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The Star Ring Conspiracy

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When the first manned spaceflight is sabotaged, Flight Director Garston Yegob becomes embroiled in a cascade of conspiracies that run to the heart of the government and beyond.

Scifi / Adventure
5.0 1 review
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To Catch a Star

Garston Yegob relaxed comfortably into the hammock-like support of in his deckchair, resting his head against the wooden top bar and gazing up at into the crystal-clear night sky of the desert. The serene silence was so deep that he could hear the high-pitched ringing of his own ears functioning, the only interruption being the occasional melodious chirruping of nocturnal insects. Far above him, the Pseudo Stars glowed like faint clouds of pearls in the darkly green firmament of the desert. Almost directly overhead, a Real Star shone like a polished emerald.

“Hey, Garston,” a pleasant voice called to him.

“Yes, Sam?” he responded, without looking away from the cloudless sky.

“That was the best barbecue I’ve ever been to.”

“Yeah, thanks man,” the deeper voice of Nassah Letap added sincerely. “I had a fine time.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Garston replied, sitting up with an effort and taking a swig of beer from the bottle he had been cradling against his chest. “After all,” he continued momentarily, “where would the Space Program be without its first astronauts?”

“I still can’t believe we’re actually going to do it,” Sam responded happily into the darkness. “After all of the training and simulations, test flights, delays and uncertainties, it just seemed, well, like a dream that would never actually happen.”

Garston drained his beer and got unsteadily to his feet. He stared into the darkness, and was just barely able to identify the faint outline of his companions’ chairs against the feeble glimmer of light emanating from the Space Centre.

“Well,” he announced, raising his hands over his head and stretching his back luxuriantly, “It’s time for me to head back. Just promise me one thing.”

“What’s that?” Nassah enquired thickly, sounding a bit worse for wear.

“Be careful up there.”

The two astronauts-in-waiting regarded his silhouette momentarily before glancing at each other. Reaching a silent agreement, they rose unsteadily and stood to attention in front of him, swaying gently. Garston could just make out the movement of their arms as they saluted in unison. All three of them began to laugh.

“Seriously, though,” Garston continued after a moment, “I want you two back in one piece.”

“Well, I can’t vouch for Nassah,” Sam replied, “but I intend to come back to a hero’s welcome.”

“Yeah,” Nassah added with gusto, “and we’re gonna bring you back your own Star!”

Sam let out a whoop of joy that echoed across the runway before losing itself in the surrounding desert. He leant backward with his arms outstretched and faced the night sky defiantly.

“You hear that!” he shouted into the cool darkness. “We’re coming up there, and we’re bringing a Star back.” Then he drained his beer bottle and dropped it onto the ground. There was a dull clink as it hit one of the numerous empties strewn around the deckchairs.

“You know what I think,” Garston said conspiratorially.


“I think it’s time we all went to bed.”

“I’m not sure if I can make it back to the base,” Nassah told them. He belched loudly before admitting, “I’ve drunk too much beer.”

“We’ll all go together,” Garston reassured him.

Surprisingly, after a short spell stumbling around absurdly in the darkness, giggling like idiots, they managed to find each other without falling over. Garston and Sam supported Nassah as they ambled drunkenly towards the lights of the Space Research Centre nearly two miles away.

“Why did we decide to walk all the way out here?” Nassah asked blearily.

“So we could see the Stars clearly,” Sam reminded him.

“Oh, yeah.”

“I always knew that boy couldn’t hold his beer,” Sam confided to Garston as they weaved their way across the tarmac. “A great test pilot, but no good at drinking.”

“Well, whatever happens,” Garston told them confidently, “I’m sure that this will be the biggest adventure of our lives.”

Garston Yegob sat in darkness with his eyes closed as he allowed the music to flow through him, filling his soul with peace and contentment. The wonderful intricacies of the orchestration entranced him, and he imagined the conductor waving his baton imperiously at the musicians; bringing the stringed instruments to a crescendo, allowing the woodwinds to gently pick up the melody before urging the brass and percussion sections to take over. Completely immersed in the music (his headphones reproduced it so harmoniously that he felt as if he were inside the conductor’s head), Garston allowed his thoughts to wander.

His mind drifted back to the mission green light meeting. All of the department heads and administrators (including himself as newly appointed Project Director) had been whisked off to Capital City in a government jet. No one was told why, only that there was to be an important meeting.

Following a pleasant stay in the government guest suite, they were served an impressive breakfast, during which there was a lot of discussion about whether the project was to be cancelled, or finally given a green light. Once the meal was finished, they were led to the main briefing room.

An anticipatory murmur began, abruptly giving way to a respectful silence as Supreme Administrator Garvin entered from a side door at the front of the room and paced over to the lectern, which stood on a small raised dais. He placed his hands on the sides of the lectern and turned to survey them, his piercing steel-grey eyes taking in the eagerly waiting audience until he lighted upon, searching out Garston. They locked stares for a moment before Garvin gave him a rare wry grin. As he smiled questioningly back, Garston realized with a quickening of his pulse that the project had been given the go-ahead.

“Gentlemen,” Garvin began, his forceful voice immediately demanding attention, “please rise and welcome the President.”

He smiled as he turned to the door by which he had just entered, and led the polite applause as the President emerged. Garvin stepped back and gracefully relinquished centre stage, respectfully taking up position behind the President.

President Namurt smiled as he looked over the audience. His teeth were immaculately white, accentuated by his dark, almost black skin. He gave a brief nod of satisfaction before beginning his address.

“Thank you, gentlemen,” the President said in his expressive bass voice. Pausing briefly to savour the moment, he made a sweeping gesture with his right hand that encompassed the audience, as he and continued, “Please take your seats.”

“As you are no doubt aware,” he announced after the audience had settled down, “I have taken a personal interest in the Space Program, and in particular the quest to study a Real Star at close range.” He paused to survey the audience once more before resuming his speech.

“The Government and the Scientific Council have finally agreed with me that we now have the resources and technical ability to launch the most important project in history. The Real Stars have always been a source of much debate and fascination. As you know, some of the old religions were based on the belief that the Gods placed them there for our protection.”

A murmur of appreciative amusement rippled through the room.

“Well,” President Namurt continued proudly, “as soon you are able, we are going to launch the first-ever manned spacecraft. With the whole world holding its breath, the two men inside that craft will capture a Star and return it safely to our eagerly awaiting scientists, who will then study it and provide us with the answer to the oldest riddle known to mankind.” He paused dramatically for a moment before concluding grandly, “Gentlemen, in six months’ time we will know what the Real Stars are!”

Looking back on it now, nearly six months later, that had been a presumptuous remark, but at the time it was greeted with enthusiastic applause. Later, as the meeting broke up, Garvin had approached Garston and taken him to one side.

“You’ve done a good job so far, Director Yegob,” Garvin began, as soon as he felt that they were far enough away from the main group, “The reports from Senior Administrator Kram are very satisfactory.”

“Thank you, Supreme Administrator,” Garston replied carefully.

“As you just heard, President Namurt is giving his full backing to this project. He feels it will bring everyone together, and divert attention away from the recent increase in the crime figures.”

Garston nodded sagely, but said nothing. He was always wary of Administrators, and Garvin was in charge of The Administration. It was wise to think carefully before speaking with him.

Garvin regarded him thoughtfully for a moment before continuing. “The world press is being given unprecedented access to the project, Garston. The President wants to generate as much interest as possible.” He glanced furtively around the room before carrying on, “Kram will be in charge of the publicity side of things, so you needn’t worry about it too much. Just make yourself available as required, and be accommodating.”

He paused briefly before reaching out and putting a hand on Garston’s shoulder. “Have you ever thought of becoming an Administrator? I’m sure you’d be an asset to us.”

Garston let Garvin’s hand rest lightly on his shoulder, resisting the urge to push it away. “That’s very kind of you, sir, Sir,” he replied, “but I’m hoping for a seat on the Scientific Council. I’m sure you understand.”

“That’s a very admirable ambition, Garston,” Garvin answered without missing a beat. “I’m sure that the successful conclusion of the project will help you to achieve that. If you change your mind, however, the offer will stand.”

“That’s very generous, Supreme Administrator.”

Garvin regarded him shrewdly. “More than you realise, Director,” he concluded ominously.

Garston had been expecting something along these lines, and was relieved when Garvin left without saying anything else.

Ever since then, things had been happening at a frenetic pace. Now only one week remained before the launch. They were preparing to take a leap into the unknown, despite their meticulous preparations following the years of research, testing and development.

The reverie had drawn him away from the music, which he now found distracting, so he reached up and turned on the standard lamp beside his chair. Blinking in the soft light, he removed his headphones and coiled the cable carefully as he slowly rose from his chair. Placing the headphones neatly on top of the music system as he turned it off, he stood thoughtfully for a moment before making his way to the drinks cabinet.

Armed with his favourite whisky, he ambled over to his the study. Papers lay neatly stacked in the various trays, and the latest reports were waiting for him in the middle of the desk. Deliberately ignoring them, Garston turned off the lights and twitched the curtains aside, just enough to see reveal the night sky.

His apartment was in the executive block, and afforded him an uninterrupted view of the surrounding desert. It was approaching midnight. The cool night air was crisp and refreshingly clear. A Real Star twinkled at him like a viridian sentinel, steadfastly entrenched in the sky. He shifted his attention to the smaller, fainter Pseudo Stars, scattered seemingly at random throughout the night sky. He was more interested in these, even though modern scientific opinion was that they were just reflections of the Real Stars.

Ever since the first man looked up into the night sky, the Real Stars had been a source of fascination and wonder. There were seventy-two of them arranged in two rings around the planet: one ring thirty degrees south of the equator, the other thirty degrees north. They remained fixed in position, and were easily the brightest objects in the night sky. The Pseudo Stars, however, nebulously populated the entire night clad firmament, their position altering with the seasons. While the Real Stars could be studied with powerful telescopes, such as the one in the observatory attached to the Research Centre, everything beyond them was hazy and indistinct. Apart from their cyclic path through the heavens, nothing could be learned about the Pseudo Stars from the ground.

This contrast between uniformity and seeming randomness had always intrigued him. He had spent a large portion of his youth engrossed in studies of the natural world, but nowhere had he found anything remotely approaching the conformity of the Real Stars. His final scientific graduate thesis had been based on a theory he developed that the Pseudo Stars were much more than mere reflections. He postulated that they were, in fact, distant suns. He attained a good grade, on the basis of originality and audacity. His theory, however, was dismissed as crackpot, totally unsupported, and completely at odds with established scientific fact. He was told in no uncertain terms that, unless he abandoned his theory, a meaningful career within the Scientific Community would be impossible.

The memory of the disappointment still brought a bitter taste to his mouth. He knocked back the whisky and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Letting the curtain drop into place with a swish, he turned back to the room and reached out to switch the lights on.

The first thing the artificial illumination revealed was the reports on his desk. Each department had to provide a weekly report, which Administrator Kram collected and delivered to him personally. Garston was unable to express how tedious he found them now. Just about everything had been completed a month ago. The Propulsion Department had been walking around looking smug for ages, as most of their work was completed before the project had been given the green light. (In fact, it was mostly because of their work that the project had become possible.) Science and Communications had pulled extra shifts and completed final checks on all their systems in the last week, which meant lots of wonderful tick sheets.

Garston permitted himself the luxury of another whisky. The Bioresearch Team usually had something interesting going on, and they still had a few tests to run. Dr Kops normally wrote a few wry comments, but the last time they met, he had been forced to admit that they could administer medications, enforce training routines and monitor levels as much as they liked, but basically they had very little idea what would happen to the astronauts once they achieved orbit around the planet.

Taking a thoughtful sip of his whisky, Garston turned towards his desk, delaying the moment as long as possible. The Research Department carried out analysis of the other departments’ work, and encompassed the Astronomy and History departments. Sometimes they were the most interesting of the lot. He decided to leave that report until last. Sitting heavily in his comfortable leather chair, he placed the glass of whisky carefully on a coaster and clicked on the desk lamp, which reflected dully in the highly polished hardwood. Pulling the top report towards him, he began reading resignedly.

Junior research assistant Airam Renidrag could feel her face beginning to flush. She clenched her teeth in frustration. This was proving much more difficult than she had anticipated.

“But sir,” she began again, clutching the report to her chest and trying not to whine.

“No!” came the forceful reply. “I refuse to bother Director Yegob with such a trivial matter. It can’t possibly have any relevance to the mission at this late stage.”

Airam opened her mouth to object for the fifth time. Administrator Kram raised his hand angrily, causing Airam to flinch and close her mouth rapidly.

“I have had enough of this insubordination!” Kram roared, brown eyes burning darkly under his prominent eyebrows. “Return to your duties at once. And don’t bother me or Director Yegob again if you value your position here.”

He turned dismissively and stalked away down the corridor. Airam watched him depart in stunned silence. She didn’t move until the echo of his footsteps had died away.

Garston was attending the final underwater test. The astronauts were both floating near to the bottom of the specially constructed tank. Streams of bubbles rose constantly to the surface, causing creating a maelstrom of ripples that made their images dance and quiver, as they practiced their manoeuvres for the envisioned space-walk that the mission would entail

Wandering along the edge of the tank trying to get a clearer view, Garston began to feel that his presence was not really required. Everything appeared to be going to plan. The bioresearch team was busily monitoring every aspect of the astronauts’ physiology. Wriggling lines danced upon graphs and grids, recording data and relaying information to the brains of the technicians through their skilfully trained eyes. On the other side of the chamber, a member of the communications team began to laugh briefly, before looking self-consciously about the busy chamber. His eye caught Garston’s and immediately looked away.

Administrator Kram looked up from his monitoring station and searched angrily for the source of the laughter. Garston attracted his attention with a brief hand gesture and he immediately left his position, striding purposefully across the non-slip floor encircling the tank. Garston led him to a neutral corner before opening the conversation.

“Anything new to report?” he enquired.

“All seems well, Director,” came the confident reply.

“Well, I have other things to attend to, so if you don’t actually require my presence…” Garston let the sentence hang.

Kram glanced around the massive chamber, taking in the teams of hard-working people. He was quite relieved that Garston was thinking of leaving, as he always felt under pressure in his presence. “No, that will be fine, sir, Sir,” he replied calmly. “I don’t anticipate any problems.”

“I’ll expect your report, then,” Garston replied, and let Kram return to his duties. Gazing one last time into the shimmering waters of the pool, he turned on his heel and strode towards the door. The security officer there opened the door for him and closed it conscientiously as he left.

Garston stood indecisively under the fluorescent strip lights of the corridor, unsure what to do next.

“Sir?” a hesitant female voice enquired.

He looked around and observed a pretty blond-haired woman regarding him nervously. He smiled and approached her. “Yes?”

“I have something. That is, if you have a moment?” She seemed quite agitated, and stared resolutely at Garston’s shoulder as she spoke. “I mean, um . . .” she hesitated momentarily before, then letting the words come out in a rush. “It’s just that Administrator Kram told me not to, well, bother you, but I was just passing and I saw you come out of the underwater chamber and, and…, it might be very important.”

The woman closed her eyes and swallowed audibly. She wasn’t making any sense, but had clearly had a hard time plucking up the courage to accost him. Garston considered his position for a moment and realised that he had been subconsciously searching for a distraction. This could be just what he needed. Also, as his eyes fixed themselves unbidden on her chest rising and falling seductively underneath the crisp white blouse, he decided she was quite attractive.

“I shouldn’t worry about Administrator Kram,” he replied warmly, dragging his eyes upward to look into her face. “He’s always trying to stop people bothering me. What did you want to discuss?”

“I—” she began again, keeping her eyes fixed on his shoulder. “It’s probably nothing, sir, Sir. I just, well . . . if I’m right, the astronauts could be in great danger.”

At this last statement, she raised her eyes and looked straight into Garston’s. He returned her the gaze steadily, assessing her sincerity.

“What’s your name?” he enquired gently.

“Airam Renidrag, junior astronomer, sir, Sir,” she replied, letting her gaze drop back to his right shoulder.

“Well, Airam, you’ve got your wish. Why don’t you join me for lunch? Then you can relax a bit and tell me what it is that you’ve discovered.”

Airam swallowed hard. This wasn’t what she’d expected at all. Lunch with the Project Director! “I, er . . .” She struggled to control the urge to turn and flee. “I would have to clear it with my supervisor.”

Garston saw a red flush creeping over her face and neck. “Calm down, Airam. I don’t bite.” He crouched down slightly, looking her in the eye as he spread his arms expansively and smiled warmly. “I’ll even let you call me Garston,” he said in a low conspiratorial tone, “as long as you promise not to tell anyone.”

Airam smiled despite her nervousness. Garston was completely different from Kram. He seemed genuinely pleased at the prospect of spending some time in her company.

“I’ll tell you what,” Garston continued as he stood up straight, “I’ll have a word with your supervisor and authorise you to spend the rest of the day with me.” He paused thoughtfully for a moment before continuing playfully, “I’ll say you’re helping me with a special project.” He smiled and winked at her. Airam returned his smile, and they headed to the astronomy department together.

Nassah Letap was sweating profusely, despite the gentle breeze caused by the re-circulation unit of his environment suit. The suits were very bulky and difficult to move. Every action needed to be exaggerated. Even manipulating hand tools became a cramp-inducing torture. The finger sections of the gloves were manufactured from tubes of metal connected by a flexible fabric, the whole assembly being covered with a thick layer of airtight materials. He could make all the normal hand movements but had no sense of touch, other than the unyielding interior of the glove. After six hours at the bottom of the tank, he was exhausted.

To keep his mind off the cramp in his right calf muscle, he let his mind wander over the salient points of the impending mission as he was slowly raised from the bottom of the pool.

The mission was the culmination of hundreds (no, make that thousands) of years of study, speculation and even worship. The Real Stars had always been an important factor in the world. Nobody could say how old they were. Debates had raged over whether the Real Stars or the planet formed first. Although geologists could now accurately date fossils and chart the development of landmasses, flora and fauna, no one had been able to get close enough to study that aspect of the Real Stars.

A few unmanned probes had confirmed that the atmosphere thinned out with altitude, ultimately disappearing completely, to leave a vacuum at the height of the Real Stars. The technicians assured him that movement in the space suit would be much easier than it was in the tank, as there would be no water resistance. He was also looking forward to experiencing the sensation of weightlessness predicted by the scientists.

To Nassah, this mission was about much more than collecting a spatial body. (That was all his co-pilot Samoht seemed to think it was, though. The man had no imagination). Nassah and Sam had been chosen from nearly one thousand volunteers. He was extremely proud that he had been selected. His parents could not stop boasting, to everyone who would listen, about their beautiful boy. This had caused him some embarrassment within the project, especially from Sam, but he had a strong enough sense of identity to deal with it sensibly, which was one of the qualities he had been chosen for.

Being a black man made him even prouder to be one of the first astronauts. Since the earliest recorded history (and, he presumed, since the dawn of time), there had been conflict between the different races. The blacks had been proud and fierce warriors, defiantly defending their lands and people from any and all usurpers. Eventually there had been massive wars, as colonialism swept the globe. These died away and trade became the driving factor in the world’s economies, the sovereign states morphing into nations whose competitiveness and mutual distrust eventually led to the Twenty-Year War. Now, nearly one hundred years since the end of the war, racism was completely outlawed, along with religion and sexism. The historical mistrust between the different cultures had no relevance to this new society, but even so, there were still some single-race communities.

The mission would be remembered as the first manned space-flight. There would be no first person in space; it would be the first people, but there was still an extra satisfaction at the thought of being the first black (or in Sam’s case, white) person in space.

The technicians released the catches on his helmet and the air in it hissed out. Nassah took a deep breath of the chlorine-scented air as they lifted it clear of his head. A medic approached once the rest of the suit had been removed. “Let’s see if we can get rid of that cramp for you,” he said with a warm smile, beckoning to two orderlies who immediately brought a stretcher over. Nassah closed his eyes and concentrated on releasing the spasm in his leg as he was gently carried off to the medical centre.

Garston could feel the beads of sweat forming on his brow. The chilli seemed much hotter than usual. Wiping his forehead with a napkin, he took a swig of his beer and realised that Airam was watching him with an amused smile. “The chilli’s hot today,” he remarked. “How’s your salad?”

“Nice and cool,” she replied cheekily. Much to her surprise, Garston had turned out to be jovial, amusing and light-hearted. He refused to allow her to feel intimidated. She suspected that the hot chilli was an intentional diversion.

The restaurant was very pleasant. They were seated in a quiet corner, next to an open window affording a view of the desert. A warm breeze blew through the heat haze and caressed them gently before being dispersed by the large overhead fans. All the fans in the restaurant were made from airplane propellers, a reminder of the days when the area had been a government-operated aircraft testing facility. Since the invention of the jet engine, new facilities had been built elsewhere and this area had become the Global Space-flight Research Centre.

“Well,” Garston announced, “now that we’re relaxed, I’d like to know why I’m buying lunch for you today.”

Airam leaned back in her chair, collecting her thoughts. “Well,” she began without any preamble, “did you know that space is full of rocks?”

Garston pondered the remark while he sipped his beer. Airam sat leaned forward, placed her elbows on the table, rested her chin on the back of her hands and gazed expectantly at him, her face a picture of innocence.

“I’ve read reports concerning moving bodies in space,” Garston began, “but they all indicated that the objects were far out, in between the Real Stars and the reflections and, being nothing more than vague shadows, were not important to the mission. Depending on the outcome of the mission, further flights are being considered, with the aim of finding out more about what lies beyond the Real Stars.”

“Yes, I was involved with the research on those reports, ” Airam replied as she raised her chin and sat back, “and I felt that it played down the dangers. My new findings indicate that the threat to the astronauts is much greater than has been anticipated, but now that we’ve been given a deadline and there’s so much publicity, nobody wants to know about something which could delay the launch.” She leant forward, resting her forearms on the table. Garston did the same. “Director, I fear that the greatest threat comes from the Real Stars themselves.”

Garston recoiled backwards. “From the real Real Stars!” he exclaimed incredulously. Then, remembering their public location, he leant forward again and continued in a low voice, “From the Real Stars? None of the reports indicated any threat, either real or perceived, posed by the Real Stars.” He paused and gave her a suspicious look. “Have you been reading that Conspiracies periodical?” he enquired, beginning to think that he’d made a mistake listening to this woman. It seemed unlikely that she could have discovered a significant threat that had been missed by much more eminent and qualified people. He had only really been intrigued because Kram seemed so set on preventing her talking to him.

“I know it sounds ridiculous, but please hear me out,” Airam was saying.

“I don’t think this is the right place to have this discussion,” he responded curtly, becoming aware that some of the other diners were glancing surreptitiously at them. “Let’s finish our meal and continue this conversation in the privacy of my office.”

They ate in silence, Garston glancing suspiciously at the other diners. A few tables away, and, possibly close enough to have eavesdropped on them, sat two young men he did not recognise. They seemed to be taking more than just a passing interest in them and, carefully avoiding eye contact whenever he looked in their direction. Most of the clientele was from the Research Centre, no doubt wondering what the Project Director was doing having lunch with a pretty blonde.

They finished the meal without further discussion, hardly speaking a word to each other until they were safely within the confines of Garston’s office.

Samoht felt very annoyed. Although he had known about the quarantine procedure for the final week, he had been confident that he would be able to arrange some conjugal visits.

“Quarantine means just that, I’m afraid,” Dr Kops was telling him. “We just can’t take the risk of you catching even a mild cold. You must be completely fit and alert for the mission.”

Samoht walked over to the couch opposite the large picture window of the quarantine suite. On the other side of the window, Dr Kops stood facing him with his arms crossed. Behind him were two technicians monitoring Sam and Nassah’s bio readouts. The astronauts’ underwear was full of tiny sensors that relayed information to receptors in the walls, which then fed the data directly to the main medical computer.

Nassah emerged from the bathroom and waved cheerily at Dr Kops, who smiled and waved back. Sam regarded him with a surly expression. Sometimes he wondered why he had stuck with the program. He hadn’t set out to be an astronaut, but his superior flying skills had led to him being selected as a test pilot for the spacecraft’s final development. His familiarity with the orbiter then made him the obvious first choice to pilot the mission. He had been happy to accept; partly because of the increased standing it put him in with women.

Sam had always been a ladies’ man. He treated women well, and had always been attractive to them. He had discovered at an early age that he could get away with almost anything by charming people, and women responded to his charms the most. He had been one of the first boys in his school to lose his virginity. As he progressed through college and flight training, a steady stream of women had come in and out of his life. For a time, he became obsessed with the sexual side of relationships; on one occasion he slept with three women in one day, two of them at the same time!

As he approached thirty, however, he began to want more from his relationships (although the longest he had managed to stay faithful to one partner had been six months). He couldn’t escape from the fact that he had an abnormally high libido. The thought of a whole week cooped up with only Nassah for company was enough to make him wish he had never joined the space program.

He consoled himself with the thought that it would all be worth it in the end. Fame, respect and a place in history all awaited him at the conclusion of the mission. Sam reluctantly admitted to himself that he was, quite literally, locked in.

Back in the security of his office, Garston sat behind his desk and called his secretary, explaining that they were not to be disturbed. Airam sat in the chair opposite him, and waited expectantly.

“Would you like tea, or coffee?” Garston enquired, his hand automatically covering the mouthpiece of the telephone.

“Tea, please,” she responded.

Garston told his secretary to arrange the drinks before replacing the handset in its cradle.

“Now,” he said to Airam. “What I want you to do is go through your theory in as much detail as you feel necessary. Gather your thoughts for a moment. I have to visit the men’s room. If you need it, the women’s washroom is the third door on the left.”

They both rose from their chairs. Garston walked to the door and held it open for her.

Garston returned first, taking a moment to absentmindedly neaten up his office. The tea had arrived by the time Airam re-joined him. Garston poured for both of them as they resumed their previous positions. Airam sat upright and took a sip of tea, placing the cup carefully back on the saucer. Then she settled back into her chair and collected her thoughts.

“This is more difficult than I anticipated,” she started. “You must know a lot of the background, and I don’t want to be explaining things you already know about.”

“Don’t worry,” Garston told her kindly. “If I know something, I’ll tell you. Hopefully this will just be an informal discussion.”

Airam took a deep breath before plunging straight in. “Okay. Let’s start with the space rocks. The Pseudo Stars have long been assumed to be reflections of the Real Stars. They are difficult to observe, because even the most powerful telescopes aren’t able to focus on them. Whether this is due to extreme distance, or some kind of force that dissipates the light or something we don’t know about, has not been discovered yet. What has been found is that there are shadows moving around between the Real Stars and the Pseudo Stars. Their passage blocks the light from the Pseudo Stars. The Scientific Council decreed that this is proof that the Pseudo Stars are in fact reflections, but I don’t think it proves any such thing. What it does prove, is that there are a lot of large objects tumbling around in the sky beyond the Real Stars.”

She paused, leaned forward, and retrieved her cup from the desk. Garston took a sip of tea from his cup as well. Then they both eased back into their chairs, Garston with a notepad resting on his thigh.

“Distance is a problem,” Airam continued presently. “We have no way of judging the distance of objects beyond the Real Stars and there is nothing to compare them to, which means we can’t determine their size.”

Garston sat listening quietly, watching the way Airam became more animated as she settled into her speech. She leant forward and then settled back, all the time accentuating various points with deft hand movements.

“Moving on to the Pseudo Stars: it is possible that they are just reflections, but one question that no-one seems able to answer is this: what are they reflecting off of? Are we, and everything else, enclosed within an enormous sphere? Nobody in the Scientific Community is prepared to discuss this issue. The response I normally get is that these questions are not important yet, and we should just concentrate on discovering what the Real Stars are before worrying about what lies beyond them.”

She paused and looked expectantly at Garston, who sat up and finished drinking his tea before responding.

“It may surprise you to know that my graduate thesis was on this very subject.”

“I wasn’t aware of that, no,” Airam admitted.

“There are very few people who are aware of it,” Garston informed her with a touch of melancholy. “They decided to suppress the paper. As you’ve just stated, the Scientific Council is not very receptive to new ideas that question or contradict established theories. Unfortunately, there are two choices. Either you join them and toe the line, or you don’t work on any scientific projects.” He paused for a moment before wistfully adding, “I still have hopes that my theory will be proved correct in the long term.”

Airam was intrigued. She hadn’t considered that Garston might hold different views to the established facts the Scientific Community was so determined to uphold. “Would you mind explaining your theory to me?” she asked timidly.

“Of course.” Garston was flattered by her interest. “Basically, my theory is that the reflected Pseudo Stars are actually suns, similar to our own, but incredibly distant.”

Airam leant back and considered this briefly. “Well, that is actually compatible with the information I have. The trouble will be in getting people to listen to us.”

“We can worry about that later. For now, let’s continue with your findings.”

“Okay,” Airam resumed. “Next on the list is the Aurora.”

Garston sat up in his chair and made a note. Realising that Airam was not speaking, he looked up. She was watching him write.

“It’s to help my memory,” Garston explained in response to her puzzled expression. “I’ve attended so many meetings and briefings that I’ve got into the habit of always taking notes. I keep them all too.” He smiled sheepishly. “I’ve got an idea in the back of my mind that I might use them to write a book about this mission.”

Airam smiled. “That’s great,” she said with enthusiasm. “I have a real problem with keeping things straight. Any notes I make are on scraps of paper, which I’m always losing.”

There was a brief silence. This wasn’t what either of them had expected. Already there was an emotional undercurrent developing.

“Well,” Garston said, smiling at Airam. “You talk, and I’ll take notes.”

“Of course.”

Airam sat up in the chair. Garston watched her, noticing again the way she used her hands to emphasise things. An old joke flashed through his mind – take away a woman’s hands and she can’t talk. He smiled briefly at the thought, then before putting it to the back of his mind as he concentrated on what Airam was saying.

“There are two kinds of aurora: the equatorial and the polar. They exhibit similarities, but I am sure that different things cause them. The polar auroras are wavy lines of light, spectacular displays of atmospheric disturbance. The equatorial auroras are either circular or straight lines. The differences have always been attributed to magnetic fields – these are stronger at the poles, which stretch and bend the aurora, making them last longer.

“What I’ve done is research when the auroras are at their peak. There doesn’t appear to be any link between the polar and equatorial activity. It was during my observations of the space rocks that I noticed a correlation with the equatorial aurora. The more close orbiting rocks there are, the higher the frequency of the equatorial aurora.

“Soon after this discovery, I stumbled across something quite unexpected. There are two Real Stars that don’t officially exist at the moment. They can’t be seen from populated areas, but they are there. Sailors returning from explorations of the North and South Poles first observed them. The sailors spoke of the ‘guiding stars’ that appeared over the horizon as they approached the polar ice caps. They discovered that if they kept the Star straight ahead they were heading for the pole, directly behind them meant they were headed home.

“Once it was established that there were only snowy wastelands to the north and south, no one ventured far enough to see these stars, and the memory of them gradually faded. Recently, however, there have been some scientific polar expeditions. They were not publicised, and their discoveries have not been released. This presents me with a dilemma. There are three continents in the world: one at each pole, and the inhabited one that encircles the globe at the equator. We have had a global government for nearly a hundred years, with no wars in that time, no border disputes and no foreign powers, so there is no reason that I can see for scientific findings to be withheld. If something important is discovered, people deserve to know. How can any real progress be made if information is withheld or suppressed?

“Our government is deliberately suppressing information relevant to the current mission. A grave danger is being ignored, and I don’t think that there is anything I can do about it.”

Airam looked Garston straight in the eye as she announced her conclusion in a grave voice. “Garston, this mission is doomed to failure. Any attempt to make physical contact with a Real Star will be fatal. The rReal Stars are linked together by an invisible force, and that force is there to stop the space rocks from crashing into our planet!”

As she finished, Airam blinked and looked down. Garston immediately rose from his chair and went to her. Kneeling beside her, he took her head gently in his hands, turning her face towards his. A tear trickled slowly down the side of her nose. “Oh, Garston,” she murmured. “What can I do?”

Garston caught the tear on his finger and gently brushed it against her lower lip. She licked it, the sweet saltiness generating a flicker of a smile. She leant her head against his shoulder, taking comfort from its protective masculinity.

Garston’s senses were overwhelmed. The softness of her hair with its warm sweet aroma aroused him. He caressed the gentle waves with his eyes shut, savouring the moment. Airam gave a soft sigh and lifted her head. Garston opened his eyes and turned his head towards her. The kiss was gentle at first, a brief touch, mingled breath. Then it became firmer, more passionate. Desire overtook them, and they began exploring each other’s bodies, stroking and touching until nothing existed but the physical sensations of lovemaking.

Kram licked his lips nervously. Supreme Administrator Garvin sounded quite angry.

“How many people saw them in the restaurant?” he demanded, his voice slightly distorted by the telephone system.

“About twenty, plus the restaurant staff.”

“And they were discussing a threat to the mission, correct?”

“Yes sir.” Kram considered his position briefly before adding, “I told her not to speak to the director, but she’s a very headstrong young woman.”

“Nonetheless, he should have more sense than to involve himself with her, especially in a public place. He’s done a good job so far, but his interest in, shall we say, alternative theories, is at odds with his position.” Garvin paused briefly before concluding, “Once the mission is complete, he will have to be re-assigned to a lower profile, less sensitive position.”

“And the girl?”

“I have a feeling that they’ll be spending a lot more time together than they anticipate.”

Kram digested this news for a moment. “Sir?” he enquired, apprehensive about admitting that he didn’t understand the last remark.

“Don’t worry yourself, Kram,” came the confident reply. “This is going to work out just fine, maybe even better than anticipated.” There was a brief pause.

“So, how are the astronauts?” Garvin continued, in a more relaxed tone.

“They’re as good as can be expected. The quarantine is difficult for them, especially Samoht.”

“Good. I’ll be there in two days, and so will the press. Is everything prepared?”

“Don’t worry, sir, Sir. I have everything arranged as you requested.”

“Excellent.” The Supreme Administrator sounded very pleased. “Keep this up, Kram, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.” Before Kram could reply, Garvin concluded the conversation. “Well, I’ll see you in two days.”

The phone emitted a sharp click, followed by the muted buzzing of the dial tone. Kram placed the handset back in its cradle thoughtfully. This was good news. He didn’t like Garston or the girl. As far as he was concerned, the sooner they were gone, the better. Draining the dregs of the coffee he made just before calling Garvin, Senior Administrator Kram relaxed back in his chair with a contented sigh, and allowed himself to dream of promotion.

“Calm down.” Nassah backed away from Samoht and raised his hands in a gesture of supplication. “Just calm down, all right?”

“I am calm.”

Sam was clearly not calm. He had become increasingly agitated during the three days that they had been in quarantine.

“I just need to get out, and breathe some fresh air. This filtered, cleaned, cooled stuff we’re breathing is stifling me!”

“Oh, come on Sam,” Nassah said reproachfully, lowering his hands whilst keeping a watchful eye on his partner. “It’s a lot better than being in an environment suit for eight hours. I still don’t know how you managed to do that. Remember how I freaked after six and a half hours? Surely you can manage another two days in here.”

“Sam, I want you to take a deep breath, and tell me what the problem is.” Dr Kops had just arrived in the observation room. His concerned voice sounded slightly unnatural through the intercom speaker situated over the picture window. Samoht turned to face him.

“The problem is,” Sam responded, his voice rising almost hysterically, “I can’t smell anything except chemicals.” He waved his arms around dramatically, and began pacing about the chamber like a caged animal. “I need to smell something natural, not this purified shit you’re pumping in.” He stopped for a second in front of the window, regarding his reflection in the toughened glass.

Nassah sat down on the sofa, still watching him warily. He couldn’t understand what had happened. They had been playing cards, having completed their tasks for the day. Using toothpicks as tokens, he had just won half of Sam’s supply when Sam swept the cards and toothpicks violently from the table, stood up, and began roaming distractedly around the room, muttering to himself. When Nassah asked him what was wrong, he started shouting obscenities, and then tried to punch him.


Dr Kops stood facing Sam through the glass. Sam stared straight ahead, making it impossible to tell whether he was looking at his reflection or the doctor.

“Sam,” Dr Kops repeated with more urgency, “you come out in two days. The flight is in three. Supreme Administrator Garvin arrives tomorrow, the President and vice-president the next day. You need to keep calm; otherwise, I’ll have no option but to drop you, and use one of the stand-by crew.”

Sam blinked and looked around, as if waking from a light sleep. “I’m sorry,” he half mumbled, turning to face Nassah. “I don’t know what’s wrong. It’s just so… so boring in here. I don’t mind being cooped up if there’s something practical to do, but this is too much. The entire mission will only last about fifteen hours. This is much harder to deal with.” He swung around to face the glass again. “Let me see my girlfriend, just for an hour,” he pleaded. “How can that hurt the mission?”

“You know I can’t do that, Sam,” Dr Kops said apologetically. “We just can’t take the risk.”

Sam glared at him before stomping into his bedroom, slamming the door shut with a thud that caused the observation window to shudder slightly.

Nassah looked worriedly at the doctor. “Do you think he’ll be all right?” he asked.

“I don’t know. He should be fine. As you know, we did a psychiatric evaluation before the final selection, which you both passed easily. He showed no signs of claustrophobia, or any psychosomatic illness. I just don’t understand this.”

“Well, I don’t want to be locked up with a nutter for another two days. What if he attacks me for real?”

“Oh, I’m sure he’ll be fine once he’s calmed down. We’ll arrange a special meal this evening—something aromatic. Maybe he just needs a hearty meal and a good night’s rest. I’ll go and sort it out now.”

Nassah got up and started picking up the cards and toothpicks, muttering to himself. Dr Kops watched him worriedly. This was not supposed to happen.

Garston looked out over a sea of monitor screens. Beyond them was a cinema screen, which would show the position of the spaceship and condition of the crew during the flight. Currently it displayed a test pattern.

As he watched the technicians busily making final checks on the equipment, he took a moment to consider recent advances in technology. Forty years ago the flight would have been impossible. View screens and computers were new back then, and had changed immensely. Originally, the screens had been big, bulky cathode ray tubes, capable of displaying text and low-resolution images. The latest screens were thin sheets of plastic with layers of crystals inside, making them light, reliable, and capable of displaying extremely high resolutions.

The first computers were huge room-sized monsters consisting of tubes, valves, and miles of wiring. Now they were small boxes, each capable of storing every book ever written several times over. When linked together, the possibilities appeared endless.

Recently, there had been heated debates in the government over whether the technology should be made available to the general public. The potential for broadcasting news, films and educational programmes was enormous, but many politicians feared that people would stop reading books and newspapers, gradually become reliant on computers for entertainment, and eventually develop a sedentary lifestyle. The other main concern was the potential to influence public opinion. Cinemas had shown that certain types of film and news items had an adverse effect on people. Strict controls had been placed on advertising, to protect the general public from unscrupulous traders and maintain a fair trading environment.

Garston felt that this was yet another example of the world government being overcautious and overprotective in its rule over the general public. He could see no reason for the strict controls on businesses and free trade, and felt that more competition would actually benefit the public by giving them more choice. The recent rise in popularity of the conspiracy theorists came as no real surprise to him.

He was also worried about the situation with Airam. There had been a bit of embarrassment on both sides as they parted company that afternoon. They had both agreed there was a physical attraction which they wished to pursue further, but now was not the time. In order to avoid problems, and possibly jeopardising the mission, they decided not to see each other privately until it was over. Garston could not believe that the mission would be delayed at this late stage while further research into the space rocks was carried out. Anyway, questioning government decisions and scientific facts could easily result in both of them being summarily dismissed, and possibly even receiving a custodial sentence. Airam had reluctantly agreed to this, and Garston trusted her to keep her word.

He checked his wristwatch. Eight fifty-eight a.m. The meeting was scheduled for nine. At that moment, the door to the VIP viewing area opened and Administrator Kram entered, followed closely by Dr Kops. Garston walked towards them and indicated that they should sit at a round table towards the rear of the room, where a steaming coffee jug and three cups waited. He poured the coffee and sat down, taking the opportunity to collect his thoughts.

“Well, gentlemen,” he began. “This is the last meeting before our guests, and the press, arrive. I don’t want any trouble while they are here, so I expect you to have any problems sorted out by this evening.” He looked expectantly at them.

Dr Kops replied first.

“We have had a small,” he made a pincer with his thumb and forefinger, “problem with Samoht. He appears to be experiencing trouble being in quarantine. It should be manageable, but I recommend that we avoid any press or VIP contact with the astronauts until after the launch.”

“Fine,” Garston replied, “although I will need to speak with them privately as soon as they come out of quarantine. If you could arrange that with my secretary, please, Doctor?”

“Of course.”

Garston turned his attention to Kram. “Do you have anything to report, Administrator?” he enquired.

Kram, who had been inspecting his fingernails, looked up. “Everything is completed, Sir, Sir,” he announced proudly. “All systems checks are finished, except in there,” he indicated the control centre, “and they are due to be completed this afternoon. The orbiter is in place on the launch vehicle, and both have been secured for launch. I’ve arranged the VIP quarters and itinerary as discussed. Supreme Administrator Garvin is due to arrive at twelve forty-five this afternoon; the President and Vice-President arrive tomorrow at ten a.m.”

“Excellent,” Garston enthused, beaming his approval at them. “You’ve both exceeded my expectations, which has and made my job a lot easier. Thank you.”

Kram and Dr Kops nodded slightly in acknowledgement.

“If you have nothing further to report, Administrator?” Garston said to Kram, who gave a small shake of his head, “then you may resume your duties.”

Kram finished his coffee and rose from his chair. “Thank you, Director,” he said courteously, and left the room.

Once the door had closed behind Kram, Garston spoke to Dr Kops.

“How serious is the problem with Samoht?”

“I can’t tell at the moment,” Dr Kops admitted with a shrug of his shoulders, “We knew he wasn’t looking forward to the quarantine. Who in their right mind would? They both seemed fine until yesterday afternoon. I’ve analysed the bio-records, and they show a slight increase in stress levels, which we expected. There are a few anomalous readings for both of them, but we don’t know what they mean, or indeed what has caused them. In fact, two of my technicians feel that the anomalous readings are caused by errors in the computer program.”

“Oh, really?” Garston responded with a look of concern. “That’s worrying. Everything depends upon the computers working properly. The testing was supposed to have been completed before the go-ahead was given. Are you sure it’s an error in the program?”

“No. As I said, that’s just an opinion. I have some people from computer maintenance going over the system, and my people are reviewing all the information we’ve gathered since the astronauts went into quarantine." Dr Kops leant back in his chair, finished his coffee, and adjusted his glasses. “I just don’t understand it, Garston,” he continued, placing the coffee cup back on the table. “Sam has never had any problems. He’s adapted to the environment suits better than Nassah, and he made vital contributions to the programme in his role as a test pilot. We need him on board, because he has the most experience of flying and landing the orbiter.”

“Could he have been infected before they entered quarantine?”

“That’s a possibility, but both of them were thoroughly examined. They’ve had blood tests, urine samples and a full medical. Nothing showed up.”

“And what about Nassah?”

“He seems a bit worried by Samoht, but then they’ve never been best friends. Their working relationship has always been perfect, but they don’t tend to mix socially. Anyway, I’d be worried if I thought I was locked up with a nutter.”

Garston gave him a sharp, enquiring look, so Dr Kops quickly explained, “That’s what he called Sam just after the incident.”

Garston smiled and relaxed slightly.

“Anyway,” Dr Kops continued after taking a deep breath, “Nassah’s readout shows very similar readings to Sam’s.”

“Does that mean he’s going to freak out, too?” Garston was noticeably upset.

“I have no way of telling, I’m afraid.”

There was a brief silence, as they both pondered the implications.

“I just can’t understand it,” Dr Kops said again. “The only way a contaminant could enter the environment would be through the food, or the air circulation and purification system.”

“Is anyone investigating that?”

“Not at present. Would you like me to arrange an inspection?”

Garston thought for a moment. “No, that’s not necessary. Besides, we can’t start dismantling the system at this late stage. If there is a fault, we’ll find it after the launch. Just keep me informed of any changes, and make sure I get half an hour alone with them before the flight.”

“Of course, Director.” Dr Kops leant back in his chair and polished his glasses with a handkerchief from his trouser pocket. “Can I ask you a personal question, Garston?” he enquired gently, replacing his glasses and stuffing the handkerchief back in his pocket.

Garston looked at him for a second, and then said, “Certainly, Leumas. You are my personal physician, after all.”

“Well, there’s been some gossip about you and a certain young lady. Is it true?”

Garston rubbed his forehead wearily. “What has been said?”

“Two things. First, is that you and her have become romantically involved. The second is the most important. Your little outburst in the restaurant has set the rumour mill in motion: Speculation is rife over whether the flight is going to be postponed.”

“What!” Garston declared angrily. “Why wasn’t I informed?”

Dr Kops didn’t reply.

“Sorry,” Garston apologised. “I know it’s not your position to comment on my conduct, or report rumours to me. Damn!” He sat thoughtfully for a moment. “I wonder why Kram didn’t say anything,” he pondered. “He must surely be aware of it.”

“It was Kram who mentioned it to me,” Dr Kops replied. “He felt that it would be easier for me to speak with you about it, because of the personal nature. He’s doing his best to reassure all the staff, but I think that you need to address this before Administrator Garvin arrives. He doesn’t like you very much, you know.” As an afterthought, he added, “You scare him.”

“Him and Kram,” Garston replied with a wry smile. He rose from his chair. “Well, that’s it, then. I’ll make arrangements to address the staff at midday.”

Dr Kops watched him leave the room with a concerned expression. Then, with a little shrug of his shoulders and a shake of his head, he sighed and followed suit.

“I feel like a fucking goldfish!” Nassah was screaming at a very shocked technician.

“Uh, please, sir, Sir,” the technician squeaked, holding his hands raised in front of him, palms forward. “Dr Kops is on his way. Please, try to keep calm.”

Samoht emerged lethargically from his bedroom, rubbing his eyes sleepily. “Wha’s gonon?” he mumbled.

Nassah, wearing only a pair of white boxer shorts, spun round to face him.

“Hey, wassamatta ‘v you?” Sam enquired drowsily. He stood wavering unsteadily, and screwed up his face as he tried to focus on Nassah. “You sure look funny without no clothes on,” he giggled, staggering as he tried to maintain his balance. Raising a hand to his head, he fell backwards, collapsing clumsily onto the sofa. “Oops.” He burped feebly, and toppled over sideways. “Not feelin’ so good,” he confessed gently to the cushion.

Nassah watched him with increasing agitation. What in the world was going on? He remembered waking up from a nightmare and staggering out into the living room. His head felt strange, as if it was filling up with lime jelly. A sudden chill quivered through him, causing his limbs to jerk involuntarily. Looking worriedly down at his body, he noted with a thrill of dread that his skin had developed an unhealthy mottled appearance. Maybe he had a fever!

Turning back to the window, he scrutinised his reflection. It was becoming difficult for him to concentrate. He probed absentmindedly at his belly button, and pulled out a bit of fluff. Rubbing the fluff distractedly between his finger and thumb, he raised his hand to his face, watching in fascination as it wavered before his eyes and changed shape. With a stab of horror, he realised it had become a venomous spider.

Nassah flung the spider away, his heart pounding distressingly in his chest. A raging thirst welled up from his stomach, causing his throat to become dry and sticky. He had trouble swallowing. Starting to panic, he stumbled toward the kitchen. His head was pulsing now, threatening to split in two, while a sickly sweet smell assaulted his nostrils.

He was halfway across the room when a severe stomach cramp exploded inside him. He doubled up with pain and tried to scream, but the breath wouldn’t come. A dry, hoarse whisper of a scream was all that he could manage.

His heart was threatening to tear itself loose from his chest and erupt, pulsing and throbbing riotously, from his mouth. The cramp doubled in intensity, and his heartbeat roared deafeningly in his ears. Making pitiful, incoherent mews of agony, Nassah collapsed to the floor, instinctively drawing his body into a foetal position.

With a sense of immense relief, he felt his head burst asunder. His mind flowed out in a cavalcade of multi-coloured flowers, which promptly became delicate, lace-winged butterflies. Now he was floating on a luxuriously soft rainbow, the colours flashing vividly as he began to sink into it. Then the colours began to swirl nauseatingly. The intensity of the light increased exponentially, until all he was aware of was a torturous, blinding whiteness which thrashed his body with electric whips until he lost consciousness.

Dr Kops came rushing into the observation room just in time to see Samoht slide off the sofa and sprawl unconscious on the floor. He went straight to the monitors. A brief glance confirmed that neither of the astronauts was dead, yet.

Turning to one of the technicians, he barked, “Get an emergency medical team down here right now. I want both of them in intensive care immediately.”

The technician nodded, and picked up the phone. Dr Kops looked urgently around the room. “I want a complete report of the last twenty-four hours in my office within thirty minutes,” he ordered the other technicians. “And I want the quarantine and air circulation systems shut down and sealed until we can begin an investigation.”

The technicians sat looking at him with shocked expressions. Dr Kops was in no mood for niceties.

“Well, GET TO IT!!” he roared at them. The technicians jumped with surprise and started busying themselves.

There was a metallic crash from the corridor, and Dr Kops ran out to find the medical team arriving with two gurneys. Taking charge of them, he ordered the nervous security guard to open the quarantine chamber. They waited impatiently for the airlock to complete its cycle. The needle of the gauge to the right of the door crept sluggishly to the left. Once it was fully in the green, the door opened with a click and they rushed in.

Garston waited patiently as a marshal guided the Administration jet to its allocated position. He used the time to reflect on the hastily convened staff meeting.

Arranging the meeting had been a difficult task at such short notice, but, at precisely twelve hundred hours, he addressed the two thousand staff assembled in the hangar that had, until the early hours of the morning, housed the orbiter. He told them how proud he was of all of them, how they were all vital, integral pieces of the program, and how important the mission was. Then he assured them that the mission was to proceed as planned. Any rumours to the contrary were to be ignored. Everyone needed to concentrate on the task at hand, as the success of the mission depended on everyone doing his or her job properly.

He had received a polite round of applause before everyone filed away, chatting and seemingly content. No mention was made of the mysterious illness that had overcome the astronauts. Dr Kops, exceedingly worried for their health, was desperately trying to discover the cause. Garston was beginning to feel as if the mission was jinxed.

Putting on his best smile, he walked on to the hot tarmac at the bottom of the steps, basking in the bright desert sunshine. The door of the plane opened and Garvin appeared, raising a hand to shield his eyes from the glare. After exchanging a few words with the pilot and cabin crew, he proceeded down the steps. Garston timed his approach so that he arrived at the bottom of the steps at the precise moment Garvin reached the ground. He grasped the Supreme Administrator’s hand and gave it a welcoming shake.

“Welcome to Occorom Base, sir, Sir. I trust you had a pleasant flight?”

“Yes, thank you, Garston,” Garvin replied graciously. “How are things here?”

Garston took a deep breath of the warm air. “Well, there’s been a problem with the astronauts. If you’ll accompany me to my office, I’ll give you a full report.”

Garvin absorbed this statement without breaking his stride. “Very well,” he agreed in a neutral tone. Looking around distastefully, he continued, “I hope your air conditioning is working. I can’t stand the heat.”

Garston led him briskly inside, to where he knew the temperature would be just right for the Supreme Administrator. In his office was a bottle of Garvin’s favourite drink. Clever words might not work with the Supreme Administrator, but smart tactics certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Airam sat disconsolately at her desk in the Telescopic Observation facility. The office was quiet; the other junior assistants were finishing up their tasks, all the while talking expectantly about meeting the President. Apparently he would be making a tour, to thank everyone personally for all their hard work.

All she could think about was what might happen to her after the launch. Surely she would be re-assigned or, worst-case scenario, she could be banned from working within the Scientific Community. She was sure that she would be prevented from seeing Garston, regardless of anything else that might happen. A deep sigh escaped her, catching her by surprise. Despite their short time together, she had strong emotions for him that she couldn’t explain. Feeling thoroughly depressed, she leant back in her chair and tried, trying to stop the tears from flowing.

The phone on her desk buzzed at her. It took a few seconds to register in her mind. Reluctantly, she leaned forward and picked up the handset. Before she could speak, almost before she had the earpiece close enough to hear, a male voice asked for her. “Yes, this is Airam,” she replied, settling back into her chair.

“Are you alone?”

The question surprised her, and she automatically glanced furtively around the room before replying, “There’s no one else at my desk, if that’s what you mean.”

“Good,” the voice announced, becoming lower and more serious as it continued, “I want you to listen carefully. I have some information that might be useful to you. Also, I think you are in need of some friends.”

Airam sat up straighter. “Who is this?” she enquired.

“Agree to meet us, and you’ll find out.” The reply seemed deliberately cryptic.

Airam was thinking furiously, desperately trying to identify the voice. “I don’t understand,” she hissed into the mouthpiece. “What do you want from me?”

“We want to help you, and maybe Director Yegob too.”

Now her heart was beginning to race. She glanced around surreptitiously again, but no one was taking any notice of her. Just another ordinary work-related phone call, right? To be on the safe side, she grabbed a notepad and began making notes. “How do you intend to do that? Assuming that I need help, of course,” she enquired in a low voice.

“I think you do, and the only way to get the answers you want is to meet with us.”

She thought for a moment, and it occurred to her that this person was acting similarly to the way she did when she approached Garston for the first time. “Okay,” she said with decisiveness that was mostly bravado. “When and where?”

“Be at the Old Goldmine bar at seven-thirty this evening.” The voice sounded relieved.

“But, that’s, well,” she hesitated slightly, almost embarrassed to continue, “I normally wouldn’t go to a place like that.”

“Come alone, and tell no one. I know it’s got a reputation, but it’s the safest place for us to meet unobserved.”

“How will I know you?”

“We know you. As soon as you enter the bar, go to the far end. One of us will meet you there where you’ll be met. It’s not safe to discuss this further now. Just be there, please. For all of us.”

There was a click and Airam was left listening to silence, until another click signalled the return of the dialling tone. She replaced the handset carefully on its cradle. Hope and fear were fighting for control of the butterflies in her stomach. She wished that she could call Garston, but with Garvin already here, the President arriving in the morning, and rumours that the astronauts were ill, she knew that he wouldn’t be able to speak with her, assuming that she even managed to get hold of him.

Curiosity overtook the hope and fear, and she relaxed a bit as she returned to her work. She’d never been in a drinker’s bar before. She realised that she was actually looking forward to it.

Much to Garston’s surprise, Supreme Administrator Garvin had lightened up appreciably during their meeting in his office. He was in his shirtsleeves now, sipping appreciatively on his drink. There was even the suggestion of a smile playing about his lips.

Garston couldn’t help thinking of Airam, who had been the last person to sit in that chair. He wondered what Garvin would say, if he knew what had taken place on the floor next him. The occasion was still fresh in his memory, and he wondered if Airam was all right. Not seeing her made him uncomfortable on a personal level, but there was no other option until the mission was over. He was even considering requesting a transfer for both of them to a purely research establishment, or even resigning his Directorship. It all depended on so much that was out of his control, not least of which was whether she would want to pursue the relationship after an enforced hiatus.

“Well, Garston,” Garvin announced, bringing him out of his reverie, “I’m pleased with your performance so far, except for your lapse of judgement with that girl. I’m prepared to overlook that, as it has been dealt with efficiently and, after all, every man is entitled to take what is offered.”

He smiled at Garston and winked knowingly. Garston cringed inside but returned the smile.

“Now,” Garvin continued, “the most important thing is to get those two astronauts in shape for the launch.”

“Dr Kops is recommending that the standby crew be used.”

“No,” Garvin responded firmly. “I’m going to insist that Samoht and Nassah fly this mission. Between them, they have more chance of successfully completing the mission than any standby crew, even if they’re not one hundred percent fit. I need to have a briefing with Dr Kops as soon as possible. I’ll also need to speak with the astronauts, once they’re fully awake.” He drained his glass and stood up. “Now I’m going to my quarters to freshen up. Call me as soon as the briefing is arranged.”

Garston stood up and watched him leave. Once the door to his office was closed, he slumped back in his chair, thinking furiously. Dr Kops would not be pleased, but Garvin was Supreme Administrator. The only person who could override his decisions was the President. After allowing a brief sigh of resignation to escape, he called his secretary and told him to arrange the briefing.

He was floating in a void. Noises drifted in and out of his ears. All he could see was an uneven red blur. A feeling of confusion prodded him gently, but he couldn’t isolate its origin.

The light in the void pulsated softly, from rust to crimson and back again. Thoughts began forming around him. Some were inside his head while, others floating floated about in the void, like film projected on clouds. Images of faces floated and faded, sometimes accompanied by a whispered name or question.

He began to recognise the noises as speech; snatches of conversation and isolated comments. The pulsating void changed to a flashing maelstrom of images. At the same moment, he became aware that he possessed a body: a body that ached, and felt uncomfortable. He tried to move the uncomfortable bits without success.

Something nagged at the back of his mind, something important. Something he had to do. It was all very confusing. As he grew more aware of his body, he discerned that it was lying down on its back. The floating sensation diminished and a bright patch appeared in the void, surrounded by intense flashing silver blobs. Memories began to vie for his attention – being short of breath, falling down, getting undressed, swimming in the sea, laughing until he cried. All images from his past, he realised, but apparently unconnected.

The light was becoming brighter, which made him involuntarily squeeze his eyes shut. The realisation that he had eyes and could move them was a revelation. He concentrated on them, first squeezing his eyelids tighter together, which was painful, so he tried opening them instead. Very slowly, he felt his eyelids part from each other. They were sticky, and reluctant to move. He persisted, and was rewarded with a flickering whiteness, which gradually became a blurry image as his eyes opened fully. Awareness of his body and surroundings was increasing dramatically, although attempts at movement only brought sensations of extreme heaviness, and more aches and pains.

“Dr Kops, I think he’s coming round.”

He recognised the words, but had trouble comprehending them. He realised that the voice was female at the same moment that a pleasant female face loomed into his field of vision, only to be replaced almost immediately by a bespectacled male face. A light shone directly into his eye, making him flinch.


This was a male voice he was sure that he should know.

“Samoht, can you hear me?”

Realisation that Samoht was his name struck him like a sledgehammer. He felt himself settle solidly into his body, and wondered what had happened. The last thing in his memory was being in quarantine.

“Samoht, I’m going to give you an injection to help you wake up. Do you understand?”

He tried to nod, unable to tell for sure if he had moved his head or not. A sharp sting in his arm was gone almost before it registered, followed immediately by a warm sensation that spread rapidly through his body.

“We’re going to raise the head of your bed now, to help you sit up.”

Samoht felt his torso being forced up and forward, until he was in a semi-reclined position. The support provided by the pillows was most welcome, as his head felt like a lump of lead perched precariously on a drinking-straw neck.

His eyes were pretty much working properly now, just a bit blurry at the edges. He focussed on his surroundings. Dr Kops was standing next to him, whilst a nurse attended a patient in the next bed.

Dr Kops poured a glass of water from a jug on the bedside table and put it gently against Samoht’s lips. The small sip of water trickled over his tongue and slid delightfully down his throat. The dryness gradually subsided, and he felt his strength start to return. Questions began to form, pressing insistently to the front of his consciousness.

“What happened?” he managed to murmur through parched lips and a mouth that felt strange and unwieldy.

“We don’t know at the moment,” Dr Kops replied gently. “Both you and Nassah became irrational and passed out, but we don’t know why yet.”

“The mission?” Yes, he thought, the mission: The reason that he had been in quarantine.

“The mission goes ahead as planned!”

This was a new voice. He thought he should recognise it, but couldn’t. Dr Kops turned around to face the newcomer, who was a tall man in a well-tailored suit.

“Supreme Administrator,” the doctor said warily, “I wasn’t aware that you would be coming here before the briefing. I haven’t been able to assess Samoht or Nassah’s fitness yet. As you can see, Nassah is still unconscious and Samoht here is”

“Samoht is awake and recovering rapidly. The mission goes ahead as planned!” Supreme Administrator Garvin (Samoht recognised him now) interrupted impatiently.

“I cannot,” Dr Kops started, only to be interrupted again.

“I don’t care what you can or cannot do, say, authorise or anything else. I am in charge, and I say the mission goes ahead as planned.”

“But . . .”

“Dr Kops!” Garvin’s normally level tones rose in volume. “I am not asking, or making any kind of request. I am telling you to follow my orders. I will not tolerate my decisions being questioned. Kindly cease interrupting me. We have a briefing scheduled in,” he checked his watch, “three minutes. This matter can be properly discussed then!” He turned abruptly and stalked out of the room.

Samoht reached out and touched Dr Kops on the forearm. He turned, and Samoht saw the look of shock on his face. “Don’t worry, Doctor,” he managed to croak. “I’ll be fine.”

Dr Kops gave him a little smile. “You just rest,” he said warmly. “I’ll be back later. We can talk about it when you’re feeling better.” He pulled a switch box from the side of the bed. “Just press the red button if you need anything, and a nurse will be right with you.”

Samoht took the box and gave him a weak smile. Dr Kops patted him on the shoulder before he walked off to the briefing, leaving Samoht free to relax back into the pillows and drift off to sleep.

Garston was beginning to feel uncomfortable. He had arrived in Dr Kops’ office five minutes previously, because he knew that Garvin was a stickler for good timekeeping. Much to his surprise, Administrator Kram was already there.

After a brief exchange of greetings, he had taken a seat in a corner of the room. An uncomfortable silence ensued. Garston wondered why Kram was here; surely the problem with the astronauts did not require his presence.

Kram was wondering the same thing, although he was determined not to show it. Garvin wanted him here, so here he was.

The Supreme Administrator’s footsteps echoed loudly as he strode down the corridor and stormed into the room. He clearly was not happy. Even so, Garston noted with grudging admiration, regardless of anything else, he was exactly on time.

“Dr Kops will be joining us shortly,” Garvin announced in curt tones. “While we wait for him, is there anything either of you have to report?”

Garston shook his head when Garvin looked at him. Kram licked his lips nervously and gave a slight shake of his head as well.

“Well,” Garvin said, as he sat down carefully in Dr Kops’ chair, “I hope that there are no more nasty surprises in store. If the launch doesn’t go ahead, people’s careers will be on the line.”

He looked pointedly at Garston, who returned the look. They locked eyes momentarily, and Garston was just beginning to wonder if he should look away or stare Garvin down when Dr Kops entered the room. Everyone turned to him with relief.

Dr Kops acknowledged the three men and sat down in the remaining chair, a look of puzzlement evident as he registered Kram’s presence.

Garvin leant slightly forward, resting his forearms on the desk. “Dr Kops, I understand your anxiety at this time, but I never want you to question or contradict me in public again. I am in overall charge, and if you don’t agree with me, then we can discuss it in private. One thing I absolutely will not tolerate is insubordination. Do I make myself clear?”

Doctor Kops nodded glumly. Garston gave him a puzzled look, but he ignored it.

“Good,” Garvin continued. “Now, do we know what caused the astronauts to pass out whilst in quarantine?”

“It must have been a contaminant, either in the food, or in the air filtration system,” Dr Kops replied grudgingly. “The entire quarantine area has been sealed off. I will be supervising a complete investigation, once the mission is complete.”

“And the condition of the astronauts?”

“Both are stable now. Samoht has regained consciousness, but Nassah still hasn’t come round. It’s too early to give any further details. I won’t know whether they’re fit to fly until the tests have been completed. As we only have forty-four hours left until the launch, I highly recommend that the standby crew is prepared.” He looked pointedly at Garvin as he said this.

Garvin’s face darkened. “That is not an option, Doctor. Your job is to ensure that they are both fit to fly. I am not convinced that the standby crew can complete the mission successfully. I also have complete confidence in Samoht as pilot and Nassah as mission specialist, even if they are only fifty percent fit.” Dr Kops opened his mouth to object, but Garvin cut him short with a sharp hand gesture, and continued speaking. “This is the most publicised event in history. When the President arrives, a raft of reporters will arrive with him. Everything that is said and done from that moment will be recorded for posterity.” He turned to Kram. “Are all the preparations complete?”

“Yes,” Kram responded eagerly. “All of the passes, security procedures and the President and Vice President’s itineraries have been finalised. I anticipate no problems on the ground.”

Garvin turned to Garston, who spoke without any further prompting. “All final reports have been received and checked. Everything is ready and, as usual, Senior Administrator Kram has done an excellent job of organising everything. As long as the astronauts are fit, the launch is on as planned.”

Garvin seemed to relax a little. “I know everybody involved has worked extremely hard to bring this all together,” he said in a reasonable tone. He paused and looked pointedly at Dr Kops before continuing, “I don’t want to see it fail because of one person.”

Dr Kops looked shocked. Garston nearly said something, but caught his tongue just in time.

Garvin dismissed them with a wave of his hand. “That’s all, gentlemen. Kram, you stay behind. I want to go over the President’s itinerary once more.”

Kram inclined his head, and remained seated as Garston and the doctor rose and walked out, closing the door behind them.

“What was all that about?” Garston asked Dr Kops as they walked slowly back to the intensive care ward.

“I don’t really know, Garston,” the doctor replied glumly. “He’s determined to use Samoht and Nassah for the mission, and when I suggested using the standby crew, he started shouting me down. You heard him accusing me of insubordination. He’s acting as if this was a global police establishment instead of a Scientific Community project.”

Garston nodded his head slowly, “Yes. He’s always been a bit like that. I suppose it’s part of being in his position. He’s used to making decisions and wielding his power to get things done. Maybe he’ll calm down when the President arrives tomorrow.”

“I hope so,” Dr Kops replied without enthusiasm.

They arrived at the double doors leading to Intensive Care. Dr Kops entered and Garston said goodbye, continuing along the corridor to the exit. He stood briefly in the hot, bright afternoon sunlight before walking the short distance to the Administration building.

After a brief pause to ensure that Garston and the doctor had passed out of earshot, Garvin beamed broadly at Kram.

“That went well, don’t you think?”

Kram was not sure what he meant. He felt that Garvin was being very heavy-handed with Dr Kops. The doctor was a pleasant man dedicated to his charges. Insisting that the standby crew was not to be used seemed to be a step too far. “I’m not sure I understand what we’re trying to achieve here,” he said slowly.

Garvin’s smile faded a little. “Following on from your treatment, it’s vital that Samoht and Nassah fly the mission. I thought I’d explained this.”

“But if Dr Kops really doesn’t feel that they’re fit enough….” He let the statement hang, implying unforeseen consequences.

“I have full authority over this mission, acting on behalf of the President,” Garvin told Kram, sneering as he said the last word. “This mission is part of a much larger plan which will change the world, make it a better place. We’ve been stagnating for years now. Progress is faltering. More and more people are becoming disillusioned with their monotonous lives. We need to adopt a system that encourages free trade and consumerism. People have a right to private transport, private schools. Everyone should have a computer. Television should be a mass entertainment and marketing product. We’ve had nearly one hundred years of controlled trading, predetermined jobs, suppressed wages, even restrictions on leisure activities, and it’s falling apart.

“The President is blind to these things. The Vice President is only interested in being the next president. Someone has to instigate the changes, and I am that person!” Garvin paused for a second, to catch his breath and gather his thoughts.

“Now,” he continued at last, “I’m satisfied that the astronauts will be fit to fly the mission. The drug you introduced should clear their systems within another twelve hours, after which they will recover rapidly. Certain senses will be heightened, which will help them complete the mission.”

“What about the information we’ve been withholding?”

“All the information is being studied by my special analysis team. It’s not essential to the mission, and would have caused unnecessary delays.” He smiled again. “You’re doing excellent work, Kram. Don’t worry about things that don’t concern you. There’s a job waiting for you in Administration headquarters, once the mission is over. You have big things ahead of you, more than you can possibly imagine.”

Kram relaxed. Quite apart from the fact that he was his uncle, he was confident that Garvin knew what he was doing. Everything would be just fine.

The sun was low on the horizon when Airam stepped off the bus. She stood on the pavement for a second, unfamiliar with this part of the town. In the early dusk, with long shadows ruling the townscape, it was difficult to see clearly. People moved in and out of shadows; none of the streetlights were on yet. The electric motor of the bus whined as it pulled away, leaving her alone in the street.

The heat of the day was abating, but the desert air remained warm and dusty. She spotted the Old Goldmine at the far end of the street, about two hundred yards away. The neon sign over the door flickered into life with a crackle and a buzz, which quickly tailed off to a quiet hum. Red and blue light dispelled some of the shadows but created others, bathing everything in unnatural colours.

A group of people walked up to the double doors and pulled them open, letting laughter drift out into the still evening air. Airam looked up at the sky and inhaled a deep breath of the sultry evening air, taking a moment to gaze in wonder at the Pseudo Stars shimmering faintly in the darkening heavens. Gathering her courage, she walked purposefully to the bar and pushed the right-hand door, which swung easily on well-oiled hinges.

Inside, the noise was louder. A background smell she couldn’t identify drifted unpleasantly into her nostrils. People sat at the various tables, drinking, talking and laughing. One of the bar staff looked at her enquiringly, so she went over to him. The man wore a red flannel shirt with white braces and blue jeans. His face and hands were tanned and his smile revealed a tooth missing at the front.

“What can I get you, miss?”

“I’ve come here to meet a friend,” Airam replied, raising her voice over the background noise.

“Ah,” said the barman, looking a bit disappointed. “Can I get you a drink while you’re waiting?”

“No, thank you,” she replied distractedly. “I’ll just wait for them over there.” She indicated the far end of the bar.

“Okay.” The barman shrugged and went off to serve someone else.

Airam shuffled past a few people either sitting on bar stools or standing and drinking. The stool at the end of the bar was vacant, so she sat there. Another one of the bar staff approached her, a woman this time.

“Hi,” the woman said, flashing a smile. “Are you waiting for someone?”

“Yes.” Airam paused, remembering the telephone conversation. “Actually, I’m waiting for a friend.”

“You must be Airam.”

“Yes,” Airam repeated, unable to think of anything else to say.

“My name’s Anaid,” the barmaid informed her. “I’ll let Draw know you’re here.” She turned to leave, paused, then turned back. “Have a drink while you’re waiting, on the house.”

Airam gave her a blank look. “On the house?”

“Oh dear,” Anaid said in amusement. “You don’t get out much, do you?”

“Well, I . . .”

“Never mind. The drink is free. Here, try this,” she said, grabbing a glass and pouring an amber liquid from one of the taps.

Airam thanked her, and watched apprehensively as she went to a door behind the bar. She took a sip of her drink (must be beer, she thought), and found it quite pleasant: crisp, with a slight sweetness, and lots of bubbles. Licking her lips, she took a long pull, swallowing half of the glass. The bubbles made her eyes water, and she could feel the cold effervescence travelling deliciously down her throat. She smiled and took another, smaller drink, savouring the taste.

Anaid emerged from the door behind the bar and walked rapidly to Airam. “Come round the back here,” she said, lifting a flap at the end of the bar.

Airam stood up and followed her through the door. There were three men sitting in a small smoky room. One of them got up, offered her his hand and said, “Hi, Airam. I’m Drawde, but everyone calls me Draw.”

Airam recognised his voice from the telephone call. They shook hands briefly.

“Come and sit down, make yourself comfortable.” Draw smiled broadly, and turned to Anaid. “Another round please, my sweet.”

Anaid smiled back and left the room. Airam followed Draw to the table, settling in to the proffered seat.

“This is Nair.” Draw indicated the man to his left. Nair was dark-skinned, with an olive complexion, dark hair, and a goatee beard. He was slim build and had a serious look about him. He nodded at her, and his brown eyes locked briefly with hers.

“And Treb.”

Treb was a pleasant-looking man with long, dark blonde hair tied loosely back in a ponytail. He wore a tight-fitting shirt which showed a well-toned body. When he smiled, his blue eyes twinkled at her. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Ma’am,” he said.

As Draw sat down opposite her, Anaid returned with a tray containing four drinks and a clean ashtray. She placed them on the table, and collected the empty glasses and dirty ashtray. Then she winked at Draw and sauntered out, wiggling her hips seductively. The men watched her leave before turning their attention back to Airam, who finished her drink and started on the second.

“I’m sorry about the cloak and dagger stuff,” Draw said to her, “but it is necessary. There are some very powerful people who would like nothing more than for us to disappear. I think that you and Director Yegob are about to board the same boat.”

Airam carefully replaced her glass on the table. “What do you mean by disappear?”

“I mean being forcibly removed to a remote location, and abandoned.”

“Who would do that?” Airam was shocked. “I mean, I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“You’ve drawn attention to yourself,” Nair announced. “There are things going on that you, and most of the population, are completely unaware of. We believe that this current space project will be sabotaged, because certain people stand to benefit from embarrassing the President.”

Airam finished her drink. She felt strange: more confident than normal, despite the unusual circumstances. “And this involves space rocks,” she said sarcastically. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t believe that.”

“Believe it!” Nair countered insistently, “Do you really think that no-one before you had spotted them? There’s a secret agenda behind this that will have a drastic effect on the way we live, if it’s carried through to completion. Anyone who is considered out of control, or interfering, is removed from any position where they might cause problems.”

Airam looked nervously at the three men, her confidence evaporating. This was beginning to sound very serious, not to mention dangerous.

“Gentlemen,” Draw said quietly, “I think that we’re getting into areas that our guest,” he indicated Airam, “cannot possibly understand at the moment.” He spoke directly to Airam. “We have to talk about a few things, my dear. If you can, there’s something we’d like you to do for us as well.”

Airam’s face fell. “I don’t understand,” she complained. “I haven’t done anything wrong. What about Garston? How can he not know about this?”

“He’s been classified as untrustworthy, so great effort has been taken to conceal certain facts from him. This has been going on for a long time, but only now do these people feel that they can take positive steps towards achieving their goal.”

“Oh, right,” Airam said sarcastically. “After a hundred years of world government, prosperity, no wars, you expect me to believe that there’s a massive conspiracy going on, to make the manned space program fail during its inaugural mission.”

“May I explain?” Treb asked. The other two nodded at him.

“My dear young lady,” he began pleasantly, “I’m afraid that the space program is just being used because of its high profile, and the importance that the President has placed on it. The aim is to discredit the President, and various other high-ranking government officials, undermine the government, and then replace it with an alternative system based on power and greed.”

Airam sat in stunned silence. Her mouth was suddenly very dry, and her head felt strange. She reached for her glass, which was empty. Treb picked up a jug of water and filled it for her. She smiled appreciatively and drank half.

Nair took a hand-rolled cigarette from a small pile in front of him, and lit it with a match. Drawing the smoke deep into his lungs, he exhaled slowly and steadily. “This is getting seriously side-tracked,” he said to Draw. After taking another drag on the cigarette, he passed it to Treb, and turned his attention back to Airam. “How much do you know about computers?”

Nassah felt much better. He had awoken late the previous afternoon, and drifted in and out of consciousness for a couple of hours. Despite his best efforts at recalling the circumstances leading up to his collapse, the preceding twenty-four hours remained a jumble of confused and seemingly random impressions. The doctor said he had been hallucinating, and so had Samoht.

A bowl of chicken soup had been all he could stomach, but after that he slept like a log. When he awoke in the morning, he felt quite refreshed, and ravenously hungry. He had even joked with Sam over breakfast.

They both breakfasted on bowls of cereal, followed by boiled eggs and toast soldiers for him, and scrambled eggs on toast for Sam. A glass of orange- juice each, followed by a cup of strong coffee, had left them feeling content. Then they drifted off to sleep for a couple of hours, until Dr Kops came round to tell them that they should wash and shave.

They returned from the bathroom to find fresh clothes waiting, neatly folded, on their beds. Dr Kops re-appeared as they finished dressing, and informed them that the President was coming to see them. Even better news was that they would be back in their quarters for the evening. They were both looking forward to that! Sam would get to see his girlfriend and Nassah would be spending the evening with his wife and son. The only restrictions imposed were no alcohol, and be asleep by midnight. Nassah felt that there would be no hardship involved there.

He was roused from a pleasant daydream when Dr Kops re-joined them. Two men in dark suits entered behind him, quickly checked the room, and departed. Dr Kops stood nervously by the door.

Samoht looked over at him questioningly, and received a noncommittal shrug of the shoulders in response. The two men returned and stood on either side of the door. Two more men in dark suits entered, followed by the President and Vice President. The President was introduced to Dr Kops, who flushed as they shook hands. Samoht and Nassah stood to attention as the President and Dr Kops approached. The Vice President hovered in the background.

“I’m very pleased to meet you at last, gentlemen,” the President announced in a deep public-speaking voice. “I’ve heard a lot about you. I hope that you’ve recovered sufficiently to make the flight tomorrow – Supreme Administrator Garvin informs me that you are, but on a project of this importance, I want to make sure for myself.” He approached Samoht and they shook hands.

“I’m really looking forward to the flight, sir, Sir,” Samoht said. “We won’t let you down.”

“Good man,” the President replied, and walked around the bed to Nassah, shaking his hand as well. “I’m sorry it’s such a short visit this time, but I fully intend to have an informal meeting with my two heroes after the flight. Good luck.” He turned abruptly and left, his entourage scurrying after him.

Sam and Nassah relaxed as Dr Kops approached them.

“Well,” he said, “that was brief and to the point!”

All three of them smiled, then Dr Kops continued. “There’ll be a couple of security guards here in a minute, to escort you to your quarters. We’re taking no chances on anything else happening. Enjoy your evening, and I’ll see you at seven a.m.”

“Thanks,” Nassah and Sam replied simultaneously. Dr Kops gave them a warm smile before walking off to his office.

The two astronauts looked at each other, and solemnly shook hands. No words were needed. They both knew that they could die on the mission. They also realised that, whatever might happen, their trust in each other was absolute.

Garston sat in the control observation room, sipping coffee. He adjusted his headphones, and looked out across the control room. Three rows of desks faced the huge screen covering the whole wall opposite; currently, it was displaying a graphic of the flight plan. Eleven of the thirty consoles were already manned and he was currently monitoring the, one by the Flight Director, who he was listening to at the moment. Final circuit checks were being made. Thus and so far everything was going to plan.

He saw Dr Kops enter and move to his medical monitoring station. Garston checked the digital clock on his desk: eight-forty-five a.m. The President was due in fifteen minutes, the launch scheduled for eleven a.m. He flicked the switch for two-way communication, and pressed the button for the medical channel. “Doctor Kops,” he said softly.

The doctor replied without looking up from his monitor. “Good morning, Director.”

“Everything all right?”

“Yes, fine.” Dr Kops glanced up at him. “Both astronauts are doing well, and looking forward to the mission. They are suiting up now and will begin boarding shortly.”

“Excellent.” Garston felt a bit awkward. His job now was just to monitor the mission and confer with the Flight Director, if anything went wrong. At the moment he had nothing to do, except feel the tension mounting. He cut the connection to the doctor and continued monitoring the Flight Director.

Airam sat nervously at her desk. Soon all of the non-essential staff would be going to the main hangar, which had been converted into a broadcast room where they would be able to observe the launch. Her hand slipped into her pocket, cradling the floppy disc and cable adapter that Draw had given to her. She still wasn’t sure she would be able to do what they had asked. The drink and cigarette smoke had left her with a headache and dry throat all of the previous day. Some of that evening was a bit fuzzy. She remembered having at least three more beers and being very relaxed, which seemed strange, as she was normally shy and self-conscious in social situations.

Draw and Treb had spent a lot of time explaining how they needed someone to adapt a government computer, and then commenced running through the procedure until she could repeat every step. When she had asked them to write it down for her, they explained that the risk of discovery was not worth it. Unless she was caught actually connecting the equipment, no one could connect her, or them, to it, even if it was discovered at a later date. They had assured her that no one had attempted this before, so no one would be looking out for it.

All she had to do was wait until everyone was watching the launch and sneak away for about ten minutes. Hopefully the job would be done before anyone realised she had been gone.

Samoht waited patiently as the technicians helped Nassah into the access tube. They were both wearing their space suits, minus helmets at the moment. Movement was difficult, so the easiest thing to do was stand still until the technicians were ready.

The floor of the tube lifted with a small whining noise, as it carried Nassah up into the orbiter. Various clanging noises ensued before the lift returned empty.

The technicians surrounded him and lifted, pushed, and pulled, until he was standing on the platform. Samoht felt strangely detached. He knew that he should be excited, but all he could think of was how long this was taking, and how much he wanted to get on with the launch. He sighed and clenched his fists as much as the gloves would allow, as his head slowly cleared the floor of the orbiter cabin. Nassah was already in the left-hand seat, the technicians adjusting his harnesses.

With a shudder and a bump, the lift stopped. Samoht nearly overbalanced, but a technician was there to steady him. Having finished with Nassah, the others turned their attention to him. There wasn’t a lot of room for manoeuvre, even with the pilot’s seat fully retracted, but five minutes later he was in. The technicians gave him a thumbs-up as they left. The hatch door closed with a heavy thunk, followed by a muffled thud as the outer door was sealed in place.

Samoht looked around, checking the status of his instruments. Everything was where it should be. The window covers were still in place, leaving the cabin dim and cool. “No red lights yet, then,” he said, twisting slightly inside his suit to look at Nassah.

“No such luck,” Nassah replied jovially. “Looks like we’ll have to launch.”

“Nah, there’s still time for us to break something.”

They both started laughing as they put their headsets on.

The control observation room was now full. The President and Vice President were seated to the right of Garston, with Kram and Garvin to his left. Behind them were four of the President’s security force and three members of the world press. A live feed from the main control room was being recorded for a documentary about the space program. Currently the main screen was displaying an image of the launch vehicle standing on the main runway, bright desert sunlight reflecting from its smooth surfaces.

It was a large flying wing, with the orbiter docked in its bay towards the back of the launch vehicle. Technicians scurried about like ants, checking cables, reading instruments and constantly reporting back to their department heads, who were busy themselves monitoring the activity from their computer stations in the control room.

“We’re just coming up to the final thirty-minute countdown, gentlemen,” Garston announced to his small audience. “I’m going to put the Flight Director on the speakers, so that you can follow the proceedings.” There was a general murmur of anticipation as he flicked a switch on the panel in front of him.

“—irty minute countdown in five, four, three, two, one,” the Flight Director’s calm, assertive voice came announced clearly through the speakers mounted on the wall behind them. “All stations please confirm readiness.”

Other voices began announcing their status as the Flight Director called their departments.

“All stations confirmed green and ready, at launch minus twenty-nine minutes and counting.”

On all the monitor screens a small digital clock appeared, counting down the minutes and seconds before launch. There was a mounting tension in the air, and Garston’s hands were beginning to sweat despite the air conditioning. He wiped them distractedly on his trouser legs and continued with his monitoring.

Anaid and Draw were sitting in the deserted bar of the Old Goldmine. Normally at this time of day there would be fifteen to twenty customers, and the staff would be busy preparing for the lunchtime trade. Today, however, the bar was deserted: Draw had given the staff the day off. The launch was being broadcast live on both radio channels, and most local people had headed out into the desert at the end of the four-mile-long runway to watch the take-off.

Draw took a sip of his beer and reached out to take Anaid’s hand in his. She looked at him and smiled. “Do you think she’ll do it?” she asked quietly.

Draw’s face darkened slightly. “She has to,” he said ominously. “We must have that information.” He checked his watch impatiently, and gulped a mouthful of beer. “Not long now,” he said tensely, wiping his lips with the back of his hand. “Hopefully you’ll be busy soon.”

“I thought you said we weren’t opening for lunch!” Anaid responded with a shocked expression.

“You know what I mean.”

She smiled broadly, and caressed his hand. “Of course I do, lover.” He looked quickly at her, then laughed as she purred, “and you know how much I love to do it when you’re watching!”

The cockpit of the launch vehicle had an air of serenity about it. The distant clanks and bangs of the ground crew disconnecting pipes, checking and closing panels, and shouting to each other had died down. Only the quiet chatter of the flight crew on the headphones broke the silence. The polarised glass reduced the glare of the sun, and the pressurised cabin was pleasantly cool. Flight Commander Semaj Patterson turned to his co-pilot.

“Well, Nimos,” he said, “it’s time to check on our passengers.”

“Checking the connection now—everything is green.”

Semaj flicked a switch on the overhead panel. “This is Flight Commander Patterson to any astronauts remaining on board. We are approaching the final ten-minute countdown. If you intend to disembark, now is your last chance.”

Samoht’s voice came back immediately. “Just make sure you give us a smooth take-off, or I’ll be demanding a refund!”

“If you have any complaints, address them to the President. He’s the one who gave me this job.”

“Yeah, only because I’m busy with this orbiter thing!”

The Flight Director’s voice cut across their banter. “Okay, gents. Let’s cut the chatter and concentrate on the task at hand. Give me a full instrument check on all internal connections.”

Both crews began reading off the relevant dials and displays. Everything was working properly.

“I do declare we are good to go, Control.”

“Final ten minute countdown commencing in five, four, three, two, one.”

“I suppose it’s too late to take a toilet break?” Nassah announced urgently.

“How did someone with such a weak bladder get on this mission?” Samoht retorted, and both flight crews chuckled to themselves as they commenced their final checks.

Airam sat in the main hangar along with nearly twelve hundred other staff members. The air was warm, and there was a background murmur as people spoke quietly to each other. The timer on the main view screen went from nine to eight minutes.

She stood up abruptly and made her way to the side of the hangar, apologising to the people she disturbed. She couldn’t help noticing how many of them turned to look at her. The three cameras, placed at strategic points to film the reactions of the staff during the launch, also did nothing for her confidence. Reaching the main door, she smiled uncertainly at the security staff.

“I’m sorry, but I need to go to the toilet,” she announced, hoping she sounded embarrassed instead of scared. Her heart was starting to race, and she felt a bit sick.

“You don’t look too good,” one of them told her. “Do you want someone to take you to the infirmary?”

“No, that’s all right. I don’t want anyone to miss the launch because of me. I’ll just go to the toilet.”


They let her pass through, then one of them called after her, “If the launch has started when you get back, just stay along the edge, so you don’t disturb anyone.”

“Yeah, okay,” she replied, and hurried off in the direction of the toilets. As soon as she was out of sight of the main hangar, she cut through a side corridor and headed for the nearest work area.

The atmosphere in the control observation room was tense. Everyone was watching the monitor, and listening intently to the flight controller as the countdown entered the final minute.

“Ground crew report all clear.”

“Launch minus one minute. Start engines.”

“Engines one through four turning over.”

“All indicators are green.”

“All engines running at idle.”

“Launch minus thirty seconds.”

In the cockpit of the orbiter, the two astronauts were watching the monitor that showed an external view of the launch vehicle. Faint vibrations from the powerful jet engines rumbled through the fuselage, accompanied by a low whine.

“Launch minus fifteen seconds.”

“Go for one-quarter throttle.”

“One-quarter throttle on all engines.”

Flight Commander Patterson eased the throttle controls forward.

“All engines now at one-quarter power,” Nimos confirmed.

“Release brakes in five, four, three, two, one, release.”

The astronauts felt a lurch, and the launch vehicle crept forward. They settled back in to their seats, passengers for the first part of the flight.

“Go for take-off.”

The launch vehicle moved forward, picking up speed. The whole complex watched in silence as it tore along the runway, accelerating all the time. Four cones of blue flame scorched the air behind it as it gathered speed. The whole area filled with a crackling, tearing roar, as the largest aircraft ever built forced itself faster and faster along the tarmac of the runway. The nose wheel lifted, and the launch vehicle gently rose. The main undercarriage cleared the ground.

“Altitude one yard, two yards, three yards, four yards, five yards. Clear for flight?”

“All systems green. Launch control confirms clear for flight.

The launch vehicle aimed its nose up to forty-five degrees and hurled itself at the sky, still accelerating.

All across the complex, people started clapping and cheering. In the control observation room, the President stood up and cheerfully shook hands with everybody.

Crouched under a desk, trying to fit the adapter cable into the back of a computer without disconnecting the other cables, Airam began to panic as she heard the applause. The mission had begun, which meant that she was running out of time.

There was very little for Samoht and Nassah to do during the initial stage of the flight. Once airborne, the passage through the lower atmosphere was quite smooth. The noise from the engines was loud enough to make them raise their voices, so mostly they just monitored the instruments and radio conversations.

“Launch plus five minutes. Launch vehicle is on planned flight path, preparing to go to mach speed.”

“Are you two all right back there?” Patterson enquired.

Sam and Nass looked at each other. Nass shrugged, so Sam replied.

“Well, the take-off rattled a few of my teeth loose, and the view isn’t much good, but apart from that, everything’s fine.”

“You’ll soon have the best view in history, looking down at the planet from orbit. I wish I was going up with you,” Patterson replied, ignoring the dig at his flying ability.

“You could always land somewhere and swap with me,” Sam retorted. “I’m sure no-one would notice.”

“No time, I’m afraid, Sam. Anyway, you’d never be able to pilot something this big.”

“Just remember,” Nass interrupted, “size isn’t important.”

“Okay guys, that’s enough chatter. Remember we have people listening,” the flight controller cautioned them. “Patterson, we’re showing a slight power loss in the number three engine. Can you confirm?”

“We have no indication of that up here, control. All engines show green and there’s no abnormal vibration. Are we still go for mach?”

“This is ground control, we confirm. You are go for hypersonic flight. Prepare to accelerate to mach speed.”

“Roger control, throttling up for mach speed now.”

The launch vehicle shuddered slightly, and the noise from the engines increased as Flight Commander Patterson eased the throttle controls forward.

On the ground, the crowd waiting at the end of the runway heard the sonic boom, and cheered triumphantly. Treb and Nair looked around distractedly as their fellow spectators began to disperse.

“That was pretty good,” Treb said.

“Yeah,” Nair replied thoughtfully. “That sure is a big aeroplane. Do you think they’ll manage it?”


“Complete the mission successfully.”

“Nah. I’ll be very surprised if the astronauts make it back in one piece.”

They carried on walking in silence for a while. The sun beat down relentlessly, heating their heads uncomfortably even through their wide-brimmed hats.

“Do you think she’s managed to do it yet?”

“We’ll find out soon enough. Look, there’s the bus. Come on.”

“Air speed now mach 1.8 and increasing. Estimated time to separation is twenty minutes.

“Well gentlemen, that’s take-off done. I think this would be a good time to take a break.” Garston looked around at the occupants of the control monitoring room, smiling broadly.

“Excellent idea,” said Garvin, easing himself out of his chair. “Any chance of a coffee?”

“I’ll organise it,” Kram announced zealously, almost leaping out of his seat. He looked briefly at Garvin, who consented with a barely perceptible nod. “Right, I’ll be back in about ten minutes.”

“I’m going to stretch my legs,” the presidentThe President announced, standing up and stretching his arms. He and the vice presidentVice President walked out, accompanied by the security guards.

Garston turned to the two reporters. “How are you enjoying the show?”

“It’s wonderful,” one of them replied. “I’ve been monitoring the live broadcast, and I have to say, I’m very impressed.”

“Yeah,” the other one continued, “we’ll be printing stories about this for years!”

Airam finally managed to get the cable securely connected to the computer. The other end connected to the phone line, and the telephone jack plugged into the back of it.

After crawling carefully from under the desk, she paused to listen. The building was quiet. Her lips silently mouthed words, as she repeated her instructions under her breath. Insert the disk and turn the computer on. It took about thirty seconds to boot up and then, instead of loading the usual program, it displayed a string of black-and-white screens before stopping with a cursor flashing. Still muttering the procedure to herself, she typed in the code word and pressed enter. Another screen displayed, and she entered the number for the telephone on the desk. Taking a deep breath, she flexed her fingers nervously before pressing the enter key.

‘Shutting down. Prepare for re-boot.’ was displayed on the monitor. As soon as it had powered down she removed the disc and waited patiently for the machine to restart.

Drawde had assured her that the computer would function normally, and the program she had just installed would run undetected in the background. When the computer was shut down, it would appear to do so normally, but really actually just go into sleep mode. A phone call would activate it, and Draw would then be able to control it remotely. She wondered again if she was doing the right thing.

“My research is important,” she reassured herself. “Garston thought so too. If information is being suppressed or withheld, someone has to do something about it.”

Thinking about Garston made her sad. She missed him terribly, and really wanted to speak with him about this. Hopefully, it would only be one more day before she could do so.

The computer finished loading. She quickly checked that everything worked, and then shut it down.

Remembering her instructions, she quietly left the office and went into another one, using one of the phones there to call the Old Goldmine. Draw answered straight away and she gave him the telephone number. He thanked her, relief evident in his voice.

Replacing the handset, she left the office with a sigh of relief and returned to the main hangar, where people were milling about waiting for the next stage of the mission. Nobody seemed to notice her return, so she made her way to her seat, slumping gratefully into it as people started following suit throughout the room.

Sam and Nassah were running through the final checks before separation.

“All docking clamps secure.”

“All systems are green.”

The ride had smoothed out a bit once they broke the sound barrier. They were now travelling at five times the speed of sound, the launch vehicle still climbing steadily. Successfully separating the two craft depended on them being in the thinner, high-altitude atmosphere.

“Flight ceiling achieved,” Patterson announced, “preparing for separation.”

“All systems clear. You are confirmed as go to initiate separation procedure,” was the response from ground control.

“Maintaining level flight at fifty thousand feet.”

“Extending launch ramp.”

The two astronauts watched every instrument carefully. If something went wrong now, it would spell certain disaster. Slowly, tail first, the orbiter emerged from the launch vehicle.

“Launch ramp now fully extended.”

“Ready for launch configuration.”

The launch vehicle started to nose downwards. As it did so, the launch ramp tilted, maintaining an angle of ten degrees above horizontal. The orbiter began shaking as it was exposed to the atmosphere.

“Separation in five, four, three, two, one.”

The clamps holding the orbiter were released, and it immediately lurched backwards, its angle of attack increasing rapidly.

“Main engine ignition.”

Sam flicked the switches for the main engine ignition and the liquid fuel rocket burst into life, flinging the orbiter upwards and accelerating it to escape velocity. The astronauts were pressed hard into their seats, breathing in shallow gasps as the G forces increased.

“Launch vehicle now five miles down range and commencing return flight,” Commander Patterson’s voice announced over the radio. “Good luck, guys. See you when you get back.”

The orbiter shuddered and shook as it forced its way through the final layers of atmosphere. After what seemed like an eternity to the astronauts, suffering the merciless pressure of G forces and physical strain of the bumpy ride, the instruments indicated that they had completed the initial stage of their flight pattern.

“Main engine shutdown,” Sam announced, his voice weak and croaky. He turned off the main engine, and the orbiter glided silently into orbit. Both astronauts looked at each other and breathed a sigh of relief, as they went from nearly seven Gs to weightless in the space of a couple of seconds.

There was an eerie near-silence inside the orbiter, the only sounds being the faint hum of the air re-circulation system and the gradually relaxing breathing of the astronauts.

Sam leant forward and pressed a catch in the bulkhead to the side of him. A small panel opened to reveal an assortment of plastic packages. He pulled two out and pushed the panel, which shut with a click. Passing one of the packages to Nassah, he pulled a straw out of his package and put it to his lips. Both astronauts sipped at their drinks, the cool liquid relieving the dryness in their throats.

“This is ground control to Orbiter,” the radio suddenly announced, crackly and distorted. “Our instruments show you are in a stable orbit. Please confirm.”

Sam licked his lips before replying. “Orbiter to ground control. We are steady at . . .” he checked the instrument panel in front of him, “one hundred and ninety-eight miles, and in a stable orbit. Opening window covers, preparing for stage two.”

“That’s excellent news, Orbiter.” The controller’s voice was extremely relieved. Even through the interference, they could make out cheers and clapping in the background. “Confirm you are proceeding to stage two. Good luck!”

“Thanks, control.”

Samoht and Nassah looked at each other, and started laughing quietly.

“Being weightless really feels strange,” Nassah said between chuckles. “I feel a bit light-headed.”

“Me too,” Sam replied, as he reached forward and pressed a button. “Let’s see what the view’s like.”

The windshield covers slid backwards with a low metallic rumble and clunked into their fully retracted position. Both astronauts stared, awe-struck, at the scene revealed to them.

The Real Stars were still a long way above them. From this distance, they appeared to be metallic orbs that glittered brilliantly in various shimmering crescents, depending on the angle of reflection to the sun.

The Pseudo Stars, though, were a revelation. Without the atmosphere dimming them, they were transformed from twinkling clouds to countless millions of pearly iridescent sparks scattered randomly throughout the night sky.

“I never imagined…” Sam whispered.

“There’s so many of them,” Nassah responded in hushed tones.

“There is no way that those are reflections!” Sam said, his voice cracked with emotion.

They looked at each other.

“I don’t feel so confident now,” Nassah admitted. “Something doesn’t feel right.”

“Let’s just be extremely careful up here.”

“Do you think Director Yegob knows more than he told us?” Nassah said abruptly, as a thought popped into his head.

“He did seem very concerned when he came to see us last night. I wonder why he talked to us separately, at home.”

“Yeah,” Nassah said thoughtfully. “I thought that was just the only time he had free, but now – maybe he wanted to make sure no one knew he had spoken with us.”

“He was adamant about approaching the Star very carefully, and from below. He said he wished that he could give me more information.”

“He told me that only one of us should go outside, just in case.”

Sam looked at him, and then nodded.

“Well,” Nassah pressed on, “the question is, do we trust him? He isn’t exactly renowned for following established procedures. Is that good or bad?”

“I’m sure that he wants this mission to be a success, and I know that he has never deliberately misled us, so I say we go with his flight plan.”

“Uh huh,” Nassah said noncommittally, as he stared at the Stars. “No way are those reflections,” he reiterated.

In the control observation room, Garston stood alone in the control observation room. The VIPs had left. They would return in the morning for the final approach and landing, after which the President would meet with the astronauts for a photo opportunity.

The actual mission itself was now entirely in the hands of the astronauts, and there was no visual link. Garston wished he were up there with them. He hoped that they would listen to him, and adopt the new flight plan. He was beginning to think that the conspiracy theory periodical was right about information being deliberately withheld, and, if they were right, there was a real possibility that someone was trying to sabotage the mission. Unfortunately, he had no evidence. Also, his position as project director was only at the discretion of the Science Council, who could replace him at any time without giving a reason. He considered himself lucky to have the job, and, now that he had met Airam, he wanted to keep it. It had been a long time since he had been in a romantic relationship. For the first time he could remember since he had become project director, he found himself really looking forward to the future, beyond the current mission, on a purely personal level.

Moving to the window, he looked out over the mission control room. Only the senior staff remained at the moment; communication was erratic, with the flow of data from the orbiter suffering frequent interruptions.

He selected the channel for medical and spoke to Dr Kops. “Hi, Doc,” he said. “How are the astronauts?”

“They’re very quiet, Director,” came the reply, “having a rest before commencing the critical part of the mission. All readings are nominal, but it’s difficult to be sure of their accuracy because the transfer of data is quite slow, and keeps breaking down as they increase altitude.”

Garston checked the main screen, and then spoke to the flight controller. “It looks like they’ve just about completed an orbit.”

“Yes. The telemetry and tracking stations indicate that’s the case. They should be contacting us again in a few minutes, to confirm that they are commencing the manoeuvres to match orbit with the target star.”

“Good, good,” Garston replied, and concluded lamely, “I’ll remain here and monitor the situation.”

“Very good, Director,” the flight controller answered diplomatically.

Garston looked at Dr Kops, who made a small gesture of resignation. Then he relaxed into his chair and waited patiently.

A sudden loud knocking on the bar doors caused Anaid to leap out of her chair in alarm. In a near-panic, she threw a sheet over the cobbled-together computer and waited for Draw to answer the knock.

After a tense couple of seconds which seemed more like hours, she heard voices and then a laugh that could only be Treb. She relaxed and walked out of the back room in time to see Draw closing and locking the doors. Treb and Nair went straight to the bar, obviously in high spirits.

“It’s bloody hot out there!” Treb announced, as Anaid went behind the bar and took down four glasses.

“Yes,” Nair confirmed, wiping his brow on his forearm. “It’s the kind of weather that makes you wish you were in a nice cool bar, with a cold beer in front of you.” He winked at Anaid as she placed his drink in front of him, condensation forming small droplets on the outside of the glass.

“I hope we’re wrong,” Treb said more seriously as he sipped his beer. “That was a magnificent take-off. I’ve never seen anything that big and powerful before. Those astronauts really are brave.”

“Did our friend accomplish her task?” Nair asked.

“She certainly did,” Draw told him. “Ana’s been very busy since then. I’m hoping to watch her in action later on.”

“Sounds good to me,” Treb said with a grin. “Is it a private show, or can anyone join in?”

“Well, I’m sure we can arrange a special viewing for an old pervert like you,” Anaid joked, smiling broadly. “Actually, I was hoping you’d get back – I could do with some assistance with the search. We don’t want to set off any traps now, do we?”

Nair looked concerned. “Do you really think they might have set some?” he enquired nervously.

“That’s what Treb and I are going to find out,” Anaid said. “I’ve loaded a trawler program, which is running now as a precaution, but we need to get on with it.”

“Of course,” Treb acknowledged. He gulped down the remainder of his beer. “I’ll just freshen up, and then I’ll be ready for you.”

He headed for the bathroom while the other three took their drinks into the back room. As they went, Draw started asking Nair about the launch.

Although the equatorial auroras were seasonal, and the flight had been timed to coincide with the lowest levels of activity, the astronauts were well aware that they could encounter some during their mission. The original the flight plan had been to approach the Star to be collected from above, maintaining a normal position relative to the ground. The new plan, however, involved turning the orbiter upside down. Whilst this didn’t present a problem in terms of weight distribution (as Sam had observed, “If you’re weightless, it doesn’t matter whether you’re upside down or sideways.”), it did present navigational problems, in particular detecting aurora. In order to minimize the risk, the two astronauts had decided to approach the Star carefully, right way up, and then go upside down as close as possible to the Star.

They had completed one orbit of their world, and were amazed at the detail they could discern. Patterns of cloud, reflections from water, green, brown, and yellow areas of ground and the spectacular, dazzling iridescence of the polar ice caps lay spread out before their eager gaze. It was difficult to concentrate on the mission.

Now they were in a higher orbit than originally, and needed to climb even higher to obtain their mission objective. Sam was piloting very carefully, making minute adjustments, while Nassah reported back to mission control. “We can see the target star. It’s definitely a metallic orb. I can’t see any markings from this distance.”

“Okay. Pr(fizz)eed with c(crackle)tion,” came the reply, distorted and crackly.

“We’re getting heavy static interference up here, increasing with altitude.”

“(Fizz) (crackle) ere too.”

“Shit!” Nassah spat as he turned to Sam, “We’ve lost contact. Nobody’s been this high before. Maybe – well…” he stopped for a second, and shrugged his shoulders. “I just don’t know.”

“Let’s proceed as planned, and keep a close eye on all the instruments.”

With an air of trepidation creeping over them, the two astronauts continued with their mission.

Supreme Administrator Garvin relaxed in his chair. He crossed his legs, rested his elbows on the armrests and interlaced his fingers over his chest. Finally, he looked at Kram, who was sitting patiently on the other side of the desk, and stated, “We’ve lost communication, then.”

“Yes sir,” Kram answered. “Director Garston is very upset.” A small smile played around the corners of his mouth as he continued, “He’s ordered complete systems checks. The President has been informed, and is pressuring Garston quite heavily. So far the press have been kept out of the way.”

“Excellent.” Garvin beamed at Kram, and moved his arms about expansively. “It appears that radio communications break down at extremely high altitudes. We know there is a limited range along the ground, due to the breakdown of the signal as it travels through the air. Despite the Scientific Council’s official experimental results showing that radio waves can travel in a vacuum, it appears that they can’t. We completely lost contact with the two high-orbit unmanned missions. For all we know, they could still be up there.” He sat up straight, as a sudden thought occurred to him. “It would be such a shame if the orbiter collided with one of the unmanned probes.” Relaxing back into in his chair, he laced his fingers again and shut his eyes, as if imagining the scene. “I take it you’ve carried out your instructions,” he said to Kram, without opening his eyes.

“Yes sir, exactly as you instructed.”

Garvin opened one eye and regarded Kram sideways. “You really are an excellent man. I’m sure you’ll enjoy phase three.”

Kram allowed himself a small smile. “I’m sure we both will, Supreme Administrator.”

“You could have had a great career as a spy, a hundred years ago,” Draw whispered in Anaid’s ear, as she pressed keys on the keyboard and checked the screen in front of her.

“Thanks,” she murmured distractedly, tracing a line of code on the screen with her finger. “Where’s Treb? I don’t quite understand this code.” She swivelled around in her chair just as he entered, looking refreshed. “Ah, there you are,” she said.

Treb stopped, pointing to himself in mock surprise. “Who, me?”

“Yes you, you big pervert. Come and help me with this.” She indicated the screen.

Treb winked at Draw as he sat on the chair, flexed his fingers, and started began checking the screen against Anaid’s neatly written notes.

Draw went back and sat with Nair. As Treb and Anaid conversed in low voices, Nair passed a lit joint to him. He took a long drag before placing it back in the ashtray and settling into his chair.

“That launch was something else, man,” Nair said dreamily. “I mean, the noise of the engines, and it was so big! And it flew like a bird; a huge white bird with blue flames shooting out of its arse!” He started giggling. “Man. That was something to see.”

Draw just sat staring at Anaid and Treb, his thoughts drifting up to the two brave men circling high above them in a flying tin can. He could almost feel the thoughts of millions of people rising with his, urging them onwards and upwards and, willing them a successful mission, and a safe return.

The Real Star was the largest object in their field of vision. Beyond it, they could see shadowy rocks moving slowly, tumbling this way and that. Further away (but definitely not reflections) were the Pseudo Stars, filling the void with sparks of light. There were so many of them that in some areas they formed a milky haze.

Both astronauts were intent on their task, inching ever closer to the Real Star.

“You know, something strange has just occurred to me,” Nassah said. “How did they know the size of the Star?”

“Sorry?” Sam responded distractedly.

“Well, I thought that they couldn’t make accurate measurements of their size from the ground.”

“Yeah. So?” Sam replied, still concentrating hard on piloting the spaceship.

“So, how did they know how big to make this spaceship, so it could collect a Star?”

“Well…” Sam brought the craft to a complete stop in relation to the Star. “They must have taken readings from the unmanned probes.”

“Oh. Yeah. I suppose that must be it,” Nassah replied, then added, “I wonder why they didn’t include a scientist on the mission?”

“Probably they thought that the top pilots would do a better job. If the mission is a success, they’ll be able to send scientists up later. Assuming they need to, after studying this Star. Anyway, how many scientists do you know who are fit enough?”

“Yeah,” Nassah chuckled, “you’re right there.” He flicked the radio transmit switch. “Final orbit achieved. We are now at an altitude of twenty-two thousand two hundred and fifty three miles. Please confirm.”

The only reply was a wash of static.

Sam was watching a space rock thoughtfully. “Director Yegob was right about the space rocks, though. I wonder if any of them have ever crashed into the planet. Some of them are quite close, you know.”

“You don’t think any of them will hit us, do you?” Nassah sounded worried.

“No. Of course not. None of the Stars have been hit, have they?”

“Well, I don’t think so, but how can we tell?”

“Look,” Sam said angrily. “If we carry on like this, we’ll start convincing ourselves that the conspiracy theories are true! Let’s just get on with the mission. Let the scientists worry about all this stuff when we’re safely on the ground.”

“Yeah, you’re right. We need to concentrate fully on this if we’re going to succeed.”

“Exactly.” Sam stretched his arms. “This weightlessness is strange. I still feel a bit light-headed.”

“Maybe it’s some weird effect of being in space and not just…” Nassah let his voice trail off, and then shook his head. “More speculation! Let’s concentrate on the mission.”

“Right,” Sam said decisively. “We’re in a stationary position relative to the Star. It’s time to turn over. Are you ready?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Nassah replied with a weak smile. “Let’s do it.”

“Commencing 180-degree roll to starboard now,” Sam announced calmly, as he gently manipulated the controls.

The Star slid sideways out of view. In its place came the planet; first a curve of aquamarine light, then more and more, until the globe blotted out the endless panorama of space with its own majestic celebration of life.

“It’s beautiful,” Sam sighed as he gazed out at the planet, enjoying the ultimate bird’s-eye view. The central continent was clearly visible. Colours ranging through brown, yellow, green and blue defined the rivers, lakes, mountains and plains in a way that no atlas or globe could even approximate. The oceans were a deep aquamarine. Viridian swirls of cloud drifted in strange patterns, shadows clearly visible on the surface beneath them. Towards the edge of their field of vision, a cyclone swirled tightly. Occasionally, flashes of lightning could be seen stalking through it. “Is this really all there is?” He wondered aloud. “One planet floating in a void, surrounded by a ring of stars and a load of floating rocks?”

“Look,” Nassah responded, exasperation evident in his voice. “This is getting very close to the chicken and the egg question, or religion. We’re not philosophers, and we have a job to do. I don’t know about you, but I just want to complete our mission and get back to my family safely. We can ponder imponderables all we like once we’re safely on the ground, all right?”

Sam nodded slightly, then said in reluctant agreement, “Right.” He checked the instrument panel and continued, “It’s time for you to suit up, my friend. I can’t get us any closer without you outside, to guide the Star into the capture bay.”

Nassah took a deep breath, then said “Okay” and undid his harness. Moving with exaggerated carefulness, he let himself drift slowly up over the back of the seat, taking care to avoid knocking into anything. He put on his helmet, and checked that it was securely locked in position. “Can you hear me all right?” he said into the confines of the helmet.

“Loud and clear,” came the reply, sounding slightly distorted through the small speaker next to his right ear.

Nassah nodded briefly, realised that Sam couldn’t see him, and said, “Right then. I’m moving into the airlock now.”

Sam watched his instruments. The gauge for the airlock cycled, showing it emptying. Then the hatch indicator changed to red. Nassah was now in the vacuum of Sspace. The only noise was Nassah’s breathing, which sounded quite laboured through his headphones. All Sam could do now was wait until his partner signalled that he was correctly positioned on the outside of the spaceship.

Garston paused on his way from the control centre to his quarters. He was troubled by the loss of communication with the astronauts, but it wasn’t entirely unexpected. It had happened during some of the unmanned missions. He had reviewed the reports and spoken to various experts in the field, who offered differing theories and solutions. The most prevalent theory was that radio signals needed an atmosphere to work. Although the range along the ground was greater than the distance to the spacecraft, the thinning atmosphere caused the signal to degrade as the altitude increased. Unfortunately, recent experiments had shown that radio waves travelled easily through a vacuum. Proponents of the theory were hotly disputing the findings, but the Scientific Council had ruled that the experiments were valid.

They had the highest-rated signal they could achieve, being broadcast in the narrowest possible bandwidth, but this also introduced problems of accuracy. If the signal were just a few yards out, the astronauts would not be able to pick it up. The astronauts had been informed that this might happen, but the importance and possible impact on the mission had been played down.

The base was very quiet. A few lights were on in the buildings around him, but the tarmac marshalling area he was walking across remained quite dark.

Looking up, he saw that the sky was absolutely clear. The Stars shone brightly, with the Pseudo Stars twinkling gently beyond. Garston sat down, still looking up, then lay back on the hard surface and put his hands behind his head. He let his thoughts wander, as his body enjoyed the cool stillness of the air, and his eyes drank in the sky.

It had been a long day. He was very troubled by a feeling that things were not as they seemed. Some of the information he had been given in reports seemed strangely lacking facts, containing a lot of speculation and relying on current scientific theories, with little or no physical evidence. It occurred to him that the recent increase in interest concerning the conspiracy theories, and the periodical that appeared at random might have some relevance, but he quickly put these thoughts to the back of his mind. They were pushing the boundaries, and he had to admit that the hardware was functioning perfectly. The mystery illness of the astronauts didn’t seem to have affected their performance. He knew that Dr Kops was angry about the way Garvin had overridden him and summarily dismissed his concerns. The doctor assured him that the quarantine area was now secured until after the mission, when a thorough examination of the entire area would be carried out. A smile flickered on Garston’s lips, as he realised that the quarantine area had itself been quarantined!

“How much memory does that say?” Treb couldn’t believe his eyes. “That’s impossible!”

“I knew it!” Anaid exclaimed. She, placed her hands against the edge of the desk and angrily launched pushed herself away from the monitor. The casters on her chair squeaked as she came to a halt a few feet away.

Turning to look at Draw, she announced, “This is going to take a lot longer than we anticipated. The amount of data stored in the mainframe is unbelievable.” She ran her fingers through her hair with an exasperated gesture, before leaning back to stare disconsolately at the ceiling.

Nair struggled up from a deep slump into a sitting position. He seemed to have trouble focussing his eyes for a moment, and coughed heavily. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he reached out, picked up a glass of water and drained it. “Wassup, man?” he enquired, wiping the moisture from his lips. The printer in the corner startled him as it clattered into life without warning. He coughed feebly.

Treb swivelled his chair around to face him. “We need to check the data I’m printing before we can proceed. Plus, I don’t want to stay logged on for too long, in case we get noticed.”

Nair was staring at the printer as it churned out pages of graphs, charts and lists. Anaid had finished staring at the ceiling, and now watched Nair thoughtfully. Draw came over and began massaging her shoulders.

“Mmm. That’s nice,” she murmured, a satisfied smile playing on her lips. The printer stopped chattering, having produced a pile of paper at least two inches thick.

“Well,” Treb announced into the silence, “I say we go to bed, and get a fresh start in the morning.” He got up as he spoke and walked over to Nair who, having collapsed sideways on to the couch, was fast asleep and snoring gently.

“Come on,” Anaid said to Draw, as she lovingly placed her hand over his to reluctantly stop the massage. “It’s time for bed.”

“What about him?” Draw asked, indicating Nair.

“Ah, just leave him there,” Treb growled. “Stupid puff-head. Anyway, I’ll sleep better on my own.” He walked over to the computer and turned it off, replacing the cover over both it and the printer. Draw and Anaid ambled out hand in hand. Treb went over to Nair and made sure he was comfortable. After kissing him gently on the forehead, he straightened up, walked over to the door, and turned off the light. As he left the room, he muttered gently to himself. “Stupid puff- head.”

Neon light bathed the interior of the airlock with a soft blue-tinged glow. Nass floated patiently, fingertips brushing the wall, as he watched the instrument panel. He could feel the pressure changing, making his space suit become tighter and stiffer. He flexed his fingers and moved his arm experimentally. The technician had been right; it was easier to move than it had been in the water tank.

He pressed the button to release the outer airlock door. No sound came to him from outside the suit. His breathing filled the confined environment of his helmet with a muted roar. Looking down, he saw that the outer door had fully retracted. He eased himself towards the opening, stopping himself by grabbing the handle just inside the airlock. Feeling strangely exposed with the lower half of his body outside the ship, he clipped his safety line to the handle and allowed himself to drift further out, until only his hand remained inside the airlock.

The hull of the ship gleamed brilliantly, starlight reflecting brightly in the shadows. He floated there for a few moments, just staring wide-eyed at the vastness surrounding him. About one hundred yards away, the Star hung gracefully in its orbit: a silvery orb, surrounded by a faint blue haze. It was enticingly close. He wondered about the shimmering haze, which seemed to stretch out into a thin layer, linking the Stars.

Looking backwards, along the underneath of the orbiter, he saw the outline of the cargo bay doors, into which he would soon be manoeuvring the Star. Rotating slowly, he studied the nose of the ship as it curved away from him to form a stubby point. A flash in the distance caught his eye, and he watched as a small circular aurora spread out. From up here, he could clearly see that it followed the curve of the blue haze, which seemed to encircle the entire planet.

“Sam,” he said into his helmet. The voice activated microphone obviously worked, because he got an immediate reply.

“Here, Nass.” Sam’s voice whispered in his ear, crackly with interference. “How’re you doing?”

“Did you see that aurora just now?”

“I did. It was a long way off, though. I don’t think we’re in any danger here.”

“Yeah,” Nass answered noncommittally. His breathing still seemed very loud inside the helmet. He wondered if Sam could hear it over the radio. “I’m moving fully outside now, preparing for the capture procedure.”

“Right,” Sam’s voice crackled in his ear. “Let me know when you’re in position.”

Nass manoeuvred himself out of the airlock. Once outside, he experimentally released a puff of compressed air from one of the many valves arranged about the space suit. He immediately began drifting in the opposite direction. Using further tiny puffs, he managed to aim himself along the hull of the ship, gliding gently forwards until he was adjacent to the cargo bay door. Pressing a small panel in the hull released two grab handles, which he quickly grasped to steady himself. Then he awkwardly manoeuvred himself around until he could slot his feet into them. Cautiously, he straightened up, until he was standing upright on the hull.

Looking towards the tail of the orbiter, he could just see the edge of the world. A faint sickly sweet aroma drifted into his nostrils, and he caught his breath for a second, his body tensed as if ready to flee. Surely the only smell would be from his body, and he certainly didn’t smell of rose petals at the moment. He realised that he was holding his breath, and let out a long sigh, attempting to calm himself. Gradually, his heart stopped pounding in his ears, and his breathing recovered enough for him to speak. “Sam.”

“Here, Nass.” He could just make out the concern in Sam’s voice through the crackling interference. “What happened?”

“Not sure. Just got spooked, I guess,” Nass replied, his confidence returning. “It’s mighty strange standing out here, you know!”

“Are you in position?”

“Yes.” Nass took a deep breath, testing the air. It smelt normal now. “Yeah, yeah,” he continued with a sense of urgency. “I'm ready to go. Just not too fast, okay? I don't want to fall off.”

“How can you fall anywhere, if there's no gravity?” Before Nass could reply, Sam chuckled and added, “Hold on tight now, ’cos here I go.”

Nass felt the ship kick under him, followed by a sensation of weight returning. He relaxed his knees slightly, and gazed up at the Star as it crept slowly closer.

Airam lay on her bed in the darkness. Occasional noises drifted into her ears: snatches of conversation, a door opening and closing, subdued giggling from the room next door. She was worried. Never before had she acted in such an underhand and sneaky fashion. Doubts about the true intentions of Draw and his friends inveigled her mind. They were obviously involved with the people who published the conspiracy periodical, and she wondered if she would now be considered part of a threat to the Establishment. Their comments about people disappearing had festered in her subconscious and now resurfaced, engendering a sensation of paranoia.

Every small sound brought with it the possibility of approaching danger. She imagined policemen stealthily gathering outside her door, ready to arrest her and drag her off to an interrogation room. She knew that crimes against the government were treated differently from social crimes. There were no courts or judges for crimes against the government, no innocent until proven guilty, just closed hearings, incarceration, and even the death penalty – the only time it could be invoked except for premeditated murder. She supposed it dated back to the old days, when spying on other countries was rife. The penalty for betraying your country had always been death. Thinking of death reminded her of her conflicting thoughts about the mission. She hoped that it would be successful, but was convinced that it would go tragically wrong.

Her stomach cramped uncomfortably, so she rolled onto her side. The only noise now was the sighing of the wind, as a small breeze gently stirred the net curtains hanging in front of the open window of her room. Her thoughts turned sleepily towards Garston and, without realising it, she fell asleep with a smile on her lips and a pleasant comforting warmth in her stomach.

Garston had been lying on his back, staring up at the sky, for nearly an hour now. He was beginning to feel a chill, and decided to get up and go inside. The knowledge that the astronauts were up there right now, attempting to capture the Star, vexed him. Raising himself slowly to his feet, he waved his arms around to loosen them up. Looking up at the night sky again, he decided to go over to the telescopic observation facility. Stifling a yawn, he walked towards the shadowy building set apart from the main buildings. He could catch up with his sleep after the mission.

Nass was fighting a rising sense of panic. He felt strange, slightly detached, and full of a sense of doom. Forcing himself to concentrate, he realised that they were only a few yards from the Star. “Sam, hold it here,” he said into the helmet’s microphone. A burst of static filled the helmet, causing him to flinch nervously.

“Sam, stop here. Hold position!” he shouted.

Another burst of static, through which he could barely make out Sam’s voice, was his only answer. With a surge of relief, he noticed small jets of gas erupting from various points along the hull, and felt his feet straining against the hoops.

“This is stupid,” he muttered to himself as he considered his position. The only way he could see of capturing the Star would be for him to launch himself up and manhandle it into the cargo bay. The original plan of moving the orbiter over the Star was not an option, due to the severe interference. Sam would never be able to understand his instructions. He continued looking around as he speculated, and was surprised to see movement beyond the Star. It was quite a distance away. A large shadow, which he assumed was a space rock, rolled serenely across the background of Pseudo Stars, obscuring them momentarily as it passed.

Nass began to sweat, despite the cool air circulating through his space suit. Without thinking, he raised a hand to wipe his brow. The metal ring attaching his glove to his sleeve clunked against the faceplate of his helmet, making him jump. Static crackled in his ears, echoing unnervingly inside the helmet. Sam was trying to call him. He felt light-headed, and his concentration wavered uncertainly. The feeling was vaguely familiar. He tried to recall the last time he had experienced it. Another burst of static made him raise his hands, as if to block his ears.

“Stop it! Stop it!” he cried into his helmet. His only reply was another burst of static, followed by a silence in which the sound of his hoarse breathing was deafening. He began using the controlled breathing technique he had learned during the simulations. Suddenly, he remembered this was how he had felt in the quarantine area, just before he passed out. Realising he had to get back inside, he slipped his feet out of the hoops and started pulling himself hand over hand, back to the airlock along the safety line. He started to turn over and kicked out, his foot catching the side of the orbiter, and launching which launched him into space. Gripping the safety line as tightly as he could through the stiff gloves, he managed to stop himself a few yards away from the ship, still breathing heavily. His left foot hit something hard. Looking towards his feet, he saw his foot had bumped into the Star.

Curiosity supplanted the panic. Using the gas jets, he manoeuvred himself around until he was inches away from the shiny metallic surface that shimmered enticingly, surrounded by a halo of blue light. He could see his face dimly reflected in the tinted visor of his helmet. As he tried to look through it, the reflection seemed to wink at him. He caught his breath momentarily, and stared harder. A very faint sequence of lights had begun flashing on the surface of the Star.

Suddenly another burst of static crackled in his helmet. He jumped in surprise and his hand bumped against the Star, causing him to drift away. Another small burst from the manoeuvring jets stopped the drift. He was about to head back to the ship when he noticed a faint blue groove running around the equator of the Star. Stretching his arm out, he managed to get a finger hold on it, obtaining enough purchase to bring his head level with the groove. The groove emitted a thin beam of bright blue light that formed a line on his faceplate. It didn’t seem to be harmful, so he pulled himself up a bit more, intending to look at the top of the Star. Instead, he stopped in his tracks, unable to unlock his gaze from the endless panorama of deep space.

Everything was crystal clear. The sky was more intensely black than he had ever seen, and the Pseudo Stars were revealed as bright dots of fire. Dark, shadowy shapes tumbled majestically between him and the Pseudo Stars.

After a few moments of awed contemplation, he began thinking again. Forcing himself to look down, he noticed a ring of bright blue light around his midriff, where the light from the Star hit it. The light seemed to extend out towards the other Real Stars. Everything below it was dulled, and slightly blurred. He could see the ship, but it was difficult to make out much detail. The Star seemed to be creating a kind of barrier, blocking some of the light. Looking down through it gave everything a blue-green tint.

He stared up at the jewelled magnificence of the universe once again, unable to really comprehend what he was seeing. His brain felt numb, and his nose was starting to itch. Absentmindedly, he went to scratch it, and his hand bumped against the faceplate of his helmet. The shock brought him back to himself, and he began moving carefully along the safety line, hand over hand, towards the ship. The instant his head was back beneath the level of the light from the Star, his helmet speakers spat out an extended burst of static.

After the complete silence of the last few minutes, the sudden noise made him flinch inside his suit, and he lost his grip on the safety line. As he flailed around trying to grab it again, his left leg cramped up. Instinctively he bent double, trying to massage his leg through the suit. He was sweating profusely despite the air conditioning of the suit, a few drops floating in front of his eyes. His nose started to itch again, and he began screwing his face up. Flashing lights appeared before his eyes. One of the droplets of sweat collided with his left eye, making it sting. Blinking furiously, he tried to calm himself down. Suddenly, his right leg seemed to catch fire, sending searing pain up his right side. He gasped, just as another burst of static sent his heartbeat into the stratosphere. He took a deep, struggling breath, inadvertently swallowing some of the droplets of sweat, which caught at the back of his throat and caused him to cough. His stomach gave a massive heave. Before he realised what was happening, he had vomited into his helmet. The stench was overwhelming; he couldn’t keep his eyes open, and every breath sucked in pieces of the foul spew.

Red and silver sparks flashed inside his head as he gasped and choked. Another burst of static panicked him further. Extreme claustrophobia took away the last of his reason. He lifted his hands to his head and managed to find the release for the helmet. A click and turn was all it took. The helmet shot out of his hands, and he was propelled away from the Star by the explosive release of his air supply. Nassah was dead before the safety line brought him to an abrupt halt.

“Nass, Nass! Answer me, dammit!” Sam shouted into the radio mike. He checked the instruments again. They were still all virtually useless. “Nass!” He shouted again. “What’s happening out there?”

He leant forward. All he could see out of the windshield was the curve of the globe. His instincts told him they were moving slightly, but whether it was up, down or sideways he couldn’t tell. The static from the radio was steady now, with not even the slightest change to indicate that Nass was answering his calls.

He decided that his only option was to suit up and go outside, to see what was going on. Undoing his seat belts, he floated awkwardly over the back of his chair. Pulling his helmet on, he started the airlock cycle. As soon as it was clear, he wrenched open the inner door and pulled himself down. Nass’s safety line was still attached to the inner handle. Sam saw with a shock of desperation that, by starting the airlock cycle, he had caused the outer door to close, which had severed the line. While he waited for the cycle to complete, he wondered why Nassah hadn’t connected the line to the outside of the orbiter.

After what seemed like an eternity, the cycle completed and the outer door slid back into the hull. Attaching his safety line next to what remained of Nassah’s, he allowed himself to float out of the airlock. Holding tight to the line, he stopped just outside the ship and looked around. Immediately, he saw that the orbiter was dangerously close to the Star. There was no sign of Nass.

A sweet smell drifted into his nostrils, reminding him of something unpleasant. Wondering vaguely where the smell was coming from, he looked towards the nose of the ship and saw Nass floating quite a distance away, a trail of debris orbiting him. It took him a few seconds to realise the helmet was missing. With a shock, Sam understood Nass had to be dead.

A glance at the Star sent him scuttling back into the airlock, his heart hammering in his chest, and his breath very loud inside the helmet. Again the sweet smell insinuated itself into his nostrils, bringing with it a tremor of fear.

He thought he would go mad waiting for the cycle to complete. A feeling of extreme claustrophobia overtook him and little silver flashes began appearing before his eyes. By the time the outer door closed and the airlock had filled with air, Sam was on the edge of panic, his heartbeat racing. Almost ripping his helmet off, he took deep breaths of the somehow different-smelling atmosphere of the ship. He forced his way back into the main cabin, not stopping to close the inner hatch. As quickly as possible, he manhandled himself back into the pilot’s seat.

As his hand reached for the controls, there was a resounding clang from somewhere behind him. The orbiter lurched sideways alarmingly. He grabbed at the controls and tried to get the ship away from the Star. A quick glance told him the instruments were still malfunctioning, so he had to rely on his instincts, and the view out of the cockpit windows. Gently he eased the controls, trying to turn the ship over. The Stars moved slowly across his field of vision. Then he was nearly thrown out of his seat, as one of the orbiter’s wings collided with the Star. A blue flash lit the cockpit momentarily, but he was too busy trying to stop the ship from tumbling to pay any attention to it.

The sensations of movement gradually diminished. Sam looked out of the windshield again, hoping to see the Stars stationary. They were, but there was something wrong with them. The sky was jet black, and the Stars shone brightly, like multi-coloured jewels on a black velvet background. Tumbling menacingly in the foreground was a multitudinous array of irregularly shaped rocks. The sheer majesty and sense of vast distance took his breath away. He sat absolutely still for a couple of minutes, hardly even breathing. Nass had been right; there was no way that the Pseudo Stars were reflections.

Thinking of Nassah brought him back to reality, and he automatically looked at his instruments. To his surprise, most of them appeared to be functioning again. Gently playing the controls like a delicate musical instrument, he rolled the ship over until he could see the planet below. Between him and the planet was the Star, glowing faintly blue-green. Still considering his next move, Sam moved the ship until it was parallel to the equator. The double ring of Real Stars extended in a curve around the edge of the planet. He perceived a faint green shimmering haze that seemed to connect the Stars, extending in a curve around the poles and completely encircling the planet.

Sam was at a loss. He tried the radio. There was no reply, although the static interference seemed to have given way to a background hiss. He checked the instruments again. His air supply was fine, and there was enough fuel for re-entry, but not a lot to spare. Some of the warning lights were on, indicating that the wing and hull had been damaged in the collision with the Star. Sam suddenly felt more alone and isolated than he would have believed possible.

Garston reached the telescopic observation facility. The security guard stifled a yawn as he greeted him. Garston made his way past the empty Administration offices and stepped into the lift, hoping that Airam would be there. When the door slid open on arrival at the second floor he noted with a pang of disappointment that there was only one technician on duty, a young man named Ynot. “Evening, Ynot,” he said, forcing a friendly tone as the young man turned to meet him.

“Hello, Sir, Sir,” Ynot replied. “The security guard just called to tell me you were on the way up. What can I do for you?”

“I couldn’t sleep,” Garston informed him matter-of-factly. “I thought I’d come and see what’s going on.”

“Not much,” Ynot answered. “I’m just monitoring things at the moment.” He indicated the screens in front of him. “We still have no radio contact with the orbiter. I’ve been able to locate it on the main telescope, but I can’t tell what’s happening.”

“Mind if I take a look?” Garston enquired.

“Help yourself.” Ynot gestured towards the door opposite the lift. “Would you like some coffee?”

Garston nodded. “Bring it through for me, would you?”

“Of course, sir, Sir,” the technician replied, and Garston went through into the telescopic observation room. Once inside, he took the seat adjacent to the telescope. Bending over to look through the angled eyepiece, he was able to see the Star, and the orbiter sitting below it. The usual blue-green distortion made it hard to make out any detail, but he could tell the orbiter was upside-down. He hoped he’d done the right thing in telling the astronauts to alter their flight plan.

Ynot returned with the coffee and took a seat against the wall, next to a monitor that showed what the telescope focussed on. Even with computerised enhancement, there was not much detail.

“Do you think they’ll be successful?” Ynot asked quietly.

Garston straightened up and turned to look at him. “I just hope they get back safely,” he replied wearily.

“I was talking with Airam earlier,” Ynot said reflectively. “She’s getting a reputation as a doom merchant, but I think she might be on to something. I’ve checked her research, and there’s a good possibility that she’s right. It is a bit like something out of the conspiracy periodical though.”

Garston sipped his coffee thoughtfully. He felt he was moving onto dangerous ground with this, and Garvin’s presence on the base was making him paranoid.

“She has spoken to you about this, hasn’t she?” Ynot asked apprehensively. “I mean, I heard the rumours, but as far as I know, I’m the only person here that she’s mentioned it to. I told her to speak to you about it, but she said Administrator Kram wouldn’t let her get near you.”

“It’s okay, Ynot,” Garston said reassuringly. “We had lunch together, and she told me about the possible danger from space rocks. I just hope that they don’t get hit by one.”

“It’s her theory about the Real Stars that worries me most,” Ynot replied earnestly. “If she’s right about that, they won’t be able to capture the Star, and may well die in the attempt!”

Garston had opened his mouth to reply when a sudden movement on the screen distracted him. “It’s moving!” he exclaimed, turning to look through the eyepiece again.

The orbiter was turning slowly, and the distortion seemed to increase.

“What’s going on up there?” he muttered. Turning from the telescope, he got up and walked over to study the monitor with Ynot. As they watched, the orbiter seemed to merge briefly with the Star. There was a bright green flash, and the orbiter almost disappeared from view. They could see a faint shadow of it. It appeared to have gone behind the Star.

Ynot stared at the monitor in disbelief. “Wh . . . what just happened?” he stuttered in astonishment, reaching forward to adjust the display.

“I think they’ve hit the Star,” Garston replied seriously. “I’m going to have to report this to the Supreme Administrator,” he concluded, half to himself.

Ynot was still adjusting the screen.

“Ynot, you keep monitoring,” Garston started. “Maybe, well….” He trailed off. Maybe, he thought, maybe they just went behind it. Maybe they know what they’re doing. Maybe, maybe, maybe. What can I do anyway? What can anyone do, except wait for them to come back? He glanced wearily at his watch. There was still enough time for him to get a few hours’ sleep. Suddenly, he felt extremely tired. “Ynot.”

“Yes, Sir?” Ynot replied, turning away from the monitor.

“I think we need to wait and see what happens next. Probably there’s some good reason for this manoeuvre, which we’ll find out when they return safely.” That’s it, he thought to himself; I’m just tired.

“Yes, Sir,” Ynot repeated respectfully. “I agree. There’s not a lot we can do from down here anyway, is there, Sir?”

“No, not a thing,” Garston replied quietly. “Well, I’m off to bed.”

“Good night, sir, Sir.”

Garston shambled out, thinking only of his bed, and the need to make sure he set his alarm for six-thirty a.m.

Sam was feeling a bit calmer. He had drunk some water, and eaten another of the food packs. As his body absorbed the nutrients, he sat in the pilot’s seat and began thinking about his situation logically. Through the windshield he could see the Real Stars, spaced evenly out to either side in a double arc encircling the planet. The small portion of space he could see was too dark, the Pseudo Stars too bright. They distracted him. With an effort, he dragged his eyes away to check his instruments.

“Maybe you should check for damage?” he thought to himself.

No, he decided. He wouldn’t be able to fix it, and now suspected that whatever had caused their illness in the quarantine chamber was present in the space suit air supply. A flash of light in his peripheral vision made him look up again. An aurora was dissipating about halfway to the horizon. As he watched, a smaller one appeared almost on top of it. It looked different from above, reminding him of ripples on a pond.

“Yes,” he thought. “It’s a shield, to stop the – to stop the …” He paused for a second, feeling a bit strange, as if he was talking to himself in a language he wasn’t sure of. Shaking his head in an attempt to clear it, he looked back at his instruments, trying to recover his train of thought. Instead, he found himself trying to list the things he knew about space: No atmosphere. The Real Stars, the Pseudo Stars, the Sun, space rocks, possibly.

“Space rocks, that’s it!” he thought to himself triumphantly. “The shimmering is a shield, to protect the planet from space rocks!” He felt like punching the air in elation. A quick thrill of fear went through him. Maybe the contaminant in the space suit had been enough to make him hallucinate. He thought of Garston, and his veiled warnings. How much had he known?

“Garston Yegob,” the thought rose unbidden into his brain, “How much do you know about him?”

Again he experienced a strange sensation, this time of duality, as if he was having a conversation with someone else inside his head. Was he going crazy up here all alone? He tried to relax again, and checked the instruments once more, but his thoughts turned inexorably to Garston. He seemed like a nice, reliable, trustworthy person. Although not known for making waves, he had a reputation as a freethinker who didn’t always agree with the Science Council’s conclusions and theories. Then there were the rumours of his conversation with the girl from telescopic observations, about space rocks, allegedly.

“Aha!” he congratulated himself. “Now we’re getting somewhere. I must get back and show him the space suit. He’ll make a good starting point.” Feeling much better about his situation, Sam looked back out of the windscreen. He gazed dreamily at the flickering luminescence of the shield. A small space rock drifted into it a few miles away, and the shield flared briefly as the rock was vaporised. A sudden, shocking thought made his heart start to thud in his chest. If the shield was there to vaporise space rocks, what would stop it from vaporising him too, if he tried to go back through! He stared out of the windshield, vaguely aware of his reflection.

“How to proceed?” he thought. “Very carefully, I should say.” Yes, very carefully. Maybe the shield was activated by velocity. If he went through very slowly and steadily, it wouldn’t react to him.

“Very good,” he thought with a congratulatory thrill of satisfaction. “I think that will work perfectly. It has to be very slow, though. Probably less than . . .”

He hesitated again, trying to think of an appropriate measurement. One yard per second perhaps? Trying to estimate the speed, he raised his arm and dropped it at approximately a yard a second.

“Oh, no,” he thought. “That’s much too fast. I should say, oh, about one-tenth of a yard per second.”

Yes, he could do that. And afterwards it was just a question of getting into the right flight path for the re-entry. And hope that the ship held together. Feeling unaccountably optimistic, he began preparing for the manoeuvre.

Garston had fallen into an uneasy sleep. He was dreaming about space rocks, except some of them were babies. It was just becoming nightmarish when the telephone, which his job required to be beside his bed, jangled into life with a discordant ringing.

He almost leapt rigidly out of bed before he properly came to. His heart hammered against his chest as he reached for the phone. “Garston,” he announced forcefully into the mouthpiece.

Ynot’s voice was at the other end. “I’m sorry to wake you, sir, Sir, but the orbiter is moving.”

Garston thought for a second before answering. “I’m on my way.” He put the phone down and checked his watch. It was six-fifteen, early dawn. The sun would be fully up in half an hour. Pausing to turn off his alarm clock, he hurriedly splashed cold water over his face and neck, jumped into his clothes, and marched out.

After examining his position from every angle, Sam had decided on the following course of action: First, due to the unreliability of his instruments in close proximity to the Star, he would manoeuvre away from the planet, come to a complete stop about one hundred yards from the Star, and begin his approach from there. As long as his speed remained constant at one tenth of a yard per second, he would be fine. He estimated it would take slightly less than twenty minutes to accomplish safe passage through the shield.

Having completed the initial manoeuvring, he was now holding the orbiter stationary. To his relief, the instruments all appeared to be functioning adequately. He eased the controls gently, keeping as steady as possible. The instruments confirmed his velocity as one-tenth of a yard per second. He had decided to penetrate the barrier nose-first, so that he would be able to gauge the speed of the approach, in case the instruments were malfunctioning. With a mounting sense of trepidation, Sam sat alone in the cockpit and waited.

“He appears to be travelling in an arc behind the Star. It’s difficult to tell exactly. Once he went behind the Star, we lost all definition,” Ynot explained to Garston, indicating the screens in front of him.

Garston looked at the computer-enhanced images. The orbiter was a lighter green blob against the dark green of space. It was obviously in space, as opposed to just in orbit. Space must begin at the Stars.

All kinds of crazy ideas began flooding his mind. Did a liquid surround them? Some of the older ideas and theories about space came back to him. One of them had suggested that their planet was a tiny particle, floating in a cosmic sea. He had always shied away from that idea, as he found it deeply unsettling to think about. The implications scared him, deep down inside. It was incomprehensible, yet the images in front of him seemed to indicate something along those lines.

“The orbiter appears to be stationary now.” Ynot’s voice jolted him out of his reverie. “I think it’s facing us almost head-on, Sir.”

Garston examined the largest enhancement. It did appear to show a head-on view of the orbiter. The image kept shimmering and wavering, again giving the impression of being viewed through a fluid. Garston’s eyes flicked to the time display in the corner of the screen: six forty-seven a.m. He had been resting his hands on the back of Ynot’s chair. Now he straightened up, and stretched his arms. “I don’t see any pressing need to wake any of our guests,” he told Ynot through a stifled yawn. “How about I make us some coffee, while we wait to see what happens next?”

Ynot swivelled in his chair, regarding Garston with a surprised smile. It wasn’t often that a director offered to make the coffee! “I’ll have milk and two sugars, please.”

“Excellent,” Garston smiled back, already on his way to the kitchenette. “I won’t be long.”

The wait seemed interminable. As the orbiter edged towards the shimmering haze at a snail’s pace, Sam made the mistake of looking directly at the sun, which had risen majestically from behind the planet while he was busy manoeuvring the orbiter into position. For one terrible moment he thought he had permanently damaged his sight, but, to his immense relief, the blindingly radiant afterimage began to fade from his vision almost immediately.

Now the tip of the orbiter’s nose was just touching the haze. It glowed slightly, and Sam braced himself for an impact that didn’t materialise. The light became a band around the ship, creeping unerringly towards him across the nose of the orbiter. Sam watched in fascination as it illuminated the interior of the cockpit with a layer of steady blue light. He was amazed at the number of dust particles it highlighted in the air of the cabin.

Gradually the world came into focus, as the orbiter traversed the band of light and emerged beneath its protective glow. His instruments were all useless again, but he had been expecting that. He decided that a further ten-minute wait would be advisable, to ensure the orbiter was completely clear.

Garston sipped his coffee thoughtfully. It looked like the orbiter was manoeuvring around the Star. He hoped that this was a good sign: a sign that mission was going all right.

“That’s strange,” Ynot murmured.


“Well, the orbiter’s nose is bright green now, sir, Sir.”

Garston looked closely at the monitor. The nose of the orbiter was definitely glowing bright green. As he watched, the tip of the nose came into clear focus. “It must have gone through some kind of barrier, and now it’s coming back,” he said, thinking out loud.

They both watched in fascination as the orbiter came slowly into focus. The leading edges of it were glowing light green, creating a micro-aurora as it slid through the barrier.

Garston checked the time display in the corner of the screen and came to a decision. “I’m going to start waking people up,” he told Ynot. “Can you get these pictures sent directly to the control room?”

It’s already been done, sir, Sir,” Ynot replied, slightly confused. The entire monitoring station had been connected to the control room for over a month now. “Just ask the flight controller to bring it up on the main screen.”

“Of course,” Garston said, with a quick flash of embarrassment. “I forgot.” He turned and hurried out of the room, leaving a slightly bemused Ynot to return to his duties.

Sam was staring straight at the planet. In front of him was the single, globe-encircling continent, straddling the equator. The sun was above the horizon now, its green-tinged light wakening up half the world, and putting the other half to bed. Immediately before him was the day/night border. Massive cloud formations were visible to the east, but in front of him the desert that was home to the Global Space-flight Research Centre was enjoying clear skies. To the north and south the polar ice caps glittered, icy and mysterious. He gazed at the north- pole. Hardly anyone in history had been there, and very little was known about it. A point of light over the pole caught his attention. It seemed to be stationary, and about the same altitude as the Stars. “Another Real Star,” he whispered to himself.

From his current position he couldn’t see the south-pole, but he suddenly knew that there was another Real Star there too, completing the circuit that kept the glowing barrier active.

Glancing at his instruments, Sam felt a brief wave of relief as some of them returned towards normal functioning. He tried the radio again, but received only static. Gazing out through the windscreen, Sam tried to locate Nassah’s body. He really wanted to take it back, so that Nassah’s family could at least give him a proper burial. As he searched, he thought of Nassah’s body floating through the sky. Would it stay in orbit? That would be a fitting end for a man who had dedicated most of his adult life to flying ever higher and faster. If the body fell to earth, it would burn up in the atmosphere. Would someone see it, and think one of the Stars was falling down?

Sam chuckled to himself as he suddenly thought what a huge fireball the orbiter would become if he didn’t get the re-entry right. People would think that the sky really was falling down. Then he realised that if the orbiter did break up, bits of it would probably hit the ground, possibly in a town or city. What a disaster that would be: there would probably be a ban on space-flights forever! That thought sobered him up. He couldn’t let it happen. With a renewed sense of urgency he checked the instruments again, and began making his calculations for the return flight.

By the time he was satisfied with his calculations, the orbiter was safely clear of the barrier. He began making the adjustments necessary to bring the orbiter to the correct attitude for re-entry. It was sluggish responding to movements from the left side, and he could only assume that the manoeuvring jets on that side were damaged. At least it was responding; sluggishness could be allowed for, and he had no choice anyway. Either he stayed where he was and gradually asphyxiated, took a space-walk without a helmet and joined Nassah, or flew back to the planet. No one would be coming to the rescue.

He tried the radio again, but all he got was a steady stream of static. He should have been able to get a signal by now. It occurred to him that the aerial might be damaged. Once again, there was nothing he could do about it.

Most of the instruments were functioning correctly, so he carefully adjusted the orbiter’s angle of attack. Reluctantly, he put his helmet on to protect his head, but didn’t turn on the air supply or close the faceplate. The thought that someone had deliberately sabotaged the mission, and caused the death of Nassah, filled him with a steely resolve to get back and expose the saboteur.

The screen that showed his position within the safe parameters for re-entry was displaying a nice green box, with the orbiter safely in the centre. A series of diminishing boxes showed the path back to the ground. Gently, Sam eased the controls, and fired the main thrusters. The orbiter shuddered slightly and began moving forward. On the display, the orbiter moved through the first box, which disappeared and was replaced by the next green box. As he entered the third box, it flickered briefly. He checked the other instruments. All of the dials showing pressures, speed and altitude looked fine, but the computer display screens had started to flicker.

The orbiter gave a small lurch, and began to shake as it touched the outer reaches of the atmosphere. Suddenly, all of the computer screens died. Sam swore into his helmet and began the reboot procedure. Nothing happened, so he tried it again. The orbiter began vibrating more violently around him, and he abandoned the attempt. He needed all his concentration and flying skills to get down safely now.

A faint glow appeared around the nose of the craft, and Sam suddenly found himself gripping the joystick, his feet pressing hard against the pedals controlling the pitch and yaw of the orbiter. He didn’t know whether the computer was damaged or had been sabotaged, and quickly realised that it didn’t matter. It obviously wasn’t going to work, so he would have to rely on his analogue instruments, and literally fly by the seat of his pants.

“I’m a test pilot,” he reassured himself. “I tested the prototypes, I know how it handles, and that’s why I’m here. Nobody is better at this than me.”

The orbiter was bucking under him, the nose glowing cherry-red. Concentrating entirely on flying the thing, Sam’s face was set, his teeth glued together between tightly clamped jaws. He didn’t even notice the sweat dripping from his nose as the gravity returned.

Sparks and flashes streamed past the cockpit window, as the air became thicker and more resistant. It became harder and harder to keep the orbiter steady. It tried to pitch sideways, but he sensed the movement, correcting it almost before it happened. Then it started to go the other way, and the nose began to drop. Again and again he corrected the attitude of the orbiter, ignoring the noise and steadily increasing temperature. The air outside the windscreen was incandescent now, the tip of the nose glowing white as he crashed through the atmosphere, tearing a huge rip in it. The orbiter was becoming almost impossible to keep on track. The juddering and shaking rattled his teeth and blurred his vision, as the increasing g-forces forced him further back into his seat. White flashes seared across his vision, and the edges of his sight became darker and darker, as if he was entering a tunnel.

Fighting to remain conscious, Sam had gone into an almost trance-like state. All that existed for him were a couple of instruments and the motion of the orbiter. He could feel it trying harder and harder to escape from his control. He fought with all his strength, desperately urging it on, talking to it, coaxing the machine as if it were alive, without realising he was doing so.

Suddenly, the pressure lifted, and he felt the buffeting diminish. A brief sense of elation surged through him, as he realised he had made it through the upper atmosphere. Now it was just a case of gliding back to the ground.

There was a startling, terrible rending shriek of tortured metal, and the whole thing tipped over before he could stop it. The orbiter began toppling over and over in a crazy tumble, the pressure on him increasing dramatically as he fought with the controls. The tumbling became a spin that he managed to turn into gentle roll. Just as he regained level flight, there was another soul-destroying screech of tortured metal, and he smelled smoke.

Sam felt as if his hands were welded to the control stick. His forearms were cramping, his chest hurt, his eyes felt as if they were popping out of his head, but still he struggled on. The orbiter smashed through clouds at an alarming speed, and he desperately tried to keep the nose up.

The orbiter burst out of the clouds, revealing a coastline directly ahead. Trying to aim for the sea, he felt the controls fail, as the orbiter finally betrayed him. There was an explosion somewhere behind him, and he passed out as the waves rushed up to meet him.

Distant Birds sat calmly on a small hill at the edge of the forest. The air was still and warm, the sea washing gently on the beach a few hundred yards away. He was trying to concentrate his energy, and contemplate the future. His mentor had been preparing him for his coming of age ceremony for over a year, and now he was finally ready. He had to spend a full day and night by himself, fasting and contemplating his existence, in order to cleanse his spirit before the ceremony.

A distant rumbling disturbed his concentration. At first he thought it was thunder, but the storm season was still more than a month away. He tried to get back to his meditation, but the noise grew louder instead of fading.

With a sigh of annoyance, Distant Birds climbed to his feet. The noise was coming from his left, and had expanded to include a ripping resonance. He walked towards the beach, in order to get a clearer view down the coast. A fireball trailing a twisting plume of smoke came racing out of the sky towards him. For a moment he was transfixed. The noise was now a deafening roar, and he could see something solid within the fireball. It appeared to be a silvery aircraft.

An old tale about visitors from the outside world came to him. They had arrived in flying machines, killed many of the local tribes, and set fire to their villages and parts of the forest. Then, just as suddenly and mysteriously as they had arrived, they left, never to return. He had thought this to be a story told to scare children, until he had been shown a distant area of the forest that still bore the scars of the fires. Even then he hadn’t really believed it.

He could feel a wave of heat from the strange craft, and collapsed to his knees in shock. The noise was deafening. Then he was knocked over by a blast of hot air. The strange craft crashed into the sea, parts of it breaking off as it skipped and rolled to a rest, just off the shore.

Distant Birds climbed shakily to his feet and looked dazedly around. Parts of the forest were smouldering, and clouds of steam issued from the crash site. The craft seemed mostly intact, although parts of its extremities were strewn along the beach. His heart beating wildly, Distant Birds decided that this occurrence was more important than his coming of age preparations, and sprinted off into the forest to alert his tribe.

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