Chapter 1 – Community Business

“Wait here,” Cal hissed to his squadron. “This place could be dangerous.”

He looked at the tiny cottage that squatted behind overgrown hedges. Thick ivy climbed up the front wall and buried itself in the rotten window-frames. Even in the evening gloom, Cal could see tiles missing from the low roof. The most likely danger was having the place collapse on him as soon as he entered it, but he was leaving nothing to chance. The members of his squadron waited in the road as Cal opened the front gate and picked his way across the weed-choked front garden.

A high-pitched whine erupted.

“Everybody down!”

The silver turret burst up through the grass and unleashed a barrage of laser fire. Wet trees and bushes hissed and smouldered under the onslaught.

Cal crawled across the garden, laser fire passing inches above his head. He reached the base of the cannon, found an exposed wire and pulled. The turret fell silent.

“Those little purple zhetvas,” muttered Cal under his breath.

Tarvin, the senior officer, ran to help Cal get to his feet. “How did they get hold of contraband like that?” he asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Cal, straightening his tie. “The important thing is that they know we are here. Take one of the team with you and watch the back of the house. The rest of you…” He looked over the young and inexperienced group still huddled in the road. “The rest of you cover me. I’m going in.”

He ran over to the front door, pulled a small device out of the breast pocket of his black suit and placed it next to the lock. After entering a few commands, he stepped back, counting under his breath.

The door exploded in a flash of white light, ripping off its hinges like wet paper.

“Beerta Kilkidas! I am here on Community Business!” Cal shouted through the smoke.

He leapt to the side as two laser blasts erupted from the dark hallway. A soldier behind Cal responded with a volley of laser fire into the entrance.

“Stop that at once!” shouted Cal.


“But nothing. Your orders are to take them alive.”

“I don’t think…”

“NO-ONE fires unless I tell them to.”

Cal shook his head with weary resignation. A year ago, most of this squad wouldn’t have known which end of a rifle went zap and yet here they were today, dripping with the innate sense of superiority that characterised the Ascenti; especially when dealing with what they perceived as a ‘lesser species’. But he was still in charge. The last thing Cal needed was two important dignitaries ending up dead on one of his operations.

He risked another look into the cottage.

“Char ek tremma mish, torv batshalla mar!”

The angry shout came from the other end of the corridor, accompanied by the sounds of a scuffle. As the noise died down, Tarvin’s voice came down the hallway.

“All under control.”

When Cal reached the low-ceilinged kitchen, he saw Tarvin and another soldier each holding a struggling prisoner by their ankles.

Tarvin laughed. “That will teach you to run away, you little purple furches!” The men brandished their tiny prisoners with glee. “We can’t have freaks like you running around the country scaring the natives.”

The fugitives were a male and a female, both under three-foot-tall with the unmistakable dark purple skin of the Xanthi. They writhed with impotent fury in the hands of their captors.

“Char ek tremma mish!” cried the female.

“Haven’t you learned English yet?” said the other soldier. “Or can’t your little brains handle it?”

“I know English, you oversized bastard hole!” she shouted. “I just don’t waste it on Ascenti scum like you.”

Cal looked at the scene with alarm. This had gone way too far.

“OK, that’s enough!” shouted Cal. The two Ascenti looked up. “This is not dignified for anyone, especially not you. Put them down and wait outside.”


“This is not a discussion.”

The soldiers reluctantly placed the Xanthi prisoners on the ground and left the kitchen, taking up position just outside the doorway.

Cal looked down at the two fugitives. They were dressed in Earth clothes; children’s clothes, Cal guessed, based on the lurid pink of the female’s sweatshirt that clashed horribly with her deep purple colouration. The writing on the sweatshirt said ‘Smile’, but her eyes showed nothing but hatred.

Cal recognised her at once. He had encountered Major Beerta Kilkidas ten years ago at the Xanthi peace accords. Before the calamity, she was a celebrated military leader. To see her in such reduced circumstances made Cal sick to his stomach.

The male Xanthi crawled across the dirty kitchen floor and sat up against a cabinet, exhausted. The Major, meanwhile, stood up and addressed Cal.

“Dace has nothing to do with this,” she said. “It was all my idea. Let him go.”

“My orders are to bring you both in.”

“And those are HER orders, I suppose?” The ‘her’ was practically spat out. “Did she tell you to wave us around like two dead gelpas as well? You Ascenti make me sick.”

Cal considered correcting her assumption about him, but then thought better of it. He was lucky that she hadn’t recognised him yet, and he needed to keep it that way. He pulled a tablet out of his jacket and began reading.

“Major Beerta Kilkidas of the Fifth Sovereign Fleet of Xanth, and Dace Kilkidas…” Cal glanced down at the male who had shut his eyes and leant his head back against the cabinet door. “I am an agent representing the leadership of the London Off-World Community. You have been found guilty of leaving the safety of the Abbey and attempting to live outside of the protection of the Ascenti leadership; an act that threatens the security of our Community, and one which is explicitly forbidden by the rules you agreed to when you were brought here. The Ascenti leadership…”

“That place was a prison,” said the Major. “We were told staying at the Abbey would just be temporary. We were there for over four years!”

“The Ascenti leadership’s primary concern is the safety of all its…”

“Jakku das! We did not travel halfway across the galaxy to waste away in a cage. We had to get out of there.”

“I did my years at the Abbey just like everyone else,” said Cal, putting down the tablet on the kitchen worktop. “It’s not that bad.”

In fact, Cal had hated every minute of his time there. He had been desperate to leave and start his new life on Earth. But he couldn’t tell them that. Instead, he tried to appeal to reason.

“Listen, if the humans had found you, it would put us all at risk.”

“Of what? Someone finding out about your precious little community?” said the Major. “You’re worried that the locals might find out just how many of you are living among them without them realising? Well, maybe they should know. Maybe someone should tell them how you tall beige ones get to go wherever you want, while the off-worlders who are the wrong size, or the wrong colour, or have the wrong number of arms get hidden away.”

“I’m not saying it’s fair. But it’s their rules. The rules.”

“Well, the rules are stupid. What’s the actual difference between us? Tell me that. We’ve both lost our homes. We’re both here illegally. It’s just that you are the right shape to climb stairs without using your hands, whilst the rest of us get shipped off to the camps. I presume that’s where you’re sending us. It makes sense.”

At the Major’s words, Dace let out a long groan. It was a cry full of suffering and exhaustion that shook Cal to his core. It had been many years since he had encountered someone in so much obvious pain. The Major ran over to where her husband sat on the floor and began comforting him with quiet words Cal couldn’t hear.

“What’s wrong with him?” asked Cal.

“What do you think?” snapped the Major. A tremor of emotion entered her voice. “It’s killing him, all this. When we left Xanth, something… broke in him. He was getting better with us being out in the world, starting a new life. But you’ve destroyed all that. I hope you’re happy.”

“You’ll be able to get him some help,” said Cal. “At the camps. There will be people who can help him.”

“I doubt it,” laughed the Major, looking up to where Cal stood. “They can’t help anyone over there. You must have heard the stories. These days, that place is nothing more than a lawless jail run by Wernock gangs. That place is where we’ll go to die.”

Cal tried to let the words wash over him. He tried desperately not to care. But he couldn’t deny the truth of what she said. He had heard the alarming rumours about the state of the immigration camps years ago, back when he was approaching Earth.

He crouched down on the floor next to them. “I can’t promise anything,” he said. “But I’ll do what I can to make sure he gets some help.”

On hearing those words, Dace turned blankly towards Cal. Suddenly, his eyes were filled with a fierce conviction and he grabbed Cal’s arm with unexpected strength.

“I know you,” said Dace, shaking with the effort of speech. “I know your face.”

“I don’t think so,” said Cal, alarmed by his words.

“It’s no-one Dace,” said the Major, trying to keep Dace calm. “Just some Ascenti jakku.”

But Dace’s eyes remained fixed on Cal, and the muscles of his slight frame strained with the effort of recollection.

“Darmer Tarek…” said Dace.

“OK, time to go,” said Cal, trying desperately to pull away. “Get him up. Men!”

“Darmer Tarekki?” said Dace as two Ascenti soldiers entered the kitchen. “But what are you doing here? You should be helping with the evacuations.”

“Tarekki? It can’t be,” said the Major, examining Cal. “Is that a wig? It is a wig! And those eyebrows! Ha! I’m surprised I didn’t spot you sooner. A Celaphyne working for the Ascenti? Now I have seen everything.”

Cal wrenched himself free of Dace’s grip. He couldn’t do this now. He couldn’t deal with being recognised. His carefully constructed mental barriers were cracking, and the pressure of years of memories were straining and threatening to pour out. He couldn’t let that happen. He stood up and addressed his men.

“Take them to the van.”

An Ascenti soldier scooped up Dace’s tiny form and carried him out of the kitchen, but the Major proved more elusive. She dodged an Ascenti’s attempt to grab her and leapt onto a worktop.

“What happened to you, Tarekki?” she shouted, leaping from cabinet to cabinet. “One minute you are saving the galaxy, and the next you’re doing the Ascenti’s dirty work?” The soldier finally cornered the Major, but her tirade continued. “You’ve destroyed our – ugh!” She grunted as the soldier placed her over his shoulder. “You’ve destroyed our lives. I hope you realise that! Dace will never survive the camps.” She was struggling hard, but there was only so much you could do against someone three times your size.

Cal looked at the floor, trying not to meet her eye. He could have done something to help. He should have done something to make it better. But what choice did he have?

“You make me sick,” she shouted as they took her down the corridor. From outside, her cries still found their way back into the house.

“What have you become?”

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