“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
“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
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
Kkhrkht was still chuckling softly when
Pzeptilan, leaning for support on Vvezhti-Kla, hobbled over. “What have you got
“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
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
“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
“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
“Yes, Pzeptilan.” Hwinylee huffed
“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
“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
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
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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“No, not a big hit with anyone.” Kkhrkht
commented wryly. “But you get my point. It hasn’t turned either of us into a
Hwinylee looked down at his furry body. “No, it
“Do you want to spray the carrier or shall I?”
Kkhrkht wanted to work out their plan of action before they entered the main
“No, you do it.” Hwinylee would have enough on
his hands dealing with the ensuing chaos. “Do you think this dagger will be
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
“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
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
“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’
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
“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
“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
“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
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
“We need to return to Zrrlchtz.” Kkhrkht
“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
“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
“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,
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
“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
“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
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
“No, not directly.” Pzeptilan slurred, still
under the influence of Ghalthynn. “A bit roundabout, but we set out from
“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
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
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.”
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
“I could eat a nutritionist.” Vvezhti-Kla
“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
“…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
“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
“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
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
“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
“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
“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.