The main gateway terminus on Zrrlchtz was a hive of activity. Twenty gateways in all stretched out along the great curved hall. What used to be the most popular and fashionable travel terminus had been commandeered at the High Drones' command and served as the centre of operations while any Khzchhrrrtz stranded on distant worlds was brought back as and when the gateways could be re-opened. The Khzchhrrrtz operators had all been replaced by the Nglubi who had a much more intuitive understanding of the Nexus' ways. Squadrons of Zzhemthax flew lazily up and down the length keeping a close watch on proceedings. Next to each gateway an Nglubi was nestled up in its conch absorbed in concentration controlling the gateways. Knots of Khzchhrrrtz gathered around each active gateway. At one gateway, a group of Khzchhrrrtz accompanied by a squadron of Zzhemthax disappeared in its active glow. Further along a cohort of Zzhemthax stepped out of another gateway's glow to make way for a stream of Khzchhrrrtz of many different castes stumbling off the dais where they were met by a horde of anxious friends, lovers and relatives. Elsewhere a solitary Nglubi could be seen stretching itself out as it took a break while its' gateway was off-line.
Next to one inactive gateway, Pzeptilan is holding an electronic notepad in one claw and studies it closely as dzzhev-ye's antennae trace along the rows of text, pictures and data on its' screen. In the background, the Nglubi in the operator's conch is clearly asleep. Its' eyes are shut and is snoring in a soft Nglubi blub-blub-blub. Pzeptilan checked over dzzhev-ye's notes. Burrakhtlmyr should be an easy job. The Ilbryak had opened up their sparsely populated home world as a holiday resort. 2,368 Khzchhrrrtz were stranded there and it was Pzeptilan's job to bring them back. The Khzchhrrrtz' brief encounter with the Nglubi gateways was coming to an end. Because of the Gulmarian advances, the Nglubi could only open the gateways on Zrrlchtz intermittently. Soon, unless the Gulmarians were beaten back, the Zrrlchtz system would be isolated and reliant once again on its somewhat neglected space fleet.
"How long can you keep this gateway open to Burrakhtlmyr?" Pzeptilan asked the slumbering Nglubi.
'Br-r-r-r-a-a-app!' It let out a loud fart that resonated around its conch as it jumped in surprise. Two of its' six eyes opened sleepily. "What? Where? What's that?"
"Burrakhtlmyr. How long can you keep the gateway open?" Pzeptilan repeated slowly, amazed that the same race that produced these dozy Nglubi operatives had also invented the gateway system itself. And did they ever like their sleep! It seemed that they slept more than anything else.
"Oh yes, Burrakhtlmyr." It burbled deeply as it massaged three of its eyes with its tentacles and then lazily reached out to its' console. "Should be good for about ten of your days, but only for short connections." It replied in a businesslike tone as its biostone console lit up.
"And when will we be ready to go?" Pzeptilan wondered if this Nglubi would be sound asleep by the time the rest of dzzhev's team showed up.
"The connection is good." The Nglubi burbled. "Shall I activate the gateway for you now?"
"No, not yet." Pzeptilan looked around impatiently and spotted a group of Zzhemthax marching through the milling throng of Khzchhrrrtz towards dzzhev-ye's gateway. Accompanied by Kkhrkht. No wonder they were late! Then Pzeptilan's spirits sank as dzzhev-ye spotted Mdzzvyn herding a troop of students along behind the Zzhemthax. They were so young; their exoskeletons glistened brightly with their rich, iridescent colouration. They made Pzeptilan feel old. Still, they'd be useful on Burrakhtlmyr.
Mdzzvyn gathered up the students and held up dzhinn-ye's notepad as they jostled in close to get a look at the Nglubi in its conch. The Nglubi winked its six eyes in sequence and playfully waggled a tentacle at them and they all jumped back in surprise. "You have a list of names of everyone we have to pick up. Bring them back to the gateway to transport through. You will go in groups of three with each Zzhemthax." The Zzhemthax didn't like that at all and fidgeted sullenly. One began to complain in a harsh rasp. Two of its cohorts turned to glare at it and a third slapped it across the face. The students didn't know what to make of this and turned to Mdzzvyn for guidance.
But Mdzzvyn had dzhinn-ye's back turned to them as dzhinn listened closely to Pzeptilan and the Nglubi describe the situation for Burrakhtlmyr. Ten days was better than anything dzhinn-ye had hoped for, plenty of time to let dzhinn-ye's students to study an alien world and to study, not only the indigenous sentient species, but also the various species vacationing there. Not exactly the pinnacle of xenology, but the last any Khzchhrrrtz might get to do for some time to come. "Pzeptilan, I'll keep the students busy. Three of the Zzhemthax will stay with you and Kkhrkht."
"You realise they might not get much time for their studies." Pzeptilan wasn't happy with the Galactic Studies Institute's decision to send out its current crop of students, but dzzhev-ye wasn't in any position to argue. "If our Khzchhrrrtz aren't waiting at the gateway, we have to go and find them. That's our first priority."
"I know." Mdzzvyn was well aware that dzhinn-ye and dzhinn's students were crowding in on Pzeptilan's work. "They know as well." Mdzzvyn turned around to face a wall of brilliantly iridescent young Khzchhrrrtz faces eagerly hanging on dzhinn-ye's every word. Mdzzvyn addressed them for the last time as dzhinn-ye herded the students and Zzhemthax up onto the dais. "Form a circle and have your torches armed and ready, we don't know what to expect on the other side." Mdzzvyn then acknowledged Pzeptilan's command. "Ready when you are."
Pzeptilan was in the middle of catching up on the latest gossip from Kkhrkht when dzzhev-ye suddenly became aware of the gaping silence.
"We're ready to go." Mdzzvyn repeated.
"Yes, right." Pzeptilan pulled dzzhev-ye up to look the part and gave the order to the Nglubi who appeared to be fast asleep in its conch below. "You can activate the gateway now." The Nglubi lazily flicked out a tentacle towards its console and the dais swallowed them up in its engulfing light.
When the light subsided they were on Burrakhtlmyr but it was nothing like what they had expected. The cool, elegant polished stone walls of the gateways chamber were blasted beyond recognition. Slabs of stone and masonry rubble littered the floor. Cracks ran from the floor to ceiling and part of the roof had been blown away. Kkhrkht could see little cotton-wool clouds drifting across the emerald sky through the gaping hole in the ceiling. In the distance, dzzhakh-ye could hear the muffled rumble and crump of explosions. "Something's happened. It didn't look like this in the pictures Adzhnkt-Vey showed me in my briefing."
The Zzhemthax instinctively spread out to secure the perimeter and took up defensive positions while Mdzzvyn and the students remained huddled on the dais. Kkhrkht and Pzeptilan, followed by their three Zzhemthax, went outside to scout around. The ground was littered with the remains of hundreds of dead, broken Khzchhrrrtz, many dead decomposing Ilbryak and other aliens they didn't recognise among the twisted burnt-out remains of what might have been vehicles of some sort and other pieces of machinery lying in and amongst the trampled grass, broken trees and half-demolished outbuildings. Pzeptilan was dumbstruck as dzzhev-ye walked around with Kkhrkht silently inspecting the aftermath of the carnage with the stench of death hanging heavily in the warm, humid air. The Khzchhrrrtz hadn't known slaughter like this for hundreds of years. Mdzzvyn and the students soon joined them solemnly gathering up the broken remains of the dead Khzchhrrrtz carrying them to the gateway dais to be sent back to Zrrlchtz. The Zzhemthax, bristling with anticipation, scouted around for the attackers all the while expanding their perimeter.
"Have you noticed this?" Mdzzvyn grimly asked Pzeptilan as dzhinn-ye held up the fractured head and thorax of a dead Octon. "Picked clean. This doesn't happen naturally. Scavengers must have eaten all their internal organs and body fluids. We'll have to be very careful. This planet seems to be much more dangerous than we imagined."
Later that day while they were piling up the fifteenth load of broken bodies to send back to Zrrlchtz, one of the Zzhemthax flew in through the gaping hole in the gateway chambers' roof and landed next to Kkhrkht as dzzhakh-ye was hoisting a double armload of broken limbs onto the dais. "Your highness, we found some survivors!"
"Really? Where?" Kkhrkht dumped the limbs unceremoniously on the dais and followed the Zzhemthax as it flew back out towards a clearing next to a demolished outbuilding where two more Zzhemthax stood guard. There, where the Zzhemthax had pulled back a slab of stone they found an adult Yltukzhi caste Khzchhrrrtz, two of its juveniles and a dead Octon with five whimpering grubs clinging onto its smashed carapace desperately wishing it back to life. Yltukzhi only have four limbs and the adult had lost one limb, its leaking shell was badly cracked and all that remained of its antennae was a pair of ragged stumps. The dirt-encrusted Yltukzhi juveniles stared up at Kkhrkht from their hole in the ground, too frightened to even speak.
The Octon grubs refused to let go of their dead parent and it took the two Zzhemthax to carry the whole bunch of them back to the gateway. Kkhrkht helped the Yltukzhi juveniles out and enlisted four of the students to help dzzhakh-ye carry the badly injured Yltukzhi back to safety.
The gateway's glow had just died down after Pzeptilan had sent the injured Khzchhrrrtz back to Zrrlchtz when another Zzhemthax approached and bowed deferentially even though it towered over Pzeptilan. "We should send for food, more armaments and a flying beetle. We Zzhemthax can fly, but you Academes cannot. We may have to cover much ground and we have but limited time here on Burrakhtlmyr."
Pzeptilan knew better than to argue with a Zzhemthax' assessment. They were the Khzchhrrrtz military caste made up entirely of neuter dzhinns with lighting reflexes and a razor-sharp hive mind. In situations like this, they were seldom wrong. Pzeptilan sent one of the students back to Zrrlchtz with the Zzhemthax' request along with their next load of dead Khzchhrrrtz. While they waited, the Zzhemthax set explosive charges to blow away the remnants of the building around the gateway to allow the flying beetle clearance.
By nightfall, they had sent the remaining corpses back to Zrrlchtz, unpacked their supplies and had tethered the flying beetle in a guarded clearing where it could graze on the foliage. Kkhrkht picked up a flask of Kndrezzh liqueur to pour out drinks for Mdzzvyn, Pzeptilan and dzzhakh-ye as they sat around a fire with the students and some of the Zzhemthax eating their evening meal and sharing their theories about what had happened. The remainder of the Zzhemthax flew in low circles over their camp, ever watchful for signs of danger.
"Where'd you get that?" Mdzzvyn knew Kkhrkht liked a drink, but hadn't expected dzzhakh-ye to bring a flask of Kndrezzh liqueur. This was a classy drink! Much more refined than the common mead with which Kkhrkht regularly soaked dzzhakh-ye's brain.
"Adzhnkt-Vey sent it along with our supplies." Kkhrkht explained merrily as dzzhakh-ye passed their drinks around. "Dzhinn-ye thinks of everything."
"I'm not complaining." Pzeptilan welcomed the liqueur's syrupy sweet warmth. "Did you manage to get anything out of those survivors the Zzhemthax found?"
"Nothing." Kkhrkht wished dzzhakh-ye had. "They were in such bad shape, it would have been cruel to interrogate them. They'll find out back on Zrrlchtz soon enough."
"I'd feel better if I knew what we're up against." Mdzzvyn joined in between sips of liqueur. "Whoever it is thinks nothing of killing unarmed civilians."
"Do you think the Ilbryak did it?" One of the students asked Pzeptilan.
"I don't think so, Vvezhlvya." Pzeptilan always made a point to address the students by name. It was dzzhev's way of making them feel part of the team. "The Zzhemthax found many dead Ilbryak. They, too, were unarmed."
Not far away, a series of unmistakable explosions broke their uneasy calm. The Zzhemthax reacted immediately and split into three groups. One group untethered the flying beetle and brought it over to the fire that the second group covered over with earth while the remainder bundled the students and their supplies into the beetle. One landed in front of Pzeptilan, Kkhrkht and Mdzzvyn. "We must leave at once. It is no longer safe here."
They set off away from the direction of the explosions flying low just above treetop through the clear night sky with the Zzhemthax weaving around in an ever-shifting defensive pattern with all the grace of an elaborate aerial ballet. They could all see the explosions' flashes of light along the horizon as they flew away from the gateway. A lone Zzhemthax flew up alongside an open window in the beetle's body and spoke to Kkhrkht: "There is a small town three hours away. We will go there and land a safe distance from it." The Zzhemthax flew forward and gave the beetle its orders. Behind them, they could see a cluster of explosions and pillars of smoke rising up from the ruins of the gateway they had just abandoned. The Zzhemthax dived down amongst the trees and the beetle followed them to a small clearing. "Everyone out." A Zzhemthax ordered and the beetle flattened itself to hide between the trees.
Looking up through the trees, Kkhrkht could make out a squadron of dark grey fliers tearing through the heavily fragrant nighttime air of Burrakhtlmyr and breathed a sigh of relief as they raced off into the distance. Getting the beetle out proved to be another matter altogether. The poor beast had spent its entire life dutifully flying the placid and gentle airways of Zrrlchtz and was terrified of all the chaos and carnage it had encountered and had got itself stuck in between the trees. It took several hours of concerted pushing, shoving, pulling and coaxing as well as cutting down a few trees with their plasma torches to tease it out of the woods by which time everyone was too tired to go any further so they struck camp there and the Zzhemthax waited until the morning when everyone had some rest.
The next morning as they were having breakfast, a Zzhemthax reported to Pzeptilan: "The gateway is undamaged, your highness. We found many dead Khzchhrrrtz along the causeway that runs from the gateway to the town. We recommend that a small party go into the town while the rest work with us to gather up the remains. We will also need the flying beetle as there is too much for us to carry and the distances are too great."
"I see." Pzeptilan was still getting used to the role of command. At first dzzhev-ye had felt it to be a flattering ego-boost every time a Zzhemthax addressed dzzhev-ye as 'your highness', but now Pzeptilan felt weighed down with the unwelcome burden of responsibility. "Your plan is good. The Zzhemthax are wise in battle." Pzeptilan stuck closely to traditional Khzchhrrrtz ritual. The Zzhemthax bowed low in gratitude and then flew off to rejoin the rest of its squadron. The Zzhemthax might be formidable warriors and scrupulously precise in their combat assessments, but spontaneity and subtlety of thought and speech were beyond them. Theirs was a world of arcane and formulaic, but ever-adaptable, ritual.
Kkhrkht could clearly make out the broken and shattered buildings from their secure vantage point as the flying beetle carrying Mdzzvyn and most of the students lifted off surrounded by a squadron of ever-weaving Zzhemthax. A solitary Zzhemthax led Kkhrkht, Pzeptilan and three of Mdzzvyn's students around the outskirts of the town away from their landing site. Two others flew on ahead into the town to look out for possible traps, ambushes and survivors. The Ilbryak had set up thousands of resort towns across Burrakhtlmyr to cater for the many different races visiting their holiday resort planet. The town they were now approaching, Dubzzhlynky, had been opened up to the Khzchhrrrtz who were the newest arrivals on the galactic scene. Kkhrkht wondered darkly if the same scenes of destruction were repeated all over Burrakhtlmyr.
The scouts returned to lead them into the smouldering ruins of the once-glamorous Dubzzhlynky. As they walked along the deserted wreckage-strewn streets, worm-like scavengers slithered away from the twisted corpses littered around. The collapsed remains of bridges spanning the river that flowed through the centre of Dubzzhlynky stood like neglected, rotten stumps in the deep, slow-moving water while yet more corpses floated in the shallow swimming pools along its banks.
"Do you think we'll find any survivors here?" Kkhrkht asked as dzzhakh-ye scanned the silent ruins of Dubzzhlynky.
"Doesn't look like it." Pzeptilan desperately wanted to find some survivors of this attack so that dzzhev-ye could find out who was responsible and how it had happened. Pzeptilan picked dzzhev-ye's notebook out of dzzhev-ye's backpack and powered it up to show the map of Dubzzhlynky supplied by the Galactic Studies Institute. Pzeptilan tapped its screen for Kkhrkht's benefit. "This is where the Ilbryak located their main administrative centre for Dubzzhlynky. If it's safe, we should set up camp there while we gather up our dead to send back to Zrrlchtz. Maybe we can find some clues there." Pzeptilan added as an optimistic afterthought to an increasingly bleak day. Pzeptilan gave dzzhev-ye's orders to the two Zzhemthax scouts who flew on ahead. Kkhrkht and their solitary Zzhemthax guard herded the students along behind Pzeptilan as dzzhev-ye led the way.
The main administrative centre turned out to be the Grand Hotel which overlooked a piazza lined with boutiques, restaurants, theatres, concert halls, gaming rooms and the like. It may once have been a-buzz with hordes of happy holidaymakers, but now it was an eerily silent ruin. Whole facades of buildings lay in crumpled heaps on the ground with parts of crushed bodies poking out of them. Corpses were strewn around the open spaces and piled up inside the crumbling remains of buildings where they huddled and cowered for safety in their last hour. Lines of scorch marks raking across the piazza and along walls spoke of an intense and pitiless strafing.
Inside the Grand Hotel, pillars lay in broken piles of rubble as a gentle breeze wafted in through the smashed windows. Balustrades hung at crazy angles from upper balconies and along one wall a vast floor-to-ceiling holographic projection of the sights, sounds and wonders Burrakhtlmyr flickered on and off at random. Kkhrkht noted that this building, at least, still had some power as dzzhakh-ye picked dzzhakh-ye's way past the dead Ilbryak, Khzchhrrrtz, Apdnethui, Xarubians, Gulthen and countless other aliens littering the reception foyer. They Ilbryak looked like furry centaurs, except that instead of a large horse's body, they had what looked like a diminutive soft-footed sloping giraffe body topped with a broad torso and golden fur with long brown stripes that ran from head to tail.
A Zzhemthax strode out of a passageway leading onto the foyer and addressed Kkhrkht. "We have found their communications centre. It is still functional." Kkhrkht followed the Zzhemthax through. Communications centre, indeed! More like the hotel manager's office, but it did have several computer terminals, two of which still seemed to be working as well as a holographic projector which cut between scenes of destruction in other parts of Burrakhtlmyr. One sequence showed an unchallenged wing of fliers razing part of a settlement with vicious abandon. Kkhrkht looked closely at the fliers. They looked so familiar, but dzzhakh-ye couldn't quite place them. Kkhrkht activated dzzhakh-ye's translator and set about trying to get some sound with the holographs.
An hour later, Kkhrkht was still struggling away underneath the projector in a vain attempt to trace its circuits when Pzeptilan showed up with the three students. "Hey, Kkhrkht, what are you doing under there?"
"Aaieee!" Kkhrkht snagged dzzhakh-ye's antennae under the low ledge of the projector as dzzhakh pulled dzzhakh-ye out from underneath. It hurt! "Trying to get the sound working so I can find out what's happened."
Pzeptilan watched the destruction played out in the holographic projection. "These pictures tell me all I need to know. They seem to be attacking every settlement on Burrakhtlmyr."
"True." Kkhrkht straightened dzzhakh-ye's antennae out after being cramped up under the projector. "But that's only half the story. Maybe the Ilbryak know who is attacking them."
"I studied electronics." One of the students piped up. "And computer engineering." Another one added optimistically.
"Well, well, aren't we lucky today?" Pzeptilan could scarcely believe dzzhev-ye's luck. Pzeptilan had been certain that Mdzzvyn's students would be nothing more than a burden. "See what you can do with that projector and those terminals." Pzeptilan ordered the students who set about repairing the damaged equipment with the dedicated keenness of youth.
"This is the worst mission I've ever been on." Kkhrkht confessed glumly to Pzeptilan out of earshot of the busy students.
"I've never seen anything quite like this either." Pzeptilan agreed pessimistically. "I can't believe the Ilbryak were so na´ve as to be so utterly defenceless. If this is what's coming our way through the gateways, our Zzhemthax will soon be very busy."
They stood there mutely watching the holographic projection of the destruction of Burrakhtlmyr. Another sequence showing an aerial attack on a defenceless town played out before them. "You see those fliers?" Kkhrkht pointed them out.
"Yes." Pzeptilan followed their swathe of destruction as buildings before them exploded and collapsed.
"I'm sure I've seen them before." Kkhrkht hoped that Pzeptilan might be able to shed more light on dzzhakh-ye's suspicions.
"They all look the same to me." Pzeptilan wasn't that interested. "I've never had much time for all that military stuff."
And then it all clicked. "Mars!" Kkhrkht trembled with excitement as dzzhakh-ye remembered the Raider's fliers parked up next to the Free Mars Tribe. "That's where I saw them! Those fliers belong to an aberrant faction of the Human's society." And then the realisation hit Kkhrkht: "But their worlds are so far way, how did they ever get here?"
"Used the gateways?" Pzeptilan suggested indifferently.
"No. The Nglubi never opened up the gateways on their worlds. They don't know about them." That was the one thing Kkhrkht couldn't square up. How those outlaw pirates managed to get all the way from Mars to Burrakhtlmyr when Kkhrkht knew that the Humans had no access to the gateways and very limited sub-lightspeed capability. "They only have sub-light transport. It would take them many lifetimes to get here using their own technology."
"Well, they're here. And if you're right they must have access to the gateways or something else that we don't know about." Pzeptilan played along with Kkhrkht's hunch. "Sometimes I think we depend on the Nglubi too much."
"What's wrong with them?" Kkhrkht never got on very well with the insanely flighty Psy, but had forged a genuine friendship with Grattlyd. "They seem perfectly decent to me."
"Oh, they are." Pzeptilan cautiously agreed with Kkhrkht. "But by using their system of gateways we have neglected our own technology. If it wasn't for the Nglubi, we might have developed our own faster-than-light travel by now. It looks like some of your Humans have managed to do just that."
"You're beginning to sound like that isolationist Vzzenktly sect." Kkhrkht had heard all their propaganda from the times they picketed the Galactic Studies Institute in their many failed attempts to get it closed down.
"Oh I'm not as mad as any of that crowd." Pzeptilan buzzed with brittle laughter at their doomed bids to petition the High Drones to break off relations with the Nglubi and to repatriate all off-worlders. "But they have a few good points." As the day wore on, Pzeptilan and Kkhrkht inspected the ruins of the Grand Hotel and its surroundings. The Zzhemthax set some explosives to knock out one wall of the reception foyer 'to provide safe stabling for the flying beetle' as there was no way it would ever fit through the existing doorways. It made good sense to keep their flying beetle covered while they were in Dubzzhlynky. If the Raiders killed it, they would have a very long, and possibly hazardous, walk back to the gateway.
Kkhrkht had long since given up hope of finding any survivors and went around counting the dead. At this rate they'd only be sending back fragments of the victims. News about this atrocity would be bound to get out back on Zrrlchtz. It would be a scandal and Kkhrkht resigned dzzhakh-ye to be at the centre of it. Khzchhrrrtz would panic and demand that action be taken. But what could they do? The Khzchhrrrtz simply didn't have the means to take the fight back to the Raider's and Overlordz' lairs in the Human's solar system.
Kkhrkht spent the rest of the day wandering around the centre of Dubzzhlynky in a daze, shaken by the extent of the Raider's trail of destruction and trying to puzzle out how they ever managed to get this far across the Milky Way. Dzzhakh-ye was still no closer to finding an answer at sunset as dzzhakh-ye walked slowly up the wide steps into the Grand Hotel to find Mdzzvyn and dzhinn-ye's students totally exhausted and sprawled out around the wreckage-strewn foyer with the flying beetle sobbing quietly in a corner. Kkhrkht went over to Mdzzvyn. "How was it?"
"The heat!" Mdzzvyn croaked wearily and took a long drink from a bowl of water. "I felt as if I was being baked alive. Pzeptilan told me your theory about these, what do you call them, Martians, Humans, Raiders? That was the race you studied wasn't it?" Mdzzvyn couldn't forget the pub-crawl with Kkhrkht's Human acquaintances when they visited Zrrlchtz. "I thought you said they don't have access to the gateways."
"Then how did they get here?"
"I don't know." Kkhrkht was at a loss and flopped down next to Mdzzvyn in silence as Pzeptilan carried some food out for their flying beetle. Four Zzhemthax followed dzzhev-ye carrying a trough of water. "Did you manage to clear up all the bodies?"
"You're joking aren't you?" Mdzzvyn looked over dzhinn-ye's group of worn-out students and had another deep drink of water. "Maybe by tomorrow or the day after if we're lucky. You have no idea what happened." Dzhinn-ye emphasised. "All the way along that road. It was a complete slaughter. It looks as if your Raiders attacked the town and everyone tried to escape to the gateway. I don't think anyone survived. And then we have to search this town! Kkhrkht, we'll never get this done in ten days. It's impossible."
Kkhrkht looked around at the students and they looked back in silence, too drained to do anything other than eat and drink listlessly. Kkhrkht picked out dzzhakh-ye's notebook and showed their map to Mdzzvyn. "How much did you manage to get done?"
Mdzzvyn pointed out the road leading to the gateway. "About halfway back to town. But I don't know if we'll get anything out of our beetle tomorrow. It's very upset."
Kkhrkht glanced over at their flying beetle, which was twitching spasmodically with sobbing grief, as Pzeptilan and the Zzhemthax tried to console it. "Well, you're right about that. Maybe we should send for more Zzhemthax and some teams of D'thelvyvn drones."
"You're second in command to Pzeptilan. Me, I'm just getting in the way." Mdzzvyn prompted Kkhrkht to make the decisions.
"Some more flying beetles as well." Kkhrkht realised that it would be too much work for one flying beetle to shift all their dead from Dubzzhlynky to the gateway. "You're testing me!" Kkhrkht nearly laughed as dzzhakh-ye realised what Mdzzvyn was up to.
"Can't help it. It's just the way I am." Mdzzvyn relished the one good thing to happen that day. "You'll do well, Kkhrkht. Just take it easy on the mead. Too much can fog up your mind."
Mdzzvyn had unlocked the tormented knot of emotions that Kkhrkht had been numbing with mead. It was what dzzhakh-ye had been looking for all along, but what a place to find it! Kkhrkht hugged Mdzzvyn there and then and let dzzhakh-ye's repressed burdens float away. "Shall we send for a team of D'thelvyvn drones and some more flying beetles?" Kkhrkht asked Pzeptilan as dzzhev-ye joined them.
"Funny you should mention that." Pzeptilan casually got down to business and picked distractedly at dzzhev-ye's food. "I was thinking the same thing. The Zzhemthax have more extreme ideas."
"Such as." Mdzzvyn prompted dzzhev-ye.
"Three motorised transporters, nine armed battle fliers, two full brigades of Zzhemthax and a hundred D'thelvyvn drones." Pzeptilan rattled off the Zzhemthax wish list. "They'll probably get the lot, too."
"You can get all that through a gateway?" Kkhrkht wasn't all that surprised by the Zzhemthax' request. They didn't mess around.
"That and more." Mdzzvyn had spent a lot of time working with the Nglubi to adapt their gateways for Khzchhrrrtz requirements while Kkhrkht and Pzeptilan were away on their studies. "If they use the gateway at Zrrlchtz Central. But they won't get it all in one go. You'll only get one transporter or flier through at a time."
"I say we grant their request." Kkhrkht didn't want to spend this entire mission heaving hundreds of dead bodies. "Otherwise we'll be crawling on our bellies like a herd of worn-out Hzzlekhti when we go home." Pzeptilan gave the Zzhemthax their orders and three of them set off immediately through the balmy night air for the gateway. Later that night, as Mdzzvyn was entertaining them with outrageous stories of dzhinn-ye's misadventures of dzhinn-ye's reckless youth, the high-pitched whine of Khzchhrrrtz battle fliers followed by the deep thrum of a transporter broke the surrounding stillness. And then another. And another. And they kept on coming for so long that even Mdzzvyn trailed off when dzhinn-ye saw that dzhinn-ye's students were no longer listening to dzhinn-ye's stories but looking up to the never-ending waves of sound overhead. Kkhrkht went to the door and looked out over the piazza. Rank upon rank of transporters were landing and disgorging their complement of Zzhemthax and D'thelvyvn while enough fliers hovered overhead to block out the sky!
That morning the Zzhemthax managed to talk their flying beetle into leaving its newly made nest in the Grand Hotel to fly off to the gateway and back to Zrrlchtz. But only after they agreed to give it an escort of fliers. Kkhrkht, refreshed after several hours' rest trance and a filling, but tasteless, meal of Zzhemthax rations, went outside to take a look around. The Zzhemthax had already taken over the search-and-rescue mission and were supervising the D'thelvyvn as they spread outwards from the piazza picking up the remains of dead Khzchhrrrtz and vainly looking for survivors. They were already solemnly loading up some of the transporters with pieces of shattered corpses and the first transporter lifted off on its sombre journey home. Every shop-front around the piazza had been knocked out and battle fliers nestled defensively in the rubble. Overhead, fliers kept watch over the D'thelvyvn as they searched through the broken ruins of Dubzzhlynky.
As they day wore on survivors were indeed found and brought to what remained of the Grand Hotel: A group of Ilbryak, their beautiful golden fur clotted with orange blood and lumps of dirt, two Xarubians who were in a state of shock and a solitary Gulthen whose coppery flesh had darkened where its turquoise skin had been peeled away. Mdzzvyn ordered dzhinn-ye's students to look after them. A far cry from the walk-through Mdzzvyn had planned for dzhinn-ye's students, but they'd learn lessons they would never have if they'd only interviewed and observed holidaymakers. From time to time the Zzhemthax would bring another survivor, even a few shell-shocked Khzchhrrrtz. The Grand Hotel was rapidly turning into a field hospital. A fact not lost on Kkhrkht when the Zzhemthax sent in a team of D'thelvyvn with medical supplies and to clean up the undamaged suites in the hotel.
Not having much to do at one point, Kkhrkht decided to check up on the 'communications centre' in the hotel manager's office. Intermittent blasts of sound from the holographic projector filled the room as the group of students Pzeptilan had set to work tinkered around with it. One of the students approached Kkhrkht. "We've managed to hook up to their local communications grid." It announced proudly and waited for Kkhrkht's response. Just then a lump of soft plastic hit the back of Kkhrkht's head and went flying through the holograph. Dzzhakh-ye spun around in panic. Were they under attack?
Pzeptilan leaned against the doorway and cheekily waggled dzzhev-ye's antennae. "What took you so long?"
"I've been with Mdzzvyn looking after the injured." Kkhrkht explained in an attempt to regain dzzhakh-ye's composure while the students barely suppressed their buzzing insectoid laughter. "Did you manage to find out anything?"
"Not much really." Pzeptilan sloped over to the projector. "And most of it's bad news."
"Go on." Kkhrkht wanted to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
"Burrakhtlmyr was attacked by more than one type of off-worlder. It appears to be some sort of coalition of renegades." Pzeptilan explained soberly. "How they got here is another matter altogether."
"Have you talked with the Ilbryak about this?" Kkhrkht wanted to make sure.
"No. We've been watching their information and entertainment broadcasts on this projector. Now that we can get sound, I used my translator to follow things."
"But shouldn't we contact the Ilbryak?" Kkhrkht couldn't stand aside while Burrakhtlmyr was slaughtered. "Maybe we could help them."
"And what could we do?" Pzeptilan sympathised with Kkhrkht. "We would only draw attention to ourselves. If those attackers find us, we would be completely outnumbered. We barely have the means to defend our position here if we came under attack. On top of that, " Pzeptilan lied baldly to keep Kkhrkht from doing anything rash. "We can only receive signals over the local communications system. We haven't been able to transmit yet. But I've been sending reports back to Zrrlchtz. I should imagine that the senior Zzhemthax are pleading with the High Drones right now to send a full-scale assault force."
Just then two Zzhemthax burst into the office: "Academe Kkhrkht, please. You must come with us at once." They begged urgently and Kkhrkht followed them as they led the way through the Grand Hotel to a suite with a group of Ilbryak. Most were lying down still recuperating from their injuries as several D'thelvyvn clumsily attended them. One Ilbryak hopped around animatedly waving its arms and jabbering furiously at any D'thelvyvn it could get the attention of. But they couldn't understand a word the Ilbryak said. Kkhrkht activated dzzhakh-ye's translator.
"Lambwayo is dieing. We need food and medicines. Oh, why don't you listen you stupid monsters? Lambwayo is dieing."
"Are you a doctor?" Kkhrkht's voice was translated into Ilbryak.
The agitated Ilbryak was caught by surprise and stared at Kkhrkht for a moment in total disbelief. "Me? No, I'm a tour guide. But Bruyalwa," The Ilbryak pointed out one of its companions who was looking intently out the window at the activity in the piazza below. "Is a cook and knows what everyone needs to eat."
"I see. And where is this food?"
"In the hotel kitchens, of course." The Ilbryak impatiently stamped one of its feet and sounded totally exasperated.
"Yes, and the medicines?" Kkhrkht asked patiently.
"In the clinic." The Ilbryak's temper got edgier. "Do I have to spell everything out for you? Don't you have a mind? And your guards, why do they keep us captive?" It asked angrily.
Kkhrkht let the Ilbryak's ill-tempered insult pass. The poor creature had suffered quite enough already. "Ah, they don't understand your language." Kkhrkht apologised awkwardly. "You are not prisoners. You are free to leave at any time."
"Eeek!" The Ilbryak shrieked its curses and it tore at its' fur. "Rescued by morons! Whatever next?"
"We get your food and medicines." Kkhrkht suggested calmly.
"Er, yes." The Ilbryak harrumphed petulantly. "That's what I wanted to do in the first place."
Kkhrkht explained the situation to the Zzhemthax who set off following Bruyalwa to the kitchen. "Shall we go to this clinic?" Kkhrkht asked courteously and followed the Ilbryak out of the Grand Hotel.
"Do you have a name?" The Ilbryak asked as they walked down the steps into the brilliant sunlight of the bust piazza.
"Yes, Kkhrkht." Dzzhakh-ye replied as dzzhakh-ye watched the Zzhemthax and D'thelvyvn busily milling around the piazza. Another transporter lifted off under the hot midday sun with an escort of battle fliers. "And you?"
"I'm Quechlia. We could do with some translators. It's chaos back in the hotel. I know where to get some." Quechlia led the way to the ruins of a small shop off the piazza. Inside, there were a few translators in the smashed display cases. Out back, in the storeroom Quechlia lifted down several boxes off the shelves. "Here we are. Perfect working order and fresh power cells. Oh, damn! Lambwayo! We haven't got enough time." Quechlia dropped the last box on the floor and cantered out the door in a panic.
Kkhrkht followed on out and found a Zzhemthax outside. Dzzhakh-ye hurriedly ordered it to take the translators and distribute them to all the aliens in the hotel and then ran off to catch up with Quechlia.
"Oh I'm so forgetful." Quechlia wailed piteously as she trotted briskly along the road. "Everything, it's been so terrible..." She trailed off unwilling to describe what happened for fear of the memory of the brutal attack which tore their lives and world to pieces in a murderous slaughter.
Kkhrkht gave up on any attempt of asking Quechlia about the attack and followed her to the clinic. Kkhrkht spotted a decomposing Xarubian corpse on the ground in a crusted pool of black dried blood as they walked along, then the lower torso and legs of an Apdnethui sticking out of a pile of rubble and finally broken Octon and Yltukzhi bodies. They were in a part of Dubzzhlynky that the Zzhemthax and D'thelvyvn hadn't yet searched.
Like the other buildings in this section of Dubzzhlynky, the clinic was built in the rustic Ilbryak wood and earthen brick style with low, arched roofs. Quechlia froze under the archway leading into the clinic. Kkhrkht who was thinking about how to organise shifting the clinic's contents back to the hotel walked straight into Quechlia's back. Kkhrkht's head and three hearts nearly burst with shock. There in the courtyard was one of the Raider's fliers!
A plasma bolt from inside the courtyard struck the ground beside them and they both instinctively ran for cover in an open doorway. "That's one of the..." Quechlia began to say.
"I know." Kkhrkht primed dzzhakh-ye's plasma torch. "Stay away from the windows." Kkhrkht ripped a piece of panelling off the wall and broke off pieces until it had a body-like outline. "Try to see where they shoot from." Kkhrkht asked as dzzhakh-ye held up the piece of panelling and slowly moved it past the window. Sure enough, a plasma bolt shot through the open window and burnt a hole in the opposite wall. "Any luck?"
"Not really. Only the general direction."
"We'll try again." Kkhrkht crawled under the window and a bit further back. "Only this time we'll make it look a bit different. Keep a look out." Once again, Kkhrkht crawled on dzzhakh-ye's back across the room holding up the panel for their quarry to see. Another shot scorched into the wall.
"Yes!" Quechlia yelped with excitement.
"Where is it?" Kkhrkht's warrior self was beginning to kick in.
"On the upper floor, third window Gshelside from the walkway."
"What side?" Kkhrkht asked as dzzhakh-ye caught a brief glance out the window.
Quechlia tapped Kkhrkht's left side. "This side."
"Oh, right." Kkhrkht fixed the image of the window's location in dzzhakh-ye's mind. "Now we shoot from a different window." And dzzhakh-ye led the way crawling along the floor below the line of sight until they reached a hallway leading into the clinic. Quechlia obligingly followed Kkhrkht upstairs and into a room with a commanding view of the courtyard and the flier parked in full view. From where dzzhakh-ye stood, Kkhrkht could see that some panels had been removed from the flier and lay on the ground next to an assortment of tools. It was damaged and couldn't fly. Kkhrkht was determined to capture the Raider alive and get some answers.
Kkhrkht's antennae twitched as dzzhakh-ye tried to pick up the scent of Human pheromones, but Quechlia's musk was too strong. Kkhrkht took a shot at the open window. A plasma bolt sizzled past Kkhrkht, but it came from a doorway further along. The Raider was on the move, too. Just then, a cannon shot from the flier slammed into the wall and sent Kkhrkht flying across the room. Kkhrkht lay dazed on the floor and gradually regained dzzhakh-ye's senses as Quechlia looked on. "That's it!" Kkhrkht scrambled around and pulled dzzhakh-ye's notebook out of dzzhakh-ye's backpack and opened a channel to Pzeptilan.
"Have you found your clinic yet?" Pzeptilan casually waggled dzzhev-ye's antennae on the screen.
"And this as well." Kkhrkht raced into another room, sidled up to a window and briefly held out dzzhakh-ye's notebook for Pzeptilan to get a view of the courtyard. Another plasma bolt shot past. Kkhrkht didn't wait for the next cannon shot and ran out of the room back to Quechlia as the wall crumpled behind dzzhakh-ye. "There's one, maybe two in the building shooting at us and at least one in the flier. Their flier is damaged. We should take them alive for interrogation if possible."
"Stay where you are." Pzeptilan had gone all serious. "I'll send the Zzhemthax over right away. We'll use your notepad as a beacon."
"Come on." Kkhrkht grabbed Quechlia's arm and pulled her along as dzzhakh-ye rushed to the stairwell. "We have to get out of here."
"Because the Zzhemthax will be here any minute." Kkhrkht skidded down the stairs with Quechlia bumping along behind.
"What about the medicines?" Quechlia protested as Kkhrkht whisked her out of the clinic onto the street outside the courtyard. Overhead, the Zzhemthax battle fliers were beginning to surround the clinic hovering menacingly just above the roofline.
"They'll have to wait..." Kkhrkht trailed off and looked up in awe as a second rank of fliers fell in behind the first flight. At the far end of the street, a flood of Zzhemthax ran up towards them.
"But the medicines for Lambwayo." Quechlia piteously insisted as the Zzhemthax surged past and stormed into the clinic. Fat electric blue plasma bolts shot up out of the courtyard between the hovering battle fliers waiting patiently for their quarry to surrender. Suddenly, a battle flier hovering near the courtyard entrance took a direct hit, burst into flames and veered off towards the river where it broke up on crash-landing. The Zzhemthax' fliers all fired at once and Quechlia bolted away at a full gallop. Kkhrkht was about to turn to run after her when an explosive fireball erupted inside the courtyard. Kkhrkht stopped in dzzhakh-ye's tracks and looked back through the archway. So much for taking them alive, Kkhrkht thought as dzzhakh-ye stumbled into the courtyard behind the advancing ranks of Zzhemthax as a column of thick smoke rose up from the fragmented remains of the Raider's flier.
Pieces of twisted metal still glowing with heat lay on the ground as Kkhrkht picked dzzhakh-ye's way towards the remains of the still-smouldering cockpit. There at the controls was the incinerated corpse of a Gulmarian, its hard outer shell scorched from the fireball. So that's how the Raiders got to Burrakhtlmyr! Kkhrkht fired up dzzhakh-ye's notebook and got on to Pzeptilan.
"Ah, there you are, Kkhrkht." Pzeptilan breezily greeted dzzhakh-ye. "Have you caught your Raiders yet?"
"Not exactly. I've got a Gulmarian here, but it's dead."
"Dead?" Pzeptilan sounded disappointed. "What happened?"
"It shot down one of the battle fliers." Kkhrkht shared Pzeptilan's disappointment. Dzzhakh-ye really wanted to interrogate that Gulmarian. "You can guess the rest."
"Never mind." Pzeptilan had anticipated something like this might happen and switched to dzzhev-ye's backup plan. "Put your report together and I'll send it back to Zrrlchtz with the next transporter. There's one going out in a few minutes."
Kkhrkht was just about to reply when a plasma bolt shot out across the courtyard right past dzzhakh-ye's face. Kkhrkht instinctively dropped to the ground and only just managed to keep hold of dzzhakh-ye's notebook. "What was that?" Pzeptilan's disembodied voice wafted out of Kkhrkht's notepad.
"Someone just shot at me." Kkhrkht crawled for cover behind the flier's wreckage as the Zzhemthax noisily charged into the blast-scorched building. "Could you send a transporter and a team of D'thelvyvn over? We might be able to extract some data from this fliers' computers." Kkhrkht held dzzhakh-ye's notepad out to take in a panoramic view of the burnt-out flier.
"That's the plan." Pzeptilan effortlessly stole Kkhrkht's idea as Kkhrkht panned dzzhakh-ye's notebook around the wreckage. "A live prisoner would have been better, but at least we'll have something to show for our efforts."
Kkhrkht set about recording images of the flier and the Gulmarian and was in the middle of recording dzzhakh-ye's commentary when a group of Zzhemthax approached carrying the telltale pieces of armour, plazflex and sections of carbon-fibre frame of a Mech. "There was only the one fighter, your highness. Here are some pieces of its body. It is like nothing we have ever seen before."
"It is a machine intelligence." Kkhrkht explained as dzzhakh-ye looked over the Zzhemthax' offerings. "Bring me the rest of its body." Kkhrkht was still waiting for the transporter to arrive when six Zzhemthax brought the rest of the Mech's body: panels of armour, limbs, the torso and its head. Kkhrkht added their images into dzzhakh-ye's report and stopped cold when dzzhakh-ye saw its face. It was Three-Eyes, the mech that had threatened to kill dzzhakh-ye in the Pleasure Dome! 'Well you were right about one thing,' Kkhrkht thought wryly as dzzhakh-ye picked up Three-Eyes' lifeless head. 'We have met again, but not the way you expected.'
Kkhrkht threw down Three-Eyes' head and turned dzzhakh-ye's attention to Three-Eyes' torso. That was where a Mech's core, or brain, was stored. Kkhrkht prised the armour panel off its back: its power cell had ruptured during its final firefight, but its core looked intact. Kkhrkht uncoupled the connectors that linked the core to its body and slid Three-Eyes' highly modified delta-class core out of its cradle. It was still warm. Kkhrkht couldn't believe dzzhakh-ye's luck! All of Three-Eyes memory was stored in that core and now it belonged to the Khzchhrrrtz. This time, the dead would talk!
Kkhrkht was still busy putting dzzhakh-ye's report together when the transporter appeared overhead and a team of D'thelvyvn drones began loading up the remains of the flier, Three Eyes and the Gulmarian. "This is that robot's core." Kkhrkht explained as dzzhakh-ye handed Three Eye's core to the D'thelvyvn's Zzhemthax overseer. "It is a computer and its memory and it contains information that we need. See to it that it arrives undamaged."
No sooner than dzzhakh-ye had finished, Quechlia showed up pestering for her medicines again. "Yes, yes. We'll get them now." Kkhrkht was glad to get away from the fire-blasted courtyard. "Do you know where these medicines are?"
"No, but I'll find them." And Quechlia led the way through the clinic, picking a box off a shelf here, a bottle there, jars of this and packets of that, all sorts of medical gadgets and passed them to Kkhrkht who stacked the lot in neat little piles as they meandered from room to room. When they were done and had the lot gathered up in the clinic's reception room, Kkhrkht was surprised at how much they had collected. "It's more than I can carry."
"What are you suggesting? I'm not a beast of burden." Quechlia snipped huffily.
"Nothing of the sort." Kkhrkht hoped Quechlia wasn't going to turn out to be as much of a headache as Psy was. "Oh, never mind. Wait here." Kkhrkht went out of the clinic and into the courtyard to see if there was any room in the transporter. But the D'thelvyvn hadn't made much headway and it would quite some time before they would be finished. Kkhrkht had to get Quechlia's medical supplies over to the hotel soon, looked up at the Zzhemthax' battle fliers overhead and was thinking about commandeering one when dzzhakh-ye tripped over a handcart abandoned next to the clinic and hit the ground face-first. Kkhrkht picked dzzhakh-ye up off the ground and was about to kick the handcart when dzzhakh-ye burst out laughing. It was just what Quechlia needed! Kkhrkht pushed the cart round to the entrance, loaded it up for Quechlia and set off back to the hotel.
"Are you going to fight off the attackers?" Quechlia asked hopefully as she walked alongside Kkhrkht.
"No." Kkhrkht answered as dzzhakh-ye negotiated the cart around battle-craters in the road.
"Why not?" Quechlia asked suspiciously.
"We can't." Kkhrkht answered heavily. Dzzhakh-ye despised the Gulmarians and the Raiders for the destruction they had wrought on the Ilbryak's peaceable world. "My world is too far away. Our gateways have been switched off and we don't have the means to travel this far. The Nglubi only opened our gateways so we could retrieve our own who were stranded here."
"Oh." Quechlia sounded genuinely surprised. "Have you offended the Nglubi in any way?"
"No." Kkhrkht decided to keep it simple. "But the Gulmarians, they're the ones who attacked your world, have also infiltrated the gateway network around my world. Once we are done here, we might never be able to return. And by the look of things the Nglubi may have to close your gateways."
"Because the Gulmarians capture gateways and use them to attack other worlds. Quechlia, how many gateways does your world have?" Kkhrkht asked cautiously.
"Every town has at least one and our cities have many gateways." Quechlia's voice rang with pride. "Burrakhtlmyr has more gateways than any other planet in this region of the galaxy".
"A prize catch for the Gulmarians if they remain active." Kkhrkht really felt sorry for Quechlia. The Ilbryak had done nothing to deserve their fate at the mercy of the Gulmarians. "Your world is about to become as isolated as mine."
"But we have always had the gateways." Quechlia's sense of betrayal and loss spoke even louder than her words. "Why would the Nglubi do such a thing?"
"To stop the Gulmarians." Kkhrkht felt like a helpless pawn and knew that whatever lay ahead for the Ilbryak, it was going to be ugly if they survived. The Gulmarians were thoroughly genocidal when it suited them. Cruel as it would be to abandon the Ilbryak to their fate, the Nglubi had little choice if they were to halt the Gulmarians' advance. Kkhrkht helped Quechlia lift the cart up the steps into the hotel and left her with Mdzzvyn to distribute the medicines around the survivors the Zzhemthax had brought to the hotel while dzzhakh-ye sought out Pzeptilan who, flanked by two Zzhemthax, was in the middle of a heated discussion with a flickering holograph of an Ilbryak who seemed to be transmitting from inside a cave as Kkhrkht walked into the office.
Kkhrkht waited patiently until dzzhev-ye had briefed the Zzhemthax and sent them on their way. "What was all that about?"
"The Gulmarians know we're here and have despatched a wing of fliers to attack us." Pzeptilan's cool demeanour didn't quite cover up dzzhev-ye's edginess. "Your Gulmarian was spying on us. The Zzhemthax may be able to intercept the first wave, but they're bound to throw more at us. We have to pull out."
"I gave those Zzhemthax the order to take all the D'thelvyvn back through the gateway just now. There should be enough time before the Gulmarians arrive. The rest of us will leave after the first attack is broken."
"What about Mdzzvyn's students?" Kkhrkht was adjusting to their new circumstances.
"What?" Pzeptilan was completely wrapped up in planning their evacuation back to Zrrlchtz through the gateway. "Oh, them. Send them back with the D'thelvyvn. They'll only get in the way, especially if they panic." The rest of the day was a buzz of activity as they readied themselves for the coming attack. Kkhrkht helped Mdzzvyn and dzhinn-ye's students load the clutch of survivors onto a transporter. Quechlia decided that they should go to Emblevry, a nearby town where they would be out of harm's way. Outside, the piazza was emptying as the Khzchhrrrtz transporters lifted off to head back to the gateway and on to Zrrlchtz. Fliers skittered around in the air over Dubzzhlynky in readiness for the Gulmarians' coming attack. As the evening dusk set in, a swarm of fliers set off to intercept the incoming Gulmarians.
Back in the hotel, Pzeptilan and Kkhrkht were busily gathering up the last of their equipment. "Send these back to Zrrlchtz as well." Pzeptilan called out to Kkhrkht as dzzhev-ye disconnected the hotel's computers and carried them out of the office. "There's a lot of useful information about the Gulmarians' attack stored in these machines." A squad of Zzhemthax helped them load up the last transporter to leave with every piece of hardware they could remove from the hotel and the shops around the piazza for the Zzhemthax strategists to pore over back on Zrrlchtz.
Out in the piazza the Zzhemthax had blasted open the fronts of the larger buildings so that they could hide their three remaining transporters. Dubzzhlynky was swallowed up in the overcast darkness as the remaining Khzchhrrrtz hunkered down to wait out the coming battle. And then they came whooshing through the still night sky ripping the humid peace asunder with the electric crackle of their plasma cannons. The Zzhemthax laced in and around them, picking off the Gulmarian and Raider fliers as they ambushed them from behind. Stricken fliers crashed into the town, demolishing whole buildings as they exploded into fusion fireballs, and the attack mutated into a massive dogfight illuminating the night sky over Dubzzhlynky in a hyperactive fireworks display.
The Zzhemthax fought tenaciously in the skies over Dubzzhlynky but sustained heavy losses. Compared to the Zzhemthax, the Raider's slow reflexes made them easy prey, but the Gulmarians were another matter altogether and the Zzhemthax paid a heavy price. Flier after blazing flier crashed into the ground. The piazza outside the hotel was littered with the crumpled smouldering remains of Khzchhrrrtz, Raiders' and Gulmarian fliers when the attack broke off and the skies fell silent. The Khzchhrrrtz fliers wheeled around looking for landing sites as Kkhrkht surveyed the aftermath of the battle.
One of the transporters had been hit and the last two lumbered out of hiding as the remaining Zzhemthax troops scrambled on board. Three Zzhemthax raced up the hotel steps to carry out the last of their equipment and some of the hotel's computers. "We must go to the gateway immediately. Another attack is on the way." It announced breathlessly.
Kkhrkht was still in a daze when Pzeptilan rushed past. "What are you waiting for, Kkhrkht? There's no time." The transporter was cramped as they lifted off towards the gateway. The Zzhemthax' heated breath rasped nervously as they crowded the transporter's cabin as they flew towards the gateway which would take them home to Zrrlchtz. A dull thud resonated through the hull and the transporter lurched, but kept on flying. Outside the windowless cabin, they could hear fliers buzzing, whining and racing past and looked around tracking the sounds. Moments later, a plasma beam cut through the hull killing one of the Zzhemthax as it punched its way through the floor.
The pilots began evasive manoeuvres and everyone was thrown around the cabin in a tangled heap of bodies and cargo. A bang resonated in the cockpit, its door flew open and smoke billowed out into to cabin. Kkhrkht felt an uneasy weightlessness and knew they were losing altitude fast. One of the Zzhemthax clambered through the smoke, pulled out the mangled body of a dead pilot and took its place. The transporter was falling fast and went into a spin. Kkhrkht held onto the bulkhead as hard as dzzhakh-ye could hold as bodies crashed around inside the cabin. Another plasma burst cut through the hull, narrowly missing Kkhrkht, just as the pilot levelled the transporter out. Kkhrkht looked through the thinning smoke out through the cockpit's window and saw the ground coming up at them, braced for the coming impact and shouted out: "Hold tight, we're going to crash!"
Kerrunch! The transporter hit the ground, flipped over back into the air throwing everyone around the cabin again, crashed back onto the ground and skidded to a screeching, grinding halt, broken beyond repair. The Zzhemthax' furious buzzing filled the cabin as they forced the hatch open to fight their attackers like a swarm of angry hornets. "Zzzz-zzz-zz, what happened?" Pzeptilan buzzed groggily from a darkened recess of the cabin.
"Are you all right?" Kkhrkht asked as dzzhakh-ye loosened dzzhakh-ye's death-grip on the bulkhead.
"Yes, I think so. Ow, my antennae hurt." Pzeptilan replied as dzzhev-ye crawled out from under two dead Zzhemthax and a jumble of crates and cases and tenderly tried to straighten out dzzhev-ye's bent antennae. "Are we far from the gateway?"
"No idea." Another plasma bolt lanced through the fallen transporter as Kkhrkht helped Pzeptilan to dzzhev-ye's feet. "But I think we ought to get out of here before they hit the engine." That was when Kkhrkht noticed Pzeptilan's body fluids seeping out a crack running the length of dzzhev-ye's back. "Your back has split open, I'll see if I can find a medikit with some Ahknnkt repair paste and a roll of tape."
Pzeptilan reached around behind dzzhev-ye's back and dipped dzzhev-ye's claws in the seeping fluids and tasted it. "I don't want to die here." Pzeptilan whined weakly and slumped down beside the hatch.
"Oh do get a grip, Pzeptilan. If you were moulting, you wouldn't complain." Kkhrkht didn't have time for Pzeptilan's maudlin self-pity as dzzhakh-ye rummaged around their broken transporter. "Ah, here we are!" Kkhrkht briskly wiped the crack on Pzeptilan's back until it was as clean and dry as it could be, covered it with the quick-setting Ahknnkt paste and bound dzzhev-ye's back with the tape. "There, that should hold you together until the paste sets. Now, come on, let's get out of here." Kkhrkht put two of dzzhakh-ye's arms around Pzeptilan and helped dzzhev-ye out of the transporter.
Outside, Kkhrkht recognised the battered gateway compound where they had arrived on Burrakhtlmyr through the early morning mist and walked Pzeptilan over to the woods that lined the road between Dubzzhlynky and the gateway to shelter from the dogfight overhead. The few remaining Zzhemthax fliers were hopelessly outnumbered and were fighting a losing battle against the Gulmarians. Kkhrkht's antennae sagged as dzzhakh-ye watched their fliers being picked off and crashing to the ground. One of the Zzhemthax fliers rammed a Gulmarian in mid-air and Kkhrkht watched them fall to the ground and explode in a fusion fireflash that was so intense it blinded dzzhakh-ye and the blast knocked them over where they stood in the woods.
When Kkhrkht came to it was dark and the cool nighttime air was eerily silent. The Gulmarians had gone and Pzeptilan lay at Kkhrkht's side buzzing fitfully in pain. The wreckage from the day's battle flickered and flamed ominously. Kkhrkht left Pzeptilan whimpering in the woods and went back to their fallen transporter to see what dzzhakh-ye could find and returned with a medikit, blankets, rations, water to nurse Pzeptilan through the night. Kkhrkht spent the night reading the medikit instructions to find what would help Pzeptilan. They had plenty of time and would be back on Zrrlchtz in the morning when Pzeptilan was feeling better.
By sunrise Pzeptilan had fallen into a trance, but seemed stable, so Kkhrkht decided to take a walk around the compound. Slain Zzhemthax and crumpled, smouldering fliers lay on the ground amongst the battle-scarred ruins. Kkhrkht didn't like the look of what dzzhakh-ye saw as dzzhakh-ye approached the gateway: the ground was fused into glass and what remained of the building and the fallen fliers around it looked distinctly melted. The ground was uncomfortably hot under Kkhrkht's feet as dzzhakh-ye walked up to the gateway. The dais was cracked wide open and its milkily lustrous Nglubi biostone looked as dead as a piece of rough, grey granite.
Kkhrkht took dzzhakh-ye's blue Psionic crystal out of dzzhakh-ye's backpack and placed it on what remained of the dais' control panel. Nothing. Normally, the controls would light up and respond but the explosion had bleached the life out of it and it sat there as dead as any other lump of rock. Well, they wouldn't get home though this gateway and Kkhrkht put dzzhakh-ye's crystal away and continued on around the compound. The Zzhemthax foot soldiers had fought to the death or had been killed in the explosion and Kkhrkht stepped around their broken bodies as dzzhakh-ye set about seeing what dzzhakh-ye could scavenge.
It was dispiriting wandering around amongst the dead picking them clean of their plasma torches and cartridges, but it had to be done. The fallen battle fliers yielded up little more than the shattered bodies of dead Zzhemthax pilots, but Kkhrkht persevered knowing that their survival would depend on whatever dzzhakh-ye could find. By midday it had warmed up considerably and Kkhrkht had gathered several plasma torches and dozens of cartridges but the only useful things like rations and medicines for Pzeptilan were salvaged from their transporter. Pzeptilan was still in a trance and breathing fitfully, so Kkhrkht gave dzzhev-ye a light dose of Ghalthynn to ease the pain and an infusion of salts to make up for the lost body fluid. At least that's what it recommended in the medikit's manual but Kkhrkht had no field medic experience and was terrified of doing the wrong thing and killing Pzeptilan by accident.
By the late afternoon, Pzeptilan's breathing had stabilised again but, in spite of the heat, Kkhrkht thought that Pzeptilan felt abnormally cold and gave dzzhev-ye another infusion of salts with sugar. Pzeptilan was still deep in a trance, so Kkhrkht set off back to the compound to stretch dzzhakh-ye's cramped legs. Kkhrkht was walking past a crashed flier lying upside down on the ground when dzzhakh-ye noticed a flicker of movement out of the corner of dzzhakh-ye's eye, stopped cold in dzzhakh-ye's tracks and looked around. There, through the flier's cracked windscreen, Kkhrkht saw a pair of antennae flapping around feebly and bent over to get a closer look. It was no illusion: they were definitely attached to a head. Slowly, the pilot's head turned around to look straight at Kkhrkht.
It was alive! Kkhrkht wasted no time tearing open the flier's hatch and clambered inside to unstrap the pilot from dzzhev-ye's seat. The Zzhemthax pilot fell out of its seat as Kkhrkht undid the last strap and lay there moaning incoherently. Kkhrkht pulled it out of the flier and had to help it walk all the way back to their campsite in the woods. When they got back Pzeptilan was delirious and gibbering random fragments of hallucinatory nonsense while the Zzhemthax curled up and moaned a low buzz of pain or sorrow. Kkhrkht couldn't tell which it was, maybe even both and consoled dzzhakh-ye that at least dzzhakh-ye wasn't an invalid like Pzeptilan or the Zzhemthax.
All night the two of them moaned and babbled nearly driving Kkhrkht to distraction. But at least Kkhrkht could walk away from them for some peace and quiet. But each time dzzhakh-ye returned, Pzeptilan was still babbling away and the Zzhemthax was all curled up rocking back and forth like a cataleptic. By sunrise Kkhrkht could take no more and shouted out: "Shut up, the pair of you!"
Pzeptilan, oblivious to Kkhrkht, kept on babbling, but the Zzhemthax fell silent and looked up sheepishly at Kkhrkht, it's antennae drooping limply down the sides of its head. "I have failed, your highness. I should have died in battle." It whined miserably.
Finally, a response! "Enough of that. Are you hurt?"
"No." The Zzhemthax' voice dripped with self-pity, its' spirit broken by the battlefield defeat. "Better to have died..."
But Kkhrkht impatiently cut the Zzhemthax short. "Yes, that's all very well, but we're here now. I need some help with Pzeptilan."
The Zzhemthax uncurled itself, stood up shakily, briefly unfurled and flapped its wings to make sure they were still there and examined Pzeptilan. "What happened to dzzhev-ye?"
"Pzeptilan's shell cracked open when we crashed." Kkhrkht explained as dzzhakh-ye pointed out the silvery tape holding Pzeptilan's body together. "I think dzzhev-ye lost a lot of body fluid."
"I see." The Zzhemthax, having been absolved of its failure by a higher caste, was slowly becoming more its usual self. "Other than binding dzzhev-ye's body together, what have you done?"
"A dose of Ghalthynn and infusions of salts and sugar." Kkhrkht explained.
"Dzzhev-ye's in shock. Some more Ghalthynn and a Thzzhali wave inducer to stabilise dzzhev-ye's mind."
Kkhrkht rummaged through the medikit and found several more doses of Ghalthynn, but no sign of a wave inducer. The Zzhemthax went off to search the transporter and came back several hours later with several flasks of water, some more rations, an assortment of infusion sachets and a wave inducer. By nightfall, Pzeptilan's gibbering had subsided and Kkhrkht made occasional attempts to talk with Pzeptilan while the Zzhemthax sorted out their collection of supplies.
Pzeptilan's lucidity gradually returned during the night and by the morning was beginning to make sense. "We really ought to leave this place in case those Gulmarians return."
"More like get off this planet." Kkhrkht casually extrapolated.
"And how do you propose to do that?" Pzeptilan knew they needed a plan, but this sounded too far-fetched.
"Ah! Do you remember that Ilbryak that took me to the clinic where we found the robot and that Gulmarian?"
"Not exactly, but go on." Pzeptilan felt reassured by Kkhrkht's easy manner.
"It told me that every town has a gateway. Burrakhtlmyr has more gateways than any other planet in this sector." Kkhrkht imitated Quechlia's proud tone of voice.
"If the Nglubi haven't closed them down." Pzeptilan knew it was too good to be true.
"Have you got any better ideas?" Kkhrkht was confident that dzzhakh-ye's plan would work.
"No, not really." Pzeptilan still felt glazed from dzzhev-ye's injuries in spite of all the medication and the Thzzhali wave inducer.
"Good. That's settled, then." Kkhrkht quite liked the feeling of command. "Let's go to Emblevry. We need a guide and I know just the person for the job."
"You do?" Pzeptilan could see that Kkhrkht was on a roll, but this sounded as if Kkhrkht had been knocked around the head a bit when they crashed. "And why Emblevry?"
"Absolutely. That Ilbryak is a tour guide." Kkhrkht was supremely confident. "Like I said: Just the person we need. Especially if we're going to locate a working gateway before the Gulmarians find it or the Nglubi disable it. And you evacuated the local survivors to Emblevry, so we should go there to find it."
Pzeptilan was sold on the idea. "What are we waiting for? Let's go!" Pzeptilan rolled over and tried to stand up, but crashed back down onto the soft, mossy forest floor. "Zzzz-zzz-zz." Dzzhev-ye buzzed weakly.
"Let's wait until you get your strength back." Kkhrkht suggested kindly as dzzhakh-ye went over to explain dzzhakh-ye's plan to the Zzhemthax. Kkhrkht and the Zzhemthax spent the day stripping the fliers and the transporter of anything the Zzhemthax decided would be useful and buried everything they weren't going to take with them on their journey to Emblevry. They set off the next morning following the maps the Zzhemthax had downloaded from its flier into their notebooks.