Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 12: Watusis go Live!

     Psy was walking at a brisk pace to put a good distance between hirself and the defeatism that had been settling in back in Gregor's bus. Shi went all the way out to the ridge where there was a good view of the Pleasure Dome's silvered breasts, the Free Mars Tribe's camp of gaily coloured land crawlers, carriers, algae towers, generators and domes, the Raiders fliers and the local visitors' vehicles parked up in the distance. A string of stragglers stretched out making their way over to join hir. Over their common comms channel Psy could hear them speculating about Kkhrkht.
     "Who'd have thought that Jazz would've seen off those Raiders?" Gregor wheezed form the back of the trail. "I mean, they're one tough bunch of bastards."
     "Who'd have thought he was an alien?" Eddy added.
     "Hey, did you see the look on Bill's face?" Malcolm couldn't help taking a dig at Bill. "I thought he was going to shit himself!" The three of them laughed as they remembered Bill's reaction to Kkhrkht.
     "When's he going to turn back into his old self?" Lottie asked.
     "That is his 'old self', Lottie." Eddie corrected her. "More like 'when's he going to turn back into Jazz?'
     "Did he really bite off their heads?" She asked unbelievingly.
     "Yup, saw it myself." Gregor affirmed grimly. "I've never seen anyone or anything move so fast in my life. I wouldn't want to get in a fight with him."
     "I wonder where he's from?" Veronica wondered out loud.
     "No idea." Malcolm replied. "Maybe he'll tell us."
     "After what happened, he might be afraid to." Veronica guiltily speculated. She still felt that it was her short temper that led to Jazz's fight with the Raiders.
     "If the rest of his kind is anything like him, we ought to be more worried about them!" Eddy cajoled her. "He picked off three Raiders like cherries on a tree and their lasers didn't even cut him down. I know for a fact that the guns they use would cut us up like butter."
     "I kind of like him the way he is." Lottie admitted cautiously. "He's so colourful, I've never seen anything like it." She was met with a muted chorus of cautious approval. Kkhrkht's iridescent colouring was truly glorious. It was his warlike nature that had them worried.
     "Let's hope Earth Fed MIBs don't get him." Eddy had stopped to look back at Pleasure Dome behind them. Breasts! He really needed to get his hands on some breasts right now. Crystal's were luscious, but she was at home. He looked at Lottie and Veronica catching up with him and all he could think about was their tits.
     "Why's that?" Lottie asked quizzically.
     "It'll be the last you'll see of him. They'll probably kill him." He replied as she stopped beside him
     "I'm up here." Lottie saw that Eddy was looking down at the swell of her breasts under her pressure suit while he was talking to her. Eddy gagged in an embarrassed silence as he looked up to face her.
     "Watch out, Lottie. He's a real tit man!" Malcolm joked. Their nervous laughter echoed their fears and uncertainties about Jazz/Kkhrkht.
     "No, but seriously, what's this about the MIBs then?" Lottie wanted to know why Eddy was worried for Kkhrkht's sake. He seemed more than able to look after himself.
     "Last time, they took 'em away and dissected the poor bastards." Eddy explained.
     "Who? What last time?" Lottie was mystified.
     "Greys." Eddy continued. "Dead on arrival, unfortunately. No-one ever found out where they were from."
     "To think they travelled all that way and then died. How tragic. If only they'd survived, things might be different." Lottie mused aloud.
     "Not that old fairy tale again." Gregor poured cold water over Eddy's story.
     "Ain't no fairy tale, man." Eddy would have none of Gregor's scepticism. "My great-great grandma was working as a cleaner at the Air Force base when they took in the bodies and debris. She said they stank something awful."
     "Bah, old wives tales." Gregor didn't believe a word of it. After all, if they got here once, surely some more of their kind would have returned since then.
     "Yeah well, we've got a live one now." Veronica pointed out.
     "Until Earth Fed take him away." Gregor assumed it would only be a matter of time.
     "Not if I can help it." Eddy didn't trust Earth Fed at all. They'd once arrested his uncle for being a union activist in Mariposa. When they released him, he was an empty shell of a lobotomised zombie who was still being cared for by his relatives.
     "Why, you in love with him?" Veronica teased him jokingly.
     "We've got a first contact situation here." Eddy was emphatically realistic. "If Earth Fed take him away, that'll be the end of it. They'll deny everything and we'll probably get framed as frauds or loonies. It's best that we keep him out in the public arena with us so they can't harm him. Unless someone can prove to me that his people are bloodthirsty maniacal warmongers on their way to conquer us, he's got the same rights as anyone else. And that includes the freedom to live his own life as he pleases."
     By now they'd arrived to where Psy was seated taking in the view. "So what do you propose to do, Eddy?" Shi taunted him coolly. "Hide Kkhrkht until it's safe? Isn't that exactly what Earth Fed would do?"
     Eddy was gobsmacked by Psy's clear reasoning. He'd completely forgotten about Psy and that shi could hear what they were saying. He finally found his voice: "Fair enough, Psy. But at least with us, he's among friends."
     Psy said nothing, but nodded hir head slowly. After a while shi spoke up: "Kkhrkht can get panicky sometimes. You've seen what he can be like. It's very touching that you've taken to him as he is. But he needs professionals as well as friends."
     "What, like Earth Fed?" Eddy asked incredulously. Psy was turning out even stranger than anyone thought.
     "Who, you?" Veronica put the pieces together. Psy was looking after Jazz, but how? Psy said nothing but raised hir hands in an exaggerated exasperated 'what-have-I-done-to-deserve-this' sweep. The others stood around in silence for a moment as it sunk in. "So joining our band was just a ruse?"
     "No, it just happened." Psy was apologetic. "I only came along for the ride." Shi added in a smoky, sultry voice. "So much more fun than travelling in alone on a commercial flight. And we were getting along so well. I suppose you don't want me around now, seeing what's happened."
     Gregor couldn't bear listening to Psy sulk like that. Hir moods were so dramatic and mercurial. "Let's see how it goes. If things look cool this evening, then we go ahead with it." He looked around the others to see if there was any dissent. Hearing none, he assumed he had spoken for everyone. He was the bandleader, but cut everyone a lot of slack and always let them have their say. He put his arm around Psy to lead hir back towards the Pleasure Dome. "We can't stay out here forever. Now what was this you were saying about finding some power cells?"
     Psy gladly slipped into Gregor's comforting embrace. 'He's so nice,' shi thought. 'Not exactly handsome, but I can see why Anna stays with him'.
     They gone a short distance when Gregor asked hir: "You've known Jazz for a while then?"
     "Mmmm." Psy was slinking along in Gregor's firm embrace savouring hir memories of their time together. S/he'd lost count of the number of orgasms he'd given hir that time in Coriolis and wasn't really paying much attention to what Gregor was saying.
     Veronica took Psy's vague non-answer as evasiveness and decided to get a few answers for herself. "Did you meet Jazz before you joined us?"
     "What?" Veronica's direct answer pulled Psy out of hir pleasant reverie. "Oh, that silly bug?" Shi sounded dreamily distant. "Yes, we met a while ago."
     "So what exactly is he doing here?" Malcolm wondered.
     "Studying. Something like anthropology, although in his case it's probably bugopology." Psy giggled.
     "Where's he from?" Lottie was curious about Kkhrkht and wanted to know more about him.
     "He's from the Zrrlchtz system. At least that's what he calls it." Psy decided to tell them anything they wanted to know, but not to swamp them with too much information. "It's about 1/3 the way around the galaxy from here."
     "Whew! That's a long way off." Lottie was surprised. "How'd he get here? Even at lightspeed that would take ages."
     "Gateway. They link up different parts of the galaxy." Psy didn't want to go into it too much. They'd want to travel through it next and shi had only been allowed to travel out of hir domain a few times.
     "Instantaneous teleportation?" Lottie had no trouble with the concept, but didn't believe it could actually happen.
     "Something along those lines." Psy tried to play it down. Shi wasn't in the mood to play galactic tour guide and had other fish to fry first.
     "What are they like?" Eddy asked. "Jazz, I mean Kkhrkht's people. Did I pronounce it properly?"
     "That's close enough, although Khzchhrrrtz speech is a bit buzzier than that." Psy reassured him. "They're not all like Kkhrkht, if that's what you mean."
     "No, I mean..."
     Psy knew what Eddy meant. "Nothing to worry about, Eddy. Even if they were the conquering type, you're too far away for them. They couldn't get a fleet here if they tried, if that's what you're thinking."
     "Oh." That was exactly what he'd been thinking. Unfortunately, he wasn't completely assured by Psy's casual, glib manner. "But couldn't they use the gateways?"
     "Hah!" Psy laughed confidently at the thought. It had been tried countless times before and no-one had ever succeeded. "Not a chance. If they tried a stunt like that, they'd be locked out of the network before they knew it."
     "So why did they send him here?" Veronica asked.
     "Damned if I know." Psy couldn't see any real reason for sending Kkhrkht all the way out to hir domain on the fringe of the galaxy in the first place. There wasn't anything about this region that couldn't be found in the Galactic Library. "Keeps 'em off the streets, I suppose."
     As they were walking back, a huge cloud of orange dust erupted over the Raider's camp. Had one of their fliers exploded? Before the cloud even began to clear away, the Raider's fliers and their transporter shot out of the cloud at full speed towards Fort Melchisor. "Well, I'll be..." Malcolm muttered as he tracked them racing across the sky. "Looks they've cleared off."
     "Good riddance." Psy called out after them. Shi would get hir revenge for the way they mistreated hir. Maybe not today, but Psy could play a much longer game. By the time they reached the Pleasure Dome, the dust cloud had settled to show that all of the Raiders' fliers had gone.
     As they were walking through the Raiders' deserted camp, all that remained were the blast marks in the ground from where their fliers took off, pieces of broken tools, machinery and assorted bits of rubbish scattered around their site. "Doesn't look as if they're coming back, they haven't even left a beacon or a surveillance scanner to hold this place." Gregor observed. "You know what that means?" He asked brightly as he squeezed Psy. "The show goes on! So no more temper tantrums, eh? We're a team here." They wandered around the Free Mars Tribe's camp admiring their brightly painted vehicles until they arrived at Vinnie's scrapyard, which seemed eerily deserted given the hectic morning they had.
     "I wonder where everyone's gone?" After everything Psy had said, Veronica expected the scrapyard to be a hive of activity. She saw a large panel from Vinnie's delta flier had been removed and left lying on the ground. Looms of cabling and plumbing spilled out. Tools lay abandoned on the ground. Whoever had been working here had left their work unfinished. In the distance she spotted a wheeled mech and two humans going into a small, gaudily painted portadome. "Let's try over there."
     A riotous meeting had erupted into tumultuous celebration inside the portadome that served as the Free Mars Tribe's kiva. The Raiders have gone! Someone had killed three Raiders that morning and they couldn't take any more! We've won! Free again! Veronica began to lose her suppurating guilt in the swirl of infectious exuberance. Gregor and Eddy struggled their way through the heaving throng attempting to blag a power cell or three. Eventually they found Vinnie passing out beers from the bar to everyone within reach. "Power cells? Yeah, we've got loads, man. How many do you want?" Gregor did a bit of quick mental arithmetic and decided that four fully charged cells ought to do the trick. Vinnie was surprised that they wanted to use them on the stage, but readily agreed to let them have the power cells. And why not? It was turning out to be a very special day indeed! An hour later, they were pushing and pulling a cart over the uneven ground with four shiny, metallic power cells wobbling around like unsteady milk churns.
     "You sure we need this much juice?" Malcolm reckoned he could run his synthesizers for over a longyear on this lot.
     "Sure I'm sure." Gregor huffed as navigated the cart around the rocks that were too large to kick out of the way. "You got any idea of how much power all our amplifiers drink up? This lot will probably go flat in half an hour. Hey, Psy. How long you reckon this crystal trip's gonna last?"
     Psy was pushing the cart from behind with Veronica. "No idea. But I doubt if it'll last longer than that."
     "And you're absolutely certain about this dimension thing." This was the bit Gregor found hard to swallow.
     "Do you think I'd put you through all this for a joke?"
     "Fine." Gregor was formulating a plan. "I'll set up a shunt for the power cells. We'll start off on the stage's power and when this jump happens, you throw the switch."
     "Aye aye, captain." Psy joshed breezily, hir mood lightened by the optimistic celebrations in the kiva. Once they were back inside the Pleasure Dome, the going was easier on level ground, but they kept their suits on as they intended on going out to Gregor's bus as soon as they delivered the power cells to the stage. The stage engineer shook his rainbow mohican-topped head with disbelief as Gregor explained their plans, but agreed to help set up their gear to run off the power cells. When they got back to the bus, Bill and Chester were busy quizzing Kkhrkht about his home world.
     "Good news, boys and girls!" The spontaneous party they ran into in the kiva had refuelled Gregor's natural cheeriness. "The Raiders have pissed off, so it's 'Watusis are Go!'"
     "All right!" Clem jumped up, ready to rock'n'roll.
     "Me too?" Kkhrkht buzzed as his antennae perked up hopefully. He didn't want to stay cooped up in the bus forever.
     "Yeah, sure." Eddy offered Kkhrkht a shred of hope. "Psy had everyone fooled into thinking you were one of us wearing a way-out costume, so why not?"
     "Has buggy-boy been behaving himself?" Psy asked Bill who gladly returned the laser pistol Psy had given him earlier.
     "Oh, yes." Bill replied excitedly. "He's been telling us all about his home world and how it's part of the Zrrlchtz system of four planets captured by a brown dwarf which orbits a blue star."
     "Oh did he, now?" Psy inquired dryly. "He didn't happen to mention how they spread out from their first planet to the other three?"
     "Genocidal conquest." Psy continued flatly. "But they've outgrown all that now. Haven't you Kkhrkht?" Psy drilled hir point home.
     Kkhrkht squirmed awkwardly for a moment not knowing how to react to his race's violent and bloody past. "Er, yes. That was long before my time."
     "Good. So glad to hear that." Psy dripped condescension. "And what are you doing blabbing to everyone?"
     Stan came to Kkhrkht's defence. "We wanted to know about his world. After all, it's not as if you meet aliens from outer space everyday of the week."
     "You will soon enough, Stanley." Psy was trying to control hir temper. Not only had Kkhrkht blown his cover, but he giving the locals more than they needed to know. "But for now, buggy-boy isn't supposed to be here."
     "What do you mean, 'not supposed to be here'?" Stan couldn't square up Psy's change in character. A few days ago shi seemed little more than a sex-crazed groupie with a heavy crystal fetish but was now authoritatively in control.
     "Never mind." Psy had resigned hirself to the inevitable. The horse had bolted and Psy realised that no amount of door-bolting would bring it back. "I don't want Earth Fed getting hold of him, that's all."
     "Hey, no probs!" Stan did his best to put Psy at ease. "It's fancy dress out here. He'll blend in with the rest of the crowd just fine." Everyone else joined in to say their bit about how they'd look after Kkhrkht and that he'd be 'just fine'.
     "Undoubtedly." Psy drummed hir fingers on the mantelpiece shi was leaning casually against. "I hope you're not thinking about taking him back to Montgomery like this. People are bound to start asking questions."
     "Maybe Jazz could join the Free Mars Tribe." Lottie suggested. "They're a way out bunch, he'd be safe with them."
     "Until the Raiders or some other clan pay them a visit again. Or Earth Fed drop in trawling for crystal dealers and cons on the run." Psy had been through similar situations countless times before. The only option was extricate his charge from whatever predicament it had got itself in and send it back home as quickly as possible.
     Warrior resurfaced in Kkhrkht's consciousness and spoke out in a contemptuously harsh, grating voice: "Feeble Raiders are no match for me. They fall like the fodder they are. I am strong, they are weak"
     Psy whipped the pistol around and held it point-blank to Kkhrkht's head. "Not so fast buggy-boy, or you'll be a mess all over the walls in here." Shi hissed dangerously. "Remember what I told you about Earth Fed and the last visitors they found? You wouldn't want to end up in a specimen jar, now would you? Just do what I say and you'll be going home like a good little bug. Got it?"
     Kkhrkht struggled to contain Warrior and was trembling with effort. Warrior wanted to pounce on MariElla and Stan as a show of strength, but Kkhrkht knew it would mean certain death at Psy's hand. Slowly, painfully Kkhrkht regained control. "Yes."
     Everyone froze in the electrifying tension that filled the cabin. They were just getting used to Kkhrkht who seemed every bit as friendly and easy-going as Jazz, turn into a truly alien monster. Maybe he really was a monster.
     MariElla had blanched with fright, but remembered it was Kkhrkht who had saved her from the Raiders and eventually found her voice. "Are you an Earth Fed agent, Psy?"
     Before Psy could answer, Eddy joined in: "Well you're something more than the exotic night-club dancer we picked up in Coriolis, that's for sure. So out with it." The cabin fell silent and all eyes were on Psy. It was hir turn to squirm.
     "I, ah..." Shi faltered. "I'm looking after Kkhrkht here."
     "Psy is my friend." Kkhrkht hugged Psy earnestly with all four of his arms to dispel anyone's doubts. "You are my friends." The silence was palpable. What kind of friend puts a gun to your head twice in a day that's still far from over?
     "There, you see?" Psy was already grandstanding the situation. "So let's have our 'get acquainted' party. But you'll have to say your goodbyes in a couple of days because unless Kkhrkht can turn himself back into Jazz, he'll have to catch the bus home."
     "Is it really a bus?" Clem asked dumbly. He'd been trying to work out if Lottie, Veronica or MariElla were available and what would be his best chat-up line.
     "No." Psy laughed softly at the thought, though the network of gateways was a bus service of sorts. "Just a figure of speech."
     "Hey, Jazz." Barney saw his chance. "Can I have your old job at the garage if you're not going back there?"
     "Yes, of course." Kkhrkht buzzed distractedly. His life as Jazz in Montgomery and everyone he knew there was evaporating away like a mirage. He was already working out how to put the best spin on things when he got back home. He hadn't messed up too badly, so he wouldn't be penalised that much. He'd have time to get together with his mates, Zzzhkzklt and Vvriklrty, for a triune. Must remember to bring back some Psionic Crystals.
     That evening Malcolm and Gregor were busy setting up their gear backstage while the Collapsing Deckchairs were blasting out their raw hardcore punk noise. Stan was helping Lottie push her amplifier into place so they'd be ready as soon as the Collapsing Deckchairs finished. Bill and Sylvia, dressed up as Robin Hood and Maid Marian, stayed close to Kkhrkht and talked loudly about 'costumes' as the three of them unravelled a mare's nest of assorted cables. "Did anyone see where Psy got to?" Eddy asked as he looked around. He was beginning to think they'd have to do the show without hir.
     "Never to be found when there's work to be done." Veronica wouldn't accept Psy as a member of their band until shi recognised that there was more to it than just prancing around on a stage. It was times like this when everyone was needed to help set up their gear. She was just starting off on a rant about Psy being a useless waste of space who was nothing but trouble when she saw Psy arrive arm-in-arm with Romero followed by Barney, Clem, Vinnie and his son, Ollie. "Finally decided to grace us with your presence, huh?"
     Psy didn't take the bait. "I've found some helpers for our show this evening." Shi charmed smoothly. "Romero here is one of the local crystal gazers. And he's had some experience in dimensional travelling. We're ever so lucky, aren't we?" Psy ran hir hand across Romero's broad Romany chest. "There's two more of his associates coming along shortly so it looks as if we'll taking the grand tour this evening!"
     Romero was lapping up Psy's attention. "Johnny and Petunia will be along as soon as they can find someone to cover for them. We've been quite busy doing readings today." Veronica stepped in and thrust a handful of cables and gadgets in each of their hands and told them to 'get on with it'. Clem and Barney, not wanting to be on the receiving end of Veronica's temper, sloped off to Kkhrkht who, by now, was hopelessly tangled in the band's collection of cables as Bill and Sylvia were rummaging around for other bits and pieces.
     "How's things, Jazz?" Clem asked.
     Kkhrkht looked up. "Could you give me a hand?"
     "Okay." Barney clapped his hands. Clem joined in smirking at Barney's joke.
     "Ha ha. Very funny." Kkhrkht buzzed and took a pretend lunge at them. Clem yelped and jumped back in fright. Barney cowered in terror. No sooner than he settled back on his haunches, Kkhrkht realised that they really were afraid of him. 'It's hopeless,' he sulked miserably as he flopped his arms around in a pathetic attempt to loosen the cables he'd been trying to unravel. 'They'll never trust me now.'
     Barney and Clem had just finished unravelling the cables for Kkhrkht and were about to take them to Veronica when Barney spotted Old John and Petunia entering the backstage looking for Psy. "Hey, there's that old hippie Psy picked up. He looks old enough to have come here with the first colonists."
     Kkhrkht looked around to get a glance of Old John. "Maybe he did." Kkhrkht added nonchalantly in an attempt to put Clem and Barney at ease.
     John spotted Clem and walked up to him. "Ah, there you are young man. Where's your friend who was talking all about crystals this afternoon?"
     Clem pointed Psy out. "Over there with Veronica."
     John saw Psy draped all over Romero. "Oh yes. Come along, Petunia. This is going to be a good one!" Clem, Barney and Kkhrkht followed them.
     Psy was getting restless and thoroughly fed up with Veronica's bossiness. They'd be going onstage in a few minutes and there was still no sign of the others. Romero was lapping up Psy's attentions when he saw John and Petunia approach them. "What took you so long?"
     "Damn near impossible to get away." Petunia explained wearily. "You should've seen the queue of people waiting for readings when we left."
     Psy saw hir recruits gathering around and took hir chance to get away from Veronica by leading them away from the stage so they could talk without having to shout over the noise of the band. Psy fished the glowing blue crystals out of hir bag and handed them out. "Spread yourselves out in a circle around the audience. Keep your crystals covered until I hold mine up, so keep your eyes on the stage." Psy was in the middle of explaining to Clem, Bill and Sylvia what to expect when Veronica brusquely whisked hir away to the stage. "Barney, keep an eye on Kkhrkht tonight." Psy called out.
     "That's some fancy outfit you've got there." John admired Kkhrkht's iridescent body. "Where did you get it?"
     "He made it himself." Barney interrupted quickly before Kkhrkht got himself into any more trouble. Kkhrkht waggled his antennae and nodded his head in mute agreement.
     "Really?" Petunia was taken in by Barney's lie. "His colours glow so beautifully. I'd love to get some of that material for an outfit of my own."
     "Wouldn't we all?" Sylvia distracted her by talking at great length about how she made her own costume. Romero took over from where Psy left off explaining what to expect as they made their way out towards the pitch in front of the stage. They took their positions amidst the knots of people and milling onlookers around the perimeter. Kkhrkht positioned himself in sight of the stage with Barney a short distance behind him.
     The Collapsing Deckchairs finished their set and were cleared away by the stage crew amidst a shower of plastic beer bottles that rained down upon the stage in ritual drunken punk appreciation. The departing band threw some of the bottles back at the audience and got another loud cheer for their efforts. The MC had barely time to announce the Flaming Watusis before Malcolm had already got his synthesizers bubbling away in a low-pitched anticipation of the band's set. MariElla joined in with a long drone on her saxophone as Chester's violin drifted in swooping down in long, lazy sweeps. Gregor whisked his cymbals as they build up their textural soundscape weaving their voices and instruments with deft hypnotic ease. Eddy came in with a pulsating bass riff building up his volume, paving the way for Gregor to open up on his kit and bring in his solid, driving beat to whip the others into ever more elaborate instrumental frenzies until he broke through on a wave of cymbals to lead them into their first song.
     The holographics blazed into action just as Stan began singing, temporarily blocking out everyone's view of the band. Circus Maximus had taken a box load of psychedelic virals to get into the party mood when he heard that the Raiders had gone and was peaking just as The Flaming Watusis started playing. Fractals danced over the audience, melting away to a roller coaster ride through chromatised fantasy worlds. By the time the holographics had settled down, Malcolm was weaving his violin around Stan and Veronica's singing while MariElla burbled a fruity sax line to underpin their melodies. Out in the arena Clem and the rest of Psy's accomplices were spacing themselves out to from a loose circle around the audience. Kkhrkht stayed within sight of the stage and kept his attention focused on Psy who was getting into hir dancing. Barney was further along and watched the inevitable as a curious crowd gathered around Kkhrkht.
     A man with greasy dark hair wearing ragged black leathers and an arm draped around his tall, buxom blonde girlfriend wobbled drunkenly as held out his bottle of whisky. "Hey you're the guy who fucked off those Raiders this morning. Class act, man! Here have a hit of this."
     "Oh, uh yes." Kkhrkht had been dreading this. He had vainly hoped that people would ignore him. He wasn't in the mood for drinking and politely refused the whiskey on offer.
     "That's some outfit you've got there."
     "Thank you." Kkhrkht self-effacingly replied, hoping that this overly friendly drunk would wander off and pay his girlfriend a bit more attention. But he was out of luck. The drunk and his girlfriend bombarded him with admiration and questions. He was rapidly surrounded by a crowd of admirers who had heard about how he'd despatched the Raiders and wanted to know more. Kkhrkht remembered Psy's stern advice and pretended that he couldn't hear them too well over the band (which would have been true if his hearing wasn't more acute than a human's), nodding his head and giving them the occasional 'yes' or 'no'.
     Clem, further along around the arena was totally agog at the holographics show projected over the crowd. 'This is what they do every night, all year, every year?' He muttered in dumb amazement. He'd seen plenty of slick corporate presentations on Tri-D before, but this was raw, wild art that grabbed you by your imagination. Lost in wonder, he felt his mind turn inside out. This was Maximus' trip and he was taking everyone along with him!
     Round at the back of the arena, Romero, Petunia and Old John were discussing the likelihood of Psy's plan working. "This is ridiculous." John felt Psy's plan had no chance of success. "Our group of experienced crystal gazers could only just manage this travelling business. And now she wants to take all these people along!"
     "I know." Romero agreed coming to his senses after succumbing to Psy's charm attack. "But he seems convinced that it'll work. He went to all the effort to get us out here."
     "He?" Petunia was surprised. "I thought Psy was a woman."
     "No." Romero chuckled warmly. "Well, maybe only half a man but not exactly a woman either."
     "Oh." Petunia was taken aback. "But he was all over you."
     "Ah well, I have hands, no?" He winked merrily. "It would have been rude to shrug him off so soon. There was no hurry. As you see, he's gone now."
     Petunia picked the blue crystal out of her bag, watched its' viscous light swirl lazily around it and could feel tides of Psionic energy coursing through it "Have you ever seen a crystal like this before?"
     "No." Romero admired the crystal's mysterious blue glow; glad to talk about something other than Psy.
     "I came across a white one that glowed like that years ago in a market in New Isidis Delhi." John reminisced. "Claimed it was stolen from one of the Overlordz slave ships."
     "New Isidis Delhi was abandoned twenty longyears ago." Romero was only a child and had only seen a few scraps of Psionic Crystals passed around the safety of his schoolyard, half way round Mars from where New Isidis Delhi used to be when it happened. "What could it do? What was it used for?"
     "I don't know." John confessed. "I was talking to this broken down mech who had it when one of the clans broke in, murdered him and took it away. Looks like we might find out tonight."
     Further on around, Bill and Sylvia had wandered off to the side of the arena to buy a bottle Sake. Back on stage Stan was just starting into their song 'Crystal Magic'.

Crystal Magic, gonna open your mind,
Crystal Magic, never know what you find.
Take you to the future; take you to the past,
Never tell how long it's gonna last.

Well my baby took me to the gazer to see if our love was true.
He showed us our family in our happy, loving home,
He showed us as strangers who never even met.
A thousand different futures lay a-waiting for me.

He said he couldn't guide me, only show the possibilities
He said we had to search our hearts for the future that we wanted.
The future's in our hands, there ain't no easy fix.
We had to learn to see the signs and to read the map of life.

     Up on stage, Psy couldn't see much of the audience through the glare of the stage lights and even less of the holographics. On one side he could see Kkhrkht surrounded by a crowd of curious onlookers and on the other side he was barely able to make out Vinnie and Ollie enjoying the show, their blue crystal safe in Vinnie's shoulder bag. Shi looked down at the two blue crystals glowing in the bag at hir feet. Stan held his own small white crystal out in front of himself as he sang:

Crystal Magic, gonna open your mind,
Crystal Magic, gonna take you on a trip,
Take your crystals out and hold them up high,
It's time to learn what they really do.
Crystal Magic, we're going on a trip!

     Veronica danced over from her congas and shouted in Psy's ear over the roar of the band: "OK, let's go!" They picked up their crystals and held them out like priests making an offering to the audience. The viscous blue light swirled around for a few moments before shooting out glowing, viscous tendrils towards Kkhrkht and Vinnie who had been following the band closely. Barney, who couldn't see the stage too clearly, was only just getting his crystal out when it lit up, taking him by surprise. Clem, who was totally mesmerised by the holographics, had forgotten all about the crystal Psy had entrusted him with and thought it was all part of the show when the space around himself lit up in brilliant blue light. Bill and Sylvia were gamely fending off a determined group of New Utilitarian evangelists bent on sharing their rapture of the divine utility when the space around them erupted into blue light and an ocean of Psionic energy coursed through them.
     From the stage Psy watched a wave of light roll over the audience as the powerful blue crystals energised their lesser crystals. The band's wall of sound lurched momentarily as Malcolm's synthesizers rebooted after Psy kicked in the shunt to run their gear off the power cells The audience hardly noticed as Gregor kept on thrashing away until everyone was up'n'running again. John, Petunia and Romero were still arguing the pros and cons of Psy's harebrained scheme at the back of the arena when they were brutally ripped out of the space-time continuum as their three crystals lit up simultaneously.
     "Well, something's happening." John commented absent-mindedly as his group was wrenched through an explosion of blue light into a city of towering skyscrapers populated with a colourful mix of reptilian and avian creatures going about their daily business oblivious to their observers. Next, they were floating in space above Earth watching a fleet of spaceships venture out about the solar system. Lottie and Chester were weaving their violin and guitar in a duet that drifted from counterpoint to beck-and-call to random noise and back again around Malcolm's soundscapes as a fleet of moon-sized spaceships arrived from beyond the solar system and take up position in orbit around the sun like a vast string of dark beads.
     Back in the arena, Barney could just about make out Kkhrkht through the blaze of light. Kkhrkht, who had been enjoying the holographics immensely, wondered why it had cut out as soon as Psy's crystals had kicked in. They could both see the amazed onlookers outside the crystals' sphere of influence. Some were curious or brave enough to walk into it with their crystals lighting up as they came within range.
     By now they were watching the destruction of a domed city on Mars, its' reptilian and avian inhabitants running for shelter and dying in their thousands as their precious atmosphere ruptured out into the thin Martian sky. As one they watched in helpless horror as a huge meteorite plunged Earthward and the obliteration it delivered. The lifespan of a galaxy form its birth to its death unfolded in a majestic fast-forward. They were taken on a roller-coaster ride through a seemingly unending succession of alien civilisations. Some primitive, others spread out across vast ranges of solar systems. World upon world rolled past, each and every one of them totally alien to the human throng swept along in the crystals' embrace.
     Eddy and Gregor had lost track of Chester's jam and were beginning to interpret the scenes unfolding around them. Being the rhythm section, the others soon fell in step with them exploring the unknown. Soon they arrived at an opulent world that glowed serenely in its magnificence. Cities stretched into the horizon floating miles above the planet's clouds. Traffic from all over the galaxy flew in and out of its myriad ports and harbours. Next they watched human evolution on Earth from the earliest proto hominids to Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon. Civilisations rose and fell at a breakneck speed. Psy's blue crystals had exhausted themselves and were no longer able to energize the audience's crystals. The sea of light that had engulfed the arena quickly evaporated. Specks of light could be seen throughout the crowd as their crystals dimmed back down to their quiescent state.
     Circus Maximus had been following the proceedings using a spare crystal interface it had made for Cassandra and had the presence of mind to record it all. It was so engrossed in mulling over this unexpected trip that it had completely forgotten about running the holographics for a few nanoseconds before continuing with its crazed viral show into which it kept on splicing in fragments of their crystal journey. As the holographics spluttered back into action, Clem looked up and recognised some of the scenes. He ran over to Barney and Kkhrkht and pointed excitedly. "Look, that's where we were."
     "Wow, neat." Barney looked up agog at Maximus' chaotic replay of the crystal trip. "You fleshies sure have all the fun."
     "Interesting." Kkhrkht buzzed, envious of the humans' ability to use Psionic Crystals. He recognised some of the races and their home worlds flashing over their heads and was curious as to what Clem made of it. "But what does it mean?"
     "Dunno, man." Clem was still spaced out from it all. "Pretty neat whatever it was."
     Up on stage they had slammed their way to the climactic end of their third encore when Gregor slumped over his drums in a pool of sweat and groaned in total exhaustion: "Oh god, I'm fucked man. Not another one, please." Eddy could see that he couldn't do another number and signalled to the others by drawing his hand across his neck and waving a smiling farewell to the ecstatic audience. They wanted more, but The Flaming Watusis had given their all and could go no further tonight. The next band was waiting impatiently in the wings as they staggered off stage
     Psy was wandering around looking for the exit when Veronica grabbed hir by the arm. "Oh no you don't. You're going to help me pack Gregor's drums away." The stagehands, completely awestruck by Psy's crystal trip that they had been swept along with, gladly helped them pack their gear away and load it up on a cart. The stage backed onto a medium-sized airlock, which gave the bands easy access. Gregor had brought his bus around earlier and parked up next to it. He knew he'd be whacked after the show and wanted to have some energy left over for the party.
     As they were loading the last flight cases on the cart, Psy cornered Veronica. "And now you can help me get my crystals back." And shi dragged her along to round up his motley crew dotted around the arena.
     Veronica knew she was beaten. "Fine, but don't go inviting everyone you meet along the way to the party. We're not running a shuttle service."
     Psy huffed and peeved continuously at the way Veronica always had to have the upper hand and the last word as shi led her around the arena to gather up their crew and Crystals. They arrived back accompanied by Old John, Bill, Sylvia, Barney, Clem and Kkhrkht just as Eddy, Stan and Lottie were returning the cart. "Oh there you are." Lottie greeted them. "I was wondering what took you so long."
     "My apologies, young lady." John spoke up. "We took a detour while I got my suit. I hope you haven't been waiting too long."
     "No, but we could've done with some help loading up the bus." Stan explained as he juggled his helmet from hand to hand. "Well, come along then or the party will be over by the time we get there." Bill, being the least fazed and exhausted, drove the bus to Zanzibar following the map Gregor had programmed into its computer. Gregor had flopped down exhausted in the cabin while the others chatted amongst themselves trying to make sense of the crystal trip as they bumped and jostled across the rough Martian terrain. Kkhrkht was busily asking everyone about what they saw during the trip. "Crystal Magic, eh?" Psy called out across the cabin to Stan as he got out of the shower.
     "No kidding." Stan replied as he dried his hair with a towel. "What was all that stuff?"
     "Pictures at an exhibition." Psy replied mysteriously.
     "Yeah, but was any of it real?" Chester felt that if anyone had answers about their crystal trip, it was Psy.
     "Certainly. But it could also have happened in a parallel universe." Psy remained obliquely opaque. "I'll need to do some more crystal gazing to study the timelines."
     "A meteorite like the one we saw definitely hit Earth 65 million years ago in this universe." Lottie chipped in. "So those creatures we saw must have been dinosaurs of some sort."
     "Nah, they were just dumb monsters." Malcolm just couldn't imagine the dinosaurs he'd learnt about in the history books having the intelligence to create the civilisation laid out before him on the crystal trip.
     "Maybe they evolved that far in another universe. What do you think?" MariElla asked Psy.
     "Undoubtedly. And there's bound to be quite a few universes where they still live on Earth and none of us ever happened." Psy expanded on her suggestion. Clem blanched at that idea. He felt an involuntary chill at the thought of there being a parallel universe in which he didn't exist. For some unfathomable reason he couldn't figure out, it made him feel incomplete.
     "And what about all those other worlds?" Eddy asked.
     "Once again, Eddy. I don't know." Psy lied evasively. "They could be in this or any other universe. It's the first time I've seen anything like it. What happened tonight was much, much more than anything I had expected. And I couldn't have done it without your help. I don't know about anyone here, but it'll take me a long time to interpret that trip."
     "Well, it's certainly given my group of gazers something to get stuck into." John added thoughtfully. "It's whole new dimension."
     "Dimensions plural, old man" Psy crisply corrected John. "What we saw could've been in this or any parallel universe. First you'll need to work out which universe each sequence happened in and what, if any, are the causal links between what we saw." That ought to keep the old boy and his and his friends back at the Pleasure Dome busy from now 'till doomsday.
     "Of course." Old John readily agreed. Psy was certainly more of an adept with Psionic Crystal than he or any of his friends were.
     "Did you see the bit with those weird squid-like creatures swimming around that zero-grav city of theirs mixed in with holographics?" Clem asked excitedly. "Someone must've been recording that trip."
     "No." Psy was taken aback. To the best of hir knowledge, Humans were only beginning to scratch the surface of the Psionic Crystals' properties. They weren't supposed to be able to do anything that sophisticated. There must have been another adept around, but shi hadn't been aware of any at the Pleasure Dome. "I hadn't noticed."
     "You can't see a damn thing from the stage, what with all the lights blazing in your eyes." Chester explained for Clem. "We're lucky if we can see past the first few rows. As for the holographics, we'll have to get a copy from the Free Mars Tribe or see if we can catch a replay of our set on one of the networks."
     "That's it!" Stan interrupted. "I'll see whoever it was in that light-show crew who recorded the crystal trip and get a copy. We could use it as the vid on a cube of the show. No one's got a vid remotely like it. It's bound to be a hit!"
     "The Flaming Watusis Trip Out at the Pleasure Dome." Gregor wheezily chuckled as he rubbed some life back into his aching hands. "Sounds about right to me." By the end of their set, his hands were so cramped that he was no longer capable of any of the finesse he'd started out with. Ah, the sacrifices we make for our art.
     Psy jumped at it. It was just what shi needed. "What a brilliant idea! That way we'll be able to share our trip with everyone who missed it. I hope they recorded our set."
     "Doesn't matter." Eddy added. "We've got loads of material recorded if they forgot to record our show." And so they planned out their 'all-new' live album. Well, some of the material was new. Bill finally got them to Zanzibar with a couple of near disasters as he nose-dived their bus into unseen craters and drew up outside the main habitation dome. SkyHawk came up on the screen in the cab. Gregor heard SkyHawk's in the cab and made his way forward.
     "Ah, there you are Gregor, you old dog!" SkyHawk greeted him with a wide, friendly smile. "What took you so long?"
     "Overland Express." Gregor joked. "We'll get a flier one of these days."
     "We were watching your show on the Tri-D. Even got a replay of the crystal trip. That was some neat trick." SkyHawk congratulated him. "What you doing over there? Tell Robin Hood there to pull up outside my dome." He gave Bill the directions to his dome.
     Psy went over to Kkhrkht. "Sorry, buggy boy, but you're going to have to stay here. The fewer people who see you the better."
     "But you let me out at the Pleasure Dome." Kkhrkht pleaded disappointedly, although he'd been expecting something like this.
     "But that was at night in bad lighting." Psy tersely explained. "This is going to be at close quarters in someone's house. We'd have a hard time pulling off our little 'costume' fib."
     Chester saw Psy and Kkhrkht in close conversation and walked over. "What's up?"
     "Kkhrkht doesn't feel well." Psy lied. "He wants to lie down and rest for a while."
     Kkhrkht said nothing, but pleaded silently: "Take me along, please." Wishing he had expressive human eyes instead of motionless insectoid compound eyes.
     "Sorry to hear that Jazz, uh sorry, Kkhrkht. You're welcome to come on in when you feel better." Chester commiserated.
     "I'm sure he will." Psy sounded sincerely caring as shi led Kkhrkht over to one of the bunks and out of earshot. "No you won't." Shi hissed into Kkhrkht's ears, which were on his shoulders. "Don't worry, you won't be missing much. If you've seen one party, you've seen 'em all." With that, shi checked hir makeup in a mirror and flounced of to get in hir suit and join the others.
     Ruby greeted them and led them up to the lounge which was filled with the sound of Novo Afro dance music, of which SkyHawk had a huge collection. He had a looped sequence of their crystal trip running on his Tri-D set in one corner. The band members were met by a large group of farmhands who'd all seen the Flaming Watusis regularly at the Wobbly Goblin and were keen to meet them.
     SkyHawk spotted Old John surrounded by Clem, Barney, Bill and Sylvia. "Back so soon? Are we having another crystal session?"
     "I've had more than enough for one day already." His voice echoed the exhaustion he felt from an overload of Psionic energy that never seemed to end.
     "How so?" SkyHawk was surprised. He knew Old John was a professional crystal gazer who could easily handle an endless string of crystal sessions day in, day out.
     John motioned around his spaced-out group. "We were holding the relay crystals to energise the ones in the audience. Quite a jolt when they kicked in, I tell you." SkyHawk could see from their expressions that they'd been through more than anything they had expected and knew immediately that his Tri-D recording hadn't captured the overwhelming power of the event.
     Further around the room, Max had cornered Barney. "Personal evolution is more than just buying an endless string of upgrades." He lectured Barney. "Any mech can attain true mech-nature, it's not just for the Alphas, you know." Barney was certainly interested. If his future self was anything to go on, he would eventually upgrade into a class of mech that didn't yet exist and found himself falling under they sway of Max's logic.
     Ruby came over and gently slapped Max. "Not now, Max this is a party." She flashed her red, mech eyes for Barney to see as she scolded Max.
     "Oh, all right." Max gave up gracefully.
     "Is he boring you?" Ruby asked Barney brightly.
     "No, no. Not at all." Barney replied, surprised by what he saw as Ruby skipped off to join SkyHawk. "She's one of us?" He asked Max incredulously.
     "Huh? Her, it, yeah." And he shook his head in weary exasperation. "Newly made and thinks it knows everything. Every new alpha is the same. They're all full of themselves until the day they finally realise the world doesn't revolve around them."
     "Seen the wrong side of her?" Barney offered Max his sympathy.
     "No." Max lightened up. "Just a lot of life. It hurts watching each new mech make the same mistakes every other one did before it. It's as if we don't learn a damn thing sometimes."
     Gregor had flopped down on a sofa with a beer and was watching the loop SkyHawk had recorded of their crystal trip along with Yasouf and Monica. SkyHawk and Ruby pulled up beside him. "Did you bring our guests?"
     Gregor could see this was going to take more that a bit of explaining. "I managed to get Psy up here. The other one's out in my bus."
     "Half a loaf's better than no loaf." SkyHawk took heart in Gregor's ability to deliver the goods after a knockout gig. "Let's get started, shall we?" Gregor led them over to where Psy was seducing a young couple.
     "The High Priest of Psionic Crystals!" SkyHawk greeted hir in genuine admiration. "That was amazing. An absolute first, man."
     "Whoever managed to record it pulled off another first as well." Psy drank up SkyHawk's emotions. "I'd love to know how they did it."
     "People will be talking about it for years to come." Ruby added sincerely.
     "I hope so, love." Psy could tell that Ruby was a mech immediately. No organic response.
     "I'd be happy if I knew what it meant." Gregor was truly impressed by what Psy had done. It's amazing, the groupies you meet these days!
     "That crystal you used was something else." SkyHawk had watched Psy energize all the crystals in the arena and the wash of light that had engulfed them all. "Any chance I could have a look at it?"
     Psy looked into SkyHawk's intense brown eyes and fell for the scent of his cheap aftershave. Shi fished a large blue crystal out of hir bag and offered it to him. "Your lucky day." SkyHawk took the depleted blue crystal in his hands and its' faint glow began to intensify. Psy looked on in wonder. This shouldn't be happening. Shi took the crystal back and its' glow diminished then gave it back to SkyHawk only to watch its' glow increase again. Kinship! But how? No telepathic response, no recognition. Injured, dieing, Earth Fed clone? All these possibilities and more raced through Psy's mind in a flash. Shi could clearly see that SkyHawk couldn't see the significance of it. A sobering thought indeed. "We need to talk." And lapsed into silence for a moment. "Do you know why my crystal responded to you?"
     SkyHawk was mystified. He set up this party as a way of putting Psy and Jazz off from going out to Fort Melchisor so often and now he felt events overtake him. "No, but it's happened a few times before. To be honest, I never paid much attention to Psionic Crystals until recently."
     "I see. And you have no idea why it happens?" This was the part Psy found hard to believe. Blue Psionic Crystals do not respond to humans, fact. It responded to SkyHawk, ergo he is one of us. Psy picked up a clear Psionic Crystal form the table and it began glowing. Shi handed it to SkyHawk and it continued glowing. Psy then gave it to Yasouf and the glow went out. Monica, Gregor, Ruby, all no response before handing it back to SkyHawk in whose hand it remained glowing. SkyHawk was beginning to see the pattern. Psy drove hir point home. "I could go all round this room and the only other person this clear crystal would respond to is that old gazer from the Pleasure Dome and I can guarantee you that my blue crystal won't respond to him. I've already seen that much for myself."
     "Go on, you've got my attention."
     Psy sighed at the sight of this gorgeous, muscular Rastafarian staring intently into hir eyes. He couldn't be acting dumb, not slightest whiff of deceit came off him. Shi slipped hir arm around SkyHawk's firm waist to lead him away from the others. "We need to talk in private." SkyHawk made his excuses and got up to go over to a window with Psy leaving Ruby, Monica, Yasouf and Gregor in their attempts to fathom out the crystal trip. Ruby, however, made a point to eavesdrop their conversation using a bit of selective filtering in the background while she talked with her guests. First and foremost, she had to look after SkyHawk for Earth Fed.
     Psy waited in meditative silence taking in the nighttime view of the Milky Way arcing across the sky. Shi held hir blue crystal in both hands as an offering to the stars and spoke softly. "Do you know what this means?"
     SkyHawk was at a loss. "No."
     "We are kin, family." Psy explained reflectively. "And yet you are unaware. I am different from the others, you know."
     "I can see that that much." SkyHawk smiled at the mysterious hermaphrodite who had captivated his curiosity.
     Psy could read him like a book. "No, not that, silly" Shi flashed a sexy smile. "Why do you think my blue crystal responds to us and no-one else?" Psy led him around the party asking each person and mech in turn to hold his blue crystal. Sure enough, it responded to none of them, not even Old John. On their way around, he met Lottie and his knees went weak. The sight of this lithe, sensual African Queen gave him an instant aching erection for which there was only one cure. He felt as if they were made for each other and made up his mind to talk to her as soon as he got away from Psy. When they returned to the window, shi handed the crystal to SkyHawk. They stood in silence watching its' deep blue glow strengthen. "You see, we have something in common."
     SkyHawk was still thinking about his African Queen and feeling guilty about betraying Ruby's trust. "Yes, I suppose so. But what does it mean?"
     "Tell me a bit about yourself, SkyHawk." Psy gently cut to the chase.
     "Well, I'm a farmer." SkyHawk explained modestly. "Tropical foods and hemp fibre mostly, though we get a steady demand for our smoking herb."
     "I see." Shi mused patiently. "Anything unusual happen to you?"
     "Whenever I go out to Fort Melchisor, the stone in there responds to me. There's a group of short pillars that light up like control panels whenever I touch them. I found a dead Martian in there last week. Earth Fed got really excited and they've sent in a team of exobiologists and archaeologists to check it out." He replied innocently.
     Psy gritted hir teeth and nearly swore under hir breath. Bastard grave robbers! That was one of my old bodies. How dare they? But realised that with humans, being the curiosity-driven creatures that they are, it was bound to happen sooner or later. Never mind, plenty more where that one came from. "This 'Martian' you found. Did you recognise anything? Did you feel anything?"
     SkyHawk cast back to when he and Ruby had found the chamber with the mummified corpse. All he could remember was his revulsion at the thought of that dried-out corpse being alive and grabbing him in its tentacles. "Not much. It took my by surprise. I remember thinking at the time that whatever it was, it must've looked pretty hideous when it was alive."
     Psy gave him an icy stare for a moment. Shi had been quite proud of hir athletic physique in hir old form all those centuries ago. Not to mention hir peers who all agreed how devoted shi was to hir brood of unruly offspring. What was shi dealing with here? "Um, yes. Of course." Whatever made the fort and crystals respond to his touch must have happened before then. "And before that?"
     "I used to be an astronaut years ago. I set up this farm with my pension and an Earth Fed development grant." SkyHawk admitted feeling guilty about how disastrously his glittering career had ended. Still, his retirement terms were generous by anyone's standards. His life as a farmer had become so secure that his adventures in space seemed little more than a bad dream.
     "Really? And what sort of work did you do?" Psy always found the astronauts' sense of daring-do glamorous and exciting.
     "Titan, way back in 2097." SkyHawk slumped as the old feelings of failure welled up to haunt him yet again. "We crashed on landing and I was the only survivor. We were all given up for dead. I was rescued several years later and when I got back to Earth, they pensioned me off quietly to avoid embarrassment. ESA doesn't like to have failures on its books."
     Titan, that was it! Psy looked him over and lightly touched his cheek. Shi could feel connection on that level, but not on the mental level. He had been cloned on Titan! He would outlive everyone at the party and their grandchildren and never know why. No need to tell him everything right away, he would need a bit of preparation first. "Well, cousin, maybe we ought to take a trip over to Fort Melchisor. It's time you learned a bit about yourself."
     "It'll have to be another time." SkyHawk explained authoritatively in spite of this encounter with Psy. "Earth Fed are all over the place. It's a non-starter until they clear off."
     Psy had to send Kkhrkht home through the Omphalon's gateway deep inside Fort Melchisor. "I have to. Come with me and you'll understand everything."
     "Look, Psy." SkyHawk felt the weight of the world on his shoulders as he deflated Psy's ambitions. "That's one of the things we have to talk about."
     "What do you mean?" Psy felt hir hackles rise in righteous indignation. What was this man, some sort of policeman?
     "You know I told you about how I set up this farm with my pension and that grant?"
     "Well, part of the deal was to look after Fort Melchisor to keep crystal miners away. It was either that or have an Earth Fed contingent stationed here. What with the uprisings happening at the time, I took the easy option of doing the work myself." He felt the shame of being a police informer come over him as he explained his situation to Psy. "They check my logs regularly and I can only edit out so much of the locals wandering around there before they'll get suspicious. You and that young kid, Jasper Rodriguez have reached the limit I can safely edit out. Both of you will have to lay off for a while."
     Psy was glad to hear that Earth Fed was actually doing something useful for once by protecting hir home although shi had no problem with visitors gawping around its cavernous interior. SkyHawk had just given Psy proof enough that he had no idea of his real nature. Still, shi had to get into one of the chambers to regenerate before this party left to return to Montgomery. "Fine, I'll take that risk even if you don't want to come with me."
     "No." SkyHawk was emphatic. "Stay away from that place, for your own good."
     Psy laughed at the thought of being kept from hir Omphalon for hir own good. "What are you going to do, pull a gun on me?"
     "No, I'm not that kind of guy." SkyHawk apologised. "But Earth Fed will."
     "They won't." Psy pronounced confidently.
     "What makes you so sure about that?" He couldn't stop fools from walking into danger, but he could do his best to warn them.
     Psy ran hir hand over SkyHawk's crotch to feel his massive erection and gave it a cheeky squeeze. The Omphalon on Titan certainly did a sterling job there! "There's a lot about me you don't know, Farmer Giles."
     SkyHawk blushed from Psy forward attentions. "Fine, have it your way. But don't blame me if things go wrong."
     "I will and they won't." Psy gave him another squeeze.
     SkyHawk made his excuses to leave. "Look, I need to have a word with Jasper as well. Gregor told me he was out in the bus. I'll pop down there before it gets too late."
     "No need." Psy had to keep him away from Kkhrkht. "I'll explain everything to him. The poor lad's not feeling too well. It must have been those cheap drugs they sell at the Pleasure Dome."
     "Night on the razzle, huh?" SkyHawk quipped jovially. "I'll bring a medikit down to sort him out."
     "Really, he's fine. Just let him sleep it off." Psy flannelled.
     SkyHawk wasn't going to be fobbed off by this exotic charmer and decided to play tough. "Or would you like me to get Major Rotherham over from the main dome to speak to him? That's where they're stationed until they leave."
     Psy gulped. It would be too much to let Kkhrkht fall into Earth Fed hands. Shi could see that SkyHawk was in for another surprise. "I think I'd best come along with you." Minutes later they were suited up and trudging over to Gregor's bus.
     Kkhrkht was sitting down sipping on a carton of juice and watching a game of slamball on the Tri-D set when he heard a commotion of banging and clumping around in the air lock. The inner door swung open and Psy sang out: "Oh, Jazz. Are you feeling better love?" They walked into the cabin to see Kkhrkht lounging in front of the Tri-D set. "Still got that silly outfit of yours on, I see." Psy did hir best to keep up their pretence. "How are you feeling?"
     "Bored." Kkhrkht buzzed back, his antennae limp with disaffection. He was annoyed at being treated like a liability. "Is it time to go yet?"
     "Not yet, love." Psy gushed genially. "SkyHawk here would like to have a word with you about your crystal gathering expeditions."
     SkyHawk was taken aback by Kkhrkht's appearance up close, but immediately recognised it from the video logs taken from the surveillance system set up around the fort. If that was some sort of costume, then it was also a pressure suit and he couldn't see how even the most misshapen and anorexic human could fit comfortably inside it. He fished his commset out of his pocket and ran a replay of the scene in grainy monochrome on its tiny screen. He showed it to Kkhrkht and Psy before speaking. Only the tinny sound of the slamball match broke the icy silence in the cabin. "I've seen you before. If that's some sort of costume you're wearing, you can get out of it. The party's over."
     "He can't." Psy desperately tried to keep a lid on things.
     "What do you mean, 'can't'?" SkyHawk was getting fed up with Psy's deceptive manner. "If he's stuck in his suit, I can cut it open. There's a laser scalpel in the medikit which ought to do the job."
     "No!" Psy and Kkhrkht barked out in horrified unison. If SkyHawk cut open Kkhrkht's exoskeleton, his body fluids would run out all over the place like so much runny goo. "You can't." Psy emphasized.
     Kkhrkht had had enough of Psy's web of lies. "Because this is me." He explained tetchily in his reedy, buzzing voice. "I don't know what lies Psy's been telling you, but you're not cutting me open. I've heard all about what your kind do."
     "Oh." SkyHawk's voice was very small and contrite as he slumped down in a seat across the cabin from Kkhrkht. "I was looking for Jasper Rodriguez actually."
     "Yes." Kkhrkht buzzed, it was time for this charade of Psy's to end. "What do you want?"
     "You're also Jasper?" SkyHawk couldn't believe what he was hearing. "You don't look anything like him."
     "Never mind." Psy added firmly. "He is."
     "What are you?" SkyHawk wanted to know.
     "An escapee from one of the cloning labs on Earth." Psy lied quickly hoping that Kkhrkht wouldn't contradict hir. "I'm looking after him until we can get a legal case together." Kkhrkht hated the way Psy spun hir lies with such deft, glib ease, but said nothing.
     SkyHawk felt like an idiot out of his depth. "I just came over to tell you that you shouldn't spend so much time out at the Fort. Earth Fed are all over the place at the moment and I wouldn't want you getting into any trouble with them. You know what the law is and they enforce it to the letter."
     "Yes, of course." Kkhrkht gladly obliged him. "I've got plenty of crystals for the time being."
     SkyHawk was relieved at how easy it was. "Good, well I hope you're feeling better in the morning." And turned to leave the bus.
     "Can I come in? There's nothing to do here." Kkhrkht begged.
     "I really think you ought to stay here until we're done." Psy firmly squashed Kkhrkht's request.
     SkyHawk saw his chance to take control again. "Sure, come on up. A bit of music and wine is good for the soul. Better than sitting in this cramped bus alone all night watching slamball." He looked over at the set and briefly watched the Nuke City Krushers thoroughly thrash the Olympus Godz and chuckled at the fast and furious play. Slamball was like zero-gee ice hockey with a larger ball and no sticks: plenty of fast action and lots of fisticuffs behind the referee's back. Psy fumed angrily, but kept hir silence as they suited up and went back into SkyHawk's dome. The party was in full swing with people dancing and talking as Kkhrkht entered the lounge hiding behind SkyHawk and Psy hoping that he wouldn't get too much attention. Fat chance. Everyone who saw him stared or did a double take at his alien appearance. Psy whispered into his ear: "Costume, remember?"
     Kkhrkht agreed and decided to keep to their old story as best as possible. MariElla came up and gave him a big, drunken hug. "Oh there you are, Circuit!"
     "No, it's Kkhrkht." He corrected her.
     "Anything you say, Circuit." She laughed as she led him over to where Stan and Eddy were in a heated discussion about cabbages and kings. "Feeling better, Jazz?" Eddy greeted him.
     Kkhrkht winced at hearing his human name, but realised that it might take these humans a while to get used to his real self. "Psy decided to let me off the leash." He explained sardonically.
     "That bad, is it?" Stan figured there was a lot more to their relationship than either was prepared to say.
     "More or less." Kkhrkht sighed.
     "So, do we stick to the costume story or are you a bona-fide alien now?" Stan joked at their flimsy cover story to explain away Kkhrkht's appearance.
     "Costumes, but Psy has gone and told..." Kkhrkht turned around to find SkyHawk and point him out. "That man over there that I'm escapee from a cloning lab on Earth. What's a cloning lab?"
     "Those Frankenstein joints that turn out experimental clones. Cross-breed hybrids, all that sorta stuff." Eddy explained cautiously. "Mostly illegal, but they do it anyway. You really don't want to know too much about it."
     "So if I was a result of some experiment, what species would they have used to create me?" Kkhrkht asked.
     "Praying Mantis and a cricket possibly." MariElla suggested.
     "And maybe a Hummingbird or one of those exotic butterflies to get your colours glistening like that." Eddy admired the way Kkhrkht's iridescent colours reacted to the swirling lights in the lounge.
     "Has to be some human in there, too." Stan added. "Otherwise how could he have been Jazz for so long and fooled all of us? Are you going to be able to turn back into Jazz?"
     "Right now, I wish I could." Kkhrkht confessed bleakly. "But I don't know. I'm sick of all these lies."
     "I'm sorry." Stan apologised for the human race. "Do we seem a bit paranoid to you?"
     Kkhrkht put it to Stan: "Stanley, did you really think there was no-one else out there?"
     "No, of course not." He stammered.
     "So why such a fuss when one of your neighbours shows up on your doorstep?" Kkhrkht asked him.
     "Ah..." Stan trailed off as he realised the when it came to extraterrestrials, humans were an extremely paranoid lot. "Because we're paranoid."
     "There you are. Never mind, you'll get used to it." Kkhrkht consoled Stan. "It's a busy galaxy out there."
     "So what are the other aliens like?" MariElla asked playfully.
     "I think you saw some of them on that trip Psy took you on." Kkhrkht offered. "But there's many more. More than you might imagine." At this point Psy sidled up, drink in hand, to Kkhrkht and put an arm around his waist. "Enjoying the party, buggy boy?"
     "Yes, thanks." Kkhrkht was glad to get out of the bus and away from Psy's control.
     "Good, because I'm taking a party out to Fort Melchisor in the morning and you're all invited. Bound to find some more crystals there."
     Kkhrkht's antennae drooped visibly in disapproval as Psy skipped off to amuse hirself with the dancers. "I'm beginning to get wary of Psy's invites, too many hidden surprises."
     At this point Barney and Ruby sauntered over to their motley group. "Good news guys!" Barney announced breezily as he patted his chest. "I've just downloaded a full recording of that crystal trip you guys went on. Ruby here found it for me." He pointed to a port socket on his chest. "I'm doing copies for free tonight, just plug in your cubes. Don't all rush at once, folks! You want a copy to take home, Jazz?"

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 11
Chapter 13