Authors: Keith Mansfield
“Khari is old. He has no natural successor. You must have discussed it, plotting to deny my offspring, the Dauphin, its birthright.”
“Never,” shouted Johnny. Finally, far below, he could see a very bright point of light. The seemingly neverending tunnel did have a bottom and, now he'd spotted it, he saw it was rushing toward him at alarming speed. He tried to warn Clara
and Alf, but moving the wristcom to his mouth sent him tumbling out of control again.
“At least tell me where he goes when he leaves Melania. You claim he doesn't visit you?”
Though his eyes were streaming, Johnny could now see tiny creatures walking below. They would hit in any second and this time there was no further shaft to fall through. He had to hope his sister and Alf would get awayâthat they could find the ships to protect Earth. Johnny forced himself to look away from the onrushing ground and into the Regent's eyes. As loud and clear as he could, he shouted, “I don't know where he goes. It's not to see me. If it was, I wouldn't be here.” As he forced the final words out of his mouth, the wind stopped and the antigrav field enveloped him again.
They touched the ground, softly as a soap bubble, and the Regent said, “There's no need to shout. I was simply making conversation on our descent. So tell me, Johnny Mackintosh. Why did you come here?”
Johnny crouched on all fours, trying to suck some of the stale air into his lungs. He flattened his hair and felt for the chain around his neck. The locket was still there, as was his wristcom, which flickered briefly green through Johnny's tattered sleeves, before returning to its normal red glow. He couldn't believe the gall of the Regent, who was acting as though the two of them were simply out for an afternoon stroll, totally ignoring the fact that Johnny could easily have been killed. They were so deep inside Melania that he felt less heavy than when they'd landed. He drew himself up to his full height, and looked up at the Regent towering over him. “I came to ask for help,” he told the Phasmeer. “Our nearest star system was turned into a supernova. EarthÂ â¦ TerraÂ â¦ could be under attack. We need ships to defend ourselves.”
The Regent started chirruping, louder and louder. It took a
while for Johnny to realize the giant creature was laughing. “You have seen, no doubt, I am surrounded by idiots,” said the Phasmeer. “It had not occurred to me that you might be one of them.” Johnny felt his face begin to burn bright red. “We all want ships, little Terran. Just what did you think the Fourth Fleet was doing in the Toliman system?” Johnny looked blankly at the Regent, who went on, “It was there, at the Emperor's insistence, to protect your pathetic, worthless planet. Do you have any idea how many ships were lost when Star Blaze commenced? Well, do you?”
Johnny shook his head. “I'm sorry. I didn't know,” he said.
“Well, perhaps you know what this place is?” asked the Regent.
For the first time since his feet had touched solid ground, Johnny was able to look around. Cut from rock deep beneath the planet's surface, an immense cavern stretched far away from the foot of the shaft down which he had fallen. As it opened out into the distance, it was lit up and dominated by a model of the galaxy, many kilometers across, within which billions of tiny sparkles of light were slowly rotating, each representing an individual sun.
“It is my bunker,” said the Regent, “from where I direct the war effort. A war that goes badly. Come.” With that it began walking toward the light.
Johnny followed behind, jogging to keep up. The outer walls were a hive of activity with aliens of all shapes and sizes (with varying numbers of wings, limbs, wheels and other mysterious appendages) moving backward and forward or standing or hovering in front of different terminals, but Johnny had difficulty taking his eyes away from the massive model of the Milky Way. Within it, space was divided into distinct regions using crude blocks of at least three transparent colors, superimposed on top of the different, glowing stars. In the very
far distance, most of the dense bulging center was overlaid with gold and, in some places this color stretched nearly as far as the outermost spiral arms. Johnny supposed this must represent the Empire. Surrounding the gold, sometimes making deep inroads into it, with one narrow spike reaching to the very heart of the galaxy, were regions of navy blueâthe invading Andromedans. Most of the outer rim, and some small pockets inside, were greenâperhaps neutral territory.
As they drew closer to the green border of a glowing outer spiral arm, the antigrav field engulfed him once more and he was lifted high off the ground, above the beautiful whirlpool of light. He saw, scattered throughout the slowly rotating model, a handful of humanoid shapes wearing flowing, hooded cloaks and flying between the stars. Their blood-red garments matched the color of the central galactic hub, shining through the superimposed block of gold. Further out, the suns were brighter, with more blue and yellow.
As Johnny and the Regent flew further across the starry disc, one of the robed aliens rose out of the model to greet them. Johnny's heart skipped a beatâthe creature's headÂ â¦ was missing. Johnny found himself staring into fuzzy blackness within the cloak's hood. As he looked closer it became clear the thing had no visible body at all, yet the robes were enclosing
“Do not be alarmed,” said the Regent from beside him. “You are in the presence of greatness. This is an Owlessan Monk, one of only twenty in all the Milky Way. After combing the galaxy, each and every one has been brought here.” The Monk bowed before Johnny. “You cannot see it, because it is out of phase with non-owlein species. Years of worshiping the galaxy have placed it in this state.”
Johnny had heard the word “owlein” before. It was the quality, the ability to fold space, possessed by the Plicans and a very few
others. Bram had said Clara was owlein. That particular detail wasn't something Johnny thought that the Regent should know. “They worship the Milky Way?” he asked instead. “Why would they do that?”
“They believe the galaxy to be the source of their power.”
Johnny was about to ask what power, when his arm became numb. He looked down to see two long, bony fingers had hooked themselves around it. They came from beneath the cloak. He looked to the giant Phasmeer, who seemed not to have noticed anything unusual. But when Johnny turned directly to face the cloaked creature, he could now make out multiple eye sockets staring back at him from out of a skeletal faceâit looked as if there were eight of them, equally spaced around a bulging layer of bone that encircled the off-white hollow skull. Johnny stared as an arm of bone rose from beneath the cloak, pressing a long finger over a circular mouth (lined with needle teeth) to indicate silence. Even had he wanted to, Johnny couldn't have spokenâit was as if his vocal chords had iced over. The other Monks were leaving their positions and floating up to surround Johnny. He could see all of them, or at least their skeletons. They pressed against him and all the warmth began to leach away from his body.
“You see them crowding together, to focus their strength,” said the Regent. “Take one Monk on its own and it can do very little. But bring two together and their power is doubled. Add a third and it doubles again, and so on. With twenty here, all in this one small space, imagine what they can do.”
“And no one can see them?” Johnny forced the words out of his mouth. As he spoke, the breath from his lips condensed into an icy cloud. If it weren't for the warmth of the locket around his neck, he felt he would have frozen solid.
“No one,” the Regent replied. “They have passed beyond. Observeâthey are sensing a change in the galaxy. Witness their
strength.” As Johnny watched, the view shifted. He was no longer above an enormous
inside the cavern deep within Melania. It was as though he was
there, hovering above the plane of the Milky Way itself. It was the most magnificent thing he had ever seen. The Regent and its bunker had vanished, but the scarlet-robed figures remained all around, one clamped tightly to him. Johnny was turned so his face pointed toward a dazzling pink nebula, about halfway from the edge to the center. He began to moveÂ â¦ silentlyÂ â¦ effortlesslyÂ â¦ and very, very fast, accompanied by the posse of Monks. Star systems of all different shapes and sizes blurred past as they swooped down from above the galactic plane into the cloud of stars and dust. It was as if they were crossing thousands, maybe millions, of star systems in the blink of an eye, but their target was clearâa giant sun surrounded by two vast, near-circular lobes of luminous gas, one on either side.
Over the last few months, Johnny had seen many stars on his travels, but this one was special. It was hugeâby far the biggest of them all. The blue giant looked a hundred times larger than the Sun, its edges blurred by great plumes of glowing gas breaking away from a surface that swirled with great currents of light and dark in constant turmoil. In the foreground, in the glare of this monster, space teemed with countless ships. He could not have imagined that so many spacecraft could be in one placeâblack ships, set against the blackness of space. The more he looked the more he could see, until two icy fingers of bone from underneath a scarlet sleeve hooked themselves around his neck and pulled him backward. Johnny flew up and away.
While one Monk maintained its grip on Johnny's neck and arm, the others floated apart from each other. There was a blinding flash of light before the feeling of suddenly, jerkily, falling, like he sometimes had when he was drifting off to sleep. Johnny found himself back in the bunker, above the immense
model. The Regent was speaking. “Did you sense it too? Finally, I have him,” it was saying. “My Monks have seen further and clearer than ever before. They tell me of Nymac's center of operationsâwhat he has kept hidden for so long. If we can only surround himÂ â¦ move the First Fleet to the Keyhole NebulaÂ â¦ and the Third Fleet behind the great star Carinae itself, then I will have no need of our absent Emperor. Victory will be mine.”
As the last Monk finally released Johnny and all the scarlet-robed figures descended once more into the starry mass below, a wave of exhaustion washed over himâwithout the Regent's antigrav field, he would have collapsed. He forced himself to keep his eyes open and watch as winged aliens swooped into the giant three-dimensional model, carrying miniature replicas of Imperial fleets. Like a switch being pressed, the entire Milky Way turned the solid gold of Empire, producing a smug smile on the Phasmeer's face. Although now separate from the Monks, Johnny sensed the stirring of large numbers of Imperial ships, like a faraway echo, as though the orders had already gone out and great fleets were maneuvering according to the Regent's instructions. He rather doubted any actual victory would be achieved quite so easily.
“You are present on a momentous day,” said the Phasmeer, a mad gleam in its bulbous eyes. “Never has the Milky Way appeared so transparent to us. You will not need ships for Terra, Johnny Mackintosh. The Andromedan fleet will be destroyed. And, when I am victorious, whether you like it or not it is I who shall become the true ruler of this galaxy, the Dauphin as my heir.”
Johnny couldn't believe he'd traveled halfway across the galaxy and not seen Bram. He cursed himself for leaving Earth unprotected. Even having one ship patrolling the solar system was a lot better than noneâespecially when she was the
Spirit of London
âand the Emperor was bound to have returned within range of his Wormhole at some point. The time would have been far better spent going after Nicky and explaining to his brother about the Krun. He could have had his family together, and with his brother's spaceship to help protect Earth. The Regent might have sounded confident about stopping Nymac, but Johnny was far from convinced. All he knew for certain, was that the giant Phasmeer was deranged and out of control, sending Johnny plunging halfway to Melania's core and accusing him of scheming to inherit the Empire. After everything he'd heard about Nymac, Johnny suspected the Andromedan general would easily outwit the deluded Regent.
Had it been Bram claiming victory, Johnny would have been able to relax about the prospect of the Sun being turned into a supernova, but until he'd witnessed the Vermalcast, he'd not fully appreciated how withdrawn from Melanian life the Emperor had become. He didn't know what Bram was doing, but was certain it wasn't anything on the capital and, in the Emperor's absence, the Imperial Palace remained frustratingly inaccessible to all except Chancellor Karragon. He hoped Bram
would return soon, but couldn't afford to hang around so far from Earth on the off-chance.
He'd told Clara and Alf everything that had happened as soon as they were safely back aboard the
Spirit of London
. There didn't seem any reason not to and he hated keeping secretsânot saying anything about Nicky was doing his head in, but he didn't want to get Clara's hopes up until he knew more about their prodigal brother. For her part, Clara was fascinated by the Owlessan Monks and Johnny's eerie journey with them across the galaxy. As she didn't have school work, she decided she would study them during the many folds of the journey home.
Johnny was only too aware how far behind he must be getting at Castle Dudbury Comprehensive, so he lay in the gel pod trying, once again, to concentrate on his history homework. It proved hard as ever. What use was it to know all about the Battle of Trafalgar when you had your own spaceship in which you could search for your missing brother, protect your home planet or even traverse the galaxy? Somehow he didn't think nineteenth-century naval warfare was especially relevant. Worn out, he closed his eyes. He'd asked Sol to read to him from his textbook while he was sleeping, in the hope it would somehow seep through into his unconscious mind in much the same way as the thick orange fluid filled his body. The ship began talking but, once the folds began, Sol's voice became as distant as the
Spirit of London
's walls and Johnny drifted into a deep sleep.