Ooglaat, potentate of all Umele, was aware of her whole being bleeding into the ethereal plane of starglow unreality. There was nothing in the star cluster to match the blessed relief the dimension-bending drug gave from the stress of supervising a planet filled with ingrates and anarchists.
Ooglaat felt her gigantic proportions liquefy, her thoughts touch the fingertips of angels, and dimension upon dimension peel aside as the drug's magical guide led her subconscious further and further away from reality. Exquisitely sundered, Ooglaat experienced all points of infinity in the same instant.
Starglow was the only substance known that allowed a mortal to truly be one with the Universe: an experience that had to be comparable with the afterlife. (The Prall believed this to be a never ending dimension of rotating cogs, but a species with wheels instead of limbs was weird by anyone's standards.)
Ooglaat had taken starglow trips several times now into another dimension bathed with benign luminosity. Each one had varied. This time was even more of a revelation. The light kaleidoscoped into a spectrum of hues beyond the range of mortal sight. Then the fringes of the comfortable aura enveloping her started to ripple into frighteningly real scrolls, which slowly unwound to reveal jagged teeth. Colours became livid and the fangs a whirlpool.
The dimension fractured, dismembering the essence of the tyrannical potentate.
As Ooglaat's life signs stuttered her discreetly watchful aide noticed the dreadful change in its superior and immediately mobilised the Zes Pax, a bizarre, interdimensional entity on hire to deal with such mishaps. This semi-mortal creature could pass through the mysterious gravitational curtains of the Universe without being torn apart by its forces. It brought back Ooglaat's mind in pieces - literally. Unable to withstand the lacerating whirlpool that had mutilated her brain, the corpulent, corporeal body also drifted apart. There would be no more diktats imposed on an oppressed population from this starglow addict.
Yet another nasty accident on the metaphysical plane to one of the Federation’s elite propelled their drug squad into action. It had always been impossible to obtain a large enough trace of starglow to track its origins because, when things did go wrong, it was invariably vaporised with the user, and the perishable narcotic was far too precious to leave laying around for the servants to find.
Fortunately for the drug squad, if not Ooglaat, being a large person, she had taken longer than the others to completely dissolve away. This time enough starglow was collected from her remains.
Analysis of the drug suggested that it originated from a nondescript terrestrial planet with a landmass covered by drift upon drift of gently undulating sand. There seemed little of note about the world, so it had been arbitrarily designated the name of Delarene. Now it could be the key to solving the Federation's greatest problem.
Two elite drug enforcement officers were despatched to check on the small, apparently innocuous, planet. It took some while to locate this recently discovered world, as though it had the habit of moving from one solar system to another. Twiz and Lansa were used to working with incomplete and inaccurate data from regional outposts who believed they were too far away for the Federation to bother them, and took it all in their stride.
Delarene eventually located, they sent out a probe. It told the agents that the starglow toxin appeared to be emanating from its atmosphere. If life with lungs had evolved here, it probably did so in a state of perpetual euphoria and was unlikely to be bothered about a visit from drug enforcers before it exploded in ecstasy.
Temptation for narcotic dealers seldom came as large as a planet and, if this was where starglow originated, it was strangely lacking opportunists mining the precious drug. As Twiz and Lansa’s craft approached the surface, however, they discovered that the highest dune of undulating sand was in fact a city. The light diffused by the planet's atmosphere had initially obscured the contours of the buildings which now came into shimmering resolution, like frost in sunlight. The fine silicon grains coating them were held together by little more than ionised particles; some of the buildings virtually floating in the weak gravity. If their training had permitted it, the visitors would have marvelled at these castles in the air. To the analytical eyes of law enforcers devoid of empathy, few of them could have served any practical purpose. Twiz and Lansa had been bred for the barrack room; as long as the absolutes they were committed to or delusions of self-importance were never challenged, the Cosmos could have been embroidered with such beautiful inanities for all they cared. They were more interested in why the trace elements of starglow seemed to disappear from the atmosphere as soon as their ship had penetrated it. Somebody was playing ill-advised games with these representatives of Federation Law. Twiz and Lansa had no sense of humour, and even less sense of irony, suspecting that they had been lured away from the real source of starglow and that Delarene was not a planet of drug-peddling criminals after all.
Despite its wonderful floating cities of sand, the rest of the planet was unremarkable, apparently inhabited by a benign civilisation known as the Deligat. They had never joined the Federation, preferring to keep themselves to themselves: ideal targets to be set up by unscrupulous drug barons who had probably contaminated Delarene's atmosphere with molecules from a batch of starglow to divert attention away from its true source.
All the same, Twiz and Lansa were professionals, and put on atmosphere suits and gravity boots to check the place out. The suits were unnecessary, but not removed, just in case, (they also looked pretty intimidating) though the helmets were taken off to facilitate a good all round view just in case of trouble. Weapons drawn and anticipating ambush at every eccentric turn, they plodded past the glittering balconies, overhanging crenulations and spiral ramps wending their way up to nowhere.
It rankled that the inhabitants were indifferent to their arrival.
Eventually a small crowd of Deligat hovering in the low gravity decided to greet the drug enforcement officers. These sand engineers were amazingly insubstantial. It took a second glance to confirm that they were actually real, their gauzy and ludicrously clothed, round bodies bobbing as if on water before the prow of a fast ship. It was impossible to say whether they had genders, let alone how they reproduced. If Nature had any logic in creating these oddities, they should have laid eggs. Able to resist gravity and float from place to place, the Deligat apparently existed in a state of light-headed euphoria, so, if starglow wasn't after all responsible, why would they have needed it?
The drug enforcers reported back that the planet had been used as a decoy, and received new orders.
Delarene was not part of the mighty Federation that bestowed on its members security, progress and laws, plus a raft of other wonderful euphemisms that amounted to oppression. This had to be changed to compensate for the inconvenience.
As instructed, Twiz and Lansa scanned for potential resources in the never-ending sea of sand, watched benignly by the inhabitants. There was nothing that warranted the Federation sending mining companies here.
Twiz and Lansa thrust a key screen with a Federation membership contract at the nearest Deligat. Drug enforcers wouldn't have recognised diplomacy, even if their brains had been pumped with calming thoughts for a cosmic year.
The unsuspecting inhabitant, its only inclination to please, reached out ridiculously long fingers to study the unfamiliar characters on the display.
There was no reaction.
So the visitors were obliged to find an inhabitant with a glimmer of comprehension. There was a building towering over the others. It looked imposing enough to contain such an individual. The infuriatingly indifferent Deligat bobbed away into their peripheral vision at the law enforcers’ advance through an avenue of ornamental arches, and over a bridge spanning a river of rippling sand, totally superfluous given the planet's weak gravity.
On the face of it, the Deligat were like a hive community without any interest in making honey. Even curiosity seemed too much of an effort for them.
The huge building at the hub of this odd society was out of place. It was little more than a huge cube that appeared to have been hurriedly dropped, barely giving the surrounding buildings chance to float out of the way.
Twiz and Lansa strode through its bland portal as purposefully as their gravity boots would allow and stood in the centre of a vast chamber, waiting. It was a tactic that seldom failed; virtually all species wanted to know what was going on sooner or later. Even the indifferent Deligat could not ignore these alien drug enforcers forever, the polished armour of their atmosphere suits catching the shafts of light piercing slots in the roof and filling the chamber with fine sparkling particles that coated everything in a glittering film.
Eventually one or two senior Deligat approached from nowhere like apprehensive waiters at the carnivore's table as though they were on the menu. It was now possible for them to understand the characters on the key screen thrust before their bodies bobbing in the sparkling air. They did not seem disconcerted that the stranger's technology had taken such a short time to master their obscure language. There was no mistaking that these strangers were demanding their planet sign up to membership of a Federation that they had never heard of, and which was regulated by terms that were incomprehensible in any dialect.
One of the Deligat delegation viewed the proposal from different angles with its chameleon-like eyes and, without further ado, reached out with its long digits to ratify the consent of Delarene on the dotted line.
This was too easy: no haggling, no protests, demands to speak to a higher authority. Yet there, after the Deligat had barely touched the screen, was the confirmation that would enslave its world to the whim of a Federation they had never heard of. Anyone else would have been suspicious. Twiz and Lansa merely assumed that the consequences of the Deligat not joining had been understood. All societies capitulated eventually - whatever was left of them anyway.
The mission to trace the origin of starglow had failed, and the drug enforcers had only managed to recruit a minor planet of no importance. What a waste of time for two such senior agents. Hopefully Delarene would have some future use.
Twiz and Lansa returned to their ship.
The Deligat watched their spacecraft ascend and disappear through the clouds that concealed their world.
Soon starglow would work its magic. Before that happened, the planet made of the most powerful narcotic ever known started to disappear. First the Deligat blinked out of existence, and then their planet's crust shuddered like a huge animal ponderously shaking water from its fur. The buildings became liquid. Everything, from huge domes to small profiterole like dwellings clustered in gravity defying cakes, dribbled into amorphous shapes and merged with the surface of the mysterious world as its cities flowed away in rivers of sand. The planet briefly blazed with light and shimmered like a cosmic beacon.
Then the illusion was gone. Delarene returned to being little more than a cosmic cinder hanging against the backdrop of a nearby nebula.
Twiz and Lansa's ship registered the catastrophic change and relayed the event back to the Federation's drug control.
This was the way it usually happened. Unbeknown to the drug enforcers, they were not the first to encounter the planet of benign aliens living in sandcastles that promptly disappeared as soon as they left it. Delarene had cropped up at different locations several times now. The Federation's operational personnel were never told this. What happened after that would have deterred the most heavily armed drug enforcer, yet sending them out was the only hope of tracking down these suppliers of starglow. If the real Deligat carried on wiping out the ruling elite with the drug, the Federation would ultimately be overwhelmed by catastrophic democracy. Where rebellion and civil disobedience had miserably failed, starglow worked wonders.
Beneath the surface of Delarene, the Deligat powered up the engines that propelled their tiny planet about the star cluster. So many civilisations were sick of the bullying Federation, they were only too happy to allow them an orbit for as long as they needed.
When Twiz and Lansa's craft docked at their HQ, a small reception team in protective suits was waiting. Once all operational personnel had been dismissed, the ship's atmosphere locks were released.
Inside floated Twiz and Lansa. The only recognizable parts of them that remained were their astonished expressions.