Crown Infernal



The coup, when it came, was both swift and ruthless. Perhaps that is because it emanated from the devious brain of a woman who was as hard as she was beautiful, and considerably more intelligent. Unlike most women who possess both brains and beauty, High Councillor Inga Helstrom did not insist on being accepted for her intellect alone but exploited both to the full.

When motionless - a rare occurrence - she had the appearance of an exquisitely formed and delicately tinted marble statue. Her wide-eyed expression gave her an air of ingenuousness coupled with sincerity belied only by those pale, blue-green eyes which, if you looked closely, held chips of ice.

She had been a member of the High Council of World Government for only a couple of months when she began weaving her web of deceit. It had taken her less than half that time to see where the High Council was going wrong; how much better the planet could be governed and principally, how it would benefit her to have a much greater say in the matter.

She had spent the next nine months in setting up the coup, which was planned in meticulous detail. It would have taken a far less astute person than High Councillor Helstrom to appreciate that the upstart pretensions of the youngest member of the High Council would have very limited appeal to the other eleven members of that august body, and none at all to its President, Jonas Ndanga.

She must therefore find herself an ally, a front-man whom she could manipulate and then discard when the time was right. High Councillor Charles De'Ath fitted the bill perfectly. That tall, distinguished-looking man had a finely-tuned sense of his own importance, which made him susceptible to flattery, and insensitive to the feelings of those who stood in his way. He also had all the overweening ambition of the socially inadequate.

It was not difficult to plant in his mind the idea that only time stood between him and the Presidency. It was a seed that fell upon fertile ground. The next move was to create a faction, which meant weeding out the weaker personalities of the High Council and manoeuvring them through the intricacies of her grand design.

Careful observation told her to steer clear of Ira J. Varran, Ali Ibn Saud and Ramanda Singh, as being completely incorruptible. Ivan Ivanovicz Petrov seemed doubtful, too. Theodor Nicolaiades and the Argentinian, Manolo Ardito, looked to be push-overs, and were.

Her line was that she had discovered indications of dirty work afoot, and, by feeding them more tit-bits of information that she had 'discovered,' convinced them that a coup d'état was being plotted by persons as yet unknown.

Naturally, her two dupes were keen to join the right side, and were enlisted in her— or rather, De'Ath's scheme to protect the President, and with him, world order.

By 'leaking' similar information to other members of the High Council over the following months, she managed to recruit an adequate number of supporters to her 'counter-coup,' and by, implicating the "incorruptibles" as ring-leaders, she even managed to talk them into accepting H.C. De'Ath as their leader.

She took to herself the role of information co-ordinator, and kept a low profile. The makers of spiders' webs usually prefer to lurk in dark corners until the trap is sprung.

The next major operation was to subvert the armed forces. This provided few problems for the indefatigable Inga. The Stellar Battalions were ripe for an overhaul at the top. There had been little active service since the incursions of the Algolian hordes in 2367, '69 and '74. That was nearly fifty years ago, and without action, there was little chance of promotion. Careers were stagnating as the commanding officers drifted towards their centuries, and a comfortable retirement.

Some of the junior officers were well into their fifties without ever having had a taste of command. Small wonder they fell easy prey to the suggestion that certain of the top ranks were involved in supporting the coup d'état planned by H.C. Varran et al., without bothering to consider the unlikelihood of their superior officers doing anything to jeopardize their pensions at this late stage.

The younger, and less desperate, junior officers were the most sceptical and hardest to convince, but they were not proof against the manifest attractions and sincere manner of H.C. Helstrom. She made the most resolute amongst them feel that he was 'special.' They were then easily manoeuvred into compliance, or at least inertia, by feelings of guilt after they had, somehow or other, seduced the lady.

Just in case one or two people should succumb to belated feelings of loyalty at the eleventh hour, H.C. Helstrom created a new, and undisclosed, private force. This was carefully selected from among the planet's hardest long-term prisoners, and named the Reform Guard. She had ways of ensuring that they remained totally loyal to her, and kept out of trouble - more or less.

Chapter 1

Captain Paul Bradley was one of those who had the strongest of misgivings. He had been Commander Grainger's adjutant for nearly three years, and had never detected any sign of treason in either word or deed, as he had told the Security Convention two days ago.

He collected together a pile of papers as he mulled over the events of the past few weeks. Surely no-one was in a better position to know than himself? His brow furrowed as he sorted out the documents which required the signature of his commanding officer.

Inga, though initially very positive - and obviously sincere - about his involvement in the conspiracy, had conceded later that perhaps her informant was mistaken. She had promised to investigate further and to ensure that Commander Grainger would be dealt with leniently.

She had also hinted at promotion and substantial rewards for his assistance in thwarting the conspirators. In return, he had agreed to give his support to the counter-coup and to breathe no word of warning to his superior. Now he was torn between his loyalty to his commanding officer and his devotion to the divine goddess who had shared his bed.

He was making for the door of the inner office, still marvelling over his having attracted one so far above him, when a peremptory knock fell upon the outer door. He turned as the door opened and four men entered. They wore the uniform of the newly created Reform Guard, and stood raggedly to attention as their leader stepped forward.

"I have a warrant for the arrest of Commander Grainger," he announced, "...sir." As an after-thought, he gave a sloppy salute.

"Oh. It's all happening today, is it? Is the High Council sure this is necessary?"

"The Supreme Council has deemed it necessary, yes, sir."

Bradley hesitated, reluctant to be involved.

"Shall I serve the warrant, sir?"

", it had better be me. I still don't see why the High - the Supreme Council can't just retire him early."

The man sidled up to Bradley and said, conspiratorially, "Well, there's bound to be some opposition to the new régime at first, and I expect the Supreme Council doesn't want to leave any popular personalities hanging around as a focus for rebels - to use as a figurehead, if you know what I mean?"

Bradley sighed. "I don't like it. He's too good a man to deserve such a back-hander - especially from me."

"Not to worry, Sir. They'll probably let 'im out in a few months when everything's calmed down and back to normal. There's nothing you could do about it anyway, not on your own."

"I suppose so... You and your men wait here, Captain."

Captain Bradley took the warrant, and walked smartly into the inner office after only a perfunctory knock. Commander Adam Grainger was seated behind his desk, a plastic cup in one hand and a fearsome looking document in the other. He looked up,slightly surprised at the rather informal manner of his adjutant's entrance.

"Well, now you're in, you may as well join me in a cup of this revolting liquid masquerading as coffee." Grainger smiled and gestured to the "Drinkomatic" in the corner. "Come the revolution, the maker of that infernal machine will be first against the wall!"

His piercing blue eyes took in the slight wince that crossed his aide's face at the mention of 'revolution.' "Do I take it that you have something more momentous to communicate than the usual request for my autograph?"

"I'm afraid so, sir."

"Well, have some coffee anyway - by way of atonement! I take it it will be our last one together?"

"You know, sir?"

There was a faint twinkle in Grainger's eye as he said, wryly, "Do credit me with a little intelligence. I may spend most of my time in this ivory tower these days, but I wasn't born yesterday, you know! I'll relieve you of that," he added, taking the warrant. "You get your coffee and we'll drink - to the Revolution?"

"No sir." Bradley was looking very tight-lipped as he returned with the coffee.

"Don't look so pained. Things are never as bad as they seem - unless you give up hope. I don't hold it against you. You've a promising career ahead of you and you really couldn't have done anything for me without compromising your own future."

"If you knew what was going on, why didn't you do something?"

"What had you in mind?"

" could have added your support to the counter-coup - perhaps you still can— "

"Counter-coup. Is that what they're calling it? Do you seriously think I would have been accepted? If they thought I would support their political pretensions, don't you think they would have approached me about it personally?"

He observed, with some satisfaction, the seeds of suspicion germinating in Bradley's mind. "I tried contacting some of my fellow officers, but funnily enough, they were always unavailable..."

"Then couldn't you have— "

"Run?! No I could not. I have never pursued a dishonourable course of action in my life - not in my career anyway - and I don't propose to start now."

"I'm sorry. I just hate to see you in this position, that's all."

"I'm sorry, too. We should remain on good terms if this is the last time we shall be seeing each other."

"Oh, it isn't— " Bradley broke off in some confusion. "I mean..."

"Oh? Do you know what they have planned for me then?"

"Not... exactly. I'm not that well in with them, but it has been rumoured that you're to be exiled, probably to the Bahamas - somewhere pleasant, anyway."

"I see." Grainger looked speculatively at his junior officer and added, "She is beautiful, isn't she?"

Bradley was spared having to reply by a sharp rat-a-tat at the door. He felt his face burning as he threw open the door.

"There was no need for that! We were just coming," he said angrily.

"No need for you to take it out on my men, Captain."

Bradley looked the little group up and down curiously and raised one eyebrow. "Who are these men?"

"They're - er - new recruits, sir."

"Indeed? Recruited from where, Captain?"

"From Penal Colony Five, sir." Their leader grinned proudly.

"You surprise me," said Grainger, smiling pleasantly back at him, but the irony was lost. His face became serious once again, as he said, sotto voce, "Oh, Paul, Paul, what have you got yourself into?"

Chapter 2

The court was convened in the newly designated Hall of Justice with all possible speed. No announcement had yet been made to the public of the fateful events of the morning. Instead, the people were to be treated to a worldwide live broadcast of "The Trial of the Traitors - Part Two."

Part One had already taken place in closed council. Allegedly. The accused, almost half of the High Council and all the Commanders, including Adam Grainger, were confined behind a barred screen at the back of the hall, in company with the Reform Guard. The new Collegiate of Officers were seated in the centre, flanked by armed Military Guards.

On the platform were the self-professed Supreme Council of the Guardians of World Order, headed by Supreme Councillor Charles De'Ath. He rose to address the court and the world:

"Ladies and gentlemen, people of the world. It is my unfortunate duty to have to inform you that there has been a slight change in the government of this planet. Do not be alarmed. This will have little or no effect on the lives of the majority of the population. It is merely a change in leadership.

"Intelligence reports drew our attention to the fact that a large part of the High Council was involved in such serious corruption as amounted to treason against you, our people. With the backing of our armed forces, we, the defenders of your best interests, decided that, for your good, we must take action. We have therefore implemented Section 247, subsection 12b. of the World Constitution - peacefully, of course.

"Unfortunately, the revelation of the depths to which so many of the High Council has sunk, came as such a shock to our beloved President, that he suffered a massive heart attack. He is at present undergoing major medical treatment, and while our hopes and prayers - and yours, too - go with him, we fear that he is unlikely to survive...

"We also mourn the deaths of two of our fellow councillors; Councillor Petrov was shot while trying to escape, and Councillor Yamamoto committed hara-kiri. I think you will agree that these actions loudly confirm their guilt.

"Earlier today, the judicial hearings took place, and it now only remains my sad duty to pronounce sentence. Call Councillors Varran, Patole, Radicz, Saud and Singh."

The five High Councillors were hustled out of their cage and escorted to the front of the hall to face their accusers. De'Ath indicated that the elderly lady among them should step forward.

"Councillor Patole, in view of your age and that you were involved only minimally in the treasonable actions of the past three years, we are prepared to deal leniently with you." Here De'Ath smiled unctuously, "This is a just and merciful court, after all. There is a very pleasant little island in the south Pacific called Maratiri. It shall be your home for the rest of your natural life. You are to be exiled there and all your estates and assets confiscated. Take her away."

Two Reform Guards escorted the little lady out of the hall. She had said nothing, merely looking dazed and uncomprehending. No so the mighty Councillor Varran, who leapt forward holding up an imperious hand. "Hey, wait a minute, De'Ath! What about giving us a trial before ya find us all guilty?"

De'Ath looked a little uncomfortable as he replied, "You have already been tried by Grand Jury."

"You lie!"

"Silence! You were tried in absentia. The evidence spoke for itself. Your appearance was deemed unnecessary."

"Yeah, I'll bet it was!" Varran turned to face the cameras as De'Ath, a look akin to panic on his face, turned to Helstrom. "I protest! This whole thing is a sham, a charade, in fact it's downright unconsti...."

He collapsed in a twitching heap as one of the Reform Guard, at a nod from Councillor Helstrom, jabbed a stun dart into his arm.

Councillor Singh stepped forward. "I demand a fair trial - in public. Councillor Varran is... " He faltered as De'Ath looked significantly at the Reform Guard beside him. "....quite right," he concluded quietly.

De'Ath, having regained control, continued, "You are all sentenced to death. You will be taken from here to a place of execution, where you will be terminated by injection of metadichlorocyanate - we are quite humane, you see - and your estates will be confiscated. Take them away."

There were receding cries of "appeal", "unconstitutional" and "protest" and a final truncated "Damn you to He..."

The Commanders were then called forward in small groups and dealt with as expeditiously as the Councillors. There were some protests and scuffles, but most accepted the inevitability in tight-lipped silence. The first groups called were the most elderly and were, "mercifully" exiled to remote Pacific islands. Later groups were sentenced to death. Finally, Commander Grainger was called.

"Commander Grainger, you have been found guilty of aiding and abetting our fellow Councillors to undermine the economy of this planet and in so doing, to reduce the living standards of the people. You are therefore sentenced to exile. You will be taken from here to Spaceport Seven. There, you will be escorted on board a stellar cruiser which will take you to the planet, Selsion, where you will spend the rest of your natural life."

"No!" One of the Collegiate of Officers sprang to his feet.

De'Ath frowned. "Captain Bradley?"

Helstrom nodded. The movement attracted the young captain's attention and he addressed himself more to her than De'Ath.

"That's inhumane. Commander Grainger does not oppose you - will not oppose you. I'm sure he would be willing to sign an oath to that effect. Selsion! Why, it's practically uninhabitable and right on the edge of Galactic Alliance territory."

Bradley's attention was recalled to De'Ath, and, while the latter spoke, Councillor Helstrom summoned a Military Guardsman for a private briefing.

"Captain Bradley," said De'Ath, in his most patronizing tone, "while I applaud your loyalty to your former commanding officer, I cannot but deprecate your lack of judgement in trying to defend him. You had been recommended to me as most suitable for high office - ultimately - but now I begin to doubt the wisdom of including you in our Collegiate of Officers."

"Captain Bradley clearly has divided loyalties," put in Councillor Helstrom, coolly. "Such men are unreliable. I suggest that if he is so concerned about the welfare of this convicted traitor, he should be allowed to join ex-Commander Grainger in his exile."

"So be it," De'Ath agreed.

Bradley looked momentarily stunned, more by his unexpected rejection by his beloved, than the abrupt change in his future. Then, stung to fury as realization of her duplicity sank in, he shouted, "If you're so concerned about divided loyalties, I suggest..."

What he was about to suggest, the world was not to know, as the Military Guardsman fired his stun-gun, and Bradley fell to the floor.

"Take them away."

The small detention room at Spaceport Seven was distinctly in need of renovation. Its shabby appearance was considerably enhanced by the piles of litter in the corners, and the collection of plastic cups and the remains of a meal on the single table.

An inert Paul Bradley lay on one couch. On the other, Adam Grainger sat regarding him inscrutably, as he had been since their arrival. Ye gods, there was nothing much else to do, except, perhaps to read the discarded yellowing newspapers that carpeted the floor. Watching Bradley was marginally more interesting. Another half hour passed, and Bradley groaned.

"Are you back with us yet?" Grainger asked gently.

Bradley groaned again and opened on eye. "....Hmm?..." Slowly he came back to life, Grainger massaging his stiff muscles.

"Urgh...I feel like I just had an argument with an EMCat...and lost. What happened?"

"They knocked you out with a stun-gun. That was a damn' stupid thing to do, wasn't it? Don't think I don't appreciate what you did, but I wish you hadn't. I had no wish to drag you down with me. You were all set up for a fine career."

Bradley struggled to sit up. "I don't think so. It never really felt right, and then, when I found out she'd lied to me... Well, something of the sort was bound to happen sooner or later. At least now I'm with someone I can trust, and we're not dead yet!"

"Do I detect a hint of Micawber in you?"


"Micawber. Character in a nineteenth century novel."

"Oh. We didn't go back beyond the mid-twenty-second when I was at school."

"My schooling was similarly limited, but that's no excuse to vegetate. Besides, there wasn't enough work to keep me occupied all day, and I'm not one to sit idly doing nothing. You know that."

"Yes. I didn't realize you were into ancient literature, though."

"It's very interesting. It gives one an insight into the way people used to live before the Galactic Alliance made contact."

"Tell me about this Micawber guy."

"He was the eternal optimist. It didn't matter how bad things were, he was always certain that something would turn up."

"Maybe he was right? Maybe the new Supreme Council will fall as quickly as it rose, then we can return?"

"I doubt it, Paul."

Bradley blinked at the use of his first name. Grainger gave him a lopsided grin. "Pardon the familiarity. I'm no longer your commanding officer and you're no longer a captain; Mr. Bradley sounds a little formal, so, as we're in this together - by your own choice, let me add! - I didn't think you'd mind."

"No. of course I don't, sir..."

"And you may as well call me Adam."

"Yes, sir - I'll take some getting used to!" He shook his head as if to deny the events of the past few hours. "Why don't you think we'll return?"

"Well, they aren't going to give us a return ticket, and in six months I'm afraid, we shall be forgotten - past history... It's the way of the world." Bradley looked deflated.

The door opened to admit four more of the Reform Guard. "Yer shuttle's ready. On yer feet," ordered their leader, grinning viciously. He was one for whom unexpected freedom, together with a little power, had gone a long way. Now the high and mighty had to do his bidding. He sincerely hoped they were going to make his day. Regrettably, this did not appear likely; one of them looked decidedly unsteady as he lurched to his feet. Grainger moved to help his weakened colleague, but was elbowed aside.

"None 'o that! Resistance is to be severely punished," snarled the guard, reaching for his weapon.

Grainger took a deep breath and raised his hands slowly. "Can't you see he needs help?" he asked wearily.

The guard replaced his laser-gun with obvious reluctance. "Well, don't suppose it matters that much, now, anyway. O.K., go ahead, but no tricks," he grunted, patting the holster.

"We have no intention of causing you any trouble," Grainger reassured him, as he gave a supporting arm to Bradley.


Chapter 3

The Stellar Cruiser Canopus had seen better days— better days many years ago. On the flight deck, Bradley headed for the flight control console.

"Christ! Look at this archaic old heap!" He sat down and checked over the controls. "Looks like we'll be lucky to reach Selsion in one piece. Where did they dredge this old crate up from anyway?"

"When I was a boy, this was the most celebrated Stellar Cruiser of the day," Grainger informed him. "We're travelling luxury class, can't you tell?"

"Forty years ago maybe. You wouldn't catch the biggest tight-wad on Earth planet-hopping tourist class in this pile of junk today!"

A crackle on the intercom caught their attention, and a voice said, "Spaceport Seven to Canopus, Spaceport Seven to Canopus. Your flight is cleared for departure, and your flight plan has already been entered into your ship's computer, so you will not be required to make any further adjustments until you attain orbit at Selsion. Pleasant journey, gentlemen!"

"Canopus to Spaceport Seven," Grainger responded, "Thank you for your information - and your good wishes."

"You're welcome. Out." The crackle snapped off.

With a noticeable vibration, Canopus sprang into life and sped off into the void. In the viewing screen, Earth rapidly dwindled into a pin point and disappeared.

"Goodbye Earth...goodbye home...perhaps forever," said Bradley softly, and sighed. "I still can't believe this has happened..."

"Well, you've plenty of time to learn to believe it. By my reckoning, it'll take eight months at least to reach Selsion in this ship."

Bradley looked sour. "At least this tub's big enough for us to get away from each other now and again if we want to, though I daresay the occasional good argument will come as a welcome change. God! I think I'll die of boredom long before we arrive."

"I doubt it," said the head which suddenly arose from behind the flight control console, giving the two exiles the shock of their lives.

"Death comes in many guises, but I've yet to hear that boredom's one of them," it went on, cheerfully.

"You!" exploded Bradley, reaching for the side-arm which was no longer there. "What the Hell are you doing here?! Hired assassin I suppose?"

The third party stood up, grinning broadly. Grainger recognized him as the Captain of the Reform Guard who had come to arrest him earlier that day.

"The name's Mirren, and I'm a thief - a bloody good one, too, I'm proud to say, - but assassin? Nah...not that that makes you any safer."

"What do you mean," Bradley demanded suspiciously.

"A few minutes ago, Paul, you were saying we'd be lucky to reach Selsion in one piece. I believe our friend here is just confirming that opinion. I think you have some explaining to do, Mr. Mirren."

"Yes, what are you doing back there?" Bradley demanded.

"Just reprogramming your flight computer."

"You what?!"

"You don't really want to go to Selsion, do you?"

"Not especially," Bradley conceded. "Why not do it in the normal way?"

"Because there's a bug built into the computer to prevent you re-programming it."

"How do you know?"

"Because I put it there."


"Orders. The program also includes a very messy finale when you drop out of hyperdrive, which I don't think you'd want to see."

Bradley was totally baffled by this unexpected turn of events. The day had begun in the way days had always begun since he joined Stellar Command, but it had since diverged tangentially from the norm. He was having difficulty in coming to terms with the rest of it. "Look, just what is your game?" he demanded.

"You were supposed to be the high-flying white hope of the unit. Work it out for yourself," Mirren replied, coming round to tinker with the control panel.

"I infer that we are not intended to reach Selsion - not alive, anyway," put in Grainger.

"Got it in one."

"Then, why exile?" Bradley asked. "Why not just chop you down like Varran and the others?"

"At the moment, I'd be more dangerous dead than alive."

Bradley looked blank.

"Think about it. There are probably small resistance groups getting under way already. Most people don't give a damn about who holds power. They grumble, but that's about all. Without wishing to seem immodest, I think, - and no doubt the De'Ath faction thinks the same way - that my death might just stir up enough of the sheep to make a counter-revolution possible. Right now, I'm out of sight and out of reach, but known to be alive, so no-one can make a martyr of me. In six month's time, I'll be out of most people's minds, too, and can be safely eliminated.

"If I continue to live, I'm a permanent, if very tiny, threat. They would fear that small resistance groups may find some means of effecting a rescue. With me as a figurehead, the rebels would hope that they'd gain enough popular support to overthrow the Supreme Council. It's very unlikely, but De'Ath can't afford to take the risk."

Light and hope dawned in Bradley's face as he turned to Mirren. "You're from a resistance group?" His expression was almost pleading.

"Leave it out - I'm a thief, not a hero. I'm interested in money, not power, and I'm the best in the world at getting it, too - bar none."

"Yeah? Then how come you ended up in a penal colony?" Bradley's disappointment gave an edge to his words.

"Everyone makes a mistake sooner or later," Mirren mumbled sulkily. "A word of advice to the wise," he added, "never trust a woman."

Bradley looked distinctly uncomfortable, and Mirren noticing it, guffawed. "So that's what made you join their side. Should have guessed really. You look like a bed-hopper!"

"It wasn't like that."

"It never is." Mirren grinned cynically and Bradley looked as if his next reply was going to be more physical.

"Stop bickering, you two. Whatever the reason, we seem to owe our lives to Mr. Mirren, Paul. Try to show some gratitude. As for you, Mr. Mirren, you might show a little more sympathy. It's been a long and trying day."

Mirren grinned again. "I'm not unsympathetic. I was suckered myself, don't forget. Ahh... she is beautiful, though."

"Shut up! I just want to forget I ever met the rotten bitch!"

"Fine by me," agreed Mirren, and went back to his tinkering.

"Pardon me for asking, Mr. Mirren," Grainger said, when the thief had finished, "but where are we going?"

"Estarion, my native planet. And the name's just Mirren. We don't have fancy titles there."

"Estarion? Where's that?"

"It's in the same sector as Selsion, but much nearer to Earth."

"That's strange," Bradley remarked, "I've been to most of the habitable planets in this sector - and some that weren't - but I've never heard of Estarion."

"The name intrigues me. I seem to have heard it before, and yet I've no idea where...or why..." Grainger mused.

"There's a reason for that," Mirren replied cryptically.

"What made you desert?" asked Bradley.

"Military discipline sticks in my throat - too restrictive for a free agent like me. Basically, it was a way out of jail, nothing more. When I heard where Canopus was going, I figured it might be interesting to visit the planet of my birth. Then I found out what the cargo was, and knowing what I did about the set-up here - well, it sort of made up my mind. As a boy, I always enjoyed tales of your exploits against the Algolian Hordes, Commander. Now if you'll excuse me, there are one or two more little surprises for me to deactivate."

The lights, which had been fading gradually during Mirren's tale, suddenly dimmed almost to darkness.

"That's the next job," he continued. "I should have a rest if I were you. Cabins three, four and seven are safe, so's the food, but don't drink anything till I get back."

Two hours later, Grainger and Bradley were sitting huddled in Cabin Three's emergency survival suits in the dim light. Dim as it was, it bounced pin pricks of rainbow light off the feathers of frost on the mirror.

"I wish Mirren would hurry up and fix the life-support system," said Bradley for the umpteenth time. The cold was beginning to seep through their suits and Grainger, too, was beginning to worry. Being unable to do anything except to await further events in ignorance does not suit the temperament of men of action.

"They really don't want us around, do they?" Grainger observed, grimly, chafing his arms. Abruptly, the lights flared back to life.

"Thank God! About time too," Bradley grunted.

"I doubt if you could have fixed it any quicker, even if you'd known what had been done to it."

"Yeah, I suppose so," Bradley agreed.

When Mirren returned a few minutes later, he had changed into casual clothing. "Sorry about the delay, fellow tourists. I had to fix the oxygenators, too."

Bradley thanked him. He removed his helmet, and winced. "Hell's teeth, why aren't you frozen?!"

Mirren laughed mysteriously, "It'll soon warm up now," he said.

Grainger noticed that the curiously wrought snake ring on his left fore-finger was glowing almost imperceptibly with a pulsing light. He raised one eyebrow appraisingly.

"Let's have a drink," Mirren suggested as the other two exchanged puzzled glances. He moved over to the hospitality unit, collected three glasses, and put them on the low table between his companions. He turned back to the unit, and while unsighted, pulled from his pocket a small black silk sack, from which he removed a strange flask decorated with multi-coloured horizontal stripes, and put the sack back in his pocket.

"Right, gentlemen, name your poison." He let out an ironic chuckle. "What am I saying? Sorry, what would you like?"

"Right now," said Bradley, "an old-fashioned double scotch would go down a treat, but..."

"O.K." Mirren twisted one of the flask's coloured bands, removed the stopper and poured out a generous whisky. He passed it to Bradley, who accepted it warily, sniffed it, tasted it, then looked at Mirren in bafflement.

"How about you, Commander?"

"Scotch would suit me, too, thank you."

Mirren obliged, then twisted another band and poured pale, effervescent liquid into his own glass. "Cheers!" He downed it in one, smacked his lips and poured himself another one. He grinned cheerfully as the other two stared at him.

"There's a lot more about you than meets the eye, Mirren," said Grainger, eying him speculatively.

Five months later, little had changed except that Mirren had grown a natty little beard and moustache that made him look even more sinister.

On the deserted flight deck, a light flicked on, and a stellar picture centred on a small, but growing disk, appeared on the V.D.U. A shrill series of long bleeps sang out a warning. Bradley burst in, followed at a more sedate pace, by Grainger. Mirren strolled in in his usual casual manner.

"What's happened?" Grainger asked.

"No need to panic," Mirren replied with an amused grin. "We've dropped out of hyperspace, and that's the twenty-five a.u. warning. Put 'er into high orbit in two minutes for a surface scan."

"You don't give the orders around here," snapped Bradley, "or had you forgotten? Ever since we came on this ship, you've been trying to take over."

"Calm down, Paul, you're beginning to sound paranoid. Mirren's instructions may have been a little brusque," Grainger frowned in Mirren's direction, "but the job needs doing and you're the best man to do it."

Bradley threw him a suspicious look, but said no more as he seated himself at the console. He called up the main screen display for the benefit of the others. Estarion dominated the picture now.

"Entering high Surface scan - on." He paused. "That's funny - there's nothing there. It's dead."

Mirren leapt to the console, shaken out of his usual sang-froid. "What?!"

"Well, nothing's registering, absolutely zero life energy - and the radiation level's very high, just below the tolerance threshold... It's a dead world." He spun round in his seat.

"Congratulations, Mirren, you've brought us to a dead planet!"

Crown Infernal