Amanda knows exactly what the Doomforge Fleet is, and her reflections inform the reader. The Doomforge Fleet was assembled ten thousand years ago by a race of powerful, brilliant aliens that constructed ships for the highest bidder using technologies now lost. Each ship in the Doomforge Fleet is capable of devastating an entire solar system, and the Fleet contains seven hundred ships. Anyone possessing it could easily set themselves up as ruler of the galaxy—they wouldn’t even need crews, in fact, since the ships are intelligent and can be commanded from the central flagship.
That’s where the whole story started. The designer of the ships, though too proud of his creations to consider destroying them, also couldn’t bring himself to give control of the ships to anyone. He ordered the ships to standby status, and then removed the flagship’s control core. Without that core, the Key to the Fleet, the ships would remain on standby forever. They would destroy anyone without the Key who attempted to violate their area of space, but would otherwise be dormant. Nobody knows what happened to the designer or the Key.
The Doctor, though, says differently. He claims that the Key lies in the Museum of Antiquities on the planet Tinaria, in the heart of the empire. The Tinarians don’t know what they have, but the Doctor does…and so does a wealthy and ambitious woman, Baroness Alexandra Winter. Winter would pay vast sums for even one of the Doomforge ships, let alone the Key. The six of them, working together, could steal the Key and become wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.
Corvus sarcastically points out that none of them can do anything, because the Doctor’s gotten them all consigned to Nirvana. The Doctor smiles in response, and explains that they’re not on Nirvana yet. They’re still in a transport ship, which can take them to Tinaria just as easily is it can take them to Nirvana…and that his accomplice, Ace, is currently in the midst of hijacking it. Once she gets control of the pilot compartment, she can use the pacification systems to take out the guards and unlock their cells remotely. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I’ve thought of everything.”
Just then, three guards enter, holding a wildly struggling teenage girl. She stops struggling as she sees the Doctor, and gives him an apologetic grin. “Sorry, Professor,” she says. The Doctor’s face falls. “Oh, dear.”
Three hours later, the seven criminals are firmly ensconced in the inescapable prison of Nirvana. The prison has a perfect record—in 250 years, nobody has ever escaped from Nirvana. It’s not that it has brilliant computer systems, since there are dozens of hackers who can crack those. It’s not that it has unpickable locks—Delacourt knows herself that no lock is unpickable. It’s not that the guards are incorruptible…Peter Corvus could find out the guilty secrets of any of them within days. No, Nirvana is inescapable because psionic boosters continually broadcast a telepathic field that renders the prisoners apathetic and disinterested. As long as the boosters function, the guards can leave the doors open and the starships unlocked, and the prisoners won’t bother trying to escape. They don’t, of course. They have some mundane security measures, but for the most part, they rely upon the psionic fields. Even the Doctor isn’t immune to the telepathic invasion—although he tries to fight it, soon enough he doesn’t care about the universe outside any more than any other prisoner. Only the guards, who are authorized to leave and hence don’t want to “escape”, can leave the prison.
Fortunately, the prison was designed to hold the Doctor, Delacourt, even Vorimar…but Ace’s 20th-century human brain proves to be incompatible with the psionic boosters. After a few days of learning the routine of the prison and pretending to be suitably lackadaisical, she gets the gang to wait near the prison transport, which has returned with a fresh load of criminals. Then she goes to the booster room, and switches off the psionic dampeners (easy enough to do, but utterly impossible for any of the prisoners under its influence.) With the dampeners off, the Doctor recovers his sense of purpose and helps the rest of the group escape the prison and hijack the spaceship while the guards react to the first prison riots in the history of Nirvana. Despite a bitter, angry argument between the Doctor and Corvus about whether to wait for Ace or blast off before the rest of the prisoners try to hijack the ship from them, seven criminals head out to Tinaria to steal the Key.