A corridor. Quiet, apparently deserted. The distant hum of machinery was the only sound. Suddenly another sound. A whistling, hissing sound. It sounded like the wind, but it couldn’t be, not in that corridor. It grew louder and with it came a movement of the air. A definite breeze, also impossible, but there, none the less. And as the sound grew louder and the breeze grew stronger, shapes appeared. Glimpses; a wall, a window, a desk, there one minute and gone the next, flickering in and out of view like a film shown on a faulty projector. The flickering became faster, the glimpses finally resolving themselves into a shape that hung in the air and then fell to the ground with a bump and an exclamation. It was a girl. She looked young, possibly in her mid-teens. She was wearing a short skirt, a t-shirt and a bomber jacket with badges stitched all over it. On the back the word “Ace” was embroidered in bright colours. Somehow, her outfit made her presence in the stark, industrial atmosphere of the corridor even more incongruous.

For a few moments she lay on the floor where she had fallen, then she groaned and sat up. She looked around, gently touching her right temple which had made contact with the floor when she fell.
“Ow!” She lowered her hand and shuffled over to the wall, the soles of her boots squeaking on the synthetic floor as she moved. The girl leaned against the wall. She had been shaken up by the fall and was glad of the support. Her eyes widened as she began to take in her surroundings. Then, slowly, she smiled.
“Wicked!” she whispered.

In the control room, Belazs pressed a button to silence the alarm and scowled. She flicked a switch and spoke into the microphone attached to the control panel.

“Disturbance in corridor 3, level 5. Instruments report time storm, cameras disabled. Patrol officers to investigate and report as soon as possible.”

She scowled again, but straightened her face as she heard footsteps behind her.

“Something wrong, Belazs?” asked Kane.

“No,” she replied, calmly, “a malfunctioning camera in corridor 5. Some signs of minor temporal disturbance. I’ve sent a team to investigate.”

“I see,” replied Kane, his voice as icy and smooth as his demeanour. “Nothing to be concerned with, then?”

He approached Belazs and she steeled herself not to back away.

“No, nothing, a minor incident.”

“Good. I know you wouldn’t keep anything from me, would you?” Kane leaned forward and Belazs felt his gaze boring into her mind, his eyes, so dark that they seemed to be completely black, held hers and she couldn’t tear them away. But she had had years to practice.

“No,” she replied, “Of course I wouldn’t.”

“Good,” Kane turned and went back towards the restricted zone.

Belazs watched as the door closed behind Kane. She would leave. She would get away. He had taken twenty years of her life on this frozen lump of a planet and that was enough. How, remained to be seen, but for the time being she would keep on keeping information to herself. Knowledge was power, after all.

In the corridor, the girl braced herself against the wall and got to her feet. Although she was clearly shaken by her sudden arrival, she didn’t seem to be afraid. Instead, her eyes sparkled with curiosity as she looked from side to side, trying to decide which way to go. The sound of footsteps from her left decided the matter for her, and she scuttled in the opposite direction and, seeing an alcove, dived into it and pressed herself against what looked like a wall. Two figures appeared. They were men, as far as the girl could see, and were wearing long white coats and helmets that looked vaguely familiar. They looked a bit like a picture she had seen in a school book of soldiers in the first world war. Unlike the picture, though, the helmets were white, as were the boots on the men’s feet. If their helmets looked old fashioned, the weapons they held in their hands were anything but. As the girl looked at them, she whispered “ray guns?” The men stopped, and looked around, then one of them spoke into a box attached to his coat collar.

“Patrol reporting. We have reached the site of the time storm, no damage or debris evident.”

A voice replied: “Any incursion detected?”

“None.”

“Understood, return to the control room, but keep your eyes open, and put out a call for an engineer to repair the camera.”

“Will do.”

The men turned back the way they had come and walked away. The girl emerged from the alcove, slowly, a thoughtful expression on her face. A time storm? Was that what had brought her here? And where was here? When she had been thrown into the air, she had thought it was by the force of the nitro nine exploding, but this was something else altogether.

She looked up and down the corridor again and walked a few steps in the opposite direction to the men. Something caught her eye, lying on the floor in another alcove. A rucksack. The girl ran over, picked up the rucksack and looked inside and her eyes gleamed, “Ace!”

The rucksack contained a number of silver containers, each about the size of a milk bottle, with closely fitting lids. The girl grinned.

“That’s better. Now we’re in business. Time to find out where we are, cos wherever this is, it ‘ain’t Perivale,” she said.

She shouldered her rucksack and set off down the corridor. She hadn’t gone far when she heard a voice speaking over the loudspeakers that lined the ceiling.

“Citizens of Iceworld are reminded that milkshakes are currently half price in the café. Proceed to the café to take advantage of this offer.”

The girl paused. Iceworld? Like a theme park? So, did that mean those men were security guards? She hadn’t been to many theme parks, except for the memorable school trip where she had been sent back to the coach for trying to make the cannons on the pirate ship ride explode more realistically, but as far as she could remember, the security guards there hadn’t had guns. Definitely not guns like that anyway. Perhaps she wasn’t in England, though the voice hadn’t had an American accent. There was something else though. Something about the voice. It hadn’t sounded happy, or encouraging. It had sounded flat, bored, as if it didn’t expect people to be listening. Odd. Something about this place didn’t add up.

In the control room, Belazs was interrogating the patrol.

“And you saw nothing?” she asked, sharply

“No,” the guard hesitated, “nothing at all.”

The second guard, who was newer to the job and less able to read the mood of the room, asked; “What were you expecting us to find?”

The look he received made him wish he hadn’t spoken.

“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Belazs, “time storms are rare, it could have been anything. But,” unconsciously echoing Kane, “I’m sure you’d tell me if you had found anything, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes,” said both the guards, emphatically.

“Good, dismissed.”

The guards left the room as quickly as they could without running. Belazs rolled her eyes. Kane often complained about the quality of his active personnel, and in this case, he clearly had a point. But she didn’t think they would dare to lie to her.

The girl had set off again down the corridor, when she heard footsteps. She looked around for a hiding place, but couldn’t see one, so, muttering to herself “play it cool” she kept walking. As the owners of the footsteps approached, she heard a child’s voice.

“Mummy, can I have a milkshake, the man said the milkshakes were offered, can I?”

The girl turned and saw a woman and child. Neither was dressed in any style that she recognised. The woman’s dress was ornate. To the girl it looked almost like fancy dress, or a dress from a pantomime. It was made of a black, shiny fabric with a long skirt and a feathered collar. The child, who turned out to be a little girl, was wearing a blue dress of a similar fabric. Her hair was plaited into an ornate design and secured with a large blue bow. Seeing the girl looking at her, she smiled, revealing a gap-toothed grin.

“Who are you?” she asked, with the fearlessness displayed by the very young.

The girl hesitated as she always did when she was asked her name. She didn’t often tell lies, but... the child was looking at her, curiously. She made a decision. Nobody here knew who she was, she could start again. Leave the horrible stodgy name she had been given behind. She smiled in return and said;

“Ace. Everyone calls me Ace.”

The child considered, then said, “Hello, Ace, my name is Stellar.”

Ace crouched down, to be nearer to her new acquaintance.

“Hello Stellar," she replied, "is this your Mummy?”

“Yes,” Stellar tugged at her mother’s hand, “Mummy, this is Ace, she's my friend, can she come and have a milkshake with us?”

The mother, who had been searching for something in her handbag and was distracted for a moment, regarded Ace with an expression that was anything but friendly.

“Stellar, I’ve told you before about not talking to strangers. You don’t know where this girl has been. Come along.”

The mother walked off, pulling her daughter behind her. Stellar turned and waved, and Ace waved back, a little sadly. It looked like some of the people here were just as unpleasant as the ones she had left behind. She shrugged. Oh well. The little girl was nice. And there was a café, so that meant food. Oh. Money. What money did they have here? Ace put a hand in her jacket pocket. Two fifty pence pieces. That wouldn’t get her far, if they even used the same money here. Ace sighed. Oh well, that was that, for the time being at least. But then she shrugged. Ace was rarely gloomy for long and she set off down the corridor, in the same direction that Stellar and her mother had taken. As she went, she looked at the walls of the corridor, taking in the details of the panels and the symbols that appeared at regular intervals. There was something odd about the corridor, and it took her a moment to realise what it was. She hadn’t seen any windows. Was the corridor a tunnel? Was she underground? Ace stopped by a rectangular panel. It was about the shape and size she would have expected a window to be, but the surface of it was covered with smaller, flat panels. Ace went up to the panel and had a closer look. To one side of the panel was a symbol. It showed a rectangle with wavy lines coming through it, and stick figure recoiling with one hand raised. The whole picture had a ring round it and a thick line through it. The wavy lines meant something dangerous then. Radiation? Ace looked at the symbols more closely. They weren’t the familiar warnings of the chemistry or physics labs at school, which, in point of fact, she had often taken to be invitations, but this was definitely a warning. Her curiosity fully aroused, Ace began to search for a switch or a button to open what she assumed were the flaps of the blind. She needn’t open it for long, just long enough to see where she was. Her questing fingers found a small switch about halfway up the frame that surrounded the main panel and she pressed it. The smaller panels began to fold back, but, at the same time, an alarm sounded and a voice over the loud speaker said; “Alert! Unfiltered light in corridor 5b, close secure flaps immediately!” Ace jumped back, and looked around, guiltily. She could see what looked like a security camera mounted high on the wall, which was turning towards the window. Before it could catch sight of her, she ran down the corridor and hid round a corner, a few feet away. She waited, trying to calm herself and keep as quiet and still as she could. As she expected, a few moments later, two white-coated guards appeared. One of them held his hand up to shield his face and approached the window. He pressed the switch and the flaps closed, shutting off the rectangle of light that had streamed in.
His companion spoke into her communication device.

“Panel closed, no serious ingress of light. No sign of anyone nearby, has the camera picked anything up?”

“Negative,” replied the voice on the other end of the radio, “return to control.”

The guards turned and began to walk away. Ace breathed out in relief, but as she did so, her rucksack slipped from her grip and rattled to the floor. The guards turned, and Ace grabbed her bag and ran.

In the control room, Belazs checked the camera again. First the time storm, and now this. Some kid playing tricks, perhaps, though most of them had been given a thorough schooling in the dangers of unfiltered sunlight. She looked up at the door to the restricted zone. Not worth bothering Kane with, at any rate. He didn’t emerge so often these days. Even the frigid temperatures of Iceworld were not sufficient to keep his body at a low enough temperature and he was retreating to the security of the restricted zone with increasing frequency.

Belazs smiled and spoke into the radio again. “Any suspects identified?”

“No, we thought we heard something, but nothing," replied the guards.

“Then return to your duties. We’ll catch up with whoever it was sooner or later.”

“Very good.”

Ace stopped running and crouched down, panting. She couldn’t keep doing this for much longer. Apart from anything else, she was hungry. She listened. No sound of pursuit. Good. Ace stood up and shouldered her rucksack again. She had to find something to eat and drink soon, and then somewhere safe to rest. She was about to set off again when her eye was caught by a door panel with two symbols next to it. One showed a stick figure on a platform, apparently looking through a rectangle at a series of triangles. The symbol below was instantly familiar to Ace, an arrow pointing upwards on a square button. This was a lift then. And did the symbol above mean that she could see out? Or perhaps it was a television room or a cinema. She pressed the button and, after a moment, the door slid back to reveal the interior of the lift. Ace stepped inside and the door closed behind her. She turned and found the up button and pressed it, and the lift slid upwards, a little jerkily for such a modern-looking device. The door on the upper floor opened behind Ace, making her jump. She turned again and walked out of the lift and into a small, square room. A bench was fixed to the floor in the centre of the room, and one wall was covered in panels that looked like larger versions of those on the window downstairs. As Ace crossed the room, an automated voice spoke.

“Welcome, citizen of Iceworld. While in the viewing room, please remain seated to avoid exposure to harmful light and radiation. The screens will be raised for one minute precisely. Once your viewing time has ended, you should leave the room immediately. Please sit down. Please sit down. Please sit down.”

Ace sat down facing the panels, and the voice ceased. Slowly, the panels began to move, folding up on each other, just as the others had done. Light began to come into the room, and Ace blinked, then raised a hand to shield her eyes. She stood up, but the panels began to close and the voice began again, so she sat down, hastily, then gasped as her eyes adjusted to the light and she saw the landscape that had been revealed to her. Giant towers, of ice stretched up into the sky. There was no sign of any plant or animal life, just rocks and ice. Under the ice, Ace could just see dark shapes, buildings, perhaps, like the one she was in. Had the ice shaped itself around the buildings, or were the buildings bored into the ice? Above, a dark sky was filled with coldly twinkling stars. On the horizon, a band of light was becoming wider, the dawn approaching, perhaps. Ace looked at the stars. She’d been interested in astronomy, until chemistry had consumed her mind so completely. The constellations weren’t the ones in her books and on the chart that still hung on her bedroom wall. She looked for the moon, but saw nothing. Wherever Iceworld was, it wasn’t on Earth.

“Flipping heck, Ace,” she murmured, “you’ve done it this time.”

She looked over the expanse of ice and rock, her eyes widening as she began to realise what that meant. She was in space. She’d often fantasised about being swept away from the world of her home, to a place where she could really feel like herself, where she might meet the people she had envisioned as being her “real” family. And it had happened. But now she was here, it didn’t seem quite as magical as she had hoped. She was alone and she was hungry. She didn’t know anyone and she didn’t know where she could go to find help. A tear came to Ace’s eye and she wiped it away impatiently.

“Snap out of it. You’re here and it’s up to you now. If there ain’t nobody to help you, you’ve got to help yourself.”

The panels began to close and the voice spoke:

“Citizen of Iceworld, your viewing session has ended. Vacate the room. Vacate the room. Vacate the...”

“All right!” said Ace, “leave it out, I’m going!”

She walked to the lift with exaggerated slowness and stuck her tongue out in the direction of the sound. The lift door closed and the lift began to slide downwards. As she travelled, Ace considered her next move. The first thing, she decided, was to find some food. She hoped she wouldn’t have to steal it, but … she shrugged mentally. The next thing was to find a place to hide out. She’d need to sleep at some point. And after that, well, what did people do here? People who weren’t guards, that is. She had seen one family, so, if Iceworld wasn’t a theme park, perhaps there were schools. No. Blow that for a lark. She wasn’t going back to school. What, then, work? The lift door opened and Ace stepped out into the corridor. First things first, find food, then go from there. She’d manage. She always did. Telling herself to get going, Ace set off again, looking for any sign that might lead her to food.

The corridors were lined with doors, but none of them opened, or seemed to lead to anything useful. At the end of the corridor, though, was a sign that read “commercial centre.” That seemed more hopeful. Shops might mean cafes and cafes might mean food, although there still remained the problem of how she would pay for it. Ace noted the symbol next to the words and followed the signs. As she walked, the corridors became busier around her. Muttering again "play it cool,” to herself, Ace went on, trying to look at those passing by without seeming to. Some of them looked a bit like Stellar and her mother, with ornate hairstyles and complicated, expensive looking clothes. Others, well, others hardly looked like people at all to Ace. One, a tall figure, startled her by unfolding two pairs of arms to catch an object it had dropped. From the neck up, it resembled a large frog, from the neck down, a human, apart from the additional arms. Ace glanced at it quickly then looked away before it could feel her looking at it. The passing figures chatted to each other in a variety of languages and Ace realised that this would be another problem to be overcome. She had understood the announcements and read the sign, but she clearly had work to do to understand some of the other inhabitants of Iceworld, in fact... At that point her train of thought was interrupted as lift door slid open on her left. She glanced towards it, her eye caught by the movement and saw a tall trolley full of what looked very like food. It wasn’t quite cake, and it certainly didn’t seem to be sandwiches, but perhaps it was the Iceworld equivalent. The portions were wrapped in what appeared to be cellophane and napkins were folded underneath. Ace looked round. Nobody seemed to be paying any attention to her. She edged towards the lift and reached out, then jumped as a hand seized her wrist. Ace struggled, but was pulled into the lift as the door closed again.

“I ought to report you to the guards,” said a quiet, gentle voice, “unless you can give me a very good reason not to.”

Ace looked at the owner of the voice. He was a small man, with greying hair pulled back from his face in a ponytail. Ace wasn’t much good at guessing people’s ages, but, to her, he looked at least 60. His face was lined and his arms were thin. The muscles stood out on them as he gripped Ace’s wrist. She twisted and turned, but couldn’t break his grasp.

“No, I’m not letting go of you until you talk. And we can stay here for as long as that takes. This delivery isn’t due for another half an hour, I’d got ahead of schedule. Now, what did you think you were doing stealing from my shipment?”

“I … I’m sorry,” said Ace.

“I should hope so.”

“I can pay for it, honest, I’ve got...” Ace rummaged in her pockets and pulled out the change she had found earlier.

The man looked at the collection of silver and copper and said, “Hmm, that won’t get you far here, child, you’ll need to do better than that. Where are you from?”

“I …"

Ace thought for a moment. Something about the man made her want to trust him, but she wasn’t sure if she should tell him about the time storm. But there didn’t seem to be much harm in saying which planet she had come from, so she said; “I’m from Earth. I only just got here and I was hungry. I’m sorry, I didn’t know where to find anything to eat, I didn’t want to steal from you but I’m hungry.”

“Clearly you are. And from Earth? You’re a long way from there now, my dear. I suppose you were on the passenger shuttle that crashed here the other week. In stasis were you?”

“Er, yeah, that’s right, stasis.”

The man smiled, his eyes twinkling in his lined face.

“I really don’t think you were. Because every passenger was accounted for. I know, I was there. Suppose you try telling me the truth?”

Ace looked at him, then sat down on the floor. He released her wrist and she rubbed it as she spoke.

“I don’t know how I got here. One minute I was in my bedroom, the next minute there was all this noise and wind and I was here. Me and my rucksack. I heard someone say something about a time storm, but I don’t know what that is and I don’t want no trouble. I just want something to eat and a place to stay while I get sorted out.”

“I see. Well, it’s possible I can help you with that,” said the man, he smiled again and helped Ace to her feet, “but I can’t give you any of this shipment, this is for the elite guards and they would notice if anyone helped themselves to their lunch. But come with me while I make my delivery and then I’ll see what I can do. My name’s Leofric, by the way, I’m the quartermaster.”

He held out his hand and Ace shook it.

“Ace,” she replied.

“Nice to meet you, Ace. Ah, here we are, follow me and keep your mouth shut.”

Ace was about to protest, but Leofric had moved out of the lift and was pushing the trolley along another corridor. He paused outside a door marked “WARDROOM, authorised personnel only” and scanned a card in a reader attached to the wall. The door opened and he pushed the trolley in. Ace followed him, keeping her eyes and ears open for anything that might come in useful.
The room was large, with tables and chairs set at regular intervals. It reminded Ace of the school dining hall. A counter ran along one wall, with a container that seemed to have water in it mounted on one end. Clear cups were stacked next to it. Leofric positioned the trolley next to the counter and said,

“Well, lass, as you’re here you can make yourself useful. Help me get these set out, four deep. Come on, jump to it!”

Ace found herself moving before she had really thought about it. Part of her resented being ordered about, but Leofric had been kind to her, so she joined him in setting out the packages of food on the counter. As she stood next to him, he whispered,

“That’s the way, you’re my assistant, see? For the next few minutes anyway. That should avoid any awkward questions.”

Ace nodded and continued to stack the packages as requested. Almost as soon as she and Leofric had finished unloading the trolley, the door opened again and guards began to file in. Without their helmets and long coats, they looked a bit less imposing, but Ace had a deep-rooted distrust of authority, and avoided meeting any eyes as she helped Leofric to wheel the trolley towards the door. They had almost reached it, when a woman spoke.

“You there. What’s your name, Leofric? Who is that with you?”

Leofric turned towards the speaker. Ace kept her back turned, but glanced back quickly. The woman wasn’t especially tall, but she seemed to loom over the quartermaster. Her hair, which was a striking reddish blonde, was drawn back and pleated behind her head. Looking at her, Ace’s first impression was one of beauty, but the hardness of the woman’s expression replaced that impression with one of cruelty. Leofric inclined his head, as if bowing.

"Madam Belazs, this is my assistant. I am not ready to retire yet, but my load is heavy and I am training her to support me so that we may keep to time and not delay your important work."
Belazs looked at Leofric, but could see nothing but honesty in his gaze, so said,

“Very well. But take care that she doesn’t get you into trouble. She has the look of one who might.”

Ace bit back a retort and kept her eyes averted. Leofric nodded and bowed again, then called to Ace and they maneuvered the trolley out into the corridor and towards the lift. When the door had closed and the lift had begun to move, Leofric said quietly,

“Belazs is Kane’s right hand. If you’ll take my advice you’ll stay as far away from her as possible. And definitely stay well away from him.”

Ace nodded again. She shivered at the memory of the woman’s expression and asked, “this Kane, does he run the place? What is he? Sort of a president, or a king?”

Leofric paused before answering, then said, “I don’t understand what a king might be, but I know that presidents are elected. Kane wasn’t elected, he just rules. He’s always been here, and it seems that he always will be. Belazs does most of the day to day running the place, but Kane is behind it all. The guards serve him and so do the mercenary army, though we aren’t really supposed to know about them.”

Ace said, “Mercenaries? Like paid soldiers?”

“Not really. Kane’s recruitment isn’t really a choice.”

“What do they do? Is there anyone to fight here?”

“Not at the moment. I’m not privy to all their secrets, I’m glad to say, but I do know that now and again, people are summoned to the control centre as ‘volunteers’ and we never see them again. So, either there is a secret barracks somewhere, or Kane has some other way of keeping them until he needs them.”

The lift had reached its destination and Ace helped Leofric shift the trolley into the corridor and push it in the direction he indicated.

“What about the guards?” asked Ace, “are they like... the Fuzz?” seeing Leofric’s confusion, she said, “I mean the police, the … security. Where do they come from?”

Leofric stopped walking and sighed.

“You ask a lot of questions, young woman. I can understand why, you’re new here, but it doesn’t do to ask too many questions on Iceworld. Since you asked, though, the guards are from here. They are recruited by Kane himself. He offers them, I don’t know what he offers them, but they give him their lives in exchange and bear his mark on their hands. He seeks out the brightest and most promising, or else the most vicious, and summons them. And now I’ve said too much, so you will kindly forget that I’ve mentioned it. But if I can give you some advice, it would be to keep your head down and try not to attract too much attention to yourself. Now,” they stopped by a large door and Leofric applied the brakes, “Let’s get you sorted out with something to eat and some quarters.”

He led the way and Ace followed, turning over what she had been told in her mind. She tended to avoid the police as a rule, they had a habit of asking awkward questions about her activities, especially when those activities led to explosions, but that seemed to go double here. She shivered again as she remembered Belazs’s expression. A rumble from her stomach interrupted this train of thought, though, and she followed Leofric eagerly down the corridor to a door marked “STORE” with a symbol of shelving and boxes. Leofric scanned his card and opened the door, then ushered Ace in. At first glance, the room seemed surprisingly small, but then Ace realised it was an ante-room, and that the main storeroom was through the door at the back, where she could see shelving laden with packages of various shapes and sizes. The smaller room, which, she assumed was Leofric’s office, had a desk with a computer and printer on it, and an office chair, and two armchairs next to a low table. A small counter with a sink, a kettle and what looked like a small camping stove stood behind the desk. Leofric waved Ace to an armchair and then filled and switched on the kettle.

“Won’t be long,” he said, “I’m sure you could do with a hot drink. In the meantime,” he leaned down under the counter and took a cellophane wrapped package out a cupboard, which he threw to Ace, “get yourself outside that.”

Ace unwrapped the food, which resembled a cross between a doughnut and a sausage roll and began to eat, cautiously at first, then ravenously. The kettle boiled and Leofric poured boiling water into two mugs, or, at least, containers that resembled mugs, and stirred in a powdery substance, then passed one of the containers to Ace.

“Watch yourself, it’s hot,” he warned as he sat down with his own mug.

“Thanks,” said Ace, then, “It’s really good of you to help me, you didn’t have to, you don’t even know who I am.”

“I don’t need to,” replied Leofric, “and, really, it’s best if you don’t tell me. Whatever brought you here, time storm, ship, or whatever it was, you need a bit of help, so I’ll give it to you. You’ll be on your own after that though.”

“I can manage,” said Ace, her face set in an expression of determination that made Leofric smile. “I always have. I ain’t got a real family, I can do OK on my own.”

“Good,” replied Leofric, after sipping his drink, “I’ll find you some quarters, but you’ll need to find a job. Start at the commercial centre, there’s usually vacancies there.”

Ace tried not to scowl at the idea of working in a shop. She knew her new friend was right, if she was staying here, and it seemed like she was, she would need to pay her way. She sipped her drink, which tasted almost, but not quite, like hot chocolate. Leofric went on,
“While we’re here, I might as well tell you a bit about this place. The official version is that Iceworld is a thriving community that welcomes visitors on their way across the galaxy. They can shop, gamble, eat, drink and relax as they break their journeys. That’s the official version.” He paused and Ace looked up sharply, “Yes, I thought you’d be more interested in the unofficial version. Nobody knows exactly why Iceworld was founded, or when, but it’s been here for at least two thousand years. We are a stopping place, not a destination and, though time passes, nothing much seems to change. Kane is in charge, the ice is still here, we carry on as we always have. People do stay here on their way to other places, sometimes they stay longer than they intended to. Those of us that live here have a few rules to follow. Don’t mess with the guards. Most of them aren’t very bright, but they all report to Belazs and, ultimately, to Kane, and they are very bright and very, very dangerous. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Stay out of the restricted zones. Follow the rules and you’ll probably be OK.”

Ace thought for a moment, “So it’s like an airport hotel?” she asked, “With shops and restaurants and stuff. And duty free?”

“I’m not sure what any of that means, lass, but there are shops and restaurants. And places to stay. Most of us that aren’t guards work in them. That’s why I said to try the commercial centre for a job.”

He and Ace finished their drinks in silence, then he stood up and went over to his desk and pressed a button on his keyboard.

“Yes,” he said, “76B isn’t occupied, you can bunk there for now. Just a moment,” he went into the store room and returned with a plastic covered bundle which he held out and dropped into Ace’s arms, “take that. It’s the standard guest pack, you’ll find it useful. And follow me.”

Ace did as he instructed and they went out of the room and back into the corridor. As they went along, Ace tried to keep track of their route. She remembered reading about Theseus and the Minotaur and wished she had a piece of string to mark her path. As if he had read her mind, Leofric recited the directions as they went:

“We’re on level 5. 100 strides, then turn right. Another hundred strides, then take the lift to level 4. Turn right, then 200 strides … and here we are.”

They stopped outside a door marked with what Ace assumed were the numerals of different nationalities, including (to her relief) Arabic. 76B was clearly marked. Leofric handed Ace a card and said, “Here, this’ll get you in and out of your quarters, and into the public areas. If it doesn’t work on a door, you’re not supposed to be in there.”

Ace frowned, but straightened her face hurriedly, she didn’t want to worry Leofric, but she had an idea that she might be interested in what was behind the forbidden doors. She scanned the card and walked into the room, then stopped and dropped the package she was holding in surprise.

“But... it’s my bedroom,” she gasped.

Leofric had been distracted by people passing through the corridor and hadn’t heard, so said, “What was that?”

Ace hesitated, then said, “oh, nothing, that is, it looks nice, thanks,”

“If you say so,” replied Leofric, looking at her narrowly, “you’re welcome. I’d forgotten there was any furniture in this one, I thought it had been cleared out after... well, never mind.”

“What?” asked Ace, “who had this room before?”

“Oh, a lad,” said Leofric, with studied carelessness, “Marial, his name was, is, I mean. He joined the guards a month or so ago. Bright kid, keen on science”.

Ace was about to ask another question, but Leofric’s expression dissuaded her. Instead, she sat down on the bed and began to unwrap the package he had given her. Leofric nodded and went out and the door slid closed behind him. Ace paused in her unwrapping and stood up. It was her bedroom. Obviously, it wasn’t, but the bed, the desk and the wardrobe were hers. The duvet cover with penguins on that she was too old for now, and the jumpers hanging out of the wardrobe door, the stand with her flasks and test tubes, and the Bunsen burner on the desk, it was her bedroom. How? The time storm again? What kind of storm would pick her up and dump her in a corridor, but then move the contents of her bedroom to another room, all ready and waiting for her? Ace frowned and sat down again. Someone, or something, was messing with her, and she didn’t like it. She said, aloud, “I’ll find out who you are. I will. You ain’t getting away with this.” For the time being though, it looked as if she was stuck on Iceworld, so she might as well settle in. She bent down and finished unwrapping the package. It contained a number of objects, all neatly packed. The first was map of Iceworld, with public areas clearly marked. Ace unfolded it and looked at it. That would be useful, she’d explore properly later. She was more interested in the areas off the edges of the unrestricted zones, but this would do for a start. Under the map was a blanket, made of a synthetic material which crinkled under Ace’s fingers. She put it down on the bed beside her and picked up the next items, a box containing a small kettle and a packet of sachets. From the illustration on the packet Ace could see that they contained powder for hot drinks. Ace looked round and saw that, unlike her bedroom at home, her new quarters had a bathroom attached.
“Wicked! And I’ve already got a mug...” Ace blushed slightly as she noticed the unwashed mugs on her desk, but brushed that thought aside and put the kettle and the sachets on the desk. Another packet, this time of something that might have been cereal bars followed. She wouldn’t starve, at any rate. Ace yawned and sat back on her bed. Suddenly she realised she was tired. She felt like an elastic band that had been stretched to its limit and had suddenly gone ping. She leaned forward again and took off her boots, then curled up with her head on her pillow. After a moment she pulled the new, strange blanket over her. A comforting warmth spread through her body. Although the blanket was thin, it seemed to weigh down on Ace, forcing her to relax. She lay still, feeling the tension leave her muscles. Her eyelids fluttered and closed. No wonder she was tired, she’d had a really weird day. There was no harm in having a kip. She would just have a few minutes and then try and explore a bit … it was so warm under this blanket … so … Ace was asleep.

In the control centre, Kane was in conference with Belazs.

“All is proceeding as planned,” he said, “the army is almost complete, and once I have secured the Dragonfire we will be ready to attack.”

“And how will you find it?” asked Belazs.

“The opportunity will present itself. And if it does not, I will force the matter. Now, what have you to report?”

“Very little,” said Belazs, “the time storm caused minimal damage, the cameras have been repaired, all is as it should be.”

“Good,” replied Kane, “I know I can trust you. Can’t I?”

At his words, Belazs shivered, and hated herself for doing so. In order to distract him, she cleared her throat and said, “there is one small matter.”

Kane, who had turned to return to the restricted zone, turned back and said, “Yes?”

“The quartermaster, Leofric, he’s getting talkative in his old age. He brought a strange girl into the wardroom today. He said she was his assistant. He’s been here long enough to have noticed things he shouldn’t have and...” she paused.

Kane frowned, then smiled, and Belazs shivered again.

“Ah, yes, I know the man. Then it is time he was replaced. Send some guards to retrieve him and appoint a successor.” Kane turned again and went into the restricted zone. He had waited too long this time. He breathed heavily as he laid down on the bed of the pod and the lid closed over him. The automated voice began to count down as the temperature dropped and Kane relaxed.

Having recovered herself, Belazs went to the microphone and summoned two guards. When they arrived, she briefed them on the matter in hand.

“There are doubts about the loyalty of the Quartermaster, and Kane wishes him removed. You will arrest him and inform Avrecote that he has been given the position, to start immediately. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

The guards departed and Belazs smiled thinly. This would give Marial a chance to prove his loyalty too, or otherwise.

Ace had no idea how long she had she had been asleep. She looked at her watch, but it had stopped working, because of the time storm, perhaps. She sat up and pushed the blanket off, then looked around her room. She really was here then. For a moment, when she woke, she wondered if it had been a dream, but it hadn’t. She was on Iceworld. Ace thought about what Leofric had told her and reached for her map. She could see that she wasn’t far from the Commercial Centre. With her finger she traced the route that she and Leofric had taken from his stores to her quarters, and then she tried to work out where she had first landed when she arrived, and where the lift to the viewing platform was, in case she wanted to go back there. Grabbing a pen from her desk, Ace marked these important locations, then sat down and considered the rest of the map. The restricted zones were identified with circles with lines through them, clearly the intergalactic symbol for “keep out,” but beyond the symbols the map gave little information. The lowest levels were restricted, and marked “dangerous.” Ace, never deterred by threats of danger, murmured, “Wicked” and put a question mark on the map. Other sections were marked “security” and, most intriguingly “scientific section.” Ace ringed the corridor nearest to the section. She would need supplies at some point, if she wanted to carry on her research. She glanced down at her rucksack. The silver flasks, visible through the opening at the top, contained nitro nine, a powerful explosive of her own devising. Explosives had got Ace into trouble before, but her fascination with chemistry hadn’t waned. She drew an exclamation mark next to the ring on the map. She definitely needed to explore the scientific section. Suddenly, she remembered the guards. The cold cruelty of Belazs’s face returned to her and she shivered and drew her new blanket round her, almost for security. She would have to be careful, if she didn’t want to end up disappearing like the people Leofric had talked about. And she didn’t. Ace still wasn’t sure how she had got to Iceworld, or if she would be able to get away, but she was determined to survive. Ace put the map down and sat back again. So, what now? She decided to have a snack and then go for a walk towards the Commercial Centre. If there were people, or, well, yes, people about (remembering the four-armed frog) she would try and blend in and have a good look round. Ace nodded to herself and went to fill the kettle, then sat down at her desk and opened the box of cereal bars. Once the kettle had boiled, she rinsed one of her mugs and made herself a drink, pleased to find that the sachets contained the not-quite-chocolate that she had shared with Leofric. She smiled as she thought of him. He was nice, not like Stellar’s mother. Hopefully, Stellar wouldn’t grow up to be a snob like her mum. Ace put down her mug and stood up. Time to explore. She picked up her rucksack, then hesitated. If she was going to the commercial centre, she probably shouldn’t take the nitro nine with her. If she got caught with it on her, there could be serious trouble. Regretfully, Ace put the rucksack back down. She put her jacket on, though, (she didn’t feel like herself without it), and tucked her keycard into one of the pockets. Whistling to herself, trying to give an impression of confidence that she didn’t entirely feel, Ace left her quarters.

Leofric was finishing a stock take when the door to his store opened. He emerged from the store-room, electronic clipboard in hand and nodded to the guards who stood just inside the doorway.

“Afternoon, gents. What can I do for you?” he asked. The guards didn’t reply. Leofric put down his clipboard and sat down behind his desk.
“Like that is it?” he said, “I didn’t expect to see you again so soon Marial.”

One of the guards, a tall young man with dark curly hair showing under his helmet, said, coldly, “You will come with us. You are summoned to the control centre.”

“Really? What have I done to deserve this honour?” asked Leofric, his voice tinged with sarcasm.

The young man’s expression didn’t change. He held out his right hand, and gestured to his companion.

“Take him,” he said.

The other guard dragged Leofric from his seat and pinioned his arms behind him. Leofric didn’t struggle, he sighed and looked at the guard who had spoken.

“Show me your hand, Marial.”

As if hypnotised, the young guard held out his hand with the palm upwards. Leofric could see the sign of initiation and loyalty to Kane, the mark left on the recruit when they grasped Kane’s frozen sovereign. The scars were fresh, and stood out in angry red against the paleness of Marial’s skin. Leofric shook his head.

“He really does own you now, then. What a shame. What would your mother have said?”

“What she, or anyone else would have said is none of your concern, old man,” replied Marial, sharply. “You talk too much. Bring him.” He turned and left the room without another word and his colleague followed, pulling Leofric with him. The Quartermaster didn’t resist, but shook his head, sadly. Another man was waiting outside the door, younger than Leofric and with a carefully blank expression on his face, though his eyes glittered with what might have been hunger, or might have been avarice. As the arresting officers emerged with their prisoner, Leofric saw the man and said, “Oh, so you’re taking it on, are you? Take care. You don’t want to end up like me. You see a lot in this job, you know.”

The man, who was the Avrecote named by Belazs, smiled nastily.

“Oh, there’s no danger of that,” he replied, “I know when to keep my eyes shut, and my mouth too.” He nodded to the guards, then went into the store. Leofric shook his head again, and the guards led him away. As they walked, they passed other inhabitants of Iceworld, all of whom took care not to look at them. Leofric noted this with weary resignation. He didn’t blame them, but he felt a slight regret that he would disappear with so little fuss. Even when he staggered and almost fell, and the guards pulled him upright, nobody so much as glanced at them. Suddenly Ace came into his mind and he hoped that she was alright, and that she would manage to stay out of trouble. He was old, but she had her life before her and he wouldn’t wish his, or Marial’s fate on her.

Ace had reached the commercial centre and had walked round some of the shops. On the whole, she had found it disappointing. After what Leofric had said she had expected it to be like a bit airport, full of exciting shops and places to eat and a duty-free shop, which had taken on a an almost mythical status in her mind following her more well-off classmates accounts of their holidays. Instead, the centre reminded her a bit of a motorway service station. There were food shops and clothes shops, and the café and a slightly more up-market looking restaurant, but everything was a bit shabby and understocked. “Not much better than home,” she muttered as she walked on, “and there ain’t no record shops or nothing cool.” Voices from loudspeakers reminded shoppers of offers and, in slightly hectoring tones, urged them to spend. Once again, Ace was reminded of the isolation of Iceworld. Leofric had said it was the only settlement on this planet, so that must mean that any supplies came from other planets. That was almost too much for Ace’s imagination, so she tried to scale it down and think of Iceworld as Perivale and imagined what it would be like if all the supplies had to come from Glasgow, or America, or even Australia. It would take ages and half the stuff would have gone off by the time it got there. No wonder the shops on Iceworld were a bit rubbish. She glanced at a restaurant menu but the names of the dishes meant nothing to her.

“There ain’t even a Little Chef,” she muttered, trying to put visions of Jubilee pancakes and the free lolly that she was really too old for, but always demanded, out of her mind.

Thoughts of the isolation of Iceworld led to another. Would she be able to leave? She knew the name of the planet she was on, but had no idea where it was, or even, she realised with a start, when it was. If she had been pulled away from Earth by a time storm, might she have gone into the future? Ace stopped and leaned against a wall, to try and calm herself down. One thing at a time. Try and find a job, something to keep her going while she was here, and then, find out if she could get out of here. It might take time, but she didn’t intend to stay if she could avoid it. On the other hand, perhaps she should be careful what she wished for. She had imagined that being swept away to the stars would change her life for the better, but here she was, stuck in a space services. The place seemed frozen, in time as well as by nature. The droning of the loudspeakers, the shabbiness of the shops, the bored-looking shoppers all added to a sense of inertia. Ace shrugged, then went on, keeping a look out for any signs of any businesses seeking employees.

Leofric stood between his captors as Kane walked backwards and forwards in front of them. He stopped and pulled off one of his gloves. Leofric didn’t flinch, but Marial’s eyelids flickered as Kane approached.

“Well, Quartermaster, it appears we need to keep you quiet. I hear from my lieutenants that you have been talking out of turn. Careless talk is dangerous, you know.”

He came closer and stretched out his hand. Leofric groaned as the icy palm touched his face, then slumped to the floor. Kane nodded in satisfaction and put his glove back on.

“You two,” he said to Marial and his colleague, “get rid of this, then return to your duties.”

He turned his back on the men and walked away. The two guards stood, as if they had also been frozen, until the door of the restricted zone closed behind Kane, then Marial bent down and tried to lift Leofric’s body.

“Help me, will you?” he snapped at his colleague.

“What’s the matter with you?” asked the other guard, whose name was Rodell.

“Nothing,” replied Marial, equally curtly, “just, let’s get him out of here.”

“Ok, keep your hair on,” said Rodell, looking at Marial curiously. Feeling his comrade’s gaze, Marial turned his head away and blinked. He wouldn’t show weakness. Not in front of Rodell and definitely not in front of Kane. The wound on his hand smarted. He must remember to wear gloves. Without any further conversation, Marial and Rodell lifted Leofric’s lifeless body and carried it out of the control room.

Ace hadn’t had much luck with her job hunt. Most of the shops seemed to be running with the smallest staff possible. She was about to give up and return to her quarters, when she reached the café. Through the glass door, she could see the tables and chairs and the counter, where a man who looked surprisingly like a waiter on Earth was standing by what she took to be a coffee machine, if such a thing existed on Iceworld. Ace stretched out her hand to open the door, then saw a notice attached to the glass. The notice, which seemed to have been written in felt pen, read “Help wanted, apply within.” Cheered by this opportunity, but slightly depressed that her voyage into space seemed to have ended in something as mundane as waitressing, Ace went in and walked over to the counter. When the man behind it ignored her, she knocked on the countertop and said, “Excuse me.”

The man turned towards her with an expression that was both annoyed and harassed.

“Yes,” he asked, “what is it? What do you want?”

Ace began to wonder if she really wanted to work for this man, he seemed a bit of a berk, but as her grandmother had sometimes said, beggars couldn’t be choosers, so she bit back the rude reply that had sprung to her lips and smiled.

“It says you want help on the sign.”

“What? Oh yes, yes of course. Do you have any experience?”

“Yeah, I’ve done a bit of waitressing,” replied Ace. She had, though she didn’t mention that she had hated it.

“Good, good,” said the man, seeming to calm down a little, “that’s excellent. How soon can you start?”

“Er,” Ace was surprised. Surely there would be an interview at least? “I can start whenever you want. How much do you pay?”

“Two crowns an hour, you’ll get paid at the end of your shift, and you’ll get a reduction on anything we haven’t sold at the end of the day.”

Ace didn’t know how much a crown was, and didn’t think the opportunity to buy leftovers was much of an enticement, but her stomach was beginning to remind her that it had been a while since her cereal bar, so she held out her hand.

“Done!” she said, cheerfully, “I’ll take it.”

The man looked startled, but shook Ace’s hand and said, “Excellent. I’m Mr. Anderson, and you are?”

“Ace.”

“Ace, good. Well Ace, you’ll need to work hard here, we do a lot of business, but if you’re ready for that it’ll be rewarding. I haven’t got time to show you the ropes now, but sit here and I’ll show you round once the rush is over.”

“Ok.” Once again, Ace was surprised at the acceptance of her chosen name. Then again, the people she had met hadn’t had what she would have called ordinary names, so … but Mr. Anderson was speaking again.

“Good, excellent. Ah, one moment. As you’re just starting, we might as well celebrate with a milkshake on the house. Don’t get used to it though, hahahaha.”

He ended with a nervous laugh that made Ace think “wally” and returned to the counter, then came back with a glass full of pinkish liquid that he set down in front of Ace. She sipped it and found it agreeably cool and strawberry flavoured. While she drank her milkshake, Ace looked round the café at the customers. The frog-man, as she thought of him, was sitting at a table near the door, holding a sandwich with one of his hands, while gesticulating to his companion, a tall woman with dark green skin, with the other three. At another table, a man, who appeared to be human, or at least, humanoid, was chatting to two other diners, one of whom looked to Ace like a small dog, but which was conversing with his companions in a deep, strongly accented voice. The dog-man looked at Ace and, not wanting to be seen staring, she averted her eyes and caught sight of Stellar and her mother at a table near the wall. Stellar was sitting on the floor, talking earnestly to a teddy bear who was almost as big as she was and who had a blue bow round his neck that matched his owner’s dress. Her mother was talking to another woman of similar dress and, Ace assumed, social class, as her. Ace could hear from the tone of her voice that she was complaining about something. Stellar looked up and, seeing Ace, picked up her bear and toddled across the café towards her.

“Hello Ace,” she said, once she had reached her acquaintance, “this is Teddy.”

Ace wasn’t always at ease with small children, but she liked Stellar’s directness and lack of guile, so she solemnly shook one of Teddy’s paws and said,

“Hello Teddy, nice to meet you.”

“Teddy, this is Ace,” explained Stellar, “she’s my friend too.”

Stellar sat down on the floor and began to explain to Ace where Teddy had come from (a planet populated entirely by bears, apparently) when Ace saw something tucked into the sash of her young friend’s dress.

“What’s that you’ve got there?” she asked.

“Oh, I found this in the corridor,” Stellar replied, “I think it’s probably magic. It might be to open a treasure chest.”

She paused and pulled what Ace recognised as a keycard out of her sash and handed it to Ace. Ace turned it over in her hands. She didn’t understand the text on the card, but the photograph of Leofric that was scanned onto one side was unmistakable.

Stellar watched Ace examine the card, then said, “you can have it if you like, I don’t want it really, I just found it.”

Ace, who had been wondering how Leofric had come to lose his keycard, and how she would persuade Stellar to give it up so that she could return it to him, smiled and said, “thank you very much, that’s very kind of you. I promise I’ll look after it.”

Stellar seemed satisfied with this and, on seeing her mother look round, got up, said, “Bye, Ace” and went back across the café to her mother’s table. Ace tucked the keycard in her pocket and turned her attention back to her milkshake.

It was close to 1700 hours Iceworld time, and Ace’s first shift at the café was over. She thought she had managed fairly well, considering the strangeness of the customers and food, and the variable moods of her new boss. Mr. Anderson had, as he said, “shown her the ropes,” and it had been pretty much as she had expected. It would take her a while to get used to the money, and she already resented Anderson’s attitude, which was one of high-handedness to his staff and cringing servility to his customers. But she’d been paid, and had had a meal at the end of the shift, so she counted those as successes. Mr. Anderson had seen her off with the instruction to turn up on time tomorrow and Ace had swallowed the retort she had wanted to give and had said that she would. On the way back to her quarters, she had called in at one of the shops and had bought a cheap alarm clock, so that would be OK. When Ace reached her quarters, she took off her jacket and flopped down on the bed. Her jacket slipped onto the floor and Leofric’s card fell out of the pocket. Ace sat up. She should really give the card back to him. And she could tell him about her new job. Ace had only just met Leofric, but the old man’s kindness had made a deep impression on her. She picked up the card and set off for the store, once again whistling as she went.

The door to the store was ajar, so Ace tapped on it and went it. Inside, instead of Leofric, she saw a stranger. He was younger than the Quartermaster and had sharp features and an air about him that Ace didn’t like. Her sensitivity to mood and impulsive nature recoiled from this smooth looking man. “Snake,” she thought, and his tone of voice confirmed her impression.

“Can I help you, young lady?” the man asked, swinging his legs down from the desk where he had been resting his feet.

“Oh, er, no, I mean, I was looking for Leofric,” replied Ace, trying not to seem flustered.

“He doesn’t work here anymore,” replied the man, “I’m Avrecote and I’m the Quartermaster now.”

“Oh.” Ace was bewildered by this. Surely Leofric would have told her if he had been going to retire? She hoped nothing had happened to him, but she didn’t feel that she could ask the newcomer, so she said, “Oh, OK. Thanks, I’ll see him another time.”

“I wouldn’t go looking for him,” said Avrecote, “He’s not likely to be around much. It’d be safer not to, if you get my meaning.”

Ace turned away so that he wouldn’t see her expression. Trying to keep her voice calm, she said, “Yeah, I do. Thanks.”

Without saying another word, she walked quickly down the corridor. When she reached her room, she flung herself on the bed, face down. What had they done to him? Why had he been taken away? She understood Avrecote’s meaning alright. Could she do anything to help her friend? A hot tear slid down Ace’s cheek and she sat up and wiped it away with the back of her hand. She would NOT be a baby. Crying wouldn’t get her anywhere. She would find him. She owed it to him … then Leofric’s words came back to her, telling her to keep her head down, to not draw attention to herself. Her expression became mutinous, but then she sighed. Leofric wouldn’t want her to get herself in trouble for him. But, she tapped the keycard against her lower lip, assuming this still worked, she might be able to get into some of the places that ordinary Iceworld people couldn’t. Like the scientific section, for instance. A quartermaster must have access to all kinds of interesting places. Ace wiped away a final tear and put the card down on her bedside table, her face set in a determined expression. If she couldn’t rescue Leofric, at least she could find out more about this place she was stuck in, and maybe carry on refining the nitro nine. You never knew when that might come in useful. What time was it? Nearly eight o’clock. Ace was very much a “no time like the present” person, but something about her recent experiences had made her cautious. She would plan this evening, have a proper look at her map, and then she’d explore tomorrow after work. Ace set her alarm, in case she forgot later, and decided to get into her pyjamas. Might as well make a drink and get into bed too. The packet of sachets made her think of Leofric again and she scowled. If anyone had hurt him, she would get her own back on them. That decision made she went to the basin to fill the kettle.

The next morning Ace was woken by the shrilling of the alarm clock. She groaned and stretched out a hand from under her duvet, managing to find the button on her third try. She sat up and pushed her hair out of her eyes. Really, being on a distant planet was almost as bad as being at home. You still had to get up and go to work. Ace had imagined that life in other worlds would involve rather more adventure and rather fewer alarm clocks. Grumbling to herself, she got out of bed and went to have a shower. The shower refreshed her a bit, and she felt almost human by the time she had had her breakfast, an approximate croissant from yesterday’s café leftovers. Mr. Anderson had told her that she would need to dress a bit more smartly, so Ace left her bomber jacket on her chair and put on a straight skirt and suit jacket over her T-shirt. If he made a fuss about the T-shirt, she would tell him that that was smart where she came from. She took her rucksack with her this time, but left most of the nitro nine behind, limiting herself to one flask. The keycard was hidden in an inside pocket, along with the map. The first part of her walk to the café was uneventful, but she was surprised to find one of the doorways blocked and a small crowd gathered around it. Ace pushed her way to the front and asked “What’s going on?”

“It’s an ice blockage again,” said a man, wearily. He was wearing overalls and carrying a toolbox and had the air of one who was being put upon. “It keeps getting in here and freezing solid and nothing we do seems to keep it out for long. There’s too much of it here now, anyway, I can’t do anything with it. No,” as complaints came from the others, “it’s no good. I’ll report it but I haven’t got the tools to break through it. Sorry,” he finished, in a tone that suggested that he didn’t really care, then he picked up his toolbox and walked away. The group watched him go, then one woman said, “well! It’s too much. I don’t have time for detours this morning, I’ve got an appointment and I...” her voice faded as she walked away. Ace looked at the doorway thoughtfully. The opening was filled with a smooth, opaque sheet of ice. She couldn’t see how thick it was, but she felt the temperature drop as she got closer to it. Her first thought was that her can of nitro nine would probably clear that out nicely, but then she remembered that she had only just got to Iceworld, and that she wasn’t supposed to be getting into trouble, so, instead, she got out her map and found an alternative route to the café. As she hurried along the corridor, Ace thought about the ice. She hadn’t thought of it as mobile, but didn’t glaciers move? Clearly the buildings of Iceworld were vulnerable to their surroundings, which made her wonder again why anyone would want to settle on such an unhospitable planet. A twinge of fear came into her mind. If the ice could block a doorway, could it crush a corridor? Or a section? Ace shook her head. She didn’t have time to worry about that now, it was time to help Mr. Anderson prepare for the morning trade and try and not be rude to anyone. Not very rude anyway. Not much.

The day passed mostly without incident. Apart from Ace “accidentally” spilling a milk jug into the lap of a customer who complained about the speed of the service, and tripping another customer who had called her “you, girl.” Ace didn’t think that either mishap was worth making a fuss about but she took her telling off from Anderson with a poker face, told him it wouldn’t happen again and bought her evening meal, which she ate quickly at one of the tables, before mopping the floor and being escorted out by Anderson. In case anyone was paying attention, Ace set off in the direction of her quarters, then turned left instead of right, and made her way towards one of the blank spaces on her map. She kept a careful eye on the security cameras. Her particular interests had taught her how to identify blind spots and she dodged in and out of doorways as she went, trying to avoid detection. After a breathless progress down corridors and staircases, avoiding lifts in case she got cornered, Ace found herself at the entrance to the scientific section. The symbols on the wall left her in no doubt that entrance was forbidden to unauthorised persons, and a set of timings showed when the area was staffed, and when it wasn’t accessible. Ace looked up at a clock mounted on the wall. Good, they should be out of there by now. She waited until the security camera turned away from the door to face the corridor, then ran to the door and scanned Leofric’s card. The door lock released and Ace went in.

In the control centre, Belazs looked at an indicator and spoke into her microphone; “Motion detectors activated in the scientific section, Marial and Rodell, investigate and report.”

Ace moved slowly and quietly through the laboratories. A low, emergency lighting meant that she didn’t need to use a torch, at least until she found something she was really interested in. Disappointingly, there didn’t seem to be much chemistry going on in the scientific section, to Ace it looked more like physics or computing. She listened intently for any sound of footsteps, she didn’t want to get caught, especially without having found anything first. At last, she found a cabinet that looked promising, though the symbols were unfamiliar to her. This wasn’t an insurmountable obstacle though, a bit of careful testing would enable her to distinguish one substance from the other, surely? Ace opened her rucksack and looked round for a way to open the cabinet door. As she did so, she heard a noise. Not a footstep, but a soft sound of something brushing against one of the benches. Ace dropped to the floor and crawled under one of the benches, pulling her rucksack with her. She held her breath as the sound came closer. A pair of feet, clad in white shoes at the end of white trouser legs, appeared in her view and she strained every muscle to keep still.

The feet turned and a voice said, quietly, “I can’t find anything in here, it must have been a false alarm, you report and I’ll double check the locks.”

An indistinct reply came from further away. The feet stood still, then, suddenly, a face appeared in front of Ace and two hands dragged her out of her hiding place. Ace struggled and was about to scream, but her assailant covered her mouth with a hand and whispered, “keep quiet, unless you want to go to Kane.” At this Ace stopped struggling.

The other voice, which Ace could hear more clearly now she was out from under the bench, called, “I’ve called it in, shall I close up?”

“No, I’ll do it, you get on,” replied Ace’s captor.

“Right, see you later.”

“Yes, I’ll be along as soon as I’ve done a final check.”

There was a sound of retreating footsteps and a door closing. The man holding Ace pulled her across to a chair and said, “Sit down.”

“No, I won’t, what do you think you’re...”

At this the man put his hand over Ace’s mouth again and forced her into the chair, then, holding her with one hand, grabbed a roll of insulated tape from a nearby bench and wound it round her wrists, fastening first one, then the other to the arms of the chair. She continued to struggle and protest, until he tore off a final strip of tape and put it over her mouth.
The man stood back and looked at Ace. He was tall and slim, with dark curls visible under his helmet. In the dim light, Ace could see that he was wearing a glove on one hand and that he was young, possibly not much older than her. He squatted down next to the chair and said, quietly and urgently, “now, listen to me. I’m going to ask you some questions and if you want to live you will answer them honestly, do you understand?”
Ace nodded and the man pulled the tape off her mouth. As soon as it had been removed, she said, “who are you?”

“That doesn’t matter. How did you get in here?”

“I … found a key,” said Ace, hesitantly.

“Did you? Where?”

“In the corridors, I can’t remember exactly where.”

“Where is it now?”

“I lost it”

The man’s expression darkened. “I told you to answer honestly. Where is it?”

Ace looked at him and tried to think, but she couldn’t think of a way out, so she said, “it’s in my bag, in the inside pocket.”

The man opened the bag and retrieved the card. He took a small torch from his pocket and shone it on the card, then sighed.

“Did he give this to you?” he asked.

“No! I told you, I found it!”

“Where?”

“In the corridor. I told you. What does it matter?”

“I suppose it doesn’t, really,” said the man, pulling up a lab stool and sitting down on it. “This card belonged to my uncle.”

“Your uncle? But?”

“Shut up and listen to me. This card belonged to my uncle. He was arrested yesterday and anyone caught with his keycard will be in very serious trouble. I saw you with him in the ward room. Who are you?”

“I’m … nobody. I just got here. He was kind to me. What did they do to him?” The man turned his head away and Ace gasped.

“Yes, he won’t need this card anymore. And neither will you.”

The man leaned forward and began to pull the tape away from Ace’s wrists.

“My name is Marial. I’m a member of the guard and, after today, it’s best if we don’t see each other again.”

“You’re Marial? He told me about you. He said you’d...”

Marial pulled off his glove and held out his hand to Ace. She looked at the wound, which had started to weep a little following the struggle.

“That’s what he said. He said you had a mark...”

“Yes. We take Kane’s sovereign and it burns us with cold. Then he owns us. We do whatever he orders us to. Even...”

“You, you didn’t?” Ace didn’t know how to ask, but Marial knew.

“I arrested him. I didn’t kill him, Kane did that, but I took him there.”

“How COULD you?!” Ace sprang forward and Mariel grabbed her wrist before she could strike his face.

“You don’t understand. Kane owns me. I didn’t have a choice.”

“Yes, you did!” shouted Ace.

Pain crossed Marial’s face as he grabbed Ace’s other wrist and shook her. “No, I didn’t,” he said.

“Then why haven’t you arrested me?” Ace asked, breathless.

“Because … because,” Marial turned his head away, “I don’t know. Yes, I do. Because he cared about me and he cared about you, and because I failed him and arresting you would mean I’d failed him again. Now. Tell me. Where did you get the card?”

“A kid found it. She gave it to me in the café. A little girl with a blue dress.”

“Stellar? That wretched child gets everywhere. You can’t turn round without tripping over her. Did anyone see her give it to you?”

“I don’t think so," said Ace, cautiously, then asked, "Are there cameras in the café?”

“Where were you sitting?”

“In the back corner, by the kitchen door.”

“Then no, the camera doesn’t cover that part. Good. Come on, I need to report. I’ll destroy the card, and if you have any sense at all you’ll stay out of here.”

Ace’s expression was mutinous, but she said nothing. Marial took her arm and pulled her towards the door. He paused before opening it, and whispered, “you got here without being spotted, can you get back to your quarters?”

Ace nodded.

“Good, then get going, and remember, you don’t know who I am, we never met and if you get into trouble again, I won’t be able to help you.”

Ace nodded again and watched the camera turn, then ran. Marial snapped the keycard in two, then put the pieces in his coat pocket and went out of the door. He made sure the camera was on him, then closed the door and checked the lock ostentatiously. He then walked briskly down the corridor and back to the control centre, where he entered his report and dropped the remains of the keycard into one of the tanks of liquid nitrogen that stood near the cryogenics section, where Kane’s army was stored, awaiting action. As he was about to leave the room, he heard a voice behind him say, “Hello, Marial, you took your time,” and felt the barrel of Rodell’s gun against his neck.

When Ace reached her quarters, she closed the door and leaned against it, then without bothering to undress, or even to take off her boots, she dived under the bedclothes and curled up. The shock of Marial’s assault, and the news of Leofric’s death had shaken her to her core. She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. She had thought she had hated her life in Perivale, but this was a reality she wasn’t sure she could deal with. Slowly, the insulating blanket and duvet began to warm her and she stopped shivering, but remained curled up. Her breathing slowed and her muscles began to relax, though her mind still span with the knowledge she had gained. She couldn’t rely on Marial, that was clear. Leofric was dead, that was also clear. Avrecote, if that was his name, was clearly a grass and not to be trusted. She would have to rely on herself. Well, she had done that before. Ace pulled a determined face, though she couldn’t quite convince herself. But, despite the stresses of the evening, she began to drift towards sleep.

Marial stood between two guards, just as Leofric had. Rodell was now in front of him, covering him with his gun, and Belazs was leading the interrogation.

“Why did it take you so long to close the labs?” she asked, with her customary coldness.

“I wanted to do a thorough check,” replied Marial, calmly, “there was a chance that the alarm might have been genuine, or faulty equipment might have caused a fire. I wanted to make sure.”

“Yet you sent Rodell away.”

“Yes, there was no need for both of us to stay. I worked in the labs when I was an apprentice at school. I know them better than he does.”

“I see. What did you dispose of in the nitrogen tank?”

“A keycard. I found a keycard that had belonged to a redundant member of staff and I thought it would be safer to dispose of it in case it was found by a civilian.”

“Whose card was it?” asked Belazs.

“I don’t remember,” said Marial.

“I think you do,” replied Belazs, smoothly, “I suspect it was someone you knew very well.”

“No.”

“Then how did you know they were redundant?”

“I tried the card in a restricted door and was refused access. Then I knew.” Marial knew they didn’t believe him. He was too tired to think of a reasonable excuse, and, even if he had one, he was probably doomed anyway.

Belazs walked up and down in front of Marial, then stopped in front of him. She grabbed his chin and pulled his head down level with hers.

“You’re lying. I know it, and so do you. Well, if you can’t be trusted you must be liquidated, we can’t have traitors in the guards.” As she said this Belazs smiled inwardly. She intended to betray Kane at the first opportunity, but that was her business. She had a suspicion that Marial might, after all, be a good man, and there definitely wasn’t room for good men in the guards. She was about to order Rodell to execute Marial, when Kane spoke.

“Wait.” Kane walked over to Marial and looked directly into his eyes. Marial returned his gaze, as calmly as he could. Kane turned away from Marial to face Belazs.
“It seems a shame to waste such a promising young recruit,” he said, “I suggest we add him to the mercenary force.”

Belazs was annoyed at being contradicted by Kane in front of the guards, but inclined her head in agreement and signalled to the men standing by Marial. Marial’s coat and helmet were removed, and he was dragged to an empty cryopod and secured. He didn't resist. There was no point, and he didn't want to give Belazs and Rodell the satisfaction of seeing him afraid. Marial felt a strange calmness descend as he was strapped into the pod. He looked at his ex-colleagues and murmured, "your time will come too, you know that, don't you?" but they ignored him. Belazs summoned the cryogenics team and Kane took a seat at the side of the room, ready to watch the preparation of his latest “recruit.”

Ace woke suddenly, disorientated and confused. The light in her room was still on, and she rubbed her eyes and looked at the clock. 4 am. She’d slept for hours. Was it worth getting undressed and going to bed properly? It would be more comfortable. Ace sat up and picked up her clock, then set it down again when the memory of the evening came back to her. She wondered if she would see Marial again, then decided that it would probably be better if she didn’t. And she had better leave the labs alone, at least for the time being. Ace yawned and stretched. It hardly seemed worth going back to sleep, she would need to be up for work in a few hours. She decided to have a shower to soothe her aching limbs and then read in bed. Her bedside table had arrived with the rest of her bedroom furniture, and it held some books. Or she could plan. There might be other ways of getting the materials for nitro nine without raiding the scientific section. Saying to herself, “might as well give it a try,” Ace gathered her towels and headed to the shower.

Marial couldn’t speak, or see. His eyelids and mouth had been closed and secured with tape by the scientists who oversaw the freezing of recruits. The pods could be controlled from the main console by Kane, and he had saved time in the past by freezing more than one person at the same time, but he knew that method wasn’t as safe or reliable as giving the subjects individual attention. And, as there was no immediate urgency, there was no reason why this particular subject shouldn’t be treated by the experts. Marial couldn’t see, but he could hear the scientists moving, and the sounds of the equipment, and he could feel needles being pressed into his arms and legs and sensors being stuck onto his head and chest. The harsh light of the scientists’ head-lamps glowed through his eyelids. Then he felt the movement in the air as the pod closed and he heard the lock engage. That was it, then. He might come back, but he wouldn’t remember who he was or where he had been. Kane had told him that cryogenic freezing would remove all his memories. He would be a zombie, a robot for Kane to control. Unless. Marial remembered a rumour that some people retained memories after freezing, if there was a very strong emotional connection. His uncle came into his mind, and he focussed on that memory, on his uncle’s affection, and his disappointment. Suddenly, he shook as freezing gas flooded into the pod and what felt like icy water filled his veins. And then, darkness.

Kane stood up and dusted his gloved hands in satisfaction. “Very good. He’s young and strong and will make an excellent mercenary. Thank you, gentlemen.” He nodded to the scientists, who bowed and gathered their equipment. Once they had departed, with instructions to return and wrap Marial for long term storage once the initial freezing was complete, Kane went back to the restricted zone and Belazs dismissed Rodell, telling him to keep the matter to himself and hinting strongly that, if he did not, he could expect to meet a similar fate.

Ace was unusually quiet the next day. So much so that she didn’t snap at Anderson when he told her off for yawning, or at a customer who told her to smile, because “it might never happen.” Anderson watched her with concern, worried that, if she was ill, he would have to recruit a replacement. When he realised that she was tired, he became stern and told her that she would need to be sensible and not be “galivanting” if she wanted to keep her job. Ace made no comment, other than to mumble that it wouldn’t happen again. If her first day at work had seemed long, this one seemed endless. Once Ace had mopped the floor and been dismissed, she made her way slowly back to her quarters. She was tempted to go straight to bed, but, instead, got ready for bed and sat up with her notebook, drafting possible methods of refining nitro nine using non-standard materials. The other matter on her mind was the possibility of leaving Iceworld. If she could get away, where would she go? Could she get another job, maybe on a passenger ship? She didn’t think that any of the diplomatic visitors would want to employ someone they had only just met at a space services. Could she stow away? Ace wrote down as many possibilities as she could think of, then switched off her light and laid down. She would work out the pros and cons tomorrow. Her subdued mood continued for the next few days. She had had a bad shock, and that, added to the shock of her arrival on Iceworld, would take a while to adjust to. Anderson began to think that, perhaps, she was settling down and becoming more biddable, and, consequently, eased up on the nagging, which Ace dimly noticed and was glad of. Arriving early for her shift one day, the result of another broken night’s sleep, Ace had noticed that Iceworld had a tiny library, a single room full of scruffy looking volumes and electronic tablets. The librarian, a woman early middle age, who appeared “ancient” to young Ace, was visibly surprised to see any customer, never mind one so young, and put down her knitting to assist her patron. Ace had responded to her friendly manner and chatted a bit about herself, without giving too much away, and had left with a selection of books on intergalactic geography and languages. She had turned her nose up at the section of romantic fiction, the cover illustrations were off-putting enough, but she supposed that if you found Mills and Boon novels in service stations on Earth, you’d get space Mills and Boon on Iceworld. There wasn’t much on explosives, Ace hadn’t expected there to be, but she was pleased to find something that would teach her a bit about where she was and the languages spoken by some of the visitors and other inhabitants of Iceworld. If she was going to hitch a ride with someone, she’d be better off if she could talk to them in their own language. Warmed by the friendliness of the librarian, and with her interest reawakened, Ace walked to the café with a bit more of a spring in her step. She spent her short lunch break studying one of the phrase books, and listened to the customers to see if she could identify any of the languages. The librarian had warned her that the books might be out of date, she found it difficult to get new stock, but Ace thought she recognised some of the words exchanged by a couple who were possibly humanoid in form, but were entirely covered in long, blue hair. Unfortunately, her concentration on the conversations meant that she was distracted from her duties, which led to an accident with a tray of glasses, another telling off from Anderson, and the cost of the breakages stopped out of her salary. Despite this, Ace didn’t feel that the day had been a complete failure. She had made her usual, sulky apology and accepted her reduced pay with a scowl, but her mood had lifted a bit when she reached her quarters and spread her library books out on her desk.

As she ate her evening meal, Ace began to realise the size of the task she had set herself. The alphabets of some of the languages were beyond her, never mind the words, but she chose one at random and pulled a notebook towards her, determined to do something positive towards her departure from Iceworld. After what she felt was a reasonable amount of language study, she turned her attention to the geography books. It seemed that Iceworld really was a lone settlement in the space version of the middle of nowhere. Ace frowned as her mind grappled with the distances involved in space travel. Eventually, a bit disheartened, she abandoned the space atlas and went back to the phrase book, until a beep from her alarm clock reminded her that she should get ready for bed. She was tempted to stay up, but she didn’t want to risk another accident and the loss of more of her wages. Ace got into bed, feeling more than ever that she had swapped one tedious life for a very similar one. Then she remembered Leofric and Marial, and shuddered. She burrowed under the bedclothes until only the top of her head was visible and curled up, feeling the comfortable weight of her duvet and blanket. Perhaps when she woke up, things would be different. Ace knew in her heart that they would not, but the childish part of her still hoped that they might.

The days that followed seemed to fall into a pattern for Ace. Each day began with the unwelcome sound of the alarm clock, followed by a hasty breakfast, followed by work, followed by an evening of reading or experimentation in her quarters. The nightlife of Iceworld didn’t attract her. She was too young for the bar and the casino, and, anyway, it was her firm opinion that gambling was for “mugs”. She had tried the cinema, but the films seemed dull, none of the car chases and explosions that she had loved to watch on Earth. One look through the door of the disco at the hotel had been enough, full of ancient people dancing to rubbish music. It wasn’t as if there were many people of her own age to talk to. Teenagers sometimes came into the café, and Ace had tried to strike up conversations, but she had nothing in common with these kids and the conversations had foundered, either because of this lack of common interests or because of cultural differences or misunderstandings. Or, thought Ace gloomily, because they were rotten snobs like Stellar’s elder sister, who she had met once. She had met a girl who worked in the hotel two or three times for coffee. She was a couple of years older than Ace, but her sister was sixteen, and both of them had been friendly to the young Earth girl. Ace had enjoyed having a chance to let off steam about work and the dullness of life on Iceworld with them. She shook herself, mentally. She wasn’t completely alone, and she mustn’t keep whinging. That wouldn’t get her anywhere. Time to get on with her studies.

Ace had not got much further on formulating a strategy to get away from Iceworld. She had saved what money she could, but her salary was small, and food was expensive, even with the reduction offered by Anderson. She had spoken to a rep who was escorting a group tour that had spent the night on Iceworld and the price of their trip had shocked her. She would have to save for months, if not years, to be able to afford to buy a ticket, even for a one-way trip. And there didn’t seem to be any travel or transport agencies actually based on Iceworld. People called in, but they didn’t start from there. There remained the question of work, at least until the day that Ace had spoken to a young man who had ordered a coffee and told her that he was an interplanetary courier. Ace had been feeling a bit more cheerful that day, and so had asked him:

“How d’you get that job?”

“I studied interplanetary business at college, and I’m pretty quick at learning languages,” he had said, “and I didn’t want to stay where I was, at least, not all the time, so I applied for a junior job in the firm and worked my way up.”

“Oh,” Ace replied, feeling another door close in her mind.

“How long have you been working here?” asked the man, largely out of politeness.

“A couple of months,” said Ace, vaguely, keeping an eye out for Mr. Anderson, who did not encourage too much chatting with customers. She paused, then asked, “do you know about cruise ships? How do people get jobs on those?”

The man looked at her curiously, then said, “There’s a training course. My girlfriend works on a cruiser, and she had to do a course about what to do in an emergency, how to look after passengers and how to help the crew if someone gets injured. And they like people who can speak different languages too. Most of the big companies recruit from the main ports.”

“Oh,” said Ace, then, unable to hold back her disappointment, “not here, then.”

“No,” said the man, with the gently patronising tone of successful youth. “No, you might be able to apply from here, by electronic letter, but you’d have to go there to do the course and have the interview. It seems old fashioned but they still like to interview in person. I suppose it’s easier to check on people like that. Even if you’re just working in a bar (Ace bristled at this but said nothing) it’s really important that you’re reliable and good in an emergency. Did you think you might want to do that?”

Somehow, being spoken to like this from someone close to her own age was worse for Ace that if it had been a much older person. She said, with a touch of truculence, “Yeah, I might. So what?”

The man smiled, which infuriated Ace.

“No reason why you shouldn’t,” he replied, “but you’ll need to travel to apply and to join a ship. Unless it’s an absolute emergency, ships don’t pick up crew in the middle of a trip. If you think about it, you’ll see why. Every person on a ship has to be accounted for in advance and allocated supplies, food, drink, air...” he paused, then went on, “so they can’t suddenly have an extra person on board, it would throw everything out and might put them in danger. That’s why even the cruise lines have a zero-tolerance policy for stowaways.”

Although she had tried to think of everything, Ace hadn’t considered this side of space travel. Of course, the air would be rationed. And the weight of everything had to be calculated too, probably. She almost didn’t want to ask, but she had to know.

“What’s that mean, zero-tolerance?” she asked, trying to hide her nervousness.

“It means that they either put the stowaway off at the nearest port, if they can do that without interrupting their journey or...” he paused and Ace looked at him with dawning horror, “they put them overboard.” he shrugged, “You do feel for them, but there’s nothing else for it if the ship is in the middle of space. They put them in the disposal units and eject them.”

Ace recoiled, bumping into the table behind her.

“They murder them!” she gasped.

“Law of space, I’m afraid,” replied the man with another careless shrug. Then, as if dismissing the matter, “the coffee is great here, can you get me another? And one of the doughnuts to take away?”

Ace picked up his empty cup and went back to the counter without a word. The cup rattled in the saucer as she put it down and she stammered out the order to Mr. Anderson. Was that it? Was she really stuck here? She remembered how she would look up into the stars above Earth and regret that she was stranded there. Now, though she was far away from her former home, she felt more trapped than she ever had before. Then her face set in its familiar mutinous expression. She would find a way out of this hole. Even if it meant working here for … she couldn’t imagine working in the café for years. Ace picked up the order and carried it to the man at his table, turning away before he could thank her. The next moment, the door opened wide and a tall, curly haired man swaggered in. Ace wasn’t sure she’d ever seen anyone swagger before, though she knew the word, but it perfectly described the new customer. He was dressed in dark red trousers, brown knee boots and a loose collarless shirt that was open at the neck. Studded leather adorned one of his shoulders, and as she looked at him, the word “trouble” presented itself in Ace’s mind.

In the control centre, Kane turned to Belazs and smiled.

“Shabalom Glitz," he said, "Excellent. The pieces are falling into place.”

Belazs regarded the image on the camera with dislike, “He will get the Dragonfire for you? He’s a fool.”

“He is, but he will serve me well enough. I will force him to do it without him even realising it.” Kane spoke into the microphone, summoning the men who would put his plan into action.

In the café, the man who Kane had identified as Shabalom Glitz sat down and called loudly for a drink. Ace rolled her eyes and went to take his order. She had met men like him on Earth, and she wasn’t keen to meet another. Sure enough he tried to pinch her bottom when she leaned over to put his drink on the table, then doubled up in pain as she stamped on his foot.

“Ow! There’s no need for that!” he said, clutching his leg.

“Try that again and I’ll do the other one,” said Ace, adding, “pervert.”

“I was only being friendly,” Glitz said, a hint of whine in his voice.

“I’m not your friend, creep, and I’m too young for you, so keep your hands to yourself,” said Ace, sharply.

“Alright, alright, no harm done,” said Glitz, holding his hands up.

He drank quickly then slammed the glass down on the table, causing Anderson to wince, then stood up and said loudly, “if anyone is looking for Shabalom Glitz, he’ll be in the bar. I’ve got a card game to get to.”

He gambles too, thought Ace, that figures. Then Anderson called her and she dismissed the swaggerer from her mind and went to collect the next order.

The next day started badly for Ace. She overslept and had arrived late for her shift, and the scolding she had received from Anderson had put her in a particularly bad mood. Glitz was back too, bemoaning his losses in the card games of the previous evening and appealing for sympathy from anyone who would listen, and several people who wouldn’t. Stellar and her mother came in and Ace tried to greet her young friend, but was rebuffed by the mother. With all this weighing on her, Ace was feeling gloomier than ever. Then she noticed some new customers. A man and a girl. The girl was pretty, Ace thought. She had long red hair that tumbled over her shoulders in curls and was wearing a pink blouse and white trousers. The man was a bit older than the girl, he was short, and was wearing a cream coloured jacket and trousers. He had a straw hat on, and was holding an umbrella with a handle that looked like a question mark. Ace was tempted to laugh, but something about the man stopped her. She listened as she went to their table and heard the girl call the man “Doctor.” They weren’t related then. Perhaps she was his assistant. He might not be a medical doctor. Maybe he was a professor, from a university, he looked a bit like one, with his silk scarf and straw hat. They looked nice, anyway, thought Ace as she watched them chatting, the Doctor’s eyes twinkling at his companion as he spoke to her. Maybe, thought Ace, maybe they will be friends with me too.

THE END