentatively moved it around, inspecting it from every angle, trying to make some sense of the thing.

‘Which way am I supposed to hold this?’ he asked.

‘That thing looks like the trigger,’ Monsoon advised. ‘But I see what you mean. I can’t figure out if the trigger is meant to be at the bottom or the top.’

It was a gun, by Mev’s guess. It had a similar shape, but its size was such that it should take a man twice Durane’s size to lift it, yet he appeared to be doing fine moving it around without protest. There was a certain organic look to the thing, as if torn from its owner’s body, dutifully preserved, then re-packed and re-gifted to an unwilling new owner.

At the right angle – or the wrong one, depending on how you thought about it – it did look rather remarkably like an overgrown arm. Black all over, wiry tendrils sprung from what appeared to be the head and burrowed into what could be approximated as the bottom. There were openings pocked across its worryingly organic skin like the moon’s meteor-cracked surface, which made it difficult to determine where the exit was.

‘How does it… I mean, where does it…’ Durane wrestled with the question, then placed the weapon back in its case. ‘Are there instructions? Does he expect us – pick the damn thing up and start shooting it! – to just know how to use it?’

‘Us?’ said Monsoon, crooking an eyebrow.

‘I mean us. Like the group.’ He swallowed. ‘Obviously. He should help us with this – he can’t drop alien weapons on us at a moment’s notice and just expect us to know how to use them. It’s like giving a cat a trombone. He’ll do his best but you know it’ll end in tears.’

Wizened eyes peered over the small sweaty man, then fell on the device.

‘I can’t say,’ said Monsoon. ‘Perhaps it is because he trusts us. Or perhaps he doesn’t care if we fail. It would be wise to open the others. That way we’ll know if he’s setting us up for a fall.’

‘We have to go meet him in the docks,’ said Syna urgently. ‘He’ll kill us if we don’t go. This can all wait for later. Grab the cases and bring them with us.’

‘What about the bird?’ said Durane as the group retrieved their things.

Monsoon turned, slapped his head. ‘Of course! The bird. Mevoine -’ Monsoon was one of the few who insisted on using his full name – ‘Will she be all right on her own? What are the chances we’ll return to a soiled room bloodied with claw marks?’

Mevoine stared at the coal-eyed dragon, as if with this intense look he could relate his inner thoughts. Asking a question in front of a glaring group? As if he’d answer.

‘Right… Of course. Uh…’ Monsoon rubbed his scaly neck. ‘Just… Will she be okay?’

He nodded. Truthfully, he wished to forget Salen. Guilt and shame bubbled whenever he considered her, sitting alone in her dirty fortress. The ability of the mind to sweep under the rug its own incapability can be astounding, and his had had decades of practice.

‘Forgive me if I’m not overcome with faith,’ said Monsoon quietly. ‘You’re absolutely sure this young, two-day-old creature can survive on its own, and won’t destroy our belongings while we’re gone?’

‘The door’s locked,’ Aila reasoned. ‘She won’t get into the room. And she’s a good bird, she just sleeps most of the time. Reminds me of this friend I used to have, she’d sleep all day, only wake up to have some lasagne. She loved lasagne! It was like-’

‘We don’t have time for this,’ said Syna dismissively. ‘We really have to get going.’

‘Not like you to care about that,’ Durane grumbled.

‘You should care. He doesn’t like you.’

‘You’ll get another bruise for your troubles,’ Lyrik agreed.

‘He doesn’t like anyone!’ Durane howled. ‘Everyone’s at risk!’

‘But he especially doesn’t like you,’ Syna taunted. ‘Hurry up! Unless you want a sequel!’

‘I see nothing here for you, Berrel,’ said Monsoon as they gathered their things.

The old man looked shifty.

‘Nothing? Really?’ He shrugged. ‘Must’ve forgotten me.’

‘That wouldn’t be like him,’ said Monsoon suspiciously.

‘He’s got a lot on his plate,’ the old man reasoned. ‘Being a commander in an inter-universal war is sure to be a busy post. And I’m just little old me, easily forgettable. Maybe my performance on our first mission made him think I wouldn’t need the help.’

‘Yes… About those shoes…’

‘Made ‘em myself.’ He lifted his feet and turned the blocky shoes around. ‘Handy little things, aren’t they? Never could’ve predicted they’d be as devastating to the Pantheon as that, mind you. That took me by surprise.’

‘You made them?’ Aila exclaimed. ‘How… Why?’

He shrugged. ‘Thought they’d make for good ice skating. And they’ll keep you bloody warm, don’t doubt that.’

Monsoon snorted, then made a head count.

‘We’re one short,’ he said.

‘Lee,’ explained Aila. ‘Gone fishing, maybe? Wouldn’t put it past him. He looks like a fisherman. You can tell, can’t you? They have a look about them. Something that says ‘I like fish and dragging helpless creatures from their home into a toxic environment where they slowly and painfully die and then I eat them or mount them above my mantlepiece’. Bit of a sadist look to him.’ She picked at a nail. ‘That’s why my mum always said, don’t trust a fisherman. Or a fish.’

And then there was the awkward silence that always followed close behind whenever one of Aila’s rants had winded down. You could make a bet, and double or nothing a hundred times over before you lost a single penny on the surety that lurking behind a perfectly ordinary sentence was a vicious and often entirely random segue that left more questions than answers in its wake.

Doubly sure was that no-one wanted to be the first to break the silence. It felt rude, like disturbing someone’s sleep to tell them about the snow or a celebrity death. In the wake of Aila’s stream of random thought, a single sensical thing felt like you were upsetting the river’s flow. Even if that flow darted left, right, up and down, circled and straightened, visited the moon and came back bouncing to tell everyone it was the first of its kind to have visited there.

Ignoring the silence and with nothing better to say, they gathered their cases and made for the docks. Mev held his as far down as he could and tried not to think about it. Whatever was inside the case, presumably some form of alien weapon arresting to the eyes, it wasn’t something he wanted to play around with or test. Like most things, it was to be forgotten and ignored until it became such a problem that he could pass it off to somebody else.

*

The docks were hidden deep in the bowels of the ship. There were many things the Vanguard would rather leave unseen and unheard, and the docks doubled as general storage for such unseemly articles, proven in the past to induce paranoia and panic in anyone stupid enough to go looking for them.

‘I don’t like the walls,’ said Lyrik grimly, as they threaded through the quiet docks.

The walls couldn’t truly be called such unless one was being thoroughly liberal with the word. Pink and oily tentacles reached out of rotten bark, thick and large as redwoods, each dripping with an unknown, sticky white substance that adhered to the maddening scenery like glue.

Water dripped from the black, foul ceiling and pooled onto the open floor. Stone dunes rose and dipped and curled. Orbs of flat light drifted through the warped corridors, occasionally spilling sheets of light over the darkness. Cast shadows danced eerily.

The place was vastly removed from the clean, spotless splendour of the upper ship. Where that was maintained seemingly every second and methodically checked for even the smallest discrepancy, here the only sense of cleanliness was the horrible clarity of those fungus-like tentacles invading like an infection.

The air was still, quiet. That made the view all the more paralysing. If air did move through the channel, just a gentle breeze, it would explain the occasional flicker of movement in the corners of eyes. If you didn’t know any better, it looked like the tentacles were moving.

‘I don’t like this place,’ Aila agreed, her voice buzzing in the emptiness. ‘It doesn’t feel normal. And where is everyone? You can barely move upstairs.’

‘I thought there was a valley somewhere down here,’ said Monsoon. ‘I remember reading about it. It’s meant to be around the dock area.’

‘A valley?’

‘A large park, canyons and grass and trees. There’s even a lake.’

‘Inside the ship?’ Aila exclaimed.

‘Well, yes.’

‘It’s hardly going to be outside the ship,’ grumbled Durane.

‘They can create whatever they want,’ Monsoon claimed. ‘They’re able to shape matter as they see fit, they’re like gods! A swipe of their hand, a click of their fingers, and they can change whatever they want. A valley teeming with life must be child’s play to them.’

‘I’ll have to check that out,’ said Aila. ‘It might be a good place to take Salen, Mev. Give her a chance to stretch her wings. I’ll have to join her, not much space around here to get good air.’

‘Good air?’ said Durane. ‘You could fly right now. There’s plenty of space!’

‘I’d love to!’ she beamed. His aggression bounced off her eternally cheery armour. ‘But it doesn’t work like that. There’s more to flying than just beating your wings. You have to consider air currents, thermodynamics, weight distribution, all that stuff. I can’t just jump into the air and off I go.’

‘That’s disappointing. I really wished you’d just go.’

‘Charming,’ Aila grinned.

‘Wow. You really can’t be insulted.’

‘I know. It’s a gift.’

They approached the group at the end of the tunnel, where the coated tentacles and rotten bark split and separated and revealed the black wall of space behind. Lights flashed around them, as if to impress the tight huddle.

Mev sucked in air and prepared himself. Like the rest of them, he’d recognised the stone sentinel at the heart of the pack, that dreaded gargoyle wreathed in its shining armour, and could feel those empty eyes on his skin.

Fealties were offered, customary greetings exchanged to all in attendance. Samir was surrounded by fellow Vanguard, also dressed in their traditional armour, in various species and grotesque forms. They were severe types, the kind likely to thug their way to success, and had that familiar bully parlance that exuded impatience and cruelty, always on the edge of throwing a fist or two for the sadistic fun of it.

‘Ma’Voi,’ said Monsoon, bowing. ‘You called us?’

Samir glanced over the wretched pack.

‘You didn’t open the cases.’

‘We opened some,’ Monsoon explained, sensing the tone of urgency. ‘But we deemed it necessary to answer your summons in the shortest possible time. I trust this was the right choice?’

Horrid giggles spread around the group.

‘Who talks like that?’ said one of the snickering Vanguard.

‘Oh, harken the day!’ mocked another.

This mild jesting stirred long buried memories Mev had sought to silence. Bullying was a pain he’d grown accustomed to feeling, and having these stretched grins taunting their pearly teeth pulled him back to those horrible times he wished he could suction out of his brain. Even the general cadences of the poor taunts were the same.

Monsoon, not a creature used to the stabs of poor jests, rallied against the attack.

‘Excuse me?’ he gasped. ‘I was merely stating the obvious. I don’t know who you lot are, but you’re not my commander, so I don’t care what you say or do. If-’

Hands wrapped around Monsoon’s thick neck in an instant. The dragon tried to fight back but the clasp remained fastened. Fear shot into his coal-black eyes.

‘You talking to me like that?’ said the Vanguard – a creature with about six buggy eyes dotted around his skeletal face. He thrust his face into the dragon’s. ‘That’s not how you talk to your superiors, worm. Get on your knees.’

Monsoon tried to wrestle out of the grip, but found his strength wanting. The rest could only watch horrified as the bug-eyed skeleton tackled Monsoon down.

‘A superior has ordered you to bend a knee,’ said Samir aloofly. ‘And bend a knee you will.’

He seemed to regard the fight as one might a pair of squabbling children – with firm indifference, trusting the fight would soon be over and nothing significant would come from it.

The dragon relented and with dented pride fell defeated to his knees. The watching Vanguard snickered and pointed like schoolchildren.

‘Good. Now the rest of you.’

The group waited on bended knee for further orders. They stared at the damp floor, knowing nothing positive could come from arguing. A packed fist to the nostrils or a gunshot between the eyes on the other hand, that could come next if they weren’t careful.

‘Open the cases,’ Samir ordered levelly. ‘I’ll permit you to experiment with the weapons – but be quick. And if anyone takes any notion of turning the weapon on us, be aware that you’ll be cut down quicker than chafe and I’ll only take half the pleasure.’

Mev scrunched his eyes and pretended not to see Aila mouth, ‘What’s chafe?’, hoping that if he pretended not to see it, neither did Samir.

The cases were pried open. Aila brought out her weapon – a thick whip that crackled with electricity. Serrated teeth ran along the leash like thorns on the stem. She made a few experimental swipes and carved a wound into the ceiling with little effort. The leash swung fluidly like a tail and fit too comfortably in her inexperienced hands. Despite its barbaric appearance there was a peculiar dignity in the way it moved, as if guided by her hand it had borrowed some of her elegance.

‘Neat,’ she grinned, then faltered under Samir’s chilling gaze.

Syna had obtained what initially appeared to be boxing gloves. On closer inspection, it could be made out that the material was, like almost all Vanguard related items, the acute and near-indestructible Nephilim metal known as Valensium. Most of the ship was forged out of this metal, Mev knew, and indeed much of their weaponry, particularly the heavy-hitting artillery. To see such a thing expertly fashioned into these small gloves, like mining the mountain and from its debris creating fanciful clouds, was deftly impressive.

A couple of cursory punches jabbed harmlessly at the air. Syna let her hands drop to her sides, her face said it all – surprisingly pleased.

Eyes turned on Mev – his time had come. He went to open the casket, fumbled with the lock. Tried again, it wouldn’t move. It was stuck fast to the case, like it was rusted shut. He pulled with all his effort, begging his tiny muscles to start pulling their weight and not to embarrass him in front of a pack of grinning hyenas.

Somehow in the panic his hand slipped and found itself slapping him in the face.

Monsoon came to his rescue and effortlessly up the lock pinged.

The case flipped open and curious light poured into it. Mevoine, shocked at what the darkness had hid, reached in and withdrew the weapons.

There was a communal gasp.

‘You’re giving him those?’ Durane shouted.

‘I am,’ said Samir calmly.

‘He could barely open the case!’

Samir gave him a look that would silence oceans, then gestured to the weapons. ‘These are yours now. Take care of them, if you lose them or they’re destroyed, you won’t get new ones, and you’ll be forced to use your side-arms. These will be insufficient, and you’ll die quickly. Probably painfully too. They are my gift to you. Likely the only ones you’ll receive.’

‘But…’ Monsoon began, glaring at the shining weapons in Mev’s incapable palms.

‘Oh, the worm’s found his voice again,’ taunted one of the bullies. ‘Speak up! Go on, do it! Give me an excuse!’

Mev held awkwardly in his hands two swords, straight-edged like katanas, each the length of his arms. Forged from Valensium, too, he noted, as they felt unexpectedly light and easy to swing. The casing must’ve been the heaviest part of the package.

He lifted them to the light. Running along the edges were markings difficult to see in the darkness. He ran his fingers along them, trying to blindly discern their meaning. It took a while for his eyes to adjust, and then he saw these were roughly the same markings Lyrik had found on her orbs.

What these were meant to relate would never make itself known to Mev until much later on – at such a time that he no longer needed to know. If he had really wanted to know what the markings meant, he could’ve watched them intently, unwaveringly, until the meaning was, more or less, quite literally transmitted directly into his brain. This experience would be much the same as staring directly into the sun to discern the atomic behaviour of hydrogen – only the Nephilim language isn’t quite so vicious; he would survive, largely unblinded, but certain aspects of his mental patterns would be severely altered, as to learn Nephilim is to let it learn you.

The handles were dressed in supremely dark material soft to his touch. The guards extended over his hands, somewhat like the traditional epee, the underside of which exuded some mild heat. A thin, barely noticeable needle-like pole ran along the sword’s edge from the guard to the tip.

He tentatively swung the blades, to the unified horror of the onlookers around him. Then he slowly brought them down and held them aloft.

On either side of the handles he had noticed two small depressions, one on either side. He pressed into the top one, and almost screamed as the blade screeched apart.

Absolute panic took hold. The blade split, the second half dropped and clanged. He clambered to retrieve the separated part. Not even two seconds of having the weapon and he’d already broken it – the fool’s curse!

This invited groans from the glaring team, and sniggers from the soldiers. Samir watched expectantly, giving little away.

Lifting the split blade, Mevoine took pause and examined the edge and the handle. There was a handle. And a guard. But this was just the splinter shard, surely? How could the fallen piece have the guard and the handle attached?

The answer lay in his hands. It wasn’t the blade that had split: it was the sword itself. Separated perfectly into two halves. The halved blades were thinner but retained their katana-like shape – the markings along the edge had muddled to a point beyond incoherence.

He tested this theory by pressing the top button on the other sword. Again, the sword screeched apart, this time he caught the divorced splinter before it escaped.

Four swords, one for each hand. It felt over-the-top, especially for one such as Mev, who as Durane had happily pointed out had encountered difficulty just opening the case. Now he was fully armed with swords, like some holy knight on the crusades. It didn’t seem right.

The surrounding group had obviously considered the same idea and were inching closer to the tentacle-draped walls, faces wearing terrified expressions, as if he’d spontaneously grown the swords from his own flesh.

Eyes darted from Samir, to Mev, then the four swords. Mouths remained shut, however, remembering the Commander’s penchant for punching.

Curiosity got the better of him. There was the second button on either side of the hilts that hadn’t been tested. If that button did that, then this button…

The noise blasted into Mev’s ears like a foghorn blown an inch from his temple. He ducked for cover instinctively, flinging the swords away, and pressed himself to the floor. He hadn’t been in the Vanguard particularly long, but he knew the sound of a gunshot when he heard it. Rubble rained down on his head.

Shouts erupted, arguments ignited. Someone ran to his aid and was swiftly batted aside by boulder fists.

‘Let him figure it out,’ came Samir’s harsh voice in the din. ‘People who can’t help themselves are not worthy to be soldiers. Pick it up and work it out. Quickly.’

Formless sound screamed in his ears. He propped himself up on his knees and tried to calm down. His heart wasn’t built for this kind of excitement, and it’d taken a lot of punishment since he had joined the war. It was probably on the brink of collapse.

As he turned the blades, snakes of light slithered from the tips to the guards and coiled comfortably around the hilt. His fingers searched for the hidden buttons, his eyes chased the snakes until their tails dissolved into the dark. It appeared, as far as he could deduce, which was admittedly not very far at all, the swords doubled as guns… Somehow.

Where did the projectiles come from? There wasn’t a magazine or a storage area, unless it was inside the guard, and then how was it reloaded? How did the projectile enter and exit the blade?

The fresh hole above his head, placed almost perfectly between two panicking tentacles, had blackened almost instantly. Not a bullet, then. Something fiery, explosive.

‘Look at him,’ one of the Vanguard jeered. ‘You can almost see his brain putting it all together. It’s like watching a child figure out two plus two. Only slower.’

This remark was met with laughter raucous, far beyond its fairly mediocre execution. The one silver lining was that Samir remained as quiet and still as a statue – he wasn’t arguing against the remark but at least he wasn’t revelling in it.

‘Are you quite finished?’ he asked, without really asking.

Mev nodded soberly. Figuring out how the swords worked would have to wait – hopefully before any fighting started. He sensed this was unlikely.

‘Good. Ophelia?’

Blue veins melted into the filthy walls out of nowhere, seemingly materialising as Samir had demanded them. The sudden appearance of vivid colour in the otherwise dismal and oppressive tunnel was shocking, and revived thoughts of the reality-bending abilities the Vanguard were sure to possess.

‘Here,’ said the robotic voice.

‘Open the Whirligig, please.’

‘Certainly.’

The air suctioned out of the place, pulling all inside suddenly forward. Mevoine lost his footing but caught himself in the fall, almost stabbing himself in the process.

Behind Samir the empty block of space sucked the air in, gulped it down, then when it had had its fill it exploded outward, knocking the soldiers away from the gap. Purple lights sparkled briefly in the void like distant winking stars, then the uniform blackness returned vaguely warped and different, like a watery reflection. Indistinct colours faded in and out of the inky water, like dancing ribbons caught beneath the lake’s surface.

It had adopted the appearance of a translucent doorway, Mev now suspected it hadn’t ever been a hole in the wall, but some form of inactive portal. Purple light flooded its rough, crooked edges.

Samir hovered around the portal, inspecting its solidity, and came away pleased.

‘Thank you, Ophelia.’

‘Any time,’ the AI chirped. The blue veins faded from the walls.

‘You go first, boy,’ he barked. ‘Over you come.’

Mev stared into the purple-specked darkness, feeling it stare back; that hungry beast sizing up its next meal. If there was anything to be learned staring into the void, he thought, he’d have learned it by now. All he was doing presently was looking dumb and slack-jawed, probably drooling too, into the relentless abyss as hazy serpents of colour coiled and writhed and enjoyed the cloak of absolute darkness and everything it could hide.

Questions flew through his largely empty desert of a mind. What was it? Where would it take him? Was it dangerous? What waited on the other side of this… whatever it was?

Answers are rarely forthcoming in the world. One must often search for what feels like a lifetime for the smallest glimpse of wisdom, and it is most often found when guided by another’s hand. That’s why help is sometimes necessary to take the leaps we don’t want to take, so startling is truth that we would hesitate at the apex of discovery to conserve our sense of dignity and innocence.

A helping hand was now offered to Mevoine. It felt arguably more like a helping foot – it sunk hard into his back and propelled him screaming into the swirling colours and the ravenous void.

*

Solid ground. Warm air. A breeze pricked his skin. Voices somewhere beyond. People.

He pushed himself up and found his shaking legs.

Foremost was the huddle fencing him in on a raised platform; a large group of Vanguard soldiers encased in their loud armour like corpses stuck in metal coffins. It was similar to what had been provided for him and his team, but different crests blazed proudly on the pauldrons and chest-pieces, and several had wildly different designs and colours. He could recognise some of the crests: those in gentle green armour emblazoned with what looked like tangled nests of branches were allied to Veritas, those in severe black crowded with embellished stars were allied to Calignox, and beside them were the easiest to identify; deep white eyes, wreathed in pale robes bearing Nelia’s crest, that horrifying zombie look about them…

This made his joints seize. Suffering the group’s stare was bad enough, adding Advocators to the mix was pure torture.

‘You with Samir?’ shouted one of Calignox’s bunch.

He nodded.

‘Right. Where’s the rest-’

A harsh shove knocked him scrambling to the ground. Samir took his place, not even looking at his pathetic victim as he clambered for footing.

At once the gathered soldiers took attention, bowing and offering fealty. Samir waved their pleasantries aside and turned to the Advocators.

‘Belaque?’ he asked.

One of the pallid creatures glanced sideways at him, as if uncertain it was being asked a question, then pointed crookedly at the sky like a scarecrow at the fields beyond. The commander followed its finger, seemed to understand and moved on to greet the others.

Aila was at Mev’s side as Samir dealt with the soldiers.

‘You okay?’ she said, lifting him up. ‘That was rough.’ She shot daggers into Samir’s back. ‘He’s just a bully, ignore him. If I’d known these people were like this I probably wouldn’t have joined. It’s just not fair to throw your weight around and bully everyone that’s weaker than you. If you can’t wield power responsibly, you don’t deserve it.’

She wiped his face clean, brushed off some dust, straightened his armour. He felt like he was being gussied up by his mother on the first day of school, that generous doting on someone incapable of fending for themselves. Aware of the eyes watching this scene from afar, wondering what this maternal dynamic suggested to the watching soldiers, he shamefully pulled away from her. And then he felt the stab in his gut – the look of surprise and betrayal on the girl’s face, that godawful expression that could say more than any words of any poet.

‘Why’d he send you first anyway?’ said Durane suddenly. The others gathered around him. ‘He kicked you through like he wanted you to get here first but it’s not like you’re the best diplomat to send to a bunch of armed soldiers.’

‘Leave it,’ said Syna. She too was glaring angrily at Samir and had the look of someone about to do something dangerous. ‘Let’s just follow the damn orders and get on with it.’

‘I just don’t get it,’ Durane continued. ‘Why send the kid?’

‘Leave it!’ Syna hissed.

‘All right! Calm down! I was only asking – not that I’d expect you to know, you dumb – but I’ll leave it alone.’ He glanced around to confirm the portal had closed behind them; a shimmering window suspended in the air dissolving into broken ribbons. ‘Our first teleporter. Wasn’t as bad a thought it’d be. For one thing, we actually survived, and for another it looks like we made it to the right place. I thought they were broken, didn’t I hear they were broken?’

Syna gave him a dramatic look. ‘Would you be quiet?!’

‘I’m sure someone said they were malfunctioning. Were they not malfunctioning? Completely broken, no? People were being teleported all over the place. We were told not to use them just in case…’ His gaze fell on Mev and he stopped. ‘Oh… Right. I wasn’t thinking.’

‘No. You weren’t,’ said Aila shortly. ‘Just try and be quiet.’

Durane yelped and grabbed his foot. Syna retrieved hers.

‘It’s not my fault!’ he warbled. ‘Samir wanted him to go first, it’s nothing to do with me!’

‘All of you! Be silent!’ Samir shouted over his shoulder.

Mev hung his head in shame. Of course Samir would send him first: the guinea pig, the canary in the mine. Everyone else had shown potential, soldiers in training. He was expendable, forgettable, another meaningless cog in the machine, with nothing to show for it except his impending death.

If he was honest with himself, he’d admit that he’d almost had enough of being treated like this – pushed around like he was nothing, thrown through death’s door without a moment’s hesitation, the constant bullying and the pressure and the insults and the jokes at his endless expense. Life was holding his arms down and letting the world punch him in the gut, over and over and over again. At times it felt his entire life had been nothing but waiting for something to give, then giving in.

What had life really done for him? Dead mother, abusive father, psychopaths in charge of his life, a cowardly streak that showed no signs of ending anytime soon, no skills, no talents. Just endless pain. Withering away, waiting for the clock to strike his last second.

But people are often not so honest with themselves. Far easier to live the lie than engage with the truth. And so Mevoine lied to feed the bubble of reality he had created around him, to be removed from the pain and humiliation; a talent he had cultivated since his early years.

Samir barked orders at the soldiers as the team regrouped, and in uniform fashion the groups split into squads and headed out.

Where they were heading was anyone’s guess. Mev took a moment to understand where they had been brought.

The sun perched above dazzling glass-covered towers, poking out of an urbanised carpet rolled clear to the horizon. The swirling city-scape lay beneath the raised platform – if there was a better place to view this startling, glowing city, with its winding rivers of immaculate streets and its monolithic towers, it would take a greater mind to fully appreciate the beauty.

It was the precious jewel of a city; the diamond rarely discovered. Like a great ocean of metal and glass it spread out over the land, endless mazes of effulgent sprawl, glittering spires and masts riding the forward tide. Anywhere you looked it suggested excessive wealth and power that hurt to look at. Here Mev was, nothing but donated armour to his name, and there was a city whose foundations had been cemented in gold. Something that was difficult to admit, he discovered himself envious.

‘Pretty nice place,’ Aila whistled and looked down. ‘That’s a big drop. It’s tempting to fall, isn’t it? I always get like that looking over an edge like this. It’s like you can feel the wind calling to you, just so you can feel for a second what it’s like to just let go and let gravity take over. You stand on the edge, tip over a little, the wind catches your wings and down you go, plummeting. And you’re falling and falling, the air is swirling around you, it’s screaming at you! It gets worse. It gets so much worse. The air swallows you. Then the wings catch, and right before that important moment, right before the point of no return, you’re pulled right back up and you sail into the sunset. It’s the best thrill I’ve ever had – letting go, feeling the fall.’

‘That’s all right for you to say,’ grumbled Durane. ‘You’ve got bloody wings! It doesn’t matter if you fall, you’re safe anyway!’

Aila looked lost for a moment.

‘Yeah,’ she whispered. ‘But that’s not how it feels.’

Her toes hung over the platform’s edge. What it must feel like to surrender yourself to gravity. A long drop and a short stop…

‘If you’re all quite finished.’

Samir’s voice hijacked the proceedings and stole them back to the mission.

‘I need your attention at all times here,’ he said firmly. ‘This is a sensitive mission, one that requires delicacy. Interfere with anything you see, I shoot you. Question what I order, I shoot you. Do as I say and there won’t be a problem. Are we clear?’

‘Yes, Ma’Voi,’ chanted the group automatically.

‘Follow.’

A slick ramp led them off the platform and down into the city outskirts. The change was sudden and dramatic – what was once the proud, towering city laden with wealth and prosperity became a twisted, oppressive parody of itself. Gone were the glass towers poking the clouds and the wide-open streets and the fresh welcoming charm, that pristine glimmer that simply oozed promise. Gone was the winding plateau filled with people. Gone were the rustic old buildings marked here and there by the kiss of time.

Now they entered sand-dusted streets, where slanted roofs hung low and crumbled, broken windows were covered with blankets of wood; dilapidated houses clung to tender roots, wind-battered canvases flapped over shattered porches, rusted doors dangled on threadbare hinges.

Slums. Cheap, poorly made shanties. Hundreds crammed into tiny homes. A glorified graveyard, and to save space the bones and corpses were all shoved into as few coffins as possible and stacked ten-high in poorly dug ditches.

Then the people… Mev kept the sight of them locked away. One look was all he could manage. Gathered around their dirty broken hovels, baking in the low sun, glaring at the team weaving through their narrow, sand-swept streets, and not a tone of sound or a hint of smile ever made itself known.

The smell hit like a train. It took a few minutes for the source to be discovered. At first it would be easy to assume the smell was fleeing from the rotting houses like a beaten dog who had decided enough was enough. But then the crusted shapes were noticed, crammed unceremoniously into the narrow gaps between the sunken buildings, cooking in the sun, picked at by flies and birds, their horrid stench hunting every last molecule of fresh air, their flaking, putrid skin hanging off charred bones, piled like rubbish bags, like some violent effigy to an unmerciful god.

Mev swallowed hard and adjusted his helmet to block out the sights. He focused on the ground.

He could hear merchants sell their wares using all the charm of drowned rats, screaming at the solemn crowds, pouring their furious trade into deaf ears. This was the only real life to be found on the streets.

‘What are they selling?’ Aila whispered in Mev’s ear. ‘Nobody here looks like they have any money or anything to trade. Who’s buying what they’ve got?’

The answer formed firmly in his mind: desperation.

It wasn’t about making the sale, it was about not giving up. They had to stand there every day and peddle their products, even when they knew the sale was impossible. Admitting defeat would be like accepting death.

The cluttered streets decanted into an empty clearing. The sudden silence lunged forward.

Directly ahead an ebony wall towered, curved and sloped, stopping to open a large gap in the uniformly black shining block, which had the same reflective quality as ice and created oddly formed images, as if showing its surroundings through the lens of a child’s wild imagination.

Odder still was the location of the building. It made its squalid surroundings worse in comparison – a feat which was somewhat similar to placing a cathedral next to a sweat-shop.

He was glad to leave the streets and have the chance to sort his memories – mainly burying every atom of memory before they could be solidly formed and committed. It was best, in his opinion, to completely mask the problem. He hadn’t passed people – he had passed aged statues, marked by time. The crumbling homes were weather-worn ruins of an ancient civilisation, recently uncovered. The smell was… something else. Just trapped air, unleashed when the ruins were discovered.

Another layer of fantasy was added to his tiny protective bubble. His mind thanked him, quickly forming memories changed shape, and offered some small relief.

‘Listen up!’ shouted Samir as the group gathered around him. ‘I won’t be repeating myself when we’re in there, and I expect you all to understand this in one go. Clear?’

‘Yes, Ma’Voi,’ chimed the chorus.

‘Inside,’ he gestured to the building, ‘you are officially trespassers on foreign soil. You will be expected to respect the laws and rules of this planet and its inhabitants. Usually we’re above terrestrial issues but this mission requires some finesse. Be polite, do as you’re told, don’t touch anything, don’t speak unless spoken to. Understand? Everyone clear?’

‘Yes,’ they agreed.

‘Good. Follow close.’

The entrance was like a thin cat’s-eye that glowered over the surrounding urban sprawl. They slipped into the narrow passage. The two blank-faced guards standing watch stood aside and allowed passage into the great, dark unknown.

*

Painted eyes followed their tight route to the staircase. Ordinary eyes followed them too, from the moment they came into the building there was no refuge from this swarm of glares.

The golden staircase curled up to the upper floor, itself teeming with golden sculptures and its fluted columns festooned with seven-foot tall paintings depicting, as far as could be seen, lithely swathed old men in various heroic poses, grinning like demonic children, in a painted parade of the obscenely rich and powerful. Mev made this guess on the basis that the rich and the powerful are the only type of people to have paintings of themselves commissioned and have them infest every inch of visible space, as if they could freeze themselves in that one spectacular moment, live forever, immortalised in this square snapshot of life.

Guards watched over the glass cabinets laid out across the foyer, which was beginning to feel like an extremely well-financed museum, perhaps one with an endless budget. Inside were lavish trophies, bleached skulls, historic utensils and paintings, the kind of eccentric collection achieved by a remarkably eccentric person, probably procured with the use of an over-sized wallet, or just the threat of one.

The dark red carpet snaked up the staircase. The group chased it, a sense of hurry pushing them forward. Something about the way the guards were looking at them suggested loitering about, taking in the surroundings, enjoying the cool air on their skin after the unbearable heat outside, would be met with extreme prejudice. There was an uneasy air surrounding them, as if the wrong move could be easily misunderstood and replied to by a hail of bullets.

One of the guards rounded on the group as they approached the staircase, a dark figure blotted out by the latticed window frame behind him. He was highly decorated; gold ribbons and medals were pinned to his dark black lapel. The uniform was decidedly black with shining golden trims.

He was a young man, maybe mid-twenties. His cheeks were heavily scarred, and he had the same haircut as the rest of the guards. The way he held himself, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the Emperor himself. The sort of man who doesn’t walk into a room, instead walks into his room and owns every person inside it.

He regarded the company aloofly, as if there were better things to do with his time, with the kind of monotone delivery achieved by over-worked and underpaid bartenders.

‘You the freaks?’ he said.

Samir glowered down at the man. He wasn’t exactly the smallest man, but next to Samir he looked like an inexplicably self-righteous toddler.

The guard didn’t appear to mind.

‘Yes,’ said Samir.

‘Not as many as I expected,’ the guard grumbled. ‘Did you lose some to those rats on the streets?’

‘There are more. If we need them.’

The guard nodded and gestured to the staircase. ‘The Emperor is waiting for you. Please leave your weapons here.’

Samir began to argue.

‘This is non-negotiable,’ the guard assured him. ‘Can’t have heavily-armed soldiers walking into our lord’s chambers. Surely you understand.’

He smiled. Mev felt his stomach turn. This was the kind of smile that would be the last thing you ever saw, lovingly presented right before a hidden blade found the gap between your ribs.

Samir considered this.

‘They will be returned,’ he said. Usually this would have voiced as a question, this time it was delivered as fact.

‘If you’re careful,’ said the guard dismissively. ‘In the box they go. Then up you come.’

Aila glanced around at Syna, mouth open in shock, then remembered the tens of eyes trained on her and pulled it together.

No one spoke to Samir like that. It was like testing the sharpness of a bear’s teeth with your fingers. The commander still allowed this to happen, however. Gritted his granite teeth and grudgingly tailed the guard as he led them upstairs.

‘You know,’ started the guard, ‘you’re not exactly what I expected. You really are a bunch of freaks, eh?’

‘We attract those loyal to the cause,’ Samir explained through clenched teeth. ‘Whatever shape they may come in.’

‘Uh-huh.’ The guard glanced over his shoulder at Mev and snorted. ‘Even if they look like him? I mean, come on! How’s he supposed to fight anything?’

‘He won’t have to,’ said Samir, unconvincingly.

The guard laughed. ‘Yeah. Sure. A soldier that doesn’t have to fight. You must be a proud leader.’

‘I didn’t catch your name.’

‘Borm. I’d ask yours but, frankly, I don’t really care. As far as I’m concerned, you’re the help. You’re glorified mercenaries. Deal with the problem, then leave. Don’t piss off the Emperor while you’re at it and I won’t have to kill you.’

Under Samir’s aloof tutelage, Mevoine had figured out some of his little ticks – the subtle movements of his stone face, the way even his sockets contracted into tiny dots when something went awry, the tugging of his plastered lips to one side, the barely noticeable cocking of his head to the left when his patience had drained out. Figuring this out had taken time and careful study, and a little help from Luna the doctor, who was surprisingly forthcoming about her knowledge on most of the commanders on the ship.

Presently, Samir was exhibiting all these subtle twitches. It made Mev’s hair stand on end – like the storm swelling at the coast. If Borm wasn’t careful about his approach, he’d likely never approach anything again.

‘We’re here to do our job,’ growled Samir. ‘You won’t even know we were here.’

‘And if you don’t do your job,’ explained Borm sullenly, ‘it’ll be like you never were. This way, freaks.’

The staircase spilled out onto a large, wide hallway. More guards stood watch over the strange collection – these men and women were supposedly of a higher rank than those below, their uniforms were darker and harsher to the eye, spiked pads lanced from their shoulders, and their weapons were like bayonets, unlike the simple handguns worn by their inferior cousins.

Samir raised his mountainous eyebrow.

‘Interesting weapons,’ he noted.

‘That’s what happens when you invest in the smart people,’ Borm replied, grinning. ‘Sure, invest in your military and you’ll have an army to be feared. Invest in science and research and you’ll have an army that can never be conquered. Good weapons, good army.’

The stone gargoyle’s empty sockets pierced the guns. ‘I can’t say I disagree.’

‘That’s one of our lord’s greatest triumphs,’ said Borm proudly. ‘We had a dip during the market crash, fell into financial ruin. He tried diplomacy.’ He snickered. ‘Diplomacy, eh. What a crock of shit.’

He led them into a smaller side-path, equally bathed in rolls of gold.

‘Where that failed, force worked. Took full control of the idiot government, abolished them after. Took his rightful place as supreme ruler and set to work. Trimmed the fat on the budget, invested the rest in developing advanced weaponry, harnessing the awesome power of nature, and I’m sure you can imagine what happened next. The rest of the world bowed to him. Wasn’t long before he took control of the planet.’

‘And now?’

‘Now we’ve got bloody rebels!’ He spit. ‘Don’t know a good thing when they see it!’

‘Hm,’ said Samir, observing his extravagant surroundings as a rat might a castle.

‘That’s something you can discuss with the Emperor,’ Borm explained. ‘Make sure and show the lord utmost respect. Click of his fingers is the difference between life and death, and he can be trigger-happy if you’re a disrespectful little prick. Bow, curtsy, and just keep your damn mouth shut unless he says so.’ He stopped. ‘And remember, this man is a legend – a god among men. The reason this planet’s still turning. Even if you don’t think you’re being disrespectful, a lot of the guards in there owe him their lives, and they’re happier to pull the trigger than he is. Just play nice and you all get to go back to whatever shit-hole you call home, all right?’

Samir’s sockets pinched. For a moment, it looked like the storm had reached critical mass and was about to collapse on the coast, then the commander… smiled.

‘Thank you,’ he said.

This was a previously unknown addition to the commander’s limited vocabulary and was horrifying to hear in his gravelly tones.

‘We’ve no problem obeying your customs,’ he continued levelly. ‘Point us in the right direction and we’ll sort out this mess.’

Borm offered a look of muted surprise and pointed down the hallway.

‘Down there. Can’t miss it. Unless you’re an idiot… so, who knows? You probably will.’

After Borm had left, grinning like a barracuda, Samir collected the group and brought them to the huge, intricately decorated marble doors. Gold made yet another appearance; here it looped back and forth across the clear marble, dashing from top to bottom and coiling around the ornate handles like bright yellow serpents.

‘You heard the man,’ said Samir in a low voice. ‘Respect and silence are the orders today. This will be a test of patience rather than skill, so let’s keep a low profile and try to not start a planetary war. Believe me, easier said than done.’

Mev started to think. He’d been doing a lot of that lately and he was under the impression this was the reason for his recent headaches. Any muscle left to atrophy will take some time to get back to working order.

His thoughts now were occupied with a difficult question: ‘How many wars are the Vanguard responsible for?’

What bothered him most was the suggestion that this wasn’t the first time they’d thrown in their lot with a terrestrial matter… What if Aila’s planet had been ravaged by nuclear war because of them? What if his own home planet was rife with in-fighting because of their manipulation?

How far had corruption spread through the army? How many people, how many planets had they affected, influenced, or twisted to their own ends?

What if… What if they didn’t stand for justice? They rattled on about Lilith’s poison swimming through creation’s veins… But they’d yet to provide an antidote, or even the promise of one. They just bullied people, their own soldiers, too. Disregarded the planets they visited, pulled the necessary strings to get what they wanted. Perhaps it was the military way, to command and control, brute force the door to submission. Puppets of chaos masquerading as agents of justice.

What if…

No. Mev buried the thoughts. Bad thoughts breed bad deeds, and the fairly limitless possibilities involved with the Vanguard meant anyone could be listening, and they weren’t the kind to take rebellious notions on the chin.

The two guards standing on either side of the marble fresco heaved the great doors apart, and then invited them into the Emperor’s chambers.

*

Elephants of light stomped on paths of darkness. The place was swamped in gold and steeped in riches; gold barriers curled around the large entrance area, arranged in a neat seating forum centred by a paw-legged table, itself lined in shining yellow veins, from the ceiling dangled a crystal chandelier that threw facets of light and shadow, and the main focus of the chamber was the platform, some fifteen feet above, made accessible by two carpeted staircases on both sides.

It was remarkably like some aeons-old altar erected in the fancy of an ancient god, whose diligent servants should worship at nothing less than the most intricate and most lavish cathedral, as if by polishing the piped columns and pristine candelabras and bowing at the foot of overblown excess they would somehow bridge the gap between man and the divine.

Paintings on the walls depicted an older man dressed in armour, fancy suits, and posh, ugly robes. There was a sense of massive size, as if he was smuggling rocks beneath his clothing; muscles the size of small mountains, holding up cutlasses and bayonets and hammers, posing heroically like the valiant soldier returned from the killing fields.

He was a somewhat handsome man, long dark hair settled comfortably on his shoulders, a jawline that would make the coastline jealous, and shoulders you could rest an iron rod on.

In his warm eyes there was promise – that the sun would rise and set, that the clouds would break over dawn, that food would be placed in your hands if only you’d ask, that the flowers would bloom and the grass would grow and the world would be a little cosier if you handed it over to his loving control.

There were also, Mev noticed, slightly distressed, odd slits on the walls close the ceiling, like black squares cut into tiled paper.

Aila gasped.

‘This is a bit much,’ she groaned quietly. ‘But those people outside…’

‘Distribution of wealth,’ Monsoon whispered, and was then swiftly clapped on the back of the head.

‘Quiet,’ ordered Samir impatiently. ‘Not a word. First person to speak without being spoken to is the first under my boot.’

They climbed the stairs in relative silence. The lonely sounds of their footsteps bounced around the room.

The stairs opened onto a larger level. There were glorious armchairs that looked like they would swallow their victims if they sat too long, glass cabinets held luxurious trophies and the like, most of which were completely unfamiliar, and there appeared to have been some sort of banquet – overflowing plates of piled food occupied most of the space on the nearby tables; whole chickens, roast potatoes, loafs of fresh bread, jugs of water and wine that sparkled incandescently like large glass candles, roasted pig fermenting in sauce on chafing dishes, and bits and bites packed neatly in the gaps between.

It was a feast for a hundred people. What was odd, however, was that there were very few seats scattered around the busy tables; maybe one or two per metre. The food was unhealthily distributed, in that case, more for the few and much, much less for the many.

All eyes were drawn inexorably to the alcove past the chairs. It was impossible to look anywhere else once you noticed what was lying there, sparkling away without a care in the world – and it was equally impossible to not notice it.

Piled to the ceiling in a shifting, glittering mountain, was gold. More gold than had been seen thus far. More gold than any one person could ever spend in a single lifetime. Or one hundred lifetimes.

It just sat there mockingly, shining surfaces sending millions of glistening winks, sparkling like a bonfire. You could almost see the arrogant grin split its patronising metal face.

Beside the gold hearth sat a squat little man. His twinkling bald head reflected the gold’s fiery light. His tiny hands fondled a gold bar. He was occupied with the paintings.

Mev squinted hard and tried to figure out what he was looking at. The podgy fellow was familiar. He took a mental image and doctored the photo – removed the jowls, raised the cheekbones, widened the eyes, filled in the hair, trimmed the ear hair, slimmed the waist, normalised the hands, replaced the elegant, regal clothing with armour, stretched the legs, added in some shoulders, and enlarged the muscles to gratuitous proportions… and there he was…
The man in the paintings.

Only it wasn’t the same man. Perhaps forty years and two-thousands pies ago, maybe. He’d somehow shrunk and lost that delicious charm which oozed out of the frozen faces plastered on the wall.

There was nothing of that same promise in those weasel eyes, which were like knots in old wood. They were cold and harsh and shrivelled. The hero dressing the walls was a damn sight worse for wear in real life; one was the conqueror of nations, the other, this quivering bag of fatty meat, was the rat that gnawed at their foundations.

‘You must be Emperor Chilivan,’ Samir began, fishing for his attention.

‘I am,’ said the man, who turned and smiled.

His teeth were whiter than snow – it was like looking into two perfectly arranged rows of snowballs. But his smile was like something out of a horror film, like a red and white worm had hijacked the area beneath his upturned, pudgy little nose and set about wriggling for an audience’s entertainment.

‘We’re here-’

‘Bow,’ said the emperor. The worm danced.

To everyone’s surprise, Samir nodded and almost instantly bowed, then gestured to the others to follow his lead. Before then, Mev would never have imagined the commander bowing to anything.

‘Good,’ beamed the emperor. ‘Good! Very good!’ He slapped his hands together, creating a rather pitiful sounding clap. ‘Look at you all! My gods…’

He was at Aila like a dog around a hydrant.

‘Very nice,’ he grinned, almost slobbering, and circled the girl. ‘The wings are a bit of a problem but otherwise… Very nice.’

‘Is…’ Samir started, then considered this approach. ‘Something we can do for you?’

‘I’m addressed as your lord,’ snapped the emperor, not taking his eyes off Aila. ‘At the very least, I’ll accept sir, since you’re a military man. Something I’m sure you’re used to.’

His eyes suddenly moved and widened.

‘And you!’ he exclaimed, throwing his arms open as if to grab Lyrik. ‘Amazing! You have quite the stock, commander. I might consider joining myself.’

Then he noticed Monsoon. ‘Is that some kind of skin condition? I hope it’s not catching.’

He snickered, then turned to Samir.

‘How much?’

Samir looked at the emperor, then at Aila, then at Lyrik. His face gave nothing away.

‘Our soldiers are not for sale,’ he said calmly.

‘Really? Why not?’

There was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. A slight twitch tugged at the commander’s lips.

‘Because we don’t sell people,’ he said, slightly less calm.

‘They’d be cared for,’ the emperor continued, largely ignoring him. He spoke about Aila and Lyrik as if they weren’t there. ‘This is my planet, after all. Anything they want, they would get. There’d be no better life for them, I can assure you.’

‘No. Our people are not yours, or anyone’s, to buy.’ He tried smiling. ‘Thank you for your interest in my people, however. It is appreciated.’

Aila briefly looked up. Her face was a mask of rage; sweat poured down her forehead. Syna, similarly enraged, was clenching her fists.

‘Of course, of course,’ muttered the emperor. ‘The offer still stands should you ever decide otherwise. Yes… I could do a lot with them.’ He tittered and moved back to his chair, rubbing the bar between his palms. ‘There is business we must attend to, commander. And I’d rather it be dealt with swiftly and discreetly. Your presence here is already causing problems.’

‘My apologies,’ said Samir. ‘That was never our intention. Where the Pantheon are sighted, it is our duty to act.’ He lowered his voice. ‘They’ve been seen?’

The emperor nodded. ‘Undoubtedly. I was contacted by one of their generals a few months ago to assist them in setting up some kind of temple or recruiting ground on the planet. I refused. Can’t have aliens running around the place, filling my citizens’ heads with foreign nonsense. I had enough trouble getting those green-skins on the Albion continent to accept civilized society. Imagine, after all I’ve done to maintain peace and sanity, I’d just let those bastards corrupt my people’s minds.’

‘The general, what was their name?’ Samir pressed. ‘And they won’t have contacted you like that without offering a deal. What did they offer?’

‘Well, aren’t you the genius?’ the emperor snorted. ‘Weapons, weapons, and more weapons. Advanced medicine, sentient machines, that sort of thing. It was a tempting offer… But the price was too high. Complete control of the planet, I’d be their puppet, their mouthpiece. Stick the hand up me and pantomime the lips.’

He glanced at Aila, grinned, and winked.

‘Maybe later, eh?’ he said, beaming, then swivelled back to Samir. ‘I let them set up shop in an old abandoned weapons factory. I didn’t think it’d do much harm, letting them rest for a few weeks, they promised they’d be off once they’d recharged.’ He waved his hands hopelessly. ‘It’s been three months. For the first two, nothing much happened. They told me they were waiting to be picked up… then two weeks ago, all of a sudden, the rats start thinking, start fighting my guards, shouting all this nonsense about how I was a horrible leader, that I was a nasty dictator that cared for nothing except my own perversions. A rebellion that appeared out of nowhere, like an arrow out of mist.’

He tossed the bar between his hands – an exceptional talent given the tiny size of the receivers.

‘Easily dealt with, mind you,’ he continued. ‘Rounded the rats up, showed them what would happen if they kept speaking out against me. Let me tell you, nothing quite says shut the hell up like a bullet in your daughter’s head.’

Samir looked uneasy. This was, by most accounts, a difficult impression to understand on his bland granite expression. It could only be seen by those really looking for it.

‘And the general’s name?’ Samir asked.

‘I was still talking,’ the emperor snapped suddenly. ‘Do you go around interrupting your betters? No, of course you don’t. You know your place. So don’t speak out of turn.’

‘My apologies, sir.’

‘That won’t cut it. Try again.’

Samir’s expression tightened. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Sir. I am your better. The ground you walk on is mine, the air you breath is mine. You live at my mercy. I am your lord. Try again.’

The commander drew in breath sharply.

‘My apologies, my lord.’

The wriggling worm returned to the sweaty red face.

‘Much better,’ he said. ‘Now, the warehouse is in the Skimmer district, overlooking the Emperor’s Waters. The rats have made a nest in the surrounding area. Ignore them and go directly to heart of the problem – those Pantheon freaks – and burn them down. I don’t want them on my planet any longer than I want you here.’

‘What kind of-’ Samir began.

‘How the hell should I know?’ the Emperor snapped. ‘Just go in and find out! You’re meant to be the expert on this stuff, you should know what kind of resistance to expect. Unless my fragile faith is misplaced?’

‘No. We’ll deal with it,’ Samir said confidently.

‘See to it that you do,’ said the Emperor dismissively. ‘And do it quietly. Avoid massive firefights and explosions, and if the fight somehow moves into the streets, drag it back into the warehouse. My people look up to me, as a leader, as a commander, a hero and a legend… If they see you in action, eradicating the problem, and if they see the rats take up arms against my wishes and throw their voices to rebellion, it would poison the foundations of what I’ve built here. I won’t have a gang of aliens undermine my divine authority.’

He glanced at Aila and the worm danced frantically.

‘Even if they do look like that,’ he added, licking his lips.

‘It will be discreet,’ Samir assured him. ‘A knife in the back.’

‘Once you’re finished, keep the knife. If it comes anywhere near me… Well.’

He clicked his fingers, and a succession of clicks that had queued up behind the first came thundering along like toppling dominoes. Mev suddenly had the feeling of being watched by hundreds of eyes. His senses dragged his gaze to the square holes that pocked the room.

Instead of the empty darkness, he saw the glimmer of something shiny catching the warm light.

‘You understand, yes?’ tittered the Emperor. ‘I’d hate to tarnish the beauties you’ve brought to me, but I won’t hesitate if you create an unwinnable situation.’

The commander looked around at the firing holes. What the Emperor couldn’t see, and where Samir won their background battle of wits, was the mild amusement spreading across the stone surface. It was that same sort of vague bewilderment worn by an adult when a child points a finger-gun at them, shouts ‘Bang!’, followed by ‘I got you, you’re dead! I got you!’

‘I see that,’ said Samir cagily. ‘Military control, trigger-happy, undeniable leadership skills. A man after my own heart.’

‘Not directly, but I’ll take it if I can.’

He waved them away and returned to his little ritual, turning the gold around in his palms, and pondering wistfully over his superior doppelganger frozen on the walls.

Samir made an odd gesture, apparently a pre-arranged signal that he had failed to pre-arrange, and then made another which, while somewhat obscene, suggested the others to follow him down to the lower level.

The Emperor’s gaze lifted and stuck to Aila as she went down the stairs, head hanging at her chest. Embarrassment and shame clung to her. Right beneath his pig-nose, the worm spasmed.

At the lower level, Samir grouped them together. He was about to speak when the marble doors opened, and a huddle of figures appeared out of the doorway.

Mev first assumed this would be their military escort, here to insure the Vanguard kept to their word and left the poorly citizens to their own devices, but as they drew closer, he realised his mistake with a strangled scream.

It was a group of scantily dressed women – perhaps dressed was an optimistic description. To be accurate, they weren’t naked, but they were one small breeze away from losing their modesty.

Mev tried very hard not to let his eyes wander. Something about them robbed him of his agency and sucked his view in reluctantly. Then he recognised what this was, and why he couldn’t pull his eyes away.

It was the same sort of hijacked staring that occurs when passing a car crash. You just have to look at the horror. It wasn’t that they were liberally dressed, it was that you could see and feel the brooks of pain and self-loathing that spilled out of them; that sort of caged animal look, that they would do anything at all if it meant they could be freed, that the bars around them were nothing like the bars that surrounded their loathsome memories, which would sometimes open on quiet lonely nights and let the shadows of forgotten, repressed things creep into their lonesome refuge.

There was something horrible about that, something nameless and formless that crept into his mind and whispered from shadows. Wrapped up like Christmas presents… Bows on top. Ribbons round the sides. To be ravenously opened and plundered by the hungry-eyed animals dazzled by the pretty package.

They walked silently up the staircase like a line of death row inmates heading for the chopping block. It felt wrong to stare, so Mev turned away. Something about this felt wrong, too, for precisely the same reasons.

‘Right…’ Samir said uncertainly, as the dancers disappeared to the upper floor. ‘Leave your voices until we’re safely outside. Speak now and it may be seen as slander enough for punishment. I promise you, we will discuss this.’

‘But-’ Syna began, the arguments boiling on the tip of her tongue.

‘Not now. Outside.’

*

Borm was waiting for them in the courtyard – a lively, colourful area draped in hanging branches which surrounded the huge marble fountain, decorated with stone cherubs.

Samir excused the group from Borm, who was rather happy to be rid of them, and took counsel under one of the sunburnt canopies.

‘That was tougher than I’d expected,’ he admitted, shielding his sockets from invasive rays. ‘But no matter, we have our objective.’

Syna glared at him.

‘Our objective?’ she hissed. ‘Our bloody objective?’

‘Yes,’ said Samir simply. ‘We came here to find the Pantheon and excise them like the cancer they are.’

Mev could almost feel the rage pouring out of the girl.

‘Are you fucking kidding me?!’ she exploded. Her voice was hoarse, she’d held this in for too long. ‘That slug goes sniffing about Aila and Lyrik like they’re pieces of meat and you just stand there nodding your head and dancing to his tune! You just let him do it!’

Samir towered over her – this accomplished nothing. She was going nuclear.

‘You stood there,’ she hissed, ‘and let this happen. You watched it happen. And you did nothing. Why not sell them off? Hand them over like prized meat? It’s not like you care.’

Aila and Lyrik treaded nervously around the exploding nucleus of the group. They were caught in the gravity of the argument but were removed enough to not be engulfed. Neither had said a word yet – nor did they really need to. Their faces said it all.

‘I told him,’ said Samir confidently, ‘my soldiers are not for sale.’

‘So we’re your soldiers all of a sudden?’ Syna snapped. ‘Does that mean you’re responsible for what happens to us?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then you have failed. That monster in there, the one you were happy to play along with, laugh at its jokes, do what it said, it’s still a monster. Someone who treated my wife like she was something to be ogled and enjoyed, like a painting at an art show.’

‘Let me remind you, he didn’t do anything,’ Samir said. ‘The girls are unharmed. It was a harmless exchange, one that benefited us more than him.’

‘And those women,’ Syna continued, barely registering his reply. ‘You think they’re there for intelligent discussions, maybe partake in a bit of expensive brandy, wile the night away in safety and comfort? No. You know what they’re there for. You know what he’s doing to them.’

Here Samir paused. Uncertainty grew faintly on his expression.

‘What if that was your wife, your daughter in there?’ said Syna, then threw her arms up. ‘No, fuck that! What if it was you?! Down on your knees, some slimy creep examining you, judging you? Licking his lips and undressing you? You wouldn’t stand for that. No-one in their right mind would!’

‘Syna, calm-’ Monsoon began.

The fist whistled through the air and just barely missed the snout. Monsoon backed off. Syna’s clenched fists returned to her sides. She had that look about her that she sometimes got when her blood supply was running low. Dark circles around the eyes, her already ghostly skin becoming paler and tight around the cheeks. Her mouth was opening and shutting noiselessly, like a shark readying the jaw.

‘You all just stood there!’ she shouted. ‘If you’re willing to let that happen, how far would you have let it go?’

‘You didn’t do anything,’ said Samir.

The explosion hit its stride. Mental sparks shot off the epicentre.

‘Because I couldn’t!’ she raged. ‘We do anything you don’t approve of, we’re punched, slapped, kicked and threatened. You’ve extorted our obedience. I thought someone like you would be happy to punch that dickhead’s lights out, it’s a chance for violence and you might actually get to do something morally good for once!’

Samir’s sockets narrowed. His mouth opened, then closed. Considerations were taken.

‘This man is not our objective,’ said Samir calmly. ‘He is one of an infinite number. As Vanguard we must be above morality.’

‘That man is an evil tyrant,’ Syna declared. ‘An evil, cruel bastard sitting comfortably in his golden palace while the rest of his planet suffers for it.’

‘There is no evil but Lilith,’ Samir said. ‘No good but us. Consider what you know – this is one single planet in a universe filled with billions, in an existence populated by infinity. He is but one variable in an endless string. Whatever evil you may believe he has or will commit, it is the quantum possibility, the variable, playing itself out to the end. That is why we must consider ourselves beyond the prison of good and evil: there is no such thing. What’s considered good in one universe could be considered evil in another; the cruel dictator is a benevolent ruler, the merciless king is the valiant conqueror. The young child drawing pictures for her mother’s mantelpiece is a blasphemous witch to be burned at the stake.’ He pointed at her. ‘The innocent love between two women is outlawed and criminalised, to be met with extreme prejudice whenever found. Do you understand? Embracing the cosmic perspective, approaching from the angle of the whole and not of the singular, is how we survive. Accepting this isn’t forming an opinion, it’s accepting the truth. You have to abandon your morality if you want to live.’

‘You can’t ask that!’ Syna shouted.

‘I wasn’t asking,’ said Samir. ‘If you’re to survive this war then you must understand that is all we fight. The war and nothing else. This is how things are on this planet because that is how things must be here. Any attempt to intervene and we become the evil we’re trying to quench. Interfering with causality, the natural order of things, it’s dangerous; you have no idea how the world will try and close the gap you’ve created in the endless chain of cause and effect. Good, evil, everything in between, it’s an illusion you cling to, to make sense of the chaos. You will only survive if you accept this truth.’

‘I won’t ever accept it,’ said Syna. ‘The world isn’t that cruel. It’s not that black and white.’

‘That’s what I’m trying to tell you. There is no black or white, not a grey area in the middle. There is us and them. Everything else is immaterial.’

‘Even those people crawling on the streets?’ Syna pushed. ‘Those awful people, burning in the sun, piling their corpses like bags of rubbish? They’re immaterial?’

The word slipped off her tongue dripping in venom.

‘Yes,’ Samir replied coldly. ‘Yes, they are. One raindrop in the ocean. One snowflake in the avalanche. One individual against infinity. They suffer, yes, I’m not blind. But what you’re suggesting we do is change the river’s course, alter the flow to suit what you’ve decided is the morally correct direction. Who are you to decide that? You can’t choose what’s best for these people because you have no frame of reference, you’ve no idea what they consider normal, what’s considered normal for this entire universe! And with no foundation to build upon, we must choose not to act. It is not the place of the powerful to act simply because they can. Accept this. Accept you can’t change the world.’

‘You want us to be heartless like you,’ she snarled.

‘Heartless like the world,’ Samir calmly corrected her. ‘We cannot simply lift these people out of poverty and suffering. We’re here to fight – and if we lose the war, they’ll die anyway. Best to fight the battles worth fighting than waste our time on the lost causes.’

He turned away from her. This was sufficient to end the conversation. The huddled silent group let out clutched breath.

Then Syna growled.

‘You never answered my question,’ she hissed. ‘What if it was your wife, your daughter, in there? Would you be hiding in the moral side-lines quietly preaching to yourself about the fallacy of good and evil?’

The area went terribly quiet; that sort of awful eerie silence that precedes something terrifically explosive.

Stone creaked. The gargoyle’s head turned, and it seemed in that moment all the waiting rage searching desperately for an escape had found its channel. As anyone with a brain cell would do when faced with an impending explosion, the group backed off as one – except Mev, who couldn’t be included in the rather wide category of ‘anyone with a brain cell’.

It happened slowly at first, a gradual seep, like the last flickers of a dying fire; the anger bubbled and spluttered, and like a candle on its last drop of wax, it simmered out, vanishing like fire into smoke.

The commander’s expression was the perfect picture of calmness.

‘Come,’ Samir commanded. ‘There is work to do.’

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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