"We might have to try the computer again,"
Theo muttered after a long silence.
He'd just registered that it had become slightly lighter when a
strident voice called, "Get your hands in the air!"
Three of them did.
The other was trying to place the vaguely familiar voice, when
it continued, "You too, Blondie!"
"Is that any way to welcome old friends?" J drawled,
half-raising his hands. "And if we ever get home, remind me to strangle
"M-Major Mitchell?" Aurel faltered, the disbelief
patent in his voice.
"The very same," J grinned as the lighting increased
to its normal level. His expression became serious. "I'm afraid you've
made some very bad enemies who desperately want to get their hands on you, or
rather, on Dignity. So - because we can recognize you, we've been sent on a
very nasty little mission. We're supposed to go to the Agora to look for you
all, grab you and take you back to Earth. And we've been forbidden to go back
home without you and/or Dignity."
There was a collective gasp of horror from the Dignity crew who
were backing away from SG-24.
"Oh for goodness' sake," J exclaimed. "Have a
little more faith in us. Please. Surely you realize that we would never
do anything to harm you, any of you, even if it means we can never go
"Sorry," Aurel said. "It's just hard to get our
heads round the idea that anyone would make such a sacrifice for us."
"Guess that's more of a judgement on the way the universe
has treated you so far," Theo commented sadly.
"Looked at logically," Ruby Tuesday said, "if
you were going to betray us, you would already have done do. It's been several
weeks already since you were here the first time."
"Well, we have a couple of plans that might solve all our
problems," J said, "but we'll need help. So I'm asking if you'll take
us to the Contra-Bruxai base. We're okay with being blindfolded if you feel the
"I know. Ruby, take our guests to the crew's living
room," Gav said, "then I'll go and fetch Uncle Eneas."
"So who are all these strange people?" Eneas grinned
as he stuck his head into the sitting room. "Gav's given me the basic
details. I understand they've gotten themselves to the top of the Bruxai Most
Wanted list. We are so proud! And I understand you have some plans that
need our help."
"First off, we've brought you a small gift that we think
you'll find useful." J said, producing the Bug Glasses and giving a
"It's definitely something we could use. I saw them at
the Agora once, and wished I could afford one."
"That's where it came from."
Eneas looked shocked. "This must've cost a great deal of
gold. I cannot possibly accept it."
"Don't worry. Maxine is an accomplished haggler
"Especially in those jeans," Luc grinned.
"And though they don't know it," J continued,
"the vampirii paid for it."
Eneas laughed. "Well, in that case, I'll definitely accept
it! So what's your plan."
"Well, it's a two-part plan."
"Stop hedging and cut to the chase - Blondie!" Eneas
"As nicknames go, I'd prefer Wolf..." J said and
Eneas laughed. "Actually, you seem to look different every
time we see you!"
"I'd like to stress," J went on, "that this
mission, like a lot of our missions these days, is one we have no intention of
fulfilling. But we'd like to go home, hence the plan - which I appreciate is a
big ask. We would like the Dignity crew here to relocate to the Contra-Bruxai
base. They'll probably be safer there anyway, as it doesn't look like the
Bruxai are going to give up any time soon."
"Stow it, Gav, "Eneas told his nephew. "He has a
fair point, and we haven't heard the whole plan yet. Go on - Wolf."
J grinned back at him. "Remove all the files to the
" "We call it, Gradina Noastra."
"Our Garden," Maxine translated with a smile.
"Or sometimes it's just Gradina, so it doesn't sound so
much like a specific place."
"Okay. Well then, remove all the files to Gradina, if you
haven't already, then strip the ship of everything that might be even remotely
"Does that include the book?" Ruby asked.
"Th-the book?" Maxine asked aghast.
"Yes, mostly black with a sort of foggy front that
"Did you open it?"
"Well, we tried, but it wouldn't open."
"Oh thank god for that!" Maxine exclaimed.
"Why?" Eneas asked.
"Because it's a book of great power."
"But that's good isn't it?" Aurel asked.
"No. It isn't. It's potentially extremely
"Then we should destroy it" Eneas said.
"When we find out how to do that, we will," Maxine
"So what do we do with it for now?"
Maxine looked a little guilty. "We leave it where it
"But suppose the Bruxai get their hands on it?" Gav
"Actually, we think that's why they want to get their
hands on Dignity so badly," Luc said, "and why we think you'd be
safer at Gradina."
"But wouldn't that put Gradina in danger?" Gav asked.
Maxine sighed. "The book isn't where you - or they - think
"You stole it?" Eneas said suspiciously.
"I recognized it, so I took it off the ship to keep the
"And you expect us to believe that?" Aurel sneered.
"Believe what you like," Maxine snapped back.
"I'm the only one who knows where it is, so I'm the only one
who's in danger. If the Bruxai want it, it's me they'll have to come
looking for. I put myself in danger to keep you safe."
"And would you just listen to yourselves,"
Theo put in before Eneas could respond. "We are within an inch of fighting
among ourselves over this book, and it isn't even here. Doesn't
that show you how evil it is?"
Everyone suddenly shut up.
"So what next?" Eneas prompted once calm was
"If possible, once the ship's been stripped, we'd like
Dignity to be taken to the Agora and left in the space port where she was taken
from," J said.
As expected, there was an outcry from the crew. He waited for
it to die down then continued.
"You would then use Dignity's 'Gate to go to Gradina. We'd
stay behind and put the computer systems out of commission so there's no way
the Bruxai can track where you are or where you've been. You could, of course,
leave some disinformation for them," J grinned. This idea went down
very well. J could see brains contemplating what tricks to play.
"Then we head back to the Agora 'Gate where we suspect
there will be a few Bruxai waiting for us to arrive. We left Earth three hours
before we were scheduled to, so we could dodge them, plus we don't look quite
like what they're expecting." J fingered his hair and grimaced in Maxine's
direction. This provoked laughter.
"You said there was another part to your plan?" Eneas
Maxine took over. "We're going to need Skender's help and
access to a lab. This might take several days, so we hope you'll let us use
your Gradina base? Please understand that we would never betray your base or
abuse the privilege. Although President Warren knows we have met you, we've
concealed our friendship with you.
" So far as the bad guys know, we interrupted your 'gang
of thieves' in some nefarious activity. That was the day you saved J. You
captured us easily and took us to your camp in the woods so we saw nothing. The
day we rescued you, we conflated you - whom we didn't know - with your captors
- whom we likewise didn't know. We said we'd chased you all off and stopped you
taking Bachman as a slave, so officially there's nothing to link you to
"And they believed you?" Eneas asked dubiously.
"They have no reason not to. Our reports are minimalist.
We only mention things relevant to the mission, and avoid outright lies which
could catch us out. For instance, we made no mention of Dignity the day we came
here, just reported on the mission we were supposed to be on.
"Then I was summoned to Warren's office. He already knew
about Dignity and her crew and the trip to the Agora, so there was no point in
trying to deny it. It would just have made it look like a conspiracy, and made
me look guilty. Instead I played on the peculiarity of finding a 'Gate on a
ship, and put our coming here down to a clerical error. Although, I suspect
that Grandfather Daniel had a hand in it..."
"That the ascended man in the lab.? The one who's not
afraid to interfere?" Eneas asked.
"That's the one," Maxine grinned, "and I think
he's been keeping an eye on the Dignity crew since we left. Anyway, I told
Warren that a group of children"
She paused for the protests to die down.
"That a group of children showed up. I told him they
were orphans who'd made a home for themselves there. He seemed to think I
should know the ship belonged to 'our European allies.' It was easy to deny all
knowledge of that as there was no reason for the information to have come my
way. In fact, there's a bug in my computer in my office. I'm not supposed to
know about that, but I do," she grinned, "so Theo and I grumbled
about how unfair it all was and how we'd have to be psychic to have known about
"Then Warren asked about the Agora. I spun it that the
littlest child had gotten lost there, so we went along to help them. He also
mentioned the 'theft' of the ship, so I played dumb. He asked if we'd believed
these children, so I said we had no reason not to, and apologized for our
failures. He wasn't happy about it but couldn't really say much more without
implicating himself and making me suspicious - like we haven't had his number
from way back." Maxine rolled her eyes.
"You sure you wouldn't like to join the Contra-Bruxai full
time?" Eneas asked.
Maxine gave him a wry smile. "If all this doesn't work
out, we may have to! On the other hand, if this does all work out - you
may have another base under your control."
"What are you up to, Maxine?" J demanded with some
"Well, let's not count our chickens while they're still in
their shells, huh?"
"I'm more worried about what happens when they come home
"Let's see if we can track down the real Major Toby King
"Ah, you want to do a body swap? Okay, by all means use
Gradina as your base," Eneas smiled.
"Thank you so much!" Maxine beamed. "We'd like
to do the body swap first in the somewhat over-optimistic hope that the Bruxai
will have given up and gone home by the time we return to the Agora."
Eneas chuckled at that. "Fat chance!"
The Dignity crew insisted on joining S.G.-24 and Eneas. Once
they'd taken on board the possibility of relocating to Gradina, they all wanted
to play a full part in the activities of the Contra-Bruxai. As they were now
officially 'outlaws,' Eneas agreed. It was what he'd been hoping for eventually
Prima facie, Gradina looked like a virgin planet with no sign
of human life. There were no trackways through the heavy woodland, and the
Contra-Bruxai liked to keep it that way, always using different and random
routes through the trees.
It was actually a sparsely populated planet with a mediaeval
level of technology. Nature had taken back much of the world after wars, plague
and famine had taken their toll. The thick woodland around the 'Gate had
discouraged Bruxan interest. It looked too much like hard work to turn the
world into a productive one, and the Bruxai were pretty much averse to hard
work even with slave labor. Their slaves could be more usefully employed
The Contra-Bruxai base was in the dungeons of a ruined castle,
which looked to have been uninhabited for many centuries. There were several
concealed entrances - concealed bordering on secret. The castle was home, not
only to Eneas' Prasinos, or 'green team' but several others, all named by
Once they were all settled in on Gradina, Maxine gave such
information as she knew about Major King. This was partly what she'd copied
from the files on Destiny, and partly her interpretation of what was generally
"We believe he was captured at our old Alpha Site,
P4X-650, probably by a Bruxan slave party. From there, he was taken to
"Biserica," Eneas nodded.
"There, he was body-swapped with King Tobias of Noucincu
on Ceresc-tsara. That's P5R-772. From Biserica, he was taken to P1A-100."
"Cabana Urlea," Eneas put in. "That's the
principal world of the Bruxan Empire."
"Oh, right. Thanks," Maxine smiled. "While he
was there, he was renamed Anton and sold to a Lord Mihai as a cook."
Eneas held up a hand. "In that case, you might have a
little difficulty persuading Anton to leave."
He got incredulous looks from S.G.-24 and continued. "Lord
Mihai was a middle-ranking Bruxan who liked to throw parties. Anton came up
with wilder, crazier ideas for food and decor. This took Lord Mihai higher up
the Bruxan hierarchy so Anton rapidly went up in his owner's esteem. In fact,
Anton is now famous - a household name. When Lord Mihai died, his son, Lord
Emilian, kept him on. Now, Anton has more of an overseer's role. He has a
fairly easy life and I doubt he'll be all that keen to leave either his job or
"Then let's hope he changes his mind when he gets his own
mind back," J said, looking glum. "For now, we'd better start making
"First things first," Eneas said. "You'll need
papers. We can supply those as we have a printing press here, but we'll need to
decide who's going to Cabana Urlea so we can set up 'characters' for you. Next,
you'll need less military style clothing which we can also supply. And I have
an idea. It has been known for Lord Emilian to hire Anton out for parties. At a
price. Lord Emilian has an expensive life-style. However, for a deposit, he
might let Anton go to the client's world to discuss what is required for the