Chapter 1

The Commonwealth of Planets consisted of fifty two planets from six solar systems and had been founded three hundred years ago. Although the Commonwealth had its flaws, as did any society, its formation all but eliminated wars between planets and opened up trade routes that still existed centuries later. The closest area of know space to the Commonwealth was known as Blockade Space and the planets in that space had been the most aggressive, historically. Now, three hundred years later, even the Blockade worlds had ceased warring. Close to the border, right on the very edges of Commonwealth Space, was Station Cumberland. Cumberland had been a lookout post in war times, and a great deal smaller. It was extended to house research scientists some hundred years ago and now it was a sprawling space-born city.

Captain Natasha Crown was very proud of her Station, and all its functions. She'd been appointed this position five years ago and had loved every second of her command. Lieutenant Engineer Dale Tanner had been contracted to Cumberland at the same time as Natasha had joined it. The two had gone through school and university together and were very close friends.

The Station was very busy due to an influx of construction workers. A brand new mining station was being built in a region that was historically Commonwealth. The Hazard Zone hadn't been populated for fifty years now due to a terrible tragedy. One sizeable chunk of rock had been claimed by the Commonwealth and transformed into a maximum security, category A prison. A magnetic force shield was developed to completely envelope the asteroid, thus preventing any sort of escape, or unauthorised landings. The Commonwealth Powers had cruelly labelled their pioneering, high-tech new jail, Bedlam. One of the most hated work details on Bedlam was underground mining of a huge array of ores and resources, previously unknown before the rock's conversion. Tragedy struck when Bedlam was just ten years old. Some sort of toxic gas was released from the subterranean mining sites, slowly at first and just enough for the inmates to get sick. Then they started dying. Bedlam was becoming toxic. Ships were organised to transport the inmates to other prisons in the Commonwealth but it was soon apparent that they were running out of time. To make matters worse, the ground close to one of the mine entrances was weakened due to the increased traffic of transporter ships. Three tunnels collapsed, sealing the mine off completely. The final two hundred inmates of Bedlam were declared dead, and the asteroid was abandoned, the region named the Hazard Zone. For forty five years, Bedlam lay shrouded in its own toxic atmosphere. It hung like a sick, green spore in the dark space sky. The poisonous gas was named Fifeogen but was never studied. The gas was so potent, it killed anyone who came in contact with it. Many things were speculated on regarding the properties of Fifeogen but one thing only was certain, it was deadly.

Just before Natasha arrived on Cumberland, one of the most shocking and stunning discoveries in Space's history was made. A research party from the Station was performing a routine scan of the atmosphere in the Hazards. One probe malfunctioned and went awry, shooting off towards Bedlam. Just before it was swamped by Bedlam's atmosphere, it sent back data that rocked the entire Commonwealth. There were intelligent lifeforms on Bedlam. Many attempts were made to contact Bedlam, none were successful at first. Captain Natasha Crown received the very first communication from Bedlam in forty five years. The two hundred survivors had 'adapted', built a home, had all they needed, now go away thank you. There had been nothing since. Further probes had detected that the lifeforms were indeed, human based. More than that, signatures from very high specification technology was detected. The inmates had repaired and maintained the technology left by the Commonwealth, including the magnetic field. The Commonwealth had the means to dismantle this shield, but definitely not the toxic atmosphere that surrounded the asteroid. If the Bedlites didn't want to interact, which they didn't, then there was nothing anyone could do about it.

"I wonder what they've developed to collect the stuff." Dale mused as he sat in the Refectory with Natasha. "From an engineering point of view, I'd love to know."

"I don't know either. Big disadvantage of being on the outskirts. We only find out what's relevant to us. Scientific and engineering breakthroughs are huge news in the central zones but it takes a while to filter through to here." Natasha commented.

"They've tried for years to handle it."

"It must be possible though. The Bedlites live in it."

"Adaptation in its purest form." Dale said.

"And it's swiftest." Natasha smiled, and reached to her belt to answer her intercom. "Crown."

"Officer Grey, Communications. Sir we have a ... situation." The intercom said. "There's someone swearing over the emergency ultra channel."

"What?" Natasha barked. "Trace it immediately!"

"Sir it's coming from outside the Station. Well, I'm not sure but it could be coming from Bedlam."

"Bedlam?" Natasha said in disbelief. "Keep them on channel, Grey. Let them swear all they like. I'm on my way." Natasha stood up. "Coming?" She ran out of the Refectory, Dale close on her heels.

The Communications Room was quiet but the tension was almost tangible. Officer Grey nodded towards the console where he'd typed a note. 'He told me to shut up or else he'd disconnect. Channel's still open.'

"Captain Natasha Crown. Do you read me?" Natasha said stiffly. Rudeness towards her staff wasn't something she appreciated. "Unknown Hailer, please come in. This is Natasha Crown."

"Captain Crown." A voice came through so clearly, you'd think the hailer was in the room. "Sor Vanley. We've spoken before."

"Yes I remember. So you are communicating from Bedlam. You didn't make that clear to my Officer." Natasha said shortly.

"If I wanted to clarify things with your Communications Officer, I'd have contacted his quarters. I'll get to the point." Sor Vanley stated. "Why are your men building a mining station in the Hazards? Or is that a silly question?"

"I thank you for your overestimation of my position, sir. Those men are Commonwealth retained construction gangs. I can't lay claim to them." Natasha answered.

"Well deflected Captain. Fifeogen is impossible for you to extract, handle and package. In short, they'll all die." Sor Vanley said bluntly.

"I was just discussing this with my Engineer. The Government has obviously found a way to handle Fifeogen. We aren't privy to that information, sir." Natasha took a seat at the console and looked at the tiny green speck in the distance.

"No matter what you speculate, and no matter what your Government think they've developed, they haven't. You can take it from me, humans cannot tolerate exposure to Fifeogen. It's lethally toxic. Personally, I'd just leave the fools to find out for themselves, however I'm not the only one with clout down here." Sor Vanley said dryly and Natasha looked at Dale in surprise. She wasn't expecting Bedlites to use slang. "This is an official but ... friendly ... warning. Kindly relay it to whoever needs to hear it. Those men, and any other men, cannot handle Fifeogen and it will kill them."

"But you developed the means to handle it. Are you saying our technology isn't on par with your own?" Natasha asked in an attempt to get as much information as possible.

"I wouldn't know, would I? I'm down here under rather alot of toxic crap. What I am saying is that it isn't our technology that enables us to tolerate this crud, it's our physiology. If I'm not mistaken, we had a similar conversation five years ago, Captain Crown. You wouldn't be trying to stall me, would you?" Sor Vanley laughed.

"In all honesty, yes I would, sir." Natasha smiled. "Forgive me. My inquisitiveness is leading to rudeness. All I can do is send your official message to the Admiralty. I'm sure they'll appreciate your alert."

"Yes I bet they will." Sor Vanley said sarcastically. "If they choose to ignore it then there's nothing we can do from Bedlam. They'll be on their own. The very fact that we've broke silence after all these years should tell you how serious we are."

"Understood. May I contact you after I've communicated with the Admiralty?" Nastasha asked hopefully.

"No. I've been told to tell you that we'll contact you at this time tomorrow. If your Admiralty have a thought and decide to leave the Hazards, we can stop the round the clock monitoring of it. We're all knackered."

"Er ... yes. I can imagine so." Natasha tried not to laugh. "I'll contact them immediately sir. Sir? May I say how privileged I feel to have spoken to you not only once, but twice. I'll try and convey your sincerity to the Admiralty."

"We can ask no more of you. Until tomorrow, Captain." The channel went flat.

"Oh my lord!" Natasha whooped in a very unprofessional manner. "The only two contacts in history and I get both of them! I can't believe it, Dale!"

"It's fantastic. I'm pleased you let me tag along. Do you think Vanley's bluffing? The Bedlites could be just trying to protect their privacy." Dale pointed out.

"It's possible." Natasha shrugged her shoulders. "Or maybe the Admiralty's gear isn't as good as they think it is. What if they think it's adequate and it isn't?"

"You think they'd need to retest it all from scratch at least." Dale agreed. "Best you can do is relay the whole communication, Natasha. Just send the lot of it in its entirety."

"Doing just that." Natasha said from her console. "Officer Grey, I need to know immediately when the Ad ... " She looked up as every channel in the Communications room was secured. "That had better be the Admiralty and not Bedlam. Dale can you look for the Commonwealth signature." Dale nodded and sat next to Natasha. "Message sent."

"Admiralty. The Admiralty have locked the communication channels." Dale said in surprise. "Is that because of your message? Rather extreme of them."

"Not really Dale. Two messages in fifty years? Just between me and you, I think the Brass is a bit wary of the Bedlites. They don't know how they stand as a society as a whole. Two hundred people were stranded down there among fatally noxious fumes. Yes, I know they were presumed dead but they weren't. If you'd survived that, how would you feel towards the Brass?"

"Good point." Dale nodded. "The Admiralty do a good job in telling us all the Bedlites isolate themselves and how antisocial they are and how they don't want to integrate. They must be amazingly self sufficient down there."

"And if they are xenophobic then we can't really damn them for it. That's why I feel so fantastic about those two communications." Natasha nodded to the distant green fleck. All the channels remained locked except one, which blinked into life. Admiral Joel Foley's face and details appeared on the viewer.

"I believe that message to be a bluff, Captain Crown. Mining will procede as scheduled." Admiral Foley stated.

"I'll relay your message, sir." Natasha replied obediently. "Is that all, sir? This is only the second communication in half a century. Can't we work on that somehow?"

"I'm not with you, Crown. Work on it how?"

"A flat out refusal to listen to their advice will cause them to simply shrug and return to silence. We have no way of contacting them, as you know, so shouldn't we try and make the most of them contacting us?" Natasha tried.

"Bedlam has made it quite clear that they aren't interested in joining the Commonwealth. They should be grateful that we're removing that stench from their atmosphere." The Admiral said flatly. "Tell this Victor individual that the Admiralty wasn't taken in by his blind."

"I can only pass on the message sir." Natasha sighed wearily.

"Sir." Dale pointed to a communications console where an array of dim, green lights was flickering.

"Captain Crown!" Admiral Foley shouted. "You are not in a position to relay un-arranged messages on a secure channel! What is this?"

"Sir, no I'm not in a position to do that and I don't have the clearance." Natasha said tersely. "It would seem like the Bedlites are messaging you directly via our channel."

"They breeched an emergency ultra channel? Impossible!" Foley stated flatly.

"Oh for crying out loud!" The console bellowed. "No wonder you get naff all done if all you do is bicker!"

"Sor Vanley?" Natasha asked warily.

"Clear this channel immediately." Foley snapped.

"You can't. I've jammed it. Now wind your neck in and look at the data, will you! My rather sentimental colleague here insisted that we sent you an avalanche of scientific bumf explaining why your miners will die. Get your scientists at it. Our lot are also theorising on why you think you can mine Fifeogen so they sent you a few theories and reasons why they won't work. Personally I'd have taken your insult of calling me a liar and just left you to find out for yourselves. As I said, I have colleagues who thought you deserved a bit more to convince you." Vanley stated.

"I've passed it on to our science department, just to humour you Vanley." Foley said arrogantly and both Natasha and Dale winced awkwardly.

"Do you perceive me as having a sense of humour?" Vanley said darkly. "Captain Crown, I'll contact you tomorrow, as arranged. Foley, either see sense and sod off or don't. It won't affect me in any way." The channel went flat and Admiral Foley began spluttering in outrage.

"How dare he! I may not agree with everyone's point of view but I know how to keep a civil tongue in my head! I intend contacting you five minutes prior to your expected communication from that ... upstart. You will relay any unexpected messages to me personally, Captain Crown."

"Yes sir, understood." Natasha said, trying to keep the irritation from her voice. The Admiral signed off. "Well that was a tad tense."

"All we can do here is give the boffins time to analyse that data. If there are any flaws to find, they'll find them." Dale commented. "I don't think the Admiralty is used to being disobeyed, hence the sparks."

"And I don't think the Bedlites are used with being told what to do." Natasha said ruefully. "We'd better check the security on these channels, Dale." Dale agreed and began his diagnostics.

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