The Western Harbour, orbiting Jovian
13th Day of the third season
Year, of the fourth age, two hundred and twenty five

"Ma'am, the reports that you asked for are here."

Max glanced up at the young man who had spoken to her. He wore the same style of uniform as she did, but his was... Not exactly neater, because it was a well known fact that Max kept her uniform in a better state than anyone else in the Western Harbour. But it was newer, and worn with an enthusiasm that could only be classed as 'newbie'. Max at least kept hers neat because she meant it.

"Anything interesting in them?" she asked as she accepted the dataslate off him and brought up the index.

"Um... I didn't look ma'am." He swallowed nervously.

"A little hint then; at your level in this organisation anything that you're not allowed to know will be encrypted before it reaches you. If something comes across your desk that needs urgent attention, then you need to flag it immediately. So, the next time you get a set of reports I'll be expecting you to be able to tell me about the interesting bits before handing them to me. Understood?"

"Uh, yes ma'am," he replied, nodding.

"Good. Now, I need to get these to my boss, who will also expect me to be able to tell him about the interesting bits. Carry on."

As the young man walked back to the station that he had been working at Max considered the operation that they were running here. Constant expansion, new faces... They were even starting to catch the first few retirements now.

It was her kind of life.

Steel Beam Productions


Worlds of Fire: Chu'dam

Max paused outside the door to her boss's office. The lights were on, but the neosteel door was shut with a "do not disturb" sign hanging on it that looked like it had been hijacked from one of the hotels down in the town.

Her hesitation lasted only a few seconds before there was a click from the lock and the door handle moved of its own accord, the door swinging open just enough for a voice to call from within. "Come on in Max..."

Trying not to appear to nervous, and knowing that it wouldn't make a damned bit of difference if she did, Max pushed the door open, stepping inside and closing it behind her.

The office beyond had a light and airy feel to it; the wall overlooking the main operations room was transparent from this side at the moment, whilst two of the three other walls were transparent constantly, giving an impressive elevated view of the main settlement and the outlying spinward villages. To the left, just in view if you stood in the right place, was the manufactory district with twelve designs of Industrial Constructor and over a hundred more normal kinds of factory and refinery.

Across the final wall of the office a row of desk-high cabinets had been installed, with most of the wall above them taken up by a screen. A main desk had been installed in roughly the centre of the room, though its occupant's changes in mood meant that occasionally it was shifted to various sides and at different angles. The number of chairs changed as well, though there was always at least one besides the one that was behind the desk.

Decoration was somewhat sparse; a few holographs and hand-drawn sketches, her boss's work, were up around the room. A potted plant of some kind, which Max always suspected of sentience, sat in one corner and swayed gently irrespective of how the air around it was moving. The most peculiar decoration of all was a painting, a real painting on canvas in a gilt frame, of someone with a large black beard and a military uniform in reds and blues with gold edging. It seemed out of place somehow.

As the door closed the office's owner spun his chair to face Max. "You might consider being a bit gentler with Harding in future," he admonished gently. "He came to us with the Once and Future Kings when they escaped."

"He's a foundling?" Max was surprised at the news; foundlings were common enough around the Western Harbour, the term meaning anyone who left their native universe, buying passage by their assistance to the teams sent to their world and the promise of further assistance. Most, no doubt to their disappointment, found themselves in the labour pool whilst they tried to take evening classes to get up to speed on what was happening beyond the small patch of reality that they called "everything".

Few indeed were the foundlings who made it very far; most didn't have much luck adapting to their new surroundings. Xenophobes, or those who had difficulty in getting the hang of other ways of living, tended to be so wrong-footed that they chose to return home rather than remain.

For one of them to have made it into the operations centre was impressive, especially since he'd done it before losing his newbie enthusiasm.

"Ex-military adjutant or something," Foreman replied. "I signed off for him to be here; I can't remember much more than that. Zoe handled the details for me." He gave a vague smile. "Anyway, these reports that you've read for me..."

"Yes sir," Max said, fighting down the slightly nervous feeling at the reminder that her employer was a powerful enough telepath to pick up on a conversation like that in the operations centre. "Mostly boring details; a couple of status updates, a possible sighting... Shey'why is hoping to talk to you about expanding some of the research facilities down in the ocean. Oh, and we had a possible world-jumping contact a few hours ago. It was faint, just an old echo, but it's practically next door to us. Miller was hoping to check it out."

"Miller needs to find a better hobby," Foreman commented holding out a hand for the dataslate. "He's still recovering at the moment; once he gets cleared for field work again..." He trailed off as he brought up one of the reports. "This world-jumper," he said slowly. "Are these details confirmed?"

"Hmm?" Max stepped closer and looked at the report. There wasn't anything that she hadn't seen when she'd read it before. "As far as I know sir. Why? Is there something wrong with it?"

"Not exactly... Just that this is familiar," Foreman's tone had become angry now, and Max considered whether leaving unobtrusively might be an idea. She had no idea what it would be like if Foreman was actually angry; in the ten years that she had been working for him she had never seen him angry before.

"You recognise this... Thing? Sir?" The report hadn't been very specific; a world-jumper, travelling between different universes, had apparently made a jump into one of the universes that was, to all intents and purposes, a neighbour of the one that they currently occupied. It had been over almost immediately, just a blip that they should never have picked up by rights. If anything it was nearly half a year old already.

"Yeah, I recognise it... Or at least I hope that I'm making a mistake about recognising it. If would make an unfortunate amount of sense though..." He glanced through the rest of the report and growled under his breath. "It is... Or if it isn't it's something that's just as much trouble."

"Sir? Am I allowed to know..?"

"One moment," he said, glancing at the ceiling. "Zoe!"

There was a shimmer in the air and the hologram of a good looking young woman appeared faintly transparent. "Dad?" That had caught Max off guard the first time she had heard it; it was only once she looked properly that she recognised the family resemblance between the father and daughter.

"This report," he said, waving the dataslate vaguely in her direction. "What are the chances of it being Chu'dam?"

There was a pause as a surprised look crossed Zoe's face, followed by a thoughtful one, and then one that suggested that she was thinking something that she didn't want to. "Going from your description and the traces we picked up from the last time you went up against him... I'd say high. Two or three nines at least."

Foreman swore colourfully in a language that Max didn't recognise and was glad that the Babel effect had neglected to translate for her. "It had to be, didn't it? Doesn't that thing know when to just roll over and die?"

"Demons rarely do die Dad," Zoe said, her tone sympathetic. "In most universes the worst that you can do is diminish them a lot. Chu'dam must have just... Got himself back together again."

"And then followed me. Again," Foreman said heavily. "Okay... This needs dealing with; his next port of call would be here, and we really can't afford that. So, options?"

"I've got some time bombs handy," Zoe commented.

"Let's keep that as plan... C," Foreman replied after some thought.

"Could I just ask," Max interrupted. "Are we talking about Chu'dam, the demon? I'm sure I read the report on that one."

"The same," Foreman replied. "He's a pain, and he's hooked onto my trail. He's stopping off for a while in a neighbouring universe, then he'll be coming here."

"Hmm... The Shakt are going to love that," Max commented. "Can we spare a team to handle it?"

"They're all busy on the front at the moment," Zoe informed her. "We don't have any regular forces to spare."

"And we don't really have the right to send in Alpha Company at the moment," Foreman commented. "At least yet..." He sat back, thinking hard. Max wracked her brains as well, trying to work out a way around this one. With both regular and irregular forces out of the question...

"We need some more help," Foreman announced. "I don't mean people involved in the war already," he added before either of the ladies could comment on that. "I mean people who can go into this situation without being stuck with the thought of what else they've got to deal with when it's over."

"People who haven't seen that there's a bigger picture to look at?" Zoe asked brightly.

"Exactly. We'll let them in on that part later."

"Is that wise sir?" Max asked. "We're talking about sending people with, potentially, no real experience up against a demon here."

"We're talking about people who travel between worlds; I'm not forgetting our normal recruitment procedure. Besides, Chu'dam isn't physically dangerous; that's what makes him so dangerous in the first place. Provided that they keep their wits about them, they'll be fine, and it'll be a good test to see whether they can handle the front line." He spread his hands and shrugged.

"So, we've just got to find some people now," Max pointed out. "How do we go about that? Do you want me to place an advert in a shop window?"

"I was going to go for something a bit more direct," Foreman declared decisively. "You lot!" he declared, spinning his chair and pointing dramatically at the painting. "You still think that you owe me?"

Max glanced at Zoe, wondering whether her boss had been overdoing things a bit lately. The hologram was merely looking interested though, as if her father talked to paintings every day.

Max glanced back at the painting... And then paused. Surely it hadn't been standing like that a moment ago...

The painting moved. Or the figure in the painting did. It didn't exactly move though; as she watched it faded from one pose to another, like a strange kind of stop-motion photography, with each image lasting up to half a second before it faded into the next one.

Then it... Well it didn't speak. But there was a sense that it had spoken. Max could remember the words being said, but not having actually heard them. Even by the standards that she was used to this was getting downright peculiar.


"Pity. Well, sort of a pity," Foreman corrected himself. "Anyway, here's your chance to pay it off. I need help. You know our policies: world-jumpers, reasonably experienced at least, some combat training wouldn't hurt. I need a list of names and some details, then I'll need you to deliver some invitations for me."


"You object to clearing that debt?"


"I could ask..." He paused. "I won't though. Get this done, I need some people. Fast."

The figure in the painting bowed and, to Max's surprise, walked out of the frame, thankfully vanishing rather than appearing on the wall.

"What was..."

"Some people that I helped once," Foreman replied. "They won't believe that they don't owe me. I'm kind of hoping that this will clear things because... Well, they really don't owe me at all, so it's a bit embarrassing having to live with them."

"So... Now we just wait?"

"And hope that whoever we find is up to the task," Foreman agreed.