The night sky was lightening up towards the Martian Dusk as Gregor pulled up his bus outside one of the entrances to Fort Melchisor. The forward searchlights illuminated a misshapen cave in the eroded rock face. Psionic Crystals on the ground glittered in the intense illumination. Psy sat in the navigator's seat beside him. "Yes, this it. Drive on in."
"Are you nuts?" Gregor was damned if he was going to wreck his bus for Psy. He'd gone far enough out on a limb for this nutcase who, for all he knew, had finished with the Flaming Watusis and was about to scamper off back to Coriolis. "It'll tear all the fittings off the roof and wreck the tracks."
Psy wasn't about to be put off by Gregor's protestations. "How much clearance do you need?"
"Eight metres by eight, minimum." Gregor stressed in order to show that he was still in command of all his faculties.
"I've driven larger into this entrance." Psy was calmly determined. "Proceed."
"If anything breaks, it's coming out of that money you've left back at my house." Gregor reminded him grumpily. Why, oh why, did he let himself get run around by this big-city freak?
"Absolutely. Would you like me to arrange a call-out from Mars Repair?" Psy dryly joked.
"Have it your way." Gregor caved in and gunned the engine to drive down into the cavern. Gregor inched the bus through the entrance and looked down the long tunnel ahead. "Where shall I park up?"
"Keep going to the end of this tunnel." Psy could feel the Omphalon welcoming hir back as well as the pain it felt from the hard, grating tracks on Gregor's bus. "It opens out onto a junction where you can turn around." Psy climbed out of the cab back towards the main cabin where everyone else was recuperating from the party after the gig. Stan and MariElla had climbed into a bunk to get some rest. Yasouf and Monica were sound asleep embraced on some cushions. Ralph, Ruby and Bill were trying to hold a conversation with Kkhrkht while the rest of the band were sprawled around the cabin too glazed for words, watching yet another replay of Psy's crystal trip on the Tri-D set. "Wakey, wakey, boys'n'girls!" Psy attempted to rouse this hedonistic rabble. "Get some of that Martian marching powder down you. The party's just begun!"
"Eh? Uh? Whassat?" Lottie mumbled from the warm, comfortable depths of her bunk. A chorus of groans from people too tired and comfortable to be bothered to do anything remotely demanding greeted Psy.
"Ah, the youth of today. They've got no stamina." Shi mocked hir entourage and then turned hir attention to Kkhrkht. "You're going home, Buggy-Boy. Have you got everything in order?"
Kkhrkht had guessed this was coming. If only he'd foreseen it earlier, he would have remembered to bring his notes with him. Still, he had his scanner and probe, which held the bulk of his raw data. Kkhrkht had swallowed one of Psy's blue Psionic Crystals and it was sitting uncomfortably in his gizzard. The sacrifices we make for our science! "Yes, I guess so." Kkhrkht felt completely out of control. "But what's the hurry?"
"Have you looked in a mirror recently?" Psy scolded Kkhrkht. "Or am I the only one around here who thinks you look just a teensy-weensy bit out of place?"
"But all my notes are back in Montgomery." Kkhrkht didn't really want to go back home quite so soon. He quite liked his friends here. It felt that every time he made some friends, fate would come along and tear him away from them. Oh well, it's goodbye Montgomery and hello to the Academy and his triune with Zzzhkzklt and Vvriklrty.
"I'll send them on when I clear things up." Psy briskly reassured Kkhrkht and leaned over to rouse SkyHawk from his slumbers. "Come on, Farmer Giles. I think you'll find this interesting." Much fumbling around later, our hazy-headed crew stumble out of the bus's airlock into a vast underground chamber illuminated by Gregor's bus. The eerie airless silence in the cavern is offset by the crackle and buzz of voices in their headsets as they wander around examining a miniscule fragment of Fort Melchisor's vast underground warren.
SkyHawk, accompanied by Ruby, is showing Yasouf, Monica, Ralph and Jenny the way the stone pillars dotted around the central dais light up whenever he touches them. Barney, Eddy, Stan and Clem climbed up onto the dais and were goofing around playing air guitars pretending they were onstage back at the Pleasure Dome. Veronica, Malcolm, Bill, Sylvia and Chester walked around the chamber shining their torches and peering down the various tunnels that led off from it. Lottie and MariElla were hanging around in the loose gaggle around Psy and Kkhrkht who could barely fit into Eddy's pressure suit. "You alright in there, Kkhrkht?" Lottie asked.
"Bah! If I have to wear this suit much longer, my antennae will be permanently bent our of shape." Kkhrkht complained helplessly. "You wouldn't believe how much I've had to twist myself around to fit into this suit. It makes me feel like a pretzel."
"Well then, the sooner you get home, the sooner you'll be out of that suit." Psy breezily interrupted as shi grabbed Kkhrkht's suit by and arm to lead him away. The others followed as shi led them at a brisk pace over towards SkyHawk and his friends who were trying to get a response from the stone pillars and slapped hir hand down on the panel. "No, it's like this." Shi pronounced confidently as it lit up immediately in response to hir touch. Shi tapped a few coloured segments and the dais lit up, bathing Barney, Eddy, Stan and Clem in ghostly blue light. "Lovely, isn't it?" Psy humoured them briskly, clearly having had an oversized helping of marching powder. Psy continued on without a break in hir pace dragging Kkhrkht along with hir. "This way!" Shi called out as shi marched off down one of the tunnels, its' smooth stone walls lighting up with soft luminescent white light as shi went along.
"So what do you think of these Humans, then?" Psy asked Kkhrkht on a private channel in fluent Khzchhrrrtz.
"Not so bad, all things considered." Kkhrkht tried to put in a good word for them as Psy whisked him along the tunnel.
"Hah, you're generous!" Psy laughed sarcastically. "They couldn't even organise a piss-up in a brewery."
"They've achieved quite a lot in spite of the outside influences." Kkhrkht knew that Psy didn't want the Humans joining the Galactic Council quite yet and decided to humour hir. "Mind you, if they could stop squabbling amongst themselves, they'd go much further."
"That lot have been messed around with so much, there's no way of knowing what they'd have really been like." Psy replied off-handedly. "It's old muggins here, the family idiot, who's had to clean up the mess every time. As if I didn't have anything better to do." Psy griped in self-righteous indignation.
"So? Wave them on into the Galactic Council and take a long holiday." Kkhrkht suggested helpfully.
"Yeah, sure. If it was that easy, I'd have done it ages ago." Psy couldn't tell Kkhrkht that the Humans were part of the Nglubi's cupboard full of dirty little secrets that would someday have to come to light. Hopefully long after Psy's time.
"Well you took them on a whirlwind tour back at the Pleasure Dome." Kkhrkht pointed out. "Seems to me you really want them to join the Galactic Council."
"Hole-in-one, Buggy-Boy." Psy complemented Kkhrkht's observation. "But I can't do it all for them. You know how it is. Each species has to make the move in their own time. The most I can really do is to try to put them in the picture and start them thinking about it. After that, it's up to them." Kkhrkht couldn't argue with that and followed in silence as Psy led the way grumbling and bitching about hir troubled life amongst the Humans on their private channel. Hir self-pitying soliloquy was interrupted when Stanley called out on their common channel for directions. "Just follow the illuminated passages, I'll be waiting for you." Psy replied as shi pulled up in front of a dusky orange section along one side of a minor chamber and slapped hir hand down hard on a large circular panel at its side. "Here we are." Shi announced grandly as a 10-metre semi-circle opened up to reveal an inner chamber. Kkhrkht could see the gateway's milky stone dais in the centre of the chamber glowing steadily. It was active and he'd be home soon. Kkhrkht went on in to look around while Psy paced back and forth impatiently outside in the tunnel while the others caught up.
Half an hour had passed and still there was no sign of the others. Psy was losing patience fast. "Hello, anyone there?" Shi called out on their common channel.
Eventually a hubbub of voices oohing and ahing flooded Psy's headset as Bill spoke up excitedly: "SkyHawk's been showing us all these weird rooms along the tunnels. He opens them up by touching the wall, no-one else can do it!"
"Really?" Psy's voice dripped caustic with impatience. "We haven't got all day, you know. We have to be done here before Earth Fed start up their daily patrols."
"Psy, what are all those rooms for?" MariElla asked as she walked into the chamber where everyone was gathered. Psy didn't answer, hir attention was focused on an illuminated stone panel. The others speculated amongst themselves as to their purpose. SkyHawk was in the middle of telling Lottie, Eddy and Clem that they all seemed the same when Psy turned around and addressed them: "Are we all here? Fine, I'll close the door then." No sooner than the entrance sealed itself, they could hear the hissing of air and their suits beginning to slacken around their bodies. Psy took hir helmet off: "Ah, that's better!" And shook hir hair out. Psy helped Kkhrkht get out of his suit while the others removed their helmets.
The room soon filled up with the sound of amphetamine-driven speculation about the nature of the strange rooms in the fort. Psy pointed out the glowing dais and spoke up to make hirself heard. "Kkhrkht is going home today and this is how we do it." Psy beckoned Kkhrkht to mount the dais.
Kkhrkht climbed up and looked around and choked up with emotion. "Goodbye, it's been nice living with you. I didn't expect to have to leave so soon, but I can't really stay here like this. Maybe we'll meet again." One by one they climbed up to see him off. Bill shook one of his claws and joked about never expecting to meet an alien. MariElla gave him a hug and a kiss, thanking him for saving her from the Raiders. Veronica apologised yet again for starting the row that led to Kkhrkht losing his ability to keep his human form. Stan gave him two Psionic Crystals to take home. Barney gave him a data cube of Psy's crystal trip and Chester gave him a portable player to view it on. Gregor gave him a data cube of The Flaming Watusis. Lottie gave him another Psionic Crystal. When they were all done and gathered up around the dais with Kkhrkht waiting for Psy to activate the gateway, Barney called out: "Sing us a song!" Kkhrkht surprised them with his reedy polyphonic rendition of 'Crystal Magic'. Kkhrkht bowed when he finished to a round of applause and cheers as Psy activated the gateway engulfing him in a dome of brilliant white light.
It was over in less than a second and all that remained on the dais was a solitary blue Psionic Crystal that Kkhrkht had swallowed and tried to take with him. Psy went over and picked it up. "Tut, tut. That naughty little bug should know better than that." Shi then patted and addressed the dais: "Well done." No sooner than Psy had sat down on the edge of the dais, it erupted into action, knocking hir off in surprise. When the light subsided, three black and emerald spider-like creatures clumped together with four dingy brown insects that resembled giant wood lice clinging fearfully to them surveyed their new surroundings. One of the spiders was holding a glistening black ovoid. Kkhrkht stood next to them looking more than a little sheepish. They immediately burst into a frantic barrage of buzzing, reedy speech amongst themselves. Psy knew what had happened and covered hir eyes in dismay wishing the lot of them would just disappear. But they didn't. Shi sloped off to the control panel, and there in hir own language was a large message on the display screen listing the gateways that had just been closed down. Sure enough, it included all the gateways serving the Zrrlchtz system. Damn! Psy keyed in a request to find out when they'd be reopened but was met only by an indefinite closure response. Even worse than looking after twits like Kkhrkht, Psy hated looking after beings who got lost or misdirected between gateways.
Up on the dais the spiders realised something was amiss. "Where are we? We should have been home by now." Vzzelvy, a middle-aged clerk from Zrrlchtz, asked in its' own language.
Dzeelvau stroked the wood lice and buzzed soothingly to them: "Don't worry, there's nothing to be afraid of. We'll be home soon"
Miktykhaud was a pessimist: "Well, something's gone wrong, this isn't the terminus we set out from on Zrrlchtz. So much for these cheap holidays. I told you we should have visited Knchtdlly instead."
"Oh, shut up, you!" Vzzelvy rasped harshly to Miktykhaud. "You've been complaining the whole time. If it wasn't for Dzeelvau, I'd force you out of our triune."
"Why? Because you haven't got what it takes to make a triune on your own?" Miktykhaud sniped back as it opened its mandibles in open challenge to Vzzelvy.
"Stop it, you two!" Dzeelvau interrupted nervously. "You're frightening our grubs. Any more of your arguing and I'm leaving with them as soon as we get back."
"They're mine, too." Vzzelvy retorted angrily. "And I'll eat them before you run off with them." The terrified youngsters understood his menacing threat and clung to Dzeelvau in desperation, keening with fear and terrified that their angry parents would eat them.
"That's it, you miserable tyrant!" Dzeelvau was full of righteous anger. "I'm having our triune dissolved the moment we set foot on Zrrlchtz." Dzeelvau gathered in the wood lice for protection and bit Vzzelvy fiercely, almost severing one of its limbs. Vzzelvy froze in pain and considered retaliating but realised that this was no time for a fight.
Miktykhaud saw that Kkhrkht was an Academe, the intellectual caste of the Khzchhrrrtz and addressed him respectfully: "You're an Academe, where are we?"
"A long way from home." Kkhrkht tried to break the bad news gently. "I was studying these creatures just recently."
"Well, fancy meeting you here!" Psy called out to Kkhrkht through the chaos on the dais. Kkhrkht flapped his arms haplessly as if to say: 'It's not my fault, guv.'
Vzzelvy saw Kkhrkht respond to Psy and grabbed hold of him in desperation. "You know that misshapen larva?" It buzzed incredulously at Kkhrkht.
"Yes." Kkhrkht admitted cautiously, but wished the answer could have been 'No'.
"What is this place?" Vzzelvy asked nervously.
"A minor gateway near the end of the next arm spinwise on the great wheel." Kkhrkht explained succinctly.
Vzzelvy didn't quite understand what Kkhrkht meant for a moment before realising the he had just explained their astronomical location the way one would to a grub, or higher caste standoffishness to lower caste. Vzzelvy ignored Kkhrkht's pointed insult and pressed on. "Can it get us home?"
"I hope so." Even a few minutes in the company of these bickering Octons was too much. The sooner he could get away from them and their poisonous triune the better.
Everyone else was cowering against the walls around the room, expecting these fearsome, violent spiders to attack them at any moment the way Kkhrkht had attacked the Raiders in the Pleasure Dome. Fortunately, the spiders' ire was spent amongst themselves. Psy approached the dais to speak with Kkhrkht and pointed to the spiders: "Well?"
Vzzelvy saw Psy speak to Kkhrkht again. "What does it want?"
"It wants to know who you are." Kkhrkht interpreted Psy's intent and was immediately overwhelmed by all three spiders jabbering simultaneously while their grubs whined their miseries at him. Eventually, he got the picture and explained it to Psy: "They're a Triune from Zrrlchtz. They were returning from a holiday on Phanaphtzzk and ended up here with me. They think you're with their tour operator and want to sue for damages."
"What???" Psy couldn't believe hir ears. Tour operator indeed! "Tell them they're lucky to be anywhere at all instead of swimming around in the nexus for a few thousand cycles. And they're welcome to sue their tour operator for all I care."
Kkhrkht translated hir reply and when their buzzing subsided, asked Psy: "When can we go home?"
"Ah, I'm not so sure about that." Psy back-pedalled slowly. Shi had no idea when the gateways in the Zrrlchtz system would be open again. It might be in five minutes; then again it could be several thousand years. "And by the look of things, that Phanaphtzzk place they just came from is out of the running."
"What do you mean?" Kkhrkht found Psy's glib offhand manner infuriating at times like this.
"All the gateways in and around your system have been closed down." Psy explained tetchily while consulting the display panel. "The nearest gateway is on Djummakht roughly 50 light-years away if you want to try it, but I doubt if you'll find any transport passing through. The inhabitants have ripped their planet up in a civil war and they haven't got anything that any of the local traders want. Not even their refugees. Apparently, they make awful workers." Psy added disdainfully.
Kkhrkht explained the situation to Vzzelvy, Dzeelvau and Miktykhaud. They had heard of Djummakht, but didn't like the idea of turning up on a war-torn wasteland. They weren't sure if there was a Khzchhrrrtz consulate there. On top of which, they had no way to pay for their passage back to Zrrlchtz even if they managed to find transport home from Djummakht. "We need time to think about it." Kkhrkht explained to Psy.
"Think quickly, Buggy-Boy." Psy impatiently hectored Kkhrkht and his new companions. "We can't stay here forever. And it's not exactly safe for you to stay in this system. You might want to tell your friends how they deal with strangers around these parts."
Vzzelvy, Dzeelvau and Miktykhaud made a big fuss about the uncouth ways of these uncivilised savages in the backwoods when Bill came up with a brainwave. He got everyone to spread out around the chamber and record sound and video of these strange aliens using their commsets. Ruby and Barney were busily recording the drama on the dais into their data banks. Barney, who was fast running out of spare memory, had switched over to lo-resolution. Ruby, on the other hand, had no such problem. She was more worried about what would happen when Earth Fed logged back into her at the start of her duty shift and tagged along automatically to protect Bill as he approached the dais to talk to Kkhrkht.
"Hey, Jazz." He addressed Kkhrkht. "These guys from your world?"
"Yes, Bill. They are." Suddenly Kkhrkht felt ever so distant from Bill and the times he would go on about his work on the interferometery project and SETI. He looked at Bill and could only see a na´ve, backward alien looking back at him.
"They sure look different from you! How many more types do you have on your world?" Bill held up his commset to record Kkhrkht's reply.
"Many thousand variants, Bill." Kkhrkht noticed Bill holding up his commset, looked around and saw that everyone around the chamber was doing the same. "What are you doing with your commsets?"
"Recording you." Bill explained.
"Why?" Kkhrkht couldn't understand why anyone would be interested in a triune of low-caste Octons arguing amongst themselves.
"Proof!" Bill was exultant.
"Proof of what?" Of course Octons had violent arguments. What else could you expect of the lower castes?
"Proof that aliens like you and others actually exist."
"Of course I exist." Kkhrkht was peevishly emphatic. "Why?"
"Because our government insists that there is no life outside of our solar system. Now we can prove them wrong." Bill was certain he'd finally got the proof needed to prove that aliens really exist when Psy whisked Bill's commset out of his hand.
"Not so fast there, Billy-Bob." Psy scolded him. "You don't want Buggy-Boy and his friends to end up in specimen jars like the Greys, do you."
Bill's excitement drained out of him in a flash as surely as if Psy had doused him with a bucket of cold water. "No, of course not."
"Good." Psy looked him steely in the eye before continuing. "There's going to be no more of that sort of nonsense... aaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh!" Psy crumpled up in agonising pain on the floor, twitched spasmodically and then blacked out. The spiders stopped bickering amongst themselves and looked down at Psy worried that their ticket home had just expired. Ruby bent over to pick hir up, but the floor extruded itself protectively around hir and began pulsing with bursts of yellow light. The display screen showed a group of soldiers from one of the Overlordz clans inside an entrance to Fort Melchisor peeling away sections of the crystalline stone that had been broken up by explosive charges. Unintelligible alien text scrolled frantically around the borders of the screen. The Omphalon shielded its pain from its master and awaited its orders. Psy came to as the pain subsided and was only just able to crawl away from hir servant's dutiful embrace. Shi stared at the console display for a moment before muttering darkly: "Kill them all! Exterminate!" And punched a sequence of points on the display before limping back over to the dais.
At Psy's command, the walls of the Omphalon swelled up, crushing the Overlordz bandits to death and unceremoniously spat out their pulped and broken remains onto the airless Martian soil outside.
"We can't stay here." Psy mumbled feebly, still wracked with the Omphalon's pain and clutched one of Bill's arms in a feeble grasp. "Be a good boy and get your friends up on the dais." Shi looked up towards Kkhrkht: "Get your friends to move over, it's going to be a bit crowded up there." Psy waited until everyone had gathered up on the dais and let Ruby help hir up. Light swelled up from within the dais and engulfed them in its intensity. When it subsided, they were no longer in the gateway chamber of Fort Melchisor.
A spacious milky-white dome made of stone similar to that of the Omphalon called Fort Melchisor arced overhead. All the way around, windows rose up converging at its apex providing a view of the barren landscape and the thick, soupy clouds that swirled around above it. A faint tang of ammonia tinted the air.
Kkhrkht and the spider triune stayed with Psy near the dais while the others drifted over to the windows to get their bearings. "That's the strangest dust storm I've ever seen. Didn't mention anything about dust storms in the weather reports yesterday." Eddy spoke loudly hoping that anyone in the chamber might be able to shed more light on their whereabouts. Lottie was a short distance away with Stan and MariElla gazing out another window, their backs to the dome's entrance. "Doesn't look like dust to me." Lottie observed.
"That's because it isn't a dust storm." A thick, liquid voice explained. No one recognised it and as they turned around to see who it was, they saw a giant octopus-like creature standing well over three metres tall on its tentacles in the entrance. A ring of six eyes protruding from its dark red elephantine hide faced them. The deep red colouration faded to a rich mahogany at the base of its tentacles and on to a glistening obsidian black at their tips. "Psy!" It called out excitedly and ran over to Psy, ripped out a huge, wet noisy fart as it picked hir up in two of its tentacles and danced around the dome, hugging hir close before setting hir down, as everyone nearby gagged for breath. "You've brought company!"
"You know me, Grattlyd, always one for a party." Psy replied casually as the heavy, malodorous stench of Grattlyd's fart faded away.
"Really? You expect me to fall for that one again?" Grattlyd toyed with Psy.
"I'm a star on Mars now." Psy explained proudly.
"Making a cult of yourself this time? I take it these are your latest disciples." Grattlyd waved one of its tentacles to take in the assembled crowd in the dome.
"No, really." Psy tried to show hir reformed nature. "I joined in with a troupe of entertainers. We've been having great fun. Look, I'll show you." Psy begged the data cube and commset off of Kkhrkht, set it up and handed it to Grattlyd who watched the Flaming Watusis on its tiny screen accompanied by a tinny waft of the band's full-bodied sound.
"I don't see you in there." Grattlyd commented suspiciously. "That picture's a bit small." Grattlyd tapped the floor and a column of the Omphalon's organic stone sprouted up. Grattlyd placed the commset on it. The Omphalon cloned it and at Grattlyd's command projected a larger-than-lifesize holographic replay of the band in full, pounding wailing intensity stomping their way through 'Space Kidz', 'Overdrive' and 'Baby, I Can't Get Enough of You'. Grattlyd let it run for a while before turning the volume down. "So where are you in all this?"
"That was before Psy joined us." Stan explained. He felt Psy needed a bit of backup. "We haven't had time to record any of the songs with yet."
"The Free Mars Tribe put our show out on the networks. If you did a search, you could probably find it." Veronica suggested helpfully.
"Brilliant idea Ronnie, except that we aren't on Mars any longer." Psy coolly pointed out.
"Where are we then?" Eddy was getting tired of Psy's games. On top of which he was thoroughly exhausted and just wanted to be back at home in bed with Crystal.
"I think you call it Titan." Grattlyd explained.
"What, the moon of Saturn?" Clem asked incredulously.
"Yes, that one." Grattlyd replied nonchalantly before turning to Psy. "So, what's this network thing and how do you search it? I want to see what you've been up to." Grattlyd asked with genteel impatience as it wrapped a tentacle around Psy in a friendly hug.
"It's their broadcast system and, oh never mind, I'll find it for you." Psy knew what to do and summoned up a short column which grew up out from the floor to give hir a control interface to connect to the Martian communications network through the Omphalon's gateway.
Grattlyd could see that Psy would be busy for a while and went to meet Psy's latest find. Clem cowered and took a few steps back as Grattlyd approached him, holding out a tentacle. As Grattlyd got within striking range, it morphed the end of its tentacle into an approximation of a human hand and clasped Clem's hand. Clem found the alien's leathery, pulseless hand warm and oddly reassuring. "Oh, hi!" Clem spluttered nervously in response to the alien's overtures.
Grattlyd held Clem's hand for a moment. "And you are...?" Grattlyd asked politely.
"I'm Grattlyd." In the background, Dzeelvau began a stoic, stilted polyphonic Khzchhrrrtz rendition of 'Baby, I Can't Get Enough of You' as Grattlyd went around the dome. Kkhrkht joined in hoping that the grubs would stop their moaning and whining and join in the singing. He finally managed to convince the bickering Vzzelvy and Miktykhaud to join in. And the grubs had almost stopped their whingeing by the time Grattlyd reached SkyHawk. As he held the pseudo hand on the end of Grattlyd's tentacle, SkyHawk had a flashback to his crash-landing all those years ago. Their desperate struggle to stay in control and survive flooded back and overwhelmed his senses. The razor-sharp memories of their last days became vaguer and vaguer until he found himself staring into Grattlyd's ring of unblinking eyes. "You've returned." Grattlyd spoke gently.
"What???" SkyHawk snapped back into reality as the flashback faded away. He may have been to this moon before, but certainly not in anything like this dome. "But that was under different circumstances." He found himself explaining to Grattlyd without understanding why.
"Indeed." Grattlyd replied cryptically as it left SkyHawk to talk with Ruby but was interrupted as Psy started up the recording of the show at the Pleasure Dome, drowning out the Octon triune's singing. For all Dzeelvau's hesitant start, it had worked and the grubs squeaked enthusiastically along with any pieces they thought they recognised. Grattlyd watched the show for a while taking in Psy's antics before going over to hir. "I still can't understand why you spend so much time with them." Grattlyd asked quizzically through the powerful blast of the Flaming Watusis' brand of rock'n'roll. And, without even waiting for Psy to reply, went on over to Kkhrkht, extruded antennae from the ends of two of its tentacles and spoke to him in high Khzchhrrrtz as it stroked his antennae.
Kkhrkht explained what had happened underlining his and the Octons' need to get home quickly. "Another one of Psy's surprises, I see." Grattlyd replied after Kkhrkht finished. "I'll see what I can do." Grattlyd offered diplomatically and went over to talk with Vzzelvy, Dzeelvau and Miktykhaud whose grubs were jumping up and down with excitement as they squeaked along with the band.
Yasouf had seen SkyHawk go into a trance when Grattlyd held his hand. "You alright, Rastaman?"
"I don't know." SkyHawk answered dreamily. "It was as if we had just landed here yesterday."
Yasouf completely missed what SkyHawk was talking about. "What are you talking about? We got here through the gateway about an hour ago."
"I was an astronaut with ESA a long time ago. We were sent here to Titan, but we never saw anything like this..." He trailed off in wonder as the memories welled up again.
Yasouf looked at SkyHawk in awe. This was something he'd never spoken about before. But why? Most astronauts were such egotistical bores; all they ever talked about was their 'exciting' careers. "Really? I didn't know." But SkyHawk, lost in reverie, didn't answer. He barely even noticed Psy's crystal trip blazing overhead. Ruby had been watching Yasouf's reaction and stepped in to fill the gap with a prosaic account of SkyHawk's brief and tragic career with ESA. How he was lucky to be alive at all and coping admirably in spite of the recurring nightmares that have plagued him ever since his return.
The music was still blaring when Grattlyd cornered Psy in telepathic conversation: "Why is it the only time I see you is when another one of your schemes blows up in your face?"
"I was overtaken by events. How was I supposed to know the gateways in the Zrrlchtz system were being shut down so soon?" Psy knew Grattlyd was right, but this time it wasn't totally hir fault. "I was led to believe they'd be open for some time yet."
Grattlyd drummed six of its tentacles back and forth on the floor. "Yes, so was I. And when are you going to be yourself again? You must feel so constrained like that." Grattlyd nagged hir. "You've been playing with those humans for far too long."
"Playing indeed!" Psy huffed angrily. "I want out of this dead-end as much as you do."
"So? You're free to go any time you want." They'd been over this one thousands of times before.
"With a clear conscience." Psy stressed. "I want to put an end to this sordid little chapter and move on."
"By getting these humans to join the Galactic Council?" Grattlyd still couldn't get over this one. "We created everything on that poisonous little planet." Grattlyd reminded hir.
"By destroying what was there in the first place." Psy parried. "Don't you think we should draw a line under this at some point? Look, there's a civilisation there. It may not be the original one," Psy pointed out realistically, "But it is indigenous, so we could say that we've undone the damage."
"Yes, but why bother?" Grattlyd felt Psy was getting hirself worked up over nothing. "You're pushing them too fast. They're hardly ready. How do you think they'll react when they're turned down? Apparently some of the Shallens' descendants have lodged a claim with the Council. They want the Nglubi to return HomeNest to them. It looks like they have a good chance of winning."
"Oh." This was news to Psy. Disturbing news, indeed. Sure, shi knew that some Shallens escaped the Devastation. Some had colonised a few uninhabited worlds, but most of them wandered around the galaxy in their worldships. They seemed fairly settled in their ways.
"Oh indeed." Grattlyd poked at Psy's chest with a tentacle. "What are we supposed to tell them? Sorry, but you can't come back because another species has evolved to fill your niche while you were out of the house? And if the Shallens win their case, I suppose we'll have to roll that lot up and dump them down the nearest black hole."
"Thanks a lot. You really know how to make my day." No way was Psy going to let all hir work with these humans come to nothing.
"Good luck, then. You'll need it." Grattlyd didn't particularly like the idea of wiping out the current ecosystem and its unique diversity of life just to return the planet to its original state. But if that was what the Galactic Council ruled, that's what would happen. "There's many who sympathise with the Shallens' case and would reject the Humans' claim to legitimacy on the grounds that the Shallens still exist. Seeing how the Humans are largely seen to be our creation, their existence is taken to be yet another act of colonial warfare on our part to deny the Shallens their home world."
"Some colony!" Earth and its Solar System felt more like an uphill struggle than a colony to Psy. "More like a bad joke. I can think of thousands of places I'd rather be."
"Me too." Grattlyd commiserated glumly. "And the Shallens know we're no longer interested in the Empire as it used to be. It's all part of the new-look progressive Galactic Council with its liberal policy of cultural diversity."
"But they've been wanderers for ages. Surely that's their culture by now." Psy argued.
"But HomeNest, as the Shallens call it, is central to their mythology and they want it back." Grattlyd explained, not wanting to upset Psy too much. "The sacred world they arose on and all that sort of waffle. Goes down a treat at the Council."
Psy said nothing, but thought through what Grattlyd said.
"I'd get your Humans down to the Galactic Council fairly quickly if I were you." Grattlyd suggested as it prodded Psy yet again with one of its tentacles. "They'll never find it on their own."
"Well, you're right about that. But you couldn't exactly call that lot over there a suitable delegation." Psy nodded hir head in Gregor and Chester's direction. Shi was beginning to feel distinctly out of hir depth. Overseeing this region was one thing, but playing Galactic politics was way out of hir range.
Grattlyd surveyed Psy's latest collection and shook its head with dismay. A friendly enough crowd, but hardly capable of representing their entire civilisation. "I wouldn't have chosen them either, but they'll have to do. Have you got a sponsor for your Humans? It wouldn't carry much weight if we sponsored them."
Psy looked around and saw Kkhrkht surrounded by the Octons and a crowd from Mars. "I think we're in luck, Grattlyd."
By now the music had subsided and Kkhrkht was busy acting as interpreter for Bill and Veronica who were trying to interview the Octons and record it all on their commsets. Barney and Ruby had agreed to set aside as much of their memory as possible, effectively turning themselves into mobile video recorders. Psy and Grattlyd approached them. "A moment of your time, please." Psy interrupted Kkhrkht. Grattlyd took over as interpreter as Psy led Kkhrkht over towards one of the windows. "How would you like to make history?"
"What do you mean?" Kkhrkht had finally learned to be suspicious of Psy's motives.
"How would you like to sponsor the Humans' petition to join the Galactic Council?"
"Even if I wanted to, I couldn't." Kkhrkht replied defensively. He didn't want to be swept up in any more of Psy's games. "Only one race can sponsor another."
"But you could sponsor them on behalf of the Khzchhrrrtz." Psy wheedled.
"In theory, yes." Kkhrkht replied cagily. He could see what Psy was getting at and didn't want any part of it. "But I would have to be authorised to represent the Khzchhrrrtz at the Council. Given my caste, that's hardly likely to happen."
Psy decided to play the only card shi held. "How soon do you want to get home, Buggy-Boy?"
"Why, that's blackmail! Extortion!" Kkhrkht spluttered indignantly.
"Nonsense." Psy smiled wickedly. "Got a knack for haggling, that's all. Well, how's about it, Buggy-Boy?"
Kkhrkht could see that Psy had him over a barrel and caved in. "Get the Octons back to Zrrlchtz and I'll see what I can do."
"That's what I like to hear." Psy gloated triumphally before taking a final dig at Kkhrkht as shi held up the blue Psionic Crystal Kkhrkht had hoped to take home: "And next time, don't try stealing any of my crystals."
Further on around the dome, Barney was staring intently at Grattlyd. He'd recorded so much data since those spiders returned with Kkhrkht that he was beginning to slow down considerably. If they didn't get back soon, he'd have to start dumping large blocks of data and hope that Ruby had more memory to spare. A glimmer of recognition registered in his data-cluttered mind: Those frozen bodies back at Klondike Pass were roughly the same size and had tentacles. He borrowed Malcolm's commset for a couple of minutes and went over to Clem. He held the commset out for Clem to see and clumsily jammed one of his fingers into its data port. Its miniscule screen lit up with some of the pictures Barney had saved from their last days at Klondike Pass showing the frozen mummified corpses they had found. "Whaddya reckon?" He asked Clem groggily as he pointed out Grattlyd. "Do ya think we've found a Martian?"
Clem squinted at the screen and focused on the pictures Barney was replaying. He looked up towards Grattlyd, then back at the screen. He studied the pictures and Grattlyd for a few minutes and scratched his head. It seemed a good fit, but he wasn't sure. "Could be, but how come it's here and not back on Mars?" Clem went and rounded up Ralph, Eddy and Malcolm for their opinions on Grattlyd's origins.
By now SkyHawk was slumped semi-conscious against the dome's wall with Ruby tending anxiously to him. She seemed faint and distant, hardly even there as his mental focus drifted away from the gathering in the dome. He felt as if he was melting into the floor again when Frank, Ritchie and Marco rose up out of the floor in front of him. He could see them laughing and joking amongst themselves and suddenly felt incredibly thirsty when he saw that they were each holding a glass of cold beer. He called out to them: "Hey guys, how's it going?" But they never heard him and continued laughing and drinking. Eventually, they turned to face him and wordlessly toasted him with their drinks as they faded out leaving SkyHawk gazing in Grattlyd's direction. He looked down as Ruby fussed over him and to his surprise saw that he was holding a glass of beer in his hands. He raised it and took a tentative taste. It seemed OK and he took a deep drink. Ah! The nectar of the gods!
Ruby looked on in amazement. "Where did you get that beer from?"
"Ritchie gave it to me." He replied dreamily as he savoured the cool, delicious drink. "And it sure tastes great! Do you remember that body we found back at Fort Melchisor?"
"Yes, how could I forget it?" Ruby was already replaying the footage of their discovery in her mind.
"If you fleshed it out a bit, it wouldn't half look like that Grattlyd creature over there." SkyHawk pointed out as his senses came back into focus.
"Mmm... I was thinking the same thing." Ruby cautiously agreed. But it didn't make much sense. If Grattlyd was a Martian, then where were the others? "So why haven't we seen anything like Grattlyd running around on Mars?"
"That, young lady, is a total mystery to me." SkyHawk candidly admitted as he picked himself up off the floor. "They must've seen us coming!"
SkyHawk's joke went right over her head as she tried to piece the puzzle together. But there were still too many gaps. Two hours later as they were milling around in the cramped gateway on Djummakht, Ruby was still no closer to solving the puzzle about Grattlyd, the body they found and the missing Martians.
"Hey man, this is pretty neat!" Clem caught Eddy's attention, now that Barney was slowing down to the point of being somewhat unresponsive. "I always thought these alien abductions were weird, creepy scenes."
"Don't count on it!" Eddy joked back. He was interrupted by a loud wrenching sound that went through the entire fabric of the gateway. The floor shook violently, knocking most of the human contingent off their feet. Grattlyd absorbed the chaotic movement with its twelve tentacles, bobbing along casually as Vzzelvy, Dzeelvau and Miktykhaud and their grubs skidded along the floor in a large clump. Eddy managed to find a wall bracket to hang on to. "What's happening? He asked no one in particular.
Psy took hold of Eddy and led him over to a control panel and pointed at the screen. The ground was receding quickly. Soon the rubble-strewn hole where the gateway had once been could no longer be seen. Moments later Djummakht itself was shrinking out of sight against the starry background on the screen. The gateway on Djummakht was also an Nglubi spaceship. "We're on our way to the Zrrlchtz system." Psy explained casually as shi pointed out the Octons and Kkhrkht. "Taking the bugs home."
"Oh, sure." Eddy was dumbfounded, yet it felt comically absurd. Here they were with all this amazingly advanced technology using it like a taxicab. In the background, the dais and a pattern of conduits in the stone floor began pulsing rhythmically. "And what about us?"
"Nothing to worry about, big boy!" Psy pouted as shi reassured him and ran hir hand erotically across his broad chest. "Just a few detours. Wouldn't you like to do a bit of sight-seeing?" A tentacle wrapped itself around one of Psy's arms and pulled hir over towards its owner. "Yes, what is it now?" Psy sounded more that a little bit exasperated.
"Your delegates await their briefing, your highness." Grattlyd mocked Psy.
"They can wait a little longer. There's no hurry." Psy needed time to formulate a plan that had at least a marginal hope of success.
"Try not to leave everything to the last minute like you usually do." Grattlyd didn't have much confidence in Psy's ability to manipulate the Galactic Council. "We've got to make a convincing case with the Council. Otherwise..."
"No need to remind me." Psy knew they'd only get one shot at it. If they blew it, the Shallens would take over the administration of Earth, or HomeNest as they called it, and its environs before they even walked out of the Galactic Council chambers. "Let me do the talking and you translate it for the bugs."
"Fine by me." Grattlyd was pleased to see Psy taking the initiative for once. "Whenever you're ready."
"Let me see what angles we can work on..." Psy mused abstractly for a few moments. "Trade and cultural exchange ought to be fairly easy, though I don't know how we'll ever get the official seal of approval from Earth Fed."
"Great, you're going drag the lot of us down to the Galactic Council to look like a bunch of pranksters." Grattlyd didn't rate Psy's chances of pulling this one off. "Sometimes I wonder about you."
"At the moment I'm only interested in buying time." Psy levelled with Grattlyd. "Once we've stalled the Shallens, then we can approach the governments on Earth and Zrrlchtz and get them to hammer out some kind of allegiance."
"Some chance!" Grattlyd had to admire Psy's cool nerve, but realised that hir plan had little hope of success.
"Watch and learn!" Psy gleefully rubbed hir hands together. This was going to be fun!
On the other side of their cramped spaceship, Clem was leading Barney past Dzeelvau, Miktykhaud, Jenny and Lottie who were cleaning up a mess one of the grubs had made on the floor. Barney was stumbling clumsily like Frankenstein's monster on mandrax, barely aware of what he was doing. They finally reached Ruby and SkyHawk and it took all of Clem's strength to keep Barney from falling over and crushing SkyHawk. "Ruby, you've got to help. Something's happened to Barney."
Ruby got up from looking after SkyHawk, peeled the plastiskin off one of her hands and stuck her fingers into Barney's ports. The silly mech had used up all of its' RAM! She quickly downloaded all the video clips he'd stored and archived them in her capacious memory banks. It was so sudden, Barney nearly rebooted!
"What? Hey! You've taken all my best shots!" He accused Ruby angrily.
"I had to Barney, you were full up. You didn't even have room left for your swap file." Ruby explained patiently. "Just take stills from now on. I'll handle the motion pictures, Okay?"
Barney sulked petulantly as he nursed his crushed ego. "Yeah, alright. But I want my clips back when we get back to Mars. They're my ticket for an upgrade and a nice pad back home. And no copying!"
"Fine." Ruby humoured him. "Just don't use up all your memory again. I haven't got unlimited storage, you know."
Psy pointed out Kkhrkht and Vzzelvy who were up on the gateway's dais with Chester, Malcolm, Veronica, Gregor and MariElla introducing them to Khzchhrrrtz choral music. "There, that's a cultural exchange unless I'm seriously mistaken." Psy pronounced confidently as shi caught sight of Lottie and Dzeelvau cleaning up the floor. "Oh, look! Interspecial co-operation, too. It's getting better all the time."
Grattlyd covered some of its eyes with its tentacles and groaned with dismay. "This isn't just flimsy, it's a joke. You'll never get away with it."
"Have faith, you old stick-in-the-mud." Psy breezily brushed off Grattlyd's doubts as shi proudly patted the control panel at hir side. "This little Omphalatta here will bear witness before the Galactic Council."
An eyestalk attached to the wall bobbed up and down affirmatively between them. Grattlyd observed it sceptically. "And since when did the Galactic Council begin accepting evidence from genetically engineered slave classes?"
"As you said yourself, it's the new-look progressive Galactic Council." Psy bluffed. "It's probably the most fun this little creature's had in a long time." Sure enough, the little Omphalatta, which was taking them to Zrrlchtz, had become seriously bored in its role as an underused gateway on a seldom-visited planet and it blinked its internal lights in crazy dancing patterns to agree with Psy.
Grattlyd eyeballed the eyestalk that was bobbing up and down excitedly and moaned in despair. "What have I let myself in for? We'll be laughed out of the Council for this. I take it your trade case is equally robust."
"Absolutely." Psy glibly ignored Grattlyd's sarcastic barb. "Kkhrkht was showered with gifts from the Humans and Mechs. They're already a multi-species civilisation, I'll have you know. Certainly a point in their favour. And I'll send our newly minted delegates shopping as soon as we land on Zrrlchtz."
"I thought as much." Grattlyd began drumming its tentacles on the floor again. "You're completely mad."
"Ah well, it certainly helps in this line of work." Psy quipped breezily as hir self-confidence grew to match hir over-inflated ego. "Oh, and you see that colourful bug over there?"
"Yes. That's the one you mentioned a moment ago. Kkhrkht, isn't it?"
"It's been studying their civilisation for at least a quarter-cycle." Psy let Grattlyd in on one of hir trump cards. "Got quite fond of them, too. I'm sure we can find something positive about the Humans and Mechs in its notes."
"Undoubtedly." Grattlyd remained unconvinced. "And the Council will assume it to be a forgery."
"Even if they don't believe a word of it, they're obliged to come up with evidence to prove my case wrong." Psy was determined to show Grattlyd that shi knew how to work the system like anyone else.
Grattlyd could see what Psy was playing at. "Which buys you time..."
"And you thought I couldn't teach you anything new!" Psy took a friendly dig at Grattlyd. "Look over there." Psy pointed out Ruby and SkyHawk. "An intimate relationship between organic and inorganic life forms from the same world. Such a happy pair of love bugs!" Shi sighed with just the slightest twinge of jealousy.
Ralph and Clem finally plucked up the courage to confront Grattlyd and were closely followed by Barney, SkyHawk, Ruby, Eddy, Stan, Yasouf and Monica. "Are you a Martian?" Ralph timidly asked the towering Grattlyd.
"No." Grattlyd was surprised by the irrational assumptions these Humans arrived at. "Why?"
This wasn't the answer Ralph expected. "Barney and Clem found some dead Martians and they looked a lot like you."
"Really?" Life had flourished only briefly on Mars and was long extinct by the time the Nglubi arrived on the scene. Grattlyd assumed Ralph was bluffing.
Barney stepped up to Grattlyd holding out Malcolm's commset as if it were a magic totem to ward off evil spirits. "Yeah, these." He held it up for Grattlyd to see the pictures from Klondike Pass on its miniscule screen.
Grattlyd stared at the precession of grainy ill-focused pictures of long-dead Nglubi corpses in the Martian ice. "I found one in Fort Melchisor." SkyHawk added, taking courage from his companions.
Psy took a quick glance at the screen. Shi and Grattlyd looked at each other in silence for a moment. "They are Nglubi, our kind." Grattlyd admitted slowly.
"You said 'Our kind'." Monica was quick off the mark. "So what were you doing on Mars?" She hoped Grattlyd would have an answer for them.
"I don't know." Grattlyd lied convincingly. "That was before my time." And with that managed to put an end to an inquisition, which if followed through to its logical conclusion would lead to a clutch of awkward truths for everyone to deal with.
"While you're here, I have an interesting proposition for you." Psy distracted the crowd facing Grattlyd and hirself. "How would you like to represent your civilisation to the Galactic Council?" And was met by an uncomprehending silence.
"What's the Galactic Council?" Jenny asked. This was getting weirder than any of the crazy acid-laced parties they had in the Pleasure Dome.
Grattlyd had just begun intoning reverentially about the wondrously enlightened Galactic Council when Psy butted in: "Oh, nothing special. A meeting place where all the different species in this galaxy send delegates who meet to resolve disputes, make treaties, act pompous and feel important about themselves. I'd really recommend joining. It's the best way to get formal recognition for your species. Isn't that right Grattlyd?"
"Oh, yes. Absolutely." Grattlyd agreed in a show of resolute confidence while telepathically cursing Psy for using itself as a sidekick: 'I'll get you for this' Grattlyd swore telepathically at Psy. 'Hah! You ain't seen nothing yet!" Psy telepathically laughed back just to wind Grattlyd up a bit more.
"So aside from meeting all the other species in the Galaxy, why should we want this formal recognition business from the Galactic Council?" Eddy suspected that it was just some ruse of Psy's. Which it was, but not quite the way he imagined.
Grattlyd and Psy were somewhat taken aback by this backward Humans' lack of interest in the Galactic Council. "Well, say for instance if the Akkadix decided to colonise and your entire solar system and annex it into their conglomerate or if the Tivaak reduced your planet to its' constituent elements for raw materials."
"You could be making all this up." Clem defiantly rebutted Psy's suggestion.
"Oh, but I'm not." Psy countered smoothly, hir voice purring with smug self-confidence. "Happens all the time." 'Ha! Some delegates you've got there.' Grattlyd smirked telepathically much to Psy's annoyance. 'Give me some time.' Shi shot back before continuing out loud: "And if you weren't represented at the Galactic Council, no one would even care."
"And if we join this Galactic Community of yours?" Yasouf asked sceptically.
"They would even touch you." Psy smugly proclaimed.
"Is that some sort of protection racket you're running?" Stan had an easy knack for seeing through bullshit, flim-flam and all that fancy talk.
Psy acted hurt at Stan's crude assessment. "Nothing of the sort, my man. Think of it as mutual assistance. We help each other out as we are able. It works, really."
"So what would we have to do?" Monica was curious. Who'd have thought that a night out with a rock'n'roll band would turn out like this? It certainly made a change from the routine she'd settled into with the Free Mars Tribe.
"Not much at this point. Send a delegation to the Galactic Council. I should imagine they'd have to spend most of their time getting up to speed on the current politics, though." Psy looked Yasouf over savouring his air of authority, seeing him as well suited to life in the Galactic Council, even if it was only for such a minor civilisation as his. "At your stage, there would be very few demands placed on you." And finished with an inspirational quote to put them in an appropriate frame of mind. "From each according to their ability, to each according to their need."
Psy was met by a thoughtful silence before Clem chirped up: "I've heard that line somewhere before. Wasn't that one of the Marx brothers?"
"Yeah, Gummo. The one who disappeared." Stan added warily, hoping that Clem was on the right track.
"Ahem." Psy cleared hir throat unimpressed by their lack of knowledge of their own history and decided to put them in the picture. "Grattlyd informed me before we left that the Shallens are currently petitioning the Galactic Council with a claim to your home planets and solar system."
"Who are the Shallens?" Ruby was recording this in full detail, this was more than anything her superiors back at Earth Fed would ever expect from her and hoped this could help her earn her freedom early.
"Former inhabitants of your planet." Grattlyd intoned solemnly. "They suffered a great devastation. Many perished, but some escaped and their descendants live on."
"What, you mean the dinosaurs?" This was too way-out, even for Ralph. "You expect us to believe some of them got into space? They had brains the size of walnuts!"
"Yes, well that's what you think." Psy was dryly serious. "They leave an awful lot out of the history books these days. Your dear home may well be under new management by the time we get back."
"What do you mean 'under new management'?" Eddy wished that Psy wouldn't keep talking in circles and just cut to the chase.
"You might not have a home to go back to." Psy airily conjectured. "It would belong to the Shallens."
"So what happens to us?" Ralph didn't like the sound of this.
"That would be up to the Shallens." Grattlyd's viscous voice put a sense of serious solidity behind Psy's affected manner.
"And this Galactic Council of yours, it could prevent this?" Yasouf decided to sound this pair out. "How?"
"At the moment, your planets are 'off the map' so to speak." Psy elaborated in a slightly condescending tone. "Up for grabs and the Shallens are making that grab on the grounds that it's their home system. If you lot show up, that throws a spanner in the works. You would be recognised as the indigenous civilisation and their claim would go on hold."
"And what's to stop them from attacking us if they want our planets?" SkyHawk had been following this, but still felt a bit spaced out from his experience on Titan.
"Not much." On issues like this, Psy felt that the Galactic Council, for all its lofty ambitions, was often lacking in teeth. "It would give you time to prepare yourselves. Though depending on how you put your case, you might get limited assistance for defence."
"So are they going to invade us or something?" Clem felt as though he had fallen headfirst into one of those ancient cheap'n'tacky sci-fi films of old.
"Possibly. Then again, they might let it go." Psy offered them a straw to hold on to even if it was extremely tenuous, seeing how shi didn't really know all that much about the Shallens. "After all, it's been a very long time for them. They might be persuaded to settle for limited access. It's worth a try. It's just a shame we haven't got anyone here who can represent Earth Fed in an official capacity."
"How come?" Ralph was naturally suspicious of anything involving Earth Fed. Their agenda always seemed to be at odds with the rest of the population.
"It would help your case immensely if we could negotiate official trade, cultural and military agreements between your people and the Khzchhrrrtz while we're dropping off Kkhrkht and his friends."
Yasouf knew the truth about SkyHawk's 'wives' and leaned over to him speaking quietly: "What about Ruby? I saw the way Psy was able to tap into the Mars network from Titan. I wonder if shi can do it from here?"
"You might be on to something there, fat boy." SkyHawk weighed up Yasouf's suggestion. "I'll run it past her."
Ruby overheard everything they said, but listened politely pretending that it was all new to her as SkyHawk explained Yasouf's idea. "It might work, but I don't want everyone here knowing who I am. It could cause a lot of problems for us."
"Indeed, you don't want to shout out about yourself in here." Yasouf agreed. "Maybe if SkyHawk could get Psy away from this crowd for a while."
SkyHawk recalled how Psy had thrown hirself at him during the party and grinned. "I don't think that'll be much of a problem. I'll wait until shi dismisses hir class." The journey to Zrrlchtz was taking a while and soon the people gathered around Psy and Grattlyd drifted off to join the others with Kkhrkht and the Octons to find out more about the Zrrlchtz system. Grattlyd and Psy were hanging around the control panels looking bored, though they were actually in the middle of a heated telepathic argument about their plan of action when SkyHawk approached them. "I might be able to help you." He offered quietly so as not to draw attention to himself.
"Ooh, that would nice! Up on the dais shall we?" Psy pouted suggestively. "Let's put on a show for Grattlyd."
"Ah, no." SkyHawk smiled as he stopped Psy in hir tracks. "That's not quite what I had in mind."
"Oh, what is it then?" Psy's put-on passion dried up just quickly as shi put it on.
"You know the way you hooked into the Mars network from Titan?" SkyHawk got hir attention. "Is it possible to get through from here?"
Grattlyd and Psy conferred for a moment before Grattlyd spoke: "Why?"
"You want someone to act in an official capacity for our civilisation?" SkyHawk upped the ante.
"It would help." Psy was surprised that SkyHawk had been paying much attention. Shi had him pegged out as all brawn and no brain. S/he'd been wrong before. Psy planned on doing most of the talking at the Galactic Council with hir Human and Mech entourage merely making an appearance to flesh out their case. "Don't get ideas above your station, love. You can't just waltz into the Galactic Council talking bollocks. You would need to be genuinely appointed by your civilisation. Otherwise you'd end up with every lunatic passing by wasting their time and nothing would ever get done."
'Like you, eh?' Grattlyd took a telepathic dig at Psy.
"You know Ruby?" SkyHawk persisted in spite of Psy's offhand manner
"Ah yes, your lovely clockwork doll." Psy patronisingly tried to drive a rift between SkyHawk and Ruby, but to no avail. "What about her?"
"She works for Earth Fed and could quite easily serve as an interface between Earth Fed and this Galactic Council if you can link us back into the network on Mars." SkyHawk ignored Psy's put-down and found himself feeling protective and attached to her in spite of it.
"Well, you are full of surprises!" This was just what shi needed, but didn't want to let on in hir need to keep the upper hand.
"That would be very useful." Grattlyd agreed.
"Oh, absolutely!" Psy cut in quickly before Grattlyd got another word out. "Best to wait until we're on Zrrlchtz where we can get some representatives of the Khzchhrrrtz to talk with your people."
"Speaking of which, when do we get there?" SkyHawk felt more than a bit cooped up in the Omphalatta's cramped interior.
"Not much longer." Grattlyd reassured him. "This Omphalatta hasn't travelled for quite some time, so it's somewhat out of shape." Which was only half-true as Grattlyd was in no hurry to arrive on Zrrlchtz and be on the receiving end of a Khzchhrrrtz inquisition as to why the gateways in their system were out of action.
To describe Zrrlchtz as built-up would be an understatement. Interconnected hives towered tens of kilometres above ground level although they were so closely packed that the casual observer coming in from space could be forgiven for thinking their tops were the real planets' surface. The mountains were hollowed out and they'd even built vast underground cities in their efforts to make room for their ever-growing population. Being a dry planet without large oceans, the few remaining lakes and minor seas had either been hopelessly polluted and hidden away under vast complexes of towering buildings or meticulously preserved under domes which, in turn, struggled to keep themselves from being swamped out by the encroaching hives.
Zhinntz Central Spaceport was one of the few places on Zrrlchtz where you actually got to ground level because the bulk of the spaceships that landed there were so heavy they'd crush anything the Khzchhrrrtz could build. Not that you'd see much of the planet from there. It was the airport from hell with enough congested constant traffic to make any sane Khzchhrrrtz run for cover. All the flight paths had been carefully planned so that any collisions that happened (as they did with depressing regularity) scattered their debris and wreckage over the spaceport avoiding the long-suffering residents of the surrounding hives. Years of NIMBY campaigning on their part meant the flight paths had to go straight up and down because the spaceport was surrounded on all sides by hives full of decent law-abiding Khzchhrrrtz who made sure the noisy and dangerous traffic wasn't going to pass over their hive. Which left the frazzled spaceport authorities with only one option: VTOL of sorts. But it worked and the littered remains of crashed spaceships and transporters filling up the many impact craters dotted around the spaceport bore mute testament to their policies.
Hours later, as Veronica stood in her pressure suit on their landing pad looking out at the dark blue sky and the distant towering urban colossus encircling them, she saw the blue star and the brown dwarf Zrrlchtz orbited. The blue star was low on the horizon while the brown dwarf was high overhead in the thin, dark blue sky. So this was daytime on Zrrlchtz. The Octons and their grubs had already left having been greeted by a group of obsequious insects who arrived in what looked like a gigantic multi-coloured winged beetle which carried its passengers in its massive hollow abdomen.
She watched a group of bedraggled centipedes and shabby Octons scavenging earnestly through piles of scrap in the crater next to their landing pad. Some were clearly missing a few of their limbs and many of their antennae looked broken. A squadron of shiny wasp-like insects flew in to confront them. In the ensuing firefight, one of the wasps was shot down, but not before its' comrades had killed several of the scavengers. Without even stopping to land, they squirted out silken ropes to ensnare the scavengers and carry them away into the distant haze.