Mistworld is the first novel in Simon R. Green‘s Twilight of the Empire science fiction series. It was recently released in eBook form via Open Road Media, who have also included it in an end-of-year sale. To celebrate all these things, the publisher has allowed me to share this excerpt. First, though, here’s the synopsis:
An outlaw planet becomes the target of a shadowy, deadly force
Long before the start of a galactic rebellion, Mistworld is just another rebel planet, cut off from the fruits of empire by a punishing blockade. In a spaceport where ships hardly land anymore, and any piece of high tech is worth far more than its weight in gold, a medieval order has imposed itself on this once-rich world: The strong rule, the weak perish, and no one is too rich to steal.
Investigator Topaz is one of the few honest people left on this cutthroat planet. With her husband, Sergeant Michael Gunn, Topaz does what she can to keep the crooks who run Mistworld in check. But when the corrupt Empire devises an unprecedented scheme to attack the ESP shield that guards Mistworld, Topaz is the only one who can save the planet from being overrun. An enemy fleet lurks just off world—but it is the enemies at home whom Topaz and Gunn should fear the most.
MISTWORLD — CHAPTER ONE
A Ghost in the Night
A low, gusting wind came moaning out of the north, unsettling the snow-flecked mists that filled the narrow Mistport streets. Lamps and lanterns hung at every door, burning yellow and red and orange against the endless sea of grey. The mists were always at their thickest in the early hours of the morning, before the rising of Mistworld’s pale sun.
A dim figure padded confidently across a slippery slate roof, his slender frame barely visible amidst the swirling snow flurries. The pure white of his thermal suit blended harmoniously into the snow and the mists, whilst its heating elements insulated him from the wind’s cutting edge. The man called Cat crouched down by an outjutting attic window and pushed back his suit’s cowl, revealing pale, youthful features dominated by dark watchful eyes and the pockmarks that tattooed both cheeks. He winced as the freezing air seared his bare face, and then he slid carefully down the snow-smeared tiles to bump into a gently smoking chimneystack. He took a firm hold on the uneven brickwork and leaned out from the roof to stare about him.
From his high vantage point there lay stretched out before him all the tiled and gabled rooftops of Mistport, his hunting ground and private kingdom. Cat had spent most of his twenty years learning his trade and refining his craft to become one of the finest burglars Thieves Quarter had ever produced. The ornately carved and curlicued wood and ironwork of Mistport’s buildings were hand-and footholds to him, the cornices and gables his landmarks and resting places.
Cat was a roof runner.
Light from the huge half-moon shone clearly through the curling mists, reflecting brightly from the snow-covered roofs and streets and setting out the scene below in eerie starkness. To Cat’s left lay the scattered glow of Thieves Quarter, sprawled in a tangle of shabby streets, where outleaning timbered buildings huddled together as though for warmth in the cold night. Its occasional lights shone crimson against the dark, like rubies set on velvet. To his right lay Tech Quarter, and the starport.
Sensor spikes blazed in the night, blue stormfire shivering up and down the slender crystal lances. Oil lamps and torches burned in regular patterns across the starport grounds, marking out the huge landing pads, each of them half a mile wide. Of all the port’s buildings only the steelglass control tower, last remnant of the Empire’s original Base, still boasted bright electric lights. Less than a dozen ships lay on the landing pads, mostly abandoned hulks stripped down for the high tech they possessed. A handful of smugglers’ ships lay scattered across one pad, five silver needles glowing ruddy from the flickering torches. Beacons suddenly flared into life around the largest pad, like corpsefires on a newly built cairn, and Cat realised with a thrill of excitement that there was a ship coming in. Ships of any kind were growing rare these days, and any new arrival was good news. Cat turned reluctantly away, and looked down at the streets below him.
Nobody moved in the empty alleyways, and the pale blanket of freshly fallen snow remained unbroken. Only thieves and spies braved the bitter cold of Mistport’s night, and they never left tracks.
Cat pulled his cowl back up to shield his face, and releasing his hold on the chimneystack, he slipped carefully over the roof’s edge. He took a firm grip on the narrow drainpipe and slowly eased himself headfirst over the edge until he was hanging upside down, his feet hooked firmly under the gutter. The rusty ironwork groaned under his weight, but held firm as he thoughtfully studied the small steel-latticed window before him. The window was less than two feet square, and the grille was cast from stainless steel. How very unhospitable, thought Cat. Anyone would think they were afraid of being burgled. He looked more closely at the window frame, and smiled complacently as he spotted two slender wires attached to the upper right-hand corner of the grille, which disappeared into the brickwork to no apparent purpose. Obviously an alarm of some kind. Cat drew a pair of miniature cutters from inside his left boot, reached out to cut the wires, and then hesitated. The wires were too obvious. He checked again, and grinned wryly as he discovered a small electronic sensor fitted flush into the grille’s iron wood frame. Touch the grille or the frame, and the sensor would set off an alarm. Cat slipped the cutters into his glove, and drawing a slender steel probe from his right boot, he delicately shorted out the sensor with the casual skill of long practice. He slipped the probe back into his boot, and then took the cutters and carefully snipped both of the wires, just in case. He put the cutters back in his left boot, took out a small screwdriver, and calmly set about undoing the four simple screws that held the grille in place.
Blood pounded in his head from being upside down so long, but he ignored it as best he could and refused to be hurried. He dropped three of the screws one by one into the white leather pouch at his belt, and then put away the screwdriver and tugged cautiously at the steel grille. It came easily away in his hands, and hung loosely by the one remaining screw. Cat grinned. So far, everything was going as planned. He pushed aside the grille and slipped an arm through the window. His head followed, and then he breathed gently as his chest and back scraped against the unyielding ironwood frame. He took a firm grip on the inner frame with his hand, and then, taking a deep breath, he worked his feet loose from under the gutter. His body jerked violently in the window frame as his legs fell free, but the jolt wasn’t enough to pull him back out the window. He waited a moment while his breathing steadied, and then released his grip on the inner frame. Inch by inch he worked his upper torso through the narrow gap, and then his waist and hips followed easily. Only someone as wiry and limber as he could have managed it. Which was one of the reasons why even Cat’s rivals acknowledged him as the finest roof runner in Mistport.
He swung lithely down from the window, and crouched motionless in the shadows while his eyes adjusted to the gloom. A narrow hallway stretched away before him, with a stairway to his left and two closed doors to his right. Moonlight spilled through the open window behind him, but even Cat’s experienced eyes were hard put to make out details in the darkness beyond the shimmering light. He took off his gloves and tucked them into his belt, and flexed his long, slender fingers through a quick series of exercises. To a good burglar, the hands were just as important as the tools they used. Cat always looked after his hands. He gingerly pressed the tips of his fingers against the floor, and then closed his eyes, concentrating on the feel of the polished wood. Faint vibrations tingled under his fingertips, and Cat frowned thoughtfully. There were sensor panels hidden in the floor, no doubt designed to set off all kinds of alarms if a man’s weight triggered them. Still without opening his eyes, Cat leant slowly forward and swept his fingers back and forth across the floor in a series of widening arcs, judging by the rise and fall of the vibrations where it was safe and where it was not. He slowly worked his way forward, inch by inch, until he was sure he’d located the main pattern, and then he opened his eyes, stood up, and padded confidently down the hallway, easily avoiding the treacherous areas.
Just like the old game, he thought dryly. Step on a cracky break your mother’s back… And then he frowned, remembering how long it had been since Mistport could afford to maintain paved sidewalks. The times were not what they had been. Cat shrugged, and moved quickly on to the lower of the two doors. The sooner this part of the job was over, the better; the same white suit that hid him in the snow and the mists was wildly conspicuous in a dark deserted corridor.
He stopped before the closed lower door, and studied it warily. His fence had briefed him as thoroughly as possible on the house’s exterior, but hadn’t been able to tell him much about the inside. The door had to be booby-trapped in some way; it was what Cat would have done. He ran his fingers gently over the harsh-grained wood, but couldn’t detect anything out of the ordinary. He took a pencil torch from inside his right boot and thumbed it on. Then, leaning closer, he ran his gaze over the door frame, inch by inch. Sure enough there was a small, slightly raised button high up on the frame; a simple catch that was released when the door opened. Cat shook his head dolefully at such a meagre testing of his talents, and taking the steel probe from his boot, he slipped it quickly past the button to turn it off. And then Cat frowned, and pulled back the probe. The alarm button was already in the off position; they must have forgotten to set it before going to bed. Cat rolled his eyes heavenwards. This was becoming ridiculously easy. He snapped off the pencil torch, put away both torch and probe, and taking a firm grip on the door handle, slowly eased the door open. He checked quickly for backup alarms, and then peered cautiously into the bedroom.
A sparse light filtered past the bolted shutters to show him a dim form huddled under thick blankets in the canopied bed that took up most of the small bedroom. A few glowing coals burned redly in the fireplace to his right, taking the chill off the air. Cat slipped into the room, closed the door behind him and moved over to the bed, silent as the ghost he seemed. He paused briefly as the sleeper stirred and then lay still again. Cat didn’t carry any weapons; he didn’t believe in them. He was a roof runner and an artist at his craft, not some bully boy vandal or heartless thief in the night. Cat had his standards. He stood motionless beside the bed until he was sure it was safe to move again, and then he leant forward over the sleeping shape and reached out his hand. Judging his moment nicely, he eased his hand under the pillow and drew out a small brass-bound casket. The bed’s occupant slept on, undisturbed. Cat stepped back from the bed, drew a small key from the pouch at his belt, and tried it cautiously in the casket’s lock. The key turned easily, and Cat grinned broadly as he pushed back the lid and the crystal in the casket blazed light into the room.
As an Outlaw planet, Mistworld was cut off from Empire trade, and high tech was limited to what the smugglers could bring in on their infrequent visits. A computer’s memory crystal thus became far more tempting loot than any diamond or ruby. Cat didn’t know what information the crystal held, and didn’t care. His fence said she had a buyer for the jewel, and that was all that mattered. Cat reached into the pouch at his belt and brought out a blank crystal, glowing twin to the jewel in the casket. He carefully substituted one crystal for the other, closed the casket lid, and locked it. He dropped the key back into his pouch, and then leaned forward and deftly replaced the casket where he’d found it. His hand had barely left the pillow when the bedroom door suddenly flew open. Light flooded the room, and a tall figure with a lantern filled the doorway.
Cat pulled the blankets from the bed and with one desperate heave threw them over the newcomer’s head. The bed’s occupant sat up sharply, pulling a silk nightdress about her, and Cat paused to drop her an appreciative wink. The newcomer struggled furiously on the floor, helplessly entangled in the bedclothes. The dropped lantern lay on its side in the doorway, filling the room with a flickering light. Cat decided it was time he was going. He stepped carefully round the pile of heaving blankets and made for the open door. The woman in the canopied bed opened her mouth and sang.
Cat sank to his knees as the song washed over him, scrambling his nervous system. A Siren! he thought wildly. They set a Siren to guard the crystal! The song screamed through his body, shaking in his muscles. He lurched to his feet, considered punching the woman out, decided this was no time to be heroic, and plunged for the doorway. The Siren’s song washed over him in waves, numbing his hands and feet and blurring his eyesight.
Cat staggered out the door and down the passageway, paying no attention to the pressure alarms in the floor, just concentrating all his will on not giving in to the Siren song that was trying to batter him unconscious. He finally reached the window through which he’d entered, and pulled himself up into the narrow opening. He wriggled through the window with desperate speed, and then his heart missed a beat as a hand closed around his ankle, bringing him lurching to a halt. He kicked and struggled wildly, and the hand lost its grip and fell away. Cat pulled himself out the window, grabbed the drainpipe, and hauled himself up towards the roof. He scrambled over the gutter and then collapsed to lie flat on the snow-covered tiles. He lay there a while shaking in every limb, slowly relaxing as he realised he’d left the Siren’s song behind. A woman whose voice and esp could combine to scramble a man’s thoughts was an impressive guard. Unless, of course, the burglar happens to be a deaf mute…
Cat grinned, and rising quickly to his feet, he padded away into the mists. For the first time in years he was glad not to have heard something.