Read a sample from ANCESTRAL MACHINES by Michael Cobley

Science fiction on an epic scale – a standalone science fiction adventure set in Michael Cobley’s bestselling Humanity’s Fire universe. Perfect for fans of Iain M. Banks or James S. A. Corey’s Expanse series


Through Brannan Pyke’s slow-waking mind, thoughts stole like foggy ghosts . . .

Death came . . .

He felt cold, lying on something soft, something weightless.

Death came whispering . . .

Cold, yes, but not soft, not lying on anything.

Death came whispering orders . . .

Just hanging in zero-gee, he realised drowsily, hanging in the dark, with something glowing faintly red off to one side. Those words about death whispering seemed familiar somehow . . . then he remembered. It was poetry, something that Dervla had been singing yesterday . . .

Then Pyke awoke with a curse on his lips as it all came back in a black, bitter rush, the rendezvous with Khorr, the handover, the sleepgas ambush . . . and now here he was in some shadowed corner of the Scarabus where he spun lazily amid a cloud of angular objects that caught faint red glimmers from . . . from a solitary emergency lamp over the hatch.

“Lights,” he said, voice hoarse in a dry throat. Nothing happened. “Scar – can you hear or respond?”

Silence reigned in the gloom, which meant that the comms and/or the AI was offline.

Pyke coughed, swallowed, and realised he was in Auxiliary Hold 3, the place where they stored stuff that wasn’t pointless and wasn’t crucial but might be later. A variety of containers, plastic, card and fabric, drifted all around, some agape and surrounded by their contents, components, silver-wrapped edibles, unidentifiable disc things webbed together in tangled nets, trade goods maybe.

Well, he thought. Still most definitely alive. But why would that pusbag Khorr do that? Why leave behind witnesses that could identify him . . .

His imagination provided a variety of answers in shades of sadism and horror, and it was impossible not to think about the rest of the crew, Dervla especially. He had to get out of here, find out what had happened, whatever it was.

Several unsecured storage straps hung from the ceiling, drifting like strands of plaslon kelp. He stretched out and caught one with his fingertips, drew it into his hand, then hauled himself up to the ceiling and used the sling loops to get to the nearest bulkhead. Loose boxes and tubes and bags hung in his way, reminding him of the number of times he’d asked Ancil to sort through this guddle and clear out the really useless tat.

Racks lined the bulkhead. Pulling himself across them he steered towards the hatch, anchored himself with the metal handle and prodded the panel of touch controls. As expected, they were dead so he reached down and twisted the manual release. The doorseal popped and he felt a brief but definite puff of air as pressures equalised. Wedging his arm between the hatch handle and the doorframe he slowly forced the unlocked hatch open. With a sigh of relief he floated out into the ship’s starboard passageway, glanced either way and saw the same emergency lights shedding meagre red halos amid the murk. There were no sounds, just a muffled quiet. He hooked one arm around a wall stanchion and paused to think back.

The trade rendezvous had been set for the environs of a snowbound world called Nadisha II, in an unexploited system right on the border between Earthsphere and the Indroma Solidarity. The Scarabus had been in orbit for over an hour when Khorr’s vessel finally arrived. The meeting had taken place in the Scarabus’s main hold, and was Pyke’s first face-to-face with the client. Over subspace comms Khorr had claimed to be the descendant of higrav workers but in the flesh he was clearly much more, humanoid in appearance though possibly lab-coded for what headhunters referred to as non-civilian applications. Garbed in worn, leathery body armour, Khorr was easily seven feet tall, bald, and had a fighter’s brawny physique, as did his two slightly less imposing henchmen. With the body armour and the heavy boots they resembled extras from the set of an exceptionally ultragothique glowactioner.

Pyke had taken the usual precautions: apart from Punzho and Hammadi, the rest of the crew were on hand to provide the deterrence of an armed welcoming committee. Khorr and his men had climbed out of their squat shuttle and strode leisurely over to where Pyke stood next to a waist-high crate on which sat the merchandise, resting within its shaped padding, a state-of-the-art milgrade subspace scanner-caster. When the three stopped a few feet short and crossed their arms, Pyke had heard one of Dervla’s trademark derisive snorts from behind. Ignoring it, he had given a bright smile.

“Well, now, here we are, meeting at last. Very nice.”

Khorr, face like granite, grunted. His dark eyes had flicked right and left at the rest of the crew for a moment before fixing on Pyke again.

“This is the device?”

Pyke gave the scanner’s case an affectionate pat.

“You see before you Sagramore Industries’ latest and finest scanner, factory-fresh and field-ready, conveyed to your waiting hands by my professional services. Which don’t come cheap.”

Khorr nodded, reached inside his heavy jacket and produced a small flat case just the right size for holding a number of credit splines. He held them out and waited until Pyke’s fingers were prying at the release button before saying, “Here is your payment!”

Now, floating weightless in the half-lit passage, Pyke remembered how his danger-sense had quivered right at that moment but his hands had had a life of their own and were already opening the small case. A faint mist had puffed out and even though he had turned his face away from it he still caught a whiff of something sweet. He had felt cold prickles scamper across his face as he turned to shout a warning, but saw Ancil and Win crumpling to the deck a second before grey nothing shut down his mind.

And yet I’m still alive, he thought. And that skagpile Khorr really doesn’t seem like the type to leave behind loose ends.

Grabbing handholds on the bulkhead, he launched himself along the passage towards Auxiliary Hold 4. He slowed and floated over to the hatch window, gazed in and swore at the sight. Hammadi’s corpse hung there, adrift amid blue and green spares boxes. Dead. The jutting tongue and noticeably bulging eyes spoke of suffocation by depressurisation, gradual not explosive, otherwise there would have been webs of burst blood vessels and more grotesque damage. Hammadi was – had been – chief engineer, a genius in his own way who had made the Scarabus’s drives sing like a chorus of harmonised furies.

But all Pyke could think about was Dervla. Dear god, please no!

Pyke pushed away from the hatch, turning towards a side opening, the midsection lateral corridor which led to the port-side passageway and the other auxiliary holds. He launched himself along it, driven to get it over with.

The quiet was eerie, unnerving. No mingled background murmur of onboard systems, no whisper of a/c, no low hum of micropumps, no faint sounds of crew activities, no music, no chattering news feeds. Just a numbed silence. But the air . . . he sniffed, breathed in deep, and realised that it was not as stale as it should be. Some backup ventilation had to be running somewhere, but how and why? More unanswered questions.

It was just as gloomy over in the port-side passage. From the Tjunction he glided across to Auxiliary Hold 2, grabbed the door stanchion and peered in through the hatch window. There was movement, and the surprised, bandito-moustached face of Ancil Martel glanced up from where he floated, crouched next to the manual override panel.

“Hey, chief,” came his muffled voice. “It’s jammed on this side. Can you . . . ?”

Pyke nodded, pried aside the outer panel and after several sharp tugs the hatch seal gave with a familiar pop. A moment later the hatch was slid aside enough for Ancil to squeeze through.

“Those ratbags chumped us, chief.”

“I know.”

“But why are we still alive . . . ?”

Pyke ground his teeth and shook his head. “Hammadi’s in Hold 4, dead from air-evac. I think that’s what that gouger Khorr had in mind, for us all to be in our quarters and dead from some massive failure of the environmentals. But something must have interrupted the scum . . . or he just made a bollocks of it and didn’t know.” He glanced along at the next hatch. “What about Hold 1? D’ye know if there’s anyone in there?”

Ancil shrugged. “Only came around a short while ago. Banged on the wall a few times but I didn’t hear anything.”

“Better find out, then, hadn’t we?”

So saying he pushed off along to Hold 1’s hatch, grabbed its handle and swung in close to the window and . . .

“Feck and dammit!” he snarled.

Inside, near the rear bulkhead, the bulky, brown-overalled form of Krefom, the Henkayan heavy weapons specialist, drifted a few feet off the deck, still as a statue, sightless eyes gazing out of that craggy impassive face. In Pyke’s mind he imagined Khorr and his men moving through the ship, dragging the unconscious crew along, imprisoning them one by one.

“That son of a bitch is going to pay!”

With the last rage-filled word he slammed one palm and upper arm against the flat bulkhead, making a sudden loud bang which reverberated along the passage. Then he gasped as he saw the Henkayan’s still form jerk convulsively, eyes staring wildly around him for a moment or two. Then he spotted the disbelieving Pyke and Ancil at the window, gave a big grin and pointed.

“He was sleeping?” Pyke said. “Sleeping . . . with his eyes open?”

A frowning Ancil shrugged. “Maybe Henkayans can do that, chief. I’ve never seen him asleep.”

Then Krefom was at the hatch, knocking on the window with a big knuckly fist.

“Can’t open this side, Captain-sir,” came his deep rough voice. “Broke the emergency handle. Sorry.”

“We can crack it from here, Kref,” Pyke said.

Moments later the lock-seal was released and Krefom pushed the hatch aside with a single push of one mighty forearm. As the big Henkayan shouldered out of the hold he gave a gravelly chuckle and slapped palms with Ancil. Pyke intervened before they started swapping stories.

“Kref, I need to know what you have stashed in that cabinet up by the crew quarters.”

“Some good stuff – shockbatons, trankers, concussion and smoke nades, some light body armour . . . ” The Henkayan frowned for a moment. “And a tangler. You think them skaghats is still on board, Captain-sir?”

“Dunno, Kref,” he said. “But I’ll not be taking any chances. Let’s go.”

Together they floated back along the lateral corridor to the midpoint where a panel was yanked out to reveal an interdeck access shaft. Pyke went first, hand over hand up the cold alloy ladder. Near the top, where a hatch led to an alcove near the crew quarters, he heard voices and slowed. He made a silencing gesture to Ancil and Kref below him while listening intently. One voice was female and after a moment he smiled, recognising the unflappably sardonic tones of Win Foskel, their tactics and close combat expert. Pyke proceeded to snap open the hatch catches without trying to mute the noise, then gripped a ladder rung and pushed the hatch upwards.

“Stop right there!” came Win Foskel’s voice. “Surrender your weapons – toss them out, no smart moves or I’ll drop something down that shaft that’ll fry you from the inside!”

“And what would that be?” Pyke said. “One of those gritburgers from the galley?”

Ancil laughed further down as Pyke pushed himself up and into the corridor. A rueful Win tilted her tranker away and nodded, then grinned as Ancil was next to emerge. Her glittered dreads wavered as she drifted over to him. Out in the corridor proper, Pyke found Mojag, a skinny Human, Punzho the Egetsi, and Dervla who seemed oddly calm when her eyes settled upon him. He was about to ask how she was but there was something in her features, in fact something in the demeanour of them all. Then he realised what was wrong – three Humans, one Egetsi, but no portly, middle-aged reptiloid Kiskashin.

“Where’s Oleg?” he said abruptly, even as he guessed.

Dervla floated over to him, grey eyes staring intensely from her pale face, her back-tied red hair looking almost black in the redness of the emergency light. She leaned in close and kissed him.

“That’s for being alive,” she said. Then with disconcerting suddenness she slapped him. “And that’s for Mojag, because he’s far too polite!”

“So you thought you’d take it upon yourself to act in his stead, is that it?”

Her gaze was full of smouldering anger but Pyke could see the hurt behind it. Oleg had been Mojag’s copartner but in the four years since they joined the crew Dervla had built up bonds of friendship with the Kiskashin.

“You led us here, Bran,” she said.

“Where is he?” Pyke said.“And it was your idea, your deal.”


Before she could answer, Mojag spoke from where he floated further along the darkened passage.

“Our cabin,” he said in a quiet voice. “They must have sealed him in there then set the environmentals to evacuate. I don’t know if he knew what was going on but when the temperature and pressure fell the hibernation reflex must have taken over.” Mojag breathed deeply for a moment and rubbed his face. “He looks peaceful – he was probably in hibernation fugue when the air ran out.”

“But they could only do that if they got into the enviro controls first,” said Ancil, who then paused, and snapped his fingers. “The auxiliaries in the main hold.”

Pyke nodded, anger leashed. “You’re right.”

“Wouldn’t be any of them still aboard, would there?” said Ancil.

“No – once the deed was done, the filthy gougers would have left us for dead and scarpered, although we better be sure.” By now the crew were gathered round, listening. “So what we’re going to do is this – empty that armoury cabinet, make sure everyone’s got something harmful and a torch, and maybe some armour, then we split up. Two groups, one sweeping the ship from bows to stern while the other heads for Engineering to see about getting the power and the environmentals back up and running. Okay? Let’s get to it.”

The crew seemed subdued, faces masked with sombreness and . . . something else. Sorrow over the loss of Hammadi and Oleg, certainly, but Pyke could sense some kind of reserve. Perhaps Dervla wasn’t the only one laying blame at his door.

The armoury cabinet had only been partially looted. Unearthed from a carrycase was a solitary pulse-stunner which Kref passed to Pyke, who looked it over, checked the charge, then pulled out the extendable stock, locking it in place. It was an ugly, stubby weapon done up in a horrible mud-brown colour scheme but for shipboard skirmishing it was highly effective.

Pyke chose Kref and Win to go with him to Engineering, while the others accompanied Dervla forward to start at the bridge. The Scarabus was a small ship, yet the journey back along grav-less, low-lit passages to the aft section was tense, almost nerve-jangling. Pyke’s group checked from the main hold back to the storerooms, the little machine-shop, the lower and upper generators and the aft maintenance niches, ending up at last in the narrow, split-level chamber that served as Engineering Control. It had taken twenty-odd minutes, and Dervla’s group arrived just moments after them.

“Nothing,” she said, balancing a black-handled shockbaton on her shoulder. “Not a sign, not a sound, not soul.”

“Just as well,” said Pyke. “Then first order of business is getting the gravity back on. Ancil, you think you can manage that?”

Ancil screwed one eye half shut thoughtfully. “Eh, if Mojag lends me a hand.”

Mojag gave a wordless nod and climbed up to join Ancil at the long console where he sat, prodding boards awake.

“Time we got as close to the deck as possible,” he told the others. “Don’t want anyone copping a sprained ankle or worse.”

Lying flat out with his head propped up on one hand, Pyke thought about Mojag. He was a skinny guy in his middle years, dark brown eyes and short brown hair lightened by encroaching greyness. He and the Kiskashin, Oleg, had only joined the crew a year ago but the story went that back in his twenties, before he met Oleg, he had suffered head injuries so serious that nearly half his brain was replaced with a pseudo-organic cortical prosthesis. While the injury and subsequent operation erased great swathes of memory, the prosthesis permitted the replacement of fact and images as supplied by members of his family. Whenever the subject arose Mojag insisted that before the injury he had been something of a planet-skipping, bed-hopping playboy, a claim most of the crew found amusing since the Mojag they knew was calm and meditative and self-possessed to the point of unreadability. Even now.

Once everyone was on the deck, Ancil gave a five-second countdown before bringing the grav-system back online. The return of body weight elicited a collective oof! a moment before the sound of crashes and clatters reverberated along the corridor outside and undoubtedly throughout the ship.

“The sound of our worldly goods rediscovering which way is down,” said Dervla as she got up on shaky legs.

With a dry laugh Pyke forced himself upright. “Right, then, Ancil – can you activate some sort of comms?”

Sitting slumped in one of the bucket seats by the monitors, Ancil frowned. “Without oversight from Scar? I might be able to rig an open channel using the corridor voker network. You might have to shout, though.”

Scar was the name Pyke had conferred upon the ship’s AI.

“Aye, do it,” Pyke said. “We’ll get Scar back online, and then maybe we can find out what’s keeping the air breathable.”

“Bet it’s another legacy system,” said Dervla. “Y’know, the stuff that Voth dealer promised that he’d wiped from the substrate nodes. Six years since you bought this heap and we’re still getting weird events like this.”

“Well, aye, but this time it’s kept us alive,” he said. “Perhaps yourself and Win could go up to the main hold and restart the enviros from up there?”

“What about Oleg and Hammadi?”

“We’ll deal with them once the Scarabus is up and running, and we have the sensors and weapons primed and ready, not before.”

Dervla regarded him. “Should we go to the bridge afterwards, relight the boards?”

“No, I’m heading there myself in a moment or two.” He offered a thin smile. “Get Scar woken up and bright-eyed.”

“You and that AI are too close for my liking,” she said, arching one eyebrow. With that she headed out of the hatch, followed by Win who smiled and rolled her eyes before leaving.

Watching them go, Pyke thought, Well, if I didn’t know any better . . .

He turned to the others. Mojag and Ancil were still working at their elevated workstations, prodding and flicking screen glyphs and webby data arrays. Krefom the Henkayan was doing stretching exercises to firm up his relaxed muscles, while the Egetsi, Punzho Bex, was still slumped on the floor by the wall. At two and a half metres he was average height for an Egetsi, a lo-grav biped species whose homeworld lay in the confederal alliance of Fensahr.

Pyke squatted down beside him. “How are you doing, Punzho?”

“I have been without gravityness for some time, Captain,” the Egetsi said in his soft, double-larynxed voice. “I am with embarrassment at my body’s incapacity. I should be aiding the recovery of our vessel.”

“Don’t you worry yourself about that – you’ll be right as rain in a short while. I just need to ask you something about when that Khorr and his goons came aboard; did ye sense anything from them at all, any kind of threat?”

The Egetsi’s narrow features were a picture of anguish. Pyke had hired him a year and a half ago on account of his voluminous knowledge of rare and valuable trade goods (especially arts and antiquities). He also possessed some low-level psi abilities that had proved useful now and then.

“Captain, I am with sorrow. I detected nothing from them, nothing at all. They were very calm—”

“Might have been shielded,” chipped in Ancil from above.

“Or mind-trained,” Pyke said, frowning. Which would make for a very interesting skillset for a bunch of supposed smugglers.

He patted Punzho on the shoulder and stood.

“Look, if they were able to shield their minds then there was nothing you could have done. Doesn’t matter how they did it. So don’t be getting bent out of shape over it, all right?”

Punzho raised one long-fingered hand, reached inside his pale green overtunic and took out a small dark blue pouch. He loosened its ties, opened it and tipped out a number of small, intricately detailed figurines. Sorting through them he picked out one and returned the rest to the pouch.

“You are right, Captain,” he said. “I must winnow out the true guilt from the false, and in the enduring time regain my strengths. Gst will help me see the path.”

Punzho was a follower of the Weave, a religion derived from the lives of nine holy seekers who lived at a time when the Egetsi had reached a tribal level of development. Believers memorised the Three Catechisms, the Three Inspirations, and the Three Obligations, and carried on their persons a pouch containing effigies representing the Nine Novices. The little figurines served as a focus for meditation on a wide range of topics, either on their own or in specific arrangements. Out of curiosity, Pyke had once asked Punzho if he ever employed the effigies as stand-ins for the crew but the Egetsi insisted that according to orthodoxy such a use amounted to allegory and was therefore inadvisable. Pyke wasn’t sure how much of an answer that was.

“Good,” he said. “And now I’m off to the bridge to get things humming there . . . oh, and Kref, would you check the aft storage booths for breakages and damage? The sensors on some of the stackerbots are crocked so we may have to straighten the booths out by hand.”

“I can do that, Captain,” Kref said. “There’ll be some good lifting in that.”

Pyke grinned and left, following the starboard corridor to where a companionway led up to an offdeck up on a level with the high gantries that ran along either bulkhead of the main hold. A viewport gave a view down into the hold where he could see Win Foskel inspecting the innards of a tall, hinged maintenance panel. Of Dervla there was no sign. Turning, he glanced at the smaller, thicker viewport in the bulkhead which was part of the hull; there was only a dozen of them scattered around the Scarabus, and all were double-sealed by the shipwide shutdown. Getting them open again was high on his list, serving his need to see the stars. The Great Star-Forest, as his Granny Rennals used to call it, saying that there were many trails through the forest and not all of them were safe.

Well, you were right enough there, Gran. If I ever get back to Cruachan I’ll have a few stories to tell you.

A couple of weak red emergency lamps scarcely pushed back the gloom on the bridge, otherwise broken by a scattering of glowing amber pinpoints. But Pyke moved with the ease of familiarity from station to station, switching on the six retrofitted overhead holomonitors. Silver radiance lit up the vacant operator couches and patches of the deck, while brighter luminance bloomed from console lamps and readouts as he started to bring the secondary systems online.

Moving over to the command console, he sat in his battered, leathery chair with the tilt-gimballed drink holder and watched the system indicators go green on his main holoscreen and felt a measure of satisfaction. The Scarabus was a Type-38 Ombilan transport, well known for its ruggedness, but the modifications he’d put in down the years had changed it from a reliable workhorse into a tough, fast multipurpose vessel capable of giving as good as she got. Now she practically amounted to an extension of himself and this shipwide reactivation was like a part of himself reawakening.

The AI Scar had not yet reached full-run status. From a standing start it was always the slowest to reach functionality, but since most of the secondary systems were now online Pyke decided to unseal the viewports, starting with the ones on the bridge. Three yard-long, foot-wide curves of lattice-toughened u-glass capable of withstanding direct hits from pulse and beam cannon. Now the outer seals retracted into their hull apertures, revealing the world they were orbiting, a large planet banded in shades of dark blue and grey and adorned with a thin and perfect, almost delicate-looking orbital ring.

That’s not Nadisha II, he thought. I should be looking at a pale blue world in the grip of an ice age, not this . . . whatever it is.

“Captain, where are we?” Win Foskel was standing in the entry hatch, staring in shock at the viewport. “That’s not the ice planet—”

“I know that, Win,” Pyke said calmly. “Now, if you sit yourself down at the nav-station we’ll work on finding out what the situation is, okay?”

“Okay,” she said shakily, going over to one of the couches. “But that’s a gas giant, and we were orbiting a class P habitable before—”

She was interrupted by a brief, tinny fanfare.

“At last,” Pyke muttered in relief. “Win, I have a feeling that we’re still in the same system but I’m sure the expert can figure it out. Scar, y’back in the saddle yet?”

“Hello, Bran. Cognitives are at 98 per cent . . . now at 100 per cent.”

Pyke smiled. The AI’s voice was composed and purposefully synthetic, yet with a feminine undertone.

“Excellent, Scar. Priority request – verify astrogational location.”

“Still trying to initialise main sensors, Bran. Crash powerdown has damaged several low-level data conduits . . . sensors initialised . . . scanning now.”

Pyke glanced over at Win and said, “Wait for it . . . ”

“Astropositional anomaly!” said the AI in a more urgent tone. “Rebuilding stellar context array – gathering system comparators – matching with last known coordinates – Bran, I can confirm that the Scarabus is still in the Nadisha star system. However, we are now 594 megaklicks from our original position, in orbit around Nadisha IV, a mid-range gas giant—”

“What’s our orbital status?”

“Ecliptical intermediate, high stability.”

“And just how long were we out?” Pyke said, thoughts racing. “Seventeen hours and twenty-four minutes have elapsed since the crash powerdown event.”

He uttered a low whistle. “That’s quite a span of time – whatever they were up to they’ll be long gone by now, I reckon.”

Seated in her couch, Win Foskel looked over her shoulder at him. “Chief, I don’t get it – if they wanted us dead why not just blow the drives instead of hauling us halfway across the system . . . ”

“Look at it from their twisted, psychopathic side,” he said. “Those scum wouldn’t have known what precautions we might have taken, or who knew we were coming here . . . eh, Scar, was the ship ident still active through all that?”

“Yes, Bran, it was.”

Pyke nodded. “Yes, they might have looked like low-brow brutes but they had some smarts among them. So anyone who came looking for us would lock onto our ident, follow it here only to discover that we were all victims of a tragic enviro-system malf. Which would keep attention away from the planet we were originally orbiting.”

He sat back in his high-backed couch, enjoying the creak of the blue tove-leather as he thought for a moment, wondering why the ship had been moved and what might be happening back at their original location. Then he said:

“Scar, what’s our general status? Are we fit to fly?”

“Hull integrity is optimal, as are shields and secondary propulsion units.”

He gave a little nod and leaned forward to prod up a commlink on the holoscreen.

“Ancil?” In the holoscreen Ancil Martel looked round. “Ancil, I’m thinking we should set a course back to that wintry world we were orbiting before, see if we can find out what happened to our cargo and that gang of scum-sucking jackers. How are the drives behaving?”

“Sweet as a bell, chief. Field matrices should be ready in about ten minutes. Will we by any chance be making a microjump?”

“That’s my thinking,” Pyke said, pausing when he realised that the seat next to Martel was empty. “Where’s Mojag?”

“Well, once the generators were up and running, everything was on track. Mojag knows his stuff, must have picked up a lot from, y’know, Oleg. So he says he has to take care of his quarters and I told him that’s okay ’cos I’m on top of everything.” Ancil frowned. “He seemed quieter than usual, but not himself.”

“What do you mean?”

“When I glanced over a few times I saw him shake his head slightly or make that agreeing sound he makes, but nobody was speaking to him, and once I definitely heard him mutter to himself.” He shrugged. “Never saw him do that before.”

Pyke nodded. “Mojag has a different load to carry than you or I. Got that chunk of hardmem in his head which makes dealing with grief complicated.”

“Mojag is a very mellow fellow,” said Ancil. “He’s usually a calming influence.”

“And I am sure that in time he’ll find a way to cope with his loss,” Pyke said. “In the meantime, how are those fields coming along?”

“A few minutes yet, chief, then we can shake the dust and be on our way.”

“Good man.” Then, sensing something he spun his chair round to see Dervla watching him from the port-side bridge hatch.

“You’re really taking us back to the ice-world?” she said. “Could be risky, going by what we’ve just been through.”

“I don’t take kindly to being trussed and chumped by a bunch of overmuscled leatherboys,” he said.

“Ah, so this is about your ego. Mmm, glad we’re clear on that.”

Smiling, Pyke poked one of the comm buttons. “Scar, set a microjump course back to Nadisha II, if you please.”

“Yes, Bran. I shall be ready to commence a shipwide thirtysecond countdown in two minutes.”

“Thanks.” He met Dervla’s gaze. “And no, my flower, this is not about my ego. I take on jobs for business reasons, not thrills, and I think I’m quite entitled to remedy the situation.”

“And get us into . . . ” She shrugged. “Okay, so what’s the plan?”

“Well, as we are in possession of neither the comm-scanner nor the payment we were due from that pus-stain Khorr, the idea is to return to the scene of the crime and see what clues we can find, ion trails, any stay-behind pieces, that kind of thing.”

In the background Scar’s voice announced the imminent hyperspace microjump and started counting down.

“So we’re going after the scumbucket,” Dervla said. “While not having any idea of what force he might have at his disposal. Y’know, there is such a thing as cutting your losses.”

“And there’s such a thing as self-respect!” he came back. “In any case, we actually need the money to keep the Scarabus operational . . . ”

At that moment the ship’s hyperdrive kicked in, bending the subquantal structures of space-time in very specific ways. Pyke felt the familiar squeeze-vertigo effect as it swirled through him, but he only paused for a moment or two.

“ . . . and . . . AND – it might be nice to buy some of that stuff they call ‘food’. I’m led to believe that it actually has a taste, unlike that cyclo rubbish we’ve been . . . ”

He stopped when Dervla, wide-eyed and uneasy, pointed over at the bridge viewports.

“Is that really . . . ?”

Even as Pyke swivelled his chair to look, the ship AI spoke. “Planetary anomaly detected – stat conflicts across all main parameters – full macroscan in progress.”

Nadisha II was a pale blue world, its continents buried beneath snow and blizzards that weren’t due to start receding for another half a millennium. But what Brannan Pyke was seeing through the viewports was something completely different, a darkened world, swathed in angry cyclonic weather patterns. As he stared he felt a strange urge to laugh.

“Scar, what the devil are we looking at?”

“Scan results are incomplete but preliminary assessment is confirmed – although this planet occupies exactly the same orbital location as Nadisha II, and possesses the same angular velocity, it is another planet altogether.”

Pyke nodded judiciously.

“Well, you don’t see that every day.”