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Zombie Attack on the Planet of the Scorpion People

Commander Hardman placed the pen in a hermetically sealed sleek black box and handed it to White. The box was decorated with the official FoSP gold seal from the Federation of Sapient Planets.

"Commander?" White was confused. "What's this for?"

Hardman waved him silent and used his mobile phone to take a picture of White holding the boxed pen. The commander seemed inordinately fond of photographs. The walls of his office were decorated with a series of his collected images that each showed Hardman's association with fame and power. On the wall behind his desk there was a framed picture of Hardman shaking hands with the Pope. Beside that was a picture of Hardman embracing the King of Procyon. Both images were dwarfed in size by a larger picture of Hardman shaking hands with a captain that White didn't recognise. Given the fact that Hardman and the anonymous captain shared the same broad-chested build and identical lantern-jaws, it seemed safe to guess that this was Hardman and a favoured son.

"Take the pen with you," Hardman said. "Give it to Freya Tyr. It's our official gift to the scorpion people."

Scorpion people.

White winced at Hardman's lack of cultural sensitivity.

Gliese 667 Cc was a colonised mesoplanet in the triple star system of the Scorpius constellation. Two centuries earlier, whilst protesting against exploitative mining practices sanctioned by Earth's government, the Gliese 667 colonists had declared independence.

They claimed they had been exploited for long enough.

They withdrew from the Federation of Sapient Planets and renamed their planet Asgard. Major continents and countries were renamed to honour various aspects of Norse mythology. White was familiar with a city named Valhalla, a transportation hub named Jotunheim and a mining community in Hliðskjálf.

And yet, for all the seriousness of the situation in the eyes of the colonists, the name change was treated as a joke on Earth. Astronomers and cartographers refused to call the planet Asgard. The more vocal said that Gliese 667 was in the Scorpius constellation and the crueller commentators began to refer to the colonists as 'scorpion people'.

The name became a common insult. More people on Earth knew the Gliese 667 colonists as 'scorpion people' rather than Asgardians. And it seemed, each time the colonists encountered that particular pejorative, the entire planet of Gliese 667 celebrated their rejection of FoSP and renewed their resolve to remain independent.

 White checked the inscription on the pen to assure himself that the words 'scorpion people' weren't tactlessly engraved on the casing. His mission wasn't particularly sensitive but he didn't want to run the risk of instigating a diplomatic event. Not whilst he was stuck on the planet.

He fixed Hardman with a stiff glare. "Please don't use the phrase 'scorpion people' on any unsecured communication."

Commander Hardman's eyes sparkled with ill-natured mirth. "Don't tell me you're a scorpion-lover."

White stiffened.

He rubbed at the tension headache throbbing at the nape of his neck.

"I'm leading my team to a planet that seceded from the Federation of Sapient Planets two generations ago," he said tiredly. "The remnants of the Asgardian government are working with us. It's hoped we can share some of our developments in medical technologies in exchange for some of the diamonds that have always made their planet so exploitable."

The humour disappeared from Hardman's eyes. His nostrils curled with the familiar sneer of disgust that White had seen on the face of every military commander who'd ever called him a scorpion-loving liberal.

Hardman opened his mouth but White didn't allow him to interrupt.

"According to our biologists," White went on, "the plague that's forced Gliese 667 to open up negotiations could be a Z-class microbe."

"Those rumours about a Z-class microbe are unconfirmed."

White shrugged. "When you factor in the detail that the planet is nearly twenty-four light years away from here, which means I've got a full day's worth of traveling ahead of me, I'm sure you can understand why I might appear a little fractious."

If Commander Hardman felt any sympathy it didn't appear on his features.

"Are your team ready?"

"There are nine of us. I've got two field biologists, two engineers, two ex-military medics and a pair of security officers. We start our way through the first leg of the transportation arches this afternoon."

Hardman extended a hand.

"Travel safely," he said. "See if you can save the Scor—" He stopped himself mid-word and flashed an apologetic grin at White's surfacing scowl. "See if you can save the colonists," he amended. "And don't forget to bring back lots and lots of diamonds."

White shook the man's hand and then departed. He left the office quickly because he knew, if he stayed too long in Hardman's company, the urge to punch the commander would prove irresistible.

They were using military transportation protocols which allowed them to make the journey in the timeliest fashion. White had the shotgun seat of their FoSP issue Volkswagen Camper, whilst Senior Engineer Sharpe sat behind the wheel. In the rear of the antiquated van sat the rest of the team, grumbling quietly to themselves as they speculated on what they would find at their destination.

"Why the hell do we have to use these dilapidated old buckets of rust?" The question was called from Junior Medical Officer Turner. He was an ex-marine and his broad bulk filled the chair immediately behind White. His eyes were beer-bong bloodshot and he slammed one large, meaty fist against the metal panel by his side.

White flinched as the vehicle shook from the blow.

"Volkswagen Campers are a surprisingly reliable vehicle," Sharpe explained brightly. "This one is large enough to carry all nine of us. Since we're using the roof rack it also conveys all of our kit. Not only is it capable and accommodating, not only do the rubber tyres keep us insulated from the electromagnetic rays on the transportation highway, but the camper's incredibly reliable. In the whole history of using transportation archways we've never had a single Volkswagen Camper break down whilst going through the transportation arches."

White braced himself as they approached the first transportation archway. He stared through the windscreen at the large metal frame that stood gold and silver against the Earth's summer sky. His gaze fell on the haze of the road where it melted in the centre of the arch. The world beyond that haze was only a blur, like an out-of-focus picture that remained indistinct no matter how hard he squinted.

"I don't trust these damned things," Turner murmured. "You hear horror stories."

Clenching his teeth and glaring at the arch, White said nothing. He could feel the rapid quickening of his heartbeat. When they passed under the shadow of the arch their universe turned grey.

"My department is working on long range versions of these transporters," Sharpe explained as they drove them through the archway.

The transportation transition was smooth and unremarkable. It wasn't so much a change of road as a change of scenery. They had gone from a sunny summer's afternoon in Colchester to a scene of awful interstellar beauty.

"The archways we'll be working on will be larger," Sharpe went on. "They'll be more reliable and able to operate over greater distances."

White ignored the disquiet of nausea sitting at the back of his throat. It would take a couple of queasy minutes for Sharpe to navigate the artificial road that led from Earth's archway through to the other side of the archway at a waystation on Alpha Centauri.

The universe around them broiled and shifted.

Vision outside the vehicle was almost obscured by the arc of a dangerously close moon. Through the side windows he could see distant galaxies sitting as an innocuous background to their journey. White hid his unease behind a show of interest in Sharpe's comment.

"Long-range arches? This first one takes us across more than four and a half light years. How much further could we manage with long-range transporter arches?"

Sharpe laughed. "There's scope to travel anywhere in the conquered universes with the new range of arches. I have a colleague that's trying to do something with the communication relays on the existing transportation archways. At the moment communication technology is so fast it's almost instantaneous. With the existing systems we can hold a conversation between Cassiopeia and Ophiuchi 70 in real-time. But that's only audio and visual communication. As soon as the terabytes per second of the bandwith can be modified to cope with-"

Turner yawned.

It was a sound that was meant to be offensive. When Sharpe fell silent, and concentrated on driving the camper toward the glowing green archway lights at the Alpha Centauri end of the transportation highway, Turner smiled as though he was pleased with himself.

"Are you tired?" White asked.

"I'm bored." Turner spoke the words as though they were a challenge. One of the female engineers at the rear of the van snickered at his boldness. "If I've got to endure a full day of this sort of conversation," Turner went on, "it will be a relief to contract the zombie virus on the planet of the scorpion people."

White nodded. All of the camper's passengers were watching the exchange and he was pleased that he had everyone's attention.

He smashed a fist into Turner's jaw.

There wasn't sufficient room for White to deliver maximum force to the blow but he figured he was holding back enough nervous tension to make the punch count.

The impact was hard enough to make a cracking sound. A look of surprise flashed across Turner's face. And then his eyes rolled to stare upwards and he slumped unconscious into his seat.

"Jesus," whispered one of the engineers.

Calmly, White asked, "Did everyone receive my email explaining vocabulary guidelines for this assignment?"

There was a hasty murmur of assent.

"Just to be sure that those rules can't be misinterpreted," White told the team, "The phrase 'scorpion people' is not to be used by any member of this expedition."

McCance, the team's senior medic, slipped into the seat beside Turner and gave his unconscious colleague a cursory examination. "He's out cold."

White shrugged and waved the matter aside. Speaking to the rest of the crew he said, "We're being invited to a planet that's had a turbulent relationship with Earth and the Federation of Sapient Planets. I don't care about anyone's personal politics. I don't care about anyone's stupid prejudices. But I will not let this mission be jeopardised by the stupidity of a playground insult that doesn't need to be used. Is that understood?"

McCance regarded him doubtfully.

Sharpe and the rest of the team grumbled their agreement.

Checking his watch, White realised they had another twenty-three hours to endure as they took the Volkswagen camper through another two dozen archways. He winced inwardly as he realised the number of light years they were traversing didn't satisfactorily convey how long the journey would now feel. He didn't doubt that each and every one of his subordinates would now be labelling him as the worst sort of scorpion-lover.

McCance drove the second leg of the journey. Aside from being an ex-military medic he also had an MA in Astronavigation and kept a steady hand behind the wheel.

White took the third leg of the journey.

Sharpe got back behind the wheel for the final stretch.

They stopped at various planetary outposts to change driving positions and grab short bathroom breaks. White had heard good things about the cuisine at the Procyon military archway and he insisted they stopped there for lunch.

When Turner regained consciousness White waited for the next respite stop and stepped outside the camper van with the junior medic. He apologised for punching him and offered his hand.

Grudgingly, Turner accepted the apology. White thought he could see flint in the man's eye. It was an expression that said Turner would be watching for a chance to get even and White accepted he would need to be vigilant whilst in the company of the junior medic.

As if the mission wasn't already filled with potential dangers.

Aside from occasional comfort breaks, the journey was uneventful. If he'd been asked to describe his day, travelling twenty-four light years in twenty-four consecutive hours, White would have said it was interminably long and wholly draining.

He was yawning by the time they passed through the green glow of the final gateway. After so much time in the van he was anxious to escape from the stale air of the vehicle and the simmering hostility of his team. He desperately wanted to bed down for the night and, hopefully, awake refreshed in a dozen or so hours.

His gut told him that wasn't likely to happen.

It was night on Gliese 667.

The Volkswagen's high beams cut brightly through the darkness. A crowd of glaring faces were illuminated on the road ahead of them. Seemingly angered by the light, they turned away and moved to the paved edges of the road. They became rippling shadows that shifted at the edges of the dark being cut by the headlights.

"Captain," Sharpe muttered. "I think we have a situation."

White blinked the sleep from his eyes and tried to make sense of what he was seeing. There was a sea of shifting shadows beyond the headlight beams. He could hear a growl of subhuman voices murmuring as the Volkswagen Camper drove along the road.

"What the hell is this, Sharpe?"

"I was hoping you could tell me." Sharpe stiffened in his seat and White could see he was going to slam his foot on the brakes.

"Keep driving," White insisted.

"But-"

"Keep driving." White said the words with more volume and conviction this time. "That's an order, Officer Sharpe. I don't think it would be advisable to stop in these conditions."

He punched the communications panel on the Volkswagen's dashboard and waited until a telephonist asked if she could help with his enquiry.

"This is Captain White from Earth on behalf of FoSP," he barked. "The mission team have arrived on Gliese 667. I need to speak with Freya Tyr."

Outside the Volkswagen the headlamps picked up the shadows of more shuffling figures scrambling slowly to the sanctuary of their darkness. When the beams fell on individuals they lit a chilling spectre of broken humanity. The features were invariably gaunt and expressionless. Each figure moved with an artless gait that looked painful, awkward and unnatural. White stared into the impossibly dark stretches of night that lay beyond the headlamps.

He wondered how many plague victims he was seeing.

He wondered how many victims he wasn't seeing.

"What the hell is this?" murmured one of the engineers.

White ignored her. "Keep driving, Officer Sharpe. Keep driving."

The purr of the engine was a constant growl. They moved slowly through the night with the vast crowds seeming desperate to avoid the touch of the high beams. Outside the vehicle, above the purr of the engine, they could hear a dull choir of groans and moans.

"Captain White?" A woman's voice came through the van's intercom. "This is Freya Tyr. Where are you?"

White glanced at Sharpe.

Sharpe looked down to the dashboard console

"We've just arrived on Gliese 667," he explained. He glanced again at the navigator console and added, "We entered through the Jotnar archway."

"My apologies," Freya Tyr said. "The security of the Jotnar military base was compromised this afternoon. I should have contacted you to explain the situation but there have been so many other-"

"You've got compromised security on a military base?" White could hear his tone was a mixture of incredulity and accusation. "What sort of civil unrest have you got here, Freya Tyr?" He stopped himself from shouting, "And why the hell weren't we warned about this before we arrived?"

There was a moment's silence from Freya Tyr's end of the conversation.

"Didn't Commander Hardman tell you?" she asked eventually. She released a short, sharp bark of laughter. To White it sounded like the cry of a woman on the verge of a hysterical breakdown. "This isn't civil unrest," Freya Tyr explained. "This is our plague. Asgard is infected with a Z-class microbe. Contamination is pandemic."

White handed over the conversation to Sharpe as Freya Tyr gave directions that would take the camper van from Jotnar to Aesir. Glancing warily outside the window White saw that they were driving past hundreds of individuals, each one shambling aimlessly through the night. The scene was enough to make goosebumps prickle on his forearms. He glanced into the rear of the van and asked McCance, "What do you know about Z-class microbes?"

"They're nasty damned things, Sir," McCance admitted. "They were identified in the latter part of the twenty-first century and called Z-class because the symptoms were reminiscent of those found in zombie films."

"Seriously?"

White flicked his gaze to the camper van's windows. A hand slapped against the side of the vehicle making them all jump. He had been about to make a remark dismissing the childishness of discussing zombie movies. When a deathly pale face loomed against the vehicle's window he didn't feel sufficiently bold to discount the concept. The figure pounding on the side of the vehicle could only have been described as a zombie. White recoiled from the stare of the creature's viciously stupid expression.

"Affirmative," McCance said. "There are similarities between the plague victims and zombies. But the word 'zombie' isn't technically accurate. They're not really the living dead."

White wouldn't allow himself to sigh with relief. He didn't want the rest of the crew to hear any symptoms of his nervousness. He realised his heartbeat was accelerated. His mouth was dry and it suddenly felt chilly inside the van.

"The microbe doesn't actually reanimate corpses," McCance explained. "The microbe attacks the living and shuts down part of the brain functions. The infected, unless isolated, hospitalised and treated, are usually found shambling together in hoards. It's a health issue because they're a contagion risk. They also present an immediate physical danger to those they encounter because they've been known to physically assault the uninfected."

Outside a man with a blank staring gaze snatched at their passing vehicle.

"They do look like zombies from horror movies," White marvelled.

McCance shrugged. "They're not the walking dead. But they might as well be." He nodded toward Turner and said, "Jim studied Z-class mutations when he was earning his medical stripes, Sir. He can tell you more about them."

Turner regarded White with a blank expression. He was still sitting in the same seat where he'd been positioned when White punched him unconscious.

White tried to remember why it had seemed like a good idea to demonstrate his authority by putting the medic's lights out. He asked, "Is this situation treatable?"

"It looks bad," Turner said carefully. He glanced out of the window and added, "It won't be bad for us. It won't harm us in any way. But this is a pretty serious situation for the scorpion people."

"I thought I'd warned you about calling them-"

Turner raised a gruffly apologetic hand. "Asgardians," he corrected. "The colonists of Gliese 667. Whatever you call them, it's bad for these poor sods."

"How bad?"

"Fatal. Z-class microbes like this one attack the central nervous system. Without treatment irreparable damage can happen within a couple of hours." He glanced out of the window and said, "I'd guess these guys have been suffering for a lot longer than a couple of hours."

"Are we going to end up like that?" The question came from one of the female engineers.

Turner shook his head. "The infection shouldn't affect us. Earth's population has been immunised against most Z-class microbes. But that immunisation programme was never taken out to the far reaches of the universe."

"You say it shouldn't affect us," White repeated. "Does that mean there's some risk that it might?"

Turner shrugged. "There are lunatics in laboratories constantly tweaking with DNA strands. It wouldn't take much to rewrite the coding of a Z-class microbe. I once wrote a paper on how hypothetically easy it would be to-"

"Why wasn't this immunisation taken out to colonists?" White asked.

"Z-class microbes are an artificial construct," Turner explained. "Once the infections had been eliminated through immunisation it would've been a senseless waste of resources to immunise every colony in the universe against a microbe they were never going to encounter. It would have been like re-immunising everyone on Earth against smallpox, poliomyelitis or AIDS. Once they were killed on Earth the diseases no longer existed. There was no point in an immunisation programme."

White glared through the window of the camper van at the shambling hoards that filled the shadows of Gliese 667. He shifted his gaze from McCance to Turner.

"If the disease no longer exists, why is our van surrounded by zombies?"

"Good question," McCance acknowledged.

"And I'm working on an answer to that one," Turner said. He brandished a tablet and added, "But I'll need access to historical records before I can say one way or the other."

White climbed back into the seat at the front of the camper and watched as Sharpe guided their vehicle along a road with signposts for Vanir.

"I thought we were headed to Aesir?"

"We are," Sharpe told him. "But we're going via the scenic route."

"How wonderful."

Freya Tyr's voice came from the dashboard. "Our sensors show that the Jotnar-to-Aesir transportation archway has been compromised." She sighed heavily and said, "I'm sorry we wasted your time with this mission, Captain White."

"Wasted our time?"

"The infection is a category eight pandemic. I can't see your team will be able to do anything."

"Category eight?" White was stunned. Behind him he heard either McCance or Turner whistle in disbelief.

He was not a medic or a biologist but he'd taken the liberty of consulting notes on the pandemic severity index. He'd thought the list topped at category five with a two percent fatality rate to a global population. He didn't dare imagine the severity of a category eight outbreak.

"Freya Tyr," he began. "My team need access to the planet's historical medical records"

"Of course."

"And we-"

He got no further. He was going to explain how his instructions were to attack the plague from two angles. His team of biologists and medics were going to immunise all those who had so far managed to avoid the disease. His engineers were going to establish the most appropriate way to get treatment to those who were infected. He was going to tell Freya Tyr that his plans were to establish a headquarters in Aesir, eradicate the infection from that area, then move treatments through Vanir and finally into Jotnar.

He was in the process of trying to articulate those thoughts when the bullet shattered the windscreen and blew off the top of Sharpe's head.

Turner's reactions were incredible.

White could see the man's marine training pay dividends as he urged the engineers to flatten themselves against the floor to avoid being hit by any further gunshots. McCance had pulled a concealed revolver from inside his jacket and was squatting down on his haunches at the rear of the van studying every angle and preparing to return fire. The two security personnel were arming themselves but they seemed to look to McCance for leadership in this crisis.

McCance has a weapon? The development surprised White. It also scared him when he realised it was likely that Turner was also armed. Had he punched an armed ex-marine?

Without Sharpe's control, the Volkswagen veered to one side. A single bump, White suspected they had driven over one of the zombies, and the movement shifted Sharpe's lifeless legs from the clutch and the accelerator. The van lurched to a juddering halt.

"What the hell is going on?" one of the biologists demanded.

McCance pushed him to the floor. "Keep your head down, soldier. I want everyone keeping their head down until I've established what's going on here."

White ignored McCance's instructions. Grabbing hold of Sharpe's shoulder, ignoring the shiver of disquiet that touched him when the man's damaged head lolled against his arm, White pulled Sharpe from the driver's seat.

"You need to keep your head down, Captain White," McCance told him.

His voice was stiff with impatience.

Hands grabbed at the window. One enthusiastic zombie scrambled to climb into the van through the shattered hole where the windscreen had been. The upper half of his body was in the vehicle before White noticed and punched him away.

"Captain's got a decent right hook," Turner observed. "No wonder I didn't see it coming."

"Keep your head down, Captain White," McCance repeated. "We've not established the source of the gunfire and we've not had a chance to neutralise the threat."

White wrestled Sharpe's corpse into the passenger seat and looked up in time to see another zombie clamouring to climb into the van through the space where the windscreen had been. Before White could draw his fist back, Turner had stepped to his side and pushed the attacker out of the vehicle.

"Keep your head down, Captain White," McCance insisted. "We have no idea who's firing at us."

White twisted the ignition and brought the Volkswagen to life. The engine roared as he revved it. The noise was enough to make the crowd of zombies move warily back from the vehicle.

"Captain White," McCance hissed. "Sir. Please."

"I'm not getting my head down," White snapped. "I need to get us out of here."

"But if we're still under fire-" McCance started.

"We're not under fire," White broke in. "It was a single shot. It was probably an accident or a fluke or something." In his mind's eye he had an image of one of the zombies finding a loaded handgun and operating the weapon through an accident of habit. "If we were still under fire we would have-"

He got no further.

A bullet cut off his words.

White had no idea how much time had passed when he came back to consciousness. He stared blearily around his surroundings and tried to make sense of where he was. There were stark lights overhead. The walls were white and the sterile air was undeniably medicinal.

How the hell had he ended up in a hospital?

A cool night's breeze wafted through the open window where McCance stood staring out into the night.

"Easy does it," Turner said as White tried to get up. "You're still recovering."

"What happened?"

"You'd just finished telling us that no one was shooting at us. We're currently treating you for a gunshot wound and an overdose of dramatic irony."

McCance stepped away from the window and said, "This is the bastard who shot you." He nodded towards a man tied to a chair at the foot of White's bed.

The man wore a dark green military uniform. His face was a bruised and battered mess, as though he had badly lost a fight. His lantern-jaw was scratched and bloody. His jacket was ripped across the broad chest to reveal a deep and unsightly scar. Beneath the bruises, White thought, there was something about the man's face that seemed familiar.

"Who the hell is he?"

"He won't say."

"What was he doing?"

Turner shrugged again. "He claims he was trying to shoot zombies so we had a clear run to the Aesir archway."

White raised a sceptical eyebrow.

"I didn't believe him either," McCance admitted. "Which is why I've got his image being processed through our database of face recognition software. We'll know who he is within the hour."

McCance paused as his words were interrupted by the ringing of his mobile phone. He held up a finger, apologise and turned away to take the call.

White turned to Turner. "Where the hell are we? And where's the rest of the team? Did everyone else make it off the camper van safely?"

"Sharpe's dead," Turner admitted. "But the rest of the team are uninjured. After you were shot I left the vehicle to find our gunman. McCance drove the Volkswagen here, to the abandoned Jotnar medical research facility. The place is operating on minimal resources but we've managed to make it relatively secure. Lieutenant McCance has some of the biologists working in the laboratory trying to analyse the microbe."

McCance stepped back to the side of the bed and handed White his mobile phone. "Freya Tyr," he explained. "She wanted to talk with you as soon as you recovered."

White took the phone and began the awkward process of trying to climb out of the bed whilst holding McCance's phone and battling against Turner's protests.

"This wasn't the welcome to Asgard that I had planned for you, Captain White."

"McCance sent you the image of this gunman. Do you know who he is?"

"We're still trying to identify him," Freya Tyr admitted. "It doesn't help that his face has taken a pretty severe beating."

"You know we've taken refuge in an abandoned Jotnar medical research facility?"

"Yes. Your Lieutenant McCance relayed that information in his earlier call."

"We'll establish this as our working base for now," White decided.

"Are you sure?" Freya Tyr sounded surprised. "We were expecting you here at Aesir. We were going to make room for you in the Valhalla medical research centre."

"No," White said firmly. "I need to do something about this situation and try to execute a solution to this pandemic. Whilst it would be pleasant to make your acquaintance the only thing I've currently got to give you is a ceremonial pen."

She laughed drily. "Another pen?"

"Excuse me?"

"I'm sorry," Freya Tyr sounded as though she smiling wearily. "I was being ungracious. When Commander Hardman visited here last year-"

"Hardman visited here?"

"-he kindly gave us a pen. He even insisted we use that pen for signing the official trade agreement he had negotiated."

White's stomach tightened with apprehension. How could he have been so blind? "What trade agreement?"

"Hardman Incorporated invested heavily in our medical facilities in exchange for exclusive planetary mining rights."

"Exclusive planetary mining rights?"

White could hear himself echoing Freya Tyr's words and realised he likely sounded foolish. He could see McCance and Turner studying him sceptically. McCance was mouthing a question. White shook his head to indicate he didn't yet have any answers. Or, to be more accurate, he didn't yet have answers he wished to share.

"We were still in the negotiation stage," Freya Tyr elaborated. "Our environmental lobby wouldn't allow Hardman to start mining until they had assurances that there'd be no detrimental impact on the planet."

"I see," White growled. He didn't bother to point out that mining would not cause a detrimental impact on a planet where the population had been wiped out by a Z-class microbe pandemic. He motioned to McCance and said, "I need one of the team to do an immediate study of Freya Tyr's ceremonial pen."

"Negative, Captain. The team are working on more important things than-"

"That was an order," White broke in.

He could feel a twisting in his gut that he knew had nothing to do with the pain from his gunshot wound or the medication soaring through his bloodstream. He sat up on the bed. Pushing Turner's protests aside he managed to climb from beneath the covers.

"Where the hell do you think you're going?"

"I need you to go through those historical records Freya Tyr opened for you."

"Negative, Captain," McCance told him. "Our priorities are to establish a secure base and then address the plague controls."

"No," White said firmly. "I've just told you what our priorities are." He spoke into his phone and said, "Where is the pen that Hardman originally brought? It's here in Jotnar, isn't it?"

Freya Tyr released a short surprised laugh. "How did you know the agreement was signed in Jotnar?"

White shook his head and threw the phone back to McCance. "Get the location of the pen and then organise to have it retrieved."

McCance glared at him for a moment. "Affirmative, Captain."

"And," White was out of the bed and trying to locate his boots. "Ask for a cache of fifty colourless five carat diamonds to be dispatched here as soon as possible."

"You should be resting," Turner insisted.

White waved the idea aside. "Before I was shot we were discussing how this outbreak came about," he remembered. "I need you to go through the historical records of the outbreak and tell me where it came from."

"Come on," Turner groaned. "Surely there's more pressing matters for me to be looking into other than historical records?"

"The only other thing I need is footage of this bastard looking beaten," White said, gesturing toward the man at the foot of his bed. "Other than that there's nothing more important to this mission than locating ground zero of the microbe infection." He switched his gaze from Turner to McCance and said, "I know exactly what you're going to find. But I'd like my suspicions confirmed before I take any action."

It was three days later when White called Hardman's image on the view screen. "Did you receive the sample of diamonds, Commander Hardman?"

Hardman nodded. "An impressive cache, Captain. How's it going with the scorpion people?"

Scorpion people.

White's hand stiffened in the act of shaping a fist. He forced himself not to sneer. "We got a lucky break," he admitted.

Hardman smiled. "Really?"

"Turner and the biologists worked out a solution. They developed a vaccine."

"Good for Turner." Despite the words, Hardman did not sound delighted. His features seemed stiff with thinly concealed anger. "How did he manage that?"

"There's been a huge loss of life on this planet but Turner's effecting a treatment based on Earth's dementia medication and we're seeing some impressive results. If it wasn't for his horrific acts of biological terrorism he's committed I'd say Turner deserved a citation from the Federation of Sapient Planets."

"Biological terrorism? What the hell has he done?"

"Sorry, Commander. You were asking how he managed to obtain a solution. He identified ground zero. He discovered where the microbe came from."

Hardman's eyes narrowed. He was a shrewd man and it was obvious he understood there was a subtext to the conversation. He studied White with sullen hostility and asked, "Where does Turner think the microbe came from?"

"He thinks it was a deliberate act of infection from Earth."

"That's one hell of an accusation. That's the sort of talk that's going to make the scorpion people really dislike everyone back here."

Scorpion people. This time White couldn't disguise his sneer of contempt for the superior officer.

"Turner makes quite a compelling argument," White admitted. "He's shown me enough evidence to prove that the microbe is manufactured. Biologically, there's evidence to suggest the microbe couldn't have come from Asgard. The most convincing piece of evidence is the Hardman Inc coding in the DNA. The microbe came from someone who had access to facilities in your company, Commander Hardman."

Hardman's face was carved from stone.

"How very curious."

"Our team even found examples of the original microbe, the unduplicated microbe, on the pen that you delivered to the planet six months ago."

"What are you trying to say, White?"

White took a deep breath. "The only explanation for how this plague began is that it was created in one of your laboratories, Commander Hardman. The only explanation for how it got here is that it was personally delivered to this planet by you."

"That's one hell of an accusation." Hardman sounded as though he had detached himself from the passion of the moment. "Are you able to support that accusation with any evidence?"

"We have a confession from your son," White admitted. "Although I'm not sure that would be wholly admissible in any court that didn't approve of torture."

"My son?"

"The son you had waiting for us here on Gliese 667. The son who killed Sharpe and tried to take me out. The son whose photograph is on the wall in your office. Do I really need to remind you about the identity of your son, Commander Hardman? Especially when we have to discuss Turner's acts of biological terrorism."

Hardman pursed his lips. "You mentioned these acts of biological terrorism before," he said. "What are you babbling about?"

"Turner thinks you used the ceremonial pen as a way to get microbes onto this planet. He claims, because the microbes have no effect on people from Earth, you and your pen were the ideal courier."

"Can Turner support this accusation with anything resembling evidence?"

"Aside from the confession we beat out of your son?"

"Aside from the allegations of any unspecified torture victims, yes."

"Turner claims you'll be admitting your guilt within twenty-four hours."

"And why does he think I'll be doing that?"

"I thought I'd said," White frowned. "Turner has committed some atrocious acts of biological terrorism."

"What the hell does that mean?"

For the first time, White could hear the snap of anger in Hardman's voice. It took an effort of willpower not to grin.

"Turner did some structural work on your manufactured microbe," White explained. "He adjusted those component issues that made it such a danger to the colonists of Gliese 667. He changed the structure so that it's now a danger to those of us who were born and raised on Earth." White shivered dramatically and said, "The effects are pretty frightening."

"Jesus Christ, White. That's insanity."

"Let me show you a clip of someone infected with the modified microbe," White said. "You'll probably recognise him. The family resemblance is striking."

He pressed play on the console. A brief video clip, no more than five seconds, played on the screen. It showed Hardman junior, his face bloodied, his eyes wide and staring, and his mouth drooling in a senseless yawn.

"What the hell have you done to him?" Hardman demanded.

"I've just told you. Turner modified the microbe you sent up here."

"That's insane. What would happen if he found a way to send it to Earth?"

"He did find a way," White said quietly. "The microbe was transported to Earth in a transparent coating on those diamonds we sent you. I'm assuming you've handled them."

Hardman blanched. "Is this some sort of joke?"

"No joke, Commander Hardman."

"What are you expecting me to do?"

"Turner and I discussed that," White admitted. "I think you'll break down, admit your crimes and come here begging for the antidote." He held up a small vial and added, "We've already got an antidote made up. Turner thinks you'll carry on pretending you had nothing to do with the outbreak here until the infection melts your brain and starts to kill those you love and cherish on Earth. Have you been in touch with any family or friends since you took charge of the consignment of diamonds?"

"You unconscionable bastard," Hardman whispered.

White nodded. "You know where we are if you want to discuss antidotes."

He pressed the button on his desk to sever the connection.

Once the communication screen had gone blank, Freya Tyr sat beside him.

"What do you really think Hardman will do?" she asked.

"I think we'll see Hardman driving into Jotnar at some point tomorrow."

"It's a hell of a risk, isn't it?"

White shook his head. "We've not really sent a virus back to Earth," he admitted. "But Hardman won't know that. He's seen evidence of his son acting as though he's infected, so he believes there's a virus. He's got a threat from us and he probably thinks we're as unscrupulous as he is."

"What will you do if he does come here?" Freya Tyr said. "Are you going to offer him a fake antidote in exchange for his confession?"

White shrugged. "Perhaps." He nodded toward the camp of recovering microbe survivors and said, "I think, when Hardman gets here, he can discuss his need for a cure with some representatives from the scorpion people."

About the Author
Ashley R. Lister is a prolific writer of fiction, having pseudonymously written and published more than two dozen full length novels and over a hundred short stories. Aside from occasionally blogging about poetry and writing in general, Ashley also teaches creative writing and is currently studying for a PhD in short fiction. 'Zombie Attack on the Planet of the Scorpion People' is part of his final thesis. Ashley lives in Lancashire, England. You can find him online at www.ashleylister.co.uk.
Background image by ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/R.Gendler, J-E. Ovaldsen, C. Thöne, and C. Feron.
http://www.eso.org/public/images/etamosaicnm2/, CC BY 4.0, Link