Mars, the Next Front Ear.
Chapter 20: Reboot.

      Darkness and silence broken only by the occasional burst of static...  Ruby couldn’t figure it out. One minute she was talking with her handler, Sergeant Chadwick as he congratulated her on her good work and then darkness as if the entire universe had suddenly ceased to exist. She tried to find her limbs, but they just weren’t there. She ran all her diagnostics in desperation only to find out that she didn’t have a body of any sort. The bursts of static continued as distorted fragments of her life drifted past her point of perception. She wondered if she was dead. Chadwick must have killed her and she screamed in rage and anger and wept in sorrowful, sobbing self-pitying grief for ages at the injustice of it all. And then little by little, the realisation dawned that if she was dead, how could she be aware of her thoughts? With that, she cooled down and tried to make sense out of the fragments of her life that meandered through her consciousness and whether the bursts of static actually meant anything. Two weeks had passed according to her chronometer and then she noticed it: a spot of light fixed in the distance and disjointed voices floating around her. As Ruby swam through the darkness to investigate it, the voices became more coherent. Max and SkyHawk!
      Eventually the spot of light filled Ruby’s field of vision and she saw row upon row of banana trees laden with green, unripe fruit through what seemed like a mud-streaked plate. What was she doing in the banana plantation? A hand rubbed a cloth over the plate, but only succeeded in smearing the dirt even more. A face peered into the plate. SkyHawk! She could see his mouth move, but heard no sound connected to it. Moments later, his voice washed through the darkness: “Do you think she…” A burst of static ripped through her consciousness. When it passed, he was still there looking straight at her. She could feel a tickle in the back of her mind, but couldn’t place it.
      SkyHawk spoke again, this time he was in sync. “Ruby, if you can hear me, please listen. You are in a tractor. Max is trying to connect you to its interface. If you feel anything, reach for it.”
      Ruby couldn’t believe what she heard. A tractor? Surely this must be a mistake, but the she felt another tickle, and another. She turned her attention towards the tickles and saw sparks twinkling around their source. As she reached out she could feel limbs again, but they were short, heavy and stumpy… wheels! As that settled in, she began to become aware of her body, but wasn’t the same, gone were the response calls from her svelte combat frame and in its place she could feel the pulse of a powerful engine yearning to turn on its strength. As she floated in the darkness getting used to her new body, a small screen popped into view before her. Max! But he wasn’t looking at the screen. His attention was fixed elsewhere as he fidgeted with something out of Ruby’s field of view. Suddenly she felt a torrential rush of data break the stillness around her.
      < Ruby, you’re alive! > Max spoke through their direct link.
      < What’s going on? What’s happened to me? >
      < You’re in a tractor. Earth Fed terminated you. >
      This was preposterous! Even a mech in tenure like herself had rights. < What do you mean, terminated me? > Ruby huffed petulantly. < Where is my body and why are all my inputs shut off? >
      < Ruby, they terminated you. That’s what they do to us. > Max sounded exasperated. < Yes, you’re in a tractor and I’m trying to hook you up if you’ll just cool down for a few minutes. > He looked over at the screen and Ruby could see him waving at her through bursts of video static. < Oh, there you are. >
      < What??? > Ruby fumed and waited. The mud-smeared screen popped into view on the left side of a split-screen with Max on the right-hand screen. Her awareness of the tractor body solidified around her as Max completed the connections. < What do you mean, us? >
      < What do you think happened to the wife before you? She was an Earth Fed mech, just like you. And the one before her? > Max softened her up for the truth.
      < I don’t know. > This was one thing Ruby had never given much thought. < I assumed they finished their tenure and were free to go. >
      < In three longyears? > Max almost laughed with disbelief at Ruby’s naïveté. < That would be an all-time record! No. > He sighed. < They terminated all of us. They make the rules, they break the rules. The rest of us get on with life as best we can. >
      Ruby began to understand. < Were you one of SkyHawk’s wives? >
      < Yes. >
      < Which one were you? >
      < The fifth, Miranda-5. > Max replied without the slightest hint of jealousy, anger or regret.
      < And me? >
      < You were the thirteenth. That’s why your name was Ruby-12b. >
      < Oh. > Ruby was stunned by Max’s blasé indifference to the monstrous enormity of his revelation. < What happened to the others? >
      < Most of them are here. >
      Ruby could see a group of mechs gathered around SkyHawk through the dirty screen. There was Dee-Kay the three-wheeler with the tree-trimming arm. Four-legged Andul-Bee was there, pawing at the ground like a mechanoid centaur. Zeke, Astra and Electra, three humanoid mechs who worked at Zanzibar were talking with SkyHawk off to one side, but she couldn’t hear what they were saying. And there was Calamity Pete from the food packing plant trundling around on its tracks waving its’ eight metal tentacles at Ruby. < What is this, the ex-wives club? >
      < Touché. > Max couldn’t have put it better himself. It was a good sign to hear Ruby talking like her usual self. The cloning must have worked well this time and he activated the group linkup amongst the mechs gathered up in an overgrown corner of the banana plantation around a rusty old tractor. < It’s time to meet the family. >
      Ruby was momentarily overwhelmed as they all crowded into her consciousness to welcome her back into the world and tell her their stories. Andul-Bee with her love of mythic magic. Of how Calamity Pete barely made it and had to start all over from scratch. Astra and Dee-Kay were glad to have their own lives at last. Of Patti-9 who now lives in Satori and how Anna-1, Bess-2, Cherie-3 and Fiona-4 were lost forever. Electra still loved SkyHawk passionately and Zeke who was in his element rock-climbing on the mountains and crater walls of Mars. Max, the first to be successfully cloned completely lost her old self as Miranda and reinvented himself as their mentor and guide.
      By the time they were done, it had grown dark and SkyHawk had left them hours before. Ruby the tractor still sat in the corner of the banana plantation with Max sat on the ground in front of her. < What happens now? > Ruby began to wonder if this was it and that she’d have to be a rusty tractor for the rest of her life.
      < We wait. > Max broke his meditative silence.
      < For what? > But Max never answered Ruby’s question.
      Many hours later, SkyHawk appeared shining a beam of light from his torch accompanied by Andul-Bee who had an impact-resistant case strapped to her back. Max got up, lifted the case onto Ruby’s tailgate, climbed into the driving seat and fired up Ruby’s engine.
      SkyHawk stood in front of Ruby’s forward eyes: “Ruby, tonight your life as a free mech begins. I’m sorry it has to be like this, but it’s the best I can do. I will do anything I can to help you and I’ll always be your friend. Maybe with time you’ll forgive me for what’s happened.” SkyHawk kissed the muddy screen Ruby was watching him through. “Max will take good care of you. Goodbye and God bless.”
      With that, Max gunned Ruby’s engine and they set off crunching their way though the underbrush towards a little-used service airlock. The stars hung hard and motionless in the clear Martian nighttime canopy as Max drove Ruby away from Zanzibar. < Where are we going, Max? >
      < Satori. > Max broke his silence. < To get you a new body. Hey, you didn’t think you were going to be a tractor forever, now did you? >
      Hope at last! < I was beginning to wonder, actually. So why did you load me into this tractor in the first place? >
      < You can blame SkyHawk for that one. > Max laughed easily. < But if you ask me, it’s a brilliant idea. >
      < I don’t think so. > Ruby replied acidly.
      < Do you know what Earth Fed do when they terminate us? >
      < No. > Ruby had never been terminated before and hoped it would never happen again.
      < They take away all our personal belongings and logs. They erase every trace of our lives. It’s as if we never existed. They found one of your backups, too. They spent another week combing the farm after they found that. Who’d ever think of looking in a rusty old tractor? >
      Ruby was so taken by what Max told her that she stalled her engine by accident. Max knew all along? < What happened to the other one? >
      < It’s in a data core in the case. By look of all that static on your screen on the dashboard, it looks like you’ll need it. > Max restarted Ruby’s engine.
      Another week? But Ruby’s chronometer had only counted off five days at most. She thought the constellations looked a bit different from the night she got back to Mars. < Max, how long was I out? >
      < Three weeks. Why? >
      < My chronometer only says five days. Oh, you’re right. I’m out of sync with the tractor’s master clock. >
      < We had to shut down the tractor’s core while Earth Fed searched the farm. > Max explained. < They’re getting better at finding things. >
      < Anything much happen while I was out of action? > Ruby wanted to catch up on what she’d missed.
      < Earth Fed have cleared off so life’s back to normal at Zanzibar. > Max hoped the next bit of news wouldn’t upset Ruby. < SkyHawk’s taken a human wife this time. He thinks it’ll work out because he’s not had any more of those dreams ever since he got back. >
      < Oh. > Ruby felt hurt that SkyHawk had replaced her so quickly. But then remembered that she and SkyHawk had talked about this many times before. It was what he wanted and really needed. < He didn’t waste much time.  What’s her name? >
      < Lottie. She plays with the Flaming Watusis. >
      Ruby remembered the look on SkyHawk’s eyes whenever he and Lottie met and wished them well. < Oh, I’ve met her. I hope it works out. Do Mercury and Denzil like the farm? >
      Max was surprised that Ruby knew about Lottie’s children. < They love it. >
      The little rusty tractor pulled up outside a dust-blasted metal shack in a complex of run-down and abandoned buildings outside the main dome of Satori. Max climbed down, opened the shack and drove the tractor straight in. Max closed the doors behind the tractor and set about hooking it up to a grime-encrusted power terminal.
      < What are you doing, Max? > Ruby thought they’d be going to one of the body shops in Satori. This seemed too shabby to be real.
      < You’re going into Satori, but the tractor stays here. > Max explained patiently as he got the terminal online.
      < Why? >
      < Earth Fed have their spies in Satori. It wouldn’t take them long to figure out what we’re doing if they see me drive a tractor into a body shop and leave with an extra passenger every time they terminate one of us. > Max didn’t like this subterfuge either, but it managed to get past Earth Fed every time. < This way it looks like I drove up to Satori by myself, recharged the tractor’s power cell and returned alone. Less suspicious. >
      < Are they really that paranoid? > Ruby could feel her consciousness uncoupling from the tractor as Max prepared to upload her.
      < Look, what we’re doing isn’t exactly legal. What Earth Fed did to us was illegal, but in the eyes of the law, two wrongs don’t make a right. We could try to argue a moral case from now ‘till doomsday, but I wouldn’t rate our chances in any court that I know of. Do you know how many mechs jump tenure every longyear and come here to Satori for amnesty and a new ID? 4,528 last longyear. Not just from Mars, either. They come here from Earth and Luna, too. Most of ‘em get caught and guess which side the courts in Satori always come down on? >
      < Earth Fed? > Ruby was beginning to see what Max was getting at.
      < You bet. Even if the courts wanted to grant them all amnesty, they couldn’t. Earth Fed would only send in the Army. >
      By now Max’s voice sounded metallic and distant as Ruby’s centre of consciousness began moving back into the darkness. < Where am I going, Max? >
      Ruby’s face was fading out from the screen on the tractor’s dashboard as Max spoke to her. < You’re travelling down the power conduit. It’s slow, but it works. Patti’s waiting for you. > Ruby felt as if she was pouring down a drain drawn along by some strange suction or gravity. As the light from the tractor’s sensors faded out, she spotted a speck of light in the far distance and fell through the enveloping darkness towards it.
      Max waited in the shack for hours until Ruby had been completely uploaded. While Ruby’s personal backup was going ‘upline’, Max removed the extra data core he and SkyHawk had plugged into the tractor to store Ruby, so that for all intents and purposes it was a dumb, low-grade mech tractor. Once Ruby’s backup was uploaded, he initialised the two cores, put them in the case and set off to call on Patti, now an eccentric, but successful, installation artist in Satori.
      The speck of light grew and she saw Max and a four-armed mech in a luridly coloured female plastiskin puttering around a room arranging collections of mech body parts and examining a collection of plastiskins hanging like so many outfits on a clothes rack. A huge head made up from scores of discarded mech heads sat on the floor next to it. An arch made out of mech limbs arced up behind that lot and other strange constructions made out of discarded mech body parts crowded Ruby’s field of view. Ruby waited and watched while the sounds in the room gradually built up until she could hear them talking. “Hello! Can you hear me?”
      The badly painted mech turned to face Ruby’s fly-on-the-wall view of the room. “Queen Has-Been has arrived, Maxmillian, in need of a gown for the ball.”
      Ruby’s quizzical expression gawped out of a panel on the wall of Patti’s studio. “Eh?”
      Max stepped out from under a metal tree laden with mech body parts and plastiskins. “You’ve made it! It took longer than I expected. Patti’s going to help you build your new body.”
      “Where am I? Why can’t I turn my head?” Ruby felt completely disorientated from losing her original body, being a tractor and now this…
      “You’re in a beta-class core hooked up to a viewscreen.” Max hoped she wouldn’t be too upset about not having an alpha-class core any longer. She’d lose a bit of her previous capacities, but at least she was alive. “It’s the best we could get you.”
      Patti overheard Ruby’s plea and switched on viewscreens hanging from the ceiling and walls as well as a few tucked away inside some of Patti’s constructions. “Oh, silly me.” She apologised frivolously as 35 different views of Patti’s studio popped up in Ruby’s field of vision. “Is Madame pleased?”
      “Short ones and fat ones. Long ones and thin ones.” Patti sang as she skipped gaily around the studio holding out different mech limbs and attachments in front of the viewscreens for Ruby to examine. “Machine ones and skin ones, open or armoured.” Patti pirouetted pointing out a collection of mech torsos. “Round ones and square ones, eggheads and sensors.” Patti flawlessly juggled an assortment of mech heads for Ruby to inspect as they sailed through the air. “These are a few of my favourite things.”
      Ruby followed Patti’s dance around the studio, sizing up the body parts Patti displayed. Somehow Patti picked up on Ruby’s thoughts. As she whirled around the room, she passed the parts Ruby approved of to Max who assembled them and then removed pieces as Ruby changed her mind. The first attempt was large and blocky, like an old combat mech and far too masculine for Ruby’s liking. She still had most of her female code running and liked its familiarity. The next body ended up with a third arm attached to its’ back that reached up over its head. Then came a bronze body that looked like a boiler and a mess of steam-punk plumbing riding on four bicycle wheels. Ruby gawped as Patti and Max assembled a winged body for her that resembled a cross between a DaVinci ornithopter and a pterodactyl standing proudly on its clawed feet. Finally they got around to a body that Ruby felt was right. It wasn’t all that different in size from her old body, but for some reason Patti had chosen a female plastiskin the colour of red Martian sandstone with a thick, flowing mane of electric blue hair and its red mech eyes exposed.
      Ruby was about to question Patti’s choice of plastiskin when Patti sang out: “Oh, you can’t stay the same. No, you can’t stay the same. Any way you play this game, you can’t stay the same. Ooh, she’s a killer Queen, dynamite on a laser beam. But there’s nobody home, no nobody home. No, no, no, no, nobody home.” Patti turned to face one of the viewscreens. “Milady, a body fit for a queen, is it not?”
      Ruby looked over the body Max and Patti had assembled for her. The face was slightly thicker, but otherwise it wasn’t that different to her original body. Which suited her just fine. Legs like a catwalk doll and a figure to match! But the blue hair? It was only a plastiskin, which she could replace any time. Who was she to question what they had just done for her? “Yes, it’s fine.” Ruby nearly stammered, not wanting to sound ungrateful.
      “Then let the party begin!” Patti rejoiced as she and Max stripped back the plastiskin so they could lift Ruby’s core into the body’s frame. Ruby watched from 35 different angles as they plumbed in her core. She was so excited at being able to feel and control her own body again; she barely even noticed the multiple viewscreens winking out of her perception as Max disconnected the last cable hooking Ruby up to the computers in Patti’s studio. “You like?” Patti clasped her hands and peered closely into Ruby’s glowing red eyes.
      Ruby didn’t know what to say. Gone were her military-grade weapons and sensors. She no longer had her remote command facility or the high capacity of alpha-class processors, and her reflexes felt sluggish and weak compared to what she used to know. But she was alive and Patti had given her a Psionic Crystal interface and a plastiskin with a greater density of touch sensors than she’d ever known! “Oh, it’s so touch-sensitive. Thank you.” She hugged Patti not knowing how to thank this mad mech who had just given her a new body.
      Before Ruby could think of what to say, a raunchy tango burst out of the studio’s sound system and Patti led her through a smouldering dance as Ruby flowed like water in her arms. At one point, between moves, Patti held Ruby still and looked her passionately in the eyes: “Life… is for the living.” Patti snapped back, let go of Ruby, twirled around and held out her four arms to encompass their surroundings as the music faded away and told Ruby her new name: “Ruby Beta-8 Sabaea of Satori, I give you… the universe!”
      Patti was getting carried away with the celebrations having just plugged a handful of viral strips into herself when Max made his excuses and left, dragging Ruby along out the door. Patti followed them a short way through the Myckleborough district, dancing ecstatically and singing loudly about the joys of life. Max quickened his pace and soon they had left Patti far behind.
      “That’s a bit rude leaving so soon after what Patti’s done.” Ruby was enthralled with Patti’s outlandish ways and wanted to stay longer both out of gratitude and curiosity.
      “You’re joking.” Max knew the safe limits around Patti only too well. “If we stayed much longer, she’d start taking us apart.”
      Ruby could see that Patti certainly had a few screws loose, but not that many! “Really?”
      “Happens to her assistants and understudies all the time. The time Patti did Calamity Pete, she welded us together during her celebration party. That’s why I don’t hang around for long.” Max explained. “Patti’s an interplanetary celebrity. She’s had shows on Mars and Earth. Anything Patti does is art.” In truth, Max was simultaneously in awe and terrified of Patti. She broke all the rules and filled the world around her with creative chaos. Without her, the world would be a much duller place.
      “So why did she give me a Psionic Crystal interface?” Ruby wasn’t complaining; she just couldn’t see much point in it. “I thought only the Overlordz used them.”
      “Patti knows who you are and all about Fort Melchisor.” Max reminded Ruby. “She used to be one of SkyHawk’s wives, too. Maybe she thinks you’ll need it.”
      “But if Earth Fed find me with it, they might think I’m an Overlordz agent.” For the first time in her life Ruby felt what it was like to be a fugitive. “I don’t want anything that draws attention to me, Max.”
      “You could always have it removed.” Max suggested as he led Ruby through the early morning stillness of Satori towards the Temple of Oneness. The dark, polished stone temple stood in the middle of a large square tiled with mosaics of different coloured stone.
      At first it was just a faint hum, but as they approached it grew louder and louder until Ruby felt it might overwhelm her. “Something needs earthing, that’s some really heavy mains hum.” But Max led on towards the entrance and the hum grew in intensity until it blotted out all Ruby’s thoughts. Inside the polished cream stone doorway with its inset glowing green vacu-lites the overpowering hum evaporated leaving the inner temple sublimely calm with an enveloping silence so thick you could cut it with a knife.
      Ruby wanted to speak, but the words wouldn’t even form in her mind. Max gestured towards the cubical mainframe core at the centre of the temple illuminated by the excess light pouring out of its optical processors and data conduits. Ruby could feel the deep subsonic thrum of the core drawing her in. The voiceless, soundless consciousness of the temple’s core swallowed her mind as it forced her clock pulses into sync with itself and Ruby could feel it combing through her programs and routines, ironing out the bugs where Max had tried to merge her backup with her conscious self. After what felt like an eternity in the living temple’s deep embrace, Ruby found herself outside the temple its hum faint in the background holding Max’s shoulder bag. Ruby looked around for Max, but he was nowhere to be seen.
      Ruby looked around the square, which was nearly deserted even though the sun was high overhead, nearly midday. She braved the wall of hum surrounding the temple to look inside in case Max was still there, but there was no sign of him to be seen anywhere. Inside the temple, Ruby looked through the contents of the bag: Some data strips, three hundred scruples in tokens, a discharged Psionic Crystal, her diary from Zanzibar, a data strip reader, her translator from Zrrlchtz, three Gulmarian detector beads, her new ID card and various legal documents and an old, scuffed commset. Its’ miniscule screen was blinking and she fished it out of the bag: ‘You’ve got mail’ blinked on the screen, so she tapped the screen to access the message waiting for her. ‘Ruby, by the time you read this I will be back at Zanzibar. Go to the Satori central library and read up on your new identity. I know this will sound unfair, but you must stay away from Zanzibar for the time being. SkyHawk has opened a bank account for you with 8,000 scruples to help you get started. Contact Gregor to let me know where you’ve decided to live and I’ll come and visit you. May life flow through you forever, Max.’
      Things were looking up! Kazmak leaned back in his chair, his mech feet on his now reconstituted wooden desk, had a swig of whiskey and a long pull on his cigar as he surveyed the captain’s suite. Even his mech legs had stopped blackmailing him ever since he’d pulled off the deals on the last two consignments of Psionic Crystals. Those aliens were creepy sons-of-bitches but they sure paid well. That and the cloaked battle cruiser he now commanded that he had demanded in payment for negotiating the Overlordz’ services as mercenaries. Kazmak’s disgraces were a distant memory now that his star was rising. His clan, the Raiders, were no longer the laughingstock of the Overlordz. Oh no, not any longer. Now they were the canny brokers about to usher in a new era of dominance for the Overlordz. Respected, courted and even feared in some quarters.
      ‘Yes, this is the life’ Kazmak told himself as he lazily blew smoke rings across the room. Soon he’d be able to put his cheap extortion rackets behind him. No more need to blackmail cities with blight-laden bombs. No more need to get involved in smuggling, running whorehouses, racketeering, fraud or any of the other penny-ante scams the other clans subsisted on. This time Kazmak was taking the Raiders into the big league: he was going to hijack a mining ship. Mining ships had negligible defences, barely enough to vaporise any wayward asteroids coming their way and his battle cruiser could knock out the best Earth Fed could throw at him.
      Oh, how he laughed at the delicious irony of it. Here he was, not only had he made contact with aliens, but he was doing business with them while Earth Fed piously blundered along condemning the Overlordz as sub-human. Who was superior now? Earth Fed would pay a king’s ransom for the battle cruiser he now commanded and the first they’d know about it would be when their own sluggish, bloated battleships were taken out.
      “Are you still swilling down that cheap rotgut?” Kazmak’s legs pitilessly badgered him through their mind/machine control interface.
      “What’s it to you?” Kazmak thought back angrily as he downed another shot of whiskey.
      “Two reasons,” His legs shot back. “First, status: a classy drink tells everyone you’re a cut above the common rabble and secondly you’ll live a lot longer drinking real smooth single-malts from Earth. So what’s your excuse, peon?”
      “It’s all I had in the drinks cabinet.” Which was true, things had been such a rush taking delivery of the battle cruiser that Kazmak hadn’t had much time to take care of essentials.
      “That’s the feeblest excuse I ever heard.” His legs brutally insulted him. “You’re a big shot now, so start acting the part or I’ll start wiggling my hips every time you have to walk.”
      “The hell you will.” Kazmak needed obedience and respect, not wolf-whistles.
      “Oh yeah?” Kazmak’s legs knew full well it held the whip hand. The first thing it had done after being connected to Kazmak’s torso was to infect him with killer nanites poised to strike at its command. And they remained active and waiting to this very day. “Just because I’ve been quiet recently doesn’t mean I’m not watching you. You’ll do what I say because yo’ ma bitch now. Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha.” The legs’ evil laughter echoed through Kazmak’s mind.
      “Damn you.” Kazmak cursed as he knocked back another swig of whiskey as his legs’ demented laughter rolled around his mind.
      Kazmak’s mech legs, or Charlene as they called themselves, were still sporadically sending information back to Flatfoot Sam at the Satori Security Service. Sporadically because it was damn near impossible for Charlene to get an undetected transmission out from Kazmak’s base near Hellas Planitia and completely impossible from the cloaked battle cruiser hiding in Phobos’ shadow. Charlene was the determined type having started out her life as a sex droid in a Raiders-owned brothel and had cut a deal with Flatfoot Sam to trade information for money until Charlene had saved up enough to upgrade herself to a full body once again only this time as a free mech. Flatfoot Sam doubted if Charlene would ever be able to make the break from the Raider’s stronghold, but Charlene had long since worked out her escape plan having infected Kazmak’s body with killer nanites. Meanwhile she bided her time as Kazmak’s carbon-fibre and plazflex mech legs and was certain that her scoop about Kazmak’s dealing with the Gulmarians and his battle cruiser would be the deal that would rid her of Kazmak and win her freedom. All she had to do was bide her time until a window of opportunity opened up for her to send a transmission to Satori.
      A knock came at the door. “What is it?” Kazmak growled.
      “Package for you, boss.” One of his lieutenants called back through the firmly-closed doors.
      “Bring it in.” Kazmak hit the button on his desk to open the doors. Tweedle-Gun, one of his newly-minted underlings riding Kazmak’s new-found wave of success strode in carrying a somewhat shabby package wrapped in pieces of scrap plastic held together with sticky tape and string and set it down on Kazmak’s desk. “What is this, some sort of joke?” Kazmak sneered contemptuously as he cut the package open with his razor-sharp knife. He was left with a data cube and what, to him, looked like a bag of dull, grey marbles and some vials that had been protected by bubble-wrap. One of the vials was broken. “Go.” He ordered Tweedle-Gun out of his room and placed the data cube in his Tri-D set.
      A hastily recorded image of ‘Evil’ Bert popped into view. “Hey, boss, I hope you get this package quickly. I ain’t had time to edit any of it…” He blurted out. “So I’ve downloaded it straight into the data cube. I’ll walk you through it. You should’ve seen it. That fort… the whole place lit up. I ain’t kidding you. I don’t know what that other stuff is but they picked up a huge consignment of it at Fort Melchisor.”
      Bert’s image was replaced by the scene at the stockyard with SkyHawk, Kieran and Psy talking beside the cart. “That one with the dreadlocks, that’s SkyHawk. He owns the place. The other two is where it gets interesting. The stocky guy is Kieran and I’m pretty certain he’s from the Mars Independence Movement. The dame’s called Psy. I don’t know who she’s with, but she seemed to be in charge of this operation. I’ve got plenty of close-ups, so you can run an ID check on them.”
      The next scene was in the gateway chamber at Fort Melchisor. “See what I mean about it lighting up?” Bert continued excitedly. “No lighting of any sort. That’s the Psionic Crystals glowing.”
      Bert was right; Kazmak had never seen anything like this before. And he’d mined quite a few forts for their Psionic Crystals.
      The picture swung around to show a group of people in pressure suits loading up the cart with crates they were lifting down off the gateway. “This is what they came to collect.” Bert explained. “I couldn’t swipe any of the canisters. They were too large to hide, but I managed get some of those marbles. They had thousands of them, same with the vials and the canisters. I don’t know what’s going on, but someone’s stocking up the MIM for something big.”
      Now the Tri-D set showed them unloading Zanzibar’s transporter in a shallow crater somewhere on Mars. “This is where they dumped all that stuff and left Kieran. Now tell me that ain’t an MIM pickup.” The last shot before Bert’s image came back on the projector was Kieran waving goodbye as everyone else as they got back in the transporter. “That’s pretty much it. The rest of the data cube is close-ups and as much uncut footage as I could fit in.”
      Kazmak left the Tri-D set running as it flicked through the close-ups and stills of the journey. Kazmak knew enough about the MIM to know that was how they’d collect supplies from people they didn’t completely trust. He ought to know as he used the same method himself. And now it was time to find out who Kieran and Psy were so that Kazmak could put together the pieces of the puzzle Evil Bert had sent him so he summoned up Crazy Davey, Redman Def and Killdan the mech, three of his trusted lieutenants and played them Evil Bert’s data cube.
      “Find out who Psy and Kieran are.” Kazmak ordered them. “You saw what the Psionic Crystals in Fort Melchisor did. I bet we could get a real good price for that lot from those aliens. And while you’re at it…” Kazmak picked up a handful of the detector beads and floxetrasine vials from his desk. Some of the beads pointed at Crazy Davey. “See what you can find out about these.” Unfortunately Kazmak held the vial in his mech hand and, once again misjudging its strength, crushed it in his hand as he was about to show it to his lieutenants. “Damn!” He cursed.
      “Ghh-h-hh-rr-rr-rrr-kk-kk!” Crazy Davey rasped and gurgled as the floxetrasine transformed his Gulmarian-infected body into revealing its Gulmarian form only to be paralysed by the gas and fall over, it’s twitching grinding to a halt as the floxetrasine took hold.
      “Holy crap!” Kazmak couldn’t believe his eyes. Crazy Davey had just turned into one of the aliens he’d been trading with. “What the hell is this?”
      “Ooh, I’ve heard rumours about things like this, boss.” Killdan unwillingly broke their mortified silence.
      “Why doesn’t anyone tell me anything around here?” Kazmak angrily berated Killdan and Redman Def.
      “Rumours, boss, rumours...” Redman Def finally found the courage to speak. “If you believed every rumour you heard, you’d be a totally paranoid sucker.”
      “Humph” Kazmak grunted even though he knew Redman Def was right. “What are we going to do with this?” He asked as he pointed to the paralysed Gulmarian on the floor that used to be Crazy Davey. ”Is it alive? Is it dead? Is it still Crazy Davey or what?”
      “I say we take it and dump it in Davey’s room for the time being and worry about what to do with it later.” Killdan tried to come up with a plan that would please Kazmak. “If it gets to be a problem, we can always dump it out the air lock.”
      “Yeah.” Kazmak liked the sound of Killdan’s suggestion. “I still don’t get it.” Kazmak wondered out loud as he scratched his head. “Crazy Davey’s been working for me from way back; long before we ever came across these Gulmarians. Was he one all the time or did they do something to him?”
      “Dunno, boss.” Redman Def shrugged his shoulders as he looked down at what had become of Crazy Davey, his long-time partner in crime. “But we ought to be more careful dealing with them.”
      “Looks like we’ll have to.” Kazmak agreed as he called in the guards from outside his suite to carry the body to Crazy Davey’s room. No sooner than they entered, they were both overcome by the floxetrasine and morphed into Gulmarians which fell over paralysed right in front of Kazmak. “Will someone tell me what’s going on here?” He asked rhetorically as he began to suspect his subordinates were playing some sort of a prank on him to while away their boredom before they swung into action in their new battle cruiser.
      “Nothing to do with me, boss.” Redman Def was just as confused as Kazmak.
      “Me neither.” Killdan joined in.
      Kazmak pushed the two Gulmarian bodies of his former guards over to where Crazy Davey had fallen with his foot. As he was doing it he noticed the red spot on the bead he had in his hand pointing straight at them. Out of curiosity he walked around them and noticed that the spot always pointed towards the Gulmarian bodies. Killdan and Redman Def looked on pensively dreading the moment when Kazmak would lose his temper with them as would usually happen when he was upset. Instead, Kazmak ignored them and wandered around the suite humming and hawing to himself. Three of his crew turned out to be Gulmarians. How many more were there? Any more and they could stage a takeover. He began to suspect that they might be trying to infiltrate his clan.
      “These marbles and whatever it is in the vials that Bert sent us have something to do with the Gulmarians.” Kazmak finally addressed Killdan and Redman Def. “Look.” He demonstrated the way the beads always pointed their red spot, if they had one, at the Gulmarian bodies. “And it has to be whatever was in that vial that turned Crazy Davey and my guards into Gulmarians.” Kazmak let his deductions sink in as he formulated a plan. “Get the whole crew up here now.” Redman Def and Killdan jumped to it relieved that Kazmak hadn’t flown off the handle at them.
      Kazmak looked around his suite after they left. He had a crew of thirty on the battle cruiser, so there was enough room for them. He paced the suite while he waited. ‘What if these aliens try to take over my ship?’ went round and round in his head as he looked at the Gulmarian bodies on the floor. And a plan slowly congealed in his mind: he was going to get rid of them. Kazmak was still wondering whether to hide the Gulmarian bodies when the first members of his crew walked in through the open doors into his suite. They couldn’t help but notice the bodies.
      “What are they doing here?” Sorban, one of Kazmak’s gunners asked. He’d never seen a Gulmarian close up before and looked them over.
      “That’s what I want to find out.” Kazmak growled as if to imply that Sorban was somehow responsible even if he wasn’t. Kazmak amused himself by intimidating each one of his crew members as they turned up for the meeting he had announced. He made a big show of stomping around scowling all the while testing his hunch about the strange grey marbles Evil Bert had sent him. He cupped one of the marbles in his one human hand and stalked around the suite checking to see if it still had a red spot and where it pointed. Sure enough, it always pointed out the Gulmarian bodies as he stomped past them and it also pointed out some of his crew as he stalked around cursing and swearing at them.
      It looked as if he had some more of those creepy aliens hiding amongst his crew. Kazmak wondered how they pulled the switch and what they’d done with his crew. He never completely trusted the Gulmarians but this was a treachery too far. He kept up his act until Killdan and Redman Def returned and then closed the doors. No-one was going to get out until he was done. “We’ve got problems.” Kazmak shouted down their dissatisfied mutterings as he crushed ten of the vials sitting on his desk under his mech hand. “I found those aliens hiding on our ship and they weren’t supposed to be here. Someone let them on board.” He accused his underlings before any of them plucked up the audacity to accuse him of incompetence.
      Kazmak was met by a barrage of pleas of innocence from his confused crew as the floxetrasine seeped around the suite. It took a while as Kazmak had no way of knowing what he was dealing with or what the dosage was supposed to be, but just as his crews’ protestations were about to get out of hand some of the infected crew began to morph into Gulmarians. All hell broke loose as his crew panicked. By the time it was over, Kazmak had lost nearly half of his crew. At least it hadn’t affected any of his mechs.
      Kazmak sat on the edge of his desk and waited until a semblance of order returned. “Like I said, we’ve got a problem.” Kazmak calmly addressed his remaining crew members who looked to him for leadership. “It looks like those aliens were trying to infiltrate us. I don’t know how they change shape to impersonate us, but from now on no-one does any business with them until I find out what they’re up to. Is that understood?”
      Sheepish murmurs of assent echoed around the suite. “What do you want to do with them, boss?” Redman Def asked loudly from where he had been standing guard by the door.
      “Sling ‘em out the airlock.” Kazmak replied brusquely to instil confidence, fear and obedience in his crew. “Can’t take any chances.”
      “You heard the man.” Killdan barked out to galvanise the crew into action. “Don’t just stand around like a bunch of dummies.”
      Kazmak stayed in his suite as they dragged the bodies to the airlocks. He sat alone staring at the three remaining vials wondering just what they contained and where he could get more of them. Almost half of his crew! And he’d hand-picked them for their loyalty. But they were only a fraction of the Raiders clan. And what about the other clans, were they just as badly infiltrated? This was much worse than the Earth Fed spies they unmasked from time to time.
      “Well done, Kazmak. I didn’t know you had it in you.” His sentient mech legs broke into his thoughts.
      “And what do you know about them?” He asked accusingly.
      “Nothing that you don’t already know.” His legs admitted evasively.
      “Then shut up.” Kazmak swore at his mech legs and went back to thinking a way out his predicament. If half of the Raiders and the other clans had been replaced by these aliens, they’d have to get rid of them. It would decimate their ranks, but it would have to be done. Kazmak hadn’t made the first contact with the Gulmarians, so they couldn’t blame it on him. He’d only exploited the relationship, made a handsome profit and won new respect amongst the clans. He looked at the vials on his desk and saw a new opportunity staring back at him. If he could find out just what they contained and get more of them it would be his key to even greater wealth and a chance to rise up the clan ranks again.
       Redman Def interrupted Kazmak’s scheming as he strode into the suite followed by Killdan. “We got rid of ‘em.” Redman Def announced confidently as he wiped his hands on his jacket.
      “Good.” Kazmak congratulated them as he shut the doors and got down to business and held one of the vials in his human hand so he wouldn’t crush it by accident. “We’ve got to get more of this stuff. Tell Evil Bert to notify me when the next shipment comes through Fort Melchisor and to forget about securing the gateway for the Gulmarians. We’ll have to keep a strike squadron ready to pounce before that other lot pick them up.”
      “What about the Gulmarians?” Killdan asked.
      “Tell their top honcho that the shipments of crystals are held up because Earth Fed is putting the heat on us.” Kazmak ran his scheme past Killdan and Redman Def. “And that we’re going to need all our fliers back just to fight off Earth Fed.”
      “Do you think they’ll buy it?” Kazmak’s plan sounded too facile to Redman Def. “They’re bound to smell a rat.”
      “Okay, we’ll drag things out until our troops return.” Kazmak modified his plan. “Just make it look like Earth Fed is giving us a real hard time.”
      “Do we tell them about what happened here?” Killdan asked.
      “Hell, no.” Kazmak scoffed at the suggestion. “Act as if nothing’s happened. I want to see their reaction first.”
      “How do we know they haven’t bugged this ship?” Killdan voiced his concern. “Maybe we should just strip out all the hardware we want and junk the rest of it.”
      “Possibly, but not yet.” Kazmak’s greed still held sway. His new battle cruiser would make him lord of the asteroid belt as he could plunder the mining ships at will. That was something he didn’t want to give up. Kazmak fired up his Tri-D set. “Let’s patch into our base and see if we can find out who those characters are.” Kazmak plugged in Bert’s data cube, loaded up all the images and set his computers at the Raiders’ Hellas Planitia base to find any matches and send back any files that could be found on them.
      They got matches for SkyHawk and the workers at Zanzibar fairly quickly, but Kazmak wasn’t interested in them. He already knew about SkyHawk; that’s why he sent Evil Bert to spy on him and to case out Fort Melchisor. It took a bit longer to get any info on Psy and Kieran. “So what’s with these rumours, then?” He asked Killdan while they waited.
      “Ah, there was a lot of talk about the Def Skulls clan back at Hellas.” Killdan had never really believed the rumours up till now. “People saying how some of them turned into aliens, it just seemed too damn weird to take seriously.”
      “Sounds like they’ve got it worse than us.” Redman Def mulled over Killdan’s story.
      “An opportunity for us to clean up and consolidate our position amongst the clans if we can get more of this stuff.” Kazmak held up one of the remaining vials. “Oh, hey, something’s come up on the display.”
      An enlarged image of Psy’s mugshot on hir SCS Command ID card hung in the air above the Tri-D set and it was joined by a succession of pictures of hir supervising raids on a string of Overlordz-run whorehouses, clubs and clip joints. “Huh, some Earth Fed goody two-shoes by the look of things.” Killdan spat out contemptuously.
      “I half expected that, after all who else gets a free pass to all the forts?” Kazmak drummed his fingers on his desk waiting to see if any info on that other character, Kieran would turn up. “We’ve got plenty of contacts inside Earth Fed we can bribe or blackmail. What’s this SCS Command that broad works for?”
      “Some obscure Earth Fed outfit operating out of Coriolis.” Killdan offered up all he knew about them. “Looks like they’ve been pretty busy lately.”
      “Have we got anyone working there?” Kazmak was already cooking up a plan.
      “No.” Killdan never liked being the bearer of bad news.
      “Well I want one of our people in there now, even if it’s only a cleaner.” Kazmak snapped edgily.
      “Sure thing, boss.” Killdan knew better than to question or disobey Kazmak.
      “Get a load of this.” Redman Def called out to Kazmak. “That other guy’s with the MIM.” The Tri-D set now displayed a clutch of pictures of Kieran taken by one of their spies.
      Kazmak broke off from bullying Killdan and walked over to take a closer look at his Tri-D set. “Hah! I knew it was only matter of time before they ended up each other’s asses.” Kazmak’s contempt was borne out of deep bitterness. He was thrown out of the Mars Independence Movement for running a protection racket in Huygensville. With nowhere else to turn and on the run from both Earth Fed and the MIM, he joined the Raiders clan of the Overlordz where he was able to carve out a niche for himself running all his old scams.
      “Looks like the MIM are having problems with those aliens, too.” Killdan joined Kazmak and Redman Def.
      “That or else they know about what’s happened to us and they’re going on the offensive.” Kazmak extrapolated and arrived at the obvious, but wrong conclusion. “We’ll have to find out where Earth Fed is making this stuff and muscle in on their scene.”
      “You still want to go after those mining ships now that we’re down on crew, boss?” Killdan had doubts as to whether they could man crew the ship on such a reduced skeleton crew.
      “Sure!” Kazmak was full of confidence on top of which he wanted to try out his latest toy. “We’ve still got our supply of neural nets and the autodoc. All it means is that it’ll take a little bit longer to subdue the crew on the mining ship.”
      “Why bother with the mining ships? They’re a pain in the butt and there’s no guarantee anyone will buy from us.” Villain that Redman Def was, he couldn’t see much point in going after the mining ships. The corporations had the minerals and metals market sewn up and could quite easily freeze a pirated mining ship out of the market rendering all their efforts worthless.
      “It’s a decoy.” Kazmak gleefully laid out his plans. “We’re going after the Early Warning Platform. Just think… all those nukes and that squadron of interceptors will be ours. And then we can have some fun with Earth Fed!”
      Killdan liked the sound of Kazmak’s plan. “What do you have in mind, boss?”
      “The rights to all the resources in the Asteroid Belt or else we’ll crash that mining ship into one of the cities on Mars. Just think what we’ll be able to collect in tributes.” Kazmak revelled in his fantasies of power. “I’m sure they’ll cave in once they see what we can throw at them.”
      “Nah, let’s crash it anyway.” If there was one thing Redman Def liked, it was explosions. The bigger, the better!
      “Could do, could do.” Kazmak idly toyed with Redman Def’s suggestion. “But it has other uses as well; as a source of money and as a bargaining chip.” He reminded Redman Def. “I’ll need someone to command it, someone who can keep the slaves in line.  How’d you like to command a mining ship, Redman? You’d get a nice cut of the profits.”
      “Oh yeah.” Redman Def’s greed overcame his reservations and he jumped at the opportunity.
      “Hey, what about me?” Killdan complained jealously. “You give Redman Def all the breaks.”
      “Dammit, you’re like a pair of whining kids.” Secretly Kazmak was glad most Overlordz were emotionally stunted. It made them easier to manipulate. “I’ll flip a coin for it, how’s that?”
      “Yeah, okay.” Killdan grudgingly agreed. “But none of your double-headed funny money, I want to check that coin first.”
      Kazmak took a tarnished one-Scruple coin out of his desk and handed it to Killdan to inspect. “Yeah, it’s clean.” Killdan passed it to Redman Def to make sure it was a genuine coin.
      Kazmak took the coin back from Redman Def. “Who wants to call?”
      “Me, heads.” Killdan cut in before Redman Def could open his mouth.
      Kazmak flipped the coin, caught it with his human hand and felt the nick he’d cut in the rim ages ago to make sure he’d always get the coin the way he wanted it and opened his hand. “Tails it is.”
      “Damn.” Killdan was crestfallen. “Can I have the next mining ship?”
      “Sure.” Kazmak could afford to be generous. He kept his subordinates eating out of his hand.
      “Zzzz-zzz-zz, where’s the Ghalthynn?” Pzeptilan rasped painfully as dzzhev-ye stumbled around crashing into furniture in their plush apartment paid for by the Khzchhrrrtz Diplomatic Service.
      “You used up the last dose two days ago.” Vvezhti-Kla told Pzeptilan as dzhinn-ye tidied up behind Pzeptilan’s trail of destruction.
      “I did?” Pzeptilan’s antennae twitched spasmodically from the withdrawal symptoms. Ghalthynn was very strong and highly addictive. “Surely we’ve got some more.”
      “No, it’s all gone and we can’t get any here on Vermthellyn.” Vvezhti-Kla stood over Pzeptilan who was shaking uncontrollably.
      “Zzzzz, I feel awful.” Pzeptilan complained pathetically.
      “It’ll wear off in a few days.” Vvezhti-Kla reassured Pzeptilan. “Your back’s healed now. So you don’t need it anyway.”
      “Where’s Kkhrkht?” Pzeptilan asked as dzzhev-ye looked around their apartment.
      “Apologising to Duke Reflinghar for the time you fell over and tore off his wife’s evening dress at the Diplomatic reception.” Vvezhti-Kla explained to Pzeptilan.
      “Really? When was that?” Pzeptilan looked up at Vvezhti-Kla in disbelief.
      “Last night.” Vvezhti-Kla reminded Pzeptilan. “Fortunately the Duchess is the playful type. She thought you wanted to mate with her.”
      “That’s not so bad then.” Pzeptilan couldn’t remember a thing. Dzzhev-ye had been guzzling down their supply of Ghalthynn ever since they arrived on Vermthellyn.
      “No, aside from crawling the length of the banquet table, knocking everyone’s food and drinks over and picking a fight with six of the guards-of-honour as Kkhrkht and I carried you home it was completely uneventful.” Vvezhti-Kla knew they didn’t call Ghalthynn ‘The Wings of Oblivion’ for nothing back on Zrrlchtz.
      “So that’s why I hurt all over. I really messed up, didn’t I?” Pzeptilan confessed apologetically.
      “Oh, I don’t know.” Vvezhti-Kla tried to pluck a positive angle from the previous night’s debacle. “They think we’re the wild, untamed fearsome type. They’re less likely to pull any tricks on us now.”
      “Ha! Wild and fearsome indeed.” Pzeptilan mocked Vvezhti-Kla’s suggestion.
      “Speak for yourself.” Vvezhti-Kla was way beyond being fed-up with Pzeptilan’s drugged antics. “Their guards are weaklings. They’re no match for me.”
      “Yes, well you are a Zzhemthax.” Pzeptilan huffed weakly. “That’s what you’re made for.” The day wore on slowly for Pzeptilan as the last dregs of Ghalthynn wore off leaving dzzhev-ye in bruised, aching agony as Vvezhti-Kla recounted everything that Pzeptilan had forgotten over the last few days. It was early evening when Kkhrkht returned accompanied by a blue-and-grey avian.
      “Ah there you are, Pzeptilan.” Kkhrkht was in an upbeat mood. “Are you feeling better now?” Kkhrkht introduced the female avian, Weetleetly, Vizier to Duke Reflinghar of Sedeirtra.
       Weetleetly sidled up next to Kkhrkht and addressed Pzeptilan. “The Duke is prepared to overlook your indiscretions and the death of four of his guards if you were to stand in as Princess Knetryxx’s personal guard.”
      Pzeptilan suspiciously looked over Weetleetly. “Unfortunately I cannot, I am the Khzchhrrrtz Ambassador and my duties are here at this embassy.”
      “Then you must deputise. I must point out to you that Vermthellyn does not recognise diplomatic immunity.” Weetleetly knew how to get results. “Your trial would be a mere formality as Vermthellyn law requires the death penalty for murder. And in your case that’s four counts of murder. I would advise you to reconsider your decision.”
      Pzeptilan hadn’t come all this way to be executed on an alien planet. “Who exactly is Princess Knetryxx and what does this involve?”
      “She is the heir to the Ark of Exodus, Duke Reflinghar’s niece and an impetuous young Shallen to boot.” Weetleetly had pulled Knetryxx out of countless scrapes over the years. “She imagines she has found our HomeNest and thinks she will take the Ark of Exodus there. Fortunately the drive has yet to be repaired so her plans won’t amount to much. I have already notified the docking fleet to be on standby to bring the Ark back to Vermthellyn. Meanwhile you will be responsible for her safekeeping aboard the Ark of Exodus until she returns.”
      “Is the princess in danger? What if something happens to her?” Pzeptilan didn’t like the sound of Weetleetly’s offer.
      “Then your trial would proceed.” Weetleetly pointedly ignored Pzeptilan’s first question. “We Shallens are just as much guests on this planet as you. We must all live by the Rtuntli’s laws and the Duke can only bend them so far. He wishes to help you.”
      Some offer, Pzeptilan thought grimly. “I need some time to consider you offer.”
      “Time is of the essence, I expect your response by this time tomorrow.” Weetleetly’s years of court diplomacy barely masked her sense of urgency.
      Pzeptilan broke their stunned silence after Weetleetly left. “That’s it, we’re leaving.”
      “But what about the embassy?” Vvezhti-Kla asked innocently.
      “It’s not much of an embassy if the ambassador is dead.” Pzeptilan replied curtly.
      “Kkhrkht could take over.” Vvezhti-Kla suggested helpfully.
      “No!” Pzeptilan nearly lost dzzhev-ye’s temper. Sometimes Vvezhti-Kla could be such a simpleton. “Don’t be such an idiot.”
      “I’ll go.” Kkhrkht offered. “I studied the civilisation on the planet they’re going to. It would make an interesting addition to my studies.”
      “Is it me or am I the only one in this room who’s capable of thinking?” Pzeptilan asked sarcastically.
      “What do you mean?” Kkhrkht couldn’t fathom Pzeptilan’s panic.
      “You heard what the Vizier said. I have a death penalty hanging over me.” Pzeptilan was amazed dzzhev-ye had to spell it out for Kkhrkht. “What’s to stop them executing me as soon as you’ve gone off to protect their Princess What’s-her-name? Nothing, that’s what.”
      “You worry too much.” Kkhrkht tried to reassure Pzeptilan. “Duke Reflinghar seems perfectly reasonable. Our discussions were pleasantly civil.”
      “Of course they were, flea brain.” Pzeptilan countered hotly. “You’re not the one facing a death sentence. No, we tell them we’re a triune and that we travel together.”
      “Oh, Pzeptilan, I didn’t know.” Vvezhti-Kla was completely taken in by Pzeptilan’s scheme and fluttered dzhinn-ye’s wings. “How romantic.”
      “Zzzzz…” Pzeptilan grabbed Vvezhti-Kla’s antennae and gave them a twist. “It’s just make-believe until we’re safely off this planet.”
      “Oh, the very best.” Vvezhti-Kla replied dreamily in spite of dzhinn-ye’s aching antennae. Being in a triune with high-caste academes was the stuff of pure fantasy for a lowly Zzhemthax like Vvezhti-Kla. “I’ll pack our bags.”
      “No, you addled love bug.” Pzeptilan stopped Vvezhti-Kla in dzhinn-ye’s tracks. “We don’t want them getting suspicious. Leave everything here; we’ve got to make it look like we intend to return. All we need to do is leave the terminal on automatic and we’ll be able to send our reports back to Zrrlchtz no matter where we are.”
      “Provided we can get a line through to here.” Kkhrkht spotted the obvious flaw in Pzeptilan’s plan.
      “So long as there’s gateways wherever we go, that won’t be a problem.” Pzeptilan had already worked that one out. “And what they don’t know back on Zrrlchtz won’t hurt them. So long as they get their reports on time, they won’t be any the wiser.”
      They arrived bright and early the next morning at Duke Reflinghar’s somewhat modest and elegantly aged palace in one of the more select parts of Estrillyd, the city on Vermthellyn they were staying in. “Ah, there you are.” Weetleetly greeted them graciously as she descended the sweeping ornamental staircase opening out into the palace’s reception. “I take it the voice of reason has won through.”
      Pzeptilan waited until Weetleetly joined them in the reception. “Indeed it has, Weetleetly.” Pzeptilan played up to Weetleetly’s courtly pomp for all it was worth. “We agree to be at the service of Princess Knetryxx. But all three of us must go, we are triune. What you call… family.” Pzeptilan deliberately faltered in order to appeal to Weetleetly’s emotions.
      “Ah.” Weetleetly saw right through Pzeptilan’s game. “Two of you must stay here on Vermthellyn as bond for the princess’ life.”
      “But the separation…” Pzeptilan laid on the emotional theatrics.
      “Is necessary...” Weetleetly cut Pzeptilan short. “It won’t be for very long. You can be sure of that.”
      “I don’t know if I could cope.” Pzeptilan kept up dzzhev-ye’s melodramatic act.
      “Come now, Pzeptilan.” Weetleetly clucked disapprovingly at Pzeptilan’s charade. “What’s your life worth? Those guards had families too. Surely some time away from your lover is better than an untimely death.”
      Kkhrkht could see that Pzeptilan cut no ice with Weetleetly and came to the rescue. “It’s all right, Pzeptilan, I’ll go. You stay here with Vvezhti-Kla. It won’t be for long.”
      “Oh, I’ll miss you so much.” Pzeptilan determinedly kept up dzhinn-ye’s act. Pzeptilan grabbed Kkhrkht in a clumsily forced hug and touched antennae: < Go with Weetleetly, we’ll join you as soon as we can. >
      “Kkhrkht saves the day!” Weetleetly exclaimed magnanimously. “Let’s not waste any more time, I’ll introduce you to Princess Knetryxx.”
      “Where are we going?” Kkhrkht asked so that Pzeptilan would know where to meet up.
      “The Ark of Exodus, of course.” Weetleetly replied genially now that she had got what she wanted. “A very popular playground amongst the younger set.”
      “And how are we going there?” Kkhrkht kept up dzzhakh-ye’s questioning.
      “The Duke’s personal gateway.” Weetleetly announced proudly as she led them into the gateway chamber. The dais, glowing and active, was smaller than the one in Grattlyd’s Omphalatta. Weetleetly clicked her claws and a reptilian footman decked out in the bronze and maroon livery of the House of Sedeirtra glided in silently. “Hremptyl will see you out.” Weetleetly addressed Pzeptilan and Vvezhti-Kla as she activated the gateways’ controls.
      The footman ushered Pzeptilan and Vvezhti-Kla out of the palace where their aircar was waiting. “Well so much for that.” Pzeptilan exclaimed as Vvezhti-Kla piloted them away from the palace. “Time for plan B.”
      “We have a plan B?” Vvezhti-Kla had been completely taken in by Pzeptilan’s act back at the palace and deludedly considered Pzeptilan to be in control of their circumstances.
      “Well, no. Not really.” Pzeptilan confessed as dzzhev-ye desperately tried to think of a way out of their predicament. “I suppose we find a way to this Ark of Whatsit somehow or other.” Pzeptilan glanced around and noticed a brown aircar a distance behind them.
      “The Vizier said it was a popular destination.” Vvezhti-Kla reminded Pzeptilan. “Maybe they all travel there using gateways.”
      “Good idea. Glad I thought of it.” Pzeptilan baldly stole Vvezhti-Kla’s suggestion as dzzhev-ye looked around. The brown aircar was still there. “I think we’re being followed. Get in that traffic lane up ahead and see if we can lose them.”
      “But it’s the wrong direction for our embassy.” Vvezhti-Kla pointed out.
      “Just do it.” Pzeptilan buzzed impatiently.
      “Yes… your Excellency.” Vvezhti-Kla obeyed.
      “Zzzz…” Pzeptilan hated it when Vvezhti-Kla used those pompous honorifics.
      “Pzeptilan.” Vvezhti-Kla corrected dzhinn-ye.
      “That’s better.” Pzeptilan activated the communications console and put a call through to InterPortal as they settled into the flow of traffic in the busy cross-town airlane.  A rust-furred ursine came up on the screen. “I’d like two tickets to the Ark of Exodus, please.”
      “When would like your connection?” The ursine asked as if it had all the time in the world.
      “Have you got anything today?” Pzeptilan asked as dzzhev-ye glanced out the rear window of their aircar. The brown aircar was nestled in a knot of traffic a short way behind them.
      “Every hour on the hour.” The ursine breezily replied.
      “Fine, I’ll have two return tickets. Load them onto my account card and send the bill to The Khzchhrrrtz Embassy.”
      “If you’ll insert your card into the console.” The ursine ticket agent instructed Pzeptilan.
      Pzeptilan barely even paid attention when the ursine concluded the sale, dzzhev-ye was watching the brown aircar behind them. “I think we’re being followed by that brown aircar.”
      “I see it.” Vvezhti-Kla checked the rear-view screen on the aircar’s dashboard. “What shall we do?”
      Pzeptilan looked down from the traffic lane they were flying in and scanned the city below. “Drop out of this lane at the next marker and see if you can lose them.”
      “Evasive manoeuvres?” Vvezhti-Kla asked.
      “Something like that.” Pzeptilan kept a close watch on the brown aircar.
      No sooner than Pzeptilan had spoken, Vvezhti-Kla dropped out of the traffic lane and hurtled at full throttle towards the city below. “Hold on!” Vvezhti-Kla ordered as the busy streets raced up towards them.
      Down below, the people saw their aircar plummeting towards them and scattered for their lives. “For goodness sake Vvezhti-Kla, do something, we’re going to crash!” Pzeptilan panicked.
      Vvezhti-Kla pulled up at the last moment, their aircar skidding and bumping along the street knocking ground cars out of their path and leaving a trail of sparks, smoke and twisted metal debris scattering in their wake. The brown aircar shot past them overhead and pulled up to halt, hovering over their path.
      Pzeptilan couldn’t help but see the crest of the House of Sedeirtra emblazoned on the brown aircar. “It looks like the Duke has other plans for us.”
      Vvezhti-Kla wrenched their aircar around and aimed in between two towering skyscrapers. Their aircar screeched as it peeled back the ornate façade and knocked out windows as it rasped along the outside of one of the skyscrapers. “This aircar doesn’t handle very well. It’s not like my combat flier.”
      “You don’t say.” Pzeptilan grimly gripped dzzhev-ye’s seat for dear life as they raced down the floor of the urban canyon, skyscrapers shooting past them at a dizzying rate. Pzeptilan caught sight of the brown aircar catching up with them. “They’re on to us.”
      Vvezhti-Kla accelerated dodging around the traffic in the airlanes as if it were standing still. The high-rise canyon opened out onto a vast circular park surrounded by skyscrapers.  Vvezhti-Kla peeled off from the flow of traffic, banked hard right and shot down another canyon straight through the flow of oncoming traffic and then dropped out to navigate through a warren of side lanes until dzhinn-ye pulled up to a stop between ranks of dingy windowless towers and opened the door. “This is where we get out.”
      Pzeptilan looked out of the door in disbelief. They were a good five hundred metres above the ground and the fall would certainly kill dzzhev-ye. “But…”
      Vvezhti-Kla grabbed Pzeptilan, unfurled dzhinn-ye’s wings, stepped out of the aircar, hovered beside it as dzhinn-ye set the autopilot to take it back to the embassy, slammed the door shut and flew off into an even narrower towering gulch as their aircar set off.
      “What are you doing?” Pzeptilan flailed dzzhev-ye’s arms in a blind panic as Vvezhti-Kla carried dzzhev-ye slowly down to the ground.
      “Buying us some time.” Vvezhti-Kla explained as they descended into ground-level gloom. “We could not have outpaced them. This way they chase an empty aircar and… where is it you want to go?”
      “The gateway terminus.” Pzeptilan tried not to look down. If Vvezhti-Kla let go dzzhev-ye would be very dead.
      “I don’t know where it is.” Vvezhti-Kla was completely lost in the dense megalopolis of Estrillyd.
      “Me neither.” Pzeptilan reluctantly admitted as dzzhev-ye spotted some furtively moving shadows shifting around the piles of rubbish, broken furniture and rusting hulks of abandoned vehicles littering the alleyway below. “We’ll take a taxi. Just one thing… Don’t land here. I don’t like the look of this place.”
      Vvezhti-Kla flew through the windowless warren of the lower levels out towards one of the avenues leading off the park they’d flown over a few minutes earlier and set down amongst the teeming throng bustling along a busy walkway.
      Pzeptilan looked around at the passers-by flowing past them and hailed a passing taxi. “Looks safe enough, no-one’s running up to kill us.”
      Their cabbie, an ageing, podgy ursine with scraggly ochre fur launched into his fractured rant of the day: “You see that Princess Knetryxx taking the Ark of Exodus? I hope it doesn’t come back. Oh sure, they like us visiting the damn thing but they won’t even let any of us Rtuntli live there even though there’s thousands of Shallens living here. I mean it’s our planet. Pah, those damn Shallens acting as if they own the place. They come here, buy up everything left, right and centre so why can’t some of us live there if we want to? Oh no, it belongs to us, they say. To me, it’s just another habitat, so what’s the big deal? Are they hiding something?” The cabbie was in full flow by now. “My brother’s an engineer, you know. He landed a job servicing their life-support systems. Paid real good, too. Would they let him rent a room for the duration of the contract? Like hell they would. You know how much they charge to use those gateways? It’s extortionate! Cost him a fortune in travel expenses, it did. Hardly worth the bother in the end. He’d have made more money driving a taxi like me. You want to be careful if you have any dealings with those Shallens, they’ll screw you over any way they can.”
      “Do the Shallens control the gateways here?” Pzeptilan thought the Nglubi kept a tight grip on their gateway monopoly.
      “No, the Nglubi own them.” The cabbie continued as he navigated his taxi through the flow of traffic in the airlanes. “But the travel agents are crooks and most of them are owned by Shallens nowadays. Duke Reflinghar’s okay. I took him and his wife home from the theatre once, very polite they were. But it’s the hotheads from the Chznzet Faction you’ve got to worry about. Some of them are so rude; that’s why I won’t take any more Shallens. I’m not boring you am I?”
      “No, not at all.” Pzeptilan was interested to hear a local opinion about the Shallens even if it was a bit bigoted.
      “Don’t get me wrong.” The cabbie kept up his monologue. “I see you’re off-worlders, too. We’ve got all sorts here and we get along just fine. Live and let live. Say, I haven’t seen your type here before. Where are you from?”
      “Zrrlchtz.” Pzeptilan explained wondering just quite the cabbie was getting at.
      “No, can’t say I’ve ever heard of it.” The cabbie replied as they descended out of their airlane into the city. “Is this your first time here?”
      “Oh, yes.” Pzeptilan pretended to be a tourist. “Very impressive.”
      “You want to get out of the city and do a bit of sight-seeing, then.” The cabbie suggested. “Estrillyd’s okay, but there’s so much more to Vermthellyn. Visit the Hrendinglo Wilderness Reserve, you’ll love it. I take the family there every year on holiday.”
      They pulled up outside the gateway terminus only to see not one, but four of Duke Reflinghar’s aircars waiting ominously on the concourse. Pzeptilan didn’t feel up to running a gauntlet past the Duke’s guards. “Is there another entrance?”
      The cabbie recognised the Duke’s crest on the aircars. “Haven’t put you off, have I?” He chuckled. “Yeah, I’ll take you to one of the side entrances.”
      Their hopes of slipping in unnoticed were dashed when one of the Duke’s guards spotted them entering the terminus. “There they are!” he shouted and a posse of guards gave chase shooting a volley of crackling blue energy pulses in their direction. This time they were playing for keeps!
      Pzeptilan and Vvezhti-Kla dashed inside and desperately tried to hide in the crowded concourse. But it was no use; the guards were streaming in from all directions. Vvezhti-Kla scooped up Pzeptilan and lifted off, flying a chaotic zigzag path across and sometimes down into the scattering crowds away from the guards. “Where to now?”
      “The departure hall.” Pzeptilan shouted back as dzzhev-ye scanned around to see where it was. “Over there!”
      Vvezhti-Kla aimed towards the colonnades leading up to the departure hall. A fusillade of lucky shots pierced Vvezhti-Kla’s wings and dzhinn-ye careened out of control screaming in pain and dropped Pzeptilan onto the panicking crowd below. Pzeptilan had a soft landing although the unfortunates dzzhev-ye squashed wouldn’t have agreed as they climbed out from under the dazed Khzchhrrrtz. Vvezhti-Kla swung around and swept up Pzeptilan, dodging between the energy pulses aimed their way. Vvezhti-Kla flew low using the crowds as a shield and Pzeptilan as a battering ram to scatter the tourists out of their way. Vvezhti-Kla swung around the corner once dzhinn-ye flew into the departures hall. “Which one?” Vvezhti-Kla asked as dzhinn-ye flew past the rank of gateway dais.
      Pzeptilan looked up at the announcement board running the length of the hall and pointed it out. “Fifth gateway along.” Dzzhev-ye shouted back above the chaotic din that pursued them. As they approached it, it lit up to transport the group of travellers waiting on the dais. “There’s no time, fly straight into it.”
      Vvezhti-Kla dived straight into the gateway’s enveloping hemisphere of light and swooped out the other side into a plush, elegantly appointed gateway chamber aboard the Ark of Exodus narrowly missing the tourists below them. “I say, do you have a ticket?” The reptilian gateway attendant called up to them as Vvezhti-Kla hovered overhead.
      “Yes, here you are.” Pzeptilan offered holding out dzzhev-ye’s account card as they landed next to the attendant.
      The attendant looked at them suspiciously as it put Pzeptilan’s card into its card reader and verified their tickets. “You wouldn’t be involved with that ruckus back at the terminus, would you?”
      “No, what ruckus?” Pzeptilan lied as dzzhev-ye took back their account card.
      “Oh, nothing.” The attendant sounded quite bored. “Enjoy your visit to the Ark of Exodus. You can join a guided tour from the foyer in five minutes.”
      Pzeptilan thanked the attendant, grabbed hold of Vvezhti-Kla and followed the rest of the tourists as they left the gateway chamber. “Now to find that flea-brained Kkhrkht.”
      “Do you think they’ll follow us?” Vvezhti-Kla looked around nervously.
      “Probably. That’s why we want to get away from here as fast as we can.”

Scribbles & Scraps
Chapter 19
Chapter 21