Something in the Storm

THE Darkwind’s pinnace fell away from the mother ship, a gleaming silver needle against the endless night. It hung for a moment above the Rim World called Unseeli, and then its nose dropped, the engines roared silently, and the pinnace slipped into Unseeli’s churning atmosphere like a knife into a belly. The engines burned bright, powering the slender ship through the violent storms by sheer brute force. Lightning flared round the pinnace’s hull, and winds gusted viciously from every side, but nothing swayed the ship from its course. It punched through the roiling clouds with arrogant ease, dropping like a stone towards the metallic forest below.

Unseeli had no oceans and no mountains, only an endless arid plain covered by a brightly shining forest stretching from pole to pole. A forest whose colossal metal trees knew nothing of leaf or bud, autumn or spring. They rose unbending from the grey earth in the millions, cold and unfeeling, like so many gleaming metal nails. Towering almost to the edge of the planet’s atmosphere in places, the huge trees stood firm and unyielding against the turbulent storms. Winds whipped viciously around leafless branches, radiating out from smooth, featureless trunks in needle-sharp spikes. Violet and azure, gold and silver and brass, the trees reached up into the thunder and lightning to welcome the falling craft.

Captain John Silence sat slumped in his command chair, watching the sensor display panels before him. They changed from moment to moment with bewildering speed, far too fast for him to follow. Which was why the ship’s AI was piloting them down and he had nothing to do but strain his eyes at the displays. The thick storm clouds hid the metal trees from sight, but the AI picked them up on the pinnace’s sensors and changed speed and direction accordingly, making decisions and evaluations in split-second bursts. Since the AI could think faster and react more quickly than Silence ever could, even when he was mentally linked to the onboard computers, there was never any question as to which one of them would get to pilot the pinnace down. But the AI was programmed to be considerate of people’s feelings, so it might let him actually land the pinnace, if it didn’t seem too difficult.

Deepening his concentration, Silence accessed the ship’s sensors through his comm implant. The bulkhead walls before him were suddenly transparent as the sensors displayed a real-time simulation of what was happening outside the ship. Dark, swollen storm clouds rushed toward and around the pinnace at heart-stopping speed, and lightning struck viciously at the craft. Silence winced inwardly, but kept his face calm so as not to upset his passengers. The storm could rage and spit all it liked; nothing could harm the ship as long as its force screen was up. Gleaming metal trees appeared and disappeared in the blink of an eye as the pinnace surged this way and that, threading a path through the metallic forest to the landing pads by Base Thirteen. The storm clouds were too thick and too dark for Silence to make out the forest itself, but his imagination pictured it as an endless, vicious pincushion; solid metal spikes waiting for him like the sharpened stakes at the bottom of a pit dug to trap animals.

The image disturbed him, and he cut off the display and swung round in his chair to see how his passengers weredoing. A good Captain never neglected his crew. Supposedly, loyalty was programmed into them these days, but it never hurt to be careful.

The ship’s young esper, Diana Vertue, was looking distinctly green about the gills from being tossed around by the pinnace’s sudden changes in direction. Investigator Frost sat beside her, cool and composed as always, her face almost bored. The two marines, Stasiak and Ripper, sat behind the two women, passing a gunmetal flask back and forth between them. Silence’s mouth tautened. He hoped it was just alcohol, and not some new battle drug they’d cooked up in the medlabs. Officially he was supposed to encourage such initiative, but Silence didn’t believe in chemical courage. He preferred the real thing whenever possible. Chemicals wore off.

“We’ll be touching down soon,” he said evenly. “There shouldn’t be any immediate danger, but keep your eyes and ears open anyway. Due to the urgent nature of the situation, we’re going in pretty much blind on this one. The mission’s simple enough. Base Thirteen isn’t answering any calls. Our job is to find out why.”

“Question, Captain?”

“Yes, esper Vertue?”

“According to the computers, Unseeli is a dead world. Nothing’s lived here since all indigenous species were wiped out after the Ashrai rebellion, ten years ago. …”

“That’s right,” said Silence as the esper paused.

“But if that’s the case, Captain, if there’s nothing on this planet that could be harmful, why all the panic? It could just be a case of cabin fever. It’s not exactly unknown, out here on the edge of the Empire.”

“A good point, esper. But four days ago, Base Thirteen declared a Red Alert emergency, raised a force screen round the Base, and cut off all communications with the Empire. The Empire doesn’t like being cut off. So, we’regoing in to find out what’s happened. Don’t frown, esper; it’ll give you wrinkles.”

“I was just wondering, Captain; well, what is the Investigator doing here?”

“Yeah,” said Investigator Frost. “I’ve been wondering that too.”

Silence took his time about answering, openly studying the two women. They made an interesting contrast. Diana Vertue was short, slender, and golden-haired, and reminded Silence very much of her mother, Elaine. The young esper had only just turned nineteen, and had that arrogant innocence that only youth could produce and maintain. She’d lose it soon enough, trying to maintain law and order and sanity out on the edge of the Empire, among the newly developed Rim Worlds. There was little civilisation to be found on the new frontier—and even less law, never mind justice.

Investigator Frost was only a few years older than the esper, but the difference between them was that of the hunter and its prey. Frost was tall and lithely muscular, and even sitting still and at rest, she looked dangerous. Dark blue eyes burned coldly in a pale, impassive face framed by short-cropped auburn hair. The jolting descent didn’t seem to be bothering her at all, but then, it wouldn’t. Investigators were trained to withstand much worse than this. Which was at least partly why they made such efficient killers.

Silence realised he’d paused longer than he’d intended. He leaned forward in his chair, frowning as though he’d just been marshalling his thoughts, knowing even as he did that he wasn’t fooling the Investigator one bit.

“You’re here, Investigator, because we don’t know what we’re going to find when we get down there. There’s always the possibility that Unseeli has been visited by some new alien species. This is the Rim, after all, where starships have been known to disappear into the long night, never to be seen again. And aliens are your speciality, are they not?”

“Yeah,” said Frost, smiling slightly. “That’s one way of putting it.”

“On the other hand,” said Silence, “Unseeli is a mining planet, and the metals extracted here are of vital importance to the Empire. Any number of factions might have an interest in disturbing production. Which is why I’m overseeing this mission myself.”

“If it’s that important, why are there only five of us?” asked the marine Stasiak. “Why not go in mob-handed with a full Security team, surround the Base and then charge in and hammer anything that moves?”

“Because Base Thirteen controls all the mining equipment on Unseeli,” said Silence steadily. “Systems are already running at barely thirty per cent efficiency. We don’t want to risk damaging the Base and making things even worse. And, as the esper pointed out, there’s always the possibility this is just some new form of cabin fever, and all the Base personnel need is a nice little chat with the Darkwind’s psych department. We’re here to find out what’s going on and to report on it, not run a crash-and-burn mission on the only people who can tell us what’s happened.”

“Understood, Captain,” said the other marine, Ripper. “We’ll run this one nice and easy, by the numbers. No problem.”

Silence nodded curtly, and studied the two marines unobtrusively. Lewis Stasiak was average height and weight, only in his early twenties but already looking hard-used and running to seed. His hair was a little too long, his uniform rumpled, and his face had a kind of slackness to it. Silence recognised the danger signs; Stasiak had gone too long without any real action or challenge, and grown soft and careless. Which was at least partly why Silence had chosen him for the exploratory team. If something wentwrong, Stasiak wasn’t going to be any great loss. It was always useful to have someone expendable on hand, to send into dangerous situations before taking a look for yourself. Still, it would be well to keep an eye on the man. Marines who got sloppy tended not to last long under pressure, and when they snapped they had a nasty habit of taking down anyone who happened to be with them at the time.

Alec Ripper, on the other hand, was everything that Stasiak wasn’t. Ripper was a career marine, and looked it. Twenty-nine years old, fourteen years in the Service, big as a brick outhouse and twice as mean. Sharp and tidy from his close-cropped head to his shiny boots. Four medals, and three commendations for courage in the field. Could have been an officer, if he’d only had the right Family connections. As it was, he’d been a noncom twice, busted both times for daring to suggest a superior officer might just possibly be wrong. That wasn’t wise in the Service. Especially in front of witnesses. Also, according to the records, Ripper was a good soldier and a better fighter, with a positive gift for survival. If anyone was going to come back alive from this mission, it was Ripper.

If anyone was.

They didn’t know about Unseeli. Silence knew. He’d been here before, ten years ago, when the Ashrai came sweeping out of the forest in endless waves, slaughtering every man and woman in their path. He remembered the awful things they’d done, and the worse thing he’d done to stop them. The Ashrai were dead now. Extinct. Along with every other living thing on the planet.

The pinnace lurched suddenly to one side, the roar of the engines seeming to falter for a moment before regaining their normal rhythm. Silence spun round in his chair and glared at the displays before him. Warning lights were flaring red everywhere, but there was no sign of any actual damage yet. He accessed the sensors again, and theship seemed to go transparent before and around him. Dark storm clouds boiled around the pinnace, streaming away to either side with breathtaking speed. The ship lurched again, and Silence’s stomach quivered in sympathy as the pinnace changed course and speed with reckless indifference to its passengers’ sensibilities. Glowing metal trees appeared and disappeared around them, come and gone in a flash, but Silence could tell it wasn’t just the trees that the pinnace was trying to avoid. There was something else out there in the storm. Something that had waited a long time for revenge, and didn’t give a damn that it had been dead for ten long years.

Ghostworld.

“Marines, man the guns,” said Silence harshly. “Investigator, access the sensors and tell me what you see. Esper, I want a full psionic scan, as far as you can project. I need to know what’s out there.”

The marines’ faces went blank as they accessed the pinnace’s firing controls through their comm implants, their eyes filled with what the gunsights showed them. The Investigator’s cold face hardly changed at all as she looked quickly around her at bulkheads that were suddenly transparent. The esper looked at Silence uncertainly.

“What exactly am I scanning for, Captain?”

“Something, anything; for whatever’s out there.”

“But … there’s nothing there, Captain. It’s just a storm.”

“No,” said Silence. “It’s not just the storm. Run a scan, esper. That’s an order.”

“Aye, sir.” The esper’s eyes became fixed and unseeing, and her face was suddenly blank and untenanted as her mind leapt up and out beyond the pinnace.

The storm boiled around her, but could not touch her. Metal trees burned in her mind like brilliant searchlights plunging up through the clouds, guttering here and there as automated mining machinery tore through a tree’s roots. Apart from the trees, there was no life anywhere in range of her esp, and yet it seemed to her that there was something at the edges of her mind, sensed only as swift flashes of movement and an occasional feeling of being watched. Diana forced her esp to its limits, pushing at the range of her scan, but was unable to get a clear view of whatever it was. If there was anything at all …

Stasiak grinned nastily, feeling the pinnace’s guns swivelling back and forth, responsive to his thoughts. Four disrupter cannon, state of the art and fully charged, were scattered the length of the pinnace and ready to kick ass at his command, or merest whim. But there was only the storm and the wind and the endless bloody trees. According to the sensors, there was nothing out there worth firing at. He found a secure line and patched into Ripper’s comm implant.

“Hey, Rip, you see anything?”

“No. But that doesn’t mean it’s not out there.”

“Yeah, sure. You ask me, the Captain’s got ants in his pants over nothing. This world’s dead, Rip; everyone knows that.”

“Maybe. There’s nothing on the sensors. But I still keep getting the feeling that we’re not alone up here. Stand ready, Lew. I don’t like the feel of this at all. And if it does all hit the fan, don’t waste your shots; place them carefully. Remember, these cannon take four minutes to recharge between each shot. A lot can happen in four minutes.”

“Yeah, right,” Stasiak stirred unhappily in his seat, trying to look every way at once. Now that Ripper mentioned it, he could feel it too. Something waiting, watching, hiding just out of range of his sensors. His mind caressed the fire controls, feeling them respond like hounds straining at the leash. The pinnace’s AI was programmed against activating the guns itself except in the direst emergencies, to keep it from getting ideas above its station, but it toosensed something was wrong about the storm, and in its own way was just as eager for action as Stasiak was.

Investigator Frost looked across at the Captain. “Sensors all report negative. There are no life signs registering anywhere within their range.”

“I didn’t think there would be,” said Silence, staring unblinkingly out at the storm. “Odin, how long till we touch down?”

“Twelve minutes and forty seconds, Captain.” said the AI promptly, “Assuming nothing interferes with my flight plan.”

“Get us down fast, Odin,” the Captain ordered. “Marines, stand ready. Something’s coming.”

And then the pinnace lurched suddenly to one side, the slender craft thrown violently off course as though some giant hand had reached out from nowhere and swatted it. The ship bucked and heaved as the AI fought to keep it from crashing into the tightly packed trees. Dark shapes loomed up out of the boiling storm clouds, huge and threatening.

“Odin, raise the force screen,” said Silence, his voice calm and steady, though his hands were closed into white-knuckled fists. “Marines, pick your targets carefully. Investigator, what do you see?”

“Still nothing, Captain. Sensors are adamant there’s nothing out there.”

“Same here,” said Stasiak urgently. “There’s nothing to aim at!”

The pinnace shuddered as something impossibly huge pounded against the force screen, again and again. Silence watched tensely as his displays showed mounting pressure building up against the screen from all sides at once. Glowing trees whipped past faster than ever as the AI sent the pinnace racing through the metallic forest, heading for the landing field. But despite the pinnace’s increasing speed, the dark presences stayed with them, battering at the force screen with vicious determination. Silence scowled, and licked his dry lips.

“Marines, lay down a field of fire on both sides. Random selection of targets. Do it now.”

The marines’ replies were lost in the thunder of the disrupter cannon, and blinding energy leapt out from the pinnace, striking through the screen and shattering the metal trees. Great metallic shards flew like shrapnel. And still the unliving presences pressed close around the screen, the pressure rising impossibly moment by moment.

“Our guns are useless now until the energy crystals recharge,” said the Investigator quietly. “And the force screen isn’t going to last long enough for us to reach the landing field. It’s taking more and more of the ship’s power just to maintain the screen, and we don’t have that much power to spare. Not if we ever want to get off this planet again. What’s out there, Captain? Why don’t they show up on our sensors?”

Silence looked at her. “Because they’re dead, Investigator. Because they’re dead. Odin, time to touch down?”

“Ten minutes, twenty-two seconds, Captain.”

“When I give you the word, drop the force screen and channel the extra power to the engines. Do whatever you have to, Odin, but get us down. If we survive the landing, we can always recharge the ship’s batteries at Base Thirteen. Marines, stand ready to fire again, on my order.”

“But there’s nothing out there!” said Stasiak. “There’s nothing to aim at!”

“Keep the noise down, Lew,” said Ripper calmly. “Ours not to reason why, remember? Just do what the nice officer says. At least he seems to have some idea of what we’re up against.”

Stasiak sniffed mutinously. “They’re not paying me enough for this.”

Silence glared out at the storm, then looked back at the Investigator. “Anything on the sensors?”

“Negative, Captain. No life signs of any description. As far as the instruments are concerned, we’re alone up here.” The Investigator looked at him with cold, hard eyes. “You were expecting this, weren’t you, Captain? That’s why you came down with us. You know what’s out there.”

“Yes,” said Silence. “I know.”

“Guns are powering up, sir,” said Ripper. “Ready to fire again soon. Just find us a target.”

“Stand by, marines. Esper, talk to me. What do you see out there? Esper!”

They were huge and awful and they filled her mind, blazing like the sun. Too strange to measure, too vast to comprehend, they gathered in the storm like ancient vengeful gods, striking at the pinnace with thunder and lightning. Diana Vertue struggled to maintain her own sense of identity in all that rage and fury, but her human mind was a small and insignificant thing in the midst of such intense, bitter hatred. She retreated behind the safety of her mental shields, fighting to keep out the inhuman thoughts that roared and howled in the storm outside the ship. One by one her defensive barriers slammed into place, and suddenly she was back in the pinnace again, and Captain Silence was shouting at her.

“It’s alive,” she said dully, her mind feeling slow and awkward now that it was working only on the human level again. “The storm’s alive, and it hates us.”

“Have you made contact with it?” asked Silence. “Could you communicate with it?”

“Communicate with what?” said the Investigator sharply. “If there was anything alive out there, the sensors would show it!”

“They’re too big,” said Diana Vertue. “Huge. Vast. I’ve never felt such hate.”

“Try,” said Silence. “This is why I brought you with us; to talk to … what’s out there.”

“No,” said Diana, tears burning in her eyes. “Please. Don’t make me … the hate hurts so much …”

“Do it! That’s an order!”

And Diana threw her mind up and out again, into the storm. Espers always obeyed orders. Their training saw to that. Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t learn didn’t live to reach an adult’s estate. The storm raged. Immense, dark thoughts were all around her, and she knew she survived only because she was too small for them to notice. She also knew that in a slow, creeping way, they were beginning to realise that someone was watching them.

Silence watched the young esper’s face, contorted by the horror of what her blind eyes were seeing, and wouldn’t let himself look away. If she died or lost her mind, it would be his responsibility. He’d known the risks when he insisted on her as part of his team. A thin line of saliva ran slowly from the corner of her mouth, and she began to moan softly. Silence still wouldn’t look away.

“Marines, lay down a covering fire, random selection, as before. Odin, lower the force screen. Hang on to your seats, everyone. The ride’s about to get a bit bumpy.”

There was a deafening roar, slamming against the mind as much as the ears, as the dark shapes pressed forward, no longer held back by the force screen. The disrupter cannon blazed through the storm, and could not touch them. The pinnace shuddered and lurched from side to side, tossed like a leaf in a hurricane. Metallic trees a dozen feet thick leapt out of the clouds and slammed against the pinnace sides, but the ship’s hull had been designed to withstand disrupter cannon and low-level atomics, and they held easily against the battering. The thunder of the pinnace’s engines rose and fell as the AI fought desperately to keep the ship on course. The Captain accessed the instrumentsdirectly, and bit his lip as he saw they were still more than four minutes from Base Thirteen and the landing pads.

The pinnace’s nose dropped sharply, as though some immense weight had settled upon it. There was a screech of rending metal, and the port bulkhead tore like paper. Jagged rents surged down the wall, grouped together like giant claw marks. Something pounded against the outer hull, and great dents and bulges appeared in the cabin roof.

“There’s nothing out there!” screamed Stasiak, beating blindly with his fists against his chair’s armrests. “There’s nothing out there! The instruments say so!”

Ripper’s head swayed back and forth, his mouth forming soundless denials. The Investigator glared about her at the fury of the storm, her hand clutching at the gun on her hip. Things were moving in the storm, dark and indistinct and impossibly huge. The whole frame of the pinnace groaned as the roof bulged inwards, forced down by some massive, intolerable weight.

“We’re losing pressure, Captain,” said the AI quietly in Silence’s ear. “The ship’s integrity has been breached beyond my ability to compensate. I am no longer confident of being able to reach the landing field. Do I have your permission to attempt an emergency landing?”

“No,” said Silence through his implant. “Not yet.”

“We have to put down before we fall apart!” said the Investigator.

Silence looked at her sharply. He hadn’t known she had access to the command channel. “Not yet,” he said firmly. “Esper, talk to them, dammit. Make them hear you!”

Diana Vertue dropped what remained of her mental shields and stood naked and defenceless before the alien presences. They rushed forward and swept over her. The pinnace punched through the last of the clouds and burst out into clear air. The metal trees swept toward and around the ship at dizzying speed. Vicious barbed spikes snapped past them, seeming only inches away from tearing the pinnace open like a gutted fish. And then the trees too fell away, and they were flying over a vast open clearing, above a smooth and level plain, towards Base Thirteen and the landing pads.

“It’s stopped,” said the Investigator quietly. “Listen. It’s stopped.”

Silence looked slowly around him. The pounding on the outer hull had ceased, and there was no trace anywhere of the dark, threatening presences. Faint creakings filled the pinnace as the ship’s battered frame tried to repair itself. The two marines dropped out of fire control and looked blankly around them, seeing the damage for the first time. Ripper turned to the Captain for answers, but Silence waved for him to be quiet, and got out of his seat to kneel beside the esper, who was sitting slumped on the floor, head bowed. She looked up slowly as she sensed his presence.

“They’re gone, Captain. They just … left.”

“What did you see?” said Silence, keeping his voice calm with an effort.

“Faces. Gargoyle faces, all planes and angles. Teeth and jagged claws. I don’t know. I don’t think any of it was real. It couldn’t have been. There were so many faces, and nothing in them but rage and hatred. I was sure they were going to kill me, but when I dropped my shields they just looked at me … and left. I don’t know why.”

“But you do, Silence,” said the Investigator. “Don’t you?”

“Please return to your seats,” said the AI. “I am preparing to land the pinnace.”

Silence helped the esper to her feet and got her seated before returning to his own station. The Investigator scowled at his back for a moment, and then studiously ignored him. The marines looked at each other and said nothing, though their expressions spoke volumes.

“I have tried to contact Base Thirteen,” said the AI, “but there is no response. The force screen around the Base is still in operation, and there is no sign of life or movement anywhere within range of my sensors. I am therefore assuming it is safe to land, unless you wish to countermand me, Captain.”

“No, Odin. Set us down as close to the Base as you can. Then put your sensors on full alert, and maintain all weapons systems at battle status, until I tell you otherwise.”

“Understood, Captain.”

The pinnace slowed to a halt a dozen yards from the shimmering force screen enclosing Base Thirteen, and settled gently onto the landing pad. Silence stared intently at the simulation covering the inner bulkheads, and for the first time was struck by the sheer size of the vast open space covered by the pads. The landing field had originally been intended to accommodate the massive starfreighters that built and established the Empire’s Base. Silence had been the Captain of one of those ships, and he could still remember the constant flow of traffic around Base Thirteen as the ships came thundering in from all over the Empire. Huge silver ships had covered the landing pads for as far as the eye could see, like so many huge abstract sculptures. And now they were gone, and the pinnace stood alone on the pads, dwarfed by the size of the clearing and the towering trees that surrounded it.

He withdrew from the sensors, and the scene vanished, replaced by featureless steel walls. Silence turned in his chair and nodded abruptly to his team. “I know you’ve all got a lot of questions, but you’re going to have to bear with me for a while. The situation here is very complicated, and the rough ride we had on our way down is just the beginning. I take it no one’s been badly injured? Good. Odin, damage reports.”

“Nothing significant, Captain, but it’ll be several hoursbefore the ship can lift off again. It’s the hull breach that worries me most. There’s a limit to what I can do without access to a stardock’s facilities.”

Silence nodded slowly. “Worst-case scenario?”

“If I can’t repair the hull, we’re not going anywhere, Captain. You could, of course, always call down another pinnace from the Darkwind, but there’s no guarantee it would arrive here in any better condition than us.”

“Wait a minute,” said Stasiak. “You mean we’re stranded here?”

“Ease off,” said Ripper quickly. “That was a worse-case scenario. Things aren’t that bad. Yet.”

“I have some questions of my own, Captain,” said the Investigator coldly. “This planet is officially listed as a scorched world. Nothing is supposed to live here anymore. But something was trying to kill us in that storm, even if our sensors couldn’t pick it up. And you knew what it was. You recognised it. I represent the Empire in all matters concerning alien species, and I demand an explanation. What was that in the storm?”

“The Ashrai,” said Silence.

“But they’re dead. Extinct.”

“Yes. I know. I told you the situation was complicated.”

“So what the hell was knocking the crap out of us on the way down?” said Stasiak. “Ghosts?”

Silence smiled slightly. “Perhaps. If ever a planet was haunted by its past, Unseeli is.” He hesitated, then looked quickly from one face to another. “Did any of you … feel anything, sense anything, on the way down?”

“Yeah,” growled Stasiak. “I felt sure we were all going to be killed.”

Ripper shrugged. The Investigator scowled for a moment, and then shook her head. Silence looked at the esper. “What about you, Diana? What did you sense?”

The young esper studied her hands, which were clasped tightly together in her lap. “They could have killed us all. Our force screen couldn’t keep them out, and our guns couldn’t hurt them. But at the last moment they looked at me and turned away. I don’t know why. Do you know why, Captain?”

“Yes,” said Silence. “Because you’re innocent.” He raised a hand to forestall any further comments or questions. “All right, pay attention. This mission was put together in something of a hurry, so you haven’t had much in the way of a briefing. That’s at least partly because no one really knows what’s going on here. And partly because I wanted you to come to this with open minds.

“Ten years ago, the Empire discovered that Unseeli was rich in important metals, and started mining operations. The main indigenous species, the Ashrai, objected strongly. They rose in rebellion against the Empire, aided by a traitor from within the Service, a man who turned against his own kind. The Empire troops were vastly outnumbered, and no match for the sheer ferocity of the Ashrai, even with their superior Empire weaponry. But they couldn’t afford to lose. The metals were too important. So they retreated offworld, called in the starcruisers, and scorched the whole damn planet from pole to pole. The metal trees survived unharmed. Nothing else did. Mining resumed soon after.

“But that’s not all of the story. The trees are not just trees. They cover ninety per cent of the planet’s surface, and are one hundred per cent metal. They contain no organic matter at all, but they are quite definitively alive. These trees were grown, not sculpted. Their roots draw metals from deep within the planet, isolating the heavy metals and storing them within their trunks. We don’t know how they do this. There is reason to believe the trees were genetically engineered. Certainly it strains credulity that something so amazingly useful could have evolved entirely by chance. Especially when you consider that the particular heavy metals these trees store are ideally suited for powering a stardrive. Given the scarcity of such metals, you can understand why the Empire was prepared to do absolutely anything to ensure that the mining of Unseeli’s unique forest could continue uninterrupted.”

“Hold it,” said Frost. “Are you saying the Ashrai created these trees?”

“No,” said Silence. “Their civilisation was never that advanced. In fact, the original Investigating team uncovered evidence that suggested the Ashrai actually evolved long after the trees had first been planted. Which gives you some idea of how long these trees have been here.”

“But if the Ashrai didn’t genegineer the trees,” said Ripper slowly, “who did?”

“Good question,” said Silence. “Whoever it was, let’s hope they don’t come back to find out who’s been messing with their garden. Now then, where was I? Ah yes. There are twenty substations on Unseeli, overseeing the automated mining machinery as it destroys the forest’s roots so that the trees can be easily felled and harvested. Base Thirteen oversees all the other substations, and is the only manned station on the planet. Its personnel spend most of their time sitting around waiting for something to go wrong so they can go out and fix it. They last communicated with the Empire four days ago. We haven’t been able to get a word out of them since. At present, the situation is merely annoying, if a little disturbing. But if it continues, and the supply of metals slows as the mining machinery breaks down, the Empire could be in serious trouble. I’m afraid we’ve all become just a little too dependent on Unseeli’s riches. Any questions so far?”

“Yes,” said Ripper. “What are you doing here, Captain? It’s not usual for a ship’s Captain to expose himself to danger like this.”

“This is not a usual situation,” said Silence. “And I have … personal reasons for being here. Which I don’t intend to discuss at this time.”

“All right,” said Frost. “Let’s talk about Base Thirteen instead. A force screen is the last refuge for a base under attack. What could possibly have threatened them so much, scared them so badly, that they had to retreat behind a force screen to feel safe?”

“Maybe they saw ghosts too,” said Diana Vertue.

Silence smiled briefly. “When we get inside the Base, you can ask them.”

“And just how are we supposed to get inside?” said Frost sharply. “We don’t have anything powerful enough to break through a force screen. The disrupter cannon on the Darkwind might do the job, but that kind of firepower would flatten everything inside a square mile, most definitely including everything and everyone inside the screen. You’d be able to carry away what was left of Base Thirteen in a medium-sized bucket.”

“Right,” said Stasiak, scowling unhappily. “There’s only one way we’re going to get past that screen, and that’s if someone inside the Base gets to the main command centre and shuts down the screen. And that doesn’t seem very likely, just at the moment. So, Captain, unless you have access to some kind of super-weapon the Empire has never heard of, we’ve come all this way for nothing.”

Silence looked at him calmly. “Don’t raise your voice to me, Stasiak, there’s a good chap. I know what I’m doing. Computer, any hostile life signs outside the ship?”

“Negative, Captain,” said the AI promptly. “There are no life signs anywhere within reach of my sensors. My files tell me that Base Thirteen has one hundred and twenty-seven personnel, but I regret I am unable to confirm that. The force screen blocks my sensor probes.”

“What about the things that attacked us on the waydown?” said Diana Vertue. “They can’t have just vanished.”

“My sensors detected no life signs at any time during the descent,” said the AI. “If there had been any attackers, I would have detected them and informed you of their nature. May I remind you, esper Vertue, this is a scorched world. Nothing lives here.”

“Well, something beat the hell out of this ship on the way down,” said Frost. “I can see some of the dents from here.”

“I agree that the pinnace has suffered extensive storm damage,” said the AI calmly. “Nevertheless, I must insist that there were no life forms present in the storm. If there were, my instruments would have detected them.”

“I saw them with my esp,” said Diana. “I felt their rage.”

“Hallucinations, perhaps,” said the AI. “Possibly brought about by the stress of the descent. I can supply tranquillizers if required.”

“Not just now,” said Silence. “All right, people, get ready to disembark. Full field kit for everyone, and that includes you, esper. Move it!”

The pinnace crew rose quickly to their feet and gathered around the Investigator as she broke open the arms locker and passed out the equipment. The two marines looked at each other thoughtfully. Full field kit meant a steelmesh tunic, concussion and incendiary grenades, swords and energy guns, and a personal force shield. That kind of kit was normally reserved for open firefights and full-scale riot control. Stasiak took his armful of equipment and moved as far away from the Captain and the Investigator as the cramped space would allow. Ripper followed him, and the two marines put their heads together as they ostensibly busied themselves in sorting out their kits.

“I hate this,” said Stasiak quietly. “I hate this planet, and I hate this mission. Full field kit for what’s supposed to be a dead planet? A Captain who talks about ghosts and super-weapons? The man is seriously disturbed, Ripper. Dammit to hell, only five more months and my time was up. Five short months, and I’d have been out of the Service and my own man again. But of course nothing ever goes right for me, so I end up being volunteered for this bloody mess. A crazy Captain and an insane mission. Hallucinations, my ass. I don’t care if this is a scorched world; something’s still alive here, and it isn’t friendly.”

“Then why couldn’t we find any targets for our guns?” murmured Ripper, pulling on his baldric with practiced ease. “There’s no doubt this is a scorched world. I checked the ship’s computers before the drop. Ten years ago, six starcruisers hit Unseeli with everything they had. Wiped the planet clean, pole to pole.”

“Six ships?” said Stasiak. “Standard procedure for a scorching is two starcruisers, three if you’re in a hurry. What did they have down here that they thought they needed six ships to deal with it?”

“There’s more,” said Ripper. “Guess who was in charge of scorching Unseeli?”

Stasiak stopped struggling with the buckles on his baldric. “Silence?”

“Got it in one. He was in charge of putting down the Ashrai rebellion. When that got out of hand, he was the one who called for a scorch.”

Stasiak shook his head slowly. “This just gets better and better. This is going to be a bad one, Rip. I can feel it in my water.”

“Don’t worry; trust the old Ripper. He’ll see you through.”

Stasiak just looked at him.

The esper Diana Vertue struggled to pull on her steelmesh tunic. The label said it was her size, but the label was a liar. She finally pulled it into place by brute force, and emerged from the neck red-faced and gasping. The long vest was heavy and awkward, and she hated to think what it was going to feel like after she’d been wearing it for a few hours. She looked at the sword and hand disrupter she’d been issued, hesitated, and then moved back to the arms locker to put them away.

“I wouldn’t,” said Investigator Frost. “The odds are you’re going to need them.”

“I don’t use weapons,” said the esper firmly. “I’m not a killer. I’ll keep the force shield, but that’s all.”

The Investigator shrugged. “It’s your neck.” She settled her holstered disrupter comfortably on her right hip, and drew a sword in a scabbard from the arms locker. It was a long sword, definitely not regulation issue, and the Investigator slung it over her left shoulder and buckled it into place so that it hung down her back. The tip of the scabbard almost touched the floor behind her. Frost noticed the esper’s curious gaze, and smiled slightly.

“It’s a claymore. Old Earth sword. Been in my clan for generations. It’s a good blade.”

“Have you ever killed anyone with it?” asked Vertue. Her tone was polite, but the Investigator stiffened at the disapproval she sensed in the esper.

“Of course,” said Frost. “That’s my job.” She reached into the locker and brought out a bandolier of grenades. She pulled it tight across her chest and flexed her arms a few times to make sure it wouldn’t interfere with her movements. She looked at the esper. “If you’re not willing to fight, stay out of my way. And don’t expect me to look after you. That’s not my job.”

She slammed the arms locker shut and moved over to join the Captain and the two marines waiting at the airlock door. Vertue looked after her for a moment but said nothing. She joined the others, her gaze on her feet. Silencelooked them all over, raised an eyebrow at the esper’s lack of weapons, and then keyed in the security codes for the airlock door. The door hissed open, and Silence led the way in. The airlock was just big enough to take them all, and when the door hissed shut behind them, the cramped space became disturbingly claustrophobic. Vertue hugged herself tightly to stop herself trembling. She’d never liked enclosed spaces.

“Odin, this is the Captain,” said Silence through his comm implant. “Respond, please.”

“Contact confirmed,” murmured the AI in his ear. “Sensor scans are still normal. No life forms within sensor range. Air, temperature, and gravity are within acceptable limits. You have seven hours daylight remaining.”

“Open the hatch, computer.”

The outer door swung open with a hiss of compressed air. Silence stepped forward, and then hesitated in the doorway as a breeze brought him the scent of Unseeli. It was a sharp, smoky scent, and though he hadn’t smelt it for ten years, it was immediately familiar to him, as though he’d never left. He lifted his head a little, and stepped out onto the landing pads followed by the others. The grey afternoon was bitter cold and his breath steamed on the air before him. There was a series of faint clicks as the heating elements in his uniform kicked in. Tall metal trees surrounded the landing field, filling the horizon no matter which way he looked. It was ten years since he’d last looked on the metallic forest of Unseeli. It seemed like yesterday.

Base Thirteen stood in the centre of the landing field, hidden behind its force screen. The protective dome swirled and shimmered, like a huge pearl in a dull metal setting. It was easy to imagine something dark and unknown squatting behind the screen, staring out at the pinnace’s crew and waiting for them to come to it. A sudden chill ran up Silence’s spine that had nothing to do with the cold. He smiled sourly and shrugged the thought aside. He looked around to see what his people made of their new surroundings. The two marines had their disrupters in their hands and were glancing quickly about them, checking for threats and familiarizing themselves with the territory. The Investigator was standing a little to one side, calmly studying the force screen. The esper was hugging herself against the cold and staring out at the forest, her eyes very large in her pale, bony face. None of them looked particularly worried. That would change, soon enough. Silence coughed loudly to get their attention.

“I’m going to have to leave you for a while. The Investigator is in charge until I return. Any problems, she can contact me on the command channel. But unless it’s vitally important, I don’t want to be disturbed. We’re going to need help to get through that screen, and I think I know where to find some.”

Frost looked at him narrowly. “Help? On Unseeli? Don’t you think it’s about time you filled us in on what’s going on here, Captain?”

“No,” said Silence. “Not just yet.”

“Well, can you at least tell us where you’re going?”

“Of course, Investigator. I’m going to talk to the traitor called Carrion. He’s going to get us through the force screen. That’s if he doesn’t decide to kill us all first.”