Huron Vildercard VIII stood on the bridge of the flagship of the Commercian fleet, staring in conceited satisfaction at the huge view screen that dominated the luxurious magnificence of the deck around him. He smoothed down the front of his superb dress uniform with a beautifully manicured hand, even though the cloth was of such quality that it never showed even a hint of a crease. This was as it should be when he considered the obscene amount of money it had cost but it had been worth every coin spent. In fact the whole venture had been worth every coin and it wasn’t as if he couldn’t afford it, owning as he did… everything. He pulled his eyes from the red shift tracery of the view screen and spoke to the handsome young bridge officer sat at the tactical console without turning his head to look at him.
“How long until the fleet drops out of warpfold?”
“Ten minutes, eleven point three seconds, Mr Vildercard.”
The words were confident and precise but Vildercard still imagined he could hear the whiff of nervous awe in the young man’s voice being in the presence of such a legend as he, himself, truly was.
This too, was as it should be. Picking up the elegant, fluted crystal glass from the tray held by his servant, who stood patiently just behind him, he took a much-deserved sip of the 200-year-old wine it contained. Its smoky redolence played melodies of fine taste on his perfectly cultured palate. Each mouthful cost more than a month’s wages for one of the hundreds of thousands of workers that slaved in his many factories and plants back on Commercia but then he should have the very best of everything. He was, after all, surely the greatest of all those that had carried the proud and noble name of Vildercard. An unbroken lineage of men, gifted with iron wills, unbeatable business acumen and ruthless ambition. With amusement, and not for the first time, he considered that all this was thanks to a soft drink. 300 years ago the first Huron Vildercard, a humble travelling showman and peddler of “invigorating tonics”, had invented a mixed fruit sparkling drink he called Xoko and within three generations it had become the single most popular commodity, selling in excess of a hundred million cans a day. The Xoko Corporation was an unstoppable leader in the free market, not just in drinks but in every aspect of business. Media, advertising, arms, health, transport, entertainment, you name it, they owned it in one way or another. Within another two generations Xoko had taken over, crushed or subverted every one of its competitors to its unyielding will. Governments were Xoko puppets, the media just a Xoko mouthpiece, feeding an unending stream of aspiration advertising and propaganda to the working masses, while a super elite lived life to its decadent full. Huron Vildercard was Xoko. By his grandfather’s time Xoko near enough owned the planet and everything on it. And that was the problem; what do you give the man who had everything? Even more, except there wasn’t anything more to give. His grandfather was the Vildercard who went off the rails. With a life expectancy of 140 years and born, not just with a silver spoon but the whole damn cutlery industry in his mouth, he had it all. But within 70 years he had become painfully jaded with having it. He became unhealthily obsessed with the process of dying and death in general. The day before his eighty first birthday and still in the prime of life, he went to his study, took a pistol, placed it with careful precision into his mouth and blew a hole the size of a hen’s egg from the top of his skull. The angle of the shot was such that, as planned, he remained fully conscious even though the wound was fatal. His sixth and final wife found him, sitting in a pool of dark blood, a third of his brains splattered, unnoticed on the priceless piece of abstract art, hanging on the wall behind his desk. She wrapped a towel around his head to stem the flow issuing in gulps from the hole in his cranium and fetched him a glass of vintage brandy as he requested.
As he sat calmly sipping from his glass, he gave her instructions to contact five of his closest friends and his eldest son to come over and sit with him while he died.
His father had talked to him only once about that strange and fateful day, watching his own father die. He had remained lucid for the whole two hours it had taken him to expire. Only at the very end had his words become fractured and tainted with fear, his eyes milky with oblivion. His life ebbed away but not one of the six men present became anymore enlightened about the nature of death from this ghastly experience. For his father though it was a lesson; there but for the grace of…
He plunged vast resources into space travel and within twenty years his scientists had discovered a warp drive that at last enabled them to explore beyond their solar system. While the drive worked perfectly it was the navigation that proved difficult. The new ships could only jump for short distances before they would have to drop out of the warp manifolds to get their bearings. Magic had all but been hounded to extinction on Commercia long ago and without it to guide them through the vast distances of space they, like all other exclusively science based civilisations, were shackled by their limitations. It still took months to reach the nearest star system and its planets were as lifeless as the rest of their own system; gas giants, molten acid swathed orbs and lifeless chunks of barren rock. Then thirty years ago, with his own father twenty years in the grave, the scout ship Queen of Eyes reached the third star system for the first time and found a planet teeming with life, and human life no less. Inderwick was a paradise, not like the artificial pockets of gated paradise that the elite of Commercia lived and played and indulged themselves in while the rest of the planet rotted in pollution and poverty around them. The Wickians had a society based on care for the environment and each other. A pre-industrial, agrarian based economy and a small population of less than half a billion. It was a world of astonishing natural beauty and the natives were a gentle, peaceful and open hearted people, Vildercard recalled, when two years after the Queen of Eyes returned he took the arduous nine-month journey to see for himself this so called paradise. As he walked along the golden beach of Inderwick’s capital city, watching the silver gulls swirl above the pure blue ocean, he knew what had to be done. Commercia was fucked, far more wasted than the general population knew. Hundreds of years of careless industrial exploitation had poisoned the planet beyond belief. It was time to move on. When he returned to his home world he set in motion his epic plan. Now as he looked around him he felt pride in his achievement, the greatest achievement in history he modestly had to admit to himself. It hadn't been easy and he had had to be utterly ruthless to achieve his goal, these last years. The masses had balked at the massive tax increases he had imposed and there had been much civil unrest, which he had put down brutally. The massive Xoko fleet had cost trillions to build. In all forty gigantic space arks and he had virtually asset stripped the planet to build them. The world they left behind was a virtual desert by the time they had finished, it's overflowing population ravished by disease and hunger. Ten of the ships brought the rich and worthy of Commercia, 100,000 in all, each ship fitted out like a luxury ocean liner; with magnificent suites, the grandest ballrooms, the finest restaurants, gaming rooms and swimming pools by the score. Pleasure domes where every hedonistic whim could be indulged. The many months the voyage took couldn’t be helped but at least the great and the good would pass the time in sumptuous comfort, their every wish catered for, as befitted their status. Another ten ships carried all the latest technology, the Wickians had very little interest in such things, their industry was low key and restricted by moral and environmental concerns and there was no way he was going to put up with such inconvenience. Another four carried all the art and entertainment archives. Fifteen ships of the fleet were battleships, armed to the teeth with cutting edge lethal weapons and packed with the soldier clones, which would secure and protect their new world. Finest and biggest of all, at nearly a quarter of a mile long, was this, his flagship. No expense had been spared; no indulgence ignored in building the vessel that would bring him, the triumphant saviour of his people, to Inderwick.
The slightest of judders brought him out of his reverie, the ship had dropped out of warp and now the screen before him showed the glorious sight of the entire fleet, the glow of their atomic shielding, stark against the velvet darkness of space. His chest swelled with casual pride to see the fruits of his labours in all its splendour. The fleet would stay here for at least ten hours while the navigating computers took the time to recalibrate for the final jump. One more week in the manifold and then they would drop into space in the Inderwickian system and the battle cruisers would set about taking the planet. He didn’t see the conquest being much of a problem; the peaceful and trusting Wickians would be no match for them. The Xoko Corporation were past masters at exploiting and exterminating native peoples, by his great grand father’s time they had it down to a fine art. In fact by then there weren’t any native peoples left so efficient had they been in their methods and this had always rankled with Vildercard. So much of what he did in the day to day, wheeling and dealing, buying and selling, was little more than abstraction really. He was the most powerful man in the world and all his competitors, whether they knew it or not were just puppets to keep him amused. You gave them power and then deliberately made mistakes to make them think you were vulnerable in some way. Then just when they thought they had you on the ropes you whipped the carpet out from underneath their feet and crushed them beneath your heel. It was fun toying with other people in this way, like a cat with a mouse, but it was always under control. He was the only cat left in the house and while you could delude a chosen rival into believing he too was a cat, you could not, in the end, delude oneself that they were anything more than just a mouse and the eventual outcome was inevitable.
But ethnic genocide had a palpable and satisfying quality about it with results one could really sit back and enjoy. He knew from reading his great grandfather’s private journals that the man had amused himself for many years with “the most glorious of hobbies.” Destruction of native habitat, the making and breaking of treaties, the stripping away of tradition and religion, the exploitation of sacred lands, ethnic cleansing, slave labour, sweat shops, poverty and fear, there were so many facets to keep one amused. Taking a once proud people and reducing them to a filthy, infested shantytown of alcoholics and whores, what was not to like? And the real fun was pretending to care, because society always likes to believe itself fundamentally good hearted and decent. And so while one arm of your corporation was destroying them, another arm was making an epic and profound, award winning twelve-part telescreen documentary, celebrating these noble people and breaking viewers’ hearts at the sad wickedness of their destruction. His great grandfather had the finest and most priceless collection of ethnic art in the world and the museum that bore his name allowed everyone to share in the appreciation of these rare objects. The sheer wickedness of the pious hypocrisy of it all must have been delicious to the man, Vildercard mused and reluctantly accepted that the expediency needed here would not allow him the luxury to get that much enjoyment out of this golden opportunity the Wickians presented to him. Half a dozen nukes, deployed from orbit would take out the leaders and governing bodies on the southern continent, then sixteen battalions of soldier clones would be sent down to kill whoever else needed killing before the survivors would be herded into labour camps for later use. Simple really, shouldn’t take more than a week at most or so his advisors had informed him. Once planetside and installed they could turn their attention to the nomadic tribes in the north. Initially Vildercard had agreed to the plan of infecting them with the always-dependable blackpox virus. They had no immunity to such things and once infected it would spread from tribe to tribe killing three quarters in the first year alone. But then he had decided that he should leave at least some fun for himself and cancelled that idea.
He smiled to himself and considered, as this would be the last chance he might have for the time being that a leisurely cruise around the fleet might be an agreeable way to pass the next few hours. He motioned his manservant standing quietly behind him to step forward.
“Tell the captain I’ll be taking my space yacht out for a spin in, say thirty minutes. Five serving staff, thirty guests, all A list celebrities and a light, hmm, sea food buffet with white wines and spirits, nothing too fancy.”
The servant nodded and asked in a neutral voice.
“Shall this servant tell the mediants to expect a live docu-feed of the event to all leisure screens?”
Vildercard thought for a moment, he enjoyed celebrities and he liked to be seen with them but today he wasn’t in the mood.
“No, no, just press and telescreen coverage of the boarding will suffice. I think a private affair this time.”
The man nodded and turned away to issue instructions. At that moment the doors to the bridge swished open and a short fat man, dressed in a velvet crimson suit, strutted towards him, his arms theatrically outstretched in greeting, an electric pink feather bower fluttered behind him as he approached. His voice boomed as if he was speaking to the whole room.
“My darling Huropoos our last stop before we arrive at our beautiful life resort, you must be throbbing with excitement, my dear sweet man?”
Vildercard eyed his companion with cold affection. He really did look like a giant, sweaty pink toad in that garish red suit and what on earth was that thing he had jauntily perched on his head? Alton Towers was one of the biggest singing sensations in the world and had been for the last forty years and was always amusing company. On top of that he threw the best parties going and Vildercard enjoyed the singer’s unflagging extravagances immensely. The flamboyant popstar had spent billions of credits down the years, greedily gorging from a never-ending trough of fripperies and whims: mundane, inconsequential, pointless, over the top, beautifully banal trappings of fashion and success. It was like pouring liquid gold down a sewer, but done with such cold-hearted arrogance and gaudy panache that one could not help but applaud the man with his unwavering commitment to excess and shameless unending greed. His other excess Wildercard was not so keen on, not that he objected to Alton’s taste for young boys, each to his own, but he’d had more that one complaint from the pleasure dome’s clean up crews regarding the brutality of the man’s quite revolting sexual appetite.
He turned and smiled at Alton saying.
“I have decided to take the “Abundance Declared” out for a little jaunt, what do you think?”
It was a purely rhetorical question but Alton’s little piggy eyes bulged with delight at the news.
“Oh my god, what a simply divine idea. Oh you are so twinklingly clever my dearly scrumptious friend, what a dreamy treat!”
“And I take it I can leave it in your capable hands to decide on the guest list?”
Alton threw up his eyes in mock shock and glanced around to make sure everybody was paying attention.
“Oh Huron, such needless doubt wounds me to the core of my precious being. You well know that of course I can be trusted to choose only the very best for our historic soiree amongst the stars.” He giggled. “I promise you that the stars I will select will outshine the stars above our heads. Only the very finest is good enough for you dear boy.”
His eyes narrowed and he dropped his voice to a personal level.
“I assume the cameras will be on for it all?”
Vildercard waved his query away casually.
“Vids and press, boarding and disembarking only.”
Alton sighed but got over his obvious disappointment in a second, looking down at his clothing and saying loudly once more.
“This will never do, I must away and change immediately. What was I thinking? Crimson on such a special day, am I stark raving mad?”
He turned and snapped his fingers at his manservant standing discreetly behind him. Vildercard, noticing a livid bruise on the lip of Alton’s servant, reached over and grabbed the popstar’s elbow. Alton’s temper tantrums were familiar to him, only last month he had stabbed one of his dressers through the eye with a hat pin because the lapels on one of his thousands of jackets wasn’t at that crucial moment, quite to his liking. In truth, even he pitied any creature that was in service to this petulant prima donna. But what a man did with his personal property was his business. It was acceptable to abuse your servants, but not to let it be known that you did so. Vildercard hissed impatiently at him.
“For god’s sake get his face fixed, have you no sense of propriety?
Alton glared at his servant as if this embarrassment was his fault but his demeanour was relaxed as he replied.
“Yes, yes, of course. Now I must be toddling off about my many duties.”
And with that he spun on his heels and was gone in a flurry of pink and red.
Vildercard watched him leave and then commanded to no one in particular.
“Prepare my yacht for launch, it’s party time.”
Vildercard stood with pompous pride swaddled in sickening smugness at the prow of his yacht and drank in the spectacle of the magnificent fleet hanging in the star spangled darkness before him. The “Abundance Declared” was his own personal indulgence and what an indulgence it was, even he blanched at the thought of how much it had cost. It was modelled exactly on one of the many sea-fairing yachts he had owned except it was built to withstand the altogether harsher environment of space. The technology it had taken to make this dream come true was beyond cutting edge and had cost billions to develop. The dome that covered the eighty-foot deck was made from twelve-inch thick diamerglass of such quality and clarity that unless you reached out a hand and touched it you might well believe that nothing stood between you and the void. The solar sails were the first of their kind, harnessing the solar winds to propel the craft while small impulse engines steered it. The deck itself was made from a priceless wood; he had the last hundred Occumpa trees in existence cut down just for the purpose, to the smallest detail no extravagance was spared. That ultimately it was totally impractical, useless for not much more that pottering around the fleet like this, made the money lavished on it even more delightful. It was the ultimate status symbol and the prestige of being invited aboard for lunch was beyond measure. He smiled to think of the celebs wheedling around the obnoxious Alton Towers, pleading and cajoling the self-satisfied toad into giving them an invite. A lot of favours, some not particularly savoury, would be owed to Towers after this. Vildercard placed a fatherly hand on the shoulder of the young lieutenant sitting behind the wheel of his prize yacht. It only took a one-man crew to steer the ship, the state of the art computer in the console before him did all the real work. He gazed out across the fleet, shining in the distance and smiled. It was, he had to admit a glorious sight and he took a sip of wine and said to the steersman.
“It must make you very proud, to be part of such an epic and historical undertaking as this.”
The lieutenant’s voice was automatically respectful but noticeably neutral as he replied.
“Yes sir, I feel very proud.”
Vildercard sneered at the monotone reply and made a mental note to have the man busted down a rank for his insolence. He could see Alton Towers lounging in a chair at the stern and hear his voice whining to his manservant to peel him some fruit. He turned and strolled down the deck towards him, only to be intercepted by Gazellia Gudnesson half way there. Gazellia had been one of the most successful sculpted reality stars of the last decade, but it was looks and not any sort of actual talent that had got her where she had been. As her fame began to falter the mediants sought to reinvent her as a popstar, but despite all the endless promotion thrown at it, her new career started off slowly and ground to a halt soon after. It was most fortunate then that she ended up marrying the golden boy of floozer, Dairy Gudnesson. Dairy was a total genius when it came to the beautiful game but not the brightest candle off the field. Gazellia, though equally challenged in the intellect department, was driven by her continuous need for celebrity and cunning enough to get it. Together they became the most talked about celebrity couple of the moment. She smiled engagingly at him and fluttered her empty eyes.
“Huron, Dairy and I were just talking. It’s all very well this taking over a new planet and all but what we want to know is how long is it going to take for new fashion centres to be set up, younowhatimsayin? I mean, how does it work, if you don’t mind me asking an all.”
Vildercard gave her an indulgent smile and replied.
“Don’t you worry your pretty little head about such things, my dear, it’s all in hand I promise you, the major designer labels will all be present and correct. But look I’ve had the yacht brought out this far so we can see the whole fleet. Is it not a beautiful sight?”
“Oooh, they look like swords.”
He turned and looked at her with puzzlement, what, in hell’s name was the silly bitch going on about, they looked nothing like…. He stopped, she wasn’t looking at the fleet and as he followed her gaze outward he too saw the line of glowing shapes in the deep black void. For a long moment he was frozen, unable to take in what he was looking at. There in the distance and coming towards them was the sight of massive swords in a line, their blades glowing white and hilts pitted with what he mistook for hundreds of glowing jewels. The hubbub all around had ceased as one and then another of the guests turned to look towards them. Time seemed to stand still as he struggled to make sense of it all. Then suddenly his body filled with urgency and dropping his glass to shatter on the deck, he hurried towards the prow of the yacht and the young lieutenant. The vid screen before him in the small console had already spluttered to life and the familiar face of Admiral Canton, stared out at him. The man looked worried.
“What the fuck are they?”
Vildercard barked at him without preamble. The admiral looked away for a moment and then spoke, his words clipped and fretful, beneath his calm.
“They appear to be ships, sir. Fourteen of them in all and coming this way fast.”
Vildercard could barely comprehend what he was hearing, panic nipping at his mind.
“What do you mean ships? How can there be ships? What do you mean ships?”
The face flickering on the screen turned away for a moment.
“Our sensors cannot, as yet, read anything sir, but they are big, really big. Their shielding configurations are unreadable and the propulsion systems they are using are like nothing we’ve ever seen before. I’m downloading all the telemetry we have so far and sending it over now. What are your orders, sir?”
Vildercard pushed past the steersman, who sat open-mouthed looking at the information scrolling across the screen. He scanned the data stream incredulously. My god they were massive, just over three miles long if this information was to be believed. These ships were gigantic, dwarfing even his flagship.
“Admiral Canton, put the fleet on red alert, I want the dreadnoughts to arm up and get me Admiral Cyrus immediately!”
Cyrus had command of the battle cruisers, a brilliant officer who kept a cool and incisive mind under pressure. The screen flickered and the hard ,dark features of Cyrus appeared. Vildercard smiled grimly.
“Cyrus, what are our options here?”
Cyrus’ face was implacable, his tone calm and direct.
“Jumping is out of the question, we are nowhere near ready. Neither can we out
run them, the speed they are travelling at is already faster than our impulse engines at maximum.”
Vildercard’s temper flared at the news and he barked back.
“I asked you what out options were, not what they were not!”
He shot a look up at the approaching fleet with panic rising but Cyrus’ voice remained calm.
“Sir.” The word had an edge to it, the man obviously objecting to Vildercard’s tone. “Our sensors cannot penetrate their shields, so it is difficult to theorise what to expect. Their trajectory suggests they are not deliberately heading towards us, but that our paths are crossing, just by chance. They have neither changed course or speed and show no outward signs of being aware of us. I have put the fleet on battle alert but I respectfully suggest we do nothing and wait and see if they just pass us by. We do not know if they are even armed or manned and do not be alarmed by the sheer size of them. If anything it would suggest they might be cargo transports of some sort. Sir, we have fifteen battle cruisers, armed to the highest specifications, I am not overly worried.”
Vildercard felt calmed by the man’s words and turning to watch the dreadnoughts manoeuvring into battle-ready formation in the distance filled him with quiet confidence once more.
“Stay on the link admiral but do nothing without my express say so. Helmsman how long would it take us to get back to the flagship?”
“Eighteen minutes sir.”
“And they get here in about seven minutes. Then we will stay put and watch from here.”
He turned to a waiter and sent for a drink. For a while there he had been worried. He had never considered the idea that they might come across other space travellers but Cyrus had put the whole, unexpected encounter into perspective. He was right, with fifteen heavily armed state of the art battle cruisers at his back, he had been worrying needlessly. He looked up, the first of the mysterious ships was getting close and the scale of it was epic but if Cyrus was right, and he generally was, these hulking giants approaching were far less dangerous to his own fleet than his battle cruisers were to them. He smiled and turned to the others, who had started to gather into small worried knots and said.
“Relax everybody, everything is under control and there is no need for concern. Return to your partying with an easy heart, just think of it as another part of the experience and enjoy the spectacle.”
From the other end of the deck, he could hear Alton Towers drunkenly calling out.
“See I told you it was all fine, now sit back and enjoy the show, my darlings!”
Vildercard smiled, trust the drunken old sod to be unfazed by all this, he only wished that he felt the same. His hands were slick with cold sweat as he waited for the first of the massive vessels to pass. The Abundance Declared sat between the two fleets, too small to be noticed he hoped. He took a deep swig from his glass to steady himself as the first of the Swordships drew near, a rush of adrenaline made the blood pound in his ears. The ship’s colossal size beggared belief but it seemed that the admiral was right, the ship passed quietly by without any sign of aggression and he sighed with relief. They, whoever they might be, were probably more worried about this chance encounter than we are, he considered. In the long minutes it took for the huge vessel to pass, his mind turned to the possibilities of what these mighty craft might be carrying within their glowing silver hulls. The riches, the alien technology and the unimaginable resources these flying treasure houses must contain could prove to be very useful. Chance had brought him this bountiful and unexpected opportunity and he would be a fool to let it pass him by. If they could get hold of just one of the ships, then that would be more than enough. He turned to the vid screen.
“Admiral Cyrus, I want you to take two dreadnoughts and intercept the next of these vessels, fire a couple of missiles into their shields so we know what we’re up against here. We shall exploit our superior forces to take advantage of this golden goose that has flown our way. Once we know their weaknesses then bring in however many more dreadnoughts you need to corral off one of the ships and isolate it from the line. The rest will be too busy getting away and will undoubtedly give us this sacrifice in exchange for their escape. You must ready preparations to board the vessel and commandeer its cargo using whatever force necessary.”
The dark face on the screen gave a sharp look.
“Sir, with all respect, I believe it would be in our best interests to show caution when faced with so many unknowns…”
But Vildercard wasn’t prepared to brook any arguments and cut in sharply.
“I believe I know how to serve our best interests, Admiral. Time is pressing and as you said yourself once they have passed, we will not be able to catch them, so we must act now. Strike while the iron’s hot. Have I made myself clear?”
He obviously had, because within moments two of the battle cruisers, including Cyrus’ own ship, broke away from the main fleet and turned towards the oncoming giants. As they passed Vildercard rubbed his hands in greedy anticipation at the mouth-watering plunder that would soon be his.
He once more placed a hand on the shoulder of the now nervous helmsman and said.
“Fortune favours the bold, son. Fortune favours the bold.”
High Lord Orgone stood on the bridge of the Mooncrusher, intently watching the large view screen the Lady Pergola had activated with her ring. He was a tall handsome man with dark, almost black hair and a boyish look to his features. He appeared to be in his early forties but obviously since he was a High Lord he was a lot older than that. He could see the faintly glowing green of the jewel on her finger from across the deck, but his eyes were also drawn to the towering Necrophanta, standing like a rocky outcrop, a few yards to his left, Admiral Splaang. He prided himself in the working relationship he had built up with Splaang in his many years as High Lord. The Necrophanta overlords were legendarily difficult to deal with at the best of times; ill tempered, bloody minded, prone to arbitrary violence. The grudging, though vague respect Splaang showed to the Maje at times, though hard fought for and well deserved, was the envy of many. But since the devastating and unexplained destruction of the Starslasher that had all changed beyond recognition. It had been an unbelievable and deeply shocking event, unheard of in their long history and now even he had to take great care for fear of losing his head like anyone else. He had never seen Splaang, or any of the other fourteen Necrophantas aboard, in such a dark and dangerous mood in all his days and it filled his heart with dread. Homunculus life expectancy aboard the ship had gone down from four months to barely a week and he had already lost three of his bridge crew to the Admiral’s fractious mood before he had got the situation under some sort of control once more. Their pointless deaths hurt him. They were the first he had lost in this way for many years such had been his skill in dealing with these monsters. Every human on the bridge was understandably nervous but kept him or herself calm and constantly aware of the situation, as he had taught them to do. Orgone looked at the view screen and the unexpected sight it showed and scowled. He secretly prayed that this was not going to cause any unforeseen problems between his bridge crew and their masters, that the Majes would keep their heads down and be very careful what they said and how they said it. The Necrophantas had barely spoken a word since the fleet had started coming together under Splaang’s command. They had dropped out of the manifold to rendezvous with the Sunkiller, which was to be the last of the Swordships joining the fleet. Fifteen ships to match the fifteen Necrophantas who had perished. All of their inhuman focus was on revenge for the unspeakable, unthinkable outrage that had been perpetrated against them and the bloodshed in their cold, inhuman eyes would not be quenched until those responsible were reduced to dust.
“Forty vessels in all, fifteen of them battleships all heavily armed.”
Pergola’s familiar voice drew his eyes over to her. She was focusing on her screen to further probe the unknown fleet with her powers, her voice flat with concentration.
“Atomic based propulsion, limited warp jump capabilities, multi-phasic shielding, nuclear based missiles, low modular laser cannons.” She looked up from her screen and added. “Their weaponry poses no significant threat to us, Admiral.”
This was directed at Splaang but he showed no response, not once had he even glanced at the tactical screen since they had first noticed the ships. He seemingly had little interest in this unexpected encounter. It was rare to find humans with such advanced space-faring abilities. But this was a backwater of the quadrant that hadn’t been explored for centuries so this wasn’t totally impossible. Orgone kept his voice neutral as he asked her.
“What percentage of magical indicators can you find?”
“None at all my lord, they are science-based only.”
As expected, so just another human society that would be going nowhere much. A few neighbouring systems at best before they hit the dead end that science on it’s own always resulted in. Ecological suicide and distances so vast they could not be crossed using science alone. So no threat in the here and now and no threat in the future. He turned to look at Splaang. Science-based, with atomics, the Necrophanta would see them as an abomination, vermin to be stamped out, if they were not already so distracted, seemingly oblivious to all but the urgent rage of their vengeful mission.
“Admiral what is your command?”
Finally a red beady eye swivelled towards him and the cold voice rumbled.
Orgone inwardly sighed and told the crew to stand down, crisis over. He bowed to the Admiral and turned to leave the bridge and return to his chambers where Motherboard was busy analysing the infostream that had come through from the fallen Starslasher.
“High Lord.” It was young Lord Gibbel at navigation. “Two of the vessels have approached and fired twice at the Heavenrender. No damage reported or expected.”
Orgone span around and started striding back to his position.
Splaang spoke as if barely interested.
“Wipe them out…all of them.”
The grand piano turned in a graceful circle as it came towards them. As it spiralled slowly in space Vildercard could see that it was miraculously untouched, as shiny and elegant as it had always been. He watched captivated by the surreal dance of the instrument as if he was caught in a waking dream, until with a silent shudder it hit the diamerglass dome of the Abundance Declared. It immediately careered away from the collision, its new trajectory carrying the piano off into the nearest pulsing cloud of debris that drifted all around them and Wildercard rubbed his hot eyes and turned towards the silently stunned party guests but said nothing. What could he say? It had all happened so ridiculously fast and yet his memory of it seemed to stretch to eternity.
Gazellia had taken his arm and giggled in excitement as the pair of dreadnoughts had approached the Swordship, saying.
“Ohmygod, it’s all so thrillin’ donchafink?”
He had patted her hand and smiled. Next to him the nihilist poetess, Hope Springs dressed as ever, all in black said, in that disinterested and fateful way she stated everything.
“Finally, oh glorious end is close…sweet kiss of oblivion, that brings life fateful meaning. ”
And he had turned his eyes to her with a puzzled look, before it dawned on him the significance of her comment.
“Oh fuck.” He said under his breath, realising too late the arrogance of his mistake.
The nearest dreadnought had fired two missiles into the blade of the massive ship only to have them impact impotently against the glowing shields and disintegrate, seemingly without harming their target in the slightest. After a moment as if in reply, two white shafts spat out from the Swordship and punched through the centre of both attacking vessels. Each expanded silently in a bright explosion, looking like two orchids springing into bloom. The speakers went dead and some of the guests behind him screamed and yelled in shock and awe. Then the lead vessel banked away from the line of swords, turning back towards them and the space above them lit up with a pattern of white fanned beams from the blade of the massive craft. He looked up at them for a moment, dazzled by their beauty and then turned to follow the shafts of light to their destination. For a second he saw his fleet, hanging to the port, then simultaneously each and every vessel erupted in an eye searing detonation. It had taken just a few seconds for one of these mysterious alien ships to destroy the rest of the Commercian fleet in its entirety. For a long moment he stared in wordless disbelief at the terrible aftermath. A silence had fallen over the gathering as all those present struggled to comprehend what they had just witnessed. He pushed Gazellia away from him and in a daze she scuttled over to her husband’s arms. A gurgled half scream broke the stunned hush of the deck and he looked round to see Alton Towers lurch suddenly to his feet, his podgy, bejewelled hands wrapped around his throat. The fat toad staggered forward a step, his piggy eyes wide with shock. He opened his mouth to speak and blood poured from it, down his chins and onto his hands. He choked and abruptly a stream of bright red squirted out from the severed neck artery behind his desperate grasp. He looked around at the glittering party guests before him with dumb pleading and then fell heavily to his hands and knees, blood spraying indiscriminately from his slit throat. A few screamed and one female voice cried out petulantly, “ Oy, mind the dress, it’s a Vanjancier!” as he crawled a few feet and then with a sigh collapsed into the pool of dark liquid spreading out beneath his corpulent body. Behind the chair he had just vacated his manservant stood with a broad smile on his pale face, in his hand the paring knife’s small blade glistened with scarlet droplets. He looked around at the horrified witnesses to his revenge and just shrugged. He still wore that happy smile, even as the yellow beam from the lieutenant’s laser pistol vaporised him where he stood. People started to panic and so Vildercard took the laser pistol from the helmsman and setting it on percussive mode, fired it into the air and called out.
“It is in the best interest of us all if everybody would please stay quiet until I’ve had the opportunity to assess our situation fully. Calm down my friends, this is not as bleak as it looks I promise you. Go and get a drink and I’ll find out what is happening”
His words had the desired effect and while the guests muttered quietly to each other, a few sobbing, others necking down drinks to steady themselves, he turned to the lieutenant. The air and water were on endless recycle, the solar sail energy was inexhaustible, though the manoeuvring thrusters would have to be used sparingly. He lowered his voice and spoke to the steersman in confidence.
“What is the food supply situation lieutenant?”
The young officer obviously understood the calamity of the situation far better than the pampered celebrities did because his face was pale with shock and fear. He brought up the relevant data onto the screen, studied it and then replied quietly.
“On standard rations, four months, two days, sir.”
Vildercard sighed and considered the information for a moment. Then he adjusted the pistol to wide beam, turned and pressing the trigger down hard, he swept it across the guests. Most of them didn’t have time to react, a few screamed as the beam vaporised them, they were all gone within a few seconds and satisfied with this he turned back to the crewman and said casually.
“So how long now then?”
The lieutenant looked up at him with fear in his eyes but Vildercard reassured him that he was safe.
“I can’t steer this bloody thing myself.”
The young man, as if overwhelmed by one shock after another, nodded dumbly at him before turning back to the screen, his fingers recalculating the figures within seconds.
“Eleven years, five months and sixteen days, sir.”
“Excellent. And at full speed how long will it take us to reach the Inderwickian system?”
The steersman hunched over the screen as he called up the information. It took him a few minutes but finally he turned in his chair, looked up at Vildercard and said.
“Seven thousand, three hundred and sixty nine years, five months and six days, sir.”
As his grandfather had done all those years ago, Huron Vildercard VIII, brought down by his own insatiable greed, put the pistol he was holding into his mouth and, with a final whimper of self pity he closed his eyes and squeezed the trigger.