Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 19: Escape from Burrakhtlmyr.

      “Hey, you two, I need a rest.” Pzeptilan wheezed as dzzhev-ye trailed along behind Kkhrkht and the Zzhemthax. Pzeptilan flopped down on the lush meadow under a clear sky only to hear the crack in dzzhev-ye’s back split open. “Oh, not again.”
      “What is it?” Kkhrkht stopped and called back to Pzeptilan. Dzzhakh-ye was getting exasperated with having to keep on stopping and waiting for Pzeptilan. Kkhrkht was determined to get to Emblevry by nightfall. Time was of the essence.
      The Zzhemthax went to tend Pzeptilan’s cracked back. “Zzzz-zzz-zz!” Pzeptilan complained tetchily as the Zzhemthax tightened the tape to hold Pzeptilan’s back together. “Any more and I won’t be able to breathe.”
      “My apologies, your Highness.” The Zzhemthax stooped low so as not to tower over Pzeptilan and replied obsequiously pointing over towards Kkhrkht as it gave Pzeptilan another infusion of salts. “But Excellency-Dzzhakh wants to reach Emblevry quickly.”
      “No!” Pzeptilan twisted around and grabbed the Zzhemthax’ antennae and pulled its face close. Its’ mandibles quivered in pain. Fearsome a warrior as it was, it had been bred to total subservience to higher castes, such as Pzeptilan and Kkhrkht. “Stop this ‘Excellency-Dzzhakh this’ and ‘Your Highness that’ nonsense! I have a name: Pzeptilan. Use it.” Pzeptilan rasped painfully. “And that flea-brain over there is called Kkhrkht. And you, what’s your name?” Pzeptilan tugged on the Zzhemthax’ antennae one last time.
      “Vvezhti-Kla, your Highness.” The Zzhemthax faltered awkwardly. Vvezhti-Kla fought hard against the age-old Khzchhrrrtz taboo against admitting to individual identity outside one’s own caste.
      “No, it’s Pzeptilan!” Pzeptilan angrily stamped a foot. “Repeat after me: Hello Pzeptilan, my name is Vvezhti-Kla.”
      Finally after many stuttering false starts, Vvezhti-Kla finally blurted it out: “Hello Pzeptilan, my name is Vvezhti-Kla.”
      “Good, well done Vvezhti-Kla.” Pzeptilan rewarded the Zzhemthax.
      “Thank you, your Highness.” Vvezhti-Kla bowed humbly. Pzeptilan couldn’t take any more and ran off to Kkhrkht shrieking an agonised Khzchhrrrtz buzz leaving a very confused Vvezhti-Kla wondering what it had done wrong.
      “What’s the matter with you?” Kkhrkht had watched Pzeptilan’s psychodrama from a distance.
      “I’m dieing, that what the matter is.” Pzeptilan wheezed peevishly. “And I’d prefer it if that idiot Zzhemthax wasn’t so damn formal. It’s driving me mad.”
      Kkhrkht held Pzeptilan with dzzhakh-ye’s mid limbs and lifted Pzeptilan’s head up with dzzhakh-ye’s upper arms and looked closely into dzzhev-ye’s eyes. No sign of them misting over, which was what would happen when a Khzchhrrrtz approaches death. “Zzzzz, no you’re not. There’s plenty of colour in your eyes.” Kkhrkht turned Pzeptilan around and inspected dzzhev-ye’s back. A slow dribble of congealing sap leaked out of the crack. Messy, but it wasn’t anything that wouldn’t heal with time. “You want to go easy on yourself, Pzeptilan. None of that jumping around that I saw you up to over there. Just do what the Zzhemthax says and you’ll heal up in no time.”
      “Vvezhti-Kla” Pzeptilan retorted angrily.
      “Who?” Kkhrkht wondered if Pzeptilan was going delirious again. “What?”
      “The Zzhemthax, that’s its name: Vvezhti-Kla.” Pzeptilan stamped dzzhev-ye’s foot again. “From now on we use our names. If Vvezhti-Kla calls me ‘Your Highness’ one more time, I’ll kill it.”
      Kkhrkht looked over towards Vvezhti-Kla who was prostrated obesiantly next to the bag of supplies it was carrying for them decided the best thing to do was to humour Pzeptilan. “Yes, of course. Do you feel well enough to walk?”
      Pzeptilan buzzed contritely as Kkhrkht led dzzhev-ye over to where Vvezhti-Kla waited. Kkhrkht led them off at a slower pace for Pzeptilan’s sake and consulted the map in dzzhakh-ye’s notepad. They’d covered more ground than dzzhakh-ye thought! Later that afternoon, they came to a river and dived in to clean off all the grime and dirt they had gathered up since arriving on Burrakhtlmyr. Even Pzeptilan was enjoying dzzhev-ye, splashing around playfully in the cool, clear water. They climbed out on the far bank and lay down to rest and dry off next to a stand of russet reedy-looking plants and trees.
      Kkhrkht was taking a drink from a clear pool beside the river when a large, dark shape swam through the water, lunged at dzzhakh-ye grabbing Kkhrkht’s head with its’ sucker mouth to and began dragging dzzhakh-ye, buzzing in terrified panic, back into the river. Vvezhti-Kla leapt at the predatory amphibian and bit its head off in one fluid, reflexive swoop. Its dark, greasy body fell away twitching as its thick, olive blood pumped out in dieing spurts. Vvezhti-Kla pulled its head off Kkhrkht’s face, its still-hungry rings of suckers rippling spasmodically. Vvezhti-Kla spat out the alien flesh and rinsed its out mouth with some fresh river water. “That thing tasted disgusting. It is not fit to eat.” It commented as it helped Kkhrkht clean the creatures’ sticky digestive saliva off dzzhakh-ye’s face.
      Kkhrkht was drying off when dzzhakh-ye heard a beeping sound coming from dzzhakh-ye’s rucksack. That was Kkhrkht’s commset from Mars, so why was it active? Just then, Kkhrkht heard the high-pitched whining whoosh of combat fliers racing their way. “Quick, hide!” Kkhrkht shouted out as dzzhakh-ye dived into the reeds and nearly had dzzhakh-ye’s wind knocked out as Pzeptilan and Vvezhti-Kla landed on top.
      “What is it?” Pzeptilan asked as the fighters tore across the sky overhead.
      “Overlordz fighters from Mars.” Kkhrkht was glad they hadn’t been spotted from the air and went to fetch dzzhakh-ye’s still-beeping commset after the fighters had dropped from view over the horizon and looked quizzically at its diminutive screen: ‘MarsTel network connection active. Logon, Yes/No’ It displayed below the MarsTel logo. Kkhrkht was still accepting the incredulity of it when the message on the screen changed: ‘Network connection dropped’ and then its persistent beeping stopped and the screen went blank.
      Kkhrkht was still chuckling softly when Pzeptilan, leaning for support on Vvezhti-Kla, hobbled over. “What have you got there?”
      “A souvenir from those aliens I studied.” Kkhrkht held out the commset for Pzeptilan to see. “Very similar to our buzz boxes. Here, listen to some of their music.” Kkhrkht set it to play ‘Crystal Magic’ by The Flaming Watusis.
      “Interesting.” Pzeptilan was intrigued by the strange sound wafting out of the tiny buzz box.
      “And here’s another.” This time Kkhrkht chose The Golden Stool of the Asante by the Accra Symphony Orchestra and let the symphonic polyrhythms and cascading melodies fill the still afternoon air.
      “So why was it beeping earlier?” Vvezhti-Kla asked during a quiet passage in the symphony.
      “Those fliers,” Kkhrkht pointed up into the sky even though the fighters had long gone. “Belong to criminal aberrants from the civilisation I studied. Their buzz boxes must use a common radio carrier. We have a device to detect the Gulmarians mercenaries, this could be quite useful.”
      “Well if you can detect them with that buzz box, they might be able to detect you.” Vvezhti-Kla observed sceptically.
      “Doesn’t look like it.” Kkhrkht nonchalantly scanned the sky. “Otherwise they would have come back to investigate.” Just to be on the safe side, Kkhrkht set it to silent mode and locked it off the network so it wouldn’t respond to any attempts by the Overlordz communications network to raise a logon response from it. “If we follow this river, it will take us to Emblevry.” Kkhrkht once again took command and led their little troop onwards.
      By dusk they were wading chest-deep in the river past the airstrip outside Emblevry which was now full of Gulmarian and Overlordz fliers and transporters parked up in ranks. The river bank rose steeply so they stayed close in to avoid being spotted. An hour later, they were under a bridge near the town centre. The streets and shops were lit up and Kkhrkht could make out throngs of Ilbryak and other alien visitors milling around. A short way past the bridge Kkhrkht found a slipway leading up to a section of darkened buildings where they could dry off and slip into town unnoticed. “We must be careful.” Kkhrkht told Pzeptilan and Vvezhti-Kla. “The Gulmarians know what we look like by now.” They crept up through the darkened alleys looking for vantage points from where they could survey the shops in the town from the safety of the shadows. In spite of the devastation of Dubzzhlynky, downtown Emblevry was teeming with interplanetary holidaymakers milling about as if nothing untoward had ever happened.
      Kkhrkht remembered that Quechlia said she was a tour guide so they searched for tour agencies and the like. At one point Pzeptilan spotted a group of tall, slender Xarubians leaving a shop wearing thick, hooded robes. “That’s what we need.” Dzzhev-ye pointed out. “We’ll never find your friend lurking around like this. We have to be able to search out this town properly.”
      You could barely see the Xarubians under the deep hoods. Just what they needed! “I’ll get us some of those robes.” Kkhrkht announced as dzzhakh-ye counted through dzzhakh-ye’s paltry collection of Galactic Credits. Kkhrkht turned to sneak out to the shop and walked straight into a group of Ilbryak who surrounded dzzhakh-ye and held their crossbows levelled at Kkhrkht’s chest.
      “Who are you and what are you doing here?” Their leader, a sturdy and scruffy-looking male Ilbryak, asked tersely.
      “I’m lost.” Kkhrkht lied nervously.
      “You lie.” He replied brusquely as he cocked his crossbow. “What about your friends?”
      “I-I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Kkhrkht stammered stupidly at having been captured so easily. Kkhrkht’s warrior self realised it couldn’t take on so many opponents and win. Their bolts would pierce dzzhakh-ye’s exoskeleton with ease.
      “These friends of yours,” The Ilbryak leader pointed out gruffly as Pzeptilan and Vvezhti-Kla were bundled out into the shadowy alley to where Kkhrkht had been ambushed. “Well? Explain yourself.”
      “We are Khzchhrrrtz and are looking for Quechlia of Dubzzhlynky.” Kkhrkht fumbled anxiously with dzzhakh-ye’s translator. It nearly jumped out of Kkhrkht’s claws! Pzeptilan and Vvezhti-Kla shuffled awkwardly behind Kkhrkht as their Ilbryak captors closed ranks around them.
      “Dubzzhlynky, you say?” The Ilbryak leader lowered his crossbow so that it pointed at Kkhrkht’s legs. “What were you doing there?” At the mention of Dubzzhlynky, some of the other Ilbryak began talking among themselves cautiously as they stole suspicious glances at their Khzchhrrrtz captives. Their chatter grew louder and louder until a group of three Ilbryak gathered around their leader pointing at Vvezhti-Kla and jabbering excitedly.
      Eventually the Ilbryak leader pushed his subordinates away and addressed the three sullen Khzchhrrrtz: “You, the tall one.” He pointed his crossbow squarely at Vvezhti-Kla. “Some of my bucks here saw your kind at Dubzzhlynky fighting the invaders. They say you fought bravely. Have to come to defend our planet?”
      Vvezhti-Kla scuffled awkwardly and looked to Pzeptilan and Kkhrkht for support. A lower caste Khzchhrrrtz speaking on behalf of higher caste in the presence of strangers? Unheard of! Pzeptilan knew what was going through Vvezhti-Kla’s mind, set aside dzzhev-ye’s attempt to go beyond the rigid Khzchhrrrtz caste system and addressed the grizzled Ilbryak: “Unfortunately not.” Pzeptilan knew the Khzchhrrrtz were in no position to help the Ilbryak. “We were stranded here when the gateway near Dubzzhlynky exploded. We came to Burrakhtlmyr to evacuate our kin after the Nglubi closed our gateways down. These invaders ambushed us at Dubzzhlynky.” Pzeptilan buzzed painfully.
      “Why would the Nglubi do such a thing?” The Ilbryak leader quizzed Pzeptilan as the young bucks in his gang solemnly lowered their crossbows out of respect. The sense of occasion was shattered when one of them accidentally shot itself in the foot and hopped around yowling in agony as its companions clumsily wrestled it to the ground to remove the bolt from its foot. The old Ilbryak cursed under his breath at the untrained rabble he’d mustered. How were they ever going to take on the invaders when they were so incompetent?
      “These invaders, as you call them,” Pzeptilan continued once the young bucks’ whinnying laughter at their unfortunate comrade had died down. “They hijack gateways to invade other worlds. The Nglubi closed our gateways to protect our worlds from them.”
      “If only the Nglubi had done the same for us.” The old Ilbryak commented dryly. “But it’s too late now. You, come with us.” He motioned with his crossbow for Pzeptilan, Kkhrkht and Vvezhti-Kla to follow him and his troop of young Ilbryak through the darkened alleyways of Emblevry. They walked in silence for several hours until they had passed the last outskirts of Emblevry and down a path in a thick, creaking forest. “My name is Hwinylee.” He introduced himself as he led the way. “If what my bucks told me is true, you want to stay away from the invaders.”
      A group of armed Ilbryak met them in a small clearing and led the way to an entrance hidden deep in the woods. Hwinylee led the way down the pitch-black tunnel with only a faint, guttering torch to light the way until he reached an armoured door. After a while it opened to reveal a well-lit cavern that was their headquarters. Some Ilbryak were tending various machines and computers, others seemed to have nothing to do. Hwinylee dismissed his young bucks and led Kkhrkht, Vvezhti-Kla and Pzeptilan past a dark pool in the rough floor and into a nook in the cavern that served as his office.
      “So tell me, what do you know of these invaders?” Hwinylee asked as he made himself comfortable on a cushioned stool perched between packing cases and a grime-encrusted computer terminal that had obviously been placed in the cavern long ago.
      “Not enough.” Kkhrkht confessed bleakly. “There’s two groups involved: The Gulmarians and their mercenaries known as the Overlordz. From what I know of them, the Gulmarians want your gateways and to strip your planet of its resources.”
      “At least I know what we’re up against now.” Hwinylee let out a low whistle as he scratched the velvet on his stumpy horns. “I don’t know what we can do. We’re seriously outclassed.” Hwinylee turned to Pzeptilan and addressed dzzhev-ye pleadingly. “We’re a peaceable lot, us Ilbryak. Oh we have our soldiers, but we never anticipated anything like this. How are we supposed to defend ourselves?”
      “Hold out until the Nglubi get here.” Kkhrkht suggested. “They have the means.”
      “Well I certainly hope so.” Hwinylee didn’t sound convinced. He sat in pensive silence for a few moments before hopping up off his stool. He brushed past Kkhrkht as he went out of his office nook. “I have some thing to show you.”
      Pzeptilan, Kkhrkht and Vvezhti-Kla followed him deeper into the recesses of the cavern past damp-slicked luminescent stalagmites rising up out of deep, dark pools, crates of supplies piled up wherever one looked and sleeping Ilbryak huddled in dark corners. Hwinylee stopped in front of a holding pen built into a recess of the cavern. He pulled back the gate and went inside, his torch casting its flickering light across the dead mutilated bodies of slain Gulmarians, Humans and Mechs.
      Kkhrkht looked the corpses over. Hwinylee might feel outclassed by their superior technology, but on the ground it looked as if the Ilbryak could put up quite a fight. “These are your Gulmarians.” Kkhrkht pointed out a pile of dark, leathery corpses, their sinewy limbs broken and hanging at odd angles from their brutally hacked bodies. Kkhrkht stopped beside the smashed remains of a mech and a human whose head only remained attached to its body by a thin strip of flesh. “These ones are their mercenaries. They come from a world that has no gateways.”
      “What, from this sector?” Hwinylee was surprised at Kkhrkht’s casual familiarity with the aliens who had overwhelmed his world.
      “No, further spinwise.” Kkhrkht wandered around the pen counting the dead bodies: seven Gulmarian, eight Human and five Mech. “You want to be careful with these robots, Hwinylee. Even when they’re dead, their bodies can act as radiolocation beacons.” Kkhrkht pointed out as dzzhakh-ye pulled a dead mech core out of the broken remains of its body. “This is what you want to keep, the rest you should destroy before it gives your position away. These,” Kkhrkht pointed towards a pair of twisted Human carcasses. “Are no problem, but they decompose quickly. But you should burn the Gulmarian corpses; they are infectious.” Kkhrkht commented as dzzhakh-ye gingerly stepped around a pile of Gulmarian corpses. “Be very careful handling them, their biota will grow in their host and take it over. Before you know it they’ll turn into Gulmarians.”
      “You don’t say.” Hwinylee rubbed his muzzle thoughtfully as he followed Kkhrkht around the holding pen. “Is there an antidote to this infection?”
      “Zzzzz …” Kkhrkht didn’t quite know where to begin.
      “But the Nglubi have it.” Hwinylee cut Kkhrkht off before dzzhakh-ye could finish. “Oh, we’re in a right mess now.” He laughed bitterly at their fate.
      “The Nglubi gave us a paralysis gas and a supply of detectors.” Kkhrkht offered in spite of Hwinylee’s pessimism. “We’ve got some in the transporter we abandoned. There might also be some in the fliers left near the gateway.”
      This was what Hwinylee wanted to hear. “It’s still dark outside. We could get there before sunrise!” Things were looking up.
      Kkhrkht, however, was completely worn out after their long trek from the Dubzzhlynky gateway and really needed some rest. “How to you intend to get there so quickly?”
      Hwinylee looked puzzled for a moment and looked Kkhrkht over. “Why, gallop, of course. It’s not that far.”
      “There’s no way I could cover that distance as quickly as you and Pzeptilan is badly injured. Dzzhev-ye needs to rest.” Kkhrkht didn’t want to let Hwinylee down in spite of dzzhakh-ye’s exhaustion. “Vvezhti-Kla, can fly. Dzhinn-ye could keep up with you.”
      Hwinylee ushered Kkhrkht out of the holding pen only to find Vvezhti-Kla tending to a convulsing Pzeptilan. Vvezhti-Kla looked up briefly: “Dzzhev-ye needs more salts and Ghalthynn, your highness.” It was an effort, but they managed to carry Pzeptilan back to the ante-chamber where they had left their supplies.
      Hwinylee mustered a team to go out to the gateway with Vvezhti-Kla and helped Kkhrkht carry Pzeptilan into a warm, dry alcove. “What are your plans?” He asked as Kkhrkht tended to Pzeptilan.
      “To get back to our world, Zrrlchtz.” Kkhrkht replied without even looking up.
      “You’ll be lucky.” Hwinylee managed a wry laugh. “It’s true what you said about the gateways. I didn’t want to admit it in front of my bucks, but it seems that these invaders have seized as many gateways as they can. And the ones they haven’t yet got to have gone dead.”
      Kkhrkht gave Pzeptilan a massive dose of Ghalthynn and dzzhev-ye’s convulsions melted away. Kkhrkht checked that Pzeptilan was breathing steadily and finally stood up. “We need to find a working gateway. We must get back to our world.”
      “You and how many million others?” Hwinylee had heard of the mass panics in the other cities after the invasion. “Whether the Nglubi will do anything other than shutting down our gateways remains to be seen.” He questioned Kkhrkht in an easy casual manner clearly checking and re-checking Kkhrkht’s responses and mentally comparing them against the few reports he’d received from Dubzzhlynky. After a few hours he was satisfied. “You stay here with your friend. I’ll see to it that you get some food and drink.”
      Hwinylee shambled off slowly leaving Kkhrkht alone with Pzeptilan wondering if they’d ever get off Burrakhtlmyr alive.
      Vvezhti-Kla flew along above the herd of Ilbryak bucks Hwinylee had sent out to the gateway buzzing a tune in time with the steady rhythm of their hoof beats as they raced across the open countryside. It was still dark when they reached the remains of the gateway and Vvezhti-Kla set about stripping the floxetrasine canisters out of the crumpled Khzchhrrrtz fliers littered around the dead gateway. The fallen transporter yielded up a crate of detector beads and some more Ghalthynn for Pzeptilan. By sunrise they had gathered up all there was to be found and the Ilbryak troop leader herded everyone into the woods until nightfall when they were less likely to be spotted by the Gulmarians.
      Pzeptilan’s condition deteriorated and dzzhev-ye spent the whole night writhing on the floor bellowing out pornographic Khzchhrrrtz ditties sounding like a demented reed organ echoing around the cavernous Ilbryak hideout. Groans and bellows of complaint answered back from Ilbryak roused from their sleep. Eventually a group of bedraggled Ilbryak stomped up to their nook. “Give it a break, will you?” One of them demanded angrily. “Yeah, we’re trying to get some sleep.” Another one joined in.
      “Ah, we don’t sleep.” Kkhrkht tried to explain as Pzeptilan pumped out dzzhev-ye’s feverish fandangos in the background.
      “Well we do. And if you can’t shut your friend up, we will.” A third Ilbryak threatened as it held some rags in its paws.
      “I tried.” Kkhrkht offered lamely as Pzeptilan blindly turned towards them and began honking even louder than before.
      “Right, that’s it!” The first Ilbryak snapped and four of the Ilbryak steamed in, wrestled Pzeptilan to the ground and stuffed the rags in dzzhev-ye’s spiracles. Mff-ff mff-ff-ff, Pzeptilan gamely puffed against them until they popped out one by one. An Ilbryak buck was about to kick Pzeptilan out of frustration, but stopped. “What is the matter with this one?” He despairingly begged Kkhrkht.
      Kkhrkht rolled the still-singing Pzeptilan over to show the crack running the length of dzzhev-ye’s back and the congealed, grime-encrusted sap holding it together. “Pzeptilan was injured when we were leaving Dubzzhlynky. Our transporter was shot down. Pzeptilan’s feverish.” Kkhrkht apologised. “Maybe some more Ghalthynn... Where can I get some water?”
      Kkhrkht was saved by Hwinylee who brusquely shooed away the midnight mob. “Can’t your friend whatsisname tone it down a bit?”
      “Yes, Pzeptilan.” Hwinylee huffed authoritatively.
      “I’ve tried.” Kkhrkht explained as dzzhakh thwacked Pzeptilan hard across dzzhev-ye’s head. But Pzeptilan carried on oblivious. “This is my last dose of Ghalthynn.” Kkhrkht muttered as dzzhakh-ye stuffed it firmly down Pzeptilan’s bone dry throat. “Do you have some water?”
      “Oh, uh, yes.” Hwinylee, obviously quite tired, stumbled off in search of some water and came back a few minutes later with a flask and handed it to Kkhrkht who sat Pzeptilan up, held dzzhev-ye’s mandibles open and poured it down dzzhev-ye’s parched throat. Pzeptilan’s singing began to slow down to a blurry, drugged slur and dzzhev-ye slumped in Kkhrkht’s arms as the Ghalthynn took hold.
      “Finally, some peace and quiet! Why didn’t you do that earlier?” Hwinylee cornered Kkhrkht.
      “That was our last dose. I was trying to save it for an emergency. I’m not a doctor, Vvezhti-Kla knows more about these things.” Kkhrkht blathered helplessly.
      “Good job you had it, then.” Hwinylee continued. “Those bucks would have killed Pzeptilan if that howling had gone on much longer.”
      “When will Vvezhti-Kla get back?” Kkhrkht wanted to get away from these Ilbryak before Pzeptilan caused any more trouble.
      “Tomorrow night.” Hwinylee replied curtly. “It’s not safe to travel by day any longer. As for me,” Hwinylee stretched his arms and let out a great, big yawn. “I’ll see you two in the morning.”
      Pzeptilan’s drugged burblings gradually subsided and Kkhrkht sat for hours listening to deep soughing of the air flowing through the dark recesses of the cavern. The deep silence of night time slumbers was only broken by wafts of occasional faint chatter among the guards on night duty. Kkhrkht drifted off into a trance dreading the moment when the Ghalthynn would finally wear off. Would Pzeptilan resume dzzhev-ye’s fevered ravings? Hours later, Pzeptilan’s drugged gurglings became more focused as the Ghalthynn began to wear off. Pzeptilan recited snatches of conversation, insane parodies of boring lectures they both sat through, exaggerated recollections of spice-fuelled orgies, a list of every report dzzhev-ye had cribbed at the Institute, intimate details of a swindling scheme that Pzeptilan had cooked up with a few friends, a braggary of lies catalogued with demented relish and more. Kkhrkht wondered if Pzeptilan even knew what dzzhev-ye was saying and hoped it wouldn’t reach the same fevered pitch as before.
      Pzeptilan eventually ran out of steam and lapsed back into drugged incoherent buzzing just as the first Ilbryak roused from their slumbers. One by one, lights began to flick on around the cavern slowly beating back the night time gloom. Kkhrkht watched them as they passed the nook where dzzhakh-ye watched over Pzeptilan. Some stumbled past, still half-asleep; others glanced over at their new guests out of curiosity and few scowled muttering dark curses under their breath as they went their way. The smell of food and the sound of voices chattering wafted their way. The voices grew louder and louder, some breaking out shouting until Kkhrkht heard Hwinylee shouting them all down. A hush fell leaving Kkhrkht tormented by the warm smell of food. Kkhrkht dredged a ration bar out of dzzhakh-ye’s rucksack and munched on it. Nourishing, but nowhere near as satisfying as the tantalisingly elusive aroma wafting in the air.
      Pzeptilan was buzzing out an aimless melody when Hwinylee showed up carrying a tray laden with food and set it down in front of Kkhrkht and Pzeptilan. “I suppose you’ll want something to eat.” Kkhrkht was about to thank Hwinylee when Pzeptilan rolled over, stuck dzzhev-ye’s face in a bowl of porridge, sucked it down in one and proceeded to make short work of the cakes and soup, scattering the bowls, cups and plates. Kkhrkht looked on aghast. They’d already offended all the Ilbryak in the cavern. What more would Pzeptilan do?
      Hwinylee folded his arms and waited until Pzeptilan had finished eating, flopped face-down and continued buzzing away softly like a contented grub. “Is Pzeptilan always like this?”
      “Not normally.” Kkhrkht wondered why Hwinylee was being so good natured after last night’s fiasco.
      “A messenger just came back from what’s left of the Dubzzhlynky gateway with these.” Hwinylee held out a pawful of detector beads and a small canister. Some of the beads were glowing and their red spots pointed out across the cavern. “What do they do?”
      Kkhrkht got up and picked one of the beads out of Hwinylee’s open paw. “Do you think it’s safe to leave Pzeptilan here?”
      “We-e-e-ell, that’s up to Pzeptilan.” Hwinylee made it clear he wasn’t going to take any responsibility for what his bucks might do.
      Kkhrkht took a last look down at Pzeptilan who lay on the floor buzzing contentedly and waggling dzzhev-ye’s antennae aimlessly. “Fair enough,” Kkhrkht held one of the beads up for Hwinylee to see. “These are detector beads. They point out Gulmarians and anyone infected with their biota. This one’s probably pointing out those corpses you showed me yesterday.”
      “Lead the way.” Hwinylee fell in beside Kkhrkht as dzzhakh-ye followed the path pointed out by the detector bead. Sure enough it brought them to the holding pen. Kkhrkht walked around the Gulmarian corpses holding the detector bead so that Hwinylee could see its active red spot pointing towards the dead bodies. “Fine, I see how they work.” Hwinylee was convinced.
      “There’s more.” Kkhrkht continued as dzzhakh-ye walked out of the holding pen. Kkhrkht’s bead flicked around and pointed towards the main hall of the cavern. “These beads also detect infected carriers and it looks like you’ve got one here.”
      “This I’ve got to see.” Hwinylee wasn’t quite sure what Kkhrkht meant.
      “You don’t, but you will.” Kkhrkht picked the canister out of Hwinylee’s other paw. “This contains floxetrasine gas. It paralyses Gulmarians and forces infected carriers to revert to their Gulmarian form. What do you intend to do with it?”
      “What did you do?” Hwinylee hadn’t yet made up his mind.
      “Me?” Kkhrkht hadn’t dealt with the Gulmarian purge on Zrrlchtz. The Zzhemthax took care of that. “Oh, we killed them.”
      “What, all of them?” Hwinylee thought that was a bit extreme. “I thought you said the Nglubi have a cure for this infection?”
      “I did?” Kkhrkht was confused. “Not as far as I know.”
      “Oh. That changes things a bit.” Hwinylee realised what it meant. “I hope its no-one I know.”
      “You’ll have to tell your people how serious it is. Maybe an example would drive the point home.” Kkhrkht suggested.
      “How do I know you’re not making this up?” Hwinylee asked suspiciously. “This gas could make that happen to anyone for all I know.”
      “Fine, I’ll spray myself.” Kkhrkht pressed down on the valve and dosed dzzhakh-ye with a hefty mist of floxetrasine. “See, nothing. And, oops…” Kkhrkht pretended to fumble with the canister for a moment. “I’ve just sprayed you too.”
      Hwinylee’s nose wrinkled. “Pshaw, that stuff stinks.”
      “No, not a big hit with anyone.” Kkhrkht commented wryly. “But you get my point. It hasn’t turned either of us into a Gulmarian.”
      Hwinylee looked down at his furry body. “No, it hasn’t.”
      “Do you want to spray the carrier or shall I?” Kkhrkht wanted to work out their plan of action before they entered the main hall.
      “No, you do it.” Hwinylee would have enough on his hands dealing with the ensuing chaos. “Do you think this dagger will be enough?”
      Kkhrkht glanced sceptically at Hwinylee’s dagger. Its curved blade looked dangerous enough glinting in the half-light leading up to the main hall. “The gas paralyses them, but you don’t want to get in that close unless you really have to. Here we are.” Kkhrkht announced as they walked into the main hall. Groups of Ilbryak stood around talking. Some sat around tables eating, drinking and talking. One group were busy servicing their crossbows and pulse rifles. Kkhrkht’s bead pointed towards a group who were drinking and sharpening their scimitars. “Oh damn!”
      “What?” As far as Hwinylee could see, it was life as normal in their cavern’s main hall.
      Kkhrkht held the bead out for Hwinylee to see. “Over there, that lot. They look well armed. Their swords have a greater reach than your dagger. It could get very dangerous.”
      Hwinylee slapped Kkhrkht reassuringly on the back. “Just stick with me.” Hwinylee led Kkhrkht over to the table where a group of Ilbryak were busily working on a pile of crossbows and pulse rifles. “How’s it going, my young bucks and fillies?” He addressed them genially.
      One filly looked up from the crossbow she was busy oiling, her eyes bright with excitement. “We heard the news, commander. Now we’ve got a real weapon to fight back with.”
      Hwinylee put his arm around Kkhrkht. “You can thank Kkhrkht and the Khzchhrrrtz who fought off the invaders over at Dubzzhlynky.” Kkhrkht was impressed at the ease with which Hwinylee made an utter rout sound like a victory. Kkhrkht was very, very lucky to be still alive and knew it. Hwinylee casually picked up one of the pulse rifles and inspected it. “Our own design,” He told Kkhrkht proudly. “Unfortunately they’re not very reliable. The pulse spreads out too quickly.”
      One of the bucks working on the pulse rifles overheard him. “Brenji reckons she solved the modulation problem. It should have a decent range now.”
      “Really?” Hwinylee put the pulse rifle to his shoulder and aimed at a stalactite hanging high over the cavern’s central pond, squeezed the trigger and a bolt of light shot out cutting the stalactite from the roof. It fell into the pond with a loud splash and a round of cheers and whoops. Hwinylee was impressed. “Mind if I hang on to this one?”
      “Plenty more where that one came from, sir.” The buck confidently reassured Hwinylee.
      “As you were.” Hwinylee turned to leave them having picked up a rifle without raising any suspicions and waited until they were out of earshot. “Fully charged, too. Now, where were we? Ah yes, this infected carrier you wanted to show me.”
      Kkhrkht looked down at the detector bead in dzzhakh-ye’s claws. The red spot was flicking back and forth in the general direction of the group of seven burly Ilbryak still busily sharpening their scimitars and talking loudly between drinks. “There may be more than one carrier.”
      “Never mind, I’ll distract them. You spray them with this gas and then we’ll see if it does anything other than make an ungodly stink.” Hwinylee strode up to the Ilbryak with Kkhrkht hot on his heels.  Hwinylee leaned casually on his rifle and joined in with their banter. It wasn’t in any dialect that Kkhrkht’s translator recognised and it fell silent. But Kkhrkht could tell from their angry voices and the way that they looked at dzzhakh-ye that they weren’t in a good mood. Kkhrkht stood silently while they argued hotly with Hwinylee who seemed to be pleading with them, waiting for a moment when they looked least able to strike and then released a flood of floxetrasine.
      For what felt like an eternity nothing seemed to happen other than the Ilbryak soldiers pulling faces and waving their paws in front of their noses. Hwinylee turned around to give Kkhrkht a filthy look. Kkhrkht felt like an idiot but the bead shone brighter than ever. Suddenly one of the soldiers reared up on her hind legs kicking, foaming and frothing in fear as she waved her scimitar spasmodically. Another one sank on his legs, tearing at the fur on his face in wide-eyed horror as his mind turned inside out. “What’s happening to me…?” Were his last piteous words as he and the other Ilbryak soldier collapsed and morphed ever so slowly into their Gulmarian form. The other Ilbryak jumped back reflexively as Hwinylee trained his rifle on the paralysed Gulmarians in their midst.
      A wave of chaos rippled across the hall as everyone dropped what they were doing and rushed over to see what the commotion was. Hwinylee leapt up onto a table and bellowed out: “Stand back!” He held the pulse rifle above his head in both paws until their jabbering died down and then fired several shots into each Gulmarian at point-blank range to make sure they were dead. “I want all of you to get a good look at what’s happened to Oothwalla and Glindjin. They were infected by the invaders and it transformed them. Under no circumstances ever touch the invaders and make sure you tell everyone you know.” Hwinylee and the Ilbryak soldiers kept everyone back while they crowded around to get a closer look at the transformed remains of their former comrades.
      Kkhrkht was kept busy for the rest of the day bringing Hwinylee and his troops up to speed on using the detector beads and floxetrasine. In the background Pzeptilan’s buzzing and wailing grew louder and louder. By the time they were finished, Pzeptilan was working dzzhev-ye’s way through a seemingly endless succession of smutty songs which echoed around the cavern. In other circumstances they’d have Kkhrkht laughing and joining in, but all Kkhrkht could see were the anxious faces of the Ilbryak looking around as dzzhakh-ye ate with them in their canteen.
      Hwinylee joined Kkhrkht and set down his tray of piping hot food on the table. “That’s something else I wanted to talk to you about.” Hwinylee broke the ice as he nodded his head in Pzeptilan’s general direction.
      “Pzeptilan?” Kkhrkht hoped it wasn’t but had been expecting this all day.
      “I appreciate everything you’ve done for us, but I’m facing a mutiny here. One more night of that racket and I won’t be able to guarantee your safety.” Hwinylee tried to be as diplomatic as possible. “You’ll have to leave once your other friend returns with my runners.” Hwinylee dipped a chunk of bread into his soup. “We have other gateways; they aren’t public ones like the one you came in on. Our priests guard them. As far as I know, they’re still active. There’s one at the Mihwyll Temple in the Brzhnktlyn Mountains not far from here. Maybe you can get back to your world from there.”
      Kkhrkht realised it was either that or be killed by a mob of angry, sleepless Ilbryak now that they’d run out of Ghalthynn. “Well, it’s worth a try.” Kkhrkht replied almost indifferently, desperate not to sound too eager. Of course Kkhrkht wanted to return to Zrrlchtz! Anything to get off this doomed planet.
      “Good!” Hwinylee was surprised that Kkhrkht sounded so ambivalent. “Otherwise they’d have our pelts hanging from the walls by this time tomorrow.”
      “I’ll bring Pzeptilan some more food. That might keep dzzhev-ye quiet” Kkhrkht suggested as dzzhakh-ye went to the kitchen to collect some food.
      “Best idea I’ve heard all day!” Hwinylee jumped up to follow Kkhrkht. They brought Pzeptilan a minor mountain of food which dzzhev-ye managed to scatter around while eating as messily as possible. As long as they kept Pzeptilan eating, dzzhev-ye was distracted enough not to bring the house down with dzzhev-ye’s ranting. Kkhrkht waited nervously for Vvezhti-Kla to return before they got lynched by a mob of angry Ilbryak. Fortunately Vvezhti-Kla and Hwinylee’s runners returned with their haul from the Dubzzhlynky gateway while they still had Pzeptilan under control. When it was time to go, Hwinylee led them out to the clearing where three Bremetli, huge bat-like creatures each the size of a small aeroplane, waited with their Ilbryak guide. Pzeptilan and Kkhrkht rode one after they strapped Pzeptilan down and Vvezhti-Kla, who was too tired to fly any further, rode the other with their guide on the third as they set off through the night sky towards the distant mountains.
      Hwinylee stood in the clearing with a group of Ilbryak as the Bremetli flew off into the night. “Do the priests really know how to control the gateways?” One of the bucks asked him. “Who cares?” Hwinylee shrugged his shoulders. “At least they’re out of our fur. They’re the priests’ problem now.”
      Kkhrkht enjoyed the night view lit up by two of Burrakhtlmyr’s three moons and the cool, refreshing air as the Bremetli flew on flapping its wings in slow, powerful strokes. The steady rhythm of its back muscles lulled Kkhrkht into a deep, meditative rest. Pzeptilan, for all the racket dzzhev-ye had kicked up back in the Ilbryak’s cavern was strangely quiet. Maybe it was the extra large dose of Ghalthynn.
      “It worked!” Pzeptilan suddenly shouted out shattering Kkhrkht’s calm.
      “What worked?” Kkhrkht asked half-presuming that Pzeptilan was about to start raving again.
      “Me, that’s what. I’m a genius.” Pzeptilan bragged confusing Kkhrkht even more.
      “What are you talking about?” By now Kkhrkht was convinced that Pzeptilan was well and truly mad.
      “My act! I even had you fooled. You know when we get back to Zrrlchtz I think I’ll take up acting. I really enjoyed that.” Pzeptilan laughed idly.
      That’s when it dawned on Kkhrkht. “You faked all that? You nearly got us killed!” Kkhrkht shouted back angrily. “Why you… I ought to push you off right now.”
      “You won’t.” Pzeptilan gloated confidently. “Hey, we’re on our way home. What more do you want? Don’t tell me you wanted to stay and help the Ilbryak?”
      “Well we could have.” Kkhrkht was confused by Pzeptilan. Was dzzhev really lucid or was this just more insane rambling?
      “Don’t fool yourself, Kkhrkht.” Pzeptilan cut down Kkhrkht’s good intentions. “There’s nothing we can do for them, they’re doomed. Do you think I’m happy about it? No! Look at their world compared to ours, it’s a paradise. And I’ve seen what the Gulmarians do as well.” Pzeptilan added grimly.
      “You have?” Suddenly Pzeptilan didn’t sound quite so mad and had Kkhrkht’s undivided attention.
      “Yeah.” Pzeptilan buzzed uncomfortably as dzzhev-ye wriggled around under the straps to face Kkhrkht. “The civilisation I was sent to study didn’t exist any longer when I got there. Their planet was in the final stages of being strip mined. The Gulmarians take everything. Right down to their oceans, minerals and atmosphere. Nobody knew about it until I got back. Not the Nglubi, your Galactic Council or anyone. That’s why our gateways were closed down.”
      “Hang on, you told me your world was populated by those poisonous slugs.” Kkhrkht remembered their conversation back at the Institute. And Zzzhkzklt. And Vvriklrty. And that louse, Jemalkhta. Kkhrkht shuddered as dzzhakh-ye forced all those painful memories down.
      “Cover story.” Pzeptilan briskly dismissed Kkhrkht’s suspicions. “Adzhnkt-Vey and the administrators felt it might cause mass panics if the truth got out, so they had me invent my slug world story.”
      “But the Nglubi and the Galactic Council…” Kkhrkht got no further
      “That’s something else I found out.” Pzeptilan cut Kkhrkht off.
      “What?” Kkhrkht was beginning to wish that Pzeptilan was insane.
      “First off the Galactic Council, for all its high and mighty talk, is weak and secondly that the Nglubi are dieing out.” Pzeptilan laid out dzzhev-ye’s discoveries. “Think about it: the Nglubi invented the gateways, there’s gateways wherever you go, but where are the Nglubi? Nowhere to be seen. A planet in a nearby system is strip mined by the Gulmarians and the Nglubi know nothing about. And the sum total of their response is to send a contingent of six sleepyheads who do little more than snore and fart.”
      “I met two Nglubi where I went.” Kkhrkht vainly countered Pzeptilan’s forceful pessimism.
      “Oh, weren’t you the lucky one.” Pzeptilan caustically mocked Kkhrkht. “The Nglubi are an ancient race, Kkhrkht. They built their system of gateways before we Khzchhrrrtz could think, let alone talk. They’ve had their day.”
      “You sound ungrateful.” Kkhrkht didn’t share Pzeptilan’s views of the Nglubi.
      “I’m not, Kkhrkht.” Pzeptilan continued. “Civilisations rise and fall, biological organisms evolve. That’s the way it is. They reached their peak long before us. What happens after a civilisation and a species reach their peak? Decline? Or do they just keep on evolving into something we don’t recognise? Either way, there’s very few of them around and the Gulmarians are taking advantage of it. That or else they’re in league with each other.”
      “They aren’t.” Kkhrkht clearly remembered Psy’s cold-blooded loathing of the Gulmarians. “I’m certain of it.”
      “If you say so.” It was Pzeptilan’s turn to be the sceptic. “How about untying me?”
      “No.” Kkhrkht was still angry with Pzeptilan.
      “Why?” Pzeptilan wriggled around helplessly under the straps.
      “Because you’ve got so much Ghalthynn in you, you couldn’t stand up without Vvezhti-Kla and I holding you up, that’s why. If I untied you, you’d fall off and…” Kkhrkht looked over their Bremetli’s surging back and its wide wings, past the few fluffy clouds below them as they flew past the foothills towards the mountains. “It’s a long way down.”
      “Well at least untangle my antennae.” Pzeptilan pleaded. “They’re giving me a headache.”
      “Oh, okay” Kkhrkht reached forward to slip Pzeptilan’s long antennae out from under dzzhev-ye’s back only to find them knotted through the straps holding Pzeptilan down. It took a lot longer than Kkhrkht had expected. Kkhrkht had to lean across Pzeptilan’s ovistem, what with the Bremetli’s rhythm moving Pzeptilan’s passive drugged body, and was fighting back an ever-increasing sexual arousal as Pzeptilan’s antennae finally slipped free.
      Pzeptilan’s husky voice told Kkhrkht everything dzzhakh-ye needed to know as dzzhakh fell back into dzzhakh-ye’s saddle. This was neither the time nor the place and as far as Kkhrkht was concerned, Pzeptilan wasn’t really dzzhakh-ye’s type. Kkhrkht preferred dzzhevs with more of a sense of mystery to them. As they flew on in silence up into the Brzhnktlyn Mountains, the first grey glow of morning light began to cut through the now chill air. “Do you really think the Nglubi would abandon the Ilbryak?” Kkhrkht finally asked as they flew up a valley.
      “I don’t think it’s a case of abandoning.” Pzeptilan picked up with dzzhev-ye’s theory. “I don’t think they have the means to defend Burrakhtlmyr. Or anywhere else for that matter. The Ilbryak’s best chance is for us to get back to Zrrlchtz and to convince the High Drones to send out a Zzhemthax armada if we can get the Nglubi to reopen our gateways. And that also depends on whether our gateways can even take that kind of traffic. Sending an army off to war is a lot different from sending tourists on their holidays.”
      The sun had still to rise over the mountaintops as their Bremetli set down in a courtyard of what looked like a massive Lamasery hewn out of the mountainside itself. They were met by two priests who led them into the temple, Pzeptilan wobbling unsteadily between Kkhrkht and Vvezhti-Kla as their guide set off with the Bremetli through the thin, chill mountain air back down the valley. Kkhrkht noticed that in spite of the temple’s expansive size, it seemed deserted. Few of its many deep-set windows were lit up. Even the entrance they were approaching was wreathed in shadow.
      The priests stopped to pick two torches down from their holders, lit them and plunged into the gloomy passageway taking their island of smoky, orange light with them chanting their slow, hypnogogic mantras. One sang long, slow bass drones while the other’s tenor rolled like waves riding a deep current. They reached a wide, circular chamber lit by shafts of the weak early morning light piercing down from skylights far above. They stopped at the far side opposite heavy stone double doors set into an elaborately carved arch.
       One priest laid his paw on a section of the arch and the doors slid noiselessly back to reveal an Nglubi biostone chamber glowing with its own milky luminescence. It reminded Kkhrkht of the gateway at Fort Melchisor. The priests stopped in front of the control console and waited patiently.
      “We need to return to Zrrlchtz.” Kkhrkht explained impatiently.
      “That is for you.” The tenor priest replied with slow solemn grandeur as he laid his paws on the unresponsive control panel. “We are but guardians of this gateway. None here can operate it.”
      “Zzzz-zzz-zz” Pzeptilan buzzed dzzhev-ye’s drugged disappointment. And Kkhrkht recognised Vvezhti-Kla’s miserable ultrasonic whine. Fortunately Kkhrkht had the blue Psionic crystal dzzhakh had bought from Mdzzvyn. Kkhrkht took it on every mission as a good luck charm. This time it would save their lives! Kkhrkht set the glowing crystal into its slot activating the control panel and read the display on dzzhakh-ye’s translator as the control panel scrolled though the list of gateways it was connected to. No mention of Zrrlchtz or any names that Kkhrkht even faintly recognised. Some even came up in untranslatable gibberish: probably an archaic dialect of Nglubi. It was no good guessing; they had to get back to Zrrlchtz. “When the Nglubi come here, where have they come from?” Kkhrkht asked the priests.
      The priests looked at each other for a moment, unsure as to whether they should answer Kkhrkht’s question. “They come from many worlds.” The bass priest rumbled.
      “Yes, I know that.” Kkhrkht was getting desperate. Vvezhti-Kla’s whining was getting worse. “But when the Nglubi visit, do they ever say where they have come from or where they a going to?”
      “The Nglubi have not graced us with their presence in my time.” Bass rumbled sonorously.
      “I have heard mention of Ygdrbbl.” Tenor suggested.
      “Fine, we’ll go there.” Kkhrkht scrolled up through list, found it, set the controls, picked up the blue crystal and helped Vvezhti-Kla lift Pzeptilan up onto the dais. “Let’s go!”
      When the gateway’s glow subsided they found themselves in a translucent dome on a world on fire. Volcanoes were continuously erupting all around them raining down a never-ending firestorm of burning lava into the rivers of molten rock flowing across the land. “I can see why the Nglubi mentioned this place; somewhere to avoid.” Pzeptilan joked grimly.
      “Yeah well, let’s try another one.” Kkhrkht climbed off the dais to activate the control panel. This one had a very short list and Kkhrkht picked one at random. “Here we go.” Kkhrkht called out breezily as dzzhakh-ye jumped back up on the dais.
      This time they materialised into an underwater bubble. Huge fronds waved slowly in the green sunlit currents. A pod of aquatic creatures swam excitedly around the bubble, some of them even nuzzling up against its surface.
      “No.” Vvezhti-Kla remarked as dzhinn-ye looked around at the alien environment they found themselves in. Kkhrkht tried again with another random choice and landed them on a tiny shepherd moon orbiting in a gap between the debris-strewn rings of a colourful gas giant.
      “Nice view.” Pzeptilan commented.
      “Zzzzz” Kkhrkht buzzed in agreement as dzzhakh-ye watched the graceful gravity-driven ballet.
      “You really haven’t a clue, have you?” Pzeptilan took a dig at Kkhrkht.
      “What do you mean?” Kkhrkht snapped out of dzzhakh-ye’s reverie.
      “We’re lost.” Pzeptilan explained peevishly.
      “No we’re not.” Kkhrkht was on the defensive.
      “I could do better than you. Give me that crystal.” Pzeptilan held out a demanding claw to Kkhrkht.
      “Yes.” Pzeptilan demanded angrily.
      Their bickering grew more intense and Vvezhti-Kla covered dzhinn-ye’s eyes with dzhinn-ye’s wings out of embarrassment until dzhinn could take no more. “Stop it, you two.” Vvezhti-Kla barked out just as Kkhrkht and Pzeptilan were coming to blows. “Kkhrkht, you activate that control panel or whatever it is and Pzeptilan, you operate it.” Vvezhti-Kla ordered them like an irate Zzhemthax bossing around a group of drunks outside a Mead House. Pzeptilan and Kkhrkht were stunned into silence and stared at Vvezhti-Kla in disbelief. “Yes.” They obeyed meekly in very small, timid voices. Vvezhti-Kla couldn’t believe what dzhinn-ye had done. But there they were, working together!
      Pzeptilan buzzed thoughtfully as dzzhev-ye read through the list as it scrolled past. “I saw a few that look they might be Llendharthian. Let’s try one of them.”
      “Why?” Kkhrkht wanted to be sure that Pzeptilan wasn’t bluffing.
      “For starters their language is spoken in a large sector of the galaxy and it’s in my translator. And, more importantly, we might have a better chance of finding someone who can get us back to Zrrlchtz because you, flea brain…” Pzeptilan poked emphatically at Kkhrkht’s chest. “…are completely clueless.”
      “Fine, it’s your call.” Kkhrkht didn’t want to get into another argument in front of Vvezhti-Kla. Pzeptilan’s choice landed them on an outdoor gateway. It was a balmy late evening on a lush plain that rolled off into the distance. This gateway had obviously been unused for a long time. Kkhrkht had to clear away a thick layer of caked dirt and grime before dzzhakh-ye could even fit the blue Psionic crystal in its slot to activate the control console. “What have we got this time?” Kkhrkht asked as Pzeptilan read through the list again.
      “They’re almost all Llendharthian now.” Pzeptilan buzzed idly as dzzhev-ye scanned the scrolling list. “Ah, yes. Stop!” Pzeptilan called out excitedly. “Vermthellyn, it’s on a major trade route. That’s the one. We’re bound to find a gateway through to Zrrlchtz from there.” Kkhrkht set the controls and they all climbed back up onto the dais. They materialised onto one of a long row of identical gateways in a busy arrivals lounge bustling with travellers emerging from their various gateways’ glowing hemisphere of light. “Jackpot! See, I told you I could do it.” Pzeptilan teased Kkhrkht as they stepped off their dais. “Now let’s get three tickets to Zrrlchtz.”
      Kkhrkht looked up at the video announcement boards overhead, but they were all in an alien text dzzhakh-ye didn’t recognise. Nor did Kkhrkht’s translator so dzzhakh-ye led Pzeptilan and Vvezhti-Kla around the crowded terminus in a quest for a travel agent. Finally, after battling their way through the crowds and pushing past the never-ending ambushes from hawkers and beggars, they found a likely shop displaying holograms of planets, magnificent cities and exotic vistas. Inside, there were queues lined up for each kiosk, so they picked the shortest one and waited their turn.
      A flightless avian creature with bright red, blue and green plumage squawked at them from behind the counter and waited for their reply. Kkhrkht didn’t understand a word of it. The avian tapped at its console with its claws and spoke again. This time its voice was translated, but Kkhrkht’s translator didn’t pick up on it. Pzeptilan clumsily slapped dzzhev-ye’s translator onto the counter. “Three to Zrrlchtz Central.”
      The avian listened closely to the mangled squawks pouring out of Pzeptilan’s translator and went pack to tapping at its console. “I’m sorry, there’s no direct connection to Zrrlchtz at the moment.”
      “But we just came from there, we’re Khzchhrrrtz. It’s our home planet. Can’t you tell?” Pzeptilan got pushy with the ticket agent.
      “I-I’m new here.” The avian apologised nervously glancing around at its co-workers for support. “You just arrived on a direct connection from Zrrlchtz?” It asked them in an attempt to avoid a scene with an awkward customer.
      “No, not directly.” Pzeptilan slurred, still under the influence of Ghalthynn. “A bit roundabout, but we set out from Zrrlchtz.”
      “Oh, a multistop.” The avian tried to make sense of what Pzeptilan said.
      “A what?” Kkhrkht felt this was going nowhere.
      “You left Zrrlchtz, went to one destination, then another and so on until you arrived here.” The avian explained much in the manner one explains the obvious to an idiot.
      “Oh yes, of course.” Kkhrkht wasn’t about to mention that their first stop was Burrakhtlmyr and quite how they ended up on Vermthellyn. “Multistops, that’s what we want.”
      “Fine, our travel agent will see you in…” The avian consulted its terminal again. “Two hours. Here’s a coupon for your appointment and the office is over there.” The bird pointed out an open plan office at the far end of the travel agent’s where a reptilian creature was surrounded by a towering group of striped bipedal canids.
      Not quite what Kkhrkht had expected, but it would have to do. “Thank you. Is there somewhere I can send a message to Zrrlchtz?”
      The avian looked perplexed for a moment and the squawked brightly. “You want UniCom. Second floor, concourse three. Thank you for using InterPortal.” The avian closed their conversation in a panicky bid to get rid of them. Kkhrkht took the hint and turned to leave. Behind them, the avian fainted and fell over as they made their way out of the travel agency.
      “I’m hungry.” Vvezhti-Kla complained as they made their way through the crowded concourse.
      “First we find this UniCom place, and then we’ll get something to eat.” Kkhrkht placated Vvezhti-Kla. “If they have anything we can eat, that is.” Much blundering around through the crowded terminus, Kkhrkht led Pzeptilan and Vvezhti-Kla into a busy shop full of booths each with a data terminal. “Looks like it’s self-service here.” Kkhrkht observed as they settled into an empty, scuffed and heavily-used booth. Once again, the screen proved incomprehensible to Kkhrkht’s translator so dzzhakh-ye let Pzeptilan operate it.
      “Bah, anything on Zrrlchtz is unavailable.”  Pzeptilan grumbled. “All it says is: Press here for assistance.”
      “Assistance it is, then.” Vvezhti-Kla decided for them.
      Pzeptilan pressed the call button and eventually a bleary-eyed wiry orange reptilian wearing battered grey overalls shuffled up to their booth, its tail dragging listlessly on the floor behind it. “You called? Can I help you?”
      “We’d like to send a message to Zrrlchtz.” Kkhrkht explained.
      The reptilian furrowed its brow and slowly looked them over. “Follow me.” It led them into a dishevelled office crowded with dozens of terminals and glowing screens. “Zrrlchtz, you say? Never heard of it.” The reptilian commented as it yawned, picked at a few loose scales on its chin and squinted at the screen on its desk. “Ah, here we are: limited access only. Diplomatic or at least Level-6 clearance required.” It looked up from the screen and folded its paws apologetically. “Unless you’re in the civil service, military or with a recognised embassy you’re out of luck. And you certainly wouldn’t come to a place like this. I’d like to help you, but I’d lose my permit if I did.”
      “Is there an Nglubi delegation on this planet?” Kkhrkht began to feel quite lost.
      “Not that I know of.” The reptilian scratched its head and yawned again. “You might want to try the immigration service.”
      “Well, it wasn’t a total loss.” Kkhrkht put a positive spin on their situation as they walked away from UniCom. “Let’s get some food.” Soon they found themselves outside the ‘Bite and Flight Interplanetary Cuisine. It’s just like home! All major currencies accepted.’
      Pzeptilan peered inside at the restaurant. More different species than dzzhev-ye had ever seen before! “I don’t see them carrying out any dead. Looks safe to me and here’s 15,000 Galactic Credits that says we can have anything we want.” Pzeptilan held up a dull grey metal card.
      Kkhrkht was surprised. 15,000 Galacs wasn’t exactly pocket change! “Where did you get all that?”
      “Field commander’s budget.” Pzeptilan bragged offhandedly. “In case I had to requisition services or supplies on Burrakhtlmyr. I have to give it back each time I return to Zrrlchtz and account for all my expenses. I can’t see them complaining about us having a few meals.”
      A sign hung over the cornucopia of food decked out on the self-service counters: ‘Bite and Flight presumes that all customers know what food is compatible with their metabolism and choose accordingly. While Bite and Flight’s food is prepared to the highest culinary standard and guaranteed to satisfy, Bite and Flight is not responsible for any illness, food poisoning or death resulting from consumption of incompatible food. Please read our colour-coded nutritional analysis signs with each dish. For those with special needs or a taste for the exotic, our in-house nutritionists will assist you free-of-charge. Have a nice meal.’
      ‘Grilled Premptyl Roots in Foordle sauce: Recommended for Althusians, Gulthen and Nvardynn. Indigestible for Myxli or Symbents. Causes explosive flatulence for Xarubians.’ ‘Raw Twawlvik steaks with fresh Jervyt grub garnish: Recommended for Phelynx and Rezwyns. Not recommended for Blaivhinsi, Igrenthl, and Sopwann. Lethally toxic for Dmatrians and Ooplatski.’ And on an on the little signs went.
      Kkhrkht looked over the notices beside each dish. No mention of Khzchhrrrtz. Or Ilbryak for that matter. “How am I supposed to make a choice? This is worse than gambling.” Kkhrkht complained. “Any of this could kill me.”
      “I think I’ll try the nutritionist.” Pzeptilan buzzed abstractly.
      “I could eat a nutritionist.” Vvezhti-Kla joined in.
      “No!” Kkhrkht angrily scolded Vvezhti-Kla. “Sentients are off the menu.” Kkhrkht looked around and got the attention of one of the assistants behind the service counter. “I think we need to consult with your nutritionist.” They waited while the avian assistant returned with the nutritionist, a very plump, short feline whose fangs glistened with dripping saliva. Kkhrkht explained their situation to the nutritionist who listened while twiddling with its whiskers and swishing its tail from side to side.
      “I can’t say I’ve got any information on Khzchhrrrtz diet, but you say you were on Burrakhtlmyr and you had no problems with their food. I’ll set you up with a nice Ilbryak spread. How does that sound?” The feline suggested brightly. They all agreed and the feline led them around picking out a sumptuous selection of food. “Lovely place, Burrakhtlmyr; went there with the family once.” The feline reminisced fondly. “Very tasty, those Ilbryak. Have you ever had one?”
      “Er, no.” Kkhrkht was shocked by the feline’s offhand candour. Kkhrkht couldn’t imagine the Ilbryak as food and hoped that Vvezhti-Kla wasn’t getting any funny ideas.
      “Ah, what can I say?” The feline licked its lips. “They smelled so good and once the hunting instinct kicked in, there wasn’t much I could do about it. Got us thrown off the planet, it did. I had to plead diminished responsibility due to overpowering primal instincts. It’s amazing what you can get away with when you have a good lawyer.”
      After being usuriously overcharged by the cashier, they settled down at a table. “That nutritionist… I feel my hunting instincts coming on.” Vvezhti-Kla said between mouthfuls.
      “You don’t have hunting instincts.” Kkhrkht grumpily reminded Vvezhti-Kla. “Just eat up and we’ll get back to Zrrlchtz quickly.” Pzeptilan and Kkhrkht only picked at their food. Kkhrkht was too wired too eat much and Pzeptilan was still stuffed from dzzhev-ye’s messy binge back on Burrakhtlmyr, so Kkhrkht ended up watching a display screen on one wall of the restaurant while Vvezhti-Kla hungrily scoffed their food and Pzeptilan studiously checked over dzzhev-ye’s report in dzzhev-ye’s notepad.
      A tableau of reptilian, avian and other aliens came and went on the screen along with selections of pictures of what looked like a gigantic tube-shaped space station. Kkhrkht wanted to find out more about it and went to the cashier.
      The cashier, a blue and green reptilian wearing a ‘Bite and Flight’ smock, turned around to look at the screen. “Oh, that’s the news. You just missed the sports show. There’s an audio feed to each table, just put your translator in the socket in the middle of your table.” Kkhrkht thanked the cashier, went back to their table and set Pzeptilan’s translator in the socket.
      “…and who can forget the last time Princess Knetryxx stole the Ark of Exodus?” An avian with yellow and black plumage addressed the viewers. A tawny reptilian co-presenter smirked as a picture of the tube-craft surrounded by a fleet of diminutive spaceships splashed on the screen behind them. “Or her humiliating return being towed back to Vermthellyn after the Ark’s drive broke down. Her uncle, Duke Reflinghar of Sedeirtra was most upset.” A clip of an aged, gnarled green and brown reptilian came on screen: “If she ever does anything like that again, I’ll have no choice other than to disown her.” The Duke rumbled angrily.
      “However, in an unprecedented turn of events, we can bring you this transmission live from the Ark of Exodus itself.” The avian presenter continued in that irritating upbeat manner common to news presenters throughout the known universe.
      The picture behind the presenters changed to reveal a group of reptilians and avians. A cerise reptilian at the centre of the group stepped forward to speak: “Shallens everywhere, today I speak to you.” The reptilian’s voice quavered awkwardly.
      “That’s Princess Knetryxx of Nodles-Irah.” The avian presenter voiced over in hushed respectful tones.
      “Today I can reveal that I have found the location of the mythical HomeNest, our world of origin and will travel there in the Ark of Exodus to complete our history. On my previous expedition, we answered a distress call and found a ship adrift in space not far from Vermthellyn. They had set out from their own world and we were able to determine that the planet they had just left is none other than our HomeNest. In return for taking them back, they have agreed to show us the way there.”
      Knetryxx then ushered in a group of six aliens who turned out to be… Humans! Kkhrkht’s antennae stood bolt upright in surprise. “Hey, Pzeptilan, look.” Kkhrkht nudged Pzeptilan excitedly and pointed at the screen. “They’re the aliens I studied.”
      Pzeptilan was too busy finalising dzzhev-ye’s report to send back to Zrrlchtz. “So?”
      Kkhrkht was disappointed with Pzeptilan’s lack of interest and went back to watching the screen. “How did they ever get here? They don’t have the means to travel this far.” Kkhrkht muttered, but Pzeptilan wasn’t listening.
      “But first, the day’s main stories.” The tawny reptilian presenter continued as a picture of the Galactic Council’s headquarters filled the screen behind itself, an Nglubi and a Pdzarvian. “The Galactic Council has announced that it’s moving to a new location in the Selglecti swarm-system. So why the move, ambassador Lyvchwn?” The reptilian asked the Pdzarvian.
      Ambassador Lyvchwn harrumphed and blinked its three eyes before answering. “As you know, the Monyactl globe is quite old and it needs a major overhaul. Much as we would prefer to stay there, it would be very difficult for delegates to hold their meetings with all that work going on around them.”
      “Many say the view of our galaxy from Monyactl brought about the great stability we know today. When do you plan to return there?” The reptilian interviewer prompted the Nglubi.
      “As soon as the improvements are completed. Most certainly within your lifetime.” The elderly, heavily wrinkled Nglubi grandly assured the reptilian presenter.
      “What a pack of lies!” Kkhrkht nearly exploded with disgust. “They won’t be going back there. It was a Gulmarian death star. I saw it explode with my own eyes. I doubt if there’s anything left to salvage.”
      The travel agent at InterPortal listened patiently to Kkhrkht’s story of how they ended up on Vermthellyn. “I see, you want to return to Zrrlchtz to request that your military forces go to the aid of Ilbryak on Burrakhtlmyr. That’s certainly the right thing to do, but for the life of me I can’t find any connections through to Zrrlchtz.” The reptilian travel agent sighed and folded its paws on the desk. “We’re only a tourist travel agency. You should really get in touch with the Space Force here. Maybe they have access to channels that are closed to us. Vermthellyn is a non-aligned planet. As far as I know we’re a signatory to the planetary defence treaty, so even if you can’t get back to your own world, the Space Force is obliged to pass your information on to the Galactic Council.”
      “And where can we find this Space Force?” Pzeptilan quizzed the travel agent.
      The reptilian travel agent was about to give them the directions and then stopped. “This is your first time on Vermthellyn, isn’t it? Chances are you’d get lost so I’ll arrange a taxi for you.” They were collected by a driver who escorted them through the bustling crowds down to its aircar taxi waiting on the concourse outside the gateway terminus and lifted off flying in the traffic lanes between the towering buildings and set them off outside the Space Force headquarters, an imposing black-and-gold polished stone fortress.
      No sooner than they had entered the foyer, they were stopped by one of the many armed guards on duty. “I’m sorry but we’re not open to the general public. The silver-furred ursine soldier explained. “Service personnel and permit holders only.”
      Pzeptilan explained their situation to the guard who flexed its claws while Pzeptilan impatiently raced through their story. “Come with me.” It ordered them after Pzeptilan had finished and led them into a bubble elevator which raced upwards into the heights of the Space Force headquarters. They were ushered into a sparsely furnished reception room with a few models of spaceships on pedestals and a commanding view of the city spread out below its windows.
      It wasn’t long before a group of avian, reptilian and other aliens arrived to check them over. Kkhrkht recognized the rank smell of floxetrasine seeping around the room. Satisfied that Kkhrkht, Pzeptilan and Vvezhti-Kla weren’t infected their hosts split into three groups surrounding each one and bombarded them with questions about Burrakhtlmyr. What was the size of the Gulmarian invasion force? How did they reach Burrakhtlmyr? What was the extent of the destruction? Were there many survivors? What resistance had the Ilbryak been able to mount? How did you get to Burrakhtlmyr? How did you get to Vermthellyn?
      Pzeptilan was still woozy from dzzhev-ye’s last dose of Ghalthynn and just handed over dzzhev-ye’s notebook. “Read my report. Copy it if you want, but it must get back to Zrrlchtz.” A team of medics examined Pzeptilan’s back and repaired the crack with an organic welder.
      Vvezhti-Kla was being grilled about the Gulmarians’ combat capabilities. “Their combat fliers are highly manoeuvrable,” Dzhinn-ye admitted shamefully. “We couldn’t match them, they shot us down as if we were standing still.”
      “You did your best.” They reassured Vvezhti-Kla. “That’s more than anyone could ask.”
      “We had no idea that Burrakhtlmyr was under attack.” Kkhrkht explained for the umpteenth time. “The Nglubi had closed our gateways as a precautionary measure and teams were sent out to recover any Khzchhrrrtz who were stranded on other planets. It was supposed to be a routine assignment: we even brought along a group of students to complete their field studies. It was only after we arrived and saw what had happened that our Zzhemthax decided to send in reinforcements.”
      “Who are these Zzhemthax?” An avian asked Kkhrkht.
      “Our military caste.” Kkhrkht explained. “Pzeptilan and I are of a different caste.” The interrogation continued for hours and Kkhrkht was certain dzzhakh-ye had repeated everything several times over. It wasn’t as if their interrogators were hostile. They brought food and drink, healed Pzeptilan’s wound and were courteous the whole time but it just seemed to drag on and on!
      “Can we go now?” Pzeptilan blurted out at one point. “We really need to get back to Zrrlchtz.”
      “At the moment that’s not possible. It’s a somewhat fluid situation.” A uniformed reptilian apologised. “We will notify you when we can get a connection through to your world.”
      “What about my report?” Pzeptilan knew that the Nglubi had created a data transmission system long before they built their gateways and that they still used it. Seeing how it couldn’t transport physical objects, it would be little use to the Gulmarians. Surely the Nglubi wouldn’t have closed that off? “Isn’t there a data connection to Zrrlchtz?” Pzeptilan wheedled.
      “Well, yes, there is.” An ursine official whose uniform was decked out with studded brass straps took over. “No disrespect, Pzeptilan, but there’s little point in sending your report back to your system. For starters, we know that the Zrrlchtz gateways don’t have the capacity to despatch a fleet to Burrakhtlmyr. We have and with your report we can convince the other planets in our local group to join in.”
      Pzeptilan could see the logic in the ursine’s reasoning, but pressed on regardless. “I would be negligent not to return my report even if we Khzchhrrrtz are unable to help the Ilbryak.”
      The ursine conceded to Pzeptilan’s request and ordered a reptilian attendant to escort Pzeptilan over to a data terminal. Pzeptilan sent copies of dzzhev-ye’s report to Adzhnkt-Vey, the High Drones and the Senior Zzhemthax. Whether it made any difference in the greater scheme of things was another matter, but Pzeptilan had done dzzhev-ye’s part. Pzeptilan was just about to get up to leave the data terminal when the image of a Senior Zzhemthax popped up on the screen. “You have done well.” It sombrely congratulated Pzeptilan. “Unfortunately your stay on Vermthellyn may be lengthy. You are now the official Khzchhrrrtz ambassador to Vermthellyn. Use your field budget to secure premises and we will send you funds on a regular basis. I will consult with your hosts to confirm your status and will send you your instructions once you have a secure terminal.” The Zzhemthax faded out of the screen and its hologram materialised to confer with the ursine and one of the avians. Pzeptilan could tell from the Zzhemthax’s posture and tone of voice that they were on good terms.
      “What’s up?” Kkhrkht asked Pzeptilan as dzzhakh-ye watched the Zzhemthax’s hologram.
      “We’ve just been promoted. We’re ambassadors now.” Pzeptilan glibly explained.
      “I always wanted to be in the diplomatic corps.” Vvezhti-Kla chipped in with childlike innocence.
      “That means we’re stuck here doesn’t it?” Kkhrkht read between the lines.

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 18
Chapter 20