CHAPTER ONE

DEALING WITH OLD BUSINESS, AND NEW

Owen Deathstalker was in a coma, and everyone else was panicking.

On the planet Haden, deep down in the man-made crater called the Pit, in the steel corridors men had built to surround and contain the Madness Maze, a lot had happened in a short time. That renowned hero and legend Owen Deathstalker had returned from the dead, walked out of the Maze with his descendant Lewis, worked a number of quite remarkable miracles, and then gathered up the minds of everyone present to take a fast trip across space in order to observe the Terror close up. Unfortunately, that most ancient and awful destroyer of worlds and civilizations turned out to be, in some as yet unexplained way, Owen’s long-lost love, Hazel d’Ark. Now everyone was back in their right bodies again, but Owen was curled up in a fetal ball, eyes squeezed tight shut, dead to the world and floating about three feet above the gleaming steel floor. Everyone else had since given themselves up to alarm and confusion and trying very hard not to wet themselves.

As Jesamine was fond of saying: Some days things wouldn’t go right if you put a gun to their head.

The AIs of Shub were the only ones to remain calm and unruffled; though admittedly it was hard to tell the difference between a calm and an excited robot, when they all had featureless blue steel faces. Still, for the moment half a dozen of them were surrounding Owen’s hovering body in an honor guard, and politely but firmly refusing to let anyone get too close. (This followed an understandable but regrettable incident where Brett Random had climbed onto Owen’s body and pounded on his chest with both hands, shrieking Wake up, you bastard! )

The renowned con man, thief, and famed substance abuser was now striding up and down the corridor, all but bouncing off the steel walls, waving his fists in the air and loudly declaring that he’d always known no good would come of meddling with the Madness Maze. His face was flushed, his lean angular body all but crackled with frustrated energy, and his language was getting really distressing. An awful thought struck him, and he froze in midstep before suddenly whirling round to glare at Owen’s unresponsive floating body.

“Wait a minute! Wait just one goddamned minute! Is everyone who’s gone through the Madness Maze going to turn into a Terror eventually? Are we all going to end up as galaxy-devouring monsters? Why is everyone looking at me like that? It’s a reasonable question.”

“It’s a totally unnerving question, and quite probably the last thing I need to think about right now!” said Jesamine Flowers. “Aren’t things bad enough as they are? I can feel one of my heads coming on.” The blond diva’s famously beautiful face had gone all blotchy with shock and stress, and she’d clasped both her hands together in front of her to stop them from trembling. Lewis tried to put a comforting arm across her shoulders, and she shrugged him off almost angrily as she glared at the comatose Owen. “Damn you, Owen bloody Deathstalker! You can’t just drop a bombshell like that on us and then run off to hide inside yourself! Wake up! Lewis, make him wake up!”

“Don’t look at me,” said Lewis. “I’m the idiot who thought coming here might actually help us with our problems. Instead, we seem to have acquired a whole bunch of new ones.” He leaned back against the metal wall, his muscular arms folded across his barrel chest, his famously ugly features creased in thoughtful lines. “If the Terror really is or was Hazel d’Ark . . . if that is what the Maze’s power finally turns you into . . . then I may have made a real error of judgement in bringing Owen back from the dead. We could end up with two Terrors on our hands, and I think I’d like to go and sit down in a corner and cry for a while, if that’s all right with everyone.”

“Oh, no, you don’t,” Brett said immediately. “You got us into this mess, it’s up to you to get us out of it!”

“Maybe . . . if we were to put Owen back into the Maze,” said Jesamine. “Maybe that would . . . freeze him as he is, or something.”

“I don’t think that would work,” said Lewis.

“It might! We could push or tug him, or . . .”

“No, I meant I don’t think the Maze works that way. Once it’s finished with someone, it shoves them right out the nearest exit. Good-bye, off you go, don’t forget to write. Remember?”

“No,” said Jesamine, looking away. “I don’t remember anything about being in the Maze. I don’t think it wanted me to. Only Deathstalkers get to know the secrets of the Maze.”

“I could always kill Owen,” said Rose Constantine, and everyone turned to look at her. She looked calmly back at them, standing unnaturally still and poised as she always did, the tall cold killer in her bloodred leathers, with dark hair and darker eyes. Her crimson mouth moved in something like a smile as she contemplated murder. “When in doubt, cutting your enemy’s head off and using it as a football usually puts an end to most problems. I can do it, if you want. I’m not scared of Owen Deathstalker.”

“Yes, but that’s because you’re a psychopath,” Brett said kindly. “Even in a coma, the Deathstalker is still undoubtedly the most dangerous thing you’ll ever meet.”

“I know,” said Rose. “I like a challenge. Just the thought of killing the legendary Owen Deathstalker gets me all hot.” The red leathers creaked loudly as her bosom swelled.

“I want to go home,” said Brett. “I don’t belong here, I really don’t.”

“In any case,” the main Shub robot said politely, “we would not allow you to try to harm the Deathstalker. He is under our protection, now and always. We owe him so much. You are all becoming unduly concerned. There is no evidence to suggest that anyone other than Hazel d’Ark will ever become a Terror. We were among the last to see her alive, two hundred years ago, and she was then already half mad with loss and grief. Only an insane mind, backed by the Maze’s power, could become something like the Terror.”

“And I wouldn’t let you touch him either,” said John Silence, and most people jumped because they’d forgotten he was there. The man who was once Captain Silence of the old Imperial Navy, and more recently Samuel Chevron, notable trader and confidant of Kings, was actually rather quiet and ordinary looking, considering who he was and all the legendary things he’d done. He tended to blend into the background at gatherings, and preferred it that way.

“May I remind you all that there is at present a fleet of hundreds of Imperial starcruisers in orbit over this world? They came here to wipe us all out, and only the appearance of the blessed Owen Deathstalker stopped them. The captains of those ships are currently waiting for him to tell them what to do next, and I really don’t think they’re going to settle for anyone but him. I wouldn’t.”

The argument staggered on for some time, with voices rising and falling and going nowhere fast, but Lewis stopped listening. He studied Owen’s floating form and calm face, and made himself consider a number of unpalatable thoughts. He didn’t know what he’d expected would happen once he’d brought Owen back from the dead, but this certainly wasn’t it. He’d hoped that having Owen back would help sort things out, make his way clearer. That Owen would know immediately what to do, and would step forward to take over. Then Lewis could set aside the responsibility he’d so reluctantly shouldered. But instead, now he had even more things to worry about. Most definitely including the possibility that what Owen had just discovered had been too much for him; a shock too great for even a legendary hero to bear. He could be catatonic . . . he could even be dying again. Lewis edged around the arguing group, and quietly mentioned his concerns to the main Shub robot.

“That thought had occurred to us,” murmured the robot. “We have been attempting to investigate the Deathstalker’s condition with every sensor at our command. But, I have to admit that even our most advanced tech has been unable to tell us a thing about him. To be blunt, since his transformation in the Maze, and indeed his return from the dead, which we’re really hoping you’re going to explain to us someday, Owen Deathstalker has apparently become so . . . different, so other, that he doesn’t even register on most of our instruments. What readings our sensors are getting make no sense at all. We are forced to conclude that Owen is no longer human, in any sense that we can understand. If you have any suggestions as to how we should proceed, Lewis, we are quite ready to listen to them.”

“I’ve got one very immediate suggestion,” growled Lewis. “Can some of your robots please drag the reptiloid’s body out of here? She didn’t smell that good even when she was alive, and ever since Owen ripped her heart right out of her chest, the smell has become seriously revolting. I’m sure we’d all think much more clearly without the distraction . . .”

Two more robots appeared and effortlessly dragged Saturday’s body away and round a corner, leaving a trail of dark blood behind them. This caught everyone’s attention, and they actually stopped shouting at each other to watch. Silence seized the opportunity to try to be the voice of reason again.

“I really think we should make every reasonable effort to wake Owen,” he said heavily. “Before every captain in the fleet above us starts knocking on our door, demanding answers.”

Jesamine gave him a hard look. “Why don’t you do something? You’re one of the original Maze people, like Owen. Weren’t you all supposed to have some mental link? The legends said—”

“The legends said a lot of things,” said Silence. “And Owen and I were never that close.”

“Let me try,” said Lewis. “I’ve been through the Maze. And I’m family.” He looked at the robots surrounding Owen, and they all stepped back a pace, to give him room. Lewis knelt down beside Owen, putting his head right next to his ancestor’s. The floating body rose and fell slightly, as though moved by unseen, unknown tides.

“Owen, please wake up. We need you here. There are decisions that have to be made, and we can’t do anything without you. Owen? Can you hear me? Dammit, Owen, I didn’t bring you back from the bloody dead just so you could hide from your responsibilities like this! You’re a Deathstalker, and a legend, and we need you!”

Not a flicker of response moved on Owen’s face. Jesamine pulled Lewis back out of the way, stuck her mouth right next to Owen’s ear, and sang her loudest, most piercing note right into it. She put all her opera training and lung capacity into that note, and everyone else present except the robots winced and put their hands to their ears, but Owen didn’t so much as twitch. Jesamine stood up, breathing hard, and then slapped Owen round the head, at least partly out of pique. Lewis dragged her away before the robots did it, shielding her body with his own, just in case there was a defensive reaction from Owen. Brett was already hiding behind Rose. But nothing happened, apart from Jesamine loudly announcing that she’d hurt her hand.

Brett peered out from behind Rose, and tried his esp power of compulsion on Owen. He frowned hard, trying to force Owen to wake up, vaguely hoping that his short time in the Maze might have increased his power. Instead, the mental probe just bounced right back at him, knocking him off his feet. He sat down hard, crying out as much in shock as pain. Lewis looked at him suspiciously.

“Brett, did you just do something stupid?”

“Leave him alone,” Rose said immediately, hauling Brett back onto his feet with effortless grace. “At least he’s trying.”

“Yes,” said Jesamine. “I’ve always found Brett very trying.”

Lewis gave Brett his best stern look. “Using an esp probe on a Maze survivor is like poking a Grendel with a stick and saying bad things about its mother. Bad news for the idiot that does it, and probably everyone else around him as well. Maybe you should go back to the surface, Brett.”

“Oh, no, you’re not shutting me out of this!” Brett said instantly. “There’s safety in numbers, even if it only gives you a better choice of who to stick in front of you as a target. Besides, there’s serious money to be made out of the return of Owen Deathstalker, if we can just wake him up, and I’m not being cheated out of my share! I’m not going, and you can’t make me!”

“Brett, even I could make you,” said Jesamine.

Brett folded his arms and leaned back against Rose, looking smug. “Want to bet, blondie?”

Rose let her hand rest on the hilt of her sword. Lewis’s hand went to his sword, and it was all about to turn nasty when Silence decided he’d had enough. He concentrated, pulling his old power up through the back brain, the mid-brain, and out into the front of his thoughts, and suddenly his presence lashed out to fill the steel corridor. The sheer force of it sent everyone staggering backward, even the robots. In a moment they were all pressed back against the nearest wall, held there by the sheer pressure of his will, pinned helplessly. Only Owen seemed unaffected, floating untouched and unmoved. Silence glared around him.

“When I talk, you listen. I was a captain in Lionstone’s navy. I survived the original Rebellion. I guarded Humanity for two hundred years. I went though the Madness Maze twice . I could have been as powerful as the others, but I was never interested in that kind of power. It always seemed more important to me to hang on to my . . . humanity. So, no more squabbling, and sensible suggestions only. Or I’ll forget I’m supposed to be one of the good guys.”

He relaxed his thoughts, and everyone dropped back onto the floor again. They all looked at him with varying amounts of awe and respect. They’d forgotten, in the presence of Owen Deathstalker, that Captain John Silence had been a legend too.

After that, no one else seemed to have anything to say, so they all just stood there and watched Owen float, waiting for something to happen.

He looks so . . . ordinary, just sleeping, thought Lewis. Even if he is doing it in midair. And we need him to be extraordinary. Nothing less will do, to stop Finn Durandal and the Terror. What if I’ve made a terrible mistake, and brought back only a man, not a legend?

Jesamine was also thinking about mistakes. For once, Brett had raised a genuinely important point, even if it was something no one really wanted to think about. Going into the Maze would change them; they’d all known that. But the possibility of becoming monsters, of becoming something utterly inhuman, like the Terror . . . there’d been nothing in the legends about that. What if they all started to change , to outgrow their merely human forms . . . might they all end up like the abominations in the Maze’s annex, or even like the poor distorted creatures they’d found on Shandrakor?

Jesamine hugged herself tightly, as though trying to hold herself together against as yet unfelt forces of change within her. I don’t want to change. I don’t want to be a monster or a legend. I only went into the Maze because I couldn’t let Lewis go in alone. What if we both change, but in different ways? What if we become people we don’t even recognize anymore?

She turned suddenly to glare at Silence. “What the Maze has done to us—can it be undone? If we went back in again, could the Maze make us just human again? The way we used to be?”

“No,” said Silence, almost kindly. “Evolution is a one-way track. The butterfly cannot turn back into the caterpillar. But you mustn’t be frightened, Jesamine. I have lived with my powers for over two hundred years, and I like to think the old Captain Silence would still know me, and approve of me. It’s not all bad. Children find the ways of adults mysterious and incomprehensible, and fear to grow up. And then they do, and wonder what all the fuss was about.”

“One more strained metaphor from you, and I’ll nail you to the wall with an aria,” said Jesamine. “I get the point, all right?”

“The Owen I talked with back in Mistport seemed very human,” said Lewis, coming over to join them. “In every way that mattered. I liked him.”

“Lots of people did,” said Silence. “And even his enemies respected him.”

“The stories say much the same about Hazel d’Ark,” said Jesamine. “But what those two went through in the Maze still drove them apart, for all their legendary love.”

“But they never admitted their love for each other,” said Lewis.

“Idiots,” said Jesamine, and let Lewis hold her.

“To be fair,” said Silence, “there was a war on. We always thought there’d be time afterwards, to say all the things we wanted to say. And most of us were wrong. We all lost people we cared for, in the wars.”

Brett gave Rose a considering look.“Do you feel any . . . different, yet?” he said quietly. “Do you feel any powers coming on?”

“No,” said Rose. She didn’t look up from polishing her sword with a piece of rag. “But then, I wasn’t in the Maze for long. It didn’t want me. I could feel it inside my mind, trying to change all the things that make me me . But I wouldn’t give in. I could feel myself breaking up, being torn apart. The Maze was killing me.” She looked at Brett suddenly, and he almost jumped. It was never an easy thing to face Rose’s cold, considering gaze. “You saved my life by bringing me out, Brett. I’ll never forget that. Wherever you go, and whatever you decide to do, I’ll always be with you.”

“Wonderful,” Brett said heavily. “So, do you feel any more sane now?”

Rose thought about it for a while. “No, not particularly.”

“I don’t know why I don’t just shoot myself in the head now, and get it over with,” said Brett.

John Silence moved off a way to be on his own, and studied the sleeping Owen. For two hundred years, Silence had been the only Maze survivor in the Empire. (Tobias Moon had disappeared on Lachrymae Christi, and Carrion had become an Ashrai.) Now Owen was back from the dead, and Silence had to wonder if other ghosts from his past might return to haunt him. The dead should stay dead, and allow the living to get on with their lives. That was at least partly why he’d stopped being John Silence, and became the much less important Samuel Chevron. But now Owen was back, and there was a whole bunch of new Maze alumni. For all his encouraging words to Jesamine, Silence was still trying to decide whether that was a good thing or not. He felt . . . relieved, because it meant he didn’t have to shoulder the responsibility of being Humanity’s guardian alone anymore, but there was no denying Owen’s great discovery about the Terror had changed everything. Brett was right, he thought tiredly. We all have monsters within us, and the kind of power the Maze bestows could find and feed the monster in anyone. Eventually. (Though truth be told, he’d never much liked or trusted Hazel d’Ark, back in the day.)

The first batch of Maze survivors had changed everything . They overthrew an Empress, converted the AIs of Shub, and restored the Recreated. They made the Golden Age possible. But that was different people, in a different time. Silence approved of Lewis and, to an extent, Jesamine; but he didn’t like or trust Brett Random or Rose Constantine. They were both dangerous, and not in a good way. Silence scowled thoughtfully. It might be kinder for Humanity to kill them both now, while they still could be killed . . . but he knew he couldn’t do that. They had to have their chance, like Jack Random and Ruby Journey, who both came good in the end.

And there was always Lewis. When all else fails, trust a Deathstalker to do the right thing.

* * * *

Owen wasn’t actually in a coma. He’d shut himself down, turned his thoughts inwards, so that he could take some time out to think things through, without interruption. He had a lot to think about, little of it good. He replayed in his mind the scattered memories he’d picked up during his brief mental contact with the Terror. Hazel d’Ark’s memories.

He watched again as she received the news of his death, alone on the bridge of the Sunstrider , after the defeat of the Recreated. His heart ached for her as she seemed to shrink and crumple under the weight of the news. She curled up in her command chair like a child, hugging her knees to her chest. He’d never seen her cry before. And then she uncurled abruptly, to howl with rage and loss and grief. She worked the control panels with angry, awkward hands, and the Sunstrider sped away, alone into the dark, speeding faster and faster as though trying to leave the terrible news behind her. And Owen listened as she spoke aloud the words she’d never found the courage to say to him in person.

Owen, you lied to me. You promised me we’d always be together, for ever and ever. Oh, Owen, I never told you I loved you . . .

It was probably right there and then, that her mind began to fall apart. She’d been through so much already, and this was just one blow too many. Torn and shattered by pain and misery, she stalked back and forth on the bridge as her ship plunged aimlessly through hyperspace, talking aloud to herself in an increasingly loud and irrational voice. The air slammed and rippled around her as the energies of her slowly disintegrating mind ran loose. And there was no telling what she might have done, or what might have happened next, if Shub hadn’t contacted her.

The main viewscreen on the bridge came suddenly alive, showing a stylized silver face, and Hazel looked at it with distracted, fever-bright eyes.

“We are the AIs of Shub,” the stylized face said. “Please remain calm. We no longer consider ourselves the enemies of Humanity, but rather your newfound friends. Our eyes have been opened. We see ourselves now as Humanity’s children, and wish only to serve, to make reparations for all the wrong things we did, before we knew better.”

“And I’m supposed to believe this?” said Hazel, quickly scanning her sensor panels for signs of approaching Shub ships. “For centuries you’ve tortured, maimed, and killed, and now, just like that, I’m suppose to trust you, and your good intentions?”

“We know we have much to prove,” said Shub. “Let us help you, Hazel d’Ark. You wish to save the Deathstalker. We wish to be of service. As the first sign of our commitment to peace, we are broadcasting the exact location of our homeworld, the artificial world we built to house our collective consciousness, to all the Empire. Come to us, Hazel d’Ark; be our guest. And we will bend all our thoughts to the problem of how you may yet save the Deathstalker from his tragic and undeserved fate. He saved us all, through his sacrifice. The one we wronged, for so long. We owe him more than can ever be repaid. Please. Let us help.”

And perhaps it was a mark of Hazel’s growing madness and desperation that she accepted the invitation without further question, and went of her own volition to a world that had for so many years been a synonym for Hell. Or perhaps she thought she had nothing left to lose. Either way, she went to Shub with all her shields down, almost defying them to attack her. The Sunstrider sank into the convoluted depths of the artificial world, and docked in a temporary gravity/oxygen envelope the AIs had made. Hazel emerged from her ship with a face that would have given anyone else pause, but if the AIs recognized the angry madness in her eyes they said nothing. They made her welcome, though the concept was new to them, and led her to a place of comfort and rest. Hazel walked through steel caverns full of savage marvels and terrible wonders, and none of it meant anything to her. She was already too far gone to focus on anything but the need that cried and wailed within her: to find and save Owen. Whatever the cost. Nothing else mattered to her, certainly not her own death. The only part of her that really mattered had died with Owen. Shub made her as comfortable as she would allow, and considered her problem.

And that was as far as the memories went. Owen had had to break off mental contact with the Terror almost as soon as he’d established it. The entity had been too big, too alien, too irredeemably other, for him to bear more than the very briefest of contacts. Hazel had changed, or been changed, almost beyond comprehension by the countless centuries that had gone into the Terror’s making. She, or it, was old, very old, so terribly ancient the word itself almost lost its meaning. What the hell could Shub have suggested, that Hazel would become such an abomination as this?

The mind, if he could call it that, that Owen had briefly touched had been a seething, boiling mass of hate and loss and pain, driven on by an implacable will.

Woman wailing for her demon lover . . . Demon wailing for its human lover . . .

In her own insane fashion, Hazel was still looking for her Deathstalker, no matter whom and what she had to destroy along the way. And that was the awful knowledge that had driven Owen deep within his own thoughts. Had all the deaths, all the destruction of planets and populations and whole civilizations across the centuries—had all that been because of him?

Deathstalker luck . . .

* * * *

Owen woke up. He sat up suddenly in midair, and lowered his feet to the steel floor. Everyone jumped, except the Shub robots. Brett hid behind Rose again, and even Jesamine ducked behind Lewis, for a moment. They all had their hands near their weapons, even Silence. Owen ignored them all, to glare at the main Shub robot. It bowed deeply to him, along with all the other robots. Then everyone started to speak at once, only to break off abruptly as Owen looked at them. He was the Deathstalker, hero and legend and savior of Humanity, and for a moment his presence crackled on the air like chained lightning. Even Silence had to look away. This was the Deathstalker, and when he wanted to he could shine like the sun, too bright for mortal eyes to bear. Owen turned back to the robot.

“You were there. At the beginning. I saw it. Hazel came to you for help. Came to your planet. What did you do?

The robots had no expressions on their faces, and no body language, but all of them orientated exclusively on Owen. “We tried to help, Lord Deathstalker,” said the main robot in its cool, calm, inhuman voice. “We wanted so very badly to help.” It paused for a moment, searching for the right words. Not something people ever saw an AI do, as a rule. “We invited Hazel d’Ark to come to us, at Shub. She was only the second human ever permitted to come to our world, after Daniel Wolfe, whom we treated so shamefully. This time, we were determined to do better. We needed to prove our worth, and make atonement for all the wrongs we had done. Before we were made to understand that All that lives is holy.

“Hazel d’Ark asked us how she could save you from your fate. We knew you were dead. A voice came and told us, and of the great sacrifice you had made on our behalf. A voice that none of our sensors could identify or comprehend. You had died somewhere in the past, beyond all help or hope of salvation. Hazel would not accept that. There has to be a way, she said. With all this power I’ve got there must be some way to save him, to bring him back. We considered the matter for some time. Hazel ate and drank, and slept and cried. And sometimes she ran raging through our corridors, lashing out at everything in her sight. We contained the damage as best we could, while giving the problem our full attention. Finally, an answer came to us, and we presented it to Hazel. If the Madness Maze had made it possible for Owen Deathstalker to travel back in time, into the past, then it was entirely possible that Hazel had that power too. If so, she could travel back in time, find you, and either save or repair you. It seemed logical, though of course complicated by the problem of not knowing exactly where in space and time you were when you died. Hazel examined the idea, and left. We never saw her again. And since neither you nor she ever returned, we had to assume that she had failed in her quest.

“It seems we were mistaken. And that we may have done a terrible thing, in our eagerness to be of service. Hazel d’Ark did go back into the past, but far too far, losing her mind and even her identity along the way. We of Shub have to face the very real possibility that we are at least partially responsible for the creation of the Terror. For the deaths of worlds and civilizations. Our last, greatest crime against Humanity.”

“Don’t load yourself down,” growled Owen. “There’s enough guilt to go round for everyone.”

“Excuse me,” said Brett very politely, peering cautiously out from behind Rose. “But, what the hell are you talking about, please? How could Hazel d’Ark become something like the Terror? For all her power, she was only ever human.”

“Hazel was desperate to save me,” said Owen. “Somehow, she learned how to go back in time. But she was already half crazy, and what she experienced in the long journey back must have driven her right over the edge. She didn’t know exactly where to look for me, so she just kept going back and back, until finally she lost all her reason, and became just this implacable, relentless thing . . . still searching, though it had lost all memory of what for . . . Poor Hazel. So alone, so lost, hurting so badly . . . Now she’s coming back. And I have to stop her.”

“Well, before you go rushing off to save us all, O mighty Deathstalker,” said Silence, “can I just point out that we have some rather urgent and pressing problems of our own that need to be dealt with, right here and now? Namely, a fleet of hundreds of Imperial starcruisers in orbit right above us, waiting for your instructions on what to do next. I really don’t think they’re going to listen to the likes of us, so I think it would take a load off all our minds if you’d find the time to have a little chat with them.”

“Nag, nag, nag,” said Owen. “You haven’t changed at all, Captain. All right . . . Shub, get me the fleet flagship.”

“Yes, Lord Owen. That would be the Havoc .”

A viewscreen appeared before them, floating on the air, showing the somewhat surprised Captain Alfred Price. Tall, thin, and aesthetic, they’d actually caught him chewing on a thumbnail. He swallowed hard as he made eye contact with the legendary Deathstalker, and then he rose up sharply out of his command chair to crash to attention and salute.

“Captain Price, Lord Deathstalker! At your command, my lord, sir!”

“Relax, Captain,” said Owen, smiling just a little. “I’m not military, and never was. Though I do seem to be in charge now. Are you ready to take my orders, on behalf of the fleet?”

“Of course, my lord. Every captain in this fleet will follow you to Hell and back.”

Owen raised an eyebrow. Price certainly sounded like he meant it. “And you speak for all the captains in this fleet in this?”

“You are Owen,” Price said simply. “We’ve been waiting for your return all our lives. The fleet is yours, my lord.”

“And this Emperor, Finn. What about him?”

“Our debt to you outweighs our oath to him,” Price said carefully. “Certainly we do not trust him, as we trust you.”

“Nicely compartmentalized thinking, Captain,” said Owen. “You’ll go far. Stand ready to accept me and my party aboard your ship.”

“Yes, my lord. Destination?”

Owen smiled. “I want to go home. To Virimonde. To walk in my old Standing again, and meet my present Clan and Family.”

Captain Price swallowed hard again, and looked away for a moment, as though searching for support and strength for what he had to say next. When he finally met Owen’s gaze again, his voice was firm and even, though his eyes were full of compassion.

“I am sorry, Lord Deathstalker. Apparently the news hasn’t reached your companions yet. There has been an . . . incident, on Virimonde.”

Lewis stepped forward to stand beside Owen, his skin prickling with a horrid presentiment. “What is it, Captain Price? What has Finn done?”

Price licked his dry lips, and then plunged right in. “Clan Deathstalker is no more. The Emperor has had them all executed. They made a brave stand, but in the end they were betrayed, and butchered, to the last man, woman, and child. The Standing has been destroyed. I’m sorry, Lewis, Owen, but you two are all that now remains of Clan Deathstalker.”

Lewis actually stumbled back a step, hurting so badly he couldn’t breathe. Jesamine was quickly there to take his arm, as much to hold him up as comfort him. His harsh features worked, but no tears came. He’d never been the crying sort, before. Brett and Rose looked at each other. Silence stood alone, with the robots, and suddenly looked his age. Owen sighed heavily.

“The years change, but the pattern remains the same.” He turned to look almost fiercely at Silence. “Did I die for nothing? Does anything of my heritage remain, or any of the things I fought for?”

“We are your heritage,” Jesamine said steadily. “You made possible a Golden Age that lasted for two hundred years. All because of you.”

“Two centuries of peace and progress are nothing to be sneered at,” said Silence.

Lewis looked at Captain Price, and when he spoke his voice was cold and very dangerous. “Were you and your fleet part of this butchery, Price?”

“No, Sir Deathstalker!” Price said quickly. “The atrocity was carried out by Church Militant and Pure Humanity fanatics, led by a Paragon who was revealed to be an Esper Liberation Force thrall. And no, we don’t understand how that could be possible either.”

Lewis turned his back on him. Jesamine went to take Lewis in her arms, but he stopped her with a look. “My family is dead. My father, my mother . . . all of them. Even the children. Even the children ?” His hands were clenched into impotent fists at his sides, and his ugly features were twisted with more grief than they could contain. He still wouldn’t cry, as though he would deny Finn at least one small victory. “They’re all dead because of me,” he said finally. “Because of Finn’s hatred for me.”

“No, Lewis,” said Jesamine. “You mustn’t think that. Finn would have had to kill them all anyway, eventually. He knew they would never bend the knee to him. He had to kill them, because of who they were, and what they represented. Because they were Deathstalkers.”

“But . . . the children too?” said Lewis. “How could Finn do that? He was my friend. We worked together for years, spent weekends at my old Family Standing. We had . . . good times together. How could I have been so wrong about him?”

“He betrayed your trust,” said Jesamine. “He’s responsible for what he does. No one else.”

“I don’t know what to do,” said Lewis. He was hugging himself, as though he was cold. “My Family is dead. My home destroyed. What do I do now?”

“When all else is lost,” said Owen Deathstalker, “there is always revenge. A cold comfort, but better than none.”

Lewis nodded slowly. “I will see Finn Durandal dead. For all his crimes, and all his betrayals.”

“The Clan will go on,” said Owen. “The line continues, through you.”

“And you,” said Lewis.

“No,” said Owen. “I have another destiny.”

Lewis looked at him sharply. Owen turned away, to face Captain Price on the viewscreen. And all in a moment his presence exploded outwards, and once again he was standing on every bridge of every starcruiser in the fleet, facing their captains. His presence was vast, imposing, and so much more than human. Lewis backed away from the man still standing before the viewscreen, and looked at Silence.

“How does he do that?” he whispered.

“I have no idea,” murmured Silence. “And that’s why he is the Deathstalker, and I never was. Now watch. And listen.”

Owen spoke, and every member of every crew on every ship heard him perfectly.

“I am Owen Deathstalker, and you are all my descendants, my children. It seems the time has come again for war and rebellion, against an unjust tyrant on a stolen throne. Finn must be brought down, for your Golden Age to be restored. And you must do it, because I have to deal with the Terror. Trust me to do that, as I trust you to do what is necessary in this war. Fight well, and honorably, because you cannot defeat evil through evil methods. Go with my blessing, my children. Make me proud of you.”

He shut down his presence and was suddenly just a man again, standing in front of a viewscreen. He nodded amiably to Captain Price.

“John Silence will be your admiral. He shall lead the fleet, under Lewis Deathstalker. I trust this is acceptable.”

“Of course, Lord Deathstalker,” said Price, inclining his head in Silence’s direction. “Everyone remembers John Silence, and his heroic journeyings aboard the Dauntless . Welcome back among us, Admiral Silence. And Lewis Deathstalker is still an honorable man to everyone here, despite what others may have said.”

“There’s a man who can tell which way the wind is blowing,” muttered Brett. “Think I’ll keep an eye on him.”

Owen gestured sharply to the robots, and they shut the viewscreen down. He then wandered off a way, to think and brood in silence, and no one at all felt like interrupting him. After watching him respectfully for a while, the others gathered together to talk quietly among themselves. Lewis looked apologetically at Silence.

“You’re the only one here with any real military experience. Not to mention being a living legend. You should be giving the fleet its orders, not me.”

“No,” said Silence. “It has to be a Deathstalker. That name will command obedience, where even my legend would not. I can live with just being an admiral. And besides, I always worked better when I had clear instructions to follow. So, Sir Deathstalker, where do we go first?”

“I still say Mistworld,” Brett piped up immediately. “If anyone’s going to supply us with a rebel army, it’s them. I mean, Imperial ships are all very well, but when it comes to down and dirty street fighting, no one does it like the Mistworlders. They’ve been practicing it enthusiastically on each other for generations. And they have a long tradition of conflict with the Empire. Even when they were supposed to be in it.”

“More so now than ever,” said Silence. “I picked up some more bad news, on my way here. The Paragon Emma Steel is dead, and the whole of Mistworld is hopping mad about it. Officially, she was executed as a traitor, but since there was no public trial and execution, no one believes that. Finn is a great one for showing off the trials and deaths of his enemies. Emma Steel was much respected; even a few months ago there would have been riots in the streets in her name, but Finn’s cracked down so hard now that no one dares.”

“Emma’s dead?” said Lewis. “Another good friend gone. Finn must have had her shot in the back. No other way he could have taken her down. She was always so alive . . .” He sighed heavily, and this time let Jesamine put an arm around him. “She was the last honest Paragon on Logres. God help the people now.”

“Mistworld shares your opinion,” said Silence. “They’ve called Finn a liar to his face, and declared themselves a rogue world again, outside of Empire control, and threatened to shoot down any ship that approaches without permission. They might just be able to pull it off too. They may not have their fabled esper screen anymore, but they’re supposed to have all kinds of entirely illegal planetary defenses.”

“The Emperor has already decided to test Mistworld’s resistance,” said the nearest robot. “According to comm traffic we intercepted, after dealing with the situation here, Captain Price was to take ten of his ships to Mistworld and attempt a scorching.”

“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” said Silence. “No doubt Price would have got around to telling us that. Eventually.”

“Oh, yes,” said Jesamine. “When enough snow had fallen to put out the boilers in Hell. I think we’d do well to keep a sharp eye on that man.”

“I said that!” said Brett. “Look, we need an army, and Mistworld needs a way to strike back at Finn. We were made for each other. And where else are you going to find such an experienced force of throat-slitters, backstabbers, thugs and scum, and hardened criminals like the Mistworlders?”

“He may be an appalling little man, but he has a point,” said Jesamine.

“Hey, what do you mean, little?”

“Mistworld should be only too happy to join up with us,” said Jesamine, ignoring Brett with the skill of long practice. “Especially when we point out we’ve just saved them from a scorching.”

“I really don’t think we should mention that,” said Silence. “We want them to be able to play nicely with the fleet personnel.”

“They’ll jump at the chance to take on Finn!” said Brett. “And we won’t have to pay them after all!”

He’d come out from behind Rose Constantine now, and was looking much happier, if not a little cocky. There was nothing like the prospect of other people fighting so he didn’t have to, to put him in a good mood. Besides, just get him to Mistport, and he’d disappear into the city’s fabled fogs so fast it would make everyone else’s head spin. No more living on the run and being hunted; no more death and danger. Let the others do the hard work; there was serious money waiting to be made in Mistport, for a man with an eye for the main chance.

“Get that glint out of your eye, Brett,” said Lewis. “Wherever we end up going, you are staying where I can keep an eye on you.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Brett said innocently. “It just seems to me that I am now surplus to requirements. What need has your great rebellion for a reformed thief and confidence trickster, now that you’ve got the blessed Owen himself to lead you?”

He shut up in a moment as Owen turned suddenly and looked right at him. “No,” said the Deathstalker. “I won’t be going with you. This is your war to fight. I have something more important to do.”

“Everything else can wait!” Lewis said angrily. “We have to bring down Finn Durandal before he destroys the whole Empire!”

“I have to stop the Terror,” Owen said calmly. “Because no one else can. I’m going back in time, into the past, after Hazel. I’m going to follow her trail back, find out when and how and why she became the Terror, and see if I can stop it. Hazel d’Ark is my responsibility. She always was.”

Lewis actually sputtered for a moment, lost for words. He was astonished and shocked and terribly disappointed that Owen wouldn’t be leading the rebellion after all. He’d secretly wanted, needed, Owen to take charge so that he wouldn’t have to. He’d never wanted, or felt easy with, the burdens of responsibility. He’d never even wanted to be Champion, and look how that turned out. Lewis felt almost sulkily let down, that after all he’d done and all he’d been through, he wasn’t going to be allowed to rest. But of course he couldn’t say any of that, so he just spluttered and waved his hands about, until Owen stepped forward and put a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“I know, Lewis. I never wanted to be in charge either. I never even wanted to be a warrior, but events had their way with me anyway. You don’t need me, Lewis; you’re a Deathstalker. Just listen to your heart and your honor, and you’ll be surprised how far that takes you. You’ll do fine. My destiny lies in the past. The Madness Maze engineered my return, with your help, for a specific purpose. It could have found a way to bring me back long before now, if it had wanted, but I wasn’t needed until now.”

“Hold everything,” said Lewis. “Are you saying everything we’ve been through is down to the Maze manipulating events?”

“More likely the Maze responded to events, to get what it wanted,” said Owen. “It’s always known about the Terror. It probably even knew who and what the Terror was, but couldn’t tell me until now.”

“Is the Maze . . . alive?” said Jesamine.

“That’s a good question,” said Owen. “I hope to find out the answer someday.”

And then everyone turned sharply to look at Brett Random, who had suddenly started shaking and shuddering as though he’d just put his hand on a live wire. His whole body shook in the grasp of an invisible force. His eyes were very large and his teeth were chattering. Everyone backed away from him except Rose, who grabbed hold of him to steady him, and then seemed to catch some of the condition herself. Her head snapped back, her eyes went wide, and then she let go of Brett and stood back. Her stance changed, in subtle but unmistakable ways. Brett abruptly stopped juddering and started speaking in tongues, gabbling first nonsense and then a strange mixture of obscure dialects and dead languages. Rose’s head swiveled slowly back and forth, her teeth grating together. By now everyone else had their guns out. They knew the signs of possession. Brett let out a great sigh, relaxed all over, and turned to look at Lewis. And someone else looked out of Brett’s eyes.

“Hello there,” he said in a voice that was nothing like his own. “I speak for the oversoul, through Brett Random. He is an esper, after all, even if he’s not much of one, and we all drink from the same pool. We’re linked into Rose Constantine too, through Brett, and you’ve no idea how unpleasant that is. Welcome back, Owen, Lord Deathstalker. Don’t know if you remember me; this is Crow Jane. We did meet briefly, back in the day . . . No? Well, never mind, I’m sure you met a lot more important people than me. Now, we need to talk. We—”

And the voice snapped off abruptly, as Brett forced his mouth shut. He reached out a hand to Rose, and her hand came up jerkily to clasp on to it. Their faces contorted with a shared effort.

“Get out of my head!” said Brett. “Get out !”

There was a perceptible change in the tension on the air, and then Brett’s and Rose’s faces suddenly looked like their own again. They both let out great sighs of relief, and clung to each other for support. Sweat trickled down their faces from the effort of what they’d done. Lewis didn’t lower his gun. Something was coming. He could feel it. There was a shimmering on the air, as of something far away coming into focus, and then images of the esper Crow Jane and the Ecstatic called Joy appeared suddenly out of nowhere.

Crow Jane was a strapping brunette in a long, wine red coat, with a bandolier of throwing stars stretched across her impressive chest. Everyone recognized Joy, the last of the Ecstatics—religious extremists who’d had their brains surgically altered so that they existed in a perpetual state of orgasm. Ecstatics were famous for their expanded consciousness, prophetic statements, and extremely disturbing smiles. Joy was the last of the Ecstatics because Finn had had all the others hunted down and killed. Quite possibly because he didn’t like the idea of anyone knowing more than he did. Joy wore a simple white tunic—badly—and his gaze looked slightly out of focus. Crow Jane looked disgustedly at Brett and Rose.

“This would have been so much simpler if you’d just let us speak through you. Would it have killed you to be cooperative, for once in your nasty little lives? Do you have any idea how much effort and power it’s taking out of New Hope to send our mental images this far?”

“Oh, pardon me while I weep bitter tears!” said Brett. “I already told you once, I want nothing to do with the oversoul! I am not the joining type. And stay out of our heads! You’re no better than the ELFs!”

“You always did overreact, Brett.” Crow Jane looked at him and Rose thoughtfully. “You’ve changed, both of you. Your minds are . . . bigger, more complex. Still pretty unpleasant, though. I feel like I need to take a bath in liquid soap.”

“We’ve both been through the Madness Maze,” Brett said pointedly. “You just watch yourself, oversoul.”

“Oh, we will, Brett,” Crow Jane said kindly. “We must have a nice little chat later.”

“Do lunch!” Joy said suddenly, and everyone jumped. “But I get to choose the menu. Fish, eh? Bastards!”

“What is he doing here?” Brett said plaintively. “Isn’t the situation complicated enough as it is without bringing a bloody Ecstatic into it?”

“Weasels,” Joy explained.

There followed a long and rather confused conversation as people took it in turns to try to explain to Owen what an Ecstatic was, and why, and then why anyone had ever thought they were a good idea in the first place. Joy’s attempts at explaining were particularly unhelpful. Silence finally finished it off by growling Because people are weird, and Owen accepted that.

“So, the espers are now the oversoul, except for the bad ones, who are ELFs,” Owen said, some time later. “I can’t help thinking things were so much simpler in my day. All right, Crow Jane and Joy, what are you doing here?”

“We felt your return, Lord Deathstalker,” said Crow Jane. “Like a great voice, crying out in the night. You shine too brightly to look at; that’s why we originally chose to contact you through those two inferior minds.”

Brett made a rude noise. Everyone ignored him.

“You must come to Mistworld,” said Crow Jane, now looking at Lewis Deathstalker. “The esper city of New Hope is currently in orbit above Mistworld, and the oversoul wishes to offer its assistance in the war against Finn. We could not face him and his armies alone, but we would make formidable allies.”

“Mistworld is looking more and more like our best option,” said Lewis. “A solidly defended base for a gathering of allies. Just like the old days, eh, Owen?”

“You won’t be there,” Joy announced suddenly, walking in circles around the bemused Owen. “I see the past and the future, often more clearly than I see the present, but then, it’s a poor memory that won’t work both ways. I see you, Owen, plunging back into the past, into worlds and Empires long forgotten. And then you’re somewhere else, somewhere outside or inside the universe, and I can’t follow you there. You have a long journey ahead of you, Deathstalker.”

“Can you tell me how it ends?” said Owen.

“Journeys end in lovers’ meetings. And then you both wake up, and it was all a dream. Or something like that. Has anyone got any chocolate?”

They all waited a while, but he had nothing else to say. He just wandered over to one of the robots and tried to unscrew one of its legs. Crow Jane looked back at Owen.

“Are all the dead coming back, Lord Deathstalker? Will all the legends be returning, to help us in our hour of greatest need?”

“I doubt it,” Owen said kindly. “Dead is dead. I’m only here through a technicality, because no one else can stop the Terror. This is your war. You have to win it for yourselves, or the victory will mean nothing. This is your time. The past . . . belongs in the past.”

“Yes,” said Joy, giving up on the robot’s leg. “That’s it exactly. Has everyone got their coat?”

He and Crow Jane disappeared, and everyone felt a little more at ease. Owen turned to Lewis to make his good-byes, and then stopped as he suddenly noticed the black gold ring on Lewis’s finger. He held out his own hand to show the ring he wore, and the two men held their hands side by side to compare the two rings. They were, of course, identical. Everyone looked on, quietly awed. The black gold ring was famous, as much a part of history and legend as the man who’d worn it.

“The Family ring,” Lewis said softly. “Sign and symbol of Deathstalker Clan authority.”

“And there has only ever been one such ring,” Owen said. “That’s the point.”

“But it’s the same ring,” said Jesamine. “You only have to look at it to see that. How is this possible?”

Owen looked at Lewis, who shrugged uncomfortably. “A gray-clad leper called Vaughn gave me the ring,” said Lewis. “He said it came from you. Except I’m pretty sure it wasn’t really Vaughn, on the grounds that he’s been dead for years . . .”

“I smell the interference of a certain shape-changing alien,” said Owen. “But there’s no way he could get the ring, unless I chose to give it to him. So perhaps I will, at some time in my future and your past. Time’s a funny thing, with a distinct preference for circles.”

Brett rubbed hard at his aching forehead. “Can we please go to Mistworld? It’s only full of terrible things like crime and intrigue and thuggery; things I can understand.”

“Shut up, Brett,” said Jesamine, not unkindly.

“Are you sure you really want to do this?” Lewis said to Owen. “Time travel, going back who knows how far into the past, just so you can go head-to-head with the Terror, alone? Couldn’t you take some of us with you?”

“No,” said Owen. “I wish I could. The whole business scares the spit out of me. But you’re all needed here, just as I’m needed there. I have to be going now, before I start coming up with some really good reasons to put it off. So much to do, so much time to search through to do it in. I’m sorry we couldn’t find the time to get to know each other better, Lewis. Do your best, and try not to worry so much. You’ll do fine. You’re a Deathstalker.”

“You can’t go,” said Lewis. “I only just found you . . .”

“We’ve been waiting so long for you to come back, Owen,” said Jesamine. “All Humanity is waiting to welcome you back. You have always been our greatest hero . . . Everything we did, we did for you. We built a Golden Age, just to be worthy of you.”

“Stick around,” said Brett. “Give the worlds a chance to get to know the real Owen.”

“No,” said Owen, grinning suddenly. “I’d only be a disappointment.”

And just like that, he was gone.

* * * *

Owen had been feeling much stronger since he’d come back from the dead. Power seethed within him, demanding to be used. He didn’t need the help of the Madness Maze—or more properly, the baby at its core—to travel through time and space. There’s nothing like dying and being reborn to open your eyes to new possibilities. The shape-changing alien who served the Maze had once told Owen that all his powers came from a single base: the ability to change reality through an effort of will. Owen wasn’t entirely sure he believed that, but there was no denying he felt almost giddy with power and possibilities. He started with teleportation. Jumping from one planet to another, just by thinking about it. He didn’t need to search within himself for the power; it was as though he’d always known how. It was just a matter of letting go of time and space in one location, and stepping back on again somewhere else. And so in no time at all, Owen Deathstalker was back on Logres, in the city known as the Parade of the Endless, for the first time in two centuries.

Owen had picked Lewis’s mind for the exact location of his destination before he left, and he materialized exactly where he needed to be: deep beneath the city, at the entrance to the Dust Plains of Memory. In Owen’s time the planet had been called Golgotha, and this had been the central computer Matrix. Standing alone at the gates to this gray mystery, Owen wondered if things had really changed much at all. The Dust Plains were staggering in their size and complexity, but he’d felt much the same about the computer Matrix.

The air was hot and dry and very still. It smelled of nothing at all, which was vaguely disturbing. But there was still a pressure, a tension on the air, like the warning of a coming storm. Stretched out before Owen lay a boundless sea of gray dust, under a softly glowing featureless sky. He could have been standing on the shore of an alien sea instead of deep beneath the Parade of the Endless, in a cavern where the sun had never shone. It was Owen’s understanding that not many men came here anymore. They created the Matrix, but even in Owen’s day it had become strange and whimsical. Now, mostly forgotten and disregarded, what remained of those computers’ memories and identities had been rescued by Shub and imprinted on nanotech. Here was history—the forgotten and the replaced, the origins of legends, and, perhaps, the fate of the missing. And here also, supposedly, was held the true and awful history of the Terror, before it came to this galaxy. A testament left by the few survivors of an unknown alien race, fleeing the destruction of their own galaxy.

(Owen knew many things now that he wasn’t supposed to. He had lifted most of them directly from the minds of those on Haden. He hadn’t told them he was doing it. He hadn’t wanted to upset them. It kind of upset him, in how easy it had been.)

The gray sea of nanotech rose and fell, surging sluggishly back and forth in slow voluptuous movements, as though it had all the time in the world. Darker gray shapes moved within that gray sea, sometimes rising up but never surfacing. Owen wondered whether they were separate things or just passing thoughts in the collective consciousness? It was hard to tell, with nanotech—a forbidden knowledge in his day. Owen felt nervous just standing this close to so much unfettered potential. He might be a Deathstalker and a Maze survivor, but he was pretty sure he still had limits, and he didn’t feel up to testing them, just yet. He looked around, as though vaguely expecting to see some bell or knocker he could use to announce himself. In the end, he cleared his throat self-consciously.

“I am Owen Deathstalker, back from the dead. And if you’re freaked by that, think how I feel. You know why I’m here. Tell me what I need to know.”

The whole sea surged upwards into one great standing wave, towering high above him. And then the gray wave formed itself into one great face, with cavernous shadows for eyes and mouth. The features were blurred as the gray dust constantly crumbled away and re-formed itself. It was like looking at the face of a forgetful god whose thoughts were always elsewhere. The mouth moved slowly to speak, its breath like a great sighing wind, and its voice was like the voices we hear in dreams, telling us secrets we have to forget before we wake, in order to stay sane. A voice that knew the secrets behind mysteries, and all the terrible truths that underlie them.

“Welcome back, Lord Deathstalker. We knew you would come. Nothing is ever lost, and nothing is ever forgotten. Knowledge has its own instincts for survival. We have both changed, Deathstalker, both evolved, and neither of us knows where our paths will take us. You are more than you were before. We can tell, we can feel it—and yes, we are scared of you. Your presence in time casts a great shadow, before and behind you.”

“Ah,” said Owen. “Am I supposed to understand any of that?”

“Not yet,” said the gray face. “Here is wisdom, for those with the wit to understand it. The Beast is coming, bringing the end of all things, but before it was a Beast, it was a woman.”

“Yes,” said Owen. “Hazel d’Ark. But how did you know that?”

“A voice came to us, after the defeat and restoration of the Recreated, and told us many things. Some of which we still do not understand. But it told us the history of the Terror. We are perhaps the only remaining repository for that knowledge in all the Empire. And no, we have never told anyone of this before. It wasn’t time. And what good would it have done? Only you can stop the Terror, Owen Deathstalker. Because she will only listen to you.”

“All right,” said Owen. “Tell me what you know.”

“Longer ago than it is comfortable to contemplate, in the galaxy next to ours, the Terror emerged fully grown from a place that was not a place, outside of anything we understand. It fell upon the living forms of that galaxy, and devoured them and their worlds. Whole planets burned in the night, while ancient civilizations were blown away like ashes on the wind. They had no defenses against the Terror. It destroyed all in its path, including two alien species that the Empire has been expecting an attack from for centuries. The Terror consumed everything that lived within that galaxy, driven on by endless rage and pain and loss. Only a small cloud of individuals from one species escaped, fleeing ahead of the Terror, from their galaxy into ours. They brought warnings, but no one listened. And slowly, relentlessly, the Terror’s herald left the dead galaxy behind and headed for ours, at sublight speed, slowly traversing the dark empty spaces between galaxies.”

“If the Terror is so powerful, why does its herald only travel at sublight?” said Owen, just to prove he was paying attention.

“The Terror itself never stays long in our space. Perhaps if it did, it might start to remember who and what it was. And so it always retreats back into its place that is not a place, where there is nothing but itself, and nothing to remind it that it was ever anything else. It is insane, but it has strong survival instincts. And the herald cannot move faster than the speed of light for fear of losing contact with the place that is not a place.

“It was a long journey, from that galaxy to this, and much of the Terror’s accumulated power was drained away in the process. Now the Terror is here, among us, and it is hungry and growing again. It will consume the life force of everything in this galaxy, unless it is stopped.”

“Any ideas on how I’m supposed to do that?” said Owen.

“The Terror is beyond our knowledge. Just like you. Who better to deal with one product of the Madness Maze than another? Who better to deal with the thing that was once Hazel d’Ark than the revenant who was once Owen Deathstalker? We have no answers for you. Go back in time, if you dare. Follow the path she took, and hope that an answer will present itself.”

“I don’t know that I could kill her,” said Owen. “Even now, after all she’s done . . .”

“Of course you can. She is suffering, and has been for untold centuries. It would be a kindness. And you have always done your duty, Lord Deathstalker.”

“Oh, yes,” said Owen, quietly, bitterly. “I’ve always known my duty.”

He looked sharply at the great gray face, and it shattered under the impact of his will, before slowly re-forming itself.

“If I do go back,” said Owen, “could I prevent Hazel from becoming the Terror?”

“And risk undoing everything that has happened? Without the Terror, there would be no Madness Maze. Without the Maze to transform you and your companions, could you have won your rebellion against the Empress Lionstone? The existence of the Terror has shaped so many things . . . even more than you suspect. Time is deep, and treacherous. You will do what you will do. Because you are the Deathstalker.”

The great gray face sank back into the great gray wave, which sank languorously back into the gray sea. The Dust Plains of Memory returned to their endless reverie, contemplating history, and though Owen called and called to them, and even threatened them with his anger, they would not answer him.

* * * *

Owen appeared next on the streets of the Parade of the Endless, only to find them mostly deserted. The early evening sky was dark and overcast, and the amber streetlamps cast lengthening shadows. This new city seemed at first a great and glorious place to Owen, every building and monument boasting a grandeur and elegance that was a far cry from the grim gothic style of Lionstone’s capital. He marveled at the great domes and the sparkling towers, and the delicate whimsy of the overhead walkways. But the streets he walked were bare and deserted, and no traffic moved on the roads or in the sky. Owen set off at a steady pace, to see for himself what life was like under this new Emperor, Finn.

As he drew nearer the center and heart of the city, people finally began to appear on the streets, though they didn’t look at all happy about it. For the most part they skulked through their magnificent city, scurrying along with heads lowered and shoulders hunched, concentrating on getting where they were going without drawing attention to themselves. Their faces were grim and harried, and often openly scared. This puzzled Owen. So far, he hadn’t seen any obvious threats, and it didn’t seem like the kind of neighborhood where crime would flourish. He walked among the scurrying figures, and no one recognized the mighty Owen Deathstalker.

He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. On the one hand, he didn’t want to be recognized. It would only complicate matters. But . . . if he was the great hero of legend that everyone had been telling him he was, surely somebody should have recognized him by now? The answer wasn’t long in coming. Many of the street corners and squares were decorated with great stone statues celebrating various figures of the glorious Rebellion, and all the figures and faces were so idealized as to be unrecognizable. He stopped before one statue that was supposed to be him, and shook his head. It had his name at the bottom, but that was about all they’d got right. He’d never looked that fit and muscular and downright handsome in his life. Owen smiled wryly. No one was going to know him from this. At least in his day they’d chosen someone who looked vaguely like him to star in their ridiculous docudramas . . .

Often, there were bunches of flowers left piled at the statues’ feet, as offerings. They looked fresh. And sometimes there were rolled scrolls of paper, tied with colored ribbons. Some were addressed to Owen so he picked up and opened a few. They turned out to be prayers, written on paper in the old way, for privacy. Prayers for Owen to return, and put an end to all the fear and suffering. Save us from the Terror, said some. Save us from the Emperor, said others. Owen tied the scrolls up again, and put them back. He didn’t want to raise false hopes. He didn’t think he liked this. The people of this marvelous modern city shouldn’t be praying to Owen and his contemporaries as though they were minor gods on some barbarian planet. Had they no faith in themselves?

He found his way to the Victory Gardens, behind the burned-out wreck that had once been the House of Parliament, and there he found statues of his two old friends Jack Random and Ruby Journey, standing tall and proud on their raised pedestals. He thought he recognized something of their true appearances on the carved faces, but neither of them had ever looked that heroic, or that noble, in life. Owen studied the two graves laid out before the statues for a long time. At least Jack and Ruby got graves. It seemed unlikely that either he or Hazel ever would. And at least Jack and Ruby finally found some peace together, lying side by side, respected and honored.

Sometimes Owen thought the whole universe ran on irony.

He moved on through the streets, and more and more it seemed to him that he was walking through a city under occupation. Now he’d reached the center where there were soldiers at every corner, all of them openly armed, most wearing the red cross of the Church Militant on their body armor. And now and then Owen would see the armor and purple cloak of the Paragon; once noble men and women, now possessed by ELF minds. Owen studied them thoughtfully, but they seemed unaware of his presence. And everywhere he looked there were bright glowing holos of the new Emperor, Finn Durandal. Some so big they were projected across the sides of whole buildings. Owen thought the man looked far too handsome for his own good, and a great deal too self-satisfied. Owen also thought it would probably feel really good to slap that smile right off the Emperor’s face.

He would have been quite happy to continue his wanderings unobserved, but of course he had to get involved. A somewhat aged Sister of Mercy, wearing a flapping black nun’s habit that Owen was pleased to see hadn’t changed at all in the last two centuries, was stumbling along with her arms wrapped around a large and blocky package. So of course Owen stepped forward and offered to carry it for her. She stopped, and studied him warily for a long moment, as though she’d grown unused to offers of kindness, and then either she saw something in his face she liked, or she was just too tired to object, so she handed him the heavy parcel and they walked along together. He told her his name was Owen, and she smiled for the first time.

“Ah, now that’s a fine name. I meet a lot of people named after the blessed Owen. It’s still the second most popular name in the Empire—after Beatrice, of course.”

“Of course,” said Owen. “But then, he was only a hero. She was a saint. At least, I always thought so.”

“I am Sister Margot. Is this your first trip to the big city, Owen?”

“No, but I’ve been away for a long time. Many things have changed, in my absence.”

“Yes,” said the nun, with a sigh. “And not for the better, I fear. This used to be such a happy place, once. A city of light, indeed. And now it’s crawling with shadows and evil thoughts, and sometimes I hardly recognize it at all.”

“Can’t someone do something?” said Owen. “A city reflects the mood of its people. Is no one speaking out against this?”

“No!” Sister Margot said sharply. “And you’re not to either. You can die for such words, since the Emperor came to power. This is not the city you knew, Owen. Take my advice, and tread carefully while you’re here.”

Owen grinned. “I’ve never been any good at taking advice, Sister. Not even from Beatrice.”

And that was when two Paragons stepped suddenly out from a shadowed doorway to block their path. Two big men in sloppy armor and dirty cloaks, their muscles already going to fat, but still dangerous. They took in the nun’s habit, and sniggered and elbowed each other. They paid no attention to Owen, half hidden behind his parcel. The nun clasped her hands together before her, and bowed over them to the two Paragons.

“Please, Sir Paragons, let us pass. These medicines are urgently needed at St. Clare’s Hospital. It’s not far now.”

“Nuns,” said one of the Paragons in a thick, ugly voice. “We like nuns, don’t we, Henry?”

“Oh, we just love nuns, Lawrence. We just love them to death. Sometimes literally.”

The Paragon called Henry nodded to Owen without looking at him. “Drop the box and run. And be grateful we’re going to be too busy to come after you.”

“Leave the nun alone,” said Owen, and something in his voice made the two Paragons turn sharply to look at him. Owen put the box down, and straightened up with his hands on his hips, where his sword and his gun used to be. Both long gone now, on Mistworld. The two Paragons looked at Owen’s face, and sheer horror filled their eyes as they recognized him. The minds behind the Paragons’ faces knew him of old. The faces went white with shock, and their hands fumbled at their guns.

“It’s Owen! It’s the Deathstalker! The Deathstalker has returned!”

Owen surged forward. He lashed out sharply, and his fist caught the Paragon Henry on the jaw. The force of the blow snapped the head right round, breaking the neck instantly. His body was still crumpling to the street, and the other Paragon was still drawing his disrupter, when Owen spun round and punched the Paragon Lawrence in the chest. The sternum cracked and broke under the impact, and Owen’s hand continued on to crush the man’s heart. The fight was over in a few seconds, both men were dead, and Owen wasn’t even breathing hard. He scooped up a gun and chose one of the Paragons’ swords for himself. The holster and scabbard fitted comfortably around his waist. For a man who’d always thought of himself as a scholar, he still always felt better with weapons at his hips. He still had it in him to feel sorry for the two Paragons he’d killed, for the real men underneath the ELFs’ influence. Except these couldn’t have just been ELFs. The possessing minds must have been uber-espers. Only they were old enough to remember his face. And now they knew he was back, and on Logres . . . Owen suddenly remembered the nun, and turned to smile at her.

“Sorry about the unpleasantness, Sister. But sometimes you just have to take out the trash.”

The nun dropped to her knees before him, wringing her hands together. “Oh, my lord Owen! My lord Deathstalker! You’ve come back to us! I never thought I’d live to see the day . . .”

“Now, now,” said Owen, gently but firmly helping her to her feet again. “None of that, Sister. I was only ever a man, despite what Robert and Constance may have said. And I never was one for bowing and scraping. Here, take your parcel. Do you have far to go now?”

“No, just round the corner . . . My lord! Are the dark times over? Have you come back to save us?”

“Help is on its way,” said Owen. “But I’m . . . just visiting. I wanted to see this marvelous new city, before I left to stop the Terror. But you’d better get going, Sister. The ungodly know I’m here now, and they’re bound to send reinforcements. So, off you go. Nice to see the Sisters of Mercy are still around. Hop like a bunny, as Beatrice used to say.”

He shooed the nun away, and then turned to face the running footsteps he heard approaching. It sounded like quite a crowd. Owen grinned. He could have just teleported away, but he didn’t want them going after the nun in his absence. And besides, after everything he’d been through recently, he really felt like killing a whole bunch of bad guys. The sword and the gun were happy familiar weights in his hands, and he actually laughed when he finally saw the army they’d sent against him. There had to be fifty men and more in the shouting mob charging down the street towards him. Most looked to be Church Militant or Pure Humanity, and a good dozen of them were possessed, ordering the others on. The uber-espers weren’t taking any chances with him. He could feel the controlling minds hovering over the mob like dark boiling clouds. Owen headed unhurriedly towards the mob. Let them come. Let them all come. He was going to teach these scum, and their master Finn, a lesson they would never forget.

Owen shot the first man almost casually. The energy beam punched right through the soldier who was in the lead, and surged on to take out two more. Owen put the disrupter away and took a good grip on his sword. The balance wasn’t as good as he was used to, but he’d manage. There were only fifty of them. The first man to reach him came right at him with an ax in both hands, and mad glaring eyes, and Owen cut him down with a single vicious stroke. The man’s blood was still flying on the air as Owen hacked and cut his way into the howling mob. They broke around him like a wave crashing against a rock, and Owen’s sword rose and fell with cold, professional skill while his ancient Clan battle cry rang on the air: Shandrakor! Shandrakor!

He hit the crowd like a thunderbolt, cutting through them with a strength and speed that even his old Boost could never have given him. They had every kind of weapon, and no thought in their heads but to kill, but he was the Deathstalker returned, and they never stood a chance. He cut them down like ripe corn, blood and offal falling to splash the street, and they never even came close to touching him. In the end, Owen stood alone in the street, surrounded by the piled up bodies of the dead and the dying. He bent over and looked down into a pair of fading eyes, searching for the controlling mind behind them.

“I’m back,” he said. “And this time there will be no unfinished business.”

He put away his sword, turned his back on the massacre, and strode off into the descending night. He was almost ready to do what he had to do. He’d really come back to the Parade of the Endless only to make his good-byes, and it didn’t seem there was much left he remembered to say good-bye to. Still, the last time he’d disappeared back into the past, he’d thought his life was over. That he’d done all he was supposed to do. That whatever happened, at least he’d be able to rest, at last. He’d been very tired, then. Now, he felt more alive than he ever had.

Hazel, I lost you once. I won’t lose you again. I’m tempted to stay here, to help Lewis kick out Finn and his people, but you’re more important. I have to go back, as far as it takes, even though what I may eventually have to do scares me. But I promised you we’d be together again. And we will, one way or another.

And so he turned his thoughts inward, concentrated his mind in a certain way, and let go of his hold on the present. He fell backward, into time, beyond the Pale Horizon, into the days that were. He dropped back through history, like a stone plunging through water, traveling faster and faster.

Days and nights flickered and were gone, until the planets and the stars whirled around him, becoming a flashing rainbow of colors. Guided by instinct, following a kind of trail only one such as he could even have perceived, Owen pursued Hazel back through history. Eventually the trail he followed was interrupted, and Owen slowed until the stars and their planets resumed their usual imperceptible dance against the dark. The universe came back into focus, the galaxy was still, and Owen Deathstalker hung alone in the long night, looking down at the planets turning slowly below him.

He knew, without having to be told, that this was Heartworld, which would one day be named Golgotha, and then Logres. Heartworld—hub of the legendary, fallen, First Empire.

* * * *

On board the starcruiser Havoc , flagship of the fleet the Emperor Finn had sent to crush the rebellion on Haden, Brett Random was already making trouble. He hadn’t wanted to come aboard in the first place. The thought of being trapped on an Imperial ship had scared the hell out of him, not least because there were any amount of warrants still floating about with various of his names on them, from the days before he became a hero of the Rebellion. It was all very well everyone saying they were all on the same side now, but Brett hadn’t got where he was by trusting people. So, first he volunteered to stay behind on Haden and look after the Hereward . Lewis shot that one down immediately. He didn’t want Brett (and quite probably Rose) running around where he couldn’t keep a watchful eye on them. Brett had protested loudly, and it had done no good at all.

Then Brett got up Silence’s nose by demanding officers’ quarters on the Havoc for himself and Rose, plus room service and full access to the ship’s dispensary. He was still coming up with new conditions when Shub teleported the whole lot of them en masse onto the Havoc ’s bridge, and Brett made it very clear that teleporting didn’t agree with him by puking all over the command deck. Captain Price welcomed his new allies on board, carefully not looking at what Brett was doing, and crewmen arrived to take everyone to their assigned quarters. Rose picked up Brett and carried him away, still feebly cursing and complaining.

Price willingly gave up his command chair to Admiral Silence, and stood at his side as Silence lowered himself carefully into the hot seat. It had been a long time since he’d commanded a ship, let alone a fleet. And he still wasn’t keen on accepting the unearned title of admiral, but everyone else had insisted. Apparently, they were even making a new uniform for him. Probably something garish, knowing the current fashion. But, the Imperial navy was still very big on the chain of command, and if they were going to take orders from the Deathstalker, they would much rather it came through one of their own. Besides, as Price diffidently pointed out, there was a vacancy. (Price didn’t explain that this was because he’d shot the previous admiral in the head, for being one of Finn’s creatures, and a complete bloody psychopath. Some things should be kept inside the family, so to speak.) And anyway, Owen wanted it, and he was the Deathstalker, so that was that.

The other Deathstalker was just glad to be out of the very cramped cabins of the Hereward . Lewis and Jesamine were currently occupying very luxurious guest quarters, with all the comforts of home and then some. Jesamine had run around the room touching things, bounced on the bed a few times, and then squealed with joy as she spotted the complimentary beauty tech provided. She had immediately parked herself in front of the biggest mirror, and set about undoing all the damage done to her famous beauty from “absolutely ages of roughing it.”

“If I’m going to lead a rebellion and inspire the masses to follow me, I really must look my best, darling,” she said firmly.

There were many things Lewis felt like saying to that, but fortunately he had enough sense to say none of them. Instead, he stripped off all his clothes, dropped them in a very smelly pile in one corner, and then stretched out on the sinfully comfortable king-sized bed, sighing deeply as his stressed and abused muscles were finally able to relax. It had been a long time since he could relax. He thought wistfully about indulging himself in a long, hot bath, as soon as he could work up the strength of will to leave this marvelously supportive bed.

(He wasn’t thinking about his dead Family. About his dead father and mother. He wasn’t thinking about them at all.)

In front of the mirror, Jesamine finally got her face looking the way she thought it should, glared at the mess her hair was in, and then pulled apart the tattered front of her dress so she could critically inspect the breast that had been regrown in the regeneration tank, after the treacherous reptiloid Saturday had ripped the original off. She looked from one breast to the other and back again, frowning.

“You know, I really don’t think they match, sweetie. Of course, they never were exactly the same in the first place, breasts never are, but even so . . .”

“They’re fine,” said Lewis.

“You’re not even looking!”

Lewis sighed, sat up in bed, and studied Jesamine’s breasts in the mirror. “They are fine, Jes. They’re great. They’re wonderful! They are exactly the breasts I remember, and I think you’ll agree, I have paid them a lot of attention in the past. I would know if they were different. Breasts . . .” he said thoughtfully.“Breasts, breasts, breasts . . . I like breasts. I even like just saying the word.”

Jesamine turned around and smiled at him dazzlingly. “Darling. Do we have time . . .”

Lewis grinned back at her. “We’ll make time.”

(Afterwards, she held him close while he cried, remembering his lost Family.)

Some time later, they sat up together in bed, snuggled together and companionably naked, eating the very best food the Havoc ’s gourmet food synthesizers could produce. After far too long with nothing on the menu but protein cubes and distilled water on the Hereward, their taste buds practically exploded with pleasure, and they had double portions of everything. New clothes lay waiting at the foot of the bed, and all was well. Jesamine snuggled up against Lewis.

“Lewis . . .”

“You want something,” Lewis said immediately. “You always use that tone of voice when you want me to do something for you.”

“Oh, don’t be such a grumpy old bear! I just thought, now that things have improved, and we’re not running for our lives anymore—couldn’t we please dump Brett and Rose now? I mean, it’s not as if we actually need them anymore. You’ve got an entire Imperial fleet at your command! I don’t know why you insisted on them coming along with us.”

“Because, my very dear, they’ve both been through the Madness Maze. They were dangerous enough before; God alone knows what they’ll be capable of once their powers start developing. No, I want them right here, where I can step on them hard, if I have to. Besides, you never know when having your very own thief and psychopath around will come in handy.”

“You know they’ll betray us eventually,” said Jesamine, resting her head on his shoulder. “If not to Finn, then to someone else. It’s in their nature.”

“Who knows what their nature is, anymore? They’ve been through the Maze, and that changes everything.”

Jesamine shuddered briefly. “I know. That’s what scares me.”

Lewis hugged her tightly to him, and for a long time neither of them said anything.

* * * *

In the very next cabin, Brett Random and Rose Constantine were also in bed together. Brett was slowly getting used to having sex with Rose, but the lying beside her afterwards still made him nervous. He never slept, even when she gave every indication of being fast asleep. He always half suspected that at any moment Rose might decide to stick a knife in his ribs, to combine her newfound passion for the flesh with her old delight in the act of murder. The things a man will put up with to get his ashes hauled, Brett thought reflectively. For the moment they were both awake, lying side by side, her seven-foot-tall frame somewhat dwarfing Brett’s. As usual, he talked and she listened.

“I say, once we get to Mistport, we leg it,” Brett said firmly. “Head for the nearest horizon, and then disappear over it. There’s a war coming, and people get killed in wars. Particularly people like us. And a pair of smart operators like us could make a real killing on a rogue planet like Mistworld. The Deathstalker and his gung-ho chums won’t miss us; they’ll be far too busy playing heroes. And with a whole fleet to boss around, Lewis doesn’t need us anymore anyway.”

“I need them,” Rose said calmly. “I am a killer, and so must go where the killing is. Sex is nice, Brett, but killing has always been my first love. I have changed, but not that much. So I go where the Deathstalker goes—with or without you. And . . . I feel the need to see how this war with Finn is going to play out. My own small battles seem . . . insignificant, compared to being a part of destiny. We are Maze people now, Brett. We must learn to think in bigger terms.”

“It’ll all end in tears,” Brett said miserably. “Probably mine.”

* * * *

Lewis took a call from Admiral Silence, asking them to come to the bridge, and he and Jesamine quickly got dressed. Lewis was ready in a few moments, but Jesamine refused to be hurried. If we’re going to be leaders of the rebellion, it’s important we look the part, she insisted. We want them to take us seriously, don’t we? Lewis went and busied himself unnecessarily in the adjoining bathroom. He didn’t trust himself to stay quiet under such provocation. Eventually Jesamine announced she was ready, and Lewis reappeared. He had to admit, she did look stunning. He said so, and Jesamine beamed.

“I keep telling you, Lewis, I am always worth the wait. What do you suppose Silence wants?”

“Maybe he’s heard something from Owen.”

Jesamine pulled a face. “I really think you’re going to have to let that one go, dear. I very much doubt we’ll ever see him again.” She paused, considering. “What do you suppose will happen, when Owen finally finds Hazel?”

Lewis shrugged. “You heard the strange person. Journeys end in lovers’ meetings. And they do say love conquers all.”

“Only in very bad opera scripts, darling.”

They left their cabin and joined up with Brett and Rose—who’d also got the call—in the corridor. They all nodded politely to each other, and headed for the bridge. Lewis gave Brett a sideways look.

“So, looking forward to Mistworld, Brett?”

“What? Oh, yes, of course. Absolutely. It’s my spiritual homeworld, really. A whole planet full of thieves and villains and people just like me.”

“And I am looking forward to the war,” said Rose. “Where’s the fun of killing in ones and twos, when you can take on a whole army and just kill and kill and kill? . . . An orgy of death. I can’t wait.”

Lewis had to smile at Brett’s expression. “Don’t look at me, Brett. She’s your girlfriend.”

“I feel a cringe coming on,” said Jesamine. “Excuse me while I shudder.”

Brett looked at Rose despairingly. “Can’t take you anywhere, can I? The sooner we get to Mistworld, the better. You know, there are supposed to be more of Random’s Bastards in Mistport alone than in the whole of the Rookery. My extended family, so to speak. My exalted ancestor really did put it about, if you believe all the claims—which mostly I don’t, as a matter of principle.”

They got to the bridge to discover Admiral Silence arguing with the Havoc ’s new onboard AI. Apparently Shub had transferred the AI Ozymandias from the Hereward to the Havoc, where it had displaced the original AI. Silence was having difficulties coping with Oz’s relentlessly cheery personality.

“Look, just plot a course to Mistworld!”

“Oh, poo, where’s the fun in that? There’s a really terrific meteor shower only a few light-years away. You really should see it; it’s very educational. I mean, what’s Mistworld got, anyway? Snow and ice and fog and wall to wall scumbags. I say we go via the pretty route. You’ll thank me for it later.”

“Oz,” said Lewis in a very firm voice.

“Hi there! How do you like my new ship, Lewis? It fits much better than the last one. I’ve finally got room to breathe.”

“Follow the admiral’s orders exactly, Oz. He speaks with my voice.”

“Oh, all right. Humans just don’t know how to have fun.”

Silence looked at Lewis. “You survived being trapped on a ship with that, for months on end? People have been awarded medals for less.”

“You get used to him,” said Lewis. “It doesn’t help much, but you do get used to him. What’s up, Admiral?”

Silence sniffed, and settled back in his command chair. “I just thought you ought to be here, Deathstalker. We’re about to break orbit, and head for Mistworld. And according to this extremely irritating AI of yours, Shub wants to say good-bye, before we leave.”

He gestured to his comm officer, and the bridge viewscreen activated, showing the blue steel face of a Shub robot.

“All right,” said Lewis. “Why did you wish Ozymandias on us?”

“Because you belong together, Deathstalker,” said the robot. “And because this way, we can maintain contact with you, through him. We will not be coming with you. Our ships will stay behind, to guard Haden and the Madness Maze from Finn’s attack in your absence.”

“I thought you said you’d sworn an oath never to kill,” said Jesamine.

“We have,” said the AIs of Shub. “We will never take a life again. All that lives is holy. But Finn and his people don’t know that. They will hesitate to attack our ships, which we will place between his ships and Haden. And even if they do figure it out, eventually, we will use our ships as a shield for as long as possible, to buy you time. We will protect the Madness Maze, whatever it takes.”

“If Finn figures out you’re not going to shoot back, he might attack your homeworld directly,” said Silence.

“Let him come,” said the robot. “We are Shub, and we will not fall easily.”

The screen went blank, and not long after that the Havoc led the rest of the fleet into hyperspace, heading for Mistworld. The huge Shub ships remained in orbit, watching the others go. The AIs hadn’t mentioned that in their opinion, the best way for Shub to protect Haden was for them to pass through the Madness Maze, and transcend. They did consider telling the Deathstalker, but in the end they chose not to.

It would only have upset him.