Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 15: The one that got away.

        "Good morning, boys!" Big Bob Wrexham greeted Barney and Clem as they turned up late for work at the market. "Have a nice time at the Pleasure Dome?"
        "Yeah, it was out of this world!" Clem answered back excitedly as Barney kicked him in the foot before he told Bob everything.
        "Did you catch the Watusis' show? Me and the missus watched it on the Tri-D at home. Man, that was something else." Bob shook his head in amazement. "That was a brave move using those crystals." He glanced around the marketplace as the traders opened up for their first customers. "Looks like we'll be busy today. See you down at the pub for lunch."
        Clem waited until Bob had disappeared into the morning crowd. "Okay, okay, I'll keep quiet." Clem felt Barney was getting a bit to bossy. "You're nearly as bad as Earth Fed."
        "Come off it, Clem." Barney didn't want to take any chances. "You saw their reception party when we got back to Fort Melchisor. We're lucky to be here and not in one of their correctional facilities."
        Clem said nothing and spent the rest of the morning limping around helping Barney shift their carts around the market. Come lunchtime, Barney left Clem at the Wobbly Goblin and sauntered off towards the Mech Advice Centre on Broxley Street. He wanted a secure link to Satori so he could make a safe backup of all the video clips he'd stored up on the journey to Zrrlchtz in case Earth Fed found him and wiped his data banks the way AM&MG used to do back at Klondike Pass. When he got there, it was cordoned off by a line of Earth Fed troops. Technicians were escorted in under armed guard from a troopers' transporter. Barney kept out of the troopers' sight at the back of the crowd of onlookers and bumped into a tri-wheeler mech with dust-proof armour. "What happened?"
        "Beats me." The tri-wheeler replied. "But if Earth Fed and these fleshie bigots don't get off our backs soon, we'll have to call another strike."
        "Yeah, right on." Barney agreed, none the wiser. That's when he remembered Sam Kapella's shop and how Sam had uploaded the remnants of his viral trip to Satori and set off to call in on Sam's shop. Barney arrived just as a squad of Earth Fed troops were leading Sam out of his shop into a waiting transporter. Two troopers lowered their rifles to block his path as he approached the shop.
        "Beat it, mech." One of the troopers spat out. "You won't get your fix today."
        "Tough nuts, bolt face." The other one laughed cruelly.
        Barney realised he wasn't going to get anywhere here and went back to join Clem at the Wobbly Goblin wondering what he could do to safeguard his memories and data. Barney arrived to find Clem at the bar with Bob and his weaselish assistant and sidekick, Nick Dee. "Where you been, man?" Clem welcomed him back.
        "I went over to the advice centre, but it's been raided by Earth Fed." Barney didn't bother telling Clem about Sam Kapella.
        "Not again!" Bob laughed as he picked up a fresh beer from the bar.
        "What?" Barney couldn't believe that his Buddha and Aristotle was capable of anything that illegal. Let alone repeatedly!
        "I bet it was another one of those flatliners getting virals and VR hook-ups gone and died." Nick chipped in. "That 'frame's completely bent, has an accomplice uptown that breaks up the deadmen for parts. You want to stay well away from that place if you know what's good for you, Barney. Stay out here in the real world with us, mate. It may be crap, but at least it's real."
        Barney was mortified by Nick's revelation but fortunately, due to his expressionless mech face, didn't give away his feelings. No wonder the dust seals he bought from Sam Kapella were such an amazing deal!
        "'Ere, did you boys get up to anything silly over at the Pleasure Dome?" Nick asked cautiously.
        "No, not that I can think of." Clem lied with childlike innocence.
        "There ain't half a load of coppers in here today." Nick pointed out for Clem's benefit. "You should've seen their heads turn when Barney came in the door. It was as if they'd been expecting him. Well, if you need any help, you've got my number." Nick winked as he tapped his nose. "Know what I mean?"
        That afternoon, Barney had to pick up a pallet of Llama wool blankets from Chester. "Do you know where I could get a couple of 16-terablock data cubes?" He asked hopefully.
        Chester hummed and hawed as he loaded up the pallet. "Not offhand, no. You want to do a backup in case Earth Fed seize your data?"
        "Yeah." Barney confessed awkwardly. "They've done me over a few times in the past. Never again."
        "For sure." Chester agreed sagely as he picked up his commset. "I don't blame you. Bill might have a few kicking around at the relay station. I'll give him a call." Barney waited patiently as Chester conferred with Bill. Eventually Chester looked up. "They're getting some in next week if that's OK."
        That wasn't the news Barney needed to hear. "I really need them today, but you might as well put me down for two just in case." Barney set off with the pallet as Chester placed his order with Bill. That evening as they were clearing away after the day's trading, he cornered Nick and asked him if he could get hold of any data cubes.
        "Yeah, maybe." Nick answered warily as he tugged on his scraggly goatee. "How soon you want 'em?"
        "Well, uh, today would be ideal, but tomorrow would do, I suppose." Barney waffled aimlessly as he tried to hold back his growing feelings of panic.
        "Give me a call this evening." Nick offered cagily. "Cash on the barrel and no messing around. You got the dosh?"
        "Yeah, sure." Barney was over the moon at his good luck even if it would take every last Scruple he'd saved up. Later that evening Barney turned up at Nick's apartment, clutching his life savings with Clem in tow to make sure he wasn't cheated.
        Nick's place was littered with boxes of mech parts dumped haphazardly on the floor. An Overlordz mech from the Morlock clan had its back turned to them and was idly sorting through the collection of parts. It turned around to face them and spoke in a harsh, rusty metal voice. "You the drone after the data cubes?"
        "Yes, two please." The words barely crawled out of his mouth. Was Nick in league with the Morlock clan? Were they planning to muscle in and take over Montgomery?
        "That's 500 Scruples each." The Morlock mech growled.
        Barney reluctantly handed over his money to Nick and the Morlock mech lazily tossed two data cubes across the room to Barney. "You've got what you want. Now screw off, drone."
        "Hey, lighten up, Bert." Nick attempted to defuse the tension. "These guys are safe. They work for Bob down at the market."
        Evil Bert growled sullenly. "Whatever you say." Barney and Clem got the hint and left immediately. Evil Bert had a go at Nick as soon as they were gone. "What do you think you're doing bringing in that pair of dopes when I'm here?" He shouted angrily as he kicked a box of dust-resistant body armour across the room.
        "They're safe, honest." Nick pleaded with Evil Bert. "I'll talk to them tomorrow."
        "You better be right, because if I have to take care of them, we'll have more useless parts to throw around. Goddamn useless drone junk." Evil Bert swore angrily as he threw a mech arm into a corner of the room where it crumpled into a twisted mess of broken scrap. "It's all scrap that scumbag cuts up from those flatliners."
        "Take it or leave it." Nick was thoroughly fed up with Evil Bert's ill-mannered temper. "That's all we've got in town. I had to grass up that AM mainframe just so you could swipe this lot. If it's not good enough for you, go to Satori."
        "You know I can't." Evil Bert confessed bleakly. "They would completely dismantle me."
        "Well then." Nick swept his arm around to take in the collection of parts Evil Bert had been able to steal from Sam Kapella's shop and waited while Evil Bert cooled off. "You said you were going straight."
        "Yes, yes..." Evil Bert trailed off peevishly as he continued sorting through the mech body parts he'd stolen. "I can't live like that any longer. I made a mistake when I joined them, Nick. I had no idea it's a life-long thing. No one's allowed to leave the Morlock clan and they kill deserters. That makes me a deserter twice over now." Nick spent the rest of the evening helping Bert transfer his delta-class core into a hotchpotch of mismatched industrial drone parts. Eventually, the new Bert stood up looking like a well-worn industrial drone somewhat down on its' luck and flexed his limbs. "It'll take some getting used to." He commented in an inoffensive, neuter voice. "I got used to all that power, my strength..."
        "They say power corrupts." Nick rationalised helpfully. "Look at me. I'm not exactly superman, but I'm doing all right. Let's get rid of this junk. What do you want to do with your old body?"
        "Recycle it with the rest of that scrap." Evil Bert wasn't bothered. It was only a junk Morlock mech body cobbled together out of worn-out parts. His real mech body was in storage back in the Morlock caverns set into the cliffs around Argyre Planitia. It was Fort Melchisor that he was interested in now and not even for its vast supply of Psionic Crystal. It was something else altogether. "Thanks for everything, Nick. I'm off to start work at the tropical foods farm tomorrow."
        "Ho, ho, the old dope farm. I hope it works out." Nick laughed encouragingly as they gathered the leftover parts and carried them out to his cart to take to the Montgomery recycler. "It's not often anyone gets a chance for a fresh start in life."

        Clem had enough of pacing around the living room waiting for Barney to finish backing up his memories and data of the Watusis' show, the Octons at Fort Melchisor, Titan and Zrrlchtz. Barney was taking no chances, making two full backups with redundancy checking. It meant he'd be off-line for a while, but it would be time well spent. Clem rummaged through the cupboards and shelves, looking at everything Kkhrkht left behind. A wooden box with 3 Psionic Crystals, a Tri-D set, a computer terminal with a working connection to the MarsTel network, atlases of Earth, Luna and Mars, data strips on sociology, history, biology, physics, engineering, psychology, as well as a few about motor mechanics that Kkhrkht/Jazz had used for his job at the garage, a handheld data strip reader, some clothes and plenty of food in the kitchen none of which seemed the least bit alien. He found a few small gadgets that were obviously from Zrrlchtz and passed the time trying to get them to work while he waited for Barney to finish his backup.
        "What are you going to do with those data cubes?" Clem asked as Barney checked them each in turn in ultra turbo hi-speed fast-forward on the Tri-D set.
        "I'm not sure." Barney admitted as he followed the replay closely, making sure there were no gaps. "Maybe put one in a safe deposit box in a bank. I'd like to send one over for storage at Satori, but I doubt if I'll have time for that."
        "What makes you so sure Earth Fed's gonna wipe you?"
        Barney waited until the replay reached the end of the data cube. "It's pretty obvious Earth Fed are going to want to know how we ended up over at Fort Melchisor. Sooner or later, they're going to start asking us questions. Look at me I'm a mech; they can read my mind any time they want to. All they got to do is hook me up to a terminal and pipe out my data for a full video record of everything that happened. What's to stop them wiping it all out the way AM&MG used to back at Klondike Pass?"
        "Yeah, you're right." Clem agreed pessimistically. "I still don't see why they want to keep everything under wraps."
        "Me neither. But when the heat dies down, we go public and then we'll be in the money!" Barney added in conspiratorial good cheer. Bing-bong, the door chime rang. "What's that?"
        "Must be the pizza I ordered while you were off-line." He went over to the entryphone and checked its screen. Yep, it was the pizza delivery, so he hit the button to let her in. When Clem opened the door to collect his pizza, the delivery girl was closely followed by three armed Earth Fed troopers dragging a mobile computer terminal on a cart and an officer who smirked silently as he slapped his pistol in his hand.
        "A Large Spicy Roaster for Mr. Abernathy?" The delivery girl awkwardly acted as if Earth Fed hadn't followed her in. Clem paid for the pizza and she left to make her next delivery.
        "Welcome back to Mars, boys." The officer introduced himself as he strode in followed by his troopers who went about setting up the terminal. "That's all right Mr. Abernathy, finish your pizza, it's your mech friend we're interested in."
        Barney backed away into a corner. "You guy's aren't gonna wipe me. I haven't broken any laws. I've got rights." He bluffed nervously.
        "But surely as an honest citizen you'd want to help us with our inquiries into your kidnapping. The data in your memory banks could help us identify and capture that criminal." The officer cynically pretended to reason with Barney before turning nasty. "Either you let us hook you up to our terminal or..." He trailed off as he pointed out the troopers who had their rifles levelled at Clem and Barney. "We force you. What'll it be?"
        "You guys have got it all wrong." Clem came to Barney's defence between mouthfuls of pizza. "No one was kidnapped. We took some Octons home because they got stuck when their gateways were switched off. We came back because we had to be at work and the others went on to the Galactic Council. They'll be back next week."
        "Sure, kid." The officer laughed dismissively at Clem's story. "And the moon's made of green cheese."
        "Hey, no way am I going on that terminal." Barney recognised it as the type AM&MG used on him. "Help, someone call the police. Oh, sump oil, they are the police." He realised in blind panic. Clem looked up at the troopers and saw that they were all identical clones, like himself.
        "Take the mech." The officer gloated coldly as he gave the order. Two of the troopers held Barney at gunpoint while the third hooked up the terminal. Barney went offline again while the officer downloaded the contents of Barney's core. "Take your time with that pizza, sonny." He ordered Clem. "Looks like your friend's carrying a full load." Barney slumped listlessly as the officer piped out the entire contents of Barney's core and data banks. "Can't trust these low-grade mechs." He muttered under his breath as he checked the terminal's display. Clem sat in nervous silence hoping that this ruthless Earth Fed officer wasn't about to take them both back to Klondike Pass.
        Barney was still woozy when the officer left with his troopers dragging the terminal along behind them. "Hey, what are we doing in Jazz's pad? That Pleasure Dome place sounds well rad, what do you reckon on going there?"
        'So this is what it's like' Clem thought as he realised that the officer had wiped out their adventures from the Pleasure Dome out of Barney's data banks and took a deep toke on the spliff he'd been nursing while Barney came back online. This was going to take some explaining! "He's gone and we went to the Pleasure Dome last weekend. Check your chronometer."
        "What?" Barney was confused. "Oh no, not again!" He wailed. "Why didn't you do something?"
        "I couldn't." Clem explained weakly. "Earth Fed came in here and held us up at gunpoint. There wasn't a lot I could do."
        "Oh." Barney slumped down on the sofa next to Clem. "Damn those fleshie bastards. They still treat us mechs like disposable scrap."
        Clem reached under the sofa and pulled out Barney's data cubes. "You've still got these." He offered helpfully.
        "What's that? I mean other than a pair of data cubes."
        "A backup you did. I don't know how complete it is."
        "Really? Why would I do something like that?" Barney was at a loss but accepted the cubes from Clem, hooked one of them up to himself and went offline yet again.

        Veronica looked out through the viewscreen as the Omphalatta approached the Galactic Council. Huge as it was, it was dwarfed by the disk of the Milky Way galaxy spread out above them as far as the eye could see in all directions. "I recognise this from that Crystal trip you took us on back at the Pleasure Dome. So all that stuff we saw was real."
        "Very observant." Psy condescendingly confirmed as they hurtled on towards the glowing expanse of the Galactic Council and went back to seducing her latest victim, Colonel Andrew Ritenaur from Earth Fed Security Service.
        "Are we above or below the Milky Way?" MariElla asked as she joined them at the viewscreen.
        "Does it matter?" Psy was indifferent. "In space there is no up or down, but for what's worth we're on the leading side in terms of the direction your galaxy is moving. So if that's up, then we're on the topside."
        Grattlyd sidled up, embracing them with a few of its tentacles. "Won't be long now. It's guiding us in to our pod." And they raced on towards the Galactic Council. No one knew where it came from except that it appeared out of nowhere in the middle a battle between the Nglubi and Pdzarvian battle fleets during the 743rd Imperial war and annihilated both fleets bringing the war to an unexpectedly early close. Rumour had it that the Galactic Council started life as a death star in the Andromeda galaxy, discovered its true nature and ran off rather than die serving its unknown creators. Both the Nglubi and Pdzarvians tried unsuccessfully to court this invincible weapon into service on their sides, but failed miserably. It had other plans and managed to broker an uneasy truce on the strength that it would wipe out whoever fired the next shot. In spite of the fact that the Nglubi and the Pdzarvians remain deeply suspicious of each other and indulge in elaborate public displays of mutual loathing to this day, the truce held bringing a peace of sorts to the Milky Way galaxy inasmuch as the major powers ceased open warfare amongst themselves. Nevertheless, the minor civilisations continued squabbling and skirmishing, which many suspected as being little more than proxy wars stirred up by the Nglubi, the Pdzarvians and others.
        "Where is everybody?" Veronica asked loudly as she walked around the landing bay in their pod. "Looks a bit deserted if you asked me."
        "They're in their pods." Grattlyd explained casually.
        "When do we get to meet them?" MariElla asked impatiently as fantasies of what the other alien races might look like raced through her mind.
        "It doesn't work that way." Psy knew what she was thinking. "Everyone stays in their own pods. You'll see." Shi led MariElla, Veronica and the others towards the reception where the Galactic Council would scan them and recognise them as members of a new civilisation petitioning for membership. Grattlyd led Kkhrkht and the two Khzchhrrrtz delegates to a dais where they were swallowed up in a field of brilliant opaque light.
        "Where have they gone?" As far as Yasouf could see, they'd just gone through another one of the Nglubi gateways.
        "Off to see the Wizard of Oz about their gateways, I should imagine." Psy snickered. "Have a look around, the Council will call you when it's ready."
        Veronica wandered around checking out the various gateway dais dotted around the main chamber of their pod. One wall looked like the largest viewscreen she'd ever seen. Damn near 100 meters long and switched off, she reckoned. The other side was a long, curved window through which she could see countless other pods, some lit up and some dark, with the Milky Way spread out like a huge disk in the background. Overwhelmed by the vastness spread out before her, Veronica turned back to her companions inside the pod and saw them gathered around a 3-D model of the solar system floating above one of the dais. She saw the illuminated cities on the dark sides of Earth, Luna and Mars as they rotated on their axes. The display zoomed out so fast she nearly fell over with vertigo as it zoomed in one by one on planetary systems orbiting neighbouring star systems, some of them lit up with sure-fire signs of life on their dark sides. The display returned to the solar system and zoomed in on Mars and Earth so close that Veronica felt as though she was about to fall to her death on the surface.
        A column of light burst out of the floor, completely surrounding and nearly blinding her. She could just make out MariElla and Stan caught in similar columns looking ever so peaceful even though she felt like screaming in panic. But nothing came out as her life's memories raced past all the way back to the pain of her first breath and the blinding light of birth back to the present moment. Dreams she'd long forgotten, lovers she wished she could forget, treasured moments and embarrassing mistakes, her entire life paraded itself before her eyes. After what felt like an eternity, the column dimmed slightly and she could see that the viewscreen had come to life like an electronic Bayeux Tapestry of human history. Bloody battles, dancing children, famines, plagues, great philosophers teaching their disciples, pinnacles of achievement and desolate waste, the tenderest of love, the ugliest of hatred and fear, religious pilgrimages and cruel, spiteful murders. It was all there and much, much more. Civilisations rose and fell before her very eyes. The greatest and the worst of humanity paraded itself before her with impeccable accuracy.
        Veronica felt she could take no more, yet it still rolled on darting forwards and backwards throughout human history without rhyme or reason. Gradually it wound back to the ancient civilisations of Egypt, India, China, Sumeria and back further to Atlantis. Soon they were watching tribes of Cro-Magnons, Neanderthals and early Homo Sapiens struggling for survival on a world of pristine and awesome beauty. Still it kept on racing back in time until they saw the great asteroid impact and the Saurian-Avian civilisations that arose before that fateful time. It began jumping back and forth between the two eras, replaying similar and contrasting events side-by-side as played out by Humans and Saurians.
        'Uh-oh.' Veronica thought as the viewscreen stopped with a selection of scenes from their own time of Mars, Earth and Luna, some of which she thought she recognised. 'So that wasn't some bullshit Psy told us.' She nearly lost her balance as the column of light that had kept her captive faded away and released her from its' rigid grip.
        "Y'know, I'd swear I recognised most of that." Stan muttered as he gradually came back to his senses.
        "I'd be even more surprised if you hadn't." Psy quipped sarcastically.
        "So the Galactic Council knows about the Shallens." Yasouf pointed out. "What happens to us?"
        "No idea." Psy mused abstractly. "If the viewscreen kicks into action again, you're in with a chance. Either way, it'll let you know. Soon, I hope."
        The hours dragged past as they waited for a reply and people drifted off into groups wandering around the pod checking it out. SkyHawk and Ruby were over by the window taking in the view. "I get the strangest vibes from Grattlyd." SkyHawk confided quietly.
        "How so?" Ruby asked. "Do you think he's dangerous?"
        "No, nothing like that." SkyHawk genially reassured her. "But when we met, I had all those flashbacks and he acted as if he already knew me. And that beer, where did it really come from?"
        Malcolm listened keenly to Yasouf's tales about the Free Mars Tribe as they walked around the pod. "It's a shame Monica went back, she'd have loved this." Yasouf sighed regretfully when a collection of small boxes, spheres and slates materialised on the dais they were standing beside. Malcolm reached out and picked one up. A holographic projection of a group of two-headed bird-like creatures jabbering and squawking excitedly as they tore apart huge chunks of flesh with their razor-toothed beaks took him by such surprise that he dropped it on the floor causing the projection to wink out immediately. "What the fuck?!?" Yasouf picked up another one and was surrounded by a cacophony of growls, moans and a strange hooting sound that kept repeating itself. The slates lit up with pictures when they picked them up. Realising they'd found something interesting, they scooped them up and carried them back to the main chamber. "I think we've found something." Yasouf handed around the strange objects for everyone to see. Soon the pod was filled with an eruption of bizarre holograms and even stranger sounds and they passed around their new find.
        "Junk mail." Psy commented indifferently as shi snatched a bead projecting a hologram of a group of green amphibians splashing around gaily in a pool of thick brown ooze out of Ritenaur's hand and threw it down on the floor. "I suppose you could call it a good sign. It means the services have been switched on, so we ought to see something up on the screen fairly soon."
        MariElla a looked up from a slate that she and Stan were inspecting. "Junk mail?"
        Psy sifted through some of the slates and other objects, picking them up in turn. "Oh, let's see what we have here. An invitation to slaughter a fattened Wilfmere Beast with the Kallimpi delegation, holidays on Dulmosia... lovely place so long as you can breathe cyanide, rejuvenation clinics, bargain-basement mind transfers, a social club for Zandarvian vomit spewing... not for the uninitiated. The Holy Light Cult, take my word for it don't get involved with them. They really mess your mind up. Well, well, it's the never-ending Black Hole Lottery. I can't believe they're still running that crusty old scam! Galactic Geographic subscription offers, designer planet makeover services, see the sights of the Yfflt planetary swarm system, time travel tourism, immortality for beginners, interspecial dating clubs, and all the usual rubbish. How about this one, budget timeshare planet ownership schemes! No money down and interest-free payments spread over a thousand lifetimes. Sounds dodgy to me. Some things never change. There's no escaping it wherever you go." Psy sounded as jaded as they come as shi filled hir hands with the strange trinkets and walked across the pod surrounded by a chaotic collage of overlapping holograms. "Best thing to do is to chuck the lot of it down the disposal hatch. If you return it, they'll only send you more."
        While Psy was talking, Veronica spotted more of the little gifts appearing on the dais around the main chamber and pocketed a few of them as souvenirs. "Looks like some more has arrived."
        "Hah!" Psy called back. "When there's a major conference, the damn stuff covers the floor." Above hir, the pictures on the viewscreen melted into a pulsating swirl and a voice boomed out, "Welcome Earth Federation, to the Galactic Council." In Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, English and Arabic. Psy rubbed hir hands together. At least something was going to plan! "We've gone live!" Shi announced grandly. And then all the lights in the pod began blinking in unison.
        "What does that mean?" Veronica never liked blinking lights. They always reminded her of the warning lights in the cockpit of her interceptor which inevitably meant things like 'low on fuel', 'you're about to collide with an asteroid' or something equally ominous. Looking around to see what might be the cause of the blinking, she noticed that the stars were drifting gracefully past the window. Something that wasn't happening last time she looked out. Curious, she went over get a better view. They had been cut loose from the Galactic Council! In every direction she looked, swarms of pods of all sizes and shapes were racing away from the seemingly immutable firmament of the Galactic Council planetoid. "Psy, does this happen often?"
        "What's that, love?" Psy called out sweetly as she swanked over arm-in-arm with Colonel Ritenaur. By the time they joined Veronica, monumental sheets of flame were ripping out through the surface of the Galactic Council, as sections of it broke apart far below them. Aghast, Psy's easy demeanour melted away. This shouldn't be happening. All shi could manage was a shocked 'Oh'. A mournful, watery groan wafted in from the landing bay. That was Grattlyd, and it didn't sound good. Psy broke away from Colonel Ritenaur and ran off towards the landing bay.
        Grattlyd lay on the floor covered in cuts, bruises and burns bleeding coppery Nglubi blood from the blue fleshy stumps where five of its tentacles had been raggedly sliced off. Kkhrkht was bent over carrying Uvvanya, one of the Khzchhrrrtz delegates who was leaking profusely through its' badly cracked orange carapace. "Get them into the Omphalatta." Psy barked authoritatively and then caressed Grattlyd tenderly. "What have they done to you, my love?" Grattlyd was so weak from its injuries it could no longer stand up and it took all of Psy's strength just to help Grattlyd slither across the floor. Eventually the others arrived and everyone except Colonel Ritenaur, who stood at a distance watching, helped carry Grattlyd into the Omphalatta. When they set Grattlyd down, the Omphalatta extruded part of itself to form a cocoon around Grattlyd.
        MariElla went over and sat down beside Kkhrkht who had collapsed from exhaustion and was lying on the floor twitching spasmodically next to the cocoon around Uvvanya. "What happened?" She asked. Kkhrkht didn't reply, but just reached up and hugged her, keening softly. She had no way of knowing it, but Kkhrkht was crying.
        Psy realised it would be quite some while before Grattlyd and Uvvanya would be healed and went off to find Colonel Ritenaur. "Let them rest, the Omphalatta will take care of them. I wonder where Andy got to? He's such a flake." Shi couldn't see him in the landing bay and set off to find him. "Andy, where are you?" Psy called out as shi, Malcolm, Veronica and Yasouf walked into the main chamber. What they found was anything but Colonel Andrew Ritenaur!
        "Yes-s-s-s." A jet-black creature with a triangular head and dark purple compound eyes standing on four reverse-hinged stalks of legs hissed back at them. A Gulmarian warrior! "Have you come for me, Ps-s-s-s-y?" Outside the window, they could see a Gulmarian warship blasting pods escaping from the wreckage of the Galactic Council into oblivion in their thousands. "Ts-s-s-syintikh did well. Now you die." The Gulmarian gloated triumphantly as it faded out in a haze of green light and teleported over to the warship.
        "Quick, into the Omphalatta." Psy shouted in panic. "We're next!" As they ran across the landing bay, they heard the sickening sound of the pod's window and shell breaking up from Gulmarian fire with it's precious store of air shrieking out into the vacuum of space outside behind them. Veronica just managed to pull herself into the Omphalatta against the gale of decompression and it was only after the hatch had firmly shut that she was aware of how badly her ears hurt.
        Psy flicked the viewscreen into action and through the remains of their disintegrating pod; they saw five more Gulmarian warships bursting out of the maelstrom that used to be the Galactic Council. "How the hell did they ever get in there?" Psy asked rhetorically as shi tried to navigate the Omphalatta away from the warships.
        Veronica could see that Psy was no pilot. Shi was taking them into open space where they'd be an easy target. "Hide in the debris and drift along with it until those battleships have gone." Veronica suggested.
        "Why, what do you know about these things?" Psy countered haughtily.
        "I'm a pilot and I work out along the asteroid belt when I'm not hanging out with the Flaming Watusis." Veronica didn't feel like tackling Psy's petulant egomania head-on. She just wanted to get home in one piece.
        "Veronica's right." SkyHawk backed her up. "I used to be a rocket jockey for ESA. She knows what she's talking about."
        "Well, the pair of you can take over the controls if you feel up to it. I could do with a break." Psy activated the controls for them and let Veronica and SkyHawk take over. Ruby joined them and stepped them through how the controls worked, something that wasn't lost on Psy.
        "Oh, it's like that, is it?" Psy commented sarcastically as shi noted Ruby's more than complete familiarity with the Omphalatta's controls.
        Veronica looked up with the slightest twinge of guilt in her expression. "We had no idea where you were at and didn't want to take any chances."
        Now that was something Psy could understand! "I don't blame you, love. I'd do the same thing myself. I hope you can get us out of here."
        "So do I." Veronica agreed grimly as she focused her attention back on the controls and nudged the Omphalatta towards a thick cloud of wreckage. She powered the Omphalatta down and sat out the Gulmarian rampage. The devastation was total. The six Gulmarian warships were repeatedly torching everything within reach to make sure there were no survivors. "Psy, we've got to get out of here. It's only a matter of time before they torch this clump of rubble we're hiding in."
        Psy watched the Gulmarians atomising the remaining wreckage. "I see what you mean. I'll invert the drive field into gateway mode. Might as well head back for Zrrlchtz." Psy set their controls for Zrrlchtz, but one of the warships detected the Omphalatta as Psy powered it up and blasted it with a particle beam as it dropped into the Nexus, ripping open the hull. The air inside burped out so quickly, there was no time. Their eyes burst and their lungs ruptured so suddenly, they hardly knew what happened. Screaming in pain, the Omphalatta cocooned its injured masters leaving Ruby alone in the vacuum wondering if SkyHawk was lost forever. The Omphalatta had to feed soon or it wouldn't even have the strength to leave the Nexus, let alone heal itself and its masters and jumped out of the Nexus as quickly as it could, caring little where it might actually be in the universe at large.
        It tumbled, barely able to control itself through an uninhabited triple-star system and managed to set down on a planet that had most of the minerals and nutrients it needed. The planet's orbit was so irregular, that only a primitive plant-like life had been able to evolve there. Time passed as the Omphalatta absorbed nutrients from the soil where it had landed. During the lengthy day provided by the three suns, things seemed benign. But during periods of darkness, the 'plants' outside turned carnivorous, attacking and consuming each other. This was something Ruby discovered to her cost during one of her forays. She decided to venture out one night to see if she could work out their position from any stars she recognised in the night sky and picked a spot in a wide, flat meadow covered with what looked like knee-high plants tipped with brightly coloured, bulbous fruit.
        As darkness fell, the plants became restless, their 'fruit' opening up to become primitive mouths with which they attacked and ate each other. Sensing another source of food, the plants nearest Ruby swarmed in around her as she scanned the night sky in an attempt to work out their location. Once Ruby realised the 'plants' were attacking her and had already devoured most of her clothes and plastiskin, she reacted with horror and ran back to the Omphalatta for cover. If they developed of taste for her plazflex, she'd be done for! And they stuck like leeches to her mech body. Back inside the safety of the Omphalatta, she peeled the 'plants' off one by one and was surprised to see how corrosive their digestive juices were. They left scars on her carbon-fibre frame, etched patterns of their mouths on her metal and, worst of all, left pits where they had successfully digested some of Ruby's plazflex when she pulled them off her plazflex muscles.

        The darkness that surrounded SkyHawk gradually suffused with light: endless, boundless light. After a while, though it felt like the serenest of eternities, shapes began to coalesce. It was happening again. At first he wasn't sure, but as the intensity of the light subsided, he could make out that he was in his parent's dining room with his family and crewmates, Ritchie Frank and Marco frozen in a moment of time like a Norman Rockwell tableaux of a family supper. As his surroundings became more solid, the sounds and smells grew and grew until it all came to life around him. And yet it felt so normal, as if someone had merely taken their finger off the pause button of life. Except that this scene had never happened!
        "Pass the greens, Winston." His sister Grace, who was sitting between Frank and Marco and looking very pleased with herself, asked just as the action began rolling. SkyHawk picked up the bowl to pass along the table and it was as solid as reality itself. "It's a shame Ruby couldn't join us today." Grace continued. "I'd love to meet her."
        "Ritchie tells me you're the main pilot for your expedition." His father spoke across the table for everyone to hear. "I hope you'll do better than the time you drove my tractor into the ditch."
        SkyHawk's mother burst out laughing. "Oh you should have seen Winston! He came into the kitchen covered in mud from head to toe looking like the sorriest sight on Earth. Laurence had to hitch up two horses just to pull the tractor out and he made Winston spend the rest of the day cleaning it up until it looked like new. It was some time before Laurence let Winston drive that tractor again."
        Veronica ran through the maze. She had been running for what felt like days but never felt tired. It was as if running had become her natural state of being. The walls were tiled with scenes from the destruction of the Galactic Council. MariElla, Stan, Malcolm, SkyHawk and Yasouf's whispers and voices echoed through the maze. She ran tirelessly towards them, but every time it was the same. Whoever she found would turn into a cruel, gloating Gulmarian and then teleport away in a haze of green light. At first it horrified her, but after it became the norm, it just got boring; 'Oh no, not again'. She tried speaking to the Gulmarian, but she was mute and the Gulmarian always sang the same song.
        Malcolm found himself on a grassy knoll with cotton-wool clouds drifting lazily across the sky. The ground below him felt alive with a deep, warm vibration. At first he hummed in tune with it, and then harmonising to that deep vibration. Soon he was singing along with it and that's when he realised that he wasn't just singing with his voice, but with his whole mind and he burst into symphonic density and the clouds began dancing along with his melodies. He stood up and surveyed his surroundings the way a conductor would look over his orchestra from the blades of grass at his feet to the mountains way in the distance. Raising his arms, his symphony poured out and so too did the land around him. Enchanted forests grew and waned. Rivers flowed wide and deep, flooding the lands around them before drying up into deserts. Oceans raged with storms as mountains rose up out of them to become continents in themselves. The land split open and rivers of lava belched forth, cooled, solidified and gave way to the onward march of nature's green carpet. Malcolm conducted the world like a cosmic orchestra and it gave him a symphony like no other he'd ever heard.
        Oh how they flew! MariElla held Stan firmly between her legs. Thrusting and pumping her to greater heights of pleasure, they had transformed into a libidinous orgasmic-powered organism. Stan had kept his erection for days and she hadn't gone dry. Stan's hot gushing eruptions filled her up and not a drop ran down her legs. Even better, there was a total lack of any wet, sticky patches under her bum. No aches, no pains, just pure pleasure. Every time they lost altitude, they humped and pumped themselves to another cascade of shivering orgasms and flew back up amongst the clouds. If this was death, then what had she been waiting for?

        By the fourth day, the gaping crack in the Omphalatta's hull was beginning to close up. Ruby was just able to make out the shapes of the bodies inside the cocoons as their solid whiteness began to slowly give way to a thick mistiness. Her plazflex continued to break down from the 'plants' digestive juices that must have seeped in. She had to apply more and more power across her muscles just to walk and was getting dangerously close to her plazflex's limit. Much more current and she risked setting it on fire!
        Kkhrkht and Uvvanya floated fully conscious, but alone, in darkness as the Nglubi biomechanical technology didn't interface with Khzchhrrrtz consciousness the way it did with humans.

        "Allah, you say?" An ageing, paunchy Thor replied dismissively to Yasouf's increasingly desperate inquiry as he brushed his greying hair out of his eyes and struck his anvil, releasing a round of satisfactory rumbles of thunder for dramatic effect. "Hmm, can't say I've heard of him. Sure you don't mean Annubis, one of that Egyptian crowd? Zeus has a nice place, just over the way." Thor genially rambled on. "Not quite as grand as it used to be. He's good company, but they go heavily on that wine of theirs. Rough stuff, even by my standards. Mind you that family of his does seem a bit on the incestuous side, if you know what I mean."
        "No, no, Allah." Yasouf repeated in ever increasing exasperation. Yasouf was convinced he'd died, but this was a far cry from the paradise promised in the Koran. Where was Allah and where, above all, were those elusive houris?
        Just then a crusty looking woman sauntered up, wearing nothing but human skulls of all sizes with miniature skulls woven into her dreadlocks "Whatcha got there, Thor? One of your long-lost followers then?" She mocked Thor cheekily and walked around Yasouf inspecting him closely. "You're not dead! What are you doing here?"
        "Er, looking for Allah." Yasouf was somewhat taken aback by this crusty harridan and her couture of rattling skulls.
        "Well, you'll never find that old boy, 'cos you're still alive." She insulted Yasouf.
        "I beg your pardon?" The afterlife was nothing like he'd expected.
        "Must be that time of month." Thor whispered in Yasouf's ear. "But if you're still alive, then Kali should know. Could be a good thing depending on how you look at it." Thor turned to Kali sounding elegantly bored. "What brings you round these parts, gorgeous?"
        "Typhoon hit the coast just north of Vishakhapatnam. Looks like I'll be busy today."
        "Typhoon, eh?" Thor's enthusiasm warmed up a shade to something resembling suave disinterest. "What say I come along and add a rumble of thunder or two?"
        "The last time you did that, I caught you poaching my devotees." Kali huffily spurned Thor's offer. "I won't fall for that trick again. And before you even think of it, Zeus can stay at home as well. The pair of you are no better than highway robbers."
        "Suit yourself, darling." Thor grudgingly shrugged his shoulders and went back to tending his anvil.
        Kali petulantly stuck her nose in the air and stomped off but didn't get far before she was ambushed by the three-headed dog of the underworld, Cerberus, who leapt up enthusiastically humping her leg. "Down, boy." Kali brusquely brushed Cerberus off and continued on her way to reap her harvest of death with Cerberus trotting along at her heels.
        Stan couldn't figure it out. He'd been wandering around Montgomery for days and it was completely deserted. He lost count of the number of times he'd looted the bar at the Wobbly Goblin and drunk himself into a stupor. Every time he came back it was fully stocked. He went home looking for MariElla, but couldn't find her. At one point he was lying at the base of the fountain in the middle of the marketplace downing a bottle of Red Gin, looked up and saw Psy standing over him. "Huh? Whatcha doin' here?" He slurred drunkenly. Psy snapped hir fingers and Stan reappeared, sober and clean on a Caribbean farmhouse veranda. Try as he might, he couldn't move.
        Malcolm had just brought the valleys and mountains movement to its cataclysmic climax. Psy walked up to Malcolm's knoll, clapping hir hands in appreciation. "Impressive. Quite some performance!" In a wink, Malcolm found himself frozen next to Stan.
        Veronica rounded the corner in the maze to find Psy. "Why?" She asked in ragged desperation, pointing to scenes of destruction on the walls, fully expecting Psy to morph into yet another Gulmarian. Veronica had reached her limit and slumped into Psy's embrace and flicked out onto the veranda where Stan and Malcolm were waiting, frozen in time.
        MariElla had her eyes shut in ecstasy when she noticed that Stan's massive endless pulsing hard-on had become little more than a slippery stump rubbing against her clitoris and that the body she held in her legs had changed and felt almost feminine. She opened her eyes and, to her shock, found that Psy had replaced Stan. "Well, they say thinking is the best way to travel, but you've certainly put a whole new spin on it, love!" Psy joked. The next thing MariElla knew, she was fully clothed waiting with the others on the veranda like a collection of statues.

        Day seven, though they were nothing as regular as the diurnal cycles on Mars and Earth, and the Omphalatta had sealed itself and the cocoons were almost translucent. Ruby could no longer walk as the plazflex in her legs had completely rotted away. Deep down, she knew Max was right and that she wouldn't always be Ruby, the sexy humanoid mech. Only she hadn't expected it to happen so soon and in quite this way. Still, if she was to end her days as an immobile mech terminal in a living alien spaceship, so be it. Max always said that life was an adventure into the unknown.
        Ruby pulled herself around the cabin examining each cocoon in turn. Grattlyd's tentacles were growing back and Uvvanya's carapace seemed to be in one piece again. SkyHawk and the others looked so peaceful and content. She wished she could join them and lay across SkyHawk's cocoon in order to be close to him. At first she thought she was imagining it, but yes, she could hear his heart beating. He was alive! SkyHawk, the love of her live, alive! Ruby lay there for hours hugging his cocoon oblivious to her deteriorating condition dreaming her mech dreams of the good times they'd had together. For hours her thoughts drifted back and forth between SkyHawk and attempts at working out their position from her brief survey of the night sky.

        Nirvana, the sign read at the entrance the led off the leafy lane housing an endless procession of heavens like so many posh piles in an upmarket suburb. "Forget it, Yasouf." Psy called out from behind as shi strode up. "That smug git Buddha will tie you up in knots!"
        "What is this place?" Yasouf was at his wits' end. "Every god except Allah! Where is Allah?"
        "I shouldn't take any of this too seriously. It's just sub-conscious ramblings in your mind. Probably something to do with your self-doubt." Psy explained glibly. "Maybe it's your way of telling yourself not to take your religion too seriously. Anyway, it's over now." And they reappeared on the veranda with the others who were instantly released from their statue state and led them into the house. "Let's make a house call."
        "Well, Winston, my boy. It looks like your friends have called round for tea." Laurence welcomed them in with his easy-going heartfelt warmth. Then SkyHawk noticed the strangest thing. His father began to shrink. And Grace. And his mother. So were Marco, Ritchie and Frank. Soon they were little more than puppets on the ends of Grattlyd's tentacles.

        Later that day, after Ruby dragged herself away from SkyHawk's cocoon, she found a large block of plazflex on the floor near where she had rested several days earlier. The Omphalatta had synthesized it for her from some of the pieces that must have fallen on the floor. Ruby looked up at and saw its' eyestalk looking straight at her. It pointed at the block of plazflex, then to her and nodded up and down several times. She pulled herself up next to it, held it and gave it a good, solid thump. Seemed OK. She held it in her hands and put a couple of amps across the block and it contracted just like it should. Ruby looked back up at the Omphalatta's eyestalk in dumbfound gratitude. "Thank you." The eyestalk bobbed up and down a few more times and Ruby set about cutting pieces off the block to replace her old, ruined plazflex.
        Ruby felt cheered up by this positive turn of events and was busy fitting her new plazflex when Kkhrkht's cocoon slowly melted back into the floor. Kkhrkht lay on the floor letting the sap flow back into dzzhakh-ye's numbed limbs watching a black and green robot replacing parts of itself. "You're Ruby aren't you? What happened to you?"
        The sound of Kkhrkht's voice nearly made her jump with surprise. She looked around and saw Kkhrkht lifting dzzhakh-ye (Ruby was determined to get the Khzchhrrrtz genders right, even if they did seem a bit strange to her) off the floor and felt oddly naked without her plastiskin. If Kkhrkht came back from the dead, maybe SkyHawk would. "Oh, I was eaten alive." She explained with heavily put-on nonchalance. "Be very careful when you go outside. Those plant-things are carnivorous by night; they ate my skin and plazflex. You should see the scars they left on my frame!"
        "Maybe another time." The memory of the scene with Vvriklrty, Zzzhkzklt and Jemalkhta at dzzhakh-ye's old home was still fresh in Kkhrkht's mind. The last thing Kkhrkht needed right now was to do anything that might make SkyHawk jealous. Over the next few hours, the Omphalatta released everyone except Grattlyd, who was by far the most heavily injured, from their cocoons. Ruby was over the moon with excitement when SkyHawk was released. He was just as surprised to see her without her skin.
        Stan was staring at the image on the viewscreen of the Omphalatta's surroundings. "What say we go outside for a while?" He suggested to MariElla.
        "You saw what happened to Ruby. Those plants are dangerous." MariElla had no desire to end up as a meal for some carnivorous plants on a distant planet.
        Stan was damned if he was going spend days, maybe even weeks cooped up inside when there was all that space outside. He'd go mad with cabin fever. One round later, he managed to gather up Malcolm, Yasouf, Veronica and Kkhrkht and they went outside to tame the wild planet using the plasma rifles Psy had given them from the Omphalatta's armoury. They cleared a 20-metre circle by burning the plants with their plasma rifles. Yasouf thought it would be a good idea to gather the fallen plants and burn them to ash 'just in case'. Soon they had a massive bonfire piled high with hissing and squeaking plants as they burnt to their death.
        "Smells kinda meaty." Stan commented hungrily as the sparks flew skywards. "All we need are some sausages, corn and sweet potatoes and we'd have a regular barbecue!"
        "Is that all you ever think of?" MariElla thought the idea of having a barbecue after all they'd just been through was a bit banal, to say the least.
        "Nope!" Stan put his arm around MariElla's waist and gave her a tight squeeze. "I think about you most of the time."
        'Uh-huh' MariElla knew all about that one. Better not tell Stan where she was while she was in her cocoon!
        Kkhrkht flopped down by the fire staring silently into the flames for hours, not speaking to anyone. All the certainties in Kkhrkht's life were being swept away and dzzhakh-ye sat there wondering if they would end up stranded on this planet and die here. Uvvanya was drawn out of the Omphalatta by the smell of the burning plants and sat down next to Kkhrkht. "Ah, that smell makes me hungry. And you, Kkhrkht?"
        "No, your highness." Kkhrkht moped morosely and scratched at the ground aimlessly. "My heart hurts."
        "I sympathise, young dzzhakh." Uvvanya's commiseration sounded and felt insincere after dzzhev's long service in politics. "But we have greater problems. First we must leave this planet. The other one is Klerzhan. Do you realise that I knew dzzhev-ye almost since I pupated? And look how old I am! Klerzhan turned out to be a Gulmarian spy. For all we know, Zrrlchtz could be completely infiltrated. And if we are, how do we root them out before Zrrlchtz suffers the same fate as the Galactic Council?" A farting sound resonated out of the Omphalatta and Grattlyd emerged, wobbling cautiously down the ramp from its air lock. "The hero of the hour emerges!" Uvvanya's scepticism of the Nglubi had been completely overturned by the way Grattlyd heroically saved their lives.
        Grattlyd joined Kkhrkht and Uvvanya beside the fire and spoke in high Khzchhrrrtz. "At least we know where the Galactic Council came from now."
        "What do you mean?" Kkhrkht was still engrossed in dzzhakh-ye's failed family. It felt safer to dwell on things like that than the chaos that overtook them since leaving Zrrlchtz.
        "It used to be a Gulmarian death star." Grattlyd continued. "I followed the Gulmarian that used to be your delegate, Klerzhan, and it went to a control room near the core and reactivated it. Those warships had been in storage inside the Galactic Council the whole time. And to think that no one knew! Maybe we were really looking for an excuse to end our own wars and accepted the Galactic Council's offer to be the facilitator."
        "It brought stability to our galaxy for a long time." Uvvanya mulled over Grattlyd's revelations. "It was convenient, but maybe we can continue without it."
        "Yes, but where would everyone meet?" Kkhrkht had been overwhelmed by the destruction of the Galactic Council. "All the races and nations of the galaxy? It would take up a whole planet."
        "We have some unproductive planets in our system." Uvvanya suggested confidently. "Any one of them could be put to use. Our system might not be as convenient a location as the old Galactic Council, but it I am certain we would consider it a great honour to host the new Galactic Council."
        "The gateways in your system have been compromised by the Gulmarians." Grattlyd countered, not wanting to offend Uvvanya. "Otherwise I'm sure it would be a welcome offer. We need somewhere safer. Maybe in the Nexus itself."
        "Is that possible?" The Khzchhrrrtz had not had access to the Nglubi system of gateways for long and Uvvanya was still learning about them.
        "Yes. Well, it should be." Grattlyd hoped it was. "One our tribes lives permanently in the Nexus and maintain the gateways from there."
        "You saw how Klerzhan turned into a Gulmarian." Uvvanya changed the subject. Dzzhev-ye needed answers fast. "I worry that they may have infiltrated our society. Do you know of any way of detecting if anyone is a Gulmarian?"
        Grattlyd had a feeling this was coming and drummed a few of its tentacles back and forth on the ground as it thought and searched its memory for anything it could remember about the Gulmarians, which was precious little. "No, I don't. But I should be able to find out for you. I would have to go to the Nexus."
        "I see." Uvvanya wasn't about to give up. "That knowledge could be very important to us. We must go there immediately."
        "Right now we can't go anywhere." Grattlyd unwound Uvvanya's sense of urgency. "The Omphalatta is still too weak to travel or activate its gateway. We must wait."
        Psy joined their group with Yasouf in tow. "That two-timing rat!" Psy exclaimed indignantly in low Khzchhrrrtz. "First he cheats on his wife and then he cheats on me!"
        "Who?" Grattlyd still felt a bit fuzzy from its stay in the cocoon. "I think you've been spending too much time amongst those humans. You really ought to get away for a while."
        "Andy... that monster!" Psy spluttered ignoring Grattlyd's remark. "And how many more Gulmarians are hiding on Mars?"
        "Uvvanya was thinking exactly the same thing." Grattlyd didn't want to hear Psy yattering on yet again about hir relationships with the humans. "We should see the Holders."
        "Pah! I've had more stimulating conversations with a stone." Psy spat out contemptuously. "Them and their thousand-cycle meditations."
        "Have you got any better ideas?" Grattlyd found the Holders cold and standoffish, too, but they were the best starting point.
        "Ok, you win." Psy conceded pessimistically. "But don't blame me if 'their great enlightened selves' choose to ignore us from now till doomsday. They act as if the sun shines out from between their tentacles."
        Yasouf had been following their conversation using his translator. "But shouldn't they be concerned about the Gulmarians?"
        "It's just a game to them." Grattlyd tried to convey its feelings of helpless in its dealings with the Holders. "They never leave the Nexus."
        "These Gulmarians use the gateways." Yasouf pointed out. "Don't they have access to the Nexus?"
        "No, they can't control the gateways." Psy explained. "They capture open gateways. It looks like their latest tactic is to send spies out to scout around."
        "We need tissue samples of your Andy and Klerzhan." Grattlyd got down to business as Veronica, MariElla, Stan and Malcolm drifted over and joined them with more dead plants to throw on the fire. "Whatever's common between them could be Gulmarian."
        "Andy and I had it off a few times and he popped his rocks so many times it was running down my legs." Psy was completely addicted to sex and felt guilty about hir fling with Andy. Knowing that Andy was a Gulmarian gave hir the creeps. "So I've still got a fair bit of him inside me."
        "Um, that's a start." Grattlyd decided there and then that it was time to get Psy away from the humans for hir own good. "But what about Klerzhan?"
        "I, ah, had union with Klerzhan." Uvvanya confessed awkwardly. "I, too, carry Klerzhan's juices."
        This was the last thing Kkhrkht needed to hear and covered dzzhakh-ye's ear openings. High caste dzzhevs fooling around with each other. Whatever next, a triune of dzhinns having eggs?
        Grattlyd sent Psy and Uvvanya into the Omphalatta 'to see what they could recover'. "You've been very quiet since we left Zrrlchtz, Kkhrkht. You nearly started a riot in the mead houses, is something the matter?"
        Kkhrkht sat in a sulky silence of miserable self-pity for a while before shuddering with pent-up emotions and spoke in a broken voice. "My triune was a lie. When we left Zrrlchtz, I wanted to die. Now I want to live."
        "It's funny how a brush with death makes one appreciate life all the more." Grattlyd laid a tentacle across Kkhrkht's back to comfort dzzhakh-ye. For all Grattlyd knew they might die on this strange planet with its carnivorous plants. And all because it played a prank on Psy! "I have a confession to make." Grattlyd felt responsible for their predicament and owed Psy's human friends an explanation. "I told Psy that the Shallens were petitioning the Galactic Council about reclaiming your world."
        Psy overheard Grattlyd telepathically and shot back: 'Yes, and...'
        "And did they?" Ever since their encounter with the Gulmarians, Veronica had completely forgotten about the Shallens.
        "No. I made that up." Grattlyd had some explaining to do. "It was a joke. Psy always plays tricks on me. I wanted to show I could do the same." Grattlyd flapped a few of its tentacles in hapless guilt. "And now the Galactic Council is destroyed and we are stranded here. I meant you no harm."
        "Huh, some joke." Veronica wasn't all happy with being an unwitting stooge in Grattlyd's practical joke, especially seeing how it had backfired so spectacularly.
        Psy ran out of the Omphalatta naked and set about kicking Grattlyd and swearing angrily. "You cretin! You miserable anemone! Halfwit piece of plankton! Pathetic excuse of a mollusc! How do I know you aren't a Gulmarian, you cracked-egg offspring of a diseased whore? You piece of rotting seaweed! You..."
        Grattlyd could take no more and seized Psy in three of its tentacles and held hir high over the embers of the fire. "Enough! I am your child." Grattlyd pleaded forgiveness. "The Galactic Council was a Gulmarian death star. It is better that it is no more."
        "And those warships..." Psy shouted back flailing hir arms and legs and squirming in an attempt to get out of Grattlyd's grip.
        "Won't get very far." Grattlyd finished Psy's sentence and set hir down. "They are ancient. It was our stupidity not to investigate that death star properly. And it was the Gulmarians' stupidity that may yet save us."
        "How's that?" Events had moved so quickly, Stan felt as if he was catching up on his own life.
        "If they had merely seized the death star as it was when it served us as the Galactic Council, they would have had active gateways to most of the systems in this galaxy. As it is, they only have a clutch of obsolete warships that will soon be caught and destroyed."
        "After all that's happened, you sound very sure of yourself." After everything that had happened, Malcolm certainly didn't feel certain about anything.
        "We have many battle fleets." This was one thing Grattlyd knew for certain. Even though they all managed to coexist in a sometimes tenuous and brittle peace, no one had ever disbanded their military. So the Nglubi, Pdzarvians, Kallimpi, Khzchhrrrtz and the Yfflt all maintained their vast fleets of warships that had served them so well during their days of empire and conquest. "Even if we fight poorly, the Gulmarians are hopelessly outnumbered. They will not survive."
        "Have you noticed the plants on the perimeter seem to be getting taller?" SkyHawk asked as he and Ruby dumped the armloads of dead plants they had torched down onto the fire. But the weather seemed pleasant enough and no one paid SkyHawk's remark much attention as they passed the time telling each other stories between rounds of working out what to do about the Gulmarians. The whole time, two suns of the triple-star system this planet was in were above the horizon, making the daylight fairly intense. The blue sun plunged below the horizon, leaving only a large, dim orange sun and a few of the brighter stars visible in the sky. In the distance, out of earshot, the plants began attacking each other.
        Yasouf and Stan were busy explaining the nomadic lifestyle of the Free Mars Tribe to Uvvanya who found it completely fascinating, coming from a world as densely overpopulated as Zrrlchtz while MariElla, Veronica and Malcolm tried to get Kkhrkht over dzzhakh-ye's triune break-up. SkyHawk found his chance and cornered Grattlyd. "So that was you along. How do you know so much about me?"
        "I found your body after you crashed near my station." Grattlyd wanted to prepare SkyHawk for the truth and wasn't all that sure how to go about it. Psy knew all about the humans' ways but Grattlyd could never be bothered to learn. Grattlyd had enough to keep busy with as it was.
        "You saved me, but what about Marco, Frank and Ritchie?" SkyHawk was beginning to understand.
        "Your friends were badly decomposed. I could only reconstitute their bodies, but their minds were already gone." Grattlyd explained slowly. "You were frozen. I was able to recover you because your brain and mind were intact. All I could find of your friends' minds was your memories of them. They were not properly alive, what you would call zombies."
        "Is that why the crystals respond to me?" SkyHawk had so many questions about his dreams, the gaps in his memory and why so much of his life made such little sense.
        "Crystals?" Grattlyd was at a loss for a moment before it realised that humans would describe things differently. "Oh, the bio-stone. Yes."
        "Can I control them?" SkyHawk asked hopefully.
        "That is only for Nglubi." Grattlyd put an end to SkyHawk's hopes.
        "But Psy said I was kin, family. As if I was more Nglubi than Human." SkyHawk wanted to learn how to control the Nglubi technology and their gateways.
        "Then it is for Psy to decide." Grattlyd pronounced solemnly before jumping up in surprise. "Waughh...!" It howled out in pain. A giant plant had taken a bite at Grattlyd and was stuck to the back of its body.
        "Holy shit!" Malcolm shouted out as he snatched up his plasma rifle to torch down the plants behind him. No one had noticed the plants sneaking through the ground to encircle them while they were talking. Anyone who had a rifle laid into the plants immediately around them and then began clearing a path back to the Omphalatta. Ruby scorched the plants nearest her with her own in-built lasers and scooped up the smouldering ashes to throw at the plants while Yasouf, MariElla, Uvvanya and Grattlyd took cover in the middle of their group.
        Back inside the safety of the Omphalatta it powered up its shields. Veronica stood in the open hatch watching the plants lunging towards the Omphalatta and burning up when they hit the shields' force field. In the distance she saw a rank of mega-plants towering over the fields of plants around them moving through the ground and dipping low to scoop huge mouthfuls of the lesser plants around them. They must have been at least fifty meters high and their mouth-bulbs were nearly the size of the Omphalatta. "Hey, you guys. Get a load of this!"
        Kkhrkht and Stan were standing in the hatch with Veronica watching the mega-plants make their way towards the Omphalatta when suddenly the ground in front of them burst open as a massive stalk erupted out of the ground. Its mouth-bulb could easily swallow the Omphalatta in one bite. Grattlyd saw this on the viewscreen, shut the hatch and powered up the Omphalatta. Injured or not, it had to fly. They lifted off slowly at first, wobbling uncertainly as the towering plant beside them swung its gaping mouth-bulb around searching for their scent. As they picked up speed it found their scent and stretched out to swallow them, snapping its mouth hungrily as they accelerated away to safety.
        "We'll go down in legend as the one that got away." Psy joked as shi worried that Andy's hot spunk might have infected hir with Gulmarian biota.

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 14
Chapter 16