Chapter 1:

An officer in a starched uniform marched down the corridor. Each footfall rang off of the drab grey walls. She flipped shut the folio she was carrying, and entered the boardroom, wearing a frown. It deepened as she recognised the other occupant; a tall man, in an expensive suit. The very fact that he was not in uniform, and therefore not with the military was enough of set off alarm bells, but combined with the summons in the folio, it was a sure sign of trouble.

The boardroom was a typical example of an extravagant display of wealth. The table was long, and highly polished. The chairs were of a dark wood, with a splendid finish, and the carpet was deep. Russell was unimpressed. The gentleman smoothed his garish tie and took a seat at the head of the table, gently placing a black leather case on the table next to him.

"Lieutenant Russell." He extended his hand, and gripped Russell's firmly, and Russell squeezed back just as hard. "Please have a seat." The lieutenant remained standing. "Very well. You have been the director of a programme which holds in reserve a number of trained personnel which are a strike force, able to correct the situation in the event of a major catastrophe. The need for their use has never arisen, until now. We now have a great need of your officers, as you have been told. You will be leaving on The Swift in under two weeks."

She stared at him blankly. "It seems that I am yet to be informed of this major catastrophe which warrants a non-military civilian sequestering my officer's use."

He glanced down, adjusting a cuff. She noticed a heavy cufflink. "We had preferred to brief you once in orbit on The Swift."

"Impossible. Sir, you cannot expect me to place my crew in orbit, and send them on a mission which might lead to who-knows-where without my full knowledge and their consent. I still require my crew's full consent before sending them anywhere."

"Ah, I was not previously made aware of this situation. I had thought that as their commanding officer, you had the power to send them on any mission. I now see that is not the case."

Russell shifted on her feet, and glowered down at this slimy man. "And who is your commanding officer, who is responsible for wanting to send me to the end of the world?"

"I am afraid that this information is given out on a strictly 'need to know' basis. At this time, it is unwise and unnecessary for you to know."

Russell almost growled under her breath, but with a supreme effort, restrained herself. "Will you now please tell me of this mission?"

"Most certainly." He indicated the chair. Reluctant to give up her advantage of height, Russell sat. "Now," he extracted another wallet containing a sheaf of paper from his case. "This contains all the information you will need. The basic summary that will be given to the media is that you are to scope out an extremely important new colony world, and this is essential for you to accomplish. However this is not the main reason for the mission. We believe this world to be inhabited by a number of very interesting species. My superior is in need of some research specimens and has drafted you in to retrieve them. Knowledge of these facts and the nature of the species, once contact is made, are best not given to the public as it would cause unrest."

The information had the effect of a shell landing on the Lieutenant's head. She rocked back into the chair, grateful not to be standing, as she desperately tried to absorb this information. The day was warm and she had been sweating within her uniform, but the air conditioner had been silently pumping the room full of ice-cold air. Now it made her shiver violently. She suppressed it into rubbing her arm. Finally and with a great effort she spoke.

"What you are asking me here today, is highly illegal in every country on this planet, and on every colony world we have established so far. It will most likely provoke a very long, expensive and destructive war." She caught him wince, ever so slightly. "Ah, I see that you are not unfamiliar with this word, and its connotations. I can guarantee you right now, that if we start stealing people from other worlds, and other cultures and hold them as hostages while performing barbaric experiments on them, that war is the least you should expect."

"These are unprofessional thoughts and should not get in the way of your duty to your superiors. This is what you have been ordered to do. And you shall do it. If you contest these orders in any way, you shall be removed from the military, and the mission passed on to the next in line." Russell called up a mental image of the 'next in line'. A pile-driver of a man who would attack the mission with a chain-saw. Not a good fit. If there was to be any good gotten out of this mess of a mission, she would have to be in charge.

"I demand the orders in writing. And I will no-doubt need to arrange for The Swift to take on some specialised equipment, in anticipation of our guests. I also want detailed profiles of the species which are to accompany us."

He locked eyes with her. She managed to hold his penetrating stare before he broke it, and inclined his head. She would take the mission, no question about it.

"This will all be arranged, except for the last. Only a very small amount is known about these creatures, and it is for that reason that the manager wishes to study them more closely in a laboratory setting. I will give you what we have got. Now I believe that you will wish to inform your crew. Please be discrete with information, as you will be in charge of the actual acquisition and possession of the specimens. Dismissed, Lieutenant!"

Later, Kate was sitting with her tie off and her shirt open at the neck. She pressed the cold glass bottle of beer against her forehead. A blinder of a headache was attacking her with full force. Sighing she took a swig, and propped her legs up onto the table, knocking some papers to the floor. With a sudden fury, she swung her leg across the surface, causing the accumulated junk mail and mail order magazines to flutter to the floor in a cascade. Sighing again she took control of herself. For the umpteenth time she asked herself how she had ever agreed to be a part of this mission. Its codename was ACHILLES. She thought that had a beautiful poetic irony, after three beers. It definitely had a fatal flaw. Under her mattress were the papers that Agent Sawyer had given to her. She had pawed through it and her reeling mind managed to catch hold of all the details. It would be quite a trek to reach, this planet. Three weeks was plenty of time to live with her decision, and to thoroughly regret ever making it. Twenty-five people. Twenty-five! This sick person wanted 5 of each species. He was trying to rationalise it and make it into a proper little laboratory experiment. Except these were clearly no lab-rats. They were fully sentient. That was clear. And with sentience came culture and tradition. She scowled.

Heaving herself from the sagging couch she went into the kitchen and with slow deliberation, tipped the rest of the beer into the sink. Flicking off the lights, Kate climbed into bed, but not before fishing out the folder. As the moon set, she scribbled her notes across the report.