Chapter I

Tom Anderson, 20/01/2000

The sky above the port was the colour of a web browser, pointed to a dead link. The Vice-Master for the Widdershins Quadrant finished the glass. He steepled his fingers, gazed into the distance, sank deeper into his ornate chair and let out a breath of frustration.

"Your eminence?" inquired his secretary.

The vice-master held his gaze for a second, and then spoke a single word.


"Death planet where the intractable criminals of ten thousand worlds ... ?"

"Etc." he was brusquely interrupted.

"Eminence, i fail to see how a planet dead and dry as dust for more than a century can be a concern to you.", his secretary retorted, confused.

"Then you are a fool.". The vice-master took to pacing the room. "Congregation has finally finished debating our actions there, the actions which left it in that very state, and has found against us; this is just the excuse the southern alliance needs to step in and take Zool from us."

His secretary's eyebrows lifted. "Take Zool? But what possible desire could they have for that worthless orb?"

The vice-master stared into the portrait of his predecessor-but-five at the far end of the chamber and chose his words carefully. "There are reasons for wanting control of Zool; reasons known only to a few, but powerful enough to drive them to desperate lengths to take it."

The secretary's silence communicated his desire to know more.

The vice-master spoke quietly, his gaze never wavering. "Behind these events lies a secret for which the galaxy is not yet ready.".

The secretary considered the import of his master's words. "Then congregation's decision is dire news indeed, eminence. What action must be taken?"

The vice-master was clear. "Politics has failed: enough of the lamb, it's time to show the flag. Dispatch the Warlord."

Warlord Munitt Arshall's heavily-armed command cruiser circled the planet like a moth circling a lamp; it was not so much their destination as it was their point of reference. Around his cruiser flocked his fleet: twenty warcruisers and a hundred or more lesser ships. The Warlord himself was in conference with his commanders; he addreessed his trusted lieutenant, Bhond.

"As you, know, Jim, we are currently orbiting the planet Zool".

"Death planet ..."; Bhond started to speak, but Munitt-Arshall silenced him with a steely glare and continued.

"A hundred and forty-eight years ago, Zool was incinerated by the atomic weapons of a massed warfleet, all life and structure on its surface utterly obliterated. Its twin moonlets, Huxley and Darwin, were spared that, captured by legions of power-suited stormporters; it is said that their rocket-punts filled the sky like clouds over a Hilary collection."

Arshal's eyes combed the room, crawling over the impassive faces of his other subordinates.

"That fleet, and those porters, were our own forces; the forces of St John's College."

A ripple of disquiet flashed around the room.

"The conflict which culminated in this attack has a long and twisted history. In the beginning, space colonisation was expensive. The costs were great, and the payoff long in coming, but it was an assured investment. Of course, this was anathema to the bankers and stockbrokers of the day, and conventional capital steered well clear of the New Worlds. The investors who were attracted were fantastically wealthy, and thought in timescales of centuries. By 5312, half of known space was owned by St John's, Magdalen, Christ Church and Trinity."

With the background now getting clearer, the Warlord moved on to develop the plot; the conference discussed the options they had for dealing with the Christ Church-Corpus-Brasenose fleet which was conducting unprecedented 'maneuvers' just parseces from the room in which they sat: maneuvers whose intent was clear, and directed towards Zool. The southern alliance had upped the ante, and the St John's fleet was duty-bound to raise again.

A hush descended over congregation, resplendent in their ceremonial leather-elbow-patched jackets. The stately procession began to enter the chamber: led by the Assessor, brought up by the Junior Proctor, with the supreme ruler of the university at its heart: the holder of the twin titles of Vice Chancellor and Senior Proctor, the undisputed master of the dons, the Don King himself.

As the Don King seated himself in his throne, a measure of noise returned to the chamber. Soon, it fell again has he read the judgment that had been pronounced against St John's the previous week, and then rose as debate was joined as to the action which had to be taken.

The decision was comparatively swift. This was a task for the university police.