It had been a cramped flight to Zrrlchtz and Veronica was glad to get out while they waited for Kkhrkht and Grattlyd to return from their audience with the High Drones. Try as she might, she just couldn't stand Psy's glib, patronizing manner. She already lost her rag with Psy once and look what happened! Veronica fumed and couldn't wait to get back to Mars away from 'that irritating freak'. Gregor stepped out of the hatch to join her and get a view of the outside world. He stood in silent awe, overwhelmed by the realization that not only were there other worlds, but that he was actually on one such world.
Veronica broke their silence: "I can't stand Psy. If shi keeps on talking down to us all the time, I'll hit hir."
Gregor said nothing hoping Veronica would unwind out of harm's way, but the silence hung thick over them. "Psy's turned out to be a lot more than we imagined. I doubt s/he'll want to hang out with us when we get back."
"If we ever get back." Veronica added tersely. "I mean what's there to stop Psy and Grattlyd from dumping us here or anywhere for that matter?"
"Not a lot I guess." Gregor replied resignedly.
"Exactly." Veronica made her point. "We might have to take over this ship and I haven't figured out to fly it yet. I've been watching them closely. Psy doesn't know I'm a pilot. But all the controls are made out of that weird stone like the stuff back at Fort Melchisor. It only responds to their touch. I've already tried, I can't get a reaction out of any of the panels."
"Whoo-o-o-o, you're way ahead of the game!" Gregor was taken aback by her paranoia but impressed by her coolly contrived plan. "You saw how SkyHawk activated the controls and doorways at Fort Melchisor. Maybe he could work the controls on this ship."
"Yeah, but he barely understood what he was doing." Veronica had her doubts about SkyHawk. "Sure he got a lot of panels to light up, but he couldn't get them to do anything."
"Then you show him what to do." Gregor suggested as he got into the swing of Veronica's plan. "He's a pilot, too."
"Ha! He only shuttles back and forth between his farm and Montgomery in that little flier of his." Veronica laughed at the thought. "He'd be way out of his depth here."
"He used to be a pilot for ESA years ago." Gregor understood Veronica's scepticism. After all, she was one of the top rank interceptor pilots out at the Early Warning Platform.
Veronica just couldn't imagine SkyHawk working for ESA. "Come off it, that bunch of dunderheads would never take on a doper like him!"
"He was a different sort of guy back then." Gregor weighed in on SkyHawk's behalf. "Used to be in the army."
"Wow! He's come a long way." Veronica laughed as she pictured SkyHawk as an army grunt. Try as she might, she couldn't make the picture fit.
"He certainly has." The things he could tell her about SkyHawk!
"Well, if you think he's up to it." Veronica accepted his suggestion.
"He might be a bit rusty, but I know he's put in a lot of hours." Gregor knew about SkyHawk's career with ESA and the mission to Titan. "I don't think it's something you forget too easily."
"What about the others?" She pressed on.
"What about them?" Gregor was still taking the enormity of her plan on board.
"I could tackle Psy no problem, but Grattlyd's another matter altogether." Veronica explained.
"The rest of us could probably tie up Grattlyd." Gregor suggested. "But I see what you mean. We can't exactly have powwow out here. Psy would be bound to get suspicious."
"For sure." Veronica agreed grimly. "We want to get those two mechs, Ruby and Barney to record as much as possible of those two working the controls of this ship from now on. We'll have to corner everyone else to put them in the picture as and when we can. You with me?"
"Sure." As if he had a choice! "But we don't make a move unless it looks like they're going to dump us or whatever."
"Yeah, that's more or less what I had in mind." Veronica loosened up now that she knew she could count on Gregor.
"With a bit of luck, we might not have to do anything." Gregor tried to put an optimistic slant on things when Barney popped out of the hatch to join them.
"Wow, a real live alien world! Hey, didja see any bug-eyed monsters?"
"A few." Veronica answered primly.
Barney looked around at the vast spaceport thick with traffic and the dead Khzchhrrrtz lying amongst the debris in the crater nearby. "Where is everybody? Looks like we landed on the scrap heap." Veronica waited for his excitement to die down before running her plans past him. Barney didn't want to dump any more clips or else he'd return to Mars empty handed. "I think you need to talk to Ruby about that. I'm kinda full up right now."
"Could you pass it on to her?" Veronica asked. "We don't want Psy getting suspicious."
Barney understood what she meant. "Sure thing, I'll use a data link."
"That's the spirit!" Gregor cheered him on. "Remember, mum's the word."
"Aye aye, captain." Barney replied breezily as he returned back into the cramped confines of their ship.
Gregor waited until the hatch was firmly shut. "Well that was easy enough."
"Let's hope he knows how to keep his mouth shut." Veronica was never fully comfortable around mechs and was decidedly underwhelmed with Barney's low-grade slaphappy manner. Back inside, Barney found Ruby fussing over SkyHawk, put one of his hands over Ruby's com port and transmitted the gist of Veronica's plan in nanoseconds. Ruby agreed to help out. 'Now to make things convincing.' She replied over their com link. 'Don't take what I'm going to do personally, it's just an act.' And with that she slapped Barney on the face. "Don't ever make a pass at me again, you cheap rust bucket!" She almost shouted at him causing a few heads to turn.
The High Drones of the Foreign Affairs Chamber were an imposing sight squatting on the thrones of office decked out in the finery and regalia that spoke loudly of high office, deep responsibility and overblown self-importance. Each was attended by their own cloud of sparkle flies, an exotic status symbol amongst the Khzchhrrrtz. Shafts of light pierced down from windows high overhead through swirling clouds of incense onto their thrones as they sang as one in accusatory chorus: "The gateways on our worlds are now closed. We are now cut off from the Galactic Council and the rest of the galaxy. Have we offended the Council? Speak, Nglubi!"
Grattlyd shifted uneasily on its tentacles, its eyes and spiracles itching from the thick incense. "I do not know, your eminences. I am but a lowly worker at a minor outpost and know nothing of politics." Grattlyd grovelled for all it was worth. "The Gulmarian Allegiance has invaded the nexus and must be stopped. On behalf of all Nglubi, I offer our apologies for any inconvenience this has caused."
"And what is this Gulmarian Allegiance? We know nothing of it." The Drones sang back.
"They are primitives from another universe who disrespect our ways." Grattlyd explained as it inwardly cursed its na´ve ancestors who had a lazy habit of leaving fully functioning gateways wherever they went, some of which were found by the Gulmarian Allegiance who used them to conquer and plunder wherever they could reach.
"Why weren't we informed of this? We can no longer contact our representatives at the Galactic Council. Many of our citizens were lost when the gateways closed. We demand restitution."
Grattlyd wanted to get out of this in one piece and threw them the only lifeline it had. "I am travelling to the Galactic Council with delegates from a civilisation that Academe Kkhrkht has been studying. They need a sponsor and it would be a great honour for the Khzchhrrrtz to do so." The last bit was pure bluff. For all Grattlyd knew, the Earth Fed civilisation could turn out to be a hideous liability for the Khzchhrrrtz if Earth Fed abused its membership. Such things happened with alarming regularity. "I can take some of your representatives to petition the Galactic Council and press your case with my superiors, but my ship is small and already overcrowded. I assure you the Nglubi Command would not act arbitrarily or out of malice, there must have been a good reason."
"Point taken, Nglubi. We shall consider your suggestion. Where is Academe Kkhrkht?" The High Drones sang inquisitorially.
Grattlyd looked around the vast alien-gothic chamber in a panic; Kkhrkht was nowhere to be seen! "Academe Kkhrkht accompanied me and must be waiting outside." Grattlyd bluffed nervously. Sure enough Kkhrkht, a Dzzhakh, was outside the High Drones chambers in triune union with Zzzhkzklt, a Dzzhev, and Vvriklrty, a Dzhinn.
The Khzchhrrrtz have three genders, Dzzhakh, Dzzhev and Dzhinn, which make up their reproductive and basic family sexual grouping as opposed to our male-female gender dualism. On Zrrlchtz it takes three, baby! And you thought life was complicated for us lot?
They hadn't seen each other for so long, they couldn't hold themselves back and immediately got down to it in an passionate tangle of limbs, antennae and much pleasurable buzzing. Fortunately for them, there was precious little traffic around the chambers. The few Khzchhrrrtz who passed by ignored them completely and went about their business buzz-buzzing about how the youngsters these days have lost any semblance of self-control. Somewhere amidst what felt like dzzhakh-ye's hundredth orgasm Kkhrkht was dimly aware of two things. The first was their hot, gelatinous egg solidifying between their bodies. The other was dzzhakh-ye's name being called out on the PA system in the reception outside the High Drones' chamber. Kkhrkht disentangled dzzhakh-ye and went into the chamber with their egg stubbornly stuck to dzzhakh-ye's body.
Kkhrkht staggered into the High Drones Chambers still giddy from the rush of sexual release and barely able to focus dzzhakh-ye's attention on the High Drones' questions about dzzhakh-ye's studies on Earth and Mars. They grilled Kkhrkht at length about Earth Fed and the civilisation on Earth, Luna and Mars occasionally asking Grattlyd for background details.
Back in the Omphalatta, Ruby and Psy were watching a wobbly picture of her supervisor, Sergeant Chadwick, on one of the viewscreens. An adjacent screen showed a view of the High Drones interrogating Kkhrkht as captured by Grattlyd's communicator, which was nestled amongst its tentacles. "Well, that's certainly an interesting story, Ruby-12b, and judging by the co-ordinates you've given me, you certainly get around, but we've been able to trace this signal to Mr. Popovich's bus in Fort Melchisor. We know the bus is empty, but for all we know you could still be on Mars. I've passed your request up the chain, so we'll see what happens. For the record, if this is a ploy by the Overlordz it won't work. I'm sorry Ruby; you're on your own. We don't negotiate over hostages."
"I can assure you that Ruby is in no danger." Psy reassured Sergeant Chadwick. "Believe me, I have even greater reason to dislike that noxious bunch of scum than you. But that's neither here nor there right now. My associate is in a conference with the Khzchhrrrtz Foreign Affairs Chambers to request an audience for your representatives."
"Look, uh, Mizz Joventhal." Chadwick looked decidedly bored. "This isn't the first time we've had people come to us about alien contact before and, quite honestly, your story is about as nutty as they come. For all I know those video clips could've been faked in any high school media class."
"Be that as it may, Sergeant." Psy continued coolly. "I would rather we had the blessings of Earth Fed to make treaties with the Khzchhrrrtz. I can see you don't believe me, but this isn't a game. Can you get hold of Colonel Ritenaur for me?"
"Yeah, maybe." Chadwick barely suppressed his smirk at the desperate attempts of these hoaxers. "But don't expect him for fall for your story either."
"That's all right." Psy pressed on. "How long will it take?"
"No idea." Chadwick could care less. "I'll get back to you on that one."
Ruby slipped into SkyHawk's embrace and looked on as Psy, stabbing away frantically at the console, cursed the blank screen. "What do we do now?"
"Bluff and hope we don't come unstuck." Psy replied tetchily. "Grattlyd's already told the High Drones that we have a delegation on the way to the Galactic Council and by the sound of things," Psy continued wearily as shi eavesdropped telepathically on Grattlyd. "They're on their way to meet you right now." Psy gathered everyone around and gave them a quick run-through of what to expect and how to behave in their roles as ambassadors for Earth Fed.
"This is all very well, Psy, but any treaties the Khzchhrrrtz High Drones make with us are going to be worthless unless we get Earth Fed to recognise them." Lottie pointed out after Psy had given hir lecture.
"You're asking us to be party to interplanetary fraud." Yasouf added warily as he sized up Psy's plans.
"What if Earth Fed decide to ignore our efforts?" Ralph had little confidence in Earth Fed's leaden bureaucracy. "Look at their track record so far on extraterrestrials."
Psy was hit by a barrage of sceptical questions and was beginning to feel as if hir plans were coming unstuck even before they got off the ground when Grattlyd came in through the airlock followed by Kkhrkht, Zzzhkzklt, Vvriklrty and two junior messengers from the High Drones' Chambers. Grattlyd made a big show of bowing low before Psy and intoned grandiosely: "The High Drones will consider your request for an audience, O master." And finished the sentence telepathically adding; 'Don't let this go to your head, stupid. Just keep up the act.' Which Psy did admirably.
Hjimbly and Yknakhtk, a pair of Dzzhev middle caste civil servants, looked over the motley crew inside the Nglubi Omphalatta and weren't particularly impressed. "Why couldn't they go to the check-in at the terminus like everyone else?" Yknakhtk asked contemptuously in high Khzchhrrrtz as dzzhev-ye unpacked a portable scanner to make sure these larvae-like aliens weren't carrying any diseases, weapons or worse.
"Illegal aliens." Hjimbly snorted scathingly. "Could be criminals from another world for all I know."
"Exactly." Yknakhtk continued. "No documentation and the only proof we have is that sex-addled Academe and this Nglubi's word."
"Why should we trust the Nglubi now that they've taken our gateways away?" Hjimbly griped in righteous anger.
Grattlyd, who could understand everything they said, acted hurt. "Your gateways were shut down to protect your worlds from the Gulmarian Allegiance. They are rapacious plunderers."
"So you keep saying, Nglubi." Hjimbly commented dismissively. "We can look after ourselves. We've seen off every attempt on our system so far."
Grattlyd understood their scepticism. They obviously had no idea how advanced and powerful the Gulmarian military machine was! Otherwise they'd be blaming the Nglubi for not shutting down their gateways sooner.
Yknakhtk was finally satisfied that they posed no biological threat and looked up from dzzhev-ye's scanner and gave a data card with dzzhev-ye's report to Hjimbly. "Short-stay passes for the migrant district only. Academe Kkhrkht will be responsible for these aliens." Yknakhtk then addressed Grattlyd directly: "We will contact you about transporting our delegates to the Galactic Council, Nglubi. When do you expect to depart?"
Grattlyd decided to push things along. "In two or three days' time. We have to get supplies before we leave."
Yknakhtk finalised their arrangements with Grattlyd and left in the flying beetle they came in. Hjimbly stuck dzzhev-ye's head out of an open window to feel the breeze flowing through dzzhev-ye's elaborate feathered antennae. "What do you think?"
Yknakhtk twirled dzzhev-ye's antennae in amazement. "Well, I've never seen anything quite like that lot before. They look so... unformed. They smell a bit peculiar. But I've seen a few Nglubi around my department before."
"No, you nitwit, their story." Hjimbly joked casually.
"Lies, all of it." Yknakhtk dismissed Grattlyd's story out of hand. "Most likely illegal immigrants or refugees by the looks of things. How much do you want to bet that whole lot run to ground and turn up on the minor planets in a few months' time."
Hjimbly buzzed thoughtfully for a moment enjoying the view as their beetle flew up between the towering hives surrounding the spaceport towards their destination. "Two golden mite eggs."
"Done." Yknakhtk-dzzhev already considered the eggs won. "Mind you, if that Nglubi can get our gateways reactivated, it might be worth following up."
"You mean we've got to wear these things the whole time we're here?" MariElla complained as she adjusted the straps holding the Khzchhrrrtz pheromone-drenched antennae to her back as the immigration control wasps flew away across the concourse in the terminus, their job done.
"Hey, you think that's bad." Barney chipped in. "They just glued mine to my back!"
"Think of it as your passport." Kkhrkht explained. "It tells our Zzhemthax what you are and where you're allowed to go."
"What's a Zzhemthax?" Lottie was still getting used to her new surroundings.
"It's their police." Grattlyd explained. "Those wasps you saw."
"Hey Ches, you could sell these things along with your joss sticks back home." Eddy pointed out Chester's 'antennae pack'. "Smells just like some of that funky lover's incense you've got."
Ruby looked around the vast concourse and noted the bewildering variety, not only of Khzchhrrrtz, but also of aliens from other worlds. She recorded as much as she could for Sergeant Chadwick so sure was she that her supervisor would be pleased with her work.
Grattlyd booked a local flight to the migrant zone, which in reality, was where most aliens passing through Zrrlchtz spent their time. On their way in the large, multi-winged blimpoid insect which carried them, Psy made an announcement: "I know most of you never expected this and that you've got lives to get back to. Our journey to the Galactic Council will last at least a week, so if any of you need to go home, I can take you back later today. Grattlyd will stay here on Zrrlchtz until I return."
Lottie was the first to speak up as thoughts of her sons, Denzil and Mercury, wondering about their mother took over. "Thanks Psy, but don't you think Earth Fed will have found Gregor's bus by now? How are we going to get past them? I don't want to end up in a correction centre."
"Hah! Psy glibly made light of her concerns. "I shouldn't worry about them if I were you. I'll get them to roll out the red carpet for you."
Ralph was having none of this levity. He'd seen enough of how heavy-handed Earth Fed could be when they felt like turning over the Free Mars Tribe. "What do you mean?" Psy calmly took a small plastic card out of hir shoulder bag and handed it to Ralph. His eyes nearly popped out when he saw it: Psy's ID card for the Mars Security Council complete with a sober picture of hir in a dark suit and tie. "Well, fuck me!"
"Anytime sweetie!" Psy pouted gamely. "Would you like outriders and a ticker-tape parade?"
Ralph couldn't believe that Psy not only worked for Earth Fed, but was also part of their high command on Mars. He passed Psy's card around for everyone to see. "No, getting home in one piece would be fine."
"Consider it done. But don't use me as your 'get out jail free card'. I'm not about to cover for any of your misdemeanours." Psy firmly closed the matter once shi got hir card back from Barney who had been unsuccessfully attempting to clone it. Their flying blimpoid insect circled around one of the hives next to the spaceport, gaining altitude until it reached what must have been the hive's bottom-level airport. Level upon level of slits circled around the hive with both insect and powered aircraft traffic flowing in and out of them towards the other hives. Their blimp homed in on one of the slits which turned out to be a vast hangar set into the side of the hive. They were met by a team of Octons who fed the blimp and had a group of off-world aliens waiting to get on board. A pair of Zzhemthax wasps flying past landed, briefly checked their antennae packs, and flew off into the distance of the landing bay.
Clem and Barney followed at the back of the pack Psy and Kkhrkht led the way out of the landing bay. "What do you reckon, Barney?" Clem couldn't make his mind up. This was adventure beyond his wildest dreams!
Barney held up a set of keys. "See this? We've got Jazz's apartment. No more of that crummy packing crate for me. You can say goodbye to that sleeping tube and sleep in a real bed from now on if you want. This is it man, the scoop of a lifetime! Contact with aliens, travel to other worlds. What with all those clips I've got, we'll be made."
"Yasouf wants to see this Galactic Council." Monica confided quietly to Jenny. "Do you think you and Ralph can keep things together until we return?"
"Ralph fancies himself as a leader, but between you and me, he doesn't have Yasouf's knack for keeping everyone's different agendas on board." Jenny admitted. "We're not due to leave Montgomery for another couple of weeks at the soonest, so I can't see it as that much of a problem."
"Hey there, Billy-Bob!" Stan called out excitedly. "You coming with us to see this Galactic Council?"
"I'd love to, Stan." Bill sounded decidedly hen-pecked. "But I've got to start calibrating the dishes for the Interplanetary Interferometery Project next week and I'm only hanging onto that job by the skin of my teeth."
"Hell, you'll be redundant anyway, now that we've found extraterrestrial intelligence." Stan took a dig at Bill's conscientiousness.
"Ah, they'd never believe me at work." Bill resigned himself to missing out on the fun. "Gotta go through the motions just to keep a roof over my head."
"Tell us all about it when you get back." Eddy joined in, envious of Stan's freedom. "Lottie, Ches and I have to tend our broods, you lucky dog. Enjoy it now while you can."
"For sure!" Gregor agreed. "I had to beg Anna to look after our kids while we ran off to the Pleasure Dome. She wasn't too happy about it, either. We're gonna be late as it is and I'll end up getting it in the neck again. You've never seen Anna when she gets really pissed off."
Veronica was admiring Kkhrkht's glistening egg when Psy interrupted. "Now's the time all that studying of yours can be put to use, Buggy Boy. You can help Grattlyd buy some food and supplies for your human friends while I'm away."
Kkhrkht's antennae drooped unenthusiastically at the prospect. Their egg made dzzhakh-ye feel glad to be home again with Zzzhkzklt and Vvriklrty and dzzhakh-ye only wanted to enjoy the warm glow of dzzhakh-ye's triune which dzzhakh-ye'd missed for so long that dzzhakh-ye'd nearly forgotten what it was like. "But I only studied them in their own system." Kkhrkht tried to get off the hook. "I haven't a clue. For all I know, our food could be poisonous to them."
"Let's hope not." Psy jollied him along. "Otherwise we'll have a bunch of dead humans on our hands, or claws in your case."
"I have to report in at my department. I'll see what anyone in Exobiological Studies can recommend for them." Kkhrkht suggested half-heartedly, wishing that these aliens would carry on their way to the Galactic Council and leave dzzhakh-ye to get on with dzzhakh-ye's life that dzzhakh-ye had missed out on for so long.
"There you are. I'm sure they'll be able to suggest something." Psy tried to infuse a semblance of enthusiasm in Kkhrkht before turning to play the tour guide for hir human entourage as the elevator car they were travelling in raced up on tracks revealing level after level each containing a different atmosphere and ecosystem for off-world visitors to Zrrlchtz. Kkhrkht was glad to get away from Psy's attentions and back into a reassuring chitinous embrace with Zzzhkzklt and Vvriklrty. Their smell, breath, pheromones and pulsing body rhythms reminded Kkhrkht of everything dzzhakh-ye'd missed while studying human societies. Kkhrkht promised dzzhakh-ye there and then to get a teaching post and never leave Zrrlchtz again. "Home. Home again!" Kkhrkht buzzed faintly as dzzhakh-ye swooned in ecstasy.
Their elevator eventually pulled up at a compatible oxygen-based level and Psy led hir guests out to get the first, if somewhat cloistered, taste of life on Zrrlchtz. Kkhrkht, Zzzhkzklt and Vvriklrty hung back as Psy lead hir entourage off to see the sights and Vvriklrty broke their torrid silence: "So, those are the ones you've been studying. Funny-looking things. What's their world like?"
"Worlds." Kkhrkht corrected dzhinn-ye. "You'd like their main planet. Lots of open spaces like the minor planets. More water than dry land, imagine that! No climate control so the weather can get quite extreme, but it's very exciting. Their minor planets have no real atmosphere, but they're colonising them anyway."
Zzzhkzklt hadn't been particularly impressed by the sight of the humans and thought they looked somewhat bland and featureless amongst the varied throng of off-world aliens in the migrant district hive. "We weren't expecting you back so soon. Did you screw up on your first assignment?"
"Oh no." Kkhrkht replied confidently as dzzhakh-ye cradled their new egg. "Everyone from the Galactic Studies Institute has been recalled because the gateways have been closed down.
"Is that good or bad?" Vvriklrty didn't like the sound of this.
"It's great for me, but bad for everyone else. We're pretty much cut off from the rest of the galaxy until they can reopen the gateways." Kkhrkht felt so happy as dzzhakh-ye hugged Zzzhkzklt and Vvriklrty. "I missed both of you so much. I never knew I could get so lonely."
"I know." Zzzhkzklt sympathised in an unusually small voice. "So did we."
"Look, I have to report in at my department. Who wants to hold the egg until I get home?" Kkhrkht asked excitedly as the prospect of an easy life with dzzhakh-ye's triune raising a brood unfolded in his mind.
An awkward silence hung over them for a moment. "I'll look after it." Vvriklrty offered cautiously as dzhinn-ye's antennae sagged in guilty shame. Dzhinn-ye took the egg and caressed it slowly. "We need to talk, Kkhrkht."
"And so much more!" Kkhrkht completely misread Vvriklrty in dzzhakh-ye's excitement. "I won't be long. I promise." And with that, Kkhrkht scampered off to catch a flight to the Galactic Studies Institute leaving Zzzhkzklt and Vvriklrty holding their egg.
"What are we going to tell Kkhrkht-dzzhakh?" Zzzhkzklt asked as Kkhrkht disappeared out of sight. "What's Jemalkhta going to think of this?"
Vvriklrty looked down at the egg dzhinn held. "What are we going to do? I knew it was a mistake to agree to meet Kkhrkht in the first place. Now look what's happened."
"You wanted to see Kkhrkht-dzzhakh, didn't you?" Zzzhkzklt wasn't going to take the blame for this alone.
"True, but you could've talked me out of it." Vvriklrty knew their egg was going to upset Jemalkhta and dzhinn-ye had no idea how dzzhakh-ye would take it. "If only one of us went, I wouldn't be holding this egg right now."
"What's done is done." Zzzhkzklt shrugged philosophically and put two arms around Vvriklrty. "Come on, let's get out of this circus."
Vvriklrty let Zzzhkzklt lead the way. "But we're taking the blame for this egg together."
Zzzhkzklt hoped Jemalkhta wouldn't flip out and do anything too reckless. "Fine."
Kkhrkht felt on top of the world as dzzhakh-ye strode purposefully across the grounds of the Galactic Studies Institute. The Mynawkty shrubs and Gledgit trees dotted around the buildings were in bloom, scenting the air with their fresh, spicy tang. Translucent light-worms stood vertically out of the ground pulsing with colours like so many segments of light-rope. Back inside dzzhakh-ye's old department's building Kkhrkht ran into what looked like the all-time class reunion! Some stood around quietly waiting to see their advisor while others gathered in groups talking amongst themselves. Kkhrkht spotted Hgramblk, Zzhrvanh and Pzeptilan, crouched down on all six limbs, snuck up on them and burst out into their old drinking song which Kkhrkht ended with a loud toot-toot as dzzhakh-ye jumped up to surprise them.
"Well, someone's in a good mood!" Zzhrvanh greeted Kkhrkht as they touched antennae.
"I met up with Zzzhkzklt and Vvriklrty as soon as I got back and we've already had an egg!" Kkhrkht announced excitedly.
"You didn't waste much time!" Pzeptilan laughed at the thought of Kkhrkht, who always seemed so seriously studious and reserved going wild with passion.
"Where's Mktlakht?" Kkhrkht asked breezily as dzzhakh-ye slipped back into the easy academy camaraderie.
"Didn't make it back." Hgramblk-dzzhev explained solemnly.
Kkhrkht's high spirits took a momentary dip. "What, dead?" In dzzhakh-ye's present mood, mortality seemed more an affectation than reality.
"No-one knows." Hgramblk continued sombrely. "Mktlakht-dzhinn was in contact right up until dzhinn-ye's gateway closed. Looks like dzhinn-ye's stuck there until they reopen." Names were being called out over the PA system and Hgramblk looked up as dzzhev heard dzzhev-ye's name. "It's my turn, I'll see you later." The cloud of gloom accompanying Hgramblk's sad tidings followed dzzhev-ye as dzzhev left.
"So what was your place like?" Kkhrkht asked Pzeptilan brightly.
"Awful." Pzeptilan shuddered at the thought. Dzzhev-ye'd been truly glad to leave the planet dzzhev-ye was sent to. "Cold, wet and dark. It rained the whole time and the dominant sentient species were giant slugs who went around squirting poison at each other. It was an effort just to get any sense out of them."
"How about you?" Kkhrkht turned to Zzhrvanh.
"Nice place." Zzhrvanh-dzzhakh recalled with mixed feelings. "Had four sentient species who loathed and detested each other. They've been at war for so long it's nearly all they know. If they ever stopped fighting amongst themselves and turned their attentions outwards, they would be very dangerous indeed!"
Kkhrkht realised that dzzhakh-ye'd had it easy compared to dzzhakh-ye's friends and told them about dzzhakh-ye's adventures on Earth and Mars. They were in the middle of telling each other about the most ridiculous things they'd seen when Kkhrkht heard dzzhakh-ye's name called out and went off to see dzzhakh-ye's mentor. Adzhnkt-Vey was old and wore dzhinn-ye's years like a badge. Adzhnkt-Vey's exoskeleton no longer had the bright and exquisitely colourful iridescence of youth, but the deep, warm lustre of age. And just to make the point, dzhinn had dzhinn-ye's own cloud of sparkle flies. Adzhnkt-Vey leaned casually against dzhinn-ye's desk, tapping a computer console with one claw while a holographic projector displayed a scene secretly filmed by Hjimbly and Yknakhtk showing Veronica, Grattlyd, Ruby, and the rest of the band in the background inside the Omphalatta. "There's no need to bring your work home with you, Kkhrkht. Your notes and data would do just fine. And by the look of things." Adzhnkt-Vey continued in dzhinn-ye's off-hand manner. "You'll have plenty of time to write up your notes."
This was just the sort of thing Kkhrkht wanted to hear. No need to beg or wheedle for a safe job at home quite yet. "That was the Nglubi's doing, Adzhnkt-Vey." Kkhrkht wasn't about to take the blame for Psy and Grattlyd's hare-brained scheme. "There were some complications when the gateways closed down."
"So I heard." Adzhnkt-Vey replied dryly as dzhinn-ye switched the display to show Grattlyd swatting away the sparkle-flies that were biting it with gusto with its tentacles while grovelling in front of the High Drones petitioning them to sponsor Earth Fed for Galactic Council membership. "I take it this Nglubi is somewhat deranged. Been on the spice a bit?"
"No, they're serious."
"Exactly, that's what I mean." Adzhnkt-Vey triumphantly scored an imaginary point. "We don't know enough about them yet. Our foreign policy determined by the observations of one lone Khzchhrrrtz Academe on a novice's assignment? Somewhat unlikely, don't you think? And it's not your job to broker between worlds." Adzhnkt-Vey emphatically scolded Kkhrkht. "Learn to keep a distance. Observe, study and make your notes. But don't get involved. That's not for your caste."
Adzhnkt-Vey's bored mood and dzhinn-ye's tetchy reprimand deflated Kkhrkht's high spirits. "I feel we should sponsor them." Kkhrkht offered in Grattlyd's defence against Adzhnkt-Vey's withering contempt. "They would be a good addition."
"So you say." Adzhnkt-Vey looked Kkhrkht up and down while tapping dzhinn-ye's claws together. "We might, but it won't happen right away. That's for the High Drones to decide and you know how slowly they move."
"Of course." Kkhrkht readily agreed with Adzhnkt-Vey to keep in favour with dzzhakh -ye's aristocratic mentor.
"That's more like it." Adzhnkt-Vey had finally got through to this young Dzzhakh. "You run along and write up your report."
"When do you want it?" Kkhrkht asked deferentially.
"No hurry." Adzhnkt-Vey waved an arm grandly. "You 'brave and courageous explorers' better get used to the home life. You'll be seeing a lot more of it from now on."
Kkhrkht decided it would look good in Adzhnkt-Vey's eyes to appear keen, even though dzzhakh-ye really wanted to stay with Zzzhkzklt and Vvriklrty, make up for the missing years and nurture their egg. "But surely the gateways will open up again."
"Don't count on it." Adzhnkt-Vey wheezed despairingly. "And I'm supposed to find something for you lot to do until we can send you out again."
"Zeee-eee-eee!" The little grub screeched with delight as it launched itself off Jemalkhta's head, took a dive across the main room of their nest and grabbed onto a knot of leafy Dzzlubh runners draping down from the ceiling. It's nest-mate scuttled up Jemalkhta's crouched back in hot pursuit, jumped wildly and fell short of the Dzzlubh runners. It was climbing up Jemalkhta's back for another attempt when Zzzhkzklt and Vvriklrty returned carrying Kkhrkht's egg. Jemalkhta, a lightly built dzzhakh, went over to meet them; the grub rode on Jemalkhta-dzzhakh's head holding onto dzzhakh-ye's antennae for balance as runners and other decorative plants brushed against it. Jemalkhta saw the egg and their guilty expressions and stopped in dzzhakh-ye's tracks. Jemalkhta lifted the grub off dzzhakh-ye's head and sent it away to play with its nest-mate. "So what have you two been up to?" Jemalkhta eventually broke their long, pregnant silence. "It takes three to make an egg. Is there something I ought to know?"
"Um..." Zzzhkzklt-dzzhev, shuffled awkwardly, antennae hanging limp with guilt.
Vvriklrty wasn't doing much better. "We met Kkhrkht today. Kkhrkht-dzzhakh returned from dzzhakh-ye's first assignment."
Jemalkhta feared something like this might happen. "I thought you said it was over."
"Yes, we did." Vvriklrty agreed loyally.
"It took us by surprise." Zzzhkzklt explained weakly. "We had no idea...."
"Well don't get any funny ideas." Jemalkhta, a low-status manual worker, was intensely jealous of Kkhrkht's high-caste glamorous career exploring distant worlds. "I'm not about to play Dzzhev to your returning hero." The air hung thick with tension. Jemalkhta could take no more and lunged at them. "Give me that egg!" Zzzhkzklt blocked Jemalkhta's assault to protect Vvriklrty and the egg. But Jemalkhta was so angry dzzhakh-ye attacked, biting them both viciously. Zzzhkzklt and Vvriklrty fought back and could have easily held Jemalkhta-dzzhakh off until Jemalkhta got lucky when Vvriklrty dropped the egg. Jemalkhta grabbed it up and, in spite of the searing pain as Zzzhkzklt bit off part of one of Jemalkhta's antennae, crushed its shell in dzzhakh-ye's mandibles and threw the broken remains at their feet. Zzzhkzklt and Vvriklrty froze and watched in dismay as its thick, gelatinous yolk slowly poured out onto the floor taking with it any future it might have had. "We have grubs." Jemalkhta reminded them forcefully. "Do you want the same for them? Make your choice."
Kkhrkht felt as if dzzhakh-ye's feet barely touched the ground as dzzhakh climbed up the footpath to dzzhakh-ye's nest. Kkhrkht stopped to enjoy the view across dzzhakh-ye's level of the hive taking in the clumps of nests, which looked like so many multicoloured mounds of bubbles rising up from the feral common-land meadows dotted with clumps of shrubs, tree-like plants that bore translucent globes of fruit and various sizes of ponds of the less affluent hives to the high ceiling overhead. Memories of times with Zzzhkzklt and Vvriklrty before leaving filled dzzhakh-ye's head as Kkhrkht returned to the familiar sights, sounds and smell of dzzhakh-ye's home.
The wrecked mess that greeted Kkhrkht as dzzhakh-ye's eyes adjusted to the gentler indoor light came as a shock. Had dzzhakh-ye's home been burgled by Vvlektian opportunists from the lower levels? It had been known to happen even in these relatively safe districts of their hive. In the eerie silence, Kkhrkht stepped gingerly around upended furniture, torn plants and smashed decorations calling out for Zzzhkzklt and Vvriklrty and came across a broken egg, leaking onto the floor where Jemalkhta had thrown it. Kkhrkht's happy homecoming was as broken as the smashed egg. "No!" Kkhrkht wailed in dismay as dzzhakh-ye's dreams crumbled into the wreckage of dzzhakh-ye's home.
Jemalkhta stood up hesitantly behind a fallen cabinet holding a newly formed egg in one pair of arms and carrying the two grubs by Zzzhkzklt and Vvriklrty in dzzhakh-ye's other pair of arms and set them down in front of Kkhrkht. The grubs looked up at him fearfully knowing full well that their fate was in the balance. Zzzhkzklt and Vvriklrty stood timidly behind Jemalkhta; their antennae limp with shame. "We are triune here." Jemalkhta, dzzhakh-ye's broken antennae quivering with righteous anger and nervous fear, pronounced as bravely as dzzhakh-ye could to this intruding Academe who looked more warrior-caste than anything dzzhakh-ye had seen in quite some time. Jemalkhta would rather fight Kkhrkht to the death and lose than see dzzhakh-ye's brood killed by this stranger and clacked dzzhakh-ye's mandibles loudly in defiant challenge to Kkhrkht.
By rights Kkhrkht knew what to do. Break their egg; kill the grubs and either kill or force dzzhakh-ye's rival out. That was the Khzchhrrrtz way. Jemalkhta was no match for Kkhrkht. Maybe Kkhrkht had been amongst humans too long. All Kkhrkht could manage was a strangled "But..." as dzzhakh stared past Jemalkhta into Zzzhkzklt and Vvriklrty's eyes and realised that even if dzzhakh-ye won, as Kkhrkht's warrior self easily boasted, the same scene would replay every time Kkhrkht returned from another assignment. For as sure as eggs were eggs, the Galactic Studies Institute would send Kkhrkht out again, even if dzzhakh-ye didn't want to go. After all, Kkhrkht was one of their genetically engineered creations. Kkhrkht honked in broken emotional confusion. Sure, dzzhakh-ye could easily reclaim Zzzhkzklt and Vvriklrty, but it would be as unreasonable to expect them to stay faithful each time dzzhakh-ye went away as it was na´ve of dzzhakh-ye to have expected them to remain chaste while dzzhakh was away on dzzhakh-ye's first assignment. Kkhrkht looked at them one last time and turned to leave. Outside dzzhakh-ye curled up into a ball and rolled, wailing with bitter anguish, down the pathway. The pain of each bump and bang as dzzhakh-ye rolled and bounced downhill was nothing as to the gnawing pain in Kkhrkht's heart.
Pzeptilan and Zzhrvanh were in the Honeypot Mead House next to the Institute. It had been their favourite drinking spot during their student days and, having nothing better to do, decided to visit their old haunt and down a few drinks. They had bumped into one of their instructors, Mdzzvyn, an old and heavily scarred Dzhinn who was from the first generation of explorers sent out by the Institute before the Khzchhrrrtz had access to the Nglubi's gateways. Pzeptilan and Zzhrvanh listened eagerly as Mdzzvyn told them about dzhinn-ye's adventures.
"So why did you become an instructor?" Pzeptilan, a mere novice recalled from its first assignment, asked Mdzzvyn.
Mdzzvyn put down dzhinn-ye's jar of mead and pointed out some of the more prominent scars that looked like fracture lines on dzhinn-ye's exoskeleton. "I was nearly killed on my last assignment out in the Bliknektzz system. They wanted to steal our ship and ambushed us. I was hit by a blaster and came back as five pieces packed in ice. Three of my arms were missing, but they managed to put me back together." Mdzzvyn waved dzhinn-ye's four arms playfully just to make the point. "The directors thought it would be a good idea to keep me on at the Institute to remind all you young Academes of the kind of risks you will face."
Zzhrvanh was impressed by Mdzzvyn's stories. "And all I had to worry about was boredom and the occasional rock thrown at me." Looking away from their group, Zzhrvanh spotted Kkhrkht being refused service at the bar. Kkhrkht was a mess of scuffs, scratches and bent antennae looking as if dzzhakh-ye had been in more than one fight already. "Here comes trouble."
Sure enough, Kkhrkht found them and, reeking of mead, draped dzzhakh-ye's arms around them and pulled them uncomfortably close for what felt like an unwelcome eternity. Eventually Kkhrkht let go and stooped in front of them, shaking dzzhakh-ye's head from side to side. "No... no... no." Was all Kkhrkht could say.
"No what?" Pzeptilan couldn't believe this was the same Kkhrkht who was bragging about dzzhakh-ye's egg earlier that day. Something must have gone horribly wrong. And then it all came out in drunken sobs and spasms from way too much spice. Mdzzvyn had seen this before and cursed dzhinn-ye for not having any Mnadjhr and decided the next best thing was a drink in good company so dzhinn-ye sent Zzhrvanh to get a jar of mead as dzhinn-ye found Kkhrkht a seat. It was bad enough losing explorers out in the field, but Mdzzvyn didn't want another suicide on dzhinn-ye's watch.
"Zzhome of that race I was studying are here with two Nglubi, you wanna see 'em?" Kkhrkht slurred drunkenly and leaned against Pzeptilan for support. "They're over in the migrant district."
"Yeah, that migrant district's a right freak show." Pzeptilan adopted the blasÚ airs of a seasoned explorer.
Kkhrkht pulled Mdzzvyn and Pzeptilan close in a drunken attempt at triune sex, but Mdzzvyn just laughed and pushed Kkhrkht away. "I'm far too old for you, you young Dzzhakh." One way or another dzhinn-ye had to keep Kkhrkht distracted. "Let's go and see your friends." Mdzzvyn suggested as Zzhrvanh returned with Kkhrkht's drink. A short while later they were a staggering foursome lurching arm-in-arm from bar to bar on a pub-crawl to beat 'em all. In between drunken renditions of every song they knew and lewdly propositioning every passer-by they encountered, Mdzzvyn kept an eye out for an all-night apothecary so dzhinn-ye could buy some Mnadjhr, not just to sober up Kkhrkht, but also for dzhinn-ye who was fast approaching dzhinn-ye's limit.
Much to Mdzzvyn's dismay Kkhrkht passed out drunk and threw up all over the floor on their flight over to the migrant district. Obviously the Mnadjhr wasn't having much of an effect. Dzzhakh-ye'd need more and dzhinn-ye had already spiked Kkhrkht's drinks with enough Mnadjhr to raise the dead. Mnadjhr didn't come cheap and this was proving to be an expensive jaunt. Mdzzvyn took comfort in the fact that dzhinn-ye could send the bill to the Institute, but meanwhile dzhinn-ye had a volatile drunken Dzzhakh on dzhinn-ye's claws.
Not knowing where dzzhakh-ye's friends from Mars were, Kkhrkht stumbled around aimlessly croaking dzzhakh-ye's way through various traditional Khzchhrrrtz drinking songs with dzzhakh-ye's companions. After one particularly off-pitch and bawdy song Kkhrkht passed out in a heap on the ground. A group of passing off-worlders threw them some money.
"I think we're on to something here." Mdzzvyn laughed as dzhinn-ye scooped up and counted the money. "Hey, we've got enough for some more mead. What are we waiting for?" Pzeptilan and Zzhrvanh hoisted Kkhrkht back onto dzzhakh-ye's feet and they made a beeline for the nearest bar. They spent the next few hours going from bar to bar drinking, singing, collecting money from the amused off-worlders and being repeatedly chased out by angry publicans.
At one point they were singing outside a row of shops when a Zzhemthax flew up and landed in front of them. "Do you have an entertainers' license?" It demanded bluntly.
"A what?" Pzeptilan giggled, swayed drunkenly and held out a jar of mead. "Have a drink!"
The Zzhemthax ignored Pzeptilan's offer and pointed towards a square where a group of Khzchhrrrtz musicians were playing to an attentive audience. "They have a license. You do not." The Zzhemthax was coldly emphatic and its stinger twitched menacingly. "Academes like you should know better than to make fools of yourselves around these parts. There have been complaints about you. If you have no business here, leave at once."
"Ah, but we do." Kkhrkht lurched drunkenly in dzzhakh-ye's companions' arms. "We're with an Nglubi delegation." Kkhrkht bluffed hoping that Psy would cover for dzzhakh-ye.
The Zzhemthax looked them over. "What would the Nglubi want with a bunch of drunks like you?"
"Because this 'bunch of drunks' is from the Galactic Studies Institute." Mdzzvyn hiccoughed spasmodically from dzhinn-ye's drinking as dzhinn-ye backed up Kkhrkht.
"Zzzat'zzz right." Kkhrkht slurred. "I arrived from zzzector 7489 today with two Nglubi and a delegation on their way to the Galactic Council."
"I've heard better lies than that." The Zzhemthax was having none of it.
"It'zzz true." Kkhrkht's antennae wobbled drunkenly. "Had to zzzee the High Dronezzz too. Check with my mentor, Adzhnkt-Vey, if you don't believe me."
The Zzhemthax shook its head disbelievingly. The last thing it wanted was to end up in an argument with a bunch of drunken academes. The Zzhemthax knew it would be a tedious task ejecting these drunks from the migrant district. It could see that they were academes who, unlike some of the lower castes, were generally too privileged to resort to petty crime and took its chances. "If we hear any more complaints about you, it won't be me, but a squadron of Zzhemthax to take you away." It warned them sternly. "Do you understand?"
"Oh yes, of course." Zzhrvanh bowed dzzhakh-ye's head in drunken contrition. Pzeptilan and Mdzzvyn nodded their heads in mute agreement. The Zzhemthax raised itself high on its legs and flapped its wings a few times for show as it looked down upon them just to remind them who was the boss. Satisfied that it had scared some sense into them, it flew away to continue its patrol.
They watched the Zzhemthax fly off into the distance. "That was close!" Their encounter with the Zzhemthax knocked some of the jollity out Pzeptilan. "Let's go and listen to some music." They stumbled over to the square, bought some mead from a vendor and flopped down against a wall to drift away on wings of sound.
The next thing Kkhrkht was aware of was the sound of a familiar voice: "Hello there, Jazz." The Khzchhrrrtz, being somewhat insectoid, have lidless compound eyes. So when a Khzchhrrrtz passes out drunk, their vision becomes more and more unfocused until their optic nerves shut down from too much alcohol. Khzchhrrrtz literally end up blind drunk. Kkhrkht lifted dzzhakh-ye's head and felt the world spinning recklessly as it came into focus. Grattlyd, Malcolm and Veronica looked as if they were about to fall on top of dzzhakh-ye as dzzhakh-ye turned to puke on the ground. Kkhrkht tried to stand up, failed and slid back down the wall onto the ground with an unceremonious bump. Mdzzvyn passed dzhinn-ye's vial of Mnadjhr around to sober dzhinn-ye's companions up, but it didn't have an awful lot of effect seeing how much mead they'd put away.
Zzhrvanh-dzzhakh stared curiously at the Nglubi and its strange companions who looked as if they were expecting some sort of response from Kkhrkht and thought they looked weak and vulnerable like newborn larvae. "Who's that?"
Kkhrkht pointed weakly towards MariElla and Stan. "Zzzat's zzzem." Dzzhakh-ye explained in drunken profundity.
MariElla couldn't believe her eyes. Kkhrkht and three of his friends were lying dead drunk on the ground, a far cry from the fearsome Kkhrkht who rescued her from the Raiders' clutches back on Mars. "Are you alright, Kkhrkht?"
"Drunk." Kkhrkht found it hard to speak English in dzzhakh-ye's present state. "Very drunk." Dzzhakh-ye held up of dzzhakh-ye's jar of mead. "Mead izzz very zztrong."
"What, the stuff they make from honey?" Stan laughed out loud. When Kkhrkht was Jazz back on Mars, he hardly ever drank. And here he was, so drunk he couldn't even stand up.
"Zzzat'zzz right." Kkhrkht, head rolling from side to side, buzzed drunkenly. "You have cows, we have Vvvandzzus. They give uzzz honey and we make mead. You want zzome?" Kkhrkht offered dzzhakh-ye's jar to Stan.
"Yeah, sure." Stan accepted Kkhrkht's jar and took a tentative taste; sweet and strong with the warmth of alcohol. "Mmm, nice." He took another sip and passed it to MariElla.
Pzeptilan watched these funny fleshy creatures passing Kkhrkht's jar around and jabbering amongst themselves in their alien speech. "What are they doing?" dzzhev-ye asked Kkhrkht.
"I think they like it."
"Do they want some more?" Pzeptilan offered dzzhev-ye's jar to one of the fleshy creatures who made a strange noise and accepted it.
"I'm starving!" Zzhrvanh hadn't eaten for nearly a whole day, what with their drinking binge. "Those creatures with that Nglubi look nice and tender."
"Don't even think about it, Zzhrvanh-dzzhakh." Kkhrkht was disgusted by Zzhrvanh's casual adoption of their predator ethos and spoke quietly so that Grattlyd couldn't hear. "They're my friends."
"Look at them, so plump and juicy." Mdzzvyn couldn't resist the temptation to wind Kkhrkht up. "What do they taste like? I bet you've had a few."
"I wouldn't know." Kkhrkht lied guiltily.
"Oh, go on. I'm sure you have." Pzeptilan joined in. "They look so much tastier than those slimy slugs I had."
"No I haven't." Kkhrkht was piously emphatic.
"Zzzz." Zzhrvanh buzzed in agreement and clicked dzzhakh-ye's mandibles in eager anticipation. "My lot weren't too bad once you got used to the idea of chewing on old egg-cases."
"I quite fancy a bit myself." Mdzzvyn joked. "They look delicious."
"No they aren't." Kkhrkht blurted tersely.
"Oh, so you have!" Mdzzvyn easily caught dzzhakh-ye out.
Kkhrkht was still befuddled by the mead and wasn't really up to their mind games. "Yes, I mean no."
"Hah!" Mdzzvyn was triumphant. "I think I'll start with that plump one over there." Mdzzvyn pointed towards Yasouf. "Which one do you want?"
"No!" Kkhrkht couldn't believe dzzhakh-ye's ears.
"I'll have that tall, dark one." Zzhrvanh gestured towards SkyHawk.
"I wouldn't if I were you." Kkhrkht laughed darkly. "It's half Nglubi. You wouldn't want to start a diplomatic incident, would you?"
"Sure had me fooled." Zzhrvanh commented as dzzhakh-ye sized up MariElla. "Looks just like the others. Zzzz."
Pzeptilan began to lift dzzhev-ye off the ground to pick off one of the humans. Kkhrkht leaned over and desperately pushed dzzhev-ye back down before Pzeptilan even had a chance. "Stop it, you lot. It was self-defence. I had no choice; I was attacked by an aberrant. Look at them." Kkhrkht pleaded to reason with dzzhakh-ye's friends. "They walk, they talk, they have a well-developed civilisation. You can't be serious."
"Vvvandzzus talk." Mdzzvyn mischievously played devil's advocate.
"Rubbish!" Kkhrkht was getting exasperated. "They just make noises. They hardly even have a nerve net."
Veronica approached them at this point: "Who's this, Kkhrkht?"
"They're friends of mine." Kkhrkht explained, glad to be distracted from Mdzzvyn and Zzhrvanh's predatory banter. "They'd like to..." Kkhrkht stumbled in mid-sentence as dzzhakh-ye nearly said 'eat'. "Meet you."
"Oh, that's nice." Veronica was keen to meet some more Khzchhrrrtz and held out her hand in friendship when she noticed Kkhrkht didn't have the egg dzzhakh-ye had shown her earlier. "Where's your egg?" Kkhrkht bent over holding dzzhakh-ye's head in dzzhakh-ye's claws and howled painfully. Mdzzvyn buzzed frantically and waved dzhinn-ye's arms at Veronica. "What's it saying, Grattlyd?"
Grattlyd listened closely to Mdzzvyn's exaggeratedly dramatic account of Kkhrkht's misadventures as Kkhrkht whined in maudlin wretchedness in the background. "Things haven't gone too well on the home front." Grattlyd explained and laid a tentacle gently across Veronica's lips. "Whatever you do, don't mention the egg." But Kkhrkht heard and his whine ramped up to hideous self-pitying wail.
Malcolm had followed the sound of the Khzchhrrrtz music and worked his way through the crowd to get closer and hear some alien music first-hand. Some of them sang in their polyphonic voices, others played a variety of acoustic and what Malcolm assumed to be electronic instruments. One wore a stringed instrument that looked as if someone had tried to make a multi-layered dress out of a harp. Another sat inside a weird contraption with pipes and tubes running in all directions and poking out at odd angles. A pair of Khzchhrrrtz had an array of egg-like ovoids ranging from the size of a hen's egg all the way to huge beach balls that they used for percussion. Deep, bass drones swept under a complex melodic interplay draped around their strangely phrased alien rhythms punctuated with huge slabs of sound. He was totally captivated by their music and recorded some of it on his commset to take back to Mars.
Malcolm was pulled back to reality when Stan broke the music's spell: "Here, try some of the local brew!" Malcolm looked around and saw that his friends had joined him. Kkhrkht and dzzhakh-ye's Khzchhrrrtz companions stood to one side munching on grilled Ghlodzzin worms and washing them down with mead. "So how does this music fit into the greater scheme of things, Kkhrkht?"
Kkhrkht buzzed as dzzhakh-ye mulled over Malcolm's question. "Imagine one of your bubblegum pop bands playing old, traditional music. Well-intended, but somewhat lightweight and banal." Mdzzvyn eventually worked out that Grattlyd was well stocked up with Galactic Credits and offered to show them around the migrant district to help them buy their supplies. For some reason that Grattlyd couldn't quite fathom out, Mdzzvyn's itinerary seemed to take in every mead house along the way where dzhinn-ye would regale Grattlyd with outlandish tales of dzhinn-ye's adventures. Zzhrvanh and Pzeptilan couldn't speak English, but made the effort to learn everyone's names and would bring them jars of mead and attempt to say their names as they passed their drinks around: "Zzztan, Mahyella, Mahkhom, Zzzkyawk, Rhonikka... " The mead loosened them up and soon they were joining in with each other's songs like the best of friends.
The day spent wandering around drinking the sweet Khzchhrrrtz mead and trying out the different varieties of food on offer became a fuzzier and fuzzier blur for Veronica. At some point she lost track and the next thing she was aware of, she was lying on the floor in a large but poorly lit room propped up against a snoring Khzchhrrrtz and her head was on fire with the mother of all hangovers. At least she still had her clothes on! Looking around, she saw Grattlyd asleep propped up against one wall. Everyone else except Yasouf, who was hobbling around, was lying asleep in groups on the floor. "What happened?" She asked weakly.
"We were arrested for being drunk and disorderly." Yasouf groaned as he tried to work some feeling back into his legs.
"I thought you didn't drink." Veronica vaguely remembered seeing Yasouf refuse the mead and insist on a non-alcoholic drink.
"I don't." Yasouf explained grumpily as his legs nearly gave way under him. "That damn wasp stung me in the back. I can hardly feel a thing."
Veronica's head hurt too much to hold a conversation and she drifted off for a while to let her hangover subside. One by one, the recuperating drunks came to and talked amongst themselves trying to work out their next move. "What happens now?" She asked Kkhrkht.
"I don't know. I've never been in jail before. Hang on." Kkhrkht turned to Mdzzvyn and put Veronica's question to dzhinn-ye in Khzchhrrrtz. Mdzzvyn gleefully recounted the many times dzhinn-ye'd been out on the razzle and ended up in jail. Kkhrkht got the drift. "It would seem the Zzhemthax will let us go today and fine us. It's not particularly serious."
The overhead lights suddenly jumped in brilliance, flooding the room with harsh, bright light and a heavy door swung open on its well-worn hinges. Clack, clack, clack, Psy strutted in accompanied by Ruby and a tall, square-jawed man in an Earth Fed officer's uniform. "I can't turn my back for five minutes and you're off on the piss." Shi laughed wryly as shi looked around a roomful of hangovers. "Well, aren't you lucky I turned up to throw your bail!" Grattlyd groaned and let loose a stream of wet, sloppy malodorous farts as it stood up unsteadily on its tentacles to greet Psy. "The bigger the brain, the bigger the hangover, eh Grattlyd?" Psy joked cruelly. "Come on, you lot." Psy clapped hir hands impatiently. "You can't stay here all day."
They stumbled slowly and painfully out of the holding cell leaning on each other for support as Psy led the way past the baleful glare of the Zzhemthax on duty. In the background Grattlyd could make out the sound of other Zzhemthax joking about how it took six of them to lift the drunken Nglubi they'd picked up. Outside the Zzhemthax station, Mdzzvyn was still leaning against Grattlyd for support. "Look, there's a mead house over there." Dzhinn-ye pointed out. "I know a great cure for hangovers!"
The projector in Adzhnkt-Vey's study played out a scene with Kkhrkht, Pzeptilan, Zzhrvanh, Mdzzvyn, Grattlyd and the humans staggering around the migrant district totally drunk and singing for all they were worth. Adzhnkt-Vey reached over to freeze the picture just as the Zzhemthax came into view. "That's certainly an interesting approach to interplanetary diplomacy you have, Kkhrkht." Adzhnkt-Vey commented with just the slightest tinge of indulgent humour in dzhinn-ye's voice. "Is that what you had in mind for the Galactic Council?"
"Oh no, not at all, Adzhnkt-Vey." Kkhrkht was still nursing a thumping hangover. "It was totally unplanned."
Adzhnkt-Vey knew all about Kkhrkht's misfortunes. Adzhnkt-Vey prided dzhinn-ye on being a competent, caring administrator and made it dzhinn-ye's business to keep tabs on all dzhinn-ye's students. "I know." Adzhnkt-Vey waited to see if Kkhrkht wanted to unburden dzzhakh-ye, but was met only by a drawn-out silence, so dzhinn-ye continued. "Very well then. You can go with these Humans to the Galactic Council. But on no account are you to act in a diplomatic capacity on our behalf. Is that understood?"
Kkhrkht bowed thankfully before Adzhnkt-Vey. "Of course."
"Good. Would you like the Institute to sort out your affairs while you're away?" Adzhnkt-Vey alluded to the fact that Kkhrkht was part owner of Zzzhkzklt and Vvriklrty's home, which they now shared with Jemalkhta. It wouldn't do to have one of dzhinn-ye's students homeless wandering around the mead houses like some low-caste reprobate. "I'll see to it that you have a place of your own near the Institute when you return."
Kkhrkht knew it was what dzzhakh-ye needed; a fresh start in life. If only dzzhakh-ye could be like the other Khzchhrrrtz, but Kkhrkht was an explorer who belonged to the Galactic Studies Institute. Kkhrkht remembered Jemalkhta's furious jealousy and pitied dzzhakh-ye. If only dzzhakh-ye could have what Jemalkhta and everyone else took for granted. But, knowing that dzzhakh-ye couldn't, Kkhrkht leapt at the next best thing and accepted Adzhnkt-Vey's offer. At least dzzhakh-ye wouldn't have to deal with the messy business of unravelling dzzhakh-ye's triune. "Yes, I think that's what I really need."
Adzhnkt-Vey consulted dzhinn-ye's notes for a moment. "The Foreign Affairs Chambers have decided to send a delegation with your Nglubi friends to the Galactic Council to sort out the mess with the gateways. Try to make yourself useful, Kkhrkht. If we can't get the gateways back, I hope to place as many of you explorers with the Foreign Affairs Chambers as possible. So think of that as your diplomatic mission, you young Dzzhakh."
It was their last day on Zrrlchtz, so Veronica, MariElla and Ruby set out shopping around the migrant district with the boys in tow. Psy had left them to make arrangements with the High Drones of the Foreign Affairs Chamber. "How'd it go?" Veronica was keen to know what happened on Ruby's journey back to Mars.
"I've worked out how to fly that ship." Ruby had studied Psy operating the Omphalatta's controls as closely as possible without arousing hir suspicions. "But it all depends on whether it will respond to SkyHawk."
"Who's the suit?" MariElla hadn't expected Earth Fed to show up.
"Colonel Andrew Ritenaur of the Mars Security Council." Ruby was unimpressed. "That was part of the deal so that Earth Fed would leave everyone alone. You should've seen it when we got back to Fort Melchisor. Earth Fed had staked out Gregor's bus and when our ship materialised in that chamber, they started shooting at us. Psy was going to kill the lot of them, but I talked hir out of it."
"Did they get home alright?" The shoot-out sounded pretty ominous to MariElla.
"I think so. I was in contact with them until they got back to Montgomery." Ruby didn't trust Earth Fed either. And they owned her! "After that, I don't know because that's when we came back here."
They wandered around checking out the endless succession of shops and got around the language barrier by pointing at anything that caught their eye, flashing the Galactic Credits Psy gave them and letting the shopkeepers show off their wares. Unfortunately, even the most stylish clothes they found didn't fit as they were cut for aliens whose bodies weren't the least bit humanoid, but they found it quite an education just seeing what some of the different species considered fashionable. One shop, which they thought was a jeweller's, found them face to face with a midget Khzchhrrrtz Octon who spoke a rapid barrage of different languages interspersed with phrases of Khzchhrrrtz. They shook their heads, not understanding a word it said. The Octon stood silently for a moment and then held its claws out and made the outline of a small ball, which it then pretended to hold it in one of its claws. Wagging its antennae for dramatic effect, it pointed towards the imaginary ball and spoke in Khzchhrrrtz after which it pointed from the imaginary ball towards Veronica and blathered a quick succession of languages.
"What does it want?" MariElla asked.
."I think it wants to sell us a translator." Ruby guessed. She got the Octon's attention, motioned the outline of a small ball and repeated the Octon's pantomime in reverse with a badly approximated attempt at Khzchhrrrtz and held up two credit slips. The Octon scurried over to a display case and laid out a selection of globes of varying sizes on the counter and picked one up to show Ruby. It was blue on one side and green on the other with a metallic silver band around the middle. Holding it so Ruby could watch, it pressed down a button and a succession of different texts scrolled on a small display screen. The Octon stopped it when it displayed the familiar Khzchhrrrtz text. Turning it around, it pressed another button and let the text in the green side's screen scroll along until it reached some Nglubi text, which Ruby remembered from the screens in the Omphalatta. The Octon buzzed briefly in Khzchhrrrtz at the blue side of the ball and, to their surprise, a voice not all that dissimilar to Grattlyd's came out the other side.
"Well, you got that one right." Veronica observed as the Octon picked up a globe with three sections, which allowed it to speak to them in two different languages simultaneously. Then one with four sections, five sections, even one with eight sections. The cacophony of alien languages was overwhelming. "Yeah, but none of them translate to English."
"That's because they've never heard of us." Ruby pointed out the obvious. She then pointed to her mouth and spoke for the Octon's benefit while pointing at the translator globes on the counter before her. It understood Ruby's intent and picked a globe with four sections, held it so she could see the screen on one of its' sections and scrolled until it was blank. It then held up a clutch of short cylinders, which it plugged into the globe and pointed to a wall chart that seemed to go all the way around the shop. A selection of languages! Ruby scanned the list but, as she expected, there wasn't a single one she recognised, not even binary or machine code. So she kept on talking and pointed to a blank section on the wall chart.
The Octon followed Ruby's movements closely, picked up the translator and held it in front of her with the blank screen lit up and invited her to speak into it. She did and the Octon seemed surprised at the Khzchhrrrtz gibberish that poured out the other side. It didn't take long for them to get a few numbers and words translating back and forth between Khzchhrrrtz and English. By the time Stan and Grattlyd found them they were busy haggling over the price for their translators.
"What you found, babe?" Stan asked MariElla as he walked up to the counter.
"Translators." She explained as she decided which one to buy. "They've got every language except ours, but they're programmable."
"I know these things." Grattlyd poked at the translator she was examining and lifted it out of her hand to take a closer look at it. "This one would do, just make sure it has Nglubi." Grattlyd the set it back down on the counter and spoke to the Octon in Khzchhrrrtz. "Do you have Nglubi Elktan?"
"Of course I have." The Octon let out dzzhev-ye's exasperation at having been reduced to sign language. "Are they trying to make a fool of me? I have every known language available. Spoken, empathic, telepathic, electromagnetic, pictal, olfactory, tactile, the lot! All properly cross-referenced. None of that cheap aliasing here." The Octon waved dzzhev-ye four arms over the translators on the counter. "These are the very best. I have translators that will handle up to 100 different languages simultaneously. What do you want?"
"This one, it learns?" Grattlyd tapped the translator it had returned to the counter.
"Yes, and the personal deluxe model comes with a full set of languages already installed." The Octon launched into dzzhev-ye's sales patter.
"Nglubi Elktan?" Grattlyd wanted to make sure.
"Absolutely." The Octon confidently assured Grattlyd and demonstrated the fact by speaking into it in common Khzchhrrrtz. The translator boomed out confidently in Nglubi Elktan.
"I'll take ten." Grattlyd was satisfied with the translators' rendition of the Nglubi Elktan dialect and set down a wad of Galactic Credits on the counter.
"I pay well for new languages. But they have to be properly cross-referenced with at least eight other major languages." The Octon's mood changed now that dzzhev-ye had a sale in the bag and laid their translators out on the counter. "Would you like extra memory sticks and power matrices?"
Yasouf looked again at the diminutive blue-and-green ball in his hand as their elevator plummeted down past countless levels to the landing bays below. "This thing translates languages?" He asked Grattlyd incredulously. "So if I speak into it, Kkhrkht's friends would understand me."
"Not yet." Grattlyd explained. "I made a dictionary between your main languages and Nglubi some time back. It's not very accurate, but it will have to do."
"What's the point of that? You already speak English fluently." As far as Yasouf could make out Grattlyd understood English as if it had spoken it all its life.
"None, but the translators have Nglubi, so they translate your language into Nglubi and then into Khzchhrrrtz or whatever you want. It's called aliasing, sometimes errors creep in, but until someone makes a direct dictionary between Khzchhrrrtz and English, it's the only way they can work."
"I see." Yasouf could see that the translator would be very handy. "So where's this dictionary of yours?"
"Back on Titan. I'll send for it as soon as we get back to the Omphalatta."