Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 16: Plan 9 from Outer Space.

     At a distance it looked like a blob of foam scooped out of a bubble bath hanging motionless amidst the roiling chaos of colour and light of the Nexus, that poly-dimensional flux in which all universes existed like so many pages in an infinite book and occasionally collided and sometimes even passed through each other. At one point it looked as if the Nglubi domain was racing away from them, but Grattlyd pointed out to Veronica that they were still travelling towards it as fast as the Omphalatta could go. It was just that the ‘normal’ rules of space and time didn’t apply here so things like direction were no longer quite as obvious as usual.
     The Omphalatta merged with the extended bio-stone foam of the Nglubi Holder’s home and drew sustenance and oneness from it. Its body opened up where it faced in to let its masters out into their domain. The walkway through the outermost luminescent globes defied gravity as it twisted and turned holding everyone upside down and pointing every which way for so long that ‘up’ merely followed fluctuations in the gravity fields. Eventually they arrived at a globe that was populated with colonies of massive shells: bivalve, scallop, nautiloid, conch and multi-faceted in a bewildering array of colours. At first there were only a few shells dotted around the globes they passed through, but soon their numbers grew until they were grouped in close-packed clusters. The more translucent shells were quite obviously occupied, so Veronica assumed that the rest of them were similarly occupied. At one point, a tortoiseshell barnacle opened its five petals and a full-sized Nglubi octopoid emerged and disappeared down a passageway without even glancing over in Veronica’s direction.
     Grattlyd and Psy led the way with Kkhrkht and Uvvanya taking up the rear chattering animatedly in Khzchhrrrtz. Eventually they reached a chamber ringed with open scallops. Each shell faced display panels full of geometric patterns and hieroglyphic pictograms on the wall and was occupied by an Nglubi with its tentacles wrapped around extrusions of bio-stone rising out of the floor. The centre of the chamber had the obligatory Nglubi gateway dais. Grattlyd climbed up on the dais, turned upside down with its tentacles draping down and its mouth and spiracles facing up.
     Veronica thought Grattlyd looked like a sea anemone stranded at low tide with its tentacles hanging limp. “What’s Grattlyd doing?” She asked Psy.
     “Supplication.” Psy shrugged hir shoulders. “Begging for an audience, if you will. That’s how we do it: by exposing our most vulnerable parts.”
     Veronica looked around the chamber. Not a single Nglubi had even registered their presence. “Are we going to have to wait long?”
     “Could take forever.” Psy knew that much about the Holders. “Some have been known to die waiting for an audience.”
     “Great, now you tell me.” Veronica stood in their group for a while and then wandered around the chamber. The Nglubi in the shells seemed to be in a trance, their bodies slowly swelling as deflating as they breathed. Yet not one responded to her presence as she approached them. She used her translator to interpret the symbols on the screens. As far as she could make out, they were navigational reports, probably something to do with the gateways.
     Ruby felt great to be back in SkyHawk’s arms gain even if he wouldn’t kiss her mech face because she no longer had the soft lips of her plastiskin. The softly luminescent bio-stone turned to grey mineral stone under her feet wherever she went. At first she didn’t notice it, but after a while it began to bother her and clung even tighter to SkyHawk for reassurance.
     Yasouf didn’t know what to make of Grattlyd’s claim to be Psy’s child and put it to hir.
     “Oh yes.” Psy replied wistfully. “One of many. Such a dear. Gets a bit moody from time to time though. Stuck around to look after me. Not like the others who ran off as soon as they could. That’s children for you, eh? Most times I only hear from any of them when they’re in trouble.” Psy added with a touch of poignant self-pity. “And you?”
     “Monica and I haven’t had any children yet.” Yasouf replied wistfully thinking about his father’s family of five wives and twenty-seven children. How his father coped with that in-house riot remained a mystery to Yasouf. “But we intend to.”
     “It’s a bit different for us.” Psy continued as shi thought back over the many broods shi raised. “But I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Thwack, oof and a slow dribble of farts came from the direction of the dais. Psy looked around and saw that one of the Holders had left its shell and was going through the ritual of ascension and smacked one of its tentacles firmly across Grattlyd’s mouth several times. Psy could feel Grattlyd’s pain.
     ‘You didn’t tell me – oof - it was going – owww – to be like this.’ Grattlyd complained telepathically to Psy as the Holder struck Grattlyd harder and harder on its most sensitive parts. Fortunately, Nglubi mature very slowly and Grattlyd had millennia to go before it even began to mature sexually. Otherwise the ritual of ascension would prove to be infinitely more painful.
     ‘I had no idea. I’ve never been here before.’ Psy lied blandly as shi winced with each blow Grattlyd endured. ‘I will take your pain.’ Psy offered telepathically. Shi knew full well what the Holders were like and was doubly glad shi still kept hir human body, limited as it was. A few more slaps and then the Holder prostrated itself to Grattlyd who enthusiastically returned the barrage of slaps. ‘Get it over with.’ Psy urged Grattlyd telepathically. ‘We can’t stay here forever.’
     Grattlyd bade the Holder to stand up and they got down to business. The Holder’s name was Blagyulu and listened closely to Grattlyd’s account of the destruction of the Galactic Council. “We have your Omphalatta’s account of that battle.” Blagyulu confirmed Grattlyd’s story as to the Holders who got out of their shells to listen to Grattlyd’s story. “The Gulmarian warships have been dealt with. The Galactic Council will be relocated. What do you want?”
     Grattlyd produced two vials containing tissue samples from Uvvanya and Psy. “The Gulmarian shapeshifters that destroyed the Galactic Council travelled with us and we need some way of detecting other Gulmarian shapeshifters.”
     Blagyulu took the vials and looked at them closely before passing them around the other Holders. “You want to see Mglyptl about that. Mglyptl’s been working on that for some time now.” Blagyulu ushered everyone onto the dais and sent them off to Mglyptl’s laboratory. Row upon row of stasis tubes holding countless specimens of living creatures and plants each frozen in a moment of time ran into the far distance. Nglubi bio-stone conduits glowed in a welter of pulsing colours. Pipes and tubing bubbled with all manner of liquids. In the distance, a solitary Nglubi stepped out from amidst a cascade of apparatus in a badly lit corner of the lab. “Greetings, Grattlyd. You have some new specimens for me?” Mglyptl addressed Grattlyd in Nglubi.
     “Very funny.” Psy interrupted Mglyptl’s banter. “We’re in a bit of a hurry.” Psy explained the reason for their visit.
     “Gulmarian shapeshifters, you say.” Mglyptl sized up their request. “I haven’t got a specimen of any of those.” Mglyptl pointed towards Yasouf and Veronica and really wanted a specimen of their species for its collection. “That machine intelligence looks interesting, too.”
     “No!” Psy and Grattlyd spoke as one.
     “Tissue samples?” Mglyptl wheedled as it surreptitiously set up a scanner to analyse Ruby.
     “Oh, all right then.” Psy compromised and then explained to Uvvanya, SkyHawk and the others what Mglyptl needed. Several hours of being analysed by the machinery in Mglyptl’s lab passed fairly quickly.
     When they were done, Mglyptl set a canister, two tubs of what looked like large marbles and bio-stone slates on the workbench. “The floxetrasine paralyses them, you’ve got enough in the canister for roughly a million doses.” Mglyptl explained confidently to Grattlyd. “Use it sparingly, I’ve got a list of back orders for this stuff longer than a tentacle. Sooner or later you’ll need more, so here’s the formulae. Shapeshifting is one of the new Gulmarian tricks. I developed these detectors about cycle ago and loaded in the data for the Khzchhrrrtz in this set and that other race in the other set. You hold it and the side pointing towards a Gulmarian shapeshifter disguised as whatever species it’s keyed to lights up.” Mglyptl held a detector-marble out to demonstrate. “Here’s the instructions how to make these detectors and set them up in Khzchhrrrtz and… I don’t have a language for this other race. What do you call them?”
     “Humans.” Grattlyd explained. “I have a translator for their language.”
     “Really?” Mglyptl was always excited about new discoveries. “Can I have a copy?”
     “Yes, of course.” Anything to get away from these mad Holders, Grattlyd thought.
     “Psy and that Khzchhrrrtz are contaminated with Gulmarian biota. I can clean them now before it takes hold.” Mglyptl breezily offered.
     Psy heard that, grabbed Uvvanya and marched over to Mglyptl. “What do you mean?”
     “They code their spies into infectious biota.” Mglyptl loved having an audience. “When the infection takes hold, the Gulmarian assembles itself inside the host and takes over. Very clever bioengineering indeed!”
     “I don’t want to turn into one of those… monsters. And I doubt if Uvvanya wants to either.” Psy tried to command the situation in spite of hir growing feelings of panic.
     Mglyptl picked up on this immediately. “I didn’t think so. This way, then.” Mglyptl bowed mockingly and led them off to a pair of empty stasis tubes.
     “They’re stasis tubes.” Psy didn’t quite trust Mglyptl or any of the Holders for that matter.
     “Modified.” Mglyptl sounded bored. “I’d get in if I were you. It won’t take long.” They did and, true to Mglyptl’s word, they were out and on their way so quickly Psy was sure they’d left something behind, but wasn’t sure quite what. The Gulmarian biota! Grattlyd navigated the Omphalatta out of the Nexus and back into the universe proper just off Zrrlchtz, dropped off Kkhrkht and Uvvanya and set course skipping across the nexus towards Mars. Grattlyd waited with them in the main chamber of the Fort Melchisor Omphalon while Max came to collect them in a flyer.
     SkyHawk cornered Max as everyone got into the flyer. “Plan nine.”
     Max looked over and saw Ruby climbing out of the airlock all bare frame and plazflex. Something must have happened. “You sure?”
     “For sure.” SkyHawk confided grimly. “Earth Fed won’t let her go after what she’s seen.”
     Max knew exactly what that meant! “Damn those bastards.”
     “No shit!” SkyHawk looked Max straight in the eyes. “Start it now.”
     “Plan nine it is.” Max went forward to the cockpit and hit the comms controls to set a direct data link back to SkyHawk’s computer banks back at Zanzibar Farm. Let the cloning begin. Max prayed that it would be successful. So far Earth Fed had never detected it and he hoped that it would stay that way. The mechs at Satori who sold them the system assured them it had full stealth capability. Could he really be sure that a club of programming geeks at Satori would actually be able to stay that far ahead of Earth Fed? Max knew about Ruby’s secret backups. There wasn’t a lot around Zanzibar that Max didn’t know, but most of it was fairly trivial, usually a few of the workers selling a bit of grass off the books. But this was different; he couldn’t help but noticing all the efforts Ruby had taken to make a backup of herself, store it at Satori all during her downtime when Earth Fed weren’t supposed to be monitoring her. They might well need it if the cloning didn’t work properly.
     “We don’t know how many Gulmarians are hiding here, but we can be certain Babs is.” Psy strutted back and forth in SkyHawk’s living room setting out a plan of action.
     “Just who is this Babs?” Malcolm interrupted Psy’s stream of self-important monologue.
     “Barbara Ritenaur.” Psy briefly camped it up mocking her homey style. “Andy’s wife.” Shi continued flatly. “If what Mglyptl told us is true, then she’s certainly a Gulmarian by now. We need to create safe zones and work out from there.” Shi scooped out handful of detector beads of passed them around. “SkyHawk, because you’re nearest my Omphalon, I want you to check everyone who works on your farm and take these detectors with you when you go on your patrols after Earth Fed leave.”
     “What about Earth Fed?” SkyHawk felt as if he was being pushed in at the deep end. After all, they had a contingent parked up at his farm. “Why not give them the detectors and let them get on with it?”
     “After we check them out.” Psy was in hir stride and not about to be interrupted. “Stan, MariElla, Veronica, Malcolm, you take these and check out your friends in the band. After that start scanning people in Montgomery.”
     Veronica accepted her handful of detectors. “But why just Montgomery and Fort Melchisor? There’s other forts all over Mars.”
     “They are dead. Mine is the only one left alive.” Psy confessed bleakly. “But they will not capture my Omphalon. SkyHawk, be vigilant, you have the power but not the strength. The Gulmarians may try to capture you. The same goes for the rest of you. The Omphalatta has changed you and the Gulmarians could use any one of you to activate a gateway even if you don’t know how to.”
     “Is it possible to interface one of these detectors with a wide area network?” Yasouf was toying with an idea.
     “Why?” Psy was stopped in hir headlong rush by Yasouf’s slow, deliberate manner.
     “The Tribe has a network and sensor system setup in the domes. For communication and security, you understand.” Yasouf elaborated grandly. “The traders have valuable merchandise and we get all sorts visiting us. If it were possible to build this detector into our network, then we’d be able to scan large groups of people for you without them knowing it as we travel around Mars.” This wasn’t the sort of thing Yasouf would normally condone, but these were exceptional circumstances.
     Psy liked people who showed initiative. “Hmm, now that’s a good idea. Bit out of my territory, though. I’ll get Grattlyd to look into that for you. I need to get back to Coriolis before Babs suspects anything. I want to capture her alive. SkyHawk, your flyer and that mech pilot of yours would be most useful.”
     As if he could refuse! “Well, that’s up to Max.” SkyHawk passed the buck and felt overcome by exhaustion from their adventure.
     “Milk run, boss.” Max could see that SkyHawk was struggling to stay awake and agreed to fly Psy to Coriolis. “You get some rest. I’ll take care of this one.”
     Psy wasted no time getting into hir suit and hustling Max out the door. They were walking across the floodlit courtyard when a trooper came out of their barracks in the new residential block and approached them. All the detectors in the jar Psy was carrying lit up at once. A Gulmarian! Psy walked around behind Max so he blocked the trooper’s line of sight, drew hir pistol, set it to maximum and shot the trooper.
     “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Max’s voice yelled inside Psy’s helmet as the fallen trooper reverted to its twitching Gulmarian form and burst out of the suit that could no longer contain its alien shape and lay dying on the cold, airless night time Martian sand. Max couldn’t believe his eyes as he took a closer look. “What is that?”
     “A Gulmarian.” Psy explained tersely. “We’re going to catch one in Coriolis.”
     Just then another trooper came out, rifle at the ready and stopped to stare at the alien corpse wrapped in the remains of a torn Earth Fed suit. “Halt! Drop your weapons.”
     Psy checked the detectors. No reaction, and raised hir hands. “We need to speak to your commanding officer.” Psy took command of the situation with hir sweetest, most disarming tone of voice. The rookie trooper stalled for a moment as Psy and Max stood before her and then levelled her rifle at them while she called her commander. Moments later six more figures emerged into the courtyard, one of them wearing a silver-and-black officer’s suit. Psy noticed that the detectors had lit up and were pointing towards one of the troopers. More trouble!
     “Killing an Earth Fed soldier is a capital offence.” An authoritatively stentorian military voice barked angrily into Psy’s helmet. “You better have a good…” The voice trailed off as the officer looked down at the Gulmarian corpse. “What the fuck is that?”
     “A Gulmarian.” Psy repeated for his benefit. “Advance guard of an invasion force. And we have another one over there.” Psy pointed at the trooper the detectors had singled out. The trooper panicked and shot wildly at the other soldiers who turned on him, gunned him down and were treated to the same sight Psy and Max had witnessed earlier. Psy could hear several of the troopers puking inside their helmets.
     The officer signalled to his troopers to lower their weapons. “Okay, you’ve got my attention. I know you, Max, you work for SkyHawk.” He then faced Psy: “But who are you and what do you want?”
     Psy held out hir ID card. “P. Sirius Joventhal, SCS Command, Coriolis. And you?”
     “Major Rotherham, Special Operations Police.” Ernie Rotherham could see this was going to be a long night. Why did SCS Command have to dump this on his lap? He had enough on his plate keeping the Overlordz out of Fort Melchisor.
     Psy gave Major Rotherham several handfuls of detectors and explained how they worked. “Don’t take any chances, shoot to kill.”
     “What do you want to do with the bodies?” Ernie kissed goodbye to his all-night online session on the ‘Hot Babes’ VR-porno channel. It was going to be a very long night indeed!
     “Standard biohazard contamination routine.” Psy gave the order automatically. “Bag ‘em up and call in a transporter to take ‘em to Cassini and decontaminate everything when you’re done. Sorry about giving you the dirty job, Major, but I have an urgent case on my hands.”
     ‘Yeah, right.’ Ernie thought. ‘Soldiers always get the crap jobs.’ Reluctantly, he snapped to attention. “Yes sir!”
     Max set the autopilot for Coriolis. “I sure liked the way you handled that black-suit.” That was the first time he’d ever seen anyone get the better of Earth Fed. “I heard that you were the new dancer with the Flaming Watusis.”
     “Ah yes.” Psy smiled coyly. “We all have our hobbies. Met them when I was out clubbing and one thing led to another. So what does a mech like you do when you’re not working down on the farm?”
     Max decided to ignore Psy’s patronising barb. “Study philosophy, actually. For instance, is consciousness a product of our bodies, electromechanical in my case and biological in yours, or is it part of something greater?”
     “Hah, the god-botherers would have a field day with you!” Psy laughed at the thought of a religious mech, but then there’s bound to be a few.
     “Oh, they tried all right.” Max replied confidently. “But I saw them off. They’re far too dogmatic for me. This Gulmarian you want to catch, is it something that got out of the bio-labs?”
     ‘If only.’ Psy thought grimly before replying. “Aliens: your regular rape, pillage and plunder variety with a few extra unpleasant twists. Why?”
     “How violent is this likely to get?” Max felt he had a right to know what he’d let himself in for.
     “Very.” Psy was steely focused on the task ahead. “But I’d like to take this one alive if possible and study it somewhere secure.” ‘And away from my Omphalon where it can’t cause any trouble.’ Psy finished the sentence in hir mind. No need to tell this mech everything, just enough to keep it on board.
     “I think you ought to know that I’m not licensed to use small arms.” Max wasn’t sure about this strange friend of SkyHawk’s he was ferrying to Coriolis and didn’t want to get involved in anything illegal.
     “Well you are now.” Psy snapped hir ID card onto the flight controls in front of Max. “More to the point, are you a good shot?”
     Max knew he was in way over his head. “Reasonable, but it’s been a while. I’ve tried to stay away from that side of things.”
     Psy took over the comms terminal and logged into the SCS Command facilities at Coriolis and accessed the mech utilities section. “What class are you?” Psy asked without looking up from the console.
     “Gamma-8 with a Microflash Xr chipset.”
     “Well, here you are, Mr. Gamma-8 mech. Earth Fed’s latest close combat sharpshooter and defence routines, on the house. You can erase them or keep them afterwards. Ready when you are to begin the download.”
     “In for a penny, in for a scruple.” Max activated the download and felt the rush of combat data installing itself. “I’d like to get home in one piece.”
     “So would I.” Psy hoped the floxetrasine would do the job and passed Max a handful of vials. “I have a paralysis drug which should do the trick. We go in and dose the place with this stuff. If it fails, then we shoot.”
     “Okay, you’re the boss.” If he ever got back to Zanzibar, Max would have a few good stories to tell! The flight display began blinking. “Ah, that’s Coriolis central, we’re clear for landing.” By now it was early morning and the thin Martian dawn was breaking as Max tagged along behind Psy as shi raced across the terminal concourse to the police station where shi produced hir ID card and requisitioned two pistols.
     The duty sergeant couldn’t believe his eyes! A nightclub whore and some freakball mech waltzing in demanding a pair of pistols as if they were ordering drinks at a bar, you get all sorts passing through these days. He took his time verifying Psy’s ID and was even more surprised when it came back positive. “That’s okay Mizz Joventhal, but all our light weapons are out right now, all we have left is the heavy gear; Salamander-16’s, Porta-Cannons, Lenticular Array Crowd Dispersal units, gas grenades, that sort of stuff.” He read off the list as it scrolled up the display screen in his desk. “Oh no, hang on someone booked in a pair of Letsby-Smith’s an hour ago. Should be fully charged by now.”
     Psy signed for the pistols, gave one to Max and led the way to the monorail. Psy got off at the first station inside Coriolis’ main dome and hailed a taxi to take them to Andy Ritenaur’s house in the tree-lined plush middle-class BelGlade suburb. The taxi let them off at 437 Walston Avenue. Psy marched up to the door with Max close on hir heels and rang the doorbell. Bing-bong.
     The door opened to reveal a young boy. “Yes?”
     Psy showed him hir ID card “Could I speak to your mother, please. I’m from SCS Command.”
     The little boy’s expression went serious and he ran back into the house. “Mom!”
     Barbara Ritenaur had obviously been caught in the middle of making breakfast and was still wearing her dressing gown and pink, fluffy mules. “Can I help you?”
     Psy broke three of the floxetrasine vials in hir hand as shi spoke. “It’s about your husband, Mrs. Ritenaur.” Psy didn’t need to continue. Barbara inhaled the floxetrasine gas, and fell down, morphing into a Gulmarian as it lost its struggle against the floxetrasine and froze on the floor. Psy saw that the boy had gone back to the kitchen, ran in and found two other children with him. They looked up from eating their breakfast as Psy smashed five more vials down on the table. Three more Gulmarians! Shi hadn’t counted on there being a nest of them.
     Max was waiting in the hallway when a muscular oriental man in his mid-twenties at the peak of his strength came down the stairs in his boxer shorts. “Babs, what’s going on?” He called out. Then he saw Max. “Who the hell are you, mister?” His tone became violently angry. “Barging in and upsetting everyone, I heard all that commotion downstairs.” Then the floxetrasine hit him and Max watched another Gulmarian bite the dust as it tumbled paralysed down the staircase.
     Psy dragged the three Gulmarians from the kitchen into the hallway and piled them next to the Gulmarian bodies that used to be Barbara Ritenaur and her young boyfriend. Shi doused them with more floxetrasine and shot them all through their reverse-hinged knees just to be on the safe side. They searched the rest of the house using Mglyptl’s detector beads, but it was empty. Even the food was safe, so Psy made hirself a coffee while they waited for SCS Command to send a biohazard transporter around to collect the bodies.
     Max had heard some wild rumours about Psy from SkyHawk, but this was off the scale! “Do you work for Earth Fed?”
     “Ah, no.” Psy really didn’t want to go into that one right now. “We have a working relationship.”
     Max realised he wasn’t going to get any more out of Psy and entertained hir with stories about life at Zanzibar while they waited. Eventually a white transporter proudly emblazoned with ‘Mister Fixit Heating and Appliance Service. Call-out repairs our speciality.’ livery on its side set down in front of the garage. The driver, a mech decked out in ‘Mister Fixit’ body armour, had set down so that they could bring out the bodies without being seen by the neighbours. He knew his stuff. As they set off, Max sat down beside Mister Fixit. “What’s with this Mister Fixit get up?”
     “Discretion.” Mister Fixit explained proudly as he flipped the controls over to autopilot. “Last thing you want is fleshies panicking when there’s a biohazard case. Especially like what you guys got out back.”
     The depot at SCS Command was a hive of activity when they arrived. Squads of armed troopers were positioned to surround the transporter as it landed. Two armoured cars had their cannon trained on them. Mister Fixit ordered Psy and Max into the cab, sealed and detached the cargo pod then pulled away leaving it surrounded by the troopers.
     As soon as Mister Fixit parked the cab, Psy got up to leave. “Nice work, Corporal Blink-a-LED. Max, you’re with me.” The news of an exobiological incident had preceded them and they were bombarded with questions from the excited staff as Psy strode across the office.
     “Nice skirt you’ve got there, Psy.” Enrico Fernandez, Psy’s hunky Latino assistant eyed up hir legs. “Looks like you’ve got the boys downstairs busy today.”
     “Huh? Oh, thanks.” Psy had been so busy shi’d forgotten what shi was wearing. “Conference room three in five minutes. Level 8 Hostile E-B encounter. This is the real thing, jump to it!” Psy was so keyed up shi snapped out hir orders in broken sentences. Enrico forgot about chatting up Psy; this wasn’t going to be another louche day hanging out around the water-cooler and set about calling up everyone on site who was qualified and could make it in on such short notice. Psy took the pistol back off Max and thanked him for his help. “I’ll get you your expenses.” And led Max over to Ruth Seldon, the office manager.
     “How was your holiday?” Ruth asked Psy as she keyed the credit chip with Max’s expenses.
     “A bit of an adventure, actually.”
     “Well, you’ve sure got everyone hopping today!” Ruth commented brightly as she handed Max the credit chip. Max set off back to Zanzibar barely able to wait to tell SkyHawk what had happened in Coriolis. He checked the credit strip and was pleasantly surprised to find that SCS Command were quite generous when it came to expenses.
      Psy set the jar of detector beads down on the table and waited and waited. It took a lot longer than five minutes, but eventually a few people drifted in. Fred Blogsworth poked his head round the door, clutching his clipboard nervously, looking like a worried fish. Maria Yanagisawa, their in-house biologist curled up cat-like on one of the seats around the conference table. Captain Petrucci and a gaggle of military boys strode in and took up position. When Fiona Macintyre, from the incidents department came in, the detectors lit up and tracked her across the room. Well that confirmed two of Psy’s suspicions. First that Andy, the feckless slob, had been screwing every piece of skirt he could lay his hands on and secondly that the Gulmarian biota could be sexually transmitted. Psy carefully set hir pistol to maximum as she held it out of view under the table and got a handful of floxetrasine ready to throw at Fiona. But first to let the room fill up.
     One thing Captain Armando Petrucci really hated was being interrupted in the middle of his early morning coffee-and-donuts break. Psy had broken that unwritten rule and he let hir know it in his tone of voice as he called the meeting to order. “Mizz Joventhal, you breeze in and out of our offices here as if it’s a social club and now you’ve got us on a high-alert lockdown with a platoon of my soldiers outside crapping their pants. I hope you have a good explanation for this.”
     Psy wasn’t going to be put off and laid on the charm so heavily it would take a bulldozer to move it away. “Indeed I have, Captain. I captured a group of hostile aliens for you.” Psy activated the viewscreen set into the wall behind the conference table and brought up the view from inside the containment pod showing the paralysed Gulmarians captives. Gasps went around the room and Fiona began to fidget in her seat. “They are extremely dangerous and should be killed first or captured second whenever found.” Fiona got out her seat to leave. “Where are you going, love?” Psy stopped her and broke the floxetrasine vials under her nose. Fiona went into paroxysms and tried to attack Psy as the floxetrasine took hold. People scrambled out of their seats to the far side of the room as Psy pulled out hir pistol and fired keeping the trigger down continuously as its laser burnt holes through Fiona’s Gulmarian body. It fell to the floor lifeless in a pool of alien blood and burnt gore. Psy kept the trigger down until pistol ran out of power; it’s heat nearly burning hir hand.
     Psy threw the exhausted pistol down. “And it looks like we have another one here.” Shi coolly understated to a hushed room. No one had ever seen hir so murderously cold before. It seemed so out of character. Eventually curiosity got the better of them and they began to crowd around Psy and the fallen Gulmarian. Psy held hir hands up to hold them back. “Stand back! They are infectious.”
     What do you know about these… things?” Captain Petrucci asked in a humbled voice as he looked over the laser sliced and charred alien body on the floor.
     “Enough, Armando. Enough.” Psy answered quietly.
     “You have the floor, then.” And for the first time in his life, Armando Petrucci felt well and truly out of his depth.
     Max was buzzing with excitement as he set down the flier outside SkyHawk’s dome at Zanzibar. Wait ‘till SkyHawk hears about this one! He bounded into SkyHawk’s dome oblivious to the total absence of babble between the mechs at Zanzibar. Max strode into the lounge: “Hey, boss man, you should‘ve seen…” Max trailed off as he saw SkyHawk hunched over on the sofa holding his head in his hands with nothing but a half-empty bottle of red gin and an overflowing ashtray to keep him company.
     SkyHawk looked over Max with a pained expression: “They took her away this morning. I can’t go on like this, Max. It’s madness.”
     And then it hit Max like the hot kiss on the end of a cold fist. Ruby! His high spirits evaporated away like ether on a hot day. “Oh sump oil.” He mumbled as he did a quick reality check and tuned into SkyHawk’s emotions. “The cloning? Did you manage to complete it?”
     “I haven’t checked yet.” SkyHawk poured himself another tall glass of gin and knocked it back in one go.
     The dust cloud hung high in the thin Martian air as the Free Mars Tribe’s convoy made its’ way across the southern reaches of Arabia Terra. Overhead and off to one side, their new prize, the heavy lifter they bought in Montgomery, lumbered through the sky carrying their collapsed domes. Their three skimmers could be seem glinting in the sunlight dipping and swooping through the sky as they scouted out the land ahead guiding them around crevasses, craters and rockslides. Ralph sat at the controls thrilled to pilot their latest acquisition as it paced the convoy below.
     Vinnie gazed out the rear window of the control cab perched on the leading edge of the lifter at his delta flier lashed down beside the domes. He was amazed that it flew level with such an uneven load. “It’s a shame we didn’t have enough fuel for the flier. It handles like a racer compared to this thing.”
     “Yeah, it’s a bit like driving a crawler.” Ralph agreed. “But with this lifter, we’re well on the way to self-sufficiency. When it’s parked up it can generate more electricity than we’ll ever need. And it’s one helluva plasma cannon.”
     Vinnie and a select group had been taken aside by the Tribe’s Council and were shown how to operate the plasma cannon array. He was impressed by it’s military grade defensive capacity, something the Free Mars Tribe never had before. He was even more amazed when Ralph strode into the Council meeting waving a genuine Earth Fed weapons license for everyone to see. “We’ll be able to look after ourselves at last. But we’d have needed fully armed battle platform to see off the Raiders clan that invaded us.”
     Ralph shuddered at the memory of what they’d endured at the Raider’s hands as he fondled the Gulmarian detector bead hanging around his neck. “I know, but it’s a start. I see you’re wearing one of the detector beads Yasouf handed out. What do you make of it?”
     “I’m not sure, but most people reckon someone’s been pulling Yasouf’s leg.” Vinnie thought Yasouf’s tale about the Gulmarian destruction of the Galactic Council was a bit of a yarn, to say the least. “But if it makes him feel better, I’ll carry one around with me.”
     Ralph remembered Yasouf being nearly laughed out of the Kiva when he told them about the Gulmarians. “It’s not like Yasouf to wind people up. He’s piss-poor at fibbing.”
     “Well, I hope he is this time…” Vinnie was interrupted as a viewscreen lit up showing Ollie surrounded by smoke and flames. In the distance he could see one of the skimmers trailing smoke as it barely cleared the ridge overlooking the plain they were crossing.
     “Dad, dad!” Ollie shouted anxiously into their cab. “It’s a raiding party. They shot down Ventuka. Tasha’s gone back to get him.”
     The sight of his son’s frightened face on the screen galvanised him. “Can you make it back?”
     “I’m not sure, they shot out my fuel cell.”
     Vinnie took charge. “OK, set down wherever you can, get away from the skimmer and take cover. We’ll come and get you.” And then he saw twenty blue assault fliers from the Quincendre clan crest the ridge and race past Ollie’s stricken skimmer straight towards their convoy. Several of them took pot shots at Ollie’s skimmer and it burst into flames. Vinnie looked down at the static filled screen that his son had been talking from moments before and then threw open the hatch leading from the control cab down into the hull below. “Get inside Ralph, we’re sitting ducks up here.”
     Vinnie slammed the hatch behind him, fired up the secondary flight controls inside the hull and activated the plasma cannon array. “Let’s give ‘em a taste of their own medicine. Get a lock on those bastards.”
     Ralph tapped each of the Quincendre clan’s fliers that showed up on his viewscreen, locking the plasma cannon array on them. “Ready when you are.”
     “Give ‘em hell!”
     Ollie crawled away from the burning wreckage of his flier dazed from the violent impact of his crash landing and watched the battle unfold as he patched the leaks in his suit where he took a shot through his right leg. He cowered behind a group of boulders, dreading the outcome of the Quincendre clan’s attack when plasma bolts shot out of the lifter destroying seven of the Quincendre clan’s fliers in the first volley. Three of the crawlers in the convoy took hits, but amazingly none of the Quincendre clan’s fliers landed to extort tributes. Instead, they flew off leaving their fallen compatriots behind.
     “Yeah, we got ‘em!” Ralph punched the air excitedly as he watched the Quincendre clan’s remaining fliers race off into the distance. “Let’s go and pick up Ollie and Ventuka.”
     From the ground, Ollie watched the blue assault fliers climb high into the sky before spreading out and diving down to attack the convoy from all sides. Fire rained down on the convoy as the lifter tried to pick them off on their way down and it looked as if they weren’t going to be so lucky this time when Ollie spotted a round, tawny ship descending behind the Quincendre clan’s fliers. It was easily the size of ten of the fliers and he assumed that it belonged to one of the Overlordz’ chieftains come to wreak revenge on the Free Mars Tribe for defying them. But then the strangest thing happened! It opened fire on the Quincendre clan’s remaining fliers sending them crashing into the ground around the convoy.
     Yasouf’s bus had been hit in the attack and was completely depressurised. Inside, Yasouf and Monica stumbled around in their pressure suits knocking over furniture and fittings as they rummaged around for their welding kit to patch up the holes in their bus. “Looks like we’ve got company.” Monica announced as she spotted Grattlyd’s Omphalatta parked up between their bus and the crumpled wrecks of three of the Quincendre clan’s fliers through a shattered window. “Have we got any glass sealant tape left?”
     Yasouf stopped briefly, set down the welder and joined Monica beside the window. “I wonder what Grattlyd wants?” Then he scoured their collection of storage boxes for sealant tape to patch up the broken window. Otherwise their air would leak out as fast as they pumped it in!
     Grattlyd’s deep, liquid voice gurgled inside Yasouf’s helmet, taking him by surprise. “Yasouf, why do you and your mate wear your pressure suits inside your bus?”
     “We lost our air when we were hit, we’re a bit busy patching up the holes.” Yasouf explained as he taped over the cracks in the window. It was self-sealing and ought to hold until he could get the window replaced. “You showed up just in time. A few minutes later and it would have been all over for us.” The gratitude was plain in his voice.
     “When you have finished, come over to my Omphalatta. I have news for you.”
     Vinnie couldn’t believe his eyes. “Who the hell was that? Sure gave those Overlordz a pasting.”
     Ralph recognised the Omphalatta immediately. “That ship belongs to the alien that took us to Zrrlchtz, the insect world.”
     Vinnie sat in silent admiration in front of his viewscreen for a few minutes staring at a ship that looked like a flying saucer out of distant folklore before reality caught up with him. “Damn, I forgot all about Ollie.” They could feel the load lashed down on the hull shift as Vinnie set off to rescue his son. On their way over to the ridge, a solitary skimmer, its wings shot through with holes, set down on their hull. Outside, Tasha lashed down her skimmer and crawled over to the airlock beside the control cab clutching Ventuka’s core tight lest it fall over the side.
     The inner door sighed open as Tasha clambered into the lifter’s inner hull. “I heard about what happened over at the convoy. There’s not much of Ventuka’s body left where he crashed. Did Ollie make it back OK?”
     “No, he took a direct hit from those Overlordz bastards.” Vinnie’s voice was black with fear and couldn’t bring himself to say any more. He prayed that Ollie had survived, but his skimmer had gone down in flames. It didn’t look good and he knew that he might have just lost his first son. They could hear the ground crunching beneath them as Vinnie set the lifter down next to the still-burning wreck of Ollie’s skimmer.
     No sooner than they had set down, Vinnie had suited up and was out the airlock running towards the fallen skimmer. The cockpit was empty. Looking around in desperation, he spotted a track leading away from the skimmer and followed it. There, sheltered behind the boulder he found his son lying motionless, his visor misted over. Wasting no time, Vinnie picked his son up in a fireman’s lift and set off back towards the lifter. Ralph and Tasha hoisted Ollie’s limp body into the lifter. By the time he joined them inside the lifter, they had laid Ollie out on the floor, removed his helmet and hooked his suit up to warm up his chilled body.
     “Is he alive?” Vinnie croaked fearfully.
     “Only just. He’s got a weak pulse, but at least he’s still breathing. His suit depressurised and he lost a lot of blood.” Tasha then looked up at Vinnie. “I can stabilise him for a while, but we’ll have to get him to a hospital. He’s in real bad shape.”
     The delta flier had just about enough fuel left to get to Herschel. He could buy more while he was there. “I’ll take him to Herschel in the flier. They’ve got a good hospital there.”
     In the background Ralph was talking to Yasouf on one of the viewscreens. Ralph interrupted Vinnie just as he was about to put his helmet back on. “Yasouf wants to have a word with you.”
     “Vincent, bring your boy over here.” By the tone of his voice, Vinnie could tell that Ralph had told Yasouf how serious Ollie’s condition was. “Thanks Yasouf, but no offence, you’re only a qualified paramedic. I’ve got to get him to the hospital right away. I don’t want to lose him.”
     Yasouf could see the panic in Vinnie’s eyes. “We have the means here, my friend. Bring Oliver over to the ship parked next to my bus.”
     Vinnie looked to Ralph for reassurance. “You sure about this?”
     Ralph nodded his head solemnly in agreement. “Absolutely. Yasouf explained it to me. They’re waiting for you.”
     Vinnie was intrigued by the way the airlock door flowed back into the hull. It didn’t seem mechanical. Inside, the first thing he noticed as he removed his helmet was the faint tang of ammonia in the air. “Aaahhhh, what’s that!?!” He yelped in horror as he saw Grattlyd nestled comfortably in a conch with its tentacles wrapped around a cluster of controls in front of it.
     “That’s Grattlyd.” Yasouf looked up briefly from helping Ralph extricate Ollie from his damaged pressure suit.
     ”Geez, you look like something out War of the Worlds!” Vinnie addressed Grattlyd unbelievingly.
     “Ah, the story by your novelist Jules Verne.” Grattlyd chuckled in its deep, liquid voice. “You have nothing to worry about, I have no designs on your world. But first, your offspring…” By now Yasouf and Ralph had stripped off Ollie’s suit to reveal his blood-soaked clothes underneath.
      Vinnie watched with horror as the floor of the Omphalatta extruded itself to cocoon Ollie in its healing embrace. “Hey, what are you doing to Ollie?”
     Yasouf seized Vinnie, held him by his arms and looked him straight in the face. “Your son is safer here than in any hospital we have.”
     “Dammit, Yasouf. The boy’s on death’s door.” Vinnie spluttered in desperation as he unsuccessfully tried to free himself from Yasouf’s firm grip. “This isn’t the time to play games.”
     “As sure as I’m standing here talking to you, this ship will heal your son.” Yasouf let go of Vinnie and gave him a friendly slap on the back. “You have to learn to trust.”
     “But, but…” Vinnie flapped his arms helplessly as he looked down at the milky white cocoon where the Omphalatta had engulfed his son. “How long is this going to take?”
     “Two, maybe three of your days.” Grattlyd gurgled from the comfort of its conch. “I have much work to do here, your offspring will be back with you before I leave.”
     Just then Vinnie’s commset beeped. It was Tasha; she wanted to take the lifter to pick up the skimmers and the remains of Ventuka’s body. No sooner than Tasha signed off, he called his wife, Sonia.
     An attractive woman with thick sandy hair and a worried expression framing her deep green eyes looked out from the screen on his commset. “What’s happened to Ollie?”
     “He got badly shot up. He’s being treated here.” Vinnie held his commset to show Sonia the cocoon encasing their son.
     “Vince, that looks like a coffin.” Sonia’s suspicious voice wafted out of the commset. “I can’t see him.”
     Yasouf took hold of the commset. “Sonia, I can assure you Oliver is quite safe. I had similar treatment while I was away and it is very effective.”
     “If you say so.” Sonia didn’t sound at all convinced. “I want to see him now.”
     “Of course.” Yasouf replied. As he handed the commset back to Vinnie, Sonia caught a glimpse of Grattlyd. A horrified scream and a tinkly crash jumped out of the commset.
     Vinnie looked at his commset’s blank screen. “Sonia, Sonia. Are you there?”
     The picture on the screen swirled around as Sonia picked up her commset. “Vince, what is THAT?”
     “It’s Grattlyd. This is his ship and…”
     “Vincent, you stay right there.” Sonia barked out in panicky anger. “I’m coming to check up on Ollie.” And the screen went blank as she signed off.
     “Do you humans find my appearance disturbing?” Grattlyd asked them as it slipped out of its conch and stretched up towards the ceiling. As it did so, the conch melted away back into the floor.
     Vinnie looked up at Grattlyd in near horror, but just about managed to retain his composure as his knees turned to jelly. “Well, you look very different from anything we’re used to.”
     “But you have plenty of entertainment shows about interaction with other races.” This was something Grattlyd couldn’t understand. It thought that Humans had long got used to the notion that life flourished throughout the universe. “Psy has shown me many of your tri-D programs.”
     “Ah, but that’s all fantasy stuff.” Ralph, who was more familiar with Grattlyd and Nglubi technology, explained while Vinnie stood there like some slack-jawed hick. “No-one expects it in real life.”
     “Oh.” Grattlyd slumped slightly as the extent of the Humans’ provincialism sank in. So that was why Psy had regenerated into a human form! They stood in silence for a while lost in thought as they looked down at the cocoon encasing Ollie. Grattlyd was the first to break their contemplation: “Yasouf, I have found a way to interface the detectors with your electronics.”
     “What?” Yasouf had been totally absorbed in prayer, praying for Ollie’s quick recovery. The days’ dramatic attempts had overwhelmed him.
     “You asked me on the plant world if it was possible to integrate the detectors into your tribes’ sensor array.” Grattlyd reminded him.
     “Oh yes, excellent.” Yasouf apologised as it came back to him. Just then they heard some banging on the outer hull. Sonia! Grattlyd let her in and Sonia tiptoed across the Omphalatta’s main cabin to join them.
     “What are you?” She asked, barely able to hold back her fear of this alien creature towering over her.
     Grattlyd, knowing that Humans often shook hands as a way of greeting, held out a tentacle towards Sonia. “Grattlyd.”
     Sonia was too scared to touch the freakish creature. “Where’s Ollie?”
     “Your offspring is here.” Grattlyd pointed out the cocoon with three of its’ tentacles. Sonia threw herself down, wrapping her arms around the cocoon. The outline of Ollie’s immobile body was faintly visible through the cloudy cocoon.
     Vinnie’s commset beeped again. It was Tasha, standing next to one of the crashed assault fliers. “Vinnie, there’s something out here you ought to see.” The picture swung round to show the crumpled flier and then went into the cockpit as she held her commset through the broken windshield. The pilot, who had clearly been killed on impact, was anything but human. The surprises were coming thick and fast for Vinnie today! He handed the commset around so they could all see what Tasha had found.
     “Gulmarians. It fits the pattern.” Grattlyd spoke up. “Tell your people not to touch them. Their bodies are infectious. I will dispose of them for you.”
     “You got that, Tasha?” Vinnie spoke into his commset. “I’ll be out there with you in a minute.”
     “What do you mean, pattern?” Yasouf asked after Vinnie had left.
     “Do you remember Psy’s friend Andy, who turned out to be a Gulmarian? Psy found out that he used to frequent what you call brothels. That was where he was infected with Gulmarian biota. The Overlordz own many of these brothels, which have infected slaves who, in turn, infect their clients. Such as Andy.” Ralph almost laughed as he listened to Grattlyd’s story. Trust that fruitcake Psy, to find out that sex was involved in it.
     “You’re implying that the Overlordz are infected.” Yasouf made the connection. “Some of them or all of them?”
     “That I don’t know.” Grattlyd admitted. “But at least one of the Overlordz we killed today was infected. My apologies for frightening your friends, but Psy cannot visit you right now. Shi is very busy tracking down the sources of the Gulmarian infections.”
     “A grand tour of the knocking shops of Mars, I bet.” Ralph snickered, barely able to suppress his laughter. The sight of Sonia with her arms wrapped around Ollie’s cocoon kept a firm lid on his guffaw.
     “More than likely.” Grattlyd had long since given up on the idea of getting Psy away from the Humans’ domain.
     Outside, Vinnie and Tasha trudged around the Free Mars Tribes’ stalled convoy inspecting the fallen assault fliers. A crowd of tribespeople wearing their brightly coloured pressure suits decorated with cryptic symbols followed them around as they sized up their catch. They all wanted to see the remains of the freakish aliens that had attacked them. He activated his commset and interrupted Yasouf who was in the middle of a heated discussion with Grattlyd and Circus Maximus about installing the detector interface. “Every one of those Overlordz was a Gulmarian. What do you want to do with them, Yasouf? I’ve got a team here ready to cut these fliers up for scrap. We could get at least five of six working fliers out of what we’ve got here.” Yasouf told Vinnie to get everyone clear of the fliers and the Omphalatta lifted itself off the ground to get a clear shot at the fliers. A shimmering violet beam shot out of the Omphalatta and vaporised one of the fliers. Then another and another…
     “Whoa, whoa, stop! What are you doing?” Vinnie yelled into his mouthpiece as his crowd of followers gasped in disbelief. “That stuff’s worth a fortune. If it’s the bodies that are the problem, can’t we just get rid of them?” The Omphalatta lifted higher and flew over each crashed flier in turn, incinerating the dead Gulmarian corpses inside.
     Later that day, Tasha climbed back into the lifter to pick up Ventuka’s core and take it back to her sand buggy for safekeeping. Ventuka’s face greeted her from one of the viewscreens in the lower control room. “Hey, what happened to those Overlordz, Tasha?”
     “How’d you get back online?” Tasha had pulled Ventuka’s core out of his smashed body. It was badly scratched and it looked as if its circuits might have shattered. She hadn’t expected Ventuka to survive. It was great to hear his madcap voice again.
     “This ship’s network auto detected me as a new piece of hardware and booted me up. Neat, huh? Captain Ventuka of the good ship Lollipop, at your service! So what happened while I was offline?”
     “The cavalry came to the rescue.”
     “Ain’t we the lucky ones! Who was it, Mars Independence or Earth Fed?”
     “Neither. Aliens.”
     “C’mon, you’re pulling my diodes.”
     “Check for yourself. Can you see outside this ship?”
     “Of course I can.”
     “You see that UFO parked up by Yasouf’s bus?”
     “Just about.” Yasouf’s bus all but blocked the view of the Omphalatta from the cameras mounted into the lifter’s outer hull. “I wondered what that was. Who does it belong to?”
     “ET.” Tasha enjoyed the way Ventuka turned life into a fun game.
     “Oh yeah? So what do these ET’s look like?”
     “Large reddish octopus with twelve tentacles and six eyes.”
     “Pull the other one, Tasha. It’s got thyristors on it.”
     The night-lights of Olympus City, capital of Mars, in the crater of Olympus Mons glittered and danced outside the window. The only light inside the luxury apartment was two candles on either side of a glowing blue Psionic Crystal on a low table. Psy, wearing a dark suit and tie with hir SCS Command ID card still clipped to the breast pocket on hir jacket, sat in a full lotus before the table, hir attention focused on the crystal. The crystal’s glow intensified until an image of Grattlyd nestled up in its conch materialised above it as their telepathic bond took hold. “How has your plan gone?”
     “They believe that I rescued them from a predatory attack by a clan of the Overlordz.”
     “And the Gulmarian bodies?”
     “I let the Humans look at them before I destroyed them.”
     “Good. How many Gulmarians do they have?”
     “Thirty seven, not nearly as many as I expected. Oh, you were right about one thing.”
     “Really? What’s that?”
     “The Free Mars Tribe has to call a full tribal meeting to decide how to dispose of the assault fliers we used.”
     “Excellent! That makes everything much easier. You know what to do.”
     “This floxetrasine, does it affect uninfected humans adversely?”
     “No, it smells like old socks. Not that any of that lot is likely to notice. How soon are they going to hold this meeting?”
     “As soon as they inflate one of their domes. Possibly tomorrow.”
     “If any Gulmarians try to escape, destroy them.” Psy didn’t want any Gulmarians to escape their purge. Shi wanted to use the Free Mars Tribe as a trap to catch any humans infected with Gulmarian biota that had managed to escape the dragnet shi had co-ordinated through SCS Command.
     The next day, the tribal meeting was in full swing. It was crowded inside the dome. Many people hadn’t bothered to take their pressure suits off and sat around in the crowd. Perry, the rainbow-mohican topped stage engineer stood up to address everyone: “I say we should use some of the money from those fliers to get our algae towers and oxygen scrubbers overhauled. It’s been five longyears since they had a proper service. The culture in one of the towers is dieing and three of the scrubbers are full of grit. I mean we’re talking basic essentials that could give out at any time.”
     The talking stick passed around the crowd as the murmur of assent to Perry’s request died down until it reached Zandra Liu, a slip of a Chinese woman with a gleaming, shaven head. “Shouldn’t we set aside some money for the dome maintenance fund? The Raiders robbed us blind. We haven’t even got any polyskin left to patch the domes up with, let alone the money to buy any more.”
     Brett Avery, an ex-Earth Fed engineer who went on the run after he was caught passing on police intelligence information to the local mob in order to pay off his gambling debts, took his turn: “You saw what a difference it made yesterday now that we can defend ourselves. The plasma canon in the lifter held off the Overlordz until that other ship arrived on the scene. Each one of those assault fliers packs the same amount of punch as our lifter and they’re a damn sight more manoeuvrable. Yesterday we were lucky. Next time, and there probably will be a next time, we may not be so lucky. I ask you to think about it: to keep as many working fliers as we can put together. We have to be able to defend ourselves.”
     The talking stick eventually passed into Tasha’s nervously sweaty hand and she stood up holding Ventuka’s core with a small viewscreen showing his face perched on top of it. “Yesterday, Ventuka, Ollie and I were out on skimmer patrol and they were shot down by the Overlordz. Ollie was badly injured, but is recovering in the ship parked outside our dome. Ventuka’s body was completely destroyed and all that survived was his core, which I have here with me. It wasn’t his fault he lost his body. I know there are many more important things we need to spend our money on. But Ollie and Ventuka gave us enough warning to defend ourselves from the Overlordz’ attack. Couldn’t we show our thanks to Ventuka and buy him a new body with some of the money?”
     “Yeah, I second that!” Ventuka cheekily called out through his viewscreen before anyone else could speak. A ripple of laughter broke the tension in the dome. “Hey, ‘Tuka, you old bag of bolts. So that’s where you’ve been hiding!” A man in the crowd called back as a group of people and mechs gathered around Tasha to talk to Ventuka. That was when Grattlyd decided to flood the dome with floxetrasine and all hell broke loose as the unfortunate infected humans were cut down and the survivors panicked at the horrifying sight of their friends and lovers morphing into bizarre-looking aliens and collapsing in frozen paralysis as they tried to escape.
     “Yasouf.” Grattlyd’s voice gurgled out of Yasouf’s commset. “Tell your tribespeople not to touch the bodies. Take them outside where I can destroy them for you.” Yasouf rounded up a group of able-bodied men and mechs who slung ropes around the paralysed Gulmarians and dragged them out onto the cold, airless bedrock.
     Sonia had spent most of the day inside the Omphalatta keeping vigil over Ollie’s cocoon. It was beginning to turn clear and she could just make out Ollie’s peaceful expression. She never even felt Grattlyd lift the Omphalatta off the ground so it could get a clear shot to vaporise the Gulmarian bodies piled up outside.
     “Huh?” One moment Ollie had been doing dragonfly aerobatics with his skimmer through the valleys of the Noctis Labyrinthus the sunlight glinting gloriously off its’ wings, the next he was laying on his back with his mother sat deep in meditation beside him as his cocoon melted back into the cabin floor. “Where am I?”
     Sonia was jolted out of her thoughts by Ollie’s voice and hugged him tightly. “Oh, Ollie, you’re alive!”
     Ollie propped himself up on one elbow and looked around. “Wow, what is this place?” And then he saw Grattlyd. “Aaaahhhh!”
     “What’s that?” Grattlyd finished Ollie’s sentence with ironic humour.
     “Yeah, something along those lines.” Ollie tried to act casual in front of this talking octopus.
     “I am Grattlyd. I came to visit Yasouf and found your tribe under attack.”
     “Are you the one that shot all those Overlordz’ fliers down?”
     Grattlyd regretted injuring Ollie during the attack it and Psy had staged on the Free Mars Tribe. They wanted it to be realistic, but not this realistic. “Yes.”
     “Damn, that was amazing the way you caught them like that!” Ollie had been well impressed at the time. “I must’ve fainted out there. I don’t know what you’ve done, but I feel fine now.”
     Just then Yasouf came into the Omphalatta’s cabin still in his pressure suit carrying his helmet loosely in one hand. “Oliver, you’re back with us!” In his excitement, he almost walloped Ollie with his helmet as he clasped him warmly. “How do you feel?”
     “Fine.” Ollie had no idea how close to death he was when Vinnie had found him.
     Seeing Ollie back on his feet buoyed Yasouf up no end. “Grattlyd, they’d like to meet you out in the dome. You saved us from that clan of Overlordz. Several months ago a different clan hijacked us, and a lot of people were afraid the same was going to happen again. They’re very grateful for what you did yesterday.”
     This was something Psy had warned against. Grattlyd didn’t like being put on the spot. “Oh.”
     Yasouf could see that Grattlyd wasn’t keen on the idea. “What’s the matter?”
     Grattlyd let out a deep, watery sigh. “Yasouf, every time I meet one of your kind, you react in horror at the sight of me. What do you think will happen when I go into your dome? Maybe I think your kind look strange.”
     Yasouf could see Grattlyd’s point. “Well, it’s up to you…” An hour later they were standing in the dome’s airlock listening to the excitement of Ollie’s hero’s welcome subside. “Let me do the talking. Once I’ve got them warmed up, I’ll hand them over to you.” Yasouf coached Grattlyd along as he hit the switch to open the inner door. A stunned blanket of hush rolled across the dome smothering their celebrations as Grattlyd followed Yasouf into the dome.
     Yasouf stood as tall as possible next to Grattlyd and addressed the crowd: “We’ve certainly been through a few changes in the last couple of days. Yesterday, it looked as if we were going to be under the Overlordz’ heel once again, but good fortune smiled on us in the form of Grattlyd here, who came to our rescue.”
     Flatfoot Sam watched Yasouf addressing the Free Mars Tribe on their feed from one of their agents they had planted in the tribe. “Hey, get a load of this freak.” He called out to Trolley Dolly who was busy stacking files and data cubes in a cupboard in their office.
     Dolly swivelled one of its’ eyestalks around to look at their Tri-D set. “Oh, that’s one of the aliens the mech from Zanzibar met.” Trolley Dolly had already reviewed Ruby’s memories from her journey to Zrrlchtz and beyond. “You haven’t seen that one yet?” Dolly picked a data cube off the shelf and handed it to Flatfoot Sam. “Here you are.”
     “No, I’ve been busy investigating the bogus ID and body parts racket operating out of the Myckleborough district. There’s more than one gang involved in it.” Sam was somewhat jealous of Dolly. It always got the interesting cases and he was left doing the boring routine gumshoe. “I heard she was terminated, when did you get this lot?” He asked as he looked at the data cube in his hand.
     “We downloaded regular backups and the fleshie she was assigned to made a full backup just before she was terminated.” Dolly waved her metal tentacles around pointing out their collection of data cubes on a shelf marked ‘Ruby’. In the background, a scaled-down holographic projection of Grattlyd could be seen addressing the Free Mars Tribe. “Managed to access the last backup. It’s very interesting.”
     Flatfoot Sam switched off the projection of Grattlyd, plugged in the data cube and ran it at turbo speed and stopped the replay when the picture cut out in the middle of Ruby’s final meeting with Sergeant Chadwick. “Has Brasso seen this?”
     “Ouch!” Circus Maximus’ pained expression yelped out of the viewscreen next to where Grattlyd was plumbing the circuitry for the detector beads into Maximus’ mainframe. “You want to be a bit more careful when you’re poking around in my circuits like that.”
     “My apologies. I have never worked with machine intelligence before.” Although Grattlyd couldn’t understand why humans had driven themselves to create totally synthetic intelligent life forms, it didn’t share Psy’s contemptuous disdain towards mechs. “I will try to be more careful.”
     “That slot where you shorted my circuits just then. Is that where you’re hooking up this gadget of yours?”
     “Okay, that’s ports 16,384 thru 16,640. I’m scanning them now. I’ll let you know if I feel any data throughput.”
     Grattlyd hummed and burbled an Nglubi tune while it had five tentacles poking around inside the service hatch manipulating tools, components and holding a lamp inside Maximus’ expansion bay. “It’s powered up. Do you notice anything?”
     “No. Oh hang on. Yeah, a 1.5 amp load on a 3-volt line. Make sure there’s enough room for air to flow around this gadget of yours once you’ve secured it down. I don’t like getting hotspots on my circuits.”
     Kkhrkht sat alone at a table in the Honeypot Mead House hunched over with one antenna aimlessly swizzling dzzhakh-ye’s jar of mead. Another boring day at the Institute filing reports and teaching students now that the purge had nearly finished and most of the Gulmarians had been flushed out. As was their nature, the Zzhemthax had been brutally efficient, flooding the hives with floxetrasine gas from their lower levels upwards in order to contain any escape attempts. It turned out that the Gulmarians had thoroughly infiltrated the Galactic Studies Institute and were using it as a way of spreading their spies throughout the galaxy. Almost a third of the Institute turned out to be Gulmarian spies. That was nothing compared to the migrant district. Whole levels had become Gulmarian nests. The hardest part for the Zzhemthax was disposing of the infectious Gulmarian carcasses.
     Hgramblk sat down at the table and set dzzhev-ye’s jar in front of Kkhrkht. “Here’s one for your other antenna.”
     “Very funny, Hgramblk.” Kkhrkht moped. “I’m going mad with boredom. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve made my reports to goodness knows how many seminars about that civilisation I studied. Adzhnkt-Vey’s just keeping us busy until the gateways open up again. I need to get away from this place.”
     Hgramblk looked around. “I know you’ve been drinking too much lately. The door’s open. There’s more to life than mead houses, you know.”
     “No, I mean the Institute.” Kkhrkht gave in to dzzhakh-ye’s feelings of futility. “What’s the point of training new explorers when they won’t be able to go anywhere? It’s a joke.”
     Hgramblk buzzed in agreement. “And not a very funny one either. Still, it’s better than working on the farms.”
     “I wonder.” The thought of doing something meaningful had its appeal when compared to the deluded optimism sweeping the halls of the Galactic Studies Institute.
     “You need to get out more often. Meet the dzhinns and dzzhevs.” Hgramblk tried to offer Kkhrkht some helpful advice.
     “That’s all I have been doing.” Kkhrkht lifted dzzhakh-ye’s antennae out of the drinks and drank a hefty draught of mead. “And where has it got me? Sick from too much spice and mead and thinking of nothing but Zzzhkzklt, Vvriklrty and that pushy louse, Jemalkhta.”
     “Take a holiday.” Hgramblk suggested. “Go to one of the minor planets.”
     “I want to go back to Mars.” Kkhrkht had been healed during dzzhakh-ye’s stay in the Omphalatta’s cocoon and could change back into human form at will. Not that it was any use here on Zrrlchtz. What with the number of off-worlders stranded in Zrrlchtz since the gateways were shut down it hardly even rated as a tired party trick.
     Hgramblk had been only too glad to get back from the planet dzzhev-ye was sent to. “That’s a bit extreme. Still, it’s not really an option right now.”
     “No, I suppose not.” Kkhrkht had to accept that going back to Mars was out of the question. If the gateways ever reopened, the Institute would surely send dzzhakh-ye out again, but it wouldn’t be to Mars. Kkhrkht reminisced about dzzhakh-ye’s time on Mars and Earth for Hgramblk.
     Several jars of mead and rounds of whinging and ego-stroking later, Mdzzvyn joined them and set down a glowing blue Psionic crystal next to dzhinn-ye’s jar on mead on the table. “Do either of you want to buy a gateway activator?”
     Kkhrkht’s antennae perked up the sight of a blue Psionic crystal just like the one dzzhakh-ye tried to smuggle back from Mars. So it could activate the Nglubi gateways. No wonder Psy didn’t want dzzhakh-ye to have it!
     Mdzzvyn spotted Kkhrkht’s interest in the crystal and leaned forward and touched dzhinn-ye’s antennae to Kkhrkht and Hgramblk’s. This was the most intimate and private way for Khzchhrrrtz to communicate. < Some of the gateways might be opening up soon. >
     So near yet so far! “That’s great, Mdzzvyn, but I don’t know how to operate them.”
     “Use a translator, flea brain!” Mdzzvyn laughed at Kkhrkht’s cautiousness in spite of dzzhakh-ye’s obvious interest. “It’s yours for sixty shells if you want it. Otherwise…” Mdzzvyn looked around the Honeypot. “I can see several others who’d be more than interested.”
     “No, I’ll take it.” Kkhrkht jumped at Mdzzvyn’s offer and couldn’t take dzzhakh-ye’s eyes off the crystal as dzzhakh-ye paid for it. Sixty shells! Well, that put an end to Kkhrkht’s drinking for the next few days, but it was worth it.
     Mdzzvyn took the money, drained dzhinn-ye’s jar and got up. “Sorry to be so anti-social, but I can’t hang around. I’ll buy you a drink tomorrow.”
     “You still want to go to Mars?” Hgramblk reminded Kkhrkht after Mdzzvyn left. “You might have your chance soon.”

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 15
Chapter 17