Athena b had been surveyed some thirty years prior to the first settlements being opened to the public. First, deep space probes had reported on a suitable atmosphere on the second planet out from the system’s star, a K1 type body that weighed in 0.876 solar masses, and bathed the system in an orange hue. A small moon stabilised what would otherwise have been an uncomfortable degree of axial tilt (Athena d was a Saturn-sized body with sixty times the mass of the earth, and it exerted a powerful presence on the system). The moon had been dubbed Mykene, another name for Athena herself. The small rocky body had floated on even as the surface of Athena b had been ravaged, unperturbed by the machinations of sentient life forms.

The main city on Athena b, Thebes (once again named after Athena) had held the communications array that beamed messages back to the Commonwealth, and though Athena b was a new colony, and one reasonably far from the border with other species, it had been required by Commonwealth law to beam a message to the nearest system every three days – a means of verifying that everything was fine. The slow but steady flow of traffic in and out of the system had provided plenty of evidence that the planet was still spinning and its inhabitants were all A-Okay, but the law was the law. It took three days for the signal (a simple ‘hi, we’re all fine’) to reach the Delta Rama system, an older colony that spanned two habitable planets and with a population of nearly half a billion human beings. The failure to receive the signal was greeted with concern but not outright alarm – system failures were hardly unheard of, and there were ships emerging from warp space that had come from Athena whose crews reported nothing out of the ordinary. Worries grew when, after four days, the traffic out of Athena dried up completely.

Tight-beam signals were bandwidth intensive, and power-hungry, and only to be used in emergencies as they couldn’t be encrypted to any reasonable degree. It took twelve hours for the signal to reach Athena, with the expectation that it would be replied to almost immediately, with a return signal received more or less twelve hours later. Even so, Admiral Sonja Broadbent, commander of the Commonwealth Navy station that orbited Delta Rama d, ordered a pair of frigates that assisted the system to head to Athena to investigate, prior to the expected reply. At best speed, the ships covered the fourteen light-year distance in just under two days, averaging 0.3 light-years per hour. Their stocky structures slipped free of warp tendrils to discover they weren’t the first arrivals. The crew of the privately owned cargo vessel Spirit of the Sea had earned that particular misfortune.

****

“Shit. Shit shit shit shit!” First Mate Bobbie Kendrick fought to keep her emotions in check at the horrific sight. Athena had been a world bubbling with promise – the settlements had quickly grown into small cities and expanded from there, as ambitious, hard-working souls had irrigated fields, started to grow crops, develop mining operations, manufacture and sell products, and forge homes for themselves. Now that was all gone, reduced to ashes.

“Two million people…” Captain (a term she applied loosely in the informal environment of her ship) Lena Schäfer took in the same sight that the small viewscreen on the command deck displayed. They were alone in the small room, an informal affair compared to military ships with their set positions for each officer. Four round chairs, fixed to the floor but capable of swiveling, were once white but the leather had faded over the years and were now more cream in colour. The helm console to the right of the captain’s chair was where Kendrick sat, looking over her captain’s shoulder at the devastation below. The large navigational display in front of her was a virtual representation of what she could see on the viewscreen, except it painted everything in a blue hue, and offered up proximity alerts where needed. Her hand had instinctively gone to the chrome gear to the right of the screen, which, when slid forward, would activate the warp engine.

Now it retracted, that immediate urgency gone, replaced by shock. Tears began to well up in her eyes; Kendrick had known some of the colonists – not particularly well, but Spirit of the Sea was gaining a customer base and with it, a sense of familiarity with the people on Athena. That was now all gone.

“Bobbie, keep us a hundred thousand clicks from the planet and shut down the main engine. We’re switching to silent running.” Somehow Schäfer had kept her voice level; Bobbie could only carry out the orders numbly, trying not to let the magnitude of what had happened get to her. She envied Lena’s calm nature, but then, she always had.

“I’m going to tell the others, wait here.” Schäfer got out of her seat, and put a comforting hand on Bobbie’s shoulder, before stepping out of the command deck. When the door slid shut, Bobbie burst into tears.

****

Anthony Yau and Sanjay Menari sat on either side of the small glass table, clutching their coffee cups for comfort. Lena was sitting at the front of the table, having quickly explained what they’d found. Anthony stared down at the black liquid in his cup, unable to speak. Sanjay turned his thoughtful brown eyes upon his captain, his young, lean face contorted by shock.

“How did this happen? We’ve been coming here for six months, there are no asteroids that come anywhere near the planet, none.”

Lena didn’t answer straight away. Her mind was still racing to catch up to what she’d witnessed. She didn’t want to give voice to the awful idea forming in her mind, not yet.

“I don’t know what happened, but as we’re the only ship here we need to follow procedure and set up the beacon. I need you two to get it up and running, please. We’ll run our sensors around, see if we can learn anything, and transmit a signal back to Delta Rama. We’ll focus on our work, and wait for the Commonwealth, and help in any way we can.”

“How?” Asked Anthony. His voice was cracking, and Lena was reminded of how young he was. At twenty-two, he had only recently lost his teenage puppy fat, and spending the past few years working cargo on Spirit had seen him develop a lean yet muscular frame that did little to dispel his image of youth. With a mop of dark brown hair and hints of his Oriental heritage that seemed to enhance his grey eyes, Anthony looked innocent, and in many respects, was exactly that. Lena looked at him, seeing a man who was young enough to be her son.

“When other ships arrive – and they will – we will be faced with angry, grieving people. We’ll have to, somehow, organise them to avoid chaos.”

“No, I mean, how did the asteroids hit Athena? Like Sanjay said, they don’t come this close.”

“I don’t have an answer for that Tony. I wish I did. We’ll wait for the authorities, and in the meantime, see if we can learn anything that will help them. If we’re working, we’ll be focused, and that will help us. Let’s get to it.”

****

By the time the frigates arrived, they were welcomed by a semi-organised mass of civilian ships, that under Captain Schäfer’s guidance, had not descended into panic, though some had already jumped from the system, and were most likely spreading word of the terrible event to blight Athena. The dark blue hulls of the military vessels were narrow, with weapon ports sliding from recesses and locking into place to prepare for any threat. Thrusters to the rear of the ships fired up, trailing blue plasma as they moved closer to the planet.

Captain Sergio Coquelin watched as his crew buzzed about the command deck in a seemingly chaotic display, knowing that everyone was in fact moving to a finely tuned rythmn. Crew members carried tablets and sat at terminals, punching in data and relaying inforrmation to where it was most needed, whilst Coquelin sat in the rigid frame of his command chair and conducted the proceedings. He’d ordered the main viewer off; it made no sense to subject everyone to the horrifying image of Athena’s still-burning surface.

His four gold stripes – two on either shoulder of his navy-blue jacket – weighed heavily upon him. The straight-forward nature of combat was relatively easy for him to manage. Disaster relief was a different matter entirely, and to make it even more of a challenge, he was the senior commander of the two Lion-class frigates, by four years. Captain Tina Futrelle was a competent commander but Navy procedure mandated Coquelin take the lead, whether he wanted to or not. That meant every message coming in from the fifty-six civilian craft was being routed to Fearless, and everyone wanted to speak directly to him. Fortunately, his crew were handling matters with their usual efficiency, and he was grateful to Schäfer. She had possessed a calm and stablising presence that Coquelin had tended to only find in military officers. It had been no surprise to learn she had been in the service, albeit not for twenty-four years.

“Once we get a reply from Command, we’ll start routing all these civilian ships out of here. Are the beacons ready?” He asked of his first officer, seated beside him in a similar, uncomfortable chair.

“Yes sir.” Replied Commander Zara Jensen. She sat ramrod straight, turning only her head to look at him. “We can deploy them at your command.”

“Very good. Let’s get too it, and secure the system. This is going to take a while.”

To Chapter Four

Tarmel took satisfaction from the discipline his force had shown as transports and shuttles began to sweep toward the planet’s inhabited continents. The cities that had sprouted along the eastern coastline of the more temperature northern hemisphere were now vulnerable, their shields gone and most of their fighters destroyed. Pragmatism had overseen the pinpoint destruction of garrisons and other army equipment before a single Ork had set foot on the surface – a previously unpalatable move for his war-loving people, yet a measure that would preserve his troops, and also whatever experience they gained from the assault.

Only four ships had slipped out of formation and their wreckage would hopefully serve as a pointed reminder to the rest about the importance of following orders. Beside him upon the battleship’s command deck stood Creech, silent and sullen, yet quietly accepting of Tarmel’s new policies. The results were after all, emphatic. Now the troop transports were landing, with only two punched from the sky by defensive beam weapons (which were in turn reduced to rubble by returning fire moments later). The quicker, more nimble shuttles landed first, with armour-clad Orks establishing a perimeter and taking up positions of cover behind civilian vehicles and within evacuated shops and buildings. Each Ork had a rudimentary heads-up display in their new helmet, giving them information on the battlefield about the location of their squad, and Tarmel could tap into any individual feed as and when he wished. The chatter of the troops betrayed their desire to charge headlong into enemy ranks, but this time there were no enemy ranks to attack. The orbital bombardment had all but removed most of the marines and soldiers that would otherwise stand to oppose them.

Not that they were all gone. As armoured vehicles began to roll off the transports, and gunships launched from the retractable roofs, marines, clad in their reactive, powered armour, made their presence felt. The new armour of the Orks alerted them to incoming rocket launches, giving them half a chance to react and evade before explosions battered the buildings and cars they hid behind. The marines were surprisingly stealthy despite their bulky armour – they started firing their rifles – superheated pellets of metal, energy pulses and rocket-propelled grenades peppered the Ork lines.

The Orks though, fought back. Their new gunships, armed with a pair of forward-mounted anti-infantry weapons and with missile launchers on their fore-swept wingtips, zeroed in on the rough location of the enemy fire, liberally spraying the area with weapons fire and sending bits of uber-crete and other building materials everywhere as windows and walls were blasted. Craters were created in the roads, exposing water pipes, computer cables and the power lines to the smoky air, and the Orks now called upon their hovertanks, which sent concussive shells in the general direction of the harried marines. As their cover was rapidly chipped away, the marines, despite their best efforts, also came under attack from the infantry, who moved as a unit, strafing their foe, covering each other as they pressed forward.

It wasn’t perfect. Infected with the lust of battle, several Orks charged forward, firing wildly in the manner of old. They were cut down ruthlessly by the marines. The rest though, continued to squeeze the enemy, who were forced to retreat into a nearby office block, some seven stories high, and seek shelter from the Ork big guns. By now the Commonwealth Army was mobilising, sending infantry, tanks and gunships of their own, but the scale of the Ork assault meant Tarmel’s people enjoyed excellent air cover – fighters streamed toward the surface, strafing what remained of the defence forces protecting the city. A few brave human soldiers did manage to fire off anti-aircraft missiles that downed several fighters and gunships, but not only did the Orks enjoy a vast numerical advantage, their newfound use of tactics was reaping dividends. The humans were unprepared for such a fight, and Tarmel watched through the displays as the building housing the marines was pounded by the mobile artillery. Bricks, plaster, uber-crete, desks, tiles, power cables – it all collapsed in on itself like a house of cards, crushing the marines within, yet even as the building disintergrated amid huge plumes of dust, further shells rained down – the marines were resourceful and capable of surviving impressive degrees of punishment, so they needed to be dealt with thoroughly.

Not all of them were dead – a couple had been isolated from the main detachment, and several Orks were now firing stun grenades and firing short-range EMP weapons to disable their armour and disorientate the enemy. Capturing marines alive was proving to be a huge challenge, given their speed and ferocity, but it was a secondary objective worth pursuing. In the meantime, the Orks moved forward, into the city proper.

Civilians that had survived the orbital bombardment were streaming towards launch pads, but they had already been destroyed. Low-powered cannon bursts from the ships above hadn’t turned the surface into smouldering craters, but the various cargo ships, personnel carriers and private craft were gone, along with the pads and their control centres. Tarmel could not permit witnesses, not yet, but the primary objective had not yet been achieved. His troops drove deeper into the city, encountering sporadic resistance that the complete control of the skies allowed him to squash. His people were gaining invaluable experience, and such a decisive victory would surely boost morale as well. Roads ahead branched out toward different regions of the city, leading toward residential districts, commercial buildings that were already reaching for the sky, and the industrial region, that was still relatively small, given the colony’s young status. The centres of regional and federal government were nestled within the city’s commercial heart, as were other important facilities, and Tarmel wanted them.

More shuttles landed, bringing more troops to the city, this time in forward positions that allowed them to directly attack the impressive capitol building – a gleaming white structure with four cylindrical pillars in front of a set of extravagant walnut-coloured doors. The top of the building was domed, with glass set up in a ring (letting in natural light) around the Commonwealth flag (earth, surrounded by several stars, representing her colonies, a pale blue marble upon a darker blue background) sticking up from the top of the dome. It didn’t much to smash through the door, and other soldiers entered via jump cords via the easily broken windows. The structure had already been abandoned, but the whir of automated gun emplacements (which popped out of concealed panels in the walls and ceiling) momentarily forced the Orks back. A few well-placed grenades took care of the offending firepower.

It occurred to Tarmel that the humans wasted a great deal of resources on their symbols of power. Every desk was polished marble, with flecks of black upon the gleaming white surface. His Orks moved on a deep blue carpet (which had the Commonwealth flag embroidered upon it), and for visitors, the reception area had large, comfortable brown leather chairs, a walnut coffee table and a drinks dispenser. Oak wood doors – not automated ones – were on either side of the corridors leading left and right from reception, and the stairs and lifts behind the main reception desk (a large horseshoe-shaped monstrosity) led to yet more chambers and offices. There was a lot of bureaucracy on display. There were also computers that held data, and a communications office that would hold important messages. It was entirely possible the humans had already destroyed anything of value, but the speed of the assault might have prevented that.

Before long his troops found what they had been looking for – a lower-level room, actually two floors underground, that required fingerprint and card-key access. The door was a large metallic one, magnetically sealed and bolted as well. A pair of Orks placed small plastic pouches at various points around the frame, stepped back, and pressed a detonator. The door fell away with a loud clang, and revealed banks of data terminals, and row upon row of servers that funnelled every civilian, commercial, government and military operation and communique to and from the system. Another pair of Orks arrived, and set about the delicate operation to disconnect the large servers and prepare them for transport. Above them, holes were carefully punched in the Capitol’s roof, removing it, and then the same steps were taken to gently lower clamps from one of the transports and remove the floors that were between the Orks and their objective.

Other Orks arrived to grab the terminals, that were easily unplugged and folded shut. Other computers were being taken from offices, and still more from businesses. Tarmel wanted as much as he could.

When it was done, the Orks climbed back aboard their transports and returned to their ships. Next, with the flick of a green wrist, the Orks completed their mission. Several dozen asteroids were launched at the planet at speeds of fifteen kilometres per second. Some ranged from around twenty metres in diameter, others were over five hundred metres. Several were aimed directly at the colony, whilst others were directed at other continents and even the oceans. Thermal bow shocks started to vaporise the colony and its inhabitants even before the first rock hit the ground, whereupon the very earth seemed to erupt in a series of frenzied bursts, sending matter spewing high into the sky. As more rocks slammed down, the surface became superheated, beginning to glow as it became molten. Nothing was left of the colony, and for good measure, the wreckage of the Commonwealth cruiser was nudged on a course that would take her into the atmosphere, burning up as she went. The orbital defences were likewise pushed, removing any trace of Ork involvement in what had happened. No one would know.

Chapter 3

Fiction

“Sir, we have a ripple in warp space. Just a small one but definitely present.” Reported the young woman manning the astro station. She tucked a stray strand of auburn hair out of her face and tapped a few buttons on the touch-display in front of her.

“A ship?” Replied the duty commander. He stifled a yawn – the nightshift was the short straw.

“Possibly… wait, sir, the ripple is expanding! It’s…”

She never finished the sentence. A rift opened like someone was ripping apart a cardboard box, and from it spilled first the twisted red and orange hues of warp space, tendrils of energy that defied normal physics, and then came the scourge.

Hundreds of dark green vessels came streaming from the rift, bearing down on the world below. Their hulls – with a great many grooves that sloped toward the forward section – were liberally peppered with turrets and missile launchers. A tightly compact rear section kept the engines shielded, protected by thick armour. A small raised section to the rear of the crafts held the sophisticated sensors and military grade jamming systems that, across every ship, suddenly burned holes in the Commonwealth vessel’s own sensors.

Scanners on the planet’s surface had also picked up the intrusion. Fixed cannons powered up, protective shields surrounded the major cities and orbital defences armed themselves. Pilots rushed to their fighters, their blood pumping and adrenaline flowing at the prospect of combat.

The Commonwealth ship raised her own shields but the battle cruiser, whilst easily more powerful than any individual enemy destroyer, was impossibly outnumbered. Over four hundred destroyers fired up their ion pulse cannons, bracketing the cruiser with lethal energies. The bulk of that firepower poured into the starboard shields, which buckled swiftly. Commonwealth armour was good, but not invincible, and within seconds it was broken, with fiery holes left in the ship’s hull. The weapons chewed through power conduits, deck plating, computer relays and energy regulators, and as that maelstrom passed, the vacuum of space sucked at the ship. Emergency bulkheads slammed shut, leaving behind fires that raged where the cannons had set the very air ablaze.

The keening Commonwealth vessel tried to divert power to her shields but half her generators had already been destroyed in the opening assault, and there were simply too many enemy craft. Her angular blue hull was now charred and pocked, with several of her weapon ports blasted to oblivion. Nor had the carnage stopped. Within moments of the ion cannon blasts came the missiles, that sent megatons of nuclear energy into the already-damaged starboard section. Their destruction power went deep, ploughing huge chunks of burning debris from the stricken cruiser. Within seconds of emerging from warp, every man and woman aboard the Commonwealth ship was dead, with the ship herself torn open and with explosions bursting out of her port, ventral and dorsal hulls; the result of overloaded relays finally giving up.

Next were the orbital defences. The cylindrical weapons platforms were already active, and they launched missiles of their own that carried enough punch to turn any individual destroyer to dust. Sophisticated tracking systems in the missiles and the defensive stations locked onto targets and raced away at incredible speeds. Planet-based systems did likewise, spitting missiles at the encroaching enemy fleet.

Missiles came out to meet them. Two swarms hurtled toward each other at hundreds of kilometres per second, but the humans on both the orbital stations and on the ground were confident in their systems, despite the enemy swarm being more than twice the size. That faith evaporated as distortion fields, electro-magnetic counter measures and decoys confused the targeting on most of the Commonwealth missiles. The tightly-clustered enemy ships were emitting the fields, but fully a quarter of their own missiles were decoys or jammers, sucking away the immediate threat. Anti-missile rockets raced out to meet the warheads, taking care of most of the ones that stubbornly tracked targets.

A few did get through. The bows of several enemy vessels were turned into molten wrecks, and those ships fell out of formation. Even as they drifted away, the remaining vessels turned their pulse cannons on the orbital defences, combining that stream of firepower with their missiles. The system had been widely considered an unlikely target for attack, sitting too far within Commonwealth space, so there simply hadn’t been a budget for the advanced defences other worlds had. The stations cracked apart, one by one, and below them on the surface, the shields that protected the cities from bombardment weakened.

It wasn’t a completely one-sided affair. Four of the attacking ships broke formation, abandoning the protective screen that came with discipline. Their crews cared not for tactics of any refinement. They wanted blood and they wanted to press the attack. Before they succumbed to the sheer weight of the enemy weapons, surviving orbital stations fired up their beam cannons, that were more than a match for the destroyers. One such beam stabbed right through a destroyer’s port hull and out the other side, and the gunner dragged the beam along, ripping open the ship like a tin can. Another ship caught a glancing blow that nonetheless tore spindles from her superstructure and burned away several of her weapon ports. Another beam knocked away her dorsal fin. The remaining two ships were in the process of scrambling to get back into formation, but two beams apiece broke both vessels in half, moments before the stations were themselves destroyed.

Another rift opened, and this time two much larger ships emerged. Their forward hulls resembled the face and teeth of piranhas – A fattened midsection bristled with weapons and also hanger bays. By now the elegant Hawk-class fighters were streaming into space in droves – hundreds of sleek silver craft, with twin cannons on either fore-swept wingtip and quad engines providing incredible agility. Mingled with them were the bombers – bigger, more blocky, with pods on either side manned by gunners to drive off enemy fighters, and the pilot in the cockpit, standing read to deploy the powerful bombs that rested in their release holders, just above the bomb doors. They were almost in range, and were their world’s last shot at preventing all-out destruction. Their determination did not waver, even as the new arrivals unleashed fighters of their own.

The enemy fighters were more primitive, representing planes that had once fought in an old earth conflict called World War II. What the enemy had were numbers – the two carriers were gargantuan, capable of holding hundreds of fighters each, and they were spilling into space. The ECM from the destroyers was another factor, but the Commonwealth fighters were quick and could fire based on sight – they just had to get close enough. The fight was joined as the two sets of attack craft merged, and thousands of energy pulses were fired.

The human fighters were superior in just about every aspect, and several dozen enemy fighters became free-floating wrecks within seconds. They kept coming, and several Commonwealth fighters were also destroyed, but a path was being quickly burrowed toward the capital ships. The bombers needed only the one opportunity to hopefully give the enemy pause… but that chance would never come. The destroyers held a secret, and they unveiled it just as the bombers moved into position. Anti-aircraft fire – flak bursts – tore wings from fuselage and sent enemy and ally alike spiralling from the bracketing energy. A few bombs did get through, and a handful of destroyers were left as nothing more than broken husks, but not nearly enough of them were knocked out of action. The Commonwealth fighters tried to withdraw but they were sandwiched between enemy fighters and the flak coming from the nearest destroyers. They fought valiantly, but in the end, they were all either destroyed or disabled. Nothing stood between the enemy fleet and the planet.

Another two carriers joined the fleet, along with one other, much larger ship. It’s bulbous form was similar in some respects to the carriers – the same, aggressive frontage that was adorned with a great many weapon ports, and the bulging midsection that sloped back toward powerful engines – but it was three times the size of the carriers, and more than capable of rendering great acts of devastation. As the carriers (plus several dozen destroyers) began to angle toward the planet, preparing to land troops to complete the invasion, the commander of the force watched silently from the command deck.

****

The last time Great War Chief Tarmel had stood on the command deck of his flagship and watched his fleet, it had been to watch it burn. Thousands of Ork war ships had been sliced, punctured, shelled or otherwise ruined by the Commonwealth Navy, after the Commonwealth’s trap had easily suckered in his forces. They had known – as they had always known – that Orks were easy prey for traps and plots. His people had eschewed the nuances of strategy and tactical warfare, preferring to meet their enemies head on, and on that day, seventeen years ago, it had sealed their fate. On the face of it, a direct battle had loomed and bloodlust had sent him and his forces into a dizzying state of expectation. The Ork fleet was huge, its ferocity unmatched, and the Commonwealth couldn’t possibly hope to beat it.

Instead, his fleet had charged first into a deep and dense minefield, that had all but wiped out his escorts. Anti-fighter platforms had been planted just behind the field, and they had ripped his fighters to shreds. Even as his fleet regrouped and destroyed the platforms, Commonwealth ships, mysteriously absent, had dropped from warp and attacked his fleet from the rear, smashing through line after line of destroyers and light cruisers as they sought out the bigger prizes. In retrospect, there had never been any chance of the Commonwealth letting Orks into the Sol system with a direct fight in mind – and he had fallen for it. The lure of glorious battle had overwhelmed his senses and driven him mad with the desire for victory. As the human ships began to knock out his battle cruisers and carriers, Tarmel had seen the truth – as large as his fleet had been, he was outsmarted tactically and the humans had better technology. Prior to the disastrous Battle of Sol, the Orks had struck in huge swarms with varying margins of victory, but they had underestimated the depth of human cunning and their enemy’s willingness to make sacrifices for the greater good. He had given the order – the most hated order in Ork history – to retreat, but it had come too late to prevent most of his fleet from being crushed.

Afterward he had come to realise that Orks were the laughing stock of the galaxy. Violent and dangerous yes, but easily manipulated. Ultimately easily defeated, unless they were prepared to change. That had been an interesting discussion…

****

“We will rebuild and we will win!” Second War Chief Creech had bellowed within the hallowed Chamber of Blood, aptly named for the numerous green blood stains upon the sharp stone walls and petrified wooden ring table. Seats had been chiselled out of the stone, rough but enough – Orks cared little for comfort. Creech thumped his battle armour – dark grey plating taken from a defeated Commonwealth cruiser – and a great many Orks also gathered in the chamber repeated the gesture. Several spilled their drinks from their crude clay mugs – the pale amber liquid pooled at their green feet.

Creech turned his one good eye upon Tarmel. “We will never again retreat.” He snarled through his teeth. One fang – the lower left – had been chipped, but the rest remained as sharp as ever. It was with his words that he did the biting this time.

More shouting. More approval for the Ork who wanted to replace Tarmel. Creech gave him an ugly, evil smile.

“You led us away from battle. You are weak.”

“And you are stupid. You were there Creech. We would be dead if we had stayed. Our entire fleet would be gone. Then where would we be?” Tarmel had remained seated, clinging to his new thread of thinking. He watched the angry mob that was supposed to be in charge of his people, and he saw only extinction.

“We would have our honour!” Replied Creech. “We should never have obeyed your order!”

Tarmel waited until the latest round of shrieks and screams had ebbed. “What honour comes from letting our enemies outwit us, time and time again? The humans baited us and we took the bait. They have smarter commanders, better ships and more cunning than us. All we have is our blind love of war. It isn’t enough.”

Several eyes had turned to him. His words were dangerous, and he knew it. He was challenging one of the most sacred aspects of Ork existence.

“If we carry on as we are, the Ork race will die. The humans are physically weak but they have something we don’t. They can think. They can reason. They have been letting us think we were winning this war, but all the while they’ve watched us and learned about us. They will run rings around us, have run rings around us, and if not for their greatest weakness – mercy – they would already be here, bombarding the life out of every Ork world. We need to start thinking like them, beat them at their own game.”

Creech took a step forward. “You want us to act like them? Strength and power is who we are Tarmel. It is what makes Orks Orks. What you suggest is the way of a coward.”

The room fell deathly quiet. To accuse another Ork of cowardice was the worst possible offence, an act that demanded a response. Tarmel stood slowly. Creech was a good head higher than he, broader too. Inwardly Tarmel smiled. Creech was the perfect example.

“What you propose is suicide through stupidity. You are too much of a moron to understand this Creech.”

“You are a coward. A true Ork would have gone for his dagger already. All you do is talk. Or is that because you know you can’t beat me?”

Tarmel snarled. He let the heat – the love of battle – flow into his blood, but remembered what he had learned from study.

“If you were as confident as you claim, you would have attacked already.”

With a roar Creech charged, arm raised to slam a meaty green fist into Tarmel’s face. Tarmel sidestepped, grabbing Creech’s outstretched arm and using his attacker’s momentum to swing him face first into the jagged stone wall. Blood burst from Creech’s broken nose and from gashes in his forehead, and before he could get his bearings back Tarmel had hooked his leg and swept it out from under him, sending him crashing onto his back. Tarmel leapt upon Creech and pressed the tip of his curved dagger to the bigger Ork’s throat.

“I could kill you so easily and I would enjoy watching the life slowly drain from your body. That would bring me the most pleasure. Would it serve to make my point?” He looked up at the other Orks. “Would it change anything?” His voice raised, carrying through the chamber. He pressed a knee upon Creech’s throat. “We are killed so easily by our enemies and we even kill each other! Yet the most powerful do not always win by brute strength! I have been studying humans and their ways. They use their opponent’s strength against him. They use their ingenuity. They fight smart, and so must we.”

Tarmel stared down at Creech’s defiant, blood-spattered face. “We have a long way to go. Will you fight against our extinction, or for it?”

Chapter 2

Fiction

 

Since we first discovered that the pinpricks of light in the night sky were in fact, other stars, humankind has been gripped by the desire to travel to those stars and see for ourselves what they are like. The discovery of the first exo-planets only heightened this need, and as we found more and more earth-like rocks orbiting numerous stars in our local region alone, it soon became imperative that we voyage to those stars, to see if humanity could finally leave earth’s cradle and remove the possibility of extinction from our equation. The biggest hurdle were the laws of physics – nothing could travel faster than light, and even at the speed of light, journeys of forty years, in some cases even longer, would be virtually unsustainable, save for multi-generational crews and long spells in cryogenic sleep.

So the aim of many scientists was to somehow defy, or redevelop our understanding of physics and the laws of the universe that forbade faster-than-light travel. Science fiction had presented fanciful ideas of warp space, subspace, hyperspace and all kinds of means of ‘cheating’, but the reality of these methods, once examined with any critical detail, suggested the energy requirements were going to be beyond us for a very long time – perhaps forever. Either a new source of power was needed – or the laws of the universe would have to be broken.

It was in the early 22nd century when Luca Martinez, an experimental physicist living in Idaho, USA, made his unexpected breakthrough. The idea had been to generate energy through atomic friction, and to that end, he had been making hydrogen atoms resonate with one another. The introduction of dense matter (degenerate matter, in very small quantities, intended to match the density of a neutron star) led to a highly controlled resonation that for a very brief period, moved the atoms from one area of the carbon tube to the other in less time than was possible under the speed of light.

Such was Martinez’ excitement that he dropped his coffee over his lap and had to put up with the suggestion from his colleagues that he had actually wet himself. Decades later, he would laugh about it – at the time, he was said to actually be quite angry. Nevertheless, the development would lead to further study, and refinement, and this led to the production of the first small-scale probes, to test if the Res-Drive (or R-Drive if you’re lazy) was actually viable. The probes were sent under highly controlled conditions from the earth to the Moon, then from the earth to Mars, and from Mars to Jupiter, to see if they were exceeding the speed of light without being subject to relativity. When the results confirmed that the light barrier had been broken, champagne corks were popped and raucous celebrations held. We had done it – but one final test remains. Human pilots will soon take to the first ships fitted with the R-Drive to see if it is safe for people.’

Roxanne closed the textbook and ran a hand through her strawberry blonde hair. It felt unnaturally short, but having it cut had been a requirement of the West Alliance Space Agency. ‘We don’t want any entanglements, literally or otherwise’, the committee had said.

It felt like a lifetime ago that she’d been chosen for this. Somehow, she’d beaten hundreds of other candidates to be the first human to go faster than light. The prospect made her dizzy with excitement and sick with fear, all at once.

There was no turning back now though. In the crisp orange jumpsuit (that was turn covering the thinner body-monitoring grey jumpsuit), Roxanne was suited up and sitting in front of the controls that would, at her command, launch her at unprecedented speeds toward Mars. A short hop was all that was needed today.

One of the engineers who’d help build the Magellan had explained to her about the power source and the technical details of the R-Drive, but she’d barely listened. She wasn’t a physicist – chemistry and biology were her fields – so talk of quarks and Fermi principles had been lost on her. All she’d wanted to know – and had been assured of several times – was that the drive itself was perfectly stable and the power source perfectly safe. Nothing about that aspect of the mission could go wrong.

T-minus five minutes. Final systems check.” Came a male voice over the comm link that Roxanne recognised as Director Campbell. It wasn’t too much of a surprise that he was taking a personal interest in this. “Fuel line?”

“Check.” She replied.

“Life support?”

“Check.” The oxygen filter was keeping her breathing. Air circulated around the cabin in a never-ending loop, filtered repeatedly by the sophisticated equipment. A backup generator would kick it if the primary failed, and her engineers had scoffed at her request for a helmet with an independent oxygen supply, but said helmet sat behind her in the small space available in the cabin. Roxanne wasn’t minded to take any chances.

“Sublight engines?”

“Check.” Roxanne tapped a couple of buttons on the grid in front of her. The ion propulsion drive was all set to give her a decent kick away from earth once the clock stopped ticking.

“Sublight navigational controls?”

“Check.”

“R-Drive navigational controls?”

“Check.” In theory, Roxanne could override the controls and set a new destination, but she didn’t dare. Everything had been pre-programmed and that was fine with her.

“FTL comm system?”

“Check.” Roxanne would have to trigger the beacon to confirm the success of the mission – and it was a convenient test of the R-Drive’s long-range communication principle.

“We look good down here in Control. Four minutes and counting.”

“Roger that.” Roxanne gulped. The butterflies in her stomach had morphed into mini dragons that were belching flame. “Deep breaths girl, deep breaths…” She recalled her Yoga and her training, though more and more she wished the mission was over already.

The Yoga was kicking in. She could feel the edginess in her subside. A gentle hum of instruments distracted her from what was about to happen, and the march of time was briefly forgotten.

“This is Control, hey Rox, just wanted to wish you luck.” Roxanne smiled. Her jovial boyfriend lifted her spirits.

“Thanks Fred. Don’t forget to have dinner ready.” She chuckled.

“Oh, well, I was thinking we should go out for dinner when you get back. Celebrate the mission, our engagement…”

Roxanne had to check her comm link. “En… engagement?!”

“Yeah, oh crap, I meant to do the other bit first – you know, ask you and everything…”

“Oh God… the answer is yes, a million times yes!” In the midst of the impending mission, a different kind of excitement overtook Roxanne. “Yes!”

“So as if you didn’t already have a reason to come back, that’s another one.” She could hear the smile in his voice – and it wouldn’t at all surprise her if Director Campbell was pissed at the sudden interruption to his orderly proceedings.

“One minute. Disengage the umbilicals.” Came the deliberately stern voice of the Director. Roxanne complied, and Magellan floated freely in space, no longer berthed to the station where she had been constructed. The craft’s independent systems kicked in.

Autopilot took the ship slowly away from earth, at a relatively sedate 2 km/s. As the R-Drive fired up, the ship seemed to hum with power. This is really happening…

“From everyone down here, good luck. We’ll see you on the other side.” The Director’s voice was softer.”

“Roger that Control, here we go…”

The Magellan seemed to oscillate for several seconds, and then vanished.

Under cover of darkness the taxi sped down the A12, heading further and further into the edges of London. It wasn’t the route Eric had desired to take, but as he did his best to ‘drive casual’, all he could think about was that he was driving a car every camera, every police car in the area would soon be looking for. He had to get off the road, and do it sooner rather than later.

Darkness was now enveloping everywhere, but the lights of the road and street meant he had to find somewhere secluded. Seeing a turning ahead, with lines of trees either side, Eric took his chance and turned left. From there, he was disappointed to realise that the bank of trees was not very deep – so he had little choice but to keep going.

Nothing but fields shot by, aside from one or two shops and homes. In the distance there were lights, which meant he was heading toward built-up areas, exactly what he didn’t need. A small roundabout was ahead – Eric turned right, looking for salvation in the form of a quiet, secluded area. His luck turned at last when he saw a small side road, not well lit, and a small forested area. The taxi rumbled over the dirt road, and Eric turned off the lights. No one appeared to question why he was pulling in – across the other side of the main road was a crematorium, which appeared to be empty, and to his right, a small car park, for what appeared to be a cycling centre. Three other cars were parked up – perfect.

Eric stopped, and scooped the gun out of the glove box. For a moment or two he stopped to consider his next move. His would-be assassin had not attempted to cause him any grief – yet – but that might change if he got sloppy. First things first, get information.

Eric popped open the boot and stepped back quickly, keeping the gun trained on his attacker. The man’s ice blue eyes revealed nothing of his thoughts, but with a twitch of the gun he got out of the boot. “Where are we?”

“Doesn’t matter. Into the trees. Move.”

The man sneered. “If I say no?”

“Then you get caught, arrested for a double-murder, and the police pry into your business.”

“You think I am concerned?” For the first time, Eric noticed an accent. Scandinavian.

“I think your employers will be, and they might not be best pleased with how incompetent you are. Move.”

Reluctantly the man started to walk, with Eric keeping the gun tucked in by his side, in case anyone was watching. The two of them moved slowly into the woods, and at Eric’s urging, headed further and further in.

“Stop here. Take that off.” Eric gestured with the gun when the man had turned around, his back against a tree. Wordlessly the man slipped the balaclava off, tossing it away.

Blond hair had been ruffled from being stuffed under the balaclava. The man had a somewhat thin face too, as though slightly malnourished. The high cheek bones were a little unsettling.

The eyes held nothing. Pursed lips gave away no trace of emotion.

“Who are you?”

“Go to hell.” But the voice carried a trace of amusement.

Eric took a breath, then in one smooth motion stepped forward and smashed the hilt of the gun against the man’s left temple. A swift kick to the stomach followed. The man grunted in pain and knelt on the ground, struggling to right himself. Another kick followed, to the ribcage, sending him sprawling to the earth beneath him.

“No games. Who are you?”

“I… I… will not be broken…”

“Oh yes you will. This isn’t my first dance.” A sharp kick to the man’s left knee came with a satisfying and audible crack. A sharp gasp of shock and pain escaped the man’s lips. Before he could respond, Eric had him by the scruff of his jacket, and with a deft headbutt had broken his nose. The man lay on the ground, bleeding from both his nose and the wound on his temple, and he stared up at Eric with a mixture of fury and fear.

“You have no idea what you have gotten yourself into old man!” He shouted, his voice hot with anger and defiance. “My associates will kill everyone you love!”

“But before that, they’ll start with you. Empty your pockets, all of them, now.” Eric cocked the gun.

The man hastily turned out everything, not that there was much. There was no driver’s licence or other form of ID, no keys, nothing except a smartphone.

“Chuck that over here.” The man did as he was told, and Eric scooped up the device.

Part of him immediately felt stupid. It was switched on, which meant it was probably tracking his whereabouts. Unsurprisingly the home screen was locked, with a four-digit code.

“What’s the code?” Eric asked.

“No chance.” Replied the man, though he coughed and groaned in pain as he did.

Eric was sorely tempted to shoot him, as he was running out of patience and very likely time as well, but he was sure he could still somehow use his would-be assassin. With the gun pointed straight at the man’s head, he stepped forward and slammed his foot down upon the man’s right ankle. This brought about a satisfying yelp of pain, and for good measure, Eric stamped on his left ankle too.

“The code.” He intoned.

“Fuck you.”

“Wrong answer.” Eric brought the heel of the gun down on the man’s right knee – there was no crack this time, but he knew it would have to hurt. “You should know something, and you probably already do know it, but it escaped your mind – I am ex-SAS. I know what it means to be hurt, and how to hurt people. I can keep this up for as long as I need to.”

“If I unlock that phone I am a dead man.”

“If you don’t you’re a dead man, only difference is I’ll prolong it. Your choice.”

Silence reigned. Eric didn’t care for that, so he kicked the man. “Time’s up, you die here, now, in agony, or you have a shot at living. What will it be?”

For a moment the man hesitated, but looking into Eric’s steel resolve, he made his decision. “7822. That will unlock it.”

Without taking his eyes off the man, Eric tapped in the code, and sure enough, the phone unlocked.

“Thank you.” Without another word Eric shot the man, squarely in the forehead.

Chapter 6

Back to Techno Fail

A double homicide wasn’t what Detective Inspector Adjoa Idowu had planned on dealing with when her shift started, but no sooner had she sat down behind her desk at Barkingside than the call had come in for her to take a trip to Gants Hill. Reports of a shooting and a man seen forcing another man into the boot of a taxi, which then left the scene. Uniform had found a second body near the house where shots had been reported, and now Idowu was crouched down, over the body of a middle-aged Caucasian male, whose cause of death seemed pretty evident.

“Is the neck wound the only one?” She asked of the paramedic now on the scene. The younger woman ran her fingers through her tied-back blonde hair and nodded. “Only wound.

Idowu stood back up. “I had wanted to see you tonight… just not…”

“Yeah, I know.” The other woman offered up a lop-sided smile. “Still, first time our jobs have crossed our paths eh? One to tick off the list.”

Despite the scene, Idowu smiled. “Yeah. I don’t know if there’s much more to do here.”

“Body dumped in the woods, but not too discretely, as though the killer didn’t care if the body was found.”

Idowu raised an eyebrow. “I thought I was the detective.” She asked sardonically.

“Sorry, you’ve rubbed off on me.” The paramedic grinned. “But yeah, I don’t think there’s anything more for me or my colleagues to do. Don’t suppose you’ll be able to tell me about this later?”

“Sorry, case confidentiality and all that.”

“Well, in that case, I’ll see you later. Be safe.” She smiled one more time, because heading off toward the waiting ambulance.

Idowu watched her go, appreciating the discretion, in more ways than one. With a shake of her head, as if to dismiss certain thoughts, she flicked out the wallet of the deceased cabbie and held out the driving licence. “Liam Roper. Jeez, just 23… Sorry Liam. I really am.” She thumbed through the cards, which confirmed his cab licence. Nothing stood out as unusual.

A young uniformed officer, bundled up in a warm hi-vis jacket, wandered over, dipping under the police cordon. “Ma’am. We think we’ve found the weapon used here.” He held out a sealed evidence bag, containing a bloodied blade.

“Thanks Kevin. Can I have a look?”

“Yes Ma’am.” Kevin handed over the bag. Idowu flipped it over, studying the weapon.

“Looks like a carving knife.”

“Yes Ma’am. Seems like it. We’re asking residents if they saw or heard anything suspicious, so far no one’s seen anything.”

If it’s gang trouble they don’t want to know, and I don’t blame them. “Thank you Kevin. I don’t think anyone will come forward, but for now, let’s keep asking and keep searching for any clues. I need to visit the other crime scene, get the knife to forensics please.”

“Ma’am.” Kevin nodded, and headed off toward the road, with Idowu following on.

****

Broken glass, a broken door, and signs of a struggle. An old man murdered in his own home. Idowu rubbed the bridge of her nose. Aside from the pointlessness of it all, how did this crime connect to the stabbing of a taxi driver?

Fortunately Liam’s cab card had the details of his employer, and a call had already been made to find out what cab he’d taken, so in a matter of minutes the licence plate would be in the database and every police officer notified to keep an eye out for it. Unfortunately, in Idowu’s experience the perps usually dumped the car shortly after taking it, and in other cases burned the car as well. Still, maybe their suspect would get spooked and make a mistake.

“We’ll have to get forensics to carry out a thorough sweep of the house.” She remarked to the other detective, her regular partner.

“Yup.” He started to walk upstairs, running a gloved hand along the bannister. “Poor old sod. He was a war veteran you know. Didn’t deserve to be gunned down in his own home.”

“Any connection between him and the other victim?” Asked Idowu. She stepped out of the living room, having just looked at the bullet holes in the sofa.

“Nothing found so far. Andrew Harper had used the taxi firm a couple of times, but Liam had never been one of the drivers.”

Idowu sighed. “We need to find out of they shared any interests. Same hobbies, same pub, anyone that knew them both, though I’m starting to think this was random.”

“Robbery gone wrong?” Asked her partner.

“Most likely. Except for one thing – the neighbours mentioned that the man being forced to get into the boot of the taxi was wearing something over their face.”

Her partner yawned. “Sorry, long night last night.”

Idowu smiled sympathetically. “Cassandra keeping you up?”

“Yeah. Teething stage. She’s grizzly and wants nothing but cuddles, even at four in the morning.”

“You wanted to be a dad…” She began.

“And I wouldn’t change it for the world. Still, I’d kill for a couple of hours kip. You were saying something about a man in a mask?” He asked as they walked out of the house and back into the night.

“A man with something on his face, being forced into the back of the taxi. Seems a bit weird.” She looked down the road, in the direction the taxi was said to have headed. “We’ll know more once forensics come back with their reports, but I have an idea.”

“Well, don’t hold back. Let’s here it.”

“The killer stole the taxi to use as a getaway – probably the first car he came across. Quickly killed the driver and disposed of his body, before heading off to find what he thought was a vulnerable target.”

Her partner nodded. “Old man, living alone, but our killer didn’t bank on him having a visitor. Still, why would this guest kidnap the killer?”

“That’s the piece of this puzzle I don’t get. It doesn’t make sense. Stephen, we’ll have uniform go door-to-door, ask if anyone recognised our kidnapper. You find out where the taxi was meant to be taking Mr Harper, and I’ll see if we can find out where the taxi is.”

“Gotcha. This is gonna be an all-nighter isn’t it?” Stephen rubbed his cheeks and groaned. “I’d better let Michelle know.”

Idowu offered a weak smile. “Fraid so mate.”

Chapter 5

Back to Techno Fail

“Good job I can’t drive, this bloody stuff has gone right to my head.” Said Andrew as he heaved himself out of his chair. “I need to take a piss, you alright…” A knock at the door interrupted him. “Taxi’s here. Too bloody quick. Let them know I’m pissing for the eighth time in an hour would you?” Eric laughed again.

“Never change Andrew.” He replied as he got up and followed Andrew out into the hallway. Andrew started to head up the stairs as Eric went to open the porch door.

He dropped the USB stick as he fumbled with the handle, and in bending down to pick it up, saved his life. A bullet smashed the glass of the porch door, having just punched a hole in the wooden front door, and Eric hurled himself to the floor as another sprayed still more glass everywhere.

Andrew had made it upstairs, and was cursing. “No fuckin’ thief is taking my stuff…” Eric could hear him mutter. If it was a thief…

The front door shuddered, hard, then again. Whoever was outside was trying to kick it in, and a third, particularly hard boot achieved that goal. The face of the man who entered was concealed with a grey balaclava, but Eric’s attention (as he scrambled into the living room) was drawn to the tatty clothes. A beige coat, slightly worn and with threads hanging loose from the buttons, dull white trainers and faded blue jeans. He wanted to memorise every detail.

Eric had barely made it back into the living room when another shot made his ears ring and a third bullet embedded itself in the wall just by the living room entrance. No silencer…

Whoever it was, they came charging into the living after Eric, but hadn’t banked on having a thick glass figurine of an elephant flying towards their head. It caught the assailant on the nose, and he let out a small noise, but fired his gun again, albeit wildly. The bullet pierced Andrew’s chair, sending plumes of fabric everywhere.

Eric charged the man, tackling him and sending him into the banisters. The man brought the handle of his pistol down hard on Eric’s back, and kicked out, before raising his weapon again. Eric braced himself…

A vase came crashing down on the attacker’s head. Andrew had made his way back down the stairs, and the china pot spewed earth, dirt and lilies everywhere as the assailant staggered. The man then caught Eric’s right hook with his jaw and stumbled to the floor, but before Eric could press his advantage the gun fired again. The sound of Andrew wincing nearly made him freeze, but instead Eric drove his knee down onto the man’s chest, placing all his weight on the ribcage and driving the air from his lungs. With the attacker’s grip on his firearm loosened, Eric quickly prised the gun from his fingers, pushed off the man and pointed the business end squarely at his face.

“Andrew, are you alright?”

Silence reigned. Stuck between keeping watch on the mystery attacker and checking on Andrew, Eric stepped backward, continuing to do so until he saw the blood. Resolving himself, Eric took another couple of steps back, and laid eyes on the body of his former commander. Andrew’s dark blue jumper was stained, with blood seeping from where the bullet had punctured his right lung. He had stumbled down the remaining stairs and crashed into the small table at the bottom, sending several photo frames to the carpet.

Anger rose in Eric. It rumbled up within him and his fingers tightened ever so slightly on the trigger. He looked back at the assailant, who had sat up but hadn’t moved. The man’s eyes were errily calm.

“Give me one reason…” He began, stepped back toward him. “Why I shouldn’t kill you.”

“You want to know why? Because I know why you’re so scared.”

“You came here to kill me, you killed my friend, and if you want to live through the night, you’ll tell me why.”

The man’s demeanour was haughty. “I won’t talk. I have dealt with threats before.”

Eric stole a glance outside. An empty black cab was parked outside the house. Stolen? How had they known to find him here?

One thing at a time…

“I’ll dealt with people like you before. You’ll talk. Get up. We’re going for a drive.”

“Fuck you. I am going nowhere.”

“Oh really? So you want the police to come here and find you?” Eric retorted.

“And you don’t?” Sneered the man.

“No, I don’t, and I think you know why, so get up, and get in the taxi.”

Sirens kicked up in the distance. They looked at each other.

“You can get in of your own accord or I can knock you out and carry you. Your choice.” Eric snarled.

The man’s eyes narrowed. A choice was being weighed up.

“Fine.” He said after a moment. He hauled himself up, and Eric was sure to keep the business end of the pistol pointed squarely at him until the man was outside. Eric followed him, then ushered the man toward the back of the cab.

“You get in the boot.”

“What?” The man was momentarily peturbed.

“You heard me.” Replied Eric. He reached in to the driver’s seat and noticed the keys were still in the ignition. His attacker had planned on a quick getaway. Realising that Andrew’s neighbours were peering through the windows (but wisely choosing to remain indoors, given the recent sounds of gunfire), Eric popped open the trunk, and gestured with the gun. “Get in, now.”

The man glared at him but wordlessly climbed in. Eric shut the boot hard, and jammed his backdoor key into the lock, twisting it and breaking it, making it virtually impossible to somehow open from the inside. It would pose a challenge to open from the outside, but that was a bridge Eric would have to cross later.

With the sirens getting louder Eric climbed back into the driver’s seat and closed the door. There was only one other place he could turn do now, he just hoped he wouldn’t be exposing anyone else to danger.

Chapter 4

Back to Techno Fail

Black glass held the sort of minimal look that appealed to the suited and booted man seated behind the desk. It was a pity then, that he had to look into replacing it, and even more of a pity that this would involve removing and refitting the intergrated computer panel that was tucked away in the desk. A visible crack, where his mug had come crashing down far too hard, was now irritating him enough that he couldn’t even bring himself to turn his brown leather chair around.

“Sir, what do we do?” Asked the other man in the office. The seated man looked out over the South Dock, taking in the curious mix of old and new. A hand went through neatly trimmed brown hair as a response was formed.

“Inform our operative in Whitehall. It’s crucial they know about this and start taking steps to protect the plan. Start random employee searches here, under the guise of anti-theft measures. If you have any initiative, you’ll already be checking CCTV?” The voice was deceptively warm and pleasant.

“Yes sir, everyone is on it. We think we have a lead.” The sense of victory in the assistant’s voice was aggravating.

“You think? Tell me what you know.”

“Ah, yessir, one of our older employees, Eric Cooper – it was his terminal anyway – downloaded the full code onto a USB device. Minutes afterward, CCTV shows Mr Cooper leaving the building.”

“How did the code get onto his terminal?”

“We don’t know sir. It’s unclear as to whether he found it and assembled it himself, or someone sent it to him.”

Despite the damage to his desk, the man swivelled his chair around. Steel blue eyes met the softer blue eyes of his assistant. “You mean to tell me there may be a wider security issue, but you can’t be sure?” Every word was laced with danger.

The other man hesitated. His hands pressed down his suit, before finding each other and clasping. “The computer is being analysed…”

“So you aren’t sure. Do you have any idea…” He stood, walking around the desk, each step measured. “Of what this could do to our plans? Of the damage it could do, to you, to me, to all of us?” Cold fury was entering into his voice now.”

“Mr Lanker, we are doing everythi…”

You are not doing enough!” Lanker took a deep breath. “I apologise for my outburst, but if everything was being done, you would not be here, explaining to me of one security breach, whilst alluding to another. We may have someone in our ranks who is betraying us. We may have someone who has accidently stumbled upon the information now in the hands of Mr Cooper, and for whatever reason, they are using him rather than handling it themselves. First things first, we must find Mr Cooper and… after that, it is best you don’t know. You have his details correct?”

“Yes sir. He resides in the Upminster area, however, we have access to TFL CCTV. It’s taken a while, but we know he took a train to Gants Hill.”

“Good work. What is at Gants Hill for him?”

“We are cross-referencing records for connections. His former SAS unit commander, an ‘Andrew Harper’, lives there.”

“Even better. Access all available data on Cooper, Harper, and this SAS unit. I want to know everything. We may need leverage.”

“Yes Mr Lanker, I’ll see to it personally.”

“Good. Go.”

Once his assistant had left, Lanker sat back down in his chair and returned to his view of the Dock. This is a strange city, a city of contradiction. He could not understand London. The people alternated so easily between brusque and rude, to unbearably polite, to aloofness so refined it would make a fortune if such a trait could be bottled.

The expansive office that cradled his vision had been designed to be as minimalist as possible. The (now broken) desk, chair, and a large flat-screen TV on the left wall were the only visible features in an otherwise featureless room. Blank white walls kept the room looking bright, but also served to focus attention on the desk, and the man behind it – which was exactly what Alfred Lanker wanted.

Plain walls concealed other secrets. With the barest sound of gears, a panel within one of the walls slid to the right, and another man stepped out of the compartment behind it.

“How much did you hear?” Asked Lanker, without turning around.

“Enough to know who to go after. I assume you want Eric Cooper dead?”

“Yes.” Came the answer, after a moments’ doubt. “He knows too much. I trust you can take of things without drawing suspicion to this company?”

“You insult me. I can make it look like anything, you know that.”

“Apologies old friend. Go, tie up the loose ends. Then nothing will hamper us.”

Chapter 3

Back to Techno Fail

 

What was the saying about greatness? That it was thrust upon those who didn’t want it? Did anyone also say that sometimes, problems – big problems – were thrust upon people who didn’t want them? That was the case for Eric, as he shuffled down the corridor of his workplace, heading for the stairwell. He wasn’t about to trust the lifts, not now.

Dark blue carpet was thankfully muffling the sound of his footsteps, but he dared not breathe too much, in case, somehow, someone would hear him, find him, and…

You’re being paranoid. Or are you? You have reason to be after all…

Maybe no one would suspect a thing. There were thousands of employees working for One Touch Security, including hundreds in their London office. Would they know without any doubt that his computer was the one that had accessed the data now stored on the USB stick in his coat pocket? Even if they knew it was his computer, everyone knew old Eric was terrible for letting others use it…

No one was calling for him from the main office, and none of the bigwigs had stepped out of their private offices to call him in, so maybe he was safe. The only conversation he could hear from his colleages concerned football scores, who was secretly shagging who, and plans for Christmas. He reached the stairwell, pushed open the big heavy safety doors and started his descend down three flights to the ground floor. He’d have a short walk to Canary Wharf tube station, and from there, he could get himself well away from any possible harm.

Assuming there’s anything actually wrong, and you’re not being a stupid old man…

The young woman, Sally, Sarah? She was coming up the stairs and Eric had to try very hard not to appear worried as she smiled at him. He flashed a smile back and carried on walking, hoping it didn’t look like he was rushing. There didn’t appear to be another soul on the stairs, a small mercy.

Angelo was behind the security desk as Eric stepped out of the door. He looked up briefly in Eric’s direction and then turned his attention back to his monitors. Visitors and employees were always coming and going, so it probably wasn’t that unusual to see someone leaving the building. Trying to look cool calm and collected, Eric walked out onto Bank Street and into the crisp December air, over the zebra crossing, and toward the station.

There still appeared to be no sign of anyone coming after him, in any way shape or form. Still, Eric couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched. Years of training and experience had taught him to trust his instincts and they were telling him to be careful now. Entering the station frontage, Eric already had his ticket in his hand, keen to save every possible second (besides, he hated people who faffed about at ticket gates), and became one with the swarm of Londoners and tourists traversing the Underground as he headed down the escalators and toward the platforms.

Every little look, every sideways glance in his direction make Eric tense. Adrenaline pumped through his veins, keeping him alert, and ready, if needed, for a fight. The carriage was growing hot, thanks to the throngs of people, and despite the winter chill outside, Eric was tempted to take off his coat, but decided against it, in case he somehow lost his evidence. Or in case someone stole it (which was possible in normal circumstances, let alone right now).

First things first. He couldn’t go home, not right away. The Jubilee Line would take him as far as Stratford, and from there, he could connect to the Central Line. He wasn’t at all sure if what he was planning was fair, but he couldn’t trust official channels, not yet.

The changeover to the Central Line went without incident, and from there Eric kept scanning the carriage for any faces that were familiar. No one leapt out at him, figuratively or otherwise, and after a couple of stops Eric allowed himself to relax, just a little. He also paused to think a little about what he’d seen, and the data that was now safely stored on the USB drive. Every so often his hand went into his pocket, feeling for the little plastic box, gripping it tightly, to assure himself it was still there.

“The next station is Gants Hill.” Came the voiceover. By now the carriage had started to thin out a little, and Eric stood to leave as the train pulled into the platform. Within a few minutes he was above ground again, both thankful to be out of the confines of the train, and concerned to be exposed.

It had been a few years, but Eric had a good memory. He took off on foot, down a specific road, looking for a specific house. There was every chance no one was home, but if Eric knew the man like he thought he did, he was prepared to take that chance. It came as no shock to him to see the little front garden was immaculate, with neat groups of Cowslip and Monkeyflower plants (waiting for the cold to end so they could bloom again) lining the bath up to the front porch. On the white door was a printed sign, warning cold callers to take a hike. Taking a deep breath, Eric knocked on the door.

There were sounds of movement from inside, and a shape appeared as the main door to the house opened. A moment later, and Eric was face to face with an old friend.

“Bloody hell, Corporal Cooper!” The wizened old man exclaimed as he opened the door. “What in God’s name are you doing here?”

Eric smiled, despite the situation. “Captain Harper, good to see you sir.”

“It’s just Andrew now.” Replied Harper, offering a hand, which Eric took and shook. The old boy still had a strong grip. “Don’t just stand there in the cold man, come in, come in! Take off your shoes first though…”

Eric kicked off his shoes and also took off his coat at Andrew’s insistence, though he was careful to take the USB drive and slip it into his trouser pocket. He couldn’t help but notice only one pair of black shoes in the porch, and only a single, grey sheepskin coat.

Andrew caught Eric’s pause. “Caroline passed away a couple of years ago. Had a stroke in her sleep.”

“I’m so sorry.” Eric couldn’t think of anything more to add. He was never sure of what to say in such circumstances.

“She led a full life, despite being married to a grumpy git like me. Come on, I’ll get you a drink, what do you want, tea, or something stronger?” The voice was as gruff and commanding as Eric remembered, even when asking such a simple question. Eric followed him into the living room as he answered. “I’ll have whatever you’re having.”

“Whisky it is then. You didn’t drive here did you?” Eric shook his head. “Good. Not that I’d have given you a choice anyway.”

A chuckle escaped Eric’s lips. “I’m not surprised.”

“I keep my emergency heating…” Andrew knelt down and opened one of the doors on the lovely walnut-coloured cabinet, pulling out a decanter of amber liquid. “In here, in case you’re likely to drop by again and I’m out. Don’t drink it all.”

Eric laughed again. “I was never much of a drinker sir… I mean Andrew.”

The older man scooped two small glasses, placed them on coasters on the small glass table in front of the brown leather sofa, and sat down beside Eric, before pouring a generous sum of whisky into each glass. “No, you weren’t. I vividly remember that mission in… north Africa, you know, where we had to drag your unconscious arse out of that bar…”

“Funnily enough, I don’t remember that one at all.”

“Ha! I suppose you wouldn’t. To absent friends…” Andrew held his glass aloft, and Eric held his up as well. There was pain in Andrew’s eyes, and not only for Caroline. Eric knew he meant fallen comrades as well.

They both took a swig of the liquid, which always had a powerful kick as it went down. Silence briefly followed, before Andrew piped up.

“So you didn’t come here, out of the blue, just for a chat. What’s wrong?”

Eric opened his mouth to start speaking, then closed it again. Had he made the wise decision in coming here? Did the old man he had looked up have the contacts he needed? No sense in doubts now you’re here Eric.

“I… I found something at work. Some information, and it scares the hell out of me. I don’t know who I can give it to.”

Andrew leaned forward, perceptive blue eyes narrowing slightly as he studied Eric. The face was worn now, cragged, but the eyes reminded Eric that age had done nothing to dampen Andrew’s mind. “You want to know if I can get it to the right people.”

“Yes. Look, Andrew, I’m sor…”

“Shut it. You’re about to apologise for dragging me into some sort of shit. Don’t. I could do with an excuse to be awkward.”

“You never needed an excuse before.” Eric said, grinning.

“Yes well, marriage calmed me down. Most of the time anyway. Caroline would probably tell me to not be a fool. I’d usually listen, but this time… well, I suppose it depends on how juicy this is.”

Eric took another sip of his drink. There was no doubting Andrew’s taste in whisky, and Eric watched the stuff swirl around in the glass as he spoke. “It’s juicy alright. I work for a computer place, One Touch Security.”

“Never heard of ’em.” Remarked Andrew.

“Not surprised. They’re one of these ‘behind the scenes’ companies. They make a lot of stuff for mobile phones, smartphones actually, tablet PCs, laptops – wireless security stuff.”

“Boring shit.”

Eric laughed. “Yeah, it can be. I took it on when I left the forces, to stay busy. Would have driven Mary mad otherwise. A lot of what I do is about checking and testing the anti-virus stuff. To do that, I have certain access rights to bits of the code, but the company doesn’t let everyone see all the code. That way no one can sell it off to a rival.”

“Sounds like strategic division of labour to me.” Replied Andrew. “Clever.”

“Their projects are worth billions. In fact, the company is about to be worth a load more money, because they’ve just got contracts for big public sector stuff. Water works, power grids, local councils, education and healthcare, things like that. That’s what I was working on…” Eric pulled the USB drive out of his pocket. “When I noticed something. I’m not sure how it ended up on my computer, but it was a line of ‘back door’ code.”

“Ah.” Andrew sat back. “Even I know what that means. A way into a system that shouldn’t be there.”

“Exactly. It’s everywhere, and when I checked, it turns out this code is in smartphones too. OTS sells their hardware and software to manufacturers of them all over the world. This code lets them into any device, any time, and I have no idea what it will let them do.”

“You could just go to the spooks you know.”

“I thought about it, but I don’t know how far this goes. To get this sort of free access, without anyone checking and finding it, to nearly every phone, tablet and PC in the country, and within government offices too… I didn’t want to risk it.”

Andrew’s eyes sparkled. “Ah, you think they have an inside man?”

“I… shit. That makes sense.” And it did. It had to. How else could they land so many lucrative deals with major institutions, all over the country?

“This is juicy. Alright, so I’m still welcome down at the barracks, and I bet you would be too. You drive here?”

“No, got the Tube.”

“Bugger.” Andrew stood up, stretching. “Not allowed to drive at my age. Fuckin’ stupid if you ask me. I’ll call a taxi…” Eric grinned to himself as Andrew picked up the old-fashioned green telephone, complete with rotary dial. Despite the twenty or so years of age difference, Eric had often seen Andrew as a kindred spirit, and his utter disdain of modern technology was but one way that was true.

After a few moments, the taxi was booked. Andrew sat back down and poured himself another whisky, insisting on refilling Eric’s glass too. “To adventure!” He boldly declared, before knocking back the glass in one gulp. Eric raised his glass and did likewise. Andrew wasn’t wrong about that.

Chapter 2

Back to Techno Fail

The old man had always been vindictive and cruel, bullying those who he felt were beneath him. As this feeling extended to every last soul he met, the old man lived alone, with only his dogs for company. Even they were not often spared his misery and contempt.

So the old man wore his smoking jacket and puffed his pipe and ambled around his large yet empty stately home. He grew sick, and no one cared, not even enough to phone him. He wrote of his disdain for the ‘idiots of the village’, and pledged to hide his wealth from those he deemed unworthy. Upon his death, his will bequeathed his fortune to his two dobermans, and once they were to pass, the money was to go to the sea.

Unless…

Unless his wealth – hidden in the form of bonds and shares – was found before the dogs, now being cared for at a local trust, died.

****

“We shouldn’t be doing this…” The young man muttered, but he drove the shovel into the earth anyway, throwing the dirt behind him.

“If it gets us fourteen million quid then we should be doing this.” Replied his girlfriend, who was also pushing a shovel into the ground.

The air was still and not a creature made a sound, lending a creepy air to proceedings as the pair dug their way deeper. Sweat poured off them, even though they had reduced themselves to t-shirts and shorts – such were the trials of grave-robbing on a hot July night. Every once in a while they paused to grab a swig from the bottles of water they’d brought with them – it barely took the edge off the close humid heat.

Fortunately, their efforts were soon rewarded, when the young man’s shovel scraped the top of the coffin. From that point on, it was a case of hands and knees, and pushing away as much as earth as possible, until it became possible to actually open up.

“You still wanna do this?” He asked nervously.

“Yeah.” She replied, after a moment’s hesitation.

“Alright then, on three… one, two, three…”

They shoved away the top cover, bracing themselves for the sight (and stench) of a corpse. Instead they both cried out in shock and fright as a pair of dogs burst out of the coffin, barking like crazy. The pair scrambled their way out of the hole they’d dug and ran, not keen to check the coffin for anything else.

Chapter 2

Back to The Coffin and the Dogs