His pregnancy convulsions dragged him out of unconsciousness. They were stronger and more urgent. Through his delirium he perceived a drip-drip-drip of blood from something which was not even a corpse any more in the impact harness above him. He held his right hand in front of his face, unsheathed and retracted his claws, and made himself count from one thumb across four fingers to the other thumb. The convulsions went away and he slumped back.

When he woke again his head felt clearer but he couldn’t detect anything except his head; he was eyes and ears and nose and mouth, deep in an impact harness, watching and hearing and smelling and tasting the wreckage of the lifeboat around him. Hours must have passed since the crash and still the crash had not finished. The forces, counterforces, creakings and reverberations of the impact were still going on as the hull settled.

His convulsions came again, and he used the pain to make himself rein-habit his body. Consciousness returned, warily, to his arms and chest and stomach and legs, and he probed for damage. There was a dull throbbing pain in his side, quite distinct from the sharper pain of the convulsions: in view of what he had to do, both the dull pain and the fact of his pregnancy could be hindrances. The thought that his death in the lifeboat would have been a bigger hindrance gave him some ironic amusement, but not for long. Not even the foetus inside him was as important as the need to get out of the wreckage and tell someone. Thinking this, he sank back and fell asleep.

When he woke it was midday. The hulk of the lifeboat still creaked and groaned, recounting the minutiae of its crash like an old person repeating the details of a surgical operation. He got up, stretched, and wasted valuable time on a task he could not leave without performing, though he knew its result. Not only were the others dead, all seven of the people he managed to get into the lifeboat before the ship was destroyed, but they were overdead. Between them, they had enough death for seventy.

He continued checking the hulk. There was no communications equipment functioning or repairable. He considered searching the wreckage for weapons, but decided that would be a waste of time; he knew about the desert predators on Bast 3 but he was, after all, a Sakhran and should need no weapons. A voice inside him, perhaps the foetus, said You’re a pregnant Sakhran, and you aren’t made for deserts. He ignored it. Time was beginning to worry him.

He didn’t have much of a plan, but then he wasn’t in much of a situation. The lifeboat had crashed in a desert which extended for at least ninety miles in each direction; he had limited food and water, and pregnancy would impair his hunting skills; and there were no Commonwealth settlements or bases in the desert.

He would simply walk.

If he kept in a straight line, avoided the rock outcrops and stayed in the open, he might be seen by one of the patrols overflying the desert. It wasn’t much of a plan, but to survive the crash and then not give himself any chance was unthinkable. He gouged a large arrow in the sand in his chosen direction, and did a final check for supplies. Then he moved off. A few minutes later, four shadows detached themselves from the darkness of some neighbouring rocks to follow.

After he left the wreck, the sand underneath it started teeming. As in most ecologies on most planets, nothing on Bast 3 would be left to waste.

His name was Sarabt. He was a Sakhran, lately a resident of Hrissihr in the Irsirrha Hills of Sakhra, and more recently (until a few hours ago) Weapons Officer on the Pallas, a Class 091 cruiser and the guardship of Bast System. He was one of only two Sakhrans who had attained officer status on Commonwealth ships, the other being Thahl, also of Hrissihr although Sarabt only knew him slightly.

Bast was the seventh Commonwealth solar system to receive a visit from the unidentified ship which some Sakhrans called Faith. More significantly, though, it was the first of the four previously Sakhran solar systems which the Commonwealth had absorbed; the others were Horus (the system with Sakhra), Anubis and Isis. Horus was the Commonwealth’s richest and biggest solar system. It was heavily guarded already, but rumours were rife—they had even reached Bast—about steps being taken to defend it if Faith went there. It was said that an Outsider Class cruiser, the Commonwealth’s ultimate warship, was already on its way to Blentport on Sakhra.

There were nine Outsiders. One of them was the Charles Manson, commanded by Aaron Foord, with Thahl as First Officer.

Sarabt looked back. He had covered a good distance, and the wrecked lifeboat was already being heavily scavenged. The arrow he had drawn on the ground was gone, obscured by the shifting of the sand and the movement of what lived in it. Soon nothing would be visible from the air, even if a patrol did fly overhead. He had to stay in the open, but that meant he would be visible not only to patrols but predators. He had been briefed about the predators of Bast 3. Normally they would not have concerned him.

Bast was by far the smallest and poorest of the ex-Sakhran systems. The planet Bast 3 was almost uninhabited, except for a few flyblown Commonwealth military bases and some almost unviable mineral extraction plants. Bast 4 was a larger and more temperate planet, and contained most of the system’s population, but the Bast system as a whole would hardly be ranked as a major asset. The Pallas was the only warship of any size stationed in system. Everybody assumed that Faith would go first to Horus, or maybe one of the other two. Instead it had been Bast, and the Pallas didn’t have a chance.

The engagement was very short. He had heard someone in the lifeboat say that most orgasms were longer, though their outcomes were less certain. They had only got one brief sighting of the unidentified ship, but for Sarabt that was enough.

Three hundred years ago the same unidentified ship had visited Sakhra, and left it devastated. One Sakhran recognised what the ship was, and wrote the Book of Srahr, and when they read it they turned away from each other. The Sakhran Empire went into a slow but irreversible decline, and was later absorbed by the Commonwealth. Sakhrans were mostly agnostic, and they called the ship Faith out of self-mockery. Faith was something they didn’t understand and didn’t want; it had come to them suddenly and without invitation; it would not be denied; and when it left them, which it did as suddenly as it came, they were ruined. They would never recover.

On balance, Faith seemed a good name.

The Commonwealth first used the term Unidentified Ship; it now used Faith as well, but for quite different reasons. The ship was often shrouded, but when it became visible, those who survived said there was something about its appearance to which recordings didn’t do justice. Only a female name seemed right, with its accompanying female derivatives. So the terms Unidentified Ship and It became Faith, and She, and Her.

Sakhrans knew what She was; the Commonwealth didn’t. The Commonwealth knew She visited civilisations and left them ruined and declining, but not why; and Why was the product of what She was. Sarabt knew this even better than most Sakhrans, for two reasons: he had read the Book himself, and now he had actually seen Her. He needed to survive, to help stop Her doing to the Commonwealth what She did to Sakhra three hundred years ago.

It was a limited ambition. He didn’t expect he alone could stop Her or save the Commonwealth. He didn’t even (he told himself) have any particular feelings for the Commonwealth. It had features he didn’t like, but it wasn’t a ravening Evil Empire; it worked tolerably well, gave him a good career, and only occasionally showed him unpleasantness or bigotry. So we should stop Her this time, he thought; stop Her doing to the Commonwealth what She did to us. It was an unusual thought for a Sakhran, at least for one born after Srahr. There was no telling where it might lead.

And that gave him another reason to survive. He wanted to contact Thahl. He wanted to know if Thahl had ever had thoughts like this.

There were four of them, each one about his own size and weight. They were reptilian: low-slung, six-legged and very muscular. Their mottled skin, like the desert, was the colour of unwashed underwear. They trotted alongside him desultorily. Their faces were expressionless. So was his.

Every time he felt a pregnancy convulsion, and they were now coming more frequently, he masked it with a sudden unsheathing of his claws which caused the four predators to break formation, but every time he did this they took fractions of a second longer to break and regrouped fractions of an inch closer. As the sun rose higher in the pewter sky, and the day grew as hot as the night had been cold, he became more and more conscious that they belonged in this place, and were adapted to it; and that he didn’t, and wasn’t.

He had been travelling for part of yesterday, all of last night, and part of today. The pain in his left side, the dull pain which was quite separate from the convulsions, would not go away; it dogged him like the predators. He diagnosed it, as far as diagnosis was possible while half-running and half-walking, as a puncture in his minor heart. That meant that without surgery he would be dead in another twenty-four hours, but he was able to assign it a lower priority because he knew he would die of premature childbirth within twelve, or perhaps be killed by the predators within six. If he hadn’t been pregnant he could probably have outrun them, but if he hadn’t been pregnant he would not have needed to.

He might not even have been here: in accordance with regulations, he had reported his pregnancy to Captain Matoub of the Pallas. Matoub should have required him to stand down, but, aware of his abilities, had asked him to embark on what became the ship’s last journey.

He shrugged. Sakhrans did not waste time wishing for the non-existence of facts. Actually, as he continued with the predators loping alongside him, he became aware of one fact which might operate in his favour. Back on Sakhra he had always lived in the Irsirrha Hills; he had never lived in Blentport or any of the other Commonwealth lowland cities, so the poison glands in his hands and feet had not been removed. This would be significant. The ability to augment his claws with poison might give him another full hour.

His claws. Again he unsheathed them, and again the predators hissed and moved away. He hissed back. The inside of their mouths was bright pink; the inside of his was dark red. They returned to their normal formation, alongside him. They seemed to have less trouble in keeping the pace than he did in setting it. Two hours passed.

The sun rose higher, sweating reflections out of quartz veins in the boulders and rock outcrops which were occurring more frequently, and still they stayed loping unhurriedly alongside him. In this fashion another two hours passed. The scene was totally devoid of any element of drama, and it was this, rather than his own deteriorating condition, which made him sense that his calculations were slightly off and their attack was imminent.

He slowed down, sauntered carefully over to the largest boulder within reach, turned with his back against it and waited for them. Amazingly they squatted before him in a semicircle, watching him earnestly. For at least half a minute the tableau remained stable, and he found himself fighting an impulse to start addressing them as though they were a gathering; then the one on his left attacked. He almost felt sympathy for it as his foot whipped out and raked parallel poison trails across its muzzle, for he realised as he watched it shrink back vomiting that these predators had the same inner contradiction as Sakhrans: their social organisation was weak. There wasn’t enough keeping them together.

Just like us, he thought idly, as he jabbed a hand into the eyes of the one which he’d pretended not to notice climbing the boulder behind him and crouching to spring, when they come together they’re always less than the sum total of the individual parts. He reached back, grabbed the poisoned and blinded predator, and tossed it screaming on top of what was now the corpse of the first. It was a foolish act, a gesture which took no account of his physical condition, and it brought on a new and deeper series of pregnancy convulsions which bent him almost double. The two remaining predators, who had started to back away, now looked at him with renewed interest as he staggered and fell forward on his knees, hands clutching his abdomen; and now, of all times, he started to feel the first mixed sense of wonder and outrage at something separate from himself causing movement inside his own body.

All his calculations were wrong, he thought irritably, all of them; the attack was earlier than he expected and the advanced convulsions were worse than he had imagined and if you don’t get up and get back to the boulder and find time to rest you’ll lose this child, it’ll die, you’ll carry a dead thing in your belly.

His vision blurred, but he saw the remaining two moving towards him. Their mouths were very pink, opening and closing in unison: absolutely perfect unison. He shook his head and the double vision cleared, leaving one in front and one, he realised just before he felt the first tearing and clawing at his back, behind. He fell face down, almost welcoming the shift in the focus of pain away from his abdomen. The second one joined the first. His face was pressed into the dust with their weight and he felt their tearing at him shift, subtly, from random to rhythmic; he was no longer being attacked but being eaten.

He had often watched something similar, back on Sakhra: one of the huge herbivores, run to exhaustion by a hunting party, giving up and allowing itself to be eaten, still standing. He made a decision. There were two alternatives, both involving his death, but only one involving his death now. He would not die in that way; it was obscene.

He bunched his arms and legs underneath him, then screamed and rolled onto his back. The two predators either jumped away from him or were sent flying, he was not sure which. He stood up, feeling dust and gravel where he bled, and with his forearms covered in vomit which he knew somehow was his own; its colour was like the dust, and as he spread his clawed fingers it formed a shaking web between them. When had he vomited? How did he recognise it as his? He put the questions aside for now, though the second one particularly interested him.

The two predators crouched where they landed, staring up at him wide-eyed. He sheathed and unsheathed his claws. His tongue licked across his teeth. He shut down the poison glands in his hands and feet. He would not need them now.

Only when he finished did he stop to analyse his motives. It was not that without poison the act of killing them was slower, or more vengeful; it was simply fitting, because it introduced a proper element of balance. Without poison it was more risky for him, though only marginally so. But anything less would have been a discourtesy to the child he had let die inside him.

He lay down on his back, spread his legs, looked up at the pewter sky and pushed. It was not an act of birth but an act of defecation. He buried it in a shallow grave and turned quickly away before the soil started crawling.

Ten hours later he stood unsteadily on a low ridge overlooking a shallow dust bowl—stood, because he could walk no further, but knew that if he were to lay down, or fall down, he would never get up again—and considered what he saw with a mixture of astonishment and amusement.

He had been taught that life, while it happened, had no real meaning. Meaning could be assigned later by others, but life, while it happened, was only the total of a series of random accidents, each one operating on-off like a binary gateway, either this or that, to give it its particular direction; but not its meaning. And now this.

He revised his ambitions. They were limited already, and he made them more so. Never mind living long enough to see Her again and help others stop Her. He wanted only to know if Thahl had similar ambitions. If he could live long enough to get spotted by an aerial patrol drone, perhaps he’d have time to communicate with Thahl.

The wounds on his back and the septic trickle from the birth rupture in his lower abdomen attracted clouds of flies which he was no longer strong enough to keep brushing away; he endured them with a herbivore’s patience, his secondary eyelids flicking horizontally every now and then. Something small and multi-legged erupted from underneath a rock by his feet and made for the cover of another rock, froze as his claws whipped out in reflex, and sank into the sand like a brick into mud. The rocks around him seemed to sing with the refraction of sunlight. The air quivered. A few minutes passed. He counted them, and with them the ironies of pure, binary accident which were the only life-shaping force he understood or recognised. Sakhrans called them Binary Gates, and liked reciting them. It appealed to their sense of irony.

One, that She had moved on Bast rather than Horus or the other former Sakhran systems. Two, that the only ship in Bast able to engage Her was the Pallas, on which he was an officer—one of only two Sakhran officers in the Commonwealth. Three, that when his ship died around him—that was not an accident, but a certainty—his particular abilities meant he was the only one among several qualified pilots to get a lifeboat away with some survivors. Four, that the lifeboat crashlanded and the others aboard all died. But five, that it landed and he survived. Yet, six, that he had no communications equipment and could only try to walk out of the desert and find a command post or be spotted by a patrol before the predators, premature childbirth, or a ruptured minor heart killed him. But, seven, he had lived through the first two of those. But, eight, the third one—his heart—was still counting away, unevenly but inexorably, the time he had left.

He lost count. No, he concluded, there could be no overall meaning. There usually wasn’t, when you reduced events to their building-blocks. Accidents occurred, chances fell; gates opened here and closed there; but there was no hidden force insisting on an overall direction. Nothing made him survive the crashlanding or predators. No sinuous enigmatic force had willed it, any more than if he dropped dead now it would have been willed. If he dropped dead now, it would mean only that his abilities weren’t enough.

And yet, he stood swaying on the ridge, a slight dark figure, and wondered if all his teaching was wrong. For below him in the dust bowl lay the ninth and final irony. He had no idea it would be there when he laboured up the shallow incline; he had thought to skirt the slope but his innate tidy-mindedness, or maybe it was obsessiveness, made him keep to his straight path, even if straight meant up.

And now, below him in the shallow dust bowl and almost but not quite within hailing distance, sat a small Commonwealth command post. He continued to stand on the ridge, unable to walk forwards. A few more minutes passed.

“Fucker,” said Sergeant Madsen, mechanically and without malice. The way he said it, without emphasis on either syllable, gave it an everyday cadence. If he had spoken it as part of a longer sentence, it would have been hidden in the other words.

He was talking to a dismantled drone lying on the bench in front of him. He’d been working on it for four hours, and couldn’t get its optical circuits to function. Unknown to Sarabt, this was the tenth and possibly final irony. If it had been working properly four hours ago, it would have been quartering the area of desert where the lifeboat crashlanded, and would almost certainly have seen him.

Madsen was just about to give up on it. The optical circuitry wasn’t responding to any of his efforts. He leaned back and listened to the door of one of the outbuildings banging in the wind.

Only a Sakhran would be polite enough to describe it as a Command Post. It was a collection of three sheds (two plus an outside toilet) to which Madsen and two others had travelled by tracked groundcar. It was the only collection of buildings anywhere near the area where they had calculated, from the lifeboat’s last known trajectory, that the crashlanding might have occurred. Their orders were to set up at the command post and quarter the desert with the remotely-piloted drone to spot any survivors. It hadn’t worked. The drone was a low-budget, short-range model, and its optical circuits were trashed. Ironically (would Sarabt have seen this as the eleventh irony?) it had been assembled by Sakhrans, as part of a failing Commonwealth re-employment project.

In fact, the whole thing was rather half-assed. Yes, they’d told him, it would be easier just to quarter the desert with a flier, but all piloted fliers (Bast 3 didn’t have that many) were commandeered. In case, they told him, She came back.

Hynd looked round the door.

“Luck, Sergeant?”

Madsen shook his head. “S’not gonna work. Give up, is best. Where’s Stockton?”

“Toilet,” Hynd said, and added, “Wanking himself silly.”

Madsen snorted, not in disgust but because he always snorted rather than blow his nose, and returned to the drone. It was spread out on the workbench like a dissected bat. He folded up the pinions and fabric of its wings, folded back its jointed body, went to return it to its carrycase, and found it wouldn’t fit.

“Get him to come fit this back in its box. We’ll have to go back for another one.”

“Should’ve brought two,” Hynd muttered as the door closed behind him, but Madsen heard.

“Three,” he shouted at the door. “’Member who made them.”

He snorted again, for the same reason as before. His personal hygiene was not of the first quality. While he waited for Stockton, Madsen remembered that his scalp itched. He scratched it—an event he had been saving, as a treat, for just such a moment. White flakes flew around his head and settled on the workbench, where they were camouflaged by dust.

Stockton came in, still buttoning his fly, and, at a nod from Madsen in the direction of the workbench, commenced unpacking and re-packing the drone. Like Hynd, he was of average build with regular and not unpleasant features, but there was something not right about him. He had tastes he couldn’t share with real people, so he kept them to himself; and made frequent visits to the toilet. His colleagues often said he might have been Outsider material. He had all the required deviances and loner tendencies, and lacked only the talent.

Second time round, the drone still didn’t fit. Part of its nose with the malfunctioning optic—if it had really been a bat, it would be part of its head with the left eye hanging out—refused to go in the carrycase. Stockton was about to start again, but Madsen couldn’t face the tedium.

“Oh, leave it. Tell Hynd, take the groundcar and bring another one…No, tell him bring another three.”

“Another three, Sergeant?”

“He’ll understand.”

Stockton went out. A moment later he was back.

“Sergeant, you’d better come and see this.”

He got up, at first wearily; then, seeing Stockton’s face, he straightened, hurried to the open doorway, and stood, with Hynd and Stockton, gaping at the figure which stumbled down the incline towards them. A slight, dark figure.

“He needs help,” Stockton pronounced.

“Oh, you think?” Madsen roared, and ran towards the figure, the others following. The figure bumped into the groundcar which stood directly in its way—still trying to keep a straight line—and continued, and when they reached it, it did not fall into their arms, or fall down, but stood before them swaying.

Sarabt was still wearing his Commonwealth officer’s uniform, but only the top half. Below his waist he was naked. Madsen smelt, then saw, the bloody ruins hanging from his lower abdomen and between his legs.

“Oh, you poor bastard,” he said, “you were pregnant, weren’t you?” He took Sarabt by the shoulders and gently lowered him to the ground. The secondary eyelids were flicking horizontally, and the mouth worked soundlessly, but his thin face held no expression.

“Mmmmmmmmm,” Sarabt said, and “Ssssssssssssss.”

“Later,” Madsen said. “Rest. Rest is best.” He turned to Stockton, who was already rushing back to the shed, and shouted “Tell Command to get a medical team here, now! Sakhran survivor of Pallas, premature childbirth, can’t be moved.”

The smell from between Sarabt’s legs was shocking, even to Madsen, but Madsen stayed with him. He lost it, he said to himself, it died. Probably buried it out there, they do when they lose them, they bury them immediately. Along with their name and their past and their future.

Now that Sarabt had stopped moving, flies were circling thickly around the area between his legs. Madsen went to cover him with his jacket, then thought better of it; better not touch or cover any injuries before help arrived. Instead he began waving his hands a few inches above the injured area, just to disperse the flies. He thought how strange it would look to Stockton if he returned; to Stockton, of all people.

Stockton returned just then, but was too preoccupied to notice.

“Mmmmmmmmmm,” Sarabt said again, and “Ssssssssssss.” It was no use. The words stayed inside him. His lips wouldn’t shape them.

“They’re on the way,” Stockton said. Madsen nodded.

Stockton brought a cup of water. Madsen propped Sarabt in his arms so he could take it. He accepted it gratefully, though he spilt most of it; the cup was too big for his narrow carnivore’s mouth.

He seemed to be more comfortable propped up in Madsen’s arms, so Madsen stayed holding him, with the other two sitting close by in the dust. Arranged thus, they waited for help to arrive. His smell had got worse—Sakhran blood had a smell which humans found unendurable—but they stayed with him.

The medical team arrived in two fliers which landed vertically nearby, but there were also at least eight others which continued overhead and into the desert, in the direction from which Sarabt came. Madsen remembered the drone and exchanged a weary glance with Hynd.

An hour later he started talking, though he was incomprehensible to any but the Sakhran doctors with the medical team. One of them turned to Madsen.

“Sergeant, he keeps saying he wants you to put in a call to Thahl.”

“Get the location. Stockton’ll do it, won’t you?”

“He means,” the Sakhran said, “the First Officer on the Charles Manson.

“Oh, shit.”

Not even ordinary warships would take non-military calls when they were on a mission: custom, as well as regulations, forbade it absolutely. Outsider Class ships, like the Charles Manson, were the most unreachable of all. Officially, they were almost nonexistent.

“I’ll fix it, Sergeant” Stockton said quietly. “I’ll get the Charles Manson for him.”

And somehow he did.

“Commander,” Thahl said, “I’ve been told I have an urgent personal call. May I take it?”

Foord raised an eyebrow—a gesture missed by most of those on the Bridge because of the soft lighting, though Thahl noted it—and said “Yes, of course. Do you wish to take it privately?”

“No thank you, Commander, I’ll take it here.”

He spoke softly into his comm, nodded, and waited. No call came through. A couple of minutes passed. The soft lighting seemed to darken, as if the Bridge had its own artificial summer evening. It turned almost to twilight. Movements flickered discreetly round its edges, and low nuanced voices murmured.

No call came. Sarabt had died before they could connect him.